Vin was in the livery saddling Peso, when Nathan came in and began saddling his own horse. "Where ya goin', Nathan?" Vin asked, leading Peso to the livery door.
Nathan finished tightening the cinch on his saddle. "I'm goin' out to the Seminole village. Rain's waitin' for me in front of my clinic. They got an outbreak of measles in the village. You ever had measles, Vin?"
"Yeah." Vin paused and coughed a deep, chest rattling cough. "When I was a little feller."
Nathan looked grim. "Indians ain't got much resistance to measles. This could be bad."
"When I was with the Kiowas, a bunch of 'em got sick from measles an' died." Vin coughed again.
Nathan slipped the bridle over his horse's head and came over to the tracker. "Vin, sounds like your cough is gettin' worse. Come on by my clinic and I'll give ya somethin' for it before I leave."
Vin grimaced. "That cough medicine a' yours tastes like poison, Nathan. I just got a cold an' I ain't got time fer yer doctorin'. I need ta stop by Miz Nettie's, and then I'm goin' ta go by Pa's place an' make sure everythin's all right."
"You sound kinda hoarse. Your throat sore? I got somethin' for that, too."
"Figgered you'd say that. Probably tastes worse than that cough medicine a' yers."
"You need both of 'em, Vin." Nathan glanced through the open livery door at the approaching rain clouds. "You get yourself back here before the rain sets in. Gettin' wet and chilled ain't gonna do you no good."
Vin led his horse outside and swung up into the saddle. "Take care a' the Seminoles, Nathan. I can take care a' myself."
Once Vin arrived at Nettie's, he found that gusty winds had blown numerous shingles off of the barn roof. Nettie was dismayed when she followed Vin out onto the porch and saw the shingles scattered on the ground. "I haven't been out of the house since early this morning when I milked the cow and fed the chickens and horses. Casey hasn't been here to see what happened to the roof. She stayed in town last night at Gloria Potter's house." The widow wrapped her shawl more closely around her. "I try to stay inside when the weather's this cold and damp. It's hard on my rheumatism." Nettie looked up anxiously at the dark clouds overhead. "I've got hay stored up in the loft that's going to be ruined if it rains before I can get the roof fixed."
Vin coughed and wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. "I'll fix the roof right now, Miz Nettie. Don't worry about it."
Nettie looked at him in concern. "I don't think you ought to be out in this kind of weather, honey."
Vin shrugged off her words. "I ain't lettin' yer hay git wet just 'cause I got the sniffles." He set to work, trying to ignore both the damp wind that cut through his clothes and the pounding in his head, made worse by the pounding of his hammer. When the job was finished, he went inside only briefly to warm himself by Nettie's fireplace and to swallow a hot cup of coffee.
After leaving Nettie, Vin rode out to the Tanner ranch to check on conditions there. Before he reached the ranch, rain started to fall. Too late, Vin remembered that he had left his rain slicker behind in his wagon. With the rain setting in, Vin intended to make only a cursory inspection, but he changed his mind when he saw a section of fence down. The fence was used to enclose the small number of cattle that had come with the ranch. None of the cattle remained within the enclosure, and Vin had spotted no straying cattle as he rode in. Vin dismounted and examined the the area where the cattle had gotten out. The grass had been trampled by the cattle, but he also spotted the prints from horseshoes.
Vin got a roll of wire from the barn and did a makeshift repair of the fence, before going to search for the missing cattle. They had scattered in all directions, but Vin searched doggedly for them through a steady downpour. He was drenched and chilled by the time he located the last of them--a cow who was lowing plaintively and her bawling calf. Vin drove them back to the enclosure and put them in with the others. As soon as this was done, he rode over to confront Guy Royal.
In the pouring rain, Vin rode through the gates of the Royal property. He saw none of Royal's men around and assumed that they had abandoned their posts for the shelter of the bunkhouse. Vin rode up to the front of Royal's imposing, white frame house. Vin had wrapped his mule's leg in oilskin to keep it dry. He unwrapped the gun and fired off several shots.
Royal instantly appeared at the door and stepped out onto the veranda. The wealthy rancher peered at Vin through a curtain of rain. When he recognized Vin, his lips curled in disdain. "BOY!" he yelled. "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
Vin answered in a raspy voice. "Royal, I know it was yer men that tore down my pa's fence. If I catch any a' yer men doin' any more damage, I'm goin' ta put a bullet in 'em."
