An alternate version of "Sins of the Past."
So tired he could barely think straight, Vin hooked his thumbs in the holster strapped around his waist, letting it support the heavy weight of his arms. The dark shadow of his wagon beckoned, offering a haven. Though the canvas cover blocked much of the inclement weather the ends were open, enabling a soft breeze scented with the special odors of nature to waft through. He would never understand how or why people chose to sleep where they were closed away from such wonders.
Lowering the tailgate, he leaned against it, gathering the strength he would need to climb inside. Closing his eyes, he let his head drop until his chin rested on his chest. It was a vulnerable position he normally would not have allowed himself to assume. However, here in this town with six men to watch his back, he felt safe. The feeling was a new one for him. Something he hadn't experienced in more years than he cared to remember. Learning to trust its existence had been difficult. Giving it up would be even harder. But one day, the price on his head would force him to leave. It was a day he dreaded.
There was no sound to alert him that he was no longer alone, just a stirring in the air. As he had done time and again over the years, he pushed aside his exhaustion. Lifting his head, he spun around to confront his attackers, his right hand reaching for his Mare's Leg. As his fingers wrapped around the butt of his weapon, his wrist was enclosed in a tight fist. Fighting to break the grip, air whooshed from his lungs when a punch slammed into his side over his kidney and another slammed into his jaw. His vision blurred as weakness diminished his struggles. Though there was nothing he could do to prevent it, he realized his momentary lapse could cost him his life. The man holding his wrist wrenched it until Vin heard a bone snap. Agony drove him to his knees.
The hand continued its cruel twist until it was suddenly torn away. The sound of flesh meeting flesh was accompanied by grunts of pain. Vin didn't need to look to know Chris Larabee had appeared when he was most needed - as Vin knew he would. Swallowing the bile creeping up his throat, he attempted to rise to offer assistance to his outnumbered friend. He had barely reached his feet when a shot echoed in the night air, halting the fight.
"Hold it!" A stranger stood before them, close enough to see the pistol in his hand, far enough to prevent them from attempting to overpower him.
With a slight shake of his head, Vin answered Chris' unspoken question. He didn't know who the men were who had attacked him.
"There's no need for gunplay," the armed man insisted.
His weapon appearing in his hand with a speed his opponent obviously hadn't anticipated, Chris disagreed, "I wouldn't be so sure."
"This ain't yer fight, mister." A nod of the stranger's head indicated Vin. "It's him we want.
His left hand supporting his right, Vin growled, "Who are ya?"
"Name's, Yates. I'm a US Federal Marshal." Yates threw his coat open to show them his badge. "Vin Tanner, yer under arrest for murder in the sovereign state of Texas. We've come ta take ya back."
Chris slowly holstered his gun. A worried gaze rested on his friend. "Ya can't travel with an injured man. He'll slow ya down."
"I know all about the sweet little setup you've got here, Larabee." Yates kept his gun trained on Vin. "Seven of ya makin' yer own laws. We stay here and we'll end up dead and our prisoner will be walkin' the streets by dawn."
Vin glanced at Chris, noticing the older man found the scenario tempting. He wasn't worried. Chris would never shoot a man in the back. And, he wouldn't even think about ending the life of a lawman performing his duty.
"I give ya my word," Chris reluctantly swore. "No one will try ta break Vin out of jail while yer in town."
Rage burned in Vin when Chris qualified his promise. What he was obviously saying was the lawmen were protected in town. Once they left, all bets were off. Vin didn't want Larabee or any of the other boys to get hurt or killed trying to save his sorry ass. He had known this day would come. If not willing, he had always been ready to pay his dues - not for someone else to pay them for him.
Yates holstered his gun. "Ya got a deal."
"I'll show ya to the jail," Chris decreed. "Then, I'll go git Nathan so's he kin look at Vin's arm."
"I'm right here, Chris." The healer appeared from the shadows coating the porch of the nearest building. His own gun remained on the lawmen.
Working around the agony of his broken wrist, Vin felt pride and humility as one by one, Buck, Josiah, Ezra and JD revealed their presence. The weapons they held were clearly warning the men threatening their friends.
