Notes: This was written originally for Of Dreams and Schemes and debuted there. It was housed on another website but moved here in June, 2007. I do not claim any rights to the Magnificent Seven. This story and the OCs contained herein are mine however.
Two men, side by side, rode just below the skyline of the ridge. One was dressed all in black, the other buckskin. The man in black wore the cares of a troubled life on his face, hazel eyes squinted against the sun and the smoke from his cheroot. The other fought off his troubles with a smile, blue eyes lit with quiet mischief.
"You see somethin' down there?" Chris Larabee asked with a nod toward the valley below.
Reining his white faced black in, Vin Tanner pulled his spyglass from his jacket and sighted it downward. He too had caught a glint among the sagebrush and rocks. Something had caught the sun and tossed it back skyward. "Yeah...looks like what's left of a wagon. Don't see no one movin' 'round though."
"Worth checkin' out?" Chris asked.
"Maybe...couldn't hurt," Vin answered with a shrug.
With a nod, the man in black aimed his horse, as dark as it's rider, downward. Tanner followed close behind. They soon reached the floor of the valley, a safe distance from their destination. If Vin was wrong, and there were people nearby, they would be able to assess their disposition before moving closer.
Guiding their mounts through the maze of vegetation and stone, they soon found what they were looking for. It was a wagon, gutted and burned, mute testimony to some tragedy in the recent past. Stepping from their horses, the two men scouted around the ravaged camp. Whoever had attacked the travelers had done a thorough job. anything left had been broken or burned. What was left of the wagon squatted like a skeleton in the middle of the small clearing.
Poking through the rubble, Chris turned to Vin. "Notice somethin'?"
"Mmm-hmmm," Tanner answered with a nod, "no bodies."
"Yeah," Chris straightened, easing his colt from it's holster as he did. Vin, his sawed-off shotgun cocked, moved slowly toward the other man. Easing back to back, the men scanned the area once again for signs of danger. Still, nothing moved. "I don't like this," Chris said quietly.
"Nope," agreed Vin, "let's git."
Continuing to guard one another's backs, the two men moved cautiously back toward their horses. As Chris reached his black gelding, a sound caused him to turn toward a scrubby stand of trees. Just as he reached the edge, he saw a movement. Before the man could respond, he was knocked to the ground.
Already on Peso, Tanner chanced a look at his fallen friend and pointed his hogleg toward the trees. "This'll put a hole in y I can ride through...c'mon outta there with your hands in th air."
There was a rustling in the shadows, but nothing else. "C'mon outta there," Vin repeated. His shotgun was aimed almost lazily in the direction of the stand, but there was no doubt that he was ready to use it. When their attackers finally did appear, however, it was all he could do from dropping both his sawed-off and his jaw to the ground. "I'll be damned," he muttered. From the trees came a boy of eleven or twelve. Behind him came a little girl of about eight. She carried what looked at first to be a doll, until soft whimpers came from beneath the blanket. Last of all came a little boy of four or five.
Recovering his wits, Tanner lowered his weapon. Moving slowly, he dropped from his horse and stepped around to check on Larabee. Chris was out cold, a nasty gash near his left temple. Checking his pulse, the hunter was relieved to find it fairly strong and steady. Getting the canteen hanging from the Ponys saddle, he used his kerchief to clean the wound as best he could. The cool water roused the man slightly; his eyes opened, closed, then opened again. Staring unfocused upward, it was clear that Larabee was only partially conscious.
"Chris? Can y hear me?" Tanner asked.
Unfocused eyes searching, Larabee finally managed to locate the speaker.
"Chris? How y feelin'?" the hunter asked. "Y okay?"
"No," Chris responded in a shaky whisper.
Helping the injured man to his feet, Tanner helped him move to a sparse patch of shade nearby. Settling Chris on the ground, he took in the pale clammy skin and the fact that the hazel of his friend's eyes was nearly absent, hidden by wide pupils. He had seen this before, and knew he would have to keep a close watch on the man for a while.
Vin turned his attention to the children. They had not moved a muscle since coming into the open. Looking at the oldest boy, he asked quietly, "that your wagon?"
"Was," the child answered.
"Where's your folks?" the buffalo hunter was afraid that he already knew the answer.
"Men came...mean men...Ma...Ma sent us off...to hide...," the boy stuttered. "Them men...they...they killed 'm...Ma and Pa..." It was evident that it was taking every ounce of courage he could muster to keep from breaking down. "W-we...we...buried them."
The hunter felt a lump in his throat as the picture of these forlorn little creatures burying their parents flashed through his mind. Stretching to his full height, Vin moved to stand before the little group. "I'm sorry," was the only solace he could offer.
The boy simply nodded, his jaw twitching in his efforts to hold reign over his emotions. The little girl stared blankly ahead, not responding to anyone or anything. She even seemed to be oblivious to the whimpers of the baby she held. The smaller boy was clearly and obviously grief-stricken. Tears flowed freely done his tiny freckled face. From time to time a pain-wracked sob escaped him.
"Where were y goin'?" Tanner asked.
"West," as the only destination the boy knew.
"You got people out there?"
"No sir," came the reply.
"How 'bout back East?" Vin pursued the line of questioning.
"No sir," he repeated. "We ain't got no one now, far's I know."
"Ain't no one we could contact to come for y?"
The boy pondered the question for several seconds. Finally he said, "the Carey's, maybe, our neighbors back home. We's always good friends with 'm."
"Well then, reckon we'll try n figure out how to contact them when we get back to town," Tanner said with a nod.
"Where'd that be?" The boy asked, "where's town?"
Vin sighed. "'bout two days from here. Prob'ly more like three with Chris hurt and the little ones along."
The child's defenses wavered and he dropped his gaze toward the ground. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I d-didn't mean to...hurt...your friend."
"Hey, hey," Vin leaned down and put a reassuring hand on the boy's narrow shoulder. "You were protectin your family, y didn't know who we was. In your place I'd a prob'ly done th' same thing, okay?"
"But your friend..."
"He's hurtin' right now that's true enough. But once he understands the situation, I don't reckon he'll be mad at y. Okay?"
"Yes sir," he answered. Vin could tell he wasn't convinced.
Smiling, the lanky man asked, "so what's your name?"
"Aaron...Aaron Lewis, sir,"
"Well Aaron, my name's Vin Tanner. But you call me Vin, okay?"
