Vin Tanner shook off the trail dust as he shoved his way through the batwing doors of the Four Corners saloon and headed for the bar.
"Where ya been Vin?" Chris Larabee queried as he pulled his long, lean frame away from his customary table at the back of the saloon and joined his best friend at the bar.
"Had some business to take care of," Vin shrugged nonchalantly, causing soft brown waves of hair to spill over his shoulder.
"You're three days late," Chris growled, starting to get angry. "Couldn't you have at least let one of us know?"
"Ain't none of your concern. Like I said, had some business to take care of. My business." Vin's wide blue eyes narrowed dangerously as he looked back at Chris, challengingly.
The gunman was able to cool down despite Vin's defensive attitude. He decided to approach Vin in a less threatening way. That usually brought better results. "Vin, what's wrong?" Chris began, placing his hand lightly on the tracker's arm in a conciliatory gesture.
"Get off me!" Vin shouted, abruptly shaking off Chris's hand. "Just leave me the hell alone!" he yelled, then slugged down his drink and slammed the glass down onto the bar. He tossed a coin onto the wooden surface next to his empty glass and strode angrily from the saloon, leaving a shocked Chris Larabee in his wake.
The gunslinger grabbed his drink and walked slowly back to his table, pointedly ignoring the anxious glances of the other patrons. He sat down and lit a cheroot, projecting a calm, cool exterior while his insides churned with rage.
He sat and slowly sipped his liquor as one hour, then another slid by. He was well on his way to finishing off his bottle when J.D. Dunne stormed into the saloon.
"Chris! Chris! The judge just pulled into town and arrested Vin! They're headin' for the jail!"
"JD, now ain't a good time for jokes," Chris threatened warningly.
"I'm not jokin' Chris! It's true!" JD protested frantically.
"Damn!" Chris swore, gulping his whiskey down. "Okay kid, let's go see what the hell's goin' on."
They emerged from the saloon just as Judge Orrin Travis walked past, leading a handcuffed Vin to the jail house.
"Judge, what's goin' on?" Chris asked, perplexed. "What are ya arrestin' Vin for?"
"Murder," Judge Travis replied shortly.
Several bystanders uttered sharp, surprised gasps. JD paled at the judge's words, then ran to find the others. Chris stood firm.
"Who is he supposed to have murdered, Judge?" Chris asked coolly.
"A bank manager in Arriola, who just happened to be the son of Judge Jackson, a very good friend of mine."
"Mr. Larabee, I need to escort this prisoner to the jail. If you have more questions, you may join me and ask them there."
"You're damn right I have more questions Judge." He looked at Vin, who had remained silent during the discussion. "Vin, you all right?"
"Judge here jumped me while I was tryin' to get some shuteye. Hell no I ain't all right!"
"Okay Vin, just settle down and we'll get to the bottom of this," Chris reassured.
JD came running back, bringing Josiah with him. "Mr. Tanner, if you please," Judge Travis said, nudging Vin forward with the end of his rifle, and the small group headed for the jail.
"JD, open the cell door," the judge requested.
JD complied and stepped back to give Vin space to go in. The former bounty hunter hesitated, blue eyes darting around the room.
"Inside, Mr. Tanner," the judge ordered sternly.
Suddenly Vin brought his handcuffed hands down sharply onto the judge's shotgun, knocking it out of his hands and driving him to his knees. The judge fell against JD heavily, also throwing him off balance. Vin shoved Chris into Josiah and headed for the door. He had only managed a few steps away from the jail when he heard the dull click of a gun being cocked.
"Stop right there, Vin," Josiah said sorrowfully.
Vin turned, briefly looking at Josiah sadly, then spun away again and made as if to run once more.
"Don't do it son, it ain't worth it," Josiah begged. "Vin, whatever you've done, we'll work it out. The Lord will..."
"Shut up Josiah," Vin spat out, as the judge, recovered by then, walked out and grabbed Vin by the shirt, pulling him back into the jail. "I ain't in the mood for your preachin'!"
"What the hell was that all about, Vin?" Chris demanded angrily, once Vin was behind bars. "Why'd you try and run?"
"Get outta my face, Larabee! Ain't got nothin' to say to you! Any of you!"
"Fine Vin, rot in here for all I care!" Chris shouted back, loudly enough for passers-by to hear. He headed for the door. "JD, if he ever calms down and wants to talk civilly, you can come and get me. I'll be at the saloon."
"Mr. Larabee, I'd like to talk to the remaining six of you," Judge Travis asked. "I need to send a telegram first, can we all meet at the saloon later?"
