They'd been discussing their options for over an hour now, and they were beginning to get antsy. The seven men had been on the trail of a vicious outlaw gang for the better part of the week. Guilty of stealing, murdering, raping and destroying whatever they could get their hands on, the Terrance gang had made one very big mistake. They'd moved into the territory under the protectorate of the seven regulators responsible for law and order in Four Corners and its environs. Now, the group of lawmen were on the trail, and though they hadn't caught up with them yet, it was just a matter of time...and planning.
"Chasin' after 'em hasn't done a hell of a lot of good," grumbled Buck Wilmington.
"What we need is a reason to make them come to us."
Chris Larabee pushed back the black hat that had dipped down to cover one eye. Leaning forward, his elbows resting on the table, he pierced Ezra Standish with a look. "What are you talking about?"
The slap of Diamond Jack being laid on Club Queen punctuated the gambler's words as he explained. "Mr. Tanner has done a fine job of tracking these n'er-do-wells, and we've been fortunate enough to guess where some of their next targets would be, but we'd stand a much better chance of catching them if we brought them to us.
"Precisely, Mr. Dunne."
"There's just one thing wrong with that sort of thinkin'," Vin Tanner ran his fingers through the matted curls at the back of his neck, flicking the sweat-drenched hair away from his skin, "we don't have nothin' they want."
"Money, weapons, women, booze...he's right, Ezra, how are we gonna get them interested?" questioned Nathan Jackson.
"They're not just mean sons-of-bitches, they're also arrogant."
"What are you thinkin' on, cowboy?"
Larabee gathered all of his men in closer with a look. "It's what you said, Vin. We don't have nothin' they want, but what if we took somethin' of theirs? Or made it look like we were?"
J.D. Dunne looked around at the older men in confusion. "I don't get it, Chris, do you mean steal somethin' from them?"
"A name, a reputation, can mean a whole lot to a group lookin' to terrorize folks." Smiling, Josiah tipped the bottle of whiskey over and refilled his glass. Taking a sip, he nodded at Larabee. "I like it."
"How we plannin' on doin' it? Being badder-assed than them? That'd take a whole heap of cooperation from folks here 'bouts," Nathan pointed out
Lips pursed, Larabee hesitated, then smiled. A smile that sent chills up the spines of everyone who didn't know him...and some that did. "We become them."
Nodding, Larabee scooted his peas onto his fork with the help of the one flaky biscuit that'd escaped drowning in the pool of chicken gravy covering half his plate. "Thanks, kid. Ezra, were you able to get everything you'll need and can you finish up by tomorrow night?"
"I was able to get everything needed for Mr. Dunne's "costume" from Mrs. Potter, she was quite obliging when I explained what we needed and why. Everything else I was able to get from Mrs. Travis. In fact, she has insisted that we allow her to help, so I will place Mr. Tanner in her very capable hands first thing tomorrow morning."
Vin quirked an eyebrow at the gambler then lowered his head to study his plate. He used his fork to cut one of the cheese and onion covered potatoes in half, then half again, then once again. With nothing left to cut up, he began moving the food around, a square dance between potatoes, fried chicken and biscuits. He wasn't exactly sure what Chris had in mind, but something just wasn't settin' right with him. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on exactly, he just had a bad feeling about the whole thing and that usually meant trouble was a comin'.
"You know, Vin, that food would do you a whole lot more good if it were in your belly and not being pushed around on your plate," Nathan teased.
Ducking his head, Vin smiled briefly and made a conscious effort to actually eat some of the dinner provided by the town as part of their weekly pay. "So, Chris, you gonna tell us what the plan is?"
Chris swallowed a mouthful of apple pie and followed that up with a sip of hot coffee. Wiping his mouth with his napkin, he leaned back in his chair and began. "Of the five men who make up the Terrance gang three are brothers, the other two are their sons. Grady Terrance is the oldest, he's also their leader. He's a gray-headed, large man. Gip and his son, Hal, are both dark-haired. Gavin and his son, Robbie, are both fair-haired and thin. What I aim for us to do is what I said, become them. We'll start here in Four Corners at some of the outlying ranches, and work our way southeast. Have to leave it to the judge to work things out with the banks and businesses, make sure everything looks legitimate."
"So, we're going to actually go in and rob some banks? Don't you think that could get dangerous?" Nathan objected.
"More dangerous than letting another twenty men get killed, lettin' twelve more girls get raped, or nine other ranches get burned to the ground?"
Vin followed their leader's line of logic and could see how it would work, he could also see how some innocent folks could end up gettin' hurt...or worse. "Chris, I think what Nathan's trying to say is even if the judge has everything covered with the owners of the banks, how are we gonna control things if some innocent bystander tries to take things into their own hands? All it will take is one over eager rancher and we're gonna have blood on our hands."
"That's where you come in."
Chris swallowed the last of his coffee, then explained. "Josiah's gonna be our Grady Terrance, Buck and I will be Gip and Gavin, you and J.D. will be Hal and Robbie. We're pushing it with the ages, so when we go into the banks you and J.D. will stand back at the doors. That way, no one inside of the bank will get too close of a look at you, at the same time, you can keep your eye on what's going on. If you see some do-gooder goin' for a gun, nip 'em in the hand or arm. I'd like to see this go down without anyone else gettin' hurt, but we'll do what we have to. Getting the Terrance gang to notice us and come after us is what's important. Everything else is secondary."
Vin noticed J.D. staring at him. The younger man had that little know-it-all smile on his face and was really starting to irritate him but he tried to ignore it. After putting up with it for a couple of minutes, he started to believe he'd have to shoot the kid to get him to stop. Figuring Larabee would get upset with him if he did, he pushed his hat to the back of his head and glared across the table. "What?"
