Disclaimer: Don't own 'm, don't wanna... couldn't keep 'm to m'self, so why try? The Alphabet Brigade can foot th' bill fer th' upkeep, I'll just sneak over th' fence t' play when they ain't lookin'!
Warnings: Prob'ly some language... can't seem t' write without it.
Notes: Written for Elizabeth, in honor of her birthday. May you're day be magnificent and the year ahead truly amazing! This is loosely based on an episode of The Big Valley, one of my favorite "hurt Heath" episodes! This fic will feature a couple of 'special guest stars' that I hope you'll enjoy!
Vin Tanner squinted up at the sky, looked out at the countryside beyond the little homestead, then let out a soft sigh. When Nettie Wells had made the arrangements to visit her niece, Elizabeth, the land was bone dry. Then the rains had come early, and turned the dusty land to mud. But Elizabeth was expecting her first baby soon, and Nettie didn't want to put off the trip.
He argued with her, not about canceling the trip, but about going alone. She might be a tough old biddy, but if the wagon should bog down, she'd never be able to free it alone. Finally, after a great deal of bickering, she had agreed to let him accompany her.
The steel gray of the sky and the heaviness of the clouds caused him more than a little worry. The last thing he wanted to do was to be on the road for two or three days in the rain. Then a soft noise broke into his thoughts and he turned to find the widow Wells standing nearby. He smiled down at the old woman. "Y' ready t' go?"
"Yep. Everything's battened down. You sure JD 'll remember to come out and take care of the livestock?"
Tanner chuckled. "Well, if he don't, Casey's right there at Mary's t' keep 'n eye on 'm an' make sure he r'members."
Nettie smiled and let the young man she had grown so fond of help her up into the wagon. She watched as he jogged around to the other side and climbed up onto the seat beside her. He offered his arm, and she wrapped both of hers around it. Leaning against the handsome young man, she braced herself as he slapped the reins and sent the horses forward.
They rode through the overcast morning, Vin content to listen to Nettie tell tales from her younger days. She told him how Elizabeth had come to be part of her family. Like Vin himself, Elizabeth shared no blood ties to Nettie, but had been taken into the old woman's heart long ago. Nettie and Elizabeth's mother, Alice, had been friends' since coming out West with their husbands. Both of them had buried babies and had given up having children until Elizabeth came along. She became as dear to Nettie as Casey would a few years later, and had always referred to her as Aunt Nettie. Alice had passed on three years earlier, leaving Alice in need of her aunt now.
Tanner had to marvel at the capacity the old biddy had for taking in and loving 'strays'. Even Casey had no blood ties to Nettie. Her father, Aaron, and Nettie's late husband, David, had been brothers. His second wife, Mae, had died in bringing their only child into the world. Aaron Wells had done his best to care for his infant daughter, but relied more and more on his sister-in-law. Then, when Aaron and David had both been taken in the same accident, Nettie found herself raising the little girl on her own.
And now she had added a son to her little heart-bound family.
Vin often wondered how different his own life would have been if she had been there in his childhood. What path would his life had taken if he had been taken in by this same Aunt Nettie when he had found himself orphaned at the age of five. At least he could console himself with the fact that, now, he had a Miss Nettie in his life.
His mind snapped back to the present and he turned to look at his traveling companion. "Yes 'm?"
"Land sake, boy, where were you just now? I called your name four times!"
"Sorry," he said, feeling his face flush, "Reckon I's wool gatherin'. What did y' want?"
"Just wonderin' if you were ready to stop for lunch. I've got some fried chicken and apple dumplings waiting for you."
Vin smiled, his eyes searching ahead for a place to stop. Reining in under a broad-limbed tree a short time later, he helped her down and they shared lunch sitting on the edge of the wagon bed. As he usually did when enjoying her cooking, Tanner proceeded to stuff himself.
Nettie watched him as he devoured his fourth piece of chicken, eyeing the dumplings as he did. She was eternally amazed at the amount of food the rail-thin young man could put away. She found him smiling back at her, lips glistening with grease and satisfaction. "Think you'll have room for dumplings?"
"Ah hell, Miss Nettie, course I will."
They finished their meal and returned to the road. Tanner's gaze turned to the sky once more, relaxing when he saw that the clouds were lifting. "Least we won't be ridin' in th' rain fer now."
"Afraid you'll melt?"
his laughter rang through the air. When he could finally answer, he said only, "No ma'am, sugar melts... don't reckon I gotta worry 'bout that."
She joined the laughter then, enjoying the companionship she shared with the caring young man. If the truth were known, she had been touched at how he had fussed at her about joining to visit Elizabeth and Paul.
In the months since she had met him, she had come to consider Vin Tanner nothing less than a son. For weeks after the problems with Guy Royal, he had come out often to check on her and Casey. He always had a reason, of course... he was passing by on his rounds; had seen something that needed fixing; was looking for one of the others. The truth was easy to read in those cornflower blue eyes, though, he wanted to make certain they were all right. Even beyond that, she felt a need in the young man, to form and build strong a bond with her. She was more than willing to oblige, she had felt the tug of such a bond the moment she laid eyes on him.
They rode through the afternoon much as they had the morning. Nettie never seemed to run out of stories to tell, and Vin never seemed to tire of listening to them. The sun was nearing the Western horizon when trouble put an end to the stories, however. The muddy road, an awkward incline, and the heavy wagon all conspired to stop their trek. Tanner cursed as he felt the horses strain against the stopped wagon, its left rear wheel trapped in a deep rut. They struggled for some time, but made no headway. Finally, he handed the reins over to the old woman and leapt down from the wagon seat.
His boots making soft sucking sounds as he walked, Vin made his way back to the caught wheel, grumbling as he did. Squatting down beside the wagon, he studied the situation, cursing again as he realized they would never be able to get the wagon out by trying to go forward. The odd slope of the ground at that point made it impossible while the ground was so muddy. They would have to get the horses to take them back the way they had come. With a final curse, he walked around to the front of the wagon.
