Vin yawned and sat up, drenched in sweat. His wet hair was plastered to his face and his shirt was glued to this body. He felt like he was baking in the heated wagon. Slipping outside, he shook a canteen, hanging off the wagon. It was empty. He spotted the water pump, nearby and ambled over.
Ezra and J.D. each took opposite sides of the street. Buck headed for the livery. He needed to be with Chris. His spotted the shaggy-haired tracker dousing himself by the hotel. He felt a rage inside, which boiled over into a dangerous red zone. He never felt such hatred. He didn't remember crossing the street and couldn't hear Vin's words. All he saw was the yellow paper, sticking out of Vin's pocket.
Vin looked up and saw Buck facing him, with fire in his eyes.
"Somethin' wrong, Bucklin?"
"You selfish, no-good bastard," He growled, grabbing the startled man and throwing him into the alley. He grabbed Vin's collar with his left hand and pounded his face with his right. He grabbed the paper and read it, his burning eyes bore into the speechless bounty hunter, "How could you? I know you were pissed off at him...but this...Why? I want to hear why, Vin."
"What the hell's the matter with y'all?" Vin raged, wiping his bloodied lip.
"Me? " Buck roared, pounding Vin's midsection, "You as good as killed him yourself. Why didn't you warn him? Chris was your best friend. Why didn't stand by him?"
Vin's head swam, from both the mental and physical blows he'd sustained. What was Buck talking about? He put the clues together. The wire clutched in Buck's hand...was your best friend...killed him yourself.
"Chris?" He croaked, eyes wide, "He ain't..." Vin couldn't bring himself to say it.
"He's dead. Gunned down at his cabin. Where the hell were you? Josiah sent the warning early enough." Buck's deathgrip on the smaller man intensified, "I want an answer."
"I...was gonna ride out...I fell asleep...I..." Vin lost his voice as the truth gripped him and the vision slammed back into his head.
The cry that sprung forth from Buck was something feral and inhuman. He began pounding the tracker, his enraged fists full of fury. Vin didn't fight Buck. The gravity of his actions took the life force out of him. The vision had come true in full, bloodied color. His ragdoll posture made it easy for Buck to vent his anger.
He looked at the bloodied body, slumped on the ground before him. He closed both hands around the tracker's throat and unleashed his grief and rage.
"Why couldn't it have been you?" Buck's grief spoke unwisely, as his grip intensified.
"Buck! Buck, what are doing?" J.D. screams brought Ezra's head around.
Both raced down the boardwalk, spotting the large man beating Vin Tanner bloody. Vin wasn't fighting back; his arms hung limply at his sides. Ezra's heart nearly stopped when Buck closed his hands around the sharpshooter's throat. There was no mistaking the intent in Wilmington's eyes.
"Buck, stop, you're gonna kill him," J.D. screamed, spotting Vin's body sag.
"Have you lost your mind?" Ezra teethed, trying with J.D. to unpry the iron grip.
J.D. spotted a board in the alley and picked it up. He hit Buck as hard as he could behind the knees. Buck dropped Vin and fell over, only to launch himself at the felled tracker.
"NO!" Ezra and J.D. hollered in unison, standing in front of the beaten body.
"What's wrong with you, Buck? You were trying to kill Vin." J.D. accused.
"That stinkin' bastard don't deserve to live," Buck raged, "It's all his fault, Chris is dead," Buck gasped throwing Ezra aside, "and I'm gonna kill him."
"No you're not," J.D. said, trying with Ezra to halt the raging bull.
They managed to grapple him to the ground and it took all their reserve to quell Buck's rage. Finally, Buck settled down. He offered the paper to Ezra. J.D. watched the color drain from the Gambler's face.
"What excuse...What exactly did he say? He must have a valid reason. Surely you don't believe he intentionally..." Ezra groped, at a loss for words.
"He was sleepin' in that stupid wagon...claimed he was gonna warn Chris later."
"Buck, are you sure? That can't be right. Vin would die first. He never let anyone hurt Chris." J.D. voice was full of shocked surprise.
"I got all the proof I need," Buck seethed, "Ask him yourself..."
They turned to do just that, but Vin Tanner was gone.
"Despite the overwhelming evidence, I suggest that there something is amiss. I intend to get to the bottom of this. I'll seek out Mr. Tanner."
"You best find him before I do, Ezra," Buck glowered, "because I will kill him."
Vin rode hard to Chris's cabin, taking the shortcut. Buck's words pounding in his head like hammer blows. How could it be? Why? The pain exploding in his chest made him double over, nearly spilling him to the ground. Haunting images of Chris' face, laughing in the saloon, somber in the twilight as they sat silently outside, the light in his eyes that first night while they stood watch at sunset at the Seminole Village and that unquestionable trust. Shattered...all because of him.
