JD was out of breath as he ran into the Grain Exchange. He knew the other six men were waiting for him but he had to make sure someone was in the jail watching the prisoners. His eyes darted warily around the room until they rested on Chriss face. He breathed a sigh of relief when he didnt receive the impatient glare hed been expecting. With a slight nod, he walked over to Buck and perched on the other end of the table the older man was leaning against.
"Alright, now were all here," Chris began "Seems we got a Stagecoach hold up on our hands."
"Reckon yer right Chris, he seemed t be tellin the truth. Hell, he had no reason t lie once he knew he was gettin nothin out of it, ifn it was all made up." Vin was leaning against the wall and Nathan regarded him worriedly, noticing the pinched look on his face. He decided not to say anything when the others were all there but made a mental note to check on Vins head injury after the meeting.
"Yes, I must agree with Mr Tanner," Ezra added. "The miscreants information did appear to be trustworthy. Once he realised the futility of trying to bargain with us, he chose to inform us of the plan anyway."
"Yeah and them other two backed him. Even though they didnt actually hear the ringleaders plannin it like Luke did."
Chris nodded in agreement at Bucks words.
"Bsides, I reckon that glare o yers was enough to make em spill the beans anyway," Vin added with a smile that grew as he received a glare of his own.
"Alright. Then were agreed we take this seriously?" Chris looked around the room, receiving nods from all of the men. The other three had been filled in as they were rounded up by Buck and Ezra.
Chris moved across the room and took a seat at one of the tables. He stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. "So, now we need a plan."
"Thats easy, we follow the stagecoach and wait for em to attack." JD said helpfully.
"Theres one problem with that JD," Chris pointed out. "If they see us, they might not attack. Then we dont catch the rest of this gang."
JD nodded slowly. He hadnt thought of that.
"We need someone on the stagecoach." They all looked to Josiah after he made the statement.
"Reckon yer right Jsiah." Vin pushed himself away from the wall and made his way over to sit at the table with Chris. "That way, theyre blivious that we know whats goin on."
The six remaining peacekeepers stared at Vin in surprise.
"Heck, Vin. Whered ya come up with a word like oblivious?" Buck asked teasingly.
"What ya sayin Bucklin? Think I dont know any fancy words?" Vin had a playful gleam in his eye that told the men he hadnt taken Bucks comment as an insult.
"Hell no! Was just worried you were gonna go all Ezra on us, thats all," the ladies' man answered with an answering glint in his eye.
"Well, I must say, I am not taking too kindly to the fact that you all seem to regard my speech as anything other than the way our language was intended to be spoken," Ezra defended, pulling at the cuffs on his shirt.
"Reckon, I did hear ya say that word, Ez," Vin answered. "Ifn Im rememberin right, it was when y were tryin to keep from Chris that ya missed yer mornin patrol th other day."
Various snorts could be heard from the other men at Vins words, and Ezra glared at him before turning wary eyes on their leader.
"You wanted me to be oblivious to you missin patrol huh Ezra?" Chris raised a brow at the uncomfortable gambler.
Ezra opened his mouth to speak but was silenced as Chris waved a hand at him. "Never mind. Theres no time for that now, we gotta get back to this plan."
"So, ya think we need someone on the stage?" Buck took up where they left off. "Ridin shotgun or as a passenger?"
"Reckon it should be shotgun," Chris replied after a moments thought. "That way theres a better chance of seein anythin out of the ordinary."
"Ill do it."
Green eyes met blue, and Chris immediately saw the reasoning behind
Vins offer. He nodded. "Jobs yours."
"Hey, now hang on just a cotton pickin minute." Buck shifted his weight agitatedly. "Vins a sharpshooter. Were gonna need him to take some of em out."
Vin held up a hand when Chris went to respond to Bucks objection.
"Thing is Bucklin, I aint seein too clear all the time, since that bullet grazed me. So, Im figurin I can do more ifn m right in where the action is."
