Comes a Horseman
+ + + + + + +
"I been talkin' with Adam," Buck said quietly as he sat across from Sarah and Nathan. Vin slept heavily from the fever, waking only to find Nathan's tea or Sarah's broth waiting for him. Jackson was relieved that the fever did not seem to be rising uncontrollably. He checked often for infection but believed the danger to be over; that the fever was merely a part of the healing, now. Adam went about his chores in the barnyard as the three sat talking quietly in the kitchen, keeping an eye on their patient.
"He asked me what would happen to him if you died," Buck told Sarah.
"Oh dear," Sarah sighed. "I was afraid...it was awful...those men..."
"No, it wasn't that, he said," Buck interrupted. "He said he was talkin' to Vin and Vin told him his ma died when he was a boy and his pa wasn't there to care for him, either."
"I guess I'm not surprised," she said quietly. "No family, at war when he was only a boy. Alone. It's obvious he's not accustomed to being around people. Particularly people who care for him."
"He tell you why he was headin' to Four Corners?" Buck asked nonchalantly.
"No," Sarah said, looking to where Vin lay on her sofa. "He mentioned something about a doctor, but I didn't get the impression that it was the reason he was headed towards town."
"A doctor?" Nathan asked. "He look sick to you?"
"No, not really," Sarah answered, thinking back to the first time she saw him - it seemed ages ago. "But I remember wondering if he was looking for a doctor because of the way he walked."
"The way he walked?"
"He had such an uneven gait for someone so young. And he sat a little awkwardly in the saddle, with a slouch," she said, picturing him again as he rode toward her that day.
Jackson scratched his chin and shrugged.
"I didn't notice anythin' stichin' him up," he said. "'Course, slouchin', walkin' funny, that'd lean more towards a back injury I suppose. I didn't see his back."
"There's a bullet in it," came a hard voice from the sofa, shocking them all to attention.
Sarah blushed, realizing they'd been doing what she had admonished Adam for just this morning.
"We're sorry, we didn't mean to..." Sarah stuttered as she rose, crossing hesitantly to his side.
"Ain't nothin' to be sorry for," Vin said coldly. "You don't know nothin' about me and you got me livin' in your house. Got every right to be frettin' about it."
"I'm not fretting about it," Sarah said firmly. She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away from her.
"I told y'all I was fine," he said shortly. He hurt - and he was suddenly and inexplicably tired of being at her mercy. He wanted to be gone. The attention was suffocating. "Been hurt worse'n this plenty times. If somebody around here'd give me my pants I could go."
"She said we was sorry," Buck said, rising to stand next to Sarah. "Don't get yourself all heated up."
"Ain't heated up," Vin argued, struggling to rise.
"You ain't goin' nowhere," Buck said, easily forcing him back down onto the sofa.
"The hell I ain't," Vin challenged him, eyes blazing.
"Don't be so damn stubborn," Buck said, shaking his head. He'd dealt with stubborn a lot. Usually, almost exclusively, with Chris Larabee.
"Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?" Vin asked, wincing as he pushed himself up again.
"I'm the one's gonna have to haul your butt back up onto that damn sofa when you pass out tryin' to get out the door, that's who," Buck said.
"Alright, you two," Nathan said, coming between them.
"You stay away from me Healer," Vin said, pointing a shaking finger at him. Sweat poured down his face and he wiped at it with his hand. "Got me drinkin' all kinds of shit - don't know what the hell's in..."
"He's the one saved your stinkin' hide, kid, don't you be..."
"Ain't no damn KID!" Vin glared.
"Enough! Both of you!" Sarah shouted. "Yelling and swearing like a couple of stubborn fools."
She turned to Buck.
"Some help. Getting him all riled up," she said, shaking her head. "He's burning with fever. He's got a terrible headache and a bullet hole in his side. He's been cooped up in this house, suffering, because of us. And then we aggravate him by picking apart his personal life like we're discussing the weather."
She turned back to Vin.
"I'm sorry, Vin. Here I go admonishing Adam for just the very same thing this morning and now I allow myself to be drawn into the same careless behavior as a 10-year-old boy. In case you haven't noticed, I'm worried about you. You saved my life, and my son's, but that's not the only reason. You're here, alone, having obviously suffered more than any young man your age should ever have had to and I want that to stop. I don't want you leaving here to go through the rest of your life being afraid to have someone care for you." She was shocked at the words streaming of her mouth - saw that the men in her living room were equally surprised at her outburst - and yet she couldn't stop.
"I don't know who you are, but I've heard enough of how your life has been to know what you'll become if somehow, somewhere, someone doesn't take the time to make a difference in your life. And I'm bound and determined to see that we're the ones to do it."
Vin swallowed in stunned silence. He looked at Buck and Nathan, both equally speechless, then back at Sarah. She walked to the corner cupboard and brought back his pants and boots.
"Here," she said, laying them on the table. "If you really want to leave, I won't stop you. None of us will," she said looking at Nathan. She crossed back to the sofa and sat beside him. This time he didn't resist when she took his hand.
"But I'm hoping you'll give all of us a second chance."
Adam strolled through the door, stopping in his tracks as he saw the tableau before him - Buck and Nathan stood staring at Sarah who sat holding Vin's hand, his clothes propped on the kitchen table.
"You okay Vin?" he asked with concern. He glanced at the clothes. "You ain't leaving, are you?"
Vin swallowed hard. His heart beat thunderously in his chest and the sweat that glistened on his face owed more to his confusion than the fever. They were all staring at him. Buck and Nathan, the boy, and Sarah...my God, how she looked at him. Every nerve in his body, every extinct told him to get out. To get away. There was only heartache here - only another opportunity for betrayal and sorrow. And yet the spark of hope for something better that sputtered faintly within his heart grew stronger when she looked at him. The memory of life's early promise stirred when he watched the boy, talked with him. The loneliness he had learned to embrace seemed less a friend than the possibilities that stood before him in the form of Buck, Nathan, Josiah...and Chris. He drew a deep, shuddering breath.
"I reckon I'll stay a bit," he said finally.
Adam smiled and plopped next to him on the sofa.
"My chores are done. I fed your horse. I think he's startin' to like me a bit. He doesn't fuss anymore when I pour out his oats. What's his name?"
"Peso," Vin answered with a smile.
"I helped Pa wrap up your pelts and store 'em in the barn. How'd you get 'em? Are you a trapper?" Adam asked, peppering him with questions.
"No," he said, looking at the boy, then up at Buck, Nathan and Sarah.
"I'm a...I was a bounty hunter," he told them, watching their reactions carefully.
"Damn good one, I'd bet," Buck said. Vin read no condemnation in his eyes. "What you up to now?"
Vin shrugged, settling back into the sofa. He looked up at Buck.
"Don't know. I just give it up two days ago."
Buck held the young man's gaze as Nathan spoke from behind him.
"What about this bullet?" he asked.
Vin looked away from Buck to the Healer and shrugged again.
"Took it a while back. Doc who patched me up was like you - learned his skills in the war. Said he wasn't good enough to take it out. He'd prob'ly kill me or paralyze me. So he left it in. Told me if I ever got the chance I should have one of them school doctors look at it. Don't bother me none - 'cept when I'm ridin' long, or lay on it too long." He glanced at Sarah and Nathan with hesitant confession. "Like now."
"I bet," Nathan answered. "Can I take a look?"
Vin eyed Jackson suspiciously.
"No offense," he said carefully. "But you ain't one of them school doctors either."
"Let the man take a look, Vin," Buck said impatiently. "I swear you're the stubbornest..."
"Ain't your business," Vin interrupted hotly. "Got a reg'lar crowd standin' here. I don't aim to..."
"He's right," Nathan interrupted. "Vin, I'd like to take a look. I get a lot of medical journals. If it's not something I can help you with, I might know the name of a doctor who can, but I'll need to know exactly what we're dealing with. If the rest of you don't mind?"
Sarah put one hand on Buck's shoulder and the other on Adam's.
"Let's give them some room, shall we?" she said, guiding the two out the door.
+ + + + + + +
The door closed behind them and Vin looked at Nathan.
"You ain't got to do this, ya know," he said. "It ain't somethin' I'm gonna be lookin' into real soon anyways."
"I realize that. But it might be something you'll want to look into sooner than later. Back injuries are nothing to fool around with," Nathan warned.
Jackson read the face of the young man before him. It wasn't just stubbornness that was preventing him from giving in to Nathan's examination. Vin took a deep breath.
"That bullet's all you're lookin' at, right?" he asked finally. He looked hard at Nathan.
Jackson was confused, but nodded carefully.
"Yeah, Vin, sure," he agreed.
Vin leaned forward carefully as Nathan lifted his shirt. Jackson's hand clenched involuntarily, gripping the material into a fist at the sight of the scars. Long, ugly scars that crisscrossed Vin's back. Nathan himself had escaped the lash - his own indenture cut short by the war before he could incur the wrath of the slaveholder that owned him. But he knew the scars when he saw them - even on a white man's back. Knew them for what they were. And Vin's hesitancy was made brutally clear.
Nathan's hand hovered over the scarring, but his touch rested only delicately along Vin's spine. He probed carefully for the bullet until he felt the foreign matter lodged tightly against the bone.
