Magnificent Seven Slash, The Runaway by Raven Davies

Chapter XI

The two men left the house and slowly meandered through the crowd, saying their good-byes above the clatter and the constant rhythm of the fiddler. While trying to find the bride and groom, as well as Buck, Chris prayed they would not run into Mrs. Travis and her son. They had been lucky so far, but he feared, that in their search for the others, they would be discovered. If they did, he needed a plan, something stern that Mary would recognize as a rejection without much ado.

Hearing Casey's excited shriek of their names, they stopped their search for JD. Comically grabbing her new husband away from an obviously fun and jovial conversation, she dragged the poor man, by the kid's perfectly knotted tie, to where the other pair stood. "Where have you two been?" She squealed, with the same excited smile she had worn all that day. Beaming with enthusiasm, not to mention the bounty of yellow flowers dancing in her hair, she looked like an elfin princess, fluttering out from the brightest, most glorious flower in the garden. The two men thought the same thing, as they watched her joyously whirl and dance about them. She was the perfect choice for JD Dunne.

"We had lunch, did some business, and are now ready to depart, as soon as we've kissed the bride, of course." Chris smiled back at her, while Vin resumed a position slightly behind Chris' shoulder, continuing to react nervously, with his toes clinging to the edge of an imaginary high precipice, ready to take the plunge. The man, still donned in his eternal black, bent down and gave the princess-for-a-day a fatherly kiss to the cheek, and shook JD's hand with a firm grip and a pat on the shoulder. The tracker followed suit, but far more cautiously.

"You mean you ain't even going to have one dance with me? Either of you?" The new Mrs. Dunne's eyes grew wider in surprise; and the gunman thought what a wild time this young wedded couple would have this first night of great expectations.

"Casey, they have to leave, but we'll see them soon. Let's just be glad Chris found Vin and brought him back." JD reprimanded her gently.

"Shoot, not even one dance, Vin?" Casey begged while trying to pull him forward by the hand.

"Don't dance, Mrs. Dunne." The tracker lied, remembering the fun he had dancing with Charlotte one fateful night. He looked at the ground, shifted his leaning position onto the other leg, and released her hand.

Chris felt the change beside him and turned to look at his partner. "Is your back hurting?"

"Ain't nothing."

The tracker hesitated shyly, with the attempt to give Casey another sweet, brotherly hug and quick kiss, but she still smiled and wistfully thanked the man growing paler than the first time they exchanged greetings. "You're the first one to call me that. Sounded real nice, Vin, and I... we truly appreciate you attending the wedding and the party."

"You're welcome, and get use to the name, because that's who you are now, but I guess you'll always be Casey to me, if that's all right?"

"Course it is, and you'll always be Vin to me." Casey took the initiative a third time, and swung her arms up and around Tanner's neck, squeezing the man tightly, while the ailing tracker finally laughed as they parted. After a manly hug from JD, with a mutual pounding of each other's backs, Vin returned to his own lover's side.

"Remember he ain't feeling good, Casey, and probably needs rest. They came all the way from El Paso just for us, and probably lots further."

"You're right, kid. Vin will be staying with me, and we're both tired. Guess I won't be calling you kid anymore, Mr. Dunne. Congratulations to you both."

"Thanks for everything you've done, Chris. See you boys later." JD chuckled at the two older men, as his station in life had suddenly risen with a wife on his arm.

"And I forgive you both, but I'm going to teach you to dance one day, Vin Tanner." Casey gave them each a gentler hug and scampered back into the crowd, with white lace and yellow ribbons flying behind her. On cue, JD once again shook hands with his friends, bid them a good evening, and hurried after the flurry of bows and crinolines.

Chris ushered Vin forward, stumbling once again into Ezra who seemed on the same mission of mingling with the crowd. A familiar site, they found him in a game of chance, entertaining the children with his skilled card tricks. Always fitting in with the little ones, perhaps because they trusted him, and he could trust them in return, with no questions unduly raised. Larabee had come far this day, admiring a man whom he had once detested, but now placing the gambler in higher esteem. In his thoughts, he remembered a similar scene in the Seminole Village; a scene he had forgotten. The gunman felt ashamed.

