Main characters: Vin, Seven, OMC
Rating: Gen fic, FRT (fan rated suitable for teenagers)
Summary: The Seven are caught in a web of betrayal and revenge that leaves Vin fighting for his life.
The story contains references to my earlier story, Settin' Things Straight (but it isn't essential to read that one first) and to the episode Obsession.
Acknowledgements: Heartfelt thanks to my beta, Yuri, who spent hours of her life on this story and it's so much better as a result!
Disclaimer: The 'Magnificent Seven' characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy and the Mirisch Company. The characters are used here without permission, but no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended. SIZE: Approx 280K
Chapter 1 - 10 | Chapter 11 - 22 | Chapter 23 - 30 | Chapter 31 - 39
"Vin Tanner, if you don't get on over there and ask Inez to that dance, I swear I'm gonna go and do it for you!"
Tanner leaned across the table and grabbed his fellow peacekeeper by his bandanna, pulling him forward until their faces were inches apart.
"Take one step outta that chair and you're gonna get the butt'a my rifle up where the sun don't shine."
Buck Wilmington simply grinned at the look of genuine panic on the sharpshooter's face.
"Hell, Vin, someone's gotta give your love life a helping hand."
"I. Don't. Need. No. Help!" Vin ground out through gritted teeth.
From his seat next to Tanner, Chris Larabee, leader of the seven men who comprised the law in the town of Four Corners, watched the exchange with a degree of amusement.
"Leave him alone, Buck," Chris drawled. "It's his business who he asks to the dance."
"See, normally I'd agree with you, Chris." Buck turned his eyes to his black-clad companion. "I'm just thinking of poor Inez. She's turned down five invitations that I know of, and why? Because she's waiting for this no good excuse for a Texan to sort his sorry ass out and ask her. For some reason that I don't rightly understand, she's real sweet on him and if he don't make a move soon, Inez is gonna find herself going to that dance on her own!"
Vin flushed scarlet and scowled. "Stop talking 'bout me like I ain't in the room."
Chris let his eyes wander to the subject of their conversation. Inez Recillos was the Manager of the Standish Tavern in which he and three of his fellow peacekeepers were currently eating their midday meal. She was standing behind the bar, engaged in a lively conversation with a couple of cowboys he recognized as coming from a local ranch. Inez was laughing, but shaking her head at the same time. Probably turning down two more invitations. She turned then and glanced towards their table. Her eyes locked with Tanner's for a moment until Vin lowered his gaze. Inez's eyes lingered on him for a while longer, the smile gone from her face.
Chris wasn't sure what was going on in Vin's mind regarding the fiery Mexican beauty, but he was sure that it was none of his business; Vin wouldn't thank him for interfering.
"Just leave it, Buck," Chris said quietly but firmly, shooting a warning look at his old friend.
Buck shrugged defeat and turned his attention from Vin to the fourth man sitting at the table, JD Dunne, the youngest of the peacekeepers. Chris forked up a last mouthful of chili, chased it down with a mouthful of beer and sat back with an unaccustomed feeling of contentment.
It was now four months since Ella Gaines had come back into his life and turned it into a living hell. In that time, the raw pain of Ella's betrayal had dulled to a constant ache. The knowledge that she had been responsible for the death of his wife and son was still an open wound that he thought might never close, but he had made progress towards finding a way to live with it.
The physical tightening in his chest whenever he allowed his thoughts to dwell on Ella was, these days, due mainly to an instinctive feeling that they hadn't seen the last of her. Her obsession with him was so intense and so irrational that it was unlikely she would just give up. He was afraid; not for himself, but for his friends and for Vin in particular. If it hadn't been for Vin, Chris might never have discovered the truth and Ella knew that only too well. If Ella came looking for revenge, Chris was certain that the Texan would be her first target.
Still, four months had passed with no sign of her and Chris had begun to re-build his life. It had been difficult at first, with the knowledge that more than a few of the townspeople were aware of what had occurred at the Gaines ranch and the way he so badly and almost fatally misjudged Ella's character. His resulting differences with Vin had almost sent him over the edge into the darkness that had claimed him once before. Chris frequently offered up silent thanks to whatever god that had helped him to swallow his pride and break down the barriers that had grown up between them. It had been Vin's quiet but steadfast presence over the past three months that had helped him to begin his slow emotional recovery. Chris had even made some progress in restoring his fledgling relationship with Mary Travis. It was still early days, but he had even found himself wondering if the two of them might have a future together.
"So, Chris, you asked Mary to the dance yet?" Buck's question broke into Chris's reverie.
Getting dressed up for a dance wasn't really Chris's idea of a good time, but he'd had enough experience with women to know that his relationship with Mary would face a severe setback if he didn't escort her to the most talked-about dance to be held in Four Corners in years especially as Mary was chairing the organizing committee.
"Who are you taking, Buck?" JD asked.
Wilmington waggled his eyebrows. "Ain't rightly sure yet, JD. There's several lovely young ladies just waiting for me to ask them."
Chris caught Vin's amused glance and grinned. Frustrating as it was to acknowledge, Buck's arrogance was justified. He really had a way with women and it was undoubtedly true that the ladies were lining up in hope of an invitation.
"You takin' Casey, JD?" Vin asked.
"I've asked her, but she keeps saying that she doesn't like dances, and she isn't sure she wants to come." JD sounded aggrieved. Chris wasn't surprised; either at Casey's attitude or at JD's reaction. Casey was a good kid who could out-ride and out-shoot most of the boys her age, but she seemed to have little interest in more ladylike pursuits. In many ways, she took after her Aunt Nettie. Chris grinned to himself as he imagined Nettie at Casey's age, sulking because she had to wear a dress to a dance.
"Well, I reckon there's time for another round," Buck said, getting to his feet. He glanced at Vin and grinned. "I'll just head on over to the bar "
Vin's growled warning and the ferocious look on the tracker's face had Buck's grin widening until it threatened to split his face. He held his hands up in mock defeat.
"I'm just teasin', Vin. I ain't gonna say anything, just gonna get some beers."
Chris finished his beer and watched Buck exchange a few words with Inez, then strike up a conversation with a man standing nearby.
Chris had noticed the young man enter the saloon a few moments earlier and had kept an eye on him as he made his way to the bar. As leader of the law enforcement for the town, it was his responsibility to keep a look out for any potential troublemakers. In addition was the added concern that a newcomer might be a bounty hunter out to claim the five hundred dollar reward on Vin Tanner's head.
First appearances seemed to suggest that this particular stranger was neither a troublemaker nor a bounty hunter. He was perhaps a few years younger than JD, tall and rangy with a head of straggly reddish-blond hair and an open, pleasant face. His clothes were trail-dusty and he carried a gun in a holster on his right hip. That in itself wasn't necessarily significant; most men in this part of the world carried a gun for protection.
The boy was tucking into a plateful of chili as Buck engaged him in conversation and Chris was only mildly surprised when the big man returned to the table with the young man following in his wake.
"This here's Joshua Kelly," Buck introduced the newcomer, who smiled and nodded amiably at the three men seated at the table.
