Still Waters

by Xiola

OW PG 13 Vin, Chris, OMC

Refers to events in "Worth Living"

James M. McPherson "Battle Cry of Freedom - The Civil War Era" Oxford University Press, 1988.
Richard M. Ketchum Ed. "American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War" American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc. 1960.

Part One
Turns out Vin missed Thanksgiving.

Well, he was there, but still sick, and by the time his damn turkey was finally cooked and dinner all ladled up on the plates, he was out of his head and pukin' again and couldn't eat none. Buck and J.D. got back from Eagle Bend that day not too long past breakfast, but they didn't have no quinine with. Seems Doc Collins had passed it on to some folk headin' east t'ward Georgia six month back. Weren't nobody's fault - just bad luck, especially for Vin. The chills were comin' on him again when Buck and J.D. rode in, and he just gave 'em that half grin 'a his and said he guessed there'd be one less person to fight over the drumstick. I know the smell of the turkey in the stove was turnin' his stomach, but he said if we didn't cook it, that bird would likely come back and haunt him for the rest of his days. We all laughed at that, but I could tell Nathan was worryin' on just how many 'a those Vin might have left, seein' as how there weren't no medicine t' give him.

He made it through, though. Was sick for the better part of two weeks - he'd come around for a day or two, get the chills, then the fever and the pukin', then the sweats, over and over. He had to've been miserable, but he never complained. Vin's tough - has to be to live the kinda life he's had.

Weren't no one but me and Nathan after the first coupla days. The boys headed back inta town to keep an eye on things, and after the first week, Josiah came out to spell Nathan off. We got talkin', me and the preacher, about this and that, and I guess he could tell I was thinkin' on things best left alone. This is a bad time 'a year for me - Sarah's birthday was the end of October, then there's Thanksgivin', Adam's birthday two weeks after that, then Christmas. I just usually count on bein' pretty much legless for goin' on two months, and start tryin' t' put things back together come January. This year for the first time in a long while I made it through October relatively sober. Couldn't seem t' get away from that damned Texan. Followed me around like a shadow - didn't say nothin' much - took me out on the trail for a spell, showed me some places he found while he was wanderin', took me as far out to the mountains as I ever been. Saw some mighty nice country, always been sitting there in front of me, but guess I never paid much attention before. Guess I never had no long haired cuss around t' show me how to look at it.

Started losin' it before Thanksgiving, though - that's when I headed out to my place alone. Vin brung me back from that one too, but suppose that doesn't count - don't know how things woulda turned out if he hadn't got sick.

We spent a lot 'a time listenin' t' Vin, me and Josiah, when the fever carried him off to some other place and time. We got to feel like we's startin' t' know some 'a the folk he's goin' on about, he done talked about them that much. Talked a lot about Sarge, and Lonnie and Caleb - got right worked up, callin' to them and tryin' to go t' them - sometimes took both me and Josiah t' hold him down when he got like this. We tried askin' him about them fellas in those spaces when the fever left and he seemed t' come back to himself, but he wouldn't say nothin' - just that they's part of times long past, and not times he cared to remember.

Sometimes I feel as if I don't know nothin' about Vin at all. He's like them pools in the river - the ones you know's got trout in 'em if ya got the patience t' wait and let 'em come to you. They's all calm and still on the surface, but you could fall in there and drown in the quiet ripplin' around you. There's a whole world a deep thoughts and shadowed secrets sliverin' between those rocks and it's cool and silent and deep, a place where a man's soul could get lost and find itself again.

Vin knows a lot about me, and the funny thing is, most of it I ain't never out and told him. He just knows.

He still isn't one hundred per cent, but he tries hard to hide it. He's been usin' his room ever since we got back from my place. It's been cold and there's nothin' to him at all - but that don't usually stop him from sleepin' out. He's got a big bearskin out in his wagon - Kojay give it to him for the winter, and he mostly just rolls himself up in that and hibernates. Sleepin' indoors- now that's a sure sign he's hurtin'. Still, he's takin' his patrols, takin' his turn at the jail when we've got a full house, helpin' Miz Nettie, choppin' wood and fixin' that hole in her barn roof. Got a deer last week - hung it and dressed it and took what Nettie and Casey couldn't use on over to the Carver's. Lloyd broke his arm in October and didn't get out hunting and him and the misses got a passel of little ones t' feed. I didn't even know they's in trouble - figured they had some meat set by in the smokehouse and enough chickens t' last the winter. Vin don't just do patrol. He takes his job real serious, and every coupla days he stops and checks up on everybody we's lookin' out for. Says he gotta see with his own eyes and be sure everything's OK. Said something got inta Lloyd's henhouse and killed off his whole flock, and he knew they'd need a hand to get through. Vin notices stuff like this. Guess I do too, more'n I used to, but it's all thanks to him. He makes ya look outside yourself. One thing I can't quite figure - for somebody who's spent most of his life not bein' treated real good by folks, he cares an awful lot about 'em. Guess he's always lookin' for the good in them. Now me, I remember every son of a bitch since I was two years old that ever pissed me off. Told Vin that once when we was givin' him a hard time about bein' a 'Robin Hood', and he laughed full out. Said far as he could tell, everybody pissed me off - well, except him 'a course - so I had to take after him to show him who was boss. We both ended up in the trough out in front 'a the saloon and wouldn't ya know, just that very minute Judge Travis is gettin' off the stage and sees me haulin' my soggy rear end outta the water with Tanner drippin' along behind me. I could hear Vin back there, snortin', tryin' not t' laugh. The man don't care nothin' for what folk think 'a him, but he ain't the one who's supposed to be in charge. Travis took one look at me, threw back his head and roared. I felt like a little kid- I was that embarrassed - think I managed to mumble 'Nice day' on my way past to the bath house.

Ain't been nobody since Sarah who's got to me the way Vin has. Somethin' about him just seems to calm the storm in me, can give me strength when I feel myself falling. Guess ya could say he helps me accept the life I have and shows me how to value what I got around me. And all without sayin' more than four words in the run of a day. But don't get me wrong, the man can be downright infuriatin' by times. Makes me act the fool, then laughs at me. Dares t' stand up to me when I'd be shootin' anyone else for doin' it.... Here he comes now - hunkered down against the cold, still lookin' whiter than the frost painted on the window pane, but he's got a grin on his face. Just come outta Mary's office, so no doubt he's cluckin' over somethin' at my expense....

Gotta do something about that. Damn scrawny Texan don't know his place.

Buck and Nathan's comin' through the door of the saloon and they head on over to where I'm standing. Josiah's just stepping out of Gloria's store and we're all bunched together when Vin ambles up.

"Hey Cowboy. Ya look like yer in a mood."

"Yeah, I guess I get that way when I see you comin' at me grinnin'. Always turns out bad for me."

"Now Chris, ya gotta learn t' relax." Buck punches me in the arm. "Ya cain't go through life always expectin' things is gonna turn out bad fer ya."

