Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from Burnt Norton in Four Quartets by T S Eliot:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
- 1 -
Vin Tanner leaned languidly against a post outside the Four Corners saloon, chewing a toothpick and watching the leader of the town's seven unofficial law enforcers trounce his oldest friend at checkers. They were quite a pair, chalk and cheese bound together by long history and shared grief. Vin couldn't suppress a smile, as he saw Chris Larabee's unwavering concentration bring victory after victory while Buck Wilmington's wandering eye meant his mind was never on the game when his opponent's carefully planned strategies unfolded.
Vin's gaze shifted to the approaching figure of Mary Travis, editor of the town's newspaper, 'The Clarion'. She was particularly striking that day, her pale golden hair twisted into a chignon and a high-necked lace blouse framing her face to perfection. Vin eased his weight onto one leg, tipping his hips to relieve a familiar pressure in his pants. He often fidgeted his way through the reading lessons Mary gave him, trying to ignore his body's enthusiastic response to her proximity, the tickle of her hair on his cheek or the rush of her breath on his skin.
It wasn't love, just plain simple lust, an urge that Vin accepted in the same matter of fact way that he accepted hunger or thirst. It had to be satisfied in some way at some time but he had no difficulty in controlling how and when that happened. As for Mary, he doubted any of his friends could truthfully say they'd never considered her charms, but her stall was set out for Chris and the fact that the man chose to maintain a distance from her did not make any of them inclined to try their luck. Besides, Mary was the kind of woman a man married and Vin had no plans in that direction. Five hundred dollars on his head for a murder he hadn't committed made him a poor prospect as a husband, at least in his own opinion.
'Mornin', Mary.' As he lifted a finger to his hat brim, he saw the movement mirrored by the checker players.
'Good morning, gentlemen.' The frown that creased Mary's brow, along with the slip of paper in her hand, told the three men that she had something on her mind. As well as being a woman of high ideals and fierce integrity, she was a seasoned journalist, well informed and not given to sensationalism. If something was troubling her, there was a strong chance that it should be troubling them too. On this occasion, Vin had a good idea as to the reason for her concern, but it was Chris who spoke.
'News of the stage?'
The stagecoach was nearly a day late.
'Only Fairley confirming that it left on schedule,' she told them. 'Of course, they might have had a problem with the coach or horses.'
That was true, and such mundane concerns were more the business of the stagecoach company than of the town's law enforcers. On the other hand, stagecoaches were often robbed and sometimes robbery led to worse.
Chris nodded but said, 'Might as well check it out sooner as later.'
On hearing their leader's words, Vin shoved himself off the post and headed for the town's small clinic to find the healer in their group. Over the time they'd protected the town, they had ridden out together countless times and now worked as one with barely a word uttered aloud. If the stage had run into trouble, they might need to split up, some of them getting passengers back to town and some pursuing the robbers. Vin wasted no time in speculating on what they might find beyond what he needed to plan his actions. If people were dead, nothing he could do would change that. If people were stranded or injured, the sooner he reached them the better.
'I'll go find Nathan,' he threw back over his shoulder.
Nathan Jackson was a Negro, a former slave whose imminent lynching had brought the seven men together in the first place. He was also Vin's friend. That friendship may originally have sprung from Nathan's gratitude for Vin's selfless intervention with Chris on that fateful day but it had long since matured beyond that. It wasn't so much the broken bones set and bullet wounds dressed that Vin valued - all his friends had received similar treatment at one time or another - no, the thing Vin most appreciated was Nathan's nursing during a bout of food poisoning the previous winter.
He had felt like he was going to die, as his body spewed vomit from one end and diarrhea from the other. He was so humiliated by the loss of control that he would have welcomed death. Not only did Nathan nurse him tirelessly for five days but he refused all offers of help and only admitted visitors when Vin was clean and comfortable. Vin would never forget Nathan's dedication and kindness if he lived to be a hundred, and there was nothing he would not do for a man who deserved to be called 'Doctor' Jackson, with or without the paperwork.
Often Nathan was just another gun in their party, not as fast as Chris nor as accurate as Vin, but sometimes his skills as a medic put him at the forefront of their operations, and recovering the stage might be one such time. Many people in the town owed their lives to his care and now the tally might be about to rise again. Sometimes Vin envied him that. His own tally was of a more macabre nature. He'd never set out to be a killer, preferring to hunt buffalo rather than bounties, and being able to heal seemed a far greater gift than being able to kill.
Within twenty minutes of Mary's alert, seven men thundered out of town.
Chris and Buck took the lead, with young JD Dunne at Buck's side. Buck and JD were like brothers, despite a twenty-year difference in age. To start with, JD was in awe of Buck, as he was of all of them, but that gradually gave way to knowing respect. In one area, in love, he sometimes showed more maturity than his mentor.
In the second rank of riders, professional gambler Ezra Standish loped comfortably beside former preacher Josiah Sanchez. One was a man for whom little held more appeal than a dollar, the other a soul tormented by failed love - fraternal and romantic - but never by greed. They made another odd pair, but then unusual friendships had become a trademark of Four Corners law enforcement.
Vin and Nathan brought up the rear, riding a yard or so apart.
The group made steady progress along the dusty trail, following the stage's usual route. The afternoon wore away as they rotated paces, covering the ground but saving their steeds' strength. It was nearing dusk when they topped a ridge and saw the overturned stage on the far side of the wide, shallow valley. They urged their tiring horses on, although it was clear from afar that the time for haste was long past.
Draped across the top of the coach, his foot caught in the luggage rail, was the driver. His shotgun had fallen to the ground and flies buzzed on a thread of congealed blood that ran from his forehead, along his limp arm, to form a dark stain in the dust. His companion lay some yards away, flat on his back, thrown from the roof by the force of the buckshot that peppered his chest. Not far from the carriage door lay a third man, presumably a passenger. A long gash ran from the top of his head, past a blank honey brown eye, and down his cheek. A red-brown stain extended across his gut. Around the bodies were torn letters and opened luggage, discarded when found to be of no value. The team was gone and the empty harness hung in tatters.
The men dismounted and began to examine the scene.
'Hell of a mess.' JD peered inside the coach. 'Looks like that fella was the only passenger though.'
Vin had quickly scanned the dust near the coach but now he squatted by a confused mass of tracks just beyond the buckshot body. 'Wouldn't be so sure about that,' he called out. When the others joined him, he indicated a muddle of small boot-prints. 'Looks like a woman. They carried her from the coach. She struggled here but they musta put her on a horse. Maybe three or four men.'
Buck scowled as they mounted their horses and turned to follow the tracks towards the cliffs that enclosed the valley to the east. They were watchful for any sign that they were not alone but all was still. The men at the coach were more than twelve hours dead so their killers were probably long gone.
Near the foot of the cliffs, the tracks ended in a campsite. The fire was cold and Vin soon found four clear sets of hoof-prints heading north. The other six men stood to one side of the trodden area, giving Vin a chance to work.
'Reckon they took her with them?' Chris asked him.
The tracker examined the hoof-prints more closely.
'Hard to say. Can't see any sign one of 'em was doubled-up but then a light man and a small woman maybe.'
He shrugged and began to circle the camp systematically. He returned to some tracks he'd disregarded before. They led towards the cliff and he had assumed they would lead only to where the men had answered the call of nature. Looking closer, he saw a left boot-print with a split across the sole. The imprints going to the cliff were deeper than those coming away from it. The boot's wearer had been carrying something as he walked towards the cliff.
Vin followed the tracks between the thorn bushes, noting several broken twigs along one side, consistent with a man carrying a woman across his arms, her feet catching in the scrub. Further on, the tracks appeared to go into the cliff face, until he drew nearer and saw that a fold of rock concealed a tall slit in the limestone.
'Boys,' he called back over his shoulder as he slipped inside and waited for his eyes to grow used to the dark. A long-dry watercourse had worn through the rock far above his head so that the cavern was dimly lit by a thin shaft of the fading daylight. Along the base of one wall lay a huddled form.
'Nathan!' he shouted.
- 2 -
On hearing his friend's call, Nathan shouldered his way past Buck and JD and then jogged towards the cliff face. He faltered for an instant, until he spotted the crevice from which Vin's voice had come, and then hurried inside. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the gloom but then he spotted Vin's outline in the gloom and strode over to join him beside the prone woman.
Vin had not moved her and now squatted at her side with a hand resting on her back. Nathan took her shoulder and hip in a firm but gentle grip and rolled her over. The limpness of her limbs confirmed that she was not conscious but he had only his hope to say that she was not dead. He felt her throat, looking upwards in concentration and moving his fingers experimentally.
He felt rather than saw Vin's eyes moving between her face and his own, waiting for his judgement. When the sensitive pads of his first two fingers detected faint movement, he shifted them again. This time the pulse was definite.
'She ain't dead,' he announced with relief. 'Leastwise not yet. Git my pack and some water, will you, Vin?'
Without hesitation, Vin rose to his feet and headed out of the cavern. Nathan heard him encounter the others at the cave entrance.
'Find her?' The acoustics of the rock made Chris sound far more distant than he was.
Vin's soft voice barely carried. 'Alive but don't look so good. They musta left her for dead. Nathan needs his stuff.' He was back with the bag and water in seconds, then left the healer to his work.
Nathan examined his patient swiftly and thoroughly, his expert hands exploring every inch of her body, comparing each contour with the complex three-dimensional map stored in his head. He had no book-learning and little real training, but years of tending first his fellow slaves through their abuse, then soldiers through their injuries, and after that civilians through accident and illness meant that there was little he hadn't seen.
Now he was relieved to find less than he had feared. Although the woman's face was cut and bruised from countless heavy blows, showing either that her captors had been enthusiastic in their brutality or that she had put up quite a fight, there were no broken bones as far as he could tell. The only bullet wound was a graze below her armpit, probably aimed at her heart but a lucky couple of inches off target. There was a sizeable lump on the back of her head, probably the reason for her present oblivion.
As Vin said, her attackers surely thought she was dead but in fact her pulse was steady, if weak. After checking her eyes again, just to be sure, Nathan saw nothing likely to cause her death in the near future and began to concentrate on preventing infection later. His examination of her slight body had confirmed what he thought he saw in the swollen face: youth. She was barely a woman. His gut knotted as he realized that this had probably been her initiation into womanhood. He wasn't aware that he was biting his lip until the tang of blood hit his tongue It was only then that he heard his teeth grinding. It took a conscious effort to relax enough to stop those involuntary manifestations of his wrath at the outrage perpetrated on her.
He had been putting off his inevitable examination of her violation. He lifted her skirts tentatively, afraid not of the familiar sight of a wound but rather of the knowledge of the extent to which she had been abused.
'Jesus,' he whispered softly. Not an oath but an appeal to a deity he barely believed in.
The woman's underclothes were shredded and blood-stained. Nathan stared sadly at the insides of her thighs. Someone had amused himself with a blade, making shallow cuts designed to cause pain and shame. Nathan had seen some sickening sights during his years as a slave but none worse than the mutilation in front of him now. He twisted his head reluctantly to one side, watching the cuts come together as clumsy letters. B-I-T-C-H down one leg. He turned his head again, swallowing bile as he did so. H-O-R-E down the other. Christ. They'd left her scarred for life and they couldn't even spell. He had no idea why that bothered him but it did, as if it would somehow have made a difference if they'd made a better job of their desecration.
Feeling that he was adding to her degradation, even though he had no choice and she would have no knowledge of his inspection, he moved her legs further apart and looked to see what other damage had been done. He used his own fresh handkerchief to wipe her tenderly, loosening a crust of half-dried semen threaded with blood. Although more than the few spots required to confirm her innocence, the blood seemed too little to indicate major internal injuries. The woman would undoubtedly be very sore but she would probably heal without permanent damage. There was little Nathan could do to aid her internal recovery and he knew that trying to clean her there might only push infection further inside. A woman's body had its own ways of flushing out foreign matter and it was best to let that process continue uninterrupted.
Nathan channeled his rage into the ferocity with which he tore the remains of the woman's petticoats into strips, then breathed deeply to calm himself before dampening a piece and starting to clean the savage lacerations. He worked steadily, first removing every trace of the men's filth and then gently cleansing clotted blood from the wounds. As he cleared each one, he poured whiskey from a small flask onto a square of boiled rag from his bag and bathed the damaged flesh before dressing it proficiently with a homemade bandage. When his mind began to drift, he let it, preferring to be anywhere but where he was.
He didn't often dwell on his life in slavery, but now, tending this damaged young thing, every assault and unjust punishment he'd ever witnessed flooded back in images so vivid that he could have been watching the events unfold. He saw his old master beating the human beings he believed he owned and then reading prayers in front of them of a Sunday, his sanctimonious self-righteousness hanging over them like a cloud while it was all they could do to stay on their feet without passing out. Nathan hadn't actually seen the women in the household raped - that happened behind closed doors. All he saw were unexplained tears, knowing looks and young girls nursed by old women. He wasn't sure when he first knew what happened to them but he had no doubt when he first truly understood, and he now shuddered at the memory.
After escaping from his master during the war, he worked for the Union army under a commander who believed in utilizing whatever resources came his way and who had no intention of returning runaways to their masters as some did. Nathan's first months with the troops were as hard and degrading as his years in slavery, filled with the filthiest cleaning details and anything that even the lowliest white man did not expect to do. Only after the Battle of Sabine Pass did he discover his talent for healing and, for once, Lady Luck smiled on him. His efforts were spotted by a medical officer and, finally, life held more promise. The work was still filthy and soul-destroying - they lost more badly injured men than they saved - but Nathan had found his vocation.
Then came the attack on the port of Galveston. Nathan understood the principle of interrupting supply and communication links to the Confederacy, but the undeniable logic did nothing to salve his conscience at the army's pillage of the city and the hardship that thrust upon local people. And of course, once troops were unleashed on the path of destruction, there was no stopping them. Most men stole and many went further.
It was in Galveston that Nathan first saw a woman raped and, although it wasn't the last time, it was the scene that had remained etched in his memory over the years. He was tending casualties at the edge of a burned-out street. People had been drifting out of town for days. A woman walked by, a pathetic bundle of possessions in her right hand and a small boy desperately clutching her left. She might only have been in her twenties but she looked older. Displaced and desolate, she wore the pain in which the Southern states were by then steeped. He watched her pass and returned to his own wretched work. Perhaps twenty minutes later he glanced after her, expecting to see her wending her way up the long rise beyond the end of the street. She was indeed partway up the rise but she wasn't walking. Instead, she was flat on her back, a man in a dark blue uniform - unmistakable even through the dust - kneeling over her head and another between her legs.
Nathan stared in disbelief. A third soldier was holding the little boy by a handful of hair, and it was only when the tiny captive resumed his kicking and struggling that Nathan came to himself with a start. He scrambled to his feet and began to run towards the grisly tableau, but he hadn't covered even a quarter of the distance when the two men stood and buttoned their pants. The other two either did not want any or had taken it already because the fourth man, who had been standing to one side, drew his gun and shot twice. Once into the woman at his feet, once into the boy. Then all four walked calmly away, without so much as a backward glance.
Nathan had stopped dead when the man pulled the gun and the quartet was out of sight before he recovered his senses. He started running again, hoping he could help, all the while knowing he could not. He stood over the bodies for what seemed like an eternity, trying to understand what sort of man committed such a vile act. Doubtless having lost her husband and probably most of her family to the war, the woman had no home or future. Now soldiers supposedly on the side of good had taken first her dignity and then not only her life, but her son's as well. Nathan fastened her clothes and dragged the bodies to the side of the road. He laid them in a ditch there and kicked a covering of dirt over them. It was all he could do. He wished he'd spoken to the woman, perhaps offered her food and drink. Ten minutes later and she might have missed the soldiers.
In spite of what people sometimes thought, Nathan hadn't grown up in a world of clearly defined good and evil. Some of his overlords were kind and considerate towards their workers and some of his fellows were cruel and greedy. He'd discovered ambiguity early in life but he was still shocked to realize that the men with whom he was fighting to liberate his people could be as savage as the oppressors from whom he had escaped.
There was nothing he could do then to stop what happened and he soon discovered there was nothing he could do later to bring the soldiers to justice. Even if he could have identified them, no one wanted to know about atrocities committed by their own side. It was clear that he could easily be made to disappear if he didn't leave it alone. He might no longer be a slave but he remained as powerless as if he was. As the years passed, that lesson would be repeated over and over again. He was lucky he hadn't been born fifty years earlier but he knew it would be another fifty years, if not more, before a black man would stand equal alongside a white.
Absorbed by his memories, Nathan didn't see his patient open her eyes. She made no sound, so it was only when she rolled over clumsily and knocked him off balance that he knew she had regained consciousness. As he fell, his gun was pulled clear of its holster. Its silhouette loomed over him for an instant and then the weapon slammed into the side of his head. Only vaguely aware of someone scrambling away from him, he heard two sounds as he spiraled into darkness: the click of the gun being cocked and then the blast of it being fired.
- 3 -
Outside the cave, the other men were making camp for the night. The light was failing and they knew they wouldn't be going anywhere before morning. Vin watched Ezra setting coffee to brew over the small fire he himself had only just lit. It would be a while before there was enough heat to boil water, but Ezra was always keen to establish the trappings of civilization as quickly as possible in any situation.
When he first met Ezra, Vin hadn't trusted him an inch, but that had changed over their acquaintance. Now, although he still wouldn't trust the man with a dime, he knew Ezra was as dependable as any of their number in a crisis. Where once he would have viewed Ezra's fussing with disdain, it now gave him the same amusement as Chris and Buck's contrasting approaches to a game of checkers.
Ezra was peering hopefully into the coffee pot, lifting the lid with a handkerchief-wrapped hand, when the shot rang out. He started, spilling lukewarm liquid into the flames and sending billows of steam hissing around him. Vin saw all that in an instant and then he was in motion, springing towards the cave with the others on his heels.
