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Vin hugged the butt of his rifle tighter into his shoulder. He kept a careful eye on the rider, measuring the wind, judging the distance. He could make this shot...he had dozens of times before. But those shots were different. He'd had papers to say those shots were legal.
This could make him a murderer.
This could make him an assassin.
"Do the job now," came the harsh demand.
EARLIER THAT MORNING
JD moved slowly ahead of Vin, eyes glued to the stony ground. The clear morning light was reflecting off some of the rocks trying to trick him into a wrong decision. He glanced back to Vin, worried he was beginning to bore the tracker. They had set out early this morning. JD wanted to practice his tracking skills, hopeful that Vin would be in a mood for company. An hour out of town the two dismounted and tethered their horses.
"It's all yours." Vin had indicated the dry rocky slope ahead of them with a sweep of his arm and a half laugh.
The sun had moved higher into the sky, reflecting the heat up to JD. He looked back at the tracker settled in the shade of a tree. "I'm taking too long" he complained.
Vin just shrugged. "Find'in the tracks fast ain't much help if it's the wrong tracks."
JD turned back to his task. Another ten minutes passed before he was confident enough to call the tracker over.
"Here." He pointed down to a cluster of loose rock. "Then over to the right and up toward that old tree."
JD had been a little disappointed when Vin told him he wanted him to track some deer. He thought Vin had more confidence in his skills. Hell, he often tracked deer. Disappointment had turned to dismay when Vin had led him to these loose shale slopes, opening out onto a floor of rock.
Vin crouched down and looked over JD's findings.
"That'll be him." Vin stood again, and was greeted with a blazing grin from JD. "Ya been practicin'," he laughed. "I was workin' on at least another half hour nap."
JD was pleased at his early success, but disappointed that the morning ride would be over so quickly. He enjoyed Vin's company. He knew Vin was only a few years older than himself but he seemed to have crammed so much more living into those years. No, that wasn't really fair. Vin had crammed more survival into those years and knowledge about surviving out here in the West was something that JD craved.
"Thanks for taking the time Vin."
Vin was already heading off towards the horses. He turned with the beginning of a grin "Hell, we ain't done. Let's fish!"
They rode towards JD's favorite fishing hole, laughing between themselves about the line of crap from Buck the evening before.
"Do you think we should be back in town before they leave with that witness?" JD asked.
"Nah. Chris and Buck were doin' that. Chris knows we're out here and Ez, Josiah and Nate 'll cover things in town."
A lone hunter sat quietly just on the ridge. From here he could see the two riders wandering down a gentle slope, apparently toward the creek, but not travelling any trail. He watched as the two suddenly halted. The taller rider on the black horse raised his rifle. The hunter knew they hadn't seen him, but he could detect no threat. The rider dismounted his black and moved to slightly higher ground. He cradled his rifle to his shoulder and appeared to take careful aim then fired. A reflex squawk and a burst of feathers provided the answer - a wild turkey. The shorter rider moved forward to collect the kill. Voices trailed up to him from the distance.
"Good shootin' Vin. If we can add some trout then maybe we can get an invitation to Sunday lunch at the Wells' place."
"Miz Nettie surely does a great roast turkey. Maybe we can trade the trout for a pie for dessert."
The hunter was ready to move along. He had business to attend to. These boys weren't important.
"Hey Vin. You reckon you can get another? A turkey for Mrs Travis might get Chris in a better mood. We're gonna be real late getting back."
Vin laughed. "Ya just don't wanna be the only dead turkey when we have to face Chris!"
His earlier shot had sent the two other birds into the low brush. There was movement further along and Vin snapped the rifle up and with a quick shot another unlucky turkey hit the ground.
The hunter on the ridge stopped and reconsidered his plan. The boy could shoot. Perhaps he would be useful.
Vin and JD reached the shady fishing spot. The creek here widened into a broad deep pond with gentle sandy banks. The trees encroached close, but provided welcome shade now that the sun was high. Together they unsaddled their mounts and tied them loosely in a cool grassy clearing.
