Hangman's Folly

The Magnificent Seven

developed by: John Watson and Pen Densham

Disclaimer: Not mine. If they had been, I would have had Vin's name cleared long ago, and Chris would have taken down Ella.

Author: Maven Alysse

A/N: I've only watched the first two episodes of 'The Magnificent Seven' (and they were glorious!), but I've read so much fanfiction that I feel that I've really gotten to know the boys. This story is set during second season, right before the episode 'Obsession' and for it to work properly, I have to ask everyone to ignore 'Sins of the Past' (due to events that would contradict my story) and 'Wagon Train' ('cause I could see Buck acting like that, but not Vin).

Hangman's Folly

Mary Travis stood beside her desk, a frown marring her brow as she once again scanned the letter she held in her hand. Ever since overhearing a certain conversation, the newspaper woman's curiosity had been piqued. She had written a friend down in Texas, a fellow reporter that had been a schoolmate of her husband's, and discreetly asked some questions regarding a small town named Tascosa; namely about the sheriff, a farmer/rancher by the name of Jesse Kincaid, and perhaps find a way to prove (or disprove) a young man's innocence. The reply she had received hadn't been anything she'd expected.

"The situation you asked about was a fiasco that nearly brought Tascosa to its knees. Ex-Sheriff Manuel Vera had been skimming money from the stagecoach payroll for years with the help of his half brother, Eli Joe Hernandez. Four years ago, a young bounty hunter by the name of Vin Tanner somehow found out about Eli Joe's involvement and had informed the Sheriff of his intention of capturing the criminal. Tanner was hot on his trail, so Eli Joe killed a local rancher by the name of Jesse Kincaid and disguised the body to make it look like himself. When Tanner brought in the body of who he thought was Hernandez, Vera arrested the young man for murder. Tanner managed to escape custody and a five hundred bounty was placed on his head. According to records, the young man spent a few months on the run, but found evidence of his innocence and got a message to Vera. Vera promised Tanner safe passage to discuss the situation. Moments after entering the sheriff's office, Vera claimed Tanner tried to attack him and he'd knocked the ex-bounty hunter out in the struggle. Tanner was hung less than three hours later from the local 'gallows tree' just outside of town. Nearly a year later, evidence came to light implicating both Hernandez and Vera to not only the thefts but to several murders. Seemed Vera had a tendency of framing men he thought could cause him trouble. Both Vera and Hernandez were arrested and hung. Sheriff James Caladen pushed for a posthumous exoneration for Tanner and it was granted by Circuit Judge William Straus. The interesting thing about it is that between the time the man was hung and the time that Vera and Hernandez were caught there had been several sightings of Tanner in the general vicinity – stopping unwarranted hangings, helping people in life or death situations, that sort of thing. I spoke with Sheriff Caladen and he agreed to compile what information he has and send it later in the week."

Once more, Mary reread the letter, unable to grasp the content. If her friend was right - and there was no reason for Martin Tyler to play such a joke on her - then just who was the man portraying himself as Vin Tanner? Why would anyone lie about having bounty on their head? What was he really after? She wanted to go to one of the other men and inform them of her findings, but the town's peace keepers had gone after some cattle wranglers and would probably be gone for a week, if not longer.

Several days passed and Mary Travis was unable to concentrate on her work. She alternately checked the streets for the return of the seven or for a the promised letter from Sheriff Caladen. As the sun began to set on the fourth day, she resigned herself to having to wait.

The next morning dawned and Mary could admit to herself that she had absolutely no idea what she would do with her information. The fact that Tanner had lied about something so important would not sit well with the other peace keepers. That breach in trust could destroy Chris Larabee. The leader of the unlikely group valued trust and honesty above everything else and this would break the bond that he'd formed with the wily Texan.

Her thoughts were interrupted as the door to 'the Clarion' opened. "Mrs. Travis? Stagecoach just rolled into town. There was a message for you."

"Thank you, Johnnie." The young boy tipped his hat and scurried out. With a measure of trepidation, Mary weighed the envelop in one hand, surprised at it's thickness. Did she really want to know? With a pensive brow, Mary headed back towards 'The Clarion.' She warred over her decision to tell Chris what she'd learned. On the one hand, finding out the true identity of the man who claimed to be Vin Tanner was really important. On the other, destroying the Seven wasn't her intent. Sighing, she sat at her desk and opened the flap.

