Heroes and Villains

by JIN

Ezra . . .

Why does everyone keep telling me to shut up? And why can’t I seem to do it?

I might consider being offended, if I weren’t so concerned that Mr. Tanner is nearing the point of collapse. No sooner does that thought find purchase than I see Vin’s head roll forward as his body begins to slide off the chair. Due to the restricted movement of my upper body, I am powerless to do more than call out a warning. Nettie grabs onto him, but Sid once more pushes her aside and effortlessly lifts Vin into his arms and lays him on the floor.

“Put him in my bed,” Nettie demands, as if she were actually in charge in this ridiculous scenario. I have to give the old woman credit; she certainly lacks nothing in the way of spirit.

“He stays here,” Sid says, but he’s uncommonly gentle as he straightens Vin’s limp legs and arms.

This is all so very odd. Why shoot a man and then make the effort to see that he is cared for? Why not finish the job and leave? Don’t misunderstand me--I am grateful for the delay--but as Vin pointedly clarified for me, Mr. Sid ain’t stupid. So what is his motivation?

And then there is Vin’s reaction to this. I could have sworn I saw real affection in his eyes for this miscreant. True, the man said he took care of Vin as a child, but obviously something happened that separated them in a most unpleasant manner; something I suspect Mr. Tanner has yet to make peace with.

This appears to be one of those most frustrating mysteries where one answer merely leads to a larger multitude of questions. And I, for one, am getting tired of waiting for the grand revelation as to why we are in this situation to begin with. My arms ache, my head throbs, and my stomach uncomfortably reminds me that that second piece of apple pie was not one of my better ideas.

I shift my gaze to Vin’s inert form and feel an immediate pang of guilt. At least I am not bleeding to death on the floor. I can see Nettie’s hands stained red as she presses the torn sheet harder to the wound. She is nearly shaking, whether from rage or fear or lack of strength I am unsure, but it is clear she is not successful in stopping the hemorrhage.

I’m not good at this. I abhor blood, for one, and I will be the first to admit that my bedside manner leaves much to be desired. But I cannot sit by and do nothing.

“Let me help,” I ask the criminal, detesting the pleading tone of my voice.

He looks at me uncertainly. He is torn in so many ways; it is written all over his face. This is complicated; he is complicated.

“What harm can I possibly inflict on you?” I ask. “You have all the weapons. I merely wish to remove the bullet while you and your friend decide your course of action.”

Wait a minute . . . did I say, “remove the bullet”? What if he actually expects me to do that? I can’t possibly remove the bullet. Another example of my speaking without thinking . . .

“Alright,” Sid replies with a slight nod.

He unties my hands, but pushes his gun up under my chin before I can rise from my chair. “Don’t try anything or all three of you die.”

I doubt that. As unlikely as it appears at the moment, I’m quite certain that Vin has the best chance of coming out of this alive, judging by our captor’s obvious affection for him.

However, time is becoming a factor because Vin’s face is now ashen and his respirations are shallow. Or perhaps it is my breathing that has become labored because Mrs. Wells is looking at me in that way that clearly questions my sanity. She asks, “Can you really do this, Standish?”

I feel the color slowly drain from my face as I am pulled, quite unwillingly, into her steely gaze.

The answer is unequivocally and unconditionally ‘no’. Absolutely not. Never. Cannot do it. No.

“I’ll do my best,” I hear some foreign voice answer; surely not mine.

I have become someone I don’t know, apparently. A strangely intuitive, rambling, overly concerned sort of man who volunteers, volunteers to ride patrol and remove bullets. Dear Lord! I’ve become an odd mixture of my cohorts! If I begin wearing black and uttering one-word sentences I will save Mr. Patch the trouble of putting a bullet in my brain.

I shiver and swallow the unmanly gulp that fills my throat. I will have to deal with personal issues at a later time. For now, Vin is dependent on me to save his life. A frightening thought if ever there was one, but a fact none the less.

Surely I can do this. I’ve watched Nathan do it several times. How difficult can it be? Through the roaring in my ears, I hear Nettie arguing with Sid about boiling water and clean bandages, but our captor thrusts a knife in my hands and tells me to, “Get to it.”

