Author's note: This story is set in an AU that is purposely vague about current events. This is not the USA today, nor even tomorrow. It is simply a stage for the events of the story. It's a little existential and may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I figured that with all the 'trouser leg of time' AUs in the M7-verse, why not. The title is taken from a Robbie Williams song.
Feedback will be treated like the precioussss gold that it is and drooled over in the dark.
The word swirled around in the air mocking the weary traveller. Tiny pieces of ice danced in the furious gusts of snow, encircling the man, joining the freezing wind in sucking as much warmth as possible from the shivering frame.
Booted feet, poorly protected against drifts of piled snow, staggered through the snow-covered path, the insidious tendrils of frostbite already attacking aching toes. His worn leather jacket was pierced by malicious drafts, driving an icy layer between skin and material. A woollen scarf barely kept desperately needed warm air within his labouring chest, blood-warmed exhalations disappearing into the wild snow dance. Fingers thrust in armpits, dying for warmth, clenching spasmodically as feeling returned to the frigid digits.
With his eyes narrowed against the wind, cheeks drawn and tight in the biting air, lips cracked and bloody, the stranger continued his directionless journey. No goal in mind. No destination ahead. It was simply the process of finding somewhere to stop - for a while at least.
The word mocked him. Oh, how he had once longed to feel the icy bite of snow. How he had yearned to see the glistening fall of frozen water, a thought that kept him sane in a land of heat, dehydration and death. The sensation of sweat covered sunburnt skin seemed so far away in this white world. The only real thought in his half-frozen mind was, 'move.' Keep on moving, take another step, move.
One booted foot followed the other, relentlessly ploughing forward, no pause, no stop. Muscles aching, chest screaming to breath, eyes fixed on each unseen foot, blinding snow obscuring the sight of what he knew to be true. He was moving - not quitting. Still alive.
It hovered, just out of sight. A point of blackness in a swirling scene of white. Waiting. Watching. Patient. Look directly at it, and nothing would be there. Return to the path ahead and the spectre would again rise in the corner of your eye. Waiting. Adding its own chill to the already frigid air.
'Not yet, old friend. Not yet.'
The rickety woodshed was warm. The shattered remains of a table and chair burned sullenly, reluctantly fending off the cold for the wretched figure hunching over the blaze. Slowly frozen limbs felt blood flowing through their icy extremities, the sensation of warmth chasing away the prospect of frost bite.
Forgotten rags and old sacks covered a shivering frame, gradually insulating the stranger's body. Boots were reinforced with oily rags, plugging cracks and holes. His left hand was wrapped securely in an old sleeve, in a desperate attempt to save it from the ravages of frostbite.
Slitted eyes watched the flames, lost in distant visions of other fires. The heat thawed out frozen tendrils of hair, tied back into a dirty ponytail. Dehydrated lips slowly sucked a stolen icicle. The unexpected warmth raised a distinct flush to chilled cheeks, ears and head still covered by a low battered hat.
Outside the storm raged, furious to loose its victim. Snakelike drafts pierced the shed, trying to breach it's fortress of warmth. Both the determination to survive and the presence of the fire beat back their attacks. Two pieces of beef jerky waited near the blaze, thawing out until chewable.
The stranger waited, waited for the storm to pass and for the winter sun to rise. And while he waited, his soul walked. Walked in distant lands, where the sun beat down on unprotected heads. Sand crunched beneath booted feet, found its way into unreachable cracks, itching and irritating. Each mouthful of food had the same dusty taste and crunch, each mouthful of water metallically tepid. Sweat ran, tempers flared and blood ran dark red against the white sands.
And as the stranger's soul walked, Death watched from a dark corner in the shed. Even the fire felt it presence, its promise of water and sand, of ending and the reluctant blaze did not extend it's light into that distant corner. The thwarted cold avoided the dark form, shying away from its whispers of heat and summer.
Light and Dark. One walked and the other waited.
Words again swirled around the walking figure. Weak sunlight barely pierced the grey clouds. Distant mountains and snow lay behind the stranger and open, white fields of farms and ranches stretched ahead.
The road beneath his feet was dry and rock hard, the dirt too frozen to stir beneath his footsteps. Dry, pale white grass lay alongside the road, uniform dark fences edged the lonely road. Leafless trees stretched aching branches towards the sky, their stark forms sending pleas for aid to the merciless heavens. Dead fields lay fallow, clumps of dirty snow trodden under by listless, bony cattle who hunched together in herds of despondency.
Grey clouds hung close to the earth, creating an ominous roof, cutting off the promise of spring and hinting at harder times instead. Bleak landscapes passed by, shuttered farm houses and empty animal stalls, no warmth or life present. Death's shadow did not hover behind the lone figure this time. Instead it soared over the land, revelling in the sights below. Leaving the stranger to its words, the spectre loomed over field and barn, searching for more misery.
'Stupid piece of filth.'
The blows had come as a surprise, but the words had not. Helping hands tossed him to yet another rude unwelcoming. Such hate and anger he understood, but the contempt and vicious mouthings he did not.
Putting one foot ahead of the other, the stranger nursed yet another bruise, yet another payment for the price of shelter. They never attacked for long, never followed him to add to their words. Once they saw his eyes or his dog tags they would invariably hiss or spit and turn away as if he had some sort of disease.
