After unsaddling and grooming their horses, Chris and Josiah spotted their friends gathered on the wide porch. The two men walked across the dusty yard to join them. Chris wasn't looking forward to telling them about the sheriff and Vin being with the murderers, but they had a right to know. But they would also know that Chris still believed in Vin.
Laughter greeted Chris's ears as he and Josiah neared the verandah. Buck leaned against a post while Ezra sat in a chair beside a small table playing solitaire. Nathan sat on the top step not far from JD who was dressed and relaxing on the swing.
"Chris, Josiah, you're back!" JD's young face lit with a smile that damn near blinded Chris.
"How're you feeling son?" Josiah asked, none of the turmoil he had to be feeling in his low rumbling tone.
"Almost as good as new, but no one believes me," JD complained.
Chris met Buck's smiling visage and Buck's grin faded as he asked, "What's wrong?"
Chris removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh, raising a small cloud of dust. He should've known Buck would notice his agitation. Ever since they'd met twelve years ago, Chris had never been able to get anything past him. "The sheriff was murdered in town today." He paused and pushed his sweat-soaked tendrils back from his forehead. "Vin was with the man who did it."
Stunned silence gripped the men.
Buck sighed. "I guess that's it then."
Chris shook his head. "No, it's not. Vin didn't shoot that lawman and I--" He glanced at Josiah and drew strength from his steadfastness. "I believe Vin's still on our side."
JD appeared relieved, as did Ezra, though Buck and Nathan looked skeptical.
"How can you be so sure, Chris?" Nathan asked.
Chris shifted his attention to the healer. "Because I know Vin and I know he wouldn't turn against us." He held Nathan's gaze. "And if the men he's riding with figger out he's not with them, they're gonna kill him just like they done to the sheriff."
"Can't you get him away from them?" JD asked.
The boy's naiveté still surprised Chris sometimes. Chris shook his head. "We don't even know where to find them. Besides, I think Vin infiltrated their camp to get to the bottom of this mess."
The sun slanted under the porch eaves, creating long shadows of the men who gathered in somber silence. A hawk cried from its spiral flight high in the sky and a horse neighed in the corral. Maria's faint voice from the kitchen drifted out to their ears and the smell of cooking meat wafted between the men.
A sweat droplet rolled down Chris's back between his shoulder blades, giving him something to concentrate on rather than the helpless ache in his gut. It was the same helplessness he saw in each of his five companions' faces. They wanted to help Vin, but had no idea how.
The door opened and Mrs. Jordan stepped out, dressed in her usual trousers with a blouse, vest, and boots. Startled, she frowned slightly and joined the men, planting her gloved hands on her hips. "You all look like you lost your best friend."
They all looked away from the woman, and Chris knew it was because she'd hit too close to home.
"The sheriff was murdered in town today," Josiah said.
Mrs. Jordan's eyes widened and she covered her mouth with a hand. "What happened?"
Josiah told her, then added reluctantly, "our friend Vin Tanner was with them."
Wrath flashed in her blue eyes. "He'll hang right beside the man who pulled the trigger."
Chris brought his head up sharply. "No, he won't! He's not a murderer!"
A lesser person would have taken a few steps back from Chris's cold passion, but Mrs. Jordan was anything but weak. "Then you'd better find him before we do." She spun on her heel and strode back into the house.
"Sonuvabitch," Chris cursed loudly. "Tonight when we ride the line, I'll want two of you close to the fence, the other three will be fanning out to check out the ridges overlooking the fence. We can't wait for them to make the first move this time."
"I can ride with you," JD spoke up.
"No you can't," Nathan said firmly. "You do that and you'll be bleedin' all over again."
"Nathan's right, JD. You'll only slow us up," Chris said.
Chagrin flashed through the boy's eyes but Chris didn't apologize for his brevity. He didn't have time to soothe bruised feelings right now. "Let's go grab something to eat and get riding."
Everyone but Buck and JD followed Chris toward the larger bunkhouse where their supper would be about ready. Buck watched them stride away, purpose in every firm step.
"You listen to them, JD," Buck said quietly. "They're right and you know it."
JD, an arm wrapped around his waist, nodded. "I know, Buck, but I hate feelin' so damned useless."
"I know, kid. You just get better so when Vin comes back, we can be on our way."
JD's dark eyes studied Buck closely. "You really think he'll come back?"
Buck smiled in reassurance. "If Chris Larabee was bound and determined to bring me back, why I'd just give myself up right now." He paused a moment, his expression sobering. "Chris ain't gonna stop until we got Vin back."
JD nodded and Buck could see some of his apprehension melt away.
