Buck met Vin and Chris as they entered inside the livery. Larabee's face was sullen as he dismounted. Tanner dismounted as well, his countenance more of relief. They had avoided a confrontation with Blackston, and by the looks of the tracks he followed, the killer was gone.
"Did the sonovabitch go quietly?" Chris asked the ladies' man.
Buck nodded. "Pretended not to understand his reception, but he left."
"Still shoulda been here," Chris groused.
"Ya were only keepin' lil' ol' me safe," Vin said with a smirk.
"I haven't given you permission to speak to me yet!" Chris shook a finger angrily in the sharpshooter's direction. Vin pulled every trick in the book to get him to agree to leave town, and he wasn't ready to forget it.
Vin rolled his eyes and followed his friend to the jailhouse. He noticed Buck was wandering behind them, as if there was something else on his mind. Maybe later he'd ask, but out of earshot of Chris.
Josiah, Nathan and JD stood to attention when Chris came charging inside the building. They were all dreading the question they knew the gunman would be asking sooner or later.
"Where's Ezra?" Chris' eyes searched quickly through the jail, his mouth forming into a frown when he saw the nervous mannerisms of his friends. "What the hell happened?"
"We don't know for sure," Josiah spoke up. "All we know is that he's gone."
"Gone?" Chris' green eyes began to spark.
"Ya sure?" Vin asked.
"We went to his room, and his things were gone," JD said with an undercurrent of disbelief. "He left in a real hurry too. Smithy said he saw Ezra leave on his horse."
"In Blackston's direction?" Chris asked through gritted teeth.
"No, the opposite," Nathan hurried to add.
"Don't make sense fer him ta leave," Vin wondered aloud.
Buck shrugged. If Ezra did know something about Joseph Wellman's murder, it would pose a problem for Blackston....and for Chris. He suddenly understood the gambler's plight. Either way the smooth talking southerner lost. Blackston would most surely kill him for talking, and Chris would never forgive him for knowing anything or being involved in any way with Wellman's death.
Vin turned to leave. "We best be findin' him then." He felt Buck's hand rest on his arm.
"He'll turn up when the coast is clear," Buck said, his eyes imploring Vin to play along.
"Yeah, probably wants to be damn sure Blackston's long gone," Vin agreed.
The gunfighter glared between his two friends. There was something more to Ezra's sudden departure. "Like hell," he said angrily. "What the hell happened?"
"Ezra'll tell ya when he's ready," Vin answered. "I sure ain't gonna pretend ta know what he's thinkin'."
"If he ain't back in a couple of days, we're finding him," Larabee said with a stern look to all in the room.
With a short glance in Buck's direction, Vin had to wonder if Ezra would want to be found. Whatever had happened, it was something so serious the gambler couldn't confide in them.
+ + + + + + +
The morning quickly came and went, each of the six regulators keeping to themselves. Early afternoon gave Vin the chance he was waiting for to talk to Buck alone. The town's newspaper editor, Mary Travis, had talked Chris into taking her six year old son, Billy on a fishing trip. He wasted no time in finding the ladies' man.
Entering inside the mercantile store that Mrs. Potter ran, Vin walked up to the dark-haired scoundrel. "Need ta know somethin'," he whispered, jerking his head in the direction of the back of the building. With Buck following, the two men glanced around, making sure no one else was listening. Thankfully the store was quiet, an elderly woman taking up Mrs. Potter's attention.
"Did Blackston say anythin' on his way out?" Vin asked. "Cause when me'n Chris saw Ezra last night, he didn't act like Blackston had threatened him."
"But he had to have," Buck replied. "He wasn't with the rest of us this mornin', so he didn't know what Blackston said."
"So the damn bastard did say somethin'," Vin shook his shoulder- length mane. "Saw some of Ezra's shoe prints back behind the livery and in the alley way near there. Bet he followed Blackston."
"And overheard," Buck finished. "Blackston told us ta go'n talk ta Ezra about Joseph Wellman, that he knew a lot 'bout it. Also mentioned talkin' ta Chris too. We tried ta find him, but he had cleared out."
"He's a slick one ain't he," Vin muttered. "Get Ezra in hot water so he can't do no talkin'."
"And Chris'll explode if he finds out Ezra knew anything about Wellman's murder," Buck added.
A shadow fell upon the two men as they whirled around to meet the cold glare of Larabee standing rigidly behind them. What had happened to the fishing trip?
"Aw hell, Chris....," Vin began, seeing the icy, green eyes. "It's not what yer...."
"Thinking?" Chris finished cooly. "Thought you didn't try to pretend to know what people were thinking?" he mocked Vin's earlier statement.
"Vin's right," Buck piped up. "We don't know how much Ezra knows, if he knows anything."
"Then why'd he run away, Buck?" Chris asked snidely, pushing himself into his old friend's view. "He could've told us when we had the meeting about his dealings with Blackston. Why didn't he tell us?"
"Go'n look in the mirror," Vin said curtly, walking past the gunman.
"What the hell was that, Tanner?" Chris shouted after the sharpshooter.
