Characters: JD, Vin
Summary: While riding out with Vin, JD learns the meaning behind Vin's phrase 'Fine line 'tween hunter and hunted'.
Taking some time out from a busy week, JD was enjoying his ride through woodland several miles out from town. He brushed a leaf off his shoulder and glanced around the peaceful setting, but then looked sharply at the man riding with him when Vin halted his mount and silently 'shushed' him. The tracker pointed.
"Hear that?" Vin said softly.
"That's a Yellow-Breasted Chat. Pretty bird. Won't be long 'fore they journey for the winter."
"Yeah?" JD looked around, eager to see this bird. "Where?"
Vin tilted his head. "That bush yonder, I reckon."
Quietly dismounting, JD crept toward the large, gnarled shrub. Vin grinned and watched, anticipating the moment when the startled bird would likely take flight and scare the boots off the easterner. Instead, he drew his gun when JD simply stopped, and then cried out. Vin was off his horse and with JD in seconds, and the pair stared down at a body, partly concealed in the undergrowth. It was clear the man had been brutally murdered.
The tracker eased JD to one side, squatted down and examined the corpse, which was dressed only in a bloodstained union suit.
"Still warm. Don't reckon them that did this could'a gotten too far."
JD watched in horrified fascination as Vin stood, studied the immediate area, then went to his horse. He retrieved a rolled up blanket from behind the cantle and returned to wrap the body. "Keep the coyotes and buzzards away for a while, 'til we can get back."
"We going after 'em, Vin?" JD asked, trying to dumb down his building excitement.
Vin nodded, then gestured for JD to join him. He indicated to the ground. "See here? Three sets'a boot prints."
Trying not to think about the poor fella wrapped in the blanket, and the way his stomach churned on seeing him, JD took a small breath, nodded, and glanced around the disturbed dirt. He pointed. "And four horses?"
Tanner agreed. "Yup. I reckon they took this fella's horse, too. See how one set'a shoe prints is lighter'n the others?"
JD nodded. "No rider."
Vin moved to mount up, and then urged JD to do the same. He pointed. "This way. We got a good chance of catchin' up to 'em."
Seconds later the pair was hot on the trail of three killers.
"Ezra, you look like you done bet on a thoroughbred and found out it was just an' ole mule."
Seated at the seven regulator's preferred table in the town saloon, and not looking up from his game of Solitaire, Standish replied to Buck's remark. "Interesting turn of phrase, my friend." He finally raised his head.
"Let's just say, last evening, a particularly well to do gentleman had not been completely relieved of the contents of his billfold, and I have awakened to learn said gentleman has departed this fair municipality."
Buck Wilmington looked at Josiah Sanchez and raised one eyebrow.
"His mark left on this morning's stage," the preacher explained.
Buck chuckled and pulled out a chair to join them.
"Actually, he rode a horse out at first light," Chris Larabee corrected as he walked up to them and also took up a seat.
"Must be a day for it," healer Nathan Jackson stated, returning from the bar with a steaming mug of coffee. "I saw three other fellas ride out early, too."
Chris frowned at that. "Vin on patrol?"
Buck nodded. "Yup, and seein' as the jail's empty, he took JD with him."
Satisfied with that, for now, the leader of the eclectic group ordered breakfast, but it was clear to all who knew him that, although the conversation might be over for the moment, Larabee was far from letting the matter drop – leastways not while Vin and JD were out of town.
The trail followed so far was through thicket and brushwood, and gradually deeper into dense woodland filled with twisted, sinewy and shedding trees. Two pairs of eyes studied the track. Vin pointed out freshly turned over leaves that lay wet where hooves had churned the foliage-strewn floor, and nodded approvingly when JD spotted snapped and snagged branches, both signs which revealed the route taken as clearly as a paper trail.
It was an hour or so in when Tanner began to get edgy. At first, JD was oblivious, his focus on searching for signs too intense to be aware, but soon he too was getting bothered. Pausing to take a drink, the boy looked at the tracker.
"I'm either getting real good at tracking, or those men are leading a trail a blind man could follow."
Vin, one hand on the saddle horn, the other holding his spyglass to his eye, was scanning the area. His body twisted from left to right as he scrutinized every inch.
Replacing the instrument, he nudged his horse closer to JD and dismounted, urging JD to do the same. Squatting down, Vin gestured to the ground. "What can you see?"
JD also crouched down and studied the area. Frowning, he looked at Vin. "They've covered it well, but...it looks like they doubled back." The intense blue gaze that met his, unnerved the boy. "Vin?"
"No sudden moves now," Vin warned, his voice low. He stood, bringing JD up with him. "The hunters have become the hunted."
"You're right. The trail's too easy, and I reckon that was their plan, to lead us deep into the woods." He squeezed JD's arm. "They've gotten behind us. Nice'n easy now, get back on your horse, and ride like hell outta here."