"I'll help you back upstairs," Buck said, leaving no room for argument.
Vin's insides hadn't settled down since Hobbs had murdered the sheriff. Vin wanted nothing more than to get on Sire and ride the hell away from this craziness. Except now he had to bring the killers to justice and stop the violence before any more people were killed.
What message was Chris trying to get to him? What did he mean about his ma dying? Was there a layered meaning to it?
Had he meant that JD had died? Vin closed his eyes to stave off a wave of nausea. He had promised to go back to Jordans to see JD and he hadn't. Maybe it was too late now.
No matter what, Vin had to make his move tonight. He'd already spent too much time with the bloodthirsty gang and all he had to show for it was his involvement in a sheriff's murder.
Lomax moved away from the evening campfire to join Vin. "You seem a mite nervous, Tanner," Lomax said with grotesque grin. "Could be you ain't as tough as you want us to think?"
Vin merely stared at him, afraid his rage and hatred would erupt if he answered the bastard.
"You get your last chance to show us what you're made of." Lomax narrowed his close-set eyes. "Mangus said we're hittin' the fence riders tonight."
Vin's heart missed a beat and he struggled to keep his face from betraying his turbulent thoughts. He glanced upward into the darkening sky where a few stars already glittered overhead. "Tonight's as good a night to die as any other."
"For them," Lomax added with an evil sneer.
Vin managed to smile even as he kept his hands clenched together to keep from strangling Lomax. "So we hit them tonight. Then what? We just gonna keep on doin' this thing half way?"
"Nope. Next time we're gonna chop the head off the snake."
"What do you mean?" Vin asked.
"Lomax. Your turn to cook," Mangus ordered as he came up behind them.
With a guilty look, Lomax nodded at the boss and left.
Mangus pulled the makings for a cigarette from his breastpocket. "Lomax told you about tonight?"
Vin nodded. "Yep. He also said we'd be cuttin' off the snake's head next." He lifted his eyebrows in question.
"Sometimes Lomax talks too much." Mangus paused and shook some tobacco from a leather drawstring pouch on to a square paper. "Not like you, Tanner. I admire that in a man."
"Then why tell him all your plans?"
Mangus shrugged indolently. He rolled the paper into a smooth cylinder then licked one edge to hold it together. "I've known him the longest. Of course, if someone offered him a hundred dollars to kill me, I have no doubt he'd do it."
Vin had never been able to understand how an outlaw's mind worked, and he still hadn't a clue. "You have any friends you can trust?"
Mangus thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Not since I was eighteen years old. That was when my best friend turned me in for robbing a stage."
Mangus slipped the cigarette between his lips and struck a lucifer on his boot heel. He lit the cigarette and took a puff. "I killed him," he finally answered matter-of-factly.
Vin shuddered inwardly.
"I kill anyone who doublecrosses me," Mangus continued.
"I figgered," Vin said dryly.
"Can I trust you, Tanner?"
Vin's lungs felt tight and sweat slicked his palms, but he met Mangus's gaze steadily. "You can trust me as much as you trust Lomax or any of the others."
"Smart answer." Mangus spent a few moments merely smoking his cigarette and the red glow lent the man's face an even more menacing appearance. "We're hitting the Jordans' ranch house day after tomorrow, after the riders leave for the night."
"The grangers finally want this over?" Vin asked.
"The boss wants it over."
"Ain't they the same?"
Mangus smiled without warmth. "You know all you need to know for now. Let's see how you do tonight." He strolled off to join the outlaws.
Frustration knotted Vin's muscles. He had to prove himself or he wouldn't learn who the boss was, but that meant he'd have to hit what he aimed at tonight. Vin knew Mangus would be watching him closely to see if he held up his side of the bargain. Of course, Vin could try to slip away tonight before the ambush to warn Chris and the others. Vin knew the location of the hired guns' camp which would help even if they moved to another hideout.
Some sixth sense told Vin he had to get away soon before Mangus caught on to his deception. When Vin hooked up with his friends again, they would put an end to the fence war and bring the sheriff's murderer to justice.
With his mind made up, Vin joined the hired guns to eat supper. As Vin managed to swallow the nearly unpalatable food, he had another reason to be glad he was leaving the gang - he couldn't tolerate much more of Lomax's cooking.
Vin silently cursed Mangus for putting Lomax and Hobbs on either side of him. First as they'd traveled to their ambush point and then when they were lined up on the ridge. Vin couldn't get away with each man less than a yard away. He gripped his sawed-off carbine in his hands, but the familiar weapon felt awkward. It wasn't supposed to be used against his friends.
