Chapter 4
Vin felt a prickle at the back of his neck. He cast his eyes sideways at the coach driver and then looked straight ahead once more. He couldn’t put his finger on what was worrying him but ever since they’d pulled out of town, he’d felt an apprehension building up in him. He didn’t feel comfortable with the man at his side. After a brief hello and Vin’s explanation about the original shot gun rider being taken sick and him being hired to fill in, the two men hadn’t spoken, and for the last half an hour the air had been filled with an uneasy silence.

Vin’s unease grew with each step the horses took. He pulled a face and shifted on the uncomfortable seat as he silently admonished himself. ‘Hell Tanner! Yer lettin’ Chris rub off on ya. Everythin’s fine.’

The pep talk he gave himself didn’t work and his back stiffened and senses sharpened as he noticed the driver giving him a scrutinising sideways glance.

Vin touched the top of his gun with his elbow, to reassure himself that it was definitely in it’s holster, and turned to look at the driver again. Their eyes met and Vin nodded and smiled easily, trying to portray a relaxed image, which he didn’t really feel.

Leaning back and trying to appear unworried he was not ready for the sudden change in direction and his body jolted to one side.

"What ya doin’? This ain’t the way we’re supposed to be goin’." Vin frowned at the driver as he straightened himself once more in his seat.

"It’s the way I’m s’posed to go," the driver replied, with a sneer on his face.

Vin didn’t see the blow coming. A hard object hit him on the side of the head and nearly knocked him off of his seat. He grabbed hold of the seat, to stop himself toppling overboard and tried to make sense of the jumble of stars he saw before him and the ringing noise that was rising to a crescendo in his head.

"You ain’t gonna cause no trouble boy, ya hear. Don’t be a hero, be a shotgun rider."

Vin could barely make out the words the driver spat at him, and ‘Great, another bruise’ was his first coherent thought.

He tried to sharpen his wits as he slipped sideways once more, still too stunned to act as the driver continued to steer the horses off course. He was thankful that the driver hadn’t thrown him off of the stagecoach altogether, but his heart hammered in his chest all the same. His vision was more blurred than clear, one head wound was bad enough, but now he had two to contend with, and he was losing the battle.

‘Please Chris, don’t be far behind.’ The tracker thought as he felt himself being grabbed roughly by the arm and pulled upright once more in his seat.

* * * * * * *

The others were further behind than Chris wanted them to be.

As they were riding up the street, on their way out of town, Chris spotted Josiah, outside the jail, hailing them.

The feeling of dread intensified as Chris saw the look on Josiah’s face. Reigning in his horse, he waited for the older man to join them.

"Thought ya should know," the ex-preacher began, as he placed a hand on Pony’s nose distractedly. "I overheard that Luke guy, he was laughing with the other two in there." He cocked his head in the direction of the jail. "Said to them, he didn’t tell ya about the driver bein’ one of their gang."

Chris’s face turned stormy. He sat for a moment, his mind in a quandary. Did they gallop out of town and try and catch up with the stagecoach? Or did they find out first if there was anything else they should know that the son of a bitch in the jailhouse had ‘forgotten’ to mention? Nodding his head as he silently agreed with the decision he’d just made, he signalled for the others to wait for him where they were. Jumping from his horse, he stalked towards the jail, leaving behind him four bewildered men who were wondering what Josiah had said to Chris to make him react the way he had.

"Uh oh. Think Luke’s about to become a soprano," Buck quipped as they watched the gunslinger disappear into the jailhouse, Josiah closely following behind him.

There was a flurry of activity in the cell, as the three outlaws watched the man in black storm into the jail and grab the keys to their prison. His pace did not falter for a second as he walked over to the barred door and put the key in the lock.

The three robbers backed themselves against the wall, their eyes wide as they watched Chris turn the key in the lock and throw the door open.

"What’s goin’ on?" Walt asked as his hands sought the safety of the wall.

"That’s what I want you to tell me." Chris grabbed hold of Luke’s clothes and swung him around, sending his back crashing into the bars.

Josiah quietly closed the barred door and watched from outside the cell.

Luke tried to stand up to the murderous looking man who had a firm grip on his clothes. "You can’t do that t’ me. I’m a prisoner an’ I can’t be treated that way."

