Don't own any of them unfortunately and make no money from them either. This story happened because I dug out my old Clint spaghetti westerns and thought, what would happen if he went to Four Corners?...
The appearance of strangers in the small dusty township was no longer such a rarity. Since the coming of the seven law-keepers installed by Judge Oren Travis businesses had once more been attracted to the growing burg; the stages called far more frequently and wagon trains of homesteaders had adopted the site as a good place to rest up and replenish supplies before facing the harsh miles of wilderness between themselves and their hoped for promised lands. Added to these were the usual flotsam and jetsam of humanity - miners, drifters, young hopefuls and of course bounty hunters.
The latter were something of a problem for the seven men entrusted to caring for the town and it's inhabitants since one of their number, Vin Tanner, had a price on his own head. The fact that he was an innocent man framed by circumstance and a now deceased felon was not an excuse to deter most of the hunters. $500 was a great deal of hard cash and could buy a great many acres of land or head of cattle for someone looking to settle down. Luckily however it could not buy resurrection and so far Chris Larrabee the black garbed former gunslinger who had become the unelected leader of the seven had succeeded in persuading most of those in pursuit of the bounty to head for other destinations. Those he could not persuade had disappeared from the township anyway; many with the addition of a solid pine overcoat to keep out the winter chill of the hereafter.
All seven considered it a part of their duties to watch the backs of their six compatriots and so far the particular talents of each man had played their part in the smooth running of the town. Vin and Chris had their quick-fire shooting skills and unerring aim to call on whereas Nathan Jackson the tall negro healer of the group could use his knives with equal measure to either cut down a man or save his life. Josiah Sanchez the great bear of a former priest usually had little difficulty in persuading anyone to turn the other cheek- even if it was only to deliver a second hammer blow fist to the jaw - and Ezra Standish the charming young gambler with his soft southern drawl and twinkling gold tooth had equally effective reserves of charm not to mention two hand guns and a derringer rig should reason fail to find a way. Buck Wilmington hid a core of steel behind a smile that could charm the undergarments off a nun and young J D Dunne the ebullient little easterner who technically held the office of town sheriff might be small but he had the energy of a wildcat and a deceptive skill with his guns that had been the downfall of many.
So it was rare that any visitor should attract any particular kind of attention beyond that of Ezra who habitually contemplated how much money he might part from them over a friendly game of chance. But the man who rode in on the Santa Ana wind was not just any visitor.
To look at his clothes one would assume he was nothing more than a drifter. A tightly woven but worn poncho the colour of the desert draped the upper half of his body revealing only the occasional glimpse of a sheepskin vest and faded shirt beneath. His extraordinarily long legs were encased in tight soft pants which were in turn tucked into pliable brown leather boots which dangled somewhere around the knees of his pitifully undersized horse and sported silver rowelled spurs that jingled as he slid to the ground and stepped onto the warped boardwalk beside the sheriff's office. His face was hidden by a wide brimmed stained hat as he concentrated on tying his sad mount to the hitching post and it wasn't until he looked up that the cold flinty blue slits of his eyes connected with the sharp green of Ezra's gaze making the southerner blanch despite the days oppressive heat and causing his jaw to drop open in almost unheard of dismay.
The gambler waited until the tall rangy stranger had made his way into the office before sprinting with surprising speed across the street to the saloon where he knew Vin would be resting after his night patrol. So fast did he run that the wooden chair he had been sitting on could be heard hitting the boardwalk with a thunk as he barrelled through the batwing doors and skidded to a halt beside his friend's chair.
"You alright Ez?" The blue eyed Texan swallowed hard and reached for some coffee to wash down the mouthful of biscuit he had just been chewing.
"No Mr. Tanner I am not alright. That is to say I believe I will be perfectly alright but you must take leave of this establishment immediately."
"You been sittin' in the sun without yer hat again?"
"This is no time for frivolities Mr. Tanner." To Vin's astonishment Ezra took a hold of the collar of his coat and began to haul him up out of his seat.
"Ezra quit that!" Vin pulled the gambler's hands away but was immediately grabbed again by the arm as his friend struggled to pull him to his feet.
"Please Vin," the young southerner gasped. "There is no time to explain right now. I am begging you to leave by the rear alley way. Get that devil spawned black mule of yours and just head for Chris's cabin."
"Please Vin just go!"
The Texan had never seen such unmitigated panic in his friend's green eyes before. Ezra could usually be counted on to stay calm even if the very walls of hell were crumbling in on them but today the card sharp looked frantic. He looked afraid. His trademark lazy drawl was lost as his words fell over themselves and he had not even taken the time to express himself in the florid over correct prose that drove Buck to distraction.
