Dedicated to the Christmas film that has given me more pleasure than any other.
Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
- 1 -
'Dear Jesus, please help Mr. Tanner...'
'O Lord, comfort Vin Tanner tonight.'
'Father, infuse Vin with your Spirit on this the eve of your Son's birth...'
Prayers drifted upwards, even from lips that rarely uttered them, in a small town that some might have thought had escaped heavenly notice. They were no more than reminders to a God who knew the moment of this turning point in a good man's life.
'Ah, yes, tonight Vin Tanner's strength will fail. Whose turn is it, Joseph?'
'That's what I came to tell you. It's one of our newest arrivals, the missionary's daughter. She hasn't one tenth of his strength - how can she help him?'
'Yes, her spirit is tender but she knows what it is to suffer. Send for her.'
In a flash of starlight, the subject of their discussion was at their side.
'Tonight a man is considering throwing away God's most precious gift,' Joseph said
'Yes, my child. You have known despair. Do you think you can help him through his?'
'I don't know. I hope so. I'll surely try. I must go and get ready.'
'Wait, if you are to help him, don't you think you need to know something about him?'
'Look,' Joseph said. ' Can you see him?'
'No, I can't see anything through the mist.'
'Oh, of course, you'd don't have your wings yet. Here, I'll help you.'
A picture began to form in front of her eyes, so real that it felt almost as if she were living in the scene rather than looking at a photograph. Then the characters began to move.
'That's amazing,' she gasped.
'When you get your wings, you'll be able to see clearly all the time. Now, watch closely.'
A small boy stood beside a bed. He looked around about five years old and the woman in the bed was of an age to be a young mother. Her face was slick with sweat, her hair damp on the pillow. She held his hand, the color in his skin underlining the pallor of her own, and smiled weakly.
'Your Pa will take good care of you, Vin. Promise me you'll be a good boy.'
The boy nodded solemnly.
'Remember you're a Tanner.'
'Remember I'm a Tanner.'
The boy recited the words with determination, turning them into a vow.
The woman sighed. 'I'm a little tired now, sweetheart. I'll just take a nap.'
The boy straightened the bedclothes and planted a tender kiss on her cheek. Moments later he was ushered from the room by a woman as robust as the patient was frail.
'Now you run along and amuse yourself, my boy. Your mother needs to rest.'
He did as he was told, with the dutiful step of a son who knew that making a fuss would be of no help to his mother, but his expression would have softened the hardest heart. He understood that each visit to her bedside might be his last and, perhaps, even sensed that the time had now come.
Joseph did not reply, hearing another motherless child's understanding of the boy's loss.
The scene shifted to show the boy, now a few years older, staggering under a sack of grain. It would have been a heavy load for a man and he looked less than twelve. A gaunt man came into the stable and looked around, first at the few sacks stacked against the wall and then at the larger number left in the wagon.
'Come on, Vin. Put your back into it. There's another load after this one.'
Joseph coughed to cut her profanity short. With no divine knowledge of her prospects, he thought that eons would pass before she won her wings. He couldn't blame her, though, for the bitter memories that the vision stirred.
'No,' he said, 'Not heartless, but poor - grindingly poor. The man works himself into an early grave to feed the two of them. If he overloads his son, it's only so that the boy may eat.'
She looked again. The man was more than gaunt, he was close to starving, and his stride, confident as it seemed, was an affectation to hide the despondency that lurked in his eyes. He rested a hand briefly on his son's head before shouldering a sack and joining him in his labor.
'This job will buy us a lot of beans, son.'
Vin's eyes lit up.
'I sure am hungry, Pa.'
'Never think about being hungry. Always think about being full. That's what I do.'
Another two sacks joined the neat stack.
'Better?' the man asked.
Hannah thought that must be a lie but it was spoken with conviction. Where her father had driven her out of her mind, this man was teaching his son how to endure what he was powerless to cure.
The boy shouldered another sack, took two faltering steps and then let out a stifled yelp. The sack slid sideways and the boy, trying valiantly not to let it fall, was twisted around by its weight. His father was at his side before he finally crumpled to the floor.
'You all right, son?'
Vin nodded and tried to get to his feet. His face blenched with the pain.
'Come on. You sit here and rest. I can finish this.'
It was hard to say which was worse to watch: the father's growing exhaustion as sack followed sack or the son's guilt at being of no help to him.
'Will he recover?'
'Not without bed rest, and there'll be none of that. Too much work and too little food will leave its mark.'
'Will his life always be so hard?'
Joseph smiled and the scene began to shift.
Two men were racing across a dusty plain, their paint ponies flat out and hell bent for leather. Only when they drew closer did she see that one was a white man, although he wore the same clothes and used the same tack as the Comanche with whom he rode. Only after they passed a jagged rock did they slow to cool their snorting mounts.
'The blanket's mine!'
The white man was grinning in friendly triumph, leaning across to grab a striped blanket that was tucked beneath the front of the Comanche's saddle. The image froze, his eyes crinkled and his even white teeth bared.
'He's grown into a handsome man.'
She studied the strong features, feeling the sense of déjà vu that often replaced real memories from the years of her long illness. 'I... I think I've seen him before.'
'He visited you at the convent.'
'Did he come to ask about Josiah?'
Hannah, for she was the new arrival assigned to help Vin as he had helped her brother, looked again at the man who would later come to despair of life. There was no sign of that in the face before her now. He was young, no more than twenty, and he exuded a zest for living that her own father had been in the process of beating out of her at that age.
'Is his father dead?'
'A year ago, and sadly mourned like his wife.'
'So Vin's all alone in the world...'
Even as she said it, she knew it was untrue. There was no trace of loneliness in his face and the pattern of lines already forming at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth confirmed that the enchanting smile was an expression that he wore a lot.