"Yer so full of hate 'bout what happened, ya'd never let him explain," Buck commented sadly.
The scoundrel swallowed hard, knowing he'd be drawing Larabee's ire by continuing. "I know he's the farthest thing from a saint, but ain't none of us any better. I don't think Ezra's involved in Joseph's murder. He might know Blackston did it...."
"Then he should be talking," Chris growled, "not running away." The gunman paused, a small detail he had forgotten coming to his mind. He clenched his fist to his sides in anger. "I remember the sheriff saying a fancy dressed Southerner was seen with Joseph before he disappeared."
"Naw...,Chris, ya ain't tryin' ta say Ezra was that man?" Buck cried out. "Hell, he's a cheat, but he ain't no killer! 'Sides, thought ya said Blackston was the murderer."
"He is, but he obviously had an accomplice." Chris' harsh words rang through the general store as the black clad gunfighter left, leaving a c
nfused and disheartened Buck in his wake.
+ + + + + + +
Walking with angry, hurried strides down the wooden walkway, Vin was startled by a string of muttered curses coming from behind the bank. Pulling out his sawed-off Winchester, he cautiously crept back to the commotion. An attempted bank robbery was all he needed today.
Peering around the corner, the tracker had to smile. The slight form of the bank's manager, Albert Dixon, was perched perilously upon a rickety ladder, trying to reach a broken board. A pail of nails fell from the top step of the ladder, causing the short, elderly man to swear at the inanimate objects.
Vin rushed over to steady the ladder. "Mr. Dixon, ya shouldn't be messin' with that," he gently scolded. "Could be real easy ta fall and git yerself hurt bad."
The man smiled warmly in greeting. "Afraid it needs to be done, son. All kinds of bees and wasps have been coming in through these cracked boards and stinging the customers."
"Can't have that," Vin agreed with a chuckle. "How's 'bout ya let me have a go at it tomorrow? Would do it fer ya today, but I've been up since yesterday morning...."
"I'd sure appreciate it, Vin." Dixon climbed down the ladder unsteadily. "I can't even reach it to put a nail in proper. My wife always says the Good Lord didn't make me a handyman."
"I'll come by tomorrow afternoon after my rounds and fix it fer ya," Vin nodded, surveying the damage. "Shouldn't take more'n an hour or two ta fix 'em up nice."
Dixon grasped Vin's hand and shook it firmly. "I'm mighty grateful, son. Just come in through the back door and I'll have the things you'll need waiting."
Parting with a tug at his beige, slouch hat, Vin continued on to his wagon, unaware his brief exchange was overheard by another.
+ + + + + + +
The sign announcing the town of Jericho greeted Ezra's vision. Jericho? Had he ridden that far? That town was over four hours away from Four Corners. Sounds from the saloon caught the gambler's attention. It appeared a lively card game was in progress. Checking his funds, Ezra dismounted, hoping to lose the gnawing, hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. A good game would help him forget...at least for a while.
+ + + + + + +
Chris took another swig of his whiskey bottle, the past floating in front of his face like a specter. He tried to remember the fancy dressed gambler the sheriff had mentioned years earlier. Was it Ezra? Deep down the gunman didn't want to believe it, but why else would the southerner leave? Even if he had known Blackston was Joseph's murderer, why didn't Ezra trust them enough to help him out?
Vin's words struck into his brain like a lightening bolt. "Go'n look in the mirror." Larabee ran a hand over his face. Ezra feared his reaction. Putting the cork back in the bottle, Chris made a promise to himself that he'd give Ezra that chance to explain. He only had to find him.
Rising from his seat, Chris exited the saloon, making his way to Vin's covered wagon. His arrival was greeted by the barrel of a rifle sticking out from the covered rig.
"It's me, Vin," Chris said with a roll of his eyes. "Losing your touch? You always knew it was me coming."
"I knew it was you," the husky drawl answered. "Maybe don't wanna talk ta this Chris Larabee."
Giving a low grunt, Chris pulled the canvas back, meeting Vin's blue glare. "Now you're doing what you feel I'm doing," he commented, climbing inside the wagon. "Judging a man before he has a chance to explain."
"I don't feel ya are, I know ya are," Vin mumbled, lowering his rifle and placing it within reach.
"I'm willing to hear Ezra out," Chris came straight to the point. "You willing to help me find him tomorrow?"
With a cocky grin, Vin nodded. "As long as I'm trackin', not refereein'. We can go after I fix up the bank."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Fix up the bank?"
"Yeah, Mr. Dixon was tryin' ta fix some boards, and well...,"
"You felt sorry for him," Chris finished.
"Hell Chris, the poor man could barely hold the hammer, let alone reach the boards." Vin smiled at the recollection. "Won't take me long. I'll start as soon as I get back from scountin' in the mornin'."
"Come and get me when you're ready," Chris agreed.
The two men clasped forearms in a sign of friendship and Chris left the tracker to get some sleep. Slumber beckoned for him too as he looked in the direction of his small shack. A little shut eye wouldn't hurt him either.
