The Long Road Home
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Warning: This story is about an M/M relationship although there is no sex. There is death at the end.
Sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday that I first rode into this dusty little New Mexico backwater, sometimes it seems like a hundred years. How was I to know that it was there I would meet the most important people in my life and THE most important person in my world?
When I first met Vin Tanner I couldn't afford to be distracted by his sweet Texas twang and couldn't take the time to notice eyes as blue as the Texas sky. Both of these things became apparent to me the next morning when I got my first real look at him. I noticed other things too, like the way the sunrise made his hair appear golden and the way the corner of his eyes crinkled when he smiled. Oh I was definitely in lust. Fortunately for me the lust was mutual. Soon the lust turned to passion and the passion into love. Even after we finally admitted our real feelings we were still reluctant to make plans and with good reason.
That reason was brought home real quick on the day bounty hunters came for Vin. We didn't even have time to say goodbye. One moment we were sitting in chairs outside the saloon talking to Chris, the next, I lay unconscious, bleeding in the street. It was only after Nathan insisted that I would be all right that he would leave my side, despite the fact that there were still bounty hunters nearby looking for him.
Once I recovered Chris, Buck and I headed to Tascosa. While the citizens of that town might be reluctant to talk to the Peacekeepers of Four Corners, New Mexico, they opened up to Ezra Steele, brother of Jock Steele and researcher for his next book on the life and death of the infamous outlaw Eli Joe. Within a week we proved the truth, secured Vin's freedom and went home to share the good news.
On the trail home for the first time in my jaded life I had hope. Hope that Vin and I could finally start making plans for our future. I started to think about the different types of homes we could have. From rooms over our own saloon to a small ranch, whatever Vin wanted I would go along with.
Unfortunately once we arrived home my hopes were dashed. No one had heard from Vin. This time we all searched but to no avail. Vin had taken off for parts unknown. I was lost. I don't really remember much about our return to Four Corners. I only remember waking up in my bed above the saloon, alone. I had a decision to make. Did I resume my travels, maybe go to St Louis and join my Mother's newest business venture or did I wait here for Vin's return. I decide to wait.
I managed to reacquire the Standish Tavern and for the next ten years I involved myself in the lives of my friends. I witnessed their marriages. First came the wedding of JD and Casey, soon they were followed by Nathan and Rain. Inez had become a partner in the Standish Tavern with me and with a little manipulation on my part she and Buck finally realized that they were made for each other.
We learned that Ella Gaines was dead; murdered. Her killer was never caught but we all suspected that Vin had finally been able to track her down. Unfortunately all inquiries into the matter turned up nothing. Not long after that, Chris and Mary surprised everyone with their own nuptials.
Even Josiah eventually took a walk down the aisle when a trip to Bitter Creek reintroduced him to Terry Greer and her incorrigible daughter Olivia. The ex-con made a perfect wife for the ex-preacher; Josiah doted on her and delighted in his role as stepfather.
In time I became Uncle Ezra to a whole mob of my compatriots' offspring. Eventually people stopped asking when I was going to settle down. I never stopped looking to the horizon for the one person who would make my life complete.
Then the inevitable happened. No one was surprised when Judge Travis passed away; it had been a hard cold winter and wet spring. A man his age could only take so much and the death of his beloved Evie, just after the first of the year, seemed to take the fight out of him.
The rain misted down on us as we stood at his grave. I happened to look up. I could only make out the silhouette of the man on the horse but my heart knew who it was. I didn't know if I should be angry at him for staying away or happy that he was alive. Over the years I had feared the worst, sometimes I had even wished for it.
I left the funeral and went to the livery for a horse. I still remembered some of the tracking skills he had taught me. I followed his trail to a campsite. He was waiting there for me. I dismounted and walked to where he stood. The years had changed him. There were more lines around his eyes. His hair, once a veil of golden brown curls around his shoulders, was now cut short and tinted silver. He was thin.
For the first time in my life I was at a loss for words. How could he just ride off and leave me like that? How could he just ride back? We just stood there and stared at each other, until he coughed. The spell we were under was broken. I drew back my fist and punched him in the jaw, knocking him flat on the ground. "You son of a bitch."
