Ezra moaned and forced his eyes open. He squinted and blinked at the blurry pale yellow walls and white curtains. He felt the cool cotton sheets he rested within and moved his hand slightly.
He felt wood...a table? He moved his head and a slash of pain tore through his skull. He grabbed the table and it shook, toppling a cup of water. The vibration of the metal cup hitting the floor seemed to magnify. He covered his face and moaned, trying to block the pain.
"Easy, Son...You took quite a shot," A strange voice soothed.
"Who?" Ezra croaked, "Where..."
"I'm Doctor Walter Adams and you're in Correyville. You fell off your horse in the middle of the street, during the night. You have a rather nasty abrasion on your head."
"That's putting it mildly," The Gambler winced, allowing the doctor to help him sit up, "I was set upon by thieves last night. I don't remember much after that."
"Here, this will help that headache," The doctor handed Ezra a glass with milky substance, which Ezra drank, "Any double vision?"
"No, just dizzy and slightly nauseous," Ezra sipped the tall glass of cool water slowly, "Pardon my manners, my good physician," Ezra apologized, extending his hand, "My name is Ezra Standish, and I thank you."
"Ezra...Now that's a helluva coincidence," The healer's eye's widened, as he checked Ezra's eyes, "We had another stranger got hurt about a week ago, he mentioned an Ezra...What are the odds?"
Ezra sat up, disregarding the fact the room was moving with him. Grabbing the startled doctor's arm, his green eyes lit up.
"Where is he? What did he look like? How bad was he hurt?"
"Slow down, Son," The doctor eased the swaying body back down onto the bed, "He was a young fellow about your height, I guess, slighter build, but lean, long brown hair, blue eyes, wore a funny coat."
"Buffalo hide, carried a sawed off Winchester, speaks with a drawl," Ezra sat up again, "Where is he?"
"Friend of yours?" The doctor amazed, the two were like night and day.
"In a matter of speaking," Ezra stood, looking for his shirt and pants, "Can you take me to him?"
"He's staying on a farm outside town. Kate and Earl Davis found him about a week ago."
"Was he badly injured?" Ezra drilled the elderly doctor. Why else would Vin still be here?
"Not physically, but...well he's suffering from a form of amnesia."
"Amnesia?" Ezra frowned, recalling the beating the tracker suffered, "I don't recall him hitting his head."
"It's not that kind of amnesia," The doctor steadied the swaying Southerner, while he put his pants on, "It was caused by a terrific trauma of some sort. Something so painful, the only way his subconscious could survive, was to block out everything, including his identity."
"Buck, you outdid yourself this time..." Ezra expelled a long breath, "Can you tell me where to find him?" Ezra put his coat on and staggered slightly, clutching the doorframe.
"You're not getting on a horse," The doctor ordered, "You shouldn't even be out of bed. But I suppose the circumstances dictate otherwise. You'll ride in the wagon. Chris will be glad to see you. You can't imagine how frightening it is to lose your memory."
"Chris?" Ezra puzzled, squinting into the sun.
"That what we've been calling him. He spoke that name, before he passed out the night Kate and Earl found him. That boy's a helluva shot," The doctor recalled, "He a gunslinger?"
"A Peacekeeper from Four Corners, and his name is Vin Tanner. Chris is..." Ezra swallowed hard, rubbing the ache in his head, "was his best friend. He was killed the day Mr. Tanner was injured. Mr. Tanner is blaming himself unjustly."
"That would do it," The doctor climbed onto the wagon.
"I need to send a wire first," Ezra pointed to the Telegraph, "I'll only be a moment."
Back in Four Corners
Nathan trotted out of his office, with ten-year old Toby Harris in tow. He wore his badge of honor proudly. The sling housing his broken arm had impressed his schoolmate Becky Thomson. Nathan grinned at Toby's father, who paid the healer and extended his thanks. The two youngsters walked ahead of them. Nathan passed the saloon, backpedaled and did a double take.
"You better be a mirage...," He warned, storming up to the figure in black eating steak and eggs, "What are you doing here? How the hell did you get here?"
"Mornin' Nate," Chris grunted, "Breakfast...horse..." He bluntly answered.
"He ain't up yet. I left him a note. Hungry?"