"We'll be there," Chris replied flatly.
"Thank you for coming gentlemen, I wanted to fill you in on the situation with Mr. Tanner."
The saloon was deserted except for the Judge and six peacekeepers.
"What's this all about Judge?" Buck asked, confused. "JD told us Vin was bein' charged with murder. That can't be right," he finished, disbelievingly.
"I'm afraid it is Mr. Wilmington." He looked each man in the eye steadily before continuing. "It seems there was a bank robbery three days ago in Arriola. The bank manager was shot during the robbery, but before he died, he managed to give a description and other information to the sheriff there. The evidence points to Mr. Tanner, I'm sorry to say."
"Couldn't there be some kind of mistake, Judge?" JD pleaded.
"Afraid not son. Like I said, the bank manager was David Jackson, Judge Roy Jackson's son. I've known that boy since he was in short pants. And the description and other information he gave is solid, according to the sheriff."
"Just can't believe Vin would do such a thing," Nathan protested, shaking his head sadly.
"And what does Mr. Tanner have to say about all this ubiquitous evidence?" Ezra asked.
"Brother Tanner hasn't told us anything yet," Josiah answered in a troubled voice.
"Well it's about time he started talkin'," Chris barked. "JD, I'm gonna be needin' the jailhouse keys," he demanded as he stood up.
"Just one minute, Mr. Larabee, I'm not quite finished." Six pair of eyes regarded the Judge expectantly. "I've sent a telegram to Judge Jackson in Arriola asking that Vin's trial be held here."
"Trial!" The six men exploded at once.
"What the hell you talkin' about Judge!" Buck cried.
"There's enough evidence against Mr. Tanner to warrant it. I just want to be sure he receives a fair trial. His chances are better here than in Arriola. I'll preside, Judge Jackson is too emotionally involved. I'm just waiting for work back now from Arriola. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to check on that telegram."
The others sat in stunned silence for several minutes after the Judge left.
"Sounds like that boy's in a mess of trouble," Buck said quietly, breaking the silence.
"Won't know how bad 'til we talk to Vin," Chris replied tightly. "JD, give me the keys."
JD looked at Chris uncertainly. "Sure you'll be all right with him, Chris?"
"Be fine, JD, hand 'em over."
Buck stood. "I'm goin' with ya pard."
"I'd like to join you too," Josiah added.
"No," Chris stated firmly. "I'm goin' alone."
Half an hour later, the five men were still sitting in the saloon waiting for Chris.
"He's been gone a while, I'm gonna go see what's keepin' him," Buck said anxiously.
"Patience Buck," Josiah replied sagely. "He'll be back when he's finished talking to Vin. We gotta give them some time."
Buck fumed but stayed at the table.
Another half hour went by and Buck shot out of his chair. "Given them enough time, Josiah! I'm goin' over there."
"Hold up brother," Josiah said. "We'll all go with you."
They intercepted Chris in the middle of the dusty main street as he stalked from the jail, toward the saloon. The gunslinger radiated anger as they approached him.
"Chris, how's Vin?" Buck asked.
"Stubborn and actin' stupid," Chris bit out.
"What'd he say?"
"Whole lotta nothin', Buck. I can't get through to him. He's just sittin' in there."
"Then I'm gonna go make him talk!" Buck spat out.
Chris caught his arm as he moved to walk by. "Leave him alone Buck. You won't get nothin' out of him now."
"Leave it alone Buck. You heard me," Chris warned. His eyes narrowed then as he spied Judge Travis coming from The Clarion office, walking toward them.
"Judge Jackson and Sheriff Martin from Arriola will be here in three days. They're bringing witnesses of the robbery with them." He turned to the youngest of the seven. "Sheriff Dunne, until Judge Jackson and Sheriff Martin arrive, you've been asked to conduct the investigation. Sheriff Martin has asked for you to search Mr. Tanner's possessions. I'll accompany you."
"W-what are we lookin' for?" JD asked nervously.
"Murder weapon, money, anything that can tie Mr. Tanner to the crime," the judge responded matter-of-factly.
"I'm comin', too," Chris demanded.
"Very well Mr. Larabee, just stay out of our way. I'll not tolerate any obstruction of justice."
"Don't gotta worry about me Judge," Chris replied darkly. "Let's go."
The three men entered Vin's room. Chris hung back, observing as JD and Judge Travis worked. JD found Vin's dusty saddlebags stuffed under the bed. He opened them and pulled out several large wads of cash.
