"Whatcha doin'?"

Chris looked hard at Vin, at the way he was squinting and the rigid stance in the saddle. He shook his head.

"Hard night?"

"Fun night, Cowboy, fun night! Why weren't you there? We got to quite a lot of celebratin'. Buck even had some fireworks, from them Chinese railroad people." Vin pulled his hat lower over his eyes and sighed. "Coffee 'd be good now, though."

"And some ham and eggs, deep fried?" Chris grinned when he saw the lean form shudder. "Coffee it is, but I gotta make a new batch. You up to taking care of your horse yourself?"

"I'm always up to takin' care of m' horse," Vin told him indignantly. He jumped out of the saddle with a flourish, unfortunately marred by the fact he needed a good grip on the saddle to steady himself afterwards. Shaking his head, Chris put down his tools and left his work in favor of making some coffee.

The aromatic smell of the dark brew was filling his cabin when Vin came in and threw his saddle in the corner. Soon they were sitting amicably on the porch and Chris' torturous straight backed chairs, Chris with his head tilted to the sun, Vin with his hat still pulled low over his eyes. They enjoyed each other's company in quiet solitude, the only thing happening was Chris standing up to refill their mugs.

Finally Vin asked again, "Why weren't you there, Chris? To celebrate the comin' of the New Year with the rest of us?"

Chris shrugged. "One year or the next, what's the difference anyway?"


That made Cris look sharply at the tracker. Vin was staring at him with something in his eyes that almost looked... wistful. It made him feel uneasy.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with wishing for a good new year with all yer friends, Chris."

The statement for some reason cut right through him.

"That what I have now, friends?"

Abruptly he stood up and disappeared inside his cabin, no longer feeling at ease with the sharpshooter.

"You know you do!" Vin yelled after him, not giving up on the subject.

Well, Chris did give up on it. A moment later he came back out of the cabin and walked straight up to the little shed he had started building the day before. Soon hammering and sawing filled his mind and he did his best to ignore Vin.

Vin didn't seem to care. He had tilted his chair until it was resting against the cabin wall behind him, his hat pulled completely over his face and he appeared to have dozed off.

Trusting Chris to watch his back.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost midday when again the smell of fresh coffee, this time accompanied with the smell of frying bacon, filled the air. Vin pushed his hat back and looked at Chris, who was standing in front of him, leaning against one of the poles holding the porch roof up. His undershirt was filled with sweat marks.

Without looking behind him at his friend, Chris asked, "You hungry now?"

"Yeah, I could eat. Ain't you cold?"

Chris snorted. "You want cold, you go to Indiana in winter. I'll get the food."

Soon they were sitting in silence again, this time with bread, bacon and beans accompanying the coffee. After he'd eaten three plates, opened his belt a notch and gave a satisfied burp, Vin looked at Chris with determination. The gunslinger was staring at the horses in the corral, coffee in hand, his second plate of food forgotten on the ground.

"Ain't goin' 'til I got an answer, Chris. Why weren't you there? We missed ya."

That made Larabee look at him through narrowed eyes. "Don't give me that crap," he finally said. "You all know pretty well how to party whether I'm there or not. Hell, you looked like you really partied anyway!"

"We do, we did! But I'd 've liked to start the New Year with all of my friends. 'Specially my best friend. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing. I just don't feel the same, is all. Hell, ain't no difference between yesterday, this day or tomorrow."

"Damn it, Chris, why this attitude? Why not celebrate the chance for a new beginning? 'Specially when you can do it with a whole bunch of new friends?"

"Guess it's just too much about hope for me." Abruptly Chris stood up and disappeared inside. Again.

"Too much about hope for you? What's that supposed to mean! And stop walkin' out on me!" Vin yelled indignantly, jumping off his chair and storming inside. There he found Chris changing into a clean shirt. "So," he grated, "what's this 'bout hope?"

"Just that I don't put much stock in hope anymore, Vin."

"Really? That's a stupid attitude for someone who brings a lot of hope to others!"

"What?" Chris looked at him incredulously, right in the middle of getting his second arm into a shirtsleeve. "Why you go and say something stupid like that? All I bring is death!"

Vin stood grimly in the door opening, daring Chris go barge through and run off again. Instead, Chris turned his back on him and finished putting on his shirt. A black one, Vin noticed. He sure liked the red one, or the grey with white stripes a lot better.

"You know, for someone as smart as you, you can be real daft, Lar'bee. You don't bring death. I never met someone who brought more life 'n you do!"

"Oh, really?" Now Chris was angry. "And when do I do that? When I pull my gun and shoot the next stupid bastard who gets in my way?"

"Yeah, for starters. Like when you shot that railroad bastard who was gonna get me in that saloon brawl. Or when you got me away from Eli Joe, hell, you saved me three times from that bastard in one day."

"I killed him, Vin! I did what I do best, killed the bastard and took away your chance of clearing your name. How's that for hope?"

"Told ya before, Cowboy, can't clear my name when I'm dead. Now we've still a chance to find another way. So, what about Billy then? You saved him twice, gave him and Mary hope for a life together. Or Nate? He wouldn't be here without ya. I know, I know, we did it together! But truth is, if I'd gone alone him and me would both 've been dead. Man, you were fast! Or hey, how 'bout all of them prisoners in that filthy prison camp nearby Jericho? Don't look at me like that! Might be you didn't talk 'bout what ya did in there, yer fellow inmates sure as hell did. Or how 'bout those assholes who tried to rob the bank? There's a lot of hope and dreams in that bank, Cowboy."

"Shit, will you shut up? 'Sides, I didn't do that alone!"

"Nope, ya didn't. That was all of us. And wasn't it fun! Like when we took back the town from those men the ranchers had sent to burn it down. Or we helped save them working girls. Hey, how 'bout when we stopped that railroad boss, what's his name, the creep that kept touchin' ya, from robbing those Chinamen. We brought a lot of hope there as well and you know what? All of it felt damn good! It feels good every time we pull a stunt like that and hell, it did from the first when we saved the Seminoles from that crazy general. We seven, we ain't all of us loners and misfits anymore, we count for somethin' now. We count for a lot. And we got you to thank for that Cowboy, you lead us and keep us together."

"Me? I ain't forcing anyone to stay."

"Nah, but you somehow make us stay together anyway. You give the example, pard." A grin appeared on Vin's face. "Oh hell, and let's face it, it's that look of yours as well. Yep, that one right there! Sure makes me wanna stay, it's so warm and lovin'," he said about the hard glare Chris was giving him. "So how 'bout it? We go to the Saloon, get us the rest of them misfits and drink in the New Year properly like? As we should, with all seven of us?"

Chris looked at Vin for a long time, until he finally started to laugh helplessly.

"Tanner, you're something else."

"Nah, jist someone who likes to start the New Year the right way. Can still be done, first day of it ain't over yet. So, let's go."

"Alright, alright, you talked me into it," Chris grinned. Then a thoughtful look came on his face. "The seven of us, reckon we did some good after all."

"We did plenty of good, Mister Hope."

"Tanner, shut up! Don't wanna hear anymore of that nonsense. I didn't do anything more than you or the others. We're a team."

"And I wanna thank you for that, Chris."

"Vin, you made your point, don't go spoil it."

"Alright, alright, let's go party! Only we better not start anymore fireworks, that almost lost us the town right then and there last night. One of them stupid fire rockets went straight into Yosemite's hay barn. Might be a while 'for he says 'Happy New Year' to any of us."

"Us? I wasn't even there!"

"Don't matter none. You're one of us, guilty by association. Hey, why you hit my hat from my head now? Cut that crap, I ain't JD!"