Sins of the Father


Vin put out his arm, lightly brushing the black duster of his riding companion in a warning to stop. They'd been riding for hours, heading back to their home town of Four Corners after delivering a prisoner north to Consession. Knowing his friend would be looking at him for a sign, he jutted his jaw in a direction ahead and to the right of them.

Chris Larabee squinted against the sun and saw what had made Tanner stop. A beautiful big-bodied buck was standing broadside a few hundred feet away looking directly toward them. Its white-tailed flag was straight up, letting them know they'd been seen and warning other deer of the intruders. It was ready to flee.

"Been injured." Vin said quietly and handed his spyglass off to his friend.

Chris looked through the lens and could see that the animal's right leg had been nearly severed. "Think we should..." his words were cut short by the boom of Vin's Sharps and the deer fell over dead. Chris blinked. He looked over at the ex-bounty hunter. Almost spooked him that Tanner could do that without him being aware of it.

"Best ta put him out of his misery," Vin stated the obvious, sliding the rifle back into its boot. "Looks like we'll be a little late in getting back," he added with a frown, knowing now they'd have to take time skinning the animal.

Dismounting near the deer the two peacekeepers had their attention on the downed animal when they heard a noise behind them. Both men drew their weapons. A grizzled old man came limping out of a copse of trees, double barrel shotgun cradled in his arm.

"Howdy boys," he greeted, grin showing broken and stained teeth. "See ya put my deer out of his misery. Sorry 'bout that," he added, "my aim ain't what it used ta be, and with this bum leg," he patted his right thigh with a rough and gnarled hand, "I ain't as fast as I used ta be neither."

A look passed between Tanner and Larabee and the old mountain man didn't miss it. "Oh, this ain't the gun I used," he said, hitching up the scattergun still tucked in the crook of his elbow. "Naw, got the rifle up yonder," he motioned with his head, "left it on my horse. Heard your shot and when I seen the two of you, thought maybe I'd better bring ol' Betsy here," he patted the shotgun. "Cain't be too sure 'bout folks," he grinned again, "but you boys don't look like the kind that'd take an old man's kill from him," he looked from one man to the next, scrutinizing their weaponry and body language.

The old man saw the one dressed in black shake his head and look at his partner who did the same thing as their guns were holstered. The one in the buckskin jacket answered for them. "It's yours. Only shot because it was injured."

"And that was the right thing to do, young man, yes sir. Plum good shootin' too," the old man agreed, squinting hard, looking at the long-haired man. "I seen you afore?" he asked, looking Vin over good, the scattergun still hanging loose in his arm.

"Don't think so," Vin answered, noticing Chris move off from him, hand on the butt of his Colt, flanking the mountain man after hearing the query. Neither man liked that question and moving apart made them a tougher target for the double barrel.

"Hmmm... shore do look familiar. I ain't one ta fergit faces much," his face broke into a grin. "Mayhap we run inta one another out in the wild. You spend time with the Injuns?"

"We need to get going," Chris interjected before the old man could quiz Vin anymore. He could tell his friend didn't like the scrutiny. And there was something about the old man that didn't set with him. He didn't care for his looks, smell, smile nor that shotgun. Definitely not one to turn your back on, he told himself.

"Oh, shore. Pardon me. Didn't mean ta keep you boys," the grin widened, but never went all the way to the eyes. He swiveled to look at the man in black and nodded to him. "'Preciate you boys not takin' advantage of an old man." He doffed his coonskin cap to them and gave a slight bow.

He watched them mount and noticed how neither turned their backs to him. He smiled at them, scattergun still resting easy. "Yes sir, never forget a face," he muttered, turning back to the deer.

+ + + + + + +

"Seen him before?" Chris asked once they were out of gun range.

Vin shook his head no. "Not one I'd be apt ta forget either."

"Got that right," Chris agreed. He had an idea the mountaineer hadn't come completely clean with them. And he was just as certain Vin thought the same thing. Mountain men could be as old as the hills they lived in but quick as a rattler when they needed to be and just as mean. And it bothered him more than just a little that the old man seemed to recognize his friend. He stole a glance at the man riding beside him. If Vin was relaxed about it then... his thoughts were cut off when suddenly a white hot pain tore into his left hip and thigh.

