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"A Face To The Reason" Prologue (Slash - Chris/Vin, Buck/Ezra)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 1-2 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 3-4 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 17-19 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 20-22 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Epilogue (Slash C/V and B/E)

Enter subhead content here

Book Two
"Vin Tanner, I hardly knew you."

"Who's gonna straighten me up, when I'm leanin'?
Who's gonna soothe my heart, when it's burnin'?
Who's gonna be the one to tell me everything's all right?
Well, goodnight, good guy."
- Collective Soul 'Goodnight, Good Guy'-



Part 3

Chris stepped over to Vin's side as Nathan nodded to him. "I'll be back in a few. Stretch my legs a bit before I take first watch."

"Take your time, Nathan," Chris said as he sat down, holding Vin's hat, coat and the journal.

Nathan smiled and gestured to the book. "Glad you found that.”

"Not half as glad as I am, my friend."

Nathan looked at Chris knowingly and nodded to him. "If he wakes up and he's in pain, some powders are on the stand next to ya'. Just mix 'em with the water and have him take a few swallows."

Chris nodded in acknowledgment and Nathan walked out of the clinic, leaving the two friends alone.

Vin awoke at the sound of the door opening and closing. "Chris?"

"Here," the blond man replied, resting a hand on his shoulder. He felt the tremble that flowed through Vin's body and knew the reason behind it. Vin had every right to be afraid. Calder was not one who killed easily, and it was obvious he delighted in torture. How Vin had survived that one time until the
Cheyenne
found him was a miracle. And it was knowing these types of miracles occurred that restored Chris' faith in the reality of a God. At least as far as Vin Tanner was concerned. He wasn't much on praying, especially after his wife and son were murdered, but to know Vin survived two attacks from that crazed lunatic was forcing the gunslinger to rethink his thoughts on spiritual matters.

Vin looked up at him. "Can't stop shaking," he said with a slight laugh.

Chris squeezed his shoulder. "To be honest, Vin, neither can I. I thought for sure you were dead as that bastard dragged you."

"Sorry, Cowboy. I tried to get away so's ya' wouldn't see it, but they'd tied me up good."

Chris glanced down at the bandaged wrists where the ropes had cut. He marveled at how Vin could think about his well-being when he was the one who was filled with terror at being hung. Chris remembered back to when Eli-Joe had tried to hang Vin to silence his voice. He did not give into his fear then. Possibly because he didn't want Eli-Joe to have the satisfaction, but he also knew it was because Vin knew Chris was nearby. He had trusted Chris to keep him from hanging.

Sometimes the trust Vin placed in Chris scared the gunslinger. What if one day he let Vin down? What if one day he couldn't save him? It had almost happened today. If Calder had not placed the noose in such a way that it wouldn't break Vin's neck...Chris shuddered a bit. No, he wouldn't let himself think on what could have been. Vin was alive. He was bruised up and cut some, but he was alive.

Forcing the 'what ifs' from his mind, he laid the coat and hat at the foot of the bed and held up the journal for Vin to see. "Found your stuff," he said with a small smile.

Vin reached out and took the journal gazing at it as thought it were some treasure. "If Calder had found this..." he let the thought trail off.

"Let's just be grateful he didn't."

Vin placed the journal on his chest and held it there. "Thanks, Chris."

Chris nodded to him. "You in pain? How's the head?"

"'Bout to explode. Nathan says I don't have a concussion, though."

"Well he gave me instructions to give you some of this medicine to help the pain." Chris reached over to the pitcher of water and poured a glass. He then poured some of the powder into it.

"Pain's not that bad," Vin protested.

"You just said your head was 'bout to explode. You want to guzzle a few swallows and get some easy sleep or do you want the pain?"

Vin just glared at him; then winced at the effort. He knew he'd been beaten.

Chris lifted Vin's head and put the glass to his lips. "Drink, or I'll pour it over you."

"Ya' would, too, wouldn't ya'?"

"Damn straight. Drink."

Vin opened his mouth and took a few swallows, grimacing as he did so. "I swear! Why does stuff that's s'posed to be good fer ya' taste like shit?"

"And how would you know what shit tastes like, Tanner?" Chris asked as he set the glass back on the stand.

Vin's glare hardened, and this time he didn't give a damn about the pressure building up behind his eyes. "Yer kiddin', right? After all the shit I put up with from you?"

Chris grinned. It wouldn't do to get into a bickering session with Vin at the moment. Although he had to admit, the bickering tone coming from Vin was a welcome change from the grief stricken man the last week. Must be on the way out of the pit, the gunslinger thought with some relief, but he also figured it was Vin's way of controlling the fear that was ravaging his mind. Always best to fall back on what you knew. What you didn't know could make you stumble, fall and split your skull.

Chris knew and understood the pattern of grief. You go through varying stages; then go over them again. Vin may be coming out of the pit at the moment, but there would come a time when the memory of Marcus' death would hit him square between the eyes, and the sorrow would return. Right now, however, Vin needed familiarity. Grief was unfamiliar to the tracker. It had been so long since he suffered it in his life. He mourned the deaths of others, certainly, but when that 'other' was a part of himself, the mourning took on a heavier blow.

Even still, Vin was suffering a severe headache from the blow Calder had given him, and Chris could see the pain behind those blue eyes. Vin needed rest, not an argument, even if it was one of their playful exchanges. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands. "You wanna write in the journal some? I could step outside for a few."

"Naw, just want to hold onto it." There it was again. That lost sound that had filled Vin's voice this last week. The old Vin was just about within reach, but not quite able to be grasped. Chris would not push it. He had promised Vin in a silent vow that he would not let the tracker walk through the grief alone. Every rise and fall of the turmoil Vin was struggling with, Chris would ride it out with him. "Sometimes a man has just got to find his own path," Vin had said yesterday morning, before taking off to Shepherd's Rock. It was true, but only to a point. Sometimes that path required someone else to walk it with him.

The quiet voice filtered into Chris' thoughts. "I miss 'im," Vin whispered.

The blond man turned his eyes to Vin with an understanding gaze. "I know."

To Vin, those two words were a lifeline. Someone understood. Someone who believed the pain of death and the sorrow it caused. Someone who would not get impatient with him as he trudged through it all. He had heard the term once...wounded healer...never quite understood it, though, until now. Chris was that, all right. A wounded healer. He’d been through it, knew what to expect, and knew what was needed to help others get through it. Vin rested in those two words, 'I know', and in the friendship of the man who spoke them.

"Getting' sleepy," he said with a yawn.

Chris leaned back in the chair. "Then sleep." It wasn't an order. It was reassurance.

Vin's eyes closed as Chris said it, and Chris watched his friend slip into a peaceful sleep, clutching the journal to his chest.

The bruises on Vin's face were taking on a nasty color, and Chris examined the waist bandages. They would have to be changed soon. The rope Calder had used was the coarsest kind, meant to rip the skin. So, Calder has a thing for tearing up flesh, he surmised. The image of Vin being dragged down the street kept going through his mind, and he shut his eyes to try and shut out the memory. He would never forget it, though. Calder had made sure he wouldn't. Why? Why the display? Why the message? Why Vin? Questions with no real place to look for answers. Chris hated those.

Nathan stepped back in, and Chris walked over to him. "He woke up right when you left. Gave him some of the medicine, he went right back to sleep."

"Good. He should be up and around by morning, but right now the shock of what he went through is wearing on him. Sleep will do him good."

"Yeah. I'm going to the saloon to fill Buck and Ezra in on some things." Chris looked over at Vin. "Calder was the one who took the whip to him before, Nathan."

Nathan closed his eyes. "So that's it."

"Yeah. Seeing him again awoke a lot of old memories. If he needs me..."

"I'll yell, Chris, I promise."

Chris clapped Nathan's shoulder gently. "Thanks." He put his hat on and walked out of the clinic.

