Vin stood in front of Peso's empty stall and looked about him in stunned silence, still trying to accept the fact that his horse was gone. That someone had stolen him. He knew he should be looking for sign, for some tell of who had done this, and why, and where they'd gone, but he couldn't. Couldn't get his mind to fix on that. Not yet. For now, only one thought held any meaning for him.
Peso was gone.
JD stood with Tiny out of the way, and the boy's eyes never left Vin. He was completely unused to the look of utter helplessness on the tracker's normally impassive face, to the aching loss mirrored in those wide blue eyes. Vin Tanner was probably the most capable, the most indomitable, the most enduring man he'd ever known, able to absorb and accept whatever was thrown at him without buckling under the blow. Yet now he was shocked, in pain, lost, and the sight of it hurt JD to his core.
Tiny, seeing the tracker's pain as clearly as JD, was racked by shame and guilt. He no longer feared that Vin would kill him, but now found himself wishing the silent, stricken man would at least hit him. "I swear ta God I locked up," he said mournfully to the young sheriff. "Same as I do ever' night. I may not always git along with that horse, but y'know I'd never let no harm come to 'im."
JD smiled slightly and reached out, laying a reassuring hand on the stout hostler's thick shoulder. "I know," he said quietly. "And so does Vin. I'm sure he doesn't blame you."
Tiny bowed his head and scuffed the toe of one boot through the hay on the floor. "I sure's hell feel ta blame, though." He shook his head slowly. "These horses is my responsibility. Y'all trust me ta look after 'em for ya." He looked again at Vin and sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. "Peso means the world ta him. I'll never fergive myself if somethin' happens ta that animal."
Determination flared in JD's hazel eyes and he lifted his chin. "Don't worry," he assured the man, "nothin's gonna happen ta Peso. Vin'll find their trail, then we'll go after 'em and bring 'em in. With Peso." He nodded firmly. "You'll see. It'll be all right."
Tiny had to smile at the boy's optimism. JD Dunne had an abiding faith that things would always turn out for the good, for the right, and nothing had ever been able to shake him from that faith. Tiny had seen too many things turn out the other way to share that faith, but he deeply hoped that, this time anyway, the boy was right.
JD squeezed Tiny's shoulder once and nodded again, then left him and went slowly toward the tracker. Vin was staring at the floor, but the boy knew those dazed, unblinking eyes weren't reading sign, and doubted Tanner even knew what he was seeing. If he was seeing anything at all.
"Vin?" he called softly, worriedly. The bowed head never lifted, the slumped shoulders never straightened. The boy winced and shook his head, hating to see the man he so admired for his strength reduced to this. "You know we're gonna find him," he consoled, wanting to reach out to Tanner, but not certain how he would take it. The tracker wasn't used to being touched, and didn't always react well to it. And JD certainly didn't want to cause him any more upset. "I'll start lookin' around, see what I can find." He spoke to Vin as he would to an injured, skittish horse, keeping his voice low, even and gentle, wanting only to soothe raw nerves and ease the hurt he saw in the man. "We'll find him," he said again.
Vin lifted his head slowly at that and fixed wide blue eyes on the boy, comforted far more by the sentiment - the friendship and concern - behind the words than by the words themselves. Swallowing hard, he forced past his throat the first words he'd spoken since talking with Inez in the saloon. "He fought 'em," he murmured in his soft, raspy drawl.
JD looked around and allowed himself a laugh. "He sure did! And I'll bet he's fightin 'em still."
"He..." Vin swallowed again and bowed his head once more, slowly licking his lips as he fought against his natural inclination to withdraw into silence, into himself, when in pain. "He's hurt. His leg-"
JD did reach out, then, and laid a gentle hand on one bowed shoulder, smiling slightly when Vin didn't flinch or pull away. "It wasn't bad, not even very deep. I cleaned it out real good, put some salve on it, bandaged it. So long as they keep it clean, it'll heal right up." He looked around and chuckled. "And it sure didn't hold him back any, did it? I'll bet the fellas who took him have got more than a few bruises ta show for their work."
Vin raised his head, looked into the boy's eyes, and gave a ghost of a smile. "Reckon they do," he rasped. "He don't cotton ta strangers none." He squared his shoulders and nodded once. "Thanks, kid."
