In the Line of Duty
Author notes: Swearing.
"Read 'em and weep, gentlemen," Ezra announced, laying down his cards, grinning at the groans and protests of his comrades.
"Ezra, there's no way you have four Aces again. Nobody has that kind of luck," Nathan groused, grabbing up the discarded pile and rifling though them, determined to prove the conman had somehow cheated.
"Least ways, not three times in a row," added Josiah, tossing his losing hand of cards into the middle of the table along with the others.
A snort was heard coming from the bar as Buck drank his beer and watched the game, amused, Miss Millie at his side.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen. I assure you that I used no slight of hand. There is no need . . ."
"Aw hell," Vin muttered, pulling the brim of his Calvary hat low, covering his eyes, and slouching further down his seat.
"Mr. Tanner, I . . ." Ezra cut short his statement, seeing his tablemates all looking in the direction of the entrance door, even Buck standing up straight now, taking notice. He turned to look and let out a huge sigh.
"I thought Chris told him never to show his face around here again," JD whispered to his companions.
"He did." Nathan quietly answered, stubbing out his cigar and dropping his hand down by the butt of his gun. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Josiah lean back in his chair, a relaxed look on his face, his hand resting on his holstered weapon. And from his left he heard the sound of a gun clearing leather, no doubt Tanner's sawed-off already trained on the man from underneath the table. They were ready . . . in case anything started.
The man who garnered all the attention was known to the six peacekeepers mainly by reputation, and it wasn't a favored one either. Robert Canon was a lawman, of sorts, meaning, although he wore a Marshal's badge that didn't necessarily mean he was on the side of justice. He tended to side with whomever would fatten his money roll the most, even if that meant working with the devil himself. To say he abused his power as an officer of the law would be an understatement. He was not welcome in Four Corners, reasons being obvious.
Pausing just inside the batwing doors, the tall and solidly built Marshal scrutinized the patrons as if looking for someone. When his gaze fell on the gaming table, he hoisted the two saddle bags further up on his shoulder and headed to where the gunmen sat.
Ezra eyes moved back to his friends, taking in the looks of controlled emotions. Picking up the discarded cards he soundly rapped them on the table in an attempt at straightening them and then proceeded shuffling, his actions smooth as silk, belying how he really felt.
"Well, well, and to what do we owe the honor of your odious visit to our little burg, Marshal?" Ezra asked, seeing the man in his peripheral vision, approach their table. No way was he going to give the man any respect by looking at him while speaking to him.
"Think you were told to stay the hell away from here," Buck's voice threatened, as he strode over to the table, eyes locked onto the Marshal's.
Taking a deep breath and clearing his throat, Canon met Wilmington's glare and then scanned the faces of the men sitting before him. His eyes held a split second when they came to Tanner. Yeah, he knew damn well who the man was. It was that knowledge that nearly got him killed the last time he was here, Chris Larabee personally escorting him out of town and leaving him with a deadly warning, only one he'd ever taken seriously in his life, for he was afraid of no man. But these men were a tight bunch and he knew for a fact they would shoot to kill if he made one wrong move. Inwardly, he felt a jolt of elation. He was going to tell them something that would knock them on their arrogant asses.
Licking his dry lips, and holding his emotions in check, the Marshal tread easy. He had to be on his toes, not slip up, no matter what happened.
"I'm here on official business only," he told them, hearing a snort come from Wilmington and the creak of chairs as the men shifted positions when he set the two saddlebags down on the table.
"Look, I know I'm not welcome here . . ."
"You got that right," Buck interrupted, his stance defensive as his hand rested on the butt of his gun.
"But since I've been here before, I was told I had to be the one to come and give you the news."
"And pray tell, what oracles of wisdom would that be? Ezra drawled, keeping busy playing a game of Solitaire.
"Just came from Sonoyta Prison," he started and noticed that now, all eyes were on him, including Tanner's and to say they were hostile looks would be an understatement.
"Whatever you have to say, I'd suggest it comes slow and easy," the big man he knew to be Josiah Sanchez, told him.
Canon licked his lips again. His palms were sweaty. Damn, this wasn't going to be as easy nor as fun as he thought it would. Looked like they were already anxious to kill the messenger. He took Sanchez's advice and thought before he spoke.
"Day before yesterday, there was a prison break. An explosion . . . blew the place all ta hell." They were listening now, hanging on his every word. Careful, careful, he told himself.
"Larabee and Judge Travis had just gone through the gates when it . . . when it happened." He took a deep breath, sighing and gave his head a little shake. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this . . ." he cut himself off when he heard the distinct sound of a hammer being pulled back.
His eyes caught and held the hooded blue ones that radiated hate towards him, barely noting a voice from his left, telling him to "Go on."
Still meeting Tanner's eyes, he finished with, "They were caught in the explosion and killed. Instantly," he added quickly, just to be sure that part of the conversation ended there.
It was like sudden death . . . like being caught in that moment right before a big summer storm hit. So quiet and still, but the electricity in the air was there . . . you could feel it, knew it was coming and a smart man would take cover. He had nowhere to go though, just had to meet it head on. He was in control, had to be . . . it was them that had to come to him for the answers. Only him. No matter how much they wanted to rip him apart, to disbelieve, they had to listen to him.
"You're a damn liar," those words hissed at him from Wilmington broke the silence and the storm was upon him. Not one believed him, he could see it in their eyes, their posture. Couldn't believe their almighty leader, Chris Larabee was dead.
"We've not heard a word of any such occurrence and surely would have if it happened almost two days ago. I think it also sufficient to say, that it's no secret you harbored ill will for Mr. Larabee's well-being. What makes you think we'd believe anything you have to say now?"
"The wires were cut both at the prison and at Semora, and as for the proof," he said, looking at the fancy-dressed gambler, "these are their saddlebags. Larabee's . . ."
Canon's hands froze at the opening buckles as Tanner stood, the man's weapon now pointed straight at his heart. Didn't even want him touching Larabee's things.
Wilmington moved at Vin's command and grabbed the saddlebag from the Marshal. Glancing at the underside of the leather strap that held the two bags together, he saw the initials CL burned into it, then quickly opened one side. Clean shirt, razor, soap, all Chris'. Opening the opposite side, his actions slowed as he reached inside. He pulled out a pair of spurs, dusty, blackened and an impossibly bent rowel on one.
"Are . . . are those Chris'?"
Canon moved his eyes, at the whispered question, to the young one of the group whose face had gone pale. He stole a quick glance around at the other men, dropping his eyes quickly when seeing Tanner was watching him intently. Damn blood hound, he thought.
Nathan picked up the spurs, his thumb rubbing at the discoloration on them. He knew they were Chris'. He suspected they all knew. The rowels were the gunman's favorite style.
Next came the holster and gun all neatly wrapped around itself, not a mark on it. No question, only one like it, only one man could wear it.
"No weapons allowed on the prison ground when meeting with a prisoner, except . . . "
"Except for the guards, yes, we are aware of the facilities criterion, I assure you." Ezra finished for Canon.
Damn, but he hated these arrogant sons of bitches.
