+ + + + + + +
Nearly 3 hours later, Chanu called a stop at the spot where Rainey came back to report to Keegan.
"Wait here" he informed Larabee "I will see ahead".
Chris nodded and the others dismounted, relieved to be taking a short break. The last two days ware taking their toll on every man. While the others relaxed, the man in black paced anxiously. JD glanced at Nathan expectantly, but just as he suspected, Nathan wasn't going to say anything about Chris' pacing. While JD was relieved that at least the 6 of them were together, he had to admit that the dangerous mood of their leader worried him. JD had never seen the gunfighter so angry and yet fearful at the same time. And if Chris was so troubled about getting Vin back alive, then JD had cause to worry. Whilst he knew no-one looked out for him quite like Buck, Vin Tanner always had time for the young sherriff. The tracker had never gotten angry with him or tried to tell him what to do. Never told him he talked too much or made any comments about the mistakes he had made. Vin Tanner didn't treat him like a kid and patiently explained or showed the younger man anything he wanted to know. JD smiled. And then of course, Vin was always willing to partake in any mischief or practical jokes, especially when the victim was Buck! JD frowned as he realised how much he would miss Vin if he didn't come back. Which wasn't gonna happen not with Chris in charge, the young man convinced himself firmly. And JD was going to do whatever it took to help find Vin and bring him home.
JD looked up when he heard Chanu returning.
Chanu dismounted and walked to Chris while the others moved in closer to hear properly.
"They are moving fast again" Chanu reported.
"Meaning?" Chris queried.
"They know we are here" Chanu replied simply.
"Damn" Buck exclaimed.
"Let's ride" the man in black barked.
"Chris, Chanu hasn't taken a break all day" Josiah interrupted gently reminding their leader that during this break and the previous one, Chanu had scouted ahead.
Larabee breathed deeply and acknowledged Josiah's words with a nod. Turning back to the Comanche, he spoke quietly. "We'll wait for you"
"I will rest later" Chanu told him.
"You sure?" Larabee pushed. Chanu nodded. It was evident to the young comanche how much they all cared about the return of their friend. Especially the cold and dangerous gunfighter, Chanu noted with surprise. His tracker friend was indeed fortunate to have such blood brothers.
Chanu mounted his horse and silently led the others out.
For hours, Chanu tracked their quarry until it was almost dark.
"They are not stopping" Chanu reported to Chris Larabee.
"Can you keep following them?"
Chanu considered the sky, then the landscape surrounding them and nodded. "The moon will light the way again," he pronounced.
Chris acknowledged the young Comanche appreciatively and told the others what was happening.
Hours later, Chanu was still out in front leading the rest of the 7 towards their absent comrade. The pace had slowed considerably and there was little talk except to ensure that everyone was still together.
More hours passed and the exhaustion was beginning to become obvious. No-one wanted to risk Chris' anger to mention anything to the determined gunfighter until Nathan could no longer remain silent.
"Chris, we gotta stop soon. Otherwise, we'll be falling off our horses" the healer said quietly.
"We keep going!" Larabee growled back.
"We've still gotta a long way to go before we cross the Texas border. Let's rest now and catch up tomorrow" Nathan persisted.
"No!" came their leader's adamant reply.
"Chris, please. At least let's stop for a break" Buck pleaded.
"If they can keep going, so can we!" Chris snarled.
"Rest. I will scout ahead" Chanu broke in, trying to break the tension between the white men.
Chris glared at the young Comanche briefly before reluctantly looking at his men. Nathan was correct. His friends were exhausted. Even the normally energetic sherriff was finding it difficult to remain in his saddle.
"We're not going to be any good to you or Vin, even if we do catch up to them tonight" the ex-preacher rumbled quietly. Chris exhaled deeply and acknowledged Josiah's wisdom with a nod.
The others dismounted with relief while Chanu quietly headed out.
Within a few minutes, they were all huddled in their blankets eating the remaining biscuits, jerky and water while the horses grazed. All except Chris. Despite Buck's best efforts the gunfighter refused to eat any thing.
When an hour had passed and Chanu had not returned, Chris stood up and began pacing again.
"You think Chanu's alright Buck" JD whispered.
