Getting There is Half the Trip

by Allison

Disclaimer: These characters do not belong to me, though I wish they did!

Thanks to Ninheve for beta-reading this for me, and helping with the characterizations.

Chris Larabee sat at his usual table, smoking a cheroot and surreptitiously watching Vin. The young tracker was attempting to concentrate on a game of cards with Ezra, but his sharp eyes kept wandering to the batwing doors of the saloon.

At first Chris was concerned that Vin’s sixth sense about impending danger might be troubling him, but as he continued to watch, he realized that Vin seemed merely fidgety and not really worried.

After yet another disastrous loss to their resident conman, Vin threw his cards down in disgust and pushed away from the table.

"Hell, Ez, that’s near about the last a ma’ money. Shoulda known it wasn’t smart to set down with you today."

"Well, my dear Mr. Tanner, a little more attention to the cards might have proved to your benefit—your lack of concentration made any skill on my part almost superfluous," Ezra said with a grin that showed off his gold tooth.

"Ahw, shut up, Ez," Tanner growled as he grabbed his beer and moved away, dropping heavily into the empty chair next to Chris, wincing slightly as he did.

"What?" he snarled, as Chris raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

"Mighty testy, aren’t you? Somethin’ on your mind?" Chris asked easily.

Vin sighed and took a deep swallow of his beer. "Just restless I guess, cowboy." He took a deep breath and then spoke with a studied casualness that was unusual for him. "Think I’m gonna take off for a while."

Chris immediately tensed, but forced himself to remain calm. "Don’t know if that’s such a good idea right now. Nathan said…" he began, but Vin interrupted him with a rude snort.

"Nathan worries too much, and so do you."

"I’m not worried," Chris denied hotly. "I just don’t think it’s too smart to be riding out right now. And you know, JD just got that telegram about the Ramirez brothers heading this way."

"That telegram is a week old. If they were headin’ here, they sure are takin’ their time. Besides, they’re bank robbers, not bounty hunters."

Chris scowled; knowing it was pointless to argue with Vin when his mind was made up to escape.

"So when are you plannin’ to leave?" he asked crossly, unable to keep the unease from his voice.

"Day ain’t even half over—might as well head out now," Vin said, relieved to be escaping so easily. He swallowed the last of his beer and rose gracefully. Chris grabbed his arm and frowned at him.

"Not so fast. Where are you going and when will you be back?"

Vin tugged his arm away, annoyed. "I don’t know, coupla’ days I guess. I just want to sleep under the stars, do some fishin’…you know. Up in the mountains somewhere, " he answered vaguely.

Chris shook his head. "Not good enough. I want to know where you’ll be if we need to find you."

Now it was Vin’s turn to frown. "I ain’t a kid, Chris. I’m pretty used ta comin’ and goin’ as I please."

"So who’s stopping you? I just think it makes sense to know where you’re going to be and when you’re going to be back," Chris pointed out reasonably.

Vin couldn’t argue with the logic, even though it rankled him a bit that Chris was playing big brother. "Guess I’ll head up to Eagle’s Peak for a day or so and see what the fishin’ is like in the stream up there, maybe get a little huntin’ in," he admitted grudgingly.

Chris nodded. "All right. It’s Monday now—I’ll expect you back no later than Thursday evening," he said, staring steadily at the tracker.

Vin opened his mouth to protest the decree, but shut it without speaking. "Fine," he snapped.

Chris hid a smile at the sour expression, and decided to bait the tracker just a bit more. "So, Vin, gonna stop by Nettie’s on your way back? She sure was worried about you last time she was in town. I know she’d like a visit," he said innocently.

It was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud when his friend, the ruthless and fearless bounty hunter, blanched and looked sheepish.

"Ain’t gonna be out that way," Vin mumbled.

"Well, hell, Vin, Nettie’s place isn’t more’n a hop and a skip from Eagle’s Peak as the crow flies. She sure would like to see you," Chris pressed, enjoying the rare sight of Vin actually squirming at the thought of facing the older woman.

"Leave it alone, cowboy," Vin said warningly.

Chris shook his head in mock dismay. "Never thought I’d live to see the day a Tanner would turn yella’."

Vin’s eyes flashed ice, but just as quickly melted into a rueful grin. "Hell, Chris, you know how she gets. I’d sooner face a whole passel of bounty hunters ‘stead of going up against Nettie when she’s set to fussin’," he said with a shudder.