"This may hurt a bit, Vin," he warned. His fingers traced the outline of the bullet. He stopped when he heard the hiss of pain escape Vin's lips.
"Sorry," Nate said. He lowered the shirt. "I'm done."
Jackson met Vin's eyes unflinchingly.
"It's in a bad spot," Nathan acknowledged. "You'll need someone besides me, but I think I've got a name for you. He's close by, too."
Vin's gaze never wavered. Nate saw the challenge in his eyes.
"I can look into it for you - confidentially," he said. "No need to tell the others your business if you don't want to." He helped Vin ease back into the sofa. "May not be a real doctor, but I go by the same code. Man's business about his health is his own."
Vin nodded silently, gratefully.
+ + + + + + +
Two days later Chris Larabee invited all the peacekeepers of Four Corners to his home for Sunday supper. Under Nathan's careful supervision, Vin was finally allowed to dress and move about on his own, though he walked tenderly about Chris' home, his arm pressed tightly against the wound in his side. Buck and Josiah had brought some supplies to repair the house.
There had been no more questions about Vin's past. Buck had reasoned it a logical choice for a man with Vin's lack of prospects, and obvious skills in the area of tracking and shooting. It had been a profession he himself had eyed at one time, but the discipline required to learn and read sign evaded him and he had opted for the same, though less illustrious career, as Larabee's.
For his part, Chris found little difference between the professions of bounty hunter and gunfighter. Equally undesirable, he would have to admit that the job of bounty hunter was deemed a more legal pursuit than gun fighting. He was hardly in a position to point fingers at the man for his choice of careers. And given what little he knew of Vin's past, he doubted there had been many options available to him.
Still, Chris felt there was more story to the man than his past profession, or his time spent in the war. Buck had told him of his conversation with Adam, and Chris suspected there was more than just one aspect of Vin's past that was hurtful to him.
"Now can I see your gun?" Adam asked Vin on the porch outside Chris' home. Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Chris sat with them waiting for J.D. and Ezra to arrive.
Vin shook his head.
"I told you it ain't for showin'," Vin reminded him. "Just 'cause you know me now don't change it."
"But I never saw anything like it," Adam exclaimed. "Did you see it Pa?"
Chris eyed Vin, then nodded at Adam.
"Yeah. I got it put away until Vin needs it again," Chris told him. "I don't expect he needs it right now, do you?"
"Aw, Pa, please? What kind is it? It ain't like yours or Buck's," Adam pressed.
"Enough," Chris admonished him. "Drop it."
Adam scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot, then looked up suddenly to see riders coming in the distance.
"It's J.D!" he shouted excitedly. He ran to the barn and jumped barebacked onto his horse, riding out to greet his friend.
Vin watched them approach with mild curiosity.
"He's your sheriff?" he asked, surprised as he watched J.D. meet up with Adam.
"He's the only one with the official title," Chris explained. "Got caught up in the adventure of the west and signed on as sheriff when no one else wanted the job. We all kind of joined in later."
Vin peered into the distance as the three riders sat talking a ways off.
"What the hell is that other guy wearin'?" he asked.
Chris, Buck and Josiah laughed.
"That's Ezra Standish," Buck told him. "Our local card sharp. He's a bit fancier than most."
"No kiddin'," Vin said dryly. "I heard'a them dandified folks but I never seen one. Kinda bright, huh?"
"He does get your attention," Josiah agreed with a smile.
"Yeah, well, I ain't never wanted attention that bad," Vin said, shaking his head in wonder.
The others laughed easily at Vin's reaction to Ezra as the objects of their discussion made their way to Chris' barn. Adam enthusiastically took their horses and Ezra and J.D. walked to the house, greeting their friends.
Vin watched with amusement the obvious excitement exuding from the young sheriff. He was just a kid, all right. A kid awash in the glow of the moment, of doing something he obviously loved with men he admired. He felt eyes boring into him and shifted his glance to the gambler who was staring at him unabashedly. Vin felt uneasy at his scrutiny, but returned the stare without expression.
"Vin, this is J.D. Dunne and Ezra Standish," Chris said introducing him.
"And this is Vin!" Adam added, pushing his way in front of the young stranger. "You should see his gun, J.D. Pa won't let me look at it, but you could. And shoot? He's something else, ain'...isn't he, Pa? And he can hear anything. He knows when..."
"Take it easy, Adam," Chris said, pulling him gently back.
"It's good to finally meet you, Vin," J.D. said, grinning, as he shook Vin's hand. "How're you feeling?"
"Tolerable," Vin answered with a nod. "Be better when I can get back on a horse."
"Uh-huh," Nate said wryly. "Seein' as it took you near a full half-hour to get dressed today you can guess how soon that's goin' to happen."
Ezra leaned forward to shake Vin's hand as well.
"May I add my appreciation for your efforts in securing the welfare of the Larabee family," he said.
"Ezra says thanks," J.D. explained, noting Vin's look of confusion. The sheriff jerked his head towards the gambler. "He's educated."
"Yeah, well," Vin said, uneasy from the gambler's scrutiny. "I ain't."
"Dinner," came Sarah's voice from inside the house. Soon she appeared at the door wiping her hands on her apron. "J.D., Ezra, so glad you could come."
"Our pleasure, Mrs. Larabee," Ezra said, tipping his hat. "There are few pleasures in this wilderness to equal a repast prepared with your culinary expertise."
"Ezra, please," Sarah said shaking her head. "You're incorrigible."
"Perhaps the influence of your undaunted spirit of reform shall yet reap its rewards," he told her as he followed her into the house.
Vin looked blankly at Chris and Buck, then shook his head.
"He shoot as fancy as he talks?" he asked.
"He holds his own," Chris said with a smile, ushering him into the house.
Vin walked through the door mumbling.
"Prob'ly better off just talkin' 'em to death."
+ + + + + + +
The usual animated conversation accompanied Sarah Larabee's meal as the six peacekeepers enjoyed each other's company. Vin ate quietly, watching each man, trying to discern their place among the rest. It didn't take long to see that Chris was the leader, despite the official badge the kid J.D. wore. Buck was Chris' close friend - more than a sidekick, but still less than an equal in leadership. Vin supposed Wilmington's raucous bravado prevented him from owning Chris' deep confidence. Larabee was obviously a man who guarded his privacy fiercely.
J.D. reminded Vin more of a puppy than a sheriff. His desire to be accepted by these men he admired was painfully evident. Wilmington more than the others seemed to work at keeping the boy included. How any town could've thought to hand over the reins to the kid, though, remained a mystery to him. In the storytelling that naturally followed a good meal on a peaceful night the boy sat with rapt attention, absorbing every detail of the colorful adventures of his seniors.
Nate and Josiah were obviously valued members of this team, but yet maintained a separateness due to their callings. The healer was no doubt an important addition to the town, and although no one would confuse this lot with a Sunday prayer meeting, they seemed to hold a certain reverence for the wayward preacher in their midst.
The only piece of the puzzle he couldn't figure was the gambler. Standish had made him uneasy from the first. Vin caught the man staring at him several times throughout dinner and into the evening. Instead of looking quickly away, Standish had merely smiled at him. He wanted Vin to know he was watching.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee awoke the next morning with a start at the sound of a dull pounding coming from the direction of his barn. He threw the covers off, pulled on pants and boots and grabbed his shotgun as he strode towards the door. He cast a quick glance to check on the sleeping forms of his wife and son, then stopped short at the sight of the empty sofa.
Vin was missing.
A flood of relief washed over him - he knew what the sound was, or guessed anyway - and knew it wasn't a danger to him or his family. His emotions swirled quickly then from concern to anger as he left the house, pulling the door closed behind him.
"Vin? Vin!" he called as he walked towards the barn. The sound of hammering ceased.
Larabee shook his head as he peered inside the barn. He scanned the stalls but saw only the horses he owned and that of their young guest. The hammering began again and drew him back outside and around the far side of the barn.
There he found what he was looking for. Vin stood in the midst of the lumber Buck and Josiah had brought - hammer in hand, saw, level and ten-penny nails ready at the waiting. The former bountyhunter was clad in boots and britches, suspenders hanging at his sides, the top of his longjohns dark with sweat.
"I can think of better ways to rip out those stitches but I have to admit you picked a damned good one," Larabee said, shaking his head, his jaw clenched.
"Ain't rippin' out no stitches," Vin said, refusing to look up. "Bein' careful."
"Bein' careful is sitting inside, letting yourself heal," Chris countered.
"I know what I'm up to doin'."
"Well, that's debatable. You were up to taking a walk to the privy during the night and spent the whole next day fighting a fever."
Vin stopped and turned to face him, the hammer hanging lightly from his hand.
"Didn't know how long you planned on livin' in a house with no windows. Figured it was time someone did somethin' about it."
Larabee pulled the hammer from his grasp.
"I've been busy makin' sure you don't die on us. You ain't makin' it easy on me."
Vin raked his hand through his sweat-soaked hair and squinted at the gunfighter.
"Damn lot of mother hens around these parts," he said.
Chris shook his head, his anger at the young man's recklessness beginning to take hold.
"Just plain common sense," he said. "Standin' out here throwin' a hammer with a bullet hole in ya - head nearly split in two..."
"Aw hell, you didn't hit me that hard," Vin interrupted.
