Heartbeat slowing and finger curling around the trigger of the hidden six-gun, his eyes moved under closed lids toward the sound of boot heels on the wooden deck. One beat, then two and yes, he decided, he recognized the cadence of the man's walk... and the ringing of the spurs. Nearly a signature sound of those that knew him. The steps not urgent, but not that slow uneven gait either; a man with a purpose. His trigger finger eased.
The door to the clinic opened and he could hear the hushed tones of his friends and fellow peacekeepers, healer Nathan Jackson and gunslinger, Chris Larabee, talking about him, Vin Tanner, and "his situation". One man left and another entered. Vin opened up one eye at the sound of the door closing.
"You playin' possum?"
Vin closed the eyelid and his lips lifted at the truth in that. Larabee's right spur dragged as he moved across the room, Vin visualizing every move without actually having to see it. Next he heard chair legs scrape close to the bed and the squeak of leather and wood as his friend sat down. Tanner's head turned slightly in that direction and the eye closest to Chris forced its way open for a moment. He watched the man duck his head and remove his hat, light colored hair spilling onto his forehead, falling nearly into his eyes.
"How you feelin'?" Eyes and voice full of concern. By the looks of Tanner, it couldn't be the best.
Vin straightened in the bed as much as he could, wincing at the movement. He thought about it. Finally an answer by way of a question he felt Larabee would understand, "Ever fell out of a hayloft... on your head?" He figured that was as good of a description he could think of on how he felt.
Larabee smiled at that, rolling his hat around in his hands by the inside brim. Yeah, he'd done that, as a kid. Maybe not on his head, but definitely took a tumble a time or two. Doubted there were few that didn't know what that felt like. His empathy for Vin was great. But so was his need for retribution.
His smile faded, "Wanna tell me what happened?" He had a fairly good idea, but wanted to hear it from Tanner. Evening before he'd been sitting alone in a darkened corner of the saloon, had watched Vin come in after his rounds and head to the bar. The place was packed so he didn't think much of it when two men came alongside Vin, both on his right side. Chris noticed words were being spoken but didn't note anything in his friend's demeanor that told him there was anything amiss. And then what happened, happened so fast, Larabee nearly missed it while downing his drink. Most in the saloon didn't even noticed. In a single fluid motion, the tracker hit one man between the eyes with the butt end of his bowie knife, dropping him like a sack of potatoes and had the blade up against the other man's throat. By the time Chris was out of his chair, one man had picked up the other and they were on their way out the door. Just like that it was over. He watched Tanner sheath his knife, turn and finish his drink. He'd taken Vin's word for it when later the tracker had shrugged and told him "weren't nothin', just a couple foul-mouthed varmints." Yeah, and now here laid Tanner looking and no doubt feeling like he fell out of a hay loft, face first. Chris winced thinking of it, but, just the same, an anger stirred deep within when looking at his friend.
When no information came forth,, Larabee pressed, "This have anything to do with those two at the bar last night?" Like pulling teeth it was to get anything out of Vin Tanner. Chris knew he'd eventually get some answers. Whether or not they were the ones he was looking for remained to be seen. Vin's words broke his thoughts.
"Joined up with 'em when I was first buffalo huntin'. They were good men then. Didn't take more than we needed, used or sold every part of what we killed." He frowned. "Little later they threw in with a couple others; bunch of no-goods. Started killing, wastin'. Didn't want no part of it, so broke from 'em." Vin looked at Chris, "Reckon they still resent losin' my gun. Wanted me t' know it."
Chris pursed his lips and gave a nod at that, partly as a thanks to Vin for sharing, and also in understanding what a sharpshooter's gun would mean to men making a living off of hunting.
"Leave it, Chris," Vin spoke, glancing at his friend, knowing what was on his mind. "They ain't worth it."
Chris' thoughts ran along the lines of his agreeing that they weren't worth it, but Vin definitely was. "You sure?" was what came out of his mouth, contrary to what he was thinking and feeling.
"Hell, they're probably long gone by now anyway," Vin said by way of answering.