Chris chuckled in agreement, having witnessed the older woman’s sharp tongue when any one of the boys, but especially JD or Vin, crossed her. "Nathan ain’t gonna be too happy with you either, you know," he pointed out, taking another large swallow of his beer.

"Shit, I can handle Nathan, cowboy."

"Is that so?" came an ominous voice from behind him, and Chris coughed into his glass when he saw Vin pale for the second time in two minutes.

The large, and now extremely threatening, dark-skinned man loomed over the bounty hunter. "And jist how am I going to be ‘handled’, Vin?"

Vin gulped audibly. "Now, Nathan, I didn’t mean nothin’. Chris and I were just funnin’, ya know?"

"This one’s getting’ set to head out, Nate," Chris volunteered with a nod at the now-glowering bounty hunter. "I told him I thought you might have something to say about that."

"Snitch," Vin mouthed to Chris as the healer turned on him and unleashed a torrent of words.

"And jist where you plannin’ on heading? I tole ya, Vin, you need to take it easy. That side a yours ain’t been patched together for more’n a week. Or maybe you jist like sleeping in my clinic so much you’re trying to wrangle another invite."

"Nathan, I’m fine! Jist need to clear the dust out, that’s all! I’m gonna do a little fishin’ and maybe a little huntin’—I ain’t gonna be wrassling no grizzly bears."

The older man didn’t look the least bit mollified. "Well, you ain’t headin’ out ‘til I check them stitches a yours once more," he said with a glare, daring the young tracker to argue.

"Geez, Nate, I’m gonna be thinkin’ you’re one a’ them funny cowboys if you make me go back to your room and strip me down again," Vin whined.

"Well, people have thought worse of me, so I ‘spect I can survive the comparison. Now get," the healer ordered, pointing in the direction of the clinic. Tanner glared at the gunslinger, now openly smirking.

"You’d best watch your back, cowboy. I ain’t ever gonna forgive you," he muttered.

"You just worry about your own back, and make sure you’re back by Thursday," Chris reminded sternly, not in the least bit concerned about Vin’s threats.

Vin followed Nathan down the boarded sidewalk toward the clinic, objecting all the while. It was close to 45 minutes later that he finally emerged, weighed down with more advice and admonishments than anyone should have to bear. Nathan followed him back down the stairs, still grumbling about the foolishness of Vin’s trip, and muttering dire predictions about the certainty of the tracker returning in even worse shape than when he left.

Vin sighed in relief when he saw Buck heading their way. The big ladies man would surely be full of stories about his latest conquests, which might be enough to distract Nathan. They met up just a few yards down the boardwalk.

"Hey, Bucklin! Where ya been hidin’ yourself?" Vin greeted enthusiastically, causing the larger man’s eyebrow to raise. Vin just didn’t do ‘enthusiastic’.

"Uh, here and there, Vin," Buck replied, casting a puzzled eye between Vin’s hearty cheeriness and Nathan’s dour expression. "Side still botherin’ ya some?" he asked, thinking that might explain Nathan’s mood, though not Vin’s.

"No, it ain’t!" Vin replied with more fire than he really intended.

"Sorry, didn’t mean to pry," Buck said, holding his hands up and stepping back in the face of Vin’s annoyance.

Vin immediately regretted snapping at him. "Nah, I’m the one that ought be sorry. Guess I’m jist a little tired of bein’ fussed over," he muttered with a dark look at Nathan.

Buck grinned in sympathy. He’d been on the receiving end of Nathan’s care more than a few times, and he knew how seriously the man took his work.

"Don’t you be smirking with him, Buck," Nathan scolded, seeing the looks exchanged. "This idiot is set to ride out, and I cain’t seem to convince him that it’s just pure foolishness."

"Ride out? Does Chris know about this?" Buck asked, his eyebrows raising again.

"Yes, Chris knows about this!" Vin snarled. "I’m just gonna do some fishin’ and huntin’ and I don’t need his damn permission anyway!"

Buck just shook his head at the younger man’s stubbornness. "Well, tell you what. It’s gonna be a might cold out there on the trail, and since I’ve seen that threadbare thing you call a bedroll, how’s about you stop by my room and borrow a blanket or two? I won’t be needin’ ‘em, since I got all the warmin’ I need in my bed already!" he grinned.

Vin was about to refuse, insulted by the cutting remarks made about his own things, but before he could, Nathan jumped in to the conversation.

