The owner of the hardware store was a middle-aged man by the name of John Harding. He was working on stocking some goods on a shelf when Marcus walked in. "Good morning to you, sir. I was wondering if you could assist me with obtaining some supplies for the Hathaway Acting Company?"
"Why certainly, sir." Harding put away the final can of putty on the shelf and turned, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked up and saw the scarf-covered face. He stopped and stared for a moment. "Is there a problem, sir?" Marcus asked.
"Uh...no, no problem at all." Harding ran a hand through his wispy graying hair and cleared his throat. "Now, what can I get for you?"
Marcus pulled out a list and handed it to the owner. "If you have any of these items available?"
Harding took the list and checked it over. "Yes, I believe this will not take but a few minutes, then you can be on your way."
Marcus allowed a smile. He was making the man nervous, but he understood why. "That will be fine, sir, but there is no hurry."
Harding nodded shakily and hurried to behind the counter where his other shelves were located. He began to pull items from their places when five cowboys walked in. "Mornin', Harding! We need some supplies," a big man said. He was tall, about six-one, with a thick brown beard and bushy brown hair.
Harding turned to see who was walking in. The man with the scarf was standing at the counter, waiting patiently. "Howdy, Tom. You boys going on another trail drive?"
"That's right," the big cowboy said. "Gonna be gone about six months. Need to fix our wagon fore we head out."
"I'll be with you just as soon as I take care of this customer."
The big man looked Marcus' direction. He saw the hat and the scarf. Curious, he walked over and looked at Marcus from his left side. "Ain't seen you in town before," he said.
"I suppose not. I'm with the acting company. We just came in a few days ago," Marcus did not turn to look at the cowboy.
"Is that right? Well, you must be one of them actor fellas, then?"
"No. I'm the one who sets up the stage."
"Ya' don't say? Mighty fine clothes for a man who does carpentry."
Harding turned and hurried to get the supplies Marcus wanted. He could sense trouble was brewing and he wanted to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible. "Tom? Why don't you and the boys start gathering what you'll need. I can take care of you in a few minutes."
"That's all right, Harding. I can talk to this man here while we're waitin'."
Marcus still did not look at him.
"Somethin' wrong with your face, Mister? I think it's downright impolite not to look a man in the eyes when he's talkin' to ya'."
"Forgive me, sir. I don't mean to be rude, but..."
The cowboy laughed. "He don't mean to be rude, boys!" he called out to his companions. "Looky here! We got us a scarf covered gentleman!"
The other cowboys began to gather around. Marcus felt his body tense under the scrutiny.
"Tom, just leave him be, now. He's not doing you or the others any harm," Harding said.
Marcus maintained his composure. "Please, Mister Harding, if you will just see to my list? I can be on my way."
The cowboy named Tom reached out and grabbed the list from Harding's hand. "What do we have here? Oh, I see. You need some brown and blue paint and a pound of nails and some putty. Let's see if we can't help this sophisticated gentleman out, boys."
Marcus locked eyes with Harding who just stood there, uncertain what to do.
The taunting men dispersed, all except Tom, and combed the store for the items on Marcus' list. Tom leaned closer to Marcus. "We heard that acting company had a freak among em. Ya' wouldn't by any chance be him...would ya'?"
Marcus gazed down at the counter. It was not the first time he had an encounter with the likes of such men. He knew what would happen next. He could defend himself easily. His training as an actor required him to learn how to fence and to box in order for the fight scenes to look believable. He knew he could easily dispense of these men and be done with it, but because of his face, he had to restrain himself. If he lashed out violently he would be not only considered a freak', but a violent freak' as well. Chris Larabee would be ordered by the town to lock him away and throw away the key. It wouldn't matter that these men had taunted him into a fight. A freakish appearance was always associated with a freakish mentality, no matter the peaceful heart that lay under the ugliness.
Marcus forced himself to not give in to his desire to lash out or leave the store. He had Vin and Chris' respect...he did not want to lose that. So, instead he turned the tables on the cowboy. "Yes," he replied. "I am the freak' as you so callously put it. Would you like to see what I really look like?" In an instant Marcus stripped off his hat and scarf and turned to the cowboy.
Tom flinched and stepped back a few feet, "Whoa!"
The others moved in closer to see. Another one, smaller than Tom, but still a good size with straight blond hair and a rugged face grimaced when he saw the scars. "Damn! You're an ugly cuss ain't ya'?"
"Yes, Gentlemen. And I can get uglier should the need call for it."
The blond man turned to his friend. "Tom, is this ugly freak threatening us?"