Dear Mrs. Travis,

I was a bit surprised when Martin called on me to get some basic information on the Kincaid case; I had no idea that the situation would have become a source of interest so far away. As I had some time on my hands, I decided to see what I could find to send you.

As Martin may have told you, I became the Sheriff of Tascosa a year after the situation dealing with Tanner.

I've had my hands full trying to sort out the previous administration's mess. Tanner had not been the first man to be railroaded, just the last. After discovering at least twelve misappropriations of justice over the course of Vera's fifteen years as Sheriff (in which the men in question had been executed to keep from revealing Vera and Hernandez's business), the town of Tascosa nearly disappeared after all reparations were made.

The bare bones of the case are such:

Manuel Vera (41) and Eli Joe Hernandez (34) had skimmed nearly half a million dollars from the various industries that came through Tascosa over a fifteen year period of time. Vera was the mastermind, but Hernandez was the front man so that Vera could keep everything looking legal.

Vin Tanner (21) discovered Eli Joe's involvement and planned to turn him in to the Sheriff, not knowing about Vera's involvement.

Hernandez killed a local rancher, Jesse Kincaid (29) and framed Tanner for the murder. Tanner took off with a $500 bounty on his head and managed to elude capture for several months. Tanner contacted Vera with information about proof of his innocence. Vera offered amnesty to Tanner promising to hear him out. Tanner agreed and met Vera in the sheriff's office. After learning about whatever proof the younger man had, Vera knocked him out and claimed Tanner had tried to attack him. Tanner was drug out of town a few hours later and hung.

Nearly a year later, Hernandez and Vera tried to strong-arm the wrong person. Nicolas Jennings didn't take kindly to being swindled and had connections to people in the Texas government who investigated and discovered what the two had been hiding. The men were tried, convicted, and hung. Vera confessed to everything, including the framing of Tanner for Kincaid's murder. After discussing it with Circuit Judge William Straus, Tanner was given a posthumous exoneration.

Now, the interesting part to all of this is that shortly after Tanner's death, people claimed that his ghost wandered the area, helping out, especially if there was an unwarranted hanging involved. Sometimes, all anyone would see was the rope being shot free. Other times, a man dressed in buckskins would ride by and help the victim to safety. A family that had got caught in a storm swollen gully said that they were rescued by a young man in buckskins and a buffalo hide coat. The man waded out into the gully, pulled them to safety, escorted them to the nearest town, and vanished. When shown a picture, they recognized their rescuer as being Tanner.

Now, I don't know if I believe in ghosts, but after the arrests of Vera and Hernandez, the sightings dried up. I'll leave you to make your own conclusions.

Sincerely,

James Calladen, II

Sheriff of Tascosa, TX.

She felt a headache begin to grow. How was she going to tell Chris that the man he thought was Vin Tanner had lied to him? Should she tell him? Perhaps if she confronted Vin, told him what she knew and let him leave gracefully? She wasn't sure.

The rest of the packet contained a copy of the court case against Vera and Hernandez, including their confessions of framing Tanner for murder and then having him executed. A copy of the writ of exoneration had been provided, as well.

There was also several eyewitness reports on the 'ghost' of Tanner. Not that she believed in ghosts. What was she going to do?

The last page brought all her thoughts to a sudden halt. It was a Wanted poster. Vin Tanner's image stared right at her.

Now what?

M7M7M7M7M7

It was two days later before the seven travel-weary men returned to town. They had several of the cattle rustlers with them, who meekly allowed themselves to be placed in the jail cells. Larabee was in a foul mood as he strode towards the mercantile store, hatless. Mary Travis blinked in surprise as the man stalked into the building without even a nod of acknowledgment in her direction. "Mr. Larabee?"

"Forgive our illustrious leader's less than stellar manners, muh dear Mrs. Travis. Fate has dealt Mr. Larabee a dastardly blow."

"Was he injured?" She didn't notice any injuries, but Chris was very good at hiding any perceived weaknesses.

"No, but Josiah might be asked to do funeral rites." Mary gave a bit of a start as Vin Tanner approached the two. "'Cause that bull sure had something against Chris' hat!" Blue eyes sparkled in mirth as he pulled his own hat off his head and slapped it against his thigh, shaking off the dust. He winked at Mary and followed the black clad gunslinger into the store.

