To Soar Above The Clouds

by White Raven


What was Mary up to now?

Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee, and Josiah Sanchez watched from the porch of the jailhouse as the owner and editor of the Clarion Newspaper went down one side of the street, then another, tacking up posters. She was smiling and telling people to anticipate the arrival of...what??????

"That's right, Folks, we'll be having The Hathaway Traveling Performers. These fine actors will be arriving this coming Friday. They'll be here for a week. Be sure to tell your family and friends. Tickets for their performance's will range anywhere from fifty cents to one dollar."

Vin and Chris exchanged furrowed brows. "Actors? Here?" Chris asked. "Damn, this town's going to hell in a hand bucket."

Josiah smiled, bemused at the gunslinger's reaction. "Not much into plays, Chris?"

"Plays are fine, Josiah, it's the excitement actors bring that I'm none too thrilled with," Chris replied with disdain. His face grimaced as if to emphasize his point.

Vin and Josiah exchanged looks and Vin shrugged, impassively. Chris' ways were his own and though he was curious as to why Chris was immediately put on guard with the mention of the actors, the tracker was content to not draw him out on the subject. If his friend wanted them to know why, then he'd tell them.

Mary walked over to them, her long blond hair hanging over her shoulders and pulled back from her face with a clip. "Gentlemen? I couldn't help but overhear Mister Larabee's opinion of this wonderful news. I'll have you know I've been working very hard to acquire the talents of these actors, and after a year of playing in places such as the White House and New York, they have graciously accepted my invitation. I understand Mister Larabee's apprehensions, but I assure you, these people are as genteel and as professional as they come. I've seen them perform twice before and I am a good friend with the troupe's organizer, James Hathaway. Besides, this town could stand some cultural influence."

"I couldn't agree more with Mrs. Travis," the southern drawl of one Ezra Standish chimed in as he walked up to the porch and pulled a lit cigar from his mouth. "I believe it would be a glorious distraction from the mundane stagnation this town has acquired over the last several months."

"Got a point, Chris," Vin spoke out softly as he leaned his shoulder against the porch post. "I for one would like to take a gander at some play actin'. Somethin' other than a fist fight in the saloon."

Chris just shook his head. "Each to his own, I guess."

Vin just looked at him.

Chris felt the gaze and turned to him. What?

You tell me.

Chris shook his head again and sighed. Later.

Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne stepped up to the porch and watched as Mary tacked another poster to the jailhouse wall. "Actors?" JD read. "Actors coming here?" His face lit up. "Hey, Buck, maybe you can perform with them."

Buck whacked JD upside his head and gave him a hard look. "Boy, quiet down."

All eyes turned to Buck. Ezra cast him an amused grin. "Something you would care to share, Mister Wilmington?"

Chris smiled. "Been telling JD about your days on the stage, Buck?"

Buck rolled his eyes, "Jeeze, Chris, could you say it any louder?"

Vin grinned at the tall man. "Why, Bucklin, I didn't know ya' acted. Course, with the practice y'all get, don't reckon anyone would be surprised."

Buck cast Vin a cold glare. "It just so happens I was involved in a stage production of Shakespeare. Once. And I was very good, I might add. I got a standing ovation."

Chris chuckled. "From his mother."

Vin and Josiah turned their heads to hide their snickers.

Mary beamed. "Would you care to try the stage again, Mister Wilmington? I'm sure I can work it out with the leader of the troupe."

"Not a chance, Mary. Being embarrassed once is enough. Though I have to admit, the acting company was impressed with me enough to ask me to stay on."

Vin's smile faded. He looked at Buck with something close to admiration. "Ya' really got up in front of a lot of people and acted, Buck?"

"Sure did, Junior. And even though I didn't stay with it, it was fun while it lasted. Pretending you're someone else, saying words written by the Bard takes you to another time and place and allows you to feel, for awhile at least, that you are not who you are." Buck seemed to lose himself in the memories. "I did it for my mother. And though I was embarrassed by a few hecklers in the crowd, to see my mother's pride in me that night...I'll never forget it."

"Which part did you play, Buck?" JD asked.

Buck brought himself back to the present and cleared his throat. "What part do you think, Kid?"

JD's eyes widened. "Not...Romeo?? You played Romeo?"

