To Soar Above The Clouds

by White Raven


The two men pulled their horses to a stop near a green field with a huge boulder sitting in the middle of it. "Here it is," Vin said, leaning his arm against his saddle horn and taking in the beauty of the area.

Marcus looked all around him and slowly dismounted. He led Solomon over to a tree and tied the reins to a branch. Vin followed suit. "It''s glorious, Vin! I can see what Josiah means by calling it Shepherd's Rock."

Vin grinned with knowing. "It is a wonder, that's fer certain."

Marcus took a few steps toward the clearing and gazed at the trees that surrounded it. There was the knee high green grass that waved in the breeze like ocean waves. He saw the flowers that filled the air with scents. He closed his eyes and breathed it all in. "Ahhh, it has been a long time since I have been able to just partake of God's handiwork."

Vin clapped him on the arm. "Come on, the rock is a nice place to sit and just...look."

He started down into the clearing and Marcus followed him. "Do you come out here often, Vin?"

"Often as I can, Marcus. I have other places to go to, but this is one of my favorites."

"I can see why. Do the others come out here?"

"I ain't sure. I think Chris knows it's here, maybe he comes out here from time to time. He don't say. I think the others feel it's Josiah's special place and leave it alone, lettin' him stake claim to it. Josiah shared it with me, cause...well, I guess cause we preciate it in a diff'rent way."

"Do you all have special places of refuge to retreat to?"

Vin laughed a bit at that. "Chris has his shack, Buck has a woman's bedroom, and Ezra has his poker table. JD, well, he just goes where the mood strikes. Nathan? Well, Nathan has a special place amongst the Seminole Village not too far from here. He has himself a gal and all. I think that's where he goes."

"Sounds to me like you all are capable of keeping your balance."

Vin started climbing the boulder and Marcus followed up after him. The two sat down on the edge and let their legs dangle. The boulder was big enough for them both to lay flat on their backs and look at the sky. Silence filled the air for a few moments. Marcus basked in the peace of the area. Finally Vin asked, "What do you do, Marcus? To find your balance I mean?"

"Well, Vin, it's been a long time. I suppose because we travel so much and so often it's hard for me to find just a special spot to call my own. I guess that's why I have so many books. Books are what take me away and center me."

"Books," Vin said, reflectively. "One day I'm gonna be able to read books from cover to cover and know what every single word means."

The two fell into a peaceful quiet. They looked around them and then Vin invited Marcus to lay back with him. "Sometimes the birds fly over and circle above this spot. I like to watch em fly, see what tricks they do."

The two laid back and clasped their hands over their stomach. "Will you ever write about this place, Vin?" Marcus asked with all sincerity.

"Write? About this place?" Vin was taken aback by the question. "I reckon I never gave it much thought."

"Perhaps you should, my young poet. To share your experiences with others...that would be a great and wonderful legacy to leave when you depart this world."

Vin took a moment to ponder the suggestion. Then he said; "Well, if'n I do decide to write about Four Corners, I'd most likely write about the Seven of us, and then I would write a whole chapter or even a book about you."

"Why me, Vin?"

Vin cast him a surprised look. "'Cause of what y'all done fer me since I met ya'."

Marcus sat up. "And what have I done for you?"

Vin sat up and looked at him with all sincerity. "I ain't never known words in the manner of which ya' show them to me. Chris knew this would happen. That's why he encouraged me to seek ya' out. He told me y'all could take me places in my mind I ain't never been before. And ya' have, Marcus. I'm in your debt."

Marcus closed his eyes. Vin noticed how quickly his friend had gotten quiet. He studied Marcus and saw that he was fighting to hold the tears back.

"Marcus? Ya' all right? I didn't mean to stir up your emotions like a tornado."

Marcus raised a hand, cutting Vin off. "I need to know something, Vin."

"What's that?"

"What was it, really, that caused your anger with Mister Hathaway this morning?"

"What do ya' mean?"

"The anger that was inside you when you confronted him. I thought you were going to tear into him the way you did that man who whipped me this morning."

Vin lowered his gaze. "I just ain't got no respect for the man."

"Why not?"

"'Cause he's been spreadin' lies about ya', that's why."

Marcus looked at Vin with a furrowed brow. "Lies? What sort of lies?"