"Sure kid, at night you can never see Indians or hear 'em. He'll be fine" Buck assured his young friend.
"Then why isn't he back?" JD continued.
"We'll find out soon enough" Buck replied strongly.
Buck silenced his young friend with a look. He didn't want JD to be the outlet for Chris' anger at this point. Buck knew his oldest friend well enough to know that Chris was just barely holding onto his precious control right now. The others were acutely aware of the fact and had responded accordingly, but JD had an annoying habit of blurting the wrong things out at the worst times. Hang in there Chris, Buck silently implored his friend. We'll get him back.
Another hour passed before Chanu returned.
"See anything" Larabee asked quickly.
"Yes. They are stopped further ahead" Chanu replied.
"They have chosen a protected place. It will be hard to approach"
"We'll take that chance" the man in black insisted.
"Tomorrow they must take the pass through the mountains. We can get ahead and wait for them there" Chanu advised.
"Sounds like a better plan, Chris" Buck agreed.
"Less likelihood of injury to Mr Tanner" Ezra added quietly, adding his support, knowing the best way to utilize Chris' concern for the tracker.
"Alright. Lets get ahead of them" Chris conceded after deliberating.
"First we must rest the horses" Chanu informed them.
"What if they move before us?" Chris replied apprehensively.
"Their horses must rest as well" Chanu replied.
"I don't like it" Larabee said, raising his voice.
"C'mon Chris, he's been right so far" Buck pleaded again. Larabee looked from Buck back to the young Comanche.
Looking distinctly unhappy, Chris agreed to the break with a reluctant nod and then turned and stalked away from the group.
"Sorry about that" Buck apologised to their Comanche friend.
"Do not be" Chanu said simply.
Chanu turned and retrieved a bundle from his horse. "I have brought you some fruits and berries" he told the others.
"Oh great" JD exclaimed "I'm still hungry" selecting a piece of fruit immediately. Nathan and Josiah took some of Chanu's proffered fruits as did Buck. Moving to Ezra, Chanu smiled when the gambler looked hesitantly at the bounty. Chanu selected one and offered it to Ezra "This one is sweet".
Ezra hesitated briefly and found himself regretting again his previous hasty appraisal of the young Comanche when he was accused of abducting a white woman. Perhaps if the gambler and the rest of the town could have been more open minded, maybe, just maybe his white wife would still be alive. Taking the offered fruit as a token of friendship, the gambler smiled gratefully and accepted the fruit. Biting into it, the conman's hesitancy turned to surprise as the fruit did indeed taste good.
"Sweet" Chanu finished, smiling at the gambler before finding himself a place to sit.
"Are there any more of these?" Ezra queried as he quickly devoured the sweet fruit.
"Thought you said you'd never eat anything grown in the wilderness, Ezra?" Nathan mocked.
"Mr Jackson, I am merely providing my body with sustenance for tomorrow's arduous trek" the gambler replied innocently.
Nathan shook his head. Man had an answer for everything.
+ + + + + + +
"I'm freezing Gus. Can't we light a fire?" Rainey complained.
"And give our position away? No!" Keegan replied gruffly.
"How close do you think they are?" Rainey asked warily, looking into the darkness.
"Close enough" Keegan said with annoyance. Kids. They never shut up!
"It's not too late to make a deal Gus" Farlow said softly.
"If you don't shut up, I swear the next time you talk will be your last" Keegan threatened.
"I'm not one of your cowhands, Gus" Farlow sneered.
Keegan exhaled deeply. "Just do what I say and we'll all get out of this. OK?"
"Yeah, well I don't like it. I don't intend to be around when Larabee comes to get Tanner back" Farlow threatened.
"You gonna run out on me Tom?" Keegan growled softly.
Farlow didn't reply immediately. Holding Keegan's glare for a few seconds, he intuitively glanced over to Tanner. The tracker returned the look carefully. Farlow knew now that if he left, there was no way Vin would get to Tascosa alive. As much as he feared facing Larabee, he couldn't leave the tracker to Keegan's devices. He owed Vin that much.
"No Gus" Farlow replied bitterly. "I ain't runnin' out on you."
+ + + + + + +
Chris once again checked everyone's position. Confident, they couldn't be seen until it was too late, the man in black settled in to wait.