'Murdering son of a ...'
'Should never have come back ... stayed with them murdering rag heads!'
'Good for nothing killer!'
'Get the hell off my property!'
Betraying clinks of metal swung free of vest and shirt. There was no glint off the dulled metal, no soft rasp of rubber and chain. It was the only proof that he had of a past life and it hung like a condemnation for a present future. Taking them off was never considered, it would be like cutting off a couple of fingers, the small metal tags were part of him ... always would be. One slice of metal bore more than etches of information. A ragged bullet hole drilled through the words, making them void. Irrelevant. The single complete tag was all that remained of an even more distant life, one buried in the sand and blood, forgotten by all who mattered.
Alone on that dirt road, the stranger trudged forward - to somewhere. It didn't matter where, just somewhere else.
Still unconsciously hearing the curses, remembering the fists and kicks directed at him, the unexpected sound of an audible curse brought up his wary head.
A flash of gold caught his eye in the sombre grey landscape. A few feet ahead, a man was struggling with a fence post. A small tree had fallen on the fence and while its weight was insufficient to break the sturdy post, the pressure had warped one fence rail. The farmer was trying to lift the tree using a long pole as lever but a stray branch was caught under the warped rail. And try as the man might, he couldn't seem to reach far enough under the tree to free the branch, nor lift it off the rail.
Another frustrated curse cut through the late morning air. "Damnit!'
As the stranger drew near, he again caught a flash of gold, the farmer's blond hair glinting in the weak sunlight. The unexpected colour chased the words away, and the traveller approached the struggling man cautiously. The farmer was so caught up in his task, he didn't notice the stranger's arrival. The drifter was about to ask if the farmer needed a hand, when an ominous crack split the air.
"Shit!" The pole wedged under the tree broke and the farmer, who was laying under the massive trunk trying to free the branch, cursed as he saw the tree slowly give in to gravity and fall on top of him. Brittle, dead branches raced towards the farmer's exposed upper torso. He flung up his arms to protect his face and chest, expecting to feel the tree plough into him any second now. Moments before the tree branches could even touch his face another thin pole was thrust under the tree, and stopped the fall.
Blinking his eyes, it took a moment for the fair-haired rancher to realise that he had been saved. Looking up at his rescuer, he even more shocked to see a tattered drifter keeping the tree up.
"Ya mind moving - cain't hold this tree up fer ever."
The farmer scurried out from under the tree and the drifter let the tree fall back on the railing. Dusting himself off, scattering leaves and grass from off his clothes, he turned to thank the drifter. Instead of finding an expectant saviour, he was surprised to see his rescuer walking away down the road. Raising a hesitant hand, he called, "Thanks, Mister!"
A dirty hand was raised in response, but the stranger didn't turn around. For three precious heartbeats, the rancher watched the strange man walk away. A sudden cold chill raced across his chest and impulsively the rancher shouted, "Hey! Wait a minute."
The drifter stopped, an immediate tension tightening across his shoulders. Automatically he steeled himself to hear yet another insult, some comment or other. Impatiently he waited for the returning barb, believing in its inevitability so strongly that he barely recognised the words shouted at him.
"I could use a hand here. You want a day's work?"
The young stranger was so shocked he stood stock still, unable to form a reply. Slowly, the incredulous drifter turned and stared at the rancher, whose gold hair seemed even brighter in the growing light of the morning.
The drifter's silence was a bit unnerving, but the rancher persisted, reluctant to let the stranger walk away without trying to offer something more than words. "There's a meal and a bed for you if you want."
The distance between him and the rancher seemed cavernous. It felt like it would take a titanic effort to cross the line that separated him from the world the rancher lived and breathed. Already steeling himself for the hurt and pain, the drifter was half-tempted to hurl the offer back, refuse any charity but his determined feet suddenly moved him forward instead of back. An involuntary step towards an offered hope. His decision made, an instinct taking over prudence, the drifter shrugged and said, "Sure. I'm up fer it."
The quiet words echoed loudly in the silent air, the dead, gray world completely surprised that its apparent thrall was over. Above the stranger, the spectre of death halted its flight of triumph and hovered over the pair - uncertain.
The combined efforts of the two men lifted the small tree and using the poles the two men tipped the tree to roll on to the ground. Landing with a muffled thump, the tree sank into the wet grass.
Panting from the exertion, the rancher wiped away a sheen of sweat and sneaked a quick glance at his companion. Once the drifter had shed his threadbare leather coat and scarf, the well-worn shirt underneath bore testament to the hard winter. But the man worked willingly and tirelessly. Despite his scrawny stature and apparent poor condition, he was still strong and capable of hard work.
As the hours passed swiftly, the pair worked side by side fixing the fence. They removed the warped railing and replaced it, only to find another damaged one further along the fence. They fixed a few fallen posts and as the drifter held the last railing in place while the rancher hammered in the last nail, a beautiful sunset lit the winter sky.
Fiery reds raced across the cloudy heavens, painting the gloomy clouds a blushing pink. Oranges and yellows huddled in clusters behind black clouds, shining luminous halos around the winter clouds. The depressing gray of the day vanished into an awe-inspiring tableau of colours.
Both men watched the sun set, marvelling in the beauty, each for different reasons. As the clouds began to reclaim their sombre winter hue, the rancher tossed a hammer in one hand and briefly touched his companion. "Time to head in. Mariah will be waiting for us."