Realising at last that his compatriot was deadly serious Vin allowed himself to be hustled across the floor of the saloon and out through the kitchen past the startled eyes of the manageress Inez Recillos. Once outside he could only gape as Ezra scuttled across the street staring fixedly at the door of the sheriff's office before gesticulating wildly for the tracker to hurry across to the livery stable.
Doing as he was bid Vin found his companion risking life and limb to saddle Peso the mean tempered black gelding who was attempting to take bites out of the conman's rear end and arm whenever the opportunity presented itself. Panting Ezra gladly stood back and allowed Vin to finish the operation but no sooner had he tightened the girths than the gambler had grabbed the Texans leg and given him a boost into the saddle that almost deposited him over the far side.
"Ezra what the hell's gotten into you?" Vin's long blonde curls had fallen across his face as his hat tipped off and he was attempting to scrub them from his eyes as he scrabbled for his reins and tried to stop his mount from dashing both their brains out on the ceiling of the stall.
Frantically Ezra gathered up the fallen hat and stuffed it back into his friend's grasp then ignoring the bared yellow teeth he slapped Peso's muzzle sharply and dragged the surprised animal to the big double doors.
"Go to Chris's cabin." He repeated tersely. "And stay there until one of us comes for you. Do not, I repeat, do not come back into town Vin I beg you."
Tanner stared perplexed at the gambler's upturned face. Never had he seen Ezra this scared.
"Can't you at least tell me why?"
"There's no time."
Ezra gave the black a stinging slap on the rump making the animal leap forward like a bullet. Gathering his reins Vin managed to keep his seat but he was some way out of town before he could regain full control of his mount. Pulling the snorting horse to a halt he looked back at the dusty huddled collection of buildings. Part of him wanted to go back and demand to know what the blazes Standish thought he was up to but the other half of him kept seeing the anguished fear in his friend's face. Whatever it was something had terrified Ezra on Vin's behalf. Drawing his sandy eyebrows down into a thoughtful frown Tanner circled his horse once then twice then with a heavy sigh he gathered up his reins and pushed the big black into a loping canter away from the town and out towards Chris Larrabee's cabin.
"Senor Standish what was the meaning of all that?" Inez Recillos raised a sculpted eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest.
"It was nothing." Ezra replied but his hand still trembled as he refilled his glass with the good quality whisky. Draining it swiftly he looked squarely at the young woman.
"You like Mr Tanner don't you?"
"Senor Vin? Si, he is very nice."
"Then please, for his sake, if anyone - ANYONE - comes asking about him tell them you know nothing. You've never heard of him never laid eyes on him."
Inez looked puzzled.
"Never mind why."
Ezra leaned forward on the bar and flashed his most disarming smile, his gold canine tooth glinting wolfishly as he laid his hand on top of Inez's fingers gently. The young woman's cheeks flushed becomingly and she snatched her hand away as it had been burned.
"Very well Senor Standish," she said coolly. "I never heard of Vin Tanner."
"Thank you sweetheart."
A cheeky wink accompanied the conman's departure and as she watched him go Inez Recillos felt her pulse slow down and her heart stop hammering behind her ribs. Madre de Dios but he was an impudent one. She smacked one frustrated fist onto the bar making Ezra's discarded glass hop but she could not stop the smile of amusement that crept over her face as she pictured again the puppy dog glance and pleading smile on the southerner's handsome face. Her thoughts were interrupted however by the entrance of Buck Wilmington the tall dark ladies man who professed undying love for her whilst chasing every skirt in the territory in an attempt to satisfy his lust for the opposite sex.
"Inez darlin' who set Ezra's tail alight?"
"I don't know." She shrugged and turned her attention to polishing the bar. Buck was far too handsome - as were all of the seven with the possible exception of young JD who would no doubt make up for that as maturity shaped his already promising features - and she lived in dread of one day letting slip what effect the tall dark charmer had on her.
Buck had been looking around the now empty saloon in bewilderment.
"And where the hell did Vin go?"
"Who?" Inez turned her huge dark eyes on Bucklin.
"Vin." Buck laughed. "You know, Vin, scrawny, dusty little runt with a Texas drawl? That's his breakfast right there." He pointed to the abandoned plate of food and now cold coffee on the table.
Inez shrugged again and looked away.
"I don't know who you mean."
Buck's jaw fell open but before he could speak the doors swung open again to reveal the black clad figure of Chris Larrabee. Despite the gunslinger's best efforts he looked drawn. His hazel eyes were red rimmed and veined with fatigue and his blonde hair dripped in spikes over his forehead where he had plunged it into the horse trough in the street. His lips were tight with anger and he could barely clip the words out as he demanded some coffee.
