Battle Scars

by Cmurph

Main Character: Vin, of course. None better.

With thanks to Deirdre for her storyline in With Eagles Wings - a classic.

Size: Approx. 127K

He felt them approach, even before he saw the colors of the stars and stripes, heard them snapping in the wind as the troop advanced. Dust clouds billowed from beneath the horses’ hooves. The deadly bayonets of the rifles and the gold buttons on the blue coats reflected the sun in a shimmer of silver and gold. Vin Tanner collapsed his telescope and slipped it into his coat pocket without taking his eyes off the horizon. He heard the scrape of a heavy boot heel and the sharp ring of spurs on the boardwalk.

"Company comin’," he said without turning, his eyes still fixed on the horizon.

"We know about this?" asked Chris Larabee, leaving the boardwalk to join his friend at the end of main street.

"Nothin’ I’ve heard tell," answered Tanner. He turned, now, to face the man in black.

"Just passin’ through, I reckon," Larabee offered casually, attempting to quell the uneasiness he read in the tracker’s eyes.

Vin flashed a humorless smile and nodded once, then glanced back to the approaching riders.

Chris kept his eyes on Vin. He knew there was no love lost between Vin and the army. He had served in the Confederacy during the war between the states, and later suffered from the army’s mission to clear the West of "hostiles," the only family the tracker had known until now. And there was more – a hidden memory Chris knew of but never mentioned. A memory his friend had spoken in a fevered dream which remained a secret even between them.

Although Larabee harbored a certain degree of distrust towards the army, and did sympathize with Vin’s position, his loyalties were more divided. He had served with distinction in the Union army, had won his war and made many friendships within the ranks. The Indian situation was new to him and, although he disagreed with the army’s position on land rights, he had no personal association with the tribes. His only experience had been with Jake Ford. But the sergeant had been insane, and Chris had found himself easily separating the man from the uniform.

"You want to ride out for a while?" he offered as they began to make out the features of the approaching cavalry.

Tanner shrugged.

"We haven’t heard of any trouble. And I’m sure the boys’n me can handle anything they’re bringin’," Chris continued, nodding towards the men in blue.

Again, Tanner shrugged. His calm demeanor belied the fact that his mind was screaming at him to accept the offer. He felt the sweat trickling down his back. He wanted to run – to ride to the hills, the mountains, to anywhere that was not here right now. His mouth was dry and he cleared his throat to find a voice to answer.

"Naw, I’ll stick around," he said finally, surprising himself at his answer. He appreciated his friend’s offer, but his loyalty to this town, these men, made him stubborn.

"Ya’ll don’t have to be molly-coddlin’ me every time a patch of blue comes ridin’."

Larabee rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head in mild frustration.

"Ain’t molly-coddlin’ no one," he argued. "Hell, Vin, we all got our ghosts. If we can spare each other a hauntin’ now and then…"

"I’ll stay," Vin interrupted with more conviction then he felt.

Chris swore under his breath but gave up the fight. He turned his attention instead to the approaching riders, making out captain’s bars now on the officer in front. He eased his hat back farther on his head as he looked up into the eyes of the rider and waited, feeling Vin shift uneasily at his side.

"Hayo!" called a lieutenant as the captain raised his hand lazily. The lieutenant dismounted alongside the commanding officer as they approached the regulators. The captain handed him the reins to his mount, then pulled off his white gloves, slapping them against his thigh in a cloud of dust. He spat dryly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, cursing the heat and the dust.

"Captain Marshall Evans," he said, extending his hand to Chris.

Chris nodded curtly, accepting the proffered hand. "Chris Larabee."

The captain held his hand after the shake, looking back into the gunfighter’s eyes.

"Larabee," he repeated, nodding his head slightly. He cocked an eyebrow. "Sheriff?"


"You?" the captain asked nodding towards Vin.

"Sheriff’s at the jail," Chris answered instead. "John Dunne. We," he nodded towards Vin, "give him a hand."

"I’ll bet you do," the captain answered with the barest hint of a smile. "I’ll bet you do indeed."

Vin had yet to move. He wished he had listened to the little voice in his head that had told him to run. It was too late now. He stood uncomfortably trying to discern the look on the captain’s face. His first instincts had told him this was not a bad man. His eyes were calm, almost tired – but they had sparked at the name of Larabee and now Vin hesitated at what reaction the name of Tanner would bring.

Chris had been thinking along the same lines – reason enough to have avoided introducing Vin at first. He would give the tracker time to decide what name to offer.

Evans rubbed his face, the smile became broader, the eyes picked up the light of humor.

"Now, I’ve heard of a Larabee," he started, "made a name for himself in this man’s army. Made a name for himself afterwards by being particularly accurate with a sidearm."

Chris stiffened and Vin let his hand drop casually alongside his gun.

"Lt. Davis?" the captain called back, his eyes never leaving the man in black.


"Ask the sergeant to come forward, will you?"


