This one is a sequel to Absolution, but you don't really need to read that first for it to make sense.
I did quite a bit of editing so as not to offend - I know as much about the Indian culture as I do about guns, medicine, mining, etc. I did try hard to find the words I wanted to use in an actual Indian dialect but I couldn't find what I needed so I just omitted the text I had made up and wrote around the dialogue. I also wasn't sure it would be appropriate to use any specific Indian tribe, so I made that ambiguous as well. If after all that I still left something to offend, I apologize. It's my only attempt at crossing into the Indian facet of Vin's character so if I did it badly, be assured I only did it badly once.
This one is a little darker than usual, so if it's not up your alley, skip it.
She said the names over and over again in her mind, reaching for strength through this litany of help as she rode the horse mercilessly towards her goal. These men - these friends she barely knew - held her hope, her very life, in their hands. She tried not to think of yesterday - the images scorching her soul, numbing her brain, and seizing her heart in an icy fist of fear.
I'm doing the right thing...she thought for the hundredth time since she left home. I can't do anything alone - and they can help. They'd want to help - do anything they could to help me - him.
Andie Kincaid rode on.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was laying out a game of solitaire when he saw the man in black walk towards his table. He sighed audibly as Larabee approached, taking a quick survey of the room to see if any help was at hand. Nothing. He placed his cards neatly upon the table before him and resolved to make offense his best defense.
"Mr. Dunne and Mr. Wilmington are on duty at the jail. Mr. Jackson is assisting one of our fair citizens who sustained a broken arm in an unfortunate altercation with his horse. Mr. Sanchez has gone to visit Miss Nettie and deliver some dry goods per Mr. Tanner's request. I rode patrol yesterday and, as is my wont, have taken my usual place at the gaming tables this past hour. I have not had word from Mr. Tanner, he has been gone approximately three days now, and, it is my understanding, gave us no estimation of his return from his much-deserved, and much-envied I might add, amorous sojourn to the outlying environs of Poteet." Ezra finished with a slight nod, took up his cards and resumed his play.
Chris Larabee had listened to the recitation at first with confusion, then with anger, and finally frustration as he realized Ezra's account covered all his questions. He became irritated with himself as he realized how predictable - and tiresome - he had become in the past three days.
Standish watched the range of emotions play across Larabee's face and - for the first time - felt sorry for the man. Whatever bond had developed between Chris and Vin made it impossible for Larabee to relax unless the tracker was in sight.
"I realize I am no substitute for our taciturn friend, but if you care to take a seat I shall endeavor to suffice," Ezra offered.
Larabee sighed and shrugged, pulled up a chair and sat down heavily.
"Been that much of a fool around here have I?" he asked with a pained expression.
"Not at all, Mr. Larabee," Ezra assured him. "One should never be ashamed of holding forth concern over a friend's well-being. And considering that friend is our Mr. Tanner - who has a natural propensity towards trouble - that concern is often justified."
"Gotta go get sweet on a girl within spittin' distance of Tascosa," Larabee said, shaking his head in frustration.
"Which is why they wisely chose to affect their rendezvous elsewhere."
"I take it you are not convinced of their precautions?"
"Ten feet, ten miles - what difference does distance from Tascosa make when any fool with a gun can lay claim to him?"
Ezra nodded with a wry smile.
"Consequently, one could assume his safety is guaranteed no more, and no less, wherever he happens to reside at the moment."
"Consequently his safety is only guaranteed when I got a gun in my hand and his back in my sight."
"Come now, Mr. Larabee, even you must admit he has successfully eluded capture relying on his own devices far longer than he has since making your acquaintance."
"Yeah, but then he was alone, watchful. Now he's gonna be all pie-eyed, moonin' over this gal..."
"Miss Andrea," Ezra corrected, "is hardly a gal by any man's definition, but rather an intelligent, intriguing and spirited young woman."
Chris eyed Ezra cautiously. "You got any designs on her yourself you best be ready to swap lead with Vin."
Ezra looked surprised.
"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I have no intention of swapping lead with Mr. Tanner over the affections of Miss Andrea. I was merely appending your reference to his paramour to more accurately reflect the young lady's charms. I might add that Mr. Tanner himself might take umbrage with your choice of vocabulary."
"The day Vin Tanner takes umbrage with anyone's vocabulary..."
"Ah, but we're talking about the lovely Miss Andrea here, Mr. Larabee. There is an exception to every rule. Especially where true affection is concerned."
"He is taken with her, that's a fact," Chris agreed with a smile. He thought back four days ago to when he was standing with Buck and Vin outside the jail as Tanner read the telegram asking him to meet Andie for a few days in the Pasquan Valley just west of Poteet...
"D'ya think I should go?" Vin asked Chris shyly as he mouthed the words of the telegram over again silently.
"Hell yes, boy!" Buck shouted, slapping him on the back as he read the telegram over Vin's shoulder. "Be a sorry fool to let that young lady's proposal go unanswered."
"Who's proposin'?" J.D. asked coming out of the jail at the end of the conversation.
"That little lady doctor from Poteet - Andrea," Buck answered, saying the name with a suggestive lilt.
"You gettin' married, Vin?" J.D. asked the tracker gleefully.
"Ain't that kind'a proposal, J.D. She's just askin' do I want to meet her for a bit," Vin answered, irritated.
"I don't know, Vin," Buck said with a grin, "Sendin' a telegram and all. Spendin' a couple days out there in the valley. Sounds like she could be spreadin' out a little honey for ya."
Vin blushed and looked to Chris for help. Larabee felt a twinge of sympathy for the young tracker's discomfort, but was enjoying the banter too much to put an end to it just yet.