Strangely reluctant to leave the wondrous view, the stranger felt a panic rise in his stomach. For a while he had deluded himself that perhaps this farmer lived alone, had no one else. But the prospect of meeting a wife and possibly a family, terrified him.
The blond rancher walked towards the softly light ranch house and eventually noticed that his temporary hand was still standing in the fading sunlight. "Come on Tanner. Mariah won't want us to be late."
Biting back the panic, the stranger turned and quietly said, "Coming Mr Larabee." He reached the rancher and flinched as the farmer touched him again. "I told you, call me Chris. The only Mr Larabee I know is my father."
Two lean figures strode towards the darkening night and the ranch house before them. The old fear was left behind, glaring at the receding figures from the dirt road. The drifter was facing a different fear tonight, one that Death held no part in.
The interior of the house was blessedly warm after the cold evening air. Larabee dropped his gloves and coat on the hooks available and strode into the kitchen beyond. Tanner hesitated to place his own worn coat bedside Larabee's. He would prefer to keep it on him, it made it easier to leave quickly. Hefting his battered satchel, Tanner put his sole possession near the kitchen door and then paused before entering.
The kitchen was even warmer than the previous room, a fire burning in an old fashioned hearth. A tall black-haired woman was greeting Larabee with a kiss while a young girl also with dark hair sat at the table chopping beans. Her tiny, sure hands stopped their chopping motions as she noticed Tanner standing in the doorway. Her blue eyes widened and her little pink mouth formed a perfect 'O'. The child's stillness was enough to drag her mother from the embrace of her husband to also stare at Tanner.
Before Vin could feel even a moment of nervousness, Mariah Larabee thumped her husband on the chest with an oven glove. "Warn me before bringing guests, Chris! You know I don't like surprises."
"Liar, you love 'em."
"Who? Guests or surprises?"
Brushing past her chuckling husband, Mariah swept Tanner into the kitchen and seated him across from the now smiling little girl. "Sarah, those beans are not chopping themselves." Still grinning and studying their guest, Sarah Larabee started chopping again.
Before Tanner knew it, a cup of coffee was thrust into his numb hands and a steaming roll placed in front of him. "Hey, where's mine? Don't I get a pre-dinner roll?"
Slapping away her husband's hand from stealing a roll of his own, Mariah placed a hot cup of coffee in his hands instead. "You aren't as skinny as our guest. So just sit down and introduce us."
Quickly placing the hot cup down, Chris grinned and sat in a chair near the fire. "Mariah, this is Vin Tanner. Vin, this is my wife Mariah and that little imp over there is Sarah. Vin helped me fix the fence today."
"And probably saved your fool neck as well, I bet! Trying to move that tree without some help," she tsked, "I told you I'd lend a hand tomorrow."
Stealing a bean from his daughter, Chris smiled and winked at her, "Well, Tanner arrived to help and it's all done."
"All of it?" Mariah asked as she stirred a pot on the stove.
"Good. Now drink up and then head upstairs and wash up for dinner."
Gulping down the last of his coffee, Chris nodded and was about to ask Tanner to follow him when he noticed that Tanner was still holding the full cup of coffee, his roll uneaten. Grabbing the roll, Larabee pulled Tanner to his feet and escorted the numb man from the room, a parting gasp from Sarah alerting Mariah to the thievery.
"Christopher Larabee! That means one less roll for you, bucko!"
Larabee took Tanner through some twisting passages until the pair reached a guest room. The décor was homey and warm, thick drapes hiding a wide window. Another fire burned in the hearth and Larabee showed his guest where the bathroom was situated.
"Wash up and be back in the kitchen in five minutes. Mariah will have dinner waiting. There are some clothes in the drawers if you want to put on a clean shirt. See ya in a few."
Bemused, Vin Tanner sat down on the soft bed and tried to sort through the myriad thoughts dancing through his head. Snorting at himself, he locked up the sensations and emotions and shucked off his old shirt and washed up, revelling in the feel of clean, hot water. Ignoring the scars, bruises and ribs clearly showing in the bright bathroom light, Tanner pulled on a clean shirt.
Studying his hair and face, he pulled a comb through his tangled hair, grimacing at the pull of knots. Tying his hair back, Tanner used the razor to shave, reckoning that Mariah would prefer a completely clean guest, even if he was a bit late.
The shirt was a little big, and the shave only seemed to make his face look more gaunt. Refusing to look at his reflection for long, Tanner switched the light off and made his way down the passage. His good sense of direction lead him back to the kitchen, despite the warren of rooms and passages.
As it turned out, Vin wasn't late at all, as he nearly ran into three blond clones. A pair of twin boys, lanky in their pre-adolescence, were chatting animatedly with their father who was freshly washed and dressed. The blond trio arrived through a different door, leading from upstairs and Tanner found himself introduced to two identical faces, Gabriel and Michael. He was then ushered into the kitchen and seated next to a tiny boy with the biggest eyes Vin had ever seen.
Young Jack Daniel was all eyes. He had big brown eyes that not even a mop of black hair could hide. The little boy was four years old, he solemnly told Mr Tanner and Vin was stunned into immobility as a warm body climbed onto his lap and proceeded to tell him all about the time Mike and Gabe tried to ride Thunder.
