Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
The youth pushed a shock of sandy blond hair from his eyes and muttered crossly as he made his way through the muddy field. He was late again. Hed better start thinking of an excuse now, since the truth would likely cause him more trouble than being late. A throbbing pain caused him to limp slightly, and he realized he must have twisted his ankle in the fall. Hed have to come up with a reason for that, too.
Hearing the sound of an approaching horse, he instinctively ducked behind the nearest tree. Years of being on the run with his brother had taught him to be wary, even this close to home.
Vin approached the area, calling out for the boy hed glimpsed slipping behind the trunk of an old willow. "Come on out, Luke. I know yer there."
The boy sheepishly emerged, refusing to look at the tracker.
Vin shook his head. "Did it again didnt ya?"
Luke looked up at him then and glared. "Aw hell, Vin. How do y always know where I am and what Im doin?"
Tanner chuckled as he climbed down off his horse. "Y get hurt this time?"
"Hell, no. Just twisted my ankle some," the lad answered.
"So where did he go?" the tracker asked as he peered across the landscape.
"Damned if I know," Luke replied obviously annoyed. "Damn horse threw me and took off."
"Y got an awful foul mouth there, kid," Vin noted.
"Look whos talkin," the boy responded, holding the trackers pointed glare with one of his own.
"Because Im grown and yer not . . . and it just is. Now come on, lets get you back to Mrs. Potter fore she starts t worry."
Luke sighed as he took a good look at his overall condition. "Gotta get cleaned up first. Damn horse threw me in the mud."
"Mightve saved yer neck reckon all that mud cushioned yer fall. I told you t stay away from that da . . . darn horse. He aint gonna be broke no matter how hard y try. Some horses are just plain ornery."
"Look whos talkin," Luke repeated. "You take a good look at Peso lately?"
"Yeah, well thats different, too." Vin replied defensively.
"Yeah, well I aint givin up on im. And you wouldnt either."
Vin turned his head away and grinned. Luke was right he wouldnt give up either, but he wasnt sure the boy needed to know that.
"Come on, Kid. Ill give y a ride," Tanner said as he climbed back into the saddle.
Luke pulled himself up onto the horse behind the tracker. "Y know, Vin Im fourteen now aint a kid no more."
Vin grinned again as he spoke, "Sorry, Luke but youll always be a kid t me. Guess youll just have t live with it."
With a satisfied smile, the boy wrapped his arms around Vins waist. Live with it? Being Vins "kid" was the best thing that had ever happened to him he couldnt imagine living without it now. Luke had even made up his mind that he and the tracker were kin. It wasnt just that he favored Tanner they thought alike, too.
After his brother, Josh, died, Luke had come to Four Corners. He never, ever thought about why hed come to town. Never thought about that time when Vin had killed Lukes brother, and Luke had almost killed Vin. He almost always never thought about that.
Mary Travis had tried then to find out about his folks, but nothing ever came to light. So Mrs. Potter had taken him in, and Luke was grateful for that. Hed never had a home before, and she was good to him even if his new brother and sister occasionally made him want to run for the hills. He loved the woman, but he knew he didnt really belong to her. He didnt really belong to anybody except for maybe Vin. He thought about him and Vin being related all the time. The tracker had told him way back when that it didnt matter if they shared blood they could still be family to each other. But that wasnt enough for Luke.
So hed decided that Vin was his cousin. The more he thought on it, the finer it sounded. Luke had it all sorted out. Vins ma and his ma must have been sisters. Of course, it could be that his pa and Vins pa were brothers. Then he could be a Tanner. But hed taken the Potter name, and he didnt want to hurt the womans feelings, so he liked the sisters scenario best. Besides, Vin talked like his ma was a real special woman and Luke was sure his was, too even though he couldnt remember her at all.
Yes, he had it all figured out hed found his family. His only regret was that his brother wasnt there to share it with him. Feeling the familiar ache coming on, he was glad when Vin interrupted his thoughts.
"Hear you and Larabee have some big fishin trip planned," Vin said. Even though he continued to fix his gaze on the trail ahead, the tracker knew Lukes face had lit up. He could practically feel the excitement travel through the boys fingertips that casually gripped his waist.
