The Man With No Name
by Debbi K.
Author's Note: This was inspired by the Hallmark Channel's Rawhide marathon in honor of Clint Eastwood's birthday. For those of you who are fans of Clint's "spaghetti westerns" no further explanation is required. For those who aren't, no explanation is possible. For the record, I also kind of borrowed a few things from Marty Robbin's classic gunfighter ballad Big Iron. If you've never heard it, you should.
That was the only way to describe the look of the stranger riding down the dusty main street of Four Corners.
He rode past the jail, taking note of JD, who in turn took note of him. His face betrayed nothing, but he seemed impressed that the youngster didn't avert his eyes, instead nodding his head slightly, acknowledging the stranger without actually greeting him.
The stranger wore a poncho similar to the one Josiah had given Chris. JD observed that the man bore other similarities to their leader - the steel-hard gaze, the cheroot clenched between thin lips that looked as though they rarely smiled, the way he seemed relaxed and tense at the same time.
"Who's the law in this town?" His voice was soft, raspy - and there was something familiar about it - but his tone demanded a reply.
JD stood up and took a couple of steps towards him, but was careful not to get too close. This wasn't a man who would appreciate that, he could tell. "That would be me." He twisted his lapel so the stranger could see the badge.
JD expected the usual remarks about his age, but the stranger only nodded. JD wasn't sure if that was a good or bad sign, and he tried to keep his voice level when he asked, "You got business here, Mister?"
The stranger took the cheroot from his mouth. "Could be. Could be it's my own business, too."
"Just don't want no trouble is all," JD said. He still didn't avert his gaze, even though staring this mysterious stranger directly in the eyes made him nervous.
The stranger nodded. He didn't show it, but he was impressed with the young man before him. He was young and he was small, but he was a man who knew where he stood and he would not be easily bullied. "Got a saloon in this town?"
JD pointed the way and the stranger rode off at an easy pace, not bothering to look back.
Casey came running up the side walk.
"Who is that?" she wanted to know.
"Don't rightly know. He's got trouble written all over him, though. I better go find Chris, just in case."
+ + + + + + +
Her newswoman's curiosity drew Mary Travis to the window of Mrs. Potter's store as the stranger rode up and hitched his horse to the rail. Gloria Potter joined her. The stranger was tall, lean, and handsome underneath the stubble of beard he wore, but it was impossible to read his intentions. Both women were decidedly uneasy when he walked into the store.
Without a word to either of them, his eyes scanned the shelves until he found what he was looking for. He helped himself to a small wooden box of cartridges and then set a crumpled dollar bill on the counter. Mrs. Potter nervously handed him his change, whereupon he tipped his hat slightly, said "Thank you, Ma'am" and left.
He loaded some of the cartridges into the sidearm he carried and then tucked the box into his saddle bag. He didn't get back on his horse, instead leaving it where it was as he walked down the boardwalk. His stride was slow and easy, but guarded, like a cat who could change pace and direction in an instant if it had to.
"You think he's a lawman?" Gloria Potter asked Mary Travis when the stranger was gone.
"Could be. I hear there's an Arizona ranger in these parts looking for a man who killed a minister and his whole family, even the baby."
Mrs. Potter put her hand to her mouth in horror. "You don't suppose he could be the killer, do you?"
Mary had thought of that, but seeing her friend's alarm said, "If he is, he's come to the wrong town." She nodded in the direction of Chris Larabee, who was watching the stranger from the balcony of Nathan's clinic. JD climbed the steps on his way to joining Chris, casting an occasional glance at the man as he moved towards the saloon. Buck peered from Blossom Call's window and Josiah gazed down from the eternally leaking roof of his church, some uncanny sense alerting them that this tall, silent mysterious stranger was someone they should not ignore.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish looked up from his cards and followed Vin Tanner's gaze towards the saloon door as a man in a poncho, his hat low over his eyes, pushed his way through the batwing doors. Almost immediately, everyone there seemed to sense that this was no ordinary stranger stopping by to wash down the trail dust. The man's presence seemed to fill the room, even though he said or did nothing to attract attention. Eyes turned to look at him, voices were lowered to an almost respectful level.
Most noticeable to Ezra, though, was Vin's reaction. The tracker's expression changed only minutely, but to Ezra, whose livelihood depended on being able to read people, the change was evident enough to concern him. There was a hint of surprise, and anxiousness, in Vin's eyes and in the general posture of his body.
The strange man also seemed to have a similar reaction.
"Didn't expect ta find ya here," the stranger said to Vin.
Ezra noted that he didn't emphasize the word "you" - almost as if he were saying he had expected to find Vin, just not so easily or so quickly.
