Right There



Rating: PG13 (for language)

Disclaimer:  I  do not own or profit from the use of the Magnificent Seven characters. Thank you to MOG for the creation of the ATF.

Comments:  Whistle Down the Wind is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the musical of the same name, .Poem by William Yates, Art of War is written by Sun Tzo.

Gratitude Comments:  A large thank you goes to all the people who sent me kind and motivating comments during this whole story.  I wouldn't have continued without all the interest and the truly thoughtful and insightful notes. Another thank you goes to all the writers such as Marla, Tannersgirl, MOG, Kim, Shawna, Amy, Grnwoman, Maggie, Cassie, Kelly-only to name a few of the many that I admire.  They and all fic writers are truly inspirational and make me want to write the best I can.

Special thanks to Kim for her guidance and opinion. (along with  the Rowdy Bunch) What can I say about MOG? She has been beta reader, motivator, put up with numerous e-mails from me, shared opinions and been a friend. All in all through over 75 pages she has always been Right There.

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

Whistle down the wind
Let your voices carry
Drown out all the rain
Light a patch of darkness
Treacherous and scary Howl at the stars
Whisper when you're sleeping
I'll be there to hold you
I'll be there to stop
The tears and all the weeping
Make it clear and strong
So the whole night long
Every signal that you send
Until the very end
I will not abandon you
My precious friend
So try and stem the tide
Then you'll raise a banner
Send a flare up in the sky
Try to burn a torch
And try to build a bonfire
Every signal that you send
Until the very end, I'm there
So whistle down the wind
For I have always been right there
So whistle down the wind
For I have always been right there

'I understand,' those were the words he said to Buck, and truly in a way Vin Tanner did understand Wilmington's reaction.  Tanner had been going through it himself. He had felt guilty about JD being injured.  In a way it was his fault; he should have found the young agent sooner.  He should have blown his cover right there and then, told Eli to go to hell and gotten out of there. He didn't though.  At the time he thought he made the right decision.  Who would have guessed the others would start thinking the worse?  Buck was the one closest to the kid and Vin knew he went into over protective mode where JD was concerned, but the rest of the team, especially Chris, should have been a sobering influence. He felt the wind carry his long hair behind him as he drove to Nettie's ranch outside of Denver. He thought back to what had led him to take off this morning instead of going to work.

He had gone back to his apartment in Purgatorio after the hospital visit.  The kids of the building had given him a warm welcome, and had informed him of the building's activities during the last two weeks.  He promised Los Lobos, the gang he had formed, to take them out next week on an outing of their choosing. As he tossed the keys on the kitchen table, he surveyed his apartment.  Everything was neat and tidy; the kids used his apartment to do their homework, but always cleaned up before they left.  He unlocked the door to his bedroom. There he found his mail had been neatly piled on the nightstand, probably by Chris.  One pile was junk mail sent to resident and the others seemed to be bills.  Vin did his best Michael Jordan imitation and trashed the junk mail. Mindlessly, he shuffled through his bills.  He had trusted Larabee enough to give him a key to his place and to check on things while he was gone.  Shouldn't Chris have guessed this was an act of a man who trusted his friend? Trust did not come easy to Vin; he had been let down too many times before in the past.  This time he thought his confidence was returned.  They had failed him.

He took a long hot shower, not caring about getting the stitches wet, finally stepping out when the water turned cold.  He was tired, the two weeks on edge had finally catching up to him, and he fell into bed, exhausted. In the morning things would be better and he would go on like he always did.

He awoke suddenly to darkness; a glance at the clock told him it was five in the morning.  He knew what he wanted to do. He had to get away, get over it, then he could get back to work. In darkness of his room grabbed the nearest articles of clothing, and headed toward the federal building.  He didn't want to leave a voice mail or call Chris at home.  A note would be better. A note would give him the excuse to go to the office and know if he belonged there. The highway was deserted and he was at the office in fifteen minute, the cement building looked bleaker in the early morning. He parked the Jeep haphazardly in his parking space.  Cuervo came out to greet him as his foot hit the pavement.  He purred like a motor and rubbed against Vin's leg leaving his scent and marking Tanner as his human. Vin bent down to pat the cat.

"Nice to know they took care of ya," the sharpshooter said to the feline.

 He left Cuervo resting by the Jeep and made his way to the elevator.  The elevator opened to a dead office; no one was in yet.  He passed by the empty offices and cubicles, which housed his friends. Buck and JD's desks filled with little toys caught his attention. He walked straight to Chris's office.  He made quick work of the lock, and looked for some paper to write a note upon. He didn't know what to write, he saw the small, yellow,  post-it notes, and scrawled out where he would be going.   He left the building, feeling somewhat disjointed –it was as if he had never been there.

When he arrived back home he quickly tossed a few items in a well-worn duffel bag, and changed into a different shirt. Damn if he hadn't put on the bloodstained one from yesterday. He purposefully tossed it in the trash, trying too not to rehash Buck's rough  treatment of him. Downstairs, some of the kids were waiting for the school bus to pick them up,

"Are you leaving again for a long time Vin?" Asked Leticia, one of the youngest Los Lobos. The others also had concern written on their faces.

"You know I always keep my promises." He tossed his duffel bag into the rear of the Jeep. "I'll be back in plenty of time to take y'all out." He started his vehicle and waved as he pulled away from the curb.

He felt better once he left the traffic of the city behind him.  It was easier to breathe on the open road, the flat terrain reminding him of Texas. He would be arriving at Nettie's soon.  She was only two hours out of the city.  There he could make some decisions about his future.

