The weeks had flown by into a full blown summer, the sun and rain competing for the amount of time they shared in the heavens. Miles upon miles of green pasture lay under the watchful eye of Tanner and Larabee. A bumper season had resulted in not only more work than two men could handle, but also a prospect for Larabee to expand his business. A neighbour had offered to sell Larabee an adjoining pasture. Bob Jones was experiencing a small cash flow problem and as he had more land than he needed, selling the field to Chris was a perfect solution. In response to this offer and the mounting workload, Chris had called in a few friends to help out.
Josiah Sanchez arrived first, his large muscular frame dwarfing the tiny pick-up truck he drove. Seeing the tall man emerge from the dented truck was like watching a giant squirm out of a Mini Cooper, a sight little JD had found hilarious. Sanchez was the full-time reverend in town but had two young assistants to cover his duties and the big man often took off his collar in order to lend a hand in the neighbourhood. Chris was an old friend and Josiah loved to partake in an annual 'vacation' - working the Larabee Ranch.
Ezra Standish was a surprise. The local hotel owner, Standish did not appear to be the type who engaged in manual labour. His black bmw looked distinctly out of place on the dusty ranch drive-way and Vin couldn't help but smile to see the fancy-dressed man climb out of the car. And Tanner's initial impression proved to be right as well. Ezra was not here as a labourer but rather had come to help Chris with his account books and the excess of paperwork coming in from prospective clients.
Nathan Jackson was the town doctor and had left his clinic to a couple of experienced interns and his capable wife. Pager in hand, Jackson had arrived geared out to help his old friend. The black doctor was an avid believer in fresh air and hard work and took his own advice to get out of the office more and exercise.
And last but certainly not least, Buck Wilmington had arrived two days after everyone else. His bright red truck had trundled into the Larabee ranch on its last legs and then proceeded to die. A huge cloud of noxious smoke erupted from the engine but unconcerned, Buck leapt from the truck to swing Mariah into a hug and to slap his best friend on the back all the while talking a mile a minute. His guffaw of laughter had startled the horses in a nearby pasture when he discovered the name of the newest Larabee family pet.
The newcomers had all reacted differently to the news that Chris had a new hand. Nathan had already met Vin, when Tanner had gone into town and had bumped into the doctor. Jackson had greeted Vin with a friendly smile and handshake, commenting on how much healthier he looked. Josiah had given Vin a searching look and then shook his hand in a crushing grip. Opinion reserved.
Ezra barely greeted Tanner, focusing his attention on Chris and Nathan, soon following Larabee inside to the office, his southern drawl a sharp contrast to Chris' mid-west accent.
Buck however, has intensely interested in Tanner. After a large dinner with everyone welcoming Buck to the summer activities, Wilmington cornered Vin in the den. Tanner had been about to slip out the side door to his room at the back of one of the stable's when Buck caught up with him.
"Hey, Tanner. Hang on a minute."
Vin paused, his hackles prickling a little at Wilmington's tone. He turned around to face Buck and found him standing uncomfortably close. Looming over Vin, Buck studied the shorter man for a moment before saying, "Kinda curious about why Chris hired you. He ain't needed any help but us before."
Immediately sensing a territorial issue, Vin stepped back in order to regain some of his personal space. Squaring his shoulders he shrugged at Buck's statement, refusing to be drawn into defending himself. Wilmington continued, "So where you from?"
"No place in particular."
Not satisfied with a vague answer, Buck pressed for more information, "Ahh, come on kid. Everybody's from somewhere."
A bit disturbed by Vin's closed off manner, Buck changed tact, "Seem to know your way around a ranch. Worked on one before?"
"Where was it?"
Buck gritted his teeth, determined to get some specific information from this guy. After hearing that Chris had hired a new hand, someone who reportedly got on very well with Larabee, Buck had felt a small surge of jealously. Delighted when Chris called him up to come help, Buck had been eager to find out who this new 'friend' was, because that was what everyone was calling him. Not just the new hand or hired help, but Chris' friend. And with people saying stuff like they seemed real close, like they had know each other for years, the town's only bar owner had become very curious.
"What were you doing before this job?"
Vin saw the angry stance to Buck's shoulders and knew that Wilmington considered the Larabee ranch part of his 'territory', a place to protect. And now he needed to gauge if Vin posed any threat to the ranch. And with the same instincts that had kept him out of trouble before, Tanner knew that telling Buck he had been in the army recently would only open doors to troubles he didn't want. Aware that continuing to be vague and non-committal would only infuriate Buck and make him dig for more information, Vin decided to delay the inevitable for a little while longer.
"Not much. Little seasonal-work."
Buck pressed again, "Like what?"
"This and that."
Realising Tanner was not going to be forthcoming, everything about the man was screaming 'closed book', Buck backed down, telling himself it was only for now. "Then I'll see ya tomorrow morning."
Tanner nodded and made his escape, disappearing into the night.
"Lay off it Buck. Tanner's a good man."
"Yeah, well, how well do you know him, huh? For all you know he could be on the run or something!"
Chris shook his head, refusing to give Buck's accusation credibility. "No. I don't think so. He hasn't caused any trouble, he's been a lot of help."
Determined, Buck pushed Chris a little more, "You check him out? Find out if he is who he says he is?"
"I know all I need to know about him already, Buck."
"I'll take that as a no, then. Ya ain't even curious how he came to be wandering around like a drifter?"
Slamming his hand down on the arm of chair in frustration, Buck half-laughed sarcastically, "Damnit Chris, you've had a near-complete stranger living with you since winter and you know diddly squat about him. For all you know you've invited in some weirdo whose gonna disappear with Sarah."
His eyes hard with anger, Chris growled, "Now you're accusing me of being stupid, Buck. I'm not some naïve hick who trusts the first drifter who walks by. I got a feel for Tanner and he hasn't proved me wrong."
"Not yet," Buck muttered, fingering his moustache angrily.
