Nathan paced as he considered Chriss request. "I aint sure, Chris," he said shaking his head, the fingers of one hand running over his chin as he pondered.
Chris eased his aching legs, the movement sending Vin scurrying into his shirt once more, "I just want Vin back," Chris appealed to the healer, "Aint no life like this."
Nathan sat down on the bunk by Vins side and stroked his back, feeling the tremors under his fingertips. He frowned; the decision lay heavily with him. Sitting on the sheriffs desk was a hide pouch, sent to Nathan by Kojay. The old Indian chief had heard of Vins plight and wanted to help. Inside the pouch was a fine white powder; a delicate mixture of herbs that was supposed to help anyone suffering from memory loss. The only ingredient Nathan could distinguish was lavender, its sweet perfume dulled any other aromas. In addition, hed read about lavender being beneficial in helping with amnesia. However he was still concerned,
"We could do more harm than good," he re-iterated, "I wish I knew more about tribal medicine." He didnt like to see his friend suffer but likewise did not wish to cause more suffering. The drug would not kill him, so would it be so bad to administer enough to help Vin remember? "This should be Vins decision "
"If we could speak to Vin hed tell you to give him the damned potion!" Chris spat, hushing the bundle in his arms whom was moaning softly and clutching at the fabric under his fingers. Both men looked down as Vin pushed himself upright, shaking uncontrollably as Chris tried to steady him.
"Na-than.," he called weakly, struggling to get his mouth around the word.
"What is it Vin?" Nathan asked softly, his fingers easing the knot in Vins throat as the tracker fought with his next sentence.
"I want to . Try it I want to know.," he panted, his liquid eyes searching Chriss face.
Chris stroked Vins jaw then helped him settle back against his chest. He looked over at Nathans troubled face and nodded, knowing no further words were necessary.
It was all Chris could do but hold Vin as the memories flooded back. Not in any particular order, which was worse, just a jumble of experiences both good and bad. Vin gasped and tensed as wave after wave of sensations and recollections burned through him like a physical pain. He shivered, curling into a foetal position as Chris eased him against his chest and rubbed his back, cursing himself for allowing Vin to go through with the attempt.
"Hang in there pard," Chris soothed as another spasm rocked the weakened man. The tracker sat bolt upright, his breath hissing through his clenched teeth. He mumbled incessantly for the best part of an hour as Chris spoke quietly to him, rubbing the rigid muscles in his arm. Eventually he collapsed against the gunslinger, exhausted and trembling. Still the words came, jumbled sentences that included the names of the seven with others, some names spoken with gentleness, others with anger. However, each time Chris asked for the name of Vins main tormentor; the one hed always referred to as master, the young man shook his head violently and clammed up. He either couldnt or wouldnt remember the name.
As the words stilled and Vin lay spasmodically trembling in the gunslingers arms Chris looked down and gently stroked the trackers cheek.
"You back with me Vin?" he asked, searching Vins face for the answer.
Tears spilled over Vins tawny lashes but he seemed unaware of them, "I remember now," he said, his voice no more than a hoarse whisper. He gazed up at Chris, his tired eyes filled with misery, "They done told me ywere dead," he hiccuped, leaning his cheek into Chris tender fingers.
"They were wrong." Chris smiled sadly.
"Didnt know that," Vin lamented, "Saw yfall." His face creased into tears and he failed to stifle a sob. Chris cradled him in his arms once more, rocking him gently as he wept.
It was a long time before Vins weeping subsided but when it did the two men sat in silence, Vin against Chris chest as before. Unable to rest, Vin reached up to capture the gunslingers hand, letting their fingers entwine, feeling the contentment flow through his newly awakened senses. They sat together in silence, watching the shadows lengthen and fade into the gloaming.
Chris knew the effects of the drug were wearing off because Vin was slowly coming down, his breathing evening out as the tremors ceased. He looked down, trying to gauge if the man resting in his arms was sleeping. As if sensing Chriss intention Vin opened his eyes, blinking away the tears clinging to his eyelashes.
"You still with me?" Chris asked softly.
"Still here, cowboy," Vin replied, smiling to himself as he realised that it was, in fact, Vin Tanner answering the question.
The drug had left Vin with terrible cramps. Nathan shooed away a weary Larabee, settling down on the bunk by Vins side he eased him down onto the sheets.
"Aint something we done lightly," Nathan offered in way of an apology.
Vin winced as his heel was placed against the healers thigh,
"Salright." He swallowed thickly, "Least I remember things now."
Nathan ran his fingers over the tight muscles in Vins leg, teasing them gently into submission. The tracker visibly relaxed, sighing softly as he closed his eyes.
"Was a bad thing happened to you," Nathan said, shifting so he could work on Vins other leg, "No-one expects ya to mend over night."