It was the end of the day at the federal building, which housed Team Seven. Each of the members of the team had kept to themselves, busying themselves with the endless paperwork caused by the Couco bust.  Buck though,  knew the truth.  No one wanted to talk about the Vin situation.  It was bad enough when he had to pick up JD at the hospital and tell him the sharpshooter hadn't come in today.  The youngest agent lit into him. After they had gotten into the Chevy and closed the doors JD spoke again, not looking at Buck, "I don't want to go home right now."

"Kid. . ." the mustached agent started, but then gave up his protest. Buck didn't want to argue anymore. "Let's just go back to the office."

JD nodded and there was another silent ride to the federal building.  The young agent had stayed at his desk for the rest of the day, occasionally giving Buck looks of disgust.

Wilmington was up to his breaking point now.  He had fed the crap about Vin to the rest of them and they had eaten it up. He had to do something or else this team was going no where. He started with JD first.

"Hey, how about after work we go to the Saloon?"

JD shook his head.  "I'd rather not. . ."

Buck sat down on the edge of the desk. "I'm buying and I'm gonna to invite the others."

JD began to tap a pencil against his desk blotter. "I don't know."

"Look kid, I am trying to make it up to all of you." Wilmington slid off the desk and stood up, beseechingly asking his best friend for some faith.  "Give me a chance."

Dunne stopped the nervous tapping. He looked up at his roommate and nodded. Buck rewarded the young man with a grin, and moved on to his next target. If it was this hard to convince JD then Buck was not looking forward to talking to the others.

Wilmington went to Standish's office next.  Buck never understood why Ezra never decorated his area.  Buck always had to leave his mark, kind of like a  sign that read 'BUCK WILMINGTON WAS HERE.' The well-dressed man on the other hand, his office seemed to have a sign that said, 'Temporary.'

"Ez, are you doing anything tonight?"

Standish never looked up from the paper work in front of him. "Not that I am aware of Agent Wilmington."

"Do you want to join me and JD at the Saloon tonight after work?" He hated talking to people without being able to see their faces.

Ezra stopped reading, and folded his hands in front of him. "Do you believe that is wise under the circumstances?"

"Yeah, I do, we need to talk." Wilmington said as he removed all traces of his usual joviality so that Standish would know he was serious.

Ezra nodded, his green eyes blinked with understanding. "I'll see you there this evening."

Buck felt his mouth go dry. This is what begging must do to a man. He headed for the water cooler. Nathan was already there getting a cup of coffee.

Buck filled his paper cup with water. "Nate, wondering if you wouldn't mind coming to the saloon tonight?" He asked nonchalantly.

Nathan continued to stir his coffee. "Okay, Buck" He tossed the plastic spoon and left, taking his java fix back to his desk.

Wilmington was relieved that had gone easily, and crumpled the paper cup before tossing it in the closest wastebasket.  He figured Josiah would readily agree also.  He found Sanchez in his office, rearranging the sands of his Zen garden. "Josiah, I am trying to get everybody to meet at the saloon tonight-can you make it."

"Sure Buck," he used the rake and made a wavy line. "Have you asked Chris yet?"

Buck's hand went to the back of his neck where he felt the tension of the upcoming confrontation building. "I was saving him for last."

Sanchez chuckled, but continued to concentrate on his garden. "He just finished interrogating Junior." Josiah changed the position of a rock. "He brought the man to tears-I'll pray for you brother."

Buck was glad the large man was de-stressing with his garden, but Wilmington had the temptation to pick it up and throw it out the window. "Thanks Josiah, you're all heart."

Buck slowly maneuvered himself through the maze of cubicles to his leader's office. Maybe Chris had worked out some of his frustration with Dominic Junior? From the distance he saw Larabee slam the phone down.  This was not going to be easy.  Wilmington knocked and entered as usual without waiting for a reply.

"Buck," the blonde man growled, angrily typing at his computer.

"Wanted to know if you wanted to go to the saloon with the rest of the team after work?" Buck had positioned himself near the doorframe.

"Leave it alone Buck," Chris slammed his hand against the keyboard in frustration and what he felt was the futility in the Vin situation.

Wilmington moved closer to the desk, wondering if he had heard his friend correctly. "What are you saying?"

Larabee slid the keyboard back under the desk. He rubbed his eyes. He knew exactly what he was saying to Wilmington.  He knew 'The Magnificent Seven' couldn't last, something had to break them up eventually.  The back of his mind had thought they would all go down in a blaze of glory standing up for each other, but that was not going to happen.  They didn't trust Vin.  He hadn't trusted Vin.  Maybe the others didn't trust each other.  They had warned him when he made up a team of mostly loners. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy he had helped along.  What the f*** was his problem, not trusting a member of his own team.  "I don't know if this can be fixed or if I or the rest of them really want to fix it." Sighing, he told Buck what was on his mind, "Maybe it's time to move on."

"Dammit Chris!" Buck bellowed in outrage and then lowered his voice as he noticed some of the office personnel had heard the outburst and were staring. "We work well together! Just come to the saloon."

Larabee looked past Wilmington through the glass of his office to the outside area. If he were Tanner he would never forgive his so-called 'best friend.' "Maybe," was his one word answer.

Buck gave his friend a grin. "I'll take maybe." He left before the blonde leader changed his mind to 'no.' He was buttoning his shirt as they waited for the requisite wheelchair to come. "Buck! What the hell happened?"

Wilmington motioned with his hands for JD to calm down. "Easy kid, or else they are not going to let you go home."

JD got off the bed and began to pace. "I'm fine! It was just a stupid concussion." He stopped pacing and glared at Buck. "Damn, your apology must have sucked."

At that point a young nurse came in with the wheelchair. Buck ignored the pretty girl. "It could have been better-I just thought. . . "

JD cut him off and stepped into the wheelchair. "Yeah, Buck, whatever." The ride to the exit was quiet.

