Chris stiffened and narrowed his eyes as a faint ripple of uncertainty ran through him. He tried to read Vin's tone, tried to decide whether this would be something he wanted to hear or not. The tracker was not a great one for opening up and pouring forth all the details of his life, but every now and then he'd let small bits slip out, and some of them tore like knives through Larabee's soul. And, right now, with the sunset painting the sky so beautifully, a light, sweet breeze blowing and Vin seemingly over whatever had spooked him in the store, Chris just wasn't sure he wanted any of the devils from Tanner's past rearing their heads and shattering the rare peace of this moment.
But it was clear that Vin, who rarely even wanted to talk, now needed to. And Chris, friend that he was, could do nothing but listen.
"Told me he raised ya after your ma died," he said at last, "and that he died when you were about nine or ten. But that's all."
If he expected that to unleash some torrent of words, he was disappointed. Vin merely nodded slightly, eyes still on the glowing horizon, and remained silent for long, long moments. And Chris, who knew Tanner better than he'd ever known anyone in his life, could almost feel the man gathering the words to himself, picking through them and making his peace with them before he let even one pass his lips.
Vin was nothing if not a long thinker. He could sit in a silence so deep that anyone next to him would swear he was asleep or dead. But a look in those blue eyes, eyes that gave away every feeling that passed through him and that flickered with every thought, would reveal a mind that worked far faster than his mouth ever would.
And that mind was working now, Chris could feel it. So he settled himself to wait, knowing Tanner could take all damn night to put together two sentences. He grinned slightly. Well, hell, no one had ever said he was a great conversationalist, either.
"He was my pa's pa," Vin finally said, his voice still soft, and as faraway as his gaze. "Never knew my pa." He frowned slightly. "I ever tell you that?"
Chris chuckled quietly. "Nope. Face it, Vin, you ain't told me more about yourself than you have."
"Oh." He shifted slightly, and lifted his gaze to Chris's face, still frowning. "That bother ya?"
Chris looked down at the young man, saw the uncertainty in that face, the lost little boy in those deep blue eyes, and reached down to lay a strong hand on the tracker's shoulder. "No," he answered honestly. "Fact is, Vin, you could go the rest of your life without ever tellin' me a single thing about yourself, and it'd be all right. Because I already know all I need to know. I already know you."
Vin relaxed and smiled slightly, gratefully, at that, taking comfort from the hand on his shoulder and staring up into the strong face of his friend. The green eyes that held his showed none of the coldness, the hardness, the menace of which Chris Larabee was capable, but were soft and deep, shimmering with warmth and light and feeling, revealing to Vin every facet of the man beneath the fearsome reputation. Those eyes drew his own soul into them, offered him a place to rest, to hide, to heal.
Those eyes brought him home.
"I ain't no bastard, though," he said, again breaking the silence suddenly, but softly. "Jist wanted you ta know that."
Chris nodded. "All right. But it wouldn't matter to me if ya were. I just want you ta know that."
Vin smiled slightly. "Obliged to ya. I know it matters an awful lot ta some folks, though I ain't ever understood why." He frowned and shook his head. "Cain't see blamin' a body fer what ain't no fault'a their'n. 'Course," he sighed and shrugged, "I ain't real good at understandin' why folks do most'a what they do, anyways. I kin purt' nigh tell ya what a feller's gonna do, but I'll be damned if'n I kin tell ya why he's gonna do it." He shook his head again, his frown deepening. "Folks kin be awful damn complicated, 'n awful damn peculiar."
Chris had to laugh at Vin Tanner calling others "peculiar." What was that saying about pots and kettles?
"Anyways," Vin went on, clearly determined to share this part of his life with Chris, "I never knew my pa. He died when I'se just a baby."
"How?" Chris asked when Vin paused. That he asked the question startled him; he had never been a man to pry into others' lives. But Vin seemed in the rare mood to talk, and Chris suddenly wanted to know as much about the man as he could.
