+ + + + + + +
JD rode into Four Corners and made straight for
the saloon. He saw Chris at his usual table and hesitated, shifting from
foot to foot uncertainly before he sat down next to him.
The gunfighter looked up and studied the boy before asking, "What's up kid?"
"I met Vin and Ezra as arranged in Bitter Creek. You're not gonna like what they've got mixed up in." JD stopped, not really wanting to tell Chris about the robbery.
"Well, what is it?" Chris said impatiently, narrowing his eyes as he noticed the boy's unease. What has that pair got up to now? They're worse than a couple of kids he said to himself.
"They're gonna rob a train."
"What? Run that by me again, will ya?"
"Well, they were apparently talking in the saloon about trains and money and a man asked them to join his gang. They're gonna rob it near here on Wednesday. Ezra thought it was better that they got involved rather than two real robbers." JD watched Chris's face as he spoke, to try and gauge his reaction to the news and he didn't like what he saw.
Chris sat clenching his jaw angrily and the vein in his forehead throbbed as he thought over what he'd been told. "Did he give you details?" he asked brusquely.
"Okay. Let's find the others and get a plan of our own." Chris rose swiftly and JD strolled out in his wake onto the boardwalk. JD went to the jail and chapel while Chris went to the clinic and hotel. All the men met up at the saloon and JD related what he'd been told with the help of some maps borrowed from Mary.
"Ideas anyone? How are we gonna get our two bird-brained robbers out of the hole they've dug 'emselves into, without getting them killed? I wanna save that pleasure for myself," Chris said quietly.
"I s'pose the best place to catch them is where the horses are being hidden. We don't wanna get innocent civilians caught up in a gunfight," Buck suggested.
"I agree, but we might not be able to avoid it." Chris nodded. "We've only got a couple of days to finalize things. Do you know how many are in the gang, JD?"
"No. Vin didn't know. They were gonna meet the rest of the gang today."
"Great," Chris moaned. "There could be twenty for all we know." He rubbed his chin and leaned back in his chair as he considered what his two fellow peacekeepers had got involved in. He wasn't especially angry now he'd had time to think about it. For once he agreed with Ezra's actions. Agreeing with Ezra? Good God, I'll be going round grinning insanely and being pleasant to murderers next. I never agree with Ezra. What's the matter with me? Chris asked himself wryly.
"Chris?" Buck interrupted. "Are you listening, pard?"
"What?" Chris jumped. He hadn't realized the rest of the men had still been talking. "Sorry, what were you saying?"
"What are we gonna do if there are too many for us to handle?" the ladies' man repeated.
"I can't think they're gonna have too many men in the gang." Chris started counting on his fingers as he talked. "There were two on the train, Ezra and Vin, the powder man and possibly a couple more. They're not gonna want to spread the wealth too thin. The more men there are, the less money for them all," Chris reasoned.
"I hope you're right, for Ezra and Vin's sake. We'd never get them loose from a group that big," Buck said worriedly.
"Okay. We'll talk nearer the time after we've gone to have a look at the robbery site. I'll send a telegram to Travis to tell him what's happening. I'd better inform the Central Pacific railroad too, so they know what to expect."
The men split up and went back to their duties. Buck wandered along to the jail with JD, deep in thought.
"What did you say the gang leader's name was, JD?" Buck asked as he picked up the wanted posters from the desk.
"Otis Strange. Vin wasn't sure if that was his real name though."
Buck rifled through the pile of posters twice and eventually found the one he wanted. "There you are. I thought I'd heard the name before. He's got several monickers by the look of it but no one knows what his real name is. He's done a lot of robbing according to this. I'd better show it to Chris."
The ladies' man walked briskly back to the saloon and found Chris still there drinking beer. He sat down and put the poster silently in front of his friend. Chris picked it up and studied it. He nodded slowly when he recognized the man.
"Yeah, I've heard tell of him before. Least we know who we're up against," Chris said as he ran his fingers through his hair before continuing, "My only real concern with all this is that I hope none of the gang recognizes Vin and wants to get the reward."
"That's what was worrying me," Buck admitted.
