Vin escaped the Eriksson's with little difficulty. They hadn't placed a guard outside, so he'd been able to saddle Sire and get away before anybody was the wiser. As he rode across the dark landscape, he tried to come up with a plan. However, he wasn't sure what he'd find when he got to Jordans so it didn't make much sense to plan anything.
Sire's hooves beat a blunt tattoo on the ground as they traveled toward the ranch. Vin allowed Sire to have a little more head, trusting the horse to miss the holes that might be in the road. Vin arrived on a crest a quarter of a mile from the ranch. Silence met his ears and it didn't look like a war had raged down in the ranch yard. Yet.
He lifted his head, sniffed the air and listened closely for the sound of anything foreign to the night. A faint whinny caught his attention. It hadn't come from the Double J which meant there was somebody else was out here. Probably the attack party.
Vin allowed Sire to pick his way toward the location of the other horse as Vin kept his senses keyed up. Five minutes later, he spotted a group of horses, along with their owners who were sitting silently in the saddle, as if awaiting a signal. And Vin could guess what that signal would be.
He swallowed the dryness in his throat. This was it. This is what he had hoped to stop. Now how could he do it? He spotted Lomax separated by about ten feet from the group and his eyes narrowed. Vin could kill two birds with one stone.
Taking a deep breath, he eased his weapon out of its holster then gave Sire's sides a squeeze. The horse ambled over to the end of the group of men where Lomax was. The killer glanced at Vin, then did a double take.
"Well, well. I didn't expect you to come back, Tanner." His hand went to his revolver.
"I wouldn't if I was you," Vin said in a low voice. "You boys havin' a party without me?"
Lomax shrugged. "Figgered we might have more luck since you kept warnin' them before. Nothin' I hate more than a traitor."
Vin ignored his comment. "Where's Mangus?"
"Someplace out there."
Vin's breath shallowed. "How many men?"
"More'n enough to take care of whoever's down there."
Lomax sounded too damn sure of himself.
"Who's bankrollin' this outfit?" Vin asked.
"Mangus never said, but I figgered it out on my own." Lomax spat a wad of tobacco to the ground. "You're a dead man, Tanner. There's nine of us and only one of you."
"Maybe, but I'm goin' to take you and as many others as I can with me."
"Answer me one thing before you die, Tanner. Who's side are you on anyhow?"
Vin smiled coldly. "The right side."
"If you was on the right side, you'd be with us." Lomax paused and Vin saw his hand grab for his revolver. Vin squeezed the trigger of his mare's leg, catching Lomax in the gut. With a stunned expression on his ugly face, Lomax slid off his horse to crumple on the ground.
It took only a moment for the rest of the killers to realize what happened. Gunshots broke the silence and Vin fired a few more rounds at the outlaws, gratified to see he hit two of the hired guns.
He urged Sire into a mad dash away from the melee and headed straightway to the ranch. A group of horsemen materialized in front of him and it took a moment for Vin to recognize Mangus's surprised look. Then the leader drew his gun and fired at Vin, as Vin shot at him. Burning pain broke in Vin's side, but he saw that his bullet hit its mark as Mangus sagged in the saddle.
More gunfire broke out around him and he leaned low over Sire's neck, sending covering fire at the ambushers as he rode past them toward his friends and, he hoped, safety.
Men shouted and horses' hooves pounded behind him. They were staging their attack now and Vin would be leading them. Vin only hoped he wouldn't be mistaken for one of the bad guys.
His head ached and his side felt like it was on fire, but dogged determination and cussed stubbornness kept him in the saddle as he rode hellbent for leather toward the Double J.
Chris heard the sound of gunshots and frowned. What the hell was going on? He squinted into the darkness and spotted a ragged line of horsemen flying across the open range toward the ranch. The gunfire grew louder and Chris wondered why they were announcing their arrival so early.
He whistled shrilly, but doubted if his companions needed the signal. They could see and hear the same as Chris and they'd wait until the gunmen were within range before beginning their defense. One man rode ahead of the bunch, hunkered down in the saddle; probably to make himself a smaller target.
Chris raised his rifle, sighting in on the leader. The man's horse jumped an outer fence and the rider flailed in the saddle, nearly falling to the ground. Chris lowered the rifle, bewildered by the man's odd motion. It was almost as if he were hurt.
The attackers' line drew nearer as their horses leapt the fence. There had to be over a dozen hired guns coming in to destroy the Jordan ranch, and if Chris and his companions hadn't returned, they probably would have succeeded with little resistance. But Chris had no intention of letting them win this battle.