He dropped off the horse behind the house, staggered around the front, and fell to his knees. His heart ached so; he couldn't seem to stand up. He crawled up the steps to the door. His pained gaze took in all that he'd taken for granted. The ivory handled guns, peeking out of the holster, on the nail by the front door. The striped poncho, thrown haphazardly across a chair. A handful of cheroots and a bottle of whiskey waited on the fireplace. He staggered to his feet and forced his legs to move.
He paused in the doorway, as the horrific image scorched into his brain. He rubbed his eyes, wincing as he touched the one swollen shut. The image was blurry and he blinked hard, dispelling tears that he'd held at bay. He gripped the bedpost and the cry that sprung forth, carried every bit of agonizing pain he'd built up inside.
Chris was lost in a dark void; a cold, barren place that had no beginning or end. He felt no pain, just confusion. He tried to call out, but his voice was silent. He stumbled onward, for hours it seemed, not knowing where he was headed. Suddenly he felt something stir inside him. Almost as if...Vin? His feet found a purpose, following his instinct. The darkness faded and pain slammed into his head. He groaned and stumbled, a loud whistling wind forced him backward. The pain in his head intensified, and the monsterous gale drowned his screams. Finally there was a calming, a door slammed and he forced his eyes open. He worked hard, battling the enormous pressure on his heavy eyelids. Finally, there was a crack of light. He managed to slide his eyes open a crack, and wished he hadn't. The sight that met his troubled gaze pained him worse than his wound.
Vin Tanner stood in the doorway, his face bloody, one eye swollen shut. Garish blue and scarlet bruises were painted on this throat. Chris's first thought was that Snake found the tracker and somehow, Vin escaped. Then he saw something far worse...the raw anguish in the younger man's eyes. Vin was blinking and squinting, and Chris realized he couldn't see. Then he heard the unearthly cry as Vin dropped to his knees. Chris's eyes slid shut again. He felt Vin's shaking fingers groping at his throat and the single soft sob that followed.
"I can't bring m'self to look ya in the eye," Vin croaked, clutching the sides of the bedsheet, "Not after what I done."
Get your damn head up! Chris screamed in his head, furious at the tracker's shame.
"Damn, this hurts worse than being gutshot..." Vin's voice broke. "I should'a kept on sweepin' that day," Vin recounted of the day they'd first met. "That was m'first mistake...but lettin' ya crawl inside m'heart...yer the only kin I had...and It's m'fault yer layin' there..." Vin choked, breathing audibly and stifling a sob.
Had? Vin, what the hell's the matter with you?"
"Iffen ya can hear this, Chris," He expelled a long breath, and gripped the leader's limp hand, "God, this is hard...I hope...I mean I ain't got the right to ask...forgiveness," Vin paused briefly, breathing heavily "Buck was right, it should have been me. I should have left him finish me off in town..."
Forgiveness for what? Chris pondered silently, Buck? Did he do that to your face? I'll kill him...Cut that out, Vin, He felt the tracker's tears trickle on his hand.
"So many things I never told ya...lost that chance now..." Vin swallowed, wiping his damp eyes, "I got all kinds of words in my head...poems ya know...I never told nobody..." Vin laughed sarcastically, "an illiterate poet, now that's almost as funny as a blind sharpshooter. Anyhow, been thinkin' about ya some...hope wherever ya are, ya can hear me...
I was lost and alone, in a storm of doubt and pain
Ya came with the sun and sheltered me from the rain
With eagle's wings ya strengthened me
A kindred spirit that set me free
For in yer soul resides the best of me
"That's beautiful Vin, Chris's heart was full, I wish you would have told me sooner. I would have listened..."
"Damn," Vin swore catching sight of a familiar trio in the distance, approaching on horseback, "They're comin'. Thought we'd have more time."
Vin swallowed hard and finally raised his head to look at the face of the man he knew was his brother. His trembling arms lifted the body and he cradled it against him, letting Chris's head rest on his aching heart.
Chris felt the tracker's heart beating furiously against his cheek. He felt the terrific shudders and trembling, as Vin held him. He felt the steam rising inside, boiling over at his paralyzed limbs. His best friend was shattered and he couldn't do a thing to help him.
"Guess this is goodbye, Cowboy," he rasped, running his hand briefly through the short blond hair, "I'm sorry..."
"Jesus, Vin, you're shaking all over...take it easy."
"God, why him...not me?" Vin gasped, "Thought I beat that damn vision. Reckon I'll head south, no reason to stay. Be lookin' for me, Pard, I won't be long. Tell my Ma I'm comin'."
"Heading South? Texas?...a suicide mission?...damn you, Tanner!...talking to your Ma? in Heaven? Oh, Christ, you think I'm dead...Vin, I ain't dead...God, please let him hear me! Vin..Vin...Damn you, it wasn't your fault..."
Chris Larabee raged inwardly, screaming and thrashing. But to any observers, his body was as still as corpse. The pain in his chest at Vin's epitaph was greater than the wound on his head. He seethed, his anger like a coiled snake, seeking to strike out. The lack of control and helplessness had him furious. The harder he struggled, the worse the pain in his head became. He refused to fall back into the black void, so he fought onward, despite the agony.