"That’s a good idea, Buck. It ain’t good for a healin’ body to catch a chill, so Vin you go along with Buck and take all the blankets he can spare, ya hear?"

Vin growled something that passed for agreement and followed Buck; more to escape the healer’s wrath rather than because he felt any real need for the bedding offered. Once in Buck’s room, the older man opened a chest and pulled out several thick blankets, piling them in Vin’s arms ‘til his face was hidden.

"Buck! Enough! I’m only gonna be out on the trail for a coupla’ days. I ain’t plannin’ on hibernatin’ out there for the winter!"

Buck grinned when he saw only the top of the tracker’s hat over the blankets. "Well, you heard Nathan. Just wanna make sure you stay warm. Though ya know, pard, you could take one a them pretty little fillies from the saloon along to share your bedroll, and then you wouldn’t be needin’ any a them blankets," he said, waggling his dark eyebrows.

Vin blushed as he always did when Buck started in with his bawdy talk, and then cursed his own traitorous face, knowing it would only lead to more teasing.

"Shut up, Buck," he said, dumping most of the blankets back into the open chest. He grudgingly kept one, realizing that his own things really wouldn’t keep him warm in the night air. "Thanks for the blanket. I’ll bring it back Thursday."

"Hell, you can keep it, Vin. I told ya, I don’t need blankets to stay warm."

Vin tucked the blanket under his arm and left Buck’s, dropping it at his wagon before heading for Mrs. Potter’s store. He needed to replenish his saddlebags for his trip.

Mrs. Potter smiled warmly at him when the bell over the door signaled his arrival. She wiped her hands on her apron and came around the counter, taking both of her hands in his.

"Oh, Vin, I’m so happy to see you up and around. We were all quite concerned when those dreadful men injured you. I’m so glad you’re feeling better." Then her gaze became sterner and more appraising. "You still look a bit tired, though. And you could use a little fattening up, too," she said firmly.

"I’m fine, ma’am, thank you," Vin murmured softly, uncomfortable as always with such close scrutiny.

Understanding his shyness, she quickly released his hands. "Well, what can I do for you, Vin? I’ve got a few new bandannas in—would you like to take a look at them?" she asked briskly, turning back to the counter.

"Uh, not this time, thanks, Miz Potter. What I really need are some supplies. I’ll be needin’ some jerky, a bunch o’ them beaten biscuits, a box o’ matches, and maybe a can or two of peaches." Vin knew they’d be heavy to carry in his bags, but he loved their sweetness. That thought reminded him of another item. "Reckon I could use a little bag o’ them lemon drops too, with maybe a few of them molasses ones thrown in."

Gloria smiled at him, knowing his fondness for sweets. "Goodness, Vin, what’s all this for?" she asked as she set to filling his order.

"I’m gonna head out for a few days and do a little fishin’ and huntin’. I’ll try to bring ya back some fresh game, if ya’ like. Woods should be full a stuff this time of year."

The storekeeper turned to him with a frown, and for a moment, Vin was afraid he had somehow offended her.

"Hunting and fishing! Land sakes, child, you haven’t even been out of your sick bed a week! You’ve got no call to be traipsing around the countryside."

Vin sighed. "I’m feeling fine, Miz Potter," he said. "Really," he added when he saw her doubtful look. "Nathan jist gave me the go ahead to set out a few minutes ago." He felt a little guilty about the slight stretching of the truth, but he didn’t see any point in worrying the older lady.

Mrs. Potter made a rather indelicate noise, indicating her opinion of Nathan’s decision. "Nathan Jackson might be a fine healer, but he’s not a mother and he doesn’t have a mother’s instincts," she said primly. "I have a good mind to tell him so, too, the next time I see him."

Vin cringed a little at that threat, knowing that Nathan would not appreciate being part of Vin’s little deception and would set the shopkeeper straight very quickly. "That ain’t necessary ma’am," he said hastily. "We wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings."

"Does Mr. Larabee know about this little trip of yours?" the older woman demanded sharply and Vin had to bite back the first remark that sprung to his lips, knowing Mrs. Potter had as little tolerance for profanity as Miss Nettie.

//Did everyone in this damn town think Chris was his keeper?//

"Yes, he knows," Vin muttered through gritted teeth. "Now, Miz Potter, I hate to rush you, but I’m really lookin’ to get on the trail today." He gazed at her pleadingly, and she finally relented, though he heard her mumbled comments as she gathered the things he had ordered. Within a few minutes, she had everything he needed packed in a box.