Vin nodded, unable to find an answer to the kind words. Nathan finished massaging Vins legs and moved closer to work on his arms.
"Nathan?" Vin whispered, opening his eyes to gaze at the healer.
"How can folk be so cruel?" He searched Nathans face for the answer and saw the remembered injustices and horrors reborn in the ex-slaves eyes.
"I dont know," Nathan told him, his voice gruff. "Can only tell ya that its left with us to live with it."
"Ysaying I should forget and move on?" Vin asked in a timid voice.
"No. Youll never forget." Nathan ran his fingers over Vins sweat damp brow, "But in time youll put it to the back of your mind." He watched as Vin reached up to link his fingers with his own, "Ya got a lot to live for, take comfort in that and the strength will follow."
Vin smiled softly, unashamed of the tears that glistened on his cheek,
"I swear youre wiser than Josiah," he said, clasping the healers hand tightly.
Nathan returned the smile, "Dont go lettin him hear ya say that," adding with a sigh, "Guess weve both seen a lotta things." He reached down to wipe away the trackers tears, "Believe me Vin, thisll just make us stronger, aint no other way we can be."
Vin nodded, shivering in the aftermath of his drug induced recovery. He let Nathan draw the blanket up under his chin and tuck him in. After that, he slept.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat on the edge of the old wooden desk and turned to watch Vin pacing behind the bars. Like a trapped animal he worried his way along the boundary, the turns becoming tighter as the pace gathered in urgency. Eventually he could watch no longer, and with a fluid motion Chris unhooked the keys and tossed them to the tracker. Vin caught them neatly and gazed at the gunslinger.
"Come on out," Chris invited him, settling down once more on the edge of the desk.
Vin turned the keys in his fingers, wrestling with his fear,
"Why dont ycome on in?" he asked, his tone resentful.
Chris looked him over, "Spent enough time in a cell," he drawled, "Time to quit hiding."
Vins hackles rose, he threw the keys at the bars, "You put me here!"
Chris was ready for him, "And now Im letting you go."
The words deflated the tracker, his shoulders slumped. The sudden change alarmed the gunslinger.
Vin stepped up to the bars and laid his forehead against the cold steel, his eyes glazed. Chris was quickly on his feet and by the trackers side,
"Vin?" he called again.
Vins eyes cleared and he straightened,
"Sounds like Im on my own," he mumbled.
"No you aint," Chris told him, regretting his earlier words.
Vin gazed at him, his eyes troubled, "Spent a long time alone," he whispered.
Chris reached through the bars and cupped the younger mans jaw in his hand,
"Almost lost you once," he said, his eyes fixing Vins, "Aint about to do that again."
Vins hands fretted against the bars,
"I cant go that extra step on my own," he rasped, his eyes imploring.
Chris sighed then stooped to pick up the discarded keys,
"All right pard, then well do this together." He unlocked the cell door and opened it. Vin stood rigid in the open doorway, his fear alive in his eyes.
Chris stepped forward and gazing steadily into wild eyes he wound his arm around the smaller mans shoulders and drew him through the opening.
"W where we goin?" Vin asked, unable to keep the quiver from his voice.
"Nowhere." Chris smiled, settling his friend against the edge of the desk before sitting by his side, "Just here."
Vin let out a pent up breath and relaxed a little, "Alrighty then, guess I can live with that."
Chris squeezed the trackers shoulder, "Good. How about some coffee?"
Vin allowed himself the faintest of smiles,
"Ill make it, caint take any more of your brews."
Chris laughed softly, watching as the tracker crossed stiffly to the small stove. They still had a way to go but this was at least a start in the right direction.
Chris rubbed away the condensation on the inside of the jailhouse windows and stared into the driving rain. The night had come early to Four Corners and with the rain leaving the street fires as no more than smouldering embers the town was especially dark. It suited the gunslingers mood, he had little thought for anything except avenging his broken friend.
"Are ygonna eat these?" Vin called out from behind him, Chriss heart contracted at the tone, the tracker sounded so normal. He closed his eyes against the rising emotions then taking a deep breath he turned to his friend. Vin sat cross-legged before the stove, shovelling the last of his beans into his mouth with his fingers. Chris smiled faintly at the sight,
"Nah, you go ahead and have em." He crossed to Vins side, reaching down to let his fingers rest on the golden hair covering Vins neck. He watched as the slight man reached up to capture the filled plate and began to eat.
"You dont have to sit on the floor Vin," Chris whispered, his fingertips feeling the strong pulse at the trackers throat as he moved around the younger man to sit in the chair facing him.
"I know that," Vin quipped, smiling softly as he polished off the gunslingers supper.
Chris sighed as he watched his friend enjoy the highly desired beans, swearing vengeance for the wounded man. He took the offered coffee but didnt drink it, just sat turning it in his hands as Vin studied him.
