A raptor soared in the desert night sky. Its wings stretched out silhouetted against a midnight blue backdrop. It's flight feathers separated like fingers on a hand as it soared, climbing higher. The powerful legs were drawn up tight to the body. Talons were clenched securely closed. The large bird rode the thermal currents searching the dark desert ground for a meal. Its piercing yellow eyes focused briefly on the small flickering flame resting in the narrow canyon floor. It did not recognize the light as fire, it did not recognize the three forms huddled around it as men. It did categorize that at the moment they would not be a suitable meal. Not yet. The smell of death hung prematurely from the small lighted area but death had not yet claimed any victims.
The bird swooped higher up into the sky catching another thermal current. It switched its powerful vision from the three forms and concentrated once again on the plateau a few hundred feet above the humans. The full moon offered clear visibility to the hunter. Very few clouds dotted the starry sky. A desert hare caught the raptors attention. The hare browsed in a nervous fashion alert for any danger that might spring upon it.
The humans already forgotten the bird tucked its wings close to its body and dove on the unsuspecting prey. It careened to the earth at an alarming rate. In utter silence the bird descended on the hare. Wind and desert air rushed passed the bird as it threw itself at the hapless victim.
At the last second the rabbit sensed the rapidly approaching danger. Primal instinct felt the threat from above. In less than a second the prey bolted. It scurried off in panic seeking adequate protection under prickly sage. It paused keeping still waiting as death swooped by on the wind. The hare paused a moment longer ensuring its safety before it continued to chew the morsel of food it still stored in its cheeks. It had escaped death for now. Hunger would lull it out into the open before morning. Danger lurked both on the ground and from above. With heightened senses and a rapid heart rate the hare balled itself within the confining protection of the sage.
The bird quickly adjusted its wings, refolded its powerful legs and pulled out of its steep dive just inches above the clay packed ground. Wind brushed and stirred as the raptor skimmed the empty spot. Another meal escaped. The bird climbed high into the night. It ignored the silver highlighted clouds. It did not recognize or marvel at the numerous stars that off set the black sky.
The hunter circled, searching, again its eyes fell to the struggling fire light. Three forms one by itself laying curled like an animal on its last breath. The others were a conflagration of melted shapes. The smell of blood was strongest from these two forms. Death permeated the area. The raptor would stay close. A scavenged meal was better than an empty gullet.
Chris cradled the head and shoulders of his life long friend. Buck shivered in the chill of the arid night. Larabee pulled his worried gaze from the countless stars above to the mustached man that bled in his arms. He pulled Buck tighter to himself trying to share body heat, trying to stave off death. The presence of Death had slowly coiled its tendrils around his friends icy form. "Hold on Buck jist a little longer," Chris whispered his desperation clear. The pleading tone would have wrenched hearts had anyone been paying attention.
A raw breeze blew low across the desert canyon. The large sand stone walls rose like black monoliths all around them reaching into the sky. They stood out like black specters of death looming over the three men that huddled in their midst. A stream trickled near by, it too going through its own throes of death. In a few short weeks it would be nothing more than a sandy stream bottom, an empty promise to any traveler. Water would not trickle through its banks until late next spring.
Buck's muscles trembled again. A low groan escaped parched lips and legs stirred.
"Easy Pard'" Chris whispered hugging the large form to himself unsure how to offer comfort to a man who had comforted him through his most trying times.
"C..c..c..old" Wilmington stuttered.
Larabee folded Buck's weathered callused hands within his own. Chris had never felt live skin so chilled. A small campfire crackled just a few short inches away. Blankets surrounded the larger man. He lay on both Chris and his own bed rolls and was covered by Ezra's and all three blankets.
"I know Buck jist hold on," Chris pleaded with his friend, "Nathan'll be here soon, jis'hang on a little longer." Larabee tried to comfort his dying friend, unconsciously tightening his grip. A lie. He just lied to Buck. Chris shut his eyes and took a shuttering breath. He had stooped so low as to use a Standish tactic to give false hope to a dying man. How could it be wrong? How could it be immoral to try and ease some of the agony with false hope?
Jackson wasn't coming.
Nathan sat comfortably in Four Corners unaware of the miserable death cresting over one of the seven.
"Goin'...nowhere...pard," Buck whispered out quietly. A small smile split his face. He knew he was dying. The guilt he felt about leaving Chris hurt more than any bullet hole to the side. The loss Chris was floundering through was worse than any amount of blood that spilled unimpeded from Wilmington's body. Buck silently cursed himself for failing his friend. He hoped Vin would be able to pick up the pieces and put Chris back together again. Oh how he was going to miss Chris and the others. Gawd he felt terrible. How could he have failed Chris so badly. The smile started to fade as the pain began to roll through him like a building wave.
Chris missed the small light hearted smirk.
"Thhh...irrr..ssstty" Buck grimaced as the pain crested and crashed down on him. He ground his teeth and tried to muffle the groan. Oh God this hurts so bad.
"Hold on Buck," Larabee reached for one of the canteens. He picked it up and shook it. It was empty. Chris dropped it in disgust and stretched for the other one. It too was empty. Gawd damn gambler....
"Ezra!" Chris shot out in a harsh whisper. He waited a moment and watched the curled form from across the fire move with great reluctance.
The gambler had come down with a stomach sickness just before dawn this morning. Larabee had gone to relieve him from watch to find him on his knees heaving. Chris had silently sworn. Could anything else possibly go wrong. Buck had been gut shot the night before, they were being pursued by two brothers bent on revenge and then Standish had come down with an illness.
"Ezra!" Larabee bit out a little louder dragging the stubborn southerner into some sluggish movements. Larabee shifted the heavy weight of Wilmington in his arms trying to get a more comfortable grip.
"Toss me your canteen." Chris waited a few intolerable moments. The quiet sounds of the desert night were lost on him. Instead he was only concerned with comforting a dying friend.
Standish unwrapped an arm from around his midsection and reached for his canteen. He had trouble focusing on it. His head pounded and felt as if it were caught in a vice. His stomach seemed to rest just behind his tonsils, the slightest wrong movement sent him lurching to his knees heaving. Gawd it was cold out.
He reached a shaky hand for the canteen. It was light. To light. It was empty. The others were empty, he knew because he had drank them as well. He was so incredibly thirsty. Never, could he recall ever craving the sweet taste of water so badly. Hell anything liquid.
"Empty," he breathed out. It hurt to talk. His headache was so fierce his teeth ached, just the simple action of moving his tongue brought misery to his head. He kept his eyes closed the light of the fire sent physical nauseating pain shooting through his head.
"Gawd damn it Ezra you drank all the water?" Larabee hissed out infuriated. Larabee stared with murderous intent at the curled form across the campfire from Buck and himself.
"Ey,....pard.....go......easy..." Buck whispered out. He did not understand why Chris was angry. Wilmington did not realize much right now, even the fact that it was night eluded him. He could only focus on his incredible thirst and the impending damage he was about to impart on his oldest friend.
"Ezra go fill the canteens," Chris ordered. He held tightly to Buck. Larabee could feel the blood from the saturated bandages soak through his pants leg. He could feel Buck's life ebb from him as the expanding pool of blood was absorbed down his thigh. Wilmington only wanted water and Chris could not even offer him that little reprieve.
"Ezra!" Larabee barked out in desperation. He would not let Buck die craving something as simple as a sip of water.
The dark blue coated form across the fire stirred again.
"Git some water," Chris ordered again. Why Buck? Why did Buck have to take a bullet? Why not him?
"Come on Ezra git on your feet, go git some water," Larabee's coaxing was mixed with a threat.
Ezra heard Larabee. The gambler missed the coaxing, the pleading, and the unspoken threats. He was thirsty, gawd awful thirsty. Water. Chris wanted water, Buck desired water and so did himself. Ezra would fill the canteens and drink himself full. Maybe he would even drink from the stream before filling the canteens. Yes, he would do that and then fill the canteens.
Larabee tightened his grip around Buck and watched as Standish gamely pulled himself to his knees and then struggle to his feet. Chris tossed the two empty canteens toward Standish. With an unsteady gait the gambler staggered off in the direction of the cold running stream.
Chris watched the stooped southern frame dissolve into the desert night.
Larabee gazed back up at the blanket of stars that adorned the dark sky. A full moon held the sky giving the night an unearthly clear glow. Moon shadows were cast forlornly across the desert. A chorus of Coyotes yipped and howled in the distance. The shriek of something falling prey to tooth or talon cut through the night. The slight breeze kept the hovering insects at bay, its passage marked by a hollow moan as it wove between canyon walls. The small camp fire danced and crackled in the refreshing breeze sending spirals of smoke and sparks diagonally into the heavens.
Chris never noticed the symphony of night creatures. In turn the nocturnal creatures ignored the struggle of a man that slowly bled to death in the arms of a friend. Life and death was the one thing that put all living creatures on an equal plane. Nothing could escape the vast reach of the reaper.
