The petite woman
smiled at the pleasant welcome. She tugged Teddy from out behind her
skirts. “Verna. How are you? How is Jake?” The
sheriff’s wife had been like a mother to Corinne when she arrived in
town newly married with a babe on the way, seven years before.
She’d been a confident and a mentor. Corinne was very fond of the
She patted the blond headed child and winked at him. Verna produced
a long strap of liquorice from her basket and offered it to the boy.
She held it patiently as Teddy sought his mother’s approval of the
treat. His wide eyes shone when Corinne nodded. “I
just called past your rooms and the place was all closed up tight,”
Verna curiously said.
down the street, a frown rapidly forming on her brow. She swallowed
awkwardly; she was not accustomed to lying, especially not to Verna
Jenkins. She could feel the colour rise to her cheeks and the
butterflies flutter nervously in her belly. “Albert said… he
might start opening a little later, spend more time with Teddy.”
sweet. How is Madeline?”
Albert is coming with us next time we go.”
wonderful news. Business must be good.”
go…” she nervously hurried down the sidewalk, dragging the toddler
behind her. Where was he? And why had he slipped from their
bed so early that morning? Was he leaving her bed to crawl into the
bed of another? She desperately needed to know. And where was
the money they’d been saving towards Madeline’s hospital bills?
It was missing from the jar above the pantry shelf. Had someone
found the hiding place? How were they going to replace the stolen
money? Corinne wondered if Albert had reported the theft to the
certain this is the right place?” Larabee rested his boot on the
here-abouts,” Wilmington waved his hand in a circular motion.
Dunne bent to a
crouch and examined a horseshoe print in the soil. He lightly
fingered the impression. “This is from Ezra’s horse.”
you so sure?” Wilmington squatted beside Dunne and studied the print
line? Well I just know that Ezra’s horse has that track.”
man smirked at the young gunslinger. “Vin been giving you
I’ve just been taking more notice of things like that. Thought it
might come in handy.”
JD,” Chris complimented. “So Standish was here. Did he
meet up with this Hernandez? And if so, where is he?”
Sanchez stood in
the doorway of the cabin. “My guess is, Hernandez packed up and
left.” The cabin stood naked in empty glory. Stripped to the bare
roots of the shell.
after Standish was here?” Chris muttered. “JD can you tell
which way Standish left?”
the ground, walking in small circles, but with a disappointed shake of his
head he looked up at Larabee. “The ground’s all torn up from the
wagon that left here.”
“Now what are
we gonna do?” Buck asked Larabee.
“JD, do you
think you can track Hernandez?”
Easterner smiled broadly. “Sure!” he almost whooped at the
chance to prove himself.
“Then I want
you and Nathan to catch up to him. Find out if Standish spoke with
him and where Ezra is now.”
you’re following the right trail?” Jackson questioned.
Dunne reined in
his mount and wiped his sleeve across his sweaty brow. “They’re
wagon tracks, Nathan,” he exclaimed indignantly. “Ain’t like
we could get ‘em mixed up.”
indulgently. “Guess yer right. Just thought we’d have
caught up with him by now.”
too much longer. The tracks are getting deeper, horse is tiring.”
studied the parallel ruts and scratched his chin thoughtfully. He
was only teasing Dunne about being able to follow Hernandez’s path, but
was surprised at the depth of knowledge JD showed in interpreting the
trail. He heard the enthusiastic gunman stating that over the next
rise they should be able to see him. “Least then we can get back
to finding, Vin.”
some of us ought to have gone on to Tuscosa. You know he’s gonna
be hanged once he gets there!”
to think that was all a lie.”
at first,” JD argued.
a broad grin widened, showing pearly white teeth. “There he is!
About time we got some answers.” The tall black man spurred his
horse and surged down the rise, beating a path to the weary wagon.
widely at the younger man. Aside from the seriousness of the
situation he was actually enjoying himself. It had been a simple
manoeuvre to stop the fleeing Hernandez.
“Look I told
that Southerner everything I knew.”
“I reckon my
friend won’t hurt you too much if you tell us the same information,”
JD growled, nodding in Jackson’s direction. The healer was idly
sharpening his knives against one another.
eyes bulged. It wasn’t worth the measly sixty dollars he’d been
paid, so he quickly relayed his part, admitting he’d lied to Wilmington
about the bounty hunters. What did it matter now? He’d told
the gambler, now these two.
When Dunne and
Jackson were satisfied, they dismissed the informant in disgust.
They’d wasted two entire days because of his interference. And
Standish was missing also, as a result. Could things get any worse?
gently at the crumpled figure with his foot. “Quit yer sleeping,
Ezra. You can do that any ole time.”
his head slightly and groaned; coloured dots swam in front of his eyes.
excitedly repeated. “Ezra, wake up!”
Tanner,” Standish replied, his accent thickened and slurred. He
thumped his head on the stonewall and gazed bleary eyed up at the chained
man. “Could you please lower you voice,” he whispered.
A small smile
tugged at the Texan’s mouth. “Can you get these shackles off
Ezra gripped his
left arm tightly to his chest, and pushed back on the wall behind him.
He screamed loudly and sank back to the floor.
Vin winced at
the mind-numbing scream; his ears were ringing with the overdose of noise.
“Ezra,” he called after a few moments. “Hey, pard, you
hurt?” He was surprised by the uncharacteristic snort from the
irritably at the tracker. Of course he was hurt! Every bone in
his body was making him aware of the trauma it had suffered. He
hugged his left arm closer to his chest. Damn, he hated it when his
shoulder dislocated. “I don’t recommend falling down a flight of
stairs,” he drawled sleepily.
dryly. “It’s more of a ladder, Ezra.”
at the empty place where the steps should have been, and sighed.
“It is still over-rated.” He slowly straightened his lower
limbs, attempting to determine how painful it was to move them.
outright, watching the gambler’s mechanical movements. His brief
moment of levity stopped abruptly when Standish hissed sharply.
“Maybe you oughta not move.”
Ezra made a
pointed look at the closed trapdoor. “If you want to depart this
establishment then I need to ascertain which parts I can depend upon.”
Having discovered his left knee was a casualty from his fall, Standish
avoided putting any undue weight on it and clambered to his feet. He
shuffled to the hanging Texan and grinned. His left arm hung
uselessly at his side.
“What are you
gonna do now?”
deeply and wrinkled his nose. “You, Mr. Tanner, are in dire need
of a bath.”
look so good yerself,” Tanner retorted.
Ezra rolled his
eyes. A feat that reminded him of a crushing headache, and that he
should have resisted the temptation. “Once out, I’ll remedy
that. Do tell, why we are incarcerated here?”
don’t even know where here is.”
leaning into the tracker for support and attempted, one handed, to open
the lock. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the contraption
above his head. “Old sawmill…”
might be. How’d ya find me?”
the name of Cyrus Hernandez was very forthcoming…”
He the fella who put me down here?” The name held no meaning to
was compensated to divert our search. He did however, divulge your
benefactor was somehow connected to this mill through his wife.
