No Longer WANTED
Universe: Old West
Authors Note: All the standard disclaimers. Also thanks and credit to whichever creative writer came up with the idea of how to show Vin and Chris silent communication. Thanks to everyone who has sent me feedback and very nice compliments. Special thanks to Lacey, Tammy and Kathy.
Judge Orin Travis was tired. But he figured he had a right to be, it had been a long trip. He was in the lobby of a hotel in a small town. Nothing to unusual about that, except this small town was just inside the Texas border. The nights sleep had helped but he was getting older and the trip took its toll in a way it never had in his younger days. His reverie was interrupted by a familiar voice.
He smiled as he saw the speaker, and extended his hand. It was taken by a man of similar age, but taller and rather thin; Grey hair seemed to highlight the warm brown eyes that were full of joy at seeing an old friend. "Good to see you, Mark."
"You too, Orin, you too. Lets get some coffee and you can tell me why Im seeing you. Not that Im not happy about it, but . . ."
"Cant I just be here to see an old friend?" asked Orin Travis in a much to innocent voice.
Mark Hammond chuckled then replied, "You could but I somehow doubt it."
"You always were too smart for my own good."
"Come on, the restaurant is this way."
Judge Hammonds standing in the town got them a quiet table where they could have a private conversation. The first priorities were eating and catching up on each others lives. Once the food was gone and they were sitting back drinking coffee the discussion turned to business.
"I hear some interesting stories from over in your area, mostly Four Corners. I thought thats where Mary and Billy live. Is that safe?"
"Completely. You know Id never let Billy be there otherwise."
"Yes, I do. Thats why I wondered if the stories were true."
"Well, what have you heard?"
"That seven men protect the town, and theyre led by deaths own shadow, Chris Larabee."
"You met him didnt you?"
"A long time ago. The stories I hear now dont sound like that man. He was always fast, but the reputation he has now is more that that. Much more, and much worse."
"You know his story?"
"Yes. Including the part where he made more that a few dangerous enemies. Arent you worried theyll come looking for him and cause problems in the town, with Mary and Billy maybe getting caught in the cross fire?"
"Only an fool with a death wish would come hunting for Larabee. If anything he keeps trouble away. The troublemakers and outlaws also know his reputation and dont want to cross him."
"Hadnt thought of it that way. But now you mention it, I see how it could work. Smart move."
Orin smiled slightly in acknowledgement before he continued. "Hes also the only man I know who could gather and lead such a diverse group and inspire enough loyalty to keep them together. As for Mary and Billy, Im not worried. Chris and Billy have taken to each other. One lost his son and the other his father. They havent found replacements exactly, but someone to help fill the emptiness that was left. I think he and Mary are interested in each other. No way hed let harm come to either of them."
"Im betting that if Larabees there, sos Wilmington."
"Youd win that bet."
"The husbands havent chased him out of town yet?"
"Why would they?" Judge Travis asked, even though he knew the answer. He wanted to get things spelled out.
"He also has a reputation, very different from Larabees, of course."
"Hes a ladies man, but not a home wrecker."
Mark gave his old friend a skeptical look.
"Buck may go with married women, but not happily married women. They come after him, or at least make it obvious theyre interested. From what Marys told me, him being around may have helped a few marriages. The husbands work harder to keep their wives happy, knowing that if they dont, Buck might."
"He and Chris still make a good team in a fight?"
"The best. Hes got a temper, but can keep his head in a fight. I think thats part of what makes them so good as a team. When Chris loses his temper, Buck stays calm; and when Buck loses his temper, Chris keeps his. Theyve been in enough fights together that they know exactly what the other ones going to do, and they trust each other. Buck doesnt have Larabees speed, but what other man does? His aim is probably equal, or at least close. Ive seen him comfort someone who was hurt then turn and shoot the person who caused the pain without batting an eye. Buck Wilmington is a lover and an a fighter."
Both men laughed for a moment.
"Id noticed the same thing. Glad to see that some things never change. So, tell me about the others."
"The actual sheriff is a young man named JD Dunne. Hes a good kid. Id worry about his inexperience if the others werent around. Hes smart enough to listen to them, well, most of the time. Hes grown up a lot in the three years hes been in the West. I think most importantly, he has a good heart. He really cares about doing the right thing and keeping the town safe."
"Must be some kid for you to let him be Sheriff."
"I tried to talk him out of it, because he was so young; but no one else would take the job. Hes never given me a reason to regret giving him the badge. The railroad companies made me get another sheriff for a while, and it didnt work"
"So, who else?"