"Son, wherever did you learn to cuss in so many languages?" Nettie asked, with a hint of scolding in her voice.
Blushing, the sharpshooter said, "Sorry, Nettie. Reckon I let m' temper git th' best a me."
Shaking her head, she watched him as he unhitched the horses and walked them carefully around to the back of the wagon. He explained himself as he went, and quickly had the animals lashed to the rear of the wagon. That accomplished, he helped the widow down from the wagon and escorted her to where the animals waited patiently.
"Now, if y' could just keep hold a the horses, Miss Nettie, I'll see if I can coax that da - durn wheel outta th' hole."
"I suppose I'm up to the task," the old biddy teased.
Blushing again, Tanner moved to stand next to the back wheel. Signaling to Nettie that he was ready, he shoved at the wagon while she coaxed the horses forward. For long moments they fought to get the wheel out of the rut and the wagon back along the road. Vin groused as he thought about the time they were losing. If Nettie's niece had her baby before she got there, all because he hadn't been paying attention...
He looked up just in time to see the wagon tilting toward him. The boxes and bags in the bed, gifts to the new parents, shifting toward him as well. Tanner tried to get away, but the mud impeded his movements, and wide blue eyes watched the world spin as he was knocked backwards by the heavy wagon.
Nettie cried out again, but it was already too late. In stunned silence, she watched the wagon knock Vin backwards and then trap him beneath its weight. Shaking herself into action, she struggled through the mud and dropped down beside him. The usually tanned face was the color of adobe, and nothing below his chest was visible. Fighting back the urge to gather him to her, she carefully moved the things that had careened downward against the side of the wagon. By the time she had managed to move the heaviest of the parcels, the sun was nearly gone. Digging through the debris, she found a lantern. The chimney was broken, but the rest intact. Settling it on one of the boxes, she lit it, the little flame casting weird shadows around her in the gloom.
Going back to where Vin lay, she sank to the ground beside him once more. He had yet to move or make a sound, and that terrified her. Placing one callused hand against his finely chiseled features, she forced her voice to sound normal. "Vin? Vin Tanner, you wake up for me, now, you hear me?"
His eyes fluttered open slowly, the blue nearly hidden by the black of their pupils. He groaned breathlessly, unable to take in enough air as the wagon pressed hard against him. As Nettie continued to talk to him, he struggled to focus on her words, and finally managed to find her in the black-spotted haze of half-consciousness. His lips formed her name, but there was no sound.
"Sh, you take it easy now son. Just lay still, hear? Now, are you hurting anywhere?"
Slowly the shaggy head moved up and down once. Oh God how he hurt. Head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest... then he frowned. Was that all? Then his eyes flew open wide as he realized that he couldn't feel anything below his chest. Fighting for each breath, he wheezed, "N-Ne...ttie... cain't f-feel... m' leeeegs."
"Sh, calm down," she said with an ease she didn't feel. "The wagon fell on you. You're most likely just numb from the weight or something. You're going to be fine, Vin, just fine."
He felt her hand stroking along the side of his face and leaned against its comforting warmth. If she said he would be fine, he believed her. "Kay."
With a trembling smile at the look of utter trust he gave her, Mrs. Wells studied their predicament. It would be possible to get the horses to pull the wagon far enough off him that he could pull himself free. She hoped. Then she looked up and cursed in a fashion that caused the injured man to grin weakly. The horses had pulled loose during the accident.
Pushing herself from the ground, the widow scanned the gathering darkness for the animals. They were moving at a trot, heading back along the path they had just come. With a defeated sigh, she dropped back to the ground. Looking down into those trusting eyes, she said, "The horses are gone, honey, heading home most likely. We're going to have to find another way to get you out from under here."
He shook his head slowly. "T-too... hea... heavy. G-go ba... go back... t-town... Chris... help."
She understood the broken sentence, but wasn't about to abandon the young man out here in the wilderness. "No. I'm not going to leave you here alone."
"O-only... way. H-help me... Ne... Nettie... pl-please."
Her shoulders slumping in defeat, the white-headed woman nodded. He was right, there was no way in the world she could get the wagon off him alone. She would have to return to town and get his friends to help. Despite her earlier promise, she was worried about the lack of feeling below his chest. While the ground was soft and had cushioned the blow as Vin had been trapped beneath the wagon, there was still far too great a chance that he had been seriously injured. The young Texan had never had the strongest back, as it was. What if it was permanently damaged?
She looked up at the soft call, forcing herself to smile wanly at the young man. "I'm right here, son."
"St-stay here... t'ni... t'night. T-too dan...g'rous out there... 'lone."
"I'll be fine, son. I'm just going to try and make you as comfortable as I can, then I'll be on my way. It's going to take me some time to get back there, but I'll make the best time I can. Maybe I'll be able to catch those damned fool horses on the way."
He nodded, too exhausted now to argue. His eyes fluttered closed as the weariness settled into his bones, even nudging out the cold of the wet earth beneath him. He heard Nettie moving around, heard boxes being pried open and bags rustling. The injured young man felt himself lifted slightly, something thick and warm wrapped around his upper body. Then something else was placed beneath his head. His breathing eased a bit, but he continued to struggle to draw in enough breath to fight off the hazy feeling of near-suffocation.
Her hand stroking the pale features once more, Nettie said, "I'll be back as soon as I can, son."
His hand snaked out grasping hers tightly. "St-stay... please. Til s-sun...sunup?"
Reaching down, she pried the long fingers from her arm, holding them to her cheek. "Honey, I'll be fine. We need to get you out from under here as soon as we can. I've traveled worse places than this in the darkness, I know what I'm doing. Now, you stop your worrying. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Miss... Ne-Nettie... please."
"Sh, stop now. Everything's going to be fine, son." She planted a gentle kiss on his forehead, stroking back the sweat-soaked curls from the handsome features. Going to the wagon seat, she retrieved the rifle and her own small sidearm. She had lived in this fierce land far too long not to be prepared for anything. She lay the rifle across the wagon's side right where Tanner could get it easily. His own sawed off was beyond their reach beneath the wagon.
