ADIOS by The Neon Gang

Comments: This story is set just after the events in the episode "Manhunt." I was told I had to include a tissue warning with this one. I hope it does bring a tear or two to your eyes, but it's not what it appears to be, so don't give up on it!

Time stretched to infinity, and collapsed to nothing in the same heartbeat. His mind stubbornly refused to believe what his eyes were telling him was true: Vin Tanner was dead.

His breath caught in his throat, his eyes beginning to sting. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be true. But there was the evidence, lying right in front of him on the ground.

"Oh shit," he heard Buck gasp when the ladies' man reached his side. The big man turned away, retching loudly. When Wilmington turned back again his eyes were already beginning to swim with unshed tears. "Chris?" he asked, the tone of his voice telling Larabee that, like him, Buck didn't want to believe the truth either. But they both had to face the facts.

How in the world had things gone so terribly wrong? The men they were chasing weren't hardened desperados. They weren't hired guns, or professional thieves. They were just six boys, most of them younger than JD, who had gotten themselves into a fix. And robbing the bank in Four Corners had been their plan to set things right.

If the peacekeepers had been in town when the boys had shown up, the kids probably would have ended up dead, or in jail, before they set foot into their stirrups for a getaway. But the peacekeepers had been out on the reservation, trying to stop a massacre.

When they had ridden back into town with Mosley and his son, Mary had been there, telling them about the robbery. They had dropped the old man off at the jail and ridden out, Vin having no trouble at all following the young thieves' tracks.

He had worried about Tanner a little, knowing the tracker had nearly gotten himself killed a couple of times over the past several days while he had tried to prove Chanu's innocence. But Vin seemed steady enough in the saddle of the sure-footed buckskin he was riding.

Larabee almost smiled. The tracker's own damn horse had started to limp on and off during the trip back from the reservation, the gimp becoming constant about a mile outside of town. Vin had taken Peso to the livery to have him looked at as soon as they had reached town. The green-broke buckskin was the only horse available, but Tanner and the gelding had seemed to hit it off well enough on the trail…


Larabee didn't want to know who was speaking to him, didn't care. He just stared down at the evidence, wanting to understand how it was he had lost the man who was more than a brother to him. But he couldn't remember who had first noticed the eerie green-gray clouds just before they had reached one of Guy Royal's line shacks, the hail beginning to fall. Probably Vin. But he could remember Josiah's comment.

"These young fools have no idea they're riding straight into the mouth of Hell!"

"We've gotta turn back!" Buck had added, his voice sounding panicked as thunder cracked loudly and large drops of rain began to pound down upon them.

He should have listened to Buck, would have, but the shooting had started before he could. They had each jerked on their horses' reins and spurred their flanks, riding hard for cover even as they fired back at the boys.

How long had the shooting gone on? he wondered. Who had finally raised the alarm first?

But maybe it hadn't been a voice at all, just that terrible sound. Chris shivered. He had actually seen someone snatched up off the ground and hurled through the air, screaming as he was tumbled end over end.

After that it was all a blur. He remembered the screams of the horses – at least he prayed it was the horses – and a wild, hard ride as he had raced away from the raging demon that had come to claim them all.

He couldn't remember shooting one of the thieves, or stopping, or riding back, or finding the others. Buck had just appeared at his side at some point, leading two horses, the bodies of two of the youngsters draped over the geldings' saddles. Josiah and Nathan had appeared next, leading a third horse, which also bore a body.

A few minutes later JD was there, the body of a fourth bandit draped over Dunne's own saddle, the thief's horse missing.

They had fanned out then, looking for the last two thieves, Ezra, and Vin.

And, a few moments later, they had found Ezra with the fifth boy, who was dying, a piece of wood from the destroyed line shack having been forced almost completely through the young man's chest. The gambler was sitting with the lad, trying to comfort him as he drew his last breaths. He had died before they could even ask him his name, but not before he'd gasped out, "Carried 'em… right over the edge… Oh, God…"

Three of the outlaws' horses were still unaccounted for, as was Vin and the buckskin, so they had continued their search, finding what the boy had seen a few minutes later. A deep wash, and horse flesh scattered over the broken rocks like the animals had been standing on sticks of dynamite that had gone off. The buckskin was there, too, scattered in large chunks.

