Disclaimer: I don't I own the Magnificent Seven and as I have stated on more than one prior occasion, I am not sure who does. CBS? Am I close? Am I going to be sued if I'm wrong?
Many thanks to Laramee and Jill, both of whom I have plagued with many stupid questions.
Part 1I like this time 'a year. I like the way the woods is all stripped down t' grey sticks and naked rock and the way ya kin see right deep inside, like its soul's laid out bare b'fore ya. I like seein' the trees fer what they are - no leaves t' dress 'em up and hide them stark, brittle bones standin' sharp aginst the sky. Everythin's keen and clear around the edges, and the colour's gone and everythin's quiet, jist waitin' fer winter t' come. Already startin' t' git colder, and don't git me wrong, I ain't real fussy 'bout the cold, but least it makes ya remember yer alive. Like now, the wind's got its fingers pokin' through m' coat and diggin' in m' ribs, but it's OK- the sky's blue and the sun's out - feller don't need much more than that. Guess I bin lucky that way - there's always somethin' 'bout each day that makes it worth livin', no matter how bad a day it's bin. Had m'self some real good days this last year, since I met up with Chris - kinda made up fer a lot a those days where 'bout the only good thing could be said about 'em was that I's still breathin' by the time they ended. Prob'ly had more a them days than any other kind, but I ain't complainin' none. Had people treat me good who ain't had no call t' take note 'a me a t'all. Had people treat me bad fer no reason, too, but I reckon the good in folk is bigger 'n the bad. Gotta be true - I's still here, ain't I? Don't think Chris sees things quite like that, but it's diff'rent for him. I ain't never had nothin' taken from me I couldn't live without - and Chris has. Reckon somethin' like that marks a man but good.
Chris hides them scars, most 'a the time. Does all right, jist goin' from day t' day and doin' what has t' be done t' keep things rollin' along. But times like this, he finds it hard. I kin see it. Chris at the best 'a times ain't exactly >sweetness 'n light' as Ez would say, but holidays and stuff is rough fer him. Buck said Chris might think he wants t' be alone, but it ain't good fer him. Said all he's gonna do is crawl inta a bottle and wind up sad and sick, and someone oughta go out there and keep an eye on him. They all looked at me then, but I already's plannin' t' do jist that - didn't need Buck t' remind me t' be there fer m' best friend. Best friend. Ain't never had me one 'a those. Kinda hard t' git used to at first. Couldn't quite figure why Chris would ever want t' be any kind a friend t' a mangy, ignorant ex - bounty hunter with a price on his head. Easy t' see why I'd want him fer a friend though-ain't never had the likes 'a Chris ever pay me no mind b'fore. Jist knowin' that he's there fer me, and he's choosin' t' be my friend- well, that fills a space inside me I ain't never knowed was empty. Wonder iffen he knows that. Wonder if I could tell him.
Got us a real nice turkey on the way out here. Heard a noise in the brush and was right surprised t' see 'im hunkered down in there.
Don't see as many turkeys about as ya used to. Disappearin' jist like everythin' else I guess - people spreadin' out all over the place, killin' stuff like it's all put here on earth fer them t' do with as they please. Guess I really cain't say nothin' - I done my share 'a takin' and not puttin' back. Feel sorry 'bout that now. I managed t' git offa Peso and git m' rifle out without him hearin' me, and got 'im with one shot t' the head. Turkey's got a pretty small head, and he weren't a real big 'un as turkeys go, but I didn't want t' hit him in the body - might spoil the meat. When I come up t' where he fell, I got m'self down on m' knees and thanked 'im fer givin' hisself t' me. I run m' hands across his chest and over his wings. Folks think turkeys is ugly, but they ain't. His feathers is all shiny and sparklin' in the sun. The ones on his back is striped in black and white, and the tip 'a every feather on his tail's this golden brown colour and they's all fanned out around 'im like a halo. I's careful pickin' 'im up, tyin' 'im t' the saddle, treatin' 'im respectful, like the People taught me.
I kin see now that the day's gittin' on. The wind's picked up some, and the sun's lookin' almost white up above the trees. I kick Peso int' a trot-startin' t' feel the cold a lot now, and I's right glad when we come over the rise and Chris's place is there. No smoke comin' from the chimney, though - prob'ly not a good sign. I tie Peso to the hitchin' post when we git in the yard but I don't see no signs 'a Pony - pr'aps Chris's out fer a ride. I go inside- the stove's cold, so I load in the kindlin' and a few sticks 'a wood and set a match to it. Once I's sure she's goin' good, I set a pot a water on t' boil and have a look around. I kin see that Chris has bin inta the whiskey- there's a bottle tipped on its side over by his cot, but there's still four full ones lined up on the mantle, so maybe things ain't as bad as what I first thought. I pull a chair up t' the fire, and I musta sat there awhile, watchin' it burnin', 'cause all of a sudden I see that the light's changin' and it's gittin' on fer afternoon. I gotta take care a Peso and do somethin' with that turkey. When I git up, things is spinnin' a bit - musta stood too fast - and I grab onta the table til I git m' head back on right. I go out and take Peso t' the barn, strip his gear and brush him down. Cain't believe how much this takes outta me - gittin' old, I guess. Prob'ly should git m'self somethin' t' eat - fergot t' have breakfast this mornin' - in too big a hurry t' git outta town. But first I gotta pluck the turkey, so I go inside and bring out the pot 'a boilin' water and stick 'im in there head first. I don't like doin' this - when I's with the People this was woman's work, but right now there ain't nobody around but me. Iffen Chris doesn't want this feller I'll take him on over t' Nettie for Thanksgivin' - only five days away and it's cold enough now that he'll keep good til then. He's a fine lookin' bird. Leastways he was b'fore he done got plucked. I take 'im down t' the creek and it hits me that I ain't never noticed how sad a bird looks without his feathers. I give m'self a shake then - spendin' way too much time worryin' on a dead bird - must be goin' soft. I tie him up in a tree and gut him with m' knife, and this sounds foolish t' say, 'cause I bin huntin' all m' life, but the smell 'a that blood drippin' on the ground is makin' me feel like I'm gonna be sick. I lay the innards out on the rocks and it reminds me 'a one 'a Ezra's stories, 'bout the Romans, long time ago - how they used t' tell the future by readin' the entrails 'a dead things. Ezra's chock full 'a lots a useless information like that. All I know is it jist looks like a pile 'a guts t' me, and if they's sayin' anythin' 'bout m' future right now - the way m' stomach's flippin' and m' head's hurtin' - they're tellin' me there's gonna be pukin' involved. I gotta swallow hard now, tell m'self t' think on somethin' else.... that's better. I cut 'im down then and hold 'im by the feet and wash him off in the creek. The blood's cloudin' in the water, turnin' it the colour 'a sunset on a summer day, and I guess it is like a sunset as far as this here turkey's concerned...
