Note: I tweaked the dating of the slingshot, as we know it. The one I speak of in here really didn't show up until much later in history.
"That's enough!" Chris Larabee barked over the melee in the saloon, he and Vin Tanner entering when hearing a commotion. A shot to the ceiling of the establishment from the gunslinger-turned-peacekeeper punctuated his authority. That got the ruffians attention, but not before a thrown bottle whizzed by Larabee, striking Tanner's right face side. A split second later the man who did it was howling in pain from a bullet through his throwing, and presumably shooting, arm.
The bat wing doors slapped open and three more peacekeepers, Buck Wilmington, JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez entered the building, drawn by the sound of gunshots.
"JD, take 'em to the jail," Chris told the young Bostonian who also happened to be the town's sheriff. Although he never wore the badge, nor came right out and told people he was the sheriff, Dunne had, indeed, been appointed the town's highest lawman by the traveling Circuit Court Judge, Oren Travis. But since then, six other men, friends forged through the fires of life and death, decided to stay in Four Corners when asked by the Judge to protect the town and surrounding area just "for a little while". So JD had relinquished the leadership reins to a much more experienced and, to some, a dangerous man, Chris Larabee. Dunne was perfectly happy being one of seven men who were a force of justice in the territory.
Larabee kept his gun trained on the three troublemakers, but went to the aid of the ex-bounty and buffalo hunter, tracker, fellow lawman and good friend, He'd heard the dull slap of the whiskey bottle hitting flesh and Vin's grunt of pain, but didn't see the man fall nor stagger. The question "you alright", died on his lips when he saw the blood cascading down the tracker's face. The shadow from Tanner's Cavalry' hat and his longish hair partially hid the damage the bottle had done. Instead, Larabee holstered his gun with his right hand and simultaneously reached inside his duster pocket with his left, pulling out a kerchief and handing it to his friend, telling him, "Here."
Vin saw where Larabee's eyes were looking and put a couple fingers up to the brow over his right eye. They came away dripping with blood and he reached for the offered cloth, pressing it on the injury. A whispered, "Damn" crossed his lips.
"I'll get you for this!" the man Chris had shot snarled at him, stopping next to Larabee before being given a healthy shove from behind by Wilmington. "You and half the territory," Buck retorted at the threat, then seeing Tanner holding a cloth to his head, asked, "You alright?"
"Never better," came the reply and Buck, Four Corners' undisputed ladies' man, nodded, but gave Larabee a knowing look before continuing with his prisoner out the door.
"Better have Nathan take a look," Chris said quietly, watching closely for any signs that Tanner was in distress. There didn't appear to be any. Satisfied then, Larabee turned and pushed through the saloon doors, Vin following behind.
"You can wait," Chris told the man he'd shot, coming up behind him and putting a vice grip on the man's arm close to the bullet wound, which elicited a yelp of pain and a glare. Nathan Jackson, a man of color, the town's healer and another peacekeeper, raised an eyebrow in question at Larabee's comment and actions.
"Vin needs lookin' at," Chris said, answering Jackson's look, head giving a quick jerk over his shoulder to where Tanner was standing. "This one can wait in jail," and gave the cowboy a push in the direction his buddies were headed.
"Let me see, Vin. Yeah, looks like you could use a couple of stitches," is what Chris overheard when he stepped off the boardwalk, heading to the jail cell... once again. How many times was that this week? And it was only Wednesday!
The weather had turned unseasonably hot and tempers were in short supply the last week or so. This wasn't the first fight nor disturbance the peacekeepers had been called upon to break up and unless the heat relented and some much needed rain showed up, things would probably continue the way they were. The seven were tired of day after day putting up with ill-tempered people, with the possible exception of Ezra Standish, a man of commerce, gambler, conman, and last of the seven lawmen. The impeccably dressed saloon owner was making money hand over fist off the hot and thirsty patrons and loving every minute of it, well, except for times like this when those same patrons started brawls and busted up the saloons.
