It was the third day of their journey home, and JD was feeling like hed done nothing but sit on a horse for months. Hed taken the lead early on, more out of necessity than choice, and he was having a hard time going as slowly as the others required. He could have been almost home by now . . . within days of a soft bed and a hot meal. He turned to look back, and tried to gauge just how far ahead hed gotten and how long it would take them to catch up.
Chris had Vin this time, and they were at a stand still as the gunman tried to manipulate the canteen into Vins slack mouth. With a sharp pang of guilt, JD started back the way hed come. Vin was half dead, Chris was half sick with worry, Buck was half crazy with anger and he was complaining about how long it was taking.
"We need to stop a spell?" he asked as he approached the other riders.
Chris sighed, but didnt answer. Buck frowned and turned his head west; trying to judge how much daylight they had left.
"P . . .please," a soft voice moaned.
Chris looked up in surprise before pulling his head around to try to see Vins face. "Okay, Pard. Well stop, just take it easy."
Taking it easy was, as usual, easier said than done. Getting Vin down and comfortably situated was tricky for Chris and Buck, and downright excruciating for Vin. JD began to think hed been wrong to wish so mightily that Vin would come out of the darkness hed been in for most of the past three days.
As JD knelt in the small clearing, arranging the twigs and branches hed gathered for a fire, he tried not to pay attention to what was going on not ten feet from him. Chris was supporting Vins back while he coughed up some bloody, awful stuff that turned JDs stomach. Vins good arm was wrapped tightly around his chest, the muscles taut and his knuckles as white as his face.
Finally taking a breath, the tracker groaned and muttered softly, "Oh God, Chris . . ."
JD looked down and away. Hed never really heard Vin complain before. Hed seen him hurt plenty of times, and even heard an occasional grunt come out now and then, but nothing like this. Chris was talking softly to the injured man as he eased him back down, but Vin was still moaning.
And JD knew with certainty that Vin was going to die. He was going to die before they made it back to town . . . before they could clear his name . . . before this thing between them was righted.
The fire was blazing now, the flames shooting several feet in the air, but still he kept adding more branches. It wasnt until he felt a hand on his arm, that JD tore his eyes away from the mesmerizing sight and turned to face his best friend.
"I think thatll do for now, JD. Hell, it aint even dark yet, and it sure aint cold enough for the inferno youre so set on makin."
JD merely nodded as his gaze drifted just past Buck to the men behind him. Vin was still now, probably asleep, and Chris was gently pulling a blanket back over him.
Buck watched the young mans sorrowful expression and said quietly, "He is gonna make it, JD."
Dunne swallowed, but said nothing.
"And whatever it is thats got you frettin, you can just let go of. Because I guarantee you Vin has."
Startled, JD asked, "What do you mean by that, Buck?"
"Look at Vin, JD. He dont carry nothin extra around . . . nothin he dont need. That goes for inside, too. Vin aint one to hold on to hurt or anger or anything else that would just twist him up. Hes a simple man, JD . . . looks for the good and the right in this world, and takes pleasure in the quiet things like that sunset goin on just over your shoulder there."
"But Buck . . . I . . ."
"Hes right," Chris said as he folded his long legs and dropped down next to the young man. "This problem you think you have with Vin just isnt there, JD."
But JD didnt believe it for a minute. "Youre wrong youre both wrong. I was upset over Casey and he knew it, and I never got the chance to set things right . . . I never could find the words."
"Maybe thats because words were never necessary. You chose to ride out here and help Vin settle this; that says more than words ever could. And he chose to give you his gun and his knife that day," Chris reminded him. "Did you stop to think on that?"
JD shook his head. "I just figured he wanted me to keep them safe while he was in jail."
"Vin didnt think hed be leaving that town alive, and he could have given his most prized possessions to Chris or to me . . . but he didnt. You reckon he was tryin to tell you something?" Buck asked.
