They rode carefully into the canyon, huggings its walls and keeping to shadows and behind rocks whenever they could, every sense alert and hackles high as they waited for the shots that never came. Now and again, the sounds of cheering reached their ears, adding to their confusion.
Within twenty minutes, though, still itching between shoulderblades, they were through the narrow, winding "entryway" with the canyon itself opening up before them. The cheering was much louder now, and, as they rode carefully down to the floor, they exchanged grim smiles, realizing Tarber's band was too distracted by some spectacle to notice their approach.
"Well, boys," Chris said, drawing one of his Colts, "let's go and see what the ruckus is about. Vin," he turned to the man who'd fallen into a deep, grim silence, "remember, nothin' stupid-"
They all heard it, then, the hair-raising, chest-deep bawl of a well and truly pissed-off bronc. Six men were confused, but one had heard that sound before, and felt his own rage exploding from him.
"PESO!" Vin shouted, setting his spurs to Goliath and streaking toward the sound.
"Goddamn it, Tanner!" Chris yelled, taking off after his friend. "You stupid sonuvabitch!"
"Let's ride, boys!" Buck whooped. "If them bastards don't shoot Vin, Chris will!"
Never hearing his friends behind him, Vin leaned low over Goliath's neck and took the reins in his teeth, bringing up his rifle, his blood on fire at the ugly and horribly familiar sight before him. Tarber's gang stood in bunches, cheering wildly as one of their own rode a horse fighting for his very survival. Vin could hear Peso's shrill squeals of pain and those chilling bawls of fury, and could stand no more. Consumed in his own rage, he loosed a cry that any Comanche warrior would have envied and streaked straight toward the rustlers, sighting his rifle on the only one that mattered.
The shot rang out above the shouts and jeers, and a dozen men watched in confusion as McAllister pitched backwards out of the saddle and fell to the ground, the top of his head blown away. More shots followed, accompanied by a hair-raising scream, and the outlaws scattered like ants, running blindly for cover and trying to figure out just what the hell had happened.
For hell was truly among them. Seven men swooped down upon them, shooting and shouting, their bullets bouncing off rocks and tearing into flesh. Even on the fly, they were unnervingly accurate, while the outlaws found themselves hampered by confusion and fear. Those who could were soon running in panic for their horses, though damned few of them ever made it.
Once they were through the outlaws and had them effectively divided into groups, most of the seven threw themselves from their horses and behind whatever cover they could find, concentrating now on picking off targets. Two of the seven, however, were otherwise occupied.
Vin was like a man with tunnel-vision, able to see only his horse and the men who threatened him. Two more thieves fell beneath that deadly-accurate rifle before he replaced it in its boot. Peso, startled by the shots, his nerves already raw, was racing away, and Vin spurred Goliath after him, heedless of the bullets whizzing around him.
Chris, however, was acutely conscious of the bullets, and of his friend's preoccupation. Spitting out a series of foul curses, he took on the task of watching Tanner's back, and every other part of the goddamn fool tracker. Three men ran out into the open to get a shot at the buckskin-clad apparition streaking by them, and three men died at the hands of the black-clad phantom racing along in his wake.
The abuse he'd suffered over the past two days quickly took its toll upon Peso, robbing him of his usual speed. Tired, bloodied and hungry, he stumbled on his injured leg and almost went down, only righting himself at the last moment. But it was enough for Vin, who threw himself out of his saddle and grabbed for the black's reins, hauling down hard before Peso could rear and strike.
"Easy, boy, easy!" he called, holding tightly to the panicked gelding and praying for a sign of recognition. He spoke constantly, soothingly, pitching his voice so it carried above the noise of the battle, yet careful to keep all harshness from it. "C'mon, boy, ya know me. Ya know me, 'n ya know I ain't gonna hurt ya. I wouldn't hurt ya fer the world, not like these bastards done. I wouldn't never do nothin' like this to ya." He inched his hands further up the reins, closer to the blazed nose, knowing he was risking getting bitten, but also knowing he had to make sure Peso caught his scent.
