Heroes and Villains

by JIN

Chris . . .
Have I mentioned that I hate it when I don’t know what the hell is going on?

I’m about to do something desperate and more than a little stupid like charge the house, when I hear that voice again, offering me a deal. That’s only a slight improvement over their previous requests for me to ride on out and not to worry.

“Not particularly,” I answer. I am well aware that they hold the lives of my three friends in their hands, but I’m pretty sure we all know that I hold their lives in mine since there is no way in hell they are riding out of here without at least three or four bullet holes in them.

“Tanner’s not lookin’ so good. You might want to reconsider,” the voice says.

Well damn. I expected as much, but somehow hearing that Vin is hurt makes it more real. And more frustrating. And more desperate.

What didn’t you tell me, Vin? And why?

Alright then. I’ll at least hear them out before I riddle their worthless bodies with lead. “What’s the deal?”

“We ride out . . . with Standish. We’ll turn him loose a few miles down the road--if you don’t follow us or put a bullet in us.”

They really do think I’m stupid. As aggravated as I get with Ezra, I’m not about to let him be the lamb for the slaughter here.

I don’t have time to come back with a decent response to that nonsense before Ezra is speaking through the broken glass of Nettie’s window.

“I advise you to take the deal, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Tanner is in dire need of assistance and time is of the essence.”

Wait a minute. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Ezra is volunteering to be a hostage. The man doesn’t have a noble bone in his body, but it almost sounds like he’s putting Vin’s welfare before his own. Wonder if Tanner is rubbing off on him? No. Not likely. Then again, everything Standish has said and done tonight has surprised me.

And if Vin is in that bad of shape, what choice do we have?

I decide to get the lay of things before I agree to something I’m bound to regret. “Is Nettie alright?”

“No one’s hurt in here but Tanner, but I can change that real quick,” the voice I’ve come to loathe warns.

“Ezra? You sure?” I ask, as I kick myself for even considering going along with this. A damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation: let ‘em take Ezra and probably kill him along the way, or risk a shoot out with Vin already wounded, and Nettie and Ezra defenseless.


“Yes, Chris. I’m sure. There are two men, and as of now, only Vin is harmed. I believe it would be best to let them leave here as quickly as possible.”

Thank you, Ezra, for finally laying it all out for me . . . except for the why and how we’re in this mess to begin with. I can’t blame that on Standish, though. Vin had damn well better survive this so I can clarify for him how this friendship business works.

I guess Ezra’s caught on to it, though. I never would have believed he’d risk his life for Vin. But I’ll be damned if it comes to that.

“Alright. You’ve got a deal. But if Standish is harmed in any way, this world ain’t big enough for you to hide.”

I hear a short, annoying snort of a laugh before the voice responds, “He’ll be back. We’ve got no quarrel with him.”

That bad feeling in my gut is back. There’s no reason to believe they won’t put a bullet in Ezra the second they’re out of earshot. There really is no choice at this moment, though, so I continue my vigil behind the tree and watch as the door slowly opens. A tall man, who looks a little like Buck, steps out onto the porch. His arm is wrapped around Ezra’s neck and his gun is up against the gambler’s jaw.

“Come on, Patch,” he says. “Get the horses.”

A bigger, broader, younger fellow comes out then, nervously eyeing my tree. I decide right then that he’s smarter than I thought if he’s caught on that I’m not to be trusted. I haven’t figured out what I’m gonna do just yet, but I can’t let Ezra ride out with these killers . . . even for Vin. It would probably surprise the hell out of Standish that I care; kinda surprises me, too, to be honest. And besides, Vin would likely never speak to me again if I let it happen anything to Ezra on account of him being hurt.

This Patch guy starts off towards the horses, but just then, it gets complicated--or more complicated, I should say. There’s the tall guy with Ezra, and Patch is a few yards away as he heads for the horses, and even though the air is thick with tension, it’s all real smooth.

We all forgot one minor detail, though. Nettie appears on the porch with her Spencer Carbine loaded and ready and she says in a deadly voice that even gives me shivers, “Turn Ezra loose and I’ll think about letting you live.”