The captain cleared his throat, brushed at the dust that covered his tunic, then looked up lazily again.

"And then there’s another Larabee…" he started, the smile broadening.

Chris had his eyes trained on the captain, but glanced quickly to the left to take in the sergeant’s approach. He looked back at the captain, then stopped and slowly turned back to the man in the black eye patch who was walking towards him.

"Good God…" he breathed.

The captain contained the smile no more and broke into a hearty laugh. Vin watched, eyes wide with surprise as Chris and the army sergeant stood, smiled – smiled! – and embraced.

"Good God a’mighty!" the sergeant bellowed, pushing Chris back to arms’ length, then pulling him back in for another embrace. "Good God a’mighty!" he repeated.

"I hadn’t heard from you after I left Gettysburg," Chris said in amazement. " I thought…"

"Ho, now, can’t get rid of your big brother that easy!" the big man roared. "I lost a peeper during my time on the Kansas-Missouri border," he said, indicating the eye patch, "sent me to work in Missouri for a spell. I wrote you once or twice but I guess they never got to you. Figured the same of you ‘til I started to hear rumors of a young gunslinger out West soilin’ the good Larabee name!"

Vin stood quietly in awe of the display before him. But at the last barb thrown by the sergeant he looked quickly at Chris to see his reaction.

The smile had frozen on Chris’ face, but the big sergeant clapped the younger man on the shoulder and laughed at his discomfort.

"Now, don’t you go gettin’ your dander up," he chided. "I was just havin’ a joke. I hear you’re right important in this town now," he continued. "They call you a regulator, that right? Help out the local law?"

"And I’m right lucky to have him, too."

Vin and Chris both started at the voice coming from behind. J.D. was approaching with Buck at his side.

"What’s all this about, Chris?" asked Buck.

"Gentlemen," the captain interrupted. "If I might. As much as it pleases me to bring two long-lost brothers together like this, I do have men and animals to tend to at the moment. Sheriff Dunne?" he asked, offering his hand to J.D.

"Yes, sir," said J.D. "And this here’s Buck Wilmington. Another one of our regulators here in Four Corners."

"Mr. Wilmington," the captain nodded. "If you would be so kind as to point us in the general direction of the livery my men could tend to the horses, then get themselves a camp set up just outside your town. Meanwhile, Sheriff, I’d be happy to fill you in on our business here, and these two boys can get caught up on family matters."

"I’ll take ‘em over, J.D.," Buck offered. "You go take care of your official business with the captain here."

J.D.’s chest swelled a bit at Buck’s nod towards his official capacity. The young man knew he alone could never keep the peace in the town, but it seemed to him sometimes that the rest of the regulators had a tendency to forget he was the official law in the town, not Chris. Although right now he was torn between doing his duty and talking to Chris and the sergeant who was apparently his brother.

"This way, Captain Evans," said J.D., leading the way to the jail.

Buck turned towards the captain’s aide.

"Follow me, boys," he said, turning towards the livery. He nodded towards the sergeant, then sent a puzzled look towards Chris. Larabee could see the question in his old friend’s eyes – Brother?

"Now, son, if you could lead this old decrepit fossil of a brother to the local watering hole…" said the sergeant, his arm draped about Chris’ shoulder, "…and introduce me to the rest of these here ‘reg-a-lay-tors.’"

Chris smiled, the former insult forgotten.

"My pleasure," he answered. He glanced towards Vin to follow them as they turned towards the saloon.

Vin watched his friend saunter off with the army sergeant. He had caught the wordless invitation to join them, saw the delight in the gunfighter’s eyes. Yet for the first time since they had met, it seemed his friend had not caught the message Vin’s eyes had sent. Or maybe Chris had seen something different – the usual hesitancy Vin displayed around the military. But there was more here. A memory stirred in the far reaches of Vin’s mind. A dark memory he had buried long ago. It had slammed into him with the force of a bullet when the sergeant had first embraced Chris, yet before the tendrils of pure memory began to reach out from the past to take hold of him, he had forced them from his mind. He did not wish to go back.

"Inez! A bottle of the best you’ve got!" Chris shouted as he walked into the saloon with his brother. Ezra looked up from his corner table in surprise as Chris brought an army sergeant to meet him.

"Mr. Larabee," he said, placing the deck he had been shuffling down on the table before him. "I admit to being somewhat aghast at this unusual display of exuberance on your part."

"Ezra Standish, I’d like you to meet my brother, Wil," Chris said with delight as he watched the shocked expression on the gambler’s usual poker face. He rose uncertainly as he extended his hand towards the sergeant. He started to speak, stopped, and shook his head, looking again at the brothers standing before him.

"I must admit to a most singular occurrence," he said, finally. "Mr. Larabee? I am at a loss for words."

"Damn, Ez, that is a first," Chris smiled.