Tossing the saddlebag over his shoulder, Buck needed both hands to open the worn and damaged wallet. Again he first looked for his good friend's initials and after finding them, checked out the contents. Money was all there, although somewhat burnt as were any other papers held within. He sucked in a breath when his hands caught a locket that almost fell.
"You son of a bitch," he hissed at Marshal Canon, knowing exactly where Chris kept the prized possession, and no way in hell would another man get his hands on it and live. His anger overrode the clarity of what he knew had to be true.
Holding a hand up in his defense, the Marshal informed them all that the prison doctor had been the one to collect items, not he. It was a lie, but they didn't know that. He'd had the pleasure of taking it off of Larabee's prone body.
"You done your job, reckon it's time ya moved on," Vin rasped out, trying to keep his emotions in check after seeing the locket in Buck's shaking hands.
"I have one more stop," Canon informed him, patting the remaining saddlebag. "I understand Judge Travis' daughter-in-law lives here and . . . "
"We'll take care of it," Vin said curtly, then dismissed the Marshal with a slight point of his chin at the entrance door, the meaning clear.
"Listen. I lost three good men in that explosion," Canon hissed out, his patience with these men's arrogance at an end.
"Then we are sorry for your loss," the gambler said offhandedly, "but as Mr. Tanner said, your work here is done," he added, giving the Marshal a look that told him he was no longer welcome.
Canon could feel the heat rising in his face, but knew it was time to take his leave. These men were beyond him. Aside from the young pup, the others were keeping their emotions pretty well in check. Anger yes, there was that, but he suspected that had to do with the fact that someone they didn't particularly care for had to give them the bad news . . . something he relished, at least inwardly. Touching the brim of his hat, he turned and headed to the entrance. Stopping there, he looked one more time at the table, noticing the big man, Sanchez, say something to the group, reach for Travis' saddlebag and then proceed to get up. Tanner was still watching him as his hands pushed on the batwing doors and he stepped through them. They could burn in hell for all he cared.
Heading to the local eatery, he noticed the telegraph man come out of his place of business and hurry towards the saloon. There he met and handed an emerging Sanchez a message. The gray-haired man read it then gave it back to the messenger and pointed to the saloon.
A brief smile crept onto his face. Guessing that a wire had finally come in, about the prison break, from another town, he felt immensely pleased knowing that telegraph note would take the wind out of their self-righteous sails. He almost felt like whistling as he continued on to his eating destination.
Restocking his supplies in the saddlebags for his return trip, he turned to settle the bags over his horse's back and felt his body jump in surprise as he caught sight of Tanner in his peripheral vision, standing there, watching him.
"Leavin' so soon?" came the Texan drawl, quiet-like, almost in a mocking tone. Vin knew he'd given the man a good scare.
Turning to tie the leather strings keeping his saddlebags from slipping, the action gave Canon time to try and slow his wildly beating heart. Damn the man! Nearly gave him a heart attack.
"Good way to get yourself killed, sneakin' up on a man like that," Canon growled, giving a tie an extra hard pull, angry at himself for not hearing the man come up behind him. When Tanner didn't say anything, he turned to look at him and said, "Not welcome here anyway, so what's it to you?" The two locked eyes for a moment. "I've got things to take care of back at the prison," he continued. "People to find. Think you'd be interested in knowing who killed your friends," he said as he pulled himself into the saddle, feeling just a little smug, thinking maybe these men were a lot shallower than what people thought they were. His smugness was cut short though with Tanner's next words, said with deadly assurance.
"We'll get who's responsible. Make no mistake about it." He then finished with "Have a nice ride," and turned away, leaving as silent as he'd come.
Canon felt a shiver run up his spine. Damn that man! Nothing but a murderer . . . protected by his friends and that high and mighty gunslinger, Larabee. They'd see. As soon as he finished his business, and with Chris Larabee out of the way, he'd come back, skin that tracker and take his worthless hide back to Texas for the bounty. There wasn't anything he could do right now for the anger and frustration that had built up on this trip, but he'd settle for taking those emotions out on someone else and he knew exactly who'd that be. A feral grin crossed his lips as he spurred his horse down the darkened street and out of town.
Stepping up into the back of his wagon, Vin removed his gun before sitting down, keeping the weapon close at hand. He'd watched Canon leave, but he didn't want to let his guard down. The man couldn't be trusted . . . about anything. Damn him, thought Vin as first his eyes and then his hand settled on the holster and weapon that had been Larabee's. Was Larabee's, is Larabee's. He was still stunned, his mind swirling, not sure if he believed what he'd been told a few hours ago, couldn't believe what he'd been told a few hours ago. Denial is what Josiah would call it.
After Canon and Josiah left the saloon, Talbet, who owned the telegraph office had hurried into the building and handed Standish a wire. Wasn't hard to figure out what it read just by looking at the gambler. No poker face there. Ezra told them the telegraph came from Pueblo Vista which was a few miles further south of Semora. He read that there had been a prison break at Sonoyta . . . an explosion . . . many had died . . . that Chris Larabee and Judge Travis were among the victims. After that, he didn't remember much. Everybody quietly went their own way. Ezra picked up his cards and headed upstairs. Nathan left. He remembered JD's tearful eyes looking first at Buck, who was lost in his own grief, and then looking at him while picking up Chris' spurs almost as if asking permission to touch them. He didn't care one way or another. He'd waited to see what Buck was going to do, but when the big man walked out of the saloon, saddlebags still over one shoulder, the locket clinched in his fist, only then did he pick up Larabee's weapon.
The weapon he now held in his hands.
He took a deep breath, feeling the sting behind his eyes. Unwinding the black belt from around the conchoed holster, he ran his hands across the leather backing, feeling the smoothness of the belt and holster where it rode for years across his friend's hips. His hands caressed the ivory handle of the Colt before sliding it out of the well-used holder.
With the gun in his hand, Vin leaned his head back, letting the memories of Chris flow over him, from the first time they'd met to their last gun battle and all the times of being together in between. Chris. His mind called out to his friend, wishing nothing more than to have the gunslinger poke his head inside the wagon and ask for his gun back. His gun. The epitome of Chris Larabee. How many men had backed down or thought twice about going against the man once the gunslinger showed them the Colt that rode high on his hip? He'd lost count of the times he'd seen it happen. How proud he was to ride with this man, to call him his friend. It was a terrific feeling, one he had always cherished. And now . . . now Chris was gone. Did he believe it? He didn't honestly know. The evidence certainly pointed to it. Dammit ta hell, he thought as he thumbed at his eyes, wiping away the wetness.
Opening a box that sat next to him, he pulled out an oil rag. Not knowing how long he'd get to keep the gun, Buck, being Chris' oldest friend, might ask for it at some point and he'd give it to the man, but for now . . . for now he'd take care of it, treat it like his friend had. Like the life sustaining object it was.
Drawing in a ragged breath and blinking clear his eyes, he prepared to clean the Colt. What he saw next gave him pause and his mind whirled. Could it be? Or was he just grasping at straws? No, he knew Chris . . . knew him like he knew his own mind. A spark of hope ignited as he reholstered the gun, grabbed his own weapon and leaped down from the wagon. He needed to get the men together.
