Main Character: Vin, of course. None better.
With thanks to Deirdre for her storyline in With Eagles Wings - a classic.
Size: Approx. 127K
He felt them approach, even before he saw the colors of the stars and stripes, heard them snapping in the wind as the troop advanced. Dust clouds billowed from beneath the horses hooves. The deadly bayonets of the rifles and the gold buttons on the blue coats reflected the sun in a shimmer of silver and gold. Vin Tanner collapsed his telescope and slipped it into his coat pocket without taking his eyes off the horizon. He heard the scrape of a heavy boot heel and the sharp ring of spurs on the boardwalk.
"Company comin," he said without turning, his eyes still fixed on the horizon.
"We know about this?" asked Chris Larabee, leaving the boardwalk to join his friend at the end of main street.
"Nothin Ive heard tell," answered Tanner. He turned, now, to face the man in black.
"Just passin through, I reckon," Larabee offered casually, attempting to quell the uneasiness he read in the trackers eyes.
Vin flashed a humorless smile and nodded once, then glanced back to the approaching riders.
Chris kept his eyes on Vin. He knew there was no love lost between Vin and the army. He had served in the Confederacy during the war between the states, and later suffered from the armys mission to clear the West of "hostiles," the only family the tracker had known until now. And there was more a hidden memory Chris knew of but never mentioned. A memory his friend had spoken in a fevered dream which remained a secret even between them.
Although Larabee harbored a certain degree of distrust towards the army, and did sympathize with Vins position, his loyalties were more divided. He had served with distinction in the Union army, had won his war and made many friendships within the ranks. The Indian situation was new to him and, although he disagreed with the armys position on land rights, he had no personal association with the tribes. His only experience had been with Jake Ford. But the sergeant had been insane, and Chris had found himself easily separating the man from the uniform.
"You want to ride out for a while?" he offered as they began to make out the features of the approaching cavalry.
"We havent heard of any trouble. And Im sure the boysn me can handle anything theyre bringin," Chris continued, nodding towards the men in blue.
Again, Tanner shrugged. His calm demeanor belied the fact that his mind was screaming at him to accept the offer. He felt the sweat trickling down his back. He wanted to run to ride to the hills, the mountains, to anywhere that was not here right now. His mouth was dry and he cleared his throat to find a voice to answer.
"Naw, Ill stick around," he said finally, surprising himself at his answer. He appreciated his friends offer, but his loyalty to this town, these men, made him stubborn.
"Yall dont have to be molly-coddlin me every time a patch of blue comes ridin."
Larabee rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head in mild frustration.
"Aint molly-coddlin no one," he argued. "Hell, Vin, we all got our ghosts. If we can spare each other a hauntin now and then "
"Ill stay," Vin interrupted with more conviction then he felt.
Chris swore under his breath but gave up the fight. He turned his attention instead to the approaching riders, making out captains bars now on the officer in front. He eased his hat back farther on his head as he looked up into the eyes of the rider and waited, feeling Vin shift uneasily at his side.
"Hayo!" called a lieutenant as the captain raised his hand lazily. The lieutenant dismounted alongside the commanding officer as they approached the regulators. The captain handed him the reins to his mount, then pulled off his white gloves, slapping them against his thigh in a cloud of dust. He spat dryly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, cursing the heat and the dust.
"Captain Marshall Evans," he said, extending his hand to Chris.
Chris nodded curtly, accepting the proffered hand. "Chris Larabee."
The captain held his hand after the shake, looking back into the gunfighters eyes.
"Larabee," he repeated, nodding his head slightly. He cocked an eyebrow. "Sheriff?"
"You?" the captain asked nodding towards Vin.
"Sheriffs at the jail," Chris answered instead. "John Dunne. We," he nodded towards Vin, "give him a hand."
"Ill bet you do," the captain answered with the barest hint of a smile. "Ill bet you do indeed."
Vin had yet to move. He wished he had listened to the little voice in his head that had told him to run. It was too late now. He stood uncomfortably trying to discern the look on the captains face. His first instincts had told him this was not a bad man. His eyes were calm, almost tired but they had sparked at the name of Larabee and now Vin hesitated at what reaction the name of Tanner would bring.
Chris had been thinking along the same lines reason enough to have avoided introducing Vin at first. He would give the tracker time to decide what name to offer.
Evans rubbed his face, the smile became broader, the eyes picked up the light of humor.
"Now, Ive heard of a Larabee," he started, "made a name for himself in this mans army. Made a name for himself afterwards by being particularly accurate with a sidearm."
Chris stiffened and Vin let his hand drop casually alongside his gun.
"Lt. Davis?" the captain called back, his eyes never leaving the man in black.
"Ask the sergeant to come forward, will you?"