Don’t ask me how.” Standish panted after the long monologue.
His shoulder and knee were both aching to distraction and a fine bead of
sweat broke out on his brow. He was not going to be able to hold the
position much longer. Vin’s constant questioning was another
irritant to contend with. After five minutes of frustration and failure,
he cursed, stepping back awkwardly to reassess the situation. “I
can not hold the lock in place and open it with only one hand.”
off the suggestion and swayed. Taking a deep breath, he charged the
brick wall, hitting his injured shoulder square on. He cried out,
and doubled at the waist, tears streaming down his face. He clutched
his injured arm with his good one, and panted. Damn, that hurt!
the hell are you doing?” Vin yelled at the Southerner. “Ezra!
Damn it! You all right?”
straightened slowly and experimentally rolled his shoulder.
“Just putting it back in place,” he huffed, wriggling his fingers with
satisfaction. At least they were no longer numb.
“You done that
before?” Vin queried sceptically.
twice,” Ezra admitted. He limped back to Vin’s side and resumed
the manipulation of the lock. Second time around, it fell open
within seconds. A smirk quickly covered Ezra’s face.
Vin rubbed the circulation back into his hands and stepped away from the
Sanchez sat in
the restaurant alone at the round table. He chewed the hardy beef
into a tasteless mass and swallowed the remainder of his coffee, grimacing
at the cold dregs, to wash the mass down. The evening crowd had slowly
started to trickle through the doors, but he assumed it would be a few
more hours before Chris and Buck showed up to eat. The last rays of
daylight splashed through the dining room windows, and the faded curtains
only kept out a minimum of the sun’s strength.
was worried. Two of his young associates were missing, and in a town
that appeared less than forthcoming. They had few leads and could
only wait. His meal sat mostly untouched on the plate, and he sighed
deeply. It was wearing on him to have ignored the young
Southerner’s claims and to have abandoned him. He felt dreadful.
The preacher scowled moodily at the waitress, who did no more than remove
his uneaten meal. His temper was starting to flare. And if
they didn’t find their lost brothers soon, he was going to impart his
own brand of justice.
over the situation. There had to be some reason for Ezra’s
disappearance and it had to be related to that of Vin’s. That was
assuming Ezra didn’t just decide that he’d had enough of Chris and the
others, himself included Josiah added glumly, ignoring and dismissing his
theories and departed town of his own accord. What then? Would the
gambler simply head back to Four Corners? Or would they never see or
hear of the Southerner again?
What if someone
was after both of them? A group of outlaws set on breaking up the
seven. But for that to be correct, why had it taken that much longer
for Standish to be taken? Why not take the pair of them at the same
time? Unless there were not enough members in the supposed gang to
capture more than one of the lawmen at one time. No that couldn’t
be right, he ruminated, then all the rest of the seven could be at risk.
But if both lawmen were taken for the same purpose, then they certainly
would have been a fool for allowing Ezra to contact the rest of the seven
and to spend days conducting his own search. Now there was a
possibility, he grasped. Ezra must have discovered either Vin’s
whereabouts, or information regarding the tracker’s location. That
could mean his lost brothers were on their way back to town or that both
of them were now in serious trouble. Josiah glumly leaned toward the
Then there was
still the unthinkable prospect that a bounty hunter had captured Vin and
now threaded their way back to Tuscosa. What of that possibility?
They had all returned to Sovereign. Shouldn’t Chris have at least
sent some of them on to Tuscosa just in case?
idly glanced up. He’d felt the intense sensation of being watched,
and in a town this size initially he’d ignored it. After all,
their arrival had generated quite a glimmer of interest. But whoever
was watching him, had been doing so for more than an acceptable length of
time. Their curiosity was becoming intrusive. Josiah snapped
up his head and left his seat. He caught the shadow of movement
beyond the restaurant front windows and raced outside. For a large
man he moved quickly.
He swung through
the doorway in time to see the dark coated male slipping down the alley
between the restaurant and the neighbouring bakery. “Stop!”
Sanchez took two giant steps after him, his boots thumping heavily on the
whitewashed boardwalk. “I said, STOP!”
When he didn’t
obey, Josiah gave chase. His powerful legs giving him the necessary
speed to keep the fleeing man in sight. He sprinted between the
short alley and sighted him scrambling over barrels to reach the secluded
back entrance to the boarding house. Sanchez fired a warning shot
into the brick rendered wall, just above his head and jogged over to join
him when he turned and raised his hands above his head. “Who are
Perez,” he swallowed nervously.
“Why were you
backwards, warily watching Josiah’s gun. “I wasn’t. I
forward, not believing the shorter man. “You were standing at
those windows and staring through them,” he accused. “You
wouldn’t have something to do with our missing friends, would you?”
“I didn’t do
anything. You gotta believe me.”
“Drop the gun
and step away from him!”
Josiah heard the
scuffle behind him and chanced a look. The sheriff and three
deputies were cordoned behind him. Sanchez held out his gun, but
didn’t release it. “Reckon you’re all making a mistake.
Just trying to find my friends.”
off yer gun and frightening bank-tellers ain’t gonna help you none,”
Jenkins sneered. “I run a clean and safe town and won’t have the
likes of you taking it over.”
his gun.” The deputy held out his hand and was eventually rewarded
for his patience. “Mr. Sanchez, you’ll be staying the night in
custody.” He gestured for the preacher to precede him.
going on?” Larabee stepped from the shadows of the buildings.
He’d heard the gunfire and like the gathering crowd came to investigate.
To say he was astounded to find Josiah in the centre of the dilemma was an
collaborator attacked, Mr. Perez.”
unbelievingly at the preacher. There had to be more to this.
“I am,” the
bank-teller greeted, holding out his hand prepared to shake the
gunslinger’s. After a pause he dropped it down by his side.
shrugged. “You ask him why he was watching me?”
his gaze to the teller, expecting an answer.
Like I already said,” he explained to the sheriff as well as the
deputies. “I, I…” he stammered. “I was just checking
to see…” he swallowed and scanned the faces in the crowd nervously,
“if Doris was serving in the restaurant tonight.” He finished in
a whisper, rushing his words and tugging at the collar that constricted
his throat. A flush of red crept up his cheeks. A slight
chuckle travelled through the gathering crowd, and a large bosomed woman
cheekily pressed to the front. Perez’s face flamed in
embarrassment. “Evenin’ Doris.” He couldn’t escape her
now. The entire town knew of the waitress’s infatuation with the
sinewy bank-teller. And they were privy to the fact that Perez was
more than reluctant about returning her feelings. He cringed as she
wrapped her pudgy fingers into the crook of his elbow and led him off to
the diner, a ripple of laughter following their progress.
