Chris lit a fire in the wood-burning stove that heated his room. Vin was shivering violently by then, but he just stood there watching the flames.
"You need to get out of those wet clothes," Chris reminded him gently.
Vin nodded and fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. The bandage on his hand was wet and soggy and got in his way. Chris helped him get the shirt off, then pulled off his undershirt. He threw the blanket over Vin's shoulders so he wouldn't be exposed as he slipped off the rest of his clothes and his muddy socks.
Chris pulled the chair up close to the stove so Vin could sit and rest while he warmed up. His first instinct was to offer him a drink, but Vin probably didn't need any more liquor.
"You want some food, Vin? It's late, but maybe I can find you something..."
"NO!" Vin said, too fast and too insistently.
Chris was puzzled, but he smiled. "I wasn't gonna cook it myself, if that's what's worryin' you."
Vin shook his head. He looked directly ahead of him, into the fire. He seemed to be ignoring Chris, but he said, "Don't leave." His voice was even, but Chris detected a hint of panic.
"Okay, then," he nodded. "I won't go nowhere."
He changed out of his own wet clothes and spread Vin's stuff out near the stove so it would dry. Vin's hair was still dripping water, so he gave him a towel. However, Vin didn't seem to understand what he was supposed to do with it.
He took the towel back and started to dry Vin's hair for him. It probably should have felt awkward, but somehow, it didn't. Crazy as it sounded, it felt good to have someone need him again for something other than his fast gun.
He took the wet bandage off of Vin's hand; the injuries underneath it were still ugly enough that he'd need a new bandage. The scabs and surrounding skin were soaked and spongy, though, and it probably wouldn't hurt to let them dry out overnight.
Eventually, Vin was warm enough that he stopped shaking and started to doze off in front of the fire.
Chris nudged him gently. "Get in bed, Vin."
Vin looked at the bed, his eyes half closed, and shook his head. "I'll sleep on the floor."
"No, you won't. Don't argue. Get in bed."
Vin didn't verbally refuse, but he got as far as the bed and then lay down on the floor beside it.
Chris sighed. "Vin..."
"I ain't takin' your bed."
"Suit yourself," Chris shrugged. He stretched out on the soft mattress and leaned over the side where Vin was. The stove heated the room nicely, but the floor was always drafty, and the floor planks weren't even varnished.
He pulled the pillow from behind his back and slid it under Vin's head. Vin was willing to accept that small comfort, at least.
"You can come up here if you want," Chris offered. "I don't mind sharin'."
Vin laughed softly. "And really give folks somethin' to talk about?"
Chris smiled. "Well, don't blame me if you wake up with splinters in your ass then."
"I'll be okay..."
Vin seemed to be almost asleep, but when Chris reached over to turn out the lamp, he was instantly alert.
He sat up and grabbed his wrist.
"Leave it on." The flame from the lamp reflected in his eyes and the effect was frightening. Vin looked like a man possessed by fear.
"You're afraid of the dark?" Chris asked and tried to make it sound conversational instead of judgmental.
"Leave it on," Vin said, his voice a flat, disembodied monotone. He tightened his grip on Chris's wrist.
Chris tapped Vin's clenched fist with his free hand. "Okay, pard. If that's what you want."
Vin released his grip and pulled the blanket around himself. He had to be cold, but Chris didn't see any way to convince him to take the bed.
He touched Vin's shoulder, lightly, just to let him know he was there. He fell asleep that way, and so was awakened when Vin started thrashing around in his sleep.
Chris had heard it wasn't a good thing to wake someone from a nightmare, but Vin had so little physical strength left that moving around like that had to be taking a lot out of him. From the way he was moaning, Chris figured he'd have to be happier awake than enduring whatever was tormenting him in his sleep.
Still, he proceeded cautiously, remembering what had happened the last time he'd tried to wake Vin up. He got down on the floor so that Vin was between him and the bed. He didn't want to make it easy for him to bolt out the door, particularly in his birthday suit. Instead of shaking him, he gently rubbed his hand up and down Vin's upper arm, and used his softest audible voice. "Easy, Vin.... you're dreaming. Wake up..."
Vin's eyes opened, but whatever he saw, it wasn't Chris. He gasped sharply and pulled back from Chris's touch.
"GET IT AWAY!" he screamed.
Chris placed his hands on Vin's shoulders. "What Vin? Get what away?"
Vin frantically slapped Chris's hands, so Chris backed off. Vin curled up on the floor and started beating it with his fist. "Get me out," he sobbed. "Get me out..."
Chris wasn't sure what do. He didn't think Vin was truly awake, but he was definitely frightened and upset. He was going to break his hand if he didn't stop pounding the floor like he was doing.
He tried to put his arms around him, but Vin darted away in a panic and tried to crawl over the bed to escape.
Chris grabbed his ankles and stopped him, and then climbed onto the bed next to him and held him there. Vin erupted in another frenzy, struggling violently to twist free of his grasp. Chris thought of what he had observed earlier that evening. It wasn't so much that Vin didn't like being touched, he didn't like being held a certain way... and somehow, that had something to do with whatever emotional damage he'd suffered.
This time, Chris didn't let go.
Vin screamed and kicked and begged until he was exhausted, but Chris held him fast, held him until he was used up and couldn't fight anymore.
He put his mouth close to Vin's ear, so Vin could hear him even though he barely whispered.
"What is it Vin? What is it about this that scares you?"