Struggling to stay seated as Pony reared and fought the bit for control, Larabee felt himself slipping off to the right, his left leg not giving him any hold in the saddle.

Vin startled at the shot, heard Chris' yell and tried to grab hold of his friend to keep him on his horse, but it was no use. Larabee's momentum brought them both to the ground in a heap. Amidst the horses' dancing hooves, Vin managed to get his saw-off out and cocked, protecting the downed Larabee by kneeling in front of him.

"Best you throw down that gun, boy! Got me another barrel of shot here. Can just as easily git you as I did your friend there. Wouldn't try it," he added, seeing the sawed-off point directly at him where he was hiding. "Best tend ta yer friend. Rock and glass'll infect fast if it ain't taken care of."

Rock and glass? Vin swore and turned to Larabee, keeping his gun trained on the old mountain man as he came out from behind a tree. Chris was in agony, hand clutching at his bloody thigh, but Vin saw the anger and fire in his eyes as their assailant came closer. He put his hand over his friend's gun hand stilling it from drawing the weapon. "Later," he mouthed.

"Wise thing you did there, boy, keepin' him from drawin' that pistol. Hate to shoot a man when he's down, yes sir. That'd be a real shame." The annoying grin was back. "Now why don't you jist toss them guns over here by me, and that knife you carry too," he motioned with the shotgun at Vin's hip.

Vin did as told, then stood, hands clenched in fists, looking hard at the old man. "Need water and bandages," his voice a deadly tone which the old man either ignored or wasn't intimidated by.

"Why shore, boy, you go right on ahead and git them things. Just be careful now, I got me a itchy trigger finger here," he moved the barrel near Chris' prone body. "Sometimes I git ta shakin' and things happen.

"You boys got a bottle in there somewhere?" the old man continued, watching Vin pick through the saddle bags. "Gets rid of my shakes," he added with a half laugh. Taking his eyes off the long-haired man a minute, he whispered down to Chris, "Sorry I had ta shoot ya there," but I couldn't rightly let ya get away neither."

"Why's that?" Chris asked through clenched teeth, using the last of his energy to try and raise up.

"That one yer ridin' with over there," he nodded in Tanner's direction, "he's a bad one. Knowed his pappy and he weren't a nice man, no sir. Might be I just saved your life."

Chris groaned and laid his head back down. Doubt that, was his last conscious thought.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee woke with a start, starring hard into Tanner's concerned blue eyes. The pain in his left leg was excruciating. He groaned and heard Vin's voice shushing him, calming him, reassuring him. From the feel of it, his friend had just doused the leg with kerosene and put a lucifer to it.

"Need ta get you to Nathan. Can't get the pieces out. He's right. Be infected quick." Vin talked quietly as he worked. Pouring whiskey over the wounds would do the job for a while, but Larabee needed more help than he could give him right now. What Tanner needed was his knife and he'd asked for it but all he got for an answer was that annoying grin. He was going to wipe that grin from the old man's face when he got the chance.

Making Larabee as comfortable as he could, Vin turned to the old man, who was refilling the one empty side of the shotgun with something from a old leather pouch.

"Why you doin' this?"

The mountaineer cocked his head and licked his lips, peering intently at Vin.

"You by chance a Tanner?"

Vin didn't answer, keeping his eyes shaded with the brim of his hat so as not to give away what he was feeling. The question did, however, surprise him.

"Don't recall ever meetin' you."

"No, no, we never have. No, but see, you look an awful lot like a man I knew years ago. Younger version mayhap, but no doubt about it."

Chris moaned and Vin turned to him. Their eyes met for an instant before Larabee's closed. The ex-bounty hunter's mind raced. He needed to get his friend back to town.

"What's this got ta do with me?" Vin turned back and asked, face hardening, his patience running thin.

"Well, the way I figure it, see, is that the man I knew afore was your pappy, or a close relative. Name was Tanner. Yes sir, Jedadiah Tanner." He watched the young man before him, studying his reaction. The mountain man knew exactly who sat before him. He'd seen the picture on a wanted poster and damn well knew the word "Tanner" when he saw it. It was burned into his memory.