Unwilling to have his judgment questioned any more, Larabee stood up and prepared to leave the room. Turning to his old friend, who was still seated, Chris said, "If you can't abide by my decisions, you can leave. I trust Tanner and he stays."
Buck Wilmington sat for a couple of minutes in the empty room, watching the small fire crackle in the hearth. "Fine start there Bucklin. Fine start."
"Unca Buck, can I come wiv you?"
"Well, little britches, I would love to have you riding with me but," Buck bent down to eyeball JD, his moustache close enough to tickle the little boy's face, "I don't want you showing ole Buck up, being better at riding herd than me an' all."
Giggling, JD ran off to tell his brothers how good Buck thought he was. As the small child ran towards Michael and Gabriel who were talking to Josiah, he ran right into Vin who was returning from his pre-dawn ride to check the outer pastures.
Jumping in the air and quivering with excitement, the youngest Larabee fairly squeaked, "Unca Vin, Buck says I'm a better rider than him!"
Snatching the bundle of energy up, Tanner spoke with his laconic drawl that JD seemed to love so much, "That right huh? Pretty soon you'll be riding with us then." Nodding vigorously JD fingered the small chain Vin wore near his collar. "Unca Vin, you still gonna take me riding wiv you on Thunder?"
"You bet. See ya later, squirt." Putting JD down Tanner noticed Buck frowning at him, having seen his interaction with JD. Ignoring Wilmington, Vin walked over to Chris and said quietly, "It happened again. This time in the north-east field. Followed the tracks back to the same spot."
"Damn. You fix the fence?"
At Vin's nod, Chris turned to address the assembled men. "Guys. Besides what I've already got you doing today, please keep an eye out for any fence breaks. Someone is using the outer pastures .. for something. You see anything, find Vin and let him know. Alright?"
Nathan and Josiah nodded, eager to get out on the range but Buck continued to frown as Chris emphasised Vin's position on the ranch. "See ya either at lunch or dinner."
The first couple of weeks flew by as six pairs of hands made light work of all the chores a large ranch generated. Josiah soon grew to like the quiet Tanner, often working with him in the outer pastures. Ezra surprised everyone by joining in with the manual labour the second day, but proved true to form when he 'supervised' instead of worked. Nathan, although good friends with Standish, refused to have him 'supervising' while the doctor did all the work. The first two times Nathan and Ezra paired off, Standish came back covered in mud and other field debris. Josiah actually got Ezra to work the only time the Southerner accompanied the preacher. Standish returned sweaty and very unhappy from that excursion, vowing to never leave the comfort of his bed again.
Buck and Chris worked well together, but initially Wilmington found himself paired with someone else while Vin and Chris went off. Anytime the three of them did anything together, tension would build until it became almost unbearable. Strangely, in response to the tension, in the last week Vin had sought out Ezra's company and soon the pair of men were working almost constantly together.
It was on one of those occasions, well into the fourth week of the season, that Ezra made a startling discovery. The Southerner had plonked himself under a tree and was watching Vin dig a series of holes for a new fence. Josiah and Nathan were working in the opposite direction, planning on meeting Vin halfway. Ezra liked Tanner, despite his initial abruptness towards him. The young man allowed an individual space to express himself to the full extent without interruption. True, his answers to any questions were either non-existent or short and to the point, but Standish found himself enjoying Vin's company.
Mariah had provided a packed lunch, as they would be working too far away to warrant returning to the ranch for a meal. Ezra had insisted on packing some imported beer and mineral water so Vin had insisted, by pointedly leaving them behind, that Ezra carry them. The grumbling business-man had had to return to the ranch five minutes into their ride after discovering his missing 'necessities'. Sipping his beer, Standish gazed out at the scenery, a herd of horses in a nearby field drawing his attention more often than not.
"I do declare that if those horses partake in any more of this fine grass, we'll have to roll them back to their owners."
Ezra smiled as he took another sip, "Yes. I am quite certain that under my expert guidance, you bastions of animal husbandry can perform the task admirably."
As expected, Tanner's reply was nonverbal and Ezra found himself grinning at the look on Vin's face. "Ah, this is truly the life, Mr Tanner. Warm sunshine, pleasant green fields, a quality beverage in your hand and the prospect of a sumptuous feast waiting at the end of the day. There is nothing quite like a hard day's work to whet a man's appetite."
Again no answer from Tanner, just the continued sound of Vin working methodically. Unperturbed, Standish continued to relish the moment, making an occasional comment as the mood struck.
About an hour later, both men had eaten their lunch and Vin had dozed off under the tree, his cowboy hat covering his face. The lean ranch hand was stretched out on his back, hands behind his head, quietly napping in the hot sunshine. Ezra, busy reading a book he had brought along for just such an opportunity, was happily immersed in a tale of intrigue.
Ezra, finally taking note of the hour, realised that if they were going to finish the fence in time, Vin would have to get started soon. He put his book down and stood up, stretching his arms out wide and yawned sleepily. Stepping towards the slumbering man, Standish contemplated offering to help Tanner with the fence. Noting how deeply Vin was sleeping, Ezra spontaneously decided to have a little fun.
Kneeling down near Vin's face, Ezra leaned over the prone man's head and began to tickle Tanner's exposed face with a piece of grass, all the while singing, "Mister Tannnnnnah?"
Standish had barely made a second pass across Vin's face with the grass, when he was suddenly grabbed by his neck and his entire frame tossed over onto his back. Stunned, Standish found Tanner sitting on his chest, the man's knees digging into his arms painfully. A large knife, Ezra didn't remember Tanner having, was pressed against his cheek and the pale blue eye above his own startled green ones were flat with anger. A few long seconds passed, with both men staring at each other and when Ezra tried to smile and shrug the moment away, Vin's hand around his throat tightened noticeably.
