Spoilers: Manhunt, a reference to Ghosts of the Confederacy
Author's Note: After exhaustive research, I finally discovered that the kaleidoscope was invented in 1781 by a Scotsman named David Brewster. They didn't arrive' in the US until the 1870's. However, for the sake of historical accuracy and keeping this story on an even keel, I'm working under the idea that one of the working girls in the brothel where Buck grew up came from a Scottish immigrant family, and knew of kaleidoscopes from the family.
I remember one Christmas, when I was little. The working girls and my mother all chipped in to buy me what looked like a little can. I was maybe six years old, didn't realize what the fuss was about. Not until Mama told me to look inside the can. . .and look at the candle through it. Knocked me right off my feet, to see all those little bits of color, lit up all pretty. And when I turned it a certain way, the picture changed.
That's what I'm thinkin' on now. I been sitting in Josiah's church ever since I left the jail, tryin' to make sense of it all. And I can't do that. I ain't even sure where to start, to try to make sense of it. Hell, I can't even tell you why some scruffy former bounty hunter who don't talk much reminds me of that little can, which Ezra called a ka-li-de-scope. Or somethin' like that. Hell, there ain't that much color in that boy, just his shirts and his bandannas. Rest is varyin' shades a' brown.
There's footsteps behind me, and I don't recognize them. I turn to see Judge Travis, watching me sadly. I nod to him and he comes to sit beside me. He arrived earlier this morning, after Mrs Travis wired him for Chanu's trial. . .which ain't gonna take place now. The only trial which is gonna happen is Owen Moseley's. We sit for several moments, then the judge says, "I've heard about what happened with Chanu. You could have just as easily been right, Buck."
"Two people are dead because I trusted the wrong person, Judge," I answer, and look at him, "a young girl who had everything to live for, and her innocent little baby, who never even had a chance to be born. Vin tried to tell me. . .tried to tell us. . .somethin' wasn't right. And I couldn't see past. . .I couldn't see that he was right. All I could see was the fear in her eyes. Not once did I stop to think that she might be afraid of her own father."
The judge is quiet for a long time, then he asks, "Couldn't see past Chanu being an Indian? Past the fear in Claire's eyes? Past your own jealousy?" The words hurt as much as a bullet to the gut. Maybe because they're true? I ain't sure. I look down at my hands again. The same hands which hold a woman, which fire a gun. . .the same hands which caught Vin Tanner when he collapsed yesterday.
"I don't know. All I knew two days ago, was that Chanu had escaped. That Vin seemed sympathetic to him, and that he was out with Nathan tracking him. That was it. Then lo and behold, here comes Reverend Moseley with his dead daughter, and nobody seemed to care. Ezra and I go out to look for them, and then Mrs Travis tells us that a mob is heading out to the reservation, to burn it down," I tell him.
I close my eyes, remembering what followed. The ride to the reservation, Ezra quietly cursing Vin for letting Chanu to escape. I open my eyes and look at the judge, telling him, "If we hadn't been riding hell bent for leather, I think Chris woulda taken Ezra off his horse. For sayin' that Claire would be alive, if Vin hadn't let Chanu escape. Hell, I don't think Chris even realized we didn't know the truth until then. How he expected us to know, I ain't sure, since he never bothered to tell us."
"JD," the judge suggests. I can't help but grin at that. Yeah, I reckon JD could have told us. But so could Chris. Maybe that was who I was mad at all along. And Vin just happened to get caught in the middle, because he was there. Between me and Chris. Who put him there? I ain't rightly sure. I think it mighta been me, but I don't remember. The judge grows serious, and asks, "What happened then?"
"Chris said, and I quote, Standish, you may be good enough to stop an escaping prisoner while you're out cold, but I ain't.' That got our attention in a hurry. Wasn't til we caught up with the others, and Nathan told us the rest of the story, that we found out about the fight in the jail. Right then, it just knocked me off my horse, you know? Vin didn't let Chanu escape. . .Chanu tried to strangle him. Judge, I ain't sure what I woulda done. If I had found JD like that, and then someone kept puttin' him down while he was tryin' to do his job," I tell the judge.
"Chris isn't you, and Vin isn't JD. JD is a young Eastern boy, still finding his legs in the West. Vin has spent his entire life out here, Buck. That makes a world of difference. How did Mr Standish react?" the judge asks. I almost laugh, remembering the look on Ezra's face when it finally penetrated. I don't laugh, though, cause I reckon there was that same look on my face. Shocked. Maybe even a little sick.
