They were still a dozen miles from Four Corners when JD's horse pulled up lame. He didn't think it was serious, but it was still dark when he checked the animal over, and he couldn't see much. It was probably just plumb worn out, and even though he would have sacrificed the horse for Vin, the beast just plain refused to go any further. He hated to just leave it, but he knew the odds were that it would probably follow him at its own pace, or at least still be there waiting when he came back for it. There was plenty of forage around, and horses could sniff out water if there was any nearby. If there wasn't, well, it wouldn't matter if he stayed with the animal or not.
If the others were still looking for Vin, then it meant that only Nathan knew he was missing. Nathan didn't dare leave because he might be needed if they brought Vin back, which meant no one was going to be looking for him any time soon.
Of course, they wouldn't bring Vin back, because Vin was with him... Call him loco - and Buck certainly would - but he was damned proud of himself for being the one who had tracked down the tracker. That, and the stalwart sense of optimism that his mama had always said would be his undoing, made his next decision for him. He'd drag the travois himself. He was strong for his size. He could do it....
Like a lot of JD's ideas, this one had seemed like a good one at the time. He'd actually managed to drag Vin a good ten miles in the past six or seven hours. By then the sun was up. It was only mid-morning, but it was already hot enough that JD could feel the strength evaporating out of him along with the gallons of sweat he losing from the exertion.
He'd tied the ropes from the travois around his chest, and they were rubbing him raw, even through his shirt. His shoulders ached from the strain, and his feet had become two little sharply focused points of agony. Ever since he'd learned to ride, he'd never walked any considerable distance, and he'd already been footsore from his trek out of the malpais. Worn thin by the lava cinders, his boots were insufficient protection from rocks and hot sand. He knew he had blisters, and probably bruises, too, but he didn't dare take his boots off to look. For one thing, he didn't want to know for sure. For another, he feared he might not be able to get them back on if he did.
Unfortunately, the sand and the constant tugging had also worn down the poles on the travois, and with just two miles to go, it had fallen apart.
He sat down next to the side of the road and seriously fought the urge to cry.
Vin was asleep, he thought, but he wasn't really resting. Although his eyes were closed, he was twitching and fidgeting. That was odd, because by nature, Vin was just so still that you sometimes forgot he was there. JD was usually the twitchy, fidgety one, although at that moment, he was almost too tired to move.
He opened his canteen and took a generous swallow. He could have finished it off with no problem, but he fought the urge to do so.
He put his hand on the side of Vin's face. Just a light touch, because he didn't want to scare him awake.
"Vin?" he said softly and held the canteen to his lips. "Have some water Vin..." He roused enough to take a few swallows, and when he was done, JD did drink the rest of it and steeled himself for the task ahead. He knew he could do it. It wouldn't be easy, but he could.
And who knew? Maybe he'd get lucky and someone would happen by with an extra horse, or better yet, a wagon.
He smiled to himself. Josiah had once told him that if you spent too much time looking on the bright side, the light would blind you to reality.
Well, screw reality. Who needed it?
"Vin?" He shook Vin's shoulder lightly until he opened his eyes. "You think you can get up on my back, Vin?"
Vin's eyes narrowed, like maybe he was considering this, but, JD didn't know anymore if Vin really understood anything that was said to him.
He grabbed Vin by the arm and pulled him to his feet. He was wobbly, but he did seem to be trying to stand by himself. JD thought it would be nice if he could walk a little, but quickly realized that wasn't going to happen.
Every muscle in his body protested violently as he draped Vin's arms over his shoulders and leaned forward so that the other man's weight was on his back. When he was sure he had his burden balanced properly, he hooked his arms behind Vin's knees and lifted him up. He'd have to walk bent slightly forward, because he couldn't rely on Vin to hang on if he stood upright.
Vin's head dropped onto his left shoulder, so that his filthy hair was against JD's cheek, but it was just a minor discomfort that almost went unnoticed amidst a whole lot of bigger ones.
God, his feet hurt, and with the added weight, he felt like nails were being driven into them with each step. His calf muscles and the back of his thighs began to cramp up almost immediately, and as hot and sweaty as he was already was, the added heat of Vin's feverish body pressed against him added to his discomfort.
On the other hand, Vin was probably the lightest one of his six friends. He was damned lucky it wasn't Nathan or Josiah or Buck he was having to tote around.
He'd make it to Four Corners. Like John Henry in the song, he might drop over dead when he reached his goal, but, he could do it.
Nathan Jackson supposed he'd taken to healing because he hated how it felt when you knew someone was in trouble and you were helpless to do anything. Ironically, it was because he was the "doc" - as Vin insisted on calling him no matter how many times he corrected the man - that he was sitting in Four Corners on his thumbs while the others were out looking for Vin.
Josiah had been the first to return. He hadn't given up hope, but he'd retraced the trail to Ridge City and back via Baker's Pass, and had run out of places to look sooner than the others. Nathan imagined they would all start to come home now, one by one, with Chris Larabee the last one to give up. Hell, if he didn't find Vin, Chris would probably keep looking for him off and on for the rest of his life. Things stuck to Chris like that, and Chris liked Vin. Everybody liked Vin, but he brought something out in Chris that the others didn't. Chris was a hard, cold man. Fate had made him that way. But Vin's quiet, easy presence seemed to calm and soothe him. With Vin, he would smile, even laugh occasionally. It'd be a damned shame for a friendship like that to end in a tragedy.
Josiah sat quietly beside him, sipping coffee as the two of them considered whether or not the preacher should go looking for JD. No question there would be hell to pay when JD's self-appointed guardian rode back into town and discovered the kid was gone, too. Buck Wilmington was like a mother hen with one chick when it came to JD Dunne. The two of them argued with each other constantly, but nobody was fooled.