Vin narrowed his eyes and licked his lips, thinking. "We lived in a little settlement in the Texas hill country, down on the Pedernales River. It was pretty rough. 'Tween Indians, bandits up from Mexico 'n our own home-growed desperadoes, there's always somebody causin' grief. Weren't much law around, so the menfolks banded together ta watch over things themselves." He shrugged. "Bandits was takin' stock from all the farms near'bouts, 'n the menfolk, my pa with 'em, took off after 'em. Found 'em, 'n there was a fight. My pa was killed." He nodded. "But they got the stock back, 'n hung what bandits they hadn't killed in the fight. So's I reckon he died doin' good. Ain't that so?"
Chris smiled and nodded. "Yeah, Vin, it is." Now he knew where Tanner got his tendency to put himself out for others...
"Anyways," Vin licked his lips again and continued, "we lived on my grandpa's farm. So when Pa was killed, it was jist me, Ma 'n Grandpa. Grandma'd died a few years b'fore when cholera swept th' settlement, 'n Ma didn't have no family. So--"
"What were their names?" Chris interrupted. "Your pa and ma, I mean."
Vin smiled slightly, deeply gratified -- and strangely proud -- that Chris would be so interested in his past. He knew Larabee only took an interest in those people who were important to him, and it warmed Vin to know he mattered enough to the man for him to ask questions. To want to know more.
"They's Jesse and Grace," he said. His smile grew wistful. "Wish't I'da known him," he murmured sadly. "I 'member Ma talkin' about him, tellin' me couldn't nobody have a better or handsomer pa... She said I look some like him... 'Cept I got her eyes, I know that... That harmonica I got? It was his. Ma give it ta me, said he used ta play on it 'til I went ta sleep at night. Said she knew he'd want me ta have it... Wish't I'da had 'em longer," he whispered, his gaze going once more to the fire-streaked sky. "I don't 'member him at all, 'n don't 'member much about her... I'se only five when she died." He sighed softly, his blue eyes wide and dark. "'N when she died, it was jist me 'n Grandpa. We was all each other had in the world."
Chris had to look away as the pain and the longing -- and the love -- in that soft, raspy voice brought a hard lump to his throat. All at once he knew what had sent Vin running from Mrs. Potter's store this afternoon.
Caleb Walker and his grandson. A mirror image of Vin Tanner and his grandpa. And another reminder of one more thing Tanner had lost in a life filled with loss.
Jesus, why wasn't Vin crazy by now?
But Vin was smiling softly, his blue eyes filled with light. "He's the one taught me how ta shoot," he breathed. "Hell, he taught me nearly ever'thing I know! Taught me how ta hunt, how ta fish... He's the one give me my first lessons in trackin'. That man could find a game trail that was damn near invisible! 'N he never needed more'n one shot ta bring down whatever it was he hunted. Said if'n ya needed more, it was wasteful'a bullets 'n cruel to th' animal. He said jist 'cause we eat 'em fer food 'n use 'em for clothin' 'n goods, don't mean we gotta be cruel. He said we gotta be thankful fer what we take, 'n respectful when we take it. 'N I always remembered that." He nodded, pride showing in his blue eyes. "Even when I'se huntin' buffalo, I remembered. Got ta where I c'd take a buff down with one shot, ever' time. 'N ever' kill a clean, quick one. 'Cause I knew Grandpa'd be mighty pissed if'n I done it any other way."
Chris smiled slightly and gently squeezed Vin's shoulder. "Sounds like a fine man," he mused.
Vin nodded. "Yeah, he was. Folks where we lived said there wasn't no finer, more decent man than Joshua Tanner." His gaze again drifted to the horizon, even as his mind drifted back through time. "I always thought he was the strongest, bravest, smartest man I ever knew," he said softly. "There didn't seem ta be nothin' he couldn't do, 'n nothin' he couldn't help me do. 'Cept read, I reckon. Somehow he never learnt that, so..." He let his words trail off, suddenly uncomfortable with where they might lead.
But Chris understood. Though Vin had never admitted it, Larabee had long suspected -- hell, he knew -- he couldn't read. In all the time they'd been together, he'd never seen Vin pick up a newspaper, open a book, look at a telegram. When the former bounty hunter studied a wanted poster, it was the face he memorized, not the name. And on the few occasions when he'd consented to eat in a restaurant, Chris had noticed him glancing surreptitiously about, seeing what other patrons had and making his choice from that, without ever once consulting a menu.