+ + + + + + +
A large built, well dressed man looked at his gold pocket watch when he noticed the buckskin-clad rider enter the livery. 9:00 a.m....the same time the bank opened. His small set eyes searched out another equally built and elegantly dressed gentleman. He nodded slightly, his acknowledgment received by the other. It was time to make a withdrawal.
Inside the bank a small gathering waited for Dixon's attention. The two men glided through the doors, immediately meeting the gaze of another. Flashing a smile, the man turned his concern to the other customers waiting in line. Pretending to open his leather case to prepare for the transaction, he smoothly pulled out a pistol, clearing his throat.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the man said calmly, "this is a stick- up." Noticing the horrified looks of the patrons, he gave a reassuring smile. "Please, do not be afraid, and you will all be released very soon."
The two other strangers pulled out their weapons that were hidden under their coats and proceeded to the back of the bank.
"I'll get you the money," Dixon told the bank robber, hoping to appease the men.
"No need to hurry," the man replied. "We'll wait a few minutes, let these fine people be on their way, and then we'll discuss the transferal of the money."
What? He knew Vin was to be arriving at any minute, and the poor boy wouldn't realize there was an attempted robbery taking place, especially coming in through the back door. And why did the other two go in the back room? The money was here. Looking at the knowing grin on the gun wielding man, Dixon felt his heart sink. Was it Vin they were waiting on?
The man walked casually to the bank doors and locked them. "Please refrain from speaking, crying, or any other forms of communication," he informed the crowd. "You might be soon hearing a commotion coming from the back room, but keep quiet. It doesn't concern you, and once that little detail is done, you will be free to walk out of here. Failure to comply will result in immediate termination. Are we understood?"
Silently the group nodded their heads, trying to keep their fears in check. Dixon licked his lips nervously, his assumption proven true. They were waiting on Vin, and the young sharpshooter would be unwittingly falling into their clutches.
+ + + + + + +
"Need any help?" Chris asked Vin as the younger man headed towards the bank.
"Naw," Vin shrugged. "Maybe git some stuff rounded up fer the trip. Don't know how far Ezra traveled."
"I'll be at the jail when you're done," Chris said with a slap to Vin's back.
Vin hurried briskly to the bank, anxious to get started, and get finished. He was worried about Ezra and wanted the connection to Blackston cleared up as soon as possible. He smiled to himself when he saw the back door to the bank, his hand turning the handle.
"It's only me, Mr. Dixon," Vin called out as he began to enter.
Before he cleared the door way, Vin was attacked from both sides, his right arm twisted behind him while the other assailant pulled out the mare's leg from it's holster. The man holding his arm clamped a hand over the tracker's mouth, and gave the arm a cruel jerk.
"There's people in the other room," the man snarled into Vin's ear. "You be a good boy, and we let them go."
Unwilling to take a chance with the citizens' lives, Vin stopped his struggles and allowed the other attacker to bind his hands behind him.
"Those folks are going to be mighty grateful," the first robber jeered, slapping the side of Vin's face gently as he gagged him. He turned to his partner. "Frisk him and take off the gun belt, put it by his hat. Don't want any surprises."
The robber went out to the front and joined the other man. "He's secured," he answered the questioning gaze.
Walking back to the bank doors, the lead bandit unlocked them and waved his gun. "You are free to go as said." One by one the terrified customers scurried out of the building. Stopping the last patron, a middle aged man, the robber poked the gun in his chest. "Would you be so kind as to rely a message for me?"
The man nodded mutely.
"Find Mr. Chris Larabee and inform him that the bank is in the process of being robbed and there are hostages. Tell him to come alone, and if he defies that request, his young friend will die first." He paused for effect. "I would definitely expand on that last point."
Watching his messenger hurrying out to the street, the robber motioned for the captive to be brought in. He smiled when he saw the fiery look in Tanner's eyes. Cupping the younger man's chin, he forced the head up a notch.
"My my, Blackston was joking about you," the man leered, "you are a pretty one."
Jerking his head, Vin tore himself from the man's grasp. Blackston...damn it all....
The two cretins holding his arms laughed. "Think the boss will let us have some fun with him?" one asked while smacking his lips.
Vin twisted in their grip in disgust. The other hostages were gone, he didn't have to play nice now.
"Uh uh uh...," a voice tsked from behind. Cole Blackston strolled through the back door of the bank and stood in front of his prisoner. "We still have the bank manager with us as well. You don't want any harm to befall him do you?"
The tracker stilled, his eyes blazing like blue flames. He knew the odds were against him, but he wanted desperately to lash out at these men, inflicting some sort of damage.
Blackston grinned in triumph. "Shall we all wait for Mr. Larabee's arrival?" Pointing to a post near the bank vault, he had the two bandits secure Vin's mid-section to it with rope, and then his ankles. This was one loose end neatly tied up. Now all that was needed was Larabee.
An anticipating chuckle echoed through bank. Blackston lit a cigar and blew the smoke into his captive's face. This was something he had dreamed about for years. Oh, was it going to be sweet.