Vin tipped his hat and Chris nodded, while JD said, "Good to meet you Josh we can call you Josh, right? I'm JD Dunne, this is Chris Larabee, he heads up the law around here, and this here's Vin he's the best tracker in the territory."
Chris silently approved JD's caution in catching himself before completing Vin's full name. The Seven had a tacit agreement to be cautious about sharing Vin's surname too freely with newcomers.
"Good to meet you," Josh said, his pleasant face breaking into a smile. "Sure, you can call me Josh," he added, looking at JD. "Most folks do."
Buck waved Josh to an empty chair and the boy took the seat next to JD as the big man explained, "Josh arrived in town this morning, ridden over from Eagle Bend."
"What brings you to Four Corners, Josh?" JD asked.
"Guess I'm looking for work you know of anything to be had hereabouts?"
"Well, Four Corners ain't exactly full of opportunities," Buck said.
Josh shrugged. "It looks like a nice enough little town. I'm not used to big, fancy places anyway. Truth of it is, though, I've run out of money, so I'm looking for somewhere to stay for a while, just 'til I can earn enough to move on again."
"Heading anywhere in particular?" JD asked.
The boy grinned. "Wherever I feel like. I've been on the trail for about six months. Got tired of my uncle's farm back in Kansas, decided it was time to get out and see the world. Been working my way south-west, taking whatever work I can get to keep me going."
Chris lit a cheroot and sat back silently while Josh chatted openly with Buck and JD. A glance at Vin reassured him that there were no alarm bells ringing with the tracker. Vin was a sharp observer of human nature and a shrewd judge of character. If he had been unsure about this boy, it would have shown in his posture, but he seemed relaxed, slouched in his chair, quiet but contributing the occasional wry comment to the conversation.
After a while, the talk came back around to Josh's quest for work.
"I've got it!" JD exclaimed suddenly.
"Keep a good hold on it then, JD, it might get away," Buck quipped.
JD ignored him. "Isn't Mrs. Potter looking for someone to help her out in the store?"
"That's right," Vin agreed with an amused smile. "She said her last boy had four left feet made more mess than he swept up. She let him go last week."
"Pay wouldn't be much though." JD sounded doubtful.
Josh shrugged. "Don't need much. Just enough to keep me going and save a few cents."
"Well, why don't I take you to the boarding house to find a room, then we can go meet Mrs. Potter. She can be a bit ornery, but she's real nice if you keep on the right side of her."
"Unless your name's Vin Tanner," Buck remarked slyly. "Then you can do no wrong!"
Vin flushed as the others laughed.
"Ain't my fault Mrs. Potter's taken a likin' ta me."
"It's the boyish good looks and the butter-wouldn't-melt-smile." Buck batted his eyelids and said in an exaggerated Texas drawl, "Well surely, Mrs. Potter, I'd love to come an' fix a couple of li'l ole shelves fer ya, an' "
The rest of his words were lost as his hat was pulled down over his face.
"You're just jealous, Buck," Vin remarked good-humoredly. "Just because your animal magnicism don't work on Mrs. Potter!"
"It's magnetism!" Buck corrected indignantly. "And I'll have you know there ain't a woman walking this earth who don't find it irresistible!"
JD rolled his eyes at Josh. "Josh, let's head out. If we let Buck start on about his magnetism, the job at Potter's store will be long gone!"
Buck tipped his hat to Josh as the lad stood up. "Looks like we'll be seeing you around, then," he said pleasantly.
"Sure hope so, Mr. Wilmington. It's right nice of you all to make me feel so welcome."
Chris exchanged glances with Buck and Vin as the two young men left the saloon.
Buck said, "Seems harmless enough. What do you think, Vin?"
Vin shrugged. "Don't have the look of a troublemaker. JD seems to have taken to him well enough."
Buck grinned. "Be good for the boy to have someone nearer his own age to hang out with."
"You saying we're old, Wilmington?" Chris said. "Me, I'd say I'm just about in my prime."
Vin choked on a mouthful of beer. "In yer dreams, Larabee! Coupla years, you'll be walking with a stick!"
Chris favored him with the patented Larabee glare. "I've shot men for less than that, Tanner!"
"Maybe." Vin sounded unconcerned. "But I know you ain't gonna shoot me, Larabee. Not lessen you want to take my patrol this afternoon." He drained his glass and stood up. "Gonna head out early, need to call into Nettie's place and fix some fencing. Be back around nightfall."
Chris nodded. "Watch your back."
The two remaining peacekeepers sat for a while in companionable silence. After a while, Buck turned to Chris with a conspiratorial air. "So, Chris, are you gonna talk to Vin about Inez?"
Chris frowned. Why couldn't Buck leave well alone? "Nope."
"Someone needs to."
"It ain't our business, Buck. Vin won't thank us for stickin' our noses in."
Buck sighed. "I know that. But Inez is a wonderful woman, it's obvious she's sweet on him and it's even more obvious that he's sweet on her. I just can't for the life of me see what's holding him back."
Chris didn't reply. He could take a guess about Vin's reticence, but discussing Vin's feelings, even with Buck, was something he didn't feel comfortable with.
Chris had long suspected that his friend was sweet on the dark-haired Mexican, had often caught him stealing glances at her when she was unaware, a longing in his eyes that Chris recognized only too well. He had expected that Vin would take the opportunity presented by the dance to make his feelings known and had been surprised when Vin had held back.
Chris was pretty sure that the Texan's reluctance had a lot to do with the bounty hanging over his head. Regardless of the fact that Vin was an innocent man, he was still wanted and, knowing Vin's sense of honor, he would feel that it was unfair to begin a relationship with a woman when there was a distinct possibility that he would one day be taken away and hanged. Chris felt the familiar tightening of his chest at the vision of Vin hanging by his neck, the rope choking the life out of him. He had promised himself and Vin that it would happen over his dead body, but there was no denying that Vin lived with the constant threat of capture.
Chris wondered now if he was wrong to say nothing; perhaps he should talk to his friend. It didn't seem right for Vin to be throwing away a chance at happiness for something that wasn't going to happen. He shrugged inwardly - he would wait and see if the subject came up naturally and then make his decision. Realizing that Buck was waiting for an answer he said shortly, "Just leave it, Buck."
Buck shrugged and drained his glass.
"All right, if that's the way you feel. I'd best be getting over to the jailhouse, relieve Josiah."
Chris nodded. "Buck? Keep an eye on that Josh kid. I'm sure he's just who he says he is, but just in case "
"Think he might be a bounty hunter in sheep's clothing? I'll keep an eye out, but I don't think we need worry; he's a nice kid. See you later, pard."
Remembering that he had promised to call into the Clarion office to discuss security arrangements for the dance, Chris finished his beer and reluctantly got to his feet. Not that he had any objection to spending time with Mary, but he knew she'd bring the subject around to him buying a new suit for the occasion. Still, he reasoned, as he walked out of the saloon, tipping his hat to Inez as he passed, if all he had to worry about was this darned dance, there really wasn't much to complain about.