"You risked your life to make that shot . . . to save Vins life - and thats something I wont be forgetting. Its something Vin wont be forgetting, either, when hes well enough to hear about it." Chris concluded, "Its set right, JD. Its more than set right."
JD swallowed the lump in his throat as the big, ugly thing that had been pressing in on him suddenly melted away. Could it be that simple?
"Think Ill just go see if I can hunt us up something t eat," JD said with a thoughtful gaze in Vins direction.
Buck and Chris both nodded, recognizing the young mans need to be off on his own and think things over.
After hed gone, Buck turned to his old friend. "Hows Vin?" he asked softly.
Chris looked at him wearily and replied, "You know . . . youve been here with us the whole time."
"Yeah, I know what I see. But you know . . . you see other things. You got a feel for him that the rest of us dont."
"Hes hurting. Anybody can see that. But Im afraid of . . . Im worried that when he finds out this isnt over . . . Im not sure what to tell him, Buck. Im not sure what to tell anyone," the blond concluded with a meaningful gaze at the rogue.
"Been ponderin that myself," Buck responded. "Im thinkin we should talk it all over with the boys when we get back. And then . . . me and Josiah will be paying the grieving widow another visit."
Chris slanted his brow. "Why Josiah?"
With a soft chuckle, Wilmington replied, "Hell, someones got t inspire the fear of God in the woman. I figure Josiah might be the best choice for this particular assignment."
It felt good to grin, as Chris allowed himself a moment to picture Buck and Josiah matching wits with Vins latest nemesis. But as always, reality came careening back when Vin moaned again and feebly clutched at his aching chest.
Theyd probably be better to worry about one thing at a time . . . and right now, that thing was getting Vin home alive.
+ + + + + + +
Hes not getting better. Hes coughing more and Im pretty sure hes got a fever, too.
And he doesnt . . . look right. You know, out of his eyes.
Of course, who could blame him, after all hes been through? Still, it . . . scares me, because Im not all that sure whats going on inside him.
Bucks right about me being able to read Vin. Oh, he thinks he can pull the wool over my eyes some times gets downright cocky about it, too. But I know exactly how fine he is when he tells me that. He just tries to keep me from worrying. He thinks I get all worked up when any of the boys are hurt . . . especially him. I have no idea where he gets that from.
He doesnt look quite right out of his eyes, though, and I sure dont like it.
Once we knew we were out of Texas, we went ahead and put him on a travois. Lifting him on and off a horse several times a day had to be causing him more harm not to mention hurting like hell. Of course, the terrain has changed, so it still isnt exactly a smooth ride for him.
Weve been riding for so many days now, that Ive lost track. Could be six or could be sixty, for all I know. Buck figures well reach Four Corners by tomorrow night. That sounds real good, but Im not setting much store in it. Vins been having a rough time, and we cant rush him no matter how heavenly home is sounding about now.
Vins trying to come around a little more, but he still hasnt asked. I think it hurts him to talk, for one thing. I keep wondering if hes wondering what happened, though. I know him . . . I know how he thinks most of the time, like I said. So it worries me that he hasnt asked. What is the last thing he remembers? I selfishly hope it wasnt hanging from a rope like a mangy dog, because Im not sure Im a smart enough or good enough to help him get past that.
Buck and JD are setting up camp, like theyve done the last one hundred nights. I couldnt have asked for better men to ride through this with. Theyve been good with Vin, too, although he seems to rest easier with me around.
I go to him now, and see that hes stirring a bit. We still keep him propped up as best we can, since it helps him breathe easier. I dont like the rattle Im hearing in his chest. He hasnt been able to take a deep breath since this all started, so its no surprise that hes having problems with his lungs.
I sure will be glad when Nathan can take over. I hope hes up and around by now. Surely he would be . . . seeing how weve been gone a thousand days or more.
Vin swallows and turns his head to see me as I squat down next to him. Hes so thin and pale, and I have to remind myself that Im not losing him no matter what. He doesnt look that bad, I tell myself. Hell, hes looked this way for weeks.
