The Thread

by Phyllis Loafman

The sound of gunshots drew the seven town protectors to the bank as four gunmen ran from the door and leapt onto the mounts they had tied out front. Firing wildly, the robbers headed out of town as their bullets forced the citizens to search for cover. The recognized leader of the seven, Chris Larabee, had exited the saloon, closely followed by Ezra Standish. Even as he ran, he was surveying the street, establishing the location of both friend and foe. He saw Josiah Sanchez coming down the street from the church, gun in hand, the image contrasting sharply with the large cross hanging from his neck. Nathan Jackson appeared at the corner of the livery, cautiously checking the street before dashing out in pursuit of the robbers.

A shadow drew his attention upward, to the rooftops. Vin Tanner was moving from one roof to the next, following the gang as they attempted an escape. Following the Texan's movements, his attention was drawn downward once again, to street level, as Buck stumbled out of a doorway, his shirt unbuttoned and his gun belt slung over one shoulder. Firing at one horse as it passed, the mustached man whooped as a bag of money dropped before he was forced to dive behind a horse trough as slugs peppered the area around his head. Chris could only shake his head as he sought his own refuge.

The battle was short lived. Two of the gang hit the ground within moments of the seven's appearance on the street. Another man was blasted from his saddle by a shot from Vin. The last man bent low over the neck of his ride. Finding his path blocked by a barrage of shots from Nathan and Josiah, the man wheeled his animal around and charged back down the street.

As he got closer, Chris froze as suddenly, Buck jumped up and ran in front of the horse to slam into JD as he stood on the opposite boardwalk. The horseman was flung to the ground twenty yards short of Larabee as the man in black stood, aimed and fired. He paused briefly to assure himself that the gunman would not be getting up. Once certain that the robber was down and staying that way, Larabee moved up the street, pausing only momentarily when Vin Tanner suddenly appeared at his shoulder. The two continued on and finally stopped when they reached Wilmington and Dunne. Chris reached out and spun the big man around.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?"

The grin dropped from the big man's face as he stumbled around, his gun starting up. Seeing who was standing there, the grin reappeared as Wilmington dipped one shoulder, his hand resting on the butt of his gun as he dropped it into the holster. "Well, I was just watching out for the boy here."

"Buck, I told you, I had it handled."

Larabee ignored the Easterner as he continued to glare at the bigger man. The grin on Wilmington's face only served to infuriate the blond even more. "Let JD take care of himself. Don't pull a fool stunt like that again." Without another word, he spun and stalked away, leaving the three men standing, watching as he moved off. Vin gave the other two a shrug and followed in Larabee's wake. Buck turned back to JD as the young man watched the other two enter the saloon within seconds of each other. He slapped at the bowler hat that sat on the dark head.

"What?" JD cried as he straightened the hat.

"I know you were protecting that baby girl, but next time you pull a stupid stunt like that... remember...keep running 'til you get to cover. Don't just stand there, waiting for a bullet."

Dunne ducked his head. "Sorry, Buck. She started kicking and screaming and I just forgot everything but trying to keep hold on her."

Wilmington had seen the tiny child wiggling out from under the boardwalk even as he heard the woman's cry. He watched as the young sheriff glanced back and noticed the child as she stood, unsure where to go. Buck's heart lurched as the young man broke cover and ran to gather the child in his arms, providing her protection with his now exposed back. Without a thought to his own safety, the big man bolted across the street and slammed into the duo, driving all three onto boardwalk in a heap.

Even as the shooting died down, the mother appeared and scooped the child up, disappearing with her bundle as suddenly as she had appeared, leaving two shaken men in her wake. Buck was just about to straighten Dunne on the 'proper gunfight course of action' when Chris had interrupted. While the young Easterner looked confused, and somewhat contrite, the older man had known Larabee long enough to understand that his anger was born of fear.

Buck reached out and slapped the younger man on the back. "Ya did good, kid. Kept that little girl from getting hurt."

JD smiled, ducking his head as he blushed.

Buck's hand rose and knocked the bowler hat from the dark hair, causing JD to flinch and cry out 'Hey'. As he leaned forward to retrieve the hat, a dusty boot came up to connect with the seat of his pants. Staggering forward, JD grabbed the hat as he fought to regain his balance. Once steady again, he whirled around to face the grinning Wilmington.

"What the heck was that for?"

Stepping forward, Buck dropped an arm around the smaller Dunne and leaned in close. "That's for scaring ten years off my life that I ain't willing to give up. That's what that was for."

"But...but..." JD stammered. " said I did good."

Propelling the two of them down the street, Buck replied. "You did, kid, but heroes don't last long out here. Don't be a hero." Wilmington's blue eyes took on a hard glint, causing JD to nod.