"No I ain't hungry," Nathan's anger grew with each passing moment at Chris's indifference, "You ain't strong enough to ride a horse yet. You're gonna fall and bust your head open. Damn it, Chris," He pounded the table, "You ain't leaving town, no way. Josiah and Buck should catch up to Ezra by tomorrow."
Chris never acknowledged the healer's assessment. He continued to eat, pausing to finish his coffee. Nathan was about to launch into another diatribe, when J.D. appeared in the doorway.
He winced when he saw Chris and paled at Nathan's killer face.
"Sorry, Nate..." He shrugged, "We stayed up late last night playing poker. Guess I overslept."
"Imagine that," Nathan addressed J.D. but his accusing brown eyes drilled Chris's cool green ones.
Chris lifted an eyebrow, and dared the former slave to accuse him outright. Pushing himself from the table, he stood. He walked towards the door, Nathan on his heels.
"Any word?" Chris asked J.D.
"I don't know," The youthful sheriff replied, "I came here first."
Chris nodded and headed down the boardwalk, his black duster flapping in the breeze. Nathan didn't know who he wanted to shoot first. J.D. shrugged and backed out the door, jogging to catch up with the team leader. Nathan looked at the sky and shook his head.
"Lord, I should have kept following that North Star," He vowed, "Damn no good bunch of smart-assed cowboys."
"Well..." Chris demanded, eyeing Andy in telegraph office.
"Oh, hey Mr. Larabee, I'm sure glad you're not dead..." Andy beamed, getting a faint nod, "Oh, let's see..." He shuffled through a pile of yellow sheets of paper, "One came late last night from Josiah."
Chris read the brief note, his face was expressionless. But J.D. saw the slight slump in his frame and the small expulsion of air. That said it all.
"No luck?" J.D. guessed.
"Nothing," Chris replied, resting a hand on his hip. The perpetual ache in his gut throbbed. Where are you Vin? "Get packed, Kid. We're leaving in ten minutes."
"Me!" J.D. squealed, "You want me to ride with you."
Chris squinted and eyed the boy with irony, "No, the other Kid Sheriff..." He ambled slowly to the General Store and selected a variety of items. He packed his saddlebags and headed to the Clarion. Mary wasn't up front. He slid through the room and spotted her in the back, near the kitchen. He stood for a moment, drinking in the sight of her. The golden silky mane, the creamy skin, those magnificent eyes and that bedeviling body. He wrapped his arms around her from behind.
"Hey Lady," His hot breath tickled her neck and chest.
"Jesus!" She jumped, spinning and pushing against him, "You scared the life out of me," She hissed, fighting a losing battle. He pulled her into a tight cinch. One firm hand cupped her backside; the other gripped the back of her head. His mouth melted her lips, sending his battling tongue onward. She groaned and gave in, pulling the blond head closer. Finally they parted, breathless and panting.
"I heard about loose women like you," He grinned, caressing her cheek, "dallying with notorious gunslingers in broad daylight."
"Don't flatter yourself," She quipped, tugging at the small hair behind his ears, causing the yelp she intended, "What are you doing out of bed?"
His wolfish grin and raised eyebrows, gave her a deep blush, "That's not what I meant. If Nathan doesn't shoot your first, I might have to."
"I'm heading out," He eyed the bedroom door behind her, "Keep my place warm..."
"You can't be serious," She replied, wearing concern in voice and face, "You're not strong enough. Josiah, Buck and Ezra will find him. You need more time, Chris, you're not..."
"Every time I close my eyes, I see his face," Chris flinched, pushing her away, "In the door that day I was shot. I gotta go, Mary." With a final kiss, sweet and soft, he turned and walked to through the shop and out the door.
Chris swung up onto Destiny, and turned the fine steed south, looking for J.D. He gave half a grin and Nathan carting his medical sack and a bag of supplies towards the livery. J.D. was ready to go. He waited for the pair to catch up to him.
"Mr. Larabee...wait," Andy called after him, waving a wire, "It's important..."
Chris was off the horse in a flash and grabbed the paper. He stood, wearing a blank expression. Nathan and J.D. rode up to him, exchanging a perplexed glance.
"What is it, Chris?" J.D. asked, "Good news?"
"I don't know..." He handed the wire to Nathan, who read it and frowned, "Damn...I think that's over the mountains."
