Weaving: Prophecy or Chance

by Farad

Main characters: Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, Buck, JD, Mary Travis

Pairing: Chris/Mary implied, Chris/Vin implied

Summary: Josiah, Vin, and Nathan take Moseley to Judge Travis.

Author's note 1.: This is in response to:

Author's Note 2.: Despite myself, I'm establishing a sub-universe of my own, as it were - this story is not the only one I'm working on at the moment, and all three have the subtext of Chris and Vin trying to figure out their relationship around the demands of others. Also, all of the stories I'm working on in this context seem to be 'missing scenes' or 'interludes' between episodes - not surprisingly, the vignette that has spawned this 'thing that keeps growing' starts in the immediate aftermath of "Wagon Train, part 2"; I was almost asleep one night recently when Chris's voice echoed through my head with the line, "Nice night for a swim. Maybe wash her stink off ya." I suspect you can figure out the mood.

Deuteronomy 22:20-1 "If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil that is among you."

Josiah looked up, across the dusty expanse of ground that passed for the roadway on this end of town, past the building that faced his small church. He'd read the words many time, but now, for some reason, they struck him more deeply than before.

Probably because of the events of the past few days, his time with Kojee, the discussions of father-son relationships. The murder of Claire Moseley by her own father.

Father-daughter relationships, as well, he mused, trying not to compare Claire - or her situation, to that of Hannah, his own sister. But the similarities were too close. And for a moment, he wondered if perhaps Claire wasn't the more fortunate of the two of them.

His mind wandered on to Rafe, Claire's brother, but before he could make any comparisons between the sons of missionaries, movement in his peripheral vision drew his attention.

"J'siah," the newcomer drawled softly as he approached.

"Vin," Josiah smiled, looking up to meet the other man's eyes. "What brings you to the house of the Lord on such a fine evening?"

Vin grinned, a fleeting expression that Josiah coveted. It seemed even briefer than usual though, and in its wake, the young man's gaze darkened quickly. "Chris got a telegram from Judge Travis. You, me, an' Nathan need to take Moseley over to Red Fork. The Judge wants to hear our side of things, and Chris thinks that Rafe might make some trouble on the trail."

Josiah shook his head. "That boy's long gone," he sighed, turning his gaze back to the landscape. Unconsciously, he pulled at the slender ribbon attached to his worn Bible, placing it gently between the pages he had been reading and closed the book. "The only trouble he'll make is for himself."

Vin came to a stop at the stair railing, settling into his trademark lean. "Seems like you know a thing or two about 'im," he commented casually.

Josiah grinned. How like Vin, to ask a question without asking. If ever someone embodied The Golden Rule, it would be Vin Tanner. "Let's just say I've walked in his shoes, in a manner of speaking. Being a missionary's boy ain't all you think it is."

A soft chuff of breath bespoke Vin's amusement. "Don't reckon I'd be able to think on it much at all," he mused. "I ain't much for keepin' company with preachin' folk - well, 'cept you."

Josiah nodded, acknowledging the compliment. "Not all of us are bad," he said. "Preachers, that is. Missionaries, though . . . Well, it takes a different kind of man to choose that path."

Vin shifted slightly, putting more of his weight on the rail. "From what I've seen, takes a man who's damned sure of hisself and his thinkin'." His voice was as casual as it had been all along, but there was a flatness in it now.

"That it does," Josiah agreed, "that it does." He stood, stretching, feeling a tension and tiredness. "So when are we leaving? Not before tomorrow, I hope."

Vin crooked his lips, looking up. "First light, if you and Nathan are up fer it. Might be a bit chilly at first, but I figure, if we ride hard, we can make it in two days. I'd just as soon git this over an' git back. Don't relish wastin' a lot a' time on it."

"On it?" Josiah challenged lightly. "Or on Moseley?"

Vin shrugged. "Judge ain't gonna hang him."

Even for Vin, the remark was unusually cryptic. But before Josiah had a chance to question, the younger man straightened, tucking his thumbs into his gun belt.

"I'm gonna tell Nathan," he announced. "See ya first light if not before."
Josiah watched him walk away, as silent as he had come.

It was after dark when he made his way to the saloon, thinking to have a nightcap and check in with the others. As was his ritual, he had checked in with Nathan, not surprised to find his friend restocking his saddle bags with herbs and bandages and various other things that he refused to travel without. Pleading tiredness and need for solitude, their resident healer had bid Josiah a warm goodnight, accompanying it with an admonition about hangovers and rough rides.