Chris gripped the clothes tighter. His face was inches away from the outlaw as he answered through clenched teeth. "You tell me everything you know about the stagecoach hold up and I might let you live."

Luke looked over at his fellow gang members for support, but realised quickly that they were not going to help him.

"Ya mean ‘bout the driver, don’t ya?" he managed to say, his face breaking out into a sweat.

"Ah, so now you mention it." Green eyes glared piercingly at the now terrified outlaw as Chris waited for more.

"The driver’s one of the gang. Don’t know how they pulled it off, like I said, I only heard some of the plan." He waited for the firm grip on his clothes to be released, when it wasn’t he continued. "He’s gonna veer off course and meet up with the others at a spot they picked out."

Chris studied the scared man's face. "Is that all you know? Or is there more you don’t wanna share?"

"That’s it. I swear that’s all I know. Only reason I didn’t tell ya b’fore was ‘cause ya weren’t gonna give me no deal."

"Well, I still ain’t."

Chris released the outlaw, and the frightened man sank to his knees.

"I find out you still lied to me. I’ll hunt you down and kill you, real slow." Chris’s voice was low and menacing and he sent the words home with a green stare that would turn a rock to dust.

He walked to the door Josiah had just opened and nodding at the ex preacher, he walked out of the cell and then the jailhouse, without looking back.

"God go with ya," Josiah said to the retreating back as he locked the cell once more.

Chris walked quickly to his horse, and taking his reins from Ezra, he climbed up. Without looking at the expectant faces he brought the others up to date. "Stagecoach drivers one of the gang."

Four hearts sank into their boots at Chris’s words and, as the gunslinger spurred his horse onward the others were right alongside him.

* * * * * * *

Vin focused his mind enough to decide not to act yet. The driver, as far as he knew, had no idea who he was. So he decided the best course of action was to do nothing...yet. Chris wanted to catch the whole gang, and if he overpowered the driver, which he was pretty sure he could manage, the rest of the gang would most likely get away and he would probably get a bullet in the head. He couldn’t shoot a whole gang at once and he didn’t know how far behind the others were.

He lifted his head, and his blurred vision cleared enough as he looked ahead, to see several men on horseback, their guns aimed at the approaching stagecoach.

They’d picked a good spot, Vin decided, as the stagecoach slowed to a halt. The ground rose up on one side and fell away at the other. It left very few places for anyone to be safe in a shoot out. He cursed inwardly but was confident his six friends; who he hoped were not far behind, would be able to find good vantage points and would either put the gang behind bars or six feet under, where they belonged.

Someone began to speak, and his head shot up, sending a searing pain through his temples. He stifled a groan and made himself concentrate on the situation that seemed to be getting worse by the second.

* * * * * * *

Chris reined in his horse and raised a hand, signalling for the others to slow down. However anxious they were to catch up with the stagecoach, they didn’t want to announce their presence. They continued along at a slower pace, giving Chris’s tormented mind time to process and arrange all of the thoughts he’d been having as they’d galloped along.

The plan had gone to hell. He should have known as soon as they’d tracked down Gerry, the shotgun rider they knew well. They asked him to make out he was sick, leaving the way clear for Vin to announce himself as the temporary replacement. The aged man had told them that the driver was fairly new. Alarm bells should have rung as soon as he’d told them that.

Chris thanked the Lord they hadn‘t told the driver of their plan. At least he was oblivious to the fact that Vin was connected in any way to the town, or at least he hoped so. The gunslinger’s mouth twitched at the corners as he remembered Vin’s use of the word oblivious, reminding him of Vin’s joke at Ezra’s expense. His face turned sombre again quickly, at least one part of their plan had been good. But boy, the rest had been thin; they hadn’t thought it through. Vin shouldn’t be on the stagecoach, they should have stayed together, but it was better with him there.

Chris let out an exasperated sigh. Taking off his hat he wiped his brow with his sleeve, shook the hat twice to dispel some of the dust and then replaced it once more on his head. His thoughts were going around in circles. He’d just taken his own advice, he’d stepped back and pondered, well pondered at least, and what good had it done? For one thing, he was acting after the horse had bolted; all that this pondering was achieving was giving him a headache. He could roll everything over and over in his mind, the decisions they made, the plan they had laid out, but in the end it just brought him back to the situation they were in now.

