The storm broke, drenching them both as they followed the trail down from the Prow and back to Ezra's horse. Ezra was merely uncomfortable, but Vin had reached the limits of his stamina and, without his jacket, he was rapidly becoming dangerously chilled. He didn't give Ezra an argument when the gambler suggested that they divert their course to Nettie Wells' place, which was two miles closer than town. Chris Larabee would no doubt be wringing his hands and gnashing his teeth fearing the worst had befallen them - or at least, had befallen Vin; Ezra wasn't too optimistic that Chris cared what happened to him at that point - but Vin's immediate need was to be someplace warm and dry.
Nettie was surprised to see them. She waved to them from the doorway, but her smile faded abruptly when Ezra had to help Vin down from his horse and hold onto him so he didn't loose his footing in the mud. Seeing that something was wrong, Casey came rushing out in her slicker to take care of their horses. Ezra realized that if the two women hadn't been into town for a few days, they might not even know what was going on with Vin.
"What happened?" Nettie demanded, as soon as they were up on the porch. "Is he hurt?"
"Hi, Nettie," Vin said softly. "I'm fine."
But the look Ezra exchanged with the older woman told her otherwise, and she could see that Vin was just barely able to stay on his feet. Once inside the front door, his knees buckled, and Ezra would have gone down with him if Nettie hadn't grabbed Vin's other arm. The little lady was stronger than she looked, and between the two of them, they managed to keep Vin from falling.
"Take him to Casey's room," she said, and indicated the direction with a nod of her head.
Like Ezra, Vin was soaking wet, and he was shivering uncontrollably. Nettie started to unbutton his shirt, but Ezra stopped her. Or tried to. She smacked his hand away. "He needs to be out of these wet clothes."
"I'll do it," Ezra assured her, and even though he had no reason to doubt the feisty old woman's assertion that Vin had nothing she hadn't already seen plenty of in her day, he pushed her out the door and closed it behind her.
Vin was so completely spent that he let Ezra do most of the work. The cabin was warm, but he was shivering so violently that he couldn't manage the buttons. He willingly crawled between the blankets and pulled them around himself. Only then did Ezra let Nettie back into the room. She had extra blankets and towels, and she tossed a warm, faded quilt over Vin and then went to work drying the water that was still dripping off of his hair.
She pointed to the other blanket and told Ezra, "You, too, son. I seen fish drier than the two of you."
"Madam, I have no intention of disrobing in your genteel presence."
"Then go in the kitchen and do it, but get outa them wet clothes before you catch your death."
"I assure you, I will not..."
"Stop back-talkin' me, son, and do what yer told."
Ezra was taken aback by her abrupt manner, yet he knew Nettie well enough to know that refusal was not an option. Besides, he had to concede that while it was well outside the bounds of acceptable decorum to entertain the presence of two women clad only in a blanket, he was forced to acknowledge that he'd be far more comfortable out of his cold, sodden clothing.
She looked down at Vin. "How 'bout you? Warmin' up?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, some." But he was still shaking.
She tucked the blankets around him. "I'll go fix you some hot broth..."
He smiled slightly. "Best wait until Ezra is done peelin' down. You're apt to give him an attack of some kind if you just walk in on him." Talking made him cough, and Nettie felt his forehead.
"You've got yerself a fever," she told him.
Vin nodded. "I ain't been feelin' too good, Nettie."
Something about the way he looked at her told Nettie there was a lot more to it than that. She stroked his arm through the blankets. "You wanna tell Nettie about it?"
Vin shrugged. "Ain't much to tell. I reckon I just need to rest a bit."
"You do that, son," she patted him affectionately, but she knew something wasn't right. Vin Tanner had a calm, gentle nature and he was always quiet, but now, he looked like he'd been beaten and had just given up and taken it. There was a pain and sadness in those deep, blue eyes of his that Nettie had never seen there before, even when he had talked about his mother. "You want me to sit here with you awhile?" she asked him.
Vin shook his head. "You don't gotta do that Nettie. I'm fine, just a little tired."
But he started coughing again and Nettie's brow wrinkled with concern. "You ain't feelin' good at all, are you?"
He hesitated a moment, but then smiled and said, "Nope. I reckon not... But you don't need to fuss over me, really."
She tucked the blankets up around his neck for good measure. "You holler if you need anything."
He nodded. "Thanks, Nettie."
Ezra returned, wrapped in the blanket Nettie had given him and carrying his wet clothes. Nettie took them from him and gathered up Vin's things as well. She ordered Ezra to sit by the fire and warm himself up while she spread their stuff out to dry in front of the hearth. Casey returned while she was doing it, and Ezra pulled his blanket a little tighter, feeling even more self-conscious of the fact that there was nothing underneath it than he had expected he would. The two women, however, seemed to think nothing of it.
"So what's goin' on?" Nettie asked him.
"With Vin. I know when somethin' ain't right."
Ezra snorted. "I wouldn't know where to begin the tale," he said.
"Suppose you start with what you're doing all the way out here," Nettie scolded him. "That boy's sick."
She began to fuss around her stove, heating a steam kettle that she hoped would ease Vin's coughing, but she listened attentively while Ezra filled her in on most of the details. He recounted Vin's disappearance and how JD had found him several days later, trapped and near death, and related how the tracker's health had suffered since the ordeal. However, he knew it would be impossible to give a direct answer to her question without mentioning the episode involving the gun. Nettie would keep it between them, but Casey was also listening, and there was no guarantee she wouldn't let something slip to JD, who in his youthful ebullience would no doubt let it slip to someone else, like Chris Larabee.
Luckily, he never got to that point in his story. Upon his revelation that JD had been injured in the altercation with James' men, Casey was ready to bolt out the door and go to him.
Ezra found that charming, in a way. It amused him that the somewhat distracted and oftentimes befuddled JD represented the pinnacle of all that was masculine in Casey's tender young heart.