Vin sighed heavily. He took a moment to put his words together. There was really no easy way to say it. "He're dangerous. That you're insane and all o' us should just steer clear of ya'."

Marcus felt as if he had been hit in the chest with a severe blow. He looked away from Vin, shock filling him. "I knew...I knew he was controlling, but I never thought he would go so far as that."

"None of us believe him, Marcus."

Marcus shook his head and slowly climbed down off the boulder. He walked away a few feet, his back to Vin.

Vin watched him sadly then scooted over to the edge of the boulder and jumped down. "Marcus? Ya' all right?"

Marcus turned to him and there was a sadness in his face that cut deep into the tracker's heart. "He hates ya' that bad, Marcus?"

Marcus slowly shook his head. "Hate doesn't begin to cover what he feels towards me, Vin."

Vin walked up to Marcus and locked eyes with him. "Tell me bout the fire, Marcus. Tell me what really happened."

Marcus nodded. "I need to tell you, Vin. But it won't be easy to hear."

"I reckon it won't be. But it's gotta be harder fer ya' to keep it inside like ya' been doin'."

Marcus chuckled, but it was a laughter that was filled with remorse. "I've wanted to speak about it for a long time, ever since it happened, really. But I never had a chance to. I was too ashamed to come out of hiding, to form outside friendships. Hathaway wanted me locked away. Not in jail, not that type of lock up, but he wanted to punish me for what I did. I suppose I let him control me for so long because I felt I deserved it. He used my scars as bars and built a cage around me. A cage I feared stepping out of." He looked at Vin. "Until I met you."

Vin rested a hand on Marcus' upper arm. "Then I reckon it's time ya' walk in your freedom, Marcus. Come on." He started off towards a clump of trees and Marcus followed.

Vin led him to a nice spot by a flowing stream and the tracker sat underneath a weeping willow. "Sit here beside me. Talk all ya' want."

Marcus took a seat beside Vin and the two gazed out over the flowing water that passed by. "I told you that the fire was God's way of judging me for my pride. I still believe that. I was such an arrogant bastard, Vin. The praise I received from the people went to my head. I felt I could do no wrong. Hathaway's son, Robert, was so young. All he had ever known was the stage. Like you he had a desire for learning. Unlike you he was not acquainted with hardship. His soul was pliable, a mound of clay ready to be molded by a master sculptor. But sculpting souls is God's job. I took that job upon myself where Robert was concerned. I didn't care about him, though. I cared about what I could make of him. He worshipped me and I allowed that worship to feed my ego. He followed in my footsteps like a shadow, and like a shadow he was impossible to get rid of. At times he tried my patience, always under foot, never giving me any time to myself. I grew tired of having him around, so I began to treat him like a dog, hoping that he'd leave me alone on his own accord. But the more badly I treated him, the more he hung around. It was then that I realized he had no relationship with his father. That Hathaway had no time for him, except to treat him as a director treats an actor. All business. The stage was and is Hathaway's life. Family means nothing to him. He basically pushed Robert away and Robert found in me a source of refuge. I may have treated him badly, but it was to him better than not being paid attention to at all."

Marcus' gaze focused on the water as it flowed and he lost himself in the memories of a youth who would never really know what being wanted was all about.

"How old was he?" Vin asked.

"Seventeen at the time of his death."

Vin shut his eyes. JD could be no more than a few years older than that. JD had family back east but none that seemed to care what happened to him. In reality the six men he now shared his life with were his family, and Vin hoped that they made the youth feel wanted and needed. He would be doubly aware in the future to make sure that was so.

