Author: Susan M. M.

Title: Texas vs. Tanner

Main Characters: Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee, Bronco Layne

Type of Story: general fiction, PG

Universe: Mag 7 OW crossover with Bronco

Originally published in Woolly to the Bone #3, from Neon RainBow Press

Standard fanfic disclaimer: I own nothing but my toothbrush. Don't sue.

Texas vs. Tanner

by Susan M. M.

(previously published in Woolly to the Bone #3)

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.

– Proverbs 22:1

Chris Larabee looked up as Vin Tanner entered the saloon. No one ever snuck up on the blond gunslinger – never. That was how he'd stayed alive as long as he had.

"Chris, c'n I talk t' ya?"

Larabee nodded.

"Y' got anythin' needs doin' fer two, maybe three weeks?" Vin asked.

One sandy eyebrow rose slightly. Larabee rarely planned anything further ahead than next Wednesday. Vin knew that.

"I been thinkin'… It's past time I went t' Texas t' try an' clear my name. Sure would 'preciate it if you'd ride with me."

Hazel-green eyes looked up at the younger man. Vin suppressed a shudder; for a moment; it felt like Larabee was staring into his soul. Then Chris nodded.

"I'll go with you."

"Thanks, Chris. I'd rather not do this alone.

"You don't have to. Get the others."

/////////////////////////////////////////////////

Twenty minutes later, the seven men who kept the peace in Four Corners met in the sheriff's office. The jail held no prisoners at the moment, so their privacy was guaranteed.

"What's up, Chris?" Buck Wilmington asked him.

"Indeed, Mr. Larabee, I confess to a certain measure of curiosity as to why you summoned us all here so precipitously," Ezra Standish added.

"Vin's going to Texas. He's got some business to take care of in Tascosa. Half of us are going with him, half are staying here to guard the town," Larabee declared.

No one said anything for a moment. They all knew what Vin's business in Tascosa was. Then Ezra broke the silence, his green eyes twinkling mischievously as he pointed out, "I regret to inform you, sir, two does not divide into seven evenly. Or were you going to attempt King Solomon's solution?"

Larabee and the others ignored him.

"Who's going and who's staying?" JD Dunne, the town's youthful sheriff, asked.

The brown-haired bounty hunter looked at Buck. He knew, although he and Buck had never discussed the matter – indeed, had been careful to avoid the subject – that Buck was slightly jealous of his friendship with Chris Larabee. The two of them had been friends for twelve or thirteen years. Vin had met Larabee only a year ago, and from the day they had met, they'd taken to each other like long lost brothers. If the trial went against him – if he wound up swinging for a murder he hadn't committed – Chris would need his old friend at his side. Vin didn't want to think about a grieving Chris riding home alone.

"Be grateful if y' came along, Bucklin," Vin invited.

The ladies' man's dark blue eyes caught and held Vin's pale blue eyes. If he understood why the young bounty hunter was asking him, he didn't mention it out loud, but the look that passed between them spoke volumes.

"Be pleased to ride with ya," Buck agreed.

"JD, you and Nathan are staying here," Larabee decreed.

"Vin saved my life," Nathan Jackson reminded him.

"And y' repaid the favor a dozen times," Vin acknowledged.

"We'll be gone for a few weeks. Town can't be without a healer that long." Larabee looked at Dunne. "You can't go, either, JD."

"Huh? Why not?" the young Easterner protested.

"You're the sheriff, can't be mixed up in anything illegal," Larabee explained.

"Illegal?" JD repeated.

"What our illustrious leader means, Mr. Dunne, is that, in the event of a miscarriage of justice – if the court finds against Mr. Tanner – he will not permit the execution of an unjust sentence. It would be highly improper for a duly sworn officer of the law to participate in the unauthorized and hasty removal of a prisoner from the local hoosegow," the dark-haired gambler stated.

JD just stared at Ezra, trying to decipher what he'd said.

Taking pity on the boy, Buck translated, "If they find Vin guilty, we'll break him out and help him run for the border before we let 'em hang him. You're a lawman now, you can't be involved in something like that."

JD frowned. "Darn."

Larabee looked from Josiah to Ezra. "Ezra, you're a decent shot, you stay here and help JD. Josiah, you did a good job talking for Obadiah in court. I'd like you to come with us."

The preacher nodded his acceptance of Larabee's assignments.