'This is one of the happiest times of his life,' Joseph explained. 'For the next few years, he hunts buffalo and is welcomed by both Kiowa and Comanche. This is where he hones his aim, which turns out to matter more than he could ever imagine - to many people. But it ends in sorrow.'
The scene shifted again, crystallizing to reveal Vin once again riding across a dusty plain. This time he was alone and his expression was grim. He now wore white men's clothes, although his coat was still buckskin, and his dark bay gelding wore white men's tack. He led a sorrel mare with a body slung across its saddle.
'He hunts for bounties now the buffalo are scarce.'
Joseph's explanation was neutral, although Hannah knew that God was not best pleased with his children's profligate use of his creation. She hoped that Vin had not been the kind of hunter who left the plains strewn with decaying carcasses - she couldn't imagine he was, and certainly the Indian way was to use every last part of the beasts they hunted.
'He's changed,' she said. 'He looks older, harder.'
'Five years have passed since we saw him last, harsh years when his own people drove his friends onto reservations and killed many of them in the process. The man we saw him with was one of the dead. Witnessing all that would age any man, but his spirit is unbowed.'
They watched Vin ride into a small town, which a board beside the road told her proclaimed to be Tascosa, and hitch his horse outside the sheriff's office. He stretched, grimacing as he straightened an odd twist in his spine that had to be a legacy of those childhood deprivations, then went inside and returned moments later with a tall man wearing a star. The sheriff lifted the dead man's head by the hair casually, as if identifying corpses was a part of his daily routine, but then stiffened.
'This ain't Eli Joe.'
Vin frowned, his expression declaring that he'd been sure of his man.
'This is Jess Kincaid. You're under arrest for murder, fella.'
The sheriff made to draw his gun, but he should have done that before he spoke because Vin beat him to it. Keeping the man covered, he mounted his horse and rode out fast.
There had to be an explanation because surely, if Vin had murdered an innocent man, she would not be on her way to help him. There was always forgiveness, of course...
'No, he didn't kill the man. A devious trap, along with a superficial likeness between killer and killed, put a price on Vin's head that he still carries today.'
'So that's what leads him to consider taking his own life?'
Hannah waited impatiently for the next scene to coalesce. It was a strange experience to witness the key moments in a life, to learn what had turned Vin Tanner into the man he was, and it stirred painful memories of what had turned her into the woman she was. She already knew that the man she was to help had a resilience that she lacked, but she also knew that his past was peppered with family and friends who'd given him the love and respect needed to develop self-esteem.
Her life had not been totally devoid of such people, not least her brother, but her father's overbearing presence had overwhelmed any difference they might have made. Her reactions had been extreme, she could see that now, but she was unsure whether the fault lay with herself or her father. Perhaps they were both to blame. After all, he'd been just as hard on her brother as on her, yet Josiah survived with his humanity intact while she became something akin to a howling beast.
Another small town appeared, not so different from Tascosa except that the style of the buildings placed it further north and the ricochet of bullets declared it too lawless to have a sheriff. As it transpired, the man riding out of town at breakneck speed was the erstwhile sheriff, a man who'd decided that his skin was worth more to him than a town where little prospered but the saloons.
'He's here?' she asked in surprise.
'Over there, out front of that store.'
There he was indeed, looking thinner but otherwise well. He was in his shirtsleeves, sweeping the sidewalk and watching the mayhem unfolding. His expression was cautious, watchful even, but he looked like a man calculating the odds rather than a man afraid for his life. She supposed that spectators were superficially safe, provided they stayed out of the way of the men shooting guns into the air, at each other and at anyone who tried to interrupt their fun. She followed his gaze down the street and saw that the situation was about to change.
A group of men were dragging a Negro down some steps, a noose already tied around his neck.
A fair-haired woman had planted herself in their path, rifle raised.
'You're not hanging that man!'
The lead rider rode straight at her, calling her bluff, and she missed her chance to fire.
'Are you people just going to let this happen?' she appealed to the crowd.
Hannah looked back at Vin. He'd caught the eye of a man in black on the opposite side of the street and she saw their silent exchange. When they moved, it was as one organism. She would never have known that they'd never met, didn't even know each other's names, but were simply kindred spirits reacting to the same thing in the same way as if there were no other choice.
The face-off and shoot-out that followed was unlike anything she'd ever seen. She hadn't realized that anybody could be so brave, especially on behalf of a stranger, or that hands could move as fast as theirs. Vin was fast but the man in black was a blur, as shot after shot found its mark.
'And there you have the beginnings of what becomes known as the Magnificent Seven,' Joseph said. 'The Negro joins them, and the boy too.'
Hannah looked at the raw youngster, who'd done nothing but get in the way and garner a sharp reprimand from the man in black for trying to shoot a fleeing man in the back.
Joseph laughed. 'You'll hardly recognize him a year from now.'
Scene followed scene as she saw the town blossom under its new protection. She watched as Vin found a child called Billy before his pursuer could silence him, cleared the name of an Indian accused of kidnapping and murdering a white woman, defended an old woman against a cattle rancher out to steal her land and intervened just in the nick of time when one of his friends was about to be buried in a grave of his own digging by crooked railroad men. Her dedication to his cause didn't prevent her from getting to know her brother too, discovering the man he'd become and the torments that she'd never known he shared. The final scene interested her most, as she saw how Vin's visit to the convent fitted into a dogged search for evidence to stop Josiah from hanging, when he himself was eager to settle the noose around his own neck. Realizing that Vin's friendship had saved his life suddenly turned her mission into something personal as well as divine.
'And that,' Joseph said, 'brings us to today. Now you know about this man, it's time for you to see what has brought him to contemplate taking his own life. Only then will you be ready to help him.'