Chris chuckled. "JD, could anyone else play that role and do it so convincingly?"

Buck straightened his hat. "I was a hell of a Romeo, JD."

"Perhaps the former Thespian would care to dazzle us with a few lines?" Ezra suggested. There was a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

"Yeah, Buck, come on. I gotta hear you recite some Shakespeare."

Buck looked at JD and grinned. "I'm not sure I can remember after all these years, Kid." Then he looked up into Vin's face and saw what appeared to be anticipation behind those blue eyes. He knew Vin was learning to read, the news had come out not long after Chris had discovered why Vin was seeing Mary every afternoon at a certain hour. The hidden talents of one Mister Vin Tanner had been revealed and his poetry had been printed in the newspaper. Suddenly, Buck figured if Vin could showcase his talent and make himself vulnerable to the town of Four Corners, there was no reason the former performer couldn't do the same with his friends. "I reckon I'd like to hear some, too," Vin said, quietly. And the look the two men shared sealed the request. Buck nodded. "All right, then. Let me think." He rubbed his chin and pondered over any lines he could remember from the play.

"I do remember some lines from that play, myself, Buck," Josiah said. "If I can be of any assistance?"

Buck looked at Josiah with a raised eyebrow. "Mercutio?"

Josiah inclined his head. "After the Queen Mab speech?"

Buck snapped his fingers. "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace. Thou talk'st of nothing."

Josiah took his cue. "True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air; and more inconstant than the wind, who wooes, even now, the frozen bosom of the north, and, being anger'd, puffs away from thence, turning his face to the dew-dropping south."


Buck and Josiah cringed. They had forgotten Benvolio's small part in between. Suddenly, from a source none had imagined, Vin's voice took up the slack. "This wind you talk of, blows us from ourselves. Supper is done and we shall come too late."

All heads turned to Vin who kept his gaze locked on Buck's.

Ezra's mouth had fallen open. JD gazed at Vin with something akin to awe. Chris turned to Vin and pride emanated from his gaze. Mary's eyes were wide and she stared at Vin, unable to speak. Josiah looked at him as well, and a look of knowing filled his eyes. 'I'll be damned,' he thought, a slight smile gracing his lips.

Vin ignored the surprised looks. "That's your cue, Bucklin," he urged softly.

Buck shook himself. He had not expected Vin to have even heard the words before, let alone have any of them memorized. He cleared his throat. "I fear too early. For my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night's revels..." Buck stopped as he tried to remember more of the part. He looked at Vin who lowered his head and once again surprised them all. "And expire the term of a despised life, clos'd in my breast, by some vile forfeit of untimely death: But He that hath the steerage of my my sail."

For what seemed an eternity to the tracker a silence laid over the others. He looked up at them and saw Mary's delighted grin. "Vin, that was wonderful," she said and her voice could hardly maintain control. He lowered his head, abashed.

Josiah walked up to Vin and put a hand on his shoulder. "It seems our own poet has a flare for the stage as well."

Vin shrugged, keeping his gaze lowered. "Just liked to watch plays is all. Since I couldn't read, seein' plays was the next best thing."

Buck's smile went from ear to ear and he put his hands together. "Well done, Vin. Bravo!" JD joined his larger friend and applauded Vin as well. "That was great, Vin. Really great! You should try out for that traveling show!"

Vin shook his head. "Hell no! Recitin' in front of y'all is one thing, but to do it in front of a crowd of strangers? I'd rather get shot."

"I must say, Mister Tanner, it seems as if you have proven the old saying true. Appearances can be deceiving," Ezra said, tipping his hat to Vin. "You have surprised us all with your uncanny talent for words, yet again."

Chris sat there his left elbow on the armrest of his chair, his chin resting against two fingers. Under the brim of his black hat, a hint of a smile emerged.

Vin glanced up and caught his look. It was like a brother beaming with pride at a younger sibling. Unable to handle the attention he was getting, Vin took off down the street, not saying a word.

"Did we shame Mister Tanner in some way?" Ezra asked, perplexed at Vin's abrupt departure.

"I don't think he expected our reaction," Mary suggested. "Mister Larabee, I hope we didn't embarrass him too badly?"

Chris shook his head. "He'll be fine, Mary. It's the first time he recited anything in front of all of us. I think he surprised himself."