"Where? What?" J.D. grilled, "Will somebody talk to me?"
"It's from Ezra. He was jumped outside a town called Correyville. The doctor who took care of him, told him Vin's there." Nate said slowly.
"He's alive! Hey that's great!" J.D. paused, seeing the somber looks, "Isn't it?"
"He has amnesia," Chris replied, remounting Destiny.
"Correyville?" J.D. rubbed his stubbly chin, "Wait a minute..."
He jumped down and ran inside the Post Office. Eyeing the map on the wall, he followed a small line, with his finger. Grinning, he smacked his bowler hat against his leg and exited.
"I know a shortcut," He bellowed, "We should be there by suppertime."
"You know where Josiah's headed next?" He asked the youth, who nodded, "Update him...and be quick." He nodded, jerking the reins.
"We're stopping at regular intervals for you to rest and eat," Nate called after the man in black, "Are you listening, Larabee?"
Kate was scrubbing the floor, when a loud rapping on the door startled her. Wiping her brow, she put the scrub brush back in the bucket and stood, rubbing the small of her back. Stepping over the wet area, she made her way to the door.
"Walter? What are you doing here?" She asked, staring at the well-dressed, handsome young man beside him.
"This young fellow got robbed and beaten last night outside town," The doctor started to explain.
"Another one," She astonished, "Landsakes, they're dropping like flies!"
"This is Ezra Standish," He introduced, seeing her eyes widen, "He claims the boy's name is Vin Tanner and he's a friend from Four Corners. They're peacekeepers there." The doctor saw the color drain out of Kate's face and grabbed her arm, steadying her, "Kate? What's wrong?"
"I knew it," She pained, "I knew he didn't belong to those two. But they knew his name, they called him Chris..." she shook her head, "and he knew about the dead kid, I could see it in his eyes."
"Madame," Ezra put his hands up, "If I may make a suggestion. Can you start at the beginning?"
"Kate, where is he?" The doctor asked, grabbing Ezra's arm, when he swayed.
"Get him inside, Walt," She grabbed the other scarlet sleeve, "before he falls and marks up that pretty face of his. They sure grow 'em handsome in Four Corners," She stated, seating Ezra on the rocker.
"Oh Lord," Ezra gasped, doubling over.
"Son, you're as green as them pretty eyes of yours," Kate grabbed a basin from under the sink, supporting the fancy-frocked stranger, while the doctor mixed a powder in some water.
After Ezra was finished and his color returned, she sat on the chair next to him. "I'm sorry sugar," She patted his knee, "He rode out at suppertime yesterday, with two men. They said his name was Chris Larabee and they'd been hunting for him for days. Claimed he run off after some fella named Vin Tanner started a fire, deliberately killing a kid named J.D., that Larabee raised. He was crushed, them blue eyes of his are like mirrors."
"Truer words were never spoken," Ezra sighed, "Did these men identify themselves."
"Pete Hunter and Deke Carson," She shivered, and described them, "I knew he didn't belong with them. But they have him convinced. He's aiming to get revenge on Vin Tanner, for the dead kid."
"J.D.'s not dead," Ezra reassured her, "He's back in Four Corners. Deke Carson should be in prison. Vin put him there. The men who murdered Mr. Larabee, were lead by a ruthless animal named Snake McCall. He also should be in prison. That's too much of a coincidence. They lured Mr. Tanner away, using J.D."
"What for?" The doctor asked.
"That's a good question," Ezra pondered, "Mr. Tanner was framed for murder in Texas. There is a bounty on his head. It's possible they intend to take him there to hang. But...why the charade. Something is amiss. I think I can find their tracks." Ezra rose, swaying slightly.
"How would you know where to start?" Kate asked, grabbing his arm.
"My nocturnal encounter was at the hands of those men," Ezra frowned, realizing it was Vin who clubbed him, "I shall require a ride back in town for my horse..." Ezra's voice died as his legs buckled.
Kate and the doctor carried him into the bedroom. Kate got his boots off and the Doctor took the fancy coat off. They settled him under the quilt.
"He's look awful" Kate frowned at the pale skin.
"He's got a nasty concussion. I shouldn't have allowed him to ride in this heat. But I thought it would help the Boy."
"You best get back to town," Kate advised, "I'll keep an eye on him."
