Hes sittin there watching me again. I can tell without even openin my eyes. Im not gonna open em, either. Im not in the mood to hear about goin home. How many times do I have t explain it to the man? I always knew Larabee was stubborn, but this is gettin downright ridiculous.
I know him . . . hes thinkin Im the stubborn one; that Im hurtin too bad and feelin too bad about everyone else t have a sound thought in my banged-up head.
I am hurtin. Dont think I ever hurt so much - inside and out.
But it doesnt change anything. I cant go back.
I spent the better part of this week tellin him that.
He doesnt listen any better than I do.
Thought he had me over a barrel when he brought up Nettie. I could tell by that irritatin, smug look on his face that he was sure that would do it. "Nettie needs you, Vin," hed said, with those narrow green eyes that go right through me sometimes.
Im the last person she needs . . . even if she doesnt know it. Thats probably not what she said anyway. Thought he had me with that one thought he knew that Id do anything for Nettie.
Of course, hes right about that. I would. Anything except put her and Casey and all the rest of em in danger - again. Cant even imagine facin em after what happened.
"I know youre awake, Vin," he says.
I sigh, "Aw hell, Larabee, dont you have anything better t do than watch me sleep?"
"Youre not sleeping."
No, Im not . . . havent been able to sleep much since it all happened. No matter how I turn or lay, I cant get comfortable. And every time I close my eyes, I see it all happen again.
I dont recall much after the fall. Reckon I must have made it to the livery; must have had help from Yosemite. I knew I was hurt, but I couldnt think on it much. The pain in my heart was ripping me clear through, right down the middle. I thought Nathan was dead and maybe Casey and Ezra, too.
Wasnt sure where t go. Mustve been Peso who made the decision t come t Larabees place. I looked up, and here we were.
Here we still are.
I open my eyes figure I owe him that. Been puttin him out all week layin in his bed, drinkin his whiskey, dependin on him for just about everything.
Hes got that look.
And its makin me mad.
"Stop lookin at me like that!" I holler, then feel myself blushing at my bad manners. How could I talk like that to the one man who stands beside me no matter what? After all thats happened . . . this is how I treat him.
He puts his head down. I know him . . . hes waiting; waiting for me to put my head on straight and talk it out. I cant. I just . . . cant.
"I cant stand you feelin sorry for me," I finally blurt out. "I just . . . cant . . . stand it, Chris."
"Then hold your head up, face your problems, and . . . come . . . home."
"Hold my head up? Face my problems? What the hell are you talkin about, Larabee? This aint got nothin t do with whats in my head its whats on my head! Those men out there are real and theyll come after me again. My problem is the price on my head, and until thats gone I aint . . . got . . . no . . . home."
"Thought you said home wasnt a place. Thought you said it was a feeling."
Theres a reason I dont speak much . . . cause people can throw your words back at y.
My heads pounding. Usually I can keep up with Larabee, but not today. Not any day this week. Has it been only a week? Seems like a damn month. Seems like forever.
I groan before I can stop myself, and let my head fall back on the pillow. Im so tired. Nothin makes sense anymore. Everything hurts. I feel him pull up the blanket, like he has dozens of times in the past few days. Sometimes, I even think I feel him touchin my face and my hair. Probably my imagination Larabee wouldnt be caught dead doin somethin like that. Felt good though. Felt like maybe he cared.
He shouldnt care . . . be better if none of them cared. Be better if I just rode on out . . . be better if I never went . . . home.
+ + + + + + +
Chris went back to town the morning after hed found Vin at his cabin. He hated leaving the injured tracker alone, but he had to check on his men and the town theyd been hired to protect. He was getting tired of wishing he was two people - if he could have split himself in two, he would have.
He stopped by Marys place first this time, thinking he might ease Netties mind a bit, now that hed found Vin. She deserved any consideration he could give her. He never made it to the door before she stepped out once more. Chris was thinking the old woman must have kept one eye peeled for him and Vin all that time.
"Well?" she demanded, her hands on her hips.
"Hows Casey?" the gunman asked, feeling a small hope that couldnt wait to be acknowledged.
