Disclaimer: The Mirisch Company, MGM, John Watson, Pen Densham, CBS and TNN own all rights to all things Magnificent Seven. I claim no rights and make no profit from this fiction. Luke belongs to me.
Notes: This is my first attempt at fanfiction. This is OW and H/C focusing on Vin and Chris, but they're all somewhere in the story. Thanks to Lindsay and LaraMee for beta duty.
Vin knew if he lived to be 100, he would never forget his face. The pale blue eyes, wide open in shock. Straight nose and square jaw, with just a hint of facial hair. His skin was smudged with grime, but smooth with youth – no time yet for scars or creases. And his mouth – thin lips clenched tight with angry determination, blood just beginning to trickle down his chin. It was the face of a boy – the boy he had killed.
"Oh God, there just ain’t enough whiskey to make this better," Vin thought. He’d returned from Eagle Bend earlier in the day and he hadn’t managed to move from the saloon yet. He really wasn’t drinking much – couldn’t seem to get his mind and body to coordinate properly. In fact, he felt like he was caught in a nightmare, where life whirled on around him but he was stuck - stuck in a dark alley as he turned over the body of the person he had shot and found the face of a boy. He had replayed the horrible events over and over, trying to find some way around what had happened. Some way that he could have reacted differently, some kind of absolution.
Vin had gone to Eagle Bend a few days earlier to help track a cougar that was causing problems for the area ranchers. Truth be told, he was happy to get away for awhile. It proved to be just the diversion he needed; the thrill of the hunt in the wild country he loved. The hunt had been successful with no one hurt in the process. A man just couldn’t ask for more. He’d headed back into town feeling light-hearted and hungry. While dining on steak and potatoes at the local restaurant, he noticed an elderly couple at the table next to him, celebrating some kind of milestone. He couldn’t help but overhear the waitress congratulate them on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Vin smiled – he could hardly reckon living that long, let alone being attached to someone for a half century. Still, it was nice, and when he heard the old woman giggle like a teenager, he felt warm inside.
Afterwards, he stepped out and caught a glimpse of the sun setting on the western side of town. Watching the sun go down was second only to watching it come up, and Vin felt blessed. A perfect ending to a nearly perfect day. He decided to ride a few miles out of town and set up camp, then head for home in the morning. Home. Just the word made him grin.
As he headed for the livery, he heard a scuffle and what sounded like a muffled scream coming from behind the livery. He slipped quietly into the shadows and peered into the darkened alleyway. The elderly couple he’d seen in the restaurant were having far from a perfect ending to their day. Vin could see the old man lying on the ground, grunting as a figure pummeled him repeatedly. The attacker was small in stature, but obviously quite strong. He reached up to the sobbing woman, slapped her face, and roughly pushed her against the wall, screaming at her to "shut the hell up!"
Enraged by what he witnessed, Vin stepped into the road, pulled his mare’s leg, and in his usual efficient manner, simply growled, "Stop. Now." The figure stood, and hesitating only a moment, pulled his own weapon and fired. The tracker felt the breeze from the bullet as it passed by his right ear. His opponent’s aim was high and wide - his was not. Ordinarily, he may have shot to wound, but dusk had come and gone quickly, and the woman stood too close. Three lives were at stake, so he took the safest, surest shot.
The sounds of gunfire still echoed in his ears as he rushed to check on the older couple. To his relief, their injuries appeared to be minor. The old man, worrying for his wife, kept repeating, "Are you alright, Dear? Did he hurt you?", while she wept quietly and leaned unsteadily against him. Townspeople had begun to arrive and in the eerie light of their lanterns, Vin leaned down to turn over the body of his victim and saw - his face. He figured the kid couldn’t have been more than thirteen, fourteen at best, and he was sure he would lose his dinner right there. Voices swirled around him.
"Serves him right. No good trouble-maker."
"Just a matter of time . . . damn kid never could stay out of trouble."
"Where’s the other one? That brother of his can’t be far behind".
Strong arms grabbed a hold of Vin, and he thought he heard the old lady say, "He saved our lives, Sheriff." He vaguely remembered being rushed to the Sheriff’s office and gently but firmly pushed into a chair.