"Ya wanna say something cowboy?" Vin asked, knowing there was something on the gunslingers mind.
Chris shook his head, smiling ruefully, "It can wait," he whispered, smoothing Vins wayward fringe from his eyes.
Vin gazed up at him, a question on his lips. The look he received stilled his curious mind. Putting down his mug he sidled up to his friend and rest his cheek on the older mans thigh, sighing softly as Chris rubbed at his neck muscles with his fingers. Lulled by the sound of rain beating against the windowpanes, Vin dozed as his friend watched over him.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah comin in," the preacher called out as he opened the jailhouse door and stepped out of the cold night. He shook off his heavy coat and crossed to the stove, nodding to Chris as he passed. The gunslinger was sitting on the edge of the bunk, elbows on knees, his head lowered. Josiah searched unobtrusively for the tracker but he couldnt see him. He knelt by the stove and opened the door, loading logs onto the fire and he wondered how to ask the silent man of Vins whereabouts. He was saved the trouble when the logs spilled onto the floor as he worked and before he could collect them Vin looked over the top of the stove and passed a log back to him. Josiah smiled softly into bright blue eyes,
"Didnt see ya there," he said, closing the stove door.
Vin looked back at Chris, who hadnt moved. He shuffled to the side of the stove and pressed himself against the bars,
"Chris aint happy," he said slowly, still struggling with his words.
Josiah moved to sit with his right shoulder leaning against the bars, he spoke quietly to the tracker,
"Know whats wrong?"
Vin considered the question for a long time; he couldnt look the preacher in the eye.
"Me." A deep sadness spoken in a single word.
Josiah sighed and looked across to the dark figure on the bunk, "He been shoutin at ya?"
"No," Vin admitted, leaning forward to rub his temple against Josiahs fingers that held the bars. The preacher reached through the bars to stroke Vins golden hair,
"Then what Vin, what makes you think hes mad at ya?"
"Aint mad," Vin said, tilting his head back to allow Josiah to stroke his throat. Josiah smiled sadly at his friend, realising the trust Vin placed in him to allow him to touch him in such a vulnerable place.
"He aint?" Josiah prompted, his fingers cupping the trackers jaw.
"Hes upset," Vin said, rubbing his cheek against Josiahs arm. Josiah let Vin show his affection, stroking his face gently as he finally met his gaze. The silent plea tugged at Josiahs heart. He took Vins fingers in his own,
"Let me talk to him, maybe I can help." He rubbed the back of Vins trembling fingers with his thumb then slowly stood and collecting the keys moved to the cell door. Vin drew himself closer to the stove and sat with his back to the two men.
Josiah gathered a chair and placed it beside the bunk, sitting heavily he stretched his legs out before him. He turned his head to the left so that he could see the silent gunman. Chris continued to stare hard at his hands, he made no sign that hed noticed the preacher. Josiah figured the best course of action would be to wait. He looked over to where Vin was sitting. The tracker was turning the edges of the rug he sat on in his fingers. There was a tenseness about him that hadnt been there before. Josiah turned his attention back to the gunslinger and found Chris watching him. The gaze wasnt exactly friendly. Josiah cleared his throat then spoke in a low tone.
"He needs to know where he stands with you."
Chris looked over to where the tracker sat huddled by the stove, whatever he saw there had him staring back at his hands. Josiah frowned then ploughed on,
"No matter whats goin on in your head yhave to remember Vin needs reassurance right now." That got Chriss attention, his eyes fixed onto the preachers, Josiah continued, "All that he is now is what you allow him to be. Cant ysee how your rejection would harm him?" Chris flinched at the words but he didnt speak. Josiah backed off for a moment, taking the time to study the man beside him. Chris was a man in crisis, there was a need in him to talk but Josiah doubted he could reach through the tough exterior to tap that need. He was about to continue when Chris spoke on his own volition.
"I would never turn him away," he said softly, "He knows that."
"Then whats all this about?" Josiah asked.
Chris sighed and ran his hand over his face,
"He keeps calling me master, Josiah, aint something I can live with. Just told him to stop, thats all." Despite dismissing his actions, Chris did manage to look guilty.
Josiah nodded knowingly,
"And I can see why that would bother you. But put it aside brother, Vin means no harm by the reference. Maybe he needs to find order in this new life "
"I dont want to be known as no master!" Chris interjected.
Josiah raised a hand to silence him, then continued,
"To find order in this new life he resurrects a piece from his past and therefore gives himself substance. Its just a great shame he can only identify with his life as a slave." He reached out to touch the gunslingers arm and inwardly winced as Chris flinched. "Give him time Chris, its a great healer."