JD had walked up to join him and Buck, his face grey, his hand shaking, held out an object he had found: Vin's mouth organ.

Chris felt the burn as bile began climbing up the back of his throat. "Keep looking," he had managed to get out past his rapidly constricting throat.

"Chris!" Nathan had called, his voice choked.

Larabee squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to see, not wanting to believe. But he knew he couldn't hide from the truth. He forced his eyes open and then commanded his feet to carry him over to the where the healer stood, his eyes rounded with shock. Looking down, he saw why…

Time stretched to infinity, and collapsed to nothing in the same heartbeat. His mind stubbornly refused to believe what his eyes were telling him was true: Vin Tanner was dead.

His breath caught in his throat, his eyes beginning to sting. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be true. But there was the evidence, lying right in front of him on the ground.

"Oh shit," he heard Buck gasp as the ladies' man reached his side. The big man turned away, retching loudly. When Wilmington turned back again his eyes were already beginning to swim with unshed tears. "Chris?" he asked, the tone of his voice telling Larabee that, like him, Buck didn't want to believe the truth either. But they both had to face the facts.


He didn't want to know who was speaking to him, didn't care. He just wanted to understand how it was he had lost the man who was more than a brother to him. But there it was, a human hand, lying on the desert sand.

"It could be the last of the bank robbers, couldn't it?" JD asked, his voice tight, pleading for hope.

"We keep looking," Josiah said quietly, his own voice deeper and rougher than usual.

And so they looked, finding a tattered saddle and a boot, neither of which were Vin's, and then one blue eyeball resting near a battered slouch hat.

"Oh my God," JD gasped and lurched away, heaving as he went. Buck was on his heels.

Larabee heard Josiah beginning to pray as the big man picked up the eyeball and carried it over to the hand and began to cover then both with a pile of rocks, reciting the 23rd Psalm as he worked.

Nathan and Ezra helped Josiah, but Chris couldn't. He couldn't force his legs to move; his fingers, however, curled excruciatingly around the harmonica he still held. But he didn't care about the pain. Vin Tanner was dead.

He almost stopped the former preacher, thinking they should take the eye back to Four Corners so they would have something to bury, but he knew Vin would have preferred to be buried out here, in the wide open spaces, so he said nothing, although he wished they had carried it up to the rim of the wash so Vin's last look would be out at the wide expanse of the desert, not the crumbling wall of the wash, which seemed too close to him. Vin hated closed-in spaces.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris wasn't sure how long they stayed out in the desert, or how he had ended up back on his horse, riding for home, Vin's slouch hat hanging from his saddlehorn. They plodded along in silence, leading the horses that bore the dead. Rain continued to fall, thunder occasionally rumbling in the distance, closer to the hills now than to them and Four Corners.

Without thinking he scanned the landscape, looking for the missing tracker. His heart expected to find the man, but his head kept telling him there was no use looking. Tanner was dead.

Anger welled up in him, threatening to explode in molten fury. But there was nowhere to direct it, nothing to do about it, so he buried it in his silence, in his pain, and waited.

Reaching Four Corners, Chris rode past the livery and straight to the saloon. He dismounted and tied his horse outside. Stalking into the gloomy interior, he went straight to the bar where Inez was waiting.

"Whiskey," Chris said, his voice thick and tight. "Give me the bottle."

She hesitated a moment, but the deadly flash in his hazel eyes was all it took for her to hand him a bottle and an empty glass. "Señor Chris?" she called, her voice just above a whisper.

He didn't reply, couldn't, just took the bottle and the glass and walked over to the table farthest from the door, chasing away two cowboys with a single glance.

The chair groaned as he sat down, bottle and glass banging the tabletop. He filled his glass, picked it up and stared at the dark amber liquid for a moment, then gulped the contents down in a single swallow. Many more followed the first.

