The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson/Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and probably others; only the story is my own. Please do not copy, post, or redistribute without permission from the author.
by The Desperado's Daughter
PART ONE: Game Hunters
His heart pounded. His breathing was labored. His head pounded with each step.
But still he ran.
The low brush tore at his ankles and his worn boots aggravated his blistered feet.
Don't stop. Run!
They were gaining on him. For a while he'd been able to maintain a steady distance. Then, about mid-afternoon, he figured he'd lost them.
Then, he'd heard them again. How the hell were they tracking him? It was as though they knew where he was headed before he did.
But that was impossible.
If he stopped long enough, he figured he'd hurt all over. His head hurt and his feet hurt. Everything in between? Well, he'd worry about that later.
He had to run.
He had long since lost his shirt, and his skin burned from too much exposure to the relentless sun. How could he keep going? This was insane.
But still he ran.
He would die before he let them take him.
They were closing in on him.
His breaths were coming in great gasps, and his legs felt like lead. NO!! Don't give in! Run!
They were closing the distance.
His heart felt like it could explode, but he kept going.
He wouldn't give in. Not after he'd come so far.
God help him!
Ezra Standish smiled broadly.
"Ah, gentlemen," he drawled as he gathered hoardes of chips from the center of the table and slid them to the area directly in front of him. "Shall we make another go at it?"
He would love to keep going at this table--a beautiful cherry hardwood table surrounded by plush chairs. At the rate he was winning, he could afford to stay at this fine hotel for another week at least. He had made a careful study of the other men at the table. Each was dressed impeccably and Ezra thought fleetingly that he would need to augment his wardrobe if he were going to keep such elite company.
The most auspicious of his cohorts was Sir Everett Smythe. He claimed to be royalty of some sort in England, but Ezra suspected his story might be an . . . embellishment of the truth. No matter. Sir Everett Smythe had more money than the Lord God Himself, and Ezra wanted very badly to separate him from as much of it as possible.
The other players seemed to be waiting for Smythe to make the determination. Ezra could feel the dapper English gentleman's eyes studying him, even without Ezra's looking directly at him. He knew Smythe wanted a chance to win his money back. He also knew that the man was trying to decide whether or not Ezra had been cheating. If Smythe continued the game, it would mean he trusted that Ezra played fairly. If he didn't, Ezra would have to sleep with his gun under his pillow and he'd have to leave town before he could hook up with Vin Tanner.
Ezra kept his expression pleasantly neutral. Any sign of nervousness would blow the whole game. If he appeared too happy, too cocky, it would be seen as a form of mockery, and they'd run him out of town that very night. This wasn't Four Corners. If it had been, there would have been someone watching his back. As it was, he'd have to watch out for himself.
He allowed his eyes to meet Smythe's, and he held the look. He was issuing the man a challenge. Silence was working in Ezra's favor. Neither man flinched. Neither man moved. The room hushed as the two high rollers faced off.
Suddenly, Smythe laughed and slapped a hand on the table.
"Another game!!" he cried, and Ezra grinned.
"Another round, my darling," Ezra called the pretty waitress over and slipped a bill into her decolletage. "Pour one for everyone and put it on my tab. It is indeed a pleasure playing with you, Mr. Smythe," Ezra's voice lilted through the parlor and the room applauded the Southerner's generosity.
It was well after midnight, but for the two seasoned players, the night was just beginning.
Chris Larabee was bored--bored and restless. As long as he stayed busy, he could keep his mind away from his demons. But when things were quiet, like they'd been for the last couple of weeks, he had time to ponder things. He had time to wonder what the hell he was doing with himself.
And he had time to miss his family.
Sometimes he imagined what Adam would be like now. How tall would he be? Would he want to be a doctor? A lawyer? God forbid, a cowboy? Chris smiled sadly as he thought about that. Adam Larabee, the cowboy. What he wouldn't give to see Adam as a cowboy--riding free, roping, cutting--and Chris would have ridden right beside him.
Just when Chris would get lost in his fantasy, the present slammed into his consciousness and he'd realize that it was all just that-a fantasy. Reality was a hard barstool and bad whiskey.
He absently let his eyes roam around the saloon. Josiah sat propped up in the corner, asleep. An empty glass sat on the table in front of him. JD sat at the same table, poring over one of those novels he fancied. Buck was sitting at a small table, whispering in the ear of one of the working girls. It was clear he would not go home alone tonight.
Chris looked back at his glass. He held it so that he could see distortions of his reflection in the amber whiskey. He sloshed it around and looked again, mildly amused by the sight of his eye changing shape, size, appearing and disappearing in the thick glass.
"Chris," a familiar low voice greeted him.
Chris tilted his head to the side and looked up. "Nathan . . ." he replied.
"I'm glad folks are healthy," Nathan commented. "But it's quiet as a tomb around here. I'm getting a little stir crazy."
Chris nodded, and said nothing. He listened as Nathan ordered a drink, and the two friends sat drinking in bored, comfortable silence.
Thank God for nightfall.
At least he hoped it was a good thing. He'd eluded his pursuers up until now.
Or had he?
They probably knew exactly where he was. They knew every inch of this wilderness. They knew every hideout. No doubt they were waiting for him to fall asleep so they could ambush him.
Vin Tanner lay on his back in a crevice in the rock wall, no supplies, no gun, no shirt and boots that were not made for running. His body ached and he was so thirsty. He hadn't found fresh water yet. At least they could play fair, but then that would not be profitable for them.
Vin had fought the weariness he felt until he was sure he wasn't being tracked any longer. He had to cover his own immediate tracks. He was exhausted. He just lay there, winded. Oh God, they would just wear him down until he didn't care if he were killed. Or maybe they'd just let the wilderness kill him.
It had only been one day. And here he lay, head swimming, throat parched, body aching, and feet killing him. Survival wasn't hard for him. He could live forever in the wild. But he wasn't merely surviving, he was running--running for his life.
He tried to gather his disconnected thoughts. Why couldn't he think straight?
They'd beaten him. Hadn't they? That's right. They had beaten him. He made a vague move to touch his face, but his arm was too weak.
A chuckle bubbled out of his throat. He was too weak to touch his face. He chuckled again. Then his head started to pound.
He squeezed his eyes closed--trying to ward off the pain. What had they done to him?
He had to work to remember. They'd taken everything--his guns, his knife, certainly his horse. He'd eaten breakfast. He remembered that. They hadn't found him till after he'd eaten breakfast.
His stomach rolled suddenly, and he turned onto his side. He'd have vomited if there had been anything on his belly. He felt the bile rise in the back of his throat, burning. He squinted hard. He tried to remember more, but his head was still swimming. It hurt to think.
He'd meant to stay awake--at least until he had some idea of where his pursuers were, but he started drifting to sleep. Right there in the cleft of the rock. He nodded off to sleep. It would be all right. He'd just sleep for a minute, then he would run.
Run--he'd have to run.
It was at this time of night when Chris Larabee hated himself the most. He sat alone at the bar. Everyone had gone--even the bartender. Chris would lock up . . . again.
Chris had had enough to drink to get a buzz, but not enough to forget what kind of life he could have had. He hated that he felt so damn sorry for himself. He hated being the last one there.
Yet, at the same time, it afforded him some strange comfort. No one would expect anything of him right now. Most importantly, he expected nothing of himself. At this quiet time, he didn't carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He could hurt no one. He could let no one down. He didn't have to answer for anything. He was free of any current responsibility.
But he would never be free of the guilt.
He set the glass on the bar. He stood slowly, legs stiff, testing himself for the degree to which he'd become inebriated. That would let him know how much he needed to hang on to the bar.
He hadn't done too badly tonight. He walked around the bar easily and rinsed his glass. Then he set it, top down on the towel with the others. He realized suddenly how very tired he was. He was almost sleepwalking by the time he closed up the place.