Voices surrounded him, and he concentrated, slapping the walls of the silent tomb he was trapped in. A young voice, sniffing and coughing, was near. J.D. was here, which meant Buck wasn't far behind. The voices became clearer. He felt the bed depress slightly, near his hip.
"Oh God, Buck..." J.D. gasped, eyeing Chris's hand and the sheet beneath it, "...blood...this wasn't here before. What did I do? He wasn't dead before...I left him...Oh God"
"Get a hold yourself, J.D." Buck commanded, "Let me see..."
Chris flinched inwardly as Buck's callused hand touched his throat.
Get your hand off me, Buck, Chris snarled silently, I'll fucking tear you apart for what you did to him.
"I can't find a pulse..." Buck's voice dropped with his hand.
"It's Mr. Tanner's blood, Son," Ezra soothed, rubbing J.D.'s slumped shoulders, "That would be the spot where he might have rested his head in prayer."
"He ought to save some for himself," Buck seethed, "he's gonna need them, if I get my hands on him."
You son-of-a-bitch, I'll shoot you where you stand...so help me God Buck, if you lay a finger on him... Chris screamed.
"An unlikely possibility," Ezra drolled, wincing at the sight of Chris's body.
"How can you defend him? I know you and Chris were exactly bosom buddies..."
"That's it," Ezra seethed, turning to a startled Buck, "I've had enough of your insane ramblings. How dare you presume to know anything of my relationship with Mr. Larabee? As for Vin Tanner, would it make you feel better if he had arrived here in time to warn Mr. Larabee and ended up dead as well? How can you be so blind? Rest assured, Mr. Wilmington, nothing your fists or gun can do, will come close to the unthinkable anguish he's putting himself through."
Jeez, Ezra, you got balls, after all, Chris astonished, Thank God Vin's got somebody looking out for him."
"Stop it," J.D. shouted, "Both of you, this ain't the time. Show a little respect."
"I'd like a moment, alone," Ezra requested, "To say goodbye. Then I shall go and seek out Mr. Tanner."
"You think you can find him?" J.D. asked.
"I shall certainly give it my most paramount effort," Ezra replied, "Mr. Tanner deserves no less."
Chris heard the retreating footsteps, and realized he was alone with the Southerner. He wished he could produce a cough, expelling the dislike for the Gambler's fancy cologne. He felt a hand on his shoulder and a surprising softness in Ezra's voice.
"We never did resolve our differences, and I regret that. I know you never thought much of me, Mr. Larabee, and I can't disagree with your reasoning. I know you don't trust me, like the others, and that is burdensome. However, I should like to express to you..." Ezra paused, needed several deep breaths to continue, "the man who rode away from the Seminole Village is not the one who stands by you today. You made me think, Mr. Larabee, as I've never done before. I thank you for that. I'll find him, Mister...Chris, rest easy. I don't know what I'll say...guess there's a first time for everything," Ezra smirked, "I am not foolish enough to attempt to replace you, but I shall convey to him some interpretation of his uniqueness. There is something about that raggedy tracker...Well; I'm wasting daylight. I'll bring him home, Chris, one way or the other. Even if it means riding to Hell and back. Goodbye My Friend," Ezra patted Chris's chest, "and I mean that...."
You're still a damn fraud, Ezra...but you're growing on me. I'm beholdin'...Watch your back..Amigo.
Vin chose his path carefully, leery of Buck and the others. He double-crossed his tracks and then crossed the river. He went down a ways, then crossed back. The deep burning was replaced over the next few hours, with a cold, tingling numbness. He was chilled to the bone, unfeeling, uncaring and unaware. He rode furiously, until the effort to remain upright was simply just too much. The wind kicked up, seeming to taunt him with twisted shrills of 'You did it..." ringing in his ears. He screamed and shuddered, sliding from the horse. All was silent again.
"Where is he?" Nathan cried, jumping from the horse and sprinting through the door.
"In here," Buck said tonelessly, from a chair across Chris's bedroom.
J.D. sat at Chris's side, his face the color of marble. His eyes seemed unnaturally large and glazed. Nathan felt a sharp pain, as he eyed the leader's pale face. He turned the still head and spotted the scoring wound. His hands went to Chris's throat, hoping...then over his nose and mouth...but nothing.
"What happened?" Nathan asked, "Josiah didn't say too much."
"Some guy named Snake McCall who had a grudge against Chris, gunned him down," J.D. offered quietly.
"With a big assist from Vin Tanner," Buck leered, striding over to the bed.
"Shut up, Buck," J.D. cried, "You're wrong...you didn't even give Vin a chance to explain. You were too busy trying to beat him to death."
"You shouldn't have stopped me. That no account bastard is as guilty as McCall. Andy saw him read the wire. Did he ride out to warn Chris? No, he decided to take a nap...No excuse, and next time you won't stop me..."
"Buck, you're talking crazy," Nathan challenged, "Vin wouldn't let anybody lay a hand on Chris, you know that, he'd die first. You're missing something."