A couple audible tick's of Nathan's clock sounded before Vin heard Larabee's "alright". Arching an eyebrow in suspicion, he watched the man in black slowly rise from the chair, duck his head, don his hat and tug the front brim downward. He had the feeling that Chris' "alright" didn't carry the same meaning it should. Narrowing his eyes, he watched Larabee walk past the foot of the bed and couldn't help but glance at the man's colt, riding high on the hip.
When Chris opened the door to leave, Vin was about to call out his name but instead frowned in irritation at Larabee's cocky grin and "I'll let Nathan know you're awake." The door closed and Vin listened to the gunslinger's walk departing the clinic area.
'Alight'. Like hell, Vin thought.
+ + + + + + +
"Well?" Buck wanted to know, his long lean frame coming up alongside Larabee's, matching him stride for stride, boots thumping loudly on the boardwalk, both men's spurs jingling loudly in the early morning's still air. He'd been across the street, talking to Mrs. Potter, waiting for Chris to finish talking to the injured tracker.
Buck Wilmington, ladies' man extraordinaire, resisted impatience. He knew Chris could be as tight-lipped as a rose bud on a chilly morning.
"Well, what did he say? Did he tell you who did it?"
Buck hated this game. He gave a short huff of exasperation. "Was it them two from the saloon?" Wilmington had seen what happened at the bar, but it was over before he'd even got Miss Penny off his lap.
"Well, then," Buck stopped Larabee's forward progress with a hand on his arm and looked intently into the hazel eyes, "we gonna do somethin' about it?"
"He said to let it alone."
Buck's eyebrows rose in a challenge. "And you said?" Buck was hoping Larabee had told the tracker that that wasn't going to...
"I told him alright." Chris was on the move again.
"You told him, 'alright'?" Buck asked incredulously, catching up again after momentarily being stunned. "What the hell does that mean?" Buck's hands were moving, a clear indication he was having trouble understanding something. "We gonna let those scum get away with beatin' Vin near senseless?" He could hardly believe what he was hearing. He was pretty sure the 'near senseless' was now just plain senseless. 'Alright'? Hell.
Chris took in a deep breath. It didn't settle well with him either, but his respect for Vin ran deeper than revenge.
"They probably left town anyway," he told Wilmington, echoing Tanner's thoughts. He knew that wouldn't make a bit of difference to the big man. Buck's sense of right and wrong was as strong as any of the other peacekeepers and having one of their own taken down didn't set easy.
Buck had to agree, if the two scumbags were smart they would have left town, but that didn't mean the others couldn't track them and give them a little frontier justice of their own. It sounded mighty appealing to him. Let Chris keep his word to Vin; didn't mean the rest of them had to adhere to that.
"If they were smart they would have, but," and here's where Buck was going to tell his old friend about none of the rest of them promising Vin to "let it alone," however, before that happened he once again stopped Chris' forward movement with a hand to his arm. Feeling the tension Larabee was giving off, Buck let his head talk for him as he motioned to a couple of men who were just getting off their horses in front of the saloon.
"They couldn't possibly be that stupid. Could they?" Buck asked, watching the two step up on the boardwalk and push through the bat-wing doors.
"Let's find out," Larabee said, hint of a wolfish grin crossing his features.
"Alright," Buck breathed out, following in the gunslinger's wake, the anticipation of a little retribution making his steps light.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee and Wilmington entered the Standish Tavern, paused a few moments to let the dimness of the establishment melt away then headed to a table where four men sat. Along with the healer, Jackson, there was Josiah Sanchez, the town's closest thing to a preacher, Ezra Standish, a dapper gambler, con artist and the tavern's owner, and young JD Dunne from Boston. All peacekeepers, all men of the gun, and all fighting for the cause of justice in an unjust territory.
Chris said something to Dunne who glanced at the two strangers standing at the bar before leaving the saloon. "Vin's awake," he told Jackson who then asked if he might be needed more right where he was. At Larabee's non-committal shrug, Nathan decided to stay. He knew that look of Larabee's. Then with a head nod to Wilmington, Chris and Buck headed to the bar, taking up position one on either side of the buffalo hunters.
"Looks like you had a run in with a post there, partner... and lost," Wilmington said lightly to the man on his left, noting the raccoon-like face, compliments he knew, of one Vin Tanner's well placed hit last night. He got no reply in return.
