Long Pain and Sorrow

by Xiola

Main Characters: Vin and Nathan, assorted OC's

Universe: OW

Genre: PG 13 (death of OC)

Disclaimer: Still don't know who they belong to. Not me. No one I know. No money. No phone, no pool, no pets. Don't even own a trailer.

I's the first t' admit that I ain't got the knack 'a readin' folk. But I think I's pretty good once I gits t' know a person - ya know, once I bin around them some and see the way they carry themselves and deal with things. Ezra'd have ya think there weren't no one else in the world he'd give a plugged nickel for except hisself, but it's pretty plain the man's a fraud. Buck's easy t' figure out, and JD too - them two wear their hearts on their sleeves and there ain't one single thought that goes through their heads that don't end up comin' out their mouths. Josiah - he's always thinkin' - he's sure that at the end of it all, things'll make some kinda sense and if he figures it all out b'fore his time comes - well, that's jist icin' on the cake. Chris is all about his demons and the guilt that gives 'em life, but he's startin' t' git the upper hand where they's concerned and find some kinda peace. But of all of the boys, Vin's the hardest t' puzzle out. I bin pattin' m'self on the back this last goin' off, 'cause I think I's startin' t' git m' head around him. But then he goes and does somethin' that jist plain confounds ya, and ya realize that there's more t' that boy than anyone is prob'ly ever gonna know.

He ain't done nothin' that would shake my faith in 'im, nothin' thoughtless or hurtful or naught like that - the man ain't got it in him t' be mean - but he just... I dunno....he surprised me, I guess. Yeah, that's it - I's jist surprised.

This mornin' I's in the livery, saddlin' Rosa, gittin' ready t' ride out t' the Pritchard place. They's expectin' a little one within the month and I bin keepin' a close eye on the missus. They's jist moved out here from back east no more'n ten month ago. They's nervous, the two 'a them, and needin' the little bit of extra attention what's called for when a woman's birthin' a baby fer the first time. I don't know what made me think it, but I had this real strong feelin' that even though her time weren't close, I might be needin' an extra set 'a hands. Jist t' be on the safe side, I figured I'd maybe take someone along with. I wouldn't even think on askin' Ezra - heaven forbid that the man might git his jacket dirty, and JD - well, jist this last month, Miz Potter's cat had kittens and the boy was so excited ya'd think he's the father. Buck and Josiah were over t' Eagle Bend and not due back til later, and Chris.... well, Chris wouldn't be a good choice fer a lot 'a reasons. Nothin's easy fer Chris when there's kids involved.

I seen Vin earlier - out on the porch 'a the saloon, havin' coffee. I kinda seesawed over askin' him. He'd bin out most of the night - someone saw a wolf out t' the north 'a town and Vin was puttin' in some extra time t' be sure that it was mindin' its own business. He jist got in from patrol and I knowed he'd be tired. The boy don't look out fer hisself at all. He kin take care of hisself no question, but that ain't enough sometimes. He don't eat near as much as he ought t', he don't git hardly any sleep - it's almost like he thinks he's the only one who can look out fer the rest of us proper - that if he was t' take any time t' relax or eat a meal or git a full night's sleep the whole world would jist come to an end.

Heavy burden, that, bein' responsible fer keepin' the world turnin' and things tickin' along the way they should.

Well, I knew he wouldn't say no. And much as I didn't like t' ask, I did.

We weren't no more'n half way out t' the farm when we met Gabe Pritchard ridin' hell bent fer leather t'ward town. The missus' water broke about an hour previous, and I know he weren't sure whether he should stay or go fer help. They ain't too far out 'a Four Corners, and I'm pretty certain he didn't think he could cope with this all by his lonesome. They got a girl out helpin' around the house, and Gabe said he's hopin' she could see t' things til he got back. We managed t' get all this outta him, once he pulled up, spit out that the pair of us was the finest sight he ever did see and then took time t' breathe.

His wife was pretty far along by the time we got t' the house. I sent the girl off t' put some water on the boil, had Vin help Gabe find some clean sheets and towels. I told Gabe he could give a hand but he said he'd rather not. Said he'd best wait in the hall and that we could let him know when we's done.

She was scared. The missus. Told Vin her name was Ellen, and hung on his arm and made him promise everything would be fine. He declared she had nothin' t' worry on - said them hands 'a mine'd held his life in 'em a time or two and said there weren't hardly nobody else in all the world he'd trust with it. Said iffen I treated a no account buff hunter like him jist like he's made 'a gold, then Miz Pritchard sure didn't have nothin' t' fret on. She laughed a bit at that, and I knew I was right. Vin, with all that quiet and calm spreadin' around him like a ripples on a pond, he was the one t' have there with me.

The missus' pains was gittin' stronger and closer and I knew that baby was comin' soon. The girl, she couldn't 've bin more'n ten or eleven, was flyin' around the room, droppin' stuff and gettin' under m' feet so's I finally had t' ask her t' git and keep Mr. Pritchard company out in the foyer. Miz Pritchard was doin' good, all things considered, and Vin was doin' good too - kept talkin' to her and wipin' her face with a cloth. It didn't seem no time at all til I was tellin' the missus t' push real hard and I could jist see the top of a small dark head startin' t' show. Seemed like a lotta time went past and Miz P. was still pushin' fer all she was worth, but the baby didn't seem t' want t' come no further. I knew then we could be in fer some trouble. Vin could see I's gittin' worried, but he jist kept up in that soft, soothin' drawl 'a his, holdin' the missus hand and strokin' her hair. I knew she couldn't take much more 'a this, and jist as I was about ready t' reach in there and start haulin', out that baby come in a whoosh so fast it was all I could do t' hang onta her. She was right some tiny - arrivin' in the world a good month or so b'fore it's ready fer ya'll do that - but she was sportin' a good set 'a lungs and she didn't waste no time makin' use 'a them. Vin had a grin on bigger than I ever seen, and when I handed that babe over t' him, ya'd think I'd given him the moon. He wiped her off as gentle as could be and took her on over t' the cradle t' wrap her up so's she could be put in her Mama's arms, and that's when it happened.

"Vin! I need ya here. Now!"

Vin laid the little wrapped up bundle in the cot and was back at m' side in a flash.

"What's wrong?"

He looked down then and saw fer hisself. Miz Pritchard lyin' there, eyes closed, the colour 'a winter's first snow and bleedin' bad.

"We gotta git this stopped."

It was a stupid thing t' say - it were pretty obvious what we had t' do. The blood was poolin' on the sheets now, and I grabbed up the nearest towel t' try and stop it comin'.

And that's when it happened. The thing that surprised me. The thing that surprises me about Vin.

"Hand me another towel. Quick."

There's this big long silence filled with nuthin'.

I look over m' shoulder t' see wide blue eyes starin' past me. Another face so white it looks t' have all the life leached out of it.


I know he ain't hearin' me. It's like he ain't there. His face is empty, his eyes wide. At least they is until they roll up in his head and disappear. I see his legs buckle and his body cave in on itself as he falls, then hear the sharp 'crack' 'a bone on wood as his head goes down t' meet the floor.

