Dropped and Caught
It was a pleasantly warm afternoon in Four Corners and Vin and J.D. were sat outside the saloon with Ezra Standish playing poker. Well, the two younger men were playing; J.D. couldn't have sworn to it that Ezra wasn't cheating, but for once he could honestly say that he didn't care. The sun was shining, there was an almost full bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him and Casey Wells had just been kicked by a donkey.
It wasn't so much the fact that she would be laid up in bed for a week with a hoof-mark imprinted on her left thigh that had the young sheriff so content - not at all; he was extremely concerned for her health and would miss her company more than he cared to admit. No, it was just that the telling of why exactly it had come about would make for a good story tonight in the saloon, and for once his friends would actually laugh at something he said rather than at something he did, as they always seemed to. Especially Buck. And Chris; he desperately wanted Chris Larabee to approve of him - to accept him. Ha; well, he would tonight - just wait 'til he heard about why Casey had been trying to persuade her aunt's donkey to swim...
He was jerked from his drowsy thoughts by Vin Tanner's quiet voice drifting down to him, amused at something.
"Y'all right, kid?" the Texan drawled, one eyebrow raised as he watched J.D. blink and suddenly peer intently at the hand he'd been dealt by Ezra, trying to appear as though he'd been concentrating all the time.
"Yeah, I'm fine." He frowned, and there was a silence. "Uh - actually no, I'm... ah shit, sorry," he corrected sheepishly. "I fold. I - um... Ez, I've kinda run outta money..."
Vin sighed and propped his feet up on the table, preparing himself for a long wait. God only knew what kind of forfeit the gambler would now inflict on their young friend.
Ezra smiled innocently. "That's okay, Mr Dunne," he soothed. "We can play without money."
J.D. was aghast. "Really?" he asked, gaping. This was unheard of. "Yeah, that's really nice of you, Ezra. Thanks. Okay."
Vin groaned inwardly. Some people would never learn.
"Very well," continued the grinning Southerner, reshuffling his deck and winking at Vin's cynical expression, "We'll play for tonight's patrol."
J.D.'s mouth remained open, but for an entirely different reason now. "You wh... but it's your patrol tonight," he objected.
"Exactly, my friend."
"That isn't fair."
"Life, Mr Dunne, is not - " Ezra would have gone on to pontificate further if Vin hadn't chosen that moment to put a stop to J.D.'s run of misfortune.
"Shut up, Ezra," he commanded calmly.
The conman narrowed his eyes at him evilly. "I beg your pardon?" he asked, wishing the man in front of him didn't always feel inclined to rob the rich and help the poor - it was a disposition he just couldn't for the life of him fathom.
"I said, shut up. J.D. ain't gonna take your patrol for you."
"We haven't even seen the outcome of the game," complained Ezra. "We don't know that such a course of action will be necessary."
"Ez, we don't need to see the outcome of the game. You'll fleece him an' he'll end up takin' your patrol. I can read you like a book, my friend."
Ezra was uncomfortably aware that this was, in all probability, true; it was a novel experience for the Southerner, who, due to his almost unmatchable ability to keep a poker face was used to being able to keep his emotions completely to himself. But Vin Tanner seemed to be able to see straight through him like he could see straight through everyone else and Ezra was not at all happy with his transparency. He did not like to expose himself.
"I have no intention of 'fleecing' Mr Dunne," he snapped defensively. "I do not 'fleece' people."
Vin's adamant refusal to be provoked into an argument was, on occasion, infuriating. J.D. could see that Ezra was still squinting at the tracker in a distinctly unfriendly manner, and decided instantly that compromising a night in the saloon was a small price to pay if it involved keeping the peace between his two friends. Vin and Ezra made a strong but strange companionship - and when they had a fight, it was in J.D.'s experience generally an extremely violent affair.
"Ah, I'll play," he said hastily, before Ezra could think of anything else to find fault with. The gambler had a tendency to employ disturbingly personal details in his quarrels, and J.D. just didn't want to become involved. "C'mon, Vin, 's only a game."
Vin looked at him dubiously. "If you're sure, kid," he said. "But if you want, I'll take patrol tonight... need to get out for a while, I'm beginning to feel penned in round here."
"I believe the word you are searching for is claustrophobic, Mr Tanner," provided Ezra peevishly, annoyed at the young Texan's Robin Hood-like tendency to sacrifice his own well-being to help others. He was seriously considering deliberately losing the game just to spite him. "And I wish we could stop talking about the game as though it is a foregone conclusion," he added. "I have no idea what makes you think I will cheat."
A deep chuckle rose from Vin's chair, but before Ezra could get even more worked up he stopped and grinned disarmingly. "No," he agreed humbly, still with just a hint of laughter in his voice, "I can't think what came over me. Go on then; deal."
