"You have anything of your Mama's, Vin? Something to remember her by?" Chris Larabee's abrupt question caused the tracker to raise a sandy eyebrow in surprise. The gunslinger rarely ever asked anything of a personal nature. Probably afraid he might get asked something in return. This mostly suited Vin Tanner just fine. He and Chris understood each other pretty well without bringing up the past, with all its sorrows and regrets. But Chris had asked, so he would answer.
"A knife that she said belonged to my Pa. And a lock of her hair." Vin shrugged and glanced down at the table. Those two items were his most treasured possessions. His only links to the father he'd never known and the mother he barely remembered.
"What color hair did she have?" The gunslinger's voice was soft.
"Red. Looked like a river of fire down her back." Vin looked up at his friend. Chris was holding his glass of whiskey up to catch the faint light coming in through the door of the saloon.
"Sarah's hair was brown. She used to laugh and say it was the color of mud. But it wasn't. It was more like the color of chestnuts or maybe this whiskey. Adam's, too." Chris lowered his glass, his voice flat, but Vin could hear the repressed emotion underneath. Hell, the sound ought to be familiar enough by now. They all talked like that at times. You couldn't always afford to indulge your emotions out here in this harsh land. And sometimes you just plain didn't want to.
"Sounds real pretty." Vin kept his own voice noncommittal. He wasn't sure how much Chris was in the mood to share. Better to just let the gunslinger take the lead if there was something he wanted to get off his chest.
"Yeah." Chris paused, "I don't have anything left of them but my memories, Vin. And even those are fading." Vin's heart ached a bit at the quiet sadness he heard in his friend's voice. Many a time he'd laid awake at night wishin' he could recall exactly what his mama had looked like, so he maybe wouldn't feel so alone in the world. But he never had more than a hazy recollection of a sweet voice and that red, red hair hangin' down her back.
"Talkin' about them might help keep the memory strong." Vin made the offer a bit hesitantly. Chris was a hard man to read sometimes. Even for him.
"Maybe." Chris got to his feet. "I'm gonna go relieve Ezra at the jail. Don't want him hollering about being overworked and underpaid again." And that, apparently, was that.
"See ya, cowboy." Vin offered the gunslinger a brief smile, watching thoughtfully as the tall, blackclad figure made its way towards the batwing doors.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Vin." JD sat down in Chris' recently vacated chair with a groan. "JD." Vin eyed the young man curiously. JD was looking plumb wore out. And he kept rolling his shoulders like they hurt.
"Something wrong?" Vin finally asked, as JD continued to sit there, twitching and moaning like he had ants in his britches.
"The kid here took a second job, shoveling out stalls at the livery. Wants to buy Casey something special for her birthday. The things we do for love." Buck sighed dramatically, sinking into the chair next to the tracker with a devilish grin.
"Shut up, Buck." JD muttered, scowling at the new arrival.
"Tell Vin what you're gettin' her. See what he thinks." Buck ordered. JD sighed and said in the tone of one who's had this discussion before, "I'm asking that new fella in town, the one who drew them pictures for Mrs. Travis, if he'll paint a picture of Casey's favorite fishing spot. I'm gonna give it to her for her birthday." He cast a defiant glare at Buck as he spoke.
"A fishing hole. ain't that just about the most unromantic thing you ever heard tell?" Buck demanded, looking at Vin.
"Besides, how do you know this fella's any good? Them little cartoon things he did for the newspaper ain't like drawing a real picture." Buck was like a hound on the scent. He didn't even notice Vin's failure to answer his previous question. A fact for which the tracker was exceedingly grateful.
"I told ya, Buck. He showed me some of his other stuff. It looked good enough to me." JD was stubborn.
"And what would you know about art, kid?" Buck scoffed.
"I grew up in the city. I seen lots of pictures. My Mama even took me to a museum once." JD defended himself vigorously.
"What do you think, Ez?" Buck glanced triumphantly at the gambler who was approaching their table.
"I think a great many things. To what in particular were you referring?" Ezra Standish slid into a chair across from Buck and began brushing fastidiously at his sleeve.
"That fancy little fella with the funny way of talkin'. The one who claims to be an artist. He any good?" Buck smirked a bit at the young sheriff. If JD was determined to get the girl a picture, it should be something a little more... inspired than a pool of water and a few trees. In Buck's opinion, he should get her perfume or some such. But maybe there was still time to talk sense into the boy.
"Hardly on a par with the great masters, but", Ezra shrugged, "more than adequate for this dreary little backwater of a town."
Buck and JD frowned, unsure as to which of them had won the point. Trust Ezra to muddle it up like that. Silence reigned among the four men for a brief moment.
"Is there something wrong with Mr. Larabee? More than the usual, I should say? He seems rather... morose, even for him" The gambler temporarily ceased ministrations to his apparel as he glanced around the table at his companions. There had been something a little off about the gunslinger tonight when he'd come to relieve Ezra at the jail. And that made Ezra slightly nervous, in addition to being curious. These men, for better or for worse, were a part of his life now and what affected one had a tendency to affect all. And that meant him too, like it or not.
"That's what age does to some folks." Buck grinned.
"Would you care to elaborate? I find myself at a bit of a loss attempting to uncover the relevance of that remark."
