WARNINGS: Angst. One little, itty bitty bit of non-con touching by an OC.
AUTHORS NOTE: My thanks to the incomparable Fara D for her wonderful beta work.
No one takes a tumble like Vin did down that hill and shakes it off for long.
Dry, brown grasses clicked and rustled in the early fall breeze as nine horses and eight riders made their way along the faint tracks left by the wagon train that had recently been left behind. The pack horse skittered suddenly as a rabbit burst away from the intruders. J.D. dropped back a bit to sooth the nerves of the pack horse and secure a sack of flour that threatened to slither out from under its bindings. It was an almost balmy afternoon, quiet except for the dull thud of horses hooves’ on hard earth, creaking saddles and the eerie summer-end song of hidden cicadas.
Chris Larabee turned in his saddle and looked back down the line of riders. They were spread out a bit, not willing to eat the dust of the horses in front of them. J.D., at the end of the disjointed line, was fiddling with the pack horse for some reason that escaped the gunslinger. A ways to the fore and right of him, Buck rode companionably by the side of Josiah. Both seemed to be nodding a bit in the saddle. Up and to the left of J.D. Ezra rode close by Nathan, heads bent toward each other in quiet conversation. Chris raised an eyebrow at that. You never could tell with those two. A little further afield Mary was holding a drowsing Billy before her on the saddle. Chris smiled. All of the excitement of the last few days seemed to have finally caught up with the young boy. He turned back again and looked up the trail to find that Vin had increased the distance between them. Vin had been subdued and distant since they had parted company with the homesteaders this morning.
Chris studied Vin for a moment. The tracker was leaning slightly to the left in his saddle, holding himself as still as possible on the moving horse. Once again Chris saw in his mind’s eye Vin’s ass-over-teakettle trip down the side of the steep hill and heard again his response to Chris’s question as to whether or not he was all right. “Most of me,” the young man had replied. Obviously he was being generous in his assessment. A hard tumble like that must have hurt like Hell. Chris jigged Pony just enough to speed him up a bit until the gunslinger drew alongside the young man.
“How you doin’ there?”
Vin slid his eyes momentarily to his friend’s face, then shifted his gaze out to the trail ahead. “Just a mite stiff. Nothing to worry on.”
Chris frowned for bit at the somber quietness in the tracker’s voice, falling into silence himself.
In truth, Vin hurt everywhere. Once the danger had passed, he’d started to feel every spot that had hit Mother Earth on his way to the bottom of that God-forsaken hill. His head was pounding, his back was on fire and his right knee felt like a spike had been driven through it. And his heart . . . well, that hurt worst of all. Chris interrupted his thoughts.
“What did you tell her?”
Vin studied the surrounding hills for a moment. “Told her I had changed my mind about the two of us,” he responded sullenly. Chris narrowed his eyes.
“And had you?”
The muscles in Vin’s jaw tightened as he shot Chris a dark, bitter look. “Yeah, Chris, I had. I made a mistake. Is that what ya want to hear? I wanted somethin’ that was never gonna be right, no matter what I did. I wanted her to fix somethin’ in me. Didn’t work. Ya happy?”
Vin glared at the older man, challenge in his features as he studied Chris. He dropped his gaze, then, and sighed, shoulders slumping. Chris frowned at the change. The usually rock-steady man next to him had been a jumble of conflicting emotions this entire trip and it unnerved him. The tracker’s cryptic explanation didn’t help. He tried again. “So you got it figured out?”
Vin laughed ruefully; bitterly. “Not that it’s gonna do me a God-damned bit of good, but yeah,” he turned his eyes once again to Chris’ and the gunslinger was mesmerized by the sorrow, despair and . . . something he couldn’t define in those wide, blue eyes. “I figured it out.”
With that, Vin mumbled something about scouting out the trail ahead, put heels to his horse’s flank and shot ahead, effectively ending the conversation.
Dusk was just beginning to fall when the group pulled up to a small copse of cottonwood trees around a tiny pool. The leaves of the cottonwood whispered and shivered in the early evening breeze as the riders slowly dismounted. Vin hesitated a moment, eyeing the ground in trepidation. With a sigh he swung his leg around and tried to dismount. Immediately his back flared and he sucked in a low breath. Josiah cocked his head to one side, gazing at the tracker with concern. Vin hung motionless, half in and half out of the saddle, afraid to set his right leg to the ground, knowing that his knee probably wouldn’t hold him. His spine felt like a herd of buffs had stampeded over it and his head just wanted to come off all together. The young man looked up again and was surprised to see that Josiah had somehow gotten from across the glen to his side without seeming to move at all. With a wide, toothy grin the ex-preacher looked up at Vin.
“Can I give you a hand?” Kind eyes pleaded with Vin to say “yes”. The tracker sighed again and nodded his assent.
“’Preciate it, J’siah. I’m a mite stoved up.”
Josiah nodded and smiled, then gently assisted his friend to the ground, allowing Vin to set the pace and taking some of the younger man’s weight until Vin was comfortable enough to limp along on his sore knee. By this time, more heads had turned to take in the scene and Nathan was frowning.
“Ah, Hell.” Vin breathed softly as he limped slowly toward the assembled riders. Chris frowned, too, then turned toward the others.
“Buck, get a fire going. Ez, see what we have in the packs and lend a hand to Mary. Josiah, J.D, we’ll unsaddle and picket the horses. Nathan . . .”
“I got it.” Nathan answered with a shake of his head as he made his way toward Vin. Billy trailed after him, wide eyed with anticipation. The healer took Vin by the elbow and helped him limp toward a fallen log. Settling the young man there he went off to find his saddlebags. Billy stood in front of Vin and eyed the tracker with unmitigated curiosity.
“Did ya get hurt in the fight, Vin?”
Vin stamped down the urge to roll his eyes as, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chris drift closer, bedrolls in hand.
“Just took a bit of a spill, pard. Nothin’ to worry on. ‘Ol Nathan’ll have me fit as a fiddle in no time.” He was lying to beat the band and he knew it but he didn’t want Billy to worry and he didn’t want to give Chris the satisfaction of admitting that he hurt like Hell. Nathan plunked the saddlebag full of his medical wares down in front of Vin and ordered the young man to take his shirt off. Vin’s eyes widened.
“I ain’t takin’ my shirt off in front of a lady!” he hissed, totally scandalized by the request. Billy squealed with laughter. Vin’s head pounded harder. Nathan rolled his eyes.
“Well, Vin, we don’t have a lot of privacy here.” He turned to Mary. “Miz Travis, would you mind fixin’ supper with your back to us, if that ain’t too much trouble?”
Mary smiled sweetly and consented. With her back now turned to the trio, Nathan once again turned and glared at the tracker.
Vin slumped in defeat and tugged at his braces. Buttons followed, then the shirt, followed by the undershirt. Billy’s eyes widened in surprise at the colorful array of bruises covering Vin’s torso but he stayed silent. The tracker felt someone’s gaze upon him and turned his head slightly to catch Chris’s eyes, stormy and worried, sweeping across his battered back. If not for the presence of the young boy next to him, he would have bet a few choice words would have burst forth from the intractable gunslinger. Chris abruptly turned and stalked away as Nathan began to dab Arnica balm over the bruises, asking questions of Vin as he worked.
Vin was soon settled against his saddle, knee wrapped securely and sipping a cup of willow bark tea for his “bit of a headache”. He watched Mary expertly put together a supper of skillet biscuits, salt pork and gravy. Ezra ground coffee for the pot and J.D. took several apples down to the pond to wash. Chris eyed the scene with satisfaction before turning to Buck.
“You’ll have first watch, then J.D., Ezra, Josiah and Nathan, two hours each. I’ll take last watch.”
Vin’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“What about me? I ain’t helpless, ya know. Just ‘cause I’ve got a coupla bruises don’t mean I can’t pull my fair share.”
Chris eyed the stubborn tracker evenly for a moment.
“We’ve got plenty of men to cover. Best you rest up that knee and that hard head of yours.”
Vin’s mouth tightened into a grim line. “Ya sayin’ ya still can’t depend on me?” He shifted uncomfortably under the combined stares of his friends now. Chris’s eyes flashed in the light of the campfire.
“I’m sayin’ that you took a hard tumble and you can do with the rest, Vin. You sayin’ you’re not hurtin‘? ‘Cause I know da . . . ,“ he paused, flitting a glance to Mary and her young son, “’cause I know otherwise. It’s gonna be a long day in the saddle tomorrow and if you think you’re stiff and sore today, you wait until tomorrow eve. You’ll be lucky if Nathan isn’t plyin’ you with laudanum by then.”
Vin turned his head away from the stares and gazed out into the gathering darkness. A few late season fireflies twinkled lazily and he tried to concentrate on their ethereal beauty. He wouldn’t press the issue in front of others and couldn’t press it with Larabee, for the bastard was most likely right. He’d be damned if he ever admitted it, though. He heard the others begin to move about again as Mary announced in a falsely bright voice that supper was ready. Vin accepted a biscuit and some coffee but declined the rest. His head pounded and his gut churned. It was going to be a long trip back to Four Corners.
They rode into Four Corners on a warm, Indian Summer day that made the dying prairie grasses smell faintly of baking bread. Without the encumbrance of wagons, oxen, livestock and families, the Seven and Mary had retraced their steps in only three days as opposed to the twelve it had taken them to reach the homestead site.
Chris heaved a relieved sigh. It had been an uncomfortable three days for him. Vin had turned from his usual taciturn but companionable self into a moody, disagreeable asshole who had reduced his vocabulary to grudging monosyllables when prodded. Mary had hovered about Chris with bright smiles and longing glances, apparently waiting for the gunslinger to realize how lucky he was that she had chosen him instead of Gerard. That just made Larabee grind his teeth. He liked Mary well enough. She was attractive and mighty fine to look at. If he could have gotten under her skirts without the inconvenience of a wedding band, he’d have been there like greased lightning. Trouble was, he had no interest in marriage. Now the dang woman seemed to be hanging about waiting for him to realize how jealous he had been of Gerard and how close he had come to losing her. She was going to have a mighty long wait. Chris couldn’t wait to be shuck of all of them and reacquaint himself with a nice bottle of whiskey.
Vin looked about owlishly. He had been nodding off in the saddle shortly before they hit the edge of town. That bothered him. He was so tired the last few days. Sleeping in the saddle could get a body killed. His knee was much improved now that it had tight bindings to help support it. His back still hurt, but not the fiery agony of the first day or even the unbearable stiffness of yesterday. Now, if his head would just quit pounding, he would feel almost normal again.
Looking about him, Vin noticed he was the only one still in the saddle. He’d been woolgathering again. Swinging down quickly, the tracker stumbled momentarily as dizziness swept over him. Ezra put out a hand to steady him.
“Are you quite alright, Mr. Tanner?” the erudite gambler asked solicitously. Vin nodded and stepped away from his friend.
“Yeah, just m‘ knee. Thanks, Ez.”
They both raised their heads when a shout came from down the street. The McNally kid was running toward them, his red hair gleaming in the afternoon sun.
“Mr. Jackson! Mr. Jackson! Me Da sent me to town yesterday to find ye. He says to tell ye that he thinks me Ma’s got the lung fever. Can ye come?” the youngster huffed out as he slid to a stop in front of the healer. The Seven looked at each other. The McNally’s were an Irish family recently settled a good 4 hours ride out of town. Nathan sighed and nodded to the boy.
“Give me 10 minutes to round up what I’m going to need, son, and we’ll head out.” He turned to survey the others, his gaze finally falling on Vin. “You get plenty of rest and don’t be gettin’ up to anything while I’m gone, ya hear me?”
Vin nodded and watched his friend stride quickly toward the clinic steps a few yards away. He grabbed Peso’s bridle and, with a slight limping gait, made his way slowly into the stable. J.D. brought Mary’s horse while Buck led the packhorse in. Even with the two extra horses to untack, Buck, J.D. and the others were done and gone by the time Vin was finished. His fingers had felt clumsy and thick, fumbling with the buckles and cinches. He blew out a frustrated breath. He was pretty sure by now that he had a concussion. Nothing to be done about it, though. He’d had ‘em before and he knew he just needed some rest and a little time to clear his head. He didn’t remember this weakness in his limbs from his previous knocks on the head, however. Didn’t matter. It would pass, given time.
