Summary: Missing scene for The New Law. Judge Travis's announcement that the Seven are relieved of their duties causes Vin to ponder his past life and his future.
Acknowledgements: This story was written for the one year anniversary of the Vin Tanner Fanfic and Discussion Group. Brigitta, this one is for you - with thanks for your enthusiasm, commitment and encouragement.
Grateful thanks to Xiola for her encouragement and beta'ing skills.
Disclaimer: The 'Magnificent Seven' characters are the property of MGM, Trilogy and the Mirisch Company. The characters are used here without permission BUT no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
"You're relieved of your duties as of now."
The words spun around and around in Vin Tanner's mind as the reality of what they meant for him began to sink in.
Eight words. Eight little words were about to turn his life upside down. The moment Judge Orrin Travis uttered those words, Vin turned and walked away. He headed automatically for the livery where he saddled up and rode out of Four Corners.
He thought he had no particular destination in mind, but soon found himself reining his horse to a halt at the foot of a familiar rocky promontory just outside town. It was a place he was always drawn to when he had something to ponder on, a place without the intrusion of people, where he could be alone with the savage beauty of the desert spread out majestically before him.
Not that there was a great deal to think about; the decision had already been made for him. He should have known it would come to this in the end, should have been prepared. His anger toward the decision-makers who didn't understand the first thing about the real needs of this town was matched by anger at himself. He'd broken the golden rule learned in his years on the run; he'd allowed himself to care - something he could no longer afford to do.
It was ironic, really, because caring was one of the things that came naturally to him. During his life Vin had witness and experienced first hand plenty of examples of man's inhumanity toward his fellow man, yet he still held a deep-rooted belief that most folks were basically pretty decent. Your average person wanted little more than to be left alone to get on with their life. Of course, some folk were downright mean and some were born vicious he carried enough scars on his body to testify to that but despite all he'd experienced, he still believed. Maybe that was what kept him going; caring about those around him. That was ironic too, because there hadn't been many people in his life who'd given a damn about him.
His mother had loved him, he was sure of that. He was only five years old when she died, so he didn't have many solid memories of her. Mostly impressions and senses the smells of baking and scent; the sound of laughter and a soft voice; the feeling of her hand stroking through his hair as she leaned over to tuck him in at night. He thought he remembered what she looked like a small, heart-shaped face, pretty eyes, thick, dark hair. The image faded a little more with each passing year and he dreaded the day when it would disappear completely, for it was all he had. There were no pictures, no mementos; nothing physical to remember her by.
Of his father, he had no recollection at all. He thought he remembered a creased photograph of a man with long, blondish hair and a square jaw just like his, but after more than twenty years it was only a distant memory, perhaps nothing more than a dream. He was sure his pa had been a good man. His uncle, who had grudgingly taken him in when his mother died, had refused to have his father's name spoken in his house perversely, that alone was enough to convince Vin of his father's worth. That, and something his mother said to him just before she died; the only words he clearly remembered her speaking. She gripped his hand, squeezing almost painfully to get his attention, and her pain-clouded eyes fixed solemnly on his.
"Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that."
"What's that mean, mama?"
"It means that you always think of others first, always try to do the right thing. Remember you're a Tanner and make your pa proud."
"I will, mama."
He'd spent his life trying to live up to that promise, but it hadn't been easy.
Running away from home might not be the best way to deal with your problems, but to thirteen-year-old Vin Tanner it had seemed the only option. Not that his uncle Jed was cruel, as such. Perhaps Vin did get more than his fair share of beatings, but it was more his uncle and aunt's indifference that hurt, along with the knowledge that his presence under their roof was tolerated at best. After eight long years he decided that it would be best for everyone if he left.
He spent the next fourteen years of his life perfecting the solitary, inward existence that had begun on his uncle's farm. He never could understand what it was about him that seemed to make him a natural outsider, a loner, a wanderer. He supposed that some of it was due to his personality, some was the result of learned behaviour, and some was forced upon him.
For the first year he'd drifted, learning how to fend for himself the hard way, finding jobs wherever somebody needed strong, cheap labor. Then, when he was down on his luck and getting desperate, he'd crossed the path of an old hunter named Elijah Coot. Vin often wondered why Elijah chose to take him under his wing. Looking back, he could see that it was partly compassion, partly need Elijah wasn't getting any younger and it suited him to have a strong young man at his beck and call.
In the two years they rode together, Elijah took it upon himself to teach his young companion everything he knew about surviving in the wilderness. In subsequent years, Vin found himself grateful to the old man for sharing his wisdom and skill. Most importantly, Elijah had taught him to shoot. It became clear at once that Vin had a particular talent; in little more than weeks he was more proficient than Elijah, who told him he was a natural he had never seen a boy with a sharper eye.
Elijah Coot had a very clear outlook on life.
"The only way to survive in this life is to look out for yerself first, boy," he said on one occasion.
"My ma taught me I was always to look out for others first," fourteen-year-old Vin replied.
Elijah laughed, a short bark that crackled with the cynicism of a man who had seen too much of life, and clapped him on the back.