Smiling as the words echoed in his mind, Josiah pushed open the saloon's swinging doors, not surprised to find four of his companions already at play. Ezra, was holding court, as usual, a full table of railroad workers surrendering their hard-earned money a dollar at a time. Buck was at the bar, flirting with Inez as she poured beer.

J.D. and Vin were sitting a table near the wall. As Josiah joined them, he caught the end of another of J.D.'s jokes, and knew the boy was desperate; telling Vin a joke was almost as much a waste of breath as telling Chris one.

"Come on, now," J.D. blustered. "It was funny!"

Vin was leaning back in his chair, his hat pulled low. His response was to reach out and snag the bottle of whiskey, pouring a shot into the glass that rested on one lean thigh.

"Now, J.D.," Josiah commented as he dropped into a seat beside the sheriff, "you know Vin's funny bone got shot off in the war."

"Evening, Josiah," J.D. grinned up at him. "I've got this great joke - "

"Give it up, kid," Buck laughed as he joined them. "It ain't funny." He set three beers on the table, one in front of J.D., one in front of Vin, and, after a second, the third one in front of Josiah.

"Well, thank you, Buck," Josiah grinned, "but you got it for yourself. I can get my own - "

"Here." Vin reached out and pushed the one in front of him toward Buck.

Josiah saw the look of hurt that blew across Buck's face, but before it could take hold, Vin pushed his hat back slightly and turned just enough to meet Buck's eyes.

"Mighty kind of ya," the Texan continued, just loud enough to be heard over the murmur of the bar, "but you don't owe me nothin'. Ya had every right to worry 'bout Chanu."

Buck met the direct gaze for a few seconds, then looked away as he said, just as quietly, "But I shouldn't a doubted you, Vin. I'm sorry 'bout that."

There was a sound like a snort - Vin laughing. "Ya worry too much, Bucklin," he said. "You're a good friend to the ladies - and you were right, she was scared. It jist wasn't Chaunu she was scared of." He shrugged. "Hell, I wasn't too sure 'bout Chanu myself. Jist knew it weren't as simple as people wanted it t' be."

Josiah noticed the shift in Vin's eyes as they glanced past J.D. to the table of card players on the other side of the room.

Buck grinned, then, after a second, laughed as well. "Never is, pard, never is." He took the beer Vin had offered, lifting it in a mock salute. "To the ladies - one and all."

The others followed suit, Vin sipping on the glass of whiskey he still held.

"And speaking of ladies," Buck said, swiping beer foam from his lips with the back of his hand, "where's our fearless leader?"

The question was directed at the table in general, but everyone turned to look at Vin.

With a minute lift of his shoulders, he said, "Last I saw, he was headed back to the Clarion with Mary to wire the Judge 'bout us leavin' with Moseley in the mornin'. Figured he headed back to his place."

Buck grinned. "Be kinda hard for him to do - Pony's still at the livery."

There was no movement - Josiah was watching Vin closely, and not one whisper of air around him moved. But the tension changed, like in the aftermath of a lightning strike.
"No need to worry," Buck said, acknowledging that he, too, felt the shift. "He's probably just having dinner with Mary and Billy - he does love that boy."

Beside him, J.D. snorted. "'Cept that Billy's spending the night at the Rourke place - the Rourke boys planned this big fishing day tomorrow, seems they heard that the fish are more likely to bite as it gets closer to the cold weather."

There were a few seconds of silence before both Buck and J.D. burst into laughter. "Well then," Buck called merrily, "I suspect we do know what ol' Chris is up to!"

"Guess he ain't that old!" J.D. quipped back, and the two of them dissolved into laughter.

Josiah himself chuckled, more amused by J.D.'s misconception of the relationship between age and sex than by the humor at Chris's expense. But as he looked back once more to Vin, he wasn't surprised to see the stony expression on the younger man's face.

Nor, a few minutes later, was he surprised when the tracker silently rose, setting his glass on the table. It wasn't empty - indeed, Josiah was reasonably certain that the man had taken not another sip from it.

"Headin' out?" Buck asked between laughs.

"Early mornin'," Vin said by way of answer. With a nod to Josiah, he was out the door.

Turning, Josiah watched him as the doors swung on their swivels. Vin stopped at the edge of the boardwalk, his head turning as he looked down the street to his left, toward the larger portion of the town's buildings. Toward the Clarion.

Josiah sensed that he was hesitating, debating. As he moved off the wooden flooring and into the thoroughfare, his body moved to the right, toward the outskirts. Toward his wagon.

But his head took a long time turning to look where his body was going.