"You should have seen it, Mrs. Travis!" J.D.'s exuberant, youthful voice piped up. "We're about to herd the cattle back towards Lawrence's ranch, and this big ole bull breaks away before we can even mount up. It heads right for Chris and woulda trampled him for sure. Allava sudden, Vin rushes at Chris and tackles him outta the way." He shakes his head, admiration shining in his eyes. "Thought both of 'em were goners. But Vin roll 'em both out from under the bull's hooves. Except, of course, Chris' hat gets left behind. That bull did a number on it."

Nathan Jackson came over, a shapeless black mass in his hands. Mary's eyes widen as she realized that it was what was left of Chris' Stetson. "Dear Lord. Are you sure they're okay, Nathan?"

The dark healer shrugged, his eyes clouded with some concern. "Chris landed pretty hard on his hip when Vin tackled him. If he ain't careful, it could stiffen up on him. But other than some bruises, he's fine."

"And Vin?"

"He ain't complaining of anything, but..." he faltered off.

"But what?"

"Well, from where I stood, it could have sworn that bull caught Vin with one of his horns. Would have been a real nasty injury."

"That no one was seriously hurt is a miracle, brother." Josiah Sanchez strode over. "It appears the Lord was looking over our small family."

"Well, hell," Buck Wilmington shook his head, "That boy's got more lives than a dozen cats. 'Course, if he doesn't let Chris cool off, he might end up getting shot, and that'd end his luck real quick."

"What do you mean?" Mary asked.

"It appears that Mr. Tanner has unwittingly incurred Mr. Larabee's wrath with his blatant disregard of personal safety."

J.D.'s brow wrinkled in confusion. "Huh?"

"Chris ain't too happy that Vin risked his life," Buck clarified. He gently hit the young man upside the back of his head, knocking his hat off.

"Buck!" he swooped down to pick it up, then chased the older man down the street towards the saloon.

"Brother Ezra, care for a libation?" Josiah tipped his hat at Mary.

"Ah, not at the moment, Mr. Sanchez. I feel positively coated in dust and fear my delicate skin shall chaff if I am forced to remain in these clothes a moment longer. A long soaking bath is calling me." Sketching a short bow to Mary, "Mrs. Travis, if you will excuse me."

The door to the Four Corner's store swung open and Chris Larabee strode out, a new black hat perched upon his head. He was halfway across the street before Vin Tanner appeared in the doorway. "Chris," the drawl was part amusement, part supplication. "Cain't tell me yer still mad?"

Larabee froze in his tracks, fists clenching before he strode back, face harsh and eyes frigid. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing? Did it even occur to you that you could have been killed?"

"Well, I wasn't. And neither were you. Everything worked out fine."

"Nathan said if you'd been one second slower you'd have been gutted. Is that what you want?" Chris grabbed the tracker by his coat, shaking him with each word.

The humor left Vin's face and he stared his friend right in the eye. "And if I hadn't jumped you, you'd be dead." The two were silent; green eyes slowly losing their rage and guilt, blue eyes filling once more with mischief. "'Sides, had ta keep them purty features of yers from getting marred, or Mary woulda shot me."

Chris rolled his eyes and let the tracker go with a wry grin. "One of these days, Tanner."

"Yeah, but not today." The two walked down the street, shoulders nearly touching in camaraderie, and entered the saloon.

M7M7M7M7M7

Mary paced nervously in her office. Vin had asked if she was available for a reading lesson, and unable to come up with a valid excuse not to, she'd agreed. Looking around, she picked up one of the documents Sheriff Caladen sent. Tapping it thoughtfully with a finger, she placed it on the table.

A brief knock on the door frame was all the warning she received before Vin stepped soundlessly in, hat in his hand, a shy smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Mrs. Travis."

"Mr. Tanner. Have a seat. I'd like to have you try this piece today. It's a legal document, relatively simple, but as a peacekeeper it may be one that you would encounter during the course of your duties." She sat across from him, watching him as he haltingly read the first two sentences. The ones that gave the name of the accused and the declaration of innocence. She wasn't sure what she expected, but the thoughtful look that entered his eyes as he leaned back wasn't it. Nor was the softly murmured, "Huh. They never mentioned that."