Marcus took in a shaky breath and continued his story. "When I realized what type of relationship he had with his father, something pricked at my heart and I began to feel a sympathy for Robert. I took him under my wing and began to introduce him to my world. He needed to gain a harder edge to survive. I knew that Hathaway would never teach him about the real world, so I did. Granted my world was full of booze and gambling and women, so it was not a great education I was giving him, but it was something outside of the stage. And Robert needed to know the real world. He seemed to crave it, to eat up every single minute. He got into a few fist fights and I then began to teach him how to defend himself. We became...close, Vin. Very close. I suddenly saw a youth I would give my life to save. I became so protective of him. Hathaway could not stand the idea of us being friends. Dear God," Marcus shut his good eye as tears began to form. "He even accused us of deviant behavior. Having relations of the sexual nature." Marcus took in a deep, shaky breath and the tears fell down his cheeks. "I never...never even entertained the thoughts of such a thing. Not with any man let alone Robert. But that accusation ripped Robert's soul apart. I couldn't help myself. I slugged Hathaway for saying such a thing and defended Robert and myself in a very violent way. I can be violent, Vin. I can allow rage to fill me and I can strike out like a viper. Hathaway hated me more after that. He began to only tolerate me being around because he knew my performances brought the audiences in. And because he knew if I left, Robert would go with me. He must always be in control. It's his nature. When he saw he was losing control over Robert, he blamed me. One night his hatred of me consumed him."

Marcus stopped and lowered his head. Vin put a hand to his shoulder. "The night of the fire," he said as if to confirm.

Marcus nodded. "Hathaway wanted me gone...permanently. If I died, then Robert would be his once more. Of course he couldn't come right out and shoot me, so he needed to make it look like an accident. So, after the closing of a run in Kansas City, while we were all busy getting drunk with celebration, Hathaway decided it was time. He waited for just the right moment to strike, when all the other actors left to go to their hotel rooms. I was instructed to see to it the hall was locked up for the night. Each of us were assigned duties. Someone each night was to check the hall and strike the stage, to pack up and get ready to set out the next morning. It was my turn and Robert decided to stay and help me. That was his mistake. The doors were locked, unbeknownst to us, and Hathaway came out onstage holding a bottle of whiskey. Robert was not on stage at that time. He was in the back packing up some props. Hathaway must have thought it was just the two of us in that theater. He held two glasses in his hand and seemed to want to bury the hatchet between us. We talked for a few minutes. He expressed his apologies and asked for my forgiveness. We drank a toast, the two of us. Then Hathaway clubbed me with the bottle and I was covered in whiskey. He set a match on fire and threw it on me. I was covered in flames.

"Robert heard the commotion and came running onto the stage. He screamed and tried to help me, but I threw him off. I was in a panic and in that panic I set the stage on fire. Robert tried to pull the stage curtain down to extinguish the flames, but his clothes caught on fire. Hathaway saw his son covered in flames and realized his plan had all gone wrong. He panicked and ran. By this time the entire stage was engulfed. I tried to get to Robert, to help him in some way, but it was no use." Marcus was choking on his words now and Vin tightened his hold on the man's shoulder. Taking in a shaky breath, Marcus continued. "He fell off the stage and I can only hope that a merciful God intervened, killing him in the fall before the flames tortured him to death. More flames surrounded me and, though I was in pain, I had no choice but to survive for Robert's sake. He died trying to save me. I ran out of the theater following after Hathaway. He had no idea I would survive the inferno. I remember the flames eating at my flesh and when I reached outside I rolled and rolled until the flames went out. By this time the townspeople were gathered and trying to put out the fire. I lost consciousness after that. When I awoke I was in the town's clinic covered with bandages and dosed so much with laudanum that I couldn't think. Hathaway was there and I vaguely remember what he said. He told me that the fire was my fault and that if I tried to tell anyone the truth no one would believe me. He wanted me dead, but he only succeeded in stealing my livelihood. I would suffer the rest of my life and that was good enough for him." Marcus bowed his head. "I believed him, Vin. He had control over me. I said nothing to anyone about the real cause of the fire, because I knew no one would believe me. Hathaway had his control back and that was all that mattered to him. He mourned over Robert, yes, but in his mind, I'm the one responsible for the fire. In a way, he's right."

"How can ya' say that?" Vin asked with disgust. "How can ya' be responsible when ya' tried to save his son?"

"Because I formed a friendship with Robert. If I had not done that, if I had not grown to love Robert as my own brother, none of this would have happened and Robert would still be alive." Marcus was shaking and the tears streamed down from his one good eye.

"That's second-guessin', Marcus. Ya' had no idea Hathaway would lose his mind and try t' kill ya'."

Marcus lowered his head. "Perhaps not, my young friend. But I should have seen it coming. Hathaway, however, did not develop his reputation as a fine actor for nothing. He had me fooled that night. With Robert's death any thread of sanity he held onto was cut at that moment. He truly believes I'm the one responsible for Robert's death, that I started the fire. And it is only his word against mine."