The captain cleared his throat, brushed at the dust that covered his tunic, then looked up lazily again.
"And then theres another Larabee " he started, the smile broadening.
Chris had his eyes trained on the captain, but glanced quickly to the left to take in the sergeants approach. He looked back at the captain, then stopped and slowly turned back to the man in the black eye patch who was walking towards him.
"Good God " he breathed.
The captain contained the smile no more and broke into a hearty laugh. Vin watched, eyes wide with surprise as Chris and the army sergeant stood, smiled smiled! and embraced.
"Good God amighty!" the sergeant bellowed, pushing Chris back to arms length, then pulling him back in for another embrace. "Good God amighty!" he repeated.
"I hadnt heard from you after I left Gettysburg," Chris said in amazement. " I thought "
"Ho, now, cant get rid of your big brother that easy!" the big man roared. "I lost a peeper during my time on the Kansas-Missouri border," he said, indicating the eye patch, "sent me to work in Missouri for a spell. I wrote you once or twice but I guess they never got to you. Figured the same of you til I started to hear rumors of a young gunslinger out West soilin the good Larabee name!"
Vin stood quietly in awe of the display before him. But at the last barb thrown by the sergeant he looked quickly at Chris to see his reaction.
The smile had frozen on Chris face, but the big sergeant clapped the younger man on the shoulder and laughed at his discomfort.
"Now, dont you go gettin your dander up," he chided. "I was just havin a joke. I hear youre right important in this town now," he continued. "They call you a regulator, that right? Help out the local law?"
"And Im right lucky to have him, too."
Vin and Chris both started at the voice coming from behind. J.D. was approaching with Buck at his side.
"Whats all this about, Chris?" asked Buck.
"Gentlemen," the captain interrupted. "If I might. As much as it pleases me to bring two long-lost brothers together like this, I do have men and animals to tend to at the moment. Sheriff Dunne?" he asked, offering his hand to J.D.
"Yes, sir," said J.D. "And this heres Buck Wilmington. Another one of our regulators here in Four Corners."
"Mr. Wilmington," the captain nodded. "If you would be so kind as to point us in the general direction of the livery my men could tend to the horses, then get themselves a camp set up just outside your town. Meanwhile, Sheriff, Id be happy to fill you in on our business here, and these two boys can get caught up on family matters."
"Ill take em over, J.D.," Buck offered. "You go take care of your official business with the captain here."
J.D.s chest swelled a bit at Bucks nod towards his official capacity. The young man knew he alone could never keep the peace in the town, but it seemed to him sometimes that the rest of the regulators had a tendency to forget he was the official law in the town, not Chris. Although right now he was torn between doing his duty and talking to Chris and the sergeant who was apparently his brother.
"This way, Captain Evans," said J.D., leading the way to the jail.
Buck turned towards the captains aide.
"Follow me, boys," he said, turning towards the livery. He nodded towards the sergeant, then sent a puzzled look towards Chris. Larabee could see the question in his old friends eyes Brother?
"Now, son, if you could lead this old decrepit fossil of a brother to the local watering hole " said the sergeant, his arm draped about Chris shoulder, " and introduce me to the rest of these here reg-a-lay-tors."
Chris smiled, the former insult forgotten.
"My pleasure," he answered. He glanced towards Vin to follow them as they turned towards the saloon.
Vin watched his friend saunter off with the army sergeant. He had caught the wordless invitation to join them, saw the delight in the gunfighters eyes. Yet for the first time since they had met, it seemed his friend had not caught the message Vins eyes had sent. Or maybe Chris had seen something different the usual hesitancy Vin displayed around the military. But there was more here. A memory stirred in the far reaches of Vins mind. A dark memory he had buried long ago. It had slammed into him with the force of a bullet when the sergeant had first embraced Chris, yet before the tendrils of pure memory began to reach out from the past to take hold of him, he had forced them from his mind. He did not wish to go back.
"Inez! A bottle of the best youve got!" Chris shouted as he walked into the saloon with his brother. Ezra looked up from his corner table in surprise as Chris brought an army sergeant to meet him.
"Mr. Larabee," he said, placing the deck he had been shuffling down on the table before him. "I admit to being somewhat aghast at this unusual display of exuberance on your part."
"Ezra Standish, Id like you to meet my brother, Wil," Chris said with delight as he watched the shocked expression on the gamblers usual poker face. He rose uncertainly as he extended his hand towards the sergeant. He started to speak, stopped, and shook his head, looking again at the brothers standing before him.
"I must admit to a most singular occurrence," he said, finally. "Mr. Larabee? I am at a loss for words."
"Damn, Ez, that is a first," Chris smiled.