"I see someone comin'," Lomax hissed.
Vin squinted in the direction Lomax pointed. A man on a dark horse rode the ridge directly below them instead of the fence line.
"They're gettin' smarter," Hobbs commented, an odd admiration in his tone. "There's another one over on the other side ridin' high, too."
Vin followed Hobbs' gaze and moonlight glinted off a light-colored horse. The man's familiar posture in the saddle told Vin that rider was Buck. Vin scuttled his gaze back to the nearer horseman and recognized him, too. Chris. Vin's heart pressed into his throat.
Lomax aimed his rifle at Chris and murmured, "Just a few more feet, cowboy, and you're mine."
Vin didn't have time to think, but merely reacted. He shoved the butt of his mare's leg into Lomax's face. The outlaw roared in surprise and pain, but he managed to squeeze the trigger of the rifle. The shot exploded in Vin's ear and the sound of a squealing horse shattered the night's silence. Hobbs turned his revolver to Vin and a muzzle flash nearly blinded Vin. A burn creased his head, but he managed to swing his own weapon around and shot Hobbs in the chest.
Vin scrambled to his feet as his free hand touched his brow. His fingers encountered something wet and warm -blood.
He was faintly aware of more gunshots and loud curses in the darkness, but his survival instincts kicked in, telling him to find his horse and ride fast and far. A few bullets whispered past him, but no more found their mark. He made it to Sire's side, having tethered him a few feet from the other horses and managed to haul himself into the saddle. He leaned low over Sire's neck as he fired a few quick rounds in the direction of the hired guns and urged Sire away from the camp.
Vin's head felt like an anvil with a hammer striking it and he had a difficult time focusing in the darkness. Sire was trotting away from the scene of the ambush, but Vin had no idea where they were headed. He should try to get to Chris... Chris! Had he been shot when Lomax had fired? He had to get down there and find out. But which direction?
He could hear the sounds of the gun battle still going on someplace behind him. Should he go that way? Vin tried to concentrate past the pounding in his head, but his thoughts hopped around like a wing-shot grouse. He chuckled at the image, then clamped his lips together to stop the irrational laughter. Damn, he couldn't even help himself, much less his friends. But I have to try!
Sire slowed to a walk and picked his way carefully between a rock outcropping. Vin brought his horse to a halt and squeezed his eyes shut against the thundering in his head. Dizziness assailed him and his sense of balance wavered, then disappeared. As Vin slipped off Sire's back, he muttered, "damn." Then everything went black a blessed moment before he hit the ground.
Chris kicked free of his stirrups as his horse went to its knees. Chris rolled away from the animal and a sharp rock cut a deep gash in his left arm. He cursed even as he pulled his gun from its holster and fired up at his attackers. He heard more gunfire from behind him and was relieved to know Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan were covering him.
Chris scrambled to his feet, but remained doubled over as he dashed for the cover of a rock. Bullets kicked up dirt and stone splinters at his feet. He raised himself up to try to see the exact location of the hired guns. Spotting a flash from a rifle, he fired a few quick rounds at it and was rewarded with a howl of pain.
"Got you, you sonuvabitch," Chris growled as he emptied the spent cartridges from his Colt's cylinders and re-loaded.
The gunfire abated, then stopped completely. The sound of horses riding away told Chris the outlaws were escaping. He stood up behind the rock and clenched his teeth. The bastards got away again.
Had Vin been with them?
Chris walked over to his wounded horse and found blood staining the animal's knee. "Shit!" Though he'd left his own horse at the ranch and used one of the Jordans' horses, Chris didn't relish the thought of putting any animal down.
"Chris! You okay?" Buck's frenzied voice drew nearer.
"Over here," Chris called.
A few moments later, the four men materialized out of the darkness.
"Anyone hurt?" Chris demanded.
"We're okay. We thought they got you though," Nathan said.
"My horse caught the bullet meant for me," Chris said.
"Bad?" Buck asked.
Chris nodded. "Needs to be put down."
A few moments later, Chris took care of the suffering animal.
"Another ambush that wasn't very successful," Josiah commented.
"You thinkin' Vin had something to do with that?" Chris asked.
"Either that or those hired guns have lousy aim." Josiah smiled.
"If we have Mister Tanner to thank for our continued good health, I fear that his own health may not be as safeguarded," Ezra said.
Chris nodded. "They aren't stupid. They're gonna figure Vin out and his life ain't gonna be worth squat." He turned to gaze up the dim ascent. "Let's go take a look up there."