"An ex-preacher, Josiah Sanchez."
"Sanchez. That sounds familiar. Big man with an even bigger heart; not to mention one Hell of a temper?"
"That would be Josiah. Never really seen his temper though. Have you?"
"Not directly. But Ive heard some rumors."
"Sove I. But we both know that with our job you have to stay with facts and not listen to rumors."
"Yes, we do know that. But most rumors have some basis in fact, and these rumors. . . "
"May have some basis in fact. He spent a lot of time fixing up the Old Church. Called it his penance, that implies hed done something he felt he need to do penance for, but seeing the man now its hard, no, its impossible to believe. Im glad to have him there. Its good for the town to have religion."
"Sounds like an odd mix."
"It gets even better. The next member I actually had arrested when I saw him. Hed jumped bail a while before. I pardoned him for helping protect the town for a month. He stayed on and has become an important part of the team. His names Ezra Standish, a gambler and southern gentleman."
"How does a gambler help in a group of peace keepers?"
"For all his charm, he has a dangerous edge; and not all the dangers facing a town are. . . obvious. Some are well planned and subtle. But not much gets past him because hes smart and cunning. Having run a few cons himself, he can spot them a mile away. He knows what to look for. Hes a good man who doesnt know, or wont admit to, his own better side. I think a lot of that is from his mother. She taught him that trust and emotions are weaknesses to exploit. Now hes learning their value. Thats the main reason I offered him the pardon. I wanted to give him a second chance."
"Yes, you always were a big believer in second chances."
"Ive needed a few myself. A year ago he saved Marys life, so Im well repaid."
"So whos next?"
"Nathan Jackson. A black man, and a healer."
"Thats a strange combination. How do he and the Southern Gentleman get along?"
"At first, they didnt. From what I hear Ezra refused to join the group when they started because of Nathan. They still have their disagreements, but they respect each other."
"Whats a healer doing as a peace keeper?"
"The guys get hurt often enough that its good to have a healer right there with them. Especially when its a man they respect and trust, and who knows them. Besides, he can take care of himself. Hes probably the best Ive ever seen with a knife. He also seems to be a grounding, common sense influence on the others."
"How does the town feel about a black doctor?" was Marks next question.
"At first they werent to sure, but now theyve seen the people hes helped, theyre glad to have him. You know how hard it is to get doctors out here. They all want to stay in the big cities of the East where the money is."
Mark nodded in agreement, then moved on. "And who is number seven?"
Orin Travis tensed slightly as he spoke. "Hes actually the main reason Im here. Ever heard the name Vin Tanner?"
Judge Hammonds eyes narrowed to slits. "Yeeessss. I have," came his careful answer, followed by a question. "Are you telling me you have a murderer working for you?"
"NO. You should know me better than that. I have a man falsely accused of murder working for me. Ive been wanting to give him a pardon since I found out about the situation, but I dont have jurisdiction."
"And I do," noted Judge Hammond with a new understanding of his friend's visit.
"Yep. Hes innocent, Mark. Is the name Eli Joe familiar?" At his friends nod he continued, "Vin was a bounty hunter, and on Elis trail. To get rid of him Eli framed Vin for a murder he committed."
"You believe his story." It was a statement, not a question.
"Wouldnt be here asking you to pardon him if I didnt," Judge Travis assured his old friend, needing him to believe.
"I know," Mark acknowledged. "Guess Ive heard too many men say they're innocent."
Orin gave a small smile of understanding. "So have I, but this man is. Part of what convinced me is that he doesnt want a pardon. He wants to prove his innocence. Seems to think that accepting a pardon is admitting guilt."
"He does have a point there."
"I know, but its a fine one. Not enough of a point for him to keep his life in danger; and as long as theres a bounty on his head his lifes in danger. But what will get him to agree, and accept the pardon, is that it will protect his friends."
"You lost me there."
"One of Vins greatest fears is that one of the others will get hurt by someone whos after the bounty on him, or that theyll get hurt rescuing him if hes caught. And yes, they would rescue him. Hes more worried more about that than whether someone will try for the dead instead of the alive. Does that sound like a cold blooded murderer to you?"
"No, I guess it doesnt." Conceded Judge Hammond.
"Im asking this as a personal favor."
"Not something you do often. But since I owe you one, or two. . . or twenty. We can stop by my office later and Ill write it up."