His hand hovering nervously over his pistol, Yates asserted, "Larabee promised there wouldn't be any gunplay."
"I ain't Larabee," Buck snarled, putting the barrel of his pistol under the chin of the man responsible for Vin's broken wrist.
"Put yer guns away, boys," Chris ordered, the tone of his voice making it plain he wouldn't tolerate anything less than instant obedience.
"Chris?" JD protested.
"Now!" Chris' gaze rested on each of the men. "Nathan, show Marshal Yates to the jail and take care of Vin."
Though he could feel Chris trying to proffer his silent support, Vin kept his head lowered, refusing to meet the emerald eyes. They lavished a false hope. Anyone who tried to help him would end up in a cell next to his, possibly at the end of the same noose. He couldn't let them risk their lives. He wasn't worth it. It would be best if they forgot they ever knew him.
Chris waited until Nathan disappeared with his charges, before he quietly directed, "In the saloon."
"But the saloon's closed," JD pointed out.
"It's about to reopen." A key in his hand, Ezra strolled ahead at a fast pace.
His long legs closing the distance between them, Buck demanded, "When did ya git a key to the saloon, Ezra?"
"When I bought the place." Swinging back one of the batwing doors, Ezra handed it to Buck to hold open.
"Ya bought the saloon?"
"I don't remember the existence of an echo in this location."
"When were ya gonna tell us?"
"At a more opportune moment than the present."
Inserting the key in the lock, Ezra turned it until a loud click indicated the bolt had retracted. Sliding the security door aside, he lit a few lamps before heading for the bar. Collecting a bottle of whisky and six glasses, he crossed to the table they habitually frequented and sat down. As each of the four men joined him, he poured them a drink.
"What's your plan, Chris?" Josiah asked, taking a sip of the liquor.
Ignoring the alcohol in front of him, Larabee decreed, "As long as they're in town, we do nothing."
"Chris . . ." JD started to protest.
"Nothin', JD," Chris forcefully reiterated. "I gave my word."
Buck softly reminded, "JD, they're officers of the law."
Pushing his empty glass over to Ezra for a refill, Josiah pressed, "Chris, are you sure Yates is a marshal?"
"I saw 'is badge. Why?"
"Taking out Vin's gun hand don't seem like something a lawman would do. They got Vin outnumbered three to one and they have the law on their side. Why would they be so worried about making sure he can't defend himself? He's wanted, dead or alive, they could have easily killed him."
"Thank the lord for small miracles," Ezra whispered, lifting the shotglass to his lips and swallowing its contents in one swallow.
His face pale in the dim light, Chris observed, "That's a good question, Josiah. Got any answers?"
"I'm working on it."
"Let me know as soon as you come up with somethin'."
"You and God will be the first to be informed."
Replenishing his own glass, Ezra probed, "While we are obliged to honor your word here in town, Mr. Larabee, what will transpire in the environs outside our fair community?"
"That will be up to me." Chris threw back his whisky. Placing the glass gently on the table, he revealed, "When they ride out, I'll be following. Buck's right. As far as we know, they're legitimate lawmen. Killing them would be murder, resulting in a price on our own heads. Which is why, I'll be goin' alone. Vin wouldn't want any of you taking that kind of risk."
"Anymore than he would request such a sacrifice from you," Ezra quietly stated. "But that's not impeding your decision."
"I can't ask . . ."
"You don't have too," Buck interrupted.
Chris looked around the table to see each man nodding agreement. In the past few months, they had all risked their lives for each other. This was so much more. Now, they were willing to jeopardize their freedom. There was no greater gift. As much as he wanted too, Chris knew he didn't dare tell Vin. The tracker would do something foolish. Something to stop his friends from volunteering such a present. When this was all over and Vin was sitting beside him where he belonged then, he would reveal what had transpired here tonight. As much as it overwhelmed him, it would affect his friend even more.
His wrist throbbing so acutely it made him feel nauseous, Vin wished he had taken the laudanum Nathan tried to administer. But it was too dangerous. He couldn't allow his senses or his reflexes to be impeded by drugs. His whole life, he had lived on his wits and his skills. Without them, he would be dead.
