Special Thanks to Mitzi, also Melanye and MaryAnn
Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009
When the blow came Vin
Tanner was not expecting it. His mouth gaped open and a guttural sound
shot forth. The flash of pain exploded inside his head, numbing his
senses. He twisted around with uncoordinated movements and with his
last resolve speared his aggressor with an expression of trepidation and
puzzlement. He could feel his presence of mind slipping away and he
reached out to steady himself. Legs became wooden and finally, could no
longer keep him upright; with a pitching momentum Vin crashed to the floor.
Even then his eyelids fluttered, straining for a grasp on reality. A
wave of grey flooded his vision, leaving Vin in a pool of oblivion.
The gambler tossed a
handful of coins to the centre of the table. He raised a speculative
glance at the player on his left and leaned back casually in his chair waiting
for the man to admit he had nothing left, and call it quits. A satisfied
smile ghosted across his face when the player begrudgingly threw his hand down
and scooted back his chair.
“I got nothin’
more!” With a sigh, the card player exited the saloon.
Standish watched the
ranch hand’s departure until he was satisfied there would be no reprisals.
Ezra focused his attention on the player seated opposite him. “I believe
it is your call.”
Perez wiped his nose
nervously; a sign that Ezra had picked up on early in the game that indicated
the bank clerk had only a mediocre hand. The older man fidgeted on his seat,
and eventually withdrew a crumpled note from the bottom of his pocket. He
held it hesitantly over the pot, eyeing both Ezra and the fourth player, but the
clerk could not read their closed expressions. He coughed once more,
and for whatever reason, dropped the money on the mound. He smiled widely,
but the tremor in his hands betrayed his façade of nonchalance. “I’m
Standish nodded and
turned his attention to Barrett. Ezra had played several rounds with the
middle-aged merchant and had been impressed by his knowledge of the game.
Wes Barrett had a
moderate stake in front of him, but now he confidently pushed the entire portion
to the middle. He grinned as he eyed the large pot expectantly.
Perez turned a pale
shade of green at Barrett’s large wager. Standish had to stifle a
chuckle. Obviously he was not convinced of his cards superiority. Amateur.
“Gentlemen, time to reveal your hand.”
Perez nervously looked
down at his hand and closed his eyes, praying for a miracle. His two
pairs, nines and sixes, were what he had bet his last dollar on. His
stomach flip-flopped in nervous anticipation.
The three remaining
players revealed their cards and it was Ezra’s full house that scooped the
pot. The bank clerk mumbled unhappily and followed in the wake of the
ranch hand. Barrett continued to stare blankly at the face up cards,
wondering how he had lost.
Standish raked his
winnings closer and began straightening the notes. He smiled pleasantly at
Barrett. “Always a pleasure, sir. Thank you for the game.”
The merchant nodded
slowly and sighed as he pushed back his seat. “You wouldn’t be up for
another game, mister?”
“As much as I enjoy the challenge, I fear I must decline your generous
“Maybe tomorrow?” he asked, eager to recoup his losses.
also will be out of the question. My travelling companion is anxious to
depart your tiny hamlet, but I shall endeavour to seek you out next time I am in
town,” he added amicably.
Barrett shrugged his
shoulders and trudged to the bar. He slapped two coins on the counter and
was rewarded with a drink.
Standish remained seated at the table and tidied his winnings into ordered piles, then tucked them securely inside his jacket. He tapped his empty shot glass on the table absently and studied the layout of the saloon. When the bartender edged toward him with a bottle, intending to refill the gambler’s glass, Ezra covered it with his hand and motioned he was content. Once the bartender returned behind the bar, Standish gave the room another pensive glance.
The arrival of a well-dressed male staggering to the long bar, caught Ezra’s
attention. He stopped short of joining Barrett, and took up a place closer
to the door. This man obviously didn’t invite company. His
wardrobe, although neat and clean, was worn and showing its age. Standish
watched him for a few moments, gulping a drink and repouring another. His
hands shook as they lifted the fiery liquid to his mouth and Ezra wondered
whether the gentleman was unwell or already on the road to a drunken stupor.
The bartender walked the length of the bar, filling the merchant’s glass and
moving down to the other patron. A few words were passed between the
barman and the new arrival, but Standish’s interest had dwindled in the
Ezra consulted his
pocket watch and frowned. It was almost two. He licked his lips, and regretted
refusing another shot of whiskey; his throat was becoming tight. Tanner
had stipulated his desire to leave by noon. Why hadn’t he arrived?
“Where are you, Vin?” Ezra whispered, keeping his eyes riveted on the
Ezra tapped his deck
of cards and proceeded to manipulate them through dexterous fingers. If
he’d known Vin was going to be late, then he wouldn’t have been so hasty to
finish off his game, or to rebuke the merchant’s offer of another. He
glanced at the long bar, but Barrett had already departed after completing his
drink. He noticed, too, that the well-dressed gentleman had also vanished. And
the patrons remaining in the Howling Dogs saloon were not fit for intelligent
conversation, let alone a game of chance. With a drawn out sigh he
pocketed the deck and exited the building.
Standish hovered out
front of the saloon, as the tracker had been adamant about meeting Ezra there,
after he’d completed his mission. Whatever that was, Standish mused –
Tanner had been mysteriously quiet on the subject, refusing to explain.
And Ezra’s offer to accompany the tracker had been thwarted, but to his
advantage at least…he’d made considerable profits from the games at the
tables that afternoon.
Ezra checked his watch
once again and a moment’s doubt started to creep in. He paced to the
rail and glanced in both directions, chancing to spot the buckskin jacket that
Vin was so fond of, but his initial scrutiny of the street was unproductive.
The throng bustled along the sidewalk and Ezra slowly moved to the set of
stairs. He paused on the brink of the top step, hoping to get a better
view over the bobbing heads. Standish ignored the mumbled complaints as
people were forced to sidestep around him while he stood unmoving on the
He found and watched
the merchant’s hobbling gait as he shuffled along the many stores, finally
picking his moment to across over to the opposite side of the road. A
carriage rattled past, continuing on down the west end, hindering his view for a
moment. He lost track of the lame merchant. His shoulder was jostled
and the gambler was forced to step backward from the collision to collect his
“Mr. Tanner, where
are you?” he mumbled, smiling warily at the obscure glances he received from
two young ladies who happened to walk by at the time of his query. Ezra
tilted his head in a perfunctory bow. “Could I trouble you ladies for
the correct time?” He pulled his watch from his vest and flipped it
open. “Mine appears to be running fast.” He hoped. Vin
wouldn’t have just left without him? Would he?
The ladies stopped and
barely restrained their giggles. One answered that she didn’t carry the
time and they hurried down the boardwalk, leaving Standish staring after them.
grumbled unenthusiastically. The Southerner jumped over the edge and hit at road
at a jog, in the direction of the livery. If he hurried Tanner would never
realise he’d left his post. He just needed to reassure himself that the
tracker’s steed was indeed still stabled and that Vin had not yet departed
town. He trusted Vin; it was just… precautionary, he argued. But
there was a nagging doubt that lingered. After all, Vin had not been open
with the gambler about their sojourn to Sovereign. And trusting another
went against everything he’d ever been taught.
Ezra discovered the
horse stabled, as he’d hoped, alongside his own mount. The black gelding shook
its head and edged closer to the half door. It stretched its neck out and
pushed at the gambler’s shoulder. “Are you missing your owner?” He
rubbed the horse between the ears. “You haven’t seen him, have you?”
Standish whispered conspiratorially, checking over his shoulder and expecting at
any moment to find Tanner’s dry amusement berating him. “At least I
don’t expect you to reply,” he drawled.
