Chris lay on the ground, huddled in several blankets to ward off the chilly desert air. He didn't dare make a fire and expose himself, so he shivered, ate jerky and biscuits and drank cold water instead of hot coffee, as he watched the group of men below him. He strained to make out Vin's lanky form in the reflected light of the campfire's flames, relieved when he was able to see the tracker, sitting on a tree stump, eating something from a plate and drinking what looked to be coffee. At least he's gonna be warm tonight, Chris thought ruefully, then chided himself when he remembered the grueling hours Vin had endured in the cramped prison wagon and the bruises and cracked ribs the former bounty hunter had suffered. "He deserves it after all he's been through so far," he reminded himself as he bundled up tighter and tried to get a few hours of shuteye.
The hot, bitter coffee burned its way down to Vin's stomach, already churning with acid from the tension of the day's battles. His side ached, his face hurt and he was alone with a bunch of killers. He'd learned quite a bit in the hours since he'd been released from the prison wagon. Slim Jim Watkins had been a member of the Dalton gang, before he formed a gang of his own, the Greene Gang, named after his mother. The Greene Gang had robbed their way across Missouri and Kansas, making their way westward, when Slim Jim had been captured in a bank robbery attempt gone bad in Dodge City, two years ago. Wyatt Earp, the notorious lawman, had captured Slim Jim and his right-hand man, Walter Earley and several other members of the gang had been killed in the ensuing shoot-out. Slim Jim was shipped off to Ft. Leavenworth and Walter was sent to Yuma. The remaining members that had gotten away laid low and plotted their revenge.
Slim Jim's distant cousin, Roy Callahan, an original member of the Greene gang, had masterminded a plan to reunite the Greene Gang and strengthen its depleted numbers. He came up with the idea for his younger brothers, Murphy and Zeb, who had not been involved with the robberies, to take jobs as drivers for the Yuma Territorial Prison Wagon. Everybody knew that prison wagon drivers were hard to find--it was dangerous work and the grueling, treacherous trail through the Arizona desert caused more than one man to resign after one or two runs. The brothers were immediately hired on. Their job with the gang was to gather information on the convicts they were transporting, and through the prison network, notify Walter Earley when a prisoner seemed like a good addition to the gang. Walter took it from there. If the prisoner wasn't interested in joining the gang, he was killed. If he wanted to join, Walter sent a message to Murphy and Zeb, and the man was given help to escape from prison, and met up with the members of the gang on the outside. And so, the two brothers bided their time, mascarading as law-abiding citizens for almost two years, while the rest of the Greene gang holed up in a remote cabin and hid the men as they escaped from jail. Safely hidden in the cabin, the gang planned their next spree of robberies, waiting for the day they would be back in business. They planned to make enough this time so they could retire to Mexico, free from the prying eyes of the U.S. government. During that time, six prisoners had mysteriously died at Yuma and four men had escaped, Walter Earley being the last. Then Slim Jim, at Leavenworth, made his move. He and another inmate, that he had recruited to join his gang, had planned their escape from the jail. At the last minute, the other inmate changed his mind and ruined the escape attempt. Slim Jim killed the man in retaliation. Prison officials saw him as a threat and demanded he be moved to the more secure Yuma Territorial Prison. When the time came for Slim Jim's transfer to Yuma, up rode the two Callahan brothers, driving the wagon. They rode off toward a happy reunion with the rest of the gang at a prearranged meeting site. "Like stealin' candy from a baby," Slim Jim had bragged, laughing about it to the other members of the gang tonight when he related the story.
Lost in thought, he'd let his coffee get cold. Grimacing in distaste at the foul brew, Vin tossed the remainder in the fire, cleaned his plate and curled up in the bedroll Roy had provided, a short distance away from the other men, who had also settled in for the night. Too keyed up to sleep, he stared into the black night mulling over the information he had learned. He was sure that the Territorial Governor would be pleased with what he'd found out today. If I live long enough to tell him, he thought ruefully to himself, as he moved to try and find a comfortable position on the cold, hard ground. He thought back to that day, several months ago, when he and Chris had been approached by Judge Travis, asking if the two of them would be interested in helping the Arizona Territory Officials with a special assignment. The judge had pulled a few strings and if Chris and Vin agreed to help, the judge would be able to guarantee a full pardon for Vin in the Eli Joe murder case. Even though he was innocent of the crime, Vin jumped at the chance of a pardon. "I'm in," he'd told Judge Travis, without any hesitation. Chris had been angry with Vin for agreeing to the assignment before he heard the details, but Vin didn't care. He had yet to make it to Tascosa, and with Eli Joe now dead, it would be very hard for Vin to prove his innocence to the people of Tascosa. And none of his friends would be put in danger again by bounty hunters looking for Vin.