Chris sat idly at the desk inside the jailhouse, mulling over what he was going to say to Ezra. Could he control himself if the gambler was involved in Joseph's murder? Or was he just a pawn used by Blackston? If Ezra did have information, maybe that murdering card sharp would finally hang for his crime.
The man in black looked up in curiosity as the pale, shaken figure of Tom McCreary entered through the door. The nervous man fumbled with the hat in his hands as he struggled to repeat his message.
"Something wrong, Tom?" Chris asked, a gnawing feeling growing in his gut.
"I was...I was at the bank...," Tom tried to speak.
The feeling became intense. Vin?
Tom shrugged helplessly, his mind groping for words. "The robber said...."
"Robber?" Chris bolted from his chair in alarm. "Was Vin hurt?"
"I-I don't know," McCreary mumbled. "The robber said you best come alone...,or...."
"Or what, Tom?" the gunfighter asked forcefully.
His eyes large with anxiety, Tom swallowed hard. "He said if you didn't come alone, your friend dies."
"Was Vin hurt?" Chris asked again, fighting the urge to rush into the bank, his gun blazing.
"I didn't see him..., but I knew they grabbed somebody in the back."
"Dammit!" Chris pushed past the man and hurried to the door, his mind racing. "Is there anybody else in the bank?"
"No, just Mr. Dixon and whoever they ambushed. The head robber told me to get you and give you that message."
Chris stopped. "Did he specifically ask for me?"
"What'd this bastard look like?"
Hearing the descriptions of the men, Chris knew Blackston wasn't one of them, but they could be the some of the newcomers who had arrived in town days ago. Was probably casing out the bank before they struck. His hand gripping the handle of his colt.45, the gunman swore they'd regret holding up the bank and especially touching his best friend.
+ + + + + + +
Blackston stood near the bank doors, inhaling his cigar. "It's such a lovely spring day, isn't it gentlemen?" he asked his hostages.
"Would...would you like me to get the money out now?" Dixon asked, wanting the nightmare playing before his eyes to end as quickly as possible.
The con artist gave an oily smile, reaching out to snag the sharpshooter's chin. "That's mighty nice, but I'm waiting for some extra help to arrive." He forced the younger man to look at him. "I'd say Mr. Larabee would be more than glad to help. Wouldn't you agree, Vin?"
Growling an answer behind the gag, Vin fixed his captor with an icy stare.
"Not much to say?" Blackston mocked. The tall man laughed softly and turned his attention back to the bank doors, his eyes growing animated when he spotted the one person he wished to see.
"Gentlemen, our help has arrived."
+ + + + + + +
"You sure ain't much of a player," a heavily bearded man said to Ezra.
The gambler barely looked up, his mind battling his emotions. He had hoped a good game of chance would erase the past..., and his friends, but the latter kept beckoning to him. Running a hand through his brown hair, Ezra threw down his hand. What was he doing here?
"Ah'm truly sorry gentlemen," Ezra mumbled an excuse. "It appears my mind is elsewhere. Please except my departure, and continue in your merriment." Not able to manage even a small smile, the con man quickly nodded, grabbing what little earnings he made. It didn't help matters that he barely slept last night, his thoughts preoccupied with the paths he had chosen.
Walking aimlessly towards the hotel, Ezra kept thinking about the six men he had grown to care about. These men trusted him to stand by them, to help protect Four Corners, and each other. Looking in the direction of his former home, he sighed. Maybe he should've come out and told everything in the beginning. Knowing his friend's reactions would've been better than guessing how they'd feel.
Cole Blackston in one day destroyed everything. Ezra scowled into the bright sky. Blackston may not have gotten to Chris, but he managed to leave devastation in his wake. Friendships ruined, bitterness and revenge....all because of one man.
Taking a swig from his flask, Ezra felt sense of alarm hit. Blackston didn't get to Chris....the goal not reached. Would that vile man be so desperate as to try again? He had been so absorbed with his shame and misery to give it a second thought. Blackston had backed down awful easy.....
Hurrying to the livery, he prayed he could reach Four Corners before it was too late.
+ + + + + + +
Chris calmed his quick steps as he neared the bank. He couldn't give the appearance of concern. As he placed his boot upon the walkway in front of the building, one of the doors opened, silently inviting him in.
The gunfighter stared at the open doorway for a second, his anger growing. If they had harmed Vin.... Pushing the thought momentarily aside, he entered warily. Dixon and Vin both fixed worried eyes upon Chris as the door slammed shut behind the gunman.
Slowly turning, Chris met the mocking smile of Blackston. "I'm so glad you could come, Larabee."
"What the hell is this, Blackston?" Chris snarled.
The cruel card sharp laughed. "Come come. Surely you aren't that simple. It's a bank robbery." He pointed in Dixon's direction. "There's the bank manager who's going to open the safe..." With long strides, he stopped in front of Vin, giving the young tracker's hair a small tousle. "And here's the hostage...."
His insides seething, Chris fought for control. Blackston wanted him to lose it. "You don't need a hostage, just take the damn money. I won't stop you."