"Okay, s-- Vin," he almost smiled.
"How 'bout the others?" Tanner continued.
"This is my sister, Hannah, " he pointed to the girl. "She's holdin' Sarah Anne. That's Benny over there, " he motioned toward the crying boy.
Nodding toward the children, Tanner returned his attention to Aaron. "How long's it been since y ate?"
"I got a rabbit day 'fore yesterday," Aaron told him. "Couldn't find nothin' but a few berries yesterday though. All we been able t' do with Sarah Anne is squeeze some berry juice in her mouth. She's gotta be awful hungry."
" Magine so," Vin said. Inwardly he wondered how he was going to feed the infant himself. "How 'bout I go rustle up somethin' for lunch?"
"I'd be real grateful, Vin. Maybe Benny'd quit cryin," Aaron replied.
"Okay then. How 'bout you get the little ones settled in over there," he nodded toward the trees, "and I'll see what I can do."
Nodding, the boy nudged his brother and sisters forward. Vin moved off to gather wood for a fire.
+ + + + + + +
By the time the ex-buffalo hunter had a pot of stew ready, only Aaron was still awake. Hannah and Sarah Anne were curled up together, while Benny slept with his head nestled in his brother's lap. Although Aaron's eyes were open, it was clear that he was struggling to keep them that way. Vin wondered how long it had been since the little family of orphans had slept.
Checking his friend, Vin found Chris semi-conscious. Shaking the man, he called, "hey Cowboy...you need to stay awake now."
Rousing at the word cowboy, Chris glared at him for a few seconds before saying, "One of these days, pard, youll regret that," he said with a slight grin.
"Woke y up, didn't it? Y need t sit up, Chris. I don't know for sure what kinda damage th' boy did, but you took a good solid whack to the head. I can't do much for y, but I know y need t stay awake."
"Yeah..." Chris mumbled, nearly drifting off again. Jerking himself upright, he held his head gingerly. "Talk to me, would you? What about the kids? They okay?"
"Not hardly. I think th' girl's in shock. It's like she's sleep-walkin' r somethin'. Ain't looked at her yet, but magine the baby's in bad shape. Ain't had hardly anythin' t eat for at least two days. We're gonna have t figure out how t get somethin' down her. The little boy's wearin' himself out cryin'. An Aaron...that's the oldest one..." he paused and shook his head.
"What?" Chris prompted.
"He's got the weight a th' world on his shoulders. Tryin' to be the man of the family and all."
"Awful little shoulders to carry all that responsibility," Chris said.
"Mmm-hmmm," Vin agreed. "Chris...he's also feelin' a load a guilt for hurtin' you."
Chris sighed and shook his head, a movement he instantly regretted. When the world stopped spinning, he said, "hell, Vin, he did what he thought he had to do."
"That's what I told him. I don't think it'll carry much weight til he hears it from you, though."
"I'll talk to him...soon as I can keep m' thoughts t'gether," Chris' eyes drifted shut again.
"Chris...hey, pard," Vin called to him. Larabee's eyes fluttered open. Starring foggily at him, he tried to sit up straighter.
"Damn, I wish Nathan was here," the hunter said.
"I'm okay," Chris said dreamily.
"Look, I got some stew ready, think you can eat?"
The gunslinger's face blanched at the thought of food. "I...I think I'll..." he twisted to one side and began to vomit. Moving to his side, Vin held onto the other mans shoulders. After several long minutes, Chris struggled to sit up again. With Tanner's help, he leaned back against the tree. Vin wet a kerchief and wiped Larabees face with it. Chris' eyes were closed tightly and he was panting from the exertion. Slowly he relaxed and opened his eyes.
"Y'okay?" Tanner asked.
"No," Chris' voice was raspy.
"Yeah, well, I think maybe you oughta forego the food right now," Tanner replied. He lifted the canteen to Larabee's lips and helped him take a drink.
'Might be a good idea," the gunslinger agreed. "You go take care of the little ones. They're gonna need lookin' after.
"Yeah," Tanner agreed. "You gonna be okay?"
"I'm okay, go take care of them," Chris motioned toward the little family.
Vin managed to roust the boys awake and get them interested in eating. Although her eyes opened in response to his call, Hannah only starred blankly forward. With Aaron's help the hunter managed to get her to release the baby. Cradling the blanketed infant awkwardly in one arm, Tanner pressed a spoon into the girls hand and put a bowl of stew in front of her. To his relief, she automatically began eating. With a sigh, the buffalo hunter turned to the matter of caring for the baby. Laying her on his lap, he unwrapped her. Nearly gagging on the smell that wafted from the child once the buffering cloth was removed, Vin knew he would have to find something to replace the soiled diaper...and soon.
Damn, thatll keep me awake, Chris mumbled from where he sat nearby. The younger man looked up to see the gunslinger looking at him with a mixture of humor and pity. Theres a clean shirt in my saddle bag. I reckon I can sacrifice it. Rip it up and we can use it for diapers...
Nodding, Vin lay the baby, now content to be unbound, and her blanket on the ground and moved to the horses. Returning quickly, he moved everything closer to where Larabee sat. Aint no reason Ive gotta be the only one miserable... Tanner said with a wink.
Gee...thanks... Chris said miserably.
Look, Chris, I aint got the first idea of what to do with a baby. I need your help here, pard, Vin pleaded.
Okay, the gunslinger relented. First, youre gonna have to take that stuff off her. Better get one of the canteens, too. Youre gonna need to wash her off.
Great... Vin sighed. With the more experienced advice of his friend, the young bounty hunter managed to clean and change the squirming little girl. After some discussion, they decided on letting her suckle the stew broth from a piece of cloth for now. It was a long process, but finally Vin managed to get enough down the baby to satisfy her intense hunger. He had to laugh when she looked up at him with a contented smile, hiccuped, and drifted toward sleep. The two men exchanged smiles.
You did pretty good, pard, Chris said with a nod.
+ + + + + + +
Just before nightfall, Vin used all of his bedroll and part of Chris to settle the children in for the night. Using the other blanket, along with his jacket and Chris long duster he maneuvered the semi-conscious man into a more comfortable position.
Whattaboutyou? Chris mumbled.
Im fine. You rest. Magine you can sleep now, you seem t be okay.