Im a master at lying to myself. Theres none better.
"Chris?" he asks, though Im not sure what hes asking. Who are you? Will you stay with me? Talk with me? Hang on to me and not let me die?
Im getting carried away . . . all he did was say my name, after all.
"Yeah Vin, Im here. You need something?"
He shakes his head, then seems to reconsider. "What you said . . . did you mean it?"
Vins voice is always sort of low and, whats a good word? Raspy. That about describes it. But its even rougher and yet softer now. That probably doesnt make a whole lot of sense, but its pretty accurate.
No matter how you describe it though, it doesnt change the fact that I have no idea what hes talking about.
"Which . . . what . . . Vin, I dont know if Im sure . . ."
Thank goodness he catches on quick, even when hes sick and hurt. "You said . . . you were a better man . . . fer knowin me."
He looks at me with eyes so bright, that Im scared to touch him sure hes burning up with fever.
But I grip his hand and I nod and I say, "I did."
Seems like I should add so much more to that and yet, the smile he turns on me tells me that I dont need to. Its a shadow of his usual smile, but its there none the less, and I havent seen Vin smile in so long that my heart practically flips over in my chest.
"Feel the same . . . Cowboy," he says.
I shake my head, but Im grinning, too. Damn fool thing for him to say. I cant see how knowing me has made him a better man. I dont believe for a minute that riding with a used up, broken up gunslinger has affected him all that much. But I can see by that look in his eyes that he thinks it has.
Hes growing serious again, and he tries to take a deeper breath as he struggles with his next question. I wonder if this will be it?
"I dont want . . . cant have you . . . and Buck and JD . . . runnin cause of me, Chris. How did . . . did you cut me loose? They . . . comin after us?"
So he did remember. I look away for a minute, but I feel his hand grip my arm. "Chris?"
I meet his eyes then. "I told them you were dead, Vin."
Hes puzzled . . . bewildered . . . completely uncertain of what Im telling him. That worries me, too. Usually Vin has it all figured out before the rest of us have even thought to ask the question.
"Tascosa and probably most of Texas by now believes youre dead. We told them we were taking you home to bury."
He tries to sit up a little straighter with a grunt. "But . . . how?"
"It wasnt hard, Vin. You looked pretty . . . dead. JD had made the shot or at least we think he made the shot, although the rope looked like it had been sliced clean through and with the storm and all, they were ready for it to be over. I couldnt believe you were still alive, and with JD there I had to think fast."
Im rambling. I know Im rambling, but I cant seem to help myself. Thats new. I dont recall ever having this particular problem . . . rambling.
"So . . . yer not in trouble?" he asks with a frown.
I frown back. "I dont . . . think so."
Funny. It never occurred to me that I could be in trouble for the big lie. It never dawned on me that it was probably some kind of fraud, some kind of crime in and of itself. Not that I give a damn. And leave it to Vin to pull out that one little morsel in all I had told him. Worrying about me first.
But Im worrying about him more. He should be arguing with me. He should be telling me that its never gonna work. That nothings really fixed and nothings really changed because sooner or later, the truth will get out.
Its just too damn small a world for such a big lie.
He should be arguing with me, but he closes his eyes instead and sighs as he leans back against the blanket-covered saddle. "Tell JD . . . tell him . . . thanks."
"Ill get him. You can tell him yourself." Hes scaring me now.
He grips my hand and opens his eyes once more, and that look is there again. "Dont think . . . it might not be a lie . . . fer long."
Oh no you dont, Tanner. Stop. Im not listening. This isnt happening.
I am not losing you. Maybe I did lie . . . maybe I dont always keep my promises . . . but not this time.
"Im not losing you."
I can tell by the resigned expression on his face that I said it out loud.
Good. He needs to know that making the lie true is not an option.