JD carefully leaned his fishing rod against a convenient rock and stretched out on the springy grass of the riverbank, lacing his hands behind his head. He was partly shaded from the fierce sun by an overhanging tree, enough dappled sunlight escaping through the leaves to bathe his face in gentle warmth. He sighed contentedly. This was what Sunday afternoons should be all about a good fishing spot, a comfortable place to doze and pleasant company.
JD and Josh had ridden out with Vin to the Wells place; Vin to help Nettie with some chores, JD to introduce his new friend to some of the best fishing in the territory.
JD had been pleased when Mrs. Potter had agreed to take Josh on at the store. He'd felt an affinity with the tousle-headed young man from the first time they met and had come to enjoy Josh's companionship a great deal over the next two weeks. Not that he was lacking in friends, but he had to admit that it was a pleasant change to have someone his own age to talk to. Josh was amiable, a little gullible at times, and had a good sense of humor. The two of them had been trading jokes all afternoon and JD now had several new ones stored up to tell Buck when he next saw him.
"Got a riddle for you, JD."
JD opened one eye and fixed it on his companion, who had propped up his own rod and was settling down on the bank.
"Let's hear it, then, Josh."
"A cowboy rides into town on Friday and leaves three days later, on Friday. What happened to the other four days?"
JD frowned. There was obviously a trick to the question, but hang it if he was going to tax his brain on a day as hot as this one. "I give up."
"Already?" Josh chuckled.
"Too hot to think. What's the answer?"
"It's obvious - his horse was called Friday!"
Josh's chuckle turned into a full-blown guffaw and JD's own laughter joined his friend's. That was another good one; he'd have to remember it to tell the others later. They were always telling him that his jokes weren't funny well, Josh seemed to appreciate them, which just proved that the others simply lacked his sophisticated appreciation of the fine art of humor.
JD had barely closed his eyes when Josh began speaking again.
"JD, tell me a bit more about Mr. Larabee."
That was another thing about Josh, JD reflected. He sure asked a lot of questions about everything and everyone. He opened his eyes with a sigh; he obviously wasn't going to get the nice doze he'd been hankering after.
"What do you want to know?"
"Well, I guess he must have killed a lot of men."
"I suppose so."
"Has he always been a gunfighter?"
"He had a ranch once, few years ago."
JD wasn't prepared to say more than that. He knew how reticent the gunfighter was to talk about the death of his family and didn't figure Chris would be too keen on him telling Josh all his business.
"Reckon he ain't all that easy to get on with."
JD was puzzled at all the questions. Josh had been spending a lot of time with JD himself, and seemed to seek out Nathan and Josiah quite a lot, but he hadn't gone out of his way to get to know any of the others; in fact, he seemed to actually try to avoid them, Chris and Vin in particular. JD could understand that his new friend might be intimidated by the black-clad gunfighter, and he couldn't blame him. Chris wasn't always comfortable to be around. He shrugged.
"He's all right. He's a good man."
"Maybe you just need to get to know him. He and Vin seem to get on pretty well."
"Sure do," JD agreed. "Chris and Vin, they're more like brothers than some actual kin I know," he added, thinking back to his own sometimes-rocky relationship with his brothers back home.
"Vin's another strange one."
"Vin ain't strange!" JD shot back. He wasn't too keen on hearing Josh criticizing his friends. "He just doesn't like to spend too much time around people, is all."
"Yeah, he sure is quiet. I have a cousin back home; Vin reminds me a lot of him. My cousin, he's real quiet too, most of the time, but he has a really mean temper, especially when he drinks."
JD turned to look at him. "He ain't much like Vin, then. Vin doesn't lose his temper; hardly ever, anyway."
"Not even when he's been drinking?"
JD frowned. "Vin doesn't drink much. Why are you so interested anyway?"
Josh shrugged. "Don't mean nothing by it. Just that my cousin ain't the only man I've met like that quiet on the surface, but real mean underneath."
"Well, Vin ain't like that," JD said shortly. "He hasn't got a mean bone in his body." He was beginning to wonder where Josh's questions were leading.
"I don't mean nothing by it," Josh repeated, obviously noticing JD's disquiet. "Just saying, that's all. Vin sure knows a lot about tracking and stuff. Do you think he'd teach me?"
JD frowned at the sudden change of subject. One minute Josh was virtually accusing Vin of being a mean drunk; the next he wanted the tracker to give him lessons. But he answered readily, "Sure he would, if you ask him."
JD looked over his shoulder as Casey strode up to them, stopping a few yards away with her hands on her hips. One look at the expression on her face told him they were in trouble.
"You were supposed to be back half an hour ago," the girl said crossly. "Aunt Nettie's real mad with you."
"Shucks, Casey, I'm sorry!" JD hastily scrambled to his feet and reeled in his line. "We were just talking, I lost track of the time."
Casey was obviously in no mood to be charmed by contrition. "Well, you'd best get in there right now afore she gives your dinner to the hogs!"
"More potatoes, Josh?"
Casey smiled sweetly at the young man's eager nod and passed the plate across the table. Nettie Wells held back a smile at JD's frown. It was obvious to her that Casey was punishing her beau for taking Josh fishing and leaving her behind. As usual, JD was totally oblivious to the slight and now felt more than a little put out at the attention Casey was paying to his new friend. Nettie sighed. Sometimes she felt that Casey was growing too quickly into a young woman. At times like this, she remembered just how young and naïve these two young people were still.
She glanced at Vin, who was quietly tucking into his meal, and the small smile playing over his face told her that he too had noticed. Very little escaped Vin Tanner.
"There's more stew for anyone who has room for it," she said. "You want this last dumpling, Vin?"
Vin held out his plate. "Always got room for one more of yer dumplin's, Miss Nettie."
"Hey!" JD piped up indignantly, eyeing the tempting morsel enviously. "How come Vin gets the last dumpling?"
"Maybe because he's being been working in the blazing sun all afternoon while some have been sleepin' down by the river," Nettie answered tartly.
"You said you didn't need any more help!" JD protested.
"She's just teasin' ya, JD." Vin grinned at his friend as he forked in a large chunk of dumpling with obvious relish.
Nettie decided it was time to change the subject.
"Tell us a bit about your family, Josh, if you've a mind to and you don't feel it's an intrusion to ask."
"No, not at all," Josh mumbled round a mouthful of potatoes. "My pa died when I was about three. I don't really remember him, but my ma told me a bit about him. She said he was a good man."
"I'm sure he was, son."
"Then, when I was five, my ma died in an accident she was out riding one day, and her horse threw her. She hit her head and never recovered."
"I'm right sorry to hear that, son. It's real hard on a boy to lose his ma so young."
She couldn't prevent her eyes straying to Vin as she said those words. She knew that Vin had lost his own mother when he was five and knew, too, that over twenty years later he still felt the pain of that loss. Her eyes softened as her gaze lingered on the long-haired young man. The strength of affection she felt towards him sometimes took her by surprise. The first time they met, she had felt a connection between them; maybe because just as she knew that she reminded Vin in some way of his ma, so Vin reminded her of her own son, lost to her when he was only eighteen. She wondered sometimes if the good Lord had brought the two of them together to provide some healing for hearts that had been broken.