"Idealistic claptrap. All right for them as has the luxury to do it." He poked Vin in the chest. "Likes of you and me it don't work for us. Think I'd've gotten so old and ornery iffen I'd been so set on looking out for anyone else but me?"
Vin wasn't entirely sure that Elijah always lived up to his ideals; he certainly spent a lot of time looking out for the green youngster. In many ways, the old man became a kind of father-figure to young Vin; certainly more of a father than his uncle had ever been. Oh, he wasn't an affectionate man; Elijah had seen it as his job to teach Vin how to survive in life and in that, he had succeeded admirably. The occasional act of kindness or affection was just an unexpected bonus. Yet Vin felt genuine grief when Elijah was accidentally killed in a freak storm.
Vin pondered Elijah's words a great deal over the following years, when the simple need to stay alive forced him into a life of self-preservation. He finally came to the conclusion that the old man was wrong. Sure, always putting yourself first was likely to keep you alive. But just breathing wasn't the same as living. It was simply 'existing', and he knew that for him, it wasn't enough.
Elijah's unexpected death left Vin alone again and after a while, he turned to buffalo hunting. It wasn't a job he particularly enjoyed, but it brought in money he desperately needed to survive. The men he met were tough and hardened to life, and somehow, he'd felt an outsider. Eventually, he'd hooked up with first a tribe of Kiowa Indians and later with a group of Comanche. With them, he felt more kinship than he'd ever felt with most of his own kind. The tribes shared his love of and respect for the land. Still, he was never wholly one of them. He understood and often admired their ways, but they weren't his ways, not really.
When the buffalo became scarce he turned to scouting, putting to good use the skills he'd learned while living with the Kiowa and Comanche. But work was hard to come by, and almost by accident he stumbled into a new profession. Hunting men for money wasn't the kind of work he'd ever considered taking up, but he found he was good at it. His skills in tracking and his prowess with a rifle coupled with a keen mind to make him a deadly adversary. He was good at it, sure, but he didn't particularly enjoy it. No one really likes a bounty hunter. Not the outlaws certainly, but lawmen also regarded him with disdain, and ordinary folk too looked on him with suspicion. It forced him even further into a solitary existence.
Back then he always told himself that it was just for now, that he wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life hunting men for money. It didn't seem to be the best way of living up to being a Tanner. He told himself that one day it would be different, one day he'd belong somewhere.
Then Eli Joe set him up for murder and he was forced to flee Texas, a hefty bounty on his own head. For the first year he focussed his thoughts and energy on clearing his name. He spent his days hunting down Eli Joe, planning to drag his sorry ass back to Tascosa and force him to tell the truth. But months became years with no success and finally he had no choice but to come to terms with the fact that this was his life, now. On the run; never stopping in one place long enough to be recognised, never connecting with people too closely, never allowing himself to care.
Eventually, he followed yet another dead-end lead to the town of Four Corners. The money he'd earned bounty hunting and odd jobs he'd picked up along the way had kept him going for several years, but now he was broke, with no option but to stay in town and sweep the floor of the general store to earn his keep.
Subsequent events were permanently printed on his memory: his first meeting with Chris Larabee, the mission to help the Seminole tribe, the offer of a job by Judge Travis. He knew then that it was a big mistake to stay, but the prospect of belonging, of being part of a team of men and actually doing something useful with his life, was too attractive. He ignored the warning voice inside that told him to move on.
He stayed on in Four Corners and as the months passed he began to appreciate what he'd been missing all those years. The companionship, the camaraderie, the loyalty of the group of men he drank with and fought alongside. Men whose lives he had saved; men who had saved his life countless times.
Thinking about them now provoked an unexpectedly deep pang of regret. Somehow, he'd gotten used to having these men as part of his life, and he wasn't ready to ride away and never see any of them again.
His thoughts drifted to each of them in turn, as he contemplated what they meant to him.
Josiah Sanchez was an ex-preacher, a man who fought his demons day-by-day, yet his wisdom and common-sense had anchored Vin time and again.
Nathan Jackson was a self-styled healer, a man with an extraordinary regard for human life, who constantly amazed the sharpshooter with his capacity to care despite the scars he carried with him from his earlier life.
JD Dunne; the greenhorn who was daily proving himself a quick learner and who had courage to burn. JD reminded Vin what it was like to be young and idealistic.
Buck Wilmington could easily be dismissed as an affable ladies' man with an quick wit, but Vin had come to know that there was a great deal more depth to Buck than was obvious on first acquaintance, and he would never hesitate to trust the big man to watch his back.
Ezra Standish was another complex man. Ezra worked hard on the image of a self-centred, self-serving conman, but he had shown too much compassion over the past year to convince Vin that this persona was anything more than a façade.
Then there was Chris Larabee. Vin couldn't quite pinpoint what it was that had drawn him to the man from the first, but he had instinctively known that this stranger dressed all in black was a man who thought like him, who saw the world as he saw it. He'd known the man less than two days when he amazed himself by blurting out the truth about the bounty a truth he had confided to less than a handful of people in the past three years. It felt right to tell Larabee and he knew beyond any doubt that the gunfighter believed him and trusted his word. Vin was honest enough to admit to himself, at least, that Chris had become such an integral part of his life that losing him would be like tearing his own soul in two.