Ezra relaxed as he realised the quiet young man wasn't deliberately winding him up. As he cut the cards and deftly flicked them out, they were joined by Chris and Buck, just emerging from the saloon.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," he greeted without looking up. "Can I interest you in a small game of chance?"
The two newcomers exchanged knowing glances with each other. Buck shook his head.
"Nah, thanks, Ezra," he said, pulling a face at J.D. and grinning. "Two gullible fools're enough. I can't afford to play you."
"Savin' it for Maggie, are you?" asked J.D., nudging his friend in the ribs with his elbow. He loved to tease his older friends, especially Buck.
"Nah," joined in Vin. "It was Meggie."
"Thought it was Millie?" Chris leant against the wooden doorframe and gave a rare smile.
"I believe you are referring to Mildred?" suggested Ezra, his eyes still not leaving the flying blue and red cards. Buck frowned at them all good-naturedly.
"It's Jenny, an' you know it," he said. "Jeez, you guys can't even get the first letter right. 'Sides, you know ole' Buck don't need to pay for his pleasure... not with my - "
Four voices interrupted him with one well-known phrase. "Animal magnetism," they chorused, startling Buck, who abruptly sat down in his surprise. Ezra instantly dealt him in and two minutes later the tall ladies man found himself holding a horrible hand of cards and losing not only to Ezra but also to Vin and J.D. Chris looked at him smugly.
"Another gullible fool," he gloated, and pulled up a chair for himself a safe distance away from the little table. Buck cast him a slit-eyed glare, and went to slap some money down on the table. Vin put a hand out to stop him.
"What are you doing?" shrieked Ezra in alarm.
"Why, Ezra, you said we weren't playing for money." The Texan's face was the epitome of innocence and Chris laughed quietly to himself.
"No I didn't." The hasty denial was not convincing. Buck's face brightened considerably.
"What are we playing for, then?" he asked.
"He thinks J.D.'s going to take it for him."
"Bet he doesn't."
"Bet he does."
Ezra hadn't missed the significance of this exchange, and he raised his head as a dog when it gains a scent. "Did I hear you say 'bet'?" he enquired, his nose fairly quivering. Vin looked at him.
"What d'you reckon, Bucklin?" he said, turning to the older man. "You ready to lay bets on it?"
"Well, I don't know..." Buck stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I think I'd have to consider my options..."
"Well?" Ezra was impatient.
"Hey," broke in J.D., seizing his opportunity to relate his story, "Did I tell you about Casey and the donkey?"
The rather startling question threw everyone's attentions away from the previous topic of conversation except Ezra's.
"Gentlemen?" he persisted. Four pairs of eyes swiveled back round to regard him seriously. He ignored them. "Were you intending to lay a wager?"
Before J.D. could continue to tell the others his tale, Vin spoke.
"Yeah," he said. "I bet you that you won't take patrol tonight."
"How much?" asked Ezra eagerly.
There was an immediate silence, only broken after a few moments by Ezra's contemptuous snort.
"Mr Tanner," he replied, "If I thought for one moment that you were in the possession of ten dollars I would accept. As it is, however, I am fully aware of your financial situation and would therefore ask you not to make light of a serious situation."
"I've got ten dollars," said Vin quietly.
Ezra was constantly horrified at the Texan's callous disregard for money, but as on this occasion it was him that benefited from it he was not going to object.
"In that case," he said solemnly, laying his hands face down on the table and extending his arm, "I accept. I will take patrol tonight. The ten dollars, if you please."
Instead of placing the money in the opened hand, Vin shook it enthusiastically. "Uh-uh," he said. "You've gotta play this game first. An' you've already named the stakes. Whoever wins gets your patrol." He raised a hand to ward off Ezra's objections. "Chris," he said with a wink, "You mind takin' my place? Thanks, Cowboy."
Wondering what on earth his young friend was up to, Chris nonetheless unquestioningly sat in the vacated chair and took up Vin's discarded cards. The tracker wandered over to lean on the back of J.D.'s chair - where he had a perfect view of the young sheriff's hand.
"Mr Tanner, away from there, if you please," said Ezra sternly. Vin looked up, mild surprise plastered over his face.
"Aww, hell, Ez... ain't no one cheatin'. I ain't even playin'."
"All the same, I would be grateful if you'd stand slightly further away from Mr Dunne's chair. Just so everyone can be sure there is no... subterfuge taking place." Despite his apparent lack of skill at cards, Ezra was still suspicious of the Texan's real talent. He wouldn't put anything past him.