Larabee's mouth lifted at the corners when Standish yelled out, "I expect restitution from those cretins," and saw Buck raise his hand in acknowledgement before shoving a "cretin" through the jail house door. Ezra might get some compensation depending on who the cowboys or drifters were. Some worked for wealthy ranchers that could well afford to pay for damages incurred. Others, Standish would hardly get a paltry sum from and when that happened, they all suffered, having to listen to him grumble about it. These men would be sent to wherever the Circuit Court Judge happened to be this week on account of assaulting an officer of the law and threatening another, neither taken lightly. The cowboy and his buddies would be hauled off to face an unforgiving and intolerant Judge Orin W. Travis. Would put the fear of God in them if nothing else, Larabee thought to himself.
Chris' smile faded as a buckboard came careening around a corner, the driver pulling the lathered horses to a stop in front of Nathan's clinic. "Mr. Jackson!
Need your help! My brother! He's been hurt bad!"
Nathan left Tanner's side, hurried over and smoothly leaped into the back of the wagon bed to check on the injured man. The healer knew it was too late the minute he laid eyes on him, but checked for a pulse anyway for the benefit of the anxious brother who knelt on the opposite side.
"I'm sorry," Nathan said, voice just above a whisper. "He's gone." The other man nodded his head knowing it to be true and stifled a choking sob.
"Was hopin' he'd make it. I drove as fast as I could." There was an awkward beat of silence. "Reckon I'll take him over to the undertaker's."
"Yeah, that would be good," Nathan agreed, patting the man on the shoulder before turning his eyes to the deceased. He could see that the manner of death was some kind of a head wound.
"He was murdered," Clete Hopkins said of his younger brother Pete. "His head was bashed in with a shovel. My pa is gonna want somebody to answer for this."
"Somebody will," came the quiet but assured voice of Chris Larabee. "We'll find who did this."
"Let me help you with your brother," Josiah told him. "Then I'll go with you to tell your folks, if you want," he added, shaking his head at the knowledge of how hard this was going to hit Hiriam and Lucienda Hopkins. They were salt-of-the- earth kind of people. Never caused any trouble, minded their own business and raised two fine boys into young men. Sanchez hated telling parents they outlived their child. He walked beside the wagon as Clete drove slow down the street to the undertaker's.
"This'll keep," Vin told Nathan, eyes following the buckboard. He knew that Jackson, at times, liked to study a victim in order to get ideas on what had happened to them.
"Can't be no help now anyway," Nathan said. "Might as well get you stitched up."
"You get fixed up," Chris nodded to Vin, "then we'll head out to where this happened." He took a quick glance at the healer to see if there'd be any protest about Vin being on a horse. Not that it would matter anyway.
+ + + + + + +
"Anything?" Chris asked Vin, as the tracker studied the area around where Pete had presumably been killed. Ezra had already found the "instrument of death" as he called it, the shovel Clete had mentioned.
"Two sets of prints at first," Tanner pointed out, then read the signs while telling the men how he felt the scenario had played out. "Can tell where the buckboard came, then the tracks get wiped out here where Clete got his brother into the wagon."
"Anything else?" Chris wanted to know.
"Big man. 'Bout Josiah's size I reckon," Vin finished with a nod.
"What's that you got there, JD?" Buck wanted to know, seeing the young man twirl something in his hand.
"This? Just something I found over there," he pointed to a spot. "Probably nothin'. Perfect piece of wood for a slingshot I thought."
"Well, now, let me see that" Buck said, taking the object from his friend's hands. "Somebody's whittled this, ain't somethin' you just find layin' around. Chris? Take a look at this."
"Somebody's doin' alright," Chris agreed, turning the piece of wood over in his hands before handing it back to Dunne.
"Not discolored, so ain't been out here long," Vin surmised, squelching any thoughts the men might have had that it could have been laying in the area for who knew how long.
"So perhaps Mr. Hopkins was whittling on a piece of wood when his skull was bashed in by a shovel-wielding madman? Out here? In the middle of nowhere?" Ezra's arms panned over the wide open land. The look his face matched the skepticism in his voice.
Nobody else believed it either. Be hard to sneak up on a man in such a vast area where there wasn't a tree nor shrub, only short grass to be found. A wasteland it was in this particular spot. Dry as a bone.