They stopped inside, suddenly aware of their vulnerability in the dim light of the entrance, now that there was little sunlight left to penetrate the depths of the cave through the hole in the roof. They stood, guns in hand, waiting for their eyes to adjust exactly as Vin had done earlier. Vin was first to see the woman cowering against the wall pointing the barrel of Nathan's gun unsteadily in their direction. The weapon was not cocked.
He dropped his mare's leg back into its holster and held his hands out. Waving his companions back, he glanced at Nathan and then spoke softly to the shaking figure.
'We ain't gonna hurt you. Can I check on him?' He pointed to his fallen friend.
The woman looked first at him, then at Nathan and finally at her own leg, where a bandage showed beneath the hem of her lifted skirt. She slowly lowered the gun.
Vin squatted by Nathan's side and saw that he was already recovering consciousness. Looping an arm around his back and under his arm, Vin hauled him to his feet. Giving away some four inches and thirty pounds, the lighter man struggled with the weight. He drew a deep breath before asking, 'You okay?'
Nathan rubbed his head and mumbled, 'Think so. I ain't shot - maybe the gun went off accidental.'
Vin half-dragged him outside to where the other men were waiting in a ragged semi-circle around the entrance. Nathan leaned against the rock, looking dazed and shaking his head as if to clear the fog.
'A dissatisfied patient, Mr Jackson?' Ezra's gold tooth glinted in a sardonic smile that did not reach his eyes. None of the men saw anything to laugh at in the woman's plight or the terror with which it left her.
'I can't believe she's got that much spirit after what she musta been through.' Buck's voice was close to a growl, nothing like his usual mocking tone.
'I'll go back, try 'n' talk to her,' Vin volunteered.
The woman was clearly terrified and he wished they had another woman with them to look after her. They were all forbidding men and that was the last thing she needed. Ordinarily Josiah or Ezra might be a better choice than himself, but at least he had made contact with her and sending in another new face might only agitate her further. There was one sign he could offer to show his good intent. He took off his gun-belt and placed it on a rock. Feeling naked without it, he went back inside.
When the woman saw him approaching, her hand leapt out to retrieve the gun she had set down. When she realized he was alone and unarmed, she withdrew her hand and watched. He stopped in the shadows a little way from her, dropped down on his haunches again and tried to reassure her.
'We're the law in Four Corners, Miss. We went lookin' for the stage when it didn't show. You come with us and we'll get y'all back t'town where someone can tend t'ya proper.'
There was no reaction. The woman stared at him with wide eyes but he saw no glimmer of understanding. He wondered if she spoke English. Apart from tribal tongues, his only alternative was Spanish. With her light brown hair, she didn't look a likely prospect for that but he tried anyway.
'¿Habla inglés, Señorita?'
Still she showed no understanding. Perhaps she was a Swede or a German. A few of those had settled the territory in recent times.
At a loss for something more to say, he stood and held out his hand. She made no move. He waited with a hunter's patience. He would not threaten her by approaching, instead letting her come to him. A minute dragged past. He wondered how long it would take her to understand that he would wait for as much time as it took.
While he waited, he studied her. She was directly underneath the hole in the roof and the faint light from it revealed how young she was, little more than a girl, and Vin's heart twisted with regret at what had befallen her. Another minute passed. He smiled to her and saw the faintest shadow of a response on her drawn face.
She rose slowly to her feet. Still he made no move. She shrank back against the wall, her hands pressed against the rock. His arm felt heavy, but he maintained the unnatural pose without flinching. He saw the determination in her face when she made her decision. She took a small step forward and then stumbled. She would have fallen if he hadn't caught her arm. The horror in her eyes as she cringed from the contact was like a slap in the face to him, a man who had never done so much as curse a woman. Even with the knowledge that it had nothing to do with him personally, it pained him to be adding to her burden of fear. He kept his expression neutral as he released her arm and offered his for her to take.
There was another long pause before she rested a small hand tentatively on his forearm. When he remained motionless, he felt her cautiously transfer some of her weight onto the support. He took a slow step forward, giving her plenty of time to match it. When she did, he took another. The next was a little easier and the next a little more. He led her out of the cavern to where his friends waited. No longer anxious, they were dotted around their campsite: Ezra ministering to his coffee pot, Josiah ministering to Nathan, JD ministering to the horses, Chris and Buck simply waiting.
Now that he could see her properly, Vin was appalled by the state of his companion. Her face was swollen out of shape and covered with cuts and bruises. A dark stain under her arm betrayed at least one more wound, the white of Nathan's dressing showing through a rip in her dress. Vin had no way of knowing what other injuries were hidden by her torn and filthy clothes. He stopped short of his friends and gave the girl a chance to take them in. After the darkness of the cave, she blinked her eyes even in the subdued twilight. It was perhaps half a minute before she began to study each of the men in turn. He wondered what she made of them. They wore no badges of office. JD had the sheriff's star for Four Corners but it spent more time in a drawer than on his chest. Vin wished the kid was wearing it now to give them something to demonstrate their legitimacy but he couldn't blame JD, since it had never struck him that it mattered either.
'She all right?' Chris spoke low and gentle. He was looking at the ground, not at the girl, and his hat brim hid most of his face.
Vin saw that all the men preferred not to look at the girl directly and he could understand that. None of them was to blame and yet somehow they felt as if they were. The trembling hand on his arm tensed but the girl remained at his side. He knew she was profoundly afraid, in dread of a repeat of what had been done to her, but there was no sign that she was irrational or hysterical.
'She don't seem to understand me. I tried Spanish but it didn't do no good.'
All eyes turned on Ezra. Like many Southerners, he spoke French and he had a working knowledge of several other languages, enough at least to perpetrate a con. Now he shifted his gaze reluctantly from the fire to the girl's face. 'Parlez vous Français, Mademoiselle?' he asked in the gentlest tone Vin had ever heard from him.
The woman studied him carefully as he spoke but there was only confusion on her face.
'Sprechen Sie Deutsch, Fraülein?'
Ezra ran through half a dozen more languages before giving up and turning away sadly. 'I regret that my linguistic talents extend no further.'
They had no idea what to do next. Tracking, chasing and gunning men down they understood. Interviewing traumatized victims was not part of their stock-in-trade and questioning a woman who couldn't understand even a simple sentence was futile. Hoping to make her more comfortable, Chris sent JD to collect her luggage. Vin buckled his gun-belt, while Nathan retrieved his gun and medical kit from the cavern.
Turning away, the woman saw the covered bodies in a row at the base of the cliff some thirty paces away. While Nathan had been tending her, the others had brought the dead men from the scene of the robbery and covered them with blankets from the stage. She limped over, ignoring Vin's protest. A man's right hand protruded from one blanket, a gold ring on the fourth finger. She knelt beside the body, took the hand and held it to her cheek. A single tear fell from one of her honey brown eyes.
Touched by her sorrow, Buck said quietly, 'We ain't gonna get anything outta her. What are we gonna do?'
At that moment, a buzzard launched itself from the cliff above, screeching loudly and dislodging a cascade of small rocks that fell to the ground between the makeshift mortuary and the seven men. Unscathed, they continued their discussion.
With a slight shrug, Chris said, 'Same as if they'd all been dead. Clean up here and get after the bastards.'
Vin had been staring thoughtfully at the woman's back and now drew his gun.
'What's up?' Chris asked, puzzled but not worried since Vin gave no sign of alarm.
'Watch,' Vin said, nodding towards her. He fired the gun in the air. She didn't flinch. He looked at the others and shook his head slightly. 'She can't hear us.'
The men exchanged startled looks. Vin went over, making a loop to approach her from the side rather than from behind. She looked up at him sorrowfully.
He squatted down, touched his ear and asked, 'You deaf?'
She stared at him in surprise and then nodded.
'But you can understand me?' He framed the words carefully with his lips.
This time she gave a tiny smile before nodding again. She held her palms facing each other in front of his face, then she gave a slow winding sign with her right hand, followed by holding up one finger.
He thought for a moment. 'You can understand if we look at you, talk slow, one at a time?'
Another nod. Clearly the light in the cave had been too poor for her to read his lips then. Misunderstanding the problem, they'd faced her with Ezra speaking strange languages when there was enough light for her to see. No one had spoken directly to her since.
'But you can't speak?'
She shook her head.
He looked back at the others, saw they were following, and then pointed at the dead man. 'You knew him?'
A nod. She held up two fingers twisted together.
'I'm sorry.' He looked at her intently. 'We ain't gonna hurt you. Understand?'
She examined each of the men, thought for a minute, then slowly nodded.
With a sigh of relief, he helped her over to a flat rock, gave her his canteen and waited while she drank.
'My name's Vin.' He waited for her nod then asked, 'You have a name?'
She rose unsteadily to her feet, then knelt and wrote in the dirt with her finger. G-R-A-C-E.
Chris took a step forward but stopped when she cringed away from his sudden movement. He spoke slowly. 'Hello, Grace. I'm Chris. Can you read and write?'
She shook her head sadly and indicated 'little' with her thumb and forefinger.
Vin introduced the other men as clearly as he could. She watched his lips carefully and gave another small smile when he had finished. It was a start, he thought. Although he already knew the answer, he asked, 'How many men?'
She held up four fingers.
Chris looked at Vin. 'You're doing well but I'd like to see how you're gonna get a description.'
Grace watched him as he spoke, then sighed and stared at her hands.
At that moment JD returned from the coach with two bags spilling over with retrieved luggage. 'I think I got most of her stuff. I heard a gunshot.'
The woman got quickly to her feet, lifted a flap in the side of one of the bags and retrieved a thick pad and a pencil with a look of satisfaction. She settled herself back on the flat rock and began to sketch at a furious pace. JD looked confused until Buck explained what had transpired.
She drew the coach, the four men with guns and indicated the sequence of events with a series of changes, additions and arrows. Vin confirmed each part of her story in words. While he worked with her, the others settled around the fire and sipped strong coffee from chipped enamel cups.
'It started as a robbery But then two of the men dragged you from the coach Your brother tried to stop them The driver and messenger pulled their guns The men shot your brother and the others.'
She began to shake with silent sobs.
'Hey, it wasn't your fault.'
He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. This time she didn't pull away and the sobs gradually subsided. She wiped her eyes and returned to her drawing. She pointed to one of the four men and then drew a cross through his gun.
'He didn't shoot nobody?'
'Did he hurt you?'
She shook her head and then pointed to the canteen. Vin held it out to her but she shook her head again, pointed to the man in the drawing, the canteen and her lips.
'He gave you water?'
Vin nodded grimly. It wasn't much of an excuse but it wasn't the first time he'd seen a man get caught up in something a lot uglier than he bargained for. There were plenty of men who'd use the threat of violence to part people from their possessions, but he'd not come across so many who'd rape a woman, let alone with the amount of force used on this one. It wasn't hard to imagine one of the gang balking at what they'd done.
The daylight was almost completely gone now. Grace moved closer to the fire and continued to sketch by the light of the flames. She produced four detailed portraits, even adding to one a hand that bore a distinctive scar. Then she drew a stick man on a separate sheet with a line above and below him, and a baby and a coffin linked by an arrow. She looked up at Vin again, picked up one of the portraits, pointed to the stick man and then at Buck. She waited.
'He was about Buck's size?'
She nodded, pointed to the baby-coffin sketch and then Josiah.
'And Josiah's age?'
She nodded and repeated the process for the other three men.
Then she sketched a stick man with lines leading down to three more stick men, like a family tree. She pointed to it, held up the first portrait again and finally pointed to Chris.
Vin thought for a moment. 'Like Chris? He was in charge?'
Vin examined the picture of the man who hadn't taken part in the killings. She'd indicated he was only around JD's age. Finally, he picked up the other two drawings. They showed mean-looking men of middle years, alike enough to suggest they might be brothers. One had a crooked nose, most likely broken at one time or another, and the other a long scar across one cheek. He raised his eyebrows at Grace. 'They the ones that hurt you?'
Even in the poor light, the mixture of hatred, disgust and shame on her face was unmistakable. She looked away, unable to face him. He shook his head, feeling such pity for her at that moment that he wished he could take her in his arms and never let anyone hurt her again.
After a pause, Grace resumed her scribbling. She drew a hangman's noose, looked enquiringly at Vin and pointed at the dead bodies. She placed her hand on her abdomen and pressed a finger to her lips.
He thought for several minutes on that one. 'You want to know, if we find them, will they hang for the killings? Do we have to say what they did to you?'
She nodded and looked intently, first at him and then at Chris.
It was Chris who answered. 'Can't see why we would.'
She looked relieved and then got to her feet. She approached Nathan, pointed to his head and made a gesture over her heart.
His white teeth flashed in the firelight. 'I'm okay - don't you worry about me.'
She made another gesture, this time suggesting thanks from her heart, then moved back to the flat rock, put the pad on top and settled herself on the ground with her back pressed firmly against it. She closed her eyes. Whether or not she could sleep, Vin figured she'd had enough for the night and stretched out by the fire.
Nathan gave him an appraising stare. 'How'd you figure all that out?'
Vin shrugged. He wasn't much for words himself and hadn't found it that hard to catch the young woman's meaning. There was no need for his friends to know that she wasn't the first deaf girl he'd known. Right now, it was all he could do to keep his memories at bay and he had no wish to discuss any of them or anything even distantly related to them.
JD asked what they were going to do, unwittingly repeating the question Buck had asked in his absence.
Chris's voice was raw with anger. 'Hunt 'em down and make 'em pay.' His tone became more matter of fact as he moved on to planning. 'Nathan, can you get her back to town on your horse?'
The Negro shook his head. 'Don't reckon she can take a day's ride. Insides of her legs are cut up pretty bad.' His voice caught as he spoke, the tremble in his lip and dryness in his throat betraying his horror.
Vin's stomach rolled with nausea. As he looked away, he caught Buck's expression of pure, cold rage.
Chris thought for a while then said, 'JD, you go back into town first thing. Bring a team and harness. You two get her, the coach and the bodies into town whatever way you have to. Rest of us'll ride on.'
- 4 -
They were up with the light. Nathan watched while Vin explained the plan to Grace. It was clear from her expression that she would rather he had been the one to stay but she only nodded. Vin held her small pale hand in his large brown one for a moment then went to saddle his horse. Nathan moved to Grace's side, wondering again at Vin's prompt recognition of her disability and his ease with it. In Grace's position, Nathan would have wanted the man to stay but that was impossible: Nathan hoped he could take Vin's place in supporting Grace but there was no way he could take Vin's place in tracking down her attackers.
It was an odd couple who watched as five men rode to the north and one to the west, Nathan's height and breadth towering over Grace's fragile form. When the riders had disappeared from view, Grace settled to sorting and folding the contents of her luggage. Nathan watched her sadly, reflecting that she might be able to put her belongings away neatly but that it would take far longer to impose some order on the other consequences of her ordeal. He knew from bitter experience that most people were never the same again after the sort of trauma she'd been through. Even hardened men like Chris could be poisoned for life by the unjust death of a loved one, and Grace had to deal with her own humiliation alongside her brother's murder.
Once she was satisfied with her tidying, Grace returned to the cavern to wash and change. Although it was the scene of her degradation, the cool clear water that trickled over the rocks and into a large pool was the only place she could clean up. Nathan wished he had a large enough container to fetch some water for her to wash with, but was relieved to find her apparently untroubled by going back into the dimly lit space.
While she was gone, Nathan cleaned up after them, kicking dirt over the remains of the fire and packing away his utensils after wiping them with a cloth. His thoughts were tumultuous, sickening images of Grace's injuries mingling with bitter anger. He felt no surprise at the fury: had they found the rape in progress, he and any of his friends would have vented it on the rapists, who probably would not have lived to tell the tale. It was the feelings below the anger that confused him. They were akin to guilt and yet he had nothing to feel guilty about.
He sat on a rock to wait for Grace, tearing shreds of bark from a twig as he mulled over his emotions. He turned them over and around, slowly reconciling himself to the fact that he did feel guilty. Sometimes, occasionally, he'd met white people who felt personal shame for what their fellows had done to enslaved Negroes. Mary Travis was one such person and he'd seen the irony of that before. She was such a principled and kind person herself, so slow to judge anyone, and yet it was she who felt shame for her race in its treatment of both colored and native peoples. Those who should feel shame never did. Because he'd never blamed all white people for the behavior of some, he'd never understood why people like Mary blamed themselves.
Now he saw the same guilt by association in himself. Grace had suffered because of men's lust. He was a man and he knew what it was to feel lust. His heart lurched at the thought. He heard his own voice inside his head, protesting that he would never take a woman by force. But while it was true that he had never been tempted to abuse any woman, he had been tempted to use them. He bit his lip, suddenly seeing his years of self-control as simply a container for the same wickedness that was buried deep inside all men.
He drifted back to when he first became aware of the desires he now suppressed. He'd been a quiet fourteen-year-old, having withdrawn into himself after the sale of his mother away from their family seven years earlier. Afraid to rely on people who might be stolen from him at any moment, he became ever more distant from his father and went through the motions of living with no enthusiasm for life. He asked for nothing. He wanted nothing.
Then puberty hit him like a tornado. Suddenly there was one thing he wanted and he wanted it all the time. If he'd had friends, he'd have known they were all going through the same thing. If he'd been able to talk to his father, he might have found guidance there. As it was, he had cut himself off so totally that he simply suffered in silence. He took to sneaking around, spying on people to find out what he wanted to know. In corners everywhere he discovered men thrusting themselves into women just as he'd seen animals do countless times. Sometimes white men forcing themselves on colored women, sometimes white men with willing colored women, mostly colored men and women together. Occasionally men thrusting into other men.
Grace's return startled Nathan out of his thoughts. He was as embarrassed as if she had caught him doing what he remembered others doing. He stood hastily and dragged himself back to the present. She now looked far more comfortable, with her face cleaned up and her hair braided into thick twists of toffee.
He smiled warmly. 'Feelin' better?'
Facing her squarely, he spoke slowly and softly. 'Where were you and your brother going?'