Ezra spent the
remaining daylight hours, searching out the town for his elusive friend, but Vin
was nowhere to be found. He asked numerous people if they’d seen, or
spoken with Tanner, but unfortunately the tracker had vanished. He hesitated at
bringing the constabulary to the attention of Vin’s disappearance, as the
former bounty hunter was still wanted with a considerable reward on his head.
But as the day came to a close, Ezra’s worry for his missing friend grew and
he headed for the telegraph office.
Chris Larabee stormed
into the jailhouse. He glanced at the sole prisoner behind the bars and
dismissed him as unimportant, turning his full attention on the man sitting
behind the desk. Buck. “Leave him,” Larabee ordered, and walked
outside, his black duster flapping predatorily behind him.
Buck Wilmington caught
up with his friend in the street, but had to increase his pace to keep step with
the irate gunslinger. He recognised the stern lines on the face of the
gunslinger, it came with many years of knowing the other man. “What’s
“I’ll explain when
we’ve got everyone together.”
Wilmington nodded, he
knew when it was wise to push Larabee, and now was not the time. “I’ll
go get Josiah.” They’d been friends for over a decade. Something
was up. And whatever it was, it was important to Chris Larabee. That
made it equally important to Buck.
“JD too, if you know
where he is,” Chris added before stalking off to the clinic.
Josiah Sanchez, JD
Dunne and Buck were waiting in the saloon when Larabee entered. Their
talking ceased, and as one three heads lifted in anticipation. Nathan
Jackson, the town’s healer, trailed a pace behind the tense enigma.
Chris noted that the
room was deserted, other than his fellow lawmen. That could have been just
fortuitous, considering it was still relatively early, but he wondered if
Wilmington had precipitated it somehow. He nodded with thanks to the
“Got a wire from
Standish,” Larabee broke the silence with his terse tone. “Says
“What does he
mean... gone?” Buck frowned, fearing that the lanky tracker had met an
untimely death. He hadn’t known Tanner as long as he’d known Chris and
didn’t share the unique camaraderie that existed between Chris and Vin, but
the Texan was someone Buck considered to be a close personal friend and he would
be pained to lose any of his friends.
clarified, handing the note to Wilmington for him to read. “Standish
can’t find him.”
“Has he even
looked?” Nathan asked caustically.
“Maybe Vin just rode
Chris shook his head
at Dunne. Standish would do that, but not Vin. “His horse is still at
Josiah queried, a furrow etched deeply between the preacher’s eyes.
There was always that possibility considering the large sum of money that rested
on Tanner’s head. They didn’t need to be reminded that it had happened
before - and recently at that. Tanner really needed to clear his name.
Being falsely accused of murdering Jess Kincaid was going to be Vin’s
downfall…if it wasn’t already.
Chris flicked his gaze
to the older man and grimly thinned his lips. “Yeah, could be.”
“Ridge City is
pretty big. Is Ezra certain Vin is truly missing?” Josiah challenged.
“Maybe Vin just wanted some time to himself.” Can be mighty
frustrating at times being in the company of the Southerner, without some
respite. Standish could talk a dead horse into seeking out a better
resting place. Him jawing on Tanner’s ear for a week solid might have
broken Vin’s resolve.
“They ain’t in
Nathan plucked the
wire from Buck’s hands. “Sovereign!” he exclaimed.
Chris rubbed at his
jaw. He agreed with Jackson’s stunned revelation and it troubled him not
knowing why they had travelled to the progressive western town. It was not
on a direct route between Ridge City and Four Corners and Larabee knew Vin was
almost paranoid about avoiding large crowds.
“What are they doin’
there?” Jackson questioned suspiciously. “That adds at least two more
days on the trail goin’ that way.” Don’t it beat all, he sneered.
Standish and Tanner were due back in town on the morrow.
“I don’t know.
But I aim to find out!” Then maybe this nonsense can be cleared up.
He’d sent the pair to Ridge City to act as protection for a friend of Judge
Travis’. Job was to last a week and then they were to return to Four
Corners. There was plenty of work to do here without losing two of his men
to another town on babysitting services. They were shorthanded with two of
the seven away and the five remaining peacekeepers had been strung thinly
covering their absence.
“We all goin’?”
Dunne asked, jumping to his feet eager to get going.
“Yeah. I want
to leave within an hour.”
Chris arched a
speculative eyebrow. “Who?”
“Clay Barnes, the
fella we got locked up in the jail,” Buck supplied, a small grin curled under
his thick moustache.
“What’d he do?”
“Just knocked over a
few stools and smashed a coupla windows.”
surmised. Friday and Saturday nights were always the same; there was
always some fool who wound up in the lock up for the night. Sometimes it
was more than one.
“Let him out with a
stepped up in his stirrups and casually checked out the town. He brought his
hand to his face and shielded it from the sun; the brim of the bowler hat
didn’t give him sufficient shade, but he’d never admit that to Buck.
Wilmington hated his choice of headwear, but if Bat Masterson could get away
wearing a bowler, than so could he. JD planned on making a name for
himself and he needed a recognisable trademark. There was no way in hell
he was getting rid of it.
While they sat on the
crest before entering town a carriage pulled out past them and several men on
horseback found their way into town. The carriage continued through the
town and didn’t pull up until it reached the far end. Both the riders
stopped at the first saloon, leaving their horses tethered to the hitching rail.
Sovereign bustled with
activity and although it was only marginally larger than Four Corners, the
population was significantly higher. People hurried along the boardwalks,
even spilling out onto the road as they went about their chores. Children
played hopscotch and marbles in any vacant space. They ran in groups of
four or five chasing each other and shouting their pleasure at not attending
gonna find Vin here?” It had been two days since Ezra had sent word to
the remaining seven and upon arriving, Dunne discovered Sovereign busier
than he expected it to be. There were folks everywhere! Buck had
informed the young gunslinger that he had visited Sovereign many years before,
but had not been overly impressed with his stay, stating that he barely
remembered the fledgling western town. It had become a boomtown,
coming ahead in those years, following the discovery of silver. Not
everyone lived in the boarding houses or could afford the prestige of a room in
one of several hotels, hence the white city of tents that encroached the entry
The businesses had
expanded with the influx of people seeking their fortunes, bringing wealth to
the small industries, if not to many of the hardworking miners.
Larabee stared at the
young gunslinger for a moment, and without saying a word he continued down the
main road. He regarded the hungry look in the many travellers and scowled.
How had Standish managed to entice Tanner into coming here? The scent of
failure far outweighed those successes and many became so destitute in
attempting to reach their goals that any profits made were diminished by the
hardships of life. He found it hard fathoming the attraction that digging
one’s grave could bring. It irked him that Standish would be interested.
Sure, Larabee knew the gambler was greedy and manipulative, hadn’t he
abandoned them at the Seminole village to chase after the elusive gold? He
wondered who would do the manual labour; Standish was not one to dig around in
Dunne sat back in his
seat. “Did I say somethin’ wrong?”
Buck shook his head.
When would the kid learn to keep his tongue under control? “Not likely
that Tanner would still be here. If bounty hunters have got him, then
they’d be on their way to Tuscosa by now.”
JD gasped, and his
eyes widened. “Then why aren’t we in Tuscosa?”
Sanchez guided his
horse alongside the others. It had been a fast and furious trip. His aging
bones were feeling aches and pains that in younger years would not have
concerned him. “We don’t know that’s why Vin disappeared, son.
Could be, he wasn’t taken by bounty hunters.” What was the chance of
that? He still held some hope for the Texan – Josiah had not seen any
“So do we check with
the sheriff?” Dunne glanced along the buildings searching for the
“Might not be wise
to invite the law into our search, JD.” Sanchez kneed his mount and led
it passed the others.
