Main Character(s): Vin, Chris, rest of the Seven
Over and around and behind the God-awful pain squeezing his brain inside his skull, Vin became aware of hushed voices approaching him. Somebody had gotten into his wagon without him even knowing. If they was bounty hunters or thieves or even just somebody looking to play a prank, Vin knew he'd never be able to fend them off.
Maybe it was some of them fake Marshalls come back for another chance. Eli Joe mighta just crossed hell's threshold, didn't mean they'd pass up a sure bounty.
'Course, the way he was feeling right now, he might offer them the five hundred dollars himself if they'd just shoot him and put him outta his misery.
"Is he dead?" a young voice asked. Vin thought he should recognize the voice, but with his head feeling like it was nailed to the floor of his wagon and his eyelids sticky shut, he had no hope of figuring it out.
"No. If he was dead, he'd look better."
That was Buck, that could only be Buck, so the other voice had to be JD. What were they doing in his wagon and why were they talking loud enough to split his skull?
"He said he was gonna be gone a few days."
"Well I guess he came back."
"What do you think is wrong with him?"
"I&a cute;d say he's feeling poorly."
"Doe s he look hurt?"
"Think he's been poisoned?"
Their voices ricocheted inside Vin's skull.
"Usually when somebody's poisoned, you can smell something." Buck offered. "I don't smell nothing but soap."
"SHUT UP." Vin managed to growl out, but the effort made his brain feel like it was pounding itself against the front of his skull. He lifted his hands to press against his forehead, but his arms felt as heavy as lead and just as awkward to maneuver.
"He's alive." Buck said.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Go away." Vin whispered this time, hoping to keep his brain from bouncing around inside his skull. "Please go away."
"Vin , what's wrong?" Buck was closer now, sounding serious. "What happened?"
"Head," Vin managed to say. He kept his hands pressed against his eyes and forehead. "Somebody - nailed - my head - to the floor."
Though he'd no doubt already be as stiff as the boards he was laying on if somebody had nailed his head to the floor, he must've looked bad enough that Buck had to make sure, and Vin felt a hand slip under his head and touch down to his neck.
Afraid to nod in case it set off the pounding again, Vin answered, "Yeah." He wondered if his skull was separating at its seams, the way all that pressure was building up inside of it.
"We'll get ya to Nathan's."
"NO ." Vin blindly grabbed for Buck's arm. He opened his eyes for just a second and the blast of light inside the wagon punched into his skull and rolled down into his stomach. Hellfire, now he was nauseous too. "I - don't - want - t'move."
"We can't leave ya here."
"JD? " Buck said, and JD immediately answered.
"Be right back."
Vin felt the wagon shake slightly as JD must've jumped down, probably to fetch Nathan here.
"Nat han'll have something to make ya feel better."
"Don 't want none a'his piss-water." Vin realized he still had hold of Buck's arm and with some doing he managed to let go and press his hand back over his eyes again. "Ain't nothin' gonna stay down."
"He& acute;ll have something for that too. Just hold on, JD'll have him here pronto. Did something happen out on the trail? You get hurt out there?"
"No. Just - came on all sudden like, during the night. Had to come back, get outta the sunlight."
"Well hold on. Nathan'll see to it."
Vin tried to wait. He tried to endure the pain without letting out a breath that might sound too much like a whimper. He tried to believe that Nathan would have a potion that would magically remove the red hot poker being rammed into his brain.
He' d lit out of town even before Eli Joe had been planted. The one sure hope of clearing his name he'd been holding onto was suddenly gone and he lit out of town before too many people realized his frustration and regret. One person in particular.
He' d planned to stay out of town, away from Larabee, a few days at least. He wanted to get someplace quiet and alone so he could think out his next step so he didn't feel so much like a mountain had just collapsed on him. But the first night out, the pain had up and grabbed him by the back of the neck and not let go, and he dragged himself back just in time to get out of the sun and wait in vain for the pain to go away.