"Well it goes without saying that he certainly surprised us," Ezra commented.

Mary stood and watched Vin disappear down the street toward Nathan's clinic. "He recited it beautifully. I don't think he missed a word." Suddenly she realized that two others had also performed. She looked at Buck and Josiah. "Of course, all of you did wonderfully. I hope you'll come to the performances. I believe the play they'll be doing first is Hamlet."

"I'll be there, Mary," JD said. "Hamlet was one of my mother's favorites."

Buck clapped the youth on the shoulder. "If he's going then I'll be there."

"I certainly will not miss seeing a production of Shakespeare, Mrs. Travis." Ezra tipped his hat to her.

"Nor I," Josiah chimed in. They all turned to Chris who looked at them cautiously. "I'll think about it," he said. "Someone will have to be on the outside to keep the peace should the town get too rowdy."

Mary shook her head with exasperation, then walked away. Suddenly she stopped and turned to Chris an idea forming in her mind.

He saw the look in her eyes and stiffened. What was she planning?

+ + + + + + +

Nathan heard the knock on his door and looked up from his desk. "Come," he called out.

The door opened and Vin walked in. "Nathan?"

"Come in, Vin."

"Not botherin' ya' am I?"

"No. I could use a break. These medical texts are interesting but sometimes I forget I need to rest my eyes."

Vin nodded as he walked in, closing the door behind him. He stood there, rubbing the back of his neck. After a few seconds he started looking around the small clinic and then headed over to a cabinet. "Josiah made ya' that medicine cabinet y'all were talkin' about?"

"Yeah. He brought it in just last night. Don't have much in it, yet, but the stage will bring what I need in a few days. Until then neither of ya' better get shot. I'm runnin' low on Laudanum."

Vin smiled. "Don't reckon we'd be willin' to step in front of a bullet any time soon, Nathan." Vin opened the cabinet doors and looked inside to see a few jars of herbs and liquids, but other than that it was practically empty. He rubbed his hand over the woodwork. "He does mighty fine work."

"Carpenters usually do, Vin."

Nathan watched Vin carefully. The young man obviously wanted to talk about something, but sometimes trying to get anything out of the tracker was like pulling teeth. "Vin?"


"I know ya' didn't come up here to just look at my cabinet."

Vin closed the doors of the cabinet and stuck his thumbs into the top of his gun belt. He took a few seconds to think; then he went over and sat on the chair that was located to the side of Nathan's desk chair. "Nathan, how old were ya' when ya' began to learn to read?"

Nathan turned thoughtful. "I guess it was about ten years ago, Vin. Why?"

"Did ya' start learnin' even before ya' learned your letters?"

Nathan put his book down on the desk and leaned forward, listening intently. "I'm not sure I follow."

Vin shook his head. "I don't know. I guess I'm askin' if'n ya' heard things and they stayed in your mind, like words on paper."

"Ya' mean like someone recitin' and then I walked away rememberin' word for word?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah."

"No, Vin. Can't say I have that ability. Do you?"

Vin leaned back in the chair. "Would I be weird or somethin' if I could do that?"

Nathan grinned. "My friend, you may be a bit strange, but to remember word for word something ya', that's not weird. I've heard it said some people have what is known as a photographic memory. Like when a photograph is taken of a place or people. All details are captured in the picture. People capture things in their mind like a picture, too. Reckon ya' have that talent, Vin?"

Vin turned thoughtful. "Reckon I might."

Nathan studied him. "What brought this on?"

Vin shook himself and leaned forward. "Ya' hear about the actors comin' to town?"

"Yeah, I heard. Saw Mrs. Travis this morning, she told me all about it. What's up?"

"Well, there was talk among us about Buck once bein' on stage."

Nathan's eyes widened. "Really? Buck? Our Buck?"

Vin chuckled. "Yeah. Anyway, JD wanted him to recite some of Romeo and Juliet and he and Josiah did this bit, but when Buck couldn't remember the last part of a speech, well...I finished it fer 'im."

Nathan leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. He grinned. "Ya' surprised 'em, didn't ya'?"

"Reckon so. Point is, I don't know why I did it. I knew the words from listenin' to them performed over and over again. I ain't never read Shakespeare in my life. JD said I should try out fer these people and perform with them while they're here."

"Would ya' like to do that?"