You gonna stay up all night?
Figured on it. Hard tellin what kind a varmint the firell attract.
Naw...call me round midnight... he paused to yawn loudly. Ill take second...watch... he was asleep.
With no intention of doing any more than periodically rousing the man to make certain he was alright, Vin settled in against a rock and watched over the sleeping bodies huddled around the fire.
+ + + + + + +
Morning found the children in a little better shape. Stirring up a plain breakfast, Tanner fed them and changed the baby. Returning her to Hannahs charge, Vin turned his attention to Chris. Bringing over a cup of coffee, he offered it to Larabee. Worrying at the gash, he shook his head. Its lookin a mite feverish. I think Im gonna mix up a poltice before we ride.
Dont take too long, pard. We need to worry about getting those kids away from here and somewhere safer.
Im worryin bout gettin yall back t town, Vin replied firmly.
You sound like a regular mother hen, son, Chris teased.
Just keep an eye on the little ones, Tanner grumbled in annoyance. With Chris laughter following him, he moved to scout the area for the ingredients to make up his concoction.
Chris turned his attention to the children. Little Benny had wrapped himself back in his blanket and was singing lullabies to himself. Hannah finally seemed to returning to the world, though. She rocked and cuddled her baby sister now, rather than holding her stiffly in her little arms. For her part, Sarah Anne cooed contentedly from her blanket. Aaron, watching Vin leave the camp, had taken up a position that would allow him to watch for any unwanted guests. It tugged at the gunslingers heart that such a young boy had been pushed so quickly toward the seriousness of adulthood. He had spoken to the boy the night before, letting him know that he bore him no ill will for what had happened. Chris knew that it still weighed on Aarons mind however, and vowed to talk to him again when things had settled.
A short time later Vin returned and set about putting together the poultice. With the other man back in camp, Chris allowed himself to relax and doze for a time. He roused when he felt someone nearby. Opening his eyes, he saw Vin moving to tend his wound.
Sorry, pard, hoped I wouldnt disturb you.
Its okay, Chris assured him.
Vin quickly applied the hot mixture to the ragged wound. Chris gasped, but managed not to cry out as the poultice made contact with his abused flesh. One hand clawed at Tanners leg, blindly seeking something to hold onto to fight against the pain. For his part, the buffalo hunter ignored the grip and wrapped a piece of the ruined shirt around the other mans head. Finally relaxing his hold, Larabee released a breath that he hadnt even realized he had been holding.
Sorry, Vin apologized once again.
Chris nodded his head gingerly as he forced his jaw to unclench. Dont worry...bout it... he grated out.
Hate t do this, but we best move out pretty quick here, Tanner informed him.
Im gonna go get th horses ready... He paused, his blue eyes locking with Larabees hazel ones. Okay?
Chris forced a smile. Im okay, pard, he insisted. Go ahead. I aint goin no place.
With a nod, Tanner moved away to begin preparations for leaving. As he passed the little family group, he heard a whimper from the blanket that Benny had disappeared into. Squatting down next to the little boy, Vin spoke softly, hey Benny?
A tousled red head slowly appeared from the cocoon. Young Benny turned red-rimmed hazel eyes toward the man.
You wanna come help me get the horses saddled?
W-why you s-s-saddlin them? He stuttered.
So we can get on the road, Vin replied.
W-where you...g-goin? His voice rose in panic. Y-you...you leavin us?
Taken aback, Vin felt his heart go out to the little boy. Hell, he had been this little boy once, a lifetime ago. His mothers death had not been as violent, but her leaving him alone had been devastating as well. Son, we aint leavin y. Me an Chris are taking y with us to town.
The little boy turned this information around in his mind, then solemnly nodded. Okay...I-Ill help you.
Hoisting the child to his feet, Vin chanced to see Chris watching the interchange with a broad grin. Mimicking a hen, he laughed silently. Tanner flashed him an irritated look before leading the little boy toward the horses. Vin was beginning to feel as if he had fought a battle single-handedly. The stress and strain of watching over the children was wearing on him. Coming to collect Larabee a short time later, he couldnt hide the strain from his best friend.
Rethinking the family man role, pard? Chris teased.
Rolling his eyes skyward, Vin simply said, y ready?
Ready as Ill ever be, I reckon, Chris responded. He held out a hand and allowed the bounty hunter to pull him to his feet. Once there, he leaned heavily on the other man, but with Vins help he shuffled to his horse. While Larabee wouldnt admit it, he was having trouble keeping himself on his feet. His head throbbed and the world was spinning around him.
Aaron, keep the others nearby, okay? Tanner called to the boy. Turning back to his friend, he managed to get him onto Ponys back. Chris slumped in the saddle, his face blanched white from the exertion. With Aarons help, Vin managed to get Hannah and Benny onto Peso. That accomplished, the older boy helped the hunter secure baby Sarah Anne on his back in a makeshift carrier fashioned from one of the blankets. Finally Vin boosted Aaron up behind Chris on the mans black horse. Picking up the reins of his horse, he led off, with Larabee behind.
By the time the little group stopped for the midday meal, Vin knew that their chances of reaching town in two days were slim and none. Benny had once again begun to whimper. Chris had either dozed off or lost consciousness twice and nearly fallen out of the saddle. This had prompted Tanner to charge Aaron with keeping him on the horse while he took up this second set of reins. Adding to the overall frustration of the day was his suspicion that the dampness he felt growing between himself and the infant secured to his back was not perspiration.
As evening approached they stopped to make camp. Vin managed to get the injured man off the horse and onto the ground. Returning to his own mount, he lifted first Benny and then Hannah to the ground. Easing Sarah Anne from the makeshift sling, he turned her over to her siblings. The infant was too passive for comfort. He knew that they would have to find the little girl something more substantial to eat, and soon.
While the children looked after their baby sister, he moved to tend Chris. Although he didnt complain, Vin knew that the man was in pain. The way Larabee winced when Tanner touched the wound, the way he gingerly cradled his head as he sat near the fire, his eyes closed against even the dim sun of an overcast evening, all pointed to a lot more pain than he was letting on. The gash in the gunfighters forehead was looking bad, too. The puffy, angry red of the torn flesh told Vin that there was an infection beginning. Throwing together a hasty meal, Tanner left Aaron in charge and once more went searching for the ingredients to make another poultice.