Vin didn't answer, and although he didn't move, he continued to take deep, panicked breaths.
"Talk to me, Vin!" Chris said sharply. "What are you afraid of?"
Vin's voice was thin and reedy, like he couldn't breathe in Chris's grasp even though Chris wasn't holding him that tightly. "I don't know... I can't..." He was sobbing now, and that made it mentally difficult for Chris to keep holding him against his will. But he had to get Vin to open up, even if it meant forcing his thoughts out of him. "Let me go..." Vin pleaded. "I don't like this..."
"I know you don't," Chris said gently. "Tell me why."
Funny, Chris thought, how Vin could cry without making any sound, how he did that as quietly as he did everything else. But he was crying. Chris knew that. "Tell me," he whispered.
Vin never said a word, but he didn't have to. Chris knew he was thinking, remembering, even if he wasn't ready to tell him what it was.
Chris released his hold on him so that Vin was free to move away, but he didn't. He lay perfectly still, close enough that his back touched Chris's chest with each breath. Chris adjusted the blanket around him so that he was covered, then made a move to get up, but Vin said "Stay."
Chris settled down again beside him.
Vin sniffed and rubbed at his eyes. "I feel like a damn fool," he said.
Chris rubbed the back of his neck soothingly. "Well, you ain't one. You should have seen me back when..."
He caught himself. He couldn't believe he had been about to mention Sarah and Adam's death so casually.
"You know then," Vin said, as if he was reading Chris's thoughts, "how this feels."
"Yeah, I know.... "
Neither of them spoke for a long while. Chris lay there absorbing the warmth of Vin's body, listening as their breathing fell into a synchronized rhythm. "You sure you want me to stay? I can take the floor."
"Stay with me," Vin said, then added, "Just don't tell anyone."
Chris shook his head. "Nobody needs to know."
Vin nodded even though his face was turned away. Chris squeezed his upper arm gently. "Think you can sleep now?"
With a short, ironic laugh, Vin said, "I don't know if I'll ever really sleep again."
But Chris felt him relax, and in a few minutes, his breathing was calm and even.
Sleep was quickly overtaking him, too. Chris felt like he'd just fought a battle. A small battle in a big war, but somehow, he felt like he'd won.
It wasn't Chris Larabee's habit to wake up in bed with another man, and he needed a few seconds to orient himself and remember what Vin was doing there next to him.
Vin was still deeply asleep, and he slipped carefully out of bed to avoid waking him. Looking at him, Chris found it hard to believe this was the same man who had attacked him in a manic rage just a few hours earlier. He looked peaceful, and young enough for Chris to wonder exactly how old he was. He'd never asked him. It had never really mattered. Vin was a good man, or had been before this had happened to him.
The army blanket had slipped down to Vin's waist, but he didn't seem to be cold. In fact, lying beside him, Chris had felt the heat radiating from him and wondered if he still had a fever. No reason why it should have gone away. Vin wasn't exactly taking care of himself.
His upper body was covered with scabs and abrasions and dotted with old bug bites. It looked painful, but not like anything that had been done to him deliberately. All Chris could do was wonder, like every one else, what Vin had been through, what had left him so completely shattered that he was hanging on to his sanity by a very thin thread.
No, that wasn't all he could do.
He could ask Vin about it. The others were pussy-footing around, not wanting to upset him, but Vin was stronger than they thought. Chris knew that. And even if he couldn't face whatever had happened on his own, Chris would be there for him.
There was a gentle tapping on the door, so soft Chris barely heard it. It was Nathan. The healer slipped inside without making a sound when he saw Vin was asleep.
"He been sleepin' the whole night?" Nathan asked incredulously.
But if Nathan was anything, it was observant. He noticed Vin's clothes spread out by the stove and picked up a sock caked with mud. "He tried to run off on you."
Chris nodded slightly. "Tried to."
Nathan shook his head sadly. "He ain't got nowhere to run from this."
Chris pursed his lips. "Then I guess he's just gonna have to stand and fight it out."
Nathan nodded. "Ain't gonna be easy, for him or us."
He knelt beside the bed and felt Vin's forehead. Chris knew that if he had done that, Vin would have been instantly awake, but Nathan's touch was practiced and gentle. Vin didn't stir.
Nathan frowned. "This fever is gonna bring him down if he don't get some food into him so he can shake it."
Chris nodded, "I'll see that he eats."
Nathan laughed very softly. "Yeah, I bet you will." He examined Vin's injured hand. "I'll be back in awhile to rewrap this. He don't need an infection, too... Unless you want me to take him back to my place."
Chris shook his head. "I'll see to him."
Nathan looked at him curiously, but didn't question his motives. It would have made Chris uncomfortable, and he thought maybe he already knew why he wanted to be the one to look after Vin. Chris had things in his own past that he had nearly destroyed him. Maybe he just understood what was happening to Vin better than the others did..
He looked back at Vin. "Let him sleep. He needs that, too."
When Nathan was gone, Chris sat on the bed, leaning against the headboard and stretching his long legs out in front of him. Vin didn't seem to mind he was there, and it was more comfortable than the chair. He dozed off as the blazing sun outside took away the morning chill and the room became increasingly warmer. When he awoke again, it was uncomfortably hot.
Vin was moving restlessly, and Chris gently stroked his back to settle him down, careful not to irritate the sores that covered him..