"He wouldnt be much good to us far away," Chris put in, trying to help his friend explain. He could see Vin was squirming from all the attention that was suddenly upon him. "Hes better off on the stagecoach where he can get an easy shot off if he needs to. But mostly, itll be his job to take care of the passengers; get them out of harms way we wanna catch this gang, once and for all, not scare half of em off again."
"Jus dont wanna take the chance o not bein able t cover yall, ifn m eyes choose the wrong time t act up," Vin added, hoping that would be the end of the discussion. He was feeling a little unnerved by all the concerned looks he was getting.
"Well if you cant see right, shouldnt you stay here? You cant do much with eyes that dont see too good."
JDs words were hardly out of his mouth before Vin growled back.
"Didnt ya hear what I said? Most o the time theyre jus fine."
The tracker sighed and dropped his head when he saw the uncomfortable looks on the others faces. "Aw hell, Im sorry t bite. Jus not used t people discussin an decidin things fer me." He turned serious blue eyes on each man in turn as he continued. "I know what I can do an when I can do it. I wont let ya down."
Buck was the first to speak. "Heck, we know that, Vin. JD didnt mean anythin by it. He was just worried for ya, thats all."
Vin nodded and turned apologetic eyes on JD. "Im sorry, kid. I know ya meant well."
"Sokay Vin. Im sorry too," JD replied, blushing slightly. "I guess I just did what Buck says I do. Opened my mouth before I woke my brain up."
Everyone chuckled and the tense atmosphere was lifted. "Reckon we all do that sometimes, JD," Buck said finally, grabbing the back of JDs neck and shaking him gently.
"Yeah, I heard it another way step back an ponder."
Five peacekeepers looked from a glaring Chris to a smug looking Vin. Nathan tried to hide the smile on his lips. Sometimes Vin was so sharp he was in danger of cutting himself. He was the only one of the others to know what had passed between the two men in the clinic the day before, and knew exactly what Vin was talking about.
The other men decided it was safer not to ask any questions about Vins last comment. The look on Chriss face as he continued to glare at a grinning Vin Tanner warned them against it.
"Well, then. What do we do Brother?" Josiah asked, breaking the silence that had descended. He knew that the men were now a bit unsettled about Vins condition, and decided to get them back to thinking on the plan.
Chris finally broke eye contact with Vin, took a deep breath, and sat in deep thought. "Like we said earlier, we cant escort the stage or they probably wont attack, we need to travel from a safe distance," he said after a moment of contemplation.
"Why cant we lie in wait for em?" JD asked.
"Because, Mr Dunne, it is unlikely we will be able to fathom where the location of the attack will be," Ezra pointed out.
"Oh yeah." JD dropped his head. He really was not being very bright today, he thought to himself. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked over and smiled at Buck, thanking him for his silent gesture of support.
"We can follow at a safe distance. We know the direction the stage heads in so we dont have to have it in sight. But well be close enough if or when trouble hits." Chris looked from one to the other of the peacekeepers as he spoke.
"Sounds like a plan to me," Buck agreed.
"Reckon so," Vin nodded.
"Alright then. Now thats done lets go get a beer, we can meet again in the mornin to tie up the loose ends." Chris got to his feet. "Im headed for the saloon, anyone else?" he raised an eyebrow as he asked the question.
"Hell yeah, I could do with a beer." Vin stood and stretched, a lazy grin appearing on his face. "My belly aint blivious to knowin it needs liquor."
"Pfft," Ezra uttered as the other men laughed. "Some people are so unrefined."
* * * * * * *
The saloon was quiet when the seven peacekeepers entered. Only two other people were there, and they were dozing at a table near the door.
"Well, looks like were gonna have a lively time," Buck commented as the men walked towards the bar.
"Ya sayin ya dont like our company, Bucklin?"
Buck looked at Vin and smiled. "Hell no, Vin. I love spendin time with you boys." He slapped the tracker on the back. "Itd just be nice to have a little female company is all."
"Aah, now we get to what he really means," Josiah said knowingly.
