Carpe Diem


The Magnificent Seven are owned by Trilogy and MGM.  I am just borrowing them and do not make any profit.

Comments: A  HUGE thank you for MOG for betaing and advising.  I do keep her very busy.  Thank you to Shawna for the horse advice.  Lastly thanks to Kim for changing my mind regarding the ending.

Archivist's Note:   This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2006.

Vin felt the warmth in the palm of his hand.  Reflexively, he wrapped his callused fingers around the ray of light.  He rolled over, dragging the warm hand under his cheek.  It intermingled with his wavy, brown hair.

The same light was bearing down on his closed eyelids. Tanner was about to turn away from the intrusion, but he became curious. He snapped open his eyes.  The sun was up on the crisp, fall day.

Even though the tendrils of sleep were still wisping through his mind, he knew something wrong. Vin Tanner never woke up late. He hadn't been shot.  Hadn't been sick. The sharpshooter raked his hand through his hair and growled.   He bolted up from his makeshift bed in the rear of his wagon.  Tossing off his thread worn blankets, he could hear people milling about outside, meaning the sun had been up for awhile.

Quickly, he buttoned his rough, cloth shirt. He pulled his suspenders up over his shoulders as he buttoned the top notch of his buckskin pants and grabbed his jacket before leaving the solitude of his wagon.

Once at the livery, he rinsed his mouth with a ladle of water.  He saddled Peso within moments, and gave his canteen and saddlebags a look to see if he had provisions. As he cantered through town he waved to JD, who was stretching in front of the jail.  The young sheriff gave a wide smile as Vin headed out of Four Corners.

JD watched Vin's back until he was a speck against the brilliant, cloudless horizon.  He tried to pull in his stomach to staunch the sound of his grumbling stomach.  He couldn't leave his post until Nathan came to relieve him.  He was sheriff after all, even though he wore the badge pinned inside of the lapel of his jacket.  Even though most everyone called him a boy, and he had six men backing him up.
He was a mighty happy boy, truth be told.  He smoothed down the brim of his Bat Masterson hat.  He was going to spend the day with Casey.  He was helping out at the Wells's ranch. He whistled Yankee Doodle Dandy to release the feeling that came over him every time he thought of Casey.

He stopped whistling when he saw Nathan coming up the boardwalk, carrying a mountain of thick books.  He quickened his step to meet the healer halfway and give him a hand.

"Thanks JD," Nathan said as he moved the books to one hand.  He gave the young man two to carry, which Dunne tucked under his arm.

"Looks like you'll be doing a lot of reading."  JD looked at the titles as they walked amicably to the jail.

"Figurin' the town is kinda quiet and I can read some of these medical books Miz Travis got for me." Nathan carefully set the books on the corner of scarred wooden desk.

JD removed the cell's keys from his pocket.  They jingled as he passed the keys along with the responsibility to Jackson. He went to get some breakfast.

At the saloon he asked Inez for some eggs and coffee.  Chris, Buck and Ezra were sitting at a table in the back.  JD went to join them. Buck hooked his foot on a chair and pulled it around for his young friend.  Dunne sat down with a nod of greeting to his friends, placing his hat on the table.

Wilmington's blue eyes hunted through the darkly lit saloon.  Only the sunlight streaming through the windows was providing a slight glow through part of the room. Not finding what he was looking for, Buck asked, "Where's Vin?" He took a gulp of his coffee. He sat taller when he saw Inez come by with a plate of food.

The Mexican woman sat the plate of scrambled eggs along with a steaming cup in front of JD.  He nodded to her in thanks. "Just saw him leave town."

Chris was leaning back in his chair. "He's checkin' on some ranches and homesteads." His cheroot obscured him in its smoke.

"Can't keep that boy in town," Buck commented as the new saloon singer, Clarice, came down the steps.  He gave her a wink before he turned back to the men at the table. "How's he gonna enjoy what it has to offer."

"I concur." Ezra stated. He wasn't paying attention to Clarice though. The well-dressed man was looking at some men who had just gotten off of the stage.  Standish pushed away from the table.  He was wearing a green jacket, which he dusted off.  He tipped his hat, "Gentlemen," and went through the bat-wing doors to greet the new arrivals.

They watched the gambler leave.  JD went back to quickly eating.  Buck noticed, and stopped the young sheriff's fork midway between his mouth and the plate.

"What's got you in a hurry, shoveling all that food down without swallowin?"

Dunne wrestled his hand away, and managed not to drop the eggs. "I promised Casey I'd help fix the chicken coop." He replied in between chews.

The lady's man smiled, knowing there was something more. "Guess it's just you and me, pard." Buck said to Chris.

Larabee dropped the cheroot to the floor and snuffed it out with his foot. "I'm going fishin' with Billy.'"  His chair scraped against the wooden, planked floor. "Can we leave the town with you boys?" JD turned around and saw Ezra was talking with the new arrivals.

Buck patted his friend on the back, and gave a wide grin. "Sure, Chris, you know us dependable-like." Wilmington, like JD, was happy that the black clad gunslinger was spending time with Mary's son.  Hopefully, it would lead to a relationship with the newspaperwoman.

Chris dismissed the comment with a glare.  JD took one more bite of the eggs,  followed it quickly with a swig of coffee and grabbed his hat as he stood up.

"Nathan's at the jail and Josiah's about." Dunne said, over his shoulder to Wilmington and hurried out the door.  He had his day all planned ahead of him.

Vin didn't know how Ezra did it.  The sun was warming him through his buckskin coat. How could someone wake up when the sun was high in the sky. It didn't sit right.  Tanner still didn't know why he woke up late. He had done some drinking last night, but no more than usual.

He bit off some beef jerky he had retrieved from his saddlebags.  Wasn't biscuits, but it would keep him tied over until he could get back to town.

He was enjoying the breeze, which picked up the curls of his hair.  The sun was warming, and his brown coat felt warm to the touch.  He was riding out, checking on some of the ranchers and farmers that lived far from the town.  As protectors of the town they had to make sure they were familiar with the surroundings and the people.  He was coming up on Old Man Jones's small spread.  He was an elderly widower.  He had no family, just him, his horses and a small cabin on twenty acres.

