A Distance From Home

by Tidia

Part of the 'Last Word' Series

Disclaimer: Don't own them.  Magnificent Seven is owned by MGM and Trilogy.

Rating: PG

Comments: First of all this fic utilizes the LB  universe and well you'll see where it goes from there. Thank you to my beta, Mog the great!  Thank you to the people who knew about this fic and didn·t pressure me.<g> Last and not least-I am not leaving the list or fandom but I will have to curtail my writing for a time. I have decided to pursue a law degree so my time will be needed elsewhere. I actually have all the wonderful people I have met on this list for helping me make this decision. I will be back since I have many stories left to be told.

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

"My," he licked his cracked lips. "My son?" He was finally able to get the words out. God, he hoped they understood.  "Help me," he beseeched, blinking back the tears of pain as pressure was applied to his wound.

"We're helping you. Don't fear." It was a woman's voice, whispering to him.  "Where did your son go?"

Chris blinked and Vin's image dance through a dark haze before the blackness consumed him.

"You're not afraid are you?" Chris asked as he rubbed Vin's back. The little boy had crept closer to Larabee's side as night fell in the desert.

Stubbornly, the child moved slightly away from the older man wanting to prove his bravery.  "Thanks for taking me with you." Vin yawned.

The blonde man rolled out a bedroll for the boy, placing it right by his side.  Chris had volunteered to get medical supplies for Nathan and knowing it was safe, Larabee decided to take Vin with him on the child·s first trip into the wilderness.  The longhaired boy loved the outdoors and both Buck and Chris believed each boy needed one -on -one attention from time to time.  JD was back at the ranch helping Wilmington with the horses. "I'm glad for the company. I think it's time to get some rest though."

Tanner looked around, deciding it was safe, he lay down and wrapped himself tightly in the blankets. "G'Night."

Chris placed a hand on the boy's forehead and brushed back the errant curls. "There's only crickets and coyotes out there and if you listen it's like music."

Vin blinked and smiled slightly then closed his eyes. Larabee smiled, at ten years old Vin was trusting to an extent and starting to believe in unconditional love.

The next morning Larabee placed a hand on Vin's shoulder to wake the boy. The child had slept so peacefully, but they needed an early start and Chris had waited for the last minute to wake Tanner. "There are some biscuits for you." He said gently coaxing Vin, who stretched and finally awoke. "Peso's ready for you too."

The child nodded and ate a biscuit. Larabee checked over their supplies and within a half an hour they were back on the trail.  Tanner was a curious child. "What's that?" was a frequent question.  To see the world through a child's eyes was more than Chris would have believed possible after Adam's death.

Larabee grinned and brought his horse near Vin's. "What do you say we have a little race?"

The boy seemed to think for a moment before surprising Chris with a "Whoop!" as he spurred his horse on.

Larabee shook his head and raced after the ten- year old.  In the carefree moment he didn't see the rattler lying in wait to spook his horse.  The animal reared up in fear. Chris roughly grabbed for the reins he had been loosely holding, but his actions came a second too late and he was thrown off the horse.

Vin couldn't believe it. He won!  He slowed down and patted Peso. "You're a good horse."  The boy looked back, hearing Larabee's horse trotting behind him.  However, his new father wasn't there. "Chris? Chris!" The child yelled until he was hoarse.

Tears fell unchecked as he rode back looking for his foster father. Panicking, he took in hiccups of breath. He wiped his face on his sleeve, as everything became blurry and then clear-Chris lay on the ground unmoving.

Vin jumped down from his horse, tripping as he crawled his way to the fallen man. He shook the body. "Please wake up! Please!" He begged. Larabee stayed unmoving and with a hard shove Tanner was able to turn him over. Blood flowed from his head, scaring Vin.  "Please don't die!" The little boy wrapped his arms around his body and rocked back and forth repeating, "Please," as a reverent prayer.

Shaking, he stood up and walked back to the horse. The saddlebags were high on the horse. Chris had been lifting him on and off with ease. Jumping, the little boy was able to pull the blanket off, the canteen coming down with it. He covered Chris with the blanket tucking in the corners, using what was left in the canteen he poured the water over the wound, causing a river of blood to puddle by Larabee's head.

Biting his lip and sniffing back his tears, Vin threw the canteen down. He shook his foster father again, hoping to revive him.  "I need you," he whispered in a thick voice. "I'm scared. Please, I'll be good." Vin clenched at the arm and lay beside the body crying. Spent and tired he knew what he would do if he were at home. He would run and get help- Josiah, Nathan or Ezra, but he didn't know the way to town from here.  

Chris needed help. Tanner would have to be brave. "I'll be back fer you." The little boy placed a hand on Larabee's chest, before climbing onto his horse.

"You're awake! Praise the Lord!"  Chris heard the woman say as he opened his eyes and quickly shut them to the bright light.

"Put that shade down Doris!" A man hissed. "He's not used to all that light."  Larabee heard a chair being brought over.  He squeezed his eyes tighter hoping to contain the noise and the pounding in his skull.

Licking his lips, he discovered his mouth was dry.  

"Here, here," the woman said as he felt his head being lifted and a glass brought to his lips.

"Easy there," the man said, placing a hand on his arm.

Carefully, Chris's head was laid back into the pillows. "Where am I?" He was able to rasp out. His thoughts were jumbled and incoherent, though something tugged at his heart and mind with importance.

"Fellows Creek. We found you a week ago in the desert." The man replied. "Didn't think you'd make it."

