Come Home

by JIN


The trail never was good, but I feel every bump in the road this time. I turn back to get a look at Vin, wincing when I feel another jolt of the wagon beneath me.

He doesn’t make a sound, of course, but I’ve learned to read every line on his face. His arm seems to be healing up all right, but I know his ribs still bother him, and his hip is killing him. I’ll be relieved when Nathan is up and around and able to take a look at it.

He senses me looking at him, and he pulls his head up a bit, but I can’t see his eyes under the brim of his hat.

I still can’t believe he agreed to head back to town, and I keep thinking that any minute he’s going to rise up and leap out of that wagon and run off. Well, maybe not leap exactly – probably be closer to a crawl.

I talked till I was blue in the face – used up my quota for a good year, at least. Didn’t think he was really listening, until today. He just woke up and said it was time to go back home. No, that’s not what he said. He said it was time to head back to Four Corners.

All this talk of home has got him riled up and confused. I just recently figured out it’s because he wants it so much. Probably ain’t a man on this earth that wants a place to call home more than Vin. Forget all his talk about being a wild and wooly wanderer – they’re just words . . . words he’s told himself for so many years that he almost believes them.

The wagon hits another rut and I hear him choke back a cry. That’s it . . . we’re taking a break. I steer the wagon under the shade of an old oak tree, and climb down from the seat.

He’s propped up in the back, with his bad leg stretched out and the good one pulled up tight against him . . . just like when I found him that first day.

He’s got his head resting against the side of the wagon, and with his hat pulled low, I still can’t see his eyes.

I need to see his eyes. Somehow, I know that he’s hiding from me again, and my heart plummets. After all these days, we’ve made no progress at all.

"What’s going on, Vin?"

He says nothing.

Damn. I’ve run out of ideas. Maybe we’ll meet up with Nettie on the way – maybe she can talk some sense into him . . . even though I know it’s a matter of fear more than sense.

He shifts just a little and tilts his face up towards me. It’s so clear to me then. He’s not ready.

"We’re going back to my place," I say, but I don’t move. I keep my eyes on his.


I don’t get it. I know he doesn’t want to do this – that it’s tearing him to pieces inside.

"Yes," I say . . . and I mean it. I can’t believe I mean it. This is what I’ve been asking him to do for days now, and now that he’s doing it – I’m arguing about it.

He sighs . . . a low, mournful sigh of resignation. I wonder what happened to change his mind.

"Ain’ t never gonna change, Chris." He gives me a long look before he speaks again. "I put you out long enough. Let’s just get on with it."

"That what this is about? Putting me out? Hell Vin, you know better than that."

I look at him again – really look at him. And that’s when I know. He’ll never be ready. He’ll go into town, and do what he thinks he needs to do, just until he can mount up and ride out. And we’ll never see him again. And it occurs to me that I don’t want that – I don’t think I can take that.

I wasn’t looking for a home. I had one once, and I never thought to have one again. But I found one anyway – and Vin was the biggest part of that. If he leaves, it won’t be long until I follow – because it won’t be ‘home’ without him.

I wonder if he knows that. I wonder if he knows that as long as I’m riding with him – I’m about as close to home as a man like me is likely to get.

He takes his hat off and pulls his hand through his hair – repeating the gesture I’ve been using all week. I see the dark circles under his eyes from days of restless sleep and unrelenting pain. I see what Nettie saw days ago – how really bad he looks, and I feel a desperate need to take it all away . . . to make him feel better and look better and be better.

"We’ll go back to my place. And when you’re healed, we’ll go to Tascosa and we’ll convince that judge of the truth. There’s a way, and we’ll find it. And then, if you want, we’ll come back. And if you don’t, we won’t."

His eyes are so sad, that I have to turn away.

"You’d give it all up fer me?" he finally says in that soft rasp that is unique to him.

"I would."

I look him straight in the eye then to let him know I mean it.

Don’t run, Vin, I say to myself. Stay - or go with me - but don’t run out on me. It’s almost as if he heard me, the peculiar way he raises his brow and looks at me.

"I ain’t never been one t’ run, Chris. I reckon I got some things that need doin’ in town first . . . some things that need sayin’."

"Doesn’t have to be today," I say, offering him an out.

He sighs again, leans his head back, closes his eyes, and on nothing more than a breath, he says, "Kinda feel like it does."

+ + + + + + +

I practically had to carry him into Mary’s place. But he made it, and he even managed to sit on the chair by Casey’s side and act like he wasn’t dying inside. I was grateful that Nettie wasn’t there at the time – I don’t think he could have done it.