"You could do worse," he said. "Be right handy for a fella like you to get hitched to a healer."
"Ain't nobody talkin' about gettin' hitched," Vin shot back, getting angry.
"Who's getting hitched?" Josiah boomed as he approached them, noticing Vin's now scarlet complexion. "I'll hold it as an insult if I'm not asked to officiate the happy occasion."
"Vin's seein' that healer lady..." J.D. began.
"Shut up J.D.," Vin threatened.
"Andrea," Buck added.
"Buck, I swear..."
"...from Poteet and Buck thinks maybe..."
"She did send a telegram," Chris said smiling.
"Damn it, Larabee!"
"Ezra says she's a pure delight," Josiah nodded approvingly.
"Now what the hell is Ezra doin' sayin' she's..." Vin exploded.
"Whoa - now that there's the response of a jealous man!" Buck said, backing away from Vin with hands raised.
"I would say he's smitten, Buck, that's a fact," Chris added appraisingly.
Vin rolled the telegram into a piece of buckskin before placing it in his jacket pocket, his eyes blazing as he stared them down.
"Ain't smitten, ain't jealous, and I sure as hell ain't gettin' hitched," he growled at them. "Things come to a sorry pass when a man can't get a telegram without bein' hounded from hell to heaven by folks callin' themselves friends. I don't need nobody tellin' me what to do, where to go or what to think and that includes every one of you!"
Vin pulled his hat down low and turned on his heel, charging off to his wagon.
"When you leavin'?" Chris called after him.
"Tomorrow mornin'. First thing," Vin answered without stopping.
+ + + + + + +
She had stopped for the night when her horse stumbled on a gopher hole. She realized it was foolish to try to continue in the darkness, though every ounce of her being screamed to push on. She had not even tried to sleep, the bedroll remained tied behind her saddle, ready to go at first light. Her hands were pressed against her eyes, trying to block the visions that blinded her. Visions of him bound, bleeding, taken without contest to spare her life.
"God, God, God!" She prayed, shouting to the darkened skies above her. "Let them be there. Help us find him before...before it's too late," she breathed, her heart aching, her throat burning as she choked back her tears.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner rode with a lightness in his heart he had never thought to own. He could not stay angry at the others long. By the time he had reached the wagon he had found himself smiling at the thought of seeing Andie again - the joking and teasing of his friends forgotten in anticipation of holding her in his arms. He had sent a telegram back that day.
Tanner still had trouble believing a woman like Andrea Kincaid would be attracted to him and thought it strange that he didn't feel more apprehensive about accepting her advances. He would confidently face down any man who challenged him to shoot a distance, could hold his own in a fight, picked up enough knowledge of the land and elements to feel comfortable facing the ways of nature - yet where women were concerned he possessed not a shred of self- confidence.
Sure, he bantered back and forth with the others, especially Buck, regarding prowess with women, but that was just talk. He had a feeling they knew it, too, explaining why they all seemed to revel in his new-found affection with Andie.
Women - quality women - expected fine manners, romantic ideas and sweet talk, none of which he had had experience with. Andie was the first woman of substance he had known who seemed to have a different set of values. A young version of Miss Nettie, he imagined. A pioneer woman made of sturdier stock and practical ways. Yet her beauty, compassion and intelligence continued to raise doubts within as to how she had chosen to be with him, even on this limited basis.
Vin reached the Pasquan Valley at dawn the following day. He had caught and made breakfast and waited. He brushed Peso down, paying extra attention to the job he seldom felt he had time to do properly - and waited. The breakfast turned cold and he ate it, wrapping her portion carefully as concern began to darken his brow.
At 10 a.m. he picked wildflowers for her, telling himself she had had a medical emergency, was helping some poor ranch hand who had broken an arm or cut a leg.
By noon the flowers were wilting in the sun beside her uneaten breakfast as he saddled Peso and set his course toward Poteet - Tascosa and bounty hunters be damned.
+ + + + + + +
"Where is she? What happened? Where's Vin?" Chris Larabee fired his questions at J.D., his words hitting the sheriff with the almost physical force of so many bullets.
"She's with Ezra. Nathan gave her somethin' to calm her down. She's waitin' for you and Buck to tell what happened," J.D. explained as they ran towards the room Ezra kept above the saloon.
"Where's Buck?" Chris spat as he mounted the stairs with J.D. close behind.
"Nathan's fetchin' him."
"At Miss Nettie's."
"What happened?" Chris demanded as he burst into the room to find Ezra kneeling before the bed Andie sat on, a glass in her hands, her hair wild and matted, clothes sodden, her face a mask of anguish.
"Easy, Chris," Nathan said as he came in on J.D.'s heels with Buck at his side.
"Good Lord, darlin' what is it?" Buck asked as he passed them to sit beside her, placing a strong arm around her shoulders.
"I needed help. He came out of nowhere - I didn't even know he was still alive. He wanted money - I don't know why he thought I'd have any - but he started shouting, raging through my house, turning things over, opening drawers. He saw the telegram Vin sent me - the name - demanded to know who he was. When Vin rode up I tried to warn him but he grabbed me, put his hand over my mouth, pulled me behind the door. Vin came bursting in - he was upset, worried, I was late - he knocked him out from behind. There was blood - he...he..."
"Who, Andie?" Chris rasped, his hand hard on her shoulder.
"Clint," she whispered, looking up into the anguished eyes of the man in black. "My husband."
+ + + + + + +
His head was pounding. The blood on his face and neck had dried long ago and now pulled against the skin when he moved to look about him. His hands were tied behind his back, his gun nestled in the saddle holster of Maddock's horse. He sat across a fire from the man as he ate his supper.
