What A Reputation is Worth

by Cheryl W.

Disclaimer: I don't own Magnificent Seven nor is any copyright infringement intended. I have the greatest respect and jealous for those who do own them.

Summary: Vin pushes his friendship with Chris to the limit in a town where Chris can't afford to lose face

The saloon patrons of Felp's Rock watched in utter surprise as the young man wearing a buckskin coat did the unthinkable - he argued with Chris Larabee. Larabee had come through this territory about a year back and there weren't many who could forget the man in black nor the speed of his draw. Arguing with Larabee then was one sure way to get yourself shot, maybe even killed.

Now Larabee was standing there letting the man talk to him with disrespect. Maybe Larabee had gone soft, lost his nerve. A few of the hard core men eased their hands down to their guns, wondering. Could they take Larabee in a draw? Had the man in black not only lost his deadly nature but his speed and skill with his gun as well?!

Chris could feel the change in the saloon. The fear he had invoked the second he strode through the bat wing doors was now being replaced by aggression. If he didn't handle this situation with Vin in the right way, he'd be in the street for the next hour, meeting challenge after challenge. Damn, his reputation was either going to cost him his friendship with Vin or it was going to cost Chris his very life.

Vin was oblivious to the forces at work in the room. "Chris it just ain't right to drag this boy on the trail with us. He already told you what Maynor looks like, let's leave 'em here."

Taking a menacing step forward, Chris growled into Vin's face, "And I said he's coming with us," and Larabee grabbed a handful of the 16 year old boy's coat and roughly yanked him from Vin's side and toward the door.

"Damn it Chris!" Vin exploded, "He's just a boy! Don't use him as bait for your revenge!"

It seemed the whole saloon fell to a shuddering silence as the tracker's words hung in the air. All eyes were on the infamous Chris Larabee. Here was the proof every man who wanted to gun down Larabee was desiring. Was Larabee still a man to be feared or was it time for him to do the fearing?

Chris was angry at Vin's challenging words, his accusation, but it wasn't anger that was drilling a hole in the pit of his stomach. No, it was the thought of what his next action would cost him. He knew without a doubt that he was one heartbeat away from losing his reputation as a cold hearted, fast drawing, deadly bastard. To Mary Travis, the loss of his reputation probably sounded like a God send but Chris knew that his reputation had kept him and the men he rode with alive more times than not. Just like it had kept them alive in this saloon where half the men having drinks would rather kill a man than look on him. Not to mention most of them wouldn't mind putting a bullet into Chris Larabee - fatally. If he showed weakness here, now, it would set into motion a thousand bad turns down the road.

The lines were drawn and Chris made the choice to save his life and the lives of his men - at the cost of those same men's friendship. Chris didn't hold anything back as he plowed his right fist into Vin Tanner's jaw. The bounty hunter dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes but stayed conscious, his blue eyes full of shocked pain as they watched Larabee's approach.

'Damn it Vin, why'd you have to push me here in this town' Chris thought even as he sensed the animosity in the room had only slightly dampened.

If Vin was shocked by Chris' punch, he was totally unprepared for the kick Chris delivered into his ribs. He groaned and curled into a ball, clutching his stomach. But soon hands he knew roughly grabbed onto his buffalo coat, yanking him from the ground, forcing his eyes to meet the deadly blue eyes of Chris Larabee.

"I'll use whoever I wanna use for whatever reason I want," Chris snarled and the saloon patrons all felt a shiver go down their spine. "Keep your damn bleeding heart away from me. Kid's going with me." The challenge as clear as a shout and Vin swallowed at the hardness in Larabee's eyes. "And you ain't going with me." Chris shoved Vin away from him and the tracker's back impacted again with the floor.