Royal's tone was condescending. "I don't suppose it has occurred to you that cows break out on their own."
"They didn't break out on their own. I saw the horseshoe tracks."
"So you say." Royal's voice took on a harder edge. "It would be difficult to prove that by now with all of this rain." Royal stepped closer to the railing of the veranda. "I'll tell you something, you uncivilized whelp. I want the land that your old man bought and, sooner or later, I'm going to have it. Neither you, nor the rest of you misfits who call yourselves lawmen, are going to intimidate me. Now, I advise you to get your impudent young ass off my property before I have my men throw you off."
"I'm leavin'," Vin said flatly. "You keep causin' trouble an' I'll be back, an' I won't be alone."
Royal folded his arms across his chest. "Don't bite off more than you can chew, boy."
"I won't." Vin wheeled his horse around and left.
It was almost dark by the time Vin got back into town and took care of Peso. He went to his wagon and stripped off his sodden clothes and boots. He had planned to go to the saloon for a drink, but after putting on dry longjohns and socks, Vin suddenly felt an overwhelming fatigue. He lay down on his bedroll, intending to close his eyes for a few minutes and rest. Instead, he drifted off to sleep. He was awakened by voices out in the street. Vin sat up and peered out of the end of his wagon. It was totally dark, and he had the sense that he had slept for several hours. His throat was sorer than ever and his head ached. He could have used a drink, but getting fully dressed and going out to get it seemed more of an effort than it was worth. He still felt exhausted and lay back down. He drifted off again, but slept poorly. He couldn't seem to get warm and spells of coughing woke him frequently during the night. He awoke again at dawn and sat up, barely managing to suppress a groan. Every muscle in his body ached, and his throat felt too sore to swallow. Moving slowly, he pulled on his clothes. He couldn't remember ever feeling so tired, but he forced himself to keep moving. He was determined to have the fence properly repaired before his father returned to his ranch.
Few of the town's inhabitants were stirring by the time Vin had Peso saddled, and he rode out of town without seeing any of the other regulators. After arriving at the Tanner ranch, Vin went into the kitchen and started a fire in the woodstove. He put on a pot of coffee and heated some water for washing. Glancing at himself in a mirror, he was taken aback by his haggard face and the dark circles under his eyes. His long, tangled hair and unshaven appearance made him look even worse.
If Pa comes back today an' sees me lookin' this bad, he's likely ta drag me back ta town ta see Nathan, and I'll git that nasty medicine a' his poured down my throat.
Although he felt no inclination to groom himself, Vin borrowed his father's hairbrush to unsnarl the tangles from his hair and found an extra razor with which to get rid of his whiskers. When he was finished, he examined himself in the mirror.
Still ain't lookin' none too spritely, but maybe Pa won't notice.
Vin poured himself a cup of coffee and swallowed it with difficulty. Afterwards, he went outside and started to work on the fence. The day was overcast, damp and cold, with a bone chilling wind. Vin tried to complete the work quickly, but he felt lethargic and the work went slowly. By the time he had finished, he was shaking with cold and his chest was aching. Vin went back into the house and was seized by a paroxysm of coughing that nearly made him lose his breath. He had meant to bring in wood for the fireplace and start a fire, but had forgotten to do it. Dizzily, he sank to his knees in front of the fireplace. His teeth chattered, and he shivered uncontrollably. He lay down and curled up on his side, shaking so violently that he could do nothing but lie there.
I'll git a fire goin' soon as I stop shakin'. Just gotta quit shakin' so much.
He closed his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin! Vin!" A familiar voice was calling his name. Vin forced open eyelids that felt glued together and saw a figure kneeling over him.
"Chris," he whispered. A shudder ran through him and he started to shiver. "C-cold. It's c-cold," he moaned, his teeth chattering.
Chris grasped the tracker's arm. "Vin, what happened?"
Vin shuddered again. "Don't know... just feel s-sick."
Chris placed a hand against his forehead. To Vin, Chris's hand felt icy cold against his overheated skin. "You got quite a fever. How long you been here?"
"S-since this... this mornin'... early this m-mornin'."
"It's past noon." Chris paused to think for a moment. "No use taking you back to town. Nathan went back out to the Seminole village and no telling how long he's going to be there. Looks like the best thing to do is to keep you here. You need to get upstairs to bed. Feel like you can walk upstairs?"
Chris's voice seemed to be coming from a distance, and Vin only half understood all that Chris was saying. "W-walk?" he repeated in confusion.
