"Okay, well flip a coin to see who does what, would that be sufficient enough for you?"
"Sure, fine. I think thats the fair way to do this."
"Okay, so this side well use as heads. You call it when I flip the coin in the air and if it falls on this "heads" side you get the rider and I get the horse. If it ends up on the back side then I get the rider and you get the horse."
Both men watched as the coin was flipped into the air, the morning sun reflecting off the golden object. They bent their heads together as they looked to see which side it landed on in the soft dirt.
"Damn! You know Im the better shot. I really should get the man, you might mess up and kill him instead and then what would be the fun in that?"
"You are such a sore loser. I won this fair and square. I get the man and you get the horse, besides I happen to think Im the better shot, so Id say this turned out for the best."
"Yeah, well you would. Lets just get ready. I dont want to miss out. We got the perfect spot and Im really looking forward to this. The boss promised this would be the best hunt weve ever had, and after sitting around for a couple of days, Im ready for some action."
"Well, here comes our action. And hes coming fast. Man, this is going to be a challenge. Are you ready for this buddy? I feel like we are hunting for the big one here."
"We are. We do this right and we can retire happy men. Okay, Im lined up, how about you? We shoot right after he clears that big oak."
The quiet of the early morning was suddenly shattered as two shots fired sounded out simultaneously and then more noise followed as the two sharp shooting hunters whooped in joy for completing their task.
He was late. Dammit anyway. Chris was going to be waiting on him and he hated to make the gunman wait. His good friend could be a handful at times, his moods swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, no one ever knowing from one day to the next which mood the black clad man would be in, and he didnt want to be the cause of pushing a bad mood into something even worse. And that something even worse would be Chris leaving without him. The two were going to Black Canyon to check on a herd of wild horses that Chanu had told him about and they were going to leave later this morning. Peso had thrown a shoe about a mile out of Red Rock and hed had to go slow back to that town to leave his black and borrow a horse in order to make the trek to Four Corners. And so now he was running late. He knew Chris would wait for him for a few hours, maybe even worry on him a little, so hed sent a short telegram, but if it got too late Chris would head out on his own.
Both men needed a break. It had been a tough couple of weeks, what with a bunch of trail hands comin into town for a few days and causing all sorts of headaches, and the weather kicking up thunder storms and deadly lightening that had the peacekeepers chasing after stray cattle and putting out random fires. And then Judge Travis had asked for a favor, sending him to Red Fork for a couple of days in order to talk to a visiting Indian Agent about the conditions of the Indians in the area. So going to Black Canyon promised to be some relaxing time for the two friends. Chris was always on the lookout for good horseflesh and even though his friend claimed he wasnt really settling down he could tell Chris missed being a rancher and raising horses. The fact that the two enjoyed being in each others company didnt hurt either. Sometimes they needed to get away from the others and the responsibilities of the town.
His thoughts only on getting back to Four Corners and Chris, Vin never saw the sun glint off the rifles aimed at him from afar. One minute he was galloping along on his borrowed horse, the next he was sprawled on the rocky ground, his horse shot out from under him. His left side hit hard, the left palm losing skin as it skidded along the ground finally stopping his momentum. He felt something warm running down the side of his face and realized hed been hit. As he tried to sit up a soft moan escaped his lips and everything started to fade to black, and as he slipped into unconsciousness his last thoughts were of how really late he was going to be and how he hoped Chris wouldnt leave without him.
Vin Tanner fell back never knowing there were two armed men approaching him.
Six peacekeepers sat in the saloon enjoying the solitude of the morning. Things had finally quieted down in Four Corners, the trail hands long gone and even the weather had settled in the past couple of days. The men were engaged in discussion of the happenings over the past two weeks while enjoying a good breakfast of steak and eggs that Inez had cooked up for them. All were aware that Chris was anxiously waiting on the return of their tracker so the two of them could head off into the mountains to look at a pack of wild horses that had come into the area. All seven needed a break really, but the men didnt have a problem with letting Chris and Vin head off first. Chances are, when they got back, one or more of the others might have a trip planned and would leave for a couple of days, if things stayed quiet. This was just something they all knew they were free to do. None were really tied to the town, they just stayed because well because. As they were talking and eating, Mr. Lewis came in with a telegram for Chris.
