Dropped and Caught
Vin looked up as he heard approaching footsteps. His conversation with the preacher had both eased and shaken him; he could have sworn it was Josiah, at the end, despite the slightly odd Southern accent the voice had possessed throughout the rest of their conversation. He shook his head. Maybe he was getting delirious.
Not being able to see was horribly disconcerting. He would never let it show to his captors, but being blinded was something Vin had always feared - the ability to see was something he valued and benefited by more than anything. He had grown used, however, to relying on his other senses - and his instinct - during his stay in Gill's prison, and he recognised the strange, tripping step now of Huxtabey.
"Have a nice time with the preacher?" he heard the hissed question, and ignored it, returning his head to the front where it didn't make his neck ache so much. He felt a cold finger slide down his back and fought every impulse he had to shiver at the touch; he concentrated instead on the words the preacher had spoken before he'd left. No one hates you, Vin, he'd said. God, how he hoped that was true! No one hates you, no one hates you... he repeated the mantra to himself over and over as Huxtabey grabbed hold of his hair and yanked his head back.
"You know what you are, Tanner?" he snarled. "You're a worthless little bit of shit. Your mother was a whore and, you know what? I'm thinking of employing your talents in that area myself. Could make quite a profit, pretty boy like you... pity about your face, though, isn't it? Ah, well... some of my friends are into that kind of thing... nothing turns some people on more than a bit of noble suffering..."
"You wouldn't be able to afford me." Vin pouted sweetly from where he sat on the ground. "An' I mean, you wouldn't be much good anyway, would ya? Couldn't feel much there when I kicked ya' earlier... can't have much fun bein' your size, wouldn't imagine..."
From where he was hidden in the shadows of a cart, Buck almost laughed. He had nearly gagged at the suggestions the red-haired man had made and, for a man who had trouble follow him like flies, Vin Tanner did precious little to discourage it. But no. Buck remembered what the tracker had said about him, and closed his eyes tightly in pain at the memory. He deserved this, he...
Huxtabey had sent his fist crashing into Vin's mouth with a sickening thud that sent the smaller man flying over backwards onto his injured back, followed by a savage kick.
"You're so fucking funny, Tanner," growled Huxtabey, taking aim for another kick. "But you're nothing but a son-of-a-bitch, goddamn..." he punctuated each epitaph with a boot to the ribs, "... whoreson, fucking, bastard."
"I agree." Buck suddenly elongated himself to his full length, which was several times longer than Huxtabey's. The little ferret-like man spun round to find himself chest-high to a giant.
"Unfortunately," continued the tall man calmly, "You ain't much better yourself."
Huxtabey whipped his pistol out and squeezed the trigger, but not before Buck had shot him high in the chest. His body jerked backwards and the bullet shot out harmlessly above their heads, missing Buck by many miles. Buck ran to where Vin had raised himself to his knees and was bent double gasping for breath, flung him roughly over his shoulders, and scissored his long legs across the courtyard to the pursuit of gunshots and several well-armed men.
It was good timing on Chris's part, reflected Buck as he sank down with his burden behind his cart and watched his old friend, flanked by Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and the kid burst through the doors and exchange shots with the inhabitants of Gill's domain. He hurriedly reloaded his gun and aimed randomly at someone who looked like they intended to shoot Ezra. The man was flung backwards and Ezra flashed a gold tooth at him briefly in thanks before returning to the fight, his derringer sliding neatly down his arm and into his hand in time to use it on Adams, who had just emerged from one of the outhouses. Buck caught a glimpse of Nathan and Chris in the stables: Nathan already had his bandages out and, in between shots at their attackers, was attempting to bind Chris's left arm.
Buck tried to ease Vin back onto his back, but the Texan hung limply in his hands. He wiped the sticky blood from his hands and fought against the nausea rising in his throat at Vin's mangled condition. He let him drop back on the ground as he aimed a shot in the general direction of Gill and his companions, and when he returned to look at his old friend it was to discover that he was conscious and thrashing gently around in an attempt to remove some of his bonds. Buck leant over him and jerked the blindfold away from his eyes, making Vin flinch at the sudden brightness and heat of the midday sun and screw his face up in pain. When he finally reopened his eyes a slit Buck could see the blue pools fill with recognition and an almost heartbreaking relief - one that did not echo his words earlier, Buck reminded himself. Vin reached out a hand and clawed at the bigger man's sleeve.
"Bucklin..." he whispered brokenly, swamped with a sudden flood of emotions so strong he suspected he would have sobbed if he'd had the strength.
This total contradiction of feeling was Buck's last straw. He'd been prepared to come and rescue Vin, but not to be faced with this welcome. Something in the spirit that J.D. had recalled, yes; bitter cynicism, but not this. He had steeled himself to meet the monster his friend had transformed himself into in his mind and now Vin threatened to turn the kind-hearted gunslinger's attitude to the younger man back into had it had been before... before that day when J.D. had ridden back covered in bruises and tears.