"To be matched, I assure you, by an equally unique phenomena," Ezra countered. "You possess, Mr. Larabee, not just a smile, but an indisputably genuine grin! Might I ascertain by this unparalleled levity on your part that you had presumed this sibling reunion to have been impossible within this earthly realm?"
"Good God amighty, Chris! Dontcha have any friends around here speak English?" asked the sergeant. Ezra saw a bold smile, but his intuition of detecting the "tells" of the human condition saw that the sergeants eyes were cold. "Whatre you doin with a fancy-pants like this? Didnt I teach you better, boy? I swear that theres one of those Southern gentlemen."
Chris laughed. "Southern maybe, but Id have to think on the gentleman part."
"Perhaps the good sergeants brethren in blue still harbor a certain resentment towards those of us who hail south of the Mason-Dixon," said Ezra. He, too, smiled broadly, but not from the heart.
"Gone and done, Mr. Standish, gone and done," Wil Larabee insisted. "Besides, any friend of my little brother here is a man worth getting to know."
Ezra nodded his acceptance of the introduction and returned to his seat, musing on the thought of the man in black being anyones "little brother." He looked beyond the shoulders of the two men before him.
"My friend," he called to the approaching tracker, "I presume this unexpected turn of events has taken you by surprise as well?"
"You could say that," Vin answered as he approached the brothers.
Chris turned to his friend and put a hand on his back.
"Vin, this is my brother, Wil Larabee. Id thought for sure he had died at in the war havent heard from him in over four years." Chris looked at his brother, eyes shining.
"Wil, this my good friend Vin Tanner."
Ezra had returned to his cards, but looked up, startled at the introduction, then shot a glance towards Vin for his reaction. Did Chris realize he had introduced a wanted man to an army sergeant? True, the army was not the law, and its agenda did not include hunting down every wanted man west of the Mississippi, but was it a risk worth taking with another mans life?
If Vin was nervous about the introduction, he did not show it. Ezra did detect something about the trackers eyes, but it wasnt a fear of having his identity revealed. His body portrayed its familiar slouch, his face impassive, but his eyes his eyes were
"Pleasure to meet you, Vin," the sergeant answered. If the name of "Tanner" was familiar to him, he was doing a fine job of hiding it.
Vin offered his hand, nodded, found his voice.
Wil Larabee smiled. "Yes sir, youre a friend of Chris alright. Man of few words just like him. Now me, well, I figure the Lord amighty gave me an extra share. Thats why he run out of em when he got to Chris, here."
"Alright, Larabee, whats the story?" Buck Wilmington boomed as he swaggered into the saloon with Josiah and Nathan in tow. "Bad enough we have to deal with one stubborn pain-in-the-neck Larabee around here now we got two?"
"Still less trouble than one smart-mouthed Wilmington," Chris answered back. "Buck, Josiah, Nathan, my brother Wil."
Buck pumped the sergeants hand, then slapped Chris on the back. "Holding out on us Larabee? What other family you got lurking about? Coupla sisters maybe?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Forgive our brother, here, sergeant" Josiah said, admonishing Buck. "What he meant to say is welcome to Four Corners."
Chris pulled up chairs for the men and ordered more whiskey from Inez.
"Well," said Wil Larabee as he poured himself a drink. "Here I am drinkin whiskey with my little brother and the famous Regulators of Four Corners."
"Famous?" asked Ezra. "I wasnt aware our notoriety extended much beyond the borders of Texas."
"Well, now, I dont know all what goes on in these Dixie states, but up North weve heard tell of quite a few of your exploits about these parts," Wil said, smiling.
There it was again, thought Ezra. The cold smile and the thinly veiled reference to his southern background.
"What does bring you here, Brother Wil?" asked Josiah.
"A little unfinished business with a few of Quantrills Raiders," the sergeant answered.
"Quantrill? I heard he died in Kentucky," said Nathan.
"And the Devil take him," said Wil, raising his glass in a toast. "Wished I had a chance to run him through myself, but no such luck. I did take a turn at old Bloody Bill, though. When me and the boys were through with him in Missouri that old name fit him better than ever." Larabee laughed hard at his own joke. "Naw, the head may be severed but the bodys still twitchin. When Quantrill headed back here to hide, his Raiders split up some stayed with him, some went with Bloody Bill, some formed groups of their own. Thats what were after. Coupla good ol boys runnin from an arson charge. Aint hidin em in your outhouse, are you Ez? From the looks of it," he said, nodding towards the cards in Ezras hand, "you and old Quantrill had quite a bit in common." Wil smiled.
"I assure you, sergeant, I prefer to make a killing at the poker table, as opposed to small Kansas communities," said Ezra. "As to the occupation of gambling, his abilities were as fraudulent as his alias."