Chris's soft voice was reassuring. "I'll help you." He grasped the tracker and got him on his feet. With Vin leaning heavily against him, Chris managed to get him up the stairs and into the room he sensed that Vin would prefer. He eased Vin down onto the bed and removed his boots and jacket. The gunslinger put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "I'm going to get a fire going. While I'm doing that, you think you can get your shirt and pants off?"
Vin nodded wordlessly, and Chris set about making a fire in the room's fireplace. When he got through and turned back to Vin, he saw that Vin's shaking hands had only managed to unbutton two of the buttons on his shirt. Vin looked at him with eyes that reflected shame at his own ineptness. "Can't s-seem ta git ahold a' the b-buttons."
Chris put a consoling hand atop Vin's head. "It's all right. I'll take care of it." Quickly, he finished unbuttoning Vin's shirt and pants and pulled them off, leaving Vin in faded red longjohns and socks. Chris opened up a chest at the foot of Vin's bed and found sheets, pillow cases and blankets. He used all of the blankets to cover the shivering tracker. Undecided about what to do next, he sat down on the end of Vin's bed and watched as the shivering gradually subsided. Vin began pushing off the blankets, but Chris stopped him. "You need to keep warm."
"I'm hot," Vin whispered and started coughing.
"I'll take off some of the blankets, but you can't get chilled again." Chris pulled off most of the blankets and laid them on top of the chest. "You want a drink of water?" he asked. Vin nodded, and Chris went downstairs and brought back a glass of water.
Vin sat up and, despite the pain in his throat, thirstily drained the glass. "Feels like m'insides are on fire." Vin handed the glass to Chris and lay back against the pillows. "How'd ya happen ta come by when ya did?"
"Hadn't seen you in a couple of days and decided to see if you were out here at the ranch. Accordin' to Nathan, you were already sick, and I'm guessin' that you've made it worse by being out in the rain."
Vin's jaw set in the stubborn way that Chris sometimes found so exasperating. "Had things ta do that wouldn't wait. I'm still gonna help ya build yer new corral like I said I would."
"The corral can wait. You got no business building corrals when you're sick."
"I ain't that bad off. I'll show ya." Vin threw back his bed covers and got out of bed. Immediately, the room began spinning around him and he staggered and started to fall.
Chris caught him and put him back to bed. "You showed me all right, pard." He pulled the covers back up and chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. "I don't want to leave you alone, but I'm going to have to go back to town. If Nathan's not there, I'm going to leave him a note. He ought to have a look at you. I'm going to stop by Miz Nettie's on the way and ask her if she can stay with you until I get back."
"Ya don't need ta bother Miz Nettie," Vin muttered, but Chris sensed that he would welcome her company.
"If I know Miz Nettie, she won't think it's a bother." Chris grinned at Vin. "She likes to mother you, in case you haven't noticed."
When Chris informed Nettie of Vin's condition, she readily agreed to stay with him and said that she would bring a supply of willow bark and make willow bark tea for Vin. Nathan was still absent when Chris reached town, and Chris left a note on his door. He let the other lawmen know of Vin's illness and, after getting something to eat, rode back out to the Tanner ranch.
"Make Vin drink plenty of willow bark tea," Nettie admonished, as she prepared to leave Vin with Chris. "I'll come back in the morning to see how he is, and I'll bring food for the both of you. Shortly after Nettie left, Vin had another chill, and Chris again piled blankets on his bed. The gunslinger pulled up a chair and watched over Vin until the chill had run its course. When the chill subsided, Chris went downstairs, heated the willow bark tea and brought a cup of it to Vin. The tracker protested about the taste, but he reluctantly drank it.
"Miz Nettie said that she would bring you some chicken soup tomorrow," Chris told him. "I saw cans of beef stew in the kitchen. I could heat it for you if you feel like eatin' something now."
Vin's voice was a raspy whisper. "Don't wanta eat. M'throat hurts." He moved restlessly and pushed at his blankets. "Gotta go ta the privy."
"You can't go outside. It's too cold and windy."
Vin sat up, and his voice was a little stronger. "Ain't like I got a choice, cowboy. Miz Nettie's had me drinkin' tea ever since ya been gone."
Chris looked under the bed and pulled out a chamber pot lavishly decorated with pink roses. "Use this."
Vin looked at it with distaste. "I ain't peein' in somethin' that's got pink flowers painted on it. Wonder why Pa bought somethin' like that?"