"What's your name?"  The woman asked in a high whisper. Placing a cool cloth on his forehead.

Chris relished in its comfort. "Larabee, Chris Larabee." He relaxed for a moment, gathering his thoughts, which felt like they would spill through the bandage wrapped around his head.  He wiped his face and then placed a hand on his heart realizing what was missing. Larabee opened his eyes wide, looking into the face of the gruff man. "Where's my son? The little boy that was with me."

Not getting a quick enough reply, Chris struggled to get up, but strong hands stopped him. "Didn't find a boy. You just calm down, and we'll help you."

Larabee tried to push himself back to a seated position but found himself weak and his body unresponsive. "VIN!! VIN!!"

Golden Coyote didn't know why a white child was alone in the desert.  He wondered why the white man thought so little of such a precious gift.  The Indian brought his pony in front of the horse, stopping its lazy gait. The child, limp and stretched over the saddle never awoke as the brave carried him home, to the People.

"Telegram for you Mister Standish." Joseph, the operator, handed the folded piece of paper to the gambler.  Ezra fished in his pocket for a coin and Joseph thanked him profusely.

It had been six months.

Ezra never gave up. For months he sent telegrams to all the orphanages in the area and as far away as Mexico-offering to pay obscene amounts of money if they had a child by the name of Vin Tanner or one who looked like the missing boy. Many times he left Four Corners with a feeling Lady Luck had to smile on them.  JD and Vin had made it so far- into a loving home filled with opportunities.

Standish stopped telling Larabee about a possible child fitting Vin's description. He didn't want to raise the man's hopes only to dash them a week later when he didn't return with young master Tanner.  The southerner didn't think there was a place left on earth where they hadn·t looked.  But, they tried, spurred by JD's soulful, lonely eyes and Chris's empty stare into the plains.

Josiah often wondered if JD should stay in his new home. Nathan convinced him otherwise. Together, the new ragtag family would get through the loss, and together there would be healing. So Sanchez prayed every night for Vin to find his way home and for Chris's heart to heal.

"I'm a man! Fourteen years old!" JD said as he pushed his sooty hair out of his eyes. "I want to join the posse!"

"JD, we've been through this. . ."  Buck began as he shook his head. The only thing the kid talked about was being a lawman when he grew up.

"Uncle Ezra said that to be good at something you need practice." Dunne replied, believing he was making headway.

Wilmington rolled his eyes. "Don't you listen to that gambler!"

"JD, we need you to stay home."  Chris said quietly, staring at the young man. In his look he conveyed his fear of losing another son.

Dunne sighed, looked down at the ground and kicked at the dirt. JD was tired of the weight of being the one still living.  "Okay, but next time?"

"We'll see." Larabee answered with a nod and spurred his horse forward.

Wilmington caught up to him easily. "He's growing up you know."

"I know." Chris answered without looking at his best friend.

Buck continued the conversation, which had been repeated many times. "You're not going to lose him."

The blonde's mouth grew tight. "You don't know that." He spat out, and galloped forward.

Buck stayed back for a moment.  "Over protective son of a bitch."

They said he was dead so Vin mourned, deciding to stop the pain by not feeling. Instead he watched and listened as the Indians, the Kiowa went about their daily life.  He was taken in by a man and woman, the woman, her eyes kind, wanting to reach out to him. But, Vin pulled away-for a long time, until the little boy craved someone else to help carry the burden.

And the Kiowa helped. They made him strong. He learned much from them. In time he grew to be a respected brave. He had a duty to the tribe who had helped him, but part of him was always looking for Chris Larabee. One day he promised he would go back to Four Corners to find Buck, JD and tell them he was sorry he had taken away Chris.

It took Vin seven years to return to the ranch. He could not make the long journey as a boy, and then as he grew so did his responsibility to the People.  Finally, circumstances brought him a day away from his childhood.  Running Wolf came with him part of the way.

From the distance the homestead looked the same, maybe smaller to the older eyes.  It was still inviting though.  Vin jumped down from his horse, walking the animal through the tall grass. He stopped as he reached the corral, no one was in sight, and Vin realized his greatest fear-they were all gone-JD and Buck had joined Chris in the hereafter. Tanner took two steps back.

"Don't move, mister!" Said a voice from the barn.

"They don't give us a chase like they used too." Buck grumbled as they made their way back to the homestead.

"I like it that way. We're getting too old for this shit."  Chris dismounted and went to the water pump, washing the grime from the road.

"We've got company." Wilmington said as he pointed to the strange horse.

Larabee looked around, trying to find JD.  In one fluid movement he pulled out his gun and gestured to the home. Carefully, they climbed the three steps, with a nod Larabee broke down the door, kicking it in with his foot.

"Who's your friend, JD?"  Buck asked menacingly. The Indian sat, his back towards the door. His long hair was tied and the ponytail of curls hung to the middle of his back, white feathers were interwoven.

"He's  . . ." JD stood up, his face pale.

Chris reached out, angry the young man looked so fearful.  Roughly, he grabbed the Indian's arm and made the man turn to face him. Larabee let go of his grip when he saw the blue eyes.  

"You're not dead?"  Vin Tanner said slowly in halting English. It was rare he spoke his first language, adopting the tongue of his new home and family. The words did not want to come out fast enough.

Wilmington raised his gun higher at the stranger. "Yer planning to kill us? What the hell did we do to the Indians?"