"Aww sh**," he said out loud when he heard the gunfire.  He tossed the jerky into the dusty prairie, and kneed Peso to go faster.

He slowed down when he got closer, taking his horse into an outcropping of rocks.  From his viewpoint, about two hundred feet from the ranch and with his spyglass he saw Old Man Jones. He was laying face down.  Vin could see the long white beard unnaturally skewing to the left. Standing out even from the distance, was a patch of red on the back of the elderly man. About a foot away from his outstretched hand was a rifle.  It was picked up by one of the desperados.  Vin didn't recognize the man from any wanted pictures. Didn't matter. He had murdered a man.  Tanner watched from his perch a little longer. Another man, just as ugly came from inside the cabin. He was sloppily carrying some items he had found in the cabin.  Old Man Jones didn't have much.  Vin could see a picture frame, a brush and some other items that probably had belonged to Mrs. Jones.

A man shouldn't take another man's memories.  The whole idea got Vin riled.  He treasured the memories of his mother.  He only had her bible and a hair ribbon, which had yellowed with age.  Both items had lost her sweet scent years ago, but they were still a connection to her.

He watched as the other man rudely stuffed the goods into the saddlebag and then went back into the cabin to desecrate the old man further. Shoot first; ask questions later, was always the best policy. Vin took his time, lined up the shot and fired his mare's leg.  The sound reverberated off of the outcropping before finding its mark.

The first ugly man who had been examining Jones's rifle went down, clutching his shoulder in pain.  He quickly stood up, grimacing and searching for the direction of the bullet.  His friend came running out, confused.  Tanner stood up, showing his location.  He cocked the Winchester again.  The sound was ominous and could put the fear into the strongest man.

"Drop your guns, boys." The tracker said as he came in closer to the ranch.  The men laughed, but did as they were told.  Their leather belts dropped in a heap by their feet.  They were still smiling as Vin got within a few feet of them.

"Y'all are even ugly when you smile," the tracker said disgustedly.

"Ya ain't so purdy yerself." The man who had stolen the goods replied.  His gapped tooth smile never left his face.

Vin realized too late that when outlaws smile, it's because they have the upper hand.
There was a third man.  He would have found him if he had his wits about him.  The man had made his way quietly to the outcropping.  He'd probably been at the back of the house.  Tanner spun around to meet his attacker, but the bandit got the jump on him, and sent the hilt of his gun crashing into Vin's skull.  The sandy ground rushed up fast. The sharpshooter's last thought before oblivion was, 'That's what I get for waking up late.'

Nathan placed his booted feet on the top of the desk.  A groove was already there, where other heels of the seven men had propped up their own feet. He had an anatomy book opened against his legs.  He was in awe of the diagrams.  All the bones and tissues connecting to make a human body.  It also made him realize he had much to learn.

Mary Travis had been kind enough to contact some of her friends back east.  She told them about Nathan, and how any books or journals would be appreciated.  She had delivered them yesterday.

He heard a soft knock at his door early in the afternoon. He had been at his place making a supplies list.  He was always in need of fresh bandages and carbolic acid.  The boys always had a bullet hole that needed tending.

Mary was at his door, wearing a striped blue gown, which set off the glimmer in her eyes. She gave him a warm greeting. "Hi Nathan," She shifted a stack of books to her other arm.

The books caught the healer's notice.  Although the spines were frayed, he could still see they were medical books. He was always looking for more medical information.  It was hard to come by in the Four Corners area. He had to rely on what he remembered from his stretcher days, and what he picked up from watching doctors and the Indians. He had a few books, but they were old and he had memorized them already.

Mary noticed that Nathan's eyes were fixated on the books.  She held then out to him. "I hope you will accept these."

"Yes Ma'am," he replied eagerly as he cradled the books in his arms.  The top book was titled, Anatomy. He gulped once.  This was a generous gift and Nathan did not like to be in the debt of another person. "How can I repay you?"

She fidgeted slightly, and gave Jackson a shy smile. "Well, you know I have been teaching Billy at home, until we get a schoolhouse."

He nodded.  There was always talk in town, about building a schoolhouse, but so far all the townsfolk were doing was talking, as if learning wasn't the most important thing in the world.

"I was hoping you could teach him the sciences?" She reached out and grasped his arm, willing him to say yes.

Nathan noticed the stark contrast in their skin color. A white woman was asking a former slave to teach her son-a slave who did not know how to read until ten years earlier. "I don't think I know enough, Miz Travis." He turned to place the books on his desk.

He heard Mary's shoes clicking against the plank floor.  She placed a reassuring hand upon his shoulder. "You're doing fine. The town, and especially its regulators need you."

He laughed out loud.  The boys were always getting into scrapes.  Barely a week went by when one of them wasn't in his room.

"So you'll teach Billy?" She asked again, but this time it was with confidence in her voice.

He nodded.  He was going to be a teacher.  He couldn't have said no to Mary anyway.  She had always been kind to him. He would never forget her, standing in the middle of the street with a shotgun trying to take on a bunch of drunken cowboys and save his life.

"Wonderful, I have to get back." She said as she went to the door.  "I left my young man doing arithmetic problems."

"Thank you, Miz Travis," Nathan said again.  She gave him a quick nod and left.

He crossed his legs, so he'd be more comfortable.  It had been a week since that day, and Billy had come two times a week for instruction.  He was going to make a fine doctor one day. Nathan knew he wanted to be a gunslinger like Chris, but it would be nice to have one less person to patch up.

He opened to where he had left off in the anatomy book, and sighed. He was glad he finally had some piece and quiet.  No one had been shot or stabbed, and the boys all seemed to be keeping out of trouble.

Vin groaned as he opened his eyes.  He snapped them shut as he felt the sun's rays going directly into his skull. He could have used Nathan's healing ways to help his sore body just as long as ditch water wasn't involved.  Vin hated the foul smelling and tasting medicine.  Next time he saw Chanu he would ask him what his tribe's medicine man used.  Maybe it had a better taste.

