To any other man, the stranger riding into town on the tall horse with the worn tack was just a lone cowboy, probably looking for a meal, a drink, and a bed, with a bath tossed in only if it was convenient. To any other man, he was just a shadow passing through town who wasn't worth a second look.
Chris Larabee wasn't any other man.
The stranger caught his eye first thing. It wasn't anything Chris could've put into words, even if he'd thought about it. It was just a feeling - and he hadn't lived this long by ignoring his feelings.
The fella wasn't a bounty hunter, that wasn't the feeling Chris got. His expression was too open, too friendly. He was eating an apple as he paced his horse down the muddy street, and he touched his hat and smiled at ladies passing by. Even sitting, he was tall, with brown hair shot with gray, a full mustache and eyes creased at the sides like he spent a lot of time smiling and laughing.
Still, Chris felt him a threat.
He watched him down the long street and saw the man pull up in front of the saloon. For no good reason, that sent another sting of apprehension into Chris' spine. He stood from his chair in front of the jail. Better to know this man's business straight up than learn it the hard way later on.
The saloon was full and the man was at the bar drinking a beer when Chris walked in. He went to the bar as well, and ordered a whisky. He stood a good arm's length away, and kept a surreptitious watch on the fella in the mirror and out of the corner of his eye. The fella didn't seem to be doing much, just drinking his beer. At one point he took one of his coins on the bar and flicked it to make it spin on its edge, and he stared intently at that awhile.
"Name's Tom." He said finally. They were the only two at the bar and his voice wasn't loud enough for anyone else to hear. He wasn't looking at Chris, but he had to be talking to him.
"Is it?" Chris asked, sounding uninterested.
"Yeah, figured maybe knowing my name'd make it easier for you to ask whatever question y'got strangling you there. I ain't been eyed up so much since I fell in with a coupla grass widows over in Fort Smith." The man – Tom – turned to face Chris and looked him once up and down.
"Don't see a badge, don't recollect owing you money and I know you ain't my Ma…" He kept his tone conversational, but Chris sensed a lethal nature under the calm exterior. "Still, I'm thinking it wasn't coincidence that made you get out of that rickety chair in front of the jail and follow me all the way down here."
"Not looking for trouble." Chris told him. He knew that Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah were scattered around the room, and were keeping an eye on his situation.
"No – but I think maybe your friends are." Tom took another sip of beer. "Fancy fella, good with the cards and a rig up his sleeve two tables behind me. Colored man, talking something low and serious with a farmer off in the corner. Third fella, gray hair, looks like he could snap a man's neck without thinking about it."
Chris nearly grinned in admiration – this guy was good.
"Then there's the tall fella, back in the shadows." Tom went on to Chris' surprise. He didn't know Buck was in the saloon. "Mustache, tan coat. Hasn't made up his mind to step in, or wait to see what happens." Tom finished his beer and smiled at Chris. "Now I've got a horse to tend to, so I'm headed to the livery if you've a mind to continue this conversation."
He picked up his change and headed out the swinging doors, without looking back once to see whether Chris was following.
Buck was at Chris' side in a few moments. "We got trouble?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Well, we're all accounted for but JD and Vin." Buck gave a thorough look around the saloon. "Though I doubt JD could scare up the kind of trouble that man might be carrying."
"Vin's down at Mary's." Chris knew he was down there for a reading lesson.
"Think this fella's a bounty hunter?"
"No, I don't. All the same, I think he's trouble."
"You want me to keep an eye on him?" Buck asked. "I could be headed down that way to see Miss Lily. He'd never know I was following him."
"Buck – he already knows you're following him." Chris had to say. "I'm gonna head to Mary's."
Vin was feeling pretty good about himself after finishing his lesson with Mary. He was catching on fast, she said so. Soon he'd be able to read any wanted poster he came across, he'd be able to read Mary's paper. Maybe he'd even read that book Jock Steele had written about the fellas, 'The Magnificent Seven'.
He crossed the mud street and passed the livery, aiming for the saloon, when a voice behind him made him stop dead in his tracks.
"Boy, you are just too damn easy to find."
Vin turned to face the tall man holding a folded piece of paper that he could see was his own wanted poster. He swallowed once but kept his voice calm.
"What d'you want?"
"You know what I want." He shook the wanted poster. "You're coming back to Texas with me."