Why hadn’t one of the others said what a God-awful plan it was? Chris huffed and shook his head. A plan? It would be better to call it a fairy story. This plan had enough holes in it that, if it had been a boat it would have sunk the moment it was launched on the water. Hell! That’s exactly what had happened. He knew they’d taken a few chances when they’d laid out their course of action, but they were chances they’d had to take. No plan was fool proof; it was just that most of them actually had a chance of working.

Not like this one.

And they were sure as hell paying for their sloppiness now.

Chris shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. All he succeeded in doing was letting a pile of questions enter his head.

What if somehow the driver did know that Vin was a plant, that he was a peacekeeper in Four Corners? What if a member or members of the gang were former bounty hunters like Vin and knew who he was? What if the gang had no intention of letting any of the passengers go? What if Vin’s head injury or double vision had rendered him defenceless?

Well, he trusted Vin to handle the situation; as long as he was physically able to. He just hoped his friend was given the chance to handle it and he wasn’t just shot where he stood.

Chris’s tumultuous thoughts were finally halted as he noticed something just ahead of them. He pulled the reins on his horse, and jumped from the saddle before Pony had come to a complete stop. The others did likewise and followed behind their leader silently. Chris wasn’t the only one who’d been fighting a silent battle in his head.

The blond stopped and lowered down on his haunches studying the ground. He hadn’t realised how hard he’d been gritting his teeth until he opened his mouth to speak and felt the ache in his jaw.

* * * * * * *

"Just do what you’re told and you’ll be fine."

Vin felt the tug on his holster as the driver relieved him of his gun. He turned his head and did the best impersonation of a Larabee glare that he could muster, which obviously wasn’t a very good one because all he got in response was a smirk.

"Good job, Cleet."

The man out in front of the rest of the gang dismounted at the same time as the driver climbed down from his seat.

"Thanks Jake, it was easy." The driver followed Jake’s gaze, which had not left Vin from the moment the two sides had met. "He’s the replacement shotgun rider, the older guy took sick in town," Cleet explained, handing Jake Vin’s gun.

Jake took the offered gun and eyed it thoughtfully, turning it over in his hands. Looking back at Vin, his eyes narrowed, he opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted as a head appeared at the window of the stagecoach.

‘Aw hell.’ Vin’s mind cursed as he heard a familiar voice.

"Excuse me, but could someone please tell me what is going on?"

Somer’s question was met by a gun put to his head by a member of the gang who moved up in answer to a nod from Jake, who Vin figured was the leader.

Somers swallowed hard and said nothing, but kept his position at the window.

That dealt with, Jake turned his attention back to Vin, who was wondering whether the other peacekeepers were looking on, or whether he was still on his own.

The leader stepped nearer and looked up at Vin, noticing the blood oozing down the side of the tracker’s face.

"Did he try and be a hero?" Jake directed the question at Cleet.

"Nah, I was just playin’ safe is all," the driver replied, smiling and popping some tobacco into his mouth and beginning to chew.

"Heh heh, never can be too careful. He looks like he won’t even be able to stand up straight. What d’ya hit ‘im with? A rock?"

"Butt of my gun." Cleet spat brown saliva into the dirt.

Jake laughed again. "You’ve half brained ‘im, I reckon." He hadn’t taken his eyes from Vin’s face. Something unnerved him about the long haired man sitting quietly in his seat. He’d hardly moved, but his eyes bore into the outlaw, silently threatening. This got Jake’s hunkers up and he raised his gun, pointing it at Vin’s chest. "Get down from there."

His cold brown eyes bore into Vin’s and the tracker answered by staring straight back, and not moving a muscle.

Jake’s facial expression turned hard, the anger visible in the set of his jaw.

"Get him down from there!" he bellowed and Cleet and two other men hastened forward.

Vin felt very woozy. His head was throbbing mercilessly, it was hot, and he really wasn’t sure what he’d gotten into. He felt himself being grabbed roughly and was half dragged from his seat. His feet hit the ground, but his legs buckled under him and he found himself on his knees in the dirt. ‘Concentrate. Clear yer mind. Act cool. Step back. Ponder.’ His mind was a jumble of words as he tried to focus himself on what was taking place. He knew he had to have a clear head. Closing his eyes he willed himself to fight away the fog enveloping his mind. He sighed an inaudible sigh as he finally managed to clear his senses, looking up he was met by the barrel of a gun.