Larabee closed his eyes, silently begging Buck to hang on, not to give up. A prayer found its way into his thoughts. His private pleas turned into a request. A trade. A life for a life. He prayed to a God he had blamed for his family's violent death. A God he blamed as much as he blamed himself. Chris bartered with a God he had given up on and grew to hate.
Trade a life for a life.
Spare Buck. If a soul needed taking tonight, take his, take Chris's. End his suffering. Let JD's older brother survive. Let Wilmington live another night to spend in the arms of a lady he hardly knew. Give Buck another chance to accuse Standish of cheating.
A simple trade a life for a life.
Let Buck live. Let Wilmington continue to teach others how to live life to the fullest, laugh at life's most difficult obstacles. Please don't take Buck from those who need him the most.
What kind of God would pull such a gifted man from this earth and leave a numb murderous gunslinger to face an unsuspecting world. What kind of God would let a young boy burn to death? What kind of God would take a loving mother and wife from a husband?
The same kind of God that would let a best friend bleed to death, the kind of God that would turn a blind eye to the battle waged on this quiet crisp arid night.
Please a life for a life.
Chris clenched Buck tighter to his chest. Maybe his heart could beat for both men.
Please take his life spare Buck's.
A life for a life.
A simple bargain a simple request.
A deaf God.
Wilmington did not want to die. He did not want to bleed to death. He would not go without a fight. Wilmington could not feel Larabee's tightening grip around him. He was not aware of the battle Chris waged. Buck did know that Chris fought. Right now behind the pain, behind the leaden feeling somewhere veiled beyond the sea of grey that comprised of Bucks chilled world, Chris fought like a raging demon. Buck would help him. Wilmington would stand by his side and once more beat the odds. Together Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington would face insurmountable odds and beat them back. They would prevail against death. They had before and they would this time.
If they could just get the bleeding stopped. He felt so thirsty.
"Cautery," Both whispered it. Buck slightly behind Chris's words. The simple word became a tangle of syllables that no outsider would understand.
"Buck," Chris spoke quietly staring down at the pale features. The moonlight did not enhance the blanched features. "Buck we can try an' cauterize the wound." Larabee would not do it without Buck's permission.
Wilmington peeled his eyelids apart. Gawd they felt so heavy. He was so cold. The thought of fire brought false promise of warmth. He merely nodded a slow near impossible movement that left him feeling exhausted.
"It could kill ya Buck?" Larabee whispered back. He slid the Bowie from Buck's belt and leaned forward over Wilmington slipping the large blade into the edge of the flame.
"Dy'n...any'how...pard'" The words floated off the hot labored breath. Another wave of pain washed through Wilmington. A groan escaped.
"Hold on Buck," Chris cinched his arms tighter around his friend. He would not let Buck go. He would defy the God that had stolen away his wife and son. He would bare his teeth at the deities that stole souls to early from this earth. Chris Larabee would fight Satan himself tonight to wrestle back the life of Buck Wilmington....
And if anyone had asked.....Ezra Standish would have laid the odds in favor of Chris and Buck. The gambler, after all, left nothing to chance.
The large stainless steel blade turned black, then shone bright red and orange and finally turned white. The knife was ready.
Chris slid out from under Wilmington. He laid the large gunslinger flat on the two bed rolls. Chris pulled back the blankets and the third bed roll and pulled up Wilmington's blood soaked shirt. The make shift bandages were soaked and dripping uselessly. Larabee removed the sopping shirts that once made up the gamblers laundry.
The entry wound was deceivingly small. The size of a child's pinkie maybe. Blood oozed from the red swollen hole. The exit wound was alarmingly large. It could easily accommodate an adult index finger. With each ragged breath blood ran from the gaping tattered maw.
"You ready Buck?" Chris asked. He received no answer. Wilmington lay on his side exposing the wound to the light of the fire.
Chris cursed quietly out loud. He would not even get a chance to say good bye. Damn you Wilmington. Larabee, as was his nature, became angry. He was infuriated with the world. To hell with everything and everyone especially you Buck Wilmington. You can go to hell, because when you get there I'll be there to kick your pathetic butt. Damn you for passing out on me and leaving me alone. You son of a whore damn you for dying on me.....
Chris wiped at his eyes angry at the tears that threatened to fall on their own accord without his permission. To hell with the world. Larabee watched as Buck drew in a ragged breath. You better hold on Buck Wilmington or I'll kill you myself.
Chris grabbed the handle of the Bowie knife. It singed his hand. Chris's rage was such that he did not notice the burn that scorched his palm. Larabee knelt beside his life long friend. He held the white blade over a man that had pulled him through a war and the loss of a family. Chris shut his eyes and once again bargained.
A life for a life.
He placed the blade into the exit wound.
Smoke billowed from the hole. Blood popped and burned, skin curled and turned black. The heavy unmistakable smell of burnt flesh filled the area.
Buck arched away from the searing pain.
A blood curdling scream tore across the night.
It careened and bounced off canyon walls echoing like a hellish roll of thunder. It washed over the singing coyotes silencing them abruptly. Raptors heads swiveled on necks searching out the sound of the potential meal. Crickets and insects of the night stopped their chatter briefly as the tortured cry rolled passed them.
Vin, JD, Nathan and Josiah pulled their horses to a halt. No one spoke. The death scream washed over them like a flash flood. Tears rolled unbeknownst to JD down his dusty cheeks. Sanchez closed his eyes and prayed for a miracle and Nathan realized he was to late. Tanner ground his teeth, he failed his friends. The wrenching scream belonged to Buck Wilmington.
The anguished cry of pain sailed over the unconscious form near the stream. The parched dry lips never got to taste the sweet water that lay only a few yards away. Canteens hung in a loose grasp. A columns of ants marched unhindered by the sudden obstruction. They continued their purposeful movement over fevered cheeks. A few black ants strayed into the partially parted lips and a few up un-reacting nostrils. The insects discovered nothing of use on their detours and return to their ranks. They crossed the face, traversed the neck, back to the ground unaware and unconcerned of the impending death of the gambler.
Three days earlier.
The early morning heat promised another unusually warm spring day. The sky shifted slowly from the dark purples and pale pinks to a lighter blue. The morning sun rose just above the budding trees that surrounded the small burg of Four Corners. A few morning clouds dotted the sky just enough to give the horizon a brilliant display of color. A comfortable breeze whispered down the main street past the slowly waking residents within the wood planked buildings. Seven men sat in the saloon.
An uncommon occurrence. It only punctuated the unnatural tedium that had befallen the normally boisterous bucking throes of a growing frontier town. Four Corners for the past month had been quiet. Much too quiet. The seven peacekeepers were becoming restless.
Chris found his normally solitary mornings amongst his fellow peacekeepers. This bothered him. Not that he did not enjoy their company. Their antics were enough to keep a smile on his face. Still to see all seven in the saloon before noon and on more than one occasion was enough to raise alarm. This was a dilemma he was not sure how to handle. Instead, he sipped at his coffee and moved himself outside to enjoy the morning. He could still listen half heartily to the argument between ex slave and southerner.
Chris smiled as he headed for the bat wing doors. He wondered when Nathan would learn that Ezra's basic understanding between right and wrong, honest and dishonest were as blurred as a cowpuncher's vision on payday. Larabee gave the healer credit for trying and Josiah for not knocking both senseless. How Sanchez ended up in the middle of the heated discussions always surprised the gunslinger. Josiah was a big boy, he could handle himself and those two to boot. Larabee would not worry about blood shed this morning. Though it would at least make things interesting.
Buck was badgering Vin about Tanner's tracking ability. JD had finally learned to hold his tongue and shoot barbs at whatever target revealed itself. Larabee chuckled as he settled in the chair outside the saloon. Wilmington was normally on the receiving end of Dunne's one liners. Vin tended to speak very little and what he did say was usually well thought out. Wilmington as was his tendency took on everything in a whirlwind fashion.
Chris stretched his legs out and stifled a yawn. He was not even tired but the inactivity was wearing down on him. Something had to give soon. Larabee closed his eyes wrapping his hands around the coffee mug. He listened as the voices from within the saloon rose in volume. Chris let a slight frown crease his weathered face. Surprisingly it was not Nathan berating the conman or the Southerner insulting the ex-slave. Buck's voice rang out in the early morning shattering any hopes for a peaceful day.
Buck leaned across the table. His blue eyes bore into Tanner's slightly amused features.
"I know your good at what ya do Vin but face it, you wouldn't be near as successful at tracking one of us." Wilmington sat back in his chair with a smug look. "Hell we know all your tricks," Buck crossed his arms over his chest proud of his logic, "we ain't some unsuspecting criminal with no clue on how to cover a trail." Buck twiddled with his coffee mug ignoring the others that had quieted down to listen to the conversation.
Tanner sat back in his chair smiling. The others recognized the slight curl of the lip. Tanner was smiling alright, like a predator just before it made the kill. Buck was heading toward something big and from the leer on Tanner's face it was most likely going to become a man size trap.
Wilmington either ignored the look or just played into it. Buck loved a challenge. "Hell Vin I bet you couldn't track some of us down on a good day."