Chris stood and eyed the saloon with the same steely challenge. Suddenly every man's drink required closer inspection and Chris felt the air change again to fear. He looked down at Vin and almost cringed at the haunted look in his ex-best friend's eyes. But he didn't cringe only glared and then determinably snagged onto the 16-year-old boy's arm and shoved him toward the door. Chris followed behind the boy and heard footfalls behind him and knew instinctively that Buck was following him, watching his back. Chris hadn't given his other men one single look as he strode by them, certain he already knew the looks they wore. He had just officially severed all ties to his new friends that he begrudgingly had begun to think of as family. 'Damn Reputation!'

+ + + + + + +

"I had to do it, you know that," Chris' voice was gruff even as his eyes remained on the back of the boy who rode a few paces ahead.

But Buck watched his best friend with sorrow and understanding in his eyes, "I know Chris. Craver and his gang were there and so was Kramer and Silas was way back in the far corner. Hell I saw the looks you got the second you walked through the saloon doors. The only reason they didn't shoot you on sight was they were too damn terrified of ya to do it."

Chris closed his eyes in relief at Buck's words. He hadn't misread the situation, the threat to all his men's lives. He had done what he did to protect the men who were like family to him. Well, had been like family to him. He pulled his eyes from the trail and looked to Buck Wilmington, the best friend a man could ask for...a friend Chris knew he didn't deserve. "Vin... the others, they won't understand, they won't forgive me."

Buck's eyes darkened with emotions; "Yeah, yeah they will Chris. I'll make 'em understand."

"How, Buck? How are you gonna make them see I did it for them as much as for myself?"

"I'll tell them the truth, Chris. That what you did was the only way any of us was gonna walk outta there alive. I'll tell 'em that you can't show weakness, not unless they all wanna see ya face off with twenty men each week. Heck, Chris, the longer they stay in that town, the less explaining I'll have to do. They ain't stupid, they'll hear the talk and come to the same conclusion I did, you did what you had to for all our sakes."

Ezra helped a shocked Vin to his feet even as Nathan hovered worriedly by Vin's other side, "You alright Vin?" Nathan demanded with gentleness.

But Vin was unable to form words, not due to his injuries but due to the pain of Chris' betrayal. Sure, he had been pushing Larabee, but hell they all did. Buck had tried to warn them time and again that pushing Chris was a dangerous game. Now Vin understood how dangerous and his soul felt sick at the break between him and his best friend.

Nathan and Ezra steered Vin into a chair and Nathan bent down to be eye level with Vin. "How are your ribs, they cracked or broken?"

Nathan's words registered with Vin and he numbly shook his head. Chris' physical attack had bruised Vin's body but that was nothing compared to how deeply Chris' words had ripped into his soul. "You ain't coming with me." Suddenly a shot of whisky appeared before him and Vin gratefully swallowed it down in one burning gulp. He raised his eyes as Josiah and JD claimed chairs at the table as Nathan and Ezra had already done. Vin looked to each man, searching for answers, for a way to undo what had just happened.

It was Ezra who leaned close to him and spoke quietly as if to an injured animal. "Things are not as bad as they appear, Vin." Vin's eyes shot to the gambler's with vulnerability. It was as if Ezra had looked into his soul and saw the gaping hole his rift with Chris had tore. Ezra continued, his voice softer yet, "Though you did not mean to, you put Chris is a vulnerable position."

Vin flinched in shock; the last thing he had wanted to do was open Chris up to any attack. His voice sounded raw and anguished as he questioned Ezra, "How Ezra?"

Ezra sighed and looked around the saloon, to the eyes that still rested on them and to the eyes that distinctly never rested on them. Chris Larabee was the cause for both responses. Fear and Hate made for strange weapons of protection but it seemed to work well enough for the man Ezra would follow to hell. He met Vin's tortured gaze again and knew Vin wasn't angry with Chris but with himself, blaming himself already for provoking Chris' wrath. He hated to add to Vin's blame but he needed to open Vin's eyes, hell, open Josiah, Nathan, and JD's eyes to the real dangers lurking at every table, at every saloon and at every town across the west for Chris Larabee

Ezra's tone was gentle and low but each man at the table could hear his words, "Chris can not show weakness, Vin. He can not let any chinks in his armor be visible to the world. He can not let your challenge to his authority go unpunished, not here, not among wolves who would devour him and his pack." Dawning seemed to grow in Tanner's eyes but Ezra could see the confusion in JD's face. "The only reason we weren't accosted the second we graced this establishment was because of Chris's reputation, he wraps it around us like an armored suit. To challenge any of us is to challenge Chris and there are very few men who want to meet Chris in a duel. But when Vin challenged Chris' authority, all the men in this saloon who wanted to challenge Chris but lacked the backbone started to gather courage. If Larabee let this man defy him, maybe he had lost his edge and they could best him."