"No," Blackston agreed, motioning for Chris to remove his gun belt, "you won't...now...but I can see you coming after me later." After watching one of his hired hands disarm the blonde gunfighter, he turned his attention back to his captive. "If I have your friend, who's also an excellent tracker...so I'm told, I'm assured of no future threats. You couldn't find me even if you wanted to come after me...which you wouldn't."
"You aren't taking him anywhere," Chris challenged. "What's to stop you from doing to him what you did to Wellman's son?" The gunman clenched his fists to his sides as he watched Blackman fatherly stroke the side of Vin's head, wishing he could tear the murderer's arm off. He couldn't fly off the handle....
Vin allowed the touching, not wanting to antagonize Chris further. It was all a game to Blackston, to get Chris upset so he could justify revenge. The blue eyes locked onto the green. 'Stay calm, Cowboy.'
Chris received the mental encouragement through his friend's gaze, his stand relaxing.
Blackston frowned. Larabee was staying composed. "You still think I had something to do with that boy's death?"
"I know you did."
A devious grin came to the tall man's face. Extinguishing his cigar, he shrugged. "Then I suppose you know I would do this...." With lightning quick speed, he plowed his fist viciously into Vin's abdomen, forcing his hostage to recoil in pain.
"You sonovabitch!" Chris hollered, storming towards Blackston. Strong arms grabbed him from both sides, holding him immobile. Struggling to break free, he watched the con artist move towards him.
"Oh," Blackston sneered, "would you rather I do that to you?"
The black clad gunman said nothing, his eyes green flames. He didn't flinch when the fist struck him in the gut, using all he had inside to stay upright. Again he didn't move when another blow assaulted him.
Fighting against the ropes, Vin gave muffled protest. Chris was taking the beating to protect him. He could almost feel every punch bestowed on his friend, the helplessness maddening.
Blackston paused and looked back at the tracker. "You object, Vin? Oh, what was it you said the other day...? If I mess with Larabee, I mess with you? Plan to follow through on that threat?"
"Don't!" Dixon cried out. "There's no need for this...I'll get the money."
"The money...I almost forgot." Blackston ceased his stroll over to Vin. "By all means, open the safe." Turning to Chris, he gave an smarmy grin. "Think you're up to making a withdrawal?"
With an intense loathing emanating from his eyes, Chris gave a short nod.
"Good, because disobedience would cause me to take my frustrations out on something...or in this case...someone."
Shaking himself free from the loosened hold of the robbers, Chris stiffly straightened. His mid-section protested the move, but he couldn't show weakness. He began to walk towards his friend when the tall villain stepped in front.
"Go inside and bring out the money," Blackston jeered, shoving Chris towards the vault, "and lay it down at my feet...on your knees."
Chris whirled around, his eyes sparking. The defiant words were choked in his throat as he saw Blackston look over in Vin's direction. The warning for disobedience was real. Vin would be beaten to within an inch of his life.
Dixon shakily stood back and allowed Chris to enter. Within minutes, the gunman exited the vault, his arms full of cash and bags of coins. He stopped in front of Blackston, pausing a second. Swallowing the pride that screamed for him to ignore the con artist's demand, Chris slowly lowered himself to his knees, depositing the stash at the tall man's feet.
"Very good, Larabee," Blackston said sweetly. His eyes turned hard, belying the smirk on his mouth. "Now kiss my boots."
"Like hell!" Chris thundered, his head jerking up. He regretted his rash outburst when he saw his nemesis look over at one of his men. The robber smiled as he walked over to Vin, slamming a meaty fist into the sharpshooter's belly.
"Stop it!" Chris hollered, trying to rise and stop the beating. Blackston pushed him down with his foot, holding the gunfighter in place.
"One action will stop it," Blackston said.
Vin met Chris' eyes, his wordless message resounding to the only man who could hear it. 'Don't even think of doin' it!'
Chris lowered his head when his refusal was met with the sound of one of the tracker's ribs being broke by the force of another punch. His pained features glared at his young friend. He wasn't going to watch Vin be beaten because of his pride.
Barely able to keep conscious because of the pain, Vin lifted his head, his blue eyes demanding Chris to keep his dignity. If the blonde gunfighter stooped to this, Blackston would lower the bar even more. He resisted the urge to cry out when another heavy blow struck him, forcing the very air from his lungs. Soon the other two men joined in, unmercifully hitting the young man in his sides.
"The boy's hardly able to stand!" Dixon found the courage to speak. "Leave him be!" Seeing the challenging glance from Blackston, the bank manager steadied his quaking nerves. "No one's going to let you escape with a dead hostage."
The gunman threw off Blackston's boot, rushing to stop the men from pummeling his best friend to death. Chris managed to tear the one ruffian away, only to be dragged back to the vault by the other two.
Nodding, Blackston smiled, cupping Vin's chin to raise the tracker's head to eye level. "He isn't looking very well is he?" Undoing the ropes that secured his prisoner to the post, he watched Vin's body fall to the floor in a heap. The murdering card sharp bent down. "You should learn to respect your betters," he taunted. "Doesn't look like you're in the position now to back up your threats."