"To be matched, I assure you, by an equally unique phenomena," Ezra countered. "You possess, Mr. Larabee, not just a smile, but an indisputably genuine grin! Might I ascertain by this unparalleled levity on your part that you had presumed this sibling reunion to have been impossible within this earthly realm?"

"Good God a’mighty, Chris! Don’tcha have any friends around here speak English?" asked the sergeant. Ezra saw a bold smile, but his intuition of detecting the "tells" of the human condition saw that the sergeant’s eyes were cold. "What’re you doin’ with a fancy-pants like this? Didn’t I teach you better, boy? I swear that there’s one of those Southern gentlemen."

Chris laughed. "Southern maybe, but I’d have to think on the gentleman part."

"Perhaps the good sergeant’s brethren in blue still harbor a certain resentment towards those of us who hail south of the Mason-Dixon," said Ezra. He, too, smiled broadly, but not from the heart.

"Gone and done, Mr. Standish, gone and done," Wil Larabee insisted. "Besides, any friend of my little brother here is a man worth getting to know."

Ezra nodded his acceptance of the introduction and returned to his seat, musing on the thought of the man in black being anyone’s "little brother." He looked beyond the shoulders of the two men before him.

"My friend," he called to the approaching tracker, "I presume this unexpected turn of events has taken you by surprise as well?"

"You could say that," Vin answered as he approached the brothers.

Chris turned to his friend and put a hand on his back.

"Vin, this is my brother, Wil Larabee. I’d thought for sure he had died at in the war – haven’t heard from him in over four years." Chris looked at his brother, eyes shining.

"Wil, this my good friend Vin Tanner."

Ezra had returned to his cards, but looked up, startled at the introduction, then shot a glance towards Vin for his reaction. Did Chris realize he had introduced a wanted man to an army sergeant? True, the army was not the law, and its agenda did not include hunting down every wanted man west of the Mississippi, but was it a risk worth taking with another man’s life?

If Vin was nervous about the introduction, he did not show it. Ezra did detect something about the tracker’s eyes, but it wasn’t a fear of having his identity revealed. His body portrayed its familiar slouch, his face impassive, but his eyes – his eyes were…

"Pleasure to meet you, Vin," the sergeant answered. If the name of "Tanner" was familiar to him, he was doing a fine job of hiding it.

Vin offered his hand, nodded, found his voice.

"Same here."

Wil Larabee smiled. "Yes sir, you’re a friend of Chris’ alright. Man of few words just like him. Now me, well, I figure the Lord a’mighty gave me an extra share. That’s why he run out of ‘em when he got to Chris, here."

"Alright, Larabee, what’s the story?" Buck Wilmington boomed as he swaggered into the saloon with Josiah and Nathan in tow. "Bad enough we have to deal with one stubborn pain-in-the-neck Larabee around here – now we got two?"

"Still less trouble than one smart-mouthed Wilmington," Chris answered back. "Buck, Josiah, Nathan, my brother Wil."

Buck pumped the sergeant’s hand, then slapped Chris on the back. "Holding out on us Larabee? What other family you got lurking about? Coupl’a sisters maybe?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Forgive our brother, here, sergeant" Josiah said, admonishing Buck. "What he meant to say is welcome to Four Corners."

Chris pulled up chairs for the men and ordered more whiskey from Inez.

"Well," said Wil Larabee as he poured himself a drink. "Here I am drinkin’ whiskey with my little brother and the famous Regulators of Four Corners."

"Famous?" asked Ezra. "I wasn’t aware our notoriety extended much beyond the borders of Texas."

"Well, now, I don’t know all what goes on in these Dixie states, but up North we’ve heard tell of quite a few of your exploits about these parts," Wil said, smiling.

There it was again, thought Ezra. The cold smile and the thinly veiled reference to his southern background.

"What does bring you here, Brother Wil?" asked Josiah.

"A little unfinished business with a few of Quantrill’s Raiders," the sergeant answered.

"Quantrill? I heard he died in Kentucky," said Nathan.

"And the Devil take him," said Wil, raising his glass in a toast. "Wished I had a chance to run him through myself, but no such luck. I did take a turn at old Bloody Bill, though. When me and the boys were through with him in Missouri that old name fit him better than ever." Larabee laughed hard at his own joke. "Naw, the head may be severed but the body’s still twitchin’. When Quantrill headed back here to hide, his Raiders split up – some stayed with him, some went with Bloody Bill, some formed groups of their own. That’s what we’re after. Coupl’a good ol’ boys runnin’ from an arson charge. Ain’t hidin’ ‘em in your outhouse, are you Ez? From the looks of it," he said, nodding towards the cards in Ezra’s hand, "you and old Quantrill had quite a bit in common." Wil smiled.

"I assure you, sergeant, I prefer to make a killing at the poker table, as opposed to small Kansas communities," said Ezra. "As to the occupation of gambling, his abilities were as fraudulent as his alias."