"Yep. Dont know where were goin its a surprise. Gonna be gone for two whole days and nights." Luke paused a moment before asking the question that had been on his mind since Chris had mentioned the idea to him.
"How come yer not comin with us, Vin?"
Vin ducked his head as he thought about his answer. He really would have loved to come. It had been too long since he gotten away from town too long since hed just sat and listened to the rhythm of nature. But he knew Luke had a strong case of hero worship for Larabee. Hell, the boy did all he could to be just like the gunman. And who could blame him? Vin couldnt think of a better man to emulate. Besides that, Chris had taken a liking to the boy. It would be good for the two of them to get away.
"Got some things I promised to do fer Nettie. And someones gotta keep an eye on things, what with you and Larabee both takin off," Vin finally answered.
"Guess so," Luke replied skeptically. He didnt really believe Vin, but even though he always enjoyed the trackers company, he had to admit that he was looking forward to having Chris all to himself.
A short time later, as the pair entered town, Vin reached in his pocket and handed a coin to the youth behind him. "Get yerself a quick bath, then head on home," he instructed. They were almost to the livery when Vin added, "And tell Mrs. Potter the truth."
Luke looked down as a pink flush colored his cheeks. "Hell, Vin, shell be mad. She might not even let me go fishin."
Shaking his head, the tracker dismounted and held a hand up to the boy. "Aint right and you know it. If she gets mad, its just cause she cares bout you. Got any idea how lucky you are to have that? No fishin trip in this world is worth more than that."
"Course I know! You forget who yer talkin to?" the youth asked angrily.
Two sets of blue eyes flashed, and a tense silence ensued. With sudden guilt, Luke remembered that Vin hadnt been as lucky as he had he had never found a Mrs. Potter. Of course, he kind of had Miss Nettie now, but it was too late. Vin was old, and Nettie was . . . ancient.
"Aw hell, Ill tell her. But I am gonna break that damn horse, Vin. Im almost a man, and no one can stop me from doin what I gotta do." The boy continued to mumble and curse as he stalked from the livery into the streets.
Vin followed a few steps behind, unaware of the cackles that arose from his friends as they watched the pair from the boardwalk.
"It appears that Mr. Tanner has located Mr. Tanner, Junior," Ezra drawled as he leaned against the post outside the saloon.
"Downright eerie, aint it?" Buck asked. "Lukes lookin more like Vin every day."
"Yes, as well as assuming some of his other . . . characteristics."
"Aint what hes goin for, though. Or should I say, who hes goin for," Buck added.
JD piped in then. "What d you mean, Buck? That kid loves Vin."
"Sure he does, JD. But he worships Chris." All of the men had noticed how the youth copied every move the gunslinger made - from his stance to his trademark glare. The boy unknowingly gave the other men quite a chuckle when they saw the image of a Tanner trying so hard to act like a Larabee.
The gunman made an abrupt appearance just then, startling the three men when he spoke. "Whats so interesting?"
Buck nodded towards the street, where the lad strode swiftly towards the bath house, barely hampered by the slight limp.
Chris shook his head. "Kids been out trying to break that damn horse again."
"Yep," Vin said as he stepped onto the boardwalk and headed for the saloon.
"Cant you talk some sense into him?" Larabee called out as Tanner pushed his way through the bat wing doors.
Vin didnt turn back as he answered, "Nope." He added, "Yer the only one he listens to."
Had he heard something in Vins voice? Was the tracker bothered by his friendship with the boy? As soon as the thought entered his head, Chris realized how silly it sounded. Poetry aside, Vin wasnt that sensitive. But Tanner was right. Luke did listen to him, so he ambled on over to the bath house.
Hed almost stepped through the door when the sound of angry voices inside stopped him.
"Ive seen who youve been hangin around with. Hell, aint no wonder you got that stupid tracker fooled he aint no better n you. Dont know how you fooled the others, though. Course its just a matter of time til they figure you out. Til they see that youre nothin but bad news more like some wild dog than the nice, pretty boy youve passed yourself off as," a man spoke menacingly.
"I aint like that no more!" Chris heard Luke protest. "I got me a name and a home and friends. I aint like that no more," the boy repeated again, more softly this time.