"What happened to you then?" Vin asked, his interest obviously piqued on hearing a history so similar to his own.
"I went to live with my uncle. His farm was near ours and our two families were really close. I'd more or less grown up with my cousins anyway, so going to live with them wasn't so difficult. He was real good to me, treated me like one of the family."
"Sound like he was a real good man, son," Nettie said. "Why did you leave?"
Josh shrugged. "Just got bored working on the farm. My cousins were both older than me, so there was never any chance I'd take over the farm. They didn't really need me there, so I thought I might as well leave while I was still young, take a look at the world while I decide what I want to do with my life."
"And have you decided?" Casey asked.
Josh grinned. "Not yet! But I'd like to learn as much as I can while I'm here." He glanced at JD, who nodded enthusiastically. "I was wondering, Vin " he paused as Vin looked up. "I was wondering if you'd take me out sometime, teach me something about tracking and surviving in the wild, that kind of thing."
Vin regarded him silently, obviously surprised by the request.
"Go on Vin," JD urged. "You could teach Josh what you've taught me. You know how important it is to be able to take care of yourself out here. I could come too - we could take a couple of days, camp out."
"Sure, I guess we could do that," Vin answered finally.
"That'd be great!" Josh beamed from ear to ear. "Can we head out to the foothills? I've heard it's beautiful up there. How soon can we go?"
Vin caught Nettie's eye, smiling at the boy's enthusiasm. "Well, reckon if there's nothin' much happenin' in town, we could head out next Saturday, camp overnight and come back Sunday evenin'.
"That'd be real good, Vin."
"It'll be fun, Josh, JD said. "I can show you everything Vin's already taught me."
Josh frowned. "I wasn't really expecting you to come along, JD. I think "
"JD Dunne, you promised to take me ridin' on Saturday," Casey interrupted, glaring at the dark-haired young man across the table.
"Well, I know that, but "
JD looked helplessly at Vin, who raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Reckon you'd best not let the lady down, JD. You know everything I'll be teachin' Josh anyhow, you'd just get bored."
"Well okay then. Of course I want to take you riding, Casey." JD sounded unconvinced and his disappointment was clear. Casey still looked aggrieved.
Nettie was relieved that JD had made the right decision and hoped that he'd be sensitive enough not to let his disappointment show too much. She frowned, wondering at Josh's obvious reluctance for JD to come along. Probably just a bad case of hero worship, she reflected; the boy wanted Vin's undivided attention, and certainly would not appreciate JD showing off all he'd learned.
She had found herself taking to Josh. He seemed a little naïve, but good-natured and full of the enthusiasm of youth. She was pleased that JD had found a new friend, although she could see some stormy times ahead with Casey if young Mr. Dunne didn't begin to put his priorities in order. She sighed. Young people; they could plumb wear a body out.
Nettie began to collect the empty dishes together. "Now, who's ready for some of my stewed apple and custard?"
JD and Josh had been jawing ever since they had left Nettie's in the fading light of evening, so Vin had spurred his horse on to ride a little ahead of them; the incessant chatter was beginning to get on his nerves. Just what did they find to talk about all the time?
Vin grimaced, wondering if he'd made a mistake in agreeing to take Josh out to teach him the rudiments of tracking. Would he be able to survive the two days without shooting the kid? Despite that thought, he found himself looking forward to the trip. For one reason or another, he hadn't been out of town a lot lately and was beginning to hanker after the wide-open spaces. From what Vin had observed, Josh seemed to be an intelligent and thoughtful kid, the kind who would pick up new skills without any difficulty.
He had been surprised, though, that Josh had asked for his help. He hadn't been around the young man much since Josh's arrival in town. Josh had spent a lot of time with JD and hung around with Josiah and Nathan from time to time, but had kept his distance from the other peacekeepers. Vin could understand him being a little intimidated by Larabee and his reputation and, after his first humiliating experience of playing poker with Ezra, it was little wonder that the boy retreated whenever he saw the gambler approach. As for himself well, Vin knew that he wasn't always the easiest man to be around, especially if you were a kid who liked to chew the cud about anything and everything.
Still, it wouldn't hurt to teach the boy some elementary tracking skills. His somewhat sheltered life on a farm hadn't prepared him for a life roaming the West. Vin found himself smiling again. Best not to teach the boy too well. He was aware that JD enjoyed Josh's company, but he had a feeling that part of the attraction was the knowledge that JD was no longer the greenhorn in town; Vin had several times observed his dark-haired friend airily explaining the facts of Western life to the newcomer.
His thoughts strayed to someone he'd been dwelling on far too often of late. Inez Recillos. Just the sound of her name in his head caused him catch his breath and set his heart pumping faster. He wasn't sure if he was in love with her because he'd never been in love before and therefore had no experience to call on. Oh, he'd thought he was in love with Charlotte Richmond, but had quickly realized that what he'd felt for Charlotte wasn't love. He was physically attracted to her, responded to her need to be loved and to be protected, but those feelings did not amount to real love. So, what was love supposed to feel like? Was it a total inability to get a woman out of your thoughts? Was it the desire to sweep her up and make love to her? Was it finding yourself pondering on what it might be like to settle down and start a family? If that's what love was, then he was fairly sure he was in love with Inez.
There was just one problem. Apart from the fact that he was nothing more than a hired gun with no education and barely able to read and write, he was also a man with a price on his head. What kind of future could he offer a woman like Inez when he was constantly forced to look over his shoulder? He didn't want her to live her life in fear; she'd known enough of that before she arrived in Four Corners.
He was pretty sure Inez returned his affection. Take this stupid dance: Buck was right; Inez had been turning down invitations and had made it very clear that she wanted him to ask her. Why she'd want to go with him, he didn't know. He could manage a simple jig, but he had little experience of the kind of fancy dancing he was sure would be the order of the day and he didn't have any real smart clothes to wear. He imagined himself at the dance looking out of place in tight, uncomfortable clothing, moving awkwardly around the dance floor and stepping on Inez's toes. Then the image was replaced by a much more pleasurable one as he saw himself holding her close, touching her, feeling her soft hair against his face. He allowed himself the luxury of pursing the dream for a few moments. Maybe he should ask her. It was only a dance, after all. If it led to anything else well, perhaps it was time to leave the whole issue of the bounty in the hands of God or of fate.
He turned his head as he heard JD and Josh ride up beside him.
"Hey, Vin," JD said. "We need your opinion on something. What do you think is the worst thing a man can do?"
So that was what they had been discussing so earnestly!
"There's plenty of bad things a man can do, JD," he replied, when it became apparent that the young peacekeeper was waiting for him to respond. "Don't know as you can narrow it down to just one."
"Well, I reckon the worst thing a man can do is to shoot someone in the back, and Josh said it's to hurt a woman. What do you think?"
Vin glanced at JD's companion and was surprised to find Josh staring at him with a seriousness he had never before observed in the amiable young man.
