Clouds blanketed the stars and moon, allowing little light to alleviate the night's darkness. Trees and rocks were barely discernible and Chris wondered how they'd see anyone cutting the fence unless they were right on top of them. He glanced to his right to see Ezra's dark form riding about ten feet away. On the other side of the fence, he knew Josiah and Nathan mirrored their path.
"'Sham'st thou to show thy dangerous brow by night, when evils are most free?'" Ezra quoted.
Chris looked over at him. "Shakespeare?"
"That's correct," Ezra said, surprise in his voice. "How are you acquainted with the Bard?"
Chris shrugged. "Ma always made sure we had books around to read and not just the Bible, though I did my share of readin' that, too."
"You astound me, Mister Larabee. I had assumed a man of your ilk wouldn't know the difference between the Bard and Mark Twain."
"What's a man of my 'ilk' anyhow?" Chris asked, humor in his voice.
Ezra's smile flashed pale white in the darkness. "Perhaps I should have said a man of your distinction."
Chris chuckled at Ezra's quick parry. That he felt this comfortable around the gambler was a miracle in itself. A year ago Chris wouldn't have given a plug nickel for Ezra's life. Now, Ezra was as intertwined in his life as the other five men.
Faint gunshots caused Chris to tug back on his gelding's reins. The shots came from behind them and he wheeled his horse around. "Let's ride," he shouted to his three companions.
Riding as fast as they dared in the black night, it took them nearly five minutes to make it to the site of the skirmish. Two riderless Double J horses milled about in the abrupt silence.
"Nathan, Josiah, find out how many men are hurt. Ezra, with me," Chris ordered.
Chris took off up the hill, the gambler right beside him. As they neared the crest, the sound of hoofbeats told them the ambushers were escaping. He and Ezra shrank back into the shadows. A hundred feet away he saw the horsemen ride past. One of the riders in the middle captured his attention. He recognized the familiar silhouette and his fingers tightened into fists. Vin. And it looked like he was riding with the grangers.
Sonuvabitch. No wonder Vin hadn't returned to the Double J - he'd hooked up with the other side. Betrayal made Chris clench his jaw and his heart kicked his ribs. If he hadn't seen Vin himself, he wouldn't have believed the ex-bounty hunter would go against them like that. He knew Vin didn't like the barbed wire, but to do something like this...
"Was that Vin?" Ezra asked in a low, shocked voice.
Chris nodded curtly. "Yep."
"Perhaps he is merely pretending to be on their side," Ezra said.
"Vin didn't make no secret of his dislike for the wire."
"But to ambush men under the cover of darkness doesn't seem like Mister Tanner's style."
"No, it don't." Chris swallowed hard. Had Vin turned against them for the sake of the land? It didn't seem likely since he'd said more than once that human lives were more important than a piece of ground. But the fact is, he and Ezra had seen him with the enemy. He looked at Ezra. "We don't know what's going on with him anymore. If it comes down to us against them, Vin is one of 'them.'"
Ezra fingered the leather reins. "It doesn't seem possible that Mister Tanner would vacillate his loyalties so hastily."
"You saw the same as me. What the hell do you think is goin' on?" Chris demanded, anger and disgust making him abrupt.
Ezra was silent for a long moment. He shook his head. "I cannot fathom a plausible reason. However, I don't believe that Vin would do something so nefarious."
Chris squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, trying to stem the whirling maelstrom of betrayal and fury at Vin's action. All he knew about Vin told him he wouldn't have done this. The only problem was Chris had seen it with his own eyes.
Chris reined his horse around and he and Ezra rode cautiously through the darkness. They joined Josiah and Nathan, who was wrapping a bandanna around a man's arm.
"How many hurt?" Chris asked.
"Only one," Nathan replied.
"All the shots we heard, I thought there'd be more," Chris said.
"Did you find something?" Josiah asked.
"We saw eight riders - they must work for the grangers." Chris paused a moment and stared off into the distant inkiness. "Vin was with them," he added, his voice husky.
"He's a man of strong convictions," Josiah remarked calmly.
"Too damned strong," Chris murmured. "He's gone over to the enemy's camp."
"We don't know that for certain," Ezra spoke up. "Maybe he has infiltrated their camp in the hopes he can allay more violence."
Nathan shook his head sadly. "If that's so, it ain't workin'."
"I'm not so sure about that," Josiah said. "Eight men ambush three other men and only one is hurt. Seems kinda odd, doesn't it?"