- 2 -
Vin rode his patrol contentedly. He'd grown to like his life in town, and patrolling its borders was one of his favorite parts of that life. It got him out in the open, gave him a chance for solitary reflection, and helped to assure the safety of his friends and acquaintances.
That morning, he was more content than usual. It was Christmas Eve and he had discovered a vicarious pleasure in the town's preparations for its first truly peaceful celebrations. He and his friends had enforced law and order by the previous Christmas, but it had taken longer to deliver a lasting security where trouble was the exception rather than the rule. He'd spent too many years deterring challenges by projecting toughness to show a personal interest in the festivities but he could still enjoy the uninhibited pleasures of others.
His double-patrol that day was a Christmas present of a sort, freeing Josiah to decorate the church and JD to help Nettie and Casey with their preparations. It was no sacrifice to him, given that his Christmas plans went no further than buying a new blanket for his horse - small thanks for a year of loyal service and yet still a sentimental gesture that he'd have blushed to own up to.
He was relaxed and yet alert. It was a difficult balance to achieve but one that he had long since perfected. Preoccupation and distraction could both get a man killed. Vigilance required the mind to be clear and fast reactions required the muscles to be fluid. He scanned the landscape, stopping periodically to look more closely through his spyglass, one part of his mind lingering on the interactions of the creatures he saw even while another part considered whether any threat might lie concealed. Still, for all his experience and caution, he was not prepared for what followed.
In an instant, too fast to separate, two shots reached his ears and pain seared his right shoulder.
It was the instinct of a fugitive rather than conscious thought that translated that pain into risk. He was right-handed, plain and simple. He could barely hit a barn door with his left and that wasn't for lack of practice. A glance down told him that both bullets had found their mark, in bicep and shoulder, and he was defenseless. He rode flat out for cover, knowing that his only chance was to put an obstruction between himself and his attacker. In the few seconds that it took to reach the trees, four more shots rang out. The tone of their echoes helped him gauge the position of his foe.
The fact that, now he was moving, the later shots missed reassured him - he could easily drop a man riding at speed - but he was disturbed by the pattern of the wounds he'd sustained. If he'd been shooting to disable, he'd have shot the gun arm and a leg. He'd taken a bullet in his gun arm, true enough, but the other shot, in the same shoulder and inches closer to his heart, looked more like a shot meant to kill.
He barely reined back when he reached the trees. His mind was racing, telling him that he couldn't take on even a single gunman with a busted arm and that his options were few. He could make a stand where he was and get himself killed. He could flee into the landscape, with a chance of survival - if he could lose his pursuer and if he could treat his wounds. His best chance, though, was to ride back to town, to the cover and medical treatment that only his friends could provide.
Later that day, he would ask himself how he came to choose the only option that put his friends at risk. As he would then come to conclude, in the heat of the moment and with the instinct for survival driving his every move, he simply took the path with the best odds.
He turned his horse southwards and rode for his life. He was a light man with a fit horse, only an hour into his patrol, and a head start if his pursuer had dismounted for the straightest aim. He didn't waste time on looking behind him but committed himself to the course he'd chosen, selecting the one of two direct routes that provided the most cover.
As soon as he could recognize distant figures on Main Street, telling him that they would be able to recognize him, he dragged his gun from its holster. It took every ounce of resolve he possessed to pump and fire, when the movement hurt as bad as stabbing a knife into his own flesh and twisting it, but he knew that shots were the surest way to bring his friends fast.
At least, he reflected grimly, two good legs meant that he was secure in his saddle unless he passed out. By the time he'd covered the final few hundred yards, he wasn't too far from fainting. He slithered down into Nathan's waiting support, focusing on Chris as he delivered his report.
'One man... far as I know... two shots hit, out of the blue... four more missed, on the move... lost the use of my gun arm... rode on back...'
'After the bounty?'
'Don't know... no warning...' He looked up at Nathan. 'Easier if he's dead...?'
Things grew hazy after that. His mind slowed giddyingly from the rat-tat-tat of instinct to the thick fog of injury. While he was dragged upstairs for treatment, he heard Nathan explaining the conversation they'd had over the assassin's rifle. The knowledge that his wounds wouldn't kill him now brought some comfort, but that was tempered by fear that he might lose the use of his arm. Even slight damage could leave him vulnerable for the rest of his life, which might then be short.
He held on to consciousness throughout the extraction of the bullets and the bandaging of the wounds, declining the whiskey that Chris offered to dull the pain. That was no testament to his resilience, just blind luck that the bullets had lodged in easy positions that presented small challenge to a man of Nathan's experience.
'Someone on watch?' he muttered.
A slight narrowing of Chris's eyes told him that the question amused. Of course, someone was on watch. 'But he'd have to be a fool to follow you into town.'
Vin considered that. It was true but that was no guarantee. Still, if the man did ride on into town, his friends would make short work of him. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. Bounty hunting was a legitimate living and it wouldn't sit easy with him to have his friends to kill a man for it.
'You said it yourself, Vin. Ain't right to kill a man without warning, just to make life easier.'
Vin frowned, then quoted his father weakly. 'Two wrongs don't make a right.'
Vin understood his meaning. They wouldn't set out to kill the man but, if he forced their hand and it was the only way to protect a friend, they wouldn't hesitate. 'What if he don't ride in?'
So Chris had been thinking that too. If the man wasn't a fool, he'd either wait around for another chance or he'd give it up having missed his best chance. That was a problem, because it would leave Vin unsure whether he was at risk for an indefinite period. He wasn't inclined to live that way, and he knew that Chris wasn't inclined to let him.
'Now Nathan's fixed me up, I can track him for you.'
Nathan stepped in firmly. 'You ain't going nowhere.'
