Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise that if held at gunpoint I would share (some of them).
Characters: Old West. Vin Tanner. OC's
Feedback: I would be, as always, really grateful for any feedback.
The other members of The Larabee Gang had left him heavily dosed with laudanum in a room across at Miss Maggie's. They could not believe the evidence of their own eyes but neither could they bring themselves to comfort the tracker.
Vin Tanner had shot Chris Larabee. The men that surrounded Chris Larabee's bed in Nathan Jackson's clinic had all witnessed it with their own eyes. Standing outlined against the sky, himself a clearly visible target in the epicenter of the gun battle, Vin Tanner had raised his Winchester rifle, aimed and shot Chris Larabee in the back. So what if the bullet had been a through and through hitting Chris in the back of the thigh muscle and propelling him forwards? He had still shot his brother peacekeeper. Vin Tanner had then fired across the street a second time before taking a bullet crease in the temple himself.
Vin Tanner stared up at the ceiling. The very fact he was all alone told him all he needed to know to know. They had all seen him shoot Chris in the back. He climbed out of the bed and puked up everything in his stomach before heading out of Miss Maggie's, the back way.
A long-haired four legged shadow sniffed the air as his man rode out of town. Normally, Vin's dog would have followed his man's trail but Savage was wise enough to know his man had to ride this one out alone and find his own way back to his true home.
Until then Savage would stay to stand guard over his man's soul.
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"Vin shot me," chuckled Chris.
"Must be the laudanum," diagnosed Nathan Jackson worriedly. "He didn't hit his head did he?"
"The little bastard shot me," it was more of a real belly laugh than a chuckle now.
"Chris, Chris, old pard. Vin did shoot you but you're going to be alright. You'll be okay, Stud," Buck Wilmington was torn between relief and sorrow.
"Where is he?" asked Chris as Nathan busied himself dressing the neatly stitched wounds. Hardly one of the world's most sensitive men when it came to connecting with anyone other than Vin, even the gunfighter could feel the electric tension in the room. "Where in the blue blazes is he?" he demanded.
"He has left town, Mr. Larabee," Ezra P. Standish bravely informed him. Hoping the blood an enraged Larabee was likely to extract from him wouldn't show on his fancy red jacket.
"You made him leave?" glared Larabee.
Savage threaded his way through the legs of the incomplete Larabee Gang and put his paws up on the bed echoing Larabee's annoyed growling.
"Of course not!" protested Ezra.
"The Hell you didn't!"
"Mr. Larabee, how dare you impinge on my probity!"
"Look, Stud, we didn't make him leave."
"But we didn't do anything to stop him either," confessed Josiah Sanchez, his voice steady and low.
"He warned me another sharpshooter had me in his sights. He told me to get down. I didn't listen or get down so the little cayuse damn well shot me to get a clear shot at the other sharpshooter!" laughed Chris. "He saved my life you idiots!"
"Chris, we never arrested another sharpshooter," explained Josiah.
"Nor did we hear Vin shout any such warning, Mr. Larabee," protested Ezra.
"Damn! Of course you didn't hear it," barked Chris tapping his temple, "it was meant only for me!"
"We never checked the back alley opposite," realized J.D. Dunne, "there could be a sharpshooter's body still left out there."
"Why did he leave? He must have seen for himself I was going to be alright," asked Chris, pulling himself upright in the bed and glowering around the room.
"It was like this, Chris, Vin was hurt but not so badly, so we left him across at Miss Maggie's instead of bringing him here," admitted Buck.
Josiah quickly looked away from Larabee's basilisk glare only to find Savage's pale-eyed stare made him feel almost as shamefaced.
"So." Larabee's voice was so low and laced with so much fury that they all wished the floor would open up and swallow them. "Vin woke up all alone in a house full of strangers? Not a single friendly face or comforting word?"
"We didn't mean it to be like that," moaned JD deeply ashamed. "We didn't think."
"Vin would have done. He would never have left any one of you alone."
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He was riding South. There was somewhere across the border he could go. Somewhere he would be safe until he healed up enough to ride into Tascosa alone. The hangman could have him now. Vin Tanner no longer cared because Chris Larabee no longer trusted him.
Peso picked up on his man's despair. It travelled down the reins just as a telegraph message might travel down the wire. Peso snorted, once again he'd have to take charge. The gelding increased his gait and took control, unfortunately, Vin Tanner was taken by surprise and in his weakened state wasn't able to stay in the saddle.
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He was already fighting before he was fully conscious. They wanted his boots, his buckskin and his mare's leg. Like Hell, he thought. He punched, kicked and bit them. They wanted a fight? Hell, he'd damn well oblige them.
The blow when it came was so sudden it took his breath away and it stung worse than anything he'd ever felt in his life. Blinking, he opened his eyes wide to find he had been assaulted by a pair of penguins. He had once seen a penguin engraving in a beautifully bound book but when and where he had seen it he had no idea.
"Calm yourself, boyo. Be still."
A talking penguin?
"He has a nasty lump on his head, Mother Mary Aidan."
"Be still!" ordered the diminutive penguin in a loud voice, well, in more of a bellow really.
"Mother Mary Aidan? I don't want to be bitten again, do you think we should we try to get some more laudanum down him before we take his clothes?"
"His eyes are focused now, Sister Bernadette. I think that slap across his stubborn face did it's work. You back with us, boyo?"
"Indeed, boyo. What did you think we were?"
"He's delirious, Mother Mary Aidan," said Sister Bernadette hiding an impish smile behind her sore hand.
"He had better hope he is. Or he'll get another slap. Penguins!"
"Sorry, ma'am. Truly, I is."
"Truly, I am," corrected Sister Bernadette. "What a strange accent."