The night air was muggy and it seemed to be as hot as the afternoon had been. The only relief was a pitiful movement of air that could hardly be considered a breeze. Wispy curtains fluttered lazily out of open windows. Four Corners was very quiet.
Chris walked back toward the livery. He wanted to go back to the homestead tonight. He wanted to sleep outside. The boarding house would be too hot-too musty. A short ride would feel good.
He rarely rode bareback, but tonight he would. He climbed slowly up the fence that separated his mount from the others being housed there.
"Easy . . . " he soothed, though it was unnecessary. He swung up onto the black, leaned over to open the stall door and urged him through it. His horse settled into an easy lope once they'd reached the outskirts of town.
He rode easily, and let the rush of air cool him. He eyed the horizon all around. The night welcomed him.
He rounded the curve that would take him beyond the sightline of the town, and started up the low slope. Awake now, Chris breathed deeply and urged the black onward. Once he crested the hill, he stopped. The sight before him was nothing short of amazing.
A horse running . . . faster than he'd ever seen . . . across the wide valley . . . running freely, like the wild horses did. Only there was a rider. This rider was part of the horse, moving with him in a steady pulsing stride . . . his head so close to the horse's neck that he created no more wind resistance than the horse himself. Chris watched, in awe, as the rider guided the horse toward a distant fence. The preparation for the jump was flawless, the jump itself--thrilling. The rider eased the horse around and came rounding back in the direction of Chris and his black. But as soon as the rider saw him, he pulled up and slowed to a stop, still yards away.
The rider stroked the neck of the winded animal, and sat up straighter.
And Chris recognized both the horse and the rider.
The horse was the wild stallion that had been brought to Four Corners for auction--a horse that had been considered unbreakable--a magnificent animal no one could ride. Vin Tanner had finally purchased the beast for far less than it was worth. He had felt sorry for it and had bought it to turn it out to pasture and eventually put it up for stud. It could command no decent price because it threw any rider that had attempted to break it. The best horsemen had tried--and the worst, the last leaving the horse so abused that he was defiant and unapproachable.
Yet, here he was. Chris didn't want to interrupt this moment anymore than he already had. He knew the rider and the rider knew him. The rider paused, waiting. The next move would be Chris'. In a slight gesture, Chris nodded, and the rider nodded back. They understood each other.
Chris watched as JD turned the beautiful animal back toward the open field to continue this strange midnight training run.
Chris felt . . . pride. It was a rather intense pride as he watched their youngest ride off to the next horizon.
And Chris rode on to his homestead. He would sleep very well.
PART TWO: Secrets and Suppositions
"All I'm sayin' is it's a bad habit. That's all I'm saying."
"What the hell are you pontificating about, Buck?" Chris walked in, a grin playing about his lips. Nathan nearly ran into him. "Maybe you can shut him up," the healer mumbled on his way out.
Josiah tilted his chair back and frowned at his coffee cup. "Buck thinks JD is up to something and he's pissed that the kid won't tell him what it is."
"You've got that all wrong," Buck protested. "I am concerned for the boy's well-being."
"No you're not," Chris said. "You just want to know everybody's business and JD ain't talking."
Chris' eyes connected with Josiah's and he sat down, grabbing a biscuit off of Buck's plate.
"Hey, that's mine!" Buck blustered.
"Oh, pipe down. You're so damn busy talking, you won't miss it." Chris popped the oversized bread in his mouth before Buck could grab it. Buck's mouth gaped open in apparent disbelief. "I'm hurt!" he said. "First you accuse me of callousness. Then, you steal my biscuit."
"You'll get over it," Chris said. For a moment, it was the old days. Chris felt comfortable. He settled back in his chair and smiled when Inez brought him a plate of breakfast.
"I haven't ordered yet," Chris said, and he watched as she set the plate on the table. Eggs, steak, biscuits, gravy.
"Every day you come in and order the same thing," Inez said. "Steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy."
Chris frowned. "Maybe today I want flapjacks."
Inez glared at him. "Do you?"
"No ma'am," Chris replied, trying to frown but chuckling instead.
Inez rested a hand on her hip. "I didn't think so."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, and he nodded politely.
She started to go back to the kitchen, but Buck tapped her arm. "Coffee?"
Inez spun around to face him. "Coffee? What about, 'may I have more coffee, ma'am'?"
"You could ask politely, Senor Buck, without just grunting your order. 'Coffee', 'biscuit'." She mocked him very well.
"Chris didn't even order anything and you just plop a plate in front of him. I didn't hear him ask 'politely'."
"Senor Chris is always a gentleman." Inez said then she bent down and whispered something in Buck's ear.
Buck's fist slammed on the table, nearly toppling his coffee cup. "But I didn't . . . "
"I am delighted to serve breakfast to a gentleman. " She moved back over to stand behind Chris, and leaned over to hug his neck from behind. "Senor Chris, perhaps you can remind your friend to mind his manners at the dinner table." With a swish of her skirt, Inez circled back to the bar. Chris kept his expression bland, never looking up. "Mind your manners at the dinner table, Senor Buck."
He couldn't help but chuckle at Buck's reaction. "What is this, 'Pick on Buck Day'? 'Cause if it is, I'm goin' back to bed, thank you very much."
Like a great chief choosing the perfect moment to utter something profound, Josiah opened his mouth. "Buck's just bored, Chris."
Before anyone could answer, a familiar voice said, "Buckboard," and a chuckle followed.
Chris and the others turned to see a half asleep JD pad down the stairs. His unkempt black hair hung in his face, and he could hardly keep his eyes open. He missed a step and stumbled on the next two, catching himself on the banister.
"That step's a killer," Chris said, dryly, then he turned his attention back to his breakfast.
"Nice of you to join us," Buck said sourly. "You might as well eat lunch, 'cause breakfast time is over. How many mornings in a row has it been, Josiah?"
The big man took a bitter sip from his coffee cup. "Ain't been keeping count." Josiah looked over at Inez. He winked at her. "Coffee!" he barked.
"Right away, Senor Sanchez." Inez curtseyed and brought the coffee pot to the table.
"What?" Buck looked around. "Am I doing something wrong here? I was much more gentlemanly than he was."
Inez ignored him and poured Josiah another cup.
JD walked toward the table and stopped. Where could he sit? All the seats at the table were taken. Somehow the concept of pulling up another chair was lost on him, and he stood there, his eyes drifting closed.
Inez set the coffee pot on the table and walked over to the boy. "JD," she said. His eyes popped open. "Huh?" He looked around, embarrassed.
"See?!" Buck said. "Dead on his feet. It's like he ain't slept at all."
"Leave him alone, Buck," Chris said. "Seems like I remember a few mornings you came dragging in."
Inez put an arm around JD and walked him over to another table. She grabbed a chair and set it in the space between Buck and Josiah.
"We aren't talking about me now, are we?" Buck said. "This just ain't like you, son."
"Shut up, Buck." JD yawned. Buck recoiled in mock indignation.
"Well, I like that. A guy shows a little concern over his friend and this is the thanks he gets."
JD sat down and reached over to Buck's plate. Casually he took Buck's last biscuit.
"Oh, that tears it," Buck cried. "Why does everybody think my plate has suddenly become a serving platter?"
JD took a bite of the biscuit and answered with his mouth full. "You just said 'breakfast time is over.' I figured you were through."
Chris swallowed the last of his ill-gotten biscuit. "So did I." He leaned over next to his old friend. "Buckboard."
Buck was about to protest when Inez swirled back around and picked up the coffee pot again. "More coffee, Senor Buckboard?"
"Oh, oh, all right," Buck said, trying not to smile. "This is how it's gonna be. Senor Buckboard . . . all right . . . I get it . . . now all the funny's gone out of it. Buckboard . . . ha ha . . . now can you just leave me and my biscuits alone?"