+ + + + + + +
A short time later found the hunter coating Chris wound with a hot, foul-smelling concoction. He had shown Hannah how to feed Sarah Anne, and left her to care for her sister. While the little girl still did not speak, she seemed more aware of her surroundings as time passed. Tanner was grateful for that fact. He had little experience with infants. If he could entrust some of the babys care to Hannah once more, he would feel much better.
Hey, Vin? Chris called him back from his thoughts.
You plan on paintin me all over with that stuff?
Looking at his friend, Tanner realized that he had not only covered the gash with the natural medication, but had continued on across Larabees forehead. Shoot! Sorry Chris, he mumbled lamely.
You okay? the man asked in honest concern.
Yeah. Its just...ah, hell. Chris, I aint got a clue on what Im doin with these youngins. I feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kickin contest.
The gunslingers grin broadened. Looks like youre doing a pretty good job. Benny aint crying near as much, Hannahs at least responding to you, and the babys in a lot better shape. Plus, Aarons got someone to take care of him...he doesnt have to try and be the man of the family.
Tanner visibly relaxed. He had seldom heard such high praise from the laconic Larabee. Thanks, Chris, he said with true gratitude. Then Vin heard something that brought him up short. Looking skyward, he saw the confirmation of his fears. A storm was moving into the valley.
We need to find shelter pretty quick, Chris said quietly.
Yep, Vin agreed. Lets git packin. I saw a cave about a quarter mile back. We should be able t wait it out there.
+ + + + + + +
Within the hour the group was settled into a large natural structure. They were soaked, but some kind soul had left more than enough firewood behind from a previous camp and Vin soon had the cave warming up. The little ones were striped down and wrapped in blankets, their clothes drying nearby. He had managed to talk Chris down to his pants and wrapped him in a blanket as well. The last thing the weakened man needed was to get sick. Aaron, like Vin letting his clothes dry on his thin body, was busy currying the horses where they had been picketed in the shelter of the trees just beyond the cave entrance. The boy was more content than the bounty hunter had seen him before.
Turning his attention to the cavern behind the little cave, Vin decided to go exploring. The little ones were sleeping, and Chris dozing. Letting Aaron know where he was going, the hunter set out for the darkness armed with a makeshift torch and his rifle. A quick inspection of the large room showed only one thing of interest, a spring-fed pool near the center. Squatting on the bank, an idea came to him, and quickly returning to the campfire, he gathered up the childrens discarded clothes. Soon he was kneeling on the bank, shirt sleeves rolled up, scrubbing the tiny outfits.
+ + + + + + +
Chris awoke to find himself alone near the fire. A sound nearby drew his attention to where Aaron was brushing the horses. Aaron? Where is everyone?
The young boy answered him without turning. Vin took m in th back, Mr. Larabee. Said theres a little pond r somethin there.
As if on cue, Vin came back toward the fire. Sarah Anne was cuddled in one arm, while Benny clung to his neck. Hannah followed, a blanket wrapped around her tiny frame.
Hey Chris, Vin said with a wide grin. We went for a swim.
So I see, Larabee responded with a shake of his head. Youre gettin more domesticated by the minute, pard. Sure Im the only one with a head injury?
Just count your blessings I aint draggin you in there for a scrub, Tanner said with a laugh.
You aint big enough to manage that, Chris said. Beneath his light tone was a faint note of warning. Changing the subject, he said, you checked on the weather outside?
Still rainin. Reckon we might as well settle in for now.
How much farther we got to go?
When we can get out of this cave, probly another two days to town.
Replying with only a heavy sigh, Chris leaned back and closed his eyes. Tanner knew that what Chris Larabee was feeling went beyond physical pain. It had to be difficult to be around the little family for the man who had lost his own.
Tanner began helping Benny dress in his fire-dried clothes. The little boy actually giggled once or twice as Vin struggled to get his clothes on in the right order. Finishing there, he moved to dressing the baby. Chris noted the fact that the younger man did not request assistance this time. Hannah disappeared behind a boulder to dress. She reappeared just as Vin finished with Sarah Anne. Coaxing her to him, the bounty hunter awkwardly set about finger-combing the little girls long, tangled curls.
Sorry, sweetie, Vin said softly, I aint real good at this sorta thing. Slowly he managed to get the auburn tresses under some semblance of control. Still silent, the little girl handed him a frayed ribbon. Hesitantly accepting it, Vin corralled her hair in an awkward pony-tail.
Not bad pard, Chris said.
Releasing Hannah, Tanner watched her wander off toward her older brother. Turning toward the other man then, Vin said, itll have to do til we get back home. Coming to sit on his heels next to Larabee, he said, youre lookin a mite better, pard.
Im fine, Chris admonished. Go cluck over the baby.
Okay...cowboy, Vin quipped. He smiled as he dodged the swing Chris took at him.
+ + + + + + +
Alright now, yall need to go to sleep, Vin said once more. It was becoming clear that his patience was wearing shorter by the second. With a giggle, Benny once more escaped his grasp. Tanner watched with growing frustration as the little boy scurried across the cave. With a sigh he moved to intercept the youngster then, catching him once again, he hoisted the little boy over one shoulder and returned to the fire.
Hannah sat watching the interchange intently. As Vin plopped down with Benny still over his shoulder, she shyly slipped over to him. Tanner looked up at her with a smile, put out a hand and beckoned her to his lap. She curled up against him as he lowered Benny to his lap as well.
Vin? Aaron said shyly from where he sat at the fire. I know what will get Benny to settle down.
If itll get him to sleep, Im all for it, Tanner sighed.
A story uslly puts him right to sleep.
Vin groaned loudly. A story? I aint got the vaguest notion as to story tellin. Least not ones fit for little uns. Look, how bout you tell one, and Ill listen too.
With a shy smile, Aaron began relating a bedtime story that kept both Hannah and Benny in rapt attention. Soon they were nestled against the ex-buffalo hunter, nodding in sleep.
Chris felt a lump in his throat as he watched the scene. He was overjoyed to see the children coming back to life from their trip to hell. At the same time, he found himself flooded with memories. He could see, hear, and feel the dozens of nights that he had sat at another fire. That fire had been built to warm his home...his wife and his son. Suddenly finding it too much to bear, Chris turned away. He wished he could leave, but knew that physically he was bound to stay where he was. He doubted that he would be able to go more than a few yards without falling face first in the dirt. At any rate, it wouldnt matter. He could never remove himself from the bittersweet pain of his memories.