"You still haven't answered my question. What's this... ?"

"Jedadiah Tanner give me this bum leg!" the words spat out while a palm slapped the right leg. "Left me ta die out in the hills, he did. Put a bullet in me and left me there! Ornery bastard!" The old man's eyes were lit like fire and his face turned hard and ugly. The scattergun came up in his hands, pointing straight at Vin.

"Never could find the son of a bitch, mayhap the mountain got him, but I found me something near as good... you. He reached inside the tattered hide coat he wore and pulled out a paper, giving it a hard shake to reveal what Vin already knew it to be. "Figured this ta be you."

"The bounty," Vin murmured, in unbelief. He couldn't imagine what an old mountain man would want with reward money.

"Caught sight of ya back in Consession. That there fella," and the shotgun briefly pointed to Larabee, "was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shoulda been you full of shot, but he was the one near ta where I was. Shameful," he made a tsking noise with his tongue.

"Lucky me," Vin heard Chris whisper out, then cough and a moan escaped from him.

"Easy, Chris," Vin soothed, his voice soft and calming. The next minute he was growling at their antagonist.

"I never knew my father, or anyone related to him."

"Mayhap, boy," the old man grinned in triumph; the young man had just admitted to being Tanner, "but what I learned is that no matter what, the apple don't fall far from the tree. The sins of the father need ta be paid." And then he pulled one trigger on the scattergun, emptying its contents.

+ + + + + + +

Vin took the blast from the shotgun square in the chest, knocking him backward nearly landing on top of Larabee. He cried out in agony as the pain seared through his brain and came out his mouth in gasps of surprise and unbelief. He was aware of Chris calling his name, his friend's voice urgent in trying to calm him. His eyes opened wider seeing the ugly grinning face of the mountain man looking down at him, shaking his head.

"You ain't hurt bad, boy. Only had half a load in that side."

In a desperate attempt at freedom, Vin swept his right leg behind the old man knocking his feet out from under him, then was rewarded with the butt of the shotgun smacked alongside his head as the mountaineer swung the weapon at him like a club. It all happened so fast. The last thing Vin heard was Larabee curse.

+ + + + + + +

Chris watched helplessly as the old mountain man, whose name he learned and would never forget, Zebulon Pierce, tied up Vin's hands and then put a noose around the unconscious man's neck. He told Larabee that his intentions were to hang Tanner, for the crime of murder, of course, and take his body up into the hills and have the animals dispose of it. Then he'd feel justified in what Jedadiah Tanner had done to him and if he ever ran into the elder Tanner, he'd be able to tell him just what he'd done to his kin. Chris detected some kind of sick thrill in outdoing what one man could do to another. It had nothing to do with the bounty money, only revenge for something a father had done... and no one was even sure they were kin.

"Gonna hang me too?" Larabee's voice was soft, low and deadly.

Pierce hesitated in his tying up of Tanner and looked at Larabee. "You kill an innocent man, too?" he asked, hairy eyebrows coming together as one. "Ain't got no time fer those that kill innocents."

"Anyone I killed needed killin," Chris answered, his eyes pinning the old man. Both knew what was being implied. "Vin was framed," Chris added. Like it would do any good. "You hang him, you'll be killing an innocent man. And a good man."

"Don't 'spect ya ta say any different, you bein' his friend, and I 'spect you two is good friends by the way ya look after one another, but I knowed how a man can be took in by another, yes sir. Happened to me and look where it got me," he slapped his bad leg for emphasis. "I'm tellin' ya," and he nodded down at Vin, "this'n here will do you in sure as shootin'. I'd bet on it. Tanner is a bad name."

"You do this and I'll hunt you down, you know that."

"Yes sir, I knowed that, boy," Pierce looked intently at the man dressed all in black, hearing the quiet but deadly voice. "You ain't a mountain man, but you'd give me a good run fer my money, I'd bet. Mayhap I'll just collect that five hunert," he added, goading the light-haired man. The ever present shotgun threatened as laughing eyes met hate-filled ones. "Reckon you'd give me quite a chase, that is, after that leg of yourn heals," he cackled.

