Big Lie, Small World

by JIN

Disclaimers: These characters are owned by others, I am only borrowing.

Comments: Title taken from a song by one of my favorite ‘poets’, Sting. This is another version of the Tascosa story. I know it’s been done before – and probably much better, I might add. Special thanks to Mady for help with typos, commas, etc. – and for encouraging me to post it.

This is an OW Gen. fic featuring Vin and Chris, with Buck and JD in supporting roles. It follows my previous fic, Come Home, and is written in the same style.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part One: Chris

I hear his voice, but I’m miles away. A hundred miles away, in fact – in a dusty little town called Tascosa. I’m wondering what waits for us there. I’m wondering if I can get Vin to turn back.

"Chris?" Buck says again. This time he lays a hand on my shoulder, so I turn to face him.


"He’s at it again . . . and he won’t listen t’ me. Chris, if he don’t get some rest, there won’t be a reason t’ go on t’ Texas."

He’s exaggerating, of course. Vin may look like death warmed over; has looked that way for weeks, in fact . . . ever since it happened - but he’s not actually dying.

Not on my watch.

I nod my head at Buck, as much to acknowledge his concern as to let him know I heard him.

It takes me almost twenty minutes to reach Vin. I know his hip is bothering him, or it would have taken three times that long. He’s sitting on a rock, looking out over the mountain range as the sun goes down. I can’t see his face, but I don’t have to. That now familiar ache settles deep in my chest. There was a time when seeing Vin here, his face turned towards the pinks and purples of the sunset would flood me with warmth; his contentment was contagious.

But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that look or felt that peace. And I know the look he wears now is something entirely different.

He hears me; it’s not necessary to announce my presence, so I say what I’ve come to say, "It’s not your watch, Vin."

He shakes his head, but doesn’t turn around. "It’s never my watch anymore."

"Not this trip," I agree.

Finally, he turns his head and meets my eyes. "Can’t sleep anyway. Please . . . just . . . let me do it."

It hits me like a physical punch; the pleading, almost desperate tone in his voice. Vin Tanner never begged for anything in his life, and I’ll be damned if he’ll start now.

The five bounty hunters who came to town and aimed their deadly fire at our friends – seriously injuring Casey, Nathan, and Ezra in the process – did a whole lot more damage to Vin than the physical injuries that he suffered from his fall off the roof. They not only broke his body, but bruised his spirit and shattered his tender heart, as well. There was no way they were taking his pride, too.

He thinks he needs to do this. He thinks it’s all up to him – keeping us safe; keeping the whole damn town safe . . . as if they deserve his consideration.

Okay, if he needs this so bad, he can have it – but we’re doing it my way. "All right, Vin. You mind if I join you?"

He furrows his brows, probably knows I’m up to something, and nods his head hesitantly.

I’m not sure if he’s nodding to say he minds, or to say that I can stay, but I go with the choice I’m after, and sit down beside him. Any time now his body will give in and I’m pretty sure he’ll just keel over. At least I can keep him from sliding down the mountain when it happens.

He hasn’t slept much since the gunfight; hasn’t been eating much either, as far as I can tell. And he won’t touch a drink . . . of alcohol, that is. I have to admit that I’ve been keeping away from it myself – well, mostly. It just makes good sense to keep a clear head since I went and promised Vin that I wouldn’t let it happen again.

I’m not a man who makes promises – especially stupid ones that I have no control over. But it seemed smarter to make a stupid promise at the time, than to risk having Vin go off and do something stupid.

Vin hid out at my place after it first happened . . . took me more than a week to get him to come back to town. It’s been ten days since then. He’s not nearly healed enough to go on with this, but there was no holding him back. He got wind of a bounty hunter supposedly asking questions near Eagle Bend, and that was it.

Nathan said Vin’s hip isn’t broke, but it still hurts him most of the time - his ribs do, too. He can’t fully use his right arm yet, and I’m not sure how sharp his shooting will be with the left. I’m hoping I won’t have to find out.

He needs more time, but he won’t take it.

Good thing I’ve got his back – because he’s sure not watching it for himself.