"Dont matter what name youve taken dont change who you are what you are," the deep voice spoke again. "Your past will always be your downfall, boy."
"Just git away from me!" Luke hollered at the unseen foe.
That was all it took for Chris to make his entrance. Flying through the doors, he pushed the unsuspecting stranger up against the wall, the butt of his gun pressed firmly into the stocky mans protruding stomach. Eyeball to eyeball with the man, Larabee realized with mild surprise that he couldnt recall ever seeing him before. Shifting his gaze to Luke, it was apparent by the boys wide eyes that the same couldnt be said for him.
Larabee turned back to the man. He was probably a few years older than the blond, with a closely shaved head and a flat, broad nose. Chris noted with rising anger the smug look that blanketed the strangers smooth features. "I dont know who you are, mister, but you best leave town while you can still walk," the gunslinger threatened.
A small bead of sweat broke out on the mans upper lip, but he showed no other signs of fear or apprehension. With a small chuckle, he finally spoke in a low tone, "Hell turn on ya you and your friends. They always do."
Chris lowered his weapon but kept his steely glare firmly fixed on the man. "Get the hell out of town now."
Tossing a knowing grin at Luke, the older man quickly made his exit.
The boy hung his head embarrassed that the gunslinger had been a witness to the uncomfortable display, but relieved at his deliverance from the vile man, just the same. The bath now forgotten, he mumbled, "Thanks," as he quickly moved towards the door.
"Hold up a minute," Chris said as he latched onto the boys arm. "Who was he?
"Didnt sound like nobody. He sounded like somebody who knows you or at least, who knew you in the past."
Luke shook his head and kept his eyes on his feet. "Hes nobody. I need t go."
Chris stopped him with a firm hand, "All right, Luke. You dont have to tell me. But you do have to listen to me. Its not true what he said."
The teen looked up at the gunman then and asked, "Which part?"
"None of it," Larabee answered shortly.
Luke thought on that a minute before questioning, "Whats downfall mean?"
"Its something that brings you down, defeats you . . . that makes you less than what you are than what you could be."
The youth stood very still, and Chris could almost see the wheels turning in his young brain. Suddenly, he spoke out forcefully, "Vin aint stupid!"
With a quick grin, Larabee answered, "Damn right, he aint. And you aint either." Ruffling his hand through the lads unruly hair, he added, "We all got things in our past were not proud of, things we wish we could change. But we can only go forward cant undo whats already been done. Took me a long time to learn that some days, Im still learning it."
Luke nodded thoughtfully and attempted to swallow the bile that had suddenly risen in his throat. Maybe he couldnt change the past, but could it change him? This horrible surprise visit reminded him that he hadnt really started over. That his life was not neatly divided into two parts: before and after Four Corners. His past was real, and it had come back to bite him when he least expected it.
+ + + + + + +
Vin swiped the drizzle of sweat that rolled lazily down the side of his face and reached for the cold lemonade Nettie had made for him. Taking a deep chug of the sweet brew, he swished it around in his mouth a few times before finally allowing it to glide down his throat. It was hotter than he liked for this kind of work, but at least Nettie had seen fit to quench his thirst and satisfy his sweet tooth at the same time.
With his sleeves rolled up and his hair tied back, he was about as cool as he was likely to get. He couldnt help thinking that it was perfect weather for being near water, for swimming, especially. Or fishing.
There he was, thinking about Chris and Luke off fishing again. It was no wonder it had taken him half a day to repair Netties chicken coop when an hour or so should have done it. At first, hed thought maybe he was envious. After all, he knew the place they were going to hed shown it to Chris himself. Wasnt a prettier place in the entire territory. He supposed he should feel guilty about not sharing it with more of his friends, but when the need for solitude called, as it often did, he needed his own hideaway.
He really couldnt understand what possessed him to show it to Chris, not to mention suggesting the location as a good place to take Luke to. Probably just made sense that hed want to share it with the man he considered his best friend. Seemed like he had this ridiculous need to share everything with Larabee open his mouth and spill his guts about every thought that had ever entered his head. There were times when he didnt even need to open his mouth, Chris knew without him saying a word. Downright embarrassing sometimes, this odd connection they had.