Now all the men at the table fell into a shocked silence as Ezra's words hit them like a stagecoach team. "Damn!" Vin swore, as he fully understood the position he had put Chris in, a position that could get him killed! "I deserve the beating he gave me!" he hissed lowly, bitterly.

But Ezra's voice was firm, "He didn't attack you because he thought you deserved it Vin. He hit you to keep you...us alive...as well as himself. If he is perceived as weak, then we would have been perceived as fair game. By his attack, he established his dominance over us and reestablished his reputation and the patron's fear. No one will challenge us now because we did not best Chris; we appear as much in fear of him as the rest of the saloon patrons. It is that common bond that protects us now just as Chris' reputation protected our entrance."

"I gotta go find Chris," Vin urgently said and began to rise from his chair but Ezra pushed him back down.

"No, we must stay here and project the defeated front. Larabee has left us and there should be no hurry in our departure. Any missteps on our part could put Chris' reputation back in jeopardy. "

Nathan sighed, ashamed that he had felt such anger at Chris, "So we gotta stay here and make like we ain't gonna meet up with Chris."

Now Josiah caught on, "And let everyone here believe Chris is a cold hearted bastard."

Ezra smiled, "You gentlemen are seeing the light."

JD ran his hand through his hair, "Havin' a reputation seems mighty complicated."

The kid led them right into an ambush, Chris knew it the second they entered the valley...a second too late as it was. Gunfire filled the air and even as Chris started to dismount, a bullet sent him sprawling to the hard desert ground. Before he could draw in more than two painful breaths, strong arms were hauling him to his feet. Buck half carried half dragged him behind some rocks.

"I think we found the gang, pard'" Buck drawled as he peeked over the boulder earning him a bullet mere inches from his head. "Damn," he swore as he dropped back to the cover of the boulder and looked to Chris, "and it looks like they ain't too happy to see us."

Chris straightened against the rock, his jaw clenching at the pain in his side where the bullet passed through. "And I was worried what to do with the kid after we brought the gang in!" he scoffed pulling his gun and sending a smile to Buck, "I think I know exactly what to do with him now."

Unable to help himself, Buck laughed. In a life or death situation, he would rather be fighting beside Chris Larabee than the whole U.S. Army. "Yeah, I bet you do," he said and saw Chris was attempting to get into a crouching position and quickly aided the injured man.

A groan of agony escaped Chris' lips, but he remained in the crouched position Buck had helped him achieve. He gave Buck a nod and Buck reluctantly released his supporting hold around Chris'. Chris strength held and Buck again peeked his head over the boulder with much the same results as prior. "Well, they are still out there," he drawled with a devious smile to Chris.

Chris cocked his gun, met Buck's eyes and simultaneously they stood and each fired off a shot before they dropped again behind the boulder. "I saw three on my side, two high on the mountain, one ground level," Chris tallied.

"Yeah, and I got five on my side, three high, one midway up and the kid's ground level," Buck supplied. "That leaves three gang members.." Buck began but a bullet hit the boulder between he and Chris from behind and they both dropped flat to the ground.

"You had to say something, didn't you," Chris mock grumbled as he met Buck's eyes. "I think it's safe to bet the other three are on the other side of the valley. They got us pinned down real good."

"Maybe if you tell 'em who you are, they'll go running," Buck quipped earning him a deadly glare from his friend.

