Still Waters

by Xiola

Part Six

"What's 'redemption'?"

J'siah's head snaps up and the book he's readin' hits the floor with a bang. Guess that weren't real nice 'a me, t' go scarin' him like that. I know he didn't know I was awake and he was flyin' off somewheres else on the backs 'a them words.

"Well, son, good to see you're awake. How're you feelin?"

M' stomach's still a mite jumpy, m' brain's bouncin' around inside m' skull ever' time I move, but m' eyes don't feel like they's gonna fall outta m' head any time soon, and so long as I stay still, it ain't so bad.

"Fine, J'siah, jist fine."

He comes over to the bed with a mug in his hand and I try not t' let on that him liftin' me up so's I can have a drink is givin' me grief. He's gentle, fer as big a man as what he is, and he lays me back when I's finished and takes a cloth up outta the basin and runs it over m' face and I gotta say, it feels good. Ain't too many fellers I'd let touch me like that. He's a good man, is J'siah.

"Well, if you're worrying on the state of your soul, brother, it sounds to me like you can't be feelin' all that good."

"Nah, I's jist watchin' you read, and I got thinkin' on what all ya said on Sunday week or so back, at the service. You's talkin' about redemption."

"Well, it does my heart good to think that someone's listening. When are you going to come in and sit with the rest of us? It's mighty cold this time of year to be standing out on the porch for going on two hours. You have to know you're welcome in the Lord's house."

J'siah's done asked me this b'fore. Every Sunday b'fore service he invites me inside, but I jist cain't make m'self go in.

"I ain't fit t' set foot inside a church, 'specially on Sunday when He's there."

"He's there every day, Vin."

"Yeah, well, I ain't good enough to sit amongst all the upstandin' folk. I done sinned a lot more'n most and.... I ain't got no proper clothes." This last I kinda finish off in a rush - feel like I's sayin' too much.

"The Lord don't care none for what you're wearing when He sees you in his house. And as far as bein' upstanding goes, you don't go to church because you're good. You go because you're not good, and you need God's grace and forgiveness to lift you up and help you be the sort of person He wants you to be."

This surprises me some.

"You mean all them Christian folk is not jist sittin' there ever' Sunday t' show the world what good people they are?"

J'siah throws his head back at that and lets out a roar that makes me jump. He's got tears runnin' down his face, he's laughin' that hard, and finally he manages to gasp out,

"Well, I'm sure that if you were to ask 'them Christian folk', they wouldn't say they were in church because they were sinners. No, I don't imagine they would say that at all."

Then he's off laughin' again and I jist gotta sit and wait until he gets over whatever it is he finds so funny. After a minute or so, he's calmed down some, and jist as he's wipin' his sleeve across his eyes, I hear footsteps on the stair. It's Chris and Hal, and they tap on the door b'fore they come on through.

"You're lookin' better than the last time I saw you." Chris nods to J'siah and sets himself in the chair by the window. Hal comes over t' the bed and stares down at me hard.

"Well, that's a scary thing t' hear. You're lookin' better? Can't say as a person could look much worse. What's wrong with your eye?"

I done fergot about that, and I put m' hand up t' cover it.

"He had a busy night. Nathan figures he broke a blood vessel pukin'. How's the stomach? You had anything to eat?"

"I jist woke up. I ain't had time t' think about food."

Ugh. And I don't want t' start now. Reckon it might be a good time t' change the subject.

"You decided when ya want t' head out after this gang 'a yours?"

Hal looks over at Chris b'fore he answers.

"Yeah, Vin, about that... I been thinkin'... I hear you ain't had the easiest time of things this last couple of months. You shoulda said somethin' to me when we was talkin' last night."

"Said somethin' about what? I kin track fer ya'll. Appreciate it iffen ya could p'raps wait til tomorrow t' head out. I'll be right as rain by then."

"Look, Vin, I don't want you killin' yourself over somethin' that ain't none 'a your concern." Hal's lookin' at me the way he used t' do when I's fourteen. "I shoulda seen ya weren't well and I shoulda never asked fer ya t' help."

"I bin' waitin' on ya. I told you yesterday I knew ya'll was comin'. I have these dreams sometimes - well, they's more than dreams. The People call 'em visions. I ain't thought about you or Lonnie in forever. I kin help ya find him, Hal. I ain't no little kid no more. You don't need t' be worryin' after me."

Chris is on his feet now, and standin' over me too.

"Go back to the part about Lonnie. What's he got to do with anything?"

"Didn't see no need to tell ya, Chris, after we done decided Vin wasn't comin' with. We figure the fellow leadin' this gang is Mattson...ah...Lonnie."

"Thought you said he come from a rich family? Thought he had land and kin to go back to."

"I kinda lost track 'a Lonnie once we been at Andersonville awhile..."

Chris ain't lookin' happy.

