Note: My promised What if story
There, right there, perfect. He could pull the trigger now and put an end to the scumbag's life. "We want to know who hired him, so take him alive." Chris's words echoed in his ears and so doing as the man in black requested, he lowered his gun sight, took a breath, held it, then gently squeezed the trigger.
Releasing the breath hed been holding then closing his eyes and bowing his head in relief after seeing the bullet hit it's intended target, his head snapped up at the sound of another shot fired, well actually two, the third coming right on the heels of the second. His eyes scanned the street and widened as they took in the horrific scene unfolding before him.
Stutz had gone down alive from his bullet, but now lay dead after being shot by Governor Hopewell's right hand man Horace. To the left of the body he could see Buck kneeling on the ground, cradling Louisa's body as she lay in his arms. He didnt understand. She'd been tossed aside when the assassin went down, he thought she was safe, but the way she was laying and the way Buck was holding her . . . rocking her . . .
What the hell happened?
He got up quickly and left the rooftop heading for the street, his mind spinning, the questions bombarding him. Coming closer to the scene, his steps slowed, his eyes riveted on Buck bending over the pretty woman who had seemingly tamed the rogue in the few short days she'd known him. The big man was gently caressing her face, talking softly to her, holding her close. In his line of vision he also could see Nathan down on one knee opposite Buck and Louisa, his hand covering his mouth as the tears slowly made their way down his face.
Vin felt a burning sensation in the back of his eyes and it got increasing harder to breathe as his windpipe seemed to close up on him. He felt his body temperature rise, the rifle in his hand grew heavy and it was as though he was in a living nightmare as a heaviness descended on him. He blinked hard a few times, trying to clear his vision. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears and could see peoples mouths opening and closing but their voices seemed muted and he couldnt understand what they were saying. He vaguely saw someone--Hopewell? start toward him, his face a mask of fury, cursing and shaking a fist at him before noticing a black back stepping between him and the enraged man. He swallowed hard and licked his dry lips as he saw Buck turn his way and look at him with such sorrow in his eyes, it was as though someone had stuck a knife into his heart and twisted it.
I asked her to marry me, Buck said in a choked whisper, looking right at him, and then tenderly picked up the woman and carried her away, heading to the undertakers building.
He may not have heard what Wilmington said, but he sure as hell could read his lips and inwardly he groaned mightily. He was absolutely stunned.
What the hell had happened?
Closing his eyes for just a second he concentrated hard. Feeling a presence near him he opened his eyes slowly to see Larabee right in front of him with a concerned look on his face.
"You alright?" the voice asked softly.
Closing his eyes once more to try and keep the tears at bay, he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and swallowed hard.
"He had another gun, a left arm rig, the soft voice was telling him. Louisa's body shielded it, never saw it til it was to late. He shot it off as he fell. This wasn't your fault Vin," he added, when he saw the jaw tighten as his friend tried to control his emotions.
Chris knew there wasn't a thing he could say or do for his friend to take away the pain he was feeling right now. And he knew just as sure as he was standing here that Vin probably had had Stutz in his sights and could have killed him outright, but didn't because they'd wanted him taken alive. And now Tanner was suffering because of that choice. He stood in front of the tracker yet to shield him from prying eyes and to keep people away from him.
Watching as Vin opened his eyes again, he moved slightly so his friend could see the extra gun the shooter had near him.
"You couldn't have known, nobody did. It just happened."
"Ezra?" Vin choked out, his eyes coming into focus onto Chris's face.
"He's alright, just grazed. Had the ten thousand stashed in his vest pocket, saved his life," he added, hoping that information would bring another look, any look, to the sharpshooter's eyes than the one he was seeing right now. He watched as the blue eyes tracked over to the undertakers as Buck and Josiah, with JD in tow, entered the building.
"I . . . I gotta leave, can . . . can't stay here," the raspy voice whispered, thick with emotion. "Need some time."
"Alright," Chris said, giving a slight head nod in acknowledgement, not knowing if Vin meant leaving for a few hours or a few days or what exactly. "My place is open," he told his friend, hoping that at least if the tracker went there, he'd know where he was.
