Main characters: Vin, Nathan

Summary: Some missing scenes from the episode Serpents. Finding Lucius Stutz' rifle causes Vin to do some hard thinking about his own life and the kind of man he is.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Susie for looking this over and deeming it worthy to post!

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don’t own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don’t make any money from this work.

“Wonder what kind of monster uses a weapon like that?”

Vin Tanner lay back on the hard mattress in his old, battered wagon, hands laced behind his head. He had left the canvas open and his eyes idly traced the intricate pattern of stars painted on the black background of the clear, night sky.

He was wide awake, despite the lateness of the hour. Nathan’s words from the previous evening churned around in his mind; uncomfortable, challenging words that brought back questions and doubts he had buried when he first came to Four Corners.

If only they had never discovered the deadly weapon in the room of the dead assassin, Long Range Lucius Stutz. His own immediate reaction was admiration of the rifle as a work of beauty; he had never seen its like. The skeleton was made of polished steel rather than the usual wood and the scope was a perfectly crafted, precision tool. From the first moment he saw it nestled in pieces in its long, brown leather case, he could think of nothing beyond focusing on a target through the scope and curling his finger around that fancy trigger. He brought it back to his wagon to examine it more closely.

Nathan wandered past as he was putting the pieces together. The healer immediately recognized the rifle for what it was - a weapon made with only one purpose in mind: to kill, with deadly precision. The healer recoiled in distaste at the very thought, asking, “Wonder what kind of monster uses a weapon like that?”

It was a good question. Vin felt he should have been asking it himself, rather than imagining what the monstrosity would feel like beneath his hands.

“I don't rightly know,” he replied honestly. “But if I'd have had a rifle like this when I was a bounty hunter...”

“Big difference between bounty hunting and murder,” Nathan commented.

The doubts Vin had buried deep for so long flooded back to the surface. He glanced up at Nathan, but when he spoke, it was as much to himself as to the healer.

“Maybe. But if a man is wanted alive or dead, it might be the easier if he's dead. You lie in wait. You take him down. You get paid for him being dead. Same as Lucius Stutz.” He paused, sensing Nathan’s disquiet at his words, and shrugged. “I'm just saying, with a gun like this, and so much money - might make a monster out of any man.”

Nathan’s chestnut eyes held his for a long moment, and the healer’s words penetrated straight through to his soul. “Except the man who knows better.”

Now, as he lay gazing out at the stars, Vin began to wonder what kind of man he really was. His skill with a rifle had cost many men their lives, and now he found himself faced with the question: was there any real difference between himself and Stutz? Only this morning he had shot another man dead. He wanted to think he was different from the assassin. He wanted to believe that he could never be tempted by money to take on a contract against an innocent man. But the more he thought about his bounty hunting days, the more he was afraid that he had already sold his soul to the Devil.

Eventually, knowing that there was little chance of sleep with such disturbing thoughts chasing around in his mind, he pulled on his boots and took a walk down the main street. Vin often found himself prowling the streets at night, when he had something to ponder or when his back was hurting too much to let him sleep. He enjoyed the lack of bustle, dust and noise and relished the feeling of peace that blanketed the town. Tonight the moon was full and lit the boardwalk before him with gray shadows, turning objects that were innocent by day into monsters by night.

Monsters. Like him.

He walked the length of the main street and as he approached the livery, he noticed a light on in Nathan’s clinic above. The healer himself was standing outside on the landing, silhouetted against the sky, hands clasped before him as he stared up at the sky. Vin wondered what the healer saw there.

He was about to pass by unannounced, reluctant to disturb Nathan’s solitude and unwilling to share his own, when Nathan glanced down.

“Come on up, Vin,” he called in a low voice, almost as if he had been expecting the sharpshooter.

After a moment’s hesitation, Vin climbed the steps to the clinic.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stood just inside the doorway, looking like he was ready to bolt at any moment. Nathan held up a bottle of whiskey questioningly and Vin nodded. Nathan poured two glasses, sat down, and motioned the sharpshooter to the remaining chair. With obvious reluctance, Vin perched on the edge of the chair and nodded his thanks as Nathan handed him the glass. He downed it in one and Nathan refilled it. This time, Vin took a small sip, and then sat with his eyes fixed on the amber liquid in his glass as if searching it for the secrets of the world.