JD reached over to Buck's plate to steal a piece of bacon. Buck slapped his hand and JD laughed. "I don't know, Buck. Your biscuits are kinda cute."
Josiah's voice followed in low, measured tones. "I noticed your biscuits before, and, I believe JD is right. They are cute."
Inez leaned over to Buck and cocked an eyebrow. "I've seen cuter."
"Would you just leave me the hell alone?"
"Where's the fun in that?" Chris said.
Buck took a biscuit off of Chris' plate and took a bite. Inez warmed everyone's coffee and poured JD a cup.
"Thank you, ma'am," JD said.
Buck watched JD wordlessly. For a moment everyone at the table was finally silent--not for long, though. JD looked up from his plate to find Buck frowning at him.
"What?" JD asked. His hand went up to his face, wiping the corners of his mouth. "Do I have jelly on my face or something?" The kid looked at Chris and Josiah. "What?!" He sounded exasperated.
"What's with you these days?" Buck asked. "You partying too much? That's it, isn't it? That's why you can't get up in the morning."
"I'm fine," JD protested.
Buck's furrowed brow looked funny to Chris. He almost intervened, but he decided to wait.
Buck's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, God . . ."
"What?" JD asked, this time with a mouth full of bacon.
"You're drinking, aren't you? Oh God, kid, don't go down that road. It'll eat you up."
"What makes you say that?" JD asked. "You're talking crazy, Buck."
By now, Josiah and Chris were exchanging amused expressions. Buck frowned again.
"He ain't gonna take the bait, Buck," Chris said. "He's not talking."
JD's sleepy eyes looked at Chris dully. "What bait?"
Chris watched his old friend trying to weasel information from the kid. He'd seen Buck use this ploy many times, except it was usually a woman he was trying to persuade. Chris figured the next step would be a direct question. He felt mildly satisfied when Buck spoke again.
"So why are you sleeping so late?" Buck persisted. JD slammed his fork on the plate.
"It's none of your business, Buck. Just leave it alone, all right?"
Chris watched his men closely. JD was about to explode, and it would only take a push on the right button for Buck to send the kid in a flying rage.
Buck had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, and this time the silence at the table was charged with innuendo and accusation. It occurred to Chris that if Ezra were around, Chris could wager on each move Buck made. He could make a good little profit. Buck's next move would either be one to inspire guilt or to bring out the big guns. Chris wasn't sure which. He chewed very slowly, watching Buck for any clue. Then he realized that Buck was going for the jugular.
Suddenly, Buck's eyes grew wide and he spoke in a very soft voice.
"Are you sick, kid?" Buck asked, dramatically. "That's it, isn't it? You're sick and you don't want to tell anybody."
Oh, this was rich. Chris stifled a laugh and choked on his coffee.
Buck's eyes narrowed at Chris, then they softened as he looked back at JD. "Have you seen Nathan about it?"
JD finally pushed his plate away and stood up. "I'm not sick or hung over. Can't a man just eat his breakfast in peace?" JD took his plate and stormed back up the stairs.
"JD?" Buck called after him.
"Leave him be, Buck," Chris said.
Buck's eyes followed the kid up the stairs, and he took a bite of bacon. "Something's bugging him."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Something about 6'4" with a moustache. That's the only thing bugging JD."
"Oh and I suppose you know what he's up to."
Chris' mocking silence infuriated Buck. Chris knew something . . . and he wasn't telling.
Buck shook off the retort. "Well, it ain't like him. I aim to find out what he's up to.""
After a moment, Buck's eyes grew wide and he grinned. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's her name?"
Chris waited before answering. He set his fork down and looked at Buck.
And Chris laughed harder than he had in years.
When Vin Tanner first woke up, he thought he was in Four Corners. He remembered that something was wrong, but he couldn't remember what. The town was too quiet for the morning. Why could he feel the heat of the sun? Wasn't he in a hotel?
He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt so heavy. He tried to remember what happened, but he could only remember bits and pieces.
Man, his head hurt. Maybe he'd hit his head. That's why he couldn't think clearly. He was supposed to do something, wasn't he?
Ezra. He had come here with Ezra. Maybe Ezra could tell him what he was supposed to do.
Vin couldn't tell where he was. Where was Ezra? Had they already started back? Why hadn't Ezra waked him up?
Headache. Vin squinted his eyes open. There were light high clouds. He was outside. Why was he outside? He raised a heavy arm over his face to block the blinding sun. His arm was sore. His whole body was sore. Then he remembered what he was supposed to do.
Run. He should run. They were coming after him. He didn't remember who, but they were trailing him all the same. He knew that if they caught him, they would kill him.
He felt the ground around him. He had no gun, no shirt, no knife.
No water. That would be a real problem. His empty stomach groaned but there was no food. He knew that he could survive once he could think clearly. He tried to make himself focus.
Get up, he ordered himself, and painfully he pulled himself up. He had gotten himself a great hiding place. But he couldn't stay there.
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. He and Ezra had gone as far as Watertown together. Ezra found a game right away. Vin remembered having something to eat and then heading out to Moody's Gulch. Everything after that was fuzzy. Had he been drugged? Knocked unconscious? How long had it been since he left Watertown? His hand went to his face. He couldn't tell by facial hair. He hadn't been shaving these days--easier to hide his identity that way.
He lay back for a moment. He had to get clear. He had to figure out his next move. That was tough, considering he couldn't remember his last one.
Of the men he rode with, Ezra realized he knew Vin Tanner least. Buck, Josiah, Nathan--they were all rather predictable. Chris was only predictable in his unpredictability. JD . . . well, he was full of himself and the inconsistencies in his life could be attributed to the exuberance of youth. But Vin Tanner was an enigma. Ezra didn't know what "typical" was for him. So he didn't know whether or not to be concerned when Vin didn't show up in Watertown when he was supposed to. On the one hand, Vin was a tracker and Ezra knew he could take care of himself. On the other hand, Vin had a bounty on his head, and he could be in serious trouble.
While weighing the odds, Ezra sat on the porch of the saloon, sipping a drink he hadn't had since moving to Four Corners. He liked this town--especially since he had a wad of Watertown cash tucked away in his boot. Oddly enough, the community didn't seem to be concerned with losing to him in poker. Clearly the residents had resources at home. A loss at poker wasn't even a drop in the bucket. Ezra wouldn't mind staying a few more days. Absently he gazed down the street, not really expecting to see Vin Tanner just then. He would give the tracker one more day before he started worrying. Maybe Vin was getting as lucky Ezra. The gambler grinned to himself. They'd surely have stories to tell on the trip back to Four Corners.
At least Ezra knew he was missing, Vin reasoned, relieved that the gambler would certainly be taking steps to find him. Of all the men he rode with, Ezra was the least predicatable. Just when Vin thought he had him pegged as a self-centered conman, Ezra would suddenly show up and be the hero. But then, when Nettie needed money, Ezra would have been more willing to tear out his kidney and serve it to her on a platter.
He was all fancy talk and fancy clothes, and yet, he helped that girl in Chinatown. Vin wouldn't have even known about that if Nathan hadn't said something.
Come on, Ezra. I could use some help right about now.
Once again, Vin sat up--more easily this time. He really had chosen a wonderful hiding place. Perhaps a better term was "created"--Vin had "created" a place that even someone familiar with the territory would overlook. Vin figured he could stay there for a few days. At least he could hide until the bounty hunters called off the search.
The only problem was that he couldn't go without food or water for much more than a day or two. Vin could tell he hadn't had enough water lately. Maybe he could tell how long he'd been running by figuring out how thirsty he felt.
Why was he lightheaded?
