There is something about inevitability, you always *know* that something that is inevitable is, just that: inevitable.
It was inevitable that someday the seven of us would part ways.
It was inevitable that someday *genuine* lawmen would come looking for a man wanted for murder.
It was inevitable that someday we would each have to make a choice.
All of this flashed through my mind in the seconds it took me to grab my saddlebags, throw the few things that I truly value into them, pick up my always-packed carpetbag and ghost down the back steps of the saloon.
A mere moment before, Judge Travis had stepped down from the stage, grim-faced and appearing ten years older than he had the last time he had graced our little burg with his presence a mere thirty days ago. He had then turned back to face the man that stepped down behind him.
That man stood tall and straight, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted with a tied-down gun slung low on his hip and a US Marshal's badge on his chest.
The fact that he arrived with the judge told me that he was the genuine article.
The look on the judge's face told me that he was here for Vin Tanner.
In the space of a heartbeat inevitability raised its head and galvanized me into motion.
While they still stood in the street deciding where to go first, I reached Vin's wagon, slid under it, popped the hidden catch on the hidden compartment, caught up the small carved-wood box that occupied it and rolled back out from under the wagon. I grabbed up my saddlebags, slinging them over my shoulder and after shoving the wooden box into my carpetbag grabbed it up and moved on.
As they crossed the street to the jail, I headed for the livery, gliding like a shadow down the back street.
I don't know where they were when I led Chaucer out the back door of the livery and slipped away from town, but I presume that they were still at the jail.
I could but hope that JD would keep them occupied for as long as possible.
I put a ridge between me and the town, then circled around town, headed for Nettie Wells place, hoping to catch Vin before he arrived there. While he would hate not getting to say goodbye to her or any of our other friends, he wouldn't want to put her into the position of having to lie to the Marshal should they ask if she had seen him today.
As soon as I was far enough from town that the dust plume would not be seen, I gave Chaucer his head and let him run, while memories of the moments that had led to this inevitable moment danced through my head.
Vin Tanner and I do not talk about this *thing* between us. We've never so much as mentioned *it*, yet *it* is there, like an elephant in the parlor, that is studiously ignored.
The first time that Vin and I made our bedrolls into one and slept together it was a matter of survival. We were returning from delivering a prisoner to a mining town in the mountains above Four Corners and got caught in an unseasonable blizzard. Our only shelter was a shallow cave, barely large enough for our horses and ourselves. There was no room for a fire had we been able to find wood to build one. There was no choice but to put our bedrolls together and share body heat if we wanted to survive the night. We hung one of our oilcloth ground sheets across the narrow opening of the cave to try and keep as much of the cold out as we could and huddled together against the back wall of the cave. We must have slept at some point as we woke the next morning wrapped tightly around each other.
We never spoke of it. Just got up and headed out as if nothing had happened. But the next night, camped in a much larger cave, with a fire sufficient to warm us, Vin again made our bedrolls into one.
I did not object.
That night we turned to each other before sleep claimed us. Our hands wandered, stroking, exploring and arousing, until we freed our erections and moved together in an age-old rhythm. Moans and grunts were the only sounds that accompanied our completion.
Not a word passed between us.
That was more than a year ago. Our encounters are irregular and infrequent, occurring only when we are on the trail alone and in a secure campsite. They are never spoken of.
I haven't a clue how he will react to my presumptive actions of this day.
But I will soon find out.
As I top the ridge a mile from Nettie's, I see him. He's much too far away for me to recognize anything more than the shape of that old cavalry hat and buckskin jacket atop that big black that he rides.
I stick two fingers in my mouth and whistle loud and shrill, knowing he will turn to look and easily recognize my red coat and the horse I ride. If he has any doubts, he'll pull out his spyglass and make certain that it's me.
I am somewhat heartened by the fact that he does not need to check but turns and guides Peso towards me without hesitation.
I'm less'n a mile from Nettie's. It's been a real quiet patrol, no problems out this way a'tall when I hear a sharp whistle and turn to see Ezra barrelin' down the ridge towards me. He's give Chaucer his head and that long-legged hoss is runnin' full out.
I know right then that somethin's real bad wrong.
I turn Peso's head and angle to meet up with him.
Soon as I come even with him, he pulls Chaucer to a stop n' I see right off that he's kitted up for a long ride, like he's heading out and ain't coming back. For a man that sure seems to love the sound of his own voice, he can speak plain when he's of a mind to.
He don't waste no breath telling me what's up.
"Mister Tanner, Judge Travis arrived not an hour ago with a US Marshal in tow. From the expression on the Judge's face I can but assume that the Marshal is here to take you back to Texas."
"You sure that he's here for me?"
"As I did not stop to ask, I cannot be one hundred percent certain, but I would definitely say the odds are strongly in favor of your being his reason for coming here."
I can't argue with that. I let out a sigh and turn to cast a longing look towards Nettie's. It sure would be nice to be able to say good bye.
Then I look back towards town, "I need to get something from my wagon."
Ezra opens the carpetbag hanging from his saddle horn and reaches inside.
"This?" he asks holding out the box I keep in the secret compartment under my wagon.
I'm right grateful to see it, it holds everything that I have left of my family. My ma's bible's in it and her daddy made the box for me after she passed on. I'm real glad to not have to try to sneak back into town to get it, but I can't help but wonder how he knew where it was or that I'd want it.
"Your wagon is parked beneath my window, Mister Tanner, a window I often sit at. Most people, even you, seldom look up when looking for anyone that might be watching them. I've seen you fetch this many times. It obviously means a great deal to you and you clearly kept it somewhere beneath the wagon. I thought you would want it and I did not think it wise for you to return for it. I have an affinity for secret hiding places so recovering it for you was not difficult."
"Thanks, Ez. Reckon you better head on back now." I say, seeming to ignore the fact that he's clearly ready to ride out with me. "The others'll be wondering where you are."
"I fear it is too late for me to return, even if I were wont to do so. My absence has surely been noted by now and the reason for it assumed." He grins that cocky grin of his and says, "Besides, a man on the run needs someone to watch his back and it's all the better if that someone has made plans to ensure a clean get away."
"You're a good friend, Ez, but runnin' with me could cost you yer life."
"Running alone could cost you yours." He pauses, hesitating then asks, "Is 'good friends' all we are, Vin?"
I look away, but not because I don't understand the question. I surely do understand it, but because he says my name the way he says my name in the darkness when he doesn't even realize he's saying it, all soft and tender like. It makes my heart ache with longing, with wanting him to always say my name like that.
I turn back to him and look him in the eyes when I say, "Reckon we been more'n friends for a while now, but you're givin' up everything. You need to be sure."
He meets me head on, speaking plain and simple. "I'm giving up nothing. You are everything to me. I ask nothing of you. However, if you will permit it, I would stay at your side for the rest of my days, come what may."
He couldn't have been any plainer than that. I have to swallow before I can speak, my throat is tight and tears threaten. I had never dared to hope that he might care as deeply for me as I have come to care for him. Finally I nod and give him a smile in return as I say, "I'd be right proud to have you at my side, Ez."
He relaxes, looking real pleased and smiles at me.
I turn Peso's head away from town. "Now, you said somethin' about a plan?"
He laughs and urges Chaucer past me. "Indeed I did. Follow me, Mister Tanner."
I laugh real soft like and follow him.
It is a most unpleasant duty that brings me to Four Corners today.
I've known about the bounty on Vin Tanner's head for some time, but have chosen to ignore it. I've always believed myself to be a good judge of character and I don't believe the man to be capable of murder. That along with some inquires that I made about the situation, inquires that seemed to indicate that Tanner had no choice but to run or be lynched, has led me to ignore the bounty as long as no one made an issue of it.
