Yesterday's Witness

by Amelia

Feedback: Positive and constructive

"Man now that was a party," Buck smiled, remembering the celebration thrown by the Seminole village in their honor. It had been a year to the day that they had met and fought off Anderson and his men.
"I have to say they did put out quite a spread of food. It was as big and good as any Thanksgiving feast I´ve ever seen or tasted," Josiah agreed as he patted his stomach.
"Buck you missed seeing this dance they did last night. They called it a blessing dance. I looked for you but couldn´t find you anywhere," JD said looking over at him.
"Trust me, JD, knowing Buck he'd be grateful you didn´t."
"What! Why you say that, Chris?" JD questioned.
"It is quite obvious, Mr. Dunne that the odds greatly favor that where ever Mr. Wilmington was, a person of the female persuasion was in the near vicinity," Ezra explained as he rode closer to Vin and Chris.
The Three men shared a grin, knowing what was coming.
"You mean Buck was off chasing some girl," JD stated.
"From the mouths of babes," Josiah commented as they all chuckled.
"I don´t chase them, they chase me. They can´t help it. My animal magnetism just draws them in."
"Yep, people usually track down the smell all right," Vin teased.
"Your right Vin, anytime I smell a skunk I always look for it to make sure it doesn´t spray me," Nathan laughed.
"Oh ha ha, Nathan. I noticed you and Miss Rain kept going on an awful lot of long walks," Buck tossed back.
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, you and your paramour did appear to be drawn to the outer reaches of nature. Was there something of interest you kept going to see?" Ezra asked, turning in his saddle and looking back at Nathan.
Nathan looking down at his saddle horn couldn´t keep the warm smile off his face as he mumbled, "She was just showing me around and some of the changes the tribe has made.
"I´m sure she was, Mr. Jackson. I am positive she gave you an excellent tour," Ezra replied with a straight face, though his eyes gleamed with devilment.
"So Ez, you gonna tell us how that young boy beat you last night with a straight?" Vin quipped.
"You got beat by a kid, Ezra?" JD asked in surprise.
"There is no need to let the whole country know, Mr. Dunne, and yes, I was showing the young lad the finer points in the game of poker.
"Well ya taught him real good. He was showing off that silver dollar he won from you. Real proud of it he was," Josiah put in.
"Ezra, you were betting money with a child?" Chris asked. He tried to sound disapproving but was so relaxed he didn´t quite pull it off.
"Of course not, Mr. Larabee. I bet money, the lad wagered his willingness to do something for me," Ezra answered a bit vaguely.
"What would he have had to do?" Nathan demanded as he rode up beside Standish trying to hide the smile on his face. Nathan knew Ezra had a soft spot for children and figured it was something more for the boy´s benefit than for himself.
"That he´d have totaketheponchooffmyhands," he mumbled in a low tone.
"What was that, brother?" Josiah asked with a grin.
Huffing loudly, Ezra repeated, "I said he would have to take that poncho off my hands."
"That brand new one you won off that traveling salesman?" Chris said.
"Yes, that one, it truly does not go with my wardrobe, nor is it in my personal taste," Ezra stated as he straightened his cuffs.
"Well since you didn´t win and the boy didn´t take it off your hands maybe I´ll help you out and take it off your hands for you," Nathan offered with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"Yes, well, I seemed to have misplaced it," Ezra said, looking straight ahead, but even he couldn´t hold the serious face when they all burst out laughing.
Riding on the atmosphere stayed relaxed for most of the day, until they crested a hill.
Vin stopped suddenly and stared off into the distance. The others looked in the same direction and at first saw nothing, but then saw a small cloud of dust that appeared to grow as it moved.
"Some one must be moving fast," JD commented.
"It´s two different groups," Vin explained as he reached back into his saddle bag and pulled out his spy glass. Putting it to his eye he reported, "It´s the judge and someone with him. There´s about 10, maybe 12 men chasing them and they look to be gaining fast."
"Let´s ride," Chris ordered.
The seven turned their horses and rode hard to reach the judge before the men chasing him could.
Vin, never slowing Peso, reached back and pulled his rifle out of its scabbard. Having had tied the ends of his reins together earlier that day, Vin let them drape on Peso neck. This was a routine he and Peso had used several times before, which showed as Peso increased speed instead of slowing down. Aiming the rifle, Vin fired several times rapidly, bring down the three men closest to the judge and his companion.
The others fired their guns at the chasers letting them know they had a fight on their hands.
Chris´s shot was true and brought down another as Buck and Josiah´s shots knocked two more off their horses.
Reaching the judge and riding past the seven turned the group and chased them back the way they had come.
"Do we go after them, Chris?" Buck asked, once they had come to a stop.
"No, let´s get back to the Judge and find out what´s going on," Chris answered, heading back to the judge.
"Was I ever glad to see you seven come riding over that hill," the judge greeted as they approached.
Chris got right to the point, "Orrin, why were those men chasing you?"
"I´ll explain everything once we get to Four Corners. They might have a sharpshooter or try another attack and I´d rather not be caught out here in the open. I'll explain once we reach town," the Judge responded.
"Alright. Vin, what´s the fastest route from here?" Chris asked.
"The way we were heading before. It´s a straight, easy ride. We can do it at a fast clip," Vin answered.
"Everyone keep your eyes open. Josiah, you and Buck take the sides. Nathan, JD, the back. I´ll take the front. Ezra, drift from the sides to the back, never the same direction, in case someone is watching and trying to track a pattern to shoot with. Vin, scout ahead and backtrack. Judge, you and your friend stay in the middle. Let´s head out." Chris's tone brook no argument.
As they took their positions the seven were curious about the fella dressed in tan pants, duster, work gloves and a hat which threw his face into the shadows. The group kept a fast pace as they rode at full alert for any ambush or sign of possible attack. They finally began to relax some three hours later when Four Corners came into view in the distance.
"We got a shadow about a mile back," Vin commented as he pulled up beside Chris.
Chris looking a head at the closeness of the town, then off to his left toward the hills thought for a moment, “Get Buck to go with you. Ride like your going into town a head of us, double back up to Preacher hill and change the ‘Shadow´s´ mind.”
Vin nodded and the two men were soon racing off toward town, only to double back on Preacher's Hill.
The group rode into town and dismounted in front of the jail.
Stepping up on the boardwalk the Judge turned and asked, "Do you want to get cleaned up or go get something to eat? We´ve been riding non-stop since we left last night."
The men watched as the stranger gave a negative nod, just wanting to get it over with.
“Fine. Chris, boys, let´s go into the jail so we can discuss this,” Judge Travis stated as he headed for the jail door.
"Orrin? I wasn´t expecting you. What are you doing here?" Mary asked, surprised to see her father-in-law.
"Mary, I´m sorry this was a spur of the moment decision. I need to discuss some business with Chris and the boys right now."
"Well I´ll come in with you. This business might be something I´ll want to put in the paper," Mary announced.
Neither Ezra nor Chris missed the tensing of the stranger as soon as the word ‘paper´ was mentioned, or the fact the stranger had stopped walking toward the jail.
