The pale, wintry sun did little to warm the streets of Four Corners. People hurried about their business in an effort to keep the cutting wind at bay. The sight of a dozen or Mexicans entering their town, acerbated their steps.
The leader of the gang was well dressed, unlike his men, and rode a striking grey horse. He smirked at the reaction he was getting from the local townsfolk.
Walking down the steps from his home, Nathan Jackson saw the man and recognised him.
"Oh hell," he whispered as hurried over to the jailhouse to find Chris and the others. It was going to be a short, but bloody battle and the odds were stacked against the Seven. But when had that ever bothered them? While the healer went in search of Larabee, Calderone and several of his men entered the saloon.
Ezra Standish was at his usual table, playing solitaire. He was expecting Vin to join him at any moment. The tracker was enjoying the card games and Ezras company.
The gambler didnt look up from his game when the batwing doors swung open; didnt take any notice of the newcomers until he heard an imperious Mexican voice asking Inez if she knew of Vin Tanner.
The lovely looking young woman replied calmly that she knew a number of men without knowing their names. She never once looked at Ezra. Calderone described the tracker to her and offered her money if she would help him.
Ezra wasnt worried about Inez; he knew she was well capable of taking care of herself, at least until he returned with assistance. But first he had to find Vin and get him to safety. He calmly packed his cards away and left the saloon without a backwards glance.
In a cruel twist of fate, as Ezra turned left and strode across Main Street towards the jail, Vin walked up to the saloon from the right. He noticed several roguish looking Mexicans milling around outside the building but didnt recognise any of them. He pushed through the doors and came to a sudden, shuddering halt. Standing at the bar, talking to Inez, was his worst nightmare come true.
One of the gang recognised him immediately and called out, "Patron!"
"What is " Calderone turned angrily. "Well, well my little pet has come back to me "
Vin started to back towards the door, his mind swirling in confusion, but he vaguely heard Inez shouting at him to run!
Ezra ran into Chris and Nathan on their way out of the jailhouse. "Mr. Larabee "
"Already know, Ezra. Thought Vin was meeting you?"
"I came looking for him to forestall ."
"Never mind. Go find the others."
Ezra was forced aside as the two men strode menacingly towards the saloon. Not certain where his companions would be, the gambler ran over to the Clarion office and Marys assistance in finding them.
Still discussing the best way to deal with Calderone and his gang, Chris and Nathan were caught by surprise when Vin stumbled through the saloon doors, sprawling in the dirt in his haste to get away.
"Vin!" Chris called out to him, stepping onto the street as the tracker almost ran under a team of horses. The gunslinger ran up to the passing coach, desperate for a glimpse of the younger man to show he was safe. He almost missed the group pushing their way through the saloon doors to watch the trackers flight.
"Vin!" Chris called again as the coach passed. Behind him he could hear Nathans warning but before he could act, Vin cannoned into him at a run, knocking the gunslinger onto his back. The blow knocked the wind out of him, but he clung to the tracker who was scrambling for freedom.
"Gotta get out off the street!" Nathan yelled, trying to disentangle the two men. "Chris, we gotta get cover!"
Chris heard the panic in the normally unflappable healers voice. He pushed Vin to one side and struggled to his knees. Nathan now had hold of Vin who squirmed in his grasp. Chris got to his feet and backed towards the jailhouse, keeping himself between the retreating Nathan and Vin and the men across the street. He recognised Calderone immediately and his mood darkened, he would see this man dead.
"Hey, Senor Larabee!" Calderone called out, sneering at the glare the dark clad man threw at him. The Mexican continued undaunted, "You have something that belongs to me," he paused, letting his words have the required effect. "I want it back." He raised his riding whip and pointed at Vin. The tracker gasped, trying to escape Nathans grip. Chris turned and pulled the tracker behind him, shielding him with his own body. As he fought to still the terrified man, Nathan stepped around him, his angry words terrifying the tracker even more.
"He aint no-ones property!" Nathan spat, eventually heeding Chriss warning to take cover.
The men across the street spread out along the walkway outside the saloon, careful to keep cover between themselves and the men flanking Calderones slave. Chris counted fifteen men in all. He knew he had to get off the street, but with Vin cowering at his back, progress was difficult. The gunslinger scanned the buildings, trying to find the other men in his group. He almost missed Calderones cutting words.
"That scum took my brothers life. Now I own his. You will give him back to me."
Chris pushed Vin back against the crates Nathan was hiding behind, his anger fired by the Mexicans words.
"Ill see you in hell first!" he spat, drawing his gun on Calderone. The hired guns drew their weapons, all cocked and aimed at Larabee.
"Crazy son of a bitch!" Josiah mumbled, running low along the walkway until he was close enough to cover the two men.
Chris aim never wavered, he willed the Mexican to draw on him. Calderone smirked,
"You wish to die today senor?"
