Vin lapsed in and out of consciousness. Each time he awoke, he tried to memorise some of the sounds he heard. Hoping that, if he ever got himself out of this mess, he would be able to figure out where he was, and know how to get home quickly. He didnt bother trying to look around him, the awkward position he was in made it almost impossible to see anything other than the ground. But he heard plenty. Theyd been riding alongside a stream, or maybe a small river for quite a time, and the ground had been more or less flat throughout the journey, as far as he could remember. He could hear the faint murmurs of his captors as they talked and laughed. He knew Somers was there somewhere, but hadnt heard a sound from him, which Vin thought was unusual, seeing as how it was him not being able to keep his mouth shut that hadnt helped their situation.
He struggled as much as he could against the bonds that tied him down, they were not too tight, and Vin thought maybe; just maybe he could get himself free and at least attempt to escape. He just wished he had more energy, he wasnt sure what his chances of survival were if he did free himself, he had no gun after all. But his survival instincts had kicked in and he was almost powerless to stop himself from at least trying to get himself out of trouble.
He felt himself getting weaker again; the pain in his leg was intense. There was another thing that would definitely hinder his escape. These outlaws were clever; they knew what they were doing. The only satisfaction Vin took from the situation was that, as far as he knew anyway, the gang had come away from this particular hold up, empty handed. Unless they counted their hostages as an achievement.
Vin knew he was about to lose consciousness again, his head started to swim and he felt sickness rising in his throat. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He knew his stomach was empty, and did not relish the thought of having to endure dry heaving. He let himself float into oblivion; at least there it didnt hurt so damn much.
* * * * * * *
Jake Harlow was not a bad man; well thats what he told himself anyway. He didnt go out to kill people for the hell of it; he only killed if he had to. The killing was becoming more frequent though, but he put that down to his trigger- happy men. No, he didnt like to kill; he was in it for the money.
He looked over to the man riding beside him. Now Seth was a mean cuss, he had to constantly rein him in, hed been a left over from Jakes Fathers old gang, and he would shoot anyone who looked at him the wrong way.
The hold up had gone badly wrong. He grinned a crooked grin at the thought. Hell, not one part of it had gone right. Theyd come away empty handed, and half of the gang were probably dead. Hed lost a lot of men over the last few days, mostly thanks to the seven peacekeepers of Four Corners.
Hed been warned about messing with them, but he had to admit to himself that he had thought, wrongly he realised now, that he and his gang could out wit them.
The only thing that had come out of the botched hold up was the fact that they had two hostages. Both were valuable in different ways. If the long haired man was telling the truth, then that loud mouth passenger could be worth something, he just wasnt quite sure what to do about it.
As for the seemingly fearless shot gun rider, who was so obviously not a shot gun rider, well, Jake was almost certain, he was one of the seven peacekeepers, and he was the man who would keep them alive, and maybe, just maybe, keep them free.
He frowned. He had liked the feisty young man, he had more guts in his little finger than some of his men had in their whole bodies, and Jake had only been half joking when hed asked him to join up with them. But that was before he knew he was one of those seven men. He was worried about Seth though. That old man had it in for the young feller, he was pretty sure of that, and he was going to be hard pressed to keep him from killing him at the first opportunity.
Jake sighed, and shifted his weight in his saddle.
Sometimes he had to show his men that he was tough, and also remind them he was the boss. Hed been grateful when one of the men who had so obviously been watching them from the high ground had called out. What had he called him? Tim? No, that didnt suit his prisoner at all, there was no way his name was Tim. He shook his head to clear the strange thinking and returned to where he had left his thoughts. Yes, hed been glad when that voice had rung out, because he didnt want to shoot the long-haired man, but he would have had to, his men were watching him, and there was only one course of action until he was saved by that shout.
Thou shalt not kill was a commandment he didnt like to break too often, and hed been saved from that today; he just hoped the same could be said for tomorrow.
Seth Banks was not a happy man. Hed tried to warn Jake that they were taking too long over the robbery. They should have just done what they had to and got the hell out. But Jake had to start asking that skinny, long haired bastard all those crazy questions. Why did he do that? In Jakes Fathers day, if they were unsure of someone they just put a bullet in them.
