The Best Laid Plans

By: Susie Burton


"Youíre surrounded, boys. Drop it!"

Chris Larabeeís barked out commands split the peaceful tranquillity in the deserted street at the far end of town. The three men from Del Spivakís gang, whoíd been posted as sentries outside the barn, froze and stared up in shocked disbelief at the high platform of the recently erected gallows. Rising above their heads, like a dark, avenging angel, the renowned gunslinger lined his revolver unerringly on the surprised outlaws standing below him.

At the exact moment the leader of the peacekeepers issued his order, Buck Wilmington threw off the tarpaulin and emerged from his place of concealment in the open wagon. The man looked ready and more than able to back any move his friend made as he covered the gang members with his unwavering gun. Spivakís men exchanged uneasy glances, but when Josiah Sanchez also made his presence known on the roof of a small cabin, they knew they were trapped.

The men had been set-up.

The unmistakable sound of a fourth gun being cocked caused two of the gang to slowly turn around and the sight that greeted them gave the pair scant comfort. They hadnít seen or heard the man approach from their rear and as the slim figure drifted towards them with cat-like grace, they realised their fates were sealed. There was a determined set to Vin Tannerís features and the cornered outlaws knew they were facing yet another tough lawman.

A white sling supported the manís left arm but the fact that he carried an injury didnít detract from the quiet confidence he exuded. The buckskin-clad tracker looked self-assured, and extremely competent, as he trained his revolver on two of the three men immediately in front of him. All avenues of escape had been cut off and it appeared that the townís illustrious peacekeepers had gained the advantage.

"Give it up!"

As Chris yelled out his final ultimatum, the three outlaws spun around. The men seemed bewildered by this unforeseen turn of events and hastily raised their arms in surrender without any further prompting. Ever vigilant, Vin watched the prisoners as Chris made his way down the wooden stairs of the hanging gantry and Josiah clambered off the low roof heíd chosen as a hiding place.

The plan hatched by Judge Travis and the peacekeepers had worked well, although the highly dangerous ambush wouldnít have gone so smoothly without the assistance of Kate Stokes. The young woman had pleaded for her sister to be spared the hangmanís noose and on being told by Nathan that JDís condition had improved slightly, the judge had reluctantly granted clemency to Madeline Stokes. It was the only option available to catch the entire gang and the risky scheme had reaped dividends. With the information provided by Kate about the stagecoach robbery, Travis knew he had sufficient evidence to charge, sentence and hang the majority of the notorious gang. The judge had a busy few days ahead of him as he wielded the gavel, dispatched justice for the hold-up and sentenced those responsible for the murder of his long-time friend.

Due to the lateness of the hour, the streets and sidewalks were quiet and empty, so a sudden, furtive movement in the distance straightaway caught Vinís attention. As the unknown interloper jogged past an illuminated window, lamplight glinted dully on metal and the tracker instantly recognised the object.

"Chris, a gunmanís headed fer the jailhouse!"

As Vin called out to his friend, the barn door swung open, and Nathan and Ezra shepherded another three men outside. The emergence of the closely grouped prisoners temporarily blocked the trackerís line of vision on the man scurrying alone the street. Vin knew his target was too far away for accuracy with a handgun, but perhaps a warning shot might stop or deter the anonymous person. Taking a couple of steps sideways, the peacekeeper purposely aimed his weapon at the boardwalk just ahead of the shadowy figure.

The movement brought Vin closer to where two of the prisoners stood, and with his senses stretched to the limit, he failed to notice that one of those men planned to take advantage of his distraction. In an almost casual motion, the man quickly bent down to pull a concealed knife from his boot as his other hand shoved his smaller, and completely unsuspecting, companion forwards. The force of the hard push propelled the unwary outlaw into the third bandit whoíd also been outside. Like toppling dominoes, the pair cannoned into the remaining gang members just exiting the barn. Taken aback by the unexpected collision, the five men tumbled to the ground in an untidy pile.