Then there was Luke. The boy had convinced himself they were kin some silly story hed concocted about his ma and Lukes being sisters. Vin figured that was about as likely as some of the stuff JD and Chris read about in those little pocket books. He still couldnt see the fuss about how much Luke looked like him. Hell, anybody could look like him, considering he was just an average guy. Medium build, brown hair, blue eyes most every other man he saw looked like him, as far as Vin was concerned. He sure wasnt anything special.
He had to admit, the boy had gotten under his skin. If he did have kin, he wouldnt mind it being Luke. But hed learned to face up to what he had and what he didnt. He had a good name - he knew that for sure, even if he had no idea what had happened to the man who gave it to him. He didnt have family that particular longing hed given up long ago. Feelings buried and forgotten . . . at least until a blue-eyed boy started digging around and stirring things up.
With a sigh, he stepped back a few feet and eyed his work. Hands on his hips, he shook his head as he noted that not only was he slower than usual he wasnt especially satisfied with the end product.
Something was bothering him, and he just couldnt get a handle on it.
Nettie saw it, too, as she watched from the window. Vin had taken all morning to do tack together a few pieces of wood and wire. He was unsettled - restless in that way shed often witnessed in the confines of town, but never here with her. She watched him view the coop from all angles, shaking his head and no doubt using some colorful language to express his frustration.
"Aint gonna look any better, no matter how many ways you size it up," she said as she stepped out onto the porch.
With a huff, he turned to her. "Im sorry, Miss Nettie. Just dont seem to have my head on straight today."
"Dont worry about it, son. Dont reckon my old hens care one way or the other." She paused a moment before asking, "You wanna talk about it?" Intensely private, he was, and she knew that but hed confided in her before and she hoped he would again.
Vin stepped up onto the porch and took another long draw of lemonade. Meeting the old womans eyes, he admitted, "I would talk about it cept I aint sure whats wrong. Just got a . . . feelin."
"What kind of feelin?"
"Aint rightly sure. Keep thinkin I need to check on Chris and Luke."
She figured it had something to do with this fishing trip that Vin had somehow been left out of. "You didnt give up fishin to fix my old coop, did you?"
Vin looked puzzled as he answered, "No, Maam. It aint that I wanted to go least I dont think thats what it is. Its more like, theres somethin wrong. Aw hell, that sounds stupid, dont it?" As if Chris Larabee couldnt take care of himself and a teenage boy.
Nettie narrowed her eyes as she watched the play of emotions on Vins face. "You ever know your instincts to be wrong, son?"
With a tilt of his head, the young man peered at the wise woman in front of him. "Just once." And what a horrendous mistake that had been - cost him his freedom and left him with a price on his head.
"Well, seems to me then, that the odds are with you bein right. You best get movin."
With a grateful nod and a shy smile that warmed her heart, he agreed. "I reckon."
"You reckon you got time to share some lunch with an old biddy first?"
Vins grin widened as he replied, "Dont know any old biddies, but I wouldnt mind havin lunch with you, Miss Nettie."
It could wait an hour this silly notion he had that Chris and Luke needed him.
+ + + + + + +
Theyd found the spot early the previous evening. Luke had opened his mouth in awe at the beautiful brook and the small waterfall that fed it. He could practically see the trout jumping before his eyes, too, and it left him nearly giddy with excitement. After setting up camp, theyd had time to drop their poles a few times before the sun settled in for the night.
Morning soon came, and the day passed swiftly, in spite of the relaxed, lazy attitude that prevailed. The heat was tolerable, but when it became uncomfortable the pair stripped down to their essentials and dipped in the cool, mountain stream. Theyd caught more fish than they could eat in a week, even with throwing every other one back in. Luke was pretty sure hed never had a more perfect day in his life.
Chris wouldnt have gone that far, but he had to admit, he was enjoying himself. Not one to question the gift of an easy time, he sought to enjoy the moments without too much introspection. Though he couldnt help but ponder the boy that was with him. He knew the others thought it was the boys similarity to Vin that drew him to Luke - and it could have been that initially, he supposed. But his relationship with the tracker was as inimitable as the man himself, and as much as he cared for the teen, Luke could never be a young substitute for Vin.
Maybe it was that he missed Adam so much. His boy would have been close to Lukes age, had he lived just shy a few years. But no, Luke could no more replace Adam than he could Vin.