I kneel next to Vin’s right shoulder while Nettie settles down next to his head. She gently strokes his hair and murmurs soothing words of comfort, completely oblivious to the deadly instrument Sid keeps trained on her heart.

This is so wrong. So completely, ludicrously, hideously wrong, wrong, wrong. A bad idea . . . a horrible idea and I cannot do it. I feel the heat rise through my body as I break into a sweat. My heart is pounding and my vision is blurred and Nettie’s trembling hands are rock steady compared to mine at the moment. And oh my . . . I do believe I’m going . . . I’m going to be sick . . . here and now, in mixed company, with a total lack of dignity and decorum.

“I need air,” I mutter desperately as I command my useless limbs to move.

But Nettie grips my arm firmly and she says calmly, “You can do it, Ezra. Vin needs you. I’ll be right here to help you through it.”

It’s almost enough, but not quite. Not until she adds, “Please, Ezra.”

I’ve always been a fool for those two words used in conjunction with each other, probably because I so rarely hear them. No one expects much of me, and when I am needed to do something, it’s generally more of an order, rather than a heartfelt request.

Of course there was that one incident with Vin and his poem, although I don’t recall him actually using the word, ‘please’. It was a heartfelt request, though, and I acted badly. I owe him, at the minimum, an apology for that. Hopefully I won’t repay him by killing him instead.

“Do it before I change my mind,” Sid says. But once again, his words belie the concern his voice cannot mask.

I make a tremendous effort to focus my eyes on the small, leaky hole in Vin’s shoulder. A vision passes before me: I gently but efficiently prod the metal from underneath Vin’s skin before quickly turning and thrusting the sharp knife deeply into Mr. Sid’s chest. In one fluent motion, I retrieve the gun and place a quick bullet into Mr. Patch’s back. Yes, I can see it clearly and I’m certain I can pull it off. I have thus far failed at all attempts to rectify this situation, but there is still a chance. All I have to do is begin by placing the knife . . . oh Lord, my head is swimming.

No, no, I can’t do this.

But I have to.

Yes, I have to do this; I will do this.

Alright then, with a deep breath, I press the tip of the knife into the wound. Vin bucks suddenly and forcefully, knocking the knife from my hands and nearly butting his head with Nettie’s. Sid curses and flattens the majority of Mr. Tanner’s smaller body with his own.

“Go on,” he growls, most unpleasantly, and I badly want to reprimand him for his poor attitude.

For once, I keep my mouth shut, however, and proceed. I recall Nathan saying that he tries to picture the path of the bullet as he embarks on this type of delicate venture. I’m fairly certain Mr. Tanner was still seated when the bullet pierced first the window and then his body, so I expect the projectile to have taken a slight downward path.

Yes. Alright then. I’ll just . . . oh dear. Vin is groaning and he’s looking up at me, his normally clear, blue eyes muddled with pain. I can’t do this. What was I thinking?

“I’m . . . sorry, Ezra,” he moans.

My heart is behaving erratically and I’m finding it hard to breathe. I’m about to maim him or quite possibly kill him, simply because I am so inept at this hero business, and he’s apologizing?

“No need, Mr. Tanner.”

“Should’ve told y’,” he whispers.

Well, yes. That would have been preferable, but the end results would probably have been the same.

“This is all real touchin’, but I say we finish ‘em all off and get the hell out of here,” Patch whines from his position at the window.

“Go on, then!” Sid yells, his patience wearing thin. “See if you can even find Mexico by yourself, you ignorant bastard.”

Apparently this remark hits home, because Patch turns abruptly back to the window.

I turn back to Vin and force myself to meet his eyes. “I apologize to you, Vin. I’m afraid I lack experience at this and I’m likely to hurt you.”

He smirks and mumbles, “Hell. I’ve had worse. Least you got . . . a steady hand and a good eye.”

This is probably not the best time to inform him that I don’t seem to have either one of those things at the moment. Taking another breath, I remind myself that I am, once again, choice-less as I resume my efforts to remove the slug in my friend’s shoulder. This time, Sid effectively controls Vin’s instinctive attempts to pull away from the pain I am inflicting with my crude attempt to penetrate the wound.