Nettie pushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes and sighed deeply. "Shes holdin on. I thank you for askin. Now get on with it . . . you find him or not?"
Larabee nodded, unsure how much to say. The woman didnt need to be carrying any more on those iron shoulders of hers.
She didnt need to ask she saw it in his eyes. The man was no different than his best friend; neither one of them could hide a thing from her. The only difference was, Vin knew it; Chris still thought he could get away with it.
"He gonna be all right?"
Chris looked down for a minute and swallowed, before meeting her gaze once more. "Gonna take some time," he finally answered.
Nettie nodded and said, "For all of us."
Chris watched her walk stiffly back inside before heading for the saloon. The air in the small town seemed different somehow heavy and still as if in anticipation of some terrible event. The townsfolk avoided him, and he couldnt quite figure out why. He wasnt storming or glaring or shooting wasnt even threatening to shoot. He was just making his way from one hurt friend to another.
Not that he cared. Let them think what they wanted. Narrow-minded people were the least of his problems.
Unless . . . he moved quickly up the stairs of the saloon to where the other men laid worried now that the somber mood surrounding him could only mean bad news. He nearly collapsed in relief when he opened the door and spotted Josiah in the exact position hed left him in yesterday.
Josiah turned when the gunman entered the room, and spotted his panic immediately.
"Hes holding on, Chris. Take it easy."
Chris let out a long breath and took a seat next to the preacher.
The two exchanged a meaningful look before Sanchez asked, "You find him?"
Another nod, another swallow, another half-truth, "Hell be okay needs some time."
Josiah gave him a dubious look before frowning, "All right, but just remember what I said."
Not particularly in the mood for one of the preachers cryptic ramblings, Chris gently squeezed the unresponsive healers arm, and moved on to the next room.
He smiled in relief when he found Ezra sitting up in bed. Finally hed have some good news to take back to Vin.
"You look like shit, Ezra," he said with a cocky grin aimed at the pale gambler.
"Well, thank you, Mr. Larabee for lifting my spirits already this morning. It apparently is not enough that I must suffer the indignity of lying half naked in bed, being cared for by my . . . employer," he said, with a pointed glare at Inez, "must I also suffer your comments on my less-than-desirable appearance?"
Chris shook his head as he said, "Good to have you back, Standish."
"I am immensely grateful to be back." Turning a serious glance at the blond, he asked, " Nathan?"
"No change, that I can see," Larabee responded softly.
Ezra looked away for a long moment, before returning his gaze to the gunman. "And Mr. Tanner?"
"You know about Vin?" Chris asked, surprised.
"I know enough to realize that these horrific events could quite possibly destroy him."
It was simply put for Ezra. And tragically close to the truth.
"I would suggest that you bring our sensitive tracker home promptly," the gambler added.
"Hes not ready," Larabee stated flatly.
"This is one wound time will not heal, Chris. What he needs is . . . us."
He may never get a handle on the gambler, Chris decided. Just when he thought he understood the man, he acted totally out of character. Either that or being hurt brought out the real man behind the charade.
Whatever the reason, Ezra had a point about Vin. Now if only he could get Vin to see it.
+ + + + + + +
Theres blood everywhere. Hes layin in it - almost floatin. His eyes are closed and his face is white and the blood is as red as his jacket. I kneel down beside him, thinkin I should do something should lift him up out of all that blood. I reach out to touch him, and suddenly he opens his eyes and sits up.
Hes only got one arm, the other shot off. I see it now, lying in the blood, and I pick it up thinkin somehow I can put it back on. Ive got to put it back on.
But before I can - before I can fix it he says t me, "Now look what youve done, Mr. Tanner. Youve crippled me! How can I make a living with one arm? Id prefer to be dead. Better yet, Id prefer you to be dead."
I cant tear my eyes away from his white face, and I cant let go of his useless arm, still hanging from my hands and suddenly, I cant breathe. I try to take in some air, to draw a breath, but a terrible, aching, heavy weight is pressing on my chest and I . . . cant . . . breathe.
Chris is calling me, but I cant answer because I cant breathe.