The officer had looked at the young man sympathetically and asked him to relay what had happened. Vin thought he had spoken. Looking back on it, he really couldn’t recall a single word he’d said. He only knew the Sheriff had released him with no charges, saying something about the boy and his twin brother being "drifters" who were causing more frequent and more serious problems for the town. Vin did clearly remember asking one question, however. "What’s his name?"
"His name? I don’t know as I’ve heard anyone call him a name. Maybe John or Jake or something like that. Don’t know the other’s one name, either, now that I think on it. Guess it don’t matter much."
Of course, it did matter. Only a man who had lived as a nameless kid himself would know just exactly how much it mattered. He’d gotten up to leave then, one thought plaguing him, "A kid. I killed a kid. Oh God." He’d killed more men than he cared to think of, but never a kid.
He didn’t remember the ride back to town. He’d gotten on his horse and just kept going until he ended up where he was now – in the Standish Tavern. Without warning, the image of himself as an adolescent came to mind. He’d gotten tired of being passed from place to place after his ma died. No one treated him right, or really wanted him, so he’d struck off on his own. Even as a youth, he was strong willed and determined, but he clearly recalled a time when he was so lost, lonely, and desperate that only pride in his name kept him from choosing the wrong path. Was he so different than the boy he had killed?
He knew he could and should talk to one of the boys. Ezra, Buck and JD were there. They’d looked up when he came in, and by the look on their faces, the look on his face must have said more than he realized. He knew they were concerned for him, but he just couldn’t bring himself to talk about it right then.
"You okay, Vin?"
"Something happen in Eagle Bend, Vin?"
"Mr. Tanner, you look decidedly unwell."
Vin hoped he mumbled something reasonably coherent in response. They were good men – good friends – and they would listen if he asked them to. He could even hear their reactions in his head. Kind-hearted Buck would offer a warm hand on his shoulder and a sympathetic comment. Ezra would remind him of the practicality of self-preservation. JD would understand best of all, considering what he’d been through when he’d shot Annie. If Nathan and Josiah were around, Josiah would undoubtedly talk about God and fate and what it all means, while Nathan, ever the healer, would try to ease the burden of guilt Vin carried.
But there was really only one man he wanted to sort this out with – Chris Larabee. The gunman understood him better than anyone he had ever known, but it was more than that. Larabee had lost his own son. If Chris could still look him in the eye after hearing what had happened, then maybe he could learn to live with it. He needed to talk to Chris. If he could just manage to get up off the chair, he’d head out to his friend’s cabin.
Vin took off his hat, ran his hands through his long, wavy hair, and willed himself to stand up. That done, he turned to make his way out and found himself standing face to face with - that face. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut, the air leaving him so quickly and forcefully that he couldn’t believe he was still standing. The kid stood maybe 10 feet in front of him - his blue eyes shining with unshed tears. Seeing that face, living and breathing, stunned the tracker so that he couldn’t quite think what to do. With sudden shock, Vin remembered about the twin brother. How could he have forgotten? He’d been so wrapped up with his own feelings, he’d forgotten that two boys had been affected by his actions.
It was apparent to the other men now that something most definitely had happened in Eagle Bend. A fresh-faced kid who, JD noted, looked an awful lot like a younger version of Vin, held a gun on their friend and appeared to be planning to use it. Buck and JD stood at once – guns out and ready. Ezra stayed back, watching and wondering how this would all play out. The kid was barely a teen, if that, and shaking like a leaf. If he’d had to place a wager, he’d bet the kid couldn’t do it. And he knew a bluff when he saw one. He’d wait this one out. The boy noted the other men’s actions, but kept his aim true.
Having recovered somewhat, Vin took a step towards him, and in a thick voice stammered, "Kid . . . I’m . . ." He was what? Sorry? What difference could that make to someone who had lost the only person they had? Maybe the only person they’d ever had. He knew what it was like to be alone, to be hungry, to be desperate. Just what the hell could he say to this kid that would make any difference?
Looking into his eyes, Vin knew the boy would shoot. He knew this kid had fallen to a place far beyond reason, where he no longer cared what happened to him – where being dead was better. As the bullet slammed into him, his last conscious thought was how fitting that the final vision he would have on this earth was of… that face.