Yokay pard? the gunfighter was startled to find Tanner squatting beside him.
You okay? Vin repeated. You looked like youre hurtin all of a sudden.
Naw...Im okay, Chris said with a forced smile. Youngns asleep?
Yeah, Tanner grinned. Aarons th only one still awake. How bout you? Ready for me to tuck you in? His smile threatened to split his handsome face.
Returning the smile, Chris said, sure...if youre ready to live with two busted hands.
Still grinning, the bounty hunter slapped him on the shoulder and moved away. Chris watched him stride to the cave entrance, taking his shotgun with him. Vin wrapped his coat around his lean shoulders before settling in for the night. He would make certain that no unwanted visitors either two or four legged would surprise them during the night.
A sound drew Larabees attention back to the fire. Aaron was sitting there, knees drawn up under his chin, starring into the flames. Clearing his throat, the gunslinger said, Aaron?
Yes sir? The boy said without turning. Chris could hear the tremble in his voice.
Why dont you come here, so we dont wake the others? Id like to talk to you for a minute.
Slowly the little boy obeyed. He moved to stand next to the man in black, his head bowed.
Have a seat, pard, Chris patted the ground next to him.
Slumping to the ground, Aaron continued to evade eye contact.
You know Aaron, Ive seen some pretty ugly things in this world. Things that dont make sense...things that only cause a whole lot of pain for people. Ive got to tell you though, it hurts some more than others. You know who it hurts the most? He waited until the boy shook his head no. Son, the folks that it hurts the most are the ones that hold it all inside. Aaron, do you understand what Im saying? Another negative shake of the tousled head.
Aaron...as long as you keep everything held inside you, its not going to stop hurting. Losing your folks like you did...having to suddenly be the man of the family...those are about the worst things that could happen. I know they hurt
But men dont cry, Aaron said quickly.
Putting out a hand, Chris touched the narrow, quivering shoulder. Son...a man knows when to cry. He knows that some things are so valuable that theyre worth shedding tears over.
Looking up for the first time, Aaron starred at him with tear-filled eyes. Seeming to mull each word over, the young boy took a long shuddering sigh. As tears began to stream down his thin face, the gunslinger gathered the weeping child into his lap. He held the little man of the family as he sobbed broken-heartedly against his chest. When Aaron had finally cried himself to sleep, Chris turned to find Vin once more at hand. With a smile, the buffalo hunter lifted the boy from Larabees lap and settled him in next to his siblings. With a wink to his companion, Tanner returned to his post.
+ + + + + + +
Morning brought pristine blue skies and the sound of birds to the countryside. Chris and the children woke to find Vin returning to their camp. He was carrying an already cleaned rabbit in one hand and his hat in the other. While the rest squirmed and stretched inside their blankets, he fixed their breakfast. Larabee was becoming worried about the younger man. It was becoming clear that Vin was going without all but a few minutes sleep at a time. They needed to get to town soon, so that Tanner could relinquish his duties as caretaker and relax.
Making quick work of the rabbit and the berries that Vin had carried to them in his hat, they made ready to leave. Getting the entire group outside and mounted, Vin again led them off. With Sarah Anne nestled against his back, he led his horse. Benny and Hannah kept tight grips on one another and the saddle as the horse started off. Behind them, Aaron led Chris horse while Larabee slouched in the saddle. Despite the muddy ground, the travelers made good time. By the time they stopped to eat the noon meal, Vin had high hopes that they might see home before nightfall the next day. The thought of only one more night away from town and help spur them to eat quickly and return to the trail. For his part, after two days of acting as a ramrod over the little family and nights of stolen moments of sleep, Vin ached for his bed and a shot of whiskey. Chris wound was looking better, the infection retreating quickly. While Sarah Anne was still in need of more care than they could give her on the trail, she was holding her own. The other children were acting more and more like normal children, although they still had a way to go.
The afternoon passed as uneventfully as the morning had. Aaron alternated between leading Larabees horse, and riding in the saddle before the man, guiding the reins. Hannah and Benny became bored with riding and took turns walking next to Tanner. Vin found that despite their short legs, the children managed to keep up with him.
Night found them camped in the open, huddled around the small campfire. Feeling better, Chris tried to convince Vin to get some sleep, but the young hunter only shook his head and set up watch a few feet away from the fire. The blond was frustrated, knowing that he would have gotten Vin to relent if the younger man wasnt concerned that Chris would lose consciousness again. At least it would be only one more night. Turning to the eldest of their little foundlings, he said conversationally looks like well be in town sometime tomorrow.
Whats it like there Mr. Larabee? Aaron looked both excited and afraid of arriving in the new town.
Well, truth be told, son, it aint much. There are some good people there, though and that counts for something. Well be able to take care of you kids a lot better there than out here. Theres a nice lady there her name is Mrs. Travis youll like her I think. Shes got a boy about Hannahs age, but hes living with his grandparents right now. I know shell be able to take care of Sarah Anne a lot better than we can. There are other ladies there, too, and I expect theyre all going to be falling over themselves trying to take care of all four of you.
Are there other children there?
Yeah, a few, Chris answered, trying to remember just how many. Like these children, Billy Travis, Anna and Jacob Potter and some of the other children had come to know the pain of losing a parent to violence. The frontier was not the place for families.
Do you have any children Mr. Larabee? Aaron asked innocently. Chris was glad that it was too dark for the boy to see the intense pain his simple question inflicted.
I did... Chris tried to keep his voice even. He died...
Ducking his head in embarrassment, Aaron mumbled, Im sorry Mr. Larabee.
Ruffling the boys hair with one hand, Chris quietly assured him, its okay. Look, why dont you call me Chris?
Looking up with a shy smile that chased the embarrassment away, Aaron said, okay...Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Everything seemed to go quickly the next day. Even Sarah Anne sensed the growing impatience of the little group to reach town. Eyes constantly searched the horizon for the first sight of the little cluster of buildings the group pushed onward. Finally, as the sun was halfway through its afternoon descent, they were rewarded by the sight of the little town the men had come to refer to as home. A short time later, Vin could no longer contain his impatience. Shifting Hannah and Benny closer together, and making certain that Sarah Anne was secure, the hunter pulled himself up onto the horse. Chris, finally able to manage his own horse, helped Aaron up behind him. Together the men spurred the animals forward at a canter. Hold on tight kids, Vin coaxed.