However, once Marshal Bricken came to see me, bringing a warrant for Tanner, formally informing me of the charges against him in Texas and demanding that I hand him over to be taken back for trial, I was left with little choice.
As an officer of the court I cannot ignore the warrant. I can, however, and fully intend to, make sure that the trial is fair. I will accompany Mister Tanner to Texas and appear as a character witness. I am sure that his fellow regulators will as well.
Unfortunately, I fear that won't be enough. Jess Kincaid's father is mayor of Tascosa and his brothers are prominent there as well. They are all eager to see Tanner hang and I doubt that character witnesses will dissuade them without empirical evidence of his innocence.
The law says that a man is innocent until proven guilty, unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. In this case I fear that proof of innocence will be required and we don't have it. There is little that I can do about it, as I have no jurisdiction and no authority in Texas.
I turn back to face Bricken. "I suggest we start at the sheriff's office. If Tanner isn't there, Sheriff Dunne should know where he is."
"You know where he hangs his hat?"
"Room and board is included in his pay. He has a room at the boardinghouse." I reply, ignoring the fact that Tanner seldom uses it. "But he is an early riser so I doubt that he is there."
Bricken nods and we head across the street to the sheriff's office.
I'm pouring myself a cup of coffee from the pot that is always sitting on the jailhouse stove, half listening to JD ramble on about some thing or other that Buck did yesterday when I hear heavy footsteps on the jail porch.
I turn to face the door, shifting the coffee cup to my left hand and letting the right just naturally move down, resting on the butt of my gun.
Travis steps through the door, looking old and drawn.
I know why when the man behind him steps through: US Marshal Michael Bricken.
I've run across him a few times, know his rep both as a lawman: tough but honest, and as a gunman: fast and deadly. He may be as good as I am, he may not be. We've never had to find out.
I hope we're not going to have to find out today. He's a good man. I'd hate to have to kill him.
The judge looks to me first then turns to address JD, "Sheriff Dunne, this is Marshal Bricken. He has a warrant for the arrest of Vin Tanner for the crime of murder in the sovereign state of Texas."
JD springs to his feet, "But, but Vin didn't do it!" he blurts out.
Bricken steps around the judge, "Not my place to decide guilt or innocence, just take him back for trial."
"But they'll hang him! They don't care that he didn't do it." JD argued, "They just wanna hang somebody and Vin was the one that brought Kincaid's body in so they figure to hang him!"
"Judge?" I speak up.
He turns to face me, "I'm sorry Chris, there's nothing that I can do. He has a warrant. It's legal. He's a legitimate Marshal, not like Yates. I have no jurisdiction or authority in the matter. We're just lucky that it's Marshal Bricken we're dealing with and not someone who would prefer to take a body back."
"Taking him back is a good as hanging him. Kincaid's folks are real eager for a hanging and they run Tascosa."
"I'll argue for a change of venue."
"Won't do no good if they lynch him." I state.
Bricken speaks up, "What's your interest in this, Larabee?"
"Vin Tanner is a friend of mine," I state simply.
He knows what it means. I'll stand by Tanner, come hell or high water.
We stand there for a moment measuring each other then the judge steps between us. "Perhaps we could speak with Mister Tanner," he suggests. "I know he wants to clear his name. He may be willing to return to Texas to attempt to do so."
JD and I exchange a look but say nothing.
"Gentlemen," the judge says, "where is Mister Tanner?"
JD looks to me.
I sigh and say, "He's on patrol. Should be back in an hour or so."
"Perhaps we could ride out to meet him," Bricken suggests, indicating that he's not ready to fight me over this just yet but neither is he willing to just sit here and wait for Vin to ride back in.
JD is still looking at me but I keep my eyes on Bricken. After a minute I nod, "Reckon we could."
Bricken turns towards the door. I follow him, pausing to give JD a look that tells him to gather up the others and meet us at the livery.
He bolts out the back as I join Bricken on the sidewalk and head towards the livery.
I knew Larabee would be here. I've heard all about the Magnificent Seven as they're called. That's why I went to Travis before coming here, hoping that his authority would forestall any gunplay when I came for Tanner.
I was surprised that Larabee offered as little resistance as he did. He doesn't seem quite the hardened, uncaring gunman that his reputation prior to his arrival here had made him out to be and he is clearly loyal to Tanner. Still I'd rather avoid a confrontation with him if possible. One thing that hasn't changed is his reputation with a gun.
I'm not really surprised that by the time I've negotiated for a horse with the livery owner and gotten it saddled, Sheriff Dunne and three other men have joined us.
They saddle their horses in relative silence.
I frown as I realize that someone is missing. There should be five besides Larabee and Tanner.
It's Larabee that turns to Dunne, "You see Standish?"
"Couldn't find him. Wasn't in the saloon." He gestured towards a stall in the back. "Chaucer's gone."
Larabee only nods. "Saw that."
Dunne starts to say something else but a tiny shake of Larabee's head stops him.
I note that, remembering the way Dunne kept looking to Larabee at the jail.
Dunne may wear the badge but Larabee is clearly in charge.
Larabee rides up beside me as we head out. "Vin usually stops for lunch at Nettie Wells place when he does the morning patrol. He's most likely there now."
We head out at a fair pace, following the road. We're not traveling as fast as I'd like, but I'm seriously out numbered here and decide that it's best not to make an issue of it.
If Standish has gone to warn Tanner and the man has made a run for it, I'll just have to hunt him down. I've been a lawman too long to let it upset me. Some days you get your man, some days you don't, but sooner or later someone will bring Tanner in. I hope that Larabee and his men understand that it's better for all concerned if I'm the one that takes him back.
There are a lot of bounty hunters out there that prefer to take a body in anytime that the poster says dead or alive.
I'm getting a mite worried. Vin's never been this late stopping by on his rounds. He knows that I expect him for lunch and he's not the kind to make me worry by being late when he's told me that he'll be here.
He's near an hour late when I hear horses coming up the road from the direction of town.
I fetch my old Spencer carbine and stand on the porch to meet whoever it is.
It's the boys, as I think of the seven men that protect our town.
Vin isn't with them. Neither is that gambler fella, Standish, but a stranger is. He's wearing a Marshal's badge and I know right off why Vin isn't with them.
I don't lower my carbine.
"Mrs. Wells," Larabee acknowledges, tipping his hat.
The others tip theirs as well, even that marshal.
"Mr. Larabee," I know I don't sound pleased to see him.
He gets right to it, "Has Vin been here?"
He's already noted that Peso isn't tied up at the hitching post or running around in the corral.
"No." I give him the short answer.
"Are you sure, ma'am?" The stranger asks.
I glare at him. "I'm sure. He was supposed to stop by but didn't."
"He could have run into some trouble on patrol," Sanchez puts in.
"Or Standish could have ridden out to warn him that I'm here," the marshal snapped.
I'm secretly hoping that fancy man did warn Vin off, but all I say is, "Either way he's not here." I gesture with the carbine. "Now get off my land."
They tip their hats again and turn to go.
I watch until they're back on the road, then set the Spencer down and sink in to the old rocker on the porch.
We always knew someday someone would come for Vin but I'd hoped to get to say goodbye.
The old woman clearly sets store by Tanner and that Spencer carbine may be old but she obviously knows how to use it and isn't afraid to.
I'm beginning to understand why no one has been able to bring Tanner in. It's not just the six men that he rides with. The community sets store by him as well.
I draw up once we're back on the road. "I take it there is a set patrol route?"
Larabee nods and tips his head down the road, in the direction that we were headed before we turned in at Mrs. Wells. "He'd have been coming from that direction. Cody Porter's old place would have been his last stop before this one. There's no one living there now, house was burned but the barn's still standing and he'd have checked for squatters."