Vin smiled as he remembered the argument he and Chris had after he'd agreed to the assignment. Chris had asked Judge Travis to excuse them for a minute, grabbed Vin by the sleeve of his hide jacket and yanked him behind the livery.
"What the HELL do you think you're doin'!" Chris had thundered at Vin.
"Makin' sure no one gets hurt 'cause 'a me!" he had yelled back at the gunslinger. "Last time bounty hunters came lookin' for me JD pulled a gun on 'em and almost got shot! I ain't livin' with that! And I'm tired of runnin' Chris, lookin' over my shoulder. Now's my chance to be free, Chris!"
"I think you're makin' a mistake Vin," Chris had warned. "I don't like ya takin' chances like that with your life."
"Don't worry, Chris," he had replied with a sardonic smile. "Josiah ain't seen any crows in a long time. Ain't nothin' gonna happen to me."
Chris had started at Vin for a long time, trying to get the younger man to back down, but Vin had stood firm and Chris finally gave up trying to change the tracker's mind.
"I know nothin's gonna happen to you, 'cause I'm gonna be right beside you on this thing, Vin. Somebody's gotta watch your back," Chris said, throwing his arm around Vin's shoulder and pulling him close for a brief hug.
"Guess we better get back to the Judge, pard," Vin had drawled shyly to Chris.
"Yeah, guess so," Chris had replied and broke the contact with Vin, leading them back to where Judge Travis was waiting.
"Okay, we'll do it," Chris had told the waiting man.
"But you don't even know what it is I'm asking you to do," Judge Travis had protested.
"Doesn't matter," Chris had replied, shaking his blond head. "If it gets Vin his pardon, we'll do it."
"All right then, gentlemen," the judge had said. "Let's find somewhere private to talk, without arising any suspicion."
The three man then walked to the jail. Once inside, Judge Travis had informed them that the Territorial Governor of the Arizona Territory, an old friend of his, needed some help. There had been a series of prison breaks and killings at the Yuma Territorial Prison, and he needed someone to pose as a convict, and be sent to Yuma Prison to investigate. The Governor had asked Judge Travis if he knew anyone who would be up to the challenge, and the judge had immediately thought of the seven.
Chris had insisted on being the bait for the operation, but was overruled by Vin and the Judge. Vin, with his alleged murder of Eli Joe, was a more logical choice. The gunslinger had not been happy about placing Vin in such a dangerous position, but the younger man had stubbornly insisted. Finally, after realizing that Vin would not change his mind, Chris had reluctantly agreed.
They had quickly formed a plan, agreeing that no one else should be told. Chris, Vin and the Judge trusted the other members of the seven implicitly, but realized that the less people who knew about the plan, the better. It would be a death sentence if anyone associated with the prison gang was to find out about the undercover plan.
Bet Chris and the Judge are sure gonna be surprised when I don't show up at Yuma, Vin thought to himself as he shivered in the cold. He thought about moving a little nearer to the fire, but quickly changed his mind. He didn't want to sleep any closer to the band of cold-blooded killers than he had to. God, he wished he was back home in Four Corners, sitting in the saloon with Chris and the rest of the boys, drinking, playing cards and trading barbs with Ezra. He stared up at the starry sky, wondering where his best friend was tonight. Somewhere safe, he hoped silently, blinking quickly as a rush of tears filled his eyes. Ain't no time to be feelin' sorry for yourself, Tanner, he chided himself, and angrily wiped the tears away with the back of his hand. He closed his eyes, turning his back to the other men as a few stray tears continued to seep out. Finally, the former bounty hunter succumbed to the stress of the day and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Dawn. Normally he loved this time. But today, he couldn't enjoy the dazzling array of colors that lit the endless sky. He turned away from the brilliant scene with a resigned sigh, walking to the creek to wash up. He bent to the cold water, ignoring the flare of pain from what he knew were several cracked ribs. He winced as the freezing water he splashed on his face connected with the large bruise on his cheek. Damn, Chris has a right hook. Glad I'm usually on his good side, he thought grimly to himself.
