Vin desperately held onto the gun. His hand was starting to stiffen up from the effort to hold it steady, and he was getting worried. If the three men manged to get their wits about them and decided to flank them they were in trouble. JD had managed to tear off the bottom of his shirt and hold it against his wound, but Vin wasnt even sure if the bullet had passed through or not and couldnt articulate the words to ask JD.
The kid saw Vins concern. "Its okay," JD said. "Bullet went through but it sure does hurt. How you doing?"
Vin just nodded. He just wasnt up to talking, not now. When he'd fallen earlier he had landed hard on some rocks. It hadn't hurt in the panic of the moment, but now, he was pretty sure he had a couple of broken ribs. It hurt like hell to breathe and he tried not to let JD know. They ducked as a hail of bullets peppered the other side of their rock.
"Damn!" JD cried and ducked his head.
Vin looked around and realized that Ben and Mac were laying down cover fire. Tom was trying to flank them. Vin tapped JD and pointed. There was no way he could explain to JD what was happening and he hoped the kid could figure it out. JD saw Tom running to some rocks to get on their left side. He nodded at Vin and they started firing at Toms new position. Tom realized the spot he picked wasnt that great for cover and made a dash for a boulder not too far away. JD tried to hit him but missed. Vin took careful aim and prayed that his hand would stay steady just long enough to pull the trigger.
An instant later, Tom went sprawling in the dirt.
"Jesus, Vin," JD said in awe. "You can still shoot the eyes off a gopher at 100 yards."
Vin dropped the gun to his chest and tried to calm the panic that was rising in him. He'd made the shot, but he wasn't sure if he had it in him to do it again.
Ben and Mac's guns went silent after Tom went down, but Vin knew it wouldnt last . He checked how many bullets were left in his gun and found he he had only one left.
"Bulls?" Vin asked looking at JD.
JD gave Vin an odd look then realize what he wanted. "Here ya go," he said as he pulled some from his gun belt and handed them to Vin.
Vin tired to load them into the gun but it was no use. He couldnt get his hands to do what he wanted. JD saw Vins plight and reached over to take the gun. As he did his wounded shoulder shifted and he gasped in pain. Vin looked at him in alarm and watched as JD bit his lip to ride out the pain. JD got himself under control and took the gun from Vin and loaded it. He did the same for his gun and they waited.
It wasn't long before they heard a rustling from the bounty hunters' hiding place. Vin gripped the gun tighter and they waited. Ben and Mac finally worked up the courage to rush them. Vin went to take aim when he heard horses come charging over the ridge and guns blazing. JD and Vin watched as Ben and Mac were cut down. JD knew the cavalry had arrived and slumped back against the rock. Soon Chris, Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Casey pulled up their horse behind their rock.
Buck was the first off his horse and came running to JD with Casey close behind. Nathan dismounted and took his saddlebags with him. Josiah went to check on the bounty hunters as Chris dismounted and headed for Vin. Vin could see Chris was pissed and all he could do was stare at the black clad gunslinger
"What the hell do you think you were doing!" Chris bellowed. "I told you not to go out with at least two of us! You almost got yourselves killed!"
"Chris," Josiah said coming over and laying a hand on Chriss forearm. Josiah could see Vin was in shock and walked over and knelt next to him. "Vin give me the gun."
Vin clutched the colt revolver to his chest and Josiah had a hard time prying his finger away from it. Chriss anger faded quickly when he realized Vin wasnt responding to Josiah. He knelt next to Vin and took the younger man's face between his hands and forced Vin to look at him.
"Its alright, Vin," Chris said reining in his anger. He could ream Vin about this later. "Youre both alright."
Chris watched as Vin blinked then looked at him. Next thing Chris knew he had his hands full as Vin slumped against him. The tracker wrapped his arms around Chris and he could feel the younger man shaking.
"Youre okay," Chris said as he rubbed Vins back.
"You should have seen him, Chris," JD said breathlessly. "Hes still one hell of a shot."
"How is he, Nate?" Chris asked. He could feel Vin starting to relax in his arms.
"Bullet went clean through," Nate said as he packed JD's wound and began wrapping it. Want to get him back to Netties before I start cleaning it."
"Alright," Chris said as he grabbed Vins arms and loosened his grip. He pushed Vin back so he could see his face. "Ready Vin?"
Vin just looked blankly at Chris. Josiah could see the fear in Chriss eyes and gripped his wrist.
"Dont panic, Chris," Josiah said. "I just think hes scared right now. Hell be okay."
Chris nodded and started to lift Vin to his feet with Josiahs help, but Vin gasped in pain.
Chris's face went pale. "He's hurt! Nathan!"
"No... I... okay..." Vin gasped.
Chris didn't believe him, and checked him for wounds, but didn't find any. He figured the important thing was to get Vin home, so he steadied him and started to lead him over to the horses. Vin stopped and looked back at JD.
"Hes coming too," Chris said. "Now let's get you up on Pony."
Josiah and Chris would have to manhandle Vin up onto Pony since Vin didnt seem to be able to get his legs working right. Chris was afraid Vin would fall off and decided to ride double with him. He mounted up first and when he tugged on Vin's shoulders to pull him up, Vin cried out in pain. Nathan had just helped JD onto Buck's horse and came running over when he heard Vin's distress.
