Disclaimer: They're not mine, but I've put them on my Christmas list. And the people who own them --
Mirisch, Trilogy, and all the alphabet folks, MGM, CBS, TNN -- could never love them like I do.
Notes: Some of you will have seen this before in another incarnation. And for those of you familiar with Linda Backer's "grandpa," this ain't him.
Feedback: Oh, yes, please, make my day.
Chris Larabee was wandering around the store, going over in his mind the list he'd given Mrs. Potter to make sure he'd forgotten nothing. He was going out to his "shack in the hills," as Buck had dubbed it, to put in some much- needed work on it. And, hopefully, to get in some much-needed relaxation, as well.
For Vin Tanner had volunteered to go with him, and Chris was looking forward to spending time in the comfortable peace of his friend's company. The laconic, imperturbable tracker could be painfully shy around others, was constantly guarded and never easy when surrounded by people. Away from them, however, when with just his six friends, or especially when alone with Chris, he let down that guard and showed himself for who he really was -- a young man possessing a quick wit and a lively sense of humor, and a truly wicked sense of mischief. And at the shack, far from prying eyes and ears and with no one but his best friend for company, Vin could forget for a while the cares and responsibilities that burdened him and get as wild and woolly as he wanted.
And maybe get back some of his inner peace, as well.
Chris knew that was one of the reasons Vin had asked to come along. The tracker had been in town far too long, confined by his duties as one of the town's seven regulators, kept within the bounds of civilization and among people whose closeness rubbed much too uncomfortably against him. Tanner needed freedom, space, to breathe, and hadn't had it in far too long. The other six had noticed his growing restlessness, his increasing edginess, and knew they had to let their hawk off his leash for a while, lest he finally snap beneath the strain of being tied.
And while Vin was normally the easiest going of men, no one wanted to be around him when that temper of his finally blew. The consequences just didn't bear thinking about.
Now, however, Tanner seemed the farthest thing from a powder keg about to explode. In fact, he reminded Chris much more of a little boy waiting excitedly for Christmas, and for the spectacular gift he just knew he was going to get. The tracker was wandering about the store, looking at and fingering every trinket that caught his eye, marveling over everything from colorful shirts and gleaming knives to strings of glass beads that, when held up to the window, threw vibrant splashes of color across the otherwise drab store. Soft exclamations escaped him at each find, and his blue eyes danced brilliantly with a childlike pleasure. And all the while, he sucked happily on yet another of the sticks of hard candy Gloria Potter insisted upon giving to him.
Larabee shook his head and grinned at the sight of the stoic tracker and deadly sharpshooter giving a rare display of sheer boyish delight.
As he made his way to the counter with two spools of dark threat and a small box of needles -- he'd finally decided it was cheaper, if not always easier, to repair his shirts than replace them -- Chris heard the bell above the door jingle and looked up to see two new customers entering: an old man and a little boy. The man's sharp, dark gaze met his, and Chris nodded in greeting. He recognized the man -- Caleb Walker, who'd bought the Barnes place about a month ago -- and knew the boy was his grandson, though the name escaped him.
Walker was a tall, spare man, standing a good two inches even above Chris, but stoop-shouldered from a lifetime of hard work. Beneath the stained brown hat with its high, rounded crown and broad, battered brim, his face was craggy, lean, tanned to the consistency of leather by exposure to sun and wind, marked by bushy iron-gray brows and a prominent hawk-like nose. He wore a simple brown wool coat, almost as battered as the hat and heavily patched at shoulders and elbows, homespun shirt and black woolen trousers over heavy work boots. The hands that protruded from the sleeves of his coat were thick and gnarled from his life's labors, yet still able to rest lightly on the thin shoulder of the small boy at his side.
Chris knew this man's type -- tough as saddle leather, strong and enduring as an oak, and decent all the way through. Such men reminded him of his growing-up years in Indiana, on his family's farm, and kept him mindful of exactly why he and his six friends kept risking their lives for this dusty, no-account town.
