Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not make money from this or own them.
Characters: Old West. Vin OC's
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Vin Tanner felt the walls closing in on him. It was his seventeenth day on guard duty and the jail house was as much a prison for him as it was for the miserable miscreant caged in the cell. Chris Larabee was in Purgatorio, no doubt welded firmly to Maria or Conchita or Juanita. Who remembered their names? Certainly not Larabee. For him there was only one woman, only one name etched on his heart, Sarah.
Buck Wilmington was in love (again, bless him) and the big-hearted ladies man had taken the newest object of his affections to see the elephant in Ridge City with J.D. Dunne and Casey Wells for chaperones. Ezra Standish was missing in action too. A high stakes poker game in nearby Libertyville had claimed his full attention. Leaving Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson to watch over Four Corners. Although Nathan was finding it a mite difficult to remain on duty in town due to an outbreak of newborns exactly nine months after the big snow storm.
Polishing the seat of a wooden chair with his buckskin butt was not how Vin Tanner aspired to spend his days. He was loathe to admit it but in spite of her best efforts even the hot and spicy culinary delights of Señorita Inez Recillos were all beginning to taste the same to him. Mary had called in with a few dishes as wholesome as she was but little or no conversation other than to sigh deeply at Chris Larabee's long absence. Nettie Wells had stopped by with an entire peach pie and even offered to take a turn on guard duty with her trusty Spencer carbine but Vin Tanner was not the kind of man to let even a doughty old biddy like her do his work for him.
Tanner had worn the new lead pencil Mary had given him down to a stub writing poetry that became darker and more morose with each line. Whittled an entire Noah's Ark worth of animals to welcome the newborns with, until his best whittling knife had given him a blister. He had played his harmonica, only ceasing when the prisoner threatened to carry out the sentence Judge Travis had handed down to him by himself and save the hangman a job. He had cleaned his mare's leg so thoroughly he could probably just dazzle the next crop of bank robbers with it and save on the bullets.
So when the Butterfield Stagecoach rattled into the town and his sharp ears heard Buck's joyous laugh and J.D's shriek of delight at being home, Vin swept up his buckskin coat and headed out the door.
"Vin!" shouted JD. "We're back!"
"Howdy, boys! Real nice ta see ya! Gotta go."
Vin was in Peso's saddle and halfway to the hills far from the madding town before the ornery varmint had time to think up his latest bout of mischief. Vin didn't stop until Peso remembered he was the boss of this outfit and tried to part his man from the saddle for sheer deviltry. Smiling, Vin Tanner gave the black beast his head. Crouched low over Peso's neck he urged the horse on, trusting Peso to keep his feet out of the gopher holes. When even Peso decided to call a halt to his man's neck-breaking recklessness Vin found shelter far from any human trail to make his camp.
How could he expect anyone to understand how he felt after all those days of inactivity? His hat was weighing his head down, his gun belt wearing a groove in his flesh, his boots crushing his feet. He knew none of this was physically true but it was how he felt. His skin itched and crawled as he shed his coat, hat and boots. Worn socks no more than cobwebs held together with Nettie's darning were flung up in the air as he rolled in the grass as happy as a new puppy.
He could see again, hear again, feel again. He needed this as much as Larabee needed Purgatorio. Vin Tanner too had memories to keep at at bay. A name etched on his heart. Dark places he did not want to revisit. Living in the shadow of the noose took the shine off most days for him. The tracker had to make time for moments like these or be driven mad.
Peso snorted his disgust at his man's juvenile behavior. His eyes starting to sparkle again, Vin unsaddled Peso and after a severe warning on the likelihood of being shot and sold for dog chow if he vanished, Tanner let Peso roam. While he himself climbed higher, sitting cross legged on a flat rock he felt the updraft lift his long hair. More pleasurable to him than having a woman run her fingers through it.
Some had wondered at his uncanny knack of knowing where to find water, game and shelter merely by casting his eye over the land. What they did not understand was that while they merely walked across the land he was a part of it. To him it was as a mother to a babe in arms. Always there to quench his thirst, feed him and welcome him to her bosom.