"What I'm missing, is pounding that Texas rat into kingdom come..." Buck snapped back, flexing his forearms.
Chris listened to the feral tone in Buck's voice and raged. Damn it...he swore, trying desperately to raise a fist. He had to let them know...he had to get up. Vin needed him. Vin? How many hours had passed? What if Snake and Cutter caught him already? What if...Damn it... Every fiber in his body sang as all his despair boiled over.
"Huuuuhhh!" J.D. gasped audibly, springing from his chair, shaking and pulling at Nathan.
"What is it, J.D." Nathan looked impatient.
"Dead men can't cry..." J.D.'s quaking arm pointed.
The three men stood transfixed as one solitary tear rolled down Chris's face, making a crooked trail to the pillow. It took several seconds for them to recover, as reality set in.
"Nathan, what's that mean?" Buck asked, his voice shaking.
"Get me a mirror," The healer replied, examining Chris's eyes, "Hurry!"
J.D. returned a minute later, with a small shaving mirror. Nathan opened the wounded man's mouth and laid the mirror over it, while he pinched off Chris's nostrils. Several seconds later, he gingerly picked up the mirror. The smile he wore lit up the whole room.
"Well?" J.D. asked, shifting from foot to foot.
"He's alive...I'll be damned...this cowboy is still breathin'." He showed them the mirror, with condensation on it.
Who you callin' cowboy, you doctor wannabe? Chris countered, relieved he wasn't going to be buried alive, Now I gotta wake up...
"But...he had no pulse...I tried...Oh God, I left him for dead..." J.D. sagged, Buck grabbed him and lowered him to the chair.
"J.D. listen to me," Buck took the youth's chin and looked into his eyes, "You didn't do anything wrong. I didn't feel a pulse. Vin wouldn't have left him..."
"He's right, J.D.," Nathan added, "I didn't find one either. It's too weak to be detected."
"But how..." J.D. asked, touching Chris's leg, to make sure he was real.
"I think Buck got him riled up good," Nathan grinned, "He got madder than a hornet and all that rage busted out...in one brilliant tear. Get me some hot water and the Carbolic in my bag, I'm gonna clean the wound."
"Is he gonna live, Nate?" Buck inquired.
"I don't know Buck," Nathan replied, "He's in a coma, but he's fightin' like hell."
"What can we do for him?" Buck asked.
"Nothing, really. The rest is up to him and God." Nathan answered, taking the bottle of Carbolic from J.D. The youth set a bowl of hot water down on Chris's bedside table. The wound wasn't deep and Nathan cleaned it quickly. He and Buck undressed the gunslinger and pulled a fresh sheet and quilt over him. The waiting game began.
Several Miles Away
"He dead?" the woman asked, prodding the body with her boot.
"Naw, he's busted up some. Looks like somebody beat the tar outta him," her husband replied, turning the battered face.
"He ain't feverish. As a matter of fact, he feels cold. His color's poor too," She knelt down, examining the young man, "Best we get him home, I'll stay with him, you fetch the wagon."
"Home?" Her husband replied, "You see that gun he's totin'? He's no farmer. He's a gunslinger of some sort. Could be dangerous."
"Dangerous, hah," She spat back, "He's about the same age as our Willy. He wore his gun low too, he weren't no outlaw. Would you want somebody leavin' him on the side of a road?" She asked of their only child, seeking a fortune in gold in California.
"Well, I'm gonna keep an eye on him, just the same..." He muttered, walking to wagon.
"You do that, Earl," She replied, rolling her eyes.
She poured water out of the canteen and wet the edge of her apron. Gently wiping the boy's face, she cast a smile.
"You sure clean up good, Son. You're a handsome one..." A small moan was produced as she touched the swollen eye, "You just hush up, now" She soothed, "Old Kate's gonna fix you up good."
Earl Davis brought the wagon over by the creek bed and jumped down. He tied the boy's horse to the back of the wagon. Between the two of them, they managed to get him in the back, laying him on an old blanket. Kate climbed in the back and let the boy's head rest on her lap.
"Poor thing's shakin' like a leaf," She offered, pulling part of the blanket over him.
The motion of the wagon stirred the boy. His eyes slid open and he looked painfully up at her. She smiled back, "Knew they'd be blue..." She whispered, stroking his forehead, "You rest easy, you're gonna be fine."
"No...No..." He turned, clutching his stomach, trying to quell the flow, unsuccessfully.
She grabbed a burlap bag, and dumped the onions out, and held his head over it. She supported his shoulders and brushed his hair back, reassuring him. Finally, he stopped, and resuming his trembling, so much so, his teeth chattered.
"I'm...s..s..s.sorry...mess....Ma'am...sorry..." His blue eyes pleaded.
"Mess? Son this ain't no mess...Old Kate seen a lot worse in her day...Here, I want you to drink some water," She held him up, and tipped the canteen, happy to see him drink. "That's it...now you just rest...you're safe..." She soothed, rocking the blanketed body in her arms, wondering why so much pain was written in his revealing blue eyes.