"Ain't got no accent."
"Boyo, the first thing you had better know is that I won't stand for your shenanigans. So stop the answering back. Have you a name?"
"Vin," answered Vin meekly.
"Vin? Have you not been blessed with a proper decent Christian name, boyo?"
"Reckon I's got one decent enough. Vin is all I kin recall of it."
"You have forgotten your own name? Or is it that you don't want to remember it?"
Vin shrugged. He had no answer.
"I am sure it's probably short for Vincent, Mother Mary Aidan. A good Christian name. A saint's name," suggested Sister Bernadette earning herself a hard stare from her Mother Superior that made Vin long for some other barely remembered glare.
Piercing green eyes scrutinized Vin. He grew uncomfortable while imagining she was stripping the skin off him and examining him down to the very bone.
"Humph! This boyo has Comanche in him and if that wasn't sinful enough I'd say some heathen Scots and Irish blood mixed in there too. Am I right?"
"Mebbe," mumbled Vin looking around for his boots so he could make good his escape.
Green eyes stared down at him. "That's not all I see behind those eyes. Your boots are underneath the cot. You are free to go of course, boyo. However, if you can bide a while our Sister Sarah is a really fine cook. Her chicken and dumpling dinner is fit for the angels."
"Chicken 'n' dumplin's?" slavered Vin.
"She only serves it if we have a guest in the mission so if you do agree to bide a while you will be doing us a great favor, Vincent."
"Reckon it would only be polite ta stay an' eat," smiled Vin shyly.
She held her pectoral cross against her habit and bending over the cot chuckled down at him, "God bless you, Vincent. Just don't mistake Sister Sarah for a penguin too, she swings a mean skillet!"
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It would be impossible to mistake Sister Sarah for anything other than an earthbound angel, thought Vin. He sat on a narrow bench at the long rough hewn table and devoured two servings of the best peach cobbler he thought he had ever tasted.
Sister Sarah had rosy cheeks and the sweetest smile. Vin suspected she had red hair under her wimple to match the sprinkling of freckles on her snub nose. She made him feel calm whenever she looked at him. He had no idea why the Sisters had suddenly decided to trust him when he himself didn't even know if he could be trusted or not but trust him they did. Over the next few days he was well looked after and fed the best food he had tasted for a good while.
He found the daily routine of the mission suited him. Reminded him of somewhere else but it was impossible for him to recollect where. He liked the soft flickering candlelight and the perfume of the incense issuing from the gently swinging censer. The wonderful sound of the melodic voices of the Sisters united in worship. The swish of their habits moving through the cloister accompanied by the rattle of their rosaries. The sight of their fresh scrubbed, glowing faces smiling out bright eyed from under their spotless wimples.
The nuns didn't mind that he took a long siesta in the afternoon before taking up his Winchester to stand guard over them all night and every night. He liked the quietude and he strongly suspected that if he knew what it was that had made him into such a restless wanderer he would be able to find an answer and make sense of it here in this tranquil place.
When he had asked what else he could do to help out around the place the Sisters all shook their heads. Finally, he knocked on Mother's door.
"Penguin?" he grinned as he crossed the stone flagged floor, hooked his thumbs into his gun-belt and leaned in front of her.
"Boyo, you're begging for another lump on that hard head," she gave him a wink as she spoke.
She motioned for him to sit down and folded her delicate hands on the edge of the leather topped desk, "You want to leave us, Vincent."
It was more of a statement than a question. Vin would have preferred her not to call him Vincent, for some reason it was not a name he was comfortable with but as long as it made her happy he could stand it. Once again he felt she was seeing through him right down to the bleached bone.
"Naw, not want ta leave exactly but aw hell, sorry, I's got smarts enough not ta outstay m' welcome."
"Vincent. Vin, you are a spiritual man I can see it in you as plain as day. Why don't stay for the sake of your soul?"
"My soul?" pondered Vin. "I's reckonin' that's lost ta me is all."
"God is by your side, Vin. Don't you want to stay and pray with us? You will find God here, within these walls."
"The wilderness is my church where I see God's, not man's, hand in most things I reckon. I's figurin' God an' me don't need ta be behind doors an' walls fer him ta hear me say my piece through some priest when He kin hear me well enough as I's ridin' out across the prairie. I believe in God most times. He jus' ain't in me no more."
"You couldn't be more wrong about that, Vin."
Tanner shrugged one fringed shoulder, "Mebbe."
"If I asked you to stay one more day, Vincent, would that be enough to make you wait?"
"Iffen ya ask I reckon so. Ya got somethin' ta tell me?"
"I have prayed every day and night for God's help in this and I think He sent you, Vincent, here to aid us."
"Yeah?" Vin suddenly felt even more uncomfortable.
"Vincent, am I right in thinking you have seen men do evil things? Perhaps even done things yourself that...I would regard as...sinful."
Vin sat up straight in his chair and answered her as truthfully as he could as it was the one thing he was sure of, "Yes."
She paused before speaking again. "Just, yes? No attempt at defending yourself? No explanations?"
"Got little or no defense, Mother Mary Aidan. I feel I done some bad things, some right sinful things I's sure I ain't proud of an' there's no more ta be said. 'Cept I reckon I would take mebbe a few on 'em back iffen I could. At the time I figure I mostly thought I were doin' only what needed ta be done but I cain't swear ta any of it. I jus' ain't able ta remember."
"Vincent, I need a man who can be a cold-blooded and capable killer. Are you that man?"
"Mother, iffen yer sure ya kin live with whatever yer gonna ask me ta do. I reckon so."
She told him her story and he listened and when she was done he merely said, "Awrighty."