She used her foot to trace in the dirt. She drew two vertical lines and then added wave shapes at either side of them. She pointed at the ground, tapped her toe about a third of the way from the left line and looked enquiringly at him.
She nodded again and then scored a cross on the left line.
He thought. 'California?'
'You got family there?'
'Them men take your travelling money?'
There was a long silence as she examined him, indecision in her eyes. Finally, she pointed to the knives in the sheath on his back. It was his turn to hesitate. He would never normally give his knives to anyone - they were more a part of him than his gun - but it was only a moment before he handed one to her.
She went over to where her brother's body lay and folded back the blanket. She caressed his ruined face lovingly then rolled him over, turned up the back of his jacket and slit the lining. She retrieved a brown envelope from its hiding place, restored the body to its rest, and passed the knife and envelope to Nathan.
He sheathed the knife and inspected the envelope in surprise. It held over $300 in mixed bills, some personal papers and a letter from a college for the deaf in San Francisco.
'You were going to school?'
He sighed. What kind of world was it when something like this happened to a man taking his deaf sister halfway across the country so she could go to school? He replaced the envelope's contents and handed it back to Grace.
Looking at her again, he spoke clearly. 'Let's go take a look at the stage. Okay?'
She nodded, so they set off for the valley bottom, Nathan already thinking on how they could get the coach repaired, hitched and into town.
- 5 -
Meanwhile, the tracking party followed the four sets of hoof-prints grimly. The going was easy to start with, as the killers had made no effort to cover their tracks, but Vin didn't read too much into that. Ahead lay solid rock and it would take all his skills to follow the trail once they reached that.
As he rode, Vin thought about his friends following a few paces behind. All hardened by circumstance, they had long since lost any illusions about life, and yet not one of them would hurt a woman, much less make use of her as their quarry had of Grace. Even if such a thing crossed their minds, he was sure that her youth, helplessness, and disability would all make them less, not more, likely to take advantage of her. Vin knew that a man could never know what went on in another man's head but he'd stake his life on these men in that area.
He'd seen the guilt with which Chris and Josiah lived every day of their lives, guilt not for harming someone themselves but simply for failing to protect their loved ones. Buck's anger at the slightest cruelty to any woman left little room for doubt in his case, and Ezra's self-control rivaled Vin's own. Vin's mind ran through the last part again: self-control didn't mean the urges weren't there - it meant there was something to control.
He turned that idea over thoughtfully. Despite his cultured persona, Ezra was a red-blooded man like himself. The fact that he kept his sexual appetites on a tight rein could mean they were unacceptable. It wasn't the first time Vin had thought about it but he remained quietly certain that, if that were the case, it had more to do with convention than brutality. He wouldn't be surprised if Ezra's interests lay with other men but he would be astonished if they involved harming women. In reality, he suspected Ezra simply regarded the pursuit of women as an unwelcome distraction from the pursuit of money. Vin was pretty confident of his judgement, allowing that he might be mistaken only because Ezra was so skilled at misleading people.
As for himself, he had many reasons not to rape a woman, from his pride in his family name to his belief that a man should be in control of his instincts. If he was not, he was no more than a beast. Sometimes it took self-discipline to behave as he believed he should. There'd been times he was tempted to kill men when it wasn't necessary. They were men who deserved it, and whom no one would miss, but that didn't make it right and he held back. There'd been times when girls too young to know better had fallen for his soft voice and kind eyes. They were willing, and he'd been drawn to some, but he had no intention of leaving them with trouble.
Years of tracking the worst kind of men had left Vin worldly-wise and hard to shock but it did nothing to make him understand why they did what they did. Were they born that way or did they learn it somewhere? Some he knew had horrific experiences, often from the war, and perhaps that was some explanation. Many had led lives no worse, no more unsettled, than his own and yet they became what they were while he became what he was. It wasn't the first time he'd thought along those lines - far from it - and each time he reminded himself how futile it was but he couldn't stop. He had his reasons for wanting to know whether such urges could sudden rise up and overwhelm a man, no matter how decent he usually was and how strongly he resisted them.
- 6 -
Nathan ran a hand over his streaming forehead. He'd spent an hour trying to right the overturned coach, a task he knew to be futile but which passed the time as well as any. Even the most scientific application of levers and makeshift pulleys could not extract sufficient force from his muscle power alone. Grace had wanted to help but he insisted that she rest quietly to one side. Even in good health her tiny frame would have made little difference, and now he needed her to save her strength for the journey back.
The sun was still well above the horizon when Nathan spotted movement below it. Shielding his eyes with one hand, he tried to make out more detail but the fading rays flooded his vision with gold. He checked his gun and rifle methodically, little doubt in his mind that it was JD approaching but long experience ensuring that he was never careless. Half an hour passed before he could be certain that the cloud of dust contained JD and a team.
Nathan smiled to himself. Few but JD could make the journey to town and back that fast, let alone with four horses in tow. The kid had too little experience and too much enthusiasm for his own good at times, but he didn't often meet his match when it came to horses. He reveled in showy stunts and flat-out racing but the rapport went far beyond that, a wordless intensity that calmed any animal that came into his hands.
The lower rim of the sun kissed the land just as JD reached them, after walking the last few hundred yards to cool the horses. Leaping lightly down, he gave Nathan a quick smile before glancing uneasily towards Grace.
'How's she doing?'
Nathan hadn't seen much reaction from JD the night before. Of course, the kid hadn't seen Grace's injuries up close and his lack of experience probably meant that, while he understood perfectly well what had been done to her, the knowledge did not dredge up long-suppressed memories as it had for Nathan and, he'd bet, some of his other friends. Now he saw that JD had spent a fair bit of his solitary ride pondering what they'd found and the reflection had drained him.
The words were deliberately chosen to be reassuring but they were also true. Nathan had been relieved to find Grace coping better than he'd feared she would. Her deep sadness was to be expected but it was probably better than either artificial calm or escalating hysteria. She had wept quietly into a handkerchief several times during the day but she was clearly able to take in what had passed and was dealing with it after a fashion. Nathan was optimistic that she would recover, something he had not taken for granted to start with.
The relief was clear in JD's young face. 'Folks back in town wanted to know what happened. I didn't talk to nobody but Mrs Travis. She's expecting us back late tomorrow at the earliest. I told Casey the same.'
Nathan nodded his approval. A year ago, JD would have ridden hell-for-leather into town and told every minute detail to the world and his brother. As people's respect for him had grown, his need to compete for fame and approval had receded. Oddly enough, it was an error of judgement that had completed his transition from boy to man. His accidental shooting of a woman while preventing a bank robbery had made a lot of the townspeople doubt him. If he'd tried to bluster his way through his mistake, they would never have trusted him again. It was only the depth of his self-doubt over the incident, followed by his bravery in averting another robbery, that restored the population's faith in what his friends had never doubted: JD was fallible like any other man but he had more heart than most. He was growing into his sheriff's badge and might one day find his place in the history books as the legendary lawman he wanted to be.
Even as Nathan thought about JD, the tireless youngster was examining the coach.
'Wanna see if we can get this upright before we lose the light?'
Nathan couldn't honestly say he wanted to, having exhausted himself with his lone efforts at the task, but if JD was up for it after a hard day's riding he'd give it a go. The horses were already harnessed because it had been easier to lead them that way so it shouldn't take too much effort for them to get the coach back onto its wheels. He worked alongside JD to fasten straps to the frame and then stood ready to stop the coach from rolling right over onto its other side.
JD took the head of the lead horse and led the team forward, a muttered undercurrent of reassurance encouraging and calming the animals at the same time. The coach creaked ominously as the straps put unaccustomed forces onto its frame. Nathan bit his lip as he watched it flex and twist. He wondered if they should have told JD to borrow a rig, rather than depending on being able to recover the damaged coach. He held his breath as the heavy shell rose slowly, dust pouring from its door and windows.
Nathan stood apprehensively between the coach and team, a heavy branch in his hand, ready to brace the coach from tipping too far. It loomed over him for a long moment but he stood his ground, holding the branch between the bodywork and the ground. He studied the thickness of the prop, wondering if it would take the strain, and then saw the coach dropping away from him again. It bounced as it settled on its springs.
'Back up, boys, back up.'
The four horses had done in seconds what Nathan had been struggling to do for an hour. He laughed softly at himself for taking on the ludicrous challenge but the amusement had a bitter edge. He knew exactly why he'd been making such a fool of himself. He'd spent the morning scouring the area around the coach, the campsite and the cavern for any scrap of evidence to support a case against the men whom he had little doubt that his friends would find. There was little more of value that he could do and yet he needed to keep busy because he didn't want to sit with Grace and think about what had been done to her. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, since doing so might only have made her more self-conscious about her humiliation, but the reason for his choice was cowardly and Nathan was man enough not to deny that, even to himself.
He was glad to have the job done. The coach had held together and there was no reason to think they would not be able to drive Grace back into town in reasonable comfort. Reaching that point now might help him sleep a little better.
- 7 -
Two days after they'd found the coach, the tracking party rode into a small town. It was unremarkable, neither rough nor prosperous, one of countless indistinguishable towns springing up all over the territory. They hitched their horses and strode into the saloon. The few mid-day customers eyed them nervously and several left. The visitors took beers to a table and surveyed the room from there. There was no sign of the four men they pursued.
Vin's gaze settled on a man alone at a corner table with his back to them. Three empty bottles littered the table and the man's posture confirmed where their contents had gone. He was falling-down drunk. Vin went over, sat at the far side of the table and ducked to see the man's face under his hat brim. It was the young man Grace had drawn, instantly recognizable from her uncannily accurate portrait.
The youngster looked back at him in confusion.
'Who're you?' he slurred.
'Someone who's lookin' for you,' Vin replied. 'Reckon you might know somethin' 'bout a stage holdup.'
The man nodded in resignation. 'May as well kill me now.' He staggered to his feet with some difficulty. 'Hell, I'll even make it easy for you.'
He reached for his gun, which Ezra had neatly removed a second before. The youngster groped in puzzlement and then swung around to see the four men standing behind him, three with their hands by their holsters and Ezra holding his gun by the end of its barrel. He dropped to his seat again.
'We ain't here to kill you. Not that I wouldn't like to but a lady spoke up for you.'
This baffled the boy. 'What lady?' It was a full minute before he managed to follow the thought far enough to ask, 'You mean she ain't dead?'
'Not quite. No thanks to your friends.'
'Weren't no friends o' mine. It was only gonna be a robbery,' he mumbled. 'I never meant to kill nobody, leave alone what they did to her.'
'Well,' Vin leaned back. 'You tell us where we can find 'em and maybe we'll keep that in mind.'
'Don't know for sure. They talked about Colorado one time though an' I saw 'em head northwest this morning. I don't care what you do to me but I hope you catch them.'
Vin nodded and stood.
'That all?' the boy asked in surprise.
'Get out,' Chris said in disgust.
Ezra returned his gun.
Josiah stopped him with a strong hand on his chest. 'Not many men get a second chance. I hope you'll be making good use of it.'
The youngster looked up at the big man. 'You can bet on that. I ain't never felt so bad as I have these three days an' I don't plan to again.' He nodded as if agreeing with himself, pulled his hat down firmly and staggered towards the door. He turned back, 'You tell her tell her thanks I hope she can get over it somehow.'
His interrogators took a bottle of whiskey to a table and set about washing the dust from their throats, wishing they could wash away their disgust with it. After only an hour's rest, they rode on with replenished supplies.
- 8 -
Back in Four Corners, Nathan had been trying to persuade Grace to spend more time with other people. He knew she found the busy town confusing, with its people always in a hurry. Even after he introduced her and explained her total lack of hearing, people still raised their voices but forgot to face her when they spoke. Most acted as if she was stupid rather than deaf, and he saw her become as frustrated as them by the interactions.
He was grateful for Mary Travis, who had done everything she could to make Grace welcome and wired the college in San Francisco, explaining what had happened and that Grace would stay in Four Corners until her injuries were properly healed. It was Mary who arranged funerals for the dead men, taking particular trouble over the ceremony for Grace's brother, Matthew. Even so, Grace was painfully shy with Mary. She would wait in the newspaper office while Nathan did other things if he insisted but her relief at his return was so plain that he felt too sorry for her, and too embarrassed for Mary, to leave her more often than necessary.
Grace's faith in him surprised Nathan. He'd expected her to run to the first woman she saw in town and want nothing to do with any man, even her rescuers. When he saw that wasn't the case, he could only assume that a lifetime in her brother's care outweighed what had been done to her by his murderers.
She was helping him groom his horse when he turned to wondering how she had talked to her brother. They must have been able to communicate and surely that couldn't have been solely through her drawing pictures as she did for him. He looked over the horse's back at her and waited until her eyes were on him before speaking.
'How did you talk to your brother, Grace?'
Her eyes misted over at the question. She held up her left hand and counted into it with the fingers of her right.
'Signs?' he checked.
'Can you teach me?'
A smile chased away the tears. She nodded, then held up her right hand, fist clenched and palm facing him, and moved it up and down, echoing the movement of her head.
He pointed to her hand and asked, 'Yes?'
She repeated the gesture with a smile.
Nathan doubted he'd be able to learn her language fast enough for it to be useful in helping her but he knew it would have one immediate benefit. It put Grace in control of their communication, breaking the cycle of inadequacy and dependence that her plight had initiated. If that was all it achieved, it would be worthwhile.
'Show me more.'
Over the next hour, she showed him signs for the things in their everyday lives: people and animals, houses and stores, food and clothes. He didn't find it so hard to remember individual signs for tangible objects but knew that following sentences and talking about feelings or needs would be a lot more difficult. Still, he swelled with pride when he eventually grasped what Grace told him last. A preacher in her home town had taught the signs to her and her brother from a book after Sunday School when they were small. Okay, so he guessed half of it and Grace used a mixture of signs, pointing and mouthing words at him, but still he got the idea. If he could do that now, perhaps they could manage real conversations later. That hope was tempered by realism. If her vocabulary was mainly what she'd learned as a child, it might be quite a challenge to discuss some of the things he feared might be ahead of them. He wasn't sure they were topics a brother would ever have tried to raise, although Nathan guessed the dead man had been past twenty and probably had some experience himself.
The preacher's kindness set Nathan thinking. He'd come across deaf people before but that was back when he was a slave. Then there were hardly hours enough in the long working days to look after normal children and those with disabilities were lucky if their overlords even let them live. The deaf could work so they might be granted their lives but there was no special schooling or extra help for them. There'd been plenty of slaves like that in the fields, isolated and ignored, grudgingly fed for their unending toil. It had been only one facet of a life filled with misery and injustice and the fact was that he'd never dwelled on it before. Grace might be unlucky in having no hearing but she'd been fortunate in other ways.
- 9 -
Vin quickly picked up the three men's trail northwest of town and confidently led his friends onwards. Just before dusk, they stopped to formulate a plan. While he was tracking, Vin's mind was fully occupied and he gave little thought to the men they pursued. He was glad of that, since he did not enjoy being as angry as he was when Grace explained what had passed or as he was now that he contemplated closing in on her abusers.
He said only, 'I reckon we'll be on 'em in less than an hour.'
Chris nodded. 'Guess we gotta try and take 'em back.'
'Let's hope they resist arrest,' Buck replied. His jaw was set in a firm line, as he fiercely checked both his gun and his rifle.
They resumed their pursuit, although the twilight made tracking difficult. From the next ridge, they saw trees ahead, which meant water and probably the fugitives' campsite. They rode half the distance then left their horses and covered the rest of the ground stealthily on foot.
Seeing a small fire through the branches, they fanned out and surrounded the clearing in which their quarry had stopped for the night. They stepped out of the shadows as one, guns in hand, startling the seated men.
'Keep your hands where we can see 'em,' Chris instructed. 'We're takin' you in for robbery and murder.'
A few seconds passed while the seated men considered their position. Vin knew from their expressions that they had not expected to be apprehended. They thought they'd made a clean getaway with no witnesses. He longed for them to reach for their guns, itching to fill their bodies with lead, but he was disappointed.
When they reluctantly surrendered their weapons, Vin struggled to control his fury, feeling his whole body rigid with the effort. From the corner of his eye, he saw Buck shaking with the same suppressed rage. United in the emotion, he felt the others' eyes on them. He knew they'd been expecting Buck's reaction - his views on the ill treatment of women were well known - but his own lust for retribution might have been less predictable.
Buck kicked one of the two ugly men savagely. 'Couldn't leave it at robbery, could you?'
Vin pulled the other man to his feet, then punched him down.
The two men looked baffled. Buck's man asked, 'What's your problem?'
Together, Buck and Vin pulled both men up, only to punch them down again.
Vin's man shook his head in an effort to clear his thoughts. 'This ain't 'bout that girl, is it? Hell, she weren't no more'an an animal anyway. Never said a word the whole time. Pretty enough though.'
His choice of words was unwise. Vin and Buck set about their prisoners with such fervor that their friends eventually had to haul them off.
'Hey,' Chris said firmly. 'That's enough.'
Buck's temper cooled almost as quickly as it had heated up. Vin knew he'd had plenty of practice in reining it in but, rarely one to lose control in the first place, he himself struggled harder to calm down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and moved to the edge of the clearing, breathing heavily, fists still clenched. He waited until Josiah and Ezra had bound their captives firmly before rejoining his friends, knowing that he would kill if given even the slightest justification.
When he returned, he found Chris's eye on him. In it, he read Chris's thoughts. The man had known Buck for more years than either cared to remember and, if there was one thing guaranteed to get Buck's blood up, it was a man hurting a woman - growing up in a brothel had seen to that. But Chris had become perhaps even closer to Vin over the past year and now that closeness threatened to let him see more than Vin wanted him to know.
Vin knew his friends had seen him stand up for the underdog plenty of times but they'd rarely seen him as angry as he was now. He'd rarely been as angry as he was now. Of course, it was difficult to think of a more vicious crime than the one that these animals had perpetrated on such a disadvantaged and helpless victim but, even so, Chris was wondering how much of his fury stemmed from his humanity and how much from the affinity he'd shown for the silent young woman. He blanked the memories that her plight stirred inside him and turned shuttered eyes on his friend. How often had Chris done that to him? Now he played the same game.