Vin looked at Nathan, uncertain. "I'm not that good a reader, Nathan. I couldn't perform or read from a script. I'm learnin', but to read Shakespeare in front of a crowd? I think even if Mary asked me to do it I couldn't. Not even fer her."

"Vin, Shakespeare wrote something that I always believed in. 'To thine own self be true.' Ya' have to follow your heart on this one. If ya' absolutely do not want to do it, then don't. What ya' do with the talent God gave you is between you and Him."

Vin smiled. "Y'all sound like Josiah."

Nathan chuckled. "I probably do. Been a friend of his for many years."

Vin nodded once to him. He stood and headed for the door. "Ya' gonna come to the plays?"

"I might. Dependin' on how rough it gets when those actors come to town."

"Now you're soundin' like Chris."

Nathan waved him off. "Go on, get out of here, I got some more readin' of my own to do."

Vin opened the door and tipped his hat to his friend. "Thanks for takin' the time, Nathan."

"Anytime, Vin. You remember that. My door is always open."

Vin inclined his head and stepped out, closing the door after him.

Nathan sighed. Why Vin had sought him out for this conversation was beyond him, but the healer couldn't deny it warmed his heart that he had.

+ + + + + +

Vin closed the book and looked up at his 'teacher'. Mary sat behind her desk and smiled. "Would you believe you've gotten to another level, Vin? You've jumped three grade levels in as many months. You're doing wonderfully."

Vin smiled, pleased with his progress. "I owe it all to you, Mary. Thanks."

"Well, I owe Mister Larabee a 'thank you'. After that slight misunderstanding a few months ago I thought for sure you'd never try to learn to read again. He encouraged you to keep at it."

Vin smiled fondly at the memory. He still carried the poem Chris had written for him in the inside pocket of his buckskin coat. Whenever he had some time to himself, he would pull the paper out and re-read the words. He had them memorized by now, but to actually see the written words on paper and to be able to 'read' them and know what they meant, it was a feeling of accomplishment to him. The paper was getting worn now, and the pencil markings were starting to fade after so much handling. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the paper. "I was wonderin' if ya' would do me a favor, Mary?"

"Sure, Vin, what is it?"

"Would ya' take this poem and print it up on a new piece of paper? It's gettin' kinda' faded and I don't want to lose it to time and use."

Mary took the folded paper and looked at Vin curiously. "Did you write this?"

"No, Ma'am. I'd like to have the handwritten copy back when you're done. But if'n I could have a more permanent copy of it, I'd appreciate it."

Mary was curious, but she hid her curiosity behind a smile. "Certainly, Vin. I can get it back to you in two days?"

Vin smiled and nodded as he stood from the table and took his hat. "That'd be fine. Thank ya', Mary. Oh, and no one is to know about this. It's just between you and me, all right?"

"Of course, Vin. I understand."

He nodded once to her and put his hat on as he left the Clarion. When he was gone, she unfolded the paper and read the words. She knew then why Vin didn't want anyone else to know about it. Chris Larabee, it seemed, was a man full of secret wonders.

That Friday night...

The wagons pulled in with all the pomp and pageantry of the entertainment field. Chris and Nathan, who were on patrol that evening, just shook their heads in disbelief. "Here it comes," Chris muttered.

"And there they go," Nathan said, pointing to the wave of townspeople gathering around the newcomers to welcome them.

"Well, so far it looks like we're being a civilized town."

"Right," Nathan smirked. "Until everyone starts getting drunk with celebration."

"Your clinic ready?"

"Stocked and waiting."

Chris grimaced with disdain as he took his seat outside the saloon. "Might as well sit back and...enjoy the show."

Nathan grinned as he followed Chris onto the porch. He leaned against a pole and gazed out over the crowd gathering. Then he saw Mary as she headed out to greet a large robust man wearing a black top hat and black coat with tails. "That must be the man himself. Mister Hathaway."

Chris looked and saw Mary hug the larger man, smiling as she did so. Then he tensed as she grabbed the man's hand and started leading him over to the saloon. "Ah, hell! Is she bringing him over to introduce him?"

"So it would seem," Nathan replied.

Chris leaned back and tilted his hat down over his face. He hoped Mary would take the hint.

"Evening, Nathan, Chris," Mary's voice called out with cheer.

