Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven are owned by MGM and Trilogy. No infringment is intended. No profit is being made from this activity.
Notes: This story is part of a short series. They follow one another closely and will make more sense if read in order. The preeceedng pieces are Table Manners and Chosen Family and the following story is Chores and Challenges
Four Corners had been quiet the last few days. The stage dropped off only the occasional traveler. The cool of the fall days were also keeping tempers cool, so that even the saloon was turning into a respectable establishment. Chris Larabee knew this lull would not last, so he set about making the best use of it. He'd put off a lot of work that needed to be done around his house while waiting on the last two prisoner transfers. He'd arranged with Bert Wilson to deliver lumber and building supplies to his place today, so he gathered some extra food, and an extra bottle of whisky for the cold evenings and headed over to the livery.
Vin had seen Chris's preparations and had arrived at the livery earlier to saddle both their horses. He now watched Chris approach, laden with the heavy saddle bags.
"Woulda been a bit easier to pack all that stuff in both our bags."
"Don't recall making arrangements for two," Chris grunted as he raised the bags up and over his horse's hind quarters and settled them behind his saddle.
"Must be gettin' old and forgetful, Larabee," Vin smirked as Chris struggled to swing his leg over the bulky bags.
"Yep, old, forgetful and tired by the looks o' that," he added with a laugh as he pulled Peso away at a gallop to escape the glare he knew was intended to peel the skin from his back.
A mile out of town, Vin pulled up to wait for Chris.
"Should add slow to that, Pard." Vin couldn't resist one more dig as he moved back onto the trail beside Chris.
Larabee aimed a flinty look at his friend, but as usual Tanner was unconcerned about retribution from Chris's direction. Without realizing, Chris's stern look had faded into a concerned frown as he considered Vin and his interest in helping with the house. Chris had run into Nettie in town a few days ago, and her words echoed in his head now. Vin had yet to say anything about that lunch when Chris had dropped in, but Nettie had mentioned some matters that had come out later in the afternoon. Chris wasn't convinced Nettie had read Vin correctly. Tanner wasn't a person to do things he didn't want to do. Vin always seemed happy to help out, quick to just show up and lend a hand. He cast a quick look to Vin. The tracker was slouching back in his saddle, eyes on the far horizon and that crooked smile that seemed to say he knew something no one else did. Chris just smiled ruefully himself. Maybe he did know something. A happy tracker was in Larabee's best interests if he wanted to make progress on his building efforts, so he ignored his urge to prod and let his friend amble along beside him.
Larabee angled his horse over to the corral at the side of the shack. He and Vin dismounted and settled their horses. Vin taking longer to complete his task as he avoided the nips and shoves from the quarrelsome Peso. Chris leaned over the fence rails and inspected his home. Hell, he'd only taken on this place to have somewhere for himself away from town. He'd felt himself begin to settle here at Four Corners and his shack, which was once just a dark distant refuge was beginning to feel like a home. Well, maybe if he made a few improvements everyone would stop calling it a shack. Chris turned to watch Vin, knowing it was more than the renovations that was making this into a home. Vin had finally settled Peso and was leaning up against the rail beside him. Chris watched his friend as the trackers gaze was pulled back to the horizon.
"You don't have to stop and help. You look like you've got somewhere else to be," Chris offered.
Vin turned to Chris and cocked an eyebrow in query.
"Somewhere out there ?" Chris waved vaguely off to the distance. Chris had decided not to prod Vin on the ride out here, but when it came to conversation, you took your opportunities when you could with the reticent tracker.
"You're not obliged to be here Vin. You don't have to help."
"Ya don't want me to help?" Chris caught the hurt in the quiet question.
"Hell yes, I want your help. But I'm not asking about me, I'm asking about you. Do you want to be here doing this work?"