Vin happily obliged him, and moved himself strategically so that he was placed in between J.D. and Ezra's chairs, where he now had a clear vision of both sets of cards.
"Don't worry, Ez," he purred. "I'll make sure there ain't no subter-whatever. You're safe."
Ezra paled as he saw his position. Not only could J.D. not cheat, but, with Vin lurking over his shoulder like that, neither could he. Well, that's what they think, he told himself as he noted the amused glances everyone else was casting the interfering sharpshooter. Ezra had more than one trick up his sleeve, and more than one spare Ace of Spades up there, as well. Vin might know a trick or two, but he knew them all. This would make for an interesting game, he thought.
Five minutes later, Ezra was hurriedly revising his opinion of the situation. God alone knew how but every time he attempted anything Vin would prod him inconspicuously in the shoulder and he would be forced to remake his move. And, heavens forbid, he was losing.
"You could always just try an' play straight," suggested Vin softly after the flustered conman lost yet another hand. Ezra flashed him an irritated scowl.
"When the sanctified dead raise from their graves," he said quietly, an expression as familiar to the seven as Buck's animal magnetism. Vin rolled his eyes and the others laughed. They knew what Vin was doing and what Ezra was trying to do, and hadn't had such an enjoyable afternoon in a long while. It was rare indeed that anyone got the better of Ezra Standish.
Unfortunately, it was J.D. that won and J.D. that would have to take the patrol. But Vin got the ten dollars. As the others pushed their chairs in and headed off to the warmth of the saloon, Vin tucked the money Ezra had finally been persuaded by Chris to reluctantly part with into the pocket of J.D.'s suit.
"There ya' go, kid," he said softly. "Well played. Tell ya' what - if you wait there a minute, I'll saddle up Peso an' come with ya'. I could do with a bit of space."
Suddenly a rich man, J.D. nodded happily and Vin ambled back up the steps to the saloon.
"I'm goin' out fer a while, boys," he informed his friends.
"Going to spend your ill-gotten gains, I suppose?" snarled Ezra, still smarting from the humiliating defeat. Vin just grinned and shook his head. A horrible suspicion struck the gambler.
"You - you didn't give my ten dollars to Mr Dunne, did you?" he asked.
"Me?" Vin managed to look as though the idea had only just occurred to him. "Nah."
It was Ezra's turn to shake his head now - in disgust. "Mr Tanner," he said in low, pained voice. "Your sharpshooting, tracking and survival skills are rival to none. However, you are the most atrocious liar I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Good night." He turned a red-coated back on the laughing tracker.
"I think he just paid you a compliment, Vin," said Buck, handing Vin a whiskey. Chris smiled at the retreating rear of the conman.
"Comin' from Ezra, that ain't no compliment," he disagreed. "You headin' out, Vin?"
"Yup. Need to get me a bit of air," explained the younger man. "That okay with you, Cowboy?"
Chris nodded. "See you later."
Vin gulped down the whiskey and returned to where J.D. was waiting - the kid had saddled up his horse for him, bless him.
"Thanks, J.D.," said Vin gratefully, and the sheriff grinned at him.
"Thanks for the money," he replied.
"Ha!" A voice interrupted them and the two young men turned round with their guns cocked to find themselves facing none other than Ezra, leading his large bay horse by its reigns and wearing the saddle over his left forearm.
"I knew it!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "Mr Tanner, you are a fraud, sir."
"Takes one to know one, Ez," said Vin, re-holstering his mare's leg.
Ezra grinned a gold-toothed grin at him. "Indeed it does," he nodded. "Indeed it does. I will, therefore, be accompanying you on your patrol tonight. I do believe that the wager you laid didn't state that I had to be unaccompanied to go on patrol - hence, if I come with you, you will I am afraid have to not only return to me my ten dollars but give me the said sum you claim to have in your possession."
Vin cast him a vaguely disgusted look then shrugged. "Whatever," he said, swinging himself up onto his horse. "Catch up with us when you're ready." He and J.D. swung away, leaving Ezra behind them with an unsaddled horse and an overwhelming desire to get the twenty dollars he believed was his. His two targets were nearly out of sight, and he knew he would have no time to rectify the matter of lack of tack so, grabbing hold of his horse's mane and heaving himself upwards, for the first time in his life Ezra performed the ungentlemanlike act of riding bareback. He had seen both Vin and J.D. breaking in new horses before like this: J.D., he remembered, had worked in a stable back East and Vin had learned all those Comanche tricks. He would be fine, he assured himself, as he unsteadily cantered after his disappearing friends.
J.D. was surprised at how quickly Ezra had caught up with them and, as he and Vin reigned in, he could see why.