Vin had turned so he was facing him, but because Chris was sitting up, all he could see was the top of Vin's head. He didn't realize Vin was awake until he tilted his head back and looked up at him.
He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. His eyes, normally so alert and alive, were dark with fatigue and that unnameable pain.
"Mornin'," Chris said.
Vin turned his head downward and looked away again.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hated the pity he saw in Chris Larabee's eyes. He hated himself, too.
During the night, he'd stripped himself bare in front of Chris, both literally and spiritually, and now, he didn't want to deal with the aftermath.
He could let Chris inside his wall, he knew that. But right then, he didn't want him there. He wanted to be alone. He wanted all the terrors and hurts of the night before to go away and leave him in peace.
He also knew that wasn't going to happen.
He had remembered.
What he had spent his life thinking was nothing more than a bad dream had come home to his conscience and run him down like a locomotive.
Those cold, dead arms...
It wasn't a dream.
Why hadn't Chris just let him go? Why did he have to hold him like that - the way she had? The way she had been holding him when she had died, trapping him in her unyielding embrace against her lifeless body?
I hate you, Chris Larabee! I don't want this! I don't want to know this!
But he did know it.
He remembered it - all of it...
Waking up and knowing she was dead, knowing he was alone. The three days he'd waited for someone to find him, cold, filthy, sick, and so terrified that he couldn't speak.
He hadn't talked for a long time after that. The words just wouldn't come out of his mouth. He'd blamed the Singletarys for never talking to him, but now he could see that the truth was, they just gave up after awhile. And they never touched him because when they had tried, he'd acted the same way with them as he had with Chris. He'd blamed them for not sending him to school, but they had tried that, too, hadn't they? He hadn't "fit in" was the nice way they'd put it. But his wall had been up even then, and he didn't fit in because he hadn't wanted to let anyone inside it, didn't wanted his secret world to be part of that place where horrifying things happened to little boys.
It was almost funny.
He'd spent his whole life just pretending to be who he was, hadn't he? The Vin Tanner who could face down a mob and not care if he died was a joke. The real Vin Tanner was still that fucked over little kid hiding under a blanket in a freezing cabin, his dead mother watching over him with glassy, vacant, dead eyes.
Oh God, he was mad, wasn't he?
And it wasn't just the cabin and his mother. There was more. There was something fresh in his mind that made all those old hurts seem new and real again. He didn't know what it was, and he didn't want to know.
But Chris wanted to drag that out of him, too, didn't he?
Good ol' Chris, I'll fuckin' kill you before I let you make me remember, pard.
+ + + + + + +
Chris ran his hand through Vin's hair. The dark curls, softened by the rainwater, smoothed out easily, but Vin jerked his head away.
He didn't want to be touched, not yet, not again, but Chris knew it was necessary. He somehow sensed that without that physical contact, Vin would slip back into his own private corner of oblivion. Maybe Vin thought that was where he wanted to be, but Chris knew that the longer he stayed there, the harder it would be to bring him back.
Chris rose from the bed, and as soon as he was on his feet, he pulled Vin to a sitting position. "Time to get up," he told him. "Get dressed. We'll go get something to eat."
Vin shook his head.
Chris ignored him and pulled him to his feet.
Vin was so weak and so shaky it was all he could do to hold the blanket in front of himself.
Chris handed him his clothes. "I don't think yer strong enough to stop me from dressin' you, Vin, so you might as well save us both the embarrassment and do it yourself."
Vin looked at him belligerently, but he took the clothes.
Chris tried to get as much of the mud off the socks as he possibly could, but when Vin finally had everything else on and was ready for them, Chris conceded they were a lost cause and gave Vin a pair of his own.
Vin sat on the bed and raised his foot up, but then just sat there staring at it. It was the one he'd kicked Nathan's shelf with, and the instep was a massive black bruise. His gaze shifted to the burn on his hand. He held it in front of his face, and seemed to notice for the first time that he was hurt.
Finally, he looked up at him, frowning. "What happened to me, Chris?"
He looked too frail, too hurt. Chris felt a lump catch in his throat. "You don't remember?"
Vin shook his head, then raked his hand through his hair. "I can't even think, Chris. Everything's all jumbled up in my head with stuff that happened a long time ago."
Chris sat on the bed next to him. "Want to tell me about it?"
Vin looked like he might be about to answer, but then he just shook his head. "Ain't nothin' can be done about what's passed."
"That's exactly right, Vin. Problem is that sayin' that and acceptin' it are two different things. Hidin' those things inside you won't make them go away. You can mark my word on that. I've been there. I know."
Vin turned to face him, really making eye contact with him this time. "Your family?" he said softly.
Chris nodded. "Vin, something happened to you out there, and somewhere inside you, you know what it was..."
He saw Vin's expression change again, back to that look of mindless panic. He wasn't ready to hear this. Not yet.
He put his arm around him and pulled him close. "You'll get through this," he told him. "I did, and so can you."
Vin tensed, but Chris let him go before he could pull away. He slapped Vin's thigh casually. "Let's eat. I'm starvin' and so are you."
Vin followed him as far as the door, but hesitated when he looked out into the sunny street filled with townsfolk going about their business. The same townsfolk who'd stared at him and laughed at him and listened to him screaming in terror because someone had put their arms around him.
"I can't go out there," he said softly.
"Yes, you can," Chris said. "Folks understand you're havin' a bad time. And the ones who don't you don't gotta care about."