"But right now you're my ticket ta keepin' this'n in line," Zebulon added when hearing Vin moan and work at coming to consciousness. "Come on, boy, wake up. It's gettin' late and we got us a necktie party ta go to." He poked and prodded Tanner with his shotgun until Vin finally opened his eyes.

"Come on, boy. That hide coat took most of the charge," he tapped the downed man's cheek with the end of the gun. "Let's go."

Vin came awake, feeling the rope around his neck. Wanting to grab at it, he realized his hands were tied also. In front of him. Not too smart, he thought, before grunting in pain, rolling to his side and struggling to stand up.

"Don't try nothin' funny," Pierce warned him as though he'd just read his mind. "Got the real thing in the gun now. Your friend'll be dead if you even so much as breathe wrong. Now git up there on that horse," he motioned with the weapon.

Vin started walking over to where Peso had been tied up to a tree. He gave a sidelong glance over to Chris and their eyes met for an intense second. They both knew this wasn't over with. Being warriors of battles fought and won neither would go down easy, fighting until there wasn't an ounce of life in them. No way would Larabee sit by and watch him hang and Vin would wait for Chris' move. He put his trust in the gunslinger to get them out of this or to at least to give it his best shot.

With the length of the rope trailing behind him, Vin slowly and painfully mounted his horse. Half a barrel of shot, he gave a chuff of a laugh. Felt like he had a house full of dirt and glass in him. Chris had taken a full shot, even though it was further away, but Vin could really empathize with the pain Larabee had to be in. Maybe there was no way his friend could physically help him, but the look in those eyes...

He watched as his captor tossed the end of the rope over a stout limb higher up then tied it all off farther down the trunk of the tree. Good and tight. Zebulon did it up right. Probably done this before, Vin mused. Once or twice.

The mountain man untied Peso and moved him away from the tree bringing the rope taunt against the tracker's neck.

Vin winced as the rope cut into his skin, but it wasn't near the pain in his chest.

"Don't move," Pierce threatened Chris as Larabee was making a try at standing up. "Any last words, boy, afore I give this critter a slap?"

Vin looked over at Chris and tried to nod to him but the rope restricted the movement. "Been a good ride." Then looking at Pierce he told him, "Jedadiah made a mistake shootin' you." When the mountain man looked up at him with a look of approval, Vin added, "He should've gutted ya."

Zebulon grinned at Vin and was about to give Peso a swat when some commotion in a heavy brush area caught his attention. "What the hell?" he muttered, squinting over in the direction of the shaking bushes. "Don't you go nowhere, boy, I'll be right back. And don't try nothin'," he yelled to Larabee, "else'n I'll fire this thing off and spook the horse and I'd hate ta miss the party," the ugly teeth showed in a crooked smile. "I'll be watchin'," he finished with as he headed to an area nearly 75 feet from them.

Vin kept his eyes on Chris, watching him watch the old man and periodically shift his eyes over to the spot their weapons were laying... gauging the distance and time. Both men knew it would be a desperate attempt, probably get both of them killed in the process, but Vin knew his friend would try something... he'd do the same if their positions were reversed.

All of a sudden hell broke loose. There was a yell, the old man's shotgun went off... both barrels... to which Peso spooked and Vin automatically closed his eyes as he was suddenly and violently pulled from the saddle... and was left swaying.


Like a mangy dog.

The rope instantly pulled tight on his neck, burning and cutting off his air, but Vin had enough sense to grab the rope with his bound hands to try and give Larabee a chance to cut him down, shoot him down, something, anything. What was taking so long? Maybe Chris couldn't... he hit the ground with a rib-cracking OOMPH and laid on his side trying to decide which was hurting worse... his ribs, or his tightly encased neck or yeah, maybe his chest.

What seemed like hours later, Chris was finally beside him, rolling him on his back. "Took ya long enough," he rasped out right before Larabee asked him if he was alright to which he answered, "I've had a couple of better days," and was rewarded with an upward twitch of his friend's lips.

"What the hell happened," Vin asked in painful pants as Chris worked feverishly at cutting loose his hands and then started in on the rope around his neck.