JD smiled broadly. "Aw, hell, Vin, I didn't do nothin'. You want me ta help ya look around?"
"Yeah. I'd appreciate that." He gazed past the boy to the man who still stood against the far wall, looking as miserable as he felt. "'S'all right, Tiny," he called quietly. "Ain't yer fault. I don't hold it against ya."
Tiny exhaled deeply and relaxed, relieved by the absolution. "Thanks, Vin. And... I'm real sorry. If I can do anything ta help, just lemme know."
Tanner nodded. "I will. Fer now, though, jist keep folks outta here. I don't want nobody trampin' around 'n messin' up whatever sign them bastards might'a left."
Tiny nodded and went to stand guard outside the livery. Vin gathered his thoughts, put his feelings aside, and went to work. Ignoring the protests of his battered body, he knelt in Peso's stall and examined the floor carefully, looking for any trace of the thieves. He found what remained of a hat, and, here and there, saw partial prints of booted feet.
Two men, at least, judging from the differences in the impressions...
He crept carefully from the stall, his pain forgotten as he concentrated on the work at hand. He followed every sign of the fight between horse and thieves, missing nothing. To the battered remains of the hat he added several bits of fabric torn from two different shirts and a coat sleeve, and allowed himself a grim smile. Damn mule could be hell on a man's clothes. He also found some complete footprints and studied them intently, committing them to memory.
Two sets of boots, worn down at the heels.
JD was looking around, trying to find some sign, when he heard a low sound of fury, almost a growl, from Tanner. Turning around, he saw the tracker kneeling by one of the stable's support posts and holding something to his nose, his face a tight mask of anger.
"Vin?" he called worriedly. Lord, if they'd hurt Peso...
Tanner rose to his feet and held the bottle for JD to see. "Laudanum! Goddamn sonsabitches!" he snarled, hurling the bottle toward the stable door just as two men entered.
"Whoa there, pard!" Buck yelped, ducking as the bottle flew past his head. "We're the good guys, remember?"
"Vin?" Chris called quietly, almost able to feel his friend's rage. "Find anything?"
"They doped him!" Tanner spat. "Poured that shit down him so's he couldn't fight 'em 'n took him!"
"Well, ya gotta admit, pard," Buck drawled easily, "it's the smartest way ta handle a man-eater like Peso."
The words were intended as a joke, but fell entirely the wrong way on Vin's raw nerves. Giving a harsh, wordless cry of fury, and with a speed his injuries should have made impossible, he launched himself at Wilmington, dealing him a vicious blow to the jaw. Buck stumbled backward, but, before he could fall, Vin grabbed him by the front of his jacket and drove him into the wall.
"Yer talkin' about m' horse!" he spat, blue eyes burning in his savage face. He slammed Buck's head into the wall, then jammed a forearm across his throat, pressing hard and cutting off his air. "I won't have it, ya hear me? You got no call talkin' about him like that-"
"VIN!" Chris shouted, rushing forward and grabbing Tanner's shoulders, trying to pull him away from Buck. "Goddamn it, JD," he yelled, "give me some help!"
The boy raced forward and, together, he and Chris managed to pry the fighting, cursing tracker off Buck, who sank immediately to his knees, breathing hard and dazedly rubbing his throat.
Howls of fury, snarled curses and vicious threats poured from the tracker as he punched, kicked and clawed at the men restraining him, as his hurt at the loss of his horse erupted in a blistering torrent of rage. He felt none of the pain his friends were inflicting on his battered body, cared nothing for what he was inflicting on them, knew only that Peso - his Peso - was gone and somebody had to pay.
"Goddamn it, Vin, stop it! STOP IT!" Chris shouted as Tanner fought him and JD like a man possessed. "You- Son of a bitch!" he yelped, going down and landing hard as Vin managed to kick his legs out from under him. "Hold him, JD!"
"I'm tryin'! I'm- Oh, shit!" the boy cried as Vin stomped on his foot and tore loose. "Get 'im, Chris!"
"Oh, no you don't!" Larabee snarled, lunging to his feet. As angry now as Vin, he lashed out and drove his fist solidly into the tracker's chin.
The blow snapped Tanner's head back, then dropped him to the floor, where he lay still for long moments, dazed. Pain throbbed heavily through every nerve in his face until his whole head pounded. And his teeth hurt like hell.