+ + + + + + +

"Awful quiet," Nathan said, reaching for the coffee pot and refilling his mug.

Josiah glanced at him, then grinned. From years of knowing each other, he and Nathan had a way of communicating that was almost as complex as the one Chris and Vin had. "How could you tell?" he teased, but that's all it was.

Nathan flashed a grin as well, but his eyes were worried as they looked past the camp fire and into the darkness, in the direction of the horses, and Vin. "He worried about something?"

Josiah shrugged, his eyes following Nathan's. "Says he's not. Not about this anyway." He lifted one hand, gesturing around.

"Him?" Nathan canted his head to the right, indicating the man sitting on the other side of the fire and out of range of their low conversation.

Josiah shrugged again, but this time, he frowned. "Maybe."

Nathan sipped from his coffee, then said even more quietly, "Vin almost died in that jail, Josiah. Chanu choked him. Kinda like . . . . " His words faded away.

Josiah thought on it for a few seconds. "Maybe," he repeated. "But he says Moseley won't hang."

Nathan looked into his cup. "He know that for sure?"

Josiah grinned. "With Vin, who can tell?"

The both chuckled.

Nathan drank the rest of his coffee, then set the cup near the fire as he rose. "I'm taking watch," he said, picking up his rifle.

Josiah sat starring into the fire as his friend walked away. Moseley sat just as quietly - as he had throughout the day. The man had hardly said anything, not even asking where they were going or why.

As if sensing Josiah's thoughts, the missionary shifted is position, leaning more heavily against the saddle on the ground behind him. His voice was rusty from disuse, but the words carried in the night. "Do you think Rafe is out there?"

Josiah studied for a moment. The man before him now was hardly the man who had been spitting fire and vinegar two days ago, the man who, in a fit of anger, had choked his own daughter to death, then later, tried to shoot the man his daughter had married.

Now, he sat stooped and old, his face grey even in the flickering light of the fire, his eyes dull. His thin hair hung lank on his forehead, and his cheeks were hollow. While he had been offered food, both at the jail and here, on the trail, he had eaten nothing since the admission of his guilt.

With a sigh, Josiah said, "My opinion? I doubt it."

Moseley nodded once, starring into the fire. "I lost them both," he said dully. "I doubt that it matters to you, but I never intended for it to happen. If I had it to do over again . . . "

"You'd welcome Chanu as a son?"

Josiah looked up as Vin moved into the circle of the fire's light. The tracker dropped down at an equal distance from Moseley and from Josiah, holding his hands out to the heat, but his gaze never left the missionary.

Moseley turned slowly to look at the newcomer, and for a time, Josiah wondered if the man was going to answer. Eventually, he breathed out, "I . . . . I don't know."

The two men continued to stare at each other, until, with a spare movement of his head, Vin answered, "Fair 'nough."

He rose then and looked to Josiah. "I'm gonna grab some sleep while I can, then take the mid-watch. You see to him, then get some shut-eye. I'll wake ya later."

As he started away, Moseley said, "You knew, didn't you. About Claire and . . . and . . . him."

Vin stopped and looked back over his shoulder. It was hard to see his eyes beneath the brim of his hat, but Josiah could imagine the blue eyes once more watching Moseley. "Not like you think," Vin answered. "I jist knew that if he was gonna hurt her, he'd a done it long before we caught up with him. The whole of it jist felt . . . wrong."

Moseley sighed, then looked away. "I couldn't agree more," he muttered, but his tone was resigned.

Vin turned, but hesitated. He stood for several seconds, then, with a visible effort, he turned around to face Moseley. "You spent years with 'em," he said. Each word was distinct, as if they were being dragged out of him. "How could you not know 'em?"

Josiah blinked, uncertain as to which surprised him more - the question, or the fact that Vin had asked at all.

Moseley, not aware of how extraordinary the situation was, glared back. "I fear that I was not as enchanted with their way of life, as you and your associates, Mr. Tanner. I saw them for what they are - people ignorant of the ways of the Lord, heathens who we have a moral responsibility to help."

"Heathens," Vin muttered, imbuing the word with a disdain Josiah would never have thought the man able to find. "Yer idea of help - that's to force 'em to accept yer god, yer ways, yer sense o'things."

Moseley seemed to find his anger again; it wasn't as strong as it had been, neither a killing rage nor a 'fire-and-brimstone' fury, but it burned in him with a power that came from conviction. "They are savages, living in poverty and ignorance. We offer them the benefits of our civilization - education, industry, wealth. We offer them the benefits of our experience, and most importantly, we offer them the benefits of a loving God who will care for their souls for all eternity!"