The years spent with the Comanche and the Kiowa had gone by all too quickly. With The People he had never needed to explain himself. His desperate yearning to be able to hear the earth speak, the water sing, the sky both whisper and shout was understood. Even the rock he was seated on had age old wisdom to share with him. Ancient feathered creatures trapped inside waiting to be revealed. Fangs and talons, horns and tusks waiting to be found. He had seen it all. Water where once it had been land, land where there once had been seas.
And now the tracker waited.
It approached warily. Sniffing the air at each step forward, a paw hesitantly waiting that vital few seconds, poised for flight. Sure at last the human being posed no threat the creature settled beside him trying to see what it was he saw off in the distance. Blue eyes gazed down as almost the same eyes gazed upwards. They knew each other. Another brother to watch a sunset with.
It made no difference which one led and which one followed they were the same. They ran through the long grass for the sheer rapture of running. Skipped surefooted over the rocks because they could. Howled at the moon because their blood told them to.
"What is that?" a newly returned Larabee glared at something across the tracker's feet.
"M' dawg," rasped Tanner, taking a deep swallow of the beer Inez had served him, to hide his smile at Larabee's expression.
"Are you sure that's what is?"
"Ya need spectacles, Larabee? Course it's a dawg."
"Looks more like a wolf," said JD reaching down to the animal with the gray streaked coat and pale eyes. "Hey, it bit me!"
"He's only playin'," grinned Vin.
"Vin, I'm bleeding!" protested JD.
"Ya still got all yer fingers?" drawled Vin.
"Yeah. I do," winced JD painfully.
"Then he's only playin' with ya."
"Why did you choose a pet like that Vin?" asked Buck Wilmington shaking his head in disbelief.
"He done chose me."
"Does the mean sonuvabitch have a name?" asked Chris.
"Ha, ha. He really is a son of a bitch!" laughed JD. "Chris, I know a joke about a dog with three paws...well, maybe another time," shrugged the young Sheriff as Larabee generously donated a glare that would wither cactus to the conversation.
"Were goin' ta call him Larabee but folk's wouldn't know which man eatin' sonuvabitch were which, so I mostly call him Savage."
"He'll have to go," decreed Larabee sternly.
"He can't. Peso loves him, won't go anywheres without him."
"You can't afford to feed a horse and a dog," pointed out Larabee.
"Savage feeds hisself."
"Exactly, that's why he has to go, we can't have a town full of people without fingers."
He knew it was Chris Larabee by the too carefully placed footsteps, "Ya make more noise than a herd a stampedin' buffalo, Larabee!"
Larabee would sell his soul to sneak up on the smart mouthed tracker just once. He would dearly love to wipe that self-satisfied smirk off his damn face, dear God, please, just once! Larabee was sure he hadn't made a single noise. The grass was wet, he had stepped on no twigs or dry leaves. He had hardly drawn breath. Hell, he'd even taken his spurs off. He had left Pony down in the pass. He hadn't cast a shadow. How had the no good, ornery cuss known he was there? Let alone who it was?
Hell, the scruffy ex-bounty hunter even had him playing damn kid's games now! He joined his so called friend on the flat rock. Tanner was sitting cross legged like an Indian as usual. He could sit like that for hours just staring at the far horizon not moving a muscle. Larabee wasn't even sure he blinked. If Larabee tried it he would be as rigid as a board inside of ten minutes. Someone would probably have had to unfold him again before they helped him up.
He noticed a spider had industriously spun a web from the tracker's elbow down to the rock. Hell, he bet the tracker even knew it was there. They sat together gazing at the horizon until finally Larabee remembered why he had ridden all this way. The tracker could make the gunslinger forget everything that troubled him for hours, just by being still.
"Judge Travis wants a favor from you."
"Me? He kin have as many as he wants."
"Wait until you hear the whole story. He wants you in back in town to help guard a prisoner."
"Naw. Hell naw. I's done my fair share. Get Buck an' JD an' Ezra," groaned the tracker.
"Judge Travis asked for you."
"Damn. I's only jus' got the stink a jail off me. Ya know how I gets."
"The prisoner is an Indian, Vin. Judge Travis wants to make sure he is treated properly."
The tracker carefully placed the spider back on the rock and stood straight up in one fluid move, offering Larabee a hand to get to his feet.