Vin new Nettie would not let go once she got an idea in her head and now it seemed that Chris might have decided to gang up on him as well. Why had Nettie suddenly got stuck on him working for folks cause he thought he had to? He didn't linger on memories of his childhood and didn't see that it had anything to do with the present. Yes, he had to work as a kid. So did lots of kids. It might have been hard, but it didn't kill him. Maybe the first few times he had wanted more than just food and shelter from folks who took him in, but no one could say he was a slow learner. He soon learnt he was better off providing for himself than expecting kindness from strangers. So, maybe old habits did die hard, but he wasn't looking for food and shelter anymore. He knew the world held more than that now.
"Ya want help, 'n I want to help. Don't see what yer problem is Pard." Vin was confused.
Chris sighed in exasperation. The tracker could lay a false trail to lead you in circles, and now he seemed to do it with words.
"How about this then. If you could do anything you want today, what would it be?"
Vin just broke into a grin. "Anythin'?"
At Chris's nod, had added "Fishin'!"
"Why didn't I see that coming," mused Chris. "So, go fishing Vin."
"Y'll come?" Vin tried, although he knew Chris had days of work planned.
"Well, I got some work to do here, Pard."
Vin knew what had started these questions, but Chris just didn't want to let it go. Vin was becoming concerned that perhaps he was intruding.
"Yer talkin' circles Chris. Do ya want me gone?" Vin demanded.
Chris tried to stop the anger coming through in his tone of voice. He wasn't angry with Vin, just the direction the conversation was going.
"No Vin. I just want you to be out doing something you enjoy now that we've got a few slow days," Chris tried to calm him.
"But I don't care what I'm doin'."
Chris look his friend over carefully. He could see Vin wasn't trying to irritate him with his answers, they both just seemed to be at cross-purposes.
"I don't want you to be doing something because you think you have to."
Vin huffed a short breath, as irritated as Chris at these circles.
"I don't do things because I think I have to. I don't care what I'm doin'. I don't care whether I'm fixing fences, trackin' bad guys or going fishin'. You're building, so I'm building." Vin knew that he hadn't been clear by the frown pulling on Larabee's forehead. Frustrated, Vin dropped his head to rest on his crossed arms on the top fence rail. Why everyone was worrying him with words these days. He resorted to his usual shortened sentences instead.
"Jus' wanted company," Vin muttered.
Chris's frown eased and a slight grin appeared. "You want to sweat over a pile of lumber? Sitting in a saloon or meeting for dinner is most folks idea of company."
"Like I said, I don't care what I'm doin'. Now that you mention it, if I'm working out here I'm expectin' to be fed." Vin's head had popped up, an expectant look on his face at the opportunity of a meal.
Vin moved over to the house and started to pace out measurements. Chris watched the tracker scuffing out marks in the hard packed earth on the north of the shack.
"You want to check with me before you start laying out foundations?" Chris called.
Vin just walked past and shot a flat stare at Chris, daring him to correct him. Chris knew Vin was pacing out the room exactly where he would have placed it himself. The northeast corner would catch the morning sun and the cooling northern breezes. He knew Vin was aware of this, but wasn't about to voice it. Vin acknowledged the silent victory by continuing to scratch in the dirt.
"So ya want seven bedrooms, or ya think Buck and JD can bunk together?" Vin teased.
"One bedroom. My bedroom. As if I don't have enough guests dropping in on me. Don't want to encourage them to stay the night." Chris caught the sudden tension in Vin's back as he realized what he'd said.
"Vin...." His attempt to smooth out the moment was disturbed by the rattle of a wagon out front.
Bert Wilson was drawing a wagon loaded with lumber and supplies to a halt by the front of the house.
"So, where's all this going Mr. Larabee?" Bert called.
Chris waved him over closer to the barn, and he and Vin followed it to unload.
"I think you'll need a few more hands out here for all this work Mr. Larabee."
"We're just laying everything out at the moment. We'll round up some more help when the heavy work starts."
Three sets of hands made light work of the unloading, with only the occasional exclamation at fingers jammed between boards.
"Got coffee on the stove Bert," Chris offered.
"That sounds mighty good," Bert accepted eagerly.