Vin closed his eyes and lowered his head. He was taking slow, deep breaths, and even though he didn't appear outwardly anxious, he was trying desperately to calm himself down enough to face the simple task of walking across the street. His fists were clenched at his sides, and Chris knew if he made the wrong move, all that anger Vin had inside him was going to spill over again. So, he just waited, until Vin decided he was ready.
There was a privy about 20 yards from the building, and Chris definitely felt the need for one. But when his turn came up, Vin took one look at the hot, dark interior swarming with flies, and refused to use it.
There was no way Chris was going to debate the point with him in broad daylight and within earshot of anyone who was curious why two men would argue about using an outhouse. Besides, he was too hungry to deal with yet another of Vin's irrational fears. He found a relatively secluded spot behind the building and made sure no one wandered by while Vin relieved himself in the dirt.
"You aren't gonna make a habit of this, are ya, pard?" he asked when Vin had finished.
Vin gave him a wry look that almost evolved into a smile. "Pissin' is a hard habit to break."
Vin knew perfectly well that wasn't what Chris had meant. He'd made a joke. One very small, not-very-good joke, but for a fleeting moment the old Vin was there, and for Chris, for now, that was a small glimmer of hope he could hang onto.
Vin squinted his eyes against the glaring mid-day sun. His hat and gun had probably found their way back to town on JD's horse. They'd stop at the livery and get it back for him, but first they had to eat. Vin had lost enough weight that it was noticeable now. He was slight of build to begin with, and his clothes were starting to look like they belonged to someone else.
The dining room at the boarding house was deserted, like Chris had hoped it would be. Lunch had been over for an hour or so by then, but their positions as town guardians didn't always allow for a regular meal schedule, and Maggie would always feed them no matter what time of day they wandered in, even if it was just cold sandwiches and milk.
She was surprised to see Vin with him.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Tanner?" she asked him, as if he were recovering from a bout of influenza or a gunshot wound. Maggie wasn't a bad woman, but she lived for gossip, both hearing it and passing it on. Chris read the veiled meaning behind her question: Is it really true what everyone is saying about you?
The look on her face confirmed that. She was studying Vin like she was expecting him to do something crazy.
What made Chris nervous was that he was not one bit sure that Vin wouldn't oblige her if she said or did the wrong thing and set him off.
But Vin only gave her the same shy, personable expression he gave everyone who talked to him, and said "Fine, ma'am."
Maggie wasn't going to let it drop, though. "You're lookin' a mite flushed," she said.
"It's hot out," Chris said, trying to convey a warning in his voice. Vin didn't like attempts to draw him into a conversation, even when he was feeling good. He was always happy to just sit and listen, and maybe offer a sentence or two occasionally. He wasn't good at small talk. It got on his nerves, and right then, his nerves were as raw as a rope burn.
But Maggie just kept on chattering, and then, to Chris's dismay, came right out and asked about the incident at Potter's store the day before. She asked Chris, not Vin
I heard he did this, I heard that was done to him.... As if Vin wasn't even sitting there.
She was as casual about a grown man having a raging temper tantrum in public as she would have been if Vin had slammed a door on his finger.
Chris could see the barricades going up, see that Vin was closing himself up as she prattled on. Her point was that something should be done about Ramage and Cole, but she seemed totally unaware that dredging up the humiliation Vin had suffered at their hands would serve no useful purpose. She had no idea what she was doing to him.
Chris wanted to yell at her to shut her big mouth, but instead he calmly interrupted her. "We'd really like some food, Maggie, if it ain't too much trouble." He backed it with a look that he hoped conveyed his displeasure at the turn the conversation had taken.
Maggie was gabby and insensitive, but she wasn't stupid. She took the hint and stopped talking.
But the damage was already done.
Vin had crawled back inside himself, where he was safe from the scrutiny of shallow people like Maggie who didn't understand his pain and how it shamed him.
While she was in the kitchen, Chris reached across the table and clasped Vin's hand. "It okay, Vin. She's just a big bag of wind."
But Vin knew the truth. The town was full of people like Maggie, and he'd given them something to talk about. He was no longer invisible.
He didn't say anything. Didn't look up at Chris or return the pressure on his hand.
Maggie brought the food - soup, bacon sandwiches, milk, pie.
"Thank you," Chris said. "You can go now." His tone of voice made it clear that he expected compliance. Maggie was plainly insulted, but she did leave, although Chris wouldn't have been surprised to find her lurking just beyond the dining room door.
It didn't matter. Unlike some more chivalrous men, it didn't bother him a bit to threaten a woman. If Maggie didn't keep her mouth shut, she'd find out just how unpleasant he could be.
Maggie was lousy at reading other people's feelings, but the woman did know how to cook. Chris dug into his food. He hadn't actually sat down to a meal since before he'd left town to look for Vin.
Vin picked up his sandwich, took a small bite, and then tossed it back on his plate. It took him a long time to get what he had in his mouth down.
"What's wrong Vin?" Chris asked him. "Why won't you eat?"
Vin shrugged, but Chris wouldn't take that for an answer.
"You gotta talk about this Vin. I know you aren't too dumb to know that if you don't eat, you're gonna get worse, not better. Look at you. You're burnin' up with fever and you can barely walk. Why are you doing this to yourself?"
"Leave me alone," Vin muttered.
"You know I can't do that.... Eat some more. Force it down if you have to."
Vin took another bite and looked like he was going to gag on it. "Everything tastes funny," he said finally.