Nathan tried telling himself that JD was a grown man, albeit a very young grown man. He was long on determination, but occasionally short on common sense, and it wasn't Nathan's fault that he'd slipped out of town in the middle of the night. Hell, he hadn't really expected him to stay there and wait, although he had hoped he would. The real reason he'd been left behind in the first place was because Porter had slugged him in the head and knocked him silly. Nathan didn't think it was a good idea for him to hit the trail so soon after something like that. No one had bothered to tell JD that, though. They had just left without him. Sometimes, he wondered if he was the only one who could see how badly the kid wanted to belong. Maybe he saw it because he'd felt that way himself a time or two, and maybe the others didn't see it because each in his own way had accepted that JD was a part of them, and didn't see the need to let him know it.
The healer sighed. He never thought it was a good idea for any of them to go riding off before they got over being hurt, but damn it, they did it anyway. All six of them. He didn't know why the hell he bothered.
That wasn't true. He did know.
It was because if he were missing, those same six stubborn, pig-headed, no-sense men would be out in that Godforsaken desert looking for him. Maybe no one else in the world cared if he dropped of the edge of the earth, but they did.
He was worried sick about the kid, and he didn't mind admitting that it made his heart ache to think that something might have happened to Vin. The former was a strong possibility, but the latter was almost a certainty. Vin's horse had found its way back to town without him, and it was still carrying almost everything that was essential to Vin's survival in the wilderness. Nathan had left most of it with the hostler, but he'd taken Vin's harmonica for safekeeping. He didn't know why. Vin drove him insane with it sometimes. Nathan didn't think he actually knew how to play it, but that didn't stop him from blowing on the thing whenever the whim struck him.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. If Vin was gone, they were all going to need healing of a different kind than he had to offer....
"Holy Mary and Joseph!" Josiah gasped, rising from his chair.
Nathan looked up at him and then followed his gaze. He had to blink his eyes to make certain he saw what he thought he saw, but he was out of his chair in an instant and running with Josiah on his heels.
Townsfolk stopped in their tracks to stare at the spectacle of little JD Dunne staggering down the street with Vin Tanner on his back. When Nathan and Josiah reached him, he looked up at them, his youthful features etched with pain and fatigue.
"Can you take him, please?" he asked softly. "I'm really tired..."
Nathan was lifting Vin off his back even before he finished the sentence. JD stumbled forward and Josiah caught him and picked him up, too.
"Jesus, Josiah, put me down!" he protested, but only with his mouth. The rest of him was perfectly happy to settle into Josiah's strong arms.
Vin was alive. They were home.
The jail had two beds and no stairs, so they took the two men there. It was closer, anyway, and cut down on the opportunity for curious stares and whispered comments, which Nathan hated. When a man was sick or hurt, the first thing that went was his dignity. No need for him to have an audience on top of it.
Less charitable was Nathan's thought that JD and Vin smelled terrible, and he preferred to keep his sickroom sanitary. If he had to, he'd put them to bed dirt and all, but only if cleaning them up first would kill them.
Mrs. Travis was one on-looker who followed them, though. This was big news. Nathan didn't fault her for wanting to do her job, but he didn't want her there gawking at Vin and JD, either, so he sent her to fetch water for them. It wasn't a simple distraction. JD had been sweating - a lot - and he needed to get some fluids back into him.
JD flopped backwards onto the cot with an audible sigh of relief. The kid was completely exhausted, and didn't protest when Josiah started unlacing his shoes for him.
Nathan was surprised to discover that Vin was conscious. He didn't say anything, though, and he looked away so that he faced the wall.
Nathan knelt beside him and turned his head so they were facing each other. "Vin? Do you know where you are?"
Vin nodded, and turned away again.
JD sat up and turned to them. "He burned his hand, last night, in the fire. And he hurt his arm... there's maggots in it..."
Nathan examined Vin's hands. The right one was blistered and swollen, and under the charred sleeve of his shirt, he found the maggot-infested laceration. Josiah leaned over for a look and grunted in disgust.
Nathan didn't seem the least bit concerned about the creatures. He pulled the shirt sleeve back down and left them there.
"Aren't you going to do anything about them?" JD was appalled.
Nathan was casual. "In time. Fancy docs might tell you otherwise, but ain't no harm in a few maggots..." He started examining Vin for signs of any other injuries. "During the war, I seen men get wounds cleaned and bandaged by the best and still they got gangrene. I also seen men whose wounds were crawling with maggots heal and walk away. Some parts o' the world, they put 'em on a wound on purpose, claimin' that they'll eat away the infection."
"On purpose?" JD asked.
"Yeah," Nathan winked at him. "They pack 'em in real tight."
JD made a face. "Oh God, that's enough to make a man puke... OW!" He was distracted as Josiah pulled a bloody sock from his foot. His feet were raw in places, and now that the damage was revealed, they hurt even worse.
"Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain," Josiah grinned at him.
Nathan had turned his attention back to Vin. His pulse was weak, but steady, and he was breathing okay. He couldn't find any broken bones or tender spots that would indicate internal injuries, but his stomach felt completely empty. "You give him anything to eat, JD?" He asked.
"I tried," JD said defensively, and then his expression became somber. "When I found him, he was down in a hole. Like a cave, but straight down. He didn't have no food, or water, and he couldn't get out.... I think he was there the whole time... " He gave Nathan a worried look and shook his head. "I gave him some water, but he wouldn't eat anything. He ain't said a word to me, either."
Nathan frowned, and checked Vin's eyes. They looked okay, but he asked JD, "Did it look like he could have hit his head?" Vin did have a slight fever, but that didn't explain why he was so unfocused.
JD shrugged. "I couldn't say. It was a pretty tight space. I guess he could have. But the rock was sharp. I think he would have cut himself or something."
Nathan ran his fingers over Vin's scalp, checking for some sign of a head injury. He didn't find one, but Vin's long hair was matted with something foul and sticky. "What all did you get into, Vin?"
JD answered that, too, when it was obvious Vin wasn't going to. "That stuff was all over him when I found him. I don't know what it is." He sniffed himself. "It sure does stink, though."
"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Smells like..." Nathan didn't want to finish the sentence. It smelled like a graveyard. The foul smell of rotting death. Vin still had his clothes on. He hoped he wasn't going to find gangrene or an open belly wound on him someplace, although that would only explain the smell, not how he had gotten covered with whatever that muck was.