"Not anymore, Marcus. Ya' don't have to live under that cloud anymore. Ya' got friends here, now. We can make a home fer ya' here."

Marcus looked at Vin curiously. "What are you saying, Vin?"

"Listen, I've been thinkin' about it all day. You're good with yer hands, ain't ya'?"

Marcus nodded. "Yes."

"I know Josiah could sure use some help with his church. And Harding has taken a likin' to ya'. Ya' could get a job with him, helpin' people fix their places up. Ya' all ready won Dan and Harding over. I know ya' have a way with people. Stay here, Marcus. Stay in Four Corners. Ya' can have a home here."

Marcus gazed at Vin with a pondering look. "A home? Here?"

Vin nodded. "I know it'll be hard t' adjust, but you'll win everyone over. Sure there'll be a few bad eggs to deal with, but ya' won't be alone. The seven of us will watch out fer ya'. Y'all can continue to teach me and anyone else that's got a notion to learn words."

Marcus turned away and stood. He walked off a few feet. "I...I never even considered leaving the troupe before."

Vin stood and walked over to him. "Ya' can study on it some if ya'd like."

"I don't have to, Vin." Marcus turned to him. "I accept."

Vin smiled and held out his hand. Marcus shook it and smiled back. "Thank you, Vin, but Hathaway will not like it that I'm staying behind."

Vin's voice was low and determined. "Ya' let us worry bout Hathaway. He ain't gonna bother ya' no more."

"I can't believe it," Marcus shook his head, but his smile did not leave. "A new chance at life. I never even considered the possibility."

"It's the least I can do, Marcus. Ya' showed me so much these last two days. I owe ya'."

"Vin, you do not owe me anything, my friend." Marcus took in a deep and shaky breath as he gazed out over the clearing. "It has been so long since I've believed in God. Oh, I speak the Word, I quote it, yes, but to actually believe it in my heart..." he shook his head. "And then I meet you, Vin Tanner, and suddenly...I know, again, that God does exist. I meet your friends who have accepted me despite what I look like. I see your JD standing up for me with the fervor and conviction of a zealot. I see Josiah look at me with respect. And I see Chris Larabee...who sees in me a teacher for the man he calls brother'." He looked at Vin with those words. "And he does, Vin. Maybe not with words, but with his actions. You are so like a brother to him. Doubt it not, my young poet. The friendship you both share is valuable, more precious than all the gold in the world. And for you both to allow me to intrude on that friendship, for Chris to step aside and let me into your world, because of what he knows I can do for you..." Marcus shook his head. "The enormity of it all has overwhelmed me. You say I take you places in your mind that you've never been before. Vin, may I say to you that you have taken my spirit to places I have not been to in a very long time, not since the fire robbed me of my appearance. It is I who owes you and your friends a debt of thanks."

Vin gazed at Marcus and was surprised to see that Marcus now stood straighter, almost taller, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. "I..." he choked back, clearing his throat. "I never knew that's what we were doin' fer ya', Marcus. If that's so...then I'm glad fer ya'. Y'all deserve some happiness in this life."

Marcus placed a hand on Vin's shoulder and squeezed it. "My friend, your friendship and respect and that of your friends...has instilled inside me hope for my future."

A flock of birds called out above them. Marcus looked up at the sky. "There are your birds, Vin."

The two men looked up and allowed the sounds of nature to communicate to them. No more words needed to be said. Not for those few hours at least.

+ + + + + + +

When it was going on dusk, the two men decided it was time to head back to town. "Like it as not I still have a job to do in preparing the actors for the performance tonight," Marcus said. "I will then tell Hathaway my decision to stay here."

Vin nodded to him. "Then we best head on back."

Marcus reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Vin, this is the poem you wrote for Chris. The one you recited to me before you showed me the scars on your back. I meant to give it to you when we were finished, but when Chris entered the room you left so quickly, I decided to give it to you later."

"It wasn't fer Chris, Marcus," Vin said.

Marcus looked at him questioningly. "It wasn't?"

"I, uh, I wrote it fer you," Vin almost whispered as if embarrassed.

Marcus gazed at the paper. He opened it and read the words again, then looked up at Vin. "I thought for certain it was for Chris."