“Mary, I´ll come by your office later and talk with you, once we have all the facts hashed out. It´s not appropriate for a lady to hear some of the language that I´m sure will be flying."
Mary looked at the men, and then to the judge with a frown forming on her face. She started to speak but never got the chance as Vin and Buck rode up with a wounded prisoner in tow.
“What happened?” Chris demanded.
The men dismounted and Buck took the prisoner into the jail. “I placed a couple of shots in front of his horse to change his mind about continuing. The dang fool started firing back and charged up Preacher´s hill. I had to knock him out of the saddle before he got his horse hurt. I only winged him a bit.” Vin explained.
"Does whatever is going on involve that man Buck just put in jail?" Mary wanted to know.
"Yes it does," the judge answered her.
"Well with him being held here in our jail it involves the town, and they have a right to know what´s going on or if there´s any danger. So I need to put it in the paper." With that she turned and went into the jail. Mary pushed past Buck, and the men looked to Chris for answers.
Chris shrugged his shoulders not knowing what was going on. The seven men looked to the judge who was staring at the stranger, and then toward the strange. Even though the person's head was down and the hat cast the face in shadows, they swore they could feel the eyes that bore into the judge with such intensity.
“You might as well come in and have your discussion, because I´m not going anywhere. I will be in this meeting,” Mary stated from the doorway, her hands planted firmly on her hips.
The judge´s companion never looked up but in a low flat tone stated, "No." The stranger turned and stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the livery.
"Damn," the Judge sighed.
"Orrin, I need to know what´s going on. If there´s trouble coming, then we need to know exactly what it is so we can plan for it," Chris demanded in a firm tone.
"I know, Chris." Taking one last look down the street the judge continued, "Mary, I´m warning you right now, you print one word before I say you can and I´ll have Chris arrest you for deliberately interfering in an investigation, and I will do it."
"Orrin, you can´t mean…," Mary began.
"Yes I do. You won´t print one word. When it is over I´ll give you the exclusive," the judge offered.
Receiving a reluctant nod from Mary, Orrin looked to Chris and explained. "The person who just walked away has information that could put away the mastermind behind all of the Wells Fargo robberies as well as the robberies of the stage coaches that are carrying the payrolls for Army and government purposes. The problem is they have already been betrayed by a newspaper reporter who wouldn´t take no for an answer. The reporter hid himself and listened in on a private meeting. He then published the information in the afternoon edition. Luckily it wasn´t everything, but it was enough to almost get us killed. We had to sneak out of town and it´s the reason we´ve been riding nonstop since last evening.
"The people of the town have a right to know," Mary insisted
"Depends what´s at stake. What´s more important, tellin´ a story or somebody´s life?" Vin asked as he, Chris and the Judge grabbed the horse´s reins and lead them down the street to the livery with the rest of the seven following close behind.
Walking into the livery the judge nodded to Tiny who was brushing down his horse before walking over to the stranger. "I´m sorry for what just happen. My daughter-in-law can be very single minded about her newspaper."
Nodding, the stranger led their horse into one of the empty stalls and then walked out locked the gate and leaned against it a moment before they stepped over to join the judge.
Vin noticed fresh blood on the rail of the gate and spoke out, "Nathan, you might want to check that fella´s left arm for a wound."
Nathan instantly headed to the stranger. "Now you don´t know me except from the judge here, but I´m a healer. I´d like to help by taking care of where you´re hurt."
"Not here," came the low voice.
"That´s fine. Let´s go up to my clinic," Nathan agreed.
"We´ll all go. It´ll be a good place to talk without any interruptions or worrying about anyone overhearing," the judge said.
The group moved out the livery doors and to the stairs that lead to the clinic. The door was shut once they were all in and scattered around the room.
The stranger slipped off the duster and reached up to remove their hat. A riot of long auburn curls tumbled down as she turned to face the seven men.
“You´re a girl!” JD blurted out.
"Glad you noticed kid," Buck laughed, reaching up and smacking JD´s hat off the boy´s head.
"You knew?" JD asked in shock, looking at Buck.
“Mr. Dunne, our Mr. Wilmington can discern a person of the female persuasion from approximately one hundred yards away. His senses are equal to that of a hound dog on scent when it comes to the fairer sex,” Ezra explained.
"Why were you hiding the fact?" Chris wanted to know.
"Chris, I need to take a look at her wound before we get into this," Nathan stated.
"Yes, we should step outside and give the young lady some privacy," Josiah agreed.
"There´s no need to leave. It´s just a graze on my arm," she answered, reaching to the hole in her sleeve and ripping it open so Nathan could see.
"Miss, why don´t you sit down and I´ll have ya fixed up in no time," Nathan offered.
Sitting down on the side of the bed, she gave him a smile, "Please call me Aira."
"Alright, Miss Aira, my name's Nathan."
"Gentlemen, I´m sorry for keeping my identity a secret. Judge Travis said I could trust you and although he´s a good man I wasn´t ready to hand my life over to strangers. I´m Airaleena Randall, please call me Aira."
"How did a lady get mixed up in some thing like this?" Buck asked. He put his hand on JD´s shoulder remembering the last time they crossed paths with women and a gang. JD had been shot and they had almost lost him.
"Buck, ain´t the same as what ya's thinkin'," Vin assured. He didn´t know the facts but he somehow knew that Aira wasn't the cause of the trouble, just caught up in it.
The air filled with tension as the men awaited an explanation.
"How does it look, Nathan?" the Judge asked.
"It´s a deep graze, deep enough to need a couple of stitches," Nathan answered as he finished cleaning the wound.
"Mr. Jackson, I'm sure the young lady would appreciate anything you might have for the discomfort accompanying your procedure," Ezra suggested.
"Ezra´s right, Miss Aira. This will hurt a bit. I can fix you a tea that will make you relax and help with the pain."
"No thank you. A bit of brandy or a whiskey would be nice though," she said with a slight grin. Making it obvious that she knew what was coming.
"Ezra, you have your flask?" Chris requested.
"Why yes, Mr. Larabee. I certainly do and it happens to contain a very nice brandy." Ezra smiled as he pulled out the flask and handed it to Josiah.
Josiah grabbed a cup from Nathan´s cabinet and poured a good bit of the liquid before handing it to her. "Here you go, Aira, this should help."
"Thank you, umm…, I´m sorry. I don´t know your name," Aira replied.
The judge quickly introduced the seven before continuing, "Aira, if you don´t mind I´m going to begin telling them what has occurred since we met and before."
"That´s fine, Judge," she answered, taking a drink from the cup.
"Aira was checking into a hotel in Carolville when a fight broke out in the dinning room. The ruckus traveled out into the main room and somehow in the confusion her saddlebags were mixed up with another set. It wasn't until she was up in her room that she realized. Inside she found route sheets and maps with locations clearly marked," the Judge explained.