I lean back and try to get comfortable on the smooth slope of a nearby rock. It’s been a long ten days, on top of all that happened before. Ten more days to add to the list of those I’d prefer to forget.

Vin turns to me and he has an odd look in his eye – one I’ve seen a lot recently, but still haven’t quite managed to decipher.

"What is it, Vin?" I ask, hoping that he’ll finally tell me.

"Nothing," he says softly, then turns away again.

I sigh. It’s been a long ten days.

I really hoped that once I got Vin back to town, everything would fall into place. I knew we’d have to go on to Tascosa eventually, of course, but I figured we’d settle back into the easy pace we’d had for the last year and a half. As everyone recovered, the effects of the shootout would sort of fade to their rightful place - in the back of everyone’s mind . . . where they would hopefully sit for another year and a half, or until I came up with a decent plan –whichever came first.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. For the first few days, Vin actually acted reasonably . . . reasonable. I guess that’s because he still felt too bad to think real hard. Nettie came every day to visit – although visit is probably a relative term. She talked while Vin listened, or was polite enough to appear to listen, at any rate.

The boys all came around, too, with the exception of Nathan, who still wasn’t strong enough to be up and around. It was basically disastrous, all the way around.

Josiah tried being philosophical, which normally Vin at least tried to follow – but this time he just got this sort of glazed look in his eyes. Josiah had shaken his head and muttered something under his breath about the blessings of the pure of heart, which made no sense to me at all, but that’s not unusual where Sanchez is concerned.

Buck tried being his usual jovial self, and when that fell flat, he turned to plan B – he brought JD with him. Since JD was still a little uncomfortable with Vin, and Vin was still a lot uncomfortable with JD, the results were an even more downcast Tanner, a stammering Dunne, an apologetic Wilmington . . . and I probably don’t have to mention my reaction.

By the time Ezra put in an awkward appearance, I decided Vin wasn’t up to visitors.

He was relieved. So relieved that he decided he’d pretty much never see or talk to anyone again.

Now let me tell you, I don’t mind sharing my room – especially with Vin. You couldn’t ask for a better roommate; quiet and considerate and totally unassuming. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the man’s even there . . . unlike some of the others. I’ve shared space with Buck more times than I can count, and believe me, it ain’t easy. Quiet isn’t in his vocabulary, for one thing. I can take about five minutes of JD’s jabbering and even less of Ezra’s whining. Josiah snores loud enough to wake the dead. So when we’re on the road and need to share a room – I always snatch up Vin or Nathan first. Being the leader should have some advantages, after all.

I didn’t mind sharing my room with Vin. The problem was that I got the distinct impression he never intended to leave. Except for an occasional trip to the privy – which wasn’t more than twice a day – he never left the room. He’d sit by the window and keep his eyes peeled on the street below, hour after hour. Any other time, I’d have interpreted that as a longing to be outdoors, but I knew that wasn’t the case this time.

He was watching and waiting for it to happen again.

I tried to talk to him. Tried to get him to go down and have a drink or just set a spell with me and the boys. I didn’t get any further than anyone else.

So after a week had passed, I brought in the big guns.

Not much gets past Nettie Wells, so I really didn’t have to open my mouth. She’d come to realize the problem at about the same time I had.

She met me in the hall, just outside the door to our room one morning. "You gonna let him spend the rest of his life in that room, Chris?" she asked me.

As if I had control over Tanner. Influence, yes – although that’s probably minimal; but the man’s been on his own too damn long to have anyone tell him how to live his life.

I must have rolled my eyes at her, or made some other subconscious gesture, because she huffed and went in the room with me following close behind.

One of the things I love about Nettie is that she’s direct. She got to the point in about thirty seconds – or however long it took for her to sit opposite Vin, turn his head in her direction, and say, "This has gone on long enough, Vin Tanner. It’s time for you to get out of this room and on with your life."

And then he did the darnedest thing – he looked at me and said, "You wantin’ me t’ leave? ‘Cause if y’ are, y’ coulda just said so."

Nettie raised an eyebrow at me that pretty much said if that was my motivation in getting her to talk with Vin, there would be words later.

I’ve learned that when Vin and Nettie are in the same room, I’m always gonna be the odd man out. If I didn’t realize how badly they needed each other, I might get a little annoyed at that.