Gunfighters came and went in blazes of glory and violence that served no true purpose. But Caleb Walker and men like him worked day in and day out with no notice at all to build what really mattered in life. Instead of spilling their life's blood in the streets, they poured it into the land, into the crops they grew and the herds they raised, into the homes they built and the families they nurtured. And while they toiled in the present, they carved out a future by raising up grandsons into men who would do the same.
Out of nothing more than idle curiosity, Chris watched Walker and his grandson move about the store, smiling slightly when he heard the boy's excited exclamation over the display of pocket knives near the window. As the old man indulged the boy and let him look, Chris turned away and searched the store for Vin, and was startled when he found him.
Tanner was standing stock still, a jar of something held forgotten in his motionless hands, his blue gaze riveted to Walker. The tracker wore an expression almost of shock, his eyes wide, his mouth slightly open, and, even from this distance, Chris could sense the tension in the young man's lean frame. Suddenly concerned, Chris left the needles and thread on the counter and made his way to Vin, stopping close by his side.
"You all right, cowboy?" he asked softly, watching Vin's gaze tracking Walker's every move. Suddenly, Tanner's expression shifted to deepest wistfulness, and a sorrowful longing flooded the blue eyes, its intensity wringing hard at Chris's heart. "Hey," he called a bit more loudly, carefully laying a hand on Vin's forearm. "You all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Reckon I have," Vin rasped softly, his voice only barely audible. "Gotta go." He looked around him wildly, suddenly appearing panicked. His breathing quickened, and a fine tremor ran through his body. "Cain't breathe in here... I'll see ya at the shack." He quickly replaced the jar on the shelf, and all but ran from the store.
Chris started to follow, then stopped himself, remembering the purchases he had to make. But concern for Vin sliced sharply through him, mingled with confusion, and he turned to stare once more at Walker.
The man had spooked Vin badly, as little else could do. Why? He was just an old farmer, not someone who would pose any threat to Tanner. The man didn't even wear a gun. He couldn't possibly be a bounty hunter, couldn't hope to have a chance in hell of collecting on the price on Vin's head.
Someone who had hurt Vin in the past, then? Chris suspected there were more than a few men who had, and watched Walker for any sign that he might be one. But the man's manner with his grandson -- gruff, yet infinitely patient; firm but not rigid or mean; deeply protective, judging by the hand that never left the boy's bony shoulder -- told Larabee otherwise. And when the boy looked up at his grandpa, there was no fear, no distrust, only a clear, shining love that verged on adoration.
No. Any man who could earn such a look from a child was in no way capable of having done harm to Vin Tanner. And it hadn't been fear he'd seen on Vin's face, anyway. It had been...
With a heavy sigh, Chris turned away and went slowly to the counter, where Mrs. Potter had stacked his purchases. She was waiting for him now with her familiar warm smile, but he managed only a forced one in return.
"I take it Vin was feeling closed in again," she said softly, tallying up the amount Chris owed. "Poor boy, gets a look on him like a scared deer when that happens. I don't suppose there's any help for it, though. Some folks are just made for the wide outdoors, and can't be kept within walls." She looked up at Chris. "That comes to four dollars and fifty-six cents. Would you like it on your account?"
His eyes and smile softened somewhat at that. She knew how much -- or how little -- the seven made, knew how little money any of them had at any given time. And, deeply grateful to them for having brought her husband's murderer to justice when no one else would, she was far more generous than she could probably afford to be in her dealings with them.
"No, ma'am," he told her. "Just so happens I've been savin' up, and got it with me." He reached into his pocket, drew out the money and handed it to her. "Oh, when Vin left, he had a piece of candy. Just add it on--"
"I'll do no such thing!" she answered firmly. "If, after all you boys do for us, I can't let one of you have a little something now and then--"
"But it's not just 'now and then,' ma'am," he pointed out with a grin, watching the blush rise in the woman's cheeks. "It's every time Vin comes in here. And JD, too. Never seen either of 'em come outta here without somethin' in their mouths."
She returned his gaze evenly, not missing the warm glint of humor in his green eyes. "JD's just a boy," she said, "and boys need treats. And Vin..." Her gaze softened at the thought of the shy tracker with the little-boy grin. "Well, I just don't think he's had many treats in his life. I don't think he's had much of anything. And if something as simple as a piece of hard candy makes him happy, then I'd be a hard-hearted woman indeed to deny him that."
