by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist
DISCLAIMER: The following stories are works of fan fiction. They are not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven." I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.
This series of stories takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vinís name. The tales will follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. If anyone would like to send comments, you can send them to me at my e-mail address at the end of the story.
Old Debts and New Friends
By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist
Josiah Sanchez held up his shot glass to the sunlight that strayed in above the cantinaís batwing doors. The slanted rays sifted through the whiskey, spiraling it with amber and golden brown hues as Josiah slowly turned the base of the glass with his fingertips. Staring into the liquorís facets, he pondered the path that had led him to this tiny hellhole called Medino. Again.
He glanced across the table at his companions, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne, and Nathan Jackson. Together theyíd downed one bottle of whiskey and had just opened another. After the incident with the nuns, their young wards, and the Tennessee stud, theyíd traveled a couple days across the devilís playground. Buckís leg hadnít been healing as quickly as it shouldíve, and Nathan thought a few daysí rest in Medino would speed his recovery along.
Josiah didnít think the bedrest that Buck was getting was exactly what Nathan had in mind. But, then, Buck drew women to him like a candle drew moths Ė Josiah only hoped he didnít burn himself up in the flames of youthful indiscretion.
"Whatís so funny there, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
Josiah glanced at the healer, noting his half smile and the twinkle in his dark eyes, and couldnít help but grant him a crooked grin. "I was merely pondering the slings and arrows of that creature called Fate."
Nathan looked over at their companions, and shook his head. "I think that means Josiahís had enough whiskey."
"Not nearly enough, my friends," Josiah exclaimed. "Ever wonder what hand brought us all together in Four Corners? I mean, men of such diversity," he looked pointedly at Ezra Standish playing poker at a nearby table with a couple of the locals and a dusty peddler. "And yet, here we are. Together."
"Youíre right," Vin drawled. "Heís had enough."
Josiah tilted his head to the side, and continued to study the varying light patterns in the liquor. "A man can learn a lot from whiskey."
"Like itíll rot your gut if you drink too much?" Chris asked with an upraised brow.
Josiah nodded. "That, too." He took a deep breath and sighed, then lifted the shot glass to his lips and swallowed the fiery whiskey in one gulp. "Then again, maybe thatís all there is to know."
"Whatís gotten into you, Josiah?" Nathan asked. "You been actiní almighty strange the last few days." He frowned suspiciously. "It ainít them damned crows again, is it?"
"I havenít seen one since we left Four Corners," Josiah replied. "Iíve seen vultures, though."
"If you ask me, theyíre worse than crows," JD spoke up, shivering visibly.
"Maybe not worse, but definitely no better."
"Whatíre you gettiní at, Josiah?" Nathan asked. "You got another one of those death premonitions?"
Josiah pondered how to answer that question without them thinking he was as crazy as a waltzing pig. "More like a life premonition."
"Huh?" JD asked for all of the confused men.
Josiah poured himself another shot of whiskey and downed it immediately, hoping to dull the sense of unease that gripped him like a desperate spinster. "Probably nothiní more than that tamale I had last night."
"Yeah, that had me up all night, too," JD said with a nod. "íCourse sleepiní in the same room as Buck, I had to get out and get some fresh air." He scowled. "He had a whole mess of beans with his tamales."
Vin and Nathan chuckled, but Chris studied Josiah with his sharp gaze. Something was bothering the ex-preacher, something that didnít bode well for anyone.
Buck charged through the swinging doors, his limp considerably less marked than it had been when theyíd arrived in Medino. He swung a chair around from another table and insinuated it between JD and Vin, then plopped down. "Howdy pards. Miss me?"
"Were you gone?" JD asked innocently.
The men laughed at Buckís feigned scowl. "Now, kid, you got to learn to be more respectable to your elders."
"I believe the correct word is respectful," Ezra interjected as he also joined them.
JD gave Buck a smug I-told-you-look, which only served to lengthen Buckís frown.
