A Quiet Lesson
Note: Takes place about a month after "Obsession".
"What's goin' on?" Vin asked Josiah, with a jut of his chin in the vicinity of an agitated Buck Wilmington, as he sat down at a saloon table and joined his three friends.
"Perhaps one of his paramour's non-existent husbands showed up unexpectedly. Would certainly explain the mood he's in right now," Ezra said as he watched the animated ladies man's arms going up and down, speaking volumes to his hapless friend, JD Dunne.
"That's happen before, once or twice," Nathan agreed and chuckled under his breath at the way Buck was carrying on. Poor JD, he thought. It was one thing to listen to the rogue's tales of his conquered quests, but quite another to listen to him rant and rave. The man's whole body got into the act. No doubt about it, Wilmington was worked up about something.
"Might have something to do with Chris," Josiah said, finally getting a chance to answer Vin's question.
Vin narrowed his eyes at the ex-preacher. "What's goin' on?" he repeated.
"Not sure," came the rumbled answer. "Just saw the two have a few words and then Larabee headed to the livery and rode off shortly afterwards. Buck's been fumin' ever since. Corralled young John Dunne there and been bendin' his ear for awhile now."
"Looks like we're about to find out what's brought Mr. Wilmington to near asphyxia," Ezra said with a glance at the big man bearing down on their table, JD right behind him.
Roughly pulling a chair out and plopping his body in it, Buck sat hunched over the table, beer glass turning slow circles in his hands. He didn't speak a word. JD sat down quietly next to him.
"Anything on your mind, Buck?" Josiah ventured, his tone light, lips pursing, knowing the answer to that question already.
"Hell yes!" spat Wilmington, then he thought for a moment, took a swig of beer, and uttered, "It's Chris!"
"What about Chris?" Tanner interrupted, coming up straight in his chair, pinning Buck with his eyes.
"Got some fool notion in his head about going off ta hunt down Ella. Won't listen to reason. Told him we'd ride with him, but he's got a burr under his saddle now and don't want us goin' with him. Lord knows I tried talkin' some sense into him, but he just wouldn't listen." Another swig of beer was gulped and the glass slammed down on the table, jostling it's contents over the sides.
"'Magine he's still smartin' a little over being blindsided by that woman. She sure played us all," Nathan said, remembering how he'd been taken in by the fake doctor as well.
"Like a finely-tuned fiddle," Ezra agreed, raising his eyebrows in agreement over what Nathan said.
"We were all fooled. By everything," Josiah added, a shake of his head in disbelief over what had transpired almost a month ago out at Ella's ranch. "A sad day. In more than one way." They all knew that was an understatement.
"So are we just gonna let Chris go off on his own then?" JD asked, bringing the men back to the present. "Maybe somebody else should try and talk to him."
"Vin, it ain't gonna do any good," Buck said as the tracker's chair legs scraped along the floor and the man rose to his feet. "Ol' Chris is as stubborn as they come, you know that. Won't do any good ta talk to him," he added loudly, talking to the retreating form of Tanner as the man pushed through the batwing doors.
Buck shook his head and downed the last of his beer. "Ain't gonna do any good. Chris is beyond listenin'. I know how he is."
"Mr. Tanner has a way of, how shall we say, relaying a message in a not so bumptious fashion as . . ."
"Bumptious? Bumptious? What the hell is that? Bumptious? Sounds like some damn disease or something. What is that?
"Pushy!" Wilmington exploded at Josiah's answer, then turned his glare to the conman. "You sayin' I'm pushy?" he nearly yelled, his big body in motion, almost coming over top of the table. "Pushy?"
Standish shrugged nonchalantly, half lidded eyes in mock contrast to the bulging ones aimed at him. Figured he'd push it just a little more, so out came the automatic words, "Care to wager a bet?"
Nathan chuffed out a disbelieving breath and rolled his eyes.
"A bet on what? That Vin can talk Chris out of not going after Ella? You're on, fancy pants. You didn't see Chris when he left here. No way was he going to let anyone talk him out of anything. Damn right, you're on. What's the stakes? Make 'em good, cuz I want to see you eatin' crow when this is all over."
"Alright," Standish said, knitting his brows together in thought. "How about the loser is the other's servant for say . . . a week?"
"Servant?" Buck parroted again. "Like what kinds of servant things we talkin' about here?"
"Oh, like, I don't know . . ." Ezra stalled, biting the inside of his lip, thinking.
"Bringing him his drinks, or food?"
"Or taking care of the other's horse after riding?" Dunne suggested, when seeing the two men thinking about Josiah's idea. "Or how about making up each other's rooms?" JD was really getting into this coming up with ideas thing.
"My dear boy, Mr. Wilmington does not have a 'room', per se. I think we can alleviate that one," Ezra deadpanned as the others chuckled, even Buck had to smile, knowing that was basically true.