Vin was on the dirt road which lead to Nettie Wells's ranch, the dust from the dry road left a brown cloud in his wake. He had known Nettie for over twelve years.  He had first met her when he had run away from the latest hellhole the foster care system in Texas had placed him in.  He was fifteen and had made his way up to Colorado and ended up in Purgatorio. The farthest place he could get to with no money and a backpack of memories.  Living on the street had been hard, especially since he had promised his mother to live up to his family name.

"Remember you're a Tanner," she had whispered to him on her deathbed.

He knew he had to make his way out of Purgatorio one way or another or end up dead.  He didn't care for school much, he had found learning very difficult, but he knew he needed to have some sort of education if he was going to live up to his mother's hopes.  He ended up enrolling in the nearest school.  The office had signed him up surprised someone wanted to have an education at that particular high school, which had turned into a pseudo juvenile detention center over the years. Graffiti covered the hallways, bars on the windows and children inside living in abject poverty with violent tendencies. On the first day he met Ms. Nettie Wells, his eleventh grade English teacher.

She was a stern woman with steel gray hair.  Her class of street savvy gang members  was silent as Vin came in late.

"Name? Young man," she said glaring at him through steel rimmed glasses.

"Vin Tanner ma'am, I just started today." He said as he made his way to one of the desks at the back of the room.

"You have detention Mister Tanner," she said coldly,  "after school."

Vin's mouth just gaped open.  He blushed at being singled out, hoping his longish hair had covered his embarrassment. He responded politely to the older woman, "Yes ma'am, I'll try better next time."

Ms Nettie turned her attention back to the rest of the class. It was not an auspicious start. Vin made it to class on time everyday, hunching down in his seat.  He did not want to incur the wrath of his English teacher. This class was the only peaceful time of his day. His other classes were boisterous and filled with hostile kids biding their time until there was something better for them to do.  Ms Nettie was not afraid to stand up to the gang members in her class, which earned her their respect.  It probably helped that there was a rumor she owned a shotgun and wasn't afraid to use it.

English class became his favorite, especially when Ms Nettie recited poetry.  He just like to listen to his teacher's voice recite the words. Maybe it was the way she said them, but poetry made him think of his mother.

One day she handed him back his latest test, another fifty.  He had learned the material.  He was able to memorize everything, but there was not enough time for him to complete  the test.  She bent down to him as she handed him the paper.

"See me after school today," she whispered so the other students would not hear.

He nodded.  He knew what was going to happen, he was going to be kicked out of school. His mother would be so disappointed in him.  With his head bowed down he went to see Ms Nettie. He had been dreading this moment all day.  She was correcting papers, and looked up to find Vin standing there.

"You sure know how to sneak up on a person," she smiled at him, her smooth face showing some wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.

"Sorry ma'am," he mumbled uneasily as he shifted from one foot to another.

"Sit down Vin," she said to the sullen boy who slid into the desk in front of her. "Vin have you ever heard about something called dyslexia?"

He shook his head.

"It's when people get a little confused on their letters." Ms Nettie took off her glasses, and folded them. "People with dyslexia aren't stupid, actually they are usually really smart." She smiled at him reassuringly. "Does that happen to you Vin?"

He looked at the door ready to run out of the room.  No one had ever offered to help Vin. He had learned long ago to only depend on himself.  He glared at Ms Nettie wondering if he could trust her.

"I can help you, if you want. No one would have to know, and you would do better in school." She said, pausing, giving him time to think.

She had said all the right things, which put him at ease. "Yes'm, I would surely like that."

Ms Nettie went back to correcting her papers. "Okay, after school ever day."

Nettie was gardening when she saw her boy's Jeep, coming up the drive.  She had taken up gardening since she had retired from being a teacher in Purgatorio. She missed teaching, but there was a mandatory retirement age in the district. After her husband died she wanted to work with children, and she never saw children more in need than those living in the worst section of Denver. She was scared many times by her students, but the fear would ebb as she saw she made a difference. Many of her former students had gone to college and found a better life.

She saw the life-weary man get out of his car and wave to her.  The same weariness she remembered when he had joined her class all those years ago. She had been curious to meet the young man who had enrolled himself in school.  She had been strict with him, like her other students, though she felt a soft spot for  the boy when she saw the way he would close his eyes as she read poetry. Sometimes she had found herself picking pieces especially for him. She still remembered the Yeats poem, which made her think of the young man.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

She had wondered, what were Vin Tanner's dreams? It had taken her awhile to figure out he had a learning disability.  Those deep blue eyes seemed to be all knowing in the ways of the world.  She was relieved when he had accepted her help. She laughed to herself as she remembered his determination in paying her back.

She had told him about the small ranch she owned, and one day she found the young man on her doorstep as she went to get the morning paper from her stoop. She didn't know how he had managed to find the place, let alone get to it.

"Good morning Vin.  What brings you here?" She had said trying to hide the surprise in her voice at finding him there, and wondering at the resourcefulness of this boy.

"I was figurin' you could use a little help around here." He gestured to the ranch, which had seen better days. Nettie just didn't have enough time to tend to the ranch the way it needed to be tended.  She did her best, but many jobs had been left undone.

She knew what this boy was trying to do. She sat down beside him. "I'm a teacher Vin, you don't owe me anything."

He shook his head vehemently.  His brown tangled curls bouncing around his face. "No, ma'am a Tanner is not beholdin' to anyone."

She knew stubbornness when she saw it. "Well, if you are going to be doing some work, I think you'll be needing a fortifying breakfast." She opened the screen door, and gestured for him to come in. "How do pancakes sound?"

She had fed him and he had put in a full day's work. On almost every weekend she would find him on her doorstep.  She found out later he would hitch hike his way out there and then walk 2 miles to her home. Nettie would drive him home, not exactly home, but to the city limits of Purgatorio.  Many times she was able to convince him to spend the weekend at her house.  But, other times he said he was needed and couldn't stay.  Those times she would be scared until Monday when she would see Vin's face, sometimes sporting bruises, among her third period class.   She wanted to do so much more for him, but he wouldn't hear of it-too proud at 16.