"That was a lot easier than I thought it would be," Orin commented to his friend, fishing for an explanation to his friends quick agreement, which he hadnt expected. Judge Hammond was known for being devoted to the letter of the law.
"That happens when you call in old favors. And if you believe hes innocent, I trust your judgment."
ONE WEEK LATER
Four Corners "CHRRRIIIIISSS!"
Hearing the shout Chris Larabee looked across the room and met the suddenly worried blue eyes of his best friend. They quickly left the Saloon and headed towards the Jail where JD was standing wide-eyed in shock.
Riding towards them were two horses. One was all too familiar, as was the tan clad rider. JD's shout, and shock, had come from the fact that Vin was obviously hurt and tied to his horse, with the other riders gun pointed at his stomach.
The young sheriff was soon flanked by the older men. They silently watched the riders enter town. When they got close Vin locked eyes with Chris so they could communicate.
Bounty hunter. Act like you dont know me.
Hes gonna turn me over to the Sheriff.
Sheriff JD Dunne?
He doesnt know?
Taking their clue from Chris the other two didnt acknowledge Vin as the bounty hunter dismounted then roughly pulled Vin down from Peso. Looking over the three men facing them he was surprised at what he saw. The older two men, and particularly the blond, had the look of authority and power, but the badge on the young man proclaimed him the one in charge.
"I got a wanted man here, Sheriff. Vin Tanner. $500 bounty out of Tascosa, Texas."
"Ive seen the poster," admitted JD.
"Im real tired, and thirsty. Mind lockin him up for the night and we can do the paper work in the mornin."
JD moved to take Vin by the arm. "Sounds good to me, Mr. . . ."
"Oh, sorry, Timothy Meeder."
Buck threw Chris a look then stepped forward. " Come on. Ill show ya the Saloon, and introduce ya to the girls."
"Thats right nice of ya."
"Least I can do for a man who makes our town safe from wanted men. This way." Buck walked off with the bounty hunter in tow.
The three remaining men stepped into the Jail where JD made quick work of the ropes on Vins wrists. All the while mumbling about an insensitive ladies' man.
It didnt take long for Chris to get tired of the mumbling. "JD. Think for a minute. Buck is keeping him out of our way. Ezras in the Saloon, Buck can tell him to get the others and come here. Hell be back as soon as the bounty hunter's taken care of."
JD felt ashamed of his lack of faith in the man he considered a brother and looked away.
Once the ropes were off Vin, Chris led him to the cot in an open cell, being sure to leave the door open wide. "Natell be here soon to patch you up. Lie down."
Vin sat on the cot but refused to actually lie down on it. Knowing the young tracker's stubbornness Chris didnt press the issue.
"What happened?" asked JD.
"Guy acted like hed been hurt. When I went to help him he got me. He knew Four Corners was the closest town, but not that I lived here, so here I am."
"Judge Travis is due in tomorrow. Well take care of this then. But you. . ." the soft voice trailed off, not wanting to say the rest.
"Have to stay in here tonight. I know."
"Im sorry. I know you hate being trapped."
"I can handle it for one night."
"I could just let you out," volunteered the young sheriff.
"No. Ya cant JD. I'm thankful for the thought, but ya cant do it."
"Its safer for him in here anyway. He was brought in alive, but if Meeder thinks hes trying to escape he might shoot him."
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of the jail door opening to admit Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. Nathan immediately went to Vins side to check him over.
"Nothing looks to bad. Bruises and torn skin from the ropes mostly. Ill go get something to clean those with and some laudanum for the pain."
"Ill go get the stuff," volunteered JD. "You stay here and catch up on what happened."
By the time he returned the other three men had been caught up on the situation, including Chris plan to wait and sort things out with Judge Travis the next day. Nathan thanked JD as he took the supplies.
"OK Vin. Let me see your wrists, they look pretty cut up."
Vin slowly extended his arms for them to be tended. "Wont my new 'friend' Meeder think its strange to see me bandaged up?"
"Ill just tell him we have a policy of taking care of prisoners' medical needs," was JDs simple solution. The others gave nods of approval.
Nathan, as always, was upset by Vins lack of care for himself, his willingness to endure pain. He decided not to let it pass this time. "Vin, I know youve had wounds without getting em treated before, and survived. But you dont have to do that no more. Im not going to let you suffer if ya dont need to."
Vin said nothing but a quiet, grateful smile appeared on his face; giving the healer all the thanks he needed. Nathan was pleased when Vin accepted a very small dose of laudanum. It was still more than hed thought Vin would agree to.