"About how you'd expect. I don't think he wanted to believe it. Ain't that strange, Judge, how it's easier to believe wrong of someone you know, than someone you don't, when believin' in. . .hell, how did Ezra put that? Believin' in a compatriot. . .it threatens to shake up somethin' you've always believed?" I ask him. He nods, looking sad. I sigh and go on, "So, we get to the reservation, and surprise, surprise, surprise. Vin was right all along. Claire was secretly married to Chanu, and was runnin' off with him to have a life with him and their baby. And her own father killed her."
The judge don't say nothing, as I explain the confrontation and the ride back to town. As I stop, trying to explain what came next, the judge asks quietly, "Vin didn't collapse until you boys got back to town, then. I wasn't sure. Mary told me that it happened in front of the saloon, when you were securing your horses, but the way JD talked. . ." I smile, in spite of myself. Judge Travis continues, "JD was thinking of a dime store novel."
"More n likely, he was. No, Mrs Travis was right. We had just reached the saloon. I'd seen Rafe Moseley on the way into town, at his sister's grave. The rest of the town just hung back, like they weren't sure what to do. We all dismounted. . .JD's mouth going a mile a minute, about what he had seen at the reservation. I got my horse tied to the hitch rail, and went over to talk to Vin. Offer to buy him a drink," I explain and the judge smiles in understanding.
I smile back, but only for a minute. I tell him, "I come around the back of his horse, and he was hangin' onto his pommel. His knuckles were damn near white, he was tryin' so hard to stay upright. I grabbed him from behind, and he was so damn weak, judge, scuse my language, he didn't even have the strength to fight me. He just. . .dropped, and I almost dropped him, cause I wasn't expecting it.
"I yelled for Chris, and got a better grip on Vin. Lord, he was shaking so bad. And he was almost white, you know, under them whiskers of his. I had my arms around him, like he was just a little fella. God, that boy's got grit. I told him to relax, that I had him. And I called him son.' Lord, Judge. . .that was almost enough to get him on his feet again. He told him, his voice barely above that whisper you heard if you talked to him, you ain't old enough to be my pa, Bucklin, don't be callin' me son.' Chris was just shakin' his head. He grabbed one arm, and we got Vin to his room at the hotel."
"Over his protests, I'm sure, saying that he can rest just fine in that wagon of his," the judge says, laughing. I nod, grinning, and the judge continues, "So, as a compromise between Vin's wagon and Nathan's clinic, you boys settled on his room. Nathan told me this part. He also told me that Vin was so exhausted from the last few days, he really didn't put up that much of a fight. You're right about one thing, that boy does have grit. In spades."
"How is he, Judge? I haven't been to see him since we got him settled yesterday," I ask. Been trying to work things out. Ain't nothin' that ails a man, that a woman can't fix. But not this time. I know that Mrs Travis has been helping Nathan to take care of Vin, who's running a fever. As if it ain't enough, that he had been nearly strangled, he didn't eat or sleep while he was out tracking Chanu, and he got rained on.
"Hoarse, but I expected that. He wasn't awake very long. Just long enough to tell me he didn't want to press charges against Chanu, then he fell asleep again. My next stop is the jail, to see Reverend Moseley. See if there's anything he wants to add to his public confession. I was concerned about you, though. JD's been worried about you. He's worried about both of you," the judge tells me and I smile.
He wants to know how I am. Isn't that funny? Not ha-ha, but weird.
"Oh, I'm fine. I ain't the one who almost got killed, got into three fights, camped out in the rain and came down sick. I'm just the fool who decided not to trust Vin, and I don't even know why. I mean, it ain't like he's done somethin,' givin' me some reason NOT to trust him. If I could just figure it out. . .why," I tell the judge. He's just staring at me, with those sad, kind, wise eyes.
"Buck," he says gently, "you need to talk to Vin. From what I learned from Nathan, Vin was doubting himself while he was tracking. After they found Claire's body. . .Vin thought you were right all along. That he caused Claire's death, by trying to hear Chanu's side of things. Like I said earlier, son, it could have gone either way. You could have just as easily been right, and Vin knows that."
"It ain't just that, Judge. It's the reasons. . .was I jealous of Vin? Was Chris right, when he said it sounded personal? Was it because Chanu is an Indian? He ain't like me? Is it because I didn't realize Claire was afraid of her father? Why, Judge? Why didn't I give Chanu a chance?" I ask. He just looks at me, and I realize I can't ask him. Oh, I can, but he has no answers for him. I tell him, "You're right. I do need to talk to Vin."