"Do you?" Chris asked coldly, his eyes goading Calderone.
The Mexican beat the whip against his hand, carefully stepping between two of his hired thugs. "Look around you Larabee." The evil man smiled, "Ask yourself if that piece of filth is worth your life."
Chris bristled at the mans words, he badly wanted to gun him down and would have if Vin were safely hidden. Vin! Chris suddenly thought, he twisted enough to grip the cowering mans collar. He pushed Vin towards Nathan, letting the tracker go once Nathan had hold of him.
"Kill them!" Calderone snapped, backing towards the saloon. Before the men could comply Buck began shooting from the rooftop, distracting the bandits enough to allow Chris to take cover if he were sensible enough to do so. The gunslinger snarled at Calderone and took aim.
"Chris!" Josiah called out, willing him to hear. He fired from his position, again drawing the gunfire.
Unable to stop himself Chris fired at the torturer, nicking the mans arm before diving for cover. Damn! He cursed, keeping low as shots peppered the boarding behind him. He stole a look at Nathan and Vin. The healer was struggling to keep hold of the terrified man.
"Stay down!" Chris yelled to Vin, pushing his head lower as Vin tried to scramble up.
Across the street, JD had drawn the bandits fire. He was trying to back off as Buck took out the men from above. Just seven men were now left . Calderone had disappeared inside the saloon. Josiah scanned the street for Ezra, where was the man? He fired steadily into the bandits cover, knowing Chris was ready. As the men tried to make for a safer place Chris picked them off.
Ezra, positioned below Bucks vantage point, had seen Calderone slide between the saloon doors from the street below Bucks vantage point. He waved up to the ladies man, motioning to him that he was going round the back of the saloon. Buck nodded quickly then turned his attention to covering JDs back. The gambler moved through the back of the tavern, keeping low to avoid collecting any stray bullets. The interior was dark, Ezra blinked, trying to adjust to the poor light in the saloon. As he rushed forward, eager to assure himself that Inez was safe he almost fell over the rapidly retreating form of Calderone. The Mexican had the upper hand, he fired off a shot as Ezra leapt for cover and caught the southerner in the upper arm. Ezra stifled his pain and twisted, firing into the corridor, scrambling to his feet as Calderone ran back towards the front of the saloon. Ezra prayed Inez had the sense to hide, then with a grunt of pain he grasped his injured right arm and chased after the man. Calderone ignored the saloons clientele, pushing them aside as he ran for the doors. He crouched just inside the frame, shooting back towards Ezra before shouting in Spanish to the men outside. He heard enough to reassure him and with a smile joined his thugs outside. Ezra slumped to the floor with a groan, his gun banging heavily against the wooden boards. His wound was bleeding well and he lamented the loss of another good jacket. He jerked as someone touched his arm and turned to see Inez kneeling by his side.
"Keep still senor," she said, quickly tying off the arm.
Chris was confident they had the remaining men cornered. He fired steadily, unleashing the pain and anger hed buried deep since hed found Vin. Josiah knew the look in Chriss eyes, tasted the hatred on his own lips. He glanced over at Nathan but the healer had his hands full trying to keep Vin steady. Josiahs heart went out to the tracker. In a matter of minutes, theyd undone weeks of care. Vin cried out in terror as gunshots pierced the air around him, covering his ears as he twisted and jerked away from Nathan. Josiah turned back to his work, careful to cover JD who had retreated enough to draw the remaining men onto the street as they tried in vain to reach the horses. Almost too easy, the preacher thought. At that moment Calderone burst through the saloon doors, shooting from the hip as he ran for cover.
Vin panicked as Calderone appeared. All he could see was violence on the mans face as he fired towards their position. The tracker hit out at Nathan, breaking free of his grasp. His only thought was to flee. He didnt hear Nathan shout a warning to Chris, and ran behind the gunslinger, straying into the street after shying around Josiah.
Chris stared in horror at his friend running blindly into the gunfire.
"Buck," Chris roared at his long time friend, "Cover me!" He broke from the crates and ran after the tracker.
"Vin! Get down!" He pounded down the street in the smaller mans wake.
Vin stumbled, allowing Chris to gain on him. Crying out in desperation the tracker scrambled back to his feet and ran on.
Calderone watched the trackers flight with glee. Licking his lips, he raised himself to his feet, taking careful aim at his slave.
"Chris!" Josiah yelled after him, seeing the Mexican preparing to shoot.
Chris threw himself at the tracker, hitting the younger man hard in the middle of the back. They went down heavy in the dirt and Chris felt the thud of a bullet as it entered his body.
"Damn!" he gasped, rolling behind the cover of a water barrel. Another bullet bit into the street, showering the two men with dirt.
Calderone laughed harshly as he watched the two men take cover. Determined to reach them he stepped over the bodies of his fallen comrades and ran into the street. He gave JD a clear shot: the boy fired a single bullet straight between the Mexicans eyes. Calderone never knew what had hit him, he collapsed in a boneless heap and left JD, Buck and Josiah to cover the remaining gunmen who immediately surrendered.