"Just shut up," he said harshly, and turned his back on his damaged companion to loose some more bullets. Vin's heart retreated into some hidden depths of his body. He'd forgotten that his 'friends' would be thinking of what he'd said about them... yet they'd still come to rescue him. Fucked up again, Tanner, he told himself ruefully. They're better men than you gave 'em credit for.
"Buck." He tried again, and Buck wheeled round on him so fast it made him dizzy.
"I said shut up, Vin! I don't give a fuck about whatever it is you've got to say and I don't want to hear it. All I'm gonna do is drag your sorry ass back to Nathan and you'd better hope he's more forgivin' than I am, 'cause to be honest with you, you don't deserve it. I'd just as soon leave ya' here so will ya' shut the fuck up and let me concentrate before I decide to do just that."
"I know... I... I'm sorry."
Vin's pathetic state and easy compliance only served to make Buck worry more about him, something he would never have admitted, not even to himself. His friend's condition, compared to the resilient and independent Vin he was used to seeing, not only scared but enraged him. Why should he be forced to care for someone who had just inflicted on him the one kind of wound he wasn't likely to recover from? Buck ground his teeth in frustration. Spinning round again, he hissed through his teeth at the figure on the floor.
"What that bloke said was right. You are a bastard. Do you know what you've done to Chris? He's a broken man, Vin. You've all but killed him. Gone and drowned himself in a bottle of goddamn whiskey. Now, I know that man, I've known him for a long time, and I know him better than he knows himself. And I know that he believed you were the only thing that could drag him out of that mess he was in after the fire... something I couldn't do... and I believed you could, too. We all did; but what you've done - it's sent him back into the hell he was in when Sarah and Adam died. You've destroyed him - and I hope you're proud of that. Ruined him. That fire... Jesus, Vin - I know it was my fault, do you think I don't? If only I hadn't made Chris go away that night, if only... if only... oh, Jeez... Fuck you." Buck was fighting to contain his unshed tears now, but he forced himself to continue.
"All this time I've blamed myself and Chris's blamed me too. I didn't even have the - the consolation of having someone else to blame. I loved them too... I'd known Sarah longer'n Chris, she was like my sister; 'n Adam, he meant more to me than.... than anything. They were my family; after my ma died, I didn't have any... reckon you ought to know about that more'n anyone... Hell, Vin. I hope you're happy, I really do." Buck's voice cracked and he hastily wiped water away from his eyes.
Vin couldn't make his mouth work. His jaw wouldn't do what he wanted it to and he couldn't force the words out that would comfort his friend, make him feel better, beg for forgiveness and explain why he'd had to say what he'd said. He kicked at the cartwheel so hard in frustration at his inability to communicate that it moved, and exposed both himself and Buck to the gunshot.
"Damn, Vin!" Buck dragged them both round behind the rough shelter as bullets pattered on the floor beside them and ricocheted off into the distance. "Damn you. I don't have to be here, you don't have to try an' fucking kill me. Let me just tell you this. I ain't never gonna forgive you fer what you've done to Chris, or J.D., or any of the others. The kid - he looked up to you like you were a fucking hero! Well, he's done a lot of growing up these last few days. He thought you were like a brother to him, and he's just realised how wrong he was - reckon we all have. There ain't a one of us who'll want to know you after what you've done to us, so listen now. I'll get you to Nate if I don't get killed first an' maybe he'll patch you up some, I don't know. But soon's he's done with ya' you're getting' outta town, ya' here me? You'll ride out an' ya' won't never come back. Chris 'n me, 'n the others, we don't want you no more. I can see why your mother left you at an orphanage, an' I can see why no one else ever wanted you either. No one ever will, Vin - an' we sure as hell don't. The moment you can stand you're gonna get on your horse an' you're gonna get the hell out of Four Corners, an' I don't ever want'a see ya' there again, ok? 'Cause next time I ain't gonna bother to be as polite as askin' ya' to leave... I'll shoot ya' an' take ya' to Tascosa myself. Ya' hear?"
Nothing Vin could do could stop the tears that sprang to his eyes, even though he tried valiantly. Both men's eyes were wet and the tracker didn't even have the strength to blink them away, and they fell in a salty stream down his face onto the dusty earth. He deserved this, he told himself, but Buck's words cut through him like... a knife through butter. And the worst of it was, he knew them to be true. He wished himself dead, and wished that the men who had once called him friend could have just left him to die without this unwanted requiem Buck was providing.
There was a break in the gunfire and Buck sensed his opportunity to get Vin to the stables. Standing up, he once again hauled the uncomplaining Texan over his shoulders and draped him round his neck like Ezra's mother wore a fox, and began to trot towards his destination, his eyes only on Nathan's reassuring form and trusting the others to watch his back.
Vin, however, who was facing in the opposite direction could see behind them and watched as Gill raised his mare's leg and direct it at him and Buck. Out of sheer instinct he kicked at the only bit of Buck he could reach and the pair of them went down like a sack of bricks, Vin landing awkwardly on top of his rescuer in a tangle of flailing limbs, trapping the bigger man under his slight weight. The bullet flew over their heads and Gill became too preoccupied with fending off the attempts of J.D. and Ezra to renew his attack.