The word 'bet' rang across the saloon like church bell. Outside Chris sat forward resting all for legs of the chair on the boardwalk. Larabee smiled he could just imagine Standish's face lighting up at the prospect of a wager. Chris chuckled when the southern voice rang out...
"Did you just say, 'bet'?" Ezra completely dismissed Nathan and his usual recruit and slid his chair over to the table occupied by Vin, Buck and JD. "Are you gentlemen really going to place a wager on Mr. Tanner's tracking skills?" Ezra glanced from Vin to Buck like a man entering an open vault with no one in attendance. Money was to be made.
Tanner leaned back in his chair and eyed Wilmington. A confident smile creased the trackers lean face. He could use a challenge. Vin cocked his head in a questionable fashion dropping the inquiry in Wilmington's boots.
Standish followed the silent communication and gazed upon Buck in a lecherous fashion. The smell of money hung in the air.
"I bet ya Vin," Buck leaned forward resting his arms on the rounded table matching Tanner's amused stare, " that you wouldn't be able to track some of us down if we knew yer were hound'n us." Wilmington smiled at Tanner goading him into the wager.
"Buck I'd give you a days head start and still catch up to ya within three days." Tanner replied softly unruffled by the challenge.
JD leaned back in his chair. His eyes wide, this sounded serious.
Ezra sat forward rubbing his hands. Finally money would head in his direction. It was about time.
"Your on," Buck replied.
"Ok gentlemen," Standish said recognizing his cue. It was time to let the professionals enter the game and take control. "rules need to be established, parameters must be made and wages announced." Ezra loved a good bet.
"What?" JD asked. He sat right beside the gambler and still did not understand what was said. What was Buck thinking? Vin was the best tracker in the territory.
"He said its time to set the rules down and bet money," Josiah responded. He and Jackson dragged their chairs over to the table. This was getting interesting.
"Ok let me get this straight," Ezra placed his hands down on the wood chipped table. A calming gesture for all those around him. The more people involved the more money, the bigger the pot the larger his winnings. Oh life was sweet. "Vin you are going to give Buck and some of us one day head start and then attempt to track them down before the end of three days?"
"Attempt? Ahh hell Ezra I'd find you bef're the mornin' of the second day," Tanner said pushing the gambler to take sides. Vin figured he would get the smooth talking southerner to earn some of the money he intended on fleecing off the sweat of the others. Vin included.
Ezra arched an eyebrow, "Touché," Standish raised his coffee cup in mock salute, " the stakes my dear man have just gone up," Standish sat back in his chair. Vin figured to make Buck's trials more difficult by 'strapping' Wilmington with Ezra. The conman saw the ploy and played into it. It would be his chance to prove to Vin and the others that he could hold his own when pressed on the trail. It also allowed him to increase the wagering. The others assumed him to be a liability in the wilderness. Ezra would just make more of a profit on that foolish assumption.
"Ok then, Buck and I get one....." Standish started to reiterated but again was cut off.
Larabee strode purposefully into the saloon. A smile lanced his face. This wager had some intrigue and challenge. "Count me on your team Ezra," Chris met Tanner's unperturbed stare, ignoring the floundering southerner.
The sharpshooter merely bowed his head in consent. Three men were easier to track than one or two for that matter. Vin would enjoy showing his fellow peacekeepers just how good a tracker he really was, no matter who he was after. Tanner would have them before the three days were out.
Ezra swung around in his chair, surprise and shock stealing away the cocky smirk that once lay across his clean shaven features. His erratically moving elbow knocked JD's coffee cup into the young sheriff's lap. Dunne hollered in shock and skidded his chair away from the table. The legs of the chair caught on the uneven flooring and toppled over backward spilling Dunne to the ground. A small cloud of dust billowed from the sudden displacement.
Standish missed Dunne's wild ride and stared at the gunslinger with open mouthed shock. Larabee wanted to be on his team. Chris wanted to participate in a bet and openly sided with Standish. The conman followed the movements of the lean gunslinger. Larabee was playing him, using him for something. There had to be an angle to this sudden overt show of camaraderie. Hell, Larabee could only tolerated him on a good day and normally only at the gaming tables. Why this?
"Think he's gonna go into some kind of apoplexy?" Josiah asked none to quietly of Nathan. Both men as well as the others, save poor JD, stared at the gambler with amusement.
"Best shut yer mouth Ezra b'fore some flies take up residence," Tanner uttered out quietly. Larabee's request was unexpected to say the least.
Wilmington raised his hand to Standish's jaw and shoved it closed. The action was enough to pull the gambler from his momentary lapse.
Chris pulled up a chair and sat next to Tanner across from the gambler. Larabee smiled at the southerner offering no sense of comfort to the now unbalanced cardsharp.
"That ok with you Ezra?" Chris asked, not really caring if it was ok or not. The gunslinger watched as the shock wore off the southerners face. It was replaced with a cold scrutinizing gaze trying to discern the angle for Chris's sudden alliance.
Ezra stared at Chris trying to figure out what made the gunslinger want to side with him. Mr. Larabee made no effort to hide his distrust of the gambler, well at least with money. Ezra could not really fault the man. Standish could not trust himself with other people's money. Well he could to some degree. Ezra knew he would use it as a means to attain goals that were beneficial to himself. There really wasn't anything wrong with self improvement and personal gain.
Larabee was up to something. Standish just had to figure it out.
Josiah did not bother hiding his chuckle. He wondered how Chris would cross the bridge of distrust between Larabee and the gambler.
Sanchez had spoken to the gunslinger just after the incident with the attempt on Mary's life. The gambler ,out of character, had stepped in front of an assassin and taken a bullet meant for Mrs. Travis. Ezra should have died but the money he had hidden away in his pockets, 'for save keeping' saved his life. Standish had admitted, while laying on the street that he should not be tempted with safe guarding large sums of cash. With Nathan removing ten thousand dollars of ill gotten money from the gambler's pockets, Chris merely nodded.
Josiah had been haunted by ghosts that week and had not been as 'helpful' to his floundering sheep as he should have been. Standish had actually come to him seeking aide, well money if truth be told. The preacher tired of fighting demons, exhausted from failing to solve his own problems, laid overwhelming temptation into the hands of the gambler. He had turned and snapped at the gambler laying not only the burden of blame and some measure of righteous guilt but also the dreaded "Apple". Sanchez saw himself no better than the snake that had tempted Eve in the Garden.
Standish had failed miserably. He fell to the lure of money. Ezra was not ashamed of his fall and maybe not even surprised by it. The gambler had taken it all in stride. It was his nature. What had bothered the gambler the most and in frustrated rantings (due to his inability to get his sticky hands on the money) was the lack of trust the others had in him. Especially Larabee. For all his blustering and comical posturing Standish was dismayed by the absence of faith by Chris. It might have been more correct to say, it was not so much the lack of faith Chris had in Ezra but how accurately Larabee had read the gambler.
Ezra thought Chris did not trust him. Truth be told it was true. When it came to money. The man was unashamedly greedy. The other six knew it, Ezra was somewhat aware of it, and they kept obscene temptation away from him.
It would be no wiser to have Buck safe guard a sweet young lady than it would to have Ezra watch over a railroad Payroll. Buck would seduce or be seduced by his charge and...well Ezra...he to would be seduced by the captivating promise of wealth.
There was a glimmer of hope for the conman. The others saw it. Chris especially. Deep down under the layers of wealthy clothes and gross self indulgent arrogance a decent human being struggled. It was a slight minor fight but at least there was some awakening of a fledgling conscious.
Standish's actions had proven this when he stepped in front of the assassin and took the bullet for Mary. Chris had indeed been right. Larabee had originally taken a gamble on hiring the conman but it had panned out. Chris had questioned his decision almost every time he saw the suave cardsharp. Ezra was good in a gunfight, saloon brawl, tolerantly acceptable on the trail but his love of money made him questionable.
Standish took a bullet to save Mary. The simple unselfish and rightfully deadly act was vindication enough for Larabee. Standish was trustworthy... well...just not with anyone's money.
Josiah feared that Ezra missed the fact that Larabee gained a measure of faith in the conman that day.
Sanchez conveyed this observation to Chris a little over a month ago. The preacher had found the gunslinger alone one morning. In an unobtrusive manner, herded Larabee into a conversation circling this very issue. Standish needed to know he was, in fact, trusted (with non monetary responsibilities) that Larabee had not lost faith in the knavish cardsharp.
Chris had listened quietly nodding his head sipping his steaming coffee. In the end, he only muttered a soft, "Yeah, maybe." That was it. Sanchez left the porch and left the responsibility squarely on Larabee's shoulders.
Today, it seemed Chris finally found an opportunity to cross that bridge. Larabee voluntarily placed himself in a situation in which he and Standish would have to work in conjunction to attain a common goal. Well, an almost common goal.
Josiah had to admit it would not be the same goal at all. Ezra craved the lure of the pot and Chris wanted to test his abilities against Tanner.
Sanchez sighed well at least it got Standish and Larabee on the same side of the fence for a while. Buck would be there to defuse any explosive situations.
