Author's Note: Small spoiler for the M7 episodes Sins of the Past and The Collector.
Fifth story in the Christmas Wish series.
"Don't know a murderer by the name of Vin Tanner," Chris Larabee answered calmly, hand resting on his ebony gunbelt near the butt of his Colt.
Standing hip-shot, the lean form was slightly in front of five of the other peacekeepers near the saloon and faced two lawmen who from their accents were from Texas. One was holding up a wanted poster with a rough sketch on it.
The visitors weren't Rangers, and would have been met with skepticism even if they had claimed to be. The Magnificent Seven, as they were known, had been down that road before with fakes who worked for the man who had really committed the murder Tanner was wanted for.
Leaning carefully on his saddle horn, the older of the two raised an eyebrow. He wasn't putting his hand anywhere near his pistol, however. He recognized the tall blond before him, and the posture that was casually deceptive. He'd seen Larabee shoot before, and the man was fast.
"Heard there were seven of you boys. Only see six . . . " he commented mildly, spitting a stream of tobacco juice away from the black boots near him. He wasn't a coward, but he didn't have a death wish, either.
"There are," answered Larabee easily. "And we do have a Vin ridin' with us, but it's Taylor. Never seen this guy who murdered someone in Texas."
Five heads nodded emphatically in corroboration of the famous gunfighter's statement. Five hands rested on or near their weapons, but no one made any threating movements at the moment.
"Alright. Mind if we have a drink, maybe talk to the barkeep and a couple of other people, just to see if any of them have heard of this fella?"
Chris made a slight gesture with his left arm toward the batwing doors behind him.
The whole town was fond of the quiet and polite sharpshooter who made up the seventh member of Larabee's force, so the leader had no fear that someone would betray their secret. It had been decided some time ago that if anyone came asking for Vin Tanner, that the residents would admit that there was a Vin among the peacekeepers, but that his name was Taylor.
Larabee and Standish followed the two men into the saloon, while Wilmington, Dunne, Jackson, and Sanchez wandered off nonchalantly to have a word with a few of the townsfolk.
The two visiting lawmen spoke to Inez, had a couple of drinks, and asked two or three of the other occupants of the saloon if they knew Vin Tanner, but received negative responses from all of them.
Satisfied, and not wanting to incur Larabee's ire by speaking to the whole town, the travelers mounted their horses after an hour or so and headed out. Wilmington and Dunne saddled their steeds and ambled out the other direction, circling around to make sure the visitors really left the area.
Once the dark-haired duo were back and had reported that the lawmen were steadily heading east, Chris got up and strode casually out the back of the saloon.
Looking up, he tilted his head just a bit toward the roof of the building. The handsome figure then went around to lean against one of the front posts, fingers absently touching the silver-trimmed holster he wore high on his hip.
A buckskin-clad form slipped up beside him like a ghost just a few minutes later. Resting against the other side of the pole like a tawny mirror image of Larabee's dark shape, Tanner's sky-blue eyes peered out from under his low cavalry hat as his own hand drifted down to rest on his mare's leg.
"They gone?" inquired the soft, accented tones.
The black hat dipped once as the gunman nodded. "Yep. Told 'em we didn't know any murderer from Texas named Vin Tanner," replied Chris just as quietly. One corner of the sculpted lips curved up in a tiny grin. "Reckon it was the truth, too. I don't know Vin Tanner the murderer, just Vin Tanner the falsely accused."
The tracker gave a small return smile and a nod of thanks, then he sobered.
"I 'preciate ya belivin' in me, Chris . . . you and the rest of the boys. But I wish I could clear this up. I hate not bein' able to use my own name! My ma said not to ever forget I was a Tanner, and my name's all I've got. It bothers me to have to pretend I'm somebody else in situations like this."
"I know, Vin," answered Larabee in commiseration. "And I know me killin' Eli Joe set back our plans for clearin' you. But we'll figure out something else. Even if I have to go to Texas and threaten the governor himself . . . " murmured the low voice.
And Tanner knew Chris would do just that, if it was the only way. But he didn't want Larabee to end up in jail or with a bounty on his own head because he was trying to help his friend. The lean blond was imposing enough on a good day, and if he went to 'talk' to the governor, it wouldn't be a good day. The tall form would come across as deadly and dangerous, which he definitely was. And Vin didn't think the Texas government would appreciate the other man's efforts like he did!
He just said "Thanks, Cowboy," though.
Between the seven of them, hopefully they could come up with something that would work. If not, he'd live with the bounty like he'd been doing for several years now. It just made him sad that he couldn't use his name proudly, like his ma had wanted. He really wished he could say he was a Tanner without having to have his hand on his gun when he did so . . .
+ + + + + + +
A few weeks later, the sharpshooter was on the roof of the bank as two would-be robbers tried to make their escape out the back to avoid the imposing figure in the black duster who stood at ease in the street near the front door. Josiah was posted on the top of the church as lookout in case there were more of the thieves, and JD had already taken the horses of the duo in the bank to the livery and had Tiny watching them, so the men weren't going anywhere astride anytime soon. Buck was carelessly leaning on a post at the hardware store while Ezra stood in front of the saloon with a look of expectation on his face and his hand on his Remington. Nathan had been called out to the nearby Indian village, so it was in the robbers' best interests to surrender if they wanted to avoid needing medical help. JD helpfully pointed that out as he came back up to stand beside Chris.