Mr. Pritchard should be in here with his wife, but I don't dare leave her long enough t' go t' the door and call him. The baby's startin' t' fuss some, and the Mama's eyes come open a bit when she hears that.

"My baby? Is my baby all right?"

"Finest kind, Ma'am. Beautiful little girl. We'll bring her to ya in a minute."

I's still changin' the towels underneath her way faster than I'd like, and she's too pale and too weak, but I know she should have that babe at her breast no matter how things are headed. I try t' reach back with m' foot t' give Vin a shove thinkin' it might bring him around, when I hear him suck in a breath and let it out again b'tween his teeth.


I kin hear 'im shufflin' some b'hind me and haulin' hisself to his feet, and next thing he's at m' side.

"Bring the baby t' meet her Mama."

I ain't quite sure he's the best one t' be handlin' a baby right now, but I got the feelin' he won't be able t' deal with all the bleedin' the missus is doin'. I lean over and hiss at him quiet as I can.

"And fer God's sake, be careful!"

Miz Pritchard's eyes blink open as soon as Vin gits the baby in her arms and this smile comes across her face jist like them Madonna pictures in Josiah's Bible. Vin steps back agin out 'a m' sight so I can't tell fer sure what kind of shape he's in.

"Go git Gabe," I whisper. "Let him know she's doin' poorly so's he kin git ahold on hisself b'fore she sees him."

Vin don't say nothin', but I hear him make his way across the room and out the door. The baby's nuzzlin' at her Mama, and when she don't git what she's lookin' for, the cryin' starts gittin' louder. It seems like forever til Vin comes back in with the pale and confused Papa at his side. Mr. Pritchard goes right t' his knees b'side the bed, buries his face in his wife's hair and starts in on this low keening wail that goes right through me. The house girl stands in the doorway, sobbin' in great loud heaves, and that added t' all the other sounds 'a misery fillin' the room right near does me in.

"Vin, take the baby fer a minute."

He steps up and reaches to where the little tyke's lost in the tangle of arms and tears. I catch this quick look at his face when he turns away - he's too white and lookin' a mite unsteady, and I'm glad when he sits hisself in the chair without bein' told and nestles the babe on his chest. It don't do nothin' t' stop her peansin', but after a minute I kin hear her settle some. Vin's got his shirt undone and that naked little body tucked inside aginst his skin, and he's runnin' a long gentle finger down her back. He starts chantin' somethin' then, in Comanch', a soft whisper 'a tone and sound that goes on and on and hushes her, and the girl, and the Mister, so's pretty soon it fills the room. The sound of the missus breathin' her last is threadin' through the rhythm of Vin's voice, and fer awhile, it's right calm and peaceful.

So peaceful I couldn't rightly say when I know fer sure she's gone.

The wailin' starts up agin then - I have t' send the poor girl, not much more'n a babe herself, inta the kitchen t' make some tea, hopin' that havin' somethin' t' do'll help her come around.

"You gotta get Josiah."

I come over and take the baby from Vin and wrap her tight in a cloth agin while he stands and buttons his shirt. He leaves the room without sayin' nothin', and I follow him out inta the yard.

I's surprised t' see that the day's almost spent - guess I weren't payin' much heed t' the rest 'a world goin' about its business outside that room. Vin hefts his saddle offa the top rail of the fence and swings it up on Peso's back.

"This babe's gonna need t' be wet nursed."

Think, Nathan, think..... who's I gonna call on.....

"Miz Getson. She'll come. You'll have t' ride on out and fetch her here.... you'll be all right?"

I jist noticed that Vin's hands are shakin' and he's havin' trouble doin' up the cinch. He don't look too good, pale and sweatin', and all of a sudden he breaks away from Peso and starts down along the side 'a the barn. He don't git too far b'fore he's on his knees in the dust, retchin' hard, and there ain't nothin' comin' up. I kinda got m' hands full - ain't nothin' I kin do fer him no how - and after a bit he gits t' his feet and heads back, swipin' his hand across his mouth.

"Let me look at yer head."

Vin ducks away under m' hand , but not b'fore I kin see he's got a nasty lookin' lump jist over his right eye.

"I's OK. I's sorry Nathan - I am - about all this...I dunno.... I jist...."

He still ain't lookin' too steady, and he leans up with his head aginst Peso's shoulder.

"It's bin a bad day all round. No need t' apologize, Vin."

I had no idea Vin would take all this so hard. Iffen I'd had any inkling, I never woulda asked him t' come with. But this ain't no time t' be cryin' over what's done - I need him t' ride fer town.

I shift the baby a bit and stretch m' hand out agin t' brush his hair away from his face.

"Ya got yerself quite a bump there. Ya still feelin' sick?"

"I's fine."

He don't look fine, but he swings up inta the saddle out of m' reach and turns Peso t'ward Four Corners.

I watch him go. It's bin a real bad day, and it ain't done yet. I take a deep breath and roll some 'a the stiff outta m' shoulders.

The little one's frettin' agin, wringin' them tiny hands in front of her face, lookin' downright unhappy.

Almost like she knows what's goin' on.

Almost like she knows she don't have no Mama no more.


I feel bad fer Nathan. Here I thought I's gonna be some help t' him out there at the Pritchard's, and I end up faintin' away like a schoolgirl. It ain't like I never seen a baby bein' born. It ain't like I never seen nobody bleed t' death. Matter fact, I done seen both those things happen together two times more'n I ever woulda wished.

Leastways this time it weren't my fault.

Kinda boxed it all up and put it away. Ain't like I never think on it, though, 'cause I do. Think on it a lot. But jist seein' all that blood and hearin' the baby and the grievin' - it jist grabbed me all of the sudden and took me right back t' that day.......

God, m' head's painin' me somethin' fierce. There's rain comin', and the clouds is all crouched along the bottom of the sky like big grey cats waitin' t' pounce. I ain't gonna make it t' town b'fore it lets loose. Wonder how long it'll take me t' git out t' the Getson's. I figure I's still about half an hour outta town, and their place is a good three miles further out agin. It's gonna take a mite longer goin' back, too, what with the rain. I ain't sure what kinda rider Miz Getson is - probably have t' take a buggy and that'll slow us down...... how long kin a jist born babe go without no one t' suckle her? Nathan seemed t' think she was pretty healthy - leastways he didn't seem too het up.... maybe he's jist so worried over her Mama.... hell, I don't know. I guess I best git inta town and send Josiah and fetch the woman and git back t' the Pritchard's as soon as I can... wish I weren't feelin' so bad . The thumpin' in m' head's keepin' time with the beat 'a Peso's hooves, and m' back's givin' me grief and m' stomach hurts. Guess I ain't had near enough t' eat t'day, and chuckin' up what little I did have in me didn't help matters much. All in all I's a right mess. Guess I usually am. Never stopped me from doin' what had t' be done though. I already let down one little babe in m' life. Ain't about t' let down another.