This seems like a real good time for me to step out from behind the tree and I do, just as Patch reminds me why I was right about him being stupid in the first place. He panics and draws on me. Nettie adds another notch to her rifle before either of us gets a chance to fire, and the younger man drops to the ground.

In the midst of that commotion, Ezra takes his chance and throws his elbow into the tall guy’s stomach. Standish manages to break away, and just as the taller man gasps and re-aims his gun, I fire.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

Nettie rushes back inside, no doubt to see to Vin. It’s all I can do not to push after her, but there are things to attend to first.

The guy named Patch is groaning as he cradles his injured arm, cursing and muttering something about Mexico. I’d like to put him out of his misery, and if I find out he’s the one who put a bullet in Vin, I will. For now, I settle for kicking his gun out of reach, using a little more leg muscle than is probably required.

Ezra rushes to the other fallen man, kneeling next to him like he might actually care. The shot was good--dead center to the man’s chest--and he won’t be a threat to Vin ever again. I can’t say I’m sorry about that.

But he’s still got enough life in him to grip Ezra’s arm and to clearly say, “Tell Vin he was right to stop me. That day . . . he was right . . .”

Ezra nods but I don’t think the outlaw sees it. He’s dead, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Ezra has some regrets about that. But hell, who am I kidding? I don’t know better. I know nothing at all about what’s gone on here tonight.

I aim to find out the most important thing, though, and that’s how Vin is.

I step inside and see Vin on the floor; his head in Nettie’s lap, his shoulder bloody, and his face way too white. I’m not sure if he’s breathing, but I’m pretty certain I’m not.

Damn it, Vin. Why didn’t you trust me? Why didn’t I see this?

Nettie looks up at me with tears in her eyes. “Put him on Casey’s bed.”

“I’ll help you,” Ezra says, and I didn’t even hear him come in.

We lay Vin out and he doesn’t move or make a sound at all. “The bullet out?” I ask, once I get my mouth working again.

Nettie nods. “Ezra did it.”

Ezra did it? I need to clarify, “Ezra took the bullet out?”

Standish shifts uncomfortably and mumbles, “Yes, well . . . circumstances were such . . . and Vin was . . . there was little choice.”

“He did a fine job, too,” Nettie adds, and she looks at me as if daring me to argue.

Am I that hard on Ezra? Does she feel like she needs to defend him? Maybe so. Maybe I’ll have to rethink a few things. Later. For now, my gratitude will have to do.

“Thank you, Ezra. And thanks for what you did outside--offering to go with those men. I know why you did it, and I appreciate it.”

I offer my hand to him and he shakes it briefly before turning away. He’s blushing, and I don’t recall ever seeing the man so rattled and . . . speechless.

But Vin is the priority and almost as one, we all turn back to the bed. Fresh blood is seeping from beneath the bandage on Tanner’s shoulder, but he remains oblivious. Nettie bustles about gathering supplies, but we know that it’s Nathan he needs most.

Ezra looks done in, and Nettie, too, so I tell them, “I’ll take the wounded one back to town and bring Nathan. Should be here by morning.”

But Standish argues, “No. Let me do it. Vin will be more comfortable with you, and besides, I could use the fresh air.”

I look him in the eye, gauging his sincerity, as well as his stamina. He’s had one hell of a night and he’s done his part--more than his part, from what I can see. The choice should be his. “Alright, if that’s how you want it.”

He nods. “If you’ll just help me get Sid’s body on his horse, I can leave immediately.”

Sid? We’re on a first name basis with the outlaw who’s got Vin laying here, bleeding out?

“I don’t give a shit what you do with his body. Let the wolves have him,” I say as I pull up a chair to the bedside and start peeling back the bloody bandage.

But apparently Ezra’s not taking ‘no’ for an answer. He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says softly, “Vin will want him properly buried.”

And I have to ask myself one more time--what the hell is going on?

I look up into Ezra’s face, and the question must be clearly written on mine, because he says, “It’s . . . complicated.”

Yeah, it must be. And just as soon as I’m sure I’ll not be burying Vin right along side ‘Sid’, I’ll be un-complicating things real quick. In the meantime, I’ll go along with whatever Ezra thinks.