Lips pressed together, she leaned forward, one finger tapping the document of exoneration for one Vin Tanner. "According to this, Vin Tanner died four years ago after being hung in Tascosa."

He nodded, calm, blue eyes fixed upon her own. "Yup."

"If that's the case, then who are you?"

A lopsided smile tugged at his lips, but his eyes remained serious, "Vin Tanner, ma'am."

Her own eyes narrowed and she felt her face flush in anger and indignation. How dare this dusty upstart try to pull the wool over her eyes? And to betray Chris Larabee in such a manner, too? Chris held honesty above all else, and this breech in trust just might shatter the man she had grown to know – transforming him back into the malevolent man he'd been before the seven had come together. About to let loose with vindictive recriminations, she felt her breath catch in her throat as the figure before her seemed to fade briefly from sight. A cloud has passed over the sun, throwing the room into shadow, and for a single heartbeat, the chair across from her lay empty. Blinking, she stared wide-eyed at the buckskin clad man before her, hands gripping the edge of the table as if to reassure herself that at least something was still real. "Wha... what..." her voice a breathy murmur, "Are... are you a ghost? An angel?"

"Angel?" He laughed, eyes alight with mirth, looking just as real and alive as she. "Mrs. Travis, ain't no body who was born on this earth can ever claim ta be an angel. They's in a special classification all of their own" he gave her a quick wink, then sobered. "Ain't 'xactly a ghost neither. Not completely, anyhow. Close as I can reckon, I died, but it weren't my time ta cross the river, ya see. There were things I was supposed ta do and things could get real bad iffen they weren't done. Got interrupted in my journey by those who figgered to muck about with what they shouldn't. But I'd earned my rest iffen I wanted it. So, I was given an option: I could go ta heaven,or I could stick around here and help out a bit. Iffen I stayed, things would be rough, but not nearly as bad as I'd been used to up to that point. Told me that eventually, I'd have a home and family again."

He paused, his gaze looking past her in remembrance and she nearly lost her breath again at the pain she saw in his eyes. "Nearly didn't take them up on it. I'd been powerfully tired of how life had treated me up ta then and restin' sounded mighty fine ta me, but my Ma raised me ta help others when I could, and I didn't reckon I wanted to disappoint her by seeing her too soon without having done all I could." He blinked, refocusing on her, the look on his face forcibly reminding her just how young the tracker was. "So, I agreed ta come back. Woke up in a ditch somewhere along the Texas / Kansas border. Spent a year ghostin' about, no real destination in mind – more shade than human – helpin' out folks that were in a jam. Did some good work, but it was a mite lonely. When I got here – knew this was where I was meant to be moment I clapped eyes on it. Somethin' inside me settled. Then, that business with Nathan sorta solidified everythin'."

"So, now you're more human than shade?" Mary tried to joke, but it fell flat as he nodded solemnly. "Reckon that's about the shape o' things." She sighed, silent for a moment. "How long will you stay?"

"'Till I'm no longer needed. I found family and I don't aim ta give it up anytime soon." Mary knew she was included as part of that family – along with several other people both in and about town. She felt her face warm in pleasure.

Needing a break from the tension, Mary poured them both tea and studied the young man sitting across from her. She could see a new tear in his buffalo hide coat and curiosity got the better of her. "Were you injured? By the bull? Can you be injured?"

"Reckon Nathan could answer that one for you," he smirked at her and she felt herself flush, she could remember a few times that the quiet man before her had been all but forcibly escorted to the clinic. "That first year, I don't think I was all here. Lost a lot of time. I remember doing things that no one should have been able to survive, but not any of the time in between. Then, I felt the need to head this way and by the time I hit town, I was feeling more anchored to the world." He shrugged, the struggle to find the right words evident. "Been injured. Been sick. I just recover a lot quicker than I used to. Don't know if I can die, and I don't aim ta try and test my luck. As for that bull – when I rolled Chris and me outta the way, horn caught my coat but didn't catch me. I's fine."

Now that the initial shock had worn off, Mary felt her reporter's instincts coming to the fore. "Didn't a couple of bounty hunters come looking for you just a few weeks ago? Why would they do that if you're considered dead? Better yet, why would they come if you've been exonerated of any wrong-doing?"