Knowing it was impossible to delay the inevitable, he quickly finished washing up and rose to join the other men. "Hey ya'll," he called, letting his face settle into a cold, hard mask. "When're we gettin' outta here?"
"What's your hurry fella?" Slim Jim bellowed.
"Just gettin' antsy, I guess. Keep thinkin' 'bout Yuma, don't wanna get caught," Vin countered coolly.
"Well, we're goin' back inside that metal contraption, so I wouldn't be in no hurry, if'n I was you," Slim Jim guffawed.
"What?" Vin asked, stunned.
"Yup, that way, we can roll right into any town 'long the way and nobody's gonna suspect a thing," he gloated.
Vin suppressed a shudder, thinking about being trapped in the prison wagon once again. "How long we gonna have to ride in there?" he asked, trying to sound casual about it.
"All day," Slim Jim said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice near Vin. "We're gonna ride to Sunrise Springs and get supplies, since the boys didn't load up on that pissant little town they picked you up at. Got a problem with that?"
Vin shrugged his shoulders, hooking his thumbs in his beltloops. "Nah, just gets hot in that damned thing."
"Don't worry, we'll stop plenty to let ya air out after we get the supplies. Beats jail don't it?"
"Yeah, ya got a point there," Vin conceded.
"Eat up and let's get goin' boys," Slim Jim ordered his gang.
Chris, hidden by a clumping of scrub bushes, carefully watched the group below him break camp. He was glad to see Vin moving around a little better than yesterday, giving him some hope that Vin's ribs weren't hurt as bad as he'd originally thought.
He was just about to slip back to Valor, already loaded up and ready to ride, when a sudden movement caught his eye. His heart sank as he saw Vin and Slim Jim enter the prison wagon and one of the men shut the door securely behind them.
What the hell is goin' on now? he wondered to himself. He also knew he was due to send a message to the judge today. He remembered a small town, Sunrise Springs, not far from where they were now, and hoped they were heading close enough to it, so he could break off and send the wire back to the judge, waiting for word at Four Corners.
They rode steadily toward Sunrise Springs, stopping once to let Vin and Slim Jim out to stretch their legs. Chris wished he was able to get close enough to hear their conversation, but there was not enough cover. So, he remained farther away from his best friend that he'd wanted to, wishing at least that Vin knew he was there, keeping watch over him.
Several miles outside the town, the wagon stopped again. Vin hobbled out, followed by Slim Jim. Chris watched briefly to make sure his friend was still all right, then made the decision to ride hard for the town, send the wire to the judge, then ride back to cover and continue following the wagon. He quietly walked Valor well out of the gang's hearing distance, then spurred the animal into a gallop toward Sunrise Springs. He arrived in the town half and hour later, dust-covered and breathless, ignoring the curious stares of the townspeople and ran for the telegraph office.
"Need to send a wire," he barked at the telegraph operator seated behind the desk.
The clerk gestured at the pencil and paper. "Write it down there and I'll send it."
Chris hastily scribbled the note to Judge Travis and thrust it at the clerk.
"That'll be a nickel," the clerk said, sitting down, beginning to tap out the code.
Chris threw the money onto the counter and walked out.
"Ain't ya gonna wait for a reply?" the clerk shouted out after him. But Chris ignored him, going quickly to Valor and riding out. He was so intent on getting back to Vin, he failed to notice a recent visitor to Four Corners standing in the shadows of an alley, watching his every move.
After Chris had trotted out of town, the man stepped out of the alley, going to the telegraph office. He flashed his tin star at the clerk. "I'm on official business for the territory," he told the man. "Need to see that last telegraph that was sent."
The clerk handed the paper over without a word.
"Judge Travis send over a reply yet?" the lawman asked.
"No sir, nothin'."
"Thank you kindly, that's all I needed," the stranger said, and walked out. He mounted up and rode out of town, in the same direction Chris had ridden.
Chris kept his eyes on the trail below him, scanning anxiously for signs of the wagon. Where the hell are they! he screamed silently. Finally, he caught sight of the caravan, pulling behind a cluster of large rocks. He dismounted and crept forward, pressing himself flat to the ground to stay hidden.