"Don't know," came the quick reply, "but...," he stopped and both men stilled when hearing guttural cries and grunting noises coming from where the old man had disappeared into the bushes. Green eyes locked onto blue.

"You're gonna need a bigger gun, Cowboy," Vin whispered out, glancing at Larabee's ivory-handled Colt, then back to the jaw-hardened face.

The pain in his leg was now a dull throb as Chris' mind clipped off things that needed to be done to insure Vin's and his own wellbeing. Grimacing as he stood, to go retrieve their rifles he heard a voice yell, "Ho, the camp!"

Great! was his panicked thought. He could just envision another Zebulon Pierce coming for them, but nearly at the same time, there was a resemblance in the voice. It clicked.

"Buck?" he yelled back. "Buck, that you?" He stood over Vin, his gun hand steady like a rock, as he pointed it in the direction of the approaching horses.

"It's me you ol' hoss," the presence of his old friend nearly causing Larabee to falter. JD was right behind Buck.

"What the hell?" were Wilmington's next words as he and JD dismounted, guns drawn, looking for whomever was responsible for this scene in front of them.


JD and Buck pivoted quickly, turning their guns to a copse of bushes from where a scream followed by a growl came from. The bushes shook violently.

"JD, get your rifle," Buck commanded quietly, moving to his own horse and sliding the weapon out of the scabbard. Wilmington held up a hand silently telling Chris to stay where he was, then motioned his young friend to move away from him as they crept toward the pile of brush in a semi-circle.

Larabee moved as quick as he could to finally retrieve his own rifle... just in case.

JD watched Buck in his peripheral vision, stopping when told to. His rifle cocked, sweating palms on the lever, he watched the ladies' man pick up a good sized rock and throw it into the bushes.

"Come on out of there now," Buck yelled, pulling the rifle up, tucking it into his shoulder, JD doing the same. Back of them at the camp, Larabee stood ready, copying the two.

The bushes quieted and all was still, didn't even seem to be a breath of air, then, they saw it... and it saw them. Standing on its hind legs, it was nearly seven foot tall. Its head rolled from side to side and gigantic paws ripped the air as it moved from behind the bushes.

Three pairs of eyes widened at what they saw, the fourth pair at what he heard and he worked hard at trying to turn over and see what it was he knew it to be.

Grizzly! A massive one! Looked like all head and fur.

Dropping down on all fours, the carnivore sent a spine-chilling growl to the intruders and then charged. Galloping forward in great strides, pigeon-footed front feet stirring up dust clouds as it beat the ground, brown fur looking as if moving in waves, the monster thundered toward two-legged creatures.

Buck and JD both had lowered the muzzle of their weapons in awe of the animal when it had stood up, and now brought them back to level.

Rifle fire punctuated the air, shot after shot after shot. Three men ratcheted and fired as one. "JD! MOVE BACK!"

The Bostonian heard and complied, moving backward while emptying his rifle, Wilmington doing the same. The animal was still coming, seemingly immune to the bullets. Would it ever stop?

Suddenly there was a BOOM and the grizzly nose-dived, skidding along the ground, ripping clumps of grass from their foundation. He finally came to a halt, driving a plumb of dust six feet into the air.

Larabee looked to his right where the shot had come from. When did he get over there, he wondered, watching Vin lay the rifle down and then his head on the hands that held the gun. Tanner had taken the shot while prone on the ground, the Spencer's bullet finding its mark.

JD gave an appreciative whistle, whether for the size of the bear or for Vin's shot, or just for the fact he was alive, no one asked. They all felt the same way.

"Who did this?" Buck asked, after backing his way into camp, reloading, not turning his back on the grizzly. His eyes finally checked out Larabee's wounded leg, then tracked over to Tanner who was finished being cut out of a hangman's noose.

"Man went back there," Chris motioned with his rifle to the bushes where the bear had been. He looked at Wilmington and shrug.

"Guess I'll take a look. JD? Cover me."

Dunne finished cutting the rope off of Vin, and followed Buck back near the bushes, stopping not far from the massive animal, watching it and his friend at the same time. Didn't take the ladies' man long to check it out and they were on their way back to camp. Larabee had moved Vin over near a fallen log and the two men were sitting side by side.

