Follows Mercury Jones and Vin, Unauthorized
He didn't feel pain at all, and this failed to amaze him, even though he knew he'd gotten shot. Last he remembered, he and Peso loped next to Chris, the rest of their friends trailing close behind, their horses' hooves kicking up dust and generating that comforting, continuously rolling thunder. Strangely, he couldn't remember the actual gunshot himself, didn't hear it, could only remember a heavy impact that knocked him out of the saddle like a mammoth fist in his chest. After that, he couldn't recall anything else except a feeling of weightlessness, like standing and looking over the edge of a canyon.
Pretty much felt that way now, so light that if a wind rose, it'd pick him up and he'd just drift away like pollen on the breeze, or snow scudding on the currents of air that eddied around the mountains. Voices anchored him, though- six voices that swirled thick and heavy through his awareness, six distinct voices that mixed together like colored oils and water. They held him firmly, and he found himself torn between the desire to shake free of them or stay and listen.
Since he didn't hurt, he figured he'd stay and listen for a while. Coolness passed across him, like a light flashing of blue in his eyes, and with it came a deep and soothing voice. That coolness pulled him in, lent his body some weight, and coherence came.
"I done all I could." said the voice that had accompanied the coolness, and the voice was redolent of exhaustion and grief. "The bullet went right through the main artery. I... I patched it, but he's just lost too much blood. Ain't near enough left in him to keep him alive much longer."
That was Nathan's voice, he realized. Nathan knew about arteries and how to patch them. He wished he could tell Nathan he was fine, really, and not to worry about screwing up. "I'm sorry, Chris," Nathan continued, oblivious to Vin's wishing. "I... I don't think he's gonna make it."
Vin desperately tried to reassure the healer that he felt fine.
"Will he wake up?"
Chris. Vin would know that voice anywhere.
No verbal answer came, and Vin wondered what Nathan's response was. Did he nod his head yes, shake his head no? Shrug? Not that it mattered of course, because Vin felt fine- he really did.
"I... No. His brain is startin' to shut down, hands and feet're gettin' cold." Nathan's voice thickened. "I'm sorry, Chris," he repeated.
Vin swore loudly that he felt fine, and kept shouting it until the wind picked him up suddenly and shook him loose to tumble into a vast and open sky. The voices still played around him, inchoate, as insubstantial as the clean air brushing across his face.
CHAPTER ONE: COLD COMFORT
It takes a lot for Ezra to start lookin' defeated- I've seen him coated in dirt and sweat from head to toe, with those fancy clothes of his pretty much write-offs, but something in him continues to exude confidence and complete control. It runs deeper than his poker face, because I've seen him in situations that could set hardened men to screaming or running in terror, but he just stands there and... I dunno. Exudes. I've also seen him teetering on the brink a few times when he forgets to sit as a gentleman ought and ends up slouched in his chair, legs splayed and arms hangin' off the rests, his poker face a mere memory.
Like he's doin' right now.
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He's looking at me, of course, because out of the three people in the room, I offer the most possibility for conversation and entertainment. Mr. Tanner hasn't deigned to either move or awaken yet, and staring at that pallid face- which should, by rights, be tan- is far too disturbing to do. I can't look at Josiah, for I myself am staring at Mr. Tanner's chest, at that stupid piece of artery that refuses to co-operate, at the lungs that fill far too slowly and shallowly to sustain even a life as tenacious as Mr. Tanner's is. It's awkward, having Mr. Sanchez stare at me, me stare at Vin, and Vin stare at nothing, so I say something.
"Mr. Sanchez, I once said that I would start doling out cash when the sanctified dead arose from their graves to receive judgment. If Mr. Tanner would do me the honor of waking up right now, I shall gladly begin the distribution of my assets immediately."
"It's hard dealing with death," he muses by way of reply. "Death makes no deals, but we deal with it anyway." He leans forward a little in his chair and fixes me with those pale blue eyes. It's rather unnerving, really, so I continue talking just to funnel some of that nervousness away from me, and I can't believe I'm saying what I'm saying. What is it about death that makes us want to talk more? Or close up, when we may be a person of many words? Or give some expression to a part of ourselves we keep locked up and hidden at all other times?
"I don't think I look for comfort in money," I say, completely out of the blue. He gives me a look, so I automatically have to concede the point. "Oh, very well, I did. But the money... it was a bandage at best, wasn't it? Put a patch over my wounds so I didn't have to lick them too much." God, self-awareness is such a burden. Most times, I think I'd be better off without it- realizations like this put a man out of business.
"Flimsy bandage," Josiah affirms. "There's a reason they call it cold, hard cash- not much point in makin' a bandage out of a gold coin or wrappin' a wound in a dollar bill."
I must agree with him. God help me, I like this man. I really do.