"Mr. Larabee? I have a telegram here for you from Red Rock. Its from Mr. Tanner."
"Thanks George." Chris took the message and nodded to him.
"Everything okay with Vin?" Buck asked after Chris read the note and pocketed it.
"Hes runnin late."
"Does it say why?"
There were shared smiles around the table from the other five. Seems the two men couldnt carry on a conversation even when writing a wire. Knowing how Chris and Vin communicated with each other normally through looks and thoughts, it would stand to reason Chris garnered all he needed to know just by reading between the lines. And as long as the gunslinger didnt seem concerned then they would just relax and follow his lead. They continued with their eating and talking, oblivious to the danger that their Texan friend was in.
Some time later, with the hot sun beating down on him, Vin fought his way back to consciousness. He felt like he was on fire and soon found out why. All his clothes had been removed! He had nothing-no clothes, no weapons, no food. His canteen was lying next to him and he shook it and figured there was at least one swallow left in it. When he finally made it to a sitting position he realized that his horse had been shot and killed. He found little peace in his thankfulness that it had not been Peso hed been riding, because it angered him that someone would just shoot a horse for no reason. If who ever had shot at him had just wanted him, they could have left the horse alone, chances are it would have run back the way it came anyway, no need to kill an innocent animal. He wondered what kind of a man or men he was up against. It didnt take long before he found out.
"Mr. Tanner?" Are you with us Mr. Tanner?"
Vin turned his head in the direction the voice was coming from. He couldnt see who it was, the man was well hidden behind some rocks, a couple hundred yards from him to his right.
"Aw, come on Mr. Tanner. We know youre alright, we even cleaned up your wounds for you."
Another voice. Okay, so now there were at least two of them. One voice was deeper than the other.
"We sure hope you arent going to be a disappointment. Our boss told us you were some kind of an Indian person. You know, one of those people who can live off the land and sneak around. We are really looking forward to getting to know you better."
Vin heard the snickers coming from behind the rocks and wondered just what the hell was going on. His first thoughts of this being the work of a bounty hunter were quickly put aside, a bounty hunter would have him tied up and theyd be on their way to Tascosa by now. And a bounty hunter would never have shot his horse as that would have been his ride to Texas. No, something else was going on here and he didnt have a clue as to what it was.
"Are you confused Mr. Tanner? Are you wondering what this is all about?" the deep voice asked.
"Well, well let you in on whats going on," the other lighter voice said. "See, were bounty hunters of sorts, only the bounties we usually go after is game, big game."
"Weve been all over the world," the deep voice bragged, "hunting big game animals, bringing home trophies and collecting lots of money for what we bring in."
"But weve never hunted a human before," light voice said. "Until now that is."
"Bet you didnt know you were considered "big game" now did you Mr. Tanner?" deep voice asked. "See we have a client that is willing to pay big bucks for your trophy. Big bucks. And since it really doesnt matter how we bring you in just as long as you are dead, well, we just figured wed have a little fun before we collected the bounty on you."
"Yeah. Seeing as how youre suppose to be this Indian-like person we figured you could give us a real good hunt. We dont just like to go in for the kill right away, we like to make this a sport so to speak."
Vin heard more chuckles as the two hunters talked among themselves thinking they had hit upon a great idea. So now he knew what the score was. He didnt think this was a Tascosa bounty. No, someone else was out after him and had hired these two to bring him in dead. Only it sounded like they were going to hunt him down first. Well, with no clothes, no food , no weapons and a headache that was almost blinding him, this was going to be a hell of a day. Sorry Chris, looks like Im going to be later than I thought.
"Now dont you worry Mr. Tanner," the deep voice spoke up again. "We arent totally without scruples. We left you a swallow of water and over to your left youll find one of them pieces of skin that Indians like to wear."
Whats that thing called again Thomas?" Vin heard deep voice ask of his companion behind the rocks.
"A breechcloth I think it was. Isnt that it Mr. Tanner?"