"Hey, Ezra's ridin' without a saddle!" he hooted, and from Vin's quickly-hidden grin as the gambler approached he could tell he wasn't the only one who thought who thought the Southerner had about as much grace as a sack of potatoes.
"Nice of ya to join us, Ezra," said Vin, commendably keeping a straight face as his friend nearly slipped from the horse's smooth back. "You look... well, hell, you look damn comfortable up there."
Ezra glowered at the two entertained men in front of him, barely concealing their amusement now.
"I can assure you I have no intention of reverting to this unseemly mode of transport again," he growled, giving them both a threatening look. "If it wasn't for such an important matter, I would not be - "
Unfortunately, his horse chose that particular moment to side-step some unseen object lying on the ground and the gambler was propelled to the floor in a most uncivilized fashion.
" - doing it in the first place," he finished, trying stiffly to erect himself and failing. Only when Vin had leapt to his side and made sure he was unhurt did he allow himself to join in J.D.'s laughter.
"Important enough fer ya to fall on yer ass?" he enquired, yanking the complaining gambler to his feet and receiving a cold stare in return.
"Yes," said Ezra. "And now, if I might be so bold, may I ask for my twenty dollars?"
J.D. gaped at the audacity of the man.
"I said I'd give you ten dollars if'n you went on patrol, Ezra," said Vin, hooking his thumbs into his gun belt and leaning into his familiar slouch.
"Yes." Ezra straightened his back as if in contrast to this stance, and looked the shorter man straight in the eye.
"Well, you ain't even made it outta town yet."
Ezra felt his right to the money crumbling as Vin pointed this undeniable truth out. "You owe me ten dollars," he insisted.
"No I don't," argued Vin, remounting his horse and looking down at where the gambler stood dejectedly stroking his horse's nose. "Be seein' ya, Ez."
Desperate now, Ezra leapt forwards and made a grab at Vin's reigns. "You'll give me the money?" he pleaded. Vin winked.
"When the sanctified dead rise from their graves," he quoted glibly. "Or whatever it is you say they do. Evenin'." Tipping his hat politely he wheeled away, with J.D. galloping behind him. To see Ezra defeated twice in one day was better than telling anyone he could think of about Casey and the donkey and, leaning low over his own horses neck, J.D. whooped in a sudden burst of exhilaration. Smiling, Vin turned his head over his shoulder to regard the young man fondly.
"You want'a race, J.D.?" he asked, and grinned as his friend's eyes lit up with an almost unholy glee. "Then come on!" Slapping his reigns lightly across his mount's neck, Vin accelerated so suddenly that J.D.'s horse took stock of the situation before he did. As he was suddenly projected forwards, J.D. sighed in contentment. This was the life, he thought.
"Hey, Vin!" he yelled. "Wait for me!"
"Can't keep up?" J.D. could only hear a thin ghost of the question float back to him, but the goad was enough. Can't keep up, indeed. Grinning like an idiot he plunged his heels into his horse's side and went careering towards his friend's rapidly fading back.
"I'm a' comin'" he announced loudly. "Yee-hah!"
Night fell and Vin and J.D. sat round a fire that the sheriff had proudly made.
"Time to head back soon, ya' reckon?" asked Vin, glancing upwards to the sky. J.D., both flattered and grateful that Vin had asked his advice, paused to consider. Six months ago he would have done this to look as though his opinion was actually worth something then agreed anyway, but now, after half a year of riding with Vin and the others, he had picked up some of the instinct that the ex-bounty hunter seemed to have in excess.
"Hadn't we just better check the ridge?" he suggested hesitantly. He would have thought Vin would already have ridden there that evening, or at least insisted that they did so before returning home. But Vin seemed content to leave the decision to him and he suddenly felt a foot taller with the responsibility.
"Good idea," agreed Vin. "Then hopefully we can get back to the saloon 'fore it shuts an' who knows? Ezra might by us a drink. I've a feelin' it's our lucky day today, kid."
As a matter of fact he didn't, but it would never do to let J.D. know that. There was some warning bell nagging at the corner of his mind and with it came the knowledge, born of a lifetime's fight for survival and too many years of having to look back over his shoulder, that it couldn't be ignored. Warily, he looked up again at the stars. Weather was fine; nothing to do with that. Must be trouble of the two-legged variety, then. Shifting slightly, he stuck out his legs nearer to the fire and allowed himself to feel pride at J.D.'s newfound confidence in making suggestions like that. Could save a man's life.
J.D. huddled into the warmth of the fire and didn't notice Vin's small secret smile - he was too engrossed in studying the bright, hypnotic flames. He must have dozed off for a few moments because he was startled by Vin's gentle shaking of his shoulder.
