As the week went by, Vin's leg and foot continued to heal. He still had to use crutches to get around, but the only thing left to do was wait for the stitches to be removed. He had given a description of the trapper to the rest of the Seven and they had formed a posse to go after the man, but without Vin's tracking skills, they did not pick up his trail. The traps set in the canyon were gone, from what Josiah could figure, and they figured the man was long gone, too. "Just as well," Buck said. "Chris would have come close to killing him for sure if we had found him. But if he ever comes this way again..." he let the thought trail off, as he, Josiah and Ezra all headed back to town, ending a three day search that wielded nothing.
Chris had been enraged that the trapper could not be found, but seeing Vin healing more and more everyday, curbed his desire for vengeance. If he ever *did* find the man, though, there would be hell to pay.
Ezra and the others put together a plan to buy Vin a new jacket of buckskin, thinking the one the trapper stole would never be retrieved. He and JD had gone off to the general store after the others pitched in what they could. Ezra had, without hesitation, put up the difference and the order had been placed. Vin would have his jacket in about two weeks. As far as Vin's Mare 's Leg, though, Chris took it upon himself to replace it. When Vin was up and around a new gun would be waiting for him at the general store.
"Sometimes you surprise me, Ezra," JD had said as they left the store to walk back to the saloon.
"How so, Mister Dunne?"
"Well as much as you horde your money, and as much as you despised Vin's other jacket, this was all your idea to buy him a new one and you put up the difference in the cost."
"Mister Dunne, I assure you, buckskin is still a loathsome material to me, but Mister Tanner would not be Mister Tanner without that jacket. I am simply doing my part in his healing process. It is coming upon winter and I will not allow him to freeze. I would end up assisting with the nursing should he come down with pneumonia. I am simply considering the consequences and repercussions if he does not obtain a replacement for his trademark garment."
JD grinned and shook his head with wonder. "Whatever you say, Ezra."
He then stopped when he saw a pack mule outside the saloon. Animal skins were stacked in a bundle and covered with a tarp on the mule's saddle. Two pine board boxes about two feet by one foot were attached to each side of the saddle. A large man covered in animal skins was stepping up to the saloon. JD noticed something else. "Ezra, is that what I think it is?"
The two men approached the saddle and Ezra fingered the buckskin that was caught in with the rest of the skins. He angrily pulled the cloth out and lifted it to see Vin's jacket. "Mister Dunne, I believe we must procure the services of our fearless leader. We've just discovered the culprit responsible for Mister Tanner's ordeal."
JD gazed at the jacket in shock. "That man...that's the trapper?"
"Indeed. The evidence is right here. Now, go! I will see to it the man does not leave the premises."
JD turned and ran to the jailhouse. He stormed in to find Chris sitting at his desk reading a book. "Chris. That trapper who left Vin to die...he's in the saloon. Ezra and I, we found Vin's jacket among the skins he has on his saddle."
Chris' gaze hardened, his eyes shadowing over. He laid the book on the desk and stood. He pulled his gun and checked the bullet chambers; then he put the gun back into its holster at his side. He followed JD out, grabbing his hat from the hat hook just inside the door. "That man has picked a bad day to die."
JD felt coldness wash over him as Chris spoke those words. He stopped following Chris and watched the determined strides the gunslinger made. Knowing Chris could get in trouble and knowing no one within the Seven could calm him down except one...he turned and ran to the clinic. He had to get Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was checking the wounds over once more as he removed the bandages. "I'd say another two days, Vin, and these stitches can come out."
Vin raised his hands to the sky. "Hallelujah!"
JD rushed in, panting. "Vin! You gotta come! The trapper that left you, he's in town and Chris is fighting mad. I think he's gonna do something that could get him in a shit load of trouble."
Vin forgot his foot for the moment and flew out of the chair. "Vin! Wait! We need to re-bandage your foot!" Nathan yelled after him as he and JD followed Vin out of the clinic.
"No time fer that, Nathan!" Vin yelled over his shoulder as he ran, or rather limped and ran, down the stairs and toward the saloon. "LARABEE!" he called out, hoping his voice could reach the gunslinger before Chris reached the trapper.