Over two years Vin shared a bit of himself with Nettie. She knew about his mother and how his father had left them.  There was no bitterness in his voice when he had told her of how cruel fate had been to a young boy, just acceptance and determination to do better.  She was sad when she learned he had decided to join the military after graduating, but she knew it was for the best.  He would have more opportunities available to him.  From time to time she would get a postcard from him, hastily scrawled out without sharing anything about himself just the words ‘I’m fine.’

When he finished his time in the service she again found him on her doorstep. They warmly hugged-the first time she could think of that she touched him in such an emotional way.  By then Casey, her niece, had come to live with her. He had been hesitant around her that day, but little Casey was in awe of the man in the uniform with the bright buttons.

He seemed so lost standing there in her parlor, his blue eyes darting, his body language giving off signals of nervousness and uncertainty as he sipped a glass of lemonade, the condensation from the glass dripping off his knuckles.  He spent the night, but the next day he was gone again.  She didn’t hear from him for over a year.  He was never far from her thoughts, and then she received a typed letter in her mailbox.

Dear Ms. Nettie,

I think of you often, and how I just left.  I am fine. Just felt the walls were closing in and needed space. I am glad your niece is with you and you can take care of each other.

I drifted for awhile and then ended up on a reservation. I spent some time with the people of the Cherokee  Nation.  I am going to a small college and majoring in criminal justice. I figured I should use the GI Bill since they used me.

I’ll try to keep in touch when I can.


After he graduated he returned to Purgatorio.  Nettie was glad to see Vin had taken up where she had left off and was helping the community too. Lord knew they needed a savior like Vin Tanner. He became a bounty hunter. Nettie didn’t really approve, but Vin had explained he felt he couldn’t handle a job with rules and someone else controlling him.  She knew it was all an excuse. Vin Tanner wanted to be alone.

She watched as he parked the well-used Jeep, and went into the barn to check on his horses, Peso and Bounty. He boarded the horses with her in exchange for upkeep of the ranch, although he did more in work than the upkeep was worth.  Many times he even dragged his friends from work to help out. She found them to be a friendly bunch, and young JD had started to date her niece Casey.

She squinted, as she looked up, the sun in her eyes. Her guest was standing above her.
"Vin, what are you doing here?" She placed the spade in the ground, and brushed the dirt off her gardening gloves.

He placed his beat up hat on his head, the one he kept in the barn, as he answered. "Just came to check on things."

Nettie shaded her eyes with her hand. "Your friend Chris came by a couple of times to check on Peso and Bounty."

"Mighty kind of him," he said looking around at what needed to be done at the ranch today, and not meeting her sharp eyes.

"You're playing hooky aren't you?" She said with the same tone of voice she used when someone had been tardy for her class.

Vin ignored her comment. "I'm going to fix some of the fencing that's out on…."

She stood up and shook her head. "Boy, remember, thinking about your pain only makes it worse." She didn’t want to see him tear himself up or wallow in guilt or whatever emotion had been stirred up in him.

"I know Ms. Nettie," he said as he walked back to the red barn.

She watched the retreating back of the man that had become like a son to her. 'What did you boys do to my Vin?'

Chris Larabee quickly maneuvered his Dodge Ram into the available parking space in front of the saloon. He threw the vehicle into park and pulled his black baseball cap down lower over his eyes as he entered the dive his team had designated as their place.  It was a quiet night, but there was still the murmuring of people talking at other tables-except the one in the corner, which seemed to exude a silent hostility among the five men seated there.  Chris walked past the bar, harshly lit by the track lighting above and gestured to Inez for his usual.  One shot-everything came down to one shot. One shot of a bullet could end your life and one shot of whiskey could make you sit with a team of men knowing it all was falling apart. Larabee made his way to the back and slipped in to his usual chair.  An empty seat was next to him,  "Are we going to analyze this like a bunch of women?" He said disgustingly.  All this talking was not going to bring Vin back.  It was just going to throw salt into open sores.

"Chris, glad you could join us," Buck smiled, and kept that smile plastered on his face as Inez deposited the shot of whiskey before the blonde. Two pitchers of beer lay on the well-worn table, one was still filled, the other half empty and the glasses in front of each man had hardly been touched.

"Don't know why I am here." He said as he downed the shot of whiskey. "We shit on him.  The man is supposed to be like a brother to us and we  . . "

Ezra tapped his ring against the table listening to its staccato rhythm. "Yes we know, as you eloquently said we shit on him. How can we repair the damage?"

JD took a swallow of beer, and wiped the foam from his upper lip. "I didn't shit on him. I was unconscious." He looked at all of them.  "You guys dug the hole all by yourself."

Chris looked at the young agent and wondered if it had been anyone other than the young innocent one would this had even happened? But his smugness was beginning to grate on Larabee.  On Buck too, Chris saw the flare in Wilmington’s eyes and knew his friend had reached his breaking point on this guilt trip the kid was putting him through. "Okay Junior you can stop making us feeling worse any time now.  This is your fault anyway."

"My fault?" JD slapped his hand on his forehead and winced in pain as he made contact with the bandage. "Hello," he waved his hand in front of Buck. "I was unconscious when you guys started to have all these delusions."

Larabee’s usually reserved undercover agent added fuel to the fire, obviously getting frustrated that this meeting was leading no where. "Yes, but your bleeding, seemingly dead form sent Agent Wilmington into an uncontrollable diatribe against Agent Tanner." Ezra said harshly.

"Yes! I did it." Buck raised his voice and poked himself in the chest and rising from his chair. "I'll take all the blame, but I didn't hear you all piping in to save Vin's name."