But not ready to call it quits just yet, the pair scuttled out the back, clutching a few paltry dollars that they were able to pry out of the till behind the counter. The safe was still securely locked, the banker and teller having gotten Larabee's routine down to a science and evacuating as soon as the door opened to admit the strangers with drawn pistols.
The second man had barely set foot on the dirt behind the bank when Vin sent a couple of warnings into the ground beside each one. The two stopped and looked up in shock, apparently unaware that the town boasted a sharpshooter who liked to go high.
A mild grin curved Tanner's mobile mouth as he moved the barrel of his rifle a few feet upward.
"Reckon you boys might as well drop your guns and put yer hands up. Ya ain't goin' anywhere, even if I have to put a hole in ya. And like JD said, our healer's out of town right now."
Larabee's tall form had entered the bank and the soft voice now spoke from behind them. "Of course, we could just shoot you in the head or heart and you won't need Nathan," offered the gunman with a smirk that was somehow more scary than a scowl would have been.
"Yeah, if you're smart you'll just give up now," added Dunne as he came around the corner. "Chris and Vin don't miss!"
However intelligence wasn't a trait the Seven often encountered in the common criminal, and the duo tried to make a run away from the building. Vin got one in the foot and the other in the leg, causing both to come to a literal screaming halt as they dropped their weapons and reached to stem the blood starting to flow freely from their appendages.
Chris stepped out where he could see Tanner. The tracker gave a shrug and a grin as he prepared to come down. JD had his Lightnings trained on both men, and Vin could see Buck and Ezra converging on the alley as well. Josiah was climbing down from the church roof to come offer his services as a somewhat rougher version of caregiver than Jackson, although he had a feeling Nathan wouldn't have been too gentle in this case either.
The blond waited for the sharpshooter to reach the ground, shaking his head at the howls the two barely wounded thieves were making. Tanner joined him and shook his sandy head as he casually moved his rifle to his shoulder.
"Is it just me, or are we gettin' dumber criminals around here lately?" asked the raspy voice with a note of humor.
The green gaze of the leader flicked over the noisy pair dismissively.
"Should'a just shot 'em in the heart when we had the chance. At least they wouldn't be givin' me a headache . . . "
Laughing quietly, Vin joined Chris in heading for the saloon as JD and Buck herded the still screeching pair toward the jail. Now the robbers were complaining about Josiah's bandaging technique. Apparently they didn't appreciate having the former priest poke a finger in their bullet wounds, tell 'em they'd live, and tie a couple of clean rags over the holes with a little more enthusiasm and strength than necessary.
At least he hadn't had to worry about giving his last name this time, Tanner thought with a silent grin.
+ + + + + + +
Judge Travis couldn't come to town for the trail of the would-be robbers, so Chris and Buck took the men to him. After the sentencing, the judge spent some time in quiet conversation with the two peacekeepers over a couple of glasses of good whiskey. No one else knew what was discussed, but the ladies' man and gunman looked pleased the next day with whatever was decided as they saddled their mounts to head back.
Once the pair returned to town, Chris had soft talks with Ezra, JD, Josiah, and Nathan when Vin was out on patrol. The four, Chris and Buck were busy with paperwork for a week or so when it was their turn at watching the jail or during their off time. When Vin mentioned that JD was scribbling away at something while he watched a drunken prisoner, Larabee brushed it off, casually commenting that the men were writing down some stuff for the judge. He then asked Tanner what he remembered about a couple of strangers that had come through town a month or so before, discreetly helping the still learning tracker write down his answers and sign the document.
Satisfied that he thought he now knew what the others were up to, Vin put the matter out of his mind once Travis arrived to pick up the statements. The Judge informed Chris that he was taking a little sabbatical since he was caught up on his cases. Giving the lean form an address to contact him should he be needed before he got back, the older man had a drink with the Seven and then boarded the east-bound stage the next morning.
Pleased that things were slowing down enough for Judge Travis to have a little free time, the men waved the distinguished figure off and then went back to their normal routines.
+ + + + + + +
During the next several months things were fairly quiet for the peacekeepers. The judge sent a couple of wires to Chris, who relayed that the man was doing well on his trip and would be back in a few weeks. Another territorial judge handled the two trials of fairly minor arrests that the Seven made, neither case requiring more than a day or so to conclude.
The only thing of real import to happen was the owners of the saloon putting the establishment up for sale, which set Standish off in righteous indignation over the fact that not only had Maude bought it out from under him and sold it, but now the buyers were disposing of it as well.
Judge Travis stopped on his way back through around that time, meeting with Chris in the jail to catch up on what had happened in his absence, and so forth.
JD then talked the other six into agreeing to exchange gifts for Christmas, giving them a couple of months to decide what they wanted to do and make the appropriate arrangements.