But as he waited now for Nathan, the heat inside the wagon kept climbing, and the smell of hot canvas and Buck's bay rum, and even the smell of his own leather coat combined to devil his stomach and with barely a warning to Buck, he managed to turn away and retch nothing onto his makeshift bed. The pain in his head flared so bad he thought he'd pass out, and was sorry when he didn't.
"Reckon you're right. I gotta get outta here." He agreed without much strength when the spasms had passed. "I need air."
"C'mon then. We'll do it nice and slow. Let me help you up here."
Vin had been lost once in the desert for a day and a half, and that journey had been nowhere near as tortuous as the trek he had to make just to get out of his wagon. Buck kept him steady through all the clutter but the pain was so bad he couldn't lift his head, and the heat and shaking wagon and assorted smells were more than enough to threaten his empty stomach again.
Nothing had ever refreshed him like the cool air just outside the end of his canvas.
The tailgate was already lowered but getting down from even that small height was going to be a challenge. Normally he'd just jump down. Today, doing that might just punch a hole in the top of his head. Today though, that might not be a bad thing.
Just as he was trying to consider his options, another voice reached him.
"I must say Vin, you look as ashen as though you've consumed a particularly vile meal."
"Don 't be talkin' 'bout food Ezra, less'n you're aimin' t'wear it." Vin warned him in a rush. The fresh air was good, but it wasn't enough, and now the sunlight added to his miseries.
"Oh dear." Ezra said, losing his joking tone. "Has Mr. Jackson been summoned?"
"JD just went for him." Buck said. "We need to get Vin off the wagon and over to the boarding house."
"Shouldn't we be hastening him to Nathan's room?"
"No, Nathan's gets to be hotter than blazes startin' this time of day. Vin's room is shaded by the porch overhang, that'll give him a little relief."
"Will y'both just shut up and help me?" Vin demanded. The sun was burning holes into his brain and even with his eyes closed, he had to put his hand up to shield them from the sunlight.
"Yeah, sorry. C'mon," Buck said beside him. "How're we gonna do this?"
"Just - just - stand by." Vin told them. "You might need t'bundle me up after." Not wanting them to physically lift him off the wagon, he put his hand on the side of the wagon and managed to lightly jump down. His stomach flipped but his head stayed in place.
"Buck?" He turned back, still shading his eyes.
"Right here." Buck handed down his hat and Vin pulled it on. The shade from the brim let him open his eyes at least. He tried to figure if his headache was better or worse standing up, but he couldn't think over the swell of wanting to throw up. Either way, lying down or standing up, his brain felt like a red hot weight was pressing it down against his brainpan.
Buck jumped down then and made quick work of fastening up the wagon. He stood beside Vin.
"C'mon, ain't far thank goodness. We'll have y'right in no time. Ezra? Y'wanna go let Nathan know where we'll be?"
"Thanks Ez'." Vin tried to say, but he wasn't sure Ezra heard him. With the sun blasting into his eyes every time he lifted his head, he wasn't even sure he was facing toward the boarding house.
"Yep , straight in front of ya, 'bout a hundred feet or less. I'll make sure no stagecoaches run y'down."
"Preciate it. Though it couldn't hurt any worse'n my head does now."
Vin had to keep his head down as they walked, and he trusted Buck to lead him the right way.
"OK, halfway across the street...just keep walking...step up now, we're at the boardwalk..."
If the pain in Vin's head got any sharper, he thought it would have to just blaze right out of the cracks in his skull, like the burning coals in a blacksmith's forge. He wanted to lay down, he just wanted to lay down and have the pain and the sickness go away.
He noticed the coolness right away between the street and the front hallway of the boarding house and when Buck opened the door to his room and let him go in, Vin laid himself on the bed without taking off his hat or coat or holster. He still felt like throwing up but it was more of a suggestion than an active threat.