Vin rocked his cup back and forth on its base, eyes focused on the dark brown liquid. "Posters get passed around, but sometimes notice of arrest or execution don't always spread as fast. I'm just guessing here, but if they thought I was dead, it wouldn't have occurred to the Sheriff's office to pass around the word that I's innocent, especially since I didn't have any kin who'd be worried about the family name or anything. The whole fiasco only happened a few years ago, and people have seen me since the hanging. So, bounty hunters wouldn't necessarily know that I'm not a target anymore. And they'd ignore any rumors of my death when it's obvious that eyewitnesses spotted me long after the fact." His brow creased and his eyes darkened, "Don't like it that good folk could get caught up in the crossfire. Not too sure what to do about that."

"We have your exoneration," she tapped the letter in question. "We could arrange to have that information sent out so that people would know you were innocent." Her mind worked feverishly, trying to come up with some way to help this man – to help all seven. Vin was right, he wasn't the only one at risk if a bounty hunter set their sights on the tracker.

"Be kinda hard since it definitely says 'posthumous' on the paperwork."

She waved that off, "People have survived a lot worse. We had a strangulation a few months before you arrived in town and Nathan was able to revive the man. If we take out the part of you being given a choice, as well as being a ghost, then it would be easy to pass your survival off as a clear case of incompetence on the undertaker's part." In fact, if not for the memory of an empty chair, Mary could convince herself that this had been the case. Vin had been hung, but had not been quite dead before cut down and declared dead by someone who misread the signs. The 'body' was dumped and the tracker had recovered and took off. She nodded to herself and placed a hand on Vin's wrist. "Let me talk to Orin. We'll sort things out." She held his gaze, not flinching as he seemed to read her very soul.

"Reckon ya can at that." He smiled and she couldn't help but smile back. "I'd be much obliged, Mrs. Travis." He patted her hand, tipped his hat, and rose. "Gotta head out for patrol. Thanks for all your help."

M7M7M7M7M7

Chris Larabee stood on the porch of the town's jail keeping a weather eye upon the street. It was several hours until sundown, but the sky was darkening as clouds rolled in. A storm looked to be brewing. His hip ached and a headache had settled itself behind his eyes. He felt his spine stiffen as Tanner stepped out of 'The Clarion' office. He was still unsettled that Vin had risked his life, but what really upset him was the tracker's blasé attitude over the situation. Did he think Chris' life was more important than his own? The emotions had him itching for a fight.

As Vin headed toward the livery, Chris snuffed his cigar and followed. He caught up to the rangy tracker in the stables as Vin went about saddling his horse.

"Was gonna head over toward Lawrence's spread. Make sure his herd's settled. See if there's anything else needed doing." Vin locked eyes with him, blue eyes warm with a hint of concern, and Chris felt the antagonism within him subside a notch. "Got somethin' on yer mind, Cowboy?"

Chris studied his friend, trying to figure out just what he wanted to say. "You've been spending a lot of time with Mrs. Travis lately. Courting?" He wasn't sure if he was happy for Vin or not. On the one hand, his friend could use a bit of happiness in his life, and it seemed that Mary had a soft spot for the Texan. On the other, he, himself, had some feelings lately for the feisty newspaper woman, and Vin couldn't afford to settle down with a bounty on his head.

Vin flushed and shifted his weight. Peso nudged his master's shoulder and Vin absently scratched the gelding's jawline. "Nah. I ain't courtin'."

Curious, and still unsettled, Chris leaned forward, spearing the younger man with his gaze. "Then what are you doing? Ain't a week goes by when the two of you ain't cozied up together." Mary Travis may be the Judge's daughter-in-law, but no woman's reputation needed the scandal of being accused of being too free with one's favors.

A sigh welled up from the tracker and Tanner dropped his gaze, as if ashamed. Chris felt his blood boil, his body tensing, fingers itching to grab the man's jacket and shake some sense into him. Vin's soft voice halted him in mid-thought. "She's teachin' me ta read n' write. She gives me lessons whenever the two of us are able ta get together."

Chris blinked, the anger leaving him as if he'd had a bucket of cold water tossed on him. "I didn't know you couldn't read or write."

The flush deepened and Tanner kept his eyes on the reins he held. "Never had the chance before. Never been ta school. Didn't need the skill on the trail. Afterwards, it wasn't something I felt safe enough to admit." Till now.