Seeing the eyes move from the undertaker's place back to the body of Stutz and then up at him, his gut tightened and he clenched his teeth trying to keep his own emotions at bay. Damn. He got a slight nod and saw the rifle hitched up in Tanner's hand and then the man turned and walked away, his shoulders slumped as though a boulder sat atop them.
Chris was torn; Buck needed him, he should be there giving support to his oldest friend but yet Vin needed him too, at least to watch his back because right now there was no way the tracker was thinking straight and his guard would be down. He didn't want anyone taking advantage of that.
His thoughts were interrupted when a body brushed by him. "I said back off!" he growled, grabbing the arm of Hopewell's manager and pushing him sideways.
"He should have shot to kill. If he'd done his job, Miss Perkins would be alive right now."
"He did do his job. I wanted Stutz alive for questioning. Seems to me you'd have wanted the same thing. Interestin' that you didn't," Chris hissed at him with a glare. "Stay away from him, or I'll deal out some of my own frontier justice, you hear me?" he added, with a finger jab to the man's chest before stalking away in the direction of the livery.
+ + + + + + +
Quickly saddling Pony, Chris was ready to head out when JD came running up to him.
"Chris? Buck's askin' for you," the young man informed him. Seeing the frown on Larabee's face as he looked to the west, he asked, "Did Vin leave?"
"Take Pony and head out after him," Chris told him handing JD the reins. "Just trail him, don't catch up to him. He may go to my place. Make sure he stays safe and when he gets to where he's goin' come back and tell me."
"I'll do it, Chris, don't worry. Take care of Buck for me will ya?" he added, vaulting up onto the gelding's back and galloping out of town riding proud knowing that Larabee entrusted him with their friend's life.
+ + + + + + +
The next couple of days were a blur for the six peacekeepers. JD had informed Chris that Vin was holed up at his place and for two days Chris had checked on him from a distance, making sure Peso was still corralled. Buck was like a lost soul, and his mood set the stage for the rest of the men. Ezra was sore, and in light of what had happened, his concentration with the cards just wasn't holding true. He refrained from playing for a couple of days. Nathan had been busy preparing Louisa's body for burial in the town cemetery as it would take a few weeks before her family could come and claim the body. Josiah took care of the arrangements for a funeral and tried to help Buck through some of his questions. JD stayed close to his best friend just in case he needed someone to talk to and Chris kept one eye on the ladies' man and the other eye out for the return of their tracker.
On the third day when Chris rode out to his home, Peso was gone. Checking the place out, Larabee found not only the fancy rifle inside, but also his friend's harmonica--Vin's way of letting him know that he'd be back. Gathering his tools, he constructed a place for the rifle to hang over the entrance door; it would be there if the sharpshooter wanted it and the mouth organ was deposited in his duster pocket. That he would keep with him--as a reminder.
+ + + + + + +
Normalcy returned to the little town after the governor left and speculation ran high amongst the peacekeepers that Hopewell and his right hand man, Horace, knew all about the shootings that had taken place over the last few months and if Chris could have proved that it was Mary they were after, he'd a hung them right then and there, but they had no solid evidence so the Judge was powerless to do anything.
Hashing and rehashing over the events that happened, the men tried to come to grips with the tragic loss of the woman Buck had come to love and perhaps just as sad, the disappearance of their friend and fellow peacekeeper, Vin Tanner. Knowing he was out there somewhere berating himself for something he had no control over, they could only hope and pray that he was off healing himself as only he could do.
It was JD who came up with the idea that maybe Stutz was getting his hidden gun out to shoot Hopewell, but couldn't make the shot because of Louisa. It would stand to reason that the shooter would want to kill the men that hired him knowing full well they'd never let him live, fearing that someday, somehow, he'd spill the beans on the murdering territorial governor and expose him for all he was worth. Unfortunately, he missed his intended target and had hit Louisa and then ended up dying himself, the truth gone along with him.
+ + + + + + +
A week after the incident, the six men were in the saloon having breakfast before breaking up to go about their duties when a young man came running through the batwing doors in search of the lawmen. As quickly as he could he told them that his parents' house was being invaded by some robbers and they needed to come right away. The boy explained that he had been out in the field when the riders came up and as the shooting started, he figured his best bet was to ride to town and get help.