After Chanu's return the previous night, they had rested for several hours before they wearily rode on to arrive at the mountain pass shortly before dawn. When the first light appeared, Chris had moved his men into position. Now they just had to wait.
Drawing a ragged breath, Larabee tried to focus his mind on the plan he had decided upon. He had ordered the rest of the boys not to shoot until he opened fire. With Vin held captive, Larabee was the next best shot and he wanted to be able to assess the biggest threat and take them out personally. He had no doubts that his men would follow his orders.
The minutes ticked by and the gunfighter got edgy. So much was at stake. Vin's safe return was not an option, it was a necessity. A selfish necessity Larabee admitted to himself, but he was determined to do what ever it took to get Vin back.
Larabee heard a soft bird call from above and knew it was Chanu alerting them all that company was coming. Chris pressed his lips together in a look of absolute determination.. Time to get his, no their, friend back.
+ + + + + + +
Keegan led his group cautiously towards the pass. Before entering, Keegan stopped.
"What's wrong Gus?" Rainey asked immediately.
"Maybe nothing boy" Keegan replied distractedly.
"What do you think?" Keegan asked Cray.
"Good place for an ambush" Cray admitted.
"Yeah that's what I thought" Keegan said thoughtfully.
"They would've had to ride all night to get ahead of us. Ain't possible Boss" Cray decided.
"It's too far to go around" Keegan mused.
Vin watched silently. Keegan's instincts were right he thought. He could sense Chris and the others. But would Keegan put aside his doubts.
All attention was diverted to Farlow, who had nudged his horse forward.
"What are you doing Tom?" Keegan demanded.
"Trying to put as much distance between me and Larabee" Farlow replied unemotionally.
Keegan still didn't move and the internal decision was causing him to frown darkly. Grunting loudly, he nudged his horse forward to follow Farlow.
"C'mon!" he growled at the others.
Vin tried hard to catch Farlow's eye as they moved out. Did Farlow sense Larabee was ahead as well?
+ + + + + + +
Larabee watched the five men approach. He could see the big man out in front leading Peso by the reins. Vin Tanner sat slumped in his saddle with his hat drawn down, looking completely indifferent. Knowing that the tracker would, under other circumstances, be fully alert in conditions like these, Chris had no doubt his best friend was ready for trouble.
Larabee assessed the risks. All men had drawn their weapons. A young blonde kid rode to the big man's right while a slightly built man rode to Farlow's left. Bringing up the rear, behind Vin, was the old cowhand that Larabee had dismissed as a threat days ago in Four Corners saloon. He would never doubt Nettie's instincts again, Larabee thought to himself. There was no way they would have caught up with Vin so quickly without her concerns.
The men came closer. Time to take action. The man in black decided instinctively that the young man was the best shot. Why else would you have a kid along?
Taking aim, he fired his shot, successfully winging the kid's gun arm.
Rainey let out a wail but the gunfire whizzing around their heads and feet, drowned out his cry. Keegan realised immediately they were trapped. Firing his weapon, he still held tightly to Peso's reins knowing that Tanner was trying to urge his horse to break free.
Farlow began firing as well, as Vin continued to break free and avoid being shot. Tanner realised his friends' shots were carefully aimed. There was not a hail of bullets as expected. His friends were cautiously aiming their shots so that he would not be wounded or worse.
Cray came up beside Tanner and Vin used the opportunity to kick the man off his horse. Cray landed with a thud and was shot as he tried to scramble back.
Keegan turned around desperately. His options were limited. He knew it but he'd be damned if he was just gonna surrender. Pulling Peso closer, Keegan knocked Tanner off his horse and then deliberately fell on top of him. Pushing Tanner to his knees, Keegan held his gun to the tracker's head.
"Larabee!" Keegan screamed. "Hold your fire or I kill 'im now!"
Larabee assessed the new situation quickly. "Hold your fire!" he ordered.
"What are you doing Gus?" Farlow asked desperately.
"Getting us outta here! What the f**k does it look like?" he yelled incredulously.
"This is too risky. Just let Tanner go and give ourselves up" Farlow pleaded.
"No!" the big man screamed again.
"Please Gus! We've already got two down. He'll kill you!" Farlow hissed.