"Vin? We didn't bring any lines or hooks."
"We'll jus' have to tickle 'em to death," was the reply.
JD looked to Vin. Vin didn't usually tease him, but he had been in a good mood all morning. "Tickle?"
Vin was shedding his heavy buckskin coat and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. He dragged his boots and socks off and waded into the shallows.
"Come on JD, get shuck 'n get in here!"
JD laughed at the usually taciturn tracker wading into the creek and then dumped his own hat, boots and coat into a pile next to Vin's.
"So what do I do?" He watched Vin stoop over, his hands resting palms up, fingers nearly linked as silvery trout whipped about them in the rippling currents of the creek.
"Jus' do like me. Ya wiggle yer fingers a little and then the fish get interested and get in close. Scoop 'em up and toss 'em to the shore." With this, Vin scooped his first fish up, tossing it and the handfuls of water toward the creek bank.
"Vin!" The startled yell brought the tracker's head up. His first fish never made the shore. JD was showered in creek water having received a fish in the face. JD watched as Vin's apologetic look dissolved into a snort of laughter. He decided to retaliate, kicking a wave of water towards the tracker. Fishing was ignored as the water fight grew until both were sodden. Finally the two were laughing and soaked, laying stretched out on the grassy creek bank gazing at the clouds.
Vin was relaxed and happy. He couldn't remember the last time he'd just let go and played.
JD was just grinning at the sky. He hadn't been able to just mess about like a kid with any of the seven before. He wanted their respect so much - to not be seen as a kid. Vin wouldn't care. He'd probably had as much fun as JD. JD pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.
"Long hair does get in the way," he declared.
He figured Vin was in a good mood, so he risked the question. "Have you had your hair long for some time Vin?"
Vin glanced across at JD, considering where the question was coming from. "Buck finally gettin' to ya?"
JD shrugged and replied quietly. "Nah, not really. Guess he does go on and on sometimes."
Vin just lay his head back. "Reckon it's been a long time. I's always away from towns and barbers so much it never seemed to matter. Guess it bothered other folks along the way, but it suits me, so I keep it this way. You like yer hat 'n hair JD?"
"Yeah," came the careful reply.
"Then keep 'em. You gotta be comfortable in your own skin if you want to settle at ease in this world," he offered quietly.
JD returned a smile in thanks for the support offered by his friend. "Still does get in the way."
"Hell, few more inches and ya can tie it back. Then ya'll really get an earful from Buck." Vin laughed in return.
The hunter had followed the pair carefully. The noises they generated in the creek easily covered his approach. He drew is pistol and waited patiently for the right moment.
"Just stay right there boys. One of you moves, the other dies," a harsh voice called from the trees.
Hal Rolson had better be worth all this trouble. He was the only living witness to a string of bank robberies and now needed an escort to Eagle Bend. Rolson had complained about his accommodation, complained about the food and he would probably still be complaining if he was here. Instead, Chris Larabee was left to the long-winded and long-worded complaints of one Ezra Standish. Rolson he could have silenced with a glare, but Ezra had moved beyond that. After being forced to leave a very profitable game mid-hand, then wear the apparel of the unfortunate Rolson, Ezra had made it a point to make this trip as miserable as possible for everyone. Currently that 'everyone' was Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington.
"Mr Larabee, I fail to see why I was chosen for the questionable honor of impersonating Mr Rolson. While I have appeared in many guises, travelling salesman and an unskilled salesman by the quality of this appalling jacket, is simply too much to ask." Ezra drew breath to being again. Over an hour of this litany of woe had failed to make the slightest impression on either of his compatriots.
"Mr Tanner would have been far more suitable. He would certainly have been far more fitting to have appeared in this 'mud brown' woolen ensemble. In fact, it would be an improvement on the hide of that dead creature that he currently wraps himself in."
Buck noticed that Chris had stopped even listening to the gambler.