Dunne's face took on a serious look as he stopped, forcing the taller man to turn back toward him. "I know you're trying to teach me how to survive out here, Buck. And I just want to thank you." JD's head dipped as he continued. "I won't be a hero. I'll just follow you and Chris and the others lead, okay?"

Wilmington's head turned to the side slightly and his eyes narrowed. There was a quality to Dunne's voice that made him suspicious.

"You know, like two men taking on a gang of cowboys out to hang a man. Or six men taking on a troop of soldiers. Or..." JD was backing up as he spoke. "...stepping in front of a crazy Colonel and taking a sword across the chest."

"Why you little..." Buck bellowed as he charged.

"Or rescuing a little girl from bank robbers. I'll just play it safe and watch and learn from you guys 'bout how to not be a hero." JD yelled over his shoulder as he turned and ran from the pursuing Wilmington.

People scattered as the two men pounded down the boardwalk.

+ + + + + + +

Minutes earlier, Larabee had entered the saloon with a slap of batwing doors and swirl of black duster. The dark clothing reflected the mood of the man within them. Anger radiated from the man as he stormed across the room and angrily ordered a bottle and glass. By the time the barkeep had placed the items in front the man, Vin had entered and stood quietly to the side as Chris grabbed the two items and stalked away. Softly, Tanner ordered a beer and dropped a coin on the bar as the frothy draft was deposited in front of him.

Taking the mug, he moved across the room and, without a word, settled at the table with Larabee.

Tanner looked up as first JD, and then, Buck ran past. The Texan noticed that Larabee never even glanced that direction. The Texan shook his head at the antics of the two men and then turned his attention back to the beer in front of him and the sullen man beside him.

Bringing the mug up, Vin asked softly, "You never said how you knew Buck was in town that first day." He waited silently as Larabee considered the question.

Chris sat immobile since pouring the whiskey into his glass, not even acknowledging the Texan when he had taken the chair next to him. His mind was awash with emotions. Though outwardly, he appeared unfazed by the events of the past half hour, inside he struggled with the anger and fear, the rush of excitement from the fight, the anxiety of seeing his men in harm's way. 'His men?' Larabee frowned. Where had that thought come from. The group of peacekeepers had only been together for a few weeks. The solitary man bristled at the thought that they looked to him for leadership even as he realized he had assumed that position without thought.

Hearing Tanner's statement drew his focus back to the reason he sat, staring into a glass of whiskey. The thought created the need and he threw the fiery liquid down his throat to quench that need. Fire ignited in his belly, matching the flame of anger in his soul. He sat clutching the glass for several moments and finally cocked his head to glare at the slender Texan.

"I always know where he is. He just doesn't know it."

Sagely, Tanner merely nodded, waiting.

Chris licked the dust from his lips as he twirled the glass between his hands. "Buck is..." He paused, considering his words. Without looking into the blue eyes of his companion, Larabee knew that he could stop speaking and the man would simply accept that and not ask again. Instead of looking at the younger man, Larabee's gaze fell to the window and the scene outside.

He watched as Ezra prodded one of the robbers toward the jail even as the man complained about the seeping wound on his head. Nathan was directing two of the townsmen to carry a second man to the small room he used as a clinic. Larabee's green eyes followed the undertaker's wagon as it passed, two pairs of boots hanging off the back edge and Josiah walking behind, carrying the bags of stolen money toward a waiting bank manager. Buck and JD reappeared, trailing behind Standish, laughing and shoving each other as they went.

Larabee dropped heavily against the back of the chair and turned his attention to the man sitting next to him. "Whenever I would get to any town I would check to see if Buck had been around...was still around. He and I go way back; we just hadn't talked in a while."

Tanner nodded slightly, took a sip of beer, and continued to wait. When Chris didn't speak for several moments, he prompted, "So...the two of you rode together?"

The older man nodded. "Met in the war. We saved each other's lives more times than we can count. When the war was over, we just stuck together, headed west. No families to go back to, seemed like a good idea, having someone you trust to watch your back."

"You trust Buck?"

Chris frowned as he sat back slightly, judging the question. Finally he responded, "Hell, yeah. I wouldn't have asked him to join if I didn't."

Vin shrugged. "Just seems that if you trust the man, you wouldn't jump him like ya did."

Larabee snorted. "Hell, I trust Buck with anything, short of a woman. He'll watch your back. Problem is, he don't watch his own back. Always trying to help someone someone else." He pouring another drink and tossed it down his throat as he watched Wilmington and Dunne disappeared out of view.

Vin decided to wait for Chris to continue.

Leaning back, one arm thrown over the back of his chair while he twirled the glass in his other hand, Chris thought again about his relationship with the taller man. A smile pulled at his lips at some of the memories. Without looking at Tanner, he began to talk.