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They had all watched silently as he placed all his guns on the refectory table. He cleaned both his Winchesters and the Colt revolver he sometimes carried on a lanyard. Several knives that he always carried about his person were cleaned and sharpened on the whetstone too.
Sister Bernadette packed one of his saddlebags with medical supplies and Sister Sarah packed the other with foodstuff. They all stood at the gate to wish him farewell and he tipped his hat to Mother Mary Aiden before riding away.
"God bless you, Vincent," she called after him.
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The Hunter lay on his belly in the long grass of the riverbank until his quarry came into view. All that Mother had told him was true. He heard for himself the rattle of the leg irons. Their sobbing. The rank smell of their fear. The sharpshooter raised the Winchester rifle and fired one shot. It was enough. He had a God given talent for killing.
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"I know you won't stay, Vincent but you will always be in our thoughts and prayers," Mother told him.
"An' I'll think of ya ev'ry time I see a penguin," he grinned.
They all watched him ride away.
"An Angel with a fiery sword," sighed Mother Mary Aiden as she gathered about her the two dozen small children Vin had saved from being sold into slavery and degradation by the human predator who regularly stole the little ones away from the unprotected villages surrounding the mission.
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He still had no idea who he really was or where he was from but today his gut had chosen to ride North. He broke camp and threw the dregs of his coffee on the ground.
Peso looked round at him balefully. Didn't the damn fool man know nuthin' was ever goin' ta grow there ag'in now he'd done that? An' when in hell were they both goin' home ta Four Corners? thought Peso.
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Tanner was only a half hour from the border when he crossed the trail of the Apaches. He had fully intended to avoid them but came across them far sooner than he had expected.
Face to face with them he wasn't sure which was the more surprised, them or him. The Apaches were clearly drunk on tizwin. At least it was clear to Vin, he was certain everything was a blur to the Apaches. Sitting in a circle their drunken expressions vaguely reminded him of someone.
He wasn't stupid and would have turned tail and lit out the same way he had ridden in, except for their prisoner. He took in the situation at a glance. Their Henry rifles were rusty and he was pretty sure they didn't even have ammunition for the Burnside carbine. Still they were Apaches and to be respected as fearsome warriors.
Dismounting calmly as they watched goggle-eyed, he pulled his tin mug from the saddle bag. Sitting crossed legged before them he held out the tin mug and with a big belly laugh at his impudence the Apache filled it. Laughing again when he drained the mug dry and brazenly held it out again.
He apparently passed out blind drunk minutes before the Apaches ended their drunken laughter and toppling over in domino fashion, followed suit.
"Hey, cowboy," Vin hissed as he cut the boy free from the rawhide binding his wrists.
Vin guessed the terrified child was perhaps ten as his shock of blond hair fell over green eyes.
"Name a Vin. What's yers?"
"Let's git the Hell outta here, Billy."
"William, sir," corrected the boy causing Vin to chuckle as he heaved him up into the saddle before leading Peso silently away from the makeshift Apache camp. Remembering he was a horse for once, Peso was as good as gold for his man.
The small homestead was only a few miles over the border and easily found. Vin gazed at the burned out remains of the cabin.
"Ya got much kinfolk, William?" asked the tracker gently.
"Ma and Pa were all burned up in the cabin," answered the boy bluntly. "Indians rescued me. Wish the bastards hadn't."
"Aw hell, William. That ain't no way ta be thinkin' an' I's sure yer Mama wouldn't want ta hear ya talk that way," he rasped putting his hand on the boy's shoulder understanding that the child's devastating grief was still bottled up inside him.
"I have an older brother called Adam," volunteered William suddenly. "He went to Purgatorio last week to get roostered up with his friends and he ain't come back yet."
"We'll go find him," decided Vin wondering why a town named Purgatorio could make him feel uneasy and hopeful all at the same time.
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Tanner rode warily into Purgatorio. He now realized what was missing. There was no one to watch his back. Instinctively he knew this wasn't the first time he had ridden alone into this miserable place standing in for Hell and Damnation. Yet he felt that the last time he had braved a place similar to this one he had ridden with a brother ready to watch his back.
A brother he loved. A brother with green eyes and blond hair. He shook his head. Surely he was confusing the boy with someone else? A man paused on the dusty street and the stripes on the serape he wore danced before Tanner's eyes. Familiar. A beautiful whore with flashing eyes, wearing an owl feather in her raven hair, walked across the street in front of him. The taste of chili and a wet bar towel sailing through the air to unerringly find its tall male target sprang to his mind.
Seven men strode towards him from the direction of the cantina.
Seven men. Seven men...Seven Magnificent men...
"Adam!" the boy squirmed free and ran towards the tall blond leader of the seven men.
Speaking rapidly the boy informed his older brother of the tragic events that had befallen their family. "This is Vin. He rescued me and brought me here to find you."
"Obliged to you, Vin...?"
"Livery your horse an' find us in the cantina, Vin. We'll thank you in high style for saving William."
"Obliged but I's got somewheres I gotta be," grinned the tracker. "William? Ya ever need anythin' an' ya kin find me iffen ya head North a here an' stop short of Texas."
Tipping his hat the tracker rode out of town heading North towards somewhere he felt he urgently needed to be and straight into trouble...
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"I'm sorry, are the ropes hurting you? I can't loosen them, Pa wouldn't like it."
Vin squinted up at the owner of the voice. The ropes did hurt but not as much as the pain in his spine. He was wedged into the corner of a wagon stuffed to the gills with the entire worldly goods of what seemed to be a very large family. Peso was tied to the back of this wagon and the tracker thought he heard the rattle of at least one more wagon up ahead.
"Water?" offered the dark-haired youth.
Vin nodded in appreciation and the gag was pulled from his mouth long enough to allow him to drink.