I can’t find it. This is impossible. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never, ever take Nathan for granted again. I vow to kiss the man’s feet when this over. Well, perhaps that is a bit extreme, but I certainly intend to tell him that he will now and forevermore have my undying appreciation and respect.

“Keep trying,” Nettie says firmly.

I can’t. But I do. It’s as if some unseen hand is guiding my own, against my will and good sense. Finally, after seemingly hours, the metal of the knife touches something hard and foreign. Vin is moaning softly, almost panting, and it’s then that I see his hand gripping Sid’s. A reflex, more than likely, but it reminds me that there is so much more going on between captor and captive than meets the eye.

A slight twist of the knife and I know for certain I’ve found it. Vin cries out this time, but I ignore him as I pry the offending metal upward and out. It takes more strength than I imagined; Nathan makes it look practically effortless. The relief is overwhelming and it takes all of my concentration just to remain upright, until I note that Vin is not moving or moaning at all.

I’ve killed him.

And in the space of seconds, I regret every hurtful comment I’ve made and every unkind thought that has crossed my mind regarding this incredible man. I regret every moment I’ve resented in his company and every opportunity I’ve wasted getting to know him better. A good man . . . twice the man I will ever be and one I should be only so lucky to call friend.

I feel Nettie’s hand on my face then, brushing something from my cheek as she says softly, “You did fine, Ezra. He’ll rest easier now.”

Yes, I imagine being dead is ‘resting easier’ in one sense.

“Help me get this shoulder wrapped good and tight,” she says next.


“We still got the bleeding to worry about.”


“Ezra!” she says sharply and I finally grasp that perhaps I haven’t killed Vin after all. I don’t have much time to rejoice in that news, however, because suddenly Patch begins firing out the window.

Sid rushes to the window and he says, “What the devil are you doing?”

“There’s a rider out there. I saw him.”

And that’s when I hear the unmistakable voice of Mr. Larabee.

Chris . . .

I manage to sit tight and down two more drinks before I give in. Ezra’s got me imagining all kinds of things that probably aren’t even remotely likely to happen. And I keep seeing Vin’s face--sad and tired and maybe even sick--and now I’m having trouble knowing what I really did see and what I might have seen and what I’m just plain making up.

Damn that gambler, anyway.

“You want me t’ come along?” Buck asks as I stand to leave.

I haven’t said a single word, but somehow he knows I’m about to do something insane like traipse after Tanner and Standish.

“Stupid enough that Ezra is trailing after Vin; even stupider of me to go running after both of them. I think that’s more than enough foolishness for one night,” I say with a shake of my head.

I’m disgusted with myself at this moment, especially when Buck finally gives up and laughs out loud. Funny, I don’t see this as funny at all. Pathetic, maybe.

It’s slow going, riding to Nettie’s in the dark. It’s a nice night, though. The stars are real bright and the breeze is just right. If I had to choose a night to go off on a wild goose chase, this is a good one. I figure I’m about two hours behind my partners; just enough time for them to clean off Nettie’s table but good. I’ll be lucky if they left a scrap for me. And if Vin didn’t eat two or three of her biscuits and a few pieces of pie, well then I might consider being worried.

But I’m not worried now. Feeling a mite silly, but definitely not worried.

It’s not like Vin can’t take care of himself. Hell, he’s probably the most durable, resourceful, damn near fearless man I’ve ever known. Got a little problem playing the hero, though. It’s almost like he’s making up for something; like maybe Josiah isn’t the only one looking for penance.

Then again, maybe we all are. Can’t think of any other reason we’d do the things we do; take on impossible odds for little or no reward, other than the thrill of the fight. Some folks might see us as heroes, but I reckon we’ve all--with the possible exception of JD--been the villain a time or two, as well. I reckon we’ve all got some atoning to do.

Vin’s told me more about his past than I got any right to know, but there’s still a good bit of space between the tales, and that’s fine. I know all I need to know about him, anyway. You ride a few days with a man, and you get to know him real well. With Vin, it was more a like a few minutes and I was sure of what he was made of.

The problem is, aside from the bounty on his head, there’s a better than fair chance he’s made some dangerous enemies along the way. I’m not worried, but I’m not stupid, either. We’re all at risk, but Vin even more so, and if Ezra thought he saw something . . . well, it just makes good sense to check it out.