"Maybe wasn't Pete's. Could have been done by the man who killed him," Buck noted.
"That place over yonder by where the shovel was found, there is a small hole. Maybe Hopkins was diggin'..."
"Well, if he was diggin', then he couldn't have been hit with the shovel now could he?" Buck interrupted Nathan's speculations. Silence permeated the air again as six minds tried to visualize what might have happened.
Vin walked over to the small hole and sat on his haunches studying the area. He ran his hand over the inside of the dip in the earth, running some dirt between his thumb and fingers.
"Looks more like maybe this was dug out with hands, not a shovel. No sharp angles or cuts like a shovel would leave. Feels a little damp. Ain't blood but there is some around here," he eyes studied the short grass surrounding the area. "Might be where he was first hit."
"If he was down on his knees, he could have been hit from behind," Chris agreed.
"Why dig a hole with your hands when you have a shovel?" Standish questioned. "Hell, why dig a hole in this heat anyway?" Ezra was not a man of menial labor, even thinking in the heat of the day proved taxing to him.
"He'd have to know there was another person around. I agree with Ezra. Be hard to sneak up on a man out here," JD surmised. "Maybe they knew each other."
"When we get back to town, I'll check Pete's hands. If he was diggin' in the dirt with them, there should be some under the fingernails," Nathan said, feeling that maybe they had something to go on now. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Wilmington give a shudder. The healer knew Buck had a thing about seeing dead people, especially if they happened to be in a coffin already.
"Alright," was Chris' quiet reply. He knew with all seven of them working on the mystery, sooner or later, the man who'd done this would be brought to justice. He'd keep his promise to the Hopkins'.
+ + + + + + +
Five pairs of eyes looked up as Nathan grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table where the peacekeepers sat.
"He'd been made ready for the coffin, but Mr. Rigor says there was a lot of dirt under Hopkins' fingernails," Jackson informed the group.
"Well, correct me if I'm wrong," Standish began, "but isn't the Hopkin's family in the business of farming?" he waited for that to sink in for a moment. "So wouldn't it stand to reason the man might have dirt under his fingernails?"
"Got a few head of cattle too," Josiah added, coming in on the conversation, hand up, asking for a whiskey. He'd just returned from the Hopkins' place. Sitting down with a heavy sigh, he continued, "Pete was suppose to be burying a dead cow, lost to the heat, west of their place. He wasn't even where he was suppose to be when Clete found him. Blames himself. Figures if he'd only found him sooner..." The ex-preacher threw back his drink, swallowed and grimaced. "Blame. It can send a man straight into hellfire," he finished with the somber tone of a man who knew that fact all too well.
Larabee sipped on his whiskey. They didn't have much to go on. And actually, what they did have, didn't make a whole lot of sense. They did have a murdered victim who had been hit over the head, with a shovel, his own shovel apparently, presumably while digging a hole with his hands, which made no sense at all, in an area he wasn't suppose to be in. And they had a whittled piece of wood in the shape of a slingshot, which may or may not have anything to do with what happened. He frowned and raised his eyes to glance at Tanner. Chris was keeping an eye on his friend ever since Vin had admitted to him that his head was aching a bit. Being out on a horse in the heat of the day had taken some of the sap out of the tracker. Eating a little and having a couple of beers had erased a few of the pinched lines around Vin's eyes at least, Larabee noted. A man had to ease up a bit when the temperature soared. Hard on a healthy man let alone one who'd had his skull cracked.
"So, basically we got nothin'." Buck's words echoed Larabee's thoughts, "except a dead body, a shovel, a piece of stick and dirty fingernails. Boys, I think we got our work cut out for us," he added, downing the last of his beer and slamming the glass back down on the table. "Yep. We are about as stumped as a log."
"If only we could tell who had handled that shovel," Nathan mused.
"Yeah, well, like that'll ever happen," Buck scoffed.
"It might. Someday."
"How's that?" JD asked of the healer.
"Well, in some of the newer journals I've been readin', it seems that every person has something different about them that no one else has."
"Like their odor of body, that gets rather gamey after days of non-personal cleansing," Standish drawled out, leveling a look at Wilmington.