"How long you been beddin' her?" Maddock asked. The first words he had spoken to Vin since they had stopped for the night.
Vin stared into the fire, silent, his hands behind him worrying at a piece of torn buckskin on his coat.
"Ain't got no words? I figure you to be a pretty smooth talker to make a woman like Andie court ya after ya killed her pa."
Vin tried to keep from thinking of Andie - of the look of anguish on her face as they rode away from the small homestead.
"She's a married woman, ya know," Maddock sneered.
"Not any more," Vin answered carefully. "She got a paper says she ain't married to you no more."
"Piece a paper don't make it so."
"Law might disagree with ya."
"I reckon a man the likes of you ain't got no cause to be quotin' law to me. She still belongs to me 'til I say so."
"That why you ain't seen her in over a year? Why you came breakin' into her place..."
"Why you left her..." Vin continued, forcing himself to swallow down his anger, "Why you left her tied up back there? Threatened to kill her?"
Maddock stormed over to Vin and backhanded him savagely across the face.
"Shut your mouth, Tanner. I reckon you were better off sittin' there quiet. What makes you think you had a chance with her anyway? She and her pa were close."
"I didn't kill her pa."
"That so? I got a paper in my saddle bag says different."
Vin looked hard at the man.
"Piece a paper don't make it so."
Maddock laughed. "What is it you said? Law might disagree with ya."
Suddenly Vin tilted his head, holding his breath. He looked at Maddock.
"We got company," he said quietly, not moving.
"Like hell," Maddock sneered. "Who do you think'd be comin' to help you? And if you think I'm fallin' for..."
Both men froze at the unmistakable sound of a hammer being pulled back, a cartridge falling into place.
"Son of a..." Maddock cursed, wheeling towards the sound as he drew his revolver, firing into the night.
"I thought you said your husband was gone?" Chris asked Andie, trying to remain patient as he put the pieces of the story together when all he wanted to do was ride.
"He was - for over a year. I knew it was crazy - what he was doing - looking for gold. It was too late. Everyone knew the hills had played out, but he went anyway. Then I got the divorce paper. But he came back looking for money," Andie explained tearfully.
"And when Vin came in, he knocked him unconscious," Buck prodded carefully. "Then what?"
Andie stifled a sob. She looked into the anxious eyes of the men about her. Now was not the time to fall apart. They needed information, answers, and they needed her to think clearly and calmly to help them - help Vin. She took a deep breath.
"While he was unconscious, Clint tied me up. Swore he'd shoot Vin where he lay if I gave him any trouble. He'd done some bounty hunting for money on the way back - recognized Vin right away from before he left Poteet. He couldn't believe we would be together - I tried to explain...tried to tell him...he wouldn't even listen, he..." She stopped herself from babbling, clasping her hands in her lap. She drew herself up again and continued.
"Vin came to. His head was bleeding. I begged Clint to let me take care of him but he just laughed and said...he said it wouldn't make any difference. He was taking Vin back to Tascosa."
"Damn," Buck swore, glancing up at Chris. "Ain't more'n a day's ride from Poteet. They could be there already."
"When Vin saw me, he started to struggle," Andie pushed on, determined now to finish it all. "But Clint pointed his gun at me. Said he'd kill me if Vin gave him trouble..."
"So Vin just rode off with him," Nathan finished.
Andie nodded silently as a tear slipped down her cheek. "I'd still be there if it wasn't for Laura. She came in to visit a couple hours later - found me bound and gagged. She cut me loose. We tried to think of what to do - of riding after them - but I knew...I knew I'd need more help...that you would want to help if you could."
"Buck - you're with me," Chris said as the others turned their attention to him for the directions that would follow.
"Andie, you'll come with us too. Maybe you can help in Tascosa."
"Chris, I..." J.D. began, sensing he would be left behind again.
"No. You're sheriff J.D. whether you like it or not. That means your job is here. You too, Nathan."
"You're gonna need me, Chris," Nathan argued.
"Town needs ya more, Nate," Chris answered. Nathan began to continue his protest but Chris continued. "You are this town's doctor, Nate, and it ain't right to be takin' you away. 'Sides, Andie'll be with us."
Larabee knew those last words might be painful to Nathan. Jackson had known Vin longer, was accustomed to caring for all of them. But Chris had no time to worry about hurt feelings now, and hoped the healer would see the wisdom in his words - even if they did sting.
Nathan stared at Chris, his jaw set, noticed the stillness in the room occasioned by the others during the uncomfortable silence. Finally he nodded his head slowly.
"Mr. Jackson?" Andie said quietly. "I'd be much obliged if you could give me the use of whatever instruments you can spare. I don't have anything along. I should have thought..." she shook her head in frustration. "However you can help me..."
Chris looked at her and nodded his head. She was a good woman - a good healer. She understood Nathan's feelings and would try to help him accept the fact that their plan made sense. He could almost feel the tension in the room ease, saw the look of respect that passed between the two healers.
"You got whatever you need, Andie," Nathan assured her.
"J.D.?" Larabee said, continuing with his assignments, "You'll have Josiah here to help. We don't have time to fetch him from Miss Nettie's." & #160;
From the corner of the room he heard the clearing of a throat.
"Mr. Larabee?" Standish asked formally, but with a riveting gaze leveled at the leader. "Might I request your permission to join the rescue party for Mr. Tanner?"
Chris was embarrassed to realize he had forgotten the gambler was in the room. Now he looked at Standish and realized he had no reason to refuse the man's request. When was it exactly that Ezra and Vin had formed their own odd alliance? He couldn't remember any one particular incident, but it had become evident that Ezra fancied himself a protector of Vin's almost as much as he did himself - only in a more distant, cerebral way. Where Chris saw himself as a physical defender of Vin's life, Ezra had assumed the role as defender of Vin's soul - who he was, what he was, and how he chose to live his life.