Buck flung Vin off him furiously and swung himself to his knees, regardless of the flying bullets and J.D.'s urgent cries to get down.
"I'm trying to bloody help you!" he shouted. "If you want to stay here and get shot, well, fine, but don't drag me down with you! Or is that what you want?"
Vin still couldn't make his mouth open wide enough to speak from.
"I said, do you want me dead?" yelled Buck. "Did you just try to kill me?"
Vin shook his battered head weakly. His close brush with a bullet and the tracker's apparent refusal to answer him infuriated Buck to the point of despair, and when Vin wouldn't co-operate in remounting his back something in the tall man snapped. Out of the corner of his eye he saw J.D. go down with a bullet in his leg, all for a man who had beaten him and broken a trust that the young man had given unhesitatingly. Buck should be with J.D., helping him, not Vin.
His thoughts turned to Chris, and how he'd looked when J.D. had first recounted Vin's words for him... and now the bastard tracker was actually fighting him to stop him getting him to safety. Some people just didn't know what was good for them. Buck made one last-ditch attempt to drag Vin upwards but the Texan batted his hand away, and the tall man clenched his jaw, thought of what Vin had done, and swung a fist straight into his face. The last look on Vin's face before he lost consciousness was one of shock, slightly mingled with resignation, but Buck ignored it as he finally managed to swing the unconscious man into his arms and run to the stables. He arrived in one piece to the cheers of Chris and Nathan and deposited Vin unceremoniously onto the straw, collapsing next to him with a heartfelt sigh of relief.
His two friends rushed over to them and Buck saw, to his surprise, Chris's earlier bitterness at Vin replaced with the kind of panic and fear at his condition he would have expected before this whole incident had taken place. Old habits die hard, he supposed, and admitted that it was only natural to feel sympathy for a person in Vin's state.
Nathan literally pushed Chris away from the inert body in the straw, despite the luminous green bulbs flashing in his face.
"Will you get out the way, Chris. I've gotta tend t'him now, an' I've gotta be able to breathe while I'm doin' it. How can a man work with you lurkin' over him like a shadow... move now, c'mon..."
Chris glared daggers into the dark man's back but complied reluctantly and edged a few inches to his left. His frown almost obscuring his eyes, he shifted his arm slightly in his sling and struggled with his good hand to light a cheroot. Buck assisted him, still somewhat puzzled by his friends' attitude to a man they'd all denounced not a day earlier as a no-account, good-for-nothing bastard. Chris turned to him.
"Buck, you okay? You're not hurt? Thank God you got him outta there." He clasped Buck's forearm and settled moodily back against the wall, his eyes fixed on Nathan's gentle administrations to his friend.
"I'm fine," replied Buck. "Nice of y'all to come an' give me a hand."
"Well, we figured you might need it." Chris opened his mouth to speak further but, at that moment, Nathan did something that had Vin shouting out in pain and hissing through his teeth. Chris charged at the healer and knocked him out the way, kneeling down beside his friend and taking his hand.
"Hush, Vin... it's ok, we're here, we're gonna kill Gill, you're safe, that was just Nathan, s'okay..."
Nathan stood up and dusted himself off, glaring furiously at the black-coated figure next to his patient.
"Chris will ya' quit hoverin'! You're only getting' in the way an' I'm only tryin' to help Vin so get the hell outta my sight, or so help me God I will knock you out. I ain't havin' you runnin' at me again like a buffalo on heat. Now get! Buck - get him outta here. Now. Buck!"
Buck dragged a highly resistant Chris away from the irate healer and pushed him down onto a comfortable seat of straw.
"Give him some space, Chris," he issued sternly, and folded his legs up into a sitting position. "Would you like to tell me what's with the mother hen act? After what he's said about you an' what he's done to J.D.? Man don't deserve it."
It suddenly occurred to Chris that Buck didn't know about the tracker's heroics. He frowned at his old friend slightly for a moment before explaining.
"Buck... you don't know." He took a deep drag on his cheroot and watched sideways as Buck's face creased up with incomprehension.
"What don't I know? All I know is what I heard J.D. say Vin'd said to him. And I know I saw his face, all them bruises, what Vin'd done to him. Hope you ain't sayin' J.D.'s lyin'..."
"No, I'm not. Listen, Buck... Josiah went in there, pretending to be a preacher or something, to see if he couldn't get Vin outta there. Vin kinda took it as his last confession or something; anyway, he didn't know who Josiah was an' told him that he'd said all that shit to J.D. to make us hate him - just so we wouldn't go an' rescue him. He risked our friendship just so we wouldn't get hurt in doing what we're doing now... stupid bastard... if he wasn't so beat up I'd hit him myself."
Buck had gone pale, and was shaking his head. "What's up?" enquired Chris, still gazing over to where Nathan was applying reams of bandages to various parts of Vin's body. Outside, the gunfight was still shooting itself out, and Chris wondered how their other companions were faring.