Chris considered the preachers words then nodded. Josiah smiled softly then stood,
"Why not go and have a couple of beers with Buck. Hes chompin at the bit, wantin to know how Vins been doin today."
Larabee groaned, "Buck . And JD? Hopin fer a quiet drink."
"Silence is golden, Chris; it can also be dull. Go on ," Josiah chuckled, "Least youll preciate the quiet when yget back."
"Guess yer right." The gunslinger picked up his hat, " Wont be long Vin. Dont give Josiah any grief," he warned lightly as he exited the jail.
The tracker was in a contrary mood once Larabee left. He felt abandoned, and blamed the preacher for it. Whatever Josiah suggested, Vin negated and he paced the jailhouse nervously, picking things up, then slamming them back down again.
Josiah closed his eyes, effectively blocking out Vin and his theatricals. The tracker stilled and stared at Josiahs peaceful face. He padded across to the bunk and sat down on its edge, resting his elbows on his knees. He picked up a stray sprig of mint that had escaped Nathans herb pouch and sniffed the pungent aroma.
Josiah opened his eyes and watched Vin twist the herb in his fingers, the slump of his shoulders speaking volumes of his state of mind. The tracker was seriously depressed, and seemingly unreachable. Josiah touched the tense muscles at the nape of Vins neck, feeling the initial shudder before the tracker leaned into the soothing massage.
Vin turned slightly so he could look at the preacher. Josiahs eyes mirrored his own. Fear and torment warred in the depths of his soul, he knew he had to trust someone with his feelings, would Josiah have the resources to cope with his burden until Chris returned? Vin slipped onto the bunk and curled up by Josiahs side, his cheek against the preachers heart. He fingered the soft leather of Josiahs jacket and felt the preacher hold him close.
"Whats happenin tme Josiah?" he asked, shivering despite the warmth.
Josiah tucked the stray braid back behind Vins ear and soothed his tangled mane.
"Youre coming back to us my brother," Josiah whispered, "Its a hard path to tread." He leaned his chin on the trackers head, his warm breath in Vins hair.
"Im afraid of what Im coming back to," Vin confessed, shivering at the thought.
Josiah rubbed his arm, holding him closer, "Whatever that is, well be there for you. Remember that."
Vin nodded against the priests chest and slipped his hand into Josiahs hand,
"I will," he replied as he cuddled next to the larger man.
When Chris returned, he found Vin wrapped in the preachers arms. Josiah smiled as he eased from the bunk and lay Vin down onto the bed, pulling a blanket over him.
"Has he been any trouble?" Chris whispered as he poured the older man a mug of coffee.
"No. He was upset when ya first left. But after a while he settled down. As ycan see." Josiah finished off his drink, then stretched his back, "Buck and the boys still in the saloon?"
"Oh yeah. Last I heard, he was explainin to JD the secret places a woman likes to be touched," Chris snickered. "Even taught me a thing or two!"
"Then Id best get over there before the lesson ends. Aint never too old to learn, Chris. Specially when ydont have much luck with women."
Chris was still chuckling to himself as the jailhouse door closed. Then he turned and walked over to the cell. The tracker would know he was on the way by the chink-chink of his spurs but he didnt acknowledge him. Sitting down in the spot just vacated by the preacher, Chris ran his thumb along the trackers cheek. "You all right?"
Vin turned so that he could look up at the gunman, Chriss hand now caressing the back of his head. His eyes searched the older mans face, but he didnt speak.
"Vin?" Chris called down to him, offering his hands to the tracker. Hesitantly Vin took his friends hands and let Chris draw him to his feet. The two men stood awkwardly, neither meeting the others eyes. Chris moaned low in his throat then slipped his fingers along Vins shoulder and drew him into his arms, rocking the passive form gently. Vins arms slipped around Chriss back and he held on to him, laying his cheek against the warmth of Chriss shoulder.
"I didnt mean t hurt you," Chris told him, trying and failing to untangle himself.
Vin eventually let him go, smiling up at Chriss embarrassment,
"Not hurt." He beamed, "Just like it when yer nice." He cocked his head at the dark look Chris gave him, knowing it was given with affection. "Now what?" Vin asked, his eyes glinting mischievously.
Chris frowned in mock anger then laughed softly, "Aint much doin in a musty old cell," he admitted, then as an afterthought, "Wheres them cards Ezra gave you?"
Vin reached inside his vest and produced the pack, offering them up trustingly to his mentor. Chris pulled the chair close to use as a table and after shuffling the cards dealt the tracker a hand.
"Remember how to play?"
"Nope," Vin said without regret, fanning his cards in his hands as hed seen Ezra do.
"In that case," Chris smiled at his friend, "Its double or quits!"
Vin cast him a wary glance then warned him, "I remember more than ya know." He winked, "Ill take three, and lets see ymoney."
