Breaching the Wall

by Rhiannon

Summary: An epilogue to Manhunt. Takes place immediately after the episode ends, as the seven ride back to Four Corners. Chris contemplates his friendship with Vin.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don’t own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don’t make any money from this work.

The sun was low in the sky by the time the seven men rode out of the Seminole camp towards the town of Four Corners. As the sad scene faded behind him, Chris Larabee couldn’t help letting out a small sigh of relief.

The past few days had been tense, the situation with the supposed renegade Indian Chanu constantly threatening to spiral out of control. The whole episode had ended tragically, with the murder of a young girl at the hand of her father, and he shuddered at the notion that the man’s religious fervour had been so misguided as to end with such a desperate action.

Yet Chris couldn’t deny that his relief lay not so much in the vindication of the Seminole brave, though he’d had no inclination to see the man hang, but because Vin Tanner’s instincts had once again been proved right and mainly because if Vin had been wrong, the consequences would have been disastrous.

Chris looked across at Vin now, and his eyes narrowed as he noticed that the tracker seemed a little unsteady, slouching more than usual in his saddle. As he watched, the tracker swayed slightly, then jerked himself upright again. Chris quickly brought his horse alongside Tanner’s, leaning in towards his friend.

“Vin, you alright?” he asked casually. He didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Vin wasn’t the kind to take well to people fussing over him.

Tanner glanced over at his friend. “’m fine, Chris.”

He didn’t look fine. He was pale, with dark rings under his eyes and his expression and posture spoke volumes. He just looked - bone weary. Hell, Chris thought, concern flooding him, there was little wonder. The man had been almost strangled to death the previous day, then had ridden out to find Chanu when he was obviously in no fit state to travel. “Ya sure, pard?” Chris asked gently. “Ya don’t look too good.”

“’m fine,” Tanner repeated, this time not looking at Larabee. “Jus’ tired, is all. Be fine when we get back ‘n I kin get some sleep.”

Chris silently studied his face for a while longer. He noticed that the tracker’s bandana was tied more loosely than usual and beneath it Chris caught a glimpse of the ugly red mark circling his neck, courtesy of Chanu. Come to think of it, Vin’s voice did seem even raspier than usual. “Your throat painin’ ya?” he asked.

Vin looked across at him again and smiled tiredly. “Don’ you ever give up, cowboy? Yeah, my throat’s painin’ me a mite. But it ain’t nothing to git worried about. I need to git some rest, is all.”

Larabee didn’t push it – not much they could do to help Vin out here with darkness threatening, and anyway, they were now little more than an hour’s ride out from Four Corners. But nevertheless, he dropped back until he was riding alongside Nathan.

“Vin don’t look too good, Nathan,” he said quietly.

Nathan glanced over towards Vin, then back to Chris and sighed. “You don’ have to tell me, Chris. I knows it. He should never’ve rode out yesterday after Chanu – he weren’t up to it. And he didn’ sleep at all last night – too worried he’d got it wrong, that it was his fault the girl was dead. Fighting them braves and then Chanu himself didn’ help none, either. I’m goin’ to take him straight to the clinic when we get back. Aside from everythin’, his throat must be killin’ him.”

“Yeah, he admitted as much,” Chris said.

Nathan sighed. “Mus’ be bad, for him not to jus’ say he’s fine! Jus’ keep an eye on him, Chris. Don’ want him falling of that horse of his afore we get back.”

Chris nodded and spurred his horse forward again, until he was riding once again to Tanner’s left and slightly behind. It wouldn’t do for the tracker to think he was nurse maiding him, but Vin didn’t even seem to notice his presence, seemingly concentrating all his energy on staying in the saddle.

Chris settled his horse into an easy walk and found himself going over the events of the past few days in his mind. He couldn’t deny that he’d become increasingly worried as events had unfolded and found himself mildly surprised at that, because worry and concern for others were emotions he thought he’d left behind him three years ago.

The death of his wife and child had so crushed Chris Larabee’s spirit that he had walked through the following three years like a man who’d become disconnected with his soul. When he’d allowed himself to feel at all it was usually with a bottle in his hand and then he felt nothing except despair and bitterness and a raging anger towards the unknown monsters who had murdered his family. Somewhere in his subconscious he’d decided that he wasn’t going to allow himself to care about anyone again – if you loved someone, the pain of losing them was too much to bear and he knew that he couldn’t go through that experience again and live.