I figure he’s earned my trust tonight.

Ezra . . .

Interminable. Insufferable. Intolerable. Surely there are more appropriate words for the occasion, but they escape me. The pounding in my head is obviously affecting my cognitive abilities at the moment.

Or perhaps I am just exhausted. Either way, I am sixty seconds away from blowing a hole through Mr. Patch’s skull. Ah, just the thought of it, the very vision of his head exploding from his shoulders inspires a glimmer of blessed relief.

But instead of reaching for my weapon, I merely say, “Shut up.” Again.

It accomplishes nothing, of course. The young man continues to moan and groan and curse as he has for the past two hours.

I’m quite sure I could get away with it. The fact that the miscreant who held Nettie and Vin and I hostage all night expired on his way to Four Corners would be of no concern to anyone at all. Yes, I could easily get away with it and it is too tempting for words.

He is still moaning; still muttering; still using words that rival even Mr. Tanner’s considerable repertoire of profanity.

Agonizing. Excruciating. Unendurable.

I should have allowed Mr. Larabee to make this journey. But no, then I would have been left to tend to Vin, and I don’t believe I could manage that. I don’t believe I can be there when . . . if he should cease to . . . exist.

Of course, I’ve replayed it all a thousand times in my mind. How I could have done things done differently; how much damage I might have done removing the bullet; how I could have missed what a remarkable friend I have in Vin--how much we may have in common that we’ve previously failed to recognize.

I wonder if he feels the same? Highly unlikely. Vin is not the contemplative sort; he is more sensible, logical, pragmatic. Then again, there was that poem . . .

I’ve immersed myself deep enough in thought to register some surprise when we finally come upon our destination. The sun is just beginning to rise, and I wonder vaguely when the last time I was awake at this ungodly hour was. No matter. I need to find Nathan quickly and rid myself of this thorn in my side with the ludicrous name of Patch.

Josiah greets us at the edge of town, and I am too tired and too grateful to question why he is up and how he knows that I am in need of assistance. He approaches my horse and looks at me in alarm, “Good God, Ezra! Are you alright?”

His reaction perplexes me, until I look down at my clothing. “Oh,” I mutter distractedly, “it’s not my blood. It belongs to Vin . . . or to Sid . . . or possibly even to Patch, here. In any case, I am unharmed, which is truly quite amazing, now that I think on it. In light of all that’s happened and all that could have happened, I seem to be one of the few who escaped unscathed tonight. I wonder why that would be? There is no fairness or logic to it, when all is said and done . . .”

I do believe I’m rambling again.

“It’s alright, Ezra,” Josiah says sympathetically, and I want to remind him that I am uninjured. “Just tell me what needs to be done,” he adds.

“Nathan needs to get to Nettie’s without delay. Immediately. Expeditiously. Tell him to hurry. Please.”

“Alright. You take this . . . Patch . . . over to JD at the jail and then get some rest. I take it Nettie can fill us in on what happened?”

“What happened? Yes, I suppose she could. But it’s complicated, you see. There are feelings and emotions involved, and Sid here needs a decent burial in spite of it all or Vin will be sorely aggrieved. More than he already is, which is considerable, under the circumstances. And how will Chris feel when he is informed of Vin’s understandable though misguided affection for the man he killed? Mrs. Wells is also highly upset and concerned, as we all are. Vin looks to be in dire shape, in spite of--or perhaps because of--my attempts to tend to him. I’ve never removed a bullet before, of course, and one can only hazard a guess as to if I helped him or harmed him further.”

Josiah is frowning. “You removed a bullet from Vin?”

Do I have to repeat myself? No. Josiah simply needs to pay better attention and for heaven’s sake, get Nathan. I sigh in exasperation and apparently that’s enough to motivate him to action because he says, “Never mind. I’ll get Nathan,” and he takes off towards the clinic.

I lead my captive to the jail and awaken a slumbering JD. Young Dunne looks at me in confusion as I instruct him to lock up the still whining Mr. Patch.

“But Ezra, he’s bleedin’ all over the place!”