Placing his hand on the stock, she said, "There you go, in case you need it." With one final kiss delivered to the pale face, she looked deeply into the expressive eyes and smiled. Pushing herself to her feet once again, she strapped the gun belt around her narrow waist, and gave the young man one last look. Forcing any thought that this could be the last time she saw him alive aside, she walked determinedly back along the muddy path toward Four Corners. Toward Vin Tanner's best chance at survival.
Behind the old woman, Vin struggled to turn so that he could watch her. She was quickly beyond his sight, but he could hear her for a time after that. His heart pounded hard in his chest as he thought of Nettie Wells out there, alone, all night long. True, she had faced the unknown in this rugged land before he had been born, but it didn't make it any easier on the protective young man. He had invited himself along on this trip in order to keep her safe. And now he had put them both in danger.
Good plan, Tanner, he thought to himself.
Left alone, the dim light of the lantern putting him in a pool of soft light, Vin fought down the feelings of panic and fear that coursed through him. His mind spun between the worry of Nettie being out on the prairie alone at night, and that of the lack of feeling beneath his chest. He had seen what usually happened to men unable to fend for themselves out here. Their lives weren't much worth living... and they weren't long, either.
Ain't been one t' ask fer much, his silent words tumbled forth, but I'm about t' ask fer one hell of a favor. Don't let me live crippled. I don't want Nettie t' carry no guilt fer it, but I cain't see livin' like that. Y' know I got some a th' best friends a man could ever ask fer, but I won't be b'holdin' t' them fer th' rest a m' life. So, if it's all th' same t' you, let me die out here if that's th' future y' got in mind fer me.
Some distance away, another prayer was being offered to the heavens. As she picked her way through the prairie, Nettie said aloud, "Lord, You know I don't bother You with small things. Figure those are for me to work through on my own. But this is nothing small. I'm asking You to spare that boy's life, to let him come through this strong and whole.
"I don't know why he was chosen for the life he's had, and I won't question Your judgment, but he's had so many trials all ready in his young life. I'm asking You to bring him through this in one piece. Lead me to help by the quickest route, or bring some kind soul to me." She paused, smiling as she finished. "Reckon I'm asking you to send me a good Samaritan... or maybe a guardian angel."
Just then, Nettie Wells heard movement in the stand of trees nearby. She turned in that direction, her keen eyes searching the darkness for signs of movement. After a few minutes, she watched as one of the shadows detached itself from the others and moved with a deliberate slowness right toward her.
"I've got a gun," she said with all the authority she could muster, "and I'm not afraid to use it."
The shadowy figure stopped, arms raising in surrender. "I'm not armed, ma'am." The voice was very young, the tone smooth and cultured.
"Come on out here and show yourself, then," she ordered.
The young man moved out of the shadows, moving to stand close enough for her to see him. His black hair was long and straight, hanging in his face. He had a faint mustache, just growing in, as if he was trying to make himself look older. He was fair to look at, quite handsome in fact. And oh, so young. But at the same time there was an air about him, something she couldn't quite name, that detracted from the child-like quality of his appearance.
"Are you out here alone?"
"I was just going to ask you the same thing," the young man replied.
"I need some help. We were traveling... the wagon turned over. My... my son is trapped underneath it." She wasn't sure why she referred to Vin as her son, but she didn't worry about it. He might as well be, after all.
"Sorry, can't help you."
She stared at him for a few seconds, stunned. Finally, "What?"
"Can't help you. I've got my own business to attend to." With that he started to walk past her.
Nettie stared at him for a few seconds longer, unable to believe that she was watching the man's retreating back. Then, recovering, she pulled her Colt. Shooting it into the air, she watched him wheel around, facing her in a half crouch. "I don't care what your business is. Unless you're going to save someone else's life, it's not as important as what I need you to help me with."
Pulling himself to his full height, the young man said, "Go ahead... shoot if you've a mind to."
The old woman's aim wavered for a second at the resignation in his voice. Then she frowned and said, "What in God's Name are you running from, son?"
"I ain't no one's son!" He screamed the words, launching himself at her. Something stopped him, just short of attacking the woman. He stood before her, raw hatred flaring in smoldering green eyes, chest heaving as if he had just run for miles.
Nettie stood stock still, staring at the man before her. She wasn't certain if she dared risk moving, for fear that he would become even more enraged. But then a pair of cornflower blue eyes stared at her from her mind's eye and she knew she had to risk it. Waving the gun in the direction that would lead them to Vin, she said calmly, "We'll deal with your problems later. Right now we're going to go save my boy's life."
He continued to glare, but finally moved slowly in the direction she indicated. They moved through the darkness without talking, Nettie reminding him from time to time that she still had the gun pointed at his back. Despite his earlier comment, the young man didn't seem that bent on dying.
"Well Tanner, never figured you'd end up like this," Vin spoke softly, there was no one to hear him but himself. "Ain't fer certain this is all that much better than hangin'."
He lay there, staring upward as the stars began to appear in the night sky. There was still no feeling below his chest, but everything above hurt. Every breath he took sent knives of pain through him, his head throbbed, and his back was a constant source of agony.
His eyes searching the heavens, Vin continued. "Ain't for certain where y' are, 'r even if yer up there a'tall. But I'd be obliged if y'd see fit t' get me outta this. I truly don't want Miss Nettie carryin' guilt over m' dyin' out here. But, if yer set t' take me now, I'd appreciate 't if y'd keep 'r from blamin' herself."
He sighed, feeling an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. Just as he started to allow himself to drift off, he heard an all too familiar sound. The howl of a wolf, far closer than he'd like. The young sharpshooter took a deep breath, letting the pain wake him up as much as anything. As he scanned the shadows beyond the lantern's light, his hand curled around the stock of the rifle Nettie had left for him.