Chris saw his opportunity and pushed Vin toward the house.
"Well, go get the cups Vin. We've got a guest."
Vin turned back suddenly to meet Chris's eyes as he realised what had just been said, mutual understanding as they both broke into huge grins.
Bert stared at the two of them. Larabee and Tanner grinning at the unknown was enough to cause fear in the bravest of men. Coffee may not be worth the risk. "Well, only if it's not too much trouble?"
"No trouble here," Vin tossed over his shoulder as he headed inside.
The men had started into the work quickly, working solidly that afternoon and again the next morning. Chris worked with the spirit level on the joists, bemused to find Vin's hand levelling startlingly accurate. He knew he shouldn't be surprised as Vin managed to work well in almost every circumstance with little formal training. Chris turned as a stream of curses filled the air. Chris picked out the words in the languages he recognised but even without that, the cause of Vin's outburst was obvious as the newly cut brace was slotted into place only to swing a good inch clear of the ground.
Chris snorted at the obvious mistake. "If it's short then you cut it short. It's not the timber's fault."
"It was right!"
"It just shrunk?"
Another flood of curses was turned in his direction and again Chris could translate enough words to pick up the intent. "Never any goats involved, Tanner," he defended against one particular character aspersion.
Vin pulled up short, confused at Chris' interruption. He rolled his eyes as he finally connected the comment to his tirade, not paying any real attention to his words just venting his frustration.
The heat had shortened the temper of the usually affable tracker. Too hot to work in his usual layers of clothing, Vin had stripped down to his undershirt, the worn sleeves rolled back past the holes at the elbows.
Chris looked on as Vin swiped at the hair falling forward as he tried to measure. Chris dug about in the ties from the delivered timber, selecting a suitable length of the stout twine.
"Here," he offered.
Vin scowled at the interruption.
"Your making me hot just looking at you. Get it off your face." Larabee tossed the twine over.
"Ain't s'posed to be lookin'. You got yer own job to do." Vin might have argued about it but he wasn't entirely opposed to the suggestion, efficiently scraping his hair back and tying the weight securely and nimbly with the twine. Chris was surprised at the well-practiced move because he'd never seen Vin with his hair pulled back. In the heat of summer Chris wondered how Vin put up with the length.
"Why don't ..." Chris stopped his question as Vin looked across. The reason was obvious as he studied the face before him. The square jaw was always visible, but now the cheekbones were more striking, Vin's striking blue eyes now the focus of his face.
'Never mind," Chris waved him off. Chris wouldn't tease Vin about the change in appearance today. Chris wanted his friend to relax when he was here and not maintain with his usual rough and tough facade.
Chris turned back to his own task, pleased with the progress they'd been making. Larabee had originally planned to have the work completed in a week as the summer days and fine weather provided many hours of working light. However with Vin's help the new frame, rafters and bearers had been set in just two days. They'd soon be finished.
Eventually Chris straightened up from his own task to realise that Vin had abandoned his organising of the thin clapboard planks and disappeared to the front of the shack. Walking around the corner, he watched as Vin appeared to be measuring again pausing to leave stone markers on the ground then peering up to the roofline and back to the ground.
"What are you doing?" Chris queried.
"If you bring the roofline out now it'll be easier. You can run the porch all the way across the front," Vin explained, not turning around at the interruption.
"The one I've already got is just fine."
"But yer already half there."
"Vin," Chris sighed in exasperation, stepping into Vin's path. He'd had this conversation more than once already. "One room. I just want a bit more space, not some mansion."
"But it only makes sense," Vin tried to explain. "Yer gonna have twice the work to do it later."
Chris kicked the stone markers aside and turned Vin toward the trestles, propelling him back to the pile of planks with a gentle shove.
Vin rolled his eyes and settled down to follow orders. It wasn't his house, although a full porch would be the best addition. Chris would regret the decision, losing all that nice cool space in the hot summers. Vin pulled out one of the clapboard planks and slid it onto the trestles, bending low to measure and cut. He persisted in his grumbling not bothering to lower his voice.
