Disclaimers: The Magnificent Seven are owned by others.
Comments: Chris contemplates the four year anniversary of the seven, and - to his chagrin - he's quite emotional about it all. All seven are here, but this is really Chris and Vin's moment. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Warnings: A few curse words.
"I'll take first watch," Vin says.
And it's so familiar, so expected, that I don't even look up at him. I just nod and continue untying my bedroll. A hundred times or more, Vin has come to me and said those same words in that same, calm manner. Just over fours years have passed since he said it the first time, that evening after Anderson's attack on the Indian village.
Four years . . .
A lot has happened in four years, a lot has changed. And some things haven't changed at all, I think, shaking my head as Buck and JD bicker behind me. It seems to be about the proper way to build a campfire this time; earlier it was over the best way to snare a rabbit that had the great misfortune of crossing our trail. Vin got so tired of their carryin' on, that he took out his mare's leg and shot the poor thing. Not much left of it to cook, but I'll bet that won't stop Buck from telling JD exactly how he needs to skin it.
I toss my bedding to the ground and catch an earful of Ezra's laughter, probably at something Josiah said. They're already setting up for a long night of cards; Nathan joining in. You'd think those two would know better after four years, but somehow Ezra still manages to talk them into it. He'll let them both win a hand or two - just enough to keep them interested - but he'll walk away with most of what they've got in their pockets by the end of the evening. I guess they know that, and I guess they figure it's worth it.
It's a strange combination - an ex-preacher, an ex-slave, and a southern gambler - but they get on real well. Most of the time, anyway. There was a time there when Ezra and Josiah had a problem. Ezra was doing everything he could to keep his mother away from Josiah, and it didn't sit well with Sanchez, not well at all. More than once, Ezra found himself on the wrong side of Josiah's temper - as well as his fist. Turned out it wasn't Maude that Ezra was trying to protect, it was Josiah. She's been coming around a lot more the last few years. She says it's to see her son, but it's clear she's got feelings for Josiah, even if she can't admit it yet. Talk about an unlikely combination - I snicker just picturing Josiah quoting scripture to Maude.
"Somethin' funny, Chris?" Josiah asks, and I notice all of the boys have stopped what they're doing to stare at me.
"No," I answer, as casually as I can. As much as I'd love to rile Ezra up by asking if he intends to call Josiah "Pa" after the wedding, I decide it might be best to keep the peace for tonight.
It looks like Nathan and Rain will be the first to tie the knot - the ceremony is planned for next month, in fact - but all of the boys have feelings for someone. Well, except me and Vin. Yeah, it won't be long now until we have a few more weddings, and maybe some children soon after. I wait for the familiar ache to settle in my chest, but it doesn't come. Truth is, I'd be pleased, real pleased if any of my friends were blessed in that way.
"What the devil are you grinnin' at, Chris?" Buck says to me then.
Caught daydreaming again, I quickly reply, "Nothin'."
I know the ribbing I'd take if I confessed what I was pondering on. Weddings? Babies? What the hell is wrong with me? Probably should have walked away four years ago. But even as I think that, I know I couldn't have done it then, anymore than I could do it now.
Buck cocks his head at me, but it's not long before JD's drawn him back into their conversation, if you can call it that.
We almost lost Buck about a year ago. An angry father took a rifle to him and it was almost a month before he was on his feet again. After I got done being scared, I got angry. I remember that time when he insisted on dueling Don Paulo with those swords. I was furious with him then, but only because I didn't want to lose him over his damn pride. Well, this time was worse. I always figured he'd end up getting killed because he'd bed the wrong woman, but I hoped I would be wrong. Once he was on the mend, I lit into him - told him it was time he grew up and started thinking with his head instead of his . . . well, with other parts of his body. To my utter amazement, he told me I was right. It wasn't long after that he and Inez finally got together. I guess seein' Buck so bad off made her think about what she really wanted, too.
I get my bed roll smoothed out and sit down, but I'm feeling restless, so I get up again and head for my horse. I guess I must have sighed, because Nathan speaks up, "Chris? You feelin' alright?"
I ain't about to say that I'm feeling a little emotional and a lot sentimental for some damn reason, so I just nod and say, "Yep. You?"