"On yer feet." Jake’s command was hard to obey as he was kicked hard in the ribcage. He refused to let the outlaws see how much it had hurt, and with quiet determination he slowly raised himself onto unsteady legs.

Jake stared hard at Vin for several more seconds before motioning to two of his men. "Watch him."

As the men moved into position, their guns aimed at the sharpshooter, Jake moved towards the stagecoach. Pulling the door open he issued another order. "Get out! All of ya!"

John Somers almost fell in his haste to do as he was bid, and was closely followed by a man and a woman.

"Over there." Jake waved his gun at the spot he wanted the passengers to go to and then he headed back towards Vin.

An older man walked up beside the leader. "Hey Jake. Why are we takin’ our time with this? We usually do a quick in and out."

Jake stopped, his face inches from Vin’s. He looked the Texan straight in the eye as he answered. "Why? ‘Cause I wanna know who he is." He poked Vin hard in the chest with his gun, and Vin again held back the groan his mouth badly wanted to release. "’Cause he sure as hell ain’t no shotgun rider."

* * * * * * *

"They went off course here," Chris informed the other men as he frowned down at the stagecoach tracks in the dirt. "There’s only the coach tracks, so the driver was still alone at this point."

Vin was still with the stagecoach, that was obvious, but had he been found out? Chris squeezed his eyes tightly shut, quelling the thoughts that had entered his head. He pushed himself to his feet and once more mounted his horse. Looking straight ahead he spoke to the other men. "Let’s go, but take it easy. I think we gotta be ready to split. We don’t want them to see us ‘til we wanna be seen."

As they moved forward slowly and warily, Chris felt the knot in his stomach tighten once more as he wondered if Vin was still alive. He shook his head; he had to think about more positive things. Things like what they were going to do once they found the stagecoach. What did they expect to achieve? They would have to hold back on the gunfire, if it came to it, because for one Vin would be down amongst the outlaws, not forgetting that there were passengers too. The plan had been for Vin to get the passengers clear of gunfire, so they’d be safely out of the way. He just hoped Vin was still alright to do that.

"Chris? Shall I scout on ahead a ‘ways?" Bucks voice brought the gunslinger back from his meandering thoughts.

"Good idea Buck. Watch your back."

"I’ll leave that to you friend," the scoundrel replied with a smile before spurring his horse forward.

Ezra quickly took Buck’s vacated spot beside Chris. "Mr Larabee. It occurred to me that there are a number of holes in our plan."

"Yeah Ezra. That occurred to me too."

"Do you have any idea as to how to fill some of these crevices?"

"’Fraid not Ezra. We’re gonna have to do it by the seat of our pants and hope we don’t land on ‘em"

"Oh dear. I was afraid you were going to say that. And I have my best pants on too."

Chris turned to the gambler and smiled despite himself. "Best you pray we don’t mess up then."

"Oh Mr Larabee. I knew there was a further reason we should have brought Mr Sanchez along. I believe he is the person best suited to that job."

JD and Nathan, who’d been listening to the exchange of words between the two men, snorted in unison. Thankful for anything to release the pent up tension that had been with them since they’d set out.

The sound of galloping hooves caused the four men to draw their guns, only to lower them again when Buck appeared from around a curve in the trail.

It was clear that the ladies' man had news and the peacekeepers waited expectantly for him to reach them.

Buck pulled on his horse’s reins and sidled in once more alongside Chris. He didn’t wait to get his breath back before he spoke. "Not far ahead. Stagecoach is surrounded by around ten men. Vin’s with ‘em. He’s okay."

Chris held back the sigh of relief. "Alright. What’s the surrounding area like?"

"Not good Chris." Buck had finally caught his breath. "Goes up one side, down the other."

This time Chris didn’t hold back the deep sigh of frustration. Was anything going to go in their favour? "Alright then. Can we go around back? Maybe get up high?"

"Yeah, that’s easy. We can spread out at either end of ‘em. Cut ‘em off in both directions."

"Lets do it…Buck, JD, You’re with me. Ezra and Nathan, you go beyond us and cover them from behind."

They moved quietly, and soon reached their given positions. So far they hadn’t been seen. There had always been the chance that there were look- outs posted, but it seemed that luck was on their side for once.