Vin leaned back against Chris, panting, his face ashen.
"Where are you hurt Vin?" Nathan asked.
"Ri..bs... ow....," Vin moaned.
Nathan reached up and unbuttoned Vin's shirt. Sliding his hand inside, he gently pressed on his chest until Vin jumped. He continued to run his fingers over the sore spot, more gently this time, as Vin sucked in his breath against the pain.
"Think you'll be okay until we get back to Nettie's?" he asked. Vin's ribs weren't splintered, but they yielded to easily to his touch. He could bind them up right there, but, if Vin could hold out, he would do a better job of it at Nettie's, and it wouldn't have to be re-done later. Vin nodded, and let Chris take his weight.
Nathan did have laudanum, and he had Vin take a healthy swallow to ease his pain.
JD was protesting that he could ride by himself, but no one was listening, especially not Buck. Nathan gave him some laudanum too, to calm him down if nothing else.
They were only about a half hour's ride from Nettie's, but by the time they reached the house both Vin and JD were out cold. Chris carefully handed Vin down to Josiah and dismounted. He followed the preacher into the house as Josiah carried Vin to his room. Buck did the same with JD but when the kid's shoulder was jarred he was instantly awake.
"Damn, that hurts," JD said as they walked him to the house.
"Lets put him by the stove," Nathan said to Buck.
They got JD into a chair and Nathan started to take off the makeshift bandages. JD winced as the cloth was removed. Casey put on a kettle of water on as Buck stoked up the fire. Josiah came out into the main room and walked over to help Nathan.
"Is Vin okay?" JD asked.
"Hell be fine," Josiah assured him.
"I was worried for awhile since he wouldnt talk," JD said and winced as Nathan began to clean the wound.
"Hell, JD, you know how hard it is for Vin to string together words when he isnt scared," Buck smiled. "Bet he closed up like a clam during the shoot out."
"Yeah he did," JD admitted. "But damn he can still shot. Got one of them in the knee as he dove for cover. Then he shot another as he tried to out flank us."
"What happened JD?" Chris asked as he walked out of Vins room.
"Im sorry, Chris," JD said quickly. "I know we shouldnt have gone out riding. I knew it was too dangerous. Its my fault."
"Again," Chris said sternly.
Buck put his hand up. "Now Chris, you know how stubborn Vin can be. My guess is he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."
JD averted his eyes from Chris's stern glare, but contnued to tell what had happened.
"Ouch!" he jumped when Nathan pressed to hard against his tender shoulder.
"Sorry, JD," Nathan said as he continued to clean the wound.
"We ran for some rocks and Vin jumped off Pony," JD said. "His legs gave out and he fell pretty hard on his side."
"I think he might have busted some ribs. I'll check him out when Im done with you," Nathan said.
"We hid behind the rocks and Vin grabbed one of my guns and we waited," JD said. "And you know the rest."
Chris didnt say anything as Nathan continued with JD. Once the healer was satisfied the wound was clean he bandaged it and they got JD settled on some blankets by the stove. In no time JD was snoring away. Nathan grabbed his supplies and went to check Vin. Nathan sat on the bed next to Vin and pulled back the covers. Chris had taken his shirt off and they could see a bruise was already starting to form on his left side. Nathan brushed it lightly with his finger and Vin was instantly awake.
"Easy, Vin," Nathan said. "Just want to check you out."
"Jaaaay .dee" Vin stammered.
"Hes okay," Nathan said.
"See," Vin said and pushed Nathan out of the way as he tried to get up.
"Stubborn, no good " Chris said as he came over to stop Vin.
Vin gasped as he stood up. Nathan didnt interfere and let Chris deal with Vin. Chris grabbed Vins arm and Vin shoved him out of the way. Chris was mad now and started yelling.
"Little late to be worried about him," Chris said. "You almost got him killed."
Chris wasnt prepared for the fist that connected with his jaw and he went down hard. Chris looked up to see an equally angry Vin standing over him.
"I . know," Vin forced out. Then stammered as he tried to find the words for his anger. "Stu stu pid eye dee! No wannta hay pen."
Vin turned away in anger as the words failed him. Chris picked himself off the floor and walked over to Vin. Chris touched Vins arm and the tracker pulled away.
"I know you didnt want this to happen," Chris said. "But it did. You have to do what we say Vin. Its for your own protection as well as ours."
"Hate tis," Vin said as he punched the wall. Then leaned his head against it.
"I know," Chris said gently as he touched Vin again. This time Vin didnt pull away. "Now lets get Nathan to check you out."
Vin let Chris lead him back to the bed. Nathan checked his ribs and Vin winced as Nathan found the ones he suspected were broken. Nathan probed some more and Vin bit his lip from the pain.
"Dont think theyre broken all the way," Nathan said. "Well just wrap them to be sure."
