+ + + + + + +
JD looked up the street once again from his seated position outside the Sherriff's office. It was coming up to 10 o'clock and he was expecting Casey and Nettie to arrive shortly. Thinking about Casey gave him the usual flutter in his stomach. He supposed that was normal but he sure wasn't going to ask anyone's advice about it. Being around Casey had him stumbling over his words and sometimes his feet. But then, there were other times when it just felt so right being with her that nothing else mattered.
Of course she was complicated. He smiled as he remembered her telling him that and he believed her. However, from his limited experience, all women were complicated just in different ways.
He had been waiting for her since breakfast but he wanted to appear like he was casually waiting for her arrival. The last time she came to town, she arrived early and caught him looking out for her. Of course, he denied it, but he knew she didn't believe him.
"You're gonna wear out the boardwalk you keep this up kid" Buck's voice boomed from behind. Oh great! Just what he needed.
"Go away Buck"
"She due pretty soon then" Buck asked grinning.
"Who?" JD queried trying to look casual by leaning against the post. It always looked good when Vin did it.
"Who you trying to fool kid? I know that little gal of yours is coming to town today"
"Casey and I are friends"
"Of course you are JD. I would never presume otherwise" the big man replied, giving JD the benefit of his hurt puppy dog look. JD rolled his eyes.
"Go away, Buck"
"Now don't go getting moody on me here, I'm just trying...."
"Trying what? " JD asked when Buck didn't continue.
"If you'll excuse me, JD. I can see Miss Veronica trying to get my attention" the ladies man replied as he crossed the street in a direct line for the latest woman of his affections.
JD sighed and shook his head. He looked up the street again. Where were they?
+ + + + + + +
Nettie Wells pressed her lips together again and resisted the urge to tell her niece to stop fidgeting again. Ever since Casey Wells had laid eyes on JD Dunne, Nettie had had her hands full keeping her wayward niece in line. Not that she didn't trust JD. She trusted him more than any other young man, which is why she hadn't threatened him with dire consequences if he even thought about letting their feelings get out of control.
Nettie was a wise old woman. She had sat Casey down in the beginning and told her she was far too young to be getting intimate with any young man, no matter how decent he was. Casey had blushed furiously and blurted that JD just wasn't like that.
"They all are Casey. Sometimes they just can't control it and you'll get swept along with them" Nettie had told her. Casey had just sat there insisting JD just wasn't like that and Nettie was reassured that at least for the present there would be no funny business.
With Casey lost in her daydreams, it was Nettie who first saw the four riders ahead.
"Casey. Hand me my spencer and take the reins" she ordered.
Casey looked up to see the riders approach and did exactly what her aunt asked. Nettie placed her spencer carbine on the seat next to her and watched the men closely as they approached. They were led by a big man with dark hair in his mid 40's who wore a harsh disposition, the next man was taller, lighter hair, around the same age, but his face showed none of bitterness of the first. He was followed by an older man, short, greying with a gaunt unreadable face. A young man with blonde hair brought up the rear. They slowed down as they passed the buckboard and all four touched their hats.
As they passed, Jake Rainey slowed his horse to almost a stop to let his gaze wander over the pretty young woman dressed in overalls. Winking at her, he smiled when the young woman blushed furiously. The smile vanished when he saw the scowl that was directed at him from the old woman sitting next to her. Turning away, he nudged his horse and caught up with his friends.
Nettie turned around and watched them briefly. Confident, they were not turning around, she looked at her niece who still had flushed cheeks. Good Lord, she would have to have another talk with Casey real soon.
+ + + + + + +
JD saw the buckboard approach in the distance. He leaned against the post and shoved his hands in his pocket. Then he changed his mind and sat back in the chair, moving his hat further down towards his eyes.
"JD!" Casey yelled. JD sat up calmly in his chair and pushed his hat back.
"JD!" Casey yelled again and waved. "JD!" she yelled even louder, causing her Aunt to wince.
"Casey, the boy has seen you. You can quit hollering now," her aunt admonished.
"Sorry, Aunt Nettie" Casey replied, her enthusiasm undiminished.