"Ezra, give it a rest. You're not getting anywhere with this. If I had to leave poor Miss Annabelle awaitin' my loving charms, then you can lose on this deal as well. Rolson'll be on tomorrows stage and in Eagle Bend nice and safe for the Judge. You just need to sit that horse and be a nice, quiet target for that shooter out there."
Ezra's next tirade was cut short as Chris turned to him. "Ezra, there's no reason for that shooter to wonder why we're transporting a gagged witness. We've still got six hours on the trail. You can still handle a gun with a gag in your mouth."
Ezra considered a short reprieve in his current battle of words would be the safest course of action.
"Look on the bright side Ezra. JD probably talked Vin's ear off by now. Vin'll probably think you've got the best of the deal," Buck offered cheerfully. "Hell, he things we're still back in town havin' a quiet day. They'll get back to find Josiah and Nathan have dumped 'em with all the patrols until we're back."
That had them all smiling. The exchange of Rolson and Ezra and the timetable change had been a quickly laid plan when the Judge received word that Rolson was targeted to die before he could testify. Vin and JD had already left town before dawn that morning with no more details than Vin's offered "Foothills, then down to the creek." So Nathan and Josiah were left to watch the town and escort Rolson on the stage the following day. Chris, Buck and Ezra would draw out the shooter by appearing to set off cross-country with the witness. Judge Travis was certain that Rolson was a target. The gang that was hitting the banks had never been clearly identified until Rolson. Without him there would be no conviction of the two members already in custody or finding the gang leader who had eluded the posse.
The peacekeepers had been on the trail for only two hours. They were still close to Four Corners and an attack seemed unlikely. Chris studied the distant ridge carefully. The trail would take them close to that ridge, through a short canyon. They would be an easy target in the close space. Chris wished Vin had been in town and that their departure hadn't been quite so urgent. Vin had the instinct of a hunter and unfortunately also of a prey's. He had often given the Seven an edge in situations like this.
Vin cursed himself. Too far from his weapons and not paying attention to anything around him. A bounty hunter probably. He looked across to JD. The chances of JD getting out of this unhurt were almost nil. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
"On your feet boys and move over toward the horses." The hunter moved into sight now, leading a heavy boned bay gelding. A large man, as tall as Buck, but with a drawn look to his face and the rough beard of a hard ridden trail. Vin looked him over carefully. He didn't look like the average bounty hunter, although he knew well there was no particular look. The weaponry was usually a true indicator, but this man had only handguns. The hunter moved to the saddles resting on the ground, reaching down to remove Vin's rifle from its boot. He stepped back carefully and placed the weapon into the empty boot on his own saddle. The hunter took a careful look at the two boys before him. No, not the local ranch boys he had expected. These two were tense but watchful. No sense of panic or fear. This may not be as simple as he expected. The taller one in the buckskin pants was coiled ready to spring, but he could detect the tension raise when he held the gun on the younger of the pair. He would be careful to keep his distance.
"On your knees," he commanded to JD, waving him down. Vin kept a watchful eye for any opportunity, but the man was experienced. He stayed out of JD's reached, but to close for Vin to risk an attack.
"Saddle you horse. We got business," the hunter demanded of Vin.
"Any business ya got with me can be sorted out ourselves. He's got no part in it," Vin challenged.
The hunter knew he had been right, that the man in buckskins was the primary threat. He stepped toward JD and delivered a powerful backhand, sending him sprawling in the dirt. Stunned, JD reached for his throbbing nose, wiping away a trickle of blood. JD met Vin's eyes trying to reassure him that he was ok. Vin froze. Their captor was well prepared. Vin would be patient.
After Vin had saddled Peso their positions were reversed as he was then ordered to his knees and the gun trained on him as JD saddled his mount.
"We got some distance, so mount up."
JD moved towards his pile of clothes.
"Leave 'em," came the harsh command.
JD met Vin's eyes again as they both moved to comply. The sun was now high overhead and their coats wouldn't be missed, but their boots and hats would have given them some protection.
Again the hunter showed his experience. He indicated to Vin to move out first. "You try anything and he dies." He then moved in close behind JD.