He tried to reassure her that the lad was not seriously injured, but she would hear none of it, and to his surprise, Nettie didn't even try to talk her out of heading out into the atrocious weather. Either she knew Casey was too stubborn to listen, or, she had confidence that the young woman could accomplish the journey. He supposed the gallant thing to do would be to offer to accompany her, but he doubted the wisdom of leaving the old woman alone with Vin, given his unstable physical and mental condition.
"I'll be fine," Casey insisted. "A little water ain't gonna hurt me none."
Ezra tried one last time to convince her. "My dear, last I saw our young hero, he was in a drugged stupor. He won't know if you're there, or not."
Casey looked up at him with doe eyes and said, "Yes, he will," in a way that rendered him totally incapable of offering further argument.
After she was gone, Nettie returned to Vin's bedside with the kettle. She placed it carefully and directed the jet of steam so he was inhaling it. He didn't wake up or even stir, and that worried Ezra. There was a lot of the wild in Vin Tanner, and he didn't imagine that it was often that the tracker slept without keeping one ear and one eye open. Either he felt completely safe with Nettie, or he was just too sick and exhausted to care.
The old woman had taken a liking to Vin, Ezra knew, and was perhaps the only person besides Chris Larabee who seemed to put him completely at ease. Ezra felt he should prepare her for the possibility that Vin might behave in a manner different from what she was used to when he woke up, but he wasn't sure what, exactly, to tell her. He didn't think Vin was insane, like some people did, but that didn't preclude the possibility that he would act as though he were. By all accounts, he had been so lost in some distant contemplation at the saloon that he hadn't even realized Ted Cole was calling him out.
Vin had been right about one thing he'd said while they had sat perched on the rock formation. If he continued in this manner, he was going to get someone killed, and it most likely would be himself.
Nettie had seen the sores healing on Vin's chest and back, but they were minor, and didn't explain why he was so pale and so weak. Vin wasn't a big man, but the last time she'd seen him, he'd looked healthy and strong. He'd lost weight since then, to be sure, but that could be explained by what had happened to him. That haunted look she'd seen in his eyes, though, could not. She returned to the fireside where Ezra had made himself comfortable in her Hepplewhite chair - the same one Vin had stolen back from Guy Royal - and gave the gambler a stern look. "There's more goin' on than what you're tellin' me."
Ezra shook his head sadly. "He just hasn't been the same since whatever happened to him. If there was some way to know what he's been through, it might help, but even he doesn't remember. I fear whatever it is, it's tormenting him to a considerable degree."
Nettie nodded. "Seen that happen to folks... Sad thing is, I don't know what can be done about it, 'cept maybe let it wear itself out over time."
By this time, his clothes had dried and the storm clouds had passed. Ezra considered leaving Vin with Nettie and letting Chris come for him the next day. But as he finished dressing in Casey's room, tucking Vin's little Colt into his vest pocket, his one trepidation about doing that overcame any intentions he might have had in that direction. Nettie didn't have the strength to keep Vin from hurting himself if he were to try anything foolish.
So, he remained at the little homestead the rest of the afternoon, eventually dozing off himself.
When he woke up, Nettie was busy preparing supper, and insisting that they eat before hitting the road again. It would no doubt be simple fare, but Ezra was hungry enough not to be averse to the suggestion.
He gathered up Vin's dry clothes and took them to him. He was awake, but he looked like hell. He had doubts that the tracker was up to even the two-mile ride into town. "We should be heading back soon. Think you can ride?"
Vin nodded, but said, "I don't see where it matters if I go back or not. I don't reckon I'd be missed much, anyway."
"And what, pray tell, brings you to this conclusion?"
"Chris and Buck... they need to be thinkin' about JD for now. I ain't no good to them standin' around where they can trip over me."
"You aren't in the way, Vin. I am sure it was no one's intention to make you feel as if you were," Ezra said, as much in the way of an apology as an actual statement.
Nettie had overheard the last part of their conversation. "He can stay here with me a day or so," she offered from the kitchen
"No ma'am," Vin answered back. "I ain't imposin' on you."
"Don't talk nonsense, Vin Tanner" Nettie scoffed. "You're welcome here any time and you know it."
"Do you want to stay?" Ezra asked him. He still didn't think it was a good idea.
Vin shook his head sadly. "I want to, but I can't go gettin' crazy on her, Ezra. I don't want her to see me like that."
Ezra left him to get dressed, and then told Nettie they'd be leaving as soon as they ate. It was already dark, and it would be late before they got back to town as it was.
She was cleaning a rabbit and Ezra wondered if she'd shot the thing herself. He wasn't fond of rabbit, but then, he had found that this part of the country offered little in the way of cultured cuisine.
She had already stripped the hide off the poor creature when Vin wandered into the kitchen, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"I hope you're hungry," she told him.
Ezra could see that the mere thought of eating disagreed with Vin, but he thanked her politely, and headed for the door. "I'll be right back, " he told her.
She didn't ask him where he was going. He'd been asleep for 5 or 6 hours, so the answer was obvious.
But he took one look out the back door and seemed to stop in his tracks.
"What's the matter, son?" Nettie asked.
He shook his head slightly and said "It's dark," and then seemed to realize how stupid and childish that sounded.
Nettie, however, didn't seem to think anything of it, "Go with him, Ezra," she said, leaving no room for argument.
Vin actually seemed to be considering this, but when Ezra got up to comply, he laughed the suggestion off. "No. I'll be right back," he told her.
Vin was grateful that there was no one around, and so no need for him to shut himself inside the outhouse. He could leave the door open and still see the lights from the kitchen window. Nonetheless, he was fighting down pure, cold terror by the time he stumbled back into Nettie's kitchen.
He caught his foot on the door jamb and almost went down. Nettie grabbed him to steady him, and he knew she could feel his heart pounding. He was breathing way too fast and just generally making a fool of himself. There was no reason for a grown man to be that scared of nothing.
"You okay?" Nettie asked him. She didn't seem to be giving his panic a second thought.