“Then how we plannin’
on finding Vin?”
“We find Ezra
first,” Wilmington advised.
Larabee dismounted the
black gelding and loosened the cinch. He stalked to the swinging doors and
stood in the doorway getting a feel for the atmosphere. He allowed his
eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, clouded thickly with wafting rings of smoke,
the bright sunlight from outdoors not permeating into the building. The
spasmodic roar of laughter and click of glass drifted to greet him at the
entrance, drawing his roving eyes about the hectic interior. His grim
expression turned to anger when he discovered Standish at the centre of the
room, playing court to a handful of cowboys. His fury increased when Ezra
laughed loudly and raked in his winnings. Chris let the door swing back
and surged into the room; ignoring the curious looks he received. He wove
his way between the furniture and sweaty bodies until he stood over Ezra’s
table. He planted his hand amid the gambler’s booty. “Game’s
over!” His mouth quirked menacingly and the group dispersed rapidly.
Standish drawled, relaxing back in his seat.
Chris hooked a chair
with his leg and sank slowly into it, never losing eye contact with the
Southerner. “Where’s Vin?” he snarled.
“I trust you had an
uneventful journey?” Standish arched his brows. “At least the weather
was to your advantage,” he rambled, drawing a pinched look from the
gunslinger. Ezra shifted his gaze as the others spread throughout the
saloon, wending their way over to his table. “Gentlemen! What an
“What the hell are
you on about?” Chris hissed, grabbing a handful of the gambler’s vest and
pulling them together. “Where is Vin?!”
Ezra smiled, but the
gesture was not friendly. He glanced contemptuously down at Larabee’s
hold. There was always a barrier between the pair. If not for the others,
Ezra knew his presence would not be welcome. It all went back to his
desertion at the Seminole village – it was an ill-conceived idea and greedy
trait, but what had been done, could never be undone. He regretted his
moment of weakness, and his decision to leave still weighed heavily between
Chris and forgiveness. Larabee only tolerated him for God knows whatever
reasons. Perhaps his skills were of some use to the gunslinger.
Though Larabee would never admit it. Maybe his time with the seven had
drawn to an end. “Perhaps we could discuss this in private,” Ezra
snarled through clenched teeth, knowing that they had gained the full attention
of everybody in the room. News of the five potentially dangerous
newcomers’ arrival in Sovereign would be all over town before they left the
Josiah patted Chris on
the shoulder, squeezing slightly when the gunslinger didn’t immediately
release his hold on Ezra. “That sounds like a good idea. You got a
room at the hotel, Ezra?”
nodded, answering the preacher’s question. He pushed back the chair and
walked at a clipped pace from the saloon.
Larabee gestured with his head.
Dunne stepped in line
to follow Wilmington and Larabee, but Josiah’s large hand to the middle of his
chest stopped him in his tracks. “But…” he frowned up at the tall
invited. And the horses need tending to, son.” Sanchez moved to
the bar. He could do with a stiff drink after the bone-jarring ride.
Dunne stood still, his
hands resting on his hilt of his guns. “But, aren’t we…we need ta…what
are…Aw hell.” He waved his hands high in the air and stomped from the
building, mumbling under his breath.
“All right, Standish.
What’s going on?” Larabee hadn’t completely entered the rented room before
he started. He didn’t take note of the peeling wall paint or the scuffed
floorboards; Chris wanted answers, and he wanted them yesterday. His best
friend was missing.
The Southerner waited
until Buck closed the door before sparing a glance at the irate gunman.
“I thought it would be more prudent not to have the entire populace of
Sovereign privy to our dilemma, or for them to realise we were all working
together, but that is a mute point now.” Ezra startled a fraction when
Chris drew his gun and pointed it at his chest. He licked his lips and
watched as the gunslinger’s finger tightened around the lever.
warned, but made no move to stop Larabee. Instead, he rested his frame
against the door, folding his arms across his chest. “I ‘spect, Chris
is mighty pissed considering we come all this way only to find you involved in a
poker game. Figured you woulda been doin’ a bit more ta find Vin.
Thought he was yer friend!” Wilmington accused.
Ezra stepped backwards
cautiously, his back to the window, keeping the greatest possible distance
between him and the two angry gunfighters. His eyes still fixated on the
Colt in Larabee’s hand. He wondered if the gunman was going to use it.
“I didn’t cause Mr. Tanner’s disappearance!” His own anger growing
to match theirs.
“Don’t look to me
like you could care less,” Larabee snarled, bringing his arm down and making a
show of holstering his Colt.
Ezra sighed; he had
fully expected a confrontation, but not to this extent. “Mr. Larabee, I
have been familiarizing myself with the good people of this town. Getting
to know them, and for them to trust me will facilitate their willingness to
talk. I needed to gain their confidence. This can only assist in
locating Mr. Tanner,” he explained.
Larabee thumped his
fist on the bureau, rattling the mirror that hung on the wall. “You lazy
son of a bitch! Do you take me for a fool? I could see quite clearly
what you were doing when I walked into that saloon, and it sure as hell wasn’t
working to find Vin! I don’t have time for this! I’ve got a
friend to find,” the gunslinger dismissed, glowering at the gambler as he
Ezra paused, waiting until Buck faced him. “Would you please inform Mr.
Larabee that it is indeed possible Vin is still in town.”
“But you don’t
He was displeased with
how the reunion had panned out and his shoulders sagged, in desolation.
“Yes.” He had spent the past two days scouring the town searching for
a trace, but he was not a tracker. He had come up with a few clues, but he
needed time to analyse them. He thought with the arrival of the others
that they could help muddle though them. Perhaps when Larabee had calmed
down, he mused. No, he wasn’t going to listen to anything the
gambler had to say; at least not for a while.
He rubbed his thumb
over his lower lip, staring at the empty room. Maude might have been right
after all. He had stayed in Four Corners far too long, formed too many
attachments, and now depended on six other men to watch his back. It was a
weakness he could well do without. They didn’t trust him to watch their
backs. Now the others were here, perhaps it was high time to abandon his
façade that he belonged. And before he was asked to leave, it might be
wise to make his own plans to slip away.
Tanner shifted his
weight, groaning slightly as the manacles rubbed against his raw wrists.
His arms were numb from being drawn together above his head and locked against
the stonewall. Initially his hands tingled with pins and needles, but that
had long since faded. His entire body was a mass of aches and bruises.
He brushed his cheek on his shoulder, scratching at the stubble on his face.
He wouldn’t say no to a bath and shave at the moment.
Vin licked at his
lips, feeling the dry cracks that were split with fresh blood. God, he
needed a drink. He longingly eyed the barrel that was temptingly out of
reach. “Damn, that son of a bitch!” he cursed, pounding the wall at
his back with his boot. Curses to his bad luck! Of all the places he
could have visited and it was this piss ant town that somebody recognised him.
He hadn’t even considered it. His sole purpose eliminated any
prospective threats from his mind. The size of the town had increased
since he’d last visited. The discovery of silver proved a boon. He
imagined Standish was frothing at the bit to get his hands on some.
The Texan wondered why
he’d been shackled in this tiny room, and not on his way to Tuscosa to hang.
When he was chasing bounties, as soon as he’d captured the outlaw, Tanner
would head them off to jail and claim his reward. This situation was
strange. He couldn’t get a grip on why he was being held, unless his
captor had no plans on taking Vin to Tuscosa. But that made no sense at
Vin was curious as to
why he was still in Sovereign, or he presumed still moderately close to town.