A plethora of familiness surrounded the young drifter as Michael and Gabriel set the table, while Sarah and her mother placed bowls of food onto the big square table. Chris helped his wife lay the last dishes on the table and after the flurry of activity, the rest of the Larabee family sat down.
"Jack Daniel, get off Mr Tanner and take your seat please."
"Yes, Ma." The warm body climbed down and sat in the nearby chair. A cushion helped the small boy see over the table edge and soon silence fell over the room.
Chris cleared his throat and shot a quick look at Michael who was trying to steal a carrot. With everyone in line, Chris said, "We're glad to have Vin Tanner with us tonight. Means that we might have a quiet meal for once."
Chuckles from the children and Mariah brought a grin to Chris' face. "Now I think it's JD's turn to say grace."
A chorus of groans from the twins and Sarah barely caused their father a moments pause, "If JD remembers to keep it short and sweet. You can save blessing the farm animals for bed time prayers."
Jack Daniel, or rather JD, nodded seriously and closed his eyes. Tanner hesitantly closed his own but soon the prayer was over and Mariah began dishing up. The feast before the hungry young man was amazing. Bowls of steamed vegetables sat next to a mountain of mashed potatoes. Butter and rolls sat side-by-side, their tantalising aromas wafted through the kitchen. A large roasted chicken, browned to a crisp gold was being carved by Mariah, the flesh falling from the knife. Rich, savoury gravy coated the vegetables and potatoes, everything mingling into a mouth-watering tapestry of aromas. Some sort of cordial was poured into glasses and the meal progressed in a noisy symphony.
The twins vied for their father's attention, regaling him with an account of the day's events. Sarah chatted with her mother, her fork whisking through the air in excitement. Young Jack Daniel bent Vin Tanner's ear with serious conversation regarding the dangers of climbing apple trees.
"And then I nearly fell and broke my fool neck, or so Ma said and the twins got shouted at, and I got hugged and Daddy was shouted at for leaving the ladder out and Ma was shouting till I quit crying, I was only crying a little tho' cos' I am a big boy and ..."
"Jack Daniel, you eat those peas now."
JD turned to continue his conversation with Mr Tanner, his mouth full of peas only to find that the twins had stolen his captive audience. As Vin slowly ate the sumptuous meal, he listened to the boys tell him about their horses and school. Sarah occasionally added a few shy comments and even blushed when Vin winked at her.
Chris and Mariah, despite being at opposite ends of the table, talked away, discussing household affairs and errands to be run. So completely surrounded by warmth and companionship was the young stranger that his old, hole-ridden shoes were not given a single shameful thought. Nor the old pants, well-mended and patched. In fact, Tanner was so enthralled by the family scene that he found himself relaxing despite long learned habits.
Jack Daniel finally finished his meal and the dinner was declared over. A rapid exchange of plates, bowls and cutlery occurred as the twins fought Sarah for the task of loading the dishwasher. Chris leaned over to Vin and said, "They always argue over who loads it, because then they don't have to unload it tomorrow. I don't understand it myself, but it seems important to them."
Once the argument was solved and Sarah sat down sullenly, Mariah brought out the rare treat of desert. Freshly baked apple pie, with rich whipped cream was handed out, Tanner receiving a generous portion. Careful to eat slowly in case his lean stomach rebelled against the abundance of food after so many months of eating too little, Tanner ate half of his piece. Although he could have easily wolfed the entire portion, prudence and experience stopped him. The rest of the Larabee's ate slowly as well, enjoying the treat.
The entire room and the feelings within his own heart, were so different from his previous night or rather a multitude of previous nights, brought on a feeling of surrealness, of dreaming. He hadn't been this warm or this full for a very long time - long before winter had started. Friendly chatter he did not participate in swirled around him. Smiles and laughter instead of shouts and fists where directed at him. Feeling cut off from the situation, a rising panic began anew. Survival instincts reacted to the growing uncertainty, the feeling of safety. Never one to relax, to let his guard down, Tanner felt his neck prickle in fear as the room seemed to shrink into a rising mass of heat and noise. Too much, too soon threatened to explode. Fighting a clamping chest, Tanner gripped his fork tightly, his knuckles white against the metal.
"Are you going to finish that, Mr Tanner?"
The soft voice shattered the mounting emotion and brought the startled young man back to the warm kitchen and friendly faces. One face in particular. A serious face, green faces watching him intently, concern evident. Locked into that gaze, Tanner unaccountably felt his anger grow until an insistent hand tugged his sleeve.
"Are you going to finish your pie, Mister?"
This time turning to the equally serious face of JD Larabee, Vin shook his head and felt the small warm body climb up onto his lap again and begin to eat the rest of his pie. "Thanks, Mister!" A crumb covered face smiled happily as JD packed away the desert.
The first words uttered by the shell shocked man were swept up into noisy atmosphere apparently unnoticed except that a pair of concerned green eyes relaxed and went back to eating his own pie before one of the twins decided he too was finished and needed some help.
Even as the desert bowls were stacked, the comfortably full child on Tanner's lap placed a sticky hand on the drifter's thin face. Big brown eyes bored into icy blue ones and fearlessly the boy asked, "Would you tell me a story, Mister Tanner?"
