Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but oh boy if I did...well, I don't what I'd do but I'd think of something!
Characters: Old West. Vin and Chris OC's.
Feedback: This is a 'sequel' to The Bad, The Good and The Ugly and also refers to some original characters from Talisman. I'd love to know what y'all think about Vin's 'new' Daddy.
"Whatever did he see in her?"
"Miz Travis?" asked Vin Tanner putting down his ink stained copybook and strolling over to the window with his mug of anemic coffee. Mary Travis was a real nice woman but she had no idea how to make coffee fit for a man fresh off the trail to drink. He guessed Mary was referring to the Widow Stacey, her new bête noire.
"Septimus Stacey," continued Mary. "Why did he marry her?"
Hell, thought Vin, the answer to that was pretty obvious wasn't it? Septimus Stacey had surely been a man like any other and the Widow Stacey was all woman.
"Mebbe it was true love," he offered feebly.
"Ha! She has sick or injured ranch hands sleep in her ranch house and men like Orlando Flynn and his cousin Jake McKenna stay as house-guests out at her ranch. Overnight. Without a chaperon. Scandalous!"
He too had been one of those guests. The house was full of servants, creaky floorboards and bedroom doors that locked but he supposed Mary didn't consider those suitable chaperons.
Standing next to Mary and breathing in her delicate flowery perfume, he watched as the Widow Stacey stood on the boardwalk talking to Chris Larabee. For once the black clad gunfighter looked a little less menacing, a smile threatening to actually break out and declare war on his normally grim facial expression. Less tension than normal in his stance, a little glint of amusement in his cool green eyes.
The Widow was twirling her cream silk fringed parasol and her blonde head was inclined slightly to the left so she could look up at Chris from under her thick eyelashes. The head tilting was a clever trick, thought Vin because Elvira Stacey was tall for a woman and capable of looking most men straight in the eye. She must want Chris to do some small favor for her. Something if asked to do outright he would automatically say, no, to.
Chris was being playfully seduced. He was clever enough to know it and was amused by it. That was what was going to trap him realized Vin because the Widow Stacey had surely allowed for that. Vin quickly helped himself to more coffee and hurried back to his viewpoint at the window. It was not unlike watching a sporting contest or watching Ezra Standish play a poker opponent like a fish on a line.
She was very heavily armed with beauty, charm and intelligence. Chris was severely out gunned, thought Vin, having to his way of thinking, no charm whatsoever. Vin thanked the Lord it wasn't himself out there on the boardwalk because he would have surrendered by now. He was totally defenseless against women like that.
"Septimus Stacey was a very well respected man. He shocked polite society when he married a jumped-up little chorus girl and brought her out to the Stacey Ranch," continued Mary, a real bee in her bonnet. "Well educated, literary figures like Septimus Stacey don't actually have to marry bold and brassy girls like that. I dare say she could have been paid off whatever the sordid circumstances."
Vin was shocked. Mary was prudish and had established herself as the guardian of the town's morals but she was rarely so judgmental. Vin had assumed meeting Chris Larabee and finding out he wasn't quite the bad element she had presumed had cured her of that. Not since Lydia had brought the working girls from Wickes' camp into town had she been so downright unkind.
"And those hats!" finished Mary self-righteously.
As he watched the Widow Stacey readied herself to deliver the coup de grâce. She was now leaning on her closed parasol a sure sign Chris was already eating out of her hand. Chris was laughing openly and what an astounding sight that was. So rarely seen it warmed Vin's heart to witness it. It gave him hope for the future.
Chris was nodding in agreement now. Tipping his black hat to her he turned to stride away. Beaten but unbowed, thought Vin. Vin suddenly realized what was the real reason for Mary's outburst. Chris seemed immune to Mary's attempts to reform him but Elvira had seemingly tamed Orlando Flynn, her own notoriously blackhearted gunslinger and they were soon to be married. Mary was clearly jealous of this achievement and that gave Vin Tanner even more hope.
Chris Larabee turned back and watched as the Widow Stacey stepped off the boardwalk. Horses were suddenly reined in and wagons hastily pulled up as she sashayed slowly across the street in her expensive city bought finery. Vin Tanner was glad it hadn't rained lately as if it had men would have been throwing their coats over muddy puddles for her.
Without consciously thinking about it Vin thrust his coffee mug at Mary, opened the door, stepped outside and wiping his grubby hands on his buckskins helped her step up onto the boardwalk. Hell, he was getting as bad as the rest of them!
Larabee laughed to himself and wondered if he should warn Vin that Elvira was well aware she was soon to be Vin's cousin by her marriage to Orlando Flynn. Instead he decided to enjoy the tracker's confusion at the hands of a notorious flirt. Having the upper hand over the tracker was a rare event for Chris Larabee and he wanted to savor every gleeful moment.
"Mr. Tanner. Why, how so very kind of you, lover."
"Miz Elvira! Mary will hear an' ya'll cause a scandal!"
"So you keep telling me. Shall we give Mary something to really talk about? Shall we shock the very bejesus out of her?"
"How about a kiss?"
"No! No! No. Please don't!" he almost whined. "Ya don't want Mary ta think bad a ya do ya?"
"I already know what women like Mary Travis think of me. It's always the same where ever I go. Why, they make up their minds in advance about what kind of a woman I must be. Are you quite sure you don't want to kiss me, lover?" she teased.
"Yeah," he exhaled with relief as she took his arm in an iron grip a Mississippi gator would have envied. His only means of escape was to gnaw off his own arm and he would have seriously considered doing it if it hadn't been his gun arm.
"Walk me to the livery stable then, lover. Then back to the hotel where I shall throw myself down on the bed prostrate with grief because you don't love me!"
"Miz Elvira, ya confuse me with all yer crazy talk," he rasped, so glad she hadn't tried to kiss him after all that he never thought to ask why they were on their way to the livery.
"Why don't you want to kiss me? Men usually want to. I think you're the very first man to ever decline the opportunity."
"Yer wearin' Orlando Flynn's big diamond ring," he said firmly, "Yer affianced an' courtin' him."
"No, he's supposed to be courting me and if he doesn't stop disappearing in a sulk for weeks at a time because I'll only let him hold my hand in the moonlight, he won't even be allowed to do that!" she pouted in a tetchy voice.
So much for Mary's suspicions of licentious behavior, thought Vin.
"I want you to do a little favor for me," she said. Elvira had never had a man refuse to acquiesce to one of her requests and she had no intention of letting Vin Tanner be the first. She leaned into him and toyed with the lacing on his shirt artfully, as he was enveloped in a cloud of rose perfume, "Please, lover."
"Stop it! Somebody will hear an' ya'll cause a scandal. Have ya no shame? Do ya want Orlando ta call me out an' shoot me dead? Ya cain't call me that now stop it!"
She had managed to somehow unfasten the lacing and she was standing so close to him he had no idea how to push her away without putting his hands on her. He flattened himself against the wall and sidestepped crablike along the boardwalk. Aghast he found he had backed himself into the door to the hayloft.
Now she had idly unfastened two buttons on his undershirt and one had fallen off and landed on the boardwalk with what sounded to Tanner like the tolling of a great bell. He did not understand how his clothes seemed to dissolve when she got her hands on him. If she got the third button undone she would find that Nathan's sharpest knife had sliced his undershirt open a few weeks ago to check for broken bones after he had been kicked in the ribs by a fat Mexican drunk awash with Tequila and red eye whiskey. Only the buttons held it together and he knew now he should have bought a new one but it was still a good undershirt with only one bullet hole in it.
What was wrong with the fool woman? couldn't she keep her hands to herself? Get a grip on yourself Tanner! Remember you're a Tanner and a gentleman said his Guardian Angel's voice in his right ear. Remember you're a man said The Devil's voice in his left ear.
He tried to shake his head clear and focus his mind on what she was saying. It was so difficult when her mouth was so close to his and he was trembling like a schoolboy. His heart was pounding fit to jump out of his chest. She could surely hear it crashing against his ribcage. He tried not to look at her inviting rosy lips. He looked down instead but that was a mistake as a rounded expanse of peachy skin threatened to drown him making his mind drop below his belt.