Vin exited the stable and squinted in the westering sun. The bright sunlight sent hot shards of pain shooting through his head. Lowering his head to bring his hat brim down, Vin considered his options. He could eat but the thought of food made his stomach churn. He could go to the saloon but the noise would be unbearable and he didn’t feel like company. Pretty soon, he had no doubt that the tale of his indiscretion with a married lady would be making the rounds. Vin had no wish to be more of an object of scorn and ridicule than he already was. He sighed heavily. Sleep was his best bet. He trudged slowly toward his wagon.
Inside the saloon, Chris peered out over the batwing doors, watching Vin cross the street. He frowned and turned away. The last thing he wanted was to put up with more of Vin’s lovesick peevishness. He had escaped Mary by hightailing it to the saloon. It was good luck on his part to escape Vin as well, wasn’t it? He mentally shrugged and forced his thoughts in a different direction. He’d come in here to get away from all that. After days of it, he’d had enough drama from those two to last him a lifetime. It irritated him as well that Vin professed to know he was better off without Charlotte but he appeared to be moping about after her anyway. Chris gritted his teeth in frustration. There he was, thinking on Vin again! He swung himself toward the bar, determined to drink himself into a pleasant stupor where clingy women and hangdog friends didn’t exist.
Vin woke shortly before sunrise, jerking awake with the sure knowledge that he was going to be sick. Lurching out of the wagon, he dropped to his knees, ignoring the blast of pain that shot through the right one, and began to retch. There wasn’t much to bring up, but it made his head explode with pain. Vin staggered to his feet, kicking dirt over the little vomitus he had expelled, and sat on the tailgate of his wagon. Breathing heavily, the troubled man looked about him. No one was up and about yet; the eastern sky was just beginning to lighten. Knowing he wasn’t going to get anymore sleep, Vin grabbed some fresh clothes and made his way to the water trough behind the stable. It was good enough for him and didn’t cost like the bathhouse. Besides, the cold water would feel good on his head. Shucking off quickly, he was washed, dried and dressed in no time. Now shivering in the early fall air, Vin limped slowly to the jail, letting himself in and stoking up a fire in the small wood stove. He settled himself in the sheriff’s chair and drifted once again into a doze.
Vin wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Buck and J.D. burst into the jailhouse, engaged in a rambunctious conversation, as was their norm.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a girl fishing, Buck.” J.D.’s annoyed voice washed over Vin like an irritating buzzing insect. He put a hand to his head.
Buck hooted. “Boy, you are never gonna land that filly if you keep courtin’ her like that! Ya gotta be smooth and . . . and, uh . . . what’s that word Ezra uses?
Suave! Yeah, suave. Ya gotta be suave. Ya gotta do romantic things with her, like a buggy ride in the moonlight or readin’ poetry to her. I don’t see any romance in a cold, slimy fish, do you?”
J.D. snorted as he moved farther into the room, nodding to Vin and stoking the fire up a bit. “I’m not courtin’ Casey, Buck. I’ve told you that before. She’s just a girl and we like to fish, OK? “ He tried to change the subject by turning toward Vin with a bright smile. “Vin! You really gotta go over to the Saloon for breakfast. Inez made fresh apple butter to go with the sourdough biscuits this morning.”
Vin just sat there peering at the young man owlishly, brows furrowed and hands clenched. He didn’t know why J.D.’s enthusiasm wore on him this morning but he could feel an uncharacteristic anger flaring to life in him. J.D. stepped closer.
“Vin, ya hear me? Inez has got apple butter this morning. One of your favorites!”
Vin looked up at J.D., standing over him bright eyed and smiling. “Fuck off, kid.” he snarled.
J.D.’s stunned face was replaced by Buck’s concerned one as the rogue stepped between his two friends.
“Hey, hey, hey now, there’s no reason to get your dander up,” he said soothingly as he shooed J.D. away and gave the tracker a knowing look. “If you’re hung over, it ain’t J.D.’s fault. You ain’t got no call to be mad at him.”
Vin shook his head, then regretted it. Why had he lashed out like that? His stomach churned again. “Sorry J.D.” he threw over his shoulder as he stood quickly and lurched toward the door. Vin made it as far as the alley before he had to bend over and retch again. Nothing came up this time. Dry heaves.
Behind him, in the jail, Buck and J.D. listened to the sounds in the alley. Buck shook his head. “I don’t remember Vin bein’ in the saloon last night. Must’ve been down at Digger Dan’s.” he frowned thoughtfully, “Vin usually ain’t a big drinker. Must still be moonin’ over Charlotte.”
J.D. agreed absently, a small seed of worry lodging in his breast.
Chris strode into the saloon shortly after the sun had hit its zenith. The noon crowd was minimal for lunch today and that suited him just fine. That and he‘d spied Mary making a beeline for him just before he ducked into the saloon. Looking about, he spied Vin slouched in the far corner, back in the shadows. Sighing, he motioned to Inez and made his way toward Vin’s table. Sliding gracefully into the chair, he eyed the younger man. Vin’s face was pinched and pale, dark circles evident under his eyes. Chris opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by the appearance of Inez at his elbow.
“What can I get for you, Senor Chris?” She smiled softly, eyes drifting over to Vin and narrowing as she got a good look at him.
“What have you got for lunch today?” Chris responded.
Inez shifted her attention back to the gunslinger. “I have made a fresh batch of tamales. I also have chipped beef on biscuits, bread with apple butter, fried apples and onions and pease porridge.”
Chris smiled slightly. “I’ll have the tamales and a beer. Thank you, Inez.” She nodded and left. Chris turned back to Vin. “You look like Hell.”
Vin remained slumped in his chair but acknowledged the remark with a grunt, then raised his head a bit. “Ain’t you just the flatterer.” His voice seemed even raspier than normal. When he tried to focus on Chris, the man wavered and split, sometimes forming into two Chris’s, sometimes back to one. That was humorous to Vin in a strange way. Two Chris Larabees. God help us. He smiled lopsidedly, suddenly in a fey mood.
Chris scowled at Vin irritably. “You done moping about now?”
Vin cocked an eyebrow, watching as Chris split in two again. “Nope. I’m gonna mope.” He grinned wider at his rhyme, watching in amusement as Chris scowled again. Vin felt strangely detached, watching the surrounding room double and reform again along with his friend. “What’s it matter? I’m gonna hang anyway.”
Chris startled at the comment, which seemingly had nothing at all to do with what they were talking about. He stared at his friend, unsure what to say. Where was this coming from? Inez appeared suddenly at his elbow, making him jump slightly. She glanced at Vin, then to Chris, frowning slightly.
“Here is your tamales and beer, Senor Chris.”
“Thank you, Inez.” Chris murmured absently, still staring at Vin. Inez nodded uncertainly and swept away in a swirl of her colorful skirts. Chris leaned over the table a bit and pierced Vin with a sharp look.
“What the Hell are you talking about?” he hissed.
Vin, his gaze back to his friend, was suddenly morose again. “They’re gonna hang me,” he opined gloomily. “ Even if I was makin’ a mistake, ya shoulda let me go off ta Brazil. Woulda been better fer everyone all th’ way around.”
Chris shook his head. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. You gotta snap out of this, pard. She wasn‘t worth it.” He took an experimental taste of his tamales and raised his eyebrow in appreciation. Vin eyes wandered to the unlit kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling. It was actually kind of interesting watching them split and reform.
“Guess yer right. I’d hang down there, too,” he mused quietly.
Chris put his fork down and stared at Vin in perplexed confusion. “I’m not following you today, Vin. You murder someone in South America I don’t know about? ‘Cause you ain’t makin’ a lick of sense whatsoever.”
Vin scowled at Chris in offense. “I ain’t murdered nobody. Ever. Killed me plenty of fellers, you know that. But never in cold blood. That don’t mean I’m not gonna hang.”
Chris glowered at Vin, angered by this entire conversation. “I’m not gonna let that happen. You know that.”
Vin just smiled in a sad, weary way. “You’ll be helpin’ ’em Chris. You’ll be right there helpin’ ‘em.” He rose a bit unsteadily to his feet and limped away. Chris stared, open mouthed in shock. A thousand things swept through his mind but, true to his nature, anger was what surfaced first.
“Vin!” he shouted across the room and was pleased to see the tracker turn and look back. “Josiah says there’s a cattle drive stakin’ out just outside of town. Those drovers will be in any time now. I need you to get your head out of your ass and be ready. You got that?”
Vin simply nodded as he raised a hand in acknowledgement and continued to make his way out of the saloon.
Sitting in the shade on the porch of the saloon, Vin attempted to clean his gun. Hat pulled low over his forehead to block as much of the painfully bright sunlight as possible, Vin fumbled with the mechanisms of the piece. He paused momentarily as Ezra stepped out onto the porch as well. The gambler sniffed slightly.
“I can smell the effluvia from those cattle from here. Between the dust of this town and the undoubted squalor emanating from that herd, it is a wonder that I maintain any sense of health at all in this God-forsaken land.” He brushed a particle of the offending dust from his pristine jacket.
Vin just grunted, his head pounding too much to maintain polite conversation. “You won’t mind so much when those cowboys start losin’ all their money ta you, now ain’t that right, Ezra?” His clumsy fingers dropped the cleaning rod. Again. He sighed. His fingers just didn’t seem to want to work right anymore. Ezra stooped to pick the rod up, handing it back to the tracker.
“You seem most out of sorts today, my friend. Is there something amiss?”
Vin snorted derisively. “Nothin’ you can do anythin’ about. Just leave it, Ez. Got me a bit of a headache is all.” A bullet dropped from his nerveless fingers and rolled away, dropping down a crack in the floorboards. “Damn! That’s the second one today and them things are too ‘spensive to be awastin’.”
Ezra contemplated his friend for a moment. Vin was normally the most sure footed, capable, wily man he had ever met. As quick as a cat and twice as nimble. Today, however, he seemed unsure and inept.
Ezra reached out a hand to lay on Vin’s shoulder as the younger man bent to fish out a new bullet from the box at his feet. The gambler hesitated, then slowly withdrew his hand, unsure why he had the sudden need to reassure his friend. He shook himself. Why, you would think he was attached to this motley assortment of peacekeepers. Perish the thought! Ezra knew whom his first priority lay with, and that was Ezra P. Standish! Still, his thoughts were troubled as he tipped his hat to Vin and made his way to the General Store, intent on purchasing a few cigars before the rough hordes of prospective clients descended upon their little town.
Josiah ambled slowly along the boardwalk in the late afternoon sun. The clouds of dust stirred up by the herd of cattle to the west of town was turning the setting sun red and hazy and the faint miasma of cattle dung hung in the cool air. At least it wasn’t high summer. The odor would have been so much worse in the intense heat.
Josiah spotted Vin sitting on a nail keg outside of the General Store, Mares Leg strapped to his hip, his Winchester .40-44 held loosely across his lap and a glass of water held in his other hand. Josiah came to a stop in front of the tracker.
“All quiet so far?”
Vin startled, sloshing the water and looked up at the big man, confusion writ large across his face. “Josiah! What’re you doin’ here?”
Josiah was just as confused now. “What do you mean, Vin? Where am I supposed to be?” His voice was soft, gentle. He sensed something was not quite right here.
Vin flung out an encompassing arm, indicating the town as a whole as water went flying out of the glass. “Here in Durango. What’re you doing here?” His voice faltered uncertainly as he began to peer around him more attentively. “Ummmm . . . “ He stared at the now empty glass and gently set it down.
Josiah perched himself onto an adjacent barrel of lime and studied the young man before him. Dark circles under slightly out-of-focus eyes, face pale and pinched. “Perhaps you should see Nathan when he returns. You looked a bit peaked.”