Mary Travis entered through the unlocked door. She had a ewer and a couple of tin cups. She poured some water for JD, who gulped it down and wanted more. She poured the other cup for Nathan to give Vin. Vin was as thirsty as JD, but Nathan only let him have a cupful. If his belly was empty, he couldn't take too much at one time.
"How is he?" Mary asked. Nathan assumed she meant Vin. He didn't know what to tell her. "I think he's gonna live," was all he said.
She seemed honestly glad to hear that. "Mr. Larabee will be relieved by that news.... and you..." she smiled at JD. "I bet you have a story to tell."
JD actually looked self-conscious, which was not something he did often. Nathan figured the kid had earned a moment of glory, but this wasn't the time. "Right now, the boy needs rest, ma'am," he nodded towards Vin, "and they both gotta get outa these dirty clothes."
Mary took the hint without hard feelings, and to her credit, she hadn't said one word about the dreadful smell. "I'll have some food sent over," she promised.
JD argued that he was fine, but Nathan checked him out, anyway. It was going to be a few days before he could walk comfortably again, but all he really needed was something to eat, a warm bath, and a good, long nap. JD was exhausted, but aware that he smelled almost as bad as Vin. And, he wanted to sleep in his own bed, not the jail, so he opted for the bath first. The bathhouse was almost next door and even though putting his socks and shoes back on was going to be torture, JD insisted he could walk.
Nathan was more concerned about Vin, who wasn't responding to anything even though he seemed aware of what was going on around him. He sat down on the mattress beside him. Vin's head was turned away from him again, and he didn't move, so again, Nathan made the other man look at him. "Vin, did you hit your head? Do you remember?"
Vin shook his head slightly.
"You don't remember, or you didn't hit your head?"
Vin's response was to roll over and turn away from him again.
Nathan slid an arm under his back. "Oh no, you ain't gonna ignore me now.... C'mon, sit up...."
Unexpectedly, Vin lashed out at him. He pushed Nathan way and then took a couple of feeble swings at him before retreating to the corner of the small cot. His eyes were wild, like he was looking for a way to get past Nathan and out of the room, and he was breathing rapidly.
Nathan made a move towards him, but JD cautioned him with an outstretched hand. "He did the same thing to me... Vin?" he said softly, scooting onto the cot in front of Nathan. "Now, Vin, you know Nathan ain't gonna hurt you, don't you?"
"JD, what's goin' on here?" Nathan whispered.
JD shrugged. "I don't know, Nathan.... It's like he's scared of us. I don't know why."
"Come on, Vin," JD said, as though it were perfectly natural for Vin to be cowering in the corner. "We need to get us a bath. We stink, especially you," he laughed softly. Vin didn't even smile, but, he relaxed, and that was something.
"Vin, you need some clean stuff," Nathan said. "Where are your clothes at?"
Vin's response was to stare absently at the burn on his hand while the other three men waited in uncomfortable silence for a response that never came.
Finally, Josiah clapped a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "I'll find him something," he said. "First let me make sure JD here doesn't fall flat on his face somewhere between here and next door."
He placed his hand under JD's elbow and helped him to his feet. The kid headed for the door taking slow, painful steps.
As Josiah prepared to follow him out, Nathan pulled him aside.
"You get everyone out of the bath house and I'll be along with Vin in a few minutes. Ain't no need for anyone to see him like this."
Josiah looked at Vin with a worried expression. "What are you thinking, Nathan?"
Nathan shook his head. "He don't look to be hurt that bad, but... I don't know what to think, Josiah... Maybe if we just get some food and water into him, he'll be fine, but first things first. We gotta get that dirt off of him. No way he can rest easy like that, and it ain't good for him."
Josiah nodded and left to catch up to JD.
Puzzled, Nathan checked Vin over again, this time lifting his shirt. He was unbelievably filthy, though, and it was hard to for him to tell what was injuries and what was just plain dirt, so he finally gave up.
He sat on the cot watching him carefully for a moment - staring at him, actually - to see if that made him uncomfortable. Vin didn't even notice. He just sat there, looking at his injured hand until Nathan gently took it in his own.
"Does it hurt much?" he asked. Vin's response was slow in coming, but eventually, he nodded.
"It'll feel better when I get it cleaned and bandaged... think you can walk over to the bath house?"
Vin didn't answer him that time. He slid his hands under Vin's arms and lifted him off the cot. He was weak and very unsteady, and he clung to Nathan's forearms for support, but he was able to stand. Nathan looped the smaller man's uninjured arm around his shoulder so he could hold him up and walk him the few steps to the next building. He supported Vin's weight easily, and it was less demeaning than carrying him.
Josiah had intercepted Mary with the food, so JD was eating and bathing at the same time. It wasn't a practice Nathan would have recommended, but the boy was starving. In fact, if he kept up at the rate he was going, they were going to have to get more food for Vin.
"Mind you don't make yourself sick, JD," Nathan felt he should admonish him, even though he didn't think that was likely to happen. He hadn't gone without food as long as Vin had. Ironically, Vin didn't even seem to notice the food.
He dispatched Josiah for his medical kit and some blankets and clean clothing for the two men, and then tried to get Vin to take his clothes off. Only when he actually made a move to do it for him did Vin make any effort to comply. But he didn't have the strength to pull his boots off, so Nathan did that for him and then ended up doing the rest. JD's clothes would need to be washed and boiled to get the stink out of them, but the best thing to do with Vin's clothing would be to burn it. Nathan doubted Vin - or anyone else - would ever want to wear them again.
Vin was so dirty that he was going to have to scrub down before he got into a tub, but it didn't take Nathan long to realize that he wasn't going to do that, either.
He sat Vin down and filled a bucket with hot water, then grabbed soap and a sponge and set to work. Whatever it was that was all over him came off easily, but underneath it, Vin was covered with scabs and dozens of insect bites, and the maggots had found their way into more than just the cut on his arm.