"Of course not, Vin," I quickly answered him. "I just don’t want you to hide in this room."

He looked at me for a few minutes, trying to gauge if I meant that. When he was pretty clear that I did, he said to me, "I ain’t hidin’. I just figure they ain’t gonna be shootin’ at what they don’t see. Best way I can think of t’ keep the bullets from flyin’."

He turned back to Nettie then and said real soft, "I ‘preciate what yer sayin’, Miss Nettie, but I got some things t’ take care of before I can get on with my life. As soon as I’m movin’ around a little better, that’s what I’ll be doin’."

I couldn’t see her face real clear, but I’m pretty sure she had tears in her eyes. She pulled Vin close to her and whispered just loud enough for me to hear, "You do that, Son, but you be careful. This old heart would just plain give out if anything happened to you."

I really didn’t want to see Vin’s face right then, so I looked down at the floor and waited until I heard Nettie get up to leave. She gave me a look as she left that pretty much laid it on the line; she expected me to bring Vin back to her in one piece – if and when we made the trip to Tascosa.

So I was left right where I’d started – with a withdrawn, guilt-ridden roommate. That was when I decided a good drink, or six, was on the agenda – promises be damned. And that was when I learned we had a new problem.

I haven’t told Vin what the men in town were saying about him, and I don’t intend to. He’s got enough on his mind. We’ve all got enough on our minds.

I sneak a look at Vin out of the corner of my eye as I shift a little on the hard rock beneath me. He sighs a little, but doesn’t look at me as he says, "I’m fine, Chris."

"Sure you are, Tanner," I say. I’ll let him believe that I believe it.

Like I said, it’s been a long ten days.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie left town and returned home with Casey soon after her conversation with Vin. She asked the young man to come and see her before leaving for Texas, but he tactfully avoided committing to that. Vin was simply unable to comprehend how she could care so much when she’d nearly lost her only kin because of him. No matter how many ways he turned it around in his head, it just didn’t make sense

In fact, he just couldn’t understand anyone’s interest in his well-being – couldn’t for the life of him imagine why everyone seemed so concerned. He’d almost gotten two of his friends killed, along with JD’s girlfriend. Loyalty was one thing; stupidity another. Clearly, being his partner – his friend – was deadly.

Didn’t they see? He’d taken too long. The problem that was his and his alone had become the entire town’s . . . had affected every person he’d grown to care about over the past eighteen months. Everything had changed, and the sooner they all caught on and let him go, the better for all of them.

When he had it all taken care of, they could think again, but not until then. So until then, he’d keep his distance.

But he wouldn’t waste his breath or his time trying to explain it again. Chris and Nettie had him beat when it came to stubborn, so when they’d come to him that day and tried to turn his mind around – he’d said his peace and let it go. He knew Chris was exasperated with him when the gunslinger turned in a huff and headed down to the tavern.

Chris wasn’t feeling exasperated so much as defeated when he gave in that night to the need for a good, stiff drink. Despair quickly turned to anger, though, when he heard several local men talking in low tones about the events of the previous weeks. They’d done this before, just after the terrible events took place - questioned the safety of the townsfolk with a wanted man in their midst.

But Nettie Wells had put a stop to it. That thought did bring a brief smile to the gunman’s lips. The little old woman with a Spencer carbine inspired respect, all right. Nettie hadn’t been gone a half a day when they’d started up talking again, though. Now that she was safely out of town, Vin was an easy target once more.

Chris continued to sulk in the corner as he listened, his presence unnoticed by the local gossips.

"Those killers came to town after the money on Tanner’s head – and they won’t be the last. And if that ain’t enough . . . now he’s gone crazy, too. The man always was unpredictable – now he’s downright dangerous," Chris heard a low voice intone.

"I heard he sits up by that window day and night – just watchin’ us all. Just a matter of time before someone gets killed," another voice agreed.

"We should have taken care of him months ago, after that fella Eli Joe and his gang came huntin’. Should’ve known then we were headin’ for trouble," a third man joined in.

A new, softer voice spoke up hesitantly, "I don’t know. Vin’s done a lot good things for this town, too."