Still no words came from the tracker. "Boy, he sure dont say much does he?" Thomas remarked his friend. "Suppose we hurt him worse than what we thought?"
"Nah, I dont think so, I just think hed trying to figure out whats going on. Remember the boss said hes a smart one and a sneaky one and we had to watch ourselves, although he sure dont look like much right now, does he?"
"You got that right. So maybe we should just prod him a little to get him moving. I dont want this to last forever. I got plans for me and my money."
"Hey Mr. Tanner? Were going to give you a ten minute head start to get yourself ready and then were going to begin shooting. I mean we are giving you a chance here. Were hoping youll give us a good hunt, hell, maybe youll even get away from us."
More chuckles were heard coming from behind the rocks.
Okay thought Vin, if thats the way you want it. He took the last swallow from the canteen, swished it around in his mouth before swallowing and then reached over for the breechcloth and put it on. He went over to the dead horse, laid his hand on its head and said a short prayer to the Great Spirit to care for its soul.
"What do you think hes doing?" asked Thomas.
"How should I know?" his friend answered. "Looks like some Indian thing, maybe praying for the horse or something. Indians are really into that kind of thing. Everything is sacred to them you know. I sure hope he lives up to his reputation. This could be our greatest challenge ever. Are you watching the time?"
"Yeah, Im watching. Its really kinda spooky though you know? He hasnt said anything, hasnt even shown any kind of emotion," the lighter voiced man named Thomas said. "You dont think were making a mistake here now do you? Not killing him right off?"
Deep voice looked at his friend incredulously. "Youre kidding me right? We got the guns, we got the food, we got the clothes, we got everything. He doesnt have anything. How do you think were making the mistake here? He doesnt stand a chance. Its going to heat up today and hes hurt too remember? Nah, he might give us a go for abit, but well get him within a day or so and then well be counting our money and living like kings. No problem."
Vin could tell by the shot that killed the horse that the shooter had been an expert, and he figured whichever one shot him had to be good also since they had just wounded him, so he knew he was up against some tough odds. Getting away from the two hunters might prove to be quite a challenge if they were as good as they appeared to be. He figured hed head towards the mountains, hed have more cover that way but it was going to be tough getting there. Not much cover for him, the landscape only providing a few trees and scrubs but there were some ravines and small hills that might help him some. He just hoped the two knew how to tell time, because he was going to need that ten minutes to get the hell away from them.
With one last pat to the dead horses neck, he stood up, got his bearings and without a look back at the two hunters hiding behind the rocks he took off to the north at a trot. His headache was beating in time to his footsteps and the heat was going to make that ten times worse by the time he got to the mountains, when he got to the mountains. He tried to keep his thoughts only on what to do for survival and to try and stay one step ahead of the shooters. There would be time later to try and figure out who was after him and why. His thoughts never strayed to thinking that he wouldnt survive this, as far as he was concerned, the bragging hunters already made their first two mistakes. One was letting him live and the other was giving him a head start. If it was a hunt they wanted, well he was going to give them one.
+ + + + + + +
The two seasoned hunters watched as their prey took off on them at a trot.
"Looks like hell be headed towards the mountains," Thomas said.
"Most animals do head for higher ground," agreed the deep voice. "Seems they figure they have a better chance that way. Aint it somethin how the human animal thinks just like a regular animal? Hes doing just what we figured hed do. I sure hope this doesnt turn out to be too easy. Id really be disappointed. How much time does he have left?"
"About five minutes. I dont know Edward, maybe we should have hurt him a little more. Im thinking he could get quite a head start on us and he does know this territory better than we do."
"You sure do worry a lot. Listen, tell you what. First chance we get well wound him in the leg, that will slow him down some, would that make you feel any better?"
"Okay, Ill go along with that. And thatll make it easier to track him too if hes dropping some blood here and there. Are you just about ready to go? By the time we get the horses ready itll be time for the hunt. Im getting that excited feeling just like when we hunt the wild animals."