JD swallowed, and nodded. Both men reached for their reins, but gunfire sent bullets over their hands and brought them back as if scalded. Two unnerved horses reared up and raced away.
"Hold it right there, boys."
JD and Vin glanced at each other, then raised their hands. While two armed riders walked theirs, and two rider-less horses around in front of the pair, another man approached on foot from behind, reached around, and relieved them of their guns. He joined his friends.
With his gun trained on them, one rider spat on the ground and then gestured for them to drop their gunbelts. He grinned. "You're good, I'll give you that. But now it's our turn. Y'got a half a minute start, then we're coming for you."
JD huffed. "Who are you to tell us what to do?" He tried to show calm when a bullet kicked up the mulch between his boots. A steadying hand on his back told him Vin had already decided what they were going to do.
The sharpshooter narrowed his eyes as he looked up at the man and spoke. "No need to involve both of us. I'm willin' to play your game."
"Vin, No…!" The youth's jaw snapped shut at the wilting look from Tanner.
Gumbo Devlin laughed. "Aww, sweet." His expression sobered. "No deal; it'll be both of you, or you die right here."
Resigned to their fate, a quick glance between the two friends confirmed their readiness to hi-tail it out of there.
"Run boys! One – two – three - …"
To the backdrop of counting, and male voices cackling loudly, Vin and JD started running for their lives. More gunfire divided them, and sent them off in opposite directions. Atop his horse, Gumbo Devlin spat out more juice from his chewing tobaccy and produced a tooth-stained grin. "Hoo-whee, boys, we got us a chase."
He barely left a mark as swift feet carried Vin in zigzag patterns through the dense, brittle woodland. He shucked his jacket within minutes of the chase, and tossed it in a direction that he hoped would buy him some time. It meant exposing his red shirt, a far more noticeable color than his brown jacket, but he knew the weight of a topcoat would soon wear him down. While running, one thing the tracker felt confident of was that these men might boast bloodlust, but would be no match for him in the art of evasion. Their attempts to trap the pair by leading them on a false trail had been picked up by a novice, as well as himself, and that notion boosted his confidence and spurred him on.
That thought however, almost stopped him dead. While Tanner knew the kid was a plucky little fella, and fast, he wasn't even close to prepared for something like this. Staying one ahead was a practiced skill, and while speed was good, quick thinking, experience, and especially lightness of step were the keys to success. Whether tracking, or being tracked, to allow sounds to carry was as bad as waving and shouting 'hey, over here.'
With his gut clenched, Vin charged on, his goal now to find JD before the enemy did, and then - he smiled grimly - locate their tormentors. In a bizarre change of mood, his last thought made Vin's smirk widen, seconds later an agonizingly familiar burn to his shoulder followed a burst of gunfire.
His beloved hat was long gone, swept off his head by a loose branch only seconds into his flight. JD's lungs burned and his head ached from the constant pounding through the rough, packed terrain. He strained to listen for someone, anyone, especially Vin. He scolded himself for the last thought. He'd likely never hear Vin.
He feared the noise would carry as he crashed to his knees on the unforgiving ground, when in reality, his cry was little more than a surprised squeak. Reacting to the pain in his knee, JD realized there was gunfire from somewhere behind and to one side of him. He then noticed the fresh hole where an unseen bullet had sailed over his head and into a tree just ahead. With a grunt, and determined not to dwell on what might have happened had he not fallen over, he got up and swiped at the sweat on his brow. Stripping off his jacket, JD balled it up, and tossed it way to one side of the trail. He hurriedly limped away in the opposite direction, and tried not to dwell on the fact that the burning ache in his knee was a harsh reminder of being dumb enough to trip over a semi-hidden tree root. He somehow found the strength to speed up when a gruff, unfamiliar voice called out.
"Ain't no use in runnin', boys, you're each lookin' to be another notch on my Winchester."
Just like Vin had taught him, JD twisted and turned through the shadowy undergrowth. The boy hoped his friend was well away by now, or if not, right behind these sons of bitches and about to snap their necks.
Using his teeth, Vin tugged in time with the fingers holding the other end of his bandanna. With the bullet wound on his shoulder successfully covered and tied off, he peered around from the bush he was hiding behind. Like JD, his hat had been pushed off too, but was being held on by the stampede string, and now hung around his neck and nestled against his back. He fought to control his breathing as his lungs protested the strain they were suffering. Sweat dripped from the end of his nose and streaked his face, while soaked tresses pasted to his damp forehead did nothing to mop up the residue.
The smell of his own warm sweat tickled his sensitive nose and he pondered on whether these men were receptive to odor. If this was coming from one of them, he'd surely smell it. With that, he raised his head and tilted it left and right while sniffing the air. A tight grin dimpled his cheek and he chose a direction and moved stealthily away from his hiding place. He couldn't risk getting trapped now, especially as night was drawing in. On the same note, the shadows were his ally; he just hoped he could take these men down before they found JD.
