Vin Tanner slouched comfortably in his chair and cradled a glass of lukewarm beer in his hands as he gazed across the sparsely populated saloon to the bar. Despite his seemingly relaxed posture, however, his blue gaze, shadowed beneath the brim of his hat, was as sharp as ever, and, at the moment, fixed intently upon the only two figures at the bar. A slight, bemused frown tugged at the corners of his mouth as he studied the pair -- a young man and an older woman, both far more elegantly dressed than their present surroundings deserved, engaged in a coldly and cuttingly polite disagreement. Vin raised his glass and drank, shaking his head as he swallowed.
Hell, Ezra and his ma didn't even argue like normal folks!
But arguing they were, no doubt about it. He could see it in the jut of Ezra's jaw, the tight set of his shoulders, the controlled but constant drumming of long fingers against the bar top. Maude, too, showed signs of anger, her head high, back ramrod straight, her shapely hands clutched tightly about her small handbag as if she might at any moment reach into it for the derringer Vin knew she kept in it. But while their bodies and identical glittering green gazes as good as shouted their mutual fury, their voices remained carefully subdued.
Fact was, Vin thought, they was hissin' at each other like snakes.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of movement at the doorway and shifted his gaze in that direction without ever moving a muscle. But, recognizing the new arrival, he lifted his head slightly and raised his near-empty glass a fraction in greeting, his mouth curving into a crooked grin.
Acknowledging the welcome with a subtle nod, the black-clad man swept his eyes about the saloon, taking stock of the few customers present at such an early hour. Then, satisfied that all was as it should be, he made his way to the table and settled his long, lean frame into the chair at Vin's right.
"Everything quiet out there?" he asked, knowing the tracker would already have taken an early morning ride outside town.
"Wouldn't be here otherwise," Vin drawled, raising his glass for another drink.
Chris Larabee nodded at the laconic answer. Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his long legs before him and crossed them at the ankles, his eyes shifting to Ezra and Maude. As he watched, Ezra slapped an open hand soundly against the bar, and Chris smiled slightly to see the gambler's notorious composure strained almost to breaking.
"Well, at least we've got entertainment," he said wryly.
"Hell, Chris, it ain't natural," Vin breathed, shaking his head slowly as he joined his friend in staring at the two. "They been goin' at it like cats in an alley near half an hour now. They started out real pleasant-like, but it weren't long `fore Ezra got his back up about somethin' she said. She was smilin' real purty at me when she said it, so's I reckon she was layin' inta him agin `bout th' no-account company he's been keepin'." He took another drink. "Either that, or she's tryin' ta talk him inta tryin' fer that bounty."
"Nah," Chris answered, crossing his arms loosely against his chest. "Takin' you back'd be more work than she likes. Besides," he turned his head slightly and flicked an appraising gaze over his friend, "you're not exactly the kind of company she likes to be seen with."
"Lucky me," Vin breathed, finishing off his beer and wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. "I been tryin' ta figger which one of `em's gonna shoot th' other first."
"They won't shoot. They'll just talk each other to death."
"Hell of a way t' go," Vin sighed, rising to his feet. He had been trying to avoid going to the bar, near them, for as long as he could, nursing his beer as far as it would go. But watching folks talk that much was thirsty work. "You drinkin'?"
Chris looked up in surprise. "You buyin'?"
Vin shot him that crooked grin. "Hell, no. Been puttin' `em on Buck's tab."
Chris laughed and nodded. "Then I'm drinkin'." He watched the tracker amble to the bar, then frowned sharply as a sudden suspicion hit him. Narrowing his eyes at Vin's back, he resolved to check his own tab a little more closely when it came due.
Tanner never did seem to owe as much as the rest of them...
Vin positioned himself as far from the bickering pair as he could manage, leaning on the bar and pulling his hat even lower over his eyes, wanting to attract as little attention to himself as possible. He had puzzled for some time over the strange relationship between Ezra and Maude, and still could make no sense of it. Maude would come blowin' into town like a Texas tornado, kickin' up a ruckus the minute she lit from the stage, and Ezra would git a look on him like a man who'd been gut-shot, an' do all he could t' sink inta the ground.
But, hell, at least he had a ma...
He looked up and smiled shyly as Inez set two beers before him. It had actually been her idea to put the drinks on Buck's tab, her way of getting back at him for his over-boisterous -- even for Buck -- flirting last night. And a way, perhaps, of encouraging the quiet tracker with the crooked grin in a little flirting of his own.
"Thanks, Inez," Vin drawled, touching the brim of his hat to her before picking up the beers and heading back to the table.
