Chris could hear Josiah's heavy footsteps long before the ex-preacher came to stand at his shoulder. "You sure it's safe to send those two out together?"
Watching as the two men in question jostled each other as they led their mounts from the stables, Chris couldn't help but echo Josiah's concerns. "Ezra and Vin are two grown men, Josiah."
"Yep, that they are. They're also the most likely to get into trouble."
Sighing, the gunslinger pushed himself away from the support he'd been leaning against. "I hear you. But they know they have to be back in three days, and I ain't gonna be happy if I have to go out after them."
Josiah's deep laugh followed him as he headed for the saloon.
* * * * * * *
"Are you certain you know where you're going, Mr Tanner?"
Vin ignored the question. He heard it three times already in the last hour alone and he hadn't answered it the first time. Weren't his fault anyway that the bridge was out at Hopewood Falls, and he hadn't spent time in this part of the territory before. He wouldn't say they were lost, just that the river weren't the easiest of beasts to tame and he couldn't be sure of a safe place to cross. The spring rains had turned what was normally a calm river in to a torrent, and where tracks indicated winter fords, they would now be stupid to try.
Just how far they'd ridden upstream, he wasn't sure, but he knew they'd have to cross soon or else Chris was gonna be a mite riled at them being late. They'd managed to get to Carson in good time, had picked up the papers the Judge needed for his court case in Eagle Bend, and after resting the horses had chose to set a leisurely pace back to town. They had been on course to get back by early afternoon; that was until they realised the bridge was now out. At this rate they were gonna be lucky if they got back tomorrow at all.
Vin pulled his horse up and dismounted, figuring it was about time for a rest. The river here seemed to be flowing slower, it was worth a closer look to see if they could ford it.
In the middle of taking his fill of fresh water, the tracker would have ignored the southerner again, had he not heard the warning in his tones.
The gruff voice spoke of trouble, even as the greeting was cheerfully spoken.
Slowly easing his knife out of his boot, Vin tucked it into his waistband under his shirt before he rose slowly and turned to face the four armed men that had ridden out from the trees at the edge of the woods.
"What can we do for you gentlemen?" Ezra asked, his pleasantries only thinly veiling his wariness.
Vin watched from the corner of his eye as Chaucer 'jostled' innocently enough to allow his rider to conceal the movement that brought his derringer to his palm.
"Well, boys," the larger of the four men spoke again, clearly the leader from the way the others seemed to be looking for his lead. "We're due a nice amount of money if we make sure that you don't get back to Eagle Bend tomorrow with them papers."
"So I take it you gentlemen were responsible for the bridge being out?"
"You'd think right pretty boy," one of the other men teased, bringing laughs from the remainder.
Vin could sense Ezra bristling, but the con man refused to show it.
"Now, if you'll just hand over the papers we'll be leaving you be."
"That's not something we're at liberty to do," the southerner responded.
"Well, then. Ya'll leave us little choice now don't ya."
Vin tensed, ready for any move, knowing Ezra would be equally as prepared to react. When one of the gunmen raised his weapon, the southerner brought the derringer in line and shot to kill. Even as the first man fell, Vin pulled the knife from his belt and threw it at a second man aiming at Ezra, striking the man in the chest, reaching for his mares leg before the blade even hit.
Of the remaining three men, the leader was using his men to ruin any aim of the two peacekeepers. A second was trying to get out of the way, Ezra's last bullet in the derringer having gone straight through his gun arm.
Vin hissed sharply as a bullet caught his thigh and knocked his weight out from under him. He heard Ezra's colt firing close by, and then felt the vibration of horses hooves as the gunmen fell back.
"It's ok," he hissed as Ezra knelt beside him, using the southerner's strength to sit up. He winced as Ezra pulled off his bandana and tied it tightly round the wound.
"I hate to do this my friend, but we're exposed and need to find cover. Fast."
Vin nodded, gritting his teeth as he was pulled to his feet. He grabbed hold of Peso's reigns as the horse wandered close. With Ezra's help he managed to find his seat in the saddle, squeezing his eyes shut as a wave of pain washed over him.
"Reckon it's about as good as it's gonna get crossing here," Vin said.
"It's likely why they were laying in wait for us at this location," Ezra agreed. He edged Chaucer forward, Peso falling in line.
The water sloshed up just above the tops of their boots, the horses fighting with the current. Vin clung on to the pommel as the horse jostled forward, relaxing only when Peso settled back into his normal gait as he hit the solid ground on the opposite side of the river.
Neither man said a word as they put distance between themselves and the gunmen. It was about an hour later when the horses finally came to rest in clearing. The sudden change in pace shook Vin out of his daze and with Ezra's help he eased to the ground, grunting as he landed on his ass when his leg couldn't take the weight.