Not more than ten minutes later, four men sat at a table in the empty saloon. It was a solemn group, minds exhausted, running the gamut of questions and emotions one has when hearing friends are violently killed.
Vin stood, silently gauging how these men would listen to what he had to say. It was pure instinct. He knew it and they'd know it, but the question was . . . would they believe him enough to follow him?
Josiah's call pulled him out of his thoughts. With Chris' holster in his hand, he pulled the gun out and proceeded to tell them what he thought . . . what he knew.
"So you believe the Marshal fabricated the whole story," Ezra stated, not as a question but put as though something was rolling around in his mind.
Vin shrugged. "Maybe not all of it."
"You think maybe Chris and the Judge are alive then?" JD asked, some hope in his voice.
"Not sure," Vin answered with a quick shake of his head. "Jest a feelin' I got." He didn't want to get anyone's hopes up, but he had to say what he thought. Looking around the table, he saw that his friends, instead of scoffing at him, were all deep in thought. He felt a weight lift off his heart at the sight. It meant a lot to him that they were considering what he had said.
"The Judge went to the prison ta talk to Tom Brass," Nathan started, his big hands held out in front of him, "to get some information on his brother's whereabouts."
"Brass cooperates, he doesn't hang," Josiah added.
"He still remains incarcerated though . . . hard labor. Not something the Brass boys are known for," Ezra points out.
"Chris goes along to back up the Judge . . . in case there's any trouble," JD added to the comments.
"A prison break, Brass gets out anyway. His brother?
"If not the brother, then who and why?
All eyes went to Ezra when he tossed out that idea. "If it wasn't Brass' brother," he continued, "and was someone else, they could be holding the Judge hostage until the brother does arrive there."
"Signs a pardon, the brother goes free. Signs two pardons, both brothers freed," Nathan added, following Ezra's train of thoughts.
"Lord knows how much money they've accumulated from all their robberies. Would make them free and clear to live like kings," Josiah added, taking in a deep breath, pursing his lips.
"If that's the why, then who's the who?" JD wanted to know, his eyes going from one concentrating man to the next.
"The possibility of an inside job is looking more and more predominant," Ezra stated, sitting up straighter in his chair.
"Yeah, but who?" JD asked again.
"A man that can be bought."
"A man with a grudge."
"A man without scruples . . . and I believe we are acquainted with such an individual," Ezra finished, knowing they all were thinking the same as they glanced around at each other.
"Who?" JD asked for the third time. He agreed with what all they were tossing out, but didn't have a clue as to whom they might be talking about. His knowledge of known outlaws was thin, but he was learning more each day he rode with these men.
Vin nodded at Nathan's suggestion. "That's what I reckon."
"Gets a cut of the Brass boys' money for helping out and keeping the Judge alive," Josiah added, slouching back in his chair.
"The explosion is a cover-up. Leaves no evidence, not even . . . bodies," the last word being spoken softly, Ezra's eyes glancing to his friends'. "Less questioning that way. Less doubt."
"Probably some sort of a gunfight though . . . would explain Vin's findings. Both men taken and held hostage someplace at the prison maybe," Josiah surmised.
"Always the possibility that they died in a gun battle," Nathan voiced, knowing that thought probably flitted through everyone's minds.
"True. Likely, but again, only an assumption. I think our answers lie with the disreputable Marshal."
"Okay," JD interrupted the men's brainstorming. "I can understand them wanting the Judge if they need him for the pardons. But what about Chris? Why would they keep him?"
"If he is indeed alive," Ezra said tentatively, looking at Vin, "he may be kept for leverage to be sure the Judge does indeed sign a pardon. After that," he shrugged, "I believe the correct term would be, 'excess luggage'. No one was aware that he'd be accompanying Travis."
"Marshal might be getting his revenge," Josiah said softly.
"Both are marked men, that's for sure," Nathan added, looking around the table at the grim faces.
Vin gave a quick nod of his head, agreeing with what all they had come up with. One way or another he was going to find out the truth. If Larabee and the Judge were still there, he'd do everything he could to get them out. If they were dead, he'd bring their bodies back. If what the Marshal said was true, and there wasn't anything left but what he'd brought them, then at least he'd checked it out instead of taking the man's word for it . . . a man's whose word meant nothing to him.
"Vin? Josiah's deep voice penetrated Tanner's thoughts. "What do you want to do?" he asked.
Taking a deep breath, Vin felt the sting of tears behind his eyes again and quickly blinked them away. He shifted his stance, leaned forward and picked up Larabee's gun and holster off the table. He knew they were all looking at him, waiting for an answer.
"I . . . it's just a feelin'," he said with a small shake of his head. "I need ta know." Then meeting the faces of his friends he added, "Ain't askin' ya ta ride with me on just a feelin' . . ."
"I'd like to go . . . if it's alright with you?" Josiah interrupted, meeting Vin's eyes. "Need to find out for myself too. Figure Chris would want a proper burial. . . if that's what's needed," he added solemnly, seeing the tracker give him a nod of acknowledgement.
"You can count me in," Nathan spoke up, nodding to Vin. "Could be they might need some doctorin'."
"I have learned if nothing else, riding with our little assemblage, that trusting in your instincts, Mr. Tanner, is indeed worthy of any efforts I might put forward," Ezra said, looking at Vin, then grinned at him. "Well, and then there's always that curiosity and the cat thing, too."
The corners of Vin's mouth lifted at that, then his eyes slid over to the youngest of their group.
"How 'bout you, kid?" he asked softly.
JD nodded his head yes, but it wasn't hard to tell his mind was elsewhere. "Wonder if Buck will come?" he thought, not realizing he'd just voiced that out loud.
"Don't know," Vin answered. "I'm headed out ta Chris' to tell him." He was positive that's where the man had gone when he'd seen him ride off in that direction earlier.
"Just . . . just make sure he's alright will you?" JD asked, a definite hitch in his voice. He was worried about his friend, but knew Buck wouldn't want to talk to him, at least not for awhile. With Buck and Chris being old friends, and from what they'd gone through together, he just figured the man would need some time to think and be alone.
"We'll leave at dawn," Vin told them, then headed out the batwing doors into the night.
"Well gentlemen, I suggest we salvage what is left of this evening by trying to catch a few winks. I'll bet a plate full of Inez's enchiladas that Mr. Tanner will know of a short cut to the prison that will no doubt test both man and beast."
"No bet," said Josiah, as the men got up from the table, chair legs scraping nosily in the empty saloon, "even if I do love those things."
"Goodnights" were given as the men all headed their own directions, each one preparing in their own way for what was to come. They all knew it could be a wild goose chase, and yet . . . they had to know, their belief strong that Chris Larabee would do the same for them. And Vin? Vin would go to the ends of the earth for them and for Larabee . . . even further if he had to.
Vin rode up to Chris' cabin and even though it was late, he could see a light burning through the windows. He knew Buck would still be up. No rest for the ladies' man, just like the rest of them.