Vin glowered up at his captor. If it was the last thing he ever did, he'd erase that smug look off that bastard's face.
"Damn you," Chris growled while still being held.
"Don't you have a job to finish?" Blackston asked, his hand moving to the top of Vin's head. "Same as before."
Again Chris entered inside the vault, removing the last of the contents, placing them down near Blackston's feet. This time he was near his friend, a comforting touch reaching out to the badly hurt sharpshooter. Momentarily distracted, he didn't see the kick that landed square on his jaw, sending him backwards.
"Trying to foil my plans?" Blackston snarled, giving Chris a kick to his side. "The tracker will be released when I see fit! Not when you deem it!" Another kick followed by another assailed the gunman, until he lay battered and unmoving upon the floor.
Ignoring his own injuries, Vin used his bound legs to propel him to Chris' side. He placed his own body in front of his older friend, willing to take any punishment Blackston delivered. Fierce blue eyes stared up at the con artist, daring him to take another strike.
"Vin....don't...," Chris said through an intake of air. The sharpshooter's trembling body wasn't lost on him. It wasn't due to fear, it was because of excruciating pain.
Fearing the worst, Dixon hurried over, trying to pull Vin's form away from the gunfighter. The young regulator was in this predicament because of his inability to do a simple patch job. "You have everything the bank has, and these two won't be able to follow you.... Why don't you leave?"
"Get the wagon and pull it to the back," Blackston ordered the head robber. The other two accomplices stood beside Vin and Chris' prone bodies. With a quick nod of the head from their boss, the men lifted the tracker up off the floor.
"We are leaving," Blackston informed the manager, "with a live hostage."
"No...," Chris managed to grind out, struggling to rise.
"Don't worry, Larabee," Blackston said with a sinister bent, "he'll be alive when we let him go. I'm not one to hold grudges."
"Just leave him here," Dixon begged. "He needs medical attention."
"I'll treat him real well," Blackston said with false sincerity. Glancing at this two henchmen, he inclined his head towards the back room. The men carried their scarcely conscious bundle to await the wagon.
"While we wait, would you be so kind as to place all this currency in this satchel?" Blackston asked Dixon. The bank manager frowned, viewing the leather case the head robber had hidden a gun inside. Wordlessly, the small man did as he was told.
Smiling, Blackston took the satchel, along with the remaining sacks of coins and gold pieces, and tipped his head in parting. "I thank you for your cooperation, and the most enjoyable morning." He looked down at his foe. "And I don't want you worrying none about your little friend...." With that spoken, he maliciously kicked Chris in the head, sending the gunfighter into blackness.
He paused before exiting out the back, a small sense of triumph filling him. No one made a fool of Cole Blackston.
The dark skinned healer's head jerked up inside his room, a much needed slumber disturbed. He had spent most of the night outside of town, helping a woman give birth to her sixth child. It had been a long, hard labor and he was worn to the bone. Stiffly he rose from his bed and answered the frantic knock, surprised to see Dixon on the other side of his door.
"Mr. Dixon?" Nathan asked, the small man's face contorted with fear and worry.
"It's Mr. Larabee...he's hurt...at the bank...."
Without explanation, Nathan grabbed his medical bag. "Go'n git Josiah at the church in case I gotta move him," he instructed the bank manager. He hurried over to the bank, his heart racing when he viewed the unmoving body of the seven's leader. Checking for a pulse, he was greeted with a strong one, easing one of his fears.
Minutes later, Dixon and Josiah rushed in, their faces watching the healer anxiously.
"What happened?" Josiah asked, grateful to see Chris stir slightly on the floor.
"It was awful," Dixon muttered, "the bank was robbed, and they grabbed poor Vin...."
"Vin?" Both Nathan and Josiah asked in unison.
"Took him as a hostage," Dixon said with a worried frown. "He's hurt just as bad as Mr. Larabee, maybe worse." He stopped, remembering the distinct warning the tall man gave before departing. "I was told to tell you that if anyone tries to go after them, they'll kill him."
"Maybe you better start from the beginning," Josiah suggested as Nathan continued his probe of Chris.
The small man nodded, telling of how Vin offered to help, all the way up to the parting words of the tallest robber. "I couldn't help but feel they were deliberately waiting on Vin," Dixon recalled. "The two men immediately went to the back, like they knew someone was coming."
A soft moan escaped Chris' lips as he struggled to rise.
Nathan immediately eased him down. "Ya might have yerself a concussion, and some of yer ribs is cracked."
"That...that bastard took Vin," Chris mumbled through a haze of pain. "Beat the hell outta him."
"Did a pretty good job on you too, Brother," Josiah said gently, crouching down beside his friend. "Nathan and I are going to help you to the clinic...."
"No!" Chris hollered, his head ringing miserably. "You don't understand...! Blackston staged a bank robbery to kidnap Vin..., we gotta get him back!"
"We're gonna need help," Nathan said to Josiah, expecting a drawn out battle from the injured man. He turned his attention to Chris. "We can't be goin' after Vin or he dies."