As Nathan stitched her wound, Aira grimaced and then continued the story. "I looked in the other side and found men's clothing. I knew what room the man in question was in since he was given his key at the same time I received mine. He was several doors down from my room. I went to switch the bags with him and had just raised my hand to knock when I heard a voice say, 'You weren't suppose to kill anyone unless you could take them all down and hide the bodies where they'd never be found, not just shoot because the mood moved you. I plan each attack perfectly. All you have to do is follow what I tell you to do and when. I can't have the army getting involved, Robert, it´ll mess up all my plans. With my position I know which stage coaches will be used for payrolls and I know which routes Wells Fargo will be taking with their gold shipments. I know how many guards and where they´ll be, so do as I tell you, when I tell you, and don´t mess up again.' It was then I heard someone approaching the door from within, so I went back to the door before his and knocked loudly. I called out that I was looking for a tall man who had checked in at the same time as the fight down stairs. When he opened the door I looked down the hall at him. It looked like I was checking each door and that I hadn´t made it to his yet. When I reached him, I told him our bags had been mixed up and deliberately flipped open the side with his clothes. He smiled, stepped back into his room and came back with my saddlebags. I thanked him, went back to my room and waited about an hour. I left the hotel, casually as if nothing was wrong, and went looking for the sheriff. Unfortunately when I found the sheriff, guess who he's with?"
"Do you think they were working together?" Chris asked.
"Don´t know, didn´t want to take the chance. Heard some folks talking about a Judge Travis having just left for Eagle Bend. I waited until dark and rode out for Eagle Bend."
The Judge picked up the narrative. "I happened to be there for a meeting with a Pinkerton detective and an Army Major about the robberies. They were both involved since some of the thefts were governmental shipments and the two killed during the last robbery were out of uniform army guards which the Pinkerton's had place into position at the beginning of the route. We went into a closed dining room to try and work things out. It seems that the Major was angry because he was never informed that the solders would be going on the route. I had managed to settle down the two gentlemen when this young lady entered asking for me. I identified myself and told her that we were in the middle of a private meeting when she informed me that she knew who is behind the robberies. Major Reilly tried to throw her out but she wouldn't budge. Aira was able to tell us where the attacks had happened and what was taken, information tha t had not been released. She was in the middle of telling us about the conversation she had overheard when we heard a noise from the kitchen. She walked over to the door and threw it open and the town's reporter fell into the room. Seems he had been listening at the door. Willis, the Pinkerton agent, threw him out and ordered him not to print anything he had heard. After that fiasco we agreed to meet in the dining room, but with some of the Major's men standing guard. I could see that Airia was exhausted and thought it best to let her rest before we continued. I proceeded to acquire the room between Willis and myself for the young lady."
"The ones chasing you, did they follow you from Carolville? How did they find out you knew something, or did they find out about your meeting?" Chris questioned, looking from Aira to the judge.
"The newspaper reporter thought it was more important that the town knew the facts as he had heard them. He put it in the afternoon paper. I figure that´s how the fact that there was a witness became known, because I know I wasn't followed to Eagle Bend," Aira stated vehemently.
"They knew about the meeting. We were shot at when we met outside the restaurant that evening. Willis was hit in the shoulder," the judge continued. "If Aira hadn't knocked me down, I fear you would be burying me right now. The Major, his men and the sheriff all fired back and Aira pulled me into the restaurant, out the back door, and into the next building. She was adamant about getting out of town before the odds got worse. When she asked if I knew of a safe place to go, I told her I knew seven men who could protect us. So we made it to the hotel and grabbed only what we needed. Aira put her disguise on and hid me in the brothel by the stables. I bought an old dirty duster off of a cowboy and a bottle of cheap whisky, so when she came up with the horses we looked like two drunks leaving the establishment. We were fine until about an hour before you boys came along. Don't know how they found us unless they someho w found out about my association with the seven of you."
The room grew quiet as Nathan finished bandaging Aira's wound.
A nagging though kept bothering Chris. "Why were you traveling alone? Where were you heading? Most women would take the stage instead of cross country on a horse."
"The stage would have added days to what I could do on horse back. I was on my way to meet my father and husband. Beside, I've been riding cross country with my dad since I was able to walk," Aira answered. A grin lit her face until her eyes fell on Vin. She studied the man momentarily and frowned before looking away.
"Is there something wrong, Miss Aira? Do you know Vin?" Ezra asked tensely.
"He looks familiar, but I don't know why. I'm almost positive we've never met," Aira answered honestly.
"Vin do you know her?" Josiah asked his friend.
Vin studied her carefully and shook his head, "Nah, I'd know if we met before."
"Maybe you know her father. Who is your father and what does he do?" Ezra queried.
"Samuel MacDougall, he's been the western territorial Indian agent supervisor for longer than I've been alive. At the moment he and my husband are delivering a wagon train full of supplies for the Cortez Indian reservation. He's riding with the shipment to make sure the tribes get them instead of half of it winding up on some store's shelves or in the soldiers' own tents and barracks. He mostly oversees Texas, but in the last couple of years he's fired more local agents at each reservation for not doing their job, instead selling everything that comes in," Aira told them with a touch of anger in her voice at the injustice.
"Why you meeting them now? Why didn't you ride with them to begin with?" Buck asked. He actually thought she was what she professed but after JD´s brush with death thanks to the two lady bounty hunters he wanted to double check everything she said.
"My father wanted the shipments to arrive on time. He asked me to wait for some important papers that were due in that he couldn't wait for and as soon as they came in I headed out.”
Chris and Vin shared a glance, both realizing that they needed a plan.
"Need to go see what that fella in jail can tell us. See how many´ll be coming," Vin stated.
"Buck, take the top of the church bell tower and keep a look out. Josiah, Nathan, stay here with Aira and don't let anyone in except one of us, even if you know them. We don't want anyone knowing who she is or see she's a woman. JD, Ezra, take a walk around town and look for new faces. Judge, Vin, let´s go have a talk with the guy you brought in," Chris ordered before heading for the door.
"Umm, you might want these to help plan,” Aira offered.
Chris and Vin turned back around and watched as Aira opened her saddle bags and pulled out some papers and a map.
“What´s all that?” Chris asked.
“Copies of some of the names and shipment dates as well as a copy of the map that were in that saddle bag,” Aira stated.
“You took his papers! Why didn´t you say something before? “the judge demanded.
“I didn´t take his papers, I made copies of what I could and put his markings on my map,” she explained, handing the papers to Chris and the map to Vin.
Vin looked at the documents, “Might be best ta see if anything the prisoner says can help us figure out what´s on these.”
“Yeah, I think you´re right, we´ll look all this over at the jail after we question the man,” Chris agreed.
Nodding to the others, the men left leaving Josiah and Nathan to protect Aira.
Vin, Chris and the judge walked across the street and headed toward the jail. To anyone watching they appeared relaxed, as if there was no real purpose in their strides. Vin however was alert to all around them and Chris kept his gun hand free should any trouble arise.
Vin reached for the door but paused when he saw Mary heading their direction. “Judge, we got a problem headed this way.”
“Damn,” the judge mumbled, watching his daughter-in-law approach.
