~~ Deliverance ~~

by TJ

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The healer proved to be quite the conversationalist.

Virginia enjoyed getting Nathan passed his doubts. She was happy to answer all the questions Jackson had about her illness as she investigated his appearance with her nimble fingers. It actually made her feel better to pass on the limited knowledge that she had amassed.

Her questions were just as pointed.

Ginny paid close attention when Nathan described his father's passing, right here in town. The healer seemed thankful that his friends were there for him, at his side when he needed them most. 'Made it my duty to see that Daddy went, feelin' no pain…'

Miss Spencer was happy when a late lunch was called. Somehow, she didn't feel like she should face the gunslinger on an empty stomach.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Spencer guided his sister back into the sheriff's office and saw her safely to her chair. "Are you alright, Ginny?" He hadn't missed her paling skin.

"I'm fine, Will," she reached out and touched his arm. "Give me a minute, then tell Mr. Larabee to come in."

The young man couldn't help but eye his sister stubbornly. He knew she was trying too hard to be strong… but, that was the problem. William understood too clearly that she was loosing her battle with fatigue. She needed rest.

"I'm fine, Will." Ginny's instincts unveiled her brother's suspicions, yet she refused to let him see the truth. Smiling confidently, she waited…

Finally hearing his sigh and then the shuffle of his feet, she listened for the door to shut before allowing her eyes to flutter closed. Resting an arm on the desk beside her, Virginia took a deep breath. 'One more today' she thought… 'I must get through this….'

A few minutes later, the door rattled twice as the man in black entered and then secured the portal behind him. He stopped briefly and looked at the girl.

Garnering his courage, Chris breathed deep and cocked his head to ease the tension in his neck. Pursed lips gave way to a forced smile as he tried to make nice. Walking to the chair, he seated himself as William had instructed. Trying hard to conceal the apprehension in his voice, the blond announced himself, "it's Chris Larabee, Ma'am."

Miss Spencer's eyes drifted for a moment, but then locked hard on the gunslinger's face giving him the impression that she was looking right through him.

They held their position for several long seconds before she finally spoke. "You don't want to be here, Chris… Please, tell me why?"

Sweaty palms rubbed anxiously over sleek black pants. He bit his lip, trying not to let anything else slip. "I'm fine, Miss Spencer… let's just get on with this."

She frowned before her expression softened. "Please call me Ginny, Chris. And… just what is it that you'd like me to get on with."

Unsure of his approach, Larabee stuck to the facts. "Your brother said you needed to see all of us. So you could decide which one of us… would be riding out with you."

A gentle smile crept to the woman's lips. "That's an interesting way of putting it... Riding out with you… Makes it sound like we'd be going on a picnic."

Chris pursed his lips angrily but didn't say a word. His fists clenched as he fidgeted.

She easily sensed the change in him... a sudden urgency, a need to flee. Yet, unable to ascertain why, the woman chose to move on cautiously. "Well, alright then," she shrugged. "I'd prefer a little conversation first, but we can get this out of the way if that's what you really want."

As she had done twice before, Miss Spencer sat forward in her chair and raised her hands in the air. "This is how I will see you, Chris," she said quietly. "Just come closer… I'll do the rest."

The gunslinger licked his lips nervously. Sliding forward in the chair until their knees met, he leaned towards her hands. He waited as she reached for his face, eyes closing tight when she finally touched his cheeks.

Virginia could feel the stubble on his chin as her fingers moved down to his jaw line. She always liked to start here when she looked at someone for the first time. The distinction in this particular bone set the outline of any face. So much could be read in a man's features just by his jaw alone.

It didn't take long…

What the young woman saw in Chris made her smile. Her nimble digits parted at his chin and traced each side of his face to his ears. She lingered, following the outline of his lobes and then moving on into his hairline. It felt unkempt, yet somehow, not dirty...

Larabee still had his eyes closed. The thoughts going through his mind made him angry...

Why did I agreed to this?

The soft, intimate caresses against his skin were personal.

People shouldn't touch each other like this unless… you're close…

Like Sarah… She tickled my ears so tantalizingly… it drove me crazy with need. She'd run her fingers through my hair, pull me to her…

As Ginny's fingers locked, her thumbs continued down across his forehead. She touched his eyebrows softly and covered their length before returning to the bridge of his nose. Fingers quickly traded places with thumbs before the journey continued. Down his nose to the soft swells of each nostril… Out over rounded cheeks again, and finally, meeting once more at his mouth. That same expert touch felt the fullness of his lips.