"Thanks, ma’am. And I promise I’ll try and bring you back some meat," he said as he took the box from her.

"You just make sure to bring yourself back," she said, fixing him with a very Larabee-like glare.

Vin tipped his hat at her and made his escape, more desperate than ever to get out of town. He left the store so quickly he almost mowed Mary Travis down in his haste. She stepped back off the boardwalk to avoid a collision.

"Oh, Mary! I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t see you there," Vin apologized, his face flushing.

"No harm done, Vin. You seem to be in an awful hurry, though. Did someone rob the bank?" she teased, a reporter’s gleam in her eye.

"Uh, no ma’am, I’ve just got some things to do. ’Scuse me, " Vin turned to go and then suddenly realized that he hadn’t told Mary of his plans to leave. She’d be expecting him for their daily reading lesson. He turned back to her. "Oh, Mary, I won’t be able to come by for the next coupla’ days. I’m headin’ out of town for a little trip, but I sure would appreciate it if we could pick up m’ lessons again when I get back."

"Well certainly, Vin, but I hadn’t heard you men were leaving. Is there any trouble outside of town?" She was always a bit uneasy when the peacekeepers found it necessary to leave Four Corners.

"Oh, no ma’am, no trouble. And we’re not all goin’, just me. I’m gonna take a little huntin’ trip."

"By yourself?" the newswoman asked. "I’m surprised Mr. Larabee would agree to that," she mused.

Out of respect for Mary’s sensibilities, Vin resisted the urge to bang his head against the nearest wall.

Mary didn’t seem to notice the frustration her words caused, her mind already on other things. "Well, Vin, we’re almost finished that book by Mr. Dickens you've been enjoying so much, and I hate to lose the momentum. Suppose you take it with you and try and finish it by yourself. I’ll give you a pencil and you can just underline any word that gives you trouble and we can go over them when you get back."

Vin hid his dismay at her suggestion. While it was true he enjoyed his lessons with Mary, and had progressed more quickly than either one of them could have hoped, taking a book along on a hunting trip sounded too much like that ‘homework’ that Billy was always complaining about.

"Well, Mary, I’m not sure I’ll have time to read much, and I wouldn’t want the book to get spoiled," he hedged.

"Nonsense, Vin, you can’t hunt every minute. I’m sure Nathan has told you to make sure you rest up some, too, and I think relaxing with a book would be just the thing. And it will be perfectly safe wrapped in your saddlebags. Now, come on over to the house, and I’ll get the book and a pencil for you."

Mary gazed at him expectantly, and Vin didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so he gave in with no further argument. He cast a disheartened eye at the rapidly fading afternoon, but dutifully shifted the box to his uninjured hip and followed Mary toward her home.

Twenty minutes later he was finally on his way again, after refusing the offer of both coffee and cake, and receiving the book, pencil and a few last minute reading instructions. Most of the afternoon was now gone, but if he could get his bags packed and Peso geared up quickly, he could still make Eagles’ Peak before full dark.

He was standing by his wagon, loading the supplies from Mrs. Potter’s store into his bags when he heard JD calling him. He shut his eyes in dismay, knowing the young sheriff could talk a blue streak when he felt like it.

//Maybe I’ll get lucky and the kid will have a sore throat. //

He immediately felt guilty about the unkind thought, and steeled himself to be nice.

"Hey, JD," he said with a nod, keeping his hands busy with his tasks. He hoped JD would take the hint and not keep him long.

"Hey, Vin. Buck just told me you’re going hunting. How’d you get Chris to let you go?" the younger man asked, genuinely interested. He knew their leader wasn’t happy about Vin’s proposed trip, and he couldn’t help wishing he had the courage to stand up to the older man the way Vin did.

Unfortunately for JD, it was exactly the wrong question to ask.

"GOD DAMN IT!!!" Vin roared; throwing his hat down on the street, ignoring the flare of pain it caused. "Does everyone in this stupid town think that Chris Larabee is my pa?" he demanded.

JD just shrugged, un-perturbed by Vin’s outburst. "Heck no, Vin, but you gotta admit, he and Buck do keep a pretty close eye on both of us. I just figure it’s the price we pay for being the youngest."

