The Ride Home
Main character: Vin
Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride 2 fanzine (2002 Neon Rainbow Press)
It wasn't a long way back to Four Corners, not compared to the distances Vin Tanner had traveled in his lifetime, but the presence of one injured and one shaken member of their little group of seven slowed things down a bit. Not that Vin particularly minded. He was in no hurry and reckoned there were worse ways to spend an hour or so than in the presence of those he'd come to consider good companions, even friends. In fact, he was rather enjoying just riding and listening.
"Whew-ee, did you see those varmints hightail it out of there? They were runnin' like their britches were on fire."
That was Buck, of course, sounding a little too cheerful. Just having come from a gunfight was part of it, Vin knew, but so was almost watching JD get shot. It was no coincidence Buck's horse was right beside JD's like a second shadow.
Nathan spoke up in his usual steady manner. "Yeah, well, I hope they don't stop running. Troublemakers like that's the last thing we need around here."
Vin sometimes thought the ex-slave was the anchor of the group, keeping them all on level ground when JD and Buck threatened to bust off in ten directions and Josiah and Chris seemed just as likely to bury themselves in their pasts. As for himself, Vin thought with a small smile, until a few months ago, he hadn't been in one place long enough to see what the ground even looked like, for longer than he could remember. Being anchored didn't feel as confining as he'd used to think.
"For once, I wholeheartedly concur with you, Mr. Jackson. I believe my life would be quite complete without another meeting with those hooligans."
The tired, pained voice was Ezra's, and more eyes than Nathan's watchful pair turned toward the Southerner. He was bent over his saddle in an obvious effort to ease the pull on his battered ribs and his face was pinched, but his eyes were clear and vigilant. He would be fine, Vin decided, and relinquished the worrying to Nathan, only pulling his horse a little more tightly in behind Ezra. They always boxed the wounded in, for the injured party's own protection in case he decided to do something foolish like slide onto the ground. It was probably no secret the arrangement made the rest of them feel better, too, allowing them to keep an eye on the ones who were hurt.
"You just keep quiet, Ezra, and concentrate on staying on that horse," Nathan said sternly.
"I assure you, sir, I have never fallen off my horse no matter how incapacitated," Ezra sniffed, trying to draw himself a little straighter and giving it up with a bitten-off groan.
"Well, now, I believe there was an occasion when you spent the whole night in the saloon, drinking and playing with that St. Louis cardsharp--as I recall, you didn't even know you'd fallen off when we peeled you up off the ground." Josiah sounded as amused as Vin was at the memory.
"I do not remember that incident," was Ezra's lofty answer.
"How 'bout when you were lookin' at that pretty Eliza Mae and that tree branch knocked you flat on your--"
Apparently Buck's addition was not welcome, either. "Really, gentlemen--and I use that term loosely--surely you have better things to do than to malign my character with these lies."
He didn't add picking on a man when he was down, but he could have, his retorts getting softer the more he spoke.
Vin frowned at him, then at Buck, who had opened his mouth to continue the banter. One pointed glance from Vin and the older man took a harder look at Ezra, then abashedly shut his mouth. A minute later he was quietly talking to JD.
"He's just wound tight," Chris observed from next to Vin.
Vin knew who Larabee was talking about, both their gazes on Buck. "I know. He doesn't take too kindly to someone pointin' a gun at JD."
"Or JD having to point one back."
He didn't just mean the pointing, of course, for the threat of an aimed gun was enough to stop most of the troubles they encountered as the town's peacekeepers, and JD did his part well enough. It was the shooting and killing, like the body they'd left under a pile of rocks out in the gorge. JD had had no choice; Vin had witnessed the scene with no time to intervene, and it had been JD or the other man's life. Luckily, the kid had aimed better. But still, despite the fact Vin had killed a dozen men or so by the time he'd been JD's age--every one of them out of sheer survival--Tanner was somehow sad to see the young man's innocence and child's enthusiasm diminish. Soon he'd be a man, wiser, more mature, better able to protect himself, but without the same energy for life, and Vin couldn't help but think he'd miss that.
