You Have to Trust Someone
The group of outlaws drew their animals to a halt as the leader threw up his hand.
"Jacobs, you see anything?"
"Trail is really washed out after that rain, but Im pretty sure that were on the right track, Sam."
Rankin looked at the man with contempt. Sam Rankin was as arrogant as his brother, Vern, was worthless. Sam was the younger of the two brothers, but he bossed the band of outlaws, planning each robbery. He knew that Vern was the cause of the fiasco in Watsonville, but the idiot was family and that meant that Sam was obligated to rescue him.
Sneering at his second in command, Rankin leaned onto the horn of his saddle, saying, "We better be. I want my brother back today. And I dont care how many men have to die achieving that goal."
Horses danced nervously as their riders squirmed in the saddles as Rankin eyed each of the six riders with him. Jerking the reins, he unknowingly rode toward the cave that Chris and Vern Rankin occupied.
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Chris grunted as he shifted positions. It had been two to three hours since JD left in search Tanner. The man in black could only wonder about how the two were faring. He didnt like the idea of Dunne hunting Tanner alone, but he couldnt go and that left it to the kid. Larabee trusted the young man, but seriously doubted his ability to track the ex-bounty hunter.
He glanced over at Rankin. The man had not said a word since Chris had come to. The gunslinger almost wished the outlaw would start mouthing again. Blood loss was making him a little woozy and a distraction would help keep his mind sharp.
Chris paused in reaching for the coffee pot when he heard a horse whinny outside the cave. His brow knitted as he struggled to stand. He could not imagine that JD was returning already, so climbing to his feet, he supported his right arm and shuffled over to the entrance.
Larabee leaned heavily on the wall and stole a look out the cave mouth. He quickly drew back at the sight of the armed gang approaching the cave.
"Damn" he muttered. Moving back into the cave, he staggered over to the fire and grabbed his gun. Hearing a chuckle, he turned on the chained man sitting on the other side of the cavern. "Ill save one shot for you," Larabee promised.
A cold look of loathing was the mans only response. Chris moved back to the narrow entrance where he waited for the men to come closer and make the first move. He didnt have to wait long.
Sam Rankin looked at the black mouth of the cave and dismounted. The six men with him followed suite. They tied the horses and started toward the cave.
"Theres one set of tracks leaving the cave so the others must still be in there." Jacobs pointed at JDs trail as he spoke.
Rankin nodded. He looked at the cave and then at his men. Gesturing, he had the men spread out across the front of the cave. Once he was satisfied with their placement, he took a stance in front of the entrance.
"In the cave! All I want is my brother. Send him out and well leave."
Chris glanced over at Rankin. The man was smiling. "Sorry, I cant do that. He has a judge to see" the gunslinger yelled back.
Sam shook his head and said softly, "I didnt think so." He turned his back and nodded. "Get em out for me, boys" and he stepped out of the line of fire.
Jacobs pulled his pistol and fired a shot into the opening.
Chris moved back and flinched as the bullet chipped the rock face near his ear. "Okay, if thats the way you want it" he muttered. His mouth pulled into a feral smile and he returned fire.
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Josiah pulled up on the reins. "Hold up a minute." The others halted and waited. He heard it again. The others nodded.
"That was a pistol shot." Nathan said.
Another shot echoed across the mountain. "That was a peacemaker. Chris?"
There was a moments hesitation and then the four horses jumped into action.
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Chris kept his head back as bullets assaulted the mouth of the cave. Rankins men were hard pressed to get any of the shots to actually enter the cave. Most of them struck the surrounding rock face. But enough made it through to prevent the peacekeeper from getting too many shots off. He knew his position was secure as long as he could protect the only way in.
He had seen at least five men riding in before ducking back inside. Larabee knew he would have a hard time actually hitting anyone he fired. Picking his shots, he knew he hit someone as the sound of a scream echoed around the cave.
Checking his belt, he figured he would last three, maybe four, hours before he ran out of ammo. He thought about JD and Vin. If the kid could find Tanner, would they come back together? Could Dunne even persuade the man to listen to him? Would he still be alive when they got back?
A ricochet tore into the dirt at Larabees feet and drew his attention back to the men outside. He hazarded another glance and smiled at what he saw. Buck and Josiah were sneaking in from the back of the men off to the left. Chris figured that meant that Nathan and Ezra were doing the same to the men on the right. He waited and listened.