"Time we went," said the tracker. "We'll go round by the ridge like you said, an' then home. 'S a good night fer ridin'."
J.D. had to agree that it was. Shaking the sleep from his eyes, he stamped out the fire and dozily resettled on his horse; by the time they'd reached the ridge, though, he was nodding again and Vin had to ride abreast him along the narrow path to make sure he didn't fall off.
Apart from J.D.'s heavy breathing and the sounds that were like a lullaby to Vin - the distant wildcat, the occasional night-time animal and the reassuring call of the owl - there was silence, and the tracker felt all the tensions he seemed to collect when he was in town for any amount of time coil away from him. Being out in the wild always gave him a peace he could never find in a crowd of people - the total opposite to Ezra Standish, he had often wondered how the Southerner managed to thrive in a huge company. Takes all folks, he told himself philosophically.
Then he heard the voices.
Up on the ridge, he could just make out the silhouettes of maybe a dozen horsemen, and his gut told him they would not make welcome company. They were heading this way, like they were trying to cut them off - damn, he'd have to wake J.D.
"Kid," he whispered, holding his arm so the tired young man wouldn't fall from his horse in alarm, "We gotta get outta here. See them up there?" J.D. raised a pair of bleary, sleep-ridden eyes to where Vin pointed and for more than a minute couldn't make out anything other than the shapes of familiar trees.
"Uh, yeah," he said finally, as he managed to locate the small army. He, too, did not have a good feeling about the riders.
"We're gonna have to - Christ!" This last exclamation was the result of a bullet flying over their heads. "J.D. get down! Off your horse - yep - down, J.D.!" The thought crossed J.D.'s mind that perhaps Vin had mistaken him for a dog but decided as Vin thrust his sawn-off Winchester into action that now would not be a good time to ask him.
A voice called down to them and echoed hollowly round the valley-bottom.
"Vin Tanner?" it said. J.D. curled up behind the rock that was giving him shelter and didn't like the tone the voice owned. Decidedly sinister. Still half-asleep, he hoped Vin would hurry up and shoot it because right now what he really wanted to do was go back home and sleep.
But Vin recognised the voice and it sent little tentacles of fear down his spine. The hair on his neck stood up as he heard the dulcet tones of Simon Gill shouting at him - and he knew, as he saw the riders moved towards him, that there was less than a chance of escape. They would cut off his escape route before he or J.D. could get there. Maybe J.D. alone could, though... perhaps if he caused a diversion, he could distract them long enough for J.D. to get back to Four Corners... but they'd never let him. Still. Had to try.
Simon Gill. A man Vin had hoped never to have to encounter again. He had taken his younger brother in when he'd been a bounty hunter - the poster had said dead or alive and the situation had dictated the former. Jack Gill had been shot through the heart with a bullet from Vin's gun and Simon Gill had never quite come round to forgiving him for it.
"J.D. - back on your horse. Now."
Startled at the stern tone he had never before heard his friend use, J.D. clambered back onto his mount obediently.
"Now, ride back to town like the devil was after ya' an' - ah, shit. It's no good." The horsemen were approaching them faster than Vin had anticipated. There was only one option left. He knew they would take him - but he couldn't afford to let them take J.D. - and the only way he could avoid this was to convince the kid he was friends with them and they wouldn't harm him. Otherwise... well, Vin dreaded to think of what they'd do if they knew J.D. was his friend.
"Get back to town," he said curtly.
"Town - you - now. Ain't hard to understand, is it? I'm gonna go see those people up there, 'n you're gonna head back to town. Might be back later. I used' a be friends with 'em before I ever fell in with you lot. Will ya git, J.D."
"No." J.D. resolutely shook his head. He didn't understand what Vin was doing but he knew that Buck or Chris would never leave him and so neither would he.
"J.D, will ya just fuck off?" Vin was getting desperate now. The horsemen were approaching them rapidly, and if they saw that J.D. was actually travelling with Vin then they'd take him too. Vin would have to make sure they knew he was no friend of his... maybe if he could persuade them he was some fool bounty hunter out for glory, they'd leave him alone... he knew Gill would only use the young sheriff to hurt him if he discovered otherwise. His teeth tightened in resolve, and he ignored the wide-eyed look of hurt confusion J.D. was giving him. He closed his eyes briefly before turning to the young man, his voice mocking and cold. And Ezra had said he couldn't lie, he snorted to himself.
"J.D., I said fuck off, and I mean it. Just trot your goddamn donkey back to your friends and leave me alone, ya' hear?"
"Vin, why are you talking to me like this? They were shootin' at ya' a minute ago, an' I - well, I'm your friend... I thought..."
Vin's determination almost slipped as he saw the heartfelt pleading behind J.D.'s eyes, but he had already made his mind up.
