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 doesnt make a sound, of course, but Ive 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. Ill 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 cant see his eyes under the brim of his hat.
I still cant believe he agreed to head back to town, and I keep thinking that any minute hes 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. Didnt think he was really listening, until today. He just woke up and said it was time to go back home. No, thats 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 its because he wants it so much. Probably aint 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 theyre just words . . . words hes told himself for so many years that he almost believes them.
The wagon hits another rut and I hear him choke back a cry. Thats it . . . were taking a break. I steer the wagon under the shade of an old oak tree, and climb down from the seat.
Hes 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.
Hes got his head resting against the side of the wagon, and with his hat pulled low, I still cant see his eyes.
I need to see his eyes. Somehow, I know that hes hiding from me again, and my heart plummets. After all these days, weve made no progress at all.
"Whats going on, Vin?"
He says nothing.
Damn. Ive run out of ideas. Maybe well meet up with Nettie on the way maybe she can talk some sense into him . . . even though I know its a matter of fear more than sense.
He shifts just a little and tilts his face up towards me. Its so clear to me then. Hes not ready.
"Were going back to my place," I say, but I dont move. I keep my eyes on his.
I dont get it. I know he doesnt want to do this that its tearing him to pieces inside.
"Yes," I say . . . and I mean it. I cant believe I mean it. This is what Ive been asking him to do for days now, and now that hes doing it Im 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. Lets 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 thats when I know. Hell never be ready. Hell go into town, and do what he thinks he needs to do, just until he can mount up and ride out. And well never see him again. And it occurs to me that I dont want that I dont think I can take that.
I wasnt 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 wont be long until I follow because it wont be home without him.
I wonder if he knows that. I wonder if he knows that as long as Im riding with him Im 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 Ive 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.
"Well go back to my place. And when youre healed, well go to Tascosa and well convince that judge of the truth. Theres a way, and well find it. And then, if you want, well come back. And if you dont, we wont."
His eyes are so sad, that I have to turn away.
"Youd give it all up fer me?" he finally says in that soft rasp that is unique to him.
I look him straight in the eye then to let him know I mean it.
Dont run, Vin, I say to myself. Stay - or go with me - but dont run out on me. Its almost as if he heard me, the peculiar way he raises his brow and looks at me.
"I aint never been one t run, Chris. I reckon I got some things that need doin in town first . . . some things that need sayin."
"Doesnt 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 Marys place. But he made it, and he even managed to sit on the chair by Caseys side and act like he wasnt dying inside. I was grateful that Nettie wasnt there at the time I dont think he could have done it.
About killed me to watch him.
Casey was all sweetness and light, that spit-fire and vinegar shes known for tempered a bit by her wound, and maybe by the look on Vins face. He didnt say much . . . mostly that he was sorry and hed 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 didnt. Vin didnt look at him, but he mumbled something that I couldnt hear, and I saw JD nod. The kid looked at me as I helped Vin out the door a look of regret that I didnt really have the time to address right then. Id 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 Id seen him, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Vin went through the same routine hed gone through with Casey, and Ezra sat by strangely quiet. It wasnt until Vin shuffled to his feet to leave that the gambler finally spoke up.
"Vin," he said softly, and Tanner stopped, but he didnt 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 didnt say anything as he limped out the door to find Nathan. Id hoped Ezras little speech might have done it might have turned the light on for him, but I could see that it hadnt. 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 dont 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 hed have to prop him up at any second, and the way Tanner was looking that wasnt 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 Vins face, although Vins eyes were directed at his own hands, nervously toying with the edges of the bed sheets. I hadnt noticed with the others, but after I thought on it, I hadnt 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 Id made one more mistake in this life, too. I shouldnt have brought him back yet he wasnt ready to come home.
+ + + + + + +
Hes 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 didnt get our tracker . . . back on track.
Vins stirring a soft moan letting me know hes coming around, but not enough to hide what hes feeling. I move closer to him, and even though I know hes 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 hes breathing hard and fast.
Im confused not sure what hes afraid of at this moment . . . which nightmare plagues him this time. Id hoped coming to town and seeing that the others really were recovering would put an end to this.
"Theyre comin back!" he says.
Oh, that nightmare . . . the one that never ends.
"No, Vin. Theyre all dead."
He shakes his head. "Theres more. Theres 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 doesnt remember. Im wondering if he didnt bang his head harder than I thought. I dont 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 . . . its 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." Ive got both hands on him now and hes still looking distractedly around him.
"Ive got to get out of here," he mumbles. "Why did you let me come here?" he asks me angrily.
Its not one of my better days. Im having a hell of a lot of trouble following his train of thought lately. First he wont come . . . then he wants to come . . . now hes mad that I brought him. Add to that the decidedly dirty looks all the others have given me . . . and its really not one of my better days.
And Im 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! Ill not have you yelling at him!"
I didnt think it was possible, but my day just got worse. Nettie walks in and challenges me to a glare contest that I cant 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. Hes looking down at the floor and I can almost see his jaws clench tight.
If Nettie notices, she doesnt 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 hes been wanting this all along, even though he told me he could never face her again.
I head for the door, thinking Im 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 shes stroking his hair. I get the feeling he might be crying and I dont want to see it dont think he would want me to see it.
"Ill 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 shes not looking at you. Shes 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 cant 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 Im anxious to hear what shell say . . . how shell set it all right in Vins 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. Youre home now," she says in a rare, gentle tone.
I roll my eyes. Weve 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 hell ever know.
I know him . . . hes thinking nothing has changed; hes thinking it might happen again.
"Ill 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."
Its pretty much all I have to offer - and Im praying its 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 Vins head slowly drifts back to Netties shoulder. Its 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. Vins 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 Ive got him straight lets talk about you."
I groan and pull my hands through my hair. But the truth is, I dont mind all that much.
Its good to be home.
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