The gunslinger batted the hand away. "I'm not an old man yet," he growled.
"Sure ya are," said the younger man offering his hand again.
Grinning wryly Larabee took the offered helping hand hoping he wouldn't regret it.
"Want me ta give ya a piggy back ride down ta Pony?" sassed the tracker as a pale eyed creature sprang to his side.
Chris Larabee had just known he would regret it. "That thing is not coming with us to the jail either."
"Ain't got no one ta look after him iffen I leave him," explained Vin. "He can sleep in the Livery with Peso."
"Two vicious man-eaters in one place? Don't bring him out to my cabin either, he'll eat the stock."
"Probably," agreed the tracker.
"Why is it everything you have a liking for is downright mean and ornery?"
"As mean an' ornery as ya?"
Chris Larabee shook his blond head worriedly, "Promise me that whatever else you do, you won't ever go off and choose a wife all by yourself..."
Jake McKenna dismounted effortlessly from the back of his big palomino and catching Casey's eye raised his hat to her as he looped the reins over the hitching rail outside the saloon. Lucifer impatiently knocked Jake's hat off the back of his head.
"Pick that up," said Jake sternly.
Lucifer shook his noble head.
"Pick that up," repeated Jake.
Casey Wells put her hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle.
Lucifer turned and looked up the street in the opposite direction to Jake.
"Please, pick it up," said Jake.
Lucifer snorted and turned back to insolently stare his man in the eye.
"Pretty please, pick it up," repeated Jake.
Lucifer broke wind loudly for an answer.
Jake shrugged at Casey who was laughing unashamedly now.
"Awrighty then, will ya pick it up fer the pretty lady?" Jake asked Lucifer.
Lucifer looked at Casey and nodded his head. Swishing his too long tail he picked up his man's hat and Jake solemnly accepted it back covered in horse spit. Casey blushed at being referred to as a pretty lady by the broad shouldered man in fringed buckskin. Jake replaced his battered blue hat and rubbed his big nose along his sleeve before forming his slightly protruding top lip into a huge grin.
"Miz Casey, how are ya? Miz Nettie in town with ya?"
"I'm very well Mr. McKenna---"
"Ya what?" Jake clutched a hand the size of a Virginia ham to his chest and spun around, "Mister McKenna? Ya had me thinkin' my Grandpa had caught up with me! Call me Jake, please," he insisted, "all the prettiest girls do."
"Aunt Nettie is across at The Clarion with Mrs. Travis, er, Jake."
"She is? Better hide in the saloon then afore she tans my hide. I still owe her a few dollars fer a horse. I'll send Vin Tanner across with it. She dotes on that worthless tracker she won't use that ol' Spencer carbine on him."
He tipped his hat again and stepped inside the saloon apparently uninterested in the prison wagon making it's way into town with a military escort. Casey watched as it pulled up outside the jail house and JD stepped out to greet it. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner appeared at the saloon doors and stood side by side as the wagon door opened. Chained hand and foot, hardly able to move, emerged the biggest Indian the Territory had ever seen.
"You going to be alright with this?" Chris Larabee asked the tracker.
"Hell Chris, he ain't Chanu."
"You keep remembering that. He's been tried and found guilty of murdering five cavalry officers and wounding several more when they finally tracked him down and cornered him," warned Larabee.
They watched in silence as the Indian was taken inside the jail house by the troopers. The young captain in charge left his sergeant to oversee the prisoner and marched down to the hotel brushing gray trail dust off his blues as he went. Tanner drew in a few deep breaths. His heart going out to the Indian, understanding with empathy why such a wild spirit had tried to fight to the death rather than spend his last days in a prison cell. Tanner swaggered across the street and watched the captain enter The Ritz Hotel before he himself entered the newspaper office with Jake's money wondering how he had been bamboozled into doing this favor for his fellow sharpshooter.
Half the troopers number entered into the saloon to quench their thirst after finding rooms at the boarding house. A half hour later their captain strode in followed closely by Vin Tanner. The young commanding officer ordered a beer before turning to survey the saloon's clientèle.
"Major McKenna!" he exclaimed catching sight of Jake and saluting smartly. "Captain Julian Graves, sir! You won't recall but I was there at your court-martial. I was only a boy."