He starts coughing again. I pull him up a little and lean behind him to support his shoulders and back. His bones feel sharp and frail against my chest, and hes so weak that his head keeps falling forward to rest on my arm. I cant remember the last time we got any food in him . . . six days or sixty; a hundred or a thousand. I wipe away the bloody mess that spews out of his mouth and remind myself that it isnt as bad as it looks.
He finally shudders and gasps and then he groans a little before becoming still . . . too still.
"Vin?" I quickly lay him back down. The rattling in his chest tells me hes still breathing. Good enough. Just keep breathing, Tanner Ill take care of the rest.
Somehow, some way Ill take care of it.
+ + + + + + +
They did make it into town the next evening. Vins fever had climbed during the night and the three men knew time was of the essence. Chris sent JD on ahead to forewarn Nathan, praying that the healer was well enough himself to look after Vin.
The setting sun cloaked the town in deep shadows as they entered, and Chris was thankful. Vin would hate to be dragged through town like he was, but he wasnt well enough to get up on a horse, either. At least there were only a few townsfolk out and about to notice. The blond had learned to be grateful for small favors of late, and not having to see or talk to anyone as they made their way over to the clinic hardly counted as a small favor.
He wasnt surprised when Josiah met them at the bottom of the stairs and lifted Vin into his arms without a single word. Before he turned to carry the injured man up the stairs, the preacher paused for just a moment and met the blonds eyes. Sympathy and sorrow rammed head on with determination, and so Josiah shifted his bundle a little closer. There would be no talk of crows this night.
Nathan appeared thin and drawn himself, but at least he was upright and he hardly waited for Josiah to set Vin down on the bed before he went to work. Chris knew he should feel relieved now that the burden had been passed to someone with some actual knowledge of what to do, but he felt only emptiness. Getting home had been the goal for so many days, and now that they had reached it he realized nothing had really changed at all. Vin was still hurt, still not free - and he still had no idea what to do.
What had changed became apparent, though, when he finally turned his eyes away from Vins battered figure on the bed and looked around the room. In the silence and the shadows, they were all there. Josiah stooped over the bed to help Nathan, while Buck, JD, and Ezra hovered along the far wall.
They were whole. A fierce rush of strength and pride and hope flowed through Chris at that realization.
They were whole, and because of that, everything had changed.
"Why dont you all just go on and have a drink; rest a spell?" Nathan suggested.
Chris looked uncertain, but Josiah settled him with a quiet reminder, "Vin would prefer it." And they all knew he was right; Tanner wouldnt appreciate them all watching Nathan undress him.
Sanchez added, "Ill come for you when were finished, and then we can talk this all out."
It sounded so good that stiff drink that had called to him for weeks and weeks now, but as he turned to leave, Chris knew it would have to wait just a bit longer. "No," he said, startling the others who had moved to follow him out the door. "We have to settle this now."
It was hard to say who all would be sitting in the tavern, just waiting to hear what had happened in Tascosa. They all needed to be on the same page before leaving the room.
"Chris . . ." Nathan started to argue, but one look from the man in black, and he stopped abruptly.
"You boys know what happened? JD fill you in?" Larabee asked as his eyes moved from man to man.
Josiah nodded. "We know that Tascosa thinks Vin is dead, and from the looks of him," Sanchez added sadly, "theyre not far off."
"As long as hes still breathing, theyre as far off as they need to be," Chris responded shortly.
"Let me clarify the situation, if I might," Ezra spoke up. "It would be accurate to say then, that Mr. Tanner is no longer a wanted man, am I correct?"
Buck furrowed his brows. "Well, ysee, that theres the problem. Hes no longer wanted because hes dead, which technically isnt accurate at all and I think Chris had made it pretty clear that its not gonna be accurate which means that Vin is still a convicted man, even if hes not exactly a wanted man."
JD rolled his eyes and shook his head. "That made no sense at all, Buck."