Chris cursed at the darkness descending on the group of three riders. He should have set off as soon as late afternoon kicked in, but he waited. Now he, Buck, and Ezra were losing the battle against time. It would soon be full dark, and they had no clue as to which direction Vin and JD took.
Vin's patrol was due to end by early-afternoon. Knowing JD was with him, the gunslinger allowed a few extra hours for the pair to return, despite a gut feeling it might be a mistake; but Chris worried that his fears for his friends' safety, especially Vin's, was coloring his judgment, so he'd waited.
Just as he was about to address a very tense Buck, Ezra pointed.
Through the gloom, the three cantered over to a saddled Black grazing just off the trail. As they closed in, a small Bay could be seen a little way from the Black. By the time they reached the horses and dismounted, a whole host of scenarios passed through their minds. While Ezra kept watch, Chris and Buck checked the horses for injuries, both agreeing the animals were lathered up, but not hurt.
"Whatever happened musta been fast, Vin wasn't carrying his rifle." Chris gestured toward the weapon nestled inside its sheath.
"Canteens are still hung off their saddles. They got no water," Buck stated. He rubbed anxiously at the back of his neck. "We ain't gonna pick up a trail in this light."
It took a long time for Chris to answer, but finally he nodded. "We'll make camp here, and set out first light."
With heavy hearts, the men settled all five horses down for the night and prepared to do the same, but no one slept well.
His pathway lit by a full moon, and under a blanket of stars partially hidden by a thick canopy of branches and foliage, JD ran for his life. Parts of him ached due to more trips and falls, and his already throbbing knee was dangerously close to giving out after the last tumble; but still he ran. Swiping at the perspiration and blood striping his face, he kept up the pace, though he knew he was beginning to flag. He cussed as another sharp twig slapped at his face, but kept going.
With a squeak, his feet found a hole and he agonizingly rolled down into a deep pit littered with leaves, branches and rocks. Bouncing to its sandy bottom, he was winded and fought against losing consciousness. Voices from above and way too close for comfort, prompted him to curl into a tight ball and pray this place would be his salvation, maybe even until help arrived. Being in pitch black would help, but what if whoever was up there they fell in here, too? And how concealed would he be in the cold light of day if he couldn't get out?
JD shivered. 'Vin, where are you?'
"We done for today, Gumbo?" Like his leader, Delbert Kelly was off his horse and hunting on foot. Now over his initial adrenaline rush, he was more than ready for supper. Clem Devlin, Gumbo's younger brother nodded.
"Sounds good to me, Dev. I could just go for some coffee…"
"No!" Devlin Senior spat. "Been a long while since we had us a hunt like this. I can smell the fear, 'specially on that young 'un." He sniffed the air. "They're close; I can sense 'em."
Clem dismounted, took the others' horses, and waved a hand. "Swell, you go ahead and sniff 'em out. I'm gonna set up camp and start a fire."
Hungry, Delbert Kelly looked longingly at Clem, but knew Gumbo would be mighty mad if he didn't go with him. With a sigh, he followed after the eager hunter, and hoped Clem left them some coffee for after the killing was over. While the men walked, a lit lantern in each one's hand, Delbert's boot slipped and he cussed before recovering. Holding the light over the hole he almost fell into, Kelly looked down into its murky depths, shuddered, then trudged on.
Almost halfway up and pressed flat to the pit wall, JD momentarily closed his eyes in relief. He felt sure that fella would see him. Shaking off the loose earth that lay in his hair from when Delbert slipped, JD grit his teeth and shakily pushed on up. With the darkness protecting him, he raised his head over the rim and glanced around. He could see a man making camp a short distance away. He'd gotten a fire going, but it was still low enough for JD to slither away from the armed hunter and into the bushes. The youth gnawed at his lip. If only he knew which way them other two fellas went.
Taking a breath, he heaved himself up and over the lip. He barely managed to stifle the scream in his throat from the pain that shot through his injured knee from the effort. Terrified he'd been heard; JD lay face down and waited. When he was sure the man in the camp was unaware, he stole a quick glance to confirm his notion, then slithered on his belly across the rough ground until he reached dense thicket.
Sitting back against a tree, he took a moment to rest. Everything hurt; his knee throbbed, his head, which he now realized was bleeding, ached, and a multitude of cuts and bruises smarted. And that was the upside. He was exhausted. His lungs burned and his ribs protested every breath; but to survive, he had to push on. JD glanced around the eerie tree and brush-filled setting. Why couldn't he find a way outta here?
The smell of fresh-brewing coffee taunted him as he pushed to his feet. The effort caused him to bend over and take a few deep breaths to ease the agony. When he was finally able to straighten, JD took stock of his position and, with a short, soft prayer that he and Vin would get through this and meet again sometime soon, he limped away.
