+ + + + + + +
Vin's sharp gaze took in the flat grasslands around him. This wasn't good. You could see for miles in any direction, making it impossible for anyone to approach without being seen. Keegan had Vin's hands bound tightly and had held Peso's reins all afternoon. It was obvious the veteran bounty hunter was taking no chances. Farlow continued to look unhappy but so far, had taken Keegan's advice, and remained silent.
They had only stopped once, an hour ago, at a small creek. The break was only for 10 minutes, during which time all the men relieved themselves, but there was always one of them watching Vin closely. Vin had crouched down near the creek edge and managed to cup his hands and drink and splash some water onto his face.
Vin contemplated how long it would take for Chris and the others to catch up with them. When he didn't return tonight, Chris would be out at first light tomorrow looking for him. But without his tracking skills, his friends were at a distinct disadvantage. With the pace Keegan was setting, Vin figured that by tomorrow afternoon, he could be a good day's ride from any kind of help from his 'family' and the following day the gap would widen further. It was 4 maybe 5 days until they reached the Texas border and another week after that to reach Tascosa. The young tracker decided he would have to bide his time, choose his moment, and free himself.
+ + + + + + +
Back in Four Corners, JD looked at his watch for the 50th time since Buck, Ezra and Chris had left town almost 3 hours ago. The time Chris allotted for waiting was almost up. He impatiently looked up and down the main street. Nothing.
"Watcha gonna do JD?" Casey asked softly. She had waited with JD for the past 3 hours. They hadn't said a lot in that time, but Casey took some solace in the fact that JD seemed to appreciate her company.
"I'm gonna go and get Nathan and Josiah," the young sherriff replied firmly.
"You could give 'em a little more time?" she suggested quickly. She honestly wished he wasn't leaving town. While she understood his dedication to his position as sherriff, and his obvious pride and happiness at being one of the seven, it still didn't stop her feeling sick with worry at times like this.
"No!" JD replied firmly. Nothing about this felt right and the urge to leave town and do something about it was overwhelming. He had done as Chris told him. Now he was doing what he had wanted to from the beginning.
"Casey, can you let Mrs Travis know I'm joining the others. Vin must be in trouble. One of them would have been back by now if...." JD stopped as he saw the mounting fear in his pretty friend's eyes. Taking her hand, he squeezed it gently. "We'll either be back tonight or...as soon as we find Vin." JD said confidently.
"Be careful, JD" the young girl told him worriedly.
"Don't worry about me, Casey" he assured her.
An hour later, JD approached the Seymour ranch. One of the Seymour children saw him first and yelled. "Pa. Pa!"
Nathan and Josiah looked up from their chores to see JD riding towards them.
"Chris thinks Vin's in trouble" JD told them before he quickly filled them in on the events that had transpired during their absence. Josiah and Nathan collected their horses and within 10 minutes all three were leaving the Seymour property.
"Where are we going?" Nathan asked.
"Chris and the others were headed toward Crooked Creek. Guess we start there" JD replied.
"How'd Chris seem when he left?" Nathan asked carefully.
"Pretty worried," JD admitted.
"But it could be nothing right? Miss Nettie could be wrong?" Nathan insisted.
"Maybe," JD replied doubtfully.
"Reckon Brother Chris needs us right now. We'd best hurry" Josiah rumbled, nudging his horse to the lead.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra took out his hip flask and took a swig, ignoring the obvious disapproval that appeared on Larabee's face. They had not stopped for hours. So far fortunately, Peso's tracks had been easy to read but Ezra's progress was certainly a lot slower than their experienced tracker. And Mr Tanner never had to contend with a glaring Chris Larabee watching his every move while he tracked, Ezra thought dismally, grimacing slightly.
Ezra had led his friends to this small creek, where he ascertained Vin and whoever was accompanying him, dismounted and watered their horses as he was doing now.
When Ezra reported his findings, the man in black didn't respond except to scowl impatiently.
"You doin' real good, Ezra" Buck said admiringly. The ladies man had taken on the difficult role of trying to play down Chris' surly comments whilst encouraging Ezra at the same time.
"Thank you, Mr Wilmington" Ezra replied tiredly. Whilst he appreciated Buck's efforts, Larabee's mood was starting to aggravate the normally controlled gambler.
In less than 10 minutes, Larabee was pushing for them to continue. Ezra mounted Chaucer and successfully tracked Peso for half an hour, until he stopped and faced the vast grasslands that had opened up in front of them.
Oh hell, Ezra thought. No more tracks!
"Well, Ezra'" Larabee snapped. "Which way now?"