Whatever startled instinct that had produced this reaction had certainly passed and Ezra could see it in Vin's eyes. Tanner knew he was hurting Standish, knew that the instant of surprised reaction had passed, but the drifter was not budging.
A small flutter of fear began to develop in Ezra's stomach, as Vin's icy eyes continued to bore into him. A nervous tension was building and Standish almost began to believe that he had made a serious mistake, when a wide, mischievous smile split Vin's face. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds and with that ear-splitting grin, the tension and fear disappeared as if they had never existed.
"Don't always pay to tease a sleeping bear. Ya mite end up with one less hand than ya started out with."
Tanner stood up and off Ezra in a smooth movement, the knife disappearing into a sheath in his boot and Vin's other hand extended to help Standish up.
"No, indeed not, it would seem," Ezra mumbled as he brushed himself off, still a little shaken by the intense moment. But Vin hadn't stuck around to see Standish's reaction, instead Ezra looked up to see Vin already walking toward the incomplete fence, hammer in hand. Deciding that it might be prudent to join in, just this once, Standish retrieved his own tools and strolled over to where Tanner was working.
Summer was fading and autumn was dawning, the large maple trees planted along the drive turning the scenery into a breath-taking array of colours. Little Buck and JD ran amok through the falling leaves, shrill yaps and squeals rising in the air as they chased each other. Vin, exasperated to a point of desperation, convinced the energetic terrors that running through his neat piles of leaves was not nearly as much fun as stalking Chris. JD bought the attempt to get rid of him, but he soon returned after failing miserably to catch his father unawares. Launching himself instead on Vin, the tiny boy crowed in delight as Tanner gave up on trying to complete his chore of raking up the leaves and joined little Buck in chasing the small boy around the yard.
The business of the ranch was still booming, with orders for next season already flooding in. Ezra was talking about Chris needing a full time bookkeeper while Buck was offering to become a partner in the business. Vin's job these days, when not raking leaves or pursuing mischievous children, was rounding up horses to be returned to their owners. The day time hours were filled with the comings and goings of animals, horse-cars and men. Mariah joined in the round-up, her long black hair streaming behind her as she and Chris raced each other, laughing like teenagers when neither could agree who had won their race.
And in to this scene of family and friends, entered Cletus Fowler. Dressed as smartly as Ezra on his best day, Fowler arrived in a long limousine with two black Mercedes Benz trailing him. Four tough-looking men exited the pair of Mercedes and Fowler strode arrogantly towards the ranch house, flanked by his cronies. Fortunately, all six of the Larabee's friends were present when Fowler arrived. As the unexpected visitor approached the porch steps, Chris walked out the front door. Buck was sitting on the porch with Josiah, enjoying a cold beer after a long day. Ezra followed Chris from the office the two had been working in. Nathan ambled around the porch to flank Fowler. Vin, unnoticed by the strangers, fell in behind the four henchmen.
"Mr Larabee?" Fowler extended his hand to Chris, who shook it briefly while taking his measure of the man before him. "The name's Fowler, Cletus Fowler. Of FC Industries. Perhaps we might have a word inside."
Something about Fowler made Chris very uneasy and he found himself reluctant to let Fowler inside his home. The fact that the man had brought four bodyguards only increased Chris' uneasiness but he still showed Fowler inside. Behind the visitor, Vin stood beneath one of the trees lining the drive-way and every instinct he had was screaming that Fowler was all wrong. The black spectre had materialised the instant Fowler set foot on the Larabee ranch and now it hung over Vin's shoulder, it's attention fixed on the disappearing form of Fowler as he entered the ranch. Chris had let Fowler enter before him, and as he turned to follow his guest, he caught Vin's eye across the yard and indicated for Tanner to join him.
Chris' office was in a state of organised chaos, Ezra's latest attempt at a new filing system strewn over the usually impeccably neat workspace. "Please excuse the mess, Mr Fowler. Have a seat." Chris indicated the only other chair in the office and sat behind his desk. Buck stepped into the office as well, followed closely by Vin who shut the door. Fowler's bodyguards had been left outside, to be pumped by Ezra for any information.
Buck leaned against one of bookcases, in full view of Larabee and Fowler, while Tanner stayed behind Cletus, blending into the background. If Fowler was put off by Vin and Buck's presence, he didn't show it, merely acknowledging Chris' smooth move to have him isolated from his bodyguards. Vin listened as Fowler and Chris spoke about trivial town gossip, both skirting around the main issue, the purpose to Cletus' visit.
Larabee had long suspected that FC Industries were behind the trespassing incidents. The company had made repeated offers to buy his land before, but this was the first time Chris had actually met the man behind the business. Finally when Chris looked to be getting tired of the small talk, Fowler made his move.
"You are sitting on a little gold mine here, Mr Larabee and I feel that this is perfect time for you to take on a business partner. You need the additional cash flow and management experience."
Chris nodded, "That's why Buck's here. He's going to be my business partner." He said like it was final and not open to negotiation. Fowler snorted some-what disparagingly and said airily, "While I don't doubt that Mr Wilmington can run a - bar is it?" At Buck's short nod, Fowler continued, "You need an individual with the capital and acumen to take this fledging business to whatever heights it can reach. Someone with certainly more experience in business than running a hotel, however successful Standish's establishment is."
"Someone like you?" Chris asked, leaning forward onto his desk, pinning Fowler with a deadpan stare.
"Mr Larabee, I won't deny that I've had my eye on your business for quite some time now and after extensive research I feel that I am the best option you have." Cletus had a nasty smirk on his face, and looked positively smug about something.
"Why don't you let me be the judge of what's in my best interest and I'll just let you make an offer," Larabee shot back, intensely disliking the man more and more.
Smiling in triumph, Fowler handed Chris a large envelope, "I believe that you will find it enthralling. I would stay and go through the proposal personally, but I must leave, I have another pressing engagement."