His keeper lived in Sovereign. He’d knocked Vin out and brought him to
this place of hell, claiming to know about the five hundred dollar bounty on the
tracker’s head, but as yet, he’d not shown any plans to move Tanner.
Vin pondered the reasons his jailor waited. At least the delay in setting
off for Tuscosa would give Ezra a chance to find him. That was assuming
the gambler bothered. But then, what if Ezra was hurt because of him?
What if the gambler came looking for him and got injured, or worse, while he
looked? What if the cretin who clobbered Vin, wasn’t so forgiving of the
Tanner wondered if the
others knew of his disappearance. They had to, he mused. Ezra and
Vin had been due back in Four Corners a few days ago. Standish would’ve
had to tell them something. He knew this without a doubt.
painfully; his throat was dry and hoarse from calling out. Guess it
wasn’t too important for his captor to feed him regularly or allow him to
drink. Reckon if he were going to hang it would be the last thing he
should be considering. His jailer came twice a day, once early in the
morning before the sun had risen, and again in the evening. He seemed set
on the peculiar schedule, offering Vin meagre scrapings and a drink from the
barrel. Then the man would desert him for the remainder of the day.
The jailer said very little to him at these times and was nervous and fidgety in
the tracker’s presence. He’d noticed the wedding band on the man’s
finger and wondered if he had family in town. Vin attempted to pump the
skittish man for information, but he would only state that he was surprised that
Tanner was so eager to die.
Vin wiggled his
fingers, attempting to alleviate the numbing sensations. He rested his
head between his raised arms, and contemplated for the umpteenth time how the
weaselly man had gotten the upper hand. He should never have let his guard
down, even for a minute, but that was all it took. He recalled visiting
the graveyard and only being vaguely aware of the other man in the fenced off
cemetery. He didn’t know how long he stood at the aging headstone.
He had swept away the weeds that fought to take over the plot and crouched
beside the grave, tears threatening at the corners of his eyes.
His head was buried in
his hands as a shadow swept over him. It didn’t immediately register as
a threat, but the slight scuffle of boots in the dried clay had his head
snapping up and his mare’s leg in his hands aimed and cocked at the intruder.
The dark cloaked mourner startled, raising both hands in defence. He
apologised for the interruption, stumbling over his feet, and his words, and
quickly backing out of the graveyard to rush terrified down the street.
Vin immediately felt
ashamed for the fear he’d caused the other man. After all, he assumed,
they were both visiting with loved ones. He watched the fleeing back of
the other man, taking note of which building he entered. Tanner intended
to apologise after he’d finished his visit, before meeting up with Standish at
the saloon. It would only take a few minutes longer to make the detour.
But he wouldn’t feel right leaving town without first making amends.
That wasn’t exactly
how things turned out.
Vin kicked his free
leg out angrily, and slammed his head back on the bricks, wincing at the pain
the action caused. The knot on the side of his head was healing, but after
the rash movement the throbbing renewed, and he cursed his stupidity.
Tanner mulled over
Ezra’s reaction to his disappearance. Did Standish even care? The Southerner
had been curious to learn why Vin altered their route so they could visit
Sovereign, and had badgered him relentlessly until Tanner had lost his temper
and angrily told Standish to mind his own business. Their parting words
had been quite spiteful and Tanner was ashamed of his behaviour. He
hadn’t intended to alienate the gambler, but the verbose man wouldn’t stop
harassing him for an answer. One he didn’t feel comfortable discussing
with Standish. Not at that time.
After spending the
past three days shackled in the gloomy prison he would give anything just for
some company. He hated the claustrophobic feeling of the small room, and
spent many hours just concentrating on his breathing so he wouldn’t go mad.
The room stank of rotting vegetation and, to his embarrassment, his own bodily
fluids also merged with the unhealthy odour, not to mention that it was
incredibly cold and damp during the night and stinking hot during the day.
The ceiling served as a floor to the room above, but it was obviously not used
by anyone but his captor. He called out until he was hoarse, but no one came to
his aid. The smell of horseflesh and manure drifted down through the trapdoor
whenever it was opened, and the curiously strong scent of lumbar.
Vin winced as the
manacles bit into his arms, he changed his position again, wishing he could lie
down or even sit for a time. How much longer did he have to wait?
“Help! Is anybody up there?”
Chris returned to the
Howling Dogs saloon, his mood apparent by the dark scowl and fury in his steel
blue eyes. He didn’t pay much attention to the dimly lit saloon; as far
as saloons went, this one was no better and no worse then any others he’d
visited since his wife’s death. It was a place to meet and drink -
nothing more. He laid claim to a vacant table and tossed his hat to the
Josiah and Nathan
moved from adjacent corners of the room, joining Chris at the table by the door.
Josiah’s deep baritone broke the silence between them. “Nobody’s
talking much. Seems like they don’t cotton to strangers.”
Jackson nodded in
agreement. “I talked to those folk over there and they aren’t saying
much of anything.”
“And we’ve only
got Ezra’s word that Tanner was with him when they came to Sovereign,”
Larabee snarled suspiciously. Had Standish abandoned Vin in an earlier
town, and was he now conning them to believe Vin had disappeared here?
Chris had to wonder at the gambler’s motives, if that was the case.
“Ezra may be a
self-serving con-artist, but I don’t think he’s lying about this. Don’t
reckon even he’d pull something like that,” Sanchez said in defence.
“Maybe he’s got
the wool pulled over yer eyes, Josiah,” Chris snorted.
through the swinging doors and dragged a seat from elsewhere, edging it between
Josiah and Chris. He studied the tight control that Larabee held over his
emotions and hoped the mountain was not about to erupt. “Ezra reckons
Vin is still in town.” Buck watched the slight tick that began at the corner
of Larabee’s mouth and spread to form a sneer. Chris didn’t believe
“Did he say what
they were doing here?” Standish’s quick get rich scheme, no doubt.
Buck raised and
dropped his shoulders into a noncommittal shrug. He hadn’t thought to
quiz the gambler on why they deviated to Sovereign. “Does it matter?”
The most crucial point at present surely was Vin’s absence.
Chris ordered. “See what you can find out. Talk to everyone, twice
if necessary. And don’t forget those miners.”
“I’ll take the
boarding house on this side of the street,” Josiah offered.
“Get JD to see about the other one.”
“I’ll go talk to
the smithy,” Nathan volunteered. He’d noticed the blacksmith’s shop
on the way into town. He figured that being an ex-slave himself would be
an advantage, considering the dark skin colour of the smithy. Not that Nathan
was a bigot, but sometimes they found it easier to talk more freely to one of
their own kind. And they didn’t have time for hurt egos. Nathan
left before the others had even finished discussing where they would go.
“I’ll take the
Chinese laundry…it’s amazing what you can learn in those places.”
Chris would work his way through the guests at the hotel.
Ezra watched from his
hotel window as the five lawmen dispersed from the saloon. He followed the
destinations of each and decided that approaching Chris again would not be
advisable. He settled on Josiah and checking his cravat in the mirror and
straightening it, he left his temporary abode. “There is no point
replicating over the same groundwork,” he muttered. “If only Mr.
Larabee had listened.”
“Mr. Sanchez, a
moment of your time, sir?” Ezra jogged up to him, panting slightly.
Josiah paused, a
speculative smile lighting up his eyes. “Somethin’ on your mind,
“I have already
spent considerable time questioning these residents about Mr. Tanner’s
absence. And they had nought to share worthy of our time.”
The former preacher
folded his arms and leaned his back on a support post, his foot resting on the
bottom step of the boarding house. “Maybe you didn’t ask the right
Ezra’s eyes sparked
with indignation. “I assure you sir, I am quite adept at eliciting
Sanchez shrugged, not
about to invoke Larabee’s wrath. He intended to make his own inquiries.
