Disclaimer: The Seven belong to others but the mule is mine! I sponsor him over here in the UK at his Sanctuary and his name is Muffin. He kindly agreed to act as a stunt double and enjoy his fifteen minutes of fame. He's now back in his field along with his best mate Keith chomping on his beloved carrots.
Vin slowly walked his lame horse into Eagle Bend. He'd led the horse for the last five miles after it had stumbled. It had become clear almost immediately that the horse could not be ridden any further. It had hobbled painfully with its head bobbing up and down with every stride so Vin had dismounted and felt the affected leg with a gentle hand. He then patted the horse's neck and gathered up the reins before walking slowly onwards.
Now he had reached civilization he headed straight for the livery. He tracked down the hostler and asked, "Can I board my horse here for a while? He's gone lame but I need to get to Four Corners as soon as possible. Have you got a horse I can hire?"
"'Fraid not. Hired the last one out an hour ago."
"Dammit. When's the Stage due in?"
"Not until next Wednesday."
"Jesus. What the hell am I gonna do? I've gotta get back home for tomorrow."
"Well, I've got an old mule. Is that any use? Yer welcome to him but he's a bit cantankerous and temperamental," the hostler offered.
"Show me a mule who ain't. I'm desperate and I'd ride yer dog if you offered him to me," Vin said.
"Come and look him over," the hostler said as he led Vin out the back of the barn.
The mule came into view and it looked a sorry creature. It was small and bony and Vin looked at it and sighed. He didn't have much choice but accept the mount.
"I won't charge you for him. He'll get you there in one piece, don't worry about that," the hostler assured the doubtful looking tracker.
Yeah, but when? Vin wondered. I need to get there tomorrow, not next year. He stood with his hands on his hips while he decided what to do. "Okay. I'll collect my horse next week when I return yer mule," Vin said eventually.
He led the animal from its stall and saddled it before transferring his belongings from his horse. The tracker tied them over the mule's back and then led the creature to the general store and left it outside while he bought some supplies. He came back out and added the stores to his saddlebags. When he mounted, he found his legs dangled near the ground on either side of the mule. Vin grinned at the sight he must project and kicked the animal out of town quickly before anyone noticed him. The animal was very reluctant to leave its home and it slowed its pace until it was just about crawling.
"Come on, you damn mule. Don't live down to my expectations," Vin moaned sourly. The mule's ears flicked back and forth at Vin's voice. "Yeah, I know yer listening and you'd better listen good. If you wanna get back to yer stall safely you'd better do as yer told. Yer owner may be right about you getting me there in one piece but I could walk faster with you on my back at the rate your goin' at the moment."
The mule brayed and nodded its head as if it understood every word Vin said. The animal picked up its pace a bit and Vin grinned. "That's it, mule. Glad we've come to an agreement."
It was a beautiful day and Vin admired the scenery as he rode along. He let his mind wander and it returned to the reason for his haste in wanting to get back to Four Corners. He had to be back in town to be a witness in a trial the next day. He was happy to do his duty but on a day such as this he'd much rather be out in the open air. The sun shone and the tracker looked up into the cloudless blue sky and sighed contentedly.
"It's a great day, mule. Makes ya glad to be alive. Shame we can't savor it but Chris'll have me tarred and feathered if I'm not back on time. That's the trouble with being a man of importance." He laughed and patted the mule's neck. "Ha! Listen to me. Getting delusions of grandeur as Ezra would say."
Vin rode on without mishap for a few miles and began to relax but as soon as he eased his concentration the mule decided it'd worked hard enough. It planted its hooves and refused to move even though Vin kicked and bullied it. The creature stood rock steady and would not budge.
"Cut it out, mule. Why did God create you critters? Idle, good fer nothin' beasts," Vin said disparagingly. The tracker decided to try a bit of bribery so he swung his leg over the front of the saddle and dismounted. He looked in his saddlebags and produced a carrot before walking up to the mule's head and offering the treat. The mule eyed it eagerly and tried to grab it but Vin pulled it out of reach and stared the animal in the eye.
"If I promise to give you this carrot, do you promise to walk properly? Jeez. What the hell am I doin'? Trying to bribe a mule and talking to the damn thing too. Good job Chris ain't here. He'd laugh me off this earth." Vin laughed and gave the carrot to the slobbering equine anyway. He remounted and the mule moved off amiably enough and Vin hoped he'd sorted the creature out. He'd deliberately purchased some carrots before leaving Eagle Bend as he knew they might be needed to cajole the mule at some point. They travelled on again companionably and reached the river that was near home. The mule put one hoof in and quickly backpedalled.