Chris blanched, realising that he was probably going to lose a packet to the tracker.
"Aw hell," he moaned, secretly enjoying the fleecing.
Chris left Vins side to look out of the jailhouse window. He hoped that Vin would
follow but the tracker shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, his face hidden in the shadows.
"Quiet as a grave out there," Chris said, wincing at the inadequacy of his words, "Vin?" he called out, sensing the other mans apprehension.
Vin slid along the bars, clinging to the doorframe between the cells and the lodge. His pained expression had the gunslinger crossing the jailhouse to reach his friend.
"You all right?" he asked, moving his face so that Vin was unable to look away from him.
"Slate," Vin mumbled, his eyes never meeting Chris concerned gaze, "Think Ill turn in."
Chris placed his hands on Vins shoulders and felt him tremble, "I thought you wanted out of here?"
"I do," Vin said in earnest, "Aint ready yet, thats all."
"You can do this," Chris urged.
"No!" The trackers shout sounded final, definite. Chris wouldnt let go,
"Vin listen to me. Remember what Josiah said about one foot in front of the other "
"Easy fer him to say," Vin snapped, cutting Larabee off.
"Vin!" Chriss tone was sharp, scolding.
Vin flinched as if hed been struck and Chris was immediately sorry. He rubbed the trackers arm until the fear faded in his eyes.
"Hey pard, this aint the way it should be." Chriss eyes searched the trackers face, "Weve got to stop fighting amongst ourselves, it aint gonna fix nothin."
Vin pulled away and turned his back on the gunslinger, "Nothins gonna fix the way I feel, might as well put a bullet in me, then its all over." His voice was dull, lifeless. Chris shivered at his words,
"That aint the Vin Tanner I know speakin."
"The Vin Tanner you knew died in that cage." Vins shoulders hunched as he cradled the pain inside him. Chris reached around him and drew him back to rest against his chest,
"No Vin, youre wrong. A lesser man maybe, but not you." He leaned his cheek against Vins hair and whispered to him, "I know youre hurtin Vin, but dont go givin up on me."
Chris almost overbalanced as Vin turned in his embrace and flung his arms around the gunslingers neck, pressing his face into Chriss shoulder. Steadying himself Chris rubbed the trembling mans back, he could barely make out his words,
"Then help me Chris," Vin sobbed softly, "Cause I aint sure I know who I am anymore."
"Hush," Chris soothed, holding the younger man close, "Well get through this, I promise."
The tracker stepped back and looked up at his friend, tears spilling over his cheeks,
"Im afraid " Vin managed before his voice failed.
Chris cupped Vins face and wiped away the tears with his thumbs, "I know," he said gently before pulling Vin back into his arms.
He held Vin close until the trembling eased. Then he stirred, feeling the smaller man pull back. He stroked the soft hair at the crown of Vins head and smiled down at the pale face that tilted up to him,
"Josiah will be here soon, dya want to clean up before then?"
Vin nodded and let Chris draw him through the cell door to a pitcher warming by the stove.
"You go ahead, Ill just take a look see if the rains eased any."
Another nod saw the gunslinger moving away to the window. Outside the rain had stopped, leaving a dark street lit only by the puddles of moonlight. Chris leant his forehead against the cold glass and squeezed his eyes shut. He felt emotionally drained, and fretted at his inadequacy. If only he could find the words to reassure the man behind him
Vin gathered the water in his hands and splashed his face. He didnt feel any better for the earlier outburst but now felt that the burden had been well and truly shared. He feared that Chris would take his words about giving him a bullet too seriously, though he didnt know how to retract them. One thing he was sure about was that he wanted to survive, why else wouldve he endured the hell hed been through. His hands shook as he held the towel to his face; Vin was appalled by his weakness. He jumped as Chris stepped away from the glass and snapped the shutters closed. The gunslinger sensed more than saw him flinch and Vin heard the soft chink-chink of his spurs as he approached. Gasping, his thoughts in turmoil the tracker stood and backed away. Chris stopped, his hands by his sides,
"Josiah is on his way over."
Vin wrung the towel in his hands, his shoulders hunched. He nodded, swallowing hard. Chris took another step forward but stopped as Vin retreated again.
"Do you want me to turn him away?" Chris asked, unable to keep his concern from his face.
Vin was sweating badly, and now began to shake. He couldnt answer the question, his whole attention was riveted to the door.
"Vin?" Chris called to him, just as the door opened and Josiah stepped in.
Vin didnt move, just stared at Josiah. The preacher took in the scene and quickly reacted. He moved away from the door to the desk, and eased himself into the chair there. His posture held no threat to the frightened man and slowly Vins laboured breathing eased and his vision cleared. He looked up at Chris as the man called his name again.
