Chris Larabee was in a foul mood when he entered the saloon. Vin had taken off into the desert, and would be gone for God only knew how long. JD had just handed him a telegram from Sheriff Anderson over in Bristol City informing him that the Colter gang had been spotted in the territory. Chris looked around the saloon for Ezra and scowled when he didn't see him. He strode up to the bar and asked Inez, "Where's Ezra?"
"He hasn't come down yet, Senor Chris," she told him amiably.
Chris glanced at his watch. He cursed silently. He goes off for two days to a poker game, and then he doesn't even have the decency to make an appearance by noon. He was just about set on going up to Ezra's room, and dragging him out of bed personally, when Buck and JD made a noisy entrance into the saloon.
"Buck," JD was laughing, "how'd you get the. . . " His words died, as he caught sight of an obviously furious Chris Larabee standing at the end of the bar staring moodily at the stairs. "Uh, hey Chris," JD called in an uncertain tone.
Chris glanced up, and JD and Buck could see the anger on his face as he answered. "Buck, JD," he called in a clipped voice.
"What's wrong, Chris?" Buck asked calmly.
"That damned no-account con man ain't come down yet. I told him, before he left, to make sure he found me first thing this morning." Chris was getting angrier by the minute, and JD decided to do something to ease the tension.
"Why don't I go wake him up, and get him down here?" He looked from one man to the other.
Chris jerked his head towards the stairs motioning JD to go. JD bounded up the stairs 2 at a time. Chris and Buck ordered two beers and sat down at their usual table in the back.
"Did JD tell you, the Colter gang is on the loose?" Chris asked Buck.
"Yeah, Chris, he did." Buck answered easily, as he sipped his beer. "That what's got you so worked up? And don't tell me it's that popinjay oversleepin'."
Chris looked at him sharply, before he smiled and said, "You know me too well, Buck. No, I don't like Ezra shirking his duties but it's not that. It's Vin being gone that bugs the hell outta me." Chris waved him off, when it looked like Buck was about to open his mouth, to defend the other two.
"Don't bother. I know Vin needs to get off by himself once in a while, but that don't mean I gotta like it. And as for Ezra," Chris rolled his eyes toward the ceiling in the general vicinity of Ezra's room. "Well, I think I'll send him out on a little patrol. . ."
He never finished his sentence as JD came down the stairs, faster then he'd went up them.
"Chris! Buck! Ezranevercamehomelastnight!" JD hollered, his words tumbling together in panic.
He didn't know what reaction he'd expected from Chris, but it sure wasn't for Chris to slam his hand down on the table and curse. "God dammit! That miserable son of a bitch." Buck just took another sip of beer ignoring Chris' outburst.
"Whadda'ya mean Chris?" JD asked confused, as he looked from Buck's calm face to Chris's furious one. "Ain't we gonna go look for him?"
To his surprise, Buck just laughed unpleasantly and asked him, "What'd we wanta go and do that for kid?"
JD was getting more confused by the minute. He knew Chris and Buck would never fail to act if one of the seven were in trouble, but here they were doing just that.
"But-" JD's words were cut off, by Chris Larabee's angry voice.
"Don't you get it kid? Ezra ran out on us again." Larabee told the confused teen harshly.
JD was a little scared of Chris when he got in one of these moods, but he stood his ground. "I don't think Ezra'd do that Chris," he said uncertainly. To his surprise, it wasn't Chris who answered him. It was Buck.
"Yeah, he would kid," Buck said gently. "He did it once before, don't you remember?"
"Yeah, but he came back." JD pointed out. He'd never understood why Chris and the others, were so intent on holding Ezra's near desertion at the Seminole village against him.
"That's enough!" Chris barked, as he shoved his chair back, and strode to the bar. Inez was already standing there, with a half full bottle of whiskey and three glasses. Chris glared at her, as he took the glasses and the whiskey and headed back for their table. He slammed the glasses down on the table, and yanked the cork out of the bottle, and poured a drink for each of them. He plopped down in his chair angrily, and raised his glass in a mock toast.
"To friends who stick around."