"Y'ain't nothing but a stupid little boy," he replied harshly, watching in distress as J.D.'s face crumpled and tears sprang to his hazel eyes. "Now will ya git. Them up there's my real friends - " Ah, God, he thought, forgive him for lying " - so get back to yours. Tell them other bastards I'm outta here."
"Vin... you - w-what about Chris, though?"
"What about him? Bastard's a coward, J.D., it's time ya saw that. Walked away from his own wife an' kid to let 'em burn to death, what kind of man does that? And Buck, 'was all his fault anyway... should never've made Chris leave - they killed 'em, J.D., left 'em to die. Can't you get that? An' Buck ever tell you his mother was a whore? Ain't one of you in that tip down there's as good as y'all make out... wish I'd never met Chris an' that goddamn nigger, or you, or J'siah - preachin' 'bout a God as don't even exist, tellin' people it ain't right to kill then shootin' anythin' as moves. An' Ezra; takes after his ma, don't he? Don't give Jack Shit about anyone but himself an' none of you sees it... he's takin' ya fer a ride, boy. You're as blind as the rest of 'em."
It hurt Vin to say the words as much as it hurt J.D. to hear them, but he knew he couldn't afford to let his real emotions slip. Silent and unnoticed tears were streaming down J.D.'s face, and the riders were nearly on them. Vin knew he'd have to act now, or never. J.D. was staring at him. God forgive me, thought the tracker.
"But, Vin..." J.D.'s voice trailed off, desperately searching for a smile and wink to let him know his friend really was his friend and only joking. The first of the riders came round the corner, and with not a moment's hesitation Vin swung his fist into his young friend's face. J.D. was so surprised that he failed to fall over, and Vin repeated the action harder than before. The young sheriff toppled from his horse but rose unsteadily to his feet, looking like a dog who'd been faithful all his life and had just been kicked in the teeth for his efforts. More riders followed and Vin knew his time was up. Grabbing his gun, he struck J.D. across the head with it, sending him crashing unconscious to the ground.
"I'm so sorry, J.D.," whispered Vin as the horsemen caught up with him, surrounding him. "So sorry."
The leader of the riders rode straight up to Vin so he was level with him, and the tracker saw it to be Simon Gill. Shit, he thought.
"Having a little trouble there, Mr Tanner?" the man enquired.
"Bounty hunter," replied Vin tonelessly, refusing to display his emotions to the man in front of him.
"Well, looks like you took care of him," said Gill. "Seems quite young, doesn't he? But then I forgot. You don't mind hurting people so young they can't even defend themselves. So young they didn't even know what they were doing was wrong - people like Jack. My brother."
As Vin could recall, Jack had been over four years older than him when he'd brought him in, and it didn't take a genius to work out that raping a girl of thirteen then setting fire to her parent's house was wrong. And Jack had definitely been able to defend himself, thought Vin ruefully; he still had a long white scar down his left side where the bastard had knifed him. Now, however, did not seem to be a good time to point this out to Gill. He was surrounded by eight or nine men and looking down the wrong ends of just as many guns - this was not the right occasion to be sharing happy family memories. Gill wiped the brim of his hat with a casual finger.
"Your gun, Mr Tanner, if you please," he said, holding out his hand. For a moment Vin was tempted to give it to him complete with a bullet through his glove, but he knew it would be a pointless gesture. There would be no getting out of this one. His name had been called - and he seriously doubted that it was by angels.
Gill took the mare's leg and buried it in his saddlebags. "Now, Mr Tanner, if you would care to dismount that ugly-looking horse of yours..." Vin slid down from the saddle, and Gill raised his own gun. "I take it you're fond of the brute?" he enquired. The tracker said nothing: he knew what was coming. "But of course you are." Gill was smiling happily. "That's just too bad, Mr Tanner. Too bad." Vin's horse's body jerked as the shot entered its leg, and again as another bullet went into its hind. Vin remained motionless, but as his horse was shot again, in the neck, and he heard it scream in agony, he couldn't bear it any longer.
"Just kill, it, you bastard!" he shouted at Gill, and reached out to snatch the gun. Gill, being mounted, had the advantage of height and used it to kick Vin squarely in the chest and send him staggering backwards.
"Now where would be the fun in that?" he argued, and continued to rain bullets down on the dying animal. "I hadn't expected to see so much compassion in you, Mr Tanner. And for a horse. Mind you, it is said that certain species protect their own; and, as we can all see, you are little better than an animal yourself." He finally sent his last bullet into the horse's head and it ceased its thrashing and went silent. "Adams, see if that unfortunate young man over there has anything of any value on him. I think I almost like him for attempting to arrest our wayward tracker; I do believe I shall keep him alive. Tie him up - we'll leave him here."