"Ya wanna see Tanner, ya give me yer guns."
Lifting his gaze, Vin saw Chris standing in the entrance to the jail the early morning sun wrapping a halo around the black-clad figure. Uncertain whether he was happy or ashamed to see his friend, he watched as Larabee unbuckled his holster and handed it to the deputy. Angered by the attempted humiliation, Vin rose to pace the small cell. "Stupid! Stupid! How could I be so stupid? I got too wrapped up with these people, this town. I should never have stopped hunting that bastard Eli Joe until I cleared my name."
Dragging a stool close to the bars with his foot, Chris sat down. "All these years, lookin' over yer shoulder, sleepin' with one eye open. It's gotta wear on a man."
"That's no excuse. I let my guard down." The pain in his wrist clouding his anger and weakening his knees, Vin abruptly dropped onto his bunk. Gritting his teeth, he hissed, "You know me, Chris. I ain't afraid ta die. I jus' don't want ta go out like that, strung up like some mangy dog."
"I ain't gonna let that happen."
The voice was so soft, Vin wasn't sure he had heard correctly. The look on Larabee's face, combined with the twin emerald lasers proffering hope, told him he hadn't been mistaken. For the first time, Vin felt fear. "Ya mess with a Federal marshal, they'll string ya up beside me, Chris."
"It ain't yer concern."
"The hell it ain't."
Larabee rose, kicking the stool back to where he had gotten it. "I'll be seein' ya."
"Chris!" Vin wanted to scream a further protest, but he knew if he did it might make Yates suspicious. He could do nothing without endangering his friend - except escape. If he wasn't a prisoner, Larabee would have no reason to try to rescue him.
Though the smell of the bacon and eggs the lawmen had cooked for breakfast made it difficult to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged, it gave him an idea. "How 'bout given me some of them eggs? I'll slow ya all down if I'm goin' empty."
"Ya in a hurry ta hang?" One of the deputies sneered.
Laying his empty plate on the desk, Yates ordered, "Give 'im some. I'm goin' over ta the livery ta check on our horses."
Vin watched closely, his mind working out every detail of his breakout. When the deputy unlocked the door and started to open it, he was ready. Jumping up, he used the momentum of the heavy gate, pressing it against the lawman and slamming him back against the next cell. Grabbing a pistol hanging from a hook with his left hand, Vin leveled it at the remaining deputy. He had no intention of using it, but the scared man raising his hands didn't know that. As he backed towards the door, keeping the two men covered, he realized he had a problem. He would have to drop the gun, or turn the knob with his broken wrist. Neither option was appealing.
The decision was taken out of his hands, when the door flew open, revealing Yates. Before Vin could adjust his aim, he felt the butt of a rifle slam into his left hip, over the bruise he had sustained when he was arrested. Pain radiated along his leg to his spine, making him drop to his knees. The barrel of the rifle came down on his broken wrist. Agony rippled up his arm and across his shoulders to his other arm. The pistol dropped from nerveless fingers. Red dots were dancing in front of his eyes when he saw the rifle swing one more time. As his head exploded, he gladly entered a black abyss.
Chris sat on his chair outside the saloon, smoking a cheroot. Nerves taut with tension inside, outwardly he projected calm and compliance. His resolve to keep his word and allow the lawmen to leave town unmolested almost shattered when he saw Vin led out of the jail in handcuffs. The only way to get the restraints on both wrists was by removing the splints Nathan had applied to align the broken bone.
Angrily shooting to his feet, Chris' legs quickly ate the distance separating them. As Vin was pushed onto his horse, Chris saw blood on the side of the pale face. An ugly bruise was forming on the tracker's left cheek bone, another peeked out from beneath the battered cavalry hat. When he got closer, Chris saw the blue eyes were unfocused, dazed. Grabbing Yates by the lapel of his jacket, he threw the lawman against the wall of the jail. "What the hell did ya do to him?"
"He tried ta escape." There was no fear on Yates face, as his eyes rested on the deputy holding a gun to Vin's heart. "I stopped him."
"By beating the hell out of him?"