We move on down the road in that direction. About a mile along I see where someone left the road, cutting across the open prairie at speed. Following the tracks with my gaze I see that it meets up with another set of tracks, coming down off a ridge.
The horse coming down the ridge, from the direction of town, was running, there are clumps of grass torn up by its hooves and flung to the side of the tracks.
I rein up and point the tracks out. "Looks like he met up with someone here."
"Those don't have to be Vin's tracks." Dunne declares defensively.
"I think I'm going to assume that they are. He never showed up at the Wells place. Those other tracks are coming from the direction of town and the horse is running. Looks to me like Standish hightailed it out here to warn him off. The rest of you can do what you want but I think I'll follow this trail. See where it takes me."
I turn my horse's head and start to follow the tracks to where the two horses met up.
Behind me, I hear Larabee say, "JD. Vin's been teaching you to track. You know Chaucer and Peso's tracks. See if it's them."
Dunne doesn't answer but he quickly passes me and arrives at the point were the two horses met up ahead of me.
He's squatted down looking at the tracks when I dismount and squat beside him.
He doesn't speak to me.
Larabee rides up says, "Well?"
Dunne stands, turning to him, putting his back to me. "Yeah," he says with a heavy sigh. "Chaucer came down off the ridge at a run. Met up with Peso here then headed out thataway." He gestures to the southwest.
Larabee sits still for just a minute then says, "JD, you and," he hesitates, looking around at the men, "Nathan, head back to town. The rest of us will ride with Marshal Bricken."
Dunne straightens and lifts his head, his chin coming up. "No," he says stubbornly. "I'm the sheriff. I'm coming with you."
"You're the sheriff is why you're staying in town," Larabee counters. "Protecting the town is what you get paid for."
Dunne doesn't back down, "Won't be the first time we've all ridden out. Won't be the last."
Larabee shrugs, "Suit yourself." He looks at the colored man. "Nathan?"
"I'm coming with ya'll," the Negro states.
Larabee shakes his head but says, "All right then."
I turn and start following the tracks. I'm a better than average tracker and while I doubt that Dunne would try to lead me off the trail I'm not going to risk it by letting him do the tracking.
The two men are moving at a trot. Having been part of more than one posse they know that gait is the best for the long haul. It covers ground quickly without exhausting the horses. We might be able catch up with them if we pushed harder but it's unlikely that we'd do so before we exhausted our own horses.
Truthfully, I doubt that we've going to catch up to them today. We aren't kitted up for a long haul. Once I get an idea of which way they're headed, I'll have to find somewhere to pick up supplies and possibly another horse. The livery nag is okay for a day or two, but I prefer to buy a horse if I'm looking at a long hunt.
Ez said that he had a plan and as we ride out he tells me a bit about it. It's a good one. If it works out, we should be clear without anybody getting hurt.
The first part of the plan involves stopping at off at a cache that he's set up and picking up supplies.
"Shouldn't we be hiding our trail, Ez?"
He laughs. "No. The plan depends on their being able to follow us to a certain point. I'll let you know when we need to begin hiding our trail."
I nod. Ezra's as sly as a fox and cunnin' as an old coyote, if he says they need to follow us to a certain point then that's that.
It's near two hours later that we come to the mouth of a small canyon. The opening's been closed off with a brush fence since the last time that I was by this way.
Ezra dismounts and takes a minute looking along one side of it, before finding the place it's supposed to open and swinging a gate make of lashed together brush to one side.
I ride through and Chaucer follows. Ezra closes the gate and remounts.
He leads the way along the canyon floor until we reach a spot below a small cave in the canyon wall. He dismounts again and puts two fingers in his mouth, whistling loud and clear, several times.
It's a few minutes before I hear horses coming towards us from the other end of the canyon.
Meanwhile, Ezra has climbed up to the cave and is dragging something out of it.
I go to help him and see that he has a couple of packsaddles and two riding saddles.
By the time that we get the saddles down to the canyon floor, four horses have joined Peso and Chaucer. They're all big bays. Two of them have some white markings, the other two don't.
Ezra goes to pet and talk to them, passing out sugar cubes from his pocket as he introduces me and Peso to them. Then he suggests that I bring down the supplies while he saddles them up.
He puts one of the packsaddles on the bay with a white star on its face and the other on the one with two white stockings on its forelegs. The riding saddles go on the two without markings.
They're all fine looking animals. From the open bags of oats and other grains in the cave I figure that he's been making regular trips out to feed them grain. Grain-fed horses have more stamina than grass fed ones.
From that and the amount of supplies in the cave, he's clearly been plannin' fer the possibility of us having to run for a while now. It gives me pause, makes me realize how much he must really care about me to have done all this plannin' an' spent all the money it musta cost him to help me get away iffn I ever needed to run.
Workin' together it don't take us long to get the horses saddled and the supplies loaded.
As I finish up, Ezra takes out the small notebook he runs his book in when he's betting on something like a horse race or such and writes a note.
He finishes and says, "I've written a missive to Mister Larabee and the others. Would you like me to read it to you?"
He reads, "Misters Larabee, Wilmington, Dunne, Sanchez and Jackson. Sirs, while Mister Tanner and I appreciate your friendship and loyalty, we do not wish you to throw away the futures that lie before you in Four Corners for our sakes. We will be fine. Please, don't needlessly sacrifice your futures for us. Sincerely, your friends, Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner."
He looks up, "Is there anything that you would like to add?"
"Yeah," I reach for it and the pencil he's been using. My scribing still ain't up to Ezra's standards but I write as quick as I can, "Cowboy, go home to Mary. V. T."
Ezra takes it back, gives a nod and lays it on a large rock weighing it down with another, smaller, rock.
We mount up, using the two bays, to let Peso and Chaucer have a rest. Ezra leads the way farther into the canyon and I nod, we'll exit about two miles down, bypass Willow Creek and head across the flats towards Devil's Gate.
Devil's Gate leads into what's knowed in these parts as the Devil's Playground. It's near to a hundred square miles of treacherous ground, a real maze made up of canyons, arroyos, bluffs, ridges, and lava flows. There's dozens of dead ends and switchbacks. A man can get lost real quick in there if he don't know his way around.
It's an old stomping ground of mine and Ezra knows I'm real familiar with it.
Shouldn't be any problem at all to lose any one that tries to follow us in.
There's not a lot of talk as we follow Vin and Ezra's trail. I guess we're all thinking on what this means.
It's unlikely that our brothers will return to rejoin us, if we don't catch up to them. I, myself, am in something of a quandary and I don't doubt that the others are as well.
Vin and Ezra have been good friends for more than three years now. I hate the thought of never seeing them again, but I can't help but hope that we don't catch up to them.
I'd rather that I never saw them again, than risk Vin hanging.
It's late afternoon when we come to a wall of brush where the mouth of a small canyon used to be.
There's marks that indicate a portion of the brush was dragged away and that Vin and Ezra then went through.
It takes Bricken a few minutes to find the spot where it opens but then he does and drags the gate far enough open for us to ride though.
It's dim in the canyon. The high walls block out the afternoon sun and we have to move slower but the tracks in the sandy floor of the canyon are pretty clear.
It's about a half an hour later that we come to a spot with a lot of confused tracks.
There's a piece of paper weighted down on a large rock by a smaller one.
Bricken rides over and leans down to pick it up. He glances at it then holds it out to Chris. "It's for you, all of you."
He rides a short distance away, dismounting and examining the tracks leading off down the canyon, giving us the appearance of privacy, although I'm sure he at least got a look at what the note said.
I stare at the note for a long moment. The first few lines are in Ezra's elegant handwriting, the last in Vin's childish scrawl.