Then again, JD could always turn out like Buck and stay a kid forever. Even now, Wilmington was cajoling his young partner, trying to distract and cheer him up. "What d'you say when we get into town we go get our fishin' gear and head down to the river? With that gang gone, we should have a quiet afternoon."
"I thought you were meeting Sarah behind the saloon." The tone was dull, JD only seeming to rise to the bait because it was expected.
"Aw, I can meet her later. Man like me's worth waiting for."
That didn't elicit anything more than a listless shrug. Buck grew more serious, his voice lowering so Vin doubted any of the others heard.
"You had no choice back there, kid--now what's the point of beatin' yourself up over it?"
"I'm not," JD shot back quickly, chin rising in defiance.
"You wouldn't be lyin' to old Buck now, would you?" Despite the light tone, the question was affectionate, gentle.
It was funny, half the time Buck seemed to be the younger of the two, JD reining him in whenever he got too outrageous--when he wasn't busy joining in. But other times the wisdom of his years seemed to catch up to Buck and he handled JD like a father would a son. Maybe it was what had made the two of them especially close, the ability to both have fun together and look out for each other as needed.
"Hey," Buck said when JD remained silent, face downcast. "He made his choices--nobody put that gun in his hand. Just be glad you're alive. I am."
A little of the bleakness washed out of JD's eyes even as Vin watched, a smile almost managing to turn up one corner of his mouth. Buck at his persuasive best was hard to say no to.
"You sure you're okay? No holes in ya anywhere?" Buck was still at it, now critically eyeing JD. Vin's eyebrows went up. He was only just now asking?
"For the third time, I'm fine. Quit hovering."
"I don't know, I think when we get back to town you should let Nathan check you out. Maybe give you one of them powders to calm you down." Buck was shaking his head.
JD's spine stiffened. "Calm down? Who's the one fluttering all over the place?"
Buck smiled and Vin was starting to figure out what he was up to. "Who's the one whose hands're shaking?" Wilmington asked smugly in return.
JD clamped his so abruptly on the saddlehorn, Vin didn't have a chance to confirm Buck's observation, but it seemed valid. That didn't dampen JD's indignation. "What happened to fishing? You said we'd go fishing."
"You wanna go fishing? Fine. If you're sure now you don't need to go see N--"
"I'm sure. Fishing sounds good."
"Good." Vin had rarely seen even Buck looked so pleased. But the soft glint in his eyes said it wasn't for getting his own way. Vin swallowed a smile. The kid was going to be okay, whether he liked it or not.
Much like Ezra. Vin's attention shifted to the two men riding in front of him and Chris, next to an oblivious Buck and JD. Nathan was just asking the stubborn Standish how he was doing, but it was fairly obvious, Ezra unusually quiet and a little too white.
"I would be better if you refrained from harassing me with all these questions about my state of health." His breathlessness provided a fairer answer.
"Maybe we should take a break," Nathan answered worriedly. He started to turn in his saddle to tell Chris just that, when Ezra's hand shot out to stop him mid-motion.
"Don't...please. I am experiencing some...discomfort, but I assure you I am not in serious distress, and am most anxious to return to my room and my bed."
The honesty, and Ezra's grip on his sleeve, clearly startled Nathan. It wasn't often he backed down, but this time he nodded slowly. "All right. But you promise to tell me if it gets bad?"
"You have my word." And as shady as Ezra Standish could be, his word really meant something. Vin would have trusted it far more than many others' sworn oaths or contracts.
"How'd you hurt them ribs, anyway?" Nathan prodded more gently this time.
"An unfortunate meeting with a tree. Needless to say, the tree proved the stronger."
"You ran into a tree?" Nathan's sympathy was slipping into humor.
The green eyes glowered reproachfully at him. "It was hardly my idea. One of the miscreants knocked me into it as payment for having ruined his aim."
Nathan's mocking smile disappeared. "His aim?"
"You bear a striking resemblance to an echo, Mr. Jackson. His aim. He was about to shoot Mr. Wilmington, who was, shall we say, otherwise occupied." Fatigue didn't dampen the dryness of the words. "I don't believe Mr. Dunne would have forgiven me if I wouldn't have intervened."