"Vin! Wake up!"
Hes angry or maybe scared. Dont blame him Im scared myself.
"Come on, Vin . . . youre all right now. Just open your eyes."
Hes gentle now, worried - and I know its another nightmare.
I open my eyes and try my best to draw in some air. It hurts like hell, but it clears my head some . . . enough that I can make out Larabees frown.
"Im . . . sorry," I mumble.
"Dont be," he says.
And I know he means it.
Doesnt change the fact that I am sorry.
Sorry to be so much trouble . . . sorry to be such a problem . . . sorry I came . . . and so very sorry I stayed.
If only I hadnt stayed . . . if only Id gone on to Tascosa in the beginning.
Oh God, Im so sorry.
Chris puts his head down and pulls his hands through his hair. I must have said it out loud again.
I know him . . . know that gesture, know what it means. Hes exasperated he doesnt know what to do with me.
He looks up at me after a minute and says, "Vin, please . . . just let it go. Ezra is fine, I told you that. Do you remember?"
I nod slowly. I remember him saying it its the believing it Im having a problem with.
"He got all his . . . parts?" I ask.
He dips his head. Im not sure if hes hidin a smile or rollin his eyes.
"Im not so sure Ezras ever had all his . . . parts. But hes in one piece, if thats what youre asking."
I take a deep breath and try to make my heart quit racin in my chest. Im thinkin its never gonna stop. Im thinkin I need t just get on up outa this bed and head on out. Id have to ride Peso bareback, but thats not a problem. Aint like I never did it before.
Dont know what I was thinkin . . . comin here and botherin Larabee.
Hes givin me that look again.
I know him . . . hes wishin Nathan was here to keep me from hurtin; hes wishin Buck was here t tell a tale or two and pass the time; hes wishin Josiah was here ttalk some sense into me.
Truth is, I couldnt stand havin any one of them here right now. Id go plumb out of my mind fer sure. I just couldnt look em in the eye.
And I sure dont want them seein me lookin this way . . . feelin this way . . . actin this way.
Dont know exactly why its all right for Chris to be here with me but it is. Pesos a smart horse dumping me where he did. I couldnt be anywhere else with anyone else right now.
I figure Larabee knows that. I figure thats why he keeps lookin at me like he does. I figure thats why he keeps sighin and pullin his hand through his hair.
He doesnt know what to do with me, anymore than I know what to do with myself.
+ + + + + + +
Chris continued to make the trip to town every morning. Six days had passed since the shooting, and it was determined that Casey and Nathan would live. It was almost anticlimactic. There was no grand realization; no profound moments; no great spiritual revival. But slowly and surely, they each gained just a bit, until finally it seemed that they were closer to living than dying.
Chris could hardly wait to ride back and tell Vin. Hed been cautious with his friend up until then, not wanting to offer him false hope that could be cruelly ripped away. Hed suffered enough.
Nathan had gradually become more lucid as the days passed, and finally, on that sixth day, he was alert enough to ask about Vin. Chris was beginning to have a little trouble keeping his secret from them all. He hadnt exactly been forthright about Tanners injuries - feeling pressured enough about getting the tracker home as it was. And besides, not a one of them needed something else to worry over.
He was sitting by Nathans side that day when Buck stepped in. At Nathans question regarding Vins well-being, Wilmington chimed in, "Yeah and just how many bones did he break this time?"
Nathan could hardly hold his head up, but he nearly bolted up at that. "What are you talking about, Buck? What happened to Vin?"
Chris glared at his old friend which, as usual, mattered not at all. With a small huff, he turned to the sick man in the bed and said, "He took a slight fall . . . but hes . . . okay. Mostly. Nothing for you to worry about, Nathan."
"A fall? From where?"
Now Chris openly communicated his displeasure towards the rogue, who responded sheepishly, "Guess maybe I shouldnt have brought it up."
Deciding honesty might be less stressful than all things the healers mind could undoubtedly conjure up, Larabee answered, "From the roof. But Im taking care of him."
"You check for bleeding inside? He got any broken bones? You dont get it set just right and hell feel it for the rest of his life."