Relaxing his stance, Chris was pleased to see Vin's posture relax as well. "How's it going?"

"Okay, I guess. It's not as easy as readin' a trail. Too many confusing rules. I think it's going too slow, but Mrs. Travis doesn't seem too concerned about it." He shrugged, finally meeting Chris' eyes. Chris could see the shame within them. Shame of not being able to read and write. Shame of having to admit it to the one man whose opinion mattered. But mixed in was determined to see this through. "Gonna keep at it fer as long as she's willing ta put up with me."

Chris clasped Vin's shoulder. "If you need any help, let me know." He was relieved when the shame faded away and Vin nodded.

Vin mounted his horse, "Should be back by sundown."

"Watch your back."

Vin tipped his hat and spurred Peso onward.

M7M7M7M7M7

Mary had wasted no time wiring her father-in-law requesting his help. After receiving the telegram, Circuit Judge Orin Travis made immediate plans to return to Four Corners. By the end of the week, the two sat in her parlor drinking tea. He went through the papers, his brows raising at each new piece of information.

"So, Vin Tanner was framed for murder, had a bounty on his head, was actually hung, but somehow survived though the folks in Tascosa weren't aware of that. The actual culprits were captured nearly a year after Tanner's 'death' and he was posthumously exonerated, though that information wasn't widely known and due to the wanted posters, he's still considered a target by bounty-hunters. Is that about right?"

"Yes." By this time, Mary was fully convinced that this had been the true sequence of events. She didn't even remember seeing Vin disappear before her eyes, and Vin's admission of being given a choice was put down to a hallucination caused by lack of oxygen.

Judge Travis hummed, still reading. "I'll, of course, need to make some inquires, speak to Tanner myself. But the information you've gathered indicates we'll be able to set this young man's mind at ease." He raised his head and smiled at her.

Mary felt herself sag in relief, her own smile blinding. "Thank you, Orin."

M7M7M7M7M7

Judge Orin Travis sat behind the sheriff's desk, Vin Tanner in the chair across from him, hat in hand, blue eyes fixed upon him with a mixture of trepidation and hope At that moment, Orin realized that he'd never had a one-on-one conversation with the taciturn tracker; the man usually kept to the outskirts of any meeting, rarely offering any objections though his ideas or tactics were always given serious consideration by Chris Larabee. Now, Orin was struck by how young Tanner appeared. "I've looked over the information Mary had, and I've communicated with Sheriff Caladen. There's some paperwork that needs to be signed and that will have to be done in Tascosa, but once they can positively establish your identity, you will once again be a free man."

Vin's expression didn't change, but the air of relief that surrounded him was nearly palatable. "What do I need to do?"

"In two days time, you'll accompany me to Tascosa. It'll take a week or so travel time. Then we'll speak with both Sheriff Caladen and Circuit Court Judge William Straus. That should be everything." He studied the young man before him. "I had planned on requesting that Chris join us – for security, of course."

Blue eyes sparkled, "Sounds like a plan." He rose to his feet, grasping Orin's hand. "Thank you."

"My pleasure, son."

M7M7M7M7M7

The three men had been traveling for four days before Chris got around to indulging in his curiosity. "Thought you said you didn't stick around long enough for them arrest you?"

Vin leaned up against his saddle, long fingers wrapped around a mug of coffee, eyes focused on the dancing flames of the campfire. "Didn't at first. When I brought in Kincaid's body, thinking it was Eli Joe, and Sheriff Vera was gonna clap me in irons, I shoved the deputy into him and took off before they could untangle themselves. I's stayed nearby, hoping to figure out what was going on when I learned Eli Joe set me up. I sent word ta Vera. He promised me safe passage when I told him I had proof who the real murderer was." He paused for along moment. "When I got there, Vera listened – nodded – agreed I was right. He went ta escort me over to the desk so's he could write out the statement. Bastard pistol whipped me, knockin' me out. Claimed I'd tried to attack him. Next thing I know I'm being drug outta town to the hangin' tree." One hand drifted up, unconsciously rubbing his throat. "Strung me up. Couldn't breath. Thought I was a goner fer sure. Blacked out."

