Thanks To One
He awoke with a start, eyes popping open. Sensing something not right. He dare not move, not wanting to even draw a breath. His heart raced, his skin turned clammy and a funny feeling hit him low in the belly. Lying as still as possible, his eyes squinted and only they moved about the room, searching . . .
He knew someone was in his room. Maybe couldn't see him, or hear him, but he was there. Could smell someone. If he only had a little light . . . if only he laid still enough, maybe he could sense where his intruder was.
Nothing. Minutes ticked by, seemingly longer than in reality.
His fingers itched to move. Knowing his gunbelt hung on the bed post near his head, he desperately wanted to reach for it. Quick-like. Take whoever it was by surprise. Yeah, right. He tamped that thought down in a hurry.
He was starting to get angry now. He was a gunfighter, dammit! Feared by many, hated by most and here he was, acting like a damned school kid. Prisoner in his own room and, his own mind.
To hell with this!
Just as his body was about to do his mind's bidding of reaching for his gun, he heard it.
Not much of a sound, but a definite clink of a spur. It brought him up short. Unnerved him even more . . . like the person knew when to make his move.
"Who the hell are you and what do you want?" he snapped out, his voice surprising himself with it's strength of which he really didn't feel. He felt quite naked, truth be told. In bed, no gun, no clue.
Hearing the intruder shift his weight, he reached for the bed post and grabbed air. Gun and holster, both gone!
He ground his teeth. Past angry now, more like dangerous. If the guy wanted him dead, why not do it, why the cat and mouse game? He sat up, looking directly at where he figured the man to be, seeing or perhaps, imagining a body outline.
"What the hell do you want?" he snarled, putting emphasis on each word with as much deadly emotion as he could.
"You," came the reply in a quiet voice.
A voice no man in his right mind would take any less serious than a rattlesnake's warning rattles.
"Who the hell are you?" He took a guess. "Larabee?"
No answer. Well, that wasn't quite true. He thought he heard a small chuff of breath, almost like a chuckle. Raised his hackles even more.
"Well? What? We just gonna sit here and do this quiet little dance or you gonna tell me what this is all about?" He could just charge the son of a bitch. Take his chances in a brawl. Once again, just as he was about to act on his thoughts, the intruder made a move.
One jingled step of a spurred boot and then something heavy landed beside him on the bed. His holster. Gun included.
A quick smooth move and he had the revolver out. No bullets. A gunslinger could tell just by the weight. The man in his room had not only gotten in through a locked door, but also had taken his gun and emptied it of it shells as he'd slept like a baby. Who the hell was this guy?
"Now what? Seems you have the upper hand here." What was that he heard? A snort? Did the man just give a sarcastic snort?
"Look," the gunman said, rising to his feet. "I'm gettin' real tired of this little game of yours . . . "
"You think this is a game?" the quiet voice said with a deadly air. "Didn't think you could get any stupider."
His eyes narrowed. Forget that this man somehow got into his room and got the drop on him. Forget all that. If he'd wanted him dead, he'd a been dead a long time ago. This man wanted something else. Didn't he know who he was? Maybe he did. Maybe that was the trouble. Whatever. His patience was wearing thin. Not a virtue of his anyway.
Dawn was approaching. A smidgeon of light beginning to penetrate through the curtained window.
"Do I know you?" he asked, squinting to try and see more of the figure he could see outlined near the entrance door.
Well that answer galled him. Arrogant sonofabitch. "Look, you. Why don't you just say whatever it is you want and let's get this over with. Think you can string more than two words together and tell me?" This time he was the one to snort. His bravado was coming back. Why, he had no clue. He didn't know who this guy was and what his intentions were. Hell, he didn't even have any bullets in his gun. Maybe he was stupid, but he wasn't going to give this man anymore ground than he already had. It was time to put all the cards on the table.
A brush of fabric, a jingle of spurs. The mystery man took a couple of steps in his direction. He ran his tongue along his bottom lip. The fleeting thought of death came to mind. This really wasn't how he thought it would be, but right now, with this silent but threatening presence in his room, being a dead man was certainly an option.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris?" Buck called as he met his friend just outside the livery, Larabee returning for the day from his shack out in the hills.
The man in black nodded to Wilmington as he dismounted, taking care not to put too much pressure on his still-healing right arm. He'd taken a slug a week ago protecting Billy Travis from some dishonest and murdering business men. The wound had healed but the arm still pained him if he wasn't careful.