JD’s easy acceptance of the situation surprised Vin. "It don’t bother ya none?" he asked.

Again JD shrugged. "Not really. My ma was always fussin’ over me and then after she died, the cook and maids used to fret, too. Reckon I got used to it, so when Buck and the others do it, I hardly even notice. Guess it’s kind a’ new for you though, huh?" the young man said with surprising insight.

Vin gingerly leaned over to pick up his hat, giving himself a moment to gather his thoughts. "Yeah, reckon it is," he said finally. "Ain’t had nobody fussin’ over me since I was jist a little kid. And I got along jist fine ‘fore I had five older brothers getting’ into ma business", he added with a growl.

"Well, you might as well get used to it, cause I don’t see them stoppin’ any time soon," the younger man said candidly. "And besides, it could be worse."

"Worse? How?" the tracker asked skeptically.

"Well, you could have six older brothers, like me," JD grinned, and after a moment, Vin smiled back and swatted the younger man with his hat.

"Guess you’re right, JD," Vin reluctantly admitted, reminding himself how lucky he really was to have those ‘brothers’.

JD watched him pack for a minute, and then he asked hesitantly:

"Say, Vin, do you suppose I could come on your hunting trip with you?"

At first Vin frowned, thinking that maybe Chris or Buck had suggested that the kid tag along with him, but all he saw on JD’s open face was honest interest. The two of them often went off together to escape both the rigors of their job and the sometimes overbearing attention of the older peacekeepers.

Vin sighed. He hated to disappoint his friend, but he really needed some time to himself. "Not this time, okay, JD?" he said gently, hoping the kid would understand.

JD accepted the refusal with good grace, knowing Vin needed solitude from time to time. "Sure, Vin, but don’t forget to watch out for those Ramirez brothers. Chris sure wouldn’t be happy with you if you ran into them by yourself."

"I’ll watch out for ‘em," Vin promised. "Now, I better finish getting’ my gear together, or I’m never gonna make it outta this town."

"How about I go get some of your stuff loaded and saddle Peso for you?" JD offered, sensing that Vin was impatient to leave, and knowing that he was the only other of the seven that Peso allowed near him.

"Thanks, JD," he said gratefully, handing the younger man his scabbard and bedroll, keeping his trusted mare’s leg with him. "Go ahead and get these things secured and I’ll meet you at the livery in ten minutes, okay?" He watched JD leave, and then returned to his packing. Within minutes, he had everything stowed, including Mary’s book and pencil. He carried the bags out of the alley, tossing them over his shoulder as he headed for the livery. He winced as they brushed his still healing side and slowed to adjust them.

"Here, Brother Vin, let me help you with those," came a deep voice from behind him, and Vin jumped, startled. He found the tall preacher standing right beside him.

"Oh, hey, Josiah, I didn’t hear you come up," Vin admitted sheepishly.

"Seems like your mind is on other matters. Good way to get yourself into trouble," the older man admonished gently, and Vin felt a flash of annoyance that he’d been caught unawares. Josiah lifted the heavy bags off Vin’s shoulder before he could protest and settled them on his own.

"So, I hear you’re heading out of town for a bit," Josiah said as they started again toward the livery.

Vin gave him a wary glance, afraid he might be in for yet another lecture or more well meaning advice, but Josiah didn’t say anything further.

"Yeah, just gonna do a little huntin’ and fishin’ up near Eagle’s Peak," he finally answered.

"Should be beautiful this time of year," the preacher commented amiably, and Vin relaxed a bit. They continued their walk toward the livery stable, content in their silence and then Josiah spoke again.

"So, is Brother Chris at peace with you going?"

A lesser man might have cried, but Vin was feeling a little better after his talk with JD.

"Well, I ‘spect he don’t like the idea much, but he’ll be all right. Give him and Nathan somethin’ to fret over ‘til I get back, " he replied with an impish grin.

By this time, they had neared the livery. Josiah suddenly stiffened and put a restraining hand on Vin’s arm.

"Looks like now might not be the right time for you to head out, Vin," he said softly.

Annoyance flared through Vin, making him oblivious to anything else. He shot the man a look of betrayal.

"Damn, Josiah, I thought at least you were gonna let me go without any hassle. Like I’ve been tellin’ everyone, I’m fine. Chris Larabee don’t give me permission to do anything. I’m a grown man, and I’ll come and go when I please!"