Chris was momentarily heartened that someone had come to Tanner’s defense.

"Yeah well, you remember that when someone you care about is layin’ bleedin’ in the street. He’s dangerous . . . and we can’t have him runnin’ loose in this town any longer," the first voice said, louder now and with renewed conviction.

Chris knew that voice – knew the coward it belonged to, and wished he’d had an excuse to blow the man away months ago.

"That right, Conklin?" Larabee said as he rose from the shadows and neared the table where the men huddled.

Conklin startled at the gunman’s presence, but quickly regained his composure.

"Yeah, Larabee, that’s right. Your friend is nothing but trouble. We’ve all looked the other way for too long now."

Puffed up by the audible support from the friends at his back, the man continued, "We ain’t puttin’ up with his kind any longer. You can take him to Texas . . . or we will."

A slow smile spread across Chris’s face at just the thought of Conklin and his friends trying to take Vin out of town. But it quickly turned into a snarl as he menaced, "You so much as touch Vin, and you’re dead."

He didn’t wait for their reaction; just walked away with a shake of his head. They’d run Vin out of town on a rail if they thought they could get away with it. It was almost surprising they hadn’t turned him in before – Chris’s own hot hand was probably the only thing that kept them from it.

Chris doubted the men would have the guts to try anything on their own, but what if they got the idea to let a real Federal Marshall in on Tanner’s whereabouts? There was more than one way to skin a cat, and way too many ways to get Vin in more trouble.

After all Vin had done for this town; after all he’d been through – this was how much they thought of him. He deserved better, even if he didn’t believe it.

+ + + + + + +

He doesn’t believe it . . . doesn’t have a clue what he deserves or how much he matters. How does a man know what he’s worth, if he’s never had anyone to tell him?

Of course, I don’t actually know that. I know very little about Vin’s past, really. We don’t talk about things like that much. It’s just not necessary. I know all I need to about Vin, and he knows the same about me. But I’m pretty sure his childhood wasn’t great – that pats on the back were few and far between.

It’s not that he lacks confidence; Vin knows what he’s good at, and he doesn’t need any one of us to remind him. He just doesn’t know what he means. There’s a difference.

I’ve tried to tell him. Of course, no one would say verbalizing my feelings was my strong suit. I tend to communicate in more . . . subtle ways. The others have tried to tell him, too – but he can’t hear us right now. He’s only got one thing on his mind, and until that’s taken care of, nothing else will get through.

Vin’s like that. Focused. You should see the man in a gunfight – bullets flying straight over his head, but he never even flinches. Just keeps his aim straight and true and dead on. That’s Vin . . . straight and true.

Dead on.

And dead tired right now.

"I’ve got it, Vin," I say gently as I watch him struggle to keep his eyes open.

"JD? Buck?" he asks, his speech starting to slur.

"They’re asleep. They’re fine. I’ll keep watch."

He looks me straight in the eye – seeking the assurance of that promise one more time, before nodding and shifting a little closer to the ground. I can’t figure how he could possibly be comfortable laying on this hard rock, but I suspect he’s slept under worse conditions.

It won’t be for long anyway. I can’t tell you how many nights I went to sleep thinking Vin was out for the night – only to wake up an hour or so later and find him staring out that damn window again.

I would watch him watch . . . nothing, knowing something had to break and soon. I only hoped it wouldn’t be Vin.

When that idiot Conklin came riding in with the news that a bounty hunter was asking questions in Eagle Bend, I knew there was no way I was keeping Tanner in town. I knew the die had been cast and we were riding out.

It just so happened that Vin had made a rare trip downstairs when the man came in spouting his big news. Long days of being cooped up finally forced Vin out into the open . . . and he was greeted with Conklin’s big mouth. I could have shot the man where he stood.


I’ll never forget the look on Vin’s face – though I’ve spent an awful lot of time trying.

Seems like I spend a lot of time trying to forget a lot of things – but I’m still not good at it.

So there was Vin, looking like he’d been kicked in the gut again, and he hadn’t even heard the worst of it. He had no idea some of the townsfolk wanted to turn him in themselves, or that they were thinking he’d lost his mind.