I’m thinking I’ll be too late; that Vin and Ezra will have already started off on their rounds by the time I reach the Wells’ place. I wonder how I’ll explain why I’m trailing after the boys to Nettie; what kind of story I can make up that she’d buy. Problem in town? No. Casey’s there, spending a few days with Mary, and that would just make her saddle her horse and ride hell-bent for Four Corners.

I’m still turning it over in my mind when I reach her land. It’s funny how quickly it can all change. All the way here I’ve been telling myself that there is nothing to worry over, but the second I come within ear shot of Nettie’s home, I know that something is wrong.

Of course, the bullet that goes flying over my head does nothing to convince me otherwise. I’m off my horse and crouched behind a tree before a second shot gets the chance to accomplish what the first one didn’t, when I hear a voice call out to me, “Go on home, Mister!”

Now that just seems stupid to me. As if I’m going to ride out of here because some idiot with a gun tells me to. Does this guy really think that’s going to work?

A second shot splinters the bark of my tree, and I have to admit that while I’m not impressed with his reasoning, I have taken note that he has decent aim, even in the shadows of the moon.

Damn. What the hell is going on?

“Vin!” I call out, hoping he’ll give me some clues; hoping he’s able to answer.

“I told you to ride on out and I ain’t sayin’ it again!”

He punctuates his command with several more well-placed bullets. I’m suddenly grateful that Nettie chose a place sheltered by several sturdy shade trees. But I need to get closer; I need to know what’s going on in that house.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” I say, partly because it ain’t, and partly because if he’s talking he’s not shooting.

I add for good measure, “And you’re not riding out of here, either. So you may as well tell me why you’re here and what you want with my friends.”

I hear a different voice then and my heart sinks. There are at least two men, and this one sounds older . . . and smarter.

“Nothing for you to worry on, Larabee. Just got some unfinished business with Tanner and then we’ll be on our way.”

Yeah, sure . . . nothing to worry on. That’s why I’m being peppered with bullets. Damn it, Vin. Why didn’t you tell me? I’m going in blind here.

Why didn’t I know that he was in trouble? Why didn’t I see it?

I should have paid better attention.

I should have come when my stomach started twisting up in knots back at the saloon.

And here’s a first . . . I should have listened to Ezra.

Well, damn. Nothing to do about it now but get the boys and Nettie out of this alive.

I can see that one of the windows is broken and I don’t like the implications of that. Even more disturbing is the hot iron in my gut that tells me someone is hurt inside. More than likely, it’s Vin, seeing as how he’s their target. I take small comfort in the fact that Vin can’t be dead, though, considering the man said their business was unfinished. I can only pray that Vin is the only one injured; that maybe Ezra and Nettie can help me out here.

I can’t count on them, though, at least not until I’ve determined just what the hell is going on inside that house. And the only way to do that is to get closer and get a look.

Thank goodness Nettie chose to put a lot of windows in her house. Drives Vin to distraction--he’s constantly bolting them closed and going on about how drafty windows are and how easily someone can break in. Nettie just laughs fondly at his over-protectiveness, but it’s a mutual relationship. She worries on Vin, too; baking for him and knitting him sweaters. I don’t have to know what’s going on inside to know that there is a powerful lot of worrying taking place between them right now, regardless of who is hurt or how badly.

I guess I have to admit to a bit of worrying on my part, too, about now. And I’ve decided I’m not sitting here behind a tree for another minute. I crouch low and fire off a steady round as I make my way to another large trunk about ten feet away. Dust kicks up at my feet as the two men fire back, and I curse the full moon, the men behind the window, and hell, Vin, too.

Why didn’t he tell me?

Unfortunately, I have a sinking feeling that it’s gonna be awhile before I know the answer because it’s gonna take me all night to get into that damn cabin. Well, I got time. I can be a patient man when I have to be--no matter what Buck might say.

I only hope Vin and Ezra and Nettie can wait.

Ezra . . .

Thank God salvation has arrived! I’ve only heard Mr. Larabee’s voice, but hopefully he brought along enforcements, preferably in the guise of Nathan Jackson. Our good doctor will surely be able to undo the damage I’ve more than likely inflicted on our partner.