Nathan ran down the walkway towards Chris and Vin. Hed seen Chris go down hard and suspected hed been hit. He found Chris pinning the shivering tracker to the ground.
"Chris!" Nathan called down to him, crouching by his side. "You hurt?"
Chris sat up stiffly and winced, quickly shifting his weight, "Yeah, aint bad though." He rubbed his hand over Vins upper arm, "Could you help me with Vin."
"Sure," Nathan said, helping Chris to get the tracker sitting up.
Chris pushed Vins hair away from his face so he could study the younger man. Vin avoided his eyes, trembling fitfully as the two men watched him.
"You all right?" Chris asked gently, his anger spent.
Vin nodded, worrying his lower lip with his teeth as he fought with his emotions, "Just Just give me A minute," he whispered, his teeth chattering.
Chris sighed and looked up at Nathan,
"Well be fine," he said, "You want to check on the others?"
Nathan nodded in agreement and got stiffly to his feet. He saw Josiah waving to him,
"Over here!" the priest called. Ezra had stumbled out of the saloon, gun still in hand, with a courageous Inez helping him to stand. As soon as the shooting had stopped hed fallen to the ground.
Josiah knelt by Ezras side and loosened his collar. The southerners colour wasnt good and he was gasping for breath in the warm air.
"Take it easy son," the priest soothed, accepting the damp cloth Inez offered and dabbing the gamblers brow.
Nathan ran to their side and dropped to his knees,
"What happened here?" he asked, quickly untying the bandage on Ezras arm and easing the limb from the jacket. Ezra groaned as the jacket fell away. He heard Inez telling Nathan about his confrontation with Calderone. He looked down as Nathan tore the shirt sleeve from wrist to shoulder, protesting at the destruction of the fine garment. Nathan ignored him; he studied the swollen arm and the bullet holes.
"Yeah youll do. Bullets gone right through. Best get you to my room before ya lose all that precious blood." He eyed the gambler; Ezra was in no mood for his teasing. With a nod to Josiah the two men got Standish to his feet and started the painful walk to Nathans place. Before they moved off Nathan called back to Chris,
"Chris, Ezra heres hurt. Im going to fix him up. Ill see ya over there."
Chris acknowledged Nathan then turned back to Vin. The tracker was leaning heavily against a pillar; his body still trembling as the adrenaline left his system. "Its over, pard. He aint never gonna hurt you again."
"Yeah, but it dont matter. He might as well have killed me." The hopelessness in Vins voice matched the look on his eyes. He could see disgust in Chris face; who could blame the gunfighter? Hed been shot protecting a coward!
"Im sorry," Vin choked out before turning and running down the street, unable to look into accusatory eyes any longer.
Chris lurched after the retreating tracker, but had to give up after a few faltering steps. "Damn!" he cursed his wound.
"Chris, let me help ya to Nathans."
"No. Dont have time " Chris pushed Wilmingtons helping hand away, " Vins in more need of help than me."
"Ill go look fer him .." Buck frowned at the gunslingers stance. "Which leg ya got hit in?"
"Werent my leg." Larabee glared at his oldest friend, daring him to make a smug remark.
"Oh, I see." Buck raised an eyebrow, yet somehow managed to remain silent as he helped Chris up the stairs to the clinic. But as he opened the door to the room, he bellowed, "Serious wound here, Doc. Chris been shot in the butt!"
"What!" Nathan, Josiah and a groggy Ezra all asked at the same time.
"Yep, a butt shot. Got yer work cut out with this one Nathan."
"Chris, go lie down on the bed," Nathan ordered the blond, "Wheres Vin?" He expected Chris shadow to be at his side.
"Hes run off. Aint sure where. Thinks he aint worthy of us."
"My sentiments, exactly, Nathan," Chris said as he carefully lowered himself onto the bed, "Josiah, go see if you can find him. He might listen to you."
"Ill give it my best shot," the preacher replied as he exited the clinic.
"Buck, go help JD. Poor kids been left with the prisoners and a pile of bodies."
"On my way pard. Take care of him Nathan. Dont let him give a no cheek."
Buck just avoided being hit by a flying jug that crashed into the door.
Nathan scowled at Chris. "Couldve been an expensive piece of china."
"Dont start Nate. Just get me fixed up so I can go talk some sense into that thick headed tracker."
"Wait yer turn. Ezra lost some blood. Your hides thick enough to cope with an itty, bitty bullet fer a while longer."
Chris grumbled to himself as he turned onto his stomach. Werent no good pissing Nathan off; it would only make him worse.
+ + + + + + +
Not wanting to be found, Vin made his way up the back stairs of the hotel and climbed out onto the roof. Sitting near the edge, he watched the events taking place on the street below. JD had taken control of cleaning up the bodies and organising the prisoners trip to the jail.