After Fowler oozed out past Tanner, Chris tossed with envelope onto his desk with a curse. Buck stood up straight and muttered, "Why do I feel like I've been slimed just by being in the same room with that idiot."
"I can't believe he had the nerve to walk in here and act as if he already owned my home. 'Fledging business' my ass! He's after something else and hell if I know what." Chris sank into his chair, running the conversation through his mind over and over again.
Wilmington picked up the envelope and ripped it open, paging through the proposal with a frown on his face. "Well he ain't talking penny-ante stuff here. His business methods may stink to high heaven but he sure does present an appealing bank balance."
Buck tossed the page of interest to Chris who gave a low whistle at the sight of the figures offered. "I don't know whether to be flattered or scared. What does he know that I don't?"
Wilmington shrugged, still reading through the pages, "Whatever it is, he sure as hell wants this ranch."
Twisting his chair so that he faced Vin, who still stood silent in the background, Larabee asked, "Whadaya think Vin?"
Tanner stepped out of the shadows near the doorway, into the light streaming in from the large window. As he did so a brief chill filled the room and unnoticed by all save Vin, the spectre flittered through the door. "What I think ain't so much important as the facts. Whatever Fowler wanted, he's been getting. Information. On you, this ranch, your family. You can forgive a man fer being eccentric but down right suspicious? Wouldn't touch that offer with a ten-foot barge pole."
Buck nodded, "Tanner's right. If Fowler were on the up and up, he wouldn't have got his men to trespass on your ranch. And some of the stuff in this is way too detailed for my liking."
Chris smiled, "I ain't stupid boys, I can see this deal ain't worth the paper it's written on and I sure as hell won't be signing over my ranch to him. But ..."
Tanner finished what was bothering Chris, "How in the hell did he expect you to fall for it. What's he trying to do?"
"Exactly, " Larabee said, pointing at the proposal, "First FC offers to buy my land, then he trespasses and breaks a few fences. Now he comes round, smooth as you please and offers to buy my entire business. And acts as if he's doing me a favour. I don't buy him thinking that I'll fall for that, so what is he playing at?"
"Got me, pard. Maybe Ezra could figger it out." Wilmington tossed the proposal on the desk, rubbing his arms as a chill passed him. The black spectre floated past Buck towards Chris, transparent in the soft sunlight. Hovering just above Larabee's head, it twisted itself to match Chris' shadow on the wall. Chris shivered as the spectre touched his shadow, feeling a spike of unease, as if someone had walked over his grave.
Shaking off the effects, he said, "The hell with it. Let Ezra warp his brain around this one." Chris pushed away from his desk and left the room, Buck following him. Vin stayed for a moment in the empty study, watching as the spectre twirled in the shape of Larabee's shadow as if it found the shape pleasing.
It was later that night, when the children were asleep and the others had returned to their own homes, that Vin and Chris sat in the den talking. The pair didn't say much, they never seemed to need to but tonight Chris wanted something more than non-verbal support. Putting the proposal on the table between them, Chris turned to Vin who was seated in the arm chair next to him. "You got any ideas?"
"Some. Not many that make sense."
"Well share the wealth, they gotta be better than mine, " Chris sighed, frustrated that Fowler's motive eluded him. Vin shifted in his chair, sorting out what he wanted to say.
"Tell me Chris, you got anybody that'd want to see you hurt?"
Chris shook his head, "Not that I'd recall. Raised some hell as a kid but never got into anything serious. My dad left me in jail one night after the sheriff arrested me for being a public nuisance. Learnt my lesson real quick. Never had much call to make enemies if that's what you mean."
"Sorta, "Vin replied, "It's more in the way of someone wanting you to be obliged to them."
"Here's how I see it. Fowler's out there, stomping around, generally making a lot of noise and fuss. Then he offers to buy you out. You ain't sure what he wants and don't take this wrong, but you feel threatened. Something ain't right."
Chris nodded, "Alright, I see where you going. But I don't know anybody that'd want to step in and help out that ain't already here."
Vin paused for a moment, fingering his dog tags, "It's not so much stepping in to help but to take advantage of you being distracted."
"Like Fowler's a diversion of some kind? Vin, this isn't some thriller with enemies behind every corner. I'm just a rancher with a good business and some hot shot is trying to play games with me."
Sighing, Vin shook his head, "Ya asked fer my opinion Chris and I don't think this has anything to do with your ranch. Whatever Fowler's up to, he's trying to blind ya to what's really happening."
"And we don't know what that is!" Chris stood and picked up the proposal, "Well, I'm not going to play games. If Fowler wants something from me, he'll have to come right out and ask." With those words Chris threw the proposal in the fire, watching the pages curl and blacken.
It was a few days later that Ezra arrived with good news. He ambled into Chris' office with a self-satisfied smirk, looking as if he had the crown jewels tucked in his jacket pocket. Chris looked up from his computer, a pile of invoices and receipts next to him. "What's got you looking so pleased with yourself?"
Ezra nudged a small pile of papers out of his way on the desk and proceeded to reverently place a yellow piece of paper on Chris' desk. "That my good friend is the reason I am so 'pleased'." Chris picked up the paper and scanned it and after reaching half way down the page, read something that made him re-read the whole page very carefully. Looking across to Ezra, now seated, Chris gasped, "This is legit?"
"As legally viable as anything I have ever read. It explains a great deal and makes Mr Fowler's somewhat un-orthodox methods understandable - if not still unethical."
Flapping the paper up, in order to read it again, Chris studied the single page document. It was a circular from a government official to the local mayor detailing the estimated worth of the land in the area. The numbers were astonishing, well above what Chris had understood his property was worth and it meant that Chris was indeed sitting on a gold mine.
Ezra opened his briefcase and pulled out several folders of documents. "I took the liberty of procuring additional information. Some of it is incomplete due to confidentiality clauses but otherwise the situation is clearly stated."
"You read 'em?" Chris asked, handing back the circular.