Nettie pulled the buckboard up in front of the sheriff's office while Casey jumped down ignoring JD's help.
"Casey, you're supposed to let me help you down" JD complained.
"What for?" Casey replied frowning.
"Because that's what a gentleman does for a lady. I'll take that help if you don't mind son" Nettie demanded easily.
"Sure thing, Miss Nettie" JD responded as he came around the other side of the buckboard and helped the old woman down.
"Any idea where I can find Mr Larabee, JD?" Nettie asked.
"I think he's in the saloon Ma'am. Want me to get him for you?"
"No thanks son. I can manage. Why don't you help Casey get our supplies?"
"Yes Ma'am" JD replied as he returned to Casey's side.
Nettie Wells walked down the street and without any reservation at all entered the saloon. She was confident there wasn't a soul in town who would dare admonish her coming here. Pushing the batwing doors, she walked in unwaveringly. She saw Chris Larabee almost immediately, sitting at a table to the left with Ezra Standish.
As she approached, both men stood.
"Mr Larabee. Mr Standish," Nettie acknowledged as she came to a stop beside their table.
Chris nodded "Ma'am"
"Mrs Wells, what an unexpected pleasure it is to see you in my fine establishment," Ezra said teasingly.
"Mr Fancy. Isn't it a little early for you to be up?" Nettie responded. While she and Ezra obviously liked one another, teasing each other was the closest they would ever get to displaying their feelings for one another.
"Apparently my associates annoyingly early habits are starting to affect me,'" Ezra replied smiling.
"Somethin' wrong Ma'am?" Chris asked knowing Nettie Wells wouldn't have come to the saloon without good reason.
Nettie frowned. "This maybe nothing, but something doesn't feel right".
"Have a seat Ma'am. Tell us what's wrong" Chris invited. Immediately, Ezra stepped forward and pulled out a chair for her. "Allow me," he drawled softly. Nettie gave him an unimpressed look which only resulted in Ezra grinning back at her.
Nettie sat and promptly told them of the men she had seen and their descriptions.
"I know it doesn't sound like much, but I just get this feeling they're up to no good" Nettie finished.
"The older man, Mr Larabee. I believe Mrs Wells is describing the man that was drinking in here last night at the next table" Ezra noted.
Chris nodded. "Yeah. 'Cept he told Inez he was looking for work at the James ranch today".
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the James ranch is in the other direction" Ezra drawled stating the obvious.
Chris nodded again.
"You're worried about Mr Tanner?" Ezra enquired, allowing a slight concerned tone to enter his voice.
Chris faced Ezra, attempting to mask his own concern. "They're heading in the same direction."
"Vin's out there alone?" Nettie queried surprisingly. How the hell did Vin manage that?
Chris sighed. "He wanted some time alone."
Nettie nodded sympathetically. She knew they all had been protective, especially Chris, of the shy tracker since Eli Joe paid the town a visit last month. "You think these men want Vin?" she asked.
"Don't know," the man in black answered. Not that he didn't trust the old woman's instincts, but he could already picture the tracker's annoyance if they interrupted his solitude without good reason.
"We could intercept our young friend and ensure he is in good health. To allay Mrs Wells fears of course," Ezra suggested knowing Chris wanted nothing more than to make sure Vin was alright but needed a legitimate excuse.
"I am very worried Mr Larabee and that ain't good for someone my age," Nettie said seriously, realising immediately what Ezra was up to. They could go and check on Vin, blame it on Nettie's fussing if there was no problem, knowing that the young tracker would never reproach the old lady on whom he had an open fondness. There was no doubt Mr Fancy had a sharp mind under all those big words.
Chris smiled at them both. "Let's find Buck".
+ + + + + + +
Ten minutes later Chris, Ezra and Buck were ready to ride out. However Four Corners' Sherriff was not a happy man. Chris had decided JD was to stay behind.
"Are you sure you want me to stay Chris?" JD tried again. If Vin was in trouble he sure didn't want to be stuck in town.
The man in black nodded. "If we're not back in 3 hours. I want you to go and get Nathan and Josiah and come find us. OK?"
"Sure Chris" JD replied grudgingly.