"Actually, it made a good deal of sense. Vin escaped from Tascosa years ago because he was about to be prosecuted for a crime he did not commit. He has merely escaped again for the same reason. The difference is only that the miscreants so intent on punishing him, now believe they have succeeded. We are back where we started, Gentlemen, only this time we have a distinct advantage," Ezra argued.
"But its only an advantage if it stays quiet . . . if Tascosa continues to believe that Vin is dead," Josiah said, his gaze fixed on the hard green eyes of the gunman.
Chris nodded. "There are folks in this town who would like nothing better than to let Texas know the truth . . . who would likely drag Vin there themselves if they could get away with it."
"So we dont tell them," Nathan said softly as he finally looked up from where he sat perched at the sick mans side.
"You mean . . . we lie? To the whole town?" JD asked with eyes wide.
"It would not necessarily be lying, JD more like withholding information. As was formerly concluded, Vin is no longer wanted in Texas. That is all that needs to be said. Are we in agreement, Gentlemen?" Ezra offered as his gaze roved to each man before resting on the silent tracker.
"So were not gonna tell anybody what happened? Not even Mary or Nettie or . . .?"
"No JD, not even Casey. Can you do that?" Chris asked solemnly, knowing what he was asking. The kid had made the shot of his life and would have to keep it to himself at least for the time being. Even worse, he was being asked to lie to someone he cared about.
Buck moved closer to the young man and placed a hand on his shoulder, "Its not forever, JD. Well get it all sorted out as soon as we can. But for now . . . for Vin . . . this is the best way."
JD dipped his head as he thought on what his friends were suggesting. He respected these men more than anyone in his life. He listened and learned from them, and rarely doubted their wisdom especially Chris Larabees. But they were planning to lie . . . to everyone. And it wasnt a small lie, as far he was concerned but a big one; a huge one. What he had learned, all on his own, was that one lie leads to others and eventually, it all blows up in your face.
"All right," Dunne said hesitantly. "For now," he added.
A harsh cough erupted from the man in the bed, and all eyes turned to their sick friend.
"And now, yall better go on and let me tend to this man, or you wont need to withhold information," Nathan threatened, but his voice was low and gentle.
Chris moved close to the bed and looked down at his sick friend. Vin was moaning very softly and moving restlessly; his damp hair clinging to his too pale face. Chris swallowed as he reached down to grip the alarmingly warm forearm, "Im gonna take care of this Pard," he whispered softly.
Josiah rested a firm hand on the man in blacks shoulder as he turned to leave the room. "Well take care of this, Chris . . . together."
Chris smiled as he nodded. Josiah was right there was strength in their wholeness that was more than the sum of seven . . . and it made all the difference.
+ + + + + + +
It hasnt been all that hard. I dont talk to folks much anyway, so my not talking to them now isnt exactly noticeable.
Besides, I havent been able to leave Vin most of the time.
Im not sure I really do him any good but Nathan says I dont see how restless he is when Im not there. Makes no sense. I cant do a damn thing but hold his hand and a man like Vin Tanner sure doesnt need hand-holding.
But then, it kind of makes me feel better . . . holding his hand. How the hell did I become the kind of man who needs to hold another mans hand?
His fevers finally coming down some. Nathan thinks we caught the pneumonia in time; he keeps telling me it could be worse, but Im having trouble imagining that. The important thing is that he didnt pop a lung which is damn near miraculous, if I say so myself.
Nathans not real sure what else could be wrong. He said all the blood Vin kept coughing up probably came from the pneumonia or the broken ribs or some other damage to his lungs. Or it could have come from the blood he swallowed when they messed up his face. Or from his throat. The options seem to be pretty much limitless, according to Nathan.
Of course, at least once a day, Nathan starts muttering about all the things that can break in a mans body and how he cant possibly know and of course, the usual bit about him not being a real doctor.
I ignore him. I figure Josiah got it right when he said it was Divine Intervention that spared Vin, and its not likely to cut out on him now.