Those trusting brown orbs, swimming with happiness from apple pie and the excitement of a guest melted the ice a little and those blue eyes crinkled as Vin smiled and huskily asked, "What kinda story Mr Larabee?"
Chortling at the title, JD patted the chest in front of him affectionately and squeaked, "A animal story!"
"An animal story? You who lives on a farm, want an animal story?"
The tussled black head nodded vigorously and a chorus of 'Yes' from the young boy's siblings added to the affirmation. Tanner was about to ask why they didn't just watch television or something, until Mariah's soft voice interrupted. "The tv is broken. Seems it doesn't take too kindly to baseball bats."
Two abashed faces hunkered into their pullovers as the twins blushed. Shrugging at having to sing for his supper, Tanner settled into his chair and stared at the expectant face before him. "An animal story, huh?"
Raising one hand to scratch at his chin thoughtfully, Tanner mused, "Y'all know the one about the three little pigs?"
"Yes!" shouted four voices.
"Ahhhh... the three bears?"
"Uhhhhm .... about Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby?"
Silence greeted the suggestion and JD said solemnly, "Nope Mister, don't think we have." Chris and Mariah smiled at the expectant faces and also settled themselves to hear the story.
"Well, this is a story my Ma told me when I was a little fella. Now Brer Rabbit was a tricky critter. Critter means creature - just that in the old days people called 'em critters," Vin explained, pre-empting the question from JD. Satisfied JD leaned back to listen to Tanner's soft drawl weave a tale of mischief and trickery.
"So Brer Rabbit punched that Tar Baby in the nose, shouting 'You best answer me Mister, else I'm gonna sock ya agin.' Brer Rabbit's sure was shocked when his paw stuck to the Tar Baby's nose. Shouting, he tried to pull himself free, but that tar sure is sticky stuff ..."
"Even worse. He was so mad he tried to punch the Tar Baby in the side of the head, but that paw got stuck too."
JD finally settled for leaning against the drifter's chest and listening the story that way, the words flowing down like his favourite molasses to his sleepy ears. The warm kitchen wrapped the family closely, keeping the rising cold outside. Vin's soft drawl was the only sound audible, only the fire adding the occasional 'pop' and 'snap' to the story.
"Brer Rabbit shouted at Brer Fox, 'Oh please don't throw me in the briar patch Brer Fox, please don't! You can boil me if you want, but please don't throw me in the briar patch.' "
The unexpected turn of events had JD and his siblings wide awake with concern for Brer Rabbit. "Is the briar patch 'real' bad, Mr Tanner?"
"JD, hush dear and just listen to the story."
Sighing in acceptance JD waited for the end. "Brer Fox pondered something fierce and thought, 'Maybe I'll toss Brer Rabbit down the well.' So he said to Brer Rabbit in his nastiest voice, 'I'm gonna toss ya down the well Brer Rabbit!' Brer Rabbit wailed even louder, 'Oh Brer Fox please toss me in the well. Just don't toss me into the briar patch!' Brer Fox began to get a sneaky idea."
"Is he gonna throw Brer Rabbit into the briar patch?"
"JD! Don't ruin the ending," Gabriel whined, his green eyes pleading.
Jack Daniel got to his knees as the climax approached, his eyes wide and enthralled. An irritated Michael raised his head to see over JD, eager to hear the end.
"So Brer Fox picked Brer Rabbit up by his ears and tossed him into the briar patch. And he waited. And he waited ... waited t'hear the yells and screams from Brer Rabbit. But there was nothing. Only silence. Brer Fox scratched his head in amazement - what had happened? Suddenly a terrific shout ripped through the air and Brer Rabbit's head popped up through the patch. 'Oh please don't throw me into the briar patch Brer Fox, please!' Brer Fox stared at Brer Rabbit who was eating a thistle as cool as you please. Finally it dawned on that stupid fox that Brer Rabbit was not in any pain at all. 'You tricked me Brer Rabbit! You tricked me.' Brer Rabbit just grinned and watched as Brer Fox yelped in pain as he tried to reach Brer Rabbit. But the sharp thorns kept him from reaching the slippery rabbit. Laughing at the shouting fox, Brer Rabbit disappeared back into the briar, looking for another thistle, for every clever creature knows that rabbits live in the briar patch."
Laughing and clapping his chubby hands JD shouted, "So he was fooling Brer Fox! He wanted to go in there all along."
Mariah stood and smiled a quick thank you at Vin. She began to shoo her children from the kitchen. "Go on now. Time for homework and bed. Upstairs." The three older children reluctantly left the kitchen, saying thank you to Vin as well. Sarah impulsively patted Vin on the shoulder as she passed, her smile bright. JD clambered off Vin and also departed with a pat, a little more sticky than Sarah's.
"Night Mr Tanner."
Chris stretched out his long frame, black jeans disappearing under the table. Crossing his arms over his chest, Larabee leaned back and yawned. Tanner turned from watching the children leave the room and was immediately caught by Larabee's gaze.
Two sets of guarded eyes met, icy blue against stone green, neither giving nor pressing forward. Silence hung in the air for a few moments, both men strangely at ease despite the questioning looks. Finally Chris said, "There's a ball game on tonight, you are welcome to listen in with me."