"I'll ignore that," Buck scowled at the gambler, then brightened. "I know there's a whole lot of difference between say, Miss Lily over there," the ladies' man chuckled and winked at a well-endowed working woman hovering near the bar, "and me. She's got some things that no..."
"Buck!" JD hissed, drawing out the big man's name in exasperation while Chris pulled the brim of his hat down hiding grin. Tanner shifted in his chair, blue eyes dancing in mirth and Ezra reshuffled his cards, trying to blot out Wilmington's nonsense.
"Tell us what you've been reading about," Josiah restarted the conversation, wanting to know what his friend had learned.
"Fingerprints." Nathan said, holding his big hands out in front of him, rubbing his thumbs and forefingers over one another. "Supposedly, each person's fingerprints are different than anyone else's."
"Like no two snowflakes are alike," Dunne added cheerfully.
"You mean these squiggly little lines here?" Buck asked, squinting at one thumb then the other and back again.
"Yep," Nathan answered. "And some day it's figured when a person's fingerprint is taken it can be matched up to a fingerprint taken off, say, a murder weapon. It's very interesting."
"It is indeed. Samuel L. Clemens, or, you may know him as Mark Twain, of the literary world, has written two such books in which fingerprinting played a big part in his storytelling," Ezra informed the group. I believe one book is entitled 'Life on the Mississippi' and the other written somewhat later, 'Pudd'n Head Wilson'." Standish glanced around at his tablemates and frowned. "I take it none have read either book."
"Have you?" JD wanted to know.
"The point is..." the gambler began, skirting the question.
"The point is," Buck interrupted, "is that this here talk about all these itty bitty, tiny, lines that a man can hardly see and that are supposedly all different... do you know how many people there are in the world?" he interrupted himself before going on, "all this is a bunch of hooey! And I'm done talkin' about hooey! Books like that Clemens fella writes are nothin' but made up stories, that's all they are. When we get somethin' we can sink our teeth into, let me know. Right now I'm gonna go talk t' Miss Lily about the differences we have and how perfectly they work together." He left the table with a flourish, grinning all the way to the bar.
"Well. Now that we know how Mr. Wilmington feels about the situation, where do we go from here, gentlemen? Any ideas?"
"Think I'll head to the stores in town, never know, maybe these things," and he pointed to the Y-formed stick JD had, "are being sold somewhere. Might get a name or a description or something," Nathan said, answering Standish's question.
"Good idea," Larabee said, nodding his head, pursing his lips, thinking. "Ezra, why don't you send out a few wires to the surrounding towns as well. Ask around for anything out of the ordinary." Chris acknowledged the salute given to him as the conman left the table.
Larabee questioned Josiah on his take of Clete Hopkins and whether or not he thought the brother could have been the killer. Clete Hopkins was, after all, the one who brought in the body and seemed to be the only one who knew anything. It was just a simple fact that he would be the prime suspect.
Josiah tamped down any reasonings of Clete being the killer. Although admitting he could be wrong, his instincts told him he didn't feel as though one brother killed the other and Chris took his word for it. Sanchez also told the gunman that the Hopkins' hadn't had any strangers come through either.
The men left the table with Larabee telling them to keep watch for any newcomers, especially if they happened to be a big man who maybe whittled and to listen for any talk of what had happened. News of a killing spread like a prairie wildfire and Chris, as well as the other peacekeepers knew, that sometimes one who had carried out a crime might feel the need to brag to about it.
Josiah kept his seat, needing a little time to recoup after being out at the Hopkins' place, so JD was recruited to go to the newspaper office and ask Mary Travis if she had any newspapers from around the area that might have had an unsolved murder within the past few months.
"Where you headed?" Chris asked Vin, watching the ex-bounty hunter head in the direction of the livery.
"Think I'll go scout out that area where Pete was killed. Might have missed something." He nodded when Larabee said he'd be going along. He figured as much.
"Chris, before we go," Vin stopped and turned to the gunslinger, "maybe we should send a few wires, check on those prisoners."
"Alright," came the soft agreement.