"Yeah. Just a little winded, I reckon," he lied, and knew that she knew it.
He looked down at her small, gnarled hands holding him. They were bloody from gutting the rabbit. His eyes drifted to where she had piled the entrails on a plate, and his gaze stuck there. He wanted to stop looking at them - had to stop looking at them. But he couldn't.
The small tangle of intestines, the heart which still quivered spasmodically, the tiny lungs still filled with the animal's last breath...
It both fascinated and terrified him.
He had gutted animals before, plenty of times. The sight was nothing new, and yet, somehow, it was.
He could feel his own pulse pounding inside his head and a huge blackness rising up inside of him, squeezing the air out of him. He felt his breathing coming in harsh gasps to compensate for it and he tried to back away from the horror of the wet, glistening abomination, but his feet wouldn't move. Only his eyes could move... to the denuded, eviscerated carcass staring blankly ahead with its cold dead eyes....
He was dimly aware that he wanted to be sick, but his body had gone so numb that even that wasn't possible. All he could do was stare at that dead, mutilated creature while a consuming horror that he didn't understand enveloped him. It spread through him and fused itself with his very soul.
The thing in his head expanded, demanding to be freed, to be remembered, and he was losing the battle to keep the wall around himself so that he didn't have to see it. Didn't have to look into those unseeing eyes, or touch or smell the atrocity of that insurmountable mountain of blood and gore...
The visions came into his head, no matter how hard he tried to keep them on the other side of the wall. Blood on his hands... something unspeakably vile slipping between his fingers... pieces...
There were pieces...
The visions started to fade. Everything he was consciously aware of started to dissolve, and he let it, because if he didn't, that thing was going to rise up and devour his spirit and his sanity...
Make it go away...
Ezra turned and saw Nettie attempting to hold onto Vin. He got there just in time to keep the tracker from hitting the floor with enough force to hurt himself. Vin's face was chalky and glistening with sweat.
"I think he just fainted," Nettie said as she wet a dishrag under the kitchen pump. She didn't sound too sure of herself though, and when she applied the cloth to Vin's forehead and his body reacted with a near-convulsive spasm, she looked at Ezra uncertainly.
Ezra slapped Vin, not enough to sting, but enough to get his attention. "Mr. Tanner? Open your eyes if you can hear me..."
Vin's eyes blinked open, but there was no recognition in them. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and Ezra forced him to sit up, holding him so Vin rested against his chest.
Nettie unbuttoned his shirt and dabbed at his neck and chest with the cool cloth. Vin continued to struggle for breath even though his air passages did not sound obstructed or even congested.
Ezra was no doctor, but his instincts told him there wasn't anything physically wrong with Vin. "Calm down, Mr. Tanner," he said evenly.
Vin closed his eyes and seemed to be making an honest effort to get control of himself, but it was several minutes before he was able to stop shaking and breathe normally.
Finally, he pushed himself free of Ezra's hold on him, but instead of getting to his feet, he slumped to the floor and just lay there, his blue eyes staring at something apparently only he could see.
"Vin?" Nettie spoke to him softly. He didn't acknowledge her, so she stroked his hair. "Can you hear me, son?"
Vin nodded, but when she asked him what was wrong, his voice was barely more than a whisper, and neither Nettie nor Ezra could understand what he said. The words were there - he was mumbling about blood on his hands, again - but they weren't making any sense.
Ezra placed a hand lightly on his shoulder. "What are you trying to tell us, Vin?" he said softly.
Vin quieted down, and seemed to compose himself, but he didn't have an answer for Ezra. He was seized by another coughing fit, and Ezra looked at Nettie with a worried expression. "I should get him back to town."
"I can look after him here," Nettie protested.
Vin put a hand on her arm. "Thanks Nettie. But runnin' away ain't gonna help."
Nettie wanted to object, Ezra could tell, but instead she looked at Vin affectionately and said, "It mostly never does, son." Then she looked at Ezra, "I don't want him to be ridin'. Take my wagon. Casey can drive it back."
When Ezra had left to get the rig ready, Nettie made Vin sit up so that he was leaning against the wall. She sat down beside him and put her arm around him.
He lowered his head and wouldn't look at her. "I'm sorry, Nettie. Didn't mean to make a damn fool outa myself. Seems I been doin' that a lot lately."
"You ain't no damn fool, Vin Tanner." She pulled him close to her. "Now, suppose you tell Nettie what that was all about just now..."
Vin shook his head. "I wish I knew Nettie. Sometimes I see... things. Mostly in dreams, but sometimes when I'm awake too. It just comes outa nowhere and I don't know what it means..." He laughed bitterly. "I reckon my mind is about half gone by now." He lifted his head and looked into the kind, old eyes in that stern, weathered face. "Something real bad happened to me, Nettie, and the hell of it is, I can't remember what it was."
It was easy for him to talk to Nettie. She was a lot like him in many ways. They understood each other, and it wouldn't do any good for him to lie to her because she saw through him like a pane of glass. Just after he'd met her, he'd found himself wondering if his ma would have been like her if she had lived, and no sooner had he thought it than she had asked him who she reminded him of. Like Chris, he could safely let her inside his wall....
The wall he'd built around himself for reasons even he didn't know.
He told her everything he could remember, which wasn't much, up to when JD had gotten hurt. He tried to explain how sometimes, he just felt like he was some place else, and that was why he had just stood there when Ted Cole had called him out. The blood on his hand had been forcing him to think of something, and he was trying so hard to block it out that he had blocked out everything else, including the danger he was in.
"The same thing happened just now," he said softly. "Seein' that gutted rabbit... it messed my head up all of a sudden." He gave her a hint of a smile. "I reckon that all sounds a little crazy, don't it?"
Nettie was never one to mince words just to tell a person what they wanted to hear. "Yes, son, it does."
Vin looked at her, surprised, because for days everyone had been assuring him he wasn't mad.