"Think we may have a problem," Buck continued, his defensive posture and hand resting on the top of his gun was in stark contrast to the quiet tone of voice.
Chris waited for him to continue.
"Stranger in town. Goes by the name of Blackjack McCall." He watched Larabee for signs of recognition when he tossed out the name. "That name mean anything to you?"
"Gunfighter," Chris confirmed.
"Yeah," Buck agreed, drawing the word out like that fact was a given, a fact just about anyone who walked upright on two legs ought to know. "And a good one." He met his friend's gaze. "Think he might be here for you."
Chris heaved a big sigh. The corners of his mouth crinkled, turning into a frown. Annoyance is what Buck would call it. Not concern, definitely not fright, just a look that said, "well, hell." Perturbed him that Chris could take something like this so nonchalant. McCall was an enigma. Fast. Dangerous. Mean. Maybe faster than . . .
Chris' words cut into his thinking.
"Say he was lookin' for me?"
"Not directly, but . . ."
"Hey Buck! Chris! JD came riding into town, trailing a mount that had a body facedown, slung over it's saddle. "Hey look at this," the young man said as he pulled up near the other two men and dismounted.
Buck raised the head up of the obviously dead man and looked at the face. "Well, I'll be damned." He turned to Larabee. "This is him. This is Jack McCall. JD? What happened?"
"Found him just like this. Well, laying on the ground anyway. East, out by those big stand of oaks. Dead. Shot right through the head." He shrugged. "So maybe it wasn't Chr . . ." he stopped short and looked over at Larabee. "Found this on him too." He handed Chris a folded up piece of paper.
Just by the coloring and thickness of the paper Chris could tell it was a wanted poster. And sure enough, when he opened it up, there staring back at him was the drawing of his good friend, Vin Tanner.
"He after Vin?" Buck asked incredulously, he and JD exchanging looks, both surprised at the turn of events.
"Vin's no gunfighter," JD finally answered after a lengthy silence, each man turning over in their mind what might have happened. "He'd never be fast enough with that sawed-off."
"Ain't the mark of a sawed-off anyway," Buck told him, knowing there wouldn't be any face left if it had been. "And ain't no rifle shot either. Looks like a revolver."
Whether they meant to or if it was just a unconscious thought, both Wilmington and Dunne turned their eyes to Larabee.
Chris held his arms out when they looked at him. "Don't look at me," he said.
"Might as well take him over to the undertaker's, JD. Guess it don't matter anyhow. Man's dead and if he was after Vin, then all the better."
The young man nodded at what Wilmington said, picked up the horse's reins and headed down the street.
Buck watched Larabee fold up and pocket the wanted poster.
"What are ya thinkin'?" Wilmington was curious as to what was going through Larabee's head.
"Seen Vin?" Chris skirted the question with a question, concerned now over the welfare of Tanner.
"Had early patrol. Said last night he'd be at Nettie's afterwards for breakfast and ta do some fixin' around the place. You gonna head out there?" Buck figured that's what the gunslinger had in mind when he saw him get ready to mount back up.
Chris nodded at him from the saddle.
"We'll be here if you need us. Watch your back!" he called out as Larabee spurred his horse into a lope.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee could hear the echo of hammer blows to nails and wood long before he rode into the Well's yard. Sure enough, there stood Vin fixing rails on the old woman's corral, Nettie right beside him holding the planks in place. Chris had to smile. He knew how much the two people in front of him meant to each other. Nettie Wells was an endearing old widow. And Vin? Vin was Vin. Always more to the man than what one thought.
"Mr. Larabee," Nettie greeted him, Vin stopping in his work to give the man in black a welcoming nod.
"You here ta work?" Vin asked, a grin on his face, as Chris approached him.
Larabee cocked his head, the corners of his mouth twitched and he flexed his right arm, as if testing it.
Vin laughed then. "Yeah, alright. Forget I asked."
"You ate yet?" Nettie asked, then continued, "how 'bout I go and put out some fresh bread. Reckon you could use a break too," she said, including Vin in her conversation. She turned and with a rustle of her skirt headed to the house without waiting for any answers. She had a feeling Chris Larabee had come out to talk with Vin and this gave her the excuse to leave them to their business.