His friendly manner was so convincing that Vin had a hard time deciding which was the real Chris. The man who offered a hand of friendship, or the briefly glimpsed soul that understood more than Vin was willing to admit. Hardness and warning flashed from those green eyes, even as the calloused hand reached to help Vin.
Nodding silently in acknowledgment to the warning, Vin answered verbally, "No thanks Chris. Reckon I'll hit the sack."
"Okay. Mariah had Michael put your bag in your room. Help yourself to any clothes that are in the drawers," Chris stood and Vin followed suit, Mariah entering the kitchen with an armload of dirty clothes.
"Thank you ma'am for the wonderful dinner. I really appreciate it."
"You're welcome Mr Tanner. It's always a pleasure to feed an extra mouth, especially someone as skinny as you."
A small smile broke the gaunt face and Vin nodded quietly and left the kitchen. Behind him, he heard Chris thanking Mariah for the meal as well, her startled giggle making his smile break out into a full grin. Shaking his head, Vin entered the room he had been given for the night.
Closing the door behind him, Tanner spied his battered bag at the foot of the bed. Gathering it up, he entered the small en suite bathroom and proceeded to strip. He carefully placed his worn clothing on the toilet seat, and his boots beneath the basin. Snatching up a mini-shampoo, the kind one found in hotels, Vin stepped into the shower and turned the water on.
He didn't react to the initial cold water and began to lather up with soap as the water warmed. Soon steam filled the little bathroom, as the young drifter enjoyed his first shower in months. Dirt and grim fell away in torrents as near scalding hot water beat down on the lean body. Long tangled hair was forced into a mass of cleanliness and slowly detangled. Muscles tensed from months of depravation and stress eased at the water's touch.
His ablutions complete, Vin simply stood under the hot torrent, exulting in the incredible feel of warm water cascading down his body. If he could, Tanner would have stayed in that shower for hours, but fully aware that with an entire family to bathe and clean, hot water was a luxury to be shared.
Switching off the water, Tanner grabbed a clean towel and played the soft material through his hands. Sweet smelling, the towel was thick and fluffy, and Vin quickly wrapped it around himself. Finding his comb, Vin continued the detangling-process, firmly pulling the comb's teeth through his hair. Tanner took his time get dried and dressed, drawing out this rare chance at modern conviences.
Half an hour later, Tanner was stretched across the bed on his back. Warm and full, the young man was ready to sleep for a week. Yet sleep was the furthest thing from his mind. He was listening to the Larabee family get ready for bed, the tiny pitter patter of feet running upstairs echoing down to his room. Vaguely Vin heard the game playing on the radio in the den. Mariah's soft voice sent the feet moving again and soon creaks and groans from the bedroom floorboards above could be heard.
The evening was still young, but as life often is on a farm, the family were early to bed and sure to rise early. Pulling himself from the comfort of the bed, shrugging off its call of softness, Vin rolled out his bare blanket near the hearth. Gathering a spare blanket from a cupboard, Vin pulled a pillow to the floor as well, and settled down on the firm floor. The fire's warmth wafted over him but Vin lay on his back, wide awake.
The sounds of home and hearth drowned out the wintry weather blowing outside. For a moment Vin allowed himself to forget - to forget his life and journey. The hardships and trials were securely locked away as always, and tonight the distant burning sands could not claim the restless sleeper. The moment of peace took advantage of the weary body. Tonight an ex-soldier, haunted by the past and present, slipped unaware into a dreamless sleep, lulled by the promise of security contained within the Larabee home.
The sun had yet to tip the eastern horizon when Vin awoke. Shocked at his lapse, Vin stood and immediately got dressed. Pulling on the worn boots, Vin picked up his bag that had been packed the night before. He quickly folded the borrowed blanket, and replaced the pillow and left the room as he had found it. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the room did not even look used. The bed was still made, the borrowed clothing in the hamper and the bathroom spotless.
The household slumbered on as Vin made his way through to the kitchen. A banked fire glowed in the fireplace and the morning looked to be as grey as the previous one. Low, ominous clouds, promising snow hung over the farm and countryside. A biting breeze blew through the cracks on the porch as Vin stepped into the cold.
Wrapping his scarf around his neck, Vin stepped off the porch and strode towards the road, without a backwards glance. Behind him, the Larabee ranch pulsed a warm comfort, a comfort Vin denied himself. He couldn't afford to give in to the firmly squashed urge to stay. He couldn't afford to get used to comfort and security, even for one night, because its inevitable departure always cut to the quick, no matter how hard one tried to be hardened to it.
Clean and warm, Vin trudged into the grey morning and briefly acknowledged the flickering spectre waiting by the road. In the distance, the road disappeared into a tiny speck, endless and unforgiving. There was no light at the end of that tunnel, only darkness and an even blacker companion with which to walk the journey. His mind shut to the call of secret yearnings, Tanner resolutely marched on, the walk to the road taking longer than expected.
No light, no hope. Unbidden the words whispered inside his head and he slowed to a stop. Standing halfway between worlds, the ranch behind and the road ahead, Vin paused to think. He had abandoned the road for a golden flash, left his journey for the glimpse of 'real' life. But his reality beckoned again, the lessons of too many years pulling at his feet. The road was endless and even as one road turned, another began - there was always somewhere to go. No reason to stay.