'He knew what he was doing, Chris. He got right up close without me having no idea. I doubt you'll find him without me.'
Chris looked down at his arm.
'Don't stop me ridin' or trackin'. I ain't lost much blood - take a look at my shirt.'
Chris looked across at Nathan, who bit his lip and glared at Vin. 'You wanna get yourself killed?'
'I can do it, Chris.'
By the time he was dressed and downstairs, with his arm in a sling, the others had gathered around. He looked from one to another, considering what had happened and what might yet come to pass.
'We don't know for sure it's the bounty he's after,' he said.
'Are you aware of other reasons for strangers to take pot-shots at you, Mr. Tanner?' Ezra asked.
Vin started a shrug, which he quickly abandoned when pain rippled through his damaged shoulder. 'Mebbe a diversion? If somebody wanted us all outta town...'
It was possible, if unlikely. Chris gave a curt nod.
'One man doesn't take seven of us. Buck, Josiah - you're with us. Ezra, Nathan, JD - you stay here in town and keep your eyes open.'
By the end of the day, that was just about the only decision that Vin did not regret. He wished he hadn't taken his troubles back into town, he wished he hadn't led his friends into the bullets of a slippery quarry who was willing to pick off them as well as him for five hundred dollars, and he wished he hadn't been so successful in tracking down the bastard. By the time he managed, desperate and left-handed, to put a lucky shot into the man's chest, the one thing he could be glad of was that only three, not six, of his friends had risked their necks on his behalf.
Buck was the first to fall, catching an unexpected bullet in the gut before they even knew the man had doubled back to pick them off while they tracked him. They'd been as careful as ever and yet this man had evaded their constant scrutiny of the country ahead, waiting until Buck was briefly in full view and delivering a wound that crippled him by blood loss in the short term and might kill him - whether directly by damage to a vital organ or indirectly by infection - in the longer term.
Josiah was next, taking one bullet in the thigh and another a few inches higher. He still fought on valiantly, his aim unaffected, but he couldn't walk or ride. Like Buck, he had passed out from loss of blood by the time Vin roped him across his saddle and there was a real risk that he might die.
Chris was last, as skilled as ever but hampered by his refusal to abandon three wounded men. Seeing the position in which he'd unwittingly landed his best friend was the last straw for Vin.
'Leave us,' he'd begged. 'Get on back to town. There ain't no sense in you gettin' killed too.'
When Chris had ignored him, Vin's anger had spread from himself to include his friend. He wished what he'd said had been a ploy to goad Chris into abandoning a lost cause but, at the time, he'd meant it.
'You wanted to help me, you never shoulda killed Eli Joe. It was your bullet that finished off any chance I had of clearin' my name. There ain't nothin' you can do to change that, so don't be addin' to my troubles now.'
His tone could have left no doubt that the resentment was real, having festered unvoiced for months, and yet it elicited no reaction from Chris. Thinking on that much later, Vin suspected he'd said nothing that Chris had not said to himself. No voice could be as hard to hear as the voice of a man's own conscience.
So, Chris had stayed and three bullets had been his reward. They were now lodged around his chest and, although Vin already knew they had missed his heart and lungs, they would have to come out and no man could predict whether Chris would survive their removal.
It had taken every scrap of Vin's guile and knowledge to escape the predicament alive. He'd played dead to bring his pursuer within range of a clumsy left-handed shot and he'd used every trick he ever heard of to buy his friends enough time to reach Nathan. It was all he could do to get them back into town. By the time he'd handed them over, he was drained beyond any fatigue he'd ever known but, when Ezra rested a comforting hand on his good shoulder, he'd found enough energy to push it angrily away and gallop out of town.
All he knew then was that he could not live with the knowledge that he'd allowed even one of his friends to die to save his hide. With the odds against all three of them surviving, he was afraid to hear the outcome and, at the same time, ashamed of his fear. Trapped and powerless, he could not have named the emotion as despair but it needed no name for its black tendrils to reach into him.
- 3 -
'But none of it was his fault,' Hannah said sadly. 'He would have done as much for any of them.'
'And that is why you must help him.'
'Will his friends live?'
'That is part of their story, not his. He has no right to take his life because they sacrificed theirs for him. You must help him to understand that the decision was theirs, not his, to make.'
'I'll try,' she said uncertainly. ' How do I-'
Before she could complete the question, she was back in the earthly realm. One moment she was a spectator watching scenes that had already played out and the next she was an actor in the present. On a ridge above her, silhouetted against the twilight, stood Vin Tanner. Shoulders slumped, he cradled the butt of his gun in his clasped hands, the barrel rested on his chest. He was ready to send a bullet through his jaw and up into his skull, as sure a way of ending a life as she knew.
She had but a moment to stop him. Everything she'd seen told her that this was a man who could not ignore another's troubles. The best way to interrupt his plan must be to fabricate a threat to herself. Beside the road was a sheer drop into a rock-strewn canyon. It would be easy to slip.
- 4 -
Her screams for help bounced between the bluffs, creating a chorus that stilled Vin's trigger finger. He scrambled down to the road, his boots sliding on the scree-covered slope, ignoring the pain of turned ankles but careful not to sustain a more serious injury that might prevent a rescue.
'Hey!' he called. 'Somebody down there?'
A woman's cry came from beyond the road. What she might be doing out there alone and how she'd fallen from a well-trodden trail on a moonlit night he did not hesitate to consider. Instead, he made straight for the source of the cry and dropped onto all fours to look over the ledge safely. He could see her knuckles shining white, already losing their grip on the rocks. Flattened on his belly, feeling the cold from the frozen ground seeping through his coat and into his flesh, he groped for her wrist and then hauled with all his might. She seemed almost to float to the surface, with none of the weight he'd expect from even the smallest woman.