Vin scowled. “I don’t need Nathan. I was just daydreamin’ is all. Ya caught me out. I don’t want Chris thinkin’ he can’t depend on me. He’s pissed at me already.”
Josiah contemplated the young man uneasily. Vin was a fiercely independent person, unwilling to show weakness or fear and yet he was levelheaded enough to ask for help when he truly needed it. Apparently Vin didn‘t feel there was anything to be concerned about. He sighed. Something seemed off about Vin but he couldn’t quite place it. The least he could do was sit with Vin for awhile and make sure he was all right. He settled himself in as the two peacekeepers watched the sun slowly dip toward the horizon.
The kerosene lamps did little to alleviate the gloom in the smoky, noisy saloon. Vin looked around him in confusion, unsure as to when he had arrived, why he was here or how long the half-finished beer in his hand had been there. Awhile, apparently, as it had gone warm. He eyed the mirror in front of him warily, relaxing a bit when he found the table in the corner containing Chris, Nathan, Buck and Josiah. A glance to his left revealed Ezra occupied in his usual pastime of fleecing a gaggle of unsuspecting cowboys. J.D. must have drawn the short straw for jail duty. Vin squeezed his eyes shut for moment, willing the ever present headache away before training his eyes on the mirror again. He could see Chris slouched easily in his chair, long fingers loosely caressing the glass of Red Eye in front of him and hat shoved up a bit to reveal glints of gold in the lamplight. A half smile ghosted across his face as Buck said something amusing.
Vin thought he was about the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He blinked slowly again and drifted into a reverie, his eyes resting longingly on the gunslinger. What sense of self preservation he had seemed to have fled with his ability to walk, talk or think straight.
Ralph Anderson surreptitiously watched the young man with the long hair from his seat at a table a few feet away. He was playing a desultory game of cards with some of his trail-hand buddies from the cattle drive. Ralph recognized the look on the young man’s face as he gazed at that dangerous lookin’ stud across the room. It took time and experience and a whole lot of caution but, after a while, he could recognize a fellow Sodomite like himself. Like called to like, he mused. It had been a long while since he had satisfied his “unnatural urges”, as his mother used to call it. Men like himself had to be damn careful. Their kind of lovin’ could get a man killed real quick. He was luckier than some, being built big and rough with none of that silly poncing about that could be seen in some of his “kind”. Suspicion rarely, if ever, fell on him for being “like that”. He would be risking a lot to make a play for someone here in this little dirt hole of a town but Damn, was that boy pretty!
Ralph folded his hand and bowed out of the game. His friends hardly noticed. They were enjoying the local rot gut a little too much. Ralph slid silently up alongside the young man and carefully surveyed him up and down. Yep, this one was a mighty fine prize. Lean and wiry with a rugged beauty that took his breath away. He could feel himself hardening at just the thought. Ralph leaned over slightly and spoke into the young man’s ear. “You want a drink?”
The young man slowly swiveled his head around and peered blearily at Ralph. “Wha . . ?” Ralph smiled. Roostered to boot! This was going to be easier than he thought.
Vin blinked his eyes and tried to sift his way through the confusion clogging his mind. A tall, darkly dressed man stood next to him, gazing down at him with a smile. Vin’s vision wavered in and out. “Chris . . .?”
Ralph nodded and smiled again. “Ya want to go out back with me?”
Vin cocked his head to one side and tried to let the words filter through his muddy consciousness. Chris wanted him to go somewhere. Yes, that was it. He nodded. He watched the man in front of him turn and walk toward the back door of the saloon, toward the privies. Vin faltered a bit, then made his way unevenly across the floor after him.
Ralph turned when he had exited the saloon and watched in aroused anticipation as the pretty young man followed him. Followed him just like a puppy! Ralph couldn’t believe his luck. Watching the young man stumble a bit, he reached out to grasp him by the elbow. “You got a name?”
Vin looked up in confusion. “A name? C’mon Chris, that ain’t fu . . funny. Vin’s always been good ‘nuff fer ya b’fore. Hate m’ full name,” he slurred out. He let himself be led past the privies, across the small side street next to Watson’s Hardware and two buildings down. They entered the alley between the Post Office and the undertaker’s. He didn’t know what Chris wanted out here but he figured the temperamental gunslinger would tell him when he was good and ready.
Ralph led Vin to a spot half hidden behind a stack of shipping crates. Here he pushed Vin up against the wall, leaning into him and feeling his lean, hard, young body. God, this was going to be so sweet! He reached down to cup his hand around Vin’s genitals, rubbing them through the rough cloth of Vin’s trousers.
Vin’s instincts finally lurched to life in his addled brain. He was being pressed into the rough wood, the heavy weight of a man pushing against him with a knee wedging itself between his legs. A man, who Vin now realized smelled of cattle, dust and sweat and nothing at all like the leather, gun oil and cheroots he had come to associate with Chris. A stranger who was fondling him in his most intimate of places. He began to struggle.
“Stop. What . . . what’re you doin’? Get off me!” He tried to push the weight away but found his reflexes slow, his muscles weak. Ralph turned him easily into the wall and placed his knee once again between Vin’s legs, reaching around to unbuckle the young man‘s gun belt.
Chris lifted his head and studied the room. Something was off but he couldn’t place it. He had been listening to yet another of Buck’s long-winded tales of conquest and sipping his whiskey when something had niggled at the back of him mind. Taking another sweep of the room, he finally registered that Vin was gone. The tracker had been standing at the bar for the better part of the evening. Not that being gone was anything to be alarmed at. Vin had been so out of sorts the last three days that Chris was hoping the scrawny bastard had crawled off to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’d be in a better disposition tomorrow. Still . . .
Without really knowing why, he rose and strode toward the bar where Vin had been standing. Inez was in the process of picking up his half empty glass of beer with one hand and wiping a rag across the damp surface of the bar with the other. She smiled up at Chris.
“Senor Chris. What can I do for you?”
Chris frowned slightly. “Vin leave? He looked loaded to the gunwhales.”
Inez shook her head vehemently. “Senor Vin was not drunk. This is his first beer of the evening. He acted strangely, though. I think he is not right. I am worried for him.”
Chris felt alarm tingle up his spine. “Did you see him leave?”
Inez nodded, looking worried. “He followed a big gringo out back. This man came in with the trail hands. I have not seen him before.”
Chris’ alarm ratcheted up a notch and he nodded his acknowledgement to Inez as he headed for the door. Once outside, Chris scanned his surroundings. It was too dark to see much of anything. The moon shed a little light, as well as the watch fires out front and dim candle or lamp light from surrounding buildings. Nothing to be seen moving in the dim starlight. He made his way warily down the backsides of the building and across the street, then paused to listen. A faint voice made its way to him. It sounded like someone had tried to holler out “get off me!”. Vin! Chris sprinted behind the buildings toward the direction the sound had come from, then paused again, frantically listening. From the alley next to the undertaker he heard scuffling sounds and heavy breathing. A rough voice reached him.
“You sure are the prettiest thing I’ve seen in ages, boy. You know you want this. I seen the way you were lookin’ at that stud bull you got your eyes on. I know you. You ‘n me are alike. This is gonna be so good. You’ll like it.”
Ralph worked the buckles of Vin’s gun belt, dry humping himself against the tracker’s firm ass as he held Vin’s head against the wall with his other hand. Vin’s strangled “NO!” escaped out into the darkness. Ralph had the belt buckle undone! Now to get those trousers undone and down around Vin’s ankles where they belonged. He reached for the top button . . . and froze as the ominous click of a peacemaker sounded in his ear.
“Get off him.” The tone was cold, deadly and filled with a rage that turned Ralph’s bowels to water. He turned slowly to see the looming, dark-silhouetted outline of the gunslinger that his pretty boy had been eyeing earlier. Ralph gulped.
“I . . uh . . . it isn’t . . .” He stuttered to a stop as the faint moonlight caught a glint of that cold face. Chris placed his pistol squarely between Ralph’s eyes, an avenging angel sent straight from Hell with death in his glittering green eyes.
“You run. You run fast and you run hard. ‘Cause if I see you anywhere in the same county as Vin again, you’re dead. If you ever look at him again, you’re dead. If you even think about him again, you’re dead. You get my drift?”
Ralph nodded as warm urine seeped down his leg. He turned and ran as if all the hounds of Hell were on his heels. Chris spun and took the step needed to reach Vin, who was slumped against the wall.
“Vin! You alright?”
Vin’s head was spinning, sounds were muffled and warped. Nothing made any sense and he was scared. Hands had been on him and now were gone. His legs had gone numb. Suddenly there was that scent that he would recognize anywhere. Chris. Chris was here. He turned slowly and tried to make out the dark figure of the man he knew so well but everything was waxing and waning in and out of his vision. He took a step toward the scent that he associated with the man he . . . Oh God. He couldn’t think on that.
“Chris.” Vin slurred out. “Somethin’s wrong with me.” His eyes rolled back.
Chris caught him as he folded.
J.D. sighed and slouched a little further down in the chair he had appropriated outside of the saloon. He was on duty and could have been sitting in front of the jail but didn't feel like it tonight. The street was quiet and the smoke from the watch fires drifted lazily over the town in the still air. It was just nippy enough to make him shrug down into his coat a bit but not enough to move to one of the fires for warmth. The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses washed over him from the saloon behind him but the young Sheriff kept his eyes pointed outward toward the darkened street.
J.D. was contemplating another stroll around town when movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Chris strode carefully out of the alley next to the Post Office, balancing a large bundle over one shoulder. The gunfighter was trying to maintain his balance by throwing one arm out to his side to offset the heavy weight thrown over the opposite shoulder. J.D. realized suddenly that the heavy bundle was a man and in the next instant recognized the man in question as Vin. Jumping to his feet, the young man raced to his friends side.
"Chris! What happened? What's wrong with Vin?"
Chris spared the concerned Sheriff a quick glance as he continued his determined journey toward Nathan's clinic, staggering every few steps and correcting himself under the dead weight of the limp man slung over his shoulder.
"Don't know," he panted. "Get Buck and . . . meet me at Nathan's."
J.D. sprinted away.
Chris slowly made his way, step by measured step, up the stairs to the rooms Nathan kept above the livery. By the time he reached the top, he was breathing heavily. Hauling an off-balance, limp Vin, no matter how scrawny he supposedly was, was not an easy task. He reached out and tested the doorknob and was relieved to find it unlocked. A few more steps into the darkness, lit only by the dim glow of the street fires, and Chris flopped the inert man onto the clinic bed. He would have liked to have been gentler, but he just didn't have the strength left to lower Vin in an easy manner. He was catching his breath, observing the sprawled form of his friend, when he heard boots pounding up the stairs. A moment later several bodies burst into the room. J.D. had fetched Buck as requested and, whether by design or happenstance, Ezra and Josiah as well.
Josiah immediately went about lighting the three lamps scattered about the room. Buck looked down upon the inert tracker and turned toward Chris.
"What happened, Chris? I'm guessin' he ain't passed out drunk or we wouldn't be up ta Nathan's?"
Chris shook his head. "I'm not sure. He wasn't makin' any sense and then just keeled over. Said there was something wrong with him." The gunslinger left out how he had found Vin and what was going on at the time. That wasn't anybody’s business and he was still trying to sort through the implications himself. Looking up at the men around him he focused back on the problem at hand. "He say anything to you boys about not feelin' good?"
Buck shifted from one foot to the other while Ezra frowned thoughtfully. J.D.'s eyes grew wider. Josiah was nodding to himself as he spoke first.
"He didn't say anything but I don't believe he's been quite himself today. I found him sitting outside of the general store and for a moment he thought he was in Durango. Struck me as real odd at the time but I thought he was just caught up in a memory. Even so, I was thinking I might mention it to Nathan when he got back." As he related the events, Josiah moved forward and began to remove Vin’s gun and boots, settling him more comfortably on the bed.
