Vin guided his horse away from town and set out along the trail that existed only in his mind, still plagued by that heavy pain deep in his chest. And, much like an animal, when he was hurt his instincts drove him into solitude, to seek refuge in high, lonely ground, to find a lair where he could lick his wounds far from prying eyes.
People dealt the wounds. Only time away from people would heal them.
But he possessed also the instincts of the hunted, never once trusting that he could let down his guard, relax his vigilance. Chris had reminded him with a simple, "Watch your back," and it was not a reminder he took lightly. The entire time he rode, though he appeared wholly at ease in the saddle, his sharp, far-seeing gaze continually swept the vast landscape stretching about him, scanning every aspect of the uneven ground for any shadow that wasn't right, any flutter of movement that did not belong, any hint of something -- or someone -- out of place.
He also chose for himself the most difficult track into the hills, knowing others might not be so eager to follow where he was perfectly at home. And, like the half-mule Vin had often accused him of being, Peso, Lord love `im, picked his way with a sure-footed ease over the steep, rocky, treacherous ground, actually appearing to enjoy the challenge. The big black seemed to share his rider's instincts, responding as easily to a mere shift in Vin's posture as he did to the knowing hands at his reins. And when Vin spoke softly to him, he tossed his head or nickered, as if in reply.
At last, the steep-rising ground levelled out, and Vin reached the place that had been calling out to him since morning. It was a flat, grassy clearing among huge rocks and stunted trees, offering cover should he need it and a long, clear view of the land below -- and of anyone who might be trying to make his way up. With a wholly involuntary sigh of relief, Vin reined Peso to a stop and swung down to the ground, breathing deeply of the fresh, clean air. Certain the silence and solitude would soon ease the tightness from his muscles and the pain from his chest, he began stripping his gear from the big horse, working with the sure, unhurried movements of long habit, willing himself to concentrate only on the task at hand and pushing away any thought that tried to surface.
He didn't wanta think. He'd come here t' git away from thinkin'.
Damn, why wouldn't his chest stop hurtin'?
He laid his saddle on the ground and spread out his bedroll before it, making a fireless camp on the familiar ground where he'd spent so many nights in the past. Still he tried to hold his thoughts at bay. Or one thought in particular.
But, tell me, Mr. Tanner, what, exactly, would you know of the matter at all?
He lay down on his blankets, his head resting on the saddle, and closed his eyes. A slow, unsteady sigh escaped him, and he began slowly rubbing his chest again.
He hadn't felt the true pain of her loss in a long time, had thought maybe it was gone for good. But it wasn't. It hurt now like it had back then, it throbbed and ached through him with a terrible force, gnawin' at his gut and wringin' at his heart as if she hadn't been twenty years `n more cold `n in the ground.
Lord God, he hated t' think o' her like that!
The ache grew harder and he turned onto his side, curling against the pain and squeezing his eyes shut against the hot sting of tears.
I ain't really leavin' ya, Vin honey, y'know I'd never do that. I'll always be with ya, wherever ya go. Jus' think of me, baby, an' I'll be there.
`Cept she wasn't. Not no more. Not like she had been. He'd lost her the first time when they'd put her down inta that hole. Now he was losin' her again, an' this time the hole stealin' her from him was his own memory.
He groaned and turned onto his back, opening his eyes to stare up at the cloudless blue sky. Time was, he knew her face better'n his own, could see it plain whenever he tried. It was like she said -- all he had t' do was think of her, an' she'd be right there, offerin' whatever comfort he needed.
But it weren't that way no more, hadn't been for a long time. Maybe he hadn't thought of her often enough or hard enough, maybe he'd spent too much time thinkin' on other things. Whatever the reason, he jus' couldn't see her as clear as he used to. An' the more he tried, th' harder it got. Like a picture fadin' from age, her face had begun to blur in his mind.
He knew better than to force the memory. Tryin' t' do that was like tryin' hold sand -- the tighter you squeezed yer fist, th' more sand run out through yer fingers. All's he could do was just relax, think of her -- an' try `n catch what he could, like glimmers of movement seen from the corner of his eye.
An' her voice-- He used t' hear her voice clear as a bell, the way it sounded `fore she got sick. More an' more, though, it came to him soft, like th' murmurin' of wind through the trees.
But every now 'n then -- like today, with Mary `n Billy or Miz Hanlan an' her boy -- somethin'd bring it back as clear as ever, an' he'd hear her now like he done then, callin' after him, laughin' with him--
Y'know I love ya, don't ya, Vin? Lord, he could almost feel her fingers in his hair, brushin' it out of his eyes like she always done. I reckon we ain't got much, but we got each other, an' that's more'n a lotta folks got. D'you know how much yer mama loves you, baby?