It wasnt long before Buck returned. Much more sober than might be expected, since hed been taking the bounty hunter to get drunk.
"The girls will keep our 'friend' distracted and his beer glass full 'til he passes out. Shouldnt take long the way he was goin. Itll be late in the morning fore we have to worry about him."
"You seem sober."
"JD, how many times do I gotta tell ya? The first rule of getting someone else drunk is not to get drunk yourself."
Josiah decided to step in before the two could really get started. "So what are we going to do for tonight?"
"Ya dont need to keep watch on me. Im not a kid."
"No, youre our friend. And we dont want to keep watch on you, we want to watch out for you. Its different," responded the preacher.
"Mr. Tanner, do you truly believe any of us would get a good night sleep knowing you are here and in danger?"
"Im always in danger, Ez."
"We are aware of that, Vin. But that danger is not usually sitting in the Saloon."
"We never know if it is or not. The best bounty hunters are the ones that dont look like bounty hunters, so ya dont see em coming," was Vins softly voiced answer.
No one was sure what to say to this so they fall silent. The Seven passed the evening in the jail. None of the hardened men would admit to enjoying the enforced time spent in each others company, but they did, despite it being tainted by concern for Vins safety. Not surprisingly Ezra started a card game to pass the time. Inez stopped by periodically with pots of coffee, and information on Meeder, who had quickly passed out drunk in the Saloon. The men all breathed a sigh of relief at this news.
Eventually Nathan became concerned about Vins all-to-obvious exhaustion. "Why dont ya get some sleep, Vin."
"I cant." He looked to Chris for support. He didnt get it.
"Vin, youre safe. Were all here. Hes not going to get near ya. Youve stood watch for us often enough, let us do it for you. Ya need the rest. Tomorrow will be a long day, even with the Judge here. Go to sleep. Trust me, trust us." The last sentence came out as a request, almost a plea; it got through to the young man.
"I do trust you, all of you," Vin told them. The men listening were all affected by Vins statement, knowing how hard it was for the young man to trust others. None of them were sure how to answer him.
When he spoke again the gunfighter's voice had taken on the tone of an order, though more like one a father would give a son, than a leader to a subordinate. "Then lie down and close your eyes, Tanner."
After making eye contact with each of his friends Vin lay down and closed his eyes. As he listened to the quiet voices of his friends his tension eased He felt safe, knowing they were there, between him and danger. He knew they always were, but it was not usually so obvious. He knew that he could sleep and not worry about them leaving him unprotected. Even after two years it was an unfamiliar feeling for him, this trust and security. Once his mind and emotions had settled his tired body fell asleep. The others took turns napping on the cot in the second cell.
Late the next morning they fixed things for the benefit of Meeder, and by the time he staggered in, clearly, miserably hung over, there was nothing to alert his suspicions.
He had no idea that the cell door had only been closed when hed come out of the Saloon.
He didnt know the Healer had been there all night, believing Nathans, "Just thought Id stop by and check on him this morning."
He thought that the black clad gunfighter was there to help guard the town from the prisoner, not to guard the prisoner from him.
Things fell apart when Billy came into the Jail, looking for Chris. "Whys Vin in the cell? Are you guys playing a game? Can I play?"
"Kid, you know this guy?" asked the bounty hunter, pointing to Vin.
"Of course. Thats Vin. Hes my friend," Billy paused and looked at Vin, "right Vin?"
Knowing the game was up Vin sighed and smiled at Billy. "Yeah, Billy, Im your friend."
Billy beamed at Vin before looking at Chris. "Can I let Vin out so he can come with us to meet the stage? Its coming and Grandpas on it."
The bounty hunter pulled his gun and took aim at Vin. "So Tanners a friend of yours, huh? Then Im sure you wont do anything to make me collect the bounty on him DEAD. Do like the kid said and let him out. One of the girls last night said the Judge around here was gonna be in today. Well let him deal with this. Lets ALL go meet the stage."
At a nod from Chris JD opened the door to Vins cell. Moments later they were standing in the street watching the stage pull to a stop.
"Im getting too old for this," muttered Orin Travis as he took in the scene that greeted him. Vin with a gun aimed on him. Chris Larabee in a controlled rage; never a good thing, it was too easy for the rage to become uncontrolled, and people tended to die when that happened. Buck stood slightly off to the side, ready to back whatever play Chris made. Nathan, knife in hand, stood next to Josiah with JD and Ezra nearby.