"Hold it right there, mister!"
Chris froze in disbelief at the voice.
"Get on your feet, and hands in the air, nice and easy like," the oily voice ordered.
Chris stood and turned slowly, putting his hands up, and came face to face with Arriola's sheriff.
"Sheriff Martin! What the hell you doin' out here?"
"Wanna take a wild guess?" he said sarcastically as he came forward and relieved Chris of his gunbelt.
"You're part of the gang," Chris replied flatly.
"Yep. I'm the cautious one. Didn't trust the way things went down with your friend. Thought I'd just trail along for a few days, make sure everything was on the up and up. Good thing I did."
Chris seethed inwardly, rebuking himself for getting captured. How the hell could I have been so stupid! Christ, I can't even tell if somebody's tailin' me or not! Vin is never gonna let me live this one down! And then his heart dropped into his gut. Vin. What's gonna happen now. Who's gonna find us?
"You bastard!" Chris shouted, and lunged at Martin, going for the guns. He grabbed his pistol, but Martin twisted away and the two men fell to the ground, grappling for the gun. Both men landed punches, and Chris fell back hard, hitting his head against a rock. Momentarily stunned, he lost his hold on the weapon, allowing the sheriff to fire. Chris jerked back as the slug caught him in the shoulder. Sheriff Martin kicked Chris away from him and stood over the wounded man.
"Now that was stupid!" he gloated. "Stand up or I'll shoot ya again!"
Chris staggered to his feet and Martin grabbed his wrist and snapped a handcuff over it. He reached for his other wrist, jarring the wounded left shoulder, causing Chris to grimace. Martin smiled as he yanked both of Chris's arms behind his back and secured the cuffs.
He dragged Chris over to his horse and forced him to mount up, then grabbed the reins, brought Valor over to his animal and mounted up, leading Chris to the outlaws.
Martin fired twice in the air as they neared the wagon. Two shots returned, then he fired again and rode into the rocks.
"Paul! 'Bout time ya made it!" Walt greeted. "And ya brought a friend with ya!"
Vin was just coming out of the wagon when he caught sight of Chris, pale and bloody, being led into the camp. He clenched his hands in anger as a man he now recognized as Sheriff Martin, shoved the wounded man off Valor, and left him lying in a heap in the dirt. He forced himself not to run to his friend, struggling to maintain the facade, and instead walked calmly to the new arrivals.
"Who ya got there Sheriff?" he asked, hoping he sounded a lot calmer than he felt.
"As if ya didn't know, boy!" Martin shouted, grabbing Vin by the hair and throwing him on the ground next to Chris.
"What's goin' on?" Slim Jim yelled, coming out from behind the wagon. "Can't a man eat in piece?"
"Brought ya a present!" Martin greeted his leader.
"So I see. Nice goin'," Slim Jim praised. "But what about Tanner here? How come ya got him in the dirt, too?"
"It's his friend, he was tailin' y'all. I knew somethin' was up, glad I told ya I'd hang back for a while."
"Me too, friend," Slim Jim agreed. He bent down to face Vin. "Well, pretty boy, whatta ya have to say for yourself?"
"I didn't know he was followin' us," Vin insisted. "He ain't my friend no more, made that pretty clear back in Four Corners."
"Liar!" Martin spat out, backhanding Vin sharply across the face.
The former bounty hunter's head rang from the blow, but he held his ground, glaring at the Sheriff and Slim Jim.
"Well, we'll just see about that, won't we?" Slim Jim taunted. "Stand up, boy!"
Vin rose shakily to his feet and spat out blood from his torn lip.
"Wait here," Slim Jim commanded Vin. "Keep an eye on 'em," he ordered Martin and Walt, gesturing for the other men to also gather around the two. Then he walked away to the gang's horses. He came back brandishing a gun, which he offered to Vin.
"Go ahead and shoot him," Slim Jim ordered, pointing to Chris. "Prove who you're loyal to. If he ain't your friend anymore, shouldn't be any big deal, right? 'Sides, ya already killed that bank manager, what's one more murder?" he taunted.
Vin took the gun and raised it to Chris hesitantly. He looked at Slim Jim, then back at Chris, laying prone on the ground, green eyes blazing into his.
"Go on, boy! Do it!" Slim Jim barked.