For a fleeting moment, jealousy spiked Vins heart. The young sheriff was so capable and unafraid. Hed been composed in the heat of battle, while the tracker had panicked so badly hed nearly caused Chris death.
Bile rose in the Texans throat as he replayed the shoot-out in his head. "Stupid stupid," he rasped, slamming his fist onto the roof.
Continuing to watch the clear up operation, Vins eyes widened when he saw the undertaker and Buck load Calderones body onto the wagon. The bodies were being transferred to the old barn and Vin watched transfixed as his Master No! Not master was moved into the building. Brushing the tears from his eyes, Vin carefully made his way back down to the street and over to the makeshift mortuary. Unaware that Sanchez had seen him.
Josiah slid inside the barn doors and squinted into its dusky depths. It had become home to the dead Mexicans, all neatly laid out on the dirt floor. He wrinkled his nose against the rusty tang of blood and moved through the line of corpses, his eyes searching for Vins torturer. The faintest of movements alerted him to the younger mans presence in the shadows and Josiah turned, knowing by the sharp intake of breath that hed found his lost sheep. Allowing Vin time to gather himself Josiah looked down at the corpse by the trackers feet and into the death mask of Calderone. Someone had taken the time to close the Mexicans eyes, thus saving Vin the further terror of imagining life still burned behind his pale features. Josiah leaned closer, careful to breathe through his mouth as he neared the body. JDs bullet had pierced his skull high in his forehead without even ruffling the mans hair. It gave the impression that Calderone was sleeping but Josiah knew that most of the mans head was missing. There was little blood, most of that lay in the street where the Mexican had fallen. All that spewed onto the ground and the fancy clothing was a viscose fluid, and it stank.
Josiah looked away from the grizzly sight and stepped around the coffin to stand by the smaller man, willing him to turn aside from the source of his torment. Vin didnt stir, his attention was fixed on the body like he was waiting to hear the mans voice. Josiah watched as he shivered, hyperventilating in the cold air. Caught by the dead mans ethereal grip he was going under. Fearing for his friends sanity Josiah touched Vins arm, his fingers warm against the trackers cold flesh. Vin gasped and pulled back, shying away from the contact. Josiah moistened his lips with his tongue, his heart reaching out to his friend.
"Come away Vin," his gentle voice urged, "He cant hurt you any more."
Vin flinched at the reference to his tormentor and glanced fearfully into the coffin. His trembling intensified and he wrapped his arms around his frail body, trying to hold the emotions inside.
"Vin," Josiah whispered, hoping to regain the trackers attention.
For a moment, Vin was lost. He looked back towards Josiah but was unable to meet his eyes. His face creased with frustrated tears and he bit back a sob.
"Son," Josiah lamented, "Dont do this." He searched Vins face as the first tears wet his cheeks, his heart reaching out to the younger man.
Vin saw the sympathy and stole himself against it. He scrubbed at his tears and stifled his weeping, he didnt want to debase himself any further in front of his friends. Friends. he thought miserably, I have no right to call them friends. He shivered as he remembered the bullet thudding into Chris body. Aint the man I was, cant ride beside my brothers into battle. He glanced fearfully at the body, Calderones face blurring before him, You took that away from me.
"Come on," Josiah prompted him, sensing the mood by the emotions playing across Vins face. He motioned him towards the door.
Battered and broken by his thoughts, Vin moaned softly, a desperate cry he could not suppress. His hands balled into fists by his side as he fought the need to scream out his frustration. He stared into Josiahs widening eyes and wondered if the roaring in his ears was due to the vocalisation of his need. His energy deserted him, leaving him trembling and whimpering in the half light.
Josiah, still stunned by the trackers vicious outpouring was again taken aback when Vin took three tiny steps forward and laid his head against the preachers shoulder. Gathering his wits, Josiah slipped his arms around the trembling form and held him close.
Vin felt Josiahs hesitation and read it as rejection. Wave after wave of desolation ripped through his weakened body and he cried bitter tears he hadnt the strength to withhold. Eventually he could bear it no longer and pulled away from Josiahs comfort and fled the barn, his only conscious thought to put as much distance as possible between himself and the people he used to know.
"Vin!" Josiah called at his back, spurring the trackers flight.
The preacher ran from the barn and searched the street, his eyes smarting in the bright light. He cursed softly to himself before remembering his manners then asked his God for a sign. Almost immediately, the sun glinted off the church windows as the door was slammed. Josiah offered up a silent prayer and without hesitation lumbered off towards his home.
Vin had fled into the street, choking back the rising emotions as he dashed through the townsfolk to the relative safety of the church. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he half ran half stumbled across the street. He wasnt thinking rationally, didnt realise that with each step he was bringing himself closer to Josiah. All he could think was to find a hiding place, somewhere he could take stock and recover.