Chris helped Nathan wrap Vins ribs then they got him tucked back into bed. Vin still insisted on seeing JD and Chris said later. Vin glared at Chris but didnt say anything. Chris just shook his head and walked out. Nathan made Vin give his word that he would stay put, then followed after Chris. They came back to the main room and sat at the table with Buck and Josiah.
"Wheres Casey?" Chris asked.
"Doing her chores," Buck said.
"She knows Nettie is gonna tan her hide when she gets back," Josiah laughed. "She figured if she could get her chores done that might placate her."
"I doubt it," Chris said as he ran his finger through his hair.
"Chris what are we gonna do with Vin?" Buck asked seriously. "He almost got JD killed!"
"JD is the strong one, here!" Chris snapped. "He could have said no and made it stick... They are both a couple of ..." Chris found he didn't have any more anger in him. He was too relieved that Vin... and even JD... were okay. "He knows that Buck," he said softly.
"Dont be too angry, Buck," Josiah said. "Chris is right. It isnt that hard to keep Vin down right now."
"I know," Buck sighed. "But we cant always be with Vin. We have a job to do."
"I know," Chris said. "But we cant just abandon him either. Hes saved each of us numbers of time."
"I dont intend on abandoning him," Nathan assured Chris. "Its just that as Vin becomes more mobile its going to be harder to keep an eye on him."
"Well just have to take it one day at a time," Josiah suggested. "He wont be able to hide out here at Netties forever."
"He cant go back to town," Chris said. "He wont be able to cope there."
"Well think of something," Buck said.
Josiah added, "Were all in this together."
Vin woke the next morning to the smell of bacon. He slowly rolled onto his side and hissed in pain as his bruised ribs protested the move. Vin sighed as he was reminded of the trouble he'd gotten JD into yesterday. He knew the others couldn't be with him all the time and that he was becoming a burden just as he had feared he would. He'd overheard Buck and Josiah talking about how hard it was to do their job with only four men in town. Vin decided he was going to get them to just to leave him here at Nettie's as soon as he was able move around without help. Josiah had made him a pair of crutches, and with his balance improving steadily, Nathan didn't think it would be too much longer before he'd be able to use them to steady himself and get around on his own. Hed never been much of a talker so not having the ability of speech was no big deal. He just didn't know what he was going to do to earn a living. He still had his shooting skills, but he didn't see how he'd be able to use them to protect the town any more.
Vin sighed and just decided to get up instead of lying there thinking on things he couldn't do anything about. His body didn't seem to be responding as well as it had , but he figured that was because of the busted ribs and everything else that had happened the day before. Vin saw his clothes draped over the back of a chair and stood up to get them. His right leg buckled and he landed hard, slamming his chin against the nightstand as he fell. The lamp crashed to the floor and shattered and he cried out with pain as he jarred his injured ribs.
Buck rushed in when he heard the noise. "Vin!"
Buck moved to Vin's side and carefully rolled him over. Vin was clutching his ribs and trying to push Buck away at the same time.
"Away," Vin said through gritted teeth. "Lea.. me... lone."
"You stubborn son of a bitch," Buck shook his head. He noticed the large scrap on Vin's chin that was quickly turning the bluish-purple of a deep bruise, but other than that, he appeared to be okay. "Fine if you want to do it yourself be my guest."
Buck stepped back as Vin struggled to get to his feet. Vin made it to his knees by pulling himself up on the bed. His ribs hurt something fierce but he wasn't about to tell Buck that. He got his feet under him as he held onto the headboard and Buck moved closer to push the pieces of broken glass away from his bare feet. Vin continued to pull himself up but it hurt too much. Gasping in pain, he finally accepted Buck's help.
"Damn fool," Buck said as he very gently picked Vin up and placed him back on the bed. "Where does it hurt?"
"Rib," Vin grimaced, tears of frustration and pain running down his cheeks.
Nathan had gone back to town, but, Buck had some experience with busted ribs and knew that the best thing to do was to leave the tight bandage around Vin's chest in place. Carefully, he ran his finger over the side of Vin's chest and didn't discover any new damange, although Vin gritted his teeth in pain the entire time. He then turned Vin's head to examine the bruise on his chin.
Vin pulled away."Leaf me... lone."
"Cant do that," Buck said with a smile. "Chrisll have my hide when he sees I let you get hurt some more."
"Get... up..." Vin said, as he struggled to a sitting position.
Buck made a move to support his back to make it easier for him.
"Do i .t myyyyyself," Vin said. Incredibly, he seemed determined to get to his feet on his own, despite the fact he'd already failed twice.
"Vin, I really think you need to rest awhile, at least until Nathan can check you out..."
Buck backed off shaking his head. Vin was becoming very stubborn about doing things his way. He reckoned he didn't blame him, since Vin had no experience relying on other people to care for him until the accident. He restrained himself from reaching out to help, knowing the younger man wouldnt appreciate it. Vin finally got his feet swung over the edge of the bed and Buck silently handed him his clothes. Vin got his shirt on, and did allow Buck to button it for him. He managed to pull on his pants, but bending over to get into his boots was just too much. Vin just decided to leave them off. and indicated to Buck that he wanted the crutches Josiah had left in the corner of the room.