+ + + + + + +
When Chris reached the saloon. Ezra, who was still holding Vin's jacket, went up to him. "The miscreant is inside, covered with loathsome skins, Mister Larabee."
Chris looked at the jacket and took it from Ezra. He looked at the gambler, the rage seething out of his eyes. He pushed the batwing doors and stepped through. Buck and Josiah were all ready inside, standing at the bar counter. The trapper was between them. Both their hands were on their guns as they watched the bulky man. They turned to look at Chris who was holding Vin's jacket. They stepped aside.
Chris approached the bar counter and pushed the trapper's glass of whiskey to the floor.
"What do ya' think yer doin'?" the trapper roared as he straightened to his full height. Chris thrust the jacket into his face. "This jacket belongs to a good friend of mine, you piece of shit!"
The trapper cast Chris a grin, but it was not an affable one. "You went through my skins, did ya'?"
"No, sir," Ezra said as he approached the man. He pulled out a cigar from his jacket along with a match. "I did. You see, the man you left to die out there in the canyon is a good friend of ours as well."
Buck and Josiah stepped up closer, so that all four surrounded the trapper. If glares were knives, this man would have been a human sheath.
The trapper looked at Chris who never took his hardened gaze from him. "Your friend stole from me, messed with my property. It ain't my fault he got caught in one of my traps."
Chris carefully handed Vin's jacket back to Ezra. "Watch over this for me," he said. He then turned and slugged the trapper across the jaw, sending him flying to the floor. Ezra put Vin's jacket over his shoulder and lit his cigar. "Excellent right hook, Mister Larabee," he commented dryly.
Buck and Josiah chuckled.
Chris stepped over to the trapper who was shaking his head to clear it. "I' ll kill ya' fer that, you asshole!"
Chris grabbed him by his jacket collar and seethed into his face. "Not before I show you what happens when you mess with one of my men!" He pulled the trapper to his feet and shoved him outside. Ezra, Buck and Josiah followed them out.
The trapper landed in a heap on the street and turned to Chris. He saw the blood lust in Chris' eyes and suddenly realized he may end up in a pine box before this fight was over. "You're crazy!" he said as he struggled to his feet. Chris slugged him with his left hand. "Wrong!" he shouted. "I'm pissed!"
Buck called out from the saloon porch. "You should never have gotten Chris Larabee pissed! That makes him crazy!"
Ezra casually walked off toward the pack mule. He began to undo the boxes and piles of skins. He conversed with a man gesturing to inside the saloon. The man nodded and helped Ezra carry the boxes inside the saloon. While the trapper was being occupied with Chris Larabee's wrath, Ezra would implement his own idea for vengeance.
The trapper looked at Chris with recognition. "So...you're the man that skin stealer called out for." He began to chuckle with sadistic delight.
Chris clenched his fists. The comment reminded him of how this man had taunted Vin while his friend had suffered. Chris was now a powder keg and this man was the lit match. He charged the trapper, shoving his shoulder into the man's gut. The two men went to the ground. Chris straddled the man and slugged him first with his right fist then with his left. He allowed the rage to fuel his actions and each slug that landed was harder than the one before it. "You left him out there to die, you bastard! You had no right to kill a man over a piece of animal hide!" Another slug, and still another.
Josiah inched closer to Buck as Chris continued to pummel the heavyset trapper. "Uh, don't you think we better step in and break this up?" he asked.
Buck pondered the request Chris had asked of him after Vin had come through the surgery on his leg. 'Just make sure I don't kill him,' the gunslinger had asked. He shook his head in response to Josiah's concern. "Naw. Just waitin' on Vin. I've handled Chris' bad temper so long I'm ready to hand the reins over to someone younger and more pig headed than he is."
At that moment...
"LARABEE!" The sound of Vin's voice filled the air.
Buck sighed, "Ahhhh, music to my ears," he said with a grin. Josiah shrugged and stepped back
Chris didn't hear Vin, or if he did, he ignored him. He had a lesson to teach, and he wasn't about to let anyone interfere. He continued to pummel the trapper, his knuckles turning bloody in the process. Suddenly arms were wrapped around Chris' waist and he was pulled off the man. He fell to the ground with Vin hanging onto him for dear life. "Larabee! Stop it!"