"I only expect bad things when I see him comin' at me wearin' that face."

Vin shrugs, shoves his hands deeper into his pockets and leans up against the hitching post.

"Chris, yer too..."

He don't get no farther because right then Billy Travis comes runnin' out of the Clarion and thumpin' down the boardwalk straight at us.

"Chris! Chris! I gotta ask you something!"

"Yeah?" I wonder if I'm soundin' as suspicious as I feel. "What?"

Billy's in front of us now, blue eyes wide, looking right at me.

"Where does babies come from?"

I hear a bunch of half - stifled rude - soundin' noises comin' from the boys, and Vin's all of a sudden real interested in the sign above the saloon door across the street. I know I got my mouth open but there ain't nothin' comin' out.

"Well, Billy, I think that's a question you're probably best off to ask your Mother." I finally manage to croak that much out. I can hear Buck snickerin' behind me and I'm tryin' hard not to notice.

"I done asked her. There was this story she was reading t' us, me and Vin, by this feller named - what was his name, Vin? Hands Christian - somethin'- Ya ever hear 'a anybody named 'Hands' b'fore? Why would anybody name a kid 'Hands'?"

Billy's chewin' on his lip now and before I can get a word in he's off again.

"Mama says this Hands fellow lives in Denmark - where's Denmark, Chris? Ya ever bin there? Mama says it's way far away, but you been lots 'a places, ain't ya? Is it one 'a them places where it's cold all the time? Mama says ya gots ta go on a boat t' get there. Anyways, the story's about these storks- you know - them birds that bring the babies with the long legs? Well, the babies don't got long legs - just the birds do - and in the story there's a boy that's mean to them. The storks git the babies out of a pond - they's just layin' in there dreamin', I guess, and waitin' for the storks t' come, and when it comes time to bring the babies, they bring the mean boy a baby that's dreamed itself to death. Hattie's Mama gotted a baby last week and Hattie said it was in her tummy and she didn't say nothin' 'bout no birds. When I asked Mama how a baby'd get in someone's tummy she turned kinda red and didn't say nothin'. I asked Vin but he went all red too and said likely you'd know seein' how you're real smart and mostly in charge 'a Four Corners when the judge ain't - isn't - here and that I should come and ask you."

I feel like I just been picked up and tossed around by a tornado. This kid's been spendin' way too much time around J.D. I clear my throat and try to give Vin a glare, but his shoulders are twitchin' and he don't seem to want to look my way.

"Well, Billy, it's flatterin' that VIN-" I stop a minute but the bastard's still ignorin' me, "thinks that I'm smart and all, but I still think your Ma's the best-"

Just then the door to the Clarion bangs open again and Mary comes flyin' down the street. Her face isn't red any longer, more a nice shade of pink, and she comes alongside Billy and grabs him by the arm.

"You're not bothering Chris, are you Billy? Come, let's go on over to see whether Gloria has any blue thread and I'll fix that hole in the knee of your overalls." She looks back at me as she pushes Billy along in front of her. She mouths "I'm sorry" and gives Vin a nasty look.

"But Mama, Vin said...."

"Yes, Billy, I know what Vin said, but Chris is busy. Come along now."

"Mary." I touch the brim of my hat as she turns and continues to herd her son away.

Nathan and Josiah are laughing now, and that's bad enough, but Buck ain't just laughin' - he's slappin' his leg and makin' this really annoyin' whooping sound that's gratin' on my nerves somethin' fierce.

I want to smack him one, but I don't. Instead, I step out onta the street in front of Vin so he can't go on pretendin' I ain't there.

I'm all ready to let him have it. He's smiling, but the spark in his eyes ain't doin' a real good job of hidin' the fact that he's wore right out. I know he's been spendin' most nights caught up in some dream - I kin hear him shoutin' in his sleep, and I've found myself more than once out in the hall with my ear to his door not quite sure how I even got there. I listen til I can hear him settle again before I go back to bed. He knows I'm there- first words out of his mouth in the morning are "Sorry I woke ya", and it's plain he wakes himself up too. I think he stays that way the rest of the night just so he won't be a bother to me.

"You getting any sleep at all?"

I was plannin' on yellin' at him but that's what comes out.

Nathan moves in and he's studyin' Vin's face close, waiting for an answer.

"I should be askin' you that, Chris, seein' as how ya seem t' spend more time out in the hall than ya do in yer bed. I's sorry about that. P'raps I should be movin' back out t' the wagon - leastways out there I ain't deprivin' honest folk 'a their hard earned repose."

"You been keepin' Ezra up too?" Buck straightens and pushes his hat back on his head.

A smile is twitching at Vin's lips.

"Nah, he don't sleep at night no how. Says he can hear me over t' the saloon, but I think he's havin' me on." Vin drags a hand across his face. "I's all right. Jist a mite weary."

"You eat today?" Nathan grabs Vin's wrist before his hand can disappear back into his coat pocket. "Vin, you're freezin'. Get some food inside you and get to bed. Stay there til you warm up, at least."

"Yeah, I will."

Their eyes lock.

"I will, I promise. I got patrol and then..."

Nathan lets go his hold and turns to me.

"Chris, you make sure this fool gets a meal and goes to bed?"

"Yeah, Nate, I'll make him behave."

I sling my arm over Vin's shoulder and steer him across the street.

He's lost weight. I can feel the bones sharp beneath his coat and now that Nathan's gone off in the other direction, Vin gives in and starts to shiver.

We push through the doors of the saloon and I head for the table closest to the stove. Inez catches my eye and disappears out back to the kitchen, and I shove Vin down in a chair.

"Want a drink?"

I don't wait for him to answer but head on up to the bar for a bottle.

I come back and plant the whiskey and the glasses on the table between us.

"Don't know if I can eat none, Chris." He sounds just like Adam used to when he was sick. "I ain't hungry nohow - jist tired."

He's lookin' up at me from beneath the brim of his hat and all of a sudden I figure out what I'm seein'. I pour us each a drink and wait while Inez brings over our plates.

"Ya know, Vin, I been dogged by nightmares m'self a time or two." I swallow down my drink and Vin says nothing. "Sometimes they ain't so bad once they been chased out inta the daylight and shared around."

He gives me a look and sighs.

"I don't mean t' be no trouble, Chris. Guess I ain't quite over bein' sick. Jist feelin' wore down. Nightmares'll go away once I get m' strength back. Figure you got enough things 'a yer own yappin' at yer heels and I sure don't need t' be addin' my devils t' yer pack."

"Well, Vin, just as long as you know..."

Vin's lookin' at his plate and pushin' his stew around with his fork. For a long minute his head's down, but then he looks up with those amazing blue eyes goin' right through me.

"Yeah, Cowboy. I know. And I 'preciate it. I'm - "

" - fine." I finish for him.

"We gotta be kin, Chris, seein' as how ya can read my mind."