"Goddamn it, Tanner, get down!" Chris shouted, snapping off two more shots and diving behind an outcropping of rocks. "In case you ain't noticed, they're usin' real bullets!"
"I ain't leavin' 'im!" Vin snarled over his shoulder. "You seen what them bastards done to 'im?" He turned back to Peso, who was gradually calming. "Yer in bad shape, ain'tcha, boy?" he breathed, lifting one hand from the reins and holding it to Peso's nose, letting the horse get a good whiff of him. "But we gotta gitcha outta the line'a fire." He drew his mare's leg and turned, still gripping the reins with his other hand, and sought for suitable cover. "Well, hell," he drawled, "looks like all the best places is taken. Heads up, Larabee!" he shouted. "We're comin' in!"
"Great," Chris grunted. "I always wanted ta share close quarters with that damn horse." He snapped off another shot, and was grimly pleased to hear a cry of pain.
Roy Tarber was furious. Larabee and his men weren't dead after all, but were right here, decimating his hand-picked gang. Goddamn it, couldn't anybody do anything right? Why hadn't Jake and his boys killed 'em? And where the hell were Lem and Hank? They'd started this whole thing by bringin' in that horse...
That horse. That goddamn horse. He was the cause of it all, the evil talisman that had brought all this bad luck down on 'em. That goddamn horse was a curse!
With a snarl of fury, Tarber rose to his feet and searched the canyon for the cause of his ruin. And when he saw him, he raced forward, gun in hand, little caring about the bullets that whipped around him. Somebody had grabbed the animal, was trying to calm him; probably that goddamn tracker! Fine, then. Let 'em both die. Tarber was past caring who or how many he took down with him.
The tracker turned and started toward a large outcropping of rocks, leading that damn horse behind him, and Roy Tarber saw red. "Oh, no ya don't!" he shouted in a rage, raising his gun and snapping off two shots at the running man. "TANNER!" he screamed, firing again.
Fire slammed into Vin's shoulder, knocking him to the ground, and the mare's leg fell from suddenly useless fingers. Instinctively, he tried reaching for it with his right hand, and cried out harshly as white-hot pain tore through his arm. He rolled onto his side, clutching at his shoulder with his left hand, feeling the gun under his hip but unable to make himself reach for it again.
Jesus, it hurt!
"VIN!" Instantly, Chris was on his feet and racing toward his fallen friend, his heart in his throat. For the moment, the man who'd shot him was forgotten. All that mattered was getting to Tanner.
Tarber saw the tracker fall, then laughed aloud as the man rolled over, leaving his back unprotected. He raised his gun and sighted, his finger tightening on the trigger.
All at once, though, a raging black fury slammed into him with all the force of a locomotive. Tarber screamed and went flying, dropping his gun and landing hard. Then the black was back, loosing a shrill scream and rearing, hooves slashing through the air. Tarber forced himself to roll away at the last minute, barely avoiding having his head and chest crushed. But he rolled over his gun and managed to close his hand about it, trying desperately to clear his head.
Goddamn fuckin' horse!
"Vin!" Chris knelt over the tracker and pulled him onto his back, swearing harshly at the sight of the blood staining the shoulder of his coat. "Goddamn it, Tanner, ya ain't bullet- proof!" he snarled. "Thought I told ya not ta do anything stupid!"
"Gittin' shot... weren't my idea," Vin gasped through clenched teeth. "Where's... where's Peso?"
"How the hell should I kn-"
"Where's m' goddamn horse?" he snarled, grabbing Larabee's coat and pulling himself to a sitting position. Pain and dizziness rocked him and he collapsed against Chris, digging his fingers desperately into the man's arm. "Christ, I hate bein' shot!" he groaned.
"Figgered you'd be used to it by now," Chris said gently, circling a protective arm about the younger man. "Nathan's gonna kill ya, y'know."