Chris narrowed his gaze. "What're you gettin' at Josiah?"
The preacher rubbed his jaw. "I'm not sure, Chris. Something just doesn't seem right here."
Chris stood in his stirrups to stretch his legs. "Yeah, and that something is Vin. We don't know which side he's on right now." He stared off in the direction the bushwackers had ridden. Chris would come back when it was light and try to trail them - maybe he'd find some of the answers he sought. Chris brought his attention back to the wounded man. "Nathan, take him back to the ranch. I doubt the grangers'll try anything more tonight, but the rest of us will keep on patrollin' until dawn."
Chris glanced at Ezra and caught his troubled expression. "We'll get to this bottom of this, Ezra," Chris said softly. "Then we'll know for certain."
Vin's mind registered the sound of Mangus's backhanded slap a split second after the force of the blow knocked him to the ground. Vin's cheek and mouth burned and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. He scrambled to his feet, rage fueling his momentum.
"I wouldn't, Tanner," Lomax warned, his revolver aimed at Vin's chest.
Vin halted immediately and stared at Lomax a moment, then shifted his gaze to Mangus. He spat blood to the ground and hoped he hadn't lost a tooth. "What the hell was that about?"
Mangus shook his head. "You disappointed me, Tanner."
"What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"You shot before I gave the order," Mangus said. "And then you missed what you were aiming at."
Vin's heart thundered in his chest. Had Mangus guessed that his shot had been intentionally high to warn the Double J riders? "I thought you wanted me to show you I could do the job."
Mangus stepped closer to Vin and their boot toes nearly touched. "You didn't follow my orders. Every man who works for me either does what I tell him or he's dead. Which do you want to be?"
Vin drew the back of his hand along his mouth to wipe the blood from his lips. "Damnit, Mangus, I thought I was doin' what you wanted. You said we was goin' ambush them, and that's what I did."
Mangus studied him for a long moment and Vin forced himself to hold the man's gaze. Finally, the leader nodded. "All right, Tanner. I'll give you another chance, but if you mess up again, it'll be the last thing you ever do. Comprende?"
"Oh, yeah, I comprende all right." Vin stuck as much contempt in his tone as he dared.
"We're gonna lay low for a few days until they get comfortable again, then we'll pick the time and place," Mangus said. He stared hard at Vin. "And next time, we're not going to leave any survivors." The outlaw strode away to the campfire.
A chill shimmied down Vin's back. Mangus was cold-blooded enough to do just that, too. At least Vin had gained some time to plot an escape and get back to the Double J to warn the others.
Lomax holstered his revolver and stepped up to Vin. "If Mangus don't take care of you, I will. Course I might not wait for a reason neither."
Vin watched Lomax join the deadly gunmen. Had the farmers really hired these cutthroats to get rid of the wire and the Jordans? Most farmers Vin had seen were poor folks just trying to make a go of it and rarely had enough money to make ends meet. If they had hired Mangus and the rest of these outlaws, where had they gotten the money to payroll them?
Vin moved off to the creek and rinsed his mouth. The cold water against the cut on the inside of his cheek made him mutter a curse. The epithet, however, was directed more at his foolhardiness than the pain. He'd corralled himself right into a box canyon with no way out.
What would Chris say if he knew how stupid Vin had been getting into this mess?
"He's done some stupid things before, but this one just about tops it," Chris said with a shake of his head.
Buck, riding beside Chris, nodded. "You don't believe he's gone over, do you?"
"You tell me."
"You're the one who knows him best."
Chris sidled a glance at his companion. "My gut tells me no, but I keep rememberin' how he left us when we were with that wagon train."
Buck waved a negligent hand. "You can't judge him by that - hell, he wasn't exactly thinkin' with his head."
Chris allowed a slight smile. "Guess you got a point there."
"Have you told Mrs. Jordan about Vin?"
"Nope, and I don't plan to neither."
Puzzled, Buck tipped his head in question. "Don't she have a right to know?"
Chris shook his head. "No she don't. We ain't even sure whose side he's on yet."
Buck clenched his jaw and rode beside Chris in silence, following the easily discernible trail the ambushers had left last night. After Chris had gotten a few hours of sleep, Buck had volunteered to help him try to track the gunmen to their hideout.
"Why'd you come with me?" Chris asked. "I didn't think you wanted anything to do with this wire."
Buck shrugged, not quite understanding the reasons himself. "Me and JD had a talk yesterday. He kinda opened my eyes some."
"What'd he use - a crowbar?"