Still, Chris was not about to mention it now. Vin Tanner was a proud man, and until he felt comfortable admitting his illiteracy, Chris would never take the risk of offending or hurting him by raising the subject.
"But I reckon he taught me things more important than readin'," Vin continued, smiling slightly as he remembered the man who'd once been his whole world. "He told me a man's only got two things in this world he can call his own -- his good word, 'n his good name. Said all the money in the bank ain't worth nothin' if'n y'ain't got them, 'n cain't no amount'a money buy 'em. He said us Tanners ain't ever had money, but that the Tanner name 'n the Tanner word'd always been better'n gold. 'N I reckon it was so. Never knew him ta go back on his word, never saw him refuse help ta them what needed it, never knew him ta jist sit back 'n accept a wrong that was bein' done." Sudden pain flashed in his eyes and traveled over his face, tearing a hard, heavy breath from him. "I cain't help but wonder what he'd think'a this bounty on my head, what he'd say if'n he knew what I done to the Tanner name."
"Hey," Chris called firmly, leaning forward and reaching out to turn Vin's face toward his. " You didn't do anything to the Tanner name, you hear me? That bastard Eli Joe set you up. You're innocent--"
"Still got folks huntin' me," Vin said sadly. "Got a whole town wantin' ta hang me... Tanner name's ruint in Texas, 'cause'a me."
"And one day," Chris assured him quietly, gazing compellingly into those pained eyes, "we'll go back to Texas and clear it. The two of us, together. I promise you." He smiled gently. "We'll do it for your grandpa."
Vin nodded, his gaze fixed on Larabee's face. "You'da liked him," he whispered, knowing it with instinctive certainty. "Didn't have no fancy, flowery ways, didn't have no book learnin', but he was fair 'n honest 'n decent, 'n always good ta me." His gaze again took on that faraway look as his grandpa's image rose in his mind. "He was a strong man, taller'n you, hell, mebbe taller'n Buck. Had great big ol' hands that covered my whole head when he put one atop it, or that could swing a mean strap when he figgered I needed it." A shy grin broke slowly through. "I needed it some, too, I'll tell ya. I know you won't b'lieve this, but I'se a regular handful when I'se little."
Chris laughed aloud at that. "And just what in the hell makes you think I won't believe that, Tanner?" he teased. "Jesus, you're a regular handful now!"
Vin scowled at Chris, affronted. "Well, shit, Larabee, you ain't nobody's idea of a picnic yerself! You kin piss off more people in five minutes than the rest of us all put together can in five days! Hell, I've seen chargin' buffaloes more sociable than you!"
Chris relaxed and grinned, glad to see that prickly temper rising. "I'm just complicated," he said.
"Complicated, my ass!" Vin snorted. "Ya make my goddamn hair hurt! Sonuvabitchin' gunfighter 'n yer goddamn glare, stalkin' around town like ya got a fuckin' board up yer ass 'n scowlin' fit ta scare the dead--"
Chris abruptly silenced the tirade by pressing one hand to the back of Vin's head and clamping the other over the tracker's mouth. "Anybody ever tell ya you talk too damn much?" he growled.
Vin glared up at Larabee and contemplated biting the hand that held him.
Chris seemed to read the threat in the narrowed eyes and gave a thin smile. "Do it, and it'll take Nathan all damn week ta sew you back together. Now," he arched a golden brow, "you gonna behave, and talk nice?"
"Fuck you, Larabee," came the muffled reply.
Chris laughed softly, his eyes gleaming with rare mischief. "I'll take that as a 'yes,'" he answered, removing the hand.
"Sonuvabitch!" Vin rasped with outraged dignity. "It'd serve ya right if'n I saddled Peso 'n rode outta here right now!"
Chris sighed and sat back, staring archly down at Vin. "Now who's makin' whose hair hurt, Tanner? Here I was, contemplatin' how nice and quiet it is out here, and you're gonna spoil it by makin' me shoot ya. Never known such an ornery, ungrateful cuss in my life."