"Did you ever play him Ezra?" asked J.D. He had finally finished his business with Capt. Evans and had been anxious to join the others. The captain had filled him in on their business in Four Corners with a brief history of William Quantrill and his Raiders as well as the horrific demise of Bloody Bill Anderson.
The gambler felt the eyes of the sergeant and the rest of the regulators upon him as he dealt out a hand of solitaire.
"I recall a brief game in Kansas, I believe, prior to his associations with the Confederacy," Ezra said carefully.
"Did you know him in the war, Vin?" J.D. asked, his face flushed with excitement at being friends with men who had known the infamous guerilla fighter.
Chris shot a glance at J.D. with piercing eyes. The seven knew Vin had fought with the Confederacy during the war between the states, but had avoided dredging up those painful memories. J.D.s exuberance had overridden his usual caution in discussing the subject. The gunfighter saw Vin tense, winced at the look in his eyes that of an animal sensing a trap and weighing its options for escape and regretted the turn the conversation had taken.
"I dont recall meeting you before, Tanner. You fight with Ewing too?" asked the sergeant, referring to the Union brigadier general assigned to patrolling the Kansas-Missouri border.
Chris opened his mouth to intercept the response, but Vin looked solidly into his friends eyes.
"Against," he said simply, facing Chris.
The word hung heavily in the air. Damn you, Vin, Chris thought, you didnt have to tell him that.
Wil Larabee sat staring at Vin, then looked at Chris. The air was thick with emotion, a tinderbox waiting to spark at the next words spoken.
"The western frontier of this great country has become home to men whose road through life has been intercepted by many paths," said Josiah carefully. "Ive often felt blessed to live in such a land where a mans choices are as plentiful as the grasses of the Great Plains."
"Well said, brother," Nathan breathed.
Tension among the eight men eased, but Chris had no desire to test its duration. He cursed himself for his enthusiasm. He was known for his careful, measured action, but his joy at seeing Wil again had clouded his reason. He should have talked with his brother before he introduced him to a band of men such as this each one hiding a past, nursing wounds, fighting demons.
He stood, taking hold of the half-full bottle of whiskey and gestured to his brother.
"Come on, Wil," he invited the older man. "You and me have a lot of catching up to do. Id like to show you my place outside of town before you have to leave again."
The quick smile flashed again. "Sure thing, brother. Let me tell Captain Evans where Im headed then lead the way." He nodded towards the six men still seated. "See you boys later."
+ + + + + + +
"Whoa," said Nathan after Chris and Wil had left. "I dont want to go there again anytime soon."
"I would recommend we restrict our avenues of conversation to the here and now while Sgt. Larabee is within our midst," said Ezra, his eyes drilling J.D.
"What?" he asked defensively.
"Good God, boy, youre sittin here talkin with a Union sergeant and you bring up Vins past?" asked Buck, exasperated. "What the hell else do you think Ezras talkin about?"
"The wars over," J.D. argued. "Havin fought for the Confederacy is no crime."
"To some it is," Vin said quietly. "Hes got a real taste for Quantrill. Fought with Ewing. You reckon he was in Lawrence?" he asked Ezra.
"Howd you know that?" J.D. interrupted.
Ezra shook his head.
"If you know the sergeant was in Lawrence, Mr. Dunne, I presume you were also informed as to the atrocities that were committed there?" he asked.
"Well, yeah, the Captain told me. Lawrence, Kansas was a stronghold for abolitionists back in 63. Quantrill stormed into the town, burning, pillaging, and massacring over 150 people. But he was part of a guerilla force. You didnt fight with him, did you Vin?" asked J.D.
"God damn it, J.D. did you hear anything we said?" asked Buck, exasperated.
"Yeah, I heard ya," said J.D., angry now. "But its just us here, Buck. Vins got no cause to worry about us. And we sure dont think of him like we do murderers like Quantrill or Anderson."
"Why not?" asked Vin icily.
The men looked startled at the usually quiet tracker. Ezra blew out a breath in a soundless whistle. He had been watching Vins eyes grow darker, colder, and more haunted. That was it. That was the look those usually placid eyes had had when Chris first introduced his brother to them in the saloon. In a blinding flash he remembered a little place just outside Correyville, a bed belonging to Kate Davis, his friend, battered and bruised, uttering the forgotten ramblings of a boy caught in a mans war. A secret he guarded closely with Chris Larabee.
"Alright," said Buck standing, pulling J.D. beside him. "Lets you and me go check out the rest of the boys in blue and see to the captains needs. Get this army in and out of here as fast as possible."
"Amen to that, brother," said Josiah also rising.
Nathan sat, thinking, then called to Buck and J.D. as they were leaving.
"J.D.? What makes the army think some of Quantrills men are around here?"
J.D. turned, walking backwards towards the doors with Buck at his side.