Dismounting, he stepped up to the front door and knocked. When no greeting was made, he slowly turned the handle, identifying himself before entering. Buck was sitting on the bed, Chris' personal belongings, taken from the trunk, spread before him.
The big man never acknowledged Vin, instead, began talking to him like he'd been standing there all along. With shaky hands and a voice to match, he related some of the stories behind certain items to the tracker. There was an occasional forced smile and tears wiped away, but it felt good just to share.
When Buck finally stopped talking, and looked at him with questioning eyes, Vin told him what the rest of them had talked about, his own suspicions about Chris and that they were headed to the prison to find the truth.
Getting off the bed, the ladies' man gave a sad laugh. "Now why doesn't that surprise me, Vin? But, you tell me why you think he's alive," he said, coming to stand in front of the tracker. "The truth, Vin. . . this gun theory is only a guess--so what makes you think Chris might still be alive?"
Vin eyes met the pained blue ones for a moment before looking down. "It's a feelin' I got."
"Is that what it is, Vin?" Buck asked softly, giving Vin a nod of his head before returning to sit on the bed. "Well, I've known Chris for a dozen years and I don't have a feelin'," he continued in a whispery voice. "So why is it that you, who's only known him for a short while, can have that kind of a feelin'? See, I have a feelin' too, Vin," he continued, not giving the tracker any time to answer, as he picked up the locket he'd gotten earlier from Marshal Canon, and held it up in front of him. "This . . . this is all he had left of Sarah and Adam. Only reason he still had it is because he took it with him that . . . that night and I know, the only way someone would get this off of Chris is if he . . . if he . . ." his voice cracked and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Could be he or the Judge was threatened," Vin told him softly, eyes welling up at the sight of the hurting man, trying somehow to reach him, to get him to see beyond the grief and pain. The way Vin figured it, if they found it all to be true, then they'd have time to mourn . . . but first things first.
Buck shook his head at Vin, "You just . . . just go, follow your feelin', Vin. I'll ride this one out right here. I've seen what explosions and fire do to a human being. I don't ever want ta see that again," he added softly, looking back down, remembering that day. Lord, but he'd never forget.
Vin stared at the ladies' man's bent head for a few minutes, knowing what painful memories he was remembering. He couldn't blame him, could he? But Larabee was supposedly his oldest friend. You'd think he'd want to know for sure. Feeling a stab of anger that Buck would or could let it go so easily, he figured he'd better take his leave before saying something that he might regret later on.
Taking a deep breath, and nodding to himself, Vin turned around to leave, but before reaching the door he heard a whispered, "JD goin' with you?"
Vin turned and nodded his head. "We're leavin' at dawn."
"Hope you're right and I'm wrong about this."
Then giving Vin a nod of his head, Buck rested back against the headboard and closed his eyes, barely hearing the door softly shut. "Chris," he breathed out into the empty room as tears flowed down his face.
Blinking his eyes open, he wanted to wipe at them but couldn't move his hands. Seemed to be tied to something. He tried a more forceful approach at getting his hands unbound by jerking harder, but they were held fast. He moved and sat up straighter, grunting slightly as his sore body came upright. Leaning his head back against the post that he was tied too, he nearly jumped when he heard a voice from behind him asking if he was alright.
"Judge?" The voice came out raspy due to a dry throat.
"Yeah. You alright," came the repeated question.
"Think so. Where the hell are we?"
"Prison ammo shed. You remember what happen?"
"Explosion. Gunfight. 'Bout all," he said with a grimace, moving what body parts he could, testing them.
"Well, that's about it in a nutshell. Chris?" he called softly not hearing anything more from the man tied up directly behind him.
"Still here . . . just . . . damn," he swore, more images coming back to him. "Tom Brass," he breathed out, remembering what they were doing at the prison.
"Yes. He's out. Explosion blew the place all ta hell. Prisoners are all . . . scattered, I'm sure."
"You alright?" Chris questioned, hearing the hitch in Travis' breath.
"I'm fine. Just a little sore."
"How long we been in here?"
"'Bout a day and a half I'd say. You've been out most of it."
Chris could believe it. Just breathing was a task. He remembered something happening at the prison gate, right before he was to hand over his weapon, that didn't feel right. It was coming back to him . . . instincts had kicked in, he'd pushed the Judge out of the way, then a gun battle and an explosion. Probably why his ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton and a his body felt like one big bruise.
"So why're we in here?" So why are we still alive? is what he really wanted to ask. "Who's behind it?" His brain was really fuzzy.
"Inside job. Marshal Canon," the name disgustedly spoken. "He's the one along with a couple other men that set off the explosion. Don't know how many are involved, but we're in here because Brass is still here. Waiting for his brother."
Chris' face had scrunched up into a frown when hearing Canon's name. He'd seen the man working at the prison upon arriving, but figured they understood each other. Nothing had been said about their previous run-in and the Marshal kept a respectable distance from him. But knowing the man's past and how he worked, it didn't surprise him one bit. No doubt Canon made some good money off this deal.
"Any reason we're waitin'?" Chris had his suspicions.
"Brass wants a pardon. One for him and one for his brother."
Turning his head as far to the left as he could, Chris asked, "Ain't gonna do it . . . right?"
"Got no choice," came the answer along with a deep sigh.
Laying his head back against the post, Chris closed his eyes. He knew what "got no choice" meant. It meant Canon and the rest were using him to make the Judge sign the pardon.
"Don't do it, Orrin."
"It's a piece of paper, Chris. Your life is worth more than that. Besides, I figure you and the boys can find 'em and bring 'em back to have justice done."
Chris gave a small laugh. "You dream big, Judge."
Orrin knew Larabee didn't remember anything about Canon sharing his plan with them. He'd taken certain things from each of them, including a locket that Chris had hidden on the inside of his pant's waistband. The Marshal knew a treasure when he found one and figured it would be the icing on the cake to make the remaining peacekeepers believe the story he'd concocted about the men's deaths.
Travis heard a whispered curse after telling Larabee what Canon had done and what his plans were to do with the items he'd taken.
"You have doubts they'll show?"
Chris winced. When Canon gave that locket to Buck he knew his old friend would think the worst. And Buck would grieve for him, he knew that. The man would be in no condition to come after anyone.
"That locket will pretty much seal it for Buck. Knows there's only one way I'd give it up."
"If it's any consolation, I thought you were dead when he was going through your pockets." Then he added with a resigned sigh, "Sure would have liked to have seen my grandson grow up."
Chris frowned, leaned his head back against the post and closed his eyes. "What about the Army?" he asked softly. "They might need proof."
"Maybe. More than likely get here too late though. Paperwork."
Chris nodded at that. Neither had a clue as to how long they'd be allowed to live.
"There's always Tanner. Doesn't seem to me ta be a man who'd take another's word . . . especially one like . . . like Canon.
Yeah, there was always Vin.
"Maybe. How bad you hurt?" He'd heard the catch in Travis' voice again, telling him something was wrong.
"Maybe a couple of busted ribs. Feels that way anyway. Hard to tell when you can't move much."