"Yeah, well, hes a wild animal of sorts too. The boss claims hes a loner and likes to take off from time to time just to be outside and live off the land. Way I see it, if he was going to die, this is probably the way hed prefer it, so we are sort of doing him a favor. Its just going to happen sooner than what he planned on."
"You always have an angle on everything dont you Edward? You constantly amaze me with your thinking."
"Thats why we make such a good pair. I do the thinking, you do the listening and we both do the shooting. We just cant go wrong."
The two bounty hunters laughed as they mounted their horses, rifles in hand, mistakenly thinking that their prey was going to be an easy kill. They didnt know Vin Tanner except for what their boss had told them. And the boss only had one goal in mind and thinking that the removal of one buckskin clad tracker would help in achieving that goal was sadly underestimated.
"Where you headed Chris?" Buck asked as he watched as his long time friend saddled and bridled his horse.
"Gonna look for Vin?" he asked again when no answer was forthcoming, although he was pretty sure what the answer was going to be.
"Might. Thought Id go west of town some, meet him comin in." Chris finally answered as he pulled himself into the saddle and headed Pony out of the livery.
"Watch your back pard," Buck yelled to him as the gunslinger took off at a gallop out of town.
"He goin after Vin?" JD asked as he came walking up to Buck.
"Yep. Im surprised he waited this long. Sure hope everything is alright out there," Buck said as he rubbed his hands together and gave JD a nudge. "How about you and me having a nice cold beer, this heat is beginning to get to me, hell, Ill even buy the first one."
"You got a deal. Im just going to head over to the jail to put this mail on the desk and then Ill be right there. Be sure you dont give my free beer away."
"Now would I do something like that?" Buck said as he gave JD a big grin and a raised eyebrow.
"You would if some lady friend of yours came along. On second thought, maybe Ill just head over there right now with you."
"You know, JD, you really are getting too smart for your own britches." The rogue slapped his young friend on the back and the two headed over to the saloon.
Try as he might the tall man just couldnt shake the feeling that something wasnt quite right. He knew Chris was thinking on Vin. He didnt have a clue what the telegram had said except for what Chris had told them and that had been pretty vague--just that Vin was going to be late, but how late was late? Chris didnt seem overly worried when hed left just now, but if it had been any of the other men that were running late, Chris would have just left and let them catch up to him. But not with Vin. No sir. It wasnt only the fact that Vin was a wanted man and they all had to be on the lookout for bounty hunters, it was something more than that. The two men had a rock solid friendship. It seemed as though theyd known each other forever instead of only about a year. They had a definite loyalty to each other. Maybe it was because they stepped up together that first day against the odds and rescued Nathan, or maybe it was because they were a lot alike in their ideals and standards. He wasnt for sure what the reasons were, he was just happy that Chris wasnt living in that black hole anymore like after Sarah and Adam had been killed. In Vin, and really with the whole town, his good friend had found reasons to keep living and make a life for himself. He shook his head from the thoughts that ran through his mind and told himself that if Chris needed any help he would come and get the rest of them and theyd find the tracker themselves.
Vin felt as though hed gotten off to a pretty good start, although his head was killing him with every step and the soles of his feet were starting to get sore. He knew itd take awhile for them to get toughened up but in the mean time hed try and skirt the rocks and low growing cacti. For the time being, hed taken off in a direct line, setting his sites on some scrubs and a ravine that were coming up just in front of him. He figured if he could reach that area before his ten minutes were up he would at least have a little protection. It wasnt going to be hard to track him right now as there was plenty of soft dirt to show his footprints, but further on where there was more grass it would be harder. Later when the sun got lower he would head toward the west, that would put the setting sun in the hunters eyes and make it harder to see him. It was just now that he was out in the open and was susceptible to being shot. He was also hoping that the two hunting him were so full of themselves they wouldnt realize what he was doing until it was too late.
+ + + + + + +
"What do you think hes thinking, Edward?"
"Right now, the only thing hes thinking about is reaching those mountains. Well be sure to mark him before he gets there so he cant get too far ahead of us. Hell hit those scrubs and that ravine there in front of us but hell have to come out of those and keep heading towards the mountains and thats when well make our move. Just be sure you keep watching to see where he comes out at."
