Chris guided his horse to the hitching rail in front of the Tin Bucket Saloon and dismounted tiredly. Last night's patrol had gone smoothly, with no sign of the ambushers from the night before. But there was also no sign of Vin.
Chris strode into the saloon, his spurs jingling a soothing rhythm with each step. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim saloon and he spotted Ezra at a table playing poker with Justin Jordan and two men in suits -probably businessmen here in Anders.
Buck waved from a corner table and Chris joined him, Nathan, Josiah, and a pale-looking JD. He hooked a chair from another table with his boot and swung it around to the opening Nathan and Josiah made for him.
"How ya doin', JD?" Chris asked, his voice raspy from exhaustion and worry.
JD's grin was only slightly less bright than normal. "Just fine. Good to be out of that room for a little while."
"And it's only gonna be a little while," Nathan warned. "Remember, an hour here, then back to the ranch in the wagon."
JD nodded though his dark eyes held a hint of rebellion - a rebellion he was bound to lose against the healer.
The waitress brought another whiskey glass to the table and set it in front of Chris, though she fluttered her eyes at Buck. Buck, however, only smiled at her and she seemed disappointed in his lack of interest as she moved back to the bar.
"You sick, Buck?" Chris asked, pouring himself a shot of liquor.
The mustached man smiled sheepishly. "Naw, I just aim to keep JD out of trouble and can't be doin' that if I'm gettin' in trouble, can I?"
The men chuckled, but it was a lackluster sound. Each man felt the absence of Vin like an open sore that wouldn't heal. Nobody knew where to look for him or even if he was still alive.
"How long Ezra been playin'?" Chris asked, glancing at the gambler.
"A few hours," Josiah replied. "Justin was already here when we came in."
Chris frowned. "Justin winnin' or losin'?"
"A little of both," Nathan answered. "Until about half an hour ago. He's been losin' since then."
"So he's not a very good poker player," Chris stated.
"What're you thinkin', pard?" Buck asked.
Chris raised his gaze to meet Buck's midnight blue eyes. "I'm thinkin' that some people may not believe in legacies."
"What do ya mean?" JD asked, confusion lighting his expression.
"I mean that tonight we're not gonna be ridin' fence." Chris stood. "And right now we're gonna do some investigating."
Chris's smile was dark and feral, like an animal that just caught the scent of his prey.
Vin laid back down after eating breakfast and when he awakened in the mid-afternoon, he heard angry men's voices from outside. Looking around the cabin, he saw the baby sleeping in its cradle, but neither Elise nor Hans were inside. Puzzled, he pushed himself upright and managed to get to his feet without falling flat on his face. After the cabin quit spinning, he stumbled to the door and paused in the opening as he blinked in the bright sunlight.
He spotted a group of about a dozen men and a few women talking and arguing among themselves.
"Mr. Tanner," Elise called and hurried to his side.
The conversations died away and each pair of eyes focused on Vin.
"You should not be out here," Elise scolded.
"I'm fine, ma'am," Vin said, easing his arm out of her grip. "What's goin' on?"
Hans stepped forward. His face was red as if he were angry or embarrassed. "We are deciding what to do with you."
Vin pulled a hand through his long hair. "What do you mean?"
"Since you rode with the killers, we wonder if you have not lied to us and are just like them," an older version of Hans spoke up. "My son wants us to believe you are innocent, but we are not so certain."
Vin stepped away from the doorway and out into the yard. He held up his hands. "Look, I know what you must be thinkin'."
"Do you, Mr. Tanner?" the same older man asked. "It is said you were with the men who murdered the sheriff."
"I don't deny it," Vin said. "But I swear I didn't know Hobbs was goin' to kill him or I woulda done something." He paused. "I killed Hobbs during the ambush against the Double J riders."
Another weathered man nodded. "His body was brought into town yesterday by some hired guns who work for the Jordans."
"What hired guns?" Vin asked in confusion.
"A man who dresses all in black. They say his name is Chris Larabee and that he is a gunman."
Vin took another step toward the hostile gathering. "Chris is my friend and he's not a killer. He's helped a helluva lot more people than he's ever harmed."
"Then why is he riding for the Double J?" another man demanded.
"Because Mrs. Jordan said you farmers were the ones breakin' the law."
Rumblings rolled through the small crowd.
"And we are to believe you, a man who rode with killers?" Hans's father asked.