"The months before hand, several cattle rustlers and horse thieves found themselves on the wrong end of a rope." Orin and Chris looked confused at the tangent. Vin looked up from the fire, eyes bleak, the smile more of a grimace. "Did you know that in Tascosa they don't bury criminals? They got themselves a dry gulch a few miles out where they toss the remains. The wild animals take care of most of it, and the rest are washed away during the rainy season." The other two men's eyes widened at the implication. "Between my near death experience and the circumstances of my revival," Chris winced at the biting sarcastic drawl that was better suited to Ezra rather than the soft-spoken Texan, "I only remember what happened next in bits and pieces." His gaze returned to the fire. "Drifted for a while. Not sure how long. Never had much care for dates and such anyways, and with what I'd gone through I cared even less. Eventually, I headed northwest. Felt the cobwebs fade. Decided I didn't want ta give Vera another chance at hangin' me. Ended up in Four Corners." A one-sided shrug ended the tale and Vin took a sip of cooling coffee.

Chris passed over a flask of whiskey, "Looks like you could do with something stronger, pard." He was angry at all his friend had endured. That he was alive was a miracle. That he was sane, even more so. The black clad gunfighter only wished he could have the pleasure of snuffing out the lives of Vera and Hernandez himself. The pain and suffering the two had inflicted deserved more than the relatively quick death they'd received.

"I think we all could," Orin added a dollop of whiskey to his own mug, feeling shaken, but even more determined to ensure Tanner's freedom. It said a lot of the younger man's fortitude and character that he'd chosen to protect Four Corners as a peacekeeper, as well as feeling comfortable enough to work closely with a Judge after everything that had happened to him.

M7M7M7M7M7

Circuit Judge William Straus and Sheriff James Caladen met the three men in the Tascosa sheriff office. If Vin appeared more tense than usual, neither Chris nor Orin were willing to call him on it. The next few minutes would be life-altering; on top of the fact that the last time Tanner had been in this particular building, he'd been bushwacked and taken to be hung.

Judge Straus interviewed Vin, establishing his identity, allowing the young man to finally tell his side of the story. Straus apologized for the situation, "Vera pulled the wool over a lot of people's eyes. The discovery of his duplicity had some widely felt repercussions. Circuit Judge Matthew Graves retired due to accusations of complicity. He was a good man, but overworked, and allowed the towns' sheriffs too much leeway. Things have tightened up. I have a writ of exoneration for you. The information was never disseminated due to the belief that you were dead. The wanted posters were never recalled for the same reason. It never occurred to anyone that you were alive and that those posters could cause you problems. I'll send out a few wires and other messages to take care of that. Within the week all the notifications should be received." Straus witnessed Vin and the others sign the writ, shaking Vin's hand. "Good luck to you, son."

"Thank you, Judge." Vin turned to Sheriff Caladen. "And thank you, Sheriff, for being willing to send that information to Mrs. Travis in the first place. I can't tell you how much it means to me."

James Caladen grinned, returning the firm handshake. "Oh, I think I can. Congratulations and good luck."

Goodbyes were exchanged and the three men left, deciding to head back to Four Corners immediately.

M7M7M7M7M7

"What are your plans, now, son?" Orin asked. Since Tanner was a free man, he didn't have to stick to dusty backwater towns anymore. Chris said nothing, but his green eyes held a wariness.

Vin slouched in the saddle, "I signed on as a peacekeeper for a dollar a day plus room and board. 'Less you're firin' me, I plan on going home and continuing my duties."

Orin nodded approvingly, while Chris's posture loosened up. Vin glanced at the sky and urged Peso into a faster walk. "'Course, I'll light out for a few months if you think it's better for the town."

The two men blinked. It was Chris who responded. "Why would we want to do that?"

He glanced at them both from the corner of his eye. "Once Judge Straus sends out those telegrams, folks are gonna know where I am. Some bounty hunters aren't gonna pay attention to much other than the name and location of a bounty. Some just won't care that I've been declared innocent, they'll show up for the thrill. Things could get a mite warm and I'd druther not have good folks caught up in that if I can help it."

Orin and Chris exchanged glances of their own, neither man willing to have Tanner have to deal with potential problems on his own. "It'll be easier to keep track with seven sets of eyes rather than one." Chris pinned his friend with a mild glare, "Besides, if you stay in town it'll be easier to make sure no one tries to ventilate your stubborn skull."

Vin smiled.

M7M7M7M7M7

began 7/27/2011 finished 9/11/2011