Chris remembered when everything he ate tasted like sawdust. Grief did that to you. It seemed to numb every one of the senses. "Just take your time. Get down what you can."
Vin swallowed the mouthful and leaned back in his chair. His eyes were glassy, staring past the table at something only he could see. "There were pieces in it," he whispered.
"The water... pieces..."
Chris played a hunch. He leaned across the table and touched Vin's hand again, hoping it would keep him in the here and now because it looked like he was drifting off into that dark place again. "Tell me, Vin. What is it? What are you remembering?"
Vin put his face in his hands, shielding his eyes, and sucked in his breath. "I don't know," he managed to choke out. "I can't think..." His shoulders moved in one convulsive sob. That was all. He didn't cry, this time, but when he looked up at Chris, the tears had welled in his eyes, all the anger and self-loathing and helplessness that was inside him wanting to spill out with them. But he held it in, somehow, and shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid I'm crazy, Chris. Just like everyone thinks..."
Chris swung his chair around so he was right next to him. This time, when he put his arms around him, Vin allowed himself to be held. Chris didn't know what else to do for him, and that seemed right somehow.
Vin was destroying himself. As surely as if he'd loaded a gun and was aiming it at his own head.
He's so hot... The fever was getting the best of him just like Nathan had said it would.
Chris knew he'd pushed him far enough, that he had to let him rest, but he needed to make him eat, too.
He took the sandwich apart and dipped the bread in the soup. He held it up to Vin's mouth.
"Eat," he commanded him.
Vin shook his head.
"Vin, you're sick. You're gonna get sicker if you don't cut this crap out. Then, you're gonna die. Is that what you really want?"
Vin tried to pull away from him, but Chris held his shoulders fast. His arms were still free, though, and he made a move to clear the food away like he had at Nathan's. Chris saw it coming and grabbed his wrist. He grabbed it hard enough to hurt, because he wanted Vin to know he was in control.
"Vin, if you throw that food, you're gonna eat it off the floor."
Vin strained to get free. He was angry now, and Chris feared another raging fit was next.
He shook Vin, hard. "NO!" he said sternly. "Stop it, Vin. I ain't gonna let you act crazy."
Vin stopped struggling, but Chris knew if he let him go, he'd start up again. "You hearin' me, Vin? I ain't gonna let you do this to yourself. I know you can't help it, but I can... I'll get you through this, just quit fightin' me. That's all you gotta do."
The transformation was subtle. Anyone watching probably wouldn't have noticed. But Chris felt Vin relax in his grip. He leaned his weight against Chris's chest.
It was more than a truce, it was a surrender. Vin was giving himself up to Chris's will, trusting that Chris would be strong for him.
Chris didn't take time to savor the victory, though. He offered Vin the bread again. "The worst thing that's gonna happen is that you'll upchuck this all over me," he told him. "I can deal with that."
Vin ate - or more precisely, Chris fed him. Two slices of bread, half a bowl of soup and a few swallows of milk. Not anywhere near enough, but it would keep him alive.
Another battle fought and won.
Too bad they still didn't know who the enemy was.
After eating, they went to the livery to pick up Vin's belongings. JD was there grooming his horse. Nether the little bay nor Vin's horse looked any the worse for their wanderings alone in the desert.
"Hi Chris, Vin," JD said amiably as he curried his animal.
Vin stood silently, watching JD until the younger man became uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
"Something on your mind, Vin?" he asked, dropping the brush to his side.
Vin couldn't look JD in the eye. He was staring at the ground when he said, "Thanks, JD. For what you did yesterday... For everything."
JD often did things just to get the attention of the others, but somehow, when you gave it to him directly like that, he wasn't comfortable with it. "It was nothin' Vin. You woulda done the same for me."
Most of Vin's gear was hanging near his horse. He pulled on his hat and immediately seemed more at ease. The wide brim hid his face, which was just the way he liked it.
JD had cleaned Vin's gunbelt and his own so they no longer gave off that bad smell that had been everywhere when JD had used them to strap Vin onto his back. Vin didn't seem to notice that, though. He strapped it on and picked up his rifle. JD saw the anxious look on Chris's face and knew what he was thinking, that Vin had no business carrying a weapon. James' men would start in on him again if they saw him, and Vin's behavior was now completely unpredictable. No telling how he would react to the abuse if he was armed.
JD wondered if Chris would say anything, but wasn't surprised when he didn't. Unlike Chris, however, he wasn't worried. Neither the gun nor the rifle was loaded with live ammunition. He'd seen to that, because it had been preying heavily on his mind that Vin might turn a gun on himself. It was bad enough that the rest of the town thought the tracker was crazy, but Vin thought he was, too. JD hated seeing him that way, and he imagined that Vin probably hated being that way even more. He didn't really understand Vin most of the time, but that didn't mean he couldn't put himself in his place. JD wondered what he would do if suddenly found that he had no control over what he said or did, and that everyone was laughing at him. He didn't think he could kill himself, but he didn't know about Vin.
Chris Larabee was thinking similar thoughts as he weighed his options. If he let Vin have the gun, there could be tragic consequences. If he took it away from him, he would be further compromising Vin's dignity and compounding his sense of helplessness.