Time really did stand still, or so it seemed to JD. He simply could not believe what he was seeing. Vin was thrown back so forcefully that he knocked the chair over behind him, and it skittered across the floor. Blood poured instantly from a hole in the tracker’s stomach. "Oh God! Where’s Nathan?" He felt like he screamed it, but in reality, his voice was little more than a harsh whisper that echoed in the stunned silence of the room. When no answer was forthcoming, he took off through the bat-wing doors, intent on getting help for his friend, and trusting the others to deal with the shooter.
Ezra heard the sound of the bullet as it barreled through Tanner and into the bar behind him, splintering the wood and imbedding itself there. He immediately went to the injured man where he lay flat out, unmoving, on the wooden floor. He cradled Vin’s head on his lap – seemed like the right thing to do – and tried to think of something comforting to say although, for once, words escaped him. Right now, he’d give the entire wad of bills residing in his boot to turn back the clock just a few minutes – to have done something, anything different. Such a terrible bet to lose!
Buck, in the meantime, resisted the urge to pull his own trigger when he saw the boy drop his gun to the floor and fall to his knees. Tears streamed down his face, but Buck felt no pity. This boy had more than likely killed Vin, and he would, by God, find out why. He grabbed him up by his dirty, ragged shirt, shaking him and shouting, "Why? Why? Why would you do that?!"
With a quiet sob, the boy answered, "He killed my brother." All eyes went to the boy then, and slowly back to Vin. What the hell was going on? Buck latched onto the boy’s arm and started dragging him off to jail, with a quick look at his bloody friend and a slow, sad shake of his head.
JD just couldn’t make his legs move fast enough. The clinic and Nathan never seemed so far away, and what if he wasn’t there? Fortunately, Nathan was there. Having been up all night delivering a baby, he had just settled down to rest. He heard JD’s panic-stricken voice calling for him, followed by frantic pounding on his door. " Now what?" he thought wearily. He’d heard the gunshot, but no return fire, so he figured – hoped he wasn’t needed. Opening the door, he took one look at the young man’s face, grabbed his bag and took off – without taking time to ask who was hurt this time or how badly.
Nathan entered the saloon with Josiah close on his heels, the whole town having heard by now what had happened. Both men gasped as they saw a very still and very bloody Vin with his head in Ezra’s lap. The healer leaned over the injured man, and without even touching him, turned pained eyes to Josiah and choked, "Get Chris."
Almost subconsciously, the preacher prayed, "Lord, don’t take him from us," and he set off with a heavy heart for Larabee’s cabin, just outside of town.
"Where do I start?" thought Nathan. He knew Vin was probably mortally wounded, bleeding inside in places he couldn’t fix. But he had to try. He could never face Chris Larabee, or any of his friends, if he didn’t at least make an effort. So Nathan Jackson once more set about saving a life he was ill prepared to save. Although he knew more about doctoring than the others, his experience extended only so far, a fact that plagued the sensitive man time and again.
With a heavy heart, he worked to stop the flow of blood, deciding then and there to do any stitching and mending right there on the floor of the saloon. "Stitching and mending – like I’m sewing up a damn coat or quilt," he thought bitterly. Looking up, he met Ezra’s eyes and an unspoken message passed between them, "this is bad."
But the gambler was not willing to give up so easily either, and so he offered, "How can I assist you, Nathan?"
"Boil some water . . . need some clean bandages," the dark-skinned man ordered wearily. He added, almost as an afterthought, "let’s move him onto a clean blanket."
Ezra realized then that Nathan intended to perform whatever procedures were necessary to prolong Vin’s life right there in the midst of his place of business. Not that he minded – anything to help their wounded friend would of course be acceptable. But Inez had gone to visit some obscure relative in some obscure village and oh, what a mess there would be. "My God, Ezra!" he chastised himself, "what is wrong with you? Vin is dying and you’re worried about the mess." In truth, the cleanliness of the tavern had nothing at all to do with his anguish, but it was much easier to face then the fact that he may very well lose a friend here today.