He rose to his feet and helped her to hers. It was far too cold to be sitting on the ground, although she was better dressed for it than he was. She wore a thick woolen coat with a muffler wound around her throat and over graying golden hair. He looked more closely at her features. Something about her seemed familiar, although he could retrieve no clear recollection of her.
'How d'you know my name?'
'I know all about you. You're a friend of my brother's.'
A friend's sister? He studied her more closely, suddenly realizing why the features had looked familiar and then knowing that she could not be who she claimed. Josiah had confided in him when the wire came, telling him of Hannah's sudden death from heart failure. As sad as the news was, Vin had shared Josiah's belief that it was a blessed relief. He hoped she was now in a better place, with a lifetime's suffering no more than a distant memory.
'Now don't you be lyin' to me. Miz Sanchez passed on last Fall.'
'That's true. I did.'
He stared at her, not knowing what to say to someone who reckoned to pass herself off as a ghost.
'No, not a ghost. I'm an angel, second class. Your guardian angel tonight.'
'If you was an angel, I reckon you wouldn't have needed me to pull you out of that ravine. You could have flown out just as easy. So, where are your wings?'
'I don't have any wings. I told you, I'm only an angel second class. I have to save you to win my wings.'
'You expect me to believe-'
'How did I know where you were tonight? Did you tell anyone that you were coming out here to take your own life? Did you speak to anyone of your despair?'
Vin considered her questions. The only person he'd talked to was God, which wasn't something he was in the habit of doing, and the last thing he had expected was a reply.
'God heard your prayer, and the prayers of everyone in town, and sent me to help you.'
'Seems t'me like I was the one doin' the helpin'.'
'How else was I going to get your gun away from your chin? I knew you'd have to help, if you thought someone else was in trouble. When we first met, you were trying to help my brother.'
'It's been a hell of a day. I'll get right on back to what I was doin' before I started seein' things.'
'Oh, no. I can't let you do that. I won't get my wings if you do.'
'That ain't my problem.'
He set off back up the slope. There was no reason he couldn't shoot himself just as well where he stood but it wasn't something he fancied an audience for, even if the woman might only be a figment of his agitated imagination. She insisted on following behind.
'Why do you want to shoot yourself?'
He didn't answer and, for that matter, wasn't even sure he could. It wasn't as if it was something he exactly wanted to do.
'Do you think your death will make your friends happy?'
No, he didn't think that but he couldn't let more people be hurt on his behalf and he'd never be sure when that might happen. Even if he moved on, his past could catch up with him on another day in another town. Not expecting her to understand, he spoke more to himself.
'Fact is, I reckon it woulda been better all round if I'da been hanged back in Texas.'
He heard the woman draw breath, as if to protest, and then hesitate. She began to murmur, as if to herself, 'Now there's an idea... What do you think, Joseph?'
For a moment, he thought she was talking to the brother with whom she claimed kinship but Vin was sure she'd said Joseph not Josiah. Before he could think on it further, she spoke to him.
'All right. You've got your wish. You were hanged in Tascosa two years ago.'
'How'd you know about Tascosa?'
'I know everything about you. I told you - I'm your guardian angel.
'Look, Miz, just leave me alone. I ain't in the mood for none of your games.'
'It's not a game. You no longer exist.'
'I'm right here, ain't I?'
The woman smiled. 'Take me into town. It's freezing out here.'
Only then did it occur to him that she had not only no escort but also no horse.
'How'd you get out here?'
'Take me into town. That's not too much to ask, is it?'
He didn't want to return to town, just when he'd worked himself up to put an end to his troubles, but he couldn't leave any woman - sane or otherwise - to face the night alone. Grudgingly, he returned to his horse, swung astride and then helped her up behind him. Intending to drop her outside town, he set out at a brisk jog.
Less than ten minutes later, he glimpsed the outline of a familiar bowler hatted rider approaching. With the light in his favor, he reckoned he had a minute or two before the youngster saw him.
'You can walk from here, ma'am. It ain't far. Just stay on the road.'
'My feet are sore,' she protested. 'Can't you take me all the way?'
'I said you can walk from here.'
Still she did not move. Throwing one leg forward over the pommel of his saddle, he jumped lightly to the ground.
'Suit yourself. Keep the damned horse. Ain't like I'll be needin' him anyhow.'
He set off back the way he'd come. There was only one thing he'd be needing and it was snug in its holster. Of course, he'd reckoned without JD. He heard voices behind him and then rhythmic hoof beats closing the distance. He couldn't outrun a horse, so now he'd have to explain what he was doing walking off into the darkness.
'Confound that kid,' he muttered.
'Hey, fella! Wait up. Where d'you think you're going?'
'Ain't no concern of yours, kid.'
'I ain't no kid. I'm the sheriff of this town and I asked where you think you're going. You got some explaining to do.'
Vin turned in disbelief. JD only pulled the sheriff thing on strangers and it sure wasn't going to wash with him. 'Since when do I have to tell you my business, JD?'
JD's eyes narrowed. 'How do you know my name. Mister?'
'That does it.' Vin strode away.
JD circled in front and planted his gelding square across the road, revolver in hand.
'I said wait up. You're coming into town to answer for what you done to this lady.'
Vin glanced uneasily at his former passenger, wondering what she'd said to JD to make him act so strangely. Pretending not to know a friend made no sense, even after the day they'd had. Besides, if he was so put out about the others' injuries, he'd do better to let Vin leave and finish what he'd started. Still, he could do that as well tomorrow as today. He certainly didn't intend to provoke an incident where he ended up hurting JD on top of the others. He raised his hands resignedly.
'All righty. Have it your own way.'
He surrendered his weapon and then headed for town. As he walked past his horse, the woman urged it into step beside him.