Chris's grin widened as he took up his purchases. "You, ma'am, could never be hard-hearted. But, all the same, you don't need Vin and JD eatin' up all your profits." He touched the brim of his hat. "Have a good day, Mrs. Potter."
"Just one more thing." Before he could react, she reached out and dropped a piece of the same candy into his shirt pocket, smiling impishly. "Never met a man who couldn't do with a bit of sweetening. Good day, Mr. Larabee."
He watched her walk away, then left the store himself, chuckling quietly and shaking his head.
Goddamn, all the women in this town were bold as brass!
+ + + + + + +
By the time he'd finished buying the rest of his supplies -- at Virgil Watson's hardware store and Yosemite's blacksmith shop -- and gotten the wagon loaded, Vin had been gone a good two hours. Chris tied his horse behind the wagon and started toward his cabin, still puzzling over Tanner's odd behavior.
He tried telling himself it was just another sign of the tracker's restlessness. After all, as Mrs. Potter had said, Vin wasn't one for being inside, didn't feel comfortable with walls and people crowding about him. And that store was small, and packed with goods. With Vin's nerves as frayed as they had been lately, when even the slightest touch could send him recoiling like he'd been shot and the softest sound could make him jump sky-high, that store would be the last place on earth he'd breathe easy.
But even as he made the argument, Chris knew that wasn't it. Vin had been fine -- hell, he'd been as excited as Chris had ever seen him -- until Walker and his grandson had come in. It wasn't nerves, it wasn't restlessness, it wasn't being closed in that had sent Vin bolting from the store in a near panic.
It was that simple old farmer.
He guided the wagon easily over the familiar road, then turned the horse onto the cutoff that led to his place. Wouldn't do him any good to stew over it, he knew. He'd have to wait for Vin to provide the answers.
If Vin provided the answers.
At last he reached the broad stretch of land that fronted his cabin and swept his gaze about, but saw no sign of Vin. No smoke came from the stovepipe, and Peso wasn't in the corral. Chris sighed heavily and shook his head, then guided the wagon forward.
<<Jesus, Vin, where are you?>>
He hated to think that the tracker had been so spooked he'd just headed for the hills, dreaded the thought of having to track the man down. Finding Tanner when he didn't want to be found was damn near impossible; might as well track a puff of smoke at night.
But Vin had said he'd be here...
He stopped the wagon before the house and set the brake, then jumped down, resigning himself to waiting for Vin to appear. He unloaded the supplies, carried some into the house, left some by the ramshackle corral, and, getting back on the wagon, drove the rest to what passed for the barn. After unloading them, he unharnessed the horse, untacked his black, and rubbed each of them down thoroughly, then set out plenty of feed for each. Needing to distract himself from concern for the tracker, he cleaned and stowed the harness and tack, then went out to the corral and began making some of the repairs it badly needed.
But, God, having Vin's steady hands and quiet, comfortable presence would have made the work go so much smoother...
He consciously tried not to gauge the time that passed, tried not to keep track of the hours, but failed miserably. He followed the sun's progress toward the west, noted the length and direction of the shadows as they fell, took careful stock of just how much work he'd gotten done.
And all the while kept searching the horizon for any sign of Tanner.
At last, stripped to his waist and dripping with sweat, and with a knot of worry the size of Texas in his gut, he ceased his labors, knowing he was now at the point where his growing anxiety was rendering him absolutely useless. He went with heavy steps to the water pump, working up a good flow and soaking his head, shoulders and chest in the wonderfully cool stream. When he felt somewhat human again, he went back to the house to change his clothes, then put on a pot of coffee and started a supper of chicken and dumplings. He prepared enough for two, hoping he wouldn't be eating alone.
It had been almost eight hours since Vin had fled Mrs. Potter's store, with that look of pain and panic on him...
<<Goddamn it, Tanner, don't do this to me! Don't make me come after you!>>
As he gave the pot of dumplings one last stir, he heard it: the quiet but unmistakable approach of a rider. He heard his black in the corral whinny in recognition of a familiar horse, and felt a sharp wave of relief cut through him.