Vin slowly raised his head and fixed pained blue eyes on his friend. "You c'd... shoot me now," he suggested hoarsely. "Save me from 'im. 'N git... five hunnerd dollars... fer it."
Chris smiled and shook his head. "Sorry, pard. Five hundred dollars wouldn't cover what Nathan would do ta me for savin' you from him. But if that bounty ever goes up to a thousand, then we'll have us a little talk."
"Greedy bastard," Vin growled. "Where's m' gun?"
Chris reached for the mare's leg and laid it across Tanner's lap. "Satisfied?"
He released his hold on Chris and closed the fingers of his left hand about his gun, taking comfort from its solidness. "Want m' horse. Git me to 'im."
"Git me to 'im, goddamn it!" Vin spat. "You didn't see what they done to 'im!"
Chris exhaled sharply and swore harshly, but helped the tracker to his feet. "You two deserve each other!" he growled as Vin sagged against him. "Shit, Tanner, what'm I gonna do with you?"
"Yer gonna git me ta Peso," Vin rasped weakly, trying desperately not to fall. "'R at least git outta my way so's I kin git to 'im m'self."
Chris knew he'd try. He'd never make it, but, being Vin Tanner, he'd try until he passed out or died from the trying. "Mule-stubborn," he growled, echoing Nettie's frequent description as he slipped an arm about the injured tracker. "You think you can walk?"
"I ain't dead yet," Vin snapped. He held up the mare's leg with his good hand. "Make yerself useful, Larabee. Lever a round inta the chamber fer me."
Chris snatched the gun away and worked the lever, then handed it back to Vin. "You know, if you'd get yourself a real gun, you could manage it one-handed. There's Peso," he said, directing Vin's less-than-steady gaze with a finger. "Looks like he stomped one of 'em."
"Good," Vin snarled. "Hope he busted his fuckin' head in."
But Tarber only felt like he'd been kicked in the head. Sore all over, he managed to pull himself to his knees, shaking his head and tightening his grip on his gun. He saw the black only a few feet away, eyeing him warily, and felt his rage erupt again.
"SON OF A BITCH!" he screamed, lunging to his feet and raising the gun.
"NOOO!" Vin howled, shoving Larabee away and raising the mare's leg, fear for his horse overcoming his pain.
Peso saw the hated man rise and went at him. A shot sounded, followed closely by another, and the horse struck, his hooves slamming savagely into the body that fell under them. Again and again he struck, maddened by the smell of blood, until there was simply nothing left to crush.
"Jesus!" Vin whispered, sinking to his knees as relief, pain and dizziness overwhelmed him. He could no longer hold up the mare's leg, but let it fall, then followed it into another damn black ravine.
"NATHAN!" Chris screamed as Vin sank to the ground and lay unmoving. "Nathan, get over here!" He dropped to the tracker's side and took his head and shoulders into his lap, staring strickenly down into the bloodless face. "Jesus God, Tanner, why do ya do this ta me?" he demanded harshly, laying a shaking hand against Vin's chest to reassure himself that the stubborn heart still beat. "Goddamn it, how many times I gotta tell ya I don't want that fuckin' money?"
Nathan rushed over and dropped hurriedly to his knees, pursing his lips tight as he peeled away Vin's coat and saw the bullet wound. Then he slipped a hand around and under the tracker's shoulder, exhaling sharply when he felt no exit wound. "Might'a knowed he'd make this harder than it had ta be," he groused, retrieving a wad of bandages from his bag and shoving them into Chris's hand. "Put pressure on it," he directed. "Bullet's still in there, 'n I don't want him bleedin' ta death b'fo' I git a chance ta kill him m'self. Thinks I ain't got nothin' better ta do than spend all my time patchin' him up..."
Chris exhaled slowly and bowed his head, taking a deep comfort from Nathan's grumbling. The healer only growled and barked when it seemed clear their wounds were not life- threatening. It was his way of putting them at ease.
Then the others were all there, standing or kneeling, forming a protective circle about their fallen friend. Buck was nursing a graze across his right bicep, Josiah had been clipped across the thigh, and JD and Ezra bore the marks of some hand-to-hand fighting. But they were all there, and they were all alive.