Buck didn't think he was ready for that, but Vin insisted, not in words but with the angry, stubborn look in his eyes. Buck brought him the crutches.
Josiah had demonstrated how to use them, but, Vin hadn't actually tried it himself. His balance was still unreliable and Nathan didn't think it was safe. Hoping Nathan wouldn't end up killing him, too, Buck simply stood behind him and was ready in case he fell. Vin took the crutches and pulled himself upright, his face contorting with pain. Buck wasnt sure if Vin would damage his ribs more with the crutches but Vin was determined to walk out of that room on his own.
And he did. Slowly, awkwardly, and Buck suspected, while enduring considerable pain.
JD was sitting at the table and looked up when Vin walked in. He was surprised to see Vin using the crutches, but he'd learned that Vin didn't like having a big deal made out of such things. It reminded him he was different now. "Hey, Vin," he said calmly. "How ya doin'? You okay?"
"Yesss," Vin said as he sat down and then looked at JD. "You... o...kay?" He nodded toward the bandage on JD's shoulder.
"A little sore," JD admitted, "but I'm here thanks to you."
Vin smiled slightly, but it quickly faded. Using the crutches had pulled on his sore ribs, and he was in more pain than he wanted to let on.
He couldn't fool Nettie, though. "Everything alright, son?" she asked as she placed scrambled eggs and bacon in front of him.Vin liked his eggs with the yolks runny, but, he couldn't eat them that way anymore. It was too messy.
"No," he signed. "I brook brooooke lap laaamp."
"Thats alright," Nettie said. "I can get another."
"No!" Vin yelled angrily. "Not alright! I geeet JD shoot .shot. No un git work done, cause witch me. I... nothing!..."
Vins tirade ran out and he hung his head. It hadn't escaped anyone's notice that Vin had just managed to string several words together into a relatively coherent expression of his anger and frustration. Unfortunately, then was not the time to applaud that fact. Vin was obviously very upset. JD looked up at Buck begging him with his eyes to do something. Buck sighed and walked over to Vin. He placed his hands on Vins shoulders and gave them a squeeze.
"Well, Vin, youre right about one thing," Buck said. "You did get JD shot and almost got yourselves killed."
"Buck!" JD said shocked. Buck shook his head and JD subsided.
"And it's true that none of us can get as much done as we used to 'cause we have to look out for you," Buck continued. "But Ill tell you this. None of us would have it any other way. Youre one of us, Pard. We watch out for each other. Its what friends do. It's what you'd do for us."
"Cant witch watch me f'.. ever," Vin said quietly.
"If forever is what it takes then yep, we can," Buck assured him.
"Cant work," Vin said. "Cant watch town."
Buck squatted down so he was at eye-level with Vin. "You let us worry about that, Vin. Right now, your job is to get better, and you are working harder at that than any of us are at what we do."
Vin looked at him. He knew Buck was right, about everthing. If what had happened to him had happened instead to JD or Chris or Ezra, he'd be there for them just like they were for him. And it wasn't like he was just sitting on his butt enjoying the attention. He was doing everything he could to relearn what he had lost.
Buck grinned at him, and Vin couldn't help but smile back, just a little smile. But when Buck ruffled his hair, he swatted him one. He wasn't no damn little kid, no matter what Buck thought.
"Besides, Vin, this is all my fault," JD said. "Im the one that shot you. "
"No," Vin put up his hand to stop JD.
But the boy continued. "I dont know how it happened. I'll swear 'til I go to my grave that them guns weren't loaded and..."
Vin slammed his hand down on the table. He'd found it was a good way to get everyone's attention when he was trying to say something. "No fault, JD," he said. "Billy."
"What about Billy?" Buck asked.
"Saw Billllly," Vin stammered. "Play ing guns."
"I dont understand," JD said.
"Give him a chance JD," Buck said as he sat down next to Vin and placed a hand on his knee. "Go slow, Vin, we got all day."
"Billy," Vin said again. "O..side ssssherifs office." Vin waited to be interrupted, but Buck, JD and Nettie were all listening, waiting patiently while he gathered his thoughts and put words on them. He picked up his spoon and held it so the handle was pointed outwards, like a gun. Then he made an attempt to pantomime placing bullets into the chamber. "Billy... put... bulls... bull..ets."
"Oh my God," Nettie whispered. "Vin, are you saying Billy loaded JD's guns?"
"Yes," Vin said. "Afore I shoot."
"Before you were shot?" Buck asked and Vin nodded.
Buck frowned. "Why didn't JD stop him?" It wasn't that he doubted Vin, who obviously thought what he was saying was true. It just didn't make sense.
"JD... leaf. Go in... seye... da."
JD frowned and then remembered.... "I needed a cleaning rod... I went back into the jail to look for one. Billy must have loaded the guns while I was gone."
"Yes!" Vin said, pleased that he had finally been understood. "JD... don't hurt... Vin."
"I have to apologize, JD," Buck said. "I didnt see how the guns could have been unloaded. I didnt believe you."
"Its all right, Buck," JD smiled. "I was starting not to believe me either."
"Billy... know," Vin continued. "Scared... sad."
Buck nodded. "What are we gonna do about it?"