Frustration knotted Vin's jaw. "I don't care if you believe me or not. I'm tellin' you the truth."
"I say we tie him up and take him into town to let the law take care of him," a man about Hans's age said.
Words of agreement greeted his suggestion. Vin's breathing grew more labored and his head began to pound like a war drum. If they tied him up, he couldn't warn Chris and his other friends.
Warn? What did he have to warn them about? Vin placed a hand against his brow, trying again to remember what remained so elusive. And urgent.
A touch on his arm made him jerk away.
"It is all right, Mr. Tanner. We will not let them hurt you," Elise soothed.
"Get away from him Elise," Hans's father shouted.
Elise frowned. "He will not hurt me."
At least one person trusted him, Vin thought. He caught Hans's gaze and saw uncertainty there.
"Please don't let them take me to town," Vin said, his voice low and compelling.
A few men stepped forward, along with Hans.
"We will take you to town and put you in the jail until the circuit judge arrives. He will decide if you are innocent or guilty," Hans said.
Vin gripped Hans's arms. "I have to stop them."
"We only have your word that is what you are doing," Hans said softly. "Do not worry. If you are innocent, you will be released."
"By then it'll be too late!" Vin shouted.
"Too late for what?" the elder Eriksson demanded.
Vin's squeezed his eyes shut, but the blank spot in his memory remained. As did the sense of desperation.
Hands grabbed Vin and his eyes flew open. "No!"
"Tie him up and put him in the barn. Tomorrow morning we will take him into Anders," Hans's father exclaimed.
Vin struggled against his captors but his wound had sapped him of much of his usual strength. He was no match for the group of burly farmers as they tugged him away from the tiny cabin.
The sun began to disappear behind the western horizon, streaking the sky with blood red and fiery orange spikes. Chris had never been one to believe in portents, but the ominous vision sent a chill straight to his soul. He trembled and glanced at his five companions to see if they'd noticed his spooked reaction. All of them, with the exception of JD who wasn't riding with them yet, continued to saddle their horses. Josiah, however, looked up and his worried countenance met Chris's.
"I don't know," Josiah spoke in a low, rumbling tone. "Last time I saw a sky like that it was the night before the battle at Shiloh."
Dread pierced Chris anew at the memory of that gruesome battle. He wondered if he and Josiah had fought together then. He glanced at Ezra and wondered if he'd been on the other side. Another shiver shimmied down Chris's spine.
"It's gonna end tonight, Josiah, one way or another," Chris said, his voice heavy.
"Yep. One way or another," Josiah reiterated softly.
The approach of fast pounding hooves on the ground startled them and they looked up. A rider came in fast right up to the front porch. Chris and his friends hurried toward the house as they saw Justin and Mrs. Jordan come out the door.
"The grangers...they got the men pinned d-down," the man gasped out.
"What men?" Justin demanded.
"The ones g-guarding the wire over by Red Canyon. Don't know how m-much longer they can last."
"We need to get reinforcements over there," Mrs. Jordan ordered.
Justin nodded and found Roy Fuller in the crowd that had gathered. "Roy, get every man saddled up. We're riding to Red Canyon." He caught Chris's gaze. "Larabee, you and your men ride with us."
"Don't you think you should leave some men here to guard the ranch?" Chris called out.
Justin seemed startled. "You're right. Roy, pick out three men to stay here. The rest of us'll ride."
Movement exploded among the men, but Chris remained standing where he was, flanked by his companions. "Three men ain't very many."
Mrs. Jordan crossed her arms. "If the hired guns are at Red Canyon, then they won't be here. Maybe we can end this thing tonight."
"I'll be here," JD said.
"And you'll be stayin' low," Buck interjected. "You ain't healed yet, JD."
JD pressed his lips together but didn't bother to argue.
Chris turned and strode back to the corral where their horses awaited. He heard his friends following.
"What're you thinkin', Chris?" Nathan asked.
"I'm thinkin' we'll start out with them, then fall back. I got a bad feelin' about this whole thing," Chris replied. His gaze found JD. "I want you to stay out of sight until we get back. This whole thing might blow up tonight and I don't want you in the middle of it."
JD nodded gravely. "I'll wait for you."
"You damn well better," Buck said. He laid a hand on JD's shoulder. "No heroics, kid. At least until we get back and can watch your backside."
JD smiled. "And I can watch yours."
Buck grinned, then mounted up.
