Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra
Comments: A birthday gift for Laramee. I think I covered it all: Vin struggling with post-traumatic stress, lots of comfort by Chris, with a side-helping of Ezra. Thanks to Pamela for the awesome picture.
A spot of pale yellow broke through the murky gray for one glorious moment before being wrenched from his grasp as, once again, he was pulled under. A crushing weight smothered the air in his chest, and he gasped once, twice, a third time, but only stale, putrid water filled his lungs. He reached out blindly for an object to grab hold of, an anchor to stop his descent, and latched onto something smooth and soft - an arm, or maybe a leg. Forcing his eyes to open and to see, he peered through the encroaching blackness into the vacant eyes of a child, floating only inches from him.
He screamed, "No!" But no sound escaped as the black water filled his throat.
"Vin! It's alright now. Take it easy. Breathe. It's alright."
The deceptively calm voice held a thin note of desperation, but it was familiar. Safe. With agonizing slowness, the darkness receded.
"Chris," he whispered, as the pale face of his friend materialized in front of him.
Smiling grimly, Chris replied, "Yeah. That's right."
His heart pounded, and it took conscious effort to slow his breathing. With a trembling hand, he attempted to erase the wetness from his face, grimacing in pain at the simple motion.
Chris reached for his hand and pulled it away from his face. "Let me," he said.
Vin breathed a sigh of relief as Chris took a cloth and wiped the dirty water from his cheeks and eyes. But no, that couldn't be right, he suddenly realized. He was lying in a bed, not a river, so the moisture must be sweat - or tears. He quickly glanced at his friend's face, looking for a sign of pity, but the green eyes were only filled with understanding.
"It's alright," Chris said again.
"What happened?" Vin asked. His voice sounded oddly distorted, like he was speaking under water.
"You took a rough ride down a river."
"Few days ago. Ezra pulled you out."
"Oh. Yeah." He'd heard this before, probably several times. Scattered images abruptly filled his head. "There was a - a wagon."
Chris nodded but said nothing.
"A family," Vin continued. He let his eyes drift to the ceiling as the fragments of a memory slowly came together. Pulling himself up on his elbows, he focused on Chris. "They dead?"
Chris looked down at his lap a moment before raising his head again. "Yeah." He quickly added, "You did everything you could, Vin."
He wasn't looking for reassurance - he honestly didn't know. He clearly saw the wagon struggling in the rising waters, heard the shouts of the young father and the desperate screams of the mother . . . but nothing more after that.
"Ezra was with you. He'll fill you in later, alright?"
Suddenly everything hurt, and he could no longer hold himself up on the bed. He collapsed back to the pillow and closed his eyes. "Alright," he agreed. But as the familiar darkness started to take hold, his eyes flew open and he gripped Chris's forearm. "Don't let me go under," he pleaded.
He felt Chris grip his hand. "I got you," he said. "Don't worry now."
Vin let his friend's promise wrap around him as he closed his eyes. Chris wouldn't let him go, he was a man of his word. But somewhere in the back of his mind, a small voice whispered . . .
What's the matter, Tanner? What are you - chicken? It's only a little water . . .
"Little early for that, ain't it, Ezra?"
"Since when have you been interested in my drinking habits, Buck?"
Buck shook his head and smiled. "Ain't interested . . . much."
"Then I'll assume there will be no further discussion on the matter," Ezra snapped, pointedly pouring himself another glass. The truth was, since the incident on the river, liquor only made his stomach turn. But the nausea was worth it. Anything to dull the sharp blade of memory was worth it.
"Vin looks a little better this morning," Buck said as he took a seat.
Ezra tried to feign disinterest, but he couldn't stop himself from staring at Buck's expression, gauging the truth in his statement. Vin had spent the last three days in varying degrees of consciousness and delirium, but thus far, he'd managed to avoid the dreaded pneumonia that Nathan was so worried would set in. Still, Ezra wasn't ready to embrace Buck's cautious optimism, so he remained silent.
"Chris said he's starting to remember a bit more." Buck paused to take a sip of steaming coffee. "Might be time for you t' fill in the blanks."
The whiskey caught in his throat and he coughed for several minutes as Buck handily slapped him on the back. "I'm alright!" he finally managed to choke. Once he'd caught his breath, he continued, "I have nothing more to add to what I've already told you. There are no 'blanks'."
Buck leaned forward. "Chris thinks Vin needs to hear it from you. You were the one -"
"I'm well aware of what Chris thinks. And you don't need to remind me of my role in the disaster."
"I don't understand what the hell is wrong with you, Ezra. Vin's one of us. And you should be willing t' do whatever he needs t' get him through this."
Vin's the lucky one, Ezra thought, though he knew better than to say the words. At least Vin had no memory of those horrible moments. Why not let it stay that way? Give the man that small measure of peace. He stood up then, dropped a few coins on the table, and left the saloon without answering Buck.
As he stepped onto the boardwalk, his gaze drifted to Nathan's clinic. He thought he'd never seen a more beautiful sight when he'd rode into town three days ago with Vin's battered body slumped over his horse. Josiah and Nathan had come running and quickly carried Vin up the stairs, while Chris stormed up to him, demanding to know what had happened.
He was a man who prided himself not only on his vocabulary, but on his ability to use it precisely and intelligently. But he could hardly form a coherent thought that day, so his reply to Chris was brief: "We came across a wagon. A young man and woman and two -" here his voice had faltered - "two little girls. They were trying to cross the river, but the current was too strong. Vin tried, but there was nothing he could do. I found him downstream, pulled him out, and brought him back to Nathan as quickly as possible."
Chris had narrowed his eyes, and Ezra had instinctively interpreted the glare as one of disgust. "You're thinking I should have gone in, too. You think I could have made the difference."
But Chris met his gaze head-on and stated clearly, "No. That's not what I'm thinking at all. I'm thinking it's a damn good thing you had the presence of mind to stay on the bank, otherwise you and Vin would both be dead, along with that family."
Chris had gripped his shoulder then and walked back to the clinic.
Ezra still hadn't made the leap from the coward in his own mind to the savior in Chris's, but he was grateful for Larabee's charity and uncharacteristic gratitude. One less emotion for him to deal with, at any rate.
The other men were equally understanding, except when it came to his reluctance to share the experience in graphic, gruesome detail. Wasn't it enough that he relived the horror each night? Would he never erase the image of the young man's desperate efforts to save his family? Could he ever forget the sound of the young mother's screams for her babies? How long would he see the terrified eyes of the little girls as their tiny heads disappeared beneath the surface of the swirling water?
And then there was Vin - grappling with the horses, trying in vain to lead them through the swiftly moving waters. When it became clear that it couldn't be done, he'd tried to save the mother, but she only fought him to get to her children - the little girls who had already drowned while Ezra watched helplessly from the bank. He'd seen Vin go under then, but several moments later, he glimpsed a dark head bob out of the water several yards down stream. There was a chance that Tanner could move with the river - surely a man like Vin, as comfortable with nature as his own skin, would know how to survive the raging currents.