"Okay," said Thomas. "Ill watch this side of the north and west side if you want to take that part of the north side and east, that way he wont surprise us any. You thinkin on letting him get into the mountains?"
"I think so, dont you? Its not hard to follow him now on horseback. This isnt what I call a challenge. No, I want to track him on the ground, just like we do the big animals, thats really where the sport is. I want to get close to him, see his eyes when we trap him and watch him fight for his life. Yeah, well let him get into the mountains but well still have the upper hand since he has no food or water and hell have another wound to contend with. Ha! Im going to really enjoy this."
"Me too, but I just have this feeling that he thinks hes going to get away with this, that he knows something we dont."
"You are such a worry wart. Just follow me and youll see how this all pans out. This is going to be great, youll see."
Thomas, the light voiced hunter nodded his head in assent, but he couldnt help the nagging feeling he had that somehow this wasnt going to turn out the way they wanted it too. Call it instinct, call it whatever, but it was a feeling he just couldnt shake.
Chris sat atop Pony gazing out over the prairie land. So far he hadnt been able to spot his best friend anywhere. He pulled Vins message from out of his pocket and read over it again. It said that he was running late, everything was okay. He folded the note up and unconsciously ran his thumb over it a few times before pocketing it again. He squinted his eyes as he checked the suns location in the sky . One more hour Tanner, then Im comin lookin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hit the ravine at a run and slid down to the bottom. He looked for and saw a shallow bowl that had two things he was looking for: water and mud. First he took care of slaking his thirst and then he proceeded to rub the mud over his body. For one thing the mud would help keep the suns hot rays from baking him and for another when it dried he would take on the color of the landscape around him. He knew hed be harder to see this way and if he kept low, perhaps crawling slowly between the shrubs hed increase his chances of getting to the mountains. He reckoned the hunters more than likely figured out what his plan would be, and he knew there was no way they were going to just let him get into the mountains unscathed. He figured it was just a matter of time before they showed their hand. He was sure theyd try and hurt him somehow just enough to slow him down some, he just didnt know if the hurt would come from a bullet or some other kind of pain. He sure as hell wasnt going to make it easy for them. They might be good shots but they didnt have a whole lot of brains when it came to trackin a man, least not a man like him. A feral grin crossed his lips as he thought about how the tables were going to turn when he made it to the mountains. The hunted was going to become the hunter.
The tracker slipped eastward through the ravine keeping low and waited for the mud to dry. He figured the hunters would be waiting for him to make his move when the sun was low because they knew hed be harder to see then and that thinking was just what he was counting on. Not that it wasnt a good plan, it was, but he knew theyd be expecting him to do that and the only way for him to get the upper hand was to do the unexpected. No, right now he was hoping the two men were concentrating more on the draw itself, looking in it for him, thinking he would hole up for a bit to stay out of the hot sun and wait to make his move later. He was hoping they werent very alert right now as they tried to find out where he was. Hell, Tanner, you sure are doin' a lot of hopin' here, he thought, chastising himself and giving his head a couple of shakes. He squinted at the sun, checking its location and made a decision. Guess its now or never, lets see how awake them fellers are! and with that thought in mind, he began to put his plan in action.
The hunters looked across at each other from where they were keeping their watch. Almost as one they both shrugged their shoulders and held their hands out palms up as if to say neither one had spotted the tracker. The two men had ceased their talking now and spoke with hand signals as they knew their prey was in the ravine somewhere and didnt want him to know their exact whereabouts. Even though the ravine was fairly deep and long, they still didnt think it would be hard to see the man come out of it. They just wanted to know what he was up too, the tracker was quiet, maybe too quiet. Maybe he was laying in wait for them to come in and get him, take his chances with hand to hand combat. Well, they werent going to fall for that. No, hed have to come out sooner or later and if he didnt come out before nightfall, then theyd just pepper the ravine with gunshots. Theyd had to do that before in order to scare their game into coming out of hiding. It would really be a disappointment if they had to do that here. Not much sport in that and they might just accidentally kill him and then the hunt would be over and that would truly be a disappointment.