"I'll get the horses saddled. Meet you out front," Vin said as they parted ways. The corners of his mouth pulled up, hearing the sound of Larabee's spurs grow distant. Knowing Chris was keeping close tabs on him because of his injury, he felt he could return the favor. With Larabee getting a personal threat, riding together meant they could watch each other's backs. And now that they had a murder on their hands, Vin figured it wouldn't hurt to check and make sure the men they'd sent to stand trial before the Judge were, in fact, on their way there. Easy enough to check at a few of the towns they'd have gone through.
The two men met outside the livery.
"So far, so good," Chris answered Vin's questioning look. "You can quit worryin' now," he added, mounting up and glancing at his partner. He grinned at Tanner's look of innocence but knew he'd out guessed the tracker when seeing the matching smile show up a second later.
"Let's ride!" came the command and two black geldings with their riders galloped out of town.
+ + + + + + +
A few hours later the men, once again, met up in the saloon. JD reported that nothing had shown up in any papers Mary received, Nathan had no luck finding anything even remotely looking like the piece of wood JD carried around with him and Chris returned alone, reporting that he and Vin hadn't found any thing more at the murder scene. Vin, he told them, had ridden to Nettie Well's place to finish some work for her and to keep an eye out on the endearing older woman and her niece, Casey.
Ezra was the only one that may have hit pay dirt when a wire returned telling him of a murder that had happened a few weeks earlier in a small territory directly west of theirs. The message stated that a man had been killed apparently when struck over the head with a shovel. It had happened in a remote area of his farmstead but the man figured to have done it was convicted and hung.
"Then we have nothing, right?" JD asked.
"Apparently," Ezra replied while perusing the note again. "Although..."
"What?" interrupted Wilmington, coming to the table, sloshing beer over his hand, "don't tell me they found a big ol' squiggly-lined print on the shovel that everyone recognized." No one shared in his patronizing comment.
"Although," Standish started again, frown disappearing on his face, "what is the one thing both these scenarios have in common?" He listened to his tablemates answers.
"Both have dead men."
"Both killed by shovels."
"I know," JD nearly shouted, "both happened out in remote areas."
"Both have fingerprints... different ones that is." Buck remark was ignored.
"Yes, all true," Ezra acknowledged. "But the fact that both men took shovels with them could be a key," he added, chewing on his lower lip in thought.
"Well, Pete was suppose to be out makin' a hole for a dead cow," Nathan put in. "Maybe the other man was diggin' a hole for some reason, too."
"In this heat," Josiah said, not as a question but merely as a statement. "Something has to make sense."
"So, what are we thinkin'?" A couple of men with shovels, go out to a field to dig a hole, to bury a dead cow that died of the heat, or whatever, IN this heat. They put down their shovel for whatever reason and then they get hit over the head and killed with it, by someone who just happened to sneak up on them. Is that about right, boys?" Wilmington finished his story with his hands held out as if asking if he'd forgotten anything. "Sounds like we got a whole lot of nothin', just like before, 'ceptn this time we got two nothins instead of just one. Oh and one murderer has already been hung," he added, hearing sighs of disgust and watching as bodies slid to the backs of chairs as futility set in.
"Maybe he didn't do it," Sanchez threw in. "Many men are falsely convicted." They all knew of one personally that that happened to.
Like a dog with a bone, Standish kept at the men. He knew there was something they were missing, just some small detail, and he was a 'detail' man. "Do we really believe the other man, the killer, if you will, actually came up without being seen? In a wide open area? And what was his purpose?"
"Hell, we all know Vin can sneak up on a rattlesnake," the ladies man chuckled, looking around the table to see if anyone shared in his mirth.
"Robbery maybe? I don't know. Just to kill a person?" JD answered, shrugging while ignoring his friend sitting next to him.
"Some men don't need a reason to kill." Josiah said solemnly.
"Well, then, why not just shoot them? Why use the shovel?" Nathan wanted to know.
"Yeah," JD said, whipping the whittled sling-shot out of his pocket, pointing it as one would a gun.
Silence, sudden and intense, fell on the table like a heavy curtain. Dunne froze as he felt all eyes look his way.