“I am not removing another bullet!” I state emphatically, ignoring the look of utter shock on our youngest partner’s face. Is it so unheard of that I could actually perform such a procedure?

Of course it is. And were I not so exhausted I would undoubtedly see the absurdity in the entire situation. As it is, I merely wish to find my bed. But as I step from the jail, I see Buck and Josiah talking with Nathan as he prepares to mount up and leave for Nettie’s.

I have to go with him. I started this thing with Vin and I have to see it through. I sigh as I approach my friends; it was so much easier--and less tiresome--being selfish and shallow. It’s no wonder Vin eats little and sleeps less; nobility is draining.

I simply was not cut out to be the hero.

Chris . . .

I feel kinda bad when Ezra takes off with the body and that sniveling coward, Patch. It’s gonna be a long ride, no matter how you look at it. I wouldn’t blame Ezra if he put a hole clean through that whiney idiot’s head before they made it halfway home, either. I’m pretty sure I would. It’s probably best that Standish decided to make the ride back to town.

But that leaves me here to tend to Vin, and I’m not all that good at that, either. I’ve gotten spoiled. I’m used to having Nathan around to do the hard parts. Watching a friend suffer takes a whole different kind of strength.

It was a hell of a lot easier when I didn’t care all that much. Life is just too damn complicated anymore. Speaking of which, I meet Nettie’s eyes across Vin’s bed. We got the bandage changed and Vin still ain’t moving, but from the looks of the hole in his shoulder, that’s probably a good thing. She holds my gaze for a minute, then nods towards the other room. I don’t think Vin’s hearing anything just now, but I take the hint and move off with her.

“What went on here?” I ask, just after she quietly closes the bedroom door behind me.

“Can’t rightly tell you all of it--only Vin can do that. But the long and short of it is that another demon from his past caught up with him.”

I figured that much. What I didn’t figure on was that this was over something that happened when Vin was hardly more than a kid. Nettie doesn’t know the exact details, but it’s apparent that something happened that forced Vin to shoot his benefactor in the back. It’s even more apparent that it was painful for him.

He cared about the guy--and even though I don’t get it, I have to accept it. And I have to tell Vin that I killed him.

Like I said, life is just too damn complicated.

Nettie fixes me a cup of coffee, but I hardly get a sip down before I hear Vin calling for Sid. I don’t want to think about that, anymore than I want to think about why Vin didn’t think he could tell me about it all in the first place. I guess he didn’t think he could trust me. Just goes to show how stupid life can get when my friend is fighting for his next breath, and I’m worrying about my hurt feelings. It’s time I get my head on straight and face Tanner, but before I get the chance, Nettie’s already at his side.

“Sid?” Vin’s eyes are on the door, and I wonder if I’m imagining the flicker of disappointment when I come strolling through instead of the dead outlaw.

“He’s not here,” Nettie says, and I’m amazed how soft she can be when she wants to. It’s hard to reconcile this woman with the one who held that Spencer Carbine only an hour ago.

Vin struggles to pull himself up a little, but he doesn’t get far before he collapses on the bed. “Get ‘im,” he orders breathlessly. “I gotta finish this. Maybe he’ll go then . . . leave y’all alone.”

Nettie starts to say something more, but I put my hand on her shoulder and I lean close to ask, “You mind if I take over?”

She nods as she rises. “I am feeling a bit tired. Think I’ll lie down a spell.”

I squeeze her shoulder as she passes by me, and I’m a little surprised when she pats my hand with her own. I’m beginning to think I don’t know people at all . . . or at least not Vin . . . or Ezra . . . or Nettie.

As I take the chair by the bed, I can see the wheels turning in Vin’s mind. I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t so much disappointment I saw in his face earlier, as confusion. And that makes sense; considering all that’s gone on since he was last awake--whenever that was.

“Chris? How did you . . . get in here?”

I take the direct route. “It’s over, Vin.”

“What? Ezra and Nettie . . . safe?”

“Yeah. Everybody is fine. It’s over.”

He sighs and closes his eyes and I’m thinking that’s all the conversation we’re gonna have for now, but I’m wrong.

“Where’s Sid?”