The door to the ammo shed opened and a couple of hard men looking men entered. One of them the two men knew as Tom Brass.
"Well, lookie here. Yer finally awake," Brass said, looking down at Larabee. "Did you have a nice rest?" he asked, squatting down on his haunches in front of Chris.
Brass laughed as Larabee just looked at him.
"Won't be long and brother Bill will be here and then you boys will be earnin' yer keep. "Stone, be sure the Honorable Judge's ropes aren't too tight. Don't want his writin' arm ta fall off 'fore he does his duty."
"He ain't gonna be writin' nothin'," Chris said, giving Brass a no-nonsense look.
"Is that right? Well, maybe he needs a little persuasion then."
Before Chris could blink, Brass hit him along side the jaw with the butt of his gun, snapping his head to the left, then cocked the gun and held it to Larabee's temple.
"He'll sign, won't you Judge . . . or it's bye bye Larabee," he sneered and then pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked on an empty chamber. "Well, damn. Guess that one was empty. Let's try this one," he said and pulled the hammer back again.
"That's enough," Travis snapped out, his heart jumping to his throat when he'd heard the trigger pulled. "I'll write out whatever you need. Just leave him be."
"Sure thing, Judge. Whatever you say," Brass said as he stood back up. "Sure has to be boring with him in here though. Sleeps alot," he added with an evil laugh and a kick to Larabee's booted feet. "See you boys later."
"Chris?" Travis called as soon as the men were out of the door. He heard a slight moan before calling out the name again.
Testing his tender jaw, Chris answered the Judge, letting him know he was alright.
"Might not be the best to aggravate these men."
"I'll try and remember that," Chris mumbled, although he couldn't promise anything. Just wasn't in his nature to give in and he was sure the Judge was aware of that.
How many more days would they be in here? Would there be a chance for escape? Would the boys come? Chris' mind raced with the questions. If there was one thing he was sure of, it would be that their chances of survival definitely depended on an intervention of some kind. In the back of his mind, he truly hoped that Vin or any of the rest would need more proof than what Canon had given them.
Early morning found Vin and Josiah at the livery, saddling the horses while the other men were sent to pick up rations and bullets and anything else they deemed necessary for the trip.
Noticing that the tracker was unusually quiet, Josiah asked if anything was on his mind besides the job they were about to do.
"Reckon I don't understand why Buck is actin' like he is. Think he'd want ta be sure it went down just as the Marshal says," he shook his head as he jammed his rifle in the scabbard.
"Grief can cloud a man's mind," Josiah stated as they brought the horses outside. "It's like puttin' a blanket over the bad to smother out any and all thoughts except for what they are grievin' about. Can't see beyond it. Say and do things they normally wouldn't. Most times, can't help themselves either. Buck's been through a lot with Chris already. Guessin' he just doesn't want to go down that path again." Seeing Vin's frustrated look he added, "We can't judge him on it, Vin. It's all he can handle for now."
"Well, it appears we are all ready for our little forage this morning," Ezra said as he took the reins to his horse from Josiah, climbed aboard and watched his comrades do the same.
"You're sure in a good mood this morning," JD remarked as he mounted up.
"The game is never over until the last card is played," Mr. Dunne, "and somehow I have a feeling there are a few cards left in this deck, and I for one, detest having to fold before knowing all probability of winning is lost."
"Which is why you never lose," Nathan said as he tied his extra saddle bag full of medical supplies onto the back of his saddle.
"That . . . and an exceptional talent for the game," came the reply with a gold-toothed grin.
"Or a trick or two up your sleeve," Josiah countered as he settled himself in the saddle.
"Why, Mr. Sanchez, you wound me with your accus . . . "
"Gonna take a short cut over Medicine Rock pass," Vin interrupted. "Be abit rough in spots, but it'll cut a good half day off the distance. Let's ride!" he told them and spurred his horse into a gallop.
Josiah and Ezra exchanged a look right before following on Peso's heels, both wondering if they'd ever get to eat Inez's enchiladas again.
"Rider comin' up fast," Nathan called out the warning.
"It's Buck!" JD yelled, pulling his mount to a stop in order to wait for his friend. The rest of the men had done the same, turning their animals to face the approaching rider.
Buck eyes gave a greeting, then looking at Vin he gave a nod, knowing Vin would understand why he had to come.
Vin acknowledged Buck's nod with one of his own and then the six men resumed their ride to find out the truth about what had happened to their friends.
What seemed like an eternity to the bound men was, in fact, a day and a half later. They'd been fed enough to stay alive, but weren't allowed any time on their feet except to take care of things, and Chris could tell the Judge was in a lot of pain. Hard enough for him to sit all the time on a hard floor, let alone a man who was Travis' age. A few hours earlier they had heard approaching horses and Chris couldn't help himself feeling elated that maybe the boys had come to rescue them, but that wasn't the case. No gun shots were heard, and he and Orrin were still bound to the post. If he'd guessed it was Bill Brass arriving, he'd be right, but so far, no one had come in to let them know anything.
Sometime in the dark of night the door to their little prison opened, and two men entered, one holding a lit lantern that made the bound men eyes hurt. Chris frowned and looked away when he saw who it was.
"Nice to see you again too, Larabee. Musta been behavin' yourself since you're still alive. Come to inform you that Billy got here here and tomorrow mornin', Judge, you'll be writing out some pardon papers for Tommy and Billy and then . . . well, we'll just be all on our way."
"Ain't gonna happen," Chris told him, a defiant look on his face.
"Chris," Travis whispered a warning to him.
"Is that right now, Mr. Larabee?" Canon asked, crouching down in front of Chris and chuckling. "What? You think maybe something's gonna happen? You think maybe those men of yours are gonna come bustin' in here to save your asses?" He got closer to his prisoner. "They were like babies when I told them what happened and gave them your precious stuff. Wilmington nearly fainted on the spot when he found that locket. Bet they all went to bed cryin'." Wished he believed that himself.
Looking Travis' way, he continued, "Told that pretty daughter-in-law of yours to be sure and write in her paper that you both died in the line of duty." He snorted. "Keep the military off our backs that way." Then turning his attention back to Larabee he added, "Tomorrow it'll all be over and I'll be rid of you, Larabee." He raised a questioning eyebrow. "Got nothin' to say, tough guy?"
"Untie me and we'll find out who's tough," Chris taunted him, not only with the words, but the cocky grin on his lips.
"You know, I'd like to take you up on that, Larabee, but I'm hungry and tired and I've got a job to do . . . divvying up money. Over two thousand to a man."
"You'll never see that money. You're too stupid ta realize you're just a pawn. Nothin' but a messenger boy."
Canon leaned in close to Larabee and grinned, "Make that two thousand five hundred. Soon as this is over, I'm headin' back to that little town of yours and I'm gonna skin the hide off that tracker friend of yours and collect the bounty on him. And I'm really going to enjoy it too," he sneered, then laughed when he saw Larabee close his eyes and lean his head back against the post. He never expected the gunslinger's head to snap forward and smash into his nose causing him to topple over backwards, hands flying to his bloody nose.