He closed his eyes and tried to collect his thoughts. These were bounty hunters that were after him. He remembered waking up on the ground with five or six men standing around staring at him. A couple laughed. One hooked a toe under his body and rolled him over onto his stomach. He remembered being tied up. He remembered that his jaw hurt. But he didn't know why.
One of them had said that they didn't want to hurt him too much. It would "spoil the fun." They needed him to be able to run.
Why couldn't he remember?
He tried to piece together random thoughts and make sense out of them.
Someone had kicked him. After the others had left, this one had kicked him, in the side of his face. Vin had felt his jaw pop. He touched his jaw gingerly as he recalled the attack. Bits and pieces were coming back to him. Someone had untied him, and once he was freed, a couple of the men came back. He didn't recognize anybody, though. Vin tried to stay focused long enough to remember what they'd said. He squeezed his eyes more tightly and struggled harder to recall.
They were bounty hunters. But something was very different.
The words came back to him.
"We got no concern about whether we take you in dead or alive." There was a sick, throaty laugh. "We're much more interested in the chase."
Vin had protested. "You got me. What more do you want?"
"We're letting you go. You get an hour's lead, then we come after you. We're the hunters and you," the speaker put his foot on Vin's chest and pressed against his breastbone uncomfortably, "you are the quarry."
"What?" Vin probably had not really heard that right. "You can just take me to Tascosa."
"Not until we play the game." One of the men had grabbed a handful of Vin's hair and jerked him up to his feet. For a moment everything was spinning. Vin could still feel the hot breath on his neck.
"I got my money on you, boy. You better make it."
Someone laughed. "Mine's against you. So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Well, at least they hadn't caught up with him.
PART THREE: Strange Bedfellows
He looked at himself in the mirror. The new jacket was nothing short of exquisite. Ah, he missed the fine stores back east. How did this obscure little western town become so sophisticated?
No matter. Ezra now had access to those things he truly deserved and he would take this opportunity to stock up on amenities. He smiled, his tooth catching the light, and a beautiful young woman come up to him.
"Beautiful . . . " she said, her dark eyes studying the outfit . . . and the man. When her gaze settled on the gambler's eyes, she smiled.
"Yes . . ." he said, clearly sending the compliment back to her. "Beautiful . . . Tell me, Mrs. . ."
"Oh, it's Miss," she teased. "Miss Adelaide McMichael . . ."
"Charmed," Ezra said, extending a gallant hand, taking hers and brushing his lips on the back of her hand. "Do I detect a . . . South Carolina accent in your speech?"
"Charleston," Miss Adelaide McMichael drawled.
"Ah, the South's own coastal jewel." Ezra raised an eyebrow and smiled off-handedly. "And the town is a jewel, too."
"Oh, sir . . . you're making me blush."
"Not at all, my dear," Ezra said, and he watched as she began fitting the jacket to his narrow waist.
She reached for the pin cushion that sat on the little table. "We can take this in a bit here," she explained, and she tapered the jacket perfectly to his fine figure. "Not so much that we lose the drape of the back."
Ezra was impressed. He hadn't worked with a real tailor since he was in San Fransisco. and that was three years ago. She had the touch.
She had the touch, indeed. Ezra smiled at his mental double entendre.
Her hand lingered on his waist a moment and his eye caught hers in the mirror. "That feels about right," he said.
She put the pin in the spot and fingered her way to the other side of his waist. "And here . . . " She knelt beside him and kept one hand on his waist and slid the other down the side of his leg--measuring the hem of the jacket against his thigh. "Perfect . . ."
Ezra had stayed utterly still during his fitting, but her hand on his leg made him weak. His knee bent ever so slightly and she laughed softly--not a mocking laugh, but a laugh that was like music to him.
"Miss McMichael . . ."
"Adelaide," she corrected as she measured the drape against the back of the gambler's legs.
Now Ezra chuckled . . . at himself mostly. "Miss Adelaide . . . might you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening?"
To his surprise, the young woman didn't answer right away. She stood up and turned him around to face her. She placed her hands on his lapels. "I can have this ready for you tomorrow."
Ezra studied her face and raised an eyebrow. She was good. He had to give her that. He smiled broadly as he spoke. "And I will pay you for it if you will kindly return my wallet."
She at least had the decency not to look surprised at his accusation. The corner of her mouth pulled in the thought of a smile and she held out the gambler's property. Ezra held her thin wrist with one hand and took his wallet with the other.
"I trust you understand my caution," he said as he flipped it open and counted his money.
It was all there. He released her and she backed away, a provocative smile on her face. Ezra pulled off the jacket and handed it to her. "Now, about dinner . . ."
His head still hurt, but it was bearable. Instinctively, he raised his hand to the side of his head and felt a crusty welt there.
Maybe it wasn't too bad. He could see all right. His eyes must be fine. That was a good sign. And he wasn't dizzy or anything . . . well, not yet, but he hadn't really walked around. That would be the real test.
He was sore--all over. He had to figure out if he had any serious injuries. He looked at his hands. He was sunburned--that was for sure, but everything he checked seemed to work.
He must have gotten a little sun-sick. He squinted up at the morning sky. Today wouldn't be any better. He needed to protect himself from the killer sun and he needed to figure out a way to fight the heat, too.
Water. God, he needed water.
He stood up slowly, pulling himself up by the craggy rock that formed his night shelter. Oh . . . now he was dizzy. He leaned against the rock with his eyes closed. He waited for the spell to pass.
How was he gonna make it out here?
Shake it off, Vin, he told himself. You know what to do. You're good at this survival stuff. Just think.
He kept his eyes closed. What did he need?
He thought back to the time he'd spent with the Indians. He could make a spear . . . but he didn't have a knife. No, he had to be more creative than that.
What did he have?
He opened his eyes, and grinned . . .
He had plenty of rock.
Nathan pulled his hat down low over his eyes. The sun was almost too bright and the way it hit the white wall of the newly-painted cafe across the street, it nearly blinded him. Josiah sat next to him, his long legs propped up on the rail, his hat pulled down over closed eyes. Nathan found it remarkable that Josiah could just enter a world of his own while sitting on a porch in Four Corners waiting on the mail.
Josiah was never asleep, even though it seemed like he was dead to the world. On the contrary, he'd be apparently lost in thought, eyes closed, and yet he'd know every detail of what was going on in town. He'd know that Mary crossed the street to the Clarion ten minutes ago and that she was wearing a blue dress. He'd know every conversation that had happened within earshot.
Nathan himself was almost nodding off when Josiah's rumbling bass voice spoke. "What kind of book is it?"
Nathan chuckled. They'd started this conversation a half hour ago. "A medical book. It's got some new procedures I need to know about." The healer shook his head. "I need to learn more, Josiah."
"And this book will help," the big preacher said. Even though it sounded like a comment, Nathan heard it like a question, and he felt defensive.
"It's better than missing something that could save somebody's life."
Josiah nodded. He could be maddening sometimes. They sat in silence for a long time. Then Nathan's impatience got the best of him.
"What?!" he snapped at his friend.
Josiah never looked at Nathan. Instead, the big man squinted out into the street. "Have you ever thought about studying medicine, Nathan?"
"Thought about it? Hell yes, I've thought about it. Thought about it a lot." Nathan stood up quickly. "Don't you think I'd have gone if there was any way I could have?"
Josiah had the good sense not to ask the obvious question. Nathan answered it anyway.
"Ain't nobody gonna give a colored man a chance in medical school."
"Oberlin?" Josiah offered, and Nathan stopped in his tracks.
"Couldn't afford to get there," the healer answered, quietly.
Josiah finally cut his eyes over to his friend. "If you could?"
Nathan smiled. "I'd go--but I'd have to get more schooling before I could get in."