Chris heard Vin shout into his ear. He flung his arms and pushed Vin off of him, but Vin grabbed hold again, refusing to let the gunslinger go. "Chris! Dammit! Let it go! The man's down! Ya' hurt him good!"
Chris, breathing heavily, pulled away from Vin and got to his feet. "I ain' t done with him yet."
Vin got to his feet and grabbed Chris' arm. "Yes! You are!"
Chris looked at him with a furrowed brow. "You'd let this man get away with what he did to you?"
"Hell, no! I'm trying to protect you, ya' bastard! Do ya' think I want ya' to hang? You're set on killing this piece of shit!" Vin and Chris locked gazes. "He left you out there to die!" Chris yelled.
"And he'll pay for that!" Vin yelled back. "Maybe not today! Maybe not tomorrow, but someday what he did to me is gonna come back 'round and bite him in the ass!"
The trapper lay on the ground looking up at them through swollen eyes.
Chris began to calm down. Vin's gaze always had that effect on him. "Chris, do ya' think I want ya' to hang because of me? There are other ways to deal with this asshole."
"Indeed there are," Ezra said as he came up and put a hand to Vin's shoulder. "Gentlemen, may I suggest you all look at the nice bonfire in the middle of the street?"
At the mention of the word 'bonfire' they all suddenly realized there was smoke in the air. They turned and saw JD standing by a fire in the middle of the street, throwing the trapper's animal skins onto it...one by one.
The trapper scurried to his feet. "My skins! Ya' bastards! You're burnin' my skins!"
He tried to run down to where the fire was when Buck and Josiah each grabbed an arm and held him back. "Now, now, don't you know that fire can burn you?" Josiah asked.
The trapper tried to struggle free, but another arm went around his throat. Nathan held him fast. "Your actions almost cost a man his leg, almost cost him his life. I think burning the skins you obtained through that action is fair, don't you agree, Vin?"
Vin limped around to where he could see the trapper eye to eye. "I should have killed ya' when I had the chance," the trapper snarled.
Vin just smiled at him...a smile of victory.
"Sir, I believe that course of action would warrant your death," Ezra said as he came to stand by Vin. He handed the jacket to the tracker who took it and nodded once to Ezra in acknowledgment. "Thanks, Ez."
"My pleasure, Mister Tanner," Ezra replied, tipping his hat to him.
JD finished throwing the last of the skins onto the fire. He turned and brushed his hands a smile of gloating on his face. Chris walked out to meet him and shook his hand. "Well done, JD."
"Well, actually it was Ezra's idea. You know how he hates animal hide."
Chris chuckled and put an arm around the youth's shoulder. The two walked over to stand by Vin and the others. Ezra was grinning from ear to ear as he blew the smoke of his cigar into the trapper's face. "You must understand something, sir. The seven of us...we stick together. If you mess with the bull...you get the horns." Ezra thrust his hand out and his derringer popped into his palm with a click. Josiah, Buck, JD and Chris all pulled their guns and aimed them at the man's head. Ezra continued, "I would dearly love to not have to look at your ugly brains splattered over this vicinity. I suggest you take your animal and leave this territory immediately. For your own sake, if I may be so bold."
Chris stepped forward and cocked his gun. He put the muzzle to the man's chin. "If I ever see you in this territory again...I will," he pushed the muzzle deeper into the man's skin, "hunt you down. Is that understood?"
The man suddenly realized how serious these seven men were. He swallowed. "I, uh, I understand."
Chris pulled his gun away and released the hammer. He stepped aside. "Josiah, Buck, Nathan...let him go. He needs to be leaving town...right away."
The three men released their holds and Josiah and Buck holstered their guns. The trapper hurried to his mule and noticed his boxes were gone. "What the hell did ya' do with my traps?" he yelled back at them.
Ezra smiled. "Oh, they're someplace where they won't ever kill in such an inhumane way again."
"Ya' can't do that! Trapping is my job!"
"My advice? Find a new area of employment," Josiah remarked with a tip of his hat.
"I'll kill y'all fer this!"
Those with guns aimed them at him again. Ezra chuckled merrily. "Do we really need to reiterate what we just told you, sir? Or are you really that stupid?"