"Hear there was a dust-up in the livery last night," Chris said matter-of-factly while pouring himself a drink from the bottle Inez had brought him. The pretty Mexican barmaid made a quick assessment and decided it would be a good idea to leave, walking quickly out the front door past Nathan who stood like a guard, hands ready to grab knives or a pistol. Larabee continued, "You know anything about that?"
When no answer came from his right, Larabee, with controlled patience in his voice tried again, "I asked you if you know anything about that?"
"You the sheriff?" the man asked, turning to see if there was a badge on display. He feigned disinterest when not seeing one, but noticed out of the corner of his eye that there were a few patrons quietly leaving the saloon.
"No, but I am the law in town," Larabee threw back his drink, winced at the burning sensation, and turned to face the man, left elbow leaning on the bar, looking deceivingly friendly.
"We ain't got nothin' t' say," raccoon face said and made like he was going to push away from the bar but stopped when he felt the barrel of a gun in his ribs. He turned to look at the grinning mustached man next to him.
"I think it best you just stay and pay attention," Buck made his point by jabbing the gun a bit harder into the man's side.
The buffalo hunter nearest Larabee gave the gunslinger a quick glance. That look took in the penetrating stare and the ivory-handled colt that rode high on the hip of the man dressed all in black. He swore an oath under his breath. They should have kept riding, but his partner's need for some food and drink brought them back. The plan had been to eat and drink quick, then get out of town. They knew Tanner to be a drifter. No one came to his aid last night when there was trouble in this saloon, so they figured he was, like them, just passing through. He tamped down wanting to ask if Tanner was still alive. They'd given their old acquaintance a good thrashing late last night.
"Well?" Larabee asked, his tone dictating that he expected a response.
"This is between Tanner and us," raccoon face said defiantly, thinking it was two against two and the wooly way he and his partner felt this morning, they could tackle a couple of grizzlies and come out on top. These two would be no different.
"Not the way we see it," Buck said, his voice soft, contrasting the hard cold steel weapon of death held in his hand. "Tanner's a friend of ours."
Larabee's man gave a snort and barely got out the words, "You should choose your friends better," before finding himself slammed up and partly laying on top of the bar, his breakfast plate crashing to the floor spewing food helter-skelter. He looked into the distorted, angry face of the man dressed in black and swore he heard a growl. One wrong move now and he knew he'd be dead. He waited for the fist he knew would be coming.
"Uh, uh, uh," Buck warned Chris. "You promised Vin. I'll take that one, here, you take this one," and gave his man a shove up against the bar so hard a whooshing sound came from his lungs, causing him to sag nearly to the floor. Wilmington grabbed the buffalo hunter Chris reluctantly let go of and threw the man to the floor a few feet away from him, where he skidded to a stop near Josiah's feet. A dust plume rose and scattered into the air. Silence permeated the building except for the heavy breathing of the strangers.
The buffalo hunter looked up and saw a big man standing against a support post, nonchalantly cleaning his fingernails with a huge bowie knife. The sun streaming through the dirty window panes glistened on a silver cross that hung around the man's neck. "Confession is good for the soul, brother. Can't think of a better time to do it than right before a man meets his maker." Sanchez stood to his full height, making a show of slowly sheathing his knife.
Hearing a slight chuckle, the stranger tilted his head backward and saw in his upside down vision, a man dressed impeccably in a green colored jacket, tailored pants and pristine white ruffled shirt. He was standing on the lowest step of an elevated poker area, left arm resting on the banister and right hand, complete with a small gun in it, pointing straight at him. The back of his head hit the floor with a thud as he weighed his options. A curse exploded from his lips.
Josiah reached down and grabbed the man up off the floor, holding him up face to face. His deep set blue eyes bored into the buffalo hunter. "Now that," he said, giving the man a good shake, "is something I take offense at. Chris? What do you want me to do with this?"
Larabee manhandled the one he was watching, throwing him in a chair so forcefully, it nearly toppled over along with it's occupant. Josiah tossed his man into a seat at the same table.
Chris put his hands on the table, leaning down to eye level with the two men. "You are going to leave this town and never come back. If I see you anywhere near here or in this territory, I'll put a bullet right between your eyes myself. You got that?"