"Whats going on here?"
"I got a poster saying this man is worth $500. Hes wanted in Tascosa, Texas."
"Unfortunately for you, young man, I have a pardon saying hes no longer wanted."
"What about my bounty?"
"Theres no more bounty. I just told you. Hes been pardoned. You kill him now, YOU become the wanted man."
On hearing those words Chris drew on the luckless bounty hunter. "You heard the Judge. Put the gun away before I do something youll regret."
Meeder looked at the gunfighter then lowered his gun. A man with eyes like his was not one to go against if breathing still had any appeal. Those eyes told him this was not a man who made idle threats. With a frustrated curse he turned and headed to the boarding house to get some real sleep.
Vin was still staring at Judge Travis. "Pardon?"
Before the Judge could answer Billy distracted him. The young boy was sent back to his mom so the men could talk. They ended up back in the jail.
"This last trip I went over to meet a friend of mine in Texas. Hes also a Judge. I talked to him about your case and he agreed to give you a pardon. The news should spread soon, and take care of problems like that one you just had."
"Thank you, but. . ."
"Dont even think about saying you cant accept it. Its done. Youre pardoned. That means you can safely go to Texas and try to get the evidence you need to prove your innocence, if you still feel the need to do so. This pardon is not admitting guilt. I know youre not, and the Judge who granted it knows youre not. He wouldnt have agreed to it otherwise."
Before Vin had a chance to protest Chris spoke up. "Vin, having that bounty on your head is like walking on the edge of a razor blade. Sooner or later, youre gonna get hurt, maybe killed. Take the pardon. Like the Judge said, itll keep you safe til you can prove youre innocent. Please, Vin."
"Its the smart play, my friend," the gambler remarked.
Before the others could continue, as he knew they would, Vin held up his hands as if in surrender. "OK, OK. I accept the pardon." Vin remembered his manners, drilled in by his mother at an early age, and turned to Judge Travis. "Thank you, Judge. I know it was a long trip for you."
"It was well worth it, Vin. And it also gave me a chance to see an old friend." He reached into his bag and pulled out a paper, which he handed to Vin. "Here is your pardon."
Vin looked and the paper, which, thanks to his lessons with Mary, he could read. He felt emotions crash through him. Joy. Disbelief. Hope. Relief. Nervousness. For years his life had been defined and controlled by the fact that he had a bounty on his head, by him being a wanted man. It had affected almost all of his thoughts and actions. Now that would all change. His thoughts were diverted by his friends; who had moved closer wanting to see the good news with their own eyes. They were careful to avoid crowding to close, knowing Vin hated the feeling of being surrounded, and that it would be worse than usual after his night in the cell. He noticed their restraint and was grateful.
The Judge looked on the gathered men with an almost paternal pride. Not surprisingly it was Billy who interrupted the moment. In most towns a boy his age walking into the jail without knocking, as Billy had a habit of doing, would be dangerous. In Four Corners it was accepted. The men looked up as the sound of the door opening.
"Ma said ta tell you lunch will be ready soon. Wanna come over now?"
Orin smiled down at his young grandson. "Sure, Billy. Lets go leave these men to talk, and I could use some of your Mas cooking."
Josiah spoke up. "Lets go to the Saloon. This deserves a drink." He also suggested this knowing Vin would be more comfortable away from the jail right then.
Smiles and nods of agreement met this suggestion and the men left the jail. Once they were seated at the usual table Inez came over.
"I know its a little early, Darlin, but were celebrating," Buck informed her, smiling one of his trademark smiles.
"If youd be so good as to bring those two bottles I asked you to keep secure for a special occasion?" requested Ezra.
"Only if you tell what special occasion you are all celebrating, Senor. I hope is has something to do with the Judge on it, and Vin being out of jail."
"It does indeed. The Judge not only arrived, he brought a pardon for Mr. Tanner. He is no longer wanted by the law."
Inez smiled at Vin and leaned over, giving him a friendly kiss on the cheek. "Congratulations. That is definitely worth celebrating. Ill be right back."
Josiah turned to Ezra. "What is it shes bringing?"
"You shall see Mr. Sanchez, you shall see."
Nathan half-heartedly scowled at the gambler.
Inez soon returned with two bottles. Chris looked at the labels and let out a low whistle. "Brandy, Ezra? Imported no less, and older than any of us. Impressive."
"Why, thank you Mr. Larabee." He took the bottles from Inez as she set out glasses. Ezra poured the drinks then raised his glass. "If you would be so kind as to allow me to propose the first toast, Vin?"