Vin had spotted the small utility knife in the outlawís hand, although his friends were unaware of this additional threat. Theyíd seen the lone manís daring bid for freedom, but were unable to get off a clear shot without the risk of hitting the Texan. All of this had occurred in a split second, and before anyone had the opportunity to react or shoot, the criminalís blade had whipped upwards and diagonally across the trackerís immobilised left arm. The all-purpose knife wasnít designed for this type of use and the short-handled, steel blade snagged in the knot of Vinís heavy-duty cotton sling. As the weapon came to a sudden halt, momentum from the slashing motion caused the outlaw to lose his grip on the hilt, and the knife catapulted free, flipping over the trackerís shoulder. It landed in the dirt well away from the erstwhile escapee, but the damage had already been done.

A sharp, burning sensation ripped through Vinís bicep and shoulder, and he instinctively stepped back a few paces, hissing out an agonised gasp as his right hand came up to press against the injury. With the peacekeeperís gun pointing away from him now, the desperado saw the chance to follow up the successful assault.

Lowering his head slightly, the determined man careered bodily into the long-haired peacekeeper, barging his way through in an attempt to get past the slender tracker. Vin grunted painfully from the impact, wincing as his tender ribcage protested the rough treatment, but he tenaciously held his ground and tried to block the otherís bobbing moves.

In his frantic haste to dodge clear, the escaping man suddenly lost his footing and, lurching forward, fell heavily against the wounded peacekeeper. With only one free arm to balance him and further hampered by the tight strapping around his injured chest, Tanner let out a pained woof before staggering backwards under the burly manís weight. As the pair locked together and crashed to the ground in a struggling tangle of limbs, the gun in Vinís hand, which was now sandwiched between their two bodies, suddenly discharged.

Chris had almost reached the bottom rung on the steps of the wooden structure when he heard Vinís call about the previously undetected gunman. From his higher vantagepoint, the gunslinger peered through the gloom to check for any other suspicious movement. He didnít know who the man was or whether he was alone but he automatically assumed the stranger wasnít an innocent bystander. The peacekeepers had deliberately staged the gangís entrapment late at night, well after the saloons had closed for business, so there was no reason for any residents or bona fide visitors to be on the street at such a late hour.

owever, this was all forgotten when from the corner of his eye, Chris suddenly saw the tracker disappear beneath the flailing body of the outlaw. The gunslingerís helpless horror intensified as he heard the muffled sound of a gun firing from the pairís vicinity.


"Vin!"

Undiluted fear bit into Chris as he cried out the name in an anguished voice. Fervently praying that the bullet hadnít hit his friend, the gunslinger doggedly pushed away the inner voice that was imploring him to rush to the trackerís side. It was like a replay of the incident when Vin had first been injured, but despite his gut-wrenching apprehension, Chris knew he couldnít afford to let his emotions take over. The remaining prisoners needed to be secured, and the mystery figure heading for the jail had to be dealt with before he could start to worry about the trackerís fate.

Raking his icy gaze around the dark area, the gunslinger saw that Ezra had the five outlaws covered. With a rifle in one hand and his Remington in the other, the conman had ordered the men to throw down their weapons. He could also see that Nathan was already making his way over to Vin. Jumping down the last few steps from the gallows, Larabee called out to his other two friends as he sprinted towards the pair lying on the ground.

"Buck, Josiah, get after that sneaky bastard! But watch your backs!"

Nathan had reached the fallen tracker, although all he could see of the younger man was his lower legs and booted feet. There was no sound or movement from either man on the ground, which set the warning bells ringing in the healerís brain. The motionless outlaw was sprawled facedown, completely covering Vinís upper body and head and after kicking the bloodied knife out of harmís way, the former slave put two fingers to the manís slack wrist.

Chris was tight-lipped with anger but he demonstrated the precautionary measures of an experienced lawman and thrust his Colt hard into the fallen prisonerís neck.

"Dead?"

"They donít come much deader," Nathan responded curtly. He heard the worry in the older manís terse question, and was amazed that the volatile gunman was managing to hold his temper in check. "Help me lift this sonofabitch. But Chris, do it real gentle likeÖ else we may do Vin more harm."

The two peacekeepers carefully lifted the heavy corpse off the Texanís inert body and then dispassionately dropped the dead outlaw well away from their supine friend.

As Chris squatted down next to Vin, he impaled the subdued prisoners with an icy stare, a look that openly dared the men to make a move. Heíd reached the limit of his tolerance and only needed the smallest excuse to start shooting.