"Alright gentlemen," Standish found his voice and pulled a quick recovery, "lets lay down the ground rules, shall we?" He faced the other men a dimpled smile showing off his gold premolar.
JD settled himself back onto his chair harrumphing Ezra's flamboyant arm movements. He nearly got burned in a very delicate area.
"Ok, its gonna be Chris, Ezra and me," Buck said sitting forward catching Larabee's eyes. The two were going to make ground beef of these others. Maybe teach Tanner a trick or too. It would do the tracker good to get a some real challenges. Lately, the criminals had practically been leaving trail markers. Even JD and Ezra could have tracked some of them to ground.
Vin smiled wolfishly. He really hated to have Chris dragged into this, but maybe it would be good for Larabee. Chris needed a challenge. Vin would toy with them for a little bit let them think they were winning and then close the trap on the threesome. It would be good harmless revenge. Vin fought to keep his smile from spreading. It was about time he fleeced the gambler and won some money back. It would be good to knock Buck down a peg or two just let him know that tracking and hiding a trail was not easy. Chris just might learn something and even teach Vin a trick.
The tracker was looking forward to the hunt.
"We leave at first light," Larabee picked up. He pointedly directed his gaze away from the southerner. Mornings and the gambler mixed about as readily as water and oil. He really did not want to start off with an argument.
"I'll give ya a full day's light an' then start in after ya," Tanner concluded.
"Where do ya have ta finish at?" JD asked trying to pick the wet pant leg away from his inner thigh. What an embarrassing stain.
"Outlaws don't tell us where they're goin' when the lite out of town JD," Nathan pointed out.
Chris silently answered the Kid's question, 'the Canyon.'
Devil's Canyon was a three days ride North West of town. It was an unforgiving place in the summer time. The sun beat the clay until is lifted and curled in tiny plates. Water holes were sucked dry by the scorched land and nothing higher than tumble weeds thrived around the rim of the canyon. The canyon's sandy bottom lay over a hundred feet below the desert floor. It was made mostly of soft sifting sand that could burn a man's foot through his boot. In the spring time, a stream meandered through its dark ominous walls. The water, however, fell prey to the leaching rays of the summer sun and dried up before the end of May. Monstrous rock monoliths rose from the canyon floor diverting but not halting the steady flow of the spring water. It was said nothing lived down in the canyon. Like the desert, things were sizzled under the relentless rays of daylight and at night a sharp freeze fell over the land. Sage, sand and a few hardy insects survived in the canyon. Nothing, thrived.
"If we have a place of conclusion would it not undermine our efforts?" Ezra asked not sure he liked the way the rules were being laid down. This seemed to give Vin an unfair advantage.
Tanner noticed the slight panic that flashed across the gambler's countenance. Vin appreciated the vote of confidence. Standish was beginning to think this was not a sure thing after all. Tanner felt good about that, the conniving gambler was having second thoughts about betting against Vin.
"Nah Ezra, we don't need to know we're y'all goin'" Tanner slowly intoned a chuckle escaped, "cuz I'll have ya before ya git where ev'r it is ya're goin'." Vin's mind was working quickly. Having an common finish line did give him undo advantage. There were only so many different ways out of town. Then again the same lack of options or the same plethora of options faced fleeing outlaws. If Vin should happen to lose Buck or Chris's trail, which of course is unlikely, he would need a back up plan.
Standish had a right to be worried.
"You have to leave something behind for us pick up, like a small marker hidden out of the way," Tanner explained as the idea started coming to mind.
"Like a treasure hunt," JD helped out.
Buck began to warm up to the idea, "Ok we leave something behind to be found," he nailed Vin with a smug smile, "you'll have to look for it Vin," Buck said.
"We leave two things on each day," Chris confirmed. He caught onto the train of thought. Larabee really did look forward to the hunt. It would be fun to test Vin's ability against his own. Chris knew he was not near as good a tracker as Tanner but Larabee felt confident he could hold his own if push came to shove. This gave him the opportunity to test it. Buck would do alright. He and Wilmington had been on the trail together for nearly a life time. Wilmington was a man to have at your side in a pinch. Buck and he had faced and survived odds that would have left most men dead. Buck and he were a team had been for a life time. They would prevail. Standish, well maybe if Vin took JD it would even the odds.
"Alright gentlemen lets make this clear," Ezra said leaning forward surveying the faces of the others at the table. For this particular wager the rules needed to be clear. Usually Ezra liked to muddy the water to hide any possible 'exits' he might need to employ. This particular gamble needed to be run with clear boundaries. Standish himself knew he was out of his element. Had Vin not challenged him into participating, Ezra would have been content to stay in town and hold onto the wages.
"Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Larabee and myself have three days in which we have to elude you gentlemen," nods circled the table. "We must leave two items, secreted away somewhere along the trail each day for Mr. Tanner and his team to secure," again he paused checking for agreement.
"If we make it three days undetected we win," Ezra smiled already tasting victory.
"If we catch you," Vin smiled confidently, "you lose."
"Only if you have all six items in your possession," Standish returned.
"Who's on Vin's team?" JD asked. He wanted in on this anything to get out of town. It was down right boring. The Dime novels never mentioned the 'down time' between gunfights.
"I'll take JD," Tanner said without hesitation. The kid was picking up the skills of tracking quite quickly.
Larabee and Wilmington exchanged quick glances that were not lost on JD or Ezra.
Standish silently fumed, 'they think I'm going to be a hindrance,' Ezra bit back his indignation. They are using Mr. Dunne's green horn status to offset my supposed lack of ability. They were in for a shock.
JD wanted to kick Buck. 'they're happy Vin's taking me, think I'll slow Vin up, make up for them having to take Ezra,' Dunne wanted to win now, not because of the money. Hell Ezra could have his winnings. He was going to show Buck just how good a tracker he really could be given the chance.
Josiah noticed the silent communication between Buck and Chris and also knew that it was not lost on Ezra or JD. Nothing was ever easy.
"I'm with you Brother Vin," Josiah's baritone voice rang quietly around the near empty saloon. Someone would have to keep the peace or pick up the pieces.
"Y'all don't mind I'm going to sit this one out," Jackson said tiredly. The others might have been experiencing a slow month, but things had been busy for him. With foals and calves hitting the ground, farmers and ranchers had been on the receiving end of upset momma's. Nathan could not remember having to wrap so many ribs or legs before. This spring season had brought out the fight in mares and cows alike and their owners were paying for it in flesh. Heck just yesterday poor ole Evan Thompson took a cloven hoof to the chest that knocked him through the corral. Busted three ribs up real good. When would people learn not to come between momma's and their babies?
They nodded their consent. The rules were set, teams picked and wages made. The seven dispersed for the day. They would start at first light the next morning. Nathan watched the six other men and wondered if he should stick close to town. Something told Jackson that all the ingredients for a disaster were in the cauldron.
Larabee smiled as he headed out of the saloon. Devil's Canyon. It would be a suitable place. If Vin was indeed hot on their trail they could lose the tenacious tracker within that convoluted maze.
Tanner watched Chris quietly. Vin knew it. Devil's Canyon. The sly dog was going to try and make the Canyon and, if need be, lose Vin and his team with in its twisted innards. Vin chuckled. He loved the Canyon.
Cole Donavon was not a decent man. He did not have any misconceptions of his morality or lack of ethics. Cole knew that when his time came due his soul would burn in eternal damnation. This revelation did not bother him. In fact, he relished the idea, looked forward to it with almost barely contained glee. Yes, he would burn in Hades for his wrong doings on this pitiful earth. A malicious leer slid across the chiseled whiskered face. Cole folded his lean arms across a wiry chest as he watched his youngest brother. Hell had better be ware.
Hades....A warm place with a nasty attitude. He belonged there and would welcome the challenge. Devlin, of course deserved better. Cole's little brother should have been spared the miserable existence they had been forced to endure. It was not to be, so no time should be wasted dwelling on it . Delvin would follow his older brother through the gates of hell. They would remain together that was all that really mattered in the end.
Cole watched contentedly as his baby brother slipped the poisonous seeds into Wilmington's saddle bags. The smell of coffee briefly overrode the aroma of the livery. A simple little seed found throughout Texas and a those few territories just north of it. Small innocuous looking things that could kill a grown man if enough were consumed. The beauty of it was not the death that they imparted but the severe illness that they wrought on their victims. To those that consumed these little gems, would fall into a realm of agony one to two days after they were eaten or drank.
Cole let a chuckle out. Oh yes, he and Devlin were going to hell but Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee would go first. Poetic justice.
Cole's twisted smile transformed into a snarl as he remembered the day his younger brother, Liam, was gut shot by the gunslingers. Donavon growled with predatory animosity. Wilmington and Larabee had gut shot his younger brother and left him to die. They did not even bother to finish him off. They shot him and left. Liam did not die easily. No sir. He was Sean Donna's son and a fighter. Liam held on for three days, slowly bleeding to death in agony as his guts and innards slowly died away, rotting inside of him. Liam died from the inside out. He lived through his torturous death. The middle brother knew he was dead the second the two slugs tore through his lower and middle abdomen. Intestines slowly leaked ingesta into the large cavity as blood seeped from the body in an ungodly slow fashion. Liam had suffered. Suffered miserably. He had been reduced to a chilled bloodless corpse with a rapid heart beat. In the end, he died crying for reprieve, begging one of his brothers to kill him.