“You can come with me,” he offered.
Standish smiled wanly,
shaking his head. Even Josiah wouldn’t take him at his word.
“No, don’t let me delay you any further,” he drawled sarcastically.
The Southerner returned to the hotel, muttering under his breath.
Five of the seven had
returned to the Howling Dogs, although Standish sat apart, he waited all the
same. It wasn’t long before their final member arrived. Buck
joined them, a broad grin clearly seen under the thick moustache. He
rubbed the palms of his hands together, his fingers interlacing with each other.
“Boys,” he greeted. Beckoning with his head, he left the building.
The mass exodus of the
six lawmen drew curious looks from the other patrons, but none of them were
brave, or stupid enough, to follow.
“What’d you find,
Buck,” Larabee asked immediately.
“Fella by the name
of Herb, reckons he remembers seeing someone dressed like Vin, being led outta
town a couple of nights ago, with two other men. Could be bounty hunters
got the drop on him.”
“Was he hurt?”
Jackson asked. Buck shrugged, unable to answer the healer’s question.
“I don’t recall
talking with a Herb,” Standish interjected, frowning as he consulted a pocket
book he pulled from his jacket.
Larabee cast an
impatient look at the gambler and back to Wilmington. “Good work, Buck.
Did he say which way they were headed?” Wilmington pointed down the
road. “Tuscosa,” Chris grimly nodded. That was all he needed.
can’t be right,” Standish interrupted again, tapping a finger on a page
filled with notes and observations he’d collated concerning Vin’s mysterious
disappearance. Most of it was useless, but he was certain he had not
spoken with anyone by that name. “What did this Herb look like?” he
“Kinda average, brown hair, nothin’ real particular about him…”
“That describes half
the population in town. Do none of you find this strangely convenient…
considering I’ve searched for the past three days for Vin and have not come
across this Herb? Yet within a few hours of your arrival, one of you
reveals Vin has been taken by bounty hunters. Two night ago, I might
add,” he drawled.
weren’t looking in the right place…”
“Just what are you
inferring, Mr. Wilmington?”
Chris shouted. “We need to leave, they’ve got a hell of a lead on
Ezra asked incredulously. “What if you’re wrong?”
Larabee stepped within
inches of the gambler. “What if we ain’t?” His words a mere
whisper, but the threat behind them was apparent.
“May I ask,” Ezra
called after their retreating backs as they raced for the livery to saddle their
horses. “Did you find this Herb yourself or did he perchance come to you
and offer this information?” Standish sighed despondently as he was left
standing in the centre of the street, Wilmington not bothering to acknowledge
his question. That was assuming, the larger man had heard it with his
haste to leave. Why don’t they listen to me?
“You coming with
us?” JD urgently called, spinning in the dirt.
It was a long pause
before the Southerner answered. “Not at this time, Mr. Dunne.”
The gambler waved a
solemn hand as his friends left. He stood watching them until the
thundering echo of five horses faded in the distance and the clouds of dust
settled back to the road. He continued to stare down the path long after
they had departed. Should he wait? Or go with them? He numbly
held onto the rail, hanging on with a white-knuckled grip. Damn you,
Larabee! Damn you all to hell!
Ezra’s eyes widened
briefly when he finally noticed, on the opposite side of the road, the intense
look the sheriff too, had been giving his compatriots. When the lawman
turned his attention to Standish, Ezra saluted him with two fingers. He
inwardly groaned as the man set a path toward him.
“You ain’t leaving
with ‘em?” He dropped the cigar stub and ground it out with the heel of his
“I’m afraid there
are more opportunities at the tables then I expected,” he smiled affably at
the sheriff and moved to sidestep around him.
it?” At Ezra’s slight nod the man continued. “Jake Jenkins.”
He held out his hand, but when Ezra ignored the gesture he lowered it to his
side. “Probably be best if you were leaving too.” The sheriff
patted the gun that was holstered in his gunbelt around his broad hips.
didn’t falter. “Indeed?” He leant against the vertical post
and eyed the aging lawman speculatively. Why did he want the gambler to
“You and yer friends
have been askin’ a lot of questions…don’t deny it,” he forestalled by
holding up his hand. “I ain’t blind…and I got a lot of loyal
deputies that will back me up.”
“What do you
“Want ta know why
yer chasing after Tanner, for a start?”
withered a fraction, but it was so slight the sheriff would not have noticed.
“I’m afraid you’ve been fed some sort of nonsense…”
“I didn’t come
down in the last shower, Mister! I know Vin Tanner has a bounty on his
head and I’m well aware you know that too. Now, if I have to, I can show
you to the jail,” he nodded off to Ezra’s right and then to his left,
indicating the deputies that had gathered on either side of the Southerner.
Jenkins’s gaze and cursed. How had he let them steal up behind him?
And what exactly was the lawman insinuating? Why would Jenkins suggest
locking up the gambler? There were many occasions that he warranted
incarceration, but then he was usually at fault and deserving of the punishment.
But in this case he had done nothing wrong. At least he didn’t think so.
And the sheriff seemed
aware of the bounty on Tanner’s head. Didn’t that make Jenkins a
suspect, one Standish hadn’t initially considered in Vin’s disappearance?
Was he the man who’d abducted Vin? “If you are after the reward on
Vin, I think you’ll find it has already been claimed.” That is if
Buck’s information was correct.
Ezra’s statement, the lawman shook his head. Was Standish saying that
the five men who just rode out had captured Vin and were about to claim the
reward? “Tanner didn’t leave with yer friends…” The confused
expression on the sheriff’s face changed to a grim line as he glanced down the
dirt road at the path Larabee and the others took to depart town.
Ezra’s own confusion
rose. They seemed to be talking in circles. “No,” he drawled
cautiously. “They are friends of Mr. Tanner.” He dared not say
anymore for fear that the sheriff would form a posse and send them after Larabee
to prevent the gunslinger from assisting the tracker. Or some such notion.
“Yer a friend of
nodded. The sheriff sounded more threatening toward him than he did when
he spoke of the tracker.
Jenkins seemed to be
considering this news. “I’ve been livin’ in these parts for near on
forty-five years,” he revealed. Been sheriff of Sovereign for the past
three years. I raised my family here, two daughters and three sons.
I lost two of my boys in the first year of the war and lost my first grandchild
to scarlet fever. My girls both live in town with their families and my son runs
a coach service through here once a week. I’m right proud of my kids.
And I believe family should always come first.”
Ezra wondered if the
sheriff expected some sort of reply from him.
“Spent the best
years of my life in Sovereign. There are some real fine folks here.
Some of them have left, but friends are hard to come by, and when you find
people who share the same beliefs and goals, they are the ones you remember. The
ones who you’ll stick yer neck out a little further to protect.”
“This is all very
“Tanners lived here
a while,” he interrupted the gambler. “Not long, mind you, but Vin’s
ma is buried out at the cemetery.” He pointed to the south road that led
from town. The cemetery on the knoll was surrounded with a picketed fence.
“The boy and his father left soon after she died.”
Standish snapped his
gaze up and followed the outstretched fingers. Was that why Vin wanted so
desperately to visit here? “This has all been very enlightening, but I
must be going.” He was pulled back to the boardwalk as thick fingers dug
into his arm, reminding him that he was not at liberty to leave until Jenkins
“Let him leave,
Turner,” Jenkins ordered the deputy on Ezra’s left.
Ezra quirked an amused
eyebrow at the lawman. “Thank you,” he belatedly added as the three
lawmen drifted back to the jailhouse. He needed to find Herb.