Chris laughed. "Maybe he did it for a joke, or maybe it was the only kind that Potter's Store had. You're not goin' outside in this kind of weather, so unless you wanta wet your drawers, you will pee in this."
With a sigh, Vin gave in. Chris could see that he didn't feel well enough to put up much of a fight. He used the chamber pot and then lay back down, looking spent. "I'll empty this later," Chris said, covering the receptacle and shoving it back under the bed. "Why don't you take a nap?"
"I don't wanta take a nap."
Chris suddenly remembered something. "JD gave me one of his dime novels to bring back. He thought it would help pass the time. You wanta try to read it?"
Vin shook his head. He plucked at his blankets and averted his eyes from Chris. Intuitively, Chris knew that he wanted to say something else. "What is it?" he prompted.
Vin looked suddenly shy. "Would ya mind readin' it ta me, Chris?"
The gunslinger was caught off guard by the request, but recovered quickly. "I left it in my saddlebags. I'll go get it." Chris returned with the book and sat down in the chair beside the bed.
"Glad ya didn't borrow Mary's book on women sufferin'," Vin said in a hoarse whisper.
"No danger of that. The name of this book is 'The Cheyenne Kid.'" A bit self-consciously, Chris began to read aloud. The book was exaggerated and unrealistic, but Vin hung onto every word until he began experiencing another chill. Chris laid the book aside and piled more blankets on Vin. He touched Vin's flushed face. Despite the shivering and chattering teeth, the tracker's skin felt hot and dry. Once the chill had passed, Chris took off most of the blankets. "I'm going to get you some water and heat more of the tea," he told Vin, who made no response. Chris took the pitcher from the washstand, filled it and brought it back upstairs. After giving Vin a drink, he poured some of the water into the china bowl on the washstand and wet a thin towel. With this, he wiped Vin's face and hands and then brought him another cup of tea. Vin made his customary grimace at the taste, but drank it obediently. Chris went back to reading the novel to Vin, but stopped when he noticed the sharpshooter's drooping eyelids. Throughout the night, Vin was restless and mumbling as his fever mounted. Towards morning, his temperature dropped and he slept.
Chris dozed off himself, and the sun was well up when he awoke. Leaving Vin asleep, he went downstairs and put on a pot of coffee. He was drinking his second cup when he saw Nathan ride up. He opened the front door and let the healer in.
"Mornin', Chris," Nathan said. "I found your note and came as soon as I could. Where's Vin?"
"Upstairs. C'mon, I'll show you."
When they reached Vin's room, he was still asleep and barely stirred during Nathan's examination. Nathan put his ear close to Vin's chest and listened to his congested breathing and felt of the swollen glands in his neck. "I'd say Vin's got pneumonia," Nathan said. "I seen a lot of pneumonia durin' the war. His cough's gonna be bad for a while, and he's gonna keep on havin' chills and fever and muscle aches. Keep him warm, but be sure to cool him off when his fever gets too high. Make him drink plenty of water and willow bark tea. I'm gonna leave some cough syrup made from mullein root. Give him that, too."
Chris spoke sharply. "Sounds like you're not stayin'."
The healer's weariness was obvious. "Chris, there's still Seminoles gettin' sick and dyin'. Besides that, I got word about a man with a broke leg that needs settin', and I gotta do what I can for a man who stepped on a rusty pitchfork. The man's got lockjaw. You know I'd stay here if I could, but I got too many other folks to take care of."
Chris ran his fingers though his uncombed, blond hair. "I know you'd stay if you could, Nathan."
The healer tried to be reassuring. "Vin ought to be all right. He's young and strong, but he's gonna be real sick for a while and he'll need lookin' after. When's his pa due back?"
"I don't know for sure. Soon."
"You'll have to have help with Vin. I'll tell the rest of the fellas so's they can come out and give you a hand."
Chris nodded and saw him to the door.
Nettie arrived shortly after Nathan's departure. She brought food for both Vin and Chris, along with her favorite herbal remedies, and insisted upon cooking breakfast for Chris. While he ate, she went upstairs to check on Vin. He was awake, and she managed to get him to swallow a small amount of the thin gruel which she had prepared. By the time that Chris joined them, she was chattering away to the sharpshooter. "You got a nice room here, Vin, but it's too plain. I'm working on a quilt for you, and Casey's making a braided rug. That ought to make the room look more cheerful."