"Thanks, Kate. Try to get some soup in him, and some liquids. Keep in him that bed."
"Shut up, Nathan," Chris hissed, wiping his mouth and pushing past the irate healer.
Nathan watched Chris dismount and disappear behind some tall brush. He heard the retching sound and felt his anger grow. He was about to lay into the team leader, when his pale form brushed by.
"I told you several small meals," Nathan shouted, "You ain't ready for steak yet." Nathan grabbed him and sat him on a large tree stump, "Now you listen to me, you stubborn fool. You ain't gonna do Vin or anybody else any good, if you have a relapse."
"Here, Nate," J.D. offered a mug of water.
"Thanks J.D., " Nathan took some powder and mixed it into the water, "Drink." He glared, daring Chris to disobey. While Chris downed the stomach settler, Nathan dug some biscuits and fruit from the saddlebag. He returned with a full canteen and stood, arms crossed, while Chris ate his meager meal. J.D. went to refill the canteens.
"You gonna talk about it?" He asked Chris, and was met by a stone face, "You know what I mean. You haven't said Buck's name since he left."
"It's none of your concern," Chris muttered, tossing away an apple core, "Let's ride."
"Alright, Mr. Hardass," Nathan warned, "But you're gonna have to deal with it eventually."
Ezra managed to maintain his balance and make his way across the well-kept bedroom. He looked out the window and was surprised that it was almost sundown. Although his head still ached, his legs were steady and stomach wasn't churning. He saw some scattered papers on the small table near the window. It was a childish scrawl, small words and phrases in crooked, pained lettering. He made his way into the main room, where the woman...Kate? was stirring a large pot. It smelled like heaven to the starving Southerner.
"Good Afternoon," Ezra slowly eased himself at the tidy table, "I'm ever so sorry for being such a burden. Mother wouldn't approve."
"Sounds like a foolish woman," Kate ladled a heap of the steaming liquid into a bowl, "Taking care of folks ain't a burden, it's neighborly. Eat up," She placed the bowl and some hot bread and churned butter in front of him. A small pewter pitcher housed cold apple cider. Ezra's eyes raised in amazement at the succulent meal. The broth was a hearty golden chicken, loaded with carrots, noodles and meat. She sat down and poured herself a cup of cider and watched him eat.
"You look a lot better," She nodded, "How ya feel?"
"The nutritional benefits of your delicious culinary creation notwithstanding," Ezra buttered another piece of bread, "I shall be fit as a fiddle by dawn. I only hope and pray Mr. Tanner is still among the living."
She refilled his empty bowl and cut more bread. As he ate, he spotted the slate lying on the chair next to him. Picking it up, he spotted the same crooked lettering as in the bedroom. She returned with the steaming bowl, and saw what he held.
"He woke me up in the middle of the night," She smiled, "He was so proud. His face was lit up like firecrackers on the Fourth. Them eyes were as bright...he said, "I ain't an X no more...."
"Vin did this?" Ezra's voice was raised in astonishment at her nod, "Did you teach him this?"
"The Doc told him to write down any clues he remembered, and he blurted out he couldn't read or write," She sighed, "His face all colored with shame, so I set out to take that away. There's something special about that boy."
While she cleaned up the dishes, Ezra stared at the crooked lettering spelling the name 'Cris'. He pondered on the simple task of reading and writing, something he'd taken for granted. How must it feel to become a 'Cris' in lieu of an 'X'? What an overwhelming moment. He felt his gold tooth glisten as he grinned, his mind's eye seeing Vin's face shining with childlike wonder. He glanced out into the darkening twilight and hoped he would have the chance to tell Vin how proud he was.
"Where the hell is Vin Tanner?" The menacing juggernaut bellowed, pushing his way past the stunned elderly man.
"Now see here," Walter Adams shouted angrily, "You just can't barge in here in the middle of the night? Who the hell do you think you are?"
"You're worst nightmare, if you can't produce him. Where is he?" Chris towered over the shaken physician.
"He's not here. He was staying with a farmer and his wife outside town, but someone else claimed him. That fancy fellow with the funny name, tried to go after him, but collasped. He's out there now."
"Ezra?" Chris glared, "He okay?"
"Nasty concussion, claims the men who took Tanner jumped him."
"Where's this farm?"