Was right about the rain. Come on jist about a mile outta Four Corners, and come on good. I's pretty much soaked through by the time I hit town, then had t' go ferret out the preacher, let the others know what's goin' on and head on out t' the farm. Chris give me a good goin' over, standin' there on the stoop 'a the saloon chawin' on his cigar. Must not 'a liked what he saw, 'cause he offered t' take over and ride out t' the Getson's and head on back t' Nathan. Must 'a thought I looked like I couldn't handle things, but I kin. Said thanks but no thanks. This here's my responsibility - gotta see this one through, and ain't nothin' goin' t' git done long as I's standin' here jawin' with Chris and Buck.

It's bin dark awhile by the time I git out t' the Getson place. The shutters is closed and I cain't tell even when I's poundin' on the door whether I's routin' folk outta their beds or not. Git m' answer when the door comes open and there's the mister in his night shirt, rubbin' the sleep from his eyes. He calls the wife and she joins him, holdin' the lantern up t' see m' face, and I try not t' let on that the light is spikin' right through m' head. I mumble out somethin' that must make some kinda sense, 'cause she's cluckin' and callin' me inside t' wait on her. Says she'll be ready in two shakes. They's good folk, the Getsons - got themselves a passel 'a little ones and a spread that don't seem t' grow nothin' much b'sides dirt, but they must be able t' make ends meet. They's always happy, always ready t' lend a hand.

The door bangin' in the wind reminds me that the weather ain't fit, and I start tryin' t' git m' head around jist how I's gonna git Miz Getson over t' the Pritchards'.

"You folks got a buggy?"

Somethin's gotta be pullin' it and it sure ain't gonna be Peso. He don't cotton t' havin' tote somethin' along behind - thinks he's too high 'n mighty fer anythin' like that. Think maybe he's bin around Ezra too much.

"A horse?"

"Yeah, we got a rig out t' the barn. Ain't had 'er out in awhile though. And Flossie's in the stall. She's a mite hard 'a hearin', but she's still sharp. You jist go ahead and make yerself t' home - take what ya need. There's a lantern there on the table."

Mr. Getson's lookin' mighty content there in that chair in front 'a the fire and I'm guessin' he ain't got no plans t' give me a hand. A couple 'a the kids is out 'a bed by now and are stumblin' sleepy - eyed out inta the main room. The littlest feller looks t' be about two far as I kin guess, and must be the one his Ma's still nursin'. He's haulin' at her skirts and ain't none too pleased when she sets 'im on his Pa's lap t' be shushed while she's flyin' around tryin' t' git ready t' leave. Once he figures out she is leavin', he works hisself inta a real fit 'a screamin' and the noise is about t' split m' head in two. I decide now's a good time t' git m'self t' the barn, so I take up the light and head out through the mud and wind. I find the buggy buried under a pile 'a burlap and moldy horse blankets and lookin' jist a bit worse for wear. Guess it musta had a canopy 'a some sort on it once, but it's all rotted away and I really can't see Miz Getson being awful comfortable settin' there all laid out t' the weather for the next few hours. I find a couple 'a sheets 'a canvas and a tin 'a nails and a hammer layin' about and set t' work tryin' t' rig somethin' up t' keep the missus dry. It ain't the first time someone's turned their hand t' fixin' this old crate, but it don't take long til she's fit t' travel. I check the wheels and the pins and all that, and when I git done there I go lookin' fer the horse.

There's a little silver mare huddled in a lean to at the end of the corral, and she whickers low and soft when I come up t' her. Her coat ain't kept company with a brush in a good long while, but her eyes is full 'a spark and her ears prick up when I rub her nose and slip her a piece 'a dried apple. She swallows that down and nibbles at m' sleeve lookin' fer another.

We's gonna git along jist fine.

It takes me a good twenty minutes or so t' git things all tricked out and ready t' go. I bring the rig around front and hitch Peso up t' the rear. He ain't too happy 'bout that, but after I explain t' him that his choices is either tote the thing or follow along behind, he settles down. I give him a apple slice, too, fer bein' so understandin', and now Miz Getson's comin' out the door and we's settin' off.

Bin an hour or so since we left and the rain's still peltin' down, but the mare's a game little one. The missus seems t' be keepin' dry and I tell m'self things could be worse. It's a bit damp out front here, though, and m' coat's jist about soaked through. Prob'ly weighs twice as much as I do, but I's too cold t' take it off. The buggy's got a bit of a list to 'er, and it's dippin' and swayin' and I figure this must be what it feels like t' be on a boat. I ain't never bin on one b'fore, but m' stomach's feelin' a mite unsettled, and I'm thinkin' that mebbe boats is somethin' I should be stayin' away from. I's jist about decided that all in all I's feelin' 'decidedly unwell', as Ez would say, when we lurch hard t' the left and stop real sharp like. I's jist about thrown outta m' seat and I's prayin' that the wheel ain't falled off or nothin'. Once I know Miz Getson's all right, I help her up front t' take the reins while I git out t' check. I gotta shed m' coat then - cain't hardly move with it on - and I go around back t' see that the wheel's still where it should be. Jist sunk down in the mud and fetched up b'tween two rocks, so's all I got t' do is lift and shove and she should come clear. I git one hand under the back 'a the buggy and slide the other one around the side, and yell out t' the missus t' pull ahead. That's when I feel somethin' sharp jabbin' inta the inside 'a m' arm jist below m' elbow. And that's when I come t' realize m' foot's stuck b'tween the rocks too, and b'fore I kin open m' mouth t' holler "Whoa!", the carriage is movin' forward and I's standin' still. And that's when I feel whatever's stuck in m' arm - think it's mebbe a nail - tear through m' skin and slice it open all the way down t' m' wrist.

That hurt.

I's hopin' that the sound 'a the rain poundin' and the rig squeakin' and the horses chuffin' is drownin' out the cursin' I's doin'. I cain't see nothin' 'cause it's dark and m' arm's already wet, but I's pretty sure somethin's bleedin'. I take m' bandana from m' neck and wrap it tight around and make m' way back t' m' seat. Don't bother with m' coat.

Sure will be glad t' git t' the Pritchard's.

Get outta the rain. Bunk in the barn. Git some sleep.

We do make it. Finally.

Nathan's through the door in no time, helpin' Miz Getson down and hustlin' her inta the house.

"How's the baby?"

Nathan turns back t' me b'fore followin' her in.

"Think she's gonna be all right. Come in, git yerself warmed up. There's stew in the kitchen."

"Nah, thanks, s'OK. Gonna settle the horses, bed down in the barn. See ya in the mornin'."


I din't think this day was ever gonna end. Must say I ain't never bin so glad t' see Josiah. He got Gabe calmed down and said some words over that poor young thing laid out on the bed. Gabe wanted the baby baptized - think he's afeared that she won't make it either, but she'll be fine long as Miz Getson gits here soon. Can't blame the man fer hedgin' his bets though.

They're here now. I knew Vin'd come through. Wish he'd come on in fer a bite t' eat - damn fool prob'ly ain't et all day.

