Home, for a long time, was kind of a strange concept to the former tracker. Sure, he had a home for some years with the tribe, but with them moving around in the area, both due to the seasons and the increasing number of settlers, “Home” was more or less a group of people than an actual place.
And in the two years they worked as regulators for the little town, the settlement itself was less of a home to him than its inhabitants. But now, the feeling of “coming home”, of being able to call Four Corners officially his hometown, spread a warmth inside his body that he never felt before.
“Now will you look at that,” the gruff voice of Chris Larabee cut through Vin’s train of thought.
“What’s up, cowboy?” Vin asked softly, fully knowing that after all these years, he still was the only one to get away with the nickname.
Chris brought his horse to a halt next to Vin. “Do you remember how Four Corners looked when we left all those years ago?”
“Yeah,” Vin nodded before letting his gaze sweep over the now much bigger town, “definitely a lot smaller than now.” He turned to face Chris, a soft smile playing at his lips. “Wonder how many people we still know.”
“Yeah, me too,” Chris gave back before urging his horse on down the hill and towards the place where they met for the first time. “Only one way to find out, Tanner!” he hollered back, which in turn made Vin laugh out loud before following his longtime partner.
Most people walking around gave them curious glances, and Vin couldn’t quite quell the suspicion that these folks had moved to Four Corners after he and Chris left, therefore they didn’t know them at all.
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
The still booming voice of Josiah Sanchez came from their left side, and of course, the son of a preacher man was standing near the stairs to an also larger church, a broad smile almost splitting his face.
“You’re not afraid of your God striking down at ya’, ‘siah?” Vin teased while bringing Peso to a halt.
“Nah, if God was a spiteful one, he would have struck me a long time ago,” Josiah answered while coming up to them. Both Vin and Chris demounted their horses, and once they were standing in front of him, Josiah gave them a thoroughly once-over before engulfing both men in an almost bone-crushing hug.
“So, how’s the town?” Chris asked once he had his breathing back, grabbing the reins of his horse to lead it down where he suspected the livery to be.
“Pretty good, considering all the circumstances,” Josiah answered.
“Circumstances?” Vin echoed. While he was more than aware that a lot could happen in 10 years, he still hoped that those belonging to their small ragtag family still were around.
“Yeah, mostly the fact that this town has an officially appointed sheriff now.”
“He’s a good guy?” Chris asked, knowing that the other men also remembered the last time the town had a sheriff.
“Absolutely, and I already know that you’ll be delighted when you meet him.” The grin on Josiah’s face accompanying the last statement was close to that of a cat who got all the cream, but before either Chris or Vin could ask more, the preacher grabbed them by their shoulders and steered them towards the livery (one of the few buildings that at least looked the same, though it also was larger now).
So far, they hadn’t seen any of their old friends, except for Josiah, and oh-so-slowly, they both got a bit nervous, though they tried to keep their cool about it. Ten years was a damn long time these days, and with all the dangers out there, the chances of seeing everyone again were rather on the small side.
“Now look what the cat dragged in,” a voice cut through the silence, and once again, Chris and Vin exchanged a broad grin.
“Never thought you would settle somewhere, Bucklin,” Vin drawled while watching the ladies’ man dropping his large frame into a chair.
“Well, my friend, you apparently don’t know me at all,” Buck gave back, though the broad smile under the moustache told Vin that there was no malice behind his words.
“Maybe you’re right, Buck,” Chris cut in, “but to be honest, I would never thought it as well, despite knowing you for so long.”
“Ah, senors, you really don’t know mi marido* at all.”
Buck’s reaction to the new voice was instant – the smile on his face got even wider. Chris only could stare at Inez, as she approached them, trying to figure out what she had said. And while Vin’s Spanish was only slightly better than Chris’, he was the first one to decipher it.
“’Your husband’?” he echoed, his eyes blown wide.
“Si,” Inez gave back, before rounding the table and giving both men a hug. “Welcome back, senors. You want anything? Besides a new bottle of whiskey?”
“Maybe later, Inez,” Chris answered, his short answer a clear sign that he still was trying to wrap his mind around the fact that his oldest friend was a married man.
Inez nodded, dropped a kiss on Buck’s lips, and was back at her usual place behind the bar.
“How on Earth did you manage to get her around to marry you, Buck?” Chris finally asked once he was sure the woman in question was out of earshot.
“With his usual mix of persistence, questionable charm and that so-called ‘animal magnetism’,” a voice came from the stairway. “Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, I can’t deny the fact that the two of you are a sight for sore eyes today.”
Like back in the day when they were regulators, Ezra was dressed impeccably, his outfit consisting of dark brown, almost black trousers, a crisp white shirt, a deep red vest and a matching overcoat, rounded off with his trademark black hat. Sitting down, his smile matched that of other occupants of the table.
“You being still around here, Ez, gonna admit, surprises me a bit,” Vin said while indicating a small span with his thumb and index finger.