Nathan turned to Vin and sighed deeply. He went over to where his pistol rested on the other stand by the bed. He picked it up and checked the chambers. Laying it back down on the stand, he took a seat and sat ready. For what, he didn't know. Calder would be a damn fool if he tried to come back here now. But Nathan honestly did not believe the man wanted Vin dead. If he had, why had he gone to so much trouble to keep the noose from doing its intended function? Nathan shook his head. None of it made sense. Not one thing.

+++++

"
Douglas?" Buck asked as he, Ezra and Chris sat at the table, eating their evening meal. "Douglas," he turned thoughtful. "I reckon you and I have met a lot of Douglas
' in our day, Chris, but I can't think of anyone in particular."

Chris shook his head. "It's got my head spinning, too."

"Perhaps Mrs. Travis would allow us to peruse her files of newspaper articles her husband collected on you, Mister Larabee? There may be an answer in them."

Chris arched a brow. "That's a good idea, Ezra. Would you be willing..."

"Say no more. I will head over there as soon as I am finished with my repast."

As if on cue Mary Travis walked through the saloon doors. "Mister Larabee?"

The three men stood as she approached the table. "Mary," Chris greeted.

She walked over to the table. "Josiah and JD will be back tomorrow morning. I assured them Vin was all right. But this just came for you from the telegraph office." She held out an envelope.

Chris took the envelope and opened it. He read the note inside. "Damn!"

"What is it, Chris?" Buck asked.

Chris handed the note to him. Buck read it out loud. "How's Tanner? Don't worry. We're not done with him, yet." He looked up at the others. "It's signed '
Douglas
'."

"I was on my way here to tell you about Josiah and JD when Henry stopped me," Mary explained. "He just got that over the wire not more than five minutes ago."

"Did he say where it came from?" Chris asked.

Mary nodded. "
San Francisco
."

"
San Francisco?" Buck asked. "Why would anyone from San Francisco
care about what's going on in this God-forsaken town?" He suddenly remembered that Mary was still standing there. “Oh, sorry, Mrs. Travis. Pardon my language.”
She gave him a smile. “It’s quite all right, Mister Wilmington, I sometimes feel the same, especially recently, after all that’s happened.”

Ezra cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with napkin. He pushed his unfinished meal away. "I'm done with my meal. Mrs. Travis, I have a favor to ask of you?"

"Certainly, Mister Standish." She turned to Chris. "How is Vin by the way?"

"He's sleeping now," Chris replied as he sat down and took the envelope from Buck. He examined the message again. "Who the hell is doing this?"

"With Mrs. Travis' help, I'm sure we'll find something, Mister Larabee." Ezra gestured for Mary to leave with him, and the two walked out the doors. "I need to peruse your files, Mrs. Travis. Any thing your husband collected on Mister Larabee's exploits as a gunslinger. It might shed some insight as to who's responsible for what's going on."

"Of course. An excellent idea."

When they were gone. Chris looked up at Buck. "Not done with him, yet. And this message is directed at me. I don't get it, Buck. I just don't get it!" He crumpled the paper in his hand and pounded his clenched fist on the table.

"Easy, Pard," Buck soothed, reaching over to grab on to Chris' shoulder. "We'll find out who and stop them before they go any further."

Chris rubbed his chin. "I'm not leaving his side tonight. I want you, Ezra and Nathan to patrol, but I'm staying with Vin."

"You think they'd be crazy to try two times in one day?"

"Whoever this
Douglas
is, it looks like he has this all planned. No telling what he's gonna do."

"You gonna tell Vin about this message?" Buck asked, gesturing to the crumpled wad in Chris' hand.

"Not right away. He already senses the danger. No need to add to it."

Buck nodded. He stood. "You go on over to the clinic. I'll start patrol now. Tell Nathan he can get some sleep so he can relieve me in a few hours."

Chris stood and put on his hat. He stuck the wad of paper in his coat pocket. He knew what keeping guard over Vin would do to the tracker. Vin prided himself on his independence and the ability to go where he wanted when he wanted. Having a shadow hang over him in the form of six friends would wear on his nerves, but better he be angry than dead.

+++++

Chris stood by the window in the clinic and gazed out over the town as
midnight
turned the corner of time. He could see Nathan walking the streets, keeping close to the clinic. Vin was in a restless sleep on the bed behind him, and there was a very real terror gripping the tracker's dreams.

What Chris would do to be able to quell the fear erupting within Vin's mind. Ease it into peace, give him some sense of safety within the darkness of the unknown. How many times had Vin done that for him? Every damn day since we met, Chris thought. He turned to Vin, and watched him carefully, listening for any signs that the nightmare would grip him to the point he would lash out in fear.

Suddenly, Chris knew in that desire to ground Vin back to reality, that their connection had been planned. What Chris was feeling was not just the love of a friend for another, but something deeper, more profound. He couldn't necessarily call it 'love', for the thought of that with another man was foreign to him. He only knew that without Vin in his life, Chris would walk in darkness once again, and then...he would seek the next gunfight, the final gunfight. And he would embrace the bullet into his heart like a welcome friend.

He was so lost in these thoughts that it startled him when Vin released a pain-filled shout.

Chris hurried to Vin's side and grabbed his shoulders, trying to shake him awake, but Vin's eyes were wide open with unfamiliar fear. “Oh, God,” Chris groaned. He knew what was happening.

"Stop it! Stop it!" Vin thrashed against Chris' hold, but the blond clutched him tight around the shoulders, refusing to let go, hoping his touch would break through the walls of deceptive images plaguing Vin's mind.

"Vin! Vin, wake up! Damn it, Vin! It's Chris! Wake up! Come out of it!"

Vin struggled out of Chris' hold and flung himself from the bed, onto the floor. He scurried to the nearest corner and rested on the balls of his feet. He backed into the corner, his arms splayed out on either side, palms pressed against the walls. The shouts of fear filled the room.
Oh, yes, Chris knew exactly what was happening. Vin's eyes were open, but his mind was still asleep and dreaming.

"Vin!" Chris ran to kneel in front of the tracker. He grabbed Vin's shoulders and shook him once more.

Nathan threw the door open and ran inside. "Chris!"

"Nightmare!" the blond shouted, his own fear reaching its threshold.

"Hit him, Chris! Slap him! This one's got a strong hold."

Chris slapped Vin hard across the face, and then he backhanded him. The screaming stopped, and Vin slumped forward into Chris' arms. Chris pulled him carefully into his embrace, holding him as though nothing else in the world mattered or existed.

Nathan clenched his jaw, gripping the door knob, uncertain what move to make at this crucial moment. If he startled Vin, there was no telling where the tracker’s mind would go next.

Vin's fingers dug into Chris' back. His chest heaved with panicked gasps. "Easy, Vin, easy. It's all right now," Chris whispered, his own breathing ravaged by what had just happened.

Vin said nothing. His fingers spoke for him, clutching at Chris as though he would never let go. "I've got you, Tanner," Chris spoke out, tightening his hold. "I'm here. You're safe. You're safe."

Chris turned to Nathan. He shook his head, desperation filling his eyes. "What in the hell did that bastard do to him?" He wanted to shout it, but for Vin's sake he controlled himself.

Nathan shook his head. "Whatever it was, Vin isn't telling us everything."

Chris felt Vin's fingers dig into his back more. He tightened his embrace. "You don't have to tell us anything, Vin. Not a damn thing if you don't want to." But Chris suspected. By God, he suspected. And if Vin ever confirmed that suspicion, Chris would hunt Calder down and shoot him square in the balls, first, watch him writhe in pain for a few hours, and then he would empty the rest of his gun into Calder's fucking body. And if the scum was still alive after all that; then Chris would put a special bullet into his gun, one with Calder's name etched in the casing by Chris' own hand...and blow his fucking head off. Hell, he might just do that even if the body was already dead, simply on principle.

Nathan nodded. "I'll leave you two alone, Chris. Lessen you want me to help?"

"I think I got it, Nathan. See to the town. Vin's shouts may have caused a panic."

Nathan nodded again and walked out of the clinic, quietly closing the door behind him.

Chris lowered his head to Vin's. The intimacy of such contact neither thwarting him or inspiring him. It simply was there, as natural to him as breathing. Like he had done when he held Vin the night Marcus had been killed, allowing his friend the means to grieve in the shelter of an understanding embrace.