”Orrin, what is going on?” Mary demanded as she stopped in front of the men.
"Come along, Mary, let´s go back to your place," the Judge said, turning to escort her back.
"Are Chris and Vin going to question that man? If they are, then I'm going in so I can write down what he says," Mary told them.
"Mary, this isn't for the newspaper. If you print one word of any of this I'm afraid I'll have to have you arrested for interfering in a federal case." The Judge tried to get her to understand how dangerous the situation was with out giving out information.
"You wouldn't dare," Mary gasped, outraged at the suggestion.
"If he doesn´t, I will," Chris´s voice was soft and deadly.
A shocked Mary Travis looked at Chris, her mouth opened and then snapped shut when she saw the look on the gunman´s face. Turning quickly, she took the judges arm and let him take her back to her newspaper.
Vin looked to Chris, a slight grin appearing on his face, “She ain´t gonna be happy with you after that, Cowboy. Maybe you should go over and sweet talk her.”
Chris´s eyes narrowed at the laughter he heard in his friend´s voice. “I could just shoot you and get rid of one aggravation,” he growled.
Vin chuckled, “Nah, you won´t shoot me.”
“Why the hell not?” Chris huffed.
“You´d get too bored without me around,” Vin teased as he walked into the jail.
Chris was unable to stop the twitch of a smile as he shook his head. “Yeah, you´re probably right.”
Vin sat the documents on the desk and grabbed the keys from the desk drawer. He moved toward the bars with Larabee at his side and watched the man who sat on the cot.
“Get up,” Chris ordered as they walked into the cell.
The man felt a chill run down his spine as he looked at the man dressed in black whose eyes shot daggers. He obeyed the command and stood slowly wondering why he had ever thought this job would be easy money.
“Who´s giving the orders, I want his name,” Chris demanded.
“Don´t know, Mister, honest. Some man came in the saloon and said he´d pay ten dollars to any man who would ride out and find an old man and another rider. Said they had stolen his kid´s horse after they knocked him off it, and that they had busted him up real good. He swore the kid had raised the horse from a foal and it meant the world to him. Said he´d pay a hundred dollars to anyone who could bring them back to town,” the man quickly told them.
“Why did ya believe him?” Vin asked, curiously.
The man shrugged, "He was well dressed and looked like the father type, all concerned and upset. Didn't none of us take to the idea of some youngin' being hurt or his horse stolen, so half the men there signed on. We didn't think anything funny about it until the two we was chasing ran into you fellas. There was a couple of men who seemed to know the man paying and they said you were all part of a gang of horse thieves. Thought I was doing a good thing 'till you and that other fella shot at me. Thought ya was gonna kill me and figured my only chance was to make it half-way up that hill to the boulders and hold up before you killed me.
"Where were you suppose to meet up with the others?" Vin asked.
"Once I saw where them two we was chasing went, I was suppose to watch them and send a telegram back to Eagle Bend, To Mr. Smith from Norris."
"You name really Norris?" Chris asked.
"Yes sir, Frank Norris."
"He's telling the truth, Chris, he didn't know what was really going on," Vin said with conviction as he walked away.
"Look Norris, stay here for a bit until we can figure what were going to do. I'll have our healer come take a look at your arm." Larabee told the man as he followed Vin out of the cell and to the desk.
Vin rolled and the map and began to study it as Chris looked over the papers. A short time later, Orrin walked in and joined them, giving the men a "don't ask" shake of the head as Chris handed him the papers and went back to looking at the last page.
"Chris, those papers have dates on them of the shipments already taken?"
"Yeah," Chris read off the dates and names beside each one as Vin began to draw short lines under those marks on the map.
Reading off the last one Chris asked, "What ya got, Vin?"
"Judge, do you know when the next large shipment is due?"
"Yes, Vin, it's due in two days," Orrin answered.
"They plan on shipping it on the stage from the train to Denver, aren´t they?"
"Yes," the judge frowned, "how did you know?"
"Cause it's the only place that's marked on this map that Chris didn't name. Those names by them dates are what an area is called. See here, Chris said August 17th, Campbell. That's Campbell ridge," Vin explained as he pointed to a mark on the map. "The only mark left is Shadows Canyon. It's the only road that the large stage takes that goes straight through from the train to Denver. Figure they wouldn't want to take the other and be making stops in all those towns, this way they won't be picking up a passenger along the way that might be a part of a gang."
"You're right, Vin, they are using that route. I need to go wire the Pinkerton's and the military so they can change their plan," the judge said, turning toward the door.
"Hold on a minute, we know where they're gonna strike. We may not get another chance like this," Vin rationalized.
"Vin's right, Orrin, we can use this information to our advantage. For the gang to have this information there's a good chance that they have an inside man and if you wire them, then the gang will know too," Chris commented.
Considering what they had said, the judge had to agree that it made sense. "All right, I won't let anyone know for now. So, do you have a plan in mind?"
"May need a bit more time to work out all the bumps," Vin stated.
"Well then, I'll leave the two of your to your planning. I'm going over to the saloon for a drink," the judge expressed and then left the jail.
"The others started to trickle in and soon all seven were in the jail. Nathan and Josiah had explained that the judge had offered to stay with Aira and between those two; anyone walking through the door unannounced would be shot. Buck had convinced the livery man, Tiny and his sons to take his watch. They would not ask questions but had promised to let them know should anyone approach the town.
Once everyone understood the situation the men began tossing out ideas until the seven men agreed upon a plan to take down the gang.
Chris looked at Vin and stated, "We still need to do something with Aira. Hide her somewhere out of sight and in a way that no one will give a second thought if they do happen to see her."
Vin looked out the window and smiled. "Think I've got an idea.," he said as he walked out the door.
The others watched out the window as the tracker disappeared down the alley, figuring they would just have to wait until he came back and explained. To pass the time they went back over their plan to make sure everyone understood their where they were to be located and when they should act. Once that task was completed, Josiah poured them each some coffee from the large pot on the potbelly stove and Chris added a shot of whiskey to his before passing the bottle to the others.
"Where do you think Vin went?" JD asked anyone in general.
"Ain't no telling, kid," Buck answered as he leaned against the wall and sipped at his coffee.
Before JD could voice another question the door opened and Vin walked back inside.
"The stranger is going to hold a gun to the judge and you're gonna have to shoot'm, cowboy. Buck, Josiah, you'll need to get the body off the street right fast and to the undertakers. Course he's gone so we'll have to take care of things and do the burying. It'll be an empty box, just keep JD away from it or he's liable to fill it with rocks," Vin explained as he smirked at JD.
"Hey, it made it look real," JD teased back.
"What shall we do with the maiden once all think 'he' is dead?" Ezra queried.
Nettie's wagon'll be out back of Potter Store, where the large bags of feed is stacked. There's a tarp covering the bags I just loaded in her wagon. You can slip out the back of the undertaker's with Aira and put her under the tarp. Nettie is right now telling Ms. Potter that she's expecting her late husband's niece to come for a visit, and that she's a bit older than Casey. She'll keep Aira out at her place 'till one of us goes and gets her," Vin explained
"You told Nettie what's going on?" Chris trusted Nettie but wanted to make sure she knew of the danger.