"You really lookin' to wind up dead or are you just a stupid fool lookin' to..."
Chris fell back as the left fist came from nowhere, sending him sprawling. Vin stood above him livid - eyes cold, jaw tight, temper hot.
"Ain't done nothin' to call for that," Vin said evenly. "Done my God-givin' duty to help your folk, doin' my part towards your hospitality to fix these windows I helped bust out. I don't recall doin' anythin' gives you the right to use them words with me."
Chris rubbed his jaw slowly, eyeing the young man. He had seen it finally. The murderous look that distinguished a man who had killed from all others. Seeing Vin unconscious, in pain, in a fevered delirium, Chris had had difficulty imaging the man - hell, the boy - as one who could kill. He saw it now. And saw also that Vin knew what he had been thinking.
"It clear to you now?" he asked. "Ain't no kid sheriff. Ain't nobody's son." He leaned in towards Chris. "Ain't no fool." They locked eyes for a moment, Chris marveling at the depths of blue that could reflect pain and loneliness in equal proportion to raging anger and unwavering confidence in the ability to face life - and take it when necessary.
Vin extended a hand and Chris found with no surprise that despite the disturbing glimpse he'd had into the man's soul, he accepted it without pause. Vin pulled him to his feet as Sarah strode out the door to face them both, her face livid with reproach.
Chris and Vin turned to face her. She took a breath, her head shaking, when Chris put up a hand to stop her.
"He's fine," he told her. "You and Nathan did good work tending him. I think now he's in a position to make his own decisions."
"But he..." she began.
"Sarah," Chris said slowly, taking her hands in his own. He looked into her eyes and sought her understanding.
Something had happened between them, Sarah suddenly realized. Something had passed between her husband and this man who had saved them. Chris had been willing to stand aside as she did what needed to be done to help him. But something was different now. In a word, Chris had told her that her time to tend the young man, to shelter, to heal, to mother him, was over. Care for him? Yes. She could see even Chris cared for him. But she had hoped to bring this lost soul into her world - the one of innocence she fought to preserve for Adam. And Chris was telling her it was too late. With this one look, he was telling her Vin did not belong in her world.
"Well then," she said finally. "I'll leave you to your work." She headed back to the house, speaking to them without turning. "I'll call you for breakfast."
+ + + + + + +
By noon they had cut lumber for the windows and replaced two of the moldings. The sun shone hot above them as they stood by the well, surveying their work.
"Don't you gotta work?" Vin asked as he doused his head with the cold water.
"What the hell have we been doing all morning?" Chris asked, accepting the ladle from Vin.
"I mean peacekeepin'," Vin answered with a smirk.
"I'm going into town this afternoon," Chris answered. He took a drink and handed the ladle back. "I put in an order for some glass. I figure to pick it up while I'm there."
Vin looked about the ranch.
"Those friends of yours help around here much?" he asked.
"Buck and Josiah come out around branding time," Chris answered, curious as to where the line of questioning was going. "Nathan's pretty busy between his practice and riding patrol. J.D. being the actual sheriff spends most of his time at the jail. And Ezra, well..."
"Yeah," Vin said, pumping up some more water.
"But when I bring the herd down in spring..."
"I meant," Vin interrupted, "do they help around here," Vin said, nodding towards the house.
Chris shook his head, confused.
"Sarah pretty much..."
"No," Vin said, slightly exasperated, "like what we're doin' now."
"You mean carpentry?" Chris asked with a laugh. "Well, I imagine out of all of 'em Josiah could drive a nail in straight but no, I've never asked." He gestured about them. "It'd probably take me a couple days to do what we got done this morning. You've got a real gift, Vin."
"Been doin' it since I was little. Just kinda came to me," he explained.
"You ever think of takin' it on as a job?" Chris asked.
"Yeah," he answered, then shrugged again, looking away. "I guess things got in the way."
Chris waited until Vin turned back to him, held his gaze.
"I know how that can be," Chris told him.
Vin appreciated the understanding in Chris' eyes and found a shy smile spreading easily across his face.
"I expect you do," Vin said. He replaced the ladle on its hook and turned, swinging up the bucket of nails beside him.
Chris started as Vin dropped the bucket, falling forward towards the well, his hands splayed before him on the edge, preventing him from crashing to the ground.
"Vin!" he cried, grabbing an arm.
Vin shook his head, eyes squeezed tightly shut, his breath coming in quick, painful gasps.
"S'okay," he hissed through clenched teeth. "It'll pass."
"Let's get you in the house..." Chris began, trying to put one of Vin's arms over his shoulders.
"No!" Vin gasped, his hands gouging into the wood of the well. "Just leave me be. It'll pass." He slid a look sideways at Chris, his body rigid. "Always does."
The idea finally came to him.
"This is about that bullet," Chris said, looking for confirmation.
Vin's head shot up painfully.
"What'd Nathan..." he began.
"Nate didn't say anything," Chris told him. "Buck and Sarah told me. Said Nate sent them out of the room while he took a look at it." Chris shrugged. "Sarah asked him about it but Nathan's pretty tight lipped when it comes to talking about people's ailments. Doctor-patient privilege he calls it."
Vin blushed slightly, ashamed for thinking the healer who had taken such good care of him would've betrayed him so easily. He'd forgotten Sarah and Buck had been in the room when he had offered the angry explanation to their gossip.
Chris waited anxiously, watching as the tension in Vin's body eased slowly. The white-knuckled grip he had on the well relaxed and Vin took one stuttered step, then another, turning carefully to face Chris, his back and neck rigid. Chris saw the toll the attack had taken on Vin - sweat streamed in rivulets down his pale face.
"You gonna let Nathan help you with this?" Chris asked him.
"Said he couldn't do it himself. Said he'd give me the name of some doctor close by."
Vin shook himself lightly, releasing the remaining tension in his neck and shoulders. He bent to pick up the spilled bucket.
"Damn it - let me get that," Chris said. He knelt to gather the spilled nails back into the bucket and looked back up at Vin.
"Maybe best to get that name soon as possible," Chris suggested with concern.
"I reckon sittin' around so much like I done, then workin' like this so soon seized it up a bit," he said. "It don't happen that often."
"Only has to happen once at the wrong time to get yourself killed," Chris observed.
"Yeah, well, nothin' for you to worry about," Vin said.
His comment was a match to the tinderbox of emotions Chris had been experiencing for days.
"What is it with you? You got dealt a crap hand as a kid so you figure on throwing the rest of your life away?"
"Look..." Vin began.
"I am lookin'," Chris shot back. "I'm lookin' at a man I figure to be worth ten of most I know who doesn't value his own life more than a plug nickel."
"That ain't true," Vin sputtered. "I..."
"Hell it ain't," Larabee interrupted again. "I don't know what trouble you're totin' from the past and I don't care. Got my own ghosts to deal with as it is. But I see you now. You didn't ride into that fight thinking to save Sarah. You rode into it thinking to get yourself killed. You've been fighting any hand that's reached toward you since you got here. They ain't all out there to give you a smack, you know. Maybe you had too many to know the difference. But I'm tellin' you plain now. There's folks here willing to give you a chance - hell, hoping to give you one. You tell me clear you're no fool? Then don't act like one. You got a choice - give us a chance here or ride out and hunt down that damn bullet you're so bent on catching. But know this, Vin, whatever hell, whatever demons, you survived in the past are just that - in the past. You turn me down today you got nothing and no one to blame the rest of your sorry life on but yourself."
Vin stood square, facing Chris, his face a palette of emotions Larabee had no hope of naming. The silence between them was heavy with conflict.
Both men started at the close proximity of the soft voice and turned in unison to see Adam barely a yard from where they stood toe to toe.
"You mad at Vin, Pa?" he asked tremulously. Chris saw plainly the fear in his son's eyes. Folks that crossed Chris Larabee rarely stayed around long.
"You ain't making him leave are you?"
Chris turned towards Vin and raised an eyebrow in question. He'd leave the next move up to him.
Vin swallowed hard and looked from Adam to Chris and back again to the boy and realized with sudden clarity that he had no desire to leave this place. And that for the first time in his life, the choice to stay was his.
"He may be mad," Vin said finally. He turned to face Chris. "But he ain't makin' me leave."
Adam didn't dare to breathe. He looked to his father for confirmation.
"I guess that means he's staying," Chris said evenly, holding Vin's gaze. He reached a hand out slowly and felt finally at peace when it was grasped in return.
+ + + + + + +
"You sure you're up to this?" Chris asked as the wagon lurched forward. He shot a concerned glance at Vin who sat next to him on the buckboard.
"Gotta get outta the house," Vin said, his eyes scanning the horizon. "Been cooped up too long as it is."
"You been outside all morning," Chris chided him.
"C'n still feel the roof over me," Vin said, brushing his hand through his hair. "Coupl'a hours ain't nearly long enough after bein' inside for nearly a week."
"Used to bein' on the trail that much are you?" Chris asked.
Now as he drew nearer to Four Corners, Chris began to realize how little he really knew about Vin. He was bringing the young man into a small town - a town where everyone knew each other's business. Skittish as a young colt, Vin was bound to come under close scrutiny.