"Stay down, damn it!" Chris ordered breathlessly, shaking out his aching hand and gingerly flexing his throbbing fingers. "I've already got more than half a mind ta shoot ya! JD, you all right?"
The boy was moving various parts of his body, making sure everything was still attached and working. "Yeah, I guess," he said with a deep wince. "Jeez, he fights dirty!" He then looked to Vin's first victim, who was struggling slowly to his feet. "Buck!" he called, running to the big man's side and helping him to stand. "You all right?"
"Never better, son," Buck rasped weakly, still rubbing his sore throat. "That boy's got quite a temper!"
Chris glared down at Tanner as the tracker tried to rise. "You gonna behave?" he growled. "Or ya gonna make me put ya down again?"
Vin squinted and tried to focus his swimming gaze on Larabee. But the effort proved too much and he let himself fall back to the floor as pain and shame washed through him.
Chris saw the remorse flooding the blue eyes just before they closed, and felt his own anger fading. With a sigh, he knelt beside his friend, suddenly feeling every blow the wiry Texan had landed.
"You all right?" Vin didn't answer, and Larabee frowned. "You got a right ta be upset," he said quietly, "but Buck ain't the one you need ta be goin' after." Still no answer. "Shit, Tanner, I didn't hit ya that damn hard!"
"Was hard enough, I reckon," he rasped at last. He slowly opened his eyes and turned his face to Chris. "I hurt ya?"
Larabee smiled thinly. "You ever hit anybody and not hurt 'em? You got a real mean streak in ya."
Vin sat up slowly, then leaned forward and cradled his aching head in his hands. "C'd say th' same fer you," he muttered.
"What the HELL is goin' on here?" demanded a furious voice.
Several pairs of eyes lifted to see Nathan and Josiah entering the livery. Sanchez only shook his head and sighed resignedly at the evidence of the fight, but the healer was a black cloud of rage.
"Goddamn it, ain't I got enough ta do patchin' all the wounds y'all git from outlaws 'n accidents?" he shouted, sweeping his seething gaze over the men in various stages of hurt. "Now I gotta put ya back together after fightin' each other? And YOU!" He whirled on Tanner, who actually shrank back before that fury. "This's got you written all over it! You wanta tell me why the hell you're pickin' fights with ya friends when it's all you c'n do ta walk? Ain't ya got no sense at all?"
Vin swallowed hard and licked his lips, then dropped his gaze to the floor as a hot flush of shame rose through his face. Words and his voice deserted him as that dark, heated gaze bored into him.
"Aw, hell, Nate, leave him alone," Buck spoke up, moving away from the wall to put himself between healer and tracker. "It was all my fault. Like a damn fool, I mouthed off about Peso." He shrugged and gave a rueful smile. "The boy's temper snapped, is all. Hell, I reckon I got what I deserve, and Lord knows I've had worse."
"All right," Nathan seethed, "that explains you. But what about Chris 'n JD? They look like they bin mauled pretty good. You gonna tell me they mouthed off, too?"
"Somebody had ta get him off me," Buck said with a grin. "And the pleasure fell ta them."
"Pleasure, yeah," JD grumbled, rubbing his shoulder where the tracker's bony elbow had caught him. "Nothin' personal, Buck, but next time I'm just gonna let him choke ya."
"Thanks, kid," Buck said sourly. "You're a real pard."
Nathan turned his gaze upon Larabee. "I'm guessin' you're the one that dropped him?"
Chris gave the healer a slight smile. "At least I didn't shoot him. Although," he scowled at the tracker, "next time I just might. It'll be easier on my hand."
Vin flashed him a crooked grin. "It's hell gittin' old, ain't it, cowboy?"
Larabee's scowl deepened. "Don't make me hit ya again, Tanner," he warned. "You won't be gettin' up next time."
Vin winced as his new injuries began making themselves known. "I ain't exactly jumpin' up now," he drawled, the closest he'd come to admitting he hurt.
Chris rose to his feet, then held out a hand to his friend. "Get up before ya take root."
Vin grasped the man's forearm, felt strong fingers close about his arm, and let Chris pull him to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept him and he swayed, but was instantly steadied by a firm grip on his shoulder. He closed his eyes until the dizziness passed, then nodded gratefully.
"You all right?"