"All right y' sons a bitches, you come near me 'n I'll be sendin' yer mangy carcasses t' hell!" he called out into the darkness. With a sigh, he dropped back to the blanket that the old woman had folded beneath his head. Eyes drifting shut again, he jerked them open, staring into the dark skies. The last thing he could afford to do was fall asleep now. He had to stay awake... had to guard against the... his mind refused to function.
"God damn it, Tanner, get your mind t' workin'. Y' best stay 'wake, 'r yer gonna end up dinner fer them mangy curs. Just fix yer mind on something..." his mind struggled to find a way to remain awake. Then, his voice soft and low, he began to sing.
"Just before the battle, Mother... I am thinking most of you... while upon the field we're watching... with the enemy in view..." his voice drifted off, his eyes crossing as consciousness tried once again to elude his grasp. With a growl, he shook himself awake and continued.
"Comrades brave around me lying... filled with thoughts of home and God... fa-for well they know upon the morrow... some... some will sleep beneath the sod..."
The wolf howled again, sounding even nearer. Then a growl, low throated and menacing. More than one. His body trembled, but he wasn't certain if it was from the chill or fear. It didn't matter, he would have to ignore it either way. His chest ached as he once more fought to fill his lungs with air. Heedless of the pain, he continued his song, " farewell, Mother, you may never... n-never press me to your heart again... but... oh... y-you'll not forget me, Mother... if I'm numbered with the slain..."
The young sharpshooter blinked, feeling something hit him in the face. He watched as the stars quickly disappeared, hidden by fast moving storm clouds. Something splashed along his cheek, and he realized that the rain was back.
Nettie felt the rain splash along the wide brim of her old hat. She sighed, closing her eyes for a second as she prayed the storm would hold off until they returned to the wagon. Opening her eyes again, she saw that the young man had stopped. He turned to look at her, anger still flashing in his eyes.
"Save your anger, and your energy. I got no tolerance for one, and you're gonna need all of the second you can muster. Keep moving."
"That boy of yours must be something special for you to go to so much trouble."
"Vin's worth this and more."
He shook his head as if he couldn't believe anyone would go to so much trouble for another person. Watching him, Nettie felt a tug at her big heart. She wondered if this was another boy who had spent too much of his life without love. "Wouldn't your ma do the same for you?"
Laughter, hard and cold, rang through the air. Again he stopped and turned to face her, green eyes flashing. "Lady, my Ma wouldn't walk across the street to spit on me."
Nettie was taken aback at the raw hatred in the young man's voice. She wanted to reply to his words, but hadn't the faintest idea as to how. Instead she simply continued walking, her gun making certain that he did the same. They walked for another hundred yards before the storm threatened to obliterate the rest of the moonlight. Her heart breaking at the thought of leaving Vin alone and injured during the storm, she knew they would have to take shelter until it passed. Seeing a small stand of trees to the right, she ordered, "Get over there under those trees. Without missing a step, the young man turned and marched toward the trees, easing himself to the ground beneath the largest.
Nettie noticed, for the first time, that he seemed to be favoring his right leg just a little. Frowning, she settled in beneath another tree, facing him. "Are you hurt?"
Absently rubbing his leg, he replied, "It's an old injury."
Shrugging, he said, "Week, week and a half."
"Does it have anything to do with the business you're so busy with?"
He glared at her, and she didn't think he would answer at first. Finally he responded with a curt nod.
"You running from the law, boy?"
She studied him for a minute, finally deciding that he was being truthful. "You running from lawbreakers, then?"
"I'm running from men who don't understand..." his words trailed off.
"Don't understand what?"
"What it means to... never mind." He turned his head, staring off into the darkness.
"Sometimes it helps to talk," the widow Wells said gently.
With a snort of laughter, the young man said, "Talking about... things... just gives the other person ammunition to use against you later on."
"You're awfully young to be so sour on life," she replied.
"It's not the number of years, ma'am, it's the road you're riding."
She allowed herself to smile at that. "You're a wise one, that's for sure."
Another snort of laughter, but he didn't reply to her observation. He drew his knees up, resting his forearms across them. His chin nestling on his arms, he continued to stare out into the darkness.
"What's your name?" the old woman asked finally.
"What's your name? I'd like to know what to call you."
"How about 'little lying bastard'? That's what she called me," his voice broke, but he marshaled himself quickly.
"She?" Then a light dawned, and she said, "Your mother?"
"Yeah... my dear, sainted mother," anger and pain fairly dripped from his words.
"Lord, boy, what did she do to you?"
"She gave birth to me," he said softly. Then with more force, he said, "My name's John."
Nettie watched him for a few minutes, saying nothing. She watched the slim young body, silhouetted in the shadows. It was easy to see from the way he held himself so straight that there was a storm raging inside the boy that was a lot more violent than the one they were waiting out.
Then her mind went to that wagon, still so far away. Her heart ached as she thought of her dear, sweet, Vin laying there. Unable to get away from the rain, to even put his back to it, he would have to suffer through the storm. She prayed he would survive it, that the rain would pass quickly. She cursed herself for being so stubborn. If she had just waited another week, or shunned his company for the trip. If only... Nettie sighed. 'If only' never solved anything.
Across from her, John watched the old woman. His eyes were keen enough that he could see her weathered features, and could see how worried she looked. The emotions playing across her face fascinated the young man; they were alien to him. Not the emotions themselves, he understood those far too well. But the fact that she felt them for her son, her 'boy', almost shocked him. Slowly, he began to understand.
He had managed to pull the blanket from beneath his head, shaking it out and placing it over his face. He had to turn his head, hold the blanket up a little, so that he didn't feel the panic that rose in his chest. Vin had never been able to tolerate feeling closed in, even if it was only a thin wool blanket.
"Miss Nettie... I... I hope yer safe somewhere. Cain't abide th' thought a y'... out there in... in th' rain," he whispered the words as if they were a prayer. The rain quickly soaked through the blanket, weighing it down and making it more and more uncomfortable for the young man beneath it. He lay his arm across his forehead, his elbow propping the wool up slightly. The heavy smell of the wool threatened to overwhelm him, until he finally pulled the blanket back. He could tolerate the splash of the rain and mud from the ground much easier than he could the feeling of suffocation.