The ride was hot and uncomfortable and the stirrup irons rubbed against exposed ankles.
"You just keep heading up onto the ridge," he called to Vin.
Vin was frustrated at the turn of events. He had been caught like some inexperience kid. JD would be at risk with any move he made. This didn't seem like any bounty hunter. They weren't heading to a town or some camp, the ridge led nowhere.
"This 'll do. Git off those horses and move toward the edge."
Vin dismounted quickly and turned to see that JD was still well covered by their captor. "What's this about?"
"Well I need a little sharpshooting done, and you happened along nice and conveniently."
"I'm no sharpshooter," Vin tried to defend.
"I seen you hunting. You'll do just fine or your friend here gets to see some close up shooting," the hunter scoffed. "Now I have someone I need removed, but I hear the law in Four Corners is a little too good for me to just walk in and kill this man. They'll be coming into view soon, so we can get about our business and be off from here before they get to moving."
Vin and JD exchanged a quick look at the reference to Four Corners. The others were guarding that witness, but they wouldn't be out here. He was supposed to be moved out under guard tomorrow.
"On yer knees again boy," he ordered JD. He reached for Vin's rifle and while keeping it aimed at JD, he worked the action until only one bullet remained. JD grit his teeth at the sound of each bullet sliding into the breach and let out a slow breath as their captor lowered the rifle and again held the pistol on him. The rifle was placed on the ground and the hunter stepped back.
"Pick it up and get to the edge."
Vin eyed the rifle carefully, judging his chances. The hunter narrowed his eyes recognizing the tension in the man before him. "His brains 'll hit you before you can reach that gun," he snarled. "You pick up that gun and get to the edge. If you turn around he dies, if you miss he dies, you do anything I don't like then he dies. Ya getting the picture?"
Vin was beyond angry. He tried to calm down to make some sort of plan. "There's only one bullet."
"You only get one shot. You miss, he dies."
"And if I don't miss?"
"Then I'll say thank-you and leave you boys to the rest of your fishing" the hunter replied with a smile.
Vin didn't believe they would be getting out of this, even if he made the shot. He bent down to pick up the weapon then stepped to the rocky edge. In the far distance he could see three riders approaching. He lay down on his stomach and raised himself up on his elbows to begin sighting.
JD watch as Vin settled on the edge, preparing to shoot. He didn't know what Vin would do. The target had to be that witness they were supposed to be transporting. Chris and Josiah were going to do the original escort. Maybe they were out there today. JD eyed their captor, alert for any chance to get the gun from him.
Vin watched the three riders approach. The riders were not distinguishable at this distance, but the horse on the left was a large grey. That would be Buck. Chris was on the right, the black horse and clothing making close identification unnecessary. Their faces weren't clear, but the center rider was the right size for that Rolson fellow. The breeze blew strands of his long hair into his eyes. Annoyed, he pulled his hair back roughly in one hand and twisted it, tucking it into his shirt collar. He wanted to look back and check on JD, get some sense of him. He couldn't feel JD. He knew what Chris would do without even thinking about it. It had never happened with the others and certainly wasn't happening now with JD. JD had been in enough tight situations that Vin felt he could rely on him to be looking for an opportunity out.
"Get to business," the hunter demanded, with an ominous click of the pistol being cocked.
"Ya gave me one bullet, so I'm gonna make it count."
JD's worried eyes stayed glued to the trackers back. Surely he wouldn't shoot that witness.
Vin's mind raced looking for options. He needed the witness to go down. Their captor had to believe that he'd been shot. Maybe he could wound him. It was a better option than JD had at the moment. He could wound him, but he needed him out of the saddle. That would mean a body shot or a head shot. He might be good, but a head shot without killing at this distance was impossible. He couldn't signal Chris or Buck. He kept the metal on his rifle carefully dull to avoid just that problem.