He lifted the pot off the stove and set it on the table, then set out plates, cups and forks, working with carefully unhurried movements, waiting all the while for the door to open. It didn't. He brought the coffee pot to the table, set out some bread, then, with another thought, brought out a bottle of whiskey, in case Vin's tongue needed a little loosening. All the while, he kept one ear and one eye trained to the door, still waiting.
"Goddamn it, Tanner," he growled softly, "you are gonna make me come after you, aren't ya?"
When he could find nothing else to do, no other reason -- excuse -- not to go, he stalked toward the door and threw it open...
And saw Vin in the corral. The tracker had untacked Peso, and now stood with his head bowed against the gelding, one arm circled under and around the powerful black neck. In that gesture, in his stance, there was something so achingly sad that it broke Chris's heart to see it. His anger faded and he sat down on the porch, willing now to wait for Vin to come to him in his own time.
Vin stayed with Peso a good fifteen or twenty minutes, and never once did the gelding make any move to walk away. Normally, the horse was as contrary as could be, a natural-born troublemaker, seeming to take a perverse pleasure in making life as difficult for his rider as he could. Now, though, he stood patiently, quietly, accepting without protest the weight of the man leaning upon him, even snaking his head around now and then to nuzzle lightly, affectionately, at the man's neck.
That was the proof Chris needed that something was deeply wrong with Vin. Peso was as maddening a horse as he'd ever known, but he was also a remarkably intuitive animal, and could sense his rider's every mood. And that he now sensed that Tanner needed solace and gentleness instead of a fight only confirmed Chris's anxiety.
At last, Vin released Peso and straightened, giving the horse one last pat before turning away. As Peso wandered away, Vin walked slowly out of the corral and closed the gate, retrieved his saddlebags and bedroll from where he'd laid them, and made his way toward the house. He walked with his head bowed, his shoulders slumped, sorrow in every line of his lean body.
Chris's heart went out to the younger man as he watched that dejected approach. He ached for Vin without knowing why, and hoped this once Tanner wouldn't seek refuge from his pain in silence. He wanted to help Vin through whatever was troubling him, but knew he'd have to do it without pushing. Tanner could close up tighter than a banker's wallet when he felt someone was intruding.
But, hell, no one ever said being a friend to the tracker would be easy...
Though he gave no outward sign of it, Vin was intensely aware of Chris's presence, of his scrutiny, and was torn between running away from the man, and running toward him. But, truth to tell, he'd grown weary of bearing such burdens alone, of merely swallowing the hurts instead of having them soothed, of standing alone when all he wanted was to lean on someone else. Now this one hurt, this one raw ache, had suddenly resurrected itself from the shadows of his past, and he just didn't want to face it alone. He'd tried that already, racing wildly from town and over the vast countryside, but had found that not even Peso, fast and strong as he was, could carry him away from this pain. So he'd turned back and come here, instinctively knowing his only true refuge, his only true help, would be found in the man in black now seated before him.
<<Shoulda knowed that all along.>>
He went to the porch and stopped in front of it, standing before Chris with his head bowed. "I shouldn'ta run away," he said softly, his voice raspier, his drawl thicker, than usual. "I didn't mean nothin' by it. I jist..." He sighed and shrugged, then shook his head. "I jist couldn't stay there." He swallowed hard. "Wouldn't blame ya if'n you's mad at me fer runnin' out 'n leavin' you ta do all this work alone."
"I'm not mad, Vin," Chris said quietly. "Wasn't ever mad. Just worried as hell." He wanted to get up, to go to Tanner, but forced himself to stay where he was, not wanting to spook the troubled man. "One minute, you were fine; the next, you were pale as a ghost and lookin' like you were starin' straight at one. Then ya just ran out, leavin' me wonderin' what the hell had happened. And when I got here, and didn't find you... I knew somethin' was wrong, knew ya needed help, but I didn't know where ta go lookin' for ya. All I could do was stay here, and hope you'd come lookin' for me instead." He watched Vin shifting his weight from one foot to the other, looking as uneasy as a deer sensing a wolf, and took pity on him. "Come on in," he invited. "I've got supper fixed, chicken and dumplings. I won't promise they're as good as Nettie's, but they're more than passable, if I say so myself. Also got coffee, and whiskey. Maybe after you've eaten, had something to drink, you'll feel a little better."