He lifted the rifle to his shoulder again and drew a bead on the leading man. Closer...closer he came until he was within range and Chris's finger began to curl on the trigger. Suddenly the rider straightened and turned in his saddle to fire at the horsemen behind him. Recognition punched Chris in the gut - Vin!
"Don't shoot at the first man. It's Vin!" Chris yelled, praying everyone heard him.
Then all hell broke loose.
Bullets plowed into the corral post that Chris hid behind. He lifted his rifle and picked out a target. The man tumbled backwards off his horse. Chris searched for Vin among the chaos of men and animals and explosions and curling cordite. He couldn't find him and his breath faltered. Had he been hit?
His stomach churning, Chris turned his attention back to the skirmish. Gunfire came from the defensive locations and more men fell from their horses. After the first wave, half the horses milled about riderless as their owners lay on the ground. The survivors -killers used to having the odds in their favor -began to retreat.
"Hold your positions!" a man with a mustache shouted.
The cowards ignored him and continued to ride away from the ranch.
Chris noticed the leader held his left arm awkwardly as if he'd been wounded, and Chris used his Colt to take a couple shots at him to finish the job. But his aim went wide.
He suddenly spotted Vin as the leader turned his horse toward the ex-bounty hunter. Vin held his mare's leg loosely in his right hand and Chris suspected he was out of cartridges. Frightened for Vin's life, Chris stepped away from his cover and strode toward the two men as he reloaded his own revolver.
"It's over, Mangus," Vin said with a gravelly voice. His mare's leg was empty, but he wasn't certain he had the strength left to raise his sawed-off carbine even if it was loaded.
"It's over for both of us." Mangus stared at Vin, his revolver aimed at Vin's chest. Hatred was etched in the killer's features, but oddly enough, there was also admiration. "I guess I should have let Lomax kill you when he wanted to."
"It's too late for him to do anything but burn in hell."
Mangus shook his head. "Never did like him anyhow, but I'd hoped you were on my side. Now I'm going to have to kill you."
Vin shrugged. "Go ahead. I'll rest easier knowin' you've taken your rightful place with the devil."
Mangus smiled cruelly. "I'm the one with the loaded gun, Tanner.
"But I'm the one with the friends who'll kill you for me."
Something akin to envy strayed across Mangus's face. "I guess we'll end up together after all." His finger curled around the trigger and a gunshot rent the silence.
Vin jerked, but it was Mangus who slid off his horse's back, a shocked look on his face. Vin raised his gaze to see Chris striding toward him, smoke curling from his Colt's barrel. Relief flooded through Vin and he dismounted awkwardly.
Chris stopped ten feet from Vin, looked at Mangus's body, then back at Vin. "You okay?"
"Right as rain," Vin managed to say even as dizziness assailed him. The side wound had spilled a lot of blood.
Ezra, JD, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck joined Chris, and they were all smiling.
Vin grinned back at them. "Howdy pards. Right glad to see y'all."
"I assure you the feeling is mutual, Mister Tanner," Ezra said.
"You need any help?" Buck asked.
Vin shook his head and took a couple faltering steps, then the world began to spin and he pitched forward.
Chris stepped up, catching Vin as he passed out. He straightened with Vin slung over his shoulder, the younger man's weight a welcome burden after the days of worrying about his fate.
Mrs. Jordan joined them, a rifle in her hands. "Is that Tanner?" she demanded.
"Yes, ma'am," Josiah replied. "The lost sheep has returned."
"He'll have to go to jail for his part in the sheriff's murder," she said firmly.
Chris, holding Vin, shook his head. "No, ma'am. He's not going to jail and he's not going to stand trial for something he didn't do." He began to walk toward the bunkhouse with Nathan beside him as he tried to see how badly Vin had been wounded.
Mrs. Jordan hurried up to step into Chris's path, forcing the blonde man to stop. "He has to pay for his crimes."
Chris stared at the woman for a long moment. He'd wanted to spare her the truth for a little while longer, but Vin needed to be looked after and his well-being was more important. "If you're lookin' for someone to pay for his crimes, I'd look a little closer to home, Mrs. Jordan."
"What to you mean?"
"Why did your son want every single man away from the ranch tonight? If we hadn't come back, your 'legacy' would be in ashes right now," Chris said, drilling the woman with his sharp gaze.
"What the hell are you insinuating, Mr. Larabee?" she asked, her voice low.
"Your son is up to his neck in gambling debts. In order to pay them off, he has to sell this ranch and he can't do that unless you're willing to do the same. Since you weren't, he figured he had to give you a push." Chris shifted Vin's body slightly. "Ask Justin when he comes back - hopefully you can tell if your son's lying better than you know him."