When neither man gave an answer right off, Buck moved in and gave one man's chair a good kick right about the same time Josiah reached out to grab the other.
"Alright! Alright! We're leavin'."
"And you won't never see us again," one said, answering Ezra's question when the gambler moved over near the table.
"There isn't a saloon in this territory I'm not well acquainted with, gentlemen, so I can keep tabs on your whereabouts if need be." He gave them a gold-toothed grin to let them know he was confident in carrying out his threat. It might have been a bit of a stretch, Standish thought, the whole territory thing, but they didn't know that.
"Leave town now and keep riding," Larabee commanded.
"This way," Buck grabbed one man when he stood up and headed toward the entrance, which was blocked by Jackson, six-gun in his hand. Wilmington gave him a healthy shove in the opposite direction to the back of the saloon where JD stood with his guns out, watching the other men's backs. Chris had instructed him to bring the two men's horses to the back and that's what he did, but couldn't resist coming in to see how things played out. He and Wilmington exchanged grins as they paraded the two buffalo hunters out the back door, Josiah and Ezra bringing up the rear.
"That went better than I thought it would," Nathan said to Larabee, sliding his gun into the well-oiled holster. He started straightening out a few chairs before taking a seat in one. Chris followed suit.
"Those two have duly been sent along their merry way," Standish reported, leading the other three men to the table Larabee and Jackson were sitting at. "Only thing that could top the purging of such trash would be a hearty repast." He sat down, dusting off the sleeves of his jacket. "Care to join me, gentlemen?"
"Now that's what I call alright," Wilmington said with gusto, rubbing his hands together. The men didn't know if he was talking about clearing the town of the "trash", the prospect of finally eating, or his glee at seeing Inez re-enter the saloon... although they had a good guess. "You boys don't mind me ordering for us, now do you?" he asked, grinning, not waiting for an answer as he got up and followed the woman to the bar.
"Don't strain yourself," Sanchez said dryly, pushing back from the table and crossing his long legs. "Sure hope that's the last we see of those two fellas. Weren't none too happy with the send-off they got."
"We'll handle them if they dare show up again," JD spoke with confidence. Far as he was concerned, there wasn't a situation these men, along with himself, couldn't handle.
Nathan's eyes opened wide. "What are you doin' outta bed? You shouldn't be out walkin' around yet!" The healer moved quickly to the tracker's side when Vin came through the bat-wing doors. "Sit down now, 'fore you fall down," he added, guiding the injured man into a seat.
"What are you doing here?" Nathan reiterated.
"Hard t' stay in bed with all the excitement going on in here," Tanner nodded a thanks to Wilmington who handed him a beer. Drinking from the glass he watched over the rim as his fellow peacekeepers' eyes glanced back and forth to one another a in 'been caught' type of way. All except for Larabee who was studying the amber liquid in his shot glass.
"Well, you gotta admit, it was pretty stupid of them to show back up here again," JD pointed out, then received a cuff on the arm from Wilmington. "What?"
"More like divine intervention if you ask me," Josiah added, sliding closer to the table as Inez began bringing some food.
"Hell, we all saw what happened in the saloon the other night, Vin," Buck said, pulling up another chair to the table. "Wasn't hard to figure out it was those two who busted you up." He was trying to divert any blame on Larabee for telling them all who had done the deed.
"As far as Chris is concerned..."
Larabee rolled his eyes and set his jaw. Sometimes Buck needed to just shut up.
"... he didn't lay a hand on them two, well, just shoved one a little, that's it." He finished and smiled at Tanner while buttering a biscuit. He figured to clear the air that Larabee didn't use any physical force in the way of a little retribution.
"Our resident healer didn't have to lift a bandage. They were sent off unscathed and fully intact with merely a warning."
At those words from Standish, Vin's eyes slid over to look at Larabee. Chris might not have done anything physically to them, but he would bet his last bullet that the warning came from the gunman. He could almost imagine what that was like. Not being able to squelch a grin at his thoughts, he raised his glass as high as his pain would allow, for a toast. "Thanks, boys. Appreciate it."
"Here, here," was echoed as liquid was splashed here and there.
Vin heard JD's indignant, "Watch it, Buck!" in the background as he and Larabee locked eyes for an instant in a look that said, "Alright."