"Again I'm sorry about the ropes. What with you being a Wanted man and all Pa said not to take any chances. We are sorry to have to treat you so bad."
"Not so sorry that ya would consider lettin' me go free?"
"Pa said the five hundred dollar bounty we can get for you in Tascosa will pay for Eudora's operation."
"My name's John, my sister is called Eudora. She's stone blind. Always has been since birth but the doctor in Abilene says he can fix her eyes for six hundred dollars. We sold the family ranch to Stuart James. Pa made a right good deal but once all the papers were signed and witnessed in front of Mr. Lightfoot, attorney-at-law, Stuart James refused to hand over the agreed price, run us off at gunpoint, so we didn't raise even half what we were promised. Pa says we can pay for the operation and head to Oregon with the bounty money we'll get for you."
"There's a good eye-doctor in Abilene?" queried Vin. Sadly recalling hearing of several eye-doctors in the recent past, none of them residing in Abilene.
"Pa met him in Ridge City a while back, the eye-doctor was on his way home to Abilene."
"So he never done examined yer sister, Eudora?"
"No but Pa says he knew his stuff. Talked right fancy and knew lots of real big words."
"Son, I kin think of a few men kin do all that big fancy talk but that don't make 'em doctors."
"He showed Pa his printed paper credentials in a gilded wood frame and Pa paid him fifty dollars up front."
"Kin I talk ta yer pa?"
"When we make camp tonight I'm sure Pa will want to talk to you. He ain't a bad man, Mr. Tanner. He just wants our sweet Eudora to see the green grass and the blue sky. We all do."
"I never once thought he were a bad man, John."
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"Mr Tanner? Would you kindly agree to be tied to the wheel of the wagon then we can feed you?"
The small wagon train had stopped for the night and Vin Tanner's captors had graciously allowed him to stretch his legs.
"That will be alwrighty I reckon."
"Mr. Tanner, I find it a mite difficult to believe you're the murderer on this Wanted poster but this looks like you to a T."
"Mebbe we kin negotiate."
"Sorry. I have to have the cash money for my daughter Eudora's sake. I'm sure you will get a fair trial in Tascosa, Texas."
"They're gonna lynch me without no trial."
"You can't know that."
"Sheriff over in Tascosa done swore on his mama's grave that iffen I stepped in Texas ag'in he'd git a photograph made standin' next ta me fresh cut down from the gallows an' layin' stone dead in m' coffin. Do that sound fair ta ya?" rasped Vin, wondering if that recollection was a true one or just his vivid imagination.
Bud Wilkinson rubbed a work hardened hand over his windburned face with a long drawn out sigh. "I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner."
"Lemme go an' I kin git ya money."
"I ain't rightly sure. Don't go on the worry. I jus' knows I kin do it."
"Eudora wasn't the first girl baby me and my wife had. We were overjoyed she survived but she were unnatural quiet. We knew something wasn't right. She's never known light from dark. Day from night. Whatever the cost I gotta give her this chance it's the first she's had in eighteen years. I gotta do this for her."
"I knows," rasped Vin quietly. "I knows."
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"Mr. Tanner?" the soft whisper came out of the darkness.
"What ya doin'?"
"Freeing you," she said her strong sensitive fingers deftly untying the knots. "I picketed your horse a good few yards over that way. He's saddled and your gun belt is hanging from the saddle horn. Pa won't hear you getting away."
"Ya did all that in the dark?"
"I'm always in the dark, Mr. Tanner."
"I ain't goin'. Me an' yer Pa kin git somethin' worked out."
"He's determined to do this, Mr. Tanner. Even though I think it's terribly wrong."
"He's doin' it fer yer well-being. Ta give ya a better life. I ain't goin'," he reached out and grasped her hands in his freed ones feeling her wince. "How did ya hurt yer hand?"
"Your horse tried to bite my thumb off," she admitted ruefully.
"He would, he's meaner than a rattler when parted from me. Hell, he's meaner than a grizzly ev'n when he's with me. I'll go bring him back inta camp. I ain't goin' ta run out on y'all."
"I can't ask you to stay. To give up your life. You can't expect me to live with the guilt."
"I wanna help 'cos somehow I knows what it's like ta lose yer sight."
"That's more than I do. I never had any to lose. You must understand, Mr. Tanner, I'm happy to stay as I am."
"Eudora," Tanner inhaled deeply before saying, "There is no miracle eye-doctor in Abilene."
"I know. It's Pa that needs to believe there is, not me."
"There might be one in Denver or even San Francisco."
"Then he might as well be up there with the man in the moon. You must leave now and get a good head start. When it's light Pa will track you down."
"He ain't able ta track me. Still, it's a good plan. I'm gonna go fer a while but I swear I'll be comin' back with the money. Ya keep him outta Texas an' searchin' fer me over the next few days an' I'll find y'all. Can ya do that, Eudora?"
"Yes. I can do that but if Pa sets eyes on you again he will take you into Tascosa dead," she warned. Then sure she would never hear from him again she summoned up all her courage to ask, "Mr. Tanner? Pa says I'm pretty.... Am I pretty?"
"Ya ain't pretty, Eudora, yer beautiful," he said drawing her tenderly into his arms. Raising her chin up towards his he kissed her, gently at first.
She breathed him in. He smelt of wood-smoke, horse sweat and wet dog. She felt the rough texture of his buckskin jacket under her hands. The heat of his body pressed hard against her own. Then the delicious feel of his stubble tickling her cheek and his astonishingly soft lips on hers before the wetness of his tongue took her by surprise.
He kissed her until she could hardly stand up before he finally said goodbye. She had green eyes and shining blonde hair but would never need to know from him that she was as plain as an adobe wall. One day soon some other lucky man would find her beautiful, he reasoned while pocketing the Wanted poster and leaving astride Peso.