"I'm not going anywhere, Tracker. I'll be right here," he whispered the vow and pulled Vin closer to him.

Vin did not weep, he did not sob out his pain, he merely clung to Chris and forced himself to calm within the unbreakable bond of his best friend's presence.

For both men, that moment was all there was. For both men, that moment was all that was needed.

+++++

About thirty minutes past, and Chris still sat on the floor, holding Vin. The younger man was calmer now, but he still clung to Chris as though even the thought of letting go would kill him.

"You with me, Pard?" Chris asked.

"Never...never had anything like that happen before," Vin whispered.

Chris sighed. "I have," he replied. "Nightmares like that are the worst. You never really do forget them."

Vin said nothing, and silence elapsed for a few moments. Then Chris glanced down, stroking the back of Vin's head. "I know this is about Calder, Vin. And I know I told you that you don't have to say anything, but...if you ever want to..."

"I can't, Chris," Vin tightened his hold. "I just can't."

"All right, but if I ever lay eyes on him, Vin, that minute will be his last. I swear that to you. I'll make it legal, but Calder will die."

"Won't stop the memories," Vin said, quietly. "Won't ever stop the memories." A shudder ran through him. "Don't know what the hell's wrong with me."

"Vin, listen, you're safe here. Probably never thought you were allowed to be afraid."

Vin smirked. "He didn't want me dead. He coulda' killed me easy today."

"Don't think about it anymore. Just think of somethin' else."

Vin finally pulled away from Chris, removing his arms from the gunslinger's waist and wrapping them around himself.

"Just wish to hell I could stop shakin'."

Chris rested a hand on Vin's upper arm and looked around. His eyes landed on the desk. On it were the bottle of whiskey and the two shot glasses that Nathan had used earlier. "How about we put you in the chair, and I get us some whiskey? Think that might help?"

Vin wiped his face with his hand and nodded. "Just might."
Chris stood up and held out his hand. Vin reached out and wrapped quivering fingers around Chris’ arm.

Chris pulled him to his feet and reached out to steady him as he wavered a bit. "Sore?"

"Yeah, a bit."

"I'm thinkin' more than a bit. Come on." He took Vin's arm and led him over to the chair by the window, closing the curtains to keep any prying eyes from looking in. Vin hissed as he sat down. "Damn rope burns," he cursed, and pulled his injured back from the back of the chair.
Chris poured them each a shot of whiskey and handed a glass to Vin who took it into two shaking hands. He hurriedly gulped it down, and Chris held out the bottle. Vin nodded, and he got another dose, which he downed as well. Chris didn't touch his. Not yet. He looked over the books on the desk after he poured Vin a third shot and set the bottle down. It was nearly empty. He made a mental note to replenish the supply.

The books were mostly medical texts and journals. He turned to the bed and walked around it, finding Vin's journal on the floor where it had fallen in his attempt to escape whatever nightmare had held him in its throes. Chris picked it up and set it on the bed; then he went to the corner of the bed and sat down.

Vin was studying the glass in his hand. "Sorry, Chris. You must think I'm plum loco."

"No, Pard," Chris assured. "You forget. I understand demons."

Vin sort of smiled at that, but it was strained. "Reckon ya' do at that."

Chris gulped his whiskey down.

The silence that filled the air was not uncommon with these two men. But this time, Chris felt the uneasy weight it carried.

He stood and went back to the desk. This time he searched behind the medical texts, for anything that might be considered laymen reading material. He found a book and pulled it out. "I know I'm not Marcus, Vin, but reading takes my mind off the dreams. I can read to ya', if you'd like."

Vin shrugged and nodded. "Sure."

Chris went back to the corner of the bed and sat down. He opened the book. "This is called 'A Tale of Two Cities.'" He began to read. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Vin leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Chris had never read to him before. He figured Chris would read to his son when Adam would have nightmares. Fathers did that...if they cared. Vin never had anyone read to him before...least ways just for him. Chris was pulling out that protective nature of his again. What amazed Vin was that he welcomed it.

+++++

JD was shaken awake with a gentle but firm hand. "Son, wake up."

The young man jerked awake and saw Josiah hovering over him, dressed for travel. "What's wrong, Josiah?"

"We have to go back. Now."

JD sat up from his bed and rubbed his eyes. "Is Vin worse?"

Josiah went to the chair where JD's jacket and boots and gun belt rested. He handed everything to his young companion. "Don't rightly know. Nathan assured us he would be fine, but something about it all is bothering me. I don't feel right staying here when we're not needed."

JD put on his boots, and then strapped his gun belt around his waist. "Did ya' have another dream?" he asked.

Josiah shook his head as he put on his hat. "No. I'd just feel better knowing we were all there."

JD put on his coat and Josiah handed him his hat. "Let's go then, Josiah. We'll have to tell the Judge."

"Already did. I let you sleep as much as I could. Our horses are saddled. If we leave now, we'll make it by sunup."

JD put on his hat and followed the large preacher out of the hotel room. He never questioned Josiah before. He wasn't about to start questioning him now.

+++++

Vin had fallen asleep an hour before.

Chris stood once again by the window gazing out over the reddening horizon. Dawn. He looked down at where Vin slept on the chair, wondering if he should wake him to move him back to the bed. Vin had been so tired that he didn't even wake up when Chris had covered him with a blanket. Either the bed or the chair, it didn't matter. When he woke up, he would still be sore. Chris decided to leave him where he was. It was either that or risk waking him by trying to move him.

He heard the sound of footsteps coming up the steps and pulled his gun. He looked out through the slit in the curtains and saw that it was Buck. He quickly re-holstered his gun and went to the door, opening it quietly. He put his finger to his lips as Buck came across the catwalk. Buck stopped his approach and waited for Chris to come to him.

Chris closed the door and headed over to his friend.
"How's our boy?" Buck asked.

"Sleeping, finally."

"Heard what happened. He say anything?"

Chris shook his head. "Not for me to tell." Chris' jaw clenched tight, and Buck could see the twitching muscles in Chris’ face, even in the dim light of dawn. "We'll find that bastard, Chris. We'll send him to hell."

"I thought about that only a while ago, but...that's Vin's call. As much as I want to take this guy out..." The look in Chris' eyes finished the sentence for him. He let out a breath. "Vin's got to make his own peace with it."

Buck nodded. "And you don't want to steal that from him."
Chris shook his head. "If I do, he'll never be free of it."

Buck cast Chris a knowing smile. "You don't think he'd reject to a couple a' gunfighter's backin' him up, would ya'?"

Chris shot him a knowing grin. "Not if he knows what's good for him."

Buck chuckled and leaned back against the catwalk railing. "Anything I can get ya'?"

"Just stay with him a bit. I've got to go stretch my legs."

"Good as done, Pard." Buck walked into the clinic quietly as Chris headed down the steps to take care of the call of nature and to stretch his aching muscles.

+++++

As Chris walked the streets of town, stretching and yawning and wondering if he would get to sleep after all that happened, he heard the sound of horses galloping into town. He turned and put his hand on his gun...just in case.
Damn, but he was jumpy. After last night though, he figured no one would dare blame him.

He saw Josiah and JD ride up and pull their horses to a stop. Josiah dismounted, taking his horses reins. "Chris," he said with a nod.

"Josiah, you and JD are back sooner than expected."

"Had a feelin'. Couldn't ignore it. Eagle
Bend
will survive without us. How's Vin?" he asked.

Chris stared at the preacher and saw the concern in the deeply set eyes. "He had a hell of a night, Josiah. Waking nightmare. Had to hit him to pull him out of it."

"Waking nightmare?" JD asked. "Ain't never heard of that."

"It's the worst kind of nightmare, JD," Josiah explained with a low tone. "Physically you're awake, but your mind is still dreaming. What's in your mind becomes real to you on a physical level." He stared at Chris. "When are we gonna find out the details?"