Vin hugged the butt of his rifle tighter into his shoulder. He kept a careful eye on the rider in the distance, measuring the wind, judging the distance. High in the shoulder might be enough to look convincing. He could make this shot ..he had dozens of times before. But those shots were different. He'd had papers to say those shots were legal.
This could make him a murderer.
This could make him an assassin.
"Do the job now," came the harsh demand.
Vin focused on his target, watching his movements on the horse. He seemed so familiar. He'd seen Rolson of course, but this was something else nagging at him. He drew in a long breath, carefully holding it and tightening his finger on the trigger. At the last moment he recognized the chestnut horse and the familiar movement of Ezra. He jerked up the rifle but the trigger had been pulled.
JD saw the moment of inattention as their captor heard Vin's shot. JD's legs were unsteady from kneeling so long, but they had enough for him to lunge at the man, driving him sideways. Vin spun around to see JD tackle their captor. The rifle might have been empty but it was still a weapon. Grasping the barrel, Vin swung the rifle at the mans head as he raised his gun to shoot JD. The butt of the rifle connected with the mans head with a sickening thud and he dropped to the ground. JD scrabbled to his feet and grabbed the pistol. He didn't need to check on their ex-captor. The pool of blood and the sickly grey matter on the ground said enough.
"Vin?" JD called unsteadily to the sharpshooter. "You shoot him?"
Vin lowered his head. His hair once again loose was falling forward keeping his face in shadows, but the voice when it spoke was quiet and flat. "It was Ez."
"What! You mean you didn't shoot Rolson?"
"No. I mean Ez was Rolson. They must have done some sort of switch."
"But did you shoot him?" JD asked, horrified.
"Don't know. I realized too late, but I can't see 'em now. Don't think they could have moved him that fast if I had hit him."
"What's the fastest way down to them," JD called as he ran to gather their horses.
At the sound of the rifle being fired, the three riders had all hit the ground and dived for cover amongst the boulders. Chris cursed. While this area had been a possibility, they had been to close to Four Corners for it to be likely.
"Everyone alright?" he called.
"OK here Chris," came Bucks reply.
"Oh, just dandy Mr Larabee. This hardly seems to be the best outcome for your plan. Do you propose we scale the heights here to take out our assassin?"
"I'll take that to mean you weren't hit Ezra," Chris sighed. No it hadn't been the best plan, but they hadn't had a lot of time. The shooter had to be long range as the vantage points were limited here. None of them had much hope of returning fire. "Buck, you think you can spot him?"
"We'll let loose some lead and see what happens."
The three then fired some shots towards the likely spot, but there was no return fire. They waited impatiently.
"He's either goin' to wait us out, or he's lit out of there," Buck declared.
The skittering of stones from the slope to the right of them snapped their attention around.
"Vin comin' in," was the call.
The other three breathed a sigh of relief as JD and Vin appeared.
"What the hell are you two doing here lookin' like that," Chris demanded.
Vin ignored him. "Ez, ya alright?"
"Aside from crawling about in the retched trail dirt in an already appalling coat, I'm just fine Mr Tanner."
Everyone could see this news pleased the tracker, but he still held a tight watchfulness in his stance.
"You two take care of our shooter?" Chris asked.
A dull flush washed across Vin's cheekbones.
"We ran into someone who wanted Rolson dead," JD offered. "He's up on the ridge, dead now."
"Well, if this little venture has ended prematurely I for one am pleased to return to town. I have been trapped in these hellish garments for long enough. A good whiskey, dinner and an evening's turn of the cards should end this day just adequately."
"What happened to you two?" Buck demanded. Their two youngest looked a little worn, and no boots and weapons seemed to hold there own story.
"Long story Buck. We gotta get our stuff, then we'll meet ya in town. Let's go JD." Vin moved off quickly, keen to delay their explanation as long as possible. JD headed out quickly after Vin, determined not to have to deal with Chris and Buck alone.
Vin dismounted at the fishing pond and started to gather his things. JD buckled his gun belt on, looking around the clearing.
"Guess something got our turkeys."