"Reckon it's jist 'cause I got ornery, ungrateful friends," Vin declared, his jaw setting stubbornly. "Hell, I ain't gotta stay here, y'know. I c'd just ride off an' leave ya ta work on this place by yerself. Instead'a insultin' me, I'd think you'd be grateful you got a friend willin' ta come out here an' help ya just fer the sake'a bein' a friend!"
Chris stared at the angry tracker for several long moments, then nodded, all mischief, all teasing abruptly gone from him. "I am," he said softly, seriously. "More than you know."
The unexpected answer startled Vin, stripped him of his anger and left him deeply confused. The whole idea of friendship, of needing and being needed, was still so new to him, so fragile and so precious, that he was not entirely certain how to cope with it. How to accept it. And sometimes the immensity of it terrified him.
But now, here, Chris's strength steadied him, the man's very presence seemed to enfold him and offer a security he'd not known in a very long time, and the sensations calmed him, soothed him, brought to him once again the wonderful feeling of belonging. Of being home.
"Reckon this is what Grandpa would'a wanted fer me," he murmured without thinking.
Chris swept disbelieving eyes about the dilapidated cabin with its sagging roof and rough-hewn floors, then took in the ramshackle outbuildings and neglected yard, and snorted in frank astonishment. "Had some low expectations, didn't he?"
"No!" Vin said sharply, sitting up straight. "I don't mean nothin' like this." He waved a hand to take in their surroundings. "I mean... Aw, hell!" he breathed in frustration, bowing his head as a hot blush rose in his face. "That ain't what I mean at all!"
Chris chuckled quietly, knowing how the tracker struggled to put his thoughts into words. "Then what do you mean?"
Vin swallowed and frowned deeply. "I mean..." He slowly raised his head, meeting Chris's curious gaze and smiling slightly. "I guess mebbe I do mean this," he rasped softly, shyly. "Well, mebbe not the shack, but... what it means. What all'a y'all mean. What y'all give me."
"And what's that?" Chris asked gently, his gaze traveling slowly over that suddenly contented face.
Vin studied the older man, and concentrated on the feelings that came to him in his company, and in the company of the others. "A place ta come home to," he breathed. "'N somebody always waitin' fer me ta git there." A soft light shone in his blue eyes. "I 'member once, I reckon I'se about nine, I'd gone out huntin'. Hadn't meant ta go far, but I reckon I jist got lost in what I'se doin'."
"Imagine that," Chris said with a quiet chuckle, knowing exactly how intent the tracker could become on the job at hand.
Vin scowled at him, then went on, "Anyways, a storm blew up outta nowhere, like they do down there sometimes. It was a bad'un, too, and I'se scared as I c'd be. Didn't know what was worse -- the storm, or the fear'a what Grandpa was gonna do ta me when I got home. I wasn't s'posed ta be out so long, wasn't s'posed ta wander so far... 'N I didn't even have nothin' ta take back with me. That storm'd spooked all the game clean away."
He sighed and shook his head. "By the time I got back home it was dark, 'n I'se soaked to the skin, cold, hungry... 'N scared as hell. Shit, I'se cryin', I'se so scared. I just knew Grandpa was gonna lay inta me... But he didn't," he said softly, the wonder of it still with him after all these years. "He must'a been watchin' fer me, 'cause when I got ta th' yard, he threw open that door 'n come runnin' out to me. Not ta whup me, but ta take me up in his arms 'n carry me inside. Like I said, I'se soppin' wet, but he didn't care. He just took my clothes off, wrapped a big ol' quilt around me, then sat down in his rocker 'n just held me 'til I'd stopped cryin', 'til I wasn't cold nor scared no more. I told him I hadn't even kilt nothin', but he said that didn't matter. Said all that mattered was that I'se home, where I belonged, 'n that I'se safe."
He swallowed hard and shook his head, his eyes wide. "I ain't ever fergot that," he whispered, his hoarse voice shaking. "Even after all these years, I still 'member that feelin' of bein' held by him, bein' warm 'n dry, 'n knowin' I'se safe in his arms. Knowin' I'se home. But I lost that after he died, 'n thought I'd never have it agin. 'Til I met y'all. Then it all come back ta me." He gazed steadily at Chris, his heart filled with feelings he couldn't begin to name. "I bin lost fer a long time," he whispered. "Been cold 'n almighty scared. But Grandpa was right -- none'a that matters now." He sighed and shook his head. "I jist wish I c'd tell him I ain't alone no more."