He faltered on the old, worn steps leading to the heavy doors and clutched at his chest as misery rose like bile, choking him, bringing yet more tears to his eyes. A voice close by drove him on, stumbling up the steps he scrambled through the doors and into the dark and solemn interior.
He could no longer hold back his emotions. Wrapping his arms around his body he staggered towards the alter, the stillness punctuated by his heartbreaking sobs. Before him he could see Calderone laughing, leading him by the heavy chain to his next audience for Vins humiliating torture. He moaned low in his throat, as imagined gunshots sounded close by. Calderone laughed again and tugged on the chain. Trembling legs gave way and Vin collapsed at the foot of a stand of candles, with a fearful yelp. He curled into a ball, his hands wrapped around his head.
"No!" he whimpered, trembling fitfully as he anticipated the first blow.
Josiah was out of breath by the time he reached the partially open door. Taking a deep breath, he slipped inside, shutting out the street behind him. He heard Vins plaintive cry and rushed into the aisle, searching for his friend. For a moment, he didnt see him, though the sounds of his distress rent the air, filling the preachers heart with dread. He dropped his gaze as the slightest of movements caught his eye.
"Oh no," he breathed sadly, dropping to his knees by Vins side. Unable to speak past the lump forming in his throat Josiah sat heavily on the floor and pulled Vins trembling body into his arms.
"Vin," he moaned softly, his hands working to still the tracker as he tried to pull free. Vins resistance dissolved into shivers. He clawed his way up Josiahs shirt and wound his arms around the preachers neck, laying his forehead against the preachers throat. Josiah hugged him close, feeling the emotions tearing through his thin frame. Vin wept. He cried for himself, for the torture, the helplessness, and the loss of his self-esteem. He cried for Chris, that he should be injured for saving his worthless hide. He cried out a lifetime of suppressed anger, the death of his mother, for prejudice, lost brothers, for the price on his head. In the end, he cried because he didnt belong any more, for losing his place beside Chris. The effort almost killed him.
"Easy son, I got ya," Josiah soothed him, rocking him gently; tears coursing down his own cheeks as he witnessed Vins pain. He cradled the tracker until the last of his anger was spent and he lay whimpering and trembling in his arms.
Josiah held onto Vin until the tremors eased into occasional shivers and the tension had run out of the fingers clawed into his shirt. Stroking the back of Vins head, Josiah shifted him so that he could see his face. Vin scrubbed at his eyes, unshed tears dampening his fingers. Josiah could see that much of his anger was spent. The younger man wouldnt meet his gaze and Josiah surmised that hed probably never found himself in this position before.
Squeezing Vins shoulder gently Josiah shifted his cramped limbs and struggled to his feet. The tracker watched him, uncertainty keeping his focus away from the preachers face. What did Vin expect to see in his friends eyes? Josiah offered a hand to him and smarted as Vin shied away from the movement. He waited patiently until Vin realised no punishment would follow, letting out a pent up breath as Vin slowly placed his cold fingers in Josiahs hand. Gripping Vins hand lightly in his own Josiah helped the younger man to shaky legs. Stepping up to the tracker Josiah wrapped him in his arms and led him to his room at the back of the church.
Vin offered no resistance, allowing Josiah to sit him on the edge of the bunk. He stared over Josiahs shoulder as the preacher got to one knee and eased off his boots.
"Thirsty?" Josiah asked, his voice gruff with emotion.
Vin nodded slowly, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his feet. He took the canteen Josiah pushed into his fingers and drank it dry.
The vessel was gently pulled from his grasp and Josiah sat behind him, pulling him back into his arms. Vin swung his legs onto the bunk and scooted back so he could lay his head against Josiahs chest. The preachers arms wound around him, offering solaces. Vin closed his eyes and sighed, he couldn't help himself. He felt the fear leaching from his skin, leaving him feeling heavy and with Josiah holding him, safe.
Josiah reached up to stroke the top of Vins head, heartened by the change in him. Could it be that hed made a connection with the wounded man? A fit of shivers reminded Josiah that his friend was still very much in shock.
"Something troubling ya Vin?" he asked gently, his fingers teasing stray locks behind the younger mans ears.
"Cant walk beside him any more " Vin whispered through the tremors.
Josiah understood only too well the meaning of Vins words. He remembered Vins reaction to Chris after hed bolted from the jailhouse on the first day. He could see the tracker doubted himself, saw himself as unworthy of Chriss companionship.
"Dont judge him Vin." He pulled a blanket around Vins trembling body. "Chris wont let this come between you." He lifted the fresh tears from the young mans face with his fingers, "None of us will."
For the first time, Vin lifted his gaze to the preachers. Bruised eyes searched Josiahs face for sincerity. He blinked rapidly as Josiahs words penetrated his barriers. There was still doubt.
"He dont need me None of ya do " He slumped back down against Josiahs chest in defeat but allowed the preacher to continue comforting him with his touch.