"Buck, it's not what you think. . ." JD stood up and walked in front of his cousin.

Vin smiled and looked down at his attire. His skin was bronzed, dark from the sun. His pants, made of buffalo hide, matched the beaded vest his adopted mother had made him. She wished for him to wear it for the special occasion. He wore no war paint, but to Buck's eyes- a strange Indian was standing in his home.

"Damnit, Buck! It's Vin!"  Chris pulled the gun away and let it clatter to the floor. "It's Vin." He repeated softly as he reached out to touch Tanner's cheek.

Tanner grabbed the hand and the two men stood -there forearms clasped in a renewing bond.

"Vin? Vin!" Buck looked at JD for verification. Dunne nodded.  Wilmington enveloped the lanky young man in a bear hug. "Where have you been, boy?"

"We tried to find you." Chris placed his arm on young man's shoulder.  "Never gave up looking."

Wilmington's face was animated in a permanently affixed smile. He hugged JD next, "Your cousin always said you'd come back."

Tanner looked at his cousin and nodded in appreciation of having faith in him.  "I promised."  Vin replied solemnly.  He turned to Chris to explain so much to him. "I . . .They didn't find ya." Vin licked his lips searching for words. "So they took me in, the Kiowa." Vin patted his chest to show he was part of the Kiowa.

"Seems as though they didn't feed you enough." Bucks said poking at Tanner's midsection.

The young man shook his head. His body was strong. "They took care of me," Vin replied, defending his friends and family.

Chris stood there in awe of the boy who grew up without him. He knew everyone was staring, but he felt rooted, not wanting to move.  "I'm happy they were there for you."  Larabee grinned, and gestured for his long lost son to resume his seat at the table.

"I have to tell Nathan, Josiah and Ezra." JD grabbed his hat on the peg by the door. "Ezra! Vin, he looked for you, put up a reward and everything!" Dunne opened the door, and looked back before closing it.

"Don't go galloping like a crazy man!" Buck yelled after his son. "Vin'll still be here waiting for you." Wilmington glanced at Tanner who nodded.  

Vin looked at the two men. He never dreamed this moment-everyone alive and well. But time hadn't stayed still, they had moved on with different experiences shaping their existence. Tanner took small sips of the cup of coffee in front of him.  He didn't know what to say, and began to fidget under Larabee's gaze.

Buck cleared his throat. "You're scaring him with all your glaring, Chris."  

"Sorry, it's just. . .it's just." Larabee tried to finish his sentence.

"Thought I was dead?" The words were coming a little more easily to Tanner.  The thoughts in his head, however,  were Kiowa, not of a white man.

"No," Chris shook his head. He smiled. "I thought this day would never come."

"So you're a brave?" Wilmington patted Tanner's arm for the third time. The touch was reassuring and alive.

Vin shrugged his shoulders and nodded. "Brought buffaloes for the winter. Winter's been hard."

The blonde man traced the rim of the coffee cup in front of him. "I never knew you were out there." Chris tried not to shiver as he though back to so many brutal storms.

Tanner placed both hands around the cup, which had lost its warmth.  "I was warm and safe."

There was a long pause. Buck, still wore his smile. "So you have a girl?" The mustached man changed the topic easily.

"Buck!" Chris reprimanded his friend.

"What?  I wanta know what the boy's been up to for seven years."  "He's seventeen, well by then I had found myself loved by a few good women."

Tanner blushed and turned the tables. "You never . . .married?"

"Hell, Chris and Mary are goin' for a long courtship-figure there may be a double wedding when JD and Casey marry." Wilmington chuckled.

Larabee narrowed his eyes at his friend. "Don't listen to him."

The mustached man chuckled and shrugged his shoulders.

"JD was tellin' me you want to send him away?" Vin stated. His cousin had rapidly filled him in on the missing years and the troubles the young man was experiencing.

Buck cleared his throat, got up from the table and went to the kitchen to pour himself another cup of coffee.

Chris looked down at the marred table. "We were hoping to send him East for schooling."

"Says he doesn't want to go."  Tanner replied.  It all seemed so simple to him. JD wanted to stay so he should stay in Four Corners.

Larabee lay his hands flat against the table in an obstinate gesture. "Well, he's still young."

At seventeen Vin was considered a man among the Kiowa. "Old enough to make his own choices."

Buck laughed and joined them both at the table, straddling the chair. "Woohoo, there's a stubborn streak in you." Wilmington slammed the coffee cup down.  "Don't think I've seen anyone stand up to Chris in awhile."

"Buuuuck," Larabee began a menacing tone interrupted by the door being swung open.

"Never thought I would see the day." Nathan came through the door first, the dust from the road still clinging to his clothes.  He patted Vin on the back.  The healer's eyes welled with tears, and one slipped down.

"Praise the Lord!" Josiah boomed. "Stand up!" He ordered and then beamed pride at the teen before him.

"Mister Tanner, it is my pleasure." Ezra gave a short bow. "Do you have a recollection of us?"

Vin swallowed, in his memories these men always seemed larger than life-so full of color, and wisdom and kindness to an orphan. Tanner gave a twisted grin. "Could never forget-Ezra,  Nathan, Josiah. . ."

Standish reached out and ruffled Tanner's hair. Vin pulled away and patted down the pieces.

They all sat around the table and the newly found teen listened as six people told seven years of stories filled with laughter and hope.  Vin let his eyes drift out the window to the stretch of endless landscape. The sun was setting. A meal had been broken. It was time for him to go.