"Wasn't expectin' ta see ya either," Vin replied. He turned completely so that his back was to the bar, elbows resting on it. He looked calm enough, but the stance did allow his leather coat to open wide enough for the mare's leg he carried to be displayed in plain view.
By this time, all conversation had died and everyone had their eyes on the two men. That Vin had a bounty on his head was a generally known fact in the town. Many folks thought it was just a matter of time before a bounty hunter showed up looking to collect.
Ezra wasn't sure what was going on, but gut instinct told him he'd be wise to intervene if this man had come to call Vin out. Tanner would never back down on his own, that was a certainty. Ezra rose from his seat, hand on his side arm.
Vin waved him off. "It's okay, Ez."
Ezra remained seated as the stranger cocked his head slightly in the direction of the bar. Vin nodded and ordered two more whiskeys.
Ezra couldn't help but overhear the whispered conversations around him."He's an outlaw, mark my word," said Henry Conklin. The man's glass was always half empty, but Ezra feared this time he could be right. "Come to get Tanner before Tanner could get him."
"He's a gunfighter," Rafe Mosely asserted. "Thinks he can take Tanner and Larabee will let him live to tell about it."
"Ya dang fool," Yosemite remarked. "If he was a gunfighter, he'd be callin' out Chris Larabee hisself,"
"Ya got a point there," someone agreed.
"Could be he's a lawman, here ta take Vin in nice and legal," another soul offered.
"Or a bounty hunter out for his blood money," someone added.
Ezra didn't care who the man was. If Vin was in danger, he needed his friends to watch his back, and the others weren't around.
Or so Ezra thought.
One by one, the other five entered the saloon and seated themselves strategically around the room, except for Chris, who sidled up to the bar a few feet away from Vin.
+ + + + + + +
The stranger lit a fresh cheroot and took a sip of his whiskey. "Hear ya went and got a bounty on yer head," he told Vin.
Vin nodded. "Five hundred dollars."
The stranger's eyebrows rose slightly, as if he were impressed by that sum. "For murder," he said softly.
"Yup." Vin took a sip of his drink.
"You do it?"
The stranger seemed to accept this, but said nothing.
"You gonna be around long?" Vin asked.
"Just passin' through."
"Mebbe you should just move on," Chris interjected.
Vin looked up. "'s okay, Chris. Ain't what yer thinkin'..."
Chris glared at the stranger. "Who said I was thinkin' anything?"
The stranger turned his head sideways and glared back. "Who the hell are you?"
"Gunfighter," the stranger stated, seeming to recognize Chris's name, yet giving no indication of how he felt about meeting the man face to face.
"When I need ta be," Chris said.
The stranger took another swallow of whiskey. "Well, ya don't need to be now. I ain't after Tanner's scrawny hide." The voice was soft but had an almost menacing quality about it. Chris had an uneasy feeling he'd heard that voice before and was bothered he couldn't place it. What didn't escape him was a brief spark in the stranger's eyes when he spoke of Vin, and the fact that Vin didn't even flinch at being called 'scrawny.'
So, this guy wasn't here to call Vin out. Didn't mean Chris had to like him. He didn't comment, but had the barkeep pour him a shot just to let this stranger know he didn't intend to back away.
The stranger, to his credit, apparently felt no need for further confrontation. He turned back to Vin.
"Made a place for yerself here, looks like."
Vin's lips turned up slightly in a shy smile. "Yup."
"Los Magnificos," the stranger grunted.
Vin grinned at that and laughed softly.
"So, you're one of 'em?"
"Yup. Seven of us."
"They watch your back?"
Vin nodded. "An' I watch theirs. Like brothers."
The stranger narrowed his eyes and nailed Vin with a piercing look, but his voice was gentle when he spoke. "Reckon you'd take to that."
Vin fingered his drink. "Been a long time."
The stranger nodded. "Too long. Just how things are sometimes."
Vin nodded agreement. There was a long, silent pause before Vin said. "Ya done yer best."
"Sometimes I think I coulda done better."
Vin shook his head. "You was what? Twelve? Thirteen?" He poured himself another shot, and then repeated, "Ya done yer best."
Both men were aware that the attention of almost everyone in the saloon was focused on them. Vin picked his hat up off the bar and put it on. "Let's take a walk," he said.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson had come to the saloon half expecting to end up patching someone up. His fears were only slightly eased as he watched Vin leave the saloon with the imtimidating stranger. He observed with interest that both men walked with the same easy, nonchalant stride, and yet somehow you knew they were on their guard, that you'd be taking your life in your gun hand if you messed with either of them. The stranger was much taller than Vin, but Nathan couldn't help but see that they were two of a kind, and he realized that he sometimes forgot that the quiet, calm soul he knew as Vin Tanner was only one side of the man.