He shifted his face and felt the scrape of the soil against his skin. He tried to get up, off the hard earth.  He was unable to move.  He pulled his hands and his feet to no avail.  He opened his eyes and lifted his head.  Damn, what the hell had happened?

He was trussed up.  His arms were tied above his head staked into the ground and his legs spread out and also tied up. He swallowed to smother the rising panic he felt.  No wonder he felt an ache in his bones.  From the sun he figured he had been there at least two or three hours.  He had vague memories of being dragged away from Old Man Jones's place. They must of beat him up too. His lungs felt on fire with each breath.  He tried to relax, no sense in getting worked up over the situation.

He could always count on himself to get out of scrapes.  'Course, since he had made his way to Four Corners, he wasn't alone much.  After awhile someone would miss him, and they'd come looking for him.  He could picture it in his head.

"Hey, lookey what I found!" Buck would say as he dismounted from his horse upon seeing the tracker tied to the ground. "Vin, trussed up like a turkey dinner."

"Quite a predicament you are in Mister Tanner." Ezra would say as he dusted off his scarlet jacket.

Nathan would sweep them aside. "You hurt?" He would ask as he began prodding Vin's tired body.  Josiah would cut the ropes at his hands and ask JD for his assistance.

 "JD, mind cutting the ropes at Vin's feet." The rich baritone voice would break the kid's reverie.

"What happened to you, Vin?" The young Sheriff would ask in awe, as he had never seen anything like a man being tied up Indian style back in Boston.

Tanner would look towards Chris, who would be waiting for the answer.  Larabee would give him a hand up, and give the order.

"Let's ride."  The green eyed leader would say and they would track the desperados and make them pay for Old Man Jones and for leaving Vin to die.

He took a deep breath to try to settle the nausea that waved over him, and clear his head. He had wasted enough time on day dreaming.  He closed his eyes against the glare of the sun and began to work on the ropes on his hands. The knots were tight.  Damn, this just wasn't his day.  He was plain unlucky.

"Most fortuitous!" Ezra drawled as he raked in another round of coins.  "Lady Luck is surely smiling down upon me."

The three men at the table grumbled at having lost more money.  Standish had seen the men exit the dusty stage, and left his friends at the saloon to meet the men.  He could only win so much money from Buck and JD.  At a dollar a day he wasn't going to find his fortune from those two or any of the other six men.

He greeted them courteously, but he had smelled the need on them--the need for a game of chance.  Nothing invigorated a man more than taking some risk.  They had told him they were accountants from the East, and wanted to see some of the Wild West. The gambler knew the type.  They were middle-aged men, tired of their staid lives and wanting to feel the blood coursing through their veins.  Some men took a young mistress, some gambled and others went west seeking adventure.  Those were Maude's favorite marks.  You could always count on them investing in some dilapidated gold mine.

Standish had purchased a bottle of whiskey for the table and poured himself a shot. He swallowed the drink quickly, feeling the liquid invigorate him. "Another game Misters Cooper, Price and Waterhouse?"

The three men were all non-descript, wearing plain three-piece suits.  The only difference was their hair color, brown, black and blonde.  All three were tall men, with wire rim glasses.  They had probably damaged their eyes by adding columns of numbers every day back East in a darkly lit room. Although they grumbled about losing some of their money.  They were still in awe of Ezra's skills with the cards and the saloon patrons in general.

"As long as you give us a chance to win our money back." Waterhouse, the blonde-headed one, said as he sipped his whiskey hesitantly.

Price was flush with warmth and liquor. He was inebriated. "Yeah, we need to blow off some steam. We were stuck in a stage coach with a monk for a whole day." He took another drink of the amber liquid and tapped the empty glass on the table for his friend Coopers to fill.

"Trying to a man's soul, I gather?" Ezra commented as he deftly shuffled the cards, in eagerness to deal them out.

"Made me feel guilty about thinking about women, gambling and drinking." Coopers chuckled as he filled his friend's drink and refreshed his own.

Standish lithely handed out the cards. "I know what you mean," he drawled.  His moral character was always under scrutiny.  Sometimes it was by other gamblers who felt he was cheating.  He never cheated.  He was a man of many talents.

Then there were his fellow comrades, the regulators of the town.  Chris had made him feel guilty about running out on them at the Seminole village.  So much so that Ezra had risked life and limb to help protect the town and his fellow protectors.

He couldn't think about that now though.  He had more money to win, and it looked like the odds were in his favor yet again.  He had four of a kind.

"What a glorious day." He said to the players, his gold tooth winking.

Josiah was inside the church, having some pie that Mrs. Potter had brought over straight from her oven.  She had shown a soft spot for the seven regulators since they had helped her get justice for her husband's murder.

He was savoring each bite of the apple pie.  It was flecked with cinnamon and sugar.  It was a generous piece, but each bite brought it closer to ending.  He was relishing the last bite when he noticed the strange noise coming from outside. He could hear a shuffle then a heavy thud.  Curiosity got the better of him, and he pulled open the front door to see a monk on his doorstep.

A monk was an odd site in Four Corners.  To Josiah it was an act of God.

"Hello, Brother!" Sanchez greeted the short man dressed in a brown homespun robe, with a belt of rope.  Effortlessly, Josiah bent down and picked up the man's luggage- a brown, beat-up chest. "Welcome, I'm Josiah."

The man smiled, and from his sleeve produced a white handkerchief.  He mopped his brow of the sheen of sweat glistening on it. "Thank you, Brother. I am called Brother Francis." He followed Sanchez into the church.  "I saw the cross beckoning to the sky and decided to follow it."

Josiah gestured for the monk to sit in the empty pew in the back.  Sanchez sat in front of him, so they would be able to talk.

"What brings you here?"  Sanchez hadn't seen a monk since his days in South America with his missionary father.  They usually stayed close to their monastery or mission.