Nathan caught a glimpse of JD out of the corner of his eye and noted he looked decidedly green. "Go on to my clinic, JD. Make sure everything is ready for Vin." Jackson had his doubts that the sharpshooter would ever make it that far, but the youngest of the seven needed something to do. The kid looked as relieved as he felt to get away from the god-awful mess that was Vin, but he said nothing. Only swallowed and nodded – questions and pleas in his eyes that he couldn’t express, and a good thing, too, because Nathan didn’t think he could stand to answer him.
As JD burst out the door, Mary hurried in. Immediately her hand flew to her mouth as she gasped. Any thoughts about getting the story of the latest shooting vanished as she saw the pale tracker laid out on the floor. Nathan had carbolic in one hand, and a needle and thread in the other. There was so much blood, that she wondered how he could he even see what he was stitching.
Ezra, in his first true moment of clarity, saw an opportunity to get some questions answered. "Mrs. Travis, apparently Vin met up with some unfortunate circumstances while in Eagle Bend. We have not, as yet, been able to ascertain exactly what those circumstances were. Perhaps you could wire the Sheriff there and inquire as to what may have occurred?"
Mary nodded, and wiping her tears with the back of her hand, she composed herself enough to ask, "Where is Chris?" The tough lawman was always her first thought in times of trouble. He always knew what to do. But she could see that even Chris could not fix this, and she knew he would be devastated if they lost Vin.
"Josiah’s gone for ‘im," Nathan replied. And he’d better hurry, because the ex-slave didn’t think he could stand to tell Larabee that he was too late. Chris should be here when his best friend drew his last breath. Almost as soon as that thought was formed, Nathan reprimanded himself. "Ain’t givin’ up on you, Vin," he thought – or maybe he said it, judging by the way Ezra looked at him and nodded with steely determination.
Mary left quickly for the telegraph office, grateful to have a task to occupy her mind. She didn’t want to think of Vin and his gentle soul . . . ‘I’m not the way they see me.’ Tenacity and stubbornness being her strong suits, she would find the answers, for Vin and especially for Chris.
Josiah rode like the hounds of hell were after him, but he still knew he couldn’t reach Chris before night fell. The trip back would be difficult with just the sliver of a moon, but make that trip they would, and quickly, too, with Vin’s life hanging by a thread as it was. Vin’s life. Two little words that meant so much. It felt to Josiah like all their lives held by that single precarious thread. Over the past year, the seven had become like one. Linked in some miraculous way that only God or some other spirit could provide. And Vin was essential. He just had that way about him of calming and connecting the others. He didn’t even know it – probably figured he’d be least likely to be missed among them.
Josiah would never forget how Tanner came to his defense when he was accused of killing Miss Irene. He could still see and hear him standing in front of those bars, his temper rising as he shouted, "I’ve got every right, cause I’m tryin’ to save your damn hide!". Could see and hear him like it was yesterday – could still feel him, too, so he must not be dead yet. And so Josiah found himself again in that place where he prayed to God with one breath and cursed Him with the other. He so wanted to have faith that He would come through for him – pull off another miracle here for Vin. Of course, if God were truly just, Tanner wouldn’t be in this situation. Not that he was a saint, God knew the man had done his share of wrongs in this life – but there never was a truer heart, Josiah was sure of that. So maybe if God wasn’t exactly a just God, well, just maybe He’d be a merciful one and spare one of the seven, one more time.
He’d almost made his peace with the whole thing, or at least as close as he figured he was ever going to get, when he reached the cabin. It was well and truly dark now, but Josiah saw a glimmer of light through the window, and knew Chris was still up. He approached the area cautiously, calling out as he came within shouting distance so Larabee would know it was a friend. Lord, he’d give anything not to have to impart this news.
Chris stepped out onto the dilapidated porch, gun in hand, just in case. He knew something serious must be going on, for one of them to come for him this time of night. He knew, too, that it involved Vin, otherwise he would be here right now, instead of Josiah. He tried to swallow down his fear. Could be it was nothing too bad. Tanner had gone after that cougar, maybe he’d gotten scratched up a bit.
Josiah climbed down from his mount, acting like his legs were lead weights. Chris was torn between wanting him to get on with whatever he came here to say, and hoping he’d never say it, because it must be bad. Josiah turned to him and, in the most level voice he could manage, said, "Vin’s been shot. We need to ride."