He knew quickly enough that the liquor would do nothing to ease the rage in his heart, storming worse than what he had seen out in the desert. Standing, he hurled the half-empty bottle against the wall of the saloon, watching it explode in a rain of glass shards, sharp as the pain ripping through his guts.

He stalked from the building, reached the boardwalk, turned, and continued, unsure where, exactly, he was going. He didn't care, and allowed his feet take him wherever they decided. And where they decided was Vin's wagon.

Pausing outside the rickety contraption Tanner called home, he hesitated a moment, waiting to see if his lungs could draw another breath. And when they did, he climbed inside the conveyance and sat down heavily.

He glanced around slowly, realizing for the first time just how little Vin called his own. A few clothes, supplies, a bedroll… He reached up, touching his shirt pocket where Tanner's harmonica was safely tucked away.

He pulled the instrument out and set it on top of a small barrel. The harmonica, his spyglass, and his weapons were Tanner's most prized possessions, along with Peso and that damn hide coat. Peso was safe in his stall at the livery. The harmonica was here… And the rest? They had been lost, along with Vin.

With a sigh Larabee decided he would take the wagon out to his shack. They couldn't leave it sitting here in town; someone would eventually take it. Peso he would set free to live out the rest of his days, racing across the desert.

And the harmonica? he wondered.

Reaching out, Chris tucked that back into his pocket, unable to give up the last connection he had to the man who had saved his soul.

And then, his hand pressed over his pocket, the tears began to fill his eyes. He fought them, trying to use the fury that still bubbled in his soul to defeat them, but the anger was drowned in a profound sadness that rocked him to his core.

The tears spilled over his cheeks, hot and stinging, and he sat, huddled in the wagon, and cried.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris didn't know how long he had sat there in the wagon, bawling his eyes out, but it was fully dark when he finally climbed out, his legs feeling weaker than he had hoped. He saw Buck first, the ladies' man sitting in a chair on the boardwalk across the street. Wilmington rose and crossed to join him.

"Ya all right?"

Larabee nodded, wishing he didn't feel like he was living some bad dream. But he had done this once before, and he recognized the feelings and knew they would pass eventually. At least he hoped they would. Could a man survive two trips into this kind of hell?

"Ya want to go back to your room?" Buck asked him.

He nodded again and they started off down the boardwalk, their boots ringing hollowly on the weathered wood. The sound of Vin's bootfalls echoed in Larabee's mind, and he knew he would continue to hear them for days, weeks, maybe months to come – just like he had heard Sarah's voice and Adam's laughter.

He shivered, wishing he could decide how he felt. He wasn't numb anymore, but he wasn't angry either, or sad, exactly. It was some indeterminate feeling that had no name, and no way to name it. But it left him open and vulnerable in a way he hated. And whiskey wouldn't make it go away.

That made him mad. There should be something he could do to either kill the feeling, or feel something else, but he had no idea what that something might be.

No, he knew there was nothing he could do, nothing except putting one foot in front of another, keep going day to day and hope that, eventually, the strange feelings finally faded and the emptiness arrived.

Emptiness he understood. Emptiness he could fill with whiskey.

They reached the boarding house and climbed the stairs to where their rooms were. Buck escorted him to his door and waited.

Chris hesitated, not sure he wanted to go inside and close himself off with his feelings. But if he didn't, Buck would remain, and he wasn't ready to see the sadness or the sympathy in the other man's eyes. So he reached out and grabbed the tarnished knob, turning it and letting the door swing open.

He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, leaning back against it. He waited, listening. A few moments later he heard Buck take a couple of steps away, stop, and take a step back toward his door. The ladies' man stopped again, then turned and headed down to his room. Larabee heard the sound of the door closing and allowed himself to breathe again.

Pushing off the door, Chris walked over to his bed and sat down on the edge. When had he gotten so damn tired? He was too tired to bother pulling off his boots, or to undress, so he lay back on top of the blanket and stared up at the dark ceiling. His hand rose slowly to his pocket and he pulled out the harmonica. Pressing the cool metal to his lips, he sighed into it, a low, lost tone issuing from the mouth organ. It made him shiver, and he pulled the harmonica away from his lips, afraid another note might summon the tracker's ghost.