"Yeah. What he said." JD nodded his head, while Vin just pursed his lips and listened.
"Chris' birthday is next week. He'll be forty. Old enough to make a man a mite depressed."
"Ain't you the same age?" JD asked suspiciously.
"I'm still in my prime, son. A mere spring chicken at thirty-seven." Buck declared.
JD snorted in reply.
"That painter fella. He do pictures of people, too?" Vin asked suddenly. He didn't know if what he had in mind was such a good idea, but it was sure as heck an insistent one. It was poking at him worse than a cowboy with a cattle prod. Had been ever since JD had told him about buying Casey a picture for her birthday.
"I reckon he could. Why?" JD's curiosity was apparent and Vin flushed slightly as the collective gazes of his three companions settled on him.
"Just askin'." Vin rose to his feet. There was no time like the present. And he didn't know how long a thing like this might take. What he knew about art stuff would fit on the head of a pin. With room to spare.
"Bucklin. Can I talk to you for a minute?" The tracker hoped Buck could help him. He reckoned he'd soon find out if he had or not. In a week or so.
+ + + + + + +
"You're doin' a mighty fine thing, Vin. Don't know why I never thought of it. Or Chris either." Buck's tone held a trace of wistfulness. Vin shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise. It wouldn't be a fine thing until Chris liked it. Or didn't like it, as Vin's increasing sense of nervousness kept whispering. He didn't know what had got into him. He felt odd. Unsettled.
"It's perfect. I didn't think the little sissy fella had it in him. But he did a bang up job." Buck tried to reassure the tracker.
Vin cast a wry smile of thanks at the bigger man. He appreciated Buck tryin' to make him feel better, but there was only one person whose opinion really mattered. They were almost there now. He could see the outline of Chris' little shack in the distance.
"Let's go get this over with." Vin spurred his horse onward, with Buck following close behind.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris. Where you at?" At Buck's familiar bellow, Chris came around the corner of the shack where'd he'd been repairing one of the windows. "Right here. At home. Where I told you I'd be." Where he'd come to be alone. The words might have been unspoken, but the two visitors had no trouble hearing them.
"We just stopped by to wish you a Happy Birthday. And Vin here has something for ya. A present." Buck nudged the tracker forward a bit.
"Come inside." Chris waved them in, apparently resigning himself to their presence.
"You boys didn't have to come all the way out here. Could've waited til tonight when I came to town." Chris was never exactly what you'd call gracious, even at his best.
"This couldn't wait." Again, Buck nudged the reluctant tracker forward.
Chris glanced at Vin who stood clutching the painting, wrapped in plain brown paper, to his chest and feeling like ten kinds of a fool.
"Vin?" Chris frowned a bit as the tracker continued to stand there, tongue tied.
"You said you didn't have nothin' to remember them. And JD got Casey a picture of the fishing hole for her birthday. So I thought maybe... Don't know how good it is, but I... Awww hell. Here. Open it." Vin handed the package to a rather confused Chris and stepped back. He and Buck both held their breath as the gunslinger slowly unwrapped the package.
They watched as Chris stared down at the portrait of the pretty woman with long brown hair standing with the young boy. She was holding the boy's hand and they were both laughing. He didn't say anything for long minutes. He just continued to stare. And frown.
Buck and Vin exchanged a glance of dismay. Buck had been so sure Chris would like it. It was Sarah and Adam just as he remembered them. But maybe he remembered them different from Chris. Shit. Maybe he should've tried to talk Vin out of it. He knew how Chris hated people trespassing on anything related to his wife and child.
Buck cast a quick sideways look at Vin. Poor guy looked like he'd just got kicked by a horse. He wasn't saying anything. Chris wasn't saying anything. Looked like it was gonna be up to him then.
"Pard? You ok?" Buck asked softly.
Chris said nothing. It was worse than Buck had thought. Damn.
"I'll get rid of it for ya, Chris. I'm sorry. It was a damn stupid idea and I had no call to go stickin' my nose into your business." Vin could finally stand no more of the silence and he reached for the painting as he spoke, but his hand was caught in an iron grip. He stared warily into Chris Larabee's icy green eyes.
"They look... happy." Chris' voice was barely above a whisper.
"Buck said Sarah was always laughin' about something." Vin glanced down at the painting between them. Chris followed his look.
"She was. I'd forgotten that. Usually when I think about her and Adam, I see them hurt. Afraid. Dying."
Vin said nothing. Wasn't much a man could say to something like that.
Chris released his hold on Vin. "I have something of them now. To help me remember. And something of you, too." There was just the faintest hint of thickness in the gunslinger's voice. "Thank you. Both of you." His gaze included Buck, who was now grinning from ear to ear.
"Maybe you could buy us a drink to show us your appreciation of all our hard work and thoughtfulness, then." Buck suggested, with a wink in Vin's direction.
"In that case, shouldn't I be buying one for that painter fellow and Vin here, instead of you?" Chris gave the painting one last, lingering look, before following the indignantly protesting Buck out the door.
Vin stayed where he was, looking down at the painting of Chris Larabee's wife and child. They did look happy. Chris must have been happy like that, too. Maybe someday he would be again. Vin hoped so.
"Happy Birthday, Chris." he murmured. Then he turned and walked out the door, closing it quietly behind him.
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