Talk about crazy.

Vin’s the sanest man I know.

Now the rest of us, I ain’t too sure about. I’ve seen Josiah lose his temper and go off half-cocked more than once. He’s not one I’d wanna cross when he gets that way, either – although Vin doesn’t seem to mind.

Hell, Buck acts like a lunatic half the time - and he’s got JD following in his footsteps.

I shouldn’t even need to mention Ezra – we all know what gets him playing the fool. I swear the man would give up his own mother if there was a profit to be made.

Then again, that might not be saying much, judging by what I’ve seen.

Even Nathan has his moments where I wonder if he’s just going to lose it all. His shoulders have to be mighty heavy with all the responsibility he piles up on them. No one blames him when he cracks a bit under the pressure.

But not Vin. He always acts just like you expect him to. Straight and true and dead-on.

Well, there was that once – with Charlotte, but you can’t really count that. She was pretty and confused, and she spotted Vin’s weakness for a woman in trouble real quick. He was gone before he knew what hit him.

I was afraid he was gonna be gone before he knew what hit him this time, too. I think he would just have turned and mounted up right then if Josiah hadn’t stepped in. He heard Conklin’s words, saw Vin’s face, and did some quick thinking. I owe him for that.

Vin’s stirring a little, and I reach over to pat his shoulder. I don’t know what good I think that’s gonna do, but since I have no blanket and no pillow and no soothing words come to mind – I figure it’s better than nothing. He shifts a bit and moans real soft, but he goes on back to sleep.

We’ve been on the trail for two days now, and it already feels twice that long. Josiah stalled Vin for a little while, but in the end, we all knew we were going to Texas. Or at least, some of us were going. That didn’t go down real well, either – and just in case I’d forgotten – I was reminded that I’m not the only one of the boys who can be a mite stubborn when the situation calls for it.

Now we can talk about crazy . . .

+ + + + + + +

Josiah moved over to where Vin stood frozen on the boardwalk near the entrance to the saloon and lightly touched the tracker on the arm. "Vin?"

Vin’s eyes remained riveted on Conklin, who already had a crowd gathering as he proceeded to relay his message that more trouble lay just around the corner in Eagle Bend.

Josiah said again, "Vin? I need you to come with me."

Finally, dazed blue eyes drifted to the preacher’s face. "What?"

Sanchez saw confusion and panic taking hold in his friend, and he turned to exchange a meaningful gaze with Larabee. Josiah knew that Chris would be exceeding his three-words-a-day limit with a few well spoken sentiments aimed at the people in the street, just as soon as Vin was out of the way.

Taking Vin’s arm, Josiah turned back towards the saloon and said, "Nathan wants to see you."

Again, Vin turned to the big man and mumbled, "What?"

Josiah bit his lip as he continued to pull Vin across the floor of the tavern to the stairs ahead. He hated seeing his friend like this – hated even more the men who had caused it. He went on, his voice soft and low, "Nathan’s been asking for you, Vin. You haven’t been to see him since that first day, and he’s not up to coming to see you."

He hated to use guilt to goad the tracker, but it was the truth. Nathan was asking about Vin every day – several times a day. And none of them were satisfied with Vin’s condition. Even if Nathan had to sit on the edge of the bed to do it, the healer needed to get a good look at Tanner.

By the time they were half-way up the stairs, Josiah was sure he’d done the right thing. It was no wonder Vin hadn’t come down much – it was too hard for him to go back up. Every step was a struggle for the tracker as he tried to keep the pressure off his bad hip.

They had nearly reached the top, when it seemed that Tanner’s brain had kicked into gear once more. Stopping suddenly, he looked back out towards the street and said despairingly, "I have to go. I have to get out of here."

Josiah gripped his arm more firmly and said calmly, "Not yet. You have time. We’ll take care of anything that comes up in the meantime."

"I shouldn’t have come back here. Conklin’s right. Someone’s gonna get killed," Vin said, still focused on the scene outside.

With a heavy sigh, Josiah replied, "All right, Vin. We’ll get you out of town, but come and see Nathan first. Will you do that for me? For Nathan?"