"Shut the f**k up" Keegan snarled.
Farlow did as he was told and an errie silence descended over the pass.
"Larabee!" Keegan yelled. "Larabee!" he yelled louder. "I know you're here. C'mon out and I won't kill your boy here!" he threatened.
"No Chris" Tanner yelled. If Chris came out, Keegan would kill him, he wasn't going to take that chance.
Keegan raised his revolver and smashed it across Tanner's face. The tracker reeled under the attack but managed to stay upright on his knees.
"Mister, you're a dead man!" Buck whispered to himself . Larabee swore. He aimed his gun but couldn't take the shot. The gunfighter wouldn't shoot Keegan until he was absolutely sure Vin would not be killed. Only way to do that was to get closer.
Chris Larabee's eyes narrowed to lethal slits as he stood up and calmly walked from behind his cover. He made his way slowly towards Keegan, his weapon still held in his hand which he kept at his side.
Stopping 6 feet in front of Keegan and the tracker, Larabee glared menacingly at Keegan, who managed to hold the glare without flinching. Farlow, however, did not fare as well. Swallowing nervously, the retired bounty hunter took a small step away from Keegan.
"Well?" the man in black growled softly.
"You let us leave here and Tanner won't get hurt" Keegan demanded.
"Can't do that. That's my $500 you're holding?" Larabee replied icily.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Keegan asked suspiciously.
"He belongs to me. Give him back and I won't kill you" Larabee continued coldly.
"Bullshit. I know Tanner means something to you" Keegan sneered.
"What I'm partial to is that $500. You stole it. Now give it back" Larabee stressed.
Keegan began to look disorientated. Suddenly, the gambler and the ex-preacher appeared on either side of their group. Larabee had used the distraction to get his men into position. Rainey was unable to shoot with his wounded arm and Josiah had no difficulty removing his weapon. Cray was still armed but with a determined look from Ezra, the old cowhand dropped it.
Keegan realised his situation was now desperate.
"Back up cowboy" Keegan yelled "We're leaving and Tanner's coming with me"
"Did that unfortunate miscreant just call our leader a cowboy, Mr Sanchez?" Ezra asked, the barest hint of pity in his southern drawl.
"I'm afraid so, brother" the ex-preacher shook his head soberly.
Remaining in their covered positions, Nathan, JD and Buck held their breaths. Keegan was now a dead man, there was no doubt about that. But would Vin be killed before Chris had the chance to save him?
Farlow paled visibly as he watched with mounting horror the gunfighter's face contort into what looked like the devil himself.
"Gus! Gus! Please! Drop your gun!" Farlow tried desperately.
Keegan didn't reply, however, Farlow's words had distracted Keegan for a split second. That was all the time Larabee needed. Raising his gun swiftly, Larabee's bullet entered Keegan's forehead before he could have another coherent thought. As Keegan began to slump, the man in black turned his attention to the still armed Farlow.
"Chris! No!" Vin yelled.
Vin's words brought Larabee out of his murderous mood long enough for Tanner to hiss "Drop it now Tom!"
Farlow didn't hesitate. He dropped his weapon and looked over at his friend who lay dead behind the tracker.
Moving toward him, he knelt beside his friend and gently closed his eyes. "Told you I had a bad feeling Gus".
Vin got to his feet and made his way to Larabee.
Chris noticed the blood across the tracker's head and his face turned concerned.
"I'll be fine Chris" the tracker claimed exhaustedly.
Not convinced, Chris turned and yelled. "Nathan!"
Ezra looked around and was relieved to see Vin walking toward Chris. The distraction was all Cray needed to draw his hideaway gun from his boot and aim it at the gambler.
"Ezra" JD yelled, seeing the movement from his position.
Ezra moved quickly but was unable to avoid the bullet which pierced his right shoulder. The gambler stumbled backwards and fired at Cray as he fell. Josiah reacted swiftly and fired at Cray simultaneously. Cray spasmed involuntarily before toppling to the ground. Taking one last ragged breath, the old cowhand died still grasping his gun tightly in his hand.
Vin looked in horror as he saw his friend shot. "Ezra!" Rushing to his side, he quickly assessed that the gambler's wound was not fatal.
"Nathan!" he yelled without taking his eyes off the wounded gambler.