Vin snorted. "All those things - and all they have to do is give up everything they know, a way of life that's older than this country, a way a'life that's as right to 'em as yer way is to ya. You ain't got no problem judgin' 'em, Mr. Moseley - but ain't that what yer god is s'pposed to do?"

Moseley's face drew into a sneer, but before he could answer, Vin turned and walked away. He didn't turn back as the missionary spat, "You're as ignorant as they are, Tanner! More so - you have the benefits of our great culture and you reject it! The fires of Hell burn brighter for the unrepentant, for those who knowingly disavow the One True God!"

Vin had disappeared into the darkness. Josiah knew that the tracker was close - it wasn't cold enough yet for Vin to settle near the fire, but until that time of the year, he would be the farthest from it, and the others, but still close enough to handle trouble.

With Vin gone, Moseley turned toward Josiah. "They are savages! How can you people not understand that?"

Josiah smiled slightly. "Don't seem to me that they're the ones killing their young for lovin'." He paused, searching the man's face. "The Lord gave his only son to save mankind. But he didn't kill Jesus himself."

Moseley's face contorted with fury, his mouth opening to retort. But he froze then, an almost comical look to him as he stared, open-mouthed at Josiah. Then the anger drained from him as the realization of his loss returned. With what looked to be a great effort, he sank back into himself and dropped his gaze to the fire.

He made no comment, not even when Josiah threw a blanket over him and stoked the fire for the night.

+ + + + + + +

Travis sighed, flipping yet again through the sheets of paper on the table before him.

Afternoon was passing into evening, and Josiah had already stopped thinking that they might be back on the trail today. From the slumped set of his shoulders, he knew Vin was thinking the same way.

Nathan shifted in his chair, sighing as well. The sound drew the Judge's attention finally, and Travis looked up.

"I want to thank you for bringing him here, and for giving me your statements and testimony. I know that it's not easy." His head didn't move, but his eyes flicked toward Vin.

Vin gave no acknowledgement, so still that he might have been asleep. But the Judge must've seen something, as he gave a sort of nod before saying, "I doubt you will find this fair, but the best I can do is manslaughter, with a life sentence in prison."

Josiah frowned, then looked to Nathan, who was frowning as well. "He killed his own child," Nathan said, disbelieving. "He was ready to let an entire reservation burn for his crime - Lord knows how many people would have died then, how many people would have suffered - "

"I understand your argument, Mr. Jackson, and I even agree with you. What he did . . . well, it's the most heinous of crimes." He sighed once more, reaching up to take off his reading glasses with one hand then rubbing the bridge of his nose with the other. "But the man has dedicated his life to - "

"Hell, no, he hasn't!" Nathan exploded, rising to his feet. "If he were dedicated - if he truly believed what he preached, then he'd have welcomed Chanu instead of killing Claire! He - he - he's a hypocrite! A liar! Worse than Ezra could ever hope to be!"

The silence of the room was almost physical. The Judge took a deep breath, but the voice that followed was Vin's.

"It ain't worth it, Nate," he said softly, turning his head toward his friend. "Moseley's got a name for trying to save the savages. There are pro'bly more folks who think he was provoked into what happened than those who think otherwise. Judge ain't got no choice, really, not if he wants to do more good 'n harm for the territory."

Josiah watched as the other two men turned and stared at the tracker, before he himself did the same.

Travis was the first to find his voice. "I'd like to tell you your assessment is wrong," he said, sounding enough like Ezra that Josiah winced, "but I'd be lying. Mr. Moseley has a lot of support and a lot of it has money. I don't care about losing my position - I've tried several times to retire and believe me, I gave very serious consideration to forcing the issue here just to walk away free and clear." He sat back in his chair, twining his fingers together on his belly. "Unfortunately, as you seem to understand, Vin, there are other issues to consider. If I condemn Moseley, the elements in this territory who want to do away with the reservation will have all the justification that they need."

"Do away with the reservation?" Nathan asked, stumbling back into his seat. "What does that mean - killing all those people?"

Again, Vin answered first. "Not the way Moseley had planned," he said, his voice still as quiet as it had been. "Nah, the Army'll just come in like it did before, roundin' 'em all up and herdin' 'em along ta the next good place to put 'em. Thing is, though, there ain't that many good places left. There ain't much open space left, what with everyone movin' West and now the railroads an' the like tryin' to connect everythin'. T'other side of California's ocean and we ain't so far from that now. Jist gets colder as you move north, and from what I've seen and what I've heard, it's hard 'nough for those of us who know a bit about the cold to survive there. The People here - on the rez and even in Rain's village - they don't understan' the cold. They won't survive it." He shrugged, a simple gesture, but Josiah knew it for what it was: defeat.