Suddenly bullets rained down around them and they scrambled against the mountain wall using the boulder to protect them from the shots delivered from the other side of the valley. "Soon as they stop shooting, I'll head for the boulder over to my right!" Chris yelled over the gunfire.

"No! You're hurt, I'll go!" Buck countered back with steel in his voice.

Before Chris could retort back, the valley fell silent. Even as Chris struggled to his feet, Buck leaped over his legs and ran for the boulder that Chris had indicated, bullets nipping at his heels. Chris cursed at Buck even as his friend made it to safety..well as safe as you could get in an ambush. He sent a glare to Buck in his new position but Buck smiled and tipped his head like Chris was thanking him.

Chris struggled to a crouching position again with determination. Buck and he exchanged looks and then both made to return fire on their ambushers. Buck stood from behind his boulders, taking aim at the men on the other side of the valley, even as Chris dropped to his back on the ground and sighted the men on the valley behind him. Four men fell under the shootists' deadly aim before the friends again fell back under cover.

Breathing hard, agony filled breaths, Chris leaned against the mountain wall, trying to not let the pain control him. He had hit two of the men behind them, leaving only one man to defend that side of the valley. Their odds were looking better. He looked to Buck and called across, "So you take care of your side?" his tone full of the type of humor Buck had sorely missed from his long time friend.

"Almost," Buck called back as he reloaded his gun, "You take care of our backs?"

"Almost," Chris replied back with a smile as he too reloaded his gun. Then he raised his voice and called to his enemies, "It ends here! "

A harsh laugh echoed through the valley, "Sure does, Larabee. It ends here for you and Wilmington! Too bad ya pissed off the rest of your gang, than this'd be a real challenge! 'Stead it's like shooting fish in a bucket!" And another barrage of bullets chipped into the rocks by Buck and Chris.

+ + + + + + +

The rest of "Larabee's gang" were brought out of their silent contemplation when a hulking body dropped into a vacant chair at their table. "So ya'll ran with Larabee fer awhile," the uninvited guest began.

If he expected a response, he was bound to be disappointed as five hardened eyes fell onto his face. Undeterred, the man continued loudly, "Larabee ain't known for likin' company. He's a lone wolf. Surprised when he walked in with ya'll." An evil smile pulled onto his face, "Ain't surprised none that ya'll didn't walk outta here with 'em." Pointedly looking at Vin he drawled, "And you are damn lucky to still be breathing after stirin' his anger."

Vin fought the urge to bow his head in shame but instead he met the man's eyes defiantly.

Their visitor laughed heartily at the tracker's glare. "Don't give me that look pup!" But the next second, the man's face hardened. Meeting Vin's eyes head on he spoke lowly, bitterly. " I seen Larabee's anger first hand. He's killed men for less than what you done. A whole lot less." A shiver almost coursed through the man, almost. Breaking eye contact, the man grabbed the nearest mug and drank down its contents. For a moment his eyes lost focus and he mumbled, "I thought maybe ...maybe I could take 'em now. Thought he'd lost his edge." Suddenly he snorted, "Then I saw that look in his eyes when you challenged his thinkin'," again the man looked to Vin. "Last time he looked at me like that, I spent two months in a bed healing a bullet wound. I know how close you was to dying today, pup, even if you don't."

This was too much for JD's youthful nature to stomach. "Chris Larabee is.." he began angrily, ready to defend Chris to the death.

But Vin's hard voice cut JD's words off, "What he is, is a nasty SOB. I can't believe I rode with 'em at all."

This brought a smile to the man's face. "I might have good news for ya'll." He surveyed the faces at the table and to their credit, all adopted a look of agreement with Vin's words, even JD was catching onto the game. Sensing favor with his audience, the man continued with a laugh, "Well, Larabee will be getting what he deserves today boys. And ya'll be thankin' Larabee's temper, else his fate woulda been yours!"

Vin tensed visibly, "And what fate is that?" his tone deadly.

The man took no notice to the change in the tracker as he replied, "Kid he took along, one you thought was innocent," shooting a look to Vin, "he's leadin' Larabee into an ambush. That's why the kid stayed behind here...waiting."