"Well, how 'bout we just make it that one does what the other one wants him to do and leave it at that? How does that sound?" Buck was sure there was no way he was going to lose this bet. He knew Larabee. Twelve years. This was like taking candy from a baby. Or conning a conman. He grinned under his moustache.
The two bettors shook hands. Buck went to get another beer, Ezra took out his deck of cards.
JD grinned big, smacked the table with his fists, got up and followed Buck back to the bar.
Nathan and Josiah's eyes met and eyebrows went up in unison. Josiah knew who his bet was on and it wasn't either one of the men who had done the wagering.
First place Vin had headed to was Chris' house out in the hills. Finding the man's gear gone, he left to where he figured Larabee would take up looking for clues.
Vin remembered when he and a couple of the boys had tried to trail Ella after that fateful day at her place. She seemingly leaked out of the landscape. Tanner had figured she went running to someone, somewhere and they had done a good job of hiding her away.
When he'd gotten back to town and approached Larabee to tell him they hadn't found Ella, Chris had a letter on his lap and a vacant look on his face. Vin remembered dropping his eyes and unintentionally seeing the picture of Chris and Ella laying on top of the letter. Wasn't hard to guess who it was from. After that, Chris had become distant, quiet and hard to reach. Biding his time.
Tanner reckoned this day would come. The day when Nathan would tell Chris he was good to ride, that'd be when Larabee would take off and look for that wicked woman. Everyone wanted to be in on it, but it was definitely Chris' own private hell. He wanted her for himself. To face her on his own. To do whatever he was going to do . . . alone.
And Vin respected that.
But, he just needed to see Chris first. To be sure that's what the man really wanted.
Looking down at the white clapboard farmhouse that Ella had used in her charade, Vin noticed a thin wisp of smoke coming from the brick chimney. Pony was in the corral, Chris' saddle resting on the top rail of the enclosure. Vin guessed Larabee wasn't planning on staying a whole hell of a long time.
Riding up to the front of the house, Vin could still visualize the gunfight a month ago. The boys almost being trapped, Chris going down, he closed his eyes at that memory, and then his own last minute shot that missed the fleeing woman, letting her get away. His jaw tightened at that remembrance. He'll never understand how he could have missed such an important shot. It ate at him, truth be told.
Pulling his thoughts back to the present, Tanner stepped down from his horse, went to the door and knocked softly. It squeaked open from that action and Vin stepped inside. He found Chris in the parlor room, sitting before a blazing fire, silent and still as a petrified piece of wood.
Crossing the polished wooden floor, Vin came over near the hearth and sat in the identical comfortable chair opposite Larabee's. Both men's eyes were mesmerized by the dancing flames around the burning logs and papers and other items. Tanner knew what his friend had been doing. Long moments passed in silence.
"Need to do this on my own, Vin," the words said softly, no anger in the voice.
Vin held his silence, thinking on what to say, to do, to offer.
"Was thinkin' that when I wanted Eli Joe. You wouldn't let me go it alone."
"That was different."
Vin didn't know how it was different, Eli and Ella, both people tormenting others. But he understood Chris, knew how he was thinking and knew he wasn't going to change the gunslinger's mind. Buck was right when he said Chris was stubborn. They all were. All seven. They had that common thread running through them.
Vin nodded, more to himself than anything, realizing Chris was hell-bent on doing his own thing.
More silent moments passed, each man lost in his own thoughts.
Finally, Vin stood up, took the fancy black-handled fire tongs and carefully picked up a red-hot burning ember and placed it on one side of the hearth by itself. Returning the tool to it's place, he sat back down in the chair.
More time past by, the fire crackling and hissing, sounding loud in the quiet, darkened room. The one lone ember's flame flickered and dimmed, giving one last momentary glow and then it's fire went out. Soon it was cold and without any sign of life.
Vin glanced at his friend, noticing that Chris had been watching the lone ember also. Tanner stood up again, moved to the hearth and picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow, redden again with life and warmth, taking it's life from those embers surrounding it.
Vin stood for a moment, then turned and walked away, closing the house door softly as he left, and headed to the corral. He had Pony almost completely tacked up when the man in black came out the front door.
Giving a couple final tugs on the cinch, Larabee pulled himself into his saddle, nodded to Vin and the two men turned their horses back in the direction of Four Corners.
"Could be I was gonna head in the opposite direction."
Twin smiles appeared on hardened faces as the two took a quick glance at each other, then spurred their horses into a gallop in order to reach their destination before dark.
"Well, what do ya think, Ez? Time ta say 'Uncle' on this little bet of ours, huh?" Buck teased the scarlet-coated gambler man as the two sat outside the Saloon in the waning hours of the day.