"I'll kill you, you son of a bitch," he roared, coming back at Chris who deftly kicked out at the man and caught him in the midsection, knocking the wind out of him. Trying to suck in some much needed air, Canon drew his gun and cocked the hammer, preparing to shoot Larabee, when he heard a voice that made him think twice.
"You kill him and I'll never sign any papers."
"Leave it, Bob," the other man said. "There'll be time later to do whatever you want with him. We got better things to do right now. Let's go," he added, trying to get the Marshal's attention away from Larabee.
Reholstering his weapon, Canon never took his eyes off of Chris. Narrowing his eyes, he gave a nod to the gunslinger, leaving his message clear. They'd tangle later.
"You alright?" Travis asked.
"Never better," came the reply. And it was true. If Canon was going back after Vin, that probably meant the tracker had done or said something to rile the Marshal. And if that had happened, there was a good chance Tanner wasn't falling for the scheme or at least had his doubts. Vin was his own man, made up his own mind, Chris knew that from experience, and he respected him for it. Maybe this was one of those times Vin needed proof. Not much of a thread to hang on to, but it was all he had. He just hoped his friend got to them in time.
Second day out, at daybreak, the six peacekeepers found themselves surrounding a place that looked like a line shack. Vin and Ezra had snuck up to the rear of the building, listening to the morning rousings of the three men inside. They'd heard enough to know these men were from the prison and that something was going to happen there later in the morning.
Coming back to where the other men waited, Vin informed them they needed to get by these men before going on to the prison, not wanting to worry about the outlaws attacking from behind. Pulling out his bowie knife, he told them they needed to do what they had to do quietly, gun shots would alert the prison.
Josiah pulled his knife out and handed it to JD. When the young man gave him a puzzled look, Josiah held up his hands and told him he had his own weapons.
JD nodded, he knew the ex-preacher was strong enough to snap a man's neck.
It was Ezra's job to ride up to the shack and create a distraction. No problem for the gambler. He lived for pulling con's on the unsuspecting.
It didn't take long for the peacekeepers to overpower the trio, all three men losing their lives after trying to fire off their weapons.
Ezra's eyes grew big, seeing all the cash laying on the table and more of it piled up on bunk beds.
"Perhaps we should alleviate this temptation by . . . "
"Leave it," Vin said as he headed out the door, watching the others dump the bodies out of sight behind some trees and bushes. "If anyone gets away, they'll head here. Give us a chance ta catch up with 'em."
Ezra let out a frustrated sigh, fingering a stack of bills. "I am definitely in the wrong line of work," he muttered to himself, then hearing his name called, he left, shutting the door behind him.
"Memorizing where all that money was, Ezra?" Josiah asked, the corners of his mouth turning up in mirth, knowing the man probably looked at where each stack of money had been, and more than likely even had a guess as to how much was in the place. Ezra was uncanny when it came to large sums of money.
The conman graced him with a cunning smile.
"All that money maybe means the other Brass brother is here," Nathan said, the other men nodding in agreement.
"Probably be more guards along the way," Buck said, crossing his wrists over the saddle horn.
"Best we go quiet from here on out," Vin told them, then added, "we'll keep to the brush for now, go in on foot when we get closer." He gave them a nod, making sure they understood, then turned his mount and led the way.
Wouldn't be long now and their questioning minds would be put to rest, one way or another.
There had been very little trouble for the peacekeepers the rest of the way to the prison. Vin had effectively taken out two more guards. Leaving the horses tied to some scrubs in a draw, the six eased their way nearer their destination. Hunkering down behind an outcropping of rocks, the men could see the whole prison ground before them. It was as Canon had said. In ruins. What they could see left no doubt in their minds that there had been an explosion, and that fact had an instant impact on the six. A definite heaviness settled on each of them.
A stone guard house stood outside of the actual prison. This was where the warden lived and by the size of it, there would be extra rooms. Off duty guards probably ate and slept there as well as any guests. It's where Larabee and the Judge would have spent the night before heading back to Four Corners. Now it was more than likely housing the Brass brothers, Canon and others. A livery stood just to the back and left of the guard house.
"We go down there we're gonna get shot ta pieces," Buck whispered out loud, seeing they were definitely outnumbered. "You got a plan?" he asked, pinning Vin with a look.
Buck was angry, Vin could tell that, but he wasn't going to give in to the big man. Now was not the time. He kept in the back of his mind what Josiah had told him.
"We'll wait and watch," Vin whispered back. "Somethin's gonna break."
"Would that be a feelin' you got?" Buck retorted, putting an ugly bite on the word "feelin'".
Vin ignored him, as he watched the door to a little shed opposite the guard house open.
"Movement in that little shack, yonder," Nathan said softly, drawing all eyes to that direction.
They all saw, but could hardly believe what they were seeing.
Buck sucked in a ragged breath, eyes stinging as he blinked fast to keep his eyes clear.
"They're both alive," JD said in a whispered shout. "Vin, you were right," he added, looking over to the sharpshooter.
Vin's eyes were busy tracking every move made by the prisoners and the men that guarded them. Travis had been hauled out of the building by a man pulling on his handcuffs and right behind him Larabee had stumbled out after receiving a healthy push by another guard. Chris turned on the man, but got the barrel of a rifle stuck in his gut.
"Easy, stud," they all heard Wilmington mutter under his breath.
The guards were taking the men straight across to the guard house, for what reason the peacekeepers could only guess, but halfway there, the man in back of Chris gave him another shove and this time the gunslinger rounded on the man and clubbed him with his bound arms. That earned Larabee a vicious blow to the side of his head with the rifle which knocked him to the ground on his back.
The guard straddled him then began to beat him with his fists. Chris obviously dazed, couldn't fight back.
"We need to move now!" Buck hissed, his temper no longer in check. He'd barely gotten the words out when he heard a low growl from his right and the sound of a hammer being pulled back. In the time it took for him to glance at Tanner, Vin had already shot dead the man pummeling Larabee and sent the next bullet into the other guard who had given Travis a shove and was headed over to the two men on the ground. He now joined his dead comrade.
Then all hell broke loose.
"Give 'em cover!" Vin yelled as he saw Chris get up and stagger over to the Judge, helping him to get up from where he'd fallen after recieving the push. The two were helplessly caught out in the open, little puffs of dust plumes kicked up all around them as they struggled to get out of the line of fire.
Protecting the Judge as much as he could, Chris guided him to a buckboard and pushed him behind it right before feeling a searing pain in his back. He went down hard.
"Dammit!" Buck yelled, seeing Chris hit the ground hard. "Dammit, dammit, dammit." He and JD had stayed where they were, firing as fast as they could from the four guns they had between them. Vin and Ezra had gone to the right, Josiah and Nathan to the left. Bullets were flying everywhere, no one gaining the upperhand yet.
"Ahhhhhhh," JD cried out as a bullet caught him on the top of his left shoulder. "I'm okay, keep firing, Buck," he said quickly when his friend turned to help him out.