"I will not stand here and be castigated in this shameful manner by my own son!" Maude declared hotly, her voice rising and her honeyed drawl taking on an unusually sharp edge. "I am your mother, Ezra--"
"You are makin' a scene," he pointed out with forced evenness through clenched teeth, glancing about and seeing every eye in the saloon fixed on them. "People are starin', Mother, and I, for one, have no desire to see our personal matters turned into a public spectacle--"
"You should've thought of that before takin' such a high-handed attitude with me!" she said harshly, her eyes glittering in her lovely face. "I demand that you treat me with all the proper respect due a woman of my station--"
"If I treated you as you truly deserved," he broke in abruptly, his patience at an end, "I would drag you down to the stage office, pack you and that mountain of rubbish you refer to as `luggage' on the next available coach and crack the whip over the horses myself to hasten your long-overdue departure from this town!"
She inhaled sharply, her eyes hard and hot. "How dare you--"
"How dare I what?" he shot back, his drawl thickening with every word. "That is my occupation, is it not? Riddin' these environs of ne'er-do-wells and undesirables such as yourself?"
With a hiss of wordless rage, she lashed out and slapped him hard, her hand leaving a vivid red imprint on his cheek. Before he could recover, she turned sharply on her heel and strode furiously from the saloon, her head held high, her face a tight white mask of fury. A stunned and heavy silence filled the barroom in her wake.
Vin, shocked into immobility by the display, stared through wide, unblinking eyes at the still-swinging doors through which Maude had disappeared, for once caught wholly off guard. Chris, glancing at him, thought a pack of bounty hunters could have come upon him in that moment and taken him without his ever knowing it had happened.
Ezra lifted his head slowly and raised a hand to his stinging cheek, then saw the glass of whiskey Inez was silently holding out to him. "Thank you, my dear," he said with a strained smile. "You are a veritable angel of mercy!" He took the glass from her and drained it one swallow, his green eyes widening in surprise. The good stuff, no less!
"Always touchin' t' see the love between a mother and son," Chris quipped dryly. Then, glancing again at his friend, he said quietly, "Close your mouth, Vin. You're not catchin' flies."
Vin closed his mouth and swallowed hard, then shook his head slowly. "Damn," he breathed softly, his stunned gaze going to Ezra. "She hit him!"
Chris sipped from his beer. "Gotta be a real satisfyin' feelin'." He glanced up as the gambler approached the table, and a slight smile touched his mouth as he saw the dark red mark on the man's left cheek. "You all right, Ezra?"
"I am fine, I assure you," Ezra gritted harshly through clenched teeth, his green eyes smouldering. "Gentlemen, I most deeply and humbly apologize for that unseemly display of churlish and unforgivably puerile behavior on my dear mother's part. It was never my intention to inflict our differences on an audience." Even to his ears, his voice sounded harsh and strained, and he was appalled to realize he was shaking.
"Sit down, Ezra," Chris said quietly, "and have a drink. Buck's buyin'."
With nothing like his usual grace, Ezra pulled out a chair and dropped into it as Chris gestured Inez over with a bottle and glasses. Little seeing what went on around him, the gambler stared fixedly at the table, still seething.
Chris poured two glasses of whiskey and pushed one to Standish. "Drink, Ezra." He then glanced at Vin, and smiled slightly and shook his head at the pure bewilderment in the younger man's eyes. Tanner could read sign, the weather and animals better than any man Larabee had ever seen, but people could be an almighty mystery to the tracker.
Ezra drained his glass in one desperate swallow and poured another. "That woman!" he breathed vehemently. "I should have vacated this town the moment she arrived! She is the bane of my existence! She derives vile pleasure from my discomfort, and my torment is her delight!" He looked sharply up at Chris, his handsome face tight and pale. "If my contentious nature has exasperated you in the past, Mr. Larabee, you need look no further than the maddening Maude Standish to discern its source! She lives to wreak chaos, confusion and misery on as wide a circle of unfortunate bystanders as possible!"
"She packs a mean wallop, too," Chris said with a grin.
Ezra grimaced and raised a hand to his cheek. "That, I fear, is my own fault. I had forgotten how quick that particular cat is to bare her claws."
"Ezra," Vin put in softly, "she's yer ma. Ya shouldn't talk about yer ma thataway."
Angry green eyes cut sharply to subdued blue ones. "And, pray, Mr. Tanner, why ever not?" he demanded. "That woman is hardly a paragon of maternal virtues! She is a vain, selfish, arrogant, infuriatin', inconsiderate--"
"She's still yer ma," Vin maintained quietly, stubbornly, his eyes locking with Ezra's. "A son owes it t' his ma t' speak respectful of her."