Ezra couldn't bring himself to say the words. Instead he faced Larabee with a look of defeat mixed with despair.
+ + + + + + +
Just before dark, Keegan chose a place to camp for the night. He had pushed his group at a fast pace all afternoon, keen to put as many miles between them and anyone looking for Tanner.
Leaving Farlow and Cray to watch Tanner, Keegan took Rainey and started backtracking before the sun set to ensure no-one was following them.
Farlow watched Keegan and Rainey until they were out of sight and then turned to find that Tanner had sat in the shade with an armed Cray hovering close by. Farlow retrieved his canteen and walked the short distance to sit next to Vin.
Dismissing Cray with a nod, Farlow waited until Cray had walked far enough away to be out of earshot but still close enough to cover Tanner. Farlow knew that as soon as Keegan was back, the veteran cowhand would report to his boss that he and Tanner had been talking. At that particular moment, Farlow couldn't care less that Keegan was going to be angry with him.
Vin nodded and accepted the offered canteen and took a drink. "Any chance you could loosen these?"
Farlow inspected Vin's tightly bound wrists and shook his head.
"You wanna see Keegan kick my butt?" Farlow responded cynically, allowing himself to smile for the first time that day. Farlow liked Tanner, always did. He had missed the young tracker when he had taken off on his own.
"Already seen that" the tracker smiled, falling back easily into the comfortable friendship they used to have. Tom Farlow always had time for Tanner. Farlow was the first man, outside his Kiowa friends, who hadn't tried to use him or treat him as hired help. Farlow had genuinely wanted to be friends with the younger man.
"Heard you boys had retired?" Vin drawled, while he contemplated his former friend cautiously.
"We did. Four years ago. Keegan and me bought two ranches close together, down in Briscoe County."
Farlow looked guilty. "I got into gambling. Would've lost my ranch unless Keegan paid my debts. But then the fever got into his herd.... almost sent him broke."
"That why you're bounty hunting again?"
"Yeah. We did alright too. For retired bounty hunters." Farlow replied smiling. The smile disappeared from his face as he watched Vin try to move his wrists to alleviate the obvious discomfort. "We was all set to head home. Then Keegan saw your poster in Deming" he continued.
Vin nodded his understanding and both men remained quiet as they briefly pondered their own thoughts.
"What happened Vin?"
Vin didn't answer immediately. He glanced over to Cray who was still keeping an eye on them. Then he returned his attention to Farlow, who had already made it clear he was sympathetic to the tracker's current situation. Vin realised he may need Farlow's help before they reached Tascosa.
"I was set up," Tanner said simply.
Farlow regarded the young man carefully. One of the reasons they had got along so well in the past, in addition to Vin's easy going nature, was the tracker's honesty. As Farlow and Tanner exchanged intense looks, the older man decided on instinct that his former friend was speaking the truth.
"My brother-in-law is a lawyer. A good one. I'll telegraph ahead. Get him to meet us in Tascosa. Then we'll find this guy who set you up..."
"He's dead" Vin interrupted harshly.
"Eli Joe" Vin replied. Farlow frowned and Vin continued. "He set me up for murder to get me off his trail."
"How'd he die?"
"He came for me last month. A friend had to kill him 'fore he killed me," Vin explained simply without emotion.
"Friend huh? Chris Larabee?" Farlow enquired gingerly.
Vin leveled a formidable stare at Farlow. "How do you know that?" the tracker snapped at Farlow defensively.
"Cray," Farlow replied openly.
"What else did he tell ya?" Vin asked wanting to discover any information that may protect his friends.
"That you got yourself six reliable friends, Larabee especially. That y'all protect one another and the town" Farlow replied.
Vin didn't reply, instead he looked away. "Sounds kinda nice" Farlow mused. Vin glanced back to Farlow and saw the other man's sincerity. He acknowledged Farlow's words with a nod.
"Aint your fault, Tom" Vin said softly.
Another uncomfortable silence fell over the two former friends, both men lost in their own thoughts.
"Why'd you leave us Vin?"
The tracker shrugged. "It was time."
"No. I always thought it was more than that." Farlow pushed, eyeing Vin carefully.
"We were friends once, Vin" Farlow encouraged the younger man.
"What'd Keegan tell ya?" Vin countered.
"That you'd got greedy. Didn't what to share the bounties."
Vin snorted derisively but didn't reply. Farlow leaned in closer.
"I wanna know Vin," Farlow pushed again.
Vin considered Farlow thoughtfully. "You sure you wanna know?"