"We're not winnin' here," Buck ground out as he quickly jammed more bullets into his guns and started firing again. "Where the hell are you guys?" he yelled out when a rock chip cut into his face as he and JD were hit with a barrage of bullets. "Dammit," he cursed again, keeping his head low as he turned to look at his young friend.
"You doin' okay?" he asked as he passed his bandana over to his young friend.
"I'm fine, just a scratch," Dunne said breathlessly, reloading.
There was a lull for a split second, the two men locked eyes, then leaned out over the rocks and emptied their guns at anything or anybody that moved. As they sat back and reloaded again, they heard the sweet music of Vin's sawed-off. Then came a couple of quick booms that were definitely dynamite.
JD's eyes got big as he looked across at Buck, both thinking the worst, but when they peered around their boulders, it was the outlaws that were running here and there trying to find cover, but were being picked off like ducks on a pond.
"You ready ta move?" Buck asked JD, eyes squinting at the blood on the young man's clothes. He wanted, no needed, to get to Chris, but didn't want to jeopardize JD either. He hadn't seen any movement by either Travis or Larabee, so he had no idea if they were dead or alive.
"Let's go," JD said and gave him a nod, letting the ladies' man know he was ready.
The kid's got grit, Buck thought as the two began to pick their way down to the camp.
The gun fire had become less and less, since the dynamite had gone off, but they still had to be careful. Sporadic firing came from different places in the compound and would, until those men were either killed or captured.
The main focus of the peacekeepers was to get to the wagon that Travis and Larabee had taken cover behind. Josiah and Nathan along with four loyal prison guards, two who were slightly injured, came from inside the guard house, confirming that whoever had been in there was now dead or taken care of. They met up with Dunne and Wilmington.
JD saw the concerned look he got from Nathan. "It's nothing, just a scratch," the young man told him, pointing his chin over to where they knew Chris and the Judge were.
Grabbing the handcuff keys off one of the men Vin had killed, Buck ran to the buckboard, afraid of what he would find. After seeing Chris alive, and now to maybe lose him, was tearing at him. He pushed away thoughts of what would have happened if they hadn't come to the prison in the first place and his own reluctance at riding along. At the rear of the wagon, he found Travis trying to sit up, Larabee laying beside him. Locking eyes with the Judge, he breathed out a huge sigh of relief and blinked back tears when the older man nodded to him, signaling that Chris was alive. The ladies' man unlocked both men's handcuffs, his shaking hands giving away the emotions coursing through him.
Larabee had taken the bullet in the fleshy part of his back, just under the left armpit, and although the bullet had passed through, it'd taken a good chunk of skin with it. He was also somewhat disoriented from the hit he'd taken to his head by the rifle butt earlier and the beating he'd recieved. The man had some definite bruises and there'd probably be more showing up later.
Travis was hurting from his bruised or broken ribs, plus his body was just plain too old to be hitting the ground hard and not suffering the consequences. He was stiff and sore all over. But no matter, he was thankful to be alive and even more thankful for these men that came to his and Chris' rescue. He'd be sure they knew how much he appreciated it before he headed back home.
Nathan joined the three men, bringing a medical bag he'd found inside with him. He quickly checked over Chris who was regaining his senses and trying to get up; a definite tell-tale sign to the others that he'd be fine. Sore no doubt, but fine.
The men's attention turned to Ezra who came over to them leading a saddled horse. He too, had suffered an injury, his left arm being held tightly to his chest.
"Mr. Larabee," he drawled, with a slight grin, "might I inform you that you look like hell? Judge," he nodded a greeting, watching Jackson help the older man to his feet.
"Good ta see you too, Ezra," Chris told him, wincing as he stood up, hanging onto the wagon to steady himself.
Ezra would never admit it, but seeing Larabee alive and relatively unharmed brought out emotions he usually kept hidden. It was just good to know that their instincts were right about coming to the prison, or rather Vin's instincts were right. The rest of them had followed along.
As if reading his mind about Tanner, Chris asked, "Where's Vin?" He'd looked around at his injured men, and noticed the tracker was no where in sight, his mind now automatically thinking the worst.
Ezra quickly explained that Vin had seen Canon escape and had followed after him. He told them he was heading to the line shack to back up Tanner but first needed Nathan's help in putting his shoulder back into place.
Then Buck argued he should go since he was the less injured of them all, but he'd been cut short by Larabee saying he was going and that was that. The gunslinger was not to be denied, he had some things to settle with the Marshal. Borrowing Wilmington's gun he rode off, hoping he wasn't too late in helping Vin.
Nathan took a deep breath. Some things were just out of his hands and he was dealing with some stubborn men, he knew that from the beginning. He'd give them help when they asked for it or were literally falling down from their injuries. "We get a team hitched to this here wagon, we can get down the road and maybe help out if need be," he told them.
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Travis agreed.
"I'll get the horses," Buck said and headed to the livery.
"Mr. Jackson, if you'd be so kind," Ezra stated, coming over to Nathan.
"So you'd been throwin' those dynamite sticks with your other hand?" Nathan asked as a distraction when he made a quick jerk on the conman's arm and the shoulder popped back into place.
"Ahhhh . . . yes," came the painful reply. My ambidexterity does suit me well at times. He rotated his shoulder a couple of times, "Thank you."
Josiah hobbled out of the guard house with blankets and pillows, he'd caught a bullet in his lower leg, but told Nathan it would keep until everything had settled down.
It didn't take the men long before they were underway, leaving the four guards in charge, but also promising to send out men from the nearest town to help bury bodies and clean up. They were in a hurry and they'd be uncomfortable rattling along in the wagon, but the need to get to their friends made them grit their teeth and bare the pain.
Vin had gotten to the shack close on Canon's heels. After he'd seen the Marshal cut down Larabee, he'd kept track of him as much as possible. Watching as the man headed to the livery, Vin had a good idea of what he was thinking. He'd left then, knowing Ezra was cutting down the odds stacked against them with the dynamite. There was no way in hell he wanted a man like the Marshal to get away. He'd follow him to the ends of the earth and beyond if he had to.
After making his way back to Peso, Vin had rode hard to catch up to Canon, knowing the man was going to grab the money and run. He'd surprised the hell out of the Marshal when he'd come busting through the door, a bullet from his sawed-off finding it's way into the lawman's shoulder, after Canon took a shot at him.
Vin had the look of a crazed man and Canon knew he was done for . . . knew there was no way this ex-bounty hunter was going to let him get out of the place alive.
"Take the money. You can have it all," Canon said, looking down the barrel of the tracker's weapon, the man behind it, glaring at him. He should have known better than to try and make a deal with this man.
"Shut-up!" the command coming out in a growl. Vin lowered the rifle and knocked the table over that separated him from the Marshal.
Canon took a couple of steps back and stumbled over a bedroll. He fell to the floor and scooted back against the wall.
"You can't kill me, I'm a Federal Marshal. You do and you'll hang for it."
"Already got a noose with my name on it. Kin only hang a man once." Vin told him as he approached, gun still held on the man. "Seems ta me, you and I have some things to settle on," he said while squatting down near Canon. "You put a couple of innocent women through hell with your lies about the Judge bein' dead."