Ezra laid a box on the table and opened it up, revealing a checkerboard, but instead of checkers, chess pieces lay in the side compartments.
"Whereíd you get that?" Chris asked, picking up the black king.
"I acquired it at the gaming table when Lady Luck deserted the peddler, and settled upon my shoulder," Ezra replied. He examined a knight. "The craftsmanship appears to be exceptional."
"You know how to play?" Vin asked curiously.
"It is one of the many games of which I am quite adept."
"How about showiní us?" JD asked with youthful enthusiasm.
"Is there anyone here who understands the basic strategies?"
"I do," Josiah replied. "Been a while, but it should come back to me."
Ezra smiled, his eyes twinkling. "I hope so Ė I do enjoy a challenge."
"As long as you win," Nathan muttered, but a smile tempered his words.
It wasnít so long ago that a smile wouldnít have accompanied Nathanís comment. Even now, an occasional hint of animosity arose between the former slave and the southern gentleman. For the most part, however, the two men respected one another, and a friendship was emerging between them.
As Ezra and Josiah set up the pieces, Ezra attempted to explain the game. "Chess is a game of skill and strategy which requires each player to move his sixteen pieces according to a number of rules in order to checkmate his opponentís king."
The others simply stared at him.
"Let me," Josiah said. He held up the king. "Pretend this is the town of Four Corners." He touched the queenís head. "And this is Mary Travis."
"Donít look much like her," Buck interjected, his lips twitching with a wicked grin.
Chris shot him a warning glance, and Buckís smile faded.
"And all these other pieces are us Ė protecting the town, the king, along with Miz Travis," Josiah said.
"And the other king would be like Stuart James and his men trying to capture the town," JD interjected enthusiastically.
"I do believe there is hope for you yet," Ezra teased.
After getting the pieces set up, Ezra began. Josiah moved a pawn in response to Ezraís move, and the game went fairly quickly for the first few minutes, then the pace slowed considerably.
While Ezra and Josiah studied the board and the pieces for an endless amount of time, JD shifted in his chair restlessly. After all he drank, he needed to take a walk. He stood.
"Goiní someplace?" Buck asked with a sparkle in his eye that told JD he knew exactly where he was going.
"No place I need a wet nurse," he tossed back.
"Now donít go gettiní lost."
"If I do, Iíll just follow the hot air."
JD walked out of the saloon and around the corner of the building to follow the alley to the back where he found an outhouse that wouldíve made Top Hat Bobís breath smell good. Debating his options, JD decided heíd best not breathe too deep and hurry his business. In and out in record time, JD buttoned the last button on his trousers and headed back to the saloon.
"Look, I got no quarrel with you."
JD glanced down the boardwalk. About thirty feet away, he saw a middle-aged man talking to another man wearing a tied-down rig and smoking a cigarette. JD backed into the shadows, and hoped they didnít notice him.
"Youíre moving your cattle to El Paso, so that means we got us a quarrel," the younger hired gun stated.
"You tell your boss that Sam Barkley is takiní his cows across that open range and he ainít gonna stop me," the gray-haired man shot back.
"And how do intend to do that? All your men quit on you. Of course I canít blame them after that run of bad luck youíve been having, Barkley."
Sam Barkleyís shoulders tensed and JD could feel the effort it cost him to keep from going for his gun. "You and your band of killers are the only bad luck I been haviní, Slade"
The man named Slade laughed harshly, a grating sound that reminded JD of a braying jackass. "That bad luck is bound to find you again if you try taking your cattle across Mr. Connorís land." He tipped his hat mockingly. "Have a good day, Mr. Barkley."
The hired gun turned and went in the opposite direction of JD, his spurs ringing against the wood. Barkley spotted JD and shot him an irritated scowl. "Ainít you got nothing better to do than listen in on business that ainít yours?"
JDís face burned, but his sense of justice won out over his embarrassment at being caught eavesdropping. "It donít seem right for him to be gettiní away with that. Isnít there a sheriff here?"