"Vin and Ezra'll get out if they become suspicious. No point worrying. We can't help them 'cause we don't know where they'll be until Wednesday."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and Vin rode with their companion back toward
Four Corners. Vin was being especially vigilant keeping track of where they
were going. He knew the area well and hoped he could get an escape route
planned if needed, when they eventually reached their final destination.
Otis veered off to the left suddenly and crossed the creek. An old line cabin
was hidden there in the trees and several horses were tied to the hitching
rail outside. Vin knew they were on the old Johnson ranch that was currently
unoccupied so the robbers could be sure they would not be disturbed.
"Here we are gents," Otis said as he dismounted and took off his hat. He slapped it against his thigh to get rid of the dust and then jammed it back on his head.
Ezra and Vin dismounted after studying the surrounding area and counting the number of horses already there. Five in total and all standing hipshot with tails swishing at the multitude of flies that were annoying them. Vin hoped that there were only eight of them in total in the gang, including Ezra and himself.
The cabin door opened and a large man ambled out. He was bigger than Josiah in every way. Ezra studied the horses and couldn't decide which poor creature had to take the man's weight.
"I don't see an elephant tied up, do you Vin? I pity the animal assigned to carry him," Ezra whispered quietly. Vin couldn't help snorting with laughter and the big man looked his way angrily. It wasn't that the man was fat. He was just tall, square and packed with muscle and didn't look too intelligent.
"Don't upset him, Vin. It'd take a whole cavalry unit to tackle him," Ezra cautioned.
"You started it. If he attacks, I'll let you handle him. Hit him with yer deck of cards. That should do the trick," Vin said quietly, while keeping an eye on the man they were discussing.
"Deck him? Oh very good, Mr. Tanner, very witty."
Otis approached them with the giant following along behind. "This is Slim," he said, indicating his companion.
Ezra literally bit his tongue and poked Vin in the ribs to keep the tracker quiet as well. He's not slim, whichever angle you observe him from Ezra said to himself. The two men managed to keep their composure and politely greeted the man.
"Slim's my second in command," Otis informed them.
"Nice to see the caliber of man you employ," Ezra said with a straight face. If this was the quality of the gang, he didn't think they had much to worry about.
"Come and meet the others," Otis said as he led the way to the cabin.
It was dark inside and it took a few minutes until Ezra and Vin could see the men inside clearly. They were all more competent looking than Slim anyway and Ezra realized his earlier hopes had been dashed. One or two of the individuals looked positively evil. He looked at Vin and saw he was also studying the men intently. Otis introduced each man and told Ezra and Vin what job they would be doing. The two men Ezra had marked out as the most dangerous were the ones who'd been assigned to him to help with the loading of the money onto the horses. Just my luck he thought sourly. He also noticed the ugly man from town was there. He must have left town early to get there before them.
"We stay here until Wednesday do we? Where do we all sleep?" Ezra asked, knowing that he wouldn't like the answer.
"Yeah. This is our base. You'll have to sleep outside with Slim," Otis said.
"Oh how lovely," Ezra said as he craned his neck to look up at the giant man. He certainly was too big to fit inside the cabin comfortably. He was almost bent double as he stood in the doorway watching. The gambler hoped that he didn't snore. He could imagine that the ground would vibrate if he did.
"Is all the equipment here for the job as well?" Vin asked as he looked around the cabin.
"Yeah. Tyrie's in charge of looking after it. We'll move some of it nearer the railroad tomorrow. Let's get some rest. It's gonna be a busy couple of days."
Ezra and Vin went outside and Vin made a fire and then both men laid out their bedrolls near it. Ezra pulled out his cards and started playing solitaire and after a while Slim walked over. Ezra watched the man came toward him and noted that he walked as if on air. Quite balletic really. Ezra had found before that larger people tended to walk with a certain sort of grace, seeming to glide over the ground and not lumber along as you would expect.
"Can you move over a bit, Slim? You're blocking out the sun, my friend," Ezra said, as the man sat down beside him. Slim shifted over amiably. "Do you play poker perchance?" Ezra inquired, as he looked at the giant whilst shielding his eyes against the setting sun.