"I did and ..."
"Good then tell me straight what's going on here and why Fowler is trying so hard to get me to sell." Chris interrupted.
Ezra cleared his throat, took a deep breath and began his long-winded explanation. "After the disaster of the last war in the Middle East, the government is paying more attention to internal affairs. In order to reduce some of the unemployment we currently face, it is purchasing farm land in order to run state owned farms which will train workers in how to run their own businesses etc. Our fair county is under consideration. But, the local county property records are a mess and it is unclear as to who owns what land. So in order to cut through all the red tape, a feat unlikely to occur in any government bureaucracy, an edict was issued for all local property owners to identify themselves and provide proof of ownership before a certain date. If the owner failed to do so - apparently after repeated notification - it would be judged that the property belonged to a bank or corporation and therefore open to federal seizure."
"But I haven't received any notices about this?" Chris said incredulously.
Ezra nodded sagely, "Something else I believe we may lay at Mr Fowler's feet. As I was saying though, once the owners have proved ownership, they have the option of either selling their property directly the government or leasing the portions desired. Either way they would gain considerable profit. But, "
And Ezra paused and pulled out a file, "This by-law allows a co-op of sorts to approach the government, representing several properties. In this case, the money is almost tripled. You saw those figures Chris, we are talking enormous numbers here and Fowler obviously wants a large slice of this cake. He has been able to secure a few smaller properties not already registered with the government and has tried to stop you from finding out about it. The government have kept this out of the press for the simple reason of avoiding large corporations moving in like Fowler is and buying up properties and selling them back to the government at even higher prices. "
Chris leaned back in his chair, taping his fingers together as he mulled over the situation. "So I have to prove ownership and then deal with the government on leasing the part of my land they want. And Fowler's trying to pre-empt me from finding this out."
"When does this have to happen by?"
"This coming Monday."
"We'll have to move soon then, I can't afford to miss that deadline."
"Indeed - you'll need to have all your documents in order by Friday at the latest."
Later that evening, Chris told Vin and Buck the good news. Fowler's actions were now explained and Chris seemed relieved to finally stop worrying about whatever it was that Fowler was up to. Vin, however, didn't share that feeling. He couldn't spot any flaws with the information and in fact it all made perfect sense. And that had Vin's hackles up. There was too much about Fowler that didn't fit and this reason, although genuine in appearance was almost too convenient. But without anything more than a hunch and an unsubstantiated one at that, Vin kept quiet and listened as Buck and Chris made plans to leave on Friday for the city.
It hardly made him feel any better that his altogether too familiar spectre was spending more and more time near Chris. And it was growing.
Saturday morning dawned with the first hint of winter chill. As Vin went about his morning chores, the ranch seemed ominously silent. Buck, Chris and Ezra had left early yesterday and despite the rest of the Larabee clan still being in attendance, a general sense of unease hung over the ranch.
Mariah was in the yard, hanging up some laundry while the kids played monopoly inside, when Vin strode past with an armload of firewood.
"Weird day, huh? Winter seems to have arrived all of a sudden."
Her bright, cheerful voice clashed with the sullen atmosphere and Vin tried to ignore the dancing spectre on the roof of the barn. "Reckon the weather changed a little too suddenly for us, left us behind a little."
Nodding, Mariah agreed, "You know, it's strange and I feel a little silly for feeling like this, but I kinda wish Chris was back already."
Tanner eyed the gathering clouds above them and shrugged in agreement, "Me too. I'd better get those pastures cleared today. Those clouds don't look good."
Staring up, Mariah sighed at the thought that her washing might not have time to dry. "See you for dinner?"
Vin's smile was bright, "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
Later, dinner was a subdued affair, everyone's mood affected by the odd weather. Even little JD was unusually quiet. Trying to lift the mood, Vin asked his small friend his favourite question. "So, JD how come your name is Jack Daniel?"
The little boy beamed and the rest of the family groaned, Michael and Gabriel rolling their eyes. "Uncle Vin, did you have to ask that question?" Sarah whined, her mother laughing at their reactions.
JD puffed his chest out in indignation and declared stoutly, "It's a good story!"
Mike and Gabe chorused together, "But you take soooooooo long to get to the punch line!"
Pouting, the youngest Larabee huffed, "Well Unca' Vin likes the way I tell it."
"Sure do, Mr Larabee. Come on, tell me again."
Despite the continuing protests from his siblings, Jack Daniel Larabee launched into his favourite story of all time. "You see, Unca' Vin, Pa's great, great, great, great grandpa had a friend who looks like me."
Mike scowled and said, "You add more greats every time and you're supposed to look like him, not the other way round."
Mariah hushed the fiercely scowling JD and said calmly, "Let him tell it his way, Mike. You don't have to listen if you don't want to."
Vindicated, JD continued on, grinning smugly at the twins, "Well, this friend of Great, great, great, great, great, great grandpa's was called JD too. And when I was born Unca' Buck said I looked just like him."
At Vin's 'Ah, huh,', the boy rattled on, "Pa was out with Unca' Buck on the night I was born and they only saw me in the morning, afterwards. They had been out ..." here JD paused and looked to his mother for help. "They was partaking of ly... liebat...libb..."
"Libbyians, as Unca' Ezra says and came to the hospital showzzled."
Vin laughed as Mariah corrected her son, "I think you mean sozzled dear."
"That's what I said, Ma! Showzzled! Anyways, they was drunk outa their tree, Unca' Nate says and when Buck said I looked like JD Dunne, they thought it was a good idea to name me, JD!"
JD paused for effect, and Vin asked, "What happened then?"
"Mama was laughing at them and said they may as well call me Jack Daniel after the amount of alcohol they had drunk, like a sorta feast to the bounder of the toast!"
"Toast to the founder of the feast!" Mike and Gabe shouted, "You always get it wrong, JD."