He owed Nathan that, he supposed. He could give the man five minutes. With a distracted nod, Vin took another halting step up the stairs, oblivious to that fact that the big man beside him had moved an arm around his waist and was now practically lifting him.

By the time they reached Nathan’s room, Vin was breathing heavily. Josiah wasn’t sure if it came from exertion or pain or just plain fear, but he suspected it was an unhealthy combination of all three. Vin refused to sit down when he got in the room, though. He just looked at Nathan anxiously, as if to say, "Get on with it."

Nathan threw a puzzled glance at Josiah, who was wishing he and Jackson had the same uncanny ability to communicate with just a nod as Vin and Chris seemed to have.

Improvising, Josiah blurted out, "Nathan, are you up to taking a look at Vin’s hip?"

Tanner glared at Sanchez, "That’s not why I’m here."

"Why are you here?" Nathan asked gently, noting too late the rolling of Josiah’s eyes. Apparently he’d missed something.

"I don’t have time fer this," Vin muttered as he turned to leave. Josiah had pushed him all the way up those damn stairs for no good reason at all – and he’d lied about Nathan wanting to see him. All to distract him from leaving for Texas . . . they still didn’t get it.

He was met at the door by a still fuming Larabee. "Come back inside, Vin," he said sternly.

"No. I’m leavin’."

Chris gripped Vin’s arm, "Yeah, I figured as much. But you’re not leaving alone. Now get back in here and let us make some plans."

Vin held his gaze, his blue eyes as hard and determined as the man he faced.

The blond went on, softer this time, "Just give the boys and me some time to make a few arrangements here, Vin. That’s all I’m asking for . . . a little more time."

"Well, yer askin’ fer too damn much, Cowboy!" Vin exploded. "It’s been too long already. That’s why Nathan’s layin’ here the way he is. No more time . . . not another day, not another hour."

Vin would have pushed past the gunslinger then, had Buck, JD, and Ezra not arrived and effectively blocked his escape.

Chris kept his hold on his friend as he spoke gently but firmly, "You can’t fight us all, Vin. And know this – we’ll do what we have to t’ keep you safe – even if that means locking you up for a few hours until we get this all figured out."

He hated that . . . threatening Vin. How had it come to this? Chris watched as Vin pulled his hand across his face, noting that it shook. Tanner still looked so damn bad, he wanted to just tie the man in bed. But it wasn’t going to happen, and when it came down to it, he couldn’t blame Vin. He’d react exactly the same way.

Buck jumped in then, breaking some of the tension, "Let’s all just hold on and talk about this a minute. I take it we’re going to Tascosa?"

"We don’t need to be goin’ anywhere. But I’m goin’ . . . today," Vin said pointedly.

"We’ve already been over that, Vin – you’re not going alone," Chris replied.

"I’ll go with you, Vin," JD offered softly, and all the men turned to look at him.

Vin looked down for a moment before finally lifting his head to meet the youth’s eyes. "You don’t have t’ do that, Kid. Especially since . . ."

"That’s done and over with, Vin. Casey’s gonna be fine. And it wasn’t your fault, anyway. I just wanna be sure it doesn’t happen again. I can be ready to ride in an hour."

Vin nodded at the young man gratefully – at least one of them got it.

"We all have to go . . . and Nathan’s not up to it, yet. Ezra, either. You need to wait, Vin," Josiah said solemnly.

And that was when things heated up. Ezra protested loudly that he certainly was up to going, and he didn’t need Josiah to assess his current condition, thank you very much. Buck argued that it wasn’t smart for all of them to leave town at once any way. At which point Josiah went into a long discussion about the strength in their wholeness. The divided house scenario came up again, and nearly everyone groaned – although the validity of his point had some merit.

Nathan had to throw in his two cents, which largely consisted of the fact that, judging by Vin’s appearance, he wouldn’t live to see Tascosa. Of course, Vin hotly contended that he had traveled much further in much worse condition and how would Nathan know anyway, when he hadn’t laid a hand on him?

In the end, their leader did what he did best – took the lead. "Ezra, you’re still as white as that fancy starched shirt you’re wearing . . . you’re staying. Josiah, you’ve been taking care of Nathan all this time, and he still needs your help . . . you’re staying, too. Buck and JD, be ready to ride in the morning . . . if Vin agrees to let Nathan look him over."