Still not wanting to acknowledge how bad it could be, Chris took a deep breath, and reminded himself how many times one of the seven had been shot - almost a regular occurrence. But Josiah was here, and it was late.
He went straight to his barn to saddle up his horse, a thousand questions burning in his head, and he too afraid to ask any of them. As if reading his mind, Josiah answered a few for him. "It wasn’t a bounty hunter, Chris. It was some kid. No one knows yet exactly why, but apparently something happened in Eagle Bend."
God, his gut was twisting all kinds of ways. As he swung himself into the saddle, he finally looked at Josiah and asked, "And Vin . . . ?"
"Don’t know, Chris. Nathan was just getting to him when I left."
"But he looked real bad. I think we should hurry."
Nathan had done all he could at the moment. He’d sewn up the holes he found both inside and out. He found the only silver lining in the fact that the bullet had missed his patient’s spine. Unfortunately, it hadn’t missed his stomach and had cracked a rib in its path. He couldn’t be sure that it hadn’t hit any other vital organs, and he knew that if Vin miraculously survived, it would be a long and difficult road for him. The injured man hadn’t moved or made a sound throughout the ordeal, another small blessing. But with all the internal bleeding that occurred, vomiting was a certainty, and he would need to keep a constant watch to be sure Vin wouldn’t choke when it came.
Buck and JD had come back in just as he’d finished wrapping up the wounds. In an effort to move the tracker to the clinic as efficiently as possible, each man took a corner of the blanket he laid on, carrying him down the street and up the stairs in that manner. Nathan knew how much Vin would have hated being carried through town like. He wished he could have at least given a small measure of dignity to his friend. But no, he’d patched him up on a saloon floor and carried him out in front of everyone he knew. "God, Vin, I’m so sorry," he whispered softly.
They laid him gently on the bed - each holding their own breath until they saw for certain that their friend still breathed. Nathan sat beside the bed, his eyes never leaving his patient, and settled in for what he prayed would be a long night.
The first few hours passed uneventfully, and Ezra caught himself nodding off more than once. The boys had decided they’d take turns sitting with Nathan, at least until Chris arrived, and the gambler had spent his shift doing - nothing. And so when Buck finally entered softly and solemnly to spell him, he met his questioning stare with a shrug. He’d felt totally useless and certainly had no answers or insights to offer. Ezra left the clinic and headed for the jail, maybe he could be of some service there.
He entered the jailhouse, and peered through the shadows created by the only lit lantern. JD appeared to be fast asleep with his head on the desk. Poor kid would have a stiff neck in the morning. He glanced to the cell and saw the outline of the boy, stuffed up tight in the corner on the floor, apparently asleep also. Obviously not needed here, either, and so he headed back for the saloon. He really wanted to be anyplace else, but since he doubted he could sleep, he may as well start cleaning up from the awful events of that day. As he came closer, he noted light and activity coming from the tavern. Opening the doors, he was stunned to see Mrs. Potter, on her hands and knees, stubbornly scrubbing the stains off the floor.
"Uh…Mrs. Potter…" he stammered, "what are you doing? I mean, are you aware of the hour? Please stop. I assure you this is unnecessary . . . I am certainly capable of taking care of this." He must be tired - he was even turning down help with manual labor.
"Mr. Standish," the woman commented, without looking up from her efforts, "you men have done more for us in this town than anyone could ask or hope for. Surely I can ease your burden a bit by cleaning up the reminders of your friend’s injuries."
Ezra felt ludicrously like crying at that. No, not crying - bawling like a babe; flat-out, gut-wrenching sobbing. Instead, he allowed a single tear to fall as he made his way up to his room.
It was during Buck’s tour of duty that Vin finally came around. The dual assaults of pain and nausea pulled him from the comforting darkness against his will. He really thought he was dead, but he hurt so much and felt so sick, that it must not be true. There was a terrible metallic taste in his mouth, and he couldn’t breathe around it. He felt a vague sort of panic then, but even that was fleeting, the nausea fast consuming his total being.
Nathan heard the soft groan from Vin, and noted the slight spastic movements of his hands. "Hand me the bucket, Buck."