"Oh! Sorry, Vin, I was just thinkin'."
"Lord, help us!"
"Shut up, Buck." J.D. looked from Buck back to Vin, his smile broadening to a grin. "You know, Miz Nettie's been trying to get you to shave that scruff off your face for awhile now. She's gonna be pleased as puddin' to find out you finally did it."
"Ah, my dear boy, not just a shave. New clothing, a haircut, why, by the time Mrs. Travis finishes with him he won't look a day over eighteen!"
"Haircut?!? Damn it, Larabee, you didn't say nothin' 'bout no haircut!" Vin pushed his chair back and leveled Larabee with his own tracker version of 'the glare.' "I ain't gettin' no damn haircut! What's my hair got to do with anything?"
Chris knew what that hair meant to Vin. He also knew that Vin knew exactly why it had to be cut. Out on the frontier, a man lived or died by how tough he was. And though many a man had been proven wrong, it was often that first impression that labeled a man's strength or weakness. Looking the way he did, Vin had to do everything he could to present an image of capability. He used that old buckskin jacket to hide how lean he was, give him some bulk. The whiskers on his cheeks and the long hair helped to hide the fine bones and youth from his face. Out of all of the other men, Chris was the only one who knew exactly how young Vin Tanner really was. Take away the things that helped him achieve his chameleon-like appearance, and you left the man vulnerable. But now, the leader of the seven needed that vulnerability out there, showing, so that they could pull this off and capture the Terrance gang.
"Ezra will meet you at Mary's first thing in the morning. They'll get you all fixed up. J.D., when they're finished you'll need to get to Mrs. Potter and get the items they've got for you. Try not to give them a hard time. We'll meet back here tomorrow at four. Any questions?"
"Yeah, I have one," Buck said. Snatching the hat off the top of J.D.'s head and throwing it across the table to Josiah, he asked, "Does that mean the kid's finally gonna have to lose that ugly thing?"
"Damn it, Buck, give me back my hat!"
"Vin, is your back beginning to bother you?"
"No, ma'am," he smiled at her concern, "just stretchin' a bit."
"All right, but you let me know if you start to feel uncomfortable. I'm almost finished." Picking up the comb from the table beside her, Mary ran it through the light brown hair. With the weight of the curls gone, the strands felt silky and cool to her fingers. She'd managed to gently slope the back of his hair so that it rested nicely against his collar and followed the line of his jaw up to his bangs. It was still long, but with it shaped around his face he did appear years younger. Taking the whisk, she quickly swept the stray bits from his neck and shoulders, then removed the cloth she'd placed around him. "There, all done. What do you think, Ezra?"
Standish reached out and lifted the tracker's chin so he could get a better look. Turning Vin's face first left then right, he finally nodded. "It's perfect, my dear. As a master of disguise, I must say that you've done an excellent job getting just the right effect."
Ignoring the faint blush that was creeping up Vin's face, Mary reached out and ruffled his hair. "Good. Now we get him shaved and into his new clothes and he'll be all set."
Chris, looking more like the head of an outlaw gang and less like a gunslinger in his new clothes in beige and tan, walked beside of the judge over to the newspaper office. The other men and Mary were waiting for him. They'd decided to get things rolling by having the Clarion carry a story about the desperate 'Terrance gang', so she and Ezra were trying to finish that up before they took off. Stepping off the street onto the boardwalk, Chris couldn't help but shake his head at the image in the window. The six men looked more like a classroom of students gathered around the school marm than a deadly gang. He noticed J.D. and Vin looking over Mary's right shoulder. Hard to believe that those two boys just yesterday were a scruffy tracker and the town's sheriff. With the help of the gambler, Mary Travis, and Mrs. Potter it looked like they might actually just pull this off.
The bell above the door tinkled when Larabee entered the newspaper office. Dipping his head to Mary, he asked her, "Article ready to go?"
"Yes, it is, Chris. All I have left to do is set it and it's all done. I'll run it in tomorrow's paper as planned. How about you, you ready to go?"
"I think so. Nathan and Ezra, you've talked to Clements and McPheesley about watching out for things while we're gone? And you've got the rendevouz schedule, right?"
Nathan crossed the room and held out his hand to Chris. Once the other man has grasped his hand in return, he shook it, wishing him and the others well. "We've got it taken care of, Chris. You boys be careful, and make sure you wire me immediately if you need me, hear?"
"Hell, Nathan, it's just us being us. What kind of trouble can we get into?" Buck's eyes twinkled with mischief as he threw one large arm around J.D.'s shoulders. "Me and my boy here are just gonna be takin' care of some family business."
"It's that boy there, and that other one," Nathan pointed at Vin using his chin, "that I'm worried about. Not one drop of blood, you hear me? Not one. I'm tired of stitching them two up, and you, Larabee, try to steer clear of the gunfire . I don't need to be takin' anymore bullets out of your sorry hide neither."
Practicing his 'glare' on the healer, Vin muttered, "I ain't a boy."
Fond affection lessened the sterness of Larabee's gaze as he watched his young friend deal with the teasing and warnings issued by Nathan, Buck and the others. It was hard for him to reconcile the image of the wet-behind-the-ears kid standing there with the quick-witted, deadly tracker that he knew him to be. And it made him wonder if life had not been so rough on the young man would this be who he was truly meant to be? Vin Tanner, kid with an old soul. That's who he was, but what could he have become if....shaking his head to clear the heavy thoughts, Chris wiped a hand across his face and smiled at his mind's wanderings. He stepped up behind Tanner and rested his hand on the back of the young man's neck. Squeezing gently, he said, "Come on, son, let's ride."