The men chuckled and, grabbing their newly poured beers, they each took a seat at their usual table by the bar.
"It doesnt appear that I will be playing poker this evening," Ezra said discontentedly as he took a long swig of his beer.
"Ill play a game with ya, Ez," Vin offered.
"The way your eyesight is right now, youll be inventin new cards, like the eighteen o clubs."
Vin looked at Nathan and frowned, but there was a glint in his eyes as he answered. "Like I said, its only off n on it goes like that Nate, an anyways, if Ez can bend the rules, so can I."
Ezra sat forward in his chair, a look of dismay on his face. "Mr Tanner, am I to understand that you believe that I cheat when playing poker?"
"Hell Ezra, I wouldnt dream o thinkin a thing like that," Vin answered playfully. "Is jus goin by what the others tol me."
The audible sighs of the other men made Vin grin.
Chris took a sip of his beer and glared at the tracker. He knew what Vin was trying to do, so did the others. Vin was in a playful mood, and wanted to stir things up a little.
JD decided this was a good time to leave. "Im goin to check on the prisoners." The others nodded or tapped their hats as he left.
Ezra took up the conversation again, enjoying the lively banter. "I will prove to you all that I do not cheat. I will ask the two gentlemen over there " He nodded his head towards the two dozing men by the doors. " to join me in a game, and you can all watch me."
"You cant have people sittin round and not playin Ezra," Chris told the gambler. "Itd make the other players uneasy."
Vin had been frowning at the men Ezra had indicated moments before and the look was not lost on Josiah. "Vin? Whats wrong Brother?"
Chris was the only one to immediately notice the glimmer of wickedness in the tracker's eyes as Vin cocked his head to one side and took a deep breath before he spoke. "Well, ya know Jsiah. I think theres somethin wrong with Ezras eyes. He said there was two men over there." He pointed towards the now snoring men. "But I swear I see four."
Roars of mirth filled the room as the men laughed at Vins joke at his own expense. Even Ezra had to join in when he realised that Vin had directed the joke at himself and not the gambler.
"Well, I shall ask them anyway," Ezra said finally. "However many of them there are. The more the merrier."
He started to get out of his chair when everyones attention was drawn to the batwing doors as they were pushed open wide and a well dressed man strode in.
"Oh Lordy. Its him again," Ezra said as he retook his seat.
"Who?" Chriss eyes never left the man as he watched him look disdainfully around the room.
"That man is enough to try my sanity."
"Sanity Ez?" Buck asked jokingly.
"Mr Wilmington. Do I have to be the brunt of every joke in the ?"
Chris cut Ezra off in mid flow. "Whats wrong with him Ez?"
The gambler looked at the man who was now walking towards the bar. "His name is John Somers. He is from the East, and is a high and mighty stuffed shirt, Mr Larabee." He screwed up his nose and took another sip of beer.
"You two should be friends then," Chris answered with a wicked smile Vins mood was catching.
Ezra was about to reply, but closed his mouth abruptly as a voice from the bar boomed throughout the saloon, making the sleeping men by the door almost jump out of their seats.
"Well, I see the saloon looks no better in daylight." Somers took a handkerchief from his pocket and shook it. He wiped it under his nose, before replacing it once again in his pocket.
"Well, theres other places you can go ifn ya dont like it in here." Vins raspy Texan drawl drew the man's attention to the tracker. He looked him up and down and his face showed that he was not impressed with what he saw.
"I intend to," the stranger said, looking down his nose at the men assembled at the table with Vin. "I am leaving tomorrow on the stagecoach."
He turned his attention away from the peacekeepers before they had time to reply. "Can I have some service here please," he called out haughtily.
Chris snorted. If he carried on that way all he would get was Inez throwing a drink in his face. The thought was pleasing to the gunslinger, and seeing the amused look on Vins face, he knew the tracker was thinking the same thing.
Ezra decided to dismiss the man as easily as he had dismissed them. "Well, would anyone care for a friendly game of poker? I am in need of something to pass the time."