"When you are alone, Mr. Sanchez, you take what comfort you can get and money might as well be one of them. But... when you see a friend dying... it's more of a bane than a benefit." If my mother heard this, she would start weeping and beating her breast in mourning. "And it seems trivial... The hell with it. It is trivial. To realize your life is defined by one thing, and when that one thing seems pointless, your life in turn seems pointless."
God, this is hard to say, but admitting the truth to oneself always is, and the man lying on the bed doesn't make it any easier- he's a silent accusation, and at the moment, I detest him for it. "He's lived a better life than I ever have," I say. "The trappings of our lives may have been different, but the skeleton of our growing-up stays the same. He's good, I'm not, and it's not fair." Now I sound like a petulant, jealous child, and I have no idea why it's 'not fair.'
Josiah nods, more to himself than to agree with me.
"There once was a man who was very rich- had everything under the sun and then some, but people hated him for his money and just plain never spoke to him. One day, his country called him away to war, and he went accordingly, figurin' he might as well fight an' go home, or fight an' die. Another man lived in the same country, but he was extremely poor, just scraping by on what little he could make as a handyman, and people... people, they hated him because they thought he was good for nothin'. He was told to go an' fight, just like the rich man, an' he did, for the same reasons.
"Both men ended up fightin' in the same division, side by side, an' became friends. They bound each other's wounds, hid in the trenches together, told stories in the night to remind themselves of their homes and what they'd left behind. When they got home, the rich man went to his mansion and the poor man went to his shack. They never saw each other again, but both were happy."
"So why didn't they see each other again?" Somehow, it's important that I know this.
"Who knows?" he responds. "Maybe it was a big country and they lived on opposite ends of it. Maybe they got separated during the trip home." A careless shrug, Josiah-ish for 'it doesn't matter' and he finally says, "The point of the story is that they're happy."
"Whatever for?" I have an inkling of the answer, and my mind recites it even as he speaks it.
"They were happy because they were friends, and friendship endures. Whether you got a mint of money or a hole in the wall to live in... friendship don't care. If two people never see each other again, it don't mind. What it sees ain't trivial, an' if something ain't important, it doesn't matter, does it?"
"When it forms the basis of your life, Mr. Sanchez, I'd say it does."
"Money's just trappins', Ezra. Friendship sees what it believes is important- Vin doesn't believe your money really matters, so it doesn't. You can gild an outhouse an' stick a marble roof on it, but it's still an outhouse. Vin Tanner in a silk vest and pressed shirt would still be Vin Tanner, and Ezra Standish in buckskins would still be Ezra Standish. Friendship don't care much for window dressings."
"That may be true, Mr. Sanchez, but Ezra Standish in buckskins would be an uncomfortable Ezra Standish."
"Yes, he would," Josiah laughs, and that big, booming chuckle goes a long way to lifting this crushing fear I've got hidden under a silk vest of my own.
CHAPTER TWO: HALCYON DAYS
He slouches in the chair that Ezra had occupied just a few minutes ago, and again, it frightens me. Not because J.D. sits primly and properly as a rule- far from it. Rather, he's always bursting with energy, with an enthusiasm I believe is reserved for the purely young or the young at heart. Seeing him droop there, starin' listlessly at his hands, well, it just don't sit right with me. He doesn't even look at Vin, and I can't blame him for it. If Vin was awake, J.D.'d bombard him with questions on every subject, ranging from weather to tracking wood grouse, and Vin would have the answer. Boy's already been through one dyin' doesn't need to work his way through another.
Can you hear what I'm thinkin', Vin?
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The worst part about dyin' is the waitin', you know.
When someone's dyin' real slow, waitin'll kill ya. The hours drag out an' you just sit n' wait, an' you really don't know what you're waitin' for. Part of you knows that you're waitin' for someone's heart to stop beatin', but another part of you thinks that maybe, just maybe, they'll wake up an' be OK.
That's how my mom went. Don't know how long I spent just sittin' next to her and holdin' her hand. I think maybe if I'd stayed there longer, I'd have grown roots or gotten stuck to my chair, but I never did get to find out, because early in the morning, a doc came by and told me well, you know. That she was dead.
An' I didn't feel sad right away, like I thought people were supposed to- in books, they're always flingin' themselves around, weepin' an' wailin' an' carryin' on.
Didn't cry 'r nothin'.
Just sat, felt sort of relieved that I'd finally gotten my answer to this unspoken question, or maybe that I'd had a wish come true wished that I could just know, get it over with, not have to wait any longer to find out what happens. Plenty of time for bein' sad after that, especially when you start to thinkin' how awful it is that you felt relieved in the first place, an' maybe you're a horrible, awful kid who didn't much deserve to have your Ma in the first place.