"Of course," Ezra breathed out. "That's it. Gentlemen, are you perceiving what I see?"
"JD, grab that other prong there with your left hand and keep that stub of a point pointed out," Buck instructed. After JD did what he was told, he was asked, "Now, what does that look like to you?"
"I don't know," JD replied honestly, looking at the item in his hands.
"You mean none of them dime store novels ever had a story about a man using one of these things for finding water?"
"What? No. What are you talking..."
"It's called a dowser or divining rod," Ezra informed. "What you are holding is a small replica of what one would look like. A much larger version is held like you are doing so, only the one 'rod' there," Standish pointed to what he was talking about, "is longer and it supposedly dips, quite abruptly actually, over a spot in which there is to be water."
"More hooey," Buck added, bobbing his head with firm belief in that.
"But something a lot of folks tend to believe in when they are in desperate need of water," Nathan said, having seen men dowsing before. "Might be what our man is doing in these parts. Seems to be some similarities."
"And I do believe Mr. Tanner said the Hopkins hole felt somewhat wet," Ezra said, feeling as though they might be onto something.
"What's wrong, son? You look like you just swallowed a bullfrog?" Josiah asked, noticing JD's face had turned pale and his eyes had grown wide.
"Nettie," JD stammered out.
"What about Nettie?" Chris asked tersely, sitting forward in his chair.
"She... Casey told me there was a man staying there that had a stick he said..." his last words of "could find water," were lost in the noisy shuffle of chair legs scraping across the wooden floor as the men, led by Larabee, got up and headed out the saloon door.
"Nathan, JD, head to Nettie's. Everybody else, search her property!" The well-known gunslinger fired orders to his men while nearly on the run to the livery. What he didn't need to say aside from Nettie and Casey's well-being, was that Vin was out there. With a killer. Larabee picked up his pace.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sensed the attack right before it came. What would have been a life-ending blow to his head, ended up to be a bone-breaking hit to his left arm. With a muffled cry of pain, the tracker grabbed his left arm and rolled, successfully staying a split-second ahead of the shovel-wielding madman. Finally undercutting the big man's legs out from under him, Tanner worked his way to standing and grabbed at his sawed-off before hitting the ground hard, felled again by the implement-turned weapon. His gun flew, landing to far away to be of any help.
Kicking out again, Vin managed to help deflect a blow meant for his head to glance off his left hip. He squirmed and wormed his way away from his attacker, trying to put some distance between them. He needed to stand, get his bearings, grab his knife. Seeing the killer get his breath back, straighten and start to pick up the shovel again, Tanner's body reacted before thinking, and he found himself barreling head-first into the man's stomach, sending his attacker to the ground in one direction and himself in another. Vin fought to remain conscious amidst the white-hot pain of his arm, the dull throb in his hip and now the added ache of his head. It was nearly too much for him. But the ex-bounty and ex-buffalo hunter's instinct to survive was strong, and so against insurmountable odds he willed himself to move and to get up. Tanner wasn't finished yet.
+ + + + + + +
Horses skidded to a near stop, throwing dust high in the still air before the riders kicked their mounts into high speed, peeling off in various directions after a moment's hesitation of who was going where, as they neared the Wells' homestead, each seeking and hoping to find nothing out of the ordinary. As much as the men wanted to hunt down and find a murderer, they didn't want to find that the man had already reached the inner sanctity of their numbers. So far the man they were looking for hadn't harmed any women, but Vin's life and maybe Nettie and Casey's, was in jeopardy.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner stood, barely, knife in hand, his only defense against a big man bent on killing him with a shovel. Vin had been able, yet, to jump out of harm's way every time the shovel swung his way, but he was slowing, his strength being stolen away by pain and the heat. The cut above his right eye had opened, blood hampered his sight. He reckoned himself to be in one hell of a fix.
Round and round the two men went, one swinging the long-handled shovel back and forth, like a clock's pendulum, the other ducking and swerving trying to stay out of the way. The way Vin saw it, it would come down to which one of them could last in the heat of the day, and somehow, in his condition, Tanner's hopes were dimming.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie's farmstead wasn't very big, but dammned if it didn't seem like it was taking him a long time to ride to the north end of it. Then he saw it. Two men. The ivory-handled Colt was instantly in his hand as he rode pell-mell to save his friend.