Buck's gentle voice startled him, and he looked up sharply - too sharply - into concerned blue eyes. But Chris's hold on his arm and Buck's on his shoulder steadied him again, even as their worry filled him anew with guilt. He shrugged out of their hands and turned away, bowing his head and chewing his lower lip.
"Vin?" Buck called softly, worriedly. "You all right, son?"
Vin ducked his head lower and turned away further, consumed in shame. "I done wrong," he muttered. "I coulda hurt ya. Hell, I's tryin' ta hurt ya! All'a y'all." He grimaced and shook his bowed head. "I shouldn'ta done that."
"No, I reckon not," Buck allowed. "You sorry for it?"
"Hell, yeah," Vin rasped.
"Well, then," Buck said easily, laying a big hand gently on one bowed shoulder, "I reckon that's that. If you're sorry, that's enough for me. And I know Chris is satisfied, seein's he got the last punch in."
Vin turned slowly around and smiled shyly up at Buck, again recognizing, and deeply grateful for, the big man's generous nature. "He does like doin' that, don't he?"
Buck grinned broadly, relieved to see Tanner's smile. "Last punch, last word, last bullet. Thinks it makes him look tough."
Chris scowled at his old friend. "Still got a punch or two left, Buck," he warned.
Buck winked at Vin. "See? What'd I tell ya? Always gotta be the toughest hombre around. Got him a rep-u-tation ta uphold."
Vin's smile widened at the big man's easy humor. "Thanks, Bucklin," he said softly.
"Don't encourage him," Chris growled, though the gaze he directed at Wilmington was warm. "It only makes him worse."
"Don't none'a y'all need encouragin'," Nathan muttered. "What y'all need is a good dose'a common sense." He glared at Tanner. "You're jus' bound an' determined ta end up in the clinic, ain'tcha? I swear, you collect bruises like Billy Travis does marbles!"
While Nathan railed against the hard-headedness of his friends, Josiah gazed around the livery, taking in the damage. "You boys do all this?" he asked at last, true wonderment in his voice. Lord, he knew these four were a regular whirlwind when they fought, but this...
"Wasn't us," JD answered, seeing the smile steal away from Vin's face and eyes. "It was Peso."
"Peso?" the preacher repeated sharply. He looked around again, noting the big horse's absence. "Why? And where is he?"
Vin bowed his head, swallowing against the pain. "Gone," he answered softly, his voice barely reaching his friends.
Josiah saw the change come over the tracker, and was instantly concerned. "Gone where, son?" he asked gently.
"Don't know," Vin breathed, the pain of it cutting into him anew. "Jist... gone."
"Somebody got in here last night," Chris explained quietly. "Took him."
"Took him?" Nathan repeated in disbelief. "You mean somebody done stole that hammer-headed-"
"Goddamn it!" Vin shouted hoarsely, startling everyone in the livery. He strode forward and planted himself inches from Nathan, staring furiously up into the big healer's shocked face. "I done heard all the insults ta m' horse today I'm gonna hear!" he snarled.
"Now, look, son," Josiah soothed in his deep, rich voice, "all Nathan meant-"
"I know what he meant!" Vin spat, rounding on the preacher and sending him back a step with his glare. "I know what all'a y'all mean!" He turned and raked a blistering gaze over all his friends, his face a mask of hurt and anger. "Y'all don't like Peso 'cause he ain't all civilized 'n sweet like a `proper' damn horse, 'cause he's rougher'n ya like 'n don't take ta folks. It don't matter that he's smarter'n most damn people I ever met, that he's more trailwise than a mountain goat or that he kin go forever through hard country that'd flat-out kill any'a y'all's horses, 'n it sure as hell don't matter that he ain't ever once let me down or failed ta give me whatever I need from him. All that matters is that he ain't y'all's idea of a proper horse. Well, shit." He spat into the hay at his feet, then raked a contemptuous gaze over them. "There's what I think'a y'all's idea of `proper'!"
"You through?" Chris asked softly. Very softly.
Vin stuck his thumbs into his gunbelt and glared at the man. "Ya gonna shoot me now?" he sneered.
Larabee clenched his teeth and narrowed his eyes. "It's an appealin' thought."