His fingers curled around the instrument, squeezing it in a tight fist. "God damn you, Tanner," he hissed into the darkness.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Morning came, and Larabee found his way to the saloon because it was their habit, not because he was hungry. The thought of food made his stomach threaten to rebel, but something inside of him needed the company of the men he knew would be feeling the same as he was.

That was a change, he knew. Before, with Sarah and Adam, he hadn't wanted to see anyone, least of all Buck, who he had known was also hurting. But not like he was. No one could hurt like he was then. And no one could be hurting like he was now, either, but he still needed to be with them. So he didn't worry about why he wanted to be with them, he just listened to that need and let it guide him to the saloon.

They all looked up as he entered, but no one spoke. Chris walked over and sat down, his gaze immediately drawn to the empty chair next to him. His hand rose, pressed against the harmonica, back safe in his pocket. His heart cramped, but he welcomed the pain. It was the first thing he had felt since he'd lain down on his bed last night.

Nathan passed him a plate of food, but he shook his head, reaching for the coffee and pouring himself a cup instead.

The others returned to eating, although he noticed that it was more that they were all pushing their food around on their plates. The silence that fell was like some invisible soap bubble that walled them off from the rest of the world, and he realized that he felt comfortable inside that sacred space.

But it was shattered when JD looked up and said, "We oughtta have a funeral or something, for Vin." His hazel eyes were round and earnest, making him look younger than he was. Vin had always looked younger than he was, too.

No one spoke at first, heads turning so they were all looking at Chris. The decision was his to make, he knew, and they were waiting for him to make it. But could he?

His hand rose to his pocket again, touching the mouth organ through the material of his black shirt. He had dressed all in black today, the very same clothes he had been wearing when he'd first met Vin Tanner. Why? he wondered. Thinking about the past, living in the past, wouldn't bring the past back to life. He had already learned that lesson. But the act had made him feel closer to the tracker somehow.

He took a sip of his coffee, almost grimaced at the bitter taste, and realized for the first time why Vin preferred to shave sugar into the brew. Forcing the swallow down his throat, he lifted his head and looked out at the others. They wanted him to say yes.

"I think that'd be a good idea, JD," he said quietly, surprising himself when his voice didn't shake.

"Brother Vin will be sorely missed," Josiah added, his deep voice like the whisper of thunder in the distance. "Least we can do is say goodbye to him good and proper."

"Amen to that," Nathan agreed quietly.

Buck, JD and Ezra all nodded their agreement.

"When?" the ladies' man asked, and Chris knew that the question was again directed at him.

"Tomorrow… Dawn," Larabee replied. Afterward he would take the wagon and Peso out to his shack. He would let the big black gelding go at sunset, maybe blow a few more notes on that mouthorgan.

"Would it be amenable to you, if we each had an opportunity to speak a few words?" Ezra ventured, green eyes full of sadness and loss.

Chris swallowed hard, looked away from the man's pain. "If you've got some to share, share 'em," he replied.

"I'll see to it them boys are all put down today," Buck told them, his voice soft and intense like it got when he had something important to say. "Ain't gonna have them buried at the same time as Vin."

"We ain't really burying Vin," JD said, his voice breaking.

Buck looked like he might argue with the boy, but Josiah put a stop to it when he said, "We'll be burying his spirit, son. That's just as important as planting a body."

"No," Chris said before he could stop himself. He didn't want to speak, but he couldn't seem to find the will to halt the words in time. "Vin's spirit is out there – free – where he'd want to be." And with that he stood and walked out of the saloon.

His feet carried him back to the livery and he entered and walked over to Peso's stall. The big black saw him and nickered a greeting, tossing his head at the same time.

Larabee walked up to the stall and reached out, stroking the horse's neck. "He ain't coming back this time," he whispered, his eyes beginning to sting again.

If his head knew the truth, why the hell couldn't his heart believe it? he wondered.