He couldn't remember a time when he felt so helpless.
It seemed like hours before the rain passed. As soon as the clouds parted enough to let in the faintest light, Nettie ordered John to his feet. They moved out, sloshing through the mud, even thicker now. They hadn't spoken for some time, silence hanging heavier around them than the sodden air. The widow's thoughts moved quickly from the young man before her and the young man they were struggling to reach. She was curious as to what had made John so bitter on life. It seemed strange to her that he seemed to hate his mother, and that hatred spilled over to encompass the world. And then there was Vin, whose own mother's love seemed to buoy him up under every adversity, even though she had been gone for two decades.
"How much farther?"
Looking around, trying to fix their position, she said, "Another mile maybe, two at the most."
"Sure we're not wasting our time? Your son might have drowned during the storm, if he's as stuck as you say."
"My boy's alive. Best you just keep your mind on getting there without breaking your neck in this mud." She noticed that he was favoring his leg even more than before. "Do you need to rest that 'old injury'?"
"I'm fine. If we're going to do this, let's get it done."
She watched as he moved a bit quicker, and stepped up her own pace to keep up.
He wasn't certain how long it had been since the rain had stopped. Quickly he pushed the blanket completely off himself, drawing as deep a breath as his injuries would allow. The air was rain-washed and heaven-sent. Vin couldn't help but smile as the stars slowly began to peek out between the cracks in the clouds. The lantern's light had been quickly doused during the storm, and he was in darkness again, but he could tolerate it now that he could rid himself of the blanket. Softly his voice rang out on the night air once more."Do they miss me at home, do they miss me? 'Twould be an assurance most dear... to know that this moment some loved one... were saying, "I wish you were here." To feel that the group at the fireside... were thinking of me as I roam... oh yes, 'twould be joy without measure... to know that they missed me at home."
His serenade stopped as his body was wracked with a violent coughing spell.
"Damn it," he muttered to himself, when he could speak again. Several long minutes passed in silence before he found the strength to continue.Wh... when twilight approaches, the season... that ever is sacred to song... does... does someone repeat my name over... and sigh that I tarry so long? And is there a chord in the music... chord in the music... that's missed when my voice is away... and a chord in each heart that awaketh...re... regret at my wearisome stay?" He sighed, what little energy he could find quickly dissipating.
"That's beautiful, son," a familiar voice rang out strong and clear.
Vin turned his head, searching the shadows for the old woman. Finally he was rewarded with a vague movement in the darkness. A broad grin split his handsome face. "Ah, hell, Nettie, ain't nothin' but a frog croakin'. Y' all right?"
"I'm a bit soggy, but nothing a good fire won't cure. How are you?"
"Been better," he stopped, realizing that there were two figures approaching rather than just one. "Miss Nettie?"
She understood the question in those two words, heard the concern in his voice. "Found this young man wandering out there on the prairie. I persuaded him to come help us out."
Tanner nodded, but didn't release his hold on the stock of the rifle. "Much obliged," he said softly to the young man standing just before the widow.
"You're not beholden to me," John said coldly. "Your mother's a force to be reckoned with."
"Mother?" Then he grinned, realizing that Nettie must have identified him as her son. He found himself incredibly touched by that fact. "Yeah, she is that."
The woman in question dropped to her knees beside him, one hand stroking down the rain-soaked face. "Is the pain any worse?"
He shook his head, nuzzling slightly against her touch. "Reckon it's tolerable."
"Well, John here's going to help me get this blamed wagon off you, so we can see if you're still in one piece."
"Don't sound like it was his decision," Vin said seriously as he looked over her shoulder and up at the young man.
"Well, be that as it may, he looks to be smart enough to figure out how to move this wagon, and strong enough to move it. We'll worry about his druthers later."
"Don't kin havin' someone helpin' me against his will," Vin argued.
"Then don't look at it as him helping you... he's helping me," Nettie said firmly.
"I'm only helping myself," John broke into their conversation. He squatted down beside the wagon, studying the predicament. Standing again, he walked slowly around the toppled rig, his eyes taking in every inch of mud and wood. Coming back to stand beside the other two, he said, "I think I can lift it, if you can pull him free."
"I can manage that," Nettie said with her usual fierce determination.
"Then the only thing left to discuss is my fee."
Nodding, he went on as if he didn't see Mrs. Wells shocked expression. "I'll take the Colt, the holster and bullets, whatever money you have on you, and half your food."
"Son, I've never - "
Putting a hand over hers, Vin said softly, "Miss Nettie, seems only fair."
"Fair? How can you say that son? He's as much as asking for blood money." Realizing what she was saying, and who she was saying it to, she pressed a hand to her mouth. "Vin, I didn't mean -"
With a dry chuckle, he said, "Sure y' did. It's okay, Nettie. Reckon it's why I understand 'm better'n most would."
"Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive -"
"And ye shall be forgiven. Luke, chapter 6, verse 36," John interrupted her, finishing the passage.
Smiling, the widow said, "At least you know your scriptures."
With a cold laugh, he said, "Yes ma'am, I suppose I do. I know a lot of worthless things." Before she could respond, he continued, "Do we have a deal?"
Nodding, Nettie said, "We've got a deal."
John quickly retrieved a heavy piece of wood that had broken loose from the wagon bed. Placing a box next to the wagon, he used it as a lever. Slowly he managed to slip the wood beneath the side of the wagon, near Vin. When he had it in place, he said, "You get hold of him under the arms. As soon as I get the wagon lifted enough, you pull him free. Don't stop until you know for certain he's out from under it. I'm not going to do this a second time."
Nettie hiked her skirts up to keep them out from under foot, bent down above Vin's head, and slipped her hands beneath his shoulders. Getting a firm grasp of the injured man, she chanced a look up and nodded at the stranger.