He tried not to think on it, but the memory of Vin's story about his friend, the one who had taught him to track, drifted through his mind with sure premonition.

Nathan, ever the optimist, pushed. "So what are you saying - that Moseley should get away with murder to protect the reservation? The Federal Government gave that land to the Indians, they're safe there! No one's going to move them again!"

But even as he said the words, Nathan's voice was changing, the shrill conviction of innocent trust giving way to his hard-earned experience.

Gently, as if dealing with a wild, scared creature, Vin said, "I'm sayin' that you and Rain, and Kojee and Chanu, - all of ya should have as long as we kin give ya. And if lettin' Moseley live a long life sufferin' with guilt for Claire will protect that, well, then, I'll take what I kin get."

He rose, placing his hat on his head. "Thanks for yer time, Judge," he said, his politeness sincere.

He was almost out the door when Travis called, "The law itself can be cold, Vin. And there will always be those who find ways to manipulate it to their own ends. Just because someone who's guilty doesn't hang doesn't mean that there's a balance to be maintained."

Vin's step faltered, but he didn't stop. "Thanks, Judge," he called over his shoulder. "But I don't put much stock 'n that. You're a good man. But, as my friend Nathan likes to point out from time to time, you're jist a man. Jist like the rest of us."

Beside Josiah, Nathan shook his head.

+ + + + + + +

It was colder the next morning, and overcast. Not that any of them thought about delaying.

Little was said, and what was was between Josiah and Nathan. Nathan was angry - not at Vin or Josiah, not even really at Judge Travis. His anger was at the world in general, a world that might have done away with slavery, but a world that still traded in injustice and intolerance.

At least it made the morning interesting, Josiah thought as they trotted along a particularly boring stretch of ground. When riled, Nathan could turn a phrase almost as fine as Ezra. Certainly as colorful.

They pushed hard through the morning, but as the afternoon came and the first splatter of rain left spots in the dust that covered them, Vin drew them off the path and into a thickening of wood. They settled in a copse of trees near the widening of a sluggish stream, the horses appreciating the rest.

The rain had turned into a soft drizzle, the sound rhythmic and soothing. The men settled under the branches of the largest tree, dampened more by the humidity than by the falling water. Nathan and Josiah snacked on hard tack and jerky, but Vin declined with a small shake of his head. Nathan frowned at that, and Josiah remembered that Vin hadn't eaten much the night before either, pushing more of it around on his plate than getting it to his mouth.

But Nathan didn't push - not yet, anyway.

Vin was leaning against the trunk of the tree, his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. He had his harmonica out, but he rarely lifted it to his lips; mostly he twirled it through his fingers, a distraction for his restless hands.

They had removed their tack to protect it from getting wet, and Nathan was laying back on his saddle, dozing in the quiet. Josiah had thought to do the same, but his mind didn't seem to want to still enough to sleep, and he found himself watching first Vin's hands, then, as his eyes drifted upward, the familiar features of the young man's face.

Vin was starring into the distance, his gaze slightly unfocused. His eyes, normally a shade of blue that made Josiah think of heaven, seemed to have faded to a grey that matched the clouds, and for the first time, the older man realized how tired his friend looked.

"How old are you, Vin?" he asked. Even though his own voice was soft, Vin tensed, and Josiah knew he had been startled.

Taking a deep breath, Vin relaxed and he glanced to Josiah. "Don't rightly know," he answered, as quiet as Josiah had been. "I lost track of time after Ma died. 'Spect I'm somewhere 'round thirty or so." He shrugged. "Ain't never mattered much."

Josiah smiled. "No, guess not."

Vin looked back out into the rain, lifting the harmonica distractedly to his lips. But before he blew through it, he asked, "Does it matter to ya?"

"Not in the way you mean," Josiah answered. "You just surprise me at times."

A few soft chords twined around the cadence of the rain, then Vin commented, "I don't reckon it's when I sneak up on ya."

Josiah grinned at that as well, wondering if Vin realized that in some ways, he was even more tactful than Ezra. "That, too," he agreed. "But I was thinking that you sure have learned a lot about the ways of things for someone who's barely out of his swaddling clothes."

Vin frowned, but there was nothing behind it. They both knew Josiah was teasing him, and they both knew that Josiah was the oldest of them, at least twenty years older than Vin himself.