Peso didn't seem to believe it either, the gelding lifting his head to look over Larabee's shoulder, watching for Tanner to appear. But he didn't, and he wouldn't.

"Tomorrow you'll be free again," he promised the black. "He'd want that. So you can carry his spirit up into the hills, or out onto the plains, wherever it guides you."

In an uncharacteristically gentle move, Peso nudged Chris's shoulder with his nose, looking, no doubt for some treat that Tanner would have had if Vin had been standing there. But he wasn't standing there, and it felt to Larabee like the big horse was promising him he'd do just that.

"I'll bring you a treat later," he promised the horse, then turned and walked over to his own mount's stall. He saddled the gelding and rode out of town.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris didn't pay attention to where he was going, just headed out of town and into the open spaces that Vin had prized so much. Where he ended up, three hours later, was a small stand of cottonwood that had grown up around a small spring and creek that usually ran year round, even during the hot summers. Vin had brought him out here shortly after they had returned from the Seminole village and dealt with James and his cronies. It had been a much-needed retreat and the two of them had spent several days just sitting under the trees, talking. Of course they had also spent many hours in silence, watching the mustang, deer and other wildlife pass them by.

Vin had told Larabee that he had once considered homesteading the land around the spring, but he just couldn't imagine putting down roots like that.

In turn, Chris had told Tanner that he thought it was a good spot. The tracker had nodded, saying he might reconsider the idea – once his name was cleared.

Neither of them had mentioned that Chris had already been looking at a section of land that would adjoin this one, and was planning on building a cabin so he could escape the press of civilization in town whenever he needed to.

He smiled thinly and glanced around the grove, almost expecting to see Tanner's ghost there. But there was nothing except the sunlight and the wind.

Stepping down from his saddle, Chris tied his horse to one of the trees and walked over to one of the large rocks near the spring and sat down on it.

Almost another hour passed before he said softly, "I guess I never thanked you, Vin, for saving my life." He sighed heavily and pulled his hat off his head. "I was headed straight to Hell that day I saw you trade that broom for a rifle… I couldn't believe you were actually heading off to stop a lynching all by yourself… What the hell were you thinking?" He snorted softly. "Guess you weren't thinking, no more than I was anyway. I just knew I couldn't let you get yourself killed… that you were someone… someone who could make living worth the effort again. I never understood it. Still don't. But I should've said thank you before now, and for that I'm truly sorry."

He leaned back and gazed up into the deep blue sky. "I won't throw away what you gave me, Vin. God knows I'd like to, but I can't do it. I owe you more than that. And I promise you, I'll do everything I can to clear your name. I owe you that much, too."

With a heavy sigh he pushed himself off the rocks. "I hope you won't mind if I come back here from time to time to talk to you," he said, pulling the harmonica out of his pocket. "I can't say goodbye, Vin, not yet… I guess I just can't believe you're really gone. It'll sink in eventually, but it hasn't yet." He looked down at the mouthorgan, squeezing it in his palm, watching his fingertips turn white. "When I can, I'll bring this back and leave it here for you." He tucked the instrument back into his shirt pocket. "But I can't do that just yet. I hope you can understand… And don't worry, I'll take care of your wagon and Peso. I think you'd want that damn monster to spend the rest of his days running free. Nobody else could tame the damn beast anyway."

He sighed heavily again and glanced around at the trees once more. "I guess I better get back before Buck comes looking for me… You take care of yourself, Vin. And watch your back 'til I can get there to do it for you… And– And if you can watch mine 'til then, well, I'd be grateful," he concluded, his throat growing too tight to continue.

He coughed, then added in a strained whisper, "God, I'm gonna miss you, Vin."

Walking to his horse, Chris untied the gelding and swung up into his saddle. He allowed himself one last look at the grove, and the spring, then turned the horse and headed back to Four Corners, wondering the entire way what he was going to say at the funeral. He decided that he had said all he needed to say already.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The following morning Larabee met the others before dawn at the saloon, which Inez had opened early especially for them. They shared breakfast, which was mostly poked at rather than eaten. Then, as a group, they rose with him and made their way down to the church just as the sky began to go dove grey along the eastern horizon.