"Chris brothers been followin after raiders since the war ended," J.D. explained. "Guess hes some kind of expert. Says hed recognize em anywhere."
Nathan and Ezra watched the young sheriff leave. Vin held his whiskey glass, turning it slowly in his hand.
"Expert," he said softly. "Just how do you suppose he got to be an expert sniffin out Quantrills Raiders?"
"One would suppose from his having had innumerable encounters with the infamous rebels during the war and the armys belief in his ability, real or imagined, to identify them now on sight," said Ezra sarcastically.
"Hell of a lot of men to know by sight," said Nathan suspiciously.
"Dont suppose the Union armys too particular in its identification of war criminals," said Vin.
Nathan and Ezra glanced uneasily at the Texan.
"My friend," said Ezra hesitantly. "Is there any cause for us to exercise a greater awareness of your comings and goings during this intrusion of the Grand Army of the Republic on our humble abode?"
Vin smiled at Ezra. "I aint one of his, if thats what youre askin,"
"I did not mean to insinuate such, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said earnestly, "however, it would be logical to assume the good sergeant may look to you with somewhat less than the usual kinship one feels towards the friends of ones family."
"He aint too taken with you either, Ezra," Vin countered.
"Undoubtedly," Ezra agreed. "However, at most he considers me an irritating southern fancy-pants I believe was the term? While you, as a former defender of Dixie, represent a more threatening reminder of our past conflict."
"If youre sayin he sees me as a damn Johnny Reb Id have to agree with you there," joked Vin.
"Ezras right, Vin," Nathan said with concern. "I get a bad feelin when he looks at you with that one bloodshot eye."
"Perhaps a timely visit with our dear Miss Nettie might be prudent?" ask Ezra helpfully.
Vin rubbed his jaw, downed his whiskey and rose as he settled his hat on his head.
"I dont want Chris worryin on me," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe Ill see if Nettie needs any work done for a day or two. Yall can send for me if theres trouble, right?"
"You bein at Netties should eliminate about 99% of any trouble Id expect right now," said Nathan.
Vin smiled and tipped the brim of his hat towards Ezra.
"You watch your back, too, Ezra," he said. "Theres always room for one more at Netties."
"Thank you for your concern, Mr. Tanner," said Ezra bowing slightly, "but I must admit to a somewhat perverse pleasure at the thought of remaining as a burr under the backside of our good sergeant."
"Ezra " Nathan warned, shaking his head.
"Mr. Jackson, I accept as fact the Union Armys victory in our past conflict. I have come, since my association with persons such as yourself, to applaud President Johnsons proclamation of the 13th amendment. I embrace the fellowship I currently enjoy with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington, both recent opponents of the rebel gray." Ezra picked up his deck of cards and cleared his throat, his eyes alive with a mischievous gleam. "But I do so appreciate the occasional opportunity to irritate the hell out of the men in blue."
+ + + + + + +
"Nice place you got for yourself, Chris," said Wil as the brothers settled themselves beside a stream that ran by Chris homestead. "Good location, honest work Id maybe rethink a friend or two "
"Wil " Chris began.
"Just kidding, Chris. Done and gone, thats what I said," Wil said quickly.
"I heard you. I hope you mean it. Vin and Ezra are good friends of mine. Weve been watchin each others backs for a while now."
"Good! Good. Im glad, Chris, really. Fought in the same war as I did, didnt you? Ill take your word for it if you say you trust these men."
"With my life, Wil," Chris said evenly.
The sergeant nodded, looked around him again. "This is nice here. Peaceful. Been a long time "
Chris nodded in agreement. His home was just over the hill behind them. He had taken Wil here where the land rolled into a shallow valley, close by a small stand of trees. It was a place he had often sat with Vin as they looked at the stars above, listening to the wind in the trees, the water tumbling over rocks in the riverbed.
"I remember you writin somethin about a wife once?" Wil said suddenly.
Chris jaw tightened. He looked away towards the setting sun.
"Wife, son, theyre gone. Dead," he said, swallowing hard.
"Aw, hell, Chris Im sorry. Real sorry. Man cant rightly bear somethin like that and stay sane."
"I didnt," Chris admitted. "Took this place, these men " he stopped, thinking of Buck, Vin, the peace they had helped him to find.
They sat in silence as the sun slipped beneath the horizon. One by one, stars began to pierce the darkness. A cool breeze blew welcome relief from the heat of the day as the animals of the night began to stir.
+ + + + + + +
She had watched him approach for several minutes now. Even at this distance she knew it was him the familiar slouch in the saddle, the head turning from side to side scanning his surroundings.
She felt the odd stirrings of motherhood in her breast and laughed to herself at her foolishness. She played the role mothering them all but it was really only J.D. and Vin that sought her out for it.