As they drew closed, they saw a familiar group of riders coming toward them. Looks like the cavalrys coming, Chris said.
Bout time, Vin replied. Pulling up, they waited for the others to rein in beside them.
Damn son, Buck Wilmington said to Chris, Ive seen you lookin a whole lot better!
Whered you gather this little flock? Josiah Sanchez asked.
Long story, pard, Vin said tiredly. Id rather tell it to you after we get settled in back in town.
Turning to Benny, the former preacher held out a hand. Son, you look a mite uncomfortable sittin there all scrunched against the saddlehorn. Would you like to come with me?
The little boy jerked away, then turned to look at Vin.
Its okay, Benny, Tanner assured him. Thats Josiah and hes a friend. If y wanna go with him, y can.
Okay, Benny relaxed and allowed the big man to pull him onto the saddle in front of him.
Nathan slid the baby from her sling and cradled her easily in one arm, while guiding his horse with the other. At the healers request, J.D. spun his horse around and sped off to ask Mary to meet them in to help with the children. Buck and Ezra flanked the injured gunslinger. While the gambler coaxed Aaron to ride with him, Buck kept an eye on his friend. Nearby, Vin suddenly felt that the life had been drained out of him. Things began to shift in and out of focus. At some point he realized that Josiah was riding next to him, one hand on his arm to steady him.
You okay Vin? The older man asked.
Yeah... he answered softly. Im just a mite tired.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner opened his eyes, trying to make out where he was. He finally decided that he was in the tiny, rented room that he rarely used, preferring his wagon and the openness. Vague memories of turning the children over to May Travis and allowing Josiah to put him to bed came to him through the haze of lingering sleep. With a groan he pushed himself up and stiffly got out of bed.
+ + + + + + +
In his own room, Chris Larabee grumbled as there was yet another knock at his door. He had been given orders to rest by Nathan, but he had seen a steady stream of visitors all day. Yeah, he said shortly.
Just me, pard, Vin said as he scuffed into the room and slouched in the rooms single chair.
You look like you should still be in bed, Chris said with a slight smile.
Only if I wanna take root, Tanner replied. Ran int J.D. and he told me we been here bout eighteen hours or so. How you feelin?
Im doin better than anyone will believe, Larabee complained. Nathan wants me to stay in bed til tomorrow.
Reckon he knows best, Vin said with a shrug. Even as hard as your head is, I imagine that rock did some scramblin up there. He grinned broadly.
Keep it up, bounty hunter, Chris said, I will get better eventually.
Vin laughed but didnt reply. Instead he said, wheres the kids?
Didnt figure itd take you this long to ask, Chris said. Marys got them over at her place.
Pushing himself to his feet, he said, reckon Ill go check on m then. Tell y what, Ill be back later...bring some cards n a bottle. See if I cant help y pass the time, he winked and grinned at the bedridden man.
Appreciate it pard, the gunslinger said. Can you do me another favor?
Sure, name it.
Can you ask Nathan if I can have my pants back? Tell him I promise to behave myself and stay in bed.
Seeing the pained and embarrassed expression on the handsome face, Vin could only laugh. Ill ask...but I aint promisin nothin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin walked out of the afternoon sun into the dimness of the newspaper office. By the time his eyes had adjusted, he found himself being set upon from two directions. Hannah threw her arms around his narrow waist, while Benny wrapped his around one of the mans legs.
Mary looked up from her printing press. Hello, she said with a glint in her green eyes.
Howdy, maam, Vin returned with the shy tone he typically spoke to her in. He pulled his hat off, settling it on Bennys head, and ran a hand through his curling hair. These varmints been any trouble?
Other than making it quite clear that they miss you, theyve been fine, she told him.
Vin looked at the two children still clinging to him. With his usual stoic grace, he said, aw, its just that theyve been through a lot. I happened t be there when they needed someone.
Theres more to it than that, I think, Mary said with a shake of her blond head.
Vin had no answer, so he said nothing. Instead, he asked, hows Sarah Anne?
Im having a hard time keeping up with her, Mary said with a smile. Shes making up for lost time eating I think.
Good. I was worried that... he trailed off, only transmitting his fears with his eyes.
Shell be fine...fat and sassy, the widow Travis assured him.
Looking around, he asked, wheres Aaron?
At the livery stable. Hes been there most of the day. He certainly loves horses, doesnt he?
Yes, maam, he does. Look, I was gonna go get somethin t eat. Ill take these two with me...uh, would you like to join us maam?
No, Id better finish up here. I imagine that Sarah Anne will be calling for another bottle pretty soon, anyway. But thank you for the invitation.
Yes, maam, he nodded, touching the wide brim of his hat. Lifting Benny in one arm and taking Hannah by the hand, he left the cool dimness of the office. Mary stood at the window, watching the young hunter moving down the street with his charges. She laughed to herself at the sight. Of all of the peacekeepers she would never have pictured Vin Tanner trooping along the street with children in tow. But somehow it looked very natural.
+ + + + + + +
During the next three weeks they settled into a routine that became more familiar and comfortable with each passing day. While Mary was better able to handle the daily routine of caring for the children, Vin was close at hand as long as he was in town. Twice he and the other men had been called away on a job for the Judge, but he returned as quickly as possible. The others chuckled among themselves at the sight of the quiet tracker dashing from the livery to the newspaper office as soon as he could dismount. He spent most of each day and on into the evening with the Lewis children, helping tuck them in before he left. The older children were always eagerly awaiting the hunters appearance each morning, when he would escort them all to breakfast.
As soon as they had eaten, Aaron would hurry off to his job at the livery. The livery man, Yosemite, had taken a liking to the boy, and allowed him to curry and exercise whatever animals were boarded there. While Mary took Sarah Anne back to the office with her, Vin go off with Hannah and Benny. Fishing and hunting trips, riding lessons and other things that were within the mans area of expertise were patiently shared with the two children. While she did not yet speak, Hannah was slowly becoming a normal child in every other way. Benny no longer cried day and night, reserving his tears for such important traumas as skinned knees and dropped licorice whips.