The circle of seven remained unbroken.
+ + + + + + +
Vin stirred weakly and moaned softly, and immediately felt a comforting hand at his good shoulder. He swam through the heavy haze of laudanum, concentrating on that hand and letting it guide him toward consciousness. He groaned again and slowly opened his eyes, smiling wanly as he recognized the dark, blurred shadow hovering over him.
"Hey... cowboy," he breathed.
"Hey yourself," Chris returned, smiling slightly as the blue eyes tried to focus and failed. "Might wanta stay out a while yet. Nathan's pretty pissed at you."
Vin swallowed and frowned drowsily. "He the one... what shot me?"
Chris chuckled. "Nope, Tarber beat him to it. But he's keepin' a knife real handy, so you'd best lay low."
Vin nodded and his eyes, heavy as lead, drifted closed. Just before he slipped back under, though, memory dawned and he jerked awake with a gasp. "Peso-"
"Ssh, it's all right," Chris soothed, returning his hand to Tanner's good shoulder and pushing him back down onto his blankets. "JD's lookin' after him. He's pretty beat up, looks like he hasn't eaten in a while and got a few gashes festerin', but JD swears he'll be fine with a little care."
"Wanta see 'im."
Chris sighed and shook his head. "Vin-"
"I wanta see 'im, damn it!" he insisted. Lifting his good hand with an effort, he closed it as tightly as he could about Larabee's wrist and stared pleadingly into his friend's eyes. "Please?" he rasped, sounding very young, very vulnerable, and very much in pain.
Chris wanted to say no, knew he should say no, knew Tanner had no business being on his feet and messing with that damn horse so soon after having a bullet dug out of his shoulder. But he also knew, as surely as he'd ever known anything else, that if he did say no, then as soon as his back was turned, Vin would do it anyway, would drag himself on his hands and knees if he had to.
...'n we knew if we couldn't count on nobody else, we could count on each other. I sold Harrigan's horse, 'n it's bin me 'n Peso ever since.
"He's all I got, Chris," Vin said, still clinging to Larabee's wrist. "I jist gotta see fer m'self... that he's all right."
"He ain't all ya got, damn it," Chris said tiredly, rubbing his eyes and scrubbing his hand down his face. "You got us-"
"Y'all ain't hurt."
The plaintive tone in that soft, slurred voice undid him. "You know Nathan's gonna kill me for this?"
"Naw," Vin drawled with a slight, tired smile, his eyes filled with gratitude. "He'll be too busy killin' me. He'll jist reckon I forced ya."
"Oh, yeah," Chris sighed as he slipped an arm under Tanner and raised him carefully, "we can tell him you overpowered me. You ain't gonna pass out on me, are ya?" he asked sharply as Vin groaned sickly and sagged against him.
"Hell, no," Vin whispered, closing his eyes against the sudden rush of vertigo and praying his stomach stayed where it belonged.
"Look, Vin, we can do this later-"
"Help me 'r git the hell outta my way!" he snapped, managing to raise his head and fix something approaching a glare to Larabee's face.
Chris stared into the glassy, unfocused eyes, saw the lines of pain etched into the drawn features and the sheen of sweat bathing the ashen flesh, and scowled furiously at the tracker. "You throw up on me," he warned in a low, hard voice, "and I'll be takin' you back ta Texas in pieces, you got that?"
"Yer all heart, Larabee," Vin rasped, not at all certain he wouldn't do just that. "Now, shut up 'n help me ta m' horse."
Shaking his head and muttering all the while, cursing his foolishness and Tanner's stubbornness, he slowly, carefully, eased the injured man to his feet, holding tightly to him when his knees buckled and refusing to let him fall.