Chris groaned inwardly. He raised his hat back up and saw the two in front of him. "Mary," he tipped his hat to her.

"I'd like you to meet Mister James Hathaway. The man who put together the Traveling Performers."

Chris looked at the man and nodded once to him. "Mister Hathaway."

The man tipped his hat to Chris and Nathan. "Mister Larabee. It seems my troupe of actors are not the only famous people. I know all about your fast draw."

Chris rested his feet on the porch railing and crossed them at the ankles. He grinned up at the man sarcastically. "I hope you're not looking to see me perform, Mister Hathaway."

"Far from it, sir. It is simply an honor to finally meet the man known as Chris Larabee. I was also informed as to your apprehensions regarding us being in your town. I assure you my fellow performers will not cause any trouble during our stay here."

"I'd like to believe that, Mister Hathaway, but experience has taught me that trouble follows performers no matter where they go."

Hathaway grinned. "Well, I must confess, we do stir up excitement within towns that have little or no entertainment venues. I will work very hard to see to it any embers of trouble are dowsed before they ignite into infernos."

Chris almost chuckled. Actors and large words. He wondered if Ezra had ever been on stage before? He nodded to Hathaway. "Appreciate that. Will make our job a lot easier."

Hathaway tipped his hat to the gunslinger again. "If you will excuse me, then, I must see to it my people are taken care of. Mary, would you show me where we will be performing?"

"Certainly, James. This way." She hooked her arm through his and the two turned to head off in the direction of the old meeting hall. Chris had been wondering why Mary and a handful of women had been working on the place for the last month. Now he knew. The old Opera House near the end of town had been boarded up and abandoned years ago when the miners had taken up residence in these parts. No one had time for plays or entertainment as the claims were continually worked on. The Opera House had been laid waste to time and the elements. It would take a good rebuilding to make it safe for patrons once again. It was on Mary's agenda to raise money for the rebuilding, but it seemed that for now the meeting hall would have to do for this current project of hers.

Chris felt a familiar presence come out of the saloon to stand next to him. "So, they're here, then?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded without turning to look at his friend. "They're here. God help us all."

"Ya' that dead set against actor people, Chris?"

Chris turned to him and sighed. "I got my reasons," he replied as he stood and headed into the saloon.

Vin and Nathan exchanged curious looks. Whatever those reasons were, it looked as if Chris wasn't about to reveal them any time soon.

+ + + + + + +

Hathaway looked around the small meeting hall. Mary stood off to the side, waiting for his response. She had taken the last few weeks with a group of volunteers to clean up the hall and set up a stage. "It holds up to fifty people?" Hathaway asked, a hint of reservation in his tone.

"I'm afraid if we fill that much space, we'll be lucky. A lot of people here aren't too thrilled with..." she stopped, unable to think of a way to put it nicely.

"With the likes of us traveling actors. Yes, I know. Unfortunately our kind of people have been placed in a class of troublemakers. A facade I hope my troupe of actors will negate once they are seen by your town."

Mary smiled. "I hope so, too. And I was wondering...maybe some of our local talent could help ease away any doubts the people have about traveling actors."

Hathaway studied her for a moment. "You mean allow us to become accessible to your people?"

Mary nodded with a hopeful look. "I know of at least two people, maybe even three that could, if given the proper incentive, draw a crowd in and give them a taste of the cultural benefits you and your performers have to bestow."

"And have you spoken to these two, maybe three, people about this plan of yours?"

Mary twisted her head to the side and down, somewhat abashed. "No...not really...not yet. I wanted to ask your thoughts about it first."

Hathaway grinned. "Talk to them. I am always willing to see new talent. I love my family of actors, but at times it gets boring even watching them night after night. Perhaps we could even hold a town audition in the morning, encourage the people to get involved."

Mary's eyes beamed. "That's a wonderful idea. I hadn't thought that far ahead, but I'm sure the people would find it interesting. I could even help with the readings. I held a poetry contest a few months ago and, surprisingly, people submitted their work. Even Vin Tanner submitted a poem and he couldn't even read."

Hathaway looked surprised. "A poet who couldn't read? That's impressive. And who is this Vin Tanner?"

"He's Mister Larabee's second in command. You have yet to meet him, but I would love to show you his work. He has a great talent."

"I would love to read this poet's work, indeed."