They hadn't hung the birds so a coyote had probably taken advantage of the fresh kill. Vin didn't reply. JD looked over to see him standing on the bank of the creek staring into the waters. Vin looked up and saw JD was ready.
"Lets get this over with."
They rode in silence back to Four Corners to find Chris and Buck waiting for them on their arrival. They were escorted to the jail to describe their morning's adventure in some privacy. It now appeared that their captor had been the gang's leader Sam Murphy. While Chris wasn't happy with the morning's events, he was at least confident that the matter was closed, and the trial should go ahead without problems. Rolson would go on tomorrows stage with Josiah and Nathan as planned.
3 DAYS LATER
The doors of the saloon swung close as the tracker departed. The others sat quietly at their usual table. Buck looked across at his old friend.
"Ya gotta do something, Chris. He's hardly said a word, not a smile in days."
"I know what he's not doing!" Chris interrupted, green eyes blazing in anger and frustration.
The others had noticed the vacant chair beside their leader, on the sidewalk in the morning, in the saloon of an evening. Vin had shut everyone out. Vin was tough to read a the best of times but he was impossible to read at the moment. Three days of Vin's silence was driving Chris mad. He wasn't silent in words, although his vocabulary seemed limited now to yes, no and an occasional greeting. No, what had Chris on edge was Vin's silence with him. That connection the others joked about was tangible to Chris. He wasn't going to have his friend stand in front of him and be out of reach. Chris shoved his chair back, brushed through the saloon doors and headed toward the livery. The tracker had taken to spending most of the daylight hours on patrols to the nearby homesteads. As expected he caught up with Vin saddling Peso.
"What else happened out there," Chris asked quietly. He knew Vin was on edge, uncomfortable around everyone, but he need to push this.
This just frustrated Chris further. "I'll damned well ask JD. He'll tell me. I want to hear it from you."
"Ask JD, but we told ya the truth."
As far as Vin was concerned it was true. They had told everyone what happened that morning. JD could tell Chris as many times as he wanted. Vin didn't care. JD could tell Chris what happened, but he couldn't tell Chris what it meant. No one knew what it meant because it only mattered to Vin. Swinging astride Peso he kneed the gelding forward and passed Chris without a word.
Chris wasn't really angry with Vin, just frustrated. He couldn't see the problem. He knew JD wasn't concealing anything for Vin. The kid just couldn't lie to Buck and himself. He'd go through it again. Maybe the others could see what he was missing.
Chris headed to the jail in search of JD. He entered to find JD, Buck and Ezra in discussion.
"I assume by your solo appearance that our reticent tracker has not been forthcoming."
"Yeah, did that boy say what's going on?" Buck asked.
"Yes and no," Chris growled. "JD, what happened?"
This brought a started look from JD. "Chris we told you, honest!"
"Chris, he ain't about to lie about this." Buck stepped in quickly to defend JD.
"Gentlemen, Gentlemen, lets just take this from the beginning."
Chris nodded agreement with Ezra. "JD, I only meant I want you to go through it again. There's something we're not seeing here," Chris explained.
"Perhaps my view point may be of use," Ezra offered. "I wasn't present at the original recitation. I've only heard it from the others."
JD started the story again.
"Details," Ezra interrupted. "I believe our answer must be in the details of the events. Start again Mr Dunne and include everything."
JD started again, but this time added to the basic events with everything he could remember. He had enjoyed that morning and was pleased to describe his tracking success to the others. Chris exchanged a small smile with Buck at the picture of the two younger members of the team together. This broke into grins as JD proceeded with the details of the fishing lesson and the water fight that followed.
"When did that gang leader, Murphy make his appearance?" Ezra interrupted.
"Just as we finished. We were laying out on the bank, just watching the clouds."
"I believe that may be the problem," Ezra offered.
"What may be the problem?" Chris demanded. "I've heard this story over again and I don't see what's different."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "What is different Mr Larabee has nothing really to do with our nefarious Mr Murphy. It is about what was different with our Mr Tanner."