"I'm sure he knows, Vin," Chris said quietly.
He bowed his head again and frowned, staring down at the porch. "I still miss him, y'know?" he murmured. "He was so good to me, 'n he taught me so much... Sometimes, when I ain't sure'a somethin', I try ta figger out what he'd do, or what he'd say... Sometimes, it's almost like I kin still feel his big ol' hand on my shoulder, guidin' me along the ways he'd want me ta go."
"How'd he die?" Chris asked softly, wishing he'd had the chance to meet the man who'd clearly been so important to Vin.
Tanner shrugged. "Heart give out, I reckon. One day, I'se workin' in the barn, he's out mendin' the fence... When I didn't hear nothin' fer a while, I went out..." His voice broke, and tears stung his eyes. "I found him," he whispered tightly. "He was layin' there, his face to the sun... He didn't look to've been in no pain, though, jist... mebbe a li'l sad. Like he knew he's leavin' me... 'n didn't want to... Lord knows, I didn't want him to... I didn't even git ta tell him goodbye," he breathed in that broken voice. "Didn't git ta tell none of 'em goodbye. Not my pa, not Ma, not Grandpa..." He reached out suddenly and grabbed Chris's hand, his blue eyes staring almost desperately into Larabee's. "You won't never leave me without sayin' goodbye, will ya, Chris?" he begged.
Chris squeezed that hand tightly. "Never, cowboy. I promise." His words seemed to reassure Vin, yet still Chris held onto his hand, sensing that, just now, Tanner needed that contact. "That man who came into the store with his grandson today," he said softly, "he looked like your grandpa, didn't he?"
Vin nodded, intensely grateful for Chris's touch. "Yeah," he breathed. "They was lookin' at knives, 'n the way he was with the boy... jist reminded me of... of how Grandpa was with me. 'N all at once, I remembered how much I miss him... Guess it was kinda stupid, huh? Runnin' outta there like that? But I jist couldn't breathe... When I heard him talkin' to his boy... like Grandpa used ta talk ta me... It hurt somethin' fierce, 'n I jist couldn't stay there."
"Wasn't stupid, Vin," Chris assured him quietly. "Hell, I've done it, too. Sometimes, I'll see a woman who looks like Sarah, or a little boy who looks or sounds like Adam... Believe me, I've run outta my share'a places, too. Only where you headed for the hills, I usually head for the saloon." He shrugged. "Ain't a one of us that ain't wanted or needed ta run from some kinda pain."
Tanner sighed and bowed his head, staring down at the porch as shadows from the past again crept into his eyes. "After Grandpa died, I sorta got passed around from one fam'ly t'another 'til I got tired of it an' lit out on my own."
"How old were you?" Chris asked softly. Sorrow filled him at the young man's words. He tried to imagine his Adam having been forced into such a life, and ached at the thought. But Vin spoke as if it were nothing at all.
Tanner frowned thoughtfully. "Reckon mebbe I'se thirteen or so. Mebbe younger, mebbe older. Cain't rightly say. It weren't that all them fam'lies was bad -- hell, some was right decent ta me -- it's jist that... I wasn't theirs, y'know? Didn't b'long to 'em." He shrugged slightly, his head still bowed. "Didn't b'long nowhere. Ain't b'longed nowhere or ta nobody since." He shrugged again. "Reckon I jist got used ta that. Not b'longin', I mean."
Chris thought of a shy, slender, quick-witted, slow-tongued boy with lively blue eyes having to live on his own, and felt his heart clench. "Didn't... didn't anybody... go after ya?" he asked softly. "Try ta bring ya back?"
Vin lifted his head and raised bewildered eyes to his friend, frowning in confusion. "Why would they? I weren't theirs. Last fam'ly I'se with already had four young'uns'a their own; they surely didn't need another mouth ta feed." Again his shoulders heaved in a quick shrug. "Reckon it came as a relief to 'em when I left. Meant that much more food fer their own. Mebbe not as many hands ta work the farm, but like as not they's jist glad ta be relieved'a the burden'a havin' ta care fer me."