"Amazin', ain't it?" I shake my head and raise my fork. "C'mon, eat up. Stew's gettin' cold."

Part Two

Don't know what's wrong with me. Should know better than to let on to Chris that I ain't feelin' so good. He's gonna be on me like a tick on a hound- get's that way when he thinks I'm hurtin'. Which the last goin' off seems t' be most 'a the time. Cain't remember when I last ate and it didn't feel like swallowed a brick. Cain't remember the last time I woke up and there wasn't some kinda pain in m' head. Cain't remember the last time I really slept. Every time I close my eyes I's back there - on the Rock or in Andersonville. Lately I don't seem t' know which is real - the life I got with m' eyes open, or the one I live with m' eyes closed. Startin' t' worry I's gonna end up like one 'a them babies in the story Mary read us. Gonna dream m'self t' death.

I ain't thought about the war in awhile. Don't know what's got me thinkin' on it now. Maybe it was bein' sick at Thanksgivin' started all this. Except fer that time in Louisiana, I ain't bin that sick since then.

It was November of '63, the 25th, the first time I got took prisoner. One of the fellers said that the next day was Thanksgivin' - said Lincoln made a proc-u-lay... don't rightly know what the word is, but he said that the fourth Thursday of November was gonna be Thanksgivin'. People done had Thanksgivin' b'fore, but I guess nobody up and picked a partic'lar day so's it'd be the same from year t' year. It was the first real official Thanksgivin', and I remember thinkin' here I was, mebbe 14 years old, and on m' way t' Rock Island.

I'd bin in the Army 'bout six months when we ended up at Missionary Ridge. Things ain't never shoulda turned out the way they did. I's jist a kid and even I could see we was set up all wrong. When Bragg said he wanted us at the top 'a the ridge, I don't think he was meanin' we was t' be up so high that we couldn't see nothin' comin' at us. Some damn fool had us up t' the crest and there was this big dead space right in front of us and that's why the boys in blue was able to climb practic'ly inta our laps b'fore we even knowed they was there. Guess I was lucky I got took prisoner. Lots weren't.

Spent the whole trip t' Illinois tryin' t' think what I had t' be thankful for. Come up with a few things. Still had m' boots, and Lonnie got me a coat offa one 'a the guys in his company who didn't have no more use fer it. There was some blood on the collar but it didn't have no holes into it - kept me warm til we got to the Rock and some bigger feller needin'a coat took it off me.

Me and Lonnie stuck together. Weren't always in the same division, but always seemed t' be able t' find each other. He was older'n me - guess jist about everybody was - but he's a sharpshooter too and nobody else seemed t' want t' bother with us. Never quite understood it then, why the fellers wearin' the same colours as us treated us like we's dirt under their feet, but now's I's older, I do. Guess it's one thing t' kill somebody comin' at ya plannin' t' do the same, but t' sit up on high like the angel 'a death, rainin' ruin on folk who cain't even see it comin' - what kinda person kin do that and live with themselves?

Ain't figured that one out yet.

Damn. Chris's bin talkin' at me and I ain't bin payin' no mind. Now he's lookin' at me like he's expectin' an answer.

"Ah....dunno. Mebbe." Figure I'll play it safe.

"There's no maybe about it. You're getting your mangy hide into bed and I'm taking your patrol. You can do double once ya warm up. Which ought to be somewhere around the 5th of never."

"Guess I shoulda never left Texas. Don't think I bin warm since."

"Yeah, well, it's the best choice ya had at the time. Being cold isn't usually a permanent condition."

Talkin' bout the cold starts me shiverin' again. Chris raises an eyebrow.

"Though in your case..."

I finish shovin' the stew around on m' plate and push m' chair back.

"I'm gonna head on over t' m' room now. Long as that's OK with you."

Chris gives me one 'a them looks that says he don't entirely trust me, and I's too tired t' even act mad.

"You'll go straight there..."

"Is I allowed t' stop off at the privy?"

"Long as that's the only place ya stop." Chris takes up his hat and sets it on his head. "I'll check on you later."

He gets up and is gone and I's still sittin' here tryin' t' get m' legs under me. Inez comes out t' clear away the plates, and stops and gives me a look. Oh, God, don't tell me she's gonna start.

"You didn't eat much. Didn't you like the stew? I can get you something else."

"It was real good. Sorry I couldn't eat no more."

Nothin's bin sittin' right on m' stomach lately, but I ain't about t' tell her that. She and Nathan and Chris - hell - the whole bunch 'a them - ain't got nothin' else t' do but fuss over me. Guess I ought t' feel downright important, seein' as how I's givin' so many folk a purpose in life. I hardly make it to the door when I kin feel m' stomach startin' t' roll and I know I ain't gonna make it as far as the privy. I duck down the alley alongside the livery and crouch amongst the crates and retch up m' lunch. I cain't seem t' stop heavin' and next thing I look up and the Talbot twins is standin' there watchin' me like I's doin' this jist t' entertain them. I think I's groanin' when I kin finally stand. The kids run off then and I's left t' make my sorry way t' my room.

My teeth are rattlin' when I get there and I jist fall on the bed in a heap. Cain't be bothered t' take off m' boots - jist pull the quilt over me and wonder if I should try t' go t' sleep. Hope the ague ain't comin' back. Don't think I got the strength t' deal with that again so soon. Mebbe I just got a touch 'a the colic. That's likely it. No need t' tell Nathan, though, he cain't do nothin' for it no how. 'Preciate the way he thinks he always gotta try, even though most 'a what's wrong with me bin wrong a long time now. Ya learn t' either deal with it or let it kill ya and I ain't ready t' give up the ghost jist yet. Got a pretty good idea what's likely waitin' fer me at the end of it all anyway, and guess that's what keeps me goin' most 'a the time. Me and Chris kid each other 'bout meetin' up in hell, but it ain't no joke as far as I'm concerned. The Lord ain't gonna be standin' there at the gates 'a heaven with his arms open waitin' on me, that's fer damn sure.

Don't remember much about m' Mama, but I do recollect bein' there when she passed on. Weren't no one else there but me and her. We was layin' in the bed and she was holdin' me, she's cryin' and sayin' she's sorry t' be leavin' me. I's cryin' too, and beggin' her not t' go, but she said it was her time and God wanted her to come home. Said her Ma's waitin' there fer her, and said if I was good., someday we'd be together again in Heaven. Told me t' remember I's a Tanner and she loved me, then she got this real peaceful look on her face and went all quiet. Took me awhile t' figure out that she was gone and by the time I did her arms was so stiff and tight around me I thought she planned on taking me with. When the neighbours come and pried me loose after a couple 'a days, I'd finished with the cryin' and the screamin'. Didn't talk fer awhile after that - didn't see no need.