Nathan swallowed a mouthful from his own glass then sat back, folded his arms and regarded his friend contemplatively. Vin had been in Nathan’s thoughts a great deal since their conversation the previous evening. As his friend had talked about his bounty hunting days, something in his voice had disturbed the healer. It led him to believe that something was troubling the sharpshooter and now, observing the bowed head, he was sure of it.

“Seems to me there’s something eatin’ at you, Vin,” Nathan remarked after the silence had stretched on a while.

The Texan continued to stare into his drink and for a moment, Nathan though Vin hadn’t heard him. Then, in a voice so low that Nathan could barely make out the words, he said, “I killed a man this morning.”

The regret in Vin’s tone surprised Nathan. He had heard how two bandits had broken into the bank, hoping to get their hands on Stutz’s $10,000. Sure, Vin had killed one of them, but it had been unavoidable.

“I know,” he said. “Way Ezra told it, you had no choice – that bandit was set to kill everyone in the bank.”

“Maybe I didn’t need to kill him. Josiah disarmed the other guy without shooting him. Point is, I took a man’s life without even thinking about it.” Vin looked up then, and his eyes were haunted. “Is that what I am, Nathan? Just a cold-blooded killer? I reckon that makes me as much a monster as Lucius Stutz.”

Nathan’s immediate thought was to deny such a ridiculous conclusion; he could not think of one similarity between a paid assassin and the man before him – except their ability to hit a target. But he could see that Vin was serious and wanted to find out what had provoked such a reaction.

“Ain’t never heard you question the need to shoot a man who’s putting lives in danger. What’s got you thinking this way, Vin?”

Vin shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Nah, that ain’t true. I guess I’ve bin thinkin’ about Lucius Stutz and that gun. I got to wondering if there’s any difference ‘tween me and Stutz.”

“You killed that bandit because you had to,” Nathan said forcefully. “You relied on your instincts like you always do. If you hadn’t, innocent folks could be dead now.”

“Mebbe so, but what about all the other men I’ve killed? When I was bounty hunting I didn’t set out ta kill, but I didn’t think twice about doin’ it neither. There were times when it was just plain easier to shoot a man than take the trouble of hauling him back alive. I kinda reckoned if he was gonna hang anyway, it just saved me and him both some time and hurt.”

Vin rarely talked about his time as a bounty hunter and Nathan had never asked. A man’s past was his own business. Nevertheless, from the few nuggets of information Vin had let slip, the healer had the impression that it was a part of his life that held bad memories for the sharpshooter. It seemed that he was right.

“There’s a big difference between you and Stutz, Vin. Bounty hunting is legal. What Stutz was doing – killing innocent men for money – that’s different.”

Vin’s eyes flicked around the room and he fidgeted with the now empty glass in his hand. Eventually, he looked up again, blue eyes finding Nathan’s and holding them steadily.

“What if some of the men I hunted were innocent?”

Nathan saw the pain in Vin’s eyes and heard the raw emotion in his voice. He sensed that this question had haunted his friend through all the years since his bounty hunting days.

“You know that for a fact?”

Vin shrugged. “No. Guess I was pretty green back then, but ‘til Eli Joe set me up I just assumed that any man with a bounty on his head was guilty.”

“Well, then I reckon you’re never gonna know for sure and you have to live with that,” Nathan said. “But the point is you believed those men were guilty. Let me ask you something. If you’d known you were hunting an innocent man, would you still have gone after him, just for the reward?”

Vin held Nathan’s gaze, a slight frown on his face, and Nathan could see he was trying to figure out the honest answer to the question. After a few moments, he said slowly, “Don’t reckon I would.”

Nathan nodded, satisfied with the dawning understanding in Vin’s eyes. “That’s the difference between you and Stutz. He was a born killer. He didn’t care who he hunted – he just needed to kill. I’ve met men like him before; you can see in their eyes that they get their pleasure out of seeing another man die. I ain’t never seen that in your eyes, Vin, and I don’t reckon I ever will.”

Vin was listening intently and Nathan was encouraged to continue, wishing the more eloquent Josiah were here and hoping he was saying the right thing.

“I reckon there’s a monster deep down inside all of us and sometimes, if we let it out, it can make us do terrible things. Stutz, now he let his monster take control. You’re nothing like him, Vin. You don’t kill for the sake of it. You kill when you have to; maybe sometimes you’ve called it wrong, and that’s between you and your conscience. But that don’t make you a monster, Vin.”

Vin sighed. “I just… I don’t want that to be who I am, Nathan: a man whose only gift is the ability to kill.”