He’s furrowing his brows and looking at me like he can’t imagine why I have to give him a hard time now and can’t I please just answer the question?

But I selfishly want him to answer mine first. Why, Vin? Why do you care so much about a man who used you and tried to kill you? Why didn’t you tell me about him? Why did you hide from me?

He groans. “God, Chris. I ain’t up t’ this. Just tell me . . . what the hell . . . happened.”

He’s right. Now isn’t the best time for this conversation. Maybe there will never be a time for it; I guess that’s up to Vin. In the meantime, he deserves to know the truth, or at least, most of it.

“It’s all over, Vin. Patch and Sid are gone. Everyone is safe. You can rest now.”

I’m hoping that will be enough, but I should know better.

“Where’s Sid? I got things . . . need sayin’.”

I don’t understand, but then, how can I? Vin hasn’t told me anything. That doesn’t excuse me from not being honest with him, though. So I say it straight out, “Sid’s dead,” and I wince at how harsh it comes out.

“Oh,” he says. That’s all, just ‘oh’.

I can’t leave it at that. “I shot him. I didn’t mean to . . . exactly. But things got . . . complicated and that’s the way it happened.”

“Oh,” he says again, and this time he looks away from me. He might be mad or maybe sad or maybe . . .

He turns to look at me again and his face is flushed when he asks softly, “So you know? You know it all?”

Or maybe he’s . . . ashamed?

I really, really hate it when I don’t know what’s going on.

I hesitate. I’m not even sure what he’s asking, but I do my best to answer. “I know as much as Nettie knows, which I suspect isn’t all of it. And I know that you cared for him . . . and I’m sorry for that.”

He sighs and closes his eyes, and they’re still closed when he mumbles, “Should’ve told y’.”

The opening is too tempting to pass up. “Why didn’t you?”

“Didn’t think you’d understand,” he whispers.

It makes me mad how much that hurts, until I remember that he’s right and I don’t understand. Some bastard takes a poor, scared kid off the streets, teaches him to shoot, uses him to make money, and after it all goes bad and the kid is forced to shoot him--he comes back years later and takes revenge on the now grown up kid. And this ‘kid’--my friend, a man I’ve grown to respect and care about--is left feeling broken up and guilty and ashamed? No, Vin, I don’t understand.

But I want to, so I say, “Help me understand.”

It takes him a long time to answer, and when he does, his normally raspy voice is so weak that I have to lean in close to hear. “You remember when we sat up on that hill and I told you about the bounty on my head?”

I nod; of course I remember.

“Had no trouble tellin’ y’ that because I knew I was innocent. Had no reason t’ be ashamed.”

I don’t like the direction we’re going here, but I move closer and keep my concerns to myself. “Go on.”

“What happened when I was a kid . . . I wasn’t so innocent. Did a lot of things I’m not proud of. And I shot the only man who ever cared about me in the back . . . I reckon we both know how y’ feel about that. Guess I thought . . . y’ might not . . . y’ might think different of me if y’ knew.”

I snort. I can’t help it. Does Vin really think I’m so high and mighty? I’m so noble and so honest and so good? Surely he knows from my reputation alone that I’ve walked the mighty fine line of the law more than once? Perhaps I’d best set him straight, “You think I’ve always done the right thing, Vin? You think there weren’t plenty of times when I wasn’t real close to the wrong side of the law? None of us are perfect and most of us aren’t all good or all bad. It’d be real nice if we could divide people up into groups of heroes or villains, but it just ain’t like that. People are complicated . . . life is complicated.”

Vin turns my words over his mind, but he’s hurting and it’s wearing him down. He’s not giving in just yet though. “I reckon you’re right. It’s just that I didn’t do right. And then, after I shot Sid . . . I was a coward, Chris . . . I ran and I didn’t look back. I just acted like it never happened . . . I just . . . wanted t’ forget. Then when I saw that Sid was alive, I couldn’t forget anymore and I couldn’t think what t’ do. It all got mixed up in my head and I don’t know how Ezra caught on, but he did, and it just got . . .”

“Complicated,” I finish for him.