There was no explanation, he decided - just like there was no explanation for seven men being drawn together to protect one backwater little town. And no explanation for how he and Vin could reach each other with a glance and a nod. Some things just defied explanation. Unbeknownst to the gunman, he was about to witness another one of those things.
Luke had pulled his sawed off shotgun and was aiming at something Chris couldnt even see.
"What the devil are you shootin at?" he questioned the boy.
Chris scrunched his eyes against the late afternoon sun and peered across the stream towards a green meadow, but saw nothing.
"We got enough fish here to feed the entire town, Luke. What do we need with a rabbit?" Provided there really was a rabbit, he thought.
"Got a taste for it," the teen replied simply as he gently squeezed the trigger. "Be right back," he added.
Chris couldnt believe his eyes when the youth returned with the dead creature. "Vin teach you to do that?" he asked.
"Do what?" Luke was clearly puzzled.
"Shoot like that."
The boy frowned and shook his head. "Aint nothin."
"Oh, its somethin, all right. Only one other man I know can shoot like that," Chris told the youngster.
Shrugging, Luke repeated, "Aint nothin. What you do is somethin. Wish I could I draw and shoot fast like you, Chris." He looked wistfully at the gunslinger. "Yeah, thats really somethin special. I aint never been fast."
Larabee understood the question without it being asked, but he wasnt sure of the answer. Did Luke really need to have that skill? Did any man? He hedged, "Maybe well work on that one of these days. Right now, wed best get this rabbit ready for eatin." Poor thing couldnt have known what hit him, Chris thought with another shake of his head.
The man and boy chatted amiably while they prepared their supper, unaware they had been watched most of the day.
+ + + + + + +
Simon Perkins nearly clapped with delight. Hed seen the shot, and knew in an instant the boy hadnt lost his touch. When he first saw the kid in town, he wasnt sure which brother hed stumbled across. It became apparent that it was Luke, though, when hed observed the boys interactions with the townsfolk. Josh could never have been comfortable surrounded by others. The twins were identical in appearance, but the few who knew them the very few soon realized they were polar opposites in personality.
Josh was smart, wary, and ruthless. It was he who kept the brothers alive those many years when they lived on their own. Luke always seemed to be a step behind his brother just barely pulling off his part of their schemes and manipulations.
But he could shoot. Lord, could the kid shoot. It was a sight to behold. And there had to be a way to use it. Hed have to get rid of that hot-headed gunman first, but then the kid would be free pickings. Wouldnt be hard to get him to do what he wanted, either the boy never could think on his own.
Rubbing his hands together in anticipation, Perkins crouched back low to the ground to wait for his opportunity. Hed watched the pair most of the day from his birds eye view near the top of the small waterfall that sat on the western edge of the campsite. Several times, hed almost thought the gunslinger had made his position. The blond mans piercing eyes would turn that way and settle for a moment, as if sensing impending danger. But now, the mans attention was focused solely on the boy and that pitiful dead rabbit.
Lord, it was a shot. He could make use of a talent like that. All he had to do was wait for the right time.
+ + + + + + +
Vin rode up the eastern crest of the hill overlooking the small stream, deciding at the last moment to tie Peso off on a small sprig and take a peek. His friends didnt even have to know he was there. Felt damn silly about the whole thing especially when he saw the pair laughing and eating and doing just fine without him.
The boy had roused all kinds of unsettling feelings in him that was all. Had him thinking things and imagining things and wondering about things that were best left alone. Worst of all, he was worrying like an old woman.
He stood then and started to make his way back to his horse, when he accidentally kicked a cluster of loose shale. The rocks tumbled down the hillside, alerting the man and boy below to the presence of someone or something. Vin cursed his clumsiness, and quickly moved out of view.
Shit. Now he was hiding from them too embarrassed to even face his best friend.
He hurried back to Peso, hoping for a quick exit, but somehow the obstinate horse had managed to turn himself around just enough to twist the reins in a convoluted knot around the branch on which he was tied. Vin just couldnt believe his luck and muttered under his breath until he heard the familiar click of a gun behind him.
"Good way to get yourself shot, Pard," Chris said with a snide grin.