So he erected a wall around his heart that no-one had been able to pierce. He simply existed, and because he knew no fear, because he didn’t really care if he lived or died, he took risks and became known as one of the fastest gunfighters in the West. Occasionally he surfaced from his shadowy existence and wondered when he’d lost the old sense of justice and fair play that had for so long been part of him. There’d been a time when those things had been important to him. But that had become nothing more than a memory and for such a long time he hadn’t cared about anyone or anything except trying to exist in a world that no longer held any joy.

But he couldn’t deny that for the past few days he’d been worried. From the moment the preacher had first come to town, demanding help in tracking down the renegade Indian brave who’d kidnapped his daughter, Vin Tanner had been the only one to question Chanu’s motivations, to suggest that the man might be innocent until proven guilty. Chris didn’t know the rights and wrongs of the situation, but he did know that the former bounty hunter had lived with the Indians for a while and knew far more about their ways than anyone else in town. Moreover, Chris trusted the tracker’s instincts. And he’d trusted the Vin to do his job, despite his misgivings, and the man had done just that, riding out with the posse and using his uncanny abilities to track down the Indian and bring him in, wisely losing the rest of the posse and so preventing a potentially ugly situation developing out on the plain. He’d made the right call, but his actions had incurred the suspicion and mistrust of a lot of the town folk.

Chris knew that the presence of the seven men had received a mixed reaction when they were appointed by Judge Travis as regulators to look after Four Corners, and they were still having to earn the trust of the town. For one of them to be seen to take the side of the Indian over the white man was enough to sway opinion against him.

But Vin wasn’t a man to care about the opinion of others if he was doing what he thought was right and Chris had grown more and more concerned at the increasingly hostile feeling against the tracker. The situation had escalated when Chanu had escaped. There wasn’t a single doubt in Chris’ mind that Vin hadn’t had a hand in helping him escape – hell, the brave had almost killed him – and he’d had no hesitation in giving his friend twenty-four hours to track the renegade. His only reservation had been his concern for Vin’s health, but he’d been reassured when Nathan had offered to accompany the tracker.

Then the preacher had brought his dead daughter back into town and, tragic as the turn of affairs was, Chris’ main fear had been that the town would turn more and more against Tanner. Even if he did bring Chanu in, they wouldn’t believe that he wasn’t still on the Indian’s side. Hell, if he was honest with himself, Chris had to admit that in all of this his main fear was that the situation would end badly and Vin would be forced to leave Four Corners. For some reason, that thought had filled him with a fierce pain and a raw fear that frightened him by its intensity.

Riding along now in the twilight, he mused on that for a while. Very little scared Chris Larabee. Even though he’d finally settled down and become a family man, he’d known a violent life, he was a gunfighter with a lightning trigger finger and he’d faced down more would-be killers than he cared to remember. Since Sarah and Adam had died, he’d been too dead inside to feel fear anyhow. Yet as he glanced over again at the man riding beside him, he found himself letting out a long sigh and finally accepted the simple truth that he’d been fighting for several months. The pain and the fear were simply indications that he was beginning to feel again. The truth was that the impenetrable wall he’d built up around his heart had finally been breached. Not by a knife or a bullet or the hand of an enemy, but by the scruffy, softly-spoken Texan who went by the name of Vin Tanner.

The memory of his first meeting with Tanner was etched on his mind as clearly as if it had happened only a moment before. Chris had ridden into Four Corners, left his horse at the livery and immediately hit the saloon. He had no particular reason for choosing the town, except that he’d heard a rumour that Buck Wilmington had ridden this way and he’d been toying with the idea of looking him up.

He remembered the bullet that had shattered his bottle of whiskey and the sound of a fracas on the main street that had driven him reluctantly outside where he’d observed a black man being dragged off to a hanging. From the conversation it had been obvious that there were no genuine charges against the man and something in him had stirred – something he’d thought was dead – an anger at the injustice of hanging a man because of his colour. But he’d stood his ground, reluctant to reveal his identity, to get involved. Even when the blond woman had bravely tried to stand in their way and been pushed to the ground for her pains, he’d stood his ground, undecided.

All this time he’d been vaguely aware of a man across the street standing outside the entrance to a shop, broom in hand, watching the drama unfolding. Chris had watched as the man disappeared and returned minus the apron and broom, but sporting a hat instead and holding a rifle.