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Buck looked to see that the other three men were in place. Josiah and Nathan both nodded while Ezra touched his hat. Buck pushed his hat off and peeked around the tree. He saw four shooters for sure. Glancing over at Nathan, Wilmington saw him indicate he could see five men from where he stood. Buck figured that meant seven to nine men between their two vantage points. He nodded and took a deep breath.
"You boys got a bear cornered in there? Sure are throwing a lot of lead at them rocks."
He ducked behind the tree as men dove for cover and started firing at him. The others joined in. The bandits soon found themselves in the middle of a crossfire between Larabee and the others.
Sam Rankin stood off to the side and watched as the battle raged. That fool Jacobs is going to get killed. All of them are. Sighing, the man shrugged. Brother or not, Sam had no intention of getting caught or killed. He moved silently away from the action and toward the horses. He was reaching for the reins when he felt the warm barrel of a gun press against his neck.
"I dont mean to be accusatory, but I believe that it is extremely rude to leave the party when you sent out the invitation, sir. Your compatriots are sure to miss your fine company."
Rankin put his hands up, releasing the reins as he did. He turned to see a dandy, his clothes more appropriate for a New Orleans riverboat than a small town in the west. Rankin smiled. "How right you are, sir. But then, I dont remember sending you and your friends an invitation." He lunged forward and knocked Standish to the ground. The two men wrestled, rolling under the hoofs of the large animals that stood near by. They gained their feet again and lunged toward each other. Rankin grabbed Ezra by the collar and spun, pushing the man toward the panicking animals.
Ezra bounced off the chest of one animal and fell to the ground. He curled into a ball as hooves pounded the ground around him. He rolled away as the animal pulled against his reins. Rising, he caught a glimpse of the robber mounting a skittish roan. He jumped to his feet and launched himself up. Already nervous, the animal reared at the sudden appearance and quick motion, tossing the man off his back. Loose, he bolted off, leaving his rider groaning on the ground. Ezra scooped up his fallen gun and leveled it at the robber.
"I am truly fighting my baser urges to prevent discharging this pistol into your troublesome person, but I promise you, I shall not be indecisive the next time you offer any more resistance. Am I making myself clear?"
Rankin nodded. Ezra gestured with the pistol. The man rose and the two began their trek back to the others. They arrived to find Buck and Josiah checking the men that lay on the ground. Of the seven men who attacked Chris, four lay dead and two were injured. Sam Rankin was the only one of the outlaws that escaped unscathed.
Nathan had met Larabee just outside the cave entrance. The blond smiled as the others appeared out of the trees.
"Lets get you inside and checked out, Chris." Nathan turned the man back around. Ezra and Sam Rankin followed them in. Standish didnt miss the look of disgust on the mans face when his brother called out.
"Hey, Sam, you come to get me out of here? Where are the others?"
Standish shackled one brother next to the other. "You gentlemen enjoy your family reunion." He turned and walked away, but could still hear the two men conversing.
"Sam, how we gonna get out of here?"
"Shut up, Vern. Why I came after you is beyond me."
Ezra chuckled as he moved to join Chris and Nathan. Buck and Josiah had carried the two injured thieves into the cave and placed them next to the two brothers before joining Ezra. The three gathered around as Nathan examined Chris shoulder. Ezra noticed Buck looking around. Chris caught the movement also.
"Buck, the kids not here."
"Not here? Where the hell is he, Chris? For that matter, wheres Vin?"
"JDs gone after him." Chris flinched as Nathan worked at removing the bandages over the wound.
Ezra looked around, frowning. "Mr. Larabee, how did you manage to dress your wound in the middle of this mêlée?"
"I didnt. JD did."
"JD? Who shot you, brother?"
"Vin." As much as he hurt, Chris almost laughed at the expressions on the men around him. He took a breath and told them the story. "When the storm hit last night, Vins mount tossed him into a tree. When I brought him in, he was out cold. He woke up this morning and pulled his gun on me."
Chris looked at Nathan as he continued. "He acted confused, like he didnt know me. He was grabbing up his clothes when JD came back in. He swung around and I jumped between them. Thats when he fired. I dont know what happened next. I came to and JD was there. He'd cleaned my wound and bandaged it. Then said he was going after Vin and hed be back in the morning."
"You let him go after Tanner after the man shot you? Dammit, Chris, are you loco?" Buck stood with his hands propped on his hips.
"Vin wont hurt JD, Buck. I doubt the kid can even find him. Tanner had a three hour head start."
"Dont think hell hurt JD? Chris, if he shot you, aint nobody safe."