Ezra bit his lip and said nothing. For one thing, he had no desire to ride across the desert for days or weeks. For another, he knew it would do no good to protest.

"Anybody got anything they need to take care of before we go?" Larabee asked the men.

Buck and Josiah shook their heads.

"Go pack what you need," Larabee ordered. "We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning."

"Should we telegraph the Judge, ask him for help?" JD asked them.

"Hell, no," Larabee said.

"Way out of his jurisdiction," Buck hedged.

"Judge Travis finds out about Vin being wanted, he'd throw him in jail himself. And us, for aiding and abetting," Larabee explained.

"Oh," JD said in a small voice.

"Oh," Buck agreed.

Six men filed out of the jail. Ezra headed for the saloon, and Chris reached out and laid his hand on his shoulder.

Ezra halted and glanced at the hand, then up at Larabee's face. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris removed his hand. "I don't want to get back and find out the town burned down or got shot up because you were too busy playing cards to help JD. Understand?"

"Sir, since the incident with Colonel Anderson, you have made it quite clear that I was to regard myself as on probation. You have not condescended to inform me that I have been removed from that status. Rest assured, Mr. Larabee, the town will still be here when you return… as will I."

Larabee said nothing. He'd meant it as a joke, but Ezra had taken him seriously. And bitterly. The gunslinger didn't know what to say. After a long moment, he said, "I'm counting on you."

Ezra touched his hat and walked away. As Larabee watched him go, he thought back over things he and the others had said to and about Ezra, things they had meant in jest, but which Ezra had evidently taken to heart. "When we get back, gonna have to mend some fences."

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The ride from Four Corners, Arizona, to Tascosa, Texas, was long, but uneventful. The four of them spent the days riding quietly. Some nights they spent in cheap hotels, others out under the stars. One night they spent in an Apache village, where Vin had friends.

And when they stopped for the night, Josiah questioned Vin over and over again about the hunt for Eli Joe and the death of Jess Kincaid. Otherwise, he read his Bible while the other three chatted about inconsequentials. None of them spoke about the ordeal ahead of them, or of the contingency plans for Vin's escape if he were convicted.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Josiah pointed to a town in the distance. "Is that Tascosa?"

Vin shook his head. "Nope. Next town is. Could probably make it there by nightfall, if we tried."

Larabee turned to the tracker. Something in the younger man's tone told him he didn't want to push on to Tascosa tonight.

"Wanna make an early day of it, reach Tascosa first thing tomorrow?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded.

"Let's go see if they got a hotel," Larabee suggested. "I'm a mite tired of sleeping on the ground and eatin' my own cooking."

They pushed on to town, where Josiah bespoke two hotel rooms for himself and "his brothers." After dinner at the hotel restaurant, Larabee suggested a visit to the saloon across the street.

Vin shook his head. "Ain't in the mood fer drinkin'. Just want a hot bath an' a soft bed."

"Ya sound like Ezra," Buck teased. Growing up amongst the Kiowa and the Comanche, Vin normally took rugged conditions for granted. He was usually the last one to echo Standish's sybaritic desires for comfort.

"'Cept Ezra would never say no to visiting the saloon," Josiah said.

"You skedaddle," Larabee ordered. "I'll keep Vin company."

Chris spent the evening in companionable silence with Vin. They had the kind of friendship that didn't need to be filled with endless chatter. Chris understood Vin's desire to face tomorrow looking his best, and with a clear head. If he were about to turn himself in for a crime he hadn't committed, he'd want to look respectable, too, not covered with traildust and smelling of horseflesh, sweat and cheap whiskey.

Besides, if the judge and jury convicted Vin, it might be a long before he saw his next bathtub or featherbed. Maybe never.

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Vin hesitated before dismounting. He stared at the sheriff's office.

"Waiting won't make it any easier," Larabee told him.

"Reckon not." Vin dismounted and tied up his horse.

The four of them entered the sheriff's office.

"Can I help you folks?" Sheriff Harvey asked them.

"M' name's Vin Tanner. I'm wanted for the murder of Jess Kincaid," the tracker announced. "I didn't kill him."

The sheriff reached for his gun.

Chris Larabee had his hand on his gun butt. "You don't need that."

"Came t' turn m'self in. 'M tired 'a being hunted, tired 'a being wanted fer killin' a man I never touched." Vin unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to Josiah. The preacher took it with his right hand, leaving his left hand – his good hand – free for his own gun, if necessary.