Vins reaction had alarmed Chris more than he cared to admit. Now he was not so sure moving him was such a good idea. He licked his dry lips and tried to keep his voice even,
"We dont have to do this today pard, would you rather sleep here tonight?" He ignored the look Josiah gave him, concentrating instead on Vins response to his words.
Vin dropped the towel from his fingers and backed himself into the corner, lowering himself to crouch between the cold bars and sharp stone wall.
Chris felt dismay clutch at his guts and took a step forward before Josiahs hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Let him be a moment," the preacher told him evenly.
Chris half turned to Josiah and said in a low tone, "Maybe you should go."
Josiahs lips thinned in concentration as his eyes studied the sorry sight before them. He looked down at the gunslinger and shook his head; "Weve got to let Vin decide."
Irritation flashed in Chriss eyes but he held his temper. He looked back at the tracker and saw Vin had covered his face with his hands. He glanced at Josiah, a retort on his lips but the preachers expression stopped him. Josiah was bleeding for his wounded friend, the depth of his emotion hit Chris like a physical blow and he felt humbled by it. The two men waited.
It was what the tracker had longed to hear all night, Chris was offering him a way out, an invitation to remain in the safety of his cell. The choice was more than he could cope with right now. If Chris had told him to go or stay he wouldve carried out that order, although he feared the street. What he didnt know how to deal with was the freedom to choose. He backed away and shrank into the corner, oblivious to the grazing his back was taking as he settled down. He couldnt bear to look at Chriss pain so he hid his face and tried to imagine what the two men would wish him to say. He knew the answer already. Slowly he lowered his hands and looked up,
"Ill go," he said, accepting Chriss hand up. "But ya have to do something for me." He glanced up at his friends who were now by his side, comforting him with gentle caresses.
"Just say the word my friend." Josiah smiled.
Vin leant heavily against Chris as he spoke,
"Blindfold me " He said, feeling the gunslinger tense.
"No Vin," Chris whispered, horrified by the request. Josiah frowned but held his tongue.
Vin turned to look at Chris, his eyes imploring, "I cant just walk out of here, ygot to help me."
"I will help you, but not like that," Chris told him, willing him to reconsider.
"I think we should do as Vin wishes," Josiah said calmly, only to be rewarded by a glare.
"Thanks Josiah." Vin breathed in relief, his eyes still on the gunslingers.
Chris shook his head but Vin had already won, Chriss shoulders slumped in defeat,
"All right, but I dont like it Vin." He followed as Josiah steered Vin towards the door.
Vin closed his eyes as Josiah placed the neckerchief across his face then leant his forehead against the preachers chest as it was tied. He couldnt stop trembling though he told himself he trusted the two men completely.
"Right Vin, Chris and I will be at your side and Ill tell ya when to step down. Ready?"
Vin nodded slowly, tightly gripping the two mens free hands as they held onto his arms. He heard the door opening and the sounds from the street tumble in. He froze, he couldnt help it.
"Take it easy now Vin." Josiahs gentle words soothed him, "Lets just take a couple of steps and rest."
His legs shaking Vin managed the two steps onto the boardwalk and stopped. The jailhouse door was closed behind him then Vin grasped the offered hand again. It was cold out, the air damp and filled with the scent of smouldering fires. The tracker leant once more against Chris and felt the gunslinger shift his hold, winding his arm around Vins waist.
"Here we go then, four steps down Vin," Josiah called out. Vin let the preacher lead off then followed him down to the street, stumbling slightly on the last step.
"Steady now," Chris called to him, his grip tightening around the trackers waist.
"Were crossin the street now Vin," Josiah said, starting forward.
Vin hardly heard him, his ears were attuned to the sounds from the saloon and he was panicking. Laughter echoed around the dark street, bouncing of the wooden walls like a threat, taunting Vin as he remembered another time. The gunshot he heard was imagined but to Vin very real, he cannoned into Josiah with a yelp, almost knocking the preacher down.
"Hold steady now!" Josiah called out, at the same time as Chris yelled out Vins name.
Vin twisted and tried to break free but the grip on his arms anchored him. He cried out as he slipped to his knees, the sound raw with anguish. Feeling the two men reach down to him, he rolled onto his side and cowered on the floor.
Chris was shaking as he tried to help Vin from the sodden dirt. He grasped blindly at the smaller mans clothing, as did Josiah. Together they managed to get the frightened tracker to sit up, then Josiah lifted him into his arms and strode towards the church.
Vins mind was back in Purgatory. Hed tried to fend off the hands but was too weak to protect himself, and he lay curled in Josiahs arms as the preacher raced towards the church. He could hear the heightened thud of Josiahs heart as he lay against his chest and concentrating on this he managed to push the sounds from the street away. He shivered violently, both from cold and shock and jumped as Josiah burst through the church doors and headed for his home at the back. He was laid onto a soft blanket then Josiah began to tug off his boots. Vin moaned softly and began to struggle, but Chris was quickly by his side and the blindfold was removed.