Once the horses were secure, Chris eased himself along the ground, laying flat on his stomach. He squinted, trying to make out the scene below. He suddenly remembered Vin had given him his spyglass and he reached in his pocket and retrieved it. Buck and JD moved either side of him as he extended the spyglass and put it to his eye.

He counted nine outlaws in all. Three passengers…one a woman. His chest tightened as he caught sight of Vin. He was separated from the passengers and two outlaws were standing near him. The younger of the two was standing only inches away from the tracker, Vin’s gun was in his hand and he was looking none too friendly as he prodded Vin in the chest. "Damn it all to hell, what’s goin’ on down there?" Chris asked aloud, as he handed Buck the spyglass. The ladies' man raised it to his eye, taking in the same scene his friend had just witnessed.

Chris heard Buck’s voice in his left ear. "I don’t know Chris, but whatever it is, it don’t look good."

* * * * * * *

Vin decided he really didn’t like the quiet approach. He knew he was supposed to hold back but this guy was really starting to piss him off. Where were the others? And if they were around, what the hell was he supposed to do? They hadn’t talked about when the shooting should start, or when the ‘give up and surrender’ speech should come up. It suddenly dawned on Vin that they hadn’t talked much about anything. Just threw the plan together and that was it. He felt a little as though he’d been thrown into the Lions den. What the hell was he supposed to do surrounded by eight or ten outlaws and three innocent bystanders with no gun, and eyesight that was just about as helpful as a chocolate cooking pan?

Jake and Vin stared hard at each other for what seemed to the tracker like an eternity. The sun was hurting his eyes and all he wanted right now was to be sitting in the cool dark saloon with a beer in front of him, listening to Buck and JD having one of their usual bantering sessions.

But, it was no good pondering on that. Pondering. That thought took his mind back to Chris’s words of advice. In all of the situations that he’d found himself in in the past, he’d always been sure of himself. He had known instinctively how to react, what to do in a given situation. But Chris had put the seed of doubt in him and he realised he couldn’t afford to feel that way, especially not now. He put his thoughts on hold when he realised the man on the other side of their staring match was about to speak.

"How’d ya hurt yer head?" Jake asked, leaning forward and snatching Vin’s hat from the sharpshooter’s head.

"Yer man there." Vin nodded in Cleet’s direction. "He hit me with somethin’."

Jake’s lip turned up on one side, but it was more of a leer than a smile. "Not that one. That one," he emphasised his words by hitting the bullet scrape on Vin’s head with the back of his hand.

Vin winced; not being able to avoid closing his eyes as the hard contact sent a pain shooting through his temple. Oh boy, was he ever gonna have a good time when he could fight back.

"Got caught up in a gunfight in Four Corners. A bank robbery." Vin knew he had to play for time, he decided the best thing was to keep as close to the truth as he could, only bending it when he had to. The way his head was hurting he wouldn’t be able to remember what tale he had weaved if he made up a wild story.

The outlaw narrowed his eyes. "What were ya doin’ in the path of a bullet?" He handed Vin’s hat back to him, almost absent mindedly as he asked the question.

"It happened quick. Was walkin’ along when all hell broke loose. I tried to get outta the way fast, but the bullet was faster." Vin put his hat on his head and then pushed it backwards so it hung down his back by the string.

Jake looked thoughtful and half turned his head to where the remainder of his men were covering their other prisoners.

"Joe, get up here."

Another of the outlaws stepped forward and walked towards the three men. "Yeah boss?"

Vin’s heart sank. It was one of the men who had robbed the bank in town. The one who’d got away when JD had pulled his little ‘breaking cover’ trick.

"You recognise him?" Jake pushed the older outlaw, who had remained at his side after complaining about not getting away quickly, to one side, allowing Joe to step closer.

Vin’s heart hammered as he stared back at the scrutinising grey eyes in front of him. If something didn’t happen soon he knew he was gonna have to make something happen. His nerves were raw, his head ached, and all he wanted was a quiet life. He made himself a promise to shoot Chris next time he saw him. ‘Step back and ponder’ could go take a running jump into the nearest river. He had to stop himself from nodding his head firmly in agreement.

"Nah, never seen ‘im. Why?" Joe finally spoke, once more bringing Vin’s mind back to the God-awful situation he was in.