Wilmington looked puzzled, but did as he was told. Jackson had gently turned the sick man onto his side, but even he was unprepared for the force of the retching when it came. Copious amounts of blood filled the bucket, splattering the healer and everything else in its path. Chris chose just that moment to make his entrance, horror etched on his face at the scene before him. Nathan realized that Vin had lost consciousness again after the first, undoubtedly painful spasms, although his body continued to expel the bloody contents of his stomach. He thanked God again for that small favor.
The smell was truly sickening, and all three men thought simultaneously that it was a good thing JD wasn’t there. As it was, they felt nauseous themselves, and Buck moved to open the window. He was surprised to see that it was dawn. "Vin made it through the night," he thought. But after what he had just seen . . .
He turned back to see Larabee making his way over to take the vacant seat by the bed. While Nathan began the process of cleaning up himself and the surroundings, Chris took a clean towel and wiped Vin’s face. Buck had expected his oldest friend to enter with all guns blazing. He’d prepared himself for a barrage of curses, questions, and threats. But the blond had yet to utter a single word. The rogue watched as Chris held Vin’s head while Nathan changed the pillowcase; stroking the younger man’s hair momentarily as he tenderly laid him back down. Buck felt almost like an intruder, and so he quietly left to check on JD. There were things that needed to be said, but now was not the time.
It was not the time. Chris would want to know exactly what had happened, but for now, all he could do was sit at his friend’s side. He kept one hand on the tracker’s arm, but still didn’t speak. He and Vin had never needed words, anyway. He avoided Nathan’s eyes, as he had Buck’s. He wasn’t ready to face the despair he knew he would see there. He knew Nathan would do all he could, and he didn’t need to be hounded with questions he couldn’t answer.
Chris never knew why he and Tanner shared such a close bond, and in truth, he didn’t think on it much. He knew Vin didn’t either. It just was. They enjoyed each other’s company and understood each other in a way that few others ever would. It was enough that the two strong men acknowledged it, the how and why of it just didn’t matter.
He looked down at the pale form of his best friend, fighting the anguish that threatened to overwhelm him. He should have gone with Vin to Eagle Bend. He should have stayed in town yesterday. He should have been watching this man’s back – it was an unspoken promise between them. He should never make promises. He should never get this close to anyone.
Buck, like most of the seven, had been up all night and he was bone tired. He reached the jail in time to see JD stretching and rubbing his neck. "I can find a real nice senorita to take care of that for you, JD," he quipped.
The young man looked at him like he’d grown another head and snapped, "What’s wrong with you, Buck? Vin’s dyin’ and you’re making jokes."
Wilmington quickly glanced at the cell and noted that their prisoner was awake, but motionless. He sat on the edge of the desk and peered at his young friend intently before speaking in a soft voice. "JD, I didn’t mean no disrespect to Vin, you know that. But life does go on, and Vin wouldn’t want us mopin’ around and wearing black when he ain’t even dead. Hell, than we’d all look like Chris, and as much as I love the man, I sure don’t want to be him. Don’t want you bein’ him, either."
JD smiled in spite of himself. What would he do without Buck?
"Come on, Kid, lets get us somethin’ t’ eat."
"What about him?" JD questioned, nodding at the boy behind the bars.
"He’ll keep," Buck answered. But it was all he could do not to grab the stupid kid by the ears and beat the shit out of him.
The next time Vin got sick, there was no warning. His eyes flew open in pained surprise as the wretched vomiting began. Chris could do nothing but rub his back, while Nathan held his head, both men wincing at the awful sound and smell and horrendous pain they knew he felt.
Vin knew only that someone was raking a razor though his gut, and please, God, make it stop! He thought he heard voices, but they were so far away and couldn’t help him. No one could help him. What had he done to deserve to die like this?
When finally the spasms stopped, Vin was still wide-eyed, but Chris knew he didn’t see him. His entire body trembled and he seemed unable to catch his breath. Groaning softly, he made a last, aching whimper before slowly closing his eyes. Larabee called to Jackson in a panic, "Nathan!" as if he were across the room rather than across the bed. Nathan put a finger to Vin’s neck, felt the slight flutter of pulse, and nodded to Chris with more reassurance than he actually felt.