"Nothin' there but a busted shotgun and an old coonskin hat," Buck reported. He saw JD give an involuntary shudder.

"No body?" Chris asked.

"Kid? Hand me my sawed-off will ya?" Vin asked hoarsely, already pulling bullets out of his gunbelt.

"That bad, huh?" Buck asked, coming closer to the injured men. "Just what he'd do to you?"

"Shot us with glass and rock," came the disgusted answer from Larabee. Not hard to tell the man wasn't mourning the loss of a life. "Was a sick son of a bitch," he added quietly, vehemently, as if it was for only he and Vin to hear.

"Glass and rock?" parroted JD. "Why would he have done that?"

"Long story," was all they got for an answer, that coming from Tanner and it put an end to any more inquiries, at least for now. Both Wilmington and Dunne figured it might have something to do with Vin's bounty, seeing as how he'd had a rope around his neck.

"You two think you can make it back ta town?" Buck asked, concern in his voice, letting go of the questions he had. "It'll be dark soon," he added, although knowing there would be a full moon.

Sure enough, Tanner voiced out that there'd "be enough light", and that meant they weren't going to hang around these parts. JD rounded up the horses that had been spooked from the bear. They weren't far away and by the time he'd gathered them, Chris and Vin were both upright, ready to go. He was curious as to the gutted deer draped over what he figured was the old man's horse, but he held his tongue from asking anything. If nobody claimed it, he'd take it out to Nettie's.

"What're you doin' out here anyway?" Chris asked, his question punctuated with a hiss as Buck helped him to his feet.

"Huntin' bear," the ladies' man answered, grin spreading underneath the moustache when Larabee gave him a 'you're kidding' look. "Old man Jenkins lost a couple of baby calves and Tom Hathaway lost a new filly... so we were huntin' for bear. JD's been trackin' him and that brought us around this area. Lucky thing we were here," he ended with, emphatically nodding his head.

"Here now," he said to Vin, helping the tracker up on his horse. He left his hand on the hide jacket a few moments to steady the wounded man, as Vin gave a soft moan of protest. His head hung low and the eyes were squeezed tight to shut out the pain. Buck gave a look to Larabee wondering if moving now was such a good idea.

Chris tapped his horse forward, and motioned for Buck to hand him Peso's reins. He did and heard Larabee murmur something to Tanner that made the man's head come back up and take a grip on the saddle horn.

They were ready to ride, albeit slow. Only Dunne and Wilmington looked back as they rode away.

+ + + + + + +

A couple of days later, Vin woke, surveying his surroundings, recognizing Nathan's clinic room. He couldn't even remember getting there. A movement caught his eye and he turned his head to the side.

"How ya feelin'?" The question asked in that soft voice Larabee had at times when he talked to Vin. The gunslinger was sitting in a chair with his bad leg propped up on the side of the bed where Tanner was laying. A wool blanket covered most of him.

Vin swallowed a couple of times and ran his tongue over dry lips. His throat still felt a little raw and when he swallowed knew there was some bruising to his neck.

"Not bad," he whispered out and saw Larabee's eyes crinkle in the corners. "You?"

Chris nodded his head a little and sighed. "Figure it could have been a lot worse," his face hardened some as he looked intently at his friend. They both knew they'd nearly bit the bullet.

Vin turned his head back and closed his eyes. It had been close he thought as he moved his hand from under the covers to touch the tender skin around his throat. "You believe in fate?"

Chris thought for a moment on the quietly asked question. "Believe we make our own fate." He knew what Tanner was thinking on. "This wasn't your fault, Vin."

"Sins of the father that old man said. Can't get away from that."

Larabee frowned and sighed. What Vin didn't need was more guilt, more burden placed upon him. He didn't want that for his friend. He carried enough already. "That old man was wrong, you know."

Vin slanted his eyes at Chris. Waiting.

"Said the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Well, in this case," and Larabee leaned forward as much as he could and pinned Vin with his eyes, " the way I see it, the apple landed a hell of a long way from the tree."

Vin lowered his eyes, then looked back at Chris and gave a subtle nod of graditude.

