Vin walked alone down the dirt road. The place was so familiar. He'd been here once before -- a long time ago.

The trees, though, seemed more lush -- it must have been a good winter for rain in this normally arid region. The road itself seemed less furrowed -- did lack of travel do that to a road? Did time and weather smooth even the deepest of wheel ruts? He imagined so.

In the distance, past the leftward curve in the road, the sharpshooter saw a whisping curl of smoke above the brush. Vin knew it was from a fire, though, to be that tight of a curl that high in the air meant the smoke was escaping from a chimney and not some pile of twigs stoked on the open ground.

As he walked on, down the road, around the bend, he came to a wide clearing on which stood a small house with the chimney he'd suspected and a porch which ran the entire width of the front then disappeared around the far side.

A small boy was hanging on the railing of the corral which held two horses. He turned suddenly, then, seeing Vin; smiling, he ran over. "Yer finally here! Ma said you'd be comin'."

Vin nodded his head and allowed the boy to take his hand. The dark-haired child led him to the house and up the stairs of the porch. A moment later, a woman appeared in the doorway carrying a tray with glasses and a pitcher.

"You've been traveling a long time," she said, and Vin knew that the dust of the road must have given him away. "May I offer you some lemonade?"

"Lemonade?" Vin asked. He couldn't recall ever seeing a lemon tree this far south in the New Mexico Territory -- he didn't think they grew wild here.

The woman merely nodded at him as she smiled. "Please, have a seat," she said, then turned her attention back to pouring the ice-cold liquid. The first glass she only filled halfway, then offered it to the boy who actually said thank you before running back to watch the horses play.

Beneath one of the front windows was a wooden bench which looked out over the little homestead's land. It was a lovely view, Vin easily decided as he sat down to enjoy it. A moment later, the woman came over carrying two glasses of lemonade. She handed one to Vin, then sat down beside him on the bench.

She absently brushed her long, brown hair off her shoulder with the back of her hand. "Was your journey a difficult one?" she finally asked.

Vin pondered a moment before answering. "Parts of it were. But, on that last leg there, I had the company of six friends. Reckon they kept me from gettin' here sooner, truth be told."

"I don't suppose you'd have made it here at all if it hadn't been for them," she corrected and Vin turned to squint his eyes at her, wondering what she could know of his friends. "They're good men, all of 'em," she added.

Vin had to agree with her. "Ya been here long?" he asked.

"Near-on eight years," she replied with a smile, though Vin noted how sad and lonely her face was. "He was born not long after the roof was raised."

Vin looked over at the corral, at the son to whom she referred. He couldn't have been more than six.

"When did you leave your friends," she asked, returning the subject to a place Vin wasn't quite comfortable.

"Don't rightly know. A while back -- a few days, I guess. Seems like I've been walkin' fer an awfully long time. Didn't quite know where I was headin'."

"We rarely do. Why did you leave them?"

Vin had to think about this one. It seemed like a long time since he'd seen them at all, yet it also felt like just a moment ago. "There was this woman," he said after a long silence. "She sure knew how ta get ta a man, ta tempt him, lead him astray. I shoulda seen it right from the beginnin', but fer some reason I was blind ta it."

"Love does that," the woman said before taking another sip of her lemonade.

"But it wasn't love. And that's what I shoulda seen. It was ... I don't know. Loneliness, I reckon." Vin paused now, savoring the sweet tartness of the cool drink. "Maybe even a longin' fer a part of the past, 'fore things got bad."

The woman nodded, then got up from the bench, taking Vin's glass along with her own. She refilled them and, when she returned, she sat down just a little bit closer to him. He noticed, but it didn't seem strange to him and he didn't think to mind.

"But ya can't go back. Ya can try, but it's never the same. Ya just have ta keep goin' on." Vin slouched down some on the bench now, stretching out his long, lean legs. "She pulled a gun -- I shoulda seen it comin', but I didn't. It was one of those lil' derringers, small enough ta tuck away in a handbag -- short barrels, terrible aim at any sorta distance."

"And you were wounded," she said. "Here." She reached over and laid her fingertips on a spot just left of center, just below his ribs. At her touch, Vin's memory of the pain returned -- she was right, it was the exact spot the bullet had hit him.

"But I drew on her 'fore she could get off her second shot," Vin said, recalling the dull thud with which her body had hit the floor in the hotel lobby. "And that was the end of it. Cletus Fowler killed himself in that fire and I shot Ella Gaines." Vin took another sip of lemonade. "I wonder what Chris is gonna do now."

"Oh, he'll be along soon," she said, gently leaning her head against Vin's shoulder. "There's just one more thing he has to do first."

Vin moved his arm around her, hugging her to him.

"He still has to clear your name in Tascosa."

"Ya reckon he will?" Vin had meant to go back -- so many times -- but something always came up, kept him from it, until it just seemed in his mind like it would be an impossible fight anyway. Impossible without the real murderer alive to take back so he could tell the truth.

"I reckon we won't see him until he does. He feels responsible for killing Eli Joe, just as much as you feel responsible for letting Ella Gaines get away that first time."

Vin nodded. He had felt responsible, and he hadn't left the man's side until they'd tracked her down. Then, he made certain she would never hurt Chris Lrabee again. He couldn't stand to see him hurt anymore.

"Chris won't rest either. He'll do whatever it takes. That's what he does for the people he loves."

"Wish there was a way ta help him," Vin said, quirking a frustrated smile.

The woman patted his leg. "Best way we can help him is by being here when he arrives."

Vin nodded. He then noticed the sun getting low in the sky. A gentle breeze had stirred, causing the windmill to the side of the house to begin turning.

"I hope you're hungry, Vin" she finally said, rising off the bench. "It's Sunday, so we're having chicken and dumplings." She smiled again at Vin, who rose, taking her hand and following her to the front door. "Would you fetch Adam in for supper?"

"Sure thing, Sarah," Vin replied.

~ Fade ~

May 2001 - C.V. Puerro

Please do NOT repost this story anywhere outside of the Blackraptor Fiction Website.

Thanks to my friend for all her encouragement and helpful commentary.

This story is based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven," which is own by The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, and CBS Worldwide, Inc. No copyright infringement is intended and this story will not be sold for any reason.