Chris followed Vin's eyes. "You can't leave now." Larabee said glancing at the others to get their support.

Tanner shook his head. Running Wolf was waiting for him. "The People. . ."

"Will be there tomorrow." Josiah prompted clasping his hands together.

"You should not be endeavoring to make it through the wilderness ·why there are. .well," Ezra licked his lips before finishing his sentence, "animals."

"Please stay," JD asked simply.

It was his cousin's wide brown eyes, which convinced him. Vin would stay for one night.

JD  got a few steps in front of Vin. He wanted to clean off the other bed. But, there was a lot of stuff piled there and Dunne would need his cousin's help.  

"Your bed is still there." The younger teenager said as he began pushing a kite, paper, rocks and all the things he had collected on the floor.

"Where?" Tanner began to put some of the items in the corner of the room in a neat pile.

JD  began to see the spun blanket, which covered the bed. He didn't turn to look at his cousin. Dunne didn't want to believe Tanner was a figment of his imagination. "For a long time I would talk to you." JD sighed. "Yeah, I knew you weren't there, but sometimes it was just like you were. . ."

Finally the bed was cleared. JD turned to find Vin was carefully touching some of the wooden toys. Chris had made those toys.

Dunne turned back to the bed and dusted off the blanket to allow his cousin some time with his own thoughts. "It's not like I forgot you, but then I  put one thing on the bed, then another. . .and then I didn't see the bed and I didn't miss you so much."

JD felt a hand on his shoulder. "Missed ya too, JD.  You're my cousin, could never forget that."

Dunne patted the hand on his shoulder. How he missed his best friend and cousin. "What do you want to do tomorrow?" The younger man prompted, wanting Tanner to stay for awhile, actually forever.

Vin did not reply instead he sat down on the bed and tested its softness. "What'd I miss, JD?"

JD lay down on his bed and looked up to the ceiling, knowing exactly how many knots were in the wood. He had counted them when he couldn't get to sleep, when he thought about his lost cousin. JD thought about when he was a youngster and Chris and Buck heard his muffled cries. They would sit with him. His foster fathers provided him comfort, security and a warm home. "A lot, Vin. You missed a lot."

Dunne knew his cousin didn't need any further explanation.

Chris couldn't sleep. He sat in the chair and stared into the fire until it began to dwindle to burning embers. Vin was under this roof for the first time in seven years.  Larabee didn't want to fall asleep and wake up knowing it was all a dream. The leader turned as the one of the floor planks squeaked. "You don't have to be quiet. I wasn't sleeping."

Tanner stopped and froze momentarily. "I was going outside." He explained then finished tying his pants, and heading.

Chris glimpsed Vin's back, and Nathan had been right, the scars faded over time. Only someone who knew would notice they were there. Larabee got up and made coffee, waiting for Tanner to return. Chris resisted the temptation to follow the young man. Vin joined him at the table when he returned.

The conversation was awkward. He didn't know the boy before him. Had he changed so much? Had he not changed at all? "Never stopped looking for you." Chris said as he poured a cup of coffee for Vin.

Tanner nodded. "JD's happy."

This time Larabee nodded in return and took a seat opposite his returned foster son. "We did the best we could." Chris wondered how Vin would have been had he grown up under their care. He seemed so wild and uncomfortable inside the homestead. And it was obvious Tanner never grew out of the quietness of his youth.  Chris always figured Vin would come out of his shell, but maybe not. Maybe his ways fit better with the Indians. He belonged in their world, which meant Larabee would lose the young man again.  Chris wanted to have some sort of conversation, but was interrupted by the sound of horses outside.

"Larabee! Wilmington!" The two heard the yelling. Vin gestured he was going to grab his shirt and wake the others.

Chris looked out the window and shook his head. His neighbor, Jeb Winters was outside with his ranch hands. "Out a little early, Winters."

"We got trouble, Larabee." Jeb dismounted. It was then Chris noticed the man was covered in soot. "Injuns burned me out last night."

"Are Lizzy and the kids okay?" Buck came out, barefooted and bleary eyed followed by a yawning JD and Vin.

"Just scared." Winter replied, then gestured to Tanner. "Didn't know you were Injun lovers."
Vin started to step forward, and Buck blocked his path with an arm.

"That's my son you're talking about." Chris growled, and glared. Larabee's hands felt for his guns, which he had left inside. If need be though the leader decided he would tear this man limb from limb.

Josiah broke the stalemate as he, Nathan and Ezra exited from the bunkhouse. "There a problem, Jeb?"

"They burned down my homestead!" Jeb yelled then pointed at Vin. "His kind, them savages-all quiet like 'til it was too late and we were lucky to get out alive."

Chris swatted the finger away and held on to Jeb's hand, until he knew he was causing the man pain. "I suggest you take care of your family, Jeb." Larabee let go of his grip. "We·ll take care of whoever burned you out."

Winters looked at the men, and mounted his horse. "I'll find them myself."  Roughly, Jeb reared his horse and tore out of the ranch with his men.

"Yes, vigilantism and eggs for breakfast, something to look forward to."  Ezra yawned then headed back to the bunkhouse to finish sleeping.

The others shook their head and headed back to returned to the home.  They sat around the table discussing how to proceed. Vin shied back and was silent.  

"Shouldn't we check on Casey and Nettie?" JD said loudly, trying to be heard over the men's discussion.

Tanner sat straight in his chair. "Nettie?" He smiled.