I pass it on to Buck when I finish reading it. He hands it off to JD, who gives it to Josiah, who passes it to Nathan, who hands it back to me, after they have all read it.
I dismount and walk over to where Bricken is studying the tracks.
Bricken looks up and says, "They had spare horses here and most likely supplies as well. It looks like six horses left out of here. Four are carrying weight. The two that they rode in on are not. We won't catch up to them tonight. I'll need to pick up supplies before I start back after them in the morning. Is there a town nearer than going back to Four Corners?"
I nod. "Willow Creek. We should be able to make it before full dark. The canyon opens up into prairie about two miles farther along then it's about four miles to the town. We can stay there over night."
Bricken nods then remounts, "I'll lose ground on them by doing it, but I have to have supplies."
"We have to have supplies," I correct him. "We're sticking this out. We'll be riding with you until you catch up to them or decide to give it up."
Bricken nods and I mount up. The others never dismounted.
We ride on.
We ride into Willow Creek as the sun is setting, six weary men. Five of us are heart weary as well as tired from spending most of the day in the saddle.
We stable our horses then head for the hotel.
Bricken stops at the sheriff's office to check in with him. Chris goes straight to the telegraph office to send a message to the judge. The rest of us head for Sanderson's Hotel. It's where we always stay when we stop over in Willow Creek.
Ian Sanderson owns not only the only hotel in town but also the best saloon, The Silver Dollar. Him and Ezra are good friends. Both of them are friends with Sheriff Greeley. I wonder how Bricken is making out there and if he's told Greeley that he's after Tanner.
Vin often rides over here with Ezra when the gambler comes over to play in Sanderson's monthly poker tournament.
Greeley only has one deputy and often swears Vin in for the night to help him keep an eye on things at the poker game as Vin's there anyway and Greeley knows that Vin works with us.
I reckon him and Greeley must at least get along, even if they ain't real good friends. Doubt Greeley's gonna be happy about Bricken being after Vin.
Be interesting to see how Bricken reacts to finding out that Vin Tanner is well thought of by more than just the men he works with and the town he protects.
Sheriff Greeley is friendly enough until I mention that I have a warrant for Tanner. Then he gets all stiff and closemouthed.
He clearly knows the man and makes it a point to tell me that he doesn't believe Tanner to be guilty.
He won't interfere but neither will he help. He plainly tells me that he won't ride with me after Tanner or round up a posse for me.
Apparently Tanner's influence spreads beyond Four Corners.
Larabee is coming out of the telegraph office as I head for the hotel.
I step up beside him. "You wire the judge?" I ask.
He nods. Then tilts his head to look at me, "Buy you a drink?"
"I can buy my own, but I'll join you."
"Fair enough. Ought to warn you, you won't be popular in the Silver Dollar. Sanderson is a friend of Standish's. But it's the best saloon in town."
"Same Sanderson that owns the hotel?"
"Yep. They'll probably put you in a broom closet over there... unless you want to share Standish's suite with us."
"Standish has a suite at the hotel?"
"Yep. Bought into it a while back when Sanderson needed some money for renovations. Whole top floor is just two big suites, four bedrooms, a bathing room and a sitting room in each. One of them is Sanderson's the other one's Ezra's."
This just gets better and better. Apparently between them, Tanner and Standish have the good will of two towns.
Larabee and I share a bottle of red eye, sitting mostly in companionable silence. After awhile he begins to talk quietly about Tanner and the others, how they met, came together and came to be the Magnificent Seven.
He not trying to dissuade me from my duty just quietly telling me why he and the others will stand by Tanner, just giving me something to think about.
When he's done he gets up and walks out, leaving me to think on what he's said.
I sit awhile longer then head for the hotel.
I'm not really surprised when the clerk tells me they're full up.
I shake my head and head back for the livery. It won't be the first time that I've had to sleep in one and it won't be the last.
I'm laying up on a ridge just outside of the Devil's Gate watching the exit from the canyon where Ezra had the horses with my spyglass while Ezra sets up camp inside the Devil's Gate where the mouth of the canyon opens out into a flat area.
I'm scanning our back trail but don't see any one. Looks like Ezra called it right and if there is anyone back there they either camped in the canyon or headed for Willow Creek for the night.
I slide down the ridge and walk back to the camp.
Ezra has coffee on and I pour me a cup, sitting down next to him on his bedroll.
"Lot of trails out of this place. Which one you want to take?" I'm figuring that he's planning on our heading for Mexico. It ain't my favorite place but I can deal with it.
Ezra chuckles and leans against me, "None of them. I'll be setting dynamite along the walls of the Gate tonight. First thing in the morning, I shall attach a timer to set them off. We'll go back out the Gate before it blows and is sealed off. The dust and debris from the explosion will hide any tracks we make for some distance from the Gate."
I frown, "How's that going to help us? I'd understand if we blew the Gate behind us. It's only a two-day ride to the south exit ta Mexico going through the Playground, but it's near four days to go around. That'd give us a two-day lead over whoever's following, but this way...?"
"We're not going south. It will appear that we went into the Playground then blew the gate behind us. It is logical for our pursuers to assume that we are headed for Mexico, as we have been traveling mostly south-southwest thus far. However, I have no desire to go to Mexico. We will circle north to that hidden valley we camped in last summer, the one you said that in so far as you knew, no other white man knew of. I have been laying in supplies at the cabin there since spring. With those supplies, along with what we are carrying on the packhorses and what you can snare or shoot, we should have more than enough supplies to winter over there. By spring the Marshal should have given up and moved on to other prey and we can go wherever we choose."
I think about that a bit and nod. "If they figure us to head south they'll head south, maybe aiming for the exit I was thinking of, maybe heading for Mexico hoping to cut our trail and catch up to us. That'd throw them at least four days off our trail probably more."
"And the further south they go, the further away from us they get."
I laugh. It's brilliant. The People call Coyote the Trickster, and I've always thought Ez had a lot of Coyote in him. This just proves it. Coyote himself couldn't have thought up a sneakier plan.
I grin at him then reach over and pull him close for a kiss. When I break it, I say, "I'm right glad you're on my side, Ez."
He swallows hard then smiles at me and nods. It takes me a moment to realize that although I've kissed him before, it's only been in bed, during sex.
In a way, this is our first real kiss. The first time that I've kissed him just because I wanted to kiss him, not in the heat of sex.
I smile at him and pull him back to kiss him again, taking my time with it, exploring his mouth like I never have before.
When we finally break the kiss we're both a bit breathless and aroused, but he rests his forehead against mine for only a few seconds before drawing back.
He says, regretfully, "I really need to set the charges while I still have some light. We'll want to leave as early as possible in the morning."
I nod. As much as I'd like to continue this right now, I know that he's right. Besides, there'll be plenty of time for us to explore the new parts of what's between us when we winter over in the valley.
"I'll fix us something to eat," I tell him as he stands and starts taking things out of his saddlebags.
Morning comes too early as it usually does on the trail. I suppose I will have to get used to early rising, if I am to live on the run with Vin... but not if I can help it. Proper planning should eliminate the more unpleasant portions of running from the law.
As I arise, I can't help but think of the way he kissed me last night or the way that he held me as he sat guard and I slept then allowed me to hold him as I sat guard and he slept. Just remembering it, I can almost feel his fingers running through my hair, gentle and soothing as I drifted off to sleep.
I smile, recalling the feel of his hair gliding across my fingers, as I returned the favor as he went to sleep. He must have liked it as much as I did as he practically purred like a cat at the touch.
The way that I felt last night is worth anything, even rising before the sun.
I dump the last of the coffee over the fire and look up at Vin. "From here on we will be concealing our trail as much as possible. There is a bundle of deerskins among our supplies, perhaps you could wrap the horses' hooves while I attach the timer to the explosives and set them."