"Oh, don't ya' worry. I got one workin' in my brain fer him. I just ain't figured out what I mean to say in it. That one's fer you, though. I didn't say anythin' that day, cause I wasn't sure how ya'd take it."

Marcus gazed at the paper with a new sense of wonder. "I'm...I'm honored, Vin. Thank you."

"Would...would you like to read the one Chris wrote fer me? When he encouraged me to keep learnin' how to read?"

"Indeed I would. Do you have it on you?"

Vin reached inside his coat to the pocket where he kept his wallet. "I keep it close. Mary did me the favor of printin' it up all nice and pretty like so's I can keep it longer. This one's in Chris' own hand. Now that I have the printed copy I'll be puttin' this one in a glass frame so's the handwritin' will last." He unfolded the paper and gently handed it to Marcus who silently read the words. He looked up at Vin when he was finished. The joy in his eyes told Vin what he wanted to hear. "Ya' like it, then?"

" is a wonderful piece of expression, Vin. You can tell Chris poured his heart out into it."

"Yeah. I reckon that's why it means so much to me. And why I want to write one fer him, but I want the feelin' to be right. Fer my heart to write it I guess. Does that sound too mushy?"

"A poet writes from the heart, Vin. Otherwise the words he puts on paper are stale and lifeless. That poem is indeed inside you. You'll create a masterpiece and touch Chris' heart with it. And the glass frame for this one is a good idea."

"I'm glad you got to see it like that, though." He gestured to the paper.

Marcus handed the paper back to him. "Me, too. Let's head back, shall we?"

Vin carefully folded the paper and placed it back into his wallet. He put the wallet back into his jacket and the two mounted their horses. "It's going to be a wonderful night, Vin, Hathaway notwithstanding."

Vin chuckled. "If'n ya' like, Marcus, I can be back there with ya'. Help out as much as I can."

"The moral support would be greatly appreciated, Vin. Thank you."

+ + + + + + +

By the time they made it back to town, the sun had all ready set and the bonfires that served to light the street were blazing. The two men entered the livery from the front. The darkness would keep them in hiding.

People were surrounding the meeting hall. Vin dismounted Peso and looked over to where the people were gathered. "Looks like another full house."

Marcus dismounted and gazed over at the hall. "I should be over there."

"Go on. I'll take care of Solomon fer ya'."

"Thank you, Vin." Marcus handed the reins to Vin and started over to the hall.

Chris was standing outside the jailhouse when he saw Vin and Marcus ride in. He walked over to the actor. "Marcus, there's someone I'd like you to meet. Can you take a few minutes and come inside?"

"Well, I do need to get to the hall, Mister Larabee. I have a job to do."

"This won't take but a few minutes."

Vin saw the two talking from the livery doors. He tied both horses up and headed over to them. "Chris? Somethin' up?"

"Yeah, Mary has requested meeting Marcus. I think it would be wise, considering something that happened after the two of you left this afternoon."

Vin looked over to see Mary approaching them. "You two go on in, then," Vin said as he walked out to meet Mary.

Chris gestured to inside the jailhouse and Marcus followed him in.

Mary walked over to Vin and nodded to him in greeting. "Vin," she said.

"Mary, I hear ya' want to meet Marcus."

"That's right. I feel I need to, I'm rather confused at the moment. James is a good friend of mine, but I don't know what to believe anymore."

Vin reached out and took her arm. "His scars are pretty frightful, if'n ya' aren't prepared for em."

She looked at Vin in the glow of the street fires and saw the look of concern in his eyes. "I understand, Vin. I can handle it."

"All right, then. Come on."

He fell into step beside her and they headed for the jailhouse.

Outside, in the shadow of the alley darkness, Hathaway watched this scene with anger. He clutched the pistol tightly in his hand.

+ + + + + + +

When Mary and Vin entered, Chris turned from where he and Marcus were standing in front of the desk. "Mary? This is Theodore Marcus. Marcus? This is Mary Travis, a good friend to James Hathaway."

Marcus slowly turned, his hat and scarf still covering his face and head. "Mrs. Travis. It is a pleasure to meet you." He held out his left hand so that she could see the scars.