Jake was soft, that was the only answer Seth could come up with. Hed been left too much with his Mother, and she had taught him too many God fearing ways; and one day, that would be his downfall.
Well, Jakes determination to have a pleasant conversation with that son of a bitch had left them with nothing except a posse on their tail. He just hoped that their hide out was as secluded as they thought it was, because it was about the only thing that was solid right now.
The plan had been to hold up the stage, rob the passengers and check for anything valuable and then high tail it into Mexico to lay low for a couple of months. Theyd been running wild in the area for a while now and needed things to calm down before they started planning any new robberies. It had always worked before, and there was no reason to think it wouldnt have this time.
But now they had prisoners. Prisoners for Gods sake! What the hell was Jake doing? What were they supposed to do with them?
Seth looked over at his leader. Even in his forties he still looked like a kid to the old man. Jakes features were a lot like his Fathers, but that sure as hell was where the similarities ended.
Well, he would see to it that they didnt have the hostages for long. Jake would come to his senses and they could get their asses across the border to Mexico a lot quicker without the added burden of those two men. They didnt really have to go to the cabin. Most of the men were dead, and it had only been in the plan to meet there so that they could look at what theyd managed to get out of the robbery that day.
Still, if thats what their leader wanted, then that was enough for now.
He looked ahead and saw that they had almost caught up with Cleet and the others, he was about to spur his horse on when Jake put an arm out to stop him. Turning to his leader he wondered what was happening as Jake put a finger to his lips and with his other hand, point to a cluster of trees.
Seth squinted his eyes to try to see what Jake was seeing, and the moment he did he pulled his gun from its holster and fired before Jake had time to stop him.
* * * * * * *
Vin was annoyed that his hat was getting wet.
He realised then that he still had his hat! Chris was right, the only time he lost it was when it was shot off! A small smile touched his lips at the thought. "Its not on m head now, pard, and it werent shot off this time," he whispered to his friend, who was Lord knows where right now. He frowned as he thought of the others, hoping that they were all alright.
Vin watched as his hat dangled precariously below him, it was caught either between him and the saddle or was still around his neck, he wasnt sure, but it was definitely hanging from its string. How had he missed it when hed thrown up? He squinted his eyes, he couldnt see anything messy on there, but then again, he wasnt seeing too good right now.
It dawned on him then that he was getting wet too. His face was being splashed by cool water, that must have been what woke him. He opened his mouth and tried to catch some of the water, his throat was dry as the desert. The splashing grew until he was flinching and closing his eyes against the stinging the water was causing. He heard laughter and realised that he was deliberately being sprayed with water by the two outlaws. He could hear Somers protesting too, telling him that he was also a victim of the onslaught.
Vin realised they were crossing a stream, well it was more like a river, but they were crossing at a shallow part, but were travelling diagonally. That meant they could be in the water for a while, but that suited him fine. The water was helping to keep him conscious. When the splashing subsided, he was pretty sure that the outlaws attention was turned away from him. He took the opportunity to struggle against his bonds once again. They were definitely getting looser. He grimaced as he realised he was in agony. His leg was hurting beyond measure, he could not see clearly and his head was pounding mercilessly. On top of that his ribs were aching, the constant movement of his body against the hard saddle was taking its toll. How long had they been riding? It felt like late afternoon now so it must have been a few hours. He knew he was going to pass out again very soon, even the water wasnt enough to keep his mind from shutting down once again.
* * * * * * *
Buck wondered when it had all started going wrong and it didnt take him long to figure out that it had started the minute theyd all risen from their beds that morning. JD had been quiet since theyd started tracking; his only communication was when he pointed out anything that would help them to stay on the right trail.
It was the driver that ruined everything. Buck decided as he and JD continued to make their way slowly along. If it had been the ideal situation that theyd planned on, Vin would probably have been with the other passengers during the hold up and he would have been able to guide them to safety when the shooting began.
But the driver had obviously disabled him and brought attention to Vin and then everything had spiralled out of control.
That would teach them for planning on a perfect situation instead of making a good plan.
"Hold on Buck." JD jumped down from his horse and walked over to some spot just in front of where the older man sat waiting on his horse. The young peacekeeper had been very subdued and quiet during their ride, and Buck was pretty sure he knew why. The boy couldnt help acting impulsively and now Vin was in danger.