Buck nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, he seemed real hungover this mornin' at the jail. Cantankerous as a bear with a sore paw. Then he went out back and got sick in the alley. Me n' J.D. just thought he'd tied one on real good last night and was still moonin' over that pretty little married gal." Buck looked over to the younger man for confirmation and J.D. nodded his head vigorously. Ezra ran his hand through his hair and sighed.
"I must admit that I, too, thought Vin was out of sorts earlier today and passed it off as simple distraction over recent events . Looking back on it now, I fear what I was seeing was part of a deeper problem. He was cleaning his guns in a clumsy manner and fumbling about with his bullets as if he were besotted. I know that was not the case and I asked him if there were anything amiss but he assured me that he was fine. I should have known better." The gambler shook his head resignedly, a scowl marring his handsome features as he watched Chris frown at the various accounts of Vin's strange behavior.
Chris had to admit to himself that he had dismissed the tracker's belligerent manner as well, not wanting to watch the young man make a fool over himself over the Richmond woman and, he was ashamed to acknowledge, because he just didn't want to deal with Vin's foul mood. He shoved his hat back and scratched absentmindedly at his hair before blowing out a frustrated sigh.
“Ok, I’ll sit with him for awhile and see if he comes around. Maybe he just needs a good nights sleep or something. You all go on back to whatever you were doing. No sense in us all sittin’ around watchin’ a man sleep and we‘ve got a town full of rowdy cowhands to tend. Buck, check in with me at daybreak. If nothing’s changed by then, you’ll need to go out to the McNally’s and tell Nathan. Bring him back if he can come.” He waved his hand in dismissal, watching as Josiah finished settling Vin under the covers as the rest of the peacekeepers filed out.
It was almost two hours later when Vin stirred. Chris had blown out all but one of the lamps and the low glow of the one remaining sent dark shadows flickering about the room. The gunfighter was dozing lightly in the chair next to the bed, head nodding and jerking upright again every couple of minutes. As the restless motions in the bed next to him registered, he leaned forward and spoke softly.
“Vin? Vin, it’s Chris. Open your eyes for me. C’mon now. Up and at em’.”
Vin’s long lashes fluttered on his cheeks and he moaned softly, turning his head toward the voice that he recognized. Slowly, as if weighted by lead, his eyelids rose and the tracker gazed uncomprehendingly upward for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Normally, Vin came awake instantly and alertly, ever aware of his surroundings and prepared for anything. The fact that he was so sluggish told Chris that the younger man was still under the weather. ‘Not right’ was the thought that flashed through his mind. He quashed that thought quickly, unwilling to think on such things just yet. Vin was still gazing about in bewilderment.
“Chris?” the soft mumble of Vin’s raspy voice slid over his lips like a sigh. “Chris?”
“Yeah, Vin. I’m here. Whattya need?” Chris leaned over a bit, forcing himself into Vin’s line of sight. The tracker blinked up at the older man in confusion, raising his hand slowly toward the face looming above him. Chris waited patiently for the injured man’s fogged mind to clear but when Vin’s hand reached his face, fingers caressing lightly along the skin of his cheek, the gunslinger jerked back in consternation. “Vin, hey. Vin, it’s me, Chris. You with me?”
The bemused look on the tracker’s face turned to a sad resignation. “I’m with ya, Chris. I’ll always be with ya,” he whispered to himself, barely loud enough for Chris to hear. Vin’s eyes screwed up in pain then, and the hand that had recently grazed Chris’ face with such tenderness suddenly clutched at the hair on the tracker's hair in agony. The other hand joined it and the low sound of agony deep in the tracker's throat seemed to be wrenched from his very toes. He threw his head back, his teeth clenched so tight that the muscles of his neck stood out in stark relief.
“God! Why ain’t I dead!” Vin panted, more aware of his surroundings for the moment. “M’ head’s exploding!” He slit his eyes open the barest minimum, taking in the man sitting next to him. “Chris, please, just kill me. M’ head’s comin’ off. Never hurt this bad ever b’fore. Don’t know what’s wrong!” He rolled onto his side, clutching at his head frantically before rolling back again, and then he was heaving, his stomach trying to turn itself out, it seemed, although there was nothing to bring up.
Chris sat by helplessly, aware that he could do nothing to ease the pain. He fetched a cloth from Nathan’s workbench and dabbed at the bit of bile that dribbled from Vin’s lips after the dry heaving had stopped but could do nothing else but watch his friend toss helplessly in the throws of his monstrous pain. The blankets that Josiah had so carefully placed over the unconscious tracker were now tangled hopelessly around his writhing torso. Chris was working to untangle them when Vin abruptly went limp again. The gunslinger didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried. He decided on both.
Buck left at dawn.
Vin woke twice more before noon. The first time he roused, awakened by the anxious lowing of the departing cattle herd, he spoke in a strange language that Chris guessed to be Kiowa. He’d heard Comanche a time or two and it didn’t sound like the same wording. Vin seemed to be talking to someone who wasn’t there when he just drifted off again. It unnerved Chris.
The second time shook him even worse. He looked up to find the younger man simply staring at him with an unfathomable look that Chris couldn’t place. There was pain and longing, fear and bewilderment all wrapped up in a gaze that shouted with a want that the gunfighter couldn’t comprehend. Vin never made a sound, but simply held Chris’ eyes for a minute or two before sliding once more into unconsciousness. Chris had to leave for awhile after that. Get some air.
The others had stepped in from time to time with coffee or the offer of companionship but he had sent them away. Now he called for Josiah to come sit with Vin while he went for something to eat. He didn’t see Ezra or J.D., knowing that they both were probably still abed, Ezra out of habit and the young Sherriff because he had been on duty all night. Chris found himself happy with the solitude, needing some time to sort out his thoughts. There was something going on with Vin beyond the obvious head injury but Chris couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something that Vin, in his befuddled state, was expressing. Whether the younger man thought he was in a different time and place when he was speaking to Chris, the gunfighter couldn’t ascertain. Obviously that was the case when Vin was speaking in Kiowa but Chris didn’t get that impression the other times. It bothered him. With a heavy sigh he scratched at the stubble on his face, then pushed away from the table and made his way back toward the clinic.
Upon entering, he raised his eyes at Josiah in question. The preacher rose heavily. “He came to for just a moment. He was in a lot of pain. Called for you but fell right back to sleep again. I think . . . I think this is beyond anything we can do for him, Chris. Nathan may be able to help but . . . I fear this one may be in God’s hands.” Josiah looked away, out the window at the bright sunshine that was streaming in, then turned his gaze toward the floor, fists clenching suddenly in frustration. He blew out a sigh. “He must’ve taken a powerful blow to his head when he came down that hill.” Josiah opened his mouth to say more but stopped, shook his head and simply strode out the door. Chris watched him go in silence before taking his place again in the chair by the bed.
It was mid-afternoon when Vin came around again. His hands automatically went to press against his forehead again, the screwed-up features of agony writ upon his face easy to read. Chris shifted forward in his chair again, laying a comforting hand on top of Vin’s. The tracker tilted his head slightly to the side, slitting his eyes open just enough to see the blurry face of his friend haloed against the afternoon sun’s ambient light. With a great effort, Vin composed his face, placing his hands down at his sides again, forced his eyes to focus, and looked Chris in the eye.
“I think we both know that somethin’s goin’ on in m’ head, Chris, and it ain’t good.“
Chris simply nodded, his face unreadable. “I know. Nathan’s comin’, though. We’ll see about getting you fixed up, Vin. You know we’ll try everything we can.”
Vin held the gunfighters gaze, breathing quickly and heavily with the pain hammering away in his skull. “Maybe . . . maybe it would be best just to let things be.” A small, bitter grin touched his lips at the look of shock on Chris’ face. “It would solve a lot of my problems. One of yours, too, although you don’t know it.”
Chris leaned forward, a thundercloud of fury clouding his face. “What the HELL do you mean by that! Don’t you give up on me, Tanner. You’ve scrambled them brains of yours good, that’s for sure, but you can’t think we’d be happy to see you dead. I know we haven’t seen eye to eye lately but how in the Hell could you think I’d . . . “ he ground to a stop, eyes flashing in anger. Vin was panting by now, trying to hold the pain at bay. He finally gave in and clutched at his head once more, giving a harsh cry as he ground the palms of his hands against his temples.
“Jist leave it, Larabee. Leave it be. Fuck! God! I can’t take this anymore! I . . .”
Once more his eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped boneless against the mattress. Chris found himself breathing hard himself, looking on helplessly at the pale, pain-twisted features of the young man in front of him. Vin’s words were confusing and frustrating, angering Chris. And scaring him. He blew out a heavy sigh and collapsed back into his chair, rubbing his face wearily and looking longingly at the clock on the mantel. God, how much longer until Nathan could get here?
Chris jerked awake, his senses instantly alert. Footsteps, hollow sounding on the wooden step, were advancing quickly toward the door. A quick glance outside revealed the last, lingering rays of the sun painting the sky a dazzling array of pinks and orange. Straightening in his chair, Chris placed his hand on the butt of the bone handled peacemaker at his hip. While the odds of whomever were approaching the door being an unwelcome visitor were slim, it never hurt to be ready for the unexpected. Especially when he had a wanted man lying senseless in the bed next to him.
Chris relaxed back into his chair when Nathan stepped into the room. The healer paused for a brief moment, taking in the scene with a keen sweep of his eyes, before moving into the room.
"Got here as quick as I could. Mrs. McNally's fever broke this afternoon. I couldn't leave her before I knew she was going to turn the corner. You do understand that, don't ya?" Nathan studied the dark-clad gunfighter with concern. Chris sighed wearily and ran a hand through his sandy-colored hair before nodding in resignation.
"Yeah, I know you gotta do what's right, Nathan. I'm just glad you're here now. Vin's been in and out of it since last night. More out than in and when he's with it, he ain't always makin' sense. He had to have hit his head on the way down that damn hill a lot harder than anyone thought."
Nathan nodded sympathetically as he moved to light the wicks on the three lamps in the room. The pungent scent of kerosene wafted across the room. "Yeah, that's what Buck said. He told me all the things you and the others took note of. It sounds like a concussion, at the least. I'll know more when I get a good look at him."
Settling the glass chimney on the third lamp, the healer moved to his still patient, pulling up a chair and settling himself beside the bed opposite of Chris. Taking one of Vin's wrists in his hand, Nathan fell silent for a moment, reading the tracker's pulse like a blind man read Braille. He then placed the wrist gently back onto the bed and repeated the process with the other wrist as Chris watched in bemused silence, an eye cocked in confusion as the New Haven mantel clock filled the quiet room with its steady ticking.
"It's his head, Doc, not his hands," Chris finally murmured.
Nathan smiled slightly and opened his mouth to reply when boots once again clattered up the stairs and paused only briefly before the door. When it swung open, Buck was standing there, slightly out of breath.
"Got your horse put up, Nathan. How's he doin'?"
Moving into the room, Buck eyed the supine tracker with a frown on his face. Nathan took up again. "As I was going to say, I was feelin' his pulse, Chris, to see if it was even and strong on both sides. If they ain't, then somethin' in his head is broke bad and affecting how his body works. In the war, I seen men hit in the head with mini balls that left 'em paralyzed on one side of the body, or maybe just a leg or an arm or sometimes they wouldn't be able to speak so good after they woke up." The healer didn't mention all the head injuries where the patient failed to wake up at all, but lay like a breathing corpse until they slowly withered away and died. Chris had said that Vin had been awake from time to time, even just for moments, so that was a good sign. He saw Chris’ and Buck's eyes widen in alarm and hurriedly continued. "He's got a good, strong pulse on both sides. At least for now. That's good. That's real good."
Chris' chair creaked as he settled back again, his body relaxing slightly. He hadn't even realized that he had stiffened up. Nathan leaned forward then and picked up the kerosene lamp sitting on the bedside table. Leaning over Vin's head, he brought the lamp close to the tracker's face with one hand and pulled his right eyelid up with the thumb on his other hand. Chris and Buck found themselves unconsciously leaning forward, too. As the warm, golden light hit Vin's opened eye, the pupil contracted quickly. Nathan nodded in satisfaction before repeating the action on the left eye. This time the pupil contracted, but slower than the right. Nathan frowned.