"Jesus," Chris murmured strickenly, sitting back in his chair. Christ, no wonder Vin was always taking off on his own when things got rough for him; he'd grown up thinking of himself and his needs as a burden!
Vin saw the shock, the sorrow, the pain that flooded Larabee's eyes and reached out, laying a hand on Chris's arm. "I don't wantcha ta feel bad fer me, cowboy," he said softly, urgently. "I done all right. Got real good at takin' care'a myself."
"But, shit, Vin, you shouldn'ta had to!" Chris said sharply, angrily, his father's heart outraged by the enormous wrong done his friend. "You were just a kid!"
Vin frowned, sincerely confused. "But... I done all right. Had to. Weren't nobody else ta do it fer me. When Grandpa died, I didn't have nobody else. 'N them other fam'lies... Hell, they had their own worries. Weren't like I'se theirs ta worry over. I mean, most of 'em done the best they could, but... I weren't theirs."
Chris stared at Vin, haunted by images of a lost and lonely boy, and by the thought of the torment a decent, loving old man must have suffered in his final moments when he realized he was dying, when he knew he was leaving his grandson alone.
God, what would he have felt if it had been him and Sarah dying in that fire, leaving Adam alone?
Abruptly he reached out, grabbing Vin's arm and holding tightly to it, staring into startled blue eyes. "I want you ta listen to me," he rasped in a low, harsh voice, his green eyes blazing. "You... are not... alone... anymore! You got that?" His fingers dug into Tanner's arm as his gaze burned into the tracker's soul. "You don't have ta do for yourself, you don't have ta think of yourself as a burden, you don't have ta take off on your own ta spare us the 'trouble' of worryin' about ya." He shifted his firm grip from the tracker's arm to one shoulder. "You ain't alone no more, Vin," he said again, his fierce expression softening. "You're ours now, you hear me? You belong to us. You're ours ."
Vin stared at Chris through wide, uncertain blue eyes, his mind trying to sort through the older man's words. But it had been so long...
"I ain't... rightly sure... what that means no more," he breathed at last. "'S hard fer me... I ain't used ta folks, Chris," he said, his soft voice holding a note of fear. "Ain't used ta their ways... Don't know what ta say or how ta act around 'em... What if I mess up? I mean, I know you 'n the boys mean well, but... I jist don't wanta let y'all down. Ain't used ta this... What if I mess up?"
Chris smiled gently and squeezed Vin's shoulder. "You're doin' fine so far, pard. Table manners still need some work, but I guess we can live with that."
Vin's eyes narrowed and darkened as a flash of anger went through him. "Y'ain't got no call ta make fun'a me--"
"I'm not makin' fun, honest," Chris soothed quickly. "I know havin' folks around ya is all new to ya, Vin, and I know it scares ya sometimes. I know sometimes havin' so many folks around ya rubs your soul raw sometimes, makes you afraid of what they're gonna do or what you're gonna do. But," he leaned forward once more and stared intently into Tanner's eyes, "I don't want you ta worry about it, you hear? I just want you ta remember that you ain't alone no more, and you ain't a burden. You got friends now, Vin, good friends. We're not tryin' ta tie ya down or clip your wings. We just want you ta know that we're here, that we ain't goin' nowhere, and, when you need us, all you gotta do is holler and we'll come runnin'. You think you can remember that?"
"I'll try," Vin breathed. A slight, shy smile curved about his mouth. "Like I said, I reckon I'm a mite slow sometimes. Takes me a while ta lay these things out straight in my head."
Chris chuckled and reached out to slap Tanner's shoulder. "It's all right, cowboy, you got time. And I ain't sure there's any of us who are real fast learners."
"Well, then," Vin began to relax once more, "I reckon I'm in good company. Another thing Grandpa always said," he raised warm, serene blue eyes to Larabee, "you kin always judge a man by the company he keeps. I reckon he'd be right proud ta see what company I'm keepin' now."
"Well, cowboy, I'll tell ya," Chris said with an answering smile, "it can't be any better than the company I'm keepin'. And don't you worry about the Tanner name." He winked. "The way I see it, your grandpa left it in real good hands."
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