Folk told me my Mama was gone to her 'reward'. Said there's no pain in Heaven, no hardship, no sorrow. Reckon if anybody deserved t' go t' Heaven, it'd be m' Ma. Reckon if anybody deserved not to, it'd be me. Sometimes I think it's better mebbe m' Ma didn't never know what kinda person I turned out t' be. I done killed a lot 'a people, durin' the war. People I didn't even know. Folk who deserved t' die only b'cause they's wearin' a different colour coat then me. I didn't have no political convictions, no idea 'a right and wrong, no family or piece 'a land. I weren't defendin' nothin', weren't savin' no one, weren't preservin' nobody's way 'a life. Hell - I done killed fer the Rebs, then jist t' save m' sorry hide, I turned around and killed fer the Feds. Jist joined up cause there's nothin' else t' do.

I lived with m' Grandpa a coupla years after m' Mama died, but he weren't real happy t' have me around so I lit out soon as I got the chance. Went off with a feller that come through sellin' knives and such - Avery told me he was headed West and said he'd look out fer me iffen I could make m'self useful. I's too stupid then t' know what he meant by that - kept me tied like a dog and used me the same til some Christian ladies in one a them dried up towns took me offa him and shipped me off t' the orphanage. Jist tradin' one kinda misery fer another as far as I could tell - still hungry and cold and beat on, still spent most nights lyin' awake so's no one could git near me the way Avery done. I'd smartened up some by then - learned the hard way that life seemed t' be easier if ya mostly kept yer mouth shut. Didn't always work, but got t' be a habit. Guess some 'a the things I learned the hard way's what's kept me alive all these years.

I didn't last long at the orphanage. Run away a bunch a times, got hauled back and caned and run away agin. After a bit they prob'ly decided I's more trouble than I's worth, and gave up comin' after me. Drifted around on m' own a few years - got work around the stables. Did what I had to t' keep body and soul t'gether - glad m' Mama weren't around then t' know what some 'a them things were.

Heard about the war b'fore it caught up with me. Was down in Denison, jist south 'a the Indian Territory when I met Hal. He was a Sergeant in the Army, fightin' in a company outta Giles County in Tennessee. By the time '63 come around some 'a the fellers'd bin sent on home fer a bit lookin' fer recruits t' sign on an' fight the Union. Somehow he heard tell that I's a pretty good shot - small town - everybody knows pretty much everything 'bout everyone else. Soon as he set eyes on me, Hal's right eager t' sign me on. Made life in the Army sound real good, too - eleven dollars a month, chance t' see some 'a the country and they'd give me a Whitworth. Ain't never had m' own gun b'fore - well, this one weren't really mine, but close enough. I loved that gun almost more'n any person I ever met, and I's upset more when I's captured 'cause they took it from me than t' think I's on my way t' prison.

Never claimed I's real smart when I's a young'un.

I don't know how long I bin lyin' here. It's gittin' dark, and I can't tell whether I bin asleep or not. I got an ache in m' gut that ain't goin' away. I roll over onto m' stomach and wrap m' arms around m'self, but I think it's gittin' worse. My insides is rollin' - oh, God, I need the privy. I's out the door and tearin' down the steps, bouncin' off the walls as I go and I make it jist in time. I ain't feelin' a whole lot better, so mebbe I'll sit out over on there on Gloria's back stoop jist til I's sure I's ready t' go back t' my room. Wish I brought m' coat. It's cold.

Good thing I waited. I bin in and out 'a the outhouse four times. Feel like I could be sick if I had anything in me t' toss. Guess I oughta thank God fer small mercies.

Here comes Ez. Hope he don't notice me over here - light's pretty much gone and...

"Mr. Tanner. Out for a breath of fresh air?"

"Yeah, somethin' like that."

"You seem to have forgotten your coat. And might I suggest that you might wish to choose a more salubrious location in which to enjoy the evening vapours-" he wrinkles his nose "somewhere removed from the immediate vicinity of the town's less than hygienic amenities."

"Yeah, Ez, whatever you said. I's jist gettin' ready t' go inside."

I make the mistake 'a tryin' t' stand only t' find out that the ground's shifted some since I last set down. Ez is on me like a flash - got me by the arm and b'fore I know it I"s bein' dragged in the direction 'a the clinic.

"No, Ez, I's OK...."

I woulda bet money there's nothin' left in me t' puke out onta Ezra's boots, but I'd 'a bin wrong. Only got them the once though - the man's fast on his feet when he wants ta be.

"Sorry, I's OK. Jist stood up too fast..."

Urgh. No wonder Ez's lookin' disgusted. He grabs my arm again and hauls me across the street and up the steps, and I's heavin' all the way.

Think he's embarrassed.

Think how I feel. I swear every person I know in Four Corners is out fer a stroll jist in time t' see me chuckin' all over the road.

Nate's got the door open b'fore we hit the top step and he helps Ezra bring me inside.

"Wondered how long it'd be til I saw you here. Got your bed all ready."

They's layin' me on it now, and it feels some good t' get m' head down.

"What in the name of all that's holy is wrong with Mr. Tanner now?" Ezra's grabs up a rag off 'a Nathan's table and is swipin' at his boots.

"Prob'ly got the grippe. It's goin' around." Nate goes out t' the balcony and comes back in with a bucket.

"I don't believe our esteemed sharpshooter will be in need of that, Mr. Jackson. I am sure he cannot possibly have anything noxious left in his stomach to expel."

"This is Vin we're talking about here, Ezra."

"What d'ya mean by that, Nate? T' hear ya talk ya'd think I's..."

I gotta stop and swallow hard. Nate sets the bucket by m' cot and Ezra heads fer the door.


"Yes, well Mr. Tanner, much as I would like to stay and commune further, I am afraid I must make my farewells."

"Jist want t'....Thanks....aww... helll...."

Most 'a my 'thank you's' don't make it past the bucket. Good thing fer me Nate's not so finicky as Ez. Feels good t' have someone hold yer head fer ya while ya puke.

Ain't had no one do that fer me since the war. I mean, til I lit here in Four Corners. Ain't had nobody care enough til now.

Part Three

"Look at him over there, slouched down inside that coat and leanin' up against the bar when the damn fool can hardly stand. I ain't sayin' nothin' though. He's his own man - he ought to know whether he feels like bein' up and around." Nathan bangs his glass down on the table and pours himself another shot. "I guess iffen we've learned nothin' else about Vin in the last year, we know he's a stubborn ornery cuss that would die rather than admit he's hurtn'."

"Well, Nate," Josiah eyes Vin across the room and leans back in his chair. "I think our young brother has lived the kinda life where showin' your hurts can get you killed. Especially when you've got nobody else to look out for you."

And here I been hoping that maybe he'd think on me as somebody who'd do that for him. But I guess he don't.

"Vin's downright selfish that way, and maybe I ought t' tell him so." Nathan's still sputtering. "He thinks he can kill hisself doin' for others, but he won't let anyone do for him. Maybe you'd be a good one to talk to him about this, Josiah - lay the guilt card on him 'bout how he's deprivin the rest of us 'a the Christian feelin's that comes with doin' good fer someone else."