"Did you ever play him Ezra?" asked J.D. He had finally finished his business with Capt. Evans and had been anxious to join the others. The captain had filled him in on their business in Four Corners with a brief history of William Quantrill and his Raiders as well as the horrific demise of Bloody Bill Anderson.

The gambler felt the eyes of the sergeant and the rest of the regulators upon him as he dealt out a hand of solitaire.

"I recall a brief game in Kansas, I believe, prior to his associations with the Confederacy," Ezra said carefully.

"Did you know him in the war, Vin?" J.D. asked, his face flushed with excitement at being friends with men who had known the infamous guerilla fighter.

Chris shot a glance at J.D. with piercing eyes. The seven knew Vin had fought with the Confederacy during the war between the states, but had avoided dredging up those painful memories. J.D.’s exuberance had overridden his usual caution in discussing the subject. The gunfighter saw Vin tense, winced at the look in his eyes – that of an animal sensing a trap and weighing its options for escape – and regretted the turn the conversation had taken.

"I don’t recall meeting you before, Tanner. You fight with Ewing too?" asked the sergeant, referring to the Union brigadier general assigned to patrolling the Kansas-Missouri border.

Chris opened his mouth to intercept the response, but Vin looked solidly into his friend’s eyes.

"Against," he said simply, facing Chris.

The word hung heavily in the air. Damn you, Vin, Chris thought, you didn’t have to tell him that.

Wil Larabee sat staring at Vin, then looked at Chris. The air was thick with emotion, a tinderbox waiting to spark at the next words spoken.

"The western frontier of this great country has become home to men whose road through life has been intercepted by many paths," said Josiah carefully. "I’ve often felt blessed to live in such a land where a man’s choices are as plentiful as the grasses of the Great Plains."

"Well said, brother," Nathan breathed.

Tension among the eight men eased, but Chris had no desire to test its duration. He cursed himself for his enthusiasm. He was known for his careful, measured action, but his joy at seeing Wil again had clouded his reason. He should have talked with his brother before he introduced him to a band of men such as this – each one hiding a past, nursing wounds, fighting demons.

He stood, taking hold of the half-full bottle of whiskey and gestured to his brother.

"Come on, Wil," he invited the older man. "You and me have a lot of catching up to do. I’d like to show you my place outside of town before you have to leave again."

The quick smile flashed again. "Sure thing, brother. Let me tell Captain Evans where I’m headed – then lead the way." He nodded towards the six men still seated. "See you boys later."

+ + + + + + +

"Whoa," said Nathan after Chris and Wil had left. "I don’t want to go there again anytime soon."

"I would recommend we restrict our avenues of conversation to the here and now while Sgt. Larabee is within our midst," said Ezra, his eyes drilling J.D.

"What?" he asked defensively.

"Good God, boy, you’re sittin’ here talkin’ with a Union sergeant and you bring up Vin’s past?" asked Buck, exasperated. "What the hell else do you think Ezra’s talkin’ about?"

"The war’s over," J.D. argued. "Havin’ fought for the Confederacy is no crime."

"To some it is," Vin said quietly. "He’s got a real taste for Quantrill. Fought with Ewing. You reckon he was in Lawrence?" he asked Ezra.

"How’d you know that?" J.D. interrupted.

Ezra shook his head.

"If you know the sergeant was in Lawrence, Mr. Dunne, I presume you were also informed as to the atrocities that were committed there?" he asked.

"Well, yeah, the Captain told me. Lawrence, Kansas was a stronghold for abolitionists back in ‘63. Quantrill stormed into the town, burning, pillaging, and massacring over 150 people. But he was part of a guerilla force. You didn’t fight with him, did you Vin?" asked J.D.

"God damn it, J.D. did you hear anything we said?" asked Buck, exasperated.

"Yeah, I heard ya," said J.D., angry now. "But it’s just us here, Buck. Vin’s got no cause to worry about us. And we sure don’t think of him like we do murderers like Quantrill or Anderson."

"Why not?" asked Vin icily.

The men looked startled at the usually quiet tracker. Ezra blew out a breath in a soundless whistle. He had been watching Vin’s eyes grow darker, colder, and more…haunted. That was it. That was the look those usually placid eyes had had when Chris first introduced his brother to them in the saloon. In a blinding flash he remembered a little place just outside Correyville, a bed belonging to Kate Davis, his friend, battered and bruised, uttering the forgotten ramblings of a boy caught in a man’s war. A secret he guarded closely with Chris Larabee.

"Alright," said Buck standing, pulling J.D. beside him. "Let’s you and me go check out the rest of the boys in blue and see to the captain’s needs. Get this army in and out of here as fast as possible."

"Amen to that, brother," said Josiah also rising.

Nathan sat, thinking, then called to Buck and J.D. as they were leaving.

"J.D.? What makes the army think some of Quantrill’s men are around here?"

J.D. turned, walking backwards towards the doors with Buck at his side.

"Chris’ brother’s been followin’ after raiders since the war ended," J.D. explained. "Guess he’s some kind of expert. Says he’d recognize ‘em anywhere."