"He's a good boy," the judge observes unexpectedly. I looked at him, surprised, and the judge continues, "I've known men like Vin Tanner. He's too young to understand right now that he is a good man, no matter what he's had to do to survive." I look at him quickly, wondering if he means Tascosa, and Judge Travis continues, "I don't know him very well. . .not in terms of knowing facts. But like I told you, I've known men like him."
Reckon I have, too. Lord, that boy damn near gave me a heart attack, first time we met. Had me convinced he was Blossom's husband, come back from Yuma Prison. I ain't lived that down yet. . .tumblin' off the roof outside Blossom's window, in my underclothes, right at Chris Larabee's feet. Probably never will. And hell, it all comes back to Chris. And who put Vin in the middle. Judge Travis pats my shoulder and says quietly, "Go talk to him, Buck. He's not awake right now, but you'll have time to think about what you want to say."
What to say? Damn, it's always so easy, knowin' what to say! JD tells me I'm full'a crap. So why the hell should this be any different? Hell, it ain't like this is the first time I ever made a horse's ass outta myself! But I get to my feet, tip my hat to Judge Travis, and leave the church. Josiah watches me go, and I can't really say what he's thinkin.' Reckon he'll tell me, if he thinks he oughta. And much as I want to, I can't ask him what to say to Vin. That's for me to do.
I ain't even all the way cross the street when the boy stops me. Not JD. Rafe Moseley. He's been lurkin' about the hotel for the last day or so, and now he confronts me. He don't look angry, though reckon he has a right. Kid lost his pa and sister on the same day. Had his entire world shaken up. No, right now he looks. . .ashamed. Bout the way I feel. He asks softly, "I couldn't ask Mr Larabee. Likely he'd shoot me right now."
I almost smile at that. . .Chris ain't as bad as people make him out to be. Scary as hell, sure, but he ain't as mean as he wants folks to believe.
Rafe continues, "I wanted to find out how Mr Tanner was doin.' Last I heard, he went down in front of the saloon, and nobody'll tell me what really happened. If he's okay." Well, don't that beat all? Though I reckon it ain't so surprisin.' When Rafe found out it was his pa who killed his sister, the poor kid was bout ready to kill his pa himself, forget about waitin' for the Judge.
"Vin's gonna be fine, son. Spent the night out in the rain, got a fever from that. Ain't slept or eaten since this whole mess started, and he's got a bruised throat, but he'll live. Just needs to rest," I tell him. Rafe's face grows gradually paler as I explain Vin's condition, and the kid's hand comes up to touch his throat. Reckon no one bothered to tell him about exactly what happened between Vin and Chanu in that jail, during the fight.
"Lord, and I. . .the things I said. You tell him to get better, Mr Wilmington. Tell him. . .tell him that my sister can rest easy, cause a' him, now it's his time to rest," Rafe finally says, and I nod. Rafe nods to me, then shuffles off again. Poor kid. Reckon he'll be all right. Josiah's taken him under his wing, so to speak. We'll make sure he'll be okay. Just like we'll make sure Vin'll be okay.
I continue to the hotel and head upstairs to Vin's room. Mrs Travis is with him now, with her little boy Billy on the other side. He just came to live with her, full time, a few weeks ago, now that the town is starting to settle down. Billy ain't no more than six or seven, and while Chris is his idol, he adores Vin, too. He was a little shy of him at first, but Vin has this way of talkin' to li'l ones, instead a' at them. They like that.
While Mrs Travis makes sure Vin's fever hasn't gone any higher, Billy is sitting beside him, reading to him. I almost smile at the picture, cause Billy's got the book wedged against Vin's side, using his arm to hold it there, and holding Vin's hand at the same time. Damn, Vin's gonna be uncomfortable when he wakes up. Billy sees me first, and whispers, "We gotta be real quiet, but I always like it when Mama reads to me when I'm sick." I smile and take off my hat.
"That's a right fine idea, Billy," I tell him, and Mrs Travis looks up with a smile. She's been smoothing Vin's hair back, while she wipes his forehead. Lord, you'd think Vin was one a' hers, way she fusses over him. And he's sleepin' now, so I reckon that's all right. He don't like bein' fussed over when he's awake. Pulls back into himself. Never thought about it much, but I imagine it's how he kept himself alive.