Ma, I ain't no baby! I'se near five, now. He could feel himself holdin' up five grubby fingers, then countin' `em t' be sure. I'se too growed t' be a baby!
She'd hugged him, then--
He exhaled unsteadily and sat up, drawing up his legs and resting his arms atop his knees. That was how he remembered her best -- her warmth and softness as she held him close, rockin' him gently and strokin' his hair, sometimes talkin', sometimes singin', sometimes just silent, but always warm, always soft, and always smellin' of sunshine, fresh bread and wild flowers.
She'd always smelled like home...
He dropped his head onto his folded arms with a harsh groan, his chest hurting unbearably.
Lord, he didn't wanta lose her again!
+ + + + + + +
Maude sat before the mirror in her hotel room and stared into it, for once not really seeing the lovely face reflected back, too lost in her thoughts, her confusion, to pay much heed to her own beauty.
Ezra was avoiding her. And making a point of doing so. Since their argument this morning, she'd gone three times to the saloon, where he had entrenched himself, hoping to talk to him, to explain. But he'd given her no chance. Each time she'd tried to approach he'd found some way, some excuse, to turn his back on her, to leave.
And each time, just before he left, he'd looked at her with such contempt, such hurt...
She shook her head slowly, frowning deeply. She and Ezra had fought before -- hell, they fought every time they got together. But it always blew over quickly. The misunderstanding would be cleared up, the disagreement resolved, and then their relationship would be as it ever had been.
Whatever that was...
She sighed and bowed her head, closing her eyes briefly. This place, those men, were ruinin' Ezra, cloudin' his judgment and dullin' his edge. He couldn't see it, so she had been forced to point it out to him, to expose their corruptin' influence.
It was her duty as his mother.
Had he understood that? Had he been grateful? No. Defensive, yes. Angry, God, yes! But grateful? She laughed shortly, bitterly. Not in the least.
Where had she gone wrong? Where had she failed? Hadn't she warned him of the dangers of remainin' in one place too long? Of bondin' with the locals? Of dependin' on others, of -- Lord, save her -- trustin' others? Where had the boy come by these-- these disgraceful notions?
Her eyes and mouth hardened. It was his association with those gunslingers. They were ruinin' him! Why couldn't he see it?
She sighed sharply, angrily, and shot a disparaging glance about her room. Such a pathetic, dusty, worthless little town! Far beneath her, and far beneath Ezra! The two of them deserved better. She hadn't spent all these years teachin' him, trainin' him, honin' his skills, just to see him end up here, lettin' his God- given talents go to waste while he acted as-- as-- a lawman--
Good God, she could hardly bring herself to say the word!
She thought again of the scruffy, unshaven, long-haired young man who'd watched her and Ezra so intently this morning. Mr. Tanner. Polite enough in his taciturn way, but still an uneducated, illiterate, uncivilized ruffian who was, no doubt, far more at home among savages than among decent folk. What on earth was Ezra doin' associatin' with such a man? With any of these men? There was nothin' to be gained from it -- between them, they couldn't possibly have ten dollars!
Yet when she had pointed this out to Ezra, explainin' to him how wasted he was here, how far beneath him that crowd of gunmen was, how he belonged in San Francisco, St. Louis or New Orleans and not in this dusty little wide spot in a non-existent road--
Couldn't he see she was only lookin' out for his best interests? Wasn't that what mothers did?
"Mother?" he had scoffed, the venom dripping from his words. "Oh, please, spare me! Of all your masquerades, that one is your least convincing and one for which you are singularly ill-equipped! Mother, indeed. You are entirely bereft of even the most basic of maternal qualities!"
And the argument had escalated from there, culminating in that unfortunate slap. Well, she'd certainly never intended to strike him, but he had provoked her so--
She glanced down at her shapely, well-kept hands. She'd never hit Ezra before, or not that she recalled. And she didn't like the fact that she'd done so today. If only he would allow her to apologize--
Interference, he'd called it, meddling in his life and seeking to control it. She preferred to think of it as concern, a mother's natural desire to see her son's potential fulfilled and his talents used wisely, profitably.
Rather than wasted in some God-forsaken little backwater where he could not possibly be appreciated and where he might die any day in the street for no better cause than "principle." Principle!
Oh, Ezra, Ezra, where did I go wrong?
+ + + + + + +
Ezra exhaled sharply and sat back with a poor grace, gazing disgustedly about the table as the four men left it. Depriving the cowboys of their meager holdings had proven poor solace for the disgruntled gambler. It had been too easy, and the winnings too paltry. And, far more irritating, it had seemed to prove every accusation Maude had flung at him.