Nathan and Ezra watched the young sheriff leave. Vin held his whiskey glass, turning it slowly in his hand.

"Expert," he said softly. "Just how do you suppose he got to be an expert sniffin’ out Quantrill’s Raiders?"

"One would suppose from his having had innumerable encounters with the infamous rebels during the war and the army’s belief in his ability, real or imagined, to identify them now on sight," said Ezra sarcastically.

"Hell of a lot of men to know by sight," said Nathan suspiciously.

"Don’t suppose the Union army’s too particular in its identification of war criminals," said Vin.

Nathan and Ezra glanced uneasily at the Texan.

"My friend," said Ezra hesitantly. "Is there any cause for us to exercise a greater awareness of your comings and goings during this intrusion of the Grand Army of the Republic on our humble abode?"

Vin smiled at Ezra. "I ain’t one of his, if that’s what you’re askin’,"

"I did not mean to insinuate such, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said earnestly, "however, it would be logical to assume the good sergeant may look to you with somewhat less than the usual kinship one feels towards the friends of one’s family."

"He ain’t too taken with you either, Ezra," Vin countered.

"Undoubtedly," Ezra agreed. "However, at most he considers me an irritating southern ‘fancy-pants’ I believe was the term? While you, as a former defender of Dixie, represent a more threatening reminder of our past conflict."

"If you’re sayin’ he sees me as a damn Johnny Reb I’d have to agree with you there," joked Vin.

"Ezra’s right, Vin," Nathan said with concern. "I get a bad feelin’ when he looks at you with that one bloodshot eye."

"Perhaps a timely visit with our dear Miss Nettie might be prudent?" ask Ezra helpfully.

Vin rubbed his jaw, downed his whiskey and rose as he settled his hat on his head.

"I don’t want Chris worryin’ on me," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe I’ll see if Nettie needs any work done for a day or two. Ya’ll can send for me if there’s trouble, right?"

"You bein’ at Nettie’s should eliminate about 99% of any trouble I’d expect right now," said Nathan.

Vin smiled and tipped the brim of his hat towards Ezra.

"You watch your back, too, Ezra," he said. "There’s always room for one more at Nettie’s."

"Thank you for your concern, Mr. Tanner," said Ezra bowing slightly, "but I must admit to a somewhat perverse pleasure at the thought of remaining as a burr under the backside of our good sergeant."

"Ezra…" Nathan warned, shaking his head.

"Mr. Jackson, I accept as fact the Union Army’s victory in our past conflict. I have come, since my association with persons such as yourself, to applaud President Johnson’s proclamation of the 13th amendment. I embrace the fellowship I currently enjoy with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington, both recent opponents of the rebel gray." Ezra picked up his deck of cards and cleared his throat, his eyes alive with a mischievous gleam. "But I do so appreciate the occasional opportunity to irritate the hell out of the men in blue."

+ + + + + + +

"Nice place you got for yourself, Chris," said Wil as the brothers settled themselves beside a stream that ran by Chris’ homestead. "Good location, honest work…I’d maybe rethink a friend or two…"

"Wil…" Chris began.

"Just kidding, Chris. Done and gone, that’s what I said," Wil said quickly.

"I heard you. I hope you mean it. Vin and Ezra are good friends of mine. We’ve been watchin’ each other’s backs for a while now."

"Good! Good. I’m glad, Chris, really. Fought in the same war as I did, didn’t you? I’ll take your word for it if you say you trust these men."

"With my life, Wil," Chris said evenly.

The sergeant nodded, looked around him again. "This is nice here. Peaceful. Been a long time…"

Chris nodded in agreement. His home was just over the hill behind them. He had taken Wil here where the land rolled into a shallow valley, close by a small stand of trees. It was a place he had often sat with Vin as they looked at the stars above, listening to the wind in the trees, the water tumbling over rocks in the riverbed.

"I remember you writin’ somethin’ about a wife once?" Wil said suddenly.

Chris’ jaw tightened. He looked away towards the setting sun.

"Wife, son, they’re gone. Dead," he said, swallowing hard.

"Aw, hell, Chris I’m sorry. Real sorry. Man can’t rightly bear somethin’ like that and stay sane."

"I didn’t," Chris admitted. "Took this place, these men…" he stopped, thinking of Buck, Vin, the peace they had helped him to find.

They sat in silence as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. One by one, stars began to pierce the darkness. A cool breeze blew welcome relief from the heat of the day as the animals of the night began to stir.

+ + + + + + +

She had watched him approach for several minutes now. Even at this distance she knew it was him – the familiar slouch in the saddle, the head turning from side to side scanning his surroundings.


She felt the odd stirrings of motherhood in her breast and laughed to herself at her foolishness. She played the role – mothering them all – but it was really only J.D. and Vin that sought her out for it.