Vin crawled along on his belly, moving slowly going from one scrub bush to another. Getting up the side of the ravine was easier than he thought, both hunters keeping their watch mainly on the west side of the ravine. Well, hed fooled them there and come up the east side and was now slithering slithering? Wasnt that a word he had used once to describe Ezra? A grin started to form as he figured hed just keep this little incident to himself. Okay, so he was slithering his way away from the hunters now and soon he would start to turn to the west. He was going to use the sun as his protection later, but he was hoping to be further away before he made his run for the mountains. He could see the two hunters walking their horses back and forth along the rim of the ravine where he had gone in and they were slowly making their way to the west end. Every now and then, the bigger of the two men would look to the east, but he was too late in looking there. Mistake number three, he thought. Never underestimate the hunted animal, they sometimes do the unexpected.
JD got up from where he was sitting outside the saloon, went to the batwing doors and yelled in at the other peacekeepers that Chris was comin in and Vin wasnt with him. Ezra and Buck came outside at the same time Chris reached the saloon hitchin post. The man in black crossed his arms over the saddle horn and gave out his instructions:
"JD? Go get Nathan and then get saddled up. Were gonna head out and look for Vin. Buck? You, Josiah and Ezra keep an eye out on the town. Well be back as soon as we can."
Buck opened his mouth ready to plead his case about going along, but Chris had already turned his mount back to the livery. He knew Larabee was in no mood for conversation right now, his only thoughts were on finding Vin. The tall rogue knew Chris was taking JD along for tracking purposes, Vin had been teaching the kid for months now, and Nathan was going because well because he just might be needed, God forbid. So he held his tongue, knowing that if his friend needed any more help hed send one of the others back to get them, and Chris knew that theyd be ready to ride if they were needed. He told JD to be careful and to remember what Vin had been teaching him and Josiah told them to "go with God" and Ezra told them to "bring back their favorite Texan posthaste." As the trio of peacekeepers rode out of town the remaining three were left wondering and hoping that all would turn out well, but also knowing a lot of things could befall a lone man out on his own. Especially a wanted man.
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It wasnt long before the two sharpshooters total focus was on the western end of the ravine. The sun was beginning to go down and from where the two men were sitting on their horses, they were already beginning to squint against the suns lowered rays.
"Damn, now where do you suppose that man is?" Thomas asked Edward as they scanned the bottom of the ravine for any movements.
"Dont know, unless hell, lets just shoot a couple of rounds down there, see if we can scare him up."
When Vin heard the two men empty their rifles into the ravine he decided, while their attention was diverted, now was the time to get to the mountains. Hed got ahead of the hunters and was close to his destination. He stood up and began his run to the first rocky outcropping that marked the beginning of the mountains. He was almost there when he felt a sting along his left thigh, his leg gave out and down he went with a grunt. Aw hell. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the two shooters were bearing down on him, rifles ready to do more damage. He pushed to his feet, waiting for the next bullet to hit but when none came he dove behind a boulder to safety. Then just as he peeked out he heard the next shot and rock chips hit him on the right side of his face, causing his eye to blur as he fell back with a gasp of pain. Damn, these guys are good shots. Bleeding from the leg wound and now having problems seeing out of his eye, he knew he couldnt stay where he was. He needed to get higher and under more cover. Taking another quick look at his tormenters he realized they were waiting for him to make the next move so they could begin their sick game. They were going to hunt him down like a wounded animal. Well, every good hunter knew that going after a wounded animal was one of the most dangerous things to do and he was determined that these hunters would know how it was to hunt a wounded Vin Tanner. He was getting mighty tired of being used as target practice and if they thought they were just going to nick him here and there and wait for him to become trapped and bled out, they had another thing coming. He was going to turn the tables on them-just as soon as he stopped the bleeding in his leg, the tearing of his eye and the splitting headache, then he was going hunting.
Edward and Thomas waited about a hundred yards from where they knew Vin had taken safety behind some rocks. Neither one had gotten down off their horse but they had put their rifles in their scabbards. No more long range shooting for them. From now on it would be pistols or maybe knives. The two men were extremely proud of what they had accomplished thus far.