"Sounds like it to me, Joe."
"Looks like we need to teach him a lesson, then."
Marcus glared at the two men in front of him, knowing perfectly well there were three others behind him. "Mister Harding if you would please leave. I do not wish you to be hurt."
Harding could not move. He had seen the scars as well and was frozen in place.
"Now that wasn't nice, freak. You scared Harding half to death," Tom said, stepping closer. "I guess we really need to teach ya' a lesson now."
The five men pounced on Marcus and began to pummel him. One of them grabbed the can of paint that Harding had procured for Marcus and took a hammer from a shelf. He broke into the lid and opened it; then he poured the blue liquid over Marcus' head. "That should really cover ya' up, now, don't ya' think?"
The five men dragged Marcus outside and threw him into the middle of the street, where he landed, the dirt of the ground mixing with the paint. Marcus tried to pull himself to his feet when two of the men grabbed his shoulders and arms, assisting him. "You want to get up? We'll help ya'!" they said, laughing.
Tom came up and began to slug Marcus in the gut.
Mrs. Potter came out of her store to see what was happening. She saw the paint covered man being beaten and she screamed.
+ + + + + +
When the scream reached the saloon, Chris and Vin looked at each other. In an instant they were out of their chairs. "Marcus," Vin said over his shoulder as he ran out of the saloon, Chris at his heels.
The others quickly followed.
When Vin saw what was happening, his only thought was to get Marcus to safety. "LEAVE HIM ALONE, YOU BASTARDS!" he yelled as his feet slammed the ground. The burst of speed caught Buck and the others by surprise. Neither of them had seen Vin move so fast. Quietly, yes. Quickly, even more so, but with the speed of lightning? "Damn, that kid's fast," Buck muttered under his breath, as they headed toward the fight.
Joe pulled out a rawhide quirt; the kind used to get a horse moving faster, and began to beat Marcus over the head with it. Marcus fell to his knees covering his head with his arms. The leather strap connected with his scarred head and he crumpled to the ground.
Vin saw red and leapt through the air with a yell of rage. He tackled Joe to the ground. He pulled the strap from Joe's hand and began to use it on him. "YOU ASSHOLE!" he shouted with fury. He continued to lay the quirt to Joe in a violent assault. "DAMN BASTARD!" he yelled.
The other cowboys moved off a few feet and started to draw their pistols when the rest of the seven converged on them with pistols drawn. "Put em away!" Buck yelled.
Chris turned to see Vin still lashing the other cowboy. "HOW DOES IT FEEL?" Vin yelled with rage. "HURTS DON'T IT? MAYBE YOU'D LIKE SOME MORE?" The anger that propelled Vin's movements was a shock to Chris. He had never seen Vin react in such a violent manner.
Marcus removed his arms from over his head and saw what Vin was doing. He reached out. "Vin, no!" he pleaded.
Chris ran over to Vin and pulled him off the whip-marked man. "VIN! He's had enough!" Chris yelled as he desperately dragged Vin away.
Vin struggled against Chris' hold, but the gunslinger wrapped his arms around Vin's and locked his hands together over his friend's stomach. "VIN!" he shouted. "LET IT GO!"
Vin yelled and kicked with frustration and rage. His hat fell from his head as he struggled. His eyes were wild and unfocused. He was like a feral animal.
The rest of the Seven looked at the scene with concern. Many of them had seen men go berserk before, they just never thought they'd see it happen to Vin.
"VIN!" Chris shouted, keeping his hold tight around his friend as Vin continued to struggle. "Ease up, Pard! Ease up! It's me, it's Chris!"
Marcus looked over at Buck who walked over to kneel by him. "Don't worry, Mister Marcus. He'll ease up in a minute."
Josiah walked over to stand a few feet in front of Vin who was breathing like a trapped animal. "Vin? Come back to us, now. It's over."
"Listen to Josiah, Vin," Chris whispered.
JD walked over to Nathan. "What's wrong with him?"
Nathan knew, but he wasn't at liberty to tell. He shook his head. "Can't say for sure, JD. Something must have triggered a memory."
Vin's eyes, widened with anger, gazed at Josiah and he heard Chris' voice penetrate his enraged mind. He began to ease his struggle and his breathing grew more even. "That's it, Pard, just ease up, now," Chris continued to coax.
Vin began to focus again.
"Vin? You back with us?" Josiah asked.
Vin hung his head. "Let me go, Chris," he whispered.
Chris kept his hold tight. "You all right? Don't want you going off again."