Ezra had run along the river bank, his eyes constantly searching the moving water for signs of his friend. But he'd lost him. There were long, gut-wrenching moments when he was certain he'd never see Vin again. He envisioned riding back into town alone, relating to Chris Larabee how his best friend had drown while he'd stood idly by. It seemed that he traveled miles along the river's edge before he finally spotted Vin, his arm snagged on an overhanging limb and his face - thank God - turned up out of the water. He still couldn't recall exactly how he'd managed to pull Vin off the limb and onto the bank. He only knew that he'd ended up drenched in the cold water, as well, and his back and arms still ached from his efforts.
But Vin was alive and recovering, and that was all that truly mattered. There was no point in discussing the matter further.
He looked up at the clinic again. Josiah had mentioned that Vin was having nightmares, which seemed completely out of character for the man; as tragic as the situation was, surely he'd seen worse in his lifetime. Yet something was clearly festering in Tanner's mind, if Josiah was to be believed. Something had Vin crying out in his sleep, begging to be saved from the dark water.
And for some inexplicable reason, his fellow peacekeepers believed he, Ezra, held the key.
Nathan was smiling broadly at him, but Chris couldn't find it in his heart to respond in kind.
"We dodged a bullet, we surely did. Or I guess I should say Vin did," Nathan said after listening again to Vin's lungs. Vin had already drifted back to sleep when he added, "No sign of pneumonia. Can't believe he got lucky this time."
Lucky wasn't the word Chris would have chosen, but he didn't bother to argue. He didn't want to appear ungrateful for small favors, after all. But Vin was bruised, battered, and still out of his head about half the time, and he didn't see much to smile about just yet.
"He gonna heal up alright then?"
Nathan shrugged. "Don't see why he wouldn't. The broken wrist and cracked ribs will be sore for a while, but that won't keep him down. His knee is pretty banged up - and we all know he won't stay off it like he should. But like I said, he's lucky. Could've been so much worse."
Yeah, he could've been dead, Chris thought. In fact, Vin should've been dead, and it was only thanks to Ezra that he wasn't. Being beholden to Ezra was an unfamiliar - and uncomfortable - feeling, but he wasn't too proud to give credit where credit was due.
But at that moment, he was concerned about something else. "He still seems awfully confused. You sure he didn't crack his head?"
"Oh, he hit his head alright. But he seems t' be clearin' up a little more each day. And I think it's more - well, you know - dreams - because of what happened."
"Uh-huh," Chris agreed, but he wasn't convinced. Something about Vin's behavior didn't sit right with him. Even with his injuries and the trauma of the incident, Vin wasn't acting like Chris would have expected. He couldn't quite put his finger on the problem. Awake and lucid, Vin was almost indifferent about the incident, taking in the death of the family he tried in vain to save with little more than a nod and a grim look of bitter acceptance. By outward appearances, Ezra was having a far harder time coping with the tragedy.
But Vin cried out in his sleep, alternately pleading to be left alone and begging for help . . . "don't let me go under." Was Vin afraid of water? Chris had rolled that notion around in his mind, but it didn't track. True, no one would accuse Vin of taking more than his fair share of baths, but he'd crossed more than one dangerous river without a moment's hesitation. He had no doubt that Vin had entered the water that day without a thought about his own safety.
"He's afraid of something," he muttered under his breath as he moved to the window.
"What? You say somethin?"
Turning back to Nathan, he replied, "No."
Nathan raised a brow, but didn't push. "I'm gonna get a bite of lunch. I'll bring somethin' back for you and Vin."
Chris nodded, but he'd already turned back to the window. Ezra was standing on the boardwalk across the street, staring up towards the clinic. Their eyes met through the glass, but Standish was too far away for him to get a handle on what the gambler was thinking. Ezra tipped his hat then and walked on.
Nathan returned an hour later with a tray loaded down with chicken, biscuits, and cherry pie.
"Inez outdid herself," Chris noted. "Or was it Mrs. Potter?"
"Both, I reckon. You know how they spoil Vin." Nathan patted his stomach and added with a smile, "Well, not just Vin, I guess."
Chris was about to reply when Vin stirred and mumbled a few names that sounded like Charlie and Aaron. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder and shook him gently. "Vin? Wake up now. Got something here you won't wanna miss," he said, referring to Vin's favorite dessert.
"Let go! Let go!" Vin pleaded before jerking awake with a startled gasp.
"Easy," Chris said soothingly. "You're okay."
Vin stared at him for a long moment, then licked his lips and looked away sheepishly. "Sorry," he muttered.
"No need. You ready t' eat something?"
"Later," was Vin's brief reply.
"Chicken's good and hot now," Nathan said.
"Don't want it now."
His friend sounded like a petulant child, but Chris bit his tongue - at least until Vin abruptly sat up in bed and pushed back his covers. He had the sinking feeling then that Tanner's days as a mostly cooperative patient were at an end. "What's on your mind, Vin?" he asked, hoping he was misreading his friend's intentions.
"Nothin'- just gettin' out of here is all."
"No, you're not. You're not ready," Nathan argued.
But Vin was already getting to his feet. He grimaced and wavered a bit, but otherwise made no sound as he looked around the room for his belongings.
"Vin, don't be foolish," Chris admonished.
Spotting his coat and boots, Vin ignored his friends and limped slowly but surely across the room. "I ain't stayin' here," he said, draping his coat over his arm and picking up his boots with his good hand. He lost his balance then, and Chris caught him as he pitched forward. But Vin wrenched himself free and said, "I'm goin'."
"Vin, listen to Chris. Don't be-"
"Stupid? Is that what you were goin' t' say?" Vin cut in, turning away from the door to face Jackson.
"No, that's not what I was going to say."
Before the man could explain himself further, Vin continued, "How do you do it, Nathan?"
Nathan cocked his head. "How do I do what?"
"Keep takin' care of stupid people? Stupid people that get themselves hurt doin' stupid things? How many people you had in this room that were just too damn stupid t' stay out of trouble? Too damn stupid t' stay alive? How come you keep on?"
"No one said you were stupid, Vin," Chris said very quietly.
"That's what you think, ain't it?"
For the second time in three days, Chris wondered why one of his friends thought they knew what he was thinking - and how they got it so wrong. "No. I don't think that at all."
Vin scoffed. "Well you should. Because I am a fool. Jumping in a goddamn river t' save stupid people who should've known better. Just a bunch of damn fools . . . deserve what we got."
It was silent for several moments as Chris and Nathan tried to understand what exactly precipitated Vin's rant. But as quickly as he'd raced to anger, Vin calmed again and said in a very low voice, "I gotta go. It's too - too crowded here."
With raised brows, Chris tried to make light of Vin's comment and replied, "I can take a hint. I'll leave."