The going was slow as they tried to follow the precarious trail left by the gangs horses and it was frustrating to know that they were losing ground. After all, the outlaws knew where they were heading Buck and JD didnt. The only light on the dark horizon was knowing that Ezra was out there, keeping closer track of their movements, hed maybe even had the opportunity to rescue Vin, but it was doubtful.
JD climbed back into his saddle and altered direction without speaking, Buck following alongside. He was just grateful that Vin had been teaching JD how to track, that was another thing in their favour.
Buck cast a glance at his young friend. JDs mouth was set in a hard line. His eyes looked as though they would spout tears at any moment. The ladies' man wanted to reach out and squeeze the younger mans arm, but thought better of it, JD needed to be alone with his thoughts for now. Buck didnt blame him for what had happened, but a bit of pondering on what hed done wouldnt hurt the youngster one bit.
As their horses neared a bend in the trail Buck wondered what was ahead, and he hoped that whatever it was, it had better not be bad. A lot of lives were at stake here, and he wasnt only thinking about people being dead.
* * * * * * *
Ezra pulled up sharply when he realised that he would be in plain sight if he didnt hide. The group hed been following were crossing some shallow water and he moved his horse into the shadows of some trees so as not to be seen.
As he watched the outlaws and their prisoners move diagonally through the water he let his thoughts wander. He wondered how everything was progressing back at the scene of the hold up. With Vin and Somers out of the picture, and the other two passengers safely tucked behind the stagecoach, the men had free rein to fire at the outlaws, without having to worry about hitting anyone they didnt want to. He just hoped he could do his part of the job satisfactorily. So far so good. He was keeping Vin in sight and, at the moment, there were only two men.
Hed wondered fleetingly whether to mount a rescue attempt. He could take one of the men out quickly, but he knew with certainty that the other would have time to put a bullet in Vin before Ezra could shoot him down too. He could try, but was he willing to take the risk? A few months ago he would have gone against the odds, to see if he could do it or not. But now he was not willing to gamble with Vins life, and there was the other hostage to consider, even if he detested the man, he didnt wish to inflict a horrid death on him.
Ezra tilted his head in wonder. When had he gone soft? It had been instilled in him by his Mother from an early age that every situation had a good advantage. All he had to do was find it. Weigh up the odds and as long as he came out of it intact, then the odds were good. But now he had friends to consider and hed changed the rules. His Mother wouldnt be happy at this revelation, he knew. But that didnt matter to him. His friends were important to him, and Chris had put his trust in him.
Everybody knew about the strong bond between Vin and Chris; it was an unspoken knowledge. He wasnt sure whether he would have been the one Chris would have chosen to follow the escaping outlaws if the gunslinger had known in advance that Vin would be a hostage. But he wasnt about to let down either Chris or Vin now, they were all depending on him to keep their friend safe, and that was what he intended to do.
Ezra still had doubts about whether all of his six friends trusted him completely. Heaven knows; hed given them enough reasons not to over the time theyd all been together. But he knew that, of all of them, Vin put his trust in him the most.
Ezras chest pushed out a little as the thought went through his head. That was all that he asked for, trust; and if Vin trusted Ezra to watch his back then he sure as hell wasnt going to let the tracker down.
He watched as the four horses moved further along through the water, they still travelled diagonally and Ezra began to worry that he would lose sight of them, and lose Vin. He winced as he considered the pain Vin must be experiencing, not only from his injuries, but from the awful position he was being carried along in; slung belly down over a horses back. Although they were not travelling quickly it was fast enough to cause a hell of a lot of discomfort.
The gambler decided that the entourage was far enough ahead for him to follow them safely, he realised he wouldnt be able to travel through the water yet, but he had to keep them in sight. It was imperative.
Ezra leaned over his horses head and whispered in the animals ear. "Ready my friend? Time to proceed."
He kicked Chaucers sides with his heels just as a shot rang out. He felt a searing pain rip through his side and immediately after, felt a hot sensation go down the side of his body. He sat stunned and helpless from shock for a few seconds and then felt himself begin to slide from his saddle and watched, his eyes wide, as the ground grew closer. His heart sank as he realised what it meant. Im sorry Vin. It was the last of his thoughts before he hit the dirt with a thud, but was thankfully unconscious before he felt the impact.