"I understand your being angry," he said, getting himself off the ground, coughing again.
"You understand! I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD, YOU BASTARD!"
Vin bowed his head. "I should have been. When I saw you laying in the street and thought you were... God Ezra, I wanted to die. You could have died because of me. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Maybe the next time we wouldn't be so lucky."
"But we found proof of your innocence. You were free from the fear of bounty hunters."
"By the time I found that out it was too late." He coughed again.
"Too late, how?"
"I had returned to the only other place I ever felt at home. I returned to the People." He took out a flask and took a drink.
"You went back to the Comanche?"
"Yes. But things were bad, Ezra. The Buffalo are almost gone and the tribe was struggling to find food. I found myself caught between the tribe and the hunters."
"Oh." Ezra had heard of the fight between the Comanche and the Buffalo Hunters at Adobe Wells.[i]
"Yeah, I tried to stop them, but I couldn't blame them. They were dying. Their children were dying! I couldn't just ride away. In the end I fought beside them. Unfortunately I was wounded and captured. Because I was white they sent me to prison. I was lucky they didn't hang me. It wasn't until I was in jail that I found out that you had found a way to free me of the charges in Tascosa."
"And why didn't you contact me?"
"What could you do? I was guilty of the charges against me. I was going to prison. At least this way you could move on."
"Move on! How the hell was I supposed to do that? You are the only person I've ever loved. The only person I could ever love. To move on would have been dishonest. You didn't even leave me with the ability to lie to myself."
"I'm so sorry Ezra." His voice broke as he fought to hold back the tears. Then he started coughing again. This time he couldn't stop. I reached out for him but he stepped away, pulling a bandanna from his pocket and covering his mouth.
"Vin?" Despite everything, I couldn't help but be concerned. He brought the bandanna from his face; I saw the blood and I knew the truth.
He smiled sadly. "It's okay Ezra."
The rain was coming down a little harder and mixed with the tears on my face. "Let's get you in out of this rain."
Silently we packed up his belongings and went back to town. Everybody was gathered at Chris and Mary's for the wake. Vin shook his head when I suggested we join them. Tomorrow would be soon enough for reunions, for explanations. I took him to the saloon and installed him in my room. Since taking over the saloon I had put a stop to the practice of prostitutes working out of the saloon. Once Inez married it left me the sole occupant of the upstairs rooms. After he was settled in and warm, he confirmed my suspicion. He had consumption. He had caught it in prison. I suggested we send for Nathan. But he declined. There was nothing Nathan could do so he could wait until tomorrow to see him along with everybody else. He was tired. He told me he hadn't slept on a real bed since he left 10 years ago, since he left our bed.
Soon he slept. I sat and watched.
I awoke at dawn, still sitting in the chair my hand in his. He was sitting up, watching me. When he spoke his voice was soft and low.
"All my life I've wandered,
Never thought to settle down
My restless heart drove me onward
Never wanted life in town.
"The paths I've taken are many
The places I've stayed are few.
One day my travels brought me here.
It was here that I found you.
"My heart had finally found a home
In green eyes and a smile of gold.
I found my rest from the long road
Found shelter from the cold.
"But the cruel road chased me,
your side I had to leave.
Through the years I wandered
My heart was left to grieve.
"I've taken the long road home,
I'll stay a little while
While I bury myself in moss green eyes
And die in your golden smile."
I hadn't heard a Vin Tanner poem in ten years and by the time he was done we were both in tears. I brought his hand to my lips.
"Welcome home Vin."
A month later we were once again standing in the graveyard. Throughout his illness Vin wouldn't allow me to lay with him. He had asked for his own room, he didn't want to risk my catching the disease. I chose instead to let him stay in my room. The bed was the most comfortable in the house. When I slept, it was in one of the other rooms.
That last night when he was too weak to protest I lay with him, mopping his brow and soothing his cough. When he took his last breath it was in my arms. I would have held him all night if Chris and Buck hadn't taken him from me.
Josiah read words from the bible over his grave but all I heard were poems whispered in a soft Texas twang. We gathered at the tavern for the wake. Most of the good citizens stayed away. Many didn't remember the quiet tracker who had worked here 10 years ago protecting their town. But I didn't mind, the people who mattered were here and the one who mattered the most would never be here again.