Vin stiffened and avoided his eyes. "It ain't that. It ain't you."
"Me, then?" Nathan asked. "I've tried t' let you be as much as I -"
"No. Not you either, Nathan. It's - it's - there's just been too much - too many -"
"Too many what, Vin?" Chris asked gently as he moved in front of his friend. Tanner was doing nothing to ease his concerns at that moment; the man had to have cracked his skull but good during that ride down the river.
Vin peered up at him through hooded eyes, "Too many folks've died here, that's all. Crowdin' me . . ."
Chris felt the weight of Nathan's concerned gaze over his shoulder, but he remained focused on Vin. Something in Vin's eyes told him that this wasn't a time to argue. "Alright then. Will you let me help you down the stairs at least?"
"Reckon," Vin reluctantly obliged.
"You think you might wanna get dressed first?" Nathan asked, his lips still turned down in a frown in spite of the sarcasm in his voice.
Blushing furiously, Vin said again, "Reckon."
It took both Chris and Nathan to get Vin dressed, considering Vin insisted on remaining standing the entire time. No one said much, except when Vin got a look at what was left of his pants. "Aw hell, Nathan, why'd you go and cut 'em off at the knees? These here are my best pair."
From what Chris had observed, they were Vin's only pair, but he didn't think it was a good time to mention that. Instead, he patiently explained to Vin that his jeans were nearly shredded on the river rocks.
"Only got half of 'em left," Vin continued to complain.
"Well it's the most important half, ain't it?" Nathan responded in obvious exasperation.
Chris had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing outright at that, especially since he knew that Vin didn't find it the least bit funny. That was another reason to worry - Tanner's sense of humor seemed to have drifted downstream along with his good sense. "I'll pick you up another pair once we get you settled in your room, alright?" he offered.
Like a lit match suddenly snuffed, the fight drained out of Vin. His shoulders slumped as he mumbled, "Don't matter. I don't care. Just get me out of here."
It wouldn't be that simple, Chris thought; a change of scenery might ease Vin's troubled mind for a spell, but something told him that Vin would not be leaving his demons at the door of the clinic.
Vin didn't know what was wrong with himself, but he knew he'd best figure it out soon or Chris was likely to chew a hole in his bottom lip.
He picked at his breakfast, but couldn't find the appetite or the energy to bring the fork to his mouth. Nothing tasted good or sat right in his stomach once he'd swallowed it. He blamed it on the gallons of river water he was sure he'd drunk, though he knew that excuse wouldn't hold up much longer. It had been six days since the incident. His ribs and head still ached, his broken wrist was annoying as hell, and he had to work hard to hide how much his sprained knee hurt every time he put weight on it, but the truth was that he was healing up just fine. Except that he couldn't eat or sleep or say more than four words in a row that made any sense.
"You need some help with that?" Chris asked him cautiously from across the table.
It was amazing how many things required two good hands to be done properly, but eating fried eggs and biscuits wasn't one of them. He shook his head and lowered his eyes; it was too early in the day to face that dark look of worry that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his friend's eyes.
Chris cleared his throat - a sure sign that he was about to bring up something touchy - and said, "Nathan didn't mention that you'd hurt your hip."
Confused, Vin finally lifted his head. "Didn't."
"Then why aren't you wearing your gun belt?"
His throat was suddenly thick. How could he explain something he didn't understand himself? For so early in the morning, the air seemed too heavy, too hot. He pulled on the bandana at his throat to loosen the knot and avoided Chris's eyes once again.
"What's going on with you, Vin?" Chris asked, leaning forward. His hand moved, too, only inches now from the uneaten plate of food, and Vin had the uncomfortable feeling that Larabee was itching to grab hold of his chin and force him to meet his eyes.
He swallowed, but the lump in his throat remained. "What's it matter? Can't shoot too good right now anyway." It was a lie; he didn't need his left arm to steady his right, and Chris knew it. But for some reason he'd yet to figure out, the thought of strapping on his weapon made him sick.
Apparently deciding a change in subject was in order, Chris asked another question, "Have you talked to Ezra yet?"
"About what happened."
They'd danced around this subject more than once, too. Vin shrugged again. "Yeah. Sort of. Ain't much t' say, Chris. Wish y'all would let it go. Me and Ezra have."
"That why you still wake up hollerin' every night?"
Vin felt the blood rush to his face. How did Chris know?
Reading his mind, Chris leaned forward again and said in a low voice, "Your room is right next to mine, and the walls are thin."
Before he could stop himself, Vin admitted in soft whisper, "Ain't them I see." No, the truth was that he could barely remember the faces of the family that had been swallowed in the river. That was what bothered him most about the accident - that he could be a witness to the deaths of an entire family and not even remember what they looked like.
"Then who?" Chris asked.
How could he answer that? There was an endless blur of faces that raced across his mind when he closed his eyes at night. Some had names, some didn't, but all were dead. Some were deaths he'd witnessed - and some he'd caused by his own hand. And always, at least once every night, he was caught in the swirling black water, face-to-face with the nameless child he knew, yet didn't.
The words left his lips without his bidding, "All of them."
"Vin - I don't understand."
Chris was looking at him so earnestly, as if his feelings and his nightmares were the most important things the man had to deal with at that moment. And suddenly Vin felt incredibly unworthy of his attention. "Don't worry on it, Chris. I'll be fine," he said. Though he wasn't sure it was true. Recovering from a broken bone was one thing, but healing up from something he couldn't put a name or face to was something else entirely.
If Chris wanted to argue the point, he didn't get a chance because Billy Travis chose that moment to fly into the saloon, calling out as he ran, "Chris! Chris! Look what I got!"
Vin felt the color drain from his face as the boy approached, and suddenly the room was spinning. He gripped the table, swallowed the bile in his throat, and prayed that no one had noticed his reaction. What was wrong with him?
It was a only puppy. Just a dog . . .
Just a stupid dog, Tanner . . . Only a little water . . .
The pup wiggled in Billy's arms, somehow managing to squirm just enough to lick Chris across the nose.
"Hey there, fella," Chris responded with a grin. "Where'd he come from, Billy?"
There was something about a local farmer, and his ma finally saying "yes", but Vin could hardly hear the conversation through the roaring in his ears. The pup was black and white, with shaggy hair and long ears, a mixed breed. A non-descript animal except for something about the pattern of his face, the way his eyes were rimmed in white and his nose was painted black.
He'd seen him before, hadn't he? Something pulled hard at Vin's heart, and tears stung the back of his eyes; he couldn't shake off a sudden, unbearable wave of grief.
"Vin? Vin, what's wrong?" Chris's voice held an unmistakable note of panic.
"Don't feel good," he managed to gasp. His knee nearly gave out as he got to his feet, and for once he didn't complain when Chris took his arm and helped him up the stairs.