Vin didn't resist or seem embarrassed. Nathan would have expected him to have done both. He simply didn't seem to care one way or another, although after a few minutes he started to shiver because he was chilled. Nathan finished up as quickly as possible and then helped him into the tub of hot water and went to work on his hair. It was beyond tangled, so matted that he couldn't easily get his fingers through it without pulling at it, which Vin didn't like. He kept jerking his head away.
Nathan considered just cutting it off. That would have been the easiest thing. But somehow, the idea of doing that without Vin consenting to it seemed like an assault on his person, and whatever Vin had already been through, it was obviously enough. So, he did his best to work the lather through the snarled mass of brown curls.
JD, he noticed, was watching curiously, his own freshly-washed hair slicked back out of his face for as long as it would take to dry and flop back into his eyes. The boy's aversion to barbers was almost as extreme as Vin's.
Nathan returned his stare. "You got a problem of some kind, JD?" he asked him.
JD hadn't realized he was staring. "Uh... no." But Nathan could tell he was uncomfortable with one man doing something so intimate for another.
"JD, sometimes you just gotta do for sick folks. I'd be doin' this for you if it was needed. Ain't nothin' shameful in it."
"I didn't say there was," JD said defensively.
"No, but you were thinkin' it."
JD looked ashamed of himself, but said, "It's just embarrassing, that's all."
Nathan looked at JD sternly. "I owe this man my life, JD. It don't embarrass me none to look after him, so you better find some way to deal with it."
JD nodded. "I'm sorry." And Nathan knew he was. Maybe he'd come down too hard on the kid. The young man had been through his own ordeal, and had saved his friend's life. Nathan was about to apologize, but JD spoke first.
"Nathan?" His voice was soft, subdued. "What's wrong with him?"
Nathan had grabbed a fresh bucket of water to rinse the soap out of Vin's hair. He got the tracker's attention and told him to close his eyes so he wouldn't get soap in them. "I ain't sure, JD. It would help if we knew what happened to him..." He emptied the bucket slowly and then pushed Vin's wet hair back off his forehead. "I reckon he'll tell us when he's ready."
JD didn't say any more, he just looked incredibly sad. Nathan soaped the sponge again and worked the lather over Vin's back, chest and shoulders, careful not to scrub too hard at the places where his skin was scraped and sore. He washed the rest of him, too. It had to be done, and Vin didn't show any inclination to do it himself. When Josiah returned with his supplies, he fished out a razor and shaved the hair off his face so he could more easily see any lesions that were hidden by several days worth of beard. He'd seen Vin clean-shaven before, but it always surprised him how much younger he looked that way, and it somehow made him seem terribly vulnerable.
Some of the injuries he had were inflamed, but they weren't festering. Nathan suspected that the maggots, disgusting though they were, were to thank for that. However, now that he could attend to the wounds and keep them clean, he felt it best to get rid of the abhorrent little creatures. He set to work carefully picking them off with pair of sterilized forceps. While he did that, Josiah confiscated a small bowl of rice and gravy that JD hadn't managed to eat and tried to feed it to Vin. Vin took a couple of mouthfuls, but refused more.
Nathan had been placing the maggots in a small basin, and it didn't escape Josiah's notice that they looked a lot like the rice. He wondered if that's why JD hadn't eaten it. Vin didn't seem to make the connection - Vin didn't seem to be connecting with anything - but Josiah couldn't bring himself to force any more on him. He looked at Nathan with a worried expression. At some point, Vin was going to have to eat, one way or another, and it just didn't seem possible that he wasn't hungry.
He was thinking it would be best not to discuss Vin's condition in front of the boy, but then he looked at JD, and realized perhaps for the first time that he wasn't a child. In fact, he had succeeded where four older, supposedly wiser, men had failed. He was part of this, now - more so than anyone else, perhaps, and there was no excuse for trying to protect him from reality.
This revelation, however, turned out to be completely irrelevant. JD had fallen asleep.
Josiah hated to wake him up, but he couldn't sleep in a bath tub, and he had to dry off so that Nathan could bandage his feet. His strong, young body had finally reached its limit, though, and he somehow managed to get dressed without ever fully waking up, except for a brief moment when Josiah handed him a pair of moccasins to wear.
"Where the hell did these come from?" he frowned.
"You don't like them?"
JD looked at them and blinked his bleary, dark eyes. They were fine moccasins - made of soft deer hide and tall, like boots. They had been a gift, but the woman who had made them had woefully underestimated the size of Josiah's feet. They'd fit JD, though, with room to spare for the bandages. "No, I think they're great," he decided finally.
Nathan expertly wrapped clean, boiled bandages around the blisters and sore spots, and then sent JD on his way with Josiah to make sure he got to his room and bed okay. He was sure the kid would sleep for the rest of the day and maybe even through the night.
He got Vin out of the tub, dried him off, and wrapped a blanket around him. He'd take the bounty hunter back to his place. Physically, Vin was sick - he had a fever, he was certainly in some pain from his injuries, and he desperately needed to get some food into him. But aside from that, Nathan just couldn't see how Vin could care for himself in the state he was in. There was no question that he needed to be looked after, because he either couldn't or wouldn't take care of himself.
It was too far to Nathan's quarters to expect Vin to walk, so he carried him, returning the curious stares of thoughtless townsfolk with a cold, defiant glare that he held until they turned away.
Nathan had meant what he'd told JD. Vin had faced down a mob and saved his life - at great risk to his own. He'd watch over him as long as it was necessary.
Nathan got Vin settled into bed without any argument. Vin didn't like being indoors, unless it was a saloon, but he seemed willing to do whatever Nathan wanted him to. Josiah had hunted up a pair of drawers for him to wear, but hadn't been able to find his clothes, so it was just as well he didn't seem to want to go anywhere. Nathan bandaged his injured arm, after first cleaning the infected cut with a carbolic acid solution. It should have hurt like hell, but Vin barely winced.
He'd laid him on his stomach, since most of the more severe abrasions were on his back. What the hell could have motivated him to take his shirt off so he could be eaten alive by bugs and get the hide scratched off him everywhere? He only covered him to the waist. It was warm in the room, and the pressure of a blanket against his raw skin would be more of an irritation than a comfort.