For the first time, Chris began to feel uneasy. He was well aware of Ezra's suspicions regarding Vin. He'd disregarded them easily enough when it was the six of them. Now that he was bringing Vin into the town where he worked - among the people he had sworn to defend...he cursed himself for the doubts that plagued his conscience.
"I ain't gonna 'cause 'em no trouble," Vin said quietly. Chris turned to find the young man staring at him intently. It was as if...
"You're vouchin' for me with your folk. I ain't aimin' to cause trouble for 'em," Vin repeated.
"Sure you are," Vin interrupted. "That gambler's got his doubts concernin' me. I don't figure you to be any less cautious in your judgements than he is. You feel beholden to me for what I done for your family. But you can hardly afford to back me without question just 'cause I tried to get myself killed on your doorstep." Vin shot Chris a glance tinged with amusement. "Attempted suicide ain't much of a character reference."
"Ez gives you any trouble, just tell me."
"I aim to do no such thing," Vin said. "My trouble's my own. I'll handle it."
"Thought you were gonna let folks help you out for a change," he said.
"Help me out? Maybe," Vin nodded. "Take on my trouble?" he shook his head. "Not likely.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington sauntered out onto the boardwalk to greet Ezra who stood gazing out towards the edge of town. He followed Ezra's gaze and smiled.
"That Chris comin'?" he asked, looking to Ezra for confirmation.
"I dare say it is," Ezra acknowledged. "And unless I miss my guess, he is accompanied by our young wayfaring stranger."
"'bout time he brought Vin around," Buck said.
"And why is that?" Ezra asked languidly.
"If he's gonna be stickin' around it's about time he met the town is all," Buck explained.
"Have we determined conclusively that our visitor is remaining?"
"Don't see why not. Said he was givin' up the bounty huntin' business. Knows his way around a gun. Might as well throw his lot in with us. Gets along all right," he said, glancing at Standish. "Well, with most of us, that is."
Ezra turned to face Wilmington.
"I bear Mr...whatever the young man's name is...I bear him no ill will," he said, his hand resting in a vow across his heart.
"Ezra, you been pokin' at him since before you even met him," Buck accused lightly.
"I merely called to question the wisdom of accepting a stranger - one with exceptional talents one generally associates with a dangerous individual - with open arms."
"You mean like we all did with each other?" Buck asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Ezra nodded slightly.
"I concede your point. However, I must by nature pay heed to what you would call a 'gambler's hunch' that all is not as it seems with our young hero." Ezra eyed Buck carefully. "There is more to the story, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck looked thoughtfully over to the wagon as it reached the livery. The ex-preacher and the boy sheriff were already standing there waiting to greet Chris and Vin. He looked down the street at the sound of the clinic door closing as the healer made his way down the stairs.
The lady's man looked back at the gambler, putting a firm hand on his shoulder.
"Hell, Ezra. Ain't there always?"
+ + + + + + +
"Why the buckboard, Chris?" Josiah asked, taking the reins from Larabee.
"Picking up that glass for my windows," Chris answered as he swung down. He turned to give Vin a hand - just in time to see the young man jump down on the opposite side. He shook his head when Vin turned to grin at him.
"Vin helped me put together a couple frames this morning. Should have the rest done tomorrow. Sarah's tired of sweeping out the dust that keeps blowing in through the holes," Chris said smiling.
"You ridin' patrol too?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah. Give Vin here a chance to look the town over. We'll head back after supper."
"Great!" J.D. exclaimed. "Vin and I can take a walk around Four Corners," Dunne continued. "Be nice to spend time with someone my own age. Someone who ain't ancient," he teased, looking around at the others.
Buck shoved J.D. good naturedly.
"You ain't his age," Wilmington laughed. "Hell, J.D., Vin was older than you are now the day he was born."
"Alright..." J.D. said.
"Put together some frames, huh?" Nathan said joining them. He eyed Vin appraisingly. "Ridin' a buckboard. Walkin' around town. Any one here beside me remember my tellin' you to take it easy?"
Vin shook his head.
"Been takin' it easy for more than a week..."
"More like four days," Chris mumbled.
"I was takin' it easy 'fore I was shot," Vin snapped.
Chris' eyes narrowed as he searched Vin's face to see if the man believed - or even realized - what he'd said. Vin stared back defiantly.
"Vin?" J.D. said quietly, his eyes squinting against the afternoon sun. "That just don't make sense."
"Yeah, well," Vin said, turning on his heel. "It does where I come from."
"And where exactly would that be?" Ezra asked casually.
"Standish..." Chris said, moving towards them.
Vin put a hand out lightly against Chris' chest. He faced Ezra toe to toe.
"Texas," Vin answered.
"The entire state?"
"Vin," Chris interrupted, "You don't have to do this. Ezra..."
"Come, Sir, would you have us believe you germinated from beneath Texas soil?"
"Come on, Ez," J.D. said, disappointed at the abrupt turn Vin's visit was taking.
"Don't know my pa, ma is dead. Been kicked through orphanages and raised decent by Cheyenne. Fought some, stole some, killed some. You got a problem with me fancy man let's you and me settle it right here and now."
"Look, Vin, we don't..." Buck started.
"Ain't about you, Buck," Vin said, his eyes riveted on Standish.
"It was not my intention to insult..." Ezra began.
"Hell it wasn't. You been gunnin' for me since day one. You got somethin' to say I want to hear it now. Ain't gonna keep playin' cat and mouse 'til you figure you know me well enough not to worry am I gonna slit your throat while you sleep."
"I assure you, Mr....Mr?" Ezra began again, his anger beginning to rise at feeling himself suddenly on the defensive against this newcomer. Vin interrupted again.
"Talk plain and state your case."
Ezra looked at him coldly, feeling the accusing stares of the men about him. He was merely looking out for everyone's best interests, and now suddenly he was the one made to feel the outsider for questioning the stranger in their midst. He cleared his throat, clenching his teeth to control his anger. He felt the gambler's smile flash falsely white across his face as he touched the brim of his hat.
"No more questions."
Vin held his gaze a moment longer.
"I doubt that," he said evenly.
"Come on, Vin," J.D. said nervously, anxious to avoid more conflict. "I'll show you around town, okay?"
"He's gonna help me load the glass from Potter's first," Chris said, putting an arm on Vin's shoulder. He glanced coldly at Standish.
"Was I talkin' to myself before?" Nathan said in frustration. "Buck and Josiah can help you load the wagon."
"He can swing a hammer, I reckon he can load a wagon," Chris said.
"The question being should he be swinging a hammer, should he be loading the wagon. Not can he load the wagon," Nathan argued.
"I can and will load the wagon and speak for myself," Vin interrupted them both. "Lord, I ain't never seen such folk for meddlin' in your business."
"I'll give you a hand, Chris," Buck said laughing lightly. He glanced at Ezra, inviting the gambler to repair the damage he'd done his own reputation by grilling Vin.
Ezra touched the brim of his hat lightly.
"I shall retire to my room," He said simply. "Gentlemen."
The others watched him walk across the street and enter the saloon.
"He ain't a bad sort, Vin, really," J.D. said, trying to smooth things over.
"Didn't say he was," Vin answered. "Man's got a right to look out for his interests."
"You comin'?" Chris asked.
Vin glanced at Nathan.
"I allowed?" Vin asked.
"Go on. Go ahead. They all do," Nathan answered with a wave as he turned back to the clinic. "Just don't call me to patch you up again."
A thought crossed Chris' mind. He turned to Buck.
"You take him over to Potter's? Introduce him?" he asked his friend with a nod towards Vin.
"Yeah, sure. What's up?" Buck asked. "Ain't you comin' now?"
"I gotta ask Nate somethin'," Chris answered. "I'll join up with you in a bit."
"Yeah, sure. Just a question Adam had for me the other day. I don't like answerin' him when I'm not sure of the facts. Figure Nate might know," Chris said. He ran after Nathan.
"Josiah? Feel like loadin' a wagon?" Buck called to the preacher.
"You seem to have things in hand, Buck," Sanchez smiled. "I told Mr. Dayton I'd give him a hand with his plowing this afternoon. Feel good to get back to the dirt once more."
"Looks like it's just us, boys," Buck said to Vin and J.D. as they turned towards Potter's store.
+ + + + + + +
"Nate!" Chris called after the healer as Jackson reached the steps to the clinic.
Jackson stopped and turned.
"Can I talk to you a minute?" Chris asked.
"What about? You okay? Sarah?" Nate asked, concerned.
"No, we're fine. It's Vin," he answered, turning Nathan back towards the clinic.
"He shouldn'ta been swinging a hammer this morning, Chris," Nate said, still rankled by the fact they had ignored his directive. "That boy pops a stitch or two you know he ain't comin' to me about it. And that's a sure-fire way of getting an infection. I don't give that advice for fun..."
"I know, Nate, and I'm sorry," Chris answered. "Really," he insisted at Nate's skeptical look. "I'm doin' my best not to scare him off. He's feelin' hemmed in as it is and my holdin' you and Sarah at bay is the only way I've found to get him to put some trust in me. Fact is, I'm more concerned about his back than his side."
"What about it?" Nate asked guardedly.
"The bullet," Chris answered. "He said you couldn't remove it."
"That? Oh," Nate said, expelling a breath. "No, no I can't help him. Too close to the spine. I'm thinkin' maybe Sutter - over in Arcadia."