"About an hour south," the Doctor advised, spotting two men appear behind the black storm.
"You'll have to excuse him," Nathan glowered at Chris, "He's recently returned from the dead and left his manners behind. I'm Nathan Jackson, this is J.D. and that's Chris Larabee."
"So you're the Trauma..." The doctor issued, watching the stone face bend.
"Trauma?" J.D. asked.
"Mr. Tanner is suffering from traumatic amnesia, caused from his belief that he was responsible for your death." He glared at Chris, who paled even more.
"Can't you fix it?" Chris demanded hands on his slim hips.
"No. That's up to him and time."
"Let's go..." Chris snapped, attempting to leave, only to have Nathan block him.
"No way. You need to eat and sleep. You almost fell off that horse twice in the last five miles. You're done for the night."
"Head wound?" The doctor asked, spotting the nasty bruise on Chris's head.
"Deadly one, he was in a coma until a few days ago. Stubborn fool won't listen to reason." Nate made a face at Chris.
"He's right, Son. Come on, all three of you look like you need a hot meal. I've got a load of ham and potato salad in the icebox. He can sleep in here," He nodded at the bed in the office. "There a spare room upstairs with a bed and a cot. You two are more than welcome to stay there."
Chris nodded and followed Nate to the kitchen. He'd never admit it, but he felt like shit. He barely made it to the table. The doctor told them of the conversation with Kate and the two men. Chris's guilt left him stomach sour. Nate knew the anguish look and didn't have anything in his bag to take it away. An hour later, all three were sated and sleeping. The doctor returned to his bed, wondering how many more injured strangers from Four Corners would turn up.
On the Road
Josiah skinned the two plump rabbits and skewered them. They'd make a tasty breakfast. The sun would be up soon and they'd be in Correyville by nine or so. He put coffee on and settled back, eyeing the nightshift in the sky leave. Later, he watched Buck return from washing up at the creek. He'd lost weight, dark circles and bags hung under his eyes and he was pale. He barely replied to questions and offered no conversation. With each unsuccessful venturing, he got more morose.
Buck settled painfully on the log, huddled over a cup of coffee. He didn't taste it, but knew Josiah was watching him like a hawk, so he sipped. The pain of guilt was eating away at him.
Facing Chris without finding Vin, would be a death sentence. The only time Chris ever held that frightening cold-blooded killer look, was right after Sarah and Adam died. Vin Tanner had put the killer to sleep. The soft-spoken Texan had a moral fiber like none Wilmington had ever encountered. A deep set, natural innate sense of right and wrong. It shone from him, like the light of internal integrity. Buck firmly believe that Vin was the reason for the re-emergence of the Chris Larabee he met a dozen years ago.
How could he have ever thought ill of Vin? What possessed him to act so violently? Chris once suggested in a heated moment of anger, that Buck was jealous of Vin. Was that it? Deep down inside, did he want a reason to lash out at the bounty hunter? Josiah's voice startled him.
"You don't eat something soon, Brother, and you'll be one less crow for me to look after."
"It won't stay put Josiah," Buck said softly, pushing the roasted rabbit meat around his plate.
"You're human, Buck, imperfect and very fallible, like the rest of us. You made a mistake. Wasn't the first, won't be the last. Chris and Vin have been down this road before too."
"What am I gonna say to him, Josiah?" Buck's voice was saturated with anguish, "I can't sleep. All I see are those damn blue eyes of his...Jesus, Josiah, I wanted to kill him and he was ready to let me. I never had such a powerful feeling. It scares the hell of me thinking about it."
"It should," the ex-preached advised, "If it didn't, you would have something to worry about. Buck, until you forgive yourself, you can't expect Vin and Chris to."
"You know," Buck said softly, eyeing the dying embers in the fire, "I'm not worried about Vin's forgiveness. I can hear that damn twang 'Aw, hell Bucklin," Buck imitated, giving Sanchez a grin, "I can't face him, Josiah. I can't look at those eyes of his. What the hell am I gonna say?"
"The truth. Vin wouldn't want anything less. He's a good man, Buck, better than most."
"And Chris?" Buck whispered, still seeing the raging fury on the pale face.
"That might be painful," Josiah chuckled, gripping Buck's shoulder, "He's got demons inside, that he needs to purge. He can't look in the mirror and banish you."