"What is it, Son?" She whispered, wiping his brow.
"Chris...." He rasped, eyes distraught as they slid shut.
The aroma drew him from the blackness, a wondrous scent of roasting meat clawed at him. He lifted his eyes open and took a deep breath. He gazed at the faded timbered walls and sank back into the soft mattress. He fingered the aged quilt and crossed his eyes in puzzlement. He sat up and looked around, catching the 'Home Sweet Home' stitchery on the opposite wall. The late afternoon sun cast a yellow banner over the cozy reflection.
"Home?" He croaked, seeking relief for his parched throat.
"Well, it's about time you woke up. Almost suppertime. How you feeling?"
Vin's pounding head lifted and spotted a middle-aged woman. Her lean frame and weathered skin reflected a life much harsher than she deserved. Reddish-gray hair was pulled back off her face, gray eyes appraised him with concern. He relaxed, knowing she was no threat.
"Water..." He rasped.
"Nice and cold," She handed him a stoneware mug, which he drained.
"Thanks...How long?" He held the mug out for more of the nectar and was rewarded.
"Near a whole day," She filled the mug and saw the puzzle in his brilliant eyes, "me and Earl, he's my husband, we found you comin' from the market in town. Laid out next to the creek bed, looked like someone near did you in."
He winced at both the amount of time and at the pain in his face. He touched his head and she chuckled, rubbing his back lightly.
"It's still in one piece, though you ain't likely to see one of them pretty blues eyes of yours for awhile."
He felt her hand against his skin and realized his was bare-chested. He backed away, flushing slightly and pulled the quilt up.
"Ma'am ya oughtin' be..."
"Relax son," She chuckled, "You were all muddy. I took off everything but your drawers and cleaned you up good. You got a good heart, son," She appraised outloud, "That blush of yours talks for you."
"Thank you, Ma'am," He nodded sheepishly, "Fer takin' me in, ya could as easily left me in the road."
"No I couldn't," She smiled, "And the name is Kate, Ma'am makes me feel like's Noah's bride."
His laughter joined hers and she slapped his thigh. "I washed your clothes and hung them outside. They ain't dry yet. Those should fit you," She nodded to a pile of clean laundry on the chest, "They were my son's."
"I'm sorry," He said softly, eyeing the tan pants and blue chambray workshirt.
"He ain't dead, son," She disarmed, "Moved on...to California, and thank you," She squeezed his hand, "There's that good heart of yours again. Best get dressed, supper will be on the table in ten minutes."
"Ma'am?...Kate," He corrected.
"Where are we?"
"Just outside Correyville," She replied, "You ain't from around these parts, are you son?"
"I don't know..." Vin's voice drifted off.
His troubled eyes caught the unfamiliar terrain outside the window. A breeze kicked up, sending his clean hair off his face.
"What's your name, Boy?" She frowned, grasping his hand as she saw the fear flicker in those magnificent eyes.
"I...I...I don't know...I can't remember," He whispered, glad for the reassuring tug on his hand.
Ezra stretched and groaned, wondering what in God's name Vin Tanner found so alluring about sleeping under the stars. He shook his jacket out, watching in disdain as the six legged residents, sought a new home. The sun was well up in the sky, when the Gambler broke camp and headed for Eagle Bend. After a bath and hot meal, he would head for the Post and Telegraph Office. The Government Branches always had a territorial map. He would study it carefully and make notes. Trying to follow a world class tracker, was a tall order. Clicking his tongue and kneeing his mount, he continued his journey.
The bath and meal revitalized the Southern stud. He paused outside the Post and Telegraph Office and wore a sly grin. He'd been so obsessed with finding Vin Tanner; he hadn't taken his cards out the whole time he was in the town saloon. There were two maps on the wall. One of the state and it's border areas, the other of the United States. Ezra studied the map for several minutes, eyeing the fastest path to Tascosa. He made notes in a small black book, he withdrew from his vest. He eyed an alternate route and traced that as well.
He thought on the gang of murderous outlaws who'd killed Chris. What if they ran into Vin?
Cutter Carson was still on the prowl as well. He waited until the office was empty and engaged the clerk into conversation. No strangers in town, no trouble for weeks. Ezra wired Josiah about his plans. He stopped in the General Store and purchased some necessary items. He swung onto Deuce and urged the fine steed onward.
Back in Four Corners
"Josiah, You got a telegram," Mary called into the church, "Hello? Hmmm, that's strange..."
She backtracked and peeked into the saloon, finding none of the seven. Highly unusual, indeed, she thought, walking to the sheriff's office. She spotted the familiar shape of the large ex-preacher coming out of the General Store.
"Josiah, I've got a wire for you, from Ezra. What's he doing in Eagle Bend? Where is he going?"
"Mary," Josiah sighed deeply, "There was a shooting yesterday at the cabin. Outlaws gunned down Chris."