“Why should I not be around when…?” Ezra began, only to be cut off by Buck.
“…when he’s not only the owner of the saloon, but also the hotel and the boarding house. This guy here makes a lot more money that way than with his so-called gambling.”
“You make it sound as if it was a bad thing, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra grumbled good-natured into his whiskey.
“It is, if only for the weary travelers you take from,” Buck returned with a wink.
“Amen to that,” Josiah’s voice boomed through the large room, startling everyone, except for the four men at the table. Instead, Chris and Vin were greeted by the sight of two women they’ve all came to love – Nettie and Casey Wells. The younger of the two was quick at intercepting Vin, engulfing him in a hug (or as much as possible), before she released him to her aunt.
Not for the first time since their departure, Vin found himself at the verge of tears. But this time, it were tears of joy forming in his eyes. While on their trek back to Four Corners, Vin had prepared himself for the possible loss of people they knew. And if he was brutal honest, Nettie Wells was quite on top of that list, mostly given that she wasn’t the youngest anymore. But once again, the woman who had become a mother figure to him in no time at all managed to surprise him.
“Still got that carbine, Miss Nettie?” Vin asked once she released him from her surprisingly strong embrace.
“Of course, since you weren’t around to look out for me,” she quipped back, her eyes twinkling. Sobering up, she put him at arm’s length, giving him a thoroughly once-over.
“Hm, you’re still too thin for my liking, but other than that, the last ten years were good to you,” Nettie finally said, a soft smile tugging at her lips.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Vin replied with a touch to the brim of his hat, “yeah, we both made good work on getting rid of those demons of our pasts.” He turned around to where Chris was sitting again, Casey occupying Vin’s former seat for the time being.
“I see,” Nettie agreed, pleased that Chris as well looked good for a man who had such a haunted past. “What do you say? Should we join them?”
Letting out a laugh, Vin offered her his arm, like he did all those years ago, but this time, Nettie took it without any hesitation. “And you’re still a well-mannered young man.”
“I might agree with you on the manners, but not so much on the young, not anymore,” Vin countered, humor lacing his voice.
“Oh, shush! Compared to me, you’re still young!” Nettie mock-admonished while Vin pulled yet another chair up to the table and held it out for her. “Thank you,” she nodded to him before sitting down.
“Oh sorry, Mr. Tanner!” Casey suddenly exclaimed once she realized that she was sitting in his chair. But before she could get up, Vin grabbed another chair and sat down next to her, right between both Wells women.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Casey, there’s not much folks in here, so we won’t run out of chairs so soon.” Vin looked up in the faces of his former comrades. “Unless one of you has a whole army of kids stashed away somewhere.”
“Hate to disappoint you, Mr. Tanner, but I’m still looking for the right woman to start a family,” Ezra was the one to answer first.
“Inez and I are still discussing that topic,” Buck admitted, only to be hit with a wet rag, which caused the whole table to chuckle.
“What about you, Josiah?” Chris asked, still smiling at the antics of his, more or less, sister-in-law.
“No possibility for me, and frankly, Chris, with my family history, it’s better this way.”
For a few heartbeats, everyone at the table went still, remembering the haunting tale of Hannah Sanchez. Right that moment, the until then very elusive sheriff of Four Corners decided to show up.
“Chris! Vin! You’re back!”
And before the two could react, they both had an armful of JD Dunne.
“JD, son, let them breathe,” Josiah admonished when it was clear that the youngest wasn’t going to let them out of his embrace so soon.
“Oh, oh, sorry!” he began to stammer, reminding everyone on his first day out West.
“JD,” Chris began, slowly, as if he was talking to a kid, and they all knew that this was the fatherly side of Chris shining through, “sit down before you keel over.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Casey quipped with a smile, “you should have seen him when I told him I was with his child.”
Only then, Vin noticed the little bump under Casey’s skirt. She gave him a little smile before continuing. “He wasn’t doing any better when said child was born, or when I told him about this one.” She pointed at the bump for emphasis.
“Looks like the youngest is a bit ahead of you all,” Chris quipped after congratulating Casey and JD.
“Well, someone has to start the next generation of peacekeepers, right?” JD gave back with a broad smile.
“Where’s Nathan, by the way?” Vin asked while Inez placed some food in front of him.
“Up in the reservation,” Ezra answered. “He and Miss Rain are spending most of their time there, ever since her tribe joined Ko-Je and his tribe some years back.” He took a sip from a cup of coffee before continuing. “But they try to be here on Sundays for mass, so you might see them in a couple of days. Unless there’s a medical emergency, of course.”
The next few minutes were pretty much the most silent since Chris and Vin’s arrival in town, mostly due to the fact that the two were eating. But once the plates were cleared off, you almost could sense a shift in the air, as everyone was getting ready to fire some questions at Chris and Vin.
Before anyone could do so, Chris got up.