"What're you fixin' to do about?" She asked him.
She stared at him point blank. Vin had given that question plenty of thought, but hadn't expected anyone to actually ask it of him. Nettie was making him squirm. Maybe he needed that.
"Buck told me I'm gonna get someone killed if I don't get myself back together. He's right. Problem is, only way I know to do that..."
"Is to go back there," Nettie finished his thought for him.
She tossled his hair affectionately. "I ain't never known you to back down from a fight, son. I don't reckon you'll let yerself get outa this one, neither."
He shook his head. "Can't afford to Nettie. I just don't wanna feel bad like this anymore."
The door opened, and Nettie and Vin were surprised to see Chris with Ezra. He'd returned to town after searching unsuccessfully for Vin, and had promptly ridden back out again as soon as Casey had told him where Vin was.
Vin looked up at him. "Hi, Chris."
Ezra had already told Chris what to expect, but even so, it took something out of him when he actually saw Vin. It hurt to see a strong man that helpless, especially when he was a friend.
He squatted down beside him, "What's goin' on, Vin?"
Vin shrugged. "Same old stuff. Just actin' crazy again," he drawled casually. "Got scared by a dead rabbit this time."
Chris frowned and looked at Nettie, but saw that she had no more idea what Vin was talking about than he did.
What he wanted to do was hold Vin and reassure him, because he looked so damed defeated. But he knew from his own experience that it was the worst thing he could do. He didn't want Vin to feel that his behavior was in any way acceptable, because that would make it easier for Vin to accept it, too.
He grabbed the tracker's arm firmly. "Get up off the floor, Vin" he said, and pulled him to his feet. "Nobody needs this crap."
His manner was abrupt to the point of being severe, and gave Vin no opportunity to protest or to challenge him.
Nettie was at first appalled at the harsh treatment, and almost said something to Chris. But then she noticed the way his arm protectively encircled Vin's shoulders once he had him standing, and how Vin actually seemed grateful to Chris for taking control of a bad situation. She realized that although Chris Larabee might have different ways of showing it, he cared for Vin Tanner every bit as much as she did, maybe even more.
Vin's stare once again became affixed on the slaughtered rabbit, and even though Chris didn't know any more than any one else why the sight bothered him, he reached up and forcibly turned Vin's head away from it. "It's okay now, Vin, you hearin' me?" He waited until Vin made eye contact with him. "There ain't nothin' to be scared of, understand?"
Chris drew him close for just an instant, just long enough to let Vin feel his strength, long enough to let him know he could rely on it. "C'mon pard, let's go home."
Vin wouldn't discuss what had happened at Nettie's, but Chris knew it bothered him more than the other times when he had lost that calculated control of his.
Nathan had checked him out and ordered him back to bed because of the cough and the fever. The healer didn't think Vin had anything more than a bad cold, but his resistance was so low at that point that it could easily turn into something worse. Vin complied without argument. In fact, he had become so docile he wasn't anything like his former self, and that worried Chris more than the emotional outbursts had, until he realized that Vin hadn't resigned himself to madness. Quite the opposite. He was preparing himself, like a warrior whose singular focus was on the coming battle. He rested when Nathan told him he had to, and he forced himself to eat, because he had to be strong enough to take on what was to come.
Vin was scared, though. Chris could see that. He suspected that Vin now remembered more than he was letting on, and it required all of his effort to keep those thoughts away until he was ready to face them, and the possibility that once he was out there, he might remember something even worse.
They moved a second bed into JD's room so Nathan didn't have to be running all over town. It was cramped, but for the first two days, neither Vin nor JD noticed. Morphine kept JD in a drug-induced haze and Vin slept most of the time.
Chris Larabee sat between the two men, reading aloud from Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Poetry wasn't suited to his western drawl, and he'd intended on reading it to himself, but JD, groggy and still half out of his head from the morphine had spotted the book during one of his lucid moments.
"Read me a story, Chris," he'd muttered.
"This ain't no story book, JD. It's just one big, long poem."
JD was undaunted. "Read it to me, anyway."
And despite the age and size difference, JD at that moment had reminded him so much of Adam that he'd taken a stab at it.
The kid had fallen asleep almost immediately, but Chris pretended not to notice that Vin was listening, too, and kept on reading until he came to a convenient stopping place. He folded the book and whispered, "JD?"
There was no answer from the boy, so he set the book down.
"You reckon any of that stuff is true, Chris?" Vin asked him. He was propped up in bed by several pillows. He coughed less that way.
"King Arthur and Camelot and all that."
Chris shrugged. "I s'pose it could be. I don't know as anyone knows for sure."
"I reckon we're kinda like them knights, the seven of us, ain't we?"
Chris laughed. "Don't tell JD that. He'd get puffed up like a peacock. But, yeah, I guess in a way, we are."
Vin nodded. "Got me a quest, anyway."
He wasn't talking about any Holy Grail, Chris knew. He meant going back to the malpais to confront whatever had happened to him there."You ain't gonna be facin' it alone, Vin. Remember that."
Vin sat upright and shook his head. "Maybe it's best I did."
"Maybe it's best, but you ain't gonna do it. For one thing, JD remembers where he found you. He's the only one who knows. And I sure as hell ain't gonna let you traipse off into the desert with JD for a guide."
Vin smiled at that, but then looked over at JD and said, "I owe him my life. If he hadn't been as pig-headed as he is, I might still be rotting in that hole..."
He looked down at his hands again, and Chris saw the familiar blank expression, the one that meant Vin was about to break off from this world and go back to that dark, hidden place in his own mind. But he'd sworn to Vin he wasn't going to let him act crazy, and he'd meant it.
He grabbed for one of his hands, "Vin?... Look at me, Vin!" The sharpness of his tone was enough to bring Vin back. He tugged on one of the tracker's fingers. "Why your hands, Vin? Why do you keep lookin' at your hands?"