"Well, them's both real bad things, all right," Vin agreed carefully, wondering if there was something more than a casual discussion happening here.
"So you agree that it's wrong to hurt a woman?" Josh said.
Vin narrowed his eyes. There was something in Josh's own eyes; an emotion that he couldn't quite pinpoint, but which disturbed him in its intensity.
"There ain't never cause to disrespect a woman in any way, and anyone who does is a coward in my book," he replied.
"Guess we're in agreement, then," Josh said, his eyes still holding Vin's.
Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw JD was watching the two of them, a slightly puzzled expression on his face.
"What about you, Vin?" JD asked in an obvious attempt to break the uncomfortable moment. What do you think is the worst? You have to choose something different."
Vin waited until Josh dropped his gaze before replying. "Don't know JD, not sure I kin pick out just one thing. Maybe to know what's right and then not to do it that's a pretty bad thing."
JD nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I wouldn't have thought of that." He looked at Josh for his friend's opinion, but Josh seemed to have lost interest in the conversation.
"We're almost home," the young man said suddenly, and spurred his horse on ahead. "Race you the last mile, JD!"
Vin held back as the two younger men galloped off, faintly disturbed by the conversation and the change that had come over Josh. From what the boy had told them, his past life had been a happy one, but this strange reaction had hinted at some tragedy in his past that he didn't want to share. Vin understood that; there were a lot of things in his own past that he chose to keep to himself. What he didn't understand was why the hostility seemed to have been directed at him personally. He shrugged off the unease. He was undoubtedly overreacting. He didn't know Josh that well; maybe it was something as simple as that he reminded Josh of someone in his past.
Thoughts returning to how he could create an opportunity to get Inez alone, he spurred his horse towards home.
Josiah peered down from his perch on the roof of the church as Josh Kelly appeared below him.
"Be wid yu na mnt," he mumbled around the nail held between his teeth. He positioned the nail and hammered it firmly into place. Jumping down to the ground, he stood back and examined his handiwork with satisfaction. Turning to Josh with a wide grin, he said, "There's a real sense of satisfaction in a job well done, don't you think?"
Josh smiled and nodded.
"Something I can do for you?" Josiah asked, motioning for the youngster to take a seat on the steps of the church. Josiah joined him, sinking down with a sigh and massaging his neck. He was definitely getting too old for this manual labor. He'd been busy mending a hole in the roof for several hours and wanted nothing more than to retire to the bath house for a blissfully long, hot soak. But the boy looked like he had something on his mind and Josiah knew from experience that it was wise to let a man speak when he had a mind to; let the chance pass and it might never come again.
Josiah had taken to the youngster, as had everyone in the town. It was hard not to there was nothing not to like. That in itself was suspicious, in Ezra's opinion, but Josiah had no reason not to give the lad the benefit of the doubt and had so far seen nothing to contradict his opinion. In the three weeks since he had been in town, Josh had done nothing to arouse suspicion. Even Vin, who was understandably cautious, had accepted the lad, as was evidenced by his plans to take Josh tracking the following day.
"Something on your mind, Josh?" Josiah asked patiently, when the lad remained silent.
Josh seemed to hesitate, then said, "I've just been thinking about sin and justice."
Josiah raised an eyebrow. "They're mighty big subjects to be chewing on, kid."
"I was just wondering if someone does something really bad to someone you care about do you think it's your responsibility to do something about it?"
"You mean bring the perpetrator to justice?"
"I I guess."
Josiah leaned back against the doorframe and folded his arms. "The Good Book says that justice belongs to the Lord. Yet he's given us the laws of the land and it's right to try to bring wrongdoers to justice, to be tried by the law. I guess it depends on your motivation."
Josh frowned. "I'm not sure I follow you, Josiah."
"Depends whether you're motivated by a desire for justice or for revenge."
"Is there a difference?"
Josiah was quiet for a long time, thinking back to a time in his past when he had thought the two things were the same. Choosing his words carefully, he explained, "No good comes of your actions if your heart is bound on revenge, son. It'll become the driving passion of your life, eat you up inside and make you do things that in your normal mind you wouldn't do. In the end, you'll destroy yourself and innocent people are likely to get hurt."
"I still don't think I understand the difference."
Josiah sighed. "I guess I'm saying that it's right to be angry and to do your best to bring the person to justice, but you don't take the matter into your own hands, you don't play God, and you don't allow your pursuit of justice to destroy you and those around you. That's where the Good Book comes in justice belongs to the Lord."
Josiah smiled wryly. "It's a hard lesson to learn, son, and I'm still trying."
Josh was silent for a while.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Josiah asked casually, wondering what had provoked the question. It was clear to him that the query stemmed from more than idle curiosity.
Josh shook his head. "No. I I can't. But thanks, Josiah. I reckon I'm a bit clearer about it all now."
He scrambled to his feet. "Reckon I'd best get along and leave you to finish up."
Josiah looked after him thoughtfully as he walked away. The lad was obviously greatly troubled by something; possibly an event in his past that would not let him alone. From what Josh had told them about his family, it seemed unlikely that it originated there. Perhaps something that had happened since he'd left home, something he didn't feel able to talk about. He shrugged philosophically. Unless the boy was willing to talk, he could do nothing more and he had long ago learned that you had to let this kind of thing take its course. Josh would be back to talk again when he was ready.
Josiah dismissed the matter from his mind and headed for the bath house.
The Standish Tavern was unusually quiet and, apart from five of the peacekeepers and Josh Kelly, there were very few patrons that Friday night.
"So, Mr. Tanner, tomorrow you are heading out into the wilderness to teach our young friend the rudiments of survival."
Vin turned an amused eye on Ezra. "Well, I wouldn't have put it quite like that myself, but I reckon that's about the size of it."
Buck grinned to himself. Ezra sure had a way with words.
"Looking forward to the trip, Josh?"
Josh looked up from his cards. "Sure am, Buck. I'm hoping to pick up a few things even JD don't know!"
Buck grinned as JD frowned, obviously alarmed that Josh might end up knowing as much as he did.
"Maybe I should go with you after all, Josh," JD suggested. "I'm not sure Vin will be as appreciative of your bad jokes as I am."
"Nothin' wrong with my jokes, JD, you seemed to like them fine up 'til now," Josh responded placidly. "Anyway, you have to take Casey riding and persuade her to go to the dance, don't you?"
Mention of the dance reminded Buck that it really was about time he had another go at Vin about taking Inez, but when he turned to the tracker he saw Vin's eyes were trained on two men sitting at a table nearby.
One of them was tall and powerfully built with a tanned, weather-beaten face. A small mustache the color of his short, curly black hair sat upon his top lip. The other was of similar height, but thinner. He was clean-shaven with blond hair straggling to his shoulders, only partially concealing a livid scar that ran from his ear to his jaw.
They both carried guns and looked as if they'd be good in a fight, but neither fact made them unusual in this part of the world. As far as Buck could see, they were just two drifters drinking beer and minding their own business.
"Something wrong?" he asked quietly.
Vin shrugged. "Nothin' I kin put my finger on. Just somethin' about them."