He nods and moves off to attend to it.
By the time that the sun is actually up, I have finished wiring the explosives and setting the timer. I return to camp to find that Vin has not only wrapped the horses' hooves but has them all saddled and ready to go. He's dumped sand over the campfire and made sure that it is truly out.
As I step into Chaucer's saddle I say, "We have half an hour before the explosives go. That should give us plenty of time to get well away."
Vin says, "I checked our backtrail. There's no sign of anyone coming up it yet. So, we don't have to worry about anybody getting caught in the blast."
I nod. While I do not want to be caught I also have no desire to hurt anyone, especially not any of our former colleagues. "I sincerely hope that is true."
I wrap the horses' hooves, while Ez finishes setting up the explosives. Then I get all the horses saddled and the supplies loaded. While I'm working I can't help my mind wandering back to last night.
Before last night, me'n Ez hadn't ever taken the time to just be together, touchin' and holdin' the way a man might with a woman lover. I always kinda wanted to do stuff like that, but I was afraid that if I asked for more'n what we had I might lose what we had altogether. Only time I ever seen him as relaxed as he was last night was after sex when he'd be just plumb limp and sprawled out nigh boneless.
But last night when I sat down with my back to a rock and let him lay his head in my lap while I stayed awake on watch, I couldn't help but run my fingers through his hair. It's something that I've always liked. Got vague memories of my ma brushing my hair and running her fingers through it, when I's just a tadpole.
He musta liked it too 'cause he got real relaxed and went straight on to sleep. I seem to remember him stroking my hair as I was dozing off, too. I liked it. I liked it a lot. It 'minded me of my ma, made me feel safe and loved.
Ez comes back as I finish up and giving me a smile of thanks for saddling Chaucer for him he mounts up, saying, "We have half an hour before the explosives go. That should give us plenty of time to get well away."
That sounds good. It'll let us get clear but should go off before anybody else gets too close to the Gate.
I tell him so. "I checked our backtrail. There's no sign of anyone coming up it yet. So, we don't have to worry about anybody getting caught in the blast."
He nods and smiles at me, saying, "I sincerely hope that is true.". I reckon he ain't wantin' to hurt nobody, if we can help it, same as me.
We head out, making good time, putting as many miles between us and the Gate as possible before the dynamite goes off. I reckon we're four or five miles north sticking close to the boundary of the Playground when Ez pulls up and turns back to look towards the Gate, pulling out his pocket watch. He smiles a real satisfied smile when just a minute or so later we hear the rumble of the explosion and feel the vibration in the ground.
The horses don't like it and stomp about a bit and we have to spend a few minutes calming them down.
We dismount and tie the bays to a couple of nearby trees, we move between them talking soft and stroking them real soothing like. Peso and Chaucer aren't as nervous but we pet them too and Ez hands out treats to all of them.
He looks over at me. "Perhaps you'd like to check our backtrail. Make sure that no one was in the vicinity of the Gate when it blew?"
I nod and grab my spyglass scrambling a ways up the bluff we've been following to get high enough to see back to the Gate.
There's still a good bit of dust and debris in the air around the Gate so I can't actually see much there but I scan farther out and spot a dust plume. Bringing it into focus I can tell there's six men on horseback.
They're too far away to make out faces, but I can make out the shape of that bowler hat of JD's. There ain't many of them around. Then there's a black man on a big bay, and a big gray horse with a tall man riding him. A big man wearing a serape is riding another big bay. Out in front there's a big black topped off by a man dressed all in black, his duster blowing out behind him.
Taken all together it figures to be the boys.
There's one other horse, another bay, with an unfamiliar rider. Figures that's the marshal. I try to focus on his chest and sure enough I see the glint of what could be a badge. They're still too far away for me to be absolutely sure but it figures.
I slide back down the slope and tell Ez what I saw.
He nods. "Perhaps we should remain here for a bit. You could continue to observe them. We are hidden by this stand of trees here. If we move on we might send up a dust plume that would lead them to investigate. Also it would be good to know if they do as I have predicted and turn south."
I agree and we move the horses farther back into the trees and loosen the saddles. If the guys turn north instead of south and we have to run, it won't take long to tighten them.
It's another hour before the guys reach the Gate and I watch them examining it.
We left Willow Creek before daylight and head back towards the canyon where we left off tracking Tanner and Standish. We've just cut their trail where they came out of the canyon and turned to follow it.
I'm looking straight at the Devil's Gate, my eyes following the clear trail right to it, when it starts to collapse.
A moment later the ground shakes under us and the sound of an explosion reaches us.
We're all busy for a few minutes getting our horses under control. By the time that I look back, Devil's Gate is gone. There's just a big cloud of dust and debris hanging where it was. It'll take some time for that to settle before we can see how much damage was done but I'm pretty sure that we won't be following Tanner and Standish through the Gate.
Sanchez pulls up next to Larabee, "Looks like Brother Ezra has been making his devotions to Saint Barbara again."
I scowl at him, but before I can ask who St. Barbara is, Wilmington does.
"Saint who?" he asks pulling up on Larabee's other side and leaning forwards to look around Larabee at Sanchez.
"Saint Barbara. The patron saint of artillery men and those who work with explosives. It would appear that Ezra had some dynamite in his supplies."
Larabee scowls, "I hate when those two start playing with dynamite."
I stare at the Gate. Finally I say, "Smart, real smart." I look over at Larabee. "I take it that Tanner is familiar with the Devil's Playground? Knows his way around in there?"
He nods. "Reckon he knows it as good as anybody."
Tanner and Standish can make it through the Playground to the southernmost exit in two days time. Even traveling alone and pushing my horse it would take me at least three. The border is less than a day's ride from the southern exit.
Tanner is wilderness wise and trail smart and he knows the area as well as anyone in these parts.
All the towns south of the exit to Mexico are too small to have sheriffs or even a telegraph office, so I can't telegraph ahead and have a posse try to intercept them.
I sigh and turn my horse around, heading back towards town. I'm a lot of things but stupid isn't one of them, or obstinate.
I won't be catching Tanner this time out.
I turn and look back at the others, "Well, are you coming?"
Dunne stares at me for a moment then grins, "You mean, you're not going after them?" he waves his arm towards the south gesturing wildly.
I snort, "Waste of time. They'll be in Mexico by the time I reach the southernmost exit from this place. Besides, Tanner isn't the only warrant on my slate. There'll be other chances to take him," I shrug, "or there won't. Either way it's a waste of time to pursue this now."
Again I turn my horse and head back towards Four Corners. I'm pretty sure that the judge will be happy to hear that they got away.
The trip back is a lot noisier than the one out was. Only Larabee seems just as subdued as before. Wilmington and Dunne are exuberant, laughing and cutting up like kids. Sanchez and Jackson talk quietly, but can't wipe the grins off their faces.
Larabee rides up beside me and I say, "You're don't seem as happy as your friends that they got away."
"Buck and JD don't do much thinking ahead. I doubt that it's occurred to them yet that the fact we didn't catch them doesn't mean that Vin and Ezra will be coming back. Sanchez and Jackson will realize soon enough that we're never going to be seven again. It'll take Buck a little longer and we may have to spell it out to JD. He can be a bit naïve."
"But you already know."
"I know Tanner. He wouldn't have run at all if he was planning on coming back, ever."
Larabee snorts, "Who the hell knows what Ezra P. Standish is apt to do?" he laughs suddenly, "Reckon you've heard a lot of stories about us. Have you ever heard the one about Wicks Town and how we rescued Mrs. Travis when Wicks kidnapped her?"