Chris rubbed his jaw, thoughtfully, then looked up at Nate.
"He had some kind of attack this mornin'," he said quietly. "Some kind of spasm I reckon. Near knocked him off his feet."
Nathan sighed heavily.
"Well, damn Chris, I don't know what to tell you. You can see how well he listens to me," Nathan said. "Shouldn't come as no surprise that walkin' around with a bullet next to your spine is a dangerous thing."
"He says he's had these attacks before - they always ease up eventually."
"I'm sure they do. But I'd guess they're gonna come more often and take longer to ease up the longer he waits."
Chris shook his head.
"I'm gonna work on him, Nate, but..."
"He gonna stick around then?" Nathan asked.
Chris' eyes narrowed.
"That a problem for you?" he asked cautiously.
"I ain't Ezra if that's what you're askin'," Nathan answered, glancing at the saloon. He thought back to the examination he'd made of Vin and looked at Chris.
"Tell you the truth? I figure we're just what he needs," he said thoughtfully. "He's at a crossroads, Chris. He stays here, maybe it makes the difference between findin' a home and findin' an early grave."
Chris nodded gratefully.
"Thanks, Nate," he said. "Between you and me we'll get him to Arcadia."
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Gloria," Buck called out cheerfully as they entered the general store. "Where are ya, darlin'? We got company."
"Buck Wilmington!" Gloria Potter said, smiling as she came down the stairs from her living quarters into the store below. "And J.D.! How are ya, boys?"
"Just fine Mrs. Potter," J.D. said, pulling his hat off his head.
"And who's this company you're bringing?" she asked, eyeing Vin.
"This here's..." Buck began.
"Vin," the young man said, doffing his own hat. "Pleased to meet you, Ma'am."
"Pleased to meet you, Vin," Gloria Potter said. "In town long?"
"He's stayin' out at Chris'," J.D. answered.
"Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly. "That Vin. The one who saved Sarah and Adam." She took hold of Vin's hand and held it tightly. "We owe you so much, young man. Sarah's one of my dearest friends."
Vin blushed at the attention.
"Weren't nothin' Ma'am," he said, clearing his throat.
"Takin' a bullet for a man's family ain't nothin'," came a voice from behind them. "Leastways not in these parts."
"Nettie - good to see you dear," Gloria said as she crossed behind the men to embrace her old friend.
"I don't see you in a coon's age, then here you are with not one but three handsome men," Nettie smiled. "Nice to meet you, son," she said to Vin. "Heard you was a grand shot. No one told me you were nice lookin', too."
Vin blushed an even deeper red as she laughed.
"Land sakes, boy, how old are you? You blush prettier than J.D."
"Come on, now, Nettie, leave 'im be. You're gonna scare him off 'fore he gets settled," Buck said smiling.
"Oh poo," Nettie said, waving him away. "When you get to be my age you can say whatever you want. Half the time no one pays you any mind and the other half they ignore you."
"Now that ain't true, Nettie," Buck said. "I happen to take to heart everything you say."
"How about settlin' down with just one girl sometime and makin' an honest woman out of her then?" Nettie chided him.
Buck winked at her.
"Didn't think you was ready to settle down, Miss Nettie. Just say the word..."
Nettie laughed hard and slapped Buck soundly on the back. She saw Vin smile.
"Oh, Lord, and a smile too!" she said, putting her hand to her heart.
"I'm gonna wait outside, Buck," Vin said, his face crimson now. He ducked beneath his hat and slid out the door without another word.
"Aw, Miss Nettie," J.D. groaned. "He ain't used to you yet. You gotta go easy on him."
"Gloria?" Nettie said chagrined, watching Vin leave. "See to these boys. I'm gonna go introduce myself proper."
Gloria Potter shook her head with a laugh.
"Alright, boys, what do you need?"
+ + + + + + +
Nettie closed the door behind her. The young man was leaning slouched against the hitching rail in front of the store, hat pulled down low over his eyes, arms folded across his chest.
"I apologize," she said, coming up behind him. "Don't meet too many strangers. Forget my social graces sometimes."
Vin cocked his head to the side and eyed her from beneath the rim of his hat.
"Ain't much used to folk myself," he said shyly. "Makes me a might touchy I guess."
She took it as an acceptance of her apology and an invitation to approach him.
"Proper said, my name's Nettie Wells. I live with my niece Casey out past Larabee's place." She leaned closer to his ear. "J.D.'s sweet on her."
Vin smiled at the shared confidence.
"You got folk around here?" Nettie asked.
"No Ma'am," Vin answered. "Just me."
"That's a hard thing," she said, reading volumes behind the solitary words, finding her heart opening to this young stranger without knowing exactly why.
"Known some folk to move clear across the country just to get away from their kin."
"Well, that's true enough." She looked at him kindly. "And there's some folk you meet for the first time and feel they're closer than kin."
Vin looked up at her and felt a wave of comfort wash over him - a feeling he had known before - long before.
"I know what you mean," he said simply.
"Vin? We got our marchin' orders," Buck said coming out the door behind them. "Gloria says the glass is out back. We can start loadin' her up."
"Comin'," Vin said. He tipped his hat at Nettie and rose to join Buck.
"You have J.D. show you the way to my place once," Nettie told him. "Make the best peach pie this side of the Mason Dixon. Be pleased to have you."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish sat sulking in his room above the saloon. Unlike the others, his assimilation into the group of peacekeepers had not been an easy one. He had had to overcome suspicions from all of them - except perhaps J.D. who seemed to admire anyone who could shoot and had a past with a hint of intrigue that fired his wild imagination. Buck saw him as a rival, Chris saw him as frivolous and unreliable and Nathan...well, he hadn't helped that situation much himself, he admitted.
Now here comes a stranger of undetermined past, full of more questions than answers, and everyone not only accepts him, they're trying to convince him to stay - to become one of them. No questions asked. No answers required.
He sat at his desk, nursing a whiskey he didn't really want, trying to figure out when things like this started mattering to him. The acceptance of others? The mere opinion of others? Since when did that bother him in the least?
Since coming to Four Corners. Since meeting the others. Since being a part of something, since being something for the first time in his life he didn't feel he had to justify - that's when.
A fly buzzed in lazily through his open window and he swatted at it, his hand bumping into the whiskey. The glass toppled and the liquid seeped across his desk towards the stack of papers on his right. He pushed back from the table with a curse before the whiskey dripped onto his coat, pulling the papers out of the way at the same time. He tossed them on the bed, then got a cloth from the bathroom to wipe up the mess.
After he dried the desktop he began gathering the papers back into a pile. He leafed through them idly before replacing them. His bill from Gloria Potter, several telegrams from his mother, J.D.'s patrol schedule. He felt a twinge of guilt as he noticed a sheaf of Wanted posters - the posters Buck had given him three days ago to match against the men brought in from Chris' place. He sat back down determined to complete his assignment, an accusatory look from Chris - unreliable - vivid in his thoughts.
He'd only seen the unfortunate intruders that one time when Buck and Josiah had brought them into town. He'd stopped at Clem's mortuary just before making his way to the saloon and then completely forgotten about the posters. No matter to him. It was part of his trade. Once he saw a face he never forgot it.
Now he thumbed through the sheets carefully, looking for a match to one or all of the men he'd seen. He froze when he came to the fourth poster - the face came to him quickly and without a doubt. The name? He searched his memory and realized he'd never heard it - never the last name. He knew the man wanted for murder by only his first name. Vin.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin, this is Mary," J.D. said, ushering his new friend into the small newspaper office.
Mary Travis brushed the hair from her eyes with the back of her hand, her fingers black with ink.
"Excuse me, Vin," she smiled. "But I'll need to forego the polite formalities."
Vin cocked his head questioningly.
"Ink," she explained, showing her hands. "Printer's ink. Not easy to remove."
Vin nodded and smiled.
"Pleased to meet you Mrs. Travis," he said.
"You're quite the hero around town," she said. "Folks don't need a newspaper to spread exciting talk like that. I only print once a week, but you'll be a feature column in a couple of days. Can I get your name?"
"I ain't much for folks readin' my business," he said guardedly. "I'd just as soon drop it if you don't mind."
"Drop it?" Mary asked incredulously. "What kind of newspaper office would I be running if I dropped the biggest story of the week?"
"A damn fine one, far's I was concerned," Vin answered.
"Ma? Can I go to Tommy's?" came a small voice from behind them as Billy Travis swung through the door.
"Say hello to Mr.?" Mary said, looking to Vin.
"Vin," he answered, nodding towards the boy.
"Hey Vin," Billy answered. He looked back at his mother. "Can I go to Tommy's? He's gonna..." the boy stopped short and looked back at Vin.
"You're the Vin that saved Adam? He's one of my best friends! His pa says you're the best shot he's ever seen!"
"How long will you be staying, Vin?" Mary asked.
"He's maybe gonna settle for a while," J.D. said. "I'm showin' him around town."
"Well!" Mary said brightly. "I hope we can convince you to remain, Vin." She pulled a newspaper off the shelf beside her.
"And here's a complimentary issue of last week's news. Perhaps you'll find it helpful in making your decision."
Vin took the paper and glanced briefly at it, folding it under his arm.
