Spoilers: emphasis on Penance, references to Ghosts of the Confederacy, Love and Honor, Sins of the Past, Lady Killers, Wagon Train, The Trial
The echo of the gunshot deafens me, and my gut drops as my friend does. The Pinkerton agent still holds the gun. And the smoke is carrying the spirit of my young friend to heaven, where it belongs. Not hell, as he has said so many times. I look, horrified, at the bloodstain growing on his shirt. No, take me, take me! He's so young, Lord! Take me, not him! The Pinkerton agent doesn't even smile, doesn't even gloat. His eyes are so cold. . .
I awaken with a jolt. It takes me a moment before I realize it was just a dream. Several weeks have passed since the Pinkerton detective Poplar's death. He's in his grave, where he is finally at peace. . .and Vin Tanner is very much alive. He didn't sacrifice his life to save me. It was, in fact, the threat to Vin's life which forced me to take action. Which forced me to start fighting for my own life, a battle which Vin had been waging alone to that point.
The dream is a reminder of what might have happened. Not that I need it. At least, I don't think I do. Or is it just my guilt? Guilt that a young man, almost half my age, would have died, trying to save me. I see him in my mind's eye. His back is to me, his shoulders squared, reminding me of a too-alert animal about to strike. He holds the keys to my freedom in his hand, but in Poplar's hand is the key to Vin's destruction.
I could not let Vin die. I would have never forgiven myself, and I have so much to atone for. The death of a friend would have been another burden. And while I watch over all of my brothers,' I suppose I find myself most protective of the two who could be my sons. I've never asked, but I think Vin's about twenty-five, based on what he's said and the way he reacts sometimes. His habit of thinking he ain't a good man, because of what he's had to do to live.
The funny thing is, that was one of the first things he said to me, on the day we all rode to the Seminole village, where it all began. Oh, that wasn't the first time I had met him. That had actually been the day before. When he had told me they could promise a helluva fight. A helluva fight. I had been to hell. So had most of the men I was riding with, including the one who had promised that helluva fight.
The following day, after I had made my decision, he had offered his hand to me, observing that they could use another good man. A good man. I didn't know about that. . .I still don't. At the time, all I knew was that I had seen crows, and that they were a sign. Usually of death. I figured I was gonna die, and it was best to meet my destiny head on. I forgot somethin,' though. Death is often the same thing as change. . .each change in our lives is a form of death. That was the case when we battled the Ghosts of the Confederacy.
And there has been a change in all of us. Each of us has died and been reborn in the months since Judge Travis hired us to look out for Four Corners. And maybe I died and was reborn again during the situation with Poplar. I shut out my brothers. Wouldn't tell them anything, wouldn't let them help me. Wouldn't let them in. Not that it mattered much to Vin. That boy was hell-bound to save me, even if I wouldn't do it myself.
And the question which I keep asking is. . .why? I won't degrade what he done. Lord knows, I have way too much respect for that young man to do such a thing. But even when I was pushing him away, he wouldn't give up. Not on me. And he's never given up on any of us. Not me, not Chris. He was the first to support Buck during the Don Paulo situation, was always there for JD after the boy shot Annie accidentally. He's just there.
I shake my head, unable to understand. . .but grateful for his determination, his tenacity. The sun is up, so I reckon I should get over to the jail. I'm due to take over for Buck, guarding a couple of cowhands who got all likkered up. Buck's another good man. People look at Buck Wilmington, they see a boisterous, fun-loving man who loves women. And he is that. But he'll stand up to the devil himself for one of his friends. Something he has in common with Vin. Funny, no one ever notices how alike those two are.
But that seems to be the case with each of us. We all see a part of ourselves in Vin Tanner. Don't rightly know what Chris sees of himself when he looks at that boy. They're both quiet men, not given to talking much. Like Vin teased Chris when we were looking out for Nathan's father, Obadiah, Chris don't say more than three words a day. I wasn't there when Chris and Vin first met. . .but that don't matter, cause anyone can see the way those two can communicate without words.
JD, I reckon, may not see part of himself in Vin . .more likely, what he wants to be like. A lot is made of JD's friendship with Buck, and those two are damn near inseparable, make no mistake. But JD cares just as much for Vin as he does for Buck. Like when the fake marshals came from Vin, and JD was ready to stop them alone, if need be. Don't imagine there's much he wouldn't do for Vin, and I know the feeling is mutual. Hell, I've seen it, time after time in the last few months. We all have.
I suppose part of what draws them together is the fact that they are the two youngest members of our group. Vin's no more than five or six years older than JD. . .he just seems a helluva lot older. Don't know about what he's been through in his short life. Not sure I want to know, either. Just knew that he was too young to be dying for me. Hell, they're all too young. Chris, Nathan, Buck, JD, Ezra.
Ezra. What the hell does he see, I wonder? In the last few months, I've noticed Ezra becoming more. . .hell, ain't even sure how I want to say it. Solicitous of Vin? After Vin went through the hitch rail, when the Stokes girls arrived in town, Ezra was worried about Vin. We all were. Hell, the boy rarely gets hurt, so when it does. . .it rattles us. Chris may be the leader of our little group, but Vin is our rock. We all depend on him. . .maybe a bit too much, and maybe we take him for granted sometimes. And I think maybe a few of us realized that when we almost lost him on the wagon train.
Nathan sees the quiet shop clerk who came to his rescue all those months ago, a man not unlike himself. We've talked about this. Nathan survived slavery, and has one of the most compassionate hearts I've ever had the honor to know. And despite all he's survived, despite what he's had to do, in order to survive, Vin has a soft heart as well. He guards it well, but the truth is, Vin Tanner is just as gentle at heart as Nathan is.
He can be harsh, and he can be ruthless when you've gone after one of his. I've seen more examples of this than you could believe. If someone is threatening someone whom Vin considers one of his, he'll show em no mercy. This is the same young man who had tears in his eyes when I told him of my sister. The same young man who looked after Casey with such tenderness while Nathan was seeing to JD, when Maddie Stokes shot him. He is a complicated man, and I'm proud to know him. I'd be proud to call him son,' but that honor ain't mine. I hope wherever she is, his ma is proud of him.
As I walk, I hear laughter from the saloon, and both JD and Vin emerge. JD is laughing helplessly, while Vin just smiles. For a moment, the dream comes back to me. . .the slim body hitting the ground with a sickening thud. A red flower blooming on his shirt. I shake myself, and yes, he's still very much alive. Looking at me, looking worried about me. He's not dead. Poplar is dead, and thank God, Vin Tanner is alive.
"Ya okay, J'siah?" he asks, looking up at me. I smile at him in return and nod. I'm fine. I'm just fine. He tips his hat to me and heads to the stable, JD at his side, talking excitedly. I watch them both go, but my eyes keep returning to Vin. Our gentle, tough, compassionate, ruthless young tracker. . .sharpshooter. . .bounty hunter. Our rock.
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