"Wonder where Vin got all this money?" he asked incredulously.
"I'm sure Sheriff Martin and Judge Jackson will want to know the same thing, Mr. Dunne," the Judge remarked dryly.
The Judge grabbed Vin's mare leg and put it in the burlap sack he brought with him. "Mr. Dunne, those saddlebags and the money will need to be logged as evidence, along with this gun. Keep searching the room for anything else that looks suspicious."
JD rifled through Vin's clothing with dread, hating the thought of invading his friend's privacy and praying he would not find any more evidence against Vin. His fingers brushed against cold steel and he closed his eyes in apprehension, not wanting to look at the object. He forced himself to look, biting his lip worriedly as he took the small handgun out from the pile of clothes in one of Vin's bureau drawers.
"Found something else, Judge," he said quietly.
"Ah, small caliber, looks like it could match the murder weapon," the Judge said under his breath. "Think we're finished up here for now JD." He took the gun and also put it in the sack. "JD, I need you to lock these up at the jail and hold them for safekeeping until the Judge and Sheriff from Arriola arrive."
"Sure thing Judge," JD responded without enthusiasm and plodded off for the jail.
"Mr. Larabee, a word with you, please," the Judge asked, approaching the silent, drawn gunslinger.
The three hellish days passed slowly as the remaining members of the seven witnessed the sad sight of Chris drinking himself into oblivion every night. They tried to comfort the distraught gunman as he poured glass after glass of whiskey down his throat. Each night in the saloon ended in the same, heartbreaking way, with Chris throwing glasses and empty bottles, then leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling and crying out for Vin with horrible slurred, broken screams. Buck loyally stayed at his oldest friend's side, trying in vain to comfort Chris and keep him sober. In the early morning hours, after cleaning up the broken whiskey bottles and shattered glasses surrounding Chris's table, he would drag the barely conscious man to his room to sleep it off, only to watch the same gut-wrenching actions repeated, night after night.
Vin Tanner woke from his dream with a start. He peered toward the single barred window, sighing when he saw that the inky blackness of the night had begun to recede. Must be just about dawn, he thought to himself wearily. Trial day. He forced himself out of the narrow bunk with a groan, and stood under the window, looking up a the tiny expanse of sky the window afforded. This was normally his favorite time of the day, but today he felt nothing but dread as the coming day dawned.
"Chris! Wake up, Chris! You're gonna be late for Vin's trial!" Buck's desperate pleas finally cut though Chris Larabee's liquor fogged brain and he opened his tired, bloodshot eyes.
"Damn Buck! Pull the shade for Chrissakes! Ya tryin' to blind me?" Chris groused.
"Come on pard, rise and shine!" Buck shot back, ignoring the complaints. "You goin' to try and see Vin before the tria1?"
"Hell no," Chris swore. "He made it pretty clear he don't want to see us. I ain't got nothin' to say to him after that, Buck."
Buck shook his head sadly as he remembered Vin refusing to speak to Chris and him when they tried to visit him three days ago. The tracker had even turned his back, refusing to look at them, until Chris had gotten mad and started yelling. Only then did Vin acknowledge the other two men. Buck had been shocked at the venomous tone Vin used as he addressed the two men, telling them in no uncertain terms to mind their own business and leave him alone. Chris had stormed out of the jail with Buck trailing right behind. None of the seven, except JD, who was acting in the sheriff's capacity, had been back to see Vin since.
Buck was abruptly brought back to the present when Chris stumbled into him as he tried to rise from the bed.
"Sorry pard," Chris mumbled.
"Nothin' to worry about Chris," Buck replied good naturedly. "Let's get ya cleaned up," he continued, walking Chris over to the wash basin.
Twenty minutes later, they sat in the boardinghouse dining room shoveling bites of eggs and bacon in between gulps of black coffee. They were finishing up when Josiah stuck his head into the room. "Trial's starting in ten minutes. They're bringin' Vin over now."
Chris and Buck rushed out the door and stood gaping on the boardwalk in surprise.
"Hell Chris, I think everybody in town's turned out to watch the trial!" Buck exclaimed as he took in the huge number of people gathered on the street, spilling out of the saloon, which had been converted into a makeshift courtroom for Vin's trial.
"Everybody in town and then some, Buck," Chris replied, looking around. "There's not that many people that live around here. Don't recognize a lot of 'em," he said as his sharp blue eyes took in the sight of strangers standing in the street.