Farlow hesitated briefly. Tanner's eyes had darkened slightly which only reinforced Farlow's belief that something had happened all those years ago.
"Somethin' never felt right. Yeah. I wanna know."
Vin nodded and exhaled deeply. "Remember the last bounty Keegan and I brought in?"
Farlow nodded. "Yeah. He was just a kid. Stole some fancy rancher's horse. Can't recall his name."
"Baskin. The rancher's name was Kane" Vin supplied. Farlow frowned as he remembered Mitchell Kane. Big, loud-talking, know-it-all rancher who had a huge spread outside Abilene.
"We caught up to Baskin real quick. Too quick" Vin continued.
"What do you mean 'too quick'?" Farlow queried.
"Baskin wasn't running anywhere. When Keegan and I found him, he said he was on a 'errand' for Kane." Vin explained.
Farlow's frown turned to puzzlement. "Then why would Kane want him arrested for horse stealing?"
"Baskin told us he was seeing Kane's daughter. They were planning to marry. Kane didn't know..... or so Baskin thought."
"You saying this rancher set Baskin up?"
Vin nodded again.
"Keegan and me were bringing Baskin back. We had to stop for the night. I left them to rustle up some grub for dinner. I heard gunshots. By the time I got back, Baskin was dead. Keegan claims he was trying to escape."
Farlow now looked confused. This much he had learnt from Keegan. He couldn't see any problem unless....
"You didn't believe him?" Farlow asked sharply. The implications of what the tracker was saying was starting to become apparent. Now visibly uneasy, Farlow shot a quick glance to Cray. Still satisfied that Cray couldn't hear their conversation, he turned back towards Vin.
"That kid wasn't fightin' us. He wanted to ride back. Set things straight." Vin stressed clearly.
"Why would Gus lie about somethin' like that?" Farlow snapped back. Vin regarded his former friend tentatively. There was no doubt now what the tracker was trying to say and Farlow was obviously just barely controlling his anger. Vin chose his next words carefully.
"Because Kane paid Keegan $1000 to make sure Baskin didn't come back alive."
Farlow recoiled as if he had been physically hit. Standing up abruptly, he began to pace up and down in front of Tanner obviously disturbed. Cray noticed the change immediately and started to walk over. Farlow glared at him menacingly and waved him away quickly.
Turning his attention back to Tanner he hissed "Gus wouldn't do that!"
Vin didn't reply, instead he looked directly into Farlow's face, his look conveying the absolute certainty of his belief at what happened to Baskin. Farlow swallowed heavily and held Vin's gaze intently for any sign of deviousness. He found none and Farlow suddenly realised with dread that there was more to it. The tracker was holding back because he knew that Farlow would react badly.
Eventually, Farlow asked the unavoidable question. "How do you know Keegan was offered that kinda money?" he asked quietly.
"Because Kane offered me the $1000 first," Vin replied coldly.
+ + + + + + +
Close to dark, Josiah, Nathan and JD stopped at Crooked Creek. After they had a thorough look around, silence descended on the trio.
JD, always impatient, was the first to break the absolute quiet.
"Which way do we head now?"
"Maybe we should go back to town. Head out fresh in the morning?" Nathan replied.
"Hey. Maybe Vin's already back. Probably wondering where we are?" JD offered enthusiastically.
Both Nathan and Josiah exchanged doubtful looks and JD's enthusiasm vanished.
"If only we could track like Vin," the kid complained.
The healer and the ex-preacher nodded in agreement. Suddenly, Josiah broke into a huge grin. Grabbing JD in a quick bear hug he exclaimed "Maybe we can, Son! Maybe we can!"
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Chris and Ezra had set up camp in relative silence. After the tracks had stopped and the grasslands opened up, Ezra had continued to lead. The gambler had found enough clues to head in a general direction, but some of the time he was only guessing. Larabee was fully aware of Ezra's struggle to continue tracking, but instead of letting up on the gambler it only served to anger the already bad tempered gunfighter even more. The mood became so oppressive that even Buck had given up and resorted to silence.
Their campfire had been lit and coffee had been brewed, the trio ate dinner consisting of bread, biscuits and beef jerky. But dinner was a sombre affair. Buck tried to make light conversation but his efforts were wasted on Larabee, who brooded in gloomy silence.
After he had eaten, Chris moved away from the campfire and lit a cheroot. Buck and Ezra watched the feint glow in the darkness.
"Try not to let Chris get to you" Buck said to Ezra when the gunfighter was out of earshot.
"Mr Larabee is not, as you so crudely put it, getting to me. I too have severe concerns for Mr Tanner's safety."