"I'll have Nathan check on you," Chris said as he eased him onto the bed in his room.
He didn't answer that it wasn't necessary because he couldn't get his throat to work. Instead, he waited until he heard the door close softly, then turned to his pillow and cried for a dog he hadn't remembered existed until five minutes ago.
Ezra pulled on his boots with a sigh. He really wished they'd let it go. No matter how hard he tried, the others could not be convinced that Vin's odd behavior had nothing to do with him. After all, he'd had the obligatory conversation with Vin and that should've been enough. Granted, nothing of substance was exchanged during their encounter, but they were both satisfied with the outcome.
He'd gone to Vin's room shortly after the man had left the clinic. "Do you have any questions about what happened?" he'd asked.
"Questions?" Vin had responded with a raised brow. "Somethin' I don't know?"
"Well, no. I mean - I don't know what you know - exactly. But no, there's really nothing to add."
With a frown, Vin had replied, "I reckon Larabee made you come here then?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I wanted to come but . . . Look, Vin, in order to please our comrades, I will reiterate the facts for you: we came upon a wagon in the midst of crossing the river. It was apparent that the family was in peril. You immediately stripped off your coat and gun belt and entered the river. I did not. There was nothing-"
Here, Vin had interrupted him. "You feelin' bad about that, Ezra? You thinkin' you should've gone in, too? Because you were the smart one in this. You hear me? You got nothin' t' feel guilty about."
Even now, days later, Ezra distinctly remembered how dismayed he was that Vin could read him so easily. He'd thought he had a better poker face than that. But he hadn't allowed the conversation to linger on that note, instead he'd forged ahead. "I appreciate your thoughts, Vin, but the important thing to remember here is that you tried your best, the matter was simply out of your control."
"Do you remember their faces?" Vin had asked him then, his voice low and strained.
"I do. I wish I didn't . . ."
It was at that point that the conversation threatened to turn into something neither one of them could handle, but fortunately, Buck entered the room and the moment was lost.
It was for the best, Ezra reminded himself as he stood and fastened his cuff links. There was nothing to be gained in exposing any unresolved feelings over the tragedy. Vin was right - he had nothing to feel guilty about, just as Vin should not be losing sleep over the fact that he could not recall what the victims looked like.
Josiah had actually proclaimed that he and Vin were victims themselves; the horror of the moment scarring them emotionally in ways neither had yet identified. Ezra scoffed - Josiah was over-dramatizing the entire affair, of course. He and Vin had endured far worse and likely would again. It was the nature of the time and place in which they lived. Not for the first time, he considered moving his fortunes to someplace more civilized - Boston or perhaps the fledging San Francisco.
That notion had little time to take root before he heard voices in the hall outside his room.
"You sure he's alright? I mean, he looked like - he looked really sick, Nathan."
"He seems alright now, Chris."
Even through the solid wood door, Ezra could feel the tension rising in the hall when Chris responded, "You keep saying he's alright and I keep telling you he's not."
"I keep saying he's physically alright. I can't speak for the rest of him."
"He's not eating or sleeping."
"What do you want me to do, Chris? I ain't that kind of doctor. Hell, I ain't even -"
"I know, I know," Chris cut in, frustration evident in his tone.
The two men evidently walked on down the hall then, out of earshot. Ezra slunk back against his door as he tried to sort out the conversation he'd just heard. It wasn't news exactly - they had all mentioned that Vin wasn't himself. But Tanner had seemed fine to him. A little pale, a little wary, perhaps, but there was nothing to be concerned about. Chris was obviously overreacting. Still, he'd make it a point to check on Vin later that day.
But later came sooner than he expected. He had just settled at a table to partake in an early lunch - or late breakfast - when he glimpsed Vin hobbling down the stairs. His first instinct was to leave the man alone, but the conversation outside his door refused to be ignored.
He caught Vin's eye and offered, "Join me for coffee?"
After hesitating a few moments, Vin nodded almost shyly and sat down next to him.
Chris was right - he looked terrible, Ezra thought. "You look decidedly worse for the wear, my friend," he said bluntly. "In fact, I'd say you look almost as bad as when I pulled you off that tree limb."
Vin pulled a hand over his face. "I reckon so."
"Would you care to discuss it?"
Well then, he'd done his part, hadn't he? He couldn't force the man to talk, could he?
Just when he thought he might be off the hook, Vin apparently changed his mind. "I killed a lot of men, Ezra," he said. "I think - I think maybe my conscience is catchin' up with me."
Why was Vin telling him this, he wondered? He and Vin weren't especially close, after all. Surely Mr. Larabee would be more comfortable in this role. And yet, Vin seemed to be looking to him for some sort of validation.
"We've all done our share of wrongs, Vin," he offered.
"Do you know how many men you've killed, Ezra? Do you know their names?"
"I did at one time. But then I met up with Mr. Larabee, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"That ain't right, is it? We're supposed t' be peacekeepers. It sound right t' you that we don't even know how many men we've killed keepin' the peace?"
"I'm not sure I understand . . ."
Ezra could have left it at that, but Vin had sought him out for a reason. He suspected their shared experience had somehow triggered an avalanche of emotions that neither one of them had yet to come to terms with. He could only hope to ease Vin's mind in one regard. "You're not feeling guilty about the deaths of that family, are you? Because believe me, there was nothing more you could have done."
"No," Vin replied with a huff. "I know that. Damn foolish of him t' try and cross there. Could've crossed two miles downstream and been just fine. Now his whole family is dead for no reason at all."
"He didn't know that. No man would make a conscious choice to endanger his family."
"That's no excuse! He should've known. He should've been more careful. Do you know how many people are dead from just bein' stupid? Do you know how many I've killed just because they were too damn stupid or too damn greedy t' put down their gun?"
"No, I don't know," Ezra answered quietly. "But I suspect you do."
Vin looked away, in attempt - Ezra suspected - to hide his feelings. But the emotion in his voice gave him away. "I don't wanna watch any more people die."
Of course not, Ezra thought, what kind of man would take pleasure in that? But he had a hunch that wasn't what his friend needed to hear. Unfortunately, before he could find the right words, Vin had gotten to his feet, tipped his hat, and turned away.
Well, he'd accomplished nothing, Ezra decided as he pushed his plate away, his appetite now ruined. It didn't improve when Chris Larabee rounded the corner and a made a bee line for his table.
"You get anything out of him?" Chris said in his usual sparse way as he dropped into the chair next to Ezra.
The directness of their leader's interrogation was testimony to the man's concern. Normally, Chris was good about minding his own business, but obviously this was not a normal situation. Still, Ezra felt uncomfortable revealing Vin's secrets.
"He's . . . got a lot on his mind."
"Just say it, Ezra." Chris met his eyes and said very deliberately, "I need to know if he can do his job, that's all."
Ezra laughed. "That's all? Now I know why you rarely play poker with me."
"He won't even carry his gun."