"Whew, that was a close one. He almost got away from us didnt he?"
"He sure did. What a great shot that was wounding him in the leg. I couldnt have done that better myself."
"Told you I was the better shot. Think you hit him with that shot to the boulder."
"Maybe skimmed him a little. This is turning out to be quite the hunt isnt it? He sure isnt disappointing. Great move on his part. I like that. Unexpected. Smart. Yes sir, this is going to be great. Well give him a little time to regroup and then well head on after him."
A head nod came from his companion.
"Mr. Tanner?" Deep voice called out. "Hope we didnt hurt you too bad, but damn, that was a smart move on your part. Lucky thing we saw you at the last moment or else you just might have a really good head start on us. Now, were going to give you a few minutes to catch your breath and then well be comin after you. You savvy?" Edward chuckled at his own choice of words. Their boss really knew the score on this one.
Vin heard the mans words and was again thankful for having such stupid bounty hunters. Once more they were giving him time to get ahead. And he took it. He was already up and moving before the last of deep voices words were heard. He kept his hand over the wound to his thigh, catching the blood and smearing it onto his breechcloth so that he wouldnt leave any signs of blood on the ground or rocks. Later he would have to find something else to staunch the blood, but for now he just wanted to put some distance between himself and the two sharpshooters.
Chris, JD and Nathan kept up a good pace heading straight west, knowing that Vin would come from Red Rock in that direction. All three pulled up short as they noticed birds circling high in the sky, about a mile away from them. Chris kicked his black into a run as the other two tried to keep up with him, knowing full well that the circling birds were buzzards and also knowing what that meant.
The three peacekeeper came to a halt near the stripped dead horse. Chris kept a lookout as JD and Nathan got down to check the dead animal.
"Bullet right between the eyes," Nathan said to nobody in particular. "No doubt the horse went down right away. Has the brand of the livery in Red Rock." This time Nathan met Chriss eyes as he asked if Vin had said anything about having to borrow a horse.
Chris shook his head, telling Nathan that Vin had just said that he was going to be late and that everything was okay.
"CHRIS?" JD yelled. "Better take a look over here."
Chris dismounted and he and Nathan went over to where JD was kneeling down behind some rocks. Chris felt his gut clench as he fought sickening thoughts of them finding Vins body behind the rocks. He noticed Nathan approached cautiously, also not knowing what they were going to find. What they did find surprised them and they looked to each other in astonishment.
"What do you suppose this means?" JD asked as they looked at Vins boots, clothes, weapons, tack, and saddle bags all neatly piled up.
"Looks to me like Vin is out there somewhere without anything," Nathan said as he looked closer at Vins clothing. The healer was looking for blood stains, anything that might tell him that their friend had been hurt. "Look here, Chris. There is a little blood on the collar of his jacket and a little on the cuff of his left sleeve. Jackson carried Vins jacket over by where the horse lay and took a look at the tracks. "Could be the area where he come off the horse, see how the ground is sort of dug up? If he hit that, say with his left hand and scraped it, that could account for the blood marks here on his cuff.
"What about the ones on the collar?" JD asked.
"Theres not much here, maybe means he was just creased a little. Head wounds generally bleed quite abit. Might have wounded him just enough to stun him. And I dont see none on his shirt which again tells me he wasnt losin too much blood."
JD shook his head as he spoke. "Why would someone shoot Vins horse dead if they were a bounty hunter and why take his clothes, not just his weapons?" He looked around, shaking his head again and said, "It just doesnt make any sense."
"Maybe it werent a bounty hunter," Nathan mused as he continued to look at Vins things and the area around them.
"Hes out there with no boots, no clothes, no weapons, nothing. Who would do something like that?" JD asked as he studied the ground for signs.
"Someone with a sick mind thats who," Nathan muttered.
Chris hadnt said a word as his two companions tried to work out a scenario of what had happened and why. They found two bullet casings behind the rocks where Vins clothing was and JD had figured out there were two riders. The gunslinger had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as to what had befallen his best friend, and that feeling was slowly turning into rage. He was looking off in the distance to the mountains, the place where he knew the tracker would head just as JD announced that he had found bare footprints and they were headed north.