"Thank you, Ma'am. I'll take a look at it later."
"You're most welcome, Vin," Mary smiled. "Billy, you may go to Tommy's. But please try to stay out of trouble. No running around in the middle of the street."
The boy shouted his thanks as he stormed back out, slamming the door behind him. Mary started at the noise and sighed.
"He's ten," she said with a shrug.
"It fits him," Vin smiled.
"Sounds as if you recognize the age well," she observed. "I take it slamming doors and racing through streets came naturally to you as well?"
"I was with the Cheyenne by his age," Vin said. "Not much in common I reckon. 'Cept trouble. I seem to recall findin' my way there a fair bit."
"I can hardly believe it," she said, smiling. She nodded toward the paper under his arm. "Should you decide to stay, I'd be happy to start you on a subscription."
"I'll keep that in mind," Vin said.
"Come on, Vin, let's check out the jail," J.D. said. He glanced from Vin to Mary with a sly smile and pulled the young man out the door. "See you later Mary," he called.
"See you around J.D., Vin," Mary said, turning back to the press.
+ + + + + + +
"She's kinda forward for a lady," Vin said as they started down the street towards the jail. He tucked the newspaper inside his coat.
"I don't know," J.D. smiled. "You seemed to be enjoyin' it."
Vin looked at him and shook his head.
"She's a married lady, is what I'm sayin'," said Vin. "Seems to me..."
"She's widowed, Vin. Her husband got killed a couple years ago."
"Oh, well, still," Vin said uneasily. "She don't know nothin' about me."
J.D. eyed him with a grin.
"Seemed to me she was willin' to learn."
+ + + + + + +
Standish came bursting out of the saloon on a mission. He crossed the street quickly and headed for the jail. Buck Wilmington sat outside, his chair tipped back, long legs propped on the hitching rail.
"Where's Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked him as he approached.
"On patrol," Buck answered. He set the chair down on all fours, his eyes questioning Ezra's urgency. "Why?"
"With J.D.," he said gesturing about him. "Somewhere around here. Why?" he asked again.
Ezra pulled a piece of paper out of his vest.
"When is Mr. Larabee due to return?"
"About an hour," Buck guessed. "Ezra - why? What's wrong?"
Standish bit his lip. He wanted to face them down - all of them - with this news about their young hero. But he wanted to see Larabee the most. He didn't want everyone to know what he'd found before he had a chance to bring it to Chris himself - to see his reaction firsthand.
"Nothing," he said finally, slipping the paper back into his vest. "It can wait until Mr. Larabee returns. I'll be in the saloon."
Ezra turned to go when both men ducked instinctively at the sound of gunfire.
"Where?" Buck shouted, gun drawn, as he slipped inside the doorway to the sheriff's office.
"Coming in!" Ezra told him from behind the water trough. He gestured toward the edge of town where both men saw a figure in black racing into town. Larabee fired over his shoulder as another volley of gunfire sounded. Six men on horseback swept into town behind him.
"Chris!" Buck called as his friend raced towards him. A rifle cracked and Buck ran forward as he saw Chris flinch, the bullet having skimmed his shoulder. Wilmington pulled him down off his horse and into the safety of the jailhouse with Ezra close behind, his own guns drawn to cover their retreat.
"What the hell?" Buck asked as he pulled rifles from the gun cabinet and passed them out to Chris and Ezra.
"Caught me out on patrol," Chris gasped. "Looks like the three Vin got were part of a larger gang. They caught word and are gunnin' for us."
"Us?" Ezra asked. "Or Vin?"
Chris turned a deadly eye at the gambler.
"He killed them saving Sarah and Adam, Standish. That might not mean much to you but it guarantees him my gun." He looked over at Buck. "Where is he?"
"Out there somewhere. With J.D.," Buck answered. He glanced at Chris' shoulder, wet with blood.
"How bad?" he asked, nodding towards the wound.
"Just a scrape," Chris answered. "Josiah? Nate?" "Josiah's out at the Dayton place," Buck told him. "Nate's at the clinic. But I imagine he's on the run by now. J.D.'ll know to try to head here."
"They've gone under," Ezra said, peering cautiously out the window. He turned towards Chris. "Now what?"
+ + + + + + +
"What was that?" J.D. said as he and Vin flattened themselves against the side of the post office.
"Someone comin' in hot," Vin said, peeking carefully around the corner. He caught a glimpse of Chris going by, then the six riders in close pursuit. He glanced above him.
"How far are we from the jailhouse?" he asked J.D.
"Just around here and down the street," J.D. answered.
Vin made up his mind quickly.
"You get there without gettin' shot?" he asked.
"Yeah, but..." J.D. answered.
"You ain't comin'?"
"Tell Chris to give me ten minutes and then do what he can to get 'em to keep shootin'. Doesn't have to draw 'em out, just get 'em to show me their positions," Vin said quickly.
"Where you goin'?"
"Go, J.D.!" Vin shouted, shoving the man in the direction of the jailhouse before disappearing around the back of the building.
+ + + + + + +
"You figure Nate'll come in?" Buck asked.
"I hope not. I need him out there giving us an angle," Chris answered, loading the shotgun.
"Perhaps we should inform your pursuers that we are not harboring their prey," said Ezra. "I for one do not wish to endanger our fellow citizens."
"Damn it, Standish that's enough! You want to hand Vin to them you'll do it over my dead body," Chris spat.
"That may be well out of my hands if they continue..."
"Buck! Chris! Comin' in!"
"J.D.!" Buck shouted throwing the latch on the door. He hauled the sheriff in by one arm and swung the door shut just as gunfire erupted in the street. Chris and Ezra crouched beside the windows. They peered out through broken glass, unable to find a shot, but in time to see two of the six who had ridden in fall dead into the street.
"Nate's givin' us a hand!" Chris shouted. "Two down!"
"Can't be Nate," Buck said, eyeing the two on the ground. "He ain't that good, Chris. Not at a distance."
"It's Vin," J.D. said, gasping for breath. "Told me to tell you to get them to show their positions and he'd take care of 'em."
"From where?" Chris asked, peering down the street.
"Didn't say," J.D. shook his head. "Just said to keep 'em shooting."
"How the hell..." Chris started.
"Damn! Billy!" Buck shouted, standing at the window as he saw the Travis boy run crazily into the street.
Chris, Buck and Ezra burst out the front door as shots rained down from above. One more man hit the street as the Regulators looked up to see Vin leaping from one roof to another. He slid down the roof of Kelly's blacksmith shop and into the street below in time to sweep Billy into his arms. Buck and Chris both fired as two others showed themselves.
Vin deposited Billy into the arms of a couple who had opened their door to him, then swung back around. Ezra stood to Vin's left, still staring at the roof from which he'd descended.
"Standish!" Vin shouted as the last man took aim for the gambler's heart. Vin raised the mare's leg and ran towards him, holding the gun before him like a club and screaming a Cheyenne war cry that curdled Ezra's blood. He dropped to the ground as Vin's gun connected with the outstretched arm of the gunman who stood frozen in his tracks. Vin lifted the gun again and brought it down with a resounding thud against the man's head. The shock of the impact sent Vin to his knees as the others stood transfixed in the silence of the street.
"Chris!" Nate called as he came running, gun in hand. He pulled up in front of the others, his eyes already scanning the damage to Larabee's shoulder.
Jackson's cry pulled Larabee out of his reverie and he looked to Vin who still knelt in the street, his chest heaving, hands gripping the rifle he held upright, leaning on it to keep from falling.
"Vin," Chris gasped, eyeing the carnage about them. He glanced over to the house where Billy stood transfixed in the doorway with the couple who had taken him, then looked up to see Mary running down the street, calling her son's name.
Billy ran to her and held her tight as her hands fluttered from his head to his arms, his legs, searching for signs of injury.
"I'm alright," he sobbed, "I'm alright. I'm sorry."
Nate and Chris knelt down beside Vin, almost afraid to touch him, almost unsure that any man who could do what he'd just done was actually mortal.
The healer put a hand to Vin's shoulder and gently pulled his coat away. Blood seeped through Vin's shirt in a precise line along his side.
"Ripped the stitches," Nate said to Chris, his voice still choked with the emotion of what he had witnessed. "How about you?"
Chris glanced at his shoulder, then looked back at Vin.
"Just a scratch," he said. "You okay, Vin?"
Vin nodded, his breath still coming in gulps. Then suddenly he turned, his eyes wild.
"The boy!" he gasped.
"He's fine," Buck said, crouching down to join them. "Just fine, Vin. You done good."
J.D. stood staring at the rooftops, then back at Vin. He spoke to no one in a voice of hushed awe.
"You ever seen..."
"Never," said Ezra joining him. He brushed lightly at the dirt on his jacket that had come from diving to the ground in the midst of Vin's charge. A tattered piece of paper flicked against his hand and he pulled it loose. He glanced at it briefly, then crossed to where Vin was beginning to stand, Chris and Nate on each side.
"Never," he whispered, staring at the poster. He looked up at Vin. "I am in your debt, Mr. Tanner."
Vin started, then looked at Ezra, at the paper in his hand.
Ezra kept his eyes on Vin, then crumpled the poster tightly.
"Tanner?" Buck said, looking at Ezra, then at Vin. "That your name? Vin Tanner? How come I didn't know that?"