"He's injured. Surely we can cover for him for a few more weeks."
"Hell, Vin could be flat on his back with a bullet in his gut and he'd still have his gun on him. And you know it. Now if he told you something -"
"He's tired, Chris."
"I know, but -"
"No. I mean he's tired."
"Of what? Life?"
Chris swallowed and nodded. "I think we can all understand that."
"We've all seen our share, to be certain. But there's more to it for him."
"Like what? What more could there be?"
"I'm not sure. But until he figures it out, I wouldn't count on him to do his job."
"Alright," Chris said, like he really meant it - like all he really cared about was having Vin's gun at his back.
But Ezra knew otherwise. He knew something else, too - it was going to take someone a hell of a lot smarter than he was to get Vin back on track. Unfortunately, that excluded everyone he was acquainted with.
Chris thought he'd done a pretty good job of hiding his true concern from Ezra. He had a right, after all, to care about Vin's ability to do his job. Just like during that time with the wagon train, he needed to know he could count on the man. Of course, the truth was that he didn't give a shit right then if Vin ever fired his gun again. He just wanted his friend to be - well, normal again.
Time - that was what Vin needed. Hopefully, they would have a few quiet weeks so Tanner could rest up and pull himself together. Maybe he'd take Vin up into the hills, once he was able to travel. A few days far away from the demands of civilization - they might steer clear of any water, too - was all Vin really needed.
As usual, things didn't happen quite the way he planned, however. A rowdy group of trail hands picked that very afternoon to ride into town and stir up trouble. With Josiah and JD out of town, what should have been a simple dust-up quickly turned into a fierce battle. He was too busy keeping track of flying bullets to notice if Vin had joined in the fray. But at the first sound of the familiar mare's leg, he smiled. Nathan would be livid, of course, but having Vin at his back was exactly how things were meant to be. Vin would see it, too - the unexpected fight just might be a blessing in disguise.
But then things took a turn for the worse. They'd either shot down or scared off the majority of the trouble makers when one young man - hardly more than a kid - got a notion to do something stupid. He stepped inside the Potter store and came out with young Millie Potter in hand.
Chris couldn't get off a shot without endangering the girl, and he quickly noted that neither Ezra or Nathan were at good angles, either. Buck was too far away, which left only Vin to pull off a shot - and he wasn't even sure where exactly Tanner was located.
So he tried reasoning with the kid. "Let the girl go, and you might live t' see another day," he said.
It wasn't going to work, the kid was twitchy as hell. He raised his gun to fire back at Chris, but just then a shot split the air.
Chris knew without looking back that it was Vin who had clipped the kid on the side of his head. The youth collapsed to the dirt and Millie ran back to her mother, sobbing. It was pretty much over then; Buck and Ezra tied up the loose ends while Nathan met Chris and Vin at the young man's feet. They arrived just in time to see the boy look up at them in mild surprise before the life slowly drained from his eyes.
Nathan knelt next to the body and closed the vacant eyes. "Damn fool," he muttered.
Ezra approached them then with an obvious sense of urgency that would have seemed totally out of place only a week before. He gripped Vin's arm and said in a low, almost desperate voice, "You did what you had to, Vin."
But Nathan had a different reaction. "Tell me you did not pull that gun up against them ribs, Vin Tanner!" he all but shouted as he stood up and faced Vin.
"It's not the time, Nathan," Ezra said slowly, his hand still latched onto Vin.
"Not the time? Well when is the time? When one of those ribs breaks and stabs a hole in his lung?"
"I said, not now," Ezra repeated sharply.
Nathan opened his mouth to argue, but he quickly closed it again when he looked - really looked at Vin.
Tears were streaming down Vin's cheeks as he peered at the face of the dead man in the dirt.
But Chris got the distinct impression that Vin was no longer seeing that man, especially when Tanner whispered, "Aaron."
Buck had just joined them, and he looked at Vin oddly and asked, "You know him, Vin?"
There was no answer as Vin turned and limped back towards the hotel.
"Go after him, Chris," Ezra said behind his shoulder. "Don't leave him alone."
Chris had no intention of leaving Vin alone - especially when he noted that Vin was awkwardly trying to pack his saddle bag with one hand by the time he reached his room.
"Goin' somewhere?" he asked.
"Need t' get away," Vin replied without looking up.
"You're in no condition to go anywhere right now, Vin."
To his astonishment, instead of arguing, Vin only rasped softly, "You're right. Not by myself, anyway."
Something stung his eyes at Vin's admission that he needed him, but he blinked it away and said, "Give me a minute to pack."
Vin nodded, but kept his head down.
It wasn't until hours later, when they'd made camp for the night, that Vin finally spoke. "I remembered," he said, as if that explained everything.
And, in a way, it did. "Who was he? Aaron?"
"Just a kid . . . Just a stupid kid."
Not just a kid, and not so stupid to Vin, either - though Chris didn't argue the point. Instead, he waited for Vin to continue.
"We were at this - this place together in Texas; for kids that don't belong t' no one."
Chris carefully schooled his face to show no emotion, knowing Vin might clam up if he
let his features express any kind of pity. "What happened?"
"Was a river outside of town. Most of the time it wasn't too bad, but in the spring, it could rise up quick and sweep y' off your feet for y' knew what hit you. I steered clear of it most the time. Didn't take no genius t' know it couldn't be trusted, y' know?"
"Some of the older kids - they spent a good lot of the time makin' things as tough as they could on the little ones. Reckon it made 'em feel better about - well, don't matter. One day, Tom and Nick were givin' me trouble about not goin' near the river. I was only nine or ten at the time, but I didn't let 'em get t' me. I had this dog, Charlie."
The change of subject came so abruptly that Chris felt the need to clarify, "Dog?"
"Yeah. Well, he wasn't really mine. But he kind of was. He slept with me at night and -"
Vin suddenly stopped talking and looked away.
Chris waited several minutes before pushing gently, "What happened to your dog, Vin?"
"He, um . . . Tom kicked him into the river. I was gonna go in - I mean, he was swimmin' for all he had, but I was so scared for him. But then Aaron jumped in before I could. He was just a little fella, I don't reckon he was more than seven. Damn stupid kid." Vin choked and mumbled, "Why do people do stupid stuff like that?"
He didn't think Vin expected an answer, but he gave him one anyway. "I guess sometimes they just don't think before they act."
"Aaron was holdin' on t' Charlie and he wouldn't let go. I begged him to but - but he wouldn't. He was drownin' Charlie, but he wouldn't let go. So I went in after 'em - but I - the river was too strong. I felt myself goin' under and I was screamin' at Aaron t' let go, damn it! Maybe Charlie at least could swim t' shore and maybe I could get me and Aaron out. Aaron kept cryin' over and over, 'Don't let me go under, Vin, don't let me go under!' But . . ."
"But he drowned, didn't he? And Charlie, too?"