"Well, you've been a little preoccupied, Chris, guess you haven't noticed," Buck began, "but some folks from Arriola came in with the sheriff and judge. Said they wanted to make sure their interests were protected."
"They been causin' any trouble?"
"Not so far, they've been grumblin' but pretty quiet overall," Buck quickly assured.
"Okay, we'll keep an eye on 'em for now. C'mon, let's get goin'," he ordered flatly.
Both men turned to walk to the saloon, when Chris caught sight of Vin being led from the jail, out of the corner of his eye. He froze, mesmerized, to watch his friend being led through the maze of people. The crowd erupted as JD walked his prisoner forward.
"Murderer!" a deep voice shouted.
"Shootin' an innocent man!" another voice called.
"Don't deserve to live!" the shrill voice of a woman threatened.
Suddenly the mass populace surged forward. Chris and Buck watched in horror as Vin and JD were surrounded by the crowd, who taunted the former bounty hunter. Several large men shoved JD roughly aside and began to punch and kick at Vin. Chris and Buck pressed into the crowd to try and rescue their two friends when a shotgun blast sounded.
"That's enough!" Judge Travis's voice split the air. "There will be order for these proceedings! Release the prison and the sheriff now! Anyone interfering with this trial from this point on will be arrested for impeding justice! Do I make myself clear?"
The townspeople of Four Corners and Arriola alike backed away quickly from Vin and JD, allowing Chris and Buck access to the two men.
"Jesus!" Chris breathed sharply as he spotted JD and Vin, laying twisted together in the dirt.
"Guilty as charged!" Chris flinched as Judge Travis's gavel smashed into the wooden tabletop. It's really happening! Vin's been found guilty of murder! he screamed to himself over and over again as the courtroom erupted in chaos at the verdict.
The gunslinger remained seated, seeing everything in slow motion, feeling like he was in a dream. He saw JD and Judge Travis walk to Vin, handcuff him and start to lead him through the crowd. He made himself stand as Vin passed by, catching his friend's eye briefly. Vin was pale and walked slightly hunched over. Chris frowned as he recalled how Vin refused to let Nathan examine him after he had been beaten and crushed by the crowd. JD had only blacked out briefly from the lack of air, but Chris could tell from the way Vin was carrying himself that he was hurting.
Chris began to sway on his rubbery legs and Buck quickly stepped forward to lend a hand.
"Doin' okay, pard?" he asked solicitously.
Chris favored his oldest friend with a bitter smile. "Whadda you think, Buck? Vin's goin' to prison for 30 years hard labor. How do ya think I'm doin?" he spat out.
"Guess 'bout the same as the rest of us," Buck uttered morosely, looking at the floor.
"Sorry Buck, didn't mean to take it out on you," Chris apologized.
The crowd exiting the makeshift courtroom parted, and Josiah, Ezra and Nathan were able to break through, to stand with Chris and Buck.
"Maybe we can get an appeal for Brother Tanner," Josiah said hopefully.
"One small obstacle with your magnanimous hypothesis, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra stated. "Mr. Tanner chose to represent himself in this court of law in lieu of procuring an attorney. It is his decision to request an appeal. And as we all saw," he voiced blandly, "he did not ask for the aforementioned appeal."
"Time he got talked into one!" Buck declared, heading for the doors.
"Buck, wait!" Chris ordered, blue eyes snapping. "I'm gonna talk to him first."
"Sure Chris," Buck agreed, stepping back as he saw the dangerous look in his friend's eyes.
Chris bolted for the saloon doors, four friends following, but keeping their distance. He walked out onto the hot, dusty street and saw Vin, his back to the saloon, standing in between Judge Travis and JD. Just do it! Do it, Larabee! Chris urged himself forward with leaden feet. He forced himself to walk calmly to the former bounty hunter.
"Vin," he said in a low voice.
The sharpshooter turned around slowly and Chris's eyes narrowed with rage at the damage the mob had inflicted on his best friend's fine features. Vin's left eye was nearly swollen shut and vivid purple bruising covered his left cheek and chin.
"Christ Vin, why didn't ya let Nathan have a look at ya?" Chris asked, bewildered.
"'Cause I'm fine," Vin answered tonelessly.
"Yeah, you look fine. I've seen 100 year old men standing straighter than you. Think ya got a couple busted ribs?" He stretched out a cold hand to try and feel along Vin's side for injury. The former bounty hunter twisted away with a quickly stifled gasp of pain.
"Leave me be, Larabee!" Vin growled. "Back off!"