Chris tossed the drink back, and stood up. He grabbed the bottle and headed upstairs to his room, without another word to the two gunslingers still sitting at the table. JD and Buck exchanged uneasy glances, as they watched Chris make his way up the stairs.
Buck was the first to speak. "He's takin' Ezra runnin' off, pretty hard."
JD looked at Buck uncertainly, and in a hesitant voice said, "Buck. . . I. . . I don't think Ezra ran out on us."
Buck looked at him for a minute before he answered harshly. "Wake up JD, not everybody can be counted on to stick around when you need them. Ezra's the kind of man who looks out for himself, and no one else." Buck's tone softened, when he saw the dismay on the kid's face. "He's OK, JD. Probably found some old widow he felt the need to con out of her life savings, and is having himself a fine old time a hundred miles from here."
At that moment, Ezra Standish was trying to keep Vin Tanner from bleeding to death.
Colter had finally decided to call a halt for a while about eleven in the morning. The horses had been traveling since around midnight, with only the stop at Barrel Springs for a break. Colter hated stopping, because he knew in his gut that his captive's friends weren't the kind of men he wanted to have catch up to him. But when they'd gotten close to the stream, Colter had known they'd have to rest for a few hours here. They couldn't afford to have any of the horses pull up lame, and damn Tanner was looking bad. He didn't particularly care if the bounty hunted died, but he sure did want Earl to have a chance to get even a little before hand.
Colter reined in his horse, and motioned the group to stop. He pointed to an area just up ahead where there were a couple of leafy trees they could take shelter from the harsh midday sun.
"Pull up there, we'll rest the horses till the sun goes in a little." Colter told the group.
Vin was slumped over the horse's neck, when they finally stopped near the bubbly little stream. Ezra had watched helplessly as Tom Polk had sliced the ropes binding the tracker, dragged him off his horse, and thrown him to the ground.
Ezra had dismounted and hurried over to his fallen partner. Tanner hadn't moved since Tom Polk had taken him off his horse. Ezra made his way over to the tracker's side. He held his breath as he gently turned his injured friend over, and put his hand on his neck to see if he was breathing. He was relieved to feel a pulse there, and set about checking Vin's wound again. He gently pulled the man's shirt back, and lifted the makeshift bandage he'd put on the tracker's wound, back at the water hole. He was relieved to see that the knife wound hadn't broken open. Vin moaned weakly, and Ezra saw that his eyes were open.
"Easy, Mr. Tanner." Ezra said gently, as he put the bandage back over the wound. "You can't afford to lose anymore blood."
The blue eyes that met Ezra's were filled with pain, as Vin managed to whisper hoarsely, "I reckon not."
When the group pulled back onto the trail four hours later, Ezra's deck was down to fifty cards.
The jinglebobs on Chris' spurs rang hollowly as he walked into his room. Tossing his hat onto the bed he pulled the chair over to the window and flung himself down onto it. He placed the whiskey bottle on the windowsill in front of him within easy reach. Sighing he reached up and ran a hand through his hair.
"Damn him," Chris cursed softly. "I knew it was a mistake to trust that snake." He'd had his doubts about Ezra Standish since the first day they'd met. He still wasn't sure what had possessed him to ask the gambler to join the rest of the group in protecting the Seminole village. Hell, he knew. They'd needed all the guns they could get. If nothing else, the gambler was a very good shot. When he stuck around long enough to use it, Chris thought angrily.
Chris stared at the whiskey bottle for a long time, but he didn't drink it. His eyes moved past the whiskey bottle to the busy street below. He needed a clear head, with the Colter gang on the loose. Especially with Vin off in the desert, and now Ezra deserting them a second time. Aw, hell! Chris thought. Suddenly drained, he decided to stretch out on the bed for 15 minutes before he went back downstairs.
The afternoon sun shadowed the room, when Chris awoke with a start.
"Damn!" He exclaimed, as he read the time on his watch, 3:47.
He couldn't believe he'd slept two hours in the middle of the day. This business with Ezra and Vin being gone musta really took a lot out of me, he thought. Striding across the room, he poured some water from the pitcher on his wash stand into the basin. It had been standing since early morning and was tepid, but it still chased the remnants of sleep from his brain, when he splashed it on his face. He dried his face on the hand towel, and sighing he stood up and made his way back down to the saloon.