The tips of a pair of black boots came into his view. Vin fell silent but they stayed in place. He slowly straightened to be greeted by the gunslinger in a familiar stance, feet spread for balance, hand poised low for fast action.
"Appears you've got somethin' to say. You got a problem, Tanner?"
Vin leaned away as the wood chisel flashed into Larabee's hand. "No problem here pard." But a man had his pride. "Course, a fella might jus' have to sit down in the shade if he got injured by chisels flyin' about like that," he warned.
"A fella could lose his place at the dinner table if anymore timbers turn up short," Cris suggested.
Chris stepped back to avoid being hit as Vin threw his hands in the air in outrage. He grinned at the voluble antics of the usually quiet young man. "One goddamn timber and you threaten to starve me out. Slave labor is what it is."
"What you're quitting?"
Vin snorted at the suggestion. "Like ya'd get this done before winter the way ya stand 'round yappin'."
Larabee decided to take the hint and returned to his own task.
Vin wasn't going to start on the cutting yet. The two handsaws Chris had borrowed were losing their edge and needed a little assistance. He pulled the sawset from the sack and settled comfortably on the ground, working tooth by tooth along the blade with the little pliers to put a cutting angle on the metal teeth. It was slow methodical work giving Vin time to watch the other laborer.
Vin eyed the framework that Chris was closing in with clapboard planks. Something was wrong with the sight. Vin frowned as Chris nailed length after length in place, until finally he could resolve his nagging problem.
"Ya gotta put in windows." Vin called. "Folks'll think yer buildin' yerself a whorehouse if ya don't put in windows?"
"What?" Chris looked over, wiping sweat from his forehead, leaving his short damp strands standing up on their ends.
"Ya only got the two in the front there for showin' the goods. Not that the goods really need a window that big."
Chris didn't bother to reply to the interruption, turning his attention back to his work. He wasn't going to be drawn into another one of Tanner's design discussions.
Vin wouldn't allow Chris to ignore him. "Jus' take a look at it." Vin waved a hand along the length of the building. "Ain't no windows down either side of the place, so what d'ya think it looks like?"
Chris slammed a nail into a board, the hammer strike reverberating across the hills. He shot a look at Vin, daring him to continue. The next hammer blow coincided with Vin opening his mouth.
Vin took the hint and shrugged at the apparent end to the conversation. It was just a suggestion but sometimes Larabee just wasn't receptive to suggestions. Vin had discovered there was a better way to get the job done when Larabee decided to turn a deaf ear to him.
Chris eventually finished the section he was working only to discover he should have kept a closer watch on Vin. "What the hell are these?" he demanded of the horizontal braces which had suddenly appeared in the frame.
"Top of the window, bottom of the window," Vin indicated, as if explaining to a five-year old. "That gap in the middle would be the window," he added helpfully.
"Vin," Chris growled in frustration. The timber was already cut and fitted. There was little point in arguing now. "Fine, but you're putting in the sills."
Vin grinned as the 'boss' walked off muttering vague words about shutters, glazing and scruffy trackers who thought they were carpenters.
"Nettie'll run ya up some nice curtains or I reckon Mary would be real pleased to do it." Vin ducked his head to hide his smirk as the blazing glare was fired across the yard. Nettie would help him out with somethin' in a flashy red check.
Thwack. "Ouch." Thwack. "Damn it." Thud. "Crap!"
"Problem," Chris inquired mildly at the sound of the off-beat hammering.
"Why 'n the hell are these things greasy?"
Chris sighed in exasperation as a handful of nails were tossed at his feet. "They're the old ones. I had 'em stored in grease so they don't rust."
"An yer too cheap to rinse 'em off in a little white spirits?"
"They drive just fine slick like that. Don't keep holdin' on to it."
"Can't even hold it to get it started."
"Don't go blamin' the tools."
"Who's blamin' the tools, I'm blamin' you for all the slippery crap."
"Haven't you used up your quota of words yet?"