Mary grinned. "I was hoping you'd say that. Earlier today I happened to bring his work and some other poems for you to look over." She walked over to the front row of chairs and lifted a folder from where it rested on one of them. Hathaway joined her and took the papers offered. He read over the two Vin had written and marveled. "This from a man who cannot read? He has more than a great talent, Mary. It's borderline genius. How could he have written them, though, if he couldn't read?"

"He memorized them, quoted them to me and I wrote them down for him. The one entitled 'A Hero's Heart' was the winner of the contest."

Hathaway reread that one as he walked over to the edge of the stage. He shook his head. "I am truly impressed." He carefully handed the poems back to Mary who placed them in the folder and set it on the stage. "Perhaps I can meet with him tomorrow?"

"Well, I'm not sure he can be persuaded to join in the audition you're planning, but some praise from you might encourage him to write more."

"I would be honored to do my part in helping a talent such as his," Hathaway agreed, then leaned back against the edge of the stage. He looked over the place once more and sighed.

Mary caught the melancholy look the older man held and knew what was going through his mind. "How are you doing, James?" she asked with sincerity.

He looked at her for a long moment. "It shows, then?"

She stepped up closer to him and took his arm in both her hands. "Your letters told me some, but I still get the feeling you don't want to discuss it with me."

Hathaway patted her hands and took in a deep breath. "He was too young, Mary. I still find it hard to believe he's gone."

Mary shook her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up painful memories."

"You didn't, sweet woman. Don't worry yourself over my pain. I'm healing, but it's taking so long."

Mary rested her head against his shoulder. "I know what you mean."

He reached up and patted her head. "Perhaps we can find some time to talk about both our losses."

She looked up at him and smiled. "I'd like that."

"I think I would, too. But not tonight. Tonight we have much work to do."

"Can I help?"

"No, no, you have a business to attend to. We'll be fine."

She smiled up at him. "Let me know if I can help in any way."

"Actually, I was wondering if you could do me the service of printing up the programs for tomorrow night?" He pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to her. "About sixty should do it."

Mary took the paper and read it over. "I can set it up tonight and start printing tomorrow. It shouldn't be a problem."

"Good, good. When I'm finished here, I'll stop by your place to discuss the audition tomorrow morning. Perhaps we can announce it at the saloon later tonight?"

Mary nodded. "I think with your actors in town the saloon will be the best place to meet with the townsfolk. Many of the homestead owners are here tonight, mostly out of curiosity than anything."

He leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Thank you, Mary."

She gripped his arm then turned to leave. "I'll leave the poems for you to take and read later."

"I will do that. Please tell Mister Tanner that I will look forward to meeting with him."

She turned and waved as she headed for the front doors. "I'll do that, James."

When she was gone, Hathaway turned to the folder and sighed. 'A young poet,' he thought.

The sound of someone coming onto the stage from behind forced him to turn and see his stage manager come onto the stage. "Teddy, your impressions?"

The man stayed in the shadows. "The stage will be ready by morning, sir. It will suit our needs well."

Hathaway nodded. "Good. Get to work." The leader of the troupe headed for the doors, the folder forgotten.

The stage manager waited for him to leave and then walked over to pick up the folder. He opened it. He had heard the conversation between the woman, Mrs. Travis, and his boss. He wanted to see for himself the work of this Vin Tanner. When he finished reading them...a tear rolled down his face from his one good eye.

The front doors opened again and he looked up to see Hathaway walk towards him. "What are you doing with those, Teddy?" he asked, anger in his voice. "Your job is to set up the stage. I suggest you get to it and stop reading things that don't concern you." Hathaway held out his hand and the man closed the folder gently over the papers inside. He handed it to his boss and lowered his head. "I meant no disrespect, sir. I couldn't help but be curious after hearing Mrs. Travis praise Mister Tanner's work."

"Mister Tanner's work...anyone's no longer your business, Teddy. Your life is mine, now. Words have no more place in your meager existence. You'd do well to remember that."

The man lowered his head and turned. He walked to the back of the stage; his shoulders slumped with defeat.

Hathaway glared at his retreating form. He clutched the folder tightly, forcing his rage at bay. "Bastard," he whispered, as he turned and headed back out of the meeting hall.