As the woman traced his lips, Chris opened his eyes and quickly took her hands in his. He lowered his head, looking at the hands expectantly. "I'm… sorry," he said regretfully. "I… just…."

Miss Spencer hadn't missed the quickening of his breath as she'd finished her venture. Hadn't missed the rise of his chin as he separated her touch from his skin.

The blond looked deep into the eyes that he knew could not see him. He was glad of that fact at this moment in time. Glad she could not see the emotions that had arisen in his soul. "I'm sorry," he repeated. Letting her hands go, Larabee got to his feet.

The young woman's eyes fell as she slid back in the chair. She sighed heavily, realizing she had awakened something that should remain undisturbed. "No, Chris… I'm the one who is sorry," she offered. Wrapping her arms tightly around her body, her eyes fluttered closed. Slowly, one hand rose to massage her forehead.

"It's just… not a good time for… me," the man in black insisted.

Ginny didn't look up, her fatigue finally overwhelming her needs.

"Are you… alright?" the gunslinger asked. Shedding his own protective mode for a sudden concerned for Miss Spencer, Chris eyed her doubtfully.

Knowing she'd pushed too far, Ginny shook her head, answering truthfully as she rocked slowly in the chair.

Stepping a little closer, Larabee frowned. "Should I, get your brother?"

"No…" Virginia stopped her movement and looked up at the man. "I'm the one who should be sorry, Chris… Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you tell me… you couldn't do this?"

Confused at the reversal of topics, the gunslinger looked away, self-conscious about his emotions. Larabee was embarrassed that so much of him could be read, so easily, and by a stranger.

Pursing his lips, Larabee tried to find the right words. He understood that her need was a desperate one. He wasn't comfortable doing this, yet he knew that he couldn't just walk away. "I… want to help," he looked back at her defiantly and forced a smile, "I can do… whatever you need, Miss Ginny. I'll do… anything… you need."

Her gaze fell to the floor once more.

Any misguided guilt was suddenly lost in the swooning that overpowered her senses. Like so much rushing water, swirling particles of memory forced her eyes closed. Her head was spinning.

Reaching for the table, Miss Spencer braced herself against the imminent fall.

Intuition drove him…

Chris was by her side instantly. "Nathan!" he yelled, catching Ginny in his arms. "Nathan!" he shouted again as the door burst open.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

As William watched his sister sleeping peacefully in her bed, his thoughts drifted to their childhood…

Remembering Virginia's youthful vitality made him smile. She was always racing circles around her older, more serious brother. There were many wild mischievous plots to get her own way, yet Ginny was never hateful or mean-spirited.

She'd developed a love of painting early, and that pursuit was nurtured. Their over-protective father had eventually consented to the day-trips to their countryside, although once 'out and about', her insistence on 'adventurous exploits' had gotten them both into so much trouble.

There was also the day when William gazed upon his little sister and realized, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that she was growing into a beautiful young woman.

Spencer's gentle smile slowly turned to anguish...

Rising from the bed, Will moved to the window, pawing at his scalp anxiously as more recent memories intruded on his happy reminiscing.

All too clearly, he could see that same energetic young woman slowly turned her strength to fending off the growing dusk in her world… An ever-present darkness they had all been plunged into when her diagnosis was finally proclaimed.

The tragic loss of their parents two years ago had only served to deepen his gloom…

But, Virginia never gave up… She never allowed life's misfortunes to bury her spirit…

She was the strong one…

"Oh, God," William's voice was barely a whisper, "what am I going to do without her…?”

As he watched the young man wipe his eyes, Jackson sucked back his own emotions. He knew what it was like to watch a patient die. His father's death had also taught him what it was like to watch a loved one pass on… knowing that he could do nothing to stop it.

Showing great compassion, the healer waited some time before he spoke. "You gonna be all right, Mr. Spencer?"

He'd forgotten that Nathan was there...

Quickly turning to stare at the other man, William forced his heartbeat to slow. "Yes," he nodded, trying to hide his feelings. "I was just… thinking too much is all." Walking to the large comfy chair in the corner, he threw Jackson a quick smile. "Can you… stay awhile?" he requested, retrieving his coat. "I'd like to get some fresh air."

Understanding the man's true needs, Nathan nodded his concurrence. Tucking a few items back into his medical bag, he offered a suggestion. "You might want ta think about wanderin' up to the church, Mr. Spencer…Josiah's a good man."