"Now what? Don't tell me yer scared of water? Or is it too cold for yer delicate feet? Well, I ain't carrying yer carcass across." Vin kicked it on but the mule sidestepped along the bank instead of going forwards.
"Dammit. Am I gonna have to shoot ya? I'm getting awful tempted, believe me. I've never come across such an ornery creature in all my life," Vin moaned in exasperation. The mule flicked its ears back at him and then lowered its head to the water.
"Are you thirsty? Is that it? You ain't done much to work up a thirst," Vin said disparagingly as he let the mule have its head. The mule drank noisily until Vin pulled on the reins again. "That's enough. I don't want water sloshing around in yer belly making you go even slower than you are already."
Vin flexed his legs when he realized they were aching from the constant kicking he was doing to keep the mule moving. Although he slapped the animal with the reins every so often it didn't seem to have much of an effect. He kicked the animal again and it eventually stepped into the river and crossed happily to the other side now it had slaked its thirst. They walked along the bank on other side until the mule pricked its long ears and brayed in fear. Vin heard dogs barking and he kicked the mule on again thinking they must be near a homestead. They'd gone a few paces further when a rifle shot sounded. The mule swerved sideways and reared before falling back onto the tracker and pinning him underneath. Vin wriggled and managed to get out from under the animal before it tried to regain its feet. He didn't want to get trodden on as his leg already hurt from the hard landing he'd had. He looked around to see who had shot at him and spotted a man on a large horse running toward him. Two dogs accompanied him and they ran after the mule before returning to their master when he called them.
"Put yer hands where I can see 'em," the man ordered as he produced a revolver. The dogs stood just in front of Vin and barked incessantly, showing sharp teeth.
"Look, I ain't doing no harm. There weren't no call to shoot at me," Vin said angrily as he watched the dogs warily.
"What ya got in yer saddlebags?" the man asked.
"Nothin' you'd want. Just some food and clothes."
"You've got a good rifle. I want it." The man dismounted and walked to the mule and pulled the rifle from its saddleboot. Vin could do nothing but watch as the dogs moved forward menacingly when he put a foot out to approach the man. He stopped as the canines growled and the man walked back to him and checked his pockets. He threw the harmonica on the ground in disgust but took the small amount of money that Vin had on him.
Vin watched the man and dogs closely and when his aggressor was occupied with counting the money he'd stolen, Vin pounced. He knocked the man to the ground and tried to get the gun from him. The dogs circled the two fighting men and snapped with their jaws when a piece of Vin's anatomy presented itself. He yelped as he felt the dogs teeth bite into this skin periodically. He tried to ignore them as he concentrated on getting the revolver from the man's grasp. After he'd gained control of the weapon he pulled up his knees and threw the man off him with a last burst of strength. Vin aimed the gun as he lay on the ground and snapped off a quick shot that left his attacker clutching his leg. The dogs, seeing their master was injured, turned on Vin in earnest. One dog clamped its jaws on his arm and he was forced to drop the gun as he tried to pry the dog from him. The other dog attacked his lower limbs and the tracker frantically scrambled to his feet when he finally got free. He kicked out to fend the dogs off and struck one hard causing it to limp away whining. The remaining dog was wily though and it managed to get inside Vin's defences repeatedly.
Vin looked back over his shoulder and made his way toward the gun that had landed on the ground near the mule. He got hold of it again and fired at the dog making it fall to the ground with a whimper. The other dog, having slightly recovered from the after effects of Vin's kick, made moves to rejoin the fight. The mule, however, had other ideas and it struck out with its back legs and kicked the dog away from both it and Vin.
Vin turned his attention back to the man and pulled him roughly to his feet. The man waited until both Vin's hands were occupied with hoisting him up and he raised a knee sharply and caught Vin between the legs. The tracker dropped to his knees with a yelp and clutched his body as he groaned in pain. The man took advantage and hobbled to his horse and rode away with his two dogs limping behind him.
Vin stayed where he was for some time until he thought he could stand. "Jesus mule. I think if Josiah had a choir, I'd be singing soprano for a bit. God, it certainly brings tears to yer eyes."
He moved to check the mule to see if it had been hurt as he spoke. He found a few cuts from where it had fallen and discovered it had also developed a limp. He reached in the saddlebag and pulled out a carrot. "There you go, pard. I owe ya. Have I gotta walk home again with you being lame? Oh well. Least it's only a couple a miles. Don't think I could manage any further."