"I'm right here. Let me in Vin" Nathan said calmly. Chris gently laid a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder.
"Let Nathan help him, Vin" Chris said softly.
"God I'm sorry Ezra" Vin said guiltily as he reluctantly moved out of the way.
"It's not your fault Mr Tanner. I should have checked for further weapons" the gambler replied, wincing as Nathan tried to remove his coat to tend to his injury.
"The bullet's gone through Ezra" Nathan informed him after a few seconds.
Nathan turned to Josiah. "Let's get him to some cover so I clean and dress his wound"
Josiah nodded and despite Ezra's protests lifted the younger man towards the only available shade.
"C'mon Vin" Nathan called back "I wanna check you as well"
"Look after Ezra first" the tracker demanded.
"Never met so many stubborn men in my life" the healer grumbled.
+ + + + + + +
Hours later, everybody was unusually quiet. Nathan had cleaned and dressed Ezra's wound and the gambler was resting comfortably thanks to some forcefully administered laudanum. Nathan had then tended to Vin's injury before bandaging Rainey's flesh wound.
When he had finished, he walked over to Chris Larabee.
"Ezra's gonna be fine but I don't want him moved today. Vin's got a nasty head wound and he's still a bit groggy, even though he denies it. I think it would be best if we didn't try heading home until tomorrow." Nathan reported.
Chris nodded. "I'll get the others to set up camp here."
Nathan moved back to his patients, while Larabee surveyed the area. Vin was sleeping quietly next to Ezra. Now that everybody was safe, the tracker had allowed himself to rest. Farlow and Rainey looked miserable but the gunfighter figured they were entitled. Buck and Josiah were resting while their youngest member still moving around celebrating the fact that everything was now fine.
Chanu had offered to hunt some food for them before their journey home. Chris still had no idea how to thank the young Comanche. His help had been invaluable.
Chris allowed himself the opportunity to be overwhelmed with relief that not only was Vin safe but that none of the seven had been killed during the shoot out. The tightness he felt in his chest, the second Keegan held a gun to Vin's head, had not subsided immediately. Only once Nathan had treated Vin and Ezra's wounds and the tracker had finally succumbed to sleep did the gunfighter feel the tension wash away. It had been too close and although Larabee was exhausted, sleep eluded him. He would sleep once the tracker had rested. Not before.
Larabee breathed deeply and tried to force himself to relax for the first time in days. All he had to do now was get his 'family' all home and be more vigilent for the next hint of trouble. Which would come, he admitted to himself grimacing. Still, as long as they remained together, everything would be OK. He didn't know why he thought that way. He just knew he did. And he just knew that it was right.
+ + + + + + +
Later that day, Vin awoke and sat up stiffly. Moving that quickly caused his head to throb painfully and the tracker could not hide his discomfort.
"That bad huh?" Nathan quizzed.
"Stop fussing, Nathan" the tracked growled softly.
"Drink this first and I leave you alone" the healer replied determinedly.
Vin sniffed the concoction warily. "This smells worse than that other stuff you forced me to drink" the tracker complained.
"Too bad. You're drinking it" Nathan said firmly.
"Maybe later" the tracker tried.
"Now! Or I go to Chris and tell him you're refusing doctor's orders. And after the last few days he's had...."
"That ain't nice, Nathan" Tanner grumbled.
"Don't care. As long as you drink it" the healer replied testily.
Vin frowned but then reluctantly drank the potion and then screwed his face up in disgust. Nathan grinned and moved off to check on Ezra.
The tracker watched carefully as Nathan tried to make the unconscious gambler more comfortable. Ezra stirred slightly and winced in pain before returning to sleep. Vin still couldn't escape the guilt he felt over Ezra's injury. Whilst the gambler had been vehement earlier in his attempt to assuage Vin's feelings, the tracker knew the only reason Ezra was lying hurt was because of the price on his head.
Any further thoughts were interrupted when Chanu appeared beside him carrying the successful results of his recent hunt for food. Chanu smiled at Tanner and moved to sit next to him.
"They treat you like some weak woman" he teased.
"Well they ain't perfect" Vin admitted easily, grinning back.
"You are fortunate, my friend" Chanu replied.