"You're an awful lotta work, Tanner, you know that?" he growled, not liking at all the desperate way Vin clutched at him, the small, breathless sounds of pain that escaped him, or the deathly pallor of his skin. "Just like that goddamn horse'a yers. Ain't neither one'a ya worth the effort." Vin tried to take a step forward and would have fallen had Larabee not caught him. "It's all right," Chris soothed, tightening his hold upon him. "I gotcha. Just lean on me and let me do the work. I won't letcha fall."
"I know," Vin breathed as Chris slowly led him toward his horse. "Reckon I finally figgered that out."
Nathan watched the two for as long as he could stand it, drew a sharp breath each time Vin nearly fell, clenched his teeth and dug his nails into his palms at every halting step. Finally he could stand it no more and started to his feet. A big hand reached out and clamped hard about his arm, pulling him back down.
"Let 'em go, brother," Josiah urged quietly, never looking at the healer and never needing to. He could well imagine the fierce worry that burned in the man's dark eyes.
"He's hurt, Josiah," Nathan protested. "Lost a lotta blood. He needs ta rest. He ain't up ta no walk!"
Sanchez smiled slightly. "I reckon Chris is doin' most of the walkin'," he mused. "Likely Vin ain't doin' much work at all."
"He could fall-"
"Not with Chris there."
"He'll do somethin' foolish-"
"Not with Chris there."
Nathan snorted in disgust and glared down at the big man. "That ya answer fo' ever'thing?" he snapped.
Josiah raised placid blue eyes to the healer and smiled. "Where Vin's concerned?" he asked quietly. "Yep, I reckon it is." He patted Nathan's arm. "You're a good man, Nate, got a good heart. You'd spare all the world its pain if you could. But sometimes," he shifted his gaze from the healer to the two men who stood before the blaze-faced gelding and watched the injured tracker reach out to caress his injured horse, "a man needs ta ease the hurts to his soul before tendin' the hurts to his body."
Nathan sighed and shook his head slowly, watching as Peso nuzzled at Vin's hair. "Quite a pair, ain't they?" he murmured. "Two half-wild creatures who ain't never had no reason ta trust nobody but each other." His eyes grew sad. "I jus' hope all this don't drive Vin back up inta some damn mountains."
Josiah raised twinkling blue eyes to the healer and smiled broadly, and Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "Yeah, I know," he snorted, the knot of worry inside him finally releasing. "Not with Chris there."
The morning was blessedly cool and clear, and there was every reason to believe the good weather would hold. The harsh, blistering heat of the long summer had broken at last, and, after two weeks of frightful thunderstorms, the atmosphere seemed to have settled itself and fall had finally arrived.
All in all, thought Chris contentedly, it was a perfect day for a leisurely ride.
"Settle down, ya goddamn mule!" Vin snarled at the horse dancing and sidling away from him. "I ain't in no mood fer none'a yer sass!"
Larabee sighed and bowed his head, shaking it slowly. So much for leisurely...
"Damn, son," Buck said as he and JD led their saddled mounts from the livery stable, "ain't you got on that beast yet?"
"Shut up, Bucklin!" Vin snapped. "Best make sure yer own horse is awake."
"Now, Vin, that's low," Buck chided gently, swinging into his saddle. "Just because ol' Beavis here got soused that one time don't mean ya gotta keep bringin' it up. Hell, it wasn't even his fault!"
Tanner ignored the big man, was too intent upon mounting his horse. But few things brought out Peso's spirit like a cool, crisp morning, and this one was making him as fractious as a colt. So far, Vin hadn't even been able to get a foot in the stirrup, and was being led on a merry dance over the livery yard.
"Gonna shoot ya, skin ya, 'n jerk yer meat!" he growled at the gelding. "'R take ya out 'n stake ya to the biggest goddamn anthill I kin find!"
Chris rested his crossed wrists on his saddle horn and watched the show with pleasure. It had been almost a month since the incident with Tarber's gang, and both Vin and Peso were fully recovered. Over the past several weeks, Larabee had watched as Vin, hampered by his own injuries but helped by JD, had carefully and skillfully nursed the gelding back to health, displaying the patience for which he was known and revealing a tenderness he seldom showed. Even Nathan had approved of the tracker's efforts, for having Peso to tend had kept Vin from fretting over the constraints of his own convalescence.