Vin, his head still lowered, shook it. He took in deep breaths. His body was trembling as he tried to calm down. He dropped the quirt. "Need to see to Marcus. Let me go."
Chris slowly released him, watching him closely. The man Vin attacked jumped to his feet. "I want that man in jail, Larabee! He was gonna whip me to death!"
Chris turned Vin over to Josiah who rested a hand on the tracker's shoulder, keeping him from bolting into a fit of rage again. Chris then grabbed Joe by the shirt and seethed into his face. "You're just damn lucky he got to you before I did!" He shoved Joe to the ground. He turned to the others. "Get the hell out of town, before I lock you all up! And if you ever lay a hand on this man again," he pointed to Marcus. "I'll take a whip to you all myself!"
The cowboys gathered up Joe and his hat and headed for their horses. In seconds they were riding out of town.
Vin pulled from Josiah's side and hurried to Marcus. He knelt down in front of him, nodding to Buck his thanks. Buck stood and walked over to Chris, gesturing to Vin. "Remind me never to get on his bad side," he whispered.
"Yeah. It's always the quiet ones," Chris agreed with a smile. The smile was more to relieve his tension than it was to spark any humor. He saw no humor in what had just happened. He turned to the crowd that had gathered. "The shows over! There's nothing more to see here! Go on about your business!" He then picked up Vin's hat and walked over with Buck to squat down beside Marcus.
Marcus looked up at Vin with concern. "Are you all right, Vin?"
"I should be askin' you that, Marcus."
"Nothing some soap and water can't fix, my friend."
Vin looked at Chris. "Can ya' keep the people away so I can get him out of here?"
Chris nodded. "Vin?"
The tracker looked up at Chris and the expression his friend gave him was clear. We should talk.
Now's not the time.
Not now, I know. But...
I'm all right, Chris.
Chris just looked at him, and not even a silent word could be heard in that expression. But Vin knew Chris would not let what happened go without confronting it. And to be honest, the tracker didn't blame him. Vin had lost control. As ashamed as he was of that fact, he couldn't take it back. He knew Chris wanted an explanation. Hell, he wanted one as well, but it was true that now was not the time. What mattered most was seeing to Marcus.
Chris patted Vin on the shoulder. He handed him his hat. "Get him down an alley, away from prying eyes as fast as you can. No telling how many others won't understand."
Vin and Chris took Marcus by the shoulders, and stood, helping Marcus to his feet. "Let's get ya' cleaned up. Ya' sure you're all right?" Vin asked.
"Just get me out of here, Vin, and I'll let you know."
Harding ran up to them. "Your hat and scarf, sir?" he handed them to Marcus.
Marcus started to reach for them when he saw the paint. Vin took them for him. "Thank you, Mister Harding," Marcus said. "The supplies I asked for?"
"I'll see that they're delivered to the hall right away. Don't worry about the mess. I'll charge it to those boys."
"I'm sure they will not take kindly to that, Mister Harding. I would not want you in danger of retaliation. Just charge the can of paint to our account as well. I would feel better about that."
Harding looked surprised. "Why...thank you, sir. Oh and here's a can of turpentine and some cloths to help you wash off that paint. That's on me, by the way. No charge."
Vin took the can and nodded his appreciation to Harding.
Marcus held out his hand to Harding then pulled it back. "I would shake hands with you, sir, but..."
Harding grabbed Marcus' hand and shook it, in spite of the paint. "You need anything else, you just come to my store, Mister...? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Theodore Marcus, Mister Harding."
"Well, Mister Marcus, you just come to my store any time. I'll take care of you proper."
"Thank you. I will."
Harding released Marcus' hand and smiled as he walked off. Marcus just looked amazed. Vin put a hand to his shoulder. "Y'all just have a way with people, don't ya'?"
Marcus held out his hands, and noticed the paint covering his arms and the front of his clothes. "Well, at least some people, Vin. Those that matter."
Vin smiled as he put on his hat. "Let's get ya' washed off. I don't think that I-talian fella' had ya' in mind when he painted the Blue Boy."
Marcus looked up at Vin amazed. "You know of art, Vin?"
"Some, I reckon."
"Then it appears we have yet more subjects to discuss."
The two didn't seem to notice the six men gathered around them, making a human shield to keep people from getting too close. Some craned their necks to get a look at what was rumored to be the man spoken of in the saloon the night before. The six men waved them on their way. "Go on about your business, Folks," Josiah bellowed out. "Nothing to see here."
The people slowly dispersed and went on their way, whispering among themselves.
Buck walked up to Marcus. "Let's get you in this alley. I'll walk with ya' till we get back to the hall."