J.D. was easy. His young face was an open book and the grief of his recent loss was there for all to read. Yet with Vin, and this was no secret to any of them, she worked harder to fill the void that had been left in his heart so long ago. A buried grief that arose only before his closest friends at what was usually the most unexpected times. In return, he filled her empty heart with a certain peace of what might have been.

Casey had conveniently taken the stage to Abilene last week to visit Nettie’s sister. And while Nettie was always glad to see Vin, the quick smile that came to her lips when she had first glimpsed the lone figure was soon joined by a furrowed brow that creased the sun-worn face of the old woman. Yet the decision had been made, the deed was done. She had abided by many decisions the young man had made that she had disagreed with, decisions that had threatened his life, his freedom. This time he would have to understand.

"Nettie," the tracker said as he dismounted, leading Peso to her small corral.

"Vin," she answered. She was surprised that her palms were wet and wiped them dry on her apron before he approached. "Stayin’ to supper?" she called.

"I’ve a mind to," he said as he approached her, giving her hand a light squeeze.


He smiled and thought she could read the signs of trouble on his face almost as well as he could read the signs of nature on the trail.

"I’m stayin’ out of it," he replied. "Need some help for a day or two?" This time he read the emotions that flitted like a shadow across her usually stolid face – and were quickly gone again. Damn, he thought she’s almost as good as me.

"Always use a good hand," she replied. "Glad to have you."

Almost Nettie, he thought again, his curiosity now fully aroused, But not quite. What’re you hidin’ little lady?

"Well, come in if you’re gonna," she insisted, opening the door to her house. "But you’ll have to do some huntin’ if you want fresh meat. I’m plumb out."

"Where’re your chickens got to, then?" he asked.

"Out back where they’re supposed to be," she said defensively. "Chicken’s for Sunday. I got me the famous Four Corners sharpshooter on my front porch and you expect me to kill off my own brood? What’d you do? Lose that gun a’yourn to Ezra in a poker game?"

"Since when d’yall send your company to get dinner?"

"You ain’t company, you’re family. Men of the house are supposed to get meat for the table."

"I ain’t the man of your house," Vin argued, enjoying the banter. "Couldn’t pay me enough to be the man in a house run by such a contrary old woman."

"Now if you start insultin’ me…"

"I’m sorry, Nettie, you’re not that contrary…"

"Ain’t talkin’ about the contrary part. Damn proud of bein’ contrary, but who the hell you callin’ old?" she shouted, giving him a swat on the behind as he ran ahead of her into the house.

By nightfall Vin had repaired the roof of Nettie’s chicken coop, shot several squirrels for stew and a deer which he had dressed, some for smoking and some for eating fresh. Having finished their meal, the two sat on Nettie’s porch beneath the same stars Chris and Wil Larabee were contemplating miles away.

"You gonna tell me what’s going on?" Vin asked Nettie quietly.

"Me? I was gonna ask you the same," Nettie said changing the subject. "Why’re you here of a sudden?"

"Army’s in town," he answered simply.

"Army’s been in town before, never sent you runnin’ here."

"Ain’t runnin’," Vin shot back to her.

"Visitin’ then," she amended.

"Sergeant come this time," Vin said after a while. "Ain’t too fond of Johnny Rebs."

"Don’t imagine he would be," Nettie agreed. "That surprise you?"

Vin sighed. "Just don’t want no trouble with ‘im."

"Don’t talk to ‘im," Nettie reasoned simply.

"Not that easy."

"Since when? Lord’a Sundays, son, I’ve know you to go a week without speaking a word, ‘cept to Peso."

Vin took his hat off, running his hand through his hair. He sighed again and placed the hat back low on his forehead. He looked at Nettie through dark, haunted eyes.

"He’s Chris’ brother."

"What? I didn’t even know the man had family alive."

"None of us did. Seems it was a surprise even to Chris. Thought his brother had died in the war. Now he’s come here…"

"And you don’t figure to make Chris choose between the two of you," Nettie finished.

Vin nodded sadly. "There’s somethin’ about that man. I don’t…" he stopped, his eyes seeking refuge in the dark night.

Nettie rested a small, callused hand on his shoulder.

"You stay until he’s gone," Nettie offered. "But don’t you go thinkin’ Chris has more feelin’ for that brother of his than he does for you. Blood may be thicker than water but the blood that’s been spilt between you and Chris defendin’ each other in that town is no less than what’s runnin’ through their veins."

Vin offered a troubled smile to thank her.

"What’s he here for, anyway?" she asked carefully.

"Lookin’ for some of Quantrill’s men," Vin answered.

This time, Nettie looked away to search the night with worried eyes.

+ + + + + + +

"I was hoping the saloon would still be open," said Captain Evans as he approached the table where Ezra and Buck were sharing a late-night bottle. "May I?" he asked, indicating an empty chair.

"By all means, Captain," Ezra said, pushing the chair out from the table with his foot. "The whiskey is on Mr. Wilmington," he added, nodding towards the half-empty bottle.