"No man is an island, entire of itself," Josiah whispered persuasively, "Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main " He let his words drift away and looked down to see Vin staring wide eyed at him. Josiah smiled gently, knowing Vin was smart enough to understand the meaning of his words, but he reinforced them anyway.
"We all need each other Vin."
Vin settled down once more, this time closing his eyes. Josiah felt him relax and was glad.
"I like that," Vin said eventually, his voice sleepy.
"John Donne said it," Josiah told him.
"JD?" Vin asked.
The preacher chuckled low in his throat and felt Vin cuddle against him in response.
"No. Well least not our JD," he said, listening to the trackers breathing as it evened out to sleep.
Josiah sighed and closed his eyes. Relief swept through him making him as weary as Vin. Perhaps he could rest a while before going to tell Chris that Vin was safe?
Four Corners was quiet in the aftermath of the battle. Calderones body had been returned to his mother; the other, nameless bandits were buried locally.
The seven protectors of the town had been victorious once more. Though two of the men were recovering from gunshot wounds.
Ezra Standish, his right arm wrapped in a sling, was complaining bitterly to Buck Wilmington as the two men strode purposefully down Main Street. their destination, the saloon.
"Ah expect remuneration for lack of earning due to my incapacitation," Ezra said seriously to his friend.
"Whos goin to pay it? The good folk from town? The judge?"
"Surely there must be monies available for such a situation. Ah was injured protecting the citizens of this town. My occupation is suffering because of it."
"Occupation!" Buck bellowed out, "Gamblin aint work, Ez. Its a pastime!"
"In your case, Buck, its called a charity."
"Huh! Least I dont carry a spare deck of cards up my sleeve."
"Ah do not need to cheat! Especially with " The bickering continued as they entered the saloon.
Inside the smoky establishment, the other members of the magnificent seven were standing at the bar. JD ordered drinks for the newcomers,
"You complainin again Ezra?"
"Ah have a qualified protest, though it is doubtful Ahll see any compensation for mah inconvenience."
"Take no notice, kid. Hes all wind!" Buck joked as he picked up his glass of beer. "Why we standin here when theres a table free?" Bucks blue eyes sparkled with mischief as he glanced in Larabees direction, "Want me to fetch ya a cushion, Chris?"
A steely look was Larabees only response, though the others sniggered into their glasses.
"Whatcha reckon, Vin. Think we oughta have a padded saddle made fer Chris? Unless hes gonna stand up in the stirrups."
Vin Tanner chuckled, completely unaffected by the Larabee glare.
"Aint funny, Buck," Nathan tried to sound serious, without success.
"The bible says we should turn the other cheek," Josiah added, solemnly. Bringing gales of laughter from everyone except the unfortunate gunslinger.
"You can all joke," Chris replied tersely, "Dont bother me none."
"Hey Chris, a scar on that part of your anatomy could be a talkin point with the ladies."
Chris scowled at Bucks childish remark.
"Heard of stickin yer neck out fer someone "
"Vin Tanner, your ass'll be smartin once Ive kicked it."
"Guess youll have ta catch me first." Vin was already scurrying behind Bucks broad back as he taunted his best friend.
"Hey! I aint getting between no feud!"
"You started it!" Chris and Vin said in unison.
"That was gentle banter," Buck replied, winking at Chris. Then he spun round so quickly he caught Vin unawares. The tracker was caught in Wilmingtons bear hug.
"Well Chris, do ya kick his ass or tickle him to death?"
Chris moved in and started tickling Vins ribs. "Youre right, Buck. This is much more fun!" Larabee was secretly relieved that the attention had turned away from his accident.
Vin could hardly catch his breath when Chris found his sensitive spots, "Aint fair!" he gasped, "Josiah " He used his puppy dog expression, hoping to garner some sympathy, " please .."
"Think Ill just watch." The preacher folded his arms. It was good to see Vin interacting with his friends once more, especially Wilmington.
"Aint none of ya goin ta .. help me?"
"Last time someone rescued ya, they got shot in the butt. I aint takin no more bullets outta skinny white asses!" Nathans serious observation brought more laughter to the group. Buck relaxed his hold on Vin for a second allowing the tracker to escape.
Vin hurried over to the healer, knowing hed be safe with the black man. He rubbed his aching chest, but made no complaint, well aware that Nathans disapproval extended to him.
The celebration in the saloon progressed well. The men moved over to their favourite table after Buck cajoled Chris into using a cushion for his chair.
Vin was happy just to sit and listen to the conversation around him. He felt the warmth and concern radiating from his smiling companions. And when Ezra instigated a friendly poker game, Vin joined in.
Bucks luck didnt last long and he was soon searching his pockets for the odd coin. It was during the search he found
"What the? Hey Vin! Almost fergot " He handed the harmonica back to his friend.