+ + + + + + +
Vin stumbled and went down on one knee. His left arm useless, right hand keeping him from going down totally, he was at his most vunerable. Eyes watching the shovel move high for it's final blow, it was almost as if it was in slow motion. He prepared to defend himself with his right arm and knife, to give it all he had. His mind had a plan, but his body wasn't listening. Suddenly a shot rang out, stopping the descent of the murder weapon. Tanner watched as the killer turned toward his assailant and two more shots entered the body before finally keeling forward in a heap, the shovel falling and dully thudding, appropriately, on the man's head.
Vin, still on his knees, being held up only by the tight grip on his knife handle, the blade securely buried in the ground, was hardly aware of his avenging angel; his friend and notorious gunslinger, the man who never shot anyone in the back... until now. He crumbled into the black-clad arms.
"Easy, Vin," the voice said, soft and concerned. "You blacked out for a minute. Where you hurt?"
Tanner blinked a couple of times, trying to clear his vision. He was lying down, Larabee's voice finally penatrating his fogged brain. A groan his only answer, he reached for his injured arm. Clamping his jaw shut to ward off any screams of pain, Vin closed his eyes tight and sucked in a breath when his friend gently tried to look at his injury.
"Think it's broke."
Vin managed a grunt in agreement. His hip bothered him as well as his head but those seemed minor compared to the ache in his arm.
Larabee worked fast, but cared for his friend as easily and tenderly as possible. Using his serape as a pillow for Vin, he managed to get a couple of swallows of whiskey down the tracker before securing the broken arm. Riders approached just as he was cleaning the head wound.
"How bad?" Buck wanted to know, alighting briskly from his big gray and taking a cursory glance at the dead man before kneeling next to Tanner.
"Busted arm. In a lot of pain ... we need a wagon..."
"I'll get one," Ezra volunteered, swinging into the saddle again, after just dismounting. "Be back quick as I can." Wheeling his horse around, Standish nearly collided with Sanchez who rode up.
Josiah listened as the gamblerman told him where he was going, then made his way over to where the others were. "Heard a couple of shots," was his explaination of how he'd got there. After finding out how Vin was, the ex-preacher walked over to the dead man.
"Reckon I should use this shovel for what it was intended," he said, picking up the implement, "and bury this poor bastard."
"Not on Nettie's land," Vin ground out between clenched teeth, trying to keep his pain under control.
Josiah nodded, understanding that completely. "I'll take care of it."
"We gotta get him outta this sun," Buck whispered to Chris. "Might be awhile before that wagon gets here."
"Buck? You wanna help me here a minute?" Josiah called from where he was.
"Comin'," Wilmington answered, then told Larabee, "I'll go along, see what I can find to prop up a blanket or two. Hang tight, Vin, be right back." He gave Tanner's good arm a couple of reassuring pats. "You alright, pard?" he asked Chris, not wanting to leave the man if he needed a break. Watching a friend suffer in pain was never an easy thing, even for the toughest of men. He received a nod and a quiet lip-read, "yeah", then left to help Sanchez.
"Right here. Just lay quiet. We'll get something set up, get you outta this sun. Wagon should be here soon." Larabee moved to a position where he could block the sun for Vin. "You hurt anywhere else?"
Vin's good arm moved to his left hip. "Got hit here, just bruised some, I think."
"Alright," Chris replied. He'd wanted to know for when they moved him. Didn't want to cause any more injury if possible. It would only stand to reason that Vin might have taken more than just a couple of hits, the broken arm's pain masking any others. He gave his friend time to assess any more areas of pain, but none was forthcoming.
Vin knew he'd have to explain later about the simpleton that caught him unawares. He'd berate himself later when he felt better. A softly spoken, "Thanks," came from his lips.
Chris answered with a quiet "yeah." How glad he was to have gotten to the scene on time, Vin would never know, but he was thankful for it. Few things in his life had turned out, but it was good to make a difference, especially when it counted. Larabee saw a ghost of a smile pass fleetingly over Tanner's features and knew the feeling and thought was mutual between them.