Buck shot him an irrepressible smile. "Nope, just the plain old truth. Y'know, that kid's gettin' downright scary sometimes, Chris."
"He's gettin' to sound more and more like you." He gazed at his old friend fondly.
Startled, Chris searched Buck's familiar face for a sign of teasing, but he didn't spot any. He turned his gaze ahead as his throat constricted. Though Chris was often irritated by JD's enthusiasm and lack of common sense when it came to guns and gunfights, he felt an odd sense of humility that the boy would look up to him so much. Lord knew, Chris didn't deserve JD's idolatry. Chris had done too many things in his life that were less-than-admirable.
Buck slapped his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, pard. I'm makin' sure JD don't turn out like a stick-in-the-mud like you."
Chris chuckled. "Thanks, Buck. I'm sure JD will appreciate that."
The horses' hooves clicked on solid rock and the two men drew their mounts to a halt. Chris looked down and swore. "No more tracks."
Buck narrowed his eyes and cast his gaze across the desolate land. "I'll head off that way to scout around."
Chris nodded and set out in the opposite direction. After a fruitless hour of examining the ground all around the large slab of rock, he came up empty. He met Buck back on the rocky base.
Buck removed his hat and thrust his fingers through his hair, leaving strands sticking out in all directions. "Not a sign."
"Same," Chris said. "That does it - we ain't gonna find Vin unless he wants to be found."
"JD's been askin' about Vin," Buck said quietly.
"What'd you tell him?"
"Nothin'." He smiled, a shadow of his usual grin. "I don't know how much longer I can keep it from him, though."
Chris took a deep breath. "I'll tell him."
"You sure about that?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah." He turned to meet Buck's gaze. "Vin promised he'd say bye to JD before he left. I got to believe that Vin's gonna keep to his word."
Buck's brow creased. "Left for where?"
"Tascosa. He's thinkin' on goin' the rest of the way by himself."
Buck cursed. "Now that's a damn fool thing to do."
"Yep. But you know Vin - once he gets something in his head, it takes dynamite to get it out." Chris sighed. "I was hopin' to talk him out of it, but now I don't even know what's goin' on inside that thick skull of his."
"Maybe Ezra's right - maybe he's workin' on the inside to help us."
"Then why didn't he let us know?" Chris demanded. He brushed a hand across his black gelding's neck. "I just don't know, Buck," he added softly, not even bothering to hide his exhaustion and apprehension from his old friend.
Buck resisted the urge to lay a comforting hand on Chris's arm. Though Buck liked Vin, sometimes the man was a complete mystery to him. Buck didn't like to admit it, but the soft-spoken man turned just as many women's heads as Buck himself did. But did Vin do anything about it? Shoot no. It was like the man was made of stone - he was a bit like Chris Larabee that way, though even Chris didn't often turn away a willing woman.
"We should head back," Chris broke the silence.
"You don't want to look around?"
Chris shook his head. "We could spend days searchin' every canyon and ravine in this area and we still wouldn't find them. Looks like we're just gonna have to be extra careful on patrol."
"I'll be joinin' you tonight," Buck said.
Chris arched an eyebrow.
"I'd feel godawful bad if somethin' happened to all of you while I was tucked into my bed all safe and sound," Buck answered the unspoken question.
"What about JD?"
"Nathan says he's healin' fine and he can start movin' around on his own some. Besides, Mrs. Jordan said she'd keep an eye on him if we wanted."
Chris urged his horse into a walk and Buck followed. As they traveled, Chris asked, "So what do you think of Mrs. Jordan?"
"She's a fine lady. They don't come much better."
"Vin said I was blinded by her fancy airs. You think he was right?"
Buck crossed his wrists and rested them on the saddlehorn. "What I think is Vin was the one blinded - by his hatred for the wire."
"What if the grangers ain't behind the fence cutting?" Chris asked, his voice pitched low.
Buck blinked. "If it ain't them, who would it be?"
Chris shrugged. "I don't know, but somethin' Vin said about it maybe bein' someone else kinda stuck in my craw."
"What if he found out it was someone else?"
In spite of the heat of the day, a shiver passed through Chris. "That someone else may figure he knows too much."
"But how does that explain him bein' with the gunmen last night?"
"I haven't figgered that out yet, but I will."
Buck pressed his lips together at the iciness in Chris's voice. Sometimes Chris scared the hell out of him and this was one of those times.
"Is there anything I can get you?"
JD glanced up from his book to see Mrs. Jordan framed in the doorway. "Ah, no ma'am, I'm all right."