Maude. Mother. Good Lord, had there ever been a more unlikely woman in that particular role? A woman more spectacularly unsuited for it? What could the Almighty, in His eternal omniscience, possibly have been thinkin' when He decreed that Maude Standish should be a mother?
An offense, surely, to mothers everywhere!
Alone at the table, avoided by every other patron in the saloon, he sighed heavily and dealt a hand of solitaire, but stopped abruptly when he turned up the queen of diamonds.
Maude. Mother. For the love of God, how? Why? What vast, eternal plan had demanded the perpetration of such a travesty? Such a besmirching of the sanctified institution?
Ezra, she's yer ma. Ya shouldn't talk about yer ma thataway.
He snorted derisively and furiously turned up another card as the softly drawled words sounded again in his mind.
A son owes it to his ma t' speak respectful of her.
Spare me your homespun wisdom, Mr. Tanner, he retorted silently, bitterly. What do you know of the matter? Your mother apparently was an angel or a saint, a woman whose lovin', nurturin' hand reaches even beyond the grave. Lovin' hand, Mr. Tanner, not a graspin', controllin' one that knows only how to push and to manipulate. And I dare say you had more affection and tenderness from your "ma's" calloused hand in five short years than I have had from "Mother's" manicured one in all the years of my life!
She's still yer ma.
Ezra threw down the cards with a sharp hiss of fury.
Easy for you to say, Robin Hood! Your mother is safely dead and buried, where she cannot disappoint, while mine still walks the earth and disappoints every day without fail!
Across the saloon, seated at the seven's customary table, Nathan and Josiah watched Ezra with deepening concern. Josiah in particular sympathized, for he knew all too well the uniquely painful wounds that could only be inflicted by a parent. He considered it cruelly ironic that hands intended to love and nurture a soul could so easily warp it beyond repair.
Though at least while both parent and child lived, there was still time and opportunity for reconciliation...
"He keeps drinkin' like that an' he's gon' shoot somebody `fore dark," Nathan said as Ezra emptied yet another glass. "Or push somebody inta shootin' him!"
Josiah smiled slightly as Chris Larabee's form darkened the doorway. "Never fear, Brother Nathan, I foresee a firm and God-like hand descendin' soon upon the poor sinner's shoulder and guiding him either to repentance or retribution."
"Damn, Josiah," the healer grumbled, "you're startin' t' sound jus' like Ezra!"
Chris stood for long moments in the doorway, staring grimly at Ezra. Then, with a muttered curse, he turned and made his way across and up to Josiah and Nathan, shaking his head as he walked.
"How long's he been like that?" he asked tersely as he dropped into a chair.
"How long've you been gone?" Nathan countered wryly.
"Hell," Chris muttered, reaching for the bottle and a glass. "So this what we've come to. Vin's hidin' in the hills and lickin' his wounds, and Ezra's down here tryin' drown his." He poured himself a drink. "All we need to complete the ruin is the lovely and gracious Maude Standish. Any idea whose pocket she might be pickin' now?"
"You mean Maude's what drove Vin outta town?" Nathan asked in disbelief.
Chris took a much-needed drink, hoping the liquor would loosen the knots building in his muscles. "Maude got to Ezra and Ezra got to Vin," he answered softly. "Lord save us from orphans, mothers and sons!"
"There's a powerful lot of hurt in that equation," Josiah observed softly, his eyes going again to Ezra. "The orphan grievin' for what he's lost, the son for what he's never had, and the mother for what she cannot give." He glanced up at the healer. "Tell me, Brother Nathan, who is the most deeply wounded of the three?"
"That another one o' yo' riddles, Josiah?"
"Not mine, brother," Josiah sighed. "Not mine!"
+ + + + + + +
Vin was restless. Far from soothing his soul, the peaceful silence about him was only increasing its turmoil, reminding him of all he had lost and could never get back, reminding him of the silence within himself. He had to strain so to hear her voice now, even in the silence, and then it came to him only as a whisper.
As it had when she lay dyin'...
He lurched to his feet with a harsh, hoarse curse, then kicked furiously at the grass. Goddamn it, it wasn't fair, it wasn't right! His memories of her were all he had left! He'd already lost her. Wouldn't he even be allowed t' keep her memory?
He wiped impatiently at the tears of anger, pain and frustration that refused to quit falling, cursing again. He'd cried enough over her when he was a kid. How long was he s'posed t' keep cryin'?
An' when the hell would his goddamned chest stop hurtin'?