Buck exchanged glances with Chris, sitting on his left. It didn't pay to ignore Vin's instincts, which were generally right.
"Keep an eye on them." Chris's tone was casual but he turned slightly so he could observe the men without drawing attention. Whether or not they were aware of the scrutiny of the peacekeepers was uncertain, but the two strangers left shortly afterwards.
Buck forgot about the dance and for the next hour the six men played poker, Ezra, as usual, emerging triumphant. Buck wondered in disgust why he even bothered to play against the gambler; it must be his natural competitive instincts that kept him coming back for more in the vain hope that he might one day come out on top. He didn't like to think how much money he'd have delivered into Ezra's hot little hands before that happened.
Josh left as soon as the poker game ended, explaining that he wanted a good night's sleep before the early start the next day. A few moments later Ezra strolled out, presumably to answer a call of nature, returning shortly afterwards.
"I have gleaned some information about our two friends," he announced as he re-claimed his seat at the table. "They were outside, conversing with young Josh."
"Josh?" Chris frowned.
"No need for concern. They were merely asking the boy where they could obtain a room for the night. Apparently they intend to leave before dawn, headed south."
Buck watched as Chris exchanged a glance with Vin. Something indefinable passed between them, then Chris nodded shortly. Damn! How did those two do that, have a whole conversation without words?
Vin stood up. "Reckon I'm gonna turn in too."
"Good idea, Vin." Buck grinned. "Need to get your rest for the big day that boy's enthusiasm alone could wear a man out."
Vin rolled his eyes. "Ain't that the truth. See ya in the mornin'."
He tipped his hat to Inez at the bar, and walked out of the saloon.
Buck could tell that Chris was still unsettled. The gunfighter's edginess exasperated Buck at times; the man never relaxed. He was sure the two strangers were harmless drifters who simply needed a room for the night. If it hadn't been for Vin's 'feeling' Chris would probably have thought nothing of it, but Buck knew Chris set great store by Tanner's intuition rightly so, for it had saved their lives countless times. This time, however, Buck was sure that Chris was overreacting.
He settled back to finish his whiskey, wondering if he had enough money left to lose one more round to Ezra.
Vin rose just after dawn the following morning. The sun was still low in the sky, but already the heat from the golden orb was noticeable. It would be a hot one today, all right. Strolling along the boardwalk, his steps took him to the Standish Tavern where he and Chris usually ate their breakfast. Inez was already there and two steaming mugs of coffee stood on their customary table.
Vin sat down with an appreciative glance at the steaming coffee.
"Good morning, Vin. Today you will be taking young Josh on his big adventure, yes? You will be needing a good breakfast."
Vin chuckled. "Not sure about the adventure part. But I'm sure about the breakfast. We have a long day's ride ahead of us."
"It will be ready in a moment." Inez disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few moments later with two plates piled high with bacon, eggs, and pancakes. Vin raised an appreciative eyebrow.
"Fastest service in town!"
Inez flushed. "I knew you would want to get an early start."
Inez glanced towards the batwing doors that had just swung open to reveal a black-clad figure. She laughed. "I assumed Mr. Larabee would be taking his breakfast early as well."
Larabee nodded to Inez, sat down and took a mouthful of coffee.
"Strangers left just before dawn. Followed them a ways; they headed south just like they said they would."
Vin nodded. He had known that Chris would have an eye on the two men. "Guess they really were just passin' through."
"I'll be watching, in case they come back. Where are you headed?" Chris asked.
"Out to the foothills. Figure I can give Josh some good practice at reading sign on the way. Ain't quite decided where to camp yet depends on the time when we get there."
"Gonna be a hot one today," Chris remarked.
"Yup. Too hot. There's a storm brewin'."
Chris frowned. "A storm?"
Vin smiled. He knew he often confounded the others with his predictions of the weather. He didn't understand what was so amazing it was just a case of reading the sky and the feel of the air. Today it was too still, too heavy.
"I reckon," he said. "Comin' in over the mountains, tomorrow or the day after."
"Best you and Josh get back before it hits, then."
Vin nodded. "Was plannin' on it. We'll be back tomorrow night or the following mornin', dependin' on the weather. Mrs. Potter's lettin' Josh take Monday morning off."
"That's real nice of her. She taken a liking to the boy or did you work your magic on her?"
Vin answered Chris's grin with one of his own. "Bit of both, I reckon."
They ate in silence, comfortable with each other's presence. When he had finished, Chris pushed back his chair and stood up. "I'm heading over to the jail."
Vin nodded. "See you in a couple'a days."
Chris leaned forward to grasp Vin's forearm. He didn't have to tell the sharpshooter to be careful, but Vin nodded, understanding the unspoken request.
There was no one else in the saloon at this early hour and Vin figured it was as good a time as any for a quiet word with Inez. Maybe this was the sign he had been looking for. He strolled over to the bar where the beautiful brunette was stacking glasses.
She looked up. He cleared his throat nervously. It was now or never.
"Inez, there's something I've bin meanin' ta ask ya "
They both turned at the yell and Vin groaned as Josh hurtled through the batwing doors of the saloon.
"Vin, are you ready to go? You said we need an early start if we're to get to the foothills by nightfall. I've got my horse saddled and ready!"
The young man joined them at the bar. "Mornin', Miss Inez!" he added as an afterthought.
Vin couldn't fault Josh's enthusiasm, but the kid's timing sucked.
Inez was smiling at the excited youth.
"You wait there a moment, Josh, I have something for you, for your trip."
She disappeared into the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with a well-wrapped packet.
"Some cookies to keep you going."
Vin raised an eyebrow. "How come I don't get cookies?"
Inez smiled sweetly. "If you are good, perhaps Josh will share his with you."
Vin snorted his disgust.
"So, are you ready to go? Daylight's burning!"
Vin glanced at Inez, raising his hands in a gesture of defeat. She shrugged.
"It is all right. Whatever it is, you can ask me when you get back."
Vin nodded and held her eyes for a moment. Then he clapped Josh on the shoulder. "Right, pard, we'd best be off then, don't want all that daylight burning away without us."
Mary Travis was examining a roll of cloth in Potter's store when the doorbell tinkled. She looked up and beckoned to the newcomer with a smile.
"Inez! Just the person I need to see. I'm trying to choose some cloth to have a new dress made for the dance. I can't decide between the dark and the pale blue. What do you think?"
Inez joined Mary and examined the fabric.
"I think the pale blue," she said after some consideration. "It is exactly the right color for your eyes."
"I think you're right." Mary smiled, pleased at the decision. "I'm so looking forward to this dance; it's such a long time since we've had one in Four Corners." She picked up a swath of cloth in a dark maroon. "This is a perfect color for you, Inez. Were you thinking of getting a new dress?"
Inez looked away. "I am not sure I am going to the dance, Mary."
"What! Why not?"
Inez shrugged. "I just I do not want to, that is all."
Mary studied her friend's face and knew immediately what the problem was. Men! Sometimes she wondered how the male of the species had survived so long; they could be so stupid. She noticed Gloria Potter hovering in the background, and decided that this wasn't the place for a personal conversation.