Saddling up and riding fast, the peacekeepers got to the Samson farm in good time. They could hear shots fired as they neared the homestead and got into position to try and help the hapless family as best they could.
Riding in would be suicide because the bandits had the place surrounded, but they had to do something and do it fast because the farmer and his remaining family wouldnt be able to hold out much longer. Splitting into pairs, they crept toward the house using the element of surprise as their ace in the hole. When they got into position and started firing, their plan worked--they had drawn the robbers' fire, but they were so well protected, the peacekeepers couldnt hit any of their marks. Bullets whizzed aimlessly by and frustrations grew as the gun battle continued.
Chris knew he was going to have to come up with some plan before one of his men tried to change the course of things by doing something heroic . . . or stupid. Sometimes they had less patience than he did and more than once one or another had put themselves in danger to help even the odds. Reaching into his duster pocket and running his thumb over Vins harmonica, wishing again for the hundredth time that the man would come back to them, he made a decision. Telling Buck what he was planning, the ladies man frowned, but understood and told him hed lay down some cover for him.
Just as the man in black was about to make his move, the sound of a powerful rifle made known its presence. Once, twice, three times they heard its bark and Chris found himself grinning at Buck. Vin had returned.
With the sharpshooters help, it didnt take long before the robbers were throwing down their guns, ready to give up. The tracker had managed to get behind and around the bandits and one by one was eliminating them. It was like a shooting gallery for him and he didnt waste any time.
Six peacekeepers came forward, guns drawn. Their attentions were solely on rounding up the thieves, when they heard a muffled cry and turned to see a man holding a gun to the head of Mrs. Samson. He had her pulled to him keeping her body in line with his so that he was well protected.
Demanding that the gunmen throw down their weapons or hed kill her, the six men were considering their options when the sound of an approaching horse drew everyones attention. It was Tanner.
Drop your weapons, or Ill pull the trigger! the robber ordered again, turning his glare on the man who had just ridden up. He roughly pulled the terrified woman closer to him, not liking that the gunslingers werent doing as he told them.
Vin dismounted his horse in one fluid motion, rifle in hand, never breaking eye contact with the man holding the hostage. He walked toward them.
Do it now! the man yelled, cocking his gun and pushing it into her skull. I swear Ill kill her, and itll be on your hands.
For the love of God, Clay Samson cried out, do as he . . .
In the blink of an eye, it was all over. The bandits eyes had shifted to the husband when hed cried out, and in that instant, Vin pulled up his rifle and shot, hitting the man in the right temple. He never knew what hit him as he flew backward and lay dead, Mrs. Samson stumbling into the arms of her husband, burying her head in his neck.
No one moved, no one said a word, the only sound heard being that of Mrs. Samsons muffled crying. Clay looked from the dead bandit back to Tanner, his eyes wide in unbelief. Then taking his wife he turned and the two moved back toward the farmhouse arms locked around one another.
+ + + + + + +
Well, then, gentlemen, Ezra said, clearing his throat and breaking the silence, perhaps should we get these miscreants off this parcel of land and put into confinement where they belong.
As if being roused from a stupor, the peacekeepers all at once started moving around; Josiah, Nathan and JD being the first to come over to the tracker giving him their thanks and words of encouragement.
Your timing is, as always, Mr. Tanner, impeccable, Ezra said to him as the others moved away.
Motioning with his head to the gamblers shoulder, he asked, Hows the arm?
Flexing his hand into a fist and then letting go, the con man grinned at him and said, Getting better everyday. I am getting back into my routine again . . .
Which means hes fleecing every visitor that comes into the saloon, Chris finished for him, coming up next to the two men.
Mr. Larabee, fleecing is an undignified word. I am merely using my talents at winning to pay off my debt to Mr. Jackson for the medical bills I incurred while being laid up, thats all, he said, but the grin which crept onto his face lessened the credibility of his statement. Giving a tip of his hat to the tracker, he added, Nice to have you back Vin, and then he turned to go help his comrades.