The room became quiet once again before Vin spoke. "Jedadiah Tanner," he whispered, staring ahead, deep in thought. There were a lot of unanswered questions milling around in his mind. Questions he knew he'd probably never know the answers to.

"It's a good name," Chris told him. "Means 'beloved of God'. He shrugged when Vin looked him, one eyebrow raised. "Had an uncle named Jedadiah. Sarah had a thing about names."

Boot heels thumped along on the landing outside. Larabee pulled his concealed Colt from his lap and thumbed back the hammer then gently let it back at Vin's whispered "Buck".

The door to the clinic burst open, Wilmington's big body filled the frame. "How you boys doin'? he asked, eyes going from one friend to the other.

"We're fine," Chris answered for himself and Vin. He was curious. Buck had that look about him like he had something to tell, but wasn't sure if he should. "What is it?" Chris couldn't stand it any longer and decided to put the ladies' man out of his misery.

Curiosity peaked as Buck looked from one man to the other as if trying to gauge just how much he should reveal. His face took on a serious nature as he began his tale.

"Talked to Ol' man Jenkins about killin' that bear and he decided he wanted some of the meat and the pelt cuz you know that lovely daughter of his makes the softest, most cuddly," Buck's eyes closed as one hand caressed the air in a wavy fashion, "warmest..."


"Blankets you ever saw," he finished quickly and cleared his throat. "Anyway," he began again, seeing what he'd call a perturbed look on his old friend's face. "We... me and Jenkins that is, went back to that place where it all happened and you'll never guess." Looking from one wounded man to the other, it wasn't hard to figure out they didn't want to play any guessing games. "It wasn't there!" he blurted out, hands held out to his sides in unbelief.

"So somebody got to it before you did. Happens," Larabee's face darkened.

"No. I mean there wasn't anything there, not a bone or... or skin, or a chunk of fur even. Nothing! Ol' man Jenkins thinks I made up the whole thing." He looked over at Vin, saw him looking at him through squinting eyes, like he didn't believe him at all.

"And know what else?" he asked then added quickly because of the look Larabee threw him, "that bent up rifle and coon skin cap I told you about behind the bushes? They were gone too. Not a sign of them anywhere." He watched as Chris and Vin looked at one another. "I'm tellin' you boys, there was nothin' there. Gives me the chills." He shivered once just to emphasize the point.

"I thought once you two get better maybe we can head over there again and Vin," he nodded to him, "you can figure out what happened. Settle Jenkins and Hathaway misgivings that way. Just thought you fellas would want ta know."

"Yeah, thanks, Buck," Larabee said half-heartedly, eyes straying back over to Vin. The ex-bounty hunter had remained quiet throughout Buck's report. He couldn't tell what Tanner was thinking right now.

"Well," Buck stated, clearing his throat again. "I guess I'll talk to you boys later. Take it easy," he nodded to them and left, pulling the door quietly behind him.

Then with an ear-splitting grin, he rubbed his hands together and headed to the stairway, where he met JD jogging up the steps.

"Did you tell them?"

"Shhh..." he hushed the exuberant young man while nodding yes.

"So what happened?" JD asked in a hushed voice, hardly believing Wilmington had gone through with his plan.

"I tell you, ol' Chris was already puttin' bullets in his gun, and Vin? Well, he turned just as white as those sheets of Nathan's. Oh, that was fun!" he nearly cackled, drawing out the word fun. "Someone had to loosen them boys up. Quiet as a church parlor in there."

"Aren't you afraid of what's going to happen when they find out the truth?" concern laced through JD's voice as Wilmington headed him back down the steps. No way would he ever even think about doing what Buck had just done.

"Oh hell, Chris'll laugh when he figures out what day it is. Then he'll tell Vin all about what he and Sarah used to pull on each other and it'll all be fine. Trust me. Let's get a drink," the ladies' man finally stopped long enough to slap a confused-looking Dunne on the back. "Doin' stuff like this just parches my throat. Yep, it does." He took off down the boardwalk.

"Hmmm," JD mumbled to himself, his mind conjuring up ideas for a certain lady friend of his. "So you say," he asked, catching up to his long-legged friend, " you say you only do this joke thing on the first day of April?"