Gotta finish up here and git m'self back t' the cabin. I'll feel better once I git some food inside me. Jist hungry. That's all.
Didn't mean t' fall asleep - hung the turkey up in the barn and threw out some grain fer Peso, then come up t' the house t' wait fer Chris. Thought I'd lay m'self down on his cot fer a minute and the next thing I know it's comin' on daylight. Where the hell is that damn fool? Guess I's gonna have t' git myself up and git out there and find him. It's too cold t' be sleepin' out iffen ya don't have to - not fer me, but I's used to it and Chris ain't. He done come out here t' be alone, and out here's jist about as alone as ya kin git. Goin' further away ain't gonna git ya any more alone than this....damn, I ain't makin' no sense, even t' m'self. Guess it's a good thing Chris ain't here after all. Where was I? Yeah, I's gonna git up. Ain't usually this hard a thing t' do. Feel like some critter's bin in here gnawin' on m' bones while I's asleep - m' head's feelin' a mite wooly too. Fergot t' eat - must be it. Don't much feel like eatin' though - think I'll go find Chris and fix somethin' later when I git him back here. Sounds like a plan.
Part 2I hate this time of year. Everything's grey and dead, or if not dead, then damn close to it. Days are short, woods are empty, trees stripped naked. Don't know why we gotta go through this, watchin' things die - should go right from summer to winter. Let winter cover up the dead so's we don't have to look at it no more. Wish I could do that - cover up the dead, wipe away the things that remind me of them. Thought it would get easier - well, perhaps it does, just watchin' one day drift by after another. I can go for weeks now without thinkin' I've heard their voices in the street, or seein' them out of the corner of my eye, sittin' in a room with me. Sometimes I still find it hard to come out to my place and go inside when it's dark and cold. Sarah ain't never even lived there, but I still can't help wishin' I could go through that door and find her rocking in the chair in front of the stove with Adam on her knee. It still takes me by surprise, times like this, when I find myself missing them so much it hurts to be alive, and alone, and I need the whiskey to take me away from all of it. Didn't plan to stay out all night though. Woke up yesterday morning with a head the size 'a Texas and figured I'd get myself out and shake off some 'a the cobwebs. Then doesn't Pony go and throw a shoe, and I'm stuck walkin' back. Course it's too far so I gotta hole up in a cave like a bear - well, it ain't a cave exactly, more like a space between two rocks with a big old tree root over the top. And it's cold. I built a fire, had some hard tack, and thank God I remembered to bring a bottle with, but I sure as hell don't plan to spend another night like this no time soon. Pony's not real happy with me either. Even though I try to tell him this is all his fault, he's not lookin' convinced. Probably shouldn't 'a drunk that whiskey. My head's not feelin' so good and my stomach- God, I'm gonna be sick. Can't help but think there's nothin' to be heard for miles around but me retching my guts up and if I wasn't so busy actually doin' it, I mighta found it funny. Stop lookin' at me, you damn horse. Ain't like you've never seen me puke before... Wait, I do hear somethin' else... sounds like... wouldn't you know it? Man can't even lose himself out in the woods these days without some damn fool stumbling across... speaking of damned fools! It's Tanner! What the hell's he doing out here this time of... Looking for me, most like. Why can't that interferin' sonuvabitch leave me alone? There's a reason I come out here alone - I want to be alone. Buck likely put him up to this. He should know better. He followed me around like a damn dog for going on two years before he finally got it through his thick head that I didn't want him around, and now he's trainin' Vin to hound me. I'll make him sorry he ever dragged his sorry hide out here... After we get back to the cabin. Could probably use a hand gettin' myself back there.
"You all right?"
What kind of a fool question is that? He can see I just finished chuckin' up everything I've eaten in the past week and a half. I bite my tongue.
"Yeah, I'm good. Pony threw a shoe, yesterday. Had to camp out. Could use a hand though, gettin' back."
"Sure thing, Pard. Get your gear together - we can ride double."
I get my things and tie Pony's reins to Vin's saddlehorn, and he pulls me up behind him.
"What brings you out this way?"
I knew it.
"Well, no need for you to hang about. You can be headin' into town once we get to my place."