"Oh God, Josiah, is he dead?" Mary's hand went to her throat.
"No, but we thought he was...turns out he's in a deep coma. Nathan's doing his best, but it's in God's hands now. "
"I'm coming with you. Just let me lock up the office." Her voice tried to calm her hammering heart.
The first leg of the journey was silent, Josiah prayed as they rode. Finally, he maneuvered the team in silence and she thought on the wire.
"What's Ezra doing in Eagle Bend? He isn't tracking these men alone?"
"No, he's looking for Vin."
"Vin? Did Vin go after them?"
"No, Ma'am," Josiah eyed the blond widow, "It's like this..."
He spent the rest of the trip, updating the newswoman on the terrible events. Mary was heartsick, Chris was near death and Vin was willing to join him. As the rough-hewn timbered cabin came into view, Mary reflected on the relationship between the two men. She understood for the first time, just how deeply they cared. She could almost see the tormented blue eyes of the tracker. She didn't have to guess the depth's of his anguish, feeling he was the cause of his best friend's death.
J.D was outside shingling the roof with Buck when they pulled up. Both exchanged a pained expression as Mary entered the house. Nathan was napping in a chair by Chris's bed. He looked awful. Mary knew how dedicated the young healer was and suspected he'd been as Chris's side for the duration. She shook his shoulder gently and he stirred immediately.
"Chris..." He leaned over the stilled patient.
"Nathan, get some rest. Stretch out on the cot in the other room. I'll watch him. Go on, you look exhausted."
"Thanks, Mary," He squeezed her hand, and shut the door over, leaving her alone.
She sat on the side of the bed and picked up a cloth that was resting in a basin of water. Chris wasn't running a fever, but the heat of the day had given him a fine sheen of perspiration. She gently wiped his face and chest, with slow rhythmic strokes. Tears ran down her face and she replaced the cloth. Stroking the pale cheek of her lover, she couldn't find any words. She needed to touch him, to be near his heart. She laid her head on his chest and brushed her hands through the damp hair.
Chris felt the delicate touch and recognized the wonderful scent of Mary Travis. He loved the combination of soap, lavender and ink; she wore like no other woman. He felt the catch in her throat and her hand on his face. When she laid her head on his chest, it brought back colorful memories of their night together. He wanted to wrap his strong arms around her and feel that power again. But he remained trapped in a silent tomb. He felt the moisture running down his chest and heard her soft sobbing.
Don't Mary, I'm not worth it...
"Damn you, Chris Larabee," She cursed, raising her head and staring down at the handsome face, "You couldn't leave it at breaking my heart..."
She brushed her hands through his hair and down the side of his face. She bent over and kissed each closed eyelid and gently kissed the pale lips. She patted his chest, pulling the sheet up and took Nathan's vacant chair. She entwined her warm fingers with his limp ones and began to pray.
God, you move me, Lady. He groaned, feeling her satin lips.
"You didn't eat much," Kate advised, spotting the half empty plate, "You could use a few pounds."
"I reckon I ain't got much of an appetite, Ma'am, but thanks, it sure was good." Vin smiled half-heartedly.
"Why don't you go outside and get some fresh air. Some nights, we get a real nice sunset. I'll bring you some pie and coffee out on the porch," She rubbed his slumped shoulders.
"Here, let me help," He stood, collecting the plates.
"Don't need any more hands in this kitchen," Kate pushed him away, "Scoot, now. Earl brushed your horse down. Your saddlebags are on the porch, along with your gun. Why don't you have a look?"
Vin nodded and made his way to the door. He stepped out onto the porch and spotted the saddlebags thrown over the railing. He sat down on the first step and opened the flap, reaching inside. Coffee, loose bandages, beef jerky, utensils and a spyglass. The other side was just as useless. A spare shirt, some shells, a plate, a mug and some other personal items. But nothing that spoke of who he was or where he was from. He examined the gun and gunbelt carefully.
Standing, he strapped it around his slim hips and drew the gun out. The sawed-off Winchester didn't spark anything in him. Frowning he walked towards the barn, hoping the horse might provide a clue. Earl was throwing some hay and water down for the horses, when he entered.
"How you doin, Boy?" he greeted, without looking up.
"Okay. Give ya a hand?" Vin offered.
"Just about done, but thanks. Mighty fine horse," Earl nodded to Diablo
Vin stroked the dark mane and examined the animal carefully. Still nothing. His frustration was being to turn to panic. He felt like he was the walking dead. His discouragement was being to build and he kicked the stall in anger.
"That won't help, none..." Earl sympathized.
"No, but it makes me feel better," Vin replied.
"Tomorrow, we'll ride in and see Doc Adams. Maybe he can help."
"What if he can't? What if I never remember?" Vin pained, stepping outside.
Kate was waving from the porch. She had two plates with generous slices of pie on them. A pot of coffee and three mugs sat on a small table.
"Come on Son," Earl threw a hand over the distraught boy's shoulder, "Kate's pie won't keep."