"Look around, son. There ainít much of anything here, except a few rawhide tough ranchers like myself trying to make a go of it." He studied JD a little closer. "You lookiní for a job?"
"Iím just passiní through with some friends."
"I could make it worth your while. I got me a thousand head of cattle that have to be herded down to Fort Davis, east of El Paso Ė thatís about three hundred miles from here. If you sign on, Iíll deal you in for a piece of the profit."
"How many others you got?"
Barkleyís face hardened. "None yet, but that ainít gonna stop me. My wife Millie and me ainít gonna let Connor run us off. We been here for nigh onto twenty years now."
JD was tempted, but he couldnít abandon his friends, and he knew Vin wasnít likely to want to go three hundred miles in the wrong direction. "Sorry, but I canít," he said apologetically. "We got business up Tascosa way."
Barkleyís expression fell, but JD could tell the manís pride wouldnít let him beg. "All right, son, but iffen you change your mind, come on out to the Circle B, about twenty miles south of here."
JD nodded. "Good luck, sir."
"Luck ainít gonna do it, son." He patted the forty-five in his holster. "This is the only thing that will."
JD knew what Chris wouldíve said about that, but he only nodded and returned to the saloon.
"What kept you, kid? Thought I was goiní to have to come and pull you out," Buck called out.
Not in any mood for Buckís ribbing, JD said without force, "Shut up, Buck."
The older man studied JD a moment, and his expression grew serious. "You okay, JD?"
"Never better," he replied sarcastically. The other men glanced questioningly at him, and he lifted his hands. "Canít a fellah wanna be left alone once in a while? Iím goiní to sit outside."
JD felt their puzzled gazes on him. Maybe he shouldíve told them what heíd witnessed on the street, but it wouldnít have mattered. No one would want to get involved in a matter that didnít concern them.
On the boardwalk again, JD settled in a rickety chair that had a front leg shorter than the other three. He stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles, and rocked the uneven chair. He shouldnít care if an old man couldnít find men willing to herd some cattle to a fort in Texas. He shouldnít care that Barkley was going to be run off his own land. He shouldnít care, but he did.
"Mind if I join ya?"
Startled, JD glanced up to see Vin standing beside him. "Go ahead."
Vin smiled crookedly and leaned back in an equally decrepit chair. He pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and blew a few off-key notes. "Sometimes talkiní about it helps."
"Sorry, Vin, but I donít know nothiní about harmonica playiní," JD said, intentionally misunderstanding him.
The ex-bounty hunterís grin grew. "You been hanginí Ďround Buck and Josiah too long."
A sheepish smile tugged at JDís lips. "Sorry. Itís just that I ran into this fellah whoís haviní a tough time."
JD explained the situation to Vin who listened without interrupting, a nice change from Buckís constant stream of remarks.
"You think we should help him?" Vin asked quietly.
"We canít. Weíre headed to Tascosa Ė gotta clear your name."
Vin played a half-recognized tune on his harmonica, and JD could tell his mind was sifting through Barkley and his problems.
JD searched the town for the older rancher and spotted him down a block, just coming out of one of the other saloons.
"Thatís Barkley over there," JD pointed out the slump-shouldered man to Vin.
"Looks like he didnít have much luck findiní any wranglers," Vin commented.
"Doubt if he will." JD spied Slade around the corner of a building across the street. "Thatís the hired gun who I was telliní you about."
Vin looked at the shootist, then at Barkley, and his eagle gaze dashed about the town, noting a man on a roof, another behind the door of the livery, and still another in the shadows of an alley. His chair legs thumped to the boardwalk. "Get the others, JD. Thereís gonna be trouble."
JD hesitated only a split second Ė Vin wasnít one to be crying wolf Ė and dashed into the saloon.
"Trouble," he shouted to the others.
A flurry of gunshots punctuated his announcement, spurring the men into action.