Chris walked around the stunned woman and into the bunkhouse. With Nathan's help, he carefully lowered Vin to a bottom bunk. Remaining hunkered down beside the bed, Chris stared down into Vin's pale and grizzled features. It looked like he hadn't shaved since the day they'd joked together on the bunkhouse porch. It seemed an eternity ago.
"Is he gonna be all right?" JD asked.
Chris turned to see JD, Buck, Ezra, and Josiah gathered around the bunk. For the first time in too long, the seven men were together once more.
"He's got two bullet wounds," Nathan announced. "The head injury looks like it's a couple days' old."
"The night he saved my life," Chris said softly.
Nathan nodded. "Probably. The other one is fresh and looks worse than it is. The bullet took a chunk out of his side and he's bled a lot, but he should be healin' fine in a couple days."
Chris closed his eyes for a moment in gratitude, then pushed himself upright, feeling all of his thirty-plus years. "We got one more job before it's all over."
Vin suddenly shifted and groaned. He opened confused eyes, which slowly began to focus. He fixed his gaze on Chris and a corner of his mouth lifted. "Thanks, cowboy."
Chris leaned over and placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Nathan's gonna take care of you while we wrap up the loose ends."
"It was Justin, wasn't it?" Vin asked weakly.
Chris nodded. "Yep. He left with most of the men tonight, supposedly to help some Double J men pinned down by Red Canyon."
Vin lifted a hand and grasped Chris's arm. "He might be goin' after the farmers." He coughed, closing his eyes momentarily. "They ain't...g-guilty of nothin' but...tryin' t-to start a new life."
Chris wanted to ask him how he knew that, but there were more important issues right now. "We'll stop Jordan, one way or another. You got my word."
Vin smiled. "That's always...b-been good enough for me." He closed his eyes, surrendering to oblivion.
"And your word's always been good enough for me," Chris said softly. He squeezed Vin's shoulder and straightened. "Take care of him, Nathan."
"Let's get that sonuvabitch before he can hurt any more innocent folks," Buck said in a steely voice.
Resolve filled each man's face. Justin Jordan had fooled everyone and was the reason JD had been hurt and Vin lay on the bunk, his pale face the color of the muslin sheets.
Chris strode out of the bunkhouse, four of his companions following him. They entered the barn where they'd left their saddled horses and led them out of the building. JD took Nathan's horse's reins in his hands.
"You ain't goin' with us, JD," Buck said.
"Yes, I am," JD tossed back. "I feel like I gotta do something since it was my fault we got stuck here in the first place."
Josiah shook his head. "It's nobody's fault, son. Some things were just meant to be and us getting involved in other folks' problems seems to be something we can't escape."
"It is our destiny," Ezra added.
"Seven men, one destiny. Sounds like one of Jock Steele's dime novels," Josiah said, his blue eyes twinkling.
Chris hid a smile behind his hand. Hell, maybe Josiah was right. It seemed that the seven men's lives were entwined in some way that Chris had never experienced before.
Whatever it was that had brought the seven men together had become stronger than the sum of their parts.
A figure leading a horse approached them. As it got nearer, Chris recognized Mrs. Jordan.
"I'm going with you," she said firmly.
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Chris replied, equally adamant.
"Justin is my son. Maybe I can talk him into giving himself up."
"And if you can't, we're going to have to fight."
Mrs. Jordan squared her petite shoulders. "Then that's what'll happen. But I have to try."
Chris studied her a long moment. He couldn't blame her for wanting to find out why he would turn against everything he'd been raised to respect and care for. He nodded. "All right. But if it turns ugly, you get the hell out of the way."
She seemed relieved. "You have my word, Mr. Larabee."
"All right. Let's ride!" Chris called out.
The six riders thundered away from the ranch in the moon's glow.
An hour later, they arrived at Red Canyon but found no sign that a gunfight had occurred. Chris dismounted and hunkered down to study the tracks. Buck joined him.
"What do you think, Buck?" Chris asked in a low voice.
"I'd say Justin took the men he had and headed west, toward the farmers' land."
Chris rubbed his brow. "Yep, that's what I figure."
The two men remounted and rode west for five miles before seeing something in the silvery light. Mrs. Jordan drew up alongside Chris. "What is it?"
"Looks to be your son and the Double J men," Chris replied, resting his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn.
She stood in her stirrups to gaze at the dim figures a couple hundred yards away. "What are they doing?"