Vin wasn't hungry, but wouldn't disappoint the kind woman. So he sat on the step and ate the apple pie and drank the coffee, without really tasting anything. The sunset came and went and he heard Kate and Earl speaking in low tones. Earl excused himself and went inside. Kate sat by the young man's side and took his hand. He had the most expressive eye's she'd ever seen. Right now, they were full of fear, pain and worry.
"I know you're scared, Son," Kate soothed, "A man would be a fool not to be...but you might wake up tomorrow and remember everything."
"I ain't worried as much fer m'self..." Vin drawled, "What if I got kin worrin' on me? All busted up cause I never came home last night," Vin sighed.
"You frettin' away here ain't gonna solve that problem," Kate advised, eyeing his coat and gun, "But I'd say from that coat and gun you're totin', it's more likely you're on your own."
"I've been thinkin' on that gun..." Vin turned to her, "What if I'm some kind of killer?"
"You ain't no more a murderin' animal than I am," Kate laughed, cupping his chin, "Son you've got a heart of gold, Old Kate ain't never wrong about my gut instinct. You're of the good guys, handsome" She stood and brushed the stray hair off his forehead, glad for the small smile he wore "Come on, I want to rub some liniment on them bruises on your ribs."
"Thanks Kate, but ya already done too much," Vin protested, "I'm okay, I'll get my bedroll and I can sleep on the porch."
"The hell you will, " She pulled him upright, "You'll do as I say. Never heard of such nonsense...sleeping on the porch, all busted up..." She crossed her arms across her chest and glared at him, "I still got a wooden spoon, you know..."
"Yes Ma'am," Vin grinned, "I believe ye'd use it, too!"
Vin had to admit, the cooling balm she rubbed on his chest and back, felt good. He laid in the dark, watching the stars blink at him through the window. He felt his heavy eyes drooping and sank into a deep sleep.
The dream was vivid, so much so, he wasn't sure it was a dream. The images swirled around his head and a feeling of dread filled him. He was lost in a storm, searching for someone. A scream filled the night air, waking him up. He was covered in sweat and sitting on the floor. His heart was pounding furiously. His eyes darted around the room in the dark, searching for an answer. But none was given; he still was a man without identity. A lost soul adrift in a black murky sea.
The ride to town was a quiet one. Vin sat in the back of the wagon, hands protecting his aching ribs. Earl seemed to find every bump in the road. He rubbed his tired eyes. He spent most of the night sitting on the porch. His troubled gaze sought out the stars and the silvery moon, but his mind remained a void. His audible sigh brought Kate's hand backward to his shoulder.
"You're gonna wear yourself out, if you keep thinking so hard," She teased, "Keep your chin up, Son. I'm sure the Doc can help you."
"I sure hope so..." Vin sighed, eyeing the approaching town.
The main street of Correyville was lined with shops, a hotel, a saloon, the jail and other offices. Several private homes stood at the edge of town. The streets were fairly crowded, and Vin shifted uncomfortably. The eyes of every passerby seemed to bore into him. Kate seemed to sense his discomfort.
"Nothin' like a stranger to spook the busybodies in town." She crowed, glaring back at them.
They pulled up in front of a white clapboard house with blue shutters. Vin jumped off the wagon and followed Kate up the walk. Earl tethered the team and stood behind them. Kate's sharp rap on the door was quickly answered. A small woman with dark hair greeted them warmly.
"Kate! How are you? How's Willy?"
"We're fine, Elsie," She took the smaller woman's hands, "Got a letter from Willy last week. He's still at it...but at least he's okay." She noticed Elsie eyeing the man beside her. She turned to see the boy trying to find a hole to sink into. "Elsie, is the Doc home? This young fella needs some help."
"Sure, Kate, come right in," The petite woman answered, opening the door.
Vin allowed the couple to enter ahead of him. Taking off his hat, he ran a hand through his hair and swallowed his nervousness. Should have stopped in the saloon first, he thought. A couple shots would sooth his jumping stomach.
"Morning, Kate," a friendly voice greeted from the right rear of the foyer, "Earl, how's that cough?"
"Fine, Doc," Earl nodded.
"Good. What can I do for you? Who's this?" He stood next to Kate and eyed Vin.
"Reckon, I was hopin' ya could help me with that, Doc..." Vin's voice trailed off, as he eyed the kind face of the spectacled, gray-haired physician.
"Well, let's go back into my office and have a look at you," The doctor, took Vin's elbow and led the way. Kate followed behind, giving Doctor Adams a brief account of what they knew.
Vin shucked off his coat and shirt, hopping onto a long sturdy table, covered in cotton. The doctor touched the bruises on his face, with a gentle hand, but Vin winced anyway. He examined the bruises on his throat and chest. He used his stethoscope, asking Vin to cough and inhale. He then spent several minutes, probing Vin's skull, neck and hairline.
"What's the last thing you remember?" He asked Vin, reaching for some gauze bandages.