J.D. was easy. His young face was an open book and the grief of his recent loss was there for all to read. Yet with Vin, and this was no secret to any of them, she worked harder to fill the void that had been left in his heart so long ago. A buried grief that arose only before his closest friends at what was usually the most unexpected times. In return, he filled her empty heart with a certain peace of what might have been.
Casey had conveniently taken the stage to Abilene last week to visit Netties sister. And while Nettie was always glad to see Vin, the quick smile that came to her lips when she had first glimpsed the lone figure was soon joined by a furrowed brow that creased the sun-worn face of the old woman. Yet the decision had been made, the deed was done. She had abided by many decisions the young man had made that she had disagreed with, decisions that had threatened his life, his freedom. This time he would have to understand.
"Nettie," the tracker said as he dismounted, leading Peso to her small corral.
"Vin," she answered. She was surprised that her palms were wet and wiped them dry on her apron before he approached. "Stayin to supper?" she called.
"Ive a mind to," he said as he approached her, giving her hand a light squeeze.
He smiled and thought she could read the signs of trouble on his face almost as well as he could read the signs of nature on the trail.
"Im stayin out of it," he replied. "Need some help for a day or two?" This time he read the emotions that flitted like a shadow across her usually stolid face and were quickly gone again. Damn, he thought shes almost as good as me.
"Always use a good hand," she replied. "Glad to have you."
Almost Nettie, he thought again, his curiosity now fully aroused, But not quite. Whatre you hidin little lady?
"Well, come in if youre gonna," she insisted, opening the door to her house. "But youll have to do some huntin if you want fresh meat. Im plumb out."
"Wherere your chickens got to, then?" he asked.
"Out back where theyre supposed to be," she said defensively. "Chickens for Sunday. I got me the famous Four Corners sharpshooter on my front porch and you expect me to kill off my own brood? Whatd you do? Lose that gun ayourn to Ezra in a poker game?"
"Since when dyall send your company to get dinner?"
"You aint company, youre family. Men of the house are supposed to get meat for the table."
"I aint the man of your house," Vin argued, enjoying the banter. "Couldnt pay me enough to be the man in a house run by such a contrary old woman."
"Now if you start insultin me "
"Im sorry, Nettie, youre not that contrary "
"Aint talkin about the contrary part. Damn proud of bein contrary, but who the hell you callin old?" she shouted, giving him a swat on the behind as he ran ahead of her into the house.
By nightfall Vin had repaired the roof of Netties chicken coop, shot several squirrels for stew and a deer which he had dressed, some for smoking and some for eating fresh. Having finished their meal, the two sat on Netties porch beneath the same stars Chris and Wil Larabee were contemplating miles away.
"You gonna tell me whats going on?" Vin asked Nettie quietly.
"Me? I was gonna ask you the same," Nettie said changing the subject. "Whyre you here of a sudden?"
"Armys in town," he answered simply.
"Armys been in town before, never sent you runnin here."
"Aint runnin," Vin shot back to her.
"Visitin then," she amended.
"Sergeant come this time," Vin said after a while. "Aint too fond of Johnny Rebs."
"Dont imagine he would be," Nettie agreed. "That surprise you?"
Vin sighed. "Just dont want no trouble with im."
"Dont talk to im," Nettie reasoned simply.
"Not that easy."
"Since when? Lorda Sundays, son, Ive know you to go a week without speaking a word, cept to Peso."
Vin took his hat off, running his hand through his hair. He sighed again and placed the hat back low on his forehead. He looked at Nettie through dark, haunted eyes.
"Hes Chris brother."
"What? I didnt even know the man had family alive."
"None of us did. Seems it was a surprise even to Chris. Thought his brother had died in the war. Now hes come here "
"And you dont figure to make Chris choose between the two of you," Nettie finished.
Vin nodded sadly. "Theres somethin about that man. I dont " he stopped, his eyes seeking refuge in the dark night.
Nettie rested a small, callused hand on his shoulder.
"You stay until hes gone," Nettie offered. "But dont you go thinkin Chris has more feelin for that brother of his than he does for you. Blood may be thicker than water but the blood thats been spilt between you and Chris defendin each other in that town is no less than whats runnin through their veins."
Vin offered a troubled smile to thank her.
"Whats he here for, anyway?" she asked carefully.
"Lookin for some of Quantrills men," Vin answered.
This time, Nettie looked away to search the night with worried eyes.
+ + + + + + +
"I was hoping the saloon would still be open," said Captain Evans as he approached the table where Ezra and Buck were sharing a late-night bottle. "May I?" he asked, indicating an empty chair.
"By all means, Captain," Ezra said, pushing the chair out from the table with his foot. "The whiskey is on Mr. Wilmington," he added, nodding towards the half-empty bottle.