"Soon as he wakes up. To let you know what happened; the night before last, two men claiming to be bounty hunters tried to take Vin. We encouraged them that would be a bad idea, and they left. We knew they could be back, but we didn't really expect an attack in broad daylight."

"Mary told us they tried to kill Vin?" JD asked.

"Something like that, but it was not a typical show of force. They dragged him through the street...with a noose around his neck."

"Dear God," Josiah breathed out.

"Well, apparently they didn't want him dead. The noose was done in such a way to keep tension off the neck. His waist got the brunt end of the pull. He took a blow to the head, but Nathan said there's no concussion. Mostly it's scrapes and bruises and the cuts the ropes made. And, of course, sore muscles and a nasty headache."

Josiah lowered his head. "As much as Vin hates the thought of hanging, that had to send him into a panic, even for him."

"He was unconscious when it happened, Josiah. Least ways when they started dragging him."

"How is he now?" JD asked, concerned.

Chris shrugged. "Fell back to sleep a little over an hour ago. Buck's with him now. Needed a few minutes to clear my head."

Chris and Josiah shared a look that would bridge a chasm. The blond man held out his hand and Josiah shook it.

"Thanks for coming back so soon, Preacher."

"He means a great deal to me as well, Chris," Josiah explained.

Chris looked up and nodded to JD who returned the nod with a firm one of his own. Suddenly he felt better having the rest of the Seven nearby again. The thought struck him odd. When in the hell did he begin to feel comfortable being part of a group?

+++++

The morning sun shone through the clinic window and all six men were gathered around the bed where Vin sat, propped up with the pillows. He was sore and his head still suffered a dull ache, but his eyes were clearing and the rope cuts were lessening their sting. Chris stood by the wall to Vin's right, his arms crossed over his chest.

Buck leaned against the wall next to the desk. JD sat comfortably on the desk chair.

Ezra was by the door on one side with Josiah on the other.
Nathan had taken his spot on a chair to Vin's left.

They had gathered together to discuss everything that had happened and to try and figure out who and why.

"And Vin knows the man who attacked him?" Josiah asked.
Chris nodded. "A man Vin went after a few years ago. Name's Roy Calder."

"Calder?" Buck asked with disgust. "That son-of-a-bitch?"

"Who's Calder?" JD asked.

"My question exactly," Ezra spoke out.

Chris looked at Vin. "They have to know who he is so they know who they're up against."

Vin nodded. "Tell 'em."

Chris sighed. "Calder is wanted for the slaughter of five families. He uses a whip as his weapon. Vin almost became one of his victims. He was going after him for the bounty when Calder turned the tables on him and caught him. He whipped Vin and left him for dead. He would have died, too, if it hadn't been for a
Cheyenne
tribe that found him and saved his life."

"Dear Lord, do you mean to tell us that Mister Tanner was subjugated to...to..."

"Torture, Ezra, the likes of which I'm sure you know
something about," Nathan said with a harsh tone.

"Mister Jackson, though it is true I was raised in the South and was brought up to believe certain things about...certain people, I never partook in such atrocities on a fellow human being. Slave or otherwise."

"Maybe not, but did you ever try to put forth an effort to stop a slave from being whipped?"

"As a matter of clarification, sir, yes. I did. You do not wish me to judge you based on the color of your skin, Mister Jackson, I ask that you kindly refrain from judging me based on my place of origin."

Nathan noticed all eyes lower to the floor, except for Ezra's; which held his in a stony glare. His shoulders sagged, and he lowered his head. "Yeah, all right. I believe you would say 'I stand corrected'."

Buck straightened. "Well fine, now that our own little version of the Civil War has been diverted, maybe we should focus on the problem at hand? Namely what the hell is going on?"

"Seems obvious, Buck, this Calder fella is seeking vengeance on Vin. Or he's seeking the bounty," JD opined.

"Vengeance maybe, but I don't think the bounty is what he has on his mind," Vin countered.

"Why not?" the youth asked.

"Well fer one thing, he's wanted fer murder as well. He tries to take me in, he'll get put away, too."

"Unless he's partnered up with someone who isn't wanted," Chris pondered out loud.

"And then there's the fact that Calder wanted specifically for Chris to get a message when Vin was attacked," Buck informed.

Vin looked at Chris, questioningly. "What message? I weren't told of no message."

Chris shot a glaring look at Buck, who lowered his head, lips pursed. "Sorry, Chris. Thought ya' told him by now."
Chris tensed. He turned back to Vin. "Seems Calder was to deliver a message to me..."

"And they used you as an exclamation point," Buck filled in.

This time it was Chris' turn to be glared at...by Vin. "Why the hell didn't ya' tell me that? And don't give me no crap about me being too sick to tell me!"

"Well you were! They messed you up but good, and I wanted you to focus on getting well, not worrying about anything else."

"I think I'm more than capable of putting my priorities in order," Vin warned.

"Yeah and you'd put your life down at the bottom of that list, you stubborn fool. Don't tell me ya' wouldn't!"

"And just what the hell would my life mean to me if you or the others got killed? That would look real good on my tombstone, Chris. 'Here lies Vin Tanner who up and let his friends get killed 'cause Larabee ordered him t'stay in bed'!"

JD and Buck snickered. Ezra stifled a laugh. Josiah chuckled with Nathan as Chris and Vin glared at each other.
The glare was not strong enough, though, and Chris' fašade broke. He broke into nervous laughter, even though he tried not to. "That's not funny, Tanner."

"On the contrary, sir," Ezra spoke through a chuckle. "Mister Tanner can be quite the comedian at times."

Chris chuckled, shaking his head. He looked at Vin who let a lopsided grin plaster his face. "You bastard," he spoke out.

"Takes one to know one, Cowboy," Vin replied.

"Just what was the message anyway?" JD asked as the lighthearted moment slipped back into reality.

"Calder told Chris, 'Douglas says hello'," Buck replied.

"Obviously this Douglas guy hired Calder to deliver the message. Only problem is I have no idea who this Douglas is or what he wants," Chris said.

Josiah cleared his throat. "Well then, let us figure out what we do know. One: a man by the name of Douglas delivers a message to Chris using two hirelings to implement the delivery. Two: as it turns out Vin knows one of these men as a man wanted for murder who at one time whipped Vin and left him for dead. And three: the message is punctuated by Vin's attack. The only conclusion one can come up with is this man Douglas is after Chris and Vin is the one he's targeted."

"Calder may have just targeted me because of our history. Any one of y'all, including Chris, could be in danger of another attack."

"And the only clue is this man named Douglas...some guy from Chris' past that he doesn't even remember," Buck put in.

JD shook his head. "Sounds like that Top Hat Bob person."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "Except this guy isn't coming at me directly."

"Then what can we do?" Nathan asked.

"Nothin'," Vin replied.

"Nothing?" JD asked, dismayed. "You mean we just wait while they plan their next attack?"

"Only thing we can do, JD. Like it as not they're holdin' all the cards. Next time, though, we'll be expectin' a move against us."

Chris nodded. "Right. The thing to do is be extra cautious and more aware. We keep our guard up, and no one...I mean no one," he shot a look at Vin, "goes anywhere without one or two others going with 'em. Even if it's to the outhouse."

Ezra coughed. "Isn't that a little excessive, Mister Larabee?"

"Maybe so, Ezra, but they caught Vin unaware. If they did it to Vin they can do it to any of us."

"Much as I hate to admit it, Chris is right," Vin said. "If'n ya' want to talk excessive, Ez, wait 'till he gets to the sleepin' arrangements."

Ezra paled. "Surely you jest."

"Ezra, Chris picks his time and place for humor, and I can guarantee right now is not it," Buck informed.

Chris ignored the little diatribe and continued, "Now, since Vin and I were the first ones they made an effort to reveal themselves to, and Vin's not exactly a hundred percent, Josiah stays with us. Nathan, your clinic is near the hotel, so you and Ezra will be sharin' a room. JD and Buck, of course, and we all share rooms on the same floor." He looked at Nathan and Ezra. "You two think ya' can put your differences aside and get along?"