Vin smiled shyly and nodded.
"To being a lot safer, and a little closer to proving your innocence."
They all touch their glasses together. Vin sent Ezra a grateful look. He was pleased at the Gamblers understanding of the situation. That this was step forward, not the end. That Vin was thankful for the bounty being off his head, but still wanted to be declared innocent, rather than pardoned.
The men took their time downing the fine, smooth brandy. The conversation was general and not overly serious. They were all much more relaxed than the night before, and happy for their friend. Vin drank more than usual, aware he was surrounded by friends and that he no longer had to be so careful about staying in total and constant control; it was an unfamiliar and heady feeling. As the Saloon started to fill with customers Vin excused himself. The others were pleased that he could go off without them needing to worry, as much.
A few hours later as it began to get dark they began to worry. JD had earlier reported that Peso was not in the stables. After dinner they mounted up and rode out, while they could still look for a trail. JD was glad for the chance to show off the tracking skills Vin had shown him. They soon realized the trail headed to one of Vin favorite haunts. Aunt Nettie's.
At first there was a feeling of relief, then the worry returned. What if hed gone to tell her good bye? What if he planned to tell her the news of his pardon and leave to go clear his name? No one was willing to be the one to voice these thoughts, so they remained silent. Even the usual banter between Buck and JD was missing. The sight of Peso standing in the small corral greeted them. As they were about to turn back to town the young Texan stepped out of the house and saw them. Knowing theyd been discovered they rode forward.
"You boys checkin up on me?"
"Sorry, its a habit. Theyre hard to break," explained the groups healer.
Nettie and Casey had stepped onto the porch and couldnt help laughing at the mens rather uncomfortable expressions. For their part the men avoided eye contact with the women. Vin just stood back and enjoyed his friends discomfort.
"I dont know bout you boys, but Im tired, are we headed home?"
At his use of the term "we" and calling Four Corners "home" the men relaxed. He hadnt come to Netties to tell her good bye.
As they rode back Vin thought on the questions Nettie had asked him. "Who do you need to prove your innocence to? Who matters to you that doesnt already know youre innocent?" He still hadnt come up with a good answer. He wasnt even sure there was a good answer. Nettie was right that the people he cared about, whose opinion mattered to him, already knew he was innocent. Did he need to prove himself to the law? He had two judges who believed him innocent. And hed never been real big on the law anyway, having been on his own then raised by Indians.
The next question was could he prove himself innocent. With Eli Joe dead, his only real proof was gone. And it had been years; any witnesses, or other proof, was long gone. Maybe he should just take this pardon and leave things be. Besides, he didnt have to act right now. It had been so long that a few more months wouldnt matter. He could take his time to decide.
When theyd reached the stables Vin spoke. "Thanks."
Seeing the questioning looks he elaborated. "For comin after me. For checkin on me."
"Well always come for ya Vin. Havent ya learned that yet?" asked Nathan.
Ezras southern drawl was the next voice heard. "I believe I can safely speak for all of us when I say that if you leave for Tascosa you will not be traveling alone. We will be more than happy to accompany you, and offer any assistance we are able to."
Vin smiled at the nods he saw from the other men. "I aint goin anywhere for awhile. The town still needs us here. Im talked out for the night, and its a lot to think on, can we finish this tomorrow?"
The others gave him understanding looks and drifted away.
The next evening the men had again gathered at the Saloon. Vin was drinking much more than any of the men had ever seen him drink before. In a balancing move Chris was drinking very little, staying sober to watch over Vin. He was unconscious of this protective action, it wasnt something that required thought, it came from an instinctive level.
Most of his friends were unconcerned with Vins excess, believing he deserved to cut loose. Not that he acted out, it wasnt his nature, and years of habit were not broken in one night. Josiah and Chris were worried, having both experienced first hand how quickly and horribly drinking could get out of control. This second night of drinking being worse than the night before caused some concern. They exchanged a look that said for tonight nothing needed to be done, just to watch if the drinking continued, and trust the young man who was wise beyond his years.
Before leaving the Saloon Vin talked with Chris. "Be riding out for a few days in the mornin."
The young tracker shrugged. "Towns gettin crowded. Need some breathing room."
"Be careful," came the older mans automatic caution.
"Always am, Cowboy," smirked Vin, feeling better at the familiar conversation that theyd had a hundred times.