“That ain’t who you are, Vin,” Nathan said firmly. “You’re a sharpshooter – you can hit a target better than any man I know. That’s your gift. I reckon if Josiah was here now, he’d tell you that it’s up to you whether you use your gift for good or bad. It’s your choice.”

“Reckon I ain’t never thought about it that way before,” Vin admitted. “I don’t rightly see how bein’ able to shoot is a gift. Now, you – I kin see you have a great gift and you use it ta save lives all the time.”

“So do you, Vin. Do you know how many lives you’ve saved since you came to Four Corners? Starting with mine?”

Vin seemed to be considering his words and although he chose not to reply, his expression lightened.

Nathan allowed the silence to continue for a moment or two, and then asked, “You planning to keep the rifle?”

Vin frowned. “Ain’t decided, but I reckon holdin’ on to it might be a bad idea.”

Nathan shrugged. “Depends why you want to keep it. You afraid you might be tempted to become an assassin like Stutz, just because you can? You’re a better man than that, Vin. Think you might kill more men because you have it? Maybe. But there’s another way of using this gun, Vin, a way a good man might choose.”

“Another way? What ya tryin’ to say, Nathan?”

Nathan stood up and took Vin’s empty glass out of his hand. He slapped his friend on the shoulder and grinned.

“You just think on it, Vin, and let me know.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin settled himself in position, laying flat on the roof of the general store where he had an unobstructed view of the crowds milling around below.

He had thought a lot about Nathan’s words, pondering the idea that there was a monster inside everyone. Josiah would probably call it sin; leastways, that was the Christian word for it. There were other names amounting to the same thing. Either way, he understood what the healer was saying. He had seen men given over to dark and terrible impulses. There had been times in his own life when he had felt the monster, times he had allowed it to control him. Those times he regretted, no matter how justified he might have felt at the time. He knew that he was different from Lucius Stutz. Stutz had become the monster and Vin was determined that would never happen to him.

He had thought too about the idea of his skill being a gift. Thinking about it like that made him feel better about himself; if he could use his ability to save people’s lives, it had to be a good thing, didn’t it?

He stroked his hand along the barrel of the assassin’s rifle. When they discovered that Stutz’s son was on the loose with assassination on his mind, Chris decided that Vin would be of most use up here on the roof, where he had a clear view of the whole street. Vin picked up his rifle, then thought better of it and grabbed the brown leather case instead. Stutz’s weapon was more accurate than his own and that might make a vital difference should he have to take the man down.

Vin pushed his thoughts to one side, needing to concentrate on the job at hand. He brought the scope to his eye, scouring the crowds for any sign of the assassin. He picked out Josiah, watching the street attentively from the roof of a building opposite. Nathan and JD were weaving their way amongst the crowd, checking out as many people as possible and Buck was sticking close to Louisa.

Vin watched as Chris and Mary joined the crowd, and then tensed as Clayton Hopewell took the podium. He turned his attention to surrounding buildings, looking for a glint of reflected light off the barrel of a rifle.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement and moved his sights back to the crowd. On the edge of the throng, Ezra was talking earnestly to Chris. Then Chris grabbed Mary’s arm and seemed to be arguing with her. He watched Ezra look beyond Mary and move toward a small, nondescript man heading his way. As the man got closer, Ezra quickened his step. Then a shot rang out and Ezra crumpled to the ground.

Frantically, Vin tried to get a clear shot at the man who could only be Stutz Junior, but the crowd was panicking and too many people blocked his view. Seconds later the stranger grabbed Louisa Perkins, holding her before him as a shield, one arm around her waist and his gun pointed at her heart.

Vin focused in on the assassin and Louisa, blocking out the frightened crowd and Chris and Buck who had closed in, guns trained on the stranger. He knew that a head shot would bring instant death before Stutz could harm Louisa. His finger caressed the trigger as he fixed the assassin in his sights.

Then Nathan’s words came flooding back and he finally understood what the healer was saying. This gun was so accurate, it gave him a choice he might not have had with his own rifle. He didn’t have to shoot to kill. He could choose to wound Stutz; a bullet in the knee would be painful enough to shock him into letting Louisa go. The assassin would be handed over to the authorities and justice would be done, but not by Vin’s hand. A strong man could use a weapon like this to save lives – not only the lives of the innocent, but also the lives of the guilty – if that man chose not to become judge and executioner. At that moment, he felt an enormous burden drop from his shoulders.

Vin adjusted his aim a little lower, squeezed the trigger, and fired.