"I don't guess so." There was an awkward pause on both parts. Nathan wasn't used to sympathizing with Ezra, nor Ezra to opening up to Nathan--Vin had seen the battles both men had fought with themselves to accept the other, when they'd been raised on opposite sides of society. A quick change of subject seemed in order, and sure enough, Nathan soon plunged on. "Soon as we get back to town I'm gonna wrap those ribs for you--that'n some rest should help you feel a lot better."
"I'm quivering with anticipation." The tone would have been withering if not for the unusually hesitant, sincere smile Ezra threw Nathan's way. A bit of praise and a thank-you exchanged without a word, between two men who wouldn't have been caught dead saying the actual phrases. Vin chewed on another grin. Maybe there was hope for the seven of them yet.
JD had perked up enough in the meantime to lean over and inquire of Ezra how he was doing, getting a slightly less sarcastic answer than Nathan had. Ezra clearly had a soft-spot for the kid, though he seemed as surprised as the rest of them to have found himself looking after the youngest member of their team instead of--most of the time--taking advantage of an innocent mark. Maybe it was because, out of all of them, JD had been the slowest to judge the gambler and the quickest to offer welcome.
Speaking of whom, Wilmington took advantage of JD's distraction by falling back a few paces to Chris' other side. He leaned over toward Larabee and Vin, the confidence clearly meant more for his old friend.
"Kid's taking it a little rough but he'll be okay."
Chris nodded. "Well, he's got you lookin' after him."
Vin probably knew more than the other four how experienced Buck was at "lookin' after," doing more than his share of that for Chris after the loss of Larabee's wife and son. He'd still been doing a little hovering when Vin met the two men, but it hadn't taken long for those protective instincts to be transferred to JD, who had seemed to need looking after a lot those first months. Vin had been surprised for a while at just how unconcerned Buck seemed to be with Vin taking over his spot next to Chris' side, until he'd realized what Buck ultimately cared about was that his friends were safe and happy. He himself would always be a reminder of Chris' painful past whether he liked it or not, and while their friendship would always be there, it had been time for both of them to move on.
To Vin's gain. For the first time in his life, he had a real friend.
"He did good out there, didn't he?" Buck pressed on. He was fishing for something but Vin wasn't sure what.
"He held his own," Chris evenly allowed. The man seemed to have two moods, calm and furious, and Buck should have known not to expect warm enthusiasm. Larabee glanced at his old friend. "You seemed a little out of control."
Buck flushed, and Vin's attention sharpened. He had no idea what Chris was talking about but Buck sure seemed to. "JD got him good. I was just makin' sure he stayed that way."
"You shot him in the head." It wasn't a rebuke or even a disapproval, merely a statement.
Huh. Interesting. Vin was starting to get the picture. He hadn't seen that part, distracted from the scene just after JD had fired. He'd just assumed the bullet drilled neatly between the eyes had been from JD's gun. Vin wondered briefly who had really killed the man, Buck or JD. Probably JD--the kid had become a good shot--but it really didn't matter. JD still had to deal with having shot a man, and nearly getting shot himself would muddle his thinking for a while. And that, again, was where Buck came in.
"Best way to make sure a man stays down," Buck answered Chris stubbornly.
Chris was giving him a slow, thorough look, the kind that both his friends knew hid some sharp thinking. "Buck, he's not a kid anymore. He's even had to kill a few times already. You worry about fighting his battles and you're gonna get yourself killed." The words were quiet, no business of the rest of their group, but a glance at Vin included him in the conversation. There was that implicit ranking again, Vin as Chris's unofficial second-in-command.
Buck's intensity was directed at both of them in return. "When you ride with someone, watching his back is watching your own. Doesn't mean I ain't part of the group, but so help me, Chris, anyone who tries to hurt that kid'll have to go through me first--that's the way it is." His expression was as fierce as Vin had ever seen on the easygoing older man, but it faded so quickly, Vin almost doubted he'd seen it.
Buck abruptly smiled again. "So, what do you think?"