"You're with us, Ez," Chris said simply.
+ + + + + + +
Andie tried to rest briefly as the others made preparations to leave. The sun was not far from rising and they would leave at first light. She had protested that she could not sleep, but they insisted she lay down; renewing her energies for what would be a tortuous ride to Tascosa.
Now she sat on a bed in Nathan's clinic as he prepared a bag for her to take along.
"Carbolic, laudanum, cat gut..." Nathan mumbled as he placed each item carefully into the bag.
"Mr. Jackson, I..." Andie began, swallowing hard, hands clenched tightly in her lap, her lip trembling.
"Nathan, please," he said, pausing as he noticed how difficult it was for her to say what was on her mind. He placed a gentle hand on hers and smiled encouragingly.
"I can't help thinking...wondering..." she bit her lip, speaking in a whisper. "How can we possibly be in time?"
Nathan took her hands up in his own, his dark eyes peering confidently into hers.
"First ways, now that he ain't worryin' on you, Vin'll be thinkin' on how to get away. He's been in tighter places than this. Second, even if they do get to Tascosa, law there ain't gonna just hang him straight off. Third, well, third - there's always hope, Andie. I been with these folks long enough to know sometimes that's all that's needed." He snapped the black bag closed and handed it to her.
"I'll bring these back," she promised as she took the bag from him, her hands trembling.
Nathan helped her to her feet, took her hands firmly in his grasp, and looked at her with a confidence he fought to own.
"You bring Vin back."
+ + + + + + +
They rode hard, pushing the horses, and themselves, mercilessly. For once Buck and Ezra didn't complain about the pace Chris set. Both realized how precious time would be to them. Getting to Tascosa, seeing Vin behind bars would be hard enough. Getting there too late was unthinkable.
Larabee finally succumbed to reason long enough to allow the horses to eat and drink. The four friends passed jerky and hardtack between them, standing close to their mounts, ready to ride again.
"This man of yours," Chris said to Andie, unable to conceal his anger over Vin's capture. "Maddock. He any good with a gun?"
"He can hunt, but he's no marksman," she answered, facing him. The hard ride had helped to clear her head and she vowed she would stand up to them, help them, prove she was as determined to save Vin as they were. She had flinched at the anger in Larabee's voice when he mentioned her man, knew there was a part of Chris that blamed her for the trouble Vin was in now, but she would not allow herself to be afraid of Chris Larabee.
"No sign of any friends of his about?" Buck asked.
"No. Clint...Clint didn't make friends easily. He was...he could be...difficult."
"Why would you..." Buck began, suddenly realizing he had been wondering out loud.
"My father wasn't well. He worried about me," Andie answered him, tersely. "So much so that I wanted to put his mind at rest. Clint was there, with land and a homestead. He had helped my father out when I was younger. At the time it seemed a small thing to do for the man who had raised me by himself for so many years."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." Buck apologized.
"I know," she said sincerely, backing down herself. "I know. You're all worried about him and I'm the one who put him in danger. It's my fault Clint has him."
"As I recall, we are all indebted to you for prolonging Mr. Tanner's life at the time of your first acquaintance," Ezra offered.
"Hard on the nerves," Chris said quietly, offering his own truce with a sad smile.
Andie turned to him, a grateful smile flickering across her own face. Her eyes softened for a moment until she shook her head, lifting her chin.
"Let's go get Vin," she said to Chris, meeting his eyes with defiance.
+ + + + + + +
He sat alone, watching them from behind the ridge, and snorted in disgust. These dangerous, arrogant people. So intent on their own business, they would never imagine they were being stalked. He watched them, as he had many others before them, move about the land with a galling carelessness, a belief that wherever they chose to roam belonged to them.
If the river did not reach their homestead, they dug a well to rob the water from the belly of the earth. If the skies were dry, they built dams in the rivers to preserve water for themselves while land below them lay parched and barren. If trees blocked their view or stood where they envisioned their farms, they cut them down. All the animals they slaughtered - not once thinking to thank the spirit of the creature for providing food or clothing. They lived with an arrogance of belonging he could not comprehend.
He sat alone as the sun set, and took delight in envisioning the surprise in their eyes when he took their arrogance away from them with his knife.
+ + + + + + +
The hazy edge of the morning sun broke the horizon as Vin mounted the steps to the gallows. A small crowd gathered before him, eager anticipation in their eyes as they waited to witness the horror. The executioner slipped the noose around his neck as his eyes scanned the crowd for Larabee. A preacher droned behind him...yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...This was it then. No help was coming, no cavalry, no last-minute rescue. After all his running, staying alert, keeping detached from home or family, he would die at the end of a rope anyway.
The knot was pulled tight at the back of his neck. He raised his eyes once more, defiant, a sad smile on his lips as he mouthed his last word before the floor beneath him gave way with a sickening thud -
Larabee awoke with a cry, heart pounding, a glistening sheen of sweat on his face despite the cool night air.
"Vin?" came the question quietly through the dark.
"Yeah," he answered shakily, gratefully accepting a flask of whisky from Buck.
"Just a dream, Chris. We'll find 'im."
"I don't know, Buck. Maybe this time we're too late."
"Too early to give up," Buck assured him.
Chris thought about his friendship with Vin, with Buck. He glanced at the sleeping form of Andie.
"You ever wonder why he came back to Four Corners?" he asked Buck.
"Why do any of us keep comin' back?" asked Buck in return. "It's home, I guess."
