Vin ate the beans and hardtack without complaint, though his newfound companions didn't. He listened to Hobbs and Roberts compare their supper to something a helluva lot less appetizing, but it didn't bother the ex-bounty hunter. He'd heard worse.
Vin was damned lucky he'd been able to convince Mangus he was sincere in his search for a job. For the first time, Vin was almost glad he was a wanted man. It gave him more credibility to this bunch of cutthroats.
He stood to take his plate to the pan of water. As he washed it, Lomax joined him.
"I'm keepin' my eye on you, Tanner." The man's breath was nearly as deadly as Top Hat Bob's.
Vin smiled. "Don't got much to do, huh?"
"You turned my friend in so I owe you for that. Once this job is over, you and me is gonna have a little talk." Lomax's lips twisted into a caricature of a grin. "That is, if you don't happen to get shot by a stray bullet."
Vin angled a look at the man who resembled a rat with small beady eyes and scraggly whiskers. "You'd do well to remember that I'm gonna be keepin' my eye on you, too." He stalked away before Lomax could respond.
Vin walked into the darkness at the edge of their camp. He could feel eight pairs of eyes drilling into his back, and knew this wasn't the time to try anything. He'd have to bide his time, get the men to trust him, and hope he succeeded in escaping to warn his friends.
A cool breeze swept across him and he shivered, but the chill came from within. He'd come to take his friendship with Chris and the others for granted and had forgotten what it was like to have only himself to rely on. This is what it'll be like when I head to Tascosa on my own, he thought, and remorse filled him. He didn't want to go back to the way it was when he was alone. Back then he hadn't known what it was like to have someone like Chris or Buck or Ezra or Josiah or Nathan or JD watching his back. He hadn't known what is was like to have men beside him whom he could trust.
He hadn't known loneliness like he knew it now in this camp of enemies.
Did he want to split up with the only true friends he'd known and travel to Tascosa alone?
He shook his head. He couldn't answer that now. Later, after they'd gotten out of this mess, Vin would have time enough to make a decision. Provided, like Lomax said, he survived.
Vin heard the quiet crunch of footsteps behind him and his shoulders tensed as his hand moved to his mare's leg.
"You wouldn't be thinking of leaving us so soon, would you?" Mangus asked.
Vin turned slowly, easing his hand away from his weapon, and smiled crookedly at the outlaw leader. "Only when I gotta relieve myself."
Mangus grinned. "Guess a man does need some privacy now and again." His smile faded. "Any one of these men here would shoot you in the back as much as talk to you."
"Nice bunch of fellahs."
"They do their jobs," Mangus said with a shrug. "Just like you do yours and I won't care where you go or what you do."
"Have to prove myself first, huh?"
"Everyone here already has. You're my wild card, Tanner."
Vin wrapped his fingers around his gunbelt and stood with most of his weight resting on one leg. "Then why'd you hire me on?"
"I needed another man and you were there. Simple as that."
Vin narrowed his eyes. "I guess, unless you got some other reason."
Something flickered in Mangus' eyes - something Vin almost missed. "And what reason would that be?"
Vin smiled widely, intending to throw the killer off-balance. "Damned if I know, but then I ain't the boss man here neither."
Mangus laughed. "I sure hope you're on our side, Tanner, 'cause if you aren't, you're taking all the enjoyment out of killing you."
Vin's palms grew damp, but he forced himself to chuckle along with the outlaw. "Believe me, it ain't gonna be much fun for me neither."
Mangus clapped Vin on the back and led him back to camp, an arm around Vin's shoulders.
Chris planted his right foot on the lowest corral pole and folded his arms across the top one as he watched the sun settle behind the western horizon. Horses milled about in the corral and men's guttural voices drifted from the bunkhouse. The keen scent of fresh droppings stung his nose, but the familiar smell didn't bother him. Instead, he focused on the darkening land, watching, hoping to see the welcome silhouette of Vin riding toward the ranch. If Vin had said he'd come back today to check on JD, he would have. Unless something had happened to him.
No. Vin could take care of himself. He'd been doing it for a long time before the seven men hooked up. Still, it didn't ease the apprehension that stole through Chris like the desert night breeze.
Suddenly he snorted and shook his head. Who would've thought Chris Larabee, loner gunman, would become as worrisome as a mother hen with six chicks? Hell, Chris wouldn't even have believed it of himself. But here he was fretting and not just about Vin, but JD and Buck, too.