Slim nodded and Ezra dealt him a hand and looked over at Vin to see if he wanted to play. He received a nod and he dealt the tracker a hand as well. It turned out that Slim was more intelligent than he looked and he won the hand. The gambler looked up at the man in astonishment and received a gap-toothed grin in response. Ezra reassessed his opinion of the man and raised his game. He realized he'd been too complacent in thinking that Slim was a dimwit. He won the majority of the rest of the hands but not as much as he had hoped. He had read the big man incorrectly and that didn't often happen. He could usually tell a good player a mile off. He sighed and put his winnings away and rolled up in his blanket to get some sleep. As he'd suspected Slim snored throughout the night and the gambler was kept awake, much to his annoyance. He looked over at Vin and saw the tracker was fast asleep. How can he sleep with this racket going on? Ezra wondered angrily.
He rose in the morning feeling absolutely shattered and he glared at Vin when the man got up appearing as fresh as a daisy.
"What's the matter with you?" Vin asked.
"How could you sleep through that interminable noise last night?" Ezra snapped irritably.
"Slim snored loud enough to wake the dead. Didn't you hear him?"
"Na. I slept like a baby," the tracker smiled.
Ezra groaned and tried to wake himself up by going to the creek and washing in the cold water. He felt slightly more human afterwards but he decided he was going to murder Slim if he snored again the next night. Vin laughed at him as he returned from his ablutions.
"What's so funny?" Ezra complained.
"You look half dead. You need to get used to the outdoor life Ez."
"I'm used to it. I just like my beauty sleep that's all. It's not too much to ask, is it?" Ezra moaned.
"You need a lot of beauty sleep, that's for sure. You never get any more handsome even though you spend half yer life in bed," Vin laughed as Ezra hit him.
Ezra turned away from the tracker with a snort of disdain and wandered off to look around their camp. He wanted to get the lie of the land and see what else was on site. As he stepped behind the cabin, he came across the two men who would be working with him during the robbery. They both stood up when they saw him approaching.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said, putting a finger to his hat brim in greeting.
"Hey, Fancy Dan. How did you end up an outlaw? You sure dress too high falutin' for a bandit. What are you really? A lawman?" the smaller of the two men asked. Bill, Ezra seemed to think his name was.
"I'm the brains of my partnership with Mr. Tannery. He's the brawn. Where there are men like you and him about, it's good that there are people like me to make sure your talents are utilized properly."
"What do you mean men like us? We're just as good as you," Bill retorted angrily.
"Did I say otherwise? You misunderstood me," Ezra said placatingly. "It's all about mutual benefit. My skills are enhanced with Mr.Tanner's assistance and vice versa, that's all I was saying."
Bill looked at him suspiciously but seemed to accept what he said. The small man changed the subject and said, "I saw you playing poker last night. I ain't got any money at the moment, can you lend me some?"
"I make it a policy never to lend money to strangers," Ezra replied, as he kept a wary eye on the men.
"We ain't strangers. We're yer friends and I wasn't asking you to lend me some, I was telling you." Both men stepped forward and Bill got hold of Ezra's lapels and slammed him against the wall roughly as his accomplice checked the gambler's pockets. Ezra kneed Bill in his privates and got a fist in the face for his trouble from Bill's friend Sol. Ezra stayed still and Sol found his money and transferred it to his own pocket.
"Thanks," Bill said. He threw a parting punch, which knocked Ezra's head back to connect hard with the wall. He fell to the ground as the two men walked away laughing. The gambler didn't dare fight back as he didn't want to draw any unwanted attention to either him or Vin. They were the new faces in the gang as it was so he didn't want to mark them out for more scrutiny.
Vin had heard the commotion and sauntered toward the cabin, passing the two departing gang members en route.
"What did ya wanna hook up with him for?" Bill asked as he saw the tracker approaching.
Vin didn't reply but turned and watched the two men lave before going behind the cabin to see what had happened. He saw his friend sprawled in the dirt and went to see if he was alright.
"Ez, you okay?" he asked as he squatted down beside his companion.