"Thats a good question," Nettie said. "Mary should be told about this. I am sure Billy has learned his lesson, but we can't let everyone go on thinking JD was at fault here."
They all knew what she meant. After Annie's accidental death, it had taken JD weeks to win back the trust of the town, only to have that shattered again when Vin had been hurt.
"I don't know if Mary will be willing to see the truth," Buck said. "You know how protective she is of her son. "
"Dont matter what she believes, she should still be told," Nettie said stubbornly. "If you wont I will."
"Now, Nettie, we have to think this out," Buck said.
"What if we got Billy to confess?" JD asked. "It would look better that way."
"Who... we... do that?" Vin asked.
"How we do that?" Buck corrected, smiling at Vin, who poked his tongue out at him. Buck ruffled his hair again, because he knew Vin hated it. "Don't worry, pard. We'll think of something."
The four of them decided on a plan for getting Billy to open up about his part in Vin's injury, but, it would have to wait until JD and Vin were up to a ride to the lake and a picnic. Nettie had suggested that such an informal setting might be less intimidating for everyone concerned, and that was important because none of them were sure how Mary was going to react to the news that her son had been largely responsible.
JD wasn't abdicating his part - he admitted that he should not have left the guns unattended. But the fact remained that Billy had been told by all of them - and probably by Mary, too - that guns were not toys that he was free to handle as he pleased. The little boy should have known better, and if he didn't before, he certainly would.
The next step was to let Chris know what had really happened. Later that day, Buck rode into town and found verything was quiet now that the cattle had moved on. The trail boss hadnt been too happy to pay the five-dollar fine for each man for disturbing the peace. He let the cowhands know that it would be coming out of their pay as he herded them out of town. Chris went over to the jail and took a seat in one of the chairs on the boardwalk. He pulled out a cheroot and enjoyed the quiet morning. Chris saw Mary come out of the Clarion office a few doors up and tipped his hat. Mary smiled an acknowledgement before going back inside. Chris sat up as he heard a horse come running into town. He relaxed when he saw it was Buck. His relaxed posture didnt last long when he remembered Buck was supposed to be watching Vin and JD. Chris stood as Buck pulled Beavis up in front of the jail.
"What are you doing here," Chris demanded as Buck dismounted. Buck knew he was referring to the fact that he had left Vin and JD on their own with Nettie.
"Now hold on," Buck said as he raised his hands. "Nettie is watching them."
"Buck " Chris began.
"Look, Chris, you know she wont let nothin happen to them," Buck reasoned. "Hell would you go up against her and that Spencer?"
"No," Chris admitted with a chuckle. "So what brings you into town."
"Well a couple of things," Buck said. "Lets go inside."
Chris raised his eyebrows wondering what Buck had to say that he couldnt say out here. Chris followed him in and took a seat. Buck explained about the mishap with Vin and that he'd probably have a large bruise on his face the next time Chris saw him. Chris wasnt too happy about that, but Buck told Chris not to make a big deal about it for Vin's sake. Chris agreed and Buck continued with what he had to say.
+ + + + + + +
JD shuffled into Vin's room, trying to be quiet and not succeeding very well. His shoulder was killing him, and although he'd had worse pain, it was annoying. Vin had quickly worn himself out, having discovered he could actually walk with the crutches. He had practiced with them for a couple of hours before the pain from his ribs and the exertion had gotten the best of him and he'd reluctantly admitted he needed to rest. Nettie had spooned a dose of laudanum into both of them and ordered them to bed. JD was still feeling the effects of the tonic, even though the pain was returning. He couldn't keep his feet from shuffling noisily against the rough floorboards.
Vin cracked a sleepy eye open. "Noisy..." he muttered.
JD smiled. "Sorry." He pulled up a chair and eased himself into it.
Vin frowned. "Hurt?"
JD nodded. "Yeah, a little."
"Whis..key," Vin grinned, and pulled a bottle from between the bed and the wall. He handed it to JD.
"Where'd you get this?" JD frowned. He knew Nettie wouldn't have let him have a whole bottle, and Nathan wouldn't have let him have it at all.
"Steal... from... 'ris."
JD laughed and took a generous swallow, even as he tried to imagine how Vin had secreted the bottle past all of his guardians. Then, he became serious. "Vin... what Billy did... I'm still partly to blame."
To his surprise, Vin nodded.
"I'm so sorry, Vin. I'd do anything to take it back... to have you well again." He had to stop before his voice cracked.
Vin reached out and put his hand on one of JD's. "Can... no... change. be... okay."
"Aw hell, Vin..." JD sniffed, as tears threatened to brim over. He took a deep breath. "I just want you to know that I'll be here. As long as you need me." He took another long drag on the bottle.
"'kay...," Vin nodded. "But... don' .... trink... all... whiskey." He grinned and took the bottle back. He had just helped himself to a generous swig when Nettie walked in.
Vin panicked, not knowing what to do with the bottle. JD quickly snatched it up and pushed it under the blankets, then pretended to be adjusting Vin's covers. "Oh, hi Nettie. Just makin' sure Vin's warm enough here."