Entering the church, Chris realized that Josiah must have spent the day before working on a coffin. And, from the looks on their faces, the others had pitched in to help him.

Ezra was carrying Vin's slouch hat and Chris tried hard not to stare at it, but it was impossible not to watch as the gambler walked over and laid it in the open coffin.

"I thought we could place this in the–" Standish stopped, unable to finish.

"A fine idea, brother," Josiah said, patting the gambler's back and then lifting the coffin lid and placing it over the top. He quickly nailed it down.

When Josiah finished, they all stepped up and lifted the coffin, three of them on each side. They carried it outside and started off toward the cemetery. As they walked along, several other people stepped out of their homes and businesses, trailing along after them.

He nodded to himself. It was fitting that at least some of the people Vin had given his life for had come out to say thank you and goodbye. He carefully avoided Mary's pain-filled blue eyes, unprepared for her sympathy, or her pity, just yet.

Once at the cemetery, they made their way over to the highest point, which was really no more than a slight rise in the otherwise flat piece of ground, but it was the best they could offer Vin. A grave had already been dug, and Chris wondered briefly which of the others had done that.

They set the empty coffin down next to the shallow hole.

Josiah stepped to the foot of the grave and cleared his throat. "We gather today to mourn the passing of our friend and brother, Vin Tanner. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace, Vin."(1)

A few scattered "Amens" followed the preacher's words.

Larabee watched as Josiah glanced at the other five peacekeepers and said, "I know a few of Vin's friends would like to say their good-byes… Ezra?"

The gambler looked more than a little uncomfortable as he took a slight step forward from the line they had formed, his hat in his hands, just like the rest of them.

Standish stared down into the waiting hole and Chris saw him shudder slightly. "For a man who loved this godforsaken wilderness as much as Mr. Tanner obviously did, it seems a travesty that we bury his memory in the ground." He stopped, cleared his throat, and then continued, "I can say with all sincerity that I have never met a man like our Mr. Tanner. And I know, with all certainty, that I will never meet his like again. Mr. Tanner had a truly noble heart, a poet's heart… and I shall never forgive myself for having ever scorned the truth and beauty that lay under that… scruffy exterior. I have lost a friend, and I know I shall always be poorer for that loss. Good-bye, Mr. Tanner… Vin."

Chris smiled to himself. Standish had spoken well.

Ezra stepped back into the line as Josiah nodded his appreciation of the man's words. The preacher looked along the line of men, inviting Nathan to speak next.

The healer stepped up, sighed heavily and shook his head. "The Bible says that I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for the Lord, makes me to dwell in safety.(2) Vin Tanner wasn't a man who worried much 'bout safety, least of all his own… not when he saw somethin' that needed doin'. If that weren't true, I wouldn't be standin' here today. Vin risked his life to save mine when I was no more than a stranger to him… and then did it more times than I care to count after I came to call him a friend. But today I don't bury a friend… I bury a brother. Goodbye, Vin. You keep an eye on us 'til we're there with you, y'hear?" The healer quickly stepped back, hand coming up to swipe at his eyes.

Josiah nodded and offered Jackson a sympathetic smile. "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity,"(3) he quoted. "And Vin Tanner was both a friend and a brother to each and every one of us."

Chris nodded his agreement and saw the gratitude of that acceptance in the preacher's eyes.

"JD?" Josiah called the youth.

The youngest member of the peacekeepers stepped up, forcing his head up despite the tears standing in his eyes. "Vin Tanner was my friend," he stated like he expected someone to challenge him. No one did. "He– He taught me so many things." The young man shook his head, and Chris knew JD wasn't sure he could go on, but he had to, so he found the courage and he continued. "I thought Vin would always be here to teach me about trackin' and–" His voice broke and he forced himself to take a deep breath. "I haven't felt so empty inside since my ma died," he said so softly only the men standing just behind him could hear it.

Larabee saw Buck reach out and rest his hand on JD's shoulder, giving it a squeeze.

"I never thought Vin would get killed like this," JD said, his voice anguished. "It just don't seem fair."