After the gunslinger’s heart resumed beating, he found himself thinking, "I can’t do this - I can’t be here and watch this." But he couldn’t leave Vin, either. He was trapped. Trapped because he’d allowed himself to care too much about this town and these people – as he’d once heard Vin say. And because he cared so much about this man, in particular.
Josiah came in later with breakfast, but neither Nathan nor Chris could swallow it. The big man did his best, giving the "you can’t take care of Vin if you don’t care of yourselves" speech. Jackson had pretty much gone two nights now without sleep, and Sanchez managed to convince him to rest a bit on the nearby cot. Chris promised to wake him if need be, and there was no doubt he would with Vin’s condition too precarious to take any chances.
Josiah, needing to stay awhile with his sick friend, and needing even more to say a few words to their leader, took Nathan’s vacant chair. He regarded the man in black somberly, then spoke, choosing his words carefully. "Chris, we found out a few things about how all this came about."
The blond looked up with some interest…but still not acting quite right to Josiah’s mind. He wondered, with sudden insight, if the gunman was afraid to hear what he had to say? But he continued, "Vin ran into some trouble in Eagle Bend. He came upon an elderly couple being robbed and he had to shoot to save his life and theirs."
Chris looked at him as if to say, "And…?" But still he said nothing, sensing that the worst was yet to come.
Josiah went on, "No charges were filed. It was clearly self-defense. But . . . the person he shot was just a kid. Vin killed a 13 year-old boy. It was his twin brother who came after him yesterday. Apparently they were drifters – didn’t have any family . . ." he trailed off then, no more to be said.
So there it was. Vin had killed a boy. Chris knew how badly that would sit with him. Hell, it would be hard on any of them, but especially on his best friend. Wouldn’t matter that he’d saved three lives. He’d be turning it over and over in his mind, finding some way to blame himself. And a drifter? He knew enough about Tanner’s past to realize he’d been pretty much on his own at 13. He bet the tracker could identify with these kids in a way few others could. But one kid was dead, and the other would likely hang if Vin died. If Vin died . . . damn! Three lives ruined because one hungry kid did something stupid. He glanced then at Josiah and Nathan, and thought, "No – more than three lives, so many more, so much more." The enormity and senselessness of the tragedy hit Chris head on at that moment, and he let loose a long string of softly spoken curses.
"Well, that’s more like it," thought Josiah.
Buck opened the clinic door a crack and took a peak inside. He saw Nathan lightly sleeping while Chris and Josiah talked in low, quiet tones. He could hardly bear to look at Vin, so still and white. As he entered the room and moved to the bedside, he noted that Chris couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the wounded man. Buck spoke up, "Uh, Chris? Just wanted to let you know that Mary and I wired the judge about . . . about what happened. He’ll be here as soon as he can to figure out what to do with the kid."
"What’s his name?" Chris asked, his gaze still resting on Vin.
"What? Whose name? The kid?" Why the hell did his friend want to know the boy’s name? What possible difference could it make? Vin was dying and what would happen to Chris when he did? To all of them? Disaster was unfolding before their eyes – who gave a shit what the kid’s name was!
Larabee looked up at him then, and Buck could see that he wanted – expected, an answer. "Don’t know, Chris – I didn’t ask. I threw his mangy hide in jail and I don’t care if he rots there."
Vin would want to know. Chris couldn’t explain how he knew that. He just knew Vin would want to know. And if there was any good to be found in the boy, he would want to know that, too.
With a heavy sigh, the blond leaned forward and whispered softly in Vin’s ear, "I’ll be back, Pard. Don’t go nowhere." He rose stiffly and went out the door without looking back, trusting the man he loved like a brother to hold on until he returned.
Buck and Josiah exchanged questioning glances, neither one sure of what was going on in the gunfighter’s mind. Not that that was new, but still….
Chris seemed to have to concentrate awfully hard to just put one foot in front of the other. He knew the boys were surprised by his reaction to the whole situation. He surprised himself. There was no all consuming rage, only overwhelming sorrow. A grief that was magnified when he finally reached the jail and got a look at the youngster that had tried to kill his friend. "My God!" he thought. "Why didn’t anyone tell me?"