"A wealthy patron living in California sent a missive to my monastery.  We're near the Mexican border." Brother Francis tucked his handkerchief away, but his cheeks were still red from the exertion. "I was chosen to do God's work and serve in a town called Monterey. The stagecoach brought me here, and tomorrow I go on the next leg of my journey."

Josiah saw the monk fidgeting with his heavy wooden rosary beads, which were looped on his belt. "Sounds like a worthwhile endeavor." The large man had to admit he was jealous.  "You'll have your own flock."

Josiah had been concentrating on building the church. The only preaching he'd been doing was providing advice to one of his friends. He always thought he would start Sunday services, but then he was called to protect the town.  Then there was work that still needed to be completed in the church.

"Such a lovely place of worship." Brother Francis's eyes roved the woodwork that surrounded him. "You must have a large congregation."

"Not yet, I'm not much of a preacher." He hesitated but told the monk his deepest fear. "My father was a preacher and I don't want to be like him." People had thought his father a righteous, pious man.  Little did they know of the hypocrite he was.  His children, Josiah and Hannah withered in his care after their mother died.  Hannah had run off and then gone mad.  Josiah went into the world, committing many sins.  He consumed alcohol to deaden the sins he carried.  Everything came back to one question. Could a man doing penance preach?

"Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses." Brother Francis placed a reassuring hand on Sanchez's forearm as he quoted the Psalms.

The large man smiled at the thoughtfulness of the monk. But Josiah's father had spurned the love of his son.  He was zealous in converting Indians and Asians to Christianity instead of learning their ways.  When Sanchez began breaking from his father and exploring new paths, his father turned him out.  He had no love to give to his son. "My father was more a person to say," Josiah also quoted the Psalms.  "A wise son loves correction but the senseless one heeds no rebuke."

Brother Francis nodded, not pressing any further.  Instead he got up to fetch the valise he had dragged up the church steps.  "You know I wasn't one much on the Psalms.  Especially with what it says about wine and drink."

Josiah chuckled. "Wine is arrogant, strong drink is riotous; none who goes astray for it is wise." He saw the monk open his trunk and rifle through a few items, finally dragging out a bottle.  "Seems like Kind David didn't understand."

Brother Francis waddled back to the pew, and removed the cork. "Brother Thomas has a saying at the monastery.  We don't say Amen until it's sealed with the sacred wine." The monk sniffed the bottle, took a swig and passed it to Josiah.

"Wise Brother Thomas," Sanchez snorted.  He took a deep drink of the wine.  He closed his eyes as he savored the taste, and felt it travel down his throat to his stomach. "Ah, spirits and a religious conversation do quench a man's thirst."

Vin tried to work up some saliva in his mouth.  He was parched.  The sun was beating down on him, and his arms were tired from struggling to free himself from the ropes. He could feel his wrists were slick with dampness, probably from blood. He rested a few moments.  He pretended he was back at the saloon.  He'd walk in and go up to the bar,

"Pete, one gutwarmer." He'd ask as he looked at the mirror, seeing who was behind him in the saloon.

Sometimes he'd see his friends, other times it would be other familiar faces.  It was strange.  He had a bounty on his head and usually when he went into a town, he either used an alias or kept his head down.  He never knew when someone was going to want to collect on his head.  In Four Corners he had men by his side who were willing to protect him and did not dispute his innocence.

He thought of Chris, his closest friend. He'd probably see him in the saloon, nursing a drink.  Vin would slide up a chair and with a smirk, greet him,  "Cowboy."

Larabee would give him a silent nod, and they'd sit there and watch the other patrons.  Keeping a keen eye on the troublemakers and enjoying the antics of the jokers-usually Buck and JD.

The young sheriff would say some unfunny joke.  The one about the three- legged dog was the worst, and if there was someone new in town then he got subjected to that joke.
"Did you hear the one about the three-legged dog?"  He'd ask the unsuspecting saloon -goer.

Vin could picture Buck coming up from behind Dunne, interrupting him. "JD, boy, don't be telling that joke." With a wink the patron would slip from the young sheriff's grasp. "It's bad, plain bad."

"It's funny! Vin, isn't it funny." Somehow Dunne would always try to get support from Tanner.  The sharpshooter knew better and would keep quiet.

"No, jokes about naked people are funny." Buck would say as he placed an arm around the shoulder of his young friend.  "Just the word naked is funny."

Dunne would roll his eyes in disbelief, thinking it was Wilmington's usual bullsh**.

With a wide smile, Buck would accept the unvoiced challenge. "Watch." Wilmington would go up to Yosemite, the old stable hand.

"Hey Yosemite," the congenial man would smile. He then would get up close to the old man before he said, "Naked?"

The stable man would erupt into laughter.  So much so that he would have to wipe the tears forming in the corner of his eyes.

JD would be exasperated. "You set that up!"

And somehow the whole encounter would end up with them each buying drinks for each other.
Vin flexed his hands and got back to work on the ropes.  The sooner he got out of this mess the sooner he could have that drink with his friends.

Chris waited for the flashbacks of his son running toward him.  Adam yelling, "Pa!" as he leapt into Larabee's waiting arms.

But the waking dreams never came.  Instead he saw the towheaded boy before him.  It was nice to have a day without memories. He and Billy had gone out fishing.  There was a place, not too far from town.  Chris and the boy had thrown their lines in and waited.  Billy knew that if you made too much noise then the fish stayed away.

So there the unlikely duo was seated, on a rock, near a pond. Each needing each other-Chris reliving his days of being a father and Billy who needed a man to admire.  Mary had unhesitantly agreed to let her son spend the day with the gunslinger.  Probably because she saw the same thing that Larabee saw-Billy's eyes aglow.

"Chris I got one!" The boy exclaimed as he started to pull on his pole, which had grown taut with the weight of a fish.

Larabee got behind the towheaded lad, and put a reinforcing hand on the line.  "Okay, Billy, like I taught you, nice and easy."

It was nice to be a teacher again. Teaching a boy to fish was what Chris wanted the most, a simple life.  He never wanted to have to teach Billy about guns, revenge and dying.  Hopefully the young boy would never have to deal with those demons that haunted Larabee.