Standish quickly got up and dusted himself off. "Gentlemen, you are departing this splendid affair so early on this glorious October's All Hallows Eve?"

"It's all that, Mr. Standish, but we haven't had the most relaxing day, as you've witnessed. Vin's tired after the intense ordeal he's been put through; but I'd like to thank you and your mother for your help today." Chris winked at him, and then returned his attention to the tracker.

"I'll see you soon, Ezra, just to talk if you have a mind to." Vin again became soft and shy, causing Larabee to look away in his sadness; and the gambler brushed the tears leaking from his own eyes.

"I would very much like that, Mr. Tanner. Whenever the mood strikes you, please do not hesitate to interrupt me from whatever the situation in which I may be partaking. You are more important to all of us than a hand of cards, I assure you; although, maybe not a defining, winning hand in the nature of a Royal Flush, which may distract me for a few moments." The gambler widened his smile, allowing the remaining light of the day shine off his gold tooth, and entertaining Vin enough to finally laugh aloud.

"I'd never interrupt you on a roll. Wouldn't want to get shot with that teeny gun of yours."

"I suggest you go home and rest. Start feeling better, Mr. Tanner, and remember; however I am able to assist, I shall be there. I am sincerely gladdened of your return and your advice. You as well, Mr. Larabee, require a tip of my hat for your endurance to find our runaway. I have, personally, missed you both." The gambler unexpectedly embraced Vin, and it was hesitantly returned. He then turned to Chris, shaking his hand firmly.

"Thanks. Means a lot to me." Vin flushed red and shuffled his feet with the kind gesture. "When you come to visit, Ezra, I have a favor to ask."

"Whatever you need, Mr. Tanner."

"Well, since Chris and I have been traveling, he made me read aloud from books he always carries. Guess it gives him pleasure, like my harmonica. Was wondering if you'd help me with my reading and speaking all proper like, just as you do. Don't know what double negatives are, but Chris thinks it best I stop using them. Considering we may be in highfalutin society during our search, it best I start sounding smarter. Can you correct me when I use a double negative?" The tracker squinted up from his dark eyelashes to see if the man would again laugh at him.

"Of course, Mr. Tanner, I would be delighted. If you must stay calm and quiet for several months, reading, and learning properly spoken English seems the appropriate activities for you. We shall start as soon as you are ready, and in two months, you will be speaking as eloquently as myself and Mr. Larabee who expresses himself very well when he does speak formally." The request surprised the gambler, making him wonder just what kind of trip the two men had planned. High-society would not take kindly to the scruffy tracker or the black-clad gunslinger. Both looked dangerous to the average citizen in Four Corners, and they would stick out for any bounty hunter or police officer in a large city.

"Thanks, Ezra, and with your kind offer of assistance, we bid you good evening." Chris released the gambler's hand and smiled to himself. The fences mended one-by-one, or so Larabee assumed. Lives were changing as they spoke to each of their friends, and although going in different directions, their friendship would endure, with one very important exception. He had to find Buck and let the discord, between his oldest friend and his new young lover, take its course.

The gunslinger could not see Buck anywhere, as he craned his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the man who stood a foot taller than the majority of the guests. Vin also searched, looking behind him occasionally at the sound of a familiar voice, but it was not Buck. As he came around to look forward once more, Billy stood in their way, and the child let out a shriek of anger, throwing himself straight at Vin. The impact nearly toppled the tracker; a man nervous around children at any time; but this child screamed at him, calling him names for attacking the gunman.