Chris stared at Vin, then shifted his gaze to Ezra and back again, trying to discern the cause of the drama that was unfolding before him.
"Because he's never said it," Chris said finally. He looked at Vin. "Have you?"
Ezra broke his trance and looked at the men about him, then, almost surprised at the paper he held wadded tightly in his fist.
"He told me," Standish said. "I must have neglected to mention it. But then, it hardly matters."
Vin reached toward Ezra's hand. Standish pulled the paper away.
"Not to me, at least," Ezra said.
Vin continued toward Ezra and put his hand over the gambler's fist. Slowly he worked the paper loose and took it from him, opening it up before them.
"Mr. Tanner, please, I assure you, it's not necessary," Ezra said. He had witnessed a measure of selfless action he had never before seen, or had ever believed possible. Why he had not seen the depth of the man's devotion before was a mystery to him. Perhaps he'd spent so much of his life looking for the lie, the cheat, that he didn't recognize the truth when it stared him in the face. This man was true. And regardless of what the poster said, Ezra would give his life to protect him.
"No," Vin said.
Ezra glanced from the paper to Vin Tanner.
Tanner handed the poster to Chris.
"It ain't true," he said with a sigh. "I was set up by another bounty hunter name of Eli Joe. I aim to prove it, but I don't know how. All's I got so far is my word against his."
Chris read the poster, handed it to the others who looked at it in turn. He kept his eyes on Vin.
Buck read the poster and handed it to Nathan.
"Ain't ever heard of a murderer willin' to risk his life for folks he never met," Wilmington said.
Nathan glanced briefly at the words, then gave the paper to J.D.
"Had a lot of practice bein' judged falsely based on no evidence," the healer said. "Don't believe in doin' it to others, myself."
J.D. read the poster intently, looking at the rough picture, then at Vin.
"Well this just ain't true, Vin," he said. "It don't even look like you."
Vin smiled in spite of the situation. J.D. simply believed in him. Nothing could shake that belief - save Vin himself.
J.D. handed the poster back to Chris who looked at it one more time. He took in the faces of his men, and thanked God for them - not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. He looked back at Vin.
"I ain't about to believe anything I read on a piece of paper against the word of a man I'd trust with my life," Larabee said evenly, crushing the paper in his fist.
Vin looked at them all, suddenly overwhelmed. Not one, not two, but five men who believed in him. It was a wealth he'd never known and he hardly knew how to measure it.
"I..." he stammered, his voice choked with an emotion he couldn't name.
"You need to get those stitches taken care of," Nathan interrupted, taking his arm. "You're due in the clinic, too, Chris. Sarah'll have my hide."
Vin started forward, then stopped, looking back at Chris.
"What about the preacher?" he asked, the only uncertainty in the new hope he'd found suddenly weighing heavily upon him.
"Seems to me his boss is the one pretty heavy on not casting the first stone, second chances, havin' faith...I don't think you have to worry."
They looked up to see Mary Travis standing in the middle of the road, her arms holding Billy tightly before her.
"I owe you...everything," she said, silent tears coursing gently down her cheeks.
Vin blushed, embarrassed by the attention, by her emotion.
"He seems to be collecting a lot of those debts," Chris said, resting his hand on Vin's shoulder.
Larabee eased Tanner carefully before him, passing Mary and Billy, not needing to glance back, knowing the trail of peacekeepers followed closely behind.
+ + + + + + +
"You want to explain to me just exactly what you were doin' sailing across those rooftops?" Chris asked finally, standing beside the bed on which Vin was sitting.
Nate had finished dressing the flesh wound on Chris' shoulder and was now wiping away the blood that seeped through the torn stitches on Vin's side. The others had retired to the saloon for a drink.
"Everythin' turned out okay, didn't it?" he asked, wincing as Nate pulled out some of the broken sutures through the skin.
"Another death wish?"
Vin's smile faded. Nate kept his head bent low over his work, his eyes avoiding contact with either of the men as they spoke.
"I ain't got a death wish, Chris," Vin said quietly. "I know that's what you think, but it ain't true. I don't want to be dead no more than anyone else - I wouldn't be runnin' from Tascosa if I did."
"Not wantin' to die and not wantin' to hang are two different things," Chris reasoned.
"It ain't about not wantin' to die as much as it is not wantin' someone else to die," he explained. "I figure there's folks like you got family dependin' on 'em. There's folks like Nathan who got a gift for healin' people. It's about value. Some folks just got more value to'em."
Nathan cleared a place to begin resuturing Vin's wound.
"Alright, Vin, let's get this shirt off before I start sterilizing everything," he said. He helped Vin lean forward as he drew the shirt off his shoulders.
Chris watched, then stiffened at the sight of the scarring on Vin's back. He glanced at Nathan who realized too late what he had done. Without hesitating, Nate efficiently pulled off the rest of the shirt, then leaned Vin back against the bed. Chris recovered quickly, hiding his shock from the young man and the healer.
"You the only one can put this value on folks?" Chris replied, continuing the conversation to keep Vin engaged.
"I don't put it there, Chris, it just is," Vin answered.
"What if folk don't have family, or skills, like J.D. or Buck?" Chris challenged. "Then they're not worth much either?"
"Hell, Chris, it ain't just family or skills," Vin explained. "They got friends who count on 'em. Friends who'd feel their loss."
"Well, then," Chris said, taking a chair across from him. "Seems to me your value just went up considerably." He eyed Tanner carefully. "Or ain't you plannin' on stickin' around?"
Nathan passed a bottle of whiskey to Vin who took it, his eyes still visited on Larabee. Vin took a swig, thought for a moment, then handed the bottle to Chris.
"I reckon I'll stick a bit," he said finally.
"Jim Reed's got a room open at his place," Nathan offered. Vin hissed as carbolic bubbled along the cut in his side.
"I ain't comfortable in town," Vin answered through gritted teeth as Nathan took his first stitch.
"Mary Travis has a nice place."
Vin and Chris looked to the door where Buck stood, leaning against the frame.
"What's this about Mary Travis?" Chris asked, arching an eyebrow.
Vin glared at Wilmington.
"Some small fry sure's got a big mouth," Vin grumbled.
"Seems Vin met our local reporter this afternoon," Buck said, sauntering in. "Caught her attention, too."
"Mary?" Chris said surprised. "Hell, he ain't old enough for her."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Vin shot back, rising from the cot. He hissed, falling back as the action caught Nate in mid-stitch.
"Let that be a lesson," Nate admonished. "Lay back and stay still."
Vin sucked in a deep breath as the healer took another stitch. Nate looked up at Chris.
"He goin' home with you?" he asked.
"Yeah," Chris answered. "Better get goin' soon, too, Sarah will be worried about us."
"Hey, wait a minute," Vin argued.
"Thought you didn't want to stay in town?" Chris asked.
"I don't, but..."
"You figurin' on giving Mary Travis a call?" Buck asked, hiking his eyebrows.
"NO!" Vin shouted, wincing again at the tug of the catgut in his side.
"Sorry - last stitch," Nate said, cutting off the end.
"I told you he's too young for her," Chris argued with Buck.
"I reckon the boy's old enough to decide for himself," Buck answered back, enjoying the banter with Chris and the embarrassed confusion of the young tracker. "If he's taken a cotton to Mary Travis he's got as much right..."
"I ain't taken a cotton to Mary Travis!" Vin shouted, pushing Nate aside in an attempt to stand.
"What's wrong with her?" Chris asked. "You don't think she's a handsome woman?"
Vin sputtered helplessly, looking from one man to the next, now thoroughly confused.
"Nothing's wrong with her! I ain't sparkin' her, is all. I ain't stayin' in town, I ain't..."
"You stayin' with me then?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I'm...I mean," Vin stuttered.
"Alright then. Nathan? Get him wrapped up so we can get on home."
Chris and Buck grinned at each other as Vin stood speechless, unsure of what had just transpired. Nate stood behind him with a length of muslin in his hands, ready to wrap up Vin's side. Tanner let out a sigh of frustration and turned, exposing his back once again to Chris - and to Buck.
"Shit, kid," he gasped before being silenced by a glare from Larabee.
Vin stiffened and paused, realizing what Buck was seeing. Nate stood before him and held his gaze, willing Vin to draw strength from him in facing this demon from his past that had marked him for life.
Nate worked quickly and silently wrapping the wound. He picked up Vin's shirt, his eyes riveted on the pale face of the young tracker, then slowly helped him with the stained garment.
"You got another shirt?" Nathan asked. "You could put in an order over at Potter's before you head back to Chris'."
"I got somethin' you can wear in the meantime," Chris said, carrying on the thread of Nate's conversation to cover the tension of the moment.
All four men turned at the booming sound of Josiah's voice as the preacher made his way up the steps to the clinic. Vin slipped into the shirt as Sanchez pounded through the door.
"You two alright?" he asked, scanning them for blood and broken bones. "Looks like I picked a fine time to play farmer."
"Everything's fine, Josiah," Chris said, welcoming the intrusion. "And we didn't need you anyway. Didn't need me, didn't need Buck, didn't need J.D., didn't..."
"Alright," Vin said, working to recover his composure, unable to face Buck.
"Vin's stayin' around," Nate told the preacher, knowing what Tanner needed to hear from the big man.