"Reckon I remember ya, Kid. Grown ain't ya? General Graves is yer great-uncle? Stop standin' ta attention an' put yer hand down I ain't in yer Army now. Sit down I ain't fer gittin' a crick in my neck. How's yer Uncle Rupert? Still tryin' ta get his hat ta set straight?"
"Well, you did cut his ear off," snickered the young man as he sat down at the table.
"His ear, Mr. McKenna? Did I hear correctly?" asked Ezra.
"Ya still got two ears so I reckon ya did, Ezra. How's Rupert's wife yer Aunt Clarice wasn't it? Is her boy Ethan well?"
"Very well last I heard," coughed Captain Graves growing a little red in the face, "Finished up a month in the stockade I believe."
"Yeah? Guess sometimes even Rupert can't pull enough strings ta keep him outta trouble."
"You haven't seen him lately. His hair is halfway down his back and he absconds for weeks at a time."
"Wonder who he takes after?" mused Jake.
"Everyone knows who he takes after that's why the men cover for him, they wouldn't do it for Uncle Rupert's sake. You do know you are part of the training we get now? We sit a whole class on the battle you fought at Little Brier Bridge."
"I remember she wasn't easy," said Jake.
"Not the fight you had to get the colonel's wife into the haystack. The one you got your medal for."
"I resent that!"
"Why?" asked Captain Graves.
"She wasn't his wife then."
"No little wonder they court-martialed you," groaned Ezra. "What was your transgression?"
"Ever wondered what ya'd look like with one ear, Ezra?" asked Jake placing a Bowie knife on the table that made swords feel inferior. "Assaultin' a superior officer. Superior? I seen rabid dawgs superior ta him."
"Why did ya cut his ear off?" asked Tanner idly curious.
"Ta make him remember ta listen ta orders. Man were an animal an' what was worse he encouraged his men under his command ta be animals too. Takin' prisoners is part of war but rape an' torture a women ain't."
"Sounds ta me like he got off lightly," commented Tanner his voice tight as Savage growled softly in apparent agreement.
"I was goin' ta do more fancy whittlin' on him with my knife 'cept his men dragged me off. Took his showy custom made rifle off him too. Told him he could come an' ask fer it back any time he liked. Funny he never did."
"I have to take my leave for now. I am taking afternoon tea at the hotel with a most charming lady by the name of Mrs. Stacey," said Captain Graves replacing his hat on top of his short blond hair and giving a wink of a sea gray eye.
"Ya'd better get a shuffle on I hear she don't like late," advised Jake shaking the younger man's hand and reluctantly accepting another salute.
Tanner shifted in his chair uncomfortably. A bottle of good whiskey arrived at the table for Jake courtesy of the troopers at the bar. Jake wasn't really in the right mood to enjoy it but he forced some down, sharing it with the men at the table and the troopers who came over one by one to pay their respects to a man they regarded as a real hero.
If havoc rode in a carriage it had just arrived. Chris settled back in a chair outside the saloon ready to be amused.
"Dear Lord! Just when a man thought it was safe to walk the street unmolested she arrives back," Ezra Standish's smooth mellifluous voice carried down the boardwalk as far as Chris Larabee's chair.
Both men watched as Buck Wilmington and J.D. Dunne helped Elvira Stacey down from her carriage.
"I can understand Mr. Wilmington's presence, he never takes a charming but firm rebuff as a reason not to pursue a lady but JD? If she bats her eyelashes at him he'll dive for shelter under the boardwalk," opined Ezra.
"What about him?" pointed out Chris.
"Mr. Tanner? I once saw a turbaned gentleman from the Indian subcontinent charm a snake with music. I suspect the Widow Stacey's hips have a similarly hypnotic effect on our buckskin friend."
"Yeah but he's the one who sometimes acts like she might up and bite him," chuckled Chris.
They watched as Buck and JD escorted her down the boardwalk. Leaving Tanner behind to unload her mountainous pile of luggage from the carriage and tote it down the boardwalk unaided. Before she entered The Bank the Widow Stacey indicated Tanner should continue on to the Hotel with her appurtenances of luxury travel. He was rewarded with a brilliant smile for his labors.