Chris glared at the three men boring a hole into their minds that was telling them to stop making a scene.  Not everyone in the bar needed to know they were a bunch of idiots. They quieted down and Wilmington sat down dejectedly in his seat.

Slowly and menacingly the leader said his peace, “My team-My fault. This would have never happened if I hadn't let JD go in to check on Vin." That is where the problem started with his stupidity. A little over aggressiveness and cockiness and life had a way of putting you back into your place or worse.

Josiah pulled his chair in closer to the table. "Brothers we are not getting anywhere here."

“Ah the voice of reason,” Ezra flippantly commented as his seat scraped against the greasy floor and he got up to leave.

Nathan grabbed the undercover agent's arm. "He just needs time. He'll come back –right?" His rich dark eyes looked at the others for confirmation and hope. Standish returned to his seat albeit with a frown on his face.

"We are an unconventional group." Chris had brought them together thinking the seven men would be an incredible law enforcement force able to over come each of their individual weaknesses.  "In all our cockiness we forget there had to be trust," Chris signaled to Inez to bring him another shot. Again there was silence among the six.

"We can sit here looking at each other or we can try to make things right." Josiah stated trying be a voice of reason amongst the dejected group of men.

"What do you want to do, ambush him at Nettie's?" Buck twitched an eyebrow up trying to gage the reaction of the others.

Inez sauntered over another shot, and the table let the conversation drop until she left. "Not a good idea.  He doesn't like to talk." Chris said as he downed the shot, "remember?"

Wilmington frowned as he saw Larabee take another drink. "Yeah, that is the boy's problem." Buck shook his head at how unlike himself Vin was, "Hell if he talked more it would never had happened."

JD gave Buck a look that said, 'I can't believe you just said that!"

"What?" Buck said puzzled by the expression he read in the young agent's face.

Ezra's patience with JD and Buck's antics was wearing thin, "You just passed the blame to the victim."

"Fine, fine, just beat up on Buck!" Wilmington crossed his arms and slid down further in his cane back chair.

Ezra turned to his leader, looking for answers from the man who was supposed to know Vin the best.  "So we are just going to wait for our wayward comrade to return to his place of employment?"

"Yep, he'll come back." Larabee turned the shot glasses over. Chris knew he would comeback, not for them, but because he needed a job.  The question was how long he would stay, and how long it would take for the team to self-destruct. “We are going to put this behind us and get back to work and do a wait and see. Agreed?"

They all nodded in agreement. The team seemingly relaxed, believing it was going to be business as usual and they would have a chance to make things right with Vin. The same trust they did not give Vin they gave whole-heartedly to Chris. Larabee wanted to laugh, they believed a man who had to drink two shots to actually start deluding himself that maybe Vin would listen to them and accept their apologies.

"Better practice apologizing and groveling Brothers." Josiah said sagely finally taking a drink from the mug in front of him.

Nettie heard the water streaming in the shower.  The sun had just come up, many mornings Nettie had seen it come over the horizon, as she had gotten older sleep seemed more allusive.  Vin was getting an early start.  He had mentioned last night he was going out to mend some fences along the perimeter of the ranch.  She slipped on her bathrobe and found her slippers against the nightstand. Making her way to the kitchen she found her cast iron frying pan and started the sausage and eggs.  Vin smiled as he entered the kitchen, the smell of breakfast cooking had made its way through the house.  He reached for a plate, and poured himself a cup of coffee. Nettie could see his hair was still wet and leaving a spot on his untucked twill shirt.  She scooped some eggs and sausage on to his plate.  He sat down at the old oak kitchen table.  Nettie rested against the white formica counter and sipped her coffee. She watched him eat heartily as if he had nothing on his mind except for breakfast. "I let you stew yesterday. Do you want to talk?" She said as Vin took his last bite.

"Nope, ain’t nothing you can do," he said as he drained the cup of coffee. “It’s work related, between the team and me.”

She shook her head as he deposited the plate in the sink.  “You’d be surprised at what an old gal like me can do.”

“I’ll be gone awhile, probably be back around dinner.” He said as he exited the back screen door, ignoring what she had said.

Nettie washed the plate, and dried it roughly with the blue checked cotton cloth. She was going to get to the bottom of this, and she knew the person to start with was Chris Larabee.  She didn’t even finish the thought when the phone began squealing.  Who would be calling at 5:30 in the morning? She rushed to the phone hoping it wasn’t bad news.

 “Hello,” she practically yelled into the phone.

“Ms. Nettie, it's Chris Larabee. I’m sorry to be bothering you so early in the morning,” said the voice on the other end of the receiver.

“You should be sorry Mister Larabee,” the older woman sank down into the spindle back chair, which was by the phone.  “You gave me quite a start."

“Yes, I’m sorry, but I was hoping to speak to Vin.” Chris replied to her all business like.

“He’s not here." Her previous experience with Larabee had told her this was a man with many demons, much like Vin in that both would need some prodding from Nettie to work this out.   "He went out to mend some fences.”

There was a pause, “Okay, if you could. . .”

Nettie pushed forward, “I’m thinking you need to mend a few yourself.” She heard only breathing coming through the phone. Vin had not told her what had sent him to the ranch, and knowing Larabee he wasn't going to tell her either. Chris was more tightlipped than Vin.  In fact most of what she knew about Mister Larabee was from Casey.  JD liked to talk about his friends.  “I don't know what's going on, but I do know my boy isn't happy."

"Ms. Nettie, I'm sorry to have bothered you."

“Too late, I am bothered, but you can make it up to me."

"And how can I do that?"

"Come to my place tonight for dinner and talk to Vin.” She didn't wait for his reply as she hung up the phone.  Nettie was going to call the shots now.