Just then Inez come out through the back and stops along the bar opposite Vin. She reaches over and lays her hand on Vin's forehead, and even though he's back to us, I swear I can see him blush.

"Well, he sure don't seem t' be objectin' too much when it's some pretty young thing offerin' the comfort." Buck's eyes narrow when he sees the sympathy plain on Inez's face. "What is it about that boy that's got all the women in town ready t' take him home and tuck him up in bed when he's sick?"

"Shut up, Buck, you're jealous." J.D. grins.

"In case you hadn't noticed, Mr. Wilmington, the female contingent of our fair burg seem willing to tuck Mr. Tanner up in bed no matter what his circumstances." Ezra's gold tooth gleams as Buck glowers in Vin's direction.

"Well, I ain't even gonna ask how he's feelin'. He wants t' make a fool of himself and fall on his face, then let him go ahead. Just don't let him come cryin' to me." Nathan pushes back his chair and stands. "I'm goin' on back to the clinic if anybody other than that mule there-" Nathan jerks his head at Vin, "is lookin' for me."

I get up too.

"I'll be at the jail. Gonna catch up on my reading."

The rest of them give me a nod and go back to their drinks. Vin's still propping up the bar and don't even look around, so I make my way out the door into the cold. Rafe Moseley's been helping out some since Vin's been sick - was pretty much forced t' take him on with Vin fretting and going on about him being laid up making extra work for us. Vin says he'll take patrol tomorrow- think that's why he's at the saloon t'day - wants to prove he's ready to get back in the saddle. Rafe's in the jail when I come in - got his feet up on the desk and they come down right quick when he sees it's me.

"Hey, Mr. Larabee. Want a coffee?" He jumps from his seat and falls over himself to get to the stove.

"Sure, Rafe, sounds good. Things pretty quiet around town?"

"Yes sir, no problems. Everything's fine."

Rafe turns away from the stove and hands me a mug.

"You want t' step out for a bit - get yourself something t' eat - I'll hold up here til you get back."

"Thanks. Think I will." He picks up his hat and sets it on his head. "Won't be long. I'll just stop on over t' the saloon."

He's gone out the door and I settle myself down to have a look through the latest batch of posters that come in on yesterday's stage. I no sooner get myself squared around all comfortable when I hear the thrum of hooves pounding in the street. Horses. A lot of 'em. I get myself back onto my feet, but before I can make it as far as the door, it swings open and Rafe is back.

"Army." The word blurts from him in his hurry. "Headin' inta the saloon. 'Bout twenty of 'em."

"Calm down, son. They're allowed to stop for a drink."

He stops short and looks at me.

"Jist thought ya might like t' know."

Rafe's like J.D. - everything's gotta be done in a hurry.

Then I remember Vin.

"Thanks. Guess I will take a stroll on over - just to be on the safe side."

I grab up my hat and head out the door.

Vin and the army - there's two words that don't pair up real good together. I guess he's seen a lot 'a things go bad in their hands. I know he was in the War - couldn't have been much more than a little shaver and it must have been pretty rough for him, but I think it was during his time with the People that he turned against the army for good. He won't start anything - that much I'm sure of - but the man's got a way of aggravating people without even opening his mouth. I know that better than anyone.

I push through the doors just in time to see a couple dozen guys belly up to the bar. I can't see much of Vin's face in the mirror behind the counter- his hat's pulled over his eyes and he's slunk even further down into his coat. One of the men - stripes on his cuff tells me he's the captain - steps up behind Vin and crosses his arms. I tip my head at Buck and J.D., who push back their chairs and get ready to stand. Ezra's at another table with a mitt full of cards, but he lays his hand face down when he sees me and gets up and angles himself toward the front of the room.

"I ain't never seen such a sorry excuse for a human bein' in a real long time."

He's a big feller, dark hair, heavy set.

I get my gun out and push through the crowd. Vin's gotta know the man's talking to him - his eyes is on the mirror, but he don't respond - just leans there turning his glass in them long fingers.

"I'm talkin' to you, son. Ain't polite to ignore yer elders. Don't ya know nothin'?"

Vin's still tipped inta that slouch 'a his and don't react at all. Leastways, not at first, then he pushes himself up straight and turns. None 'a the rest 'a the men seem to paying their captain any mind - they's ordering drinks and yammering like there's no tomorrow - slapping the dust from their hats and filling up the chairs. The captain's still got his arms folded and he don't look real dangerous, but it don't pay t' let your guard down. Somebody's gotta look out for Vin, especially when he don't seem too bent on doing it himself.

All of a sudden this fellow reaches out and flips Vin's hat off his head so's it trails down his back on the string. I figure the man's done for then, when all of a sudden he grabs Vin under the arms, lifts him clear off his feet and swings him around like a little kid. Vin's got a grin on like I ain't never seen before - his eyes is sparking and he looks.... happy. The man leaves off spinning Vin around, holds him out at arms' length and looks him over.

"Damn it, Tanner, there's nothin' to ya. Woulda thought by now you'd have filled out some. Mind, up until five minutes ago I weren't even sure you's still alive, so I guess I ain't gonna complain."

He pulls Vin to him again and hugs him. Vin doesn't even try to move away and I'm close enough t' see this man's got tears in his eyes and t' hear him whisper "Good to see you, kid."

It's like the rest of us aren't even there. I look at this big stranger holding my best friend in his arms in the middle of all this noise and chaos and a tiny part of me is jealous that Vin's had somebody this important in his life and he ain't never bothered to tell me about them. The captain holds Vin out again and shakes his head. I wave Buck and J.D. away and when they circle the room back to their chairs and bottle, I head across to join them.

Buck slides a glass in front of me and fills it up to the brim.

"Looks like Vin done found himself a friend."

"Looks like he found himself a Pa."

J.D.'s like me - can't take his eyes off what's going on in the front of the room.

One of the privates brings a bottle and two glasses to where they're standing at the bar and sets them in front of his captain. He thanks the younger man with a smile and turns his attention back to Vin. They down two quick shots and talk a bit, then I see Vin jerk his head in our direction and push himself upright. He starts toward us, and the captain follows close and comes up to me, hand outstretched.

"Captain Hal Burke. Fifty - fifth out of Fort Wallace."

He shakes my hand, then J.D's and Buck's in turn.

"Vin says you're the law in these parts. Just want to let you know that me and my boys'll be makin' camp 'bout half a mile outside town. Can't say for sure how long we'll be settin' here, but we got some business needs takin' care of. Gotta pick up supplies and such - been on the trail goin' on seven weeks - and I told them-" he tilts his head in the direction of the uniforms, "they can let loose tonight but this'll be it for awhile. They give you any trouble, you come to me." He smiles then. "They're a good bunch, but some 'a them are still pretty wet behind the ears."

The silence stretches thin, then J.D.'s curiosity gets the better of him.

"So, you know Vin."