“Do you happen to know where I might find a gentleman by the name of…
Jenkins spun on his
heels, glanced between his deputies and up to the Southerner. “Ain’t
no one in town. ‘Cept maybe Hernandez. Cyrus Hernandez.” He
shrugged, could be him, Jenkins mused. “The boys sometimes refer to him
as Herb,” he added thoughtfully, rubbing at his jaw. “Lots of new folk
coming in all the time though, hard to keep track of them all.”
He’d seen the steady stream of traffic arriving each day. “Where would
I find this Cyrus Hernandez?”
working at Barrett’s, does some of the heavy work for Wes, seeing as how the
old codger’s got a crippled leg. If he ain’t there, then he’s got a
shack down by the river, about half a mile out of town …”
He’d seen the merchant’s store and didn’t require directions.
The gambler strolled
along the side of the store. He quickly glanced inside the building and
discovered only the elderly Wes Barrett slouching behind the counter.
Standish didn’t say anything to the storeowner, as he was reluctant to alert
Hernandez, or to have the merchant press him about another game of chance.
As much as Standish had enjoyed the challenge the older man presented, he had
lost a marginal amount of money to the gambler over the last few days and Ezra
was reluctant to take any more of his money. Barrett seemed to be addicted
to the game, and when he wasn’t behind the counter in his store he was playing
poker in the saloon. Standish didn’t want to be the one to send the
merchant into financial difficulties. Although the way Barrett was obsessed with
the game, it was only a matter of time before he fell from grace.
Standish skirted the
merchant’s store and lingered at the corner of the building, watching as two
lumbering giants loaded a wagon with sawn timber. Ezra recognised both men
immediately from his previous conversations with each, although neither man’s
name came to mind. He had talked with them both regarding Vin’s
disappearance, but neither had been forthcoming with any relevant information.
He wondered which man was Cyrus Hernandez, and why he had belatedly come forward
to speak with Buck. Only one way to find out, he surmised. “Mr
Hernandez…” Ezra called out, stepping clear of the building’s shadow.
To the Southerner’s
surprise, both men’s eyes jumped to meet his, but only for a fraction of a
second. The man closest to Ezra lazily glanced behind himself to his
partner and grunted when he was left to struggle alone with the board when the
other end was hastily dropped. Hernandez raced to his saddled horse, and
sprang into the seat, spurring it into motion.
Ezra arched a
speculative eyebrow and shared a brief look with the bewildered lackey.
“Was it something I said?” the gambler asked derisively. “That was
Cyrus Hernandez, I presume?”
“Yeah,” the giant
grumbled, rubbing at his shoulder. “He owe ya money or something?”
The lumbering man looked Ezra up and down. He had seen the gambler in the
Standish admitted and made plans to follow his most recent clue. Herb…or
Hernandez must know something or why else had he run? Why had he told Buck
about seeing Vin leaving with two bounty hunters? The others might not
trust him to find Vin, but he was determined to see this through, especially as
Larabee had left him little choice, by going to Tuscosa. Standish firmly
believed Vin Tanner was not very far away. There were too many
inconsistencies. Too many questions and too few answers.
the chestnut gelding along the banks of the river. A well-used path
dictated his direction. It wasn’t long before the Southerner could
see the cabin. His first impression was that the place was deserted,
but on closer examination Ezra could hear movements within the structure.
He dismounted, leaving his horse behind to cross the last part on foot.
He picked up a
handful of stones, and stalked to the cabin. Nobody came outside to
greet him. When Ezra reached the front, he saw Hernandez’s horse
tethered under a lean-to. It lifted its head from the bucket of
feed, and nickered softly. The mount flicked its tail, but presently
went back to eating. Standish tossed one of the stones high in the
air; it landed with a soft thud on the cabin’s roof. He threw
another one a few seconds after the first. And then a third.
After the fifth
stone hit the roof, Cyrus Hernandez threw open the door. He stared
wide-eyed and slack jawed into the business end of Ezra’s Remington.
Hernandez,” Standish drawled. “We have some business to
discuss.” He motioned the larger man back inside the dwelling.
How could Buck describe this giant as average height? Maybe average
compared to Wilmington, but Hernandez towered over Ezra.
know what you want,” Hernandez hedged.
indicated to his prisoner to sit. “Keep your hands on the
table,” he instructed. “You are Herb, are you not?”
shrugged his agreement.
You informed Mr. Wilmington, that you witnessed Mr. Tanner being escorted
from town in the presence of bounty hunters.”
Hernandez nodded nervously as he kept his gaze on the gambler’s weapon.
inform me of this occurrence when we conversed,” he accused.
fidgeted in the chair. “Guess I forgot.”
walked behind Hernandez and cocked the pistol close the other man’s ear.
He jumped slightly and attempted to move away from the barrel, but
Standish anticipated this and brought the derringer up on the other side.
“It’s only small, but packs a hell of a punch when it’s this
close,” he warned menacingly. “Why did you lie to Buck?”
visibly shook. “He paid me.”
his Adam’s apple lifted high on his throat. “I needed the
money…didn’t reckon it was gonna hurt none.”
to be seen,” Standish muttered.
Ezra lowered his
guns and took a seat beside the nervous man. He placed the weapons
threateningly on the table. His grin turned into a feral snarl.
“Let’s talk,” he urged.
the old sawmill for a short time. It appeared deserted, but there
were recent signs of traffic leading to the structure. The roof was
held upright with a number of large sturdy posts, and originally the
building only consisted of a back and side wall, leaving one end open, as
well as the front, so the timber could easily be brought in and readily
removed. A number of small bushes now obscured the front entrance,
and several empty water barrels were piled together in disarray. He
tossed his head in wry amusement; there was no way he’d have chanced
upon this crumbling mass without the directions supplied by Hernandez, and
even then he would have dismissed it. The nervous man’s
information had better be right!
from the side, keeping a furtive eye on the road that led to the building.
He climbed though an opening in the wall, taking particular care with
where he placed his feet, as there were many broken and rotting boards
stacked against the sidewall. The mill was dank and musty; the floor
covered in a layer of old straw and hay. Old timber rails and
support beams were dotted with bird droppings and there was a distinct
line indicating where the sparrows rested during the night. Nests
lined the ceiling rafters and soft feathers gathered on the floor;
particularly thick along the sidewalls. Much of the old equipment
had been abandoned and rusted in it is original position.
the inner sanctum. It appeared as though somebody had dragged
another body inside, between the barricade of barrels and bush. The
markings were badly disguised by the use of scattered straw, but someone
had gone to some lengths to attempt to hide them. The Southerner
kicked aside some of the straw and discovered the tracks led to a section
of flooring which was no longer made of natural earth.
his boot on the wooden planks; a distinctive hollow echo replied. He
searched the corners for a rake or tool that would easily reveal the
floor. Not finding anything so handy he impatiently swept aside the
majority of the camouflage with his boot. “This better not be for
nought,” he groaned. He wiped his sweaty brow with his
handkerchief and openly appraised what he’d revealed. The wooden
floor covered a good portion of under-covered area inside, but it wasn’t
centred, nor did it extend to the sidewalls.
The gambler concentrated on the floor, crouching to get a closer look at
the way the planks locked together. It didn’t take a genius to
spot the wide trap door. He ran his fingers around the edge, marking
out the shape of the door in the floor. “Vin, are you down
A muffled voice
cried out from below the flooring. Standish lifted up the hatch and
was overpowered momentarily by the stench that wafted from the hole.
“Vin?” he called more hesitantly, peering down into the gloom.