"Oh, really?" Ezra laughed. "Do you hear, Mr. Larabee? Our Robin Hood has stirred himself from his monolithic silence to defend the sanctity and purity of noble motherhood! But, tell me, Mr. Tanner," he demanded suddenly, angrily, "what, exactly, would you know of the matter at all?"
Vin never moved, never spoke, never betrayed by the smallest flinch that the words had hit home. But Chris, looking into his friend's eyes, could see that they had, and that their barbs had sunk deep. He alone could see the change that came over Vin, could see him close up on himself, pull into himself and away from those around him, draw once more behind the wall he had so carefully built between himself and that old, old pain.
And if for one minute Chris had thought Ezra had done it intentionally, had spoken the words from true malice rather than his own anger and hurt, he would have beaten the man to a bloody pulp.
Vin could see Chris watching him, could feel his concern, but did not return his gaze. Instead, he stared fixedly, stubbornly, at the glass of beer before him, trying to will away the hurt that had suddenly risen much too near the surface.
Ezra was right, he didn't know. Hadn't known for a long, long time.
Chris opened his mouth and would have spoken. But Buck and JD chose that moment to make their customary rambunctious entrance, and he closed his mouth and sighed, the moment gone.
"Did ya see her, Buck? She was lookin' right at me!" JD declared, his face wreathed in a huge grin. "There she was, right there! Our eyes met, and she smiled--"
"Hate t' tell ya, kid, but she was smilin' at me," Buck said with extreme self-satisfaction. "And d'you know why? `Cause ain't no pretty little lady gonna ever take seriously a man wearin' that God-awful ugly hat!" With that, he reached out with a big hand and swept the offending item from JD's head.
"Hey!" the boy yelped, bending to retrieve his hat yet again. "Damn it, Buck, that's the third time today--"
"Can I help it if ya can't take a hint?" Buck laughed, stepping up to the table and pulling out a chair. "Well, mornin', boys," he greeted warmly, dropping into the chair and reaching for the bottle and a glass. "Hell, it's early yet, but it seems somebody's bein' generous, and I do hate to refuse generosity!"
"Yep," Chris answered laconically, his green eyes twinkling as he gazed at his old friend, "somebody's been awful generous this mornin'."
With Buck and JD present and in high spirits, the mood at the table shifted, lightened, and Vin slowly sat back, easing himself away from attention. The others were used to his silence, his stillness, thought nothing of either, and he was counting on that. Pretty soon, they'd forget about him altogether.
And when they had, he rose with that same silence to his feet and left the table, making his way out of the saloon. They were used to that, as well -- the shadow slipping away into other shadows. He was counting on that, too.
Once outside, he felt a dull ache in his chest, and realized somewhere he'd forgotten to breathe. It happened sometimes when he was indoors, too many people crowdin' too close, askin' him questions and expectin' him to answer, the walls holdin' him in-- How could a feller be expected t' breathe with folks `n walls crowdin' in on him like that? A man weren't meant t' live with others close enough t' breathe his air.
He shook his head and went to the chair in the corner of the porch, dropping into it and leaning it back on two legs. Out here, he could breathe. And out here he could think, though he didn't really want to right now.
But, tell me, Mr. Tanner, what, exactly, would you know of the matter at all?
Idly, he reached into his coat pocket and drew out his harmonica, but didn't raise it to his mouth. Didn't really feel like playin', neither. Didn't really feel like nothin'.
His chest was still hurtin', and he didn't understand why, `cause he knew he was breathin'. He raised a hand absently to rub where it hurt. Right over his heart.
Now, why'n hell would his heart be hurtin'?
Still rubbing his chest, he glanced down the street, and saw Mary and Billy Travis outside the Clarion office. The breeze carried the sound of their laughter to his keen ears, and he watched them for long, long moments. Billy said something and Mary laughed again and touselled his thick hair, then leaned forward to kiss him. Vin rubbed his chest harder as the ache there grew worse.
But, tell me, Mr. Tanner, what, exactly, would you know of the matter at all?
He shoulda had some o' that whiskey...
Billy laughed again, and Mary swept him into her arms and hugged him. Vin abruptly turned his head away. He looked up the street, saw a wagon coming, and recognized the family. The Hanlans. New in the area, nice folks. Had a passel o' kids, the youngest a boy about five--
He lowered his head and stared down at the harmonica, his eyes shaded under the brim of his hat. Safer thataway. Wouldn't see nobody, no kids n their mas...
Damn, his chest hurt! Why th' hell hadn't he had some o' that whiskey?