Burke smiles over his shoulder at our sharpshooter.

"I'd 'a bet money that boy weren't still among the livin'. Last I saw him..." Burke's voice trails off and his eyes go soft. "Soon as I walked in here I knew it had to be him. I'd 'a knowed that slouch anywheres..... me and my men, we got some things what need tendin' to. I'm gonna have a yarn with Vin and then I'd appreciate havin' a word with ya'll. I'm hopin' I might be able to rustle up some help."

Vin touches two fingers to the brim of his hat and turns and follows Burke back to a table in front of the bar.

We sit quiet for a minute.

"He seems OK - I mean, for the Army." J.D.'s watching them as they toss back their whiskeys, then Burke's arm snakes over Vin's shoulder. "Better'n that last bunch that came through."

I ain't as charitable as J.D. Ain't many things Vin hates so much in this world as the Army. And he got reason. He ain't said a whole lot about his time with the People, but I know he's seen stuff and lived through things that nobody ought to. Usually when the soldiers show up, he lights out of town til they move on. But he don't look like he's thinking on going anywhere at the moment. Him and Burke are cosied up together, heads touching, mouths at each other's ears so they can be heard above the noise. Burke has his hand on Vin's arm now, and Vin's nodding at something, and it surprises me how much I want to go over there and plant myself between the two of them and make sure that Burke ain't gonna do or say anything that's gonna hurt Vin.

I don't do it, though. Just sit and sip my whiskey and wait for Vin and Burke to do their catching up and rejoin the rest of the world. Takes awhile, and by the time the pair of them are shoving back their chairs to head on over, they've made a good hole in their bottle and Vin's not looking too steady on his feet. He slides into the chair next to mine and Burke takes a seat the other side of him.

"So, how'd you two come to know each other?" J.D. leans forward and fixes his eyes on Burke.

That's exactly what I'm wanting to know, but it woulda taken me a lot longer to get around to asking. Sometimes that boy comes in right handy.

"The War." There's something shadowing in Burke's face, and he looks at Vin.

"You fought together?" J.D. looks from Burke to Vin and back again.

"Yep." Vin shifts and picks up his glass.

J.D.'s eyes get big as he looks at Vin..

"You were really in the War? How old were you?"

"Old enough t' carry a gun, old enough t' shoot, old enough t' die if need be."

"You was the scrawniest little kid I ever did see." There ain't no mistaking Burke's got a real soft spot for Vin, but until I figure out exactly what that means, I don't plan t' let the man out of my sight. "Still scrawny."

"It's this bunch." Vin jerks his head at us. "Lotta work, lookin' out fer them. Full time job. Wears on a feller."

Buck chokes into his glass and Vin ignores him.

"Figure they're worth it though - most 'a the time."

Vin's looking at me when he says this. He's had more t' drink t'night than he usually puts away in a week, and all of a sudden he goes quiet, as if it just come to him that he said too much. He looks down at the table and long minutes pass with no one saying nothing.

"I knew you was comin'."

Vin's whispered words have all the substance of smoke and they just hang there in the air over the table. They're only meant for Burke, though, and I can tell that the two of them have left the rest of us behind again. I tip my head at Buck and J.D. and they push back their chairs and leave so quiet that Vin don't even seem to notice that they've gone.

"I bin havin' dreams, 'bout you and the rest. Knew somethin' was comin'... " Vin's mouth has gone slack and the words are coming out in a breathless rush that he seems too tired to control. "I ain't thought on the War in a long time. When it was over I just put it all away inside. Didn't seem real- like that person that was there doin' all them things and havin' stuff done t' him - it weren't really me. Made m'self ferget about it all."

Vin turns his gaze on Burke, and it's full 'a something I ain't never seen in his eyes b'fore. It's like all the pain and fear and regret and sorrow any one person could carry inside is flickering there like a candle flame, only for an instant, and then it's gone.

"Vin, you know you don't gotta do this."

When Burke reaches out to put his hand on Vin's arm, I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I lean forward then, ready to put myself between them.

"Do what?" I'm stepping into J.D.'s shoes now.

The connection has been broken, and Burke looks away from Vin and leans back in his chair.

"We're trailin' a pretty nasty bunch 'a lowlifes. They been all over the country this last seven years or so. Jist got chased inta my territory 'bout two months ago. They last hit up north in Grenada. Robbed the bank there- two left dead."

"Anybody we ever heard tell of?"

"Don't know. There's five of them near as we can figure. Kilt one 'a them back jist outside 'a Fort Lyons, but weren't no way 'a tellin' who he was."

"They been running around for seven years and no one's caught them yet?"

I'm trying not to sound too disgusted.

"They move around a lot. Don't follow no pattern. They'll pull a couple of jobs and then lay low. Sometimes as long as a year. Don't usually leave much in the way 'a witnesses, either. But a sheriff on their trail awhile back said he was told one of them was totin' a Whitworth." Burke gives Vin a long hard look that seems t' mean something, but I ain't got no clue what that 'something' might be.

"I ain't seen one 'a those in a real long time. Nice gun." Vin's words are slurring now and he looks at Burke through hazy eyes. "Real nice."

Burke sets his glass down in front of him.

"Had a feller trackin' for us up until a week or so ago. Civilian. Signed on for six weeks - didn't think it would take us no longer than that t' catch up with them. Feller weren't willin' t'stay on any longer, though, said he had to get back to his family. I been askin' after a tracker this last while- every place we been through. Hit Eagle Bend and they told me there's none better than the one here in Four Corners. Who'd 'a thought it'd turn out t' be Vin."

Vin grunts in response to this, but doesn't lift his head. I think he must be about all in - what with being sick this last goin' off and not eating and stowing away the better part of a bottle of whiskey.

"C'mon Vin, time t' hit the hay."

I haul him to his feet and Burke gets up as well.

"You need a hand?"

"Nah, we're good thanks." Vin's sagging against me now and I sling his arm over my shoulder and hitch him up higher on my hip.

"Guess I best take care of this bunch." Burke nods in the direction of his men. He grips Vin by the back of the neck and peers at him beneath the brim of his hat. "We'll talk more in the morning. See you later, Kid."

Part Four

I know Chris thinks I's drunk, but I ain't really that bad. I's jist so tired all of a sudden that I don't think I kin walk - it's like my brain's trapped inside this body that don't seem t' want t' work no more, and I have t' let Chris practic'ly carry me out inta the street. I come around a bit when the cold hits, and I try t' straighten up and take a few steps on my own. Don't make it very far b'fore I's leanin' on him again, but I don't think Chris much minds. M' head's spinnin' and I kin feel m' stomach startin' to follow along, and now I's jist prayin' that I kin get t' the room without embarrassin' m'self any more than I already have. I ain't in the habit 'a drinkin' t' the point that I cain't take care 'a m'self, and it's downright humiliatin' fer me t' git t' that place where I cain't even git t' bed under m' own steam. I ain't gonna puke til Chris leaves, though. Bad enough he gotta take me home. Ain't gonna let him see me sick. I'm sure he's seen enough 'a me throwin' up this last goin' off t' last him a life time.