I hold his head up just a little and give him a sip of water before he can drift off again, and then I add, “Just know this Vin, you can trust me. I know who you are and what you’re made of and I can take the bad with the good. That’s how friendship works . . . and that’s one thing that isn’t complicated.”

Vin’s eyes are closed again and I think they’re gonna stay that way for awhile, but he finds the energy to nod and say simply, “Thanks, Chris.” I figure he’s finally out then, but under his breath he adds one more thing, “Sid . . . he wasn’t all bad, either. And I think . . . I think he loved me.”

I’m glad Vin’s eyes are closed. I’m glad when his breathing finally evens out. I don’t want him to know how his words touched me. I don’t want him to know how goddamn angry and sad and frustrated I feel that love was such a rare commodity in my friend’s life; so rare that he is left to grieve for a man who maybe loved him, but who also used him and hurt him in ways I don’t want to think about.

It was easier when I didn’t understand.

Ezra . . .

“You done good, Ezra. The wound ain’t as clean as I’d like, but under the circumstances, it looks a lot better than I was prepared for.”

I suspect Nathan is being generous, but quite frankly, the only matter that concerns me at the moment is that Vin continues to grace us with his presence.

“So can we assume that Mr. Tanner will recover?”

Nathan is now shifting uncomfortably, his gaze darting from me to Mr. Larabee to Nettie and back. “I don’t assume nothin’ when a man has a hole in him. Y’all know what kinds of things can go wrong, and Vin’s lost a lot of blood. And like I said, the wound ain’t as clean as I’d like. Can’t for the life of me figure out why a man would shoot another man, then let y’ take the bullet out, usin’ an unclean knife, on the floor with no hot water and no clean bandages--makes not a lick of sense--and then we y’ think about . . .”

Nathan is rambling. It’s strangely comforting, in a bizarre sort of way, that I am not the only one saddled with this embarrassing affliction. As he drones on, Chris simply sighs and heads back to the bedroom, taking his customary seat at Vin’s side. I can’t imagine why I thought I was needed here.

Exhaustion takes hold unexpectedly, and before I can fully comprehend what is happening, I find myself gently but firmly forced onto Mrs. Wells’ sofa. It is not quite what I am accustomed to, yet I cannot remember a time when the combination of flimsy wood and cheap fabric felt so heavenly. I vaguely hear Nathan speaking of the evening’s strange events and asking Nettie for perhaps the tenth time, “So Ezra took out that bullet?” I would respond in a less than gentlemanly fashion, had I one ounce of energy, but I decide it is not worth the effort as I drift off into a light slumber.

By the changing shadows in the room, I realize that several hours have passed as I slept. Nettie’s bedroom door is closed; no doubt she is getting some much needed rest as well. I stand stiffly and head for the small room where Vin lays. It would be rude of me to take my leave without saying good-bye.

Vin is restless; a fine sheen of sweat blankets his much too pale face, and fear grips my heart. My knowledge of medical affairs may be limited, but I know what I am seeing.

And this is what I get for allowing myself to get involved; to become attached; to care.

I know better, of course. Like Vin, I learned the lesson early on that life was not to be trusted. When one relies on others, depends on others, allows themselves to get involved with others, things nearly always get complicated. It is much better, easier, simpler, and safer to rely on oneself; to trust only your own resourcefulness; to leave your heart just outside of any relationship lest you make the mistake of actually needing someone. To count on others nearly always leads to disappointment.

Vin should never have counted on me.

I watch from the doorway as Nathan places an odiferous poultice on the ugly wound; the small, neat hole replaced with a gaping, ragged-edged cavity created by my own shaky hand as I tried to find the offending bullet. Temporary insanity is surely my only defense.

Vin groans softly, but Chris is there to offer a soothing word as he pulls a cool cloth across his friend’s fevered forehead. He looks up and catches my eye before I can turn away, “Come in, Ezra. Vin’s been asking for you.”

Obviously Vin is out of his head with delirium.

Nathan moves aside, but he smiles at me as he waves his hand towards his vacant seat. “You can sit here, Ezra.”