"Sir, Mister Jackson and I are civilized men. I'm certain we can find some common ground between us."

Vin snorted. "Well if anythin', it won't be borin'."

Buck chuckled. "Just as long as it's not annoyin'."

Chris grinned and looked at Ezra. "Have you found anything?"

Ezra shook his head. "Mrs. Travis and I are still researching the clippings her husband collected. There are at least four boxes. It seems Mr. Travis was intent on doing a story on you, Mister Larabee. He found your exploits as a gunslinger very admirable. Anything he could find on you, he collected. So, far, though, we have found nothing to indicate a Douglas is associated with you in any way, shape or form."

Chris lowered his head. "Keep looking. I'm hoping your luck will come in handy."

"Believe me, sir, the first report we read with the name Douglas, you'll be the first to know."

+++++

 

Vin and Chris begin to discover that their friendship may be something more. Buck begins to discover Ezra. (Extra never-before-seen scenes added of Buck and Ezra. I like them and hope you will, too. ~M~)
Part 4

Vin was up and moving by the afternoon, forcing his muscles to loosen. Nathan helped him dress after applying new bandages to his waist and wrists. Josiah was also there, keeping in line with Chris' orders. "Chris gone to get some sleep yet?" Vin asked as he struggled to get into his coat. His shoulders were so sore that it felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. He supposed slamming them into the hard ground was the same effect.

"Sleepin' as we speak, Brother Vin. Buck is keeping watch," Josiah replied from the doorway. He was watching over the street, quietly observing the people of the town as they went to and from. He and JD had been given a description of Calder and his horse so they knew what to look for.

"Think you could stand for something to eat, Vin?" Nathan asked.

"The saloon was where I was headed, Nathan. Josiah, when we get there, I need to ask somethin' of ya'."

"By all means, Vin."

Nathan helped get Vin's boots on as he was too stiff in the middle to bend and pull. "How's the head?" Nathan asked.

"About the same as five minutes ago when last ya' asked," Vin replied with disgust. "Just need to get out of this bed and movin'. Stop yer fussin'."

"It's my job, Vin."

Vin couldn't help but note that everyone was on edge. His encounter with that noose had scared the shit out of his friends as well as himself. He supposed he could let Nathan slide with a little fussing if it helped the healer deal with what could have happened. "I reckon it's more than just your job, Nathan," he whispered. "Thanks."

Nathan nodded in acknowledgment and pulled the last boot on. He stood. "You're set."

Vin pushed himself to his feet and stiffly walked to the door where Josiah handed him his hat. He put it on; then remembered something. "My journal."

Nathan held it up already retrieved. "Right here," he said, and handed it to Vin who put it in his coat pocket. The tracker gave him a smile of thanks.

Nathan patted him gently on the shoulder. "Let's go. I'm starving."

The three men walked out of the clinic, and though Vin moved stiffly and slowly, neither Josiah nor Nathan reached out to help him. Allowing anyone to help him was a characteristic that Vin only let go so far. The two men figured the limit was met for the day.

+++++

Josiah stared at his plate of food.

Vin's request had left him speechless.

The tracker glanced from him to Nathan and back to Josiah. "I'm sorry, Josiah. Maybe I shouldn't of asked ya' that."

"No," Josiah said, holding up his hand to stop Vin. He lifted warm eyes to his young friend. "I would be honored to help in the moving, Vin. I think Shepherd's Rock would be a perfect place for Marcus."

A smile crossed Vin’s lips. He leaned back in his chair and nodded to the preacher. "Thank ya', Josiah. I'm grateful."

"No need to thank me, Vin. I don't own any paper on that piece of land. It’s more a sentimental place for me, but it's for all of us to enjoy. You have a place in mind for him?"

Vin's gaze drifted off, somber and reflective. "I know the perfect spot. When I took him there...that day...we sat on the boulder and watched the birds fly above. He enjoyed it. I'd like to put him out in the open, where the birds fly over. There's a spot near the trees by the stream that would be the nicest I think."

"I think I know which spot you're thinkin' of, Vin. When would you like to do this?"

"As soon as I can swing a shovel over my shoulder."

"No need to wait for that, Vin. I'm sure we all could help. You can help with the plantin' of the flowers," Nathan suggested.

"I don't feel right lettin' y'all do the diggin'."

"It's our way of being a part of this, Vin," Josiah said. "We would like to be if you've a mind to let us."

Vin smiled warmly at his two friends. "Then could we do it today?"

Nathan and Josiah looked at each other. "I have no pertinent plans for this afternoon, Brother Nathan. Do you?"

"My only patient is sittin' right here, Josiah. I don't see any reason why we can't."

"Chris'll want to be in on this, too," Vin offered.

"Then we'll wait for him," Josiah said as he began to dig into his steak once more.

"He could be out for hours, though," Nathan said. "He was up with Vin all night."

"I reckon he hasn't gotten but a few hours sleep in the last few days," Vin said with a sigh. "Been too busy bein' a mother hen."

"Vin, it's time to face facts,” Josiah spoke softly. “You mean the world to Chris.
You're like kin to him. There's a fine line between comfortin' and smotherin'. I doubt Chris will ever cross that line with you.”

"I understand that, Josiah. It’s just..." Vin worked his jaw, suddenly silencing his view.

"What?" Nathan prompted.

Vin thought seriously about what he had been feeling the last few days. He had felt Chris’ concern and fear emanate from the gunslinger’s touch and constant presence during this ordeal. Vin had always known Chris would do everything he could to protect Vin from bounty hunters, but this had not been a claim for bounty. Both he and Chris had been targets.

Perhaps that was what Vin was feeling. The two had clung to each other, in soul and body as a means to ward off the danger that suddenly shadowed them. Strength in numbers, watching each other’s backs. Vin remembered clearly Chris’ comforting embrace from the night before. His touch, his presence had eased Vin’s fear and nightmares stemming from Calder’s attack. He knew he loved Chris, but since Marcus had touched Vin’s heart, thus Chris’, there was something deeper about it than just the love of a friend.

Vin couldn’t imagine his life without Chris in it. And from the way Chris had been these last few days, it was clear Josiah’s words were true. Chris loved Vin as well. But such feelings were never to be discussed amongst men. Such feelings stayed in the heart, close to the surface, seeping out through the touchstone of voice and eyes...and simple gestures.

“Vin?” Nathan prodded. “What’s taken your mind elsewhere?”

Vin shook his head, pulling away from those calming thoughts. "Nothing. I just...I don't want him to worry none about me, is all. I managed fine without him all these years."

"And God saw fit to change that habit within you, Vin,” Josiah said. “He probably figured it's about time someone else looked out for you for a change. Like the Bible says: ‘It is best for two to walk together, for if one stumbles the other can lift him up.’ Every man gets tired, even Vin Tanner."

Vin snorted. "Josiah, why the hell is it I can never argue with ya'?"

"Oh, you can argue, Brother Vin. You probably can even win one every once in awhile. But no man can argue with the Creator and win." He grinned at the tracker, mischievously.

Vin turned thoughtful, "Yeah, well, God and I aren't exactly on speaking terms."

Josiah looked at Vin questioningly. "You wanna talk about it?"

Vin shook his head. "Reckon I don't rightly understand why such a God would take someone like Marcus from this world, and leave people like Hathaway and Calder behind."

"Because evil exists, Vin, and we must all learn to deal with it. Others embrace it, like Calder and Hathaway, and this
Douglas
fellow. Others deal with the evil and help others deal with it, like the seven of us. And others, like Marcus, sometimes do not know how to deal with it. I believe Marcus' heart was too pure, and his spirit had learned so much of God's grace, that the good Lord decided it would be safer for him to be at His side."

Nathan nodded. "Chris told me something once that might help you, now, Vin. He said, 'just because you lose them, are you sorry you had them?' Marcus filled your life in the two days you knew him. I'd like to think that God kept Marcus alive, helping him to survive that fire, just so he could connect with you, even if only for a short time. He did what he was born and destined to do. He passed a legacy on to you."