"He knows that Ezra" Buck assured him. Ezra didn't reply and the ladies man knew it was because the conman doubted Buck's words.
There was a brief silence and Buck took the opportunity to study the southerner. As usual, Ezra wasn't letting any emotions show even though Buck knew that the gambler was as worried as he was about Vin and exhausted from today's pursuit. Buck wondered, and not for the first time, how Ezra managed such control in these situations.
"Mind if I ask you somethin', Ezra?" Buck asked cautiously.
"As long as it has nothing to do with you endless pursuit of women" Ezra replied wryly.
"Why is Vin teaching you to track?" Buck enquired. Ever since Ezra's admission earlier that afternoon, the scoundrel was curious to know what Vin and Ezra were up to.
With the return of this particular topic, Ezra looked uncomfortable again. Knowing that Buck would continue to ask all night unless he received a satisfactory answer, Ezra tried to explain.
"In my line of business, it is sometimes prudent to make a hasty exit. Even then, some reprobates find it necessary to pursue me. I merely asked Mr Tanner if he could provide me with the appropriate means by which I could successfully conceal the evidence of my departure," Ezra explained calmly.
Buck took a few seconds to digest and translate Ezra's comments before grinning. "You mean you wanted to learn how to cover your own tracks!"
"In a manner of speaking" Ezra replied, not impressed by Buck's simplification of what was, in Ezra's opinion, a well thought out plan to acquire a useful skill.
"So why you teaching Vin cards?"
"He would take no remuneration for sharing his expertise, so I proposed an exchange of skills. However, Mr Tanner insisted that in order to learn the fine art of concealing tracks, it is first necessary to learn how to follow tracks. Unfortunately, I had no idea that this would entail sojourns into the wilderness to become close to various and less than clean species of native inhabitants " Ezra replied, his face wrinkling in disgust.
Buck laughed out loud. "You know Ezra, I wouldn't have minded seeing that!"
"Which is why I wanted this matter to remain between Mr Tanner and myself" Ezra grumbled.
In the darkness, outside their camp, Buck's laughter reached Larabee. Already pissed off, the laughter caused the gunfighter to swear aloud and clench his fist. What the hell could be so funny about this situation? Vin was out there, in god knows what kind of trouble, and Buck was laughing. This was the one thing about his oldest friend that irked him the most. Chris forced himself to take a deep breath and exhaled raggedly. Tomorrow, they would find Vin, kill anybody that had laid so much as a god damn hand on him and take him home. Once there Larabee intended to make sure, Vin got into no further trouble, even if it meant he had to personally watch the tracker day and night!
+ + + + + + +
"How long is this gonna take, Josiah?" JD complained, not for the first time.
"Matters like this require careful consideration" Josiah replied in a low voice. Giving the young sherriff a stern look he added "And will not be hastened by your obvious impatience."
Chastened, JD threw his hands up and sat down next to Nathan.
After Josiah's display of optimism at Crooked Creek, the ex-preacher had led them to the reservation. Arriving after dark, the native tribe had provided a cool welcome at their appearance, however, the tribe leader, Kojay, had warmly received the ex-preacher and his friends. Josiah and Kojay had come to a unique understanding when Kojay son's, Chanu, had found himself in a very unusual and potentially deadly predicament nearly two months ago. The 7 had protected the tribe from a rampaging posse, and the tracker had discovered the truth about Chanu's supposed abduction of a white woman, thus saving his life. Josiah was hoping that Kojay would be willing to return the favour and help Vin out now.
Josiah had quickly told Kojay about their missing friend and asked for his help in locating him. The older man had nodded wisely and explained to Josiah that he must first speak to the others. That had been hours ago and whilst Josiah and Nathan had no difficulty remaining still, the same could not be said for the youngest member of their group.
During their wait, they had been offered food and drink. JD turned up his nose at the food that had been prepared for them saying he wasn't hungry. Josiah had quietly yet firmly told his young friend of the repercussions he would personally force JD to endure if he didn't eat the meal immediately. Faced with that daunting prospect, the young man made the effort.
Finally, Chanu walked over to the three peacekeepers. All three stood immediately.
"I will help you find your friend" the young Comanche told them.
"Thank you," Josiah replied, obviously relieved.
"You will rest now. We leave soon" Chanu told them and turned and left them.
"At least we've got a chance now," Nathan said addressing his two friends.
"Let's hope so, Brother Nate," Josiah replied.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis handed Nettie Wells another cup of coffee. Mary then resumed her seat in her parlour and the women remained silent.