It's awhile b'fore we git the folk in the house situated fer the night and me and Josiah head out t' the barn. I brung a bowl 'a stew, but Vin's asleep when we come in and don't stir when I whisper his name. Josiah comes back from checkin' on the horses and says Peso's all cuddled up with a grey filly in the far stall and lookin' mighty cozy. Cain't say as Vin looks real cozy. He's lyin' there rolled up in his coat, hunkered down in the hay. He's got my bedroll spread out waitin' on me, and he's laid his own out fer Josiah. The lantern's hangin' on a nail over his head, throwin' shadows across his face. He looks young and pale in the sputterin' light, but then, he always looks that way when his guard's down.

Josiah's lookin' at him too.

"He OK? He looks like he's got a black eye."

"Had a little accident earlier. Bumped his head, knocked hisself out fer a few minutes. Think he's OK.....course with him ya never can tell. He git hisself anythin' t' eat in town b'fore he headed on out t' the Getson's?"

"Not so far as I know." Josiah peers closer at our friend. "Boy can't afford to be missing too many meals."

"Have t' make sure we git somethin' inta him t'morrow."

The lamp's turned low and gutters out as me and Josiah crawl inta our beds. It feels good t' lie here, warm, listenin' t' the rhythm 'a the rain on the roof. Don't recall fallin' asleep but next thing I know the sun's pokin' long fingers through the cracks in the barn wall. Can't tell the hour - it's early but no one else has stirred around yet. I git the feelin' that someone's watchin' me, and look t' see two sky blue eyes blinkin' at me from across the way.

"Didn't expect t' see you still abed."

Vin's always first one up, no matter what.

"Yeah, well, I didn't want t' wake ya. 'Sides, I need a favour."

"What's that?"

"You mind havin' a look at m' arm? Got m'self a bit of a scratch - might need a stitch or two."

I's at his side in a flash. This boy's idea of 'a bit of a scratch' prob'ly means his arm's about t' fall off. I kin see he's got blood on his hand.

"Sit up and let's git yer coat off."

I help 'im shuck that buckskin 'a his and see the sleeve of his shirt's gone all stiff where the blood's dried.

"How'd this happen?"

"Buggy got stuck. Caught m'self on somethin' tryin' t' push her out."

It's a nasty cut. It starts jist under his elbow and runs all down the inside 'a his arm to his wrist. It's crusted over some, but still oozin' in spots.

"Ya should'na let this go."

"I ain't. Didn't want t' bother ya last night. How's the little one?"

"She was all right when we come out here. Miz Getson woulda come fer me iffen there'd bin a problem."

Josiah's come around now and is peerin' at us through eyes that's still full 'a sleep.

"Something wrong?"

"Vin's got hisself a nasty slice here. I's gonna go inside and check on the baby and git some hot water. P'raps you could git m' kit laid out and give me a hand when I git back."

"Well son, what have you managed to do to yourself now?"

"It ain't nothin' Josiah."

Vin's duckin' away from Josiah's big hand. Vin don't much cotton t' folk touchin' him - he tolerates it from me b'cause he knows he got to. Chris is really the only person he seems t' like bein' around him, and the only one he seems t' like bein' around. They got this arm lock handshake thing they do, and this way 'a talkin' that don't need hardly any words at all.... Vin's come around a lot in the time we all bin together, but mostly he still don't like no one gittin' too close.

Glad t' find when I git up t' the house that the baby's doin' good. Miz Getson's fixed breakfast and has got Gabe up t' the table. He's pickin' at somethin' on his plate and looks up when I come in.

"I want to thank you, Nate, for being here. I know there wasn't anything you could do for Ellen, but thank you for saving my daughter."

"I'm glad I could help."

"Are you and your friends going to come inside and have something to eat?"

"Well, I'm jist here now lookin' fer a pan 'a hot water. Vin's got a gash on his arm that needs tendin'."

"You mean that nice young man who brought me over last night? Bring him in here and we'll fix him up and make sure he gets some breakfast. I just hope he hasn't caught a chill, being out in the weather like he was."

Miz Getson's jist like every other woman what sets eyes on Vin. Wants t' adopt him and take him home, but I know Vin don't need no one else in his life fussin' over him.

"Thanks Ma'am, but we're fine where we is. Might come in fer coffee in a bit."

I git back t'the barn and Josiah's got Vin propped up with his back against the outer wall 'a the stall. He's got his eyes shut, and 'ceptin' fer the dark purple 'a the bruise around his right eye, his face ain't got a bit 'a colour in it.


His eyes open a slit.

"I's gonna clean yer arm up so's I kin git a good look at it."

"Sure....thanks Nathan."

His eyes slide shut agin.

It's worse than I first thought. The gash is red and weepy, and with the skin around it all swolled up, it's gotta be hurtin'. Vin don't so much as flinch while I'm proddin' and diggin' at 'im, and I's startin' t' think he's drifted off on me.

That is, until Josiah comes back with coffee. Vin's eyes fly open as soon as he smells it and he's reachin' fer a mug with his good hand.

I take m' cup and rock back on m' heels.

"I don't think I should be stitchin' this up yet. P'raps it should lay open awhile - let it flush itself out some - and I kin sew it back up once we git t' town. I kin give ya some laudanum - make the trip a mite easier."

"Do whatever ya think, Nathan. I don't need no laudanum though - stuff makes me sick."

"Think ya kin sit yer horse, iffen I bind that arm up good?"

Vin stares at me over the rim 'a his cup.

"Yeah, I know, yer fine. Ya should try t' eat somethin' b'fore we head out."

"Nah, m' stomach ain't too steady. You two go ahead. I'll keep."

"Yeah. I's sure ya will."

7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7

We head out after an hour or so. Miz Getson's gonna stay on a couple 'a days, and I promised t' git word t' her husband t' ride on over and fetch her home then. She'll take the baby with fer the time bein' - Gabe cain't see what he's doin' past buryin' the missus. Don't know iffen he'll stay around here or not. Don't think he knows hisself.

Vin was right about the laudanum. I talked 'im inta havin' some and now he's growlin' that he should know better than t' listen t' me and lookin' like he could chuck any minute. I try t' tell 'im that the reason he's feelin' so bad is he ain't got nothin' on his stomach. I don't tell him this, but I think he's prob'ly reached the point where his belly's bin empty so long it'd throw what ever came its way right back jist outta habit. In spite 'a what Vin tries t' make folk think, he ain't real strong. Don't git me wrong - the boy's got grit t' spare, but he gits sick a lot. More'n the rest of us put t'gether. Not sure why that is. He's always calm and good tempered and steady - takes a lot t' git him riled up....but he worries 'bout stuff, tries too hard t' please, and gits the guilts over everythin'. I reckon when things bother ya, ya gotta let it out. Look at Buck. He lives loud and hard and happy and when somethin gits his goat, he says so and gits over it. Vin carries too much around inside and it eats at him. And when his innards is all twisted around theirselves, he cain't eat and he cain't sleep and he gits sick.

I should prob'ly jist take t' lockin' him in the clinic every once in a while whether he thinks he needs it or not. Fer his own good.

Yeah. And maybe pigs should fly.