"Okay Vin, just settle down," Chris soothed. "I wanted to talk to ya about something." He noticed the rest of the Seven, along with most of the townsfolk had inched closer to them.
"Make it quick, Larabee. I got places to go," Vin joked sarcastically.
"We can try to get you an appeal hearing, Vin. You can ask the Judge for one."
The tracker shook his head. "Nope."
"Listen to me Vin, we'll get you a lawyer for it, we can fight this thing," Chris pleaded desperately.
Vin stood stoically staring at Chris.
"Vin, why not? Give it a chance, whatta you have to lose?" He put his hands on Vin's narrow shoulders and squeezed tightly. "Please Vin, please try!" Chris begged, his voice catching with emotion.
"Get off me, Larabee!" Vin shouted, reaching his handcuffed hands forward to knock Chris's hands off his shoulders. "Leave me alone! It's all over!"
Chris's head was bowed forward, hands hanging limply at his sides. The others could stand it no longer and surged forward to confront the tracker.
"What the hell are ya thinkin' Vin?" Buck shouted angrily, as he saw the toll the turmoil was taking on Chris. "Why are ya givin' up like this!"
Vin sighed sadly and for a second his stone cold expression and steely eyes vanished, replaced by the taciturn face and kind eyes his friends knew so well. Then in the next instant they were gone and the harsh expression and hard, flat eyes reappeared.
"'Cause I did it!" he screamed vehemently in Buck and Chris's faces. "I killed that stupid bank manager! His pa owed me for a bounty from way back! I brought the O'Leary boys in six years ago and that son of a bitch Judge Jackson cheated me outta five thousand dollars! You think I was gonna be workin' for a dollar a day for the rest of my life? You gotta be outta your minds, all of ya! I was takin' what was mine. Just wanted the money but that dumb ass banker had to be the hero! Shoulda killed the teller, too, then I woulda been free and clear." He leered at the shocked faces around him. "But I ain't never shot a woman, so I didn't. Pretty stupid, huh?" He winked at Chris and Buck. "Sure put the fear 'a God in her, though, 'fore I left. Never thought she'd tell anybody 'bout me. And I never figured that banker'd live long enough to talk, neither."
"You can't mean it, Vin!" Chris gasped in disbelief.
"Mean every word of it. I couldn't wait to get outta this hick town, and that money was gonna get me on my way. Was gonna get me a little spread down in Mexico. Was headin' out right after I took care of a few things here. Guess I'll have to settle for Yuma, Arizona, huh boys?"
Despite the sweltering summer heat, the remaining six peacekeepers shivered as they looked at the cold, calculated killer their friend had become, seemingly in the blink of an eye. No one was able to speak as they stared open-mouthed at the tracker.
Finally Josiah was able to find his voice. "I'll pray for you, brother," he said mournfully and walked away slowly.
Erza and Nathan just turned and walked away in silence
Buck still stood at Chris's side, staring shell shocked at the former bounty hunter. For once, the mustached gunslinger was at a loss for words. Instead, he kept a close watch on his oldest friend, who seemed to be in a trance-like state after hearing Vin's incredible confession.
Chris swayed slightly on his feet, and Buck sprang into action. "Come on pard," he said softly, supporting Chris's sagging weight and trying to draw him away from Vin. "Let's get you out of this heat and get us some whiskey. We all could use a belt or two."
"No!" Chris yelled, pulling out of Buck's light grasp and wheeling around to face Vin. "You bastard! You son of a bitch! I trusted you with my life and this is how you repay me? By murdering a judge's son? I can't stand the sight of you!" He turned to Judge Travis and JD. "Get him out of my sight until that prison wagon gets here!" In a flurry of movements, he drew back his fist and pounded it into Vin's right cheek, bringing the smaller man crashing to the ground. He spat in the dust at his feet, turned on his heel and headed for the saloon.
The saloon buzzed with activity, packed with men from Four Corners and Arriola alike. Everyone was talking about the trial and Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner's heated confrontation that had ended just moments ago, when the Judge and JD had dragged an unconscious Vin to the jail to await the prison wagon. Normally, the wagon passed through Four Corners about every two weeks, stopping to stock up on supplies, to rest and water the horses and to pick up the occasional prisoner, usually delivered by one of the seven peacekeepers. But today was different. One of the seven would be loaded into the wagon as a prisoner, bound for the Territorial Prison in Yuma. Chris stood at the bar, surrounded by people, yet alone. As he downed his third shot of whiskey, he felt for the slip of paper stuffed in his pants pocket, to reassure himself that it was still there. Wonder how much longer I gotta keep this up? he mused silently as he glared at his now emptied glass.