Larabee nodded, happy the young man remembered the old woman. "Yeah, Casey's her niece. She came to live with her a couple years ago."

 Vin licked his lips in uncertainty. "I'd like to see her before. . ."

Buck interrupted the younger man. Chris smiled; they were not going to let Vin go that easily. "JD'll take you out, while the boys and I see what happened at Jeb's place."

The two were ready in moments. Dunne was leading the horses out.

"We'll meet up at Nettie·s." Chris said to his foster sons.

Finally, Ezra decided to awaken and came out of the bunkhouse looking refreshed and having overheard part of the conversation. "I suppose it would be too much to expect a hot meal upon  our arrival. . . something other than fried rabbit or prairie dos?· The latter was said under his breath.

"Ez, in case no one ever told you, I don't think she likes you." Buck replied.  Chris snorted. Nettie did seem to always have a comment to harass the gambler. And Standish did somehow enjoy trading the barbs.  

"Au contraire, she has a soft spot for me," Standish placed his hand over his heart. In a low voice he added, "Just hides it remarkably well."

"Be careful!" Nathan yelled after the two riders as JD gave a whoop.

"Looks like company's coming, Casey." Nettie stopped watering the garden in front of the house.  She brought her hand to shade her eyes to see if she could make out the figures.

"It's only JD." Casey replied as she exited the barn.  "But someone is with him."

Nettie's eyes weren't as good as they used to be. Old age had crept up on her and stayed. She couldn't make out the other figure. It was probably either Chris or Buck. "Does that boy know when I've made peach cobbler?"

Casey shrugged her shoulders in response. She then walked very fast toward her aunt. "He brought an Indian with him Aunt Nettie. . ."

The older woman dropped the watering can. "An Indian?" Nettie took big strides to the gate of the farm. Casey followed behind. She had decided long ago not to let things frighten her.

She gripped the post of the gate, and felt her knees quiver. "That's no Indian. That's my boy.  That's my boy!" She yelled and ran like a schoolgirl to her missing grandson.  "Vin Tanner you get off that horse and greet me properly."

Vin jumped off his horse and let the mare come to its own stop. He grabbed the old woman in his arms. Tanner rested his head against her shoulder. Nettie squeezed him tight, pulled away then touched his face in disbelief.

"Please don't cry, Miz Nettie, please. . ." Vin wiped the tears off her face.  

Nettie tried to compose herself. Her voice was husky, "Son, I never thought, I didn't believe them when they said they'd find you. Men and their notions that they can fix everything.  . .They couldn't fix that hole in my heart. I just couldn't allow myself to have hope because then I couldn't go on living without my boy. " She shuddered. "I've been carrying these tears for a long time.  . ." She wrapped her arm around his shoulder and turned to the youngsters.

Casey was giving questioning looks to JD. Dunne smiled and made introductions. "Casey, this is my cousin, Vin."

The young woman gave a dazzling smile and glanced from her friend to her aunt. "I've heard a lot about you, Vin."

"Come inside." Nettie ushered them to her home.  "I've got peach cobbler." She looked at Vin again. "Looks like you could use some."

He laughed and shook his head.

Nettie smiled, feeling years slip off her frame. With a light heart she asked,  "Where have you been?"

The five men kept a leisurely pace as they made their way to Nettie's home. They had investigated the burning debris of what had once been the Winter's homestead.  The family had been lucky to get out in time. But, Chris was worried about what they found.

"Are  you going out to the Seminole village anytime soon?" He addressed his question to Nathan, riding beside the leader.

"Probably this week. . ." Jackson started to respond until Larabee turned his head and glared. "Maybe even tomorrow?" The healer added and that appeased the blond man.

"You don't think. . ." Wilmington galloped forward to the other side of his friend.

"I don't." Chris quickly answered. All the leader could think about was Vin coming back and he was an Indian. Larabee tightened the grip on his reins. "There's enough evidence at the Winters ranch that other people will." Slowly, Chris brought his horse to a stop and the others did the same. He wanted to discuss everything now and not in front of JD and Vin.

"The Seminole are the closest group of Indians." Josiah  came forward, bringing his mare beside Nathan's. "And Winters is going to tell the townspeople."

Ezra held his reins loosely and tried to sweep off some of the dry travel dust. "I suggest we apprehend the true culprits soon. Perhaps young Mister Tanner would assist?"

"He had nothing to do with." Larabee growled at the gambler and narrowed his eyes.

Buck sighed. "He's not saying he did, Pard." Wilmington shifted his weight in the saddle. "He's an Indian though, Chris. They have to be nearby. Maybe. . ."

"I don't think so." The leader said curtly, silencing all further conversation as he spurred his horse to continue on the road to Nettie's home.

Within a half an hour they had dismounted and tied their horses. They cleaned up outside, pumping water into their hands and letting the soot wash away.

Josiah smiled as they reached the door and heard the laughter. "Do I smell peach cobbler?" He said as he opened the door, the other men behind him. Buck hugged the old woman and smiled at the youngsters.

Nettie playfully swatted the mustached regulator away. "Yes, but your two growing boys didn't see fit in leaving any for the rest of you."

"Damn, that's all we needed one more person to eat Nettie's cobbler." Wilmington took a seat by JD and ruffled his hair.

Dunne smoothed down his hair, and shrugged his shoulders at his cousin. "So what did you find out?" JD asked.