She quickly took a shower feeling refreshed and alert, not in all part from the shower.  What she missed most of all about being a teacher was the sense of being needed. There was nothing like involving yourself with children, even when they believed they were mature men.  The phone rang again.

“Hi, Ms. Nettie,” the former teacher recognized the voice immediately as JD.

Chuckling Nettie poked fun at the young man. “JD, you know better than myself that Casey is not here. In fact, how is my niece? I believe you spend more time with her than I do.”

“Fine, fine," he replied.  His voice went an octave higher, "actually I was wondering if Vin was around.”

“He’s busy right now," she mentally placed a check by his name. "Come by for dinner tonight. He’ll be happy to see you.” The young man agreed unhesitantly.  Nettie went to take the large roast out of the freezer, looked like the team was going to come for dinner.

Nettie went about doing her chores, keeping the portable phone Vin had given her in her apron pocket. Throughout the morning the phone calls came in.  The older woman had the feeling that no one on the team knew the other was calling.  She kept up the pretense. They would all find out soon enough. Nettie had just finished feeding the chickens when Nathan called.  The last time he had visited he had spoken about herbal remedies.  Nettie had complained about her sleeping habits.

"How's the insomnia Ms. Nettie?"

His concern for her touched her.  She didn't want Vin to lose these friends over some foolish incident of male stubbornness and pride. In her experience that is what it always seemed to boil down to. “I can’t seem to find that valerian herb you suggested I take for my insomnia.”

"I'll send some to you." She could hear him writing a note to remind himself later. "I was wondering if I could speak to Vin?"

She smiled, three down and three to go. “Why don’t you bring it over tonight say around dinner time and you can see Vin too.”

She was preparing the roast when Josiah's timbered voice greeted her next. For the larger man she went straight to the stomach.

“I’m making my pot roast tonight.  It’ll be too much for Vin and myself. Why don’t you come over?”

“Why ma’am I have never turned down a fine meal.” Nettie shook her head; you had to love a man who had meat on his bones.  She was always trying to fatten up Vin, but she had yet to be successful. She whistled a tune as she rubbed the herbs into the meat.  Buck would be calling anytime now.

She almost didn't recognize Buck Wilmington's voice on the phone.  He sounded different.

“Ms. Nettie, how are you?”

“Fine Buck, life with JD wearing you down?” She said jokingly.  She knew from Casey Buck loved that boy like a brother.

“No, I just have some business with Vin.  Is he around?” Wilmington said seriously, no hint of his usual joviality.

Nettie frowned in puzzlement over the mustached agent's tone. "No, Buck he went out.  He’ll be back later though."

"Is Vin in a good mood?"

"I don't know Buck, something seems to be bothering him."  She paused as if she just came up with the idea. "If you want to speak to him in private why don’t you come for dinner?”

“My last meal before I lose my teeth,” Buck mumbled.

Nettie was unable to make out all the words. “Excuse me Buck. I didn’t hear you.”

“Thank you Ms. Nettie.  I’ll see you tonight.” She hung up the phone. Only one more left.

It was late in the afternoon when she received the last phone call. From what Vin had told her about Ezra Standish, she had expected it. He was constantly late for work. She had never met the reportedly well-dressed man, or as Casey had said, 'fashion plate.'  She answered the phone on the second ring.

“Mrs. Wells, unfortunately I have not had the pleasure of your acquaintance as of yet . . .” She heard the southern gentleman say.

“You must be Ezra Standish," she exclaimed and heard a pause on the receiver. She had caught him by surprise.

“Well, yes, I am," he replied cordially. "I was calling to inquire about Agent Tanner.”

“He’s not here," this was the only man of the team she had not met.  Vin had invited many times, but he always made an excuse.  "I am curious Mister Standish, why haven’t you come to the ranch.  I know Vin has invited you on many occasions.”

“Madam, honestly since moving to this section of the country I find myself caught up in taking in the beauty of Denver. In addition my free time is lacking and there have been times when . . .  "

Nettie interrupted Ezra's speech.  Vin was right, he was a talker and he had the worst excuses. “So it has nothing to do with my cooking?”

“No Madam, I have never tried your cooking.”

“Well, you will tonight.  I guess I get to make your acquaintance after all.” Nettie smiled as she hung up the phone.  That was all of them.

The roast was cooking and the potatoes boiling.  Dinner would be ready on time. Nettie snapped the table cloth over the table.  She still had no idea of what had caused the split between the team, and Vin was not going to like coming back to find the six men at the kitchen table. She began to place a plate by each chair. This was her home and just like in her classroom, she was going to be respected. These boys were going to solve their problem tonight.

The sun was setting, filling the sky with reds, purples and oranges stretching wide over the horizon. Normally Vin would have enjoyed the wide-open space and the time on his own.  Today though he was busy.  He had fixed all of the fencing, replaced stakes and barbed wire where necessary, taking his time with the task, concentrating on clipping the wire carefully and meticulously so as not to have to spend time thinking about the team. Instead while he worked, his mind drifted to when he had first learned about ranching.  His mother had passed away,  and immediately social services swooped down and placed him in a foster home.  He had been placed with an elderly couple.  The old man, Jack needed a hand around the ranch and the elderly woman, Beverly thought instead of hiring someone, they might as well take in a foster child and be paid.  He had stayed there for four years.  He slipped through the cracks of the Texas DSS.  The old man had taught him about horses and maintaining a ranch.  It was hard work, especially for a six-year old, but Vin found out he liked being around the horses. When Jack died, Beverly decided to sell the ranch to a commercial developer and buy a condo.  She had no use for Vin and called social services to take him away.