Tanner welcomed, and in the next breath, demanded; “Get me out of
He hunkered in a
crouch, leaning over the hole attempting to see the tracker with his own
eyes. He gulped with trepidation. Standish spied the
ladder and moved it to the hole, slotting it into position. He stood
back and waited. “Whenever you are ready, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra
Ezra. You gotta come down.”
Why me? He
groaned miserably. Why couldn’t Buck or Josiah have been the ones
to find the sunken room? Was it really essential for him to descend
into the bowels of depravity? “Are you hurt?” he stalled.
He’d jump down in an instant if that were the case, but Tanner hadn’t
sounded like he was in any difficulties.
shackled to the wall.”
With a shudder,
Ezra studied the offensive pit and it wasn’t until Vin raised his voice
in anger that he began his descent. He took each step with care,
concentrating on the floor. He was part way down the narrow step
when he took a massive blow to his back, knocking him down the remainder
of the stair. He cried out in alarm, tumbling down the hole
headfirst and landing awkwardly at the bottom.
The last thing
he remembered before darkness overtook his senses was various body parts
screaming out in agony as they connected with the floor.
“My Love, is
The tired and
preoccupied man lifted his heavy eyes from his plate. The meal was
ruined and unpalatable. He threw a rueful smile at his wife.
She’d prepared dinner and he’d destroyed her fine work. He
couldn’t eat at the moment; he had too much on his mind. His hand
shook with a fine tremor and he tried to hide it under the tablecloth.
He’d never taken the life of another man before; he couldn’t even
summon the courage to check. Damn he was a fool! “Just
not hungry, is all, Corinne.”
her chin with the napkin, and dropped the cloth beside her plate.
She’d noticed her husband’s unusual mood; it had grown persistently
over the past few days. He wasn’t sleeping well and left earlier
in the mornings and came home later at night. He was angered quickly, even
snapping at his good friends and the worry lines on his forehead were
growing roots. She hoped he wasn’t working too hard, but was beginning
to have suspicions that there was another woman involved. How would
she cope if he left her? She wished he’d discuss with her what was
on his mind, get it out in the open.
She watched his
face pale and his eyes search the kitchen, but they wouldn’t meet with
hers. Her worry for her husband grew with each passing moment of
silence. His eyes misted over when they settled on one of the empty
chairs at the kitchen table. He couldn’t bring himself to
even look at the second empty seat. “Teddy, finish up and go and wash
your face and hands,” she ordered gently ushering their youngest child
from the room. As the boy raced up the stairs, she called after him,
“Get ready for bed, and I’ll be up to read your story shortly.”
lengthened between them. “I visited Elaine’s grave the other
day.” He wiped the back of his hand under his nose. He
wasn’t going to cry.
despondently into the seat. She hadn’t expected this revelation.
She found it difficult talking about her first born. It had only
been two years, but the hurt was still there and raw. She was so
young, and there had been nothing they could do. Her husband took it
badly. “She is safe in the Lord’s care.”
“Do you really
believe that?” he roared, slamming his fist angrily on the table causing
the crockery to jump. “Could he be so cruel to take both of our
girls from us?” he simpered, a tear rolling down his cheek.
Corinne bit her
lip and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. “Madeline is going to
be fine. You’ll see. We’ll find the money somehow.
And we can all go to visit her next time. She’d love to see you
and Teddy,” she cajoled.
He smiled bitterly staring at the empty chair and what it represented. “I’ll get the money.” He wouldn’t allow another child of his to be buried up on that desolate hill. He looked out the window into the blackness; his mind’s eye so full of plans. But could he sacrifice one life for that of his daughter’s? He smiled callously…if that was what it takes.
Five horses galloped hard, their riders pushing them to the limits. They had left the main road and forged their own trail overland knowing that time was against them. The sun was well past its zenith and still they didn’t stop. By late afternoon, the horses were on the verge of exhaustion. They would need to stop soon and rest the animals.
Buck slowed his horse until he completely stopped. It wasn’t long before the others followed his lead and reined their mounts back to face the immobile rider. “It don’t feel right,” he voiced thoughtfully. He’d been pondering the information he’d been told and Standish’s reaction to it ever since they’d left Sovereign.
Sanchez nodded grimly. “Been thinkin’ the same thing myself.”
Larabee glared at the ladies’ man. “You were the one to set us on this road,” he ranted.
“I know. But what if Ezra’s right? And we’re leaving Vin in town.”
Dunne frowned at the older man. “But you said that Herb fella told ya he saw Vin leavin’ with bounty hunters.” He couldn’t understand why they were even discussing this. Vin was on his way to be hanged and they were already days behind them. They needed to make up for lost time. If only some of them had gone directly to Tuscosa from Four Corners.
“Yeah,” Wilmington drawled. “Been givin’ that some more thought too. He come and found me. And if he was so worried about Tanner, as he claimed, then why hadn’t he told Ezra what he knew?”
“Ezra had talked to quite a lot of folks before we showed up,” Sanchez interjected.
Larabee raised a quizzical eyebrow. That was news to him.
Josiah lifted his shoulders and shrugged. “Everyone I spoke to said they’d already spoken with Ezra. And didn’t you see that note book of his, it was crammed full with notes and names.”
“So he did actually look for Vin,” Nathan stated dubiously.
Sanchez shook his head. “That boy’s been losing sleep over Vin’s disappearance. Reckon he blames himself.”
“So he didn’t tell Ezra…” Chris mused, wondering what Herb had to gain by not informing Standish. “Does that mean he didn’t know the two of them were together?”
“He woulda had ta blind,” Buck added sarcastically. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? It would have saved them a whole day.
“But what if Vin is half way to Tuscosa? We just gonna ignore that?” Jackson spun his mount in a circle and asked angrily.
Chris glanced at Jackson’s irate features and back to Wilmington.
“We could split up,” JD suggested. He didn’t like this any more than Nathan.
Larabee sat straighter in his saddle, the leather creaked as he changed positions. “You reckon this Herb was lying?” Buck reluctantly nodded. “And nobody else came forward with information.” It was more of a statement than a question. They all shook their heads no. “Reckon he wanted us to leave town for some reason. Or somebody did! That can only mean one thing.”
“What?” Dunne asked.
“Vin’s still in town,” Buck clarified for the younger man.
“I wonder whether Ezra was supposed to leave with us?” Sanchez mused aloud.
“Let’s ride,” Chris dug in his heels, spurring his horse back to town. Damn, he hated being played like a puppet.
“Ezra,” Vin repeated the plea. He was concerned by the still figure; he’d been waiting with growing impatience for over an hour. Standish hadn’t moved an inch since he’d fallen and even in the poor lighting Vin could ascertain his deathly pallor. “Ezra, come on, pard. Wake up.” Damn, he felt useless pinned to the wall as he was. He couldn’t even check on Standish. What use was he? He couldn’t help at all.
Tanner stretched his leg out as far as he could reach, but it was nowhere near the downed Southerner. He let the limb fall back and started talking to the unconscious man. He probably wouldn’t have started the diatribe if Standish had been awake, but he wasn’t. He rambled self-consciously to begin with, but as the time lengthened the words flowed more freely. “I’m sorry to get you involved in this. Didn’t mean for ya to get hurt. Just wanted to spend some time with my ma…and wasn’t sure how to explain it.”
The Southerner moaned, moving his arm a fraction.
Tanner smiled, comforted by the slight movement. “Ezra, you want to wake up?” Another moan responded, and glazed eyes fluttered open. “That’s it,” he encouraged. “How you doin’?”
Standish’s eyes sought out the leading voice. He was certain it was less painful in the dark void, but for some reason his body insisted he woke up. “Mr. Tanner?”
The gambler lifted his head and screwed his face as a wave of pain erupted in his shoulder. Through clenched teeth he asked in confusion; “Had I gone somewhere?”