Cole on that third day put a bullet in his younger brother's head. He ended Liam's suffering as Devlin dug the grave just on the other side of the grassy knoll.
Wilmington and Larabee were to blame. They too would suffer. They would suffer the severe abdominal pain and cramps, they would die in an agonizing manner. Neither would know the source of their illness and would continue to consume more of it until they could no longer bear to move. Yes, as the poisoned worked and their thirsts increased they would drink more of the little seeds thus cinching their own painful deaths. An eye for an eye.
Cole would not take a chance of meeting them face to face. He had lost one younger brother, he would not lose two. He had promised his loving Mother, so long ago, that he would watch over and protect her sons while she was sick. Their mother had died before Devlin celebrated his tenth birthday. The death hit their father hard. He had become an angry man, brutal. Through his brawn and relentlessness he had taught his sons self reliance, tenacity and ruthlessness. His boys had grown in his image.
Then Larabee and Wilmington entered the picture.
The Senior Donavon was shot down in a saloon brawl. Liam had fired into the crowd that gathered around the dying father. Liam had acted out of pain and blind rage. His five bullets had found three targets; some nameless cow pushers and a saloon wench had fallen to his pain. Larabee and Wilmington drew and shot Liam. Gunned him down in cold blood. Killed him mercilessly because Liam had grieved for his father.
Cole had dragged his wounded brother from the corpse of their father. Carried him home only to witness him rot from the inside out. The house had come to smell of fetid flesh. Flies had blown the wound. Despite Devlin's fight to keep Liam free from crawling flesh eating pests they came. The bugs had swarmed the wound. Devlin had tried day and night to help his brother. Cole had watched, listening to the moans and cries of his brothers. Listened as the rice like fly larva ate the dead flesh from the living corpse of his younger brother. Liam had to listen while the vermin consumed his dying flesh.
Cole had become a demon. Devlin had followed his brother out of loyalty and a passion born of hate. He too would repay Wilmington and Larabee for the atrocities that befell their family.
Devlin secured the leather bags on Wilmington's saddle, patting them quietly knowing full well what he had just done. Devlin stood the same height as his older brother. Both just at six feet. Cole was older by three years. They could have been twins. Both with dark bay colored hair, piercing blue eyes and sprinkling of freckles. Dimples would have adorned Cole's cheeks if he had smiled. There was very little in this world that brought out a smile. The impending death of the two murderers that strutted through Four Corners, enticed a feral grin to his leathered features.
His dimples came from his mother.
Devlin smiled when he remembered his mother. She had soft hands and a freckled face. Her voice was quiet and always seemed to laugh. He could not recall the specific's of her features but when he thought of her a comforting feeling blanketed him. His mother loved him tenderly a direct contrast to his father. His father was a hard man, forging his sons into men that would survive in an untamed, unruly world. At the experienced age of twenty-two, Devlin had set himself on a path of revenge and retribution. He had lost a mother to illness, a father to fight and a brother to blind cruelty.
It was time to wreak some revenge. Devlin would extract the proper form of payment from the two lawmen. He would avenge the wrongful death of his older brother. Then and maybe then Cole would return to him. After taking Wilmington and Larabee to the gates of Hell, maybe the laughing Cole that Devlin had once known would come back. It would not happen before then Devlin knew this in his heart. Cole had died the day he put a bullet in Liam. When Devlin had buried his older brother on the grassy knoll overlooking their humble homestead, the youngest knew he buried a piece of Cole too.
Larabee and Wilmington would pay, and pay in spades.
JD fumed as he tossed his knife angrily into the boardwalk. He sat in his chair tilting it back against the jail house wall. He would show Buck and Chris. JD Dunne was not the greenhorn that first jumped from the moving stage coach so many years ago. When would Buck realize that JD was no longer just a dumb city kid? The Sheriff harrumphed, probably never.
" 'Ey Kid," Tanner settled down in the chair next Dunne. He stretched out his long leather clad legs and pulled his hat down over his eyes. The sun had begun to set in the west. The comfortable spring like warmth slowly slipped from the land and the cold winter chill seemed to settle back in place. In just over an hour it would be dark out, the moon would almost be full. Tanner smiled to himself. He wondered if Buck, Chris or Ezra even realized that it would be a full moon in just a few nights. With a full moon hanging low in a spring sky, it would be possible to track them even at night. Ezra wouldn't know if it were day or night unless the sun rose and set around his gaming table. Buck might have noticed. Chris should and probably did take into account the phase of the moon. Larabee liked a challenge. Tanner would accommodate him.
He had noticed the irritation on JD's face this morning at the saloon. Everyone did but Chris and Buck. Even Ezra seemed a bit put out. That was unusual, the gambler took most things in stride, well as long as it did not directly include money. The silent insinuations between Buck and Chris had stirred ill feelings in both Dunne and Standish. The two supposed greenhorns had something to prove now. It might make Vin's job a little more difficult. JD might think he had something to prove to Vin and act rashly. Ezra, on the other hand, would be on his 'best' behavior, whatever that might be, probably just not irritating Chris to the point of murder. That would hinder Tanner somewhat. He was as shocked as everyone else when Chris volunteered to side with Standish.
Vin figured those two would bicker so much he would just have to follow a blood trail. Ezra never knew when to keep his mouth shut when it came to Larabee. It would make Vin's job a lot less difficult. Not that it was going to be terribly trying anyhow. To track three men to a predestined finishing spot would be as easy as licking melted butter off a knife. Throw Standish and Larabee into the mix and all Vin would have to do is follow the destruction that tended to ensnare the two men. With Buck and Chris's silent but not unnoticed communication it changed the circumstances. Ezra realized what was expected of him and it infuriated him. Tanner had seen it easy enough. Standish would change his behavior and mannerisms to keep his unpredictable nature intact. He would not fight with Chris. As a result there would be no blood trail, no destruction, nothing which would simply say 'Chris and Ezra fought here'. Tanner sighed it really did not matter. He would have those three spotted before the established time limit.
The tracker stole a sidelong glance at the young sheriff. JD could not hide his anger and frustration as easily as Standish.
"JD? You ok?" Tanner asked again.
Dunne glanced over a Vin briefly then leaned forward retrieving his small knife from the boardwalk. "Jist fine, why?"
"Nuthin' just want'd ta make sure yer ready fer tomorra," Tanner replied quietly settling back in his chair, "We'll have those three before they reach Devil's Canyon," Vin smiled under the brim of his hat. He followed JD with his eyes. He did not want the young man thinking Vin doubted his abilities. Dunne was a fast learner and he had great retention. If anything JD would be a big help.
"Don't worry Vin I won't mess it up fer ya," JD muttered out still seething.
"Never was," Tanner intoned quietly. As far as he was concerned the matter was taken care of, JD knew where Vin stood.
Dunne gazed at the hat shrouded sharpshooter. Vin did not seem concerned about JD riding with him. A small smile spread across JD's face. He would prove to Buck and Chris that he was just as good as them when it came to tracking.
Chris had expected to have to drag the gambler from his bed that first morning. The sun had not even crested the horizon. It was still dark out as Larabee crossed the main street, leaving the warm comforts of the boarding house heading toward the saloon to roust Standish. Larabee had wanted to drop that responsibility onto Wilmington but Buck was in the arms of Pansy bemoaning his fate. Larabee smiled in the early morning blackness. There were something's that one could always count on: the sun rising in the East, setting in the West, and Buck in the arms of a young lady.
Chris hopped up the step to the boardwalk. The hollow sound of his boots marked his passage. Chris pushed through the batwing doors and stopped in surprise.
Ezra sat drinking a cup of coffee at the bar.
Larabee paused for a brief moment. He wondered if the southerner had gone to bed at all. Funny thing about the gambler, he would sometimes rather forgo sleep if he had to be up and moving at any 'ungodly' hour of the morning.
Chris did not care for the reason. Standish was awake and apparently functional. That was enough for now.
"You ready?" Chris asked quietly. The morning had a sharp chill to it. It seemed to magnify the silence that enveloped the still sleeping town. Larabee's subdued voice rang loudly across the empty saloon.
Ezra gazed up from his coffee. This time of day was an a front to the senses. It was unnatural for him to be up and moving contemplating the day. One should be either engaged in a game of chance or nestled away comfortably under blankets in deep repose. Whatever made him join these wretches in such a fool hearty exercise?
Yes of course. There was a lot to be said for wealth.
"Lead the way," Standish tried to smile but could not find it in his heart to force undo activity on his body.
Larabee turned on his heel and headed back out into the dark morning. The street fires still struggled to hold onto what little life they had left. In an hour or so the sun would begin to glow just behind the tree line. The small blazes that lined the main street would die out leaving the dirt thorough way bathed in the grey of predawn light. Stars had begun to fade in the sky, the slight shifting of constellations marked the passage of time.