Only gets worse when there ain't anyone around to help you, an' the only thing you can do is go West, 'cause then maybe you'll get shot an' die quick so no one else would have to sit around and wonder when you're plannin' on kickin' off Or maybe find the opportunity to do the right thing, so you can prove to your Ma an' everyone you're not a bad person. 'Cept now I see Vin here, hangin' on even if he doesn't know he's hangin' on, an' I guess death rarely ever comes quick, like it likes to drag it out just to tease you.
Josiah's sittin' there, watchin' me. We've been quiet for a while, but he finally breaks the silence an' says, "You want to talk about it son?"
Not real sure what he wants to talk about, but I don't want to talk about waitin' for a friend to die, so I say, "Never even saw Vin get shot we were just comin' back to town, ridin' along a trail we'd ridden millions of times before and then Didn't even hear the gunshot, just saw Vin fall backwards off his horse. Buck almost ran over him. By the time we got off . God, Josiah! He he was all over blood n' " Can't keep on with this. Didn't know someone had so much blood in them.
"You ever read Greek mythology, J.D.?"
"Never did get around to the Iliad, Josiah." What's he talkin' about dead Greek people for?
He keeps on, not carin'. "There was once a husband and wife, Ceyx and Alcyone, who loved each other very much. They had money, a happy marriage everythin' they could possibly have wanted. One day, Ceyx got called away from his homeland, had to take a sea voyage, and Alcyone begged him not to go. He laughingly told her everything would be fine- he'd be back in a few weeks' time with gifts an' they'd be together again.
"Ceyx left, of course, an' Alcyone stayed behind to pray for him to return to her safe an' sound. Despite her prayers, her husband's ship capsized in a sudden storm an' he drowned, with his wife's name being the last word that crossed his lips. Now, of course Alcyone didn't know about this, so she kept praying to Juno, the patron goddess of married women, to bring her husband home to her.
"Juno, out of pity for the woman, sent her messenger to the land of Sleep to request a favor. She asked that Sleep send his son Morpheus to visit Alcyone in her dreams, impersonating her dead husband and telling her that Ceyx had died. Sleep did as she asked, an' Morpheus appeared to Alcyone one night, having taken the appearance of her dead husband, pale with cold and his clothes torn.
"'Alcyone," he said, 'don't pray for my safe return any more, for I am dead in a shipwreck.' Alcyone, believing Ceyx had come to her in a vision, awoke in a cold sweat and ran out to the coastline near her home and saw her husband's body floating in the calm waters. She ran out to him, but before she reached his body, she found herself lifted up on wings, for the gods had changed her into a bird. Some versions of the story say the gods changed Ceyx into a bird as well, and the spent the rest of their lives together.
"She never got the chance to say goodbye, nor did Ceyx, but maybe we shouldn't wait until we leave to say it Get everythin' out in the open before you step out the door." He gestures to the door to Vin's room like it's the one he's talkin' about, an' I'm a little puzzled, because Vin probably can't hear me say anything. Josiah sees my face- never could keep much from him- an' he says, "We don't know if he can hear ya or not. If he can't, well, it don't matter much, does it? If he can, maybe you just tellin' him somethin'll make him happy, give him a chance to let go a bit."
That makes sense a little, an' maybe it'll make me feel a bit better, so I hitch my chair closer to Vin's bed.
He don't answer, obviously.
"Uh just wanted to tell you " Tell you what? How much I wish he wasn't dyin', how much I have to learn still 'cause he never did get a chance to take me trackin' this weekend Figure he's got enough regrets, an' probably wishes he wasn't dyin' either.
"Remember when we went out to the railroad camp to help those Chinese people out? Well, Buck n' I found this Chinese doctor, had all these remedies Well, Buck bought this love potion- I saw him, an' Inez n' I teamed up to play a trick on him. Tricked him into thinkin' I'd fallen in love with him after drinkin' that potion, an' then tricked him into thinkin' Inez had fallen in love with me. You shoulda seen him! 'She'll roll that chicken in flour, but she ain't gonna fry it up!' That's what he said at breakfast, when Inez drank that stuff It was really great," I finish, "You shoulda seen it."
Josiah leans back, a slight smile on his face. Sneaky ol'preacher now I feel better.
CHAPTER THREE: GILGAMESH
Unlike J.D. and Ezra, Buck hunches over in his chair, bending that tall, lanky body of his almost double, like he's trying to curl up on himself. He stares at Vin, too, but it's absent-minded, the stare of a man looking at another's back while waiting in line. His eyes have dulled a bit, and that big-hearted, bounding spirit has flattened. It hurts to see all of them like this, robbed of some essential part of themselves. Ezra lost his swagger, J.D. his high spirits, and Buck's lost that teasing, joie-de-vivre (as the French say) air he carries with him, and well to see the impending death of one friend reflected in the eyes of all the others, it makes the situation even worse.