"Nothing yet, but they aren't just hangin' around for no good reason. I s'pect they plan on hitting the farmers tonight, supposedly in retaliation of what happened at the ranch." Chris paused. "Only problem is what he planned to happen didn't."
Mrs. Jordan pressed her lips together. "What if you're wrong about him?"
He met her troubled eyes. "I don't think I am."
She took a deep breath. "I'm going to talk to him."
"We all go."
Chris and Mrs. Jordan led the way to the men who had reined in a couple hundred feet from a farmer's cabin.
"What's going on, Justin?" Mrs. Jordan demanded.
Justin jerked around in the saddle and his shock was genuine. "Mother! What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question. We came by Red Canyon. There's no sign of any ambush."
Chris narrowed his eyes as he watched the two Jordans.
"That's because we scared them away," Justin said.
"He's right, Mrs. Jordan," Roy Fuller added. "When we got there, some men rode away."
"Do you know where they went?" Mrs. Jordan asked.
Justin shook his head. "We couldn't trail them in the dark. But we figured they were the grangers or men hired by them."
"Or they were men you hired to make trouble," Chris interjected flatly.
"What in the hell are you talking about, Larabee? Why would I have my own men shot at and our wire cut?" Justin demanded with the correct amount of indignation.
"Because you have gambling debts to pay and the only way to do that is to sell the ranch."
Justin turned to his mother. "You don't believe this nonsense, do you?"
"Look at me, Justin," she said. Reluctantly, Justin faced her. "Are you trying to destroy the Double J?"
Justin held her gaze for a few moments. "Of course not," he replied, his eyes flickering over her shoulder.
Sorrow spilled across Mrs. Jordan's fine features. "Why didn't you just ask me for the money?"
Justin remained silent for a seeming eternity, his face inscrutable. Finally, his jaw clenched and animosity sparked his eyes as all the malevolence in him seemed to erupt. "Because there's not nearly enough to pay my debts. Because I never did give a damn about you and Pa's precious ranch. And because I want to leave this damned territory and never set foot on this godforsaken land again." His voice rose with each declaration until he was shouting.
Mrs. Jordan shook her head sadly as a tear spilled down her cheek. "Why didn't you ever tell us?"
"How could I? All I'd heard about since I was old enough to understand was the ranch. Everything revolved around the Double J. Even I wasn't as important as the goddamned ranch."
Chris shifted in his saddle uncomfortably. All the violence had stemmed from a family disagreement, escalating into a near-range war.
"We did it all for you, Justin. Everything Tom and I worked for was for you," Mrs. Jordan cried.
"You never asked me if I wanted it," Justin said huskily.
"It's all over, Justin," Chris said in a low voice. "Give me your gun."
Justin stared at Chris, not making a move to follow his order.
"Please, Justin, don't make it any worse. Give Mr. Larabee your weapon," Mrs. Jordan pleaded.
After a few more tense moments, Justin surrendered his weapon. His shoulders slumped as the Double J hired men talked among themselves.
A husky blonde man came out the cabin door and walked toward them as a woman holding a baby stood in the doorway.
"If you have come to chase me away from my home, it will not work," the man said in a Swedish accent. "Elise and I will not leave."
Mrs. Jordan turned to the young farmer and shook her head. "There will be no more trouble from the Double J. You have my word."
The farmer studied them warily. "Why should I believe you?"
"Because I own the Double J and I'll make sure the wire is taken down."
The man's expression eased and he nodded. "Thank you."
The pretty young woman with the child joined them and the man wrapped an arm around her waist. She gazed up at Chris with a curious expression. "You are Mr. Larabee?"
Chris nodded. "That's right. Do I know you?"
She shook her head. "I know your friend Mr. Tanner. My husband found him after he had been hurt. He stayed with us for a little while. Is he all right?"
"Yes, ma'am. He saved a lot of lives tonight," Chris responded. He smiled at the young family. "Thank you for taking care of him for us."
"I am glad he is back with you," Elise said.
Chris tipped his head in question, but the husband and wife returned to their home.
"Josiah, Ezra, let's get Jordan to jail," Chris said. "Buck, you get JD back to the ranch."
"I'm all right," JD objected.
"Only if your face is characteristically the color of milk," Ezra said.
"I'll tuck him in," Buck assured. "Come on, kid."
With only a token protest, JD allowed Buck to lead him away. The Double J ranch hands followed them.
"If you don't mind, I'll ride with you, Justin," Mrs. Jordan said.
Her son shrugged, as if he didn't care one way or another. And he probably didn't. The time for caring had come and gone.