"What?" Chris blurted out, acutely aware of every nuance of their resident healers actions and expression.
Nathan sat back, replacing the lamp on the table. "His left eye seems a little sluggish. It means he's definitely got something going on but I don't know how serious. Help me sit 'im up."
Chris complied, scooting onto the edge of the bed and pulling the limp tracker up while Nathan supported Vin's head. When the patient was more or less upright, held in place by Chris' strong arms, the healer began a gentle exploration, both by sight and by feel, of Vin's head. When he reached the right side of Vin's head, the side closest to Chris, he paused, frowning. Buck watched as Chris unconsciously mimicked the expression. Nathan looked to the gunslinger.
"Let's lay him down on his left side. I need to look at the side of his head a bit more."
They quickly repositioned the insensible man and Nathan parted Vin’s long hair as best as he could over a spot on the side, slightly above and back of his ear. They could all see a visible swelling and dark bruising of the scalp through the thick tresses of auburn hair. The healer probed gently at the contusion, eyes thoughtful and solemn. When he finally sat back, the frown on his face alarmed the other men.
“Nathan?” Buck whispered.
Nathan finally looked up at his two friends and shook his head wearily. “From what y’all are sayin’ he’s been getting slowly worse, bit by bit. I can’t tell for absolute sure, but I think he’s bleedin’ inside his head.” The shocked looks on Chris and Buck’s face reflected his worry. “I ain’t gonna lie to ya, it’s serious. Damn serious. I don’t feel no soft spots under that swelling, which would tell me he got his head stoved in, but that don’t mean he ain’t got an injury under the bone. The way he’s been acting tells me it’s more than just a concussion. I seen lots of head injuries in the war. Worked for a man, Dr. William Keen, for a while during that time. Man was a genius with head injuries. Saw a lot. For now, we’re goin’ to keep Vin real quiet. I’ll give ‘im some willow bark tea for the pain, but I can’t give ‘im laudanum or morphine cuz it’ll just hide what symptoms he’s got and I need to know what all is goin’ on with him. Buck, I’ll need to get somethin’ into his system to keep him goin’. Could ya go ta Inez and see if she can make up some good, rich beef broth? I know he won’t wanna eat, but he’s gonna have to. Chris, tell the others that Vin needs peace and quiet so, while I know they wanna visit n’ all, I need for them to stay away. For now. I’m hopin’ that the bleedin’ will stop and it’ll heal up on its own with time. But . . . “ he paused, then shook his head. “We’ll see.”
Around midnight, Vin had his first seizure.
Buck slid into the chair across from Chris with a heavy sigh, signaling Inez as he settled himself. The saloon was quieter now that the trail herd had moved on. Noon lunch should be peaceful enough. Except that Chris looked like a thunderstorm waiting for a place to happen. Buck watched uneasily as his friend took another good slug of the cheap rotgut that he seemed to be drinking for his lunch. Chris' lips skinned back off his teeth in a grimace as the fiery, bitter liquid burned its way down his gullet.
Inez set a beer and a plate of tamales and frijoles in front of Buck, shot a perplexed glance at the brooding gunfighter and turned away. Buck studied the meal in front of him for a moment before turning his eyes toward his friend.
"J.D. said Vin had some kind of fit last night?" he ventured cautiously. Chris just took another slug of his whiskey. The silence stretched for a long minute before the gunfighter mumbled despondently.
"Had another about two hours ago."
Buck shook his head slowly and shoved his food away. "Damn."
"The fucking bastard is going to up and die on me," Chris growled, reaching for the whiskey bottle once more. Buck felt his stomach drop at the morose tone in his friends voice. As much as the man in black seemed to court Death himself, he feared its attentions toward the people he cared for. Chris was a sore loser, to be sure.
"Chris, you know Vin's a fighter. Hell, that kid's as tough as old shoe leather. A little bump on the head's not going to keep him down. He ain't gonna hang up his fiddle."
"I don't know, Buck, he's not been right. I'm not sure he wants to fight," Chris murmured as he stared at the amber liquid in his shot glass, pondering the recent strange behavior of the young tracker. "He told me last night that it would be better off if he died. Does that sound like someone who wants to fight?"
Buck stared at Chris, brows lifted. "Well, no, I guess that don't seem much like the Vin we both know. But he's still in there. Just a bit higgledy-piggledy at the moment." He fluttered his hands for effect. "He'll come around, you'll see."
Chris continued his stare down with the shot glass. "He thinks he's gonna hang. Told him that wasn't gonna happen but I don't think he believed me. Said I was gonna help someone hang him or some such. Didn't make much sense. Seems like he'd rather die like this than take the chance of hangin'." Just the thought of a rope around Vin's neck made something hard and sharp twist in Chris' gut. Buck contemplated his uneaten food, a scowl marring his handsome features.
"Can't say as I blame him there. I've seen a few hangin's and it's a helluva way to go out. Last one I saw was in some little shithole of a town in the Oklahoma panhandle. Some poor sod got caught with a young local lad pirootin' in the livery. A mob drug the stranger out of there and strung 'im up from the rafters in the saloon. The kid lit out of town and never looked back."
A sudden flash of memory crashed through Chris' head; of Vin shoved up against the wall, the hard hands of a total stranger fondling him in a haze of lust. He felt the color drain from his face in an icy flush.
"Chris?" Buck leaned forward a bit, alarmed at the frozen look on his friends face. Chris placed his unfinished shot of whiskey back on the table hard enough to slosh a few drops out onto the tabletop and rose abruptly.
"Gonna go check on Vin," the words slipped out in a distracted whisper, then the gunfighter strode out of the saloon. He didn't follow deed to word, however, but slipped around the corner and headed for Vin's wagon. He had to think. Little bits and pieces were coming back to him now that Buck had opened another possibility up to him.
He’d hardly made it half-way to Vin’s wagon, however, when Mary Travis caught up to him. Stepping out of the newspaper office at just the right moment to catch sight of him (and wasn’t that well planned, a tiny, little voice in Chris’ head sniped) she hailed him down and fell into step next to him. Placing one hand delicately upon his sleeve, she allowed him to escort her down the walk.
“How is Vin doing?” she asked solicitously, smiling up at him in a most charming manner. If it had been under different circumstances, Chris might have played the game. Right now, though, he was out of sorts and shaken with a nagging suspicion that he really didn’t want to think about. The idea had its teeth into him, however, and refused to let go. Chris looked down into Mary’s bright, smiling face and could only feel irritation.
“He’s holding on. Going through a rough patch, Nathan says, so we’ll have to see. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mary, I’ve got some things to attend to.” He brusquely shook her arm off and strode away, certain that the daggered looks he was receiving should have left his back bloody but unable to care.
Upon reaching Vin’s wagon, Chris sat himself on the tailgate and shook his head wearily. He didn’t even know why he was here, really. Why he had to come here to think. Maybe it made him feel closer to his young friend. Maybe by sitting amongst Vin’s things, he could get a better idea of what was going on inside that mysterious head of his. Chris didn’t know and didn’t care.
He thought of Vin’s strange mood on the trail back to town, surly and short tempered. His bitter assertion that he had wanted Charlotte to “fix something in him” and that he had “figured it out”. Then there was Vin’s fear that he was going to hang, and not for a murder but for something that Chris, himself, would be willing to participate in.
He thought back to that surreal moment he had found Vin fighting off the attentions of that large cretin in the alley and the gunfighter was once again filled with a homicidal rage. But over that, he heard again the words of Vin’s attacker.
[“You know you want this. I seen the way you were lookin’ at that stud bull you got your eyes on. I know you. You ‘n me are alike.”] Chris’ stomach roiled. Had that man seen something in Vin that Chris had missed? The strange look Vin had given him from his sick bed, the caress of Chris’ cheek, the words [“I’m with ya, Chris. I’ll always be with ya,”] were all pointing to a conclusion that Chris didn’t want to make.
He felt suddenly sick and the thought slithered down his spine, coiling in his stomach, cold and hard, that maybe . . . maybe things would be easier if Vin died.
Chris stepped out into the main street a bit later only to see Josiah striding determinedly toward the clinic. A small spark of fear skittered inside of Chris’ chest.
“Josiah, what’s up?” Chris asked.
The preacher turned his head and nodded in acknowledgement to Chris, but didn’t break his stride. “Good, I was looking for you. Nathan wants us all to come up to the clinic. Didn’t say why.”
Chris felt the spark of fear burst into flame. Forget what his head had been telling him only moments before. He knew in that instant that he didn’t want Vin to die. Even if Vin was . . . like that. He would just learn some way to deal with it. Somehow. It was better than seeing a fine man, a good friend, dead. Maybe it was his upbringing that had made him like that. Maybe he learned it from the Indians. Maybe . . . maybe it didn’t matter what made him like that. Chris would keep his secret. He knew that, now.
Buck and J.D. emerged from the jail and joined them. Ezra was already ahead of them, halfway up the stairs to the clinic. Once at the top of the steps, they stopped, fanning out on the balcony as Nathan stepped out, motioning them to stay where they were. The men looked somber, knowing that to be summoned like this couldn’t be good.
Nathan stepped away from the door and settled against the railing, letting the others arrange themselves around him as they would. He studied his boots for a moment before lifting his head to look around at his fellow peacekeepers.
“Well,” he said heavily, “Vin ain’t gettin’ any better. Fact is, he’s gettin’ worse. He’s had a coupla more fits in the last two hours. The rate he’s goin’, if they continue like this, they’ll kill him before another day is done.” Nathan observed the shocked faces of his friends. “I’m gonna have to do something about it but I wanted to talk to y’all about it first.”
The five men looked about them uncertainly. Surely nothing could be so bad that Nathan would have to ask them for permission before he did it? They returned their faces to the dark healer. Nathan pressed his lips together for a moment before continuing.
“I’m gonna have to trepann him.”
The blank looks from all but one of his friends were overridden by the shocked gasp coming from Ezra.
“Trephination! My good sir, you must be joking!” the gamblers eyes were wide and afraid. “Good God, Nathan, you can’t be serious?”
Chris looked from Nathan to Ezra, seeing the determination on one face and the fear on the other. “What’s trephination, Nathan?” his voice was hard, brooking no nonsense. It was Ezra who spoke up, though.
“Mr. Jackson wants to cut a HOLE through Vin’s skull!”
The stunned looks on his colleagues faces turned to a jumble of comments and questions overlaid in a cacophony of unintelligible noise. Nathan held his hand up for silence but it was Chris’ stone cold eyes that quieted the men.
“You care to explain this, Nathan?” Chris asked, his voice sibilant and deadly.
Nathan shivered but refused to break eye contact with the dangerous gunslinger. He kept his voice calm and matter-of-fact as he explained for Chris’, and everyone else’s, benefit. “Trepanning, or trephination,” he cut his eyes quickly to Ezra, “has been around for a long, long time. I seen it done a coupla times during the war when I worked for Doc Keen. He was brilliant. He drilled a small burr hole in the head of a soldier to let out the blood that was collectin’ under the skull. Ya gotta keep the hole open for awhile, keep the scab from formin’ over it, to let the old blood out. It stops the blood from pressin’ down on the brain and killin’ someone. He had a real fancy tool, called a trephine, that he used to make the hole, but it weren’t much more than a hand drill same as we can buy down at Watson’s hardware.”
Nathan looked at the concerned faces around him, sighing forlornly. “Look, it’s all we got left. I do this and maybe Vin has a chance. I don’t, and he dies, simple as that.”
Chris looked thoughtful for a moment, then faced Nathan again. “You said you saw it done a couple of times. Did it work both times?” he asked.
Nathan bit his lip, then shook his head in regret. “No Chris, it didn’t. It worked once but the other time the soldier didn’t make it. It’s not a sure thing, but it’s better’n no chance at all.”