+ + + + + + +
Close to midday, Vin drew Peso to a stop at Crooked Creek, so named as a landmark for its jagged meandering flow before it straightened and continued on. Vin let Peso drink while he dismounted and crouched down before removing his hat and throwing some water on his face. Standing up he tensed slightly as he heard a horse and rider approaching. Quickly Vin surveyed the landscape around him before determining the incoming rider was indeed alone.
Vin rested his right hand on his mare's leg as the rider got closer. He relaxed slightly when he could identify the rider as young, maybe JD's age, who raised his hand in an acknowledging greeting as he drew up close to Vin.
Smiling, the young man dismounted his horse and nodded to Vin.
"Howdy" the young man said pleasantly.
"This looks like Crooked Creek?" the young man asked.
"That's right," Vin replied.
"Name's Jake Rainey," the young man told him extending his hand to Vin.
Vin took his hand, shook it briefly and replied "Vin."
"I was told there's a trail near here that's a shortcut to Raintree?" Rainey asked.
"It's a few miles that a way," Vin answered nodding his head to the west.
"Can I get there before dark?" Rainey continued, smiling again.
"Just about," Vin replied while he looked around again. Something didn't feel right. Something about the kid wasn't right. Too confident maybe.
"I'm meeting my brother there. He's got some work lined up for us. Says it should pay good money" Rainey said trying to make conversation. Vin watched him closely and intuitively realised at that moment that the kid was waiting for something but what?
"Well, you best get going you wanna get there before dark," Vin replied casually making his way around Peso and mounting him easily.
"Sure," Rainey replied, moving to his own horse and mounting him. "Thanks" he added.
Vin was still watching him closely when he heard a noise to his left. Rainey used his second of distraction to draw and aim his weapon at Vin.
"Don't even think about reaching for it. Dead or alive the money's the same" Rainey threatened.
Vin's eyes narrowed as he quickly ran through ways to overcome the young man. All that changed when Gus Keegan and an older man, whom Vin recognised from the saloon the previous night, appeared from their hidden cover. Both had their weapons trained on him.
As Keegan got closer, he spoke gruffly "Get down from there, Tanner real slow. You so much as twitch and I'll put a bullet in ya'".
Vin knew through Keegan's tone that he was deadly serious. He'd heard it often enough before. The tracker realised he would have to wait for another opportunity to extricate himself from this situation. Slowly he dismounted and with Keegan's weapon only 6 feet away, did not resist when Rainey approached him and removed his mare's leg.
"Got you good didn't I?" Rainey boasted, but stepped back hastily when Vin's eyes bore into his, leaving the young man no doubt how disdainfully Vin regarded him. Vin didn't even bother replying to Rainey, instead turned his attention to Keegan.
"What'd you want Keegan?" Vin drawled dangerously.
Keegan snorted. "You got an attractive price on your head Tanner. I aim to collect it," he replied smugly.
"I was set up. Didn't kill that man" Vin replied fiercely looking directly at Keegan.
Keegan laughed this time and closed in on Vin until they were only a foot apart. "How many times did we hear that.... hey Tanner. All those bounties we brought in. They all claimed they were innocent too" he sneered.
Vin didn't answer but stared menacingly at Keegan. A movement to his right revealed a fourth man. Vin recognised him immediately. Tom Farlow. But while Keegan was smug and derisive, Farlow was regarding him almost apologetically.
"See, I told you Tom," Keegan addressed him. "All your worrying for nothing".
"Yeah, Gus," Farlow replied sarcastically "You were right."
"Shit, Tom" Keegan erupted "What's the problem now?"
"Just a small problem I have about handing in a friend for money" Farlow replied cynically.
Keegan was incensed that Farlow had spoken his feelings aloud. His face darkened and he quickly walked the half dozen steps towards Farlow so that he was right in his face.
"I am getting damn tired of your bitchin'," Keegan growled. "We wouldn't be out here at all if it wasn't for you," he added bitingly.
"How many times are you gonna keep throwing that in my face Gus?" Farlow replied calmly angering Keegan even more.