"Hard night Hoss?"
"Shut up Buck."
"Well don't. I got a head on me that would make a grizzly weep and the first man who crosses me today will be the last."
"Want me to go find Ezra?"
A steely glare was the only reply Buck received so he lapsed into silence whilst his old friend gulped down two rapid cups of strong coffee. Chris had almost finished the second when the saloon doors swung open silently and the tall granite faced stranger entered on silent measured feet. Only the jingle of his spurs gave away his presence as he made his way over to the bar and asked if there was any steak on the menu. Inez replied in the affirmative and took his order for breakfast leaving him with a mug of coffee as she disappeared into the kitchen. Ignoring the peace-keepers he dug in his pockets beneath the poncho until he located a stubby Mexican cigarro; striking a match on the edge of the bar he lit it and breathed in deeply as the end flared brightly and began to burn. Only then did he turn his attention to the two other men in the bar raking them up and down keenly with his razor sharp gaze.
"You got something to say?" Chris Larrabee snapped.
The stranger's voice was a dry rasp like the whisper of sand in the wind. Buck felt the hairs on the back of his neck go up as the man went on, "it's just you remind me of someone I met up with once in Tombstone. Fella named Jonny Ringo. Ever heard of him?"
"Nope," Chris echoed the stranger.
"Used to ride with Curly Joe and his band of Cowboys."
"Chris," Buck said warningly as his friend set down his cup with exaggerated care and smiled mirthlessly.
"Well I ain't him and I sure as hell ain't no cowboy." The gunslinger straightened and stared directly at the stranger.
"Never said you was." He mirrored Larrabee's grin. "Just said you reminded me of him."
"Yeah?" Larrabee's voice had dropped almost to a whisper. "What's your business here anyway?"
"I'm a bounty killer."
"Hunter," Buck corrected.
"Killer," repeated the stranger.
"Who you after?" Chris asked coldly.
"Man named Tanner. Vin Tanner. Wanted for murder."
"He ain't here."
"I heard he was dead," said Buck and Chris at exactly the same time while Inez Recillos gasped and dropped the plate of food she just been bringing from the kitchen.
The stranger looked impassively from one member of the tableaux to the other before drawling,
"Well I heard he was down this way so I guess I'll stay around for a while." He stared at Inez who, to Buck's annoyance, flushed pinkly. "Leastways until I can get some breakfast."
"Of course senor, I am so clumsy, please forgive me." She gabbled as she gathered up the broken plate and the food.
"Although on second thoughts," the stranger mused staring at the remains of Vin's food," maybe I'll go eat across the street."
He strode out without another word and Chris would have followed him if Buck hadn't grabbed his friend's elbow and forcibly held him back.
"He must have been the reason Senor Standish came in earlier," Inez said in a shaking voice. "He is one mean vato!"
Buck looked shocked.
"Now Inez! I know Ez can be annoying' but even I know what that word means!"
"Ooh, not Senor Standish you loco! Him that, that burro!" The young woman began to chatter in gunfire Spanish as she marched out from behind the bar and snatched up the plate of congealed food. Even Chris Larrabee looked taken aback and gave no resistance as Buck led him out of the saloon and across the street to the sheriff's office.
"Well how was I supposed to know?" came J D Dunne's anguished yell as they opened the door.
"Because even the most obtuse ignoramus would realise that if someone comes asking for Mr Tanner by name he probably isn't here to deliver a telegram to him."
"Well I knew that Ez, but how in tarnation was I to know he's a bounty hunter?"
"Killer," said Buck.
"What?" both Standish and Dunne broke off their argument to scrutinise the ladies man.
"He says he's a bounty killer not a bounty hunter."
"There are times, Mr Wilmington, when the processes of your mind amaze me."
"Why thank you, Ez."
The gambler gave a bark of disbelieving laughter and turned away shaking his head.
"I cannot understand why you are being so flippant while Vin in such danger."
"We've seen off bounty hunters before," Larrabee said, pouring himself more coffee.
"Not like this one you haven't."
"You met him before?" Chris raised his chin questioningly towards Ezra.
"Not exactly met him." Standish turned back to face his companions. "I've seen him work."
The silence between the four men stretched for several minutes. Finally JD spoke up.
"So what's so special about this man?"
"You have all no doubt read the tales of the infamous outlaw El Indio?"
All three listeners nodded, JD shivering with delicious dread. El Indio had been a legend of bloodthirstiness and cruelty - a bogeyman to frighten any naughty child.
"And Angel Eyes the mad assassin?"