Together they reeled in the large trout.  It's multi-colored tail shifted, splashing water on the two proud, smiling fishermen.  Chris reached out and gave Billy a pat on the back.  The boy puffed up with pride and removed the hook from the fish's mouth.  It was the first fish he had caught all day.  He placed it carefully on top of the other two Chris had caught earlier.

When they got home, Mary had promised to cook the fish for them in celebration. It was almost like his old life, the one he had enjoyed with Sarah for too brief a period of time.  He didn't want to dwell on it and bring up the memories of the fire, not today.

"I think we've worked up an appetite." He said to Billy who was ready to throw in his lure again. "What do you say we have some lunch?"

"Okay," the boy responded as he went to get the lunch his mother had packed from Valor's saddlebags. He brought it to Chris for examination.  Mary had given them fried chicken and an apple cake for desert.  Larabee took a leg, as did Billy.

The gunslinger also liked spending time with the boy because he was not overly chatty.  Like Chris, Billy also enjoyed the silence.

After a few bites the little boy looked seriously at the dark clad man. "Ma, sure is a good cook."

"Yep," Chris said as he savored his chicken and went for another piece.

"She's a good ma too." Billy added. "She takes real good care of me."

He smiled at the boy in front of him.  He was going to be a fine man one day.

The Travis boy scooted over to sit closer to Chris.  His brown pants kicking up the dry earth. "She could take real good care of you too." He said matter-of-factly and took a large bite from his chicken leg.

Chris was chagrinned.  The boy must have been taking matchmaking lesson from Buck. He wasn't in any rush to settle down again just to have someone take everything away from him.  Gruffly, he answered. "I can take care of myself.  Don't need anyone to do it for me." He tossed his eaten chicken piece into the brush.

Billy looked crestfallen. He glanced away from Chris and looked out into the water. Its calm rippling waters played with the rugged, earthen shore.  Larabee understood the boy wanted a father.  He just couldn't do it right now.  "But, thanks for the offer, Pard." Chris said as he pulled down Billy's hat playfully.

The young man chuckled.

"Cake?"  Chris asked pulling out the cloth wrapped wedges.  The smell of the apples wafted to his nose.  He and Billy had their fill after consuming half of the cake.  Sated, they lay back and rested.  Chris couldn't remember the last time he had such a wonderful lunch out in the open.

Vin heard the growl of his stomach as it churned the acids.  He had only had some water and beef jerky, figuring he would be back in town to enjoy a more substantial meal.  He'd be free soon.  He could feel the ropes loosening.  He was half expecting the six regulators to come to his rescue.  But, they wouldn't be missing him yet and wouldn't  know he was in trouble. Maybe if he freed himself soon he would head over to the Wells's Ranch.

The last time he had been to Nettie's house she had greeted him at the door. He had gone to check on the roof after a particularly strong windstorm.  After he had finished, she stood in the doorway, hands on hips and stated to him,

"Boy, don't you ever eat? You are as skinny as a hitching post.  I have some leftovers.  Come on in."

She didn't allow him to say no as she disappeared into the house, expecting him to follow. He did, as he never turned down a meal.  It came from when he was little and never knew where his next meal was coming from.

She had a place set for him at the kitchen table.  It was a full meal with corn bread, chicken and gravy.  He ate it slowly, savoring each bite and also using some manners. "Thank you ma'am. These are fine fixins'." He said as he swallowed his last bite and mopped up the gravy with the bread.

"Glad you liked it." She cleared the table and put a piece of peach pie in front of him.  He smiled.  Peach was his favorite. "I saved you a piece."

"I appreciate it," his fork hovered above the pie in anticipation.

She returned to the kitchen to wash his plate and came out after a few minutes. Vin noticed the look of curiosity in Nettie's clear blue eyes. He knew that look.  It was the same glare she had given him during the Royal incident.  Finally, she had asked him whom she had reminded him of when he'd been so attentive.   He had answered plainly, his mother.

She wiped her hands on her blue calico apron. "What's been the longest you've gone without food?"

He didn't look up as he answered. "Probably a week." He didn't know.  When he was young, time just went on and on, and after awhile he had gotten used to being hungry. It had been the same story for a lot of people. It made him thankful for what he had.

There was a strange silence, which made Vin look up from his plate.  Nettie was staring at him.  The sharpshooter fidgeted showing his discomfort at being the center of attention.

She gave him a nod. "Well, those days are far behind you."

He was jarred into the present by his stomach growling with the memory of Nettie's meal. He worked faster at the ropes as he thought of that wonderful peach pie.

JD was worn out. He shifted in his saddle as he made his way over the terrain to Four Corners. He had made quick work of the chicken coop.  The chicken wire had fallen down, and the young sheriff had nailed it back into place.  Once he finished, Casey had found another job.  There were some shingles loose on the roof.  It had required more time to tack them down.

By then it was lunchtime.  Casey brought some food out to him, and they shared it under a tree. JD was quiet, eating his full of cured ham and wild berry cobbler.  Casey had picked at her food.  After a few minutes of clenching and unclenching her fists, she reached behind her and handed Dunne a brown wrapped package.  "Here, I made this for you."

JD licked the cobbler from his fingers, and quickly broke the twine covering the gift. "You didn't have to get me a gift." He said as he pulled the paper away revealing a knitted, blue scarf.  He lifted his hand up so he could see it better. It wasn't perfect.  Her knitting was a little crooked in places. His ma used to knit him sweaters all the time.  They were needed in Boston.  In Four Corners he hadn't thought much about sweaters and such. "Thanks Casey." He said as he placed the wrapping over it.

Dunne saw her biting her fingernails in nervousness.  This had meant a lot to her.  This was the first gift she had given him. He thought of what Buck would do.  He decided to speak from his heart instead of using Wilmington's hooey.  JD cleared his throat.  "Every time I wear it, I'll think of you."