"Never mind." Jake swept his arm across Joe’s body, sending the man backwards and out of the way. He took a step closer to Vin…so close they were almost touching.

"What were ya doin’ in town?"

"Fergive me fer askin’, but why d’ya need to know everythin’ ‘bout me? I ain’t gonna stop ya robbin’ this stage. I couldn’t give a buffalo’s ass what ya do." Vin couldn’t hold his tongue anymore, he knew he would probably pay for his impatience but he figured it was worth it, just to release some of the frustration he was feeling.

He was right. In a fraction of a second, Jake’s face had twisted into a look of unbridled anger and he sent a blow to Vin’s stomach with the butt of the sharpshooter’s gun that made the tracker double over and fall onto his knees, gasping for breath.

Before he could cough he felt himself being dragged to his feet by his hair and a voice bellowed in his ear.

"What were ya doin’ in town?!"

* * * * * * *


Chris took the spyglass away from his eye, cursing as loudly as he dare. "What do we do Buck?" he looked to his oldest friend with a look of helplessness on his face. "If we start shootin’ we could hit people we don’t wanna hit. If we don’t, they could all die anyway."

Buck sighed. "I think we should let Vin handle it for a while longer. He’s doin’ alright down there Chris."

Buck watched the green eyes of the gunslinger grow wide. "You think? Well, it looks to me like he’s gonna get himself killed."

"Give him some credit," Buck hissed, making Chris realise he’d been speaking a little too loudly. "The only one getting threatened right now is Vin, and let’s face it, he’s used to it. Let him handle it Chris. We’ll know when we gotta do something."

Chris wiped his tired eyes with his hand. "I know you’re right, Buck. I’m just mad we didn’t figure this out. We should’ve just gone in with our guns blazin’ and kept Vin with us."

Buck chuckled. "Don’t let him hear ya talkin’ about him that way ol’ friend, I can just imagine the cussin’ that’d come outta that Texan mouth of his." Buck did an impeccable Vin impersonation. "I ain’t no mangy dawg ya gotta keep with ya. I don’t wear a lead an’ I don’t intend t’ Larabee, so shut yer damn mouth." Buck looked at Chris, whose mouth was twitching at the corners. "Of course, that was the clean Wilmington version."

It was JD’s turn to chuckle. He tried to memorise Buck’s rendition so that, when all of this was over, he could repeat it to the others. He knew they’d get a kick out of it!

"Go to hell, Buck," Chris managed through a grin.

The two men turned back to the scene below, suddenly guilty that, for a moment they’d forgotten all about what was happening directly below them. ‘We’re all downright crazy’ Chris said to himself as he once more put the spyglass to his eye and resumed watching the scene below.

* * * * * * *

Vin struggled to get his breath, and fought to keep from wincing again. He hugged his stomach, still slightly bent forward from the hard blow. Raising his eyes to the angry man in front of him, he let out two more long breaths before he spoke.

"I’m jus’ driftin’ from town t’ town. Doin’ odd jobs…" a cough he couldn’t hold back stopped the rest of his answer.

Jake cocked his head to one side, as he regarded the man in front of him. He couldn’t help it; he liked him. He liked the defiance he saw in the Texan’s eyes. The ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude reminded him of himself a few years ago. Yeah, he reckoned he could get to really like this gutsy young man whose eyes were almost sparking daggers at him.

Vin was more than startled by Jake’s next question.

"Wanna join up with us?"

The older man by the leader’s side shifted his weight from one leg to another and let out a loud, angry sigh.

"Dammit Jake! What the hell are ya thinkin’? We’re out here in the open, at the risk of gettin’ shot at, and yer askin’ someone ya just met to join up with us? What the hell’s wrong with ya? Ya gone plain loco?"

"Shut yer mouth!" Jake’s voice thundered, as he pushed the object of his wrath so hard he fell back sprawling into the dirt. "Don’t ever question me again, Seth" He threatened, more quiet but somehow more deadly.

Vin was glad of the distraction. He’d managed to regain his breath and was thinking clearly again. As Jake turned back to him he knew how he would answer the latest question.


Vin stared hard at the gang leader and answered simply. "No."

"Why not?"

"'Cos I don’t like the look o’ the company ya keep."