I cain't b'lieve I's finally clear 'a Nathan and that damn clinic 'a his. Iffen I didn't know better I'd swear the man gits lonely and shuts me up in there jist so's he'll have someone t' talk to. Surely Nathan could do a damn sight better'n me iffen he's pinin' fer conversation.

I cain't stop m'self thinkin' on the Pritchards. Seein' the missus bleed out like that....took me back to a day I really wish I could fergit. Gotta stop t' think exactly when that day was - bin with Chris and the boys goin' on a year, so it musta bin mebbe two years b'fore I hooked up with this lot. No, I ain't never fergot that day - think on it fairly reg'lar, truth be told. Least every month or two.

And I ain't never gonna ferget Ainsley Hallet, Barton River, New Mexico Territory. Know that address better'n m' own.

He's part 'a the reason I had t' git m'self outta that bed up t' Nathan's. M' two months is almost up.

Still ain't feelin' great though. Nathan says m'arm's lookin' OK, but I gotta keep an eye on it. Still gittin' headaches some, so Nathan ain't sure yet about m' head. But then agin, ain't too many folk ever thought I was all right in the head. Ha.

Gonna ride out t'morrow. Take it slow, circle out t' where the prairie meets the first 'a the trees on the way t' the foothills, then swing back through Eagle Bend.

Be good t' be on m' own a spell.

7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7

It's amazin' how fast what starts out t' be a good day kin turn t' crap in next t' no time. Felt fine when I first woke this mornin'. Was up early, had m'self a coffee b'fore anybody else was stirrin' about town, saddled Peso and lit out. Was on the trail a good three hours b'fore the sun got too high in the sky. Decided I'd give Peso a bit of a rest durin' the hottest part of the day seein' as how I weren't in no partic'lar hurry. Stopped off next t' where the creek winds past this big oak - good place t' sit back with a biscuit and a piece 'a jerky. Next thing I know I's feelin' real lazy like and m' head's gone all wooly on me and I's fallin' asleep. Well, guess I didn't really know I's asleep until I come around agin, but Lord! Did it ever turn hot! I stagger on down t' the creek fer a drink. One minute I's jist standin' there, ready t' stoop down t' fill m' canteen, and the next I's sittin' on m' backside in the water. Good thing I's out here all alone - I ain't usually this clumsy and I'd be downright embarrassed iffen I thought anybody was around t' see me go flyin' like that. Smacked m' arm a good one, and once I stopped seein' stars, I hauled m'self t' m' feet and managed t' git back on Peso.

We ain't gone much more'n two feet and already I's havin' trouble keepin' m' eyes open. Don't know what's wrong with me - I ain't usually this wore out in the middle of the day, though I's sure takin' a tumble in the creek ain't helped me none.

Mebbe I should be shuckin' this coat 'a mine, but I no sooner think on doin' that than I start t' shiver. Next thing I's sweatin' agin, and then I know I's gonna be sick. Peso's smart. He kin hear me gaggin' and he stops right quick, and I know he's hopin' I'll make it t' the ground b'fore I start spewin'. Cain't say as I feel a whole lotter better when I's finished - m' head's still poundin' and m' stomach's achin' and m' arm's throbbin' - all in all I's feelin' a mite poorly.

I's pretty close t' Eagle Bend now though. I'll jist git m'self there and take care 'a business, find a room and lay low until I's better.

7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7

I make it inta town and pull Peso up in front ’a the telegraph office. It looks t’ be about four o’clock, so I know I ain’t too late. I slide outta the saddle and try not t’ stumble on m’ way up the steps and go inside. I got the money already counted out in a roll in m’ pocket and when it’s m’ turn, I step up t’ the wicket t’ tell the feller where I want it sent. There’s a whole long minute there when I cain’t remember why I’s in the telegraph office with money in m’ hand, but it comes back t’ me finally and I finish up and head out the door. I gotta stop on the boardwalk, though, and lean up aginst the wall ’cause the ground’s startin’ t’ shift some. Somebody comes past me then and all of a sudden m’arm explodes in this fire that’s screamin’ white and sharp and drivin’ me to m’ knees. There’s a face hangin’ over me that I’s thinkin’ I should know and these little prickles ’a memory is no sooner jabbin’ away at the back ’a m’ mind then they’s all burnt away in a hot flame what’s flarin’ and streakin’ through me, and everythin’ disappears.


If I'd 'a known that fool was plannin' on ridin' all the way out here t' Eagle Bend, I woulda never let him outta m' sight.

'Take it easy, Vin.'

'Mind yer arm, Vin.'

'Keep that sling on.'

'Don't git them stitches wet.'

Don't know why I waste m' breath on him.

Decided t'day was a good day t' pay Doc Collins a visit. He's a good man, the Doc. Always willin' t' tell me anythin' new he's learned or share around any remedies he's come by.

I bin in his office the last coupla hours and I's jist decided t' git m'self a room and head back home in the mornin'. I's standin' here on the walk in front 'a the doctor's office, gonna git on over t' the hotel, when I look across the street and who do I see but Vin Tanner.

Vin Tanner leanin' up aginst the storefront and lookin' mighty green around the gills.

B'fore I kin stir a step in his direction, though, this older feller, big guy, dressed in a grey wool suit that seen better days - comes right up t' him. I cain't see fer sure what's happenin' - jist see Vin's face go four shades whiter and him droppin' t' the ground. I's sure the feller jist reached out and grabbed 'im by the arm, but p'raps he had a knife or summat, 'cause Vin sure went down hard and fast. I git m'self across that street in two long steps, but by the time I git t' Vin, the feller's gone.

Poor Vin. Tries so hard not t' call attention to hisself. Gits embarrassed so easy it's almost amusin'. It's bad enough there ain't hardly one soul in Four Corners that ain't seen 'im bleedin' or pukin' or laid out cold in the street at one time or t'other, but now the good folk 'a Eagle Bend is gonna be treated to a indisposed Vin Tanner decoratin' their sidewalks. By the time I git t' him his eyes is rolled away in his head and he's limp as a rag doll. I look agin fer the feller in the grey suit, but he seems t've disappeared, so I git a arm around Vin's waist and haul 'im across the street t' Collins' office. I follow the doc through to a room in the back and he holds Vin up while I try t' wrassle 'im outta that coat 'a his. I kin see that his fingers is all swolled up and when I try t' git his arm outta the sleeve, he comes half awake and tries t' pull hisself away.

"Don't.....tell Clara I's sorry...... I gotta take....where's the baby? Is the baby all right?..."

He falls back on the bed, still tangled in 'is coat and lands on his arm. The breath hisses outta him in a long low moan and he looks past me t'ward the door and says a name that's drawed out on a long, soft whisper.


Then he turns t' look at me, like he's seein' me fer the first time.

"Nathan? I ain't feelin' so good."

"Shh, Vin, it's gonna be OK."