"We were laughing and messing around. I haven't really done hat since I was a kid."
Buck raised his eyebrows at that description. JD looked from Buck to Chris. "Sheriff's not supposed to be playing in the creek," he shrugged.
"And perhaps for our Mr Tanner, he hasn't played in a creek for an even longer time." Ezra look hard at Chris but he still appeared to have missed the connection from a simple creek to his silent friend.
"You don't see Mr Larabee because you think that wading in a creek and fishing is something you should be doing on a perfect summer morning. You probably have plans to take young Billy Travis on a fishing expedition some time this week. Our ever vigilant tracker closed his eyes. He put down his guns and waded in the creek. He lay down in the grass in the summer sun, closed his eyes and forgot every care in the world. I would suggest that perhaps Mr Tanner is overcompensating for taking a moments respite in his life. "
Chris let a quiet sigh loose.
Buck saw the understanding pass over his old friend. "Vin's just being a bit extreme. You can sort him out and make it clear no one blames him for what happened. Hell, the boy deserves some fun. Sometimes you just get caught with your pants down."
"Some more than others," JD snorted at Buck.
I'll talk to him again when he gets back." With that, Chris headed back toward the saloon.
Chris sat quietly in his usual chair on the sidewalk outside the saloon, keeping a watchful eye on the road out of town. He was eventually rewarded with the sight of the tracker riding Peso toward the livery. He stepped down to the street and headed in a long legged stride toward the stable. He knew there was no rush. Vin was always careful to make sure Peso was well settled before he left him.
Chris stopped suddenly on entering the livery, startled at Vin's action.
Vin had turned and checked.
Vin knew his step, knew the sound of his spurs so well he had often startled his friends by identifying their approach without ever looking.
Vin had turned and checked.
Chris finally understood . Ezra had seen most of Vin's problem but Chris had just seen the last piece. Vin wasn't regretting a moment of inattention, he was now questioning his instincts, his very own survival skills.
"You didn't do anything wrong Vin."
His only reply was a rattle of the bit as Vin proceeded to strip the tack from Peso.
"There's nothing wrong with relaxing and just having a day in the sun, Pard," Chris quietly offered into the dim light of the stall.
Vin stopped. He looked up to meet Chris's eyes. Chris could see the question clouding those blue eyes, but he realized the question wasn't directed at him. The questioning was inward and for a man with a price on his head, that questioning could be deadly. The hesitation, the doubt, the time it took to check what should have been instinct was the time it took for the other man to shoot first.
"Vin, it was just one morning. It doesn't have to mean anything. You're doing nothing but patrols, watching out for everyone and everything. You're so damned tense you'll snap. Maybe you haven't noticed Pard, but you never just sit still anymore. You don't ever just settle and rest."
Vin dropped his eyes. He knew he was wound tight. He knew he spent all his time looking over his shoulder, not trusting the sounds he knew, not trusting in the normal ebb and flow of everyone around him. The crowds of the saloon put him on edge. He had reverted to old habits, sweeping the room for threats, checking for exits. He couldn't just settle anymore. He turned back to Peso and finished brushing him down.
Chris waited patiently. He knew Vin had a lot to think on and couldn't be pushed into a resolution. Vin finished with Peso and left the stall. He knew Chris was still waiting for him.
Vin stopped just in front of Chris and raised tired sad eyes. "I told JD that a body needs to be comfortable with itself if it's gonna' rest in this world. I guess I'm just not too comfortable at the moment."
Chris reached out slowly to gently grasp Vin's shoulder. He gave him a sad smile as he felt the slight flinch from Vin when he made contact. That one morning had set things back, but Chris had traveled this road once before with his friend. He tightened his grip on Vin, trying to sending comfort and support through the physical link.
"You're nearly as bad as when we first took this job on. We all had to rub along together for a little, take the edges off one another until we got comfortable. So you're a little off balance now. You'll settle back in."