Then why did he wait and pause in the journey he knew he must continue? The spectre rose impatiently, urging him to move, and follow his chosen road. 'Never look back.' It was a phrase Tanner felt was written on his heart. 'Never look back.' He resisted the temptation to do just that, to look back at the ranch and all its potential.
A tiny dead leaf blew past his feet, its hard dead body rattling on the ground. Tanner watched its course involuntarily and the leaf was blown toward the barn. Blue eyes slitted against the wind studied the structure. The leaf was gone, as if it had never existed, lost to sight. The moment of reflection was drawn out, Vin standing stock still in the driveway. A self-mocking smile finally bent his stiff lips and the young drifter walked towards the barn.
Stepping into its relative warmth, Vin shrugged off his satchel and noted the pairs of brown eyes staring at him. Three milk cows lowed gently, patiently waiting their turn to be milked. Tanner had always found it easier to act on instinct than to endlessly deliberate the twists and turns of fate. Instinct had saved his butt more times than he cared to recall and in the face of an unexpected dilemma, Vin found himself relying once again on instinct. And right now, it felt right to be working to repay the Larabees' for their kindness.
A pleasant hour was spent while Vin milked the cows and cleaned out the barn. He was halfway through mucking out one of the stalls when he heard the soft approach of a pair of boots. Without turning around, Vin drawled, "Mornin'."
"Morning," Chris replied, leaning against the wooden doorway into the stall. "Didn't have to do this ya know. The work yesterday more than covered your meal and room."
Vin just shrugged and continued working. Silence hung between the pair once again as Chris watched Vin muck out the stall. "You're no stranger to farm work." The statement was unexpected since Tanner had seen Chris study his packed satchel near the barn doors and had been certain that Larabee would ask when he was planning to leave.
"Reckon so," Vin replied even though Chris hadn't been questioning his experience. Once Tanner was finished with the stall, he straightened up and noted Larabee's expectant stance. Propping the pitchfork against the stall wall, Vin faced Chris, his arms akimbo, waiting for the rancher to broach whatever it was he wanted to talk about.
Taking a step forward, Chris reached up and ran his fingers through his hair before looking up at Vin. The barn was silent as the two men stood facing each other, both wondering at the nervousness they felt. Finally Chris spoke, "Ain't too sure how to say this but,"
As those words reached Vin, his heart sank and he could feel the walls slamming down as he prepared himself to hear the inevitable story. 'Time for you to go.' 'Don't need a hand'. 'Got no use for a piece of fli...'
"...but I usually go with my instincts and they've been screaming at me since yesterday afternoon."
Vin waited, waited to hear the 'respectable' man confirm the unchanged course of events. Waited to hear yet again how unwelcome his 'kind' were. Waited with bated breath, his hope firmly squashed beneath experience, waited to hear those words, surprisingly desperate not to hear it from this man - this golden hope.
Chris scuffed his worn boots against the barn floor and missed the tightening expression on Vin's face as he tried to find the words he wanted to say. "Well, what I'm trying to say is this."
Vin braced himself.
Chris took in a deep breath and told himself to stop pussyfooting around and thus went in full steam, completely direct as was his usual manner. "I need a hand around here and could really use your help. You know your way around a ranch and I'm sure you could use a job. It'll pay well and includes a room and three meals a day - for as long as it works out between us. The job's yours, if you want it."
Vin's mind was blank, all his immediate responses stunned by the unexpected words. Hope flared brightly in his heart and Vin turned Chris' words over and over in his mind, running them over, making sure that he had heard right.
"A job?" Vin barely recognised his own voice, half unaware that he had spoken.
"Yeah," Chris said, watching the young man before him. Vin was as still as a statue, his entire body frozen, giving nothing away. He had yet to meet Chris' gaze, or even show any emotion at the offer. No excitement, relief or even scorn. In fact, if nothing else Vin reminded Chris of a wild creature paused in flight, considering the forked road before it. Not wishing to force the issue, Chris said, "I always follow my instincts and right now they're telling me to keep ya around."
Slowly Vin raised his head and stared at Chris. The rancher was an arms length away and waiting in the space between them, was Chris' outstretched hand, offering more than Vin could fully comprehend. But it was Chris' steadfast gaze that caught Vin's attention. Tanner saw only a sincere and honest desire for him to accept, a genuine need. Again he looked at Larabee's proffered hand and as it swam into focus Vin felt something stir at his side.
The quiet urges that had guided him through so many years of trouble were whispering urgently for him to accept. Meeting Chris' gaze full on, he grasped Larabee's hand and said, "You got yourself a new hand, Mister."
Chris smiled with true pleasure and shook Vin's hand sealing the offer. Without needing to look, Tanner knew that the spectre was hovering behind him and strangely no anger was emanating from it. In fact its attention seemed to be focused on Chris and Vin shot a quick warning to his shadow, Don't even think about it.
The shade withdrew but Vin could still feel it's cool presence lingering nearby. Chris placed his hand on Vin's shoulder and guided his new employee towards the door. "Good to have you on board Tanner."
Vin turned his attention back to Larabee and together they left the barn, leaving a black shadow to swell into a vague man shape, it's darkness chilling the small barn.
The bright spring sunshine was pleasantly warm. A cool breeze kept the temperature from reaching uncomfortable levels, and the rolling hills of the Larabee ranch seemed to drink in the sunshine, lush green grass weaving in the breeze. Azure blue sky arced over the land, wispy cloud streams interlacing across the heavens. A perfect spring day.