About killed me to watch him.

Casey was all sweetness and light, that spit-fire and vinegar she’s known for tempered a bit by her wound, and maybe by the look on Vin’s face. He didn’t say much . . . mostly that he was sorry and he’d make sure nothing like this ever happened to her again.

I wanted to remind him of our talk. I wanted to say that no one can ever make that promise to anyone, but it was obvious that she needed to believe it almost as much as he did.

JD had stood hesitantly by and I saw that he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. Vin didn’t look at him, but he mumbled something that I couldn’t hear, and I saw JD nod. The kid looked at me as I helped Vin out the door – a look of regret that I didn’t really have the time to address right then. I’d let Buck do it later, I decided.

It took both Buck and me to get Tanner up the stairs of the saloon. Buck kept shooting me a look, his brows furrowed and his lips turned down in an uncharacteristic frown. I shot a look right back at him that said, ‘Yes – I know. I know he looks bad . . . and if you can talk some sense into the man – be my guest.’

He stopped by to see Ezra first. Contrary to Vin, Standish looked about a hundred times better than the last time I’d seen him, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Vin went through the same routine he’d gone through with Casey, and Ezra sat by strangely quiet. It wasn’t until Vin shuffled to his feet to leave that the gambler finally spoke up.

"Vin," he said softly, and Tanner stopped, but he didn’t turn back to look at him.

"Your sincere apology is acknowledged and accepted – but unnecessary. I am a grown man. I chose to ride with you; I chose to accept your past as my own – just as I did the others - and just as you all have chosen to accept mine. We stand together."

I was reminded of what Josiah had said about the divided house. And I was reminded that Ezra was pretty smart, too – probably the smartest of all of us, if I was honest about it. Vin nodded just a bit, but he didn’t say anything as he limped out the door to find Nathan. I’d hoped Ezra’s little speech might have done it – might have turned the light on for him, but I could see that it hadn’t. Someone had the right words, if only I could figure out who.

I thought Nathan might come right out of his bed when he saw Vin struggling with that damn hip of his. Josiah practically had to hold him down, and if I thought Buck was frowning at me – well, Sanchez gave a whole new meaning to the word.

Vin was oblivious to it all, though. Just inched his way down on the chair and bit back a groan. I thought I was stoic – but I could take lessons from Tanner.

I don’t know why, but he could hardly choke out the words this time. It hurt to watch him try. The room was so quiet, you could practically hear the breeze that blew through the open window and lifted the curtains away from the wall.

Josiah had gotten up and stood across the bed from where Vin sat. Buck stayed right behind Vin – like maybe he’d have to prop him up at any second, and the way Tanner was looking – that wasn’t improbable. I never left the doorway – though I pretty much wanted to be anyplace else.

Like Ezra, Nathan sat by quietly – his eyes never leaving Vin’s face, although Vin’s eyes were directed at his own hands, nervously toying with the edges of the bed sheets. I hadn’t noticed with the others, but after I thought on it, I hadn’t seen Vin look any of them in the eye – not even Buck or Josiah or JD.

He finally rasped out his apology and tried to stand up to leave, but he was pretty near done in, and he nearly fell. Buck grabbed him around the chest, and that was when he gasped and every muscle in his body went taut as he tried to ride out the pain.

We were all there at once then, and even Nathan barked out orders from his sick bed.

And that was when Vin finally raised his head to look one person in the eye – me. I saw the panic there and I knew I had to get him out quick. I knew I’d made one more mistake in this life, too. I shouldn’t have brought him back yet – he wasn’t ready to come home.

+ + + + + + +

He’s sleeping now. I brought him to my room – practically had to lock the door to keep the others away. The only one I let in was Inez, and that was only because she promised whiskey with my dinner. She wanted to get after me, too – I was pretty sure of it – but she let it go. I would be taking my lumps from the entire town, by the looks of things – if I didn’t get our tracker . . . back on track.

Vin’s stirring – a soft moan letting me know he’s coming around, but not enough to hide what he’s feeling. I move closer to him, and even though I know he’s waking up, I still startle when he suddenly opens his eyes and gasps.

"Easy," I say. "Just take it easy, Vin."

He turns his eyes to me, and I see the fear there, just as I hear it in the way he’s breathing hard and fast.

I’m confused – not sure what he’s afraid of at this moment . . . which nightmare plagues him this time. I’d hoped coming to town and seeing that the others really were recovering would put an end to this.

"They’re comin’ back!" he says.

Oh, that nightmare . . . the one that never ends.