Ignoring his brothers, JD giggled, and said softly to Vin in an aside, "I still don't get it, Unca' Vin. Why were Pa and Buck drinking with Mr Jack Daniel and how come he's never come over to see me? And where did he find the feast and how come I ain't ever found it?"
Mariah let out a snort of laughter and Tanner had to fight to keep a smile off his face as he answered the serious little boy. "I'll introduce you to Mr Jack Daniel when you're a whole lot older, kid."
"You'll do no such thing, Vin Tanner!" Mariah ordered sternly, her serious expression ruined by the laughter in her eyes. Tanner just smiled back and prompted JD to continue.
Wriggling in his seat, JD said loudly, "So, then, Pa and Buck think Mama is really clever and that naming me Jack Daniel is a great idea! Before Ma can say anything, they both leave to go register my name and Unca' Ezra says they laughed all the way to the office."
JD looked at his Ma, as a realisation struck him for the first time, "Ma, you didn't like my name? Is that why you were cross when they got back?"
Shaking her head, Mariah smile gently, "Don't worry, honey, I love your name. It's the perfect reminder to your father to think before he acts."
JD confused expression was priceless and Vin drawled softly, "Your Ma thinks Jack Daniel or JD Larabee is a fine name, and I reckon your Pa thinks that too."
"Yay!" JD practically threw himself into Vin's arms and enveloped the one-time drifter in a hug. Mariah began to clear away the dishes, Sarah helping while Mike and Gabe cleared the dishwasher with long faces. Feeling JD's small arms wrapped around his neck, the kid's obvious affection heartwarming, Vin Tanner felt a sense of truly being home sweep over him. He had never questioned his place with the Larabee's and at moments like this, he knew there was no other place on earth he'd rather be.
He lingered in the kitchen long after the family had gone upstairs. He was reluctant to leave, his vague sense of unease keeping him firmly planted where he sat. Eventually, Mariah came down to lock up and when she saw Vin still seated at the kitchen table, she said softly, "You can use the guest room again, Vin. I can make it up in no time."
Standing, Tanner shook his head, and said equally softly, "Wouldn't be right, Ma'am, with Chris not here. I'll see you in the morning. Thanks for dinner."
Later, he lay flat on his bed, staring up at the roof-beams above his head. Sleep was slow in coming and when slumber did finally claim him, it was the restless sleep of a man afraid to sleep too deeply lest he fail to wake up at all.
When Vin Tanner awoke in the early hours of the morning, it was not the sound of danger that brought him to awareness, but rather the lack thereof. Everything was quiet, far too quiet for a barn filled with animals.
Standing up, still fully clothed, Vin grabbed the shotgun near the head of the bed and slipped out of his room. There was a small crawl space above the feed bins which he silently climbed into and settled into the deep shadows to wait.
Several minutes passed before he heard furtive movement near the door to his room. The sounds were muffled and the uninvited guests unseen, but a voice soon hissed out clearly, "He ain't in there."
A second voice answered, surprisingly close to where Vin hid, "Betcha he's warming Larabee's side of the bed."
The first voice replied, drawing closer too, "Well, she is a fine looking woman."
The two men passed Vin unseen and their quiet comments were lost in the night. Careful to make no sound, Tanner slid out of the crawl space and hurried after them. He followed the sound of their footsteps and carefully pressed himself against the barn wall to covertly study the yard. He saw his two would-be-attackers and they were joined by a third and then a fourth man. The four strangers held a whispered conversation which did not carry beyond their huddle and Vin began searching for a way to slip into the ranch house unnoticed. The four men suddenly spilt up into pairs and two of them going back towards the barn while the others headed around the back of the house.
With the barn between him and the other men, Vin ran silently to the ranch house and quickly stepped inside. He closed the front door softly, locking it behind him before hurrying up the narrow staircase.
Mariah was sleeping peacefully and Vin awoke her with quick shake and a motion to be silent. She nodded her understanding and her confusion turned immediately into concern as he explained the situation.
"What the hell do they want, Vin?"
Vin shook his head in reply, "Whatever it is, it ain't good. Can you get the kids up and dressed quickly and quietly?"
Mariah was already up and out of the bed, getting dressed herself and she hissed softly, "Yeah, you get JD up while I get the others." She nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise when the sudden sound of wood falling on wood came from outside her window. Vin surreptiously checked the window and frowned when he couldn't see what the men were up to.
"Come on, hurry. We don't have a lot of time."
Vin soon had a sleepy JD slung over his shoulder while Mariah ushered her older children out of their rooms. Mike and Gabe appeared unconcerned by the unexpected night time activity and radiated suppressed excitement. Sarah, on the other hand clung to her mother, and stared at Vin nervously. Tanner gave her a reassuring smile and whispered softly to Mariah, "Does your storm cellar have more than one exit?"
Mariah nodded, "There's an entrance in the kitchen pantry and in Chris' study."
Tanner was about to speak when the smell of something burning reached him. Careful not to let his silhouette appear in the window, he risked a quick glance outside and what he saw spurred him into action.
"Quick, downstairs into the pantry!"
Running as quickly and as quietly as they could, the Larabees made it the pantry unseen, Vin shutting the door behind them. Mariah whispered, "What's burning?"
Sarah whimpered quietly and the boys lost their excited expressions. JD had fallen asleep on Vin's shoulder and slumbered on unaware. "Quickly, Mariah, help me get the cellar open."
The sound of breaking glass spurred Mariah into action and soon all four of them were helping Vin clear floor so that the door to the cellar could be opened. Gabriel, in his haste to help, knocked over shelf of tins, their empty clatter loud in the silent house. Sarah gave a small shriek, which her mother hushed. Tanner did not even pause, but pressed on, clearing the shelves over the door.