So intent was Vin on his tirade, he didn’t realize that the tall preacher had maneuvered them back behind the wall of the stables. The older man tightened his grip on Vin’s arm and pulled the lean tracker close.

"If I’m not mistaken, the young man that just rode in is none other than Luis Ramirez, which means the rest of his brothers are no doubt close behind. So unless you’re still intending to ride out now, and leave your fellow regulators and this town without the benefit of your skill with a rifle, I’d suggest you close your mouth and open your eyes," the preacher hissed in his ear.

Vin’s eyes widened in shock as he grasped Josiah’s words. His earlier anger forgotten, he quickly assessed the situation. "I’ll have to get my rifle from Peso. I can go in the back door to the livery, and then climb up to the hayloft. That should give me a good view of the bank and the street. You go warn the others—I’ll let JD know what’s going on," he said softly.

Josiah nodded, knowing that Vin’s attention was now fully focused on the job at hand. He gave the younger man a quick squeeze on the shoulder and slipped down the alley, more stealthily than his size would seem to indicate.

Vin entered the back of the livery quietly, relieved to see that JD was standing in the shadows of the doorway, tensely watching the street. Vin slipped beside him.

"Hey, Vin," JD muttered. "Looks like those warnings were right. Glad I looked through those wanted posters so I could recognize him. So, what do you want to do?"

Though JD was technically the sheriff, he still tended to bow to the experience of his older and more experienced colleagues.

"Josiah went to warn the others, though I ‘spect Chris already knows. Not much happens in this town that doesn’t go through him first. I’m goin’ up top and watch from there. You stay here and keep your eye on the back road—it may be the rest of the gang will head in that way while we’re focused on ole’ Looie."

"Sure, Vin," JD said, checking his twin Colts as he watched Ramirez dismount from his horse and fuss with his bags. Vin gave him a nod and then moved back toward Peso. Deciding on accuracy over firepower, Vin traded his mare’s leg for his rifle, easing it from its place on his saddle. He spared a moment to soothe the fractious horse, and then climbed the ladder to the hayloft.

Once he was in position, he quickly scanned the streets for the others. Within moments, he had spotted almost all of the seven, and he had no doubt that the ones he couldn’t immediately see were also in place, but out of sight. To the untrained eye, none of the lawmen looked very threatening. Chris was whittling against a post outside the saloon, Buck seemed to be dozing outside the telegraph office and Nathan was on the small balcony of his clinic, hanging bandages out to dry. Only Vin could sense the tense state of readiness in all of them. Vin watched the bank just down the block; glad his perch gave him a clear view of the front.

All was quiet for so long that Vin began to wonder if maybe they were mistaken and that the man they’d seen come into town was really not one of the Ramirez brothers. The man had tied his horse to a hitching rail and disappeared down an alley, but Vin was sure Chris had someone tailing him, most likely Ezra.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the far end of town. Vin heard shouts and saw a plume of smoke rise. Immediately, people began running toward the source, fully aware that in a town of wooden buildings, any fire, even a small one, could quickly turn deadly. Only the seven peacekeepers showed little reaction, suspecting that the disturbance was merely a distraction. Within moments, their assumption proved correct as three horsemen burst out of the alley near the bank. They paused in front of it and let out a whistle, alerting their missing brother to their presence. Within seconds, he appeared in the doorway, with Ezra’s gun pressed firmly behind his ear.

"So sorry, gentlemen, but this financial establishment is closed to any unauthorized withdrawals today," the Southerner said smoothly.

The tallest of the riders spoke in a low but lethal voice. "Amigo, you have ten seconds to let my brother go. There are three guns trained on you, and I promise, we will not regret shooting you to get what we want."

At this point, Chris announced his presence from across the street. "What you got there, Ezra?" he asked casually, immediately attracting the attention of the two remaining brothers.

"I’m afraid this miscreant attempted to extract money from the vault without filling out the proper forms, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled back, noticing the immediate tension the name ‘Larabee’ inspired.

The tall man spoke again, splitting his gaze between Ezra and Chris. "We will not be riding out of here without my brother," he declared again, but this time, his voice seemed a bit more hesitant.

"You got that right, pard," came another voice, and Vin looked over to see Buck’s gun also trained on the would-be bank robbers. "In fact, I ’spect y’all won’t be ridin’ outta here at all."

The younger members of the gang glanced wildly around, slowly coming to the realization that they were surrounded. Vin kept his gun trained on the leader, knowing that he would be the least likely to panic and was therefore the most dangerous.