He doesn't say anything to that. But he is going. Vin and the boys don't understand how much I need to do this. Just knowing that I can come out here and drink myself into next week if I want to - sometimes I think it's the only thing that keeps me sane.
It takes us a couple of hours t' get t' my cabin. Vin doesn't say anything the whole way, and that's fine with me, because my head's still givin' me grief. All I can think about is how much I want another drink, and I can feel my hands startin' to shake. I wrap them tighter around Vin's waist, hoping he can't feel it. If he does, he doesn't say anything. When we finally reach the yard, I slide off Peso's back and Vin just sits there, looking at me.
"Thanks for bringin' me in. You can be on your way."
I can usually tell what Vin's thinkin', but right now I ain't got a clue. He's hidin' under that hat of his, and makes a noise that sounds something like a sigh.
"I'll take care 'a the horses. You want t' start some water fer coffee? Got a turkey yesterday, it's hangin' in the barn. Maybe have it fer Thanksgivin'. Brought out some stew Mary give me. It's on the table. Put it on t' heat. I'll be along in a bit."
"You're not stayin' Vin."
"Yeah, I am."
He swings down off Peso, and makes his way toward the barn. He seems to be moving kinda slow, for Vin at least. Well, he's hell bent on staying, let him stay. I'm not changing my plans for him.
I go in, take the bottle from the mantle and pour myself a good long drink. I'm well into number three when he finally comes in from the barn and hangs his coat and hat on the nail behind the door. He doesn't say a word, just takes the bottle, stuffs in the cork and sets it above the fire place. He coaxes the fire back to life in the stove, puts on the stew and starts the coffee. He drops into the chair across from me and drags a hand through his hair. He looks tired, wore down, but I figure it's about what he deserves if he's going to go traipsing around after someone who doesn't want to be traipsed after. Got no one to blame but himself.
Part 3I feel like crap. Can't believe how long it took me t' unsaddle those two mules and brush 'em down. Had a look at Pony's hoof, then went through Chris's bags t' see iffen he picked up the shoe. Found the shoe and the empty bottle- guess that weren't no surprise. He's lookin' pretty rough when I come across him this mornin'. I know he don't want me here, but he's gonna have t' live with it. I don't like bein' around him much when he's like this, but he's m' friend and ya gotta take the good with the bad. Found some nails in a tin and a hammer on the bench out by the door, and fixed Pony right up. I give 'im a slap on the rear b'fore I head on up t' the house, and he turns around t' look at me. He's got this gleam in his eye and he shakes that big head 'a his as if t' say >I put up with 'im last night - reckon now it's your turn.'
I give a groan and hear m'self mutterin' "Yeah, I guess so."
I go inside and Chris is jist sittin' there, doin' nothin'. Well, he's drinkin', and is well inta it from what I kin see. He don't say nothin' when I take the bottle and put it up on the mantle. I gotta git some food inside 'im, and whether he likes it or not, he's stuck with me. I stoke up the fire and get a right nice blaze goin'. Cain't b'lieve how cold it is. Put on the stew and the coffee and set m'self at the table across from him. M' head feels funny - kinda hard t' explain - don't exactly feel dizzy, but close. I'm so cold... a shiver rattles through me and I feel m'self go tight aginst it, but Chris don't notice. I go git m' coat off the hook.
"Ya leavin'?" Somethin' like hope is glitterin' in them green eyes 'a his.
I go t' the stove and ladle up two plates 'a stew and set one down in front 'a him.
"Ya gotta eat somethin'."
He picks up the fork and starts in. I cain't even think 'bout eatin' nothin'- m' stomach is tellin' me food ain't gonna be welcome down there and I best leave well enough alone. Chris does pretty good - his plate's almost done when he goes and reaches down the whiskey agin. He pours one fer himself, then pours another and shoves it across the table at me.
"This'll warm you up."
He raises his glass, as do I. Not sure what we're toastin' here - but I swallow it down and it stays. Chris pours me another, and I take this one slow. Don't wanna press m' luck.
By the time he gits to the bottom 'a the bottle, Chris is pretty far gone. He wants t' crack open another one, but I git 'im steered t'ward his bed and git his boots off and he's asleep b'fore I git the blanket over him. I clean up from supper and throw some more wood on the fire. I lay m' blanket down as close as I kin git without singein' off m' eyebrows and curl up there and hope t' git some sleep. It don't happen, though. I's shakin' so hard now it hurts. Try clenchin' m' teeth, wrappin' m' arms around m'self, but nothin' helps. M' back is painin' me now, and I ache right down t' the middle 'a m' bones. I tell m'self I'll feel better come mornin'... I'll be fine then... oh, God, when's mornin' gonna come?
I musta fell asleep fer a bit, cause I kin see the light creepin' in at the window. Don't feel a whole lot better - leastways I ain't cold no more. Actually, it's kinda hot in here. I got m'self a wicked headache, and my guts is crampin' somethin' fierce. Best git m'self out t' the privy...
Gonna be a nice day I guess, the sky's colourin' up right nice... thought thinkin' on the weather would git m' mind offa how rotten I's feelin', but it ain't workin'. Think I'll jist set m'self out here on the stoop where it's cool - Chris won't be comin' around fer a bit - p'raps I'll be feelin' better by the time he gets up.... mebbe iffen he don't git up until tomorrow... I ain't bin this sick in awhile. I's lyin' on the porch now, head hangin' over the end, waitin' fer the pukin' t' start. P'raps I'll feel better when this is done. Hope I don't wake Chris.