The sheriff and
his deputies escorted Sanchez to the jail. The loud clang of the
cell door closing echoed as Sanchez sank to the single cot along the wall.
He buried his face in his hands and sighed. Lord he’d made a mess
Chris gripped the iron bars and shook his head. He was bewildered by the preacher’s reaction and subsequent imprisonment. “Reckon you’ll be spending the night here.”
Sanchez pressed his head further inside his large hands. How had he read the situation so wrongly? He wasn’t normally one to jump to conclusions. He was worried about his younger friends. Not that he could use them as an excuse for his abysmal behaviour. “Have JD and Nathan got back?
“Not yet.” The jailhouse door rapped quietly from outside. Larabee glanced pointedly at Jenkins and across at the door. The gentle knock sounded again. The sheriff was either ignoring it or he didn’t hear it. “You gonna get that?”
Jake stared at the gunslinger, eyebrows arched questioningly. At the third rap, he swung his attention to the closed door. “Yeah?” He growled, wondering why anybody would bother to knock, and not just barge straight inside.
As the door swung opened it revealed a woman’s blue skirt, and a child of three hovering at her side.
“Hi ya, Corinne!” Jenkins dropped his feet off the table and stood to meet the younger woman, before she could come further inside the room. “You shouldn’t be here,” but he smiled pleasantly.
“I wanted to report a robbery, Jake.”
“Then maybe you could have the doc come see me about it.”
“I’m quite capable of filing a complaint, and my husband is a busy man. I’d like this cleared up and my money found.”
Jenkins sighed and shared a look with a curious Larabee. “You mind leaving?” he asked the gunslinger.
Chris pursed his lips. He glanced at the large man behind the bars and back at the sheriff. He rolled his shoulders and with a modicum of ease pushed away from the cell. “Be seeing you later, Josiah.”
Sanchez lifted guilty eyes to the man in black, so absorbed in his error he only gave Larabee a cursory glance, and flopped remorsefully on the cot. His long limbs overhanging the foot of the bed.
Larabee nodded at the couple, even managing a smile at the toddler.
“Why don’t you take a seat,” Jenkins gestured at the chair, “and you can fill me in.” He waited for the doctor’s wife to settle in the seat before questioning her. He knew the money wouldn’t be found and was probably already spent. “How much money?”
“We’d had sixty dollars saved…”
Larabee missed the rest of the conversation as he closed the door.
Chris lit a cigar; the orange coal glowing from the shadows of the Assayers office. It had already closed for the day, but it was central to the town and he could see both roads to and from. Someone had set the night fires along the main stretch of road, giving the buildings along either side a shadowed hue. If Larabee had thought that Sovereign would quieten down after the sun’s descent than he was mistaken. If anything, the population had expanded. The saloon’s bulged at the seams and the ruckus inside spilled jubilantly onto the streets. Most of the business came from the tent city. After a full day’s work with little to show, they gathered together, to commiserate and get drunk. He noticed the sheriff moving through the crowd, showing his presence. And there were more deputies in force for the night than he’d previously seen during the daytime hours.
Larabee stayed clear of the buoyant atmosphere. He had enough troubles to take care of without getting embroiled in any other commotion. He cursed Josiah a thousand times, but there was nothing he could do to get the preacher released early. It was probably just as well that he was locked up, considering his volatile temper. Now that was calling the pot black, he mused, a small smile broke across his wooden features.
“Want ta share?”
Chris paused briefly drawing in a long breath of cigar smoke. “Buck. Never figured you knew how to walk quietly.”
Wilmington returned the smile. “There are times that even I need to tread the boards with caution.”
They shared a moment of remembrance. Their past lives joined irrevocably. It was easy for the ladies’ man to slip back into the uncomplicated friendship they had shared years before, but not so simple for the man in black. Too many memories haunted the gunslinger.
“Can’t recall you slipping quietly away from anywhere,” Chris heckled with a long forgotten sense of familiarity with Wilmington’s nature. When they met up again in Four Corners was the perfect example. Larabee watched Buck’s grin grow, then as quickly his smiled dropped, and the serious face of the last few days returned. He knew where Buck’s thoughts had strayed. “Nathan’s with him. Ain’t the first night the kid’s gonna have to spend out in the open.”
Wilmington grinned, ducking his head so his hat covered his eyes. Chris was too good at reading his expressions. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders; he’ll be all right. Just thought they might have made it back before dark.”
Chris nodded. He had thought the same thing.
“You planning on holding up that post all night, or you gonna grab a bite ta eat?”
Chris smiled around the stub on his cigar. Always the pragmatist. “Wouldn’t say no. You buying?”
Standish rubbed the length of his arm from his elbow to his shoulder; the numbness had gone only to be replaced with a gnawing ache. He moved his hand slowly up to the joint and continued the methodical massage. He watched Tanner overtly through the fading light as he paced the small cell, wondering how much longer they would be incarcerated in the tomb. He resisted the urge to sigh.
Tanner stopped short in front of the gambler. “Why don’t you ask?”
Standish lifted his gaze up into Vin’s demanding eyes. Ezra licked his bottom lip and waited for a further clue. When Vin continued his soul-searching study of the Southerner, Standish responded. “What exactly am I supposed to inquire of you? Unless it has something to do with you having some significant role in your own abduction?”
“No, nothing to do with that.” Vin hunkered in front of Ezra and eventually seated himself on the floor. “Ain’t ya gonna ask why I wanted ta come here?”
“You mean it had nothing to do with your desire to seek a fortune in Silver?” Ezra goaded. Vin rolled his eyes; almost admitting he was surprised Standish had resisted the urge to do so.
Standish waved a dismissive hand and dropped eye contact. He didn’t want to bring this sore point up between them. “You made yourself perfectly clear in regards to that topic, Mr Tanner. Your reasons are you own. I have no intention of prying.” Besides, Jenkins had already revealed to Ezra why Tanner was partial to visiting Sovereign.
Vin sighed. “What if I wanted you to…pry?”
“You want to discuss your reasons? With me?” he asked incredulously. Standish shifted uncomfortably on the floor. Should Ezra just blurt out that Vin didn’t need to bother? Before he’d made up his mind, Vin had surged ahead.
Vin tilted his head to the side and smiled lopsidedly at the gambler. “Ain’t no one else here.”
“No I didn’t mean it like that…” Tanner stumbled. “I wanted to explain to you…”
“If it will relieve you of your burden, then I am willing to listen.”
“Ain’t got no burden. Thought ya might a wanted to know, is all.”