Tanner looked back at the last post he had put in, and slipped into his jacket, which he had rested against the saddle.  He took off his tan leather work gloves and slapped them against his leg to remove any residual dust before placing them into his pocket.  He mounted Bounty and urged the horse into a trot. He was enjoying the wind going past him and pushing his suede jacket closer against his body, the closeness of the fabric providing some extra warmth. The only reminder of what had occurred of late was the stitches.  They had started to itch and mentally Vin noted he had to remove them in a couple of days. He let his mind pull away from the present-he didn't want to think about them; instead he allowed it to wander again among his remembrances.

As a child, one of the few memories of his mother was a game they used to play.  She would start with I remember, and it would lead to humorous antecdotes of what happened during the week.  Vin smiled at the memory of his mother laughing so hard tears would stream down her cheeks. Tonight though, when he remembered, he didn’t laugh.

I remember cool nights on the swing, sitting on your lap and then hot tears streaming down as I held your cold, lifeless hand in the hospital.

I remember figuring out it was better when the foster families ignored you then when they paid attention.

I remember silently killing for my country and finding  peace within my country.

I remember  finding a place I thought where I belonged and finding that I was not right there either.

He felt his anger rise, crashing him into the present.  He was backed into a corner. He needed a paycheck so he had to go back to work.  Things though, were going to be different.  He'd have to watch his own back and not get too close. He made this resolution to himself. He was not going to get hurt again.

The lights of the white ranch house were beckoning. He smiled as he thought of Nettie Wells.  Nettie's home represented to him what he most craved-a place where he was wanted. She was always there. She had never turned him away.  She had never said he wasn’t wanted.

He dismounted and led Bounty into the barn.. The smell of the fresh hay tickled Vin's nose. The ranch was too much for just him alone to take care of, so he had hired, Pedro to come in a couple of times a week to take care of things. Vin only had so much time between his job, Purgatorio and the ranch.

He slipped the bridle and bit from the horse's mouth, and then went to take off the splint boots.  Lastly he uncinched the saddle and brought it to the tack room, locking the small room before returning to Bounty to brush down his coat. Once he was finished he placed the horse in its stall.  The horse carefully prodded its hooves in the soft sawdust.  Vin slipped the door closed and wished Bounty a goodnight. As he left he gave his other horse, Peso a quick pat before heading to the house.  He went through the back door, which led into the kitchen.  He didn't notice Nettie's  front yard had turned into a parking garage.

The screen door closed with a clatter behind him. He smiled and his mouth watered as he smelled the aroma coming from the kitchen. "Nettie, I can smell your pot roast.  I am gonna clean up first before I sit down with ya." He was dusty and sweaty and smelled of earth.  A hot shower suddenly seemed the most important thing to do.

 He stopped dead in his tracks, scuffing the linoleum floor with his boots as he saw the sight in front of him.

"Vin, look who's come for dinner," Nettie said happily.

Vin quickly shut his mouth, which had fallen open. He narrowed his eyes as he saw the six men of the team standing around Nettie’s kitchen table.

The older woman still had a fake smile plastered on her face.  She could also feel the tension in the room. “Vin Tanner you will wipe that look off of your face right now in my house.” She reached out and moved his chin so that he was looking right into her eyes instead of making the men in her kitchen more uncomfortable than they already were.   "I can have any guests I want to and you will show respect Mister Tanner.”

Chris, his so called best friend, was first to speak among the men. “Vin we didn’t realize we were all going to be here.” He didn’t look at Vin; instead he grasped on to the chair in front of him and looked straight ahead.

Ezra spoke up next, offering an explanation.  He looked out of place in his latest black designer suit among the vintage kitchen. "Let’s see, Buck was supposed to be going out with his latest paramour, JD was going out with Casey, Chris was working late, Nathan was seeing Rain and Josiah was meditating."  He looked at each man shaking his head at their poor excuses.

"What about you?" JD said in exasperation. "You said you were going to a show."

Ezra opened his arms wide. “And aren’t I? This is quite a show.”

In a carefully measured voice that denied the anger the sharpshooter felt at having his sanctuary interrupted he turned to his former teacher. "Ms Nettie would you mind if we," he gestured to the men with a nod of his head,  "talked outside?"

"No, Vin, I am not going to stop you from going outside.” She said, a little dejected that her plan was not working properly.

The men all nodded and filed out the front door through the living room.  Vin hung back and watched the others leave, he started to exit when he felt something grip his arm.  He looked down to see Nettie's wizened hand upon his dusty suede jacket.

"Boy, everything you want is right there if you give them a chance," she said with an air of confidence.  Tanner gritted his teeth.  He realized Nettie was only looking out for him, but he didn't want to deal with these men. He had come to some conclusions while he was riding and he was going to keep the promises he had made to himself. Vin kissed Nettie's cheek to show her she was forgiven for meddling and went out the door.

All the cars were in the front and the owners of the vehicles were gathered near Ezra's Jaguar, the last car in the row.  They had formed a semi-circle waiting for him to complete it.  Vin stuffed his hand in his pockets and went over, standing in front of them, but far enough away so that the circle remained incomplete.

Chris stepped forward, the wind carrying his blonde hair so it blew around his face. “Vin, I'm sorry, as team leader. . .”

Vin rubbed his temple, already frustrated by the men in front of him. They were friggin going to try to be nice to him.  After all the sh** that they rained down on him.  Damn he was pissed.  “A Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom,"

"Sincerity," Nathan said without hesitation looking straight at Tanner.

"Benevolence," Josiah continued.

"Courage," Buck whispered.  JD looked at him strangely.

"And strictness," finished Ezra.

“What are you all talking about?” JD said, glancing around at all the men who looked at each other silently surprised.

“The Art of War by Sun Tzo, the oldest military strategist.“ Ezra explained to the young agent. "The discussion, it seems, has turned to literature."