Chris entered the livery to find Buck saddling his large grey gelding. Larabee noticed Standish had actually packed and secured his saddle bags the night before. Anything to give himself a few extra minutes of sleep. If indeed he did manage to make it to bed.
"Buck," Chris said in way of greeting. He felt surprisingly good. It was almost just like old times. He and Buck hitting the trail before sun up. They normally would have been packing away a hardy lunch that Sarah ....had....packed. The momentary flash of joy sizzled with the blurry image of his beloved wife and fading son.
"Chris," Wilmington responded with a smile. Pansy was never a disappointment. "You drag Ezra's sorry ass out of bed?"
"No he did not," Standish responded entering the livery. The morning chill cut through both his coats. What ever possessed him to engage in such sophomoric games?
"'Ey Ezra," Buck boomed out happily. Wilmington turned and faced the southerner. Standish might have been up and moving but he was hardly awake.
"Don't worry pard' I packed some coffee fer ya, so yer won't have to suffer to much on the trail," Buck chuckled. They would make Devil's Canyon in no time and lose Vin and the others before the sun hit midday. Hell, if things fell according to plan Ezra would be able to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee morning and night.
Vin Tanner lay flat on his belly on the roof of the Mercantile peering down his spy glass. A humorous smirk crossed his face. The threesome headed South out of town. The tracker did not bother biting back a chuckle. Chris and Buck were acting as predicted. The comment yesterday had Ezra up out of bed before either of the other two. Tanner had to concede that the change in behavior of the gambler would be a problem. One could usually count on the southerner to slow the others up by a good ten minutes with just his complaining and general surliness in the morning. It would not be the case these next few days. Still Buck and Chris were behaving in their typical manner.
Vin was going to enjoy the next couple of days. He knew how Chris and Buck thought and figured it would not be a problem tracking them. His only hesitancy lay in obvious fact that if he knew how they thought, then it would stand to reason that Chris and Buck had a clear understanding on how Vin thought. Those two would act accordingly and change their behavior.
Tanner smiled again as he lay on the roof. This was where Standish came into play. The Southerner was a bull headed obstinate man if pushed to hard. They all were, but no one was as quick with remarks as Standish. An unfortunate trait that landed him trouble time and again with Larabee and Jackson. Standish would be the counter balance for the two other men. Chris and Buck would have to act and react without their extremist tendencies. They would modify their behavior but only to so much.
Tanner peered down the spy glass again and chuckled.
The threesome left before first light, getting a jump on the day. They headed South out of town the opposite direction of Devil's Canyon. Tanner handed the spy glass to JD who muffled yet another yawn. The kid was eager to get moving. Vin had to agree with Dunne but still they had to wait a full days light before they could start out after the others.
"Watch'em for a moment will ya JD." Vin said. Tanner rolled over onto his back and made himself a smoke. He licked the paper sealing the ends closed.
"Why Vin?" Dunne asked. He held the telescope to his eye and did as requested. Dunne would do exactly as Tanner said without argument. Vin could teach him a lot about tracking and more importantly with the Texan's help he could finally prove to Buck and Chris that he was good on the trail.
"Cuz in about ten minutes they're gonna turn left 'n' head East fer a bit before changin' direction agin 'n' head toward Devil's Canyon," Vin stated matter of factly.
JD took his eye from the spy glass stared at Tanner for a brief second and then refocused his attention.
Nine and a half minutes later the trio turned left taking an Easterly direction.
"Hot damn Vin," JD sputtered with a joyous whoop, "How'd ya know they'd do that?"
Vin still lying on his back, smiled smugly, "Chris likes ta flank things, scout'm out before he rides straight into ta somethin'." Tanner closed his eyes enjoying the winter chill that hung on the morning air. Yup, as easy as lickin' butter off a knife.
He, JD and Josiah would have those three before night fall tomorrow.
"Lit's go git ready kid," Vin said standing up. Chris, Buck and Ezra would be out of sight by now. There would be nothing left to watch except the sunrise. The two men silently disappeared through the crawl space in the roof.
A crow sat quietly on the bank roof across the street.
Buck leaned back in his saddle soaking up the late morning rays. Chris had lead them on a tortuous meandering route. They had climbed over grassy hills, rock slabs, across hard packed sage covered ground before finally swinging North West.
It promised to be another beautiful day. A few white clouds hung high in the sky. The sun warmed the air beating back the chill of the previous night and morning. Buck had peeled off his rough coat and tied it behind his saddle. A nice day indeed.
The horses kept up a brisk walk. They were in good condition and could handle this pace for most of the day. Buck knew Chris would not stop if it could be avoided. Wilmington chuckled. Larabee would ride all day and night just to reach the canyon before Vin. The horses could make it probably but getting them back out would be a trial. With watering holes drying up it there would be no point in pushing the horses to extremes.
A hawk cried out. Its shrill cut through the mid morning day comfortably breaking the silence that had blanketed the small group.
Buck had figured Ezra's mouth was just not awake yet and Chris, ahh Hell Chris wouldn't say anything just for conversation sake. The man was just plain uncommunicative when you got right down to it.
Wilmington as was his habit conversed enough for both he and Chris when they were out on the trail together. Lately Buck had JD to talk with but not today. Ezra would have to do in a pinch.
Not that conversing with the gambler was bad, not at all. It was just half the time Buck had no idea what the man was saying.
Buck swung around in his saddle and faced the conman. Standish still wore both his coats and his hat hung somewhat over his eyes effectively shielding them from the bright sunlight.
"How ya hold'n up Ezra?" Wilmington asked. His cheerful voice rang out over the clop of hooves and the creaking of leather. "Ya know Ezra the mornin' sun won't kill ya if it shines on ya," Buck continued to ramble. It felt so good to be outside. Invigorating, he had heard Mary use that word once. He would try it on Ezra, "Ain't it invigorating to be outside Ezra?"
Chris furrowed his brow as he lead the others, "Invigorating?" Where did Buck dig up that word. He was glad Standish had come along. It gave Buck someone to focus his energy on instead of Chris. Larabee actually enjoyed the banter and one sided conversations Buck and he had when ever they were out on the trail. Buck knew him so well that when Wilmington asked Larabee a question Buck would answer it for him. Chris did not mind, most times Buck answered it correctly.
Chris let a broad smile stretch across his face bringing out his dimples. Standish was not so tolerant in the mornings.
The southern drawl floated up the line, "Shut up Buck."
Buck's smile brightened, 'understood that,' he said to himself. Wilmington, undaunted, continued his dialogue with Standish.
The threesome came to slow meandering stream. Even with the promise of Spring the water traveled slowly rolling with a soft murmur within its grassy banks. Trees and brush clung to the subsisting on the water that traversed just a few feet away.
Chris nudged his black gelding into the icy water. The animal did not hesitate. It stepped boldly into the river adjusting its gate to the slippery rolling ground it now tread upon. Buck's grey leaped in with a flourish. Horse and rider feeding off of one another's enthusiasm. The dapple grey dropped its head into the water and snorted. It pranced and splashed about in the stream with its front legs shaking its head. Up ahead Chris chuckled to himself. Buck and his gelding deserved one another. That fool horse would go anywhere Wilmington asked it and would find away to amuse itself once it got there. A typical Buck.
The chestnut quarter horse paused. It really did not trust the shifting ground below the moving water. It could not see the stream bed and therefore would not obligingly step off something as stable as solid earth. Standish could not really disagree with his horse. Sometimes the animal possessed more common sense than most people. Today was not the day for attitude. He quietly asked the animal to step off the bank. The horse complied.
Chris had turned around in the saddle when he heard the pregnant pause between horses entering the stream. He watched Standish nonchalantly urge his quarter horse down off the bank. The animal did not seem to relish the water as much as the grey in front of him. Larabee let a half smile cross his face. The chestnut hung back keeping its distance from the frolicking grey. Standish did not seem to mind. Chris figured neither horse nor rider wanted to get unduly soaked.
They trudged down the middle of the stream. Conversation had been halted. The horses clomping through two feet of water made communication difficult. The stream widened out enough to accommodate two horses side by side but they retained their single file line. Tributaries fed into the larger stream occasionally Buck would ride up one disappear turn around and join up with the others. Just something to keep Vin busy.
They passed one inlet. Ezra pulled up his horse. He sat quietly for a brief moment a puzzled expression on his face. Buck and Chris both noticed the change in volume of horses moving through water. Both held their horses and swung around in their saddles.
"Ezra what are you doin'?" Buck asked. He knew it was to good to be true. It really was not anyone's fault. It just was not in Standish's nature to go along quietly with anyone. Wilmington did not bother turning to face Chris. He knew Larabee did not have the patience for this kind of hesitation. They were on a schedule and Larabee was punctual if anything.
"Are we not attempting to gain Devil's Canyon?" Standish asked slightly confused.
"Yeah so come'n," Buck said.
Chris held his tongue. He would let Wilmington handle this little episode. Larabee figured his time would come soon enough. Maybe he should have just ignored Josiah.
"Yes, well if that is the case then why are we not taking this route?" Standish asked again indicating to the tributary he now stood before.