"It was a terrible accident, Vin. You know that, right?" Chris meant what he said, but he nearly choked on the words. The accident was caused by senseless cruelty. It made him furious, but in order to keep Vin talking, he kept his feelings to himself.
Vin nodded. "I know. But see, the thing is, I saw it."
"What do you mean? What did you see?"
"I tried, I really did, but we both went under. And his face - Aaron's - was right there. I saw it under the water. I saw when it happened - the moment when he died. It was a like a lamp goin' out. Just that easy, y' know?"
No, he didn't know - from what he'd experienced, most deaths were anything but easy. Or maybe that was just for those left behind. But Vin seemed to be waiting for him to agree, so he answered him, "I guess it seems that way sometimes."
"It was the same with that kid in the street today - one second he was alive and the next he was dead. There should be more to it, don't y' think? I mean, a life leaves this world and there's nothin' to it. It's just - it's just nothin'."
"It's not nothing - not to a man like you. That's why every death you've seen or been a part of has stayed with you. That's why what happened to Aaron stayed with you."
"But it didn't, don't y' see?" Vin said. "I forgot him. And Charlie, too. I was the only person on this earth that cared about either one of 'em - and I forgot 'em, Chris. Put 'em clean out of my mind until some stupid man came along and tried t' cross some stupid river and I was just stupid enough t' jump in with him." Vin shook his head and added, "Must be somethin' really wrong with me."
"You were just a kid. And sometimes things that hurt so much - we forget because it's the only way we can survive. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. And there's sure as hell nothing wrong with you for trying to help a family in trouble."
Vin looked at him dubiously before stretching out on his bedroll with a soft groan. "I don't wanna kill nobody else, Chris." He yawned and added, "And I don't wanna see nobody else die, either. I reckon you'll have t' fire me."
In spite of the seriousness of the conversation, Chris had to smile at Vin's sleepy conclusion. "Guess so," he agreed softly, as he leaned over and gently pulled the blanket over Vin's still body. Tanner wasn't going anywhere, of course, but he'd let his friend figure that out for himself.
Vin woke up aching all over with his head pounding, and he wondered for a moment if Larabee hadn't slipped something into his coffee the night before. But at least he'd slept for a change with no dark dreams chasing him. He didn't know if he felt better or worse now that he'd remembered the incident that had apparently scarred his youth. It just seemed to further validate what he already knew - that death followed him. It had started when he was five, when he'd watched his mother die, and it had snow-balled from then on -so much so that he'd lost count. And what did that say about his life, he wondered?
He tried to stretch out on the bed roll, but a sharp pain in his rib cage pulled him up short. Nathan was probably right that he shouldn't have fired his gun like he had, but he didn't have much choice at the time. Seemed like he never had much choice.
Which was why he was getting out. He'd go south, maybe into Mexico, and lay low for awhile - maybe for the rest of his life. At the rate he was going, that wouldn't be much longer anyway. Hell, the way his chest was burning and his knee was throbbing and his head was thumping, he might not live to make it down the mountain, let alone to some far off place like Mexico.
After ten more minutes of trying to find a comfortable position, he gave up and slowly got to his feet. The sun was up just enough for him to make out Chris, still sleeping in his bed roll on the other side of the now dead fire. The splint on his wrist seemed to have shifted during the night and was now painfully tight, so he gingerly unwrapped the limb and, stifling a groan, quietly moved away from the campsite to take care of his personal business. He'd planned to go back and wait for Chris to wake up, but thoughts of the past filled his head, and he found he was too restless to do nothing. Besides, maybe a short hike would loosen up his joints and ease the soreness in his knee.
He'd hardly started out when he heard the water. The river ran in a zigzag line a hundred yards or more below the ridge they were camped on. Chris had seemed far more uncomfortable with that than he was - after all, he couldn't avoid water forever. And in spite of his past experiences, he wasn't really afraid of the river; on the contrary, he'd always been drawn to it. Twice it had spit him out, hadn't it? Although he didn't remember how he'd gotten out as a child - he only remembered waking up in the doc's office in town and taking off on his own soon after.
Then again, there was that saying about the third time being the charm . . .
The sound of the flowing water called to him - promising peace at last from the terrible sadness and regret that had filled him for the past seven days. Using a downed tree limb as a cane, he tucked his broken wrist up against his chest and slowly picked his way through the woods until he came to a clearing. It was his intention to sit near the edge of the mountain, just close enough to view the rushing stream below, but he misjudged the steep slope of the land, and he lost his balance as his strained knee gave way.
He didn't have time to think that he was likely tumbling to his death, and it was instinct more than conscious thought that made him call out for Chris as he blindly grappled for something to break his fall. His good hand somehow caught hold of a sharp edge of rock, and he was barely able to dig the toe of one boot into the side of the cliff. But with half of his body dangling in thin air, his hold was tenuous at best.
The irony of his situation was not lost on him, and he would have laughed if he'd had the breath. After all of his fears about hanging, after all of the gun battles with ridiculous odds, after nearly drowning twice, he was going to fall to his death because he was just plain clumsy.
Well, he deserved that, didn't he? Hadn't he gone on and on all week about stupid people doing stupid things? How much sense did he have wandering along a cliff with a broken wrist, cracked ribs and a leg that didn't hold him up about half the time? And he hadn't even told Chris where he was going.
Oh yeah, no doubt about it - he was definitely stupid.
Would Chris even find him? No, the river would swallow up his body and Chris might never know what happened to him. He couldn't let that happen, so he called out again, "Larabee! Chris!" He added under his breath, "Could use a hand here, Cowboy."
He shouldn't have been surprised when Chris's head suddenly appeared a few feet above him. And he wasn't at all surprised when the man let out a string of curses, culminating in, "Damn it, Tanner - you just go from one mess to another, don't you?"
He wanted to say that he was just trying to see the river, but it was getting harder to breathe and nearly impossible to hold on. He took comfort in the knowledge that at least Chris would know he hadn't run out on him.
"Hang on, Vin! Take my hand!"
He couldn't do it, it was impossible. His right hand gripped the slippery rock and his injured left wrist dangled uselessly at his side.
"Listen to me, Vin. You can do it - give me your hand. Now!"
The desperation in his friend's voice forced him to comply with the command; he raised his left hand to meet Chris's outstretched arm, screaming in pain when Chris grabbed hold of the fractured limb.
"I'm sorry, Vin - I know it hurts. But I've got to get you up off this cliff, you hear me? I'm going to pull you up."
"No, no," he moaned. It hurt too much, and the swirling water was waiting. He'd cheated the black grave twice before, but now it must be time to pay for all the deaths he'd had a hand in. And at least Chris would be with him . . .
Chris would be with him.
Suddenly terrified at the very real possibility that he could pull Chris over with him, he pleaded, "Let me go, Chris! You'll fall, too. Please, let go! It's - it's ok."
