The lightning flashed and the three men looked at each other in confusion. What did Mary's article have to do with the murder victim?
"Either of you recognize him?" Chris asked.
"Never seen him before," Vin answered.
"Nor have I," said Ezra.
"All right, me and Vin will get him to the undertaker," Chris explained. "Ezra, go ask Violet if she saw anyone in the alley."
Ezra nodded and went back inside. Vin walked over and grabbed the victim under the arms. Chris moved to his feet and they picked him up. Rigor mortis had set in and the body was unyielding. After a few curses from Chris they got the body over to the undertaker. Chris knocked on the door and they waited. After a few minutes Chris knocked again. They heard complaining from the other side.
"Silas, either open this door or I'll kick it in!" Chris bellowed. He heard Vin chuckle. "You keep quiet Tanner. I was sleeping peacefully until you found this body."
The wind blew kicking up sand and debris. Vin cursed as he lowered his head. Lightning flashed, illuminating the street. Chris was about to kick the door in when Silas swung it open.
"It's about damned time," Chris complained.
"It's the middle of the night Mr. Larabee," Silas grumbled.
"Well this kid didn't choose to be killed in the middle of the night now step aside," Chris said as he entered. They placed the corpse on the table and Silas took a look at it.
"Why that's Mike Johnson's son, Seth," Silas said as he looked at the face.
"That's why we didn't recognize him," Vin said. "They live pretty far from town and only come in when they need supplies."
"Let's go," Chris said curtly. Vin nodded to Silas and followed Chris.
"Who put a burr under your saddle?" Vin asked.
Chris glared at Vin but he didn't back down. He knew Chris took the protection of the town and i's people seriously. This killing felt eerie but he couldn't put his feelings into words. He could sense Chris felt the same way. They walked back to the saloon in silence. When they walked inside they found Ezra trying to comfort a sobbing Violet. When he saw them walk in he gave them an 'I'll get you for this' look. Vin hid a smile as they got closer.
"I take it she couldn't tell you anything," Chris grumbled.
"You assume correctly, Mr. Larabee."
"Violet," Chris said touching her shoulder. "Can you remember anything out of the ordinary?"
"No," she sniffled. "Like I told Ezra, I only went out to use the privy. The lantern I was carrying blew out and I tripped over the body."
"Alright, Violet, you can go back to sleep," Chris said. They watched as she went back upstairs.
"Reckon I'll go out back and see if I can find a trail," Vin announced.
"If you will excuse me, gentleman," Ezra said. "I will return to bed."
"Oh no you don't," Chris said grabbing Ezra by the collar. "Vin's going to need some help looking."
"It's alright Chris," Vin smiled. "The less people out there traipsing around the easier it'll be to find something."
"Gentlemen, I bid you adieu," Ezra said giving them a two-fingered salute.
Vin grabbed a lantern and headed for the back door. Chris followed with another lantern. When they got out back Vin squatted on his heals and looked at all the tracks. Chris held his lantern over Vin's shoulder to give him more light. Once Vin was satisfied he'd picked out the tracks he got up and began to follow them. The storm wasn't finished with Four Corners and it threatened to pour on the two men. When the lightning flashed, Vin was able to follow the trail easier. The wind was starting to pick up and a few times they had to lean into the wind to continue. The tracks lead to an old shack and Vin drew his gun. Chris did the same and they cautiously opened the door. They pushed it open all the way and warily walked inside. Suddenly something crashed into Vin and he was thrown against Chris and they both crashed to the floor. Vin was able to see an owl streak out the door. He smiled at Chris and stood up then offered the gunslinger his hand. Chris shook his head and grabbed the offered hand. Once Chris was on his feet Vin searched the shack. It didn't take long and he found nothing.
"Tracks lead in but there ain't nothing leading out."
Vin took one more look around when he heard the sound of wood cracking. The wind had picked up and Vin knew the shack was going over. He tackled Chris and they fell out the door as the shack came down.
"Thanks, Pard," said Chris, who was under Vin.
"Anytime," he said and got off of Chris.
A pain lanced up his leg as he tried to stand. Some of the boards had landed across his legs. Chris heard his hiss of pain and rolled out from under him. He told Vin to just stay still as he moved the boards. When they were gone Chris could see a piece of wood sticking out of the back of Vin's right thigh just above the knee.
"Take it easy Vin," Chris said as he checked the wound.
"Damn it!" Vin cursed as he lay on his stomach.
"It's not that bad," Chris said. "You have a piece of wood stuck in your thigh. Let me give you a hand over to Nathan's."