"Ill play ya, Ezra," Nathan responded. "Theres nothin else to do around here. Never seen the town so healthy before."
"Ya sound like yer sorry bout that Nate," Vin observed, raising his eyebrows. "n anyway, how bout them people we gave ya t take care of yesterday?"
Nathan looked at Vin wryly as he picked up the cards Ezra had just dealt him. "They were all dead, Vin," he said, wincing as he took a look at his poker hand.
"Aw hell. Well, at least we gave the undertaker some business."
"Think Nathanll give im some more if ya dont quit teasin Brother."
Vin grinned at Josiah and then his face turned to a look of horror as his head darted around the table. "Who stole m beer?"
"Its right in front of you, Vin," Chris answered the younger man, pushing the tracker's beer glass nearer to him.
Vin looked at him impatiently. "Not that one, the other one that was right next to it." He looked at Buck. "You took it didnt ya? Ya mangy thief."
Buck looked on stunned, as Vin grabbed the ladies' man's beer and pulled it along the table to stand beside his own.
The tracker scratched his head, looking confused as he regarded the two glasses in front of him.
"Whats wrong?" Chris asked, beginning to smell a rat.
"Well, I cant rightly say, Chris," Vin answered, still looking at the glasses with a bemused look on his face. "I could swear I only had one glass there bfore I took that one." He pointed to the beer he had taken from Buck. "But now I got four."
The men at the table once again erupted into laughter as they realised Vin was making fun of his double vision again
Reaching across the table, Buck retrieved his glass from in front of Vin. "Well, in that case, I think the least ya can do is share."
The peacekeepers chuckled again, deciding that maybe things wouldnt be quite so dull after all.
John Somers looked on in appalled silence.
* * * * * * *
The next morning the men congregated in the livery. It was the quietest place in town at that time of day, and they didnt want anyone who may be connected to the gang to see them together.
Nathan watched Vin with a look of concern on his face as the tracker placed his hat carefully on his head. "Shouldna took the bandage off yet, Vin. Could get infected."
"Aw hell Nate, stop yer fussin its fine." Vin held the top of his hat and pulled down on the brim. "There, can ya see the scratch now?"
"Smore than a scratch, Vin," Nathan said, annoyed that Vin was not taking heed of his concern.
The tracker gave Nathan an exasperated look and turned his eyes to Ezra, waiting for a response to his question.
"I cannot see it, Mr Tanner," the gambler informed him finally, "Just remember not to remove your hat and nobody will know the wound is there."
"Heck, Ez. No chance of Vin takin off his hat. I swear its glued to his head," Buck joked.
"Whys it matter if anyone sees a bandage or a scratch?" JD asked, inquisitive as ever.
"Its just a precaution, JD. We dont want any awkward questions raised. Vins gotta blend in and be as normal as possible."
The men all looked to Chris who was leaning against the wall of the livery.
"The way I see it ."Vin began to respond.
"Which aint too clearly," Buck interrupted, earning him a dose of the Tanner look.
Vin tried again. "The way I see it, if the shootin starts it dont much matter ifn I got a bandage round m head or not."
"Theres bound to be some shootin but Im hopin well get the drop on them," Chris replied. "We just gotta bide our time, and catch them in the act."
"Wish I was comin along Brother," Josiah joined in the conversation.
"We need you here, watchin the prisoners, Josiah. If we get held up theres gotta be someone here to hand them over."
Josiah sighed and nodded his head. "Wish I was comin just the same."
Nathan looked back at Vin. "You should be the one to stay behind Vin."
"Aw Nate, Ya drivin me crazy. Aint I said it enough? Sonly now and then I see two of everythin."
Nathan looked worriedly at Vin, not entirely believing him.
"Maybe you should stay here Vin, if Nathan thinks its best. Im not sure I made the right decision."
Vin looked agitatedly at Chris. "Snot only yer decision t make. Im gonna be a part o this plan. I owe this gang." He tapped his forehead, indicating the graze on his head. "Bsides, I thought we went through this yesterday."