"Home never meant much to him. Home was wherever he tethered Peso," Chris answered. "Home could've been wherever he headed with Andie."
"Maybe he came back to the job. Felt an obligation to the town, to..."
"To me?" Chris asked quietly. "I can't help thinkin' maybe he would've left with Andie if he hadn't felt he owed me something."
"So, what, now all this is your fault? You gonna take this guilt on too? Destroyin' yourself over Sarah and Adam ain't enough, you gotta call Vin in on the job?" Buck was spitting the words out now, and Chris was surprised at the sudden vehemence of his anger.
"No, I..." Chris began.
"Let me know now, Chris, if that's where you're headin' with this 'cause I swear if it is I'm outta here. I seen you do this to yourself once before and I don't aim to stick around and watch you crawl back inside a bottle again. And Vin ain't here to pull you back out. If that's the way you want to honor Vin's name - turnin' yourself into a drunken wreck - you can do it without me as a witness."
They stared at each other in silence across the fire that separated them in the deafening stillness of the night and Wilmington saw the gratitude in Chris' eyes at Buck's belief in Vin, and his dedication to their friendship.
"Gentlemen," came the soft southern drawl interrupting the tension. "I would hold it as a personal favor if you would refrain from referring to Mr. Tanner in the past-tense. I find it both annoying and highly premature."
"Yeah," Buck huffed, rolling over. "What he said," nodding towards Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
Tascosa. He had never been here before, but the dread the word called up within him since he had met Vin had made the town into a menacing giant in his eyes. Now he looked at the barren reality of the place and wondered what he had ever feared from it. For the first time in two days he felt almost hopeful that they would be in time. He turned back to Buck.
"Maybe you're right, Buck. Maybe I've been thinkin' too much. Maybe..." He stopped cold as he saw the look in Buck's eyes. He followed Wilmington's line of sight down a side street, one he had missed with his eyes focused so intently ahead. His stomach turned hard, his throat constricted. At the end of the street was the jail. In front of the jail, at the dead end of the street, were the gallows. A mortuary wagon sat in front of the jail, the old horse tethered to it was thin and haggard as though it knew the dread deed it served and the lifeless cargo it carried.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said as he took in the haunted look of his two friends. "Might I offer to inquire within the local constabulary on our behalf?"
"I'll go with you," Andie said, not waiting for their assent as she spurred her horse forward in grim determination.
"No, wait," Chris said, shaking himself from his reverie. "I...I should go. I should be the one to..."
"We're all goin' Ezra," Wilmington answered.
The sheriff's office was much the same as their office in Four Corners. A two-cell jail with a couple of desks, a gun cabinet. Buck caught Chris' glance as they both saw the nail on the wall with a stack of WANTED posters threaded on it. Andie was waiting to talk to the sheriff who was finishing up his business with what looked to be the owner of the mortuary coach out front.
"Now, Lou, this is the third one this month I gotta bury without showin' a lick a profit. Seems to me the town ought to kick in somethin' for my time and trouble," complained the mortician.
"Avery, I done told you before. Town ain't gonna pay to bury the likes of a man like that and you're the only business in town. What do you want me to do? Stack 'em up in back 'til they all go ripe on me? I give you what money the town allotted for such as them last time. Can I help it if we got more'n our share lately?" the sheriff answered him.
"Excuse me?" Andie interrupted, unwilling to listen to more of the macabre conversation.
"Bad enough I gotta handle all your customers from out front," the mortician continued. "Now you're takin' in strays, too!"
"Might as well put a sign out front - I plant 'em for free..."
"Well, that's what it's amountin' to lately! By gum, Lou, I..."
Chris was watching the exchange with a growing irritation. He glanced about the jail impatiently until his eyes fell on the cot in one of the jail cells. A body lay there, covered from head to foot by a dark woolen blanket.
"Excuse me," Buck said forcefully as he moved in front of Andie. "We're lookin' to talk to the sheriff."
"Well, by gum, so am I," said the mortician. "And since I'm talkin' to him right now I guess that makes you next in line."
"I think your business is done," said Chris, appearing suddenly at Buck's side, facing the little man in the dark coat. His stare left the man cold, a chill racing up his spine at seeing the haunting depth of the eyes that bore down on him.
"Lou, I..." he stuttered, backing away.
"Can I - help you folks?" asked the sheriff, his hand resting lightly on the handle of his Colt. He wasn't afraid of these men - not yet, anyway - but he had seen enough in his years to know a gunfighter when he saw one.
"In there. We're...lookin' for someone," Larabee said, cursing the hitch in his voice as he nodded towards the jail cell.
"Lord a'mighty," whispered Ezra as he saw the body for the first time.
"You kin?" asked the mortician, feeling braver now that the man in black had focused his attention towards the sheriff. "'cause if you're kin, I got me $10 comin' for..."
Ezra turned on his heel to face the little man.
"I would advise you - strongly, advise you - to refrain from further participation in this conversation. My friend has yet to perfect the art of suffering fools."
"Huh?" asked the mortician.
"Precisely," Ezra answered as he followed the solemn band making its way towards the cell.
The sheriff unlocked the cell and ushered them in.
"Fact is, I'd be obliged if you could help us out here," he answered as he took the edge of the blanket. "Found him dead just outside town..." he pulled the blanket away.
Andie gasped, a shriek escaping her lips as she put her hands to her mouth, then turned away, burying her face in Buck's shirt.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington sat in a saloon in Tascosa with Chris Larabee, a bottle of whiskey between them. Chris hadn't said a word since they had left the jail and Buck waited patiently knowing his friend far too well to push him into conversation.
"You think she'll be o.k. in there?" Chris asked finally.