"It was an accident, Buck. Where do you think youre going?"
"Im going after the kid." Buck had turned and headed out. Ezras voice slowed his departure.
"Mr. Wilmington, do you have any objection to my accompanying you?" he called out. He smiled as Buck turned and nodded curtly. Touching his hat, he looked at Chris. "I will endeavor to keep our friend composed and in control of his excessively protective nature toward our youngest member." With a touch of his hat, the southerner quickly followed Wilmington out the cave entrance.
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JD wasnt sure he could actually track Vin, but he knew he had to try. He carefully followed the slight trail and soon came to a shack. Standing just within the tree line, he watched and considered what to do next. He had to talk to the man even if Tanner didnt know who he was. Vin had to understand that he had not killed his best friend, that he could, and should in the young sheriffs opinion, come back Four Corners.
Cautiously, he moved around the shack. JD squatted and thought about his next move. Vin hadn't gotten far since he was on foot, but it had still taken the easterner four hours to track him even this short distance. Figuring the ex-bounty hunter would not be in too good a mood, JD chewed on his lower lip as he considered his options. 'Well, if Vin is in there, he knows I'm here', he thought to himself. Okay, that leaves only one option-go straight in and try to talk to him. Taking a deep breath, JD stood up and stepped into the open area in front of the shack.
"VIN? I know you're in there. I just want to talk. Vin?" JD moved closer to the ramshackle building. He glanced down as he moved forward and was surprised to see hoof prints in the mud. Judging by the depth of the prints, they were recent. Realizing he was getting distracted, he brought his attention back to the shack.
"Vin, I don't want to make any trouble. I think that, maybe, you might not remember me. My name's JD. JD Dunne. We met four years ago. There's seven of us that ride together. You and Chris-Chris is the man that you... well, that got shot back at the cave. He's a real good friend to ya, Vin. He's gonna be fine, just as soon as we get him back to town. Anyways, ya'll were stopping a hangin'. Some cowboys were fixin' to hang Nathan. He's another good friend of ours. He's a healer, ain't no doctor, but he sure knows what he's doing. He's patched us up more than I care to think about, but he always manages to pull us through."
JD chuckled. "He's always harping on us ta stop bringin' him so much work. Says he don't need all that practice. Anyway, ya'll stopped him from getting' hung. Then there's Buck. Him and Chris have known each other a long time, back before Chris was married. And Josiah. He's a preacher. Well, it least, he used to be. But now he protects Four Corners with us. Still preaches on Sunday, though. He's got a mighty powerful speakin' voice. That leaves Ezra. He's a gambler by trade. Only, he don't believe in taking chances, so he only bets on a sure thing. He's got more big words than Buck's got ladies, but I trust him, we all do."
JD leaned forward, squinting, in an attempt to see into the dark interior of the shack, but it didn't work.
"Vin, I just wanted you to know that Chris is going to be okay. He said that you acted like you didn't know him, so we thought that maybe that blow to the head last night might be making ya confused or something. I wish you'd at least come out and talk to me.," the youthful voice implored. "I ain't a bounty hunter. The seven of us were hired by Judge Travis to protect the town. Mary Travis is his daughter-in-law and her and Billy, her son, live in Four Corners, so he wanted to make it safe for them."
JD stopped and took off the bowler to push the dark bangs back. He frowned as he replaced the hat, trying to think of something that would draw the man out. "Vin, the Judge sent us to Watsonville to pick up that man, Rankin. He was the prisoner in the cave. We went in there to get out of the rain." He worked at the muddy ground with his boot toe as he waited.
"Vin? Please, come out. I ain't gonna try take ya back or anything. I just need to know that you understand. Chris is gonna be fine. I don't want you to go away thinking that ya killed him. When ya remember the last few years, you have to know that you can come back home. Chris ain't mad; he knows that ya would 'a never shot him, except that I snuck in and startled ya."
"Vin, are ya listening to me? You have to trust someone. Hey, how about I take off my guns? Just to show that I trust ya? I'll even give 'em to ya; cause all you got is your mare's leg and knife. Course, that's plenty for you, but you're welcome to these if ya want 'em. You want to take Dusty? Oh, I know your horse. His name is Unalii, he ran off last night. Chris says it must have been a lightening strike. Probably was, cause that horse is a hard headed, stubborn cuss, 'lot like his owner' that's what Chris says."