"Cuz this is the way to Devil's Canyon," Buck answered.
Chris sat back in this saddle and watched the gambler. Ezra had kept his mouth shut all morning and had been cooperative. Why would he suddenly change tactics? If he stalled to much then he ran the risk of losing the bet. That would be unacceptable to the conman. No something was definitely in the making.
Buck squinted his eyes at the southerner. Standish was up to something.
"What are you gettin' at Ezra," Chris edged his horse quietly back up the rocky steam bed.
"I know for a fact that this," he indicated to the small rapidly moving stream to his left, "minor tributary springs from Devil's Canyon." His green eyes belied the quiet confidence in his voice.
Chris merely raised his eye brows in askance. Buck shrugged. This was new to him but he was open to ideas. He and Chris had rode all through this territory and knew it forward and backward. There was not a trail that they had not traversed. This was something new.
"Gentlemen, gentleman," Standish let a devilish smile tweak his face offering only a hint of his dimples, "trust me."
Buck shut his eyes and groaned and Chris shook his head in dismay.
Standish saw this and sighed. He leaned his wrists on his saddle horns and slumped forward, "Your lack of faith is disturbing," His smile never faltered.
Sanchez's words came back to haunt Larabee. Chris swore silently, he really hoped to avoid such situations.
"What makes you so sure?" Larabee would hear the explanation first and then make a decision.
Ezra cocked his head slightly and sighed again, "Well if you recall the unfortunate disagreement between Mr. Sanchez and myself a few weeks back?"
Buck interrupted him, "Ya mean the time you took money from the poor box?" Wilmington thought that had to be the lowest move a person could pull.....until he heard the reason behind it.
"I did not steal the money," Standish bit out trying to hide his sudden anger. The short sightedness of his compatriots was appalling.
"Ya took it without ask'n," Buck pointed out. Something's were just plain wrong no matter how you looked at it. Ezra really crossed the line on that fool stunt. It paid off in the end but the hell he lived through before it turned right could not have been worth it. Wilmington amended his thoughts. For Ezra yes the monetary gain would definitely make dancing with the Devil worth his efforts.
"Only because if I had asked Mr. Sanchez would have said 'No," Standish returned. He had acted purely for the good of others....with only slight profit for himself. Why did no one else understand the motivations that resulted in such positive results? One could not hope to survive on a dollar a day and thrive, even if room and board were thrown into the deal. Some times a person had to stretch the flimsy, shifting boundaries of right and wrong to create opportunities. Ezra had serendipitously dipped into the 'collection box' removed a tiny sum and converted it into a moderately large sum, in a relatively short time span. What could possibly be wrong with such actions? The money had been returned and then some. Josiah's collections had nearly tripled as a direct result of Standish's intervention. Instead of being praised, Ezra found himself on the receiving end of just about everyone's righteous indignation. The only one not to openly judge him was Chris Larabee. Standish found very little comfort in the older man's silence. Chris tended to use lead as a language medium.
"Enough," Chris said. He had heard these same arguments six weeks ago. He did not need to relive them. "What's your point Ezra?" He would strangle Josiah the next time he saw him.
"Well if you gentlemen remember correctly you suggested that perhaps it would be within my best interest to make myself somewhat scarce for a short time," Ezra reminded them.
"We told ya ta git out of town before Josiah killed ya," Buck said. Sanchez was ready to rip the southerner apart limb by limb. Josiah could be down right scary when properly riled.
"Yes well I could not go to Eagle Bend, Bitter Creek is more than a week away and..." Standish was saying but was interrupted by Chris's tired.
"Git to the point Ezra," The man could not answer a simple question straight forward.
"I thought it best to cover my tracks somewhat," Ezra continued undaunted by the glares, "in case you gentlemen were unable to restrain Mr. Sanchez. I stumbled across this little stream and it lead to Devil's Canyon." A sly smile lit up his face and he added, "in a most convoluted manner."
Chris frowned muffling his chuckle and nodded his head. Buck laughed. Both men swept their arms in an outward manner, "lead the way," Chris chuckled.
Chaucer, familiar with the watery trail gamely trod up the quick moving stream. Buck and Chris fell in behind the gambler sharing amused glances. The Gambler might be a bonus after all.
JD checked the saddle bags one more time. He ran through all the gear. Nothing was going to slow them down. Cinches were good, bridles intact. The few leather ties that were worn were replaced. He rechecked their supplies a for a third time. There was no way Buck was going to win this bet.
No way at all.
JD finished double checking Josiah's massive saddle. Dunne had to struggle just to lift it. No wonder Sanchez' had such a huge horse. JD chuckled, wondering why it did not have a swayed back.
The sun would be setting in a little over an hour. Things were ready. Vin said they would be able to track them at night and get a jump on the other three. A bright smile lit up JD's face. He could just picture Bucks face when they caught them. Haa, it would be priceless. Dunne was already trying to figure out how to rub the older man's taunting face in it. JD laughed, Yes sir, they were going to find Buck and Chris in no time. No time at all.
The young sheriff left the livery heading over toward the saloon. Josiah would be there now. The large ex-preacher had been working on the church roof with Nathan. They had lost quite a few shakes with the last wind storm. Sanchez had been making some wood shingles throughout the winter to keep himself busy and indoors. Good thing he did, it would seem they would be using all of them to replace the ones ripped up by the last couple of gales.
Dunne hopped up the saloon steps and pushed his way into the wood heated establishment.
Cole and Devlin stood leaning on the bar enjoying their whiskey. Devlin watched his older brother. Today was the first time Cole had actually laughed in a long time. It reminded the young man of his mother. Cole had her eyes and smile but their fathers disposition. Devlin loved his Pa, admired him too. He was a tough man, though, fierce with his sons. His rugged features had become edged with anger with the passing of his wife. Devlin sighed. He caught a reflection of himself in the saloon mirror. His image held more of their Sire. Though the youngest Donavon did not appear a day over his birthday he carried the sharpness given to him naturally by his father. His heart however, fell in line with his mother's. A gentle creature only wanting what was best for her three boys.
Devlin only yearned to heal his oldest brother. If killing Wilmington and Larabee were the only way to do it then so be it. Let the two gun slingers writher in agony as Liam had done. Let them put bullets in their heads to end their suffering. Let them writher in agony as Liam had done. Let them cry for a merciful death. Devlin silently wondered if Larabee had the strength and love for Wilmington to end his suffering. Would blond gunslinger put a stop to the horrific agony Wilmington was sure to endure? Would Wilmington be able to push Larabee passed the pain and torture of a slow death and end it quickly? Would they have Cole's strength and determination?
If this could bring Cole back. If this would lighten the heart of the eldest Donavon then Devlin would see it done. He wanted his brother back by his side. Devlin was tired of the hateful shell that his oldest brother had become since Liam died.
"We got'em good didn't we Cole?" Devlin said smiling into his shot glass. He glanced at his brother hoping to see a trace of a smile.
"Yup sure did Dev." The oldest boy intoned. "Got'em good." Cole was not interested in what Devlin had to say. Instead he concentrated on his whisky. He had planned on riding out at first light and watching the festivities from a far. The more he sat ,the more he contemplated on leaving this evening.
JD sat at a table behind the two brothers. He had ignored them when he had first sat down. His interest had become piqued. They looked like trouble. They were not much older than himself but they had an air of danger. Buck had always said that those who did not care about consequences were the most dangerous. They would not care who they killed, how they killed or if they themselves were killed. It was those criminals that were unpredictable and thus very dangerous. Those who moved about the world with no conscience. JD had not been sure what Buck was talking about until now.
Those two men were exactly what Buck had tried to describe to him. Those two at the bar were young, wild and unpredictable. Trouble would follow in their trail like a whirlwind.
Dunne sat quietly listening for more conversation. He would have to warn Nathan and maybe convince Josiah to stay behind. If it sounded bad enough maybe he and Vin would forgo the hunt and watch these two. Chris and Buck would understand. Ezra? He would just assume he won the pot and keep all the money himself. Well, he would try at least.
Devlin sipped on his drink. He never really liked the sting of whiskey. He had always preferred beer. Cole liked the rot gut and therefore Devlin would follow his lead.
"Think Larabee or Wilmington will know what hit'em?"
Trying not to react to the simple question took all of JD's will power. He needed more information.
"Nope," Cole answered into his glass. He swiveled his eyes toward his baby brother and realized the kid needed more attention. Cole has promised his momma he would look after the younger two. He had with Liam to a certain extent. He had ended Liam's suffering. Devlin deserved better. The youngest needed more of his time. Cole sighed. He only wanted to drink in silence. It was not to be with Devlin around. The damn kid had to much energy, to many questions and constantly needed reassurance. The oldest Donavon loved his brother dearly. Sometimes however he just wished he could gag the kid on occasions: like now.
"Nah Dev, they ain't gonna have a clue," Cole set his drink down and faced his only living relative. There was no one else in the saloon accept the pretty Mexican barmaid down at the other end and some green horn kid with long hair.