Finally, everything was clear and Vin threw the trapdoor open and hissed, "Quick inside, all of you." Sarah dashed past, a flashlight clutched in her hands, lighting the way down the old stairs. Michael and Gabriel followed, their golden hair illuminated like halos by Mariah's flashlight. Vin passed a stirring JD to Mariah and whispered, "Stay down until I come for you. Lock the doors if you can and try find a well ventilated place away from the smoke."
Frowning, Mariah said, "What about you, Vin? What are you going to do?"
"Keep them away from you."
Biting her lip in indecision, Mariah Larabee sighed, "They won't find us down here, you don't have to go."
Shaking his head, Tanner replied softly, "They know that you all are home and if you don't come running out of the house soon, they're gonna start looking for you. And being trapped in a cellar is the last place you need to be then."
Reluctantly Mariah nodded and followed her children down the cellar stairs, JD's big brown eyes staring back at Vin as he closed the door over them. A whispered, "Be careful and good luck," was last thing Tanner heard before he started replacing the shelving.
He stepped out into the hallway, his shotgun at the ready and he slipped down the long middle passage which was already filled with smoke. Reaching the front hallway, Vin peered through the screendoor and saw that the porch was on fire. Through the flames he could see two men waiting in the front yard, both armed with rifles. The heat from the fire was intense, the flames greedily racing along the dry decking.
One of them spotted movement at the front door and the next thing Vin knew the doorframe near his head exploded as they opened fire on him. Ducking down, and scrambling for cover, he noted somewhat dryly that these men seemed unconcerned if fire or bullet killed him. The breaking glass had been them smashing in the windows and tossing burning brands onto furniture and wooden floors. Every room on the ground floor was afire and it seemed they were determined to keep the occupants of the house inside. Presumably the other two men were covering the back door, leaving very little room to manoeuvre an escape.
Vin ran into Chris' study, the men outside firing at him again, one of them following his movement round the house. The room was filled with smoke and flame, the fire contained near the window for the moment. With a quick jab, Vin broke the glass on Chris' gun rack and pulled down another rifle, and a few handguns. Loading them swiftly, and trying not to cough too much from the smoke, Tanner took his guns and made a dash for the stairs. Again gunfire followed his movement, this time from the rear of the house.
The second floor was now filled with smoke, but the fire had yet to progress up the stairs. He ran to Chris and Mariah's room, which had the best view of the front yard and slid down under the window sill. Peering over the top, he spotted one of their attackers who was randomly firing into the house. Vin grabbed the rifle, and in one smooth movement, stood up and fired. The man outside dropped instantly, his head exploding in spray of blood. His partner ran towards the body, staring up at the second storey of the ranch house and he too died in an instant, before he even saw Vin.
Two down, two to go.
The sound of a house slowly being consumed filled his ears and time was running out as the fire grew in intensity. Snatching both shotgun and rifle, he ran swiftly towards the stairs, hoping to catch sight of either of the remaining men. Movement from outside drew his gaze, and the blast from a shotgun had him scrambling for cover. A tall man, nothing more than a vague shadow in the firelight, kept on shooting through the back kitchen window.
Vin waited patiently, biding his time and ignoring the heat in the kitchen. The moment the man outside paused to reload, Vin was on his feet and running for the door. As he burst through into the cool night air, the second man opened fire but Tanner was already on his knees and firing steadily. The second man went down with a scream as Vin's shot tore through his leg. The first man, struggling to complete his reload, saw Vin draw aim and could only vainly lift his shotgun in defense as Vin shot him in the chest.
The wounded man tried to raise his gun, but Vin kicked it beyond his reach. "Stay put."
The would-be arsonist watched silently as Tanner grabbed a hosepipe and quickly fastened it to a tap. Spinning the tap open, Vin turned the water on the fire raging inside the kitchen, hoping to save something of the Larabee home.
The sound of someone cocking a gun drew Vin's gaze around. The hose pipe continued to spew a stream of water into the heart of the fire, as Tanner stared at Cletus Fowler. The fancy business man looked quite at home amidst the destruction, like a master surveying his kingdom.
"You shoulda kept drifting, boy." Fowler smirked as he prepared to squeeze the trigger and got a face full of water instead. Spluttering madly, he felt Tanner plough into him and desperately fired his gun. The men fell to the ground, Fowler's gun discharging harmlessly into the air. The hose fell beside them and soon turned the dusty ground into mud.
Fowler was not a small man, far from it. He considered himself a bit of a brawler and had enjoyed putting a few men in hospital but he was unprepared to face the fury unleashed by Tanner. Far stronger than he seemed, Vin pummelled the older man mercilessly until Fowler stopped trying to fight him and instead tried to escape the punishment.
A blow like a jackhammer knocked Cletus senseless and before he could regain his balance, Tanner had dragged him over to his incompetent hireling and had tied them together. Without a backward glance Vin turned back to fighting the fire, leaving a mud-encrusted Fowler tied up with washing line.
As soon as the fire in the kitchen was out, Vin opened the cellar door and quickly had four keen fire fighters and one irate mother to assist him. Little Sarah stood guard over Fowler and his goon with a gun she surely couldn't fire, but neither man was prepared to risk it. Mike and Gabe ran hoses to the other side of the house, while Mariah and JD wet the roof with another, trying to save their home.
Somewhat belatedly, the Larabee's neighbours arrived to help, followed closely by a firetruck and the fire didn't stand much of a chance after that. By the time Sheriff Briggs arrived, he found a triumphant Larabee clan cheering their success in having saved their now definitely soggy home. Statements were taken, suspects miranded and bodies collected. Firemen and neighbours were thanked, and all too soon the Larabees and Vin found themselves alone once again.
The sun was only beginning to crest the horizon but the dawn light still revealed a distressing scene of damage. Staring at the scarred house, Vin felt a small hand creep into his large one and obeyed the silent request by picking up JD and holding the small boy close. Silently they all stared at their home, the children drawing near to the adults.
Vin suddenly found himself in a fierce embrace and heard Mariah whisper, "Thank you." The moment was broken as she pulled back from him and said softly, "Lets get you kids cleaned up."