'See?' she asked.
'See what?' he growled.
'The boy doesn't know you. I told you - you don't exist.'
He looked up sharply but said nothing.
When they reached town, things went from bad to worse. By the time they reached the jail, he'd had suspicious looks from half a dozen men with whom he usually exchanged civilities. It was a salutary lesson to discover how quickly friendship faded in the face of trouble, even trouble that wasn't of a man's own making. He'd hoped for better than that after the good he'd done before it.
JD waved him inside with his gun.
'You gonna lock me up, kid? What the hell for?'
'I told you, I ain't no kid. You can wait just as well in there while I get some help.'
Vin went inside, shaking his head dolefully. What difference did it make? There'd be time enough later to take care of his unfinished business. He let JD put him behind bars, dropping resignedly onto the cot in the cell and wondering just how much worse things could get.
It wasn't long before JD returned. Behind him was Ezra, the flow of complaints that heralded his arrival reassuringly familiar to Vin.
'I fail to see the urgency if you have incarcerated the suspect. I was engaged in a most profitable game, beside which a dollar a day counts for very little.'
'Ezra, for pity's sake tell the kid to let me out. He's lost his senses.'
Ezra stopped a foot short of the bars and stared. Vin felt himself staring back. This wasn't the Ezra who'd patted his shoulder in wordless comfort earlier. There were subtle differences - like the hard glint in his eye that took Vin back to the day they'd met, a time before Ezra had discovered friendship and all that went with it - but those he might have doubted. What he could not doubt were the cane on which he leaned for support and the furrow plowed by a bullet across one cheek.
'And how may I ask do you know my given name? And by what right do you use it?'
Vin shook his head. He had no answer for this man, who looked and spoke like Ezra but who seemed to have no memory of the friendship that had blossomed between them, a friendship that Vin had come to value more highly than he could ever have imagined when they met.
Ezra turned to JD. 'I suggest we wait until the morning, when the lady will be rested, and ascertain from her the precise nature of the crime of which this miscreant is charged. Then we will have a clearer idea how to proceed.'
With that, Vin was left to himself again. He stretched out on the cot, dropped his hat over his eyes and abandoned himself to what he could only assume was a dream. He had no expectation of sleep, given that he did not believe he could be awake.
'Do you plan to stay here all night?'
He sat up with a start. The woman was sitting on the end of the cot, yet the jail was empty and the cell door still locked.
'How did you get in here?'
She rose to her feet and floated obligingly through the bars of the cell.
'I told you, you no longer exist. You can leave in the same way as me.'
She held out her hand invitingly, an iron bar passing disconcertingly through her forearm. He took it hesitantly: it felt like normal flesh, warm and dry. He let her draw him forward, wincing as he reached the bars. He needn't have worried - he felt nothing as they passed through his body.
'Okay,' he admitted slowly. 'Either you're a dream or you're what you say you are.'
'If I'm a dream, I cannot harm you. If I'm what I say I am, I'm here to help you. Will you trust me?'
He nodded slowly. 'Don't seem like I got much to lose, when you put it that way.'
'You are being given a rare gift, Vin, a chance to see this town as it would be if you'd never come here. Perhaps then you will understand the value of what you were about to throw away.'
'So, what happened to Ezra?'
'He was crippled while investigating the deaths of Chinese workers on the railroad. You were not there to help him overpower his captors. He was fortunate to escape with his life.'
Vin pursed his lips. 'There's been times he's saved my hide. It cuts both ways.'
'True but still, had you never come to this town, Ezra would be as you see him now.'
'What about the others?'
'Look around for yourself. You'll find many things are different from how you remember them.'
'Where's Chris?' Vin asked suddenly. 'What have you done to him?'
'He's in the town you call Purgatory, fighting drunk as he often is.'
Vin frowned. Chris disappeared down there now and again, to blow off steam as Buck called it, but that wasn't often and Christmas Eve wasn't one of the dates that usually brought on a trip. Vin knew that he'd made a new fishing pole for Billy and planned on delivering it in person.
'Your friendship meant a good deal to the man you knew.'
'That cuts both ways too, but he never needed me to tell him how to do what's right.'
'No. Anyone can see that this is a law-abiding town.'
Vin looked around. The town was safe, as he'd expect with Chris in control, but it didn't feel happy. He hadn't thought about that before but the town that he knew had grown friendly, somewhere that a man might choose to settle rather than a hellhole in which he washed up by chance, but he couldn't see how that was down to him.
'I ain't the only one that matters to Chris. I reckon young Billy Travis has done more than most to put the past to rest for him.'
Hannah shook her head. 'Billy wasn't there to save him, because you weren't there to save Billy.'
'What are you talkin' about? Billy's just fine.'
'Without you to track the boy, Chris found him too late. He had already been silenced. His death was avenged, not averted, and only compounded the guilt that your friend carries.'
Even with the evidence all around him, seeing the differences in the town and finding his friends strangers, Vin couldn't believe what he was hearing. He looked around at the familiar-yet-unfamiliar stores, then headed for the newspaper office. It seemed unchanged. He rapped on the door, the same light triple-tap with which he'd started countless reading lessons.
Mary looked cautiously through the glass beside the door. With a sinking heart, he saw that she did not recognize him either. The closest female friend he'd ever had, the person with whom he'd finally confronted his illiteracy, now stared at him with wary eyes.
For his part, he might almost have failed to recognize her too. Oh, to be sure, she was the same height and coloring, with the same features, but she looked far older than her years. He'd seen the effect of losing a son on Chris and knew that it was not just widowhood that Mary now shared with him. Added to that, she carried one arm against her body. He'd known men left with that particular type of incapacity by a shot to the shoulder.
