"Well, sir, it appears you've been separated from your wagon," Ezra approached the middle-aged man who slid gingerly off one of the harnessed horses he'd ridden into town. "What happened?"
The stranger mumbled something as he passed by the dapper-dressed gambler and wobbled into the saloon. Standish knew what he heard would have singed the ears of a mule skinner. Giving his brocade vest a quick downward pull, he ventured into the drinking establishment, nodded to his fellow peacekeepers and came to rest beside the sullen visitor leaning on the bar. His nose twitched at the faint burnt smell coming from the man.
"I am part of the law here, perhaps I can be of some assistance."
The man tipped back his head to drain the last bit of whiskey from the shot glass, then leveled a squinty-eyed look at Standish and held out his hand. "Noah Pickering," he said. "Indian agent, United States Government."
"Ezra Standish, at your service," the conman answered back, giving a quick look over at his friends. "Care to expound on your experience?"
"I'll tell you what happened, that okay?
Ezra blinked slowly, realizing the man didn't understand that was what he'd just asked him to do. He gathered himself with grace though, "Yes, why don't you... "tell" me what happened."
"Fella's probably long gone anyway, but," and he called for another shot of whiskey, "I wasn't expecting any trouble from this area, Indians are pretty peaceable 'round these parts. The guy came outta nowhere. Burned the damn wagon and everything in it; blankets, clothes. Shameful," he ended with, shaking his head and downing the second glass of whiskey.
"Do you have a description of this miscreant?"
"Want to know what the outlaw looked like?" The agent was oblivious to the disgusted frown Standish gave him, reading it for the wrong reason. "Wasn't wearin' no mask or anything. Bold as brass. Figure he's someone who don't like Indians. Suppose to be a rough winter, too." He gave an audible sigh.
At a table not far from the agent and Standish, four men eyed each other, the fifth man kept his eyes on the amber liquid he swirled around in his whiskey glass. They were all grateful that the saloon was pretty bare of patrons right now.
"Long hair," Agent Pickering started off, "buckskin jacket, light clothes, rode a black gelding and carried a sawed-off. Told me ta get off the wagon, and unhitch the horses. Then he set fire to it and left. Just like that. Never saw him comin' and," with a wave of his hand to illustrate, "he was gone."
Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra saw Larabee push back his chair, stand up and leave. Signaling to Inez that he wanted a bottle, the conman directed Pickering over to a table where the two men sat and continued their discussion. Standish was prepared to keep the Agent in the saloon as long as possible until it was deemed safe to let him out. He didn't know where Vin was, but certainly didn't want him in town with Pickering around. The Southerner already had a game plan in mind.
"Where's Chris goin'?" JD asked after watching Larabee down his drink, grimace and leave.
"Find Vin I imagine," Buck answered him, then broke out in a grin as he watched Miss Hannah Tooley sashay his way.
"You think Vin did this? Vin wouldn't do anything like that!" the young man lowered his voice to an urgent whisper.
"How many men you know fit that description... well, good evening, Miss Tooley," Buck greeted in his best seductive voice, tipping his hat and standing up. "Boys," he said by way of dismissing himself, following the young lady up to the bar.
"Vin wouldn't do it," JD repeated to his two remaining tablemates, Josiah and Nathan, looking from one man to the other. All he got was a non-committable shrug from Sanchez and a "I don't know, JD" from the healer.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee entered the darkened livery intending to saddle his horse and go look for Tanner. He knew from the description Agent Pickering gave, he was talking about Vin and Chris wanted to find out what was going on. Didn't sound at all like something his friend would do, but he knew Vin well enough that there had to be a reason for what he did. The seasoned tracker and hunter rarely did anything without thinking it through. If anything, Vin was an overly cautious man and one Chris trusted with his life. But this was puzzling...
His thoughts of the whys and wherefores were interrupted when he met up with the man he'd intended to look for. Vin was untacking his horse in the stall next to Pony's.
"Vin," Chris said to Tanner's back, knowing full well the man knew he was behind him.
"Chris," Vin said, turning and giving a quick nod of his head in profile only.
"Man came into the saloon. Indian agent. Said someone burned his wagon."
Vin took the saddle from Peso's back, returning it to it's proper storage place.
"Anythin' else?" he asked while next removing the blanket and giving it a good shake, keeping his back to Larabee.
"Gave a good description of horse and man." Chris saw the slight slump of Vin's shoulders. His friend finally turned and looked at him for a minute. "Wanna tell me why?" the question asked easy and quiet-like. Indecision and distress were etched on the tracker's features. Chris knew enough to be patient.
Larabee waited while Vin took the bridle off Peso, ran a brush over the animal's coat and grained him. He figured the man would talk to him, but it would be when he was good and ready. Never one to push the ex-bounty hunter, Chris knew Tanner was a deep thinker and had good instincts. The burning of the wagon had him stumped though. Vin was an advocate for the Indian; he'd worked with them, even lived with them. It didn't make sense. His musings came to a halt when his friend turned and faced him once more. Horse hair brush in hand, picking at the bristles, Vin didn't, or perhaps couldn't, meet his eyes and he had to listen close in order to catch the softly spoken words filled with emotion.
"Been hearin' stories from other tribes," Vin began, eyes now searching his friend's face. Whether it was to gauge the man's reaction or gather strength, he wasn't sure, but Larabee's expression was one of concern and genuine interest, helping him to continue. It wasn't easy, baring his feelings like this and for an instant the question of why he'd even come back floated around inside his head. He pushed the thought away and took a deep steadying breath.
"The government and some of these Indian agencies are sendin' blankets and clothes that carry disease. Diseases that the People don't know how ta fight... can't fight. It's killin' them off, men, women, children. Sometimes whole tribes." His voice nearly broke before finishing the sentence.