"Thanks, Buck," Vin said as they hurried over to the nearest alley.
Before Vin headed down the alley he turned to Chris and tipped his hat to his friend. Chris returned the gesture, but the look in his eyes was far from relaxed. As Vin walked away his only thought was: Trust me, Cowboy, I don't know what happened anymore than you do.'
+ + + + + +
As Buck led them back behind the buildings, he kept his eyes out for anyone wanting to interfere. "Wanna tell us how it started, Marcus?"
"I was buying supplies for the company when those five men entered. They didn't appreciate the fact I was hiding my face. They tried to goad me into a fight. Seems they were told of some freak being involved with the actors. They simply did not take kindly to me."
They came upon a barrel out back of one of the buildings and Vin set Marcus down. "Let's get ya' cleaned up a bit, before this paint dries in your hair." Vin poured some of the turpentine onto one of the cloths that Harding had given and began to wash it through Marcus' hair, removing the paint as much as he could. "This stuff won't hurt your face will it?"
"No, Vin. Continue, please. This paint is most discomforting."
Buck kept a look out. "I'm sorry this had to happen, Marcus," he said as he watched Vin wash the paint from Marcus' face and hair.
"Don't be, Mister Wilmington. I've suffered much worse from less feeling fellows than those."
Vin sighed, shaking his head. "There was talk in the saloon last night. Chris told me that Dan spoke about ya'."
The look in Vin's eyes told the actor all he needed to know. "And he did not forget to tell them of my appearance, I take it."
"That's right. Dan didn't know no better, Marcus. From what Chris says, he was simply amazed by the fact ya' look the way ya' do and could act so well."
"So...he was praising me, but the people he spoke to didn't hear of my acting ability...they only heard my description."
"Reckon so," Vin replied sadly.
Marcus nodded. "That would explain the obvious interest in my person."
"I'm sorry, Marcus. If I had known Dan would take to spoutin' his mouth off..."
"Like you said, Vin. He didn't know any better. It's not the first time this has happened. Don't worry yourself over it."
"But...I wanted ya' to meet my other friends, proper like."
Buck watched this exchange with wonder. Vin was acting like a little boy who wanted to bring a new friend home to his family. The scoundrel had to smile at that. In many ways, that was exactly what it was like. It was like the tracker was excited, full of anticipation, eager to find out what more he could learn. Gone was the silent, subdued young man. In his place was a young kid. Hell, it's like he's seein' the world for the first time,' Buck thought. Then on a more somber note, Buck realized that maybe Vin hadn't had any cause to be so excited before. We owe you one, Marcus,' he thought. Thanks for showing Vin there's more to life than just constantly lookin' over your shoulder.'
Marcus looked up at Vin, curious. "The large man who helped you back there, Vin. Who is he?"
"That'd be Josiah Sanchez. I think you and Josiah would become good friends, too. He can tear a man in half if he's so inclined, but he can also calm a man's spirit in a manner the likes of which I've never known before."
"He sounds like a good friend," Marcus replied in almost a whisper.
Vin nodded. "He's one of the best, that's fer sure."
"Vin, it would be an honor to meet the men you have surrounded yourself with. They all seem to be men worthy of respect."
"We can meet them at the hall, if ya' like."
"I believe that would be the most prudent place."
Vin looked at Buck. "Would ya' bring the others to the hall, Buck?"
"You sure you two will be okay?"
"Fine, Mister Wilmington."
"Go on. We'll be there just as soon as I finish up here," Vin said with a nod.
Buck tipped his hat to Marcus. "Meet ya' there, then," he said and took off to find the others, the smile never leaving his face.
When he was gone, Vin continued with washing the paint off of Marcus. "Need a hand puttin' the stage sets up?"
Marcus saw the hopeful look in Vin's eyes. "You needn't feel obligated to help me, Vin."
"I don't. Just enjoy your company."
Marcus smiled. "Vin, it has been a long time since anyone has said those words to me, my friend."
"Then if you don't mind my sayin' so...those who can't say those words to ya'...are missin' out."
Marcus grinned. "Come, my friend. I have new faces to greet."
+ + + + + +
The rest of the seven gathered around the stage in the abandoned hall. JD was pacing nervously. "Calm down, son, you're makin' me dizzy," Buck said with a smile.
JD threw up his hands. "I just hope I don't go saying anything stupid to him."
Buck pulled JD to his side and they both leaned back against the stage. "You'll do fine."
Josiah and Ezra were seated on the chairs in the front row center. Chris was at the end of the stage, sitting on it with Nathan beside him. "You did just fine the night we first saw him, JD," Nathan said. "I can tell he took a shine to ya'."