'Huntin' in the dark…'
Squatting in the underbrush, Vin pondered that fact. These fellas weren't just protecting themselves, they were serious hunters, in it for the pleasure, not self preservation. This hunt would likely end with someone dead…his job would be to make sure it wasn't him or JD. He buttoned his fly and set off in the opposite direction to urinate in another spot. He'd have these fellas so turned around, by morning, their heads would be spinning…and they'd be his for the taking.
Lord, he was thirsty. Between that, and his throbbing shoulder, it was making him a mite shaky, a luxury he couldn't afford. He was pretty sure JD hadn't been caught. If he had, these boys would've crowed about it, and made sure he heard. That fact made Vin's heart a little less heavy. When he found the kid…and he would find him, he'd tell JD he'd made him proud this trip; because these fellas were good. Vin determined that these boys had been here before; knew the place well; were hunting on familiar territory.
They had drawn him and JD right into the heart of these woods, and trapped them inside a loop of tangled undergrowth and twisted trees. In the dark, it was near-impossible to find a way out. Every turn led a man back into dense brush, and Vin figured several trail-weary travelers had likely met their end here. He now wondered if the fella JD found dead on the trail back aways was a plant…maybe to attract an animal…but instead, it drew them in and gave these sick folk a far more interesting hunt.
Or was the fella just another poor mug these bastards used as prey?
A crackle of brush had him spin around, and the action was almost his undoing. Vin dry-heaved as the shock and blood loss from his wound caught up with him, but with nothing in his stomach since some dried jerky many hours earlier, the spell was soon over. Shivering from the exertion, he drew the back of his hand across his mouth, regained his composure and glanced around.
In the distance, he could see lights moving through the trees, and an adrenaline surge got his feet moving.
'Gotcha, you sonsabitches.'
Despite his pounding head and more bruises, scrapes, and scratches than you could shake a stick at; and while trying to ignore the cramping stomach muscles and aching ribs from dry-heaving, he circled around, and moved through the darkness and underbrush like a ghost. Picking his spot, Vin melted into the thicket and lay in wait. Snapping a neck, he decided, would be true satisfaction.
He didn't have to wait long. Listening to the sounds of his approaching target determined his course of action. Timing his move to perfection, he reached out and grabbed the unsuspecting prey, dragging him back into the brush in less time than it took to take a breath. He stared into the terrified eyes of his captive…and smiled.
Frustrated at the blood dripping into his eye, the young sheriff walked through the shadows with his hands in front of him in the hope of fending off any sharp objects waiting to assault him. So far, he hadn't seen or heard any wild animals around and again silently prayed; this time that any beasts stayed wherever they'd been up until now. Coming to a dead stop, JD looked up at the sky. He could just make out the stars through the forest's heavy canopy. Didn't Vin say something about using the North Star as a guide? He swallowed against a parched throat. The thing was, he was so turned around, he wasn't exactly sure which one was the North Star.
JD made a sharp duck and turn at the sound of the gruff voice somewhere behind him. He could just make out lights moving swiftly through the trees and heading his way. While his heart thumped wildly in his chest, he ran. With no time for preparing the way, spiky underbrush slapped at his already abused body as he fought to escape, but the sparse moonlight wasn't enough to see the trail clearly, and soon he was hedged in by thick brushwood.
JD was trapped, and now couldn't see the traveling lights, either. His heaving breaths sounded loud to his ears as his head twisted, tilted and turned for any kind of clue to his pursuers' whereabouts and while he considered his next move. He again saw the lights, more spread out, and close, real close. He was surrounded. One light disappeared from view. JD's heart almost burst in his chest when, but before he could get his thoughts together; a hand covered his mouth and another, his waist.
JD was snatched from behind and dragged backwards into the thicket.
Drinking tepid coffee and chewing jerky in the gray dawn light wasn't his finest moment, but Buck was glad of it. Despite his lack of sleep, he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; and eager to get going, as he stared out across the murky plain in anticipation. He trusted these men with his life, so knew Vin would have JD's back…and JD, Vin's, but without knowing if either, or both those boys were hurt, Buck was worried about what they would find out there…or not…
No way was he giving in to those sorts of ponderings. It was bad enough to fear losing someone during the course of their regular duties, but like this? There would be no justice in death owing to two young fellas just having a little down time.
He glanced across at Chris. He knew that look on the gunslinger's face. Larabee was fighting his fear, but he wasn't fooling anyone. When Buck first met Vin he accepted the tracker's place at Chris's side, even though it stung some. Since then, Chris had demonstrated his protectiveness of all six of his friends, especially Vin, even if the man himself wasn't aware; and Buck had been warmed to see that their own friendship, though sometimes a mite shaky, was still strong.