As if Chris had spoken directly into his ear, Vin stirs and moans, “Chris?” Uncanny would be my word of choice, although Buck would probably go with spooky. No matter how it’s phrased, the fact is that Vin is aware enough to sense the close proximity of his friend and to fret accordingly.

“Is he . . . is he shootin’ at Chris?” he asks worriedly.

I am quite certain that the last thing my injured comrade needs is to hear that yes, indeed, his best friend is diligently dodging bullets in a desperate effort to come to his aid. Therefore, the dilemma here is whether to be honest and cause Vin further concern, or to lie and . . . well, to lie.

“Mr. Larabee has come to our rescue and soon all will be well.” Sugarcoating is also a good option.

“Don’t want . . . nobody else hurt on account of me. Tell Sid . . .”

I wait breathlessly for him to finish the sentence. Or rather, he is breathless and I am thinking that the second-to-last thing my wounded partner needs is to further deplete his shrinking reserve of energy by speaking.

“Do not fear, Vin. Chris will be fine.”

“He’s right. Rest now,” Nettie instructs firmly as she pushes an old pillow under Vin’s head and covers him with a shabby afghan.

But Vin is having none of that. He pulls his head up with a low groan and he says in a deceptively strong voice, “Tell Sid . . . tell him I didn’t want t’ do it.”

Of course, that made little or no sense to the uninformed in the room, such as Nettie, Patch, and I. But it obviously made an impression on the only other man who had some knowledge of a past that has led us all to the dire mess of the present. The tall man turns away from the window and moves to stand in a threatening manner, which I do not appreciate, over Vin.

“Then why did you?” he asks. By the furrow in his brow, I can see that he is nearly as puzzled about something as I am about everything.

“Couldn’t let you . . . kill them people,” Vin answers.

The annoying laugh makes a brief and bitter reappearance before Sid responds, “I wasn’t gonna kill anyone, Vin. Shake ‘em up a little, but that was all.”

A shadow crosses Vin’s pale face. Doubt? Guilt?

“It doesn’t matter now,” Nettie says crossly, as if she actually has some idea what on earth they are talking about. “It’s done. Time for you to move on. Let him be.”

As I previously mentioned, you have to admire the woman’s spirit, although I am beginning to question her intelligence after all. Surely she knows logic does not work with his kind?

And yet . . . Sid is clearly affected by her words. He stoops next to Vin and the expression he wears is one of deep regret. “You always were too damn noble for your own good, Vin.”

Ah yes, the hero’s heart. I’ve often seen evidence of it in my wounded companion--and have shamefully belittled it on my less considerate days.

Vin makes a feeble attempt to laugh before muttering, “Ain’t no one ever . . . mistaken me fer noble.”

Undoubtedly several of us in the room could argue with that, but before we get the chance, young Patch rudely reminds us of his presence by announcing, “Hey! You mean Chris Larabee is out there? The gunfighter? Hell, we’ve got t’ get out of here, Sid!”

Patch is not the quickest draw in the west, if you catch my meaning.

Sid shakes his head and sighs, obviously wondering--as we all are--why he chose to saddle himself with an ignorant imbecile. “Larebee won’t do anything as long as we’ve got his friends. Just keep him occupied and shut the hell up.”

I take small comfort in the fact that I am not the only one being told to shut up on a regular basis.

“He’s makin’ a move! He’s tryin’ t’ get t’ the house!” Patch informs us excitedly as he fires off another volley. Sid reluctantly leaves Vin’s side and moves to the window to join in the fray.

Nettie leans close to Vin and I hear her whisper, “Don’t worry now. I’ve got my Spencer Carbine and I’m just waiting for the right time t’ use it.”

But Vin groans and he says, “No. Please don’t.”

And in a moment of absurd enlightenment, I understand what he is trying to say to Nettie now, as well as what he tried to ask of me before. He does not want us to harm Mr. Sid. He’s trying to protect the man who shot him from us, of all the ludicrous things.

“You’d best give me a reason why then,” Nettie says, and I want to kiss her at that moment. Well, perhaps not, but a warm embrace is a consideration.