- 10 -
A few days later, Nathan was with Grace in his clinic. He was cutting bandages while she rolled them into neat cylinders. While he worked, he hummed softly to himself. After a few minutes, he caught Grace's eye on him.
'Okay?' he asked.
She nodded, then signed 'again' to him. It took a moment for him to realize that she meant his humming. Singing for her embarrassed him but he'd do more than that to make her happy. He resumed, this time a spiritual from the fields of his childhood. She watched for a few seconds and then reached her hand up to his throat. Her fingers were cool and soft, their slender tips sensing the vibrations under his rough skin. The happiness on her face at the shared sensation saddened him, reminding him of what her disability denied her.
Music had been one of few joys in his youth, something that brought his people closer to each other and - for those who believed - to God. The mechanical movement of his vocal chords seemed a poor substitute for the richness of melody and lyric that she had no way to detect. Only when she laughed in delight as his voice plunged for the bass notes of the final line did he realize that she did not miss what she had never known. There were private joys in her world of touch that hearing folk like him rarely took time to notice.
Distracted by sounds outside, he paused and inclined his head to one side. The movement was miniscule but Grace immediately raised her eyebrows.
'Horses on Main Street,' he told her. 'Things have gone quiet.'
Even as he said it, he wondered what she understood by the word 'quiet'. Without knowing what he heard, and therefore what it was like for a noise to stop, she knew that the sense she lacked could alert him to something out of sight as clearly as someone walking into the room would register with them both. He held out his hand and felt the familiar pressure of her fingers entwined with his. He had soon seen how comforting she found physical contact in her silent world and knew how precious his touch was to her now, as she prepared to face her brother's murderers again.
They went outside, through the little yard and round the corner onto Main Street. His friends were herding their bound captives towards the jail and JD had stepped forward to help with the incarceration. Grace shrank back, so they watched from an alley beside the building.
The gang's leader was unhurt but the two men behind him were beaten beyond recognition. Nathan took in the state of them and monitored Grace's reaction out of the corner of his eye, saw the brief flash of satisfaction in her face chased away by a more complex emotion, and then sensed her shame at her own vengefulness.
From inside the jail came the clang of metal on metal as the men were locked behind two sets of steel bars. Nathan guessed that JD would take first watch. Josiah and Ezra turned towards the saloon, Chris and Buck following within seconds, but Vin stopped when he came out of the jail and looked around.
Seeing that his friend wanted to check on Grace, Nathan moved forward with her. Grace didn't resist but clung to his arm, now as uncertain about seeing Vin again as she had been about being left with Nathan. There was no way for Nathan to know whether her fearfulness was a direct result of the savage attack or whether she had always been so shy, either because of her disability or simply by nature.
- 11 -
Vin was relieved to see the improvement in Grace's physical condition. Her face was still badly marked but it had almost returned to its delicate oval shape. The relief was offset by his disappointment in her renewed fear of him. He knew that he should have been prepared for her reaction but found that he was not.
Although he was more pragmatic about it now, Vin had spent a lot of time when he was younger wondering why men raped women. Even then, when the land was wilder and women were fewer, their company could be bought. It was true that the ones most men could afford to buy were not much to write home about but they were women and they were willing. For himself, he preferred his hand to a poor choice in female company. He'd occasionally broken the monotony by sharing the pleasure with a friend, seeing no harm in enjoying the caress of another man's hand. It wasn't something he'd be keen to discuss but he wasn't ashamed of it either. So long as they both wanted it, he couldn't see it was anyone else's business.
Only as the years passed and his experience grew did he understand that rape had little to do with sex and a lot to do with violence. It was to do with wanting to see the fear in eyes like those that couldn't hold his gaze now. Eyes that made him feel like a brute would make a rapist feel like a man. Vin knew that, although he doubted he would ever understand it.
Now he pushed those thoughts away and concentrated on looking as harmless as he could. He wouldn't expect any woman to want to get near him right then, filthy as he was, slick with sweat and coated in dust, but he wanted Grace to know she had nothing to fear from him. He spoke softly when he asked, 'You okay?'
She nodded, still keeping a firm grip on Nathan.
'She's doin' good, Vin. Wounds're healin' up fine an' she's settled down some, eatin' and sleepin' better.'
Vin could think of no one better than Nathan to care for Grace, knowing that the man was as adept in offering comfort and reassurance as medical assistance.
Nathan beamed, as he recounted what he saw as the greatest step forward. 'She can talk to us an' all, in signs. Takin' me a while t'get the hang o' it but I'm comin' along.'
Vin had wondered about that since leaving Grace. 'Show me,' he said, touching the fingers of his right hand to the palm of his left and moving it towards Grace.
He thought she understood him but she didn't answer. He saw Nathan's surprise at his question and restraint in not asking how he knew the sign. Even after so long together, the members of their group rarely asked each other direct questions. It wasn't so much that they needed to hide anything any more, more that a lifetime of keeping themselves to themselves wasn't so easily shed. Now, however, Vin didn't want to talk about how he knew the sign because remembering that made him remember other things he'd just as soon let lie.
'She'll be all right when she's gets used t'you agin. She's jus' a bit nervous.'
Vin heard the note of apology in Nathan's voice for Grace's reaction. 'Gotta right t'be,' he said gruffly.
Wondering how long it would take for Grace to put the memories behind her, if she ever could, made his blood boil anew. He had to fight the urge to turn around, go back into the jail and beat the men all over again. His fury was like the ocean, ebbing and flowing through him, building into tidal waves that threatened to breach his control. Only when Grace shrank further behind Nathan, did he realize the effect that his thoughts were having on his face and on her.
With an effort, he lightened his tone. 'I best go wash up. I wouldn't wanna stand near me neither.'
Nathan looked down at Grace and held his nose. That brought a tiny smile to her lips and, cautiously releasing his arm, she echoed Vin's sign back to him. When she did it, she used only the index finger of her right hand.
A broad grin lit up Nathan's face. 'She's sayin' you got it wrong.'
Vin smiled to Grace, more than happy to be corrected and pleased to see the grain of confidence in her, and then set off for his wagon, clean clothes and a bath.
- 12 -
Nathan and Vin spent a lot of time with Grace over the following days. Nathan appreciated her continued help in his clinic, as she slowly warmed more to the townsfolk and became quite the little nurse. Vin took her riding, gently at first but her legs were much improved and she enjoyed the wind on her face as they rode harder and farther. Most often though, one or both of them sat with her on a bench on Main Street, watching the world go by contentedly. Vin soon found that the signs he remembered were not the same as the ones Grace used but, familiar with one system as he was, it didn't take him long to adapt. Nathan could get by well enough with Grace on her own but struggled to keep up when she signed at Vin's pace.
On a beautiful day on the cusp of September, Vin and Grace were sitting near the dry goods store. Mary joined Chris and Buck at one of the tables outside the saloon as she had two weeks earlier to discuss the overdue stagecoach, but this time it was Nathan who stood nearby, reading that morning's 'Clarion'.
'The Judge'll be here tomorrow.' She nodded across the street. 'She's doing well, isn't she?'
Buck grinned, 'I'd say he's the one doing well. She's a sweet little girl. Match made in heaven, given Vin ain't much of a one for talk anyhow.'
Nathan said nothing, even though he was sure that romance was nowhere in the mind of either Grace or Vin. For Grace, he was sure that he and Vin had stepped into the void left by her brother's death. As for Vin, Nathan still didn't know what was going on in his friend's head but he saw no sign that he thought of Grace as a woman in the way he had Charlotte. That might be partly because of her youth but it seemed to go beyond that. He didn't treat her so much as a child as family.
Now Nathan pondered Buck's assumption that Grace's interest would automatically be in Vin. He spent as much time with her and she seemed just as happy in his company as in Vin's. The thought surprised him, making him wonder why he should be jealous of a relationship that didn't exist with a woman in whom he had no interest of that kind. The surprise deepened when he realized that it was Buck making the assumption that troubled him, not the assumption itself. Perhaps Buck thought that a white woman would never choose a colored man and that Nathan should stick with his own kind as he had with Rain. Nathan knew Buck wouldn't consciously think like that but he might not even be aware of the attitudes influencing his interpretations.
With an effort, he brushed his petty resentments aside. Buck saw all interactions with women in that light. He'd made no allowance in his matchmaking for the effects of Grace's ordeal and the probability that it would be a very long time before she'd want any man to touch her in that way. If he didn't think of that, why should he think of Nathan's role in any more depth?
Chris looked thoughtful. 'It must be hard for her. I've seen people shouting at her like she's stupid. Reckon Vin must be about the only one she's ever met who understood right away.'
Nathan was still wondering about that. Vin was as observant as men came but, even so, it seemed quite a leap. Now seeing that his friend knew sign language, Nathan wondered what his past experience had been.
'Can she hear nothing at all?' Mary was looking up at him, clearly viewing him as the expert on Grace's disability.
Nathan shook his head. 'Vin let a shot off right behind her and she didn't flinch. You could prob'ly fire a cannon without her hearing it. She thinks she was born deaf. She can't remember ever bein' able t'hear.'
They watched as Vin tapped Grace's arm, waited till she looked at him and then spoke. She smiled and formed several signs, concluding with some taps and tracings on his arm. He laughed broadly and made three signs against her hand that caused her to join in.
Mary sighed. 'It's lucky she has you two to help her through this - there's really no one else she can talk to properly. She she's still not very confident with me.'
'It ain't personal, Mary,' Nathan assured her. 'Seems like her and her brother kept pretty much to themselves. I don't guess she's known too many women.' He paused and then asked, 'You think her goin' on to this school is a good thing?'
'I don't know.' Mary thought for a while before continuing. 'I suppose they know how to help people like her. It would certainly be easier for her to mix with other people if she learned to read and write.'
He pondered her answer. 'She could learn that here.'
- 13 -
The next day, Vin sat outside the saloon, drinking coffee alongside Chris. The stagecoach had arrived more than an hour before and Judge Travis was now over at the newspaper office with his daughter-in-law, getting settled in before tackling the case that awaited him.
It was another twenty minutes before they followed him into the jail, where Chris gave a characteristically concise summary of events. He was a man who never felt the need to embellish a story, paring it down to the barest essentials. This story needed no exaggeration and even his bald account was horrific. The Judge frowned as he listened, staring at the prisoners in disgust throughout.
'I need to speak with the girl. Mary tells me she's deaf. Will she understand me?'
Chris left Vin to answer that.
'Jus' make sure you face her and don't go too fast. Takes a minute for her to get used to someone new. An' it ain't no use shoutin' 'cause she can't hear a thing.'
The Judge nodded, 'I'll see her at the hotel.'
Vin made to leave but the Judge put a hand on his arm.
'What are we looking at here, with her?' He looked meaningfully at the two beaten men behind bars, their features swollen into grotesque parodies of normal human faces.
Vin said nothing. It was still a battle for him to stand so close to the prisoners without putting a bullet through their sick heads. Two or three times he'd woken from nightmares, aching to beat them again, longing to make them pay over and over, not only for what they'd done but for every man like them that had ever drawn breath.
Finally Chris said, 'Ain't murder enough?'
The Judge eyed them both before finally saying, 'If that's how she wants it.'
'It is.' Vin's easy drawl was gone, leaving an alien bitterness in its place.
Not much later, Vin ushered Grace into the Judge's room. The old man came forward to greet her, looked directly into her eyes and said softly, 'Hello, Grace. My name is Judge Travis. Please tell me if I'm not speaking clearly enough at any point.' He waved at a chair. 'Make yourself comfortable.'
Grace nodded and sat down.
'Can you speak?'
He looked confused, not having considered how he would understand his witness.
Vin stepped in. 'She can explain in drawin's or I can translate from signs.'
The Judge was surprised but acquiesced. Law in Four Corners always seemed to be an unconventional business and today promised to be no exception. He began simply but was soon surprised by Grace's clear testimony. He could see from the fading bruises on her face and wrists that the story she was willing to tell wasn't 'the whole truth' but understood her reticence. A man could only hang once anyway.
Later, Chris gave the Judge the portraits Grace had drawn for them. They provided damning evidence, given that they showed the men in vivid and precise detail, something that should have been impossible since they now claimed never to have seen her before. The Judge was not keen on his unofficial lawmen's clemency to the fourth robber, irrespective of his limited role in the crime, but wrote it off as a necessary evil to find the others.
A decision was not long in coming. The men had no alibi to offer and Grace was a solid, if unusual, eyewitness. If there had been any doubt in the jurors' minds, Nathan and Vin soon quashed it.
Nathan's careful study of the vicinity of the robbery while awaiting JD's return produced convincing circumstantial evidence against the elder of Grace's two tormentors. He found three .50/70 cartridges near where Grace had been lying, presumably having fallen unnoticed from the man's pocket while he had his way with her. When Nathan dropped the cartridges in front of the Judge, few in the courtroom needed to be told that they fitted the accused's single-shot Sharps, now lying on the evidence table. True there were many such rifles in the area but the cartridges tipped the scales of justice a little closer to a guilty verdict.
Vin had been keeping quiet about his contribution to the case, thinking that a surprise might shake the defendants and move things along. When he testified to tracking the men from the scene, he included one detail while omitting others that might reveal what Grace had suffered at their hands. He had already made his own surreptitious checks that the detail would be persuasive. He casually mentioned that the men had been easy to follow, even when they reached more populated areas, because one had a split across the sole of his left boot. Vin's friends nodded at his words, having themselves noted the distinctive print while watching him work. When Judge Travis ordered the men to show the soles of their left boots to the court, sure enough the younger of the two rapists still wore the damaged boot. Vin permitted himself a grim smile of satisfaction: if he ever decided to commit a crime, he'd be a lot more careful what he left behind than these fools had been.
The jury convicted the men and the Judge sentenced them to hang.
Vin was curious how Grace would react to the hangings and surprised when she asked if they could go for a ride on the day. Once the men had been convicted, she showed no further interest in revenge. He had seen the hatred in her eyes on that first day, and knew that it hadn't simply vanished, but she now seemed to find enough comfort in the assurance that her assailants wouldn't be doing the same thing to anyone else.
- 14 -
A few days after the hangings and the Judge's departure, Nathan caught Vin in the street and asked him to come into his office. He studied Vin's face and wondered why he felt so uncomfortable raising the subject he needed to discuss. They were both men of the world. They'd taken and saved lives alongside each other. Yet now he fought to talk openly about what might be facing their young charge, for that was how Nathan regarded Grace. He felt a personal responsibility to take care of her and make sure she recovered from her ordeal. He knew Vin shared that commitment, even though they had never discussed it.
He shuffled uneasily, wondering what words to use, and made several false starts before he finally began.
'I don't know if you already thought 'bout this but I guess you know what can follow on from what happened to Grace.' He saw immediately that Vin already shared his concern and had expected him to raise it at some point.
'Yeah, I thought about it, but she ain't said nothing.'
Nathan wasn't surprised. If Grace had told Vin, Vin would have told him. Besides, it was early days yet. Still, it was not something he wanted her to be worrying about alone or, worse still, discover as a total shock later. That was what troubled him most. He thought further. Grace was timid but she generally made her needs and anxieties known to them. Perhaps she did not realize there might be yet more misery to follow.
'Some young girls well, they don't always know.'
Vin nodded, his expression revealing again that he'd already had the same doubts about that as Nathan had. 'I'll talk to her.' It made sense for Vin to try first, given that he still followed Grace's signing better than Nathan. They could try to talk to her together but that might be more daunting for her.
As Vin went to leave, Nathan reached out to catch his arm. 'Vin '
Vin waited expectantly for a moment, then frowned. 'Yeah?'
'I bin thinkin' '
'Yeah?' Vin repeated.
Nathan looked into Vin's smoky blue eyes and saw the sadness there shift first into curiosity and then slowly into suspicion. Everything was upside down and this was the wrong way around. It wasn't for a healer to be thinking what Nathan was thinking.
The single word was quiet but no less forceful for that. In the second it took Vin to utter it, Nathan saw a wall go up between them. Vin would not countenance a way out if Grace was with child. Nathan would not force her to go through the ordeal of a pregnancy on top of what she'd already suffered. Such a fundamental disagreement would stretch their friendship to its limits.
'Ain't that for her to decide?' he asked. He knew he'd hit a nerve when Vin's eyes narrowed in anger. Whatever he thought of the idea, the decision was not Vin's to make.
Vin leaned a little closer. 'Yeah, well, you jus' remember that. It ain't your decision no more'an it is mine.' He spun on his heel and strode towards the door.
After Vin had gone, Nathan dropped into a chair and buried his head in his hands. He'd been wrestling with the possibilities on and off since soon after they found Grace. It offended every fiber of his body to consider ending even the smallest scrap of innocent human life, but he feared the despair that might overtake the girl if she was faced with motherhood on top of her ordeal. How would she feel about the child of a man who had killed her brother and then raped her?
Nathan's mind wandered back to the day he'd seen Buck faced with the consequences of his philandering. In hindsight, it was strange to think that Buck's plight had been light relief at the time, compared with Vin's imminent departure to stand trial for murder in Texas, but then Lucy's situation had been completely different from Grace's. Buck hadn't forced himself on her and she didn't seem particularly worried about her embarrassment. While people might publicly disapprove of such behavior, many young couples got married because the girl was expecting and Nathan had no problem with that. To his mind, there was some sense in those who wanted to have children finding out ahead of time whether their union would be fruitful.
He had simply assumed that Buck would do the right thing by Lucy. Even when the man tried to evade his responsibilities, Nathan was quietly confident that his friend would eventually come around, as indeed he did. In fact, he'd come around to such an extent that his disappointment was clear when he discovered that another man had fathered the child. Nathan wondered now what he would have done if the baby had been Buck's and his friend had refused to marry Lucy. He doubted he could continue to count such a man as a friend and was glad his loyalty had not been tested in that way.