Vin sat down with a painful sigh on the riverbank and studied his own injuries. He had a big bruise developing where he had fallen and he had numerous bite marks from the dogs. He got up and limped into the river and dipped his neckerchief in the water and did his best to clean the wounds. He knew he wouldn't be able to ride home even if the mule was in a fit state to carry him. One bite was on the inside of his knee and would rub continually against the saddle. He felt battered and bruised and he hoped he could make it home without further problems.
He went back and collected the mule and started to lead it in the direction of Four Corners. He made good progress for a while but he began to feel increasingly dizzy and his pace slowed considerably. The mule nudged him onwards gently when it saw Vin falter.
"Alright, mule. I'm goin'. You're just getting yer own back for me forcing you to go faster earlier, ain't ya?" He draped an arm over the mule's back wearily and used its support to keep him upright.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was doing the evening rounds in Four Corners and saw a figure limping into town leading a mule. He stopped and looked more closely and recognized his second in command. He hurried over to him anxiously and said, "Vin? Are you alright?"
"Not really. I ran into some trouble," the tracker replied wearily.
"Where's yer horse? What happened?"
"Horse went lame outside Eagle Bend. I got this mule and we ran into a man and two dogs. He tried to steal my rifle. The mule kicked one of the dogs to stop it coming after me and I managed to shoot and injure the other one. That mule helped me get home when I was near to giving up. He kept me going."
Chris stared at him with a disbelieving look on his face.
"He did. He saved me," Vin whispered as he slumped to his knees.
Chris was down beside him in an instant, feeling his brow. "How far have you walked? Are you hurt?" Stupid question, Larabee. 'Course he's hurt. He wouldn't collapse just for the fun of it, would he? he chastised himself.
"Couple miles. Dogs bit me. Mule's hurt too. See to him, Chris," the tracker pleaded as he sank down onto the ground even further. The blond looked around for help as he held Vin gently in his arms and he spotted JD heading to the saloon.
"JD! Get over here, kid," the gunfighter yelled. He watched while JD looked round to see who had called and then start running toward him. "See to the mule, will ya? It's hurt. I need to get Vin to the clinic."
"Sure, Chris. What's wrong with Vin?"
"A man with two dogs attacked him and he's been bitten."
The youngster winced and walked away with the creature in the direction of the livery. Chris scooped Vin into his arms and staggered to his feet beneath the man's weight. He carried his injured friend to the clinic as fast as he could.
"Nate? Vin's hurt. He's been bitten by some dogs." Chris said as he laid the tracker gently on the bed. Nathan hurried over and looked down at the injured man in concern.
"Vin? Where does it hurt?" the healer asked as he started removing the injured man's pants where he could see some blood.
Nathan checked both legs and found the wound Vin indicated as well as several others. "Get me some water and whiskey will ya, Chris? The bite near his knee is infected." The healer put a hand to Vin's brow and could feel the heat.
The gunfighter returned with the supplies and Nathan got to work. He cleaned all the bites and dowsed them in whiskey. Vin hissed in pain as the spirit touched his torn flesh. Chris patted his arm and the tracker cried out in pain. When the gunfighter pulled up the sleeve to investigate he found some more bites there too.
"Take his shirt off Chris. God, he's covered in bites," Nathan said as he saw Vin's torso. The healer treated the wounds on Vin's front and the Chris helped turn the tracker over but luckily there weren't any injuries on his back. Nathan bandaged Vin's body now he'd dealt with all the wounds and then settled the tracker on the bed and covered him with a blanket. Vin was already succumbing to fever and Chris poured some water into a bowl and started to cool him with the water.
Nathan washed his hands and then checked Vin again. "I need some more whiskey, Chris. Can you stay with him while I go to the saloon?"
The healer moved to the door but removed his hand from the handle as the door was pushed open from outside. Buck walked in and looked at the bed.
"JD said Vin would be here. What happened?" the tall man asked anxiously as he walked over to stand beside Chris.
"Dogs bit him."
"Shit. Is he gonna be alright?"
"One of the bites is badly infected. The other ones are not so bad but he's already got a fever," Nathan explained. "Look, I'll be back in a minute, Chris. Okay?"
The ladies' man took a seat near the bed and looked at Vin in concern after the healer had gone. "Were the dogs wild or what?"
"Na. They belonged to a man who tried to steal Vin's rifle."
Chris looked up as the clinic door opened again and a limping stranger walked in and asked, "Is one of you the doc?"
"No. He'll be back in a minute if you wanna wait. Take the seat there," Buck said helpfully.
The man walked to the chair and looked at the bed and saw Vin lying there. He paled and turned to walk back to the door. "I'll come back later. It's not important."