Ezra kicked his left stirrup free and Chris climbed up behind him, settling on the saddle skirt. A few minutes later, he slid off the mare and looked around. The dim figure of a man lay where he'd fallen and Chris's breath stuttered in his throat. He strode over to the body and turned him on to his back. Relief flooded Chris when he saw the patch covering one eye.
"The sheriff's murderer," Josiah said quietly.
Chris nodded. "Yep."
Nathan hunkered down beside the dead man and touched a piece of the dark circle ringing the wound. "This is gunpowder."
"Whoever shot him was right beside him," Ezra interjected.
"Vin," Josiah said.
"Looks like he's still one of the good guys," Buck said with a wide smile.
"And he did save our hides," Chris added, unable to hide his relief and gratitude.
"But where is he now?" Nathan asked somberly.
Grave silence greeted his question.
"Maybe he's headed back to the ranch," Buck volunteered.
Chris shrugged to hide his uneasiness. "Maybe." He glanced around, hoping to spot Vin coming out of the shadows, but only stillness surrounded them. "We'll have to take this man's body in to town."
"That must be his horse over there. I'll get it," Buck volunteered.
"Let me take a look at your arm, Chris," Nathan said softly.
Chris had forgotten about the injury during the gunfight, but now the ache registered in his tired mind. Blood soaked his shirtsleeve. Nathan gently pushed him down on to a rock, then examined the cut. By the time he cleaned it with water and put a bandage around it, Buck and Josiah had secured the dead man's body to his horse's saddle.
Chris stood, swayed, and Ezra placed a steadying hand on his uninjured arm.
"Easy, Mister Larabee," Ezra said.
"You lost a lot of blood and need to get some rest," Nathan explained.
"That's probably good advice for all of us," Chris said. "They ain't gonna try anything more tonight."
Ezra guided Chris over to his horse and helped the blonde man mount first. Ezra climbed on to the horse's back behind him.
"You afraid I'm gonna fall off?" Chris asked with a slight smile.
Ezra shook his head. "I merely choose to protect my clothing from the blood you so thoughtlessly shed."
Chris heard the teasing in Ezra's voice and chuckled. Then his thoughts turned to Vin and his humor faded. What had happened to him during the ambush?
Vin slowly became aware of soft voices and a sizzling sound accompanied by the smell of side pork and fresh coffee. Then there was the quiet clatter of dishes and a child's babbling. Vin knew he should open his eyes, but he was afraid the peaceful scene he envisioned would disappear in the harsh light of reality.
Finally, he convinced himself to open his eyes and a sharp ache stabbed his temple. He groaned, blinked, and laid a hand against the offending pain.
"It's all right, mister. You're safe here." A woman's gentle voice flowed through Vin like maple in the springtime.
He focused on the pale oval face above him. A blonde braid spilled over her shoulder and compassionate blue eyes studied him closely. Her dress though clean, was patched and faded. In her arms was a baby who flailed his fists and kicked at his blanket.
"My name is Elise Eriksson," she said with a smile. "And this is our son Gunnar."
"He's a f-fine lookin' boy, ma'am," Vin managed to say. "You have...s-some water?"
"Of course." Flustered, she scurried off and returned a few moments later with a glass of water. "Can you handle it?"
"I think s-so." Vin took the cup from her and thankfully drank the cool water. He handed it back to her. "Thank you."
"You are welcome."
He glanced around the small cabin, noting the dirt floor and sparse furnishings. There were no windows, but the door was open to allow air inside the clean but shadowy interior. He spotted a double bed in a corner and realized he was lying on a cot.
"My husband found you yesterday morning and brought you here," Mrs. Eriksson explained.
Vin frowned, trying to remember through the curtain of pain that encased his thoughts. "What happened?"
She shifted her son from one shoulder to the other and gently bounced him. "We were hoping you could tell us. It looks like you were shot."
Vin's fingers touched a bandage around his forehead. "I can't remember."
"Do not worry. It will come back to you. What is your name?"
"Vin, Vin Tanner," he replied.
Mrs. Eriksson smiled down at him, lighting up her pretty face. "At least you remember your name."
Vin managed a crooked grin.
A man strode in the door, blocking the sunlight and darkening the interior for a moment. He joined them and put an arm around the woman's shoulders. "You were to call me when he woke."
Vin finally recognized their heavy accent as Swedish.
"He will not hurt me, Hans," Elise said.
"We do not know that," Hans said firmly. "Finish with breakfast."
Elise sent Vin an apologetic look, then moved off to the kitchen at the other corner of the cabin. Hans crossed his arms over his broad chest. "Why were you shot?"
"Like I was tellin' your wife, I don't recall."