Nathan's feelings for Buck were ambivalent at times. There were so many things to like about him, from his easy company and lively sense of humor to his bravery and loyalty to his friends, but the man was a liability when it came to women. He seemed to have little control over his natural drives in that area, willing to take foolish risks for the promise of a few hours with a pretty girl. All his friends had been surprised by his recent proposal of marriage and there was a shared sense of amusement and curiosity as to how he would adapt to confining himself to one woman, however special he might think Louisa was, assuming that was what he intended to do.
Most of the time, Nathan thought such things were none of his business but occasionally, when he'd seen Buck's behavior as a threat to their group or to the woman in question, he'd had his doubts. Those were practical concerns that he suspected the rest of their number shared. None of the other men were enslaved to their pants in the same way as Buck. Josiah and Vin were both susceptible to the promise of love, while JD and Chris faced each other across the span of true love. Even Ezra could be distracted from his pursuit of financial gain by the right girl in the right circumstances, but he had the same iron control over his urges as Nathan himself had. After Ezra sent Li Pong back to San Francisco at his own expense, Nathan had watched the gambler with interest, curious at his momentary lapse in self-interest, and had been surprised at what he'd seen.
Ezra never appeared to show any interest in women but Nathan slowly picked up on the small signs that betrayed his assumed air of indifference. He noticed every woman around them and Nathan saw those pale green eyes darken when they settled on elegance, charm or grace. He particularly noticed Ezra's carefully disguised interest in Mary Travis. Before, Nathan had only ever seen verbal fencing between the two highly educated sparring partners, unsurprising since they disagreed on almost every issue of note. Now he realized that Ezra was attracted to Mary at all levels, which might explain some past frictions between him and Chris. Nathan had assumed such conflicts arose from Chris's irritation at Ezra's greed and unreliability, and undoubtedly some of it did, but now he saw signs that Ezra resented the fact that the most cultured woman in town had chosen Chris over himself. Nathan didn't think Chris had detected those feelings at a conscious level but perhaps he was responding to them subconsciously.
Meanwhile, Nathan gradually felt an unexpected affinity develop between himself and Ezra. As Ezra slowly forgot his color and accepted him as a friend, Nathan found they had more in common than he thought. When Ezra placed himself in the line of fire to save Mary from a hired assassin's bullet, even though she stood at Chris's side at the time, Nathan knew there was more to the man than he allowed people to see. His heart was that of a romantic but his desire for love conflicted with the desire for money that his mother had so successfully inculcated in him. There were many parallels with the conflict Nathan felt between his own desire for sex and its conflict with his need to suppress the animal in himself.
Since Rain came to town to discover more about his feelings for her, he had been trying to unravel those feelings himself. What he'd told Chris was true: he was afraid of becoming involved with her and then losing her as he'd lost his mother so long ago and his father so much more recently. Chris's reply was equally true: nothing was gained if the fear of losing love meant you never had it in the first place, but that was only half the story. When Nathan returned from his watch that night and tumbled into Rain's waiting arms, he lost control of his desire for the first time in his life. In the weeks after she left, he spent hours lying awake at night wondering if he might have left her with trouble. He hoped she would have sent word if he had but he felt no confidence in that. Rain was an independent woman and she would rather manage a child alone than involve a man who had not taken her as his wife for her own sake. Only his knowledge that she would be safe and well cared for in her village had prevented him from going to check on her. They parted on good terms but he would not see her again until he was ready to give her the commitment she needed, and that time had not yet come.
Whenever he thought of that night, he was torn apart by the conflict between the carnal memory that stirred in his loins and the recriminations that stirred in his mind. He despised his self-indulgence, seeing it as worse than Buck's behavior because he cared so deeply for Rain and she was the last person he should have risked hurting. His rational mind told him that Rain had wanted him as much as he wanted her and that he had done nothing wrong, but the voice in his head taunted him with the fact that he had lost control of the animal, however he tried to rationalize it, and with the possibility that he could just as easily lose it again in different circumstances.
The sound of his own voice, loud in the empty room, startled him.
No wonder he felt a bond with Ezra. They were both ruined for the present by the past, incapable of giving commitment and stifling any emotional involvement that might hurt them again. They each took care of their bodily needs in private, refusing to allow their lust to determine their path in life.
Nathan wished he could shake off the miseries of his past but he also wished other men would keep a tighter rein on their appetites than they so often did. That thought led him back to his co-guardian. He assumed Vin relied on his hand most of the time, too, since they'd only once seen him pursue a woman. Before Charlotte, Nathan had wondered whether he was interested in women. The depth of the friendship that had grown so quickly between Vin and their normally unapproachable leader even made him consider the possibility that the man might be inclined towards other men. After events on the wagon train, Nathan turned his unobtrusive scrutiny on the softly spoken tracker and saw the subtle signs of his appreciation of several of the townswomen. When he touched his hat to them, his deep blue eyes often went a shade or two darker and casual shifts in his lopsided pose against his favorite leaning posts followed too often to be coincidence.
Eventually, Nathan concluded that Vin's restraint came from his belief that he was not in a position to offer a woman anything more than a casual affair and his lack of interest in such fleeting satisfactions. Despite the physical evidence of his body's responses, he seemed to have no difficulty in controlling them. Although in a way, Vin had the biggest and most insurmountable problem of them all, he seemed in all other senses to be at ease with the world and himself. He'd been free to choose his own path from an early age and presumably, bounty aside, he was where he was because that was where he wanted to be.
Nathan sometimes envied the quiet peace and conviction he saw in Vin. Only once had he glimpsed a trace of self-doubt in the man, when Vin held the assassin's gun and wondered whether he would have bothered to try to take wanted men in alive if he could pick them off so easily from a safe distance. There was no doubt in Nathan's mind that Vin would be the same decent human being, with or without a sniper's rifle, using it only to enforce the rule of justice. He smiled now at the memory of Vin's love for the precisely crafted weapon - the man had shown no interest in the ten thousand dollars lying next to it, but stroked the cold steel of its barrel with the same tenderness that another man might show a woman.
Now their friendship might be shattered by Grace's predicament and Nathan felt an irrational rush of resentment towards her for that. None of it was her fault - what had happened, what might follow or the fact that he and Vin disagreed on what might be done - but still, if only she had not come to Four Corners, if only she had not been on the stagecoach, if only if only Nathan's life had been filled with if only's.
- 15 -
Vin strode into the livery stable and saddled up. He cut JD dead when he led his horse outside and onto Main Street, riding out hard without a word to anyone. The last thing he heard was JD's voice, half an octave higher than normal in his disbelief, calling, 'Vin Vin!'
The anger Vin had felt when he realized what Nathan was suggesting began to recede, as he knew it would, and he kept up a searing pace to put as much distance as he could between himself and the town before he was awash in the emotional soup that was taking its place. When that happened, there was no way he wanted to be seen by anyone in town, even - especially - his friends. Only when he could see nothing of the town, not the outlying buildings, not the surrounding corrals, did he rein back to a walk and let his panting mount cool down.
He slipped out of his saddle, walked unsteadily into the shade of a big old cottonwood and wound his reins once around a fallen branch. Then his legs folded and he dropped to the ground, burying his head in his hands in an unwitting reflection of the pose Nathan had adopted as soon as he left. He'd half expected to break down and weep but no tears came. Instead his heart and stomach seemed to engage in a sickening dance inside his body, twisting apart and then lurching together until tension turned to sharp pain through his chest and nausea sent bitter bile into his mouth. He spat it out but its sourness stayed with him, fueling his queasiness and bringing more bile in its wake.
Slowly his anger turned inwards. The intensity of his reaction owed much to shock and there was no reason for him to have been taken by surprise. He'd spoken the truth when he said he'd already thought about what Grace might be facing. He'd expected Nathan to raise the subject and had guessed what was coming when he followed the man into the clinic. Still it had never occurred to him that Nathan would suggest what he had and now Vin tried to understand why that was. Okay, so the man was a healer but it wasn't so surprising that he might feel that the circumstances justified his intervention now. Youth, innocence, disability, abuse, bereavement - there was no shortage of reasons why it might be better if Grace did not have a baby. Nathan would put her welfare above almost any other consideration and, if he'd thought it through, Vin felt he should have known that.
But it was still taking a life to try to salvage a life. Why should a tiny ember of new life be snuffed out for the wrongs of another? Was it because they thought it was contaminated by the nature of the man that ignited it? Vin spat out another gob of bile as the thought gnawed at him. He couldn't afford to go down that avenue, knowing it led only to unresolvable and destructive doubts. He had to try to deal with this in the present, to think only of what was best for Grace now and not dwell on what that meant for him.
He regretted how he'd left things with Nathan and wished he'd tried to talk it through. The trouble was that this was something he couldn't talk about, not to anyone, not ever. He never had and he never intended to. He never expected to need to. How had he got caught up in something with such personal echoes for him? Why hadn't he left it to Nathan? Josiah? Even Ezra was better qualified than he was.
Because he cared. That was why. Because he had some idea of what it was like for a woman to go through what faced Grace. But how far would he go to support her? How could he allow them to kill the baby? None of this was the baby's fault
The thought pulled Vin up sharp. They didn't even know there was a baby. It startled him to realize how extreme his reaction had been to what was after all a perfectly reasonable hypothetical proposition by Nathan in his capacity as the closest thing Grace had to a doctor. There might be no baby and, even if there was, Grace might not want to take that path. He felt foolish at his premature reaction to circumstances that had not yet arisen. He knew he had to get some sort of control over his runaway emotions before those circumstances did arise. What he didn't know was how he was going to manage that.
- 16 -
Vin had been missing for two days when Nathan made his way to the saloon for the first time since their conversation about Grace's prospects. In that time, he'd deliberately avoided his friends, seeing none of them for more than a minute or two. Only Grace had asked him where Vin had gone and he'd lied about an errand to the reservation. He had no intention of explaining what had passed between them and one simple lie seemed easier than telling her half the story.
He collected a beer from the bar and joined Chris, Buck and JD at a table by the window. He'd hardly sat down before JD challenged him.
'You seen Vin, Nathan?'
He shook his head wearily.
'I saw him ride out a couple of days back in one hell of a hurry,' JD went on.
'Didn't tell nobody where he was headed,' Buck added. 'Don't seem like Vin.'
Nathan caught Chris's eye on him but the man said nothing. He didn't need to when his lieutenants were doing such an effective job for him. Nathan sighed.
'He's worried 'bout Grace. Ain't findin' it so easy and I reckon he don't want her to see that.' Now he'd started lying, it came easier. 'He jus' went out to the reservation for some peace 'n' quiet.'
He downed half his beer, examining his companions out of the corner of his eye as he did so. Buck and JD had swallowed the story, which wasn't so strange given that they'd all seen how easily Vin could get embroiled in a woman's misfortunes, but Chris was skeptical. Nathan could see that he knew there was more to the story than he was hearing, that he wasn't sure which part of it wasn't true, and that he wasn't going to push it. For the time being at least.
'How's she doin'? Buck asked in a lighter tone.
'Not bad,' Nathan said, happy to be back on firmer ground. 'Not bad at all. Healin' up well and actin' more confident.'
Of course, all things were relative. Grace was indeed a little more confident than she had been at first but that wasn't saying a lot. She was still painfully shy and started at any sudden movement.
'Looks to me like she's gotta way to go yet,' Chris remarked in a low voice filled with regret. 'She still won't look me in the face, crosses the street to avoid me if she gets the chance.'
Buck grinned, not at Grace's expense but at Chris's apparent lack of awareness of the signals he sent out. They all knew he was far gentler towards Grace than they'd seen him be to anyone in the town apart from Billy, but that wasn't saying a lot. Chris Larabee acting gentle wasn't much less intimidating than most men acting tough.
'What?' Chris demanded sharply when he saw his old friend's amusement.
Buck hastily wiped the grin off his face. 'Nothin'. Nathan's right. She is doin' better. Me and JD get a bit of a smile from her now.' JD nodded his agreement and Buck went on, 'She's just a mite wary of you, Chris.'
'Ain't like I'm gonna hurt her.' Chris sounded genuinely confused at why she should be afraid of him in particular.
'She'll come 'round,' Nathan assured him. 'I don't think it's jus' 'cause o' what happened anyhow. I reckon she's prob'ly always been a touch shy, what with her hearin' an' all.'
When he'd seen Grace's hatred of the men sentenced to hang, Nathan wondered if she would ever recover fully from what they'd put her through. Now he was more optimistic about her and his doubts lay more with Vin, as he became increasingly uncertain whether the man would return. There was nothing but the bonds within their group to hold him to the town and, as important as Nathan knew those were to his friend, he didn't underestimate the force of the emotions he'd glimpsed while they talked. Vin would not come back while Grace was with them unless and until he could get those feelings under control. He might not come back at all.
- 17 -
Nathan was mistaken in his assessment of Vin's plans. Vin had not succeeded in bringing his feelings under control and yet already, even while his friends were speculating on his absence, he was riding back towards Four Corners. Two days of solitary wandering had resolved nothing. He remained steadfastly opposed to Nathan's suggestion but he had two reasons for returning. Firstly, he couldn't abandon Grace when she needed all the help he could give. Secondly, he wanted the opportunity to dissuade her from taking Nathan's advice.
Part of him knew that he was letting his heart rule his head. Nathan would not be trying to talk Grace into anything and whatever he did would be because he thought it was best for her. Yet something inside Vin could not accept that was good enough. If Grace was with child, he felt a duty to protect that small life from harm. It made no difference if that protection cost him his friends. Even the thought of what it might cost Grace could not sway him from his course. He was a man with a deep sense of right and wrong, a sense that could not be ignored, and that now rose to assert itself over all objections.
The thought pulled Vin up sharp. This had nothing to do with his sense of right and wrong. Nathan's standards were every bit as high as his and Vin knew that his friend was as committed to helping Grace as he was. The trouble was that neither of them could be objective. They both had their own reasons for thinking what they thought. The difference was that Vin had a fair idea of what Nathan's reasons were, whereas the healer had no way of knowing his. Vin intended to keep it that way. It didn't matter why he believed why he believed - what mattered was making Grace believe it too.
Now that his thoughts had turned to Nathan again, he replayed the man's words and examined his motivations in ever more detail. He understood the feeling of collective shame for Grace's suffering because he'd felt the same himself in the past, guilt at what white men did even when he had taken no part, but the self-doubt he had glimpsed in his friend from time to time lately was more puzzling.
Vin probably knew more about most of his friends than they knew about him or each other. So much of his life had depended on keeping his eyes open over the years that he couldn't shake the habit now, even if he wanted to. He saw every tiny sign of the emotions that none of them ever voiced and often knew their thoughts as clearly as he knew his own. He saw how things stood with Nathan and the affinity that he had come to feel for Ezra. He saw the power of the desires that both men had so thoroughly repressed and knew that both feared the mayhem that might follow any relaxation of the control they saw as their only defense.
But, although Vin knew that Nathan was afraid of losing control, he couldn't understand why. As well as being absolute, his own self-control was almost effortless. He could think of only one occasion before the capture of Grace's attackers when he'd been close to losing control - when he had first Yates and then Eli Joe within his grasp - but the truth was that he wouldn't have lost any sleep over killing either one of them anyway. He had never felt his control slip in a situation when he wanted to maintain it. He had never wanted to do something he thought was fundamentally wrong.
The men who'd raped Grace hadn't lost control. They'd done what they did because they wanted to do it. The feelings Grace's plight aroused in Nathan were puzzling to Vin, stirring slight unease in him. Surely it wasn't that Nathan wanted to commit that kind of atrocity and only his self-discipline stopped him from doing so? That was a deeply disturbing thought and Vin hastily rejected it in disbelief. A man who spent his life healing others could not possibly want to inflict hurt and shame unless the healing was some kind of atonement, like Josiah's bouts of penance.
What made it worse was that he couldn't be sure if his doubts genuinely stemmed from something he'd seen in Nathan or if an unpleasant part of his own personality was concocting reasons why his opinion was worth more than his friend's. He rode on, trying all the while to restore some kind of order to his turbulent mind.
- 18 -
Nathan hadn't had a good night's sleep since they found Grace and the nights since Vin rode out had been worse than ever. His fatigue caught up with him in the early afternoons, when he began to doze off in the middle of odd jobs in his clinic. Head propped up on one hand, he was surfing the shallow waves of sleep when the sound of the latch woke him. Through eyes bleary with sleep, and the lack of it, he saw the silhouette in the doorway slowly solidify into Vin's form.
'You come back then.' Nathan's flat voice made nothing of his words. It could have been question or statement, welcome or judgement.
'Yeah.' Vin's tone was equally lifeless, stating the obvious, knowing that they would argue as soon as they went beyond it.
'Are we gonna talk this over like men?'
'What's that mean?'
'Are you gonna listen to me or will I be wastin' my breath anyhow?'
'Like you got an open mind.' It wasn't taking Vin's anger long to resurface.
'I have,' Nathan snapped back. 'Sweet Jesus, Vin, I have got an open mind. I jus' want what's best for Grace.'
Nathan couldn't tell if Vin didn't believe him or simply didn't want to. 'What the hell's with you, Vin?'
'With me?' Vin echoed in clear disbelief. 'It ain't me talkin' 'bout killin' the baby afore we even know there is a baby.'
'I jus' wanted to talk it through ahead o' time, that's all. It's gonna be hard enough for Grace if things go that way, without us screwin' up.'
'So we're ready to talk her into it, y'mean.'
'If I'da meant that, I'da said it.' While he awaited Vin's return, Nathan had told himself over and over again that he would stay calm and discuss the problem rationally. So much for that. 'Tarnation, Vin, surely you ain't gonna be surprised if she don't want it after what they done to her. She needs us to support her - both of us. It ain't like she got caught out havin' a bit o' fun with a boy. We're talkin' 'bout animals here.'
There was an unfamiliar edge of cruelty in Vin's voice when he replied. 'Maybe you'd know more 'bout that than I would.'