"Inez, I just need to pay for this cloth, then why don't you come and have a cup of coffee with me? It's so long since we've had time for a chat."
Inez smiled. "I would like that."
Shortly afterwards the two were seated at the table in Mary's parlor. They had spent some time discussing how Billy was getting on at school and whether the hot weather was going to break soon. All the while Mary was wondering how she was going to broach the subject. Finally, she decided that head-on was the best way, so she poured more coffee into Inez' cup and asked casually, "I take it Vin hasn't yet asked you to the dance?"
Inez almost choked on the cookie she had just put in her mouth. "Vin?"
Mary smiled. "Inez, I hope you don't mind my being so personal, but it's hard not to notice that you and Vin are very fond of each other."
"He has been a good friend to me."
"You know that isn't what I meant."
Inez shook her head. "I think you are wrong, Mary. I do not believe that Mr. Tanner has any romantic interest in me."
"I'm sure that's not true," Mary said cautiously. "Vin I know he isn't a man to show his feelings easily, but to me it's quite evident that he cares for you."
"This morning I thought " Inez shook her head in frustration. "I do not know. Is it so difficult for a man to ask a woman to a dance?"
"Do you want him to?"
"Yes, of course I want him to!" Inez exclaimed heatedly. "I thought I had made it quite obvious, but no not even turning down invitations from every cowboy from here to Eagle Bend has been enough to force that stupid man to make a move."
Inez's obvious distress emboldened Mary to ask, "Inez, are you in love with him?"
Inez was quiet for a moment and Mary felt she had gone too far.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked, it's none of my business."
"No, it is all right." Inez looked up and Mary saw confusion in her eyes. "Mary, I think perhaps I am in love with him and I do not know what to do about it."
Impulsively, Mary reached out and gripped Inez' hand. "I'll get Chris to talk to him."
"No! I do not want a man who has to be persuaded to ask me to a dance!"
"I don't think he's holding back because he doesn't want to ask you, Inez. I think there's something more going on in his head and maybe Chris can find out what it is. Trust me, Inez. It's all going to work out just fine."
Mary knew that Chris would tell her off for meddling, but she couldn't help herself. It wasn't in her nature to sit back and see her friend suffer because a man was too backward to come forward and declare his feelings. She was already smiling to herself as she considered how she was going to persuade Chris to undertake this delicate mission.
JD had ridden out to the Wells' farm and noon saw the remaining peacekeepers gathered in the Standish Tavern, eating their midday meal.
"All I am saying is that in my humble experience, the man with the most innocent visage is usually the one who is most adept at poker," Ezra said.
"Well, JD's pretty innocent looking. And he plays a rotten hand," Nathan said.
"Buck grinned. "Good thing the kid isn't around to hear you say that!"
"You have to admit, Buck, JD doesn't have the best poker face in the world!" Josiah put in.
"I was not referring to JD," Ezra explained patiently. "I was talking generally. Some men are simply able to hide their true nature behind an expression of innocence."
"And you reckon JD is one of them?" Nathan asked, his tone skeptical.
"Do not be ridiculous! If you were listening, you will remember I said that an innocent visage is an advantage to a man who has something to hide. I did not mention Mr. Dunne."
"So you're saying that anyone who looks innocent is trying to hide something!" Buck said. "What about young Josh, then? He's pretty innocent looking."
Ezra groaned. He was beginning to wish he'd never started this conversation.
"I reckon young Josh does have some secrets," Josiah said thoughtfully.
"What makes you think that?" Buck asked.
Josiah shrugged. "Just a conversation we had a few days ago. Reckon there's something in his past he doesn't want to talk about."
"We all have things in our past, Josiah," Nathan said. "Even a man as straightforward as Josh Kelly."
"What do you think, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra inquired of the black-clad man seated next to Buck.
"Chris?" he raised his voice when there was no response.
Larabee turned. "What?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. It was obvious that Chris hadn't heard a word that was said.
"You appear to have something on your mind. Would you care to enlighten us?'
Larabee shook his head. "It's nothing. Just a "
Buck groaned. "Don't you start getting them 'feelings' too. Vin's bad enough!"
"Josiah thinks Josh is hiding something," Nathan explained.
"Hiding what?" Chris demanded immediately.
Josiah put his hands up. "That wasn't what I meant! I just said I think he has some things in his past that he doesn't want to talk about. And I may be wrong on that. It was just a ."
"Feeling!" Buck, Ezra, and Nathan chorused, grinning.
"Reckon it's catching," Nathan said. "Like a disease!"
Chris was still looking grim. "I'm going to take a patrol round town."
Ezra watched thoughtfully as Chris walked out of the saloon. The gunfighter was obviously unsettled about something. Then he shrugged. Chris Larabee's behavior was often unpredictable. They would find out soon enough if there was trouble brewing. He turned back to the table.
"Well, if you gentlemen are feeling lucky, what would you say to another hand?"
"So, what d'ya reckon, Josh?"
Josh scrambled up from his uncomfortable position prostrate on the ground, stretching cramped muscles and brushing earth off his pants.
"Well, it's kinda egg-shaped and I think I made out four toes, so could be a wolf or a coyote. Umm more likely coyote out here. And the outer toes are larger which means it must be a coyote because a wolf's toes are all the same size."
Vin nodded, pleased at the progress the boy was making. As he had guessed, Josh was turning out to be a quick learner. Throughout the day, Vin showed his willing pupil how to locate the telltale signs of an animal's passing and identify different types of feathers and hair. He explained how to distinguish different tracks by shape, size and number of toes and let him practice following a trail.
Josh listened attentively to everything he was told, but Vin was mildly surprised that he didn't seem to want to talk, other than to ask questions about the skills he was being taught. He wondered if the boy felt uncomfortable in his company without JD along. He decided not to dwell on it, but to be grateful for the chance to pursue his own thoughts. He was still mentally kicking himself for failing to ask Inez to that stupid dance, knowing that he'd now have to work up his courage once more when he returned to town.
They had stopped to examine some sign just as the trail began to wind upwards into the foothills. It was now less than an hour's ride to the place Vin had decided to camp for the night and, once they arrived, he planned to show Josh some tricks of survival in what could be harsh and unforgiving country.
Vin sat down on a boulder, took a swig of water from his canteen and poured a small quantity over his face, wiping it with his bandanna. It was late afternoon, but the heat was still fierce. He would be grateful for the breeze as they worked their way higher into the hills. He watched Josh as the young man drank out of his own canteen and decided that now might be a good time to try to find out what was on his companion's mind.
"Josh, you've been mighty quiet all day. Something eatin' at ya?"
Josh looked startled. "No, of course not. I'm fine."
Vin shrugged. "Just ain't used to ya bein' so quiet, is all."
"Just concentrating, trying to take in all you've been teachin' me."
Vin looked at him searchingly, but Josh was looking down and wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Well, if there's something botherin' ya, ya can just come out and say it," he said.
"It's nothing, really."