No one replied. Chris was leaning against the door. Ezra was examining his fingernails. Josiah and Nathan flanked Nettie and looked away from the young man's gaze.

"Doesn't look good." JD explained to Vin. "See, they all look like their horse died or something."  Casey laughed, then coughed as she noticed her  aunt's frown.

Vin's lips were in a taunt straight line. He squinted. "Are you thinking it's the Indians?"

"Son," Sanchez stepped forward and rested his hands on the back of Tanner's chair. "We don't, but the townspeople . . ."

"Not right." Vin stood up, stepping away so he could look at each man and gauge their reactions,

"We know it's not right, Vin." Nathan looked into the glass of water he was holding.

Standish stepped away from the wall and put a little distance between himself and the others. "Perhaps we can deduce the real villains sooner rather than later with your assistance."
"Ezra!" Larabee growled and glared at the gambler. The blond man took a step forward and Sanchez stepped in between the two men.  "I don't want him involved." Chris stated over Josiah's shoulder. The mood in the farmhouse was sparked with tension.

Vin felt taut with anger at the men who wanted to protect him as if he was a child. "I can help."

Nathan patted Tanner on the back and then took the liberty of explaining to the young man. "Chris knows you can, son.  But, Four Corners, them people, they, well. . .Josiah can you help me out?"

"They're like sheep. They do not have an open mind, but greet things that are different with anger and fear. . ." Josiah nodded to Chris, who blinked and backed down to a calmer stance.

JD's mouth fell open as he put the pieces together. "They're gonna think Vin did it?"

"No, not Vin, but Indians, any Indians." Buck sighed, leaning back in his chair as if trying to make sense of the workings of the narrow-minded world.

"My tribe is a week's journey from here. They would not do this." Tanner placed a hand on his chest, the thought of anyone hurting his family was heartbreaking and cruel.  "I'm helping."

"I said, no." Chris announced in a tone, which  dared no one to defy him.

Vin stared and shook his head. He walked over to Nettie and smiled. "Thank you for the cobbler." That being said he strode past Chris out of the house.

Buck gave a low whistle and winked at the elderly woman. "Well, Nettie at least it means he's staying a little while longer."

"I'm gonna go check on Vin." Ezra followed the young man out not wanting to face anymore scrutiny from Chris.

JD gave Casey a smile. "Me too," He excused himself from the table and thanked Nettie for the hospitality.

"I don't want him involved." Chris said to a diminishing audience.

Buck wiped his face and pondered his thoughts. "He's not the frightened boy anymore, Chris." Wilmington looked out the window to see the foursome talking outside.  "It seems to me that someone should be watching his back."

Larabee narrowed his eyes, then also looked out the window. At first he saw a seven-year-old boy. He blinked and saw the seventeen-year-old with the wise eyes. "Why do I have a feeling that we still have to keep an eye on him cause he's gonna end up in trouble?" The blonde leader opened the door. "Nettie, anyone bothers you- you let us know."

"Boys will be boys, even big boys." Nathan clapped Josiah on the back as they exited. "I better make sure I have lots of bandages."

"Mount up," Chris announced to the others as JD brought their horses around the front of the house. "Let's head into town and see what we can find out."

"I want to stop at the Winter's place."  Vin headed toward the gate.

"Guess we're going to the Winter's place." Buck laughed as he looked back at Chris trying to control an oncoming outburst of frustration. Wilmington was the wiser after all these years. He gave a yelp so his horse began to gallop.

Vin had walked around twice. He crouched on the ground picking up the dirt and sifting it between his hands before letting it free on the wind. He pulled out an arrow, studied it then examined the bullet holes. He let his fingers trace the round hole in the wood over and over again.

JD followed closely behind and fidgeted impatiently. The younger cousin didn't like the feeling surrounding the burnout homestead. It was now a shell where there had been a thriving home only a day before. "Did you find anything?"

Vin nodded and walked to where the others were talking. "The People didn't do this." Tanner announced, holding an arrow in his hand. "They would not miss their mark. They also wouldn't be wasting arrows." The longhaired teen broke the arrow.  "They got guns and they know how to use'em."

"Figured as much." Larabee glared at the others, upset Vin had been dragged into the mess.

Tanner looked out along the vista. "Nothing for them here."

"So you are saying there was no motive?" Standish shifted in his saddle. "So gentlemen, we need to find out who has a reason. . ."

Ezra  suggested a trip into town. It was there in the saloon where they could find out some information and find out what Winters had told the townspeople. "We have to see Mary when we get to town."

Vin turned around and smiled at Buck.

"She's still as pretty as you remember." Wilmington replied with a wink. "Golden hair, bright blue eyes. . .like a shimmering pond. . ."

"That's enough." Chris snarled and spurred his horse to a gallop.

"How long have they been courting?" Tanner asked, smiling at Larabee's retreating back.

"We lost count." Nathan answered with a laugh. "Town is over the next rise."

Tanner brought his horse to a stop. He was stunned at the town he had left behind years ago. He never enjoyed Four Corners as a child, but as an adult he found the sprawl of the town was unnatural.

Vin kept his head low and his horse followed the others as they stopped in front of the hitching post at the saloon. He dismounted and tied his horse to the post.

"Vin Tanner!" The name was yelled out.

The older teen turned around. Mary was running towards him.

"Take a step back. You've grown up, Vin Tanner." She said approvingly and then gave him a quick hug.

"Yes'm,"  he replied. She still smelled of a mixture of ink and soft flowers.  