Cole gave his brother his full attention and smiled, "but we're gonna make sure they know who done it," His smile was wicked, " right before they beg for mercy."
Devlin smiled with his brother. Good ole Cole was almost back with him. It would be just like old times well without their Pa or Liam. That was ok, Cole and him would be family again and go back to living a normal life.
"Ya gonna put a bullet in'em Cole?" Devlin asked He really did not care. Truth be told he just wanted to ride out of the territory knowing the two lawmen were going to die. He did not want to witness their deaths. He had witnessed enough death for a life time. It made Cole happy talking about it so Devlin would do so to keep his brother in good spirits.
"I don't know Dev. maybe," the eldest answered, his eyes fell to JD. The greenhorn kid did not seem to interested in their conversation. Good Cole would hate to have to kill an innocent. He would if he had too but if it could be avoided it would be best.
"When do ya think they'll drink the coffee?" Devlin asked hoping this train of thought would keep Cole's black mood from coming back. Cole had been a living demon since Liam died. Sometimes he actually frightened Devlin. He knew his older brother would never hurt him it was just sometimes he got this look in his eyes. It was almost as if the Devil himself used Cole's eyes to survey the world. It left a chill in Devlin.
"Probably tonight." A leer crawled across the face bringing out one dimple. Devlin smiled half heartily. Ma had dimples just like that when she smiled.
Dunne kept his head down absently running his small knife around his finger nails trying to dislodge the dirt and grime that had accumulated there over the past few days. His heart raced. He caught his breath. What had those two done to Buck and Chris? Oh my God. Buck! JD kept his seat. He could not tip his hand now. He could feel the eyes of the older one on him, watching him for a reaction.
Unpredictable. Buck would call them unpredictable and therefore dangerous...deadly.
JD calmly ran the blade down the edge of his left index finger. He drew blood as he unconsciously increased the pressure trying to keep shaking fingers under control.
"Ya wanna go watch and see'em drink it?" Devlin put a hint of excitement in his voice. He wanted to go home now. The poison was in the coffee. The two law men would drink it and suffer then hopefully die. It was enough for Devlin. Cole needed more, however, so the youngest brother offered his support and enthusiasm.
"Sure Dev." Cole sighed, so much for a quiet night of drinking. It would be a full moon tonight. Besides the brothers had tailed the two lawmen and gambler until they headed up the tiny tributary. They would not be hard to find.
JD kept his head down but watched as the two men exited the saloon. He waited until the rhythmic clunk of the saloon doors slowed and came to rest.
Dunne was out of his chair like a shot, "Inez where's Vin?"
Inez gazed up from wiping down glasses, "Senor?" She asked a smile faltering on her lips as she saw the anxiety in the young man's face.
"Where's Vin and the others?" JD nearly shouted. Why didn't she just tell them and quit wiping the glass. Buck was out there and maybe hurt.
"Right here Brother Dunne," Josiah's baritone voice boomed across the saloon. Vin and Nathan were beside them.
"We've got to ride," JD stammered running passed them.
"Whoa pard' we got to give them a full days light," Vin answered a smile on his face. The kid was just dying to catch Buck and prove himself.
"No we can't" JD's eyes were wild. Fear emanated off him like a physical being. Dunne tried to pull his arm free but Vin's grip was firm.
"Why don't ya slow down and tell us what's wrong," Jackson asked. From the near hysterical look in JD's eyes one could assume something happened to Buck.
Nathan knew it. It would not last. With the other six gone he hoped for a peaceful three days. They would probably get banged up on the trail come home needing tending but for three days Jackson had figured on having some peace. Apparently his plans just crumbled in on themselves. How could those three grown men have gotten themselves into trouble? Jackson paused in his ruminations. How would JD know if they did? The young Sheriff would never cheat. He was too honest. Ezra, now that snake he would cheat the wings off an angel if he thought he could get away with it. The man was exasperating.
"We don't have time," JD implored. Why weren't they moving?
"Time for what JD?" Vin asked. The kid was lathered up about something big.
"They poisoned the coffee I think," JD explained. Don't they get it. They had to ride now. Oh Gawd Buck always made the coffee. Chris and the others always drank it at night too. Ezra normally sipped at it and threw it out. He hated Buck's coffee. The gambler would be alright. Thank goodness. Maybe Standish would be able to help them. "Ezra will probably be ok," JD amended.
"Son sit down and start at the beginning," Josiah forced the boy into a chair. The young never made sense. They were always rushing off to do something foolish and rash.
JD saw that he was not getting anywhere with them. He quickly complied and dove into the tale.
Buck rested the tin coffee pot on the edge of the small flame. It sat on a flat river rock that he had carried up from a few yards away. The sun had just set. Vin and the others would be on their trail by tomorrow. Wilmington smiled. JD would be driving everybody crazy tonight. The kid would be bouncing off the walls. He should have made a bet with Ezra on whether or not Vin would convince Nathan to drug the kid. Buck smiled at the thought.
Vin was in for a real awakening. Tanner was good second to none most likely, when it came to tracking. There was not a fugitive the bounty hunter could not hound to the earth. Buck smiled. Vin had never had to track Chris or Buck. Hell even Ezra had a trick up his sleeve, probably kept it right next to that blasted Ace Buck knew to live up there too. Damn gambler. Wilmington shook his head slightly getting his thoughts back in order.
Yup ole Vin would be scratching his head over this one. Boy Buck would be able to gloat over this one for months.
"'Ey Ezra ya gut yer mug, coffee's 'bout ready," Wilmington smiled through the groans from the southerner. Standish professed to despise his coffee but he always took a cup.
Ezra moaned theatrically. Wilmington made the worst coffee known to man. Vin one time had tried to make a stick stand up in the swill. It had almost worked. Standish climbed to his feet and shuffled the few feet to Wilmington. It was never polite to refuse an offer. Buck was proud of his coffee. Ezra could not fathom why. Etiquette dictated he should take a cup. Ezra did.
Larabee grabbed his tin as well. He could never figure out why Standish always accepted a cup. The man just slipped into the night and dumped most of it out. Chris figured it had something to do with manners. Proper manners verse lying, the scales did not balance evenly in the gunslingers eyes. Larabee did not waste much time on it. Nathan did and vocally too, until Vin quietly pointed out that Ezra did in fact have scruples they were just different than most other peoples.
Chris was not sure what Vin was getting at but Larabee was thankful for the quiet observation. It kept Jackson from badgering the conman and Ezra from retaliating.
They had made good time today. Standish's little short cut had saved them some distance and covered their tracks exceedingly well. Chris murmured a 'thanks' as Buck filled his cup. They would risk a fire tonight, it would be their 'marker' for Vin in the morning.
If Vin found this spot.
Larabee had to concede that Vin would most likely be on them like fleas on a dog. The aloof tracker had an almost sixth sense about these kind of things. Once or twice Chris could have sworn he caught Vin testing the air, trying to smell out their elusive fugitives. Larabee kept his comments to himself.....afraid of what the answer might be if he had actually asked Vin. What if the sharpshooter could actually catch scent of his prey?
Chris sat down on his bed roll and leaned against his saddle. He wrapped his long fingers around the cup. With the setting of the sun the winter chill recaptured the land. Larabee smiled trying to picture Vin leading JD and Josiah on the trail. Josiah would be silent or maybe offer some insight into something only he could see. Sometimes Sanchez just plain confused Chris.
JD, he would be talking non stop. They would not be going fast enough, how did Vin know which way to go? How could Vin be so sure if they were on the right trail? What made Vin think they went this way? A chuckle escaped from Chris as he brought the steaming mug to his lips. Larabee figured he should have made a bet with Standish as to whether or not Tanner would actually gag the kid.
Chris sipped the coffee. It was hot. And.... This coffee was rancid. "AHHH gawd Buck," Larabee hissed out. He spit his coffee on the ground and held the cup away from himself as if it had the pox. "This is terrible," Larabee spit a few more times just for good measure.
"My sentiments exactly Mr. Larabee," Ezra sing songed from across the small fire. Standish held the cup to his lips and took a few obligatory sips. Manners always dictate that you try something before admitting a dislike to it. Ezra hated Buck's coffee. He was ready to spit the thickened swill out just to mimic Larabee. Instead the gambler found the coffee to be surprisingly good. He raised his eyebrows in shock and took another sip. He had to have been wrong. No, it was actually good.
Ezra was pulled from his shock when Buck tossed the contents of his cup out, "Awwgghhh, that is foul," Wilmington gagged out. "Gawd Chris I'm sorry," Buck stood up still spitting trying to cleanse his mouth of the bitter taste that covered it.
"Actually I must confess Mr. Wilmington this is some of the finest coffee you have ever made," Standish said sipping yet again at the soothing liquid.
Buck and Chris exchanged glances, "The pot's yours then Ezra," Wilmington said. What had happened to his coffee? It was one of the few things Buck could brag about that did not involve women. Buck headed down to the river to wash out his and Chris's cups. It was the least he could do for almost poisoning his oldest friend with such foul swill.
Ezra sat back against his saddle. What a pleasant bonus, finally some good coffee.