Ezra peeled away the blood soaked bandana, pulling his own knife from his boot he carefully slit the pant leg to get a better look at the wound.
"Well, the bullet's gone straight through but it's still bleeding." Vin looked up as Ezra handed him his flask. "It's going to hurt."
The tracker nodded and took a deep pull. Clenching a hand tight around the cool silver as Ezra suddenly pressed hard on both entry and exit wounds. "Shit."
"Sorry," Ezra muttered. "There, done," he added a few long minutes later as he tied the ends of a strip of his spare shirt around the wound.
"Thanks, Ez," Vin muttered, dropping back to rest on the soft grass
"Do you think you could return the favour?"
"Shit, Ez," Vin cursed as he struggled to sit back up. "Why didn't you say something?"
"I believe I just did," the southerner said, voice catching as he slowly peeled his jacket off.
As the jacket came off, Vin whistled at the bright patch of red staining one side of the once pristine white shirt. "Bullet still in?"
The tracker frowned at the brief answer. "Not sure I can get that out," he admitted, as he inspected the deep wound low in his friend's right side.
"Just wrap it. It can wait," Ezra said. "We need to get back to Four Corners in time for the trial. If we don't, then all this will have been in vain."
Vin used some of the already sacrificed shirt to stop the bleeding as best he could, winding the clean fabric around the southerner's waist.
"How many were left?" Vin asked.
Ezra eased himself back into jacket, taking a long pull of the flask before handing it to Vin. "Their illustrious leader was unharmed, out of the others only one was still standing and he was not at his best."
"Better odds," Vin muttered.
"That may well be, but we still have to get back to Judge Travis in time, and with our own injuries that may be an issue."
"Ain't gonna get there sat here," Vin said, attempting to pull himself to his feet.
Ezra rose slowly, but caught him before he fell again. He helped Vin over to a fallen tree trunk that he could use to mount Peso. Once he was settled, Ezra eased himself awkwardly in his own saddle.
"Chris is gonna be pissed."
Ezra chuckled, and both men turned their mounts in the direction of Four Corners.
* * * * * * *
"Shouldn't Ezra and Vin be back by now?" JD asked.
Chris shared a look with Josiah before downing his shot of whiskey. "They've got an hour," Chris said gruffly, before rising and heading out of the saloon.
"What's so funny?" JD asked.
Josiah shook his head and was about to answer when the saloon doors kicked back again to allow the gunslinger to stride back in. "Boys!"
All sign of mirth disappeared rapidly as the peacekeepers spotted Chris trying to settle a sweating Chaucer. The horse's flanks were heaving, and Chris suddenly stilled as he held up a hand coated in blood. Wiping the palm on his pants, Chris dug into the saddle bags, pulling out the pocket containing the Judge's papers.
"JD, Josiah, get that to the Judge, now."
"JD, we'll find them. Just make sure that it's worth it," Chris said quietly. His eyes ensuring that he got no further protest.
Josiah grabbed the folder Chris tossed to him, the other hand pulling JD in the direction of the livery.
"Watch your backs," Chris shouted after them. "Nathan, grab what you need, we're heading out after them."
* * * * * * *
Chris pulled up short as the tracks they were following became less clear. He was about to get off his horse when a soft greeting stopped him short.
"Hey cowboy, what took you so long?"
Chris looked over to his right, pulling his horse through the trees to a clearing behind, Buck and Nathan following closely. Vin and Ezra were seated on the ground, neither looking at their best. Hogtied on the floor in front of them was a large man wriggling against his bonds and likely cussing up a storm behind the gag shoved firmly in his mouth.
"You boys ok?" Buck asked, ignoring the man at his feet as he crouched down in front of his friends, stepping back only when Nathan pushed in front of him.
"Have been better, Mr Wilmington," Ezra sighed, wincing sharply as Nathan peeled back the makeshift bandage.
Nathan looked up at Chris's question. "We need to get them both back, neither are good but I should able to get them both back on their feet."
"Gee thanks, Nate," Vin muttered. Finally happy he could relax under the watch of his friends, he leaned back as his waning energy was felt.
"Why the hell do I always have to come looking for you two," Chris muttered.
"I'm taking it Chaucer was able to deliver the required paperwork?" Ezra asked.
"I'm thinking we should be giving that damn horse of yours a dollar a day, he's certainly less trouble than his owner," Chris griped.
"Hey now..." Vin interrupted.
"And I ain't paying a cent for that ornery mule of yours, Tanner. Now you two get your butts back to town and I'll see about letting you out again in say, maybe a year."
Ezra and Vin exchanged glances, and based on their recent history of calamity, wondered if maybe that wasn't such a bad idea.
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