"Yep, she said her old Spencer Carbine was loaded and ready," Vin grinned. "Ezra, JD ya need to be ready to move in quick and keep anyone from getting close to the body. Nathan, need you out back of the undertakers so you can help get her in the wagon with nobody seeing. Nettie will make sure nobody goes out back of the store."
"Have you talked to Orrin and Aira yet?" Josiah requested.
"Not yet, didn't want to be seen going from one place to the other. I talked to Nettie as I loaded her wagon, and then took my normal walk around before coming back here. Figured Nathan can go tell'em, it'll look normal him going up to his own place,"
"I'll go tell them now. How long before they should appear in the street?" Nathan wanted to know.
Vin looked to Chris who said, "An hours should do. Ezra, take Norris over to the telegraph office and have him send a message that he followed the two here but they seem to be having a disagreement. Have him ask what he should do. Make sure that the operator knows should anyone ask, Norris was alone when the message was sent. Whoever this Smith is, he's clever and we don't want him warned."
Ezra walked up to the cell and opened the unlocked door. "Mr. Norris, I ask that you accompany me to the telegraph office. It would appear that you need to send a telegraph to Eagle Bend."
Walking toward the door, Norris stopped in front of Chris and asked, "After I send the telegraph do you want me to come back here or leave town?"
"Wait and see if they send a reply. If they want you to stay and keep watch, well then you can send a message after the 'shooting' on how the stranger turned on the judge and is dead. With Mary sending her newspaper out to the other towns on the morning stage they'll see a copy of it by tomorrow midday," Chris rationalized.
The man nodded his understanding and turned to follow Ezra out the door.
"If they're waiting on his telegram, then they should answer within minutes. Nathan, you go on up and tell Orrin and Aira what we need them to do. Make sure they know to stage it close to the undertakers so we can move the 'body' out of sight quickly. Buck, you and JD go do your normal walk around town. Josiah double check with Tiny that no strangers have boarded their horses since we returned, I want to be sure," Chris stated as he gave the men their final orders.
The men all left the jail with the agreement that they would meet after the 'shooting' was over.
Chris and Vin headed across the street and into the saloon. Walking up to the bar they ordered beer and then asked Inez if there had been any trouble lately or if anyone had been asking a lot of questions.
Inez wiped the bar in front of the two regulators and lowered her voice before answering. "No Senor Larabee, is there someone I should watch for you?"
"No, I was just wondering how things have been," Chris answered as he took a drink of his beer. He looked into the mirror even though he knew that Vin had already assessed those people in the saloon.
The two appeared to be enjoying their beers as they would on any normal day. No one suspected that they were watching for new faces and counting the minutes until their staged killing.
They had just requested another beer when Mary's voice carried into the saloon. "Help, he's got a gun to Orrin's head!"
It was all over within minutes, each of the seven doing their part. The plan had worked perfectly and Nettie was soon driving her wagon away with no one the wiser.
Arrangements were soon made with Sanders, the blacksmith and Tiny at the livery to work with the Judge and keep watch of the town while the seven men were away from town.
The Judge stood in the livery as the men saddled their horses. He informed them that Mary had already written up the attempt on his life and subsequent killing and was printing it for the morning edition of the paper. Word would be spreading rapidly. Norris had telegraphed 'Smith' to let him know that the stranger was dead after attempting to kill the Judge, so they knew 'Smith' would feel safe to carry out his plans.
Walking their horses out of the stables, they mounted up and road off, with a tip of their hats to the Judge as they passed by.
"Ride safe, boys," the Judge said softly.
The stagecoach slowed as it entered Shadow Canyon following the trail that twisted and turned.
Looking through the spyglass he saw the stage's approach and he signaled the others. The tension grew as it drew closer.
With a well place shot the coach stopped and the men came out of hiding. "Driver, throw down that shotgun and climb on down here nice and slow. Don't do nothing stupid, you don't want to die over someone else's money. You all in the coach, come on out," the man with the bandana over his face growled.
As the driver climbed down, the coach door opened and two men emerged. The last turned and offered his hand, "Ma'am."
The woman accepted the proffered hand and stepped down and moved away from the coach with the others.
"Now, ya'll just stand right there and don't move. There are two men up in those rocks with rifles trained on ya," the man who appeared to be the leader stated.
The four men on horseback dismounted, two covering the passengers and driver while the other two began to climb up into the couch to find the hidden strong boxes.
Suddenly a sharp whistle sounded and reverberated off the canyon walls causing the four robbers to pause and look up toward the rocks.
"What the hell was…" The man speaking suddenly found himself falling from the stage with the help of a fist to the jaw.
The other man on the stage snapped his head around to where his partner had been moments before only to find himself hit as well and falling to join his friend.
The woman tackled the man by the stage door before the others could move but was suddenly yanked up. The leader of the gang held an arm across her throat and pointed his gun at the others. "You up on the stage, get down here or I'll shoot her."
"Who you calling her?" the very male voice stated while his elbow connected high on the robbers stomach and his foot on the man's instep. Spinning out of the hold he shoved him toward his friends to hold.
"JD, I must say you make a fine looking lady," Josiah teased as he held the man that JD had shoved his way.
"I still can't believe ya had me dress up like this," JD grumbled as he unbuttoned the dress and pushed it off as fast as he could.
"Mr. Tanner was correct in his assumption that a young lady would draw little, if no attention from the outlaws and thus would be an advantage in attacking and disarming the cretins. Which is why you, Mr. Dunne, were chosen for your youthful appearance," Ezra reminded, but added with a devilish grin, "besides which, Mr. Sanchez is quiet right, you do make a lovely young lady."
Nathan climbed down from the top of the coach where he had been hidden under a saddle blanket. He watched as Chris removed the poncho and overly large, worn hat as Vin and Buck road up with two more men in tow. The would-be robbers´ hands tied firmly to the saddle horns.
"You were cutting it a bit close there, Vin. I thought I was going to have to hit that first fella with the rifle before you gave the signal that ya had the snipers taken care of," Nathan commented.
"Nah, we had then two tussled up awhile ago. I just didn't want to alert them fellas to anything 'till the last second," Vin explained.
"They tell ya anything?" Chris asked.
"Nah, they're just hired shooters," Vin answered.
Chris turned to the four men who were now tied up and leaning against the stage, he walked up to the one that had been giving the orders. Yanking the bandana down from the man's face, Chris demanded, "Who you working with, who's giving you the information?"
"I ain't telling you shit," the man growled back.
"He's the one that was in the room with the fella planning the robberies. He fit's her description down to the scar across his eye brow. Think she said his name was Robert," Vin informed, stepping up beside Chris.
Chris looking at the man again and saw that Vin was right. He was one of the two men that Aira had described as having been in the hotel room. "Where's your partner, Robert?" Chris grabbed the man by his shirt and pulled him close as he asked again, "Where's the man who's been planning all your attacks?"