Vin stared at Chris in desperation. The aquamarine eyes he knew as well as his own stared back at him with compassion. He saw the message Chris was sending him. Do it Vin! Save yourself!, but he couldn't. There was no way he would ever shoot Chris, he might as well turn the gun on himself. "Die, you bastard!" he screamed, spinning and firing at Slim Jim instead. The gun clicked dully, no bullet dislodged.
Slim Jim sprang forward and grabbed the gun from Vin's shaking hand, slamming the butt against Vin's temple. The younger man crumpled to the ground, dazed.
"Think I'd give ya a loaded gun?" Slim Jim asked with a bitter laugh. "Whatta think? I'm stupid or somethin'?"
"Put 'em both in the wagon, boys," he ordered. "Guess what pretty boy?" he questioned, leaning down to face Vin. "Ya failed the test. Guess we know whose side you're on now."
"I'm sorry Chris," Vin mumbled to his best friend as he lost consciousness and fell against him.
Vin groaned as he slowly became aware of his surroundings. He eased himself up to a sitting position and looked around in the gloom of the prison wagon. Through the watery light shining in through the barred window, he made out the form of his best friend, laying slumped against the far wall of the wagon.
"Chris!" he cried, hurrying over.
"Vin," he replied softly. "Was wonderin' if you were ever gonna wake up," he joked weakly. "You all right?" he asked, concern creasing his already pain lined face.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Vin answered, "I ain't the one with a hole in my shoulder. Lemme take a look."
Chris grunted as Vin gently probed the wound. "Looks like the bullet went clean through, Chris. Just need to clean it up and you'll be good as new," Vin said, trying to sound hopeful.
"Well, I think they forgot to leave the medical supplies with me," Chris said sardonically. "Maybe they went to get 'em, huh?"
Vin stood and began to pace the floor of their prison in frustration, until the pounding pain of his head wound and the throbbing from his severely beaten face forced him to sit back down.
"Don't worry Chris, I'll get ya what ya need," Vin reassured.
"Vin, don't go doin' anything stupid," Chris warned. "I'm all right."
"Sure ya are, cowboy. Don't worry, I got it handled."
Chris looked questioningly at Vin, causing the younger man to turn away, not wanting his friend to see the fear and uncertainty he felt.
"Just go to sleep Chris, I'll take care of everything."
Chris tried to fight against the blackness, but he was so tired. "Just gonna close my eyes for a few minutes," he mumbled to Vin. "Then we'll figure out a way . . ."
Vin looked over, relieved to see Chris had finally dropped off to sleep. He stretched out next to him, wanting to stay between him and the door to the wagon. "Gotta help Chris, gotta come up with a plan," he muttered to himself as his own eyelids soon grew heavy. He fought against the rising darkness, trying to sit up, but he fell back to the floor of the wagon, unconscious, one arm draped protectively over his best friend.
Vin was roused from his sound sleep when Chris started shivering. The younger man frowned as he awoke, feeling the tremors coursing uncontrollably through his best friend's body.
"Chris? Chris? You doin' okay?" he asked softly, stroking the fiery forehead with a light touch, trying to comfort the sick man.
"Yeah Vin, I'm fine. Don't worry 'bout me," Chris said weakly. "How's your head?"
"Feels better, cowboy, almost good as new," he lied, heartsick that he had fallen asleep instead of finding a way to help his friend. He got to his feet, reaching out and holding onto the side of the wagon for support as he swayed slightly with the sudden movement. He felt Chris's eyes burning into him as he walked to the barred window at the back door of the vehicle.
"Hey!" Vin called out, "got a sick man in here!"
"Shuddup, or we'll shoot him again!" one of the men shouted back.
"I ain't gonna shut up and you ain't gonna shoot him again!" Vin yelled back angrily.
Two of the gang members stood and started toward the wagon, but Slim Jim cut them off with a wave of his hand. "Easy there, fellas, I got me an idea," he said, and beckoned Walt to his side. The two men spoke quietly for several minutes, then both approached Vin.
"Zeb!" Walt called, "get the keys and let 'em out!"
"What're ya talkin' about Walt?" Zeb questioned as he came forward.
"Just open the door and keep your gun on 'em," Slim Jim answered. "Shoot Larabee if Tanner tries anything funny."