The trapper lifted his hands in surrender. He reached for the reins that held his pack mule to the hitching post outside the saloon. He untied the mule and headed out down the street, passing only to glance at the burning skins on the bonfire. He turned and looked at Vin, who was leaning on his good leg, a hand hooked into the top of his pants. Vin didn't turn his eyes away from him.
Chris and Ezra came up to stand on either side of Vin and the rest of the seven took up positions behind him. The trapper shook his head in disgust and continued on out of town.
"You think he'll be back?" JD asked.
"The man's a coward, JD," Vin replied.
"How can you tell?"
"Hell, JD," Buck chuckled. "That man outweighs Chris by at least a hundred pounds. Do you see a mark on Chris?"
JD glanced over at Chris who was basically ignoring the conversation. "Nope. Not a mark."
Vin smiled. "The Larabee glare wins again." He looked at Chris. "We should consider that glare a lethal weapon."
The other men chuckled.
Buck looked down at Vin's exposed foot. "Shouldn't that thing be covered, Vin? It's bad enough we have to look at your barefoot, looking at those stitches is downright nasty."
Vin looked at him with slit eyes. "Who said I wanted anyone lookin' at my feet anyway?"
Chris chuckled. "Let's get you back to the clinic so Nathan can do his job."
Nathan grinned. "Well I would have been able to finish if he hadn't been distracted by a certain gunslinger with murder on his mind."
Chris put his arm around Vin's shoulders and gave his neck a squeeze. "Yeah," he said and Vin understood the gesture and the tone of voice. What Chris was saying was 'Thank you.'
JD pulled Ezra aside. "We have to put a stop to that order, Ezra. Vin's got his jacket back now. Don't need to order a new one."
"I beg to differ, Mister Dunne."
JD looked at Ezra questioningly. "Huh?"
"Let the order go through. Mister Tanner will no doubt need a new one in the future. We'll just tell him we couldn't stop the order in time. I see no need in stopping the inevitable."
JD smiled. "You better watch out, Ezra, that soft heart of yours is showing through again."
"Purely selfish reasons, I assure you. His jacket is beginning to take on a most brazen aroma. A new one will see to it I can continue to stand being in his presence."
Ezra walked off, passing the bonfire. He stopped and flicked his cigar into the flames, then continued on.
JD watched him go, a grin forming on his face. He shook his head and turned to follow Buck and Josiah back into the saloon. He caught Vin's gaze as the tracker passed him. Vin inclined his head to him, thanking him without words for coming to get him. JD tipped his hat to Vin. Message received.
The man stirred the fire, grumbling under his breath over the loss of his skins and traps. He sat back against the dead tree stump and gazed into the flames of the fire. Suddenly he heard the sound of cracking twigs. He turned to listen more carefully.
The coyotes came out of the darkness, surrounding him in a full circle. The pack mule, tied to a tree branch, skittered in nervousness. Wolves and bears, along with the coyotes, came out of the shadows. The man stood up and saw all these animals surrounding him. The sound of growls and roars filled his ears. Fear engulfed him. How could all these different animals be standing around as one? Not fighting each other for dominance? The animals advanced.
The man reached into the fire for a log and lifted it. He began to swing the flaming log around him, trying to keep the animals away, but they advanced without fear of the fire.
His pack mule pulled free of his restraint and ran off into the bushes. The animals paid the mule no mind. Their attention was strictly on the trapper. "No! You ain't real! No animals act this way!"
Teeth were bared and jaws snapped as the animals advanced. The trapper threw his log at one of the wolves; the log went right through him. The wolf continued to advance. "No! You're not...ya' can't be..."
In seconds the animals attacked, sending the man to the ground. He felt the ripping of his flesh as the teeth tore into his skin. The snarls and growls and angry sounds of the animals filled his ears. He screamed in agony.
Sitting off a ways, the coyote with the black mark on his shoulder watched what was happening. It was the way of the Great Spirit for man to kill animals. But this man had broken the law of honor during the kill. And then he had taken that transgression too far in failing to save the tracker. The Great Spirit had decreed the punishment. The tracker had given the coyote a mercy killing, asking for forgiveness before ending his life. The tracker had proved worthy of honor. This man...this murderer...had no honor. He would die a dishonorable death. The spirits of his past kills would see to it. In the morning, the man's flesh would be intact. Those who may be assigned to find him by the Great Spirit would attribute his death to a failing heart. But tonight...tonight was a good night for a kill.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Chris were sitting outside the jailhouse, as the moon reached its zenith. Vin's leg was resting on the porch railing. He would reach down every once in a while and scratch through the bandages. "Itches, huh?" Chris asked.