"Searching for our delinquent companion?"
Chris turned to see Ezra, wearing his buckskin jacket and brown trousers, join him. He shrugged. "If you're talkin' about Vin, yeah, I guess I am."
Ezra came to stand beside him and Chris saw mirroring apprehension in the gambler's eyes. "Do you believe he has fallen into some nefarious predicament?"
"Could be." The ball of worry in Chris's gut grew. "It ain't like Vin not to hold to his word."
"You're correct in that assumption. Would you like me to ride into town and search for Mister Tanner?"
Chris had considered doing that himself but discarded the idea - Vin would have a good laugh about Chris Larabee fussing over him. "Vin's a big boy. He can take care of himself. We got a job to do tonight."
Ezra rubbed his jaw with his thumb and stared thoughtfully across the twilight-touched land. "What if Vin's in trouble?"
Chris noted Ezra didn't use any of his two-bit words, revealing how concerned he truly was. Chris sucked in a lungful of cool air. "Vin survived years on his own - one day alone ain't gonna hurt him."
"Unless he ran into some trouble he couldn't handle," Ezra added softly.
"Damnit, Ezra, we can't go runnin' off every time one of us takes off for a little while," Chris said sharply to hide his own concern. "We told Mrs. Jordan we'd patrol that fence line tonight and that's what we're going to do."
Ezra's lips thinned and he nodded curtly. "Of course, Mister Larabee. When one's word is given, it must be kept."
Josiah's tall form emerged from the shadows. He looked from Chris to Ezra then back at Chris. "Are we ready?"
Chris nodded, tight-lipped. "Yep."
The three men saddled their horses quietly, and if Josiah noticed the strained silence between Chris and Ezra, he didn't comment. Chris glanced at Josiah. "Is Nathan coming?"
Josiah shook his head. "He's staying with JD. Wants to make sure the boy is healing all right." He looked around. "Have you heard anything from Vin?"
"No," Chris replied shortly. "Let's go."
He mounted his black gelding, then waited until Ezra and Josiah did the same. Chris angled his hat brim lower on his forehead. "If Vin doesn't show up by tomorrow afternoon, we'll ride into town and look for him."
Ezra's lips tipped upward and his green eyes twinkled. "Shall we attend to our devoir?"
Chris frowned and glanced at Josiah questioningly.
Josiah shrugged a broad shoulder. "I hope it means our job, because if it doesn't, I don't want to know."
Chris chuckled, alleviating some of the tension that had settled in a knot between his shoulder blades, then raised his hand and led them away from the ranch. An hour later they arrived at the fence and found four other Double J men there to greet them. Darkness blanketed the earth with only the silvery light of a half moon casting dappled shadows on the ground.
"Larabee," Fuller said with a nod. He introduced the Double J men to them. "Each of us can take our men and follow the fence in opposite directions. There's three other men about five miles down on each side - you'll meet with them in the middle then turn around and come back the same way. Any questions?"
Chris shook his head.
"Good," Fuller said. "You and your boys follow it north. We'll go south."
Chris listened to a small animal scuttle across some rocks. There was a flutter of an owl's wings then the high-pitched squeal of a rabbit. Prey and predator - a fact of life in the animal world and sadly, in the world of humans, too.
He chased his gloomy thoughts aside and gave his horse a light tap with his heels. Keeping his senses alert, Chris became the predator.
Vin hunkered down beside Lomax who kept casting him hostile glances in between watching for outriders along the fence line. They had settled on a rise overlooking the barbed wire where they had a bird's eye view. Vin's stomach burned as he wondered what Mangus and his band of cutthroats had in mind.
A few minutes later, three riders came into view. The solid black clothing that matched one rider's big black gelding made Vin's breath catch in his throat -Chris. And it looked like Ezra and Josiah were with him. Vin fought the urge to stand up and shout at them to find cover. If he did that, all of them would be dead. No, he had to wait to see what Mangus had in mind.
Lomax raised his rifle and sighted in on Chris. Vin put a hand on the barrel, forcing it down. "Mangus hasn't given us any orders yet," he hissed.
"I'm about to," Mangus said from behind them. "You ready to start earning your pay, Tanner?"
Vin's heart stumbled in his chest. He had to do something or his friends would be cut down.