+ + + + + + +
Few days later, six men were seated in the saloon, taking a break from the heat of the day.
"Good Lord! I am so tired of this heat and sweat," Standish groused, taking a handkerchief and wiping the back of his neck for what seemed like the hundredth time already, "and dust. You'd think we were wanting a room full of gold rather than a slight reprieve of some moisture. Maybe you could do something about it," his green eyes narrowed in and settled on Sanchez.
Josiah quirked his eyebrows, tipped his head to the side and bantered back before raising his beer glass to his lips, "God only answers the prayers of the righteous man."
"Wonderful!" Ezra deadpanned. "That leaves you and me and ninety-nine point nine percent of this sweltering townlet out then."
Wilmington strode to the table, pulled up a chair and announced, "Never fear, boys, ol' Buck is here. I took that divining stick, rod, thingy the killer had and..." he glanced over at Tanner, testing his reaction to the topic of conversation, but seeing the tracker leaning back in his chair, busted arm resting on his stomach and hat shading his eyes... a picture of peace, Buck thought, he carried on, "and did some divining work, so before long, we are gonna have rain," he finished with his hands raised to the heavens.
"I don't think that's quite how it works," Nathan said, putting down the cigar he was smoking, teeth showing white. "The water found usually comes from the ground, not the sky."
"The heat has fried your brain," the gambler man retorted, angrily flinging a card that repeatedly stuck to his hot sweaty hand. "This is deplorable."
"Now Buck, I saw you with that thing and it didn't look to me like you knew what you were doing at all," JD chimed in, grin on his face, remembering.
"Yeah, but, Elvira Simpson didn't know that now did she? She thought I was spiritually inhibited," he stopped mid-sentence to glare at Josiah who'd begun choking from presumably swallowing wrong, "and was more than happy to reward," he drew the word 'reward' out lasciviously "me a job well done."
"Yeah, well it ain't rainin' yet," JD pointed out. "And Elvira Simpson? Thought you said you rather eat rattlesnake than be seen with her."
"Guess that line 'beggars can't be choosey' goes without saying here."
"Hey! I resent that," Buck pointed a finger at Standish. "'Sides, it takes all kinds t' make the world go round. Ain't that right, Josiah?"
"That it does, brother, that it does."
"Hey, you know, in a way, this Bolster guy was a lot like that Pinkerton, Poplar. He ended up a killer on account of what his mother did and this divining guy was a killer on account of what his father did," JD concluded.
"Merely an excuse, I assure you."
"So much of what we become is embedded in our childhoods," Sanchez said, in slight disagreement of the gambler's comment.
"Yes, but we still have choices..."
"Think I'll stretch my legs," Tanner interjected into the banter, getting up slowly from his chair, biting back a groan. He wasn't up to for the debate that he knew was coming. "I'm fine, Nathan," he added, waving the healer to sit back down and finish his smoke.
Tanner wasn't all the way through the bat-winged doors before Larabee got up and followed him out. He found the tracker leaning against a support post just outside and took up the same posture on the opposite side.
"Yeah," Vin said, squinting into the bright sunlight. "Gonna be a change in the weather. Maybe even some rain."
"It does and we'll never hear the end of it." Chris struck a lucifer with his fingernail and lit his cheroot.
The corners of Vin's lips turned up, knowing Buck would milk "his" rain for all it was worth. Then his mind turned to another subject, something he needed to get clear in his mind. "You sorry you had t' shoot Bolster in the back?"
"Never gave it a thought."
Vin nodded at that. "Well... glad you showed up when you did."
"Yeah," came the soft reply. "Me too." A stream of smoke dissipated into the air.
Familiar voices, growing louder, threatened to spill out of the saloon in back of the two men. Chris caught conversation snippets on the fingerprinting subject again and knew his and Tanner's peace was about to be shattered.
"Reckon I could eat," Vin replied, stepping gingerly off the boardwalk to fall into step beside his friend. Forever grateful, that's what he'd be... for a lot of reasons.