Swearing with a fluency and intensity that would have stunned the other six, drawing on his knowledge of Spanish and Indian words when others failed him, he gathered his belongings and packed his bedroll, for once unable to bear the silence he usually craved. He even saddled Peso with uncharacteristic roughness, which clearly startled the horse. When all was done, he swung into the saddle with another curse and rode away from the clearing without a backward glance.
Hell, what was the use of lookin' back, when he knew he wouldn't -- couldn't -- see the one thing he most wanted to?
He gave the trail-wise horse his head in going back down the rough track, at the moment trusting the animal's instincts more than his own. His mind was too muddy, his thoughts too addled. He knew Peso would take better care of them now than he could.
And even after they were down, he continued to trust Peso, riding without consciously guiding. The animal again proved his worth by seeming to sense his mood, and curbed his natural high spirits to give his tired and troubled rider the peace he so needed.
Rocked by Peso's easy, even gait and worn out by the battle with his fiercely churning emotions, Vin half-dozed in the saddle as he had so often before. He felt no need to keep a vigilant watch, for he knew with an awful, aching certainty that he was alone on the vast land.
And, for once, he took no comfort in it.
+ + + + + + +
He looked up slowly, bleary-eyed and comfortably drunk, and tried to focus on the swimming figure before him. A stylish figure in green silk that seemed to reach up forever, finally topped by a hazy, familiar face--
"Good Lord, I am in hell, and before me stands the queen," he drawled thickly. "Mothah. How lovely t' see you."
Maude grimaced deeply in disgust at his badly slurred words and thoroughly disreputable appearance. "And if this isn't just the sight to warm every mother's heart!"
He laughed loudly. "Am I t' take it then that you've found one?" He turned his seat and gestured about the saloon with an unsteady wave. "Ladies, gen'lemen," he called, "please, check yoahselves carefully! If my mothah claims a heart, it can only mean she has pilfered it from someone among us!"
Maude stiffened and inhaled sharply, but held a tight rein on her anger. "Ezra, you're drunk."
He swivelled clumsily back to face her. "Astute as evah, I see! Nothin' gets past Mothah's eyes!"
She drew a deep breath, held it for long moments, then released it slowly, determined not to have another scene like this morning's. "I did not come here to argue with you--"
"Pity," he sighed. "That is what we do best." Slumping forward in his chair, he reached once more for the bottle to pour himself another drink.
Maude, however, grabbed his arm and wrenched the bottle from him with a quickness and agility that showed where he had gotten his. "I believe you've had enough already!" she said harshly.
"Obviously not," he drawled grimly. "I c'n still see an' heah you."
Maude scowled and set the bottle on the adjacent table, to the delight of the three men there. Turning back to her son, she drew herself up to her full height and, with all the maternal authority she could muster, said firmly, "Ezra Standish, you are comin' with me, if I have to have you carried from this saloon. I need to talk to you, and I will not be denied!"
He shot her a hard, almost sober glare and spat, "Some things, deah Mothah, nevah change! When have you evah been denied?"
She turned and settled her gaze on the big former preacher at the table across the room. "Mr. Sanchez," she called loudly, calmly, "you are one of the peacekeepers in this town, are you not?"
"Shit," Chris whispered, bowing his head at the thought of still another victim Maude might claim.
With a resigned glance at Chris, Josiah rose to his feet. "Yes, ma'am, I am."
"Then, please, remove this man from this saloon and take him to his room." She cast a cold green stare at her startled son. "He is a drunken disgrace, and seems intent upon causin' trouble!"
Josiah hesitated uncertainly and looked at Chris for guidance. But Chris only slumped further in his chair and ran a hand slowly over his face, surrendering to the irresistible force that was Maude Standish. Seeing his leader defeated, Josiah knew he had no choice.
"At your service, ma'am," he gave in graciously, stepping away from the table and going down to join Maude. All the while he prayed that Ezra was too drunk to shoot straight.
Watching the big man's approach, and seeing his own fate in the set of those massive shoulders, Ezra tried to palm his sleeve-gun. To his horror, his hand remained empty.
"Lookin' for this?" Maude asked softly, holding up the gun she had taken from him as she had taken the bottle.
Ezra's mouth fell open, but no words came from him. He could only stare from his gun to his empty hand in utter bewilderment.
"Oh, Ezra, Ezra," Maude sighed as Josiah reached down and grabbed her son, pulling him to his feet, "whatevah am I goin' t' do with you?"
And as everyone else in the saloon watched Josiah sling the still-silent gambler over his shoulder and carry him out, Chris Larabee bowed his head lower and shook it slowly.
Orphans, mothers and sons. Hell, why didn't somebody just shoot him now?
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