"Think you could try a sip of water?" Buck asked. Vin didn't even have to consider.
"OK then. Nathan should be here soon."
Vin felt his hat being pulled off and a wet cloth was placed on his forehead and finally he drifted off into a ragged sleep.
He woke up when he felt someone unbuckling his holster. Out of instinct he grabbed for the hand and with all the strength he had left pushed the thumb down toward the wrist. He didn't dare open his eyes.
"Hey - hey - stop! Vin c'mon now - it's just me - Vin - Josiah - a little help here?"
And through the haze of pain Vin recognized first Nathan's voice then Josiah's.
"Vin it's just us, trying to get you more comfortable."
And Vin let go of Nathan's hand and let them take off his holster and jacket and boots.
"All right now, I've got something here for you to drink." Nathan said.
"Won't stay down." Vin warned them. His mouth was dry.
"This'll stay down. Here, let Josiah lift you up a bit."
"Don 't move me."
"I'll be gentle Vin. You need the medicine."
"All right - hope that ain't your best shirt though."
"It's not..." Josiah said, chuckling a little.
So Josiah helped him sit up and Nathan put a cup into his hands. To Vin's surprise the water was cold and the taste wasn't unpleasant and he managed to swallow all of it.
"How come it don't usually taste like that?" he asked as he handed the cup back, still keeping his eyes shut.
"'Cause usually when you're sick or hurt it's your own darn fault. I don't reckon this is."
Vin would've argued that with him if he'd felt better and maybe he would later but for now he let Josiah ease him back down onto the pillow. In a few minutes he could actually feel the pain in his skull easing up.
After another moment or two the room became dead silent and Vin wondered what was going on.
"You want me to get Josiah for you?" he heard Chris ask.
"Ain't he here? He was just here." Vin realized his head felt better and he ventured to open his eyes. Chris was sitting at the little table but he got up and came over to the bed.
"He hasn't been here in a couple hours at least. You want me to get him for you?"
"No I just - thought - what are you doing here?"
"Just checking up, Nathan said somebody should come by every once in a while and have a look. How're you feeling?"
"Like molasses in July." Despite saying that, Vin pushed himself up to sitting, waving off Chris' gesture of wanting to help. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Don't feel like puking up last week's beans and barley anymore leastways."
"I'm glad I already ate," Chris said. He moved back to rest against the edge of the table. "What brought this on?"
"Don 't know," Vin said wearily. Though it wasn't agony, his head still hurt. "Woke up with it, middle of the night. Thought if I came back to town, you'd at least be able t'find the body."
"Something you ate?" Chris asked. Vin looked up at him like he was crazy.
"I might not have book learnin', but even I know when I eat something it don't go up." He rubbed his neck again. "Feels like I got my spine in a vice."
Chris moved from the table to sit next to Vin on the bed. He put his hands on Vin's shoulders and started to work them.
"I had an aunt who loved Peach Crumble. Every time she ate it though, it gave her a blazing headache."
"Sounds more like Peach brandy Crumble," Vin said. The rubdown was working, he could feel the pressure easing inside his skull. "I gotta tell you Larabee, you got fingers sweeter than Talented Tessie from Texarkana." Those fingers abruptly stopped and Vin looked over. "What?"
"You know there's a reason I never ask Buck what he did last night," Chris said. But he resumed the massage.
"You 'd like Tessie," Vin said.
"I'm sure I would."
Then for a minute or two neither said anything, Vin just let himself relax under Chris' ministrations, wishing he'd just gone to Larabee this morning instead of suffering all alone.
But he remembered why he hadn't gone to Larabee when Chris said quietly,
"Reckon you got hurt fightin' Eli Joe."
Everybody else asked Vin what he thought brought the headache on; Chris knew exactly what had.
"Reckon I did," Vin allowed after a pause.
"When you headed out, thought maybe you was headed to Tascosa without me."
Another pause filled the air around them.