Vin breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God for that, he thought, and watched on in silence as J.D. was robbed of his money, the watch that Buck had given him engraved as a present and, last of all, the telescope that had been made as a replica of Vin's that the other members of the seven had bought for him that Christmas. The young sheriff was trussed up like a turkey and left in the road and, this having been accomplished, Gill's attention returned once more to Vin.
Vin considered his chances of escape and rescue. They were, he realised, pretty thin; none of the others would want to help him after they heard what J.D. would have to say to them and he doubted that he would be left for long enough in the state to escape. In this last prediction he was indeed correct.
"Now, Mr Tanner," said Gill, flashing him a ghastly smile, "I believe it is time for this evening's entertainment."
Vin said nothing as his hands were tied in front of him, a blindfold was wrapped viciously round his eyes and his buckskin coat was removed. The only satisfaction he had, as the blows and kicks began to rain down on him from unseen assailants, was in knowing that at least J.D. and the others would not have to suffer the same fate.
The five men were alone in the saloon, slightly worried at the delayed absence of their two youngest members. Ezra had not related the tale of his latest failed exploits to his colleagues and Chris didn't know which would be the most alarming situation - if Vin was not with J.D. on patrol, lost somewhere perhaps or caught by a bounty hunter - or if he was. The combination of J.D. and Vin notoriously managed to either cause or get into some form of trouble; and Chris had a feeling that tonight would prove no exception.
His sense of foreboding had not expected, however, the spectacle of J.D. walking through the batwing doors of the saloon sporting a black eye, split lip and bloodied head - minus Vin. The young man refused to make eye contact with any of them, and didn't answer the questions that his friends showered down on him. What the hell had happened to him? Where was Vin? Why had he been so long?
J.D. shuffled towards them but stopped yards away. Buck leapt over to him but J.D. recoiled away from the big man, and rubbed at his temple. The others glanced at each other uneasily.
"J.D.?" said Nathan. "Let me look at your head." His request was met with more silence, and Buck made another attempt to make contact with his friend.
"J.D. - kid! What in God's name happened to you? Where's Vin?" He grabbed J.D.'s chin and gently lifted his face up to his. "Look at me, son. Who did this? Who did this to you?"
There was a tense silence then, with his eyes still downcast J.D. muttered a single, bitter word. "Vin," he said. The announcement was followed by five gasps from his friends, and Buck frowned at him anxiously. He wondered if maybe the kid was delirious from his beating.
"J.D. you're babbling."
"I am not!" The young sheriff was painfully indignant. "Will ya' listen to me. I said, Vin did it. D'you think I'm lying? Do you think I'd say that if I didn't mean it? Christ..." To everyone's distress, a tear escaped down the kid's bruised cheek, and it took him more than a minute to regain his composure. He looked at everyone's cynical, angry features before continuing.
"We were... well, we were just out riding. It was my patrol - well, Ezra's - an' Vin said he'd take it with me - he said he'd show me how to build a fire, an'... well, we did, an' we were comin' back an' these men rode up. I think they were friends of Vin's 'cos he just kinda changed and told me to fuck off an' stop bothering him an' those were his real friends an' he said... he said..." once again tears threatened to prevent J.D.'s testimony, but he swallowed them, stealing a helpless glance at Buck, who nodded encouragingly.
"Go on, kid," he whispered.
"He said a lot of stuff. Stuff about all of you, and me, I don't want to... I don't. I don't want to say it. Maybe he didn't mean it... shit, Buck, it looked like he did, though. Those men, they shouted down to us - they were up on the ridge, y'know? An' Vin - well, first he was like you'd expect him to be, like, 'J.D., get off your horse,' kinda thing then he seemed to recognise 'em. An' that's when he changed. He was pleased. Told me to get the hell back to town, he'd probably come back later, 'n when I tried to say somethin' he bit my head off - just told me to... fuck off. It was like he wasn't Vin any more - like he'd changed into someone else. 'N when I asked him what the matter was he just laughed 'n said I was the matter, we all were, these were his friends not us an' we... we were all a load of bastards an' we could go to hell for all he cared." J.D.'s voice was so husky now the others had difficulty in hearing it - but the words penetrated every single man present. For a while they were too shocked to take the words in, but when they finally filtered through to their consciousness they burnt like fire.
"Go on," said Chris, amazed at how calm his voice sounded. He knew J.D. wasn't lying: the bruises and the boy's state of mind bore witness to that. What the hell was Vin doing? What had he done? Cold fingers of dread probed around in his heart like they hadn't done since Sarah and Adams' deaths. He turned to Buck and was met with a gaze of anger, shock and very nearly hate - a look which, he realised as he looked around at his other friends was mirrored on every other face in the room.