"I got a price on my head..." Vin began.
"Welcome to Four Corners, Vin," Josiah said. He took Vin's hand in both of his own, large and callused.
Vin shook his head.
"I don't want there to be no misunderstandin'," he continued.
"Seems to me the only misunderstanding is in Tascosa," Josiah said. He smiled, cuffing a hand around Vin's neck. "You best get on home with Chris. Sarah's waiting."
Josiah moved to help Nathan clean up the debris from his doctoring. Chris headed out the door with Vin behind him. As they passed Buck, Vin ducked his head, avoiding Wilmington.
Buck let Chris pass, then stopped Vin with a hand to his chest. He spoke quietly and intensely, holding Vin's gaze.
"Shame's in the man who gave those scars. Not in the man wearin' 'em."
Vin nodded slightly as Buck continued.
"We ever run across that bastard..."
"He's dead," Vin said flatly. He glanced at Chris, then back at Wilmington. "I killed him."
"I'da liked to have been there."
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Sarah Larabee sat side by side on the front porch, the sun setting lazily behind a stand of cottonwoods at the edge of their property. The purple dusk enveloped them as they listened to the soft voices drifting towards them from the grassy banks of the brook that flowed beside their home.
"No, wait. What'd I tell ya?"
"Hold it flat."
"That what you're doin'?"
"And away from you, remember? Hold your thumb down. Cut the damn thing off if you're not careful."
"Vin...she might hear you."
"What? Oh. Right. Well, just be careful."
"I can't get it smooth there."
"Alright. Here. Hold this."
A fine, clean whistle sounded lightly.
"I say to play it?"
"Now watch what I'm doin' on yours here. Okay? Try it."
"Can't I just have this one?"
"It'll mean more if you make it yourself."
"Maybe. But it'll look better if you do it."
"Just takes practice. Same as playin'. Here."
This time a throaty, soulful tune seeped into the night. The melody was new to them, yet at the same time its essence was hauntingly familiar. Chris watched Sarah as she lay her head back into the rocker, her eyes closed as she listened. The tune ended and she opened her eyes, smiling back at her husband.
"That's real pretty Vin. How'd you learn to play?"
"It ain't hard. Just come to me."
Chris flinched. He saw the muscle in Sarah's jaw tighten; her eyes closed and he felt her tense in the heavy silence that followed.
"Your ma don't want us talkin' about that."
"Why? I don't understand. It's not like you rob banks or steal horses. If you weren't so good Billy or Mr. Standish, or me, or even Ma might've been hurt bad. Why's it such a bad thing that you're good at it?"
"It ain't bad...it just ain't somethin' to take pride in."
"But everyone admires you for it."
"They do, huh?"
"Sure! Folks in town have been talking about you all week since you saved Billy."
"Must'a missed 'em when they come callin'."
"Folks is happy to have me around when there's trouble. It don't mean they want me livin' next door."
There was an uneasy silence between them.
"You do what?"
"Want you livin' next door."
Sarah's face softened and a wisp of smile stole across her mouth. She reached for Chris' hand and held it tightly in her own, then opened her eyes, wet with tears.
+ + + + + + +
"Rosalie Manor was her name."
"Aw, I heard this one," J.D. groaned, pouring himself another shot.
"I never told you about her," Buck said.
"Sure you did," J.D. argued.
"Naw, I told you about Rosie Malone," Buck insisted.
"Hell, Buck, they're all the same," J.D. complained. "Only the hair color changes."
"I tend to agree with Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, dealing another hand. "Your paramours all tend towards the same desirable attributes."
"Well, I do got my standards," Buck smiled. "And if I do say so myself, I've never..."
"Hey Vin!" J.D. called, welcoming the intrusion.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, nodding towards an empty seat at the table. "Care to join us in a hand?"
"No thanks," Vin said, pulling up the chair and accepting a shot glass from J.D. "Just waitin' on Chris."
"Josiah on duty?" Buck asked, pouring him a round.
"You see Nate?" J.D. asked.
"Yeah," Vin answered.
"What'd he want?" J.D. asked, picking up his cards. "Check on those stitches?"
"I took 'em out already."
J.D. looked up suddenly from his hand.
"You what? By yourself?"
Buck shook his head.
"Just don't learn, do you Vin? Can't believe your eyebrows weren't burned off from him blazin' at ya."
"They were itchin'," Vin explained. "I done it before. No need to take up his time with it."
"Buck, J.D, your dinner is ready," Inez called from the bar.
The two friends excused themselves and went to pick up the steaming plates of food Inez had prepared for them. Ezra watched as Buck settled into his usual banter with the dark-eyed hostess. He shook his head and gathered up the cards he'd dealt. He shuffled, fanned, flipped and bridged the deck, then squared it neatly on the table before him. He looked up at Vin who was sitting quietly sipping his whiskey and watching the show.
"I don't believe I've had ample opportunity to express my appreciation," he said, clearing his throat.
Vin looked at him quizzically.
"While I tend to place a value of some respects upon my own life, I'm not accustomed to others regarding it above theirs. Thank you, Mr. Tanner, for your selfless act in my defense."
"You carried somethin' more substantial than that pea shooter you could do your own defendin'," Vin teased.
Ezra leaned in confidentially towards the young tracker.
"The limit of my derringer's range is in equal proportion to my aim, Mr. Tanner."
Vin leaned in towards Ezra.
"The barrel of a shotgun gives you a couple feet of range built right in."
Ezra smiled, then raised a finger.
"Might I point out that you used neither in my defense? The odds of my mastering the devil's cry you employed to disarm my attacker are slim to none."
"Me and the Cheyenne nation'd bet safe on that one," Vin agreed.
" Nor do I posses the brute strength you employed behind that mare's leg to fracture the miscreant's forearm."
Vin looked Ezra over and allowed a grin.
"Guess you best stick to makin' a killin' at cards, then," he said.
Ezra took up the bottle Wilmington left behind and poured each of them a drink. He lifted his glass in a toast.
"To shotguns and Cheyenne, Mr. Tanner."
Vin laughed and raised his glass.
+ + + + + + +
Vin stood on the porch pulling suspenders up over his bare shoulders. He shivered lightly in the morning breeze.
"Sarah washed those new shirts out for you. They're on the line out back," said Chris as he walked up to him from behind the back of the house, his carpenter's pouch slung over his shoulder. He nodded towards Vin's side.
"Looks like you're healing pretty good."
Vin brushed his fingers absentmindedly across the scar. He tipped his head towards the house.
"She don't have to do my washin'," he whispered. "Bad enough she's been cookin' for me all this time."
"She wouldn't do it if she didn't want to," Chris assured him.
Vin stepped off the porch, tilting his head back to the sky, his eyes closed.
"Sun feels good," he said.
"It's good to see you relaxing a bit," he said. "Weighs a man down carrying so many secrets."
Vin nodded and stretched his arms above him. He jerked his left arm down painfully as a spasm shivered down his spine.
"When you getting that taken care of?" Chris asked with a frown.
"I talked to Nate about it yesterday," Vin countered. "He's telegraphin' that fancy doctor in Arcadia as to when he can see me."
Chris nodded his approval, then cocked his head to the side, eyeing his friend.
"It worrying you?" he asked.
"Crazy not to, I suppose. Could be bad - he don't do it right," Vin answered truthfully.
"Hurt like hell, too, probably," Chris added.
"Thanks for the thought," Vin replied sarcastically.
"Gonna need a place to heal up," Chris told him.
"Yeah," Vin agreed. He eyed Chris carefully. "And don't go gettin' any ideas. I ain't campin' out in your parlor to have Sarah fussin' and feedin' me."
"You hear me invitin' you?" Chris challenged.
Vin was taken back a bit and Chris saw the blush of embarrassment rise on his cheeks. He pulled a hammer from his work pouch.
"Got a minute?" he asked, motioning towards the back of the house with the hammer.
Vin recovered quickly, grateful for the change in subject, and followed. He looked with surprise at the stakes and line that were lying out several yards down on the other side of the small brook that ran alongside Larabee's home. The two friends jumped the brook and walked over to the lumber.
"Isn't as much land to work with as I had for the house," Chris said, picking up a stake and tying off a line. "But it's enough for a small kitchen and bedroom. Figure to leave room more for a porch than a parlor."
Vin frowned, watching as Chris drove in more stakes. He looked back at the house, then turned towards Chris again.
"If you're looking to add more room you can just pull out that wall there and add right onto the place you got now," he said, the carpenter in him taking over. "What good'll it do you over here?"
Chris drove in another stake and tied off line.
"Do me plenty good to have someone watchin' my back over here," he said. "My family's, too."
Vin rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head slowly, then stopped abruptly and looked up at Larabee.
Chris nodded with a smile.
"We'd be pleased to have you, Vin," he said.
It was painful to watch the total disbelief in the young man's eyes turn to a fearful hope.
"It was Sarah's idea, Vin," Chris said. As easily as he had read Vin's emotions in his eyes just moments before, he saw no answer there now and wondered if he'd presumed too much regarding their newfound friendship. "You take your time to think on it..." he said carefully.
"No, I..." Vin said quickly. "I don't...I mean I'd like..." He shook his head.
Chris smiled and extended a hand.