That night I went to my room but couldn't bring myself to go to bed. It was the place that Vin and I loved each other. It was the place he finally left me forever. I knew I could never sleep in it again. It took me all night to take it apart and drag it into the alley behind the saloon. At dawn I set it on fire. Buck joined me later and told me he'd make sure the fire went out. I bid him good day and went back inside.
I got the first good sleep I had had in over a month and when I woke I knew what I had to do. I went to the lawyer and transferred the ownership of the Standish Tavern over the Buck and Inez. Since their marriage, Buck had proven a natural host and Inez already knew how the run the business.
I gathered my five brothers together and bid them goodbye. They begged me to stay. But I explained that I had only stayed so that Vin would know where to find me. As much as I loved them all, there was nothing to stay for any longer. It was time to continue my travels. They all let me know that I would have a home with them should I change my mind but they knew in their hearts I wouldn't. I caught the next stage out of town, with no particular plan on where I was heading. All I knew was that I couldn't stay here any longer. The road before me was dark and lonely but I would make my way along it.
Chris Larabee stood in the graveyard as he often had for the past year. Vin had admitted to him that before going back to the Comanche he had been able to track Ella down. That he was the one who killed her. Once again Chris thanked his friend for giving him his life back. He wished he could have returned the favor. Not just the physical life but he wished that Vin could have had the happiness that he had found with Mary.
Ezra too. Over the years he had watched while the gambler had gone through the motions of having a real life. But Chris knew that in his heart, owning the saloon and all the money he won at poker were just substitutes for real happiness. Happiness that was denied him when he lost Vin.
Maybe they had found it now. He turned to the fresh grave beside Vin's.
Ezra had always been cavalier about his life. Chris couldn't help but smile as he remembered the first time they had seen the man, holding off a mob of angry cowboys with only one shot in his little gun. With Vin the carelessness had been tempered somewhat. He had worried that, when he left them, Ezra would return to his self-destructive ways. It seemed he was right to worry.
A few days ago two celestials had shown up with his body. When Ezra had left last year his journey had taken him to San Francisco. There he had reunited with Li Pong. He had given her more than enough money to get home and she had used the rest to open a store. She had done well for herself and her family. She had married and was the mother of 5 young, beautiful children, but she was worried about her oldest son. He had decided to set out on his own and go to work for the railroad. The situation was similar to the way it had been in New Mexico. The Chinese workers were being paid a fraction of what the white workers were. Li Pong had remembered how Ezra had helped her and asked that he do the same for her son. And so he traveled to Wyoming. But he couldn't take on the Union Pacific all alone. Tensions between the Chinese and the whites were at a boiling point and he had been unable to stop the massacre that followed. The papers reported on the deaths of 28 Chinese but the death of one white man had been kept quiet. The Railroad didn't think the publicity would look good when that white man had publicly supported the workers' cause.[ii]
Ezra had lived long enough to get Li Pong's son to promise to bring his body back to Four Corners; he wanted to be buried beside the only person he had ever loved. And so it had been done. Chris wondered, not for the first time, what had finally become of Maude. Not long before Vin's return Ezra had mentioned that she was ill; he had talked about going to see her one last time. She had left St Louis for the warmer climate of southern California. Chris figured that she had probably passed by now. Even if she still lived he had no way of letting her know that her only child was dead. He wasn't sure if he would want to anyway. He had lived through the death of his first child and knew he couldn't bring himself to inflict that kind of news on anyone else.
"Daddy!" he heard a small voice call from behind. He turned to see his six year old son Vincent coming up the hill toward him, followed by his older brother Billy. "Mama said come home to dinner now."
He grabbed up his young son, swinging him around before holding him tightly and the three of them headed down the hill toward the town. Josiah and his family were joining them tonight to discuss the upcoming wedding of Billy and Olivia. With one last glance at the graves, he left death behind and walked down the hill to plan the future.
Author's Note: This story would have been finished sooner if I hadn't been determined to put in the darn poem. I haven't written poetry since high school (a long time ago).
[i] The Second Battle of Adobe Wells. 1874
[ii] Rock Springs massacre - 1885
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