But when Vin didn't say anything, Josiah pressed on. "What you said to the Judge yesterday - sounds like you've thought long and hard about things."

Vin blew across the harmonica, the notes blending with the atmosphere. "Don't have to think 'bout it," he said eventually. "Jist have to look at thin's as they are. Army's been movin' The Peoples since before the War, pushin' 'em further 'n further West. Well, there ain't but so much West, and we're jist 'bout at the end of it." He breathed across the instrument again, the sounds distinctly mournful as they faded.

"World's moving on," Josiah said after a while.

"Reckon so," Vin agreed. "Buffalo are gone, The Peoples are dyin' out . . . . won't be long 'fore it's as 'civilized' here as back East."

It seemed wrong suddenly, that he should be having this conversation with one so young, and Josiah felt an unusual stab of anger. But before it could mature, Vin grinned and turned toward him - and in the space of that breath, Josiah saw the boy he had been.

"Reckon EZ and J.D. will feel right t'home with it."

It wasn't all that funny - in fact, Josiah suspected that Vin was very wrong about their friends and that he even knew it; but the intensity of the conversation was cutting at them both, and Vin's redirection was welcome.

"You're a wise man, Vin Tanner," he chuckled.

But at his words, Vin's own humor faded, and he looked away, studying his hands. "Don't think you'll find many t' agree," he mumbled. The harmonica twirled through his fingers, slowly and pointlessly, and he looked back out into the rain. "Not anyone who matters."

Josiah barely heard the last, and by the time he sorted through it, Vin had settled back against the tree and pulled his hat low over his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

It was late afternoon two days later when they finally plodded into Four Corners, cold, wet, and tired. The drizzle of the days before had grown into a consistent downpour and after the ground had saturated, they had decided to make the best of it.

By the time they settled the horses and dried the tack as much as possible, they were drier themselves. Nathan headed to his rooms, but Josiah followed Vin toward the saloon, noting that while his expression seemed to darken as they drew near, the pace of the tracker's step increased. Josiah would have thought it because of the rain - only the rain had momentarily stopped.

"Well!" Buck greeted, his grin wide and welcoming. "Look what the waters washed up!"

It was a slow night, the rain keeping most people in, so Ezra was reduced to playing cards with Buck and J.D. Josiah took off his hat as he approached the table and took a chair on what would pass as the fourth side of a round table. He pulled it off-center, making room for Vin to join him, when he realized that his companion was still standing just inside the doorway. Most people would have thought him expressionless, but Josiah saw the indications of his frown.

"You just missed him, slick," Buck called, and Josiah knew he wasn't the only one looking at Vin.

"Well, if three days ago is 'just missing'," J.D. said distractedly as he glared down at the cards in his hand. "You call this a hand, Ezra? Buck's socks make better pairs than these!"

"Don't'cha be making fun of my socks, kid," Buck interjected, picking up his own cards. "At least they don't have holes in 'em - which is more than I can say for this hand! Lord, Ezra, could you have found five cards with less in common?"

"That, gentlemen, is why it's called a game of chance," Ezra said smoothly. "Are either of you planning to ante?"

"Hell no," Buck laughed. "In fact, think I'll just cry 'uncle'!" He dropped his cards onto the table, then looked up as Vin moved closer to the table.

"Where'd he go?" Vin asked, and Josiah blinked. The question had come out hard, growled almost.

The others seemed to feel it as well; J.D. and Ezra glanced at each other, and Buck's grin drooped and his eyes grew wary.

But his tone was still light as he said, "Chris?" He shrugged, then waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Said he'd be back in about three days. Didn't say where he was going, but I suspect we can all figger that out!" He laughed, and J.D. grinned. Josiah grinned as well, more at the antics of the other two, and at the eye-roll that Ezra dramatically demonstrated.

Vin, however, seemed to grow more annoyed. There was no mistaking the glower that he directed at Buck. "He didn't say where," he stated coldly, "just said he'd be back in three days."

Buck snorted, letting his exasperation compliment his amusement. "Vin, there are times I worry about you, boy." He stood, reaching out to put an arm around Vin's shoulders. "I don't think you've quite come to understand some of the . . . necessities of being a man."

With rare violence, Vin knocked Buck's arm away and straightened. "It ain't necessary to git hisself killed," he snarled. "Which way did he go?"

Something flickered through Buck's eyes, and for an instant, Josiah wondered if the two would come to blows. But with the infinite patience that Buck seemed to have when it came to women, children, and Chris, the taller man stepped back and looked down into Vin's eyes. "I don't know," he said simply. He started to say something else, and Josiah suspected that it would have been some attempt to either explain or reassure, but he sighed instead, shook his head once, then sat back down. "We playing or are you playing with yourself, Ez?"