Josiah might have had more to say, but then they both heard the stage down the street. Nathan watched his old friend start to get up. It took the big man longer and longer every day to stand up if he were comfortable sitting down. It was as though Josiah had to unfold himself--lifting his legs off the rail and pulling them in so he could set them on the floor. Then he'd stretch and sigh, and finally, he'd stand up. His knees would creak and he seemed to roll himself one vertabrae at a time.
By the time Josiah had stretched to his full height, the stage had pulled up to a stop.
JD Dunne was so tired.
But he felt so good. He was back in his element, riding the big horse, training him. JD had always had the touch. He could understand horses. A gypsy woman he'd met once had told him he had a gift, and until he figured out what it was, he'd never have peace. At the time, JD had thought it was becoming a gunslinger. And when he joined up with Chris and them, he had been so excited. He loved his new life.
It wasn't until they'd found this magnificent animal that JD felt the peace the gypsy woman had talked about. Oh, he'd known he was great with horses--he surely could ride. But this--training another living creature to be its best--this was his . . .
JD took care of his friends' horses. He enjoyed that, but it wasn't the same as trying to figure out what a greenbroke horse was thinking.
He smiled as he groomed Buck's horse. Talking to him, but having a very different conversation than he'd had with the wild one. JD was careful to check every part of the horse. He could tell how Buck rode by studying the horse's mouth. He knew when there was a problem with the saddle by how the withers looked. It occurred to JD that these were things a lot of other people didn't have an eye for.
But he did.
He patted the horse's rump and moved on through the livery. Two more to go.
He was pretty safe there in the rock cleft. There'd been no sign of his pursuers yet and judging by the sun, it was right at noon. Vin Tanner studied the makeshift tomahawk he'd put together. He'd found a well-shaped stone, and honed it on another, larger piece of rock. He'd torn off a strip of material from the bottom of his pants where his spurs had already ripped a hole. He'd used that strip to fasten the head of the tomahawk to a piece of shrubbery that had struggled to grow out of the rock face, only to die when the climate had become too dry for it.
It was the right size for the weapon, if only it weren't too brittle. He'd think of a way to strengthen it. For now, he had to look for water and food.
He'd long since decided that his boots would be precious little help out here in this wilderness, but until he figured something out as a replacement, he'd have to suffer.
He made his way down the back of the rocky slope, through a rock barrier he'd fashioned to throw off any would-be attackers. He made a quick study of the surroundings. No one had been here since he'd comethrough yesterday. He'd learned not only to cover his tracks, but to plant some tell-tale things around so that if someone else came this way, he'd know.
Of course, if there was water somewhere, it was bound to be a trap.
Well, he'd have to find some, then look for the source. They might wait for him by a stream. They'd figure he'd drink the first water he found. They wouldn't expect him to go farther before he drank.
He just hoped he could.
Ezra admired himself in the mirror for the second time that day--this time in his hotel room. He wore yet another jacket and a fancier vest than he'd ever owned. He adjusted the little tie he wore and took more pains with his hair than usual. Yes, he looked good. And now that Miss Adelaide McMichael knew he was on to her con, they could have an enjoyable evening together. All was right with the world.
At least here in Watertown.
The gambler wondered vaguely where Mr. Tanner was. He'd decided not to worry until the next day, but something was nagging at him a bit. He couldn't put his finger on it. Well, Mr. Tanner was a resourceful man. He could take care of himself.
Ezra pulled out his watch. 4:30. He'd be meeting the lovely Miss Adelaide in an hour. He had time for a game before their appointment.
Chris Larabee wanted to get some more work done on his homestead. The town was quiet. Vin and Ezra would be back tomorrow. Buck and the rest of the boys could handle anything that happened until then.
Chris stopped at the cafe and got some supper to take with him, then he packed it up and headed for the livery.
Great shafts of sunlight cut through the panels of the old stable. In the light, Chris could see the dust that floated in the air. He stepped into the tack room for his saddle and bridle and, with a heave, carried it to his horse.
He opened the door to the stall. God love JD. He had taken care of the animal. Chris had asked him to take care of a bad place on one of the hooves, and not only had JD done it, but he'd taken care of lots of things. He'd trimmed the forelock, treated the place on the animal's flank where he'd chewed an itch to the skin, and he'd bathed the horse, too.
Chris smiled as he put the saddle on and cinched the girth. The horse blew and whinneyed, nodding. If Chris didn't know better, he'd think his mount was trying to have a conversation with him.
"S'ok, boy," Chris said.
That's when he heard it.
Not a horse sneeze.
Chris pat his horse's neck and left his stall for a moment.
Another sneeze. Chris followed the sound.
To the last stall.
Chris quietly opened the door.
JD Dunne lay curled in the hay on the floor of his mare's stall. Chris chuckled in spite of himself. The kid didn't wake up. His face was down in the hay--no wonder he was sneezing. Chris took a step toward him, only to have the mare nudge him back.
"You know me, girl," Chris said, gently rubbing the soft of her nose so she could get used to his familiar scent. While there, he spoke softly to their youngest--who looked even younger asleep there in the stall.
"JD, hey . . ."
"JD? Come on, son." Chris watched amused as the black head emerged, bits of hay sticking out everywhere. The kid squinted up at his idol, and it took a moment to register where he was.
Suddenly, his eyes flew open, and JD hustled to his feet. "Gosh, Chris, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to . . ."
"It's ok. Why don't you go on to bed?"
"What time is it?" JD asked.
"Damn, I'm so sorry."
Chris shook his head. "It's ok, JD. You ain't done nothing wrong."
JD stood there, half asleep. "But last night, I mean, I know it's Vin's horse and . . . "
Chris smiled and put his hand on the kid's shoulder. "You're doing great, son."
Chris left a bewildered JD standing there.
Yeah, the kid was doing great.
Vin Tanner hoped against hope that the little "posse" of bounty hunters had traveled a long way away from there. Surely they wouldn't expect him to stay so close to where they'd started. Vin had tried tracking them, but with no luck. They were good.
He'd found a little river winding through the valley. Why wasn't there more vegetation along the water? He studied it from a distance, and all indications pointed to the water having been fouled in some way.
Vin would have to find some other source.
It occurred to him that this was probably just one of many traps. Well, he wasn't gonna fall for it. So far he'd stayed a step ahead of them.
He wouldn't be if he couldn't find water, though.
He started to make his way back to his hideout. His feet hurt. He wasn't as hungry as he'd been. He'd found some foliage--pitiful little food for a grown man. But it was better than nothing.
How he found the little cavern, he never knew. Maybe there was something to what Josiah had refered to as "divine intervention". He'd been all over that rock yesterday and hadn't found it.
He could almost smell the water.
Crawling into the opening, he cursed the fact that he had no light. Well, if he didn't find water right there at the mouth, he'd go back out and make a torch.
He didn't have to look long. He came upon water almost immediately. Fresh, clean. Oh, God he'd been so thirsty! He drank greedily. He knew he'd make himself sick if he drank too fast, but he was so thirsty.
He was about to stop, when a strong arm hooked around his throat.
Miss Adelaide McMichael was even more beautiful than she'd been that morning. Ezra Standish was, for once, left speechless. He stood at the foot of the staircase and watched her gracious descent . . . and he wondered why she was not already spoken for.
"Are you going to stand there with your mouth hanging open, or are we going to dinner?" she asked.
"Ah . . . well . . . dinner, of course . . . we should." Ezra Standish, the golden-tongued conman was stammering. He grinned at himself.
Miss Adelaide laughed--that musical laugh again--and came over to him to take his arm. "Come on, Mr. Stephens. Obviously your hunger has addled your mind a bit. Don't worry," she patted his arm. "You'll recover shortly."
Ezra knew that she knew his name wasn't Stephens . . . just as he was sure she wasn't a McMichael. But that was part of the charm.
Of course, as charming as she was, he had taken the precaution of putting his money in a clip secured to a hidden band on the inside of his pants. She'd never find it there.