Chris understood Vins reaction. Hed spent the day being congratulated, and crowded, by all the people in town. After that Vin would need some time alone, away from people. Even before having a bounty on him Vin hadnt liked being the center of attention, and that had only intensified after the bounty.
By the second evening the six men were once again worried. Vin going off for a few days was nothing new, but this time felt different. And one man in particular NEVER liked it when Vin went off by himself for days at a time. After a lull in the conversation JD asked about the subject on all their minds.
"The bounty hunters wouldnt know about Vins pardon yet, would they, Buck?" asked the young sheriff, hoping for one answer, expecting another.
Buck sometimes hated that JD asked him the tough questions, but was glad his "little brother" trusted him to give the straight answers he needed. "No, JD. The word wouldnt have gotten around yet. But dont worry, Im sure Vin took it with him. He can just show it to em."
"The poster I saw said "Dead or Alive". Meeder brought him in alive. The next bounty hunter might just shoot Vin before seeing the pardon."
The preacher tried to calm JD. "We can pray that wont happen, Son. And Vins been out in the desert for a few days with no problems, or bounty hunters, plenty of times. Hed probably laugh at us for worrying like this."
"Like he almost did when we found him at Netties the other night," Nathan pointed out, trying to convince himself of it as well.
"Vin knows how to handle bounty hunters. Im more worried that hes using this time to get a head start to Texas," growled the black clad, scowling gunfighter.
Ezras southern drawl was heard as he continued the thought. "And with him on that devil horse Peso, our chances of catching up with Mr. Tanner before Tascosa are slim indeed."
Knowing Chris well enough to predict his actions, Buck spoke next. "So we head out to look for him after breakfast?"
After a curt nod and "Yep." Chris pushed his chair back and headed for his room to get some rest. The others soon followed, knowing it would be an early start.
During the night each man thought about what the young trackers absence would mean to them. JD thought about how Vin never treated him like "the Kid", also being young. He also remembered the long rides when Vin taught him about tracking and nature. Vin had been unfailingly patient and explained things without being condescending.
As Ezra absently shuffled cards he remembered how hed hurt the young man. He pictured Vins face when hed laughed at him and ridiculed the thought of Vin writing poetry. He was ashamed of that, especially once hed read the beautiful poetry Vin could write. He still felt guilt over it, and wished he could make it up to his friend. He also, rather perversely, enjoyed that Vin was better than any of the others at seeing through his façade. It helped to know that Vin could see the real man underneath and still call him friend.
Nathan sat in his clinic thinking of the first time hed seen Vin. Hed been stung up by a gang wanting to hang him. Vin and Chris had saved his life. The two men had faced down the gang, and in an amazing shot Vin had severed the rope around his neck. That was the first time they had seen Vins uncanny skill with a gun, which had saved all their lives many times since then.
Josiah stared at his Bible but didnt see the words; his mind was elsewhere. He and the tracker had similar experiences in living with Indians. He hadnt been raised by them as Vin had, but theyd both been influenced by the Indian culture. Vin had never formally come to church, but had a goodness in him that was undeniable and could put many devout churchgoers to shame.
Buck thought of the effect the quiet, unassuming young man had on the group. He had done a HUGE amount to bring Chris back from the edge of drunken destruction he walked for 3 years. And he hadnt even tried, just been himself. For a time hed resented the young man, but in the end had come to appreciate his dry sense of humor and loyalty; and see that rather than stealing his best friend from him, hed gotten him back for him. Besides, hed found a younger brother in JD, no reason Chris shouldnt have one in Vin.
Chris sat staring out at the moon. He remembered Vin saying the $500 dollar bounty was his, but hed never wanted it. The brotherhood he shared with the young man was worth so much more to him. The bond they had almost scared him sometimes, but he was grateful for it. He couldnt bear the thought of losing another family member, and he considered Vin the younger brother hed always wanted. He also felt the weight of guilt. Hed killed Eli Joe, the one person who could truly prove Vin innocent. Vin had forgiven him, had never even blamed him, but it still bothered Chris.
For his part Vin spent the evening staring into the flames of the fire hed started and thinking about the town he had finally come to think of as home, and of his friends. Hed grown up mostly without a family but felt he now had one in the six brothers hed gained.
JD who in some ways let him live the experiences of youth that hed missed. JDs presence in the group also saved him from being the "kid". He enjoyed the time they spent in the wilds. He had found JD a quick study who rarely had to be shown something twice.