Retrieving the trackerís gun and thrusting it through the belt of his pants, the older man peered at his friendís immobile form, his mouth dry and terrorís icy hand clutching at his heart as Chris searched for any outward sign of life. Hell! He was getting too old for all this shit! And why did it always seem to be Vin who got hurt?

Nathan knelt opposite Chris, pressing surprisingly steady fingers to Vinís neck as he sought a pulse. No matter how frequently he did this, the healer never got used to the feeling of utter helplessness that spiked through him when he made an initial assessment of an unconscious patient. It was during those first moments of uncertainty, when he didnít know whether a precious life had already slipped away that the former slave keenly felt his medical inadequacies. Pushing away his sombre and altogether useless thoughts, Nathan concentrated on finding a heartbeat. The seconds dragged by at an inexorably slow speed for the dark-skinned peacekeeper, although his eyes never left Chrisí fearful countenance.

"Heís alive!"

On hearing Nathanís exultant confirmation, the gunslinger felt light-headed from relief and, noisily expelled the breath he hadnít realised heíd been holding.

"I need light. Chris, thereís a lantern in the barn," Nathan told his friend, as he quickly unfastened the younger manís bloodstained jacket and shirt and started his examination.

Ezra also let out a sigh of relief at the healerís statement, momentarily closing his eyes and murmuring a grateful ĎThank God!í As Larabee dashed into the building, the gambler holstered his Remington and stuck his hand into his jacket pocket. Heíd had the foresight to bring three sets of handcuffs from the jailhouse and he now casually tossed the manacles at the prisonersí feet.

"Sit down and be quiet, gentlemen," he ordered in an uncompromising tone.

As the five sank to the ground, Ezra smiled without humour and stared gimlet-eyed at the men. The Southernerís piercing green glare had the desired effect, and the outlawsí resentful muttering abruptly ended.

"Excellent. Now I would be obliged if you would adorn yourself with those fine trinkets. One can be cuffed solo, whilst the other four can find a partner and become intimate. I shall leave the matchmaking decisions to your own auspices, but anyone with more than one free hand will soon learn the error of their ways," the gambler warned the sullen-looking group.

As Chris hurried out of the barn with a lamp, all three peacekeepers heard the distant sound of a solitary gunshot.

"Shit! I think that came from the jail," the gunslinger muttered, his eyes flicking back and forth between the empty streets and the motionless form of the tracker.

Ezra saw blatant worry mingling with indecision on the features of the black-clad gunman as the older man strode past him with the light. Confident that the prisoners were securely shackled and posed no immediate threat, the gambler proffered his rifle to Chris.

"It would appear that Mr Jackson has a greater need of your presence, Mr Larabee. Therefore, I shall go and investigate and give additional back-up to our colleagues."

The older man placed the lamp next to the engrossed healer before throwing a grateful look at the gambler. "Thanks. I owe you, Ezra," the gunslinger murmured as he took the weapon the younger man held out.

Putting two fingers to the brim of his hat in acknowledgement to Chrisí heartfelt reply, the gambler swiftly drew his pair of matched Remingtons and took off at a run in the direction of the jailhouse.

"Nathan?"

The older peacekeeper glanced down at the healer as he said his name. Raw dread clawed at Chrisí belly, and even though anxiety for his blood-covered friend threatened to swamp him, he kept the rifle trained on the five handcuffed men.

Nathan had used the sling immobilising Vinís left arm as a temporary bandage for the knife wound and after removing his patientís hat, began to systematically check his friendís skull and neck for injury.

"This ainít all Vinís blood," the healer mumbled distractedly in response to Chrisí tense enquiry. "The blade caught his arm, but Iíll stitch it once I get him back to míclinic. The cut ainít too deep Ė jesí long aní messy. I donít feel any lumps on his head, but Iím not sure Ďbout his ribs yetÖ."