Several of the men took umbrage to Vin’s words and shuffled their feet, cursing under their breaths. One look from their leader halted any further response.

Vin’s heart sank as a new voice entered the array.

"Well, you didn’t seem to mind mixing with that rough bunch of people in Four Corners."

Vin let out another slow breath. Did God have something against him today? He felt that he was fighting a losing battle. Every time he thought he was in control of the situation, something happened. This time it was a stuffed shirt who was gonna end up with a bullet hole in his head if Vin ever got his gun back.

"Who’s he talking about?"

Vin stepped back as Jake took a step towards him. "Not sure. Drifters like me I reckon. Didn’t ask ‘em. Jus’ shared a table with ‘em."

Jake nodded his head slowly. "Right then." He turned away from Vin and dismissed him as though he’d just set eyes on him and was not interested in his presence. Vin was only too pleased to watch him go. Although he was aware of two members of the gang moving towards him, covering him with their guns.

"What are you going to do with us?" John Somers asked the gang leader, as he stopped in front of the frightened passengers.

"Do? Nothing. Just want yer valuables is all."

"You mean, all of this circus has been for the sole purpose of stealing our possessions?" The nuisance stepped forward, which was a mistake.

With lightning speed three of the gang descended on him, knocking him to his knees, Vin’s gun was pointed at his head and Jake spat venomous words at the frightened man cowering on the ground.

"You ain’t in any position to act the way ya just did. We can steal from ya just as easy if yer dead."

Vin’s mind was in turmoil. Chris’s words came back to him. Four words and he was reduced to an indecisive mess. He had lost his capacity for using his instincts. Hell, he couldn’t feel one ounce of instinct. What did he do? Did he intervene? Did he let them kill the man kneeling frightened on the ground? Because, sure as hell, in some ways he deserved all he got.

Vin continued to falter as he watched Jake tighten his finger on the trigger. He could hear the woman passenger sobbing quietly. He felt himself grow hot, and his body weight started to lean forward.

* * * * * * *

Chris’s mouth was a hard line, his conversation with Vin in the clinic came back to him in a rush as he watched the scene below him. He was trying to will Vin to stay where he was. The words were turning over and over in his mind. ‘Stay where you are Vin. Don’t move.’

Normally he would have had complete faith in his friend. But this time he wasn’t sure, not after the way Vin had reacted in town the other day, almost getting himself killed in the process. ‘C’mon Vin. Step back and ponder. Don’t do it unless you have to.’

"Reckon he can hear ya?" Chris turned to look at Buck, startled by the ladies man's question.

A smile played on Buck’s lips. "I know you’re talkin’ to ‘im Chris. We all know you and Vin talk in your heads."

Chris turned back to face front, not answering Buck’s remark. "Get ready with your gun boys. I reckon all hell’s gonna be let loose real soon."

* * * * * * *

Ezra and Nathan were laying low. They’d been watching the events play out too. But their view was somewhat restricted. All they could really make out were people’s backs. They were startled by the sudden rush of activity as the obnoxious Somers was sent onto his knees and a gun was pointed at his head.

"It seems our friend has a tendency to make enemies easily," Ezra observed.

"Yeah, reckon you’re right Ezra. I just hope he don’t get Vin or them other two passengers killed while he’s shootin’ off his mouth."

"I share you’re worry Mr Jackson. And it would be helpful if we knew what our illustrious leader required of us."

Nathan shared Ezra’s frustration. It was all very well being spread out like they were, but how were they meant to know when they were needed?

As if on cue, JD appeared from behind them. He held up his hands hastily when he was greeted by two guns pointed at his chest.

"Hell, JD. Ya took years offa my life." Nathan uncocked his gun and, along with Ezra, waited for JD to speak.

"Chris sent me over, said to get ready, nearly time to move." He looked at Ezra. "He said for you to be ready to head off after anyone that managed to get away, if we’re still shooting here."

The two men nodded their heads in unison and readied their guns as JD headed back the way he’d come.

* * * * * * *

Chris could see the change in Vin’s stance. He wasn’t going to stay out of it was he? The gunslinger knew the answer to that question and it wasn’t the answer he wanted.

"Vin, what did I tell you?" Chris said quietly, hardly noticing as JD rejoined him at his side. "Shit, he’s gonna get himself killed."