Chris had looked across then and met the man’s eyes and he’d known in his gut that in that instant something had changed, that he’d met a man who thought the way he thought, who would understand who he was and who was in some way the man he had once been. Someone he could trust with his life. He couldn’t explain it, but in that moment as time seemed to slow, he’d understood what the other man was thinking, knew that together they had to make a stand and stop this injustice from taking place. Chris remembered inclining his head a fraction in the direction they’d taken the black man and the other man nodding briefly in complete understanding and together, side by side and in complete silence, they’d walked up the street to make their stand.

Chris had never had been a man who found it easy to trust – in this hard land he’d met too many men who’d betray you for a bottle of whisky or a winning hand. He remembered how he’d looked back, a few weeks after the thwarted hanging, and been almost shocked at the fact that he’d been willing to trust Vin Tanner with his life from that very first moment. And although the words were never spoken between them, he knew that the trust went both ways.

They had barely known each other a day before Tanner had told him about being set up for murder in Tascosa and the $500 bounty on his head. That wasn’t the kind of thing you told a man you’d just met unless you knew for sure you could trust him. And Vin had had better reason to trust Chris than Chris had to trust Vin – at that point neither knew a thing about the other’s background, yet the bond was already there, almost tangible, and it was enough. And Chris hadn’t for a moment doubted the truth of the ex-bounty hunter’s story.

Chris remembered that he had been further bemused to find himself offering in a round about way to accompany the tracker to Tascosa to help him clear his name when the job was done. It had been a long time since he’d either wanted to or allowed himself to hook up with another man on the trail. Yet he’d found himself reluctant to say goodbye to the softy-spoken Texan and had known that the feeling was mutual.

Of course, the two of them never did go to Tascosa. Events had prevented them leaving Four Corners and then they’d both agreed, along with the five other men, to stay on and accept the judge’s invitation to take on the temporary role of regulators for the town. That was one of the things he admired about Vin. Tanner had made it clear that clearing his name was the one thing that was important to him, and because of this Chris had waited to hear the Texan’s answer to the offer before himself agreeing to stay on in the town. He had known that if Vin had decided to head for Tascosa, he would have gone with him. But Vin had elected to stay and Chris knew that he was making a sacrifice because he felt the town needed him.

It was growing darker, but Chris could see the lights of Four Corners in the far distance and knew that they weren’t far now from the town. He kicked his horse into a trot until he was riding abreast of the tracker again and called out, “Almost home, Vin.”

The tracker turned his head, a weary smile on his lips. “I kin feel my wagon callin’ from here!”

Chris smiled back. Now wouldn’t be the best time to tell Vin that there was no way in hell Nathan was going to let him sleep out in the wagon tonight. His smile broadened into a grin as he imagined the struggle they were going to have convincing the tracker that a nice, warm bed in Nathan’s clinic would do him more good than a night on a hard mattress in the old wagon.

Chris returned to his musings, thinking back over the way his life had changed over the past few months. Being the leader of seven men trying to protect a wild and growing town was a demanding job and he was constantly asking himself what had possessed him to take it on. Hell, he hadn’t even offered to be their leader – it had just been assumed and the others seemed to naturally look to him. The responsibility was the last thing he’d ever have asked for.

The six men who looked to him were all so different in temperament and in the way they viewed life, yet they were all good men, each in his own unique way.

Buck he’d always trusted at his back, even if the rogue’s love of the opposite sex landed him in trouble more often than not. Although the two of them had previously parted company in less than happy circumstances, it hadn’t been because Chris didn’t like or respect the other man – rather, it was because being with Buck reminded him of Sarah and constantly opened the festering wound. He thought Buck had understood his need to distance himself. But time had passed and meeting up with Buck again hadn’t raised the ghosts in the way he had thought it might and despite a rather shaky start when Chris had threatened to cut his throat for talking to Mary Travis about his past life, Buck didn’t seem to hold a grudge for the shabby way the depressed gunfighter had treated him.

Chris respected the troubled ex-preacher Josiah and the generous, kind hearted healer. He glanced over at Nathan now, riding to Vin’s right, keeping his own vigil on the tracker. Nathan may not be a fully qualified doctor, but he gave his heart and soul to helping those in need and sometimes Chris felt that was more important than any medicine you could give a man.