"I enjoyed it. Just to see the looks on all of your faces," Canon said, a leering smile on his face. Come on, just a little closer, Tanner.
"So tell me," Vin said, leaning in closer, his voice a raspy whisper, "was it all worth it?"
"You tell me," Canon snarled, a feral grin on his lips as he took a swipe at Tanner's gun, knocking the muzzle to the side, his intention to take the tracker by surprise sadly miscalculated. Instead, he'd played right into the man's hands and he knew it when he felt an unnatural pain in his belly. Looking down, he saw the bowie knife being withdrawn. Raising his eyes to look at Tanner, he grinned painfully. "Larabee really is dead though. And I'm the one who killed him. That was worth it and you won't have him to hide behind anymore, Tanner," he coughed. "You're a dead man."
Vin narrowed his eyes, "I think maybe you'd be wrong 'bout that." He watched as Canon's eyes grew wide as they looked past him to the open door.
There stood Larabee. Big as life and Canon suspected if he wasn't already dying, the gunslinger would have put a bullet dead center in him.
"You need any help here?" The Marshal couldn't help but notice the question was asked in a hopeful voice.
"Take the money, reckon we can return it to it's rightful owners," Tanner said, never once looking at Larabee, his eyes concentrated on his prey.
"He kills me, you'll be an accessory, Larabee. You'll hang right along side of him," Canon ground out between painful breaths, his pleas falling on deaf ears, watching as all the money was scooped up and put into the waiting saddlebag.
"Anything else?" the Marshal barely heard the question being asked. It sounded muffled and his eyes were having problems staying open. He did see Tanner stand up, and if he could just move, he'd take advantage of that, but his body wouldn't obey. He guessed he was dying.
Vin knew Canon was almost dead, so he stood and finally looked at Chris. There were a few things he wanted to say, but they'd keep for now. "I'll be out shortly," is what came out instead, giving a nod to his friend. He watched as Larabee acknowledged his statement with a nod of his own, and then walked out, shutting the door behind him.
Vin looked around the cabin and found what he was searching for. Bending down in front of Canon, he called to the man. When the sluggish eyelids opened and looked at him, Vin struck the lucifer, both sets of eyes mesmorized by the flame.
Canon took his eyes away from the flame and looked at Tanner who was watching him, passively. "Wait . . . please," were the words that soundlessly came out of his mouth, but the tracker had already turned from him.
Closing the door behind him, Vin stood on the little porch and looked at his friend, leaning against his horse.
"You alright," Vin questioned softly, emotion in his voice and on his face. That Larabee was alive hit him like a hammer, his knees nearly weak at the sight of the man. Any other time, any other place, and they'd sit and have a drink together . . . .
"Never better," came the answer, as Larabee's eyes met with his friend's then flicked to a window when he saw flames inside the shack. He looked back at Vin as the man stepped off the porch and went to his horse, tightening the saddle.
"Canon was right. People get wind of this, you'll be wanted right along side of me."
"Fewer places I can think of that I'd rather be."
Turning to look at Chris, Vin shook his head. "You didn't have a thing to do with this, Chris," the words nearly drowned out as the crackling noise got louder and heat spread from the burning building.
Both men moved a safer distance away, pulling their mounts with them.
"Nobody has ta know anything, Vin," Chris said, watching his friend pull something out of his saddle bag.
"Judge'll want ta know. Won't have ya lyin' for me, Chris," Vin said softly, handing Larabee the gun belt he'd retrieved. "Figure you might be needin' this."
Chris swallowed hard as he took his holster and gun from Vin. Unbuckling Buck's from around his hips, and hanging it over the saddle horn, he put his own on. He looked at Vin and a smile touched his lips. "Feels good."
Vin nodded. "Needs four bullets. I . . . " he stopped and cleared his throat. "You best fill 'em up."
Chris took his colt and spun the chamber. Taking some shells from his holster he filled the empty rounds, stealing a glance at his friend who was watching him.
"You believe Canon when he said we were dead?"
"Told a pretty convincin' story and then with your . . . things," he shrugged, "hell, he did a good job."
"But . . . you had your doubts?"
"Empty cartridges kinda told me a story," Vin said. "Made me suspicious."
Chris grinned at him. "Well, I'm thankful for your suspicious mind," he said, reaching out his arm to grasp hold of his friend's.
Vin took the arm clasp and held tight, eyes speaking all they needed to. They released it at the sound of a wagon coming. Hands going to their weapons, they were relieved to see it was their friends coming into sight.
Nathan was driving, the Judge sitting beside him. Josiah and JD were in the back, Buck and Ezra riding alongside on their own mounts, bringing the others' horses along with them. Jackson stopped the rig a safe distance from the fire.
The men all glanced at the burning structure as Vin and Chris walked over to them.
"Where's Marshal Canon?" Travis asked.
Vin looked at the Judge and with a tilt of his head to the shack, said, "In there."
"I see," said the Judge, looking from Vin to the nearly non-existing building. "Can't say that I'll miss him." Then he added, "But, he was a Federal Marshall, after all. I guess that means . . ."
Vin ran his tongue along his bottom lip and shifted his weight. He'd felt Chris move beside him and knew the gunslinger was about to say something, so he interrupted Travis.
"Judge . . . the Marshall . . . the fire . . . it weren't . . ."
"I'll have ta write to Washington," the Judge mused. Tell them he died in the line of duty," he continued as though not hearing a word Tanner had said.
"What do you think, Chris? Think that sounds about right? Died in the line of duty?" Travis looked intently at the gunslinger, an understanding passing between them.
"Sounds right to me, Judge." Chris agreed, punctuating his agreement with a nod of his head.
"Then that's the way it'll be," Travis said, the tone of his voice meant that the subject was closed. "Well, Nathan. Let's get this wagon turned around and head to Semora. I need to send a wire. Can't wait to get back and see that grandson of mine."
Buck rode up to Chris and Vin as they mounted their horses. "Care to fill me in on that little "died in the line of duty" thing?" he asked, handing Chris his hat he'd found in the ammo shed.
"We get to a saloon and you buy the drinks, I'll tell you anything you want ta know," Chris said, giving Buck back his holster and gun.
"Alright," Buck said, breaking out into a big grin. "Vin . . ."
"Think a couple of drinks on you sounds good, Bucklin," Vin said, nodding to him, letting the big man know things were fine between them.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, riding up to the three men. " Please, tell me that you procured the merchandise before that building turned into an inferno."
"Sorry, Ez. Weren't no time," Vin said with a solemn look as the conman' eyes got wide and his face paled at that admission.
Sighing, he mumbled, "Oh well, that's just great." Then, "I believe I feel rather ill." Shaking his head in disbelief, he turned his mount around, and headed after the buckboard, Buck coming up along side of him.
"Well, you know what they say, Ezra? Easy come, easy go," Buck chided him as he clapped him on his sore shoulder and laughed as the gambler groaned again.
Vin looked over at Larabee and winked. The two men shared a grin and spurred their horses on to catch up with the others.