"He'll never forgive me for this, Josiah," Buck's voice was a shadowy as his complexion, "I've lost the best friend I ever had. I don't think I realized until I saw his face, just how much Vin means to him. It's a whole lot more complicated than I can understand."
"It scares him," Josiah speared a large hunk of the rabbit and elbowed Buck to follow suit, "He don't understand it himself. Somehow Vin managed to get past every lock and chain Chris wrapped around his heart," Josiah was grateful at the meat disappearing from Buck's plate, "and that scares the hell out of him."
Josiah washed the dishes and Buck broke camp. They rode a ways and Buck paused when Josiah turned to him.
"Just follow the big heart of yours, Buck. It's never failed you before. We can't afford to lose you Buck. Wouldn't feel the same riding without you." Josiah emoted, watching Buck's face color a little, flushed with warmth, "Besides, if you go, all the best looking woman will follow you. Be a damn shame."
Buck's laughed and Josiah felt a flicker of hope. Correyville appeared on the horizon. They were about to turn onto the main road, when a familiar trio appeared in the distance approaching them.
"I think I'm hallucinating, Josiah," Buck squinted, his heart hammering at the rider in lead, cloaked in black, "Is that who I think it is?"
"Either him or the devil himself..." Josiah replied, gripping Buck's shoulder, spotting the fear in his eyes, "You okay?"
Buck nodded and waited, as Chris approached. He never looked at Buck, rather rode up to Josiah and filled him in. Without a word, he took command, the others following behind. Nathan pulled in beside Buck, who looked awful.
"What happened to you? Have you been sick? You look terrible."
"Just making it easier for Chris to finish me off," Buck snarled, riding away.
"Buck, wait a minute..." Nathan tried, "Damn..."
They pulled up near the barn and dismounted. Nathan spotted Josiah grab Chris's arm and talk to him, nodding at Buck. Chris's face remained hard and impassive. Nathan stood several yards away, watching J.D. plead with Buck. Buck finally slid from his gray bay and leaned heavily against the saddle. Nathan dismissed J.D. with a shake of his head and laid a hand on Buck's shoulder.
"He'll come around Buck," the healer kept his voice low, "He ain't thinking straight right now. Come on the house, I want to have a look at you."
Buck was grateful for Nathan's good intentions and kind heart, "Thanks Nate," He said sincerely, trying to control his shaking hands, "But there's nothing in your bag that can fix this." He clapped the healer's shoulder and walked his horse over to a nearby trough.
Chris listened to Josiah's speech, never looking in Buck's direction. Josiah finally lost his patience and physically turned the stubborn leader's head.
"Take a good look, Chris," Josiah's deep voice ordered, "He can't go on much longer, and you're the last person who ought to be casting stones."
"I was just waiting for that one," Chris snarled at the familiar Bible reference. He did look at Buck with new eyes. He looked awful. He was a pale, shadow of the man he'd been over a week ago. The weight lose, gaunt face, riddled with exhaustion and pain were evidence enough. But the eyes were dark blue vacant pools of misery, and that did cause the blond to flinch. He broke the moment and turned back to Josiah and gave a slight nod. Turning past the group, he approached the door.
Vin shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Since leaving Correyville, the trio had traveled south, into the hills. Pete was angry that Vin couldn't remember The Snake Pit, the gangs secluded hideout. Pete seemed angry at every question Vin asked and every blank stare at the response. He had no more flashes and decided that must mean he was Chris Larabee. Deke said he was a first rate gunslinger, feared by most. That would explain the shooting in town and how good the rifle felt against his cheek. But something still nagged at him, a gnawing pain in his gut. There was something on the edge of his mind, tucked away behind a dark cloud.
"Hey, I'm talking to you, Boy," Pete snapped his fingers in front of the dazed younger man's face.
"Huh?" Vin blinked.
"Damn it, Deke, I'm tired of this. When is he gonna be his normal, cold-blooded self again?"
"You can't rush stuff like this, Pete," Deke warned, "You leave him be. I'll answer your question. We'll all ride to town. We've been stuck in this shack for two days. A hot bath, hot meal and hot piece of tail sounds good to me. Whaddya say Chris?"
"Reckon I could use a bath and a meal," Vin mumbled, getting his jacket, "Where we headed?"