He heard the footsteps, would've known whose they were even without the spurs. And the man wondered why folks called him "cowboy"...
"Thought you could use this."
He looked up, and smiled slightly at the glass of whiskey Chris was offering. He took it without a word and drained it one swallow. And smiled again as Chris produced the bottle and poured another for him.
Chris hooked a chair with his spur and pulled it around, then sat down beside his friend. He took a glass from his coat pocket and poured himself a drink, watching Vin without ever really looking at him. He saw the younger man rubbing his chest, as if it hurt, and was tempted to go slug Ezra just for the hell of it.
"He didn't mean nothin' by it," Vin drawled softly, slowly, again making that uncanny connection. "It weren't his fault. He's just bein' Ezra." He took a sip of whiskey. "Anyway, it don't matter now."
Chris did look at him then, at those last, soft words, spoken with such habitual resignation, and wondered how many times in his short life Vin Tanner had uttered them. And about how many things.
"Y'ain't gotta be riled at him on accounta me," Vin breathed, finally letting his hand fall from his chest. "I'se just-- took by surprise, is all. I don't hold it agin him, `n you shouldn't neither." He took another drink, draining the glass. "It's done with, now."
Chris cradled his full glass in his hands and stared out into the street, hating the flat, tired tone of that voice. Vin was a natural peacemaker, a quiet, calming presence not only for the town, but for the other six regulators, as well. But how much of himself had he sacrificed to make and keep that peace? How many of his own wants, needs, had he -- did he -- let go to keep the town safe and the other six from tearing each other's throats out? How much of his own peace did he give up to keep peace between the others?
Anyway, it don't matter now. Hell, they'd probably put that on his tombstone.
Childish laughter sounded nearby, followed by a woman's voice. Mrs. Hanlan was calling her youngest boy, but he was wanting her to come chase him, as little boys will. Vin hunched his shoulders and pulled himself tight into his coat, bowing his head until his face all but disappeared under the brim of his hat. But it wasn't enough. What he couldn't see with his eyes, he could see in his mind. That much he remembered.
"Come git me, Ma!" A little boy running, hiding, laughing. "Ya gotta catch me, first!"
And more laughter behind him, light as the breeze itself. "I'll catch you, Vin Tanner! And when I do..."
But it wasn't a threat. Not then. Not from her. She never threatened him, nor hit him. She'd never once hurt him.
`Cept when she died.
"Why'd she do it?"
Chris was startled by the odd question, and turned to see Vin, his eyes now just visible, staring at him with an expression of deepest, almost pained, puzzlement. "Why'd who do what?" he asked quietly, patient as he could only be with Vin.
Vin's bewilderment, and the frown that betrayed it, deepened. He hadn't realized he'd asked the question aloud -- talkin' was gittin' t' be a bad habit -- and now had to find the words to explain. Words he didn't have.
"Maude. Hit Ezra." That answered Chris' question, but not his own. "Why?"
Chris sighed and frowned into his whiskey. Vin wasn't a child, he wasn't stupid, he wasn't naive. He'd seen far too much, done too much, to be any of those things ever again. He could understand why one man would hit another, why one man would kill another. He'd done enough of both to understand all too well.
But there was nothing, nothing at all, in Vin Tanner that could tell him why a son would resent his mother, why a mother would hurt her son. He hadn't had it in him at five, he wouldn't have it in him if he lived to be a hundred and five.
So now he was staring at Chris Larabee with those bewildered, pained blue eyes, waitin' for him to explain it all.
Goddamn you, Tanner, right now you look just like Adam...
"Why?" the tracker persisted, stubborn as only he could be.
Chris drained the whiskey in a swallow. Son of a bitch, he sounds like him, too! Why, Papa? Why?
"Hell, Vin, who knows?" he rasped, pouring himself another drink. "Those two-- they're too much alike... I reckon Maude tries, but she don't know much about motherin'. And Ezra... You know how he can be, like a burr under your saddle blanket--"
"He shouldn't talk about his ma thataway," Vin insisted softly. "It ain't right."
Chris smiled slightly. Robin Hood.
"Oughtta jus' be thankful he's got one."
The smile faded. And every orphan in the world...
Vin eased his chair down until all four legs were on the porch and turned his head, gazing into the distant hills. "Need me?"
Chris straightened in his chair, knowing that look, and the urge that lay behind it. "Nah. Town's quiet."
Vin nodded once, and rose to his feet without a sound. "Reckon I'll take a ride."
Chris stared up at him, concerned, but knew no force on earth short of a bullet would hold Vin Tanner in town when the hills were beckoning. "Watch your back."