Chris regarded him thoughtfully for a moment and finally nodded his head. "Alright then." He looked around at the other men. "Well, everyone know whats goin on?"
The men all nodded yes.
"Well follow behind at a safe distance, Vin," Chris continued. "Any sound of trouble and well be there. Well just follow the usual stage route like we planned."
"You sure they aint gonna smell a rat, Chris? This gang sounds well organised. They could have lookouts," Buck added.
"Thats the chance were gonna have to take. We cant just not do anything seein as we got this information. It could be nothinll happen. I hope it doesnt, but we gotta be ready."
The men grew silent, thinking about the day ahead. The tension was building as they prepared themselves for a possible shoot out.
Vin finally broke the silence.
"Here Chris, take this, could come in handy." The tracker held out his spyglass and Chris smiled and took it from him.
The two men shared a silent look. Holding a conversation without speaking each telling the other to be careful.
"I gotta go," Vin said finally.
Chris nodded. "Alright. Well, this is it boys." They couldnt go with Vin to where the stagecoach was loading its passengers. They could not be seen together. They didnt know who was watching. Vins cover was precarious as it was, without advertising to any strangers that may be around that the tracker was doing anything more than riding shotgun on a stagecoach.
"Good luck Vin. Well be right behind ya," JD said vehemently.
"Yeah, and no-ones gonna act hastily are they JD?" Chris asked the young sheriff.
"Now, why couldnt ya say that t me stead o usin that sayin o yer Mas?" Vin asked, his eyes dancing as he teased Chris as they walked towards the entrance of the livery.
"Weve been through all this Vin. Dont start it on up again." Chris said impatiently. "You know it was just a sayin and I dont wanna hear anymore about it."
Vin opened his mouth to say something else but Chris stopped him with a warning glare.
Vin grinned instead, and the two men stopped as they reached the doors to the livery.
"Just stay cool, until the right moment, and itll work out fine," Chris advised the tracker.
Vin felt a fleeting edginess at Chriss words. "Ya mean step back an ponder right?" he asked, pushing the feeling away.
Chris sighed heavily. "Just look before you leap thats all I ask."
A loud voice from the street drew their attention to the activity around the stagecoach. They both watched as John Somers, the Easterner who was in the saloon the night before, issued orders to the driver before boarding the stagecoach.
"If anything does go down. I hope that wont be a problem." Chris frowned as he spoke.
Vin smiled crookedly. "He wont be, Chris. Hell likely quiver in them fancy boots o his if he sees a gun pointed at im."
Chris smiled back. "Now remember ."
"Chris, if ya say it once more "
The blond nodded, anxiety making him frown. He held out his arm and the two friends clasped forearms in their usual farewell.
"Watch your back." Chris looked intently at the tracker.
Vin nodded. "You too."
Tapping his hat, the Texan walked towards the stagecoach. The other peacekeepers joined Chris at the livery entrance, watching the tracker as he climbed up and sat next to the driver.
As he watched the stagecoach pull out, Chris felt a strange sensation in his gut he didnt like. It was a twisted feeling, like someone was trying to tell him something. The stagecoach disappeared from sight, and Chris turned and followed the others back into the livery; the feeling of dread not leaving him.
Buck slapped him on the back and Chris knew the others were feeling anxious too. It was natural to feel that way when it was likely that there was going to be a gunfight in the not too distant future. But to have one of their own in the middle of it made it worse.
God, what have I done? He asked himself silently. Please let this plan work, and let us all come back in one piece. He decided he was getting too old to be the leader of these men. It came with too many responsibilities, ones he didnt want.
He thought once more of Vin, riding on the stagecoach, and he felt his gut twist again. Why couldnt he shake off that feeling?
Chris looked over at Buck and nodded.
"Ready as Ill ever be," he answered as he mounted Pony. His eyes went from one to the other of the men, all seated on their horses and ready to go. "Lets ride."
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