As if he didnt have enough to worry about . . . Chris was suddenly wishing hed stayed out at the cabin and skipped his daily trip to town.
Nathans sudden burst of energy was petering out quickly, but he had enough breath to make a few last comments. "Just bring him home, Chris . . . put him in here with me. Wed all feel . . . a heap better about it."
All except Vin, Chris thought, as he watched Nathan drift off to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Its hurts so bad, but I cant say it. Cant tell Chris. Ive caused him too much trouble already.
"You can tell me, Vin."
I hear Nathans voice, but I know it cant be him. Hes dead. Chris says its not so, but I saw him that day . . . his chest blown wide open.
"Go ahead and say it, Vin. Say how much you hurt."
All righty then - Ill say it, Nathan. Im hurtin somethin fierce.
Everywhere. All over.
"You remember how many times I tried to help you? You remember how many times you gave me a hard time?"
I know, Nathan. And Im sorry. Id do anything to take it back . . . to take it all back.
"Cant take it back, Vin. Cant ask for my help no more. Cant ever get away from that pain youre feeling. You gotta live with it. Just like you gotta live with my blood on your hands."
Please, Nathan. Im sorry. Please forgive me. Please help me.
"Too late. Too late for all the times you argued with me. Too late for clearing your name. Too late to save me. Too late to save yourself, Vin. You get to live with it all now feel that pain in every bone and every muscle and every nerve and every thought you have every day cause its never going away. Its just too damn late."
Im sorry . . . Im sorry . . . Im sorry! I scream it over and over again, but hes gone.
And it hurts so bad.
"God, Vin, what am I gonna do with you?"
I feel a strong hand on my arm, hear the anguish in his voice, and I turn my eyes to his face. Chris.
My face is wet and I know Ive been crying in my sleep again. I hate that. I hate how it must look to Chris . . . how he must see me.
He came back from town yesterday and told me that Nathan and Casey were better. I dont know if its true. Hed say anything to help me. Hes that kind of man . . . that kind of friend.
He told me they all want me to come back.
Im the last thing they need.
People think Im a loner . . . think I dont need a lot of folks around; think all I need is the sun and the stars. It aint so. Im not who they think I am. I want the same things everyone wants . . . a place t rest my head at night; friends t pass the time of day with; a reason t feel like I matter.
But who the hell did I think I was? I gave up my right t those things the day I picked up my gun and used it t make a living. Sometimes a man has t live with his choices a long time sometimes, forever.
I cant ever go back.
Im the last thing they need.
+ + + + + + +
It had been the longest seven days of her considerably long life. Nettie pulled on her light jacket and hat, and sighed as she pushed away the terrible memories. There was no reason to dwell on it all. Casey was getting better, and there was only one thing left to set right or rather one person left to set right.
"Thank you for staying with Casey, JD. Ill be back as soon as I can," she informed the young man.
He nodded, but remained oddly quiet.
Shed avoided this discussion all week, but if she was successful in getting Vin back to town, hed need Dunne on his side.
"You think Vins a good man, JD?" she asked.
He looked her squarely in the eye and answered, "The best."
"Then why dont you want him back? Why you aiming all this anger at him?"
With a puzzled frown, JD explained, "I aint mad at Vin Im mad at the men who came after him." He paused before continuing, "But I dont want him to come back until he clears his name. He shouldve done it a long time ago. It aint right that Casey was hurt, and I dont want anyone else getting hurt."
"A lot of things aint right, JD," Nettie stated matter-of-factly. "You know better than anyone how good intentions can go horribly wrong. Fact is people get hurt and bad things happen for lots of different reasons and aint none of them right. Aint right that Annie died. Aint right that Chris lost his family. And it sure aint right to let a good man a good friend walk out of your life because something might happen."
JD flinched at the mention of Annies name, but he didnt look away from the older woman. Nettie liked that about the youth. He wasnt afraid to stand his ground and look her in the eye. Fortunately, he caught on pretty quickly, too.
JD could have kicked himself after listening to Nettie. She was right, and he was glad of it, because when it came right down to it he didnt want to blame Vin, and he really didnt want Vin to leave.