"If that's what it takes ta make a prisoner cooperate, yeah. Now let me go, Mr. Larabee. Or are ya goin' back on yer word?"
It took every ounce of control Chris could muster to release the marshal. When he turned around, he avoided looking at Vin. His tenuous restraint would certainly fracture if his eyes rested on the battered face again. Instead, he directed his glare at Buck and Ezra, telling them to keep back.
As he climbed on his horse, Yates tipped his hat. "It's been a pleasure doin' business with ya, Larabee. Maybe I kin take in another friend of yers sometime?"
Chris had to cross his arms over his chest to keep from drawing his pistol. Fingernails dug through his shirt into his flesh. The pain centered him. Yates had challenged the wrong man. As his gaze rested on Buck, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and JD, Chris mentally corrected himself. Yates had challenged the wrong men.
The hot sun beat down on his aching head. Squinting his eyes against the bright light, Vin tried to assess his situation. His wrists were handcuffed and tied to his saddle horn. A grim smile curved his lips. He must have them really worried to take such precautions, especially considering his battered state and that the original three lawmen had been joined by five more. Their dress and mannerisms spoke of bandits rather than minions of the law. "All these men deputies, too?"
"Sure," Yates evilly grinned, "when I steal them some badges."
Vin knew he shouldn't be surprised to discover Yates and his henchmen were imposters. The question was, who were they? They couldn't be bounty hunters. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money, but not if it was split eight ways. Kidnaping a wanted man didn't make sense. Riding west, made even less sense. "You all realize Texas is the other way?"
"Shut-up, Tanner, 'less ya wanna be draped across yer saddle."
Chris handed his reins to Nathan and climbed the low hill Yates and his men had disappeared behind. He wasn't surprised when Josiah and Ezra joined him, even though they were forced to crawl the last few feet on their bellies.
"Should we inform Mr. Tanner's escort that Texas is in the other direction?" Ezra sarcastically inquired.
"Eight men to guard one," Josiah observed. "They must think Vin is pretty dangerous."
His voice full of pride, Chris acknowledged, "They'd be right."
"So, what is our course of action to be, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra snapped his arm, causing the derringer strapped to his wrist to slid into his hand.
While Chris appreciated the reminder regarding the gambler's deviousness, he knew they would never get close enough to use the small gun. It did make it easier on his mind and soul to discover Vin's captors were not really lawmen. However, there was still the question, who were they? And where were they taking Vin?"
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra probed, impatiently waiting for an answer to his challenge.
Knowing it was Vin's life at stake no matter what he decided, Chris said, "We'll follow them. If they aren't going to Tascosa, I'd like to know where they are going and why."
"Does it really matter?"
"It might to Vin."
Vin wished his head would fall off and be done with it. This, added to the agony of his broken wrist, made him feel every step his horse took. The unbearable heat and the interminable dust were enough to make a man want to crawl into a dark, cool hole and die. A weaker man that is. Despite his suffering, Vin knew he wanted to live. He had been close to death often enough to know how precious life was.
"How ya doin', Tanner?" The man Vin had slammed against the cell door moved his horse closer to the tracker's, causing both animals to stumble.
The resulting pain brought a scream to Vin's lips. He managed to suppress it, however, he couldn't hold back the tears filling his eyes until they overflowed onto his dirty cheeks. Embarrassed, he rubbed his face against his shoulder, trying to hide his display of weakness. He didn't care what these men thought of him, but he knew Chris was nearby. He couldn't bear to make the one man he truly admired ashamed of him.
A grove of trees appeared ahead, offering the only respite on the barren plain. Vin braced himself, knowing this was the place where he would live or die. When he saw the Indian half-breed a the clearing, he knew this was the person who would decide if he should live or die. "Yer a long way from home, Eli Joe."
Joe grinned evilly at the man he had paid so dearly to apprehend. Beside the eight men escorting the prisoner, there were another six who had stayed in camp watching the outlaw's back. "I decided ta see some of this country, look up old friends."
His gaze shifting from Yates to each of the other men surrounding him, Vin shook his head. "Ya sure went to a lotta trouble not ta face me alone."
"I heard about yer six amigos."