"Told ya, I ain't telling you nothing. I did hear that girl got herself shot by you though," the man said with a laugh.
"I am afraid you have been sadly misinformed. The lady in question is very much alive and I am sure can identify you," Ezra stated as he slapped the dust off of his jacket sleeve.
"Don't matter, I still ain't telling you anything."
Vin slid his knife out of its sheath and stepped up to the man as Chris let him go, "Don't worry, had me a Sioux friend who taught me how to peel the skin back off the chest without killin'em, right away at least. He'll be talking soon enough."
"Ahh Vin, I don't want to be standing out in this sun all day while you skin him. Why don't you let me shoot him in the knee and see if that loosens his tongue," Buck argued, pulling his gun out of the holster.
"No Buck, I want to see how it's done. The last time I wasn't there when Vin did it, and Ezra said it was a real art," JD said.
"That is true, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Tanner has a gift. He did the strips in uniform long strips, never once breaking or tearing the hide. I must say it was very painful for the gentlemen, though he deserved it, yet it was very intriguing to watch," Ezra agreed.
Nathan and Josiah had to turn around, as if going to check the horses, in an attempt to hide the smiles that they could no longer mask.
"I don't have time for this. I'm going to start shooting 'em one at a time till someone tells me what I want to hear," Chris growled, as he drew and cocked his gun in the blink of an eye.
"Larabee, you shoot the wrong one and we're stuck," Vin yelled
"Larabee!" The man cried, his eyes getting big.
"That's Mr. Larabee to you, Robert." JD ordered.
"Yes, this is the one and only Chris Larabee and I am afraid his patience is running very thin today, Mr. Robert," Ezra expressed.
"Enough talk," Vin sneered and moved his knife quickly, slicing open the man's shirt.
"No! Stop! I'll tell ya, I'll tell ya everything. His name is Morris, Hank Morris. He works for the Pinkerton agency as a bookkeeper. He has a partner but I ain't him, honest I ain't him. I just take orders from him," the man babbled quickly, his voice carrying the fear of what these men might do to him. He had heard stories of Larabee and his men and knew the tales to be true after seeing the look in their eyes.
"Where can I find him?" Larbee's soft voice combined with his hard glare had the man trembling even more.
"I'm supposed to meet him between Eagle Bend and Four Corners, at the old abandoned Kiowa lodge, tomorrow night."
Vin frowned at the information as he stared at the man. He was sure the man was telling the truth, but something about it bothered him.
"Vin?" Chris questioned after seeing the look on Vin's face.
"He's telling the truth," Vin answered.
"But?" Chris asked, knowing there was something on his mind.
"Ain't sure, just something picking at me…I'll let ya know when I figure it out."
"All right then, let's get moving. Josiah, Buck, check there boots for knifes and once you make sure they ain't got nothing they can use, put all of them in the stage. JD you and Buck drive the stage on to the coach station where we're meeting the Pinkertons. They can take the stage and these men with them," Chris told them
"I have wanted to ask, Mr. Larabee, how you convinced the Pinkerton's to let our good selves handle this with out them," Ezra queried.
"Didn't, the Judge did. That is what was in the letter he had me give to the head Agent. Orrin explain there was a good possibility they had someone working with the gang, and it would be best to let us handle the stage and for them to wait on the other side of the canyon without telling his people why. I'm guessing the two have a solid trust in their friendship, for the agent didn't argue," Chris explained.
"JD, what did you do with your dress and ladies shoes?" Buck grinned as he climbed up on the stage seat by JD.
"They ain't mine, Buck. I threw them in the coach with them fellas," JD grumbled.
"That was very kind of you brother. It'll probably be the closest thing to a woman they will see for a long time," Josiah smiled as he rode by heading out with the others.
JD snapped the leather reins and the horses moved forward, as they followed the other five out of the canyon and to the coach station.
The seven men settled down around the campfire as they ate there meal of roasted rabbit and camp fire biscuits. They had ridden hard, covering as much distance as possible since leaving the stage and outlaws in the Pinkerton agent's hands where Vin had paused long enough to ask the man in charge to not send any messages about the capture, but only to send a message to the Judge stating that he had met "his boys." They had decided it was best to keep all ears from hearing anything until they were sure that all involved had been rounded up.
"Josiah, you and Ezra take first watch. Wake me up in a couple of hours to relieve you," Chris said as he settled back against his saddle.
Josiah went to watch their back while Ezra moved to the other end of the camp. The rest of the men settled back and were soon sound asleep.
Vin couldn't get his mind to settle as he kept going over what Robert had said. He rose with a sigh, hoping that maybe a walk in the cool night air might help. Leaving the light cast by the campfire, Vin blended into the shadows of the night as he walked and soon found himself a few feet from Ezra. He decided that talking to his friend might help him to find the answers for which he was searching.
Ezra had a strange sensation that he was being watched. He continued to shuffle his cards and nonchalantly searched the area around him. He nearly jumped out of his skin as he watched Vin appear as if out of nowhere.
"Mr. Tanner, would you be so kind as to make some sort of normal noise when approaching my person. I fear one of your ghostly appearances is going to cause my heart to halt its much needed beating or that my derringer may discharge before I recognize that you are indeed friend and not foe."
"Sorry Ezra," Vin said softly, looking out across the darken plains, lost in his thoughts.
"Mr. Tanner, is there something I can possibly help you with?" Ezra asked, having seen the distracted look in Vin's eyes.
"You know much about these Pickertons?"
"I have some knowledge of the agency. What is it you wish to know?"
Vin stared ahead, thinking a moment longer before finally asking, "How'd they go about finding an area?"
Ezra studied his friend for a second as he rolled the question around in his mind and tried to figure out exactly what Vin was asking. "When the agents are sent on a mission for the agency I am sure they are given maps of the area. Those maps would include towns as well as surrounding farms and ranches."
Vin frowned, "So maps of the area as they're now?"
"Yes, they would have the most recently printed edition of the area's survey. May I ask why you wish to know?"
"Ain't sure, just got a feeling that this Pinkerton bookkeeper ain't the only one running this."
"Is there something specific that is causing your distress?" Ezra questioned.
Vin looked at him with a frown.
"Ezra's asking if there was something you saw or heard that gave you the idea there is still someone else involved," Chris said as he joined them.
Vin was not surprised by Chris's appearance, having heard him coming, but Ezra jumped upon hearing the voice.
"Really, Mr. Larabee, are you trying to end my life's existence by coming out of the shadows like a dark Biblical Beelzebub?"
Chris gave Ezra a half grin before turning back to Vin, "What is it exactly that's gnawing at you, Vin?"
"Knowing the names," Vin stated.
"Knowing names? What names?" Chris wanted to know.
"On the map and in them papers, all the locations weren't called by normal map markings…but by the local names, and Roberts said they was to meet at the abandon Kiowa lodge. Unless they know or travel the area, they wouldn't know about that old lodge back against the hills. Even if they saw it they'd just think it was Indian, not which tribe," Vin explained.