+ + + + + + +

That evening after the actors had unloaded their wagons and set up shop in the meeting hall, they checked into the hotel and settled into their rooms. Then they headed down to the saloon. A group of twenty performers, mostly women, about seven men, congregated within the establishment and among them was Hathaway with Mary on his arm.

Chris was seated at his customary table in the far corner of the saloon, enjoying his third shot of whiskey when the saloon erupted with laughter and applause. He suddenly felt the need to get out of town. He hated that closed in feeling.

Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah were all seated at their poker table. Soon Buck was making his way up to the women, introducing himself.

Chris shook his head. His friend would never change.

JD and Vin were out on patrol that night. He was glad of it. JD wouldn't have minded the pomp and charged atmosphere, what with his taste for gen-u-ine celebrity worship, but Vin would be like a caged tiger, stalking and nervous.

Soon Hathaway stood in the middle of the crowd and lifted his glass of whiskey. "I must say to all of you that have welcomed us to your town, it is with great honor and unbridled appreciation that we toast Four Corners and hope to deliver a grand array of entertainment to thrill you all."

Chris shook his head again. 'Unbelievable,' he thought to himself as he downed the last of his whiskey. 'Here comes the wrapping-everyone-around-our-little-finger' bit. Next thing you know everyone around here will be star struck, if they aren't all ready.' Chris wondered if he should just sit back and watch it happen from a distance? Well, so far no one was being molested and no fights had started, but the night was still young.

"I must also inform you wonderful people of our talent contest that will be put on in honor of the those in your town who wish to try their hand at acting or recitals," Hathaway continued. "If anyone is interested, there will be tryouts starting tomorrow at ten o'clock in the morning. Just bring your material and your talent to the meeting hall and we will be very willing to audition you. The winner of the contest will receive twenty dollars and free admission to next week's performances as well as a chance to exhibit their said talent for the rest of the town. We will call it The Four Corners Tribute to Local Talent Showcase!"

The applause was deafening. Chris finished off another shot of whiskey, put on his hat and stood. He doubted he would be seen leaving with all the people in the saloon. He had to hand it to Hathaway, though; the man knew how to draw a crowd. Then again, he was an actor. Chris simply could not trust actors. They hid behind masks and costumes and pretended to be people they weren't. It was great to lull people away from reality for awhile, but what happened when the masks came off? When the lights dimmed and the audience went home? What kind of people were actors then? What happened when the pretending stopped and reality loomed over head?

Keeping masks up to keep people from knowing you more than you would like them to was one thing...if it was the way you survived. Those kinds of masks were more like walls, providing safety. Chris knew enough about those kinds of masks. The masks that actors wore were different. They were meant to lure people into a world of make believe, to create an escape from reality's pressures. That was fine...writers did the same thing. There was nothing wrong in that. It was when those false worlds became real to you. The masks then revealed the cracks in their surfaces. No safety. Reality and Fantasy meshing together, no fine line separation. Therein lied the danger.

His late wife, Sarah, had almost been a victim of an actor's inability to find his find that line that separated his profession from his person. If Chris had not been there to intervene...he shuddered at the memory. It had all turned out right in the end, but the thought of what could have happened...Chris simply didn't want anyone in this town to fall under that aura of pretense. It wasn't worth it.

When he reached outside, suddenly he felt the cool air wash over him and he could breathe. JD was out walking the street. He saw the youth and nodded once to him as he approached. "JD."

"Chris. Seems everyone is either in bed or at the saloon. Real quiet around town."

Chris could see the younger man was craning his head over the batwing doors to sneak a peek into the saloon. "Go on, Kid. Might as well get a taste of what it's all about."

JD smiled. "Thanks, Chris." He started to eagerly head into the saloon, when Chris said, "Just do me a favor?"

JD turned to him. "Sure, Chris."

Chris stepped up to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Don't believe everything you hear, all right? Actors get paid to act. Make sure you know the difference between them playing a part, and them being real. Can you do that for me, son?"

JD thought the request strange, but he could see in Chris' eyes that there had to be a reason for this warning. He took the words to heart and his face turned solemn. "Sure, Chris. I won't let my guard down."

Chris patted his shoulder and released him. "Go on, then. Just remember what I told you."

"I won't forget, Chris. I promise." With that JD walked into the saloon and lost himself in the festive air within.


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