Vin didn't ask for water, but Nathan gave it to him, and he drank it. He'd have to keep him drinking a little every few minutes until he started to pass it. It was the only way to know when he'd had enough to get his body back to a normal state.
He pulled a chair up next to the bed and placed the back of his hand against Vin's forehead. The bath had brought his fever down.
"I think you're gonna be fine," he told him, and tried to sound cheerful. Vin glanced up at him, but said nothing.
Nathan rested his hand lightly on Vin's arm. The bounty hunter was a strange one... he seemed to live in a world that touched the one around him for brief moments, but never really melded with it. Chris Larabee had recognized that soon after the two had met, and it had been clear to Nathan that somehow the tormented gunslinger was fascinated by Vin Tanner, and maybe even envied him somewhat. Vin was his own friend, his own company, and while he didn't really seem to mind others intruding into that world of his, he didn't really seek them out, and didn't mind if he was ignored entirely. Vin liked people, and got along with most of them, but, he simply didn't need them.
This was different, though. Something had happened that had caused him to pull away completely. Nathan had seen it during the war. Men who had seen or done things in combat that their minds couldn't accept. Sometimes, they came out of it. Sometimes, they didn't.
"Vin?" he said softly.
Vin looked at him, his blue eyes alert, yet somehow distant.
"What happened out there, Vin? You wanna talk about it?"
Vin shook his head, and when he looked away, Nathan knew he'd lost him again. He didn't push. Either Vin would let go of whatever it was he was holding inside, or it would drive him mad.Only he could decide which it would be.
Josiah entered without knocking.
"How's JD?" Nathan asked.
"Dead to the world... I don't think he realizes yet what a remarkable thing he did."
Nathan laughed softly. "Boy don't got a lick of sense, sometimes, but he makes up for it in grit."
Josiah nodded, "That he does." He looked at Vin. "How is he?"
"He can hear you, why don't you ask him?" Nathan wasn't being sarcastic. Josiah knew the healer wanted him to see if he could get a response out of Vin. He squatted down beside the bed so he was at eye-level with the tracker.
"How you doin.?" he asked him, and Vin was more or less forced to make eye contact with him. The blank expression on his face changed to what it had been back at the jail. He looked like he wanted to run, but Josiah would not be avoided.
Josiah reached out to touch him, and Vin's entire body tensed in response. He didn't want to be touched, didn't want anyone that close to him.
Josiah touched him anyway, gently laying one of his big hands on Vin's shoulder. Vin wasn't a big man to begin with, and he'd lost enough weight that it was noticeable. Josiah could feel his bones through his pale skin.
He looked at Nathan and shook his head.
"I'm gonna go see if I can get Maggie to make something he'll eat," Nathan said of the owner of the local boarding house. "Ain't no reason I can see why he couldn't just walk outa here, 'cept he just ain't got the strength." He disregarded the fact that Vin apparently had no inclination to do anything except lie there.
Josiah understood that Nathan wanted him to stay with Vin. The younger man watched Nathan leave, then looked at Josiah again like he wanted to say something. But, he didn't.
Josiah sat in the chair Nathan had vacated and leaned back. "I don't know what demons you've locked inside you, Vin, but the time is gonna come when you'll either have to let them out, or let them eat your soul, and that's a fact."
Vin turned his head away. He didn't move except to grip the pillowcase and twist it as if it deserved some sort of punishment. Josiah carefully placed his hand over Vin's until he relaxed again. "All in time, my young friend. All in time..."
Nathan Jackson had learned to sleep in a chair after years of dealing with the result of hot heads, short tempers, too much whiskey and loaded six-guns. He'd gotten used to it. He was a healer. Some people liked fixing things, he liked fixing people. But, it had meant many a long night waiting for a wound to stop bleeding or a fever to break - or maybe for a spirit to pass from this world into the next.
None of those reasons were why he had stayed with Vin Tanner. He had meant to sleep at the boarding house. Vin wasn't in any immediate danger. His fever wasn't high, and his injuries weren't serious. He'd eaten a bit more, although not as much as Nathan would have liked, and he'd finally had enough water that he'd needed to relieve himself. He was pretty much doing okay, at least physically. There was no need to keep a vigil at his bedside through the night.
But when he had tried to turn out the light to leave, Vin had panicked. There was no other word for it. He had grabbed Nathan's shirt sleeve, and with his meager reserve of strength, had forced his hand away from the lamp. Then he wouldn't let go. Nathan hadn't understood, at first, because it seemed so unlikely and unexpected that Vin, who no doubt had slept more nights under open sky than under a roof, would be afraid of the dark. But Nathan soon realized that wasn't the whole of it. Vin didn't want to be left in the dark, and he didn't want to be left alone.
So, Nathan had stayed. He could tell that Vin was embarrassed by his own childish behavior, but Nathan assured him there was no need to be. He wouldn't tell anyone about it. No one needed to know.
There was no conversation between the two men. Vin didn't want to talk, he just wanted someone there. So, Nathan had sat beside the bed with his worn and treasured copy of Grey's anatomy and read until Vin had finally fallen into a light, fitful asleep.
He had slept some, too, at least until his cramped back and legs began to protest and he had to get up and stretch. The sun was coming up by then. Ezra would probably be back sometime that day. Chris, though, would keep looking for Vin, and Buck would stay with Chris. He wished there was some way to get word to them, because he knew Chris was torturing himself with the certainty that Vin was dead. The man didn't have an optimistic bone in his body.
He decided to see about breakfast. The day before, he had asked Maggie to prepare a custard of eggs, milk and molasses. It was nutritious and easy on the stomach, and few of his patients who were able to eat refused it. Vin had eaten substantially more of it than he had of anything else, but it still hadn't been as much as a grown man needed. He'd see if he could get some more of it into him, and maybe something more substantial, too.
Josiah and JD walked into the dining room right behind him and pulled up chairs to join him. JD could hardly walk, but he seemed rested and in good spirits.