Now, he was going to have to leave his new life behind. It was his own fault for getting too involved. He should have known it couldn't last; nothing good in his life ever had. Staying on in Four Corners might be an option for the others, but not for him. Sooner or later he'd do something to piss off the new Marshall, who would do some digging and find out about the bounty. Best not to wait for the inevitable. Best to go now, before trouble found him.
He had put it off too long anyway heading back to Tascosa. He should have stuck to his plan a year ago, rather than allowing his heart to rule his head. Chris had planned to go with him back then, and his heart faltered at the thought of having to do this alone. But he knew that Chris had other priorities. Finding the man who'd hired Cletus Fowler to murder his wife and son was important to Chris and now he would have the time to track him down in earnest. There was no way Vin was going to ask his friend to abandon that quest.
No, he had to shrug off the disappointment and the pain as he had many times before. He had to pull himself together and do what had to be done. He would leave tomorrow; best to go quickly, before he had time to dwell on it. Best to go alone.
"Could hurt yourself, thinking so hard like that," a quiet voice said and Vin was on his feet in an instant, hand reaching for his gun.
Chris Larabee stood a few feet away, his posture relaxed, a half-smile on his face. Darn it! He was slipping. Chris should never have been able to get so close without him hearing. Then again, maybe some part of his mind had registered the sound of familiar footsteps; perhaps because some part of his mind had been expecting them.
"Hell, Chris, you tryin' ta scare a fella ta death?" he said a little irritably.
Chris's smile widened. "Not my fault you're lost in a world of your own."
Vin grunted and sat back down. What did Chris have to smile about anyway?
Chris perched on a flat boulder nearby, resting his elbows on his knees and staring out over the plain as Vin had been doing for the past couple of hours.
"Sure is pretty out here."
"Yeah." Vin wasn't really interested in talking about the landscape. He looked sideways at his friend. "Guess you've heard we're all out of a job?"
"They're makin' a real big mistake this ain't Kansas."
"That all ya gotta say?"
Chris shrugged. "Don't reckon the Judge had much say in the matter and those making the decisions ain't likely to be changing their minds."
"So you ridin'?" Vin asked.
"Reckon there ain't a place for me under this new Marshall. You?"
Vin nodded, his eyes firmly fixed on the plain. "Gonna head for Tascosa. Reckon I've bin puttin' it off too long anyway."
There was a long pause, and then Chris said, "So we're heading for Texas in the morning?"
We? Despite his determination not to expect anything from his friend, Vin felt his pulse quicken. He looked across at Chris, caught and held the man's eyes. Before he had chance to say anything, Chris went on, "Guess you'll be wanting to find that artillery wagon first?"
Vin nodded dumbly.
"While you're doing that, I'll head out, check out a couple of leads on Fowler. Meet up with you in, say, two days, out at Nettie's place. You want to say good-bye to her, right?"
Vin finally found his voice. "Ya don't have ta come to Tascosa, Chris. It's my problem."
"My problem too," Chris replied mildly, "if you get your head shot off without me to watch your back."
"I can look after myself."
"Didn't say you can't. Just saying you don't have to. Or don't you want my company?"
"You know it ain't that."
Chris didn't respond immediately and when he did, his words were unexpected.
"Vin, if I asked you to come with me to look for Fowler's boss, would you come instead of riding to Tascosa?"
Well, that was a stupid question. Vin didn't even have to think about it. "Ya know I would."
"Why?" Chris asked quietly.
Why? "Well, because " Vin paused. How could be even begin to express in words what this man had come to mean in his life, how he would willingly give up his own plans, even his own life, to help him? He met Chris's penetrating green gaze and saw that he didn't need to say anything. Chris knew and his expression revealed that he felt the same.
Chris nodded then, seeing that Vin understood. "I do want to track the bastard down, Vin. But I reckon your business is more urgent. We'll clear your name, and then we'll get back on the trail of the man who hired Fowler. Deal?"
Vin found himself grinning. "Deal."
Chris held out his hand and once more their eyes locked. No more words were said, but as his hand gripped Chris's forearm in a tight clasp, Vin knew that whatever the future held, he would no longer have to ride the trail alone.
Chris and Vin walked a little way behind the other five as they headed for the saloon. It was over. The remainder of Earl's men had been arrested and the peacekeepers had been offered their jobs back. Vin was quiet and Chris wasn't sure what he was thinking.
"You know, Vin," he said quietly, "we don't have to stay. We can still head for Tascosa, if you've set your heart on it."
Vin stopped and turned serious eyes on him. "I 'preciate the thought, Chris. But I reckon this town needs us a while longer. There'll be a right time to head to Texas, but I don't think this is it."
"Yeah, I'm sure."
Vin said nothing more, but Chris could see the truth in his eyes.
Vin Tanner had finally found the home he had never had.