"Then either do it or git the hell outta my way. I got some trackin' ta do." He started forward and would have walked away, but for the black-sleeved arm that snaked out and the hand that caught him fast in a fierce grip. He stiffened and drew a sharp, hissing breath, then stared down at the hand for long moments as if he'd been set upon by something offensive. Finally he lifted his burning blue gaze to meet an icy green one. "You lookin' ta lose that hand?" he asked softly.
Chris kept his hand where it was. "You ain't goin' nowhere," he said in a low, cold voice. "Not for a week, remember?"
"Let go'a me, Larabee," Vin growled. "Them sonsabitches got m' horse. I'm gonna find 'em."
Chris studied the tracker's bruised and battered figure, then sighed and shook his head. "Can't letcha do it, Vin," he said. "You're in no shape for that-"
"Let me?" Vin snarled. "I ain't yer dawg ta be put on no chain, 'n I fer damn sure don't need yer goddamn permission fer nothin'! That's my horse they got, 'n I don't see nobody else breakin' a sweat ta go after him! So you shoot me if you've a mind to, 'cause that's the only way yer gonna stop me from goin' after what's mine. Now, git the hell outta my way. I gotta git my stuff together." He snatched his arm from Larabee's grip and shouldered his way past the seething gunfighter.
"Don't expect any of us ta lend you a horse," Chris called after him, infuriated by the tracker's stubbornness.
Vin stopped and stiffened, then turned slowly to face his friend, his blue eyes cold and hard. "I don't expect nothin' from nobody, Larabee," he said in a low, hoarse voice. "I never have 'n I never will. Hell, I know better'n that." He drew himself up to his full height and lifted his chin. "I'll do what I have to, 'n I'll do it m'self," he said bitterly. "Jist like I done ever' other goddamn thing in my life." He turned and limped stiffly out of the livery, a hurt that was far more than physical in every line of his body.
Chris stared after him, ashamed and riddled with guilt. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, swearing softly.
"Well," Buck said quietly, his face unusually somber, "I know I've felt lower, but I'll be damned if I can remember when." He glanced at Chris and winced when he saw the damage Vin's parting words had done. "That boy knows how ta aim more than a gun, don't he?" He looked up as JD started toward the door. "And where are you goin' now?" he sighed.
JD glared at the older men, his hazel eyes burning. "You guys can stand here all day if you want," he snapped, "but I'm goin' with Vin." His gaze found and zeroed in on Chris. "I may not be his best friend," he said pointedly, "but I guess I'll do until the real thing comes along." And he stalked off after Tanner.
Chris scrubbed a hand over his face, wondering how he could be so tired this early in the day.
"Nope, I was wrong," Buck breathed. "I ain't ever felt any lower than this."
"Day's young," Chris muttered, still able to feel Vin's wounded, accusing eyes drilling through him. "Ain't no tellin' how low we'll sink before it's over."
Lem Howard was not a happy man. Which was a shame, because yesterday he'd been downright content. Yesterday, he'd been a man with prospects; he'd been a man with a plan. He was a member of Roy Tarber's band, an outfit of horse and sometimes cattle thieves that in three years of predations across the territory hadn't ever once been caught. He was a valued and trusted part of that operation, a sort of scout, whose function in life was to keep Tarber informed about the law in a targeted area and to keep that law from finding Tarber. Lem liked to think his skills of observation and misdirection were what had kept the gang safe all this time.
Two days ago, he'd been sent by Roy into the region of Four Corners, a little backwater, piss-ant town surrounded by ranches rich in stock. Roy had a deal cooking with Miguel Santiago, a bandit chief down in Mexico. Santiago's small army was constantly expanding, and he needed horses. Always more horses. But he'd traipsed across the border one too many times, committed one too many atrocities, and was being hounded by Texas Rangers who seemed either not to know or not to care where their jurisdiction ended. Consequently, Santiago couldn't so much as stick a toe across the border without having it blown off. But he still needed horses, and he'd already picked his bailiwick clean.
So he'd contacted Tarber, and a deal was struck. Santiago would pay in gold for all the horses Tarber could provide. Santiago was desperate and rich, and Tarber was clever and greedy; it was a match made well south of heaven. Tarber and his gang had been driving horses into Mexico for a month now, never lingering in the same place too long, gradually working their way west, stripping the range as clean as a plague of grasshoppers would a wheat field. And Lem Howard was fit to bust with pride at being part of such an organization.