Feeling lost and alone, William gazed at the healer inquisitively. "Mr. Sanchez?"

Nathan nodded again. "Yes, sir." Watching the young man slip on his jacket, he clarified, "he was a preacher once. Listens real well… when there's a need…."

As he walked to the exit, William still seemed lost. He straightened his collar then reached for the handle. Hesitantly, the young man glanced back at the healer. After several long seconds, he spoke, "Ginny brought us here… All she did… was touch this town on our map."

Opening the door, Mr. Spencer stepped through, but then stopped to look at Nathan again. "I'm beginning to believe… that this wasn't a mistake… that it… was fate…."

For a fleeting second, he had seen it…

The faintest traces of a reassuring smile had touched William's lip before the door closed behind him. And just that small gesture made Nathan smile, too… His faith in God had sustained him through trying times, and as he moved to his patient's bedside, the healer hoped that Spencer could find that same peace.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"We ain't really gonna do this… are we?"

Tanner looked at JD matter-of-factly, his shrug saying so much more than his eyes. "It's what she wants, Kid."

"And we owe it the lady to grant her everything that we are capable of," Sanchez added, "don't you think?"

John Dunne nodded nervously and then took solace in his beer.

"I must admit," the southerner chimed in. "I do find the request a little odd." Shuffling his cards curtly, he shifted in his chair and sat forward. "After all, there are numerous other options available. Certainly much more appropriate ways for the lady to spend a pleasant evening."

It only took a second…

"In this town?" the rogue raised an eyebrow sarcastically.

Nathan smirked. "Buck's got a point there, Ezra. Saloon's about the only place you can find things out of the ordinary. And that, after all, is what the lady wants."

"I still can't believe we're gonna do this."

Wilmington nudged the younger man and smirked. "Come on, JD. Thought you was feelin' better about Miss Ginny since you got to know her a little better."

"It ain't that, Buck." Dunne sat back in his chair, folding his arms as he moved. "It just that… well, she's acting like nothing's wrong."

"What would you prefer she do, JD?" the preacher asked quietly. "Would you feel better if she cried all the time?"

JD scowled, shaking his head in protest.

"Maybe you think she should crawl into bed and just wait till it happens… quiet like, away from the prying eyes of the world."

"No!" the younger man shook his head again. "That's not what I meant, Josiah, and you know it… It's just that…."

He hadn't meant a word, but Sanchez couldn't help but grin, his all too serious point made. "I know, Son," he tapped Dunne on the shoulder. "But, the best thing we can do for Virginia Spencer is exactly what she's doing… go on living."

Five men gave reassuring nods as JD looked around the table. He understood what Sanchez was saying… it just wasn't all that easy to accept.

Breaking the silence, Ezra pushed his chair back and got to his feet. "Good evening, Miss Spencer," he smiled and nodded a welcome to William.

Hearing several other screeches along the floorboards, Ginny waved her hands, "gentleman, please… don't get up on my account. Unless of course… one of you is offering me a chair."

"Well, Miss Spencer," Josiah raised smirked, "if you'd be so kind as to tell us how you're planning on accomplishing this feat. We'd be happy to re-arrange and get this game underway."

"Josiah?" the lady cocked her head questioningly.

"Yes, Ma'am," he answered.

"Well, Josiah," she let go of William's arm. "Ezra has explained all the rules to me, so the only other thing I need, besides a seat… is a pair of eyes."

The silence around the table was deafening as six men tried to understand her meaning.

Virginia's amusement was obvious as she broke the quiet with a mischievous laugh. "Well, I'm giving my brother a night off," she glanced back at her sibling and tapped his arm. "Poor man deserves it, don't you think?"

Miss Spencer didn't wait for a response. "So, you see, I'm in need of new pair of eyes. After all, I can't be at a disadvantage with so many con men at the table."

Dunne complained strenuously, "con men?"

Nathan stifled back his laugh. "Seems ta me, Ezra's been doin' more than explainin' a few rules."

Miss Spencer feigned shock. "Why, Nathan… I can assure you, Ezra's visit to my room this afternoon was purely innocent, and his only intentions were to avail me of the guiding principles and strategies of poker."

The ladies' man cleared his throat loudly and sat forward in his chair. "You'll forgive my bluntness, Miss Ginny, but them three words just don't belong in the same sentence."

The young woman raised her eyebrows inquisitively. "What three words, Buck?"

Tanner responded before Wilmington was able. "Ezra… innocent, and poker."