Mary emerged in her exquisite yellow satin dress, flirting smile, and fluttering eyelashes, but did nothing to stop the onslaught of her son toward the found runaway. Pelting the man's ailing mid-section with his little fists, Billy came precariously close to Vin's vital areas that he discreetly tried to protect. With kicks directed at his shins, the impact almost had him on the ground, and they hurt for such a pint-sized creature. The astonished tracker, under attack by a child, had no idea what to do. He disliked the widow for many reasons and appreciated her kindness in others, but the pangs of jealousy toward her child came the moment he saw Larabee pick up the boy and ride away to the nearest fishing hole. Billy, with his problems concerning the death of his father, had pulled Chris away from him the moment he arrived in town to visit his mother. Vin's love for Larabee, a love-at-first-sight situation, had been undermined by this duo's constant interference, and he sought vengeance. The immediate realization of his vindictive thoughts toward the innocent had Tanner rubbing the bracelet on his wrist, repeating to himself that Billy represented a replacement for the gunslinger's dead child.

Larabee came out of his surprise and finally reacted, pulling the angry hellion up and giving him a small shake. "Billy, stop it. What are you doing, boy?"

"Vin hit you, Chris, and he screamed at you."

"That's enough, young man. It's time your mother taught you proper manners, and one is certainly not to attack someone for something you know nothing about. You hearing me, Billy? And you, Mrs. Travis, are you listening?" Chris found his opportunity.

"Whatever do you mean, Mr. Larabee? Billy is a polite, well-behaved child. You know that."

"He sure is, ma'am, after watching his 'polite' display against Mr. Tanner's ailing stomach and raw shins. That was down-right sweet of him." Chris looked menacingly at the beautiful blonde woman, and her indignation turned to surprise. The gunman continued his calm and slightly amused assault. "First thing, Billy, my name is Mr. Larabee, not Chris. That shows proper respect for your elders. You will always call me that, just like your mother. She also calls Vin, Mr. Tanner, and you will too. Now, do you understand all this, boy?" The gunslinger set him down, and Billy's little face puckered and his eyes swelled with tears, returning to his mother's protective skirt.

"Mr. Larabee, I do not appreciate anyone correcting my child, but myself. As his mother, I believe I know what's best for him and now you have hurt him."

"Then start teaching him, Mrs. Travis, before someone gets real annoyed about his familiarity, or starts liking it too much. It could get him into trouble, the kind that would horrify you."

"But Chris... Mr. Larabee, I thought... I assumed we were... were friends? Moreover, I certainly do not understand the possible trouble Billy could get into by calling you Chris. You helped see him through his nightmare of the man who murdered his father. We shall always be grateful."

"As the leader of this motley crew of seven, who protect your town, we all helped your son, and swear to protect any child in trouble. My involvement was no more, or no less than Mr. Tanner's expertise in tracking your boy, and our comrades who finally dug out the culprits. And yes, Mrs. Travis, we are acquaintances, but that is all, as are the rest of the men who protect your town. Now, keep your child at bay, and stop him from talking to strangers. He has come to terms with what he saw the night of his father's death, as you mentioned. Make sure nothing else befalls the boy."

"Perhaps you should put a gag over Mr. Tanner's mouth as well, considering how he behaved in front of the church; a scandal not to be tolerated."

"Vin is not your problem, Mrs. Travis. He's very ill, but will soon be back to the gentle man you helped teach to read and write. Don't forget that. We won't, and he appreciated your efforts." Chris finished and turned his attention to the tracker who recovered his position, safely half-hidden behind him. The man's shaking vibrated straight through the gunslinger's body. "You okay, Vin?"

"Ain't nothing, but I best get me some higher boots."

"Let's go then. Can you walk?"

"Yup. Evening, Mrs. Travis." Tanner smiled broadly, directing a knowing stare of satisfaction into her sad, pale eyes, as she attempted to understand what had just happened. The two men had changed in an unfathomable fashion.

"Good-bye, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Larabee. Shall we see you again?" Tears fell, and she did not hide them.

"You'll see us on occasion. It's a small town, and our plans have yet to be settled. Good evening, Mrs. Travis." Chris intentionally put his arm around Vin's neck in a playful attempt to ease the quivering, as the two men headed for the corral. The younger man smiled in spite of the battering to his stomach and shins. He had won; however, the gunslinger wanted to kick himself for hurting two nice people. Nevertheless, he would do whatever it took to keep Tanner quiet and safe. Reaching the paddock, a surprise awaited them, seeing their horses saddled and outfitted, with Buck leaning on the railing between them.