"Andersonville? I thought you said you were at Rock Island. How'd you end up there?"

Chris's lookin' from Hal t' me, and I don't know what t' make 'a the look on his face. I don't want Hal lettin' on t' nobody what we went through back then, even if that nobody is m' best friend. Don't want J'siah knowin' either, even though I think the world 'a him too. Don't want nobody knowin'. It's over, it's done, it don't bear repeatin'. Don't want nobody lookin' at me and feelin' sorry. Done sold m' soul t' get outta Rock Island. Everything that happened after that - well, don't reckon it was any more than I deserved nohow.

"Ya know ya need me Hal. It ain't jist by luck you ended up here. It's meant t' be. This is somethin' we got t' do t'gether. What's that word, J'siah? The one that means that it's yer destiny?"

"You mean 'karma'?"

"Yeah, that's it. Karma. I'm ready to do this. I need to do this. I'll be fit tomorrow."

Hal's exchangin' looks with Chris agin, but Chris ain't got nothin' t' say about this. It's b'tween me and Hal.

"Ya think ya gotta git Chris's permission or somethin'? Ya don't. And I know yer only tryin' t' look out fer me, Chris, but I'm fine. Really I am. It won't be nothin' I cain't handle."

It scares me sometimes how much Chris cares. I ain't never had no good thing last. Makes me nervous when things is goin' good. Spend all m' time waitin' fer God t' notice that I don't deserve it and take it all away. I ain't used t' carin' this much 'bout someone else, neither. Life was so much easier when all I had to worry about was m' own worthless neck, and I ain't never even did much worryin' over that. Now I find I gotta look out fer m'self more'n I ever did, and not b'cause I care, but b'cause them others do.

I hate this.

Ain't used to it.

Never will be.

Chris is sighin' now, and he knows he ain't gonna git nowheres tryin' t' tell me what t' do.

"Can I come along at least.?" He holds up his hands. "I know you don't need me or nothing like that..."

I give him a grin.

"Thanks Chris. It'll be good t' have you with."

+ + + + + + +

Turns out J'siah's comin' too. Buck and JD and Ezra's gonna look after things in town, and Nathan's got t' stay b'cause of the influenza that's goin' around. It ain't been as bad as some years, Nate says - ain't nobody died from it yet. He was kinda glarin' at me when he said that, but I'm pretty sure I must be on the mend. Only got sick the once last night, but then again, I ain't had nothin' t' eat in a day or two. Thought m' headache was mostly gone, too, least til I got outside this mornin' - sun's jist a little too sharp and everthin's jist a little too bright around the edges, but if I waited til I felt good b'fore I did anything, especially this last goin' off, I wouldn't git nothin' done at all. M' stomach still ain't too pleased with its lot in life, either, and the cold's gnawed right through m' coat and has got a good start on m' bones. But 'ceptin' fer them few little things, I'm good.

Me and Peso done had us a long talk this mornin', and I made him promise not t' give me any trouble. Guess it don't hurt that he knows I got a pocket full 'a them dried apples he likes - pays t' have an ace up your sleeve where Peso's concerned. He's dancin' now - he ain't been out in awhile and he's a mite excited. I give the reins a good tug, jist t' remind him about our little discussion earlier, then I pull m' hat down over m' eyes and swing up in the saddle. It ain't so bad up here once the world stops spinnin'.

Yeah, I kin handle this.

No problem.

Part Seven

I'm not saying anything. I'm not going to tell him he looks about ready to fall off that sidewinder he calls a horse. I'm not going to tell him he's the colour of them sheets Gloria's got blowin' out on the line. I'm not going to tell him he looks like death warmed over. Nope, I'm not saying a thing......

"Hey, Pard, you sure you're up for this?"

He don't even answer me - just gives me that real infuriatin' look of his and turns Peso's head and starts out of town. All right, that's it, I'm not asking any more.

"You're going to take things easy, right? No need to wear yourself out...."

I'm talking to his back now, and he doesn't look around, just shrugs and knees Peso into a lope. It won't be long til we're at the camp to meet up with Burke, and we'll stop there and have coffee and a rest and work out a plan.

One good thing, there ain't much snow down yet this winter. Makes it a lot easier to get around, but as far as tracking goes, it's probably easier to follow trail if there is some. I'll have to ask Vin about that, if I ever catch up to him. At least Josiah's not riding hell bent for leather, and I can hear the low murmur of him humming as we amble along in the quiet. I can see that Vin's eased up some, now that's he's put some space between us, but Peso's not happy. He's been cooped up in the barn a lot lately and just itching to let loose. Vin's gonna wear himself out real quick if he's gotta fight that devil every step of the way. But that ain't my problem. Vin can take care of himself....

Think I'd find that easier to believe if he didn't look so drug out. And if I thought he'd say if he didn't feel up to this. And if I hadn't heard him up sick last night.