"Ez is with her. He'll do the talkin'. And the payin', most likely," Buck added wryly as he thought of the pushy undertaker.
"She's pretty shook."
"Yeah, well, seein' your husband laid out dead in a jail cell'l do that to ya, I reckon."
"Ex-husband," Chris corrected him.
"Whatever," Buck shrugged, throwing back a shot.
"You think Vin..." Chris left the question unasked.
"Shot 'im?" Buck asked. "Thought crossed my mind, but no, I don't believe it. He might'a shot the bastard to get away, but he wouldn'ta left him out there to rot like that. Ex or no, he was Andie's husband. Vin woulda at least buried 'im. Plus, Vin'd know we were lookin' for him, be worried about Andie. He'd find some way to let us know he was alright if he could..." Buck pulled up short. Damn. The liquor had loosened his tongue too much. He wasn't telling Chris anything the gunfighter didn't know, but somehow it hurt more to hear the words they were both thinking spoken out loud. If he could...
"Therefore our search must continue," said Ezra as he approached the somber pair. He nodded toward the bartender for a glass and helped himself to the whiskey.
"Where's Andie?" Chris asked the gambler as he pulled up a chair.
"The sheriff's wife was kind enough to invite her to their home to 'freshen-up,' I believe was the term employed. The woman was most gracious. I saw no harm in allowing Miss Andrea some privacy and a motherly shoulder to cry upon."
"You pay the $10?" Buck asked.
"So our search continues, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said again, ignoring Buck's question.
"We'll go back to where that deputy said he found Maddock. See if there's any sign left. Been dry, still, maybe we'll get lucky. He'd only been out there for a day so we can't be too far behind."
"Are we assuming that whoever instigated the untimely demise of Mr. Maddock now holds Mr. Tanner hostage?"
"I don't know what the hell to think," Chris said in frustration. "All I know is Vin'd found us if he was able to. He'd know where we were heading."
"But would he take the chance of comin' in here?" Buck asked, indicating the town about them.
"Andie's with us. He'd find a way." Chris threw back one last shot before getting up to leave. "Let's get Andie and head out. We got enough daylight to get back to where they found Maddock."
Ezra turned to follow behind Larabee when Buck put a hand on his shoulder.
"You paid that $10, didn't you?" he asked with a smile. It was no secret that Andie Kincaid was an amazing woman. Vin's woman, true, but amazing. Though he knew Ezra would never act on it, Buck had noticed the gambler's interest in her. Enough interest to perform one of his famous acts of generous bravado if it were to her benefit.
"Buck, Ezra, let's go," Chris called impatiently.
"Mr. Larabee awaits," Ezra answered, lifting Buck's hand from his shoulder as he followed the gunfighter out the door.
"Damn, he paid that $10, I know it," Buck muttered, grabbing the bottle from the bar as he left the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner sat on the ground, his stomach growling, head aching, wrists rubbed raw from the rope that still bound them. He watched the two men burying iron bolts in the fire, saw the leg irons lying on the ground. Vin glanced beside him to where the young Indian boy lay, still unconscious from a blow to the head earlier in the day. The boy was scared and had tried to run earning him a heavy clout in the back of the head with Vin's own rifle stolen from the saddle of the dead Clint Maddock.
Maddock had fired blindly into the night, missing his target, finding a bullet instead. Unable to move, Vin had helplessly traded one captor for another.
A bull of a man, at least a foot taller than Vin, had slung him over the saddle of his horse as the man who had gunned down Maddock watched silently.
So far no one had spoken to him. The young Indian boy had been a captive already when Vin was taken. He knew no English, but Vin was able to communicate with him in his native tongue enough to keep him calm. His name was Sekani, but that was all Vin had been able to discern in their brief exchanges.
Now as he watched the men at the fire, he began to realize what he was facing. It was a mining camp - forced labor. He had watched other men, mostly Indians, trudge into the depths of the mine in the early morning. He had no doubt he and Sekani would be joining them as soon as the leg irons were ready.
+ + + + + + +
Above the camp, he watched with seething anger as his brother lay motionless on the ground beside the buckskinned one they had taken last. Animals - they even preyed on their own kind. Daksha watched as many of the young men who had disappeared from his tribe were herded like cattle into the mine.
The need for revenge burned hotly within him and he fought to control it. To rush into the camp was foolish, to go back to his tribe for help, leaving his brother behind, was unthinkable. He had been tracking them for days, looking for a way to free Sekani. The night before he had watched them shoot a man and take the buckskinned one with them to this place. The white man seemed to be trying to protect Sekani, but he was in no condition to escape either. Daksha needed help - but he had no idea where to find it.
+ + + + + + +
"You sure this is where they found him?" Buck asked Chris several hours later as they looked over the barren ground outside Poteet. There were no signs that he could see of the shooting of Clint Maddock. They had spread out from the area in four directions and were now just waiting for Ezra to return.
Chris looked again at the few landmarks the deputy had described to him and shook his head.
"This is the place. Sure didn't leave us anything to go on. Whoever killed Maddock must have taken Vin with him."
"Well, if they did take Vin, it wasn't for the bounty. The only town close by is Tascosa and they obviously didn't take him there," Buck reasoned.
"Didn't go back the way they came or we would'a seem 'em," Chris added. "What's east of here?" he asked Andrea.
"Not much. Days before you hit another town. Not much water," Andie answered thinking it through as she spoke.
"West?" Buck asked.
"Again, no towns that I can think of. This area is pretty barren. A few years ago they found silver several miles from here. Mine played out, folks stayed on - that's where Poteet and Tascosa sprang up from."
The three of them looked to the west as they saw Ezra galloping towards them.
"Any luck?" Buck shouted to him as the gambler approached.
