Author's notes: Rated G--My first attempt at a longer fic. Yeah,
Nancy is laughing at my used of the word "longer." Inspired by the song
We're All in Your Corner Tonight, which brought me to tears the
first time I listened to it. Willie and Waylon do that to me sometimes.
Makes some references to my previous stories. Take it easy on me. I am
still kinda depressed that our efforts on behalf of the Seven seem to
be falling on deaf ears, but ride on, my friends, ride on.
"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
hoof beats 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 chestnut 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
begetting 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
"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 boardinghouse
to get some sleep. Vin followed them alone out onto the boardwalk, into
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
atC hris 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
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
"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
"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 outta my business. He's got no right
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
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
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
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 sonlosing
your whole familylosing 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. Every time 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
"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
He hesitated. Where was he from? Everywhere? No where? Finally,
"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
"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
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,
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
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