They all looked to Chris. He grit his teeth. Why did it have to be him that made this decision? He looked defiantly up at the men surrounding him. “Fine.” he snapped. “Do it.”
They all watched, stunned, as Chris stalked away, down the stairs and toward the saloon. Finally J.D. broke the silence.
“Boy, “ he breathed, “Vin’s gonna be pissed at you for cutting off his hair . . .”
Chris stared morosely down into the amber liquid sloshing about in his shot glass. Waiting for word from Josiah or Nathan on the outcome of Vin's surgery was wearing on his last nerve. Buck shifted in the chair across from him, sighing despondently before draining his beer and signaling for another. Across the way, Ezra played a desultory game of cards with one of the outlying ranchers who had come to town for supplies and bank business. Somewhere or other, J.D. was making the rounds about town. A shaft of sunlight crept infinitesimally across the scarred wood planking of the saloon floor, softly glowing motes of dust dancing lazily in its beam. And the waiting continued.
Buck sighed again.
Chris shifted his gaze from the unfinished drink in front of him to his oldest friend, then back to his drink. Emotions and concerns that he thought he had settled with himself before Vin's surgery had oozed stealthily, like oil under glass, back into his subconscious. He had been happy in his ignorance and wished heartily that he had never figured out what he was becoming increasingly sure was the truth. He cursed his capricious thoughts. It was simple, he told himself firmly. Vin was his friend. He could accept this . . . this thing because he admired and respected Vin. Trusted him with his life. That's all that should matter. What Vin did in private was his business, just as Chris kept his personal matters to himself. They were both intensely private men. What difference should it make what Vin did behind closed doors. And yet . . .
And yet, Chris couldn't hide that tiny quiver of uneasiness that lodged in his belly. Had he missed something? Vin never did hang around the ladies much, but, with a bounty hanging over his head, Chris knew the tracker had to be extra vigilant. He'd seen Vin eyeing the occasional woman. Hadn't he? Had he? There was Charlotte, of course. But apparently that was a mistake in more ways than one, according to Vin. And the way Vin had looked at him, the way Vin had touched his face so tenderly.
Chris felt his face flush. No! It couldn't be. Vin couldn't . . . what would give him the impression that Chris . . . no . . . Vin had been out of his head at the time. He hadn't known what he was doing. Right? Chris's head was reeling. How had things become so fucked up? He still didn't want Vin to die. That thought had been fleeting and shameful but how was he going to reconcile himself with the new view he had of his friend?
He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to be so confused. Damn Vin anyway for messing up a good thing. He’d never been so comfortable with another human being in his life except maybe for Sarah. In some ways, he was even more comfortable with Vin because, for sure, some of the ways of women were just downright too mysterious to figure out. He felt at peace with Vin at his side. Vin was like . . . like coming home. They fit together so well he could almost finish Vin’s sentences. Then Vin had to go and pull a fool stunt like this, getting all mixed up about things. The son-of-a-bitch was ruining the best thing he‘d ever had with a friend. Damn the fool!
Buck's soft voice interrupted his seething emotions. "Whattcha thinkin' on so hard there, Big Dog?"
Chris raised his eyes once again to his friends, searching those blue eyes. "Can I ask you a question, Buck?" he asked quietly. Buck's eyebrow rose in curious surprise.
"Back in the Oklahoma Panhandle, when they hung that guy, what'd you think?"
"Huh?" Buck looked blank. Chris tried again. "When they hung the guy that was, a . . . you know, did you think hangin' him was the right thing to do?"
Buck face fell, then flushed. "Hell, no, Chris, I didn't agree with what happened! What kind of question is that? Nobody deserves to go out like that just for a little tickle and poke, even if they were two fellas. I thought you would have known me better'n that. Why are you askin' somethin' like that anyway?"
Chris scrambled to come up with an answer that would satisfy his curious friend. "I've been thinking on it since we spoke about it and I wondered how we would handle something like that if it happened here. Guess I just need to know where you stand, is all."
Buck nodded his head knowingly. "Good thinkin, pard, us bein' the "law" and all." He paused a moment to take a sip of his beer. "You know how I was raised, Chris. I saw more things than any kid ever had a right to see. Hell of an education, though!" he cackled merrily.
Chris shook his head in exasperation. "Buck, you tellin' me that you saw . . . you know . . . two guys . . ." he trailed off uncomfortably. Buck sobered up and gazed at his friend thoughtfully.
"Well, " he looked around him carefully, then leaned forward conspiratorially. "When I was 12, we lived in a brothel in St. Louis. Real nice place. I helped with the housekeepin'. The dishes, the laundry, keepin' the woodbox full, that sort of thing. The front parlor had a real fancy bar, all dark, polished wood and shiny brass. Some of the customers used to like a drink or two before choosing their lady for the evenin', ya know?" Chris nodded and Buck continued. "We had this bartender, his name was Alonzo but we just called him Al. He was a good bartender but that ain't the only reason why he was there. He was young and pretty, biggest eyes you ever did see, kinda like Vin's only brown." He didn't notice Chris's slight twitch. "Had glossy, black hair and a killer smile. Nicest guy you'd ever want ta meet. He was there for the occasional man who came in lookin' for somethin' a bit . . . different, if ya know what I mean."
Chris nodded again, remembering again the lust in that idiot cowboys voice as he called Vin 'the prettiest thing'. A flash of anger again coursed through his system but he quashed it and turned his attention back to Buck.
"So I asked him once," Buck was saying, "what it was like, makin' love to another man? I was all fired curious about everything at that age, ya see? Anyway, he said love was love and lips was lips. Now don't that beat all? I don't know how anyone can want some hard boned, flat chested fella when he can have a soft, sweet filly with big pilla's to lay their head on but to each his own, I guess."
Buck fell silent and they both went back to staring into their drinks. And waiting.
The sun had been down for over an hour when Josiah finally pushed his way through the batwing doors of the saloon. Close on his heels came J.D., fresh off of another watch round, his eyes as big as saucers but trailing the preacher as silent as a ghost. Josiah signaled Inez for a whiskey before slowly making his way toward the table occupied by Chris and Buck.
Chris tried to read the information that he sought from Josiah's impassive face but the answer remained hidden from him. His thoughts raced in a frenzy of conflicting emotions and he acknowledged to himself with a painful truth that there was still that small kernel of thought that said “I wouldn’t have to think about this any more if . . .”
Ezra quickly closed out the hand of poker he played and joined the others as Josiah wearily lowered himself onto a chair. J.D. sat down nervously, then jumped up and began to pace. Buck opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again, unwilling to start the conversation. The preacher sighed gustily and looked around at his gathered friends.
"He's still alive."
A profound sense of relief swept through the assembled men and, as a man, they seemed to slump a little in their chairs. Inez placed an empty shot glass and a half filled bottle of Red Eye in front of Josiah before gripping his shoulder momentarily in compassion. Chris was surprised to see the slight tremor in Josiah's hand as he reached for the bottle.
"You alright there, Josiah?" he asked.
Josiah threw the shot back, grimacing slightly at the burn as it went down.
"Brothers, I don't ever want to see something like that again."
J.D.'s eyes grew wide. "What'd Nathan have to do?"
Josiah's eyes swept around the table as he poured himself a second shot. "Nathan shaved a spot on the side of Vin's head." His eyes cut to J.D. in amusement. "I think at first he was thinking to shave it all off but then he got to thinking on what you had said and decided that he didn't want to risk pissin' Vin off any worse than he had to." he chuckled to himself and the others grinned, as much at the humor of it as in relief that they could laugh now.
"Then he sliced a big flap of skin back on Vin's head and scraped a big clump of bruised blood away." Josiah noticed that Ezra looked a bit squeamish already. Buck leaned forward, concern shining in his kindly eyes.
"Didn't that hurt Vin?"
Josiah shook his head. "Vin never woke up during any of this. That's how we knew we were doing the right thing. He's so far gone now that he couldn't wake up. If this don't work . . ."
Quiet descended on the friends for a moment before Chris spoke up quietly. "Go on."
Josiah nodded and took a quick sip of his drink before continuing. "Nathan had that new drill from the hardware store all polished up as shiny as a new dime and had part of it soaking in carbolic. I held Vin's head real still and Nathan started drilling, turning that drill real slow. I don't think I've ever seen that man so scared." Ezra was definitely green now. J.D. didn't look any better and Buck's eyes were wide and awestruck. Chris sat in grim silence. Josiah took another sip of whiskey and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
"Nathan just kept going. He's a brave man, gentlemen. A damn fine man. I can tell you right now that I wouldn't have been able to do what that man did tonight. Drilling into Vin's skull like that. And the strength it took! It ain’t an easy thing, drilling slow into bone. That man is a marvel, that’s for Damn sure. It was all I could do just to stay there and hold Vin's head. When Nathan thought he was getting close to breaking through the bone, he slowed down until he was just making half a turn at a time. He was so worried that he'd push too hard or go too fast and push that drill down into Vin's brain." J.D. shivered and gulped.
"I know, son, makes me shiver, too." Josiah sympathized. "When he finally broke through, we knew it was the right spot. All this clotted, dark blood came rushing out. Now it's just a matter of waiting again. Seeing if this'll do the trick and get some of the pressure off of Vin's brain."
Ezra shuddered dramatically. "I swear that has to be the most barbaric recital of events I have ever had the misfortune to listen to. I need a drink."
J.D. perked up immediately. "I was telling Miz Travis all about it and she said she'd heard of tre . . . trefun . . . "
"Trephination." Josiah supplied helpfully.
"Yeah, " J.D. said, "trephination. She said it's been around forever. The ancient Egyptians did it and Hipp . . . Hippocrates and a bunch of other famous people!" he concluded, proud that he had remembered the famous healer's name.
Josiah smiled at him indulgently while Buck just rolled his eyes. Chris grabbed his drink and rose silently, slipping out of the saloon and away from the distractions of a suddenly loquacious J.D. Standing hipshot against one of the porch supports, he studied the watch fire lit streets for a moment, letting the eddies and currents of thought drift aimlessly about in his mind. He didn’t turn when the saloon doors parted and disgorged Ezra onto the boardwalk, nor did he acknowledge the gambler as Ezra straightened his cuffs meticulously before heading determinedly toward the clinic. Ezra was a strange one, he mused. Just when you thought you had the slippery bastard figured out, he did something to completely fuck up your current view of him. Chris didn’t know what the gambler was up to and, frankly, he didn’t really give a damn right now. He was too damn tired. His head hurt from all the thinking and his body ached from all the worry. For tonight, as far as Chris was concerned, the whole world could go straight to Hell. He tossed back the rest of his drink and left the shot glass on the porch railing. He didn’t want to think about Vin anymore tonight. He was alive. He would leave it at that for the moment.
With a weary sigh, Chris pushed himself off the porch support and headed resolutely for his bed.
Chris eased the clinic door open the following afternoon and peered inside. Nathan glanced up and, catching sight of his friend, gestured him onward into the room. Chris peered down at Vin, taking in the even breathing and peaceful sleep.
“He doing OK?” he asked quietly. The healer nodded.
“Yeah, I think so. Hasn’t had any more seizures. That’s a good thing. He was a little restless a while ago. That tells me he’s thinkin’ of waking up pretty soon. I sure hope that’s the case ‘cause I need to get somethin’ more down him than just a bit of water and broth.”
Chris nodded in agreement before moving to the chair next to the bed.
“You need a break, Nathan. I can sit with him for awhile.” Nathan considered the offer for a moment before smiling.
“I think I’ll take you up on that. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and then I do believe I’ll try to catch a little shut eye in Vin’s room. Come get me if you need me.”
Chris pulled a book from a pocket in his duster and settled back as Nathan exited. He opened the book to an earmarked spot and stared at the pages, trying to jump back into the story. His eyes, however, kept drifting back to Vin’s face, studying the planes and contours of the young man’s features. Someone had shaved him (most likely Ezra, knowing his finicky nature) and his features lay relaxed and open in sleep, long lashes fluttering occasionally on his cheeks.