Earlier, when Nettie had been reluctant to return home before sunset, Mary had invited the old lady and her niece to stay with her the night. Nettie had accepted the offer gratefully, hoping that all of the 7 would return after dark. As it was now past 10pm, Nettie Wells realised the possibility of Vin and the others returning tonight was remote. Casey had already gone to sleep in Mary's spare bed so the two women were having one last coffee before retiring.
"Chris will find him Nettie. I'm sure of it. Vin will come home," Mary said adamantly.
Nettie faced Mary and saw the absolute faith she was placing on Chris Larabee. Nettie had seen enough of Mary's reactions around Chris to know that Mary was attracted to the moody gunfighter. How Chris felt about Mary was harder to ascertain. That he cared about her was a safe bet. But he hardly seemed like the settling kind. However, Nettie would of expected that all of the 7 peacekeepers would have gone their separate ways by now. But here it was more than 3 months later and they were all still in town. Nettie would be the first to admit that she had gotten more than used to the young tracker's frequent visits to her place. Vin's obvious affection for her was mutual and this was making the old woman apprehensive and nervous. Nettie sighed and returned Mary's assuring smile as best she could.
"I hope you're right Mary," she replied "I don't know when Vin started to become important to me. I just know I'd give anything to see him show up here tomorrow in one piece."
"I know what you mean, Nettie," the pretty widow replied dolefully.
+ + + + + + +
Farlow was unusually restless. Keegan and Rainey had returned earlier to announce that no-one was following them. However, Keegan's favorable mood changed when Cray wasted no time telling him, that the tracker and Farlow had been having a lengthy discussion during his absence. Scowling at Farlow, Keegan had decided to avoid another confrontation tonight but fully intended to talk to Farlow tomorrow.
Farlow had offered to take first watch, since he had too much on his mind to sleep. The others had fallen asleep quickly, except for Tanner. The tracker had quietly observed him until he too made himself as comfortable as possible and slept.
Left with his own thoughts, Farlow kept going over his conversation with Vin.
"Because Kane offered me the $1000 first". Vin's words kept taunting the retired bounty hunter. It had been two long minutes after Vin's revelation, before Farlow could speak.
"Why didn't you tell me this when you came back with Baskin?" Farlow had asked the tracker.
"My word against Keegan's. Figured you'd back Keegan" was the tracker's reply. And Vin was right. Farlow would have never believed the tracker back then. However, since then, Farlow had seen too many flaws in Keegan's character to dismiss this entirely.
What was really troubling Farlow was what he himself remembered about the Baskin bounty. The first thing was how Keegan had insisted he and Tanner could bring in the bounty alone, leaving Farlow in town to wait. That in itself had been unusual but at the time Farlow didn't sense anything wrong. But the second and more damning recollection was what Farlow recalled after Vin had left them. Keegan had come into a lot of money which he had claimed on a night of successful gambling. The pieces of the puzzle fit and the retired bounty hunter knew it.
Farlow stood up and moved to his saddle bags. Retrieving his bottle of whiskey, he took a swig to try and remove the bile that had risen in his throat. His gaze turned to the sleeping form of Gus Keegan. Taking another swig, Farlow swore. "Damn you, Gus" he muttered under his breath.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning found Chris, Ezra and Buck in the same situation as the day before. Ezra was still leading, Chris was still angry and Buck made sure he was always between his two friends.
They had headed off very early that morning. None of the three had slept well, adding fatigue to their increasing concern for their missing friend. Ezra decided he had been lucky. So far he had found enough tracks in dry creek beds and dislodged vegetation to convince him he was still following Vin and his possible captors.
Towards noon, Ezra's luck ran out. He had seen no evidence of anyone or anything passing this way. In fact, it had been two hours since Ezra had seen any positive signs. Knowing there was no choice but to face the inevitable, Ezra brought Chaucer to a stop.
"What's the problem now, Ezra?" Larabee growled.
"I have been unable to detect any tracks belonging to Mr Tanner for nearly two hours. We either have to double back and endeavour to retrace their tracks or we assume they are travelling in a direct course for Texas and increase our pace in an effort to overtake them"
The man in black looked completely unimpressed with either option and glared at Ezra unmercifully.
"Hell Ezra, we're lucky you got us this far," Buck said, trying to break the tension.
Larabee leveled a glare towards Buck as well, before grimacing and looking away.
Knowing that Buck and Ezra expected him to make the decision, Chris decided to act on instinct.
"We head for Texas and pick up the pace," he told his friends, before nudging his horse forward and taking the lead.
Continued in Part 2
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