Josiah pulled up a chair and joined him. "Doesn't look like there's a gunfight brewing," he said, sensing Nathan's reason for being there.
"Most times there doesn't, until it happens," Nathan said evenly.
Josiah had to agree with that. "Maybe it's best we tag along, just in case."
Nathan nodded and both of them headed for the door.
Behind them, one by one, Chris, Buck, JD and Ezra followed. As if having reached an unspoken agreement, the six men fanned out to inconspicuous spots where they could observe Vin and the newcomer as they sauntered casually up the main street of Four Corners.
Buck, though, in his usual brash fashion, found a way to cross their path.
"Well, hey there, Vin," he said cordially.
Vin greeted him, but did not, as Buck had hoped, introduce the stranger beside him, even though it was fairly obvious to Buck that they knew each other.
Buck didn't push. Some men had their reasons for not wanting their name known. Vin of all people would appreciate and respect that. Just to be sociable, though, Buck extended his hand to the stranger. "Buck Wilmington," he introduced himself.
Buck wasn't expecting the man to acknowledge him, but he did. He returned Buck's handshake and said "Good to meet you." Buck had heard that voice before, he was sure of it, but he didn't press the man for a name when one was not forthcoming.
Having seen that Vin was apparently in no danger, and not wanting to arouse suspicion, Buck mentioned to Vin that his patrol would start in a few minutes and asked if he wanted someone else to do it.
Vin looked at the stranger, but said, "That's okay, I can handle it. He'll just ride along."
"Two for the price of one," Buck joked. "Can't beat that!" He said his farewells and walked away, disappointed that he hadn't really learned a damn thing about the stranger with Vin.
+ + + + + + +
And so Vin and the stranger rode out of town. Chris watched them go, wondering if Vin would be back. Who was this man? And what did he want with Tanner?
It was clear that Vin knew him, but, that didn't necessarily mean that he meant Vin no harm. Chris had seen his sort too many times to trust him. He was a man who was dangerous because he didn't really care if he lived or died, and didn't really care if you did, either. He had few ties, and those he did have were loose.
In other words, he was a man like Chris Larabee.
Or at least, the man Chris had been, before Vin and the others came into his life and gave him something to care about.
He wondered about this stranger. Did he care about Vin? Funny thing was, he didn't seem to, and yet, Chris sensed it went deeper than he was willing to show on the outside, in much the same way it did with Vin. Vin was not a man who showed his feelings easily, but if you knew him like Chris did...
Chris paused to wonder about that. From that first day there had been a glimmer of recognition in Vin's eyes. Chris had liked Vin from the start, and unlike most people, Vin had liked him in return. He didn't scare Vin the way he did most people. Didn't think he could even if he tried.
Was it because he, Chris Larabee, reminded Vin of someone else? Someone he dared to care about?
+ + + + + + +
Vin and the stranger returned a few hours later. It was late in the afternoon, but after feeding and watering his horse, it looked like the stranger intended to be on his way, which ended most of the speculation that had kept the town busy most of the day trying to guess the reason he was there.
The rest of the Seven were just as curious as everyone else, but it was only Chris who was bold enough to approach the two men.
"Headin' out?" he asked the stranger.
The man checked the cinch on his saddle. "Reckon it's time."
"You could stay the night," Vin said. There was only the faintest hint of hope in the comment, but Chris picked up on it.
The stranger shook his head. "Got somewhere I gotta be."
Chris absently noted that the others had by this time found a reason to be in the immediate area, although they took care not to get too close and appear nosy.
The stranger turned to face Chris and Vin, who were standing side-by-side. He turned his gaze to Chris, and their eyes met. Hard eyes, neither pair afraid to stare directly into the other. Two sets of pursed lips clenched smoking cheroots while the wind whipped the ponchos both men wore.
For Chris, the moment was an epiphany. When Vin looks at me, he sees him.
The stranger nodded for no obvious reason, almost as if he had read Chris's thoughts, and then, as had happened so many times between him and Vin, Chris and the stranger shared an unspoken communication:Watch his back.
I will, always.
Ezra looked on with a frown, wondering what had just happened there as a smile flashed ever so briefly across the stranger's rugged, handsome face, and he reached up and pulled Vin's hat down over his eyes. It was an absurd gesture - and one that no other man would have gotten away with, except maybe Chris, but Chris would never do something like that. It was more like something a man would do if...
And then, realization dawned on Ezra. That same laconic stance, the predatory way that both men moved... and most especially, that soft, raspy drawl they shared....
He could see that the others had come to the same conclusion, but if there was any doubt it was removed when Vin pushed his hat back up, laughed and punched the stranger lightly on the shoulder.
The stranger clasped his hand, took a last long look at Vin and said, "Take care, little brother."
And with that, he climbed on his horse and was gone.
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