He let him keep the weapons. He could tell JD didn't think it was a good idea. Hell, he didn't think it was a good idea. But looking at Vin, he realized that being in physical contact with those few material things that were important to him had a calming effect on him. Once he slipped on his coat, he almost looked like the Vin they knew. It was too hot for the heavy garment, but that never seemed to matter to Vin. He often wore it, regardless of the weather, and seemed to like the smell and feel of the supple leather more than he minded the discomfort.
He was rummaging through his saddle bags, looking for something.
"Lose something?" JD asked him.
Vin shook his head, as if whatever he was looking for didn't really matter, but both JD and Chris could tell he was upset at not finding whatever it was.
The next place they stopped was Nathan's so that he could replace the bandage on Vin's arm. Nathan wasn't entirely able to conceal his alarm when he noticed Vin was wearing a gun, but he didn't say anything. Vin looked pale and sick, and Nathan wanted him to stay there so he could rest. But Chris didn't agree to it. Sleep didn't really seem to do much for Vin except bring on nightmares, and staying with Nathan only provided him with a hiding place, which was the one thing he didn't need..
Nathan was happy to hear that Vin had finally eaten something, but he was worried about the fever. When Chris announced they were headed for the saloon, the healer decided he should tag along.
Neither of them asked Vin if he wanted to go, because Vin would have said no. There would be people there who had heard about him, who would stare at him. Chris hated to subject him to that, but at the same time, letting him crawl off into his little private world would only postpone the inevitable. Vin had to return to reality eventually, if he didn't want to end up locked away somewhere, and he might as well start in familiar surroundings and in the company of his friends.
Ezra was sitting at a card table with three townsmen. Normally, he didn't want the others sitting down when he was fleecing someone. He claimed it interfered with his concentration, but Chris suspected that he was really afraid one of them would discover how he cheated as skillfully as he did. They all knew better than to actually play with him.
The gambler looked up when he saw them, a delighted gleam in his pale, green eyes.
"Mr. Tanner, how very good to see you up and about," he addressed Vin, then indicated that he wanted the three of them to join him and the others.
Vin's face didn't betray any emotion whatsoever. He sat in down at the table between Ezra and Nathan but didn't acknowledge that anyone else was there.
The three men stared at him suspiciously. Vin was aware he was being studied, but he had never seemed concerned about what other people thought when they sized him up; and apparently, he still didn't.
Vin didn't produce any money. In fact, Chris didn't think he had any, unless it was in the pockets of his coat. But Ezra slid a stack of chips in front of him, anyway.
Ezra announced the game, and dealt the hand. He passed cards to Vin, who didn't pick them up. Nathan had to reach over and put them in his hand.
"Hey, he didn't ante up," one of the townsmen complained.
"A mere oversight, I'm sure," Ezra said, and nonchalantly removing the ante from Vin's stack of chips, tossed it into the pot. He then stared at each of the three townsmen in turn, challenging them to say anything to the contrary.
The three outsiders grunted in disgust, but an additional look from Chris let them know they'd be best advised to keep their mouths shut.
When Ezra went around the table dealing out cards to replace the ones the other players had discarded, Vin didn't ask for anything. He just stared at the cards he had, even after Ezra asked him if he wanted others. Finally, Ezra leaned over and looked at Vin's hand. He pulled two cards and gave him two others.
One of the townsmen slammed his cards down in disgust. "You can't do that! You can't play for him!"
"My dear sir, I am doing no such thing, I assure you. It is entirely Mr. Tanner's prerogative if he wishes to bet or not."
The townsmen looked at one another, confused, because Ezra was, in fact, playing Vin's hand.
Chris didn't understand that either, especially when, after playing two hands with Ezra blatantly disregarding the rules of the game to give the appearance that Vin was actually involved, the townsmen got disgusted and left. They took a healthy potential pot with them that could easily have been Ezra's, but Ezra seemed uncharacteristically casual about the loss.
He continued to deal cards to the four of them, and he continued the pretense that Vin was a willing participant. Amazingly, after awhile Vin actually did attempt to concentrate on what he was doing. Ezra surprised everyone not only with his patience, but with the fact that he apparently stopped cheating so as not to take unfair advantage of Vin's distracted mental state. He kept the games simple, because even though he was really trying, Vin just couldn't seem to focus his attention on what he was doing.
Eventually, the other three joined them. Nobody cared that Vin slowed the game down. Nobody cared that he threw away perfectly good cards and placed bets on hands that didn't have a hope in hell of winning. Nobody cared that he didn't say one word the entire time, which was unusual even for Vin. They were simply happy he was there, and making a concentrated effort to behave himself.
People stared, and some whispered. Vin noticed, but in the presence of the other six, it didn't seem to bother him. It was as if he instinctively knew he was safe with them, both from those who would torment him, and from himself.
Josiah ordered some sandwiches. Vin didn't want to eat, but he did. Just a few bites here and there, but no one had to coax him. Unfortunately, no one had to coax him to drink, either, and he was consuming more alcohol than he usually did. Eventually, he folded his arms on the table and laid his head down on them. His pale face was flushed and covered with a light sheen of sweat.
Ezra tapped his shoulder affectionately. "It would appear that Mr. Tanner is no longer captivated by the charms of our stimulating camaraderie."
Vin looked up and squinted at him. "Huh?"
Chris got up and took Vin's arm. "Time to go, Vin."
Vin shook his head. "I wanna stay."
Chris hadn't expected that response. Vin liked the others as far as he could tell, but he didn't need their company and, except for himself, never sought any of them out for companionship. The dynamics of their group generally had Vin drifting off to be alone at some point, almost as if too much human contact made him uncomfortable.