Vin rolled over and Chris helped him stand. Once he was up he took a step and limped as he placed weight on his right leg. Chris grabbed his arm and threw it around his shoulder then helped him over to Nathan's. The hardest part was getting up the stairs. Vin had grumbled things in Kiowa that Chris was sure were curses. Chris banged on Nathan's door. It didn't take long for it to open.
"What happened?" he asked when he saw Chris holding Vin.
"Another shack collapsed while we were in it," Chris explained as they moved inside. "Vin pushed us out but a piece of wood is stuck in his thigh."
"Put him on the bed," Nathan instructed as he washed his hands. "Is he in much pain?"
"A little," Chris answered.
"I can answer for myself," Vin protested as he lay on the bed. "I ain't dead."
"Behave," Chris warned. "Or I'll put you out of your misery."
Vin mumbled something in an Indian dialect that Nathan guessed wasn't a polite thing to say. He sat on a stool next to the bed and examined the wound. Vin gritted his teeth as Nathan touched the wood.
"I'm going to have to cut this pant leg off," Nathan said.
"Aw hell do you have to?" Vin asked. "Can't you just slit them? Then I can sew them up again."
"Just do it Nathan," Chris said over-riding Vin's protest.
Nathan did as Chris said as Vin grumbled the entire time. Once the pant leg was gone Nathan could get a better look. It wasn't that serious but Nathan figured the wood was embedded about three inches.
"Chris hand me the carbolic," Nathan said.
"Now hold on," Vin protested as he tried to roll over.
"You just stay still," Nathan said sitting on his back.
Chris handed Nathan the carbolic then traded places with Nathan. He held down the protesting tracker as Nathan poured it on the wound.
"God damn, that hurts!" Vin yelled.
"Wait till I try to pull that chunk out," Nathan said.
"You're enjoying this way too much," Vin grumped.
Nathan took the tweezers and grabbed the wood close to Vin's thigh. He pulled in one steady motion and the piece came out easily. Vin hissed as he poured more carbolic acid on the wound. The piece of wood had left a cut four inches long and Nathan decided to stitch it closed. As he was doing that he asked what they been doing outside on a night like this. Chris explained about the murder and finding the clipping from Mary's paper.
"Wonder why the killer pinned the story to the victims?" Nathan asked as he finished stitching the wound.
"Ain't rightly sure," Vin answered.
"I have no idea what's going on," Chris admitted as he held Vin's leg up while Nathan bandaged it.
"Well I think it can wait till mornin'," Nathan said as they helped Vin roll over. "You might as well stay here for the night."
"That's alright Nathan," Vin said as he swung his feet to the floor. "I'll just head back over to the saloon."
"Just stay here," Chris said as he pushed the tracker back down. "I'll bring some pants in the mornin'. Night Nathan, Vin."
Vin leaned over and pulled the boot off his left foot grumbling about bossy gunslingers. Nathan smiled as he put everything on the table to clean in the morning. He heard Vin hiss in pain and turned to see what was wrong.
"I'm all right Nathan, I just banged it," Vin said before Nathan could rush over.
"Vin how was Seth killed?" Nathan asked as watched Vin take off what was left of his pants.
"His throat was slit," Vin answered as he got under the covers.
"Night Vin," Nathan said as he blew out the lantern.
Chris woke early the next day and headed over to Vin's wagon. The storm had died down but the day was going to be cloudy. Chris surveyed the damage to the town as he walked along the boardwalk. Some of the shingles had been pulled from the roofs as well as some shutters. He turned down the alley where Vin's wagon was and was surprised to see it had very little damage. He climbed in and rummaged through a trunk until he found some pants. He grabbed them and headed for Nathan's. He climbed up the steps and knocked on the door.
"It's open," Nathan yelled.
Chris walked in to find him changing the bandage on Vin's leg.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"It's fine," Nathan answered. "Just goin' be a little stiff."
" 'Bout time you got here with my pants," Vin grumbled as he took them from Chris.
He pulled them on over his feet then cautiously stood up. He winced as he put weight on his right leg. Chris shook his head at the stubborn younger man as they watched him limp over to the table to get his guns. Chris had retrieved them after the shack had come down. Vin buckled on the mare's leg but didn't tie it down.
"I'm headin' over to the shack and see if I can find anything," he announced.
"The storm would have erased everything," Nathan said.
"I reckon," Vin admitted. "But you never know."
"It can wait until after breakfast," Chris said.
They walked out the door and headed down the stairs. Chris stayed close to Vin as he went down the steps. They walked over to the hotel and were greeted by Sally.
"Morning gentlemen," she said as she followed them to their table. "Do you want the usual?"
"That'll be fine," Nathan said.
She hurried off to the kitchen. Buck and JD came in and headed for the table.
"Howdy, boys, that was some storm last night," Buck said.
"Yeah the town's a wreck," JD said.