I shake my head and Chris Larabee, infamous gunfighter, launches into a story that includes Ezra Standish dressing up as a saloon singer to cause a distraction so that they could rescue Mary Travis from a pimp named Wicks.
Pretty soon, the rest of the gang is laughing and telling more stories of the two absent members of their group.
I recognize the story telling as being similar to a wake, whether they realized it or not, they were grieving for the loss of something special, something precious, the camaraderie that had been the Magnificent Seven.
By the time that we return to Four Corners they have wound down, and fallen silent, finally all of them realizing that their friends are truly gone, never to return.
I can't help but hope that someday somehow they will learn what becomes of their comrades.
I can't hardly believe it when the Marshal turns his horse back towards the canyon and Four Corners. I watch as there is some discussion then they all head out, back towards town.
Ezra comes to meet me when I hurriedly slip and slide back down the face of the bluff. "Vin? What is it? Are they coming this way?"
I shake my head, "No, but they ain't headed south either. Looks like their going home!"
"All of them? Even the marshal?"
"He was leading out." I can't keep the excitement out of my eyes. "Reckon he's give up?"
Ezra looks at me and shakes his head, looking sad, "Perhaps, Vin, but that doesn't mean that we can go back. We most certainly can not go back right now."
"Maybe you could...." I trail off as Ezra shakes his head.
"Aiding and abetting a fugitive is a crime, Vin. The moment that I rode out to warn you of the marshal's presence, I became guilty of that crime. I have no doubt that the marshal will bring such charges and have a poster put out on me."
I frown, "You knew that when you...?" I trail off again, realizing how much Ezra really gave up for me. He had his pardon from the judge, he was free and clear. He had his saloon, was on his way to being a respectable businessman and he gave it up for me.
He smiles, "Don't look so stricken, Vin. I was practically born a criminal. There are no doubt a dozen warrants out on me, in spite of my pardon from Judge Travis. I've already told you, you are worth it."
When I don't say anything, working through that in my mind, his smile falters and uncertainty crosses his face and just a touch of fear.
I realize then that he's afraid that I don't just want to go back to town, but that I want to go back to the way things were between us before this happened. With that, I realize that I never really told him that I returned his feelings only that I accepted his desire to be with me.
I step closer and reach out to take him into my arms. "Ez, I got deep feelings for you, too. Didn't mean I wanted to go back to just messing round with ya. Just thought maybe ya didn't have to give everything up for me."
He looks up at me and declares, "Nothing matters but being with you, nothing!"
I nod and pull him close, hugging him tightly as his arms wrap around me to hold tightly to me.
I reckon maybe the marshal did us a favor coming after me. I might not have ever knowed how much Ezra really cared for me, if he hadn't. I might not have ever knowed how much I cared for Ezra. We might have just gone on and on, just fucking around, never daring to say anything to each other about how we felt outta fear that the other didn't feel the same.
I run my fingers through his hair as I come to accept that the past is gone. It was good while it lasted, but I figure that I got the best part of Four Corners and the Magnificent Seven right here with me.
I press a kiss to his hair and murmur, "Why don't we head on out? I know a real nice campsite up north a'ways. Even if we follow the base of the bluff and take it real easy for the first hour or so, as to not raise 'nough dust to be noticeable, we should reach it by nightfall."
He pulls back looking up into to my face like he's searching for something then he smiles a smile that lights up his eyes and steps out of my arms, his movements light and graceful. "Why not, indeed? Shall we ride off into the sunset, Mister Tanner?"
"Got a ways to go til sunset, but sounds like a great idea," I say with a grin of my own.
He laughed, the sound free and filled with delight and it warmed me to think that I could make him this happy.
For a moment this morning I thought that he regretted accepting my offer of companionship in his exile, then he took me in his arms and lay my fears to rest.
We traveled most of the day in companionable silence. My fears would flare up from time to time but whenever I'd glance at him, he'd smile reassuringly back at me and gradually they faded.
Now we are camped in a cavern in the side of the series of bluffs, cliffs and plateaus that rings the Devil's Playground. There is a large outer cave where we have stabled the horses and several smaller caves behind it. We built our campfire in one of them, which has a hole up top for the smoke to escape through. After we set up the camp Vin took my hand and lighting a torch led me through a series of caves to one that contains a hot spring.
He leaves me near the entrance to the cavern with the hot spring and goes around lighting torches that he clearly knew were there. I can only presume that they were left behind from previous visits.
He glances back at me. "This is one of my favorite campsites. I love soaking in the spring."
He finishes lighting the torches and returns to me, taking my hand to lead me to the edge of the spring.
He reaches to slip my coat off my shoulders and suddenly we're in uncharted territory.
In all our encounters we have never undressed each other. We seldom undressed at all, each merely loosened our own clothing enough to have sex and that sex literally took place undercover, beneath the blankets of our bedrolls.
I've never seen him naked nor has he ever seen me entirely naked although he got a pretty good look at me when I lost virtually everything to Big Lester Banks and was forced to parade down main street in a tablecloth.
As much as I desire this intimacy, I can't help but be a bit nervous. Then I look down and notice that his fingers are trembling slightly as he tries to unbutton my vest. It helps to know that he is nervous too.
Smiling, I cover his hands with mine. When he looks up I kiss him, just a soft brush of my lips across his, then I lift one of his hands to kiss the fingertips. "Perhaps it would be best if I divest myself of my weapons and boots whilst you do the same, then we can return to this."
He smiles, and reverses the hold I have on his hand to pull mine to his lips, kissing it as I had kissed his.
"Sounds like a plan," he says, stepping back just far enough to be unimpeded whilst removing his boots and mare's leg, he leaves the boots where they land, but turns to lay the gun on the ground beside the spring.
I follow suit, removing my boots and setting them aside before quickly removing my shoulder holster, derringer rig and sidearm while he watches.
As soon as they are lain beside the spring near his, he steps close again, reaching for me.
I step into his arms and pull him down into a kiss. When we break apart, I hand him his bandanna.
He chuckles at the realization that I got it off him while we were kissing without him noticing.
The laughter ends the awkwardness between us and his fingers don't tremble as he quickly removes my vest and slips my braces off my shoulders to hang at my sides, while he starts unbuttoning my shirt. I return the favor, sliding his braces off and unbuttoning his shirt.
It being high summer, he's not wearing underwear. With his shirt open I can see the golden brown hair dusted lightly across his chest, then forming a darkening arrow, aimed downward towards his manhood.
I begin unbuttoning his pants, eager to see what I've only ever felt before.
He covers my hands with his hands, "Ain't a race, Ez."
I look up at him and he's smiling, so, he's not angry, just wants to slow things down a bit. I smile back at him and step back to shrug out of my shirt, letting it fall to the cavern floor.
He shrugs out of his shirt then steps back, slowly unbuttoning his pants and sliding them down his long legs as I stare raptly at him.
He's even more handsome than I had always imagined him to be, so lithe and golden. His lean form is lightly tanned from head to foot. He must have someplace where he can lie naked in the sun to have achieved such a smooth, even tone.
I feel a bit self-conscious at how pale my own skin is next to his and hesitate with only two buttons of my pants undone.
Almost as if he can read my mind he steps close again, reaching out to caress my chest. "Like your skin, Ez," he murmurs. "White as alabaster, smooth as silk, warm as sunshine."
The soft words remind me that he is a poet.
He steps closer and gives a little tug at my waistband.
"Wanna see you, too, Ez," he says, but doesn't try to push my pants down, allowing me to decide to slip them off.
His hands rest easily at my hips steadying me as I let my pants fall and kick them aside.
I'm wearing a pair of short silk underwear and he lets one hand glide slowly down my hip caressing it through the silk.