What tickled him most though was the way Chris guided JD, and worried over him, without even knowing he was doing it. And that made Buck's heart soar the most. His long-time friend was finding his compassion, and extending it beyond the one soul he felt closest to. And that was what was driving him now. He needed to find Vin alive…but he wanted to find JD alive, too.
Buck smiled. The kid was good for them…for him. JD made him laugh, and Buck liked to laugh. There had been a lot of amusement since they'd all gotten together. He shook his head and turned misty eyes toward the little Bay his friend adored almost as much as the men he rode with. JD was good for Buck because he made him laugh?
Who was he trying to fool?
Ezra stared at the dried jerky in his hand, grimaced, and placed it back into his saddlebag. He pulled out a flask from his inside jacket pocket and while glancing at his two companions, took a long draw of the fiery liquid within. How he envied them; which was a strange desire considering they were both on edge and burdened with worry and guilt for their young friends. The southerner had rarely experienced such an emotion.
Until meeting these men.
Fleecing fellow gamblers, while always satisfying, had become less so lately due to the camaraderie he currently enjoyed. As a result of the innocent companionship JD offered, he had caught himself yearning more to teach the boy about the wicked ways of the West, rather than instigate an activity to promote one. His cheeks dimpled in a grin. Mother would be mortified.
Being quick-witted himself, Ezra also appreciated Vin's dry sense of humor. He found he laughed a lot these days. The man's quiet sense of nobility touched the southerner deep within his very being, and spending time with the Texan was always a rewarding experience.
Nathan challenged him, and Ezra looked forward to their daily sparring. Chris's deep compassion and charismatic sense of honor stirred a loyalty within him that Ezra had no idea he possessed. Josiah's humor and philosophical approach to life occasionally sent Ezra to bed grinning, and often pondering a discussion; and Buck's love of life encouraged the gambler to appreciate there was more to his existence than a deck of cards and green baize.
JD drew out the good in all of them. Without asking, or realizing he was doing it, he encouraged them to be their best selves. The boy was a torrent of enthusiasm surging through their trail-weary souls, and no one could evade it; and no one wanted to. It was how they all had once been, and it was good to feel that way again, even if it was via the energetic easterner.
Removing a small mirror from his saddlebag, Ezra stared into it and prodded the dark puffiness under his eyes. His relief to return to his feather bed after this fraught excursion was fast becoming a priority. Standish's cheek once again dimpled by means of a small smile of irony.
Who was he trying to fool?
Chris resisted the urge to light up a cheroot. He wanted to get going and find the trail the two loose horses left in their flight. If he could have done that last night, he would have, but the three men would be no use to Vin and JD turning up injured; or worse, going in the wrong direction.
'Where are you, Vin?'
Larabee rolled his tense shoulders as he tried to calculate the endless possibilities that question stirred up. His friend wasn't reckless, and was an expert in survival; therefore Chris had to believe Vin and JD were alive. So he focused on the risk of injury. That surely would be a good reason to slow them down.
Now his mind was fixed on what type of injury, the odds of them both being hurt, and what caused it.
Anger bubbled in his veins at the thought of someone inflicting pain on either of them. A fury that would force his hand to kill any God-forsaken sonofabitch that could be that stupid; and who he would not be above dying for to hunt down.
Unable to vent his frustration any other way, Chris lit his smoke. As he took a long draw, he pondered how good Vin was for him. A calming influence, yet of no less intensity of feeling than Chris. Buck's friendship had fired Chris's soul, Vin's soothed it. Tanner's calm outlook and appreciation of life, reminded Chris that retribution could be dispensed in many forms, and sometimes, just the simple threat of it was enough to force an adversary to crap his pants. Chris couldn't help but smile at that.
JD; well, there was a whole world of challenges in just knowing that boy. He tested Chris every day. At first, he had mostly avoided the lad, but seeing him almost sliced in two by Anderson's blade, and then watching him make a stand in town with the Judge, despite knowing nothing of the West, brought out feelings in Chris he had long since buried. While JD was not, nor ever could replace his son, he knew he wanted to look out for the boy in the way he would have for Adam. He had all this life experience to share, and JD was ready and willing to absorb it.
When Chris learned JD had appointed him as his hero, it confounded the man to no end; yet that simple endearment was the final push for the once cold gunslinger to aim toward a new path. Once he and Vin abandoned their plans to head for Tascosa that day, and walked back toward the saloon to take down James, and when he had taken JD's arm to warn him to be careful when going for Nathan, and then rallied the others to ride with him to serve their own brand of justice…his fate was sealed.
Chris sighed. He wanted them safe. He wanted Vin at his side, and to watch JD grow into the man he knew he could become. And those were reasons enough to bring the pair home, right? He stubbed out his smoke with his boot.
Who was he trying to fool?
With a nod from him to his waiting companions, the three mounted up. While Ezra took the reins of Vin's and JD's horses, Chris and Buck's skilled eyes searched the ground for a trail; and just as dawn broke, the three rode on.