The boy sat cross-legged on the floor, his arms hanging loosely in his lap as he stared forlornly at the floor. Even with his head down, Chris could see the uncanny resemblance to Vin. It was unnerving and made him want to put his head in his hands and weep.
Larabee glanced briefly at JD and stated, "Take a break, Kid. I’ll take over for awhile."
"Oh, sure. OK. I’ll just . . . I’ll just check on Vin," JD stammered, still shocked at how calmly and casually Chris had walked in. He hoped it was okay to leave him alone with the prisoner – surely the gunslinger wouldn’t do anything? Nah – probably had more to worry about with Buck, the way he’d been acting.
Chris squatted down on his heels directly in front of the boy and waited for him to raise his head and meet his eyes. To his credit, the kid did just that, and did not turn away from the steely glare.
"What’s your name, boy?"
"My name?" Of all the things he expected to come out of the man in black’s mouth, this was not one. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked him his name. He thought about saying something smart, but he was tired and hungry and scared and he wished they’d just hang him and get it over with. But he had a feeling it would be a good idea to answer him, so he did.
"Yeah, just Luke." Never did have another name that he knew of. He knew most people had more than one name, but he and Josh had been on their own a long time.
"Luke, were you there in Eagle Bend when your brother was killed?"
The youth pushed his long, sandy blond hair out of his eyes as he wondered just who this guy was and why he was talking to him. He couldn’t help thinking how stupid it was that someone was paying a mind to him now that he was getting ready to die.
He answered Chris, "No. I weren’t there. But I know he did it. They was all talkin’ ‘bout how the tracker from Four Corners shot ‘im."
Chris winced at that, thinking for the thousandth time how he wished he had gone with Vin to Eagle Bend. He could feel the sharpshooter’s unease in the midst of the commotion, knowing how uncomfortable the man was at having attention called to him.
Chris asked him, "Do you know why he had to hurt your brother?"
Luke bristled at that. "He didn’t hurt my brother, Mister. He killed ‘im. And yeah, I know what they said. That he was beatin’ up some old people. But Josh wouldna killed ‘em. He wouldna done what they said."
"He had a gun," Chris stated quietly. God - there was something about this kid! He just couldn’t turn away from him. They held each other’s gaze a moment longer – each seeing something in the other that they could neither understand nor put a name to. The vision of Vin vomiting all that blood appeared to Chris suddenly then, and he rose with swift, angry movements to pace in front of the cell. He was all torn up inside and confused. He just couldn’t figure how he could have any feelings at all for this boy who had blown away his best friend.
The kid swallowed, for the first time thinking this man could be dangerous. Of course, it didn’t matter. He’d be dead soon. He didn’t mind dying, although if he had a choice, he’d have picked a better way than hanging. But he didn’t have a choice, not from the moment he saw the body of his dead brother.
He knew Josh had the gun. He’d stolen one for him, too, even though he didn’t want it. He’d rather have a rifle for hunting, but Josh said they needed pistols. "Ain’t nobody lookin’ out for us but us," he’d said. Josh was always looking out for him. Luke felt his eyes fill with tears, but his embarrassment turned to astonishment when he realized that the gunfighter had tears in his eyes, too.
Mrs. Potter was fond of Vin. She cared about all of the seven, and heavens! A woman would have to be dead not to notice how handsome and brave and good-hearted they were. But she was partial to Vin. He did extra things for her, sometimes before she even noticed they needed doing. So she felt a pang of guilt when she brought his assailant a big plate of fried eggs and biscuits. She just couldn’t let the boy starve, no matter what he’d done. When she saw him sitting there on the floor, her first thought was that he wasn’t much older than her son. She’d passed Chris on his way out, and saw that JD had just stepped back in. She asked him to open the cell door for her, and he looked doubtful at first, but went ahead and did it – standing close by, just in case. Mrs. Potter smiled at his protective stance, then leaned down to hand the food to the boy. He looked up at her, puzzled – but oh, so hungry!
"Thank you, Ma’am," he said.
Mrs. Potter caught her breath, thinking, "this boy is no killer." She’d seen the eyes of a killer, but no, not this boy’s. Suddenly, she realized she had another reason for wanting so much that Vin would live – because she didn’t want this boy to die.