“Sid took me in when I was around ten or so.” Vin starts off hesitantly, but he seems to gather strength as he continues, “He saved my life. He was good t’ me.”

He looks us both in the eye then, and it seems important to him that we believe that; that we understand there is more to this villain than our current predicament indicates.

“What happened?” Nettie prods.

Vin closes his eyes and sighs. “It was my fault it all went wrong.”

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that a mere child of ten or eleven could cause true trouble . . . but then again, there was that time when I was ten that I . . .

Vin continues, “We got along real good for a few years. We didn’t have much, but Sid always found a way t’ get us through. I was grateful . . . didn’t have no one after my ma . . .”

I’d never given that much thought, I must admit. Mr. Tanner has always been extremely self-reliant; it never occurred to me how he became that way. Of course, our past molds us all to some extent, and it just may explain why some of us become heroes and others of us do not. Or, that may be a convenient excuse, but in any case . . . I need to stop this incessant rambling in my head and pay attention to what Vin is saying.

“He gave me a rifle when I was twelve; taught me t’ shoot. I was good at it.”

An understatement, no doubt.

“Sid learned real quick that he could make money off it; bets and contests and the like. Hell, the rifle was as big as me, and people didn’t believe some scrawny kid could shoot like that.”

I’d like to personally wrap my hands around Sid’s throat about now, and I can see by Nettie’s eyes that she feels the same. Using a child to make quick cash is beneath even my standards. But it’s apparent that Vin never saw it that way. It’s apparent that Vin is sadly unaware how despicable it is that he was used to satisfy this man’s greed.

“Things changed, though. Sid . . . he got . . . he wanted . . . more.”

No surprise there. I don’t even need to hear the rest. In fact, I don’t want to hear the rest. I have a clear vision of a giving, gifted child manipulated into a life of crime out of loneliness and the sheer, desperate need to be loved.

Except the child I envision is not a younger version of Vin--but of myself.

Perhaps Vin and I are not so different after all.

Vin . . .

I thought I could finish it . . . thought I could just say it.

But I can’t.

All of a sudden, I’m so tired that just keepin’ my eyes open seems impossible.

Nettie’s lookin’ at me like she’s feelin’ sorry for me, and I hate that. But Ezra, he’s got this distant look in his eyes, and I get the feelin’ that maybe he understands. Don’t hardly make sense t’ me that Ezra knows how it felt back then--how I felt back then--but maybe he does. Maybe we’re not so different.

I knew what Sid and me were doin’ was wrong. I didn’t much remember my ma, but she’d taught me right from wrong, and I knew which side stealin’ was on. I tried hard t’ get Sid t’ stop, but he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t, I don’t know.

I don’t know much of anything right now except that I want this t’ be over. I want Ezra and Nettie and Chris t’ be safe, and Sid t’ just go on. It took me a long time, but I learned t’ forget. I want t’ forget again.

I hear Sid’s voice callin’ t’ me from the window, “Aren’t you going to finish it, Vin? Tell them how you repaid my kindness? Tell them how the story ends?”

I know how I thought it ended. I thought I killed him. Apparently I was wrong. All those years, I lived with that. All those years I wanted so badly t’ tell him . . . t’ tell him I was sorry and I didn’t mean it t’ end like that, but I thought I’d never get the chance. Now he’s here and I’m not ready. I don’t know what t’ do or say; I’m havin’ a hard enough time just catchin’ my breath.

“There is no need to proceed, Vin,” Ezra says.

His voice is driftin’ away from me again, although I’m tryin’ like the dickens t’ hang on to it. Nettie’s is there, too, real faint-like, and I can feel her hand strokin’ my hair while she tells me t’ rest. I can’t rest yet. I need t’ stay and finish this once and for all, but I can’t stop myself from floatin’ away into the past.

I see the stagecoach. There are women inside, and children, too, and I don’t want t’ do this. Please, Sid, don’t make me do this.

“You know what t’ do, Boy,” he says.

I hold my breath as I pick up my rifle and aim just ahead of the carriage. A few shots are enough to make them stop. One of the men goes for his gun, but I shoot it out of his hand.