"I don't care if you like this or not, you just do as I say and shut your mouth for the rest of this trip. You got it?" Keegan snarled.
Vin watched the animosity between the two former friends closely. Maybe he could get this division to work in his favour, to secure his own release, or at least slow them down until Chris and the others could reach him.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, Buck slowed Lady to a walk and Ezra followed suit on Chaucer. It took Larabee a few seconds to realise his friends had fallen behind and he immediately reined his black in before waiting for the others to reach him.
"Why ya stoppin', Buck?" Chris growled impatiently at his oldest friend.
"Chris, you're pushing too hard. We could be out here all day. We can't keep up this pace" Buck responded in a placating tone.
Chris shot a look to Ezra, who held the man in black's intense stare unflinchingly. Chris exhaled deeply knowing that the gambler was going to back Buck in this call.
"Alright." Chris agreed curtly. He turned his black around and continued on in the same direction, but at a slower pace. Buck and Ezra exchanged knowing glances and Buck shook his head slightly. Their friend was in a dangerous mood and both knew why.
Earlier, Chris had found Buck at the hotel restaurant with Miss Veronica. Striding across the room menacingly, Larabee had ignored the hush that decended over the restaurant at his arrival. "Get ready to ride" he barked at Buck. Reluctant to leave his young and attractive new friend, Buck had wanted a suitable explanation. When Buck had determined it was because Miss Nettie had arrived in town, suspicious of some men that may, or may not be, heading in the same direction as Vin, the likeable rogue was more than doubtful.
"You gotta be kiddin', Chris" Buck complained nodding his head slightly towards his pretty companion. It had taken him 2 weeks just to get Miss Veronica to agree to take refreshments with him in the hotel.
Chris' face had darkened considerably. "Alright Buck!" he snapped with disgust "If you're too busy?"
At this point, Miss Veronica stood up apprehensively. She, like most sane people in town, kept out of Chris Larabee's way. Being this close to the dangerous gunfighter, when he was obviously in a bad mood, was a most undesirable situation. One she intended to remove herself from immediately.
"It's alright Buck. I'll see you later" the young woman spoke nervously before exiting the hotel quickly. Taking Miss Veronica's cue, several townspeople rose hastily and quickly made their way out onto the boardwalk. The remaining clientele of the restaurant froze on their seats, everyone silently watching the tense scene between the two peacekeepers.
Buck stood and faced Chris. "Well thanks, Chris!" Buck snorted.
Larabee didn't reply, instead he glared at his oldest friend, turned and strode purposefully out of the hotel. Buck watched Chris disappear through the door, annoyed that Chris had ruined his plans for a very pleasant afternoon. However, his next thoughts naturally centred on Larabee's behaviour. Chris only displayed this kind of anger when he was worried, but wouldn't admit it. And usually Chris had uncanny instincts when it came to predicting trouble. "Damn it!" Buck muttered to himself. Running, Buck finally caught up with Chris near the livery.
"Chris. Chris!" Buck implored "Wait!"
Finally getting his obviously agitated friend to stop, Buck exhaled deeply. "You really think he's in trouble" the ladies man asked him carefully.
Chris knew Buck thought he was over-reacting. Hell, maybe he was but now he couldn't get rid of the gnawing feeling in his gut, and he knew it would remain that way until he knew Vin was safe. "I don't know, Buck" he replied honestly.
Buck held Chris' gaze for an instant and consciously made the decision he knew was inevitable from the moment Chris entered the hotel. "Well alright. Let's go." Buck smirked. Chris nodded appreciatively and the two men continued to the Livery. "But if we find Vin and he's OK, I'm blaming you!"
Buck returned his thoughts to the present as he studied their leader's grim profile and brought Lady level with Chris.
"Shouldn't we be heading more towards Dawson's Gully?" Buck asked tentatively.
"Wanna check out Crooked Creek first" the man in black replied sharply.
"He would have passed there hours ago?" Buck stated puzzled.
"He would've gone the long way," Larabee informed him. Buck smiled faintly. There was no doubt in Chris' voice at all.