"Dammit!" Chris groused, holding his head. "He's going to kill Vin if we don't stop him!"
"And he'll kill Vin if'n we ride out."
"They hurt him real bad," Chris said with a groan.
Nathan sighed in frustration. He had no words to give in comfort, his own fears for Vin's safety threatening to surface in front of the gunman. Either solution didn't bode well for the young sharpshooter.
+ + + + + + +
Having made the four hour trip from Jericho in record time, Ezra hurried to the jailhouse with trepidation. Would the others even listen to him? He had to try. Sneaking in through the jail's back door, he found an apprehensive Josiah talking to both Buck and JD.
"Ezra?" JD blurted out, catching the bright figure of the gambler in the corner of his eye. "Blackston came back...hurt Chris and Vin real bad."
The con man paled. He was too late. "Are they in Mr. Jackson's capable hands?" he managed to ask.
"Chris is," Josiah replied sadly. "Blackston took Vin with him."
"No...," Ezra half whispered. Joseph Wellman's battered body appeared before his mind, this time the face was Vin's. He nearly collapsed into a nearby chair, his thoughts reeling.
"Where the hell were ya, Ezra?" Buck shouted, drawing the gambler back to the present. "Thought ya said Blackston would leave Chris alone if'n he didn't git mad! Well? The son of a bitch has Vin."
"He...he tried again...," Ezra muttered.
"He tried again?" Buck threw his hands up in the air. "Hell yes he tried again! And now if we go after Vin...he'll git killed, but if we don't, he'll die just the same."
Ezra only sat there, unable to give excuse or encouragement. He had failed his friends. Of course Blackston would leave men behind. Wasn't that the reason for his secret visits? Fear of someone seeing him?
"Let's get Chris to Nathan's," Josiah spoke quietly, a part of him feeling sorry for the gambler. He had never seen Ezra so dejected.
Fighting his paralysis, Ezra racked his brain for some kind of answer to save the group's tracker. He knew for a certainty that Blackston wouldn't release Vin, the probable goal to encourage a rescue, giving the twisted card sharp a reason to kill his hostage. If Blackston didn't get his rescue attempt? What would happen to Vin then? Would it end the same?
Rising from his chair, he made a decision. He was going to tempt fate and talk to Chris. Maybe hearing first hand what had happened, he'd be able to devise a plan. There was little option, and little time.
+ + + + + + +
Wilson Snider twirled the blade in his large hand, eyeing the younger man lying still on the bed. Winking over at his brother, Ed, he brought the knife closer to the captive's face.
"He's too pretty, Ed," Wilson said with a leer. "Think a scar'll make him look tougher?"
Tanner didn't flinch, his body screaming in pain. The slightest movement caused spasms of agonizing torment to shoot through him. Besides, he wasn't about to give these goons the satisfaction of watching him squirm. If death came, he was ready to meet it, but it was Chris he was worried about. How badly was his best friend hurt? The sickening kick to Chris' head kept replaying in his mind, haunting him with the unknown.
"Blackston don't want him touched," Anvil Grant said with a smirk, "yet." The lead robber at the bank hold-up sat down at the small wood table, and motioned for the two brothers to follow. "Hog- tie him and close the door. In the shape he's in, he won't be trying nothing, and even if he did, the only way out is through that door."
"Why does he get the bed for anyway?" Ed grumbled. "Ain't he the prisoner?"
Wilson shrugged. "Don't make sense, us beating him and then treating him good, but we're not paid to ask questions."
Vin held in the urge to cry out when Ed ruthlessly jerked his bound legs behind him to secure them to his wrists. Only inches of rope was left slack, allowing barely any movement. With the closing of the door, the tracker quelled his labored breathing, willing the shards of pain to dissipate. Alone in the windowless, square room, he fought the darkness that enveloped him from creeping into his thoughts. He had to hold out hope for some sort of escape.
+ + + + + + +
His head was throbbing, but that was little in comparison to the war raging inside. He let his guard down, listened to others instead of his gut. Vin was in Blackston's clutches, the tracker's fate certain.... Chris tried to rise, the pain overwhelming his balance as he fell back into the pillows.
"Whoa...hold on there, Stud," Buck said soothingly, easing his old friend down on the bed. "Yer not ta be movin' 'round."
"He's got...," Chris struggled to say.
"I know, old Pard," Buck said sadly. "But we got instructions not ta go after Vin."
"Blackston will kill him," Chris replied through gritted teeth.
"Not if Ah retrieve Mr. Tanner first."
Buck and Chris looked to the figure in the doorway of Nathan's clinic, the normally unflappable con man appearing less than at ease.
"Get the hell out!" the black clad gunman roared. He then moaned in agony, holding his head to quell the darts of pain. "Never should have listened to you...."
Hurt by the searing words, Ezra pushed his feelings aside. Didn't he bring Chris' wrath upon himself by his lack of faith in his friends? Swallowing hard, he focused his emerald eyes upon the raging green of Larabee's.
"Instead of resorting to a blame competition, may we concentrate on recovering our friend?"