I done tried t' be quiet. Kinda hard when ya don't have no control over yer body and it's heavin' fit t' tear itself apart. Tried not t' moan when my stomach gives me a break and I's tryin' t' catch m' breath b'fore the next round starts. I's hearin' some kinda thumpin' comin' from inside. It's Chris bangin' on the wall, tellin' me t' shut up. But I cain't. Finally hear his feet hit the floor and poundin' across t' the door. He comes out - hair all stuck up over his head, eyes full a sleep and last night's whiskey.
"Damnit, Vin, you gotta learn to hold your liquor. Ya ain't had more than two drinks. Gotta teach you how t' drink like a man-this is down right embarrassin'."
He steps over me and heads out back t' the outhouse. God, I's thirsty. Wonder iffen he'd fetch me a drink if I ask nice like... wonder how m' turkey's doin'. Really hope Chris ain't plannin' on cookin' it any time soon - don't think I could stand the smell...jist thinkin' on the smell got me pukin' agin. I's kinda busy and I don't notice right off that Chris is back. He's lookin' at me, lyin' here on his verandah, spillin' m' guts, and I guess he figures he should do somethin' 'bout me. Never know when company might come t' call. He's come over and is kneelin' in front of me, and I kin see somethin' in his eyes that weren't there earlier.
He puts his hand out and I try t' pull away, but it's no use. I kin feel his hand on m' forehead, and don't like t' admit it, but it feels kinda good....
"God damnit, Vin, you're sick."
"Smart. Guess that's why you's the leader and the rest 'a us is nothin' but..." Start throwin' up agin and don't git t' finish the snappy reply.
"Let's get you inside."
"No, Chris, jist let me stay out here - too hot in there-cain't go in - kin ya get me a drink, please? I's powerful thirsty... don't fergit 'bout the turkey... don't cook 'im t'day....could have him fer Thanksgivin'.... is it Thanksgivin' yet?... mebbe we should let 'im go iffen we ain't gonna eat 'im..."
"Shh, Vin, let's get inside - I'll get you a drink, c'mon, Pard, just take it easy."
I think he's got me by the arm and is draggin' me inside. It's sure gittin' hotter. Want t' tell 'im t' let me be but m' tongue ain't workin' and m' head's spinnin' and I's goin' down and somethin's comin' up t' meet me and that's the last I know fer awhile.
Part 4Vin's sick. Real sick. How long's he been like this? Was he sick yesterday? Don't remember much about yesterday... Thought he was just hung over when I first went out there this mornin' - he was lookin' just about as miserable as I've ever seen anybody look, stretched out on the porch and pukin'. When I got lookin' at him close, I could see he was hurtin' bad. His eyes are all clouded over, and he's runnin' a fever. Shouldn't 'a said nothin' about him not bein' able to hold his drink... you ever find yourself sayin' stuff you know you shouldn't, but you just can't stop? I do that a lot, especially when I'm like this...
"God, Vin, you're nothing but bones. Guess you gotta wear this damn coat all the time so's people can actually see you... here ya go, Cowboy, just take it slow - there's lots 'a water. Let's get you outta this here buckskin...you just lay back here on my bed. I'll get you another drink in a minute-let's see how that one sets on your stomach first."
"I's so hot, Chris, let me go back outside, jist fer a bit til I cool off some...Kin I have another drink, please? Chris...I ain't..."
He's heavin' again and I get the bucket under his head just in time. I've got one hand under his chest, holding him up and the other one on his forehead, trying to hold his hair back. He feels like he's on fire. He's begging for water, and it's no sooner down than it's on its way back up. What the hell's the matter with him? I don't think I've ever seen anybody get so sick so fast. Wish Nathan was here. Wish I could go get Nathan, but I can't leave Vin.
I spend the best part 'a the mornin' tryin' to cool him off. He's gettin' himself all worked up here - askin' for people I ain't never heard tell of- don't have any idea what he's on about. He doesn't know me, doesn't know where he is. I've gotta get his fever down. Should I take him down to the brook? It's cold out there - perhaps I can bring one of the big tubs in from the barn and get him into that. Can't do it right now, though. I'm afraid to leave him on is own even for that long. And to think just a few hours ago I was tryin' to get rid of him. What if he had left when I told him to? He could be out on the trail somewhere, alone and sick. Thank God he don't listen to anything I say. I've never seen him like this, and in the twelve months I've known him, he's been sick a lot. Nathan says it's probably 'cause he grew up on his own pretty much starved most 'a the time. Spent a lot 'a time livin' alone, away from people, livin' rough. Nathan says livin' hard takes a lot out of a person - he would know, he's lived hard himself. Amazing how him and Vin could grow up with nothin' and turn out t' be the kind of men they are. Had the least outta all of us and still the first ones t' stand up and lend a hand and think about themselves last.
He's completely out of his head now - his forehead's so hot I can almost hear it sizzle when I lay the cloth on it. I only dare leave him for as long as it takes to run down to the creek for water, and I can still hear him thrashin' in the bed and talkin' to folk only he can see. Gotta get back there quick- he's been goin' on about the heat and beggin' to go outside. If I leave him alone too long, he's gonna try t' do just that.