It gets crazy then. A couple of the other men pull their weapons and start shootin’, and I can hear the kids cryin’. It gets worse every time. Sid takes more chances and he gets meaner every time. This time, I’m scared because I know someone’s gonna get hurt, so I beg, “Please, Sid. Let’s just go. We shouldn’t be doin’ this.”

But he’s got his gun out and he’s firin’ back. I see one of the men go down, and I know they ain’t got a chance. Me and Sid are up on the hill, behind the rocks, and they’re just sittin’ ducks below us.

If only they’d just give up; let Sid take what he wants and move on.

But it’s not gonna happen that way. Another man goes down and now Sid is yellin’ at me t’ keep shootin’.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, Vin? Help me out here!”

I’ve always done what he told me to. I was lonely and scared for a long time before he came along. I don’t want t’ live like that again.

But this is wrong. There’s babies down there, along with their ma and pa. A family.

And I can’t let this happen.

I feel the tears stream down my face when I turn the gun on Sid. “Stop it,” I say. “Stop it now or I’ll shoot, Sid.”

He laughs. I know then that it’s too late. If only I hadn’t been so good with a gun, it might not have happened this way, but it’s too late now. Sid doesn’t remember anymore what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s no turnin’ back for him.

I try one last time, “Please, Sid.”

Please, please don’t make me do this.

He turns back around and fires into the coach; a woman screams. And that’s when I put the rifle to my shoulder and I pull the trigger. The bullet hits Sid in the back, but he falls t’ the side and his eyes turn t’ me. I mumble, “No, no,” but he just looks at me, sad and sick and surprised, and then he says, “Vin?”

His eyes drift closed as I rush to his side. The tears are comin’ so hard and so fast that I can hardly see, but I hear the men below, “Come on! The shooting stopped. We must have got him! Let’s go!”

I throw my rifle to the ground and I run for my horse. I’m a thief and a killer . . . and a coward.

“I . . . I shot him in the back.” Through the fog, I hear my voice as I pull myself back to the present. Finally, I’ve said it, but I don’t feel better. I just feel empty and tired.

Nettie’s voice is so soft, “Shh . . . it’s alright now. It was a long time ago.”

“Twelve years, to be exact,” Sid says, and I’m shocked all over again that he’s not really dead. I don’t even know how I feel about that. It’s all so . . . complicated.

He walks back over t’ me and he points his gun right at my head as he pulls back the trigger. “I didn’t die, Vin. I sat in prison all those long years and thought about the boy who shot me in the back. I thought about how I was gonna break out and find you and put a bullet in you; remind you of what you did to me. Didn’t take me long to find you, once I was out. Shooting you was a whole lot easier than I thought it would be, too.”

He pauses and lets the trigger slide back into place as he lowers his gun. “So why is it so damn hard to finish it?”

Am I supposed to answer that? I sure as hell hope not because I’m havin’ enough trouble figurin’ out what I’m thinkin’ and doin’, let alone worryin’ about Sid’s reasoning.

“Perhaps because, deep down, you know young Vin was right. I have yet to discern the details of the altercation between you, but I am guessing that Vin had a compelling reason to put a bullet in the back of the only man who loved him.”

The only man who loved him . . . How did Ezra know? Seems like Ezra’s on to a whole lot of things I don’t rightly recall tellin’ him.

“You’re wrong, Standish,” Nettie speaks up, straight t’ the point, as usual.

“What?” Ezra asks, and I’m kinda glad I’m not the only one havin’ trouble catchin’ on.

“Him loving Vin counts for little. Vin’s feelings for him are what matter. Think what it must have taken for our Vin to hurt someone he loved so deeply.” She looks Sid in the eye and she says, “What did it take? What could have possibly forced this noble heart to such violence against the only person in his life?”

I’m feelin’ real uncomfortable about now. They’re all talkin’ about me like I’m not here. Talkin’ about who I loved and who loved me, and I’m wishin’ Chris was here t’ tell them all t’ mind their own business. I’d tell ‘em myself if I could find the energy.

Besides, it’s just not that simple. Nothin’ is ever that simple.

Except, apparently, to Patch, who hollers out, “Chris Larabee is out there just waitin’ t’ put a bullet in me and you’re all talkin’ about love . . . and I’m not one foot closer t’ Mexico!”