Vin turned thoughtful, his eyes taking on that faraway stare that was so characteristic of him. "It would be easier to think on it like that, Nathan."

"Then think on it like that, Son," Josiah said. "Death is a question, and if you can find any answers to deal with that question, grab onto them."

Vin pondered what Josiah and Nathan said and it all made sense. Least ways it was sure easier to swallow than the anger that had been plaguing him. Saying nothing more, he leaned forward and continued eating.

+++++

Vin quietly went up to Chris' bedroom door. He saw Buck sitting on a chair just opposite, reading that day’s paper. "Buck." Vin greeted him with a nod.

Buck smiled and stood, folding the paper and putting it under his arm. “Vin, good to see you up and around.”

“Thanks. He asleep?” Vin gestured to the door.

Buck nodded. “Still asleep. Been that way for a few hours."

"Well, he needs it. It’ll keep. I’ll talk to him in a few hours.”

Vin started to turn and walk away when Buck grabbed his arm. “Hold on, Junior. He gave me strict instructions to wake him when you showed up. Said something about you wanting to move Marcus?”

Vin nodded. “Talked to Josiah just now.”

“Then I’ll know Chris won’t mind the interruption. I take it we’re heading out today, then?”

“Ya’ don’t mind?”

“Hell, no, Junior. Beats sitting here waiting for him to wake up. I’ll go meet with ‘Siah and the others.”

“Thanks, Buck.”

Buck put on his hat and grinned. “No thanks needed, Vin. See you both outside.” With that he walked off.

Vin slowly walked up to the door to Chris’ room and gently knocked. A few seconds later the door opened and a bleary eyed Chris stood there. "Well, look who's up," he said rubbing his eyes.

"I could say the same about you," Vin muttered. "Sorry to wake ya'."

Chris shook his head, raising a hand to wave off the apology. "Everything all right?"

"Fine. I asked Josiah."

Chris' eyes fully opened at this news, now completely awake. "And?"

"He said ‘yes’."

"Told ya' he would." Chris gazed at Vin fondly.

Vin ducked his head a bit under the gaze, and Chris could have sworn the Tracker had blushed just then. “What is it, Vin?” Chris asked, unwilling to torment his friend with teasing. This was a sacred moment between them, and if Vin blushed under Chris’ gaze, it was not to be made light of.

"Thought you'd want to take part. Everyone's agreed to help, and I thought, if it weren't no trouble, we could take care of it today. But if'n you're too tired, we can wait..."

Chris held up his hand again, stopping him. "The sooner we do this, the sooner you'll be at peace. I just need to get my boots on." He headed back into the room and left the door open for Vin to enter.

Chris went to his bed and sat down. He studied Vin who stood just inside the door, as he pulled on his boots. "You all right?"

"Just sore."

"Not what I'm askin'."

"I know."

Chris nodded. Enough said.

"Was wonderin'..." Vin started; then stopped, the words caught in his throat.

Chris stood and reached for his gun belt and coat. "What?" he asked as he strapped the belt to his waist.

"Mrs. Potter has the flowers, but I wanted to know if'n ya' would like to...ya' know." He looked down. The dimness of the room, made so by the pulled curtains and no light other than the sunlight shining in from the corridor window, made it hard for Chris to know for certain, but he could tell by Vin’s voice that another blush had crept across that normally stoic face.

Chris put his coat on and grabbed his hat. He walked up to Vin. The embarrassment seeped out of the tracker like steam from hot water. For a moment, Chris wondered if this was all it would take to make Vin embarrassed. A feeling of endearment flurried through the gunslinger, and he couldn't help thinking that Vin Tanner was the most beautiful man he had ever met, both inside and out. He supposed he'd always known that, but since Marcus had brought it into the open, Chris had found himself looking at Vin differently than before. Vin was possibly the most strongest person in Chris' life right now, but he was also revealing a side to himself that, Chris was sure, very few people got to see. The side of the child within the tracker that yearned to embrace the world and see the beauty in all things. In this moment especially, Chris saw what Marcus had seen and desired to see more of it.

He stopped himself. What the hell was he doing, thinking of Vin in such a manner? A feeling hit him in the gut, a nervous feeling, one he hadn't felt in a damn long time. He found himself staring at the tracker who could shoot a man without blinking, who would be willing to take a bullet for a friend, who would search beyond the scarred face of a man and see the beauty lying under the surface. Vin Tanner was a mystery, but a mystery slowly unveiling his truths with each passing hour of each day. One of those truths was being unveiled before Chris now—Vin's security in speaking of sentimental things with Chris, even if he was a bit embarrassed by it.

Chris remembered the morning after Marcus' murder, how the tracker had bathed in the stream and had written a poem for Chris in his mind, even reciting it for the blond man as they pondered the words to be said at Marcus' funeral. In spite of the poetry and the sad circumstances that pulled the two friends into an even more binding friendship, there was a natural feel to the moment that seemed right and true. Vin's soul had been ripped open for Chris to view, and the blond man, hardened inside his own soul, found a link that could never be broken. The poet's heart that resided in Vin Tanner still beat with enormous truth, but also with guarded emotion. The emotion was so well guarded, in fact, that very few people were allowed to see it. Chris felt damn proud to be one of those few.

He took a chance. Perhaps it was an instinctive reaction, or maybe it was just the sacredness of the moment. He put his hand to Vin's face, cupping his cheek. Vin did not flinch or even pull away. Another mysterious truth revealed. Vin was never comfortable with anyone touching him. Ever. Chris had invaded where no man dared tread, lessen of course he was pure-dee crazy.

Chris knew he was close to crazy, but he had always respected Vin's privacy. Now he was reaching in, through the walls, and offering a touch of intimacy. For Vin to not slug him was this side short of a miracle.

In fact, Chris could have sworn Vin had slightly leaned into the touch; just enough to assure that it was welcome. The tracker looked up at him, and Chris saw the depth of emotion just under those sapphire jewels that took up residence in Vin's eyes.

"Chris?" Vin asked, uncertain, but searching.

Chris pulled his hand away, clearing his throat. He had to get his heart back on track. This was his best friend he was thinking about. He had to clear his mind of the intense feeling that had flowed over him. "Hell, Vin, for a poet ya' sure have a hard time with sentiment," he said with a grin, hoping like hell it would come off as a joke.

Vin shrugged—a look of disappointment on his face. The moment was gone. Chris wondered for a fleeting second, if it would ever come back.

"So...would ya'?" Vin asked.

"Yeah," Chris replied with warmth. "Thanks for askin'."

Clarification of what Vin was asking was not necessary. Chris knew exactly what Vin wanted from him. "Let's go," Chris said and led the way out of the room.

Vin followed closing the door behind him.

"You ain't diggin' are ya'?" Chris asked as the two men walked down the hotel corridor. The action of a few seconds before, suddenly ignored and forgotten. Well, maybe not completely forgotten. Chris' heart was still racing. He wondered if Vin's was racing as well. The look the tracker gave the moment Chris' hand touched his face...

"Nathan won't let me."

Chris pushed his distractions to the back of his mind. He would ponder it all later.
Right now, he was just happy that Vin had let him inside, even if only for a few seconds. "Remind me to give him a raise."

"Ha-ha, Larabee. Seems I'm not the only one tryin' to be a comedian around here."

Chris smiled at him; then stopped walking. He took Vin gently by the arm and halted the tracker in his steps. "Raise your arms."

"Huh?"

"You heard me. Raise 'em."

Vin stretched out his arms and raised them, hissing and cringing with the effort.

"That's why you ain't diggin'. Trust me. Whether you swing a shovel or not, makes no difference. It's the heart Marcus will see. And my friend, your heart is strong enough to move mountains. Let that be enough...just this once at least."

Vin gazed at Chris thoughtfully and the blond man wondered if he had been too strong with his descriptions. Since Marcus had helped Vin connect with words, Chris had found himself wanting to hear more from the tracker's heart and mind. He wanted to communicate with Vin in the same manner.
Poetry. It had to be the most misunderstood art in the history of the world.
Beautiful words strung together to form pictures and give vision to those who could not see. It was the stuff of artists and scholars, men of philosophy and thinking...not dust-covered gunslingers and scruffy-looking ex-bounty hunters.