Vin turned around, struggling to keep down the crimson blush that he could feel spreading upwards from his neck.
"You checking up on us? Or you just miss me?" Larabee teased.
The tracker turned away, obviously uncomfortable at being discovered, and Chris regretted his words immediately.
"What is it, Vin? Something wrong in town?" he asked, serious now.
Tanner shook his head. "No. I was just . . . aw hell, forget it. Go on back t Luke. Ill see you in town in a day or so."
Larabee walked closer and put a hand on his friends arm. For whatever reason, Tanner had felt the need to be with them, and he wasnt about to turn him away. "Come on and join us, Vin. Got more fish than we could eat in a lifetime. Luke shot us a rabbit, too."
In spite of the lunch hed shared with Nettie, Vin realized he really was hungry, and he gave the blond a grateful nod. "Reckon I could eat somethin before I head back."
Chris grinned as he replied, "Yeah, I reckon you could." He added, "You been up here watching us all day?"
Shaking his head, the tracker responded, "No - just got here. Why?"
Larabee shrugged. "Just a feelin."
Ambling down the hillside, Vin turned towards his friend, the alarm bells clanging loudly in his head. He and Larabee both having a "feeling" couldnt be a good thing. He never got the chance to say it, though.
A loud shot sounded, and the next thing Chris knew, Vin was tumbling head over heels down the hill in front of him. Instinctively, Larabee drew his weapon and fired towards the waterfall, knowing his chances of actually hitting the unknown gunman were slim. He was a sitting duck, out on the open hillside and so it was no surprise to him when he felt the next shot slam into his shoulder. Try hard as he might, he couldnt stop himself from taking the same fall that Vin had. He briefly registered that he had hit bottom a few moments later briefly registered a terrible fear for his two friends, before succumbing to the darkness.
When Luke saw who Chris was bringing with him down the rocky slope, a wide grin split his face. Could this day be any better? Being with Chris had been great, but he kind of missed his cousin. He guessed hed gotten used to having Vin argue with him and check up on him and tell him what to do.
He had jumped up and started over to the base of the hill to meet them, when the first shot rang out. Luke watched in horror as the tracker rolled down the hill, coming to an abrupt halt at the bottom. Vin lay there lifeless, as far as the boy could tell, but the youth didnt have a chance to even make a sound before more shots rang out. When Chris went down, Luke felt as if he were in the midst of some terrible nightmare. Something told him that he should move that he could be next, but his legs were rooted to the ground.
A scream tore loose from his throat, "No!", and then again - "No! No! No!" Running now without conscious thought, he found himself at the feet of the fallen men. Their blood soaked the ground and turned his stomach, and he had to turn away as he vomited. He sobbed as he gasped and tried to catch his breath tried to catch a single thought and wrap his head around what had happened.
But he couldnt do it. He couldnt think what had happened or what to do or how to do it. He threw himself at the unmoving body of the gunman. "Chris! Please wake up! Tell me what to do!"
When the blond didnt move couldnt move, he grabbed Vin roughly by his shoulder and rolled him over, calling his name, "Vin! Vin!"
Luke gasped again when he saw the blood that covered one side of the trackers face and head, and felt his stomach heave once more.
Perkins watched the emotional display with a cruel smirk. He couldnt have planned it better if hed tried. Picking off the pair on the hillside had been almost too easy, and of course, Luke hadnt had the brains to pick up his own weapon and defend himself. The kid had left his gun laying yards away, in fact further proof he hadnt wised up much.
The outlaw was only a dozen or so feet away from the grieving boy, when Luke finally registered his presence and rose to face his friends attacker. Shock overtook the lad for only moments before he cried out with venom in his voice, "Ill kill you! I swear Ill kill you!" Luke sprang towards the stout man then uncaring of the deadly weapon in the mans hands.
Perkins cocked the pistol, but to his surprise, the boy charged ahead, as if oblivious to the gun or the fact that he doubled the teen in weight. The scuffle lasted only as long as it took the man to lower the butt of his gun on the boys head. Stupid kid never did do things the easy way, he thought. Now hed have to carry him over to his horse. Good thing the boy was still scrawny.
With a passing glance at the bloody men on the ground, he threw his prize over his shoulder, and headed off.
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