He jumped at the touch of a large hand on his shoulder. "Chris," Buck said softly, "Come on and sit with us. Ain't no need to be drinkin' alone like this."
The gunslinger shook his head mournfully. "No thanks, pard. I ain't sticking around here much longer anyhow."
"What're ya talkin' about Chris?" Buck asked loudly, alarmed.
"I'm gonna spend a few days at the shack," Chris replied, just as loud. "I can't stand it around here right now."
"I'll go with ya."
"No Buck," Chris replied forcefully. "I'm goin' alone. Gotta clear my head. Might do a little campin' out, too."
And then Buck fell right into the plan.
"Josiah, Nathan, get over here!" Buck yelled across the crowded saloon. "Chris is takin' off! Ya gotta help me talk him outta it!"
Josiah and Nathan hustled over, walking past Ezra, who was engrossed in a card game.
"Chris, what's Buck talkin' about?" Nathan shouted above the din.
"I'm just gonna take a few days is all. I'll be back, don't worry," he grinned wolfishly.
"I ain't so sure about that, pard," Buck replied. "I've seen that look in your eyes before."
"Brother Larabee," Josiah interjected in his rumbling voice that carried throughout the saloon. "Take some time, we'll be here waiting for you. This tragedy with Brother Tanner has affected us all."
"Thanks Josiah," Chris said, clapping a hand on the big man's shoulder. "Knew you'd understand." He poured himself another whiskey and gulped it down. He grimaced as the liquid burned its way down his throat, then turned again to regard the others. "I'm leavin'."
"We'll watch over things 'til you return," Josiah promised.
"But Chris, ain't ya gonna watch Vin go?" Buck asked, puzzled.
The black clad gunman pierced Buck with a steely gaze as the saloon fell silent. "The Vin Tanner I knew is already gone Buck," he stated frostily in the yawning silence. "Don't need to watch that piece 'a garbage get loaded up in the wagon to know that. I'm outta here," he snapped and the crowd parted to let him past. He slammed through the batwing doors as the saloon sounds started back up where they left off.
He forced himself to walk through town unhurriedly, scowling at anyone that dared to walk in his path. He finally reached the roominghouse and went inside, still maintaining an easy lope. Only went he got to the safety of his room, could his real emotions show.
He grinned sardonically as he thought about the scene staged in front of the saloon. Despite the handcuffs, Vin had managed to slip Chris the note from the Judge. Then Chris sobered as he remembered having to hit Vin in the face to make it all seem convincing. His gut clenched as he recalled seeing the bruised face of his best friend outside the makeshift courtroom. It had almost killed him to have to punch Vin that hard and then spit at him. He ran a shaking hand over his face to try and erase the horrific memories. He quickly regained his control and yanked the note out of the pocket of his tight, black jeans and ripped it open to read it.
Follow the wagon. Something is not right, I don't like the looks of it. Wire me here in two days with update.
Chris crumpled the note and began to pace the room. Vin, Vin what have you gotten yourself into? He screamed over and over in his mind. Why wouldn't you let me be the bait? Dammit Vin, why can't ya ever think of yourself?
The gunslinger stopped pacing and began to pack for his trip. He still had to make it look like he was heading for his cabin outside of town or to do some camping in the surrounding countryside. He grabbed his now filled saddlebags and headed for the livery to retrieve Valor. Within fifteen minutes he was headed out of town without a look back.
"Judge Travis, Sheriff Dunne, Tanner's ride's here!" Sheriff Martin barked into the jail from his perch on the boardwalk in front of the building as the prison wagon pulled up.
JD, the Judge and Vin stepped out of the jail just as the wagon wheels ground to a halt out front of the whitewashed building.
"Time to say bye-bye, Tanner!" Sheriff Martin taunted as he grabbed Vin roughly by the arm and hauled him toward the wagon.
"Hey!" JD protested. "He's my prisoner, I'll handle it!"
"He's not your's anymore, Sheriff Dunne," Sheriff Martin goaded. "He's property of the US government and the Arizona Territory." He shoved Vin hard, sending him crashing into the rear of the iron clad vehicle and laughed when the former bounty hunter groaned as his bruised side connected with the metal. "Get used to it son, your coddling days are over," he sneered at Vin.
Two armed guards appeared from the front of the wagon.
"We're here to pick up a prisoner," one stated unnecessarily. "Name 'a Vin Tanner," he finished, looking at his paperwork.