"That's not all that happened last night," Chris said. "Seth Johnson was murdered last night. Violet found the body. It had a clipping of Mary's story pinned to his jacket. I'm going over there after breakfast and get her to stop printing it."
"Good luck," Vin laughed.
"And why would Chris need luck?" Josiah asked as he walked up.
They explained to Josiah what had been going on. When he heard about the murder he said he would go out to the Johnson ranch.
"I'll ride with you," Vin said.
"Oh no you won't," Nathan contradicted. "I just put twelve stitches in that leg. I don't fancy having to do it again."
"I'm fine," Vin protested. "I wanted to see if I could find a trail out by the Johnson place."
"You go against me and I'll have Chris shoot you," Nathan threatened.
"What happened?" JD asked as Vin glared at Nathan.
"We were following a trail that led to one of the shacks in back of the saloon," Chris explained. "The wind blew it over and some of the boards landed on Vin. He ended up with a piece of wood in the back of his leg."
"Ouch," Buck said in sympathy.
"I can still ride," Vin continued.
"Vin," Chris warned, glaring at the tracker.
Buck laughed as the two of them stared at each other. Chris could never get Vin to back down. Finally Buck made them compromise. He'd help Vin look for tracks behind the saloon. JD said he'd go with Josiah since he was the sheriff. Vin asked if they would stop off at Nettie's and make sure everything was OK. They agreed, and everyone ate their breakfast. When they were finished everyone stood and went out. Chris headed for The Clarion, Nathan went back to the clinic while Josiah and JD headed for the livery. Buck watched as Vin limped across the street to the saloon. Vin headed for the shack and started to walk around it. Buck stayed off to side so he wouldn't trample anything. He watched as Vin squatted down to check something and grimaced. Buck walked over to see what he was looking at.
"I don't see anything," Buck said.
"Neither do I," Vin agreed. "I reckon the storm wiped everything out."
Buck gave Vin a hand standing back up. Vin headed down the alley and Buck followed.
Chris walked over to the newspaper office. He walked in to find Mary busy at the press. Billy came running out of the back and over to Chris.
"Chris, did you see the lightning last night?" he asked excitedly.
"Yes I did," Chris answered leaning down. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Sure," he said with a smile.
"I need to talk to your mother about something," Chris explained. "Think you can go in the back for me."
"All right, Chris," he agreed and went in back.
"What do we need to discuss that you had to send my son in back?" Mary demanded.
"I wanted you stop printing that Headless Horseman story."
"What?" Mary asked confused. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Seth Johnson was murdered last night," Chris stated. "Your story was pinned to his shirt."
"Oh no, that's terrible," Mary said.
"Looks like the killer is using your story to make a statement."
"Even if I stopped printing it doesn't mean he will stop killing. Besides have you ever heard of freedom of the press?"
"I've heard of it," Chris glared. "I don't want to give the killer any more ideas."
"I will not stop printing the story," Mary said standing her ground.
"Fine," Chris said as he stormed out.
Mary walked over to the window and watched Chris walk down the street. She bit her lower lip as she considered what she had told Chris. She believed she was right and was going to stick to her decision.
Chris stormed over to the saloon. He couldn't believe Mary. The killer was using her story to make a point. Granted he might still do the killings if the story wasn't printed but it was the principle of the thing. He walked into the saloon to see Ezra walking down the stairs.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee, have we found an identity for our unfortunate victim?" he asked.
"Yup, Seth Johnson."
"Do you and Mr. Tanner find any clues?"
"Nothing," Chris said frustrated as he took a seat.
Ezra joined him and Inez brought them both some coffee. Vin and Buck walked in the back and came over to the table.
"Find anything?" Chris asked
"Nope," Vin answered.
"You think the storm wiped out the tracks?"
"No," he answered. "I just think the killer is smart."
"Alright, maybe Josiah and JD can find something," Chris said. "Let's see if anyone needs help around town.
The rest of the day was spent fixing the shutters on the buildings and replacing some shingles. Nathan had come down to help and scolded Vin for being on the roof. He berated Chris for letting him climb up there. Chris got angry saying he had no control over what the fool tracker did. Buck smoothed over everyone's ruffled feathers by making Vin get down. He protested but Buck threatened he would take him out to Nettie's to recover and he quickly got down. Ezra refused to do any menial labor but did agree to get them refreshments. Mary and Inez helped Ezra bring over the drinks. Chris kept his distance from Mary. Josiah and JD returned while they were taking a break.
"Mr. Johnson will come tomorrow to get his son," Josiah announced. "We assured him we would do everything we could to find his killer."
"You OK kid?" Buck asked JD.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just didn't realize how hard that would be."
"How's Nettie's? Vin asked.