JD stopped, his hand coming up to his mouth as his face reddened. "Oh shoot, I shouldn't have said that. Chris probably didn't even say that to you. I don't think you're hard headed. You just have a clear view of right and wrong and you don't change your mind very easy." JD had paused to take a deep breath, when he felt the knife lay against his throat. He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple scrapping against the blade. "Hey, Vin. Thought you were in the shack."
"If ya didn't talk so much, ya'd heard me leave." The soft Texas drawl was whispered next to his ear and JD was relieved at the sound of Tanner's voice. The young man knew there wasn't anyone else around, but the knife had surprised him. He was glad to know a friend was at the other end.
"What the hell do you want, kid?"
"I want ya to come back, Vin. You're my friend and we depend on ya."
"Right. Why the hell should I believe anything you have to say? I don't know you, boy." The last words were hissed.
"I ain't a boy, Vin. I'm twenty-three years old. I ain't that much younger than you. And you don't have to believe me. I just wanted ya to know that you don't have to be afraid. If ya don't want to come back, that's fine, but you're welcome to. I needed to make sure ya knew Chris was okay, cause one day you're going to remember us and I wanted ya to know you can come back anytime."
Vin reached around and took the brace of pistols JD had removed earlier. "Kid, I'm wanted for murder. Why the hell would you stand here and take off your guns?"
"Cause I know you're not a killer. I told you, we're friends. Have been for four years. I know that Eli Joe framed ya. And I know that Chris had to kill him to save your life." He felt the blade bite deeper into the tender flesh of his neck. "I'm sorry, Vin. I forgot. You don't remember, but you didn't hold it against Chris. He had to do it, or Eli Joe would've killed ya."
JD waited a minute until he felt the pressure lessen. "Vin, I don't how I can convince ya. You're about the most closed-mouthed person I know. The things I knew about you are very few. You was raised in Texas and your mama, her name was Ruth, well, she died when you was little. You've lived with the Indians. They had an Indian name for ya, 'Sky in his eyes' cause ya got such blue eyes. And ya hunted buffalo. I don't.. I can't think of anything else, Vin. Just come back with me. Maybe Chris can tell ya more. Please Vin, just come back with me."
Both of the men jumped at the sound of a new voice. "Let em go, Tanner."
Vin grabbed JDs jacket and spun them both around to face Wilmington. The Texan was vaguely aware of the sharp intake of breath that the young man drew in, but he concentrated on the tall man at the edge of the trees. The newcomer had a mustache over a hard-set mouth and a glint in his eye that revealed the anger that burned within him. Vin noticed the gun; it didnt waver. Tanner knew the look. This was a man that meant business.
JD held his hands out. "Buck, back off. I got it under control."
"Yeah, I can see that kid."
"Buck, please. Just go."
"JD, he's got a knife to your throat. I aint leaving here without you. Im hoping that Vin is coming with us, but either way, you leave with me."
Vin watched and listened as the two talked before movement off to the side drew his attention. Stepping back a pace, he pulled JD around to the left and blocked the man that slowly moved toward him. "You can just join your friend, mister."
The man straightened and flicked a leaf from his shoulder as he commented, "Mr. Dunne, I see you have managed to once again ensnare yourself in some form of difficulty that has placed your life in peril."
Vin grunted. "You must be Ezra."
Standish raised an eyebrow at the statement. "I take it Mr. Dunne has told you of your partners from the small township of Four Corners." Ezra stepped slowly over to where Buck stood. Both men had guns drawn, but only Wilmington still had his directed toward Tanner.
Vin turned so that he and JD faced the men again. JD held up a hand. "Buck, put the gun away. You aint going to shoot Vin."
"Son, the man has a knife to your throat. I dont put the gun away, until the knife is put away." Bucks mouth was set in a straight line, his eyes hard as he watched the knife wielder and his captive.
"Buck, you aint listening. Vin wont hurt me, so holster the gun. You know as well as I do, that he ain't no killer." JD glanced over at Ezra. "Would you go get Dusty, Ezra?"
The southerner tossed him a two-finger salute and, holstering his gun, turned back to where the animals were tied.
"Kid, youre giving him your horse? Is he taking your guns also?"
"Yes. And hes welcome to them."
Vin listened and watched the three interacting. He wished he had friends like these men. Years of having only himself to depend on had made for a lonely existence. These three men were close, depending on and watching after each other.
"Buck, you know Vin would never hurt somebody, unless he's pushed to it. Hes gonna get on my horse and hes going wherever he wants. He wont hurt me."
Buck gave the dark haired youth a look of exasperation. "JD, he shot Chris."