JD was nowhere to be seen, but Buck was sitting with Dolly, one of the working girls. Chris nodded to him. Buck was relieved to see that he was still sober. He was even happier to see Chris set the whiskey bottle on the table in front of him. Buck didn't know what had happened to Chris's foul mood, but it was evident that the gunslinger's mood had definitely changed.
Buck pointed to the chair, and smiled up at Chris. "Have a drink with us, Chris?"
Chris thought about it for a minute, before sitting in the chair. "Yeah, I think I will, it's been a long day."
Buck smiled and motioned for Inez to bring another glass. Chris didn't seem to want to talk, so after a while Buck and Dolly made their way up the stairs to Buck's room.
JD entered the saloon, and looked around for Buck. He was nowhere in sight, but Chris was back at their table, sipping a drink. Seemingly in a much better mood than he'd been earlier. "Hi, Chris." JD said tentatively trying to gauge Chris's mood as he sat down. "Where'd Buck get to?"
Chris rolled his eyes at the ceiling in the general direction of Buck's room for an answer.
"Oh," was JD's only answer. He was well aware that there was no way Buck liked to end a day better than entertaining a lady friend in his room.
JD was getting a little uncomfortable with the silence, but he figured a quiet Chris, was better than the Chris who'd practically bit his head off earlier. Still, JD was relieved when Nathan and Josiah came into the saloon, and set down at the table with them. Having run into JD earlier in the day, they were already aware that Ezra had taken off. They were also aware that asking Chris about him would not be a good idea. The four of them sat there, drinking, each man lost in his own thoughts.
It was after dark when Bob Colter decided to make camp for the night, and the exhausted group finally pulled off the trail. They reined to a stop near a stand of trees overlooking a tiny pond. Ezra practically jumped down from his horse, and started untying Vin. He'd noticed Tom Polk making his way to the tracker's horse, and didn't want to chance that the brute's rough handling might push his partner over the edge.
"Come with me, Mr. Tanner." Ezra said quickly, as he reached up and carefully started pulling the barely coherent bounty hunter from the saddle.
Tom Polk stopped in his tracks, and watched the gambler helping his partner off his horse. He fingered his knife, and smiled. He started towards the two men, but noticed Bob Colter watching him from his horse with a hard look on his face. He smiled at Colter, and took the reins of Vin and Ezra's horses. I can wait, he thought to himself. I still owe you a little something for shovin' me earlier. The oaf spat a stream of tobacco juice in Ezra's general direction and whistled as he pulled the horses toward the stream.
Ezra could feel the fever heat through Vin's shirt as he settled the injured man onto the ground, and helped him lean up against a rock. Vin moaned softly, and Ezra looked at him helplessly. He was wearing down fast, and Ezra didn't know how much more hard riding he'd be able to take. Ezra fished in the inside pocket of his jacket, for the silk hanky he kept there. He dipped it into the stream and began gently bathing the man's face and neck with the cool rag.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said in a low voice. "Can you hear me?"
Vin's pain dulled eyes met Ezra's. "Why don't you take a horse, and get the hell out of here Ezra?" Vin asked dispiritedly
Ezra's sighed, and his green eyes stared into his partner's clouded blue eyes for a long moment, before he answered calmly. "Mr. Tanner, I have no wish to explain to Mr. Larabee, that once again I abandoned my associate in the face of the enemy."
A small smile made it's way onto Vin's face, despite the pain he was in, and he replied softly, "You mean, you're afraid Chris will shoot you if you run out on me?"
"Something like that." Ezra answered dryly, and continued to bathe the tracker's face and neck with cool water.
Joe Tyler was an old man, but he still put in 12 hours every day but Sunday at the livery stable. He whistled as he watered the horses, bedding them down for the night. He was heading back to the well for another bucketful, when he stepped on something and turned his ankle.