Vin swallowed the mouthful of whiskey he had in one gulp and started to cough, which hurt his ribs. He moaned pitifully, hoping to distract Nettie from JD's lame excuses.
Nettie looked down her nose at him, and failed to offer the anticipated sympathy. "Chris and Nathan are ridin' in. I suggest you hide that whiskey somewheres it ain't so obvious."
Vin sheepishly returned the bottle to its hiding place.
"Supper's on and will be ready in about 20 minutes," she informed them both.
"Pie?" Vin said eagerly. He had seen Nettie coring apples earlier that afternoon.
Nettie's scowl softened to a smile. She could never really get mad at Vin, no matter what he did, and they both knew it.
There was a loud tap on the door before Chris and Nathan let themselves in. Nathan immediately came into the room to check Vin out, having heard from Buck that he'd fallen. There was a dark, ugly bruise on the side of Vin's face, but aside from that, it didn't appear he had done any serious damage.
Chris glowered the entire time, even after Nathan said Vin was okay. Finally, he turned his eyes to JD. "Buck told me about Billy Travis," he told him.
JD could only nod. He never could tell what Chris was thinking, and that was kind of scary.
Chris's tone of voice remained neutral when he added, "I reckon you an' I got some talkin' to do."
Mary was leaning over the printing press applying oil as it ran. Sometimes she wondered why she ever kept up with the newspaper. The presses were old and always breaking down. Most of the people in the town didnt seem to care that they had a paper or couldnt read it. She sighed as she stood back and watched the machines. She knew why she did it. It kept her husbands dream alive. Mary smiled as she picked up the paper she had already printed. She was reading it over as Chris walked in.
"Mary," he said in greeting.
"Morning, Chris," Mary said as she held out the paper. "Just off the presses."
"Thanks," Chris said. "Hope you remember the picnic this afternoon out at Netties"
"Of course," Mary smiled. "I even made a chocolate cake. I know how Vin likes it. How is he doing?"
"Hes doin' good," Chris said. "Still movin' a little slow and talkin' is still hard for him. Makes him mad sometimes, but hes comin' along."
"Must be hard on him, being a man used to coming and going whenever he pleases," Mary reasoned.
"Yeah its starting to get to him," Chris agreed. "It would help if maybe you don't act as though you feel too sorry for him." Mary looked puzzled. "It's hard seein' him like he is, but he don't want pity. Ain't nothin' wrong with his mind, so you don't need to act any different than you did before. Might want to tell Billy the same thing."
Mary nodded that she understood. She had already talked with Billy. For some reason, the boy seemed oddly reluctant to go to the picnic. They were going to be a the lake, and normally, he would have loved that idea, but all he had asked was if Vin would be there, and when he found out he would be, his enthusiasm had instantly waned. Mary knew her son was upset about what had happened to Vin, but, she hadn't been able to get him to talk about it.
"Ill be back in an hour to pick you up."
"Well be ready," Mary smiled.
Mary wasnt surprised when it was Josiah who showed up in front of the Clarion with a wagon. Chris would never give up his horse to ride in one. Billy seemed unusually quiet as he climbed into the back. Josiah carefully placed Mary's cake behind the seat and took up the reins as Ezra was joined them.
"Mr. Standish I thought you would prefer to stay in town," Mary commented.
"Normally I would Mrs. Travis," Ezra replied. "But I know the repast Ms. Wells will have waiting for us will be worth my time spent outside."
Mary smiled at that. Nettie seemed to mother all of the Seven and wasn't the least bit intimidated by any of them.
Nathan joined them also, and when he questioned the wisdom of taking Vin to the lake, Chris admitted he had already taken him a couplr of times without consulting the overprotective healer. Vin had wanted to go swimming, and it seemed like such a small thing to make him happy, so, Chris had taken him. He'd take him again today if that's what Vin wanted. Nathan wasnt too happy to hear that, but agreed not to make a fuss. Vin was his own man, and able to decide what he felt up to doing or not doing, he figured.
Josiah nodded towards Billy, who was huddled in the back corner of the wagon. "Something wrong with the little guy?" he asked Mary.
She frowned. "He seemed fine until I mentioned Vin would be there. You know how children are. Strange thing sometimes frighten them. I think he's worried that Vin will be... different."
Josiah nodded his head sadly. "He is different, Mary."
Mary nodded. "Yes. I know. I hope I've prepared Billy for it, although, I admit to being a little nervous myself. I haven't seen him since the accident. I don't know what to expect, either."
Josiah nodded. "About all you need to remember is that he's still Vin. If you weren't nervous around him before, ain't no reason to be now."
+ + + + + + +
By the time they arrived,Vin had convinced Buck to take him into the lake. JD would have liked to have gone swimming, too, but his shoulder wound hadn't completely closed yet, and besides, it was part of their plan that he distance himself from the group. So he sat alone under a tree even though he was keeping a watchful eye out while Buck made sure Vin was safe.
Nettie already had a blanket spread on the ground under a tree. Mary had heard the men splashing in the lake as they rode up, and was surprised to see JD sitting by himself.