Standish looked indignant as the other men concurred happily with Vin and Buck's assessment.

"It looks as though you're going to have quite the evening, Ginny," Spencer smiled. He'd been watching the exchange and was becoming more and more convinced that he could leave his sister in the care of these men.

Her growing amusement was obvious as she replied to her brother's comment, "yes, Will. I'm sure they can keep me safe for the evening."

"Ah, but are we safe from you?" Larabee questioned as he joined the group.

Her eyebrows rose yet again, as she turned to greet the gunslinger. "Why, Chris… whatever do you mean?" Her voice was the epitome of innocence as she held one hand out towards his voice.

The gunslinger moved her fingers to his cheek, just as he had done that afternoon.

Chris had been drawn to her bedside, intent on letting her finish 'getting to know' him. They had spent more than two hours talking. It was all the time Larabee needed to realize that he really could be there for her… if he was her choice. "You're not forgetting our little chat today are you?" he mused. "I got to know a thing or two about you, too."

His hand held hers against his face and Virginia could feel the smile on his lips. "You're not going to tell all my secrets, are you, Mr. Larabee?" she said coyly. Retrieving her hand from his, she looked dismayed, "oh, dear… my disadvantage has just increased ten-fold."

As his arm dropped slowly to his side, the gunslinger laughed quietly. "Ginny, I don't think you've ever been at a disadvantage in your entire life…."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"She sure did sleep a long time," Dunne added to the conversation.

Jackson sat forward in his chair. "William says she's been doing it more and more over the past few weeks."

"And that's not a good thing, I assume?"

Biting his bottom lip, Nathan shook his head before turning to look into the preacher's eyes. "No, Josiah, it ain't... She may not have much time left."

JD folded his arms across his chest and pulled them in snuggly. "When she ain't tired, she… It's like there ain't nothing wrong with her." Looking at his companions questioningly, the kid frowned. "It don't seem right."

"There's a lot in life that isn't right, JD. You've must have figured that out by now."

Dunne nodded at the preacher's words. "Don't think I ever got to know anyone so fast though. Even if she don't pick me, I'm gonna miss her when she's gone."

Jackson smiled. "Think we all will, JD. She's a real easy person to know."

"Makes letting go all that much harder," Sanchez added. "William Spencer is going to need our help as much as his sister."

"Gonna be real hard on him."

Josiah replied quickly to Nathan's comment, "already is."

"Afternoon, boys," Wilmington interrupted in his usual bubbly way.

The three men acknowledged the rogue.

Glancing at Sanchez, the ladies' man raised an eyebrow. "You goin' next, Josiah?"

"I believe that was the idea, Buck. When Ginny arrives, that is."

"Just comin' down the street, now," Wilmington indicated. "Seems she feelin' much better after somethin' ta eat."

Getting to his feet, Jackson cocked his head. "She sure is a fighter."

"Yep," Buck agreed, his eyes locked on the Spencers as they stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the jail.

"Afternoon, Miss Spencer. William…."

"And a beautiful one it is, too, Josiah."

"Yes, Ma'am," the preacher grinned, rising from his chair. "Shall we go inside and get better acquainted?" he offered her his arm.

Turning her head toward her brother, Virginia spoke. "Why don't you go and relax a little, Will… I'm in good hands here."

Spencer took a deep breath, guiding his sister's arm to the preacher's. He offered his own smile to Sanchez, acknowledging the talk they'd shared that morning. "Yes, Ginny… I know that… more than ever."

Virginia frowned. "Are you alright, Will?"

Again, his lips curled, nodding his concurrence. "We both are, Ginny," he offered solemnly.

A strange silence settled between the siblings, as the clatter of the street seemed to fade into oblivion… a long-forgotten easiness that made them both feel more content.

Feeling a need to break the ensuing quiet, Sanchez cleared his throat. Touching the hand that now held his arm, he patted it gently; "Shall we get started then?"

Her eyes drifted downward before they turned from her brother's gaze. "Yes, of course," the young woman tried to refocus. "Lead on, Josiah," she waved.

"Yes, Ma'am," the big man guided her through the office door.

Another awkward silence settled as Virginia and Josiah disappeared inside.

Finally, Wilmington pushed the hat back on his head and looked at William. "You ride, Mr. Spencer?"

The younger man frowned at the rogue but nodded cautiously.

"I got my patrol ta do," Buck said happily. "Could use the company… if you want?"

Surprised at the invitation, William's eyebrows rose as he slowly nodded. "I'll… need a horse," he advised cautiously.