"And were too much of a coward ta face 'em yerself."
Drawing his gun, Eli Joe pointed it at Vin. His thumb yanked down the hammer, until a smile curled his lips and he reversed the action. "After all the trouble ya done caused me, a bullet would be too easy, too painless. Hang 'im."
Yates dismounted, a rope in his hand. Crossing to a large oak tree with a thick branch parallel to the ground, he threw one end around his makeshift gallows and tied it off. The other end, he fashioned into a noose.
As he watched the fake marshal and two of his men prepare his method of execution, Vin bit the inside of his lip to keep from screaming. The one thing he had dreaded most was about to come to pass. He was going to hang like a mangy dog. At fifteen to one odds, Larabee was badly outnumbered. To attempt a rescue would be suicide for both of them. He had to pray Chris realized it as well and would stay hidden.
When the noose was dropped over his head and tightened around his neck, Vin felt his resolve weaken. It took every bit of strength he had not to cry out his fear. A tug on his pant leg drew his attention. Grateful for the intrusion, Vin glanced down with his eyes, his stretched neck making it impossible to move anything else.
"Any last words, Amigo?" Eli Joe grinned up at him.
Certain his desire would be granted whether or not it was given voice, Vin croaked, "Go ta hell."
"You'll git there first." Stepping back, Eli Joe signaled Yates. The fake marshal's hand came down on the flanks of Vin's horse.
As he moved into position, Chris listened and watched, praying they wouldn't be too late. In order to surprise the bandits, they were forced to leave their horses at the edge of the grove. As lax as these men appeared to be, even they would hear six men riding down on them.
Glancing around, he checked to make sure everyone was in position. Badly outnumbered, they couldn't afford to make a mistake for their sakes as well as Vin's.
The echo of a slap reverberated through the trees, telling Chris they were out of time. As a signal to his men, he aimed and fired, killing the only man with his gun still trained on Vin. As the targets scattered under the withering gunfire, Chris' gaze was drawn to the wiggling legs of his best friend. Killing another bandit targeting Vin, Chris shouted, "Buck?"
"I got it, Chris." The rifle in his hand making it easier for him to get a bead on the narrow rope tied to the tree branch, Wilmington took aim. His first shot missed completely. The second, nicked it.
Chris bit his tongue, knowing his old friend was doing his best and that any words from him would hamper rather than help. But Vin's flushed face and blue tinged lips made him want to break cover and cut the choking man down.
A knife whistled through the air, slicing through the rope where Buck's bullet had started to make it fray. Vin fell with a thud to lay unmoving on the ground.
With a grateful glance at Nathan, Chris rejoined the battle, prepared to keep Vin alive. Though he would spare the tracker a glance whenever he could, there was no indication they had been in time.
Despite their superior numbers, the bandits quickly realized they were outgunned. One by one, they stole away on foot or on horseback.
When he felt it was safe, Chris hurried to Vin's side, Nathan on his heels. "Nathan? Is he alive?"
With Larabee covering him, the healer quickly loosened the noose and removed it. The action brought an immediate reaction from his patient. His sigh of relief echoing the heaving gasp, Nathan confirmed, "He's alive."
Recognizing the restraint in the healer's voice, Larabee probed, "But?"
"He was without air a long time, Chris. There could be brain damage."
Watching the tracker's gray face slowly turn pink, Chris felt as though he had been gut punched. Vin would not want to live as a half-wit. Eyeing the gun in his hand, he wondered if he would have to use it to take a life rather than save it. Could he use it on his best friend? He wasn't worried about spending the rest of his life in jail for murder. What scared him was sending his soul to hell where he would never see Sarah or Adam or Vin again, if there was an afterlife as his wife and Josiah were so sure existed.
"He's coming around," Nathan warned.
More frightened than he had been in three years, Chris waited for the bruised eyelids to roll back, revealing the orbs underneath. Would the intelligence that had always shone from those blue mirrors still be present? Or would they be blank, robbed of all comprehension?
The bright blue irises finally appeared. "We're even," Vin croaked around his damaged throat, his gaze directed above him before dropping to rest on Nathan.