"Wait. You're hurt. Nate, won't be long," Buck said as the man disappeared out the door. "Well that was odd," he said as he turned back to Chris.
"Who was that?" Vin asked quietly.
"Just a man needing to see Nate. Go to sleep, Vin," the ladies' man said kindly.
JD opened the door with a crash as if he'd tried to get in before he'd opened it properly and gasped out, "That man who just left had got two dogs with him. One was hurt bad. Do ya think he was the one who hurt Vin?"
"See where he goes, JD. Go with him Buck, I can't leave Vin but I'll try and find you when Nate gets back," Chris ordered.
The two men hurried out and ran onto the street. JD caught Buck's arm and pointed to the far end of the street. The man was limping toward a horse that was tied to the hitching rail there. He looked as if he was going to leave town.
"Hey! Stay where you are, you bastard," Buck shouted as he started running toward him.
The man looked back over his shoulder and hurried his pace. He ducked down an alley and disappeared from view. The two peacekeepers ran after him but he'd gone. They heard the sound of running feet behind them and they swung round with guns drawn to find Chris hurrying toward them.
"Where is he?" the gunfighter demanded.
"He went down here but God knows where he is now. He just disappeared into thin air," Buck said angrily.
"Okay. Find the others. He's gotta be here somewhere and I want him found. Search the town in pairs."
Buck ran to the saloon. "Ezra? We need you now."
"What seems to be the trouble, Bucklin?"
"Vin's hurt and his attacker's somewhere in town."
Ezra put down his whiskey glass without finishing the contents and hurried out onto the boardwalk. "What can I do to assist?" Ezra asked after Chris had told him all the details of Vin's trouble. The gunfighter included a description of the man they wanted in case Ezra got separated from Buck.
"You and Buck go that way. JD and I'll go to the church and collect Josiah while we're there," Chris instructed.
The men split up and went to opposite ends of the street. JD and Chris rounded the back of the church and a dog leapt at the blond gunfighter. He fell backwards in surprise and the dog snapped at him and snarled. JD swung his rifle and knocked the dog aside before killing it with one bullet.
Josiah came hurrying out of his room in the church at the sound of the shot. "Are you okay? What happened?" the preacher asked.
"Damn dog went for me," Chris said as JD reached out a hand and helped him to his feet. The blond brushed his clothes down and picked up his hat which had been knocked off when he'd fallen. He slapped it against his thigh to get rid of the dust before jamming it back on his head angrily
"Are you sure you're alright?" Josiah asked as he studied the man before him.
"Yeah. He didn't bite me. No wonder Vin had trouble dealing with two of those animals. Viscious bastards."
"What's that about Vin?"
"He was bitten by two dogs. They belonged to a man who tried to steal his rifle. That man is now in town but we lost him. He's gotta be around somewhere. Come on, let's check again. Can you help us Josiah?"
Buck and Ezra came running up to them before the preacher could reply. They'd heard the gunshot and feared the worst.
"Is everything alright?" Buck asked breathlessly.
"Yeah. Dog attacked Chris but I shot it," JD explained.
"You okay, pard?" the ladies' man asked anxiously.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Have you seen the man?"
"Na. No one that we've asked has seen him either."
"Have you checked the church itself, Mr Sanchez? The man may seek refuge and ask for sanctuary," Ezra noted. "Seeing as his dog was here, he must be closeby."
"I've just come out of my room and I didn't hear anyone inside but I'll go and check." Josiah cursed and entered the church but was pleased to see Ezra was wrong. He certainly didn't want to have to offer sanctuary to a man who had hurt his friend. "He's not there," the preacher said as he hurried back outside.
"Okay, split up and spread out and check the town again."
Ezra headed to the livery and checked inside. He saw the man saddling someone else's horse. The man's other dog was nowhere to be seen so Ezra shouted, "Stand where you are."
The man swung round and sent a shot toward the gambler who dived to the ground. Ezra scrambled along the floor and made his way to the stall where the man had been. He looked up from behind a haystack and saw his opponent trying to get to the rear of the barn. The man climbed through to the next stall in his effort to escape and found it housed the mule. The animal didn't appreciate someone crawling around under its legs. It skittered about the stall agitatedly. Ezra rose and aimed at the man again while he was occupied trying to evade the mule's hooves. The gambler fired and the man ducked behind the upset equine and sent a shot back at the con man. Ezra cried out as the bullet struck his arm and flung him to the ground painfully.