I lay him back aginst the pillow and and run m' thumb across his forehead until his breathin' calms, then me and the doc finish gittin' him outta his clothes. His arm, right from his elbow down t' his wrist is three time its normal size, the skin all tight and shiny except fer where it's oozin' blood and pus. Some 'a the stitchin's let go in spots, and others is crusted over with scabs. It don't look good. Doc Collins is off outta the room t' fetch his things, and I jist sit and shake m' head.

"Vin Tanner, what've ya gone and done t' yerself now?"

It's a long night. When Vin ain't lyin' there still as death, he's outta his head and ravin' and I cain't make head nor tail outta anythin' the boy's on about. He starts t' come around some along about dawn, and even though he still ain't outta the woods yet, the Doc's thinkin' he'll be OK.

"You seem to care a lot about this young fellow, Nathan. He one of those that keeps the peace with you over there in Four Corners?"

I don't' say nothin' - jist nod m' head.

"I don't mean any disrespect, but first off, he doesn't hardly look old enough to be a lawman, and second, he looks the type more likely to break the law than uphold it."

"He's a good man. Saved my life more'n once. First time, he didn't even know who I was. I's glad t' call him friend."

The Doc and me take turns sittin' with Vin while the other goes out fer a bite t' eat. Turns out the Doc's got t' go out t' check on one 'a the farmers what's broke his leg, and then another family whose young'uns come down with chicken pox. Tells me t' make m'self t' home, sets me up with some of his books t' read, says his wife'll be by later with some broth and sandwiches. Says mebbe I could mind the office fer him while he's out, then laughs and says mebbe he should be tryin' t' talk me inta joinin' him here in Eagle Bend - town's growin' and he could use a hand.

It amazes me how much folk seem t'accept me out here. Don't git me wrong - there's still plenty 'a times I feel like I never left the plantation, but fer the most part, I's treated not too bad. But then agin, mebbe folk don't accept me as much as put up with me.....figure they's best off t' treat me halfways decent 'cause they never know when they might need me. There's a fair number 'a folk I know fer sure don't feel that way - the boys, Miz Travis and Miz Potter, the Judge.... all in all I figure I's mighty lucky t' light in Four Corners like I did.

It's well on in the afternoon b'fore Vin starts t' come around fer real. I's busy readin' one 'a them new medical books 'a the doctor's, sittin' in a chair by the window, when I hear a voice.


I peer over the top 'a the page at a pair 'a blue eyes squintin' up at me.

"That all ya got t' say fer yerself Tanner?"

"Fancy meetin' you here, Nathan."

"Yeah, fancy that. This yer idea 'a takin' it easy is it? Ridin' out t' Eagle Bend all on yer own, lettin' yer arm go bad, faintin' in the street with nobody around t' watch yer back.... somebody upstairs must like ya a lot, Vin. He surely must."

"Well Nathan, from the way I's feelin' right about now, I'd hate t' see how He'd treat me iffen He didn't like me."

He's got this pale ghost of a grin on his face, but he is grinnin'.

"Here Vin, have yerself a drink. Jist go slow now..."

I help git the cup t' his lips and when I lay him back down, he gives a sigh.

"So, tell me how ya managed t'undo all m' good work. What'd ya do, have a run in with a grizzly?"

Vin don't say nothin'. He's got this look on his face, and it takes me a minute t' figure out he's embarrassed.

"Well.... seein' as how you've had t' put me back t'gether agin..."

He stops and takes a breath.

"It weren't really nothin', ya know. Jist stupid. Found m'self a nice spot t' stop and have m' lunch, headed on down t' the creek fer a drink, fill m' canteen....and I fell in."

"Ya fell in."

"That's what I said. The rocks was wet and they was slippery and m' feet went flyin' out from under me and I fell. Sorta landed on m' arm."

I jist shake m' head.

"I's sorry. I am, really, Nathan. Sorry."

"You don't git it, do ya Vin?"

"Git it?" His forehead furrows. "No...I guess I don't. Sorry."

"Vin! Will ya stop apologizin'? Ya sound like a little kid!"

"I do? Sorry."

"Look, ya don't owe it t' me t' take care 'a yerself. Ya owe it t' yerself and...."

I's gittin' a mite exasperated here, and I look over t' see he's grinnin' agin.

"I jist figured somethin' out, Nathan. 'Bout why ya git so het up about this stuff. Ya work harder at lookin' after me than I do and ya got a.... what's that word Ezra's always bandyin' about? Oh, yeah - investment. Ya got a investment in me."

Much as I's tryin' not to, I find m'self grinnin' back.

"Yeah, yer right. I do. And all I want back from that investment is fer you t' start takin' better care 'a yerself. And since that don't seem t' be happenin', I's thinkin' mebbe I'd be best off t' start chargin' ya fer all the all the laudanum and bandages and horsehair and tonics I've wasted on that sorry hide 'a yers - not t' mention all the time I've spent! Hell, I could drag ya back t' Tascosa fer the five hundred dollars yer supposed t' be worth and it wouldn't half pay back what I figure ya owe me by now."

He's still smilin', but his eyes is slidin' shut, and when I reach t' pull the blanket over his shoulder I kin hear him sigh.

"Thanks Nathan. Ya know I 'preciate it."

And I whisper back, "Yeah Vin, I know ya do."

He don't wake agin fer awhile. Doc Collins gits back and is tellin' me all about his day, and then goes on t' tell me somethin' else.

"Your young friend here," he nods at Vin, "I see him in town regularly. He comes every month, month and a half, just long enough to visit the telegraph office, and then he's gone."

"Yer sure it's Vin?"

"Aren't too many folk hereabout who dress like that."

This is got me puzzled, but I ain't got no time t' think on it, 'cause Vin's comin' around agin. I kin see that he ain't doin' quite as good as he was earlier, but me and the Doc manage t' git some broth in 'im, along with a mug 'a herbal tea. I kin see he's tryin' hard t' keep it down, but his stomach ain't bin real cooperative lately, so I git the bucket ready jist in case. And it's a good thing too, 'cause I kin see him swallowin' hard and then his hand's comin' up t' his mouth and I jist know this is one battle he's gonna lose.

He's finally finished, fer now, at least, and I's gittin' him cleaned up and ready t' lay back down.


"Yeah Vin?"

"Ya know, when ya tally up that bill ya figure I owe ya? Yer not gonna charge me fer them awful concotions ya pour down me that don't stay put, are ya? I mean, it don't seem hardly fair."



"Go to sleep."

7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 7

We done spent three days at Doc Collins' clinic all told. Vin's lookin' a mite better than he has bin, and I's thinkin' mebbe we kin head on home t' morrow. He's lyin' propped up on the pillow, lookin' out the window at the telegraph office across the street.

"Vin? Who's Ainsley and Clara?"

"Jist folk I knew way back when."

He goes quiet a minute or two.

"Bein' out t' the Pritchard's reminded me 'a them."

His breath chuffs out on a laugh.

"Not that I needed the Pritchards t' make me think on them. Ain't much more'n a day goes by that I don't. I really must be losin' it, ya know? Coulda swore I saw Ainsley right here in Eagle Bend. Guess I bin a mite addled lately."

"Ya sure yer up t' ridin' out t'morrow?"