Nettie saw the change in the young mans eyes immediately, and so she wasnt surprised when he said, "Well then, I reckon youd best get him to come home, Miss Nettie."
+ + + + + + +
I dont dream about Casey, but I think about her all the time. Seems like every wakin minute, shes there sittin in the corner of my mind.
Shes just a girl. She had nothing t do with me.
At least the boys knew what theyd gotten into whod theyd signed up t ride with.
Not Casey. Shes just a girl . . . sweet and innocent and way too young t have t know what it means t take a bullet. Dont know how I can ever see her or Nettie again.
I hear the sound of horses and a wagon outside, and I look to Chris. I can tell he has no idea who it is, either. Were both wondering if its bad news . . . or someone come t see me.
My hearts racin and my breath is catchin in my throat. Please dont let it be bad news but please dont let it be anyone t see me.
Please, Chris I cant do it.
He sees it in my eyes. I know him . . . hes thinkin I cant hide away here forever; I cant pretend like this never happened; I cant run away from all of them.
But hes wrong. Im lookin at the window and wonderin if I can get to it in time.
He gets up and heads for the door, but its opened before he reaches it.
He heads Nettie off at the pass, standing in front of her his hand pushing gently on her arm to hold her back.
I never felt so much for anyone in my life as I feel for Chris at this moment.
Shes peaking around him, set on comin over to my bed. I see her eyes fill with tears shes goin on the worry over me. How can that be?
I turn my face away I cant bear t see her. I cant bear t see her or talk t her or feel her.
"Nettie, lets go outside and talk a minute," Chris says to her.
She must have agreed, cause I hear the door close.
"Good Lord, Chris! He looks worse than the other three put together! What the devil are you thinking? Why havent you brought him back so we can tend him with the others?"
"Its . . . complicated," Chris says.
Hes got that right.
"Not the way I see it," Nettie argues.
I got a feeling were all gonna know how she sees it real quick here.
"Put him in the wagon and drive him home."
Please dont, Chris, Im not ready.
"Hes not ready," Larabee says.
"It hurts him to roll over, Nettie. How do you think riding in the back of a wagon is gonna feel?"
Good move, Larabee. Appeal to her sympathy for my pain.
I cant see her face, but I imagine her huffin. It gets real quiet now, but Ive got good ears probably the only part of me that wasnt messed up in that fall.
"Id like to talk with him. Set him straight on a few matters," she says.
Theres a long pause, then Chris says, "Let me have a few more days. If I cant get him to agree, you come back out and Ill let you have him."
I dont like the sound of that. But it buys me more time. A few more days and me and Peso will be headin for Texas.
"All right but Im not happy about it and neither will anyone else be. Youre both needed back in town."
Im the last thing they need.
"You sure about that, Nettie? The rest of the folks see it that way?"
So they werent all wantin me back. I figured as much.
"Gang came in last night. Buck, Josiah and JD took care of it but it reminded everyone real quick how much they need you all. No ones gonna give Vin any trouble, you can count on it."
Wonder how much talkin and threatenin she had to do to convince them all of that?
"Thank you for coming out, Nettie. Ill see you in a few days," Larabee says.
Maybe shell see him, but not me.
Chris comes in and sits beside the bed, but Im not lookin at him. I got a thousand thoughts whirlin about in my head, and I aint rightly sure which one t go to first.
"Guess you werent lyin t me about Casey," I say.
Im not sure why I said it just seemed to be the first thing that quit spinnin long enough fer me to grab hold of it. I know Nettie wouldnve come if Casey was still in trouble.
"Lying to you?"
I look at him now, and Im kinda wishin I hadnt because hes got that look hes only turned on me once before when I told him about Ella.
"Lying to you?" he asks me again. His voice is soft, but his eyes most definitely arent.
He gets up so sudden, it startles me, and I almost give in and groan from the jarrin of my ribs. Hes pacin in front of the window pullin that hand through his hair again. Im wonderin if hell have any hair left by the time I leave.
He turns all of a sudden and says, "Why did you come here, Vin?"