Beneath the temperate sky Tanner made his way back to the ranch house. Three months had passed in the blink of an eye and Vin found himself fitting into life at the Larabee ranch as if there has always been a place for him and that they had just been waiting for him to arrive. His already tanned skin had deepened into a healthy pallor, the ravages of winter long vanished. Mariah had made sure that his lean frame had filled out a little, chasing the half-starved look away with mountains of wholesome food.
Beneath him, walked his new horse, a black gelding full of energy and go. It had so much energy that it delighted in giving Vin even more exercise than he would have liked. Vin crested the rise of the hill before him and below him lay the ranch house bustling with activity. Vin couldn't stop the smile from creasing his lips as he watched young JD chase a squawking chicken round the yard, calling to it in his high pitched voice. "Here chickey, chickey."
Michael and Gabriel were helping their father feed the horses, their voices rising above JD's as they argued over who was going to feed Thunder, Chris' prize stallion. Vin could see Sarah and Mariah through the kitchen window, watching their men work, laughing at JD's antics as he managed to corner his elusive chicken.
Unseen by the family below, Vin guided his horse down the steep hill, using only his legs to direct his sure-footed steed. Unusually for a noon time the ranch was very busy, as usually by now Chris would been out on the ranch watching over the herds of horses grazing there. The Larabee children would have scattered around to neighbours or to friends or else have been sent on errands by their mother. But the Larabee family had shown Vin time and again that they very rarely kept to any routine or set pattern of activities. Regular spur-of-the-moment decisions had Chris spending time with his children, leaving the ranch to Vin's capable hands. Despite the short time period that Vin had worked at the ranch, Chris entrusted him with the responsibilities that many year-long employees would not have enjoyed. In fact it felt like Vin had been here for years and not the scant couple of months.
The Larabee ranch was a booming business. Chris rented out his land and services to neighbouring and distant ranches. Chris had a selection of exceptional stud mares and stallions, whose services he sold, as well as tracks of wonderful grazing pasture that smaller ranches could rent for their 'overflow' of cattle. It meant a lot of paperwork and responsibility, but with Vin's help, Chris was turning his business into a raging success this season. The ranch was full of young colts and fillies, grazing on the nourishing grass, brood mares waiting to be covered by Chris' stallions and all his breeding mares were either with foal or nursing foals to be given to their owners once weaned.
The stable was warm and pungent with horsey aromas wafting through the air. Vin stabled his black gelding, affectionately dubbed Peso because like a bad penny he kept turning up when least expected, especially during meal times, sticking his head through an open kitchen window and looking for apples.
Vin left the stable, hat in hand, his stomach rumbling at the prospect of a well-deserved lunch. A tiny brown furbull nearly tripped him over as the newest addition to the Larabee family, Buck, a small Labrador puppy ran through Vin's legs. The excitement that had drawn the puppy soon became evident as Vin heard the sound of joyful laughter as Chris swung the twins in his arms, their blond hair mirroring their father's in the sun. Sarah had joined the small group in the yard, and she was busy jumping up and down eager to have her own turn.
JD dashed past, hot on little Buck's heels and tackled his father's legs. Together the four Larabee children piled on their father, wrestling him to the ground and trying to tickle him. Chris roared with laughter as the children succeeded in breaching his defences and tickling him mercilessly. "Help!"
"Yes Unca Vin, come help!" JD shouted from his perch on Chris' chest where his sturdy weight was adding to the melee, "Come help us tickle Pa!"
Grinning widely Vin rescued Chris from a face-cleaning by picking up the little puppy who happily obliged Vin by licking his own face. "Reckon I'll just let you lot handle your Pa. Seems well in hand." JD's grin matched Vin's for size and the little tyke gleefully joined his siblings in torturing their father.
Chris retaliated by lurching to his feet with difficulty and grabbing JD by his suspenders as the child made to get away. "Oh no kiddo, it's your turn now."
Shrieking in mock-terror JD tried to get out of his suspenders but Sarah and the twins rescued him by tackling Chris again. The renewed pile of squirming children and a beset father landed with a dull thump on the grass, little Buck's shrill yapping piercing the afternoon air. Holding the eager puppy who was desperate to join in the fun, Vin climbed the kitchen stairs and tipped his hat to Mariah who was watching her brood with a smile.
"Ma'am." Vin carefully handed Buck to Mariah who chuckled as the puppy tried to lick her face.
"Thanks Vin. Just what I wanted. Oy! You lot!," the pile paused in the mock-fighting, "Lunch is on the table."
Like lightning, four hungry children raced past their mother and Vin, leaving a somewhat bedraggled Chris lying on the grass. Larabee gazed at the blue sky above him, watching a bird glide through the air when Vin's out-stretched hand appeared in front of his eyes.
"Fine lot of good you were." Chris could hear Mariah ordering the children to wash up before sitting down and he grasped Vin's hand and pulled himself up.
"Wouldn't think of interfering. They might decide to ambush me next."
Chris humphed in disbelief, "Right. Like anyone can sneak up on you."
"Hate to disappoint 'em."
"We're gonna be disappointed if we let them get to the table before us. Come on, pard."