Tanner chuckled lightly; trust Standish to take the literal meaning. “You hurt?” The gambler lay perfectly still on the floor; other than lifting his head he’d not attempted to move anything else.
Ezra dropped his head; it was too awkward to stare up at Tanner from his position on the floor. His cheek rested on the cool earthen ground and he breathed in the strong smell of damp soil. He closed his eyes; a heavy sigh parted his lips slightly. The heavy draw to return to the world of oblivion reasserted itself and within minutes he was safely comforted in the realm of unconsciousness.
“Ezra,” Vin groaned. “You gotta get up. Standish!” he shouted the gambler’s name, wincing at the sharp tone of voice he used. “Ezra, I need yer help,” he implored, but Tanner could tell the Southerner was well past hearing him.
Vin glanced at his unresponsive friend on the ground. Ezra had woken for short periods of time during the night, but he was barely lucid. He wondered how badly the gambler was injured. Once during his brief moment of consciousness, Standish had attempted to roll over; he’d cried out, a hoarse guttural sound, and slipped back into the deep void of unconsciousness. Ezra had not resurfaced since.
Tanner impatiently tugged on the restraints; he rolled his neck on his shoulders and slowly became aware of the movements on the floor above him. “Ezra,” he hissed, attempting to keep his voice to a minimum, but wanting the Southerner to acknowledge his call. Something heavy scraped across the wooden ceiling, and a light shower of dust and wood shavings filtered through the coarse joints between the timber planks.
Vin chanced another look at Ezra, but his position was unchanged. The trap door lifted and a surge of fresh air entered the stuffy quarters. The ladder was lowered down and he watched as a pair of tan leather boots descended into the hole. “You gotta help him,” Tanner implored.
Vin watched in confusion as his persecutor cautiously stepped around the gambler’s form, nudging Ezra lightly with the toe of his boot. When Standish did no more than moan softly, the intruder crept closer and sought a pulse at the gambler’s neck. A kidnapper with a conscience, what next? Standish was obviously not part of the intended equation.
Using exaggerated care, he divested Ezra of his Remington and rolled him over onto his back. Spying the shoulder holster he removed the second weapon and tucked it under his belt. He patted down the coat sleeves and startled when he triggered the derringer and it shot out of the jacket’s sleeve. “He’s got an armoury on him.”
“Be careful,” Vin shouted, when Ezra flopped forward limply.
“Shut up.” What should have been an order came out almost like a plea.
Vin struggled against the hold. “He needs a doctor.” Vin noticed the pained expression that crossed the man’s features before he bowed his head shamefaced and looked at his feet.
“Reckon he’ll have to make do with your company.” The thin man lifted Standish to a sitting position and stood behind him, snaking his hands under the gambler’s armpits. Ezra’s head lolled to the side and he groaned an anguished cry. The captor almost dropped Standish back to the floor; he was so surprised. Instead, he dragged Standish alongside Vin and propped him upright.
Vin stared in horror at the second pair of manacles above Ezra’s head. “You can’t put him in those!”
The captor lifted his gaze and panted. “Why not?” he asked, waiting for a logical reason not to proceed.
“His shoulder could be out…dislocated…he won’t be able to lift it above his head.”
The kidnapper stared blankly at Tanner, undecidedly. He crouched by the Southerner and lifted up his right arm.
“It’s the other one.”
Dropping Ezra’s right arm, he started to lift the left arm. It only moved part way, when Ezra’s green eyes snapped open. He screamed, and passed out.
“God damn it! Put it down!”
The captor did as the tracker ordered and pulled a length of rope from under his coat.
Tanner sighed. “He’s hurt. Where do you think he’s going to go down here?”
“You promise he won’t escape…”
Vin almost burst out laughing. Hell he’d be out of this place in a flash if he could. He wouldn’t be making any promises like that. “Reckon he’ll be needing some help to get out of here.”
The kidnapper seemed satisfied with that and left Ezra slumped against the wall. He dipped a ladle into the barrel and brought it to Vin’s lips.
Vin drank greedily. It had been over a day since his last drink. “Why are you doing this?”
He ignored Vin and refilled the ladle. “You want any more?”
Vin nodded. “You don’t seem the type to get into bounty hunting.” He was almost tender in his ministrations of the gambler.
“I’m not,” he admitted. “Figured I could use the money though.”
“You ain’t in any hurry to claim the reward.”
“I got responsibilities in town…ain’t like I can up and leave, just like that,” he retorted.
“What about Ezra?”
The kidnapper scratched his mop of streaked blond hair and studied the gambler. “He shouldn’t have been snooping.”
“He’s a friend,” Vin admitted, pleased that Standish had stayed in town and come looking for him.
“Yeah, well I ain’t decided yet. He might have a reward on his head too?” he asked hopefully. “You outlaws always travel in a bunch.”
“You won’t find nothing on him,” Vin confidently predicted. “You got a name?”
“You can call me,” he paused a moment, “Bert.”
“Bet that ain’t yer real name…Bert?”
“It’ll do. And it’s all you need to know. Anything special I can bring you?”
“How about some bolt cutters,” the Texan drawled sarcastically.
Bert shook his head. “Reckon I’ll be back again this evening. Don’t be getting up to any mischief while I’m away.”
Tanner watched as Bert climbed out the hole and removed the ladder after him. The trap door closed, shutting out the muted early morning light. He strained to hear the departing horse, but any sounds from above ground didn’t penetrate through to the room below.
The thundering hooves woke the sleepy town. It was still early when the five lawmen returned to Sovereign, and the streets were acutely quiet. A number of curtains at windows were swept partially aside so folks could see out, then after a moments curiosity they were drawn back into position. A light shower of rain during the early hours of the morning had dampened the road and settled the dust, leaving a soft sticky texture on the top surface.
“Josiah, go and wake Ezra,” Chris ordered, wanting to talk with the gambler immediately. “Nathan, you and JD settle the horses, Buck you come with me. We’ll meet at the restaurant.”
Behind them Jenkins stepped from the jail. He cleared his throat and wandered over to the man in black. “You’re back.”
“What’s it to you,” Chris challenged.
“Figured you must have had a lead on Tanner.”
Larabee stepped closer. He glanced at the badge on the man’s chest and up into his pale green eyes. “What do you know about it?”
“Talked to Standish yesterday after you left. He said you were Vin’s friends.”
Buck pushed past Larabee. “We are. Do you know where he is?”
“Can’t say as I do.”
Sanchez jogged along the boardwalk from the hotel, his boots thumping rapidly on the wooden boards. “Ezra’s not there, Chris. His bed ain’t been slept in, but all his gear is still in the room.”
“Check the stables, see if he’s still in town.” The older man nodded and headed off toward the livery.
“He was looking for Cyrus Hernandez after we finished talking yesterday,” the sheriff offered.
“Why would he be wanting to see him?” Wilmington asked.
“Actually, he was askin’ about Herb, and the only fella I knew who went by that moniker was Cyrus. Wasn’t sure though, that was who Standish was looking for.”
Buck and Larabee shared a concerned look. “You seen Ezra since then?”
The sheriff shrugged. “I wasn’t keeping tabs on him,” he answered defensively.
“Where can we find Hernandez?”
“He works on and off for Barrett’s Mercantile,” he pointed in the direction of the store. “And he’s got a cabin down by the river.” He gave direction to Hernandez’s cabin and left the two lawmen to find breakfast.
Josiah returned from the livery with Nathan and JD. He’d told them about Standish’s absence. “His horse ain’t there.”
“Damn!” cursed Larabee. Now he had two men to find. “Let’s get some breakfast, then go and find Hernandez.”