She pinked up in embarrassment, matching the soft  pink button down shirt she was wearing. She looked away from him.   "Some boards on the porch are making a racket.  Aunt Nettie was wondering if you could take a look?"

"Sure Case," he replied as he dusted the crumbs from his pants.

It was late afternoon, and JD had to get back to town.  He had fixed the porch and some fencing.  Everything seemed to be in shape at the Wells's ranch.  Casey walked JD to his horse.

She handed him a cloth wrapped bundle. "Aunt Nettie had some extra biscuits.  I thought you might want them."

"Yeah!"  He opened the packet enthusiastically, and sniffed the biscuits.  He was about to put one in his mouth and take a bite when he saw the blue peeking up from his saddlebag.  He re-wrapped the flaky morsels, and tucked them in the pouch beside the scarf. "Thanks again for the scarf."

She kicked at the ground, and looked up to the young sheriff. She leaned in and he met her giving her a peck on the cheek.

"Riding tomorrow?" She asked, shrugging her shoulders.

"Yep," JD answered as he mounted Seven.

JD thought of Casey, his girl, as Four Corners buildings came into site. He felt so awkward around her.  He just didn't know how to act around her.  He bent down to get the scarf from his saddlebags.  With one hand he wrapped the scarf loosely around his neck.  It was getting cold outside, and thinking of Casey made him warmer.

Vin shivered as the temperature dropped.  The breeze went up his buckskin covered legs causing him to involuntarily shudder.  His fingertips were cold even though he had been working with his hands to untie the ropes. He had to squelch the inclination to want to breathe on them to warm them.  The ground was hard against his back.  He could feel the ropes were starting to give, but he had to stretch fingers.  They were starting to cramp.  He tried to keep his mind occupied, so he wouldn't think of the cold.

He went through his letters, picturing each one in his mind.

"A is for apple. B is for blue." He went on for awhile, talking out loud.  Mrs. Travis had told him he was doing great the last time he had class.

"You are doing far better than I expected, Vin."  She said as she rose from the kitchen chair to get a glass of water.  They had classes there, away from the prying eyes of the townspeople and the other regulators.  Mary had kept her promise and not told anyone Vin was illiterate.  It was hard to keep a secret in a small town, but so far they seemed successful.

"Thank you, Ma'am." Tanner gave her a nod as he thought of a compliment.  "You're a fine teacher." He added in a soft drawl.

She laughed and straightened the full skirt of her gray dress. "I don't think Billy would agree with you."

He dropped his eyes downward so he wouldn't notice her female mannerisms.  She had a habit of tucking stray blonde hairs and giving warm smiles.  Vin had to remember Mary was Chris's girl. The widow was the type a man had to settle down with, she wouldn't be content wandering.  Vin liked wide-open spaces and not being tied down.

"Vin?" The blonde woman said with concern in her voice.  She had been saying something to the sharpshooter.

"Sorry Miz Travis, what did you say?" He closed the book they had been reading from earlier.

"I think you are a fine poet, Vin."  She began hesitantly. "The Arizona Gazette is having a poetry contest." She pulled out a folded piece of paper from her dress pocket.  She smoothed it out before handing it to him.  "First prize is twenty dollars." He read the advertisement carefully. "I thought you might want to send in a Hero's Heart."

He looked up at her and began to shake his head.  He had a bounty on his head.  He didn't know why he had let her publish his poem in the first place.  It was probably when she told him he might have a lot to say.  Vin did about the Indians, the land being destroyed and children. He just wasn't talkative, and tried not to voice his opinions.

Mary smiled at him and added. "Under a fictitious name of course."

He stood up.  It was time for his rounds.  "I gotta go Miz Travis." He placed his hat securely on his head. "I'll ponder on your suggestion some."

"Same time next week?" Mary replied as she opened the kitchen door.

Vin peeked out to make sure no one was around. "Yes'm"

He watched his breath fog as the sun set.  There wouldn't be much light soon.  He thought about the contest and its positives and negatives.  At least that would keep his mind occupied and the cold at bay until he got himself out of this mess.

Buck watched the batwing doors come to a close as Chris and JD left.  He stayed seated enjoying his solitary breakfast.   The doors opened again and Ezra came in with the three men he had been talking to outside. They were dressed as fancy as Standish, but not as flamboyantly.  Ezra ordered a bottle of whiskey, which Inez brought to the table.  Buck contemplated joining the game.  He stood behind the gambler watching the stakes rise.  The game was too rich for him.  He was about to drop in on Nathan at the jail when Inez caught his eye.

She was wiping down the bar. Buck didn't like to lose any opportunities with the Mexican woman.  One day she would realize how happy Wilmington could make her.

"Inez, Inez, Inez," Buck tapped his hands along the dark wooden bar.  "Fine day isn't it?" He gave her a smile hoping to melt her heart.

"It was Senor." She turned her back on him and put some clean glasses up on the shelf.

Buck was persistent though.  He looked outside and saw a shining sun.  He imagined how Inez's dark hair would reflect the rays. "What do you say if we go for a turn around town. It would be nice to get some fresh air."

"I'm busy." She said without turning around.  She stepped back and examined her work. "I'll be in the back room."

Buck hitched his fingers on his belt loops.  He figured he would go visit Nathan at the jail. His nose twitched though with the smell of perfume.  He turned to see Clarice behind him.

"Hey, Sugar," she said in her breathy voice.  She didn't have talk too loudly since she had sidled herself next to him.

She was a petite blonde, older and buxom.  She had come into town a month ago as a singer. Buck had made her acquaintance soon after by saving her from a drunken cowboy who was pawing at her cleavage. Like Buck had told JD, women wanted respect-any kind of respect.  His sainted mother would shrink when a mean, drunk cowboy would come in to the brothel.  He never wanted to see that scared, broken look in anyone's eyes, especially a woman's. "Hi Clarice." He brushed his hand down her lace-covered arm.

"I have a way to spend an afternoon." She said, huskily leading him to the stairs.

He laughed and swooped her in his arms, carrying her up the stairs. "Honey, you are music to my ears."

She giggled as they climbed the stairs to her room above the saloon.