"I'm not going to fall - the toes of my boots are hooked behind a root. And it is not okay, damn it!" Chris's face was red and his arms shook with the effort of holding onto Vin. "It's not okay! I don't want you to die, Vin. I don't want to see your face when you fall every single night when I close my eyes!" His voice dropped and he looked Vin squarely in the eye. "Don't sentence me to that. Please, Vin. Help me."
The pressure on his wrist was excruciating. His cracked ribs ground against the rocky surface, radiating shards of pain with every movement and every breath. He tried to gain a foothold, but his knee was too weak and sore, and it wouldn't take his weight. "I can't," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
He imagined the wind lifting the hair off his damp neck as he fell, and the instant, hard slap of his body hitting the water. It would be over in a heartbeat - there would be no long agonizing struggle as the black water stole his breath. It would be alright . . .
But Chris wouldn't let go - would never let go, Vin realized with a lurch. Even if he fell to his death, a part of him would remain with his friend forever - like Charlie and Aaron had remained in him, though buried deep for so many years. Chris wouldn't be so lucky - Chris would remember. Don't sentence me to that . . .
He'd never know where he got the strength to push himself up the rocky face of the cliff, but he suspected it was from the look in Chris's eyes. No one ever cared about him that much before, no one. It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, even with Chris holding on for all he was worth. His bad leg howled in agony, his ribs were on fire, and to make matters worse, he slipped and banged his face against the rock.
And then, somehow, he was back on solid ground. His nose throbbed now, in time with his head, and he felt like he'd scraped off half the skin on his face. Great, he thought, his stupidity would literally be written across his face. But none of that really mattered at all when he turned his head and saw Chris laying on the ground next to him, panting from exertion. He guessed he'd done something right in his life, after all.
When Chris had caught his breath, he huffed, "What the hell were you doing up here anyway, Vin? Testing out a theory?"
"Huh? Theory about what?" Vin rasped, his breath still caught somewhere between his belly and his toes.
"About that question you asked me last night. You know, why people do stupid things?"
It hurt to laugh, but Vin couldn't help it. "Hell, Larabee, I don't need no testin'. Bein' stupid just comes naturally for me." With a deep groan, he added, "Nathan's gonna kill me."
"Yep," Chris replied, not even attempting to deny it. "But if it makes you feel any better, he'll kill me first."
He wasn't Vin, but Ezra was still pretty good at tracking people. It wasn't because he'd spent a lot of time looking for others - rather that he'd become adept at setting false trails for those looking for him. It took him a few hours longer than he would have liked, but eventually he found Chris and Vin. He still wasn't entirely sure why he'd felt compelled to search for them to begin with, but something about Vin's face when he left town was causing him distinctly uncomfortable heartburn.
Unfortunately, as sad and weary as Vin looked then, he looked far worse now. "Good heavens, Chris, what did you do to him?" he said as he approached the secluded camp site. He had quickly noted that the battered Vin lay asleep on top of his bed roll, while Chris was taking his supper.
If Chris was surprised at his sudden appearance, he didn't show it. Larabee merely swallowed a spoonful of beans and muttered, "He fell."
"In front of what? A train? Or a raging herd of mad cows, perhaps?"
Dipping a hunk of bread into his beans, Chris still didn't look up at him when he said, "Off a cliff. Well, almost anyway."
Almost? Normally he was tolerant of their leader's sparse conversational skills, but he was sorely tempted to wrap his hands around Larabee's scrawny neck and wring the facts out of him. His concern for Vin had forced him to leave a saloon full of very promising marks, after all. The last thing he'd expected to find was his friend in worse physical condition than when he'd last seen him.
But he bit his tongue. If he'd learned anything about the men he rode with, it was that pushing rarely accomplished anything other than further frustration. "May I ask how that happened?"
"You can ask, but I can't really say. I just got there in time to pull him up."
A sickening feeling hit Ezra in the pit of his stomach. "You're not saying - you don't believe - I mean, Vin wouldn't -" He couldn't even finish the sentence.
Chris narrowed his eyes. "Wouldn't what?" But a moment later, comprehension dawned. "Oh. No. No. It was an accident."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, Ezra, I'm certain. Vin would never do that. Besides, he and I talked last night and - well, he remembered some things. He's still got some pondering to do, but he's not going to kill himself."
"Fell - bein' stupid - not gonna - hell, Ezra -why'd you think? - ain't that stupid," Vin slurred. His eyes were still closed, and he didn't move a muscle except for his lips.
Ezra stooped down next to Vin. "Do you feel as bad as you look?"
With a soft moan, Vin replied, "Worse, I reckon. And Larabee ain't got nothin' good."
Ignoring Larabee's snort, Ezra pulled a flask out of his pocket. "Luckily, I came better equipped. Can you sit up?"
"No." The one word answer came out more like whimper, the small sound turning into a full-fledged groan when, in spite of his negative response, Vin tried to pull himself up to his elbows.
For all of Larabee's apparent nonchalance at the situation, he was on his feet and at Vin's side in seconds. "We'll help you, Vin. Ezra - grab that saddle. Let's get him propped up."
"How bad is the damage?" Ezra asked, once they'd gotten Vin in a semi-sitting position.
"Had to re-set his wrist. Not sure about his ribs - but he seems to be breathing alright so I guess he didn't poke any holes in anything important. Don't think he broke anything else," Chris replied.
"'Cept my face," Vin mumbled.
"Well don't worry, my friend," Ezra said with a false smile, "a few scars will only add character to your visage."
"Your face, Vin," Chris helpfully supplied.
"Truly, strategically acquired scars are beneficial in a variety of ways. Ask Buck," Ezra added.
Chris snorted again. "You seem to go to an awful lot of trouble to keep your visage in flawless condition, Ezra."
"That's different. I depend on my appearance to -uh - to make a suitable living. Vin doesn't need - I mean - his gifts are -" Ezra knew his mistake before he finished stammering. He was about to point out that Vin's talent, his claim to fame, so to speak, was his ability to shoot . . . to kill.
Vin let him off the hook. "You gonna share that with me or not?" he asked, tilting his chin towards the flask.
"I'll do it," Chris said, grabbing the liquor from Ezra's hands and fixing him with a blistering glare. But Larabee's entire manner changed when he turned to Vin and tipped the bottle to his lips, "Just a few swallows now, Vin. You need to eat a bit before you drop off again."
Ezra expected Vin to tell Chris to mind his own business - after he'd yanked the bottle from his friend's hands. But Vin was unnaturally docile under their leader's tender care. The uncharacteristic display of affection by both men was both stunning and disarming, and as Ezra studied this intriguing view of friendship, he struggled with how to put his previous blunder right.
And then it came to him . . .
He waited until Vin had drunk his fill and settled back against the saddle before he asked, "Vin, how many men did you kill that day when you first met Chris?"
Larabee's glare heated up again, but Vin replied almost instinctively, "Four."