Josiah helped her out of the wagon. Mary walked over to Nettie and kissed her on the cheek and then asked Billy if he wanted to go for a swim. The boy just shook his head and sat down.
Chris and Nathan broke off from the others and went to check out the activity in the water. Buck, at least, sounded like he was having a good time. As Nathan had predicted, Vin had seemed to have very little trouble standing in the water.
"I fine," Vin said quickly when he saw the healer hovering nearby.
"Well you dont look no worse for wear," Nathan said looking at him critically. "But I dont want you moving around that much, hear? Them ribs are still healin'."
"Nathan you promised," Josiah smiled.
"Alright fine I wont fuss," Nathan said throwing up his hands.
It was a hot day, and it didn't take much to convince Chris and Nathan to join Buck and Vin in the water. A fall of boulders shielded them from the eyes of the womenfolk, but, it also prevented them from seeing anyone who might ride up uninvited, so, Ezra positioned himself as a lookout.
Vin wasn't actually swimming - the strain on his injured ribs made that painful. But he had brought along a bar of soap and managed on his own to wash his hair and the rest of his body. Ezra had been helping him bathe, but understandably, doing it on his own was a major triumph for Vin. Nathan was impressed by how much easier it was for him to keep his balance in the water, and realized that this would be an excellent spot to continue his exercises, whenver they could manage it. From Vin's reaction to that suggestion, that would be every day if he had his way.
After a few minutes, the water had cooled them all down, so much so that Vin shivered slightly when a slight breeze kicked up.
Nathan ordered him out of the water and wrapped him in towels that had been sitting in the sun. He warmed up quickly.
"Eat now?" he asked.
"I suggest ya put yer britches on, first," Chris said with wry grin.
Vin smiled and reached awkwardly for his clothes. The others made no move to help him, even thought it was tempting. Nettie had sewn buttons onto a strip of cloth and made button holes in another so that he could practice buttoning. He'd become good enough at it that even though he was slow, he didn't need any help. Eventually, he was ready to walk over and join the others.
"Yall are lucky you got here," Nettie smiled. "Vins been ready to eat all morning."
Nettie started dishing up the plates with Marys help. There was fried chicken and deviled eggs. When Vin saw the cake his eyes lit up. Vin declared he just wanted cake and Nettie smacked his hand away from the dessert.
Billy had relaxed a little, and thought Vins idea of cake first was a good one even though the other grown ups didn't go for it. Everyone was talking and laughing but Billy noticed JD was was still sitting under the tree, alone. Billy thought he looked sad.
When they had finished eating, Mary, Casey and Nettie cleaned up while Ezra helped Vin with his words. Billy decided that was too much like school and it was kind of embarrassing that a grown up like Vin couldn't say words right. It made him feel bad for Vin. Josiah, Nathan, Buck and Chris were getting ready to do some fishing and he thought about joining them, but when he saw JD sitting by himself, he decided to go keep him company, instead.
"Hi, JD," Billy said.
"Why are you sitting here by yourself?" Billy asked.
"Well Chris n' the others are still pretty mad at me," JD answered.
"You mean... for the accident," Billy said hesitantly.
"Yeah," JD nodded. "I though my guns weren't loaded, but I guess I was wrong. It's my fault Vin got hurt."
"I guess," Billy said kicking the dirt self-consciously.
Billy knew he had to tell someone the truth, but he was afraid. His mother had warned him never to touch a gun. He didnt know why since Chris carried a gun. Chris was real good with one and saved the town. He just wanted to be like Chris, that's why he was helping JD. Only he hadn't helped him. He had just got JD in a whole bunch of trouble and Vin was hurt real bad because of him.
"JD can I ask you something," Billy said.
"If I did something that I wasnt supposed to should I fess up?"
"Well my ma always said it was better to admit you did something wrong," JD answered. "She said even if you tried to hide it from everyone else, you always knew what was true, and that was like a spot on your soul."
"Is that bad?" Billy said timidly. "A spot on your soul?"
"It ain't good, that's for sure. Feels a lot better not to have it there, I reckon. That's why we should tell the truth."
"But what if what you did was really bad and you hurt someone and they might hate you forever?"
"Well thats a tough one," JD admitted. "But, knowin' the truth ain't gonna make them feel any worse, and it might help them to know you're sorry, don't you think?"
Billy nodded, then blurted out, "I know I did a bad thing, but I didn't want Chris to be mad."
"Well Billy, sometimes, it's the gettin' mad part that makes us feel better about telling the truth," JD explained.
"If we did something bad, and caused someone to get hurt, maybe it kinda makes us feel better if someone makes us feel bad about it. It's what Josiah calls 'penance.'"
"Yeah... something you gotta do that you don't like, to make up for something you shouldn't have done."
Billy nodded as understanding dawned on him. Slowly, he stood up, and JD smiled as the little boy squared his shoulders and walked towards Chris and the others. The gunslinger was talking to Mary and JD didnt envy the kid for having to tell his mom and Chris at the same time.
"Mom, Chris... I got something I have to tell you," Billy said softly.
"Of course Billy what is it?" Mary asked.
"Please dont be mad," Billy blurted out and began to cry. "I didnt mean for Vin to get hurt."