Realizing that he needed no better evidence than that of his own eyes, he waved way his call as if he'd been mistaken about the address. Mary withdrew, still wary. He turned to Hannah.
'You weren't there to stop Stutz. The situation escalated and Mary was caught in the crossfire. All seven of you brought something special to this town: your keen eye, whether turned to tracking or shooting, made more difference than you know. Without you to track him and believe in him, Chanu hanged for the murder of Clare Moseley. Without you to watch over her, Nettie Wells died in one of Bob Spikes' fires.' She rested her hand on his forearm, her final revelation apparently troubling her as much as it would probably trouble him. 'Think, Vin. There was another time when you stood by someone when others had their doubts.'
Trusting her now, he considered when he had pursued something by himself, rather than being one of the group as he often was. Something Chris had once said drifted into his mind: 'How well do we know Josiah? How well do you really know anyone?
They'd been speculating whether Josiah was the killer they were hunting, and it was he who'd moved heaven and earth to uncover the reason for Josiah's strange behavior. Nathan stood by him too, but he couldn't have watched Josiah in town and ridden out to Vista City at the same time. Something might have had to give.
'Josiah?' he asked, afraid to hear the answer.
He followed Hannah as she headed for the church, except that she wasn't headed for the church but beyond it. There was a rough stone in the dirt, with just the name and date, the hanged man denied the sanctity of hallowed ground.
Vin licked his lips, which were suddenly dry. 'They hanged him?'
'Cyrus Poplar kept on planting incriminating evidence and Josiah wouldn't stand up for himself. He needed you to shake him out of his guilt over me. And his guilt was as misplaced as yours.'
Vin shook his head, trying to deny the evidence of his own eyes. Josiah not just dead but disgraced. To fall defending a friend was surely better than to be strung up for another man's murders - wasn't that just what he'd been trying to avoid himself? The world was starting to look even grimmer without him than with.
Wanting to see no more, he ran to the livery stable, grabbed his horse and rode out bareback at a pace far too fast for the conditions. He had to get away from a world where nothing was as it should be, and distance was the only remedy he knew: distance from the town and distance from the spiritual guide that he hoped he was imagining. Reckless in his panic, he rode straight through Main Street, ensuring that even JD couldn't fail to notice his departure.
Vin urged his steed into greater efforts, listening as the shouts faded away behind him but knowing that JD could beat him in a race any day, let alone on a horse that was almost fresh against one that was having a day almost as bad as Vin's own. He cast around desperately for a plan, any plan. Where could he go? How could he put things right? How could he put his friends, and the town, back as they'd been that morning?
The only thing he could think of was to go back to the place where it had all changed. If this wasn't a dream, and God really was showing him what things would be like without him, then he would go back and beg him to set things straight. He rode as fast as he dared on the frozen ground. When he reached the spot where he'd hauled Hannah out of the ravine, he leaped down and threw himself to his knees.
'Let me live again,' he muttered. 'If what you've shown me is the truth, then I want to live again. I don't care what happens to me, and what happens to them is worse without me around than it was with. Let me live again. Let me live again.'
Not knowing what else to do, he repeated the last sentence over and over. The wind swirled around him, driving icy slivers into his eyes. The storm built until he doubted his sanity at riding out into it with nothing but the clothes he stood in. Then, abruptly, it stopped.
Soft flakes of snow began to fall steadily downwards, without so much as a breath of wind. It was still cold but it was the crispness of Christmas not the bite of mere winter. With the land as cold as it was, Vin would have expected the snow to settle but there was something unearthly about the speed with which it accumulated. Years in the outdoors told him that this wasn't just snow and that what he'd experienced wasn't just a dream.
Seeing his horse shiver, he mounted up and rode steadily back into town. He was afraid of what he might find but could think of no other way to see whether the world had returned to normal.
Once again, the first man he saw wore a bowler hat. He steeled himself for disappointment: the kid had been riding out after him anyhow. He let the distance close slowly, his gut churning with the conflict between his need to know everything was all right and his fear that nothing would ever be right again. He had never felt such dread, not even when he faced the most overwhelming odds. He was not afraid of death, but he was afraid of the world he'd glimpsed.
'Hey, Vin! We were worried when you took off like you did. Me and Ezra have been looking all over for you.'
Vin urged his horse forward, feeling the stupid grin that had spread across his face but finding that he was completely unable to rein himself in.
'JD! Hell, am I glad to see you.'
He slapped the kid's back, then squeezed his shoulder for good measure. It was out of character, he knew, but JD's broad smile declared plainly that his improved spirits were a relief.
'You all right now?'
Was he? It was too soon to think he was free and clear. There'd been a reason for his despair, after all. 'The others... are they...?'
'Nathan thinks they'll pull through. It was touch and go for a while, but they're sleeping now.'
Vin nodded, his eyes pricking with tears that had rarely come so close to being shed. He was glad that it was JD who'd greeted him, a young man whose own griefs and sorrows he had witnessed.
JD studied him closely. 'It wasn't your fault, Vin. None of it. We've all put our lives on the line for far less deserving folk than you before now.'
Vin shrugged, his emotions too complex to be put into words.
'Those ain't my words, even though I believe 'em. Chris gave us that message for you, before he'd let Nathan work on getting the bullets out. He knew how bad you'd took it.'
Vin recalled his earlier outburst, venting his frustration on Chris when it was nobody's fault but his own that he'd been first framed and then evaded. The fact that Chris hadn't risked wounding Eli Joe when Vin's life was at stake only confirmed their friendship: he liked Vin wanted and alive, better than cleared and dead. Some of his earlier guilt and regret returned.
'I never shoulda took a chance on gettin' my friends killed.'
'They knew how things stood. We're all old enough to make our own decisions.'