They languished in bed all day, enjoying each other's company.  Buck nipped at her ear lobe and groaned as the vixen made advances at him.  "Clarice, Ole Buck needs to rest a spell. You tuckered me out."

She turned, resting her head against his chest. "You, Buck?" She ran her hand through the hair on his chest.

He grabbed her hand and kissed it, wrapping his arms around her. "What do you say you rest here in my arms and then in a little while . . ." He felt her eyelashes against his chest as she closed her eyes.  Buck sighed; it had been a nice way to spend the day. The sun was setting in a brilliance of reds and oranges.  There was still more of the day left.  That was his last thought before he fell asleep.

As Vin exhaled he saw his breath flow in a foggy stream.  Damn, it was dark and cold.  Tanner felt the knot loosen.  He was almost free.  Better to stay put though. It wasn't wise to travel in the dark. In the morning he would make his way back to town.

He tried to move around and get comfortable, willing himself to fall asleep.  He prided himself on the fact he could sleep anytime and anywhere.  As a bounty hunter he took any opportunity to catch some shut-eye, since he worked alone it was up to him to catch his bounty.   He sighed.

"I can't fall asleep." He said to an ant that had lost his way across Vin's chest. "All that extra sleep this morning done me in."

He gave one more tug and his right arm was free.  "Aw, hell, might as well get out of here." He twisted his body to untie his left hand. As he moved he saw the ant fall to the ground, he had to turn to get leverage.  He killed the bug. "Sorry," he said to the dead carcass.  He shook his head.  "Damn, I'm talking as much as Buck."

He made quick work of his left hand.  He got up and his head was swimming.  He took deep breaths to clear his mind of the buzzing, which had set in.  He rubbed his wrists; the skin was raw from the abrasions caused by the ropes and blood had dried along his hands.  He bent down to untie his feet.  It felt good to be able to move and bend.  It also flared up the injuries that he had received.  His stomach muscles protested.  The bandits had taken a couple of shots at him, leaving his torso ginger.

He rose unsteadily to his feet, his body protesting.  He thought about sitting back down as he was overcome with dizziness.  The thought was overtaken by the sensation of falling.  He hit the ground unconscious.

In Four Corners the sun rose on the sleeping town.  The quietness and beauty of the morning was shattered by intermittent gunfire.  Chris Larabee had been resting at the jail.  He had eaten his weight in fish at Mary's home the night before.  The meal and company had left him warm and relaxed and still languishing about, even in the early morning. After the meal he had gone to the boarding house for some sleep, since he knew he was taking the early morning shift.  He decided to take a brisk morning walk and check on the town.  He wasn't expecting to see three men stealthily leaving the bank holding moneybags.

"Hey!" He yelled out to the men startling them.  The looked at each other, gripped the bags and dove to the nearest covered wagon.  One of them fired the shot whizzing by Larabee.

Chris growled at his morning silence being broken.  He fired back and hunkered down behind a water trough.  Moments later he heard glass shattering above the saloon.  Out came Buck, half-dressed, guns pointed at an unknown assailant.  From the roof of the general store someone began firing at the barely clad gunslinger.  Chris tried haphazardly to give Wilmington some cover. Buck made his way down the side of the building and knelt next to Chris.

"Morning!" He said, as he fired some more shots.

A clattering came from the boarding house.  JD had run down the stairs and flung open the door, two guns drawn.  The men at the bank fired at him.  Dunne dove to avoid being hit. Chris and Buck returned fire.

"Youngins waste a lot of energy."  Buck cuffed JD playfully as he crawled on his belly to them.

"What's going on?"  JD said, poking his head up to see what was happening.

"That's what I'd like to know," Ezra came out the batwing doors of the saloon wiping the remnants of sleep on his face.  A bullet came at him and went harmlessly in the doorframe.  He scowled at the direction the shot had come from, and crouched down in the doorway.

"Bank robbers," answered Larabee, irate over the situation.

From their vantage point they could see Nathan and Josiah on the balcony of the clinic.  They smiled, believing the two were their ace in the hole and would even the odds. A shot caused the twosome to bend low.  There was another gunman on the opposite side of the street.

"Damn," Larabee fumed. "There's five of them.  Two sharpshooters and three near the bank." He looked at the men gathered around him who were supposed to be keeping an eye on the town. "How the hell did these guys get into town?"

JD fired his Colt.  He answered the black clad leader first. "I was with Casey. Nate was reading some medical books all day." He ducked lower as the bandits returned his shots.  "I checked on Josiah when I came back and he was with some monk having wine."

Buck smiled, buttoning his shirt with one hand, his gun firmly in the other. "I was tasting fruit of another type of vine."

Ezra laughed at Buck's remark.  He took a generous drink from his silver flask. "Price, Waterhouse and Coopers kept me occupied at the saloon."

"Casey knitted me a scarf." JD added with a wistful smile.

Wilmington clapped him on the back jovially. "Boy, that girl is sweet on you."

"Buck!" It was the middle of a gunfight and his men decided on having a conversation.  This is why Chris was a man of few words.

The ladies man turned his attention to his oldest friend. "Hey, did you enjoy yourself with Billy and Mary, Pard?"

Chris narrowed his eyes and gave a crooked grin. "Buck…we're near the barbers."

Wilmington hand went to his neck remembering when Larabee had threatened him at razor's point.

"Where the hell is Mister Tanner?" Ezra drawled and moved closer to the other men. His green jacket making him a target for the attackers.

"Not a good time for him to go mountain man on us." Buck replied as he waved to Josiah and Nathan only to have the bandits shoot at him.

Chris gave a frustrated grunt.  They were pinned down, and not going anywhere for a while. It was a stalemate until he could come up with a plan.
Vin was making some progress. He had awoken with a start, disoriented at first.  Then he remembered his night on the plain and how he was tied up for the better part of a day.  He needed to get back to town to tell the others what had happened and to take a bath.  He had some unwelcome critters walking around in his clothes that he didn't want to stay and nest.