She looked down at his hand and swallowed back a gasp. Slowly she reached out and took the hand in her own. "Mister Marcus, thank you for agreeing to meet with me."

"I must say I am at a loss as to the urgency of this meeting, though," Marcus said.

"Something Hathaway said," Chris informed.

"Yes. Vin told me what he's been telling you all."

Vin nodded. "I told im this afternoon, Chris. Marcus knows that Hathaway thinks he's insane."

"All right," Chris nodded. "Marcus, would you be willing to tell us your side of the story regarding the fire in Kansas City?"

Marcus looked to Mary and saw the need to know imbedded in her eyes. He gestured for Mary to take a seat in the chair in front of the desk. "I feel I should tell you what happened, but if you are a friend of Mister Hathaway's, you will find this news hard to bear."

"I'm finding all of this confusing, Mister Marcus. James tells me one thing, but Mister Larabee and the others insist he's lying. I need to hear it from you."

Marcus nodded. "Very well. I've all ready told Vin this afternoon."

"Go on, Marcus. It ain't gonna hurt me to hear it twice," the tracker urged.

Marcus sighed heavily. "The question will still remain...which one of us is to be believed, Mrs. Travis. I understand that nothing will change that. It will be his word against mine. There are no other witnesses to the event, and I may easily have damaged my credibility by not voicing my story long before this."

"I understand. Please, go on."

Marcus began his story and Mary listened.

By the time he was done, Mary could not stop the tears from escaping her eyes. "I simply cannot believe that James is capable of murder. It's so...unbelievable."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Travis. I am doing what these fine men are accusing Mister Hathaway of doing to me. Tainting his reputation. My only reason for coming forward like this, aside from your desiring to know, is because Vin and Chris believe in me. And I do not want to do anything to threaten that precious gift they've given so freely. I have not spoken of the events of that night since it happened, not until today, with Vin. What you have heard, both from Mister Hathaway, and now from myself is for you to deal with the best way you see fit. I understand your desire to be loyal to a friend and you do not know me. It is a predicament I would not wish on anyone. Whom to trust, whom not to trust. I understand your fear for Vin's safety, but to be truthful, if I had wanted to harm him I had many opportunities to do so these last few days. Vin is a poet after my own heart. I could not do anymore to him than I could do to Robert when he was alive and meant the world to me. That is the only defense I can give to come against the slanderous lies Hathaway has spread."

Mary gazed at Marcus for a long moment. "Mister Marcus, would you show yourself to me?"

Marcus lowered his head. "I do not wish to frighten you."

"Please. I need to see for myself the damage that was done to you."

Marcus slowly reached up and removed his hat, then he removed the scarf and turned to Mary, his good eye closed.

Mary did not flinch away from the sight. She stood and stepped closer to him. He opened his eye and saw the acceptance in hers. She laid a hand on his upper arm. "I am sorry this happened to you."

Outside, unseen by the occupants of the jailhouse, Hathaway saw through the corner of the window what Mary was doing. She was accepting Marcus without hesitation. How dare he!' he thought. How dare he take Mary's friendship from me as well!' Gripping the pistol, he moved out into the street, facing the jailhouse. When Marcus stepped out, he would never steal from James Hathaway again.

+ + + + + + +

Marcus reached out and took Mary's hand in his own. "My dear lady, if I've caused any unrest between you and the seven men..."

"No, please. What ever has happened I've allowed it to happen. That's not your fault." She looked at Chris. "It's mine. And I need to talk to James one more time. Confront him myself with what I've now been told."

"He will not listen to you, I'm afraid. His mind is set on his interpretation of what went down that night."

"I have to try, Mister Marcus. For my own sake."

Marcus nodded with understanding. "I thank you for taking the time to listen to me. For meeting with me, Mrs. Travis."

"Thank you, Mister Marcus, for giving me your time."

Chris looked out the window. "What the hell is he doing out there?"

They all looked to see Hathaway standing out in the street, obviously waiting for them to come out.

"Please, let me talk to him," Marcus said. He headed for the door, but Vin intercepted him. "Marcus, please. Let me go first."

Marcus smiled at him. "Vin, don't worry yourself." He reached up and put a hand to Vin's face and neck. "Trust me."

"I do. It's Hathaway I don't trust."