Again three nods of affirmation, Larrabee's slower and more thoughtful than the others.
"That two bit bandit?"
"That two thousand bit bandit to be more precise, Mr Wilmington."
"What about them?" JD's voice was choked with excitement. He knew what Ezra was about to say.
"Well, that is the man who killed them all, not to mention Pike Eye Pete and The Rose Hill Gang."
Chris swallowed down the last of his bitter drink and studied the dregs in the bottom of his cup as if an answer might be found there.
"No wonder he's so familiar with Tombstone."
"But what's his name?" JD was practically squealing with excitement.
"Well there have been rumours." Ezra said, "But mostly they call him The Man With No Name."
"And they say the only thing he loves is money." The gunfighter eyed the scarlet coated gambler coldly as he spoke but other than a tightening of his lips Standish did not react.
"Oh my gosh, and he's after Vin."
"And you told him he was here!"
"I told you, Ezra, it just kinda slipped out."
"What slipped out?" Nathan's broad frame filled the doorway of the office and behind him loomed the shadow of Josiah Sanchez's impressive bulk.
Briefly the others explained about the presence of The Man With No Name and his intention to take Vin in for the bounty on his head.
"Can't we just kill him?" JD blurted out.
"Faster than us have tried," Chris said quietly. He turned away from the open mouthed look of horror on the young mans face and finished quietly, "Even in my prime, I would've been hard pushed if all I've heard about him is true."
"I heard he once took six bullets to the chest and still got back up," Nathan murmured in awe.
"That is actually true," Ezra said with a grin. "I was there, although you have neglected to mention that he had a piece of plate metal underneath that revolting blanket thing he wears."
"So that's how it was done." The dark doctors face lit up with a grin.
"Ain't no man alive can't be killed," rumbled Josiah. "The good lord made sure of that."
All five men turned to stare at the former priest who rubbed his bristled chin thoughtfully.
"Question is though, do we have the right to do that simply because he's doing his job?"
Josiah's companions regarded him with disbelief.
"He's here to kill Vin," JD whispered as if the bigger man did not know.
"But he's doing it in the righteous belief that it's the right thing."
"Josiah, I cannot believe that you would take the position of advocate for a cold blooded killer," Ezra said accusingly.
Sanchez surveyed his companions calmly.
"Wouldn't be the first time would it?"
"No, it wouldn't." The group turned startled as Vin Tanner's voice spoke up from back by the cells where the hidden emergency door was. "And ain't no one gonna fight this battle for me, neither." He nodded at Standish and smiled.
"Sorry, Ez, I know you was trying to look out for me but I'm sick of running from this. I probably should've gotten it sorted out a long time back but things got too kinda comfortable here with you all."
The blue eyed tracker grinned with embarrassment and looked down at the floor.
"Bein' here is the first kinda family I ever had since I lived with the Indians and I guess it made me lazy."
"It ain't lazy to feel like you belong somewhere son." Josiah smiled.
"But I don't belong here do I?" Vin said softly. "All I'm doin' is putting you all at risk."
"Well now ain't that touching?" came the cold rasp of a voice from behind them. The Man With No Name surveyed them all quietly from the business end of a gun. The smokeless cigarro was clenched in one corner of his thin lipped mouth and the narrow slits of his eyes glinted with cold humour.
"How long you been there listening?" demanded JD with mock bravado.
"Long enough," the stranger replied. He waved the barrel of his pistol vaguely towards Vin. "I saw him ride in while I was checking the other saloon for rear exits."
Tanner lifted his chin defiantly.
"You came lookin' for me and now you found me. Ain't no reason to hurt no one else and no reason to hang around here no more. We can make Tascosa in under a week if we leave today and ride hard."
The stranger chewed pensively on the cigarro.
"They told me over in the bar you was a lawman here."
Vin nodded mutely, his sky blue eyes holding the gaze of the man with the gun.
"How much do they pay you?"
"Dollar a day."
A small laugh escaped the man's lips.
"You could've been in Mexico months ago but you chose to stay here. Why would you risk being safe or clearing your name to die for a dollar a day?"
"If yer gonna die, it don't make much difference if it's for a dollar or a million dollars. Yer still dead," Vin said. "And if you got friends that know yer innocent, then clearing a name don't feel that important."
"Surely you understand the value of friends, son."
The stranger's cold eyes moved to look at Josiah, leaning comfortably against the desk with his arms folded. He seemed to be studying the burly man intently finally he said slowly, "I know you."
"We've met," Josiah agreed. "And I've seen the side of you that others don't."
"You've seen nothing."
"I saw you get pounded to a pulp protecting another man in the middle of a town feud, and I saw you give every cent you earned in that feud to a woman and her family so they could leave."