"Do I look okay? Why didn't you talk me out of getting us involved in this? I hold you entirely responsible, Mr. Tanner. You know I get over excited at times and I expect you to be a restraining influence on my enthusiasm." The gambler rubbed the back of his head where it had hit the wall.
"Well, if I remember correctly, I did warn you, but as usual you rode roughshod over me," Vin drawled as he held out a hand and pulled the gambler to his feet.
"Well, be more forceful next time, will you? I give you permission to hit me if I should succumb to temptation again." Ezra searched his pockets and found a handkerchief with which he dabbed at the blood on his lip and nose.
"Really? Can I hit ya now in hindsight?" Vin asked eagerly, balling his fist in anticipation.
"No, you may not."
Vin unclenched his fist and transferred the hand to his friend's elbow instead. "What did they want with you anyway?" he asked as he helped the gambler back to where they were camped out.
"My money. They obviously haven't heard the saying 'honor among thieves.' They didn't get all of it but they got enough."
"Well, I don't s'pose it's any good saying anything to Otis and we don't wanna kick up a fuss and mark ourselves out for any worse treatment," Vin said.
"My feelings exactly. How did you know I needed emancipating from their clutches?" Ezra asked curiously.
"I'd heard them talking about you last night. I didn't think they'd do anything though but they seem to have got it in for you so watch yer back from now on."
Otis walked over to the two peacekeepers at that moment and said, "Bill and Sol are going into Bitter Creek to collect the pack horses. Do you two wanna help 'em?"
"Yes. I could certainly do with a trip into town. I feel the need of some cigars," Ezra said. It might also give me a chance to contact Chris as well he thought to himself. "What about you Michael?" Ezra asked as he turned to Vin.
"Yeah. I'll come."
"Be ready to leave in a half hour. What happened to yer face?" Otis asked Ezra.
"A misunderstanding with my horse."
Otis shrugged and looked mystified but he turned and walked away.
"This excursion may prove useful Vin. If my two antagonists are going into town with us, they may want to take things further with me there. You could then get another message to Chris while I keep them busy. They can't put me out of commission or do anything too dire to me," Ezra mused. "I'll write you the message to send, shall I?"
"Yeah alright, Ez but I don't like it. Just be careful."
"We'll see what happens. Come on, it's nearly time to depart," Ezra said as he walked toward his horse and started to saddle it.
The four men left the camp and made their way back to Bitter Creek. Once in town, Ezra headed off to the store to get his cigars. Vin watched him go and saw the two men follow him like a magnet. Hoping Ezra could take care of himself for a short while, Vin hurried to the Telegraph Office to send off the telegram to Chris with a description of the hideout and further details of the robbery. He looked out the window to make sure the others weren't in the street to see him exit the building before he walked back out onto the boardwalk. He wandered back along to the livery, keeping an eye out for Ezra as he walked. He heard voices from the alley next to the store and he looked in the opening and saw Ezra up against the wall with his two antagonists holding him tightly. Bill had hold of the gambler's lapels again and they seemed to be having another dispute.
"Hey. What's going on? Are you alright, Chaz?" Vin called as he walked toward the three men.
"Nothin' you need to worry about. We were just having a friendly chat, weren't we, Fancy Dan?" Bill said. He let go of Ezra's jacket and smoothed the material out and then patted Ezra's chest. "See ya back at the livery boys." The two men walked away quickly as Vin approached.
"Well timed, Vin. I hope that's the last opportunity for mischief making that they will have. Did you get the message out?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah. I'll stay with you as much as I can but yer gonna be with them when the robbery takes place."
"I know, but I can hit them back then and it will be a great pleasure, I can tell you. Why did you call me Chaz, by the way?" Ezra asked smiling.
"Well, I thought it sounded more like an outlaw than Charles. You shoulda let me choose the names. Yours were terrible."
"Well, I was thinking on my feet. I just said the first names that came into my head. Would you like a cigar in thanks for rescuing me again?"
"Yeah. Thanks Ez," Vin said as he took the offered smoke.
They made their way slowly back to the livery and met up with Bill and Sol again. They collected the packhorses and started back to their hideout.
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