I think his fever's finally going down a bit. About time, too. He's quieted down a lot - is lying there on the bed, could almost think he was sleepin', if it weren't for all the twitchin' and the moanin' goin' on. I build up the fire some, set the stew on and make myself a coffee. First time all day I've had a minute to just sit, and I light myself a smoke and relax. All of a sudden, Vin's eyes are flyin' open and he's gaggin' again and thank God there's nothin' left inside 'a him. When I lay him back on the bed his eyes are clearer and he's sayin' he's sorry - something about the smell of the coffee and my cigar. He's sweating now, and his skin is clammy and he's so weak he can't even lift his head, but he seems to have come back to himself at last. He drifts off again, but I think maybe he's on the mend. I get myself something to eat, then go lie down on Vin's blanket in front of the stove. Just gonna rest a minute - not gonna fall asleep....
Part 5Somethin' I can't quite figure out. I put Chris t' bed in the cot and laid m'self down in front of the fire, and now things is all switched around. How'd I end up here in bed, and Chris over there in my bedroll? Ya'd think a feller'd remember...God, I feel like I'bin run over by the afternoon stage. M' back's achin' like I bin lyin' here all day - p'raps if I kin git m'self hauled up some and lean aginst the wall...I's all outta breath and I ain't never even got m' head off the pillow. I try agin and all I's doin' is makin' the room spin...or mebbe I's the one that's spinnin'...gotta close m' eyes lest I be sick.
"Jesus, Larabee, ya need specs or somethin'?"
I open m' eyes and the man's hangin' over me so close I kin see every hair in his nose.
He backs off a bit, but he's still starin'.
"What? Ya want yer bed back? That it?" I try t' sit up agin, but I don't git no further than I did them other times. "Don't know how I got in here in the first place."
Talkin's wearin' me down and I feel m'self tumblin' inta this dizzy dark hole. Chris reaches in and drags me out. His hand is smackin' me on the cheek and when I open m' eyes agin, he stops.
"What the hell is the matter with you?"
"Somethin's the matter?"
"You dumb ox, you've been sick all day. You had me scared half t' death. Got up this mornin' and you's spewin' your guts up all over m' front porch, and you had a fever so high I didn't need t' light the stove t' get heat in here. You don't remember?"
I don't. All I know is right now I feel so weak and wore down I couldn't git the best of a kitten in a wrasslin' match, and I guess Chris kin see it in m' face 'cause he backs off some.
"Guess Buck sent ya out here to sober me up - it worked - ya did a right fine job."
He sets hisself on the side a the bed and lays his hand on m' forehead.
"Don't be doin' that, Chris, I ain't a little kid." I's tryin' t' swat him away.
"Well, Vin, you coulda fooled me. You get sick more'n any little kid I ever seen. And it ain't no wonder. You don't eat right, you're skinnier'n a half starved cur, you don't dress near warm enough, you don't look out for yourself-it's a damn miracle you lived this long."
I gotta stop lettin' Larabee git t' me like this. I got m'self all worked up in a lather and I kin feel the sweat drippin' down m' neck and inta m' shirt and it's gittin' a mite uncomfortable.
"Well, I guess it's a good thing I got you t' look out fer me, ain't it? You bein' the expert on takin' care 'a yerself and livin' right and all." I really still ain't feelin' all that good and it's hard t' sound uppity and put upon when yer teeth is chatterin' and ya feel like yer gonna pass out.
Chris gits up and takes a towel off the back 'a the chair nearest the stove. He comes over and wipes m' face and the back 'a m' neck, then goes and gits me a cup of water.
"Ya feel like somethin' to eat?"
I shake m' head and close m' eyes. Chris is still lookin' at me. I kin feel it.
"Any fever's goin' around town? There any sickness amongst the People? You been out there lately?"
He ain't gonna let it drop.
"Nah, I ain't bin nowheres. I's gittin' tired, Chris, jist gonna - "
"You been sick like this before?"
"Before what? I dunno Chris...yeah, guess a year and a half ago, chasin' bounty..." I gotta stop a minute, catch m' breath. "Feller over t' the Indian territory, killed a family out on their spread, followed 'im down t' Louisiana- never did catch up with 'im - got a fever somethin' like this 'un and was laid up awhile."
I's right wore out now. I kin feel sleep curlin' over me in a long slow wave and I jist lie back and let it pull me under. I don't know nothin' else til I hear Chris clatterin' at the stove and see the light of a new mornin' crowdin' in at the open door. Chris ain't noticed that I's awake yet, and I lay here and watch 'im drinkin' his coffee 'n stirrin' the eggs in the fryin' pan. He's got two plates set out on the table, along with a bowl full 'a biscuits with the steam still comin' off 'em. I wouldn't never dare say this t' him, bein' the mean, ornery cuss that he is, but he looks easy standin' there, and younger somehow. Chris looks like he should be jist turnin' around t' see his Sarah at the table and Adam runnin' in the door t' where he's waitin' t' catch him up in his arms. It never hit me til now how unfair life is. I feel like I's gittin' a peek at the man Chris coulda bin iffen he still had those people in his life. Don't git me wrong, Chris is a good man, the best I ever knowed - ever will know - but it's jist now when I see him like this, I come t' realize what he's lost.
I ain't usually this soft - must be 'cause I bin sick, and when he turns t' set his mug on the table, I close m' eyes right quick and pretend I's jist comin' around.
"Hey, Pard. Made us some breakfast. Think you can set up to the table?"
I don't feel much like eatin', but I know Chris made them biscuits fer me.
"Sure thing." I's at least able t' git m'self up onta m' elbows t'day.
"You wanna take a trip out back first."
"Yeah, prob'ly a good idea."
By the time we gits back inside, m' knees is knockin' and I's so dizzy I cain't hardly stand. All I really want t' do is crawl back into Chris's cot and sleep fer a week, but I prop m'self up t' the table and give Chris a grin.