Worried by the innocuous statement, Chris glanced up to where Nathan's knife was still lodged in the tree branch.
"Not as far as I'm concerned," Nathan whispered. "Besides, I had help. Buck's gunshot partially severed the rope."
Surprised, Chris looked around to find the others had joined them. He was relieved to see no one was hurt. "How many did we git?"
"Seven dead, two wounded," Josiah reported.
"I'll see ta 'em as soon as I git Vin fixed up," Nathan said. "JD git that fire goin' again." The healer pointed to the camp the bandits had abandoned. "I'm gonna need hot water ta clean this head wound and splints ta reset Vin's wrist. Ezra git my bag."
Though he knew he should help, Chris found himself unable to leave Vin's side.
"Chris," Vin grabbed the gunslinger's arm with his good hand. His voice so raspy it hurt to hear him speak, he asked, "Eli Joe?"
"Stop usin' that voice, lessin' ya wanna damage it permanently," Nathan admonished.
"Chris?" Vin persisted.
Giving the hand on his arm a comforting squeeze, Chris looked around for the preacher. "Josiah, did we git Eli Joe?"
"No," Josiah sadly admitted. "He got away."
"Don't worry," Chris soothed, seeing the defeat on Vin's face. "We'll git 'im."
"Yeah." Vin closed his eyes. The soft moans he was unable to repress as Nathan cleaned his head wound, indicated he was still conscious.
"JD." Chris looked around for the youth. Spotting him throwing wood on the fire, the gunslinger ordered, "As soon as yer done, see if ya kin find Eli Joe's trail."
Searching through the leather satchel he kept his medical supplies in, Nathan fastened angry brown eyes on Larabee. "Vin ain't in any condition ta be chasin' no outlaws."
"I'm fine, Nate," Vin raspily disagreed.
Chris smiled, wondering which of the two stubborn men would emerge victorious. Until, he remembered how devious Nathan could be when he felt it was in the best interests of his patient.
"Here," Nathan held a cup to Vin's lips, "I want ya ta drink this. It'll help with the pain."
With a suspicious eye on the healer, Vin took a cautious sip. Suddenly, the cup was tipped up and he was forced to swallow the deluge or choke. When the last drop had been gulped, Nathan triumphantly withdrew the container.
"Damn it, Nathan," Vin softly swore, his speech becoming slurred so his words were barely intelligible. "Whaddya tryin' ta do, drown me?"
"Don't tempt me," Nathan growled.
Knowing Nathan's anger was born of concern, Chris watched as Vin's eyelids rolled down. The dark eyelashes contrasted sharply with the pale flesh underneath. "Is he gonna be all right, Nate?"
"He's got a broken wrist, a bruised throat and kidney, and a concussion. But if I kin git 'im ta take it easy fer a few days, he'll be fine."
Squatting near Vin's feet, Buck shook his head. "Gittin' 'im ta rest ain't gonna be easy. 'Specially while Eli Joe's trail is fresh."
"Mr. Tanner has a chance to clear his name." Ezra joined them. "It's inconceivable to think he would willingly stay in bed while his alibi slips away to parts unknown."
His senses still reeling after having come so close to losing his best friend, Chris spoke from his heart, rather than his head. "He'll rest if I have to tie 'im down."
"If you value your friendship, brother, I would advise against such an action," Josiah counseled.
"Aren't you the one who preaches we're our brother's keeper?"
"We must be the guardian of their souls as well as their bodies. If you attempt to confine either of them, you will lose both."
"So, I'm suppose ta sit back and do nothing while he kills himself?"
"You don't have to do nothing. You can stand at his side and catch him when he falls."
Though he didn't want to admit it, Chris knew Josiah was right. He wouldn't stand in Vin's way when he had a chance to clear his name. But it wouldn't be easy.
Vin slowly opened his eyes, expecting to see the sun's red glow as it slowly dropped below the horizon. Instead, he saw the haze the early morning sun had yet to burn off. Croaking every swear word he could muster, he slowly sat up.
"Easy, cowboy." Chris was at his side, laying a soothing hand on his shoulder.
"I slept through the night," Vin angrily snapped. "How could ya let me do that?"