Chris turned his back to the house, put his arms over the top corral rail and gazed off to the horizon, letting Vin finish nailing the one board.
"You didn't ride all the way out here ta watch me work," Vin commented as he finished, dropping the hammer to the ground.
Chris turned to look at him. "JD found a dead man on his patrol this morning. Name of Blackjack McCall." He watched for Tanner's reaction. There was none. He nearly smiled. And people thought Standish had a poker face. Chris took the folded wanted poster from his pocket. "Had this on him." He handed it to his friend.
Vin took the piece of paper and without looking at it put it in his pocket.
That action spoke volumes.
Larabee had to admire Tanner. The man never pulled any punches. No acting. No trying to shirk responsibility. Chris knew now what Tanner had done.
"Nobody knew who . . ."
"It was you."
They stared at one another for a few minutes.
"Don't need you to fight my battles for me, Vin," he said softly, looking past the man, not exactly sure how to deal with whatever emotion it was that he was feeling. He knew why Vin had done it. He didn't doubt his own ability for a minute, a man in his position couldn't afford to, but he wasn't completely healed yet either. However, he didn't need Vin putting his life on the line for him, not like this. He didn't expect any of them to. His fight. His call. He should have been the one to deal with it. Was he angry? No. Not really. And that was more of a surprise than anything. He reasoned it was because he'd a done the same thing if the roles would have been reversed. They protected each other backs. An unwritten rule, it seemed, ever since they'd teamed up. All seven of them. And Vin did what he thought he had to do. The man seemed to have no end to his talents. But a fast gun? Chris had trouble with that one, just as he knew everyone in town would.
His gaze slid back to Tanner, but the man had his head down, Cavalry hat hiding the facial features. Larabee's eyes drifted to Peso and the saddlebags draped across the rear of the horse. If he were to look, he knew what he'd find. There was so much about this man he didn't know. Not that it mattered to him, but he had to admit, he was curious.
"Wanna tell me how it happened?" He hoped Vin would.
Vin looked at him then, blue eyes locked onto his. "Was gunnin' for you. Once he saw the poster," he shrugged, "guess he changed his mind."
Chris nodded his head slowly at that pretty vague statement and pursed his lips in thought. People might get the impression that Vin Tanner wasn't the smartest man around, but Larabee knew better. Vin had instigated the whole thing. He knew damn well Tanner had goaded McCall into a fight using the wanted poster as bait, getting the man out of town before he'd show up; before he'd be called out in front of everyone. Protecting him.
Vin would have known the patrol route and that JD would be the one to find McCall. The townspeople would be more apt to believe what the young man told about the incident, more so than had it been any of the other seven. The wanted poster would be confiscated and Chris' name would be kept out of it. Completely. The other men would even think it was Vin that the gunfighter was after. Even if something were to slip, Larabee was totally out of the picture. And Vin wouldn't be implicated either because he carried a sawed-off and a rifle. McCall had been set up, pure and simple and a man in his line of work, folks would figure it was probably somebody with a grudge.
Larabee decided he had to let it go. A man didn't win an argument with Tanner because Vin had a dead-on sense of right and wrong. It rarely wavered no matter what the consequences might be. Chris knew that about him the minute he saw the younger man going off alone to save Nathan from hanging. It was a virtue that drew him to the ex-bounty hunter. Something he knew he wanted to be a part of from that day on. Vin was someone he'd ride the river with, this incident just one more seal on their friendship . . . even if he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it yet.
"So, should I be worried?" Chris just had to ask. He smiled when he saw the corners of Vin's mouth lift and his eyes light up.
"Reckon not," came the answer. "Town's only got room 'nough for one fast draw. Let it go, Chris," he added when seeing the shadow of doubt cross his friend's face. "You'd a done it fer me."
Larabee nodded at the truth in that statement. He would have. More than once if need be. Whenever, wherever.
Their arms reached out and locked together in the familiar grip of a bond between warriors. Thanks to one, the other would be around to live another day.
Nettie Wells had stood on her porch, not wanting to interfere as she'd watched the two men. She'd seen them look at each other, then Chris had stared off in one direction and Vin had lowered his head. She saw them talk, then came the smiles and finally the handshake. Whatever had been between them was now over. She smiled and nodded.
"Food's on," she called as Vin bent over to pick up the hammer. After seeing them turn and head her direction, she went back into the house.