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The robber fired a shot into the air.
"Put five hundred dollars in this here saddlebag," he demanded, his raspy voice muffled by the faded pink bandanna masking his face.
"What? This here money belongs to the big rancher, Stuart James. There's a least three thousand dollars in this money chest," remonstrated the wagon driver, earning himself a trio of dirty looks from three more guards employed by the rancher, Stuart James.
"Yeah? Hell, iffen ya ferget what I looks like ya kin keep it. I's only needin' five hundred dollars offen the likes a this here crook, Stuart James," drawled the blue-eyed robber.
Bemused, the wagon driver pushed back his hat and scratched his bald head as the robber on the black gelding rode away. "Stuart James won't ever believe we were robbed when we say they only took five hundred dollars!" he remarked.
"The Hell he will when you turn up dead in the back of the wagon and all the money is gone."
"But I ain't dead!"
A single shot rang out.
"Now you are!" laughed one of the three ranch hands as they escaped with the remaining two thousand five hundred dollars.
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The buckskin clad man rode Hell for leather right through the very center of the small camp. He jumped his uppity gelding over the campfire, leaned from the saddle to steal a kiss and dropped the money bag at Eudora Wilkinson's feet without pausing to rein in the black horse.
"Five hundred dollars!" he yelled over his buckskin fringed shoulder. "Try Denver!"
"Vin!" called out Eudora as Tanner vanished into the darkness forever.
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She nursed the new baby before pulling the hand-knitted coverlet around them both. Sitting there she gazed across the room at her own reflection in the looking glass. A smile spread across her plain face that made her almost pretty.
"I was born stone blind but one night I met a wonderful man named Vin Tanner. I never got the chance to see what he looked like but a man as kind as he is must be handsome. He gave me my first kiss. As long as I live I'll never forget it. He was Wanted in Tascosa, Texas for a crime I'm sure he didn't commit but he gave me the money to have an operation in Abilene, Texas. There was no eye-doctor in Abilene. My father had fallen prey to a low-down trickster. I persuaded my father to travel as far as Denver. Denver was where I met the young Doctor Loengard, my future husband, now your adoring Papa. He studied my case and developed an entirely new surgical technique. He himself carried out the pioneering surgery on my eyes. It made him rich and famous. Only a year later we were married here in Denver---"
The babe yawned. John Vincent Loengard was only a few months old but already this story, as related to him by his loving mama, Mrs. Eudora Loengard, had lulled him to sleep a hundred times...
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Several miles later, still annoyed about being spurred in to jumping over the campfire when there wasn't even any damn gunfire, Peso tipped a happily dozing Tanner out of the saddle just for spite. The jury is still out as to whether the bad-tempered horse was purposely aiming for the one rock sitting all alone in several square miles of wilderness, or not.
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He felt his stomach roll as he took the offered tin plate of pork 'n' beans.
"Jus' fine. Mebbe I best splash m' boots first," he strolled away from the campfire ostensibly to relieve himself.
Once out of sight he fell to his knees and wondered where the Hell he was and more to the point who in the Hell he was. He went through his buckskin's capacious pockets and studied the few items he found there. A harmonica. Could he actually play it? If he could he couldn't remember how to now. A lump or two of sticky peppermint candy. He'd save that for later or maybe it was for that cantankerous black-hearted mule that had apparently tossed him headfirst onto a rock fairly recently. A folded sheet of paper that proved to be a Wanted poster for one Vin Tanner.
He touched his face. It was unshaven with a straight nose. 'Tanner' sounded familiar.
"Remember you're a Tanner."
He thought he recalled someone saying that to him. Someone important. He picked up the harmonica and rubbed it against his buckskin jacket then peered at his own reflection in it. Aw Hell. He was Vin Tanner. He was a murderer with a $500 dead or alive bounty on his head.
Were the men he was traveling with bounty hunters? It didn't seem likely as they had let him wander off. It didn't seem a good idea to stay out of sight for too long in case they were bounty hunters and decided $500 was still $500 even iffen he was dead. He ambled nonchalantly back to the campfire and forced down the food. Surreptitiously, he eyed his six companions. That they were all hired guns he decided almost immediately. The sort of men even their own mothers crossed the street to avoid. And apparently he was one of them.
"Now you got us all here, Hank, you want to tell us what the job is?" asked the fat man who had handed Tanner the food.
"Never mind the job, Hank. What's it pay? I don't work cheap. Got me a reputation now," said the lanky kid in a fractured voice that didn't sound to have broken properly.
"Don't make me laugh, Kid. The only reputation you've got is for wetting your britches at the first sign of trouble!" laughed Hank. "You with us, Tanner? We could always use a man with your skills. I hear you are wanted in Texas for murder, that right?"
"Don't have much to say for yourself do you?" sneered the Kid.
"Nope," replied Tanner, fixing the boy with a steely blue glare.
"So you in or out?" persisted Hank.
"What's the job?" asked Tanner.
"Don't you want to know what it pays first?" laughed Hank.
"Naw. I's awready got me a reputation folks actually heard 'bout so y'all be payin' me top dollar," rasped Tanner still staring at the Kid.
"You hear that, Kid? That's how a real man talks an' Tanner here ain't much older than you. This job will help you grow into that reputation, Kid. There's a town not far from here with seven men paid to protect it. The Larabee Gang is the job. Certain ranchers are finding them a hindrance to common sense and good business."
"I see that mind is as sharp as ever, Tanner, you never forget a name do you? Chris Larabee, the gunfighter, is their leader. Now that man really has a reputation, Kid. He's a pure bad element! He even got Top Hat Bob Spikes! A one-eyed man so damn ugly he looked like a cat walking backwards with its tail up in the air!" laughed Hank.