Another single gunshot was heard in the distance, cutting off the healerís medical summation. The black-dressed peacekeeper stood his ground, pointedly ignoring the gunfire, but his hazel eyes were alert as they constantly scanned the area. Although shackled and unarmed, the prisoners couldnít be discounted as a threat. Nathan was fully occupied tending to the insensate tracker, and Chris wouldnít leave his friends alone and unprotected in such a vulnerable position. The years spent as a top-notch gunman had given him an insight into the mind of an outlaw and being a cautious man by nature, Chris knew that more of Spivakís gang could be on the loose. He had complete faith in the abilities of Buck, Josiah and Ezra, so the gunslinger was confident he was making the right decision.

Taking no notice of what was happening around him, the healer carried on with his checks, grateful for the fact that his young friend was still out. As Nathanís expert hands skimmed across the trackerís lean torso, however, the man twitched and moaned softly, but showed no other signs of rousing. Jackson frowned and gently palpated Vinís bandage-swathed ribcage, clicking his tongue in irritation when his sensitive fingertips felt the bones flex slightly.

ďDammit! Yídonít do things by half measures, do ya Tanner?Ē the healer scowled darkly at his unconscious patient. Shaking his head in exasperation, Nathan bent over and placed his ear to Vinís chest.

Chris couldnít conceal his alarm, nor stop the sharp intake of breath, as he watched the healer work on their friend. There were many questions buzzing in the gunslingerís mind at this sudden development, although heíd seen enough men with broken ribs or crush injuries to understand what the other was checking for. Chris seethed inwardly with impatience, but remained silent, knowing the former slave would update him on Vinís condition as soon as humanly possible.

A minute or so passed before Nathan gave a contented grunt and smiled broadly to himself. Straightening up again, he studied the older man, easily reading the concern in the gunslingerís strained features, but also seeing another strong emotion vie for prominence.

Guilt.

It wasnít an unexpected reaction from Chris. Nathan knew his friend was still berating himself for his almost disinterested attitude when Kirklandís horse had ploughed Vin down several days earlier. Wanting to dispel some of his leaderís mounting fears, the former slave quickly relayed his findings.

"Chris, heís gonna need some more doctoriní, but I reckon heíll be fine," the healer assured his friend. "Those ribs he cracked are broken now, but his breathingís good, which means nuthinís touched a lung. Heís pretty banged up, totiní a mess ía new bruises and heís a mite shocked. But that hard head oí his ainít taken any hurt, so I reckon he should wake up soon. Unless yer comfortable leaving those boys" - Nathan jerked a thumb at the outlaws - "alone, weíll have tíwait fer the others to come back, afore we can carry him tímy place."

Chris glanced at the five prisoners and nodded in mute agreement. A weariness that had nothing to do with lack of sleep washed over the gunslinger and he suddenly felt the need for some privacy. Walking over to the barn, the gunslinger leant against the roughly planed wall, massaging his neck and shoulder to try and ease the tautness.

Ezra had departed just over five minutes ago, but the lack of contact with his other friends was beginning to concern Chris and he hoped the men hadnít run into more trouble. The weight of self-imposed responsibility pressed down heavily on him and not for the first time, Chris considered his position as a peacekeeper. Firstly, heíd never envisaged himself as a lawman, and the gunslinger couldnít understand why heíd willingly settled in this dusty backwater. After Sarah and Adam had gone, heíd aimlessly drifted form town to town, cutting himself off from people, and withdrawing into an impenetrable shell to protect his sundered emotions and sanity. Life had been far simpler when heíd ridden solo. So why had he lowered his defences and allowed himself to care for not just one other person, but six?

Was it Chrisí fate to see all those he held dear be injured Ė or worse still Ė die? Is this what the future held for him? Possibly, but the grief-embittered and previously aloof gunslinger had freely chosen a new path on the day he and Vin had intervened and saved Nathan Jacksonís life. Recalling the unspoken message of acceptance, unswerving trust and kinship heíd read on first gazing into the clear blue depths of Vin Tannerís eyes, Chris knew there was no going back for him. He would lose far more than he gained, even if he was ever able to relinquish this precious bond of friendship and brotherhood he shared with the Texan.

Puffing out an audible sigh, the older man stared unblinking at Vinís still form for several long seconds. Judge Travis had been single-minded in his desire to see justice done for his long-time friendís murder, and Chris now believed heíd let himself be swept along by the older manís judicial zealousness and need for retribution. As a result, he may have compromised the safety and security of his colleagues, and both JD and Vin had paid the forfeit with their blood. Could he have handled things differently? The gunslinger shifted his feet uneasily, his thoughts a chaotic jumble as he watched Nathan re-adjust the bloodied bandaging on the trackerís knife wound.