Standish shifted his leg and winced at the slight flare of pain. He hadn’t wanted Vin to bring up the subject, because he knew this was how it would end. With them angry at each other again, just like the morning of Vin’s disappearance. “Perhaps we should attempt to reach the trapdoor once more. If you sat on my shoulders you should be able to reach…” Ezra stood, groaning at the increased weight on his knee. He took only one step, when Tanner demanded the gambler to sit back down.
“Sit down!” Vin ordered, his tone leaving no room for argument. “We can’t open it from down here…Already tried. Gonna have to wait ‘til Bert comes back.” And replaces the ladder, he added ruefully. Goddamn son of a bitch! He could have left the ladder in place. He waited for the gambler to settle back to the floor. “My ma is buried here.” His voice was but a whisper.
Ezra remained silent, surprised that Tanner was serious about sharing the information with him. It was something he’d not contemplated. That Vin would consider him worthy of sharing such a deep and integral part of his life. “My sympathies…”
“That wasn’t why I told ya.” He moved away from the gambler, lost in his failing memories. The image of his mother was lost to his senses, only vague reminisces and feelings of comfort and love were all he had left. He patted the pocket of his coat, a whimsical smile fluttered about his lips. He glanced at the gambler, but Standish was studying the floor. What the hell. Vin searched inside his jacket, and withdrew his harmonica. He wet his lips and began playing. The notes held no tune, but the simple jingle hit at his melancholy. He watched Standish raise his head, listening to the jumble of notes, then without a word, or sharing a look, he dropped his head to his chest. It was almost as though Tanner had been given permission to continue.
It was much later, and completely dark, when Vin picked himself up and rejoined the gambler. He had to feel his way along the wall.
Ezra listened to the shuffling Texan as he navigated across the room. He held his console, not willing to scare off Vin before he’d completed the journey.
“It’s startin’ to get cold.”
Ezra nodded in agreement; a smile twitched his lips when he felt the tracker bump into his shoulder. It grew wider when Vin didn’t immediately move away. “Your friend seems to have forgotten us tonight.”
“Yeah. Feeling a mite peckish too.” As if to emphasize his point Tanner’s stomach chose that moment to rumble. Vin punched the gambler in the arm when he burst out laughing. They lapsed back into silence for some time, eventually Tanner asked; “Ya reckon Chris is still heading for Tuscosa?” Standish had explained that their five associates had been misled by the artful Hernandez, and went to Texas on the assumption that Tanner was taken there by two bounty hunters.
“They are intelligent men,” Standish answered evasively. He hoped they would see through the deception before they made it all the way to Tuscosa, but he feared that they would not. The pessimist was in full force and it was only for Tanner’s sake that he held his tongue, not stating what he really thought.
Vin imagined Ezra would be hiding his emotions behind that infamous poker face, but in the darkness he could see nothing. Tanner could read the thick silence and the gambler’s implied meaning - Standish thought they were on their own. “Yeah, they are smart. I figure we’ll be outta here soon.”
“And what brings you to that conclusion?” Standish asked sceptical of Vin’s predictions.
“Well, you found me. Couldn’t be too hard for them to find us.”
Chris crawled from his bed early, expecting Dunne and Jackson to return soon. His sleep had been hampered by the noisy revellers and later by disturbing dreams. He wondered how Sanchez had spent his night in jail. He rushed through his morning rituals and wasn’t surprised to find Buck already downstairs. “Buck.”
Wilmington nodded in the gunslinger’s direction. He noticed the haggard appearance of his friend, but didn’t comment on it. He didn’t have the best night either. “Morning, Chris.”
“You been down long?”
“Just before you.” Buck glanced past the gunman, taking a step forward.
Chris followed the direction of Wilmington’s stare and brushing past him, Larabee intercepted the returning regulators. They too, had started the day early. He was glad to see them returned. “Nathan. JD. You find him?” By him, Chris inferred Hernandez.
Jackson reined in his mount beside Dunne’s and effortlessly slipped from the horse’s back. “Yeah, we found him, but he got a lot further than we figured.” They related the news that was passed on to them.
“So he was paid to tell me that he saw Vin being taken by bounty hunters,” Buck clarified, the bitterness and anger in his voice clear. If he’d gone with Dunne, the bastard would have known his fury at being led astray. Buck hated being used as a fool. It made his blood boil.
“And Ezra?” Buck added.
Dunne shrugged and Nathan confirmed the youngest’s uncertain answer.
“What! He didn’t know?” Larabee glared at the pair. “Where the hell did Standish go then?” He sure as hell didn’t return to Sovereign. Maybe the cardsharp decided it was better not to return, given the fact that they had departed for Tuscosa themselves. What if Standish figured he couldn’t find Vin, so he just gave up? What was there to tie the gambler to the rest of them? There were pieces of the puzzle that were missing and others that didn’t seem to fit.
Dunne took a step back from the menacing glare. “He swore he told Ezra the same story as us,” JD counted. And there was the added incentive not to lie, the youth glanced at Nathan.
“Then where is he?” Buck asked. “We must have missed something…go through everything again.”
Dunne sighed and started repeating their interrogation of Cyrus Hernandez. It had been short and to the point. Hernandez didn’t know where Vin was, or Ezra and he couldn’t tell them who hired him for the deception. At the frustrated stares from Larabee and Wilmington, JD added angrily, not knowing what else they could have gained from the middleman; “He got this note with the thirty dollars, telling him who to talk to and what to say.” JD looked pointedly at the ladies’ man. “Reckon that had to be you. When he finished the job, there was another thirty dollars waiting for him.”
“You didn’t mention that before,” Chris accused.
“Didn’t think it was important. He didn’t know who gave him the money.”
“You sure about that, JD?” Buck queried. Standish had to have made some connections.
Dunne opened his mouth to protest and waited for Jackson to back up his claim, but the healer was silent.
Sixty dollars…why did that sum of money seem familiar? Larabee chewed on the end of his cigar. It wasn’t an overly large amount of cash, but it rang a bell. He glanced at the sheriff’s office that was down the road and recalled the woman who had entered the jail while he had been visiting Josiah yesterday. Without a word, Larabee strode toward the jail.
“Chris?” Buck called to his retreating back.
“Back shortly.” Was the terse reply.
Buck shared a confused look with the others.
“Where’s Josiah?” Nathan frowned; finally noticing the giant was absent.
“Long story,” Wilmington obliquely answered. “Let’s get some grub while we wait for Chris.”
Larabee took off down the road at a steady clip. Sixty dollars. Sixty dollars, he kept repeating over in his mind. Chris blew through the jail’s outer door, whipping his black duster behind him. The door swung back and hit the outside wall with a thump, but remained open, leaving the black demon silhouetted in the sunlight. He glanced at the cell that held Josiah and back at the deputy behind the desk. A number of other cells held occupants this morning that were not filled the previous night. “Where’s Jenkins?”
Turner climbed lazily to his feet. “Ain’t no need for Jake. I’m capable of releasing this one,” he gestured at Sanchez, “with a warning, into yer custody.”