"When Kincaid died, Vin nearly got lynched. This time, he'd like a proper trial," Buck said. He laid his hand on his pistol as he spoke.

"Mr. Tanner is looking to be exonerated and vindicated," Josiah added.

"The circuit judge ain't due for a week. You're going have to wait here 'til then." The sheriff pointed to the cell behind him.

Vin took a deep breath.

"One of us will be staying here with Vin," Larabee announced. "Just so the good people of Tascosa don't decide to have another lynch mob."

Something in Larabee's hazel-green eyes frightened the sheriff. He just nodded. After a moment, he'd recovered enough to move. He unlocked the cell door. "In here."

"Damn, I don't wanna do this," Vin muttered.

"We're here with you, brother," Josiah said as he laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. "'A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity'."

Reluctantly, Vin stepped into the cell. He cringed as the iron door slammed shut behind him.

"Buck, go to the telegraph office. Let the others know we arrived safely, but there'll be a delay. Josiah, get a room at the hotel for us."

The two men nodded. "We'll be back soon, Vin," Buck promised.

///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The jail door opened and a tall man with short brown hair stepped inside. "I'm looking for Vin Tanner. Mind if I talk to him?"

The sheriff shook his head and pointed to the jail cell.

"I mind." A tall, sandy-haired man with stepped forward. He was a homely man, with a face that wouldn't break mirrors, but might crack them. "Who are you?"

"Name's Bronco Layne."

Vin jumped up from the bunk and hurried to the bars. "Cap'n Layne?"

"Hey, Vin." Bronco approached the bars. "Heard you got yourself into a mite of trouble. Came to see if I could help."

"Don't know how y' could, but 'm right glad t' see y' anyway. Cap'n, this is Josiah Sanchez. He's a friend 'a mine, gonna talk fer me in court. Josiah, Cap'n Layne was my commander in the Army."

"Just Bronco, Vin. My Army days are over." The ex-Confederate captain shook hands with the ex-preacher. "Be glad to be a character witness, if you need me."

"I'd sure 'preciate that," Vin agreed.

Josiah smiled. His blue eyes shone and his whole face looked younger, and quite incapable of cracking mirrors. "A friend of Vin's is a friend of mine. Glad to have you on our side, Bronco."

"Been hearing a lot of rumors. Most of 'em contradict each other. What happened, Vin?"

"Got tired 'a livin' with a price on m' head fer somethin' I didn't do. Turned m'self in so's I could get m' name cleared," Vin explained.

Bronco nodded.

The door opened again. Buck and Larabee walked in.

"Hey, Josiah, came to relieve you," Buck said.

"M' friends been stayin' with me, makin' sure there's no lynch mob this time," Vin told Bronco.

"This time?"

"Nearly got killed a few years ago, so I escaped. Ran off b'fore they could hold the trial. Hey, Buck, Chris, like y' t' meet an old friend 'a mine, Bronco Layne," Vin introduced them. "Buck Wilmington, Chris Larabee."

The three men shook hands. Bronco stared at Larabee as if he recognized him, but couldn't quite place him.

"Something wrong?" Larabee asked, disliking Bronco's scrutiny.

"Just trying to recollect where I know you from." Then he remembered, and laughed. "This fellow's a friend of yours, Vin? Don't that beat all?"

"You got a problem with us being friends?" the gunslinger asked him.

"A little funny, considering how we met… Sergeant Larabee."

"Sergeant?" Josiah repeated.

"You don't remember, Vin?" Bronco asked Larabee.

"Whatdaya mean? Chris and I jist met last year, in Arizona Territory," Vin said.

"Franklin, Tennessee," Bronco prompted their memories.

"We took a batch of prisoners at the Battle of Franklin," Buck remembered. "Hell, you mean we caught you and Vin?"

Bronco nodded. "Vin was wounded, so I reckon he weren't in much shape to pay attention. And if you're on the winning side, I guess one prisoner looks pretty much like another. When you're the one surrendering, though, you remember the last face you see as a free man."

"That gonna be a problem, Johnny Reb?" Chris asked Layne. "War's been over a while now."

Bronco shook his head. "If it ain't a problem for you, Billy Yank, it ain't a problem for me. Like you said, the war's been over a long time. I'm just here to help Vin, if I can."

Larabee nodded.