Vin stirs ever so slightly, and Mrs Travis says softly, "Billy, why don't we come back later? I think Buck needs to talk to Vin." There's sympathy in her eyes. She was another who wanted to hear Chanu's side of the story. And after we got back to town, when Vin collapsed, once Chris and I started carrying him to the hotel, she ran ahead to get things ready at his room. I remember, I looked up and saw her face. She looked scared. . .worried. Like Chris did.
Oh, not at first. When we were riding hell-bent for leather to the reservation, he was angry. When Vin and Nathan were saying what had really happened to Claire. . .hell, I was too shocked to look at Chris. But after Vin collapsed, then Chris was scared. Worried.
"You'll take care of him, won't you?" Billy asks. Damn, boy. How the hell do you do it? Billy looks almost as worried as his ma. What did this little kid see in you that I didn't? What did he notice, that I missed? I assure the little fella that I'll take real good care of Vin, and Billy carefully slides down, releasing Vin's hand. His ma picks up the book, then takes Billy's hand, and they both leave.
Now what do I do? Not knowing what else to do, I sit down in the chair beside the bed. My hat is in my hands, and I'm spinning it around on my finger. Trying to figure out where to start, what to say. A weak voice mutters, "Are ya gonna sit there all day, Buck, or ya gonna tell me what's gotten ya all outta sorts?" I look back at the bed. Vin still looks like he's asleep. At least until one eye opens and inspects me.
"I ain't real sure what to say," I admit, "God knows, I ain't about to apologize for wantin' to protect that girl. But. . .I can apologize for not seeing that you wanted to protect her, too." That's a good start. Now both of his eyes are open and he's regarding me very seriously. I go on, "I can apologize for doubtin' your instincts. For thinkin' you were blinded by friendship. And I can apologize for bein' blind."
"Ain't no call to apologize, Buck. Coulda gone either way. Just that some things, they didn't add up. I could see the fear in Claire's eyes, too, but it didn't make no sense to me that she wasn't happier to see us. There was a few other things, but it don't matter now," Vin answers hoarsely. A spasm of pain twists his face, just before he starts coughing. I get out of my chair and move to the other side of the bed, where the water is.
He takes a few sips of the water from the basin, and whispers, "Mind leavin' me sittin' up? Bit hard to breathe." I keep him sitting up until I get the pillows right, then ease him back, so he's reclining, rather than sitting. He relaxes, and it hurts to listen to him tryin' to breathe. He closes his eyes, mutters, "I'm okay, Buck. Been hurt a helluva worse." Hell, now the kid is a damn mind reader. Again, one eye opens and regards me thoughtfully.
Before he can repeat that he's all right, I tell him, "I shoulda listened to you. If I had, if we had, Claire and her baby might still be alive." Even as I say it, I know that's not really true. Is it? Would we have thought to protect Claire from her own father? I would have never believed, until Nathan explained how Reverend Moseley killed her, that the man was capable of killing his own child.
Vin doesn't answer, but I know he hasn't fallen asleep. I realize that no matter how many times I apologize, he's gonna keep telling me that I could have been right. Instead, I tell him, "Rafe Moseley was askin' about you. Wanted to know how Mr Tanner was doing." Vin's eyes open, and he grins. Pure mischief, and I wonder a bit uneasily what would happen if some of the mischief was ever unleashed. Then I grin myself. God help Chris Larabee!
"He said that, huh? Mr Tanner?' Reckon that's a promotion, goin' from tracker' to Mr Tanner' in just a few days," he said softly, and I laugh. Yeah, I reckon it is at that. His eyes are drooping again, though I can see he's fightin' to stay awake.
I remember again my conversation with the judge. Yeah, the boy has grit to spare. I tell him, "You go ahead and sleep. I'll watch your back." Even as I speak, I see him losing the battle to stay awake. Nathan told us it would be like that. He was up for more n twenty-four hours straight, the exposure to the rain, the fights, the attack in the jail. . .it'll take more n a few days for him to regain his strength.
"Ya don't gotta do that, Buck," he mumbles, and his eyes finally stay shut. Doesn't give me a chance to answer him. Yes, I do. I do have to stay. I ain't entirely sure why. We done said all that needs to be said. At the reservation, and here. Now. But I need to stay. If only to puzzle out how this kid reminds me of a ka-li-de-scope that I got when I was Billy's age. I imagine, though, that I already started to figure it out. Cause every time somebody thinks they got Vin Tanner figured out, somethin' changes and you see him in a new light. Just like one of them ka-li-de-scopes.
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