Tanner continued on to the hotel totally baffled as to why a lady should need so much baggage. The room clerk was relieved to see it was Vin Tanner. The room clerk was a small, one might even say a puny, man and it would have taken him more than one trip up the stairs to deposit all that luggage in the hotel's best room. Tanner merely indicated his hands were full and the room clerk wedged the wooden tag holding the room key in between Tanner's teeth and the tracker continued up the stairs.
The tracker put down the luggage and unlocked the door. The hotel permanently reserved it's best and largest room for it's most favored guest so it was just as she had left it. Tanner placed the larger bags were he supposed she might want them and placed her two smaller cases on the bed suspecting they may contain her more intimate apparel. He was proved right when one of the cases popped open spilling delicate underpinnings all over the bed.
He had seen a lady's corset before, usually slightly grubby, stained ones on working girls, but none like this. Lace and colored ribbon, embroidered flowers and silk bows. Pretty pinks and powder blue. Along with some wispy garments he could see right through but couldn't name. Half closing his eyes so as not to see too much he gingerly dropped them back into the case as if he was handling sweating dynamite.
"Why, Vin, how kind of you to unpack my cases for me lover," she purred.
"Aw Hell," he blushed, mortified with embarrassment to be caught in an unchaperoned lady's hotel bedroom. Would she think he was some kind of a pervert that pawed over women's lingerie on a regular basis? "I's---"
"Going to get that broken lock fixed for me at the saddlers?" she smiled, slowly unbuttoning and taking off her white kid gloves.
"Yeah," he agreed transfixed by how such a mundane action seemed seductive the way she did it.
"How kind. I am very afraid I overfilled that case with expensive purchases hurriedly made in Denver for my trousseau and sprained the lock," she explained placing the contents of the case into a deep drawer. "Do you think Orlando will appreciate them?"
"Ma'am," he mouthed his voice completely gone. Tipping his hat he grabbed up the now empty case before backing up and making good his escape from her hotel bedroom.
Early the next morning there was a hue and cry at the jail house. The biggest Indian the territory had ever seen was gone.
"Asleep? You all fell asleep?" barked the sergeant at six chastened troopers.
"We must have been drugged," came the feeble excuse.
"How? What did you eat or drink?" barked the sergeant.
"This tasty stew Captain Graves fetched in from the hotel and coffee."
The youngest trooper, Trooper Harker, discreetly patted the pocket containing the hip flask now empty of the Widow Stacey's finest French brandy given to him by Jake. Who had jokingly told him, troopers only! Saying it was too good to be wasted on the town's peacekeepers.
"Well, I had the same afore Josiah an' Chris took my place an' I was fine," pointed out Vin Tanner. "Even Savage were fine of it."
"We were wide awake when Ezra and Nathan relieved us after having some," explained Larabee.
"We were meant to be asleep," explained Nathan, "We were only here as back up for the extra two troopers on night duty."
"The Captain will turn purple when he gets here. Where is he?" barked the sergeant.
"Accompanying Mrs. Stacey to Josiah Sanchez's church service. He seems quite taken with the fine-looking lady. All dandified up up in his full dress uniform and her all in peach with her parasol. He was planning on taking her ladyship for a picnic afterwards. Complete with wrinkled old chaperon. I think he is counting on her making a good officer's wife," one of the troopers informed the sergeant with a leer.
"That's all we need. A Captain who isn't going to get to sow his wild oats with his new Jezebel this afternoon," warned the sergeant.
Larabee put a restraining hand on Tanner's right arm.
"We'll all be shot at dawn," continued the sergeant unaware of the blue eyes burning a hole in his back.
"Quite likely, sergeant," agreed the Captain calling in on his way back from church. "Trooper Harker, go convey my sincerest apologies to Mrs. Stacey and respectfully, apprise her of the situation. Assure her nothing but the gravest of circumstances would keep me from her delightful company. Now, have you men searched the town? If not why not?"
"Awaiting orders, sir."
"Search the town. Everywhere must be searched, look under every old ladies bed, in every closet and do not forget the clinic or the church. Mr. Tanner, may I prevail upon your skills as a tracker?"