Chris finally gets me up the steps and inta m' room and he's been smart enough t' pick up a bucket somewheres along the way. He plants me on the bed and hauls off m' coat and I kind of topple sideways from there. I's lyin' more off the bed than on and I kin feel m'self slidin' t'ward the floor, but I's so done in I can't stop m'self. Chris is gone to the window t' draw the curtains and it strikes me funny, the look on his face when he turns back around and sees me on the floor. I get m' elbows under me but I cain't seem t' git no closer than this t' standin' up. Guess it don't help nothin' that I's laughin' fit t' die and the floor don't seem t' want t' stay where it should. I done broke a few ponies in my day - the hard way - b'fore the People learned me how t' do it proper - and I feel like I's on one 'a those broncs right now. One minute m' stomach's droppin' right down t' m' boots and the next it's makin' its way up m' throat and I got to swallow hard t' stop it from keepin' me company here on the carpet. I quit tryin' t' git up then, but Chris comes over and he starts haulin' me back on the bed.

"Jist leave me, Chris. I's fine."

I kin feel m'self go limp and m' head smacks the leg 'a the cot on m' way past it t'ward the floor again.

"C'mon, Vin, let's get you into bed. You can't stay here."

"Rather stay here...." Wish Chris'd stop tryin' t' help me. Him manhandlin' me is jist makin' things worse. But I ain't gonna let him see me sick. "Jist leave me be."

"God, Vin, for a fellow who don't weigh nothing you sure are heavy."

Chris's got me rolled onta the bed now and m' head's hangin' over the side. The floor looks t' be a long ways away and I feel like I'm gonna fall. Wish he'd jist left me down there. My guts are still twistin' on the back ' a that bronco and all of a sudden I'm dizzy and all that red eye I drunk's decided it wants t' be back on the floor too, only it ain't gonna wait fer me t' come with. There's nothin' I kin do as m' damn stomach takes over and the whiskey tears past m' teeth and hits the floor with a sound like rippin' paper. Chris gives the bucket a kick so's it's under m' head, then sits down beside me and cups m' forehead in his hand as I lay across his leg and puke up everything I ever ate in m' entire life.

+ + + + + + +

Now I remember why I don't drink much. I think it's mornin' - there's some slivers 'a light pokin' in at the edge 'a the curtains, and Chris is folded up on the chair next t' the stove. M' head's poundin' so loud it's makin' the walls move, and I feel like I bin dragged half way 'round the world behind a horse. Buck done told me once that he's afraid that Chris was gonna drink hisself t' death there after Adam and Sarah died. What I jist can't figure is why anyone would want t' go out this way. A gun and a bullet would be a lot less pain and a lot less mess, but I guess there ain't no accountin' fer taste, as Ezra would say. I's lyin' here on m' back, starin' at the ceilin', afraid t' move, when I notice these lines waverin' in front 'a my eyes. I musta groaned out loud, b'cause all of a sudden Chris is scramblin' outta the chair and loomin' over me.

"How're ya feelin' Pard?"

"Jist dandy."

M' voice don't sound like it b'longs t' me, but I guess that's t' be expected when yer tongue's sharin' space in yer mouth with a dead animal. Chris's face is wobblin' in front of me now, and there's these spaces in m' vision where I cain't see nothin' and I know fer sure I got one 'a them headaches comin'.

Maybe iffen I ask real nice Chris'll get me m' gun.

"Ya had a pretty hard night. Prob'ly shouldn't drink, Cowboy. Don't seem t' set real well with you."

Thanks, Chris, fer them pearls 'a wisdom. Like I's too dumb t' figure that one out fer m'self. I shut m' eyes and hope he'll take the hint and leave me alone. He doesn't. He's fumblin' at somethin two inches away from m' ear and the noise is about fit t' deafen me. I stick m' head under the pillow, but there ain't no foolin' him. He finds me straight off.

"Here, Vin, have some water. You'll.... Damn! What's wrong with your eye?"

"Ya mean b'sides the grit and the wavy lines and spots? Nothin'."

"I better go get Nathan." Chris's got m' chin in his hand and he's turnin' m' head from one side to the other.

"Chris? Don't be doin' that...." My stomach ain't takin' too kindly to all this movin' about, and I roll t' my side as it tries to make its escape. I kin feel it crawlin' up m' spine and I think it's decided t' forget about m' mouth - jist gonna make its way out through the top of my skull instead. I wrap m' arms around m' head to hold it in, and I ain't sure whether it works or not 'cause all of a sudden this awful pain is slammin' through m' brain, then everything goes black.

Part Five

"What's wrong with him?"

Nathan's favourite patient is lying still and pale under his hands - he's got one on Vin's forehead, the other checking the pulse at his neck.

"He's probably just hung over. He's bin complainin' about seein' wavy lines and black spots? Might have a migraine too. He's prone to them. Ya ain't never noticed?"

"No. Can't say as I have. Should have done, though. Sarah used to get them- would lay her out flat days at a time - and weren't nothing nobody could do t' help her. Vin told you he gets migraines? That's a first."

Nathan shakes his head.

"C'mon Chris, this is Vin we're talking about. I notice these things. Comes with the job. He gets 'em bad. Some 'a them times he takes off out of town on his own, he's got one 'a these headaches doggin' him. I've tried givin' him things for them, but he says nothin' works. Turn his head toward the light there so I can get a peek at his eye."

I pull the curtain back so the sun's layin' across the bed and come back and hold Vin's head as Nathan has a look.

"Was he sick last night?"

"Yeah, real sick. Know why he don't drink. Didn't think any man could throw up straight time like that without coming up for air."

"Probably broke a blood vessel in his eye. Looks bad, but it ain't nothin' serious. He's lookin' mighty peaky, though. We should try to wake him up and get some food inside him."

"I ain't brave enough to try that just yet. I think we should let him sleep it off awhile. You mind staying with him long enough for me to get some breakfast? Should try to find Burke as well - have a word."

"Take your time. If anybody's lookin' for me, tell them where I am."

I grab my hat off the bedpost and nod my thanks.

"Back soon."

I don't have no trouble finding myself some breakfast, but finding Burke is something else again. End up having to ride out to their camp and see him setting there holding court around the campfire. His boys seem to be busy with gear and horses, and Burke, coffee pot in hand, waves me over to sit beside him.

"Where's Vin?"

"Still out cold. He's feeling a bit under the weather today. Vin don't drink much as a rule."

"No, I don't imagine he does."

Burke just sits there drinking his coffee, stirring the fire with a stick. I was hoping he'd have more than that to say on the subject of Vin, so I decide to take a page from JD's book and get right to the point.

"So, just exactly how did you and Vin meet up?"