Vin sounded tired. "You 'n' Casey don't need ta go ta so much effort fer me, Miz Nettie."
Nettie reached over and patted his hand. "It's no trouble, honey. I got nothing else to do after my chores are finished, and Casey wanted to make the rug for you." She looked up at Chris, who was standing in the doorway. "I can stay longer with Vin if you need me to," she offered.
Chris gave her a grateful smile. "I don't know what Vin and me would do without you, Miz Nettie, but you got your own place to keep you busy. I think I can take care of Vin, and the rest of the boys are going to help out."
Nettie pushed herself up out of the chair. "You know you can call on me, Mr. Larabee, if you need me." She leaned over and gave Vin a light peck on the forehead. "I'll come back later, honey, and see how you're getting along."
"Bye, Miz Nettie," Vin whispered. "Appreciate what ya done."
As Chris walked Nettie out to her buckboard, she glanced around and remarked, "This house could use a woman's touch."
Chris helped her into the wagon and couldn't resist teasing her. "You got your eye on Vin's pa, Miz Nettie?"
"My stars and garters!" she snorted. "Matt Tanner seems like a fine man, and he's nearly as good looking as his son, but I'm not looking for another man. I was happy with my husband, but I'm satisfied now the way I am. You men are a heap of trouble... even the best of you." Nettie clucked to her horses. "I'll be back tomorrow."
Before going back inside, Chris chopped more firewood and stacked it on the porch. He filled the woodboxes downstairs and then went upstairs to see if Vin needed anything. When he looked in the door, he saw that Vin had picked up JD's book and was making a lethargic attempt to read it for himself. His lips moved silently, as his finger slowly traced the words on the page. "Want me to read to you again?" Chris offered from the doorway.
Vin looked up at him. "I can make out some a' the words, but not all of 'em." His voice was a hoarse whisper.
Chris came in and took the book from Vin. He sat down beside the bed, but before he could begin reading, Vin was seized by a chest rattling cough. The attack went on until Vin seemed on the verge of losing his breath. Chris thumped him on the back until his breathing eased. Chris poured Vin a glass of water and offered it to him. "Drink it slow," he cautioned, "so you don't get strangled."
Vin drank it and then lay back. He seemed drained of energy, and his hollow eyed appearance made it obvious how ill he was. "Reckon I don't feel like listenin' to any readin' just now," he murmurred.
"All right," Chris agreed. "Rest for a while then."
"Got somethin' ta tell ya."
"What is it?"
"If anythin' happens ta me, I want ya ta give me yer word that you'll look after Miz Nettie."
Chris spoke confidently. "Vin, you have pneumonia, but you're going to get well."
"Maybe. Don't know what's gonna happen. Thing is, I could git well an' then a bounty hunter or somebody else might shoot me in the back. Nettie ain't got nobody ta help her 'cept Casey."
"I give you my word that I'd look after Miz Nettie. If need be, I'd do whatever I could for your pa, too."
"Thanks, cowboy. I was goin' ta ask ya about that."
"Figured you were."
"I'm awful tired," Vin said faintly. "Think I'll take a nap." Vin spoke with his eyes closed. "Did Miz Nettie bring any pie?"
"Reckon you can have my share this time."
During the next three days, the other regulators, as well as Nettie, took turns sitting with Vin. Despite the presence of the others, Chris refused to return to town, preferring to stay close to Vin.
Nathan returned to check on Vin and was concerned, but not alarmed, at his condition. "Y'all gotta keep his fever down as much as you can," he warned the caretakers. "If his fever gits too high, it could affect his mind or even kill him." They heeded the warning and did what they could, but Vin's temperature remained stubbornly high. On the third day, JD brought a telegram from Matt Tanner saying that he would soon be home, and Chris breathed a sigh of relief. He had been unable to contact Matt to let him know of Vin's illness.
Chris was alone with Vin when JD brought him the telegram. Vin was restless and mumbling nonsensical words. "He's out of his head again, ain't he?" JD asked.
"Yeah, JD. He's been like this for the last hour." Chris placed a hand on the tracker's chest, trying to quiet him.
JD's hazel eyes reflected his worry. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Chris indicated the pitcher on the washstand. "Yeah. Get the pitcher. Fill it up with water and bring it back." When JD returned with the water, Chris wet a towel and tried to cool Vin off with it, but it had little effect upon the delirious sharpshooter. Vin sat up abruptly, his eyes opened and he focused on something that only he could see. He put his arm up over his face as if to protect himself. "No! Don't!" he cried out.