He found his direction and headed towards the Jones ranch.  A few stumbles and pauses later he made it there.  He went to the pump first, going around the prone form of Old Man Jones. He splashed water over his head and watched the small droplets, tinged with sand, drip off his hair.

Jones's body was where the thieves had left it, lying in the dirt in a russet pool of blood.  Vin dragged the body inside. He didn't want to see vultures picking at the old man's body. He deserved better than that.  When he got back to town he'd make arrangements for someone to fetch the body and Josiah would give him a proper burial.  He never realized how heavy Old Man Jones was; of course he also began to notice how stiff his body felt.

He eagerly took another drink of water; the exertion of moving the body had exhausted his reserved strength.  He heard a familiar whinny from the brush where he had first met the attackers. He smiled, and carefully climbed up to the area.

Peso was there, munching on some grass. He patted the horse's neck.  "Glad you decided to stay." The horse nodded its head, happy to have his owner back.  "I appreciate how you didn't run off with the other horses."

He mounted the horse and spurred Peso back to town. Vin figured he would meet the others on the road.  By now they would be worried about him, especially Chris, and would have gone out too look for him.

Tanner was surprised to hear gunshots coming from town.  He was looking forward to quietly making his way into town, getting a drink and taking a bath-all before Nathan saw him.  If the healer saw his condition then he'd want to poke and prod him.

He pulled his Winchester from the saddle, pulled down his hat and urged Peso forward. As he came into the town limits he could see the two gunmen on the roofs of the General Store and  the Feed Store.  From the horse, he took aim and fired, his shot intermingling with the haphazard shots of the other six. A second later he took the other one out.  By then the regulators knew that things were turning their way and the outlaws were visibly shaken by the sound of the Winchester.

Vin heard Buck's hoot. The sharpshooter sent Peso off.  Vin found cover across the street near a wagon.  There were three men at the bank. He fired one shot after another at their location, as did the other six men.  After the barrage he saw Chris raise his hand calling for silence.

"You're gonna give up now."  Larabee stated, coming up from his cover. He had confidence in what the answer would be--the men threw their guns in the street. Ominously, Chris walked down the street the other men followed.

With the end of the gunfight, the town began to mill around again.  The doors of the general store and seamstress were unlocked and shades were pulled up letting in the sun of the day.

Ezra came out to greet Vin, dusting his emerald jacket in the meantime. "Impeccable timing Mister Tanner."

The sharpshooter nodded, lifted his rifle over his shoulder and walked with the others to the three men cowering near the bank. Vin saw it was the three ugly bandits who had left him tied in the middle of nowhere. "You three," he gritted, squinting his blue eyes. Chris stepped back from them wondering what had the tracker riled.

"Uh," the one who had laughed at him earlier was able to say before Tanner brought the butt of his rifle crashing over the man's head.

"Friends of yours Brother?" Josiah asked, perplexed at the former bounty hunter's reaction.

"They kilt Old Man Jones and tied me up fer the day." Vin pulled his hat off and brushed a hand through his matted hair.

Chris glanced over at Vin noticing the manginess of the sharpshooter. "You look like sh**."

Tanner's soft brows knitted together.  Of course he looked bad, probably smelled bad too. He had blood caked on his wrists and his ribs hurt. Vin usually had a well of patience, but today it was running thin. "Glad y'all missed me."

They looked at each other puzzled.

"You were missing?" JD asked before he was quieted by Buck's well-placed elbow.

Vin started to walk to the saloon

Ezra called after his retreating back. "We were just coming to search for you when we were detained."

Nathan fell into step beside Tanner.  Vin didn't stop walking. "I'm going to the saloon." He said keeping his eye on his goal up ahead.  One gutwarmer to start then a bath.      "Nathan, I don't need any of your doctoring.  I'm fine." He had just had a bad day. It could have been worse.  He could have come home to nothing.  At least in Four Corners he came back to some friends. He gave the healer a grin to know he was forgiven before he crumpled to the ground.

Chris watched his friend go down by Nathan's boots.  The men ran over to their fallen friend.  Jackson was already crouched beside  the tracker.

"He's gonna be fine.  He's been banged up and needs some rest an' food."

Larabee nodded and masked his concern as he gave orders. "Josiah help JD bring these three to the jail." Sanchez bent down to lift the unconscious thief.  JD took the moneybags and handed them back to the banker.

"Nice covering Ez." Buck gave the gambler a pat on the back.

Standish reholstered his guns, and pulled his jacket to adjust the fit. "I believe our comrade deduced I was lying."

Nathan and Chris were helping to get Vin up.  Ezra also gave  a hand.  Buck picked up the Winchester and followed behind.

"I can't believe you forgot about him." Buck commented.

"Who?" The black clad gunslinger said, shaking his head.

Wilmington gave an exaggerated sigh. "Vin, you're the one that notices his comings and goings."

Chris turned around and scowled at Buck.  He was not the mother hen his friend was to JD.  He wasn't going to be either.  Vin Tanner was a grown man. "I was busy." He grumbled out guiltily, as all his men kept staring at him. He should have been watching Vin's back.  He wasn't ready to shoulder all the blame though.  "How about the rest of you?"

They all sheepishly looked away except for the gambler.

"Otherwise occupied," Ezra answered as he fell into step with Buck.

Josiah roughly pushed one of the thieves forward past Chris. Larabee gave him an icy glare causing one of the desperados to step back only to be pushed again by the preacher.

"We'll have to ask for his forgiveness." Josiah said, as he led the prisoners away.  The Judge would decide what to do with them.

"Nothing says I care like a fine whiskey." Ezra said, as he looked at the saloon.

"In that case Ez you can share your private stock once Vin is up and about." Buck gave the gambler a pat on the back.

Standish started to protest. Chris turned around to see the gambler wiggling out of Buck's grasp.

Chris was startled when heard the sharpshooter speaking.

"It's gonna take more than a drink to have me get over this day." Vin mumbled as he regained consciousness. He kept his eyes closed and let his friends continue to assist  him up the stairs to Nathan's clinic.

The End