"Wakin' up at Kate's," Vin answered, "What's wrong with me?"
Walter Adams read the fear in the young man's troubled blue gaze. He'd seen this type of malady before and usually is reversed itself. He patted the young man's knee and gave him a warm smile.
"Raise your arms, so I can wrap those ribs," He advised, "They're badly bruised and this will keep some of the ache away and protect them a little. You take it easy for five days, and don't think about getting on a horse." He paused, and caught the boy's eye, "The memory lapse you are suffering from is a form of amnesia."
"Ain't that usually from bustin' yer head up?" Vin puzzled, wincing at the pressure on his bruised ribcage.
"Usually...but there is another form of amnesia, due to a severe trauma. Something so horrific occurs that the only way for the victim to accept the tragic event is to block it out completely. This often erases any memories as well."
"I ain't never heard of that," Vin was angry, buttoning his shirt haphazardly.
"I've seen it, Son," The doctor gripped Vin's wrist, "During the war. Young men, boys really, seeing battle casualties for the first time. Limbs torn off bodies, decapitations, disembowelment and other common horrors of war. It's usually not permanent. From my past experiences, the memory usually returns within a few weeks.
"A few weeks!" Vin's voice rose, "What the hell am I gonna do until then? I can't stand this. I gotta know who I am. I feel like the walking dead." Vin jumped off the table and tried to flee the room.
"Calm down!" Kate said sternly, grabbing his shoulders, "That won't help," Turning to the doctor, "What can we do to help?"
"Nothing I'm afraid, Kate," The doctor said sympathetically, "It can't be forced. Any number of things can trigger it. A familiar face, voice, object or something totally out of the ordinary, like a song or a phrase, and bang, everything comes back. Kate, did he say anything to you when you found him?"
"No, he was shaking all over, white as a sheet and cold as ice." She recalled.
"He was in shock," The doctor diagnosed, "Nothing else?"
"No..." Kate paused, then her eyes lit up, "Wait a minute...he come to for a second and said a name...Chris, yeah that was it. Son, could that be your name?"
"Chris...Chris..." Vin rolled the unfamiliar name off his tongue and furrowed his brow, "Maybe, I don't know." He sighed dejectedly, "Damn, I need a drink."
"First sensible thing I've heard all day," Earl clapped the boy's back, "You sure as hell need one Son, and I'm buying."
"Earl...." Kate warned, "You be back in that wagon in a half hour or so help me..."
"Yes, Dear." He nodded, handing Vin his coat.
"What if we call you Chris for now," She asked, "Would that be okay?"
"Guess it's as good as any name." Vin answered, pulling the buffalo coat one and extended a hand to the doctor, "Thanks fer patching me up and fer explaining things. Sorry fer the outburst. It's a little unsettlin'"
"To say the least," The doctor disarmed, gripping the boys' hand. He eyed the gun slung low and the ease at which it rested on the slim hips. The windburn skin and rough hands added to that told the healer much. This boy was no farmer or storekeeper. He hoped Kate and Earl were safe. He decided to head over to the sheriff's office and fill him in.
"How much do I owe ya?" Vin asked, reaching in his pocket.
"Two bits will do it," The doctor replied, "If those ribs bother you, just ..." He paused, watching Vin's face freeze as he stared at an object in his hand. He was transfixed, not blinking or breathing. Kate became and alarmed and started to shake him, but the doctor blocked her.
"No, he's remembering, let him go..."
Vin stared at the silver harmonica, which seemed to burn a hole in his hand. He winced as sharp pings of pain dotted his brain. Images of a strange town, faces of unfamiliar men, laughing and talking to him, he saw cards and coins on a table, pearl handled revolvers and then a black shirt.
"No...." He cried out, dropping the harmonica.
"What is it? What did you see?" The doctor sought.
"Nothing that made any sense...faces...booze... cards...a gunslinger." He clenched his hands to keep them from shaking, "Reckon now might be a good time to get that drink."
"The unpredictable occurrences that create subliminal messages will ultimately lead to the resurfacing of your previous self."
"Damn ya sound just like Ezra," Vin said bending to pick up his harmonica.
"Who's Ezra?" Kate asked, gripping his arm as he straightened up.
"Huh?" Vin squinted up at the alarmed gray eyes.
"Ezra. You said that Doc Adams sounded just like Ezra. Is he your kin or a friend?"
"Ezra? Hell if I know," Vin frowned, scrunching up his face, "Don't sound like fittin' name fer a man. Don't know why that slipped out."
"Son, my advice is for you to write down all these clues. Reading them over just may trigger your memory."
"I can't write." Vin burst unexpectedly and then scowled, "Hell, I can read either...Damn" His shoulders slumped and his face colored.
"That ain't nothing to be ashamed of," Kate angered, "Pick your head up." She waited until the embarrassed eyes met her determined ones, "Guess we just found something to do, whilst we wait on your memory to come back. I can teach you, I'll pick up some things from the store. Earl, thirty minutes, no more."
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