With the grace of long practice, Ezra continued the distraction. "I find that playing with myself sets that standard too far above the company I keep, so I try not to tempt myself. How many of you care to contribute to my wealth?"

Vin turned on his heel and was out the door before Ezra ended his soliloquy. Josiah reached for his hat, thinking to follow, but with a casual gesture, Buck dropped a hand on Josiah's arm.

"I've known Chris for a long time," he said. "Sometimes, he just needs to get away. Right now, he's . . . he's been spending a lot of time with Mary. I suspect it's made him happy, and that's something he has to think about."

Josiah nodded, but he still held his hat. "Why didn't you say that to him?" he tilted his head toward the door.

Buck frowned, glancing toward Ezra who was looking at him. With a quirk of his lips, he said, "I don't think it woulda made him feel any better."

Buck and Ezra shared another quick glance, then J.D. said hesitantly, "Do ya think I'm gonna be that paranoid when I'm as old as he is?"

+ + + + + + +

Ecclesiastes 4.8-4.12

"There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother,

There was no end to his toil,

yet his eyes were not content
with his wealth.

'For whom am I toiling,' he asked,

'and why am I depriving myself of

This too is meaningless -

A miserable business!

Two are better than one,

Because they have a good return
for their work:

If one falls down,

his friend can help him up.

But pity the man who falls

And has no one to help him up!

Also, if two lie down together, they

Will keep warm.

But how can one keep warm


Though one may be overpowered,

Two can defend themselves.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken."

The sun was seeping through the parting clouds, the rain gone for the most part. Josiah leaned against the doorframe of the church, the stairs still too wet for sitting.

The roadway was mud now, horse hoof imprints drying unevenly and slowly in the thick humidity. The heavy air muffled sound, but he heard Peso's approach and turned to watch horse and rider as they entered town.

He had intended to continue with his reading of Deuteronomy, revisiting God's laws in the wake of dealing with mankind's, but as his Bible had opened in his hand, he had found his eyes drawn to the passage in Ecclesiastes.

Not for the first time, he wondered whether the words he had just read truly were prophetic, or whether, after reading them, he interpreted things around him to fit the words.

Whichever the case, Vin looked as alone as Josiah had ever seen a man look. Apparently today, like the last three, had brought no success.

Responding before he thought, he called out, "Brother Vin! The Lord seems to have parted the waters for you!"

Vin raised his head, and Josiah knew the younger man's eyes had found him almost instantly. Then the tracker raised a hand in greeting, but his pace remained constant as did the horse's direction.

So, still working on his concern, he persisted. "How are things in the wilderness?"

Peso slowed, then turned toward the church. Josiah wondered if it were the horse or the rider, especially as Vin seemed to be tugging the reins oppositionally, but the horse came on anyway.

He closed his Bible and stepped down the stairs, snaking his hand into his pocket to find a bit of candy that he kept there for situations like this - small children, stubborn horses, whatever needed encouragement. It wasn't difficult to sneak it into Peso's mouth under the guise of stroking the long muzzle.

Not that Vin was paying much attention; he seemed just about exhausted, and Josiah wondered if he should call for Nathan.

"Vin?" he prompted, reaching out to stroke Peso's long neck as he moved closer to the rider.

Vin's head lifted slightly, the movement more noticeable because of the change in this hat's attitude. "Yeah," he said, his voice gravelly. "Long couple a'days," he gave as an explanation.

Josiah's first instinct was to dance around it, but as he looked at Vin closely, seeing the lines that shouldn't be etched in a face so young, he steeled himself. "You're damned good at what you do," he said quietly, "one of the best I've ever seen - and I've seen a lot, my friend. And you know better than what I can tell you that if a man like Chris Larabee don't want ta be found, then not even someone as good as you can find him."

Vin sat still for almost a minute, and Josiah wondered if he had finally upset his friend.

But even as he was trying to think of a way to retract his words, or laugh them off as a bad joke, Vin shrugged once, and let go of his horse's reins. With an obvious effort, he forced himself to dismount, his boots making sucking noises as they connected with the wet ground.

"He's gonna git hisself killed," he muttered, his voice hoarse and ragged. "I went to Purgatory - that's usually where he goes when - when - well . . . . " He looked down so that all Josiah could see was the top of his hat, the darker shades showing the demarcation between what had already managed to dry in the wake of the rain.