"Fuck, Chris..." Buck looked as though he'd been struck across the face. "I - I did hit him. I ain't any better than that bastard Gill... shit..." He looked down at his shaking hands and wiped them roughly against his clothing, as though he were trying to rid them of the guilt of what he'd done. "I - hit him..." Buck sounded part-wondering, part-disbelieving, and wholly self-accusatory. He glanced up quickly at Chris, fully expecting his old friend to launch to his feet and attack him. He made no attempt to defend himself.
Chris didn't think he'd quite heard properly. "You what?" he said quietly.
"I - I didn't know he'd said it to help us, I just remembered J.D.'s face - and yours - and I was goin' to get him over here to Nate but he wouldn't let me help him an' we were getting' shot up, and... oh, Christ, Vin... Chris... I'm sorry." Buck's head rolled into his hands and sobs racked his huge frame. He heard Chris rise stiffly to his feet and waited to hear the footsteps stalk away from him as they had done that night after Sarah and Adam's deaths. Instead, he was startled to feel a hesitant hand come to rest briefly on his back.
"It's okay, Buck," Chris told him softly. "It's okay. You didn't know - how could you? I know you'd never've hurt him if you'd known. Don't reckon there's a one of us wouldn't have done the same thing if we'd been in your shoes - an' I wouldn't've just hit him once. I know how you felt about what he said, Buck - and that makes it all the more amazin' that you went in there an' tried to help him, despite what he'd done an' despite you nearly getting killed. That makes you better than the rest of us - we didn't do anything until Josiah told us why he'd said that crap - and you did it anyway. You're a good man, Buck... and a good friend. You always have been. C'mon now, let's go kill those bastards." He extended a callused hand and Buck took it in wonderment. Never since before that fateful night had Chris spoken to him in this way, and it humbled him.
"I'm sorry, Chris," he mumbled. "I don't think I'm quite as good as you paint me, but... hey, what the hell. Let's go and kill us some of those goddamn cowboys anyway."
The two men grasped each other's hands in silence for a minute then walked out of the stable and into the dying stages of what had turned into a massacre.
J.D. had been dragged to safety by Ezra, and was now reloading both his own gun and the gambler's to save Ezra the inconvenience of having to do so himself. Josiah was on top of the stable roof behind the dovecote, in an ideal position to take over from Vin's usual job of sharpshooter - a fact he was employing to everyone's benefit. The only injuries the little company had so far received was one bullet to J.D.'s leg and another to Chris's arm; yet the odds were at least ten to three against them, and slowly Gill and his men were creeping nearer and nearer to the stable - the one place the peacekeepers wanted to protect. Ezra jumped back as a shot whistled past his face and fell heavily against J.D., and Gill was on them at once.
That, at least, had been his intention; he had not taken into account the possibility that Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington might at that moment erupt from the stable doors and shoot his gun away from his hand, rendering him utterly helpless - which is of course precisely what happened.
Chris and Buck's joint arrival decided the direction of the fight. It headed strongly in the Seven's favour, and as J.D. and Buck between them handcuffed, tied and gagged Gill, getting a few well-aimed kicks in for good measure, the others saw to their satisfaction that those remaining had thrown their weapons down and had their hands in the air in surrender.
"Kick the guns over here," ordered Chris, and after a moment's hesitation they complied. Ezra walked stiffly over to pick them up, and Josiah discovered to his horror that he had to contemplate his manner of descent, and wondered how the hell he'd managed to get up there in the first place. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Uttering what seemed a rather optimistic prayer to God, he tiptoed gently across the ridge he'd been perched on - Dear sweet Jesus, he thought, how in God's name does Vin do this all the time? Well, in the future he'd leave it to younger men, those who were better suited to clambering around like monkeys and - the slate slipped from under his feet and his weight went crashing backwards. He slid rapidly down the slope, despite all his attempts to find a handhold, and sailed in a graceful arc to land solidly in front of an awe-struck audience - and directly on top of Buck Wilmington.
"Whoa!" exclaimed J.D., much impressed and leaping backwards to avoid the preacher's sudden arrival. "He flies! J'siah, you ain't been takin' lessons from them crows 'a yours, have ya'?"
Josiah unfolded himself like a giant spider, shaking himself like a wet dog, then grabbed Buck's collar and pulled the dazed man up.
"The animal magnetism of yours sure is strong, Buck," he told him solemnly. "I could feel it all the way up there on that roof. I'd ask Nate if he can give ya' something for it if I was you - when you start pulling people off of roofs you gotta start worrying. Could be dangerous." He patted his friend lightly on the cheek then let him slump back down again, and turned to the others. "Everyone okay?" he enquired.
"All except Mr Wilmington there," Ezra informed him. "And I do believe Mr Dunne needs a bullet or two extracting, but apart from that... I think we can say we are all intact. How is Mr Tanner?"
Buck stood up and walked away, not wanting to see his friends' faces when they heard what he'd done. He ignored Chris's call to him and wandered off in the opposite direction. Ezra looked perturbed.
"Did I say something?" he asked, automatically wiping dirt from his apparel.