"Already looked, there ain't no tracks. By that I mean there ain't no tracks," he lied. Vin had fully intended to cover any tracks he might find, track the Indian and take him down himself. Sure the Indian would prefer a fight to the death to prison. Yet the one set of tracks he had found had so intrigued him he had let them be.
"Pardon me?" asked Captain Graves nonplussed.
"What the boy here means is there ain't no tracks as opposed ta the Indian havin' covered 'em up. He ain't left the town. This is the best tracker in the territory an' if he says there ain't no tracks then there ain't no tracks. I never saw better even in the U.S. Army." Jake tipped his hat to Tanner as he explained the situation to Captain Graves.
"I shall go search the hotel myself to reassure Mrs. Stacey she is quite safe and will be thoroughly well-protected from this murdering brute. Such a genteel lady of her delicate sensibilities should not have to endure the unwanted attentions of my rude and clumsy troopers," decided Captain Graves with a lovelorn sigh of yearning. "So refined a lady, she may faint completely away. Quite overcome by an attack of the vapors, at the news a bloodthirsty savage is on the loose."
"Vapors? He can't be talking about the same Mrs. Stacey we all know?" muttered Larabee as Captain Graves hurriedly left.
The town was searched meticulously but not a trace of the Indian was found. So Captain Graves gave orders for it to be searched again. Then again. More troopers were sent for and after a week of searching and using their own Indian trackers the soldiers finally left, empty-handed.
"What will happen ta Captain Graves fer losin' a prisoner?" Vin Tanner asked Jake in the saloon.
"A desk probably. His great-uncle is a General after all."
"I told Casey not to come back into town until we recaptured the Indian. What shall I tell her now? A murdering Indian is still out there somewhere," asked a worried JD.
"Tell pretty Miz Casey she's safe. Tell her Jake said so," said Jake firmly.
"Ya knowed them five Army fellers the Indian kilt?" asked Tanner suspiciously.
"Yep," replied Jake gruffly.
"They deserve it?"
"The Indian's wife and two young daughters were jus' three a dozens a women brutally raped an' murdered by them five while they were under Rupert Graves' command but who cares 'bout an Indian squaw or two? Where does an Indian get justice unless he makes his own?"
Tanner liked the town best just before dawn. The sky was still lit by stars. The streets were empty and the town slept peacefully. He leaned in a doorway across from The Ritz his four-legged shadow curled up by his feet. He liked to watch the hotel it gave him a warm feeling inside. The hotel only rented rooms to respectable guests with good quality luggage and decent handwriting to sign the register with. Army officers for example but not troopers. Any considered not of a higher enough standard were directed to The Gem Hotel or even Miss Maggie's. This was evidently good for business as The Ritz was always full of guests looking for a place to stay with a little more class than other hotels in the general area.
So evaporating back into the deep shadows Tanner was unsurprised to see Jake lead his sorrel, Balaam, up to the hotel with Lucifer following on behind him black Mexican saddle embellished with silver glinting in the starlight. A shapely figure stepped out through the hotel's doors and Tanner's good night vision enabled him to recognize Mrs. Stacey. Behind Mrs. Stacey was the great hulking shape of the biggest Indian Vin Tanner had ever seen.
Amused Tanner watched as the biggest Indian he had ever seen paid tribute to Mrs. Stacey. Then the biggest Indian Tanner ever saw gripped Jake's hand briefly, vaulted onto the back of the red horse and with Jake following on behind astride Lucifer, left town.
"'Night Tanner," Jake's voice drifted back down the street as Tanner watched Mrs. Stacey step back inside the hotel and bolt the double doors behind her.
Yeah, Tanner liked the town best just before dawn. The sky was still lit by stars. The streets were empty and the town slept. He leaned in a doorway across from The Ritz his four-legged shadow curled up by his feet. He liked to watch the hotel it had given him a warm feeling inside to have tracked the Indian, on the first day he had gone missing, across the rooftops as far as the hotel's skylight. All week he had known that Mrs. Stacey had hidden the biggest Indian Vin Tanner ever saw in her own hotel bedroom. Safe from Army troopers for an entire week after Jake had spirited him out of the jail house. Hidden him in the one room in town an officer and a gentleman such as Captain Graves was, could not enter.