Chris was struck for the first time with the realization of how young Vin really was. Intellectually, he knew that Vin was a good 10 or 12 years younger than himself but, truthfully, he had never really thought about it or acknowledged the fact. Vin had the wisdom and experience of a much older man and Chris tended to think of him as an equal in all things. This view of the younger man disturbed him.
Would he even be thinking along these lines if he had not discovered Vin’s “secret”? Would he be sitting here, staring at the unlined, handsome face of his friend if his thoughts had not been recently disturbed with this new aspect of Vin’s personality?
That Vin was a handsome man was already a given. Acknowledged in an aesthetic way and dismissed, until the incident in the alley had shaken Chris’ perspective. For the first time he truly looked at Vin. He tried to see what the man in the alley had seen. A “pretty boy”. Yes, certainly Vin was pretty, if he could admit such a thing to himself. Pretty and damn deadly! The tracker didn’t fit the idea Chris had in his head of what one of “those” kinds of men should look like.
His features were certainly striking enough. Vin was handsome in a classic Adonis sort of way with clean lines, long lashes and the most God-damned beautiful eyes Chris had seen on either man or woman. His lean frame was strong and wiry, muscled in a pleasing way but with an agility and grace that made him dangerous in a brawl and deadly in a knife fight.
This is where Chris’ mind took a detour from the pretty boy that that son of a bitch in the alley must have seen. He knew what kind of man Vin was. Deadly, calm, tough. A survivor. A man other men could count on in a fight and feel damn fortunate that Vin Tanner was on their side and training that eagle eye and lethally accurate rifle on someone else.
How to fit this new Vin into his view of the old? This was the problem that Chris struggled with. How could this tough, honorable man be a lover of other men? Chris’ preconceived notions were taking a beating and he did not appreciate it.
What bothered him even more was that, looking at the sleeping man in front of him, he could actually see what another man might see in the lean tracker. Maybe. He could definitely believe women of all ages falling all over themselves
to attract the attentions of a man like Vin Tanner.
A small voice in the back of Chris’ head said “if women, why not men?” but he ruthlessly squashed it. The fact that the thought even crossed his mind angered the gunslinger. Why the Hell did Vin have to go and upset what he considered to be a perfect friendship? From the moment they had agreed to go with that damned wagon train, things had started to fall apart. First that bitch, Charlotte, and now this. Why couldn’t things have just stayed the same? It was different now and nothing that Chris told himself was going to fix it. Not really. He could try to ignore it all he wanted but Pandora’s Box was open now and there was no closing it.
When Nathan returned three hours later the sun was just beginning to set. Chris stood at the window gazing moodily at the long shadows creeping slowly along the street and barely acknowledged the healers entrance. Without a word he turned from the window and strode out of the room, heading determinedly for the saloon. Mary tried to summon the gunslinger to her side with a cheerful wave of her hand a bright “hello” from down the street but was doggedly ignored.
Nathan entered the boarding house dining room the next morning as Chris, Buck and J.D. were tucking into their breakfast. There was a distinct nip in the air and the feel of autumn, such as it was in the Southwest, seemed to hang in the periphery of conscious thought.
Buck pulled out a chair for Nathan and smiled up at him. “How’s the patient this fine morning?”
“He woke up last night.” Nathan replied, a self satisfied smile gracing his features.
J.D.’s grin lit his face up. “That’s great! Gee, Nathan, I swear you’re as good a doctor as any of those fancy old guys back East with a piece of paper on the wall. Better even! I never heard of anyone ever drilling a hole in someone’s head. That’s like something out of a dime novel or something. Right, Buck?”
Nathan ducked his head and smiled at the young man’s effusive praise. It felt good, though. Damn Good. Buck was nodding in agreement and Chris’ gaze was full of respect. Nathan was filled with a proud satisfaction.
“It was a big risk, J.D., but I guess it paid off. He’s still pretty confused and groggy at the moment, but he was able to drink some broth and take some cornmeal mush. He knew who I was. That’s good. That’s real good.” Nathan signaled the waitress for service as Chris leaned in a bit.
“What happens now?”
“Well,” Nathan mused, “I’ll leave the hole open for the rest of today, then let it clot naturally. It ain’t very big so it’ll heal itself over and the bone will grow back. You’ll never notice it in a month or two.”
The waitress set a heaping plate of ham, fried potatoes and poached eggs in front of the healer before moving off to fetch coffee. Chris waited until Nathan had enthusiastically downed a few bites before continuing with his questions.
“You said Vin is confused. What did he say?” Chris’ stomach coiled in dread. Nathan frowned thoughtfully.
“Not much of anything, really. He just, you know, looks around like he doesn’t quite know where he is and all. Although he said my name, so I know he’s all there, if you know what I mean. It ain’t unusual for someone with a head injury to lose some time. I don’t know if that’s the case with Vin but if it is, he may never get back the time that he’s missing. Seein’ as he was in so much pain, I’m hopin’
He don’t remember the last coupla days. It would be a blessin’ for him.”
Chris slumped in his chair and wished fervently that it was he who could lose the memory of the last few days.
Ezra shuffled the deck of cards efficiently without conscience thought as he studied their brooding leader. Chris sat apart from everyone in the smoky saloon, a silent but tangible barrier erected about himself that dissuaded anyone from joining him. The gambler turned to Josiah, his poker partner of the moment, and dealt the cards with an effortless precision.
“Our esteemed colleague seems to be struggling under a heavy burden. He has been out of sorts for several days now.”
Josiah glanced at Chris, then back to his cards, squinting in the dim light of the kerosene lanterns. “He’s worried about Vin. It’s only natural.”
Ezra shrugged, one elegant eyebrow raised. “But our young friend will be fine and Mr. Larabee continues to brood. He seems to prefer the company of his bottle to the company of our injured friend as well. I find it mildly . . . eccentric.”
“Chris is a complex man, Ezra,” Josiah responded, “and they were sparring with each other quite a bit during our sojourn with the settlers. I’m sure that whatever it is, they will work it out. I’ve never seen two men more in accord with each other than those two. They are meant to be boon companions for life, Lord willing.”
Ezra cocked his head and eyed Josiah skeptically. “I fear, dear fellow, that you have an over optimistic view of life. It has been my experience that such gifts as that which you speak of are not for the likes of men such as ourselves.”
Josiah simply smiled at the gambler. “Oh ye of little faith, my friend. There is none so blind as he who will not see. Especially something that is right in front of you, if you but hold out your hand.”
Ezra rolled his eyes at the whimsical preacher and discarded an eight and a queen.
Buck stepped out onto the porch in front of the jail as Chris exited the saloon. He watched his old friend stride determinedly to the livery and exit a short while later with Pony in tow. The lean gunman swung himself up into the saddle and gigged the horse slightly to bring him up to the front of the jailhouse. Looking down at Buck, Chris face betrayed nothing but determination.
“I‘ll be back in a coupla days or so. If you need me, I’ll be in Purgatorio. You’re in charge.” And with that, he swung Pony around and headed out. Buck eyed his departing back curiously.
“Well, shit. What the Hell is that all about?” he murmured to himself.
Vin’s eyes lifted slowly, waiting to test the light levels in the room before committing himself to full awareness and the possibility of stabbing pain through his eyeballs and tender head. He was therefore pleasantly surprised that the wicks had been turned down in the lamps and the soft glow that suffused the room bore no undue stress on his already overburdened brain.
A glance to his left also revealed two pieces of information. It was night, and probably very late judging by the diminished glow of the watch fires light through the windows, and Chris Larabee sat slouched in the chair next to his bed, bottle of Rye in hand.
Vin eyed the gunslinger silently as he was being eyed in return. This was the first he’d seen of his friend since he had awakened three days ago. He’d tried to ask the others when they visited about the gunslingers absence but they seemed to be as much in the dark as Vin, only stating that he’d lit out for Purgatorio. To Vin, that was never good news.
“Somethin’ up, Chris?” Vin croaked out, somewhat dismayed by the timber of his rusty voice.
Chris eyed his friend warily, looking for evidence that the man in front of him was still the man he had known just a few days before. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, really. Vin looked the same, despite the white linen bandage around his head and the rather pallid shade to his skin. He took another swig of the cheap Rye before offering it to Vin with a careless shrug.
The tracker’s eyebrow crept toward his hairline but he shifted himself carefully upward until he was reclining at a decent angle for drinking. Taking the bottle in a slightly shaky hand, he knocked back a slug of the fiery liquid, feeling the burn of it all the way to his stomach. He grimaced before turning carefully back to his enigmatic friend.
“That’s a better pain killer than the horse piss that Nathan was feeding me.” he said, eyes crinkling slightly in amusement. Chris only nodded, eyes on the wall next to Vin. The tracker frowned. “Everything all right? Everyone OK?”
“Everyone is fine, Vin. Except for you.” Chris answered uncomfortably. Why was he so ill at ease? He was acting like Vin was going to jump out of the bed and bite him. All he was doing was making the situation worse with his recalcitrant behavior. He force a smile, still not able to meet Vin’s eyes. “Just don’t like to see you layed up. Ain’t used to seeing you hurt, I guess.”
Vin nodded uncertainly. Chris was keeping something from him, he could tell. “Yeah, still cain’t believe it, although it sure feels like I been scalped sure enough.” He reached a hand toward the bandage swathing his head but dropped it back to the bed before touching it. “Gimme another sip of your rot gut?”
Chris obliged and watched surreptitiously as Vin’s lips wrapped around the bottle neck, then hastily averted his gaze in a panic. The room felt suddenly warmer and he shifted uncomfortably. When he looked back up, Vin had him pinned with a steely blue gaze.
“Out with it, Chris.” he ground out. “Somethin’s stuck in your craw so you might as well spit it out afore it chokes you.”
Chris tensed, turning his head away. Damn it, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to hide his misgiving from this man, of all people. For the first time he cursed the complete empathy that sometimes seemed to lay between them.
“What’s the last thing you remember before wakin’ up here?” he questioned quietly. Vin frowned, thinking back.
“I . . . I remember leavin’ the wagon train.” he murmered hesitantly. “Riding. We stopped for the night . . . um . . .” Vin’s eyebrows crinkled in frustration, then rose in indignation. “Nathan made me take off my shirt in front of Mary!” His face tinged slightly pink at the memory and Chris grinned a small, genuine smile for the first time since this had all started. He watched as Vin struggled to retrieve another memory before finally sighing and shaking his head slowly.
“That’s it. Can’t remember anything after that.” Vin turned to face Chris squarely. “Why? What’d I do?”
Chris held up a hand. “Nothin’, unless you consider fainting dead away in my arms normal.”
Vin growled low. “I didn’t ‘faint’. Maybe I passed out but I didn’t faint. Ya make it sound like I swooned away like some silly girl.”
Chris grinned again. “Well, it sure as Hell looked like you were swoonin’ to me.” he teased. For a moment, everything felt back to normal between them, until the memory of Vin passing out in his arms after he had chased Vin’s would be rapist off flashed through his head. His grin faltered. Vin caught the change on his friends face and frowned.
“Chris,” he said in a low voice, “just get it over with. Somethin’ must a happened ‘cause it’s written all over your face.”
Chris looked away, studying the shifting shadows thrown by the lamps for a moment. Taking another swig of the Rye, he turned back to Vin and faced him squarely. “I found you in an alley fighting off some big cowboy from a passing drive. I sent him packin’ just before you took your nose dive.” He paused, uncertain on how to proceed. Vin furrowed his brows in confusion.
“So? I was fightin’ with some idjit. Why’s that got you all tied up in knots? Ain’t the first time I’ve brawled with some mouthy cowboy.”
Chris grimaced. “It wasn’t a fight he was wanting with you, Vin.” Just the memory of that moment, that bastard’s hands on Vin, shot such a brief and intense homicidal fury through Chris that it could still shake him all these days later. His emotions toward that event disturbed him almost as much as what it had revealed to him about Vin. He was afraid to pick them apart. Shoving the roiling thoughts back down, he turned to Vin, who had gone silent.