"Hold it," Mangus suddenly said. "We got company."
Vin followed Mangus's gaze and spotted a small group of men approaching Chris, Ezra, and Josiah from the opposite direction.
"There's too many of them," Mangus said in a low voice.
Vin breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. That gave him some extra time to escape and warn the others.
"We'll have to hit them some other night." Mangus clapped Vin on the back. "Let's get back to camp."
Lomax followed Mangus, while Vin watched his friends for a few moments longer. Inexplicable loneliness surged through him. He should have stayed with them - that's where he belonged.
He turned and joined the outlaws.
Chris listened as Josiah and Ezra spoke with the three Double J hands for a few moments, but his sixth sense kicked in and his neck prickled. Someone was watching them - he could feel it. From beneath his lowered brim, he searched the silvery blue landscape, trying to pierce the darkness for whoever was out there.
"Chris." Josiah's voice broke his concentration. "Ready to ride back?"
The eerie sensation faded, leaving Chris feeling oddly bereft. "Yep."
The three men turned as one and retraced their trail following the barbed wire.
"Damnit, Buck, I want to get up and do it myself," JD growled.
"You heard Nathan. No movin' off this bed for at least another day," Buck said.
"But I got to use the privy."
"I'll help you with the chamberpot."
JD closed his eyes, exasperated by his watchdog. Amazingly enough, JD didn't feel too bad considering it was only three days ago that he'd been hurt. Contrary to what everyone had thought, most of his cuts were shallow enough that they'd already scabbed over. The few deeper ones still pained him, especially those Nathan had stitched together. But JD was tired of Buck and Nathan watching him like a hawk. Hell, even Chris had sat with him a couple hours that morning, his cool eyes not missing a single twitch.
JD threw back his blankets, intent on taking care of business himself. Buck's hand immediately gripped JD's arm.
"Buck." The warning in JD's voice must have startled the older man because he backed off slightly. "I can do this myself."
Buck threw his arms in the air. "All right. If you're goin' to be as stubborn as a cross-eyed mule, go right ahead and fall on your face. See if I care."
"All right then," JD said and began to ease himself up. The pain caught him off-guard and rivers of fire streaked through the deepest injuries. He hissed in pain.
In spite of his supposed indifference, Buck was right there, easing him back down on the bed. "There - you believe me now?"
JD closed his eyes, fighting the bolts of lightning searing through him. "All right," he said, damning his weak voice. "We'll do it your way."
A few minutes later, Buck pushed the chamberpot under the bed and out of sight. "See now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Embarrassment burned almost as much as JD's injuries. "Shut up, Buck."
Buck covered his mouth with a hand, but JD could see the laughter dancing in his dark blue eyes. Dang, if that man didn't see the humor in everything!
As JD's chagrin and pain faded away, his thoughts took him to his companions. He'd seen all of them except Vin more than a couple times in the last day. Every time he asked someone about him, no one would give him a straight answer.
"Where's Vin?" JD asked softly.
Buck, seated in his chair once more, sat up a little straighter and his gaze flitted to the window. "He's around."
"Why are you and everybody else lying?" JD's heart leapt into his throat. "He ain't hurt or dead, is he?"
"Hold on now, kid. Don't you go jumpin' to half-assed conclusions. As far as we know, Vin's okay."
"What do you mean, 'as far as we know'?" The ball of dread grew in JD's stomach.
Buck leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs, then clasped his hands. "Do you know what Chris and the others did last night?"
JD shook his head.
"They patrolled that barbed wire fence for the Jordans," Buck explained.
"The wire I run into?"
Buck nodded, his expression somber. "Yeah. Guess the Jordans been having trouble with the grangers cutting it and they need men to guard it so what happened to you won't happen to no one else."
JD curled his right hand into a tight fist. "What I did was plumb stupid, Buck."
"What're you talkin' about?"
"Hell, I knew better than to go racin' across land I didn't know," JD confessed in a small voice. "Chris and the others must think I'm pretty stupid."
Buck's mouth dropped open. "Nobody thinks you're stupid, kid." He grinned. "Well, maybe when you get to tellin' your jokes." His voice grew somber. "Look, JD, it was all my fault."
"Your fault? How do you figure that?"
Buck raked a hand through his hair. "You told me that yourself yesterday when you woke up. I shoulda seen that devil wire."