* * * * * * *
Nathan was relieved when he caught his first glimpse of Four Corners. It had taken what seemed like hours but had actually been less than two, to get the stagecoach safely and gently back to town.
Chris was mercifully still out cold, well Nathan had assumed he was, having not heard any growling or roaring coming from inside the carriage.
He led the team of horses through the street, people stopping and looking curiously as the stagecoach went past; and Nathan was relieved when he saw Josiah approaching as he drew up at the clinic.
Josiah was on his way to the livery. He couldnt sit around and wait any longer. He had important information and had to warn Vin, if it wasnt too late. Hed been wondering what was happening out there. He thought that by now at least some of his friends should have returned. It had to have gone horribly wrong, he felt it in his gut.
He heard noises coming down the street as he neared the livery and spun around, his eyes growing wide as they met the sight of Nathan driving the stagecoach, a look of deep worry on his face.
Josiah covered the distance quickly and raised his eyebrows questioningly at Nathan as the healer climbed down from the drivers seat. "Trouble Brother?" the ex-preacher enquired.
"You have no idea," Nathan replied as he walked to the door of the coach and opened it, with Josiah hard on his heels.
"Ive got some news too," Josiah informed him, but any further words were quelled and his heart sank when he saw the unconscious form of Chris Larabee, blood seeping through the hastily applied bandage at the man's shoulder.
"Sokay Josiah. Looks worse than it is. Buck knocked him out. He wanted to take off after Vin."
"Reckon weve both got some explaining to do," Josiah stated as he helped Nathan and the passengers get Chris out of the carriage.
"I got him Nathan, you go up and get the door open." Josiah lifted Chris easily into his big arms and began to follow Nathan up to the clinic.
"Theres some bodies need picking up by the Undertaker," Nathan threw over his shoulder. "But I guess thatll keep til we get Chris settled."
Josiah nodded in reply. He was eager and anxious to know where the others were, where Vin was, and more importantly, where was that bastard of a bounty hunter?
He carried Chris through the open door and placed him gently on the bed.
The two men began to remove Chriss jacket.
"It all went wrong, Josiah," Nathan began as he worked. "That Somers man has a big mouth and caused some trouble for Vin."
Josiahs heart sank further at Nathans words, but he didnt interrupt the healer as he continued.
"They were gonna shoot Vin, after the darn idiot of a Texan saved Somers from a bullet. JD yelled out to Vin, I think it all got too tense for im Josiah, Lord knows it was for me. But anyways, after JD yelled, all hell broke loose. It blew our cover, and I reckon they guessed Vin was one of us and they took him away while we was shooting. Took Somers too."
"Oh Lord help him," Josiah sighed. He sat heavily in the chair by the bed, throwing Chriss blood stained shirt to one side. He looked at the other man, who was untying the bloody bandage on Chriss shoulder. "Nathan, Somers is a bounty hunter."
Nathans head shot up and his hands stilled on the bandage hed been in the process of removing.
Neither man was ready for what happened next. An animal like growl filled the clinic and Chriss body sat up like lightning on the bed.
The two men grabbed at him, trying to still his attempts to get free.
The pain in Chriss shoulder sent shock waves through the injured man and he groaned loudly. As he was pushed down once more onto the pillows, five words replayed themselves inside his fevered head
Somers is a bounty hunter.
Just as darkness overtook him again he opened his mouth, and from the depths of his soul he cried out one anguished word.
* * * * * * *
It could only have been a few minutes since he was last conscious. They were still making their way through the water, and it was still light. He immediately began to fight against the ties that bound him. They were very loose now; they couldnt have been tied very tightly in the first place for them to be that easy to break free from. But Vin wasnt complaining. He ignored the various degrees of pain that came from different parts of his body and carried on wriggling free. The tracker let out an excited breath when he felt himself finally become free of the bonds, a smile had just reached his lips when a shot rang out through the still air. His horse was spooked by the sudden noise and reared up sending Vin off of the animal and splashing into the water.
He let out a cry of pain as his body hit the ground and he curled into a ball in the shallow water, wrapping his arms around his head as a lone voice cut through his skull like a knife. If he hadnt known better, he would have sworn it was Chris yelling out his name.
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