Chris released his hold, patting his friend's shoulder gently as he steered him out of the livery and towards the saloon. They had only reached the sidewalk outside the general store when Vin came to halt. Vin turned stiffly toward him, tension drawing tightly across his shoulders and down his back.
"Chris?" There was an undercurrent in his name, part warning, part fear. "Chris, I need to ride out a here."
Chris panicked. How far? How long? He didn't want to voice his sudden fears. But Vin couldn't speak, or even raise a reassuring smile. It was all suddenly overwhelming as his heart seemed to race and he couldn't catch his breath. He had to move now. Vin was almost running when he entered the livery. Peso raised a startled head as his master again started saddling him.
Chris had followed, and now watched his friend sadly from the doorway. He had tried to draw him back into the group, confident that Vin's fretting would pass with the support of the others. Again he had failed to remember that his friend was driven by lessons learned from a hard solitary life. Vin wasn't seeing the others as support, he was seeing them as crowding. His balance had always been drawn from within, he had never had others around to draw from. Chris's efforts to push Vin toward the group had caused his friend's desperate rush to be alone.
Vin started to lead Peso outside. He met his friend's green gaze, reading the guilt there. Silently he reached out to Chris, both grasping forearms, a closer, stronger exchange than just shaking hands. He raised a crooked smile for his friend, then released him. "Reckon two weeks, month at the outside."
Chris nodded, accepting this was going to happen no matter what he wanted. At least Vin was planning to return. Vin turned Peso and headed quickly out of town.
3 WEEKS LATER
Chris Larabee was waiting on the sidewalk outside the saloon quietly reading. He had made this a regular morning occupation now as he could easily keep an eye on the quiet early morning streets. He had been getting more impatient as the two weeks stretched now into three. Admittedly Vin had said maybe a month. He saw the approaching horse and a wide grin appeared on his face. He ducked his head quickly, pretending disinterest.
Vin moved Peso up the street to stop outside the saloon. Chris Larabee didn't appear to have noticed his approach but Vin new differently. He swung a leg over the saddlehorn and jumped easily down to the street. He pulled the gunny sacks down from Peso's haunches. These were damp with a distinctly fishy odor.
"Town's a mite quiet mister," Vin called.
Chris looked up at his friend, the grin still in evidence. "What the hell have you done to yourself?"
Chris knew his friend never stood real close to a razor when he shaved, but the usual stubble was now a full beard. Blue eyes sparkled out of a very tanned face and the usually untrimmed hair was even longer and now brightened with blond streaks from the apparent days of sunshine.
"What? Like the fish care if I shave in the mornin'? How about a 'hello, nice to see ya back'?"
"Nice to see you back." Chris raised his eyes at the damp sacks in Vin's hand.
"Did a little fishin', did a little thinkin'."
Vin could see for himself that Chris was pleased he was back. Vin ducked sideways quickly eluding the bear hug the Buck was about to deliver from behind. Chris saw the natural ease that had returned to his friend.
"Damn Vin, I can't be seen in company with you with that on your face," Buck complained. "Ya look like you're eatin' a rabbit and forgot the skin it! A distinguished moustache will always impress the ladies but the full feral mountain man is downright ugly. Chris help me clean this boy up!"
Buck grabbed one arm, while Chris stepped up and grabbed the other. Together they dragged the scruffy tracker toward the bathhouse.
Vin's protests faded. He wasn't planning on keeping the beard. Hell it was getting long and itchy in the summer heat. But if his friends were paying for the bath he could go along with it. They stopped outside the bathhouse as Buck and Chris exchanged quick grins. Buck suddenly stooped and grabbed the trackers legs and Chris caught Vin under the arms as he fell.
He was quickly carried across the street and dumped into one of the street troughs. The bedraggled tracker came up spluttering.
"This ain't no bath!"
"You want to see how we're planning on removing the beard?" Chris threatened.
Vin dived out of the trough and raced for the bathhouse. Chris and Buck burst into laughter and chased after him.
Mrs Potter watched the antics from the doorway of the general store. It appeared their seven protectors were all back together again. This was definitely a fine morning.
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