Chris slumped in his saddle as they headed toward town. He was exhausted and the cut on his arm had begun to ache again. What he needed was about twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sleep and he had an idea he finally might be able to get it.
Unless destiny was ornery enough to strike the seven men again in the next day or two.
"Anyone seen Vin?" Chris asked as he glanced around the bunkhouse.
"Can't keep that man in bed unless I tie him down," Nathan grumbled. "Some example he's givin' to JD."
The youngest member of the Seven grinned, but wisely didn't comment.
"I believe our taciturn Mister Tanner is conversing with his horse," Ezra said dryly. "I believe he said something to the effect that at least Sire would listen without interrupting."
Buck, JD, and Josiah laughed. Even Nathan managed a smirk. Chris merely shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Sounds like things are back to normal around here."
He strolled out of the bunkhouse and into the dusky evening. Just as Ezra had said, Vin was near the corrals, brushing Sire's already glowing black coat. Sliding his hands into his pockets, Chris joined the long-haired man.
"Nathan ain't none too happy with you," Chris said, leaning a shoulder against a corral post.
"If I stayed in that bed any longer, no one was gonna be too happy with me," Vin refuted.
Chris chuckled. "Can't say I blame you. Three days would drive me crazy, too." He watched Vin flinch slightly as he curried Sire's back, but knew his words of caution would fall on stubborn ears. "You never did tell us how you got involved with that gang of killers."
Vin set aside the curry and picked up the brush. "They found me. One of them recognized me, told the others I was wanted for murder, so Mangus offered me a job." Vin paused and sent Chris a crooked grin. "'Course he didn't trust me, but he said he needed the men."
Chris suspected Vin wasn't telling him everything and he probably wouldn't either. "He sure as hell had enough when they attacked the ranch. Probably picked them up in the saloons."
Vin shrugged. "They turned tail and ran fast enough when you and the boys surprised 'em."
Chris studied Vin as he continued to groom his horse. "I didn't know what to think when you didn't come back to see JD like you'd said."
Only a sliver of the sun remained and purple fingers stretched out from the horizon, fading into the velvet blue of the night sky. The breeze brought the scent of sage and lifted Vin's jacket fringe. The ranch hands' voices rose and fell, and a coyote's lonely yip was answered by another.
"I figgered you probably wondered about me. After everything I said to you, I'm surprised you didn't think I switched sides," Vin said quietly.
Chris considered not telling him, but decided to tell him the truth. "Fact is, I thought you'd gone against us by takin' up with the grangers. Ezra, he kept tellin' me you wouldn't have done it, but I wasn't so sure." Chris glanced at Vin to find his friend studying him intently. "I lost faith in you, Vin, and I'm sorry."
Vin set aside the brush and stepped over to Chris. He planted a booted foot on the lower corral pole and rested his arms on the top one. "Seems like it all started right here. Me tellin' you you were wrong about the Jordans and you tellin' me I was wrong." He smiled. "Guess we were both wrong. I ain't any good at hidin' how I feel about things, Chris. If I don't agree with you, I'm gonna say so, but that don't ever mean I'd turn against you and the others. You got my word on that."
"I guess I knew that, but I was mad and when I'm mad I don't think real straight." Chris chuckled self-deprecatively. "My temper always did get in the way. But I won't ever doubt your loyalty again, Vin. And you have my word on that."
Chris held out his hand and Vin reached over to grip his forearm as Chris did the same. They nodded at one another as they shook.
Chris crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned a shoulder against the post. "So what'd you decide about Tascosa?"
Vin clasped his hands. "About five days ago, someone asked me why I left my friends."
"What'd you say?"
Vin angled a look at Chris. "Said I didn't know. When I left maybe I had a reason, but damned if I could remember it." He turned his gaze to the fading sunset. "I ain't never said this to anyone before, but when I finally get to Tascosa, I'm hopin' you and the others'll be ridin' beside me."
Chris followed Vin's gaze to the western horizon. The world had gone silent and still, like it was holding its breath. A falling star arced across the sky, its splendor fading as it fell toward the earth. "Seven men, one destiny," Chris said quietly.
Vin turned to him, the question in his eyes.
"Something Josiah said," Chris explained. He smiled. "We got a ways to go and there's gonna be more arguments between us, but the bottom line is we're in this together until the end."
"One way or another," Vin added.
Chris nodded somberly. "One way or another."
The two men gazed at each other for a long moment, and in one another they recognized that destiny had played a part in bringing them together as allies and friends that fateful day in Four Corners over a year ago.
And destiny would make them brothers on the trail to Tascosa.
THE END (until destiny strikes again)
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