"Hey, we've been looking for you, pard." Chris smiled. "We're just heading out, and you beat us to our mounts. Thanks."

"Seemed appropriate the way you two have been behaving. You better stop right now."

Vin startled and began backing away from the hated, threatening tone that unnerved him, and his hand dropped to his gun. Chris looked surprised and a little bewildered. "What are you talking about, Buck?" The gunman instinctively reached back for Vin's arm, to keep him from running back into the throng or drawing the dangerous weapon his hand gripped.

"I'd say you and your Button made quite a pair today, and you sure better stop holding him like he's your lover before people start whispering even more."

"Keep your comments to yourself. You don't understand, and you don't know anything." The gunslinger warned, as he snatched his horse's reins from Wilmington's hand.

"Sure do, Chris. Been around long enough to notice two people who care intimately for each other. Been watching you all day, and you haven't stopped touching him since you arrived. You stop now, before someone makes a formal complaint against you both."

"Sorry you feel that way, Buck, but Vin's staying with me until he's feeling better, and only then will we leave. Had hoped you'd help me with some business and take some responsibility with the changes in Four Corners."

"Just warning you to be careful."

"Sounded like a threat to me." The infuriated gunman mounted his horse, leaving Tanner standing alone and mystified.

The smallest man could not leave with such anger between two long-time friends. He had to say something--anything--to get them back on track. "We'll be careful, Buck. Know you're just worried about Chris. Y'all have been friends for many years." The soft drawl came from behind him, and Buck turned in surprise to stare into the sorrowful, but most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. He had forgotten the look Tanner occasionally expressed, and how it turned him into a melted pool of gooey liquid, lying at the young tracker's feet.

"Didn't mean to threaten you, little pard, but I'm worried about you too. Just want you safe. Can't tell you how much I missed you both."

"Know that now. We both know." Vin turned sadly and tried to mount Peso. Weak and exhausted, he got his foot into the stirrup, but could not bend his tender leg to give himself a push. Strong hands were around his hips, and the very tall man lifted him with ease, allowing Tanner to swing his right leg over Peso. "Thanks Buck." An old memory swept through Vin's mind, but this time he refused to turn away and looked directly at Wilmington, smiling gratefully.

"You're welcome. Get well soon, you hearing me, son?" Buck gently patted the tracker's thigh, and then turned to Chris who gave him a friendly grin. "And you, Larabee, what's all this about responsibility and helping you do something I probably ain't inclined to like?" Wilmington kept his hand on Vin's leg, feeling the shaking after the short, awkward conversation.

"Want you to think about this, Buck, and I don't need an answer today. Hoped you'd take over from the seven of us, and become the full time sheriff for this town. You might even earn a little more respect; and seeing JD get married, you should start pondering on your own future, like the rest of us. You were always good with Adam; and Mr. Dunne you treated like a younger brother; why not make a family of your own?"

"Well, Chris, since you and Vin have been gone, I've been taking the lead with the group. With the investment in the hotel bringing in a constant flow of cash, full wages may be appealing enough for me to consider your idea, just for the fun of it. The others seem to be scattering in ways not yet revealed to us, but I sure do like the excitement of chasing down desperados."

"Never thought I'd hear the day you'd settle down, but you have your pick of the best-looking, single women in town; and once chosen, I assume, and suggest, you stay faithful." Larabee continued the light banter that he and Buck usually entertained.

"So, what else is on your mind, pard." Wilmington's face screwed up a little, waiting to hear an answer. Having been a lawman when he had first met Larabee, he thought it a sound plan, and he always had Nathan and Josiah to watch his back.

"Vin hasn't heard this yet, so stick with me, Tanner, and know this is for the best." Chris watched the young man who continued stroking his horse's neck.

The tracker, with all their discussions and plans, could only assume what business dealings Larabee may have; but with a quick look up to catch the gunslinger's eye, he nodded his head. He was ready for whatever decision the black-clad man had in mind.