"You've been muttering more today than you have all month."
"Thought I was supposed to point out problems in yer crappy plans." Vin ignored the raised eyebrow. "Ya got more problems than a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest."
"Why did I even ask you for help?" Chris paused, glaring. "Oh, that's right I didn't."
"Just 'cause a man don't know enough to ask fer help when it's needed don't mean a warm-hearted person like m'self shouldn't stop by 'n help out."
"Just....just...get that window done!"
"Thought ya didn't want a window? Ya gotta stop changin' yer mind Larabee. Like I said, yer only causin' yerself more problems."
"Viiin." Chris growled the name low and slow, carrying both warning and threat in the tone. He dropped the bag of new, clean nails at Vin's feet then lined up a selection of tools. "That's everything you could possibly need for the next two hours." Chris raised a hand as Vin opened his mouth to argue, the outstretched palm nearly touching Tanner's nose. "Not a word." Chris couldn't believe this was Vin he was ordering. "For the next two hours, not a word."
Vin just turned silently to the inquisitor.
"The two hours are up, are you done?"
"Yep. Could do with a beer," Vin groaned lifting the hot tangle of hair from his neck.
"Now that's the first sensible suggestion I've heard from you. You gonna ride into town to get it?"
"Coffee it is then."
Chris nodded in agreement and went inside. He returned with the two mugs to find Vin had stacked all the tools aside, carefully sorting items so they would be easily located tomorrow. He'd never really noticed how neat the tracker was with his possessions. It was probably from living in the wagon, such a confined space for storing anything.
Chris made himself comfortable on the rough clumpy grass near the woodpile. Vin tipped his hat low, leaning himself back and setting the coffee of a conveniently placed lump of timber.
"Steak 'd hit the spot right now," Chris commented, hungry but in no hurry to actually cook.
"Fried tatters 'n onions."
"Buttered green beans."
"Damnit! Ya always gotta ruin it, don't ya Larabee."
"I can have green."
"Not out loud. That's like servin' it onta m' plate. If you wanted 'em you shoulda just thought em when you know I don't eat em." Vin snorted in disgust. "Just plan bad manners forcing food on others."
"What did I force on you? I just mentioned 'em. Besides, it was only beans, it's not like it was spinach."
"Leave it alone before ya turn m' stomach. What do ya really have to eat?"
"Salt pork." There was a visible slump to Vin's shoulders at the offer. "Sorry Vin, I didn't stock-up so we've gone through the good stuff."
"S'okay," Vin shrugged. "Things are gettin' too good if I can complain about not havin' a choice for food."
Chris watched curiously at Vin's silly grin. He nudged the trackers leg with one foot to draw his attention. Vin's eyes popped open, the grin flashing wide. "Things are good," Vin explained at Chris's prompting.
Chris shook his head at his friend and dragged himself back to his feet. "How about I chop it up and fry it with potatoes and onions. I'll even cut off some of that rind and toss it into the oven for crackling."
He didn't look for agreement, Vin was already salivating at the thought of hot salty pork crackling.
The workers continued tirelessly into the next day, the flooring and roofing the final instalments for the project.
Vin was stretched out on the slope supposedly fitting shingles but Chris hadn't actually heard any hammering for some time. Only the soles of Vin's boots were visible through the final gap in the roof. Chris picked up a handy off-cut and slapped the exposed soles.
"Hey, you're sleepin'"
"I'm plannin' the next shingle."
The response may have come back fast enough but the thick words were the result of at least dosing in the morning sun.
The hammering again slowed. This time Chris pulled himself up onto the roof carefully stepping around his dozing friend. If Vin wanted to laze in the sun today he was welcome. He'd labored hard the last few days, at a pace Chris hadn't required. Not rushed, but with a burning energy and a surprising enthusiasm. Despite the complaints and bickering there was a lightness about Vin this week, an easiness that had Chris grinning more often.
Vin had been at the shack during the daylight hours but now Chris wondered where Vin had been sleeping if he wasn't resting properly. He remembered Vin's reaction that first day after his unfortunate words about encouraging the other's to stay the night.