"Don't blame me, blame that potion Nathan poured down yer throat."
"Help me up." Vin held his good hand out to his friend, fully expecting Larabee to refuse his request. When he suddenly found himself on his feet, he was unprepared. His legs wobbled, threatening to drop him back on the ground. Only the steady hand gripping his elbow kept him upright.
"JD tried ta find Eli Joe's trail," Chris revealed. "He said there were too many tracks. He couldn't tell which one belonged to who."
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra hesitantly suggested, staring into the cup of coffee in his hand, "I hate to put a damper on your determination, but even if you manage to locate this nefarious creature there is no guarantee he will reveal his transgressions in a court of law."
Nathan thoughtfully rubbed his neck. "Ezra's got a point. It would be like putting a noose around his own neck."
"I lived with the Kiowa and Comanche," Vin revealed, a haunted look in his eyes. "I know a thing or two about gittin' the truth out of people."
A feral grin on his face, Chris nodded, "I look forward to seeing that."
"So, show me the tracks." Surprised when Larabee complied with his request, Vin gritted his teeth and took a step. The muscles that had stiffened overnight slowly loosened until he was able to shake off the supporting hand. As soon as it was gone, he consciously acknowledged he wanted it back. Angry with himself for his weakness, he fought the desire. It was time to become accustomed to being alone again. Once he started on the trail after Eli Joe, he wouldn't stop until he dragged the man back to Tascosa. He couldn't expect his friends to ride the hard road with him. Enduring choking dust; sleeping on the hard ground; no decent meals, all for no other reward than friendship. It was too much to ask of any man. He wouldn't ask. He wasn't sure if he could hide the disappointment when they refused.
When they reached the edge of the grove, Vin's eyes searched the ground, noting every indentation, every broken piece of grass. He could separate the trails, but JD was right, there was no way to tell which belonged to Eli Joe.
"We could each follow a different trail," Buck suggested. "One of us is sure to have the right one."
"It's a mathematical certainty," Ezra agreed.
Looking up, Vin saw his friends lined up behind him the expressions on their faces reassuring, as they waited for his decision. It was possible one of them would get lucky and find Eli Joe. It was also possible Eli Joe might kill whoever he found following him. While Vin wanted to clear his name, it wouldn't remain untarnished if it cost the life of one of these brave men. He could wait. Eli Joe was bound to try to take him again. "They'll be too hard to track."
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra protested, "it was my impression most of your former captors were lacking in intelligence."
"Even a snake will go to ground when it gets too hot, Ezra," Josiah pointed out.
His eyes resting on each man in turn, JD asked, "Then what do we do?"
"We go home," Vin quietly conceded.
Chris put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Are ya sure that's what ya want?"
"Yeah." Vin stared out over the plain, his voice saying one thing, his heart another. "That's what I want."
The hand offering support and comfort gave a gently squeeze. Shifting his gaze to the emerald eyes, Vin didn't regret his decision. He had something more important than a name. He had friends.
Chris pulled his hat low over his eyes, hoping to hide them from the man sitting beside him. After coming so close to losing Vin, he was finding it difficult to shift his attention away from the tracker. Even knowing the intense scrutiny would make his self-conscious friend uncomfortable, he was unable to pretend the last couple of days hadn't happened. Awake or asleep, he kept seeing Vin swinging from that tree.
Stretched out in his chair, soaking up the warmth of the sun, Vin noted, "Yer suppose ta be watchin' the town, cowboy, not me."
"The town's fine."
"So am I."
Opening his mouth to disagree, Chris swallowed his words. A man couldn't come that close to dying, that close to clearing his name and not feel bitter. However, it was obvious Vin wasn't ready to talk about it - if he ever would be. He still had a lot to learn about friendship.
The batwing doors beside him, swung open. Chris didn't need to look to know the man exiting the saloon was Ezra. He had been expecting the gambler to make an appearance to reconfirm what the mind had a tendency to distort. To rest his eyes on his living friend.
"Mr. Tanner," the gambler announced his presence, his voice softer then normal, "Mr. Jackson recommended you drink plenty of fluids. I took the liberty of procuring a beer for you."