JD was dragged back into the brush so fast he had no time to fight. Just as his wits returned and he prepared to turn his assailant's nether regions into mush, his wide, hazel gaze met with a familiar blue one. 'Oh thank God'.
Tanner clapped his hand back across JD's mouth to remind him to be quiet, but the boy's relief, and subsequent grasping of Vin's upper arms caused the tracker to inadvertently squawk when the fire from his bullet wound was reignited.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry," JD breathed.
Vin rested his forehead against JD's for a few seconds, partly in relief of finding him alive, and partly to ride out the agony coursing through him. Eventually, he moved his lips to rasp into JD's ear. "It's okay. Now, you up to catchin' us some skunk, Kid?" He smiled when, in the gloom of pre-dawn, the boy's battered features nodded.
A noise caused Vin to push JD down into a squat, and he quickly followed. The pair watched as a lantern's glow passed through the brush a little ways over. Accompanied by a questioning look, Vin held up two fingers.
Understanding what Vin needed to know, JD answered. "Th'other fella's somewhere back there, but I got no clue as to which direction." He whispered, a little too loudly, way too excited to see Vin alive in order to grasp the need to keep quiet.
Vin simply nodded, too darned relieved to find the Kid alive to be frustrated, while convinced that, if someone heard, and did dare to come at them right now, he'd be a dead man. "C'mon."
As they moved, their recent inactivity had caused JD's banged up knee to seize up. He wobbled and semi-collapsed in a squeak of agony. Tanner followed him down, waited for JD to recover some, and looked into the pain-filled eyes. "How bad?"
JD waved a hand. "It's fine. Just gotten a bit stiff is all." He grimaced when Vin reached out and gave the knee a gentle squeeze. It was obvious the joint was swollen, and hot.
"Y'think you can hold on a mite longer?" Vin asked. He smiled as JD's chin squared, resolutely.
"Sure I can."
With a hint of pride, the tracker nodded. He listened, studied the area, and then gestured for JD to follow him.
Clem Devlin put more wood on the fire and looked up at the lightening sky. With a sniff, he prepared more coffee. He figured his brother, and Kelly, would be hungry after hunting all night, and as he emptied beans into a tin, he wondered if they'd caught anyone yet.
"Probably be the young 'un, first," he decided. Gumbo seemed pretty sure the Kid would be easy pickin's. Still, Clem hadn't heard a gunshot after the first few to scare 'em into running, so it sure seemed like he'd lasted the night...lessin' they'd used knives. Then again, if any of them fellas had been caught; Dev and Kelly would be back here by now and dragging the bodies.
He shook off his ponderings and smoothed down his nice new overcoat, glad for its warmth in the chill of dawn. It had belonged to the fella they'd killed just before them two lawdogs poked their noses in. Now there was a poor excuse for a man. Afore they'd even told him to run, the fella'd dropped to his knees and begged for his life. 'Lily-livered dude deserved to die…right there, on the spot he was begging.'
'Truth be told, he wouldn'a been much of a match for 'em, anyhow. Them other fellas though, 'specially the one in the buckskins, seemed much more the sporting type.' He stirred the beans and hoped the others wouldn't be too much longer.
Delbert Kelly was nervous. It had been a while since they'd gone a whole night and not found their prey, so splitting up hadn't been his favorite decision of the hunt. At least he was armed, and had water, which was more than them two boys had. Gumbo said was sure he'd hit one of 'em, too, but if that were true, it sure hadn't slowed 'em down any. Wiping his brow, Kelly unhooked his canteen and took a long draw before going rigid and dropping the water pouch at the touch of something sharp at his back.
"Let's see that gun ease out of its holster nice 'n slow or the pig-sticker at your back will slice your throat before you got time to blink."
As Delbert complied with the husky drawl, and raised his hands clear, JD came around and relieved him of his weapon. He then checked right down to the man's boots for more weapons, shaking his head 'no' at Vin when there were none. Due to a shove, Delbert Kelly stumbled forward. He turned and glared back at his captors.
Vin waved his knife. "Somethin' you boys should'a done before sendin' us off like that…" he smirked. "…Checked for other weapons."
"You two are dead men. When Dev finds you…"
JD sneered. "He ain't done too well so far, huh?" He crouched down and picked up the drained canteen, his eyes momentarily closing in disappointment. "Damn."
Tanner was frustrated, too, but shrugged. "Take that rope off his belt and tie him up, Kid; but, before you do…" Vin walked forward, pulled the bandanna from around Delbert's neck, and gagged him. "That's better. Okay, go ahead."
Once they rolled the trussed man under a large, thorny bush, the two regulators set off after the other hunters.
Chris, Buck, and Ezra followed a trail to the body Vin had wrapped in a blanket, then on into the woods. The track was a tough one, narrow in parts, and often lethal with sharp tree limbs sticking out at odd angles. One thing that became clear to them all when they entered the heart of the thicket, was that the ground had been disturbed in a way that suggested several boots had passed over it. Chris glanced at his companions.