"Cotton picker!" he yelled, as he grabbed onto a post for support. When he got his legs back under him, he looked down to see what he'd dang near broke his neck on. A gleam of metal through the straw caught his attention. He pushed the straw away from it and picked the object up off the floor. He easily recognized Vin Tanner's harmonica. He had set in front of the stable with Vin while the tracker played random notes on many a summer night.
What's this doin' here? The old man wondered. He was about to straighten up, when a rust-red stain caught his eye. He hastily pushed more straw away. Damn, somebody's doin' a lot o' bleedin', was the old man's first thought. I gotta get Chris Larabee, was his second.
The old man pushed his way into the saloon, and he made his way to the table in the back, where Chris was drinking with Josiah, Nathan, and JD.
"Mr. Larabee!" Tyler called excitedly.
"Tyler, what are you making all that noise for?" Chris demanded of the old hostler.
"I found this in the stable a few minutes ago." Tyler thrust the harmonica into view. "I knew it were Vin's, and he wouldn't go off and leave it layin' on the ground like that. He sure sets store by this harmonica and he's awful careful about it."
Chris was instantly on his feet. He'd know that beat up old harmonica anywhere. It was Vin's alright. Chris was already headed for the door, when the old man grabbed his arm.
"Mr. Larabee, that ain't all. When I bent down to pick it up, I seen blood under the straw. A lot o' blood."
"Buck!" Chris screamed at the top of his lungs, as he burst out of the saloon, and hit the street at a dead run, headed for the livery stable. Josiah and Nathan were right behind the gunslinger.
"I'll get him." JD called, already halfway up the stairs.
The others straggled into the stables, a few minutes behind Chris. Old Man Tyler was bringing up the rear. Buck, Chris noted coldly was still buttoning his shirt.
"Where?" Chris asked his eyes hard.
"Back here." Tyler said leading them to the back of the stable where Vin stalled his horse. "I was watering the horses when I tripped on something. Found his harmonica here in the straw. That's when I seen the blood." Tyler pointed out the area where the ground was still stained and even the straw was tinged red.
"Damn, Chris," Nathan swore softly, as he knelt beside Chris to get a closer look. "If he's lost this much blood, he's gonna be in a bad way." The healer looked up to meet Chris's bleak stare.
"How do we know its Vin's?" JD spoke up.
Josiah answered the boy in his gentle voice. "Vin loves that harmonica. He'd never willingly leave it behind. Especially if he was headed into the desert. I'd swear it's part of his soul."
"Josiah's right." Chris said as he stood up. A large knot had settled into the pit of his stomach. "How old's that blood?"
"Hard to say, Chris." Nathan said, unwilling to meet the blond gunslinger's eyes.
"When I left the saloon last night, I saw Vin. That was about nine o'clock." JD offered. "He was headed here to the stable."
Tyler then told them that Vin's horse had been gone, when he'd come to feed the horses about 7 that morning.
"Who ya figure it was Chris?" Buck asked softly. He didn't like the look that crept onto Chris's face. The man was already blaming himself, and they weren't even sure the blood was Vin's.
"Don't know," Chris replied. His mind went back to that day in Purgatory "Hell, it could be anybody."
"This much blood, there's bound to be a trail." Buck observed quietly. He didn't add as long as the tracker remained alive. He didn't think any of them needed that pointed out.
Chris looked up from where his stare had fixed on the bloodstain. "JD, start saddling the horses. Josiah, head over to Potter's and pick up some trail food, and some ammunition. Nathan, get any supplies you think you'll need. Buck and I will see if we can pick up a trail. We'll meet back here in fifteen minutes."
Ezra was starving. It had been over 24 hours since he'd eaten. He remembered the dinner he'd only half finished the night before in Bristol City. He'd been so eager to get back to his card game, that eating had been a nuisance. He looked down at Vin, and noticed that the tracker was awake.
"You should try to rest Mr. Tanner," Ezra told him softly.
"Ezra, if them fellas have their way, we're both gonna be restin' for a long time." Vin's voice was raspy and barely audible.
Ezra said nothing, but eased the tracker up a little, and held the canteen to his mouth so he could drink.
Vin's eyes were full of pain, but he managed a tired smile. "Thanks, Ezra," he said simply.