Chris led the men out the batwing doors, his Colt already cradled in his palm. Bullets plowed into the doorframe and a nearby wood post, sending the six men diving for cover. Chris rolled behind a pile of crates, and a loose nail sliced across the back of his hand, drawing blood. He cursed the sting, and found Ezra next to him in the scant protection.
"You seen Vin?" he asked Ezra.
"Right behind ya," Vinís voice answered.
Chris twisted about to see Vin tucked behind a water barrel, his sawed-off carbine gripped in his hands. "You okay?"
"Yep. Thereís four shooters," he said in the same unruffled tone he used when he was playing poker or caught in the middle of a gunfight.
Chris peered around the crates, drawing a couple close bullets, and Ezra raised himself to snap off two shots at their attackers.
"Whoíre they after?" Chris called out.
"A rancher named Barkley," Vin replied. "A new friend of JDís."
Chris frowned, but now wasnít the time to get the details. "Letís see if we can flush them out. Ezra, cover me and Vin."
Ezra nodded, and fired off a few shots while Chris and Vin rushed for cover behind a wagon. Having a better vantage point, the two men took aim and sent wood splinters at the gunmen. With the loss of their advantage, the hired guns turned tail and ran.
Chris and his compadres raised themselves cautiously, and when no gunfire greeted them, they regrouped on the street. Chris was relieved to see none of the men had been injured, although Buckís limp seemed more pronounced again. His own superficial wound didnít bother him Ė heíd been hurt worse shaving Ė but he did wrap a bandanna from his duster pocket around it.
Chris watched as JD strode over to a middle-aged man.
"Are you all right, Mr. Barkley?" JD asked.
Barkley removed his hat and mopped his perspiring face with a handkerchief. "Thanks to you and your friends."
Chris and the other men joined them.
"Iím obliged to you," Barkley stated. His gaze passed across the men, and settled on Josiah. Barkleyís eyes widened and bitter anger flooded his granite features. "Sanchez, damn you to hell."
Josiah stared into the face of a man heíd hoped never to run into again. "Already been there," he said softly. "Been a while, Barkley."
"Five years and four months," Barkley said without hesitation. "You have a lot of guts showiní up here."
"Iím not going to make any excuses, but he didnít give me a choice."
"You didnít have to kill him. You coulda just wounded him."
"And he wouldíve been hung or thrown in prison for the rest of his life," Josiah said quietly. "I think he made his choice."
"He was only nineteen years old."
"He was a man."
"Someone wanna tell us what the hell is goiní on," Buck said plaintively.
"You with Sanchez?" Barkley demanded.
Buck nodded. "Thatís right."
"Donít much care for your choice of friends."
"Josiah and his friends just saved your ass," Chris said flatly, his green eyes boring a hole into the rancher.
Barkley didnít flinch beneath Chrisís intimidating stare, but remained silent for a long moment. "And Iím grateful for your help." He turned to JD. "Thanks, son, and that offer still stands."
"Those men are gonna tryín kill you again," JD said.
"I know and one of these days theyíre gonna succeed, but as long as I got breath in my lungs, Iím gonna fight the bastards." He sent Josiah a razor-sharp look. "Tell me one thing, Sanchez. How the hell can you sleep at night?" And with that, he strode away.
Josiahís complexion was paler than Chris had ever seen it, and he resisted the impulse to lay a steadying hand on the big manís arm. Instead, his fingers curled into fists. Without a word, Josiah crossed the street and entered the saloon.
"Weíd better make sure he donít do somethiní stupid," Nathan said.
"I want to know whatís goiní on between them two," Buck added.
Chris glared at his oldest friend. "Itís Josiahís past, Buck. We got no right takiní it from him."
"Maybe, but then maybe talkiní about itíll help some, too."
Chris forced himself to meet Buckís even gaze, and knew he wasnít only referring to Josiah. He bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood. Damn Buck for wanting to dredge up the past.
With a muttered curse, Chris followed the others to the saloon and joined their somber companion.
"You wanna talk about it?" Nathan asked quietly.