She crossed her arms and leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. "How are you feeling?"
"A lot better. Nathan said I can get out of this dangblasted bed tomorrow." His cheeks flamed with embarrassment. "Not that this is a bad bed or anything, but--"
Mrs. Jordan smiled and held up a hand to stop him. "I understand completely. About ten years ago I hurt my back and had to lie in bed for three months. They were the longest three months of my life."
Relieved that she wasn't insulted, JD nodded. "I don't know how you did it, ma'am. I've only been here four days and I feel like I'm going loco."
Mrs. Jordan entered the room. "Mind if I sit down and visit for a few minutes?"
"Go right ahead." JD pushed himself a little further up in the bed and Mrs. Jordan adjusted the pillows behind him. "Thanks."
She seated herself in the nearby rocker. "I'm curious about you seven men."
JD blinked, startled. "Why's that?"
She shrugged. "It's not very often we see such a large group traveling together unless they're outlaws."
JD shook his head vehemently. "We're not outlaws, ma'am. Fact is, I used to be a sheriff." He smiled self-consciously. "Well, sort of. Me and the others was hired by a judge to watch over a town for a time."
"All seven of you?"
"Yep, and believe me, that town needed all of us."
Mrs. Jordan's blue eyes twinkled. "Sounds like it was quite a wild place."
"Yes, ma'am, it was. We pretty much tamed it, then decided to move on," JD said proudly.
"So why did you come down this way?"
JD wasn't about to tell her about Vin and the reward on his head. "We just followed the road south and ended up down here. I didn't mind - I figure on becoming a Ranger someday."
"That's a lofty goal. I know some Rangers - good men, but hard." She studied him a moment. "I'm not sure I can picture you as one."
"Oh, I will be. You just wait and see if I don't."
Mrs. Jordan smiled. "I have a feeling you can do pretty much anything you put your mind to, JD."
"Yes, ma'am. Buck and the others have taught me a lot - more'n I ever expected to learn out here."
"They're good friends, then?"
JD grinned. "The best, ma'am."
"Then maybe you can tell me why Mr. Tanner left and hasn't come back to visit you?"
JD felt the blood leave his face. "What?"
"They haven't told you?"
"Told me what?" JD demanded.
"Your friend Mr. Tanner left the first night you were here. No one's seen a sign of him since."
JD's heart slipped into his throat. "Are you sure?"
Mrs. Jordan nodded. "I'm afraid so. I guess Mr. Tanner isn't the good friend you thought he was."
JD shook his head. "No. I don't believe it. Vin wouldn't leave without sayin' good-bye, specially since we come down here--" He broke off, startled that he almost allowed their secret to slip.
Mrs. Jordan's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Nothin', ma'am. I'm just a little worried is all. Do the others think something happened to him?"
"I don't know. No one will talk about him."
JD's stomach muscles clenched. No one had talked to him about Vin either. Why? Had something happened to Vin? Were they sparing JD because they thought he wasn't strong enough yet?
"Has everyone gone to patrol the fence line?" JD asked.
Mrs. Jordan nodded. "They left about half an hour ago."
JD's gaze strayed to the dark beyond the window. He ached to be out there with them instead of here, missing out on the action. JD missed riding alongside the friends he idolized. Of course, if they knew how much he looked up to each of them, Buck would never let him live it down.
"You want to be with them." Mrs. Jordan's gentle voice broke into JD's musings.
He brought his attention back to her, embarrassed that she'd read his thoughts so easily. "Can't very well do that until I'm all healed."
"I suppose not." Her face became pensive. "I sometimes wish my son could be more like you and your friends."
JD frowned. "What do you mean?"
She shrugged and the lines in her face seemed to deepen. "Sometimes I get the impression Justin is more loyal to a deck of cards than this ranch."
"I don't understand."
Mrs. Jordan sighed. "I'm sorry, JD. I'm merely tired and when I'm tired I say foolish things." She stood. "You should get some rest now."
"No offense, ma'am, but all I been doin' is sleepin'."
"And look how quickly you're healing." She walked to the door and paused. "I wouldn't worry about your friends, including Mr. Tanner. I have a feeling they can take care of themselves. Good night."
"Good night," JD echoed as she left his room.
He wasn't certain he agreed with her. In the past few months since they left Four Corners, it seemed as if they'd been plagued by more mishaps than the whole time they'd been in town. His accident with the barbed wire was only one more incident to add to the growing list.
Was Vin's disappearance the latest?