* * * * * * *

Vin’s heart was somersaulting. If he didn’t act quickly it would be too late. However annoying Somers was, he didn’t deserve to die. He knew the situation was not going to diffuse and so he finally made up his mind. The thoughts had passed through his head in seconds His heart hammered in his chest, reaching a crescendo. ‘Sorry Chris’ he said silently as his body weight leaned further forward; and it didn’t take much effort to lunge towards Jake, startling everyone assembled for long enough to knock the gun out of the leaders hand.

"Leave him be!" Vin ordered defiantly, glaring at the stunned outlaw a few inches in front of him.

Vin felt all the air leaving his body as he was hit from behind by a force he couldn’t battle against. He hit the ground hard and before he could move, a boot was pressed heavily onto the side of his head, pinning it to the ground; his heavy breathing making the dust rise up from the ground and fly into his eyes. He felt a knee in his back and his arms were held tightly behind him. He felt breath on his neck before he heard Jake’s voice by his ear. "Now why did ya go and do that? I was startin’ to like ya."

"Reckon yer’ll wanna keep him alive. He’s worth money. Was in town to find property fer a hotel," Vin lied.

"Is that right, what he’s sayin’?" Jake directed the question at the startled passenger who was still on his knees.

"Er yes, it is," Somers replied, his voice shaking. He looked questioningly at Vin; surprised at the way the savage looking man with the long hair had acted in an effort to save him.

Vin felt his hair being pulled back, pulling his head back painfully with it. Jake’s face came down to Vin’s level. "What’s yer name boy?"

"Tell me yer’s n’ I’ll tell ya mine." It was painful to talk. His throat was tight from his head being pulled back so far, but he figured he had nothing to lose; if he was shot now, at least his final act may have saved someone else from an early grave.

Jake cursed and Vin’s head dropped hard to the ground as his hair was released. A boot once more held his head firmly on the ground and he groaned as he was kicked in the side.

The tracker tensed as he heard a gun being cocked and felt cold metal against his neck.

"NO! VIN! NO!"

The loud exclamation startled the entire ensemble, and Vin let out a loud groan as he recognised JD’s voice filling the air.

There was a split second of silence before gunfire erupted from every direction.

Vin was grabbed from behind, hauled to his feet, and dragged, along with the other passengers to the other side of the stagecoach, out of immediate harms way. Jake and four of the gang were with them and Jake spoke quickly and urgently.

"Take these two and get the hell out of here." He thrust Vin and the obnoxious Somers, at Joe and Cleet. "We’ll hold ‘em off."

"Why don’t we kill him?" asked Joe, prodding Vin in the chest.

"'Cause, the men who’re shootin’ at us obviously know him. So he makes a good hostage. Ya can hurt ‘im if ya have to but keep ‘im alive."

Cleet and Joe smiled and nodded. They began to drag their two prisoners roughly towards a cluster of trees where the horses were ground tied.

Vin wasn’t going to be taken anywhere without a fight. He managed to wrestle free from one of the men, but his stab at freedom was short lived. A white hot pain lanced into his thigh, making his leg buckle underneath him. Another searing pain erupted as he was dragged to his feet and hit on the side of the head, sending him into darkness.

* * * * * * *

"Shit!" Chris cursed loudly, after seeing a knife being driven deep into Vin’s leg, and then watching as he was hit on the head, rendering him unconscious.

The gunfire continued; the men helpless to go to the aid of their friend. They could just watch as he was unceremoniously slung over a horse and tied onto the saddle. The son of a bitch from the saloon was manhandled onto another horse and they were led away from the battle, leaving behind five very worried men.

Chris stood and waved an arm towards the area he knew Ezra and Nathan were situated. He wanted Ezra to get started on Vin’s trail before they lost him altogether. He needn’t have worried, Ezra was mounted and ready to go the moment Vin was thrown over the horses back. He didn’t care what happened to the infuriating Somers, but there was no way he was going to lose sight of his friend.

Chris continued to fire at the outlaws below him, hoping that the remaining two passengers were safe.

He realised he’d been foolish by not retaking his previous position; lying flat on the ground, when he felt a sharp, searing pain in his upper shoulder; the force of which propelled him backwards.

His mind registered the fact he’d been shot the same time as he hit the ground.


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