"Ain't makin' no promises 'bout how much I kin eat, but I's willin' t' give 'er a try."
Chris pours me a coffee, spoons up some eggs, sets two biscuits on the side 'a m' plate and lays it down in front 'a me.
"This ought t' fix you right up."
"Thanks Chris." I swallow hard, and I kin feel m' stomach startin' t' complain even though I ain't done nothin' t' rile it up yet. I pick up a biscuit-figure it's the safest place t' start - and I's surprised when I take a bite and it melts on m' tongue.
"These is good, Chris-good as Miz Nettie's. Don't tell her I said so."
It's Chris's turn t' grin.
"Know they're your favourites. Sarah showed me how t' make 'em. Said a man should be able t' fix a few things for himself in case he..." The smile's drainin' away from his face and he picks up his fork.
"Well, ya'll's gonna make somebody a fine wife someday."
He leans across the table and the smile is back.
"Tanner, ya ain't funny. Now shut up and eat."
Part 6I know he doesn't feel anything like eating. He's doin' good, though, ate one of his biscuits and is still tryin' to choke down them eggs. Ain't drinkin' the coffee, but I'm not surprised. Vin loves his coffee, but he figures it ain't worth botherin' with unless you can feel it eatin' a hole through you as it's goin' down. Guess I should give him a break and let him get back to bed.
"You just take it easy. I'm goin' out to the barn to check on Pony and Peso, then I'm goin' to do some things around the yard. You need anything, you holler."
"Yeah...thanks Chris....got some m'lasses candies in m' pocket - Peso'll be lookin' fer one...kin ya check on the turkey, too, while yer out there?"
"Just where do you think that turkey's gonna go, Tanner? Didn't look like it's in any shape to go nowhere the last time I looked."
His eyes are sliding shut, and he's still mumbling something about his horse and that bird. Glad to see he's getting better.
Spent the day outdoors - felt good - just enough chill in the air to keep you cool when you're busy working up a sweat. Had a couple of fence posts needed replacing in the corral - good to get outside and work hard and think about nothin' except what you're doing right that minute. Vin was sleeping every time I looked in on him, didn't seem to be running a fever no more, but the last time I was in there, he was tossin' some. I'm just about finished up here, and good thing too, it's startin' on dark. I go inside and light the lamps, and I can see Vin's still burrowed down under the quilts. I fix myself something to eat, but decide not to wake him - rest is likely the best thing for him right now. I take up one of the lamps and head out to the barn to bed down the horses. Takes me a little longer than I first thought. Peso's kicked over his water bucket and I gotta go down to the creek and haul up some more. He's dancin' some there in his stall - knows it was a nice day and he spent it cooped up here in the barn and he ain't happy.
"Vin's sick, ya selfish old coot. Pr'haps if you behave you'll get out tomorrow. And don't even think about tippin' that bucket again-you do and you're going without."
He snorts and rolls his eyes at me. Vin says that beast is purt near human, and I swear right now he's understandin' every word I say. I reach out to scratch his nose and he leans into me with his head against my chest. I gotta laugh at that.
"We're the two orneriest snakes this side 'a the Mississippi, and we're both gone soft over that damn scrawny tracker in there puttin' me outta my bed. Guess I can't help but like a stubborn mule that cares about Vin as much as I do. But you tell him that, and I'm gonna have to shoot you."
Peso's ears prick forward and he lets out a soft whicker as if to say "your secret's safe with me". I give him and Pony a treat and head on up to the house.
The night goes by pretty quiet, and Vin mostly sleeps through. I get up around dawn and just get the coffee on the boil when I hear him comin' around. He don't seem to have no fever, but he looks worse than he did yesterday - pale, eyes dark and bruised all around with black and he ain't got the strength to lift his head let alone get up.
"I's OK Chris, jist tired. Got a bit of a headache - it ain't nothin'."
Like I thought he'd say anything else. I'm tryin' not to hover, as he calls it, good thing I still got chores to keep me busy outdoors. I check up on him a lot, though. Still can't figure out what's wrong with him - don't know if it'd do me any good even if I did know - I ain't Nathan. I let the horses out into the corral, so at least they're happy, and I spend the day choppin' and stackin' wood. The day's gone by right quick, and I should soon be thinkin' about gettin' supper started. Maybe I can get Vin to eat some tonight - haven't been able to get nothin' in him all day but water. I stow the axe in the barn, settle Peso and Pony in their stalls for the night, and wash up down at the creek. The moon's just a sliver in a pink sky streaked with clouds, and if Vin weren't lyin' up there sick, it would have been a fine day. He's a pretty easy patient, and I know Nathan wouldn't agree with me on that one, but he never complains no matter how much he's hurtin', and as soon as he can do for himself, he's outta bed. Nathan says he's outta bed before he can do for himself most times, but Vin worries more than most about bein' a burden. Guess when he was around folk as a kid, that's what he felt like.
As soon as I go through the door I know he's been sick. He's lyin' with his head over the side of the mattress and looks up when he hears me come in.
"It's OK Pard, nothing to worry about."
"C-c-chris? K-k-in ya put another stick 'a wood on the fire? I - I-I's m-m-mite c-cold."
His teeth are rattlin'so's he can hardly talk, and he's shakin' fit to fall apart. I load the stove up so it's glowin' red, and go to the fireplace and get it blazin' too. It's so hot in here I can barely breathe, but Vin's still caught in the grip of that chill. I climb into the cot behind him so my back's to the wall and I wrap my arms around him and try to calm the tremors shuddering through him. He doesn't feel cold to me, but I just lie there and hold him tight. Over the sound of his ragged breathing and the moaning he's trying to hold back, I hear two words.