"Are you hungry Mr. Tanner? I could inquire as to nourishment. . ."
Vin's hand gripped his arm tightly, and the tracker shook his head as vigorously as his weakened condition allowed. "Don't say nothin' to them Ezra," he warned. "We don't want them favorin' us with any attention."
Ezra nodded his head. "Point taken, Mr. Tanner. Have you given any more thought to those rather obnoxious gentlemen's identity? Do you recall meeting any of them or the elusive Earl on a previous occasion?" Neither of the men noticed that Bob Colter was watching them with marked interest.
Vin slowly shook his head no. "I just can't place none of 'em Ezra. There's something a mite familiar about the fellow running the show, but I'm positive I never ran into any of that other bunch before."
Bob Colter motioned to Tom Polk to follow, as he got up and made his way over to the two captives on the ground. Colter crouched on the ground beside Vin. Polk just grinned and looked on.
"It ain't come to ya yet, has it boy?" Colter asked pleasantly.
"Go to hell" Vin said venomously.
Colter laughed and grabbed Vin's chin. "Look at me close boy, do I remind you of anyone?"
Ezra was torn as he watched the scene. The man wasn't hurting Vin at the moment, but Ezra knew that could change in an instant. Silence or a protest, either option he chose, could trigger an unpleasant reaction from the man bullying the helpless tracker.
"Maybe you'd remember my brother a little clearer, seein's how he's the one you took in bout four years ago." Colter told Vin harshly.
Vin tried to jerk his head away from the man, but Colter just laughed and gripped his face harder. "I reckon you're gonna need some introductions before you figure it out, huh boy? Well, that's Tom Polk," he waved his arm at the huge man leaning against a tree spitting tobacco juice towards the stream. "And over there's Jake Dobbs and Zeke Murray." Colter waved in the general direction of the fire. The two men were drinking coffee, and in general ignoring the group over by the stream.
"And me, well, my name's Bob Colter, and you took my brother Earl in to face 15 years." Colter's face hardened as he looked into Vin's blue eyes. He was rewarded when the first flicker of recognition passed through the tracker's eyes at the name Colter. Laughing he got up and walked around to the tracker's uninjured side.
"Here's a little something for you to remember Earl Colter's brother by." Colter told him as he hauled off and kicked the helpless man in the ribs. Vin gasped and curled into a ball as Colter and Polk stalked off laughing.
"Easy Mr. Tanner, try to breathe slow and easy," Ezra repeated over and over, with a calm he didn't feel. He gently turned the tracker over till he was on his back again. "I need to ascertain as to whether anything's broken," Ezra told him as he firmly pulled his friends arms away from his newly injured ribs. Not to mention, Ezra thought, I need to see if that wound reopened. Ezra's hands were gentle as he probed at the tender area where Colter's kick had landed. Vin winced, but he managed to hold still.
"You're luck is exceedingly good today," Ezra said wryly. "The area will be quite painful for a time, but nothing appears broken."
Vin managed a feeble imitation of a grin, as he rasped. "Well, at least I ain't gotta wonder who they are no more."
"So," Ezra kept his voice low. "May I assume our host's introduction was sufficient to refresh your memory?"
"Yeah," Vin winced with the effort of talking. "I took his brother in about 4 years ago. He was a real bad sort, shot a kid when he was holdin' up a stage. Only reason they didn't hang him, was the kid didn't die . . ."
The tracker's story was cut off, as he was racked by a coughing fit. Ezra didn't like the raggedness of the tracker's breathing when he finally stopped coughing. He eased Vin up against a rock so he could breathe a little easier. Ezra found the hanky he'd used to bathe the tracker's face earlier, and rewet it. He gently swabbed at the injured man's face. After a few minutes, Vin's breathing began to even out.
When he finally got his breathing as under control as it was likely to get, Vin continued on with his story. "I knew he had a brother, but there weren't no wanted poster on him, so I didn't pay it no mind. I guess he had more call to remember me, then I had call to remember him." Vin leaned heavily against the rock and closed his eyes. It had only been a matter of time till one of his bounties came back to haunt him. Hell, Vin thought. When did that period of his life not haunt him?
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