JD shook his head. "That was an accident. He didnt mean to shoot Chris. I startled him and he fired on reflex." JD explained as his body swayed slightly in Tanner's grasp.
Bucks brow furrowed as he listened. "Kid, you alright? You look a little peaked."
"Im fine, Buck. Just had a hard last twenty-four hours," JD told him. "Please, Buck. Put it away."
Wilmington shifted his weight onto his right leg as he dropped his gun down to his side. He lowered his head and shook it as he rested his left hand on his hip, but after a moment he holstered his pistol.
The tracker didnt know these men, but he could feel the kids heart pounding under his arm. He hazarded a look at the youth he held clutched to his chest and saw the sheen of sweat on the young face. The sound of Standish returning drew his attention back to Wilmington.
"Ezra, turn em loose." The southerner did as the young man asked and released the animal. JD made a chucking noise and the horse came up to him as a dog might. "Good boy."
He rubbed the muscled neck as the animal gently scrubbed his head on the young mans chest. Vin moved his arms from around the youth and stood with one hand on the shoulder of his hostage. As the big animal leaned into the young man, Vin noted that the boy staggered and grunted a bit.
JD pulled from the saddle horn where Ezra had looped them and turned slowly toward Tanner. He held out the reins and smiled. "Here, Vin, take him. When you remember us, or you just need to trust somebody, you know where to come. You can bring him back, then. I just want you to remember that you got friends, people that 'll miss ya. Chris is going to be okay, so dont think that you cant come back cause of what happened."
Vin looked at the hand that held the reins and noticed the slight tremor. He looked up and into tear-filled hazel eyes. Glancing over, he saw the sad faces of the other two men. He sheathed the knife as he turned back to the young man.
"Ah, hell." He took the appropriated brace of guns and handed them back to the dark haired youth. He saw the young shoulders relax as the mouth turned up in a smile. "I dont know what to think, but my gut tells me to believe ya."
Buck moved forward and held out a hand to the tracker. "Welcome back, Vin. Chris will be glad to see ya. He was worried, just didnt come out and say it."
"Mr. Tanner, your absence would have, beyond a doubt, deprived our small community of a most essential component."
Vin looked at the gambler with a crooked grin. "I aint real sure what ya said, but I think it might have been a compliment."
The men all smiled. Buck placed a hand on JDs shoulder as he said to the tracker, "About half of what he says cant be understood, but you get use to it after a while."
Ezra had a look of incomprehension on his face. "I fail to see why you found my verbal communication so difficult to decipher. I am speaking as commonly as my upbringing will allow. Perhaps if I spoke at a more leisurely pace..." He let the statement hang in the air.
"Hell, Ez, if you speak any slower, well all be asleep before ya finish one of them long winded stories you tell," Buck grumbled teasingly.
Ezra opened his mouth with a scathing retort on his lips, but he clamped his mouth closed after stating he would retrieve their mounts.
"How's Chris? Nathan with him?" JD asked.
"He's okay, except for worrying about you two. He was in a gun battle with Rankin's gang when we got there." He gripped the boy's shoulder tighter at the look of surprise and worry. "He wasn't hurt. That cave made it almost impossible for anyone to get a good shot off at him. We got them all. Judge should be pleased."
At that moment, Ezra returned with the mounts.
"Vin, you want to ride with me?" JD asked. A nod of the head was his answer. Buck and Ezra mounted up as JD put his foot in the stirrup. He took a deep breath and released it as he swung his leg over. He failed to notice the looks he was getting from the other three men.
Buck moved his mount closer. "You sure you're okay?"
JD looked into the tall man's eyes. "I will be as soon as we get back to that cave and I know Chris is all right."
The young man took his foot out of the stirrup and reached a hand down to Tanner. All three men heard the audible sound of a groan as JD hoisted the lean man up. Buck shot a look at Tanner. The tracker shrugged in answer. JD nudged Dusty with his knee and moved away from Ezra and Buck, who then spurred their mounts forward to quickly join the two young men.
Buck took another at the dark haired youth. JD was pale and sweaty. The man noticed that the younger man was sitting slightly hunched over. He started to say something, when the boy turned to him.
"Buck, you better lead. I'm not too sure of where we are." Seeing the concern in his friend's eyes, the youth added, "It ain't gonna kill me. Nathan'll fix me right up."