John nodded back, then put all of his weight on the wood. Slowly he managed to lift the heavy wagon inch by inch. When he judged that it was high enough, he yelled, "Now!"
Using all of her strength, Nettie Wells pulled back on the slender body, dragging Vin through the mud for nearly a yard. Knowing that he had to be clear by then, she dropped to the ground, pulling his head into her lap.
The young man beside them released the wood, letting the wagon drop back to the mud. Then he slumped to the ground with a groan, one hand gently rubbing his leg. Chest heaving, he leaned against the wood he had used as a lever, struggling to get his breathing back under control.
Oblivious to one young man's struggles, Nettie Wells' attention was completely focused on that of the other. She watched the play of relief and pain that washed across the finely chiseled features of the sharpshooter. She stroked a hand through his tangled curls, doing what she could to soothe him. "Sh, Vin, it's all right honey. You're loose now, it's going to be okay. Can you tell me what's hurting?"
"Ev... ev'rythin'... oh God, Miss Nettie!" He cried out as the slow return of circulation brought with it knives of shear agony. He arched up, bucking against her hold.
Nettie wrapped her arms around him, catching one flailing hand with her own she held it against her heart. "Son, take it easy. Just take a breath, nice and slow. Sh, now, I know it hurts, but you need to lay still. Come on Vin, lay still now honey."
Slowly her words pushed themselves into his traumatized brain, the soft tone helping to even out his breathing. Still, it was several minutes before he could relax enough that she could release her hold on him.
Laying his head back in her lap, Nettie smiled down at him gently, her hand straying to his tangled locks once more. She wiped away the tears of pain, gently massaged the slowly unclenching jaw. When his blue eyes cleared, she said softly, "That's more like it."
"Sorry... sorry, Miss Nettie."
"Lands sake, son, you've got nothing to apologize for. Now, just lay quiet and let me take care of you."
He smiled up at her, his eyes closing as he fought to relax against the pain. Then they snapped open again as he sought out the other man. "Where's John?"
"I'm right here," the reply was soft, weariness evident in the tone.
"Never better," but a grunt of pain belied his words.
"That old wound?" Nettie ventured.
"That one and many like it," he replied.
"Then you need to lay down, rest," Vin ordered.
"I'll be fine. Just need to catch my breath," he argued.
Tanner struggled to raise himself, only to fall back with a moan as his damaged body protested loudly. "If yer hurt, y' need t' rest up a bit."
"As I told your mother, they're old injuries. Leave it be."
"But y' sound plumb tuckered out," the sharpshooter wasn't yet ready to let go. "Y' need t' rest a bit, 'fore y' wear yerself down."
"'Brightness falls from the air, Queens have died young and fair. Dust hath closed Helen's eye, I am sick, I must die. Lord have mercy on us.' None of us get out of this world alive, my friend, and frankly, the sooner the better."
"You can't mean that, John," Nettie said quietly.
"I rarely say something I don't mean," he argued.
"That sounded like a poem," Vin observed. "Somethin' y' wrote yerself?"
With a hard laugh, John said, "Hardly. Thomas Nashe wrote it two centuries ago."
"You're an educated man," Nettie commented. "What brought you out here?"
"Bad luck," he growled.
Softly, Mrs. Wells promised, "I asked you if you wanted to talk earlier. That offer is still open, if you're interested."
"I'll be leaving as soon as I gather up my payment," John pushed himself to his feet, groaning as his injured leg protested.
"Ma'am," he said softly, "I do appreciate your honest expression of emotion, and I surely do believe you'd like to help me. The truth of it is, though, that I am far beyond redemption."
"Son, no one is beyond redemption."
"'Life is a jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, but now I know it'. John Gay was a smart man. This existence is a joke... not worth fighting over. I'll take my payment now." He took a step, only to fall to the ground when his injured leg gave out.
"Miss Nettie?" Vin pushed himself off her lap, big eyes entreating her to go to the other man.
Pulling herself to her feet, the widow moved over to settle back to the ground near the fallen man. She carefully rolled him to his back, hand settling on his chest to monitor his heartbeat. Finally, satisfied that he wasn't in danger of dying, she rubbed his shoulder gently, waiting for him to open his eyes. Rewarded with a confused green gaze a few minutes later, she said, "Reckon you're a fighter, whether you'll admit to it or not. Now, tell me what's hurting you. And none of your fancy words, boy, I'm a woman who lies plain speaking."
"My leg... I've been doctoring a knife wound for a week or so. Can't seem to get it to heal up any, though."
Her hand moved gently along his leg, encountering the feel of a bandage beneath his pants, just at mid thigh. She found, too, that the pant leg had been split open. She opened the fabric, surprised to feel the dampness of fresh blood on the rough bandage. "We're going to have to take that bandage off and see to the wound. Reckon you'll keep for a little while, though, until I can get a fire started and get Vin looked after."
He looked up at her, an expression of amazement on his young face at her concern. "Yes, ma'am," he replied softly.
The sun had risen before Nettie had the two young men settled in to her satisfaction. She couldn't find any open wounds on Vin, but both of his legs were swollen and bruised. They would have to get him to Nathan to know if any bones were broken. His back was giving him considerable pain as well, and he still had trouble breathing deeply. She managed to pull him onto a palate made of pine boughs and blankets. She made a similar bed for John, having to argue with him to use it. She made certain that Vin's head and shoulders were raised to ease the pressure on his lungs, covering him with a blanket. Helping him to drink a little water, she left him only when his eyes closed to sleep. Building a fire quickly, she moved finally to John's side.
"We need to get to that wound. Can you help me in getting your britches off."
"My clothes will stay where they are," he tried to sound firm, but his voice cracked, and he stared up at her in shock.
"Boy, I've seen naked men more than once in my life, now either you help me, or I do it myself. That wound shouldn't still be bleeding, and I can feel heat coming off it. We need to clean it out and re-bandage it."