"JD, go back and get the others. Head for the mountains. Well meet you there. Probably have to make camp for the night so get there when you can." Chris spoke the words in clipped sentences, there was no doubt he was angry and JD almost hated to ask the next question.
"What do you think is going on?"
The young man watched as Chriss eyes narrowed, looking into the mountains as if to pinpoint something there. He caught himself looking to the mountain as if to see whatever it was that the gunfighter was focusing on. He was concentrating so hard that he almost didnt hear what Chris said in a deathly quiet voice.
"Hes being hunted like an animal."
JD sucked in a breath, squinted his eyes and looked harder out at the mountain. He trusted Chriss instincts, especially in the matter of Vin. As he vaulted onto his horse, he nodded to Nathan and took off at a run, figuring to push his pony as hard as he could. Hed get another mount at the livery for the trip back. Please be okay Vin, just hang on. Were coming.
Chris waited while Nathan rolled and tied up Vins belongings handing them to the gunslinger to put in front of his saddle. As the man in black pulled Vins clothes closer to him, needing to feel the tracker somehow, someway, he hoped that his friend was still alive and that if he was, so was whoever had done this because, he wanted a piece of them himself.
As night fell across the land Vin found himself just where he wanted to be. Hed found a narrow crevice in which to hide himself. When he went far enough back into the shadows he was virtually invisible. This was the perfect spot for now. He had left some smears of blood here and there but only in places that he wanted the two hunters to go. He was leading them right into a trap and once again hoped they wouldnt be smart enough to figure out what he was doing until it was too late. He needed to rest, to save his strength. He could wait, he was good at waiting, had a lot of patience when it came to waiting. All he needed was for them to make one mistake
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"See anything yet?" Edward asked of Thomas as they scanned the rocky area for signs that their prey had come this way.
"Yep, got a little smudge right down here on this rock. Dont know if maybe its from the leg wound or maybe from his feet but its definitely a blood mark." Thomas looked up from where he was squatting over the rocky ground. "Hes heading up aint he? Well be catching up to him soon. By the looks of this mark if hes breaking skin on his feet hell be movin pretty slow come day break. Shouldnt be hard to find him then. With no water or food and losin blood, Im thinkin we only have a few hours to go before we get the kill. What do you think?"
Edward looked up higher into the rocky mountains and nodded his consent to his companion. "Im thinking you are right Thomas. Well make camp right over there where its most level. He may keep moving, trying to put more distance between us, but he wont last long doing that and if his feet are breaking up hell just be leaving more of a trail for us. Yes sir, I think I smell death in the air. Be nice to get this done, collect our fee and be on our way."
"What about the others? You interested in going after them at all?"
"Dont know. We knew this one would be our greatest challenge. The others will seem quite mediocre after this. Too easy. But the money is good, I dont know. Well think on it as we make camp alright?"
"Okay as you say, Edward."
The two men made camp just as the moon began to come up.
"Ah, a hunters moon," mused Edward. "What could be more perfect than that?"
"Its been a really good day," his friend Thomas agreed. "Wonder what Mr. Tanner is thinking right now."
"Thinking about dying more than likely since he knows we are right on his tail. Hope hes got all his things in order, if he has anything. Indians dont put much stock in material things."
"When we catch up to him, how do you want to take him? Shoot him? Knife him? How should we play this out?"
"I think well let Mr. Tanner decide that for us. No doubt hes not going to go down without a fight, he wouldnt have made it this far if he wasnt a fighter. I just want to see his eyes, you know that pleading look, or that look of fear knowing hes going to die or, perhaps in Mr. Tanners case, a look of rage, knowing he has no choice but to die and will go out fighting all the way. Yes, itll be an interesting kill thats for sure."
"An interesting and mighty good pay kill I might add."
As both men grinned at each other over their campfire they were unaware of the set of blue eyes watching them, well, one blue eye anyway, the other one was mostly swollen shut but nevertheless, the watcher was waiting. Waiting for that one mistake.
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