"We're gonna have to get you a walkin' stick just like Bat Masterson, now," Nathan said. He was teasing, but for a moment, JD seemed to be considering it.
"Is Vin okay?" the boy asked.
Nathan colored the truth a bit. "Yeah. He's doin' all right. He was sleepin' when I left."
JD, for all his youth and lack of experience, was still keenly perceptive at times. He saw through Nathan's attempt to keep Vin's condition private. "Nathan, how come he won't talk? Has Vin lost his mind?"
"You get right to the point, don't you JD?" Nathan said irritably.
"Well, you've seen how he's actin'. It ain't normal," JD persisted. "There was a madhouse near where I lived as a kid, and I gotta tell you, Vin is actin' like some of the folks they had there."
A couple of other patrons in the dining room turned towards them when they heard what JD had said.
"Son, you might want to shut up now," Josiah said casually.
JD stared back at the onlookers until they turned away. "I was just worried, that's all."
"Well, worry with your head and not your mouth," Nathan admonished him.
JD talked too much. JD knew he talked too much, and that he'd already said more than enough. He sheepishly turned his attention to his breakfast.
Josiah had dropped off JD's dirty clothes with the woman who took in wash, and had asked if she had any of Vin's things, which she did. He had also spent a good part of the evening working on Vin's boots and holster with saddle soap and had gotten them cleaner than Vin would ever need them to be. He handed all of it over to Nathan.
Nathan took the clothing, but he wanted Vin to stay in bed at least until his fever broke. He knew his friends, though. They never cared what was good for them. However, if Vin didn't have his clothes, he wouldn't have a choice, so he'd tuck them away somewhere for a day or so. Besides, he really couldn't see how it was a good idea to let the bounty hunter out on his own in the state he was in. There was a number of good reasons why Judge Travis had hired the regulators, and Nathan wasn't sure Vin could or even would protect himself if there was a confrontation, or what he would do if a situation demanded his attention.
JD wanted to return to where he had left his horse, but Nathan didn't think the boy could ride without considerable pain. That wouldn't stop JD, but then he'd be back later giving him pitiful looks with those big doe-eyes of his because he hurt, expecting him to repair whatever new damage he'd done to himself. "Wait a few hours. Give 'im time to come home on his own. Then if he don't, Josiah will go find him for you."
Josiah didn't mind being volunteered, and JD didn't argue. Instead, he announced that he'd be at the jail checking to see if there was some kind of report he should fill out concerning the human remains he'd left out on the malpais.
This was the first Josiah and Nathan had heard about remains. "Are you sure they were human?" Nathan frowned.
"Well, yeah..." JD hedged, wondering what he had done wrong this time. "Just some bones, but it was a human skull. Looked like whoever it was had his head bashed in.... or something." JD remembered how the skull had looked like it had splattered on the rock. He couldn't figure out how that had happened, but he didn't want to say anything. Half the time, when he said things that he thought were perfectly intelligent, they turned out not to be. He didn't especially mind being laughed at, but, he didn't really like it, either. "I suppose I should have covered them or something, but I had to see to Vin."
Nathan wasn't sure if this new information meant anything or not. Had Vin killed someone? It was certainly possible, but it also didn't seem likely that it would bother him as much as whatever was troubling him. All of them had killed someone, except for JD, and that wasn't because the boy hadn't tried. Still, it might be something to ask Vin about, when the time was right.
Vin's hand hurt. It was burned. He'd burned it in the fireplace.... Stupid. He was so stupid.
She was dead. Her eyes were open, but she was dead.
No. No! He was dreaming again. It hadn't been like that.
Wake up. He needed to wake up....
But he was awake, and his hand hurt, and if he opened his eyes, he'd see her there cold and stiff and dead...
No... not her. It wasn't her. It was that thing. Lon Porter. Dead and rotting and his face dropping off in pieces. Pieces in the water...
On him. In his mouth...
Oh God make it go away!
Nathan cursed his own stupidity. Vin was acting crazy, but it honestly hadn't occurred to him that the man might actually be crazy. If it had, he wouldn't have left him alone....
He found him huddled under his writing desk. A larger man wouldn't have even fit in the small space, and Vin had needed to curl himself up tight to get in there. He'd vomited on the floor, and Nathan had to step around it to get to him.
He was crying like a baby.
No, not a baby. A madman.
Nathan approached him carefully. Vin saw him, but he didn't think he really had his attention. His body was there, but his mind - if he still had one - was somewhere else. In the war, sometimes men who were in this state thought they were back on the battlefield. Later, they'd talk about actually hearing the shells and seeing their comrades fall, and feeling the dirt thrown up into their faces, even though they had been alone in a safe, quiet room.
He said Vin's name softly, but got no response.
His job had been patching up the battlefield casualties. The ones who went mad were someone else's problem further down the road. This was one of those rare occasions where he had no idea what to do. He wasn't even sure if he was right about why Vin was acting like he was. Sometimes, people just went insane, and there was no reason.
A lot of fancy doctors probably had all kinds of ideas about what he should do, but they weren't there. He knew Vin Tanner, though, and he decided that common sense and a direct approach to the problem was the best way to deal with him
"VIN!" he shouted in his most commanding voice. Vin immediately became silent, but didn't move. He just stayed there, curled up like he was trying to make himself as small as possible.
Nathan tried not to sound angry, but his voice was stern. "Stop it, Vin. You're safe. Nobody is going to hurt you, you hear me?"
"VIN! I asked, did you hear me?"
He couldn't see Vin's face - he had covered it with his arms, but his head nodded slightly.
"Come on out from under there, now..." He kept his tone of voice gentle but firm.
Vin looked at him, and then at his surroundings, like he was realizing for the first time where he was.
Nathan didn't wait for him to comply. He reached under the desk and pulled Vin out, and then brought the smaller man to his feet.
Vin raked his fingers through his long hair, looking self-conscious and confused.
"You were havin' a dream or something," Nathan said calmly. He put a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder, to let him know he was there, that this, and not wherever Vin had just been, was real. "You okay now?"