"Amen, son," Josiah agreed softly.

JD took another deep, shuddering breath and looked over at the empty coffin. "Goodbye, Vin, I'll miss you. And I'll never forget you, or the things you taught me. I promise." He stepped back quickly and scrubbed angrily at his eyes.

Josiah waited a moment, letting JD compose himself, and then looked at Buck.

"You go on," the ladies' man said softly, "I'm still collectin' my thoughts."

The preacher nodded and drew himself up, saying, "There's a friend who sticks closer than a brother,"(4) he began, "and Vin Tanner was such a friend… He touched all of our lives, making them better… He was a true friend, and there ain't much you can say about a man that's better than that.

"Lord, you know that boy's heart was a big as they come, and his sense of justice was well honed. You said: Stand ye on the old path, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your soul,(5) so I know Vin's found that rest You promised. He might not have been much of a church-going man, Lord, but he kept You in his heart in a way few of us could ever hope to imitate. So, please, Lord, make a place for him at Your table, and watch over him until we can join him. Amen."

"Amen," the others echoed.

Josiah looked Chris, who shook his head. He had already said his piece when he had ridden out of town the day before.

Sanchez turned again to Buck.

This time Wilmington nodded, cleared his throat, and took his step forward. He squinted as the sun finally slipped up over the horizon, casting bright, golden light over the desert. "I've been thinkin' about what I was gonna say this mornin' since yesterday," the ladies' man began. "And there ain't a damned thing that I can add to what's been said here already. Everybody here knows what kind 'a man Vin Tanner was, what kind 'a friend and brother. But there's one thing I need to say to Vin that I never got the chance to say while he was here with us…"

Buck paused, ran his hand over his face, then over his hair. "I should've told Vin this a long time ago, but I just never knew how… Ya see, if it weren't for Vin Tanner, I would've lost my best friend, and that's just something a mere thank you can't cover. But that's all I've got to give, and I'm late with it at that. So, Vin, I just hope ya can hear me, stud… You did me a helluva favor, and I guess I'll spend the rest of my life lookin' out for–"

"Them's right purty words, Bucklin, but they ain't as late as y' think."

There was a collective gasp from the peacekeepers and the gathered townsfolk.

Chris was frozen in place, his breath trapped in his lungs as he squinted, waiting for the shape walking slowly out of the sun to draw closer.

It couldn't be real. He was dreaming, or mad.

His legs began to shake and he silently prayed that what was happening was real, and that he didn't pass out right there where he was standing.

"Vin?" Buck peeped.

The tracker drew closer to the assembly, hobbling slightly. But no one moved.

Tanner stopped and Chris saw the man's blue eyes seek out and find his. They stared at one another for a long moment, and Larabee realized he wasn't seeing a ghost, or an illusion. He should have listened to his heart from the start, not his head. His heart had never doubted Tanner was still alive, but he had been too afraid to listen to it.

Nathan was the first to move, lurching unsteadily to Tanner's side, gaze and hands examining the tracker for any signs of major injury. Vin was dusty and a little scraped up but, on the whole, he looked remarkably well for a dead man.

The healer raised his hand and touched the tracker's face. "Are you real?"

"Hell, yes 'm real," Vin rasped, making them all a grin. "An' I got the sore feet an' bruises t' prove it."

A cheer went up from peacekeepers and townsfolk alike. Josiah laughed, clapping Tanner on the back so hard it almost knocked the smaller man to his knees. Ezra grabbed Vin's hand and shook it, JD grabbing the other and pumping that one at the same time. And then Buck scooped the smaller man up into a heartfelt bearhug, spinning him around while he hooted like a Saturday-night drunk.

"Put me down, Bucklin," Tanner growled. "Ain't some gal y' c'n sweep off'n her feet."

Buck roared with laughter as he set Tanner back on his feet again.

Words and questions tangled together: "Found your hat, and an eye…" "Looked for you…" "The buckskin…" "Where…?" "How…?" "Why…?"