Nathan stared at him in confusion. Was Vin saying that he knew more about it because he'd seen Grace's injuries, while Vin had not? Because he'd helped rape victims before? If not that, then what? 'What the ? What you sayin'?'
Vin was clearly uneasy about what he'd started but he went on anyway. 'Ain't me keeps myself on a tight rein like all hell's gonna break loose if I look at a woman. I don't know, Nathan. You tell me.'
Nathan didn't tell him anything. He landed a heavy right on Vin's jaw, taking his friend by surprise and throwing him against the base of the wall. He expected Vin to hit him back but instead the man simply struggled to his feet and rubbed his jaw.
'That 'cause I'm wrong and I'm outta line?' he asked. 'Or 'cause I'm too close for comfort?'
Nathan sank to the floor, settling against the base of the opposite wall just as Vin had when he hit him. He stared at the worn boards in front of him, appalled by how much Vin had seen of what he thought were secrets but far more appalled by how badly someone he believed to be a friend had misjudged him. 'Get out, Vin.'
'Looks like I got my answer then.' Vin made no move to leave.
'Get the hell out before I do somethin' I'll regret.' Nathan heard the tremble in his own voice. He wished it had been anger but heard only pain.
There was a long silence, while Vin stood motionless. 'Talk t'me then, Nathan. If it ain't that, what is it?'
'It's none o' your damned business, that's what it is. I said get out.'
'It's my business if it makes you send Grace the wrong way.'
'I won't be sendin' her nowhere. All I wanna do is give her the choice if she asks for it. If you're so damned sure I got some secret reason for givin' her a choice, why're you so hell bent on not givin' her one?'
Nathan didn't expect Vin to give an answer and was surprised when he did. ''Cause we already killed the guilty. It ain't right to kill the innocent. One victim's enough.'
The argument was characteristic of Vin's simple morality. Coming from some people, Nathan would have seen it as naïve but from Vin it was only honest. It was hard to project themselves into the place of a frightened young girl but Nathan had little doubt that, if Vin and Grace's positions were reversed, Vin would have the child and would not blame it for the sins of its father. The problem with that reasoning was that he didn't believe Grace had Vin's strength and resilience.
He wished Vin hadn't answered, since now it meant he owed an explanation for his stance. He could argue that it wasn't an independent life yet, only a scrap of tissue that could fail to mature for a hundred other reasons even if they didn't intervene. The trouble was that he didn't truly believe that. He didn't think it was right to end the life, only that it might be best for Grace, which hadn't been enough to convince Vin it was the right thing to do.
'I don't think it's right, Vin, no more'an you do. I don't want Grace to take that path, an' I'll tell her so if it comes to it, but I ain't gonna tell her she can't if that's what she wants.' He looked Vin right in the eye when he went on. 'What you said I ain't afraid I'd do nothin' to a woman 'gainst her will an' who I am's got nothin' t'do with any o' this. If you don't believe that, you ain't no friend o' mine.'
After a long pause, Vin nodded. 'I'm sorry. This 'as got me wound up tighter'an a spring.' He slid down the wall and sat facing Nathan. 'I told myself a healer like you wouldn't do nothin' like that.'
'But you saw somethin' off and you couldn't figure out what it meant?'
'You're right - it ain't none of my business.'
'Nope, it ain't.' Nathan glanced up. 'But could be I wanna tell somebody.'
A tired smile crossed Vin's face. 'You know it won't go no further.'
'Yeah, I know that,' Nathan agreed. 'Ain't a big deal when it comes down to it. It's jus' '
He didn't know how to begin, how to explain the bitter cycle into which he had become locked so long before.
'Jus' I grew up bein' told my people were animals didn't matter what a white man did to us 'cause we was only livestock at the end of the day anyhow.'
He scowled at the memories that came flooding back.
'Made me so wild, Vin, bein' treated like a dog when I knowed I was jus' as human as any of 'em.'
Vin's sympathetic nod gave him the courage to go on.
'When I got older saw what went on with folk I didn't wanna be like that like an animal. Seemed like I had to stay in control didn't want them sorta feelin's gettin' the better of me.'
His sincerity and misery came together in a deep sigh that shuddered through his whole body.
'These days, I wish I could let 'em go now an' then but I bin bottlin' it up s'long it don't come easy. I don't wanna be like Buck but, when I see what Chris had, or JD's got with Casey, I want it, too. I I envied you with Charlotte. I know it didn't work out but least you went for it.'
'I'm sorry, Nathan.' Vin's repeated apology rang with pity and regret. 'I had no right sayin' what I did.'
'Forget it. This ain't been easy on either of us. Maybe it's nearly over, maybe the worst's still to come.'
'What about Rain?' Vin asked softly. 'You care 'bout her. Any man with eyes can see that.'
'Yeah, I care. But I still ain't upped an' followed her. You woulda done way fore now.'
Vin waved a dismissive hand at that. 'Yeah but then I'm like Josiah - brain goes out the window when the heart kicks in. Ain't like it did me much good. I felt like shit for months.'
Nathan didn't doubt that but said only, 'You loved her, made love to her, and left things better 'tween her and Richmond than they'd been in years. Wasn't all bad, was it?' He knew his words had embarrassed Vin but he also saw the fond memories they stirred.
'No,' Vin admitted. 'Wasn't all bad.' There was a pause before he reluctantly returned to the matter in hand. 'I'll talk to Grace. Maybe we're worryin' over nothin'.' He frowned. 'But if we ain't, and she wants to take that path, I ain't sure I c'n have anythin' t'do with it.'
Nathan had already foreseen that. He'd be the last person to tell any man to go against his conscience.
- 19 -
Vin broached the delicate subject of Grace's condition on their next ride. She looked relieved and signed that she was worried but didn't know for sure yet. They dropped it for the time being and tried to recapture their usual carefree frame of mind for the remainder of the ride.
A week later, Vin was grooming his horse in the livery stable. Many men saw looking after their horses as a chore and a few of the better-off paid for the job to be done for them. Vin never spent a dollar when he didn't have to but, in any case, he enjoyed grooming. The rhythmic strokes of the curry comb in his left hand and brush in his right took him into a meditative state, where he let his mind drift in search of peace and clarity.
Grace's situation was on his mind, as it had been so much in recent weeks. Not for the first time, he was trying to imagine what it was like to be raped. He didn't find it so hard to picture the humiliation, since he knew he'd feel that if he was overpowered himself. He'd known men who'd been raped and found it easy to identify with the cocktail of anger and degradation that usually matured into a need to revenge as much as anything. The emotions he'd seen in Grace weren't so different, more shame and less anger but overall much the same.
It was the possibility of a baby that gave another dimension to the rape of a woman. How could the victim move on if she was faced with the emotional and practical consequences every day? Vin would have seen that as an intolerable burden if he hadn't known someone who'd carried it with love and pride. Perhaps Grace could do the same, but was that his real assessment of her state of mind or only his own wishful thinking? The only things he knew for certain after a week's deliberation were that he was as emotionally involved in the whole affair as Nathan and that he'd be a liar if he claimed his judgement was any less subjective.
He was deep in thought when he heard the stable door open behind him. Years on the run had honed his senses to such an extent that the slightest sound could wake him even from deep sleep. He turned deceptively quickly, invisibly poised for action but without any sign of haste or fear. He relaxed as soon as he saw Grace waiting shyly at the door and smiled for her to approach. The redness in her eyes told him she'd been crying and he immediately guessed the reason. She nodded, her lip trembling, and then ran over and flung her arms around his waist. He held her sadly, resting his chin on her head and stroking her hair reassuringly. He wondered if she could be sure so soon but assumed, given how calmly she'd responded to his question before, that she was. It hadn't taken him long to realize that she was surprisingly independent and self-possessed, in spite of her timidity, and he was confident she knew her own body and when it was not behaving normally.
He let his breath out in a long, silent sigh. He'd hoped so desperately that she would be spared further suffering and felt bitter anger at whatever god was doling out these undeserved punishments.
After a minute or two, Grace stepped back from him and signed that she didn't want the baby. Vin stalled for time, dragging two bales of hay into a corner of the deserted stable and settling Grace on one before sitting down himself.
'You should take some time t'think on this, Grace.'
Grace shook her head and signed no.
'Maybe you should talk t'Mary 'bout it. She a good woman.'
'Josiah then. It ain't a decision t'be taken light, y'know.'
'Y'might feel different further down the line.'
He drew a deep breath. 'Y'ever think maybe it ain't right? Ain't the baby's fault what happened.'
Grace's lip trembled. She surely must have realized that many people would not support her choice but he saw now that she had counted on his help. He hated to let her down but he wasn't the kind of man who could easily compromise his beliefs.
'Baby could turn out to be a fine man or woman. You gonna take that chance away?'
Grace's angry signs were her equivalent of shouting. I DON'T WANT IT.
He fixed her with a sad stare. 'You ain't the only one now, Grace. You ain't got the right to do this.'
She flushed at his words, her anger now mixed with disbelief and resentment. Then she ran out of the stable, leaving him sorry for the hurt he'd caused her but still unable to condone what she wanted to do. Suddenly swamped by another wave of the anger that had become his constant companion, he rammed the curry comb into the bristles of the brush and threw both at the wall as hard as he could. The wooden back of the brush split in two, leaving him no less angry - just twenty cents poorer.
- 20 -
Nathan watched Grace's earnest signing, blocking Vin's disapproving presence out of his mind. While she emphasized that she did not want the baby and demanded that he help her get rid of it, he found himself wondering how she even knew that was possible. He had not raised the subject with her and he was certain that Vin would not have brought it up. Many girls her age would not even have known what might follow the rape and Nathan thought few would realize that there were ways to escape such consequences.
It was a moment or two before he realized she had finished signing and was waiting for his reply. Up to that point, they had been standing but now he gently pushed Grace onto one of the tall wooden chairs at the table under his window and leaned on the back of the other.
'Hold on a minute, Grace. There's no need to be rushin' into this. You only jus' found out how things stand an' I reckon it'd be best all round if you took some time t'think it through.'
She shook her head vehemently and banged her small fist on the table.
It would have been funny if it wasn't so sad.
'You know what Vin thinks 'bout this, don't you?'
That slowed her up. She nodded, glanced apologetically at Vin, but then pointed at his stomach, shrugged and then pointed at her own. It wasn't Vin who had to have the child. There was no arguing with that.
Nathan leaned forward earnestly when he began his reply. 'It ain't safe, Grace. It might not work anyhow and you could wind up dead. It's serious, real serious, and I ain't sure you thought on that enough.'
She took her pad from the pouch she now wore around her waist and began to sketch. What she drew was grotesque, conveying the full enormity of her nightmares. She superimposed the head of one of the hanged men on the body of a baby, expressing her feelings more clearly than any words could have done. She drew an angry cross through the sketch, then another and another until she had obliterated the image. She did not stop until the sheet of paper had disintegrated under the repeated scoring.
It was then that Nathan knew he could not deny her an escape route. There was no telling how a refusal might affect her mind or how far she would go to avoid bearing the monstrosity she envisaged.
Vin's expression was unreadable. He made no effort to argue and yet there was no sign of any relaxation of his opposition. After a few seconds, he sighed and opened the door.
Grace leapt up in alarm and grabbed his arm. Her meaning was clear. She wanted his support.
He prized her fingers open and shook his head firmly. 'You take that road, Grace, you're on your own. I want no part of it.'
Her eyes filled with tears, as she shook her head and signed 'no' and 'please' over and over to him. She was still signing after he'd turned his back and walked away from her.
- 21 -
Three days later, Vin was exhausted. He'd argued his case over and over, as hard as he knew how, and he'd lost. He could think of only two other options and he wasn't so desperate that he couldn't see how hopeless they were. Kidnapping Grace and holding her prisoner until she had her baby wasn't fair or practicable. Involving other people in the town might well prevent her from pursuing her chosen path but it might also get out of hand, causing anguish and possibly real physical harm to both her and Nathan.
Defeated, he longed to pack his meager possessions and ride into the desert, leaving it all behind him. Instead, he had eventually agreed to accompany Grace and Nathan on their journey because he couldn't bear to see the expression on her face when he refused. After encouraging her to rely on him, he couldn't let her down.
'Okay,' he'd said wearily when she begged him for the third time in an hour. 'I'll tell Chris what we're about.'
He found Chris sitting on the edge of the sidewalk outside the restaurant, reading a small book bound in green leather. He often saw Chris read it but had never asked what it was for fear of revealing that he couldn't read. He was studying on that but it was a slow business. One day, when he was sure he could read the spine if Chris showed it to him, he'd ask. Now Chris stood as he approached and put the slim volume into his jacket pocket.
Vin nodded. 'Walk.' He spoke the word soft and flat, somewhere between an invitation and an instruction. Only one of their number would dare speak that way to Chris Larabee. Perhaps only Vin or Buck would put it quite so bluntly. They wandered casually down a sidestreet.
'Grace's troubles ain't over yet.'
Chris nodded. 'Figured it might go that way. How she's bearing up?'
'Not s'good.' Vin paused. 'She don't want it.'
'Who would, but it ain't like she's gotta choice.' Chris was clearly unprepared for what Vin was about to suggest.
'Nathan reckons maybe she has.'
Chris stopped dead and Vin turned to face his examination. There was a long silence before he asked, 'Nathan know someone?'
'That what you think she should do?'
'Ain't for me t'say.'
Vin intended to leave it at that but Chris's piercing gaze told him he wouldn't get off that lightly. He and Nathan wielded considerable influence over Grace - probably not as much influence as their friends thought, given that Grace was more determined that her timid exterior suggested, but considerable nonetheless. But now they stood unwavering on opposite sides of the debate, unable to reconcile their differences even to help her.
'I mean it, Chris. She don't want it and there's an end to it. I think she's it's wrong - but, like she told me, it ain't me 'as gotta carry it for nine months.'
'I don't know.' Chris studied his boot. 'Think on it, Vin. She might regret it later. And what if it doesn't go well for her?'
'Nathan's bin through it all with her. She knows how it could go but she still wants to take that path. It's her call. I'd wanna decide f'myself if it was me.'
'Maybe she should talk it through with Mary.'
'I already told her she should but she don't want to. What's the point if she ain't gonna listen anyhow? Most folks'll say it's wrong but it ain't them 'as gotta have it. She knows what she wants to do and she won't be the first to do it.'
Chris nodded slowly but said, 'Ain't something I know too much about but I don't reckon anybody'd say it's safe. Nathan say the same as you?'
'He don't say it's safe but he ain't gonna stop her,' Vin replied. Even through his anger at Nathan, he knew the implied criticism was unfair when Nathan genuinely thought he was doing the best for Grace. He softened the statement. 'He's worried what she'll do if he makes her go through with it.' There was no need to say more on that score.
Chris shook his head. 'Where the hell is Josiah's God now?'
Vin nodded sourly. 'My thoughts exactly. Anyhow, this don't go no further than the seven of us. Reckon the best thing is to say we're visiting the reservation. Ain't nothing unusual for me and Nathan, we're headed that way anyhow and folk ain't likely to check.'
'Right. I'll tell the others. Keep our stories straight.'
- 22 -
That afternoon, Nathan visited the church. He wasn't a particularly religious man, never having been able to reconcile his early life with a loving God, but he was wrestling with the morality of what they were about to do.
'For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'
Josiah's deep voice interrupted Nathan's reverie but he remained silent.
'Doubting the path you're settin' out on, brother?'
Nathan looked up angrily, reading criticism into the words whatever his friend's intent. 'Don't be spoutin' your God-talk at me now, Josiah. He wasn't there for her when she needed him an' I ain't tellin' her to depend on him now.'
Josiah sat down heavily in the pew behind him. 'All right. Suppose you spout your doctor-talk at me, Nathan. Is it safe?'
Nathan took a deep breath. 'No. Can't say it is.'
'Would it be any safer for her to have the baby? After all she's been through?'
Nathan looked at his friend, sensing the understanding there and regretting his outburst. 'I don't know, Josiah. I ' He was reluctant to admit his feelings. 'I ain't the right person to counsel her. I keep thinkin' on what my Daddy told me 'bout I don't want Grace drowning herself in no river a month or two down the line '
Seeing Josiah's sympathetic nod, Nathan saw that the man had already known why he stood where he stood.
'Vin thinks it's for the best?' Josiah asked.
Nathan remained silent, turning his hat in his hands.
'That what's come between you two the past few days?' Josiah didn't miss much.
Nathan gave a wretched nod. 'He thinks it's wrong and he jus' won't budge on it.'
'You don't think there's a chance he's right?'
The anger flared up in Nathan again. 'Course there is!' he snapped. 'Hell, Josiah, I think it's wrong. Then again, I think it's wrong to kill a man but I done that often enough. Sometimes you jus' have to do stuff.'
'The end justifies the means ?'
'Could be. Sometimes.'
'I could try to talk to Grace,' Josiah offered.
'Vin told her to talk to you, or Mary, but she won't have it. She's made up her mind.'
'She's very young ' Josiah clearly doubted that Grace should be allowed to take such a difficult decision alone.
'Yeah,' Nathan admitted. 'She's young but not too young to carry a child not too young to give birth to it an' not too young t'have two men take her over an' over in the worst possible way '
He felt his eyes fill with tears. When one spilled onto his cheek, he wiped it away in embarrassment, even though he knew Josiah would think none the worse of him for it. The tear was not for himself but for Grace. He had said nothing to the others, not even to Vin, of what he'd seen when he tended Grace but the sight of those savage letters carved into her tender flesh was with him in his dreams each night and then floating before his eyes when he awoke. He'd dressed the wounds a dozen times since but, although the cuts were less angry than before, the best he could hope was that they'd fade to thin white lines. Grace couldn't read them, and he hadn't told her they were writing, but more than likely one day she'd find out.
Now the words tumbled out of him before he could stop them.