Over an hour later, the three riders approached Crooked Creek. All three dismounted and lead their horses to the creek to drink. Chris left his horse and walked up the bank and looked around, not bothering to hide his disappointment. Hell, it would have been too much to hope that they would find the tracker safe and well. Buck cautiously made his way to Chris's side.
Ezra glanced at the two men briefly before turning and walking along the creek to the nearest shade. While he had no hesitation in riding to hell and back to ensure the young tracker's safety, this was looking more and more like a waste of time. Taking out his hip flask, Ezra took a small swig before returning the flask into his coat pocket. He could already picture the former bounty hunter's unconcealed amusement tonight, while Ezra and the others tried to justify their jaunt over the countryside looking for him!
Further down the creek, Buck was regarding Chris warily. "Nothing looks suspicious" Buck finally said.
Larabee didn't reply. The gunfighter found his attention drawn to Ezra, who had left his horse to drink and wandered over towards the only shade on this side of the creek. Before he reached the shade, his interest was obviously taken by something on the ground. Ignoring Buck's attempt to alleviate his concerns, Chris made his way to Ezra.
"Ezra, you find somethin'?" Larabee spoke softly, trying to ascertain what the ground offered that could be of any interest to the gambler.
Ezra faced his group's leader and subconsciously allowed his normally indifferent facade to be replaced with a look of trepidation. "It would seem that Mr Tanner met up with some company."
"What are you talking about Ezra?" Chris growled.
Ezra swallowed and cleared his throat. "Well," he replied, pointing to the left. "These are Mr Tanner's tracks. You can tell by the groove in the left heel and those," he stressed, walking a few steps to the left "are Peso's tracks. And you can see all the other different tracks. There was clearly 3 or 4 other riders around Mr Tanner."
Ezra turned and studied the looks of absolute bewilderment on his companion's faces. Chris recovered first. "How do you know that?"
Ezra held Chris' intense stare briefly and realised immediately that nothing, other than the truth, would satisfy Larabee. "Well, in recent weeks, Mr Tanner has been providing me with some basics in tracking in return for some card tuition" Ezra explained, looking somewhat embarassed. So much for keeping that quiet!
Buck and Chris were still staring at him, obviously confused. Ezra shrugged and smiled faintly. His smile disappeared completely when the man in black stepped closer to him. "You've been teaching Vin cards? And he's been teaching you how to track?" Larabee asked incredulously.
"Yes," Ezra confirmed.
"That include cheatin'?" Chris asked snidely, annoyed that the gambler and the tracker had somehow managed this exchange of knowledge without him becoming aware of it.
"Certainly not, Mr Larabee," Ezra protested. "I have merely shown Mr Tanner some of the finer points of the game."
"Easy, Chris" Buck broke in, trying to break the tension by placing his hand gently on his friend's arm. Chris responded by stepping away from Ezra and taking some relief from Buck's genuine concern. Seeing Chris' stance relax slightly, the scoundrel added "Vin is a pretty bad poker player, pard. Reckon he could use the help."
Chris recognised Buck's attempt to curb his anxiety. Nodding slightly he expressed his appreciation to Buck before readdressing Ezra "You see anything else?" he asked, softening his tone a little.
"Mr Tanner and his new 'companions' appear to be heading south," Ezra replied frowning.
"Well, that's the wrong way home," Buck added unnecessarily.
Chris subjected Ezra to a hard stare. "Can you track Vin?"
Ezra looked uncertain. "Well, you must understand, my lessons with Mr Tanner have been limited to a few hours of....."
"Ezra!" Buck interrupted impatiently before Chris did something he regretted.
"I will try, Mr Wilmington" Ezra replied adamantly. "I will try".
"Let's ride" Chris growled as he turned and headed for the horses with Buck following closely behind him. Mounting his horse quickly, Chris waited impatiently for Ezra to lead them to Vin. He tried hard not to dwell too much on the absurdity of the situation. Ezra tracking Vin! Damn it to hell, he knew he should have gone with Vin on this patrol..
Ezra was fully aware of Chris' impatience and took a few seconds to breathe in deeply. Good Lord. Could he really do this? "I hope you can leave me some obvious clues, Mr Tanner," he muttered to himself.
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