"Got me a bad feeling about this."
Buck shook his head, already doubting what he was about to query. "Vin and JD are hunting on foot?"
Ezra studied the ground. His expression when he looked up spoke volumes. Buck's eyes closed in despair, while Chris nodded to the silent opinion. "Or are being chased."
Buck removed his gun from its holster and raised it in the air to fire a volley that Vin and JD would recognize as a signal, but before he could shoot, gunshots in the distance alerted the three, and without discussion, they rode toward the sound.
As they weaved through the underbrush, JD grabbed Vin's arm and the pair halted. He stared around; something about this place felt eerily familiar.
"What?" Vin asked.
JD indicated to the ground. "It was dark, so I can't be sure but…I think this is close to where I fell," he whispered. "If it is, their camp's close by."
Vin sniffed the air and smiled. "Smell that?"
JD also sniffed, and nodded. "Smoke."
"And coffee." Tanner jerked his head. "That way."
Moving swiftly, in no time they were crouched in the bushes close to the camp, and as they caught their breath they watched Clem Devlin pace. The pair became more aware of their thirst as the smell of the coffee wafted over them. JD rubbed at his knee and aching head and wished the brush would stop swaying in and out of focus. Vin eased back the soaked bandanna around his wound. Wincing at the pull to the torn skin, and oozing gore, he thought better of it and replaced the cloth.
After studying the camp's layout, Vin looked at JD and raised his eyebrows. JD nodded, and with a direction from the Texan, the pair split up to take down their adversary.
Clem Devlin never knew what hit him as, coming from behind, JD used the recently captured Delbert Kelly's seized gun to halt the man's walking up and down. Vin darted out in front, and punched him hard and fast in the face. They sought out some rope, and had just completed tying the unconscious man when a shot rang out and JD half-twisted and dropped to the ground with a grunt.
Raging with anger, Vin reached for the bound Clem's gun, but another shot hit Vin high in the leg and he went to the ground in agony. A menacing drawl drew his pained gaze up to look at Clem Devlin's sneering brother, Gumbo.
"Kid ain't dead, but I can make him so, and I can shoot out your other leg if you go for that side iron."
Staying his reaching hand, and clutching his leg with the other, Tanner glanced at a motionless JD, then turned a hate-filled gaze to the man holding a gun on him. "You'd better kill me first, mister, 'cause I aim to gut you like a fish."
Gumbo laughed. "Big talk for a man with one leg, one arm, and no gun."
"Well, knowin' all that, how about you put down your gun and we do this mano a mano?" Vin sneered. "Or you too lily-livered to fight on equal terms?"
Gumbo eyed Vin up and down and laughed, cruelly. "Equal? I just shot you, again; you ain't had no food, or no water, and you been bleeding more than half a day. And now you're bleeding out some more. Likely you can barely stand, so what makes you so sure you can take me?"
"What makes you so sure I can't?" Vin growled, knowing that right then, he could happily, and easily rip this man's head clean off his neck. Tanner took pleasure in seeing the man falter at the reflection of certainty in his blue stare.
JD groaned softly, and Vin inwardly cursed himself when he reacted, and then again for allowing his anger at his opponent's amusement to show in his features. The tracker sat there quaking, partly from pain and exhaustion, but mostly from rage. He was just preparing to make his move to take Gumbo out when he heard the cock of a hammer.
Scratching at his whiskers, Gumbo Devlin shrugged, and aimed his gun at Vin's head. "Well, you boys been a mighty fine challenge, but I reckon it's time to end this."
Vin showed no emotion as he eyed the barrel mere inches from his face, but was openly startled when Gumbo's body suddenly flew sideways and the shot meant for him discharged harmlessly into the dirt.
Despite the fire in his side, JD pounded his fists into the man struggling and lashing out beneath him. Just as he felt he was gaining the upper hand, his head exploded with pain and lights.
Gumbo quickly pushed off the body slumped across his and aimed the gun he had managed to hold on to, and just cold-cocked JD with, at the shaky Texan standing over him. He cocked the hammer again and rose to his feet. "Enough! This ends, now!"
"You got that right."
The enraged Devlin spun on his heels and pointed his cocked gun at the three, armed men standing behind him, but Chris's bullet took the gun from Gumbo's hand before he could squeeze the trigger.
With his attacker disarmed, Tanner flew at him. A surge of adrenalin gave the tracker the energy he needed to pummel the crap out of the man. Chris, Buck, and Ezra gave him a few seconds grace, then as Ezra stood guard, and Buck went to JD, Chris wrapped his arms around his friend and pulled him up, and away.
Desperate to finish the bastard off, Vin fought like a man possessed to break free; but his heaving breaths slowed as Chris's soft tones in his ear soothed him into submission.