Vin frowned. He apparently hadn't been consciously aware that he stared at his hands during these little episodes when he lost touch with reality.
He shook his head, confused. "I dunno, Chris. I get these pictures in my head, and there's something on my hands, but I don't know what it is... And Porter, it's like he's laughing at me, only he can't laugh because..." Vin's voice trailed off as he lost his train of thought. He pushed his hair back out of his eyes. "I dunno, Chris. I can't remember."
Chris had gotten so used to Vin's disjointed ramblings that this time, he'd almost missed something. When he realized what it was, it hit him like a rock slide. He clasped Vin's shoulders so the tracker would look at him. "Vin! Was Porter there with you?!"
Vin's eyes darted back and forth as he contemplated the question. His face went ashen and suddenly, he looked like a frightened, cornered animal. But Chris couldn't let up on him, not when he was this close. "Take it easy Vin. You don't have to remember what he did," he said in a reassuring voice. "Just tell me if he was there. Yes or no."
Vin took a deep breath to calm himself, then fixed his stare on Chris. "Yeah, Chris, he was there. He was in the hole with me, I think..."
That was as far as Chris dared to push him. Vin quickly broke eye contact and let his head drop into his hands. His voice was no more than a raspy whisper, "Jesus, Chris, what did he do to me?"
Chris rubbed his back through the thin cotton undershirt he was wearing, still damp and warm from his fever. "That's enough for now, Vin. You don't gotta think about it any more just yet."
He made him lie back against the pillows and tossed the covers up around him. "Want me to read to you some more?"
"Suit yerself," Vin said, which Chris knew meant 'yes.'
Eventually, Vin dozed off, too. The one good thing about him being physically ill was that he slept more soundly. Chris hated to bother JD, but he didn't know when another opportunity would present itself. He shook the boy's shoulders gently. "JD? Wake up, kid."
It was a real struggle for JD to get his eyes open, but he tried. As uncomfortable as it made Chris at times, he knew that JD savored any little scrap of personal attention that the older, wiser gunfighter deigned to give him, and he was willing to fight the drug in his system just to hear what Chris had to say.
Chris let him take his time waking up. He gave him a drink of water when he asked for it and waited patiently until those big, hazel eyes were able to stay open.
"Did you need somethin' Chris?" JD asked as if he were hoping the answer was yes. Chris found that amusing, considering JD hadn't even been able to walk for two days.
"I need you to remember somethin' for me," Chris said.
JD frowned. "Remember what?"
"When you found Vin, in the hole, was he there alone?"
JD looked surprised. "Yeah. 'Course he was."
"And you didn't see anyone else?"
"No. Just some bones."
This was news to Chris.
"Human? Where they human bones, JD?"
JD frowned, and Chris knew that in his elation over finding Vin, the boy probably hadn't given any thought to the significance of this question. "Yeah, Chris. They were. At least, I think they were... There was really just a skull, and it was broken... "
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Bashed in?"
JD looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, that's what was funny about it. It was broken, but it was kind of... I dunno... splattered. Like when you drop a glass jar and the pieces go everywhere. It looked like it had... fallen... or been dropped."
"You mean, dropped into the hole?"
"No... No... it wasn't in the hole. It was outside, near the rim. I thought it was Vin at first, but the teeth were all black and yellow...." He yawned and muttered, "Vin has good teeth..."
Chris didn't know if any of this was important, but he told JD, "You should have said something about this before now, JD."
The boy looked up at him, somewhat hurt, but more drowsy than anything else. "In case you ain't noticed, Chris, no one listens to me."
Chris felt a little stab of guilt at that remark. It was true that they often didn't take JD seriously, even though there was no doubt in his mind that the kid would lay down his life for any of them.
He smoothed JD's dark hair affectionately. "I know kid, but we're learnin'...."
JD's eyes had closed, but he opened them again. "Chris?"
"What if we take Vin back there and he..." He seemed to be searching for words.
"He what, JD?"
"You know, how he is sometimes now.... What if that doesn't go away? What if takin' him back there just makes it worse?"
Sometimes, the kid surprised Chris. He had to admit that he hadn't considered this possibility, but he said, "Vin thinks it'll help him if he can remember. I can't think of any other way to do it."
JD sighed. "Neither can I, but you didn't see him, Chris, the way he was when I found him. I don't even know if I want to find out what made him that way."
Chris leaned forward in his chair, forearms resting against his knees. "Were you listenin' to that poem I was readin' you, JD?"
JD thought he was being admonished. "I guess I fell asleep. Sorry."
Chris laughed. "You remember what it was about?"
"Knights and stuff."
"Well, yeah. But it was also about doin' things that might be almost too hard to do."
JD was almost asleep again, but he nodded his head and mumbled, "Courage."
Chris smiled at the boy's insight. Yeah, JD was full of surprises.
He looked at his two sleeping friends. One of them was young and the other was very young, but courage was something neither of them lacked. They could do this, and if they could do it, so could the others.
Vin's demon had thrown down the gauntlet.
The challenge would be met.
Buck watched from a discrete distance as Vin and JD headed to Potter's store to pick up the supplies they'd need for the trek out into the desert. Both of them would have resented it if they'd known that the other five never let them out of their collective sight. Vin didn't need any reminders that he wasn't well and for a fact, they were all overprotective of JD. The kid had every right not to like the idea, but it wasn't easy to watch his unsteady, halting steps and not want to rush to his side to make sure he didn't take a tumble.
Nathan was still certain JD's knee would heal completely, given time, but the boy was obviously in constant pain and his leg was weak and unsteady. Ezra had gotten him a walking stick, just like the one Bat Masterson used, or at least, that's what Ezra said. Buck didn't know how the hell Ezra would know one way or another. Dodge City was full of gamblers - good ones. Ezra would have found the profit potential too slim in a town like that, so Buck doubted he'd ever actually been there and seen the gunfighter-lawman face-to-face. Typical of Ezra, the cane was elaborate beyond what was necessary, with a glossy, black-enamel finish and a real silver lion's head for a handle. JD loved it, though, and it not only made it easier for him to get around, it also made him less self-conscious of his pronounced limp and awkward gait.