Josiah planted his elbows on the chairís arms, and steepled his fingers. "Not much to talk about, Nathan. Thereís a lot of things Iíve done I ainít too proud of Ė killing that manís son is one of them."
Chris removed his hat and pulled a restless hand through his unruly reddish-blonde hair. He had a feeling Josiahís story could be his own, and he didnít want to hear it. But it looked like he didnít have a choice, unless he was willing to walk out of the saloon.
"What happened?" Buck prompted, ignoring Chrisís warning look.
"I was hired by a local rancher Ė he had the biggest spread around Ė to keep law and order in Medino," Josiah began.
"You were a lawman?" JD interrupted.
Josiah smiled without humor. "Not exactly. In those days, I worked for whoever would pay me. Sam Barkleyís only son, Jeff, was working to get the smaller ranchers to band together. He was doing too good of job of it and thatís why I was brought in."
Josiah poured himself a shot of whiskey and downed it before continuing. "Jeff wasnít exactly an angel himself and he shot down a couple of the men who worked for my employer Ė one of them died."
"So he was a murderer," Buck stated.
Josiah shrugged. "His enemies saw him as one, but the ranchers saw him as a hero. One night he slipped into town to see this girl he was sweet on. I caught him the next morning when he was leaving. He was quicker, but my aim was better. He died on the street."
Chris could picture the scene Josiah described as easily as if heíd been there. And he probably had Ė only the town had been different.
Josiah glanced at JD. "There ainít anything romantic about watching a man die, JD."
The younger man swallowed hard, and dropped his gaze to the scarred table.
"Whatíd you do?" Vin asked.
"I got my money and left town that afternoon. And this is the first time Iíve been back since that day. I never figured Barkley would still be here."
"And it looks like heís got the same problem he had five years ago," Buck said.
"Looks like it."
The men were silent, and Chris studied his hat brim although his mind was remembering his own Jeff Barkleys. If he could turn back the hands of time, heíd do things differently. Yeah, and if frogs had wings, they wouldnít bump their asses on rocks either, he thought grimly. Life didnít give folks a second chance.
"I know I said Iíd go to Tascosa with you," Josiah began, "but Iíve got a debt to pay. Iím going to stay and help Barkley."
JD looked about nervously, and cleared his throat. "Iíll stay with you, Josiah."
"You crazy, kid?" Buck demanded. "This ainít your fight."
"Maybe not, but it ainít right for Mr. Barkley to be driven off his own land neither." He removed his derby hat, and raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair. "Seems to me a manís got to stand for something, and this is something I canít turn my back on."
Buck muttered something about not having the brains God gave a mule, then shook his head. "Looks like Iím goiní to have to hang around just to make sure you donít up and do something stupid, like get killed before I can talk you into buyiní a real hat."
JD glared at him. "This is a real hat. Bat Maó"
"I know, Bat Masterson got one just like it," Buck finished as he rolled his eyes heavenward. "And iffen I ever run into Bat again, I aim to tell him he ought to buy a real hat, too."
Chris caught Vinís eye, and recognized the clenched jaw and shuttered expression. Vin was considering staying, too. It shouldnít have surprised Chris, knowing Vinís propensity to lend a hand to those who needed help. It was an admirable quality, but Vin had to look out for himself, too, and if he didnít do it, Chris felt obliged to.
"You gotta get to Tascosa," Chris said in a low voice.
"It ainít goiní nowhere," Vin reiterated his usual litany with a crooked smile.
Chris shook his head firmly. "Damnit, Vin, youíre pushiní your luck. You need to clear your name before some bounty hunter shoots you dead."
Vinís expression sobered. "Maybe, but at least Iíll die with a clear conscience. Iffen I leave and clear my name, but that old man is killed Ďcause I didnít stay and help, I would be guilty of murder."
Chris blinked, trying to follow Vinís twisted brand of logic. In a way, he made sense and that galled Chris. Folks started caring for others, and they were bound to get hurt. He cursed aloud, startling his partners with his vehemence. "All right, but donít say I didnít warn you."