Vin looked at the floor and wiped the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand. Nathan didn't even want to imagine how humiliated Vin must have felt, but he wasn't going to let him crawl back into himself and try to hide it.
He put his hand on Vin's chin and lifted his face up. "Look at me, Vin. I said, are you okay now?"
Vin's blue eyes mirrored fear and shame, but he did look at Nathan. "Yeah," he said in a near-inaudible whisper.
Nathan was both relieved and determined. The Vin Tanner he knew was still there, and he was damned if he was going to let him slip away.
Ezra Standish did not like the trail. He didn't like the sun in his face, or the wind in his hair or the dirt on his clothes. He also didn't like sitting in the saddle until he smelled like his horse. If he enjoyed any of those things, he would have been a cowboy instead of something... well... more civilized, to say nothing of more lucrative.
Somehow, though, he hadn't dwelled on how miserable he was this time out. He had covered the road to the James spread and beyond, and all of the trails leading off of it for a considerable distance, searching for some trace of a man who was much better at communing with nature than he ever wanted to be. It had frankly surprised him how much he had hoped to find some sign of Vin Tanner. He and the tracker had very little in common, when you came right down to it, but for some unfathomable reason, if anything had happened to the diffident, unkempt and uncultured Mr. Tanner, his regret would have been sincere and profound.
He hated it when he got attached to people.
He sighed, and then smiled. They were still seven. He'd returned to Four Corners to discover Vin Tanner alive, if not exactly well, and now that he'd bathed and rested, the world had become a habitable place again.
He was even looking forward to sitting down with the six others while he cheated them out of their paltry earnings. Pity that none of them could appreciate how much skill it actually took to leave them with enough money to think they had a chance against him.
At that moment, however, he was alone in the saloon. Buck and Chris had yet to return to Four Corners. Nathan was keeping a watchful eye over Vin, and the hobbled JD was pretty much limited to the confines of the jail office. He'd promised to go there later and listen to the boy's epic tale of how he had brought Vin Tanner back from the brink of certain doom. He was certain that the youngster would embellish the saga considerably, but by all accounts, he had earned whatever accolades would be visited upon him as a result of his heroic efforts.
Josiah had been left alone to shoulder the responsibility for keeping order. Ezra doubted that that took any considerable effort. Josiah scared people just by looking at them. He was not overly concerned when the big preacher joined him with a dour look on his face.
"A problem, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asked.
Josiah nodded. "Some of James' men are in town asking questions."
"And looking for trouble, no doubt," Ezra said. "I encountered a pair of the miscreants while looking for Mr. Tanner. It does not surprise me that they would avail themselves of an opportunity to take advantage of the situation."
The rancher Stuart James had held a personal vendetta with the seven peacekeepers since they had ridden out to his ranch and apprehended the man's nephew who had escaped being tried for the murder of Mrs. Potters' husband. He thought he'd get away with it. Everyone had thought he'd get away with it. He hadn't. He was in Yuma prison, alive only because his uncle was footing the bill for the appeals that had thus far saved his worthless neck from a noose.
"Well, right now, there's more of them than there is of us."
Ezra smiled. "Since when does that represent a significant obstacle?"
Josiah laughed softly. "It always does. We're just too dumb to see it."
"What do we do?"
Josiah shrugged. "Nothin' for now. Just be prepared for trouble. JD can't get around, but he can still use a gun, and Nathan can pretty much see the comin's and goin's from his place. We just have to keep Vin outa sight for now."
Ezra bristled at that remark. He wasn't exactly sure why. "Putting our skeletons in our closets, are we?"
Josiah didn't understand.
Ezra shuffled his cards. "If Mr. Tanner has taken leave of his senses, do you think it is in his best interest to hide him away? Or would our interest merely be to spare ourselves embarrassment?"
Josiah looked at him, puzzled. "We ain't hidin' him away."
"It certainly appears that way. Nathan won't let him out of that room."
Josiah shrugged. "He hasn't wanted to leave. He... I think he feels safe there, although from what, I don't know." He stretched his long legs out in front of him. "I do know he's not safe on the streets if James' men confront him. He's so damned jumpy and confused, he'd probably shoot one of them for breathin' the wrong way."
Ezra couldn't argue with that. He'd spent only a few brief moments with Vin, but that had been enough to reveal that the man was dealing with some manner of serious emotional turmoil. Vin never talked much, he mostly just seemed to observe from a distance, even when he was sitting next to whoever had his attention. But when Ezra had last seen him, he had been so distant as to not even be there. It had been an unnerving experience for Ezra, who relied on his social skills the way the others relied on their guns. It wasn't something he could understand, and it troubled him to contemplate what could have left him in that state.
Josiah was right. Ezra reluctantly rose from his chair and pocketed his cards. A leisurely afternoon of poker would have to wait for another day. It was time to earn his pay, despite the fact that his peace-keeper's salary was barely enough to subsidize his laundry bill.
Buck Wilmington guided his horse slowly through the dusty street. The animal plodded as if its feet were made of lead, and as heavy as his heart. He rode in silence behind his old friend Chris Larabee. Chris had stopped talking to him two days earlier. It wasn't personal, this time. This time, he couldn't blame Buck for his loss, so, he chose to ignore him.
Buck didn't know why or how or even when Vin Tanner had replaced him as Chris's most trusted friend and confidant, but it had happened. In a way, he was glad to be rid of the burden of Chris's guilt and anger, some of which was often directed at him. Chris never sent the extreme emotions that boiled just below his surface in Vin's direction, though. Buck wondered if Chris sensed, like he did, that Vin would only absorb it and take it into himself. That seemed to be his way. Buck was sure Vin could handle Chris at his worst, but he also sensed that beneath his tough hide, Vin was somehow uncorrupted by the world around him. Chris could see that, too, and maybe he didn't want to spoil it.
But now, Vin was gone. Buck was sure he wouldn't have just dropped out of sight. Whether he had found Porter or not, he would have at least gotten word to them. But after a week had passed, hope of finding him alive had begun to fade. Chris had insisted they keep looking, but now, they had come to accept the likelihood that Vin Tanner was dead.