Tanner had no idea who Hank was but that laugh sounded like a constipated donkey and it was sorely getting on his frayed nerves. He had to thank whoever was looking after him for giving him time to read the Wanted poster and find out his own name at least.
Read? Since when had he learned to read? It was squirming around somewhere in his brain that he had never been to school so who had taught him to read?
Someone gentle without a mean bone in her body. Kind and generous even to a ruffian like him. Golden. Radiant. Her name was...?
Memories were slipping and sliding around in his head like a bar of slimy soap hiding just under the surface in a bowl of dirty water. Names, faces, voices, even phrases. None of which he could grab hold of long enough to make any sense of.
"We were waiting on Bob Wood but it doesn't look like he's gonna show. He wasn't riding in with you was he, Tanner?"
"Didn't think so. Can't see you and him ever being pards. Specially you being a half-breed and all. The way Wood talks you'd think he was a blue blood descended from the Queen of England herself! Do you know the others?"
Tanner hesitated. He had absolutely no idea if he did or not.
"This here is Kid Harker, this is Jack Stott, Billy Boy Williams, Johnny Hawkins and Porky Smith. Course you know me! How far back do we go, Tanner?"
"Too far, Hank," drawled Tanner.
"Still got that wicked sense of humor, Tanner!" laughed Hank. "Still got that way with the ladies too I'll bet? Ride with Tanner and you'll never go short! You can stop at any fancy ranch house, any tumbledown cabin and the lady of the house, young or old, will fall over herself to feed this boy and more! Never known that Tanner shy boy act to fail! Me, I was never too proud to turn my nose up at his leavings!"
Tanner didn't remember much but he was damn sure he hadn't ridden with a pain in the butt like Hank for long.
"Was it a jealous husband you shot back in Texas?"
"Ya know what I's like," shrugged Tanner.
"Too well! All the same sitting around reminiscing won't buy Grandma a new bonnet. We need to get a move on. The foreman from the James Ranch drew me this map. The plan is a couple of us ride hell for leather into the town from the direction of the Stacey Ranch and claim there's big trouble out there with the Indians from the nearby reservation and when The Larabee Gang come a running we pick them off on Stacey land. That way no one connects this to Stuart James and his cronies. Clever plan, eh?"
"Yep," agreed Tanner, damn sure Hank hadn't thought it up.
"So we might as well head over onto Stacey land now, make camp for the night and decide who goes into town tomorrow."
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"That's the Stacey Ranch house back yonder. Fancy, eh?" Hank rode alongside Tanner and indicated a grand, well-built ranch house. "I'd like to own a quality place like that one day and own a quality woman to go with it, wouldn't you, Tanner?"
"Never bin akin ta ranchin' nor tamin' highfalutin women."
"No. Not you! Too wild and woolly! You look a bit down on your luck, Tanner," smarmed Hank, quickly adding, "No offense intended. It's just that, well, you look in need of a good feeding up. So I was thinking, when The Larabee Gang is out of the way we might make a raid on the town's Bank. What do you say, pard?"
"You, me and some of the other fellers if they want."
"I'll think on it."
"You got something else lined up?"
"Room for one more?" asked Hank eagerly.
"Just like old times!" laughed Hank. "You, me, a wagon load of money and the most 'accommodating' working girls!"
"I's better scout up ahead. Find a good place ta camp fer the night."
"See what I mean, Kid? Tanner's always thinking. Always on the move. Ahead of the game. Tanner, take the Kid along will you?"
Hell an' damnation, thought Tanner. Now he was baby-sitting some snot nosed kid. Luckily the Kid had enough sense to know when to stay silent. Tanner found a cave, clean spring water and enough bunny trails to decide it was worth leaving a out few snares for a rabbit supper. The Kid watched quietly. Tanner decided the Kid was brighter than Hank and prepared to learn. Tanner set the snares slowly and carefully so the Kid could see how it was done before they met up with Hank and the rest.
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"Look what we found, Tanner!" laughed Hank.
Her green eyes flashed angrily as the men surrounded her and tried to drag her down from her pewter gray horse.
"Stop that!" she snapped as she slapped at their reaching hands. "You! Help me down," she ordered, indicating the fat man.
Too startled to disobey, Porky Smith roughly shoved the others aside and carefully lifted her down from the saddle as if she was made of delicate spun glass.
"You can put me down now," she said to a besotted Porky Smith who still had his podgy hands around her waist.
Expecting them all to wait, she took her time calmly smoothing out the heavy skirt of her dark red riding habit and fussily removing her silver banded black gaucho hat, re-pinning a long strand of hair then replacing the hat before curtly demanding, "Who in the hell are you and why are you on my damn land?"
"Your land?" asked Hank slack jawed.
"I am Elvira Stacey-Flynn and why am I still waiting for an answer?" she said defiantly, hands on hips, making it obvious even to a blind man she wasn't the least bit intimidated by any of them, especially Hank. "You," she said, strutting over and poking Tanner hard in the chest with an expensively gloved index finger, "explain yourself, raggedy man."
"Jus' passin' by, ma'am," he mumbled, her cocksure ability to stand her ground most definitely reminding him of someone else with an equally forceful, arrogant stance.
"The hell you are. You are trespassing. My men and I shoot trespassers."
Tanner's head was already hurting something fierce and now he had been singled out by some saucy baggage who apparently had no idea what kind of peril she was in from Hank and his gang of dangerous animals. She surely was stunning to look at with all that leonine blonde hair and Tanner had to ask himself if he was the kind of man to be first in line? No, he was most definitely sure that in spite of being lowdown murdering scum like the rest of this motley gang he certainly was not a violator of women.