"C'mon, Pard, you're better than this piss-ant. Let the Judge hang him…and we can watch…together." Chris was ready for when the fight left his friend and as Vin's knees buckled, he eased him to the ground and gently held him. "I got you, Pal, I got you."
"J…D…" Vin rasped out, fighting the need to sleep.
Chris glanced across at Buck, and made eye contact. "He's still with us. Rest easy, now." Chris knew that, despite his battered appearance and bullet wounds, Vin wouldn't give in, but for now, that was okay, there would be plenty of time for resting. He nodded his thanks to Ezra for a canteen, and helped Vin slake his thirst.
Buck carefully scooped up the youth lying on the ground, while taking a silent inventory of the numerous cuts, scrapes and bruises. JD groaned and Buck held him close.
"Hey, Kid, it's all over, Buddy. Just relax, ole Buck's gotcha." He looked up and smiled gratefully at the canteen Ezra offered him.
"Allow me." Standish squatted down and uncorked the pouch. He ran some water over one of his linen handkerchiefs and offered it to Buck to wipe the cut on JD's temple caused by the impact of the gun hilt. He then raised the canteen to JD's parched lips, and spoke, softly. "Mister Dunne, good to see you. Take a few sips and we will tend to your injuries, and get you home."
Buck grinned as JD's eyelashes fluttered and he finally looked at the pair, and then frantically around.
"Vin?" he whispered, huskily.
"Now Kid, you know Tanner's half Injun. Ain't much'll stop him."
JD squeaked when Ezra applied pressure to the flesh wound in his side, but it didn't stop him craning to see for himself if Vin was okay.
At the same time, Vin was doing likewise, and while three relieved friends happily watched, the two youngest regulators locked gazes, grinned, nodded, and finally relaxed. Eyes glistening, and his voice raspy with weariness and emotion, Vin spoke.
"We need to talk about the whole big brother - kid brother – hero deal, Kid. I ain't about to get my ass whupped by Bucklin just 'cause you got to growin' a set o' balls bigger'n Texas."
The men chuckled and JD grinned, but winced as his pain declared it wasn't quite ready to be put on the back burner just yet. Recovering, his gaze once again met with Vin's, and as he smiled at the wink and evident approval from the man, JD relaxed against Buck and allowed more glorious water to glide over his dry tongue and parched throat.
"Ready to go home, son?"
JD looked up at Buck and his eyes crinkled in a small smile. "Home. Sounds…good."
It took some planning, but after tending as best they could to both injured men's wounds, and while Buck watched over a laudanum dosed and sleeping JD and Vin, Chris and Ezra placed Gumbo and Clem Devlin, and a now retrieved Delbert Kelly onto their horses, and tied their bound hands to the saddle horns. Despite having Vin and JD's horses with them, it was decided Vin and JD would ride double with Chris and Buck respectively. Once they had retrieved the discarded jackets and JD's hat lost during the hunt, and after helping get the injured pair onto the horses, Ezra killed the campfire, mounted up, and took the reins of their captives' horses and the horse belonging to the murdered man. With Vin and JD's steeds ponying with Chris's Black, the five peacekeepers and their three prisoners headed home. Chris planned to return later for the wrapped corpse once Vin and JD were settled.
Several days, three bullet-wound surgeries, some stitches, and lots of sleep later, Vin and JD were each wrapped in blankets and sitting side by side outside the clinic while they looked out over the town. Leg propped up, and arm in a sling, Tanner occasionally glanced at a quiet JD until he finally cracked.
"What's on your mind, Kid?"
Turning his bandaged head to Vin, JD offered a tight smile and shrugged, "Aww, Nuthin' was just pondering is all."
Vin frowned. "And?"
JD sighed. "Just got to wondering why men hunt down their own kind like that."
Tanner paused before speaking. "Well, Kid, there's a fine line 'tween hunter and hunted, killin' and murder. When the hunt turns from personal need to sport, it ain't no longer for fun, or for food. Those men moved from wantin' or needin' to make a kill, to cravin' to take a life. It's about bloodlust, and that changes a man." He offered a sad smile. "And all the ponderin' on this earth won't make no sense of it."
There was another long pause, this time from JD. "Vin."
JD rubbed at his throat. "Don't think I wanna watch the hangin' tomorrow."
Subconsciously, Vin touched a hand to his own neck. "Don't reckon I will, neither."
"You're a great teacher. Don't reckon I'd be here now if it wasn't for you."
JD's words warmed Vin from his toes to his hair, and a flush colored his tanned cheeks. "You ain't so bad yourself, Kid."
The five other regulators joined them on the clinic veranda, and to the sound of hammering as a three-noose gallows was erected in the wake of a quick trial and the name of justice, the two young men relaxed in the company of good friends and slowly began to put their ordeal behind them.
Thanks for riding along.
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