Now, though, both man and horse were more than ready to escape the confines of town, were going with Chris, Buck and JD on a three-day ride to Eagle Bend and back to bring a prisoner to Four Corners for trial. Or would be going, as soon as Peso let Tanner in the saddle.
"Now, goddamn ya, settle!" Vin snarled, tightening his hold on the saddle horn. Again he raised his foot toward the stirrup, and again the gelding danced away. This time, though, Vin anticipated the move and went with it, finally getting his foot up and in. "Don't even think about it!" he warned in a low voice as the big head came around and lips pulled back from long, wicked teeth. "Bite me, 'n I'll be givin' Nettie braided horsehair rugs fer Christmas!"
Peso snorted and swung his head back around, and Vin hauled himself into the saddle.
"Well, it's about damn ti- Shit!" Buck yelped as Peso catapulted himself into the air with a shrill squeal. "Lord'a mercy, look at 'im fly! I- Ouch!" he gasped as the horse landed with a bone-jarring force. "Damn, now that's gotta hurt!"
"Shame Ezra's still asleep," Chris said laconically as he watched Peso try to sling Vin from his back. "There's money ta be made here."
"Really?" Buck arched his eyebrows at Larabee in interest, then winced and looked away as Peso hopped on four stiff legs across the yard. "I got five on that damn alligator- horse," he said, still looking away, not wanting to watch when the gelding slammed Vin into the stable wall or tossed him into a water trough.
Chris smiled thinly as a string of Comanche curses split the morning air. "And I got five on the savage ridin' him."
"What the hell's goin' on down there?" shouted an outraged voice from the landing above the livery. "Ain't I spent enough time patchin' that fool back t'gether?"
Chris looked up and grinned at the healer. "So you takin' Vin or Peso?"
Nathan scowled down and shook his head as Peso erupted into a series of violent bucks. "That fool's about ta git his head bashed in, an' you want me ta lay a bet?" He shook his head again and shoved his hands into his pockets. "I got three on Peso."
"Lookit him go!" JD crowed as the black put his head down, arched his back, and danced on four stiff legs like some crazed cat. His hazel eyes shone, and a broad, bright grin lit his face. "Peso's feelin' good this mornin'!"
Inez heard the commotion and hurried from the saloon, joined by Mary, who came from the Clarion office. At the sight that greeted them, Inez let loose a stream of blistering Spanish, and though Mary didn't understand the words, she agreed whole-heartedly with the sentiment behind them.
Men. Always finding new ways to get themselves killed.
At long last, and with half the town watching and placing bets, Vin figured he'd had enough of this. He'd let Peso have his fun, now it was time to bring the big horse under control before he lost any teeth. He knew a dozen ways to do it, but he figured he'd just start with the fastest and most effective.
"Goddamn ya, I said settle!"
With that snarl, he pulled hard on the right rein, drawing the big head into his leg, and reached down to grab the bridle's cheekstrap, imprisoning the black head in an iron grip. Peso's eyes rolled, as if he knew what was coming, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. With swift, sure motions, Vin threw all his weight to the left, pulling Peso's head with him, and kicked his left foot out of the stirrup. As all gathered there watched in amazement, horse and rider went down, Peso landing on his side and Vin laying over him, still holding firmly to the cheekstrap and glaring into dark, irritated eyes.
"I b'lieve I told ya ta settle," he growled.
Chris waited and watched, his hands tight on his own reins and his lean body tense, as Vin and Peso stared at each other for long, long moments. He'd seen Tanner do this before, knew it was one more tell of the tracker's time among the Comanches, the fierce Lords of the Plains from whom the Texan had learned so much of his horsemanship, and always it sent a ripple of worry through him. There was so much harm an unskilled rider could do to a horse, and so many ways a truly pissed-off horse could hurt an unwary rider, and every one of them flashed through the gunfighter's mind just now.