"The things me and Buck did....well, let's just say that our ma's' wouldn't be too proud. We'd survived a bloody war and thought we could do just about anything." Chris laughed softly and Vin smiled at the sound. Since they had met and joined forces those few weeks previous, he had seen the man smile a few times, but the times the older man had laughed could be counted on one hand.

"We moved across the country taking odd jobs, working on ranches, never staying anywhere too long. Buck was the one that introduced me to Sarah." Larabee glanced at the younger man and could tell by his face that the Texan was aware of the family lost to Chris only a few years back, probably thanks to Wilmington. Somehow, Chris was glad the younger man knew the story and he would not be forced to recount their deaths in way of explanation.

"He met her in town one day while I was still out at the ranch we were working on. I have to admit that having him steer me her way was a surprise. Guess he saw something in her that he knew I was looking for. I sure as hell didn't."

"Good friend."

"Yeah," Larabee agreed. "he's a good friend." He paused, pouring another shot of whiskey, but he didn't drink it. "He watched me stumble through courting Sarah, helped when her old man came after us after we snuck off and got married. She used to say that she felt like she married two men 'cause he was always there. Good thing, too. I was off chasing down a horse when she starting having pains from the baby. He wasn't due for a couple of weeks she'd said and told me to not worry about her."

At this point he drained the glass and then continued. "Buck came in late...after being in town all night and found her. Later they both laughed, saying they couldn't tell which of 'em was more scared. Sarah said he made her comfortable, checked to see that she was okay. Then he tore off to the next ranch over. The woman there had several kids and she had offered to help out when the time came."

Chris shook his head. "Sarah told me later that it seemed like Buck most have flown there and back 'cause he was back in no time. Told me she felt safe knowing he was there. After they got back to the house, he came after me and we got back just in time for the baby. You'd 'a thought he was the one having a baby, the way he paced around the house. When we heard Adam cry that first time, that big oaf picked me and practically danced around the room, grinning and laughing. I think Adam thought of him as a very big, older brother."

Chris' thoughts turned dark as the memories of Sarah and Adam's deaths rushed in. he closed his eyes and fought the rage that still welled up inside him at those memories.

"Buck was there when...I found their bodies. He cried along with me, helped me bury 'em. He was as torn up and angry as I was. And I hated 'im for that." Chris looked hard at Vin at the confession. "I hated him for daring to feel my pain, for thinking he knew how much I hurt. He stayed with me, though, no matter what I did or said, he'd just ignore it and step away 'til I couldn't fight 'im any more and then he'd take care of me 'til I was sober enough to watch out for myself."

The blond turned the glass over and recorked the whiskey bottle. "That went on for months 'til finally, I hurt him enough that he stopped coming back. Put a razor to his throat and said I'd kill 'im if he came around ever again; didn't see him again for months. Rode into a town, walked into the saloon and there he was. Never said a word to me, but later that night, some kid looking to make a name for him self called me out...him and two friends. I got two of them. Buck shot the third. He was standing off to the side. I'd seen him over there, but didn't figure he'd help. Afterwards, he never said a word. Just holstered his pistol and walked out."

Vin nodded, glad to know that someone had watched out for his new friend during the dark times. The moment Chris had mentioned that he might know someone to help out at the Indian village and Buck had literally fallen at Larabee's feet, Tanner suspected that the relationship must be a deep one. Their reactions to each other was old hand and comfortable.

"Since then, I kept tabs on Buck. Pretty much knew where he was all the time. That's one reason I came to this town. Thought I might try and mend some old fences."

"Seems like a good man to have on our side."

Chris snorted. "He is. Just wish he wouldn't play so loose with his own life. Man's a pain in the ass, but..."

Vin grinned. "But he's your friend. He knows ya, doesn't expect anything from ya."

Larabee smiled but it was a sad expression nonetheless. "Buck is the only person around that knew Sarah and Adam. It's like they're still around sometimes when I see 'im acting a fool or laughing. Makes me remember the good times, Sarah's smile, Adam's laughter..." The man sighed. Abruptly, he stood and, without another word, headed out the door.

Vin had watched the emotions that danced so quickly across the man's features. Most people might not have noticed the tight rein that the gunslinger held on his emotions. So tight was that hold that the man seemed cold and uncaring, while just the opposite was true. He cared, but he refused to be hurt again.

The one last tie to his past, the last open spot in that closed heart was Buck Wilmington. Seeing that remnant of his past risk his life was more than Larabee could handle. Vin figured that had been the reason for the angry display in the street. It was an anger that he could understand. It was fast becoming an anger that he felt toward each of the six other men with which he had stood shoulder to shoulder with for the past few weeks when they were reckless. They were becoming a family and no one was allowed to threaten that bond, not even one of the seven themselves.

Tanner stood and followed Larabee out, knowing the man was headed to the jail, not to apologize, but simply to be around, to watch, and to guard the other's backs.