Wariness lit Eriksson's pale blue eyes. "Are you working for the Jordans?"
Vin shook his head, confused. Eriksson was obviously one of the grangers. Wouldn't that make him one of the men who hired the band of cutthroats Vin had just escaped from? Vin glanced around the meager room again - these people had little and not nearly enough to pay for the services of men like Mangus. Was someone else behind the sabotage of the wire and the ambushes? "I thought I was workin' for the grangers," he answered carefully.
Eriksson shook his head vehemently. "We are farmers. All we want to do is start a new life here on our own land. Build something to leave our children. But the Jordans, they have hired men to trample our ground and chase off our livestock."
What the hell was going on? If the settlers hadn't hired the killers and the Jordans hadn't, who had? Vin's head pounded unmercifully. He couldn't think now - it hurt too damned much.
"Look, Eriksson, I don't know what's going on. I was with the group that ambushed some of Jordan's men. I aimed to try'n stop them."
Eriksson's eyes narrowed. "So who were they working for?"
Vin shrugged tiredly. "I wish I knew."
"Breakfast is ready," Elise announced. "Are you well enough to join us, Mr. Tanner?"
"Elise," Hans said in a low, warning voice.
She laid her slender hand on his arm. "Do not worry so. He is too weak to do anything."
Eriksson studied his wife for a moment, and Vin noticed his eyes soften with love. "All right." He turned back to Vin and his expression became cautious once more. "But if you should try something, I will have to hurt you more."
Vin chuckled weakly. "Don't reckon that'd take too much right now."
Eriksson smiled reluctantly. "Come, I will help you to the table if you are feeling strong enough."
"I'll make it," Vin said firmly.
Vin wrapped his arm around Eriksson's wide shoulders and the farmer helped him to his feet. The room spun and Vin concentrated on the baby cradle that sat beside the bed. After a few moments, his balance returned and he leaned heavily on Eriksson as they walked to the table.
Grace was said and the food passed around. Gunnar babbled and Vin looked at the infant in his mother's lap. Mrs. Eriksson crooned to the boy in their native language, playing with his fingers and toes, and making Gunnar squeal with delight. A strange ache opened within Vin as he watched the young family and the love they so obviously shared. Vin had never considered settling down, not even with Charlotte, but now he could see where maybe a man needed to plant roots.
He looked from Mrs. Eriksson to her husband. Could these people have done everything Mrs. Jordan said? It didn't seem possible.
The throbbing in Vin's head decreased to a mere ache and he grew stronger with each passing minute.
"Where do you come from, Mr. Tanner?" Eriksson asked.
"Nowhere in particular. I guess I'm what you'd call a tumbleweed," Vin replied wryly.
"That does not sound like a happy life," Elise said.
Vin smiled crookedly and tipped his head to the side. "It ain't bad, ma'am. I was ridin' with six other men - friends - until I ended up with that gang of killers."
"Why did you leave your friends?" Elise asked, her blonde brows furrowed in question.
Vin glanced down as heat suffused his cheeks. "I've been trying to figure out that myself." He pushed back his empty plate. "Thanks, ma'am. That was real good."
"You are welcome," Elise replied.
Vin tried to remember how he'd gotten hurt, but his memory was hazy. He could recall going into town that day to get supplies and the sheriff had come over to him. The sheriff! Vin closed his eyes and remorse rolled over him. Hobbs had murdered the lawman. Anything after that, however, was shrouded in fog. Unease tendriled through Vin. There was something important that he should remember, but the elusive memory remained beyond his grasp.
"You say you ride with the men who attacked the Double J cowboys?" Hans Eriksson asked.
"Only to try to stop the violence and bloodshed."
"To do that you must get rid of all of Jordan's hired killers," Eriksson said, anger sparking his eyes.
"No!" Vin said firmly. "One of my friends was hurt by the wire. The Jordans offered us a place to stay while he healed. Mrs. Jordan told us that the grangers were stealin' cattle and takin' land that wasn't theirs, so my friends agreed to ride for them, to guard the wire."
"We have never stolen anything," Eriksson said, pride giving his words added impetus. "We only take the land that is ours. We have land deeds to prove our claims."
Vin shook his head. "You're sayin' that you're all innocent and Mrs. Jordan is sayin' they're the victims." He paused a moment, ruminating all the information he had. He brought his gaze up to Eriksson. "What if both of you are innocent? What if you folks and Mrs. Jordan are all victims?'
"How can that be?" Elise asked, her eyes wide.
"Damned if I know, ma'am," Vin said softly. "But if we don't find out, a lot more innocent folks are gonna be hurt, includin' my friends."