"I want to rip your clothes off and for you to ravish me in the hayloft."
"Ya what?" he gasped.
She couldn't have really said that could she? So what did she actually say? Because she was definitely waiting for an answer.
"I've already asked Chris Larabee and he said it's alright by him," she continued blithely.
"Ya what? Chris said ya kin do what with me?" he rasped absolutely terrified. Completely unaware he was being observed from a doorway across the other side of the street by his so called best friend, who fully expected Tanner to be eaten alive like half a sandwich.
Tanner panicked and reaching behind him he turned the door's handle falling backwards through the door to land in an ungainly heap at her feet. He squinted up at her as she looked down at him quite astonished.
"Why, you just could have said no," she said.
"No. I'll do it fer ya," he said praying it was something he could keep his pants on for.
"Do pick yourself up and join me in the livery then," she said as she swept away.
He climbed to his feet and meekly followed her, prepared to meet his doom.
"There she is and isn't she a beauty?" she was standing beside the gray mare.
"She surely is," he agreed.
"She's a Connemara brood mare from Ireland. Her right foreleg feels a little hot. Will you take a look at her for me?"
She watched him carefully as he checked the mare over. The ink stained hand he gently ran down the animal's foreleg was totally unlike the hand of Orlando's candidate for Vin's true paternity. They were both of similar height. With the same shoulders and slim waist. He had blue eyes that were really quite compelling, she seemed to recall once being told two brown eyed parents couldn't produce a blue eyed child. She would have call in on Libertyville's old Doctor Dempsey to ask about that. She couldn't explain it logically but women's intuition told her Orlando was correct and she was even more sure now that Chris Larabee believed it too. Her only living relative was her sister Stella and she very much looking forward to calling Vin 'cousin'.
"She feels awright to me. When did you last look in on her?" he asked finishing checking the mare over.
"A few hours ago."
"She could be fine now."
"So? Will you do it for me?"
"What I just asked you a few minutes earlier."
"Bring her out to the ranch in three days time for Orlando's birthday?" she repeated what she had asked him earlier. "She's his birthday gift. I need to keep her hidden here as I'm determined to really surprise Orlando with her."
"Yeah? That's all ya want me ta do?"
"What else did you think I wanted you to do?" she asked amazed that he didn't understand the finer points of harmless flirting. Hadn't he learned anything from Buck Wilmington?
"Don't know," he answered sheepishly.
"Walk me to the mercantile," she said sternly.
Much relieved he let her take his arm again and they strolled across to Mrs. Potter's store.
"Gloria dear, have you some undershirts in Mr. Tanner's size because his are in shreds? Vin, what color would you prefer...why wherever did he go?" she asked staring bemused at the still open door.
Buck Wilmington leaned back in the chair outside Digger Dave's, a glass of beer in his hand and watched the two women approaching each other on the boardwalk opposite.
"Fire and Ice," remarked Josiah Sanchez standing beside Buck and correctly surmising what had Buck's attention.
"I've always preferred the hot sun," grinned Buck thinking of Inez's fiery temper.
"And I the cool shade," sighed Josiah thinking of Maude.
"I wonder what they're saying about me," commented Buck as the two women stopped to converse.
"Two beautiful widows? Who else would they be talking about but the most eligible man in Four Corners? I hope my animal magnetism doesn't cause trouble between them."
"Oh, I think they could still be friends," chuckled Josiah.
"They have nothing else in common," shrugged Buck.
"Only Thunder and Blue Lightning."
"Here they come now," said Josiah as Larabee and Tanner headed towards the saloon.
As they stepped past each other on the boardwalk like two alley cats with their tails raised she paused, "Mrs. Travis, I know what little you think of me but I want you to know I respect you. You are a woman with strong convictions and high morals I admire that."
"Well, I don't really know you all that well," conceded Mary Travis grudgingly.
"Why, I don't suppose you would care to know me any better," she smiled.
"I don't think we have much in common," agreed Mary frigidly, while thinking this woman had no morals at all.
"I am sure we don't. Except the fact we are both women left without our husbands trying to make our way in a man's world. If we make enemies of our own kind we make ourselves all the weaker. As allies we become far stronger."
"I presume you wish this town to flourish and it is in my interests that it does too. I have made some rather large railroad investments and I would very much profit if tracks were to be laid hereabouts soon. Why, Libertyville has itself profited greatly from the railroad coming through. I helped with that by helping the town establish itself. I built a school and I made large donations to the Holy Mother Church in order to establish a church in Libertyville."
"Pardon me, ranchers hereabouts aren't known for their charitable acts."
"I have a great many sins to atone for."
"People are starting to settle here again. I would like to see a school opened here eventually," conceded Mary.
"So if you can set aside your dislike of me I think together we could make a difference here."
"I never actually said I disliked you," said Mary smiling faintly.
"Disapproved of then. I don't expect we would agree on everything but perhaps we could find some small patch of common ground?"
"Perhaps," agreed Mary thoughtfully, momentarily distracted by espying two handsome men entering the saloon.
"Why, it's a start," said Elvira following Mary's gaze. "Let us say we have reached an accord."
"There ya go, Miz Nettie," said Vin Tanner handing the feisty lady up into her wagon as if she was a china doll.
"You've not forgotten you're invited to eat with us on Sunday have you?" she asked smiling down at him fondly.
"No, ma'am! I's gonna try ta git there come Hell or high water, Miz Nettie."
"See you do. I've a whole winter's supply of socks knitted for you."
"Thank ya kindly, Miz Nettie. I surely needs 'em."
"Never met a man so hard on his socks. Are you sure you don't let Peso borrow them?"
"Only when it's real cold, ma'am."
"I believe you too!"
On Sunday when Vin Tanner reached Nettie's ranch he was surprised to see Jake McKenna's palomino, Lucifer, sulking out by the corral. He sprang up the few steps to the door and was concerned that there was no aroma of fresh baking to welcome him.
"Vin," greeted Jake getting up from his seat at the table as Tanner entered the cabin. "Nettie is out for the day but she left us a cold collation and a rather fine peach pie. Sit yourself down."
Vin Tanner had learned all he knew about a gentlemen's clothing from the gambler, Ezra Standish. He knew enough to surmise that Jake was wearing a suit built by a very fine tailor indeed. Jake's dove gray tie exactly matched a silk vest ornamented with a gold pocket watch and watch chain. On the table rested a dark blue hat matched in quality by Jake's highly polished boots complete with spurs that actually made a pair.
Vin whistled in admiration at the older man, "Yer not here ta propose ta Nettie then?"
"Miz Nettie's a fine woman and if I thought she would even consider it I might give it serious thought," grinned Jake sitting back down. There was an embarrassing silence until Jake spoke again, "I'm here to see you."
Vin Tanner sighed to himself. Now that Jake had started talking he wouldn't stop until night fell, by then Tanner thought he'd be praying for a bounty hunter to show up and shoot him, Jake could talk a glass eye to sleep. Oddly, he also seemed to have dropped his Texan accent in favor of the tone more suited to well-educated Army officer.
"The West is an extremely big place," said Jake rubbing the scar across his nose.
Tanner did not think such an obvious statement required an answer but he grunted in agreement.
"I wrestled with this a good while thinking it over but when I asked Nettie for her good advice she said that today would be a good day to tell you that many years ago I met your beloved mother in Texas..."
The First Lieutenant's dress uniform felt far too hot for indoors but Jake McKenna was required to wear it. After all the St. Valentine's Day dance was really being held in honor of the arrival of his regiment at the fort. In spite of the town being some distance away they had made an effort to welcome the regiment. Jake McKenna was a born soldier, it was all he had ever wanted to do. The U.S. Army was his life and his rise had been a rapid one, verging on the meteoric, he was well on his way to his first posting as a captain.
He was idly scanning the room for only the prettiest girls when he saw her. She was standing alone in a corner, her cheeks burning a bright pink with humiliation and his sharp blue eyes instantly observed that her dance card was completely empty. She was idly toying with it's tiny gold pencil looking on bravely as if she was unconcerned that no man deigned to dance with her.
He strode across the room, seized her dance card and wrote his name diagonally across it. Leaving her in no doubt he was claiming every dance, he led her out into the very middle of the dance floor. With a deep bow, he masterfully whirled her around the floor ignoring the stares and whispers. He was an accomplished dancer and they cut a swathe through the other couples. She in her home-made periwinkle blue dress, her wavy hair piled high and her glittering dark eyes that had so captured his heart for ever. If he heard them say half-breed under their breath, for her sake alone, he showed no sign of having done so.
The U.S. Army was his life but that very same night he vowed that if it ever came down to a choice between it and her he would ask his commanding officer to kindly take a bugle and shove it where the sun didn't shine.
He was never going to be any lady's idea of a handsome man. Yet when he gazed into her dark eyes love made him beautiful. He also looked splendid in his uniform. Having broad soldiers, a slim waist and strong muscular legs ideal for cavalry boots. He proposed marriage the very same night and only then asked her name. He courted Beatrice 'Honey' Fitzgerald every chance he was able after that first night. They spent the Spring and Summer together. Although she accepted his marriage proposal in principle, she refused a diamond ring until he had sought her father's permission to marry her. Certain there would be no objection to him pressing his suit he gave her a tiny diamond pin in the form of two swans making a heart shape because he said, swans mated for life.
In August he received his promotion to captain and the same night she gave him the greatest gift a woman could give a man. He proudly wore his new uniform insignia when in late October he formally called on Victor Fitzgerald, having at last received orders to leave for his new posting. He informed her father of his future expectations and assured her family he could keep her in fine style.
Jake McKenna had to be manhandled from the house by the field hands to prevent him committing murder when Victor Fitzgerald told him in no uncertain terms that any marriage offer for his half-breed daughter was entirely out of the question. Victor Fitzgerald made it as plain as an adobe wall that he regarded Beatrice as little better than an unpaid servant and vastly inferior to the rest of his family. Magnanimously offering Jake permission to court either of his two other daughters.
Jake explained to Honey again and again that he was compelled to leave for his new posting but that they could be married right away at the fort by the Army chaplain and leave together for his new assignment as man and wife. He even produced a gold wedding band to try and persuade her. Still she refused. She told him there would never be any hope of them being together while her family was against it. Jake implored her to elope with him but she again refused, saying it would break her loving step-mother's heart. He swore to her that he would never marry another and all she had to do was send him the swan pin if she ever changed her mind.
"Calm down, Victor do," begged Victor Fitzgerald's wife.
Beatrice Fitzgerald shrank back as he bore down on her, striking her twice across the face.
"Victor! No!" Mrs. Fitzgerald grabbed at her irate husband's arm to protect her step-daughter. "Stop it, please!"
Beatrice's two half-sisters ran from the room screaming as Victor Fitzgerald ranted and raved like a mad man.
"It's partly your own fault, Victor, you had no call to refuse them permission to marry!" protested Mrs. Fitzgerald wrapping her arms around the terrified girl. "We can inform him and I'm sure he'll do the right thing by her," she said trying to placate him.
"After all this time? Do you think an officer and a gentleman will want her now with a belly full of God knows whose bastard?"
"If she'll lie down with one man she'll lie down with a dozen dirty wretches! Just like her mother!"
"Well, of course you'd know all about that wouldn't you, Victor?" commented his wife tartly.
"He said he would come back fer me!" sobbed Beatrice. "I know he meant it."
"Foolish girl! Don't you know what he's doing now? Riding high up on his fancy cavalry horse slaughtering hundreds of Indian women and children just like you and your cursed mother! What do you think he joined the Army for? To make friends with the Indians? He was never going to go through with any wedding!" roared Victor.
"Victor! Of course he was! He asked permission from his commanding officer to come and see you! He did everything in the proper fashion!" argued his wife.
"Don't act as dumb as you look woman. He isn't going to wreck his military career by marrying the likes of her. Do you honestly think he's going to take her to meet his fellow officer's wives? She'd be ostracized and the ruination of his entire career!"
"Victor, we at least have to let him know."
"Just so he can refuse to have anything to do with her? Do you know how much money and land his Grandfather has? How much power? Do you want me to be ruined too? They have more money and land than God! They practically own Texas for God's sake!"
"Victor, do stop blaspheming. I'm quite sure they won't want a scandal either. He'll have to marry her. Won't he?"
"Shall I tell you what will happen if they do find out? Some poor relation of theirs will be paid to turn up and claim the brat as his. We'll be paid off and that will be that. There'll be no wedding to any Captain McKenna. Not now, not ever. Now tell me girl, do you want to cause a scandal and blacken the Fitzgerald's good name? A name I was good enough to give you? A name that stretches back to the Kings of Tara?"
"Poppycock, Victor! You come from a long line of poor downtrodden, poteen drinking, Irish bogtrotters and well you know it!" sneered his wife. "I'm the one that can trace my line back that far and why I ever sank so low as to marry you I will never know!"
"Well, I'll be poor and downtrodden again after I've paid some brainless idiot to marry her."
Beatrice unfolded the piece of paper Jake had given her and smoothed out the creases. She didn't know her letters but she knew what it said by heart. The top line was his full name and rank, the second his posting, the third was his father's name and the name of the ranch, followed by the name of the town nearest to it. All she had to do was send the swan pin to his father's ranch and she knew without a single doubt he'd come for her and their unborn child. So she threw the paper in the fire and watched the ashes fly up the chimney.
Jake McKenna was a born soldier, it was all he had ever wanted to do and the U.S. Army was his life. She couldn't take that away from him. She pinned the swans to her periwinkle blue dress. Today was her wedding day. She would marry Vincent Tanner, the man her father had offered the money to, so that the baby would be born a Tanner and right now that was all that mattered to her.
Jake had actually paused for breath. A shocked and stunned Vin Tanner was hopeful Jake would stay quiet while he took in this revelation but it was too much to expect and Jake rapidly carried on again.
"I loved her you understand. Perhaps it was wrong of me to expect her to agree to be my wife but she was so beautiful both inside and out. In the end she was a good girl and obeyed her family. I really should have made her understand that for her I would have left the Army without a backward glance. She was everything I could ever want right there. I would have done anything, given her anything but she sent me away."
"Vince left us, then she got sick. She died alone."
"Alone? What about her family, the Fitzgeralds?"
"And you?" asked Jake unable to hide his astonishment.
"Never claimed me."
"Victor Fitzgerald was very much like your Mr. Conklin. Quick to condemn others. So he never wanted it known he'd once taken up with an Indian girl. When she died in childbirth Victor brought the tiny baby home. That was your mother. Expected his wife to take her in without a word. Which her being a good God-fearing woman she did and always was nothing but kind to your mother. Kinder than Victor was. He always treated your mother like she was some savage going to up and shame the Fitzgerald's so-called good name. Damned hypocrite."
"Vince Tanner finally put in an appearance when I were old enough ta work like a dawg fer him."
"I have two more sons, both to women who only wanted a baby not a husband and that suited me fine. So when I was in a tiny Sheriff's office back in a Texan town called Tascosa, a place so flat you would have thought a woman had taken a smoothing iron to it, trying to persuade them Orlando Flynn's latest gunfight had been fought fairly, even though Orlando had been too drunk to stand up straight, I saw your Wanted poster and suspected for the first time that I had another son. I spent quite some time searching for you, boy. Then I waited awhile to see how well you had turned out before I spoke my piece."
"I have half-brothers?"
"Two or so," admitted Jake, hardly able to imagine what Vin must have suffered. "Sisters too."
"Where are they?"
"Far and wide. Ethan might show up for Orlando's wedding. He's a bit wild but not a bad sort for an Army brat."
"How old is he?"
"A year different to you. You must understand I never knew about you being mine. I see my other sons often even though it isn't always easy and none have ever wanted for anything or got hurt. I surely wish your mother had written to me about you being mine. I'd have ridden straight back for her, stole her away and the highfaluting Fitzgeralds could have all gone straight to Hell if I'd known. That I swear to you."
Tanner fell silent at that, thinking how different his life might have been. Finally he said, "Mama was never learned ta read or write."
"She never told me!"
"So I ain't a Tanner?" Vin sighed sadly. "Ain't never bin a Tanner like Ma always said I were ta remember."
"Of course you damn well are," chuckled Jake glad at last to have something more cheerful to impart to the shellshocked younger man.
"Ya ain't goin' ta give me yer name?"
"My full given name is Jacob Calvin Hamish McKenna Tanner. You're welcome to all of it if you're wanting it. Pa wanted me to settle in Texas and I only wanted to be a soldier. My mother's father, my Grandpa McKenna, was the one who got me into West Point so I use his name."
"No offense, I might pass on the Hamish part. I got a Grandpa Tanner an' a Great-Grandpa McKenna?"
"Grandmother Tanner too. Get your business in Tascosa settled and you can visit with them. Mother loves all my kids. She spoils Ethan real bad. He used to look like that kid Eugene you told me about. Fat wasn't the word, a real butterball."
Vin fell silent again.
"Listen, Vin. I understand you have already got some family of your own now. A family of your own choosing. That's a mighty thing for a man to have, so if you feel that acknowledging your blood kin would be disrespectful towards Chris Larabee and the others I'd understand. I can hardly make demands on you after all this time."
Vin couldn't blame Jake for anything but he had years of rancor bottled up inside him so he could not help but say, "Vincent beat on Ma."
"He hurt you?"
"Mama, she made sure he didn't. He beat on her yelling at her an' demanding ta know where the money was afore stormin' off."
"The money Victor Fitzgerald promised iffen they married up."
"Hell's Bells," said Jake and for once he had no more words to say.
Jake and Vin parted company just outside Four Corners and deliberately rode in separate directions. For even though the two men had an easy going friendship, a father and son relationship couldn't be forged overnight. Jake was willing to concede it might not be what Vin wanted at all. Though he himself was more than willing to gain another son. Especially when that son was as fine a young man as Vin Tanner had proved to be.
Vin replayed the conversation over in his head again and again but he guessed it would be some time before it felt even the tiniest bit real. After all the years he had spent thinking he had no one, learning not to need anyone but himself, to find out that all along there had been a huge family waiting for him somewhere in Texas was the stuff of fairy tales.
Would they really want him? Would they accept him or regard him as some by-blow there on sufferance? Jake had told him his other children were part of the family, would he be? Did he want to be? When he already had a family of his own choosing?
Only time would tell.
Vin Tanner spent three days in the hills, his dog at his heels, he needed time to think clearly and he couldn't do that amidst the hustle and bustle of the town.
"Mama? Reckon I mostly know it all now. Even how ya got the money ta buy the land an' get away from Victor Fitzgerald."
Vin drew the old bottle out of his buckskin and opened it up. Papers and a jeweled swan shaped pin slid into his hand.
"Took this from the cabin, Mama, an' carried it with me fer years jus' 'cause it were yers an' it were all I had of ya. Then Mary, that's Mary Travis. Mama, a real fine lady ya'd like her she's bin right good ta me, she taught me ta read an' I found out this piece a paper is a deed in my name. Mama, I ain't sure why ya bought that worthless patch a land. Ya must a known, same as I knowed, that Vince weren't never goin' ta find a place ta sink a well on it without half-drownin' hisself in salt water an' that black, bubbling poison. Guess it were the one mistake ya made, Mama, buying that pig in a poke. That an' not marryin' up with Jake when he done asked ya. All these years, Mama an' he still has a real deep feelin' fer ya."
Vin Tanner sighed deeply before heading down to the fast flowing river where he wrapped his mare's leg in his buckskin and dropped them behind a rock while he washed up.
"Wanna visit Larabee's ranch, dawg?" Vin asked Savage. "I knowed he banned us from visitin' but I reckon he's softened up some since he first met ya."
Savage tilted his head on one side trying to look innocent.
"Ya think I ain't seen Larabee sneakin' ya the leavings off his plate in the saloon?"
Savage tried staring up at his man with pale eyes.
"That ornery gunfighter is gonna spoil ya. Get started an' I'll catch up ta ya," rasped Vin as Savage streaked away.
"Now that cur has left we can get reacquainted, son."
"Vincent Tanner, what ya wantin' here?"
"Is that anyway ta greet yer pa?"
"Ain't no son a yers."
For the first time in his life Vin Tanner relished saying that knowing it was a fact and not merely wishful thinking.
"No need ta be unwelcoming. Who filled yer head with tall tales?"
"I knows it all, Vincent. Jake McKenna is my true Pa."
"Hellfire. No wonder yer Ma kept quiet on who it was even from me. Them cursed Tanners thinks they rule Texas. They stake a claim ta everything that moves an' woulda grabbed ya right outta yer Ma's arms if they'd known ya were their kin."
"Yeah?" Vin couldn't help but be interested to hear that.
"Hell, I woulda handed ya over myself fer a hefty price if I'd been wise ta that. Yer Ma was always too damn good at keepin' her trap shut tight."
"So ya can get the hell outta here. We ain't got no business anymore. Eli Joe is long dead an' iiffen ya think I'll let ya hurt Chris Larabee ya can forget it."
"Eli Joe was a dumb fool an' he got what he deserved fer messin' with ya. I gotta admit when it comes ta offspring I would gladly have traded him fer a son like ya."
"Then be on yer way."
"Don't be hasty, so-, Vin. There is the small matter of the land."
"Land? What land? Pa ain't got no land." Vin had no idea if that was true or not. It would never have occurred to him to ask if Jake McKenna had anything other than his Deputy Sheriff's salary in his wallet.
"Yer Ma's land. I know now that's where the money went."
"It's a worthless patch a scrub an' ya know it."
"Yer Ma was a lot of things but she weren't stupid. If she bought that land it were worth something. She weren't never the kind a woman ta buy a pig in a poke. Mebbe there's gold or silver on it or some such. So tell me where the deed is an' we'll be on our way."
"Ain't got no deed."
"I ripped apart every stick of furniture in that cabin an' I ain't ever found it. It's cost me good money to track ya, boy. Men don't come cheap ya know. I ain't leavin' empty handed."
"Me an' Ma weren't never able ta read an' write so mebbe we burnt it jus' ta keep the cabin warm when ya ran out on us."
"Jus' hand it over, son," advised Vince Tanner tiredly.
"Call me son ag'in an' I'll shoot ya down."
"What with? That sawed-off is out of even yer reach," Vincent Tanner calmly drew one of his Colts as he spoke.
Vin stared at the swarthy, brown eyed man with the jet black hair as straight as a fireside poker and pondered on why he had ever thought this man was his kin. They didn't look the least bit alike and if further evidence was needed Vin had obviously inherited his brains from someone else because Vincent Tanner was the compleat idiot if he thought Vin was going to let one man take him anywhere he wasn't feeling disposed to go.
"Jus' ride on Vincent or ya'll be in a World a trouble."
"Now are ya sayin' ya ain't lookin' forward ta a little family reunion?" sneered Vincent Tanner.
"Done tol' ya, we ain't family."
"Not yer family, mine. Alva Jane, come and join us."
"Vin! How nice to see you again. You do remember Uriah don't you?" Alva Jane appeared suddenly. Standing in a patch of dappled sunlight that made her look even prettier than she ever had before.
"Mr. Tanner," nodded Uriah.
Alva Jane was smiling while Uriah, clutching his black leather medical bag to his chest, was practically giggling like a child on Christmas at the sight of Vin Tanner standing completely alone and unarmed.
Vin Tanner was gone. When he hadn't returned Chris Larabee had calmly placed his black hat on his blond head and ridden out to find him. Closely followed by the other five members of The Larabee Gang. They had terrorized the inhabitants of the Territory by their mere presence. Stalking up and down the rickety boardwalks until satisfied the towns they had visited knew nothing.
Next, Chris Larabee had turned his horse towards Texas.
"There's a little backwater town up in the Texas panhandle. Tascosa. Flatter 'n a felt-covered poker table. Ya know it?" Vin Tanner had asked him. Now those words in that dry raspy voice were all he could hear.
Tascosa swiftly knew it had been visited by the grimmest Reaper on Earth but still had yielded no clue as to Vin Tanner's whereabouts.
Back in the Territory the Widow Stacey let it be known she would pay and pay well for any scrap of information on Vin Tanner. None was forthcoming. Not even a trickster or conman could be tempted by the rich widow's money into any kind of hustle when it meant facing Chris Larabee. Jake McKenna had searched half the West for his son and Orlando Flynn had searched the other half to no avail.
When there was nowhere left to search weeks became months and Vin Tanner was still missing. Chris Larabee left Four Corner's for Purgatorio in search of a faster gun than his own to end his misery.
Ezra Standish settled his bill with Inez Recillos before he left town and told her he would send for his luggage when he was settled elsewhere. Buck Wilmington was torn between the need to watch Larabee's back and the need to stay with J.D. Dunne. JD was now the Sheriff of Four Corners newly re-appointed by a desperate Judge Travis.
Josiah Sanchez his knees worn out by constant prayer left for the Indian reservation and joined Kojay in his medicine lodge where they both asked for a sign. The Spirits were so far disinclined to listen. Nathan Jackson studied every medical book he possessed in preparation for Tanner's eventual return because he couldn't bear to think of him as dead. Vin Tanner was one of the disappeared.
The Widow Stacey seldom visited Four Corners any longer but her home was open day and night to any member of The Larabee Gang. When Mr. Conklin raised a small contingent of townspeople demanding Vin's wagon be taken off the street the Widow Stacey rode angrily into town.
She promptly boxed Phileas Conklin's ears until they rang and drove the wagon out to her ranch. Finding a sheltered place she thought Vin would enjoy she positioned it there until he wanted it back because she could not bear to think he might never have a need for it again.
Jake McKenna stayed around Four Corners because it was the last place he had seen his son alive and he couldn't bear to think of him any other way.
Months later Jake McKenna was visited in Four Corners by the biggest Indian the Territory had ever seen. In the past the Apache had enjoyed scouting with the U.S. Cavalry's own Major Jake McKenna. Where Jake was there would always be a good fight. The Apache liked nothing better than a good fight. The Apache had found Vin Tanner as a gift for Jake and looked forward to the good fight. The small war to come.
The Apache was a big man and carrying Vin Tanner down the main street was of no consequence to him physically. Besides his burden was little more than woeful skin and bone. The finest horse in the Territory was standing sulkily outside the saloon bearing a black Mexican saddle resplendent with heavy silver decoration that the Apache was in no doubt belonged to Jake.
The Apache shouldered open the doors and entered the saloon. He knew this was to invite trouble but he liked trouble. Why live a hundred days as a sheep when you could live one day as a lion?
Men froze in their seats, men at the bar stood with glasses half raised, some reached for their guns until Jake stood up and quickly relieved the Apache of his human bundle. Jake strode from the saloon to Nathan Jackson's clinic with the Apache following on behind his eyes focused on Jake's broad buckskin clad back, a huge happy smile on his face.
JD ran down the street after them unable to believe his tear filled eyes. He screamed for Buck Wilmington as he ran. The pretty working girl tumbled painfully from Buck Wilmington's knee as he ran from Digger Dave's to the foot of the clinic steps.
"Is it true, JD?" bellowed Buck.
"Yeah! It's true it's Vin!" yelled JD from the top of the clinic steps.
Buck let out a great yell of relief and lit out for Purgatorio with his coattails on fire.
The Widow Stacey rode pell-mell into town, hurled herself up the stairs to the clinic and almost couldn't get the door open in her haste. Finally she flung herself inside and stood out of breath at the end of the bed.
"Dear God!" she cried her hand covering her mouth with shock. "What happened to him?"
"Get her out of here," ordered Jake.
From his place cross-legged in the far corner the Apache watched the unfolding events with interest. JD took a hesitant step towards her.
"His neck," she said. "What did they do to him?"
"They had him chained like a dawg," roared Jake.
"An iron collar," added Nathan with empathy.
She watched as Nathan delicately tweezed away the blackened strips of cloth knotted around Tanner's hands. Across the palms and wrapped about his wrists. She recognized the cloth as being from one of his own shirts. She did not recognize the pants ripped off above the knees that were stiff with filth. He wore nothing else, not even on his feet. His hair was longer than ever, matted and tangled, it fell way past his shoulders.
"Tar," muttered Jake.
Nathan glanced up, "What?"
"The boy has bin 'board a ship. It's tar. Rope burns on his hands ain't they?"
"Could be," agreed Nathan.
Chained! She thought as she busied herself pouring warm water in a bowl to assist Nathan. Why would they do that? What else had they done to him? She tried to push away the hideous images forming in her mind's eye. A ship? What kind of a ship? Coming from where? She started to gently wash his dirty feet and legs.
The Apache watched Nathan work. The dark man was good at what he did decided the Apache that was why Jake trusted him. The Apache didn't think white men usually put their loved ones in to the hands of a dark man. He must be a very special man. The woman had completely ignored Jake's order to leave and Jake hadn't bothered to insist she obey him. The Indian was not surprised he remembered her kindness to him once before and knew she lived by her own code. She was very well-dressed, obviously rich but not born to that life decided the Apache and she had a dark secret that threatened to destroy her, he could plainly see it in her eyes.
The thing that intrigued him most was the ring she wore. He recognized the blue stone set in the wide band of silver. It wasn't the work of a white man not even one skilled enough to copy such jewelry. The Apache knew he was in a room full of mysteries where things might not be what they seemed. He relished it, knowing he had been right and there would be a good fight soon.
A number of disagreeable bars graced Purgatorio. The filth that coated them was only out done by that clinging to the clientèle. Ezra Standish asked himself for the hundredth time what he was doing here in this God forsaken place? Even The Devil himself had left, unable to vie with the competition.
Seated at his usual table he watched as Chris Larabee appeared likely to slide down the wall in a drunken stupor. He watched as Larabee's butt hit the floor with a dull thud and marveled at the fact Larabee still retained his grip on his nearly empty bottle of tequila. With a deep sigh Ezra got to his feet and crossed the crowded barroom to haul Larabee off to Maria's room.
Maria was seemingly quite happy to sell her body to keep Chris Larabee in hard drink and in her bed. She opened the door and helped Ezra deposit Larabee on to the patched bedspread.
"Has he eaten today, Señor Standish?" Maria asked.
"He snacked on a misguided idiot who tried to relieve him of the few coins you had given him around noon. Other than that, no, he has not. Not that I blame him. I too try to avoid obtaining sustenance in this town."
Maria wrinkled her pretty brow. She only understood the occasional word Señor Standish spoke and it wasn't because her English was particular poor either it just seemed to her that often Ezra didn't speak it.
"I'll stay with him while you obtain a suitable repast," offered Ezra.
Maria shrugged only understanding half of the sentence and left the room.
Ezra looked down at the unshaved face of his friend. What was he doing here? Keeping his promise to never run out on The Larabee Gang while they needed him, he supposed. In spite of what Larabee would insist when he came around Ezra was needed. He had to keep Chris Larabee from killing himself because if Chris Larabee died so would Ezra's hope of ever seeing Vin Tanner alive again.
And Ezra couldn't live with that.
Buck reached Purgatorio as up in her room Maria fed Chris Larabee. Buck was more than amazed to find Ezra Standish playing cards in the barroom. He wasn't sure which surprised him more that Ezra was living in such an unsavory place or that Ezra hadn't already been shot dead in such an unsavory place.
The color drained from Ezra's face, "Is there news?" he demanded rising to his feet.
"Vin's alive. Hell, at least he was when I left."
"From the state he's in it doesn't look like God had much involvement."
"He needs Chris."
Neither man thought there was anything odd in this last statement.
"Follow me," said Ezra leading the way.
Maria had never seen a man sober up so fast. She had no idea what Vin Tanner even looked like but she had spent many nights burning up with jealousy. Chris cried out this man's name in his sleep almost every night. He and Ezra held half whispered conversations long into the night repeating the name Vin Tanner over and over again. Maria watched them leave. She was sad to lose Chris Larabee. She had never expected him to love her but she had realized long ago he would never care for her as deeply as he cared for Vin Tanner.
Three men rode Hell for leather back to Four Corners. Inside the clinic Jake gave up his seat by his son's bed to Chris Larabee. The blond gratefully acknowledged it with a nod of his head and leaned over his friend.
"Vin? Vin, speak to me."
There was no answer but that was hardly surprising. Even a well man probably would not have recognized the barely whispered words as belonging to the normally strong Chris Larabee.
"He opens his eyes occasionally but doesn't speak or seem to know any of us," Nathan told him.
Jake motioned to the Apache. Once outside Jake folded his arms across his broad chest and listened in silence for once.
"Found him in a shack on the river-front, chained up. Like he is now. Many men very afraid of him."
"Men? What men?" Jake demanded to know.
"Many guards. All afraid. He still fighting them like a ghost warrior. They don't feed him to keep him quiet while they wait."
"Wait for what?"
"Their chief? Did they say who their chief was?"
"They wait for Vin Tanner."
"That ain't makin' no sense."
"Maybe why they are afraid."
"Don't make sense. Ghost warrior?"
"They chained him up after he killed some of them trying to escape in the dead of night. Make good Apache your boy. Not like you."
"Why not like me?" smiled Jake.
"You talk too much."
"Why did you look for him?"
"For you. You looked for my wife."
"Ya don't owe me anythin' fer that. I'm only sorry it was too late."
"Still you looked. I never forget that. You let them court-martial you."
"I didn't exactly have much choice 'bout that."
"White soldier always have a choice whether to help Apache or not."
"Let's say we are even now."
"No. Not yet. When he speaks a name I will bring you the ears of your son's enemy."
"I'll look forward ta that!" grinned Jake.
It was almost a week before Vin Tanner spoke.
He had listened when they had spoken to him and opened his eyes to stare at Chris Larabee. As Nathan had said he didn't appear to know where he was. Chris thought Vin knew well enough but for some reason didn't believe it. Vin's hand rested in his and for Chris that was enough right now. He did not dare ask God for more than that.
Tanner turned his big sunken eyes towards Chris.
Ya really here, Cowboy?
I'm really here.
Chris reached out in the dark and grasped his friend's skinny forearm. "Can you speak to me, Vin?"
"I don't suppose you went willingly. You didn't did you?"
"Don't send me back," rasped the tracker somewhat irrationally.
"Listen Vin, you aren't going anywhere. Jake's about ready to keep you within sight for the next twenty years even if he has to lock you in the jail house to do it and I..." His voice trailed off as he couldn't find the words to voice all he wanted to say.
"I say you aren't going anywhere. You aggravating little bastard, I missed you every damn day."
"Yer vexed some I kin tell."
"Vexed? VEXED? Vin, you were starved, beaten and chained like a dog you might say I'm mighty vexed!" Larabee let out a long audible breath as Tanner's eyes fluttered closed and he slept again.
Well, he'd never expected Vin's return to be easy.
Vin's eyes fluttered open again a good eight hours later and he stared up at the grim countenances staring back down at him.
"Hell, what ya blamin' me fer now?" he rasped.
"Who did this ta ya?" demanded Jake.
"What? Not even a howdy, son?" drawled Vin.
"Yer not too old fer gettin' yer first spanking from yer pa. Now, who did this ta ya?" repeated Jake waving a huge ham sized fist at his son.
"Chris, ya goin' ta let him bully me like that?" pleaded Vin.
"Maybe he can finally knock some sense into that thick head. Now, tell me who was it did this to you?" repeated Chris.
"Vincent Tanner," confessed Vin.
"Why?" asked Chris.
"He wants Ma's bit a land."
"The land back in Texas? You said it was worthless," Chris said glancing at Jake who shrugged.
"It's what he done wanted all along," hissed Vin.
"Hell, Vin. Why didn't you just give it to him?" barked Chris.
"No! It was hers!" snapped back the tracker stubbornly. "She never woulda wanted him ta get his hands on it. She brought me up ta fight fer what's mine!"
"Why put you on a ship?" asked Nathan.
"Ya know why, Nathan. Ta treat me like a slave. Ta break me. Make me give up the deed."
The men were too busy trying to make sense of it all to notice that the Apache had disappeared.
"Chris, can ya show me Honey Tanner's scrap of land on the jail house map?" asked Jake.
"There, that's it. Vin pointed it out once. Does it have any value?"
Jake started to laugh.
"Not to Vincent Tanner. It is just a tiny patch a scrub ta any but me, true enough."
"You make about as much sense as that long-haired pirate upstairs in Nathan's clinic."
Jake pointed a big thick finger at the map. "That there is McKenna land. Honey Tanner's land was right on our borders."
"All this is your land?"
"Grandpa McKenna's land. I don't own a speck of it but I run a few thousand head a beef on it. In my family that's considered only enough ta be a hobby. See how it borders my Pa's land too? The rest is Flynn land. It's a little island right in the middle."
"All this?" Since meeting Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee had become convinced all Texan's exaggerated wildly but it seemed the Tanners might indeed own half of Texas.
Jake McKenna was still laughing right up until the moment he brushed away a tear. "Honey raised my son up practically on Tanner land. She brought him home."
"I'm goin' after Vincent Tanner," announced Jake McKenna some days later after Nathan had assured him Vin only needed good food and rest to recover fully. "I'm shamed ta say I once rode with him so I reckon I can find him."
"You won't mind if I ride along too."
"You stay where yer needed, Chris, an' I'll be much obliged. I cain't do this iffen I ain't thinkin' Vin is safe. I want my son back on his feet when I get back." Jake desperately wanted to see both his son and his son's best friend fully healed by the time he returned.
Chris Larabee didn't like it but he didn't want to leave Vin alone either so he watched Jake mount Lucifer and gallop towards Texas.
"Where's Pa?" drawled Vin sleepily.
"Hell, Larabee! Ya shoulda stopped him. Ya know Vincent is meaner than a gut-shot grizzly. Where's m' sawed-off? Where's m' pants? I gotta stop him."
"To answer all your questions. The Hell I should. Couldn't even if I wanted to. Yes, I do know that. How the Hell should I know, you lost it. No idea, I think Nathan burned the rags you were wearing. No, you haven't."
"Now shut up or I'll let Cousin Elvira give you another bed bath."
"Another bed bath?" The tracker's eyes grew wide with horror. "She never did! Did she?"
"Didn't miss a spot as I recall," lied Chris.
"Ya shoulda stopped her!"
"She insisted," grinned Chris evilly, short of only a cape and a mustache to twirl to make him resemble a theatrical villain.
"Feel faint, Larabee."
"So you're not well enough to sit a horse then?"
"Damn!" snapped the tracker, realizing he had been out maneuvered.
"You should have just handed over the deed to Vincent Tanner, Vin."
"No. Ma fought all her life, Chris, I had ta live up ta bein' a Tanner."
"Stubborn jackass. Why didn't they just throw you overboard? I would have done. Fact is, I'm considering doing it now."
"Naw. Y'all missed me somethin' dreadful. Alva Jane were lyin' ta me," yawned the tracker falling asleep again in an instant.
"Alva Jane? Alva Jane was there too? Vin?"
The tracker didn't respond. Chris sat by the bed shocked by this new revelation. If Alva Jane had been there as Vin had said and Chris knew it wasn't something Vin was going to invent, then had Uriah been there too? If so what had he done to Vin? Chris perused the list of injuries that Nathan had found on the tracker's body and he himself had committed to memory. Uriah was an expert. There could have been terrible agonies perpetrated on Vin that didn't leave the sort of marks one might expect to see.
Chris twisted and knotted the bedclothes in his hands and wished it could one day be Uriah's neck he gripped.
Vin Tanner lay on his back and the floor rocked and rolled beneath him. He didn't know where he was and he didn't care to open his eyes to find out. There was no point. No point to any of it anymore. He had seen the banner headline across the front page with his very own eyes. As bold and blackhearted as Larabee himself.
Alva Jane had gloated as she had presented the newspaper to him and watched him read it in stunned disbelief. Saying each word out loud his husky voice shaking. Then he had traced each letter with his finger like a blind man as if silenced they might spell out a different fate for the gunslinger. Then the grief had welled up inside him. Threatening to drown him in a tide of despair. He could no longer remember how to breathe, how to see or how to hear. Alva Jane had encircled him in her arms as trembling, hardly able to stand he had given up and she had led him to her bed.
It was dark all the time even when there was light. He felt as if he was deep underwater. Voices came and went. Distorted faces peered down at him. Nothing made sense any longer. He was only briefly aware when she touched him. It didn't mean anything to him. It gave him no comfort. Failed to provoke any response other than the purely physical one. He was too disconnected from his own body to be able to put a stop to what she did to him even as it broke his heart.
Now the timbers surrounding him creaked and groaned. Still he didn't care. He finally realized he was no longer in her bed. He vaguely recalled he had cried out a name in the darkness. The name of the one woman who might have understood. The one person whose touch he might have found comfort in. It had angered Alva Jane enough for her to admit defeat, that he would never be hers and throw him out of her bed. To hand him over to Uriah.
Not that Tanner cared. He would have only welcomed physical pain. Accepted it as his punishment. A prelude to the Hell of living without his best friend. The man he called brother.
Ever the professional, Uriah had conceded his skills could not match the torture Vin Tanner was putting himself through. The agonies he was experiencing might not have been physical but they could not have been more painful. Why crucify a man with iron nails when the victim was already rending his own soul apart? Uriah had to take his hat off to Alva Jane, she had found the one way to break Vin Tanner. She had made him believe Chris Larabee was dead.
So Uriah had held Vin Tanner night after night. Tried to comfort the broken man. To hush his wracking sobs. To bring him back into the light. All to no avail.
He was falling. Tossed about like a rag doll. Timbers splintering all around him. He was made to open his eyes by forces far greater than his own willpower. He wiped the crusted drool away from the side of his mouth and tasted salt. He saw dark eyes watching him furtively from the corner. The rats were still aboard so the ship wasn't sinking. Not that he cared one iota.
He heard scurrying feet, bellowed orders and men fighting to keep the ship afloat as each swell threatened to take them all down to Davy Jones's locker.
The door in front of him popped open. He had no inclination 'to escape'. From what? To where?
He heard a deafeningly loud crash and the desperate screams of men pinned by one of the masts. He had heard a man scream like that once before. A scream that said all hope was gone.
Suddenly, in this horrific place he felt something. It flickered inside him, a glowing flame. Growing fiercer. It permeated his bones. He felt it overwhelm him now. Why had he been so blind? He should have trusted his own senses in spite of the evidence. Chris Larabee was no more dead than he was! He knew it. He could feel it.
He scrabbled at the wooden floor and finally found his feet. Staggering he made a valiant attempt to make it to the door and scampered up the rungs, through the hatch and onto the decks.
He was immediately overcome by a bout of dizziness. The vastness of the leaden sky and the titanic seas were too much for his brain to process after weeks of captivity. He fell on his hands and knees, vomiting watery bile. He at last climbed to his feet and joined in lending what little strength he had left to the desperate crew's efforts.
Vin Tanner wasn't dead. He celebrated it now. The ship had eventually docked in a foreign land. He had little desire to go ashore but he did so to prove he was alive and no longer a prisoner. He had patiently had it explained to him by the ship's Captain that the crew had lobbied for him to be freed in the next major port on account off his bravery during the near sinking of the ship and the subsequent voyage. On reaching their destination Tanner had then asked a favor and the Captain of the ship had found an oriental Captain who had agreed Vin could obtain passage home to America aboard his ship. Warning Tanner he would once again likely find himself in the hands of his enemies when they reached his home port. Unfortunately the Captain was proved right and a Mickey Finn in a dockside tavern had seen him delivered back into Vincent Tanner's hands.
Larabee was immediately startled from his doze. "What? Do you need Nathan?"
"Naw. Why's it dark?" he rasped.
"Because it's the middle of the damn night," muttered Chris as he trimmed the wick and re-lit the nearest oil lamp. Sitting beside the bed he knew he should not ask but he had to know, "Was Uriah there too?" he blurted out.
Vin turned his face to the wall.
"Vin?" prompted Larabee. When there came no answer he knew he should not ask again but still he said, "Whatever he did to you there was no way you could stop it, Vin. You're not to blame."
"It weren't him, he were nuthin' but kind, it were her."
"Alva Jane? On the ship with you?"
"Naw. Ship weren't so bad, Chris. They put me to work up in the shrouds. I don't mind climbin' up the ratlines. I felt free up high an' once I's broke a few a their teeth with a belaying pin they mostly left me alone. Bo'sun were a fair man he never flogged me. Ship life were grinding hard work but nuthin' new ta me. It were her that did it."
"Did what, Vin?"
"Made me break down."
"Chris, she showed me a newspaper. A real lookin' newspaper. On proper newsprint with real news reporting like Mary's. A big black headline on it all 'bout ya. Said ya were shot dead in Purgatorio. Let me read it fer m'self over an' over ag'in. It were there in print, it had ta be true. It broke me, Chris. After that I let her do what she wanted. Didn't care no more. Let her drag me down inta the dirt with her, Chris. Broke ev'ry promise I ever made. She never needed Uriah an' his bag o' tricks, she had tricks of her own. I let her use me, Chris. I gave up without a fight."
"Is that why you couldn't speak at first?"
"So much I wanted ta say but I weren't sure iffen it were another trick an' then the guilt."
"The Indian said you were still fighting. That you killed some men trying to get away. That doesn't sound like a man giving up, Vin."
"She said me an' her would be together ferever. That's what she wanted outta this, why she helped Vincent, Chris. Me. All ta herself like Ella Gaines wanted ya. Then on the ship I were real sure ya weren't dead. I knowed that iffen ya were I'd know it in here," the tracker laid the gunfighter's hand against his heart. "I'd know it in my bones, Chris. Like I knew Ella were bad fer ya. I could feel ya still out there. So I killed four on 'em tryin' ta get back ta ya."
"And that's when they chained you up?"
"Got two more afore they got the chains on me secured ta the wall," grinned Vin. "Then the fools tried ta starve me ta death."
"Vin, I have news for you, they almost succeeded."
"Uriah sneaked some food in fer me when he were able."
"Didn't eat at first, thought it were poison or mebbe at least drugged. Then he ate some ta show me it weren't."
"Why did he help you?"
"Uriah is a professional an' said it were no way ta treat a man like me, said he could wait," shrugged Tanner. "He said he wanted me alive so we'd meet ag'in. Said I's his unfinished masterpiece."
"Hell, so are ya but I try not ta hold it agin ya," yawned Vin reaching for Larabee's forearm before falling back asleep.
Chris stepped outside onto the walkway as Tanner slept. Standing in the harsh noon sun after the long night he lit a cheroot. Took a drag on it then angrily stubbed it out on the handrail. Then a minute later he lit another for something to do. He stared down as she sashayed up the steps, a following Chinese servant struggling to keep her in the shade of the parasol. Larabee rubbed his temples. He was in no mood for the likes of her.
"Telegraph," said Elvira Stacey, "Open it."
"I can't read this it's addressed to Vin."
"It's from Jake and my darlin' Orlando. It only says Vincent Tanner is dead," she said airily, "no details."
"Telegraph messages are supposed to be private," he admonished.
"Can I help it that the telegraph operator had an admiration for my new hat?"
Larabee looked at the hat. The last time he'd seen so many feathers the rooster had still been wearing them. "That's the ugliest damn hat I ever saw."
"Bah! How is he?"
"All this for a scrap of land?" she sighed. "He is family, I would give him enough land to get started with if I thought he had any interest in taming it."
"It was his own ma's scrap of land. We don't all own half the Territory and anyway I heard you put up quite a fight when they tried to take your dead husband's land from you."
"The Bank tried to make me sell. The bank manager told me a young widow couldn't possibly run a ranch. In fact he took it upon himself to warn me in rather graphic terms that I would be repeatedly ravished in my own bed by the ranch hands. Now I own The Bank and that same bank manager works for me," she said batting her eyelashes. "I will be selling it when I leave for Texas."
"I'm starting to feel sorry for Texas."
"How bad was it for him really?"
"Bad. I have the notion he still isn't telling me it all. He hasn't told me how he found the money for his passage home and I'm sure the voyage out was far worse than he admits. I don't understand why. I wouldn't judge him or blame him."
"Why, he's protecting you. Surely you know that?" she asked raising her eyebrows in surprise.
"Why, you know how self sacrificing and noble he is especially when it involves you."
"Involves me how?"
"Bah! Don't ask me. You must know you always come first above everybody else with him and always will."
"So how can I help him?"
"Just be you. I know that will be highly unpleasant for the rest of us but it's what is best for him. Be his anchor."
"I'm not sure I deserve him," confessed Chris suddenly.
"In my opinion you don't but you're the chosen one. So do what gunfighters do best and be his rock."
"Is Orlando your rock?"
"More than you could ever know and I know for a fact I don't deserve Orlando either."
"I haven't told Vin you postponed your wedding to Orlando, until he could be found. He has enough guilty feeling."
"Why, as if we could celebrate our wedding without him!" she exclaimed reaching for the door handle. "He's family!"
"Cousin Elvira, er, he might be a little more shy with you than he usually is," warned Chris.
"I told him you gave him a bed bath," answered Chris shamefaced.
"Chris! That was downright cruel! Bah! You just wait until the next time you get yourself hurt! Why, I can promise you I'll be there to hand Mary the rose scented soap!"
He awoke to her brushing his still longer than shoulder length hair away from his face. He was disappointed that it wasn't the much more motherly Nettie Wells. Dear Lord! If there was going to be an endless procession of visitors he would have to beg Nathan for his under britches at least.
"Chris?" he rasped.
"Performing a highly credible impression of a black thundercloud and stinking out the town with those disgustingly cheap cheroots," she answered.
"Please, don't let him go off alone after Alva Jane an' Uriah," he asked, quite prepared to beg if need be.
"Ask Ezra would say, couldn't I volunteer for something far easier? Braiding sand? Knitting mist perhaps?"
"Oh, put those big pleading eyes away, they may work on your harem of skinny old biddies but not on me. We're family now, Cousin Vin and as such entirely impervious to each other's physical charms. Mine of course are quite considerable," she said with a wink.
"I's got some too?" he chuckled.
"So it is rumored, amongst the more deluded womenfolk of the town," she teased.
"I still think Buck or better still Josiah---"
Vin simply said, "He won't punch a woman."
"Mary Travis then?"
"He kin be redeemed but not reformed. He'll get up on Pony an' ride straight back ta Purgatorio iffen Mary goes in the saloon an' tries ta lecture him on stoppin' bein' a bad element."
"Why, what makes you think he won't do just the same if I try?"
"'Cause ya'll jus' up an' follow him ta Purgatorio an' make his life Hell there too an' he knows it. Ya scare folks when ya get real mad."
"Do I scare you when I'm mad?" she purred.
"Ya scare me all the damn time."
"Ya know gunfighters like him cut their fuses short. Mary has a deep affection fer him true enough but she don't understan' men like him the same way us two do. Ya've bin where he has."
"Down in the gutter?"
"Ta Hell an' back," he gripped her hand desperately and she almost cried out as Orlando's diamond engagement ring dug painfully into her fingers.
"Why, you do know how to sweet talk a girl into doing what you want," she said embarrassed by his perception.
"It's why yer a good influence on that bad element Orlando Flynn."
She re-pinned a loose tendril of her thick blonde hair and replaced her feathered hat thoughtfully before she got up and walked to the door, hesitating before she turned the handle she said, "You're a good influence on that bad element Chris Larabee true enough but you have it the wrong way around with Orlando and I. He's the good and I'm the bad."
He waited until she had left before he said out loud, "I know what ya once did an' it were a real bad thing but inside ya ain't a bad person..."
Vin Tanner was finally allowed to sit outside The Clarion wrapped in a thick blanket under Mary's ever watchful eye. Inez Recillos had stood over him, hands on curvaceous hips, while he dutifully drank an entire mug full of Nathan's boiled skunk tea. Hell, being fussed over by the women folk was worse than being back on the ship and kissing the gunner's daughter, he thought as Chris sat down beside him.
"Gloria Potter only jus' came by an' felt my forehead an' asked me how I is like I were one a her little 'uns, Chris," complained the tracker sulkily. "She's the fifth woman today ta do that ta me. Ol' Mother York gave me a big bag o' homemade butterscotch candy, poked me with her walkin' stick an' asked me how I were at the top of her voice."
"To which you replied, jus' fine," snorted Chris.
"She's minding m' dawg fer me."
"I was hoping that sorry mutt had flown the coop."
"Savage were real good an' led JD back ta the rock where m' sawed-off an' buckskin were."
"So that's three things to be sorry for."
"I'll tattle ta Cousin Elvira that ya got me all upset," threatened Vin mischievously, "She'll beat on yer backside with her fancy parasol."
"Sounds like fun."
"Like I said afore yer insane," laughed Vin before suddenly falling silent.
"Spit it out, Tanner."
"Whatever it is you've got stuck in your craw," ordered Chris.
"Ya know Vincent Tanner ain't never bin my real pa."
"Thank God for small mercies."
"Ya didn't sound all that surprised that Jake McKenna were my real pa, Cowboy."
"I have to fess up I'd already found out quite some time ago."
"Jake told ya?" It was Tanner's turn to be surprised.
"Cousin Elvira kindly told me."
"Ya mean ya glared her in ta tellin' ya?"
"As I recall the glaring was mutual."
"Jake never knew 'til he saw my face on a Wanted poster in Tascosa. Jake had ta do some backtrackin' ta find out the truth 'bout me bein' his an' all."
"So how do you feel about it?"
"Glad ta know Mama was once loved by a good and courageous man who only wanted ta do right by her an' make her happy."
"Astonished ta hear I's gotten more family back in Texas. A younger brother an' two sisters an' another brother Jake claims is a bit wild."
"I guess we should have known your family would be an ornery bunch."
"They sure sound a mite colorful."
"Let's hope your sisters aren't as ornery as Cousin Elvira."
"She do get dreadful fired up 'bout me being family. Guess 'cause she's only got a sister."
"You're feeling something else."
Tanner's voice faded away to a whisper, "Shamed."
"Shamed? I don't understand."
"I dirtied up the Tanner name, Chris, how kin I ever face 'em all?"
"I thought I heard that Jake burned that Wanted poster in the Libertyville jail house stove? If he doesn't believe you're guilty I'm sure the rest of the Tanners won't either."
"They cain't be countin' on gettin' a half-breed, ex-buffalo-huntin', ex-bounty huntin', Wanted man fer kinfolk."
"Vin, what they'll be getting is a brave, decent young man who risks his life daily as a small town Peacekeeper."
"Vin, none of this is your fault. I'm sure when you meet some of them at Elvira's wedding they'll love you.
You know you should have everything, including a good education. Your life should have been free from all the pain you had to suffer."
"Glad now it weren't like that. In spite of all the cruelty of it," sighed Tanner. "'Cause I cain't say I could stand the thought a never havin' knowed ya."
Moved beyond words by this statement Larabee turned away and he couldn't bear to think what might have happened if he had never known Vin Tanner, only knowing it would have led to tragedy.
They sat together in silence for a while just glad to be together.
"What's this? Is them ears?" asked Vin peering into the glass jar. "An' don't call me Sailor. I hate that."
"The bodily remains of one Vincent Tanner."
"Pa gone an' done it?"
"The Apache had a good head start and got there first by all accounts."
"Neat work, Cowboy."
"All shipshape and Bristol fashion, Sailor."
"Did they find Alva Jane?" asked Vin, squinting askance at Chris with barely contained annoyance.
"Long gone, Sailor boy."
Larabee smiled grimly before once again vowing, "Next time."