J.D. coughed away the tightening of his throat. "I said, what about Chris?" he continued. "An' Vin said Chris could fuck off as well - we all could. He said - " he cast a despairing look at his leader, knowing how much his next words would hurt him. Chris knew it too, but he also knew he had to hear them.
"He said what?" he managed to force past his clenched teeth.
"He said that you didn't mean nothin' to him anyway an' neither did anyone else. He said that you'd just walked away from your wife an' kid an' let 'em die an' Buck had let you, or made you or something - that between you you'd killed 'em an' he said Buck's ma was a whore an' he said Ezra's was even worse, she wasn't even human an' her son took after her an' didn't give Jack Shit about no one else, an' he said he wished he'd never even 'a met Nathan who's a dirty fuckin' nigger anyway an' J'siah was a hycoprit or whatever, preachin' about a God he didn't believe in one day an' shootin' people the next an' he said we were all a bunch a' fools, thinkin' he cared about us at all an' he couldn't give a toss 'bout any of us, an' then he hit me, an' then he knocked me out with his gun. When I came to I was tied up an' had a God-awful headache an' all my money an' such was gone an' my so was my horse an' Vin's had been - shot, or somethin', and I scraped all the ropes away on a stone. An' then I came home."
J.D. had to gasp for air after these two elongated sentences, which made him cough - a noise that he gratefully disguised his sobs in. Hunched over his forearms on the table where he sat, the young man's slight frame shook as his emotion overtook him. Buck, snapping out of the trance of pain J.D.'s words had placed him in, immediately rushed over to his friend and put a comforting arm around his shoulders; looking at Chris, he didn't quite know what to say. His own feelings were in a turmoil inside him - he was too much in a state of surprise and shock to give words to them, however. The atmosphere was too stifling to remain in the same room with, and, motioning to Nathan, Buck stumbled out of the room tugging J.D. with him, the three men walking numbly to Nathan's clinic.
Josiah looked carefully at his two remaining companions. Vin's words had hurt him; he had had many accusations of hypocrisy - or 'hycoprisy', as J.D. had termed it - but hearing them come from the mouth of a friend tore a hole in him that would be hard to patch up. J.D.'s tale was so inconsistent with the quietly spoken tracker's normal behaviour that some vague corner of the preacher's mind remained cynical - but returning his thoughts to the present and Chris and Ezra, he sighed. Both men's eyes, usually so readable to him, had glazed over and were blank. Josiah suspected that J.D.'s news had affected these two men the worst.
Ezra, he knew, had when he had first joined the seven been seen very much as the character that Vin now painted him. Yet as they had come to know the gambler and conman who claimed to 'leave nothing to chance', they had all realised that his fancy words, his professed dependency on money and pretence at aloofness hid an interior that was in reality genuinely kind and good. Ezra had built up a defence to disguise the fact that what he really sought was friendship and comfort - something he had found in his six companions. His childhood had not been a happy one and, out of the other six, he related the most to Vin Tanner, the man who had been the first to accept him and had continued to do so, despite the others' sometimes sceptical attitudes to the gambler's intentions.
Josiah had never known Vin to do anything that would cause harm to one of the seven - in fact, Josiah recalled, if the Texan saw himself to be responsible for one of them being hurt it would take forever to persuade the young man to forgive himself. He would insist on pronouncing his own self-inflicted penance and throw himself masochistically into being as helpful as possible by taking extra patrols or helping with the building work at the church to try and absolve the guilt in his mind. This made the sudden betrayal all the harder to believe - had someone really crept out of Vin's past to present him with a better alternative to the peace he seemed to have found in Four Corners? Josiah didn't know. Studying Chris Larabee, he guessed the same thoughts to be running through his mind that very moment.
When Josiah had first been introduced to Chris and Vin by Nathan, he had assumed they were lifelong friends, such was their easy companionship. Since learning more about the two men, he had seen they had a connection that went beyond friendship; an understanding of each other that was almost uncanny. Chris had been suicidal after the fire that had destroyed his family, violently unforgiving of himself and the world in general, but Vin Tanner seemed to have changed that. The bad element in Chris had been diluted and the kinder hearted, easy going man Buck must have known before Sarah and Adam had died was beginning to reassert itself. Neither man would do anything to hurt the other - of that Josiah was certain. Why, then, had Vin done what he'd done? Something did not figure, and the big man decided to work out just what. And, as Chris Larabee walked stiffly out of the room like a resurrected corpse, Josiah decided his 'illustrious leader' as Ezra would have said had come to precisely that self-same conclusion.