"I hope ya ainít thinkiní this is yer fault, or that ya shouldíve seen it cominí," the dark peacekeeper declared, his steadfast gaze now fastened on the blondís rigid-backed figure.

Chris turned away from Nathanís unflinching look and gave a deprecatory snort at the otherís statement, aware but not caring how easily the astute healer had picked up his troubled contemplationís.

"Vin was already hurt, and I put him at risk by including him in Orinís plan. I shouldíve figured these bastards wouldnít come easy," the older man countered in a quiet voice.

"It warnít yer choice tímake. We were already shy a man and Vin ainít a fella to sit back aní let his friends be outnumbered in a fight. So ya ainít got no call beatiní yerself up over this. Hell, I listened to Buck pouring out his heart earlier today, Ďcos he blamed hisself fer JDís shootiní, aní it looks like yer ridiní the same trail withÖ"

Nathanís stern rebuke trailed off as a low moan from Vin announced the trackerís return to consciousness. Automatically putting a restraining hand on the rousing manís uninjured arm, the healer leaned closer and began to quietly talk to his young friend.

"Vin, itís Nathan. Now I donít want ya makiní any foolish moves, Ďcos yaíve bin hurt, aní yaíll likely do yerself more damage if ya donít keep still. Vin, can ya hear me?"

Vinís eyelids fluttered a few times and then partially opened, revealing two slivers of blue. A confused frown furrowed his brow and moving his head to the side, he attempted to peer beyond the illuminated aura thrown out by the sputtering lamp. He couldnít work out what had happened. Why he was lying on the ground? All he knew was that it hurt to breathe, and his arm and shoulder felt like someone had taken a red-hot brand to them. His body throbbed and ached so badly he was convinced a herd of stampeding buffalo must have trampled over him. At least twice! Or had he been shot? Vinís thoughts were hazy, his muddled mind a complete blank, so when the healer began to speak once more, he immediately latched onto the manís soothing voice.

"Vin, we caught the gang. No síprises Ė but youís the only one that got hurt! So much fer yer promise not tído any bronco bustiní! Now donít try aní move, Ďcos ya done broke those weakened ribs, as well as getting knifed in the shoulder. I jesí need ya to keep still aní stay exactly where ya are, Ďtil Chris aní me are ready to move ya to míclinic."

Vinís eyes became as wide as saucers when the last part of Nathanís explanation registered in his addled brain, and he irritably batted away the healerís hand.

"ClinÖ nic? Aw, hell! WhereísÖ ChrÖris? LemmeÖ. up, Nate!" the tracker rasped, as he struggled to push himself upright.

A sharp, breath-stealing spasm lanced through Vinís shoulder and torso as he twisted onto his side, and he couldnít stop the agonised cry that whistled past his clenched teeth.

"Argh! Shit!" he hissed.

The wounded man flopped to the ground with a loud groan, instinctively rolling onto the uninjured side of his body and screwing his eyes shut as he tried to ride out the relentless waves of excruciating pain. Vin heard nothing, and was totally oblivious to the healerís concerned voice urging him to relax and take shallow, steady breaths. The tracker was lost in a never-ending sea of misery, adrift and detached from everything except the mind-numbing agony.

Tanner didnít see the dark figure swiftly emerge from the shadows, but as a warm hand suddenly clasped his right one, the Texan felt the familiar surge of togetherness flood through him. Gratefully homing in on that bolstering sensation, the burning constriction around his chest lessened somewhat and Vin immediately drew strength from his closest friendís touch.

ĎChris.í

Vinís bloodless lips formed the name, and although the word was never actually spoken, Chris heard the call nonetheless. Gripping his injured friend tighter as a fresh grimace of pain settled on the trackerís pallid features, the gunslinger absently smoothed Vinís unruly hair with his other hand.

"Easy, pard," he murmured sympathetically. "I got your back, so just relax and hold onto me. Can we hurry up and get him outta here, Nathan?"