"Buck's a bit... preoccupied," explained Chris, debating just how much of his friend's confession he ought to impart. "I told him about Vin, and what he said to Josiah."
This explanation seemed to quell everyone's curiosity, and all signs of levity dropped from their faces immediately.
"He'd got Vin by the time we got here," continued Chris, "Before he even knew we'd be coming to help him. Seems they had a few... words. Don't know about you fellers, but I'd have done exactly the same thing... hell, I wouldn't have even bothered coming to try an' get Vin's sorry ass outta in the first place. Well, I didn't; none of us did, 'cept Buck - so, no one's gonna start anything with him, okay?"
For a moment, Ezra, Josiah and J.D. were reminded so vividly of Chris's protectiveness of Vin that they were tempted to say so, but the situation did not permit light-heartedness.
"No one wants to start anything with anyone, brother," said Josiah gently. "All we want to do is get us all out of here alive and well and just get everything back to normal."
He was echoed in his sentiment with nods and murmurs from Ezra and J.D., and Chris suddenly smiled at them. "Buck'll come round in a while," he said. "Let's go and get J.D. to Nathan." And, before J.D. could complain, Chris had scooped him up into his arms and started off towards the stable with him. Startled by this unlikely action, Ezra and Josiah had to run to catch up with their leader's long strides.
Josiah shook his head. "A day of miracles, indeed," he whispered to himself. Ezra heard, and offered a short bark of laughter.
"Amen, brother," he replied. "Amen."
"Broken ribs, left leg twisted, busted jaw, pretty much beaten up good," was Nathan's diagnosis, "But he'll live." His verdict was greeted with whoops of joy from all but Buck, who was still absent. "If," he cautioned, "we get him back to my clinic soon and don't drop him on the way there. J.D., let me see that leg of yours now; the rest of you go and get the horses ready. I want to get him into a proper bed soon as possible."
Ezra and Josiah went to round up their horses, and Chris decided he'd search for Buck, tell him they were leaving soon. He found his oldest friend leaning against a fence and staring with unseeing eyes into a distance that was invisible to Chris. He could see the self-loathing on Buck's face, and knew what it was to feel like that.
"Easy, Buck," he soothed, as the tall man spun round at his arrival.
"Jeez, Chris - ya' shouldn't creep up on people like that. You'll get yourself shot one a' these days." He returned to his moody silence, blocking the man in black out.
"And you shouldn't keep blaming yourself for hitting Vin," returned Chris smoothly. "Self-hate's a devil, Buck. Nearly killed me, but you stopped it. I plan to return the favour."
"It's not just what I did to him," confided Buck miserably, "It's what I said. There's no way he'll ever forgive me for what I said."
"Christ, Buck, it'll all be back to normal this time next week - just wait. Vin'll be in bed, tryin' his damndest to get out; Nathan'll have hid his pants so's he can't escape; you'll be sat on his bed telling him of all your latest conquests and Nettie'll be there tryin' to spoon-feed 'im broth an' telling you to mind your language. It doesn't matter - you know Vin. He'll - "
"Do I? Do I know him? Do any of us? Don't reckon as I deserve to."
Chris dug his fingernails into his palms in frustration. "Will you shut up, Buck! You're talkin' outta yer ass. Of course Vin'll forgive you. Give him that much credit, can't you?"
"I know Vin'll forgive me, Chris. That's the problem. He forgives too damn easy. I don't deserve his fucking forgiveness. How can I expect him to forgive me when I can't even forgive myself?"
"Right, I'm going to try explaining this to you one more time before I decide to hammer it into your thick skull, Buck. What you did was wrong, yes, we all admit that. But you had a bloody good reason to do it, or at least you thought you did when you did it. If Vin'd been you he'd have done the same thing and so would I, so would Ezra, so would Josiah - even J.D. would. Even Nathan. If you keep grousing about hitting Vin then I'll just feel worse about hitting you in the saloon yesterday. If I know Vin - which I do, yes - then he'll just be pleased he managed to fool you so well. And Ezra said he couldn't lie. Reckon he did this just to prove him wrong... come on, we're headin' back now, get Vin into bed. And when he wakes up, we'll all have a nice little chat and you and I will get some sense into that boy - knock it into him if we have to - and tell him never to do that again. Right? You coming?"
Buck remained looking slightly sceptical, but walked back with Chris all the same. "Yeah," he sighed. "I'll come."
The journey back to Four Corners was made in silence. Vin was placed in a travois they'd made and J.D. was too drugged with laudanum to keep up his usual inane chatter. Buck was sat moodily on top of his big grey horse, lost in a world of his own creating to which no one else was privy, and the others were preoccupied with making sure Vin was comfortable. Although it was not a long ride, it seemed to drag on for an eternity; when, at last, they reached the town and tucked Vin securely into the bed in Nathan's clinic all six men were bone weary and J.D. had already fallen asleep. Buck and Chris refused to leave Vin's bedside despite Nathan's hardest attempts at bribing and cajoling - no amount of threats could have torn either man away from a friend they thought they'd lost in more ways than one.