"Always liked the feel of these," he tells me as his hands slip around to grasp my buttocks and pull me close so that he can rub his groin against them.
His cock is more than half-hard to begin with and fills out completely as he rubs against me. He draws back just a bit to murmur, "Let's get these off ya."
I let him unbutton them and slide them down my legs, past my thighs. They fall to the ground and I step out of them.
He's fondling my cock and it is soon as hard as his.
We exchange kisses then he guides me to the spring and we sink into it.
It's not deep, at least near the edges, coming up to only to about mid-chest as we sit down in it. He warns me though to stay away from the center, that it is bottomless, bubbling up from somewhere deep in the earth.
I barely hear him, as he has slipped between my legs, aligning our erections and thrusting against me.
I wrap my arms around him, drawing him into a kiss and thrusting back against him.
It doesn't take long for us to come, but we don't immediately pull apart as we so often have in the past. We rest together, touching and caressing, exchanging kisses.
For the first time it feels like we've been making love, not just having sex.
I'm happier than I've ever been.
It took us another four days to reach the hidden valley that Ezra said he'd been stocking up for us a hideout. We probably could have made in it three or even two if we had been pushing but we took our time. We didn't do it just so we could hide our trail and make sure that no one could follow us in here, but because now that we're really lovers rather than whatever it was we were before, we can't seem to keep our hands off each other.
We'd stop along the trail just to trade kisses and make early camp to have more time for making love before we take turns on watch, each of us holding the other as they sleep. It feels damned good just to be able to hold him and I sleep better in his arms than I ever have before.
The only way in here is through a series of caverns. They're all plenty big enough to allow the horses through, but you got to know which way to go to get here. There's plenty of dead ends in the caves, some of them's got skeletons of folks that got lost in here.
I don't think that we'll have to worry about being found.
We've just come out into the valley and I stop, sitting for a minute, looking down on our new home. The valley's maybe two miles long and a mile wide. Not big really, but the grass is tall and lush, there's more'n enough grazing for six horses.
There's old cliff houses, like some of the Pueblo Indians live in, built up against the wall on one side of the valley and that's where we'll be living. More'n enough room for us. It must have been a fair size village at one time. Been abandoned for a long while though.
Ez rides up beside me and smiles. "I fixed up a couple of rooms on the bottom level as a stable for the horses. Let's get them taken care of and I can show you what else I've done."
I let him lead the way down into the floor of the valley.
Ez is real proud of himself as he shows me around and I can see why. When he said that he laid in supplies, he meant he laid in supplies. He musta hightailed it up here with all four of the bays loaded down with supplies ever time that he took more'n just a day or two away from Four Corners in the last year.
One of the rooms in the Pueblo has been turned into a storeroom with shelves lining two walls. There's gallon-size glass jars lining the shelves on one wall, each one neatly labeled and sealed to keep bugs out. There must be at least a dozen jars of flour, half a dozen of meal, four of five of sugar. There's jars of dried pinto beans, and red kidney beans, jars of dried lima beans and blackeyed peas, even a couple of jars of dried apples.
On the opposite wall there's smaller jars, containing coffee, tea, table salt, pepper and other spices. There's jars of canned tomatoes, string beans, okra and squash which he proudly tells me he bought from various ladies in town, there's pickled peaches and jars of jams and jellies, too.
There's dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and several barrels of salt for curing meat sitting beneath them. There's cans of store bought tinned beef and beef broth, and a whole row of canned milk.
He's even laid in medical supplies and ammunition. We got bottles of laudanum, plain alcohol, whisky, carbolic and bandages, not to mention ammo for all our different guns. He's even picked us up a couple of spare rifles.
About the only thing that there ain't a lot of is meat and water but the valley's full of rabbits, quail, pheasant and deer. There's a creek running through it full of fish and turtles and more'n enough time left before winter for us to catch or kill game and preserve it.
When he's through showing me all he's done, he turns to me and I can tell he's hoping that I'm pleased.
I don't know how he'd think I wouldn't be, but I reckon he needs a bit of reassurance, so I smile and pull him in to a hug.
"You done real good, Ez. I'd've never thought beyond the basics, but you set us up real good. We oughta be able to winter over here real easy." I kiss him and add, "Come spring we can go wherever you want."
He's done so much and given up so much for me that I want to give him something back. He loves cities and being around people. After a whole winter with just me he's gonna need to get into town, have more people around.
Heck, after close to six months up here, I'll probably be glad to see a town.
The winter was hard weather wise, but we faired well. Vin hunted a day or two per week throughout the fall, bringing home mule deer, elk, and even a big horn sheep as well as setting snares for rabbits and squirrels on a daily basis. We feasted on pheasant and quail and even a wild pig or two.
I am glad that I thought to add books to read and a slate and chalk for Vin to practice his writing on to our supplies. As I habitually keep a journal I had included several blank books.
I gave Vin one for Christmas with all the wonderful poems he had written thus far scribed in it. I do hope that someday I can persuade him to have them published. His handwriting is much improved but he still prefers to write his poems out on scraps of paper, which I then gather up so that I can transcribe them into the book. It is a task that I perform happily.
There are of course some poems that will never be published, those passionate, earthy, odes to love, addressed to me are not something that I would ever allow another to read. They are too precious not to mention that they would cause a terrible scandal were they ever to see print as my Vin makes no bones about the fact that he is a man as is the object of his affections.
I never knew that I could be so very happy. I had worried that being away from town, with no company but Vin would be hard but it is not.
We have talked as we never talked before, shared our pasts, our hopes and our dreams of the future, a future that we have promised each other we will share for as long as we both may live.
Spring is coming and we have decided that we shall make our way to the west coast, perhaps San Francisco.
A year later
I'm sitting at my desk in the newspaper office, sorting through the newspapers, packages and letters that have come in on the stage when I come across a package with no return address.
It's addressed to me, Mary Travis, editor, Clarion News, Four Corners, New Mexico in neat block letters.
I turn it over in my hands several times wondering who it could be from.
The bell on the front door jingles and I look up to see Chris.
"Hey, lady," he says with a grin, "what do you say to having lunch with an old gunfighter?"
I blush like a schoolgirl. We've only been married a month. JD and Casey beat us to the altar by four months and they act more like an old married couple than Chris and I do. He loves to tease me and I always blush.
"In a minute," I tell him, starting to open the package.
"What have you got there?" He comes behind the counter to sit on the corner of my desk.
"I'm not sure. There's no return address." I finish opening it and the first thing I see is a folded copy of the San Francisco Times.
The word "STANDISH" in two-inch high all capital letters jumps off the page at me.
I quickly unfold it as Chris comes to lean over my shoulder having seen the word as well.
The headline takes up the entire top half of the paper above the fold and reads "STANDISH WINS". In two-inch high all caps.
Below that in three-inch high numerals is "$2,000,000.00.
Followed by the bottom line in two-inch letters, "Poker Tournament."
I flip the paper over and gasp. There is a huge photo, dead center of the bottom half of the front page, surrounded by type.
Ezra Standish sits behind a poker table piled high with money, a huge grin on his face. Behind him, with her hand on his left shoulder is Lydia, one of the women that Chris and the others rescued from Wicks.
Beside her, with his hand resting on Ezra's right shoulder is a man it takes me a moment to recognize because I've never seen him dressed up. Wearing a suit similar to Ezra's, hatless with his hair pulled back smoothly, is Vin Tanner. The only easily recognizable part of his outfit is the mare's leg that is strapped to his right leg, his right hand resting on the butt.
Chris takes the paper away from me and begins to read. "Ezra Standish, a professional gambler out of Georgia by way of the territories, today won one of the largest pots in the history of gambling in San Francisco. In a hard fought battle lasting nearly four days with only brief rest periods allowed, he triumphed over nearly a hundred other professional gamblers who gathered at Lydia's Crystal Palace Casino and Saloon to participate in the West Coast Invitational Poker Tournament."