"Yeah Nathan, I'm good. No worries here."


Feels good t' be outside agin. I's startin' t' think I spend more time in bed than I do on m' horse. In spite 'a all m' gripin' 'bout how he fusses, I hope Nathan knows how much I 'preciate what he does fer me. Always got sick a lot when I's a little kid. Never had no one t' care, so I'd jist crawl off and hole up somewhere until I weren't feelin' quite so much like I's gonna die. When I's with the People, some 'a the women folk was ready t' take care 'a me when I's feelin' poorly, but it weren't somethin' I never got used to so I'd usually end up hidin' away from them too. Nathan says the reason I git sick so much is I don't take care 'a m'self. I think I do a pretty damn good job 'a takin' care 'a m'self, but Nathan don't see that. Think he ain't happy lest he's frettin' on somethin'. Jist wish it didn't always have t' be me......although right now I got t' say I's kinda glad he's with. I's feelin' a mite unsteady.... tired too......

Now I know I's dreamin'. The horses've stopped and there's someone standin' in the middle 'a the road.

He's got a gun and I'd swear it's Ainsley Hallett.

"Vin Tanner. Long time, no see."

I's about t' say I think I saw him no more'n five days ago, but Nathan beats me to it.

"Yer that feller I saw with Vin on the boardwalk, outside the telegraph office."

It's bin goin' on two years since I last saw Ainsley, and them two years ain't bin real good t' him.

But I suppose I done had a hand in that.

He nods at Nathan without takin' his eyes offa me.

"I kinda thought you bin the one sendin' that money, Tanner. Don't' need t' bother no more. The boy's dead."

Somethin' grabs at me hard and tight inside, and fer a minute I kin hardly breathe.

"Jacob's gone too. Ain't no one left but me."

Ainsley's gun is waverin' now, b'tween the two 'a us, almost like it's got a mind of its own.

"Vin, ya want t' tell me what's goin' on?"

Nathan's hissin' at me through his teeth, and I guess it ain't real fair that he's sittin' here with a gun on 'im and he ain't got no clue why.

"I'll tell ya what's goin' on."

Ainsley's talkin' t' Nathan, but still he don't look away from me.

"Met up with Vin a coupla years ago. Well, ya met my Clara first, didn't ya, Tanner? Clara's m' daughter, was expectin' m' first grandchild - gittin' close t' her time, eveything goin' along finest kind. That is, until yer friend Vin here rode on in. Her and Jacob had some hard times, but things was startin' t' come t'gether fer them. Jacob went away t' work, got some money t'gether t' buy the farm, they's expectin' a baby... that all went t' hell as soon as you showed up."

I don't got nothin' t' say t' none 'a that. So far it's all true.

"He said Jacob's got a bounty on him. Said he got hisself tangled up with some gang robbin' banks over in Montgomery. Jacob swore up and down it weren't so, but Vin here said it weren't no concern 'a his one way or t'other. I weren't there when they had theirselves this little parley, but it seems yer Mr. Tanner got a bit riled - told Jacob he was comin' with and it made no never mind t' him whether he was on his horse or acrosst it. Jacob tole me Tanner pulled his gun then and he was sure he was gonna drop him on the spot, and that's when Jacob's gun come out and next thing there's shots flyin' and my Clara's in the middle of it all."

"That ain't 'xactly how things went down."

But Hallett ain't payin' me no mind.

"She stayed alive long enough t' have the baby. Took two days - I ain't never lived through anything quite so bad as that - b'fore or since. T' know yer child is dyin' and is in pain and ya cain't..... ain't nothin' worse than that. Soon as that little feller was born and Clara was gone, Tanner done hauled Jacob away and I's left with a young'un t' raise."

He stops a minute and his voice goes soft.

"Measles come through about two months back. Boy got took. Jacob were in prison over in Jarvis County - when he got word his child's died, he hung hisself."

I kin feel every word Ainsley's sayin' t' me eatin' away another little part 'a my soul. I could cry fer that baby, I truly could, iffen only I knew how.

"Throw yer guns down here now. All of 'em."

The steel's back in his voice. Me and Nathan do as we's told and Ainsley kicks them inta a pile b'hind him.

"You kin git down offa them horses now, both 'a ya. Nice and slow."

I's gittin' a mite worried now. I's pretty sure he ain't got no good thing in mind fer me, but I ain't got no idea what he got planned fer Nathan.

Once we's both on the ground, Ainsley goes to his horse, gits a piece of rope, and throws it at m' feet.

"You - " he waves at Nathan, "turn around. And Tanner, you git over there and tie him up good."

I bend down t' git the rope, but I don't take m' eyes offa Hallett. I's pretty sure he ain't jist gonna tie Nathan up and let him watch while he kills me, then turn around and let him go like nothin' happened. And then I know I's right when I see his eyes squintin' up and his gun sightin' along Nathan's back. I don't have no time t' think or nothin' - I see his finger tighten on the trigger, so I jist throw m'self at Hallett and hope fer the best. The gun goes off once, and we's both rollin' around on the ground when the barrel clips me on the side 'a the head. Then Hallett's swingin' at m' arm, and the gun goes off agin. M'ears is ringin', m' head's full 'a shootin' stars, m'arms on fire, and fer awhile it's like time's standin' still. Someone's bleedin', that much I know, and it kinda surprises me in the middle of all this hurt t' figure out that, fer a change, it ain't me. I see Hallett's got this stain spreadin' on the left side of his shirt, and he chokes out a laugh that bubbles up red on his lips.

"Happy now, boy?" His breathin's all raspy, like his lungs is full 'a sand. "You got the blood 'a my whole family on yer hands now, and it ain't never comin' off. I hope you rot in hell."

And then he's gone.

Fer a minute I jist stay there in the dirt, on m' knees, and I don't think I's ever gonna have the energy t' move agin. Then I remember Nathan. I don't hardly git his name outta m' mouth than he's by m' side.

"I's OK Vin. What about you?"

I fall forward so's m' head's restin' on m' arms spread out in front 'a me in the dirt.

"I's fine."

I know he don't b'lieve that - he's jist givin' me a minute t' git m'self t'gether.

"I killed 'em all Nathan."

"Ya didn't mean fer none of it t' happen, Vin."

"Don't change the fact they're all gone."

"It ain't like ya gunned 'em down in cold blood."

"It weren't like Hallett said. He drew first, Jacob did, and there weren't nothin' else I could do..... I ain't never killed a woman, b'fore or since. It's different, killin' a woman. Ain't somethin' a man wants t' live with. I's there when she birthed that baby and bled out her last. She died smilin', Nathan, with that babe in her arms, jist like Ellen Pritchard. God ain't never gonna fergive me fer that."

"Yes He will Vin. And a lot sooner than you'll fergive yerself."