But even though they enjoyed the routine of each day, a sense of impermanence surrounded them. Word had been sent back East to the Carys, the only other living people with an attachment to the children. Without knowing where the family of orphans would be living in the months to come, they could make no plans past each sundown. And nagging in the corners of Vins mind was one question. What would they do if the Careys could not take the children?
+ + + + + + +
Mornin Miz Travis, Vin greeted Mary at the door of the newspaper office.
Good morning, Vin, she replied with a smile. Her grin widened as she watched Hannah and Benny fly across the room and leap into his waiting arms. Tanner laughed and swung them around. Hannah threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
Well, thank you, Miss Hannah, he grinned down at her. Turning to the newspaper woman, he said, sure is a beautiful day out there. Thought Id see if yalld like to go on a picnic?
Yea! Benny yelled. Hannahs grip around Tanners neck tightened.
Laughing, Vin said, how bout you, maam?
I think I could manage to take a few hours away from here, Mary answered.
Is hopin youd say that. Theyre puttin us together a picnic basket at the restaurant.
Rolling her eyes, the pretty blond said, well then I suppose I should go get ready. Ill take care of Sarah Annes lunch.
Yes maam. Ill go see if Aaron wants to join us, and get a buckboard.
+ + + + + + +
They were all soon on their way out of town. Buck and Josiah, sitting outside the sheriffs office, watched them approach.
Hey, if that aint the picture of family bliss, I dont know what is, Buck called out. Yall goin somewhere special?
Were goin on a picnic! little Benny yelled.
A picnic! Whatcha think, Josiah? Should we join m? the ex-lawman asked with a broad grin. His dark blue eyes flashed impishly as he started to climb to his feet.
The ex-priest did not answer, but simply winked at the children.
Buck, Josiah, Vin said as he gallantly tipped his hat. Sorry Buck, I dont think youd be a very good influence on the kids.
OW! Buck hooted, clutching his chest and falling back in his chair. You do me wrong, son...you do me wrong!
Shaking his head, Josiah put a hand on Wilmingtons shoulder and said yall have a good time. Ill make sure Buck stays put.
Laughing, Tanner said, much obliged, Josiah, as he shook the reins and started the horses off.
+ + + + + + +
This is nice, Mary said contentedly. She and the hunter were sitting on a blanket, watching the three older Lewis children. Aaron was chasing Hannah and Benny in a game of tag. Cuddled in Marys lap, Sarah Anne found fascination in one of her tiny hands.
I gotta say, this is a lot less excitin then chasin down bad guys for the Judge, Vin said quietly. Kinda wish itd stay like this... he trailed off. Exchanging a look with the pretty blond, he sighed.
Vin, Mary said softly, all you can do is enjoy the moment with them, until things are settled.
Yeah... he whispered.
A cry came to them and turning, they looked to see Benny crumpled in a heap on the ground, Hannah and Aaron hovering over him. Vin sprang to his feet and sprinted across the grass to the little boy. Mary watched as he gathered the crying child in his arms and came back to the blanket.
Its okay, Benny, he said softly, youll be okay pard.
Im sorry Benny, Aaron said as he came along behind. Vin, Im sorry. I tripped and feel into him. I didnt mean to make him fall. The older boy looked on the verge of tears.
Course y didnt, Vin consoled the worried boy. Hes gonna be okay, he sat on the blanket, still holding Benny, gently rocking him as he looked him over. Finding a skinned knee, Tanner cleaned it with his kerchief. Slowly the child quieted; he snuggled against the tracker contentedly.
Mary watched as Vin slowly rocked the younger Lewis boy, mumbling words of comfort and stroking the little auburn head. She smiled at the sight of the scruffy young hunter so comfortably caring for the little boy.
+ + + + + + +
The day passed all too quickly for the little group of picnickers. Reluctantly they packed up the buckboard and turned it toward town. While Sarah Anne slept contentedly in Marys arms, Vin sat next to them, guiding the horses. Behind them in the wagon bed, the other three children rode. Glancing back, the woman nudged Tanner. Turning, he couldnt help but smile. Curled up on either side of their older brother, Hannah and Benny were fast asleep. Aaron sat quietly, an arm protectively around each sibling. Well, one things for certain, the hunter said wistfully, no matter what, theyll always be a family as long as Aarons got anything to say about it.
+ + + + + + +
As they reached the edge of town, Vin took a deep breath and motioned ahead. Stages in.
Do you think there will be word? Mary asked.
Yeah, he replied, I do. He watched as Chris stepped out of the sheriffs office. Reining the horses in near the man in black, Vin looked down from the wagon seat.
Chris could see the emotions at war on the younger mans handsome face. Looks like you had a nice day.
Yep, Vin replied. Mighty nice. Looking at the white paper in the mans hand, he said, that the letter?
Yeah, Chris replied. Even if Vin had been able to read, Chris knew he would have spared his friend the pain of being the first to receive the news.
Whats it say? Tanner asked quickly. He was afraid to hear the answer, but at the same time wanted it to be the best answer for the childrens future.
It says the Carys will take the children...all four of them. He paused to watch Vin for a few seconds before continuing on. Seems they never had children of their own, and pretty much adopted the Lewis. They sent money for stage fare back East. Even extra for someone to go with them.
The young man nodded, struggling to find his voice. When he did speak, he could not mask the emotion in his words. Well...alright then...
Want me to take the buckboard to the livery for you? Larabee asked.
Uh...no... Vin replied. Ill do it. Could...could you help Mary with the...the kids?
Sure, Chris said, his voice filled with compassion for his hurting friend. He moved to the bed of the wagon and lifted Hannah and Benny into his arms. Aaron bounded onto the street and came around to take Sarah Anne from Mary.
With a bittersweet smile, Mary squeezed Tanners arm quickly. Thank you Vin, it was a memorable day.
Unable to speak, the young man simply nodded and helped her from the wagon. As they walked down the street, Vin sat watching them, suddenly feeling very much alone. Taking a ragged breath, he turned the horses toward the stable.