They're all looking at me strangely again, but I just ignore them as I pull off my saddle and start brushing down my horse, glad to have an action to go with all the thoughts that keep twisting around my head tonight.
JD has Casey, of course. He tried to fight it for a long time, tried to tell himself he needed more excitement, more experience, more time. But the older she got, the prettier she got, and it finally dawned on the kid that if he didn't grab hold of her, someone else would. And since Nettie died last year and she moved to town, well, it won't be long now until they settle down.
Nettie's death was hard on Casey and JD, but it seemed like Vin took it worse. I can't say for sure because none of us saw him for two weeks after. He disappeared without a word, and came back lookin' like a man who'd spent fourteen days in the desert with no food and no sleep. But once he came back, he was back. That very day, in fact, a gang came through and tried to rob the bank. Vin took out half of them from the roof of the hotel, then walked to the saloon and shared a bottle of whiskey with me, and it was like he was never gone.
That's pretty much the way it is now, me and Vin sharing a bottle. Even Ezra's got better things to do, since Li Pong came back to town. He put her to work in the hotel, and even though he uses the excuse that he's tutoring her to spend time with her, we all know better.
I stop what I'm doing for a minute and just take in the quiet. Well, not exactly quiet, not with these men around. Buck's broke open a bottle, while what's left of the rabbit hangs over what appears to be a pretty decent fire, in spite of the clowning around that went in to making it. Even Nathan's drinking tonight, his voice a pitch louder than normal. Josiah must be in a mood, because Ezra can't seem to stop laughing, and I know he's not that drunk yet. But they're entitled. It was a long week trailing a couple of outlaws who'd gotten in the habit of leaving no witnesses behind. We circled them down in a canyon, and even though we gave them the option of coming out alive, they chose not to take it. To their credit, I reckon they weren't aware that Vin could shoot the wings off a fly from a hundred yards up.
It's shaping up to be a well-deserved celebration, except that one thing - or one person - is missing, and that seems unfair all of the sudden.
"How come Vin always has to take first watch?" I ask.
They all look at me kind of startled, but Buck speaks up first. "Cause he always offers to," he says, like that's answer enough.
"Cause he likes it," JD agrees, still messing around with that damn fool rabbit. Ain't enough meat there to feed him, let alone the seven of us, but he don't seem to care.
"Mr. Tanner feels more secure once he knows there are no immediate threats to our well-being. And of course, he has an innate need to feel useful . . . which I for one will never fathom." Ezra adds that last part under his breath.
"Brother Vin needs his space, Chris. He's spent all day with us, after all. Can't blame the man for feeling crowded."
I frown, suddenly irritated. How is it they thought of all of these things and I didn't?
Nathan adds the final point. "His back aches him after ridin' all day. Takes a few hours for the pain t' ease up, for him t' sleep."
They all get quiet at that, and it hits me right then how much they really care about Vin - how much they really care about each other.
"Think I'll go up and . . ." And what? I can't complete the sentence because I'm not sure what to say. Check on Vin? Hell, Vin can take care of himself and they all know it. Talk to Vin? Ain't like I haven't been talking to the man all day. But I thought I saw something today during that gunfight, and I might just need to check it out. That's what I tell myself anyway.
They're all looking at me funny again, like they're not sure what's come over me, and I can't say I blame them. I'm not sure myself. This all started when I got to thinking about us being together four years, but I'm sure not going to tell them that.
"You get more than ten bites out of that rabbit," I say, switching the subject, "bring a taste up to me and Vin."
JD grins, until Buck pipes up and says, "Hell, Chris, won't be nothin' left for any of us to chew, the way JD skinned the damn thing. I told you, JD, that you have to peel that pelt off real gentle-like, kinda like you would Casey's-"
"Buck! Will you shut up already?" JD yells, and even after all these years, he still blushes.
I head up the trail, listening to the boys bantering behind me. It's gonna be one of those nights, and maybe Vin had the right idea, getting away for a spell.
He's got his back propped up against a rock, one leg stretched out and the other pulled up, his arms wrapped loosely around his knee. I can see by the way he's favoring his left side that Nathan is right, his back is aching. And it makes me wonder exactly how much what he does costs him. On and off his mount all day long, stooping to find a sign in the rock or sand, long hours in the saddle - hard on a healthy back. Probably pure torture on one that's curved, like Vin's.