Chris looked furious.  He knew he had just been insulted. "So by everyone's standards I suck at my job," he spat out.  "Is that pretty much it, Vin?"  The sharpshooter stayed silent, happy to finally get someone other than himself riled up. Chris took a step backward into line with the other men. He closed his eyes as he tried to control himself. "This isn't why we came."

Ezra tried his own brand of kindness. He put his hands out as if he was a greedy televangilist waiting for God to drop a stack of Ben Franklins in his awaiting arms. "Agent Tanner please be assured we did not have malicious intentions.”

"What am I supposed to think-they were honorable? 'Honorable,' that's your kind of f***in fancy word." He laughed and pointed at Wilmington. "Buck was going to watch those guys kill me! He was going to put me in a truck with the same men I took down."  Vin didn't know who to blame. Chris, for stupidly handing him over to Buck or Wilmington. At that moment Buck and Eli Guiseppe were tied for the title 'homicidal idiot'. "That would have been 'quite a show,'" Tanner said using the same words Ezra had used moments before. This was getting no where, Vin felt the need to explode and lash out- he really only wanted to know one thing.  He took his hands out of his pockets.  "Do you trust me?"  No one answered right away, Vin exhaled a frustrated breath.

"Yes, I trust you with my life-hell you saved my life." Nathan finally said. He waited to see if Vin was going to interrupt him. "I just don't know what to say to make you believe it."

Josiah started preaching, "We can't go back in time to change anything, Brother.  I wish we could.  We can ask for a new start though and another chance?" Where were the crows when you needed them to crap on someone.  Another chance?  Vin Tanner was not going to give anyone a second chance. He had learned that lesson –how many times did he change fosters homes before he figured out the foster families could give a  sh** or that the military would hang you out to dry for their own gain.

JD stepped forward and walked to where Vin was standing, "Look Vin I know they suck and they royally screwed up, but they are trying." The rest of the team were going to  give JD a lot of ribbing for sharing those thoughts. Well at least he could say he had saved JD's life-one good thing  had come out of the whole  Cuoco family fiasco.

"Kid, they ain't trying.  They are giving my f***in eulogy." Vin starting walking to the house, past Chris who was about to say something to try and prove he trusted Vin.  It wasn't going to work, on his gravestone he didn't want it to say-'Vin Tanner, a stupid sh** who gave everyone a chance to walk all over him.'

"You’re a coward Vin Tanner," Buck yelled at the retreating agent. "We are not leaving you.  You walked away and we found you.  We are not letting you leave, but I guess you are taking the chicken’s way out and just up and leavin."

Vin turned squarely on his heel. Who the hell did this guy think he was? With a primal yell he ran at Buck taking the larger man down with a football tackle aimed at his knees. But instead of letting Wilmington slump down to the ground Vin twisted his hand into Buck's latest tie-died shirt, so that with his right hand he was holding the mustached agent up.  His left hand was free and all the malice he had been feeling toward Buck Wilmington came crashing into the older agent's chin with a left hook, which lifted Buck off the ground.  Vin let his right hand let go as if he was holding garbage and watched as Buck landed in the dirt.

Vin stormed past the team noticing how they had remained silent during the attack. Chris and Josiah were holding a shocked JD back.

He put one foot in front  of the other and stopped at the barn. He let  his head fall against the clapboard structure.  The pounding in his head kept the same rhythm as the thumping in his left hand. Damn when did I start to lose control? He looked at his left hand, and opened it and closed it, feeling the pain spiraling through his nerves. He lay it flat against the barn stretching the sore knuckles. The voice inside of him was telling him to run away-far away. He would leave, it was easier. Easier. .  .It was the coward's way out.

He looked up to the night sky.  The stars were squinting at him. He slowed down the thoughts running through his head and sighed. That sh** head Buck was right. He looked back at the six men he had come to know.  They hadn't left him alone.  They were still there, Buck was standing up, leaning against JD. They could have gotten in their cars and left, but they hadn't.  They were right there, waiting and hoping for a second chance from the sharpshooter.

God, he needed a drink. He swallowed-his pride and his anger. They were going to have to earn his trust. He was only going to give them a chance. Emily Tanner did not raise a coward. She would have wanted him to be a man who was willing to take risks.  This was as good a time as any to show some courage and the team wanted him around. He was tired of running away, searching for something better.  Maybe this was the best it got-a place where men were willing to fight to have him stick around for awhile.

He strode back to where they were still waiting for him. JD eyed Vin leerily, and put his arm around Buck's shoulder. "I hope I ain't making the biggest mistake of my life."  They had been caught off guard by his statement.

"What are you saying?" Chris asked, with hope and doubt intermingled in his voice.

"I'm not apologizing," he looked at Buck, "especially to you –you deserved it. But, I'm giving you all another chance." They all smiled, relief evident in their faces. They had received an opportunity to prove their loyalty. It was a start.

"I'm not complaining, Vin," Wilmington left JD's side and stuck out his hand, which Tanner quickly grasped with both hands.

"Nettie's epicurean delight  is still waiting for us," Ezra said leading Josiah and Nathan back to the walkway to the house.  As each man passed they offered a light slap to Vin's shoulder or a nudge to his arm as a form of 'welcome back.'

"I 'm not going to be able to eat it," Buck said as he tentatively moved his jaw around.

Suddenly Chris called out the word, "Time."

"A record Agent Wilmington," Ezra shot back. "You did not complain for exactly 30 seconds.

They were coming back into the house.  From her spot at the window Nettie took in the casually exchanged physicalities. She let the curtain drop back and shuffled into the kitchen, she didn't want them to know she had been eavesdropping on the event unfolding in her front yard.

Men - they beat each other up and then make up like nothing happened.  But Nettie couldn't complain she was happy Vin had worked out some sort of truce with himself and the others.  Everything was right there at Nettie's house.

The End