He took a breath then went on. "When asked what he plans to do with his new found fortune, Mister Standish replied with a laugh, "Invest a portion, save a portion and spend the rest!" When asked what he might spend it on he simply laughed and said, "The usual, wine, women and song of course!"
Chris stopped reading and just stared at the picture for a long moment. "He looks good, they both do."
I have to agree but I'm worried too. It can't be good for a wanted man to have his picture on the front page of big newspaper like the San Francisco Times.
I say as much and Chris frowns. "What else was in the package?"
I turn back to it and note that there are several photographs of Vin and Ezra, together and separately. I hand them to Chris and dig deeper in the box, coming up with a bundle of letters. Some are addressed in Ezra's fine hand and some in a less elegant hand. It takes me a moment to realize that it must be Vin's script. He must have been practicing a lot. When last I worked with him on his writing he was barely printing legibly.
There is a letter addressed to each of the five remaining peacekeepers from Vin and from Ezra. Vin has also included letters for Nettie and Casey. Ezra has included letters for Inez and his mother.
Surprisingly he has also written one to Marshal Bricken. I'd really love to read that one but restrain myself. It isn't mine.
When I hand the letters up to Chris I can see that he is just as surprised as I am to see that one.
There is one addressed simply "to all our friends" with a note that it is to be read first before the others are handed out.
I assume it is meant to be read aloud or passed around between us all.
In the bottom of the box is a stack of small hardbound books. I open the top one and see a note just inside the cover.
Please distribute these for Vin. There is one for each of the other five of the seven, one for you and one for Mrs. Wells.
We could hardly publish Vin's poems under his own name yet he would not give up the Tanner name, there fore, I present to you "Sierra Winter" a selection of poems by Tanner Vincent.
I can barely contain my glee as I hold the book up for Chris to see and announce, "It seems Vin has been busy. He's a published poet!"
"It looks like we're going to have an interesting afternoon," Chris says. "Nettie's not really well enough to come into town. How about I round everyone that has a letter up, except for Bricken of course, we'll have to mail his on to him, and we all ride out to Nettie's place after lunch."
I nod, "That sounds good."
It's better if we eat first, otherwise Nettie will want to feed us. She's not up to it and Casey has her hands full taking care of Nettie.
I'm almost too excited to eat and worried too. I suppose it's foolish to worry about what might have happened as a result of Vin's picture appearing on the front page of the San Francisco Times when the paper is over a month old. It's really too late to worry now.
Still we hurry through lunch and soon, Chris, and I along with Buck and Inez, JD, Josiah, Nathan and his wife Raine are all headed out for Nettie Wells.
I am carrying the package and Chris has made it clear to the others that he will not pass out the other letters until after the one addressed "to all our friends" has been read per Ezra's instructions.
I know he's just as impatient to read his letters as are the others, but he's determined to honor Ezra's request. His respect for Ezra went up several notches when he realized that Ezra had actually already purchased the saloon before he fled with Vin and had left his dream of owning a saloon behind to save a friend.
Chris tells JD to ride on ahead to tell Casey and Nettie that we are coming and explain that we are bringing word from Vin and Ezra.
When we arrive, JD and Casey have already brought Nettie into the front room and settled her on the couch.
The rest of us quickly find seats except for Chris who remains standing. As soon as we're settled he begins to explain why we're there, quickly telling about the arrival of the package on the stage and its contents.
He passes around the newspaper and everyone sees the picture of Ezra and Vin on the front page.
He takes out the letter out of his pocket and reads the notation on the front aloud, "To all of our friends, to be read to the group before the individual letters are passed out, Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner."
He turns to Josiah, "You've got a better voice than I have. Will you read it for us?"
Josiah stands and takes the letter, "Gladly, Brother Chris, gladly."
He unfolds it and clears his throat.
Our dear friends. We hope this finds you all well and still the same closely-knit, extended family group that we have so enjoyed being a part of.
If you are all still living in close proximity to each other, I'm sure that you have all seen the newspaper that we sent Mrs. Travis. Please, do not be upset by fact that Vin's picture appears there. I took great pains to ensure that his name will not be mentioned in the article. As I am sure that even you, who know him so well, will need to take a second look to be certain that it is him, I doubt that any one who does not know him well will be able to recognize him at all.
In any event, we will be long gone from San Francisco by the time you read this. Indeed, we will be gone almost before the paper is distributed. As I write this, our belongings are being transported to a schooner lying at anchor in the bay. We sail with the tide on a planned circumnavigation of the world. We have no set schedule or itinerary and will be gone for several years at least.
Miss Lydia is preparing the package and mailing it for us.
We have more than enough money to last us the rest of our lives. Contrary to what I told the newspaperman, I have no intention of squandering my newfound fortune. I have sent a portion to my broker to invest for me. I have deposited a second portion in an interest bearing savings account and am taking a significant portion with us on our journey.
Mister Tanner and myself are very much looking forwards to our grand adventure. We intend to set foot on every continent and explore all the world has to offer.
I shall keep a journal and mail it back to Mrs. Travis as soon as possible after it is filled, so that you may keep up with our adventures. Of course, mail service being what it is, it may well be years before you hear from us again, but rest assured that whilst we miss you all deeply, we are well and happy.
Should anyone wish to pursue us, I fear they will find it a long and most expensive chase.
Ezra P. Standish and Vin Tanner
P.S. You may hand out the individual letters now. EPS
Chris takes out the bundle of letters giving Nettie hers from Vin first, along with a copy of Vin's poems.
She clutches them to her breast a moment before opening the letter. Tears of joy fill her eyes as she reads.
I lean on the railing beside Ezra, eyes scanning the ocean around us. I've seen things I never dreamed of seeing, dolphins, whales and flying fish. The ocean may seem monotonous to those who don't really look but it is ever changing, ever different. It's beautiful and you can see for miles.
Before we ever thought of taking this trip, we took a short one up the coast to Seattle and back, just to see how I reacted to the pitch and yaw of the deck. Ez was real pleased when I didn't get seasick.
I was more worried about getting restless stuck on a ship than getting seasick, but it ain't been a problem so far.
He suggested that we might take a longer voyage but going around the world only became what he calls a viable option when he won that poker tournament.
Now we're traveling first class. We've got the best cabin on the ship, two bedrooms, a bathing room and a sitting room. We're real careful to mess both beds at night and keep the cabin locked not even letting our steward have a key to come in and clean up. He has to wait till we let him in.
Ezra paid extra for that, to have the only key to our cabin, but it's worth it.
He practically glows these days. He loves the ocean and there's plenty of other passengers to keep him happy and occupied. He plays poker with several of them regularly and sits at the Captain's table most nights.
On rainy days we retire to our cabin and make love for hours on end, with no one the wiser.
I've discovered that I love the ocean too and have written dozen of poems about it. When we make landfall, Ez will send them back to my publisher to be printed up. He's done went and picked out a title for the volume, "Pacific Passage". Seems strange to me that I'm a published poet, seein' as how I never had any formal schoolin' and still ain't got near Ez's vocabulary or easy way of speakin'. Ez just says that don't matter cause I got the soul of a poet and my plain speakin' somehow makes the poems even more beautiful. Somebody must like them. The first volume sold well and it makes me feel good that I can got money of my own to help pay our way. I never was one to let somebody else keep me, even somebody that I know loves me much as Ez does.
I'm looking forwards to seein' China and India and Egypt but at the same time, just standing here on the deck beside my Ez, with the wind in my hair and the salt spray in my face, watching the ocean is just fine with me.