"No, Vin, it's Chris."
"Umm - yeah, Vin, what is it?"
"Where's Caleb? I told 'im I'd wait here for 'im...he ain't never come back."
"Well, I don't..."
"He's dead, ain't he? They took him this mornin' - I didn't wanta let go- they said he's dead - they's lyin, ain't they?"
"Shh, Vin, it don't matter no more."
"I's so cold, it's so cold...how long's it gonna be cold.... Don't let Dan go out there....they's gonna shoot 'im 'n I's thinkin' that's what he wants..don't let 'im go...please..."
"Just lie still, Vin. It's OK."
"It's so c-cold. I ain't never bin so cold..."
"I'll keep you warm, just take it easy, you'll be all right."
God, I hurt all over. I can't stop shakin'.... if only I could get warm...got offa that train inta snow up t' m' waist. Standin' in the snow - no boots, no coat, think I's gonna die right here - no need t' write m' name on that there list - I's gonna be dead come mornin'... I coulda told 'em it'd never work. Sittin' up there on top 'a that mountain - too many places where ya couldn't see - lots a spots fer them t' come forward and there's nothin' we could do...
"Vin, look at me....it's me, Chris."
I's burnin' now. Think I was cold no more'n a minute ago - now it's hot... can't bear it... There's too many people - they's never quiet, always someone moanin' or cryin', guess that ain't near half so bad as the screamin'...mebbe this is hell...I done died and I's in hell...folk always said that's where I'd end up... they's right, I deserve this... I do.
"Kin ya git me some water please? Them fellers wouldn't let me near it and I's feeling a mite poorly - don't think I kin make it back down there... I's hot.... where are we? Why's it so hot?...is Lonnie comin' back? He don't want them t' take his leg - I told 'im I wouldn't let 'em...oh God, I's gonna be sick..."
"I've got you Vin, shhh, I've got you."
Part 8He's gonna be sick. Again. I've been lying here half the night tryin' to warm him up, and I guess it's working because he ain't shakin' near as much as he was. I still got my arm around his waist, and he's gettin' restless and I can feel his stomach rollin' under my hand. I climb out over top of him and get the pail under his head just in time. It's gotta hurt, heavin' like that when he ain't got nothin' left inside. I wipe his face with the cloth and I can feel he's gettin' a fever. Well that's just grand. Looks like another day to be spent wettin' him down and tryin' to keep him from burstin' into flames. God, Cowboy, why are ya doin' this to me? You're right- I'm old, too old to be worryin' about losin' you. I swore I was never goin' through that again, and the way I was going to keep that from happenin' was to make sure no one got too close. Still can't quite figure how you managed that - I didn't even see it comin'. By the time I come to realize it was time to back away, you'd wormed your way so far into my life that I can' t imagine it without you. I ain't never had a friend like you since Sarah, and she was my soul mate. How can a feller be so lucky as to find his soul's partner twice in a lifetime? I can't lose you now - I can't go through that again.
"Vin? You hear me?"
Of course he doesn't hear me. He's delirious now - thinks I'm >Sarge', whoever the hell that is. I wonder where Vin thinks he is? He's babblin' about hot and cold and dyin' - I know he was in the war, but he won't never talk about it. He's so far gone, maybe I can ask him where he is and he'll tell me. Sometimes when were out on the trail, at night, he gets talkin' in his sleep and if you ask him somethin', he'll answer back. It's right funny, by times, the things he'll say. This is different, though, and I feel a mite guilty about it. But Vin's got demons that dog him good and maybe if I knew what some of them were, I could help him lay 'em to rest. God knows, he's helped me with mine.
"Vin, where are you Pard?"
I lean toward the bed and look into those blue eyes that are fogged with pain and fever.
"Sarge? I-I don't rightly know. Is we on the Rock? Sumter? I don't care none- jist wish it'd all be over..."
His voice is nothing more than a whisper.
"You ain't givin' up are ya?"
"Dunno... don't care.... done lived long enough... They took m' rifle, Sarge, I took good care of it, jist like you said, but they done took it..."
"It's OK Vin, it doesn't matter now."
"They hate me, Sarge. Shouldn't 'a killed them fellers, any 'a them. They all hate me now...it's OK. I hate me too."
"It's all right Vin. I've got your back. You'll be OK."
It's mornin' now - late, another nice day and I ain't been outside yet. I'm afraid to leave Vin, again, and I got my hands full tryin' to wring out the cloth and wipe his face when he won't let go of my hand. I hear a noise outside, but before I can go check, Vin's eyes is rolling back in his head and I can't see nothin' but white. I grab him up off the bed, and his body's gone all stiff and he's jerkin' in my arms. He must be havin' a fit - Nathan says this happens when a fever gets too high, and he says it's not good, 'cause sometimes people don't come back from fits the same.
The noise outside is gettin' louder. Horses, I think.
"God, Vin, come back to me Pard. Please, come back...I can't do any of this no more without you."
He ain't breathin'. I ain't been this scared in a long time, and I'm rockin' Vin now and I'm as close to prayin' as I ever been since Sarah and Adam left me.
The door bangs open and it's the boys, and I ain't never been so glad to see them ugly faces in my life.
"Hey, Chris, it's Thanksgivin' - we got pies and ham and..." Buck stops when he sees that I got my hands full and it ain't likely I'm thinkin' about the holiday.