Vin held up his hand to stop the verbal assault. "I'll tell y'all what happened so I's only got t' do it once…" He waited until they all fell silent. "That twister plucked me right off m' horse, tumbled me 'round, an' put me back down a good quarter-mile from where it found me. Rattled me up purty good. Took me a bit t' get m' bearings, but once I did, I lit out fer town. Ain't no more to it 'n that."

The townsfolk moved forward, offering Tanner their congratulations, Mary, Inez and Mrs. Potter giving him hugs as well. And then they drifted back to homes and shops, leaving Vin alone with his friends.

"Welcome home, brother," Josiah said, wrapping an arm around Vin's shoulders and giving him a squeeze, then he stepped aside.

"I want to get a look at you up in the clinic," Nathan said, reaching out to give Tanner's arm a gentle squeeze. "Might be more hurt than you know."

"It is a true pleasure to see that you are still among the living, Mr. Tanner," Ezra told the tracker, grinning like a fool.

"It actually picked you right up off your horse?" JD asked Vin, his eyes round with excitement.

Tanner nodded, but Buck spared the tracker having to retell the story in greater detail when he wrapped his arm around the young sheriff's shoulders and turned him back toward town, saying, "This calls for a celebration! Come on, boys, Ezra's buying!"

"Oh, I am, am I?" Standish countered, stepping up next to Wilmington and Dunne. "And why, pray tell, would I do something as foolish as that?"

"Because you're a fraud," Nathan said, joining the threesome on their way back to the saloon.

"A generous fraud," Josiah corrected, trailing after the healer.

And then the two men were alone in the cemetery.

"You all right?" Chris asked him.

"Little sore, but yeah, 'm fine."

Chris stepped up to the tracker, his hand held out. Vin clasped his forearm fiercely, blue eyes locked on green. Larabee tugged the tracker into a brief but intense hug.

Stepping apart, they grinned like a pair of schoolboys.

Chris reached up and pulled the harmonica out of his pocket, handing it to Tanner. "Found this out there."

"Thanks," Vin said, smiling as he took it and slipped it back into his pocket. "Thought maybe that twister took it."

They turned and started for the saloon, walking shoulder to shoulder.

"Didn't happen t' find m' hat too, did ya?" Vin asked him.

"Yep. It's in the coffin."

"The coffin? Y' were gonna bury m' hat?"


"Aw hell…"

"What? Least you don't have to go dig it up."

"S'pose y' already done shot m' horse, too."

Chris hesitated for a moment, then grinned and said, "Thought about it."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A few hours later Chris and Vin sat out on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. They had all eaten a real breakfast, compliments of Inez, Vin packing away enough food for two men while they toasted their prodigal son with cups of coffee and second or third helpings of the woman's biscuits.

Vin had been cajoled into retelling his story at least a dozen times, sometimes by someone who hadn't been at the cemetery, sometimes by someone who had, and at least twice by JD.

Nathan had finally rescued the tracker, demanding that he come over to the clinic so the healer could look him over. Vin had willingly gone along, glad to escape the attention. Unfortunately for the tracker, Jackson had been serious and he had forced Tanner to strip down so he could get a good look at him and treat a few of the worst scrapes before he'd allowed the tracker to dress again.

As soon as Vin had dressed, he fled the clinic before the healer decided he had a tea that might help Tanner's sore feet or sunburned cheeks.

But now things seemed to have returned to normal and the two men were able to relax on their chairs, watching the usual comings and goings in the small town. And, for the first time since the storm, Larabee felt complete again, at ease.

Vin fished into his pocket and pulled out the mouthorgan. Lifting it to his lips, he blew a series of discordant notes that sounded sweet to the older man's ears.

Chris smiled and leaned back, content for now to just listen to the varied notes of Vin Tanner's life and enjoying the performance more than usual.


(1) Numbers 6:26
(2) Paraphrase/bastardization of Psalms 4:8
(3) Proverbs 17:17
(4) Paraphrase/bastardization of Proverbs 18:24
(5) Paraphrase/bastardization of Jeremiah 6:16

Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #5, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Mary Fallon Zane is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 8-3-2005. Art by Shiloh (