I go with the story Ive been tellin all week. "I told you Peso brought me."
"Thats shit, and you know it," he says in that hard, flat tone that tells me hes a mite miffed at me.
"Well, all right then, Ill tell y why, Larabee."
Hes waitin and Im thinkin . . . hell, I dont know why myself, how can I tell him?
"Well?" he asks.
"Well hell, Larabee . . . look at you. Look how y are. I figured you wouldnt mind all that much ifn I got you killed."
He pulls up short and stares at me hard. I dont turn away he doesnt scare me. And then he does the damnest thing.
He laughs. And the more puzzled I look at him, the harder he laughs.
People think Chris dont laugh much . . . smile, neither. Theyre wrong. He can light up like a Christmas tree when somethin strikes him. Sometimes me and him get t laughin so hard, we can hardly keep a straight face and hide it from the others.
I got no idea what hes laughin at now, though.
"Damn, Tanner. Were both screwed up, arent we?"
"Reckon so," I say slowly, still not sure what happened here.
"Who would have thought some dusty little town could put its hooks in us? Whod ever thought two men like us would find a . . . home."
I sigh and look away. It always comes back to this home thing.
"Why did you come here, Vin?" he asked me real softly now.
I seem to be havin some trouble keepin up with his train of thought. We talkin about lyin, or how twisted up we are, or home?
Maybe Ill stick t one question at time. Maybe Ill just face up and answer that last one. He deserves an answer, after all.
"I came because . . . I was hurt . . . felt like I was gonna fall clean apart. And I knew . . . I knew you wouldnt turn me away."
"And you know Id never lie to you."
I nod. Yeah, I know it. Im feelin like a real dog now, and hanging my head t prove it.
He sits down beside me again, and tips my chin up with his finger till Im lookin him in the eye.
"You came because you knew youd be safe here. And you were right. You were right to come. And what you said about home being a feeling you were right about that, too. Mostly. Home is a feeling. Its one you get when youre with the people you care about. Its not only about being safe."
"Maybe not, but thats a big part of it. No one should have to be afraid to be around someone they care about. Maybe I aint never had a real home before, but I know that much."
"None of us are safe, Vin. People get sick and get hurt and they . . . die, no matter where they live or who they share their lives with."
Damn, hes good. And here I thought Josiah was the smart one. Doesnt change anything, of course, but I got t admit hes good. He ought t think about speakin more often. People think Chris doesnt talk much because he doesnt know what to say. Theyre wrong he just thinks most things aint worth sayin.
Guess I should feel honored that hes carryin on like he is fer me.
"Four Corners is your home now, Vin our home whether you want to admit it or not. Its our home because of what we found there . . .friends to ride with and friends to watch over; a place to rest our heads; a place to feel like we matter. You cant change that now, Tanner. Its in your heart and always will be, no matter where you go."
I feel tears in my eyes, and I try to blink them away.
I know all that. I know it better than any of the others ever will, except for maybe Chris.
And thats exactly why I cant go back. I just cant let this ever, ever happen again. Why cant he see that?
"I shouldve helped you clear your name sooner, Vin we all should have. And once youre up to it, thats what were going to do."
He means that. Hed take that long ride t Texas with me. And if he did if they all did would it be all right then? Even if I cleared my name, would I ever really be free? I cant ever forget what happened, and I dont know if I can ever believe it couldnt happen again . . . that it wont happen again.
I sigh. Im tired. I hurt. And I got all these jumbled up thoughts still floatin around in my head.
Chris pulls the blanket up over my chest and pushes the hair from my face, and I cant believe how good it feels.
"You rest now, Pard," he says, as he pulls his book from his pocket and settles back in the chair.
I look at him one more time before I close my eyes. I wonder if he knows the truth. I wonder if he knows that he pretty much got it right that first day when he said that bein here was bein home. But it wasnt because I knew I was safe it was because he was here.
I wonder if he knows that somewhere along the way, I decided that wherever Chris Larabee hangs his hat is good enough fer me. Ridin with Chris is about as close as a man like me is ever likely t get t bein . . . home.
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