But now, he wanted to stay. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself, and it was obvious he wasn't feeling well. But apparently the presence of the others was something he needed right then.
"Suit yourself," Chris shrugged, but he took the opportunity to absent himself long enough to arrange for a hotel room so they didn't end up sharing a bed again that night.
Vin had fallen asleep by the time he got back, but as they had done the night before, the six of them went about their drinking and their card games and their talk as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Maybe "ordinary" was what Vin needed the most.
Chris declared the evening over about an hour later, even though it was not quite seven o'clock. Vin was shaking with chills and this time, he didn't put up an argument. Nathan followed the two of them to the hotel room. It was on the second floor, and it was an effort for Vin to make it up the stairs, but he did. Despite the fever, his condition had improved from what it had been just a couple of days before, when he'd barely had the strength to stand.
Nathan didn't know what power Chris wielded over Vin, but whatever it was, it had given Vin the incentive to fight whatever was crippling him.
He watched the two of them together. They were nothing alike, and yet they seemed to compliment each other. Chris Larabee was violent and volatile, and sometimes Nathan wondered if he gave a damn if he lived or died. He rarely smiled, and seldom laughed, and when he did either, there was often a sour, mirthless irony about it that made others uncomfortable instead of jovial. He was an almost bitter contrast to Vin Tanner, whose manner was so taciturn it could almost be called complacent. Nathan had seen Vin act angry and vicious, but it had only been an act. He was certain the man was capable of mayhem - all seven of them were - but Vin didn't take anger into himself the way Chris did. Or at least, he hadn't before whatever had happened in the desert, before whatever it was that had driven so much hurt into him that he'd come apart from the inside.
Somehow, Vin's calm pliant nature had meshed with Chris's ragged edges, and the two of them had become asymmetric halves of one whole, with Chris providing the strength and Vin the stability.
It was different now, though, and Nathan observed the curious change that had come about in Chris. He frankly never would have suspected the man was capable of reaching out to anyone with compassion and gentleness, at least, not after the bad hand life had dealt him with his wife and son. But he seemed to be the only one who had actually gotten through the fog of confusion and despair that had wrapped itself around Vin.
He patiently coaxed each garment off of Vin until he was down to his underclothes and then settled him into bed. Vin shivered under the blankets even though the room was warm and his hair was damp with sweat.
Nathan sat on the bed beside him and felt his forehead. He was hot, but it wasn't a raging fever. Still, Nathan didn't feel right about just leaving him.
"How bad you feelin' Vin?" he asked.
Vin had to think about that, which Nathan took as a good sign. "My belly hurts," he said finally.
"That's probably 'cause it ain't had nothin' to do in so long. You'll be okay once nature takes its course... especially if you lay off the whisky.."
"He'll be fine," Chris said, as if that were something he could mandate.
Nathan didn't doubt that Chris would watch over Vin like a hawk, but he pulled him aside and offered advice just the same. "Keep that fever from gettin' too high. Sponge him down if you have to, and make sure he drinks plenty of water. I'll send up some peppermint tea. That'll ease the bellyache. I'll send up some food too. Make him eat five mouthfuls every hour."
Chris frowned. "Why five?"
Nathan shrugged. "No reason. Four or six would be just as good. It's just that I seen men come outa battle in a state like Vin's. Most of them seemed to do better if you planned everything out for 'em." He looked across the room at Vin. "It's almost like the mind can get all jumbled up like a spilled box of matchsticks."
"He's gonna get better, ain't he?" Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. "He already is better. Four days ago, he wouldn't even look at me. He's got a ways to go yet, but he's fightin'. Don't give up on him."
Chris shook his head. "No way I could do that. I promised I'd get him through this, and I will..." His voice became distant, subdued. "Buck didn't give up on me. It's the only reason I'm still here."
Nathan knew it took a lot out of Chris to openly admit that. He clapped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly, but didn't think it would be a good time to open those old wounds. Chris apparently agreed, because he said no more.
"Get him to talk, if you can Chris. I know it ain't easy, but it'll help him sort things out."
"He doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes, Nathan. You've heard him."
Nathan shook his head. "Just because it don't make sense to us is all the more reason for us to listen to him..." He looked across the room at Vin. "You're gettin' through to wherever it is he's at, Chris. You need to grab onto him and not let go." He gave Chris's shoulder another quick squeeze, then left.
Vin was shaking, and he'd curled himself up in an attempt to get warm. After pulling the blanket off the extra bed and adding it to the one that already covered Vin, Chris stretched out on it and lit a cheroot. He thought about offering Vin one, but he'd never seen him smoke, and now probably wasn't a good time for him to start. Vin looked like shit. His face was drawn and pasty, and his eyes were glassy with fever. But, he seemed alert, for the moment, anyway.
"You wanna talk, Vin?"
Vin turned his head to look up at him. "About what?"
"About whatever it is that's messin' up your head."
Vin shrugged. "I don't know what it is that's doin' that Chris. I wish I did."
"I think you remember some of it, Vin."
Vin pulled the covers around himself and ducked his head back down. He didn't say anything, but Chris knew he wasn't asleep. He was still shaking despite the two blankets. Chris got up and picked Vin's coat up from the chair he'd draped it over. He threw it on top of the blankets.
"Thanks," Vin whispered. "I'm freezin'."
Chris settled himself back on his own bed and took a long drag from the cheroot.