“Sorry, but I think I’m gonna head over to the boarding house, catching up on sleep.” He let his gaze sweep over the others. “Undisturbed sleep.” And with that, and a squeeze for Vin’s shoulder, the former leader of the Seven was out of the saloon, leaving three grinning and four dumbstruck people behind.
Always the quick one, JD was the first to recover and sit down in the now vacant seat at the table.
“So, Vin, what were the two of you up in those years?”
“Where do you want me to start, JD?” Vin gave back before taking a sip of his own whiskey.
“Did you get to clear your name?” Buck asked next, knowing that the tracker wouldn’t spill the beans about Chris’ side of the story.
“Yeah, took Chris and me only the first five years or so,” Vin answered with a sigh. “Not even the letter we got from Judge Travis really helped, at least not from the start. Had to wait for the first judge down there to step down from work and a new one sworn in to finally get my name cleared.”
Again, silence reigned over the table, as each of them was lost in thought. Vin getting up from the table was what finally brought them all back to reality.
“Guess I’m following Chris’ example and catch up on sleep. Don’t get enough out there.”
Like Chris before, Vin was gone before any of them could say anything else. Once they were sure that the tracker was out of earshot, Buck looked around at the others, one eyebrow raised.
“Is it just me or are these two even more closer than before?”
“No, Mr. Wilmington, I also caught that drift,” Ezra cut in, finishing off his whiskey before turning slightly in his seat and locking gazes with the tamed ladies’ man. “But I won’t bring it up in a public setting, and I advise all of you to do the same.” He was met with a mix of gazes, ranging from acknowledgment to confusion, so he continued. “The matters of the heart always have more than one side to them, and we all also know this town still is a powder keg, ready to blow up in our faces at any given moment. Besides, if our dear friends have an announcement of any kind to make, I will make sure that it is not where everyone can hear it.” He got up, tipped his hat to Inez, and was out of the saloon.
“So…,” JD began, only to be stopped by his wife.
“So we don’t do anything at all. And believe me, my dear husband, if I hear otherwise, there’s hell to pay!” She turned to Josiah. “Sorry, Mr. Sanchez!”
“No problem, Mrs. Dunne, I was actually thinking the same.” He took a deep breath. “Remember how bad we all were off before we met Chris and Vin? They are what kept us together back when we were the peacekeepers, and they are what kept us here after they left. Keeping things like that to ourselves is the least we can do for them now.”
“He’s right, senors,” Inez cut in from the end of the bar. “And if I hear about any of you talking about it,” she fixed the remaining three former regulators in their seats with a hard gaze, “don’t even think about spending an evening here anymore.”
“Vin!” The tracker looked up, a bit surprised, not used to the Southerner calling him by his Christian name. “You and Chris don’t want to stay over at the hotel? I won’t charge the two of you at all, and the beds are even better than here, though I make sure to improve them continuously.”
“Nah, but thanks for the offer, Ez. It’s too fancy for me. Besides, Chris and I wanna head out to his cabin early in the morning.”
“You’re welcome, Vin. And I hope the two of you will join me for a breakfast at the saloon before your trip.”
“Sure, but you still remember that Chris is a very early bird, right?”
Ezra couldn’t help but groan a bit. For all the good (hidden) characteristics that made up Chris, him being a really early riser wasn’t among them.
“Of course I do, sadly.” Despite the whine lacing his voice, Ezra gave Vin a broad grin. “Well, I won’t stop you from meeting Morpheus any longer, so have a good night.” And with that, the gambler was on his way, leaving a grinning Texan behind.
Therefore they almost keeled over in shock when they saw pretty much everyone, except for Nettie and Casey, sitting at their usual table, the contents for a good breakfast already waiting in the middle.
“Morning, hoss,” Buck greeted good-natured, with the others echoing him in variations. “Heard you’re gonna head out to your old cabin?”
“Yeah, if it’s still standing, that is,” Chris answered while sitting down. He wouldn’t really be surprised if the cabin was in ruins by now.
“’If it’s still standing’,” Ezra echoed. “I’m a bit disappointed, Mr. Larabee, that you still have no trust in us.” Chris’ only answer was a raised eyebrow. “Do you really think we would let the two of us leave us all behind and NOT look after your little remote cabin? Oh, and Mr. Tanner, we still have the wagon you used to call a home back then as well.”
Now, both men were rendered speechless. How on Earth did they deserve these people at all?
“You… you really looked after my cabin?” Chris finally grounded out, his voice heavily laced with emotions.
“Sure, hoss,” Buck answered. “Pretty much once a week, one of us rode out, looked around, did some little repairs,” he threw a wink at Ezra, “well, all of us except for this one here.”
“Still not made for ‘manual labor’?” Vin quipped, a smile playing at his lips.
“Well, Mr. Tanner, a man has to keep his standards in these turbulent days…,” Ezra began, only to be interrupted by JD.
“Whoa, Ez, slow down with the five-dollar-words! It’s way too early for them!”
What followed that statement was a round of laughter, that even could be heard out on the main street, where the townspeople began a new day.