Blushing furiously, John allowed her to help him pull his jeans down. She pulled a blanket up over him to give him some dignity, then turned her attention to the wound. Being as gentle as possible, she pulled the filthy bandage off, grimacing when she saw the red, swollen flesh beneath. Nettie worked for some time to clean the bloody pus from the injury, apologizing when he cried out from the pain. Finally, satisfied that she had done all she could, she poured a little whiskey on it thankful that she had brought some along for Vin. He cried out in a strangled voice, tears of pain rolling down his pale face as the liquid burned along the re-opened wound. Before she knew what was happening, John was off the bed, his hands wrapped around her throat. Only the report of Tanner's sawed off shotgun stopped him from strangling her.
"You let her go, you ungrateful son of a bitch!"
Coming back to his senses, the younger man blinked rapidly, gasping with pain as the movement set the wound throbbing even more. He released his hold, falling back on the palate. "I'm... I'm sorry, I didn't mean... I'm sorry," he stuttered.
Gasping as she tried to catch her breath, the white-haired woman managed to nod. Finally, she said in a hoarse whisper, "I know you didn't mean it, John."
"Mean it 'r not, he best keep 'is hands t' 'imself if he don't want another wound t' deal with," Vin growled dangerously.
"Take it easy, boy," Mrs. Wells said calmly. Not even she was certain which young man she was speaking to. "Let's all settle down before I have even more doctoring to do."
The two injured men settled back down on their respective palates, their eyes never leaving the other man. If she was afraid, Nettie didn't show it as she returned to working on John's injury. Wrapping a clean bandage, made from a strip from one of the baby gowns she had made for Elizabeth and Paul's soon to be newborn, she pulled the blanket back over the young man.
Satisfied that both men were comfortable for the moment, the old woman moved to the fire. Working with what she could find that hadn't been ruined, she soon had breakfast made for all of them. Helping John to sit up, she left him with a plate and mug of coffee. Settling in next to Vin, she helped him eat the corn mush and bacon despite his protests.
"Miss Nettie, I c'n handle this m'self. Y' ought t' go eat yer own 'fore it gits cold."
"You need to stay still, son, we don't know what sort of injuries you've got inside. Now quit your fussing and eat."
Unbeknownst to the two of them, John was watching the exchange with undisguised longing.
Chris Larabee looked up at the sound of hoof beats pounding down the street. He stood and moved toward the edge of the boardwalk when he recognized the rider. "JD, what's wrong?"
"I just came back from Miss Nettie's place," Dunne said breathlessly. "The horses are there... the ones she was going to use to pull her wagon."
Frowning, Larabee said, "Nettie and Vin haven't left?"
"No... I mean yeah... I mean, they weren't there. The horses were trailing their traces, they're covered with mud, scared half to death. Something's happened, Chris. Something's happened."
Taking in the words, the gunman ordered, "Go get the others."
Nettie opened her eyes to find that the sun was moving toward the Western horizon. She wasn't certain when she had fallen asleep, but the long hours had finally taken their toll, and she had slept deeply. She looked to see that Vin was asleep as well, and appeared to be resting comfortably. Then she sought out the other man, frowning when she saw him dressed and walking slowly around the camp. He stopped every now and again to stretch his injured leg, then went back to testing it.
"You should rest a while longer, John, give that wound time to heal this time. Reckon that's why it's not healing," she said, careful not to startle him.
"It isn't healing because it's a wound from hell," he countered.
"It's from those men you spoke of earlier, isn't it? The ones who don't understand?"
Once more his eyes flared with verdant flames, but they were extinguished quickly and he nodded as he began his trek around the camp.
"Were they men who knew your mother?" Nettie probed.
The air rang with the young man's harsh laughter. "Oh yes, ma'am, they were. They knew her in every sense of the word."
The widow felt her heart skip a beat at the look he gave her. Finally recovering she said, "What was it they didn't understand son?"
He stopped then, running a trembling hand down his face. Taking a deep, anguished breath, he said, "They didn't understand how important it can be for a man to have his mother's love. They didn't understand what it can do to a man to see his mother doing... doing the things... doing... what she did."
She understood then, with clear, painful certainty, she understood. His mother was a prostitute. "I'm sorry, John. You're right... they didn't understand. What happened?"
Staring off into the late afternoon sky, he continued as if he were speaking to himself. "I hadn't seen her for ten years. My Father told me that she had died, but I knew that she hadn't. Somehow I knew. As soon as I was old enough, I started looking for her. Two weeks ago, I learned she was in Landon, so I went there. I thought maybe she had run off to marry another man or something, but I never thought that... that she was a wh-whore.
"When I walked into the saloon, I saw her right off. I recognized her, but she didn't have a clue as to who I was. I walked up to her, getting ready to introduce myself to her. I looked into her eyes... they were lifeless, cold... like a snake. She had made herself up, trying to look a lot younger than she was, but it was caked and smeared, and she just looked tragic.
"Before I could get the words out to tell her who I was, she... she asked me to buy her a drink. And the things she said... the things she promised to do for that drink... I wanted to vomit.
"I yelled at her then, told her who I was. She just spit in my face and called me a lying little bastard. Then she told the other men in the saloon that I had insulted her... told them to get me the hell out of her sight, and to teach me a lesson. I was dragged out into the street, and those men started beating me. We fought and I finally managed to get away.
"I hid in the alley until they got bored and left. Then I went back to the saloon and watched from the shadows until she went upstairs alone. I followed her, pushed my way into the room. All I wanted to do was talk to her, to find out what had happened to make her leave me. But she started screaming, and I was afraid someone would come in, so I put my hand over her mouth.
"I didn't mean to... I just wanted to talk to her. But... I don't know where she got it... she had a knife. When she stabbed me in the leg, I... I... I didn't mean to hurt her... to..."
Nettie Wells looked into the green eyes and saw the horrible truth laid out bare in his soul. "Oh my lord... you killed her."
A single, gut-wrenching groan tore from the young man, and he dropped to his knees.