"You boys best drop your guns," Chris said in that same laconic voice, hoping to avoid any bloodshed.

The eldest Ramirez brother kept his gun trained on Ezra. After several long moments, he finally spoke. "We wish only to leave. Release my brother, and we shall ride out of here without any trouble."

Buck shook his head regretfully. "Well, that sounds like a plan, but unfortunately, we got word that you and your boys are wanted for a whole bunch a them ‘unauthorized withdrawals’ as ole’ Ez calls ‘em. Since we’re the law around these parts, I reckon we’re just gonna havta’ keep you here."

The leader of the gang stiffened, realizing that any hope they had of making a clean escape was swiftly diminishing. He refused to lower his gun, and following their elder’s lead, the others also kept their guns at the ready.

The showdown might have continued through the early evening hours if Mary Travis had not come running out of the newspaper office, alerted by the now-ringing fire bell. As she sped past, she noticed right away that the seven were not part of the fire-fighting brigade, and quickly realized that the bigger news story of the day was most likely happening right in front of her. Her curiosity aroused, she headed straight for the small knot of men, sensing the tension, but unable to see the guns in the late afternoon light.

Chris called a warning to her, but it was lost in the noise of the crowd. The leader of the Ramirez brothers, seeing a possible hostage, kneed his horse over to her and grabbed her before any of the seven could react. He twined one hand in her hair, holding her tightly. Mary fought momentarily, then stilled, not wanting to further anger the man.

The tall man pushed her over to one of his younger accomplices, keeping his gun on her. He urged him to hoist her onto his horse. Even from across the street, Vin could see Chris tense as Mary was roughly lifted in front of the now-grinning gunman. He drew the barrel of his gun down her cheek, laughing as she shuddered.

The leader turned back to Chris. "Now, maybe my plan is not so foolish, eh?’ This one, she means something to you perhaps?"

Chris didn’t answer, not wanting to do anything that might endanger Mary further.

"Now, I think this is what we will do," the man continued. "We will ride—with the lady—to the edge of town, away from all these guns. Then you will release my brother. When he is free, and safely with us, we shall return your lady to you."

Chris’ jaw tightened so much that Nathan feared for his teeth. The black clad gunslinger sought out and caught Vin’s eye, hoping the marksman might be able to find an angle for a good shot, but Vin gave a negative shake to his head. With Mary held so tightly to her captor, there was no way he could risk the attempt.

Ramirez gave Chris a sarcastic tip of his hat. "I hope we have a deal, amigo. We would like my brother returned immediately, so as I said, we will wait for him at the edge of town. I suggest you do not make us wait too long," he said, and the brother holding Mary laughed and gave her a lewd squeeze.

With that, the men turned their horses around, sanguine in the assurance that the peacekeepers would never try anything while they had a hostage. Even the man Ezra still maintained a grip on gave a chuckle, relieved now that freedom seemed so close at hand.

Vin felt himself grow cold with anger. He couldn’t stand the idea of simply letting the men escape, and he was uneasy with their promise to release Mary. As the group rode closer, he tried once more to get a clear sight with his rifle, but with Mary so close, the shot was just too risky. He knew JD, still hidden right below him, was at an even poorer angle for attempting a rescue. He glanced around desperately; hoping an idea would strike him. Soon the men would pass right by him, and any chance he had would be lost.

Finally, in desperation, he threw down his rifle and grabbed the rope and hook used to raise the heavy bales of hay to the loft. With a quick jerk of his head to Chris to let him know to be on alert, he tightened his hold and, hoping his timing was on target, swung down from the loft and into the man holding Mary. The force of the impact sent the man flying off his horse, and knocked Mary to the ground also.

In the confusion that followed, the remaining seven quickly reacted. Within seconds, the bank robbers were surrounded. Mary’s captor found himself lying on his back, staring straight up the barrel of Chris’ gun as the black-clad man used his free hand to help Mary to her feet.

"Vin, y’all right?" he called to tracker, still in the dirt where he’d landed. When no answer was immediately forthcoming, he yelled for Nathan.

"Dang fool probably tore that side a’ his open again," the healer said worriedly as he rushed to Vin’s side, leaving Ezra, Buck, JD and Josiah to cover the remaining men.

Vin finally rolled over with a groan just as Nathan reached him. He spit dust from his mouth.