Chris tried to get him to calm down. "Easy, Vin," he said softly.
With unexpected strength, Vin fought Chris's efforts to get him to lie back. He looked at Chris with eyes glazed by fever. "My pa ain't never comin' back fer me," he whimpered. Silent tears rolled down his face, and Chris knew that he was reliving a memory from his childhood.
Chris gripped Vin's shoulders. "Your pa is coming back, Vin. He'll be here soon. I swear he will." Vin's forlorn expression didn't change. Chris wiped his face again. "He's coming, Vin. Now you lie down and go back to sleep." Instead, Vin leaned against Chris, burying his face against his friend's shoulder. Chris patted him on the back until he felt the tense body relax. He laid Vin back again the pillows. Vin's eyes closed and remained quiet.
"I never saw Vin act like this before," JD said.
Chris's green eyes flashed a warning. "I'm sure Vin would appreciate it if you kept this to yourself, JD."
"Sure, Chris." JD felt uncomfortable at having witnessed the tracker's vulnerability. "There's something else I came out here to tell you," JD added. "Yesterday, the Harper gang robbed a train about a hundred miles east of here and killed three men. People are talkin' about it, and they want you back in town. They're scared that the Harpers might come this way."
Chris ran his fingers through his hair and didn't respond immediately. Finally, he said, "I want you to go back to town. Tell anybody who asks that I'll be back tomorrow. If Vin's pa ain't back by then, I'll have to get Miz Nettie to stay with him. Tell the rest of the boys that we're going to have to patrol more."
JD grinned. "Ezra ain't gonna be happy to hear that."
Chris dismissed the comment. "I don't care how much he grumbles, long as he does what he's supposed to."
+ + + + + + +
Matt Tanner sat beside his son's bedside. He had arrived hours before to find Vin tossing and mumbling in delirium, his flesh burning hot to the touch. Chris had filled in the worried older man on Vin's condition, and they had worked together for over an hour to lower his temperature. As the fever began to recede, Vin started to sweat profusely, requiring his sheets and longjohns to be changed. Chris easily lifted the thin tracker and held him while the sheets were changed, but then both he and Matt faced a dilemma. No one had thought to bring Vin fresh underwear from town, and Chris had already found Matt's extra longjohns and used them for Vin. "Looks like Vin's gonna have to bed down in the buff for now," Matt declared.
"Miz Nettie dropped off some nightshirts that belonged to her husband," Chris said. "Thing is, Vin would fight tooth and nail against wearin' a nightshirt."
"He won't know the difference."
Chris pulled one of the nightshirts from the chest where they had been stored. They removed Vin's longjohns and slipped the nightshirt over his head. Vin's eyes briefly fluttered open during the procedure, but he gave no indication of awareness. Encouraged that Vin's temperature had finally dropped, Chris explained to Matt his need to return to town and left.
Vin slept peacefully throughout the rest of the day and night, not waking up until the following morning. When he opened his eyes, he discovered Matt sitting on the side of his bed. "About time you woke up, sleepyhead."
"Pa!" Vin's voice was weak and raspy. He looked around, trying to remember where he was.
"Nathan's already been here this morning," Matt told him. "He thinks you're over the worst of it. He said that it's going to take time to get your strength back, though. You'll have to get plenty of rest and keep taking your medicine."
Vin couldn't remember what had happened to him. His chest hurt, and it was hard to breathe. He coughed painfully, and Matt helped him to sit up and take a drink of water. Vin looked around again and blinked in confusion. Something was missing. Chris. Chris was missing. His eyes searched the room for the man in black.
Matt correctly interpreted Vin's searching look. "Chris is coming back later. He's been here ever since you got sick."
Sick? How'd I git sick?
Matt put a hand on Vin's forehead. "Feels like you're still running some fever, but nothing like before."
Vin wanted to ask about what had happened to him, but he felt too tired. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again.
Vin slept most of the next two days. He was periodically roused to groggy wakefulness to drink herbal teas and to swallow the gruels, broths and soups that Nettie brought for him. On the third day, he awoke to the sounds of voices from downstairs. The stubble on his face scraped against the sheet pulled up to his chin. He pushed back the bedcovers and struggled to sit up. From the angle of the sun streaming through the window, he judged it to be around noon. His chest and stomach were sore from coughing, but his muscle aches had diminished, and his head felt clear for the first time since he had gotten sick. He glanced down at himself in puzzlement.