"I don't think alcohol was what Nathan had in mind," Chris smirked.
"Who cares." A surprised Vin quickly grabbed the mug thrust into his uninjured hand. "Thanks, Ezra. I'll pay ya back later."
"No need." Ezra hesitated. "Consider it a gift from a grateful businessman to the local constabulary."
A wicked grin on his face, Chris griped, "I'm one of the local constabulary. Where's my drink?"
"The budget only allows for one gratuity a month, Mr. Larabee." Touching two fingers to the brim of his hat, Ezra hastily reentered the saloon.
"Hey, Vin." Buck's booming greeting reverberated along the sidewalk.
His gaze shifting to the approaching ladies' man, Chris saw Buck wasn't alone. The woman snuggling in the crook of his right arm was wearing far too much makeup, showing her deficiencies rather than her assets. The pink and white dress barely reached her knees, leaving little to the imagination.
"Vin," Buck smiled broadly as he escorted his companion up next to the tracker. "This here is Lulu. Ain't she just though?"
The woman giggled, pinching Buck's cheek.
"Lulu," Buck completed the introduction, "this is Vin."
"Oh my, yer hurt." Lulu ran a gentle finger over the bruise on Vin's left cheekbone.
Vin blushed and pulled his head away. "I'm fine, ma'am."
Smiling sweetly, Lulu pushed the calvary hat off Vin's head and ran her fingers through his long hair. "Yer cute."
Chris bit his lip, knowing it was more than his life was worth to revel in Vin's predicament. When the bruised flesh turned a flaming red, Chris quickly took the beer mug from the shaking hand before the contents ended up in his lap.
"We best be gittin' along," Buck hastily decided, frowning as he grabbed Lulu's roaming hand.
"Please ta meet ya, ma'am." Vin politely tipped his hat, his attention drawn by a shrill call preceding the young sheriff's arrival.
"Vin," JD's words were for the tracker, but his eyes were following Lulu as she sashayed down the street beside Buck.
Barely suppressing a smile at the youth's fascination with the swaying hips, Chris urged, "JD, did ya want ta tell Vin somethin'?"
"Oh, yeah." Reluctantly tearing his gaze away from the enticing view, JD said, "I jus' wanted ya to know I exercised Peso and gave 'im a good brushing."
"Thanks, JD." The expression of gratitude was so softly spoken it was almost drowned in the rattle of a wagon as it passed by.
Shuffling his feet in embarrassment when he found himself under the intense scrutiny of puzzled blue eyes, JD backed away. "I best check them new wanted posters."
Chris' amused gaze followed the young sheriff as he stumbled awkwardly down the street. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so light-hearted and carefree. If he didn't stop smiling, he would destroy his reputation as the bad element in town.
"What's goin' on, Chris?" Vin demanded, taking back his beer.
The question drew Larabee's attention back to the man sitting beside him. "Whaddya mean?"
"When's the last time Ezra bought anyone a drink when there wasn't somethin' in it fer him?"
"Exactly. Have ya ever known Buck ta introduce one of his," Vin hesitated, searching for the right word, "female acquaintances to me?"
"No, and I bet he never does it again."
"And JD takin' care of Peso." Vin reluctantly granted, "All right, JD always takes care of Peso when I'm laid up. But I still don't understand what's goin' on with Buck and Ezra."
The smile faded as Chris stared sightlessly, seeing in his mind the picture of his best friend hanging from a tree. "You almost died."
"Yeah, well, we've all come close ta doin' that a time or two."
"Seeing ya hanging there . . ."
"Like some mangy dog."
"No, like the innocent man you are, being murdered for something you didn't do. We almost weren't in time to stop it. Somethin' like that takes a lot out of a man."
"So what yer sayin' is, I kin expect Nathan and Josiah along any time?"
"I'm surprised they haven't shown up already."
Vin took a long draw from his beer, polishing off half the contents of the mug. "Chris, what would you all have done if Yates had been a real marshal?"
Shifting his gaze to let it meet the worried blue eyes, Chris softly asked, "Do ya want the truth?"
"I don't know."