Are you back? Chris asked him quietly, locking eyes with his friend.
Depends, the answer came back just a softly as the eyes shifted to Larabees right.
Turning slightly to see what Tanner was looking at, he noticed Buck waiting in the wings. Knowing the two men needed to talk, Chris walked away but stopped when passing the other man.
Make it right with him Buck, Larabee said tightly, not even looking at the man.
I will. You aint the only one who misses havin him around.
As the man in black moved forward to help his men load up the bandits in a wagon loaned to them by Mr. Samson, the ladies man walked over to Vin.
That was one hell of a shot pard, Buck praised, coming to face the man.
Nodding his head lightly as he looked down, Vin hefted his rifle in his hand and felt the familiar sting behind his eyes.
I shoulda killed Stutz, I . . .
Its okay Vin, you couldnt have known, none of us did, Buck tried to soothe the distraught man, feeling the tears beginning to well in his own eyes. This was so hard, but Josiah had told him that both men needed to forgive in order to move past it. He needed to forgive Vin, even though deep down he knew that no way in hell was it any fault of the tracker's. And Vin needed to forgive himself, and the only way to do that was for him to tell the sharpshooter to just let it go, to live with it because he himself, was going to do that exact thing.
It aint never gonna be okay Buck, Vin whispered, as his voice choked on him and he looked at the ladies man with tears in his eyes.
Alright, well maybe it wont ever be okay, Vin, but you did what you had to do and we just have to accept that and live with it. JD did that after accidentally killing Annie and Chris did it after killing Eli Joe.
Seeing that what he was saying wasnt seeming to sink in, he tried one more time.
All I know Vin, is that, things are right between us, if you want it ta be, and I sure hope ta hell you do, because, well, because I need ta have you around. JD, Nathan, Josiah and even Ezra have been way to quiet and Chris? You gotta be around for Chris, cuz there aint no way in hell I can handle him anymore-- but you can. I need you for that pard, thats real important ta me, he added, slouching down trying to get a look under the trackers Calvary hat. He wanted to see the man's face to know what he was thinking.
Raising his head and looking into Wilmingtons eyes he could see the man was sincere. And he figured if Buck could say things were right between them, then hed do his best to make sure he held up his end.
Nodding his head in agreement, the two men shook hands in a firm, sincere grip assuring one another that their friendship would remain solid.
Clapping the tracker on his back, Buck moved off to mount his horse and ride along side the prison wagon.
Giving the buckboard a slap of his hand to get it moving, Chris nodded to Buck who returned the gesture. Then getting on his gelding, he rode over to where Tanner had mounted up.
Taking a few minutes before answering, Vin told him quietly, Its a curse, ya know. Aint never any good comes out of it.
Maybe. But you see those men riding up ahead there? Theyre alive because of your curse. And Mrs. Samson, shes alive because of it too. You wanna trade that in? Bein good with a gun, dont make you a monster Vin, just makes you realize what a responsibility it is. Some men can handle it, some cant. Youre one of the few who can. If you werent, we wouldnt be ridin together.
Well, thought Vin, that put it plain and simple. Looking up ahead, he saw JD and Buck ribbing each other, Nathan and Josiah sitting shoulder to shoulder driving the wagon, no doubt carrying on some heavy conversation and Ezra bringing up the rear watching to make sure the outlaws didnt try anything. Slanting a look at the man beside him, he figured Larabee was right. No, he wouldnt trade it in, its what he did and if it meant the difference between life and death for his friends, then it was important that he accept that.
Yer right Chris. I guess I fergot my place.
You didnt forget Vin, it just took a little side track, happens to the best of us, he said with a grin and a lift of his chin. Oh, and here, he said, handing the trackers harmonica to him. Just keepin it safe til ya came back, he added with a shrug.
You got that sniper rifle in your pocket too?
Chuckling he answered, Back at the cabin, hangin over the door, for whenever you want it.
Shaking his head, Vin quirked his lips into a lopsided grin.
Just wonderin how ya got ta be so smart?
Its the company I keep, came the answer with a big grin. Lets ride.
Spurring their horses, the two men rode to catch up with the others.