"Four? Only four? You're certain?" Ezra clarified.
"Yeah. I remember," Vin said quietly. "Why do you wanna know?"
"How many men, women, and children would you guess that our Mr. Jackson has cared for since that day? How many people do you think are still alive today because of him?"
"Got no idea, Ezra, and I hurt too much t' think that hard."
"Well, I distinctly recall him treating Josiah during our fight with Anderson. And Buck, too. And JD was both stabbed and shot in the past year. Judge Travis, that working girl - Nora, Chris-"
"I get it, Ezra," Vin said with a deep sigh. "You're tryin' t' help me feel better about killin' people . . . Sayin' that Nathan would be dead if me and Chris hadn't killed those men, and then other folks might be dead because he wasn't there t' save 'em. That right?"
Actually, Vin had put it better than Ezra had thought to, but he took credit for it anyway. "That's exactly right."
And at just that moment, it occurred to Ezra that Chris was right, too - that he had been right to stay on the bank and pull Vin out of the river. If he hadn't and Vin had died, what might have happened to Millie Potter? How many others would Vin save before his life ended - and all because he'd saved Vin?
"One life touches so many others," he whispered under his breath. It wasn't a new thought, or even a particularly profound one, but he'd never thought to apply the notion to himself.
Vin must have heard him because he answered in an equally soft voice, "But so many of the lives I've touched have ended up - dead."
Chris cleared his throat and said, "The family in that wagon would have died whether you were there or not."
"Maybe," Vin agreed with a sigh. "Don't change the others, though. Charlie, Aaron - they died just 'cause they were my friends."
Having no idea who Aaron and Charlie were, Ezra could only raise his brow at Chris and remain silent.
"You don't know that. I'm more likely to believe that their short lives were better because of you. I know mine is." Chris looked away after he'd spoken, as if he'd surprised even himself at his admission.
He'd astonished Vin, too, if Tanner's wide-eyed expression was any indication.
Ezra thought perhaps that he should say he felt the same; after all, his life had certainly changed for the better since he'd met up with the two men. But something more fitting came to his mind. "Unfortunately my friend, I fear that familiarity with misfortune and death is the price of a hero's heart," he said.
Something flickered in Vin's eyes - surprise, maybe, or gratitude that Ezra had remembered his poem - and then understanding sunk in. Ezra met and held his gaze until Vin swallowed thickly and replied softly, "I thought we were eatin'."
"Got beans and bread," Chris said lightly, though he couldn't hide the emotion in his voice any better than Vin.
Vin rolled his eyes but didn't complain.
"You're in luck, gentlemen, for I had the foresight to plan ahead," Ezra stated with a grin. "Inez has packed us a delicious basket filled with ham, sweet potatoes, and cornbread."
"I gotta start spendin' more time with you, Ezra," Vin said, licking his lips in anticipation of the feast to come.
"Hey now, that's not fair," Chris argued. "You didn't exactly give me time to think ahead. And don't forget who pulled you off that cliff."
"You are handy t' have around, I gotta admit," Vin agreed. "But if Ezra was there, he'd probably have had a rope on him and he'd of pulled me up real gentle like so I wouldn't have scarred my visage."
This time, Chris rolled his eyes, but any retort he was about to make was forgotten when Ezra sat the homemade dinner in front of them.
Shortly after the men had eaten their fill, Vin's head lolled to one side and his eyes slid closed. Chris covered him with a blanket and squatted next to the fire to pour a cup of coffee before turning to Ezra. "What you said to Vin earlier, Ezra - that was, uh, good. Actually, it was - well - really good."
"It was, wasn't it?" Ezra reflected on Chris's comment a moment before asking, "And do I detect a note of surprise?"
With a wide grin, Chris answered him, "Oh, I know you're an intelligent man. It's just nice to see you using your brains for good for a change."
"I take offense at that, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied, though he was grinning broadly when he spoke.
"And you? Is everything alright with you?" Chris asked.
"Everything covers a lot of ground," Ezra scoffed. "But if you are referring to the episode on the river - yes, I've made peace with it."
"Good," Chris stated with a nod. He paused a moment and added, "So since you've gotten so smart at handling people, think you can smooth things over with Nathan for Vin and me?"
"Did you not just call me a wise man? Suffice it to say, in addition to knowing what to say and how to say it, I know when to keep my mouth shut."
Chris shook his head and sighed. "I reckon Vin would heal quicker up here in the fresh air, don't y' think?"
Ezra smiled as he reached for his saddle bag. He pulled out a deck of cards and another bottle of whiskey. "I do. And fortunately," he said, "I came prepared for just such a possibility."
He woke up to the sounds of a crackling fire, and with a slight turn of his head, he spotted Chris poking the dying embers back to life.
"You need anything, Vin?" Chris asked, his face shadowed in the flickering firelight.
Vin shook his head. "No, I'm fine."
Chris got to his feet and moved to take a seat on the ground next to him. "How do you feel?"
"Better, I think. Ezra asleep?"
"Looks like it. You never know with him, though."
"Yeah," Vin agreed with a smirk. "He's somethin' - ain't never known anybody like him."
"Yep, he's one of a kind, alright," Chris chuckled.
"Uh-huh. But what he said - you know - earlier? I ain't no hero."
Chris looked at him thoughtfully. "I'd be the last person to say what counts as heroic, Vin. But you're not a man to look the other way when someone's in trouble. You stand up against injustice, and you care about people who can't fight for themselves. Dogs, too, I guess," he added with a half grin. "Maybe you care too much, I don't know. But I do know it's just not in you to lay low for the rest of your life. And I guess it's true that the more you get involved with others, the more hurt and heartache you're bound to see - that's the cost of caring."
. . . the price of a hero's heart . . .
It was true; he never could turn his back on someone in need. "Maybe so. And I reckon you're right - it ain't in me t' hide away for long."
"So does this mean I don't have to fire you?"
"Not unless you mind workin' with a man afflicted with bouts of stupidity."
"Afflicted with bouts of stupidity, huh? Hell, you've been spending too much time with Ezra already. Well, I think I can keep an eye on you. And I reckon you'll be fine, long as you stay away from rivers and cliffs."
"Ain't makin' no promises. Seems like that black water calls me now and again."
"I won't let you go under," Chris promised.
Their eyes met and held for a long moment before Vin cleared his throat and asked, "You think there might be another pup in that litter? You know, a brother to Billy's new dog?"
Chris nodded. "I'd about bet on it. Why?"
"Might like one is all. Get kinda lonely some nights."
"Some men might think a woman would fill that need, Pard."
Vin snorted. "Hell, talk about trouble - I'd rather take my chances with a river."
He closed his eyes then to the sound of his best friend's soft laughter. A vision of a black and white dog appeared before him, and it occurred to him that he just might name his new pup Charlie. But then again, Ezra P. Standish had a nice ring to it - and after all, he owed the man.