"No, Vin. They’re all dead."

He shakes his head. "There’s more. There’s always gonna be more." He looks around the room, unsure where he is.

When it dawns on him, he turns wide eyes to me and says, "Oh God. Are we in town?"

It scares me that he doesn’t remember. I’m wondering if he didn’t bang his head harder than I thought. I don’t tell Vin that, though. Instead, I just nod and say, "Yeah. We came earlier today. Remember?"

He sits up and pulls his legs over the edge of the bed, forgetting not to groan this time. "We have to get out of here . . . it’s not safe."

His eyes search frantically around the room for something – his boots maybe, or his gun belt.

I put my hand on his arm, but he ignores me and pulls himself up on his good leg.

"Vin." I’ve got both hands on him now and he’s still looking distractedly around him.

"I’ve got to get out of here," he mumbles. "Why did you let me come here?" he asks me angrily.

It’s not one of my better days. I’m having a hell of a lot of trouble following his train of thought lately. First he won’t come . . . then he wants to come . . . now he’s mad that I brought him. Add to that the decidedly dirty looks all the others have given me . . . and it’s really not one of my better days.

And I’m pretty damn tired of it.

"Vin! Sit down!" I say it louder than I want to, but at least it grabs his attention. In fact, he actually does it – which is a definite step in the right direction.

I stoop down so I can look directly in his eyes and I tell him, "We came because you had things you wanted to say. We came because we belong here. We came because . . ."

"Chris Larabee! I’ll not have you yelling at him!"

I didn’t think it was possible, but my day just got worse. Nettie walks in and challenges me to a glare contest that I can’t even compete in, let alone win.

"Nettie . . ."

She holds her hand up and cuts me down before I can start. Then she makes her way over to where Vin sits on the bed. He’s looking down at the floor and I can almost see his jaws clench tight.

If Nettie notices, she doesn’t say so – just goes on and sits right next to him on the bed.

And puts her arms around him.

Just like that. No thinking on it, no waiting for him to be ready, no hesitation at all. Just like that.

And he leans against her – just like that. Just like he’s been wanting this all along, even though he told me he could never face her again.

I head for the door, thinking I’m in the way . . . thinking maybe, finally the right person with the right words can put my friend on the right track.

"Stay, Chris," she says very softly.

His head is leaning on her shoulder and she’s stroking his hair. I get the feeling he might be crying – and I don’t want to see it – don’t think he would want me to see it.

"I’ll just wait outside, Nettie – let the two of you talk."

"No. He needs you. He feels at home with you – any fool can see it. Stay."

Nettie has a way of looking right through you – even when she’s not looking at you. She’s still holding him, her gaze never leaving his face, but I know that she knows exactly how much those words mean to me.

"I reckon I feel the same," I say . . . and I can’t believe I said it . . . out loud . . . with a witness.

"Any fool can see that, too," she says – not at all impressed with my confession.

So I wait, and I have to admit I’m anxious to hear what she’ll say . . . how she’ll set it all right in Vin’s mind.

"You got everything you want here, Vin . . . and six friends who are willing to do whatever they need to t’ help you keep it. You’re home now," she says in a rare, gentle tone.

I roll my eyes. We’ve all tried that approach.

But he pulls his head up and looks at her like he never heard those words before.

Then he looks over at me and he says in that long, slow drawl of his, "A place t’ rest my head . . . and t’ pass the time with friends . . . and t’ feel like I matter."

I nod as I walk over and sit in the chair near the bed. "Yeah, you matter, Vin," I say as I look deep in his eyes. Matters more than he’ll ever know.

I know him . . . he’s thinking nothing has changed; he’s thinking it might happen again.

"I’ll do everything I can to keep this from happening again," I promise. "And this time, we will make that ride to clear your name – nothing will stop us."

It’s pretty much all I have to offer - and I’m praying it’s enough.

He meets my eyes, and for the first time, I think he gets it.

The three of us sit quietly for long moments, until Vin’s head slowly drifts back to Nettie’s shoulder. It’s not long before she and I ease him back onto the bed.

I pull the covers up over him as she stands nearby, and push the hair from his face – not caring that she sees.

She sits in the chair on one side of the bed, while I sit across from her. Vin’s sound asleep for a change, but neither one of us are able to leave him.

After several minutes, I feel her pull her eyes away from Tanner and focus on me.

"Well now," she says, "now that I’ve got him straight – let’s talk about you."

I groan and pull my hands through my hair. But the truth is, I don’t mind all that much.

It’s good to be home.

The End

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