Christ, those two could make a man old before his time!
But, as always, Vin and Peso seemed to reach that balance in their relationship, that moment of understanding, when it was clear no more would be taken by the man, and no more would be dared by the horse. A fine tremor ran through the powerful black body, and the tip of a fat pink tongue emerged to work nervously around the lips. Then the black ears perked toward Vin, twitching back and forth as Peso considered his predicament, and the black eyes softened, the defiance in them giving way to submission.
Or as much submission as Peso had in him.
Vin saw the change come over the horse, gave a single, firm nod, and gave Peso his head. The gelding rolled himself to his feet, bearing Vin up with him, and stood as quietly as if he were a true horse, and not some devil mix of every vexatious spirit ever to walk the earth. The tracker returned his left foot to the stirrup, curved his body into its usual easy slouch and nodded again, then reached forward to give the dusty black neck a pat.
"Ya damn mule," he breathed softly, fondly.
Applause broke out from bystanders, startling Vin. As his head came up sharply, Chris caught the alarmed widening of the blue eyes, saw the dark blush staining the high, hard cheekbones, and shook his head in wonderment that a man as tough, as unflappable and as deadly as Vin Tanner could look so like a cornered rabbit. Then the head ducked again, long-fingered hands tightened about the reins, and Larabee knew it was time to come to his discomfited friend's rescue.
"Show's over, folks," he said in the low, even voice that carried the weight of authority in it, maneuvering his horse between Vin and the crowd. "We got work to do."
The townsfolk, familiar with this man and that voice, complied at once. They had meant no harm, had merely been appreciative of the show they had witnessed, but they had not missed the reaction of the quiet tracker, a man still so uncomfortable in the company of people. Nor had they missed the protective response from the man in black. So, talking among themselves of Tanner's feat of horsemanship, they drifted away, leaving the men to their work.
JD kneed his horse even with Peso, his eyes bright, his mouth wreathed in a huge smile, and shook his head in amazement. "Jeez, Vin, how do ya do that without him breakin' your leg?" he asked in a rush. "I mean, if he ever caught your leg under him, he could just snap it into a million pieces!"
Vin ceased fidgeting with his reins, lifted his head slightly, and eyed the boy from beneath the slouch brim of his hat. "'At's why I kick outta the stirrup, kid," he explained with his usual patience. "Wouldn't be no use in me tryin' ta show him who's boss if I let the damn fool animal cripple me, now, would it? It'd sorta defeat the purpose."
JD laughed again. "Yeah, I guess so. Hey," he straightened in the saddle as the sudden idea hit him, "you think you could ever teach me that? I mean, think how handy it'd be if we were chasin' some outlaws and they started shootin' at us! We could just bring our horses down, use 'em for cover..." His words trailed off as he saw that patient stare still on him, a faint twinkle in the blue eyes, and he blinked in sudden understanding. "Oh," he said quietly, "that's what it's for, ain't it?" He sighed, deflating. "Guess it's not such a new idea after all, is it?"
Vin smiled slightly at the boy. "Hell, kid, jist 'cause it ain't a new idea don't mean it ain't a good one." He winked. "Ain't nothin' wrong with yer instincts."
JD inflated again at those words, and the brilliant smile returned. "So, you gonna teach me?"
Vin chuckled quietly, his blue gaze going to the boy's horse. The bay was a good one, no doubt about it, and, in JD's talented, horse-wise hands, could damn near fly. But he was a stable-raised, "civilized" animal, with nothing in him of the bred-into-the-bone toughness of Indian ponies or his own mountain-born horse. The pretty little bay just didn't look the type.
Of course, they'd all thought that about JD, too...
"I don't know, kid," he answered at last, a lazy grin flicking across his face and lighting his eyes. "Reckon I'll have ta ponder on it some."
Buck saw the kid swell up under whatever Vin had told him, and sighed heavily and shook his head. "Damn, but that boy's gonna bust his buttons if he keeps doin' that! You two done palaverin' yet?" he called. "You do remember that we got work ta do?"