"Nate!" He turns and hollers over his shoulder. "We need you in here."
I'm always glad to see Nate - he's a good friend and a good man - but I ain't never been so glad to see him as I am right now. He rushes across the room and takes Vin from me and lays him out straight on the bed. He slaps Vin sharp on the cheek and takes the waist of his pants in one hand and starts liftin' Vin's hips off the mattress and lowerin' them down again. It seems like forever that we're all standing there holdin' our breath, when finally Vin's breathin' evens out and Nathan puts his head down onto the pillow. He calls for Ezra to bring some water, and strips Vin's shirt and begins to soak him down.
"How long's he been like this?"
I tell him all about what's been goin' on with Vin the last few days and he listens right close. When I'm done he frowns.
"Sounds like malaria."
"Malaria? Where the hell would Vin get malaria?"
"Ya get it from bad air - you know, bein' around where it's hot and muggy and swampy - like."
"Vin ain't never been nowheres like that...oh...Louisiana... he was down there after a bounty...but he said that was goin' on eighteen months ago."
"Yeah, well, near as I can tell, malaria can come back on you. Stays around in your body or somethin'."
"You got anything you can give him to make it go away?"
"No, I don't. Need quinine. Ain't that easy to come by. Could send someone on over to Eagle Bend - think Doc Collins has some. If we don't get somethin' for him, he'll just keep gettin' better for a day or two, then just fall back sick again. Sometimes people just get over this on their own, and sometimes it does them in. Ain't no way of knowin' which way Vin'll go."
"I'll go - if I leave right now, I should be back first thing tomorrow." Buck's jammin' his hat on his head and is on his way out the door before the rest of us can think twice.
"Yeah, thanks Buck-I'm pretty sure the Doc's told me he has quinine - don't think he ever has much call t' use it."
"Buck, I'll come with - it's a long hard ride-might go quicker if ya got company."
J.D.'d follow Buck to the ends of the earth as long as it meant they'd be together and Buck knows it. He throws his arm over J.D.'s shoulder and musses the dark hair.
"Thanks Kid. Let's ride."
Josiah sets the fry pan on the stove and starts a new pot of coffee.
Ezra's lookin' at me and tilts his head at the bedroll.
"Mr. Larabee, you look as if you are in need of an hour or two of peaceful repose. Mr. Jackson and I will tend to Mr. Tanner's needs and you can take your ease on the-" Ezra's wrinklin' his nose now - "sumptuous accommodations afforded by Mr. Tanner's bedroll."
His eyes soften.
"Let us look after Vin. We'll wake you if need be."
It's soundin' like a good idea. I been awake most of the night and could use a few hours' shut eye.
"Yeah, thanks. Guess I'll do just that."
It feels good to lie down. I'm still worried about Vin, so I don't let myself go deep asleep, but I can relax knowin' that they all care about Vin too. They care about me as well - guess we all look out for each other. Funny thing about the way life works-ya couldn't find a more stubborn, independent, aggravatin' bunch a loners anywhere, but we've bound ourselves together somehow into a family, and I thank God for that. And that's what the day's all about, ain't it? Bein' thankful. I smile to myself and relax and go to sleep for real.
When I wake up next, Ezra's playin' solitaire on the side of the bed and Nathan and Josiah are at the table bent over the checker board.
I stir myself to my feet and head for the coffee.
"Mr. Tanner seems to be resting comfortably. He hasn't attained a complete state of consciousness as of yet, but his fever has all but disappeared and he seems to be considerably less agitated than he was earlier." Vin shifts under the blankets and Ezra's cards go sliding to the floor. He leans over to scoop them up. "I wonder if you might be able to help me with something. Mr. Tanner seems most insistent that I check on his turkey, and I have had to resort to falsehood in convincing him that all is well with his fine feathered friend. Has he acquired a pet that we know nothing of? I have seen no trace of the illustrious fowl, and he has been relentless in his assertions that there is such a creature and that it merits our urgent attention."
"Oh, yeah, Vin and his damn turkey. Sorry, shoulda told you before. He shot one on the way out here the other day and he's been goin' on ever since about how we's gonna eat it for Thanksgiving. Don't know why he's all het up over this fool bird. Just tell him whatever you have to t' shut him up."
"Don't nobody insult m' turkey and live t' talk about it Larabee."
Two blue eyes are peering up at me from the tangle of blankets on my bed.
"Yeah, well you've really got me shakin' in my boots, Tanner. Wanna take it outside? Get your scrawny carcass outta my cot and let's go settle this like real men."
Vin goes quiet then.
"Did I miss Thanksgivin'?" Those eyes are still shadowed with fever and the ache in his voice just about does me in.
"It's OK Vin." I drop down beside the bed and take his pale hand in mine. "Buck and J.D.'s gone to get some medicine that'll fix you right up and tomorrow, we're gonna cook that turkey 'a yours and do the whole thing up right."
"I ain't never had Thanksgivin', Chris." His voice is so soft I can hardly hear it. "Well, I done had it - I got lots t' be thankful fer every year- and now I got you and the guys - but I ain't never had the trimmin's. Jist really lookin' forward to it s'all."
"Don't worry, Vin, you'll get your Thanksgiving. Just be a day late."
"Never too late t' give thanks, Cowboy. Don't really need a special day t' do it. All them things we got to be thankful for every day, I reckon them's the things what makes life worth livin'."
I reach out and smooth the hair away from the damp forehead. Somethin' catches in my voice and I whisper so's only he can hear.
"Amen to that, Pard. Amen."
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