"Ya sure? 'Cause, if this trip ain't what you were expectin' "
Josh looked up then. "No, it's not that! I'm learning a lot, really."
Vin waited patiently, certain that there was something on the boy's mind. Sure enough, after a while, Josh looked at him diffidently.
"It's just that today would have been my ma's birthday. Always makes me feel kinda sad, thinking on her and how she was taken away like she was."
Vin hesitated. He rarely talked about his own mother, but maybe knowing that they had a similar story would help Josh.
"Reckon I know how yer feelin', then," he said tentatively. "My ma died when I was five too."
"She did?" Josh sounded surprised.
"Yeah. Putrid fever took her."
"I'm sorry. Do you remember her?"
"Bits n'pieces. More like images than anything the way she smelt, how she sounded, that kinda thing."
Josh sighed. "Yeah, me too."
"When I think on her, I try to just remember the good things, be glad I had her for as long as I did."
Josh stared at him with a strange expression, as if he was trying to work something out. He opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated. After a moment, he said, "I have a photo and some things of my ma's helps me remember her by."
Vin had a feeling that this wasn't what Josh had been about to say.
"Do you have a photo of your ma?" Josh went on.
"No," Vin said shortly and got to his feet. He wasn't ready to get into a discussion as to why. It still hurt even now when he thought of the way his uncle had taken everything from him after his mother's death. He'd never forgiven him for that and didn't think he ever would.
"You ready to move on?" When Josh nodded, he gestured to the path ahead. "The trail's gonna start climbing steeply soon through a narrow pass, then it opens out a bit and follows along the course of a stream. When we get a bit higher, there's a meadow and a small lake where the stream widens out. We'll camp there for the night."
Josh nodded agreement and the two mounted and rode on. The going was difficult initially, their horses picking a path carefully along the narrow, rock-strewn trail on a winding route through the high walled pass. They were forced to ride single file and Vin allowed Josh to lead the way, warning him to go carefully because of the rough ground.
After a while, the trail began to widen a little.
"We'll meet the stream around the next bend," Vin commented.
"About time! I'm getting desperate to fill my canteen!" Josh spurred his horse on a little faster now that the going was easier and disappeared out of view around the sharp bend.
Making a mental note that he really must give Josh some lessons in rationing water in case of emergency, Vin rounded the bend and pulled his horse up sharply.
Josh was standing in the middle of the trail, held firmly from behind by a tall, lanky man with long, blond hair. Vin recognized him immediately as one of the two strangers from the saloon. To one side stood a second man holding the bridle of Josh's horse. He was shorter and stocky, with shaggy brown hair and a pockmarked face. Vin had never seen him before.
"Stop right where you are! Hold your hands up where I can see them or I'll slit the boy's throat!"
For a split second Vin considered going for his gun, but quickly decided against it. He wouldn't be able to draw before the knife cut into Josh's throat and he had no reason to doubt the lanky stranger's warning.
He was raising his hands slowly when a second voice behind him said, "Now, unbuckle that holster, real slow like, and throw it over there in front of you. No stupid moves, or my friend will keep his promise and the boy's blood will be on your hands."
Once more Vin obeyed, carefully unbuckling his holster and throwing it on the ground in front of him. All the while, his mind was racing as he considered his options. He came to the depressing conclusion that they were few. When he dismounted he would likely be able to take the man at his back, but he still had to reach his rifle or get to Josh before the first man cut the boy's throat. Of course, he couldn't be sure the man wasn't bluffing, but he knew he didn't dare take the chance; he looked mean enough to carry out his threat. In addition, it was obvious that the ambush had been carefully planned and it was likely that there was at least one more of the gang positioned somewhere high on the slope above. At least, that's how he would have planned it, had he been in charge. With a sinking heart, he realized that his only option was to co-operate - for now.
The expected command came from behind.
"Get down off your horse, put your hands on your head, and step clear. Slowly. No stupid moves, now."
Vin dismounted as instructed, put his hands on his head and took a few steps to his left. "If it's me you want, you can let the boy go."
The man behind him laughed. "Oh, it's you we want all right, but I don't think we'll be letting the boy go. Not just yet."
"What do you want with me?"
The answer to the question was obvious; they had to be bounty hunters. But the longer he could keep them talking, the more chance he had of finding a way out of this that would keep both himself and Josh alive.
The second man walked around in front of him, taking care to stay well out of his range. When he came into view, Vin wasn't surprised to identify the black-haired stranger from the previous night.
"I don't want you, Tanner." The man laughed. "But my boss does, and we're being paid handsomely to deliver you."
Now that didn't make sense. Bounty hunters he could have understood, but who would be paying these men to capture him?
"If it's me you want, you can let the boy go," Vin repeated.
The man roared with laughter and turned to look at Josh. "You hear that, boy? Mr. Tanner is mighty concerned about your health! Do you think I should let you go?"
Vin locked eyes with Josh in an attempt to reassure the boy. Josh held his gaze and to his confusion, Vin recognized the same unclear emotion he had seen during the discussion on the way back from Nettie's. Vin had been expecting fear, perhaps a little defiance. But the emotion he saw wasn't fear; far from it. An icy sliver of shock ran through him as he finally identified the emotion: hatred, and it was directed at him.
A split second later, realization flooded through him. He moved suddenly, diving for the mare's leg lying only a few feet away. He was vaguely aware of the sound of a shot as white-hot pain speared his left shoulder, the force of the bullet's impact throwing him heavily onto his back. Fighting the pain and biting back the nausea welling in his throat, he reached out for the gun. A scream of agony was torn from his throat as a heel stamped brutally down on his hand and a foot kicked the gun out of his reach. Still, he tried to force himself to his feet, but all strength seemed to have left his limbs. Instinctively, he began to bring his right hand up to the wounded shoulder and cried out once more as pain lanced through his damaged fingers. Through the fog that was developing in his mind, he saw the black-haired stranger walk over and look down at him.
"I told you not to make any stupid moves." The words were spat out in a tone of contempt. "And that one was real stupid, wasn't it, kid?"
Squinting through the sweat running down his forehead and stinging his eyes, Vin made out Josh standing alongside the drifter who stood with an arm wrapped around the boy's shoulder.
"You did good, kid," the drifter said to Josh. "Plan worked out real well the boss is gonna be mighty pleased."
Vin turned his head away, cheek pressing into the rough dirt; his eyes screwed shut against the mounting pain. His foggy mind couldn't make sense of what was happening. As if through a tunnel, he heard another voice.
"Jake, we'd best take care of this wound boss won't be best pleased if the prize bleeds to death before we get it back to camp."
"Yeah, well, if Pedro hadn't shot him, we wouldn't have this problem!"
"He was going for his gun, Jake, what did you expect me to do?" a Mexican-accented voice protested.
Then there were hands on his body, holding him down and he tried in vain to fight them off. Something pressed down firmly on his injured shoulder and the pain rose to an intolerable level. He groaned, bucking away from this new invasion.
"Hold him still! We need to stop this bleeding."
The pressure on the wound increased and the red haze in his mind dulled to black as awareness seeped away.