"Billy is going to be sorry he wasn't here. He's at school near his grandparents." She wrapped one of his arms around his and escorted him to the walkway. The others had already entered the saloon.

They continued to talk, mostly Mary speaking and Vin giving soft one word answers. They didn't notice the  two drunks exit the bar.

"There's an  Injun in town?" Said one of the men loudly, too loudly to his friend who was cringing at the booming voice.  "Why are you causin' all this trouble, Injun?"

Vin shook his head. "Ms. Travis, I'll walk you home."

Mary nodded.

"Stan, he's walkin' away from me." The loud man announced.

"No Injun walks away from you." Stan replied.

Tanner heard the heavy footsteps following. He pushed Mary into the nearest doorway. "Get inside, Miz Travis."

Quickly Vin turned drawing his knife.

The two drunks stopped. "Two against one you rotten scum."

Tanner shrugged his shoulders and beckoned them to attack.

In moments he dodged the attack of one who skidded to the floor. The other tried to jump on Vin and easily the teen flipped him over his back. Tanner pressed the knife against  the neck  of one of the attackers and held his gun on the other who was trying to whimper away.

"That's enough!"  A man from the crowd, which had gathered came forward and pointed a rifle at Vin.

"What's going on here?" Chris came running out of the saloon. He pushed the crowd so he was able to get to the commotion.

"These two attacked Vin-unprovoked and Vin defended himself then Mister Finn decided to take the law into his own hands." Mary placed her hands on her hips and was standing between Vin and Bob Finn, who was aiming his rifle at Tanner.

"Put the gun down Finn, we're the law and we know the boy didn't do anything." Buck came up behind the rancher and pushed the muzzle to the ground.

Bob wrenched his gun away from Wilmington's grip. "Yeah, well someone burned down one of my line shacks and my horses are gone.  His kind did it."

"Move along people, nothing to see." Josiah  spread out his arms and gestured to the townspeople to get on with their daily business.

"There's lots to see, first Winters then me." Finn raised his rifle along with his voice. "These Indians are out to get us!"

Chris came up behind the raving rancher, and hit him on the back of his head with the hilt of his gun. "That's enough!" Larabee caught the unconscious man. "Take him to the jail."

Nathan nodded and half carried, half walked the man to jail.

Mary breathed in a sigh of relief, Vin watched the man being carried away then turned to Chris and the others. "I need to warn my people."

Larabee placed his hand on his foster son's chest to stop him from leaving. "I promise no one is going to harm them."

Chris felt the boy's heart beating in time with his. Vin's face was firm and he nodded. "It's on your hands if they come to harm."

"The railroad." Standish sauntered into the jail, took his hat off and sat down looking smug and satisfied.

"Ezra, I can't believe I have to ask ·but can you say a little more?" Buck  sat down on the desk in front of the gambler.

Standish sighed, pulled the sleeves of his jacket and then looked at the men surrounding him. When he was satisfied he had gained everyone's attention he continued. "The railroad wants to come through."

"So?" Wilmington said snatching Standish's hat.

Ezra reached for it and Buck kept taking it out of his reach. "Years of this, years of obtuseness. . ." The Southerner said to Vin who was leaning against the jail door. "They are paying money for land."

"If they don·t want to sell?" Josiah asked.

"Nothing, they walk away BUT. . ." Standish was finally able to get his hat back.

"Someone is making them leave. . ." Chris said and began to pace around the small room.

"And blaming it on the Indians." Nathan followed along on the train of thought.

"Who is?" Tanner asked, keenly interested in the culprit.

Ezra folded his hands. "Guy Royal wants to sell his land, but if the others do not then the railroad will take their business elsewhere."

"What other land does the railroad want?" Chris came in closer as did the others.

"The Wells ranch."

"Nettie won't sell." JD stopped looking outside.  

"Which means she will be the next target." Chris crossed his arms. "Boys, looks like we have some work to do."

"I can take care of myself. I don't want all of you  all day and all night  keeping an eye on what might not even happen." Nettie stood on her front porch her  arms firmly on her hips.

"The preponderance of the evidence lets us deduce that your home . . ." Ezra began, as his horse shyly moved its hooves around.

"What are you saying?" The elderly woman snapped, having lost her patience.

"It's going to happen and soon, Miz Wells." Nathan nodded as he explained.

Nettie looked up to the sky, praying for patience. "There's no way you'll listen to this old woman, will you?"

"No, Ma'am." Buck replied and dismounted.

"Nettie, it's our job to protect you." Josiah was taking his horse to the barn for the night.

"Gonna eat me out here." The older woman mumbled.  "On the other hand Vin still looks like he needs some fattening up."

Vin heard her and shook his head. "I'm gonna scout around."

Two days passed, giving the men enough time to set traps. During the day, one man stayed behind. On the first night Buck stayed and JD kept him company. On the second  day Josiah remained. At night they would all sit vigil.

"Chris, three days of all of you stomping around my house. No more. . ." Nettie complained as she sat in the rocker with a rifle across her lap. "I turned those railroad people down months ago and no one has bothered me."

Larabee had his back to the elderly woman, looking out the window for any potential intruders. "Nettie, it's a matter of time. . ."

Nettie rocked in the chair, the creaking against the floorboards quickened. "Speaking of time. Is that boy going to stay?"

"I don't know." Chris sighed and lowered the rifle slightly.

Nettie shook her head. "Did you ask him?"

"Nettie, he's been talking about going back since he got here." The blond man turned around.