Unless, of course, he wanted her to.
Vin had no time to think. He instinctively thrust his elbow back into the body of the man holding him.
This caught his attacker off-guard, and Vin was able to twist away from him. There was so little space in the cave that it was difficult to actually fight. Vin hesitated for a split-second--long enough for the man to thrust a knife into the tracker's upper arm.
Vin screamed . . .
And he snapped his attacker's neck.
Buck Wilmington was just plain antsy. He sat in the saloon . . . alone. How did that happen? Chris and Ezra and Vin were gone, Nathan was in his room reading that book he'd gotten. Josiah was . . . Where was Josiah?
Buck took a long drink.
The kid had gone to bed.
If that didn't beat all . . .
Where were the ladies? Miss Blossom was visiting her relatives back in St. Louis. Lucy . . . well, he'd had about enough of Lucy. That left . . .
"Hey Inez!" he called . . .
If Ezra had wondered how the little town had come into such incredible monetary resources, his questions were put to rest when stepped into the back room of the boarding house. Where most businesses would have storage space, this business had a beautifully appointed gaming parlor--private gaming parlor.
He had to hand it to Sir Smythe. He'd told Ezra the night before that there were much bigger games in town. He just hadn't said where. So tonight, when the gentleman approached the couple at dinner, Ezra wasn't entirely surprised.
He was surprised, however, when his date stood up and kissed Smythe on the cheek.
"Hello Daddy," she had drawled.
And once again that evening, Ezra was left speechless.
Oh God . . .
Vin crawled out of the cavern, breathless. If his attacker had been one of them, they'd be all over him in a minute.
He had to get back to his hiding place and he had to cover his tracks.
God, his arm hurt. The blade was still in there. He bit back a cry and looked around. There was just the glow of sun on the horizon. It made shadows everywhere.
His heart pounded. He had to get out of there.
How could he cover his tracks if he left a trail of blood? God, he was lightheaded. He cupped his good hand below the knife hilt so he could keep the blood from dripping.
God help me. . . Please, how do I get back? Vin hadn't prayed recently, but he did steadily while he stumbled back toward the rock slope.
He hoped he was going the right way.
Smythe was getting intoxicated.
Ezra was not.
That would work in Ezra's favor.
Oh, Ezra was giving the impression that he was intoxicated. But he was staying sharp. As he had told his colleagues before, he didn't believe in gambling and, as such, left nothing to chance.
It was probably a good thing that Ezra broke even tonight. He was still way ahead as far as his winnings over the last few days were concerned.
But Smythe was a worthy adversary. Ezra was better. But he couldn't win every night. Who'd believe that?
Miss Adelaide had watched the first few hands and then she repaired to her room.
That was four hours ago.
Smythe was laughing and happy and the veneer of gentleman faded and the drunken partier began to emerge. It was becoming harder and harder for Ezra not to win. He'd have to win just so no one got wise to him.
"Another game?" Smythe called brashly, after he took another game from Ezra.
"Shall we meet tomorrow evening? I fear my mind is becoming cloudy."
"Not fair, not fair, son. Quitting because you are losing," Smythe laughed. Ezra was about to answer when the older gentleman slapped his shoulder. "Not to worry, lad. Not to worry." The dull light of an idea appeared in the Englishman's eyes. "Son, could I stand you to a drink? Brandy?"
"Wonderful, sir. I'd be honored. . ."
Ezra was intrigued. He operated from the philosophy that the more you knew about your opponent, the more likely you were to win. He could sit and talk with the Englishman all night. Or rather he could listen. . .
How long had he been unconscious? Vin struggled to open his eyes. His arm hurt. He reached up with his other hand. The blade was still there.
He felt sick.
Oh no . . . No, he couldn't get sick. He needed everything he'd eaten. He needed the water . . . He fought the nausea.
Where was he?
He opened his eyes and found that somehow, he'd made it back to his hiding place. Had he covered his tracks?
He hoped so. He'd check in the morning . . .
". . . and you'll have to meet my son Matthew . . . " Smythe was saying. "He'll be back in town in a couple of days." The man leaned closer, his breath heavy with alcohol. Ezra listened, hoping his eyes weren't watering. "He's the true artist in the family." Smythe went on. "I believe you would enjoy taking him on in games of chance."
"I'm certain I would. Does he travel to . . . play?"
Smythe laughed. "Indeed he does. He engages in more . . . creative pursuits."
Ezra was tired, but he stayed with the conversation. "He sounds like a brilliant adversary."
"He is, in fact, a hunter."
"And you wager on the hunt." Something felt very strange to Ezra. "What type of game does he pursue?"
"All kinds. He travels all over the world. He was on safari several years ago."
"Sounds fascinating." Ezra was in fact not fascinated. He was tired. He didn't like the idea of betting on how much game a hunter could catch. It made no sense to him. He liked card games, but he was becoming less and less fond of gamblers.
Smythe motioned him closer. There was that breath again. Ezra squinted as he listened to the drunkard "confide" in him.
"Do you want to get in on some major action?" Smythe now had his arm around Ezra's neck.
"What kind of action?"
"I have made a substantial wager on a hunt."
"Sir, I don't. . ."
"Shh, a manhunt."
Ezra controlled his reaction. "Sir?"
"Matthew has friends . . . who are bounty hunters. He finds a man who is wanted . . ." Smythe paused as he began to chuckle." . . . dead or alive . . .and turns him loose in the wilderness. Then he gets a group to chase him. If he dies . . . it pays $1,000 on the dollar plus the bounty. If he gets away, the money goes back into a pot for next time."
Ezra's heart beat wildly, but he kept his words steady. "How often does he get away?"
Smythe laughed. "There is no pot for next time."
"So you have one of these . . . miscreants . . . on the loose right now?"
"Yeah, a good one. He's used to the wild. The game will be more of a challenge this time."
Ezra tried to echo a chuckle. "Sounds like a man could lose his shirt on a deal like this."
"No way." Smythe spoke conspiratorily. "There's no way out."
Suddenly the man broke into a belly laugh and he squeezed Ezra's neck until it ached.
"Does the quarry have a name?" Ezra asked, knowing the sick truth anyway.
"Tanner, wanted in Tascosa."
PART FOUR: Waking Up
For the first time in more than a few days, JD Dunne woke up at sunrise. He felt so good. Rested, healthy, happy--this was how life should be. He thought about his mother and remembered her as healthy and beautiful. Where was that terrible grief that had been his companion for the last two years?
He wondered about that. He couldn't pinpoint a time when it left. He just knew that every day he had more and more fun joking around with Buck, and he spent more time learning how to be a good peacekeeper from Vin and Chris. When he went to breakfast in the morning, he had someone to eat with.
People cared that he ate enough--that he got enough sleep. Even though it drove him crazy sometimes, he had to admit that he liked it.
And Chris Larabee was proud of him.
JD smiled in spite of himself. Chris had told him he'd done good. It was the closest JD had come to having a father who was glad JD was his son. It kinda made up for his real father leaving him.
The sun made a wall of light in his room, cutting through the little gap between the curtains. It would really be hot today. JD closed his eyes and let the morning sun warm his face even as he lay in bed.
He had everything he'd ever wanted. Freedom . . . finally. Years working as a stable boy for an evil man had robbed him of a carefree childhood. But he'd make up for that now and never take freedom for granted.
He had a trade--something he could do better than anybody he knew. He had a trade he loved. It fulfilled him somehow. And the supply of horses he could work with seemed endless.
He had adventure. Almost every day, he lived out his dreams.
And he had a family. He finally had a father, and brothers--friends . . . friends he'd die for.
Friends who would die for him.
Suddenly, he felt a lump in his throat. The only one who'd ever loved him that much was his mama.