He was going to be rich. Hell, he already had more money than he'd ever known existed! And he was only going to get more. He was going to get rich, retire down to Mexico, find him a lovely little se¤orita, and open a cantina. Then he'd hire others to do all his work for him, and he'd do nothing all day but count his money and play with his se¤orita. Yep, Lem Howard had himself a plan.
Then Roy had set his sights on Four Corners, lured by the four- legged wealth of Stuart James, Guy Royal and their ilk, and pleased by the fact that there was virtually no law in the region. Oh, sure, the town had those seven gunmen looking after it, and, yeah, they had themselves a reputation. But hired guns were notoriously unreliable in a pinch, and reputations were usually exaggerated. And Roy Tarber was not a man to be impressed by overblown reputations.
He was, however, a mite worried about that tracker among the seven. The man was said to be part hawk, part cougar and all eyes, a Comanche-trained human bloodhound who could track a down feather in a snowstorm and wouldn't give up until he'd caught or killed his prey. So Roy had sent Lem into Four Corners to keep an eye on the tracker, to make sure the man never caught Tarber's scent, to do whatever he had to do to keep the tracker and his six compadres from screwing up the lovely deal Tarber had going with Santiago. And, just to make sure Lem never got in over his head, Roy had sent Hank Fine with him. To help out, he said, to give Lem an extra pair of eyes.
Too bad that extra pair of eyes didn't come with an extra brain...
Lem exhaled sharply and sat down by the blackened remains of last night's campfire, his round face a mask of disgust. Hank was a marvel with horses, could damn near speak their language. It was what made him such an asset to Tarber's outfit. Unfortunately, horses were all Hank knew; otherwise, he didn't have the brains of a flea. It had been Hank's idea to shoot that tracker when the sharp-eyed bastard had cut the gang's trail in Cutter's Pass. It had been Hank who'd started shooting. It had been Hank who'd said the tracker was dead. It had been Hank who'd been wrong.
And, goddamn it, it had been Hank who'd fallen in love with the tracker's sonuvabitchin' horse.
Lem swore fluently and foully, hating that horse with everything that was in him. His whole body ached from the fight they'd had with the beast last night, and he bitterly wished he'd merely shot the animal instead of agreeing to steal it.
How hard could stealing a lame horse be? Hank had asked. Hank, who had a way with horses, who understood horses, who was universally loved by horses...
But who hadn't the faintest idea how to handle this particular horse. Because this horse wasn't a true horse at all, but was some demon-spawned creature who gave rattlesnakes and rabid wolves a bad name. And who'd proven a clever horse thief himself.
Lem spat furiously into the ashes. Goddamn it, they'd drugged him! Dosed him with laudanum and hobbled him. And still, still, he'd managed to wander away somewhere between dark and dawn, just up and walked away, taking the other two mounts with him, leaving Lem and Hank afoot. Afoot, goddamn it! Two members of Roy Tarber's brilliant gang of horse thieves, left afoot and stranded by a horse.
Roy was waiting for them in the canyon, holding another herd until Lem assured him those seven gunmen weren't coming after them. But he would just have to keep waiting, because Hank was out looking for their horses.
And Lem, who yesterday had been a contented man, a man with prospects and a plan, was sitting by the cold, dead remains of last night's campfire, stewing in his own misery and humiliation and cursing that misbegotten devil of a horse.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stalked down the street toward the saloon, cursing himself, Vin Tanner, Peso, the horse thieves and whatever else crossed his mind as he went. Seeing the mask of black fury that was his expression, the wise citizens he encountered scrambled eagerly out of his path, ducking into shops and alleys and flattening themselves against walls, averting their gazes and doing all they could to stay out of the snarling gunman's line of fire.
Buck and Josiah followed at a discreet distance, Josiah soothing the startled townsfolk with his deep, calm voice, and Buck merely staring at Larabee's ramrod-straight back and shaking his head. He knew lots of folks who could piss off Chris Larabee. Hell, it didn't take much, and he'd done it a time or two - or two thousand - himself. But in all his years with the man, Buck had never seen anybody, anybody, who could do it with the ease, certainty and simplicity of Vin Tanner. And the tracker didn't have to say a word to do it. Like the sharpshooter he was, he just had to aim one look of defiance from those goddamn blue eyes at Larabee, and he'd hit the mark every time.
Buck chuckled quietly. Hell, it was downright amazin' what friends could do to a man!