"Chris, I'm figuring you boys will find a way to make him stay." Nettie stopped rocking in her chair.

Larabee too sensed something was about to happen.  A flaming arrow broke through the night sky. "Get down!" He yelled.

Chris shot at the shadows moving in the night. When there was a lull in the fight he switched from his rifle to his pistols nodding to Nettie.

"Go on," she told him.

Outside his men were returning fire and moving in closer to the outlaws.

"These are Royal's men." Buck came forward, holding two men at gunpoint.

JD came out from the side of the house. Ezra , Josiah and Nathan were corralling some of the other men who were able to stand.

"Where's Royal?" Chris grabbed the shirt of  one of the so-called Indians.

The man shook his head and growled. Larabee back fisted him.

"Guess we are paying Mister Royal a visit?" Ezra commented.

Larabee noted the other men did not look like they were going to talk. He also noticed there was someone missing. "Where's Vin?"

JD gasped and pointed to the wagon and the body lying near it. "Oh no."

Larabee carried Tanner into the house, kicking the door open.  Blood had blossomed on the young man's  shoulder and was trickling down his arm.

"Chris, Nate's gonna help him. He's going to be fine." Buck reassured him.

Wordlessly, Nettie showed them to her room. Gently, Chris laid him on the bed, not caring that he was getting blood on the  pristine white sheets.

Casey brought in some bandages, and Nathan asked everyone except for Nettie to leave.

"He's not going to be taken from us now, Brother. Have some faith." Josiah placed a hand on Chris's shoulder.

Larabee shrugged off the arm. "I need some air."  

Dunne watched his foster father walk out the door. "Buck, is Vin going to be all right?"  

No one answered the teenager, instead they waited. Ezra  and Josiah took turns watching the tied up prisoners until they could decide what to do with them.

Nathan came slowly down the stairs, wiping his brow. "Cleaned the wound up and stitched him up. He already is feeling warm with fever."

Chris heard the footsteps and came inside to hear the news.  "Nate, you, JD and Josiah stay behind. Boys, we're going to visit Guy Royal."

Seething with anger they entered Guy Royal's ranch. The men guarding the ranch allowed them to pass. Their cohorts had not returned. They were a diminished lot of men, and seeing the fury emanating from the trio, they decided to back down.

"You boys are all trespassing." The man at the door said.

Ezra's weapon flashed in the night.

"Lloyd, let them in." Came a voice from inside.

Lloyd opened the door. Chris entered first to confront Guy Royal, relaxed by the mantle of his fireplace. "It all stops now. Your men are talking. . ."

Ezra continued with the bluff. "Quite a plan to burn farmers out and  buy their land at a diminished value  of course. They were in fear of their lives, in fact. You were doing them a favor. . ."

"Boys, I got all the money in the world." Royal smiled showing his sharp teeth.

"And we know a federal judge who likes to help the little guy." Buck replied, growling at the sinister man.

Guy shook his head as he stepped forward. "It won't get that far."

Chris drew his gun. "You're right because I aim to make your life as miserable as possible. Hell on earth."

Ezra and Buck also pointed their weapons at Royal.

Guy crossed his arms in defiance. "Larabee, I don't think you want to be making threats to me."

Standish smiled letting his gold tooth show. "I don't think that was a threat."

"Nope, Chris doesn't make threats." Wilmington confirmed.

Larabee stood there a moment and cocked back the gun. Royal stood blinking, unable to move. Chris smiled, and relaxed the weapon.  Silently, they left, backing their way to the door, leaving Guy Royal wondering what was going to happen to him.

When they returned, dawn was coming up over the horizon. Nettie sat in her rocking chair as Vin slept, tossing and turning in a fevered state. Upon seeing Chris she left the room, allowing him time to be with his boy.

Larabee kept his distance at first, looking out the window to the Wells' place. A low moan brought him to Tanner's side. He drew up a chair.

"Vin, I'm here."  He pushed the sweaty tendrils from the young man's face. "You have to fight." He let his hand rest on the warm brow. "I can't lose you again. I can't lose you ever." Chris let his hands slide down and rest on sheet. "You had a replacement-a family. I couldn't replace you.  Just knew I lost a part of my soul, myself." He leaned back in the chair. "Damn, I'm not good with words." He mumbled.

Chris reached for Vin's hand. "You're my son."

Larabee closed his eyes, resting for a moment. It was then, lost in his thoughts, that he felt his son squeeze his hand.

Two weeks later over Nathan's protest, Vin prepared to leave. He removed the sling, and was tentative with his motions. "I'll be back. I need to see my family. .  ."

Larabee smiled, and grasped his son's forearm. "Tell them they did a fine job raising you."

Vin nodded, shook hands with the men. Buck pulled him into a bear hug. JD briefly wrapped his arms around his cousin.  "I won't be back tomorrow, but I will be back in time. I walk in two worlds and have to find my path."

"There's a place for you here." Wilmington said gruffly.

Ezra gave him a two-fingered salute, which Vin returned with a chuckle.

They watched him leave and stood in his wake for a time.

"We're complete, but I wonder. . ." Josiah rubbed his stubbly beard.

"Wonder what?" Nathan prompted.

"What if his happiness lies with the Kiowa?" Sanchez said gingerly.  "He's adopted their ways."

"He'll adapt to our world." Ezra replied confidently.

"Or walk both." Chris smiled and placed his arm around JD's shoulders. "We'll manage."

The End