Chris was stunned. He knew there were those that were against the Indian, but he wasn't prepared for what Vin had just told him. Not for an instant did it dawn on him to doubt what Tanner said.
"Stuff this guy was haulin' was headed ta Koje's 'n I couldn't... I jest couldn't... " eyes filling and throat closing, he had trouble finishing. "I couldn't take the chance. Burned it all. I know it wasn't right, Chris," his voice a raspy whisper now, "but I didn't know what else ta do. Might be all I did was lessened their chances on survivin' the winter." He closed his eyes to try and keep the moisture from escaping. A sniff that he couldn't stop tore from him. The hand that held the horse brush made a quick swipe under his nose and he turned away.
Chris didn't know what to say. There was nothing he could say. Hearing his friend's emotional roughened voice caused a stinging sensation behind his eyes. He blinked hard and fast a couple of times. Vin's pain lanced through him and a profound sadness entered him. He had no answers, no words to help. He just stood, rooted to the spot. Vin's voice came at him again.
"I have visions of them goin' like the buffalo. The white man takin', pushin' 'til they ain't no more. An' I don't know what ta do, Chris," he said, facing his friend once again, shaking his head as his eyes blinked away more tears. "I don't like bein' where I'm at... this place I'm in."
Larabee's breath caught at the desperation in Vin's voice. He struggled to understand what he couldn't even imagine. And Vin. Was he talking about being here? In town? "What place, Vin? Here?" He hardly recognized his own voice, it was so tight with emotion.
"Don't like this in-between place," Vin continued, almost as if he didn't hear Chris' questions. "Bein' 'tween the white man and the Indian."
That was something Chris could understand. He knew Vin walked a fine line between the white man's world and the red man's world. He had come face to face with that when Claire Mosley had supposedly been taken captive by Chanu, only to find out she was, in reality, his wife. Vin had gone against many of the townspeople, even his friends, to find the truth. It had to be hard to know your own kind doubted you when it came down to one culture or the other. But Vin was blind to another man's color, creed or background. He fought for justice, for those that couldn't fight for themselves. It was one of the reasons Chris rode with him and considered him a true, loyal friend. There was none better than Vin Tanner in his book.
Silence penetrated the livery, punctuated only by an occasional stomp or snort of a horse.
Chris knew the burden lay heavily on his friend's shoulders. He had no idea what Vin was thinking, what he was going to do. And he had no way of helping, other than just being there for him, listening. The one thing he really hoped wouldn't happen was that Vin would ride away and they'd never hear from him again. That thought worried him.
The livery side door opened a crack to let someone in.
"Guys," JD greeted, acutely aware that Larabee stepped close in front of him, blocking off his view of Vin.
"JD," Chris answered, the name spoken not in question form, but the meaning still clear. He wanted to know why he was there.
"Ezra got that Pickering fella really drunk and then they left to go and send a telegram to the Army about what happened. Don't worry," he added quickly, seeing Larabee's jaw harden. "Ezra wrote the message and then had the telegram sent to Maude." He grinned thinking of Standish's' cunning. "So it's all been taken care of."
If it were only that easy, thought Chris. "Thanks, JD", he nodded at him in approval and the young man left the way he'd come in. Larabee was impressed Dunne left without asking any questions. The kid was maturing more every day.
Chris turned back to Vin. The tracker had picked up his saddle bags, his Winchester hung easy in his hand and Larabee marveled at the sight of him. Hat brim shadowing the face, gun and knife worn over the buckskin jacket and the lean, lanky frame made Tanner's appearance like that of a man of the mountains. Vin could wear a hardness to him that kept many a man at arm's length. They made a good pair in that respect.
"I'll lite out in the mornin' 'fore that agent spots my horse."
Chris nodded, unaware of the emotion that crossed his face, but Vin had read it.
"Soon as he's gone, I'll be back." He looked intently at his friend. "Ain't leavin' yet, Chris, but don't like draggin' you and the boys inta this mess."
"Alright," the gunslinger replied softly. "You do decide ta leave," he added, eyes locked onto Vin's, "I'll ride with you."
Vin gave him a quick nod, the gesture speaking for itself. He was too knotted up with emotion to say or do anything else.
Chris didn't know how to help Vin with his feelings of being caught "in-between", for they were valid and heart-wrenching, but he could ride alongside. He could do that for Vin. And as for his friend's visions of what was to come, they were all powerless to stop that impending doom if it came true, but Chris did have an idea. Something that would benefit Koje's tribe as well as appease the Indian Agent about what had happened.
+ + + + + + +
Two days later, Vin watched from an alleyway as Pickering and Josiah climbed aboard a wagon that had a tarp draped over the back. Sanchez's horse was tied on behind. Chris appeared at the tracker's side.
"What's goin' on?" Vin motioned to the wagon with a jut of his chin.
"Mary wrote a piece in the paper about Koje's tribe needin' blankets and clothes for the winter. Looks like some people pitched in ta help."
"Looks like," Vin agreed and stepped back further into the shadows as the wagon passed by. "You have somethin' ta do with that?" He knew instinctively Larabee did. A feared gunslinger to most, but Tanner knew the man from the inside out.
Larabee shrugged. He wasn't going to tell Vin about laying awake at night thinking of women and children dying from sabotaged provisions they believed would help them live. It disturbed him something fierce. And Mary was on fire because of it also. He knew she had it in mind to write some powerful articles on the subject, going so far as to say she hoped Vin would take her to Koje's village. She wanted to talk with the chief and his people. It might not be much, but it was a start. She'd asked for Chris' help in talking to Vin about her ideas.
Vin broke in on his thoughts. "Gonna tell me what yer thinkin' so hard on?"
"Let's have a drink," Chris said by way of answer, knowing he had Vin's attention. No better time to start then now.