Buck's face flashed several different emotions at the words. Fear, concern, anger. He finally settled on determined. He took the lead and set a brisk pace. Heading straight to the cavern, they would arrive within an hour. He glanced over his shoulder several times to check on the young man. Each time found him lower over the saddle horn. By the time they reached the cave, Vin was supporting the limp body of Dunne and Ezra was leading their mount.
Buck yelled to Josiah as he dismounted in front of the cave. Pulling JD's mount up close to Wilmington, Standish grasped the animal's bridle and held him steady. Buck was reaching out to take JD when Josiah came out.
"Let me have him, Vin." Wilmington instructed.
Tanner leaned the limp body towards Buck and Josiah's outstretched arms. "He's side is bleeding." Vin indicated JD's right.
"Got it" was Wilmington's only acknowledgement as they accepted the boy's weight. The two men took the boy gently and went into the cave.
The interior of the cave was dark after the bright sun outside and both men hesitated as their eyes adjusted to the dim light. Once they could make out the shadows as people and rocks, they continued in.
Nathan grabbed a bedroll and spread it on the ground close to the fire. JD was beginning to come around as he was placed on the ground.
Chris looked on with worry written on his face. "What happened? Vin didn't.." He let the question hang in the air.
Buck looked at the blond and shook his head. "I don't know. Kid just collapsed. Vin didn't hurt him."
Nathan had opened the boy's jacket and vest. Josiah aided the healer in removing the clothing and then laid them to the side. Jackson got the shirt open to find the bandage JD used to cover his wound with, saturated with blood. He removed the soiled dressings and revealed the wound. Not looking up, he stated, "It's a gunshot wound. Don't look to be deep. He cleaned and dressed it, but the bleeding didn't stop." He glanced around to the others. "Blood loss is probably why he passed out. I'll know better when I get the bullet out."
Outside, Ezra and Vin led the three horses to a makeshift corral Josiah had apparently constructed of ropes while they were gone. It contained the outlaws animals as well as the peacekeepers. They unsaddled the animals and turned them in with the others. They were just entering the cave when Nathan announced that JD had been shot.
Chris saw the men enter and breathed a sigh of relief that JD had located the tracker and convinced him to return. Buck noticed Larabee's attention and turned as the two men approached. Buck turned to meet them.
"Tanner, did you shoot JD?"
Vin drew up short and studied the man that confronted him. "I fired one shot. I hit him." Vin pointed at Chris with his chin as his hands rested on his belt.
"Then who the hell shot the kid?" Buck inquired.
"Buck?" JD's voice was no more than a whisper, but the man heard and turned back to the dark haired youth.
"It's okay, JD. I'm right here. We all are."
"Buck? Make sure Nathan checks Vins head, okay?"
"Dont worry about Vin. Nathan will look at him as soon as he finishes with you." Buck patted JDs shoulder as he spoke.
"Is Chris all right?"
Buck shook his head. "Son, stop worrying about other people. Were all okay. Right now, you only need to worry about taking care of yourself. Okay, JD? Dont worry about the rest of us for a while."
"kay" he whispered.
Buck sat at the young mans shoulder, one hand resting on the sweat slick skin. He glanced up to see Nathan ready to cut into the young mans belly in search of the bullet. Wilmington shifted around to hold both of JDs shoulders as Ezra moved to his feet. Josiah had come forward, but just sat next to the boys left, waiting. Nathan nodded he was ready.
The tall man leaned over the boys head and spoke softly to him. "JD, Nathans ready to start. You reach up here and grab hold, okay?"
Two arms slowly came up and Wilmington took hold of them at the wrists. He crossed their arms and laid his head next to his friends. Nathan looked at Wilmington and they each nodded. Nathan took a deep breath and started probing for the slug.
Buck felt the muscles tense as Nathan began. That was his cue to start talking. He began to offer words of comfort and encouragement as the young man moaned and tried to move away from the pain. He was aware of large hands moving into his field of vision and recognized that Josiah now held JDs stomach to keep him from moving. It didnt seem to be a moment later Buck thought when Nathan said he had it. He heard a sigh even as the body under him relaxed.
Releasing the boys arms, Buck sat back. He looked at the slack face of the young man. "You did good, kid. You did real good," he whispered. He looked around at the other men.
Nathan was cleaning and bandaging the wound as Josiah examined the slug. JD stirred as Buck lifted him so Nathan could bind the wound.
"Slug wasnt in deep at all. Maybe traveled a good distance before it hit him. Or maybe a ricochet?" Nathan commented as he bound the wound.
Josiah looked up, the slug lying in his palm. "Not a ricochet. Bullet is still smooth. May have passed through something."