Nathan barked, "Ambush?! Where at?"

"I'm not sure, just know it's gonna happen."

As a whole, the five members of Larabee's gang surged from the table and started for the door.

Startled by the action, it took the man a moment before he called out to their retreating backs, " Where ya'll going?"

Recalling that Chris' reputation could still be in jeopardy, Ezra swung back to face the man. "Ah...We wish to be spectators to Larabee's demise." And then Ezra swung out of the doors on the heels of his compatriots.

The man mumbled to himself in disbelief, "Shoot, but they had me fooled. I thought they was too soft to run with Larabee! "

The canyon was thundering with gunfire one moment, then fell to a deafening silence the next. Buck took the reprieve to call over to his partner, "Chris, you doing OK?"

Leaning heavily against the canyon wall, Chris called back, "I'm still living. How 'bout you?"

"Oh, I'm having a bushel full of fun." The two men's eyes met across the chasm and both men grinned. It was like old times again. Wilmington and Larabee back to back against the world. Buck chuckled, "This here reminds me of that time we were ambushed during the war. We couldn't move an inch one way or the other 'till night fell. Remember how we passed the time?"

It was clear by Larabee's expression that he remembered all too well. "I ain't singing Goober Peas, Buck! Couldn't get that damn song outta my head for a month afterward!" Even as they bantered, the two men got into position to unleash a barrage of bullets. With simultaneous nods, both men broke cover and fired two shots. They fell back under cover and reloaded their weapons as the outlaws reigned bullets around them in retaliation.

But Buck wasn't letting go of the idea that had crawled into his brain. 'How 'bout Buffalo Gals? You know I memorized all the verses of that one."

"Why can't you pick a tune I like! And why do you always choose?!"

"'Cause it's my idea!" Again the two men broke cover and delivered deadly shots to their attackers before retreating. Buck looked to Chris, "Alright, alright. You choose," but under his breath he grumbled, "Larabee, you don't know no songs."

"Jack O' Diamond," Chris smugly replied, having heard his friend's grumble.

A look of surprise overtook Wilmington's face before a smile beamed. "Shoulda known you'd pick a drinking song."

"I'm having trouble getting the bastard behind us. How's your side looking?"

"Five to go. That leaves the odds at 6 to 2. Think Ezra would bet on us?"

"Depends," Chris smirked, "He using his own money or someone else's?"

Buck's reply was a laugh. "So we gonna make our last stand now 'fore they overrun us?"

Chris and Buck's eyes held and the warmth of their regards was almost tangible. Their friendship had weathered through a hell of a lot more than an ambush. "Let's do it, Buck." Chris said as he and Buck readied themselves for action. Chris shot a look over to Wilmington, "If I die singing, my reputation will be ruined forever, you know that."

"They'll have to put on your marker "here lies 'Lullaby Larabee'."

"Yeah, and you'll be 'Wailing Wilmington.'."

"Sure you don't wanna pick a nice ballad to go out on like "the Streets of Laredo"?"

"You start singin' that and I'll shot ya myself."

A silence fell again between the two men as their eyes held then they began to sing.

Jack O' Diamond Jack O' Diamond I know you of old
You've robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold
Oh whiskey, you villain You've been my downfall
You've kicked me, you've cuffed me But I love you for all

And it's whiskey, rye whiskey
Whiskey I cry
If I don't get rye whiskey
Well, I think I will die

As one, the two friends stood to make their final stand and the canyon echoed with song and gunfire.

It's beefsteak when I'm hungry
Rye Whiskey when I'm dry
Greenback when I'm hard up
And heaven when I die

+ + + + + + +

It didn't take Vin long to pick up Chris and Buck's trail. Trouble was, he liked little where it lead. "Barlet's Pass," he breathed in angry, concern.

"I heard of a whole regiment wiped out trying to make it through that pass, "Nathan supplied.

"If that was made to assuage my anxiety," Ezra drawled and looked pointedly to Nathan, "it failed miserably."