His sharp eyes noticed that a Winchester carbine rested in the boot on her saddle but she showed no inclination to reach for it. So she was either stupidly naïve, totally unafraid or armed with a weapon other than her carbine. He rapidly dismissed the first explanation. If all this was her land, as she claimed, the last thing she would be was naïve.
That left the last two options and he dare not even start to think where she could be hiding a weapon she could reach quickly enough, so that left unafraid. Unafraid was the option that was going to get her seriously hurt. He had to do something to keep her safe from Hank and his cutthroats.
Praying that she really wasn't armed, he ran his hand backwards and forwards over his unshaven jaw and while leering lickerishly at her Junoesque figure he asked Hank, "Mind iffen I goes first?"
"See what I mean, Kid? Tanner's always thinking. Always ahead of the game," laughed Hank as Tanner roughly grabbed her upper arm and dragged her kicking and screaming into the dense woodland.
"Ma'am? Ma'am, please listen ta me," as he gently shook her to shut her up. "Yer safe now."
"Why, aren't you going to rip all my clothes off and ravish my womanly body? How terribly disappointing," she purred.
"Ya what?" he rasped, paralyzed with shock like a buck caught in trap.
She batted her long eyelashes at him, turned to the side and started to lift her skirt revealing red silk stocking tops that almost made him stop breathing.
"Ma'am, please don't! Ain't no need fer ya ta be doin' that!"
"Why, don't you want to sport with me, Cousin Vin? Trust me to get you and not Chris. I bet he wouldn't be backwards at coming forwards!" she teased, laughingly producing a small Colt from somewhere he dare not let himself even start to imagine.
"Ya know me?" he asked astonished.
"What? Know you? Why, of course I know you! I hope you don't think I show my lace garters to every stray tracker I meet!" she stared at him affronted. "Cousin Vin, are you alright?" she asked putting her hand on his arm and squeezing it comfortingly as she realized he was totally disorientated. "Why on God's green earth are you riding with this vermin?"
"Naw. I ain't awright," he replied sinking to the ground. "I cain't remember who I is. I's hit my head."
"Let me look at your head, Lover," she said, kneeling beside him in the mud and lifting his hat off. "That's a real goose egg you have there."
"I's mostly fine jus' a little woozy. Ouch! That hurts! Ouch! Please, don't be touchin' it ag'in. Hell, yer more dangerous than the damn bounty hunters."
"Don't you remember anything? Even how this happened?"
"All I knows fer sure is I done murder in Texas."
"No, no, you didn't do it, Cousin Vin."
"Why, it was Eli Joe. Don't you recall? Eli Joe murdered Jess Kincaid to frame you. To get you off his trail back when you were a bounty hunter."
"Yeah? Ya know this fer sure? How do ya know?"
"Why, you told me, Cousin Vin." She was clearly surprised that he would doubt it.
"Ya believed me?"
"Why, of course I did! Everyone does!"
Exhausted by the days of constant confusion, he rubbed his hand wearily across his forehead. It didn't help.
"Are we in love?" he asked suddenly sure it was true.
"What? No. Don't be a silly boy."
"I think we is."
"Bah, you really did hit your head hard! It's loosened your brain! Vin, listen to me, you are my dear cousin, Vin Tanner. I have a great deal of affection for you but I'm your cousin Orlando Flynn's wife. You were at the wedding with Chris and the others. Don't you remember me at all? Look, let me take you home to the Stacey Ranch. Orlando will wire for Chris to come and get you then you'll be alright. Chris will take good care of you. You shouldn't be out here in this dazed condition people are worried about---"
"Scratch my face," he interrupted hastily, realizing he still had to get her away from the rest of the gang and that it was becoming more urgent by the minute.
"Draw blood an' then run. Don't stop until yer somewheres safe. I'll kin make sure they don't follow ya."
"What about you?"
"No, I want to stay and help you. You need help," she argued.
"Will ya do as I tell ya?" he rasped, sure that she was the most exasperating woman he'd ever met.
"Shall I fetch help?"
"Yeah. Yeah, ya go do that, fetch help," he agreed hastily.
"Are you ready?" she asked while unbuttoning the tiny pearl buttons on her right hand glove.
"Your face scratching?"
"Damn, woman, don't warn me jus' do---Hells Bells!"
"Why, did that hurt?"
"Damn. I said scratch me not claw my eye out!"
"Will that be enough?"
"Hell, wench, remind me never ta rile ya up good an' proper!"
He smeared some of his own blood along the edge of his hunting knife before gingerly dabbing at the scratches with the edge of his faded bandanna.
"Are you sure you don't want me to scratch the other side too?"
"Think ya awready did!" he said turning to go.
"Vin," she said softly, "Do be careful...we are all concerned for you. Watch your back."
Tanner walked slowly back to Hank's gang making an obvious show of cleaning the fresh blood off his hunting knife. "Bodacious bitch!" he cursed, blood trickling slowly down his face. "She near had my eye out after I were done usin' her."
"Didn't you leave anything for the rest of us?" asked Hank.
"Not hardly," he snarled standing toe to toe with the other man, his eyes almost indigo with menace. "Do it matter?"
"I don't suppose it does," gulped Hank.
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Vin tossed and turned on his bedroll trying to remember what kind of a man he was. He touched the lacerations on his face with his fingertips. He knew now he could feel love. So what kind of a man did that make him? What was it she had said? She had 'affection' for him. Did that mean he was worthy of anyone's affection? Would a woman like her care for a man who was bad to the bone? That she completely trusted him was plain. Trusting a man was far harder than being in love with him surely?
She had said people were worried. About him? What people? The wondrous angel that had taught him to read? He was pretty sure that he couldn't be the kind of man people worried about and be a murderer. Yet he was equally sure he had killed more than his fair share of men.