Chris wanted to go to the saloon. He wanted to sit down at his table, have a drink and continue to curse the most stubborn sonuvabitch he'd ever known. Fuck Tanner. He wanted to go after those goddamn rustlers when he had no business going anywhere? Let him. Wanted to risk getting shot again? Let him. Chris Larabee wasn't anybody's goddamn nursemaid!
"Is it true?"
He stopped abruptly and looked up with a snarl as a body suddenly obstructed his path. Looked up and found himself gazing into concerned blue eyes set in a lovely, anxious face. The pale golden hair was caught up in its usual neat coil behind her head, but a few downy wisps had pulled free, framing her face in soft curls.
"What?" he rasped, refusing to let himself watch those curls dance in the light morning breeze.
Mary arched a slender brow at him and smiled knowingly. She recognized the anger in the smoldering green eyes, knew it as the kind that only six men could put there. And one man in particular.
"I guess that answers my question," she said with a slight smirk. "About Vin's horse," she explained when the green eyes narrowed dangerously. "He was stolen."
"And how the hell..." He bit back the curse, swallowed hard, and tried again. "How did you know that?"
She regarded him with something akin to sympathy. He was trying so hard to retain the cold, unfeeling distance that he had needed as the terrifying killer he'd been, but couldn't - or wouldn't - allow himself to see that it was being steadily eroded by the people he'd so grudgingly allowed into his life. Even while he fought for his humanity, he still fought just as stubbornly against it.
"Look around you, Chris," she said. "It's a small town. Tiny told Yosemite, and Virgil overheard. Then Virgil asked Tiny if it were true, and the two little Lawson boys overheard. Now," she smiled again, "you tell me how I knew."
He sighed, defeated, and relaxed, grimacing deeply. "Yeah, it's true. They got into the livery last night. Peso tore the place up pretty good, but they got him."
"Poor Vin," she breathed, her face clouding with sorrow. She was deeply fond of the shy tracker and hated to think of him hurting as he must be doing now. "So you'll all be going after the thieves." It was not a question, but a certainty, spoken without the smallest shadow of doubt.
And Chris stiffened in resentment, his eyes again flaring. "I never said that!" he gritted.
She stared steadily at him. "Vin's going," she said, again with no hint of a question.
Chris's breath exploded from him in a sharp gust. "He's got no business goin' anywhere!" he shouted. "Hell, you've seen him! Could be busted up inside for all we know! But if the goddamn stubborn fool wants ta kill himself, that's no concern of mine. Just don't expect me ta help him do it!"
"No, you're probably right," she said evenly, aiming her cool gaze at him with a steadiness and skill that would have done another sharpshooter proud. "Vin's been hurt before. He's probably used to dealing with it on his own. And if he gets hurt even worse..." She shrugged one slim shoulder casually. "Well, I'm sure he wouldn't expect anyone to worry about him."
His gut clenched painfully at her words, and at the softly drawled words that sprang accusingly to his mind.
I don't expect nothin' from nobody, Larabee. I never have 'n I never will. Hell, I know better'n that.
Mary saw his anger leave him, heard the soft groan that escaped him and watched the long, lean figure slump tiredly. Smiling softly, she reached out and lightly touched his arm. "You know you can't stop him," she said quietly. "You might as well go with him. He'll never ask you to, you know that. But you also know he'd go with you, even though you'd never ask him."
He bowed his head and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "This isn't what I bargained for, you know that," he said softly. "When I stopped in this town, I was just lookin' for a bottle, a bed and someplace ta rest. It was never supposed ta get this complicated."
She smiled gently, still resting her hand on his arm. "But it's not," she told him. "You're complicated, Vin's complicated, but your friendship isn't. It's the simplest, most natural thing I've ever seen. And the sooner you accept that," she watched him rub his eyes again, "the sooner your head will stop hurting."
He laughed at that, an unexpectedly warm laugh that eased years and lines from his face. "With these friends?" he scoffed, green eyes glinting with true humor. "Hell, they were born to give me headaches!"
She raked her eyes over him slowly, then winked. "I know exactly what you mean, Mr. Larabee. I'll see you when you get back." And, tossing her blond head lightly, she stepped past him and sashayed away, followed by another soft chuff of laughter.