"Marcus saw beyond both of us," Vin mused, as though reading Chris' thoughts. A talent the two never really questioned, and which no longer surprised either of them.

Chris grinned softly. "I'm thinking he is still seeing beyond us, Vin."

Vin looked off to a space on the corridor wall. A silence fell between them, but it was the most beautiful silence Chris had ever heard. Vin's silence was poetry in and of itself. He felt those round and deeply thoughtful eyes bore into him, and he met the soulful gaze, unblinking.

"Chris," Vin whispered. "I think...I'm not sure what's..."

Chris put his hand once more to Vin's cheek. "Not here," he whispered. "I know. We'll talk later, near Marcus' grave. More fitting place, I think."

Vin looked down. "I ain't scared of where we talk," he said.

"I'm scared for you," Chris whispered leaning in just a bit closer to feel Vin's breath wash over his face. "This town...this world," he shook his head. "Not here, Vin."

"Then I ain't goin' crazy?"

Their eyes locked, and Vin's hand went to Chris' arm, giving it a squeeze. Chris caressed the tracker's cheek, feeling the stubble there and wanting to feel it more.
"Marcus saw beyond us, Vin. No truer words have ever been spoken."

"Ain't one fer lyin'," Vin whispered the assurance, and Chris could almost see the tracker's heart opening up in front of him, once again, willing the older man with the dark past to enter without reservation.

"I reckon Marcus knew what he was doing," Chris said. He wanted to taste the younger man's lips right there, but it was too chancy. Too soon. He gave one final caress and pulled his hand away. "Later, Tracker," he promised. "We'll talk later."

Vin lowered his gaze and started walking off down the corridor. "Hopin' we'll do more than talk, Cowboy," he softly said over his shoulder.

Chris was amazed. In just the span of a few minutes, everything that Marcus had done in opening up Vin's closed heart, had culminated in unspoken words that managed to get the entire message across. A touch, a look, the need to see...it was all poetry in action. "Marcus," Chris whispered, “whatever you’re doing...lead the way.”

+++++

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Buck looked over to see Josiah and Nathan finishing up their probable third cups of coffee, just enjoying the moments after a hefty breakfast.

JD was at another table, just starting on his food, and Ezra...

Buck grinned when he saw the gambler at his usual table playing cards with a bunch of cowhands in for a day of rest and relaxation after being paid. Although, the choice in opponents for Ezra’s skill was decidedly questionable as these boys were known to rip up saloons after losing hands, especially one of them; Eddie “Powder” Pitch.

Buck decided to kill two birds with one swipe. If Ezra was about to clean them out, and by the look on his face, Buck couldn’t help but think he was, then Buck would need to stand ready to assist the gambler in leaving the table alive. Eddie “Powder” Pitch looked as though he was about to live up to his nickname and blow his temper.

Buck took the steps leading to the dais where the table was stationed and perched himself next to Ezra’s chair, resting a hand on the back and his other hand on top of his gun belt. “Mornin’, Ez. How we doin’?”

Ezra looked up at Buck and smiled. “Most excellent this morning, Mister Wilmington. Unfortunately for these three gentlemen, the day is not turning out so wondrous.”

“Pipe down that fancy talk,” Powder said. “I’m tryin’ to think here.” The man rubbed his stubbly chin as he pondered his cards, a look of sheer concentration on his tanned and leathered face. Buck almost felt sorry for the poor sap.

He eased in closer to Ezra and looked down to see the gambler’s cards. For Ezra’s sake he didn’t show his reaction to the three pairs. “Vin’s ready to move Marcus, Ez. Think you’ll be very long?”

Ezra turned to Buck, their faces just inches from each other and Buck felt a jolt in his heart at the golden tinges showing in the gambler’s green eyes. The morning sun had hit Ezra’s face through the windows off to the side of the table, reflecting off the gleaming orbs. Buck couldn’t take his eyes off the sight. He had never really paid that much attention to Ezra’s appearance before, but being this close, he wondered why he had never seen the intensity of the green and gold that sometimes lay clouded under a guise of bluffing and bullshit.

The gambler grinned, tapping his cards. “I think I can throw my lot in for some of the flowers Mrs. Potter has stored for Mister Tanner.” He turned to the other three. “The bid is five dollars, to you Mister Pitch.”

The other two men, friends of Powder’s, laid down their cards on the table and shook their heads. They pocketed what little money they had left, and got up to leave. “Don’t get thrown in jail, Pard,” one said to Powder, and put on his hat. He followed his friend out of the saloon, clearly resigned to their fate.

Powder, however, refused to yield the fight. He did not bother to acknowledge their departure. He took his last coin and tossed it onto the pile in the middle of the table. “I call,” he said, gruffly.

Buck stood ready, his eyes watching Powder for the reaction that was sure to come.

Ezra casually waved his cigar at Powder. “Let’s see them, sir.”

Powder laid his cards on the table. “Two pair,” he said with a grin.

Ezra closed his eyes, almost sorry to have to do what he was about to do. He laid down his cards, “Three pair, sir.”

Powder quickly scooted his chair back, making a grumbling noise. “That was my whole month’s pay!”

Buck straightened, watching Powder carefully. The man was known to pull his gun on anyone who crossed him, and Ezra had just crossed him. “Ease down, Powder,” Buck soothed. “Walk away from this one. You shouldn’t have crossed cards with Ezra and you know it. You always lose to him.”

“Because he cheats!” Powder accused, snarling at Ezra.

Ezra sat his chair, calm and cool. He puffed on his cigar. “Sir, might I suggest you learn how to play Poker before coming in here and discharging your ill-begotten mannerisms in the art of stupidity?”

Powder glared and Buck groaned. The man reached for his gun, but Buck grabbed his arm and pushed him against a wall, face first. “Don’t do it, Eddie and I mean it! You played against a man who plays fair and by the rules. He knows the game better than you so admit you lost to the better man and be done with it!”

Powder struggled against Buck’s hold. “I got no money!”

“Then get some work at the livery. Yosemite is looking to hire someone. He can pay you up front. Just calm down before you go there.” Buck took out a coin from his jacket and flashed it in front of Eddie’s face. “Grab a whiskey and ease down, now, or I’m gonna have to lock you up. How do you want to handle this?”

Powder eased his anger off, and nodded. “Fine. I’ll go talk to
Yosemite
.”

Buck released him and slapped the coin into his hand. “Good man, Powder. Riker would hate to lose you as a hand, so just work it out with him. And in the future stay away from the cards. You’ll feel a whole lot better. I’ll feel a whole lot better. The town will feel a whole lot better. You hearin’ me?”

Powder nodded. “Yeah, I hear ya’. I hear ya’.” Chagrined, he took his hat and slapped it against his knee. He headed to the bar and bought his whiskey.

Buck grinned at Ezra who had sat back to watch this display of bravado with marked amusement. “You do look pleased with yourself, Mister Wilmington.”

Buck sat at the table and chuckled. “Well it did get the blood pumping, Ez. Can’t lie about that.”

“No, sir, indeed. You seemed to enjoy yourself immensely.” Ezra pulled a coin from the pile of money on the table and tossed it to Buck. “You needn’t have come to my rescue, however. I had a gun trained on him the whole time.”

“Oh, I know that, Ez. Seen your tricks a time or two. Hell, I just didn’t want to get left out of the fun is all.”

Ezra smiled. “Nevertheless, your assistance, though unnecessary, was sincerely appreciated.”

The two exchanged a knowing gaze. Buck sensed something from Ezra’s eyes again. A hint of fond affection, gratitude...something.

Ezra quickly cleared his throat and leaned forward to collect his winnings. “I best get this money counted to determine my donation for Marcus’ new resting place.”

“Ezra.” Buck reached out to stop the gambler’s hands from stacking the dollar bills further. “You paid for the tombstone. That was more than enough in Vin’s eyes.”