Buck looked down at the word. "Say what, JD"
The young man licked his lower lip. "It passed through Chris."
The men looked at each other as the young man related the events of that morning. "I heard Vin talking. I thought he had woke up and was okay. But when I came in, he had a gun on Chris. I kicked some rocks and he swung the rifle around. Chris dove in between us just as he fired."
Vin had stood off from the others since coming in. JDs story drew him in and he listened to the dark haired youths tale unfold.
JD cleared his throat. "After Vin left, I dragged Chris over by the fire and tried to clean his shoulder. It wasnt until I was waiting for him to wake up that I figured out that I got hit."
Vin stood with his arms crossed over his chest. The muscles in his jaws flexed as he met the gaze of each man. He looked at Larabee last and for a second he remembered those eyes. The thought was gone in a flash, but it left a vague sense of familiarity in the tracker.
JD chuckled. "Heck of a shot-hit two men with one bullet."
Buck wiped at the sweaty brow of the young man. "Ah, hell, kid. We always knew Tanner was the best shot around. You just lay back and rest now."
"Sounds good, Buck."
The boy lay back and drifted off to sleep. Buck sat and watched while the others decided what to do.
Chris had sat up while Nathan worked on JD. He now sat near the fire and sipped a cup of coffee. He had noticed Tanner stood apart from the others. When JD finished, Larabee had glanced up to see Vin looking at him. For a moment, he thought the tracker remembered him, but the flash of recognition was gone as fast as it came.
"Vin?" Jackson said. Tanner looked his way. "You come over here and let me look at that head."
Vin stood for a moment and then moved over to where the healer stood. He sat down and allowed the man, a man he was supposed to know and trust, to probe the wound at the back of his head. After Nathan finished, Vin glanced at the men around him.
Wilmington was sitting next to the young man with the dark hair. The expression on the mustached face told the whole story. They were close, real close. The kid was going to be okay, but Wilmington was not going to relax until the boy was awake and moving.
Josiah was moving around preparing to cook a meal over the wood that had been brought in to keep the fire going. The man had a big chest and strong hands. Vin thought about how easily he held the struggling youth still as the healer worked on him. The intense blue eyes held a sad quality to them. They were eyes that had seen a lot in the man's lifetime.
Nathan Jackson had moved from Tanner to Larabee once again. He checked the bandage. Satisfying himself, he moved away to check on the wounded outlaws. The two men lay near the Rankin brothers. One man took a hit in the leg and was conscious. Nathan had removed a slug from the second man's chest. Now all he could do was wait and see if the man survived.
Ezra had gone back out to feed the horses. When he reentered, he wore a self-satisfied smile on his face and was carrying a saddle. He pointedly looked Tanner's way after setting the saddle with the others. "It would appear that your wayward mount was missing his fellow steeds. I found him standing passively at the temporary corral. I have placed him in the enclosure and given him some feed. He looked none the worst for wear."
Vin started to stand up with the intention of checking on the animal when he met the blond man's gaze. Chris Larabee was leaning back against the underside of his saddle. His shirt was open to reveal the bandage that ran up over one shoulder and across his chest. The man seemed pale to the tracker, but the eyes were as clear and piercingly sharp as any Tanner had ever seen. He felt the intensity behind the green eyes and it gave him a chill. He felt like the man was staring into his soul.
Tanner felt a hand on his shoulder and looked over his shoulder into the dark brown eyes of Nathan Jackson.
"Don't worry about the horse, Vin. Ezra took good care of him for ya." Jackson turned his attention to Larabee. "Chris, we need to get two wagons back here, so we can get everyone back to town. I figure Ezra and Josiah can go get the wagons, while Buck and I keep as eye on the prisoners."
Chris nodded. "Sounds good. They can leave first thing in the morning. That should get them back tomorrow, late. We can start home the next day."
Josiah and Ezra both acknowledged the decision as Sanchez finished up on the meal.
The next morning the two men saddled seven horses. It was decided that they would take the dead men back to town, while Buck and Nathan kept an eye on the rest of the gang. The man with the chest wound had died in the middle of the night with Nathan sitting by his side as he drew his last breath. The healer took the loss to heart.
Larabee thought it best if the dead were taken to town and turned over the undertaker as soon as possible, so Ezra and Josiah tied the bodies to the horses. They would let Judge Travis know what had happened before returning with the wagons.