JD stared at his friend a moment, then broke into laughter. "Geezus, Buck, you don't know everything, even though you think you do. If I blamed you, I didn't mean it. It comes down to me learnin' from my mistakes and this was a helluva one. Mrs. Jordan come up this morning and apologized about the wire. I don't blame her, Buck, or you, or anyone else for that matter. And if the guys want to patrol the wire, I don't mind. Fact is, I'd do it, too, if I was feelin' up to it."
Buck's expression lightened considerably and his eyes glimmered. "Thanks, kid." Then he flashed the famous Wilmington grin. "You hungry?"
"Starved," JD replied without hesitation.
"I'll run down and see if I can sweet talk Maria into makin' something for you." Buck jumped up and was gone in an instant.
JD crossed his arms carefully across his bandaged chest and scowled. "Just my luck Maria's beautiful and I ain't gonna be eatin' any time soon," he mumbled.
Suddenly JD realized Buck hadn't answered his question about Vin.
Chris, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah dismounted in front of the liveliest saloon in Anders and wrapped their horses' reins loosely around a hitching post. Ezra ducked under the rail and joined the others on the boardwalk. By unspoken agreement, they entered the Tin Bucket and strolled to the bar. Chris noticed the attention they garnered, but ignored it.
"Whiskey," Chris said.
His three companions motioned for the same. As Chris searched the room for a familiar face, Ezra moved toward a poker table. Chris shook his head tolerantly - get Ezra anywhere near a deck of cards and it was like a duck taking to water. He turned to the bartender. "We're looking for a friend of ours. Long hair, wears a leather jacket, fringe on the shoulders, and a sawed-off carbine on his leg. Seen him?"
The round-faced man shook his head. "Sorry, mister. Ain't seen anyone like that."
Chris nodded his thanks. "Let's go check out the rest of this one-horse town." As they passed the poker table where Ezra stood, Chris slapped his arm. "C'mon, Ezra. We got work to do."
With only a small sigh, Ezra touched the brim of his hat to the poker players and followed his friends out of the smoky saloon.
The four men stood on the boardwalk, looking up and down the main thoroughfare. "Josiah, Nathan take the other side of the street. Me and Ezra'll take this side. Meet back here when you're done."
An hour later, they met at the appointed place.
"A lady at the restaurant said she seen him yesterday morning -he had breakfast there," Nathan reported.
"Good. At least we know he was here," Chris said.
A man wearing a lawman's star on his chest approached them. "Mornin' gents."
"Mornin'," Chris returned the greeting. He sized up the sheriff in a moment - this lawman had never faced anyone more dangerous than a boisterous drunk.
"I hear you men are lookin' for someone," the lawman said.
"That's right," Chris replied. "He was here yesterday morning but no one's seen him since."
"He got a name?"
Chris glanced at his companions and caught their wariness. He couldn't very well give Vin's name since he was wanted for murder in this territory. "Joe Jacobs."
The sheriff puckered his brow. "Never heard of him. Why you lookin' for him?"
"He's my kin. Wanted to let him know his ma died," Chris lied smoothly.
"What's he look like? I can keep an eye out for him."
Chris wasn't sure he wanted to give the man Vin's description, but then the sheriff didn't seem overly bright. He described Vin.
"It's a shame about his ma," the sheriff said with a shake of his head. "My own folks died a couple years ago."
"Sorry to hear that," Nathan offered sympathetically.
"Thanks. I'd best get back to work. Iffen I see your kin, I'll let him know you're lookin' for him."
"Obliged," Chris said.
The lawman strode away, whistling a nameless tune.
"Do you think that was wise?" Ezra asked.
"I'm not sure," Chris replied candidly. "All I know is we got a missing man and we don't know what happened to him."
Josiah glanced up at the setting sun. "There's many misfortunes that can befall a man on his own out here."
A chill slid down Chris's back as he met Josiah's somber gaze.
"What do we do now?" Nathan asked.
"Get back to the ranch, then go do our job. If Vin hasn't shown up by tomorrow morning, I'm going to do a little scouting around," Chris said.
The four men mounted up silently, each speculating about the fate of Vin. The unease in Chris's gut had grown into a full-blown fear - fear for Vin's life. He was certain Vin hadn't gone on to Tascosa - he'd given his word he wouldn't leave without saying good-bye to JD. And Vin Tanner was as good as his word.