Vin slept soundly and quietly. In his sleep, he looked so young Chris found himself wondering what his age really was, and when Nathan finally gave up trying to shoo them out of his room and followed his own advice by storming out to the saloon with Ezra, Chris voiced his thought aloud to Buck.
"How old 'you reckon he is?" he whispered softly.
"I dunno... can't be much over twenty, looking at him now. Wouldn't think it, though, would you? That boy's been through more shit in his life than I can even imagine."
"I know. That's what I was thinking... looks kinda innocent, doesn't he?"
"Only when he's sleeping. If there's one thing Vin ain't it's innocent."
"Yeah... but then sometimes, when you see him playin' a prank with J.D.... aww, I dunno. Doubt he knows himself, how old he really is."
" 'Spect not. Do you know what Gill had against him, anyway?"
"Josiah said something about a bounty, years back. Doesn't surprise me. Trouble sticks to Vin like shit to a blanket."
"Shit to a blanket. I haven't heard that one before."
"Well, time with me is very educational - you ought to know that by now. I hope you aren't gonna try and impress the ladies with my terminology."
"God no. Wouldn't - hey, Chris! He's wakin'..."
Vin was indeed stirring. He'd been lain on his front so his back wouldn't rub against the blankets, and now he turned his head ever so slightly towards Chris.
"Hey, cowboy, how you doin'?" Chris reached out a hand to Vin - then recoiled in horror as his friend flinched away from him so violently that the pain this action caused made him pass out again. Chris could do nothing but stare at him in shock.
"Jeez..." he whispered. He'd always been there for Vin when he'd been hurt before, and the tracker had always seemed to take more comfort in his being there than anything else. This sudden rejection hurt him - he felt almost as he had done when J.D. had first recalled Vin's words to him. He looked over to Buck, who was shaking.
"That's my fault," he whispered. "He don't trust us no more."
Chris forced himself to swallow his own doubts and fears and comfort Buck. "Nah, he's just... well, he needs to recover. Maybe we ought to leave him, if us being here's makin' him feel bad... c'mon, I'll buy you a drink. At least he's safe, Buck. At least he's alive."
Buck had no resistance left. He rose and followed Chris listlessly out of the room, and prayed to whatever God there was that Vin Tanner would recover - fully.
The second time Vin woke, almost a day later, it was to find himself alone in Nathan's clinic. Well, relatively. The healer sat slumped on a chair next to him, sleeping, and Vin crawled painfully out of the bed and into his heap of clothes as quietly as possible to avoid disturbing his rest. The feat of dressing having been successfully accomplished, he limped stealthily through the door and stalked off towards the stairs. It is entirely possible that he could have escaped the building and ridden from the town if he hadn't decided to adjust his full weight to his left foot and fallen headfirst down the steps with a crash that brought five figures leaping from one room in alarm and Nathan from another: the six comparatively uninjured peacekeepers found themselves staring in shock at a tattered pile of buckskins at the foot of the staircase desperately trying to lever itself up onto its elbows. Chris was the first to recover.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he yelled in furious concern, then kicked himself for his tone of voice as, for the second time in twenty-four hours he saw Vin flinch from him.
"I - I'm leaving," the tracker gasped, at last having succeeded in raising himself to his knees. "It's okay, I won't take long to go. Thanks y'all for getting me out of that place and thanks Nate for patchin' me up an' all - I left some money on your table."
Nathan looked like he'd been slapped across the face.
"It ain't much," Vin continued uncomfortably, "I know it ain't nowhere near enough for all the times you've saved my life but I ain't got any more. There's that ten dollars I owe Ezra, too... h'ain't got nothin' fer the rest a' ya', but then I don't reckon you'd want anythin' I can give ya', 'cept me getting the hell outta town, which is what I'm doin' now." He kept his eyes trained on the floor, not wanting to see the looks of hatred his old friends were bound to be levelling at him.
But, if he had but seen them, they weren't looks of hatred - they were looks of shock, guilt and horror that they'd driven their friend this far towards despair. Buck couldn't bear it any longer. He pushed past the others and into a room, muttering something to Ezra as he went.
Vin hauled himself to his feet and started to shuffle to the door again and the gambler leant over the balcony to interrupt his departure.
"Mr Tanner! Vin - Buck wants to... he'd like a word with you. Please."
"Buck's already had a word with me. I know how y'all feel and I don't blame none of ya'. I'll leave just as soon as I get a horse ready."
Four of remaining five men still seemed to be rooted silent to the floor in shock at the sharpshooter's attitude. Desperate to prevent Vin from reaching the door, Ezra sought the appropriate words but they eluded his grasp and, for once in his life, the conman discovered he was lost for words.
As his bruised hand snaked out to reach the door handle, Vin found himself against his better judgement turning round again. He knew he should just leave now, leave them hating him so they wouldn't feel any hurt, but somehow he felt unable to just tear himself away from the comfort he had sought all his life and eventually found in this unlikely assortment of men. Cursing himself for his weakness, he made an attempt to ease the pain this parting would cause him.