"Just wanted some quiet to think things through, get a plan together. A man who ain't got a plan tends to ride in circles."
"And what did you come up with?"
What had he come up with in the little time he'd had out on the trail, before the headache got the best of him? Avoid anybody who'd want to offer condolences on his bad luck. Avoid Larabee who seemed set dead center between knowing he did the right thing and knowing that doing the right thing had made bigger problem for Vin. Thinking on that was when the headache started.
"Well first off - get monstrous sick."
"Good job on that one," Chris said, with a laugh in his voice. "What's next?"
"Reckon I don't know. I knew if I could get my hands on Eli, I'd be able to get him to up and confess and save my neck. I just don't know now. My word against a ghost ain't gonna be worth much."
"I guess that'd give anybody a headache," Chris said somberly. He finished his massage and stood to go back to the table, giving Vin's shoulder a quick tap as he walked away. "Nettie sent some food waiting for you, if you're up to it. Nathan left some more of whatever he gave you before."
"I'll start with Nathan's. Don't know about anything else just now."
So Chris brought him a cup and he drank it down and handed it back.
"What time is it?"
"'Bout four I guess, a little after."
"I been asleep awhile then."
"I'd say so."
"He was so close," Vin said after a moment. He made a closing motion with his hand. "I had him right here. I could see -." He stopped there though, not wanting to reveal even as much as he just had to Chris.
"See what?" Chris pressed him anyway.
"I could see Texas."
"You'll see Texas again."
Vin considered Chris, trying to think around the lessening pain in his skull. He knew Chris meant it, that Vin'd see Texas again and not just from the back of a prison wagon. But he had to understand what he was saying. Vin rubbed his temples and took a deep breath that was part weariness, part longing, part having to tell something to Chris he didn't want to tell.
"When my Ma died, I had to go stay with this lady for a couple days. I don't even rightly remember who she was. Neighbor lady I suppose. I kept asking for my Ma, she kept saying, 'She's coming back.', 'til this other lady came walking in on her tellin' me that and she lays into her not to lie to me, that my Ma weren't never comin' back and I'd never see her again. And the first lady says she was just stringing me along, hopin' I'd forget after awhile. Forget my Ma." He looked up at Chris, hoping he'd understand now. "I don't know which hurt worse."
"You ain't gonna hang," Chris said, flat and even. "And there ain't no other way of looking at it but that."
"I hate to break it to you Larabee, but you ain't boss a'the world."
Chris considered that a bit, and there were times Vin enjoyed the look Chris got on his face when he ran into a truth he didn't want to have to put into his pocket. He might've enjoyed it this time too if he wasn't so dragged out and wilted.
"You ain't gonna hang," Chris said again.
A dozen arguments crowded all the space in Vin's brain; fire, flood, bullets, disease. Any number of possibilities stood between him and Chris' promise. He had to see that. Chris had to see that. He couldn't cow the world into submission. He should see that. Hell, he knew that. Losing Sarah and Adam sure hadn't been something he'd promised.
Then the thought came to Vin, as quick as the headache had come on him. Chris wasn't making the promise to Vin - he was making the promise to himself. A man without a plan was apt to go in circles and Chris had himself a plan - You won't hang. It was as easy and simple a plan as 'ride to North Ridge today' was. Worry about the details when they came up. Just damn do it. And expecting Vin to believe him was Chris' way of asking for a promise in return.
You won't hang.
"No, I reckon I won't at that," Vin agreed.
Chris nodded, his command over the world safe again.
"Nathan said that potion a'his will put you back to sleep, so I'll let you alone. Check back on you in awhile. When you're up to it, we'll see if we can't improve on that plan of yours."
"'Preciate it Chris. Next time you can get the headache."
So Chris left and shut the door, and Vin lay back in his bed and fell back asleep knowing that as long as he lived in a world with Chris Larabee in it, he lived in a world that was safe for him.