The woman watched him for a minute, her heart torn as to what to do. Part of her wanted to go to the weeping child before her, while another part of her wanted to turn him away. Finally, the Nettie Wells who couldn't bare to see a soul in torment won out. She pushed herself to her feet and walked cautiously toward John. He looked up at her, and she saw nothing of the fierce beast who had attacked her earlier. Dropping down beside him, she wrapped her arms around him and held him close. He made no sound, but she felt the hot tears soaking through her cloths and burning into her soul.
Moving as if he were an unbroken colt, she gently rubbed his back, then slid her hand up to stroke his dark hair. They sat like that for some time, John's flowing tears the only indication that he was still struggling with the truth he had just revealed. Finally he pushed away from her, scrubbing viciously at his face. Not able to look at the woman, he said hoarsely, "I'm sorry, ma'am... I didn't mean to --"
"Hush now, you have nothing to apologize for with me. Do you know for certain that she's dead?"
John frowned, "I choked her, I... my hands were around her neck... I-"
"Your hands were around my neck earlier, son, but I'm still here. Unless you stayed behind to make certain, you don't know that she died. All you know for certain is that she tried to hurt you. I'm not trying to make excuses for you boy, but it doesn't sound to me that she did much to win your love."
The young man wasn't convinced. "Ma'am, I appreciate your words, but the truth of it is, I wanted to kill her."
"Not certain I'd feel any different," a raspy drawl drew the attention of the two people. They turned to see Vin watching them, a look of sadness on his handsome face.
The spell was suddenly broken, and John pushed away from Nettie and struggled to his feet. "Look, the two of you can't understand what I've been through. You've got one another, and the strongest bond of love I've seen for a long time. "
Tanner smiled, "John, you don't understand - "
Waving his hand at the other man, John said, "Forget it. Look, I'm tired of sitting around. I'll take my payment now, and be on my way."
She looked as if she would argue again, but Nettie only nodded and pushed herself to her feet. She went to the wagon and gathered up some of the food, then reached into her coat and retrieved the small purse there. Handing them to the young man, she started to unbuckle her gun belt.
The young man shook his head, "No. You might need it."
"We've got the rifle and Vin's shotgun, boy, you take it. You'll need it."
He hesitated, pain-filled eyes searching her face. Finally he put out his hand and accepted the gun. "Thank you Ma'am."
Nettie nodded, then wrapped him in a quick embrace. Releasing him, she dabbed at the tears that fell from her dark eyes. "Now, you be careful boy, and rest that leg. Keep it clean, and don't forget to change the bandage."
He smiled, and she saw the child hiding behind the angry young man. "Yes ma'am."
Nodding sharply, she brushed the long dark hair from his eyes and stepped back. She watched as he exchanged a brief nod with Vin, then turned and limped away. Nettie watched until he was out of sight before turning back and going to where the injured sharpshooter lay. Sitting beside him, she stroked the loose curls back off his forehead.
Tanner watched her, seeing the concern line her face. Although she sat close beside him, he knew that her mind was with John. "Too bad we couldn'a got 'm t' stay. Think th' boy could 'a used some more a yer motherin'."
"Oh hush, boy," Nettie said quietly.
Six men rode hard, bent on finding the seventh of their number. Darkness was approaching quickly, and they knew they would have to stop for the night soon. That didn't set well with any of them, most of all it grated on the man in black. The other five knew he would be impossible to deal with if they didn't find Vin soon.
They drew up at the sight of a lone figure limping toward them. Finally deciding that it wasn't Vin, they approached cautiously. Pulling up once more only a few yards from the young man, Chris said, "Have you seen any sign of a stranded wagon?"
The dark-haired man nodded, looking up into the anxious faces above him. Five of the men looked from him to the sixth man, looks of confusion mirrored on each face. Pointing behind him, he said, "Yeah, about a mile back that way."
"Were there people with it?"
"Woman and her son. Wagon fell on him, but he's still alive."
"He's trapped under a wagon!?" Larabee's hand hovered over his sidearm.
Shaking his head, the young man said, "We got him out from under it last night. He's hurting, don't know how bad though."
"You were going for help?" the blond asked suspiciously, recognizing the gun belt as Nettie's.
"No," John answered bluntly, locking eyes with the gunslinger above him. "I fulfilled my part of the bargain. Now, I've got places to be."
As the young man started past them, Josiah said quietly, "We appreciate the aid that you did offer them, mister..."
Looking up at the man towering above him, John said, "Name's John Reingold... but folks call me Ringo."
Nettie roused Vin at the sound of several horses riding toward them in the late evening shadows. He struggled to rise, but only succeeded in collapsing against her. Nettie settled him against her chest, wrapping her arms around him. She held her rifle at the ready and Vin's shotgun lay in his lap. They listened at the approach, finally able to see the riders approach. Tanner began to relax when he realized there were six, but waited until he recognized them before releasing his hold on his sawed off.
Smiling as his friends reined in at the edge of the camp and dismounted, he said, "Y'all out fer a ride?"
Nathan hurried over to him, immediately beginning to check him over. Settling him back on the palate, Nettie accepted Josiah's hand as she gained her feet. Going to stand next to Larabee, she filled him in on what had happened. While he responded to her words, asking questions and answering those she asked, his eyes never left his friend.
After long, tense moments, Nathan announced that Vin would be fine with rest. The mud had cushioned his fall and kept him from being too badly injured by the pressure of the heavy wagon. While he was severely bruised inside and out, with the exception of three fractured ribs, he had no serious injuries.
The group spent the night at the camp, and three of them rode out at sunrise to retrieve a wagon to transport Vin home. Borrowing Chris' horse, Josiah left to escort Nettie on to visit her niece, while Chris would stay behind and make certain Vin was all right.
Tanner looked up into the old woman's face as she bent down to kiss him goodbye. He saw the far away look in her eyes and knew who she was thinking about. "He'll be okay, Miss Nettie. "
Smiling down at the endearing young man, the woman said, "I know boy. That one's a survivor."