He's looking out over the mountain range, the sun just starting to set, and I'm reminded of a night four years ago, when he told me about the bounty on his head. A pang of guilt hits me still, even three years gone since I killed Eli Joe, because that's one of the things that hasn't changed in four years - Vin's still wanted. We tried, me and him, three or four times now to go on down to Tascosa and get it cleared up, but something always came up that took precedence. He hasn't even asked lately, I just now realize.
He's got a book in his hands, though how he can see the words in the dim light is beyond me. But ever since Mary taught him to read, I seldom see him without one. I thought at first that he was just trying to make up for lost time; like maybe he thought he didn't quite measure up to the rest of us and he needed to catch up. Now I know he just enjoys reading, even though he tosses the book to the ground and frowns at me as I approach.
"You read this yet?" he says, gesturing towards the discarded dime novel.
"Well don't bother. It's stupid. Wrestlin' a grizzly with his bare hands," he mutters. "What kind of a fool would do somethin' like that? Ain't even possible." He's shaking his head, and I can tell he thinks this is really serious, so I resist the urge to smile.
"Yeah," I say, as I take a seat beside him. "Maybe you could write it better . . . write your own book."
His eyes grow wide in surprise, then narrow as he looks at me intently. He knows a challenge when he hears one, and he knows me even better, so it only takes him about five seconds to come back with a reply. "Sure thing, Chris. I'll do that in my spare time. It'll be all about this stubborn, bossy gunslinger who thinks he's funny, even though he only speaks three words in a day."
"Ah - a short story then."
He snorts and changes the subject. "You feel the need t' check on me? Or are the boys driving you crazy already?"
"Both," I answer honestly. "Just wanted t' be sure you're alright - considering that fall you took today."
Now he's really taken aback, just like I knew he would be. He had no idea that I knew - that I saw.
"How did you . . .?"
"I always know where you are, Vin," I answer quietly, feeling emotional again. My heart damn near stopped when I looked up at that cliff and saw Vin slip behind the boulders. I didn't think he was hit, but until he poked his head back up a few minutes later, I wasn't sure.
His eyes are on mine, pondering what I said, but he finally finds his voice. "Lost my footing on the rock. Wasn't nothin'. Just got distracted, I guess."
"Or tired. How much you slept in the last week?"
Big frown now, his lower lip jutting out like he's five years old. And I want to grin, but I know Vin wouldn't take kindly to that, so I hold my mouth as tight as I can.
"Slept enough," he spits out.
"How bad is it?"
His eyes are on mine again, and like every time I show him that I'm concerned, that I care, he is at once awed, grateful, and a bit pissed off. But he doesn't lie to me, can't lie to me. Not after four years. "Felt better, but I've felt a hell of a lot worse, too."
I won't get any more out of him than that, but because I'm feeling so unlike myself tonight, I say things I normally wouldn't. "You scared the shit out of me. Thought you were hit."
The setting sun lights his eyes just right, and for a moment, I think I see moisture there. But just that quick, that dimple creases his face and he says, "Nope. No such luck, Cowboy. Looks like you're stuck with me for another four years."
I might have known that Vin would recognize this anniversary of sorts. And if he's feeling half as sentimental about it as I seem to be, we could be in trouble here. "I reckon I can stand it," I say, grinning back at him now.
He turns his head back towards the skyline and sighs. "Lot of changes over the last four years . . . and more on the way, I reckon."
"Yeah, but some things haven't changed." I know I shouldn't bring it up, but for some reason, tonight it seems too important to let it lie another day. "You're still wanted."
"And you still haven't found Ella," he says softly.
I hadn't expected that, even though he's right. I often wonder if the reason Vin and I haven't attached ourselves to a woman is because neither one of us is truly free. But as much as I want to find Ella - find justice for my family - slaying Vin's demon needs to come first.
And I tell him so. "Ella is my past, Vin. But your name, your freedom is your future."
"Ain't the way I see it," he says, his eyes dark and deadly now as he faces me. "Eli's dead. He can't hurt me anymore. But that bitch is still out there and she won't rest until she has you."
"And I won't rest until we clear your name."