While most would see him and the fancy southern gambler as opposites he knew they had much in common. Ezra hid his insecurities behind a flashy façade. He hid his behind an unassuming silence. Both had trained themselves to be unusually observant, in different areas, but the final effect was the same; they saw and noticed things others didnt.
He had long ago lost count of how many times Nathan had saved his life. He hated being coddled, but the care it showed meant a great deal to him. They also shared an unspoken bond in having lost their mothers at fairly early ages.
Josiah seemed to fill the gap in his life left by his not knowing his father. He knew he could always turn to the preacher for good advice and understanding. He felt honored by the older mans trusting him to keep the secret of his sister.
Vin smiled to himself as he thought of Buck. It was hard not to smile when Buck was around, even if it wasnt in person. Vin knew there was nothing, not even women, that the big hearted man liked more than making people happy. There had been some tense times in their friendship, but they were friends. He would be forever grateful to Buck for keeping Chris alive for the three years after his familys death. He knew it had not been easy, physically or emotionally.
And finally Chris. His brother. There was no other word to describe the relationship. Sometimes Chris protectiveness got on his nerves, but, as with Nathans coddeling, it meant a lot to him that Chris would care. He knew how hard it was for the older man to open his heart enough to let anyone in, but Chris had done it for him, and he knew hed never betray that trust by abandoning his friend. He also knew that Chris felt some guilt for killing Eli Joe, not because of Eli, but because he was the best, and maybe only, way for Vin to prove his innocence. Vin had never blamed Chris, as hed told him, he couldnt prove his innocence if he was dead.
Judge Travis had breakfast with the Seven so they could discuss any business before he caught the Stage home, and they left after Vin. The Judge was NOT happy with the idea of losing all Seven of his peacekeepers for an unknown amount of time; but none of the men was willing to stay back and be left out. Nathan tried to calm the Judge by reminding him that they could easily find Vin on his way back to town from his usual haunts as they had two nights earlier when Vin had been at Netties. He also reminded the Judge that Vin wasnt supposed to be heading to Texas, just spending time in the desert as he always did. The Seven could all be back by sundown. The Judge decided to trust what Vin had said and agreed to them going after Vin.
As Vin entered town he saw his six friends walking down the street with the Judge, and rode past the stables to meet them. He dismounted a few feet ahead of them. "Whats goin on?"
Buck tried to cover for them. "We were headed to breakfast with the Judge."
"Nice try Buck, but the Saloon and Hotel are both in the other direction. And Nathan dont normally take his medical bag ta breakfast." He narrowed his eyes as realization hit. "Youre headed ta the stables to get your horses and come lookin for me."
Guilt flashed across six faces, even the gamblers.
"I told ya I was goin into the desert for a few days. I done that plenty of times. Why are you all acting strange since I got my pardon? I told ya I wasnt going anywhere for a while. Dont you trust me?" On this last sentence he looked into Chris eyes, desperate for the reassurance of his "big brothers" trust.
Chris did not disappoint him.
Of course I trust you.
Then whats going on?
Im afraid to lose you. We all are.
Now youre being stupid. Youll never lose me.
I know that. Its just. . .
Vin just nodded gently in understanding. Chris had lost so much. His wife, his son. He couldnt stand the idea of losing the man he considered a little brother, or the loss of any of his men. It was the one thing that could scare the notoriously fearless Chris Larabee. Vin, Buck, and perhaps Josiah, were the only men who fully understood this.
Josiah was the first to verbally answer Vin in his low rumbling voice. "We trust you Vin. But we also know how you try to protect us. And if you thought that going off to Texas by yourself was the best way to do that, you would."
Vin looked over at the preacher, then at all his friends, he saw the very real concern and relief in their eyes. He had to admit the truth of Josiahs statement. "Yeah, I might. But I promise you that I wont. I give you my word. Will that make you guys happy?"
He was answered by happy nods and "yess." They all knew that Vin would never break a promise to them.
Next Vin looked at the Judge. "Sides, me sneakin off and dragging all of you after me, leaving our home unprotected, would be a bad way to repay the Judge for taking a chance on me and then getting me this pardon." He finished by tipping his hat toward the Judge.
Orin Travis smiled back at Vin. "Thank you. Its nice to know some people in this town have manners. I dont suppose you could teach them to my scamp of a grandson?" joked the older man. The eight men all laughed, knowing how well behaved the young boy usually was.
Soon after the Seven stood near the stage as Judge Travis got in to head home. For his part Orin Travis felt pleased with his trip. It had been a long one, but he rewards had been worth it.
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