"Billy what are you talking about?" Chris asked, pretending he didn't know the answer.
"I know Im not supposed to touch the guns," Billy continued, sobbing. "I just wanted to help JD."
"Billy I dont understand," Mary said.
"Its alright, son, we wont be mad," Josiah assured him.
"Then God wont hate me for not telling before?" Billy asked.
"No he wont hate you, because you are telling us now," Josiah answered.
"Billy," Chris said crouching in front of him. "What about JDs guns?"
"Well I saw him cleaning them," Billy said. "I wanted to help. I put his bullets back for him. I didnt mean for him to shoot Vin!"
Billy burst into tears and covered his face with his hands. Chris hugged the boy to him and told him it would be all right. Billy said it wasnt because now Vin couldnt walk or talk right and it was his fault not JDs. Chris sighed knowing this whole thing had been an unfortunate accident. Chris had been so angry with JD for being careless with his guns, and he was sure Billy had carried that on his conscience, too. He looked up as JD walked over to them.
"JD Im sorry," Chris said. "Looks like I owe you an apology." He had already apologized to the kid in private, but he felt he needed to do it openly for Billy's sake, to show him that he wasn't the only one who had to admit to doing something he regretted.
"So am I," JD said. "Even if my guns weren't loaded, I shouldn't have been twirling them."
"It seems we all had something to learn from this," Josiah said.
"Yeah but did Vin have to be hurt so bad for us to learn it?" Nathan asked.
"I... sorry... too," Vin interrupted.
Chris frowned. "Why?"
Vin cast his eyes downward. "I... not... be-leaf ... in my.. friends.... Now...do."
"I think what Vin's tryin' to say is now he knows that no matter what we watch each others backs," Buck said.
"As in One for all and all for one," Ezra said as put his hand out.
Vin smiled shyly and awkwardly lay his on top of Ezra's, and then each of the others followed in turn, including Nettie, Casey, Mary and Billy. Chris smiled as he looked around at the diverse group. Vin still had along way to go but with friends like these he couldnt fail.
THIRTY - Epilogue
Two months later
Mary walked out of the Clarion carrying a apron full of pencil shavings that she shook out into the dusty street. Things were quiet, both at her home and in the town, at least for the moment. After having served his "sentence" for playing with the gun - an entire month of extra chores and only one hour of playtime a day, Billy had gone for a well-earned visit with his doting grandparents. Mary was certain that Nathan's protests would cut through the quiet solitude as soon as he noticed Chris and Vin sauntering casually down the street, Chris leading his docile horse Pony and and Vin walking ahead of his notoriously difficult Peso. Even Mary was concerned that Vin wouldn't be able to control the headstrong animal, but did notice the fact that Peso, through some sixth sense, was behaving himself.
Nathan would not be so generous with the poor animal. He still had an almost comical tendency to hover over Vin. She suspected it made the healer nervous thinking Vin might do something to set back the amazing progress he had made. It had been four months since the terrible injury had left him unable to move or speak, but to look at him now, you would not have known he had been hurt so badly. He was walking now, and able to take care of himself, even thought that meant moving into the boarding house and out of his wagon. Climbing in and out and maneuvering around the confined space was still difficult for him.
In part, that had been due to the change that had come over Vin after he'd admitted that he hadn't trusted his friends to care for him. He no longer became angry and pushed them away when they tried to help him, and instead he now accepted assistance when he needed it, even asking for it occasionally. She had been in the general store a couple of days before when he'd been there buying ammunition. He was practicing regularly with his rifle, not so much to improve his aim but to strengthen the muslces he needed to hold the big weapon steady. He'd addad a jar of peaches to the order, and Mary knew he'd eat them straight from the jar. Vin loved peaches. He'd returned a few minutes later, unable to open the jar, and had asked Mrs. Potter to give it a try. There was no shame, no anger, just calm acceptance of the fact that he couldn't do some things yet.
Vin still had trouble remembering words but he was getting better at it, and was usually able to hold his own in a normal conversation, considering he didn't talk much, anyway. Mary had been teaching him to read before he'd gotten hurt, and it had upset him that hed forgotten virtually everything, but they had started over again, and that, too, helped his speech along. His mind wasn't affected by the accident, of that she was sure. He had soon caught up to where they had left off, and she knew his stubborn pride wouldnt let him quit until he had learned to read.
Riding Peso, though, was another thing entirely. Vin had been insisting on it for weeks now, and apparently, Chris at least, had finally acquiesced to his demands. Nathan would be furious.
Mary smiled as Chris slowed his stride to match Vins. Even though Vin now walked with a fairly normal gait, he was still slow. He had demonstrated to both Chris and Judge Travis that he was still a deadly shot , however, and the Judge Travis had yielded to Chriss judgment concerning Vin being able to do his job. It would be awhile before he could ride out of town as part of a posse, but there was no doubt that he could - and would - watch his friends' backs, just as they would watch his until he was completely well.
As she watched the two men, Vin stumbled as he sometimes did. Chris's steadying hand quickly reached for his arm, helping him regain his balance. As always, Vin's friends were there for him.
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