Vin took JD's arm and steadied him as they negotiated the steps leading into the store. Funny how that had worked out. The two of them seemed to share some kind of unspoken bond now that they both had to rely on the others to look out for them - JD because he was physically impaired and Vin because he just couldn't handle being on his own.
The tracker had gotten physically stronger once he'd decided to quit starving himself, but he'd still drift away from them and sometimes would just sit there like a dead man. Even his eyes looked dead when he got like that, and during his better times, it still seemed as though he was just going through the motions of living, not really connected to anything or anyone, except maybe Chris. He'd sit with them at the saloon, but was usually unable to concentrate on his cards, or the conversation, and more likely than not drinking more than he usually did. He always looked drawn and tired, and on the rare occasions that he did laugh or smile, it was all play-acting. It was like he just couldn't feel good about anything anymore, no matter how hard he tried.
Vin hadn't suffered anymore violent outbursts in public, but those had already done their damage. People avoided him now, and even of the ones who didn't, some, like Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter, weren't comfortable having him around. Then there were people like Maggie who hovered like vultures waiting for him do something crazy. Vin would no longer eat at her place, so most of the time, Josiah fed him. That was probably for the best, anyway. Josiah was willing to prepare food Vin would eat, and had the patience to wait while he took an hour or more to choke a meal down.
Josiah had been talking with him, too. Preparing him for what he might face when he went back to the malpais. Nathan was gifted at healing the body, but it was Josiah who had knowledge of the wounded spirit. Buck knew that Chris and the preacher had talked about things Vin had done and said during his less lucid moments. They had suspicions, and they hadn't needed to share them with Buck for him to know that whatever had happened to Vin had to have been something no man could endure. Vin wasn't weak, but whatever had been done to him had terrified him so badly that the hurt wouldn't heal.
Buck groaned aloud when he spotted trouble stumbling down the boardwalk in the form of three besotted cowboys. At least they weren't James' or Royale's men, just drifters who'd spent too long at the saloon turning their trail pay into piss. Problem was, the three of them were heading into Potter's store right on the tails of Vin and JD. Mrs. Potter, understandably, was easily shaken by any kind of confrontation since her husband had been gunned down. JD, God love him, had a knack for making that kind of thing worse instead of better, and there was no telling what Vin would do if JD needed help. He'd gotten a little better about not drifting off on them at the slightest provocation, but he still did it, and he was as jumpy as fleas on a jackrabbit.
Buck dared to hope the three cowboys were just blowing off steam, in which case, there was not much to be gained by interfering with their fun unless they actually started breaking things. He decided it was best to just stand back and see if anything actually happened before causing a scene.
Mrs. Potter was discussing some kind of lady thing with her friend. JD wasn't sure what they were talking about, but he'd heard enough that he was sure he didn't want to. He and Vin decided to look around and help themselves rather than interrupt. They only needed enough provisions for 3-4 days at the most, but they had to make sure they had everything. There was no living off the land in the malpais, and the memory of how fiercely hungry he'd been after two days without food was still fresh in JD's mind. He needed new boots, too. He'd taken a liking to the moccasins Josiah had given him, but they weren't practical for the treacherous surface of the lava flow, and now that the swelling in his feet had gone down and his blisters had healed, there was no excuse to avoid conventional footwear.
The pair he fancied were up on a shelf, too high for him to reach. Normally, he would have just jumped up on the counter and reached from there, but his knee was still stiff and painful, and he was pretty sure that would be a dumb thing to do.
He tried knocking them down with his cane, but it was a straight walking stick, not the kind with a hook on the end, and mostly he only succeeded in poking at them.
Vin saw the problem and tried to get the boots down for him, but he was wasn't tall enough, either. JD was about to make a joke about how they needed Buck - whom they both knew was hovering over them at that very moment like some self-appointed guardian angel, even though he thought they hadn't noticed him - but he saw that change in expression on Vin's face that he had learned meant he was thinking about the bad thing that had happened to him, reliving part of it in his head.
Josiah had said to get him to say what he was thinking when that happened, but it wasn't always easy. Sometimes, like now, they just weren't in a place where Vin could share his private thoughts. Besides, JD was pretty sure he knew why it bothered him so much that he couldn't reach. The hole where he had found Vin trapped hadn't been very deep. It was just deep enough that Vin couldn't get out, even though he must have tried like hell.
JD put a hand onVin's shoulder. "It's okay, Vin," he reassured him. "Mrs. Potter probably has a step ladder or some..."
JD flinched as the door to the shop opened with a loud crash. Vin literally jumped. JD had noticed soon after getting to know him that Vin was bothered by loud, unexpected noises, but now, he couldn't stand them. They seemed to set every one of his nerves on edge so as to cause him physical pain, and he'd try to hide it by becoming angry.
JD turned to the three idiots who didn't know any better than to enter a building like a herd of stampeding cattle. All three of them were drunk, and one of them decided to look him up and down like he wanted to start something.
He spit tobacco through his brown teeth, right onto Mrs. Potter's clean-swept floor. "Well, lookit this," he said to his friends as he waved a hand towards JD. "Regular city-slicker."
JD didn't like dressing like everyone else. That wasn't him, and he would have felt stupid. But he sure as hell wasn't no city-slicker. "If you fellers wanna buy something, you best find it and then be on your way," he said. He tried to sound like he meant business, but these guys were bigger than he was - hell, everyone was bigger than he was - and they'd seen the walking stick. It was hard to be a commanding presence.
Vin was still on edge from being startled. He had a funny, wild look in his eyes when he stepped from behind JD. "Better yet," he hissed, "why don't you just get the hell out now?"
JD winced and put a hand on his arm. "Easy, Vin."