"I ain't gonna try anythin', just want my friend looked after," Vin bit back,
"Oh, I hope ya ain't gonna try anythin', pretty boy," Slim Jim taunted. "'Cause we need ya nice and healthy for the job we got planned for ya. Matter 'a fact, when you're finished playin' nursemaid to your friend there, better set yourself down and have some grub. Then we can tell ya all about what's gonna be happenin' tomorrow."
"I ain't doin' nothin' for you!" Vin shouted as Zeb opened the door.
"I think you're gonna change your mind 'bout that Tanner, seein' as how your friend's health is ridin' on it."
Vin silently glared back at Slim Jim.
"Help him outta there with his friend," Walt ordered Zeb.
"No! You ain't touchin' him!" Vin shouted and rushed to Chris side, hovering over him.
"Suit yerself," Walt shrugged and motioned for Zeb to back out of the way.
Vin eased Chris into a sitting position. "I'm gettin' ya outta here, cowboy, gonna fix up that shoulder. You okay to stand if I help ya?"
"Sure Vin," Chris assured, "let's get the hell outta here."
Vin carefully got Chris to his feet, then steadied himself as the world began to spin. He staggered forward, taking as much of Chris's weight as he could.
"Okay cowboy," he encouraged the ailing man, "just a few steps and then you can lay down again." He eased Chris down the stairs as gently as possible, then helped him over to the campfire, laying him on the ground. He sank to his knees beside him, sharp pains surging through his cracked ribs with each gasp for air.
"I need some water and whiskey to clean his shoulder with," Vin said to the crowd of men clustered around them. He clenched his teeth against the agony in his side that threatened to drive him down to the ground next to Chris. No one moved to help him so he asked again.
"Didn't ya hear me?" he spat out. "I need..."
"We heard ya, kid," Martin said, stepping forward and throwing a fistful of cloth and a bottle of whiskey at Vin's feet. "Water's in the pot over yonder," he said, gesturing to the fire with a jerk of his head. "You can get it yourself."
Vin pushed himself upright but was too woozy to stand. He began crawling to the fire for the water, ignoring the cackles and taunts from the men grouped around them.
"Bastards!" Vin muttered to himself, tears of frustration filling his eyes as he fought his way to the fire. He grabbed the pan, holding it with the rags to keep from burning his shaking hands and dragged it back over to Chris. He wiped his eyes with a sleeve, clearing the moisture from them. They burned with the unshed tears as he looked at Chris, shivering and sweating, weak and helpless. He hated these men. I'm gonna pay 'em back Chris. I swear to ya, he silently vowed to the prone man.
Vin was relieved to find that Chris settled down somewhat after his shoulder was cleaned and bandaged. He actually seemed to be resting a little easier and the shivers had all but stopped. Vin continued to bathe Chris's face with a wet cloth every few minutes, hoping to keep the injured man comfortable and quiet. He was just reaching for more water when someone grabbed his hand roughly, yanking it away from the pan.
"That's enough nursemaidin', boy," Slim Jim snapped, pulling Vin away from Chris's side. "We got plans to discuss."
"I ain't leavin' him," Vin hissed back, struggling against the stronger man.
"I'll kill him if ya don't," Slim Jim threatened, grabbing Vin by the shirt and bringing his face to within inches of his own. Vin shuddered as he glimpsed the insanity in those cold depths. He knew the man meant what he said. He looked back at Chris, reassuring himself that he was still sleeping peacefully, then trailed after Slim Jim reluctantly.
"Sit here," Slim Jim ordered, shoving Vin to the ground. "Zeb, get him some grub."
Zeb thrust a plate of beans and some coffee at Vin, which the former bounty hunter grudgingly accepted.
"Eat it, boy," Slim Jim growled. "Need your strength for tomorrow."
"And just what the hell is gonna happen tomorrow," Vin asked bitterly.
"Keep mouthin' off like that to me, boy, and I'm gonna be addin' to that mess 'a bruises on that pretty face 'a yours," the criminal warned.
Ain't gonna do me no good to get beat up again, he thought to himself resignedly. Then I'll never be able to get Chris outta here. He held his tongue and eyed Slim Jim warily as he shoveled down the beans and coffee.
"That's better, boy, glad to see ya ain't as dumb as I thought."
Vin kept eating silently.