JD watched the five men join the larger group of Double J cowhands. He rested his palms on his revolvers, wishing he was with them. But Chris said they'd return, and then JD would be able to help again. Provided Chris's gut feeling was right.
JD had no doubt it was.
The inside of the barn was lit by a lantern when Elise brought Vin's supper to him. Vin sat against a post on the hay-covered floor with his wrists tied behind him. His ankles had also been trussed to keep him from escaping.
"You gonna untie me so I can eat?" Vin asked.
Elise shook her head, unable to meet Vin's gaze. "I am to feed you."
She lifted a spoonful of stew to his lips and Vin opened his mouth. There was little meat, but the gravy was thick.
"You have to let me go, Elise," Vin said softly.
She shook her head. "I cannot. The men have decided you must be taken into town to stand before the judge."
"Look, there ain't time for that now."
"You keep saying that, but you do not tell my why."
Vin leaned his head back against the post and stared at the shadows on the barn's ceiling. "All I know is somethin's gonna happen and if I don't stop it, a lot of folks'll get hurt."
"What will happen?"
Frustration dogged Vin as it had all afternoon. "I don't know!"
"If you do not know, where will you go to stop these killings?"
"I have to find my friends. They'll help me figger it out."
"I am sorry, but Hans and the others will be very angry if I let you go."
Vin closed his eyes and a sunburst spilled across his memory. He pictured Lomax and Hobbs on either side of him in the darkness, then a rider nearing them. He saw Lomax aim his rifle at the rider - Chris!
Vin's eyelids flew open. "They're gonna attack the snake's head tonight."
Elise stared at him in bewilderment. "I do not understand."
Vin forced himself to remain calm though all his nerves felt on fire. "I remember now. One of the men told me they were going to cut the snake's head off, but he didn't tell me who the snake was. But I got a pretty good idea."
"What do you mean?"
"I've been tryin' to figure out who would gain the most from all this, and I think I figgered it out." He leaned as far forward as he could. "Please, Elise, let me go. If you don't, my friends could be killed and the grangers will be blamed. It's gonna explode into all-out war."
Indecision clouded the young woman's face. Suddenly she set the plate of food aside and scooted around behind Vin. He felt her work on the rope's knots a few moments, then his hands were free. He quickly untied his ankles and scrambled to his feet, ignoring the ache in his head.
"Thank you," he said softly but intently. "Where's my gun?"
"It is with your saddle." She pointed to a corner of the barn and Vin spotted his tack.
He quickly strapped on his holster with the mare's leg, then grabbed the blanket and saddle. He slipped out of the barn and paused a moment The moon was rising, playing hide and seek with patchy dark clouds that lay like bruises across the night sky. A chill swept through him and he prayed he wasn't too late to save his friends' lives.
Chris kept falling back further and further from the main bunch of Double J men, until they could no longer see the last man. He pulled up. "Let's head back."
The five men wheeled their horses around and sent them into a ground-eating canter back to the ranch. Twenty minutes later, they arrived and found it remained quiet. Chris took them directly into one of the barns. "Leave the horses in here. We don't want to show our hand too soon."
As they put the saddled horses into the empty stalls, a man entered the dark barn. The men had their guns in hand before they realized it was JD.
"JD, you almost got your fool head blown off," Buck growled, re-holstering his revolver.
"Sorry," came the boy's sheepish apology. "I saw you come back. See anything out there?"
Chris shook his head. "Nope, but I can feel them."
They gathered at the wide door and studied the quiet layout. Chris pointed to the roof of the house. "Buck, climb up there with your rifle. Josiah, Nathan, take the other barn. Ezra and JD, you two stay here."
"Where are you goin'?" Buck asked suspiciously.
"I'm gonna scout around, keeping to the shadows. I'll give you all a signal if I see anything," Chris replied.
"What kind of signal?" JD asked.
Chris smiled without humor. "You'll know it. All right, get to your places. They could be here any time."
Buck, Josiah, and Nathan slipped away under the night's cover. Before Chris could follow them, a hand grabbed his arm.
"What of Vin?" Ezra asked.
"I have a feeling we'll find him one way or another," Chris replied somberly.
Ezra's light green eyes lacked his usual impassiveness as he released Chris.
"Watch your backs, boys," Chris said, resting his gaze on Ezra and JD a moment longer.
"You, too, Chris," JD replied, his face pale but determined.
The older man nodded, then followed his companions into the darkness.