Ezra looked at Buck who gazed upon him with sincere appreciation and friendship. “Well, then, I shall assist with the digging, since our illustrious tracker will be unable to do such labor in his current condition.”

Buck removed his hand and leaned back with surprise. “You, Ez? Actually getting into the dirt? Unheard of!”

Ezra shrugged, impassive. “Mister Tanner survived his attack, Mister Wilmington. I would dare say it’s a day for miracles, wouldn’t you?” He tossed Buck another coin. “For your beer when we are finished.”

He stood and walked over to Josiah and Nathan, pocketing his money as he sat next to them. “Lucrative morning, Gentlemen. Shall we begin the task Mister Tanner wishes to accomplish today?”

Buck sat at the Poker table and watched Ezra. Devious, calculating, clearly a man who knew how to con and bluff his way through life, but when it came down to the friendship he shared with those within the Seven, Ezra Standish was revealing more and more of the humanity he tried to hide from those who stood at a distance.

Buck was beginning to see a side to the gambler he had never seen before, and it both warmed and unnerved him at the same time. He could honestly say he actually liked Ezra. Con games and all.

It made Buck smile.

++++

When Vin and Chris walked into the general store, Mrs. Potter grinned with delight. "Vin," she said, her voice full of relief. She walked up and held out her hands. Vin took them in hers and leaned down a bit to let her kiss him on the cheek. "I'm so glad you're feeling better," she said, squeezing his hands.

"Thank ya', Ma'am. I was wonderin' about them flowers I asked about yesterday?"

"I set them aside for you. This way."

She led the two men to the side of the store, and Vin was met with a colorful arrangement of potted flowers; daisies, roses, tulips and lilies, all different colors.

"Thank ya' again, Ma'am. These are right purty."

"You take your time and pick out just the right ones. I'll be behind the counter. Need to finish stocking my shelves." She turned and left the men to decide which ones they wanted.

"I'd like one o' each, and two rose bushes," Vin said. "Thought we could put one on each side of the grave." The line from his poem "A Hero's Heart" went through his head. "Clutching a tangled wreath. Searchin' for a hero's heart." Marcus had been a hero to Vin, and roses would make a perfect wreath to crown his grave.

Chris looked over at the tulips. "Purple stands for royalty," he said, reaching out to touch the petals on the flowers.

Vin nodded.

He pointed to the ones he wanted, and then looked up at Chris, expectantly.
Chris examined the flowers. "I like the white roses."

"And the red ones," Vin said.

Chris lifted the potted flowers that Vin and he had chosen and carried them to the counter. Vin reached into his pocket and pulled out his share of the cost. Chris pulled out his wallet and made up the difference.

When they were paid for, Chris took the other pots while Vin took the two roses.
They headed out of the store, bidding Mrs. Potter their thanks and good-byes.

Josiah was waiting for them outside by the buckboard where shovels laid in the bed. "Ezra, Buck, and Nathan will be digging up the casket and bringing both it and the tombstone to the site later. JD's bringing a pick ax so we can get started on the new site." He gestured with his head to the younger man heading towards them.

Chris and Vin set the flowers in the wagon bed. Josiah looked them over. "A nice collection, there, Vin."

"Chris picked some of them out," Vin replied, then he walked out to meet JD.

Josiah went up to Chris. "His way of bringin' you into this part of his world?"

Chris gazed after Vin, thoughtful. Josiah had no idea what he had just asked. What was happening now, what had happened in the hotel a few minutes before, was still fresh and new and not entirely understood. No, that wasn't exactly true. Since Vin had been dragged, he had been all Chris thought about. Since the threat on both their lives, all the blond man could ponder was the meaning of destiny, and how he and Vin had found each other when no hope seemed to exist at all.

That chance look from across a dusty street, intense, determined... "Hell, I'm probably going to get myself killed. Now I gotta worry about a new job, too." The first words Chris Larabee had ever heard from that mystifying creature known as Vin Tanner. Chris remembered, even then, that there was something special about the young gun. Over the span of the year that followed, that something special had turned into something the gunslinger had never expected. The thoughts from last night filtered in once again. The friendship had gotten deeper and deeper, and then Marcus came into their lives for those sacred two days of pre-ordained appointment, and Chris had begun to look at Vin with so much more than that of a 'Pard'.

Vin had revealed his soul in those two days...a soul worth everything in the world to Chris. And a life without Vin suddenly seemed empty and raw, like knives of ice cutting him open little by little, forcing him to bleed out his strength and hope. This world would be a colder place without Vin's warmth.

Bringing me into this part of his world, Chris ran the words over and over in his mind. What Vin had shared with Marcus was something that Chris could never really share, least ways not in the spiritual sense. And he never would think of treading on such sacred space. But Vin had given him the signal that it was okay to come in and stay a spell. Maybe even longer than a spell. It was something they would discuss once they transferred Marcus' body to Shepherd's Rock.

He felt a nudge and turned to see Josiah gazing at him with concern. "You all right, Chris? You got awful quiet, even for you."

Chris sighed. He decided to leave his thoughts and questions go for the moment. There would be plenty of time for them later.

"I'm fine, 'Siah," he finally replied. "Just so many things happening to him lately."

"He's strong, Chris. You know that. Still hurting, yes, but we all feel hurt and become even stronger because of it. Don't go thinking Vin is gonna get swallowed up in this. Not when he's got you and the rest of us to pull him out. Hell, he's probably ornery enough to pull his own self out just to prove he can."

Chris smiled. Josiah spoke truth. The two men watched as Vin and JD approached the wagon. "Guess you're right, 'Siah," he replied under his breath.

"Wow!" JD said when he saw the flowers. "They sure are pretty, Vin."

Vin smiled at the kid and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Chris and I will be plantin' 'em once Marcus is in his new restin' place, but I'll need someone to help me keep them growin', JD. Ya' interested?"

JD smiled. "I'd be happy to, Vin. Thanks for asking."

"Well, if we're all set, shall we head out?" Josiah asked.

JD and Vin hopped onto the tail end of the buckboard and Chris climbed up beside Josiah as the preacher took the reins.

As they passed the cemetery they saw Ezra, Buck and Nathan working at digging up Marcus' grave. "We'll meet ya' over there!" Buck called out with a wave.

"Thanks, fellas!" Vin called back. He saw how each one of his friends was willing to help without complaint, to give Vin his wish for Marcus. Even Ezra had not said one word of protest regarding the hard work involved. How could Vin have been so blessed to have these six men come into his world? He couldn’t understand it, but he reminded himself not to question it. Like he did with Chris' friendship that first day they met, he just accepted it.

+++++

Ezra took a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow, and Nathan handed him a canteen. "Thank you, Mister Jackson." The gambler took a long swallow and handed the canteen back to the healer.

"You must think an awful lot of Vin to help out like this, Ezra," Nathan said.

"Yes, well, do not let the word go forth, if you would be so kind. I do have a reputation to uphold."

Nathan and Buck exchanged grins. Then Ezra noticed the fresh mound of dirt on the grave to his right. "It is appropriate to move Mister Marcus' body to a more congenial location."

"Why do you say that, Ez?" Buck asked as he threw another shovel of dirt onto the pile that was forming.

"I suppose I never gave it much thought at the time, but they buried Mister Hathaway next to Mister Marcus. I, for one, would not want to have my remains placed beside the man who murdered me."

Buck stopped shoveling and looked over at the other grave. "Huh," he said. "You're right, Ez. That just don't seem right at all."

"Seems Vin's request serves two purposes then," Nathan said.

"Indeed, Mister Jackson, Indeed. Marcus lived too long beside a man who hated him in life. It would not set well to think he would have to rest next to him for eternity."

"Funny," Buck said.

"What's that?" Nathan asked.

"Vin set Marcus free from Hathaway in life. Now he's setting him free from Hathaway in death."

"The symbolism, I think, is most fitting," Ezra said, and continued with his shoveling.

Buck grinned at the gambler. Sometimes Ezra simply amazed him.

 

(TBC in Parts 5-6)

Click here for Parts 5-6

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