“Mighty glad of that,” Larabee drawled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Josiah step to the bars. “But I want to speak with Jenkins. He coming in? Or where-abouts can I find him?”
Turner frowned at the gunslinger, undecided whether he should help Chris or not. The choice was taken from his hands when the sheriff arrived.
“Something I can help you with?”
“Yeah.” Larabee looked past the sheriff, pointedly at the deputy. His business with Jenkins was no concern of Turner’s.
“Dal let these folks out.” Jake tossed the keys to the deputy. “Let’s talk.”
Chris asked Jenkins about Corinne’s visit the day before. Most importantly, about the theft of sixty dollars from her house. Jenkins refused to divulge any information stating it was an invasion of their privacy. When Larabee suggested it might be related to Vin’s disappearance the sheriff seemed to give it serious thought, but on the basis of his friendship with the family he’d discuss it with them first.
“And when are you likely to do that?”
“Reckon I could take a walk by the doc’s place this afternoon. He generally takes a break round then.”
“That could be too late.”
“Best I can do.”
Sanchez signed for the return of his guns and joined Larabee. The other revellers collected their weapons and strolled from the jail. “Brother. Nathan and JD returned?”
“I’m mighty hungry.” Sanchez patted his stomach and when Jenkins turned to the paraphernalia on the desk, he gestured with his head to the door, signalling Chris to follow.
“You hear what they talked about?” Chris asked as soon as they had the closed door between them and the lawmen. Sanchez filled the gunman in on what he had heard.
Chris barged through the clinic doors. The room was nothing like Nathan had set up in Four Corners. He entered the foyer room; each of the three walls was lined with long stools and an assortment of seats. A majority of the seating was occupied and with the gunslinger’s arrival all heads turned on Larabee. Ignoring the looks of consternation and downright fright he rattled on the inner door and without waiting for an invitation to enter, Chris turned the knob. It took only thirty seconds to ascertain the room was empty and Larabee backed out into the waiting room.
“Doc hasn’t arrived yet,” a very obviously pregnant woman observed. She rubbed circular patterns on her belly and smiled to herself. “Normally we can set the time by Doctor Mitchell’s regularity, but this morning I’ve been waiting for over an hour and he still hasn’t come in.”
Chris noticed his friends loitering just inside the open door. “You all waiting to see him?” The group all murmured their agreement. “Anyone know where he is?”
A plump man leaned forward, balancing his weight on a cane. “Usually comes in around eight and starts seeing folks at nine. Can’t say I’ve seen him though this morning, unless there was some emergency out at the pits. That would explain his being late.”
“You might as well go home. He ain’t gonna be back here today.” Larabee announced and left. “Let’s go talk with Mrs. Mitchell.”
Albert Mitchell skidded to a stop. He held a hand over his stampeding heart and choked down the lecherous stomach acids that rose to this throat. He watched the five determined men descend on his clinic and vanish inside. Their faces set hard as granite. This morning was getting worse by the hour. He glanced around quickly to see if anyone had witnessed his untimely stop, but the street was unusually bare, and he stepped back inside the Telegraph office. The operator gave him a bewildered look and the frown became more intense when Albert vaulted over the counter and fled through the back room and out the exit.
The ride to the old mill was completed in a short space of time. The doctor tethered his horse and walked the rest of the journey. He wondered how much time he had, and whether he could summon the strength to follow through with his ill formed plan. He nervously chewed his bottom lip, all the while slowly getting closer to the mill. At the back of his mind he hoped Tanner’s friends would come charging through the brush and rescue the two men he had trapped below the mill, but for that to happen he knew the chances of ever seeing his children and wife again would be squelched to ashes. If only he had arranged for Tanner to be taken out of Sovereign earlier, then the gambler would not have been hurt, and Mitchell’s livelihood wouldn’t now be threatened. But Albert was so desperate for the bounty on Tanner. His daughter’s future rested on an obscene amount of money that he could never collect, if not for this golden opportunity. He wanted the whole reward for himself - for his family, he amended. If only he had wired his wife’s cousin sooner, perhaps it wouldn’t have needed to come to this.
Mitchell rued the day he called on his wife’s cousin - a deputy from a neighbouring town. At the time, Mitchell had no illusions that he could, or ever would capture a wanted man, but for the sake of filling in time he checked out the wanted posters, while he waited for his connecting coach at the town jail where his cousin worked. He possessed a talent for remembering details and when Tanner showed up in Sovereign he quickly added up the resemblance with that of the wanted poster. It was pure luck that they crossed paths at the cemetery and sheer providence that Tanner followed him back to his clinic. Or so he thought. The Southerner’s persistence had worried him, and the arrival of Larabee and his group shattered his confidence totally. He thought he’d been given a reprieve when Larabee left, but he wasn’t gone long and in the short space of time the brooding man in black returned with vengeance on his mind. Perhaps Mitchell should just turn Tanner over to Jake. Let the law handle this situation. Then how could he explain Standish in the scheme of lies?
Albert fumbled with the box of lucifers, even dropping the box before he could open the tin. He dropped to his knees and retrieved the lost matches. He stayed on his haunches and with shaking hands struck the match to his boot. He couldn’t let go of the burning sliver of wood and he held it as the flame ate down the length. So mesmerized by the flame, the doctor didn’t realise that it had burnt down to his fingertips. He howled when the fire scorched the tender skin and flicking the digits to numb the pain he inadvertently set the still burning lucifer to the dry tinder.
In the preceding months the weather had been unusually dry, barely a drop of rain had fallen. The land was tempting with dry grasses and the fire hungrily ate at the long rushes quickly spreading to the mill.
Vin wrinkled his nose and drew in a long breath. There was something odd about the scent of the air. Even despite the stench he’d almost become used to. He looked to the trap door and stared at it for a full minute before scrambling to his feet and standing beneath the only exit. He sniffed again, lifting his nose higher and wrinkling it.
Ezra stood more slowly; favouring his injured knee he limped over and paused behind the sharpshooter. “Has our miscreant returned?”
“Dunno…” Vin lifted to his toes, trying to get a better whiff from the outside. “Somethin’ smell different to you?”
Standish rolled his eyes to the roof. “Are you only now becoming aware of the atrocious odour that shares residence with us?”
“Not that,” Tanner dismissed with a groan. Vin craned his neck higher licking his lips to taste the air.
“Perhaps some of the water could be made of use to…”
Tanner impatiently waved, shushing the gambler to silence so he could concentrate on identifying the new smells. ”Shit!” he swore, catapulting backwards and stumbling over the gambler. He groped Ezra’s arm to catch his balance and with wide eyes explained; “Can smell smoke up there.”