"A real armpit, called Frenchtown, it ain't far."
"Never heard of it," Vin frowned, climbing on Diablo.
"It's a tent city, for the miners, cutthroats and other vermin just passing through. There's a stage coach depot on the way, we can wire Snake."
Vin and Pete remained outside the depot, while Deke sent the wire. Ten minutes later, the clerk jotted down the response and handed it to the blond man. He scanned the note and smiled. The road just took a detour, one that may prove interesting. He exited the depot and they resumed their journey.
Vin paused at the end of the muddy street that was the main artery of Frenchtown. Random shots filled the air, laughter and music wafted from the large saloon tent. Prostitutes of all ages and sizes roamed freely, wearing next to nothing. Drunks tottered from every angle and a handful of brawls were underway. Dead bodies littered the narrow passages between tents. Vin spotted a pair of Chinamen, toting steaming water into a tent on the end of the row.
"I'm headed fer a bath," He nodded, "I'll see y'all in the saloon later."
"Good enough, Chris, and watch that temper." Deke advised, clapping the buckskinned back, "You ain't had any grub yet, and it ain't healthy to be picking off the locals, while your empty."
Vin rode off without responding and tethered his horse past the Bath tent. The elderly Chinese man out front, instructed him it would be a ten-minute wait, for the next bath. Vin nodded and paid his two bits and sat down outside the tent. A minute hadn't gone by, when a sweaty young girl, wearing bloomers and a small corset, slid into his lap. Before he could blink, her hand snaked into his groin. The other hand laced itself through his hair. She pressed her face close to his.
"How 'bout it handsome," She invited, "I'll make it worth your while."
She reeked of cheap liquor and sex and his stomach turned, "No thanks, Ma'am...."
His polite response was cut short by a sloppy kiss, which only made matters worse. He stood up, disrupting the roaming fingers and leaving the would be seductress, angry and muddy. She couldn't have been more than sixteen or so. She slapped him and left him with a string of colorful curses as sought a customer elsewhere.
"What did Snake say?" Pete asked, uncorking the whiskey bottle with his teeth.
"Harry wired him from Four Corners," Deke said of the spy Snake sent back, "Larabee's alive and headed this way, looking for Tanner."
"Shit..." Pete cursed, shoveling the watery stew in his mouth, "That might spoil everything."
"Maybe not..." Deke grinned, "What if Larabee does find him? Tanner's gunning for him. Could be quite a show. After Tanner kills him, we have some fun with that lousy bounty hunter, before dumping what's left of him in Tascosa."
"What if he high-tails it outta here? Shouldn't we be keepin' an eye on him?"
"Why would he leave? He thinks he's one of us. Snake and the gang will meet us in Rosalie tomorrow. I'll go check on him," Deke downed his shot and left.
Back in Correyville
Kate handed Ezra a sack of food, for his journey. She didn't think he was well enough to ride, but he wouldn't remain. He thanked her for her hospitality and opened to the door. She turned to follows him and saw the color drain from his face. His green eyes were wide in muted shock, his mouth moved, but no sounds emerged. Without a word, he slid to the floor.
"I knew you weren't well enough to be up and about," Kate hollered, dropping to this side, "Damn fancy-talking, city slicker."
"Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later," Josiah decided.
"What was?" J.D. frowned, moving forward.
"Chris killed Ezra with that damn glare of his," Nathan laughed.
"Who the hell are you?" Kate asked, as the largest man scooped Ezra up and deposited him in the rocker.
"We're from Four Corners, Ma'am" Nathan nodded to the startled woman.
"Regular convention lately," She commented, "Anybody left in that town?"
"Is it your intention to plague me for all eternity?" A weak voiced wavered up at the apparition.
"What's the matter, Ezra?" Chris eased, dropping in front of the pale gambler; "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Good Lord, you're alive!" Ezra said, when Chris smacked his leg and winked, "But ...you were...I mean..."
"Coma," Nathan answered, tapping the shocked Southerner's face" You okay? You're wearing the whitest face I've ever seen" He chuckled, eyeing Ezra's injuries.
"Certainly, why wouldn't I be?" Ezra brushed the dark hands away.
"'Cause you fainted, Ezra," J.D. added, giving Ezra a relieved grin.
"A gentlemen does not faint, Mr. Dunne," Ezra scowled at the youth.