"He did?" JD asked, surprised.
"Course he did," Buck said. "Don't sell yourself short, Kid."
JD shook his head. "I ain't short," he replied.
"You know what I mean," Buck chuckled.
The sound of a door opening caught their attention. "Here they come," Chris said as he jumped down from the stage.
Vin entered first. He saw they were all there, waiting. "Thanks fer comin', boys."
"Vin, we wouldn't miss this for the world," Josiah said.
"I concur," Ezra commented. "It's not everyday one of our own is tutored by one of theater's finest."
Vin held his hand out to the side, gesturing. "Marcus?"
The actor stepped forward. His coat was no longer on him, probably to be cleaned of the paint later. The scarf and hat now covered the actor's face and head.
Josiah and Ezra stood and approached to stand with the others. The preacher held out his hand. "Mister Marcus, it is a pleasure, sir."
Marcus shook the outstretched hand and smiled. "You are Josiah Sanchez?"
"Indeed I am."
Vin took his place at Marcus' side and gestured to each of the men. "This here's Ezra Standish. Of course you met Nathan Jackson and JD Dunne the other night, and Buck last night."
Marcus shook each of their hands in turn and greeted them by name. "It is a pleasure to meet Vin's friends. Mister Wilmington, thank you for your assistance awhile ago."
"Don't mention it, Marcus."
"And may I say that the pleasure is all ours, Mister Marcus, I assure you," Ezra replied.
"Thank you, Mister Standish. Mister Dunne, I offer you my congratulations on your winning recital."
JD looked down, abashed. "Thank you, Mister Marcus. Buck, Josiah and Vin inspired me to go through with it."
"Indeed? Well, I was told Mister Wilmington and Mister Sanchez could be actors in their own right."
"Now, I wouldn't go that far, Mister Marcus," Josiah said, grinning.
JD looked as if an idea struck him. "We heard that you performed last night in the saloon?"
"Well," Marcus chuckled. "I managed to quote a few areas of the Bard last night, yes."
"Would you do us the honor of gracing us with your talent, sir?" Ezra asked.
"Please, Mister Marcus?" JD asked with the hopeful look of a child. "Vin tells us you bring words alive. I'd really enjoy seeing you perform."
Marcus gazed at JD for a long moment. "I would have to reveal my face in order to do that, Mister Dunne. What you saw on the street is a scarred face covered with paint."
"Please, call me JD, and there's no reason to hide from us, sir. We all were told what happened to you."
"Mister Marcus," Ezra said. "Mister Tanner's judgment of character, in my opinion, is beyond reproach. If he has found within you a kindred spirit, then you are welcome among us."
Josiah put a hand to Marcus' shoulder. "It would honor us, sir."
Marcus looked at each man in turn. Vin nodded to him, encouragingly. Chris did as well. He then turned back to JD. "My appearance may frighten you."
"I've seen men with burn scars before, sir. No one knows this, but my uncle was horribly burned in a barn fire ten years ago. You won't be showing me anything I haven't all ready seen."
Vin looked at JD with admiration. He leaned over to whisper in Chris' ear. "Remind me to put that kid on the top of my Christmas list."
Chris smiled. "Only if you remind me to do the same."
Marcus raised his hands, palms up. "If the majority of this room wishes me to, then I shall perform. But I do so under certain conditions."
"What would those be?" Nathan asked.
"That Mister Sanchez, Mister Wilmington and Mister Dunne perform with me."
Josiah's eyebrows raised. "Are these conditions non-negotiable?"
"In the strictest sense of the term, Mister Sanchez."
"Then speaking for myself, I humbly accept." Josiah bowed slightly to Marcus.
"Hell, if Josiah can do it, so can I," Buck said.
JD looked as if he was turning green. "You...you want me to perform...with you?"
"Indeed, JD. After all you did win the recital competition. What better way to grace us with your talent?"
JD swallowed hard. "What about Vin?"
"Vin is tired of sharin' his so called talent," the tracker spoke of himself. "It's high time y'all entertain me fer a change."
Chris lowered his head, stifling a chuckle. Sometimes the words coming out of Vin's mouth surprised him.
Marcus grinned. "I am willing to reveal my vulnerability to you, JD. Are you willing to do the same?"
JD straightened his coat. "Well, seeing as though you put it that way, reckon I got no choice."
Buck clapped his hand to JD's shoulder. "Reckon you don't at that, Kid."
Marcus removed his hat and then looking at each man, he slowly removed his scarf.
No one flinched.
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