Standish pursed his lips and warily checked above his head. “Perhaps you are mistaken?” Vin stared dryly at the Southerner. “I didn’t think so,” he muttered hobbling to the furtherest corner. “Where there is smoke, there is bound to be fire,” Ezra muttered.
“Might not be the mill.”
“And horse’s don’t shit.”
Vin chuckled. He couldn’t help himself. The Southerner certainly knew how to get his point across.
“That wasn’t intended in jest,” Standish intoned sardonically.
“Sorry. Yer right, don’t reckon it’s all that funny.” He pointed at the thin wafts of smoke that only that moment started to fill the upper portion of the room. This was not going to be good. “Lay down on the floor.”
“Give me yer jacket first.”
Standish stared at the outstretched hand for a full minute.
Tanner stripped his own off and tossed it in the water barrel, he grinned at the Southerner’s reaction.
“You are not divesting me of my wardrobe to immerse it in… that!” He pointed, horrified at the barrel.
“Getting a little wet ain’t gonna hurt ya, Ezra.” Hell, that was the least of their worries. Tanner arched his eyebrow and drew attention to the clouds of smoke that had started to fill the room. The Texan stalked the gambler, tugging at Ezra’s jacket and slipping it easily off Standish’s shoulders. “Lay down, I’ll cover you.”
The gambler hesitantly complied. His heart was hammering hard in his chest and the last thing he wanted to do was lie down. He shuddered when Vin draped his cold and wet coat over his head and shoulders and he watched from under the heavy folds for Vin to join him on the floor. But before the tracker did so, Vin pushed over the barrel empting the contents to flood around them.
“Arg…and I thought wearing waterlogged clothing was abysmal, now we are swimming,” he complained.
Vin stretched out beside the gambler. “Didn’t know you could swim.”
“Inevitability of one’s profession, living as a gambler on a riverboat,” he drawled.
Albert covered his watering eyes and coughed. His hands were blackened with soot and blistered. His jacket was in tatters, having used it to stamp out the flames, but the intensity of the fire grew and his feeble attempts were futile. He covered his nose and mouth with the sleeve of his jacket. His shoulders sagged and he considered just walking away, no one would be the wiser. After all, this was his original intent. Nobody knew of the two men beneath the mill. But could he live with his conscience if they died at his hands? He watched silently as the flames licked along the aging woodwork of the mill.
The thump of hooves was upon him and he gawked with dread into five faces of doom. They rode stretched five across; only the black demon of gloom edged slightly in front. “It was an accident…” He stumbled backwards warding off the feral menace that seared through him. He glanced from one deadly expression to the next; searching for the one he hoped would gain him the most compassion. The dark haired youth was his final choice; he’d hold out the olive branch to the youngest hoping he’d persuade the others. “I didn’t mean to…” How had they discovered this place?
“Where are they?” Larabee demanded, jumping from the black gelding even before it completely stopped. Chris lifted the lean man onto his toes, twisting his fingers in the collar of Mitchell’s shirt.
The doctor pointed at the burning structure, and shuddered, gasping under the increased stranglehold about his throat. “There’s a dug-out room below the mill.”
“Chris, we don’t have time for this,” Buck pulled the gunslinger off the doctor. “If they are inside that, we’ve got to get them out.”
“There’s no way to help them now. They’ll be dead.” Albert hung his head in shame. He wasn’t a murderer. He didn’t take lives, he healed them.
Wilmington pushed the kidnapper hard to the nearby river. “You ain’t gonna like us too much if they are,” he growled. Buck tossed his jacket in the water; soaking it thoroughly and putting it back on. Then tied his bandana over his mouth and nose. He watched JD, Josiah and Nathan do similar. Larabee was unmoved, staring into the blaze.
Chris stared at the raging beast. The hungry demon ate and destroyed, gulping and consuming everything in its path. He stood unmoving, unheeded by what was going on around him, mesmerized by the inferno. The heat sucked what little resolve he had and crushed it under foot, flooding him with memories that were more a part of him than he could deny. The crackle and snarl eroded his self-confidence like the threat of a bullet could not do.
He sniffed back the moisture that threatened to fall, and gazed inside the burning structure. He saw Sarah’s image in the centre of the flames, beckoning Chris to join her. He heard the terrified screams of his only child, Adam, burned in his own bed, where he should have been safe. His home. His life. Burnt up in flames. How could a man survive such agonies? How could he rebuild his life, when his future held no promise? How did he move from one day on to another, knowing the very being of his existence has been ripped from his soul? It had been a tumultuous five years, since the death of his family. And many of those days were drowned in oblivion. He owed Buck more than the ladies’ man would ever accept or he could comfortably give. In the bonds of friendship they reached a happy medium.
He’d lost his life to the vagaries of fire. He wouldn’t lose his friends to the same power that stole his wife and son. He couldn’t…no wouldn’t, go through that again. The overpowering stench choked the living breath from his lungs. The fire lapped over the mill, sucking the very strength that had held it together since its demise. And thick curls of smoke danced over the morning sky, giving the sun a dark and orange glow.
Buck watched Larabee’s eyes, and cursed at the darkening pools of pain that reflected the raging flames. “Come on, pard. Don’t give up on them yet.”
Larabee glanced at the ladies’ man and resolutely at the engulfed mill. Chris spat out the bitter taste and turned to the river to catch a fresh breath “I ain’t,” he swore savagely. “Josiah. Nathan, JD, start getting water onto this. Make sure he helps,” Chris snarled in Mitchell’s direction.
“What cha got in mind,” Wilmington asked.
“Get the horses, Buck and lead ‘em round the back.”
Wilmington raced in the direction of the horses with Larabee hot on his heels. Chris pulled the rope off his saddle and removed Buck and JD’s as well. Buck whistled softly, a knowing smile creased his face, grasping the direction of the gunslinger’s thoughts.
Buck lined three of the five mounts beyond the scope of the fire. The heat from the abandoned building was intense and the horses baulked at being so close. It was a hard job keeping the animals from bolting.
Larabee knotted the ropes together and tied the free end to a heavy log; his fingers were clumsy in their efforts to be fast. He trusted Buck to rig up their horses to pull the log as one. He needed only one good throw to catapult the rope around the main beam. He swung high, the rope sailed through the smoke and fire, but it fell short and dropped limply. Chris quickly hauled in the rope, before it caught alight. Tying his colt to the end of the rope gave more power and direction to the second throw. It wasn’t a concern to lose his gun in the aid of rescuing Tanner and Standish. The second attempt was closer and it wrapped around the intended beam. “Buck! Get ready!” he shouted to be heard over the roar. They didn’t have much time; the flames would quickly eat the hessian rope. “Now!” The rope tightened, stretching to full length. The framework creaked and strained under the pull, but eventually crashed to the ground. Wilmington led the horses away from the mill, dragging the bulk of the burning framework clear.