She had told him that he once was a bounty hunter. That he had been framed up for the murder in Texas. Perhaps that was why he couldn't remember it. There again he couldn't remember much at all. Yet it was all there he knew it. Only just out of reach. Something was missing. It gnawed at him. Disheartened him. He felt a hollow space deep down inside him that could only be filled by the friendship of a certain someone...
"Don't call me Cowboy!"
He could hear those words echoing around in his head constantly in a voice more familiar to him than his own Texan drawl.
He could hear his name spoken with a Southern accent, often in injured, affronted tones.
Why did he feel the welcome touch of another gripping his forearm?
"I'll take that chance," he had drawled.
"I won't. You get on back to town. If we're not there by morning you come hunting," someone had answered.
Why did he feel himself returning that same forearm grip of brotherhood?
Green eyes full of fire. Those were her eyes surely? No, this was a cold dangerous fire. Capable of making a man's blood freeze in his veins. Making grown men sob out loud for their mamas with their unyielding ferocity. Eyes that looked right through him. Eyes he couldn't hide from. Eyes he didn't want to hide from, eyes he sought out in crowded places, eyes that followed him when he walked away, eyes that welcomed him back...home.
And tomorrow? He was being paid handsomely to kill his share of seven men. Was he the kind of man to refuse more money than most men saw in a lifetime to kill other men? No, he wasn't because as she had told him he was an ex-bounty hunter. A man hunter. A proven killer.
"Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that."
Why should he remember that? Why was it important? Had he ever even known what it meant?
It was important because it echoed in his heart even now.
He finally fell into a restless sleep where seven brothers with blank, featureless faces stalked his dreams and he was sure one was his own face.
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"Porky, Kid, ride into Four Corners and raise a right ruckus until The Larabee Gang follow you back out here," ordered a sullen Hank. He was overtired and frustrated from restlessly dreaming about the mettlesome jezebel Vin Tanner had greedily helped himself to and then viciously murdered in an ugly fit of half-breed temper. Hank had heard that there were a few particularly fine looking young women in Four Corners and he was fully intending to grab himself one before Tanner and his hunting knife put the kibosh on all the petticoat fun.
"What if they all won't come?" asked Porky looking worried.
"One's a healer and one's a holy man so insist there are injured and dying out here. The gunfighter Larabee, he'll be the one all in black, can start a fight in an empty shack so he'll come and his all friends will tag along. If they leave one man behind to defend the town we'll pick him off when we rob The Bank."
"Four Corners?" asked Vin. "That the name a the town?"
"You know something about the town?" asked Hank.
"Never heard of it," admitted Vin.
"It'll be best if you and Billy Boy get up high, Tanner. Make the most a them sharpshooting skills a yours. Pick 'em off as they ride into pistol range and we'll finish up any loose ends. Stuart James wants them all deader than beaver hats. No survivors."
Tanner took his rifle from it's boot and his telescope from it's keeper as Billy Boy followed him up to the best vantage point.
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Porky and the Kid pitched it just right. The Larabee Gang rode out of Four Corners, their collective coattails afire. Ever since Vin Tanner had gone missing Chris Larabee had been just itching to shoot someone or something. Now it sounded likely that he would get his wish.
Tanner put the telescope to his left eye and watched the six men riding in with Porky and the Kid lollygagging behind them. He focused on The Larabee Gang's leader. He was easily identified. It was in the way he sat his horse, the way he carried himself, in the way the others rode a hair's breadth behind him at all times. He was, as Hank had predicted, all in black. The long black duster skimming his silver spurs making him a dead ringer for The Grim Reaper.
Tanner didn't need to actually see the green eyes shaded under that ugly black hat, he knew them like his own. He knew now why another's green eyes and blond hair had confused him and made him think he was in love.
He held his sawed-off Winchester on Billy Boy, "Lay yerself flat, suck mud an' don't ev'n let me hear ya breathin'."
He picked off Porky and The Kid with his rifle first, he didn't want to be concerned with back-shooters. Then he turned his attention to the men below him, keeping them all pinned down until Chris Larabee and the other members of The Larabee Gang rode in.
"Lay back down," he rasped without turning his head as Billy Boy risked raising his face an inch from the mud rather than suffocate.
As Hank and his pitiable cohorts threw down their weapons a smile stole over Tanner's face. He watched as a still limping Chris Larabee silently detached himself from the other five and made his way around behind Tanner's position.
Tanner's battered hat was pulled down low over his azure eyes and he looked for all the world as if he was fast asleep as a terrified Billy Boy still rested face down in the mud beside him.
"Hell, Cowboy! Ya makes enough noise ta wake the dead," he drawled as Chris holstered his gun.
Vin Tanner was in no doubt at all as to what kind of a man he was. He was the kind Chris Larabee called brother and that was all he would ever need to know.
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"Where do I know ya from?"
"W-what?" stammered Hank.
"You took me in for a bounty once."
"Took ya in?"
"You scared the bejesus out of me, Tanner, the way you looked and them Comanche Indian ways but you were fair. You didn't starve me or ill treat me. Best week of my life."
"Well, six days. Ya took me up on a Sunday and handed me over on the Friday."
"Best week a yer life?"
"Aw Hell. I's right glad ta be home," rasped Tanner, locking the cell door and throwing the key across the jail to a waiting JD.
"Don't ya throw a hissy fit, Larabee but I reckon I knows them that robbed Stuart James."
"Three ranch hands from his own ranch an' m' dark half, Cowboy."
"Your 'dark half'?"
Are you sure it's only half of you?
Purty sure, Cowboy.
"Saloon," said Chris Larabee.
"Saloon," nodded Vin Tanner.