"Easy there, Vin. That was quite a leap ya’ took," Nathan said, running his hands carefully over Vin, looking for possible broken bones.

"Mary okay?" Vin asked weakly.

"She’s fine, now lie still," Nathan said firmly, continuing his examination.

"Nathan!" Vin said indignantly as he became more fully aware of what was taking place. "We’re in the middle of the street here. Get your darn hands off’a me. We ain’t at the clinic."

Nathan smiled to hear such feisty complaining. "I think he’s fine, Chris," he reported to the worried gunslinger.

"Course I’m fine. Now, how about helpin’ me up instead of pokin’ me half to death," Vin groused, holding his hand out for a lift.

Nathan pulled him gently to his feet, noticing the sharp hiss of pain as Vin regained his balance. His eyes narrowed.

"You pulled them stitches in your side again, didn’t you?" he demanded.

"Shit," Vin muttered softly, but with feeling, not bothering to deny it. He could feel a thin trickle of blood oozing its way down his side.

"Well, ain’t that jist dandy! You jist come along with me, Vin Tanner, so I can patch your sorry hide up AGAIN!" the healer said with more vehemence than Vin thought was entirely fair. He looked mournfully over at Chris, who was shaking his head in resigned frustration.

Before Vin could utter a word in his own defense, Mary rushed to his side.

"Oh, Vin, I don’t know how to thank you. I’m so sorry you’ve injured yourself again."

"It weren’t nothin’, Mary," Vin blushed, ignoring Nathan’s disgusted snort.

"It wasn’t ‘nothing’, Vin," she said, and her voice trembled a little. "It was an incredibly brave thing—you could have seriously hurt yourself."

"Speakin’ a hurt, you okay Miz Travis? This one here took you down pretty good."

Mary turned to the healer. "I’m fine really, Nathan, but please make sure you take good care of Vin."

Vin gave her a look of such outraged annoyance that Chris laughed out loud.

"Don’t you worry, Mary, Nathan will make sure he’s all fixed up." Chris turned to the rest of the seven, satisfied that they had everything under control as they led the gang members off to the jail. "Can I escort you back to your office?" he asked, extending an arm to the blond woman in a very Ezra-like fashion. He felt almost giddy with relief now that Mary was safe, Vin seemed fine and the criminals had been apprehended.

"Thank you, Chris," Mary said, and then she turned and patted Vin’s arm solicitously. "I’ll check on you later, Vin."

"Ain’t no need, ma’am," Vin began, but Nathan firmly took his reluctant patient by the arm and once more urged him in the direction of the clinic.

When they arrived, Vin was again subjected to Nathan’s grumbling ministrations. He hissed as the healer re-stitched the wound, batting ineffectually at Nathan’s hands as the needle poked painfully into his skin.

At last, the older man finished, wiping his hands on a piece of clean linen and placing his needle and boiled thread aside.

As soon as he was free, Vin immediately buttoned his shirt, though he refrained from tucking it into his pants. He started to rise, but was stopped by Nathan’s hand.

"What is it now, Nathan? I wanna go fishin’, and I gotta leave now, or it’s gonna be too dark to make camp," Vin growled, his eyes flashing with irritation.

Nathan glared back just as fiercely. "That’s enough of that nonsense. I have just about had it with you today!" the healer said with real heat in his voice. "I want you to stay here and rest a bit, and then maybe if you’re feelin’ up to it, you can come on over to the saloon for some supper. And I don’t want to hear any more talk about headin’ out tonight, ya hear?"

"Awww, Nathan, I’ve already lost a day to everyone’s fussin’," Vin said, his voice losing its anger and becoming petulant.

"Well, a few more hours ain’t gonna matter much then, are they?" Nathan said, his tone more gentle as he realized that Vin was now coming down off his adrenaline high and was going to crash fast. "You just lay yourself down and get some rest."

Vin sank back on the small cot wearily, his energy and willingness to argue draining as quickly as the day’s light.

"Just ‘til tomorrow, Nate. Come mornin’ and I’m outta here first thing," he declared with as much firmness as he could muster; though sleepiness was already clouding his voice.

Nathan pulled Vin’s boots off. "I hear ya’ Vin," he said, as he tucked the covers over the exhausted tracker. "But maybe we best just wait and see what Chris has to say about that."

With an anguished moan, Vin buried his head under the pillow.


Comments to: