RATING: G maybe some bad words, as usual
DISCLAIMER: I don't own the characters or the setting or the idea or anything. The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, MGM and TPTB. Thanks for the loaner. No harm intended, no money made. Written for enjoyment only (ha!)
NOTES: My first attempt at a longer fic. Inspired by the song We're All in Your Corner Tonight, which brought me to tears the first time I heard it. Willie and Waylon do that to me sometimes. Makes some references to my previous stories.
"Hey, Chris, riders comin' in. Looks like a bunch of 'em." JD's excitement was obvious. It had been a quiet couple of weeks for the regulators, and he was ready for some action.
Chris and Buck walked out from under the eave of the boarding house and looked up the dirt street. There, rising above the trees at the edge of town, was a dust cloud indicating several fast moving riders.
Vin stepped up on the hitching rail and swung up on the overhang, drew out his spyglass and studied the horizon.
"Not many riders. Looks like a remuda, lotsa horses, but not many men. They're slowin' down."
Even as he spoke, the dust was settling somewhat, and the sound of hoofbeats became clearer. The animals were slowing, and by the time they appeared in town, they were moving at a controlled jog. The half dozen riders surrounding the twenty or so horses swung them gently towards the livery, where a man had seen their intention and opened the gate of a large pen. Once the horses entered, the gate swung closed and the dusty riders began to dismount.
Chris, Buck and JD waited patiently for the men to make their way towards the saloon, looking to get a feel for how trail weary these men might be. They seemed to be sensible men, so far, in the way they had brought the horses into town; still, the men were ready for trouble. Vin had kept a steady eye on the men, even as he dropped down into the street to join the others. He began to move away from his friends, toward the wranglers, watching one of the riders intently. Suddenly, he began to jog toward them.
"Cody! Cody Watkins!" The loud exclamation from Vin surprised the others. The man on a liver chesnut swung quickly around, eyes meeting Vin's, and leaped from his horse.
"Hey! Tanner! You mean they ain't hung you yet?" When the two men met on the street, the larger wrangler gave Vin a strong shove backwards, then grabbed him and pumped his hand and clapped him on the back. "You sonofabitch! God, you look like hell. Good to see you boy!"
Vin shook his head. He hadn't spoken since his first call to the man, but he was grinning. A huge smile that lit up his face. Chris and Buck exchanged a smile between them and shrugged. Apparently, these men weren't going to be a problem, judging from the reception they were getting from Vin. They watched as he shook hands with two more of the horsemen, and then stood by while he was introduced to the others. Finally, the group turned towards the saloon. Vin motioned his friends to join them.
"Boys, these fellers are Cody Watkins, and Shel Winter, and Jess Carter. We knew each other back in Texas. They're cheap drunks, but they ain't gonna be no trouble."
Cody laughed. "That we are! These other fellers ain't half bad, neither, Tanner. You lookin' fer a job?"
Vin shook his head again. "Nope. I got one."
Cody continued to laugh. "Tanner, you ain't never had a job you ain't been fired from. Maybe you'd best just set down and tell me what you been up to."
The men made themselves comfortable and ordered drinks. Chris, Buck and JD dropped into chairs beside Vin. It looked as though they might be getting some information about Vin tonight, and they were all interested.
Slowly, Watkins told Vin and the others how they were on they way back from Kansas, after taking a herd of 2000 longhorns to the railhead. "We're working for John Adair. Goodnight's crew. You know he'd take you on in a second, if you got that little problem cleared up."
"Ain't done that yet, Cody."
"Well, why the hell not?"
"Just ain't, that's all." Cody obviously knew about the bounty, and it didn't seem to bother Vin any, but at the same time, he wasn't eager to talk about it. The subject was dropped.
"And you're the law, huh?" Cody tilted his head quizzically at the contradiction.
"No, I ain't exactly the law. He is." Vin pointed at JD, who smiled proudly. "We jest help him out now and again." Chris and Buck nodded at the description, just a hint of a smile on their faces.
"Hell, we'd still take you on. We can always use a good hand like you, Vin." He leaned forward and studied Vin. "Course, you might lose that hair on the trail. There's still a few injuns out there'd like that hangin from their belt."
"No, not no more."
Their conversation waned . The riders were exhausted and they promised they' d hang around town a couple of days, then headed for the boarding house to get some sleep. Vin followed them alone out onto the boardwalk, into the evening.
When Chris left later, Vin was propped against the top step leading to the saloon, resting his head against a post behind him. He paused, then dropped into a chair a few feet behind him. Vin never looked up, or back, but he was aware Chris was there.
"A real live cowboy, huh? Never figured you for a drag rider, Vin."
"I never rode drag."
"Sounds like you kinda enjoyed it. I figured first time I saw you rope you'd maybe cowboyed somewhere."
Vin nodded. "Yep. Worked for the Four Sixes. Movin cattle to Kansas railheads from Texas. I liked it."
Chris shook his head.
Vin turned and looked at him. "Night guard. You ever been on night guard? Best job in the world. Gettin paid for watching cattle sleep. All you got to do is point'em the way of the wagon tongue in the morning and keep 'em movin."
"You sound like you'd go back to it."
He shrugged. "Cody's right. I ain't never had a job I ain't been fired from. Goodnight found out there was a bounty on my head and canned me."
"But Cody seems to think he'd take you on again."
"Yep, I reckon. Why, you fixin to fire me?"
Chris shook his head, but Vin was suddenly uneasy. He looked back at Chris again, and watched as Chris rose and came to stand beside the post he leaned against. He looked down and studied Vin. Vin waited.
There was a long silence, and Vin looked away, out into the night.
Finally, Chris spoke.
"How come he figures you could go back to Texas?"
"Bounty hunters don't follow a herd for a bounty. No way to find your man alone. Too dangerous. And too far to pack a body in the heat. Mostly, cowhands go by nicknames. Jes purty hard to be sure of a paycheck."
Chris nodded in understanding.
"You stay here, and sooner or later, someone's gonna show up looking for you."
Vin was stunned. He had pointed that out to Chris, before, and Chris had always talked him into staying. And now, he wanted him to leave? His eyes dropped for a moment, then raised to meet Chris's. Chris looked deeply saddened by his thoughts.
"If you're ready to go back to Texas, I'll go with you."
"Ain't no reason to go back there. For me or you, especially. I got no proof."
"Just the truth."
"Truth ain't never helped me before, Chris."
Vin suddenly rose and began to walk away. Chris could tell from the set of his shoulders and the chill in the night air Vin was angry. Chris wanted to say something different, but all he got out was . . .
"Where you goin?"
There was no answer, and his friend walked off into the night, alone.
+ + + + + + +
Morning found Vin Tanner at the livery, saddling a horse. He was taking his time, checking and rechecking his kack, but it wasn't helping to resolve the questions or the anger in his head. Billy walked up to him, fishing pole in hand.
"We're goin' fishing, ain't we, Vin?"
Vin didn't look around at him. He looked straight at his horse, but he was seeing something far off in his mind, instead.
"But you said . . ."
"Beat it, kid. Find somebody else." He turned and looked up the street, still avoiding the child's eyes. "Maybe Chris'll take you."
"Tough. I got better things to do."
Billy stood there for a moment, not wanting to believe that Vin would turn on him like this. Then he walked up the street, crestfallen.
"It's a high price to pay, Mr Tanner."
Vin's eyes met Ezra's and they held each other's gaze.
"He might as well learn now. Life is tough."
"I wasn't referring to the boy."
The tracker turned back to his horse. "You'd know."
"Indeed. Will you be returning?"
"From where ever you are going."
Vin shook his head and refused to answer.
Ezra moved to the horse's head, running a hand down the blaze on his face.
"Kansas City is a veritable mecca for a gambler. Perhaps we shall see each other again one day."
"Watch your back, Mr Tanner."
Vin looked up at Ezra. The man tipped his finger to his hat, spun on his heel and walked away.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra found Chris in the saloon. He pulled his cards out, shuffled them and presented a spread to the gunslinger.
"Pick a card. "
"If I get the high card, you sit and listen to what I have to say."
"And if I get high card?"
"Then, Mr Larabee, you may shoot me."
"What are the odds?"
"The odds are, sooner or later, you WILL shoot me."
Larabee drew a card. He laid a Jack of Diamonds down on the table. Ezra quickly drew a Queen of Hearts and laid it beside the jack.
"Mr Tanner will be riding out of town later this morning."
Chris nodded. "I expected as much. I got no say in his business."
"I beg to differ, Mr Larabee. You have a very great say in his business, and he in yours. Mr Tanner sent Billy to you for a fishing trip this morning. Am I to assume, due to your presence here, you are not escorting Mr Travis to the pond?"
"Vin can keep his goddamn nose outa my business. He's got no right matchmaking--"
Ezra raised one hand and leaned forward towards Chris Larabee, cutting him off in mid sentence.
"Perhaps, Mr Larabee, you should consider that Vin Tanner does not do what he does for you, but for him. Perhaps not everything is about you, and you would be better served to consider that. Take it from one who knows, Mr Tanner's efforts may be entirely self serving. And if you benefit as a result of that, so be it. Just as if Mr Tanner leaves here, it will not be just you that suffers his absence."
Ezra scooped the cards from the table in a flourish, rose and left Chris Larabee sitting, shocked, at the table, staring at a bottle of whiskey.
+ + + + + + +
Cody had been surprised that he'd picked up a good hand like Vin Tanner so easily, but he could also tell there was more to his sudden change of heart than he was letting on. He told his men they would be leaving that afternoon, and pointed out a couple of the better horses in the remuda to Vin. Then he left him alone to get his gear together.
Josiah was in the church when Vin walked in, pulled off his hat and dropped into a pew. He held a worn saddle bag in his hands. Silently, he withdrew a few paper wrapped bundles and held them out to Josiah.
"This here oughta get you what you need to really fix this place up."
"What's this?" The preacher began to unwrap a bundle. It was a wanted poster wrapped carefully around a stack of bills.
"Some of the bounties I picked up. Didn't have much use to spend 'em."
"Why not? There's quite a bit of money here, Vin."
"Some things you cain't buy, preacher."
He nodded. "This is true. You're leaving?"
The tracker nodded. "Reckon it's long past time."
Josiah put down the money and came to sit beside him. He put his hand on Vin's shoulder, but Vin flinched and shot out from under his touch. When the preacher looked at the young man before him, he looked as sad and as wild as he had the morning he killed the wolf. That damn wolf. How very much they had in common. And just as quickly, he was gone.
+ + + + + + +
Vin didn't say goodbye to Nathan, or JD, or Buck, or Mary. Mary, he knew, he simply couldn't face. He cared for her far more than he ever wanted to. Hell, he cared for all of them far more than he ever wanted or intended to. But that was what happened when you cared for people. They left you, or abandoned you, or you left them. Those were the rules of the game, and he knew them. The rules didn't change. Not for him. He was so damn angry at Chris Larabee he wanted to pull him off his chair in the saloon and beat the hell out of him. Or maybe it was Vin Tanner that Vin was angry at. He wasn't sure any more. All he knew was that he had let himself fall into this trap and now he was paying the price. What was it Ezra had said? A high price. Yep. Too damn high. He'd been pretty damn satisfied alone. Wasn't no reason he couldn't be again. Was there?
+ + + + + + +
Chris couldn't pull himself out of the chair that Ezra had left him in. He'd stared at that whiskey far too long, seeing not the bottle, but the face of a young man willing to die to help a courageous woman in the street. Without care or concern, marching into battle, alone. Over and over again. And he saw Mary Travis laugh about that same man picking wildflowers for her and saying they came from Chris. And the pie. He had no right, NO right to mess with Chris Larabee's life. He didn't know anything about losing a wife and son---losing your whole family---losing everything you ever had . . . .
Chris suddenly threw himself out of the chair and strode past the batwing doors, punching them open so quickly and so hard they struck his shoulder as he moved down the street where seven men were easing a remuda from the pen and heading out. Vin was concentrating on the horses, and his thoughts, and he didn't see Chris approach. He was mounted, his horse standing quietly, when Chris put a hand on his thigh and looked up into his eyes.
"Vin, don't do this. Stay here. You'd be a damn fool to go back to Texas. The town needs you here. We'll watch your back."
Vin looked at him for a moment, then looked over at Cody, and Chris was sure he was going to tell him he'd reconsidered. Then he picked up his reins, nodded, and quietly spoke.
"Watch yer own back, cowboy."
And he turned his gelding rode away.
+ + + + + + +
Things were different from that very day. The day Vin Tanner rode out of town. Mary was heartbroken when she was told Vin was gone. Like something precious had slipped away. JD was lost. While Buck and JD were inseparable, Vin was the man that kept them on an even keel. Without Vin around, Buck smothered JD. Vin had been able to strike a balance between taking chances and taking your time with JD--teaching him and learning from him both. Buck, especially now that Vin was gone, seemed to be afraid that JD could slip away, too.
It now seemed certain that Ezra would leave. While he had talked about leaving for a long time, even before Vin left, it had been all talk. Now he would go to the edge of the boardwalk and stare off down the road, to the south and east, waiting. For what? For Vin to return? Josiah thought so. Maybe Ezra didn't really think Vin would return, he just hoped. Josiah didn't know what it had been that Ezra had found in Vin Tanner that made the two friends, despite their differences, but he knew that now it was missing, because it was missing in him, too.
Chris deeply regretted what he'd said to Vin that first night on the boardwalk, only he couldn't remember exactly what he had said, more what he hadn't. Just as with Sarah and Adam. He'd ridden off, thinking he would see them soon, and then they were gone, and he'd hadn't told them . . . . He told himself Vin was better off, safer than sitting in this town, watching out for everyone else, while his name got around to some bounty hunter looking for a quick $500. He also watched Ezra on the boardwalk, looking south. He didn't go out there, though; he was sure Vin wouldn't return and he'd waited too many nights in the past, waiting for something--someone--who wasn't coming back, to do that again.
Things were different for Vin, too. Night guard wasn't as relaxing as it used to be. Hell, it wasn't relaxing at all. There was too much time to think. WAY too much time to think. Everytime he drew out his harmonica, he waited for someone to give him hell about the noise. But the cattle didn't care, and he could make about as good a music as any of the other hands. Cody was in charge, and that was OK with Vin, only he missed being a part of something bigger than a few cowboys rounding up cattle to send to Kansas. The truth was, he felt good about what he did in Four Corners. He made a difference there. To Nettie, and to Gloria Potter, and to Nathan, and Mary and Chris. Maybe it made up, somehow, for all the mistakes he'd made in the past.
Chris. He hoped he wasn't drinking himself to death with that whiskey bottle. And Ezra, tough as he acted, he hoped some sorry loser wasn't quicker on the draw than he was. JD was such a kid, but smart, and he hoped Buck would give him a chance to grow up a little. He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin. Too much time to think out here. That was the problem with being a cowboy. He smiled. 'Did you just call me a cowboy? . . .'
+ + + + + + +
Almost three months had passed when Vin and the some of the other cowhands stopped in a tiny little town just outside the Texas border. The other hands were in the saloon, and Vin decided to go into the general store for some chew. He had just stepped up on the boardwalk when a little boy and a woman came out the door and he bumped into her, sending the basket she carried to the planks and scattering the fruit around them both.
"Sorry, ma'am." He tipped his hat to her. She was vaguely familiar, but he shrugged it off as he bent to pick up the apples she had dropped.
"That's all right." She smiled, their eyes met, and he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. "Where are you from?"
He hesistated. Where WAS he from? Everywhere? No where? Finally, he answered.
"Four Corners, ma'am."
"Oh, I've been there. It's a nice place. Good place to raise a family, don't you think?"
He nodded. Where had he seen her before?
The apples were almost all back in her basket, and he reached out and picked up the last apple, but remained squatting there, staring at her. She covered his hand with her own, and it was the gentlest touch.
"Your family must miss you."
"In Four Corners. You drive cattle?"
He nodded. Then shook his head. He WASN'T a cowboy. Not really. No more than he had been a buffalo hunter, or a bounty hunter.
"I don't have no family."
"Of course you do. Everyone has a family. That's what home is. It's where your family is."
She continued to smile at him, her hand on his. She squeezed his hand gently. Then, she looked at him intently. "Thank you."
She turned to the little boy with her, and without taking the apple from Vin's hand, rose and walked away. He watched her go down the street, turn down an alley, and disappear. He stared after her.
Sarah and Adam. They looked just like the picture Chris had of . . .
He leap to his feet and ran down to the alley where they had disappeared, but they were gone.
+ + + + + + +
When the bullet tore into his arm, Chris dropped behind a water trough and popped his Colt open. He rolled the chamber and fought to get bullets into the gun. What the hell kind of a mess was this? Four men against seven--no SIX--and he had a bullet in his arm. As far as he could tell, none of his other men were down, but that could change. Damn, where was Buck? And why hadn't JD dropped that first gunman when he came out of the saloon tonight? Chris raised his head and sighted in on the man across the street, who dropped before Chris had a chance to fire, the sound of a shotgun ringing in his ears. He felt more than heard someone behind him, and turned to see a gun not five feet away, pointed straight at him. He sagged back against the trough, when another loud explosion blew away the face of the man before him. It was so loud, it sounded like . . . Vin's?
"Hey, cowboy . . . you got trouble?" Vin was suddenly beside him, looking up and down the street. "How many?"
"Two, now, I think." Chris was trying to remember why Vin shouldn't be here, when Vin pressed a bandana against his arm to stop the flow of blood, then took his Colt out of his hand. He wiped it off, so it wouldn't be so slippery, finished reloading and handed it back. Then he rose and ran down the boardwalk towards Josiah. He heard one more shot, and someone yelling, then silence. Complete and total silence.
How the hell did he do that? Chris sat up, struggling to rise, when Vin hooked an elbow under one arm, Josiah under the other, and they pulled him to his feet.
"Everybody's OK. 'Cept them fellers." Josiah jerked his head towards the men laying in the street.
"You're timing's good, Vin, as usual." Chris just looked at him. He'd never really believed he'd come back, had he?
"Impeccable." Vin said with a grin.
"Impeccable. My timin'. Ask Ezra."
"Your language has improved, Mr Tanner." Ezra stepped forward, and his gold tooth shone in the firelit street. "But not your wardrobe."
Vin nodded. He looked around as the six men gathered around him. Nathan and Buck slapped him on the back, before Nathan began to pull Chris away to check his arm. Josiah nodded to him, and JD grabbed his hand and pumped it, speechless with excitement. Chris turned to look back at him as he was led away.
"How come you came back?"
Vin grinned, that lopsided, non-committal grin that could mean anything from 'I'm gonna kill you' to 'yeah, kid, I'll take you fishing'.
"Apples." He pulled an apple out of his pocket. "I brought you an apple."
+ + + + + + +
Late into the night, they sat around the table in the saloon, laughing and telling stories, just happy to be together again. Vin thought sometimes it was a dream, that he had never left. So much of what he remembered was hazy. Like that woman in Red Mesa. And why he had liked riding night guard. And what Chris had said that made him mad in the first place. But one thing was clear. This was home. If he left, he had someplace he was from. Someplace to come back to. A family. Sort of. They were in his corner. And he was in theirs.
Josiah saw Vin had slipped away into his thoughts, and leaned over beside him to pick something off the floor.
"Look, Vin." He held something in his hand, something small and shimmering in the lantern light of the saloon.
"What is it?" Vin held out his hand and Josiah dropped a pebble into his open palm.
"What is it?" Vin repeated.
"I think it's a tiny piece of your wall just fell down."
Vin grinned in understanding. Then laughed. "You know what this is, preacher?"
Josiah raised his eyebrows in question.
"Fool's gold." They laughed together. This time when Josiah laid his large hand on Vin's forearm, the younger man let it rest there while they laughed.
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