"Yeah. Why do good signs of healin' always have to be so dang uncomfortable?"
Chris chuckled. He didn't answer. The night was quiet. People were sleeping. It was going on midnight and the stillness filled the air, as did the mist that came with it. Neither of the men could sleep, their minds filled with all that had happened during that week.
As it turned out Ezra's plan to steal the trapper's traps had proven lucky. When one of the boxes was opened, Vin's Mare's Leg was stashed inside. It now rested in the holster at his hip. Chris never told Vin he had purchased a new one for him. He would keep the gun safely tucked away if the time ever came for Vin to have a replacement. Or, since the holidays were coming up, he could also scratch Vin's name off his Christmas list.
Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by a soft, Texan drawl. "Chris, that coyote that led y'all to me?"
"Did it have a black mark on its left shoulder?"
Chris glanced over at Vin, thoughtful. "Now that you mention it, I guess it did. Why?"
Vin shrugged. "Just curious. There's a coyote sittin' across the street, just lookin' at us."
Chris leaned forward in his chair. "I'll be damned. That's him all right." The light from the street bonfires used to light up the town cast onto the coyote as it sat on its haunches. It had something in its mouth. Vin and Chris stood to get a better look. "What do you think he's doin'?" Chris asked.
"He wants to give us a message," Vin replied. He stepped off the porch, using the cane that Nathan had given him. His foot may be healing and the stitches were about ready to come out, but the muscle tissue was still tender. It still pained him to put too much pressure on it. Chris stepped off the porch with him. The two walked steadily toward the coyote, then the coyote stood and walked toward them. He laid the object he was carrying in his mouth onto the ground before them, then sat back on his haunches, looking at them expectantly.
Vin reached down and lifted the object. In the light of the small bonfire next to them he recognized it. "It's that trapper's hat," he said, handing it to Chris.
Chris looked it over. "There's no blood on it," he said.
Vin looked at the coyote. He spoke out words that Chris did not understand. Indian words. The coyote gazed at him with understanding then turned and headed off down the street, disappearing into the night. "The trapper's dead," Vin said.
"How do you know?"
"The coyote I had to kill to put out of its misery...had a black mark on his left shoulder."
Chris looked at Vin with a furrowed brow. "Josiah was right. The coyote that led us to you..."
"Was the one I killed." Vin gestured with his thumb. "Him. He stayed in this plane long enough to pay his debt to me."
Chris looked off down the street after the vanished coyote. "I'll be damned." He turned and threw the hat onto the bonfire; then he looked at Vin. "What did you say to him?"
Vin glanced at Chris; then back to where he last saw the coyote. "I gave him thanks fer deliverin' the message about the trapper, and also I thanked him fer his forgiveness."
"His forgiveness? Why's that?"
"The Indians don't kill fer sport, or fer profit. They are taught to respect life, all life. When they kill it's fer their survival. To eat, to keep warm, to have shelter. When they take the life of an animal, they thank it fer helping them to survive, and they ask fer forgiveness. Sacrifice is the ultimate honor. The Indians let the animals know their sacrifice is not in vain. The trapper took life without honor. The animals he killed exacted their vengeance on him tonight."
Chris didn't think the story Vin relayed was strange. After what they had gone through he was starting to accept more and more that 'unexplainable' didn't necessarily mean 'untrue'. "Why didn't they do it sooner?"
Vin sighed. "Because of me."
Chris just looked at him.
"The Great Spirit has rules," Vin informed. "Those rules are based on honor. When the trapper left me to die, he crossed the line."
Chris nodded with understanding.
Vin looked over at the hat being consumed by the bonfire flames. "The debt has been paid," he spoke softly.
Chris put a hand to Vin's shoulder and the two headed back to the jailhouse porch.
In the distance the howl of a coyote could be heard.
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