Wilmington grinned. "Right this way," he indicated the direction of the livery.

As the two men left, Dunne turned to Jackson. "Everything really is gonna work out. Isn't it, Nathan?"

The healer smiled his agreement. "I think so, JD… I think so…."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The gunslinger's weapon flashed quicker than lightening as he spun around, the barrel, aiming with deadly accuracy, at its mark.

"Jesus, Vin!" the blond cussed, his heart skipping a beat when he realized it was a friend who had managed to sneak up on him.

Tanner shrugged apologetically. "Reckon I weren't payin' attention." Wandering out of the tree line, he led his horse by its reins.

"Good way to get yourself shot," Chris mumbled as he holstered the weapon. Setting the gun belt back on the woodpile, he picked up the canteen and drank.


Larabee raised an eyebrow as the tracker came to a stop by the porch. "Don't know of any other reason to cut up a tree."

Tanner declined when Chris offered him a drink.

Returning the cap to his canteen, the man in black eyes his friend suspiciously. He knew if he went back to chopping wood, the tracker would spend hours out there, not saying a word.

Admittedly, Larabee and Tanner were more comfortable than most men were when they had nothing to say, but Chris didn't think that was the case today. He decided to start a conversation before a complacent silence took hold. "So… what brings you out here, Vin?"

The sharpshooter didn't appear to have an answer as he twirled the reins between his fingers.

Neither nervous or agitated was a normal states for Vin, but Larabee figured he understood where the younger man's reactions were coming from. He approached the situation calmly. "You've been… pretty quiet, since the Spencers came to town…."

There was another long silence before Tanner finally spoke. "Ain't good with new folks… you know that."

Chris acknowledged the truth in his friend's statement before frowning. "Yeah… But that don't explain why you ain't said more than two words to the lady. You're normally polite… where womenfolk are concerned."

There was obvious hesitation in the tracker's response. "Reckon, you're all doing just fine… She don't need ta get us all confused."

Larabee smiled. He couldn't help it. "Vin," he countered, "Ginny couldn't get us mixed up if there were seventeen, instead of seven… or twenty seven, for that matter."

Anxious blue eyes met solemn green. "You seem… comfortable enough."

Signing heavily, the blond crossed his arm, narrowing his gaze on his friend. "Wasn't at first… But she… kind 'a grows on you," he smirked.

Tanner had no response.

Larabee's happy expression faded. "That bother you?"

Pursing his lips, the sharpshooter pushed his hat back and looked at his friend seriously. "She's dying, Chris. Ain't gonna be long before she's gone…."

The man in black could only nod at information they all knew.

"Why would you… wanna let yerself get attached… just so's you can… say goodbye?"

The honest confusion of Tanner's words shocked the gunslinger. Standing there, facing his best friend, Chris questioned, for just a moment, if he really knew the man as well as he thought.

Eventually, walking closer, Larabee cocked his head. "You heard what her brother said. She came here to spare him the pain of her death... But, at least… he'll get to say that goodbye."

Their eyes met once more.

"I can't not help her, Vin," the pain was clear in his words, and for a moment, Chris looked away.

Tanner could sense the sudden turmoil inside his friend and he was concerned. He asked the first question that came to mind, "you gonna be able ta watch her die…?"

Drawing in a deep breath, the blond smiled gently. "If she asks me… I'll do it."

It wasn't the information he'd come for, but the sharpshooter found an answer in Larabee's response. Nodding slowly, Tanner glanced at the ground and then refocused on his best friend. Smiling in earnest, he tugged on the reins, bringing his horse closer.

There was a strange silence as Chris watched the younger man prepare to leave. "Vin?"

Settling on his horse, Tanner looked back at his friend expectantly.

Meeting the tracker's gaze, Chris spoke from his heart. "I'd have given anything… to hold Sarah… when she died. To comfort her… to give her peace."

Vin's chin dipped for a moment as he swallowed hard. He sighed, looking back at Larabee, "to say goodbye?"

The blond's eyes closed and there was another moment of silence, broken eventually with strong words, "there's a dignity in this request… Something that I can't deny… Not to Ginny, or William…."

"…Or yourself?"

Green eyes searched out the blue this time. Chris nodded slowly and offered a smile.

Understanding slowly worked its way to Tanner's face as he recalled the words Josiah's had spoken after hearing his poetry that first night. He repeated them, taking solace in their meaning. "Deliverance… May it be granted… to all who are in need."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Ah, the fair Miss Spencer," the gambler announced as he entered the sheriff's office and secured the door behind him.