He watched the confusion on his friends face slowly give way to comprehension. Vin’s face drained of all color and a look of horror and fear crept over it. Chris was startled. In all the time he had known Vin, he had never seen stark fear in his friend. It was disconcerting. Vin was the strongest man he had ever met. This entire situation was showing him more sides to the man than Chris had ever expected, or wanted, to see. He hastened to reassure Vin.
“Nothing happened. I got there in time. You were trying to fight him, Vin, but you were pretty sick by then. He run off and you passed out.”
Vin raised a shaking hand and scrubbed it across his mouth, drained suddenly. He closed his eyes briefly, resting his head back on the pillow and trying to gather his scattered wits. The pain in his head, recently dulled to a low throb, ratcheted up a notch.
“That ain’t all, though, is it?” He stretched out a hand to the bottle of liquor and Chris obliged him, watching as Vin took a healthy swig of the fiery Rye. Chris wasn’t sure why he was doing this or why it had to be now, but it had been eating away at him and Chris was not a passive person. He liked to face things head on. He found this to be no different. A few days of rutting mindlessly with the whores in Purgatorio had done nothing to clear his head. He had come here straight upon his return, slipping in while the town slept. The gunman plunged on.
“When I was coming into the alley, he was talking to you. Saying things.” Chris watched as Vin’s face froze, a look of trepidation stealing across it. “He said you were ‘the same’ as him. He could tell.”
Vin’s previously white face suffused to red, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “What the Hell’s that supposed to mean, Larabee! You got somthin’ to say, you just spit it out ’cause I’m getting mighty tired of this dance.”
Chris knocked back another swallow of Rye, feeling a reckless irritation flooding his veins. Fuck this. Vin was right. He had been pussy footing around the subject for days now. He turned a hard glare on the younger man.
“Ok, Vin. You told me the morning we left the homesteaders that you had figured it out. What did you figure out, Vin? You got something you've been hidin' from me?”
Vin stiffened, then turned his face away, staring at the far wall as he responded in a low, dead voice.
“I don’t think so. I think I got a right to know what kind of man I’ve been callin’ ‘friend’.”
“Fuck you, Chris. You ain’t gotta know nothing’. Get the fuck outta here.” Vin bit out, face still turned away. His hands were clenched into white knuckled fists, breath coming in short, angry puffs. Chris sneered at him.
“Only woman I ever seen you with was that wagon train whore and you been givin’ me funny looks these last few days. Saying things that don’t make any sense. Got something you wanna tell me, pard?” The last word was drawled out sarcastically, biting and bitter.
The knowledge that he may have acted in an inappropriate manner during the last few days horrified Vin. His heart felt like it was trying to split in two as a cold, oily fear swept through him. Chris continued, the Rye in his system adding a nasty bite to his words.
“Thought I knew you, Vin. Guess I was wrong. You hid it real well, too. I never would’ve guessed. Took a knock to the head to get your guard down. Now I’m thinkin’ that while you might’ve had my back, it’s been my backside you been wantin’ all along. That true?”
Vin’s head pounded and his vision swam but he ignored it. His life was crumbling around him and he could only think of one way to make it right.
“You ain’t gotta worry about nothin’,” he ground out, “cuz I’ll be gone by first light.”
Silence fell, Vin‘s heavy, pained breathing the only sound in the room aside from the steady ticking of the mantel clock. Chris blinked, confused, as the anger abruptly drained out of him. Vin leaving? Was that what he wanted? The problem solved, or at least removed. The gunslinger shifted uncomfortably at the thought of his life without Vin in it. Wouldn’t it be simpler? Easier? Or just more cowardly? The silence stretched uncomfortably.
Chris shifted nervously on his chair. “Vin . . .” he started, but nothing would come out. Vin was still turned away, staring morosely at the far wall, refusing to acknowledge Chris. The older man suddenly stood, feeling the need to pace.
“I . . . I didn’t mean . . . I just want to figure out what’s going on with you, that’s all. I want to understand, I guess. Maybe make some sense of it. What happened? Why’d you have to go and . . . and . . .” he trailed off uncertainly.
Vin’s head came up, his blue eyes blazing. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ, Chris! You think I want this? You think I just woke up one mornin’ and decided I wanted to be a Nancy boy? It ain’t a choice, Chris, it just is.”
Chris shook his head in bewilderment. “Maybe livin’ with the Indian’s . . .?” Vin sighed and looked down at his shaking hands.
“They didn’t do nothing’ to me to make me this way, Chris. I think I’ve always known, in a way, but I just didn’t want to see it. The People, they got different ways on lookin’ at it, maybe, but that don’t mean they helped me understand myself any better.” Vin looked up at Chris again, and the gunslinger was shaken at the misery in those big, blue eyes. “A lot of the People respect the choice of a man to go with another man. Some, like the Cheyenne, don't hold with it any more than the white folk. The Sioux think a winkte has special powers and the Kiowa would have accepted it easily enough but someone's got to be the squaw in the relationship and you know damn well it would have been the outsider and I sure as Hell ain't no ones squaw."
Chris was surprised that he could find amusement at the moment but the thought of the tough-as-nails, stubborn, irritating man in front of him being subservient to any man made the gunslinger lips curl up at the corners. Vin must have found some confidence in that small gesture because he continued.
"You might think it's funny, Chris, but the Two-Spirit has gotta do the woman's work and be with the maidens n' everything. It's downright embarrassin'. Tell you the truth, between the white man's ways and the different ways of the People, I'm still just as confused as ever. I’ve tried bein’ with women. It’s OK, I guess, but it don’t . . . it isn’t . . . ah Hell! I don't want to be this way but I don't know how to not be." He looked down at his hands again, falling silent again, face pinched and white. Chris pondered the situation for awhile before passing the bottle of Rye back to Vin again. The anger he had tried so hard to fan into flames before had receded to a weary resignation. This wasn’t going to go away and it wasn’t going to get fixed. He watched Vin take a large swig of the cheap liquor and wondered about the young man before him. Another stray thought chased itself across him brain.
"So . . . have you ever . . . you know. With a guy?"
Vin jerked his head up and stared incredulously at Chris. "Jesus, Chris!" His face burned. "No. No I ain't. I been tryin' too damn hard to be normal. I wanted it to be right between Charlotte 'n me so bad. Ya gotta believe that. It just wasn't. I been tryin' so hard to ignore this for so long that I thought I could make myself be what I'm supposed to be but it ain't gonna work. I know that now. I'm just gonna have to learn to live with it and if that means I gotta leave town, well . . . I guess I can learn to live with that, too." he finished in a whisper.
Silence reigned again as Vin passed the bottle back. The first faint signs of the rising sun began to present in the Eastern sky; a faint lightening of the darkness and a few stirrings of birdsong. The mantel clock ticked monotonously along.
Finally Chris sighed.
"I don't want you to leave, Vin. I've gotten too used to having you around. No one else has figured this out and I won't be lettin' on. I'll learn to get used to it, I guess. We'll just go on like this never happened.” he lied convincingly. Vin pressed a hand to his aching head and shrugged wearily.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I can’t think right now.”
“Well don’t. We’ll just forget about this. You just . . . “ Chris trailed off.
“Just what, Chris? Pretend that everything is good between us? That I’m ‘normal’ like you?” Vin whispered, slanting his eyes up at the gunman again.
Chris swallowed uncomfortably. “Yeah. Something like that. We’ll work it out.”
Before Vin could respond, footsteps approached steadily up the stairs. Both men looked at the bottle of Rye in Chris’ hand, then at each other before turning guilty faces toward the door.
It took another week before Nathan would let Vin out of the clinic. Even then, the tracker found himself watched like a hawk by the other men. He wasn’t allowed to ride for another 2 weeks. Vin fell back into an easy rhythm with the other six men but, try as he might, he could not quite find that easy camaraderie with Chris again. Chris seemed to try, but there was a reserve now where there hadn’t been before. When Nathan’s Father was put on trial for murder, it was easier to ignore the tension between them as they dealt with the angry citizens of Eagle Bend. After it was over, Chris spent a lot of time out at his shack. Vin took to spending a lot of time out at Nettie’s, mending fences and enjoying the old woman’s company. When the next crisis hit town, Chris seemed happy to have Vin at his side again. Mostly. And so it went.
Every once in a while, however, Vin would catch Chris looking at him, eyes heavy lidded in thoughts that the tracker could not decipher. Inevitably, Chris would either pay court to Mary Travis soon after or (more likely) disappear down to Purgatorio for a few days. The strain in their relationship was subtle, but it was there and the others had noticed. Mostly they chalked it up to Chris still being angry with Vin for his behavior with Charlotte on the wagon train, but occasionally, Josiah or Ezra would watch Chris as Chris watched Vin and wonder if there was a deeper problem afoot.
Vin began to eye the far off horizon with a certain yearning, wondering if he had made a mistake in staying. He knew, deep in his heart, the reason he had. He’d have already left, not willing to torture himself with something that could never be, if it weren’t for that occasional curious glance, the tilt of a bemused head after one two many shots of rutgut or a lingering look from across the street. It had been enough to hold him here. Until that day on the street, with Josiah locked up in jail for the supposed murders of those girls and Chris had said “How well do we know anyone?”. He had looked right at Vin and they both knew it wasn’t Josiah they were talking about. Vin knew then that Chris wasn’t going to ‘get over it’.
Vin began to hoard his pay to buy supplies for a long trip up into the mountains, making plans and going over his equipment carefully. He figured with the next paycheck, 30 days off, he’d have enough to keep him decently supplied with dry goods through the summer and well into the Fall. His hunting skills would see to the rest.
When he stepped out of the saloon on that Spring day a good 6 months after he’d tumbled down that blasted hill, he was fairly reconciled with his chosen path. Mostly. He looked up to see a fine carriage outside of the hotel and a woman dressed in white talking to J.D. and Buck. Frowning slightly, he made his way across the street. Buck had on his usual dazzling smile, the one reserved for lovely ladies, and bobbed his head eagerly.
“Why sure, Miz Gaines, don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll have ol’ Chris back here in two shakes of a lambs tail, won’t we J.D.?” The young man in question nodded his head vigorously and added, “Yep, we sure will! Now don’t be giving that fifty dollars away to anyone else, cause me and Buck’ll take care of it for you.”
Vin frowned thoughtfully. Looked like another situation in the making and his skin crawled a bit. Chris was in Purgatorio. Again. He’d left abruptly the day before yesterday. Vin didn’t know why this time. He didn’t know if it was something he had done or said or for something else entirely. It didn’t really matter. The tracker made his way past the carriage and on toward the general store. He needed to price some bullets. Whatever was brewing with that woman and Chris wasn’t any concern of his anyway.
The End. For Now.
Note: Yes, I know. I left it hanging. Don’t string me up by my toes. I like to follow canon as closely as possible and we all know that Chris and Ella have to do their thing before canon is done and fandom can take over.
# William Williams Keen (1837-1932) After graduating (M.D., 1862) from Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, Keen was a surgeon for the U.S. Army in 1862–64 during the American Civil War where he specialized in soldiers neurological injuries. The next two years he did postgraduate work in Paris and Berlin. On his return to the United States, he became a lecturer in surgical pathology (1866–75) at his alma mater, concurrently teaching at the Philadelphia School of Anatomy. He also taught at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia (1884–89) and was a professor of surgery (1889–1907) at Jefferson Medical College.
Keen was one of the first surgeons to successfully remove a brain tumor (1888). He also assisted the American surgeon Joseph Bryant in removing the left upper jaw of U.S. president Grover Cleveland(1893) for a malignant tumor. The operation was performed in total secrecy on a yacht in Long Island Sound and was a complete success. For more info on this amazing man and his pioneering work in the area of neurosurgery, go here: http://www.faqs.org/health/bios/3/William-Williams-Keen.html
# http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trepanation Now, I don’t know if Keen ever performed a trephination but the chances are pretty damn good that he did at least one, if not more. Whether or not any of the occurred during the Civil War is purely a matter of literary license.