"You ever wonder why you stuck it around so long?"
Vin's quiet question was unexpected in the companionable calm that had descended since they made camp. The tracker's general penchant for silence often meant that when it was just the two of them forced to camp out, the nights were spent with a pack of cards; and in the background, the faint sound of the fire, the horses, and Vin whittling wood into random shapes.
Ezra sighed as he repeated the question in his head, fingers slowing their dance over the pasteboard cards.
"I have to admit that I have been taking each day as it comes. I suppose looking back now it is the longest I've ever spent in one location."
"You know why?"
Ezra glanced up from concentrating on the cards to observe the reticent tracker. He could make out Vin's outline in the firelight, his eyes watching something in the embers that Ezra couldn't see. He wondered about the tracker's seemingly desperate need for an answer, wondered if Vin knew what his own answer to his question was.
Ezra sat and thought about the places he'd stayed in the past, and the reasons he left. In his early years, his residency was at the whim of his mother. How long she wished to have him with her, or how long she wanted to be parted from him. It varied according to her scams and just how much interest she could generate in spending time with him. Once he'd parted company and set off into the world on his own, he supposed it was his own interest that dictated where he went and for how long. Once the games of chance became lackluster and the company began to grate, he tended to find a fresh port of call and people willing to try their luck against his skill.
He'd ended up in Four Corners initially because he'd become bored with the last town. He'd sensed fresh meat in a place that was not renown for its lawfulness and as such had attempted a simple con. And still he'd been caught in the act, so to speak. It surprised him that even after his duplicity had been detected that he was extended an offer to ride with them. He decision to go along to the village was made fairly quickly. The option was either to return to the monotony that had him moving from one town to the next, or to try a bit of excitement. And if his ears did not deceive him, the prospect of gold.
It had been a change to his routine, but also a shock to his system. That people trusted him to help them, and forgave him when he let them down. He would have stayed anyway, even without the Judge's pardon to work towards. His interest had been piqued by the men he had ridden with.
He barely noted the passing of those thirty days. In fact, it had been Mary that had spoke of it and wondered how he felt, whether he thought to stay on. He had fallen into a routine that suited him, he rose when he felt like it, drank and played cards without the worry of having to watch his own back. He felt safe, he felt companionship, and he didn't feel the apathy of before. He cared about the people he called friends.
A small smile graced his face as he looked back towards his traveling companion, who was still staring at the flames.
"Do you know why you have stayed on, my friend?" he asked quietly.
Vin nodded. "Just wondered if you did, s'all."
Ezra looked more closely at the hunched figure, the dipped shoulders telling a story Ezra wasn't sure he wanted to hear. He almost cursed himself for asking. "Would you like to share what is troubling you?"
Vin shrugged. "Thought about it for some time before I admitted to myself why a loner such as myself was staying on in a town when the wide open spaces were calling."
"And?" Ezra prompted when the tracker fell silent again.
"Figured it's a good feeling having someone to watch your back every once in a while."
"I have to agree with that sentiment," Ezra replied. "But that's not what prompted you to ask your question."
"No," Vin admitted.
When silence descended again, Ezra was debating whether to go against his respect for privacy by prompting again when the tracker suddenly stood. "Better get some shut-eye. Got a long ride tomorrow to Hudson."
Ezra bit back his reply and merely raised an eyebrow as Vin briefly looked at him before heading to his bedroll. The slow dance the gambler had been orchestrating with his cards stalled as he followed Vin's movements, and could do little but wonder at what was concerning the normally easygoing man.
* * * * * * *
The two lawmen had ridden in virtual silence the next day, Ezra following the tracker's lead through the unfamiliar territory. The passing scenery held little entertainment, the barren plains offering little to chase away the monotony of the ride. They'd rested the horses a few times, wherever shelter from the heated sun could be sought, and yet the tracker did not break his silence once, and Ezra did not know what to say to do it for him.
The sun was beginning to sink below the horizon as Hudson came into sight. The prospect of a bath, a decent bed and a cool beer to wash away the dust from the trail had both men pushing their horses to a quicker pace. The reason for their errand, the investigation into a suspected fake land deal, could wait until the next morning.