I am sure bewilderment is written all over my face. Vin is dying because of my unpracticed hand, yet Nathan is practically gleeful as he ushers me to Mr. Tanner’s side.

Even more perplexing is the slight smile Mr. Larabee turns my way as he also rises to make his exit. “I’ll leave you two alone,” he says.

I’d rather not. Be alone with Vin, that is. I am feeling distinctly uncomfortable and at a sudden loss for words, which will likely be of no disappointment to our wounded tracker.

Vin turns his head towards me and he . . . smiles. I’ve never seen such a chipper group while a man lay on his death bed. Not that I’ve had a great deal of experience with bedside vigils, but still.

“Hey, Ezra,” he says weakly.

“Mr. Tanner,” I respond. I think I see a flash of annoyance or perhaps disappointment in his eyes, but it is gone as quickly as it appeared.

He continues, “I just want t’ thank you.”

I feel my eyebrow rise as I cock my head. “Thank me?”

His smile broadens. “I ain’t dyin’, Ezra.”

I can’t help it. Sometimes my sarcastic tongue simply overrides my good sense. “Have you taken a good look at yourself lately?”

He laughs and groans at the same time. “I reckon I’ll pass on that. Don’t get much of a thrill lookin’ at myself when I’m feelin’ good . . . unlike you.”

It is not one of his better attempts at sarcastic wit, but I applaud the effort. “Actually, appearance is everything, my good man. And at this moment your appearance is . . . worrisome.”

He’s serious now as he meets my eyes and repeats, “I ain’t dyin’. Nathan says y’ saved my life and Chris says y’ offered t’ ride out with Sid, just so he could get t’ me. I owe y’ my thanks, and I owe y’ an apology for not bein’ honest with y’ t’ begin with.”

I want to argue that neither is necessary, but I can see that his strength is waning once again. “Both are graciously accepted, Vin.”

He nods and closes his eyes, and I start to move away, but I remember that I have a message for him. “There is something I need to tell you.”

I wait for him to refocus on me before I continue. “Before he died, Sid said to tell you that you were right that day; you were right to stop him.”

Tears fill his eyes. In the past, I would have looked away, but not now. It’s different now; Vin and I are different now.

“He said that?”


He looks away for a moment, but then he turns back and he says, “You understand, don’t you?”


He nods again before closing his eyes once more.

I understand. I understand loneliness and isolation. I understand misguided affection and dedication. I understand shame and secrets and fear that those you respect will somehow think less of you if they discover who you really are.

No . . . if they discover who you really were. The distinction is important, and I shall remind Vin of that when he is feeling better.

No matter what lies in our past, we can shape our future. I am living proof. I think back over the last twenty-four hours, and I have to give myself credit. I managed quite well.

In fact, I was quite the hero.

Vin . . .

Last thing I see before closin’ my eyes is Ezra lookin’ pretty smug. It’s okay; he deserves it.

I’m slippin’ back in the past again, but I don’t fight it this time.

“You wanna give it a try, Vin?”

“It’s awful big.”

“Or maybe you’re just awful little! Come on now. A man needs to learn to shoot; how to protect himself and his loved ones. You want that, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“There’s a lot of power here, Son . . . enough to change your life forever. You master the rifle and you’ll never be the same.”

“Ain’t sure that’s a good thing. Ain’t sure I want my life t’ change. Ain’t sure I want ME t’ change.”

“You sure are a strange one, Vin! I know men twice your age who don’t have the sense you do. But you gotta trust me on this. Some day, you’ll thank me.”

I never did thank him.

Chris’s words come rollin’ through my head then; about how life is complicated and people aren’t all good or all bad. I reckon he’s right. Things aren’t always black or white, right or wrong . . . and then you throw in feelings and fears and wants and needs and hell, it’s no wonder we all get a mite confused.

“You did real good, Son. I’m proud of you. I ever tell you that the best day of my life was when I found you in that alley?”

“Yeah, Sid, you say it every day.”

“That’s so you won’t forget it.”

I won’t forget it. I’ll never forget it.

Sid wasn’t a hero by any stretch, but maybe he wasn’t so much a villain, either. I reckon he was just a man who made mistakes . . . and who loved me once.

The End