"Well, here's the deal. We're gonna rob us a bank tomorrow and you're gonna help. 'Course we ain't gonna give ya a gun or anythin', but you're gonna help just the same. You're gonna do whatever we say, and then after it's done and we get away clean, we'll let you and your friend go."
"You're crazy!" Vin yelled. "I ain't robbin' a bank!"
"You are if you wanna keep your friend alive!" Slim Jim shouted back. "I'm gonna have my gun on him the whole time. You try anythin' funny and he gets it. And I'll make sure it's real slow and painful."
Vin leapt at the man in a rage. Slim Jim laughed and easily side-stepped the injured tracker's awkward movement, laughing as Vin landed face first in the dirt. He bent down and grabbed Vin by the hair, yanking his head up toward his.
"Ya made up your mind yet, boy? 'Cause we'll just go ahead and shoot your friend over there again, if ya still don't wanna help us tomorrow. What's it gonna be?"
Vin spat at the killer. "F**k you!" he screamed.
Slim Jim wiped the spittle from his face and released Vin, letting the younger man's head slam back to the ground. "You're gonna regret that, boy," Slim Jim promised Vin as he towered over him. He stalked to Chris's side, pulled his gun and pointed it at the wounded man's temple.
Vin twisted toward the pair as Slim Jim cocked the gun. "NO!" he screamed. "No! Don't shoot him! Don't shoot him!" he pleaded. "I'll do it! I'll do it!"
"Well now, ain't that real touchin'," Slim Jim chortled. "You hear that boys? Tanner's finally come around to seein' things our way."
Vin frantically crawled over to Chris, hugging the unconscious man desperately to him. "Leave him alone! Leave him alone!" he screamed, edging on hysteria.
"I will, long as you do what you're told," Slim Jim threatened. "Okay fellas, get 'em back in the wagon. Time to go nighty-night, Tanner. Tomorrow's a big day."
'Keep it together Tanner! Keep it together for Chris's sake!' he silently urged himself, forcing himself to calm down. "Chris needs somethin' to eat first," Vin said. "And some blankets." He looked at Slim Jim boldly. "We ain't gonna be any good to ya tomorrow if we ain't feelin' our best, now are we?" he asked coldly, in control of himself once again.
"Got a point there, I guess," Slim Jim agreed. "OK," he relented. "Murph, get 'em some more beans and coffee, and throw some blankets in the wagon. That good enough for ya, Tanner?"
"Yeah, that's just fine," Vin said flatly as he woke Chris up and prepared to feed him his dinner.
"Vin?" Chris asked weakly, coughing as he tried to sit up.
"Right here cowboy," Vin replied softly, leaving the window he had been staring out of to rush to Chris's side. He bit back the sharp pain rising in his side caused by the sudden movement, concentrating on helping Chris instead. "How ya feeling?" he asked, touching his best friend's forehead lightly.
"Be a helluva lot better if I had a bottle of whiskey and a cheroot, that's for damn sure. Don't guess our friends out there would oblige me, do ya?"
"Wouldn't exactly call Slim Jim and the boys a soft touch, Chris," Vin replied as he moved Chris to rest against the wall and hunched down next to him. "Think you'll have to make do with coffee and beans."
"I heard some of what they were sayin' last night. 'Bout the bank robbery. You don't gotta worry about me. When the time comes, just get yourself the hell outta there."
"No way Chris, I ain't leavin' ya! We're in this together. It's my damn fault you're here in the first place. If I hadn't been so all-fired desperate to get that pardon Judge Travis was danglin' in my face, you wouldn't be layin' here in this miserable excuse for a wagon."
"Vin, listen to me," Chris commanded. "I'm helpin' ya 'cause I wanted to. It ain't your fault I got shot. It's mine for not payin' attention and it's that bastard, Sheriff Martin's fault. Wonder if Arriola knows what a fine lawman they got for their sheriff. Christ, I told Mary Travis we were the bad element," he finished, shaking his head.
"Heard you boys jabberin' in there. Guess y'all're anxious to start the day, huh?" Slim Jim asked jovially as he approached the prison wagon, keys jangling. "Barely dawn, boys. Must be plumb excited 'bout robbin' that bank, I guess." He smiled evilly and winked at his prisoners in the weak light as he opened the barred door. Vin eased himself down and Slim Jim closed in on him.