The captain laughed as he dropped heavily into the chair. He held a glass as Buck poured. "Mr. Standish is quite generous with your hospitality Mr. Wilmington."
Buck poured another round for Ezra and himself as well. "Yeah, well, Ez is famous for being generous with everyone elses money whether hes drinkin it or gamblin it."
Ezra ignored the comment, turning instead to appraise the officer. "Pardon my candor, Captain, but you look as though you have ridden one too many miles of bad road."
"That I have, Mr. Standish," the captain nodded. He drank the glass down in one gulp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Buck poured him another.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. Yes, damn, I hate this assignment," Evans said, sipping his drink this time. "Wars over. Lincoln himself, rest his soul, asked for the country to begin healing and here I am stirring the whole thing up again in every state I ride through."
"Havin much success?" Buck asked.
"If you can call it that," the Captain said with distaste. "Half these boys arent guilty of anything more than stealing a few chickens for food. Probably dont even know who Quantrill was. A couple of boys just came riding by what was left of their farm after the army went through and told them to grab their guns to get revenge. Now they dont have a home to go back to, no war to fight, no work to keep them in shoe leather, and the United States Army chasing after to hang them."
"You hardly sound like any officer I fought under," said Buck. "Most of em shoot a Southern boy soon as look at em. Have to say I mighta felt that way myself back in 63. Lost a lot of good friends in that war. Course that was before I met Ez and Vin " he stopped short at the mention of Vins name and cursed the slip.
"I recognized Mr. Tanner when I rode in, Mr. Wilmington. Weve been through Tascosa. I mentioned it to your sheriff. He was quite adamant in proclaiming the mans innocence. In fact, you might want to remind the young man that official questions are best answered directly. If I didnt have enough to hang the man with when I rode in, I do now."
The regulators tensed.
"That is, if I had a mind to act on the information. Which I do not. I have little taste as it is for this army business with Quantrill. I have no desire to become embroiled in frontier justice as well." Ezra and Buck exchanged quick glances. Their fears somewhat allayed by the captains easy, and honest manner.
"Did you fight for the South, Mr. Standish?" asked the captain.
"Ez? Fight?" squawked Buck.
Ezra glared at him. "I abstained," he explained to Captain Evans.
"Smartest man at this table," Evans replied, toasting Ezra.
"Why are you still in, then?" asked Buck. "Chris and I left the day Lee signed at Appomattox."
Evans sighed. "My family tree was planted in a battlefield."
"And the apple must never fall far from the tree," Ezra nodded.
The captain smiled. "Oh, I dont suppose I wouldve chosen otherwise," he said. "I was born to it, and Im good at it. But leading men in battle is one thing. Its kill or be killed. Try to get your men out alive as best you can. But this " he said gesturing outside towards the army encampment.
"Such a sight as this becomes the field, but here shows much amiss," Ezra quoted.
"What sight?" asked Buck.
"Hes quoting Hamlet," the captain explained. "Fortinbras, on seeing the dead bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, and the king and queen at Elsinore."
"A soldier with a poets soul," Ezra said, nodding to the captain with a smile.
The captain smiled sadly. "Im afraid there are too few of us," he said. "Lot of those men out there wouldnt understand. Men like my sergeant for instance."
"Yes, I received that impression from Sgt. Larabee," Ezra muttered.
"Ill bet you did," agreed the captain. "Well, in his defense, hes seen a lot."
"More than you, Captain? I doubt that," argued the gambler.
"He was at Lawrence," the captain said simply. "Thing like that can sour a man hard. Civilians and all. Then they shipped him to a prison camp in Missouri." Captain Evans set his drink down on the table, staring off into the distance. "I dont know what it was about those camps. They seemed to bring out the worst in the men who worked them. Maybe having all those Confederate boys at their mercy was too much power for them after having seen so many of their friends killed. I hear it was no better for the Union boys in the southern camps so it must be a disease that can affect any man. Anyway," he said, coming back to himself, "Ive got him now and hes appointed himself the judge, jury and executioner for anyone who even breathes the name of Quantrill."
The two regulators nodded in silence, shooting each other nervous glances.
"This Tanner " the captain began.
"Ol Vin is taking himself a vacation," Buck said, eyeing the captain.
"Yes," said Ezra. "Mr. Tanner agreed with us that it would be wise to remove any temptation for vengeance from the good sergeant, for his own sake as well as his brothers."
"Good, good," nodded the captain. "Id hate for there to be trouble between them. From what your sheriff said, the seven of you run a pretty tight ship here. Riding herd on a frontier town cant be easy work. Id hate to have my presence here disrupt anything."