"Vin, you all right?" Chris tapped the trackers face as Vins glazed eyes roamed the room, "Vin, talk to me pard." He stroked Vins mud streaked face with his fingertips.
Josiah was carefully removing Vins pants, his hands urgent but gentle.
"W-what happened?" Vin asked, reaching up to place his muddy hands on the gunslingers shoulders.
Chris smiled with relief; then his face darkened,
"You had a turn in the street." He ran his hand over the trackers brow, "Shouldnt have asked you to come out, Im sorry." He shifted to allow Josiah to cover the trackers lower body with a blanket.
"No." Vin stopped him, "Ydidnt know, couldnt have known," he sighed, looking up at both men who were watching him, their concern and regret written on their faces, "Hell, we made it, didnt we?" he said with false bravado and was rewarded by the two mens relieved looks.
"Come Vin, lets get you out of those wet things," Josiah said, easing Vin into a sitting position. Together he and Chris stripped the young man then laid him down to rest.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Vins hair, worried by the trackers silence. He turned as Josiah approached him and accepted the bowl of warm water and washcloth in his hands.
"Ill leave ya to clean him up, while I find Nathan, see if he can give Vin somethin to calm him down."
"Thanks, Josiah," Chris replied curtly, still angry with himself and the preacher for causing Vin yet more pain. He turned his attention back to the young man, surprised to find Vin gazing up at him, his eyes weary and bruised. With a sigh Chris leaned close and gently wiped away the dirt from his friends face, revealing yet more cuts to his already injured visage.
Vin closed his eyes and lay still in the preachers bed while Chris worked, whispering a sigh when the gunslinger traced a finger over his fragile features. His eyes fluttered open when Chris took hold of his hands and began to wash away the street grime.
"Chris?" Vin called weakly, as if not seeing the man before him.
"Im right here, pard," Chris answered, moving closer now the task was complete.
Vin blinked and attempted to focus on his friends face. Two Larabees merged into one, solid form.
"Didnt mean what I said before."
"Before?" Chris asked, confused.
The younger man reached up, grasped the gunslingers fingers, and was surprised to find Chris trembling under his touch. "About the bullet." He smiled wanly, "Dont go shootin me in my sleep. I aint ready to die just yet."
Chris stroked the trackers temple, "Glad to hear it," he whispered, "Cause I aint ready to let you go."
Vin smiled softly and sighed, "Still a long way to go . " He said solemnly, " maybe yll shoot me after all."
Chris moaned softly in his throat, a gentle warning sound, "Dont tempt me Vin," he said, a sad smile on his lips.
Vin closed his eyes and his breathing evened out. Chris continued to stroke his companions face until he heard Josiah returning with Nathan, then he placed Vins hands on his chest and drew the blanket up to his neck.
"Hows he doin?" Nathan asked quietly, drawing a chair up to the bed.
"Sleepin," Chris answered, watching the trackers face.
Nathan reached over and placed his hand against Vins forehead, "No signs of fever, he say anything about what happened out there?"
"Nope," Chris said, then added guiltily, "Just that hes not ready to die."
Nathan nodded, "Well thats a start." He shifted his weight so that he could look at the gunslinger; "I can watch him for a while, give ya a chance to go clean up."
Chris stared at the healer; what on earth did he mean?
"Come on Chris, theres hot water at the bath house, and Bucks found ya a change of clothes," Josiah said, gathering himself shirt and pants.
Nathan smiled as Chris continued to stare at him, "Go on now, yall want to be back when Vin wakes." It was the catalyst the gunslinger needed, he drew himself wearily to his feet and followed Josiah through the church.
The bathhouse was already steamy when the two men entered. Chris quickly stripped and settled into a hot tub, closing his eyes and groaning softly as the warm liquid wrapped around his aching body. Josiah looked back at him and smiled,
"Good huh?" he said knowingly as he slipped into the tub by the gunslingers side.
Chris opened his eyes and gazed at the preacher. Josiah noted the two days growth of beard on his drawn features, the shadows around his eyes. Chris was watching him, calculating.
"There a reason you got me here preacher?" he asked in a low, dangerous tone.
"No reason," Josiah said calmly, "Other than we got soaked getting Vin up off the street."
Chris huffed, then settled back in the tub, letting the soothing waters take him. He couldnt help but let his eyes close once more.
"Ya gonna tell me what yer so angry about?" Josiah asked as he finished washing.
Chris woke with a start, but quickly covered his surprise, running the underused washcloth over his body. He flashed a warning look at the preacher but was shamed by the concern he saw in the older mans eyes. He ran a weary hand over his face,
"We failed Vin out there," he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
"That we did brother," Josiah sadly agreed, shaking his head, "Lord knows, I had no idea he would react so."