The cowboys were too drunk to be reasoned with, but they weren't being openly hostile, just teasing him to see if he'd fight back. He had no intention of doing that and wrecking Mrs. Potter's store, even if he'd thought he stood a chance. With his leg messed up like it was, he was almost certain he didn't.
Still, Vin had apologized to JD a half dozen times for not standing up to Ted Cole that day at the saloon, and now, JD suspected, he was trying to make amends, except this wasn't the time for him to be starting a fight.
Vin wasn't a whole lot bigger than he was, but JD had seen how he could look tough and mean enough that men who considerably out-sized him often backed down rather than fight him. And now Vin was holding in a lot of anger that he didn't know how to get rid of, which made him unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. JD didn't know if the others had noticed it, but to him, Vin seemed like a rattlesnake coiled to strike most of the time, and right then, he looked downright crazy. He was staring at those three cowboys with his teeth clenched and blood in his eyes, like they were all personally responsible for the pain inside him. He was a lot madder than the situation warranted.
JD knew he had to do something to diffuse the situation, but he had no idea what. For once, he wished Buck had followed them.
Mrs. Potter stepped from behind the counter, attempting to calm things down before a fight started. "Can I help you boys find something?" She tried to sound friendly, but she was clearly nervous.
It did distract the cowboys, but not in the way she intended.
One of them was considerably less ugly than the other two, and being drunk, no doubt thought women found him more attractive than they actually did. He eyed Mrs. Potter lasciviously. "Oooooo-eeeee. What do we got here?" he leered, as if Mrs. Potter would be flattered by his attention.
Mrs. Potter, although certainly not uncomely, was a middle-aged woman, and smart enough to recognize disrespect when she saw it, but she nervously turned away from the drunkard.
He slapped her lightly on the bustle, and then made the sort of comment usually reserved for whores, except JD didn't even talk to whores that way.
He took a step forward. "You watch your mouth, mis..."
JD saw Vin only as a blur out of the corner of his eye. An instant later, the cowboy was doubled over by a blow to his mid-section. Vin had his mare's leg trained on the guy's head and was disarming him.
JD was surprised by Vin's move, but he didn't let it show as he quickly disarmed the other two cowboys, both of whom were so drunk they hadn't even thought to go for their guns.
Vin had over-reacted to the situation, but he'd handled it with his former efficiency. JD was thankful that at least they wouldn't have to shoot someone to avoid getting the shit beaten out of them. Still, he hoped like hell that Vin would calm down before things got out of control.
"We was just funnin'," the cowboy Vin had punched whined, still holding his belly. "No need to go gettin' all riled at us."
"You put your dirty hands on a lady, that's reason enough," JD said.
The cowboy tried to straighten up, and winced. "That feller hits plumb hard.... damn..."
Seeing that he and Vin had the upper hand for the moment, JD dared to swagger a bit. "I suggest you boys get whatever you came here for and then find somewhere to sleep it off. You can pick up your guns at the jail when you sober up."
"Who the hell are you guys, anyway?" the third cowboy slurred.
"They're the law in this town," Mrs. Potter said indignantly.
Still not having learned his lesson, the second cowboy looked at JD and snorted. "Law my ass. He ain't nothin' but a crippled boy."
That hurt, but JD wasn't about to show it. He brought his cane up and rammed it the direction of the asshole's crotch, stopping just short of actually bashing him in the balls with it. The cowboy reflexively covered himself and let out a high-pithced yelp even though JD didn't actually touch him.
Vin took the opportunity to get right in his face. "An' I'm so crazy, I might kill you for fun."
"Vin..." JD sighed.
But he was too late. Vin gave the guy a shove.
The man staggered, but he didn't go down. Vin hadn't pushed him in JD's direction, but he turned and then stumbled, and fell right into him, anyway.
JD tried to get out of the way, but he couldn't move that fast. He wrenched his knee, and he hollered as the pain made him see spots before his eyes.
Vin grabbed the guy and tossed him at his friends, knocking them down like duckpins. Mrs. Potter screeched as they narrowly missed a shelf full of canning jars. Before they could disentangle themselves from the heap they landed in, Vin was standing over them, leaving them to decide who he was aiming his gun at.
"You okay, JD?" he asked.
JD felt like someone had stuck a hot knife under his kneecap, but he managed to gasp, "Yeah... Let it go, Vin..."
Vin wasn't listening, though. "Get up," he commanded the trio. "And then get out, while I'm still in a good mood."
The three cowboys got up and dusted themselves off.
Buck, who just had a sixth sense for when trouble was brewing, had tried to stay out of the store, but couldn't stand it any longer. He came through the door just as the drunkards were staggering out.
"You best watch out fer them two fellers," one of them slurred. "Coupla mean little shits."
JD was bent over, holding his throbbing knee. "Was there trouble?" Buck asked him.
Mrs. Potter smiled gently at Vin. "No trouble, thanks to these two."
Vin tried to smile back, but his hands were shaking, and what little color he had these days had drained from his face.
"You okay, Vin?" Buck asked him.
He nodded, but then he bolted out of the store.
JD looked up at Buck. "Go after him."
The urgency in JD's voice got Buck's feet moving, but by the time he reached the boardwalk, the quick, agile tracker was nowhere to be seen. He even looked up - Vin liked high places and often watched over the town from a rooftop. He didn't see him, though.
JD hobbled up behind him.
"What happened in there?" Buck asked him.
"It was nothin', just some cowboys actin' loco. They really stirred Vin up, though. You know how he is.... We should find him, Buck."
Buck agreed with that, but he didn't know where to start looking. He and JD split off in different directions, and Buck checked the saloon and Josiah's place before he remembered that the last time Vin had run off on them, he'd gotten his horse and left town. He headed for the livery.
It almost seemed too easy when he actually found Vin there. He was beside his horse, but his gear was scattered on the ground. He was clawing through it like he'd misplaced the crown jewels.
"Vin?" Buck said softly when the tracker didn't seem to notice he was there.