'They ain't jus' cuts on her legs, Josiah. They're words.' He paused, drew a shuddering breath, then went on. 'Bitch on one leg, whore on the other. I ain't told her what it says but '
He couldn't go on. Josiah's large hand clamped on his shoulder. Nathan had no doubt the former preacher was saying prayers over him but somehow he was glad they were silent. Nathan was mad at God, had been ever since they found Grace, and he wouldn't have felt right trying to offer a prayer. He covered Josiah's hand with his own, feeling grateful but undeserving.
His voice was a whisper when he said, 'Pray for her, Josiah, not me. I'm past God's help right now.'
He left quietly, feeling Josiah's eyes on his back as he walked out into the street and knowing his friend did not believe anyone was past God's help.
- 23 -
The trio set out on their sad mission in a borrowed rig early the next day, before the town was awake. Nathan reckoned two full days drive to the woman he had in mind. Grace was subdued, her fear of the ordeal that she faced and her uncertainty at undertaking it now plain. Vin knew he had been wrong to think that her decision had been hasty just because it had been quick. She knew what she was doing, hated it but could not bring herself to have the child. He had no right to judge her for that. Neither he nor Nathan knew how to comfort her but, seeing her dejection as she climbed down from the buggy to be sick several times during the morning, they had no doubt about the need for action.
The journey tired Grace and she fell asleep as soon as they'd eaten on the first night. Vin smiled as he watched Nathan tenderly pull her blanket further over her shoulders. They had both become emotionally involved in other people's affairs before during the time they'd protected Four Corners but rarely to such an extent as they had with Grace. He supposed his feelings were akin to those of a father or brother, although he had no experience of either role for comparison. She was so small and young, so vulnerable and abused, that only the hardest of men would not be moved by her plight.
While Nathan wandered off to relieve himself, Vin settled back on his elbows and stared pensively into the fire. Despite his insistence to Chris that the decision was for Grace to make, he was worried that she was too young to shoulder such responsibility and believed with his whole being that what they were doing was wrong. Knowing the misery the pregnancy might bring her, and that there was no guarantee she and the baby would both survive, prevented him from judging her but it did nothing to assuage his own guilt. He thought they were taking an innocent life and nothing would change his mind on that score.
Vin wondered how Nathan could accept what they were about to do. Presumably he'd known women make the same decision before, since it was a friend of his that they now went to see, but still he had chosen to become a healer and surely the decision to end life could not come easily. He guessed from their conversation in the clinic that Nathan wouldn't offer such an option to save a woman from embarrassment after an ill-advised liaison and that only the extreme circumstances made him willing to offer it to Grace.
When Nathan returned, Vin studied him thoughtfully. His scrutiny went unnoticed by his friend, who was clearly engrossed in his own thoughts.
'You okay with this, truthfully?' Vin finally asked. His anger had faded and it was understanding he now sought.
Nathan started at the question but did not reply immediately. His expression showed that he wasn't exactly okay with it. 'You mean the principle of the thing?'
Vin shrugged. He'd be interested to hear Nathan's thoughts, whatever path they were taking.
'Ain't so keen on it, truth be told,' he admitted. 'Bathsheba, the woman we're goin' t'see, she done helped a lotta girls outta their trouble over the years and I ain't always thought she was right to do it. There's bin times I told 'em they made their bed and they gotta lie in it. But Grace didn't have no say in this so it's a different thing.'
Vin gave a slight nod. He felt much the same on that score.
'Ain't that is botherin' me now though.' Nathan sighed. 'Grace comes through this okay and gets a fresh start, I won't be losin' no sleep wonderin' what mighta bin and I hope she won't neither. It's the comin' through it okay is botherin' me.'
Vin couldn't argue with that either. He'd had a sick feeling in the bottom of his stomach ever since they agreed to make the journey. If things didn't go well for her, he knew his burden of guilt at his part in events would be even heavier than it was now. He couldn't recall a time he had felt so much responsibility for a situation over which he had so little control. The dull ache in his chest testified to the stress that was putting on his system. He longed for a straightforward problem to which he could offer a straightforward solution. In the past, tracking down a fugitive and bringing him to justice had been enough. This time, it had only been the start of the story.
'Still think it's best, all in?' Vin asked. 'We could turn back. Grace can't do it by herself.'
He was surprised to find Nathan's large brown eyes fixed hard on him for a second, then flick away as they moistened. He'd been offering a way out, not seeking to intensify Nathan's worries.
'She can try. If we don't help her, she might take things into her own hands.'
Vin had already guessed that Nathan's decision had been influenced by his father's testimony in court. Obadiah Jackson had passed on not two months after the trial and Vin wished he could believe the man was reunited with the wife he'd lost so tragically twenty years before. Even from his own biased perspective, he understood why Nathan was so torn. He was no more sure than Vin about what they were doing but he was afraid of what would happen if they refused to help Grace.
He knew Nathan had read his understanding when the man spoke again. 'It ain't jus' my Ma, Vin. Maybe I didn't oughtta be takin' any part in this, if I can't see things fair, but she ain't the only one took that path outta her trouble. There're plenty as die havin' kids and plenty as die tryin' not to have 'em. I seen it all, Vin, an' I got no idea what to tell Grace.'
Vin knew Nathan had thought long and hard before counseling Grace but he hadn't appreciated the full extent of the doubts that he now heard in the deep voice. With no trace of anger left, he softened towards his friend. 'Reckon she knows how things stand as well as we do, Nathan. She's made her choice.'
'But would she make the same choice a few months from now, when the bad stuff ain't so fresh in her mind an' she can feel the baby alive inside her?'
Vin had no answer for that. It was true that Grace was making a big decision at a bad time but, if she left it, the time for choosing would be gone. There was risk enough now but later it would be far worse.
Nathan's gaze had returned to the fire and there was a sing-song lilt to his voice when he spoke again, as if he was talking more to himself than to Vin. 'Years back, I delivered a ninth baby for a woman a ways south o' here. Family was strugglin' real bad, hand to mouth the whole time. Six months later, that plague o' grasshoppers wiped out their place.'
Like everyone in the region, Vin remembered the devastation left in the wake of the vast black clouds of insects. A vivid memory of their piled-high bodies crunching under his boots made him grimace.
'Then she found out she was expectin' agin. She begged me t'help her outta her trouble and I said no. Coupla weeks after, one of her young'uns called me out to take a look at her. I don't know what she took but it got rid o' the baby all right. She died from the bleedin'.'
It was more than a minute before he continued.
'I went through hell over that, Vin. I did what I could to help but her ol' man was no good and I couldn't take on nine littl'uns. A coupla families took in some of the youngest but I don't know what became of the older ones in the end. I guess kids're a blessing to most folks but they can be a curse to some. Grace ain't much more'an a child herself and I don't wanna see her dragged down no further 'cause of those sons of bitches.'
Well, Vin reflected, at least they were in agreement on something. Nathan's reference to Grace's tormentors rekindled his fury. He wasn't sorry about that because anger felt better, more familiar, than doubt and anxiety. He let it burn until Nathan spoke again, this time in a hoarse whisper.
'You ever seen a woman raped, Vin?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'I have. I was too far away to do anythin' but I was close enough to see.'
Vin was startled by the revelation. He'd seen women who'd been raped but he'd never seen a woman raped. He'd have shot the bastards and wondered why Nathan hadn't done the same, then realized that, unlike him, Nathan could be close enough to see without being close enough to hit them. Still, he'd have shot at them.
'I didn't even try to do anythin',' Nathan whispered in his shame. 'But they was almost done afore I see 'em anyhow. I jus' couldn't believe what I was lookin' at. They shot her and her boy. By the time I got there, the men was gone and the woman and kid were dead.'
Vin's eyebrows met in a frown, as he wondered if Nathan had pursued the men and brought them to justice.
'It was in the war.'
Those five flat words told Vin all he needed to know. Soldiers looting and raping, little that one man could do against them, no interest from the brass in stopping them. How much damage had men like that done across the country in the past decade or two? He ground his teeth as he fought back the anger, now too strong to be a welcome release from his other confused emotions.
'I seen the army after they dealt with the tribes.' His voice was strangled by his clenched teeth. 'I know soldiers ain't all bad,' he conceded before continuing, 'But the worst of 'em There's bin whole villages of women an' young'uns massacred jus' for the hell of it. Course, they'd have a bit o' fun afore they killed 'em. They'd skin 'em after, ride around with the privates stretched over the horns o' their saddles.'
His voice was flat and empty, devoid of any trace of feeling, but the emotions churned inside him in a seething mass that threatened to drown him. He knew many tribes had done their share of evil, too, but he wasn't talking politics. He was speaking as a man whose friends had been slaughtered by his own people.
They sat with their thoughts for a long time before Nathan changed the subject.
'Grace ain't the first deaf kid you known, is she?'
Vin had expected the question before then. His ease with Grace and the speed with which he'd learned her language were clear signs to men as sharp as his friends. 'Nope.'
'That how you knew the signs?'
Vin gave a half-shrug. 'Tribes use 'em anyhow, 'cause they speak different languages.'
'Was it a young thing like Grace?'
A memory of raven hair blowing in the wind and laughing eyes of jet sent sorrow surging through him, as fresh as the day he heard the news. He nodded.
'Someone special?' Nathan probed gently.
'Not how you mean.' Vin was silent for a minute or two but felt Nathan waiting for him to continue when he was ready. There was no reason not to talk of it. 'Remember I told you 'bout my friend, the tracker?'
Nathan's ready answer told Vin that he'd thought about it since. As taciturn as the members of their group were, their shared experiences were gradually revealing them to each another. Just as he had slowly come to see how slavery had shaped Nathan into the man he was, Nathan knew how his losses on the Government's orders and at the army's hands had shaped his unease with the authorities that were slowly encroaching on the land he knew better than most white men.
'She was his sister.' Another long pause. 'They was like family to me, Nathan, brother an' sister I never had.'
'What happened to her?'
Vin heard the apprehension in Nathan's voice as he asked the question and gave the slightest shake of his head. 'They didn't do that to her. She died on the reservation seven months after they was rounded up. Half of 'em starved by the spring, with no supplies and dumped on dead land that was no good to nobody.'
He returned to gazing into the fire. Many people had died on all sides while the nation struggled to its feet and took its first steps. Perhaps the only thing in life of which he was truly sure was that many more would die before it reached maturity.
- 24 -
Late on the second day, they approached a settlement. Nathan took his friends past the cluster of houses to a small shack half-hidden in a grove of cottonwoods. At the sound of the horses, a large and elderly Negress stepped onto the creaking veranda.
She took a long look at Nathan before finally exclaiming, 'Nathan Jackson! My, my, it's been a time boy.'
Nathan smiled broadly. The woman in front of him brought back mostly happy memories. For every troubled young woman she freed of her trouble, she steered a score of others safely through their confinements. Her sturdy presence and vast knowledge meant she was called on from miles around. Most of what Nathan knew about bullets and broken bones came from the army, but most of what he knew about childbirth and illness he'd learned from her.
He jogged over and embraced her affectionately, his voice catching as he spoke. 'Bathsheba, you sure are a sight for sore eyes. You don't change none.'
She squeezed him tightly, till he feared his ribs would crack, then released him.
'What brings you to my neck o' the woods?' She drawled. 'Jus' passin'?'
'Not exactly, Sheb.'
Her shrewd eyes darted over his face and to his companions waiting with the team.
'Gotta little problem, huh?'
The makeup of their little group was a good clue to their purpose and, in any case, there were few treatments for which Nathan would need her help. In fact, he knew what procedure she would use and could have done it himself back in Four Corners. He considered doing so but decided against it for several reasons. For a start, he'd become too attached to Grace. He was afraid that his subjectivity might affect what he could do for her and knew it would certainly make his burden of guilt heavier if things went badly. Most of all, he believed Bathsheba was Grace's best chance. She had twice his experience when measured in years. There was no comparison when it came to what they needed now. Although he knew the principles, he had never terminated a pregnancy and there was no way he wanted Grace's to be the first.
'You still in business?' he asked.
She shrugged. 'Maybe for a friend. He to blame?' She used her chin to indicate Vin.
Nathan shook his head. 'Best friend she's got.' He paused before adding, 'It wasn't her choice.'
Bathsheba took in his words. 'They dealt with?'
'You bring her over so Ah c'n talk to her.'
Nathan nodded to Vin and then turned back to Bathsheba. 'One more thing. She's stone deaf.'
The woman clucked sympathetically. Her wise brown eyes followed Grace's progress across the yard, her apprehension clear in the hand that clutched Vin's arm.
The Negress held out her hands to Grace and waited patiently until a small hand rested in each palm. With a tender smile, she asked slowly, 'You unnerstan' me girl?'
'You sure you want rid of your trouble?'
'You know it don't always work? Can even be dangerous?'
'You still sure?'
Yes. Grace mimed her revulsion at the scrap of life growing inside her.
The large woman nodded and squeezed the girl's trembling hands. Ignoring the two men's presence, she leaned closer. 'Ah knows how you feel. Ah bin there, honey.'
Grace looked up with wide eyes then smiled. The Negress smiled back.
'We best get on then. Ah'll do the best Ah can and you best pray it's good enough. An' you boys make yourselves scarce now.' Bathsheba bustled Grace into the shack, closing the door firmly on Nathan and Vin.
Vin turned to Nathan with a now-or-never look. 'You sure you wanna let her go through with this?'
Nathan knew Vin wasn't being deliberately cruel in laying the blame at his door. It was a simple reflection of the way things stood. Vin would not have let Grace make this journey and he had come with them only because Grace begged him to. He hated what they were doing and wanted no part of it.
'I ain't sure o' nothin', Vin. I told you that. But it's what Grace wants and Bathsheba's the best I know.'
They made camp at the fringe of the trees, out of sight of the settlement but within view of the shack. An hour later, they'd eaten and sat gazing into the embers of the fire in strained silence. It took Nathan back to another night when he'd shared a fire with a troubled Vin.
Then it had been raining but now the night was clear, with a crisp edge to the late summer air. Then Vin had been wrestling with his guilt over allowing Chanu to escape from the jail, not that he'd had much choice in the matter since the man had almost throttled him to death in desperation. Now Vin was wrestling with the responsibility he felt for Grace, daunted by the prospect of their plans going awry and swamped by the guilt he felt every time he fell short of his ideals.
Not until the imposter Yates tried to take Vin back to Texas had Nathan fully understood how his friend felt about the bounty on his head. Nathan had long known that Vin wasn't afraid of dying but only then did he grasp Vin's shame at the prospect of hanging for a crime he hadn't committed. The Tanner name was all he had of his family: he spent his life trying to live up to it and the disgrace he'd brought on it ate at his soul.
Nathan understood those feelings. He had little pride in the Jackson name, coming as it did from his master and not his family, but he had pride in himself. Every time he failed a patient, even if there was no way he or anyone else in the territory could have done better, he felt the same guilt that he saw in Vin. When you set yourself high standards, your best was barely good enough and anything less was unacceptable. Lying in the warm rain that night, he'd told Vin that he was only a man and sometimes a man makes mistakes. It had been no comfort to Vin then and it would be no comfort to either of them now if Grace did not survive her ordeal.
That made Nathan wonder how he would cope with his own guilt if Grace died. Vin would blame himself for not stopping them, but his role was far more active. How would he live with that? He wondered fleetingly if he'd have the chance to find out. Vin's opposition to Grace's choice had been solid and implacable from the outset. His response to her death might be violent.
After reflecting for nearly an hour on the profound emotions stirring in his friend, Nathan finally did something he'd never done before, something that was off-limits in their group although none but Chris had ever said so overtly. He asked one of his friends a direct question that he expected to lead to painful past memories.
'Why're you so sure this is the wrong path, Vin? I expected it from Josiah but you well '
Vin was still staring into the fire. He showed no surprise at the question. In fact, Nathan wasn't sure at first if he'd even heard it. When he spoke, his voice was distant and Nathan knew that his friend was far away with his memories.
'Tanner was my Ma's name. She never knew his name.'
Vin let the words hang for a while, leaving Nathan wondering what his illegitimacy had to do with Grace's predicament. Buck had the same heritage and surely Vin knew by now that none of his friends passed any judgement on that.
'She wasn't much older'an Grace when it happened but I reckon nobody offered her a way out.'
Nathan felt a cold shiver run down his spine as he realized what Vin was saying.
'If they had, maybe you wouldn't be talkin' t'me now.'
'I I didn't know ' The words were pathetic. Any words would be pathetic.
'It ain't something a man goes around braggin' about.' Vin's eyes were moist, the first time Nathan had seen him close to tears. 'Don't you think I've wondered over the years what that makes me, what's flowin' in my veins?' He sniffed but went on speaking. 'Ma never meant for me t'know, understood how it'd make me feel, and moved us to another settlement. That's why she used to tell me I was a Tanner, like it didn't count what he was. I only found out 'cause an ol' woman come passin' through with her flappin' tongue when I was 'bout eleven. I didn't believe it at first, and Ma'd bin dead six years so I couldn't ask her, but I set out back to where I was born t'find out the truth.' His voice was filled bitterness. 'I shoulda let sleepin' dogs lie. It ain't done me no good knowin' I wish that woman'd kept her twisted talk to herself.'
There was an uncomfortable pause before he went on, he too emotional to speak and Nathan lost for anything to say.
'Someone coulda decided I wasn't fit to live, Nathan. Who knows, maybe I ain't, but I tell you this - I never took nothin' from a woman without her wantin' me to and, what's more, I never wanted to. I ain't him.'
Nathan had been staring at the ground but now he looked up sharply at Vin. 'I never thought that, Vin 'bout Grace's baby, I mean. It ain't that I don't think it's fit to live I jus' can't make her have it, is all. An' you ' He groped for the words to convince Vin of his sincerity. ' you're one o' the best men I ever met. I'm glad your Ma was strong enough to have you and love you like she did I jus' ain't sure Grace'd do so well. You saw what she drew. It ain't what I think but it's what she thinks.'
That was the God's honest truth and Nathan hoped Vin believed him. He was relieved to see the slight nod Vin gave as he digested it.