"I say we stop worrying and start riding," Josiah cut in.

Vin's replied by jumping back onto his horse and spurring him into a run. Nathan, Ezra, Josiah and JD were right beside him as they tore down the trail, praying that they wouldn't arrive just in time for Josiah to offer last rites to their friends.

+ + + + + + +

I'll a go to yonder holler
And build me a still
I'll give you a gallon
For a five dollar bill

One bullet sent Buck's hat flying even as another skimmed across his forearm. But Wilmington didn't shrink back under cover but stood firmly where he knew he belonged, at Chris Larabee's side.

Two more gang members dropped to the ground as Chris and Buck's bullets hit their marks. Chris tried hard to ignore the zing of bullets as they streaked by him, pinged off the canyon walls at their backs and rebounded for yet another attempt to steal their lives. He knew the odds of survival weren't great but having Buck at his side brought him comfort like little else could. He was even beginning to think they were singing in tune.

Rye Whiskey, Rye Whiskey
Whiskey I cry
If a tree don't fall on me
I'll live till I die

+ + + + + + +

JD heard the gunfire first and yelled over the thundering of hooves, "Gunfire's coming from over the next valley!"

"May God protect them," Josiah prayed as the men pushed their mounts even harder.

They were about to crest the hill when Ezra incredulously inquired, "Have I completely lost my senses or do I hear singing? And bad singing at that?"

Before anyone replied to Ezra, Vin doled out orders, "Josiah, JD, go right. Nathan, Ezra, we're heading left." And without a parting word the "Larabee gang" tore off in opposite directions.

As a bullet embedded into Buck's leg, he stumbled and would have fallen had Chris not wrapped an arm around his waist. And still they continued to shoot, regardless that their remaining three attackers were boldly advancing on them. Long ago the two friends had vowed to go out of this world fighting at each other's side. Thing was, Chris hadn't planned on his last words being some drinking song. But somehow it seemed kinda fitting. Drinking was one thing he and Buck did almost better than fighting- almost.

If the ocean was whiskey

Suddenly more voices joined in the song even as Buck and Chris watched as their foes fell under a rain of bullets.

And I was a duck
I'ld dive to the bottom
And never come up

Rye Whiskey echoed in the valley as the last gunshot faded and slowly the back up singers became visible to Chris and Buck. The two shootist broke into smiles as the Larabee gang, all alive and counted for, finished the song,

Now the ocean ain't whiskey
And I ain't a duck
I'll play Jack of Diamond
And trust to my luck

Whiskey, Rye Whiskey
Whiskey I cry
If the whiskey don't kill me
I'll live till I die

+ + + + + + +

It was dusk by the time Nathan finished his doctoring and four rabbits lay over the campfire. Chris silently watched his friends as they joked about the hunter's skill. (Vin had shot 4 rabbits while JD had killed a tree stump and a discarded shawl. Buck bragged up his own skill, boasting that had he been on the hunt, he alone would have returned with no less than 8 rabbits.)

They acted like it was just another night under the stars but Chris knew differently. He had betrayed them all to save his reputation today. Maybe they were so used to his screw-ups that this was like any other night. Except this time his pride had lead Buck into an ambush that nearly got him killed. And he had ruthlessly sacrificed Vin's own pride to save his reputation. As for the rest of his friends, he had walked away from them like they didn't deserve a second look.

Now here they were, acting like nothing had happened. Hell, they had come to his rescue without any recriminations. They were simply going to let him get away with it. Let him sweep it under a rug and pretend it never happened. Chris wanted to take them up on their offer, wanted to copout and retain his pride.

Chris climbed to his feet quicker than anyone thought possible with his wound. Immediately Nathan was by his side, "Chris, what do you think you're doin'?"

"Going for a walk," Chris gruffly answered even as he side stepped Nathan's grasping hand and headed into the woods.

Chris heard footsteps approaching and braced himself for a pep speech from Josiah or a "Reckon it's time to eat," from Vin. But the coughing that broke through the silence didn't seem like Josiah's or Vin's. He turned around and was surprised to find Ezra approaching.