Vin smiled slightly and touched the brim of his hat, then turned and made his way down the street to the livery, his head and shoulders bowed.
Watching him go, Chris had to remind himself that flattening Ezra really wouldn't solve a thing.
And that Vin would never forgive him if he shot Maude.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and JD watched as Ezra took out and shuffled a deck of cards, noting the unusual violence with which the gambler's nimble fingers worked the pasteboards. Normally, his hands appeared almost boneless in their effortless grace, yet now they seemed to be punishing rather than caressing the cards. The two studied him in some confusion, and some concern. To JD, the man's face appeared as composed, as unrevealing, as ever, giving away nothing he did not want seen. Buck, however, ignored Ezra's face and concentrated on his eyes, and saw the just visible strain in them.
"You all right, Ezra?" he asked gently.
The green eyes flicked upward to Buck's face, then back down to the cards, his hands never faltering. "If you are referring to my unfortunate altercation with my mother," he answered evenly, "I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, I am entirely recovered. It has never been my practice to allow these embroglios to disturb my equanimity for long."
"Well," Buck drawled slowly, not at all certain he had gotten more than half of what the Southerner had just said, "that's good."
JD knew for certain he had not gotten even half of it, and shook his head in frustration, wishing Ezra would just speak English for a change. But his expression brightened as Chris returned to the saloon, accompanied by Josiah and Nathan. One figure, however, was missing.
"Hey, Chris, where's Vin?" he asked as the others took seats at the table.
Chris sighed slowly as he sat back, wondering why everyone saw fit to pester him with questions this morning. "Out," he answered tersely.
"Out where?" JD persisted.
Chris scowled tightly. "Out there," he growled, with no indication of just where "there" might be.
"Lemme guess," Buck said with his easy grin, "folks've started comin' inta town, so Vin felt a pressin' need t' git outta town."
"Somethin' like that," Chris said quietly, staring from under his hat at Ezra. He, too, could see the tell-tale signs of unease in the gambler, and that alone kept his anger at the man from flaring out of control.
A woman like Maude Standish had a gift for twistin' even the coolest of men's guts into knots...
"He all right?" JD asked worriedly, remembering Vin's remoteness earlier. "He need somebody t' talk to--"
"Just you leave him alone, kid," Buck advised, reaching for the bottle. "Damn, who let this thing run dry? Inez, darlin'," he called, flashing that broad, bright smile, "we're in desperate need of your tender care!" Inez shot him a withering glare across the barroom, and he laughed heartily. "She's weakenin', boys!" he announced with glee.
"Maybe we should ask for two bottles," Josiah suggested wryly. "I'd surely hate t' share whatever she's gonna slip inta Brother Buck's."
"Inez ain't th' poisonin' kind," Nathan said with a grin. "Likely she'd just stick a knife between his ribs."
"You boys got no proper understandin' of th' delicate courtin' ritual goin' on here!" Buck chided with another brilliant smile at Inez. "She's a woman who wants t' be wooed--"
"Wooed?" Nathan and Josiah crowed in unison. While the healer laughed, Josiah only shook his head and grinned.
"What about Vin?" JD persisted. "If he's got somethin' botherin' him, he might need t' talk--"
"JD," Buck sighed, tearing his gaze from Inez and fixing it upon the boy, "son, when're you gonna learn? If Vin's got somethin' on his mind an' takes to th' hills, it means he's tryin' t' work it out fer himself. And, unlike some folks around here," he arched a dark brow at the boy, "it takes things a mighty long time t' percolate from Vin's head to his tongue. Hell, he don't even say `howdy' less he's thought on it long an' hard! He's a big boy. I reckon when he wants t' talk, he will. But he don't need us -- or you -- chasin' after him, tryin' t' make him do it."
"Leave it, JD," Chris ordered flatly. "Vin don't want company. And if you go chasin' after him right now, he'll cut your tongue outta your mouth an' use it for a belt."
Ezra snorted and shuffled the cards with a flourish. "No man appreciates unwanted interference in his personal affairs," he drawled. "And if Mr. Tanner felt the need to flee this fair hamlet to avoid just such interference, then I, for one, salute him and wish him well. Lord knows, every man deserves whatever peace he can find for himself in this world!"
Josiah lifted his head at that and stared sharply at the gambler, startled by the odd note of bitterness and longing in his words. Just what peace had Ezra been denied?
Chris, too, wondered at the words and their tone, and felt the last of his anger at Ezra drain away. Hell, how much difference could there be between not having a mother, and having one like Maude Standish?
And when had he started runnin' a goddamned orphanage?
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