Marcus gently moved Vin aside. "Let me talk to him. I know what I'm doing." He reached for the door handle, when Vin put a hand to his arm. "Marcus," he said, his eyes pleading.

Marcus smiled at him again. "Trust me," he said again and opened the door. "Mister Hathaway? Is something wrong, sir?"

"Teddy, I was wondering where you were. The show is due to start in another hour. We need you over at the meeting hall."

"I was just on my way there now, sir." Marcus stepped off the porch into the street.

"You forgot your hat and scarf, Teddy. We wouldn't want the people of the town to see you, now, would we?"

Marcus turned to see Vin standing in the doorway, with Mary behind him. Chris was at the window, observing like a cat.

"I...don't need the scarf and hat anymore, Mister Hathaway. People here it seems, accept me for who I am, not what I look like."

Hathaway smiled. "And that is so noble of them, isn't it, Teddy?"

"Mister Hathaway, is there a problem? You seem rather distressed about something."

Hathaway shook his head and chuckled. "Just you, Teddy." He pulled out his gun and fired.

Vin flinched back as the gun went off. His legs felt like rubber as he flew forward. "MAAARRRRCCCUUUUUUSS!" he shouted and reached out as he saw Marcus' body jerk back. Vin's arms wrapped around Marcus' waist as the actor fell. When the two hit the ground, Vin shielded Marcus' body from further attack.

Chris felt his heart drop into his stomach at the sight. Dear God,' he thought as he pulled his gun and pushed Mary aside.

Hathaway aimed his gun at Vin. "Now you will never interfere again."

Chris yelled out as he aimed his gun. "NNNOOOOOO!"

A moment in time, when the world seemed to slow to a snails pace, forced thoughts to whirl within Chris' mind. A reasoning he had never focused on before pointed him in a direction other than the one he would have normally took. He aimed for Hathaway's hand and fired. The gun flew and Hathaway went down with a scream.

Chris ran to him and kicked his gun out of reach, keeping his gun on Hathaway. Mary ran out and stopped, her hands to her mouth. What was she seeing? What had she witnessed? A man she thought she had known, a man she trusted...had turned into a cold-blooded killer right before her eyes. The man she thought was a killer...decided not to take a life. And a man who Mary had thought she would never see weep, was cradling a bleeding man in his arms with tears streaming unabashedly down his face.

"My God," was all she could say as she took in all these images at once.

Chris turned to see Vin pushing Marcus up from behind and cradling the wounded man in his arms. "Marcus?" Vin's voiced sounded like a child who was lost and afraid. Chris' blood ran cold as he saw the blood that covered the actor's chest. "Marcus! Marcus!" Vin was shouting as he held the man in his arms pulling him tight against his chest.

Chris turned toward the clinic where he saw a light on in the window. "NATHAN!" he called out. "NATHAN! WE NEED YOU!"

The gunshots brought a crowd of people from the meeting hall, including Buck, Josiah and JD. Ezra came running behind them.

Nathan came hurrying out of the clinic carrying his medical bag. He ran toward the direction of Chris' shout.

Vin felt the blood seeping from the wound. He looked up at the crowd gathering around them. Many of them saw Marcus' face and cringed away with disgust and fear. Vin did not notice their reaction. He lifted horror filled eyes. "Get Nathan! Someone, please get Nathan!" he shouted. Lost in shock, Vin had not registered Chris' desperate cries for the healer.

Buck and JD broke through along with Josiah and Ezra. JD looked down and froze for a second when he saw that it was Marcus who had been shot. Buck ran to the bonfire and grabbed a burning log, bringing it back he held it up to give better light.

Nathan came running through. He saw the image of Vin holding Marcus' bleeding body against him and Vin looked up at him, his eyes pleading and terrified. "Help him, Nathan, he's bleedin' bad."

Nathan knelt beside Marcus and began to examine the wound.

Hathaway was on his knees holding his wrist as the blood dripped from the wound Chris had inflicted him with. He began to chuckle as Chris walked up to him and placed the gun to his neck. "He won't hurt anyone anymore, Mister Larabee. I've done what you could not bring yourself to do."

Chris could tell that Hathaway's mind was completely gone.

Josiah turned and stormed up to Hathaway, large and imposing. "Marcus would never hurt anyone," he said in a tone of voice that forced the man to only chuckle more.