Vin lazily reined Peso about and regarded Wilmington and Larabee through placid, patient eyes. "Looks like they're gittin' crotchety, kid," he drawled, slouching in his saddle and resting his forearms on the horn. "Reckon them old bones'a theirs must ache of a mornin'." He sighed and shook his head. "Must be hell gittin' old," he drawled mournfully.
Chris's green eyes glinted beneath the black brim of his hat, and a tight scowl tugged at the corners of his mouth. "You keep this up, Tanner," he said in a low, hard voice, "and you'll never know what it's like gittin' old."
Tanner tossed the glaring gunfighter an insolent grin. "Ya gonna shoot me, Larabee?"
Green eyes narrowed to slits. "It's an appealin' thought."
The grin widened. "Could make ya five hunnerd dollars richer. Help ya fix up that sorry damn shack'a yers."
"Cabin," Chris growled as Buck snickered beside him. "It's a cabin, not a shack."
Vin tossed a glance at the grinning JD. "Hell, his eyesight's goin', too. Cabin my ass. I seen cabins..."
"Vin?" Chris called softly. Very softly.
"You all healed up from that bullet wound?"
Blue eyes, all innocence, blinked. "Reckon so."
"Want a matchin' one in the other shoulder?"
Vin lifted his head slightly, tilted it gently to one side, and grinned at the seething gunfighter. "Old and cranky," he drawled. "Reckon you could hit me without yer spectacles, old man?"
The look of strangled fury that twisted Chris's face was too much for Buck, and he nearly fell off his horse laughing. Convulsive heaves shook his big frame, and tears streamed down his face. His hoots, along with JD's giggles and the tracker's maddening cocky grin, scoured against the gunfighter's nerves and set his vein throbbing.
Goddamn it, he'd shoot 'em all! He was Chris Larabee, for Christ's sake, and folks quaked in his presence!
Folks with sense, anyway...
"Lemme tell y'all somethin'," Nathan shouted from the landing before Larabee could kill his friends. "You all git any mo' broken bones or bullet holes in ya, best ya jus' crawl off 'n die, 'cause I'm done patchin' y'all up, y'hear me? I'm done!" His dark gaze sought out the tracker and the sheriff and settled fiercely upon them. "'Specially you two. Got magnets in y'all that draw bullets or somethin', 'n I'm tired'a fishin' 'em out. So if ya git hurt, y'all're on ya own." He rested big hands on the railing, leaned over and glared at the two. "Y'all hear me?" he demanded.
JD swallowed hard and nodded, and even Vin sat a little straighter in the saddle. "We hear ya, Doc," he answered soberly, respectfully. "We'll be real careful."
Nathan snorted and shook his head. "'N I'll be president some day, too. G'on," he ordered, waving a big hand, "git! Y'all got work ta do!"
Vin smiled, touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, then wheeled Peso and, with but the slightest pressure from his knees, took off at a dead run, loosing a wild yell. JD was right behind him, giving his own very creditable version of a Comanche war-cry.
Chris exhaled sharply and shook his head, scowling deeply. "A five- hundred-dollar bounty and a one-peso horse," he deadpanned as Tanner took Peso at a wild pace down the street. "And ain't neither of 'em worth a penny of it."
"Yeah, I know," Buck sighed, kneeing his grey forward and watching as JD bent low over his horse's neck to urge more speed from the bay. "I tell ya, pard, it's plumb hell raisin' kids." He glanced at Chris, saw the gleam in the green eyes and the smile fighting to overtake the wide mouth, and wagged his dark brows suggestively. "Whatta ya say, ol' man?" he asked. "Let's show them young'uns how it's done."
And with that they were streaking off after Tanner and Dunne, easy- going ladies' man and grim gunfighter racing down the street, loosing wild whoops of their own.
On the landing, Nathan sighed and shook his head, then, chuckling softly, went into his clinic to check his stores of laudanum, carbolic and bandages.
Lord, Lord, what could a man do with friends like these?
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