The four other peacekeepers ran to the livery as they heard shots being fired. Their quarry, meanwhile, tried to get to the gambler to finish him off but the mule was getting more and more upset at the gunfire crashing around it. The animal struck out with both back legs and caught the man in the chest. Chris reached the stall in time to see the man sent flying backward to hit the wall and fall silently to the floor.
"Ezra? Are you okay, pard?" the ladies' man asked as he dropped to his knees beside his friend and then helped him to his feet.
"He shot my arm and I daren't look at my clothes, Bucklin. I dread to think what I've been crawling through. Tell me, is it bad?"
"Well, you stink, I can tell you that much, pard and your jacket is now more brown than claret, I'm afraid. Not very debonair I think you'd say."
"I knew it. This job is no good for a man of my standing."
"Well, at the moment yer standing in a pile of shit. What does that say about you?" Buck laughed.
Ezra held a fist up to the skies and shook it. "Lord, have you no mercy?" The gambler then held his hands out toward Buck and said, "Don't say a word, Mr. Wilmington. I don't think I want to hear any more witticisms from you at a time of crisis like this. The humiliation is just too much to bear."
"Come on. Let's get you up to see Nate," Buck said as he smiled and put a hand on the man's elbow.
Chris watched the two men go before heading to the telegraph office to send a wire to the Judge to try to get the trial delayed. There was no way that Vin would be in a fit state to give evidence.
During all this time, Nathan had been sitting with Vin. He stood quickly when Buck barged in the door and he moved to meet the ladies' man as he led Ezra over to a chair and sat him down.
"That mule of yours is a revelation, Vin. It saved my life," the gambler said as the healer helped him take off his jacket and shirt.
"He saved me too, Ez," the tracker replied tiredly.
Chris had followed the two men in and he snorted in disbelief.
"Mr. Larabee? You doubt my testimony as to the animal's life saving skills? You may doubt mine I grant you but Mr. Tanner is not prone to lying. You saw the animal for yourself when it kicked that heathen in the stall. He timed it too perfection. You two are very alike in that respect Vin."
"Don't think I wanna be compared to a danged mule, Ezra," Vin complained.
"It was a compliment, Mr. Tanner. Your sense of timing is truly uncanny on occasion."
"Whatever you say, Ez," the tracker said quietly as he fell asleep.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was finally pronounced fit and he prepared to take the mule back to Eagle Bend. He borrowed Chris's horse and led the mule instead of riding it.
"You want some company?" Chris asked.
"Na. I'd like to take him back on my own."
"See ya later, then. Don't get into any more trouble, will ya?" the blond requested.
Vin laughed and kicked the horse into a lope and the mule ran happily along beside him. Vin looked down at his companion and smiled as he watched the creature's legs working twice as hard as the horses in an effort to keep up.
"Eager to get home, eh mule?"
The mule brayed and shook its head. Vin slowed down to a trot to give the animal a rest and he arrived in Eagle Bend in the early afternoon. He rode along to the livery and dismounted.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was again in the street when Vin returned. He looked up and saw his friend riding back on his own gelding but complete with the mule and Chris's horse running along side him. Ezra walked out of the saloon and stood beside the blond and frowned.
"Thought you only borrowed the mule, Vin," Chris said in confusion as the tracker dismounted outside the saloon with his three equine companions.
"I couldn't part with him in the end so the hostler sold him to me."
"Why ever would you want to keep such a pathetic looking creature?" Ezra asked.
"He saved my life. I owe him," the tracker said reasonably.
"Well, he saved me too but it wouldn't encourage me to give him a home."
"You ought to be pleased about it, Ez. I got to thinking about my mule's ornery and cantankerous temperament and compared it with your nature and I decided to name him after you. Come on Ezra," the tracker said as he pulled the mule after him. "There's a nice comfy stall and some carrots waiting for ya." Vin turned away laughing as he saw the disgusted look on the gambler's face.
The con man said, "I've never been so insulted in all my life."
"You surprise me with that sweeping statement, Ezra. It can't possible be true," Chris said smiling as he put an arm round his shoulders and herded him back into the saloon. "Well, you did start it all when you said Vin was like the mule in his time keeping. Come on, I'll buy you a whiskey to help you get over the shock."
"It'll take more than a whiskey to alleviate my misery, Mr. Larabee. A mule of all things. How could he?"
"Yeah, yeah, Ezra. I get the picture. You're upset," the blond said smiling.
Vin laughed as he heard Ezra continuing to bend Chris's ear with his complaint. That'll learn ya, Larabee. You'll never get him to shut up now, he said to himself.
He continued laughing as he heard the gunfighter say, "Ezra? I'm warning ya. If you don't shut up I'll put you outta yer misery permanently."
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