"I knew," Chris admitted, his tone harsh. He turned to meet the quizzical look, "He told me." He leaned back in the tub once more, realising his anger was aimed within, and not at the preacher at all.
Josiah knew the look on the leaders face, had seen it many times before. "Aint no fault in wantin thelp Chris," he said.
Chris tried to be angry but he was too darned tired to find the energy to snarl at the preacher, get him to back off. He considered Josiahs words, then turned bleak eyes on the man,
"Maybe not. But he needs someone to do right by him Josiah. And I aint doin that."
Josiah studied the downcast man until Chris turned away and struggled from the tub.
"In Vins eyes yer doing fine," he said, knowing from the rigid set of Chriss back that he was considering his words. For a moment Josiah thought he would get a reply but Chris quickly dressed and nodding to the preacher, departed for the church.
Josiah sighed, "Got the weight of the world on his shoulders Lord," he offered to the Almighty before closing his eyes to savour the last of the warmth in the water.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat up on Josiahs bed and craned his neck to watch the preacher cross the street and head
off towards the saloon where he would purchase breakfast for the two of them. He leant against the wall behind the bed and crossed his legs, taking deep breaths as fear clenched his stomach, forcing bile into his throat. Ya can do this Tanner, he told himself sternly, berating himself for his weakness.
A sound in the church made the tracker jump, his breath hissing through his teeth as JDs voice called out to him,
"Ya in there Vin, Josiah?"
Quickly gathering himself Vin called back to him, "Here. Josiahs over at the saloon."
Footsteps approached and JDs face appeared around the door, "May I come in?" he asked, knowing that even now Vin could sometimes be a mite antsy.
"Sure kid," Vin smiled, patting the bed, "Sit yerself down." He eyed the tousled hair and drawn features, "Been up all night?" he asked in very much his normal manner.
JD smiled, planting himself on the edge of the bed, "More or less. Been drinkin and playin poker," the youngster boasted.
"Ezra and Buck involved?" Vin asked, nudging JD in the ribs with his elbow, motioning him to shift over. JD shuffled across and watched as Vin spread out on his back.
"Yeah." JD frowned as the tracker patted the bed by his side,
"Rest yer bones kid, I aint gonna bite ya."
JD slid down onto his stomach, laying his cheek against his forearms.
"So how much did ya lose." Vin smiled.
"Oh I didnt lose none, just had to do Ezras patrol this mornin " JD faltered at Vins soft chuckle, "Whats so funny Vin?"
"Nothin kid," Vin said, his blue eyes warm with amusement.
JD shrugged, gathering his composure, "So do ya like it over here at the church?"
Vin stared up at the familiar sight of peeling paint on the ceiling, "Yeah its real nice," he said, shifting his legs until he was comfortable. "JD?"
"Can ytell me what Id be doin now?" Vins tone was wishful.
"Ya mean before " JD stopped and the silence that followed was awkward. Once Vin got over the initial shock the simple word drew from him he tried to cover but his voice was tight with remembered pain,
"Yeah before Can ytell me where Id be right now?"
JD rubbed his upper lip against his arm then settled down again,
"Well ya ride out a lot. I guess ya might be out on patrol."
Vin liked the sound of that; he ran the word around his mouth, "Patrol huh?"
"So do I patrol alone?" Vin asked, the question strangely important.
"Sometimes." JD frowned in concentration, "But ya go out with the others on their patrols too."
"So I like ridin." It wasnt a question; images were tumbling in Vins mind.
"I guess so."
"So what else do we do?" Vin asked impatiently.
JDs eyes were closing, "Well ya ride out with me sometimes to Netties. Ya do jobs for her and I "
"Ya court Casey," Vin ended for him, pleased with himself for remembering.
"Aint courtin Vin, just visitin," JD corrected him.
"All right, visitin." Vin smiled, "So what else do I do?"
"Well " JD was tired, he was struggling to think of anything. Vin nudged him hard in the ribs, urging the youngster on. "Ya go up to Chriss place, in the hills."
Vin nodded, he could picture the shack and the man that built it. He knew Chris wasnt doing anything serious up there, it was just somewhere he went when the town and its inhabitants got too much for him. Chris has demons of his own; Vin realised with a jolt. Another question rested on his lips but when Vin looked down at JD he stilled his racing mind and sighed. The youngest member of their group was sleeping, his face angelic.
"All right kid," Vin grumbled, closing his own eyes, "Ill keep that question fer later." He let his mind drift over the few memories that came back to him of Chris place and slipped into an easy sleep.
When Josiah returned with breakfast he found the two men snoring softly and smiled,
"Like babes," he muttered to himself, settling down to a very hearty meal.
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