Gotta stop this now. Turning into Nettie.

Only difference is, Vin's afraid of her.

+ + + + + + +

Can't believe we've only been on the trail two days. Must be getting old- can't let Vin hear me say that. Maybe it's the cold - it frosted up real quick- the sun's gone all pale and hard and is peeking up over the rim of the mountains with all of the colour leeched right out of her. Don't think anyone else is awake yet - no one's moving, but then again, maybe they's all froze solid. I look over to where Vin's jist a silvery shadow against the bulk of Josiah's back. We never would've lasted out here if we didn't have Vin with. He found us a place in the hills under an overhang where we could make camp and bunk up against the cliff face with the heat from the fire reflecting back on us. Still cold, though, now that it's come morning and the fire's burned down to almost nothing. Burke didn't bring all of his men with. Bunch of them were coming down sick and he had to leave them back in town. I'm not so sure about this lot, either. Lot of them getting up during the night and disappearing out in the bush, coming back in looking mighty shaky. Vin was up a couple of times too - heard a lot of retching going on but I knew he'd be mad if I let on I knew. So I'll just lie here and pretend I'm living in Vin's world where everything is 'jist fine'.

+ + + + + + +

Guess I dozed off again, 'cause when I next open my eyes the sun's a mite higher in the sky. Too bad she ain't picked up any heat along the way, but I feel a bit creeping through my fingers after Josiah comes over and shoves a mug of coffee in my hands. Burke's up too, and his Sergeant, and they're having a parley on the other side of the fire just beyond what I can hear. Vin still ain't shifted, but he's got lots of company laid out on the ground around him. I can see only four of Burke's men have stirred out of their bedrolls, and the Sarge has got to go and give them that's turtled up asleep a nudge to see if they're still alive. Vin hauls himself up then to sit next to me - we're all around the fire now - them that's not quite awake yet rolled up in blankets, gazing into the flames with glassy eyes.

"Well, we're a fine looking bunch this morning." Burkes surveys the grey faces gathered around him. "Got a special treat fer breakfast - brought along a mess 'a pemmican - don't mind the lard iffen it sticks t' yer teeth - got a big pot of elder - blow tea on the boil and it'll fix that right up. After-" Burke breaks off here as most of his audience moan in unison and lurch to their feet to stumble off to the comfort of the brush again. He pushes his hat back on his head.

"Somethin' I said?"

Josiah looks over at me and grins, and I look over t' where Vin's sitting. He ain't moved, but he's looking mighty green around the edges.

"Might want t' give the pemmican a pass, but the tea'll help settle your stomach."

"Ain't nothin' wrong with m' stomach."

He scowls at me from under his hat and wraps his arms a little tighter around his middle.

We sit quiet for a minute, listening to the sounds of misery wafting to us on the morning breeze. All of a sudden it's too much for Vin and he gets up quick and staggers off to join the chorus. Us that's left don't dare raise our eyes to each other, 'cause it would be just too cruel to laugh, but after a minute we can't hold back any longer. We manage to quit sputterin' and get back control of ourselves, though, by the time the first poor soul crawls his way back to join us.

"So, what's the plan today?"

I'm hoping Burke has some ideas, because I don't think we're going to get far with this bunch spewing their guts up every three feet along the trail.

"We're pretty close to Branson." Vin's back and takes a seat off to my left. "They's likely headed t' New Mexico - don't know how far ya want t' go runnin' after them once they hit the border. We can leave the fellers whats got the flu holed up in town while we scout the area. They'd likely be more comfortable closer t' civilization."

"You including yourself in with this bunch that's too sick to go riding out?"

"Nah, I ain't sick. Jist a bit off m' feed."

He swallows hard and his hand goes to his mouth when Josiah waves a plate in front of his face.

"It's beans and hardtack and coffee, son. Hal was havin' you on."

Can't say as it looks real appetizing neither, but Vin ain't making any move toward it, so I take it and dig in. I don't know how Vin manages to go so long without nothing inside him. Man looks like he'd blow over in a stiff breeze, but he can outlast any of the rest of us when the going gets tough. Reckon he's just like any of the rest of them desert creatures - go for days without water, find food where it don't seem nothing could possibly be living, hide in plain sight, disappear at the whim of the wind.... He's too thin, always has been, but lately... I know he's got Nathan on the worry. Good thing I ain't letting the state of his health bother me...

"You should try to eat something, Vin."

I keep telling myself I'm not going to fret over him..... I've already lost two people who meant the world to me, and I know how fast it can happen. I swore I was never going to care about anyone like that again, but with him - I can't explain what he does for me. It tears me up to see how little he thinks of himself, how he thinks he ain't good enough for folk. That boy's spent way too much time alone. He don't know what people are really like. Most 'civilized' folk don't put others before themselves. They don't accept the hard things life shoves on them without complaint. They don't look at each new day as something to be thankful for. They don't appreciate each and every kindness that comes their way. They don't move like they're at peace with the world. I know Vin believes some of the hateful things that others have said about him - that he's ignorant and wild and savage - but he's a better man than any I've ever met.