"Movin' kinda slow there, boy," Slim Jim remarked as he grabbed Vin's arm. "Better be able to hold up today or you and your friend're gonna be in a peck 'a trouble," the outlaw threatened.
"I'm fine and you leave my friend outta this," Vin replied, futiley trying to yank his arm out of the man's grasp.
"I ain't finished talkin' to ya yet boy," Slim Jim continued. "Don't worry, Old Zeb'll see to your friend. Told him to even let him eat and wash up. See how generous I'm bein'? You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."
"Go to hell," Vin cursed.
Slim Jim just laughed and dragged him off to the rest of the gang, shoving him into the circle of men. Vin fell in the dirt, hearing the jeers and laughter of the other men. He clenched his jaw against the pain, determined not to let them see him falter.
"Quit goofin' around Tanner. Sit up and listen," Slim Jim taunted.
Vin pulled himself up and leaned against a rock, glowering at the killer.
"Okay, here's the plan. Martin here is gonna ride into town ahead of us. Seems Winslow's without a sheriff these days. Wonder how that happened?"
Two of the men snickered knowingly and Slim Jim winked at them. "Nice goin' you two," he praised.
"Okay, Martin's gonna go to the bank and ask to see their sheriff. When he finds out they don't have one, he's gonna play the good lawman, and go over to the bank, introducin' himself to the bank manager. He'll tell the manager about a band of bank robbers he's chasing from Arriola and offer to look over the safe, just to make sure it's secure. That's when we make our move. I'm gonna get into the office with Martin and the bank manager. I'll bring Tanner with me. Will, you bring Larabee along right behind me. Tanner, you're gonna get the money outta the safe, while Will and me stay with your friend. Martin can cover the bank manager. Zeb and Murph, you two are gonna be outside, bein' the lookouts, rest of you are inside, just like we planned. Zeb, you two be ready to jump in if ya hear anythin' funny goin' on inside. Everybody got it?"
Each man nodded except Vin, who started at Slim Jim coldly.
"You're gonna be a good boy, Tanner, ain't ya," Slim Jim said, patting him on the cheek.
Vin twisted away, angering Slim Jim. He grabbed Vin's face and squeezed, bringing it close to his. "'Cause if ya don't do exactly what I tell ya, I'm gonna put a bullet in your friend and everybody in that bank. Just think about it Tanner, all them folks, their lives are ridin' on you and how you behave. So ya gonna do what you're told?"
Vin kept staring at the man, naked hate burning in his eyes.
"Answer me when I ask you a question boy!" Slim Jim barked, pushing him back and backhanding him.
Arms crossed over his chest, he towered over Vin, now sprawled in the dirt.
"I'll do it! I'll do it you sick bastard!" Vin shouted. He covered his face with his hands, trying to block out Slim Jim's face from his mind.
"Get up and get somethin' to eat. We're ridin' outta here soon, need to hit Winslow by late afternoon," he ordered Vin.
Vin grudgingly followed Slim Jim to the campfire, settling in next to Chris.
"You okay Vin?" Chris asked, eyeing the red mark on Vin's already bruised cheek.
"Yeah, I'll be alright, "Vin replied dryly. "Just gotta learn when to keep my mouth shut's all."
Vin and the others ate quickly then cleaned up. He and Chris were standing near the wagon when Slim Jim ordered everybody to get ready to ride.
"We gonna rob the bank ridin' in this wagon? Think maybe we'll attract a little attention?" Chris asked Slim Jim condescendingly.
"Well ain't you the smart one!" Slim Jim toyed. "Gonna park it 'bout a mile or two outside 'a town. You boys're gonna ride double. But don't think 'a tryin' nothin'. We'll be leadin' ya and watchin' the whole time."
Chris gave Slim Jim a stony look. "Got it all planned out, huh? Sure are lucky we hooked up with such a mastermind," Chris baited sarcastically.
"You got an even smarter mouth than Tanner," Slim Jim retorted. He leaned close, allowing Chris and Vin a glimpse of the yellowed teeth and hard eyes. "Better watch it or I'll shut it for good." He backhanded Chris as he stormed off, driving him into Vin, who swayed, but managed to keep them both standing.
"Chris, could ya keep quiet just once?"
"Sorry Vin, couldn't help it," Chris said, spitting out blood from his split lip. "He sure is a mean son-of-a-bitch, ain't he?"
"You got that right," Vin agreed.