Feeling more comfortable once he'd partaken of a bath and adorned clean clothing, Ezra ventured into the slightly more up-market of Hudson's two saloons fully intending to imbibe the local spirits and see if he could separate the locals of some hard-earned cash. He'd parted from his fellow lawman with an agreement to meet for breakfast in the hotel, although his brief scan of the customers of the saloon revealed that the tracker had found a quiet corner to nurse his beer. With a quick glance at the card game in progress, Ezra sighed, collected two beers from the bar, and weaved his way through the tables to join Vin.
Vin nodded in greeting, tipping his half-empty glass in thanks for the refill. "Surprised you ain't sitting down to play."
Ezra took a long pull on his draft as he wondered at the fact himself. Having one of his compatriots sat in the bar as he played gave him a sense of security should such a game turn sour, but the truth was that even for Vin, the quiet was exceptional. Normally when just the two of them were out on the trail at the judge's bequest, the peace was easy, banter would fly between them, often resulting in teasing and play acting. The tracker's mood was not just disturbing Vin himself, it made Ezra uneasy. That was not conducive to a good game of poker, but nor would his conscience let him ignore the source.
"Well, my friend. It would appear that neither of us are quite ourselves at the moment."
Ezra caught Vin's eyes, but the tracker said nothing, beyond making a gesture that the southerner easily read as a 'touché'. As Vin slouched deeper in his seat, eyes shifting back to scan the occupants of the room, Ezra sighed softly and took another pull of the cool beer. It was going to be a long night.
* * * * * * *
"Are you quite sure you don't want to speak of what is troubling you?"
Hudson was a day behind them now. Judge Travis's fear of illegal land sales had been unfounded. Ezra could find little evidence in the papers that the Sheriff of Hudson had presented to say anything other than a fair bill of sale had been raised. That it was the Sheriff himself that had parted with such a large amount of money for land he had not been bothered to inspect, spoke only of the man's foolishness and lack of business acumen as opposed to any mal intent. The man had discovered only after the sale, that the water sources on the land had been exaggerated. The fact that he was especially sore about his bad decision had prompted him to try to find face in accusing his seller.
The man had been none too pleased to listen to the verdict of the judge's nominated representatives. The insults had done little to upset the gambler, he'd heard much worse in his years, but he had little time for any comments towards Vin. His civility towards the sheriff lasted as long as it took him to send a brief telegram to the judge, and a second to inform Chris Larabee that they were heading home forthwith. His parting shot to the foul-mouthed lawman was probably ill advised, but nonetheless highly satisfying, especially as it brought a smile to the face of the tracker.
It did, however, result in an extra night on the trail away from the comforts of a mattress and a cool beer to chase away the stifling heat. It also left him with an additional night with the frankly disturbing mood of his traveling companion, and without a room full of strangers to distract him from dwelling on its cause.
Although he did class himself as having the veritable patience of a saint, he was struggling to maintain his decorum with Vin, yet it was just as he was about to give in and retire for the night that he finally broke his silence.
"You heard anything from yer ma of late?"
Ezra's surprise at the voice was eclipsed by his shock at what Vin chose to break his silence with. "My mother? I don't see what she has to do with anything?"
"She written to yer?"
Ezra frowned, but didn't break the look he was receiving from his friend. "Not recently, no," he admitted. His eyes then narrowed. "Has she been causing trouble again?"
It would be just like his mother to stir things up to get her own way. It was clear that she was displeased at his current profession, not to mention the 'slum' of a town she thought him to have settled in. It seemed the woman's goal in life to continuously keep him on his toes so she could prove her hold and power over him.
Vin shrugged, although the movement seemed much lighter than it had been for the last few days. "Ain't nothing."
"Well, it must be something for you to have asked," Ezra pointed out, his own frustration beginning to crack his façade.
Vin blew out a long breath as he turned back to the fire. "Yer ma sent a letter to Judge Travis. Said you were leaving to help out in some family business and that she was concerned that the judge weren't releasing you from your duties."