"We have him right here," Judge Travis responded, steadying Vin as he pushed away from the wagon.
The guard nodded. "Let's get him loaded up then."
"Wait a second!" JD protested. "Ain't ya gonna water your horses or pick up any supplies?"
"Not today, Sheriff. We got us a 'celebrity' on board and got a tight schedule to keep."
Judge Travis eyed them suspiciously. "Sure is a hot one today, gentlemen. I'm sure those horses would appreciate a bit of water. Hard work pulling that heavy wagon, I'd imagine."
The two guards exchanged nervous glances. "Right you are, Judge," the first guard replied. "Think we can spare a little time to water 'em. Murphy," he said to the other guard, "unhitch the team and take 'em over to the trough. I'll stay with the prisoners."
"Sure thing, Zeb."
"So who ya got in there?" Sheriff Martin questioned the remaining guard.
"Slim Jim Watkins. Ya heard 'a him?"
Sheriff Martin whistled appreciatively. "Don't know many fellas who haven't. How'd Yuma end up with him?"
"Leavenworth didn't want him no more, he was causin' too much trouble. Killed a couple inmates while he was there."
"Well, ain't you the lucky one, Tanner!" Sheriff Martin taunted. "Riding all the way to Yuma with ol' Slim Jim. Sure it'll be right cozy for ya."
JD shivered at the Sheriff's words. Despite the fact that Vin had admitted to the crimes, the tracker did not deserve to be carted to Yuma prison with that animal. JD shook his head sadly, not still really believing that Vin had done those awful things. He remembered back to all the times Vin had helped him, taking extra patrols and looking out for him. He had taught him things, too, about nature and life in general, in that quiet, unassuming way he had. JD was sometimes embarrassed to ask the others for advice, but he never felt that way about Vin. Vin never made JD feel stupid or like some green kid. The youngest of the seven felt the sharp sting of tears in his eyes as he looked at his friend, one last time, as he was being led into the wagon.
"Bye Vin," JD said sorrowfully. "Watch your back," he said in a choked whisper.
Vin nodded at JD over his shoulder, unable to force words past the growing lump in his throat. He stepped up into the wagon and the door was chained and bolted shut behind him. He crouched in the wagon, hands gripping the steel bars on the small window in the back, craning for a last look at the town that had become his home.
"Well now, ain't you the pretty one!" Slim Jim Watkins crowed as he regarded the deflated form of Vin Tanner, slumped against the far wall of the wagon.
Vin just silently glared back at the man in digust.
"Ain't too friendly, are ya?" Slim Jim continued, as he leaned on the bars that made up most of the right side of the prison wagon. This spot afforded the most light, air and view of the surrounding countryside, and Vin eyed it enviously. He had only been riding in the hellish contraption for less than an hour and he was already feeling pinned in. How he was going to make it all the way to Yuma was something he couldn't even think about right now. He choked back the rush of panic that swelled into his heart and looked away from the outlaw, staring out the tiny, rear barred window.
"I'm talkin' to ya, boy! Don't turn away from me! It ain't polite like!" Slim Jim Watkins, who carried over 275 pounds of muscled flesh on his six feet five inch frame, flew across the wagon in a rage when Vin continued to ignore him. He crashed into the slight tracker, driving Vin heavily into the unforgiving steel-lined side of the vehicle. The air was torn from Vin's lungs at the impact and his head swam as yellow and orange spots of light danced in the darkness that threatened to overpower him. He shook his head desperately and managed to hang onto consciousness.
"Get the hell off 'a me!" Vin shouted as he brought his knee up sharply into Slim Jim's groin area, then landed a vicious kick to the man's left thigh, before he collapsed into the back corner of the vehicle, clutching his injured side, panting from the effort of diffusing the larger man's attack. Slim Jim had immediately released his hold on Vin when his groin and leg exploded with fire and dropped to the floor of the wagon, where he now lay curled up into a ball. It was several minutes before either man could speak.
"Where'd ya learn to fight like that, pretty boy?"
"Comanches," was Vin's blunt reply.
"Ya were a Comanche slave or somethin'?" Slim Jim asked harshly.
"Naw, lived with 'em 'cause I wanted to. Wasn't no slave."
Slim Jim digested the information in silence. Obviously, there was more to his fellow passenger than met the eye. He had lived with a fierce tribe of Indians, not as a captive, but by choice. Must have taught him a thing or two, he thought to himself. Even though he was half his size, and injured to boot, the man had managed to take him down. He looked over at Vin again, who seemed to be recovering, now taking short, shallow breaths.