"Take him, Josiah," Chris spoke out and his voice was low and full of strain.

Josiah took a hold of Hathaway who continued to laugh.

Chris holstered his gun and knelt on the other side of Marcus. He rested a hand on his arm. "Marcus?"

"Forgive me, Chris. I was always...famous...for my grand...death scenes," Marcus tried to laugh.

Vin was unconsciously rocking Marcus as he looked up at Nathan. The healer locked eyes with Vin and slowly shook his head. "An artery's been hit, Vin. He's loosing too much blood too fast. I can't save him."

Vin gazed at him with fearful eyes. He reached up and grabbed Nathan by the shirt collar. The blood on his hand stained the healer's shirt. "Don't say that to me, Nathan! Don't say that to me!"

Chris rested a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Vin," he softly said.

"No! I won't accept that! I won't!" Vin's eyes were wide with shock and pleading as he looked from Chris to Nathan and back again. "I won't!"

"Vin, my...young poet." Marcus reached up and touched Vin's face with his fingers. "Do not...worry. These last few days have been the most glorious of my life. I have you to thank for that."

"No! Marcus! Don't ya' quit on me! Not now! Not now!"

Chris looked up at Buck with desperation. Buck returned his gaze with a clenched jaw. He shook his head in sorrow.

Marcus rested his fingers to Vin's cheek and gazed up at him from where he lay. "Vin, listen to me. There's not much time...and...I have one last request to ask of you."

Vin's hands were covered in Marcus' blood by now. He clung to his friend tightly. The tears fell from his eyes, but he paid them no mind. "Anything, Marcus."

"Chris, if you would...the book in my jacket pocket. I would like read sonnet Twenty-nine for me."

Chris hurried to retrieve the book and opened it to the page. Buck stood behind Vin to hold the burning log in order to give Vin light to read by.

JD went to stand by Nathan, tears filling his own eyes. He looked over at Buck who reached out and rested a comforting hand on his young friend's shoulder. JD stepped closer and allowed Buck to pull him to his side.

Ezra stood on Nathan's other side, and gazed down with him to Vin who was shaking mightily under the strain of repressed grief.

Josiah kept a firm hold on Hathaway, discouraging any attempts for the man to escape. "You will listen, and you will listen well," the preacher spoke with contempt. Hathaway only laughed. Josiah wanted to ram a fist into the man's face, but held back his temper. Vin's time with Marcus was going to be short. There would not be any distractions, not if the preacher could help it.

"I'll hold the book for you, Vin. Read to him," Chris urged gently.

Vin blinked away the tears, wiping his eyes with his buckskin covered arm. He focused on the words and suddenly was able to read them, to put meaning to the words. He cradled Marcus closely to him, the man's blood seeping over his hands and arm, and he began to read.

"When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state." Vin looked down at Marcus, clutching him tightly. "Marcus..." he pleaded.

"Go on, my young poet. Read for me." Marcus smiled up at him with reassurance.

Vin choked back the tears as he continued. "And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, and look upon myself and curse my fate." Vin's voice began to shake. He could not look at Chris, even though his friend held the book for him. He kept his eyes on the page as the tears streamed down, flowing like a river of pain. He forced himself to finish. "Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, featured like him, like him with friend's possessed." At this Vin lifted his eyes only to see Chris do the same. The meaning was clear to them both. Vin tightened his hold on Marcus as he went on. "Desiring this man's art...or that man's scope, with what I most enjoy contented least. Yet in these thoughts, myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee." Vin felt Marcus' hand lay on his neck and there was a gentle squeeze with those words.

"And then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate." Marcus' hand started to slide from Vin's neck. Vin reached up quickly and grabbed it in his own, holding it there. "For thy sweet love remembered, such wealth brings." Vin felt Marcus' chest fall and the last breath the actor released brushed over his student's face. Vin lowered his head to Marcus'. Knowing the actor could not hear him anymore; he still spoke the last words. "That then I scorn&" Vin's voice completely broke. "To change my state with kings."

Vin broke down in tears as he held Marcus' lifeless body close to him. All the rest stood silent. No sounds but the breeze whispering in the air and the silent weeping of a student as tears fell onto the scarred but beautiful face of a teacher who had filled a young poet's heart.


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