He glanced around at JD. He couldn’t deny that often the high spirits and sometimes misguided enthusiasm of the kid kind of got on his nerves, but he also couldn’t deny that the kid had guts and if he only lived long enough to gain some wisdom to go with it, he’d turn into a fine man. Chris smiled to himself as he pondered the way in which Buck had taken the kid under his wing and was trying to teach him the ways of the West in an often not too subtle way. The kid didn’t seem to mind, even appeared to look up to Buck like a big brother and that, too, made Chris grin. Yet he reflected that this suited him just fine, so long as Buck kept the kid out of Chris’ way.

Ezra Standish was something of an enigma. Chris was still wary of him, unable to bring himself to fully trust him after the way he’d run out on them in the Seminole village, yet the gunfighter couldn’t deny that since then the gambler had pulled his weight as part of the team. There were times when he felt that the man wasn’t quite the self-centred opportunist he made himself out to be.

Yes, they were all good men, but Vin – Vin was the one he felt most at ease with. Maybe it was the man’s quiet nature that appealed to the need for solitude in the gunfighter. Of all of them, the tracker was the most even-tempered. Vin had a way of smoothing ruffled feathers, calming a situation with a quietly spoken word, hardly ever raising his voice unless it was in defense of someone who’d been wronged. Then – then you saw that there was a hidden darkness in his soul, then you realised that this quiet, amiable young man was also a dangerous and potentially ruthless fighting man.

His gut instinct had told him from the first that Vin Tanner was an honest man. When Vin had told him that he’d been set up for murder, Chris hadn’t for a moment doubted the truth of his story. Chris thought back to the moment the previous day when he’d found Buck and Ezra about to ride out and had asked them where they were headed. They’d told him that they didn’t trust Vin to get the job done. It was nothing personal, Buck had said, but how could it be anything else? That had angered Chris. Because what they didn’t understand and should have by now was that Vin Tanner was a man of his word. Hell, he wasn’t perfect and he made mistakes like any other man, but he wouldn’t break his word. Whatever his personal feelings about Chanu’s innocence or guilt, he had promised to bring the man back and Chris had known that he’d do everything in his power to make that happen. Yet Chris couldn’t really blame the two men for their actions. They’d been caught up in the feelings and fears of the town. They just didn’t understand Tanner like he did.

Chris still knew next to nothing about Vin’s background. The tracker wasn’t one to talk much about himself. From the occasional snippet of conversation he’d gleaned a few facts. He knew that Vin’s mother had died when he was five, that he’d spent some time living with Comanche and Kiowa tribes while trying his hand at buffalo hunting, and had finally become a bounty hunter until the incident with Eli Jo. While Chris estimated that the tracker couldn’t be much older than his mid-twenties, this still left a whole lot of life unaccounted for, and from the sadness he sometimes caught in his friend’s eyes, he had a suspicion that his life and been tough and with more than its share of darkness.

Vin was a tough man, could be ruthless too when needed, had no hesitation in killing a man if the occasion called for it. Yet Chris was sure that given a different set of circumstances, this wasn’t the life the man would have chosen. His underlying nature was too gentle for that. Chris had his suspicions that Vin had been forced by the circumstances of his life into a position where he had to be tough to stay alive, had to kill or be killed. He was sure, too, that bounty hunting wouldn’t have been a route the tracker would have chosen to tread had he been given more choices in life. Chris often pondered, but felt that it would be an intrusion to ask, how Vin really felt now that the hunter had become the hunted, constantly looking over his shoulder, knowing that the slightest break in vigilance could cost him his life. One of these days, and the sooner the better, Chris promised himself that he and Vin were going back to Tascosa to clear the tracker’s name.

Yet the gaps in Vin’s past didn’t matter to Chris. All that mattered was that he trusted the man to watch his back, watch all their backs, and not once had the tracker failed them. His prowess with the rifle was extraordinary, his tracking skills next to none. And while Chris was sure the man hadn’t had much schooling, he had a sharp mind and Chris had quickly come to realise that Vin was the best man with whom to talk through a strategy. He’d also naturally become Chris’ unofficial right hand man, taking control with an easy if unassuming authority when Chris wasn’t around and Chris knew from what he’d heard that the others respected his decisions and followed him without question.