Ezra took care of spreading the word about Vin not being wanted. From what Buck tells me, he did a pretty good job of dodging any questions, too. If anyone could its Ezra. I should have taken him to Tascosa maybe we wouldnt have needed to lie. Then again, knowing Ezra, we might have ended up with a bigger one.
Mary tried to dig a little deeper, of course. She came to me and I pretty much ignored her, too. I have to admit . . . that was hard. But one look at Vin was all I needed. Theres no way the men in this town are getting their hands on him.
Of course, I havent seen Nettie yet. I suppose Ill really know what hard is then.
Vins been pretty confused, the few times hes actually been able to talk with me. Its been three days since we came back, and most of the time, its hard to tell where he is or what hes thinking.
One thing is for sure, though he remembers hanging from that rope. I try to keep him from grabbing at his neck, but its almost impossible. Nathan tried to put a bandage over it, more to hide it from the rest of us than for any real need, I think but it agitated Vin so much, we finally just pulled it off.
Its hard not to look at it; the angry red slash that circles his neck with black and blue around it . . . some kind of damn sick rainbow. We dont let many people in here, but those that have come, cant seem to take their eyes off it.
Josiahs probably right about Divine Intervention.
Oh Lord, and thats just what Im gonna need because here comes Nettie.
"Chris," she says, with a nod in my direction. Not one to waste words, Nettie thats one of my favorite things about her.
I move away from Vin and ignore the older womans startled gasp when she sees him. Ive gotten almost as good at ignoring people as I have at lying.
She sits at his side, on the bed, and gently pulls her hand through his hair. Ezra tried to do something with the tangled mess, but its pretty hopeless right now.
She runs her hand down along his jaw and then to his shoulder and his good arm. And then, very briefly, she runs a finger along the ugly mark around his neck. Her touch is so gentle, I doubt he feels it, but I can feel it.
And it fills my heart seeing how she loves him. I wonder if he knows.
"Hes so thin," she says.
"Nathans working on that," I say. And he is. Its amazing what Nathan can get down a person when he sets his mind to it. Hes got tricks up his sleeve that . . . well, it doesnt matter. The point is that hes not about to let Vin starve to death.
Vin opens his eyes then and it takes him a few minutes to focus on the woman near him. But when he does, he smiles. Not that shadow of a smile that he gave me days ago but a genuine smile. Im standing back aways, but I see it plain as day, and it makes the stupidest grin break out on my face. Im glad no one is here to notice.
"Nettie?" he whispers.
She moves her hand back up to touch his cheek and she smiles, "Yes, Son, Im here."
He furrows his brows and speaks again, "Am I home?"
Home. That word that I must have used a thousand times when I tried to get him to leave my place. And the same word I thought a thousand more times as we made our trek back from Texas.
This is his home, dammit, and I will lie to the entire town to let him keep it. Ill even lie to Nettie.
She nods as she answers, "Youre home, and thats where youre gonna to stay."
He sighs and smiles again before he drifts off to sleep. She sits there for several more minutes before standing and turning to me.
"Are you ready to tell me whats really going on?" she asks me, and Im thinking ignoring her probably wont do the trick.
I could tell her the truth. I could trust her, but is that fair to her? Its not easy, carrying around a lie. And if or when the whole mess does come to light does she need to be standing in the middle of it?
"Do you trust me to do whats best for Vin?" I ask her.
She narrows her eyes at me.
I didnt think it was that hard a question.
"I do," she finally answers.
"Then let me take care of it . . . of Vin."
She stares at me for what seems like hours, but I dont look away. I can be as stubborn as she is.
When she finally answers, she speaks softly, "Alright." Even though its only a word I know shes saying a whole lot more. Shes holding me to a whole lot more.
Good thing Im up to the challenge.
She moves back over to sit at his side, while I head out the door for a good long walk.
Ive decided Buck and Josiah wont head back to see Mrs. Kincaid. We all will. Ive learned that lesson.
I may be a liar . . . but Im not stupid.