"I should have stayed in town and took Blackston on myself," Chris groused.
"And Mr. Tanner would have been targeted," Ezra pointed out. "Blackston's desire was for you to loose control. What happened?"
"Why'd the hell you leave?" Chris shot back. "Blackston had help...you could've been keeping an eye on them!"
"Chris," Buck interrupted. He knew his friend was lashing out at Ezra, just like he had at the jail, because of worry. "Don't matter none. Blackston woulda went after Vin no matter what ya did. Hear him out."
Ezra pulled up another chair and sat on the opposite side of the bed. "Did you loose your composure?"
Grimacing, Chris gave a short grunt. "Hell yes..., the sonovabitch had Vin, and hit him hard in the gut for no reason." The gunfighter paused, realizing he had given Blackston his goal for revenge. If he hadn't reacted to the punch like he did.... "Dammit...," he muttered.
"He is a ruthless man," Ezra said sympathetically. "Did Blackston make reference to where he was absconding with our friend?"
"No, just that he'd be alive when they let him go."
"How the hell are we supposed ta find Vin?" Buck asked. "If'n we don't know where they're goin'?"
The gambler exchanged a glance with Chris. "He's going back to where it all started," Ezra replied grimly.
"Huh? Ya mean ya know where Blackston's takin' Vin?" Buck pursued.
"Eagle Bend," Chris half whispered. Immediately he tried to move. "I've got to get to him before he ends up like...."
Ezra and Buck pushed their friend down.
"Mr. Tanner will be safe until your arrival," Ezra stated. "Ah'm sure Blackston would be so generous as to allow a few days for your recovery."
"You trying to say Blackston won't hurt Vin until I show up?" Chris scoffed.
"For the present," Ezra admitted. "It's in the if and when you arrive that has me worried. If your rescue attempt is too long in coming...."
"He said not ta go after Vin," Buck inserted.
The gambler nodded, his eyes going to Chris. "But Blackston knows that a certain black attired gunfighter will not trust him in the care of his friend."
"This bastard wants Chris ta go after Vin?"
"Yes, so he may relish Mr. Larabee's reaction when he kills Vin."
Buck rose from his chair. "Well maybe it ain't gonna be Chris goin' after Vin."
"Like hell you are," Chris growled, striving to get up.
"You are quite correct," Ezra agreed, "since it shall be me that is going." Before Larabee could protest, the con man raised his hand for silence. "It has to be this way. Blackston will be looking out for you or one of the others." He lowered his head, unable to look the gunman in the eyes as he spoke next. "Because of a promise Ah made years ago, Ah allowed a man to get away with the unthinkable. It will not happen again."
"Did you see him kill Joseph?" Chris asked, seeing the emotion in Ezra's eyes.
"Ah didn't see what Ah saw," Ezra simply answered, "and because of that small fact, Ah am here today."
"There was a witness who saw a fancy dressed man talking to Joseph before he disappeared," Chris continued, wanting to know all before giving his consent. "Do you know who it was?"
Ezra fingered his hat. "Ah wasn't much older than the young Wellman," he said absently. "Mr. Blackston helped me in a situation, and his payment was to help him con a certain son of a wealthy man. That was all Ah was aware of at the time."
"Did you overhear Blackston the other day?" Buck asked. "Is that why ya left?"
Looking at his two friends, Ezra took a deep breath. "Ah'm not perfect, far from it...but Ah feared...." He stopped, unwilling to admit his dependence on their friendship. "Ah was so overcome with my own miseries, that Ah failed to see the true plan. Blackston gave in too easily."
"Were ya plannin' on comin' back?" Buck queried.
Only able to manage a weak smile, Ezra didn't answer, rising from his seat.
Chris snagged a hold on Ezra's sleeve. "Do you have a plan?"
"Of course Ah do," Ezra assured the leader of the seven, "you can...." The gambler became quiet, almost saying the words trust me.
"Trust you?" Chris finished. The green eyes studied the younger man for a moment. Holding out his hand for Ezra to shake, he gave a small nod.
The gesture meant the world to Ezra as he took the hand and shook it. Chris Larabee was trusting him to save his best friend's life. He knew it wouldn't be the last issue they would face, but it was a start.
Clearing his throat, Ezra excused himself. There was many more stops to make before he could carry out his plan. Buck followed the gambler outside Nathan's clinic, slapping the startled man on the back.
"Knew ya weren't as low down as ya like ta pretend," the ladies' man winked. "Ya bring our boy home, or we'll have ta tie Chris down ta that bed." The statement underplayed the concern they felt for Vin's safe return, but to give into those fears was unacceptable.
"God Himself forgive me, but Ah feel the excruciating need to hear Mr. Tanner's harmonica." Ezra became serious. "Ah will do my best to bring our friend back."
"Don't doubt that for a minute, Ezra."
Watching the lanky gunslinger walk away, Ezra repositioned his hat on his head, a determined sense of purpose coursing through his veins. This time Cole Blackston would be stopped, and a wrong righted. Joseph Wellman could not be brought back, but Vin Tanner would be.
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