The strong determination of Sanchez, Jackson and Dunne continued ferrying water to the remained walls. With the separation of a majority of the burning material from the mill, the fire was controlled more readily. Mitchell stayed in the midst of the confusion, helping the regulators to put out the fire. What choice did he have?
Larabee sprinted through the smouldering ashes. “Vin! Ezra!” He lifted the trap door, and a puff of smoke spilled from the cavern, filling the gunman’s face with tears. He coughed and stepped back to gather his breath. He felt Buck’s hand on his shoulder, and the reassuring voice telling him that it didn’t have to be him that went below. “I’m going down, Buck.” Chris called again, jumping into the depths. It took a few precious moments to see through the thick haze and when he did, Chris panicked, taking in a lung full of smoke in response to seeing the bodies of his friends lying motionless. His eyes burned and his lungs fought against the intrusion of the thick cloying smoke.
Larabee wasted no time in reaching the Southerner and pulling him into an upright position, then manoeuvred Standish over his shoulder. He staggered under the weight, but refused to drop his cargo. “Nathan!” he croaked, standing below the yawning hole and stretching his body to the limit to lift the unresponsive gambler to the grasping hands. He relinquished his hold when he felt Standish’s weight subside. “Get him out of here!”
Chris spun on his heels and returned for Tanner. The tracker was arranged exactly like Ezra. He lifted Vin to his shoulder and gave up possession to Buck and JD; they bundled his rag body under their arms and followed in the wake of Nathan. Chris circled impatiently in the hole, waiting for one his men to return and deliver him.
Larabee’s entire body trembled as he spun a slow circle inspecting the crude hovel. His eyes flicked in agitation, burning from the fumes and the swell of tears. “Come on,” he growled thickly through gritted teeth. “Get me outta here.” The smoke was slowly dissipating through the opened trapdoor, but the dark coils of smoke lay heavy in the corners and the cloaking smell of death clung in his clothes and hair; once more a shudder passed through his body. His hands clenched, squeezing the nails deeply into the flesh of his hands and his knuckles turned white with the intensity. Only a thin thread held onto his self-control and it was fraying rapidly with each minute he remained in the smouldering den. How much longer could he fight the demons? Chris gulped painfully around the rising lump in his throat, his ears strained and eyes squinted at the exit hole; all the while, his impatience was breaking forth from the fragile casing.
On a wheezing breath, he watched as Josiah’s long arm delved from above and Chris gripped it tightly eager to rise from the tomb. He vaulted out, anxious to leave his troubled thoughts deep inside the dark hole. They were far too raw to consider at this point in time.
“I’m a doctor. Let me help.”
Larabee raced away from the mill across the barren ground, where the fire had missed in its destruction. Josiah’s strong legs kept him paced with the more limber man. Chris searched through the crush of surrounding bodies, hoping to see both his men sitting up and talking up a storm. But as he came closer, he saw this wasn’t the case. He pushed roughly at Mitchell’s back, shoving him from their inner circle. He glared at the wayward doctor; a sneer curled the corner of his lips.
After everything they’d gone through. Larabee finally registered the words spoken by Mitchell when he arrived on the scene. He whirled on the thin man, facing him with contempt, standing with his hands splayed on his hips to bar the way. “They don’t need your help. Nathan’s doing just fine.” Chris turned his back on Mitchell. “Buck, get him out of my sight.”
Jackson swallowed nervously. “Might be a good idea to let him past.” His eyes dropped to the ground, unable to meet Larabee’s.
How did Nathan tell Chris his best friend wasn’t breathing? “Vin ain’t breathing.” There he’d said it.
Mitchell pulled out of Wilmington’s hold, squatting in the dust by Vin’s head. “It’s probably just the smoke…filled up his lungs,” he grunted as he sat the floppy tracker up. Vin’s head sagged to his chin. “Turn him on his side,” he commanded, pointing to Standish. And when he starts coming around, sit him up.” That’s assuming he was breathing. Mitchell ignored the distrustful eyes that watched his every move and circled his arms around Vin’s chest; he squeezed hard, lifting him slightly off the ground. He did it again and again, then he thumped viscously on Tanner’s back.
Vin gagged, throwing back his head and coughing coarsely. He sucked in a breath and immediately exhaled with a wheeze.
Chris shared a tight look with Jackson. “They are gonna be okay, Nathan.”
It was more of a statement than a question. Jackson nodded at the gunman’s soft inquiry. Smiling, now that his own uncertainties had been put to rest. The healer fixed the doctor with a critical gaze, and Mitchell returned the stare with a grim nod. It didn’t surprise Nathan that Larabee would query him on the status of Tanner and Standish when Mitchell treated them. “Should be.”
“Take it easy, Vin.”
“Nathan?” Tanner coughed. “Didn’t reckon I’d be gettin’ out of there alive.” He bent forward and hacked. Jackson rested his hand on his back. “Ezra, all right?”
“See for yerself.”
Vin glanced up. “Ezra?”
Hearing his name, Standish lifted his head from his knees. He grinned at the tracker, then covered his hand to his mouth as he was wracked by another bout of coughing. “We seem to have escaped.”
“No thanks to you,” Larabee growled, crouching before the Southerner.
Ezra closed his eyes, unable to meet the glare of the man in black. “My sincerest, apologies,” he rasped.
“Tweren’t his fault…” Tanner defended.
“I never said it was.” Chris smiled at the stunned look Standish bestowed on him. “Just meant, we’d a found you sooner if Ezra hadn’t gone off on his own.” He patted the gambler on the knee. “You could have left us a few more clues. Or waited ‘til we came back.”
“You gentlemen were riding to Tuscosa,” Standish exclaimed, pausing to take another breath before he could continue. “What exactly would you have had me do? You had already accused me of not making a concerted effort to find Vin!”
“What you did was fine,” Nathan declared, attempting to placate the gambler. “A note next time would be good, though.”
Standish opened his mouth to respond, but was again assaulted by a wracking cough.
“Take it easy,” Nathan coaxed. “You two were lucky to get out.”
“Thing I can’t figure, is how you knew to find Vin here?” Dunne asked.
Standish wiped his face appalled to find it smeared in blackish ash; he was tired and perturbed at having to explain his actions. “Mr. Hernandez was most obliging.”
“Wait a minute,” Jackson moaned. “He told you Vin was here?”
“Not exactly. He mentioned the good doctor was affiliated with this mill. It was just a natural conclusion that Vin was here.” Ezra frowned, assessing Mitchell even as he lurked on the outer limits of the group. He wondered why Chris hadn’t secured the miscreant. After all, Mitchell had assaulted and kidnapped Vin and assaulted his person and held them both prisoners. That wasn’t even mentioning the fact that they’d practically been roasted alive.
“Damn!” Nathan swore.