The captain laughed as he dropped heavily into the chair. He held a glass as Buck poured. "Mr. Standish is quite generous with your hospitality Mr. Wilmington."

Buck poured another round for Ezra and himself as well. "Yeah, well, Ez is famous for being generous with everyone else’s money – whether he’s drinkin’ it or gamblin’ it."

Ezra ignored the comment, turning instead to appraise the officer. "Pardon my candor, Captain, but you look as though you have ridden one too many miles of bad road."

"That I have, Mr. Standish," the captain nodded. He drank the glass down in one gulp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Buck poured him another.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. Yes, damn, I hate this assignment," Evans said, sipping his drink this time. "War’s over. Lincoln himself, rest his soul, asked for the country to begin healing and here I am stirring the whole thing up again in every state I ride through."

"Havin’ much success?" Buck asked.

"If you can call it that," the Captain said with distaste. "Half these boys aren’t guilty of anything more than stealing a few chickens for food. Probably don’t even know who Quantrill was. A couple of boys just came riding by what was left of their farm after the army went through and told them to grab their guns to get revenge. Now they don’t have a home to go back to, no war to fight, no work to keep them in shoe leather, and the United States Army chasing after to hang them."

"You hardly sound like any officer I fought under," said Buck. "Most of ‘em shoot a Southern boy soon as look at ‘em. Have to say I might’a felt that way myself back in ’63. Lost a lot of good friends in that war. ‘Course that was before I met Ez and Vin…" he stopped short at the mention of Vin’s name and cursed the slip.

"I recognized Mr. Tanner when I rode in, Mr. Wilmington. We’ve been through Tascosa. I mentioned it to your sheriff. He was quite adamant in proclaiming the man’s innocence. In fact, you might want to remind the young man that official questions are best answered directly. If I didn’t have enough to hang the man with when I rode in, I do now."

The regulators tensed.

"That is, if I had a mind to act on the information. Which I do not. I have little taste as it is for this army business with Quantrill. I have no desire to become embroiled in frontier justice as well." Ezra and Buck exchanged quick glances. Their fears somewhat allayed by the captain’s easy, and honest manner.

"Did you fight for the South, Mr. Standish?" asked the captain.

"Ez? Fight?" squawked Buck.

Ezra glared at him. "I abstained," he explained to Captain Evans.

"Smartest man at this table," Evans replied, toasting Ezra.

"Why are you still in, then?" asked Buck. "Chris and I left the day Lee signed at Appomattox."

Evans sighed. "My family tree was planted in a battlefield."

"And the apple must never fall far from the tree," Ezra nodded.

The captain smiled. "Oh, I don’t suppose I would’ve chosen otherwise," he said. "I was born to it, and I’m good at it. But leading men in battle is one thing. It’s kill or be killed. Try to get your men out alive as best you can. But this…" he said gesturing outside towards the army encampment.

"’Such a sight as this becomes the field, but here shows much amiss,’" Ezra quoted.

"What sight?" asked Buck.

"He’s quoting Hamlet," the captain explained. "Fortinbras, on seeing the dead bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, and the king and queen at Elsinore."

"A soldier with a poet’s soul," Ezra said, nodding to the captain with a smile.

The captain smiled sadly. "I’m afraid there are too few of us," he said. "Lot of those men out there wouldn’t understand. Men like my sergeant for instance."

"Yes, I received that impression from Sgt. Larabee," Ezra muttered.

"I’ll bet you did," agreed the captain. "Well, in his defense, he’s seen a lot."

"More than you, Captain? I doubt that," argued the gambler.

"He was at Lawrence," the captain said simply. "Thing like that can sour a man hard. Civilians and all. Then they shipped him to a prison camp in Missouri." Captain Evans set his drink down on the table, staring off into the distance. "I don’t know what it was about those camps. They seemed to bring out the worst in the men who worked them. Maybe having all those Confederate boys at their mercy was too much power for them after having seen so many of their friends killed. I hear it was no better for the Union boys in the southern camps so it must be a disease that can affect any man. Anyway," he said, coming back to himself, "I’ve got him now and he’s appointed himself the judge, jury and executioner for anyone who even breathes the name of Quantrill."

The two regulators nodded in silence, shooting each other nervous glances.

"This Tanner…" the captain began.

"Ol’ Vin is taking himself a vacation," Buck said, eyeing the captain.

"Yes," said Ezra. "Mr. Tanner agreed with us that it would be wise to remove any temptation for vengeance from the good sergeant, for his own sake as well as his brother’s."

"Good, good," nodded the captain. "I’d hate for there to be trouble between them. From what your sheriff said, the seven of you run a pretty tight ship here. Riding herd on a frontier town can’t be easy work. I’d hate to have my presence here disrupt anything."