Ezra frowned. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but what exactly are we determining?"
For a moment there was silence, then JD replied. "Mr. Barkley has a thousand head of cattle to move to Fort Davis near El Paso."
Ezraís practiced poker face slipped. "You mean, we are to become cowboys Ė " he glanced at Chris, "óno offense intended, and herd one thousand cantankerous, offensive bovines three hundred miles simply because an old man needs assistance."
"Thatís what weíre sayiní," Nathan said flatly.
He laughed, but the gesture didnít touch his pale green eyes. "That, my friends, takes the proverbial cake."
"It ainít funny, Ezra," JD stated. "Heís gonna be killed if we donít help him."
"And we may meet our Maker much earlier than I plan to," Ezra countered. "If this plan is agreed upon, you may rest assured I will not be joining you. I will, however, travel to Tascosa and rendezvous with you all there."
It was rare that Chris agreed with Ezra, but this was one of those instances. However, he kept silent out of respect for Vin and the others. Whether it was a mistake or not, six of them would be risking their lives for a man all but one of them just met.
"You got a right to state your mind, Ezra," Josiah said. "And I respect you for it."
Bewildered chagrin flashed through Ezraís smooth-shaven features. He quickly recovered, his schooled expression slipping back into place. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez."
"You know where this fellah Barkley lives?" Vin asked JD.
The younger man nodded. "He told me where his ranch was."
"The dayís almost gone. Weíll get an early start tomorrow and hire on," Chris said. "You ever herd cattle, JD?"
"No, but I read about it."
Buck snorted. "Looks like I got my work cut out for me Ė donít know whatís gonna be more troublesome, the cattle or teachiní JD how to be a cow-boy."
"Cow-hand, Buck," Chris corrected with a slight smile, although his eyes were cool and distant.
"No matter what nomenclature you give it, the employment is arduous and has appallingly low monetary remuneration," Ezra said.
"You ever done it?" Nathan challenged.
Ezra brushed some dust from his frilly white shirt. "A gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor."
"Your point?" Nathan pressed.
"I am a gentleman," Ezra replied indignantly.
Buck barked a laugh. "Yeah, and Stuart James is a saint, too."
Suddenly Chris had an overpowering urge to escape the saloonís confines. He stood. "Weíd best get some sleep. Morningís gonna come fast." He turned to Ezra and offered his hand. After a moment of surprised hesitation, Ezra gripped it firmly. "Good luck, Ezra. See you in Tascosa."
Each of the men shook hands with Ezra, then followed Chris out of the saloon.
Once they were gone, Ezra glanced around at the empty whiskey glasses and the chess pieces scattered across the board. Having spent the majority of his life alone, Ezra was not a man to be afflicted with loneliness. Until now. Heíd grown accustomed to the company of the six men. With a start, he realized heíd come to rely on them to back him up if a poker game got ugly. And he was always ready to come to the defense of his companions.
He picked up the chess pieces and laid them carefully in their box. Ezra studied the king in his hand. He had promised to go to Tascosa and help Vin clear his name. But what if Vin was killed before the tracker could rectify the situation?
When Ezra had first met Vin, he hadnít been impressed. On the contrary, the man wore a coat and hat that no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead in Ė and definitely not alive in. But the more he got to know the plainspoken man, the more Ezra came to respect him. The incident with the mountain lions had brought the two men closer than Ezra had thought possible.
The other five men had also gotten past his layered defenses Ė defenses heíd spent years building and fortifying against such things as friendships. Getting close to others was akin to drawing a busted hand when all the chips were on the table. Heíd learned that the hard way and had the scars to prove it.
With a ponderous sigh, he set the king in the container with the other pieces and closed the box. He might only be the equivalent of a pawn, but he had an obligation to defend and protect those who deserved his loyalty.
A chuckle escaped him as he imagined what his mother would have to say about such maudlin drivel.
Continued in part 2