+ + + + + + +
Chris stood in front of the jail, scanning the awakening town. Wil had left late last night to rejoin his company and Chris had ridden with him, spending the night in one of the jail cells rather than riding back to town just a few hours later. Now he looked for the familiar face of his friend in the early morning hours and frowned at his absence. He caught site of Nathan carrying supplies up to his clinic and called out the healers name.
Nathan stopped. Shit. He thought. Hes gonna ask me where Vin is.
"You seen Vin this morning?" Chris asked, confirming Nathans fears.
"Ah, hes not around, Chris," Nathan answered evasively.
"I can see that, Nathan," Chris said patiently, already on alert that something was wrong. "Do you know where he is?"
Nathan scanned the horizon behind Chris and scratched his head. "Didnt he say somethin about Netties last night?" he asked, pretending to ponder his own question. "Yeah, yeah, I think hes helpin out Nettie with some fence mending."
"Did that last week," Chris said, drilling Nathan with cold eyes.
"Did he? Well, must be something else then," Nathan answered quickly. "All I know is we were havin a drink yesterday me and him and Ezra and he said something about Netties."
"Ezra, huh?" Chris asked, already turning towards the saloon.
"I doubt hes up yet, Chris," Nathan called after him, relieved that he had escaped further interrogation himself, but now anxious at having thrown Ezra to the wolves.
"Well, Ill just go up and see," Chris called back ominously.
Shit. Thought Nathan.
Ezra peeled one eye open as the pounding continued. No, he realized, it wasnt the whiskey from the night before, someone was actually pounding on his door. His hand slipped from beneath the covers and found his pocket watch on the bedstand. He squinted at the time.
"Good God," he muttered.
The pounding continued as Ezra slowly dragged himself out of bed and stumbled to the door.
"If you are raising me for anything short of the second coming at this unholy hour Ill " Ezra protested as he opened the door.
"Mornin Ez," Chris said evenly. "Tell me why Vins at Netties or youll be waitin on the second coming from the other side of the grave."
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, trying quickly to regain his composure at the early morning shock of seeing a highly agitated Chris Larabee at his door.
"Mr. Tanner, you say? Why, I believe hes at Netties," Ezra answered innocently.
"I know hes at Netties. Why?"
"Repairs?" Ezra responded hopefully.
"You askin or tellin?"
"Repairs." He stated firmly.
"He was doin repairs last week. Wouldnta left unless they were done."
"He takes J.D. with him when he goes huntin out there to practice trackin and shootin."
"Mail," Ezra tried once more, pushing his luck. Too far.
The gunfighter slammed the gambler up against the wall of the room, his hand clasping the silk nightshirt. A fine sheen of sweat began to break out on Ezras face and he licked his dry lips.
"Please, Mr. Larabee, theres no call for this "
"I cant seem to get any straight answers this mornin," Chris growled. "I asked a simple question and Ive gotten three answers to it so far." He leaned in close and Ezra felt his hot breath inches from his face. "You wanna try for four, Mr. Standish?"
Ezra cleared his throat and calmly, but firmly, took Chris hand from his shirt. Damn this, Ezra thought, he knows why Vin left and I am done being bullied about it. Larabee saw the jaw muscles flex and the eyes of the gambler become hard.
"Mr. Larabee, need you really hear me confirm your suspicions? Is there one of us who is not aware of the bond between you and Mr. Tanner? Are you honestly attempting to convince me that you could not for a moment ascertain as to why Mr. Tanner would feel it imperative to remove himself from the vicinity at this time?"
The anger left Chris eyes and he looked to the floor. He shook his head in frustration at the truth in the gamblers words.
"Would you care for a fourth question, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra prodded sarcastically.
Chris head shot up, his eyes afire, and Ezra whacked his head sharply against the wall behind him, painfully aware he had pushed too far again.
"Ill be at Netties," Chris said, slamming the door behind him.
"So should we ride out there, too?" asked J.D. as Buck took a water pump to his foggy brain.
"No," sputtered Buck through the cold water.
"But he might they might ," J.D. stammered.
"He might, they might, sure enough," Buck interrupted. "But it aint gonna be we might." Buck looked up at the frustrated youth as he smoothed back his soaking hair.
The poor kid was always so worried whenever there was tension between the seven. So afraid it would cause the men to split up, leave him.
"What did Ezra say?" he asked J.D. patiently.
"I dont know something about the dawn comin up like thunder this mornin. He was pretty mad at just bein woken up so early."
"Look, J.D., Vin and Chris are grown men. Theyre gonna have disagreements about things specially things like this. But you and I both know there aint nothin strong enough to come between em, neither. You gotta stop thinkin its the end of the world anytime one of us has words with another. We aint a bunch of old women noddin and smilin at each other. Theres bound to be trouble now and then."
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