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Don't know why I'm sittin' here alone- hell, almost alone, 'ceptin Josiah, but he ain't said a word an' I figure I might as well count myself as bein' alone. Easier that way, 'cause then I don't feel I gotta talk, make things easier on the both of us.
I seen a lot in my life- seen lots of friends die, seen the wife and son of my best friend die in a fire, saw my best friend almost die himself 'cause of it. It don't get easier, 'specially when a friend dies after gettin' shot by a bastard hidin' up in ambush, tryin' for a bounty that shouldn't ever have been posted to begin with. Have to wonder about a dumb shit like that, goin' for a man who's got six others around him. Dumb shit or not, that was a hell of a shot, an' Vin's here dyin' cause of it.
No it don't ever get easier, an' I reckon that's why I'm the way I am. Life's too short n' you might as well make the most of it. Eat, drink, and be merry, someone once said, an' I figure that's good advice- ignorin' death, well, it makes life easier t'deal with. 'Cept you never really learn to get your own handle on what death means, an' when you can't ignore it no longer, you realize how much you got to get your mind around.
Makes dealin' with this even harder.
"Hey, Vin, ol'buddy " If he'd just move somethin', I'd feel better. "Chris is gonna be mighty disappointed in you, givin' up on him like this. You still got some supplies to take out to the shack, y'know. Who's gonna do it now?" That's right, Wilmington, guilt him into livin'. Boy's got enough of it already, I reckon, don't need any more.
"You ever heard of Gilgamesh?"
First words he's spoken, an' I don't even know what one of 'em is.
"Gilgamesh." Josiah hitches himself up in his chair a little an' moves it over to Vin's bedside so's he can look down in his face. I follow his gaze, thinkin' maybe his color looks a mite better, but that's just my imagination. He's dyin'- Nathan said so. Somethin' about a nicked artery, how we couldn't get the bleedin' stopped in time afore it could get patched. Don't rightly understand most of it, so I leave it to Nathan.
"He was an ancient Sumerian king," he continues, explainin' so's I don't haveta ask. "Accordin' to myth, he was half-mortal, half-god. Mean ol' sonofabitch, the scrolls say, though they don't say it like that. They say he was mighty in war, a great conqueror of both nations and women." He pauses, and I give him that ol' grin. That Gilgamesh fellow musta been quite a guy.
"No daughter or wife was safe against him, they say," Josiah tells me. "Finally it got so that the people begged the gods to do somethin' before he ran them ragged an' they didn't have any women left. The gods thought it over an' created a companion for him- Enkidu. A wild man of the hills, an equal to Gilgamesh in every way."
I can kinda see where this is goin', but the story's sorta interestin' so I don't interrupt.
"Enkidu came down from the hills, got enticed into civilization by a harlot- workin' girl, to you."
Josiah chuckles at that, and I laugh softly with him. Don't ease much of the pain I'm feelin', thinkin' about Chris n'Vin, how what they had was what I used to have.
"Anyway," Josiah keeps on, "Enkidu heard about Gilgamesh's might and decided to pit himself against him. Went straight to Uruk, confronted Gilgamesh, an' they fought. Tablets say Gilgamesh finally won, but only after a terrific fight, an' he an' Enkidu became best friends an' brothers. Went on all sorts of adventures together, until one day, Enkidu challenged Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven.
"Ishtar got revenge on Enkidu for this insult, an' he died, leavin' Gilgamesh to grieve for his lost friend. After mournin', he decided to seek out eternal life, an' so he set out to find it. Came damn close, found a fellow who'd survived a great flood an' knew the secret, but Gilgamesh failed, with the key to eternal life in his very fingertips. He died after a while, of course, an' was made into a god."
"Right nice story," I mumble, not quite sure what to say. "What's it got to do with me?"
"I don't believe you've ever once thought of yourself durin' this whole time, have ya?"
"Got too much time t'spend worryin' about Chris n'J.D.," I tell him. It's true- both of 'em lean heavy on Vin, an' someone needs to be around to pick 'em up.
"You afraid of death?"
"My own? Not really. Don't much want to see any of my friends die, though. I know we're mortal, gotta shove off sometime, but ah, hell just wish it don't gotta be so soon, y'know?" I scrub my hands back through my hair, even though what I really want to do is hit somethin', an' I keep talkin'. "It just ain't fair, havin' a friendship broken up like that, by some bastard of a bounty hunter, or some nasty-ass Queen of Heaven with a bone to pick. I can't be one of those people, who'll destroy others just 'cause I think I need to get back at 'em. Money n'revenge 're probably two of the worst reasons to kill a person, I reckon."
Always thought livin' well was supposed t'be the best revenge.
"Why they ain't sainted you yet, I'll never know."
"Hell, must have somethin' to do with that whole thing about stayin' chaste." I grin, and before I know it, we're laughing quietly.
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