"A few shingles are missing from the barn," Josiah answered. "And the chicken coop needs a little help, but other than that everything's fine."
"I'll ride over there tomorrow and fix everything," Vin said.
"No you won't," Nathan said. "You probably won't even be able to walk tomorrow after all you been doin'."
"Me and Buck will go over," JD offered.
"We will?" Buck asked.
"You know she'll feed us Buck."
"Yeah right we'll do it," Buck smiled.
It was close to suppertime and they headed over to the saloon. Chris watched as Vin tried not to limp and failed. Inez told them she still had chili, Spanish rice and tortillas left. They all said that was fine except Ezra who ordered a steak. She went in back to prepare their order. While they were waiting Mary came over to deliver today's paper. After she left Chris flipped through the pages and found the Headless Horseman story.
"I warned you," Vin said.
"I don't know why she's being so stubborn," Chris said.
"The first amendment gives her the right to print what she will," Ezra commented.
"I know," Chris growled. "But I thought she would listen to reason, considering the killer is using her story to make a point."
"What if it's a clue?" JD asked.
"What do you mean, kid?" Buck asked.
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "But what if it is a clue."
"Damned if I can figure it out," Chris said.
Inez brought their dinners and they ate in companionable silence. When they were finished Inez cleared the table and they spent the evening playing cards. Ezra and Chris were the winners for the evening when they decided to quit. The storm had kept most people home and they were the only patrons in the saloon. Nathan didn't want Vin sleeping out in his wagon and offered him his extra bed. Vin protested he was fine out there and an argument would have started if Inez hadn't offered to let him sleep in front of the stove. Vin said that was fine and Nathan agreed. They all said good night and went their separate ways. Inez gave him the blankets from the night before and he spread them in front of the stove. She wished him good night and went to her room. Vin sat in one of the chairs until everything was quiet than went up the stairs to Ezra's room. He knocked softly and Ezra opened the door and let him enter.
"How is your leg, Vin?" Ezra asked.
"It's killing me," he answered. "But I'll deny it if you say anything."
"Rest assured I will tell no one."
Ezra let Vin stretch out on the bed and he took the chair. He flipped through the paper until he came to the article. He moved the chair closer to the lantern.
"I believe the story ended last night when the two paramours were invited to Katrina's party."
"This should be interesting," Vin laughed.
"I think you will find this amusing," Ezra said as he began to read.
"The animal Ichabod bestrode was a broken down plough horse that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness. He was gaunt and shagged, with ewe-neck and a head like a hammer; his rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burrs; one eye had lost a pupil, and was glaring and spectral; but the other had the gleam of a genuine devil. Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day, if we may judge from the name he bore of Gunpowder."
Ezra could see Vin smiling as he read. The story told how Ichabod had dressed and what he dreamed as he rode to the Van Tassel farm. It also described Brom Bones and his horse.
"Brom Bones, however, was the hero of the scene, having come to the gathering on his favorite steed, Daredevil, a creature, like himself, full of mettle and mischief, and which no on but himself could manage. He was, in fact noted for preferring vicious animals, given to all kinds of tricks, which kept the rider in constant risk of his neck, for he held a tractable well broken horse as unworthy of a lad of spirit."
The rest of the day's addition went on to explain how Ichabod was out-shining Brom with his singing and dancing. Brom decided to take the upper hand by relating ghost stories. This was a tradition at most of the parties. It ended just as Brom Bones was going to tell the stories.
"Tomorrow's addition should be entertaining," Ezra predicted.
"I bet I could have rode Daredevil," Vin observed.
They sat discussing what had happened last night. Ezra could tell Vin was frustrated that he couldn't find a trail when suddenly they heard a scream.
"Aw hell," Vin cursed as he stood up quickly only to have his right leg buckle.
"Easy, Vin, I'll go check it out," Ezra said as he grabbed him before he fell.
"Not alone," he said. "I'm all right."
Ezra followed Vin down stairs and out the back door. Vin drew his mare's leg and Ezra had his colt. The alley was dark but the almost-full moon was casting a spooky light. They heard the scream again over by the livery and Vin limped over followed by Ezra. They found Inez standing over a body. They walked closer and Ezra rolled the body with his foot. As it rolled faced up they could all see the newspaper clipping pinned to the chest. Ezra leaned down and pulled it off. He showed it to Vin and he cursed. It was today's addition to the story. Ezra was about to take a closer look when they heard footsteps running towards them. Vin pushed Inez behind him and trained his gun on the entrances. Ezra did the same but it was unnecessary when they saw it was Chris and Nathan.
"Damn!" Chris cursed when he saw the body.
"Neck's been slit," Nathan announced.
"This was pinned to his attire," Ezra said.
Chris took the clipping from Ezra and crushed it in his fist.
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