"I .." Vin took hold of the instrument and studied it carefully, remembering its heritage. "It belonged to my Pa , cordin to my Ma." A sad smile played across his lips. "Glad to have it back. Thanks Buck." He placed it to his mouth and blew into it.
"Buck! How could ya?" JD groaned as Vin continued to play a tuneless ditty.
"Good mind to shoot you," Chris grumbled. His ears were now in more pain than his ass!
"Good Lord, why us?" Was Josiahs plea to the heavens.
Nathan remained quiet, but gritted his teeth.
"A family heirloom Mr. Tanner? Then Ah suggest you lock it away; for safe keeping."
"Mebbe yer right, Ez. " Vin frowned as he tapped the spittle from the instrument, "Fergot how ta play the darn thing anyways. All thats comin out is a caterwauling," he said disappointedly, not understanding the clapping and cheering that greeted his statement. "Whatcha all grinnin at? Aint funny losin my memory like that." He pocketed the harmonica, "Guess Ill just have to practice."
Chris leaned forward, perching awkwardly on one ass cheek. "As law in this town, weve taken a vote. No more monica playin within a three mile radius of Four Corners."
"Ya sayin ya dont like my musical abilities?"
"No Vin, Im sayin you aint got none. Never had. Tone deaf is an understatement."
Not in the least bit offended by Chris declaration, Vin smiled sweetly at the older man, "When we goin up to yer cabin?"
"Soon as I can ride. Why?"
"Good. Guess Ill just have to wait til we get there fore I start my practicin. Any requests?"
Chris Larabee wasnt amused at having his snooze interrupted and glowered at JD when the young man hovered over him. "Move kid, youre blockin the sun."
"Sorry Chris." The youngster stepped to one side obediently. He didnt want Chris getting riled, he needed him. "Did ya see those six men that rode in earlier?"
"Nope." Larabee leaned back in the chair he was sitting on and stretched his legs over the convenient hitching post. Hed spent the early part of the afternoon in the saloon playing cards with Ezra, Josiah and Vin. Ezra and Vin were still inside, paying for their drinks with the money theyd won off Chris and the preacher, while Josiah had returned to the church.
"What about em?" Chris asked the boy, accepting that JD wouldnt bother him unless it was truly necessary.
"They keep wanderin by the bank, real suspicious like. Might be nothin." JD shrugged, beginning to doubt his own concerns. Maybe he was making something out of nothing.
Larabee trusted the boys instincts. JD had learnt enough over the last year to sniff out trouble when it appeared. "Wheres Buck?"
The boy took off his hat and dragged his fingers through his thick mane of hair. "Saw him and Miss Emily ridin out in her buggy earlier. Goin fer a picnic!"
Larabee snorted, he could guess what Bucks idea of dessert was. "Go find Josiah and Nathan. Ill get Ezra. Meet me at the jail."
"What about Vin?"
Larabee shook his head; "He aint ready yet." He settled the chair back on four legs then stood up. "If theyre thinkin of robbin the bank theyll probably do it at closin time."
JD checked his pocket watch. "We aint got much time then, bank closes in fifteen minutes."
"Then whatya waitin for!" Chris smiled as he watched the boy scurry away.
Ezra and Vin stood at the bar enjoying the bottle of whisky theyd bought with their winnings.
"To success!" Ezra lifted the glass and knocked the amber liquid back in one go.
"Ill second that," Vin replied, following Ezras example and nearly choking on the drink when it caught in the back of his throat.
"There, there, Mr. Tanner. Allow me to assist you " The gambler patted Vin hard on the back almost knocking him over the bar.
"Hafta try that again.," Vin choked out, filling up both glasses.
"I dont think so," a quiet voice said behind them.
"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra exclaimed as he turned to face the gunslinger. "Why the sour face? Are you lamenting the loss of your hard earned money?"
"No, but therell be plenty of townsfolk who will be lamenting if the bank gets robbed," Chris explained to the southerner, "Im hopin you aint drunk too much you cant shoot straight."
Ezra straightened his jacket and vest, "Ah never get inebriated sir! Its beneath a man of mah pedigree!"
Larabee raised an eyebrow; he wasnt so sure, but he needed all the help he could, except,
"Vin, you stay here. Dont want you getting in the line of fire."
Vin Tanner winced at his friends words, though he doubted Chris realised their significance. Since the fateful day Chris Larabee had been wounded while protecting the young tracker, Vin had been looking to prove to everyone that he was still a necessary part of the group. Here was his chance, yet before hed been able to offer assistance Chris had told him to stay out of the way.
Maybe Josiah had been wrong when hed said Vin was a necessary part of the group, that without him they werent whole. If that was true, it was best Vin find out now before someone died because of him.
"Ya need me Chris. Buck aint around, so youll need someone on the roof."
"No Vin, not yet. You aint ready. Theres enough of us to take out these hombres." Chris reached out to pat his companions shoulder but was roughly shrugged off.