Buck wanted to reach out to his friend, but he couldn't. He couldn't deal with Chris's grief and his own. He looked forlornly at the horse he was leading behind him. JD's horse. They'd found it abandoned on the mesa, still wearing JD's saddle. The kid would have never just left the animal like that. They had combed the area for him, but hadn't found a trace of him.
It wasn't hard to put the scenario together in his mind. He had told JD to stay in town. Porter had hit him so hard he'd given him a concussion and loosened some of his teeth. When Buck had last seen him, he had been so dosed on laudnum that he wouldn't have been able to find his horse, let alone ride it.
But the kid had apparently recovered quickly, and then damned his scrawny little hide if he hadn't just gone ahead and done exactly what he wanted to, just like he always did. When was that boy ever going to learn that this wasn't play-acting in a dime novel? Pig-headed, little shit-for-brains...
Oh Jesus, how could JD be dead, too? The kid had more life in him than the other six of them combined. He'd miss Vin Tanner, whose quiet strength and easy-going disposition had brought some semblance of balance to Chris Larabee's volatile nature. But, by damn, it was going to rip the heart right outa him to loose that kid. JD - Vin, too, for that matter - was too damned young to be saying good-bye to them. It was just plumb unfair.
He felt a lump catch in his throat. So since when had life - his or anyone else's - been fair?
He and Chris were hot, dirty and hungry, but as he fully expected, the first place Chris headed was the saloon. The gunfighter would likely never say another word about Vin, like he never spoke of Adam and Sarah. But he'd never forget him, even though he'd try to drown the memory in booze.
Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea. He'd probably join him, after he saw to the three horses...
It took him a moment to accustom his eyes to the darkness of the livery, and then he found himself staring numbly at Vin Tanner's horse. The animal stood calmly in one of the stalls, a reminder that Vin really was gone.
"I see you found the Sheriff's horse," the hostler said cheerfully. "He'll be mighty glad ta see the beast. Damnedest thing I ever seen the way that kid..."
"JD's alive?!" Buck interrupted.
The hostler looked at him askance. "Well, yeah, sure. Leastways, he was ten, fifteen minutes ago..."
Buck grabbed the poor man's shoulders harder than he meant to. "Where?! Where is he?'
The hostler, nonplused by Buck's agitation, spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the straw-covered floor. "He was on his way to the jail, I reckon. Headed that way, anyhow..."
Buck left the horses and headed into the street at a full run. He almost broke the jail door off its hinges in his haste to enter.
Startled, JD dropped the book he was reading and drew his gun in one fluid motion. Luckily, he realized it was Buck before he fired off a round.
"Goddamit JD! I found your goddammed horse wandering around out in the tumbleweeds and you nowhere in sight! What the hell was I supposed to think?"
JD looked sheepish. "I went lookin' for Vin. I had to leave my horse because..."
"You went out there after I told you to stay here?! I just spent the last day and a half thinkin' your sorry young ass was lyin' out in the desert somewhere with the ants eatin' your eyes out and..."
"Is my horse okay?" JD interrupted Buck's tirade, not that it was having any effect on him anyway. Buck was always yelling at him for one thing or another. JD wasn't fooled.
Buck heaved a sigh. "Jesus, JD, why didn't you stay in town like I told you to?"
"Because I wanted to help look for Vin, and I knew I could ride where the rest of you couldn't."
Buck shook his head. "We could have lost you both, JD."
"But you didn't."
"That ain't the point. The point, son, is that once in awhile you are going to have to learn to take advice from people who know more than you think you do. And, you have to learn to consider that some folks might not want to see you dead!" He raked a hand through his hair. "Lord knows it's gonna be hard enough puttin' Vin outa our minds now that he's gone..."
"Vin ain't gone."
"... and God only knows what this is gonna do to Chris. He ain't never got over... What?"
"Vin ain't gone. I found him."
Buck hadn't planned on having to respond to that statement, so for a moment he didn't know what to say and finally decided on, "He's alive?"
JD's self-satisfied look faded a bit. "He's alive, but..."
Buck was already heading out the door. "BUCK!" JD called to him.
The urgency in the kid's voice made Buck stop and turn around. The kid never hid his emotions well, and he knew what he was going to tell him wasn't good. "What is it, JD?"
JD didn't know where to start. "I dunno, Buck. Something happened to Vin's head..."
"What? He cracked it or what?"
"No... no... he's not hurt. Not bad anyway. But, he just ain't right anymore."
Buck frowned. "What're you sayin', JD?"
"I'm sayin' don't expect him to act like the Vin we know. He's... kinda crazy now."
"What do you mean, he's crazy?"
"I can't explain it, Buck, but you'll know when you see him... Just please warn Chris. I know Vin's his friend and all, more than the rest of us."
Buck winced inside at the kid's observation. Time was, he was the best friend Chris Larabee had, but those days were passed, much to his sadness. "Where is he?"
"He's stayin' with Nathan."
JD made a move to follow him, and Buck noticed he was limping, badly.
He also noticed the moccasins he was wearing. They looked downright silly with his citified clothes. "What the hell do you got on your feet?"
JD sighed. "Josiah gave them to me. I kinda like them."
"How come you're walkin' funny? Did you go and hurt yourself?"
"It's nothin' Buck. Don't worry about it."
It finally caught up with Buck how totally relieved he was that JD was okay.
He wanted to grab him and give him a hug, but, that would have been awkward, so instead he pointed a finger in the boy's face. "You scared the shit outa me, JD. Don't do that again."
"Okay, Buck," JD agreed and both knew he didn't mean it.
Aw, what the hell... Buck grabbed the kid and hugged him anyway, pulling him so tightly against his chest that he could feel the smaller man's arm and shoulder muscles strain as he attempted to disengage himself from the public display of affection.
"Shit, Buck, cut it out," JD mumbled.
Buck let him go and laughed. Never had he expected this day to turn out like it had.
Sometimes, he reckoned, God even heard the prayers of a no-account rascal like him.