"When he's out - how is it Buck puts it? 'Having his fun'?" Josiah exhaled slowly. With as much delicacy as he could manage, he said, "Could he have decided that this time, he didn't want to be 'usual'?"

Vin shifted, one hip slipping out as he unconsciously moved to accommodate the pain in his back that came after long hours in the saddle. "Reckon so," he breathed. "Reckon he really don't wanna be found."

Josiah slowly redirected the hand that was on Peso, letting it fall slowly and carefully onto Vin's shoulder. "Then you can't find him, Vin. And you can't blame yourself for that."

Vin's body was tense, and Josiah knew it wasn't from any fear or discomfort from his casual touch. "Maybe not," Vin mumbled in agreement. "But I mighta had something to do with why he left." The top of the hat became more visible as his head dropped lower. "I should never have - "


They both started at the new voice. Peripherally, Josiah was aware of Vin reaching for his gun, the dexterous fingers closing over the grip to draw it forth, then of the hand stilling as they both identified the source of the call: Mary Travis was moving quickly along the boardwalk toward them, her determination so sincere that she hardly slowed as the boardwalk ended and she was stepping through the mire to join them.

"Did you find any trace of him?" she demanded loudly, "Anything at all?"

Josiah glanced back to his companion, feeling a sort of protectiveness when he saw the look of sheer misery on the other man's face. But it was gone quickly, replaced by a mask of politeness that would have done Ezra proud.

The same instinct that had caused him to call Vin over now pushed him into acting. "As I was just reminding Vin, Chris Larabee is one of the smartest men I know. If he doesn't want to be found, he won't be. Not 'til he's ready."

Mary looked away from Vin to Josiah, and he noted that her expression softened a bit - meaning that she had been glaring at Vin as hard as he thought she had.

She sighed, shaking her head. "I probably shouldn't be worried about him, I know, but he seemed so certain that he wouldn't be gone more than three days - and it's already been seven. " She glanced back to Vin and her tone stiffened once more. "From what I've seen, the two of you seem to have some sort of bond - he can't seem to go more than an hour without mentioning your name."

Vin blinked at that, his head jerking up slightly. She'd surprised him, Josiah thought, but he wasn't certain if it were in a good or bad way.

"The last time I saw him, he was with you," Vin said softly. "He didn't say a thing to me about goin' anywhere or doin' anythin'. I ain't got no idea where he went, Mary - hell, you'd know more about what he was thinkin' than I ever would."

Josiah knew that was a lie, and the flicker on Mary's face said that she knew it as well. But they also both knew that Vin believed it.

Perhaps that was what finally softened her. "I'm sorry, Vin. I suspect you're as worried as I am."

He shrugged, his head dropping as he stared at the ground. "We . . Chris an' me . . . he needs his space. I been . . . well," he sighed, looking up and away from them both, "If he'da wanted me to know, he'da told me. He didn't." With that, he reached out and caught Peso's halter. "Mrs. Nettie asked me ta help her with a fence, and now that the rain's stopped, I reckon we should dig while the ground's soft. Come on, boy," he coaxed the horse, who was nudging Josiah for more treats.

"So you don't think I should worry?" Mary asked, stepping back as Peso relented and started moving as Vin wanted.

Vin didn't look at her. "Can't stop ya from worryin'," he said quietly. "Just can't think of nothin' else we can do at this point." He lifted a finger to the bill of his hat, ever polite as he and Peso walked away.

Josiah stood beside Mary, watching them make their way through the mire. Eventually, he sensed rather than saw Mary turn toward him.

"I don't think I'll ever understand those two," she said, pulling her shawl more tightly around her. "Strange as it sounds, Buck makes more sense to me. He's not even worried at all."

Josiah nodded. "He has known Chris longer than any of the rest of us, by over a decade."

They were silent as Vin and Peso reached the livery and disappeared inside.

"Longer, perhaps," she said so softly that Josiah almost didn't hear her. "But that doesn't mean better."

He frowned, looking down at her. "Mary?" he asked, even though he wasn't certain he wanted elaboration.

She smiled up at him. "Nothing, Josiah. Thank you for your concern." She pulled her skirts up and stepped away, heading back toward the town.

"Try not to worry," he called after her. "Chris can take care of himself better than any one of us."

She lifted a hand in acknowledgement, but said nothing, concentrating on walking.

"Though one may be overpowered,
Two can defend themselves.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken."

The verse drifted through his mind unbidden, and in its wake, he wondered which strands wove the Larabee cord.


Continues in Weaving: Cause or Cure - Part 1