He's looking at me now with that easy grin that's telling me I needn't worry, but that he appreciates it all the same.

"Mebbe later. I will try, Chris. I will."

+ + + + + + +

It's the middle of the day by the time we get to Branson, and Josiah and the sergeant head into town for supplies. We don't want to be spreading this sickness around, but come to find out that the flu's already been through here and the townsfolk are happy to keep Burke's young fellows and tend to them while we're out on the trail. The doctor ain't in town, though, but it turns out maybe we can do something to repay these folks for all their help.

I asked Burke that morning when I was out to his camp back in Four Corners how he thought he'd ever catch up with this gang since they seemed to have a pretty big head start on him. Burke was fair certain that maybe one or more 'a them was hurt in the shootout in Fort Lyons, and he figured they wouldn't be traveling too quick. He said that giving them some time to get ahead would have them thinking the law had given up chasing them, and that they'd likely think it was safe to hole up somewhere and lick their wounds. Turns out Burke was right - they did come through here four days ago, shot up the town and left toting Branson's doctor. He's a widower, and they took his daughter along with as well. The sheriff and a few of the menfolk tried going after them, but they couldn't find no sign 'a them and they got scared up there in the hills - said the air had the taste and feel of snow coming. They did say that there's an old mine up a ways into the mountains, and even though it's mostly fallen to ruin, there's shacks still standing up there from when the company sent prospectors out. The first is a day's ride beyond the mine, with the next two each a day beyond that. The sheriff done offered to take us up there, heading out tomorrow, and that's a good thing because it means there ain't no need 'a Vin being dragged around no further.

"I'm comin' with, Chris. We already talked about this."

"But Vin, we don't got no need for you. The sheriff can take us to where we want to go - no tracking to be done."

We're in the saloon, the three of us, having a beer while Burke gets his men squared around. We already got our rooms lined up for the night and he's going to join us here as soon as his lot are settled.

"This don't really even concern you." Vin leans back in his chair and folds his arms. "Burke don't got no need fer you. I's the one that's involved in this, Chris. Yer the one what's along fer the ride. Ya seem t' be fergettin' that."


He's right.

And don't I hate that.

When he's right.

Part Eight

Must be gittin' soft. Feels good t' sleep in a bed, wake up warm. Well, guess I ain't really wakin' up - only way I could be doin' that would be iffen I'd bin asleep. And now that I think on it, it's a little too warm, so I kick off the quilt and lie there a minute. I kin see m' breathin' cloudin' in front 'a m' face and it feels good, the cool of the air on m' skin. Still, I ain't in no hurry t' haul m'self outta m' cot, that is, until I hear Chris and J'siah up - the mattresses creakin' in the rooms on either side 'a me and the thumpin' 'a boots on the floor pretty much gives it away. I kin hear 'em now, out in the hall whisperin', and I know it's b'cause they don't want t' wake me. Guess I cain't stay here all day, so I drag m'self t' the door, unlock it and pull it open and they stop gibberin' and stare at me.


I head on over t' the wash basin and they follow me inside.

"Word of advice, Vin." J'siah's leanin' up aginst the door jamb, arms crossed. "You best stick close til we get outta town. Folk see you walkin' around lookin' like that - they's gonna think the prophecies of Revelations done come true and the dead's bein' givin' up fer judgement."

I guess I must be lookin' like I ain't got no clue what he's on about, 'cause I don't, so he gits this half exasperated look on his face and goes on.

"You look like hell, son. You're gonna send the good folk in this town runnin' for the safety of their hearths if they see you comin' down the street."

I take a look at m'self then, in the mirror over the commode. I don't look that bad....well, exceptin' fer the hair what's bushed out all over m' head. And them bruises under m' eyes. And that one eye that's all run through with red. And I guess I's lookin' a bit white in the face. But all in all, save fer them few things, I look OK.

"Yer gittin' old, J'siah. Ya need specs."

I sit m'self back on the edge 'a the bed and try t' pull on m' pants. That about does me in, and I gotta catch m'self b'fore I fall on the floor. Find out when I lean down t' pull m' boots on that m' head's 'bout ready to explode, too, so I guess it's a good thing I ain't havin' t' do the trackin'. I's feelin' a mite achy all over and I don't think I could take a day 'a climbin' in and out of the saddle. Finally git m'self t'gether, though, and follow Chris and J'siah down the steps and go out the door t' find it's snowin'. Not hard, jist enough t' cover the dirt in the street and dress the trees. It's right pretty, no question, but I don't see how it kin