"Okay, Buck, the plan is to sell most of my property. You're one of the few who knows how far and wide it extends. It's worth a great deal now, since the town has prospered and the railroad is already advancing toward Four Corners. Figure we could get the two ranchers on either side, Mr. James and Mr. Royal, to start a bidding war. The portion closest to Four Corners, where I built the new house, will be a wedding present for JD and Casey. Nettie's right next door to that portion, and a half section added to her farm would give the couple a lot of work, but establish them as farmers and hard working ones at that." Larabee stopped, thinking of the happy day he purchased it and settled in with Sarah. They had great plans for the place, but after the murder of his wife and son, the land meant nothing to him. No longer a rancher, but a gun-slinging nomad in search of revenge, he had made his decision, along with his partner.

"But Chris, your old homestead lies in ruins as a monument to the graves of Adam and Sarah. You can't just turn it over to a bunch of grazing cattle."

"They're alone out there, Buck, as Vin reminded me, and if something happens to me, they'll always be alone. It's a long ride to the far end of my property, almost to Eagle Bend, so I've decided to bring their coffins to Four Corners, where I know they'll be safe and someone special will always have flowers on much fancier tombstones. Can you do that for me, pard? You knew them better than anyone. It gives me a reason to return on occasion."

"You're right, Chris, and I think it's the first thing we should do while you're here. With my gift of the gab, and Ezra's smarts, we certainly can stir up interest in your holdings. It's a beautiful piece of land, and you've had large offers for it in the past. Reckon it's best for all concerned, although it saddens me to know you're truly leaving." Wilmington's face turned into a rainfall of tears, and Larabee had nothing more to say.

Vin looked at the tall man crying, and slowly and carefully chose his words. "You can do this, Buck, because Chris is your friend. Don't like the thought of putting people in the ground, but it's what white-folk do. I'll pay for the tombstones, the most beautiful and personal ones the carver can shape out of the hardest, finest of stones. Their names, dates, and words of sincere love must be perfect. No one should die alone or buried in the middle of nowhere; it just ain't right. You're the special man who will keep their memory alive between visits. Please, Buck, let's start tomorrow, if it's all right with Chris." Vin showed his poetic side, and he knew what he would write on each stone, but his partner would know best. He peered into the gunslinger's welling eyes and placed a reassuring hand over the one shaking with remorse and guilt. "Ain't your fault, Chris. You thought someone had a vendetta toward you, and not your wife and son. With a proper white-man's funeral, you can mourn their loss for the last time. They'll never be forgotten by you, Buck, or me. On our trip home, we never spoke about your life, and maybe, it's time you told me everything about you, Sarah, and Adam." The soft, raspy voice could speak only his truth, knowing Larabee could never let go, but this may give the gunslinger a chance for one more farewell, and return to their graves whenever he missed his family.

"Now you know why I need him, Buck. Thanks, Vin, but I'll pay for the arrangements. It's my duty to honor their memory one last time." Sobbing with his hand over his eyes, Larabee fumbled for a few more words. "You'll help us, Buck?"

Through his own tears, the potential new sheriff nodded his head in agreement. "Now, the two of you get yourselves home. We have much to do in the time you're still part of the seven. We'll all dig in and do right by you both; and I'll leave you two to give the good news to JD, Casey, and Nettie. They'll be thrilled over the new house you built, and I'm confident that you'll be staying with them when you come to town. The work is yours, Chris, made specifically for you and Vin. The kids will take extra special care of it; I'll see to it."

Wiping away his torment, Larabee sat up straight, squeezed his lover's hand, and shook the one belonging to his best friend. All was forgiven; the last fence mended; and the gunslinger could close this chapter of his life beside Vin. Exceedingly proud of his young love, who proved himself willing to conquer his misinterpretations and address a serious decision, the man in black felt peace consume him. With his fears dispelled and everything in the correct order, his only duty and responsibility sat next to him, holding his hand.


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Chapter XII

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