"Well you sure did," Nathan laughed, taking Ezra's pulse, "Slid to the floor just like a silk scarf off a woman's chest."
"Lovely visual, thank you, Mr. Jackson, " Ezra winced.
"Let's get a plan and get moving," Chris demanded, hands on his hips, "Ezra where'd you get clubbed?"
Ezra took a piece of paper, stacked by the picture books and drew a crude map. "Here," He indicated, "it's about ten miles or so south of here."
"Hold on Ezra," Josiah rummaged inside his jacket and pulled out a map. Laying it on the table, the others gathered round and eyed the area.
"Where'd you get that?" J.D. asked.
"The clerk in the last town we stayed in, donated it to a worthwhile cause," Josiah grinned, "with a little persuasion."
"There's two direct routes into Texas from there," Chris indicated with his finger, "Josiah, you take Nathan and Ezra and skirt the canyon. Me, Buck and J.D. will take the river. Both trails merge here," He pointed to a 'V' where the two met. "Anybody know this area? There a town there?"
"Let me see," Kate ducked under Chris's arm and nodded, "Used to be mining town there, named Rosalie. I was there, oh it must be a good five years ago."
"We'll pick up supplies in town, wire Mary and head out," Chris paused and hauled Ezra upright, eyeing him carefully, "You sure you're okay to ride?"
Ezra was about to make his usual flip retort, when something stopped him. Maybe it was the unnatural lowering in Chris's voice or the flicker of concern in the brooding eyes, but Ezra felt a warmth. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said contritely, "and I mean that. I'm fine and rather anxious to find our wayward tracker."
Chris waited until the others left and stopped the Gambler on the porch. He gripped the startled man's forearm, a gesture of friendship, reserved only for Vin Tanner. Ezra saw the guard drop on the blond's cool glare and an emotional light play on his face.
"For standing up for Vin in the cabin, when Buck badmouthed him," He answered the Gambler's riddled gaze, "I won't forget it." He left the stunned conman gaping open mouthed. Nathan saw the exchange of words, as he shook Kate's hand and left the house.
"He heard everything that went on," Nate said, answering Ezra's puzzled face, "and I mean everything. He knows about Buck and Vin and things ain't good between him and Buck right now. I'm worried about Buck, Ezra; he's killing himself with guilt. Come on, I'll fill you in," He gave Ezra a shortened version of what happened. They approached the group, to find and angry J.D. being held off by Josiah.
"I hope you're happy now," The youth shouted at Chris, "Buck's gone, he went to find Vin on his own. You saw how bad he looked, he liable to something crazy. Why couldn't you have just talked to him? Damn you..."
Chris stared at the boy and turned, mounting his horse, "Let's get to town and get started."
Back in Frenchtown
Vin's brief moments of relaxing in the tub were nearly up. The hot water had turned cool. He rose and dried off his lean, tanned form. Dressing quickly, he exited the tent and ran into Deke.
"Leave me any hot water?" Deke teased, ducking inside, "Pete's got a table in the saloon. Unless you're heading for a hot bed."
"Headin' fer some grub," Vin replied, leaving the blond man behind.
Buck had been riding for hours. He was tired, hot, and weak. He stomach rumbled and he wished he had one of those juicy rabbits Josiah cooked that morning. He spotted a crude sign, pointing to a trail.
"Frenchtown?" He said outloud, and shrugged. As long as it had a bath and a bed, it's would be heaven to him.
On the Road
"Anything J.D?" Chris asked the youth.
"They're still headed south," J.D. replied, crouching over the imprints, "I think..."
"YOU THINK?" The leader roared, "Dammit J.D..."
"Chris, I ain't Vin!" J.D. fired back, "I'm doing the best I can."
"I know, Kid," Chris took a long draw on his canteen, "Sorry...He watched J.D. look behind them, as he did much of the time they'd been riding. "Buck's okay J.D., he can take care of himself. I'm speaking from experience." J.D.'s eyes shot at him sharply, but the boy remained silent.
The group had picked up supplies and traveled together as far as the spot where Ezra was jumped. There were no tracks, but they knew the gang was luring Vin to Texas, so they headed south, splitting at the fork in the road. They agreed to meet in Rosalie in two days time.
"Let's go." Chris urged, following the river road.
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