Vin looked around at his 'brothers' and smiled 'Yeah I know"
The tracker found his gaze resting on that of his best friend. Turning back to Chanu he acknowledged the Comanche's assistance. "Wanna thank you... for helping" Vin said easily.
"You are welcome."
Vin nodded and stood up carefully before making his way to the Seven's leader.
"Hey, Cowboy!" he teased quietly.
Chris gave him an unimpressed look and replied "Someday I'm gonna shoot ya for that Tanner" he growled softly.
"What! With that peashooter?" the tracker continued teasing "Why don't you get yourself a man's gun" he added patting his mare's leg.
Chris smiled and shook his head. His best friend had no fear of him whatsoever. Vin sat down next to Larabee and for a few minutes there was silence.
"We'll head out tomorrow if Ezra is up to it. Don't think Farlow or Rainey are gonna be any more trouble" Larabee informed the tracker.
"Can't take them back, Chris" Vin objected.
"After what they did?" Chris argued.
"Farlow would've helped me before we got to Tascosa" the tracker replied adamantly.
"You sure about that?" Chris replied doubtfully.
"Yeah.... 'Sides how you gonna explain what they done? Mary did a good job of covering up after Eli Joe" Vin said convincingly.
Larabee contemplated Vin's words. After the threat of the fake marshals and Eli Joe had been successfully eliminated, Mary Travis had circulated the story of mistaken identity, thus allowing the tracker to remain as one of Four Corners peacekeepers.
"Alright" Larabee conceded. Damn, he hated it when the tracker was right.
+ + + + + + +
The tracker approached Farlow with a less than stable walk.
"You should be resting" Farlow chided.
"I will" Tanner replied while he sat down next to his former friend.
Nodding toward a sleeping Rainey he asked "He alright?"
"Yeah. Don't think he's gonna forget this day in a hurry , but he'll be OK" Farlow admitted.
"What about you Tom?" the tracker asked gently.
"Did my best to stop him. Don't rightly know how I feel yet" Farlow replied honestly.
"Chris is gonna let you leave whenever you want" Vin informed him.
"Just like that?"
"Well. I had a word with him" Vin explained. Farlow nodded with understanding.
"You gonna head back to your ranch?" Vin asked.
"Yeah. Gus had no family. His ranch is now mine" Farlow snorted derisively.
"Hope it works out" the tracker genuinely told him.
"Thanks. You take care of yourself you hear?" Farlow recommended.
"I got good friends now" Vin answered him smiling. Damn, that felt good.
"Yeah I noticed" Farlow replied, knowing the young man would be alright.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning, keen to get home to his comfortable room, Ezra insisted he was well enough to ride. Farlow and Rainey had ridden out just after dawn and the seven with their Comanche friend, headed out after a leisurely breakfast.
After an hour or so of riding. Tanner deliberately dropped back behind the others, Chris followed suit.
Vin eyed his best friend thoughtfully.
"Thanks for coming after "your $500'" the tracker drawled tauntingly.
Chris smiled. "You just be a good boy and I won't collect on that money" he responded in the same tone.
"Just how you figure on gettin' me to behave?" Vin teased.
"Oh, you'll never be allowed anywhere alone again!" Larabee replied in a determined manner.
Vin grinned, shook his head and the two men nudged their horses to catch up with the others.
After a few minutes, Vin caught JD's attention and nodded towards Ezra mischeivously.
"Say Ezra, next time Vin is giving you trackin' lessons, reckon I could tag along?" the young sherriff asked.
The gambler gave up on trying to disguise his distaste for this subject and shot a disapproving look at the smiling boy. "Mr Dunne, I have done sufficient tracking over the past few days to last me the rest of my life. Any future lessons with Mr Tanner will be without me!" he replied crankily.
"Oh c'mon Ezra, according to Vin here, you could use all the help you can get. Especially after that skunk!" JD continued grinning broadly.
"Skunk" Buck chimed "Oh I gotta hear about the skunk" he chuckled.
"Seems the wolf Ezra was trackin' turned out to be a cranky ole she skunk" the tracker told his amused friends. Laughter began to erupt amongst the seven, except for Ezra, who'd taken up scowling.
"You ever get that smell out of your jacket Ez?"
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