"Don't know what yer talking about mister," the stranger chomped down hard on his cigarro and tipped his head slightly so that his features were hidden.
"I helped Marisol and her husband and child get away," Josiah said.
His six fellow lawmakers were open mouthed with shock as they looked with fresh eyes at their quiet spoken companion. He had told them all at some time or another that he had a past he regretted but never would they have linked him with the bloodthirsty legends that had sprung up around The Man With No Name who stood before them. A silence as heavy as winter fog lay in the small room as the bounty hunter wrestled inwardly with the words he had just heard.
"How much money would you be prepared to take in exchange for leaving Vin here?" Ezra said breaking the tension.
The stranger's head snapped up and his mouth twisted with anger.
"You think I can be bought off that easy?"
"Vin is our friend Mister and if you was to leave him here, none of us would say a word to wreck your reputation."
The cold eyes switched to JD who was pale with fear but determined to speak up for his friend.
"How come you all care so much about a killer? A clapped ou, washed up buffalo hunter?"
"Because to us he's all of those things, but he ain't any of 'em either. He's just Vin."
"Don't you have a name partner? Yer Mama must've given you one?"
Bewildered, the bounty killer looked first at Chris then at Buck as they spoke, his fingers tightening to white as his grip on the gun increased. Larabee wondered if he might be able to draw fast enough to even injure the man but both Nathan and JD were in his direct line of fire, and if he should miss, Vin would be dead before he could get off a second shot.
"Give it up, Joe," Josiah said gently. "There isn't enough money in the world to bring back what you lost, and I'm probably the last man alive who knows who you really are. Believe me, I know I know how bad it hurts. That's why I'm here ready to die for a dollar a day, too. We all are. You might kill one or two of us, but you know there's too many."
For seconds that seemed to stretch into eternity the tall lean man looked at the men around him; the boy, the gambler, the healer, the gunslinger, the rogue, the gunfighter and the bounty hunter like himself who had found something so much more precious than money. The barrel of his gun wavered then dropped and was slipped back into the oiled leather holster beneath his poncho. Without a word, he pushed past the seven men, pausing at the door to reach slowly inside the stained sheepskin vest he wore. He pulled out a folded piece of paper which he dropped to the floor, then, with a final glance at Josiah, he pulled open the door and left the jingling of his spurs fading as he crossed the dusty street.
Untying his sagging dispirited horse, he swung one leg over its bony withers and rode away from the little township without a backward glance. The seven men watched him until their eyes could no longer make out any trace of his existence.
"Reckon he'll ever come back?" asked Nathan. He reached down to pick up the paper and unfolded it to reveal a bounty poster with its badly rendered likeness of Vin sandwiched between a description of the fair haired young man and the amount offered as a reward for him dead or alive.
"No." Josiah shook his head. "I've never known him to go back to any place twice."
"Then he must be running out of places to go," observed Ezra.
"I'd imagine he is," Josiah replied sadly.
"You didn't really mean what you said did you?" came JD's demanding voice as he stared at Chris. "About him being faster than you?"
"Now JD," said Buck quickly.
But Vin did not hear the gunslingers reply nor did he wait to see where the young easterner's belligerence would lead him. Standing in the middle of the quiet street he stared at the wavering horizon as if trying to fathom what had just occurred.
"He was absolutely right you know," Ezra's voice broke into the Texan's thoughts. "A dollar a day is a travesty. We really ought to ask for an increase in our pitiful remuneration."
Vin smiled at his friend.
"Careful, Ez, you don't wanna end up like him."
"Indeed not." The southerner brushed at the dust coating the cuffs of his scarlet jacket as he started to walk to the saloon. "The thought of walking away from $500 is enough to bring on a fit of the vapours. Foolish man."
The former bounty hunter grinned at the retreating back of Ezra Standish and shook his head. Though they'd be hard pressed to ever admit it, each and every one of them had risked becoming a Man With No Name until fate had decreed otherwise. One day they would all die either from a bullet or old age but at least they would go knowing that someone would grieve for their passing. Someone would care. Someone would know who they really were. And it would not matter if they died for one dollar or a million of them because each of them was worth more than money to the men who had become their brothers and each of them could rest easy knowing their names would never be forgotten.
Looking back over his shoulder he saw Buck trying to restrain Chris from dunking JD into the horse trough and Nathan laying a comforting arm across Josiah's shoulders. Ezra was right, a dollar was not very much, but, they were richer than many men with money in a bank. Vin's stomach rumbled loudly as he remembered his interrupted breakfast. Setting off after Ezra he wondered if Inez would advance him another meal until payday?