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood in front of the jail, scanning the awakening town. Wil had left late last night to rejoin his company and Chris had ridden with him, spending the night in one of the jail cells rather than riding back to town just a few hours later. Now he looked for the familiar face of his friend in the early morning hours and frowned at his absence. He caught site of Nathan carrying supplies up to his clinic and called out the healer’s name.

Nathan stopped. Shit. He thought. He’s gonna ask me where Vin is.

"You seen Vin this morning?" Chris asked, confirming Nathan’s fears.

"Ah, he’s not around, Chris," Nathan answered evasively.

"I can see that, Nathan," Chris said patiently, already on alert that something was wrong. "Do you know where he is?"

Nathan scanned the horizon behind Chris and scratched his head. "Didn’t he say somethin’ about Nettie’s last night?" he asked, pretending to ponder his own question. "Yeah, yeah, I think he’s helpin’ out Nettie with some fence mending."

"Did that last week," Chris said, drilling Nathan with cold eyes.

"Did he? Well, must be something else then," Nathan answered quickly. "All I know is we were havin’ a drink yesterday – me and him and Ezra – and he said something about Nettie’s."

"Ezra, huh?" Chris asked, already turning towards the saloon.

"I doubt he’s up yet, Chris," Nathan called after him, relieved that he had escaped further interrogation himself, but now anxious at having thrown Ezra to the wolves.

"Well, I’ll just go up and see," Chris called back ominously.

Shit. Thought Nathan.

Ezra peeled one eye open as the pounding continued. No, he realized, it wasn’t the whiskey from the night before, someone was actually pounding on his door. His hand slipped from beneath the covers and found his pocket watch on the bedstand. He squinted at the time.

"Good God," he muttered.

The pounding continued as Ezra slowly dragged himself out of bed and stumbled to the door.

"If you are raising me for anything short of the second coming at this unholy hour I’ll…" Ezra protested as he opened the door.

"Mornin’ Ez," Chris said evenly. "Tell me why Vin’s at Nettie’s or you’ll be waitin’ on the second coming from the other side of the grave."

"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, trying quickly to regain his composure at the early morning shock of seeing a highly agitated Chris Larabee at his door.

"Mr. Tanner, you say? Why, I believe he’s at Nettie’s," Ezra answered innocently.

"I know he’s at Nettie’s. Why?"

"Repairs?" Ezra responded hopefully.

"You askin’ or tellin’?"

"Repairs." He stated firmly.

"He was doin’ repairs last week. Wouldn’ta left unless they were done."


"He takes J.D. with him when he goes huntin’ out there to practice trackin’ and shootin’."

"Mail," Ezra tried once more, pushing his luck. Too far.

The gunfighter slammed the gambler up against the wall of the room, his hand clasping the silk nightshirt. A fine sheen of sweat began to break out on Ezra’s face and he licked his dry lips.

"Please, Mr. Larabee, there’s no call for this…"

"I can’t seem to get any straight answers this mornin’," Chris growled. "I asked a simple question and I’ve gotten three answers to it so far." He leaned in close and Ezra felt his hot breath inches from his face. "You wanna try for four, Mr. Standish?"

Ezra cleared his throat and calmly, but firmly, took Chris’ hand from his shirt. Damn this, Ezra thought, he knows why Vin left – and I am done being bullied about it. Larabee saw the jaw muscles flex and the eyes of the gambler become hard.

"Mr. Larabee, need you really hear me confirm your suspicions? Is there one of us who is not aware of the bond between you and Mr. Tanner? Are you honestly attempting to convince me that you could not for a moment ascertain as to why Mr. Tanner would feel it imperative to remove himself from the vicinity at this time?"

The anger left Chris’ eyes and he looked to the floor. He shook his head in frustration at the truth in the gambler’s words.

"Would you care for a fourth question, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra prodded sarcastically.

Chris’ head shot up, his eyes afire, and Ezra whacked his head sharply against the wall behind him, painfully aware he had pushed too far again.

"I’ll be at Nettie’s," Chris said, slamming the door behind him.

"So should we ride out there, too?" asked J.D. as Buck took a water pump to his foggy brain.

"No," sputtered Buck through the cold water.

"But he might…they might…," J.D. stammered.

"He might, they might, sure enough," Buck interrupted. "But it ain’t gonna be we might." Buck looked up at the frustrated youth as he smoothed back his soaking hair.

The poor kid was always so worried whenever there was tension between the seven. So afraid it would cause the men to split up, leave him.

"What did Ezra say?" he asked J.D. patiently.

"I don’t know – something about the dawn comin’ up like thunder this mornin’. He was pretty mad at just bein’ woken up so early."

"Look, J.D., Vin and Chris are grown men. They’re gonna have disagreements about things – ‘specially things like this. But you and I both know there ain’t nothin’ strong enough to come between ‘em, neither. You gotta stop thinkin’ it’s the end of the world anytime one of us has words with another. We ain’t a bunch of old women noddin’ and smilin’ at each other. There’s bound to be trouble now and then."


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