"Yeah. Iím gonna see if I can find a suitable board to carry him on," Nathan replied. "Chris, try aní keep him still aní calm, else heíll pop a lung. Vin, jesí keep that scrawny, Texas hide of yours staked to the ground!" the healer ordered.

Vin could hear his friendís voice fading in and out, but the bands of white-hot pain around his chest made it difficult to breathe and trying to talk was a futile exercise. It seemed to be too much effort to prise his eyelids open again, so he just held onto Chrisí hand for all he was worth and concentrated on taking small, even breaths. It helped, and he was able to control the nauseating agony that radiated from his ribs, arm and shoulder.

As Nathan disappeared inside the barn, Chris heard the crunch of boots on gravel. Reluctantly disengaging the trackerís hand he hastily grabbed the discarded rifle and leapt to his feet. The blond took up a gunfighterís stance in front of Vin, drawing his Colt in readiness as he prepared to defend his fallen brother.

"Dammit, Standish, holler next time!" the gunslinger growled, un-cocking his gun as the younger man came into sight.

The gambler gave a rueful grin, lowering his own weapons as he approached Chris.

"My apologies, Mr Larabee. Unfortunately, I am the bearer of ill tidings. I regret to inform you that Miz Madeline Stokes has been shot dead by Spivak. However, I can also report that Mr Wilmington took great delight in ending that worthless miscreantís life before he was able to harm the older sister. I have just completed a quick, although thorough, reconnoitre of the streets, and found no other criminals prowling our fair municipality. So I thought it prudent to return here to lend you and Mr Jackson some assistance. Our colleagues are attending to theÖ. ahÖ ummÖ the clean-up in the jailhouse."

Chris blew out a frustrated breath and shook his head forlornly at Ezraís grim news. It was bad enough that Vin had been hurt for a second time, but to learn that the young woman who was supposedly safe in custody had been murdered sickened the gunslinger to the core. He regretted not posting a guard in the jailhouse and was furious with himself for not keeping a closer watch on the seemingly empty streets before the peacekeepers had sprung their trap. The young man, whose very essence was intertwined with Chrisí own, now lay seriously injured at his feet, and a convicted prisoner held under his protection had lost her life due to his mistakes.

Chris had failed them both.

Ezra skirted around the five seated outlaws, sparing them no more than a cursory glance of contempt. He could feel the self-imposed culpability surrounding the gunslinger like a shroud and saw the tense, shuttered look on the otherís features. But the Southerner knew there was no point in offering Chris any consoling words of exoneration. There was only one man the blond would accept the unwarranted, but clearly necessary, absolution from - and that man was Vin Tanner.

"How fares our injury-prone Texan?" Ezra enquired, deliberately keeping his tone impartial as he studied the motionless tracker.

"Busted his ribs again and got sliced too."

"It appears that we underestimated those desperadoes. But even the best laid plans can go awry, andÖ."

Ezra halted, catching the frigid stare that Larabee directed at him. Ah, yes, there is definitely a large measure of self-flagellation and reproach simmering within Chris. The man wears guilt like a mantle! The thought drifted unbidden into the gamblerís mind, but he quickly lowered his eyes to disguise that knowledge from the unpredictable gunman. The older man needed time Ė and probably a reasonable quantity of whiskey - to come to terms with this nightís events. Acutely aware of his personal limitations with Chris, Ezra wisely kept own his counsel.

The barn door creaking open broke the turgid silence and Nathan appeared dragging a wide, sturdy-looking plank of timber.

"UmmÖ yesÖ waal, I see you and Mr Jackson have matters in hand regarding our friendís transportation requirements, so I shall attend to the prisoners, Mr Larabee." Ezra pointed his revolvers at the outlaws as he spoke, gesturing to the men to get to their feet.

Chris said nothing as he watched the gambler escort the prisoners at gunpoint towards the jail. Once the men were out of earshot, he turned his full attention to Nathan.

"Ready?"

The healer had knelt down to check the blood-soaked bandages on Vinís arm and he nodded absently to Chrisí short, brusque question. It didnít take long to get the semi-conscious man loaded onto the makeshift stretcher and after the gunslinger was satisfied that the streets were devoid of life, the pair of peacekeepers began the slow trip to Nathanís clinic.

 

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