Vin's head came up at that, his blue eyes seeking and finding Chris's green ones, his whole heart, his whole hurt, in his gaze. "Feel some better already," he drawled softly, starting slowly toward the older man. "Jist... knowin'... I got someplace ta go, an' somebody waitin' on me ta git there..." He licked his lips slowly, staring intently at Larabee. "I shouldn'ta run away," he said again. "Reckon I shoulda knowed all the help I needed was standin' beside me all the while." He nodded slightly, decisively. "I'll try ta 'member that from now on."
Chris regarded the younger man steadily, his green eyes soft. "I ain't goin' nowhere, Vin. If you need me, just look around. Chances are pretty damn good that I'll be somewhere real close."
A tremulous, fragile smile curved about Tanner's mouth at that, easing some of the shadows from his eyes. "I know," he said softly. "Figgered that out when I'se out ridin'." His smile turned wry. "Reckon sometimes I'm jist a mite slow."
"Maybe," Chris teased lightly. "But at least ya got here. Now, let's go on in and eat before them dumplings get cold." He stood up and waited for Vin, who finally joined him on the porch. Reaching out, he laid a strong hand on the tracker's shoulder and squeezed. "Glad ya came back."
Vin's mouth curved in the familiar crooked grin, and a trace of mischief danced in his blue eyes. "Hell, cowboy," he drawled, "I figgered if'n I didn't, you'd come lookin' fer me, 'n we both know you'd only git lost!"
+ + + + + + +
Vin gradually relaxed over supper, and managed to put away two heaping plates of food. Chris watched him, grinning and shaking his head in wonder, amazed as always at how much -- and how fast -- the slender tracker could eat. He had come to share Josiah's belief that Vin's eating habits had been formed out of necessity, that he had gone without food often enough never to take it for granted, or to fail to eat what he could while it was there.
"Slow down, Vin," he urged with a smile. "Ain't nobody gonna take it away from you. And there's plenty left, so you don't have ta worry about it bein' there when you get ready for more."
Tanner blushed and bowed his head, suddenly ashamed. He'd grown somewhat accustomed to gentle teasing from the others about his rough manners, but still felt the sting. He'd never given any thought to how he ate before joining them, had never even known such things mattered. Out on the trail, the only napkin he'd known was the back of his hand, and many times his only "fork" had been his fingers. Cutting meat with a bowie knife made more sense than using one of those spindly little things folks put on the table, but now it got him a look or a lecture every time. He just wasn't used to eating with other people, at tables, indoors. And he wasn't at all sure he liked it.
"I'm sorry, Vin," Chris apologized quietly, seeing the younger man's discomfort and feeling a sharp twinge of guilt for having caused it. "You go on and eat however you want. I won't say another word about it, I promise."
Vin nodded silently and returned to his food, but tried to keep all the rules the others were always throwing at him in mind. He struggled to keep one hand in his lap, but finally had to tuck it under his thigh to keep it down, then puzzled over how he was supposed to butter his bread with only one hand available. In the end he gave up, and soon had both elbows comfortably on the table, was sitting hunched over his plate and scooping food into his mouth using both fork and bread.
Chris was as good as his word, chuckling and shaking his head over Tanner's appalling manners, but saying not a word about them. He wanted Vin happy and comfortable, and would accept whatever messiness came with that.
When supper was finished and the dishes washed, they took the whiskey and tin cups and went outside to watch the sunset from the porch. Chris sat in the chair he'd built, while Vin sat on the porch at his feet. They'd both left their hats inside, and the long strands of Tanner's hair lifted and danced lightly on the late afternoon breeze. He was as relaxed as Chris had ever known him to be and sat utterly still, moving only to bring the cup to his lips and drink, his wide blue gaze fixed upon the sky, now a palette of vivid reds, blues, pinks and purples.
So when he spoke, his softly drawled words startled Larabee.
"I ever tell ya 'bout my grandpa?"
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