What the hell is this? Looks like a nightgown. I'm wearin' a nightgown!
Vin's indignant reaction to the nightshirt was forgotten as Matt came into the room. "Glad you're awake, son," Matt said with a smile. "How do you feel?"
"Better, I reckon," Vin muttered.
"Glad to hear that. Ezra's patrolling out this way, and he brought this for you. It came in on yesterday's stage." He placed a flat, rectangular package on the bed. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Matt took out his pocket knife and cut the string. "Want me to unwrap it?"
"It's a picture of you," Matt said in some surprise. He propped the pillows more firmly behind Vin's back and handed him the picture.
"It's the picture I had made in El Paso. Took long enough fer it ta git here. Buck 'n' Ezra talked me inta it. Do ya like it?"
"I sure do," Matt enthused. He took back the picture and studied it, obviously pleased. "I never realized it before, but you have your mother's mouth." He sat down on the foot of the bed, still looking at the photograph. "The day that I met your ma," he reminisced, "I told her that she had a mouth made for kissin'." He grinned. "I was kind of brash back then. I once had a picture of you and Molly together. It was made by a traveling photographer, who came through town. You were four years old, and we had to bribe you with a stick of candy to get you to hold still. Looking at this reminds me of how you looked back then. Your hair was a lighter brown, and it curled below your ears. Molly never wanted your curls to be cut. Your eyes were as blue as bluebonnets, and you had freckles across your nose." He paused and sighed. "I always carried that picture in my saddlebags. When I was on the trail, I'd take it out and look at it to remind me of what was waitin' for me at home."
"Wish I could see it."
"Wish I still had it." Bitterness, mixed with regret, was in his voice. "When I wound up in prison down in Mexico, they took my saddlebags. I tried to get 'em to let me keep the picture, but they just laughed. I never saw it again. At first, I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter because I could close my eyes and see you and your ma in my head. As time went on, though, it became harder and harder to remember exactly what you both looked like. I'm real glad you had this picture made."
"Didn't much like the prissy feller that made the picture, but I reckon it was worth it."
Matt stood up and patted Vin's knee. "I'm going to put the picture downstairs on the mantle, and then I'm going to fix you something to eat."
"I ain't hungry."
"And I'm not much of a cook, but you're going to eat something anyway." Matt's tone left no room for argument.
One week later
Vin awoke from his afternoon nap to the sound of rain drumming on the tin roof of his father's house. A combination of sleet and rain splattered noisily against the window panes, and wind howled around the corners of the house. Enough of the icy wind leaked in around the windows to reveal how miserable it was outside, and Vin thought briefly of how often he'd been out in such weather with little protection. To combat the cold, a fire blazed in the fireplace, and Vin was covered by Nettie's patchwork quilt. Bricks, heated and wrapped in flannel, were tucked in at the foot of the bed to keep his feet warm. The colorful, braided rug made by Casey lay in front of the fireplace and gave the room a cozy air. Vin yawned, stretched and settled himself back against his pillows, a jumble of thoughts running through his head.
Wish I was well enough ta git back ta town and see what's goin' on. Ridin' Peso would be a heap better than just lyin' here waitin' ta git my strength back and worryin' about what Guy Royal's up to, or whether the Harper gang's goin' ta be comin' this way with their robbin' and killin'. Need ta be watchin' Chris's back and Buck's back if they meet up with the Harpers. I wanta find out what kinda crusade Mary's on, and I'd like ta meet Ezra's pa. Wonder if he's anythin' like Ezra. Funny about Ezra. Wouldn't a' thought he'd a' wanted ta stay in Four Corners this long. Ezra's like a tumbleweed--blowin' this way 'n' that and never takin' root anywhere. Ezra's ma 'n' pa must be tumbleweeds, too. Hell! Reckon we all are. Josiah never settled down nowhere. Nathan's been a tumbleweed all his life. Buck musta been a tumbleweed most a' his life. Chris's been a tumbleweed ever since he left Indiana, 'cept fer when he married Sarah. Even JD was on his way ta bein' a tumbleweed after his ma died. And me--I been a tumbleweed ever since Grandpa died. Look at me now, though. I got my pa an' good friends. I got a place where I fit in, so I don't hafta keep driftin' like I done fer so long. I even got a real home ta stay in whenever I feel like it. Seems like we all found somethin' ta keep us from blowin' away. We ain't tumbleweeds no more.
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