"Royal flush, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra smiled grimly. He handed Chris a paper rolled in a tattered piece of buckskin. Larabee unrolled it, read the paper briefly and handed it wordlessly to Andie.
Buck looked to Chris, then to Andie.
"What is it?" he asked her.
She folded the paper gently and tucked it inside her coat. "My telegram."
+ + + + + + +
"Better?" Vin asked Sekani in his native tongue. The boy nodded as he sat up slowly, blinking his eyes in the bright sun. "There are too many here," Vin explained to him carefully. "We wait for a better time to run."
Sekani looked at him with hope. This Tanner dressed as an Indian instead of a white man, knew his native tongue and spoke it well. He spoke to Sekani slowly and carefully, trying to calm him, and for these reasons the boy felt he could trust him. He nodded in agreement.
"They will chain us," Vin explained carefully. He wanted to warn the boy, to prevent him from panicking again. "Make us work the mine."
This time it was Vin who worked to control his fear. He did not want the boy to know the terror that was threatening to overwhelm his own soul at the thought of going deep into the ground. He had signed on to work a mine once before when he needed the money, but realized early on he could not do it. The dark, confined space of the mine left him shaking, suffocating. Vin tried now to convince himself that if he concentrated on taking care of Sekani, he would be able to keep his mind off his own fear.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey! Half-breed!" snarled the big man who had been watching over them. "Shut up with that Injun talk." He grabbed the leg irons in one hand and one of the glowing bolts from the fire with a pair of tongs in his left and crossed to where Vin and Sekani sat.
Vin watched with dread as the man fitted the leg iron around his left leg. He gritted his teeth in pain as the steel bit into his ankle when the bolt was pounded through the hasp.
"Perfect fit," the man laughed, pulling the chain roughly. It caught Vin off balance, and without his hands to brace himself he fell to the side, his right eye slamming into the log he was seated against.
"Get up!" the man shouted again, pulling Vin back to a seated position as he moved to secure the other half of the leg iron to Sekani.
"You bein' an Indian lover and all, I figure you don't mind bein' wedded to one, right Buckskin?" he said to Vin as he clamped the iron on Sekani's ankle as well. It was a loser fit for the boy, and Vin's words of caution had prepared Sekani, keeping him calm.
"Down in the mines for you two on the next shift. After Mr. Cray gives you your orders."
"Who's Cray?" Vin asked.
The man pulled Vin's head back roughly by the hair.
"Did I say you could talk, Buckskin?" he spat. "Just keep that Injun-talkin' mouth of yours shut unless I say so!" He slapped Vin across the mouth, then pulled back to hit him again when the man who had shot Maddock stopped him from behind with the touch of an ivory-handled cane against the man's shoulder.
"Healy. That's enough," he said calmly. "I'll speak to them now."
"But he..." Healy protested, ready yet to deliver another blow.
"Morning shift is coming up. See to it," the man ordered.
Healy muttered under his breath as he released Vin, rattling the chain that bound him to Sekani to check that it was secure before he left.
+ + + + + + +
"My name is Aaron Cray. I'm the proprietor of this - enterprise," he said, indicating the mine. "I trust you will interpret for your young friend there?"
"I ain't heard nothin' that matters to him yet," said Vin, working his jaw, his tongue tasting blood at the corner of his mouth.
"I hoped we could do this without any unpleasantness," Cray said, shaking his head. He tapped the cane idly against his leg. "Mr. Healy is not known for his patience with insolence. And while I consider myself much more disciplined in that regard, I will not tolerate insubordination in the rank and file." He pulled Vin forward on his knees, then forced his head down to the ground. Vin heard the sharp intake of Sekani's breath and the menacing whistle of air before he felt the crack of the cane against his back. He bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out.
Cray pulled him up to sit against the log again.
"Understood?" he asked calmly.
Vin swallowed blood. His right eye had begun to swell. He peered at Cray through his left with an almost tangible hatred, but remained silent.
"Good," Cray nodded. He paced before the two men. "As long as you work, you eat. As long as you behave," he said, turning to glare at Vin, "you live. Any questions...Mr. Tanner?"
Vin tried not to show his surprise.
"One of my men found the wanted posted in Mr. Maddock's saddlebag. If you prove too much trouble, Mr. Tanner, I can always use you for a $500 donation to my supply budget. Although I must admit at present I'd much rather keep a low profile here myself."
"What're we minin'?" Vin asked through clenched teeth.
"Silver," Cray answered.
"Played out years ago," Vin answered.
"So I heard," Cray said, grinning suddenly. "But I am an eternal optimist, Mr. Tanner. And I have all the time in the world - and all the manpower I choose to enlist. The tribe near here has been most forthcoming in its donation of labor."
"Donation?" Vin sneered with disgust.
"We've talked long enough," Cray said, ignoring him. "Besides, it's time for work. I'll have Mr. Jonas show you to your labors."
Another mountain of a man came forward at Cray's orders and pulled Vin and Sekani up to their feet. He drew a knife from his belt and cut the ropes that bound their hands. Vin rubbed his wrists as Jonas shoved them ahead. Vin looked about him, fighting the panic that began to rise in his chest as they walked into the mine, the walls closing in about him, the dark descending on him like a shroud.
+ + + + + + +
"They came through here," Buck said excitedly as he finally picked up sign of Cray's horses. "I don't see anything more from Vin, though."
"We're gonna just keep goin' with the idea that this is the group that has him," Chris answered. "It's all we got," he muttered in frustration.
"It's more than we had yesterday," said Ezra.
Buck got off his horse and began to walk out ahead of them, scoring the ground for more signs of the men they were following.