The smirk on the young woman's face was sinful. "Mr. Standish, I swear… you can make me blush just with the sound of your voice. Your abundance of compliments is far too gracious and certainly not needed."

"I beg to differ," he replied, sitting in his assigned chair. "When a man is presented with such magnificence. One must endeavor to bestow all necessary and pertinent admiration. Failure to do so would constitute the most despicable of crimes, worthy of the most horrible of deaths."

"Good heavens," she played along beautifully, a hand rising to her lips to feign shock. "That would never do, Mr. Standish," she smiled, returning her arm to her lap. "Well, you just go right ahead and say what you must… I would never want your untimely demise on my conscience. And in such a terrible manner, too."

The smirk faded from his lips as her words sunk in. "It would seem," he spoke after a brief silence, "that our topic of conversation should be directed to more constructive pursuits."

Virginia hadn't missed the pause in their banter. She licked at her lips nervously. "Does my 'untimely demise' disturb you, Ezra?" her words were compassionate and softly spoken.

The southerner shifted in his chair, his mood suddenly serious. "During the war… I was witness to more than… my fair share, shall we say." He tried to maintain the calm in his voice, understanding, all too well, her ability to see through his convenient façade. "Passing from life to that which lies beyond, is the natural order of things, is it not? …Rest assured, dear lady, that all who know you, will mourn your 'untimely demise'."

A hand drifted to her chin and Virginia massaged it thoughtfully. "You didn't answer my question, Ezra… Why?" she leaned forward.

The grin on his face was so slight, one might not notice unless they looked closely. Even so, the gambler tried to hide it, focusing intently at the ground. "Miss Spencer… you have an uncanny knack for seeing things that no one else can."

She smirked, "like the uneasiness that enveloped you just then. Or perhaps… the real Ezra Standish… that you keep hidden away… under lock and key."

The grin was still on his lips, yet the southerner made little attempt to hide it this time. "Am I that obvious?" he asked matter-of-factly.

Virginia shook her head slowly. "No," she glanced downward. "But one should recognize their own kind… when they see it… don't you think?"

As the woman's eyes, slowly rose to meet his, Ezra took in a deep pensive breath. He'd heard what she'd said yet, more importantly; he recognized the truth in her words as though he were looking into a mirror. "A brave face… worn for the whole world to see," he said softly, reaching for her hand.

Miss Spencer smiled gently, taking comfort in his touch.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Sanchez looked up when he heard the church doors open. His eyes widened when he realized who had just entered. "Not very often, I have the pleasure of your company within these walls," he spoke in greeting.

Tanner shrugged his agreement. "Guess not…."

Setting his book aside, the preacher got to his feet and stretched, trying to act casual. "Something I can do for you, Vin?"

The sharpshooter shuffled his feet as he came closer. "I was… out ridin' most 'a the day. Hope Miss Spencer… weren't lookin' fer me."

Sanchez pursed his lips and shook his head. "Don't think so. She was pretty tired when she got done with Ezra."

Tanner looked at the preacher cautiously. "She slept a long time, too," his comment showing his concern.

Josiah nodded. "I… talked to her brother some… yesterday and today. Seems she has good days, and bad. If I were to guess, I'd say today was mostly bad."

There was a long pause.

Vin knew he trusted Josiah. They'd talked a lot… about spiritual things, and family. Yet, somewhere in all that, the tracker had never once broached the subject that weighed heavily on his heart now.

He'd taken to the countryside looking for answers. Finding none, he'd gone to Chris this afternoon, managing to finding some solace… enough to take this next step anyway. "Ma had lots of those… near the end…."

The preacher smiled inside knowing that his instincts had been right. His young friend had come to 'talk', but he wasn't about to press. "One of life's many mysteries, I suppose. Yet… as the mind and body grow weaker, the spirit seems to grows strong."

The words were slow to come. "You… really believe that, Josiah?"

Sanchez moved to stand beside Tanner, his gaze fixed down the aisle. "Reckon it's God's way of preserving what's most important… After all, the things we remember most, are the things inside."

Vin's eyes drifted high before he lowered them to the floor. "She fought hard… not to leave."

The preacher's head bowed, too, as he considered his friend's words.

"The way she looked at me… Sad… She was sad that she couldn't be there to watch me grow…."

His voice was barely a whisper when Sanchez finally turned to look at Tanner. "Is that what she told you?"