JD would miss her forever, but now he could remember her the way he wanted to--not as she was dying. He remembered how she lived, and that gave him great peace.
For the first time in his life, JD was happy. He lay in bed just thinking.
Ezra had not slept at all. He hadn't changed clothes. The town that yesterday had been all he'd thought he wanted was now vile and repugnant to him. And men he had felt a kinship with--fellow gamblers-- had taken his "sport" and made it a bloodsport. . .
With Vin's blood.
Damn them! He wanted to annihilate them, but with Vin's life at stake, Ezra would probably have to feign affection for them. He'd have to pretend to be one of them so he could put an end to the madness.
Hunting humans . . . dear God, who could do such a thing?
How was he going to get Vin out of this? How long was this little . . . game supposed to last? What if Vin were dead already?
Ezra shook his head. If anyone could elude hunters, it was Vin Tanner. Vin would be all right.
Vin Tanner had slept fitfully. Pursuers hid in the corners of his dreams--waiting to capture him, waiting to deliver him, waiting to kill him.
He hurt in his sleep, and he hurt worse when he woke up. It hadn't been a dream. God help him, this was no dream.
Vin tried to pull himself up . . . but his body resisted. He lay back again and started to roll to his side.
He had the presence of mind to bite back the scream that erupted from his throat. His arm . . . Oh, God. The pain was almost blinding. Vin squeezed his eyes closed as tightly as he could and rolled to his other side. His good hand reached to try to find the source . . .
The hilt of a knife--a knife that was still in his arm.
And Vin remembered that he'd killed someone with his bare hands. It was only a matter of time now before the hunters would find him.
Or he'd bleed to death first.
Buck Wilmington woke up alone.
And in a bad humor.
He must be losing his touch. Why else would the ladies be so hard to find? Time was once when a woman would go out of her way to meet him--based on reputation alone, he figured.
And what was the problem with Inez? Why wasn't she interested? He'd tried everything he knew to do and it didn't make any difference at all. He was out of options.
He hated his bed when he was the only one in it. It just didn't feel right.
It didn't smell right either. No perfume, no powder . . . just . . . man smell. Leather, boots, smoke. Buck frowned. Maybe he needed to take a bath more often. He sniffed under his arm.
No . . . couldn't be that. He smelled right nice.
Why didn't Inez like him? This just didn't make any sense at all.
Then his eyebrows shot up. He had an idea!
"What's he doing?" JD asked. It was a stupid question, considering that Nathan was sitting at a table by himself, eating breakfast and reading voraciously.
Josiah looked up at the kid, then over at Nathan, then back at the kid. JD rolled his eyes. "What's he *reading*?" he asked.
"A medical book," Josiah answered. "It came in yesterday."
"Wow, what's it about?"
Josiah squinted at the kid. Maybe JD really *wasn't* getting enough sleep. "Medicine, JD," Josiah answered.
And again, JD rolled his eyes. "What *kind* of medicine? Heart, bones, diseases . . . surgery?"
Josiah smiled. "I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"
"He looks busy. I don't want to bother him."
Josiah glanced back at Nathan. The healer did look busy. He seemed absolutely mesmerized by the textbook. Josiah admired his friend's tenacity.
JD spoke in a low voice. "Josiah . . . why do some folks say there's no such thing as a colored doctor? That doesn't seem fair."
Josiah looked back at JD. "It's not fair. There are lots of things that aren't fair in the world, JD. At least Nathan doesn't let folks' prejudices determine what he can and can't do. We'd all have been dead a couple of times by now if he did."
"He's as good as lots of doctors back east--better'n some."
Josiah smiled a bit. "He's got what the Cheyenne call the 'touch'. They consider the ability to heal a gift from God."
"Why doesn't he go on and call himself 'doctor'?"
"It's not that easy, JD. There's lots of schooling that goes into being a doctor."
JD bit his lip and studied his breakfast plate. "Well, you're right, then. It's not easy. Schooling takes a lot of money." The boy cut his eyes over to the healer. "I bet he wants to go to school as bad as I do."
Josiah watched the young man closely. He hadn't really considered JD's dreams of college. Of course the boy wanted to go. The preacher wasn't prepared for what JD said next. JD looked at Josiah, his eyes bright with an idea. He spoke very softly, so Nathan wouldn't hear. "I bet we could all get some money together . . . and you know the town could . . . Mary could put it in the paper . . . we could send him to school. He is our own doctor, after all."
"Have you thought about saving your money and going yourself?" Josiah asked.
"Well, sure I have. I think about it . . a lot." JD looked at Josiah almost incredulously. "It doesn't make sense for me to go. I don't have that 'touch'. Nathan ought to go before me. He has a real future."
The boy had a good heart. "So do you, son," Josiah said.
JD waved him off. "I'll go sometime. I'm good at horses." The boy smiled broadly, as though this were some great revelation. "I don't need college for that. I just want to go someday because there's so much I don't know." JD hadn't touched any more of his breakfast. He was too excited. "So what do you think? Think we can get enough to send Nathan to school?"
"Eat," Josiah commanded, and once the boy took another bite, he responded. "It's not just the money . . ."
"Well, if it's that 'predy-juice' you were talking about, we'll just get Chris to take care of it."
"'Prejudice' . . . and all the peacemakers in the world can't fix that, JD." Josiah looked back over at Nathan. He wondered how to say this. "JD, how much schooling have you had?"
JD shrugged. "I don't know . . . off and on my whole life. Sometimes I went to school . . . sometimes I got to work with a tutor . . . if we were at a nice house. Sometimes I had to work so hard, there wasn't time to study. I tried to read when I couldn't go to school." JD shrugged again. "Hell, I don't know. I can read and write. I've had some numbers. I never got to take science. Always thought that'd be fun. Never took history, but I read about it all the time."
Josiah downed the end of his coffee and stood up. "Son," he said, resting his big hand on JD's shoulder. "I think I know a way we can make this happen." He leaned over and whispered, "don't let on, though."
JD smiled broadly and settled down to eat.
Ezra Standish looked every bit the dapper English hunter. He walked slowly through the heavy pipe smoke to the table where Sir Smythe sat with his cohorts. Just yesterday Ezra had reveled in the heady atmosphere, surrounded by the amenities he had always longed for. Now it all seemed hideously foul.
Everyone noticed the Southerner. How could they not? With riding crop and fancy weapons, riding jacket and jodhpurs. Smythe's eyes grew wide, then he laughed heartily.
"And just where do you think you're going, young man?"
Ezra continued to hook on cufflinks and adjust his pocketwatch. "I want to join the chase," Ezra said coolly.
"Well son, they're bound to be half-way to . . ."
"I know this Tanner," Ezra interrupted. "I know how he works." In response to the surprise that registered on the men's faces, he explained. "I have found it to be useful employ to turn the occasional bounty over to the appropriate authorities. It helps to make up for the . . . slower . . . times out in the barren, God-forsaken wilderness where only penny-ante games can be found. At any rate, one time I picked up the trail of Mr. Tanner . . . who has a substantial price on his head, as I am sure you know. I tracked him an unbelievable distance . . ." Ezra paused for dramatic effect and forced a grimace on his face. ". . . and he left a permanent souvenir in my shoulder in order to stop me."
Smythe frowned. "I'm not so sure my son will want more competition in his game."
"Not competition, I assure you." Ezra smiled, his tooth winking at the man. "Assistance. I am sure your son is an excellent hunter, but no one has been able to catch Vin Tanner."
"What makes you think you can?"
Ezra leaned over and rested both hands on the table. "I've studied him. I know how he thinks now. And I will either catch him or your boy and his compatriots can make me their quarry."
Smythe laughed at first, until he seemed to realize that Ezra was serious. "What about the money?"