"Why would someone kill Clint, but take Vin alive?" Andie wondered out loud.
"Vin was a prisoner. Couldn't put up much of a fight," Chris reasoned.
"So you come up to a man, kill him, then just pick up a hostage you know nothing about? Why?" she asked again.
"Bounty?" Ezra asked.
"They'd take him to Tascosa, then," Chris said. "And we know they didn't do that."
"So what would make Mr. Tanner so valuable?" Ezra wondered. "We can assume he would not go willingly with whomever killed Mr. Maddock. If they did not kill him, had to take him by force, but weren't interested in the bounty, why..."
Ezra stopped in mid-sentence as they heard Buck's cry of surprise from up ahead. They rode quickly covering the ground that separated them. Buck lay on the ground, an Indian brave perched on his chest, one hand entwined in Buck's hair, the other holding a knife inches from Buck's throat.
Chris' hand went for his gun but froze when the brave moved the knife closer to Buck's throat, shouting at them in a language none of them could interpret. Carefully, Larabee dismounted and began walking slowly towards him, his hands held in the air.
"Alright, alright," he said calmly. "Let's not get riled, here, and do somethin' stupid."
"He's already riled, Chris, do something!" Buck shouted anxiously.
"Shut up, Buck," Chris ordered. "If he wanted to kill ya, you'd be dead already."
"There's a comfort," Ezra mumbled to Andie as they sat on their horses with their own hands raised.
"Alright," Chris said again to the brave. "What do you want? You know you're dead the minute you use that knife."
"Don't give him no ideas, Chris," Buck hissed.
The brave called out to them.
"Right," said Chris shaking his head, cursing himself once again for not taking the time to have Vin teach him the language.
"Any time, Chris," Buck said anxiously.
"Workin' on it, Buck," Chris answered, frustrated. "Ah, alright, look," Chris said, spreading his hands out before him. "You obviously don't want to kill him, but unless you start talkin' English I don't know what you're lookin' for from us."
The brave shouted at them again, louder and more animated.
"That helped a lot," Chris muttered. He was totally at a loss. The brave had made no further move to harm Buck, but he hadn't backed away, either. It was obvious he wanted something from them, but without the language, Chris had no way of knowing what it was.
"This is ludicrous," Ezra said as he dismounted.
"Ezra, no..." Andie said, as the gambler began walking boldly toward the standoff before them.
"Ez?" Buck asked nervously as he watched from the corner of his eye as the gambler approached.
Ezra pulled the gun from his right holster using two fingers from his left hand and held it out to the Indian.
"What the hell?" Chris asked angrily as he watched the brave's response to Ezra's brazen act.
Daksha stared at Ezra, then looked at the gun that was being offered to him. The gambler could see the indecision in the Indian's eyes and knew immediately that he had done the right thing. Chris was right. The brave wanted something from them and was willing to try this foolish act to get their attention, and hopefully their help.
Slowly, Daksha released his grip on Buck. Slowly, he stood to face Ezra.
"Get outta there, Buck," Chris whispered easily.
Buck stood up gradually and backed away as Daksha stared into Ezra's eyes.
Again, Ezra offered the gun to Daksha. The brave looked at the gun, then at the knife in his own hand. He held the knife out to Ezra. Standish took the knife in his right hand, blade first, held it a moment, then handed it back. Daksha did the same with Ezra's revolver.
"Well," said Ezra, letting out a long-held breath. "There we are."
"Now what?" asked Andie, walking up behind them.
They all looked at Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
"Actually, it was a combination of my own experience and that of Mr. Tanner," Ezra explained of his approach to the recent standoff. Buck and Andie watched the brave eat hungrily from the provisions they had offered him while he tried to talk with Chris.
"How's that?" asked Andie.
"Mr. Tanner has impressed upon me more than once the fact that Indians, for the most part, are afraid of the white man. For this young man to have gambled on attacking Buck when the odds were decidedly in our favor..."
"Not in MY favor," Buck interjected.
"Well, no, that's true," Ezra agreed. "You would undoubtedly have become a casualty of his play had we not employed restraint."
"But you gave him your gun," Andie said. "He could have used that on all of us."
"Yes, well, that was my gamble," Ezra admitted.
"Damn closer to bein' OUR gamble, don't you think?" Buck asked, irritated.
Ezra eyed him casually, then turned back to Andie with a smile.
"As I said, it was a gamble, but the moment I approached him I saw only one emotion in his eyes - enough to tell me he would not use the knife, or the gun."
"Fear?" asked Andie.
"No," said Ezra. "Desperation."
"Well," said Chris, shaking his head in frustration as he joined them. "I don't know what the hell to make of it. I can't understand a word he's sayin'. All I know for sure is he wants us to help him with somethin', but I'll be damned if I can figure out what."
The brave repeated the words he had been using since they met.
"Here we go again," Buck muttered as the brave walked towards them.
Daksha spoke again, pointing west.
"Well, it looks like he wants us to go in the same direction we're heading," said Andie. "So why not just take him along, see if we can figure out more as we ride?"
The others looked at her and shrugged. Daksha became more insistent. He mounted his horse and pulled at the reins of Chris' horse as he urged them forward.
"Can anyone get him to stop sayin' that?" Buck complained.
Andie and Ezra repacked their saddlebags from which they had taken the food they had offered Daksha. Andie pulled her coat back on when the buckskin-wrapped telegram fell to the ground. She bent to pick it up, but Daksha pulled her hand away and took up the skin in his hand.
Once more the words poured forth urgently from the brave's mouth as he pointed again to the west, shaking the buckskin in his hand.
The four friends looked at each other, not daring to breathe, a flicker of hope passing between them.