"How do you bear this abhorrent brand?" Ezra groused as he withdrew the lighted cigarette from his mouth and handed it to Chris like it was a venomous snake he had just been bitten by.

Taking the cigarette gratefully, Chris took a deep drag before replying, "It's an acquired taste."

"Some things aren't worth acquiring," Ezra said around another cough.

Chris eyed Ezra for a moment, still surprised at his presence as well as his thoughtfulness. "Thanks Ezra," his tone serious.

Unprepared for such sincerity, Ezra felt a blush rise. When he offered to seek out the leader, he had braced himself to receive barbs from Chris. But now that he was faced with a situation that lacked barbs or curses or challenges, he was quite uncertain have to revise the speech he had planned. To his further surprise, Chris broke the silence.

"You get the short straw, Ezra?"

Both men knew that there had been no prodding involved in Ezra's appearance but this was easier territory.

"I knew I should not have allowed Buck to hold the straws," Ezra played along.

Chris smiled, "Why don't you head back, Ezra. I'll come back soon and tell 'em you gave me a rousing speech."

"Rousing?" Ezra drawled with a laugh. "I didn't know you knew the word or that I could evoke that kind of speech." This earned him a smirk from Chris. But Ezra didn't take the escape Chris had offered but instead stepped closer to his friend. "Vin knows why you perpetrated that melodrama and the only anger he feels is directed at himself."

This earned Ezra a surprised, confused look from Chris and so Ezra elaborated, "He is berating himself for making you appear vulnerable."

Chris scoffed, "Damn fool! Doesn't he know that I sacrificed his pride for my reputation!" Abruptly Chris spun around and ventured further into the woods but by the ripping of fabric and the curses that rent the air he knew Ezra had taken up pursuit.

An uncallused hand snagged until Chris' arm, pulling him to a halt. "Not for your reputation but for our lives as well as your own! I know the worth of your reputation."

"Worth!?" Chris snarled. "It has no worth 'less you enjoying killing and getting killed."

But Ezra met Chris eyes unflinchingly, "Yes, you know its cost but you've also molded it to have value. How many of us would have walked out of that saloon alive if you hadn't been with us?"

"No!' Chris denied Ezra's logic. "I brought the danger on all your heads in there!"

Ezra smiled, "Oh really. And I suppose none of them recognized Vin from his wanted poster at the town's jail." Chris grimaced and Ezra knew he too had seen the poster as they entered the town.

But Ezra wasn't done proving his point, "And I suppose the husband of Buck's latest paramour, who entered the bar after we did, wasn't going to perpetrate violence." Again Ezra knew Chris hadn't missed a thing. "I also thought I saw some unsavory glances at the minority of Nathan's skin color. Of course, I believe you also had some admirers scattered about the establishment."

"Our numbers scared off the threats you saw, not me and my damn reputation!"

"You're running from the truth and that surprises me,' Ezra challenged. "The enemies we collectively amassed in that saloon were triple our "number". You know it was your reputation that spared us any harm. You knew it and knew how volatile the situation would get for all of us if you did not retain that reputation. You hurt Vin's pride to save his life, all of our lives."

A voice spoke up behind them. "Hell, Chris, my pride's easy to fix but bullet holes ain't," and Vin stepped into the clearing.

Chris' eyes met Vin's and he knew Vin had forgiven him, just like that.

"Come on, the rabbits are done cookin'," Vin invited as he tilted his head back toward the camp. Both Vin and Ezra watched Chris, wondering if the stubborn man would accept the forgiveness that was offered.

Taking a deep drag on the cigarette, Chris looked away for a moment. "Well, let's go then," he said quietly as he walked by the two men, heading for the camp.

Ezra and Vin exchanged looks, both knew that things were not resolved with their friend.

+ + + + + + +

The relief the men at the camp felt at Chris's return lasted only until they saw got a good look at their leader's face. The burden of guilt had eased but a new resolve had taken its place. A resolve each man knew they wouldn't take a liking to.