"Talk to me, Vin."
"I got nothin' to tell you."
"You got plenty to tell, Vin. It's all locked up inside you. You can let it out, or you can let it eat at you until you're empty inside. It's up to you. Ain't no one can make the choice for you."
There was another long pause, but Chris was prepared to wait all night if he had to.
"I don't know where to start," Vin said finally.
"Suppose you start with last night. I asked you why it scared you for someone to touch you. You remembered something, Vin. I know you did."
Vin hesitated. "I don't want to talk about that."
Chris sat up and planted his feet on the floor. He rested his elbows on his knees and bent forward so he was almost directly in Vin's face.
"Vin, none of this is gonna be anything you want to talk about. It probably ain't nothin' I want to hear. But it's gotta come out, you understand?"
Vin didn't respond.
"Do you know what happened to my wife and son, Vin?"
Vin looked up and frowned at him. "'Course I do, Chris," he said softly. "They burned in a fire."
Chris's eyes stared directly into Vin's. "You know how long it was before I could say that? It still feels like a kick in the balls to hear those words."
Vin broke the eye contact, but he understood what Chris was getting at. Too well, maybe.
Chris laid his hand on Vin's warm, damp hair. "What is it, Vin? Tell me."
Vin still didn't look at him, but he started to talk. "I had this dream since I was a little feller, about my ma' dyin'. 'Least, I thought it was a dream. I still want to believe it is, but now I know it ain't. It happened. Something made me remember all of it. Somethin' that's gotten in my head and won't get out."
"Something that happened out in the desert?"
Vin nodded. "But I don't know what it is, Chris. I swear to you. I can't remember."
You don't want to remember, Chris was thinking.
"Tell me the dream, Vin."
Vin refused to look at him, but the words started to pour out of him like a fountain. His voice was soft and calm like it always was, but it seemed like once he got started, he had to get it all out.
And as the details of what had happened to a small boy, alone in a cold, isolated cabin unfolded, Chris relived the terror with him..
When Vin finished what he had to say, it was Chris who was shaking.
Vin had been five years old. The same age as his son....
During his worst moments, Chris had tortured himself with the thoughts of what Adam's final moments might have been like. They'd found him wrapped in Sarah's arms, the same way Vin's mother had held him as she lay dying. If God were to grant Chris Larabee an answer to only one prayer, he wanted it to be the one he'd repeated every day since he'd endured the agonizing image of that tiny, charred corpse: That his child hadn't suffered. He'd give up his own soul to know that Adam had suffocated on smoke as he'd slept, or that his murderers had put a bullet in his head before setting the torch... or even that Sarah had killed him herself before the flames got to him - anything but that he'd burned alive, knowing it was happening. No child should know that kind of horror, that kind of pain....
And now he saw before him another terrified little boy, this one fighting his way out after being locked away in a black corner of Vin's mind for almost twenty years, and he couldn't do anything for him either, because Vin wasn't that child anymore. That child, like Adam, was now beyond anyone's reach and always would be.
He thought for a long hard moment about what to say to Vin Tanner the man, before he realized that he wasn't the one who needed to hear his words. He thought of what he would say to Adam, if he could, and hoped that somehow he'd be heard by the child Vin had been so long ago.
He pushed back the stray strands of hair that were sticking to Vin's forehead. "Your ma didn't want that to happen to you, Vin."
Vin looked at him, puzzled. "I know that."
"Do you?" Chris said. He touched Vin's head. "You might know it here..." He put his hand on Vin's chest. "But you gotta know it in here before you can let it go."
Vin nodded slightly, his eyes downcast. "She loved me," he said finally.
Chris nodded. "She didn't want to leave you. There just wasn't anything she could do."
There was a knock on the door and Chris drew his gun out of habit before he opened it. It was just Maggie. She'd brought the food Nathan had asked for herself, no doubt so she could get another opportunity to gawk at Vin. She craned her neck to see past Chris when he opened the door. So, he made a point of casually brandishing his gun in her direction as he took the tray from her.
He slammed the door on her face. "Irritatin' woman," he muttered.
"Better be nice to her," Vin whispered with a hint of a smile. "She's apt to poison us."
Chris examined the contents of the tray. Meatloaf, bread and butter, custard. Chris could have used a strong cup of coffee, but the coffee pot reeked of peppermint. He poured a cupful of the stuff, and sat Vin up so he could drink it.
Vin made a face before he even tasted it. "This is a sissy drink."
Chris puffed on his cheroot. "That it is."
"I ain't drinkin' it."
"Yes, you are. It's good for you."
Vin sipped at the hot liquid. "Chris?"
"I need to know what happened to me out there. It's like I have this lead ball weighin' me down, and I can't see it or touch it... Oh hell, I ain't makin' sense again."
"You don't need to explain it to me, Vin. I been there. I know how it feels. It's like you're underwater, and you can't come up for air, but you can't drown and get it over with, neither."
Vin gave Chris a curious look. "Yeah." He fell back on his pillow. "I really feel like crap, you know that?"
Chris nodded. "You look like crap."
Vin closed his eyes. "Whatever happened out there, it's just like with my ma, ain't it? I made myself forget."
Chris nodded. "Reckon so... But there ain't nothin' to be done for it until you get your strength back." He put a reassuring hand on Vin's shoulder. "Just remember one thing."
Vin opened his eyes. "What's that?"
"This time, you ain't alone."