The sharpshooter could only nod.

"It wasn't your fault, you know. It was no one's fault. It was… just her time."

The young man spun on his heals. "No," his voice was defiant, his breathing erratic. "Weren't her time… no more than it's Miss Ginny's time. She's… too young… she's got… too much life ta live…."

Their eyes were locked before Josiah chose to turn away. A hand worked its way across his forehead and through his hair, finally coming to rest in a clenched fist, locks caught between the fingers. A deep sighed escaped his lips. "William Spencer was in here yesterday," his arm returned to his side, "asking me the same questions." Turning to face the young man once more, Sanchez continued. "I'll tell you what I told him, Vin. I don't have the answers you seek. I only know that for every life, there is a reason... A purpose… Whether we're here for just a few days or a few years, we bring joy and happiness into the lives of those that we know and love. Some are here just long enough to bring a child into this world, so that they can grow up to be strong and proud…"

Both men were looking at one another once more.

"For every life, there is a death," Josiah continued, his voice full of conviction. "But, what kind of life can we live if we constantly dwell on death? Every living thing must leave here sooner or later. But they live on, in our memory. We honor them by remembering the laughter and the good times. Remembering that part of your loved one that made you the person, you are. Remembering the good that they did and the things they accomplished."

Sanchez took in a calming breath, but his eyes were wide with passion "Don't think too long on the good-byes that are destined to come. That's no way to live... We may never understand the logic of chance or divine intervention that calls our loved ones away, far too soon. But, you can't dwell on the end of life… Mourn the inevitable, but don't ever forget to celebrate the life that you shared... the life that you were given… Live it, to the fullest each and every day. Don't dwell on death... Live your life."

Confusion or understanding… anger or calm. Tanner had no idea what feelings were assaulting him as he turned from Josiah's heavy stare. Maybe all of those things… and more. He searched the room, desperately trying to find something to say... or do. But, he was lost… nothing came… so he turned towards the door.

Sanchez lowered his gaze, wondering if any of his words had been understood.

The tracker had taken a few steps when he stopped. His breath caught as some semblance of comprehension made its way into his consciousness.

Josiah's words applied… to both Ginny and his Ma.

Vin had come here hoping the preacher could explain why he felt so lost. It was the same way he'd felt when his mother had past away. Virginia Spencer was a spirited young woman, just as his Ma had been, and the comparison was weighing heavily on Tanner's mind.

Glancing back at Sanchez, Vin's features softened. For all the similarity… for all the life and death he had seen; the Texan suddenly reasoned out what Josiah was getting at.

Managing a slight nod, the younger man continued on his way.

The preacher's eyes closed and his chin rose high. He breathed deeply of the night air. Tanner's small gesture had been enough. He was satisfied that his meaning had been heard.

Maybe, they had both found some peace in his words.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"You sure you're up to this, Ginny?"

Her eyes rolled in their sockets before Miss Spencer turned to face her brother. "For the last time, Will, I need to get the feel of this horse. I don't know how long I'm going to have to ride it, and he wouldn't do me much good if I find out we're not compatible, after we've left."

William lowered his head, a deep sigh sounded as he nodded. "I guess not."

"Don't you worry none, Mr. Spencer," Wilmington smiled. "Josiah will take real good care of your sister. And Nathan's goin' along, just like you wanted."

"Oh really," the young woman huffed. "I see no reason why you're forcing Mr. Jackson on this venture. Nothing's going to happen. I'm sure we'll only be an hour or so."

"Allow me this, Ginny," the young man moved closer to his sister, taking her hands in his. "Please…."

This time the heavy sigh was hers. "Oh, all right," she tapped his hands reassuringly. "This time we do it your way."

William smiled. "Thank you."

Squeezing his hands, Virginia spun around and reached for her horse. "Now then… who's going to help me up on this beast… I want to feel the wind in my hair," she laughed as she tousled her locks.

The rogue smiled. "Now there's a pretty picture."

"Buck Wilmington," she shook her head playfully. "You really are awful. Has anyone ever told you that…?"

"We tell him that all the time, Ma'am," Jackson mused as he watched the rogue show the lady her horse. "Don't seem to matter much though, he just goes right on being… awful."

Shooting the healer a dirty look, Wilmington put the woman's hand on the stirrup. "Right there, Miss Ginny. Now... if you set your foot in, I'll help you up."

"Hands in all the proper places, I'm sure."

Jackson and Sanchez exchanged knowing glances.