"Ya dont trust me, I can see that in yer eyes."
"Vin, you know that aint true, I do trust ya, we all do." Chris shook his head. "I aint got time fer this now. Stay here .Well talk later."
Ezra followed Larabee out of the saloon, glancing guiltily at Vin Tanner as he passed him.
Vin turned back to the bar and poured himself another drink.
Things hadnt quite gone to plan for the bank robbers and they found themselves in a gunfight with five of the towns regulators. Two of the robbers were already dead; one was lying in the middle of the street, wounded. The other three were pinned down near Gloria Potters store.
"We gotta get to the horses!" Rafe Elliot, the leader of the gang yelled at his two companions.
Rufus Elliot snorted derisively, "How the hell we gonna do that?" The animals were tethered outside the bank and without cover, it was impossible for the men to reach them.
Rafe glared at his younger brother then turned to look at the building behind them. "We need us some hostages."
Understanding his brothers look, Rufus and the other man hurled themselves through the shops front door while Rafe covered them, then the two men reciprocated as he sought safety within the building.
"Rufus, go see if theres anyone hidin in here."
The younger man disappeared into the back of the building, returning shortly with Gloria Potter and a young, female customer. Theyd taken refuge in the pantry when the shooting had started.
"Look what I got here!" Rufus said smugly.
"If ya want that to live youd best do as youre told," Rafe warned both women.
"Please, dont hurt me. Ill do whatever you ask!" the girl cried.
Rufus chuckled. "Once we get outta town darlin I got plenty you can do fer me."
"First things first." Rafe turned back to the door and yelled, "Were comin out. Ifn ya want these folk to survive, youd best let us go!" He then grabbed the girl and held her against his chest. "You ready bro?"
"Sure am. Sorry about this Bert, but ya aint got no one to shield ya."
Before the third bandit could register Rufus words, the young man shot him dead.
The women screamed at the brutality and knew that neither of then would survive the ordeal. Their only chance was Larabee or one of the others getting a lucky shot at the robbers.
Larabee watched in horror as the two females were brought out and used as shields by the gunmen. He couldnt risk a shot, only a marksman would have the confidence to do that. Shouting to his friends, he told them to hold their fire.
"Chris, I can take em," JD whispered to the gunslinger.
"No kid, the risks too great. You could hit the hostages. Our best chance will be when they ride out of town."
Josiah wasnt so sure, but their hands were tied. "Dear Lord, we could with a miracle if ya got one to spare." He closed his eyes and prayed. His prayers were answered immediately.
The two gunshots took everyone by surprise. Theyd come from an elevated position. The robbers lay sprawled on the ground, dead. Shocked by the events that had happened, Gloria and the girl stood in the middle of the street shaking with fear.
Chris walked carefully over to them and gathered them into his arms.
"Its all over ladies, you are safe."
"Who who shot them?"
Chris glanced upwards and smiled. "Welcome back Vin," he whispered as he relinquished the women over to Nathan and Josiah.
Smiling weakly back down at him, from his position on the hotel roof, Vin Tanner held the mares leg loosely in his hands. He was shaking violently and he felt sick. If the shots had been out an inch, hed have killed the hostages. He also realised that once the robbers were safe out of town their hostages would die. Thered been no choice.
"Stayin up there permanently?" Larabee shouted to the younger man.
"Nicen quiet," Vin replied, not wanting to reveal his unsteadiness to his friends.
"I cant have a celebration drink without my partner by my side."
"You buyin?" Vin asked as his smile broadened. Chris had called him partner.
Larabee chuckled, "I recall someone takin all my money off me earlier."
"Know what they say cowboy. A fooln his money are soon parted."
"Yeah! Theres a smartass Texan gonna be parted from his breath if he dont get down here soon."
"Since ya ask so nicely like, guess its only fittin I oblige." Vin swung his legs over the edge of the building and hopped down to the balcony then dropped lightly onto the walkway by Chris side.
He felt the gunslingers arm snake around his neck as they walked towards the saloon and allowed himself to be drawn to Chris side.
"You did good, pard," Larabee told him, his voice warm with pride.
Vin allowed himself a smile. There were still many unanswered questions but right now, the most important one was being addressed.
"Didnt think ya wanted me with ya," he teased, feeling he had to persuade the gunslinger further to get the reassurance he craved.
"Didnt want to push you " Chris replied evenly. " but Ive sure been missin you at my side."
"Werent sure if Id ever stand there again . " Vin smiled, his eyes sparkling with mischief, " then I remembered yer shootin aint that straight."
Chris growled low in his throat, his arm sneaking around the younger mans neck once more. "Youll pay for that Tanner!" he said, pushing through the saloon doors.
They strode over to the bar and Chris ordered two beers, informing Inez that Vin was buying. No more words were spoken; none necessary. Both men felt complete once more; it was a good feeling .
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