It's true. Even though I'm running out of ideas how to do that. Travis did what he could - even tried to arrange a pardon for Vin. But Vin - the damn stubborn fool - put a stop to it; said he didn't "cotton t' bein' excused for somethin' I didn't do." I thought I just might have to shoot him myself when he said that. "Free is free, Vin," I yelled as he walked away from me and Travis both. Of course, that's not exactly so and I know it. I know a man has his pride, his honor - sometimes that's all he has, and I imagine that's been the truth of Vin's life even more than most. But just like when Buck was so determined to fight Don Paulo, I couldn't see Vin's pride being worth his life.
"Well then you're right," Vin snaps at me, his eyes glittering with what I've come to know is a deadly combination of anger and frustration. "Gonna be a damn short story because she's gonna kill you if we don't find her first!"
Now I'm mad because he just doesn't seem to get it. "There won't be any story because you won't be around to write it because some damn bounty hunter's gonna kill you if we don't clear your name!"
"Uh, boys?" Buck clears his throat behind us, and Vin and I both jump.
"What?" We growl together.
"Brought you the uh, rabbit."
Vin's looking at Buck like he's crazy, but Buck just hands him a stick with a few chunks of meat on it and smiles. "Wasn't enough t' go around," Buck patiently explains, "so we figured you two could share it. After all, Vin made the kill."
He leaves as quickly as he came, and Vin looks at the meat, then looks at me. "What the hell?" he says. "They actually roasted this pitiful thing?"
"If you thought it was so pitiful, why did you shoot it?" I ask, glad to ease the tension a bit.
"Figured you'd rather I shoot the rabbit than shoot Buck."
Of course I have to laugh at that.
But Vin doesn't. He's turned his head towards the horizon again, and all I can see in the fading light is his profile.
"It's too late for me, Chris," he says, his voice way too flat for my comfort. "It's been too long. But if it makes you feel better, I reckon I'll take that pardon." He pauses and I wait, knowing there's more to come. "Just so long as you know that I'm goin' after Ella. Been sendin' some telegrams . . . got some ideas where t' start."
A sound leaves my mouth, a gasp I guess, because I knew Vin was up to something - I knew he was spending half a day's pay at the telegraph office - but it never dawned on me that he was doing it for me.
Ironic, isn't it? Vin's more worried about my future, while all I can think about is his. He doesn't want a pardon, doesn't want forgiveness for a crime he's innocent of, but he'll take it to ease my mind. And damn it all, I'm just selfish enough to hold him to it.
"Alright," I say. "You take the pardon - for now. We'll find Ella - together. And then we'll work on clearing your name - setting the record straight."
"Hell, that'll take another four years . . . at least," he says, but I hear the grin in his voice. It's a good plan and he knows it.
"Yep. And you can write that book in the meantime."
He scoffs. "I'll get right on it."
"Oh, and hey Vin? When you do get to writing, do you think I - I mean the bossy gunfighter - could kill a grizzly with his bare hands? I kinda like the sound of that."
"No," he answers emphatically. "Already told you - that's just stupid."
"How 'bout a wolf? Or a mountain lion?"
He rolls his eyes. "Who's writing this thing? Me or you?"
I laugh. "Oh definitely you, Pard. It's all yours." But because my emotions keep running away with me, I have to add one more thing. "Just be sure you include the gunfighter's best friend. There wouldn't be a story without him."
It's too dark now for me to see his face, but I hear Vin swallow before he says, "I reckon he feels the same."
We sit quietly for a minute before Vin remembers the rabbit meat he's holding. He pulls off a chunk and passes the stick to me. But before he takes a bite, he says, "Might could kill a rabbit with your bare hands."
I shake my head. "Nope. Even stubborn, bossy gunslingers aren't so heartless as to slaughter a poor, innocent bunny."
"Aw hell," Vin mutters. "Should've just shot Buck. Probably take less grief for it."
I can't stop smiling as I lean back against a boulder and take a moment to soak up the quiet. The stars seem to be lighting up the sky one by one, and it's an amazing display. Beside me, Vin sighs.
I drift back again to that night four years ago when Vin told me his secret, offered me his trust. Another vow has been made here tonight, and whether it takes Vin and I four years or forty, we'll stand together, slay our demons together.
And with a little luck, our short story just might make one hell of a long novel.