Standish rolled his eyes and was about to say something about pigs flying, but had his attention diverted by boots shuffling and bodies appearing through the bat wing doors.
"Looks like maybe Vin did some good," Josiah said, as he exited the building, followed by JD and Nathan.
A cat-that-ate-the-canary smile appeared on Standish's face as he and Wilmington stood, then moved over with the other three as Chris and Vin slowed their horses to a stop in front of the Saloon. Both men dismounted, the tracker a couple steps behind his friend, heading into the Saloon.
"Well, it appears you succeeded in your quest of talking Mr. Larabee into rethinking his leaving," Ezra said to Vin, catching the man before he disappeared into the building.
"Nope." The simple reply from Tanner effectively knocked away the smile and puffed-up attitude of the con man.
It was Buck's turn to grin. Shoving aside the smaller Standish, he caught up to Vin before the man got two steps inside the door. "So you didn't talk him into staying? He still going then?"
"Nope." That same vague answer.
Buck frowned. His moustache twitched in aggravation.
Ezra came up beside him and the two watched the newcomers get their beers and head to a table near the back corner. So far, not a word from their esteemed leader.
"Well, either he's coming or he's going, Vin had to say something to him, or else he wouldn't be here," Buck whispered out of the side of his mouth to the gambler.
"Might I suggest we just ask them? Seems to be the only logical way we're going find out anything."
Buck held out his hand as a gesture for the Southerner to go first and then followed behind as they approached Tanner and Larabee's table.
The two men pulled out chairs and sat, allowing a few pregnant moments to pass. Buck finally cleared his throat.
"Glad ol' Vin, here, talked you outta goin' ta search for Ella alone. We'll find . . ."
'Didn't talk me out of nothin'," Chris nearly growled before lifting the beer glass to his lips. "Didn't talk to me at all," he added after downing his drink.
Buck stole a glance over at Tanner and saw the man cock his head slightly and shrug at him.
Chris slid his chair back, stood up, nodded to Vin and headed out of the building.
"What did you say to him?" Buck asked, swiveling back to the table after watching Larabee leave, his gaze leveled on Tanner.
"Yes, please enlighten us, Mr. Tanner."
"You two act like ya got some money ridin' on this or somethin'." Vin accused, eyes narrowed as he looked from one man to the other.
"Or somethin'," Buck answered with a huff and waved his hand as if to shoo away a fly. "Now, tell us. What did you say to Chris to make him change his mind or not change his mind?" The ladies man was totally confused.
"Like the man said, we didn't talk about it," Vin grinned into his beer. He was going to enjoy this.
"Well, you were with him, weren't you?"
Tanner nodded at the truth of that.
"So you were with him, but you didn't talk to him? Is that what you are trying to tell us?" Buck's long arms were beginning to flail.
"So Mr. Larabee came to the conclusion of not going alone all by himself. Is that it?" Ezra was getting tired of playing twenty questions, even though they'd only asked about two. He needed a winner . . . and loser in this bet.
Vin shook his head. "Like ta think I had a little somethin' ta do with it." He drained his glass and chuckled at the exasperated sighs that came from his friends. Getting up to leave, he nodded to them and told them he'd see them in the morning which left the obviously confused men to figure out the mystery on their own.
"Well, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra clucked his tongue in pity, "sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears that Mr. Larabee . . ."
"Now hold on. We don't know that for sure, he . . ."
"Excuse me? But the wager was that if Mr. Tanner could talk . . . "
"Yeah, but he didn't talk now did he? They both said . . ."
"Yes, but, the fact of the matter remains that Mr. Larabee is here, versus . . ."
Nathan, Josiah and JD shook their heads and chuckled as the conversation escalated into a heated discussion over at the corner table.
"So what do you think really happened?" JD questioned his older tablemates.
"Don't know. Hard to say," Nathan answered, wondering himself what had changed Larabee's mind.
"Sometimes," Josiah said, leaning back in his chair, "sometimes the best conversation between two people is when nothing is said at all. Reckon Vin knows that and somehow he got ta Chris."
Larabee was just finishing brushing Pony when Tanner entered Peso's stall.
"Everything alright?" Chris asked, feeling like he'd thrown his friend to the wolves. He knew just by the way they were acting that something was going on between Buck and Ezra.
"Right as rain," came the answer, tinged with laughter.
"Chris?" Vin called softly as Larabee started to leave.
"I know, Vin. I know," Chris told him with a nod and a long look into the blue eyes. Then he was gone.
Vin nodded to himself and cleaned his horse with the soft-bristled brush. He had learned many things when he'd lived with the People. Some good, some not so good. He reckoned the one he'd shown his friend today was one of the good things.
Note: This story is derived from an email I received about a pastor doing this fire example to a wayward soul. I have no idea where it came from or the originator, but didn't want to take the credit for coming up with the idea. Only the story plot is mine.