A wise head on such young shoulders, but then JD knew guilt and regret as well as any man.
'I know that now, kid.'
JD grinned. 'No one's dead, it's Christmas Eve and it's snowing. It don't get too much better.'
He urged his horse into a steady jog, a far better pace for a cold night, and Vin matched him stride for stride. When they reached town, he hardly knew who he wanted to see first but stabling the horses had to come before making house calls. The door to the livery stables had been opened recently - it didn't take a tracker to see the arc that the door had cleared in the snow - making their entrance easier. Inside, Ezra was saddling a horse, not his own which was rubbed down, blanketed and clearly exhausted. He turned at their approach, his drawn face revealing something that Vin had not expected: anxiety that a friend might take his own life if not found in time. The joy that chased the tension away was as bright as a fire on a dark night. If Vin had ever doubted what he meant to Ezra, which he might have if he'd thought about it, he would never do so again.
'Mr. Tanner!' The mellifluous voice was just a shade unsteady beneath bone-deep weariness. 'Your return is most welcome. It saves me another excursion into that infernal storm.'
'Storm's passed, Ezra. Just nice steady snow now. We got ourselves a white Christmas.'
'You are well?'
'Yeah.' Vin considered the question. 'Yeah, I'm good. Thanks for turning out after a darned fool on a night like this.'
He held out his good hand and it was a testament to Ezra's suavity that he shook hands as smoothly with his left as his right. Vin gripped the hand for a second or two longer than usual, looking into his friend's eyes and trying to convey the enormity of what he felt.
Ezra gave the slightest nod before turning away to unsaddle the horse he'd only just finished saddling. Vin and JD worked alongside him, settling their own animals before heading outside.
The snow was just snow now, the fluffy white stuff of snowmen and snowballs but no longer with the ethereal quality that Vin had glimpsed. He was back in the real world, and the real world was back how it should be. As if to confirm that, Mary came scurrying across the street from the newspaper office, bundled up in a shawl and waving a sheaf of papers.
'A petition, Vin, to get a pardon for you. Every last person in town has signed and the Judge will present it on your behalf. We thought we'd lost you all today...' she faltered, wiped away a tear, then laughed at her own emotion. 'That's never going to happen again.'
He could scarcely begin to take in that news, so happy was he to be recognized and missed. He threw his arms around her and hugged her bodily, as if he were years younger and she were an old buddy rather than a woman of some refinement.
'Thanks, Mary. You got no idea what that means to me.'
She looked at him, startled by his intensity, and then seemed to sense something of his epiphany. Of course, nobody could begin to imagine the details but a sensitive soul like hers could empathize with the effects of such a close brush with death, his own and his friends'. She held him close for a moment and he savored the knowledge that he had played a part in keeping her just as she was.
'I best go check on the others.'
She nodded. 'I looked in not long ago and they were fine.'
It went without saying that he needed to see that for himself. He climbed up the stairs to Nathan's room and opened the door soundlessly. Nathan was snoring on his bed in the corner, done in after saving three lives, and his patients were in the deep slumber of recovery.
Nothing had ever meant as much to Vin as seeing his friends still alive, unconscious and bandaged but alive, and his emotions were strongest for Josiah, although his injuries were the least serious. He sat beside the bed, looking at the coarse but kindly features that had been under six feet of earth not an hour since. Thinking that a prayer might be in order, he clasped his hands as he'd seen others do and sent up a muttered request for God to let them all live as well.
'As well as what?'
Vin started, thinking himself alone with three unconscious patients and their sleeping doctor.
Josiah was looking at him with his usual perceptive gaze.
Embarrassed, Vin tried to change the subject. 'I didn't realize you was awake.'
'Praying for us, Vin? I didn't know you were the praying kind.'
'I'm not, at least I wasn't, before tonight...'
Josiah reached feebly for a small book on the nightstand.
'This book yours, Vin?'
Vin shook his head. He could read now, if the writing was neatly printed, but he had never owned a book nor ever expected to. 'I thought it was yours.'
'No,' Josiah said thoughtfully. 'It ain't mine, although it sure does look familiar. Hannah had a book of poems...'
He opened it.
'Is this some kind of joke?'
Josiah gave him a long look before offering the book.
Vin took it and spelled carefully, letter by letter, through the words written on the flyleaf.
'Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Hannah.'
He smiled, his earlier despair cast out by his joy at the truth of those words. If his friends hadn't meant so much to him, their suffering wouldn't have hurt him so badly. There was even a perverse pleasure in knowing that it would hurt them as much if harm had come to him.
Josiah was still looking quizzically at him.
'Would you believe me if I told you that I had a visit from your sister tonight?' Vin didn't even know why he was asking such a dumb question. 'That she showed me how things would have gone if I'da hanged back in Tascosa and never brought my troubles to this town?'
'If you told me that, I figure I'd have to believe you.'
'Ain't so sure I'd believe a tale like that.'
Josiah's eyes twinkled. 'Well, I do reckon to be a man of faith. Are you telling me that?'
Vin pursed his lips and nodded. 'I was wonderin' if it was a dream or somethin', but I sure as hell never wrote this myself.' He studied the page again. 'She was fine, Josiah, regular as you and me.'
'We will all be made whole again by God's grace.'
'I thought... I thought you'da all been better off without me but you wasn't.'
Josiah smiled. 'Any of us could have told you that, Vin.'
'Mebbe I needed to see it for myself.'
Josiah nodded. 'God has a way of knowing what we need, even when we don't know ourselves.'
'Well, I reckon I'd better turn in - it's way past my bedtime.' As Vin reached the door, he heard a distant clock chime and stopped to count the strokes: twelve. 'Merry Christmas, Josiah.'
'Merry Christmas, Vin.'
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