Josiah and Buck came upon him, and both relaxed visibly at his smile. Sanchez fixed a knowing, gleaming gaze upon Larabee and remarked idly, "You know, brothers, in the Scriptures the spirit of Wisdom is referred to as `she.'"
Ignoring the glare Chris shot Josiah, Buck slapped the gunman on the back and drawled, "Well, ol' pard, now what? You gonna stand here and stew, or do somethin' smart for a change?"
Chris transferred the glare from the smirking preacher to the grinning scoundrel. "Hell, Buck," he reasoned, "if I were really smart, I'da shot you years ago." He sighed heavily. "All right, you two go wake Ezra, then meet me down at the livery. I'm gonna go have a talk with Tiny." He started to walk away.
The two exchanged startled glances, then Buck called sharply, "Chris! Why'n the hell we gotta wake Ezra? I mean," he swallowed at the thought of the unpleasant chore, "well, y'know, he ain't gonna be happy about that."
"I know." Chris stopped, turned, and threw a thin, malicious smile at his oldest friend. "But you know me, Buck. If I ain't happy, I sure as hell don't want nobody else ta be, either." He winked, then turned and resumed his walk to the livery.
"Aw, hell," Buck groaned. "I just hate days like this!"
Josiah set his thick shoulders and started resignedly toward the saloon. And, trailing behind him, Buck caught a snatch of the older man's words.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
+ + + + + + +
JD watched as Vin gathered various items from his wagon and packed them into his saddlebags. "So, where you figure on startin'?"
Vin never looked up. "Cutter's Pass. That's where I's shot. Must be somethin' up there somebody don't want me ta see."
JD nodded. "Sounds good. If we head out now, we should be there by early afternoon, right?"
Vin did look up at that, and frowned at the boy. "`We'?"
"Well, yeah." JD met that puzzled gaze evenly. "I'm goin' with ya. I mean, no offense," he smiled, "but you ain't in the best shape right now. You're gonna need some help."
Vin continued to stare at him, as if still not understanding. "'N yer offerin'?"
JD's smile grew stronger, warmer. "That's sure what it sounds like ta me."
Tanner cocked his head slightly to one side as was his habit when puzzling something out in his mind. "Y'know y'ain't gotta."
The boy lifted his head and stuck his thumbs into his gunbelt. "Yeah, Vin, I do gotta," he said firmly. "I gotta because you'd do it for me. I gotta because you're my friend. I gotta because helpin' each other is what friends do."
A faint smile ghosted about Vin's mouth and warmth crept into his eyes. "Thanks, kid," he said softly. "I'm obliged to ya fer that."
"Hell, Vin," JD's earnest gaze met and held Tanner's, "Peso's your horse. He belongs with you. And I'm gonna help you get him back."
+ + + + + + +
Lem's horse screamed in pain and leapt to one side as teeth sank sharply into its haunch, and Lem swore and smacked his coiled rope viciously into a blazed nose.
"Goddamn it, Hank, git 'im away from me!" he shouted, again striking Peso with the rope. "Git 'im away, 'fore I shoot 'im!"
The rope again fell hard against his nose and Peso tried to pull away. But Hank, to whose horse Peso was tied, dropped another dally around his saddle horn and wheeled his horse sharply to jerk the big gelding forward, away from Lem.
"C'mon, ya brute," Hank called over his shoulder to the black, who had no choice but to follow him. "Behave yerself, ya hear?"
Lem scowled at his partner, then spurred his horse onward, but kept well away from the stolen gelding, cursing the animal with every breath he took. Hank had found him and the other two horses after almost an hour of searching, and, to make up the time he'd cost them, they'd had no choice but to remove his hobbles. And Lem had a deeply bruised shoulder to show for his efforts. Just as Hank sported yet another bite mark from tending the animal's injured leg.
But they were only another couple of hours away from Tarber and the others. Once reunited with the gang, Lem would have no more to do with the devil-horse. He'd be all Hank's then, and the stupid sonuvabitch was welcome to him.
Once more, his horse veered too close to Peso, and, once more, wicked teeth snapped at tender flesh. With a vile curse, Lem freed his foot from the stirrup and kicked back, snarling in satisfaction as his spur raked across the blazed nose and tore a scream of pain from the gelding.
Goddamn evil horse! Lem seethed. No wonder that tracker'd so damn near shot him in the street!
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