Nathan had enough sense to not lecture Chris about his injury or about the small portion of the meal he ate. In fact, few words were spoken among the men as they ate. Chris eyed up the men that surrounded him and his anger grew.

"You're just gonna sit there and pretend nothin' happened today?!" Chris challenged heatedly. "Forget that I humiliated Vin, abandoned the rest of you and almost got Buck killed?!"

Josiah met Chris' hard look, "No one's forgotten what happened today, Chris. But we see it a little different than you. We are celebrating another won battle."

"'Course every battle has its causalities," Nathan added, "and its cost. I'm thankin' God that we didn't have to pay a price none of us could bear."

"My wounded pride's already healed but my jaw, " and Vin rubbed his jaw as he threw a smirk Chris' way, "that'll take a few days more."

"Yeah, I'll be back dallying with the ladies in no time," Buck sallied.

"I best ride ahead and warn 'em," JD joked, earning him a swat on the head from Buck.

"Looks like we beat the odds," Ezra announced to the group and then eyed Chris, "Again. Together."

Silence fell on the friends as all eyes focused on Chris, waiting for his reaction. "I can't change my reputation, can't change what people think of me."

Nathan smiled, "If ya gave a damn 'bout what people think, ya wouldna risked your life to save a freed slaved."

"You coulda turned me in for five hundred dollars,' Vin drawled and continued with a twinkle in his eye, "That woulda bought you a nice supply of Red Eye Whiskey ...or have you changed to Rye Whiskey." The men broke into snickers around the campfire, even Chris couldn't hold back a snort.

JD's piped up, "And you would never have given a kid like me a chance to ride with you."

"I'd still be tryin' to build that stone church for penance if you hadn't given me a chance to believe again in goodness. Even my own goodness," Josiah solemnly said as he nodded a thank you to Chris.

Buck looked at his oldest friend with a gentleness and strength that had saved Chris' soul more than once. "I don't remember anyone else running out in the middle of Gettysburg, dodging bullets and cannon balls to drag my wounded carcass off the battlefield. I guess people thought it was as stupid a move as I did."

Ezra cleared his throat nervously, "Well, I suppose it's safe to hazard that I may have benefited from your acquaintance, Chris." Then a devilish smile pulled onto Ezra's face, "My mother is still agitated that you have nurtured my conscious to emerge. That alone is worth dodging a few bullets a week." Smirks broke onto each man's face.

Chris shook his head in good-humored defeat. "Alright, I'll give ya that we ain't the pick of the litter. But what I am to the world, gets people dead."

"Like traveling with a wanted man's safe," Vin snorted.

"Yeah and how 'bout the time Buck slept with the wife of that huge lumberjack" JD supplied even as he jerked away from another swat by Buck.

"Or when JD, here, shot his mouth off in Tombstone?" Buck accused as he still tried to land a swat to the young man at his side.

"Gentlemen, Gentlemen, must we debase ourselves with recounting your faults," Ezra interrupted.

"Our faults?!" Nathan scoffed, "You're the one that got us run out of that mining town cause you cheated the mayor!"

Ezra immediately went on the defensive. "That reprobate didn't look like the mayor of any community. He looked like the town drunk!" Laughter erupts again within the group.

"Face it, Chris. We deserve each other" Nathan stated firmly.

Josiah added, "I think that's something the world would agree with." No one even tried to deny that one.

"You know this reputation thing ain't gonna go away," Chris warned, meeting each man's gaze.

"Yeah, well, neither are we," Vin retorted, as he settled back onto his bedroll.

"Yup, we're stuck with each other for the long haul, Pard," Buck promised.

Chris groaned, "That ain't comforting, Buck." Then his tone turned hopeful, "Maybe I can slow down my draw and some young wannabe gunfighter will put me outta my misery."

Suddenly rabbit bones pelted Chris from every angle even as the seven friends laughed and thanked the Lord for His divine wisdom. Yeah, seven was a lucky number is His book, too.

The End

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