"I ain't gonna ask you to forgive me," he began unsteadily, leaning against the wall and still unable to bring his face up to meet theirs, his averted eyes darting everywhere but the balcony, "'Cause I don't deserve it. I know that. And there ain't one of you as deserved what I had to say 'bout y'all. I just want y'all to know that I understand how ya feel 'bout me an' I feel the same way myself... I don't deserve y'all an I didn't deserve for ya' to come an' drag me outta that hell-hole, an' I sure as hell don't deserve you to believe what I'm 'bout t' say but I'm gonna say it anyhow... I didn't mean none of what I said about you an' there ain't a word of it's true. I only said it to... well it don't matter: all I'm gonna say is that they were all lies an' you're the most decent bunch a' men I ever met. I ain't gonna ask you to even believe I'm sorry for what I said - but I am. An' now I'm goin'." He finally dared to steal a glance upwards, ready to disappear through the door as soon as his old friends' looks ordered it.
But instead he found himself staring into five faces creased with pain. He studied each profile intently, lingering finally on Chris's, and to his mortification saw there were tears in the gunslinger's eyes. Christ, he thought to himself, you've done that, Tanner; you've broken a man just like Buck said you had. And he didn't know what to do.
"Jesus, Chris," he whispered to the man in black, the words barely able to force their way through the thickening in his throat, "Chris, I - I'm so sorry. None of what I said was true. You're a - a good man. The... best I know. " Without waiting to elicit a response he turned to go, determined this time not to be stopped, not by anything. Things did not go to plan.
Chris's tongue finally managed to relocate itself in his mouth and he uttered a choked sob. "I'm not, Vin," he cried out, begging his friend silently not to go. The old telepathy that had existed between them seemed to work and Vin slowly, hesitantly, revolved to face him. "I - we, all of us, we ain't the men you think... we know you didn't mean what you said, we know why you said it, but we only know it now - before, we thought you meant it an' that's why Buck did what he did, said what he did... I can't believe you risked all you did just to save us. It's us that don't deserve you, and it's you that's the good man."
Vin's face lined itself with confusion. This was such a rare phenomenon that if it hadn't appeared in the present context the others may have been tempted to enjoy it; as it was, it gave them the hope that maybe Vin wouldn't walk out of that door just yet. His next words reinforced it.
"Wh-what?" he stammered, shocked. "But - all what I said about you, what I did to J.D., how I made ya turn to drinkin' again... I hurt y'all..."
"But we know why!" burst out J.D. "Shit, what's a headache an' a few home truths when you went through what you did? You're better 'n I am, Vin, an' it's me ought to be asking you for forgiveness."
Vin still just looked at them, perplexed. Ezra took it upon himself to explain J.D.'s speech to the tracker with a somewhat greater degree of lucidity.
"What Mr. Dunne is saying," he translated, "is that we know you did and said what you did to him merely to save us the inconvenience of having to come and extract you from your predicament. You sacrificed your own feelings to save us. You knew what was going to happen to you, you didn't want it to happen to us, so you did the only thing you could to prevent that: you made us feel only anger towards you so we wouldn't ride after you to attempt a rescue. That, my - well, I'd be honoured to call you friend but, I must admit, I can entirely see your perspective if you don't return the sentiment - anyway, that is what I call true bravery, true goodness, and as J.D. said - well, you're better 'n I am."
A different type of confusion was spreading across Vin's face now: the inability to understand Ezra's language. Josiah saw this and grinned.
"And what Mr. Standish is saying," he told the tracker with a wink, "is that you're one of the best men any of us has ever had the pleasure of meeting, and we don't deserve your continued friendship."
"I agree," added Nathan, "But even if you want to walk outta that door - an' I'll understand if you do - you ain't goin' to until you're properly healed. You can't give me money, Vin, you've saved my life more times than I can count an' now I repay you by believing what you said about me... when all you were doing was protecting me... well, shame makes me want to hurt someone, bad. Not you," he added hastily as the tracker began edging backwards again.
"Vin," said Chris softly, immediately diverting his friend's eyes to his. "You just said I was the best man you ever met. Now, I don't know why you think that because I know for a fact it isn't true, but this is: you're the best man I've ever met. I'll understand if you go now, but I - I'm begging you to stay."
Vin was in a state of shock, and it dizzied him. His world had just upturned itself and landed, he had to say, in a far better position - the best one he could envisage. Relief and gratitude flooded through him and broke down the last wall of his defence, self-anger. Looking up, he saw five pale and apprehensive faces: he was just about to speak and reassure them of his intentions to remain when once again his world quite literally this time turned upside down and he slumped gracelessly onto the floor.
Before any of the others were given a chance to move a blurred figure burst from a room and charged down the stairs to the fallen body. Buck knelt swiftly down by his friend's side and cradled the sharpshooter's head in his arms as tenderly as though he'd been a newborn lamb. Vin was still conscious, but only just.