"So what're ya in here for, then? Get them bruises in a fight with your boyfriend?" Slim Jim laughed, continuing to bait Vin.
"Yeah, I slit his throat from ear to ear, 'cause he wouldn't shut up," Vin replied sarcastically. "Hell, he talked almost as much as you do."
Slim Jim regarded his adversary once more, appraising him. Few men would dare to talk to him like he just did. Kid sure has balls, I'll give him that, Slim Jim thought to himself. Bet he could be handy in a fight.
Vin waited tensely, not letting Watkins see how badly his side hurt. He sure as hell wasn't looking forward to another round with the huge man. He hoped his tough talk had done the trick to make the man back off, or at least think long and hard about taking him on again. So he bided his time and gathered his strength.
For many hours, Chris Larabee followed the group at a discreet distance, using a winding, narrow trail that ran high above the main road. He was able to keep watch on the wagon through the occasional breaks in the trees and rocks, while staying hidden from sight. Nothing suspicious occurred as the hours passed, leading the gunslinger to believe he would be following them like this all the way to Yuma. He was glad he had prepared for a long trip. The sun was dipping toward the horizon when the prison wagon finally slowed to a stop, near a small stand of trees.
Guess they're stoppin' for the night, Chris thought to himself and settled in to watch the preparations for the camp site.
He was surprised when one of the guards jumped off the wagon and headed into the woods that ran alongside the road. Glancing back quickly, he saw that the other guard stayed with the wagon, keeping the Vin and the other prisoner locked inside.
Christ, why aren't they lettin' them out at least to stretch their legs? Chris wondered silently. He craned his neck anxiously, wishing he could catch a glimpse of Vin through the bars sealing off the interior of the wagon from view. He knew at this distance it would be almost impossible to see anything close up and not for the first time today, he'd wished he'd thought to bring along Vin's spyglass. He wondered how Vin was handling being cooped up in the small, dark wagon. He shook his head at the thought. Probably not too well, he answered himself with a tight grimace.
He heard hoofbeats coming closer and dropped back from the edge. Ducking into some brush, he watched with shock as the guard returned, now on horseback, leading three men.
They dismounted and the other guard joined them. After a brief discussion, they walked to the back of the wagon and opened it. Chris held his breath as a large man exited, followed by Vin. Chris cringed when he saw how Vin was favoring his side.
Vin Tanner blinked as the blessed, but blinding sun struck his face when he emerged from the wagon. He faltered briefly as a sharp pain burned in his ribs at the movement, but he swallowed it, quickly straightening up to stretch his cramped, aching limbs, knowing he could not expose any weakness to the group of men surrounding him.
"Hey Slim Jim!" one of the new arrivals greeted, coming forward to pat Vin's companion on the back.
"Hey Walt!" Slim Jim greeted back. "Sure is good to be outta that thing," he said, motioning to the wagon.
Vin stood warily off to the side now as the others formed a loose circle near them, his eyes travelling back and forth, looking over each one of the five men quickly.
"What're we gonna do with him?" Walt asked Slim Jim, gesturing at Vin.
"Haven't decided yet," Slim Jim said dispassionately, winking at Vin tauntingly. "What do y'all say about it?" he asked the men.
"Well," Murphy, one of the guards, began. "We got papers on him. Killed a judge's son, robbed a bank. Got 30 years at Yuma at his trial."
"Sounds like he might be a good one to have along," Walt ventured. "Guess he's handy enough with a gun."
"Yeah, I think he's tougher than he looks," Slim Jim agreed.
Vin held his tongue, regarding each man coolly, as they debated his fate.
"All right, we all agreed then?" Slim Jim asked. Everyone nodded back. "Congratulations boy, you just joined our gang!" Slim Jim said to Vin, patting him on the back. "'Course ya don't have ta," he said menacingly, when Vin made no move to reply. "But then I'd have ta put a bullet right 'tween them big, blue eyes of yours."
"What's in it for me?" Vin countered back, dangerously. "'Ceptin' not gettin' shot between the eyes and all."
"Oh, I do like you, boy!" Slim Jim laughed, clapping Vin on the back again.
"Ya get a cut of our take. We're gonna hit a bank over in Winslow. We got a few days before they're gonna notice the wagon ain't on schedule. By then, we'll be ridin' away with the loot and hidin' out in the rocks."
Vin forced himself to shrug nonchalantly at Watkins. "Guess it beats rottin' in a cell in Yuma." He nodded at the others. "Count me in boys."