Larabee arched his eyebrows and stared at the healer. When Nathan said nothing further, he levelled his gaze at JD.
“Hernandez told us he didn’t know who paid him. And had no idea where Vin was.”
Wilmington laughed. “Reckon you need a few more lessons from Ezra in how to get all the information.”
“We set to go?”
Buck adjusted the cinch under his saddle and patted his horse on the rump. “Just as soon as Vin and Ezra get here.”
Larabee rolled his eyes, slowly drew in a long breath and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. After a long pause Chris finally asked, but dreaded Buck’s response. “Where are they?” Hadn’t they been through this already?
Wilmington shrugged. “Tanner all but dragged Ezra out of the Hotel. Thought they were headed here, but when I turned around they’d disappeared.”
“You don’t think…” He glanced over to the sheriff’s office, gave a two fingered salute to Jenkins who was watching them curiously, then let his eyes take in the rest of the town. Surely nothing else could happen to the troublesome pair. “How long ago, Buck?”
“Ten…maybe fifteen minutes.” Buck smirked at the growl that rumbled from the gunslinger.
“Told ‘em we were leaving this morning.”
“Maybe they had something ta do first.”
“I’ll kill ‘em if they get into any more trouble!”
The Southerner hobbled a pace behind the tracker as they headed for the cemetery. His knee still gave him some concern, but Jackson had wrapped it to give the joint more stability. He felt uncomfortable with Tanner’s request that he should join him at his mother’s grave, but couldn’t very well refuse. That would be churlish.
Vin knelt at the crumbling headstone. “Ezra. I’d like ya to meet my ma.”
Standish crouched similarly, reading the inscription on the stone. It was a simple epitaph.
Beloved Wife and Mother.
The love and bond established between mother and child in only five short years was something Standish could never begin to understand. What could he possibly say? Ezra’s relationship with Maude was strange in comparison. “She would have been proud of you, Vin.”
Vin shook his head. “Dunno. Haven’t always done what’s right. But I’ve never killed a man for something he didn’t deserve.” And he had never forgotten who he was. He’d always be a Tanner. His ma’s words were memorised in his heart.
“She must have been a remarkable woman,” a soft note of awe touched his words.
Vin sniffed, lowering his head and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. “Them’s are just words, Ezra. You have no way of knowing….”
“I beg to differ,” Standish interrupted, resting his hand on the tracker’s shoulder. “She was your mother. Ruth Tanner,” he spoke the name out loud. “She raised you to believe in the ideals. She gave you high standards to strive for and with everything you do, her guidance and teachings shines through.” Standish stood. “And if you can’t believe in yourself, there is a gentleman in town, possibly more, who remembers your mother and will attest to her love of her husband and child.”
Ezra was slightly startled by the tracker’s response. “The sheriff, for one. He was willing to protect you on the sole basis of his memory of your mother.”
“He knew my ma?” Standish nodded. “I don’t remember him.”
“You haven’t been back for a long time, Vin.”
“I shall leave you to finish up and round up our comrades.”
Vin stepped in front of the gambler. “Thanks for everything, Ezra.”
Standish grinned widely, accepting the outstretched hand and shook it firmly. “My pleasure, Vin.”
“Here comes, Ezra,” JD said.
Wilmington leant on the smaller man, turning in the direction that Dunne faced. “Vin’s not with him.” He could see the vein in Chris’ forehead beginning to pulse. It would only take the slightest provocation.
“Morning, Ezra,” Josiah boomed.
“Mr. Sanchez,” Standish performed a double take. Always the showman. “I heard a rumour about you spending the night in jail.” The dimples in the gambler’s cheeks showed as he grinned at the preacher.
“Where is Vin?” Larabee asked impatiently.
“He will be here presently.”
“That wasn’t what I asked!”
“Then it isn’t my place to elucidate,” Standish countered. He gathered Chaucer’s reins and climbed into the saddle, taking his time to settle into the seat. He flicked at his cuffs and made a show of straightening his attire, then gave the customary salute before leading his mount from town.
“He is going to be joining us?” Larabee called after the gambler, resisting the urge to smile. That man was so infuriating at times. “Ezra?” His resolve broke when Standish waved his hand in recognition of hearing the gunman’s query, but never turned back to face them. Chris watched the gambler encourage his mount into a gallop, and wondered at the forces that drove Standish. He spent the night gambling at the tables; heaven only knew when he went to sleep. “Buck. Josiah. Go with him.”
“We will watch over our brother.”
“I’d prefer if you could do more than just watch, Josiah. Keep him out of trouble,” Chris sighed.
Wilmington chuckled, sharing a look of amusement with the preacher. “Don’t be long getting, Tanner.”
“Don’t plan on spending anymore time here, than is necessary.”
Dunne rummaged through his saddlebags. He glanced casually along the road hearing the approach of the wagon heading their direction. “I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you understand?” Jackson asked.
JD looked at Larabee, but the gunman glared menacingly at the occupants of the wagon. Dunne could see the anger simmering below the surface. “I just don’t understand why Vin and Ezra let him go?” Dunne nodded again at the wagon. It was loaded to the brink with numerous wooden chests, a dining table and an assortment of chairs hanging off the side. Albert Mitchell sat next to his wife on the board seat and their son Teddy sat next to his mother. The young family was headed back East to be closer to their daughter.
Vin slipped from between the buildings. Hearing JD’s comment, he couldn’t let it pass. “Mitchell didn’t do anything so bad. He was desperate for the money, but couldn’t bring himself to turn me in to collect it. I had a better chance of starving to death, than being hung.” Been through a lot worse at times, he mused.
Dunne started, not hearing the tracker’s arrival until he spoke. “He almost got you and Ezra burnt to a crisp!”
“That was an accident, JD. And he hurt Ezra worse than he did me.”
“That’s another thing. Why would Ezra agree not to file a complaint?”
Tanner shrugged. “You’d have ta ask Ezra that.”
Dunne sighed hoping Chris or Nathan would come to his aid, but both remained silent on the issue. If anything, Larabee seemed to agree with Dunne that Mitchell should not have been allowed a second chance.
The wagon lumbered past the lawmen. Albert looked stoically ahead, not risking a glance to his right as he came level. It clambered at a snail’s pace, every so often someone would rush forward and wish them farewell. It was several long minutes before they passed through the town limits.
“You finished?” Chris asked the tracker. There seemed to be some other silent and unspoken message that passed between the pair, but Dunne couldn’t guess at it.
“Gonna stay on for a few more days.” Got some things I gotta do, some people I need ta talk with.
Damn, if he hadn’t expected this. “Standish know you were staying?”
“Didn’t tell ‘im.” But he probably guessed.
“Want some company?” Just me…I’ll send Nathan and JD home with the others.
“Sure, cowboy. Need someone ta watch my back on the way home. Thanks.”
Hope you enjoyed reading.
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