“Shut up!” three voices yell in unison.

That strikes me as funny for some reason, and I’d laugh about it if I wasn’t so tired. I’m thinkin’ I’ll just close my eyes a spell; let them all prattle on about my life and my mistakes and my business. Of course, t’ be fair, I guess it became their business the second Sid stepped in here and put a gun to Nettie’s and Ezra’s heads. I guess they got a right t’ know. I should set things right with all of them while I got the chance, but I can’t even open my eyes.

“Rest now, Vin. We’ll take care of matters here.” Ezra’s voice is real far away now, although I can still feel his hand on my arm. He’s been a real pard through all of this, and I don’t think I even thanked him. I should do that . . . should get t’ know him better . . . should maybe tell Chris not t’ be so hard on him . . . should set things right . . .

Ezra . . .

I am deeply concerned for Mr. Tanner. I can see that he is struggling to hold onto awareness, but I fear his strength is quickly waning. I am not a doctor and have never had any interest whatsoever in the human body and all its frailties, but even I can see that time is becoming a factor.

It is time to take action. And since it seems to be my night for volunteering to do utterly senseless things, I do the only thing I can think of to get Sid and Patch out, and Chris in.

“Gentlemen, this stalemate is getting us nowhere.” I address my comments to Mr. Sid, although Patch is watching from the corner of his eye with obvious interest. “I propose that you ride out, with me as a shield--or insurance if you will--against Mr. Larabee’s bullets. Once you are a safe distance away, you can affect my release, or do as you otherwise see fit.” I cringe at that last part. Volunteering to be a hostage is one thing, volunteering to be a human sacrifice another entirely, but I am hopeful it will not come to that.

“And what makes you believe Larabee will just let us ride out of here with you?” Sid asks with a smirk.

“Mr. Tanner needs medical attention. I assure you, given the option of coming after you . . . and me, or providing for Vin, his choice will most definitely lie with Tanner.”

That is the one thing I am certain of.

Sid once more turns his gun in Vin’s direction. He is a most complicated man, or one who can’t seem to make up his mind at any rate, and so I quickly add, “That is provided, of course, that no further harm comes to Mr. Tanner in the meantime.”

“Let’s do it, Sid,” young Patch pleads. “You ain’t gonna kill Tanner, anyway. Let’s just get out of here.”

Nettie is looking at me peculiarly, and then she says quietly, “Could be I was wrong about you, Ezra Standish.”

Could be we were both wrong about me, I say to myself. Or perhaps it is a case of temporary insanity. In any case, life is really nothing more than a game of chance--a gamble--anyway. For once I intend to rise to the occasion and do the right thing. And with a little luck, I shall live to remind myself that I am capable of being more than I am . . . and good Lord, now I sound like Josiah. I can add ‘speaking in vague, inspirational phrases’ to my growing list of questionable attributes that I’ve acquired from my colleagues.

Sid peers down at Vin--who is now unconscious by all indications--before turning back to me and stating, “You really willing to do this, Standish?”

“I am.” Amazing how easy it is to offer myself up in such a stupid, annoyingly noble manner. As I noted earlier, Mr. Tanner is rubbing off on me, although perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

With a look of something akin to amazement, Sid nods before kneeling next to Vin and squeezing his uninjured shoulder lightly. After several interminable seconds have passed, he says, “Like I said, he knows how to get his hooks in a person.”

He rises then and faces Nettie. “He tried to get me to stop the stealing, but he never once refused to do what I asked of him. Not until that one day when he shot me. I’ve spent twelve years wondering how he could have hated me so much, and I never knew it.”

Nettie meets his eyes as she responds, “Well now you know. He didn’t hate you. For some reason that only Vin can fathom, he loved you. But it’s not in him to sit by and watch innocent people suffer. And I guarantee you, whatever pain you’ve endured the past dozen years over this does not compare to what he’s put himself through. And the hell of it is, unlike you, he didn’t deserve a minute of it.”

Well said, and for the first time, I feel no need to expound on her message.

Apparently, neither does Sid. He simply walks to the window and calls out, “Larabee? You interested in a deal?”