William Spencer folded his arms suspiciously. "You're having far too much fun with this, Ginny," he chastised.

"I am, too," Virginia answered, setting one foot in the stirrup, as directed.

"Just like we practiced now," Buck coaxed. "One, two, threeeee," he lifted her high in the air.

With the reins bunched at the saddle horn, Miss Spencer guided her right leg over the saddle and settled into place. "There," she smiled happily. "That wasn't so hard."

William moved to her side and straightened out her petticoats and dress.

"I hope that's my brother," the young woman joked. "Or Mr. Wilmington is going to get a swat for being so forward."

"Yes, it's me," Spencer shook his head. "You really should have changed."

"I want to keep my riding clothes clean until they're needed," she answered sternly.


Not caring for her brother's response, the young woman turned her head. "Lead on, Josiah…" she offered her tether. "I, of course, shall follow."

Moving his horse closer to hers, the preacher tipped his hat to William and Buck before taking the line. "We'll be back in an hour or so," he pulled the tether tight.

"Not too long," Spencer advised.

"Don't you worry, Son. I'll take good care of her."

"And I'll take care of them both," Jackson added.

"Enough talk," Virginia urged.

"Yes, Ma'am," Sanchez signaled his mount forward.

As they watched the three horses heading south out of town, Wilmington set a hand on William's shoulder. "She's in good hands, Mr. Spencer."

The younger man managed an apprehensive nod, his eyes never leaving the departing riders.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The two sat silently in the sheriff's office.

Vin was being his normal shy self.

Virginia, on the other hand, didn't know what to say to this man. She'd tried to draw him into the conversation during the poker the other night. She'd even made inquiries with the other men, asking little things about their reclusive seventh member.

'Oh, that's just Vin' really wasn't a lot of help.

So, here she was, sitting face to face with a man she hadn't even begun to know. Exasperated with their lack of talk, she finally blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. "Do you have any family, Mr. Tanner?"

The tracker's arms dropped to his sides, at last relinquishing the folded position they had been in since he'd entered. He mouthed a couple of responses, but no words came out. He shook his head, and then scolded the movement, knowing she couldn't see it. Glancing at the floor, he finally forced words from his lips. "It's Vin, Ma'am… You can call me Vin."

She frowned, noticing immediately that he hadn't answered her question. 'But, hey… At least he spoke…' "I'm very pleased to finally meet you, Vin," she smiled. "For a while there, I was actually wondering if there really were seven of you."

He was hesitant, but Tanner finally did reply. "Last time I counted, Ma'am. We were all still here."

She laughed at his humor. "Oh, but if we're going to be on a first name basis, I insist you call me Ginny. It's short for Virginia, as you probably know. I'm told Will had trouble saying it when I was born. Then… well, he just kept on using it," she shrugged, "and I got used to it."

"That's a real nice name, Ma'am."

"Ginny," she corrected.

"Yes, Ma'am," his eyes grew wide. "Eh, Ginny."

"That's better," she tapped his knee. "Now then… what should we talk about?"

Tanner shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Ain't much good at talkin', Ma'am… Miss Ginny. Best you take the lead and I'll do the followin'."

"Well, that's a change of pace for me," Virginia quipped.

Her attempted humor floundering, Miss Spencer quickly found another subject. "So… where are you from, Vin," she asked about his accent.

"Texas, Ma'am… born and raised."

Virginia cocked her head playfully and smirked. "Just exactly what do I have to do, to get you to stop calling me Ma'am?"

He couldn't help bowing his head to hide his grin. "Well… Miss Ginny… Reckon that's a real hard habit for me ta break. Spent most of my life, callin' women folk, Ma'am, don't much see a reason to stop now."

"No," she smiled in earnest. "I can see that." There was a moment of silence before she continued, several thoughts clearly going through her head. "Suppose… we make a deal," she suggested.

Tanner frowned. "Ma'am."

The woman rolled her eyes. "You try real hard to call me Ginny…."

Understanding her olive branch, Tanner relaxed a little, "yes, Ma'am."

There was another pause as she thought about his demeanor and the subjects that he seemed to shy away from. "And I'll try to remember not to ask about your family," Virginia finally announced.

His lips parted but not because he wanted to say something.

Vin really didn't know how to respond.

His mouth hung open for several long seconds. His eyes narrowed. Not from suspicion, but from shear awe. "That… sounds like a real nice idea… Ginny," he finally said.

Tanner's smile was genuine, at last.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~


~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~