Burke takes a long swallow from his mug, watching the sparks turn to ash as they swirl in the air like flakes of grey snow.

"I signed Vin up to fight for the Feds. Found him in this little hole in the wall town south 'a the Indian Territory - can't remember the name of it now. Weren't nothin' more'n a kid, but could he shoot! I ain't never seen nothin' like it - had to have that boy in my outfit. Vin and Lonnie Mattson- both 'a them little skinny runts not much bigger than their rifles. They were my snipers. Picked Lonnie up on the way back through to Tennessee - his folks had a big spread in Mississippi - cotton, slaves, the whole works. His Ma and Pa didn't want him to come with - he's their only son and they's the kind of folk that weren't real used to gettin' their hands dirty. I done told Lonnie that I wouldn't take him, that he had to mind his parents, but he sneaked off after us and there weren't no sendin' him back. Had to watch out for him, though. Lived rich, never had to do for himself, never had to do nothin' he didn't want to. Didn't take real good to havin' other folk tellin' him what to do, either, always lookin' out for number one. He's a smart one, though - older than Vin - but that boy didn't have the common sense God gave a turnip. Good thing I had Vin to look after him."

"Yeah, Vin being the one with all the wisdom and experience."

If I was Burke, I don't think I'd be letting on I was responsible for taking on kids barely out of diapers to fight in the army. Just thinking about it makes me mad.

"Don't seem like you had no qualms about signing Vin on. He didn't have no parents t' care what became of him, no one to notice if never came back, no one to care if he ended up dead." I lean in toward Burke and lower my voice. "I fought in the War, too, but I weren't no snot nosed kid taken in by the promise of eleven dollars a month and all the glory I could stomach. I knew what I was fighting for, and what I was fighting against. Don't know how you can live with yourself, knowing you drug a pair of innocent kids through that hell."

I'm spitting now and spoiling for a fight. For a minute I think Burke is gonna take the bait, then the spark goes out of his eyes and he rubs a weary hand across his face.

"You're right. I was actually stupid enough to think I was doin' Vin a favour. I just didn't know what kind of hell it was going to turn out to be. I knew it'd be hard for them, Vin and Lonnie, but I really thought I could protect them. Figured the isolation that comes with bein' a sniper would be easier for them, seein' as how they were younger and didn't fit in with the rest of the men no how. I did manage to keep them out of harm's way, for a few months at least, until Missionary Ridge. We got took prisoner there, put on the train, shipped off to Rock Island, just outside Davenport. Was November and we stepped outta that box car inta three feet of snow. Prison was just new built - we's among the first ones there and I was able to keep the boys with me - got myself a lower bunk in the barracks and them two was in the ones above. Weren't so bad at first, til it started gettin' crowded and the smallpox struck. The hospital weren't finished when it hit, and we was all shoved in together and it spread real quick. I come down sick, but Vin and Lonnie was OK. Lonnie said he'd done had it b'fore, and Vin - maybe he was just lucky. Vin looked after me like I's his Ma - and not just me. Vin played nursemaid to the whole outfit - ran himself ragged he did - then he got a bad bout of the dysentery and we almost lost him. Didn't think anybody could get wore down so close to nothin' and not disappear. Vin's a survivor, though- got somethin' inside him that just won't quit."

"That he does." I ain't too charitably disposed toward Burke and I don't care whether he's bothered by this or not. "He's still like that - gets something in his teeth and there ain't no letting go. He'll do anything to help out a friend - don't seem t' care none if it kills him to do it."

I'm not sure if Burke gets my meaning.

"He's been sick this winter. Had malaria come back on him. Still not over the flu. Nathan says he's nowhere close to getting his strength back."

Burke just nods, but his eyes are still staring back somewhere into the past.

"I never figured that I'd be the one needin' the lookin' after. I swore I'd take care of them boys, but I soon found I weren't always going to be able to do it. It was a cold winter. We had roll call three times a day, and ever so often we was searched and anything the guards thought we didn't have no need for was taken away. Usually it was clothes, or blankets, and more 'n one of our lot ended up with frostbite and gangrene. We didn't have no sewers first goin' off and every day we had to take the tubs down to the river to empty 'em. When they finally got the sinks in, they's right at the edge of the dead zone, in front of the parapets, and if you went down there at night ya'd run the risk 'a havin' the guards shoot at ya. Seems they'd take t' firin' them rifles jist for fun. We weren't supposed to be out of barracks after taps, but when Vin was so sick with the dysentery, I'd have to get up at night to carry him out there, usually four or five times. We did manage t' avoid gettin' ourselves shot, though one night there was a feller taken down right outside our door. He fell back inta the entrance and no one dared go down and check on him til morning. Weren't nothin' t' be done fer him by then... Things jist kept gettin' worse and worse....the rations weren't so bad at first, but them got cut back as time went on and some days we didn't get nothin'. Vin went nigh on a week once without nothin' in that poor little belly 'a his, and on Sunday I heard that the bread wagon was comin' in. I took him down t' the gate that mornin' so's we'd be first in line but it never showed. Sent in a preacher instead, but the Lord's word woulda gone down a lot better iffen it had some bread to smooth the way."

"You were there the rest 'a the War?"

"No. Jist there til spring. The place was right crowded by then - lot more prisoners there than it were ever meant to hold. Lincoln made that there Amnesty Proclamation in December of '63, and there were lots that took it. I figured that's what we'd do right quick, but Vin was sick a long time. Once he got a little stronger, I done put in our names t' take the pardon, but by then the Union fellers heard tell that Vin and Lonnie were snipers. Figured they were too valuable t' let go. Them kids didn't much care who they's fightin' for as long as they got out of that hell hole, and the Union knew that. I didn't have no family t' go on home to, so I stuck with them. Shipped out in March of '64..... Shoulda known it'd just be more 'a the same- the Union camps was just like the Feds' what with all the cursin' and gamblin' and drinkin' - some 'a the boys thought it was funny t' get them two youngsters liquored up and......"

Burke stops here and looks me.

"I weren't always able t' keep 'em safe."

I don't know what t' say. I'm feeling a bit bowled over by all this - I done found out more about Vin in the last half hour than in all the last nine months.

Guess Burke figures the conversation is over. He shoves himself to his feet and waves his Sergeant on over.

"Should head into town. Time's a' wastin'. Gotta work out a plan fer tomorrow."

"That plan ain't gonna include Vin going anywhere, if that's what you're thinking. He ain't well and he don't need t' go trooping all over God's green acre doing a job for you."

"Just slow down a minute, Larabee. Ain't you bin listenin' t' nothin' I said? I know you think I done wrong by that boy, but you ain't thinkin' nothin' I ain't thought m'self. I'm not about to drag Vin out on the trail iffen he's sick."

"You're damn right about that."

I turn my best glare on Burke, and he nods and walks away. Now if only I can just as easily glare a certain long - haired, ornery, rattlesnake of a Texan into doing what I want, I'll die a happy man.