+ + + + + + +
Morning came far too soon, especially for Vin Tanner. He had spent the night awake, sitting in Mary Travis parlor, near the makeshift beds that the children slept in. He simply sat there, watching each child in turn as they slept peacefully. It was a far cry from the scene earlier in the evening, when they had discussed yet another change in their young lives. While Aaron accepted the news with silent resignation, Benny and Hannah had clung to Vin, tears and cries of protest flailing at his already breaking heart. They cared little for his entreaty that they would have much better lives with the Careys, even promises of visits meant little in the face of abandonment. They wanted nothing but his guarantee that they could stay with him. It was the one thing that he himself wanted, but could not give. He was a man with a price on his head and a violent life. He was not the man to raise four children. Deep inside that man cried out to be given a chance, but was silenced. Vin knew that even if he did change his life, his past would always threaten the safety of the children he had come to love.
Just as dawn broke, Mary came into the room. Already dressed, she brought the young man a mug of coffee. Handing it to the hunter, she said, I thought youd still be here.
Yes maam, he whispered.
Kneeling next to him, she gently touched his shoulder. Are you okay?
The kids are gonna have a good home, with people they know. Theyll be safe, and theyll be able to stay together. Thats the important thing.
But thats not what I asked you Vin, she insisted.
Looking away, Tanner said, no Mary, I cant say that Im alright. If not in his eyes, there were tears in his voice.
+ + + + + + +
The stage was set to leave at 11:00 a.m. It had been decided that Mary would be the best candidate to make the trip to deliver the Lewis children to the Careys. Josiah and Chris had promised to take care of the paper while she was gone, while the other men would handle the peacekeeping responsibilities for the town.
Vin wanted nothing more than to climb into that coach as well...to grab every moment that he could with the children. In the end, however, he acknowledged his duty to both the town and the other peacekeepers. He knew, too, that if he were to make the trip with the children, that it would only delay...and make even harder... the inevitable parting.
The sound of male laughter a short time later announced the arrival of the other six men who kept the peace in the little town. Each man entered the newspaper office carrying a package. Doffing their hats to the pretty editor, they stood just inside the door, each smiling broad Cheshire cat smiles.
We come bearing gifts, dear lady, Ezra Standish announced with a dimpled grin.
So I see, Mary said. To what do we owe this visit?
We thought wed see the little ones off in style, maam, Nathan Jackson explained.
Calling to Vin and the children, Mary ushered the men inside. Aaron, Hannah and Benny scurried in to greet the men. Tanner followed, carrying the baby easily in one arm. After some small talk, the men bestowed the packages upon the children. The sounds of ripping paper and laughter soon filled the room. When it was over, each child had a new outfit. Hannah also found a porcelain doll in her package. There was a rag doll for Sarah Anne and a wooden train for Benny. Aaron stared in wide-eyed wonder at his special gift; an exquisitely carved and painted wooden horse. With expressions of pure joy, the two boys thanked the men. Wordless still, Hannah shyly hugged each man in turn.
The time to leave had arrived. The children were dressed in their new clothes, their old ones tucked away in Marys valise. Vin carried Hannah and Benny to the stage. The mood had grown somber. Even Sarah Anne seemed to sense the mixed emotions of the others. Reaching the stage, Tanner lowered the children to the ground. He spoke to each one in turn. Now, Benny, I want you to be a good boy, okay? You listen to Mary and Aaron and mind the Careys when you get there.
Okay, Vin, the little boy said. Tears shone brightly in his eyes. Vin?
I wish you was goin with us! The tears broke free, streaming down his freckled face.
Hey pard, itll be okay. Youre gonna have your own home pretty soon, with folks that can take care of you proper, Vin made his voice strong against his own emotions.
O-okay... the little boy stuttered when he could speak.
With a final hug, Tanner turned to Hannah. You, little darlin, are gonna grow up to be one beautiful lady, he said with a faint smile. I hope that someday youll find your voice again. Im bettin its just as pretty as you are.
The little girl threw her arms around the lean man and sobbed against his jacket. Wrapping his arms around her, the hunter held her tightly for several minutes. When he released her, she placed one small hand on his cheek. Staring intently into his eyes, she seemed to be reaching into his soul. Vin took a shuttering breath and gulped back a sob. The tears threatened to escape his blue eyes ever more insistently. Finally Hannah smiled and bestowed him with a kiss on the cheek. Returning it, Vin released her and turned then to Aaron.
Son, you take good care of your brother and sisters, hear?
Yes, Vin, the boy replied softly.
You do somethin else though, too, Vin continued.
You have fun sometimes. Okay?
With a grin of mischief, Aaron answered, yes sir. Then sobering, he looked directly into the mans face. Vin? Chris told me somethin back there in the cave. He told me that bein a man dont mean you never cry. He said a real man knows when somethins important enough to cry over. With that he broke into noisy sobs as he wrapped his child-thin arms around the man. Vin held him, letting the little man of the family be a child for a few all-to-brief moments. Finally they parted and Aaron ushered his siblings toward the stage.
Taking Sarah Anne from Mary so that she could enter the coach, Vin stroked the infants downy-soft cheek. Sweetie, youre the lucky one. Youll never even remember any of this. But...Ill always remember you. Kissing her on the forehead, he handed the little girl reluctantly up to Marys waiting arms.
Closing the door, Tanner took a final look inside. Three tear-stained little faces looked back at him, miserable at leaving the man that had come to mean so much to each of them. Mary looked out at him as well, her own tears held in check, compassion etched across her beautiful face.
Its going to be all right Vin, she said softly.
Afraid to attempt words, Tanner simply nodded. Then clearing his throat, he turned to the children. Yall be good...listen to Mary...and...Ill uh...Ill never forget... any of you.
The children continued crying, their faces beseeching him not to abandon them. Moving back, Vin motioned the driver to go. As the stage started off, three auburn heads appeared in the coach windows. Three tear-stained faces burned themselves into the hunters mind and heart. Three hands waved vigorously as they were carried away. Standing motionless in the street, Tanner raised a hand in return. It wasnt until the coach was completely out of sight that he realized he was not alone. Chris hand gently squeezed his shoulder.
Hey pard, Larabee said. What say I bring a bottle and a couple of glasses to your place in about an hour?
With a nod, Tanner said, sounds good. His head down, the lanky man strode quickly up the street, breaking into a run as he sought the refuge of his tiny room. He needed the privacy of walls right now.
Chris Larabee watched him. He knew something of the pain the other man was feeling. He knew, too, that time would ease that pain... but it would never go away.