'It wasn't the same for my Ma. There was only one fella for starters.'
Another long silence while Nathan saw Vin considering how much he wanted to tell of what he'd found out.
'He knocked her around pretty bad from what folks said but he didn't murder nobody. Not then anyhow.' Vin breathed out in a shuddering sigh. 'I never expected Grace to keep the kid. Every time she looked at it, she'd remember what its Pa done to her brother. I jus' figured it deserved a chance someplace else.'
The plaintive note, so out of place in Vin's voice, filled Nathan with pity. He'd had no idea what he was asking when he demanded that his friend support Grace in her choice.
'I'm sorry, Vin.' The wretched inadequacy of the words tore at him but he could offer nothing more.
For the first time since they began the discussion, Vin looked at Nathan. 'Hell, I know we all got stories t'tell. That's how life is. It's bin a touch close to home for me is all.' He tried for a smile but failed.
As Nathan took in how agonizing Grace's whole experience had been for Vin, he began to understand the intensity of the feelings his friend had been fighting. He reached over to rest a hand on Vin's arm, wishing he'd understood sooner the misery from which Vin's anger and indignation sprang.
Vin covered the hand with his own and this time managed a tense smile. 'Whatever way it goes, we was both tryin' t'help, you in your way, me in mine.' He paused, seeming to consider how to put his thoughts into words. 'If she don't come through this, we gotta remember she mighta give up herself or it mighta gone bad when the baby come. Ain't your fault she took your path and there ain't no guarantee things'd be any different if she'da took mine. Ain't nobody can say what's best. We jus' gotta hope.'
And pray. Nathan was surprised to hear his own thought. He wasn't much good at praying himself but now drew comfort from the knowledge that Josiah would be doing more than enough for them all.
- 25 -
The next morning, Vin and Nathan loitered around the yard, waiting for news. Eventually, Bathsheba came out to them. Under the dark pigment of her skin, her complexion had faded. Had she been white, she would have looked ashen.
'Well, the good news is, her trouble's gone - ain't no doubt on that. Bad news is, she's lost a lotta blood - should pull through but she ain't going nowhere for a few days.' She paused before pronouncing the worst. 'Ah ain't told her but there won't be no more chil'un for her. She bin handled real rough 'fore Ah even started.'
The friends exchanged shocked looks. They'd all understood the risk Grace was taking but, now that the damage was done, they wondered again whether they'd been right to bring her. When Vin looked back at Bathsheba, he saw his own anxiety mirrored in her tired eyes and tense face. Her gaze skipped between the two of them a couple of times, then fixed on the dirt in front of her feet.
'Ain't seen the like o' that for more years'an Ah care t'member. Them fellas hang?'
A woman like Bathsheba had seen a lot in her life and her reaction now told Vin that there was more to Grace's ordeal than he'd known. His first reaction was a brief flash of anger that Nathan did not trust him but that was instantly swept away by the understanding that such details were personal. He didn't need to know and he wasn't even sure he wanted to know. When he remembered Nathan's voice when he told them that Grace couldn't take a full day's ride back to town when they found her, he knew he didn't want more details.
'She bin asking for something Ah can't unnerstan' - guess it must be you two. You go on in but don't you say nothing to upset her for now.' She gave them a meaningful look and then stood aside.
The two men spent most of the next two days at Grace's side, together and in turns, Nathan took some time out to catch up with old friends in the neighborhood and Vin made hunting forays to provide for them but mostly they watched and waited.
The patient's resilience came as a relief. Despite her small size, Grace was strong and soon rallied. On the third morning, Nathan decided they could set out if they took it steady, adding an extra day to the journey. Bathsheba refused any payment for her work.
'Not from an old friend,' she told Nathan, then made sure Grace was looking away before adding, 'An' Ah's sorry the ending wasn't as good as it might have been.'
'We knew what we was doing.'
Vin saw the sorrow in the close embrace that Nathan gave Bathsheba. They had not told Grace yet and had no way of knowing how much of a blow the news would be to her. For her part, Grace hugged the Negress close and signed her thanks.
The three friends set off on their journey. Grace was pale but content. Vin and Nathan were withdrawn. When they stopped for rest, she signed to them.
The question deepened Vin's sadness. Grace was clearly happy to have the whole thing behind her and wondered why they did not share her relief. He hated to spoil her mood with more bad news. When he looked to Nathan for guidance, his friend gave a slight shrug as if to say they might as well get it over with. She had to know sometime and putting off the news wouldn't make it any better. Vin nodded and Grace looked at Nathan.
'Bathsheba didn't tell you the whole thing.' Vin heard sorrow in his friend's voice to match his own. There was a long pause before Nathan elaborated. 'You won't be able to have no children now.'
There was no surprise in Grace's expression. She smiled to them, as if to say 'is that all?', then signed fluently.
Vin had to concentrate hard to follow the gist of her reply. Nathan's earnest expression and the way he was leaning towards Grace told Vin he wasn't the only one struggling to keep up. He didn't catch the whole thing but got enough to understand her meaning. She knew things hadn't gone too well but she'd been prepared for that. It didn't matter because no man would want her to have his children anyway, when they might be deaf.
Vin stared at his boots. It was true that he'd never responded to Grace as a woman but that wasn't because she was deaf. Just lately, he'd been so preoccupied that he'd hardly felt those kind of urges at all. There was nothing like witnessing the misery caused by other men's animal instincts to stifle his own. The last time he consciously remembered feeling horny was when Mary Travis walked across the street to tell Chris about the telegraph from Fairley. He supposed he had taken care of his needs at some point since then, probably with his customary leisurely hand-job in the comfort of his wagon as the pale light of dawn crept across the land, but he had no distinct memory of it.
Of one thing he was sure: although no thoughts of Grace had accompanied any such release, that was not because of her deafness. It was partly because she was so young but mainly, as Nathan had thought, because Vin saw her more as family. He wondered now if she was right that her disability would have denied her any chance of motherhood. Would he have been put off if he'd met her under happier circumstances, without his past and her youth? He didn't think so but there was no way to know for sure. He looked across at Nathan and saw the same doubts going through his friend's mind. They were caring men but perhaps they might still have preferred a safer bet if they were choosing a mother for their children.
Vin despised himself for the thought and the contempt deepened to self-loathing when he saw that Grace had read his expression as he had read Nathan's. She smiled again and signed slowly, clearly knowing that her message would be difficult for them to read. She repeated it twice but neither man understood. She didn't something them. Then Vin saw Nathan catch on a second before he did. She didn't blame them.
That made him feel even worse. He watched carefully as she continued. Again, he only caught parts of her explanation but enough to know that she wasn't sure she would want to have children, not knowing whether they would be deaf, too. Her deafness had made life hard for her and for her brother. She was glad that he hadn't been killed because of it. It hadn't seemed quite so bad because at least the robbers would have done the same to any woman.
He nodded. She was right and any man worth a cent would die trying to protect his sister from that. Neither he nor any of his friends would hesitate for a second in giving up their lives to protect a total stranger from that. He smiled to see Grace shuffle closer to Nathan's side and grip his hand firmly in hers. In Grace's place, he'd likely be angry at just about everyone and everything but her more forgiving attitude made for a happier life.
- 26 -
Grace was back on good form by the time they reached the town, tired but no more so than one might expect after a journey. No one could have guessed from her manner what had passed. The two men took her to her room, Nathan insisting she got some rest even if she felt fine.
They stood in the street for a moment, tired and reluctant to face their friends. Nathan had been prepared for the strain that their mission would put on them but he suspected that Vin had underestimated the weight of the responsibility they had shouldered. It wasn't that Vin was naïve, simply that he was a man who decided what needed to be done and then got on and did it. He didn't dwell on the cost of his decisions to himself and had far less experience of the load that caring for others put on a man than Nathan had. In any case, he'd been understandably preoccupied with whether they should do it, not how it would affect him. They would never know whether they'd been right and Nathan knew it would take time for them to learn to live with the doubt.
Still, they knew the other men would be concerned and that it was only fair to let them know how Grace was. They would hope for the same consideration themselves. Vin took the lead, as they headed for the saloon.
Chris, Buck and Josiah were drinking quietly at a corner table. Ezra was playing poker with some strangers, while JD chatted to Inez at the bar. Nathan glanced around. The saloon was busy and few people appeared to notice their entrance. Only their five friends and Inez were watching them.
When Vin went to the bar, Inez passed him a bottle of whiskey and two glasses before he could say a word. Nathan knew that Grace's secret had been safe with the other men. Anything Inez might know was thanks to her sharp eyes, and even sharper mind. Something in her manner left him in no doubt that she had a fair idea of their mission and he read the concern in her face. She would almost certainly have made a different choice herself but he saw no judgement there for what they or Grace had done. Vin looked shattered but gave her a flat smile, just enough to confirm that Grace would be fine.
By the time they made their way to the corner table, Ezra and JD had joined the other men and pulled up two more chairs. Nathan dropped heavily into one, while Vin almost fell into the other.
No one spoke. Five pairs of eyes studied them, the connection between them conveying without words that Grace was all right but that the news wasn't all good.
Nathan felt exactly as he did after a problem birth. Your wife's fine but your baby's dead. Your baby's fine but your wife's dead. He'd had to break most kinds of news in his time and some good news was better than none. Your wife and baby are both dead. That was the worst of all. He cleared his throat.
'It was a touch and go for a while but she's okay now.' He took a gulp from his glass, noting that Vin had already downed a second. 'Her trouble's gone but ' He realized as he spoke that he didn't have to tell them the rest, and that perhaps he shouldn't since it was Grace's business not theirs.
Buck's eyes glittered. 'Can't have no more?'
Nathan nodded and poured himself another shot. Of course Buck would know how these things played. With his past, he'd probably witnessed nearly as many confinements as Nathan had. Doubtless there'd been times when the girls had tried to escape their situation.
There was another long silence.
'Seems okay with it,' Vin added, his voice off its usual tone. When he continued, it cracked on him. 'Said no man'd want '
Nathan helped him out. ' her to have his child 'cause she's deaf.'
Now no one spoke because there was nothing to say because she was probably right. Few men would choose her to have their children but plenty would be happy to avail themselves of her pretty little body for fun, most with her permission but some without.
Vin rubbed his eyes wearily and uncharacteristically took a third drink. As he watched the confused emotions swilling around inside his friend, Nathan felt as if he were looking into a mirror. There was only one thing to do and that was to put it behind them. Grace needed them to be strong for her. His thoughts shifted to the future.
'What we gonna do with her now?' he asked.
Vin looked surprised at the question but it achieved Nathan's goal of snapping him out of his sorrow. There was quiet certainty in his voice when he replied. 'Send her on to that school.'
Nathan wasn't so confident. 'You sure that's for the best?'
'For her? Yeah.' A fourth shot followed the others down his throat. 'She'll be safe there. Learn to do more stuff, maybe get work. Hell, ain't no guarantees in this life but it's a better shot than she's got out here. Tough country even when you got a good start.'
Nathan nodded, reluctantly conceding Vin was right. They'd be sorry to see her go but there were more opportunities in a big city like San Francisco than a small town like Four Corners. Besides, her brother saved his money and gave his life to get her there. They both wanted to complete the job he'd begun.
So it was that Grace was packed and ready for the stage west two weeks later. She faced up to the journey resolutely in spite of her ordeal. Although the men had discussed her future in private, no one had suggested to her that she might do anything but carry on to San Francisco. For her part, it never even crossed her mind that she would do anything else. Why would anyone want her to stay, dependent and defective as she was?
After sitting beside her brother's grave for nearly an hour, Grace began her farewells by visiting with Mary. Like Inez, the newspaper woman had guessed what had passed. If she'd been asked, she'd have shared Vin's view and tried to dissuade Grace from going to Bathsheba. As it was, it was too late by the time she realized and she judged that it was best to stay out of the affair for Grace's sake. She was shocked by what Nathan had done but knew him too well to doubt his motives. Despite her own strong views, Mary did not assume that her opinion on any matter was the only valid one.
She took Grace's hands fondly, pleased that at last the girl did not hang back in fear. 'Good luck, Grace. I hope you enjoy school.' The happy smile on Grace's face reassured Mary that the girl intended to leave her troubles behind her in Four Corners and was looking forward to her new life.
Josiah was next on Grace's round. He was in the church, as he usually was in the mornings. In recent days, Grace had been to see him there a few times and slowly become easier in his solid company. He reached for his Bible, pulled a faded card from it and handed it to her. On it was the thirteenth chapter of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, printed in elaborate script with an illuminated capital in gold.
'Hold on to this, Grace. They'll soon have you reading at that school. This is what the Bible says in praise of charity: and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. When you think about this time, you remember Nathan and Vin, and how much they cared about you.'
He doubted that Grace followed the scripture he'd quoted but knew from the tears in her eyes that she understood what he'd said about his friends. He wanted Grace to look back on parts of her experience with fondness, recalling not only the horrors but also the friendship she'd found in their town. Not underestimating the cost of that friendship to Nathan and Vin, he believed it was too important to be forgotten. Looking at Grace, he felt sure their kindness would live on in her heart for the rest of her life.
Grace found the other men outside the saloon. Her increased confidence with them still didn't extend beyond shy smiles in response to their kind words. Now she signed her thanks to them diffidently.
Ezra rose and stepped slowly towards her, reaching for her hand. He kissed it tenderly and then looked into her face as he spoke. 'We wish you every happiness in your new life, Grace.' An educated man himself, Ezra believed in the power of learning to enable people to rationalize their feelings and deal with their problems. He hoped that it would help Grace to keep the tragedies of the past weeks in some kind of proportion.
Buck nodded his agreement and added, 'You be sure an' wire to let us know you've got there safely, young lady.' It wasn't the first time he'd seen rape close up and he wished he could believe it would be the last. The only comfort he could draw on this occasion that it hadn't worked out as badly as it might have. He admired his friends for lightening Grace's load as best they could.
JD smiled to the girl, glad she had come through her ordeal intact. He would have been happy to live out his life without encountering rape at such close quarters but he'd learned a lot from the experience, about the kind of men who did it, how it affected the victim - emotionally and practically - and how hard it could be on those who supported her through it. If he ever had to cope with it again, he knew he could do a lot worse than follow the example Nathan and Vin had set for him.
Chris watched Grace without moving a muscle, sorry that he had become so grim in his own misery that her fear of him lingered. His sadness lifted when she met his eye for the first time, her nervousness mingled with determination to conquer it. With trembling hands, she made several signs. Chris looked past her.
Vin translated as he had so often in recent weeks. 'She says you're a kind man you should let it show more.'
Chris looked away, fighting the emotions her words evoked. He was way past letting anything show if he could avoid it. When he looked back, Grace had already turned away with her escorts. He was glad that there were others in their number who could offer what he no longer had to give.
Her rounds complete, Grace sat on her usual bench with Nathan on her left and Vin on her right. They said nothing, sharing their final communion in silence. When the stage was ready to leave, Vin spoke earnestly to the stage driver and was relieved to find the man understanding. Looking kindly at Grace, he said he had daughters of his own and promised to take care of her and help her with the coach change further west. His soft words delivered straight to Grace's face reassured her friends that she was in good hands.
Grace's eyes filled with tears as she embraced Vin, reaching on tiptoe to put her arms around his neck. He pulled her close and kissed her cheek affectionately, pleased that she was alive and poised to embark on a new life, adamant that he would not blame her for making a decision that he would not have made himself.
She pressed herself against Nathan, arms around his waist and face buried in his chest. He kissed the top of her head and then hugged her as tightly as Bathsheba had squeezed him, knowing how much he was going to miss her silent company. Seeing her starting afresh gave him new hope.
The two men watched Grace pause at the door of the coach, turn back and sign that she hoped she would see them again one day. They nodded in unison, knowing it was unlikely but that she would be welcome any time. After helping her into the coach and closing the door softly behind her, the driver climbed onto his seat, touched his hat to them and set off cautiously, as if his lone passenger might be damaged by a sudden jolt.
Standing side by side, arms touching at the elbows, Nathan and Vin watched the coach as it picked up speed along Main Street. Dust rose from its wheels in plumes, spiraling upwards and then merging into clouds that slowly obscured it. Eventually, all they saw was the dust itself, rolling away from town as if it had a life of its own.
Nathan sighed. He would never be sure that he'd given Grace the right guidance. He still believed it was her decision to make but the responsibility weighed heavily on him. Without Bathsheba, there would have been no choice - he could have said he didn't know anyone. But at least Grace would not be killing herself now, either deliberately in desperation or accidentally in trying to rid herself of the baby, and all he could do was draw comfort from that.
Vin was glad of the friend at his side, the physical contact reflecting the tightened bond between them. He still believed Grace's decision had been the wrong one and wondered what had become of the life thrown away. He had no faith that its soul was in heaven with its creator or reborn in a new baby elsewhere in the world. To him, it was simply dead, and he had helped to kill it, but that was a burden he was willing to shoulder if it enabled Grace to recover something from her ruptured life.
Both men hoped that she would have no regrets. Perhaps she would not always be so comfortable with the fact that she couldn't have more children but then there was no guarantee that she would have survived the birth at all, let alone with that capacity intact. As hard as their disagreement had been on their friendship, at least it had meant they'd put no pressure on her.
Both hoped that she would not come to blame them for what had passed. Regrets for paths not taken would get her, and them, nowhere and they were wise enough to know it. Turning together, they headed for the saloon.
1. Information about the army's abuse of native women came from contemporary correspondence quoted on a documentary.
2. There were 22 schools for the deaf in America by 1863. American Sign Language has its roots in the 19th century, thanks largely to the work of a Congregational minister called Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet following his visits to European schools for the deaf. The Great Plains Indians had sign language, which they used mainly for intertribal communication. There are similarities between it and modern sign language.
3. Abortion has been around for centuries and was a common way to limit family size in the Greco-Roman world. It only became widely illegal in the 19th century, although people had long debated the ethical implications.
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