"You're welcome to stay here tonight, you don't have to ride all the way back to town." Chris knew full well Vin hadn't been sleeping in town, curious but not willing to interrogate him. "If it's about that comment I made, I was only joking about the boys."
Vin turned, surprised at the words. "Ya gotta stop explainin' yerself or yer gonna ruin that bad-ass reputation. I'm sleepin' out, that's all."
Larabee knew he would have to accept that. Vin did prefer to sleep out of doors and probably knew some of the best locations around here. Sleeping close to the house wouldn't suffice. Tanner took the whole package, solitude, sky and silence.
The pair locked the last of the shingles into place and clambered down the ladder.
Vin eyed the diminishing lumber pile. "So, about that porch."
Chris saw the direction of the gaze. "We're done when that's gone so there won't be enough for any extras. What is it with you and porches? This is just a shack."
"It's yer home."
"Right and I don't want it." Chris decided to stop this in its tracks.
Vin looked with regret at what could be the porch extension. There wasn't enough timber left in the pile. The new room had been all that Chris wanted so Vin shrugged off the disappointment. "I guess we're just about done then."
Vin dropped his gaze, tilting his head just enough to allow his hair to fall forward to shelter him. But he'd forgotten that he'd tied his hair back again to keep it out of his eyes.
Chris had seen the movement many times at the tables in the saloons, or leaning up against the bar. He knew the reason for the move but this was the first time he actually saw what it was intended to hide. Disappointment. He knew Vin had faced enough of that in his young life but it was rare that he saw the evidence of it. Vin just seemed to accept and move on. The acceptance was there now, that bland face, clear gaze like there wasn't a problem in the world but Chris had seen the shadow pass as if Vin was wiping the slate clean.
Chris didn't like to be the cause, uncertain of why Vin was measuring the job this way. They'd achieved so much. Chris was more than pleased with the final results.
He gave Vin a gentle shove indoors to the new room. "If you're so keen for more work, help me finish off these floor boards."
Chris watched warily as Vin punched the remaining nail heads down. Each swing brought a high metallic ringing echoing around the empty room as the hammer head struck the iron punch. Vin had laid most of the floor, the boards pulled tight and nailed through the sides at an angle. The only exposed nails in the flooring were found where the boards abutted, now being punched low. The floor had a finish to be proud of but clearly the earlier lightness in Vin's work was gone and he could only attribute it to his refusal to make any more changes.
It couldn't be helped. He hadn't brought the supplies and besides, he didn't really need the additional outdoor area. It was Vin who liked porches, rails and stairs, always happier perched outside somewhere. Chris simply didn't need a larger porch.
"Maybe in a few months, Vin."
"If ya want," Vin shrugged slammed the hammer down onto the punch once more.
Erasing the disappointment was what Chris wanted but that too would have to wait.
There was a small wistful smile on the tracker's face as he watched his friend circle the new addition then step out to the front and survey the newly completed work with pride. Vin didn't think he looked like a man surveying 'just a shack'.
Vin picked up a few stray nails and off-cuts of timber laying forgotten in the yard. There was a certain satisfaction to completing this job but he didn't want to join Chris in his proprietary survey. Vin was happy to share the work, but ultimately the results of that work wasn't his to share.
Vin started packing his own possessions back into his saddlebags.
"Vin, leaving already?" Chris asked, surprised at the sudden departure.
"We're done here."
Chris stepped in front of Peso before Vin could escape the yard. "What's wrong?"
Chris held Peso's head away as he bobbed and bumped, eager to be moving. "You going back to town?"
"I'll probably swing by the Well's place on m' way." Vin nudged his mount onward, forcing Chris to release his hold.
"Take care," Chris called gruffly, tapping the passing buckskin clad leg. "Hey," Chris tugged at the back of his hair as Vin looked back. Understanding, Vin pulled the tie from his hair, a quick smile and a touch to the brim of his hat in return.
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