"Pardon?" It was about as much as Ezra could manage based on what he'd just heard.
"She said she'd be riding in so you could join her on the trip back home."
"And just when did she say she'd be arriving in our little burg?"
The tracker sniffed loudly and ducked his head. "Two days ago," he admitted softly.
"I see," Ezra said. Although he wasn't exactly sure he did. "And the reason why yourself and I were sent on this little excursion...?"
"Travis needed someone to go who'd spot a con," Vin shrugged. "He was going to go himself until he got the letter."
"So I was asked to go because...?"
"Figured if we asked you to go and yer didn't complain or try to get out of it that yer ma were up to something again."
"My mother is generally always 'up to something' as you put it," Ezra muttered. The admission of duplicity puzzled him, and he certainly wouldn't have expected his fellow peacekeepers to sink to such a level. That he himself would orchestrate such a plot was also unlikely. He was almost afraid to hear the answer to his next question, yet he tentatively voiced it regardless. "Why the interest in my affair with my mother?"
Vin was quiet for a long while, and Ezra was unsure an answer was coming until the tracker cleared his throat. "Guess none of us really gave any thought to leaving. When Travis asked Chris about the letter and you riding out we all got a little spooked, set us to thinking on it."
Ezra watched Vin shift uncomfortably, but the tracker's gaze remained on the fire just as it had two nights ago.
"I figured we were all just going day to day, just like yer said, didn't give a thought to what would happen if any of us decided to up and quit. Caused us to do a bit of thinking. None of us particularly liked the alternative. Kinda got into a couple of arguments about why you hadn't said anything about riding out, and in the end we asked the judge to give us some time to try to work it out and talk to yer 'bout it."
As Ezra kept his silence, Vin continued. "All the boys wanted to come, til Josiah figured he wanted to talk to yer ma when she turned up. And I don't think he meant in a pretty way either. He mentioned something about fate and signs, something about a dog, didn't really get it. He figured all the times we've tried to work alone or split up and we always end back up at seven was some kinda signal.
"Have to say it won't be the same without seven. Figured I could go back to bounty huntin', but it ain't gonna be easy with my own bounty. Reckon Josiah and Nate would be ok, JD would likely stick with Buck, dunno about Chris..."
Ezra listened until Vin trailed off, not quite sure about what he'd heard. To all intents and purposes he'd been sent out on a fools errand to prevent him from leaving town on his mother's whim. He didn't know whether to be angry at the deception, or comforted about the concern of his departure. And when Vin finally looked at him for his reaction, he could do little but nod once and turn to his bedroll; his confused thoughts likely to interrupt his slumber for the entire night ahead.
* * * * * * *
It had been another long quiet day in the saddle. His thoughts had run through all manner of directions, keeping him from descending into boredom throughout the long journey. He'd sensed Vin's scrutiny all day, the tracker opting to ride alongside him as opposed to taking his customary lead. It had, at least, made a change from the monotony of the last few days. They made camp as the light gave way to darkness, only a few hours ride from town, close enough for Ezra to recognize the familiar rolls in the landscape, yet too far to feel the comforts of home. He'd spent the day reflecting on the reluctance of his friends to let him leave, and on his own choices available to him should that be the route he took. With each possible outcome, he'd found himself comparing it to his current circumstances and coming up short. In the end, he decided he was where he wanted to be.
"Day by day," he muttered into the still night. He smiled as he saw Vin jump slightly at his voice.
"I believe that taking each day as it comes may just divest us of our dilemma's about the future."
"That your fancy way of saying you're hanging around a mite longer?" Vin asked, a slight smile visible in the flickering firelight.
"Well, until my dream to be the president becomes a reality," Ezra joked. He chuckled as Vin's laughter washed over him. A hand brushed over the ever-present pack of cards in his pocket, but he left them in their place as he chose to regale the tracker with some of the more outrageous stories in his repertoire. Sometimes it was more companionable to pass the time without silence.
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