Nathan started towards the pair, but Chris's arm stopped his descent. The look in his eyes told the healer that they needed some time alone together and, for once, Nathan put the health of his patient's state of mind before his body's and, nodding to their leader, he walked into the room Vin had vacated to reorganise the bed and fire. The others followed him.
When Vin looked up into the face of Buck his first instinct was to try and flinch away from him but he could see the fear and self-hate in the man's eyes and knew what such an action would do to him. He blinked the inclination away and fought down the urge to cry out at the pain in his back that threatened to engulf him. Buck sensed the man's discomfort and was distressed by it: he thought he was the cause and, as gently as he could, lay Vin back onto the floor.
"I'll go get Nathan," he said softly. He twisted away from the tracker and was astonished to find Vin's long fingers scrabbling at his arm.
"What?" he asked quickly, in concern. "'You okay? You need somethin'?"
Vin coughed weakly. "Yeah," he replied softly. "I'm sorry, Buck, for what I did to everyone, 'specially J.D. Didn't ever mean the kid no harm."
Funny, mused Buck to himself, how much J.D. always did seem the 'kid'. Yet Chris was right; Vin can't have been much older himself. And now he'd maybe gone and broken the trust that Vin had given the other members of the seven, destroyed yet another hope in the young man's life - a life that had seen too much grief and pain for its years. Buck bit his lip to hold back a tear.
"I know," he said. "I know you'd never hurt anyone without a reason - not like me. I just... just laid into ya an' I didn't even have a cause." He reached out trembling fingers and brushed his young friend's battered face. "Did I do that?" he whispered, withdrawing his hand and wiping it again roughly on his clothing as if to remove the stain of the deed.
"Nah," Vin reassured him. "Not much. Had so many bruises there to start with yours don't make no difference."
Buck had already noted the Texan's tendency to employ his somewhat warped sense of humour in times of extreme difficulty and pain and had often wondered how the man managed it.
"I hurt ya'," he accused remorsefully.
"Oh come on, Bucklin," scoffed Vin, to the best of his ability. "You've given me worse in a wrestlin' match an' I ain't thought none the worse of ya' for it. An' I didn't even deserve it then."
"You didn't deserve it this time!" Buck shouted. Vin winced at the level of noise and the older man immediately lowered his voice. "And it wasn't just the punches," he continued, so quietly Vin had to strain his ears to catch the words, "it was what I said. When you said what you said to the others - about not meaning what you said - well, I can't put it better now. I didn't mean it, Vin, none of it - all except one bit. You remember any of what I told ya'?"
Vin gave a non-committal shrug, not wishing his friend to know how deeply his words had cut at him.
"Well, there was one little bit when I said how J.D. looked at you as his brother, how we all did. And that's true, Vin. Now, I can understand how you may not be wanting to have my company an' if you'd done to me what I did to you then I'd feel the same. But the rest of them, Vin - they need you. You're all that keeps Chris together, you're all that stops him bitin' Ezra's head off sometimes, him an' everyone else's. So in a way you're all that keeps everyone together. You should a' seen us when you weren't here, at each others' throats like wildcats, we were. I ain't never heard Chris beg before and I know how proud he is. You mean more to him than anyone or anything I've seen since Sarah and Adam, and you mean more than anything to the rest of us as well. Now, if your problem with staying is me bein' here, then I'll go. I owe you and everyone that much, that you're all happy, and I'd hate to ruin things between the rest of you by what I've said and done. So say now, an' I'll go if that's what you want."
Vin was almost speechless with emotion. That anyone could be so selfless as to sacrifice their own well being for the happiness of others in such a way was beyond him. Wasn't that like something Ezra'd said about him? he wondered blearily. Ah well, they were just words. He wasn't a hero. He grimaced at Buck affectionately.
"Bucklin," he said at last, "I've heard some fuckin' weird notions coming from you in my time but nothin' like this one. You ridin' out'd piss everyone off as much as they say me doin' it would so you stay right where you are. You say I'm like a brother to you? Well don't leave me then. Reckon we're equal with the words... things I said about you were worse'n the things you told me... what else ya' worried 'bout? You hittin' me?" He reached out a hand and feebly cuffed Buck on the chin. "Well, reckon we're equal there now too. Okay?"
Buck felt his throat constricting and bleated out a heartfelt laugh before it tightened permanently. "God bless you, Vin Tanner," he croaked. "And what a little brother you'd make. As if I don't have enough to worry about with J.D. But you know, sometimes, I think you're a hell of a lot older than any of us. Did I hear you call me brother?"
"Yeah. You know, Bucklin," Vin suddenly confided, and the eyes he turned to Buck were those of a small child's seeking confirmation or explanation, "I haven't ever had a brother. Haven't had a family since I was five. But if I could choose my family..." he plucked at his friend's sleeve as he bit back a cough, "If I could choose, then you'd be part of it. You an' those other five bastards who can't even leave me alone when I've given them enough reason to want to kill me. Yeah," he finished as Buck scooped his light weight up into his arms and carried him up the stairs into the room where the other five bastards waited expectantly, "reckon I've done all right with you lot. If a man wants a family, he could do a whole lot worse than pick the bunch a' you."