But it was the effect his presence had on Chris that was, in some ways, the most intriguing aspect to the man. It had slowly come to dawn on the gunfighter that the times when he felt most peaceful, most at ease with himself and the world, were the times when he was sitting with Vin – drinking a cup of coffee in chairs outside the jail as they watched the sun come up in the early morning before the town folk were about. Or sitting quietly together at a table in the saloon, idly watching the other regulators enjoying a noisy game of poker. He and Vin would just sit, occasionally exchanging a comment, but mostly just – being.

Chris had always had a bad temper and over the past few years the smallest thing had been likely to set it off. He had become increasingly more prone to black moods and silences, a trait that he was still struggling with. He knew that most of the other six men gave him a wide berth when he was like this, Buck included. Hell, he knew he frightened JD, though the kid would never admit it.

But he didn’t frighten Vin. There’d been many occasions when something had pissed him off and he’d stormed into the saloon to drown his frustration in a drink, vowing to leave the damned town to its own devices and to hell with the lot of them. And always, sometimes immediately, sometimes a while later, Vin would stroll in, joining the gunfighter at the bar or at his table with a quiet, “Join you?” Within minutes his presence would have calmed Chris enough for the gunfighter to be able to offload whatever it was on his mind. Vin’s even temper and his gentle humour would diffuse the situation and Chris would take a deep breath and realise that things weren’t really that bad after all.

He was roused from his reverie by noise and lights and realised to his surprise that they were riding down the main street of Four Corners. The last time he’d really been aware of his surroundings, the town had been a distant fleck of light. He grinned inwardly. It was a long time since he’d done so much thinking, he was plumb tuckered out.

The seven regulators rode up to the livery as one. Chris dismounted quickly, watching out of the corner of his eye as Vin slid slowly off his horse. When his friend made to lead the gelding into the stable, Chris put a hand on the horses bridle. “I’ll take care of him for ya, Vin,” he said firmly. “You go along with Nathan, let him take a look at you.”

“I’m fine, Chris, I kin …” Tanner began to protest, but his words faded out as he swayed and had to lean against the horse to keep his balance, closing his eyes against the sudden dizziness.

“That ain’t my idea of fine!” Nathan said in disgust, materialising beside the tracker. “Ya’r comin’ with me, Vin, and I won’t hear no nonsense. Ya’r goin’ to get a good night’s sleep up in the clinic.”

Vin began to argue, mumbling something about sleeping in his wagon because he wasn’t an invalid, when suddenly Buck was beside him. “Want me to carry him for you, Nathan? Reckon I could easy, he cain’t weigh much more’n one of those gals in the saloon!”

Vin looked up in alarm, turning wide eyes on Chris. “You wouldn’ let him do that, would ya, Chris?”

Chris looked back at him, suddenly no longer afraid to allow the affection to show in his eyes. “I would, and I will,” he said firmly, “if ya don’t do what you’re told and go with Nathan.”

“Here, Chris, let me take Peso,” Buck said. “You go along with Vin and Nate, make sure Vin gets to the clinic in one piece.”

Chris nodded and laid a hand lightly on Vin’s shoulder, giving him a hard stare that silenced whatever protest the tracker was about to make. He knew that normally Vin didn’t like to be touched, but this time there was no protest. “Come on cowboy,” he said softly. You’ve done enough for one day. More’n enough.” He paused for a moment. “You did real good, Vin. Real good.”

Vin looked back at him sadly. “She still died, though. I jus’ keep thinkin’ I could have done somethin’ to stop that happening …”

Chris shook his head firmly. “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know, you couldn’t have guessed that it was her father she was afraid of. Ya did the best you could, and you saved Chanu’s life. That’s got to mean somethin’.

Vin sighed. “I reckon. Still feel bad, though.”

“Well,” Chris said firmly, shifting his grip to Vin’s arm and propelling him towards the clinic. “That’s why you’re going to Nathan’s.”

“Tha’s not what I meant! There’s nothin’ wrong with me! I’m...”

“You’re not fine!” Chris and Nathan shouted in a chorus as they firmly guided the tracker down the boardwalk.

No, Vin wasn’t fine, Chris thought silently to himself, but he would be and that was all that mattered. He suddenly found himself smiling. The crisis was over. There might be another one tomorrow, but for now the tracker was here and he was safe and he wasn’t going anywhere. For the first time in three years, Chris really felt that there might be a reason to go on living after all.

The End