When they arrested three men with rewards, Larabee and the others agreed to use the money to help Ezra buy the saloon. They had intended to pool their wages, but this way there was more of a contribution and they knew the gambler had been trying to win enough to allow him to purchase the business, so it was an easy decision for them. Plus, that way they could use their own cash to buy some medical books for Nathan for Christmas, making it a good use of the money all around.
Once December arrived, the men helped Inez and some of the storekeepers put up decorations for the holiday, as well as riding off on a few errands. Vin accompanied Josiah to see the preacher's sister about a week before Christmas, the rest joining them.
When they got back to town, the Judge had been there while they were gone and dropped off a sealed envelope for Chris. The blonde checked the contents when he was alone in the jail and then with a pleased grin, carefully folded the papers and put them in his inner coat pocket. Keeping the information to himself so that one of the others wouldn't inadvertently spoil the surprise, the lean figure went about the next few days with an unaccustomed cheerfulness that the rest attributed to the widower finally getting into the spirit of the holiday.
+ + + + + + +
On Christmas day, the Seven gathered at the saloon that Inez had opened just for them. The generous brunette had gotten up early to fix a big meal for them, and was eating at the bar as she listened to the men tell stories and jokes as they enjoyed her excellent cooking.
They had just finished eating when JD jumped up to call that it was snowing. Since the occurrence was rare where they were, they all bundled up to go outside and enjoy the white wonder while it lasted. Even Chris joined in the snow fights, and the seven all sang a few carols, with the townsfolk participating as well.
Finally, damp and red-cheeked, the men returned to the saloon. Peeling off their coats and gloves, they gathered around the stove, taking the whiskey-laden coffee that Inez handed them with smiles and nods of thanks.
When they were warm inside and out, they moved back to the table to open their presents. Each had at least six gifts, and all were exclaimed over and examined with genuine appreciation, as the men had all carefully chosen things that they thought were appropriate. Nathan was overjoyed with the medical books that were placed in front of him, and Ezra was dumbfounded when the men had Inez hand him the key to the saloon.
Once the gambler had tested the piece of iron in the lock, and sincerely thanked them, Chris drew out the papers that were still safely tucked in his pocket.
"There's one more for you too, Vin," said the soft voice with a warmth that was seldom heard by anyone but the other six.
"For me?" asked Tanner in confusion. "I already got more gifts than I've had since I was a kid."
"Well, I think you're really gonna like this one," replied Larabee with a smile and a wink.
Handing over the small sheaf of papers, the leader sat back in his chair and waited while the sharpshooter opened them carefully and began slowly reading the top one.
The sky blue eyes then turned to Chris in amazement.
"Does this say what I think it does, Cowboy?? There's a lot 'a legal stuff here I don't recognize . . . "
Ezra leaned to peer over the tracker's shoulder as Larabee nodded and answered.
"If you think it says you're cleared of Jess Kincade's murder in Texas, then yeah it does."
Tanner turned to Standish as the chestnut-haired man confirmed that the paper did indeed say that Vin was cleared of all charges and the bounty was revoked.
"How . . . when . . . ??" stammered the raspy Texas tones as the bright gaze moved back to the blond.
The rest of the group were now craning their necks to see the documents for themselves as Chris explained.
"When Buck and I took those wanna-be bank robbers to the Judge, we had a talk with him after the trial. Told him how much being wanted for something you didn't do bothered you. He agreed to go to Texas and talk to the new governor if we'd all provide statements telling about Eli Joe and the fake Rangers for him to take with him. That's what we were doing when you thought it was about those strangers that came through town. The governor is actually an old acquaintance of Travis' who used to be a judge, so he was willing to listen to what Orin had to say. Apparently the combination of Travis vouching for you and our statements convinced him that you were falsely accused. It took a few months, but he agreed to clear you of the charges and revoke the bounty on you."
The smile got larger as the green gaze met the blue one squarely.
"You're not wanted any more, Vin. You can be proud you're a Tanner, just like your ma wanted."
The men looked on benignly as possibly for the first time in years moisture began to glisten in the tracker's eyes. The chiseled lips opened a couple of times before anything came out. When he finally spoke, the words were husky with emotion.
"I can't believe y'all were able t' do this for me. It means more than I can tell ya. All I can say is 'thanks' from the bottom of m' heart . . . "
He trailed off and cleared his throat, not knowing what else to add. How did you thank your friends . . . your brothers . . . for giving you your life back and granting your deepest wish?
Looking up, he wiped at an errant drop that trickled down his cheek, then gave his trademark grin.
"Look ma! I can tell the world I'm a Tanner again!"
Lowering his gaze, he swept out his arms and at the top of his lungs called "Vin Tanner! M' name is Vin Tanner!"
At last, he could tell the world and not have to have his hand on his gun when he did so. There really were Christmas miracles and angels who granted wishes . . . and they sometimes looked like dark-garbed gunmen, ladies' men, easterners, gamblers, healers, and ex-priests.
Next story: Buck
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