Vin continued his search, so Buck squatted down beside him. "You lose somethin'?"
Vin snickered, "You mean besides my mind?"
Buck threw his head back and laughed heartily. Vin, who was obviously intent on wallowing in self-pity, wasn't expecting that reaction. He looked at Buck, confused. "I'm glad you think this is funny."
"Think what's funny? That you lost your mind?"
Vin glowered at him.
"What do you want me to do, Vin? Pat you on the head and tell you I can make it all better? I'll do that if you want, but the way I see it, that ain't what you need."
"Oh yeah? What is it I do need, Buck? Care to tell me?"
"Well, we could start with a kick in the ass to get rid of this attitude you've picked up."
Vin squinted at him, his expression full of resentment. "What attitude?"
Vin gave him a pained look, and Buck knew he'd hit a nerve, but he quickly turned away and started shaking out his bedroll viciously. "You don't know shit, Buck."
"I know you're scared."
Vin visibly winced at that observation.
"You were right when you said I could get somebody killed," he said softly. He patted the unrolled blanket, but didn't find whatever he was looking for.
"An' now you're scared that after you go back... out there... that it ain't gonna fix anything."
Vin hit the flattened blanket even harder. He was no longer looking for something, he was just hitting it. Buck grabbed his forearm and made him stop.
Vin yanked his arm back and got to his feet. He started to kick his stuff away from him, unmindful of breaking or damaging anything. They'd found it best to just let him get it all out when he got like this. Attempting to restrain him only made him worse most of the time. He'd fight and struggle until he hurt himself, or get so mad he'd be physically ill. But his horse skittered away from him, its eyes round with fright, and Vin didn't even seem to notice, much less care. He ripped down the bridle that hung on the wall and flung it hard against the back of the stall, almost hitting the startled animal. Buck grabbed him and pushed him down into the straw on his back. He'd sit on him if he had to, and Vin knew it.
"You're done, Vin," he said gently. "No more of that."
Even though he was lying down, Vin's entire body seemed to sag under that unseen burden he was carrying. "I hate it that I ain't no use to anybody," he said softly.
Buck pulled him into a sitting position. "You done fine back at Potter's from what I heard."
Vin shifted his position so that he leaned his head back against a rough wooden support timber and closed his eyes. "I almost got JD shot again is what I did. I don't even know what I'm doin' half the time."
Buck let himself drop all the way to the floor so that he was sitting beside Vin. "Ain't none of us holdin' any of this against you, Vin."
Vin didn't look at him, but he said, "What if I go out there and I don't remember a damn thing Buck? What if I don't get past this?"
"We can deal with that, if it happens."
Vin shook his head. "You shouldn't have to. I ain't nothin' to any of you."
Buck knew what Vin was thinking. He didn't have anyone else. No family, no place he belonged. He'd probably been on his own since he was much younger than JD. Needing to depend on others to care for him, even if it only meant not leaving him alone, had to be hell.
But he didn't allow any sympathy into his voice when he said, "I guess that means the lot of us don't mean shit to you, either."
Vin looked at him. "I didn't say that."
"You might as well have."
Vin turned away, his eyes downcast.
"Ain't none of us come into this with any guarantees, Vin," Buck said.
Vin frowned. "What do you mean?"
"The life we lead... there ain't no guarantee that one of us ain't gonna end up needing the others at some point. Ain't no shame in it. You'd be there if it was one of us. Hell, you are there for JD right now. I seen how you walk a little slower so he can keep up, how you put yourself in just the right spot to catch him if he should fall. Does it bother you, doin' any of that for him?"
"It's my fault he got hurt."
Buck laughed. "Now you sound like Chris.... It's Ted Cole's fault JD got hurt. And, I reckon JD should take a little of the blame himself. Fool kid, always runnin' off an' doin' stuff two steps ahead of his brain."
That got a hint of a smile out of Vin.
"My point is," Buck continued, "you don't gotta be worryin' about this. If you need us, we're gonna be there. Not just because we're all you got but because... well, hell, because you're all we got, Vin. It's just us, don't you see that? We maybe ain't family, but we're as close as any of us come to havin' one." He put his hand on Vin's shoulder. "You wouldn't turn your back on any of us. We ain't about to leave you to get through this on your own."
"And if I don't get through it?" Vin said bitterly.
"You will. I know that for a fact"
Vin picked at the straw around him. "How can you be sure Buck, when you don't even know...?"
Buck had an idea what Vin was hinting at. He knew what Chris and Josiah suspected. "If you're thinkin' that whatever it is is gonna make us think you any less of a man, Vin, you're wrong."
"No I ain't," Vin said. "You won't say it, but you'll be thinkin' it."
Buck nodded. He wouldn't lie to Vin. Vin was too smart. "Maybe we will, but we'll be in the wrong, and in our hearts, we'll know that. Whatever happened, you didn't want it to, and it could have happened to any of us."
Vin sat perfectly still and didn't respond to him.
"I don't wanna talk about this anymore, Buck."
Buck nodded and stood up. To just leave Vin sitting there alone was not a good idea. No telling what he'd get it into his head to do. So instead, he started to gather up Vin's scattered belongings and after a few seconds, Vin got up to help him.
"Never did get the stuff we needed at the store," he said casually.
Buck hoisted Vin's saddle back into place. "Vin, you sure you wanna go through with this? Goin' back out there?"
Vin looked up at him with tired blue eyes. "I have to Buck. I left a piece of me out there. I need to get it back somehow."
Buck nodded that he understood. "Vin, whatever is out there on that mesa waitin' for you, it ain't bigger than the seven of us together...."
Sometimes, he just got too damned emotional. He only meant to clap Vin on the shoulder, but he ended up hugging him like he'd done with JD.
Funny thing was, Vin didn't seem to mind, although eventually he muttered, "Buck? You pat my head an' I'm gonna have ta kill you."
Buck laughed and let Vin go.
Come morning, they'd ride.