Gently herding her reluctant children towards the tap, Mariah cast a single glance behind her before turning her full attention to the task ahead.
Realising that he was trembling, Vin took a deep breath and glanced around the immediate area. Only the house showed evidence of the night's events, a stark reminder at how easily everything could change. But life continued, kept on moving despite personal tragedy or near-averted disaster and cows still needed to be milked, horses fed and chores done.
Life continued its relentless course regardless of them or their concerns and he figured it was nature's way of ensuring that a body didn't just collapse from the raging torrent of emotion inside. The morning that was dawning around them was magnificent and filled the yard with a quiet peace.
They were safe. He had not lost everything. And rather than face the tumult of confusion, now that he realised just how much he loved his home and how close he had been to losing it, Vin Tanner strode towards the barn and the waiting animals.
It was with a heavy heart that he noticed the spectre still lingering over the burnt ranch house.
It was nearly noon before Chris and Buck began to approach the ranch. The trip had been successful and they had left Ezra behind to negotiate with the Government Representative. Buck had managed to convince Chris that he deserved to drive Larabee's truck after putting up with Ezra's chatter on the journey there. Feeling benevolent, Chris had relented and Buck was thoroughly enjoying the experience of driving a truck that did not threaten to break down at the slightest provocation.
Chris was the first to notice the damage to the house and his urgent cry had Buck flooring the accelerator so that they raced down the road. Taking the driveway at breakneck speed, the truck hurtled up the drive and before it had come to a stop, Chris was out, running towards the ranch.
The ground storey of the house looked dreadful. The porch was just about destroyed, and large columns of black streaked up onto the second floor. Fear froze him to the spot and all Chris could hear was the pounding of his own heart.
'No, no, no. Not this. Anything but this.'
Desperately he searched for signs of life, anything to indicate that all was not lost - that his family, his life was still whole.
Buck's cry of, "Mariah!" broke the stunned silence inside him and Chris ran towards the answering call of "Chris?" As he rounded the house, a pack of kids rushed to meet him.
A babble of noise and arms wrapped around Chris and as he silently counted heads his gaze was drawn to his wife who waited impatiently for her turn. Their embrace was close and desperate and Chris felt that if he let her go, he may somehow never get her back.
"What happened?" he asked, still keeping one arm around his wife, the other holding Sarah. Buck, who had all three boys wrapped around him, looked up at Mariah's answer, his face dark.
"It was Fowler. He tried to burn us out and ..."
"There men with guns, Daddy, but Vin got 'em," Sarah's soft words in his ear made him hold her tighter.
"Unca Vin socked the Flower man in the face - lots!" JD's jubilant cry drew their attention to 'Unca' Vin's absence and Chris looked around the yard, searching for his friend.
He was standing near the barn, a closed expression on his face. Covered in mud and soot, he had the stance of a weary but victorious warrior, so much more than a simple drifter. Buck broke from the group first and he half-ran towards Tanner and pulled him into a rough hug. The embrace was not returned, but only because Vin's hand were full with wriggling puppy.
"Little Buck!" JD shrieked with joy and ran towards his 'Uncles', laughing all the way. Chris saw the awkward moment between the two men change as the boy reached them and as they were enveloped by JD's boundless affection, tension became understanding and acceptance.
Hugging his wife again, Chris said, "I'm glad you're ok."
"If Vin hadn't been here..."
Chris shook his head, not wanting to think about that possibility. "He was and you are all safe. That is all that matters."
Mariah nodded, and smiled at Buck who was exclaiming in wonder as JD rattled off his account of the night's events.
She looked up at their fire-ravaged home and sighed, "I know it's only a house but still..."
"Yeah," Chris agreed but couldn't help think that without his family, the house, whether standing or not, would be meaningless.
Fear stabbed at his heart with that thought and desperate for reassurance, Chris pulled Mariah to him and kissed her soundly.
The sun was setting in a blaze of colour, painting the entire countryside red. Vin was sitting in the loft of the barn, looking out over the Larabee Ranch and rather than the bright red light reminding him of blood or worse, he felt uplifted by the warm, rich colour. It was too easy to see the world in black and white and a little colour, a little hope was always welcome.
The Larabees were all outside, the noise of children releasing pent up emotion echoing across the yard. Their young voices, raised in delight, served as a cold reminder at how easily they could have been silenced. It had been too close, far too close for comfort.
A flicker of movement drew Tanner's attention and he turned to see the black spectre settle down beside him on the roof. It seemed paler, greyer than before, but no less distinct. It also seemed to have lost none of its coldness and Vin felt a shiver run up his spine in response.
From his high vantage point, Vin could see Buck's pickup approaching in the distance, a plume of dust rising like smoke behind him, although, knowing Buck's pickup, it could be actual smoke. Wilmington was returning with supplies for Mariah's makeshift kitchen and camp site. Deciding not to risk the interior structure until a surveyor assessed the structural integrity; the Larabees would be camping outside.
Feeling a little detached, as if the day's events had overwhelmed his limited ability to process emotion, Vin voiced the thought that had been bothering him for the last hour.
"This isn't over, is it?"
No. Still here.
Sighing, and staring at the Ranch-house, Tanner felt entirely inadequate for the task ahead. "You've changed though."
The spectre nodded, its regard turned to Tanner. You stopped the first. There is another.
You'll know her when she comes.
And with that the spectre faded away. Vin stared out at the ranch, no longer comforted by the red sun light. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon, and the air was becoming colder and colder. Unsettled, Tanner stood up and made a silent promise to himself.
Things would be different - this time.
| Who can say where the road goes,
Where the day flows?
And who can say why your heart cries,
When your love dies?
Who can say when the roads meet,
That love might be,
In your heart.
And who can say when the day sleeps,
If the night keeps all your heart?
And who can say where the road goes,
Where the day flows?