"You don't think one of the men working with Roberts knew the local names or said it was a Kiowa lodge?" Ezra questioned.
"No, Robert was given the area right before each attack. The names were already marked down, and he said he was to meet at the Kiowa lodge," Vin answered.
"So there is still someone either working with the Pinkerton or giving him the orders," Chris replied.
"Yep, someone who knows the area well and has a reason to travel it often."
"Do we go to the old dwelling and wait to see who appears?" Ezra wanted to know.
Chris thought for a moment, "No, we'll go on to Four Corners in the morning. We should get back early afternoon. We'll tell the Judge and see if he wants us to go, or if he wants the Pinkerton or Army to handle it."
"Ya'll go on and bed down, I'll take the watch. My thoughts ain't ready to settle yet," Vin told them.
Nodding their agreement the two men went back to the camp, leaving the third alone with his thoughts and the absolute trust that though his mind might be pondering on something, his senses were still alert for any danger that might appear.
Riding slowly into town, the seven peace keepers immediately noted the new arrivals to their town. The two army soldiers standing outside the saloon alerted them.
The men stopped and dismounted in front of the jail. Vin and Chris stepped up onto the boardwalk and waited while the Judge tipped a young man who had just delivered a telegraph message to him. Meanwhile, the others walked the horses down to the livery.
"Chris, Vin, I just received a message from Willis, the Pinkerton agent I was meeting with in Eagle Bend. He says that Hank Morris has been arrested; they got him as he was boarding the train. He as well as Roberts and the rest of the gang are already being escorted to the fort," Judge Travis smiled, and then continued, "You boys did well, and Willis was impressed. Major Reilly is over in the saloon. I'll go tell him that all the gang has been caught."
"Think there's still someone else a part of all this," Vin informed Travis.
"What! Morris planned the attacks and Roberts carried them out. Why do you think there's somebody else?"
"Because, Morris wouldn't have known the local names for those areas to put on the map. Whoever he's working with, Vin figures is someone who travels the route a lot," Chris explained.
Travis looked at Vin and waited to hear from him. Instead he found that he wasn't even listening to them, but instead was starring off in the distance.
"Vin what is it?" Chris asked.
Never turning his gaze, Vin replied, "Just remembering something the Judge and Ms. Aira said up at Nathan's."
"About what? Do you know something? Vin...Vin...," the Judge began asking, only to have Vin walk away.
Chris and the Judge looked at each other for a moment and then followed. Chris let out a sharp whistle to gather the others, just in case it was trouble that Vin had headed off to handle.
Vin glancing at the two men as he past them on his way into the saloon, quickly cataloging everything about them before walking over to a table, "You Major Reilly?"
"Yes I am, and you would be?" The army man answered.
"I'm one of the fellas the Judge has protecting this town, "Vin told him, knowing better than to give his name.
The Major nodded, acknowledging that he knew about the seven men. "So what can I do for you?"
"Thought you would want to know that Robert and the man planning the robberies have been captured and arrested."
The Major sat up straight, "You got that murderer, Robert and Morris."
"Never said his name was Morris," Vin stated, confirming what he had suspected.
"The Pinkerton agent, Willis told me in Eagle Bend," the Major informed.
"Be a bit hard for him to do that, since Roberts only gave up the name yesterday."
"What are you accusing me of?" The Major demanded as he stood up.
"Besides being a liar? That you've been working with Morris to plan the robberies. You'd know the area and the local names what with all the patrolling and details you do for the area."
The Major went for his gun and the two soldiers sitting with him did the same as the two stationed outside came busting in the door with the guns drawn.
Josiah and Buck grabbed the two as they came through the door and slammed them hard into the wall knocking them out cold. Meanwhile Vin watched as Ezra, Nathan, and JD soon had their guns in the backs of the Major and the two standing to support him.
Chris and Judge Travis walked up to stand beside Vin, "Drop your guns, now," Chris said in a deadly quite growl.
The major looked around and realized that none of these men would have a problem shooting if need be. He threw his gun on the table, followed quickly by the others.
"Major Reilly I'm placing you under arrest. Boys take them all to jail," Judge Travis stated.
JD and Buck escorted the Major had his two cronies, while Nathan and Josiah collected the two they had knocked out and all were soon on their way to the jail.
"Vin, what was it that tipped you off to the Major's involvement?" Travis asked as the three of them sat down at the now vacant table to enjoy the beer that Inez placed in front of them.
"Up at Nathan's ya said how the Major was mad because he wasn't told about the army guards that were put on the shipment. He might not have liked it but would have understood unless he was involved with the robberies. He wouldn´t want soldiers killed, that could of brought more soldiers into the area and led back to him. He was also the only one of you that wasn't actually hunting the robbers and he should have been since he knew the area," Vin answered.
With the exception of Josiah who stayed on watch at the jail, the others soon returned and took a seat at the table.
"JD, first thing in the morning ride out to Nettie's and let them know of the arrest and that it's safe to come back to town," Chris requested.
The men relaxed and sat back with glasses of beer, prepared to enjoy the meal that Inez carried out to them.
It had been three days since Aira had return to town. The Major and his men had been taken away by Pinkerton agents accompanied by soldiers.
Aira stood on the boardwalk with Josiah discussing tribal rituals she had been allowed to watch. They were deep in conversation when two men on horse back road into town.
Aria glanced up and stopped mid sentence as a big smile crossed her face, "Dad! Josh!"
Josiah turned toward the street and Buck came out of the open door of the jail to join him. The two men watched the reunion as Aira ran and hugged the men as they tied their mounts to the railing.
"What are you two doing here? I sent you a telegram a couple of days ago saying I'd be leaving here at the end of the week."
"We got it. Then your dad heard Colonel Patterson talking about the capture of the gang that had been hitting all the freights and stages, and that the witness was a woman staying in Four Corners," her husband explain.
"You can't blame a father for wanting to see with his own eyes that his daughter was all right," her father shrugged.
Aira wrapped her arms around both the men. "Whatever the reason I'm glad. Come on, I want to introduce you to the Judge and the seven men that took care of the gang as well as watch over this town." She smiled as the moved to the boardwalk, "Buck, Josiah this is my father, Samuel, and my husband Josh."
The men shook hands as Josiah stated, "I think the others are over at the saloon, and I'm sure you gentlemen could do with something to help wash the dirt off."
"Yes, a beer does sound good," Samuel agreed.
The group crossed the street and entered the swinging doors of the saloon. Aira led them to the far table where Chris, Judge Travis, Nathan, JD and Ezra were sitting
"Let me introduce you. This is Chris, Judge Travis, Nathan who is a fine healer, JD and Ezra. Gentlemen this is my father, Samuel MacDougall and my husband..."
"Josh Randall!" Vin's voice carried across to the men as he had returned from the back storage room carrying a set of bars for the saloon's front window.
"I know you." Samuel announced seeing the young man's face through the bars.
At the same time Aira exclaimed, "That's where I know you from."