Right now I's feelin' so weighed down with all the wrong I done in m' life I don't think I'll ever be able t' git up. Then I feel Nathan's hand under m' good arm and next thing I know, he's helpin' me t' m' feet. Find it hard t' stay there though - and I gotta say Peso looks like he growed some since I was last on him ten minutes ago. I's about ready t' git on over there and try t' climb aboard when I remember Ainsley laid out there in the dirt. Guess we cain't jist leave 'im lyin' out here in the road - we's gonna have t' load 'im on his horse and take him home with. I git as far as Peso and try t' git m' blanket out from behind m' saddle. 'Course I kin only git one hand up t' untie it, but I worry away at the string and finally it comes free. I's about done in jist doin' that little bit, and all I really want t' do is lie down somewheres and close m' eyes. I got the blanket b'neath m' arm and m' good hand laced through the stirrup t' keep m'self from keelin' over and I's leanin' on Peso - I bin doin' that a lot lately - leanin' on whoever happens t' be t' hand - and feelin'.... I don't even know any more. Nathan comes over and takes the blanket and leaves me there. Guess he kin see I ain't gonna be no help t' no one right at the moment. I ain't plannin' on bein' sick, but this whole mess still ain't sittin' too good with me. The guilt's clawin' through m' gut right now, and agin I find m' self droppin' to m' knees in the dirt, thinkin' I'll surely feel better iffen only I kin puke it out of there.

If only it were that easy. I bin heavin' here for what seems like forever and everythin' that was inside's now on the outside, exceptin' that big chunk 'a guilt that's chokin' in m' throat. Nathan's finished wrappin' Ainsley and leaves him t' come and drag me inta the shade. He jist sits there sayin' nothin' while I keep on gaggin'.

I really don't want t' start groanin', but a couple make their way past m' teeth b'fore I kin bite them back. I really gotta git a grip - Nathan's rockin' me now and tellin' me it's gonna be all right and shushin' me like ya would a baby. It's embarrassin', and I ain't never bin so glad t' be out in the middle 'a nowhere, with none but Ainsley's empty eyes starin' back at me. He jist keeps his arms around me, Nathan does, and after a bit m' stomach stops tryin' t' hurl itself outta m' body and I kin feel m' heart calmin' and m' head clears a bit. I's feelin' right some stupid lyin' here in m' friend's arms, but much as I want to, I cain't stir m'self, and I don't want to admit it, but it feels kinda good. So we jist sit there, listenin' t' the saw 'a the cicadas in the tree tops and watchin' the flicker 'a bird wings colourin' the sky. I don't mean t' ruin things by speakin' up, but I cain't seem t' stop m'self.

"I shouldna taken him in."


"Jacob. Clara's husband. Ainsley's son in law. Once I done kilt his wife, I shoulda let him go."

"Hindsight's a wonderful thing, Vin."

I had t' look close t' be sure it weren't Josiah sittin' there.

"I prob'ly wouldn't now. Iffen I were in that there situation agin. But ya know, damn near ever single feller that I caught up to sang that same tune. 'I didn't do it.' 'It weren't me.' 'Yer makin' a mistake.' Funny how ya don't tend t' believe them words until ya hear them comin' outta yer own mouth. I's stupid back then. Figured iffen folk broke the law they's gittin' what they deserved, and iffen they didn't, well, the law'd see 'em right."

"You's young, Vin. I'm thinkin' a person's entitled t' be naive, or even stupid, when they's young. I's sure there ain't one of us who ain't done things in the past they wish they could go back and do over. Ya cain't be beatin' on yerself yer whole life fer every wrong ya did."

I seem t' be havin' trouble talkin' and fer a minute I think m' voice is gone.

"Nathan, I know yer tryin' t' help here, but ya don't know what it's like. You and the rest 'a the boys, yer good men. Ya'll ain't done the things I done. Ya got no idea how it wears on me. How it eats me up inside. Most times I kin handle it, I kin, but times like this I look at what I am and I .....I hate what I see."

Nathan don't say nothin' right away, and I's a mite relieved t' think that mebbe he didn't hear me, that mebbe I really didn't say all them things out loud. But no such luck.

"Vin, ya jist don't git it, do ya? God knows ya ain't perfect, but I ain't yet met no one who is. Iffen ya weren't good, why would ya bother totin' around that load 'a guilt that's grindin' on ya? Why would ya've spent the last three years thinkin' on these folk and doin' what ya could t' lighten their load? Did ya ride on inta that farm thinkin' 'Hey, I got nothin' else t' do t'day - think I'll go ruin somebody's life?' Does that sound like you?"

Well, it don't, but it seems a mite self righteous t'admit it.

"Vin I ain't never met no one that puts other folk b'fore hisself the way you do. I ain't never met no one quicker t' defend folk when he thinks they's bein' wronged. I ain't no met no one more unwillin' t' pass judgement on someone else without knowin' all the facts. And even then, yer always ready t' give 'em the benefit of the doubt. And don't ya dare tell me I don't know what I's talkin' about, 'cause I bin on the receivin' end 'a some 'a them good qualities that ya seem t' be in such a hurry t' deny ya got. You've gotta hold back some 'a that grace that yer so willing t' give t' others fer yerself. I know ya got God's grace settin' on you, Vin Tanner, and I reckon iffen yer pleasin' Him, ya gotta be doin' somethin' right. Ya ever asked God t' fergive ya fer this?"

"More times than I could ever count."

M' voice is crackin' and I's glad I don't gotta say no more.

"And ya don't think He has? Ya tryin' t' tell me ya got higher standards than what the good Lord's set? Mebbe ya should be thinkin' on takin' over His job, seein' as how ya must think He's a mite too easy goin' with the sinners and such. All I got t' say is Heaven help us iffen we all had t' live up t' the rules that Vin Tanner done set fer hisself t' live by."

I know what Nathan's tryin' t' do fer me. And I ain't sayin' I think he's right about it all. But he's tryin' t' help, and a feller cain't ask much more than that from his friends.

"Yeah, Nathan, I guess yer right. There'd be no hope fer you lot iffen I was in charge upstairs."

I know he cain't see me grinnin', but he's quiet a moment. I feel his hand come from around m' waist, and the next thing I know he's swattin' me in the head.

"Ow, Nathan, that hurts. In case ya ain't fergot, I's feelin' a mite poorly. Ya prob'ly set m' recovery back at least a week."

"Well, Vin, sometimes a feller jist asks t' git hisself smacked. And since yer not quite up t' snuff, I had t' pick a spot where I figured it'd do the least damage. And as far as settin' yer recovery back - hell - I'll cuff ya five or six more times iffen that's what it'll take t' keep ya in bed until yer better. Now git off me - m' leg's goin' t' sleep, and ya never know who might happen by. Don't want folk thinkin' ya git yerself hurt jist so's ya kin keep company with me. I like ya Vin, but not that much."

He's haulin' me t' m' feet now, and he's got this grin on as big as all outdoors. I kin see his heart and soul in that smile, and I figure mebbe I musta done somethin' right in this life t' be favoured with friends like him and Chris and the rest.

Mebbe God ain't so provoked at me as I first thought, givin' me this family that I got. Guess I shouldn't be bothered with worryin' on whether I deserve it or not.

Jist say m' thanks and take it for what it is for as long as He lets me have it.

The End