"If I am the one to capture Mr. Tanner, then I will require half of the bounty and half of the winnings on the table. You gentlemen can decide what to do with the rest."
Smythe stood up slowly and extended his well-groomed hand. "You have a deal, my friend."
Ezra felt the bile rise in the back of his throat as he shook hands with the man who treated human life like cattle.
He would love burying this whole operation.
But first he would have to find Vin.
It was Buck Wilmington who first saw the telegram from Ezra. But what the hell did it mean? Probably some fancy way of saying he was getting laid and wouldn't be home for a few days.
Well, it wouldn't surprise him. Judge Travis would probably get some before Buck Wilmington would again.
Buck stepped out of the telegraph office and into the street, still trying to figure out what Ezra meant.
Need tracking journal stop may go to Tuscosa before returning stop . . .
Buck looked up in time to see the stagecoach bearing down on him. "Shit," he muttered and he dove out of the way.
The driver cursed at Buck as he passed by, then Chris Larabee trotted across the street.
"What the hell were you doing?" Chris said, jerking Buck by the arm.
"Lemme go," Buck said. He brushed the dust off of his clothes and then searched the ground for the telegram. "Ezra sent . . . a strange message."
Chris leaned over and picked up the crumpled paper and read it to himself. His face became grim.
"What?" Buck asked softly.
Chris waited a moment before answering, then he folded the paper and slipped it into his hip pocket. "Get the boys together, Buck. We gotta ride."
PART FIVE: Plans
JD Dunne looked out over the horizon, and the scene took his breath away. Land, lush and beautiful, wide and open and free . . . and JD's heart soared. His eyes filled and he again realized how blessed he was. Chris had let him have three days off. He could ride, run, party, anything. The only thing Chris had requested was that he steer clear of the dangerous stretch between Four Corners and Purgatorio. That wouldn't be a problem. JD would be heading in an entirely different direction.
With a whoop, JD took off into the open land, riding the amazing stallion as fast as the animal wanted to go. It was at times like this that JD felt most alive.
He rode, feeling the strength that carried him. He couldn't wait to show Vin the horse that "couldn't be rode."
JD believed that Vin needed to feel this freedom. The tracker had been on the run so long. It must be hell to live your life looking over your shoulder all the time.
JD vaguely wondered why Vin and Ezra hadn't gotten back. They should have been home yesterday. But Ezra had probably hooked up with a big stakes poker game and Vin was probably just as happy to get to rest for a day or two. Oh well, things were slow. He'd just have to wait a few days to show Vin the stallion.
Stay awake. Stay awake. Stay awake. Stay awake. Don't give them the satisfaction of finding you dead. Stay awake. Stay awake. Ezra will come looking for you. Ezra will figure it out. Oh God, Ezra come on . . .
Vin hurt so badly. His body was failing him. His body was dying. But he'd be damned if he'd let it. His spirit was strong. His spirit was strong. And he was innocent. God knew he was innocent. His friends knew it. He could survive if he could stay awake.
He'd killed somebody out here, hadn't he? The guy that stabbed him. Vin looked down at himself dazedly to find the wound. Wasn't it his arm? Hard to tell when everything hurt.
He had to eat. He had to find food . . . but first he had to stay awake.
Focus on the pain. That would keep him awake. Pain. His arm. That's where he'd been stabbed. He looked at it -- focused on it this time.
Damn. It was infected. It could kill him. It would kill him if he didn't do something.
He'd have to tie it off -- stop the flow of blood to his arm . . .
And lose his arm.
No. Not yet. He wouldn't do that.
Where was he? He'd made a little camp in this rock crevice and he'd avoided the hunters by not moving. But now, he had to figure . . .
Fever. Infection. His lucid hours were certainly limited. They may never find him in this crevice, but he'd die there anyway. If he hadn't gotten hurt, he could have survived out there indefinitely. He'd already demonstrated that he could evade his pursuers.
God willing, Ezra would be missing him now. But could Vin afford to wait until someone came to the rescue?
It was time to get on the offensive while there was time left. If they killed him, at least he'd die trying to save himself. If he died in this rock crevice, he would have given up his only chance at survival.
No way. He had to come up with a plan and he had to do it now.
Chris paced as Josiah read Ezra's telegram aloud slowly. Buck and Nathan sat at the table with Josiah and tried to make sense of it.
"Need tracking journal stop may go to Tascosa before returning to Four Corners stop found lucrative game stop Jackson fox hunt stop may buy Maude her priceless stones yet stop Ezra." Josiah sighed. "For Ezra to send a message that cryptic, he and Vin must be in a mess of trouble."
"Tascosa," Chris repeated. "Bounty hunters have gotten too close. A tracking journal, though?"
Buck spoke up. "What's a 'Jackson fox hunt', Nathan?"
"He's talking about a fox hunt with a human target."
"What?" the others chorused.
Nathan frowned. "Sometimes the owners would get together, pick one of the slaves and let them run. Gave them a day's head start, then they'd take the dogs and hunt 'em down. Whoever made the kill . . . was the winner. If the slave got free, he could stay free."
"He never did, though, did he?" Buck asked.
"Never," Nathan said. "The 'course' was rigged."
"So there's a manhunt and Ezra's bet on it," Buck said.
"There's a manhunt and Vin . . . is the target," Chris said, his voice tight.
"No. . ." Buck said. "There's no way."
"Believe me," Nathan said. "It happens."
"And who better to chase . . ." Chris said. "Vin has a bounty on his head. They kill him, it's legal."
"Sweet Jesus . . . " Buck said.
"He 'needs the tracker's journal'," Josiah said, "so Ezra must have gotten in on the hunt."
"He can't track," Chris yelled.
"That's why he sent the telegram," Buck yelled back. "He needs help."
"Easy, guys," Nathan said. "We've gotta come up with something fast."
"'Maude's priceless stones,'" Josiah mused. "They were fake."
Nathan stood up slowly. "He's reminding us that he's having to play along with them."
"And we can't break his cover," Buck said.
"Someone there will know he sent the wire," Josiah said. "No one should be suspicious."
"Damn brilliant," Chris said, grabbing the telegram from Buck. "Ezra is damn brilliant."
"So, what do we do?" Buck asked.
Ezra Standish was no tracker. He was no hunter. He was no outdoorsman. What the hell was he doing? For a fleeting moment, he regretted the times he had bemoaned Vin lack of grooming acumen. Vin Tanner was the most thorough guide he'd ever seen in the outdoors. While Ezra would be frustrated if he left his cognac at home, Vin was always prepared for any circumstance the seven might encounter in the wild.
Now, Ezra didn't even know what kinds of clothes to take with him. He didn't know what devices to take. Education be damned; he didn't have the knowledge to even begin to search for his friend.
He looked in his saddlebags. He would approach this as he would a fox hunt, making allowances only for the difference in weather. He was within minutes of taking off when he heard a woman scream.
Adelaide . . .
It was beautiful country. JD had never been here before, but he was ready to go exploring. To the east was wide open green countryside, interrupted only by stands of trees that gathered by a winding stream. West of the stream were craggy rocks that expanded into bluffs. Although he couldn't see it yet, he was certain the stream grew into a river beneath those bluffs.
JD again gave the horse free rein to run through that beautiful countryside and he galloped faster and faster . . . until he heard them. The stallion heard them before JD did and he pulled up so abruptly that JD almost went flying over his mount's head.
On a scent.
JD grinned. This would be great.
Maybe he'd landed in the middle of a fox hunt.
"Hyah!" JD cried, and he ran off to join the chase.
The plan was in place. Each of them knew their jobs. Chris Larabee wasted no time and within a half hour of reading the telegram, he was riding out of Four Corners like the devil was after him. Buck rode beside him and Nathan and Josiah rode on their heels.
They would find Vin Tanner.
And there would be hell to pay.
To be continued . . .
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