"I think you both 're crazy and deserve each other," Chris said mildly. Then he unexpectedly softened into an answering smile. "But he's a good man. I don't want to see him having to pull that trigger more 'n necessary, either. Just make sure neither do you."
Apparently it was what Buck had wanted, if the equally cocky and grateful grin was any indication. Even after so long on the job, he wanted to make sure JD and he both had their place. A finger touched to the brim of his hat for them both, Buck trotted back up to JD's side, the two of them soon in the midst of some friendly argument.
Chris shook his head next to Vin. "Sometimes I wonder which of 'em's older."
Vin just smiled.
Four Corners was in sight now in the distance, and Vin felt a stirring at the sight, a feeling that was growing stronger each time he rode back to the town. He knew what it was, the same pang he'd felt the last time he'd looked at the hovel he'd shared with his mother, the feeling of a place he knew and belonged to. It was still a reflex he wasn't really used to, and wondered again if he'd be there long enough to do so.
Josiah had trailed back from his position riding point, now next to Nathan, just in front of Vin. The former preacher nodded toward Ezra, on Nathan's other side. "How's the patient doing?"
"He'll be fine, long as I can keep him in bed a few days." Nathan frowned as he looked over at the man in question. Ezra remained oblivious to them, focused on staying in the saddle and blocking out the pain.
Josiah chuckled. "Good luck." Then he leaned closer, asking softly. "You seem to be more tolerant of our black sheep than you used to be."
Vin was amused at the characterization; in a way they were all black sheep. But it was typical Josiah, an astute observation phrased in a way to draw you out. Nathan shifted uncomfortably for a moment, then answered under his breath as if not to take the slightest risk Ezra could hear him. Vin found himself leaning slightly forward to hear.
"It was Li Pon--the Chinese slave girl? I really laid into him for keepin' her, figured it was just the South in him, you know? I was real glad when she said she was goin' back to her family." He cleared his throat, a self-conscious glance thrown Ezra's way. "Then she told me he gave her the money to go back, just like that."
"Really?" Even Josiah seemed surprised by that. "Seems our Mr. Standish has a heart, after all."
"Sometimes," Nathan grudgingly allowed. Then, thawing, or perhaps pricked by his conscience, he added, "He isn't 'xactly what I expected. I wouldn't trust him with a nickel, but aren't too many people I'd want as much watching my back."
Vin missed Josiah's answer, his gaze sliding over to the object of their conversation. Then taking a closer look. There was no question about it: for all his seeming distraction, Ezra was listening to Josiah and Nathan's quiet conversation. At Nathan's last line, the dark head bowed, black hat throwing his face into shadow. Vin didn't need to see it to know what the Southerner was feeling. Yeah, there was definitely a heart in the man. Vin had known it the minute he'd seen Standish with those Indian kids on their first job, the others just taking a little longer to catch on.
They'd all learned a lot since then.
Vin leaned back in his saddle in satisfaction as the separate conversations flowed around him. Buck was nudging JD in the ribs, a grin splitting his face and spilling over into the kid, and Nathan broke off talking to Josiah long enough to reach over and straighten Ezra's rein, asking him a quiet question as he did and getting a slight nod in return. They weren't all the closest of friends by any means, but this was progress. Wouldn't it be something if the seven of them did become close? Seemed they were well on their way, already, whether all parties were willing to admit it or not.
"Something funny?" Chris asked from beside him, and Vin realized he'd been smiling to himself.
He shook his head. "Just thinkin' 'bout how the seven of us ended up together, doin' this job. I know I wouldn'ta believed it a few years ago."
"God does seem to have a sense of humor sometimes," Chris conceded with a start of a smile of his own.
Vin was surprised; he hadn't thought Chris believed in God anymore. Just went to show some of the changes from their time together were more subtle. Vin was starting to believe in God, himself. Fate would never have been outrageous enough to pull this group together.
He suddenly grinned. "You ready to go home, Cowboy?"
Chris glared at him with mock annoyance, but it just made him laugh. Vin already knew the answer. As different as they all were, the seven of them had that much in common now.
They were all home.