Josh Randall raised his gun, a Mare's Leg that looked remarkably like Vin's. "Tanner, you're wanted for the murder of Jess Kincaid."
"Josh put that gun down. He isn't the one that killed Jess," Aira and her father stated in unison.
Silence filled the room and the air hung heavy and oppressive until…
"What?" Travis sputtered.
"You were there and knew Vin was innocent but didn't help?" Chris mood darkened.
"No! It wasn't like that at all," Aira yelled.
"Give'em a chance, Chris," Vin stated quietly as he continued to hold his hands up and watched Josh. Vin knew that Randall was a very good bounty hunter and thankfully he also knew he was an honorable and decent man.
"Why don't we all sit down and give Mr. MacDougall a chance to explain," Josiah offered.
The men soon agreed and Buck, Josiah and Nathan went to the bar and grabbed mugs of beer. Everyone was soon settled into their chairs and sipping their beer as they waited for the man to begin.
Samuel took another drink from his mug as he gathered his thoughts and then sat the mug on the table before he lifted his eyes to the intense gaze of Chris Larabee.
"We lived about six hours outside of town, right on the edge of the Tigua Indian reservation back then. I'd had an accident and, as luck would have it, had loaned out our wagon. Aira had me on a travois and was taking me to town to the doctor. We were crossing the ridge up above Jess Kincade's place when we stopped so I could drink some water and Aira could change my bandage. It was then that we saw two men ride up to Jess and the one wearing a poncho shot him. They got down from their horses and the man took off the poncho and hat and placed them on Jess. Then the other man put him across his horse and they took off down the road. I don't think they ever saw us. So we headed on to town so we could report it to the sheriff but a storm blew up and we had to take shelter in a cave. It wasn't until late the next morning that we finally reached Tascosa. Aira took me straight to the doctor's first. I was lucky that I j ust had a few cracked ribs and a gash that needed a few stitches. After the doc had me patched up, we headed straight to the sheriff's office. We were heading up the steps when we heard a voice that ended up being Mr. Tanner here stating that he didn't kill them man but had found the body in the road. Sorry to say, but I couldn't move too fast with my ribs taped and the stitches, so by the time we got into the sheriff's office he was coming out from the back room. Before he could close the door we saw Mr. Tanner in one of the cells. I got a good enough look to know that he wasn't either of the men we saw at Kincade's place. We gave him a description of the two men and told him what we saw them do to Jess. The sheriff said he would talk to Tanner and the judge when he got to town the next day and if the judge needed to talk to us he would let us know. Told us not to worry, that with what we saw he didn't see a problem with Tanner being released. We rented a wagon and went bac k home. Two days later a corporal showed up at our place and said there was trouble on the reservation and I was needed to help settle the problem. You have to understand, the meeting lodge was on the other side of the reservation and several days ride. I explained to the corporal about needed to be available to talk to the judge and he said he would ride into town and let the sheriff know that we could be reached at the fort. Aira and I headed out for the fort and meeting lodge that day. When the corporal showed up a day later he said that the sheriff told him that the real killer had been caught and that there was no need for us to go back to town. We never did make it back to Tascosa. While we were at the fort I received orders from Washington. I had been put in charge of the Indian affairs office for Northern New Mexico and Colorado border tribes and reservations. Our belongings were packed for us and the army escorted us to my new post. I'm sorry to say that we never ga ve Mr. Tanner another thought; we assumed he had been cleared of the murder. I truly am sorry, Mr. Tanner, I should have checked personally."
"I know," Vin assured the remorseful man.
"If I might," Ezra interrupted, "the facts as you have stated them would leave me to believe that you not only are capable of clearing Mr. Tanner of these horrendous false charges that sit so heavily upon his shoulders but are able to identify the true miscreants who committed the heinous crime."
"Gentlemen, I think it might be best if I ask Mr. MacDougall and Mrs. Randall the questions. Since there is no one being held in the jail I think it would be the best place to interview them on this matter," Judge Travis suggested. "Mr. Randall, I know you'd like to stay with your wife, but since you were not there at the time of the murder, I think it would be best if you stayed here with the others. Josiah, if you would be so kind as to accompany us and act as a witness." Travis rose to leave and was followed by the other three.
Those remaining at the table sat silently as the eyes of the regulators moved between Vin and Josh Randall.
"Glad it was Samuel and Aira that saw it, I might not have believed anyone else," Josh said as he picked up his beer and took a drink.
"Glad too, would hate it if I had to wing ya to get away," Vin stated as he took a drink of his own beer.
"I would hate that too," Randall said and then looked to Chris, "but then being winged is probably better than what he had in mind had I tried to take you in."
"Yep, probably would'a put the whole lot of them out, if you had tried," Vin agreed with a touch of a grin.
"Good thing I didn't have to try," Randall returned the grin as he saluted him with his mug before finishing it off.
"How'd you recognize Vin?" Chris wanted to know.
"We actually met once. I was trying to bring in Robert 'Guts" Blackard, but he got the drop on me. Was about to show me how he got the nickname when Tanner here came out of nowhere, like some ghost. Shot the knife out of Blackard's hand and when the man tried to lung he shot the heels of his boots off before he could get completely around. The man had no brains,he still tried to take Tanner down," Randall explained.
"Lost my old rifle because of his head," Vin said sadly.
"Hey, I gave you my matching Mare's Leg to replace it," Randall reminded.
"Then why did you act like you were going to take Vin in just now," Buck questioned.
"Saw the wanted poster a long while back. Knew he was wanted, though I didn't believe the charge. No way the kid I knew did anything like that. Aira had told us there was some kind of lawmen in here with the judge. When I saw Tanner here, well I figured he'd have a better chance with me than with some unknown man who might have been looking to make a name for himself."
Realizing that Randall was an ally rather than a threat the regulators relaxed. Josh ordered more beer and the men settled back to wait for the Judge and the others to return.
It was late in the evening when Chris found Vin on top of the hotel's roof. He stood back for a moment just watching his friend as he sat on the ridge looking first down over the town and then out toward the open plains. Making his way up, Chris took a seat beside Vin and watched as the man looked down once more, his gaze following that of his friend.
"You thought all hope was gone when Eli Joe landed down there," Chris stated, realizing where Vin had been looking.
"Yea," Vin nodded, then looked to Chris, "but better him dead than me."
Chris watched as Vin turned his head back out to look at the mountains in the distance. "You planning on leaving?"
Vin's eyes never left the horizon. "Always figured I'd have to leave sooner or later. It was never a choice, just what would have to be."
"And now? The Judge says with Aira and Samuel's testimony, even though he is having the Pinkerton's deal with the Territorial Marshal in Texas that, your name will be cleared within the next couple of weeks. So now that it can be a choice?"
Vin's eyes scanned the town and saw Mrs. Potter was talking to Nettie out in front of the General Store. Across the sidewalk he saw the rest of his friends standing across from the hotel looking back up at him, probably wondering the same thing that Chris was. A grin touched his lips and a twinkle lit his eyes, "Nah, figure the way trouble follows ya around, you need me to watch ya's back."
The End