The day passed quietly. Vern Rankin had become quiet again after the return of Tanner. Not even his brother's presence brought the man comfort. The two brothers had remained silent and kept their meager conversations low.
Buck and Nathan took turns watching first the prisoners and then the injured men. Vin insisted to Nathan that he was all right. The healer finally gave up and told the man to do what he wanted. He would anyway. Chris had snorted at the exchange. Vin went outside, but he merely sat in the warm sun and watched the animals in the corral as they moved around restlessly.
JD had slept most of the day with Wilmington hovering close by. Nathan assured him that the young man was mending. Sleep was what he needed to restore his strength and Buck nodded his head.
Chris watched as Nathan once again told Buck to relax and let the boy sleep. The blond struggled to stand and started to make his way to mouth of the cave. Nathan threw up his hands and walked away mumbling to himself about hardheaded fools.
Chris found Vin sitting outside, enjoying the fresh air. He knew the man would rather sleep under the stars than a roof, even if that roof was made of rock and dirt. Larabee took a seat next to the tracker. They sat together, comfortable in the silence. Even though Tanner did not remember the last four years, Chris felt that the man was at ease around the others. The gunslinger hoped his friend's memory loss was temporary because the guilt was evident on the lean face.
"Forget it, Tanner."
Blue eyes cut over. "I shot you. I shot the kid."
"Survival instinct is what got you this far. You don't trust that, you're done."
Vin turned his head to face the man he had almost killed, yet who welcomed him back like it had never happened. "The kid told me 'You have to trust somebody'. I trust my instincts and they're telling me I can trust you, all of you. Sorry I wasn't thinking clear yesterday."
Larabee's only answer was to lay a hand on the slender shoulder of his friend as they sat and watched the sun set.
Two Weeks Later
The seven men sat in the saloon at the table most citizens acknowledged as the peacekeepers'. The day had been quiet, routine. JD and Chris were still moving slow as a result of their wounds. Vin suffered no after effects of the blows to his head. He still had not recovered his memory, but the six as well as the entire town had made him comfortable. No one pushed the issue of him not remembering the last four years. If he asked, they politely answered, but no information was volunteered. Chris had made it clear from the first day that Vin was not to be instructed. He would remember when he was ready.
"JD, I'm tellin' ya, if you want to impress that little girl, you need to learn how to dress, starting with a decent hat." Wilmington was once again picking on the kid's bowler, but JD was ready and when the tall man made a grab for it, the kid moved it out of reach.
"I think the boy is finally learning." Nathan chuckled.
Ezra sat leaning over the table shuffling a deck of cards. "Our young compatriot has surely grown weary of the necessity of replacing his head covering, inappropriate as it is for our region."
JD's snort was the only response he gave to the assault. He looked over at Tanner. "You dont mind my hat, do ya, Vin?"
The tracker glanced over from under the brim of his hat. A shrug of the lean shoulders and a 'your head, your hat, kid' spoken softly was his only contribution to the conversation.
"Yeah, but it's still a ugly hat, don't you think, Tanner? Don't even protect the kid's ears from the sun. He can't hardly keep it on his head when he's riding." Buck ranted. He tried to grab the hat only to once again find empty air.
Tanner's soft drawl drew the big man's attention. "At least it looks better on JD than it does on you. I remember what you looked like when you escorted that wet-behind-the-ears easterner into the village four years ago. Now that was an ugly sight."
Buck shrugged. "Just trying to show the boy how bad he looked with that hat on."
Tanner felt eyes on him. He turned to the side where Chris sat. A smile was pulling at the normally somber features. Vin frowned at the man.
"You remember that?" JD asked quietly.
Vin turned back to the young man. "Sure. He looked like a fool. He had that hat of yours on top of his head, rifle slung over his shoulder, grinning like a loon. It was embarrassing." Vin noticed the others were now looking at him also.
JD's face split with a huge grin and he surveyed the table. Everyone was smiling at the tracker. Looking back at a frowning Tanner, he said, "You remember. Vin, you remembered that."
Tanner suddenly realized what JD was going on about. He felt a smile pulling at his lips as the realization sparked in his eyes.
Nathan sat forward. "Do you remember anything else, Vin?"
The tracker thought for a minute and then shook his head. "Ain't sure. Maybe."
"Well, if you remember one thing, chances are you'll remember everything."
Vin sat back in his chair, a lop-sided grin on his face.
Chris stood and placed a hand on Tanner's shoulder, before striding across the room and out the bat winged doors. His step was lighter than it had been in weeks.
"Welcome home, Vin."
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