Vin turned a smoldering glare towards his best friend.

"That’s the best you’re gonna get, Vin. Take it or leave it," Chris offered.

+ + + + + + +

Of course, he took it.

Nathan told me later that Vin wasn’t in good shape, as if I didn’t know that. Tanner was overtired and undernourished and still pretty miserable all the way around. Nathan said he couldn’t see inside his body, but he was pretty sure that hip wasn’t broke. Might be cracked, or maybe his pelvis was – or there was something about tendons and muscles. Either way, Vin was still hurting and being on horseback for several days wasn’t likely to help.

About kills us to watch him. Me and Buck and JD just stand back, trying not to notice how hard it is for him once he dismounts. Sometimes it takes him a full five minutes to get moving again. But we don’t say anything. Like I said, he’s still got his pride and there’s no way in hell we’re taking that away.

I feel my eyes getting heavy, and I remember that I haven’t slept all that well, either. I’m thinking maybe I should get Buck up and let him take over for awhile. Vin would never sleep again if he woke up and found me sleeping when I was supposed to be keeping watch.

I stifle a groan; my bones are telling me that resting on this rock for the past four hours was not one of my better ideas. Just as I make a move to stand, I sense that Vin is awake and looking at me.

"It’s all right, Vin. I’m just gonna let Buck take over for awhile. Go on back to sleep," I say, hoping it will do the trick.

It doesn’t. He keeps his eyes on mine. It’s been dark for hours now, but the moon is full and the stars are so close you could reach up and touch them, and I can clearly see his face.

And I know he’s finally gonna say it – whatever it is that’s been sticking in his throat for days now.

"If I die in Tascosa, you and the boys just ride on out, Chris. Just . . . let it go."

I don’t know what I expected him to say, but it wasn’t that. How the hell am I supposed to respond to that? Do I tell him what he wants to hear, even though it would be a bald-faced lie? ‘Sure thing, Vin. No problem. We’ll just go on back like we never knew you, like your life – and your death - never happened.’

Or do I tell him the truth? That if he dies in Tascosa, I’ll tear that town apart until Vin Tanner’s name is up there right next to God’s - and the men responsible for his death are in the ground right next to him?

"God, Vin. Don’t even say that." Good thinking, Larabee – avoidance just might work.

Or not.

"I mean it, Chris. Promise me you’ll let it go. I can’t be worryin’ what yer gonna do if somethin’ happens t’ me."

"Well then, don’t be worrying about it, Tanner. Let me worry about it. You just worry about coming back alive."

He sits real quiet, staring at the ground, then he turns to me and speaks again.

"It won’t break you, Chris . . . losin’ me. I know y’ think it will . . . but it won’t."

I don’t know how he does that . . . reads me like he knows me better than I do myself; like he’s sitting way down deep inside me - seeing me from the inside out.

But this time – he’s off a bit.

Hell, I’m already broken.

I’ve lived as a broken man for a long time . . . pulled apart in a whole lot of ways that will never be set right.

But see, the thing about living through the most horrific thing that life can throw at you, is that the rest of your life is sort of a cake walk. Once you’re broken, nothing can really undo you after that.

At least, that’s what you believe. You have to believe it, because to think that you could experience that kind of devastation more than once in your life is unthinkable . . . unimaginable . . . unbearable.

Of course, it’s all a big lie. Because the thing is, no matter how I try to deny it, or how many different ways I color it, losing Vin would be exactly that kind of devastation.

Unthinkable . . . unimaginable . . . unbearable.

"You’re right, Vin . . . losing you won’t break me . . . because it’s not gonna happen," I say, partly for him - but mostly for me.

He looks at me with sad eyes and I turn away. I’m not gonna talk about this because it’s not gonna happen. I get up to go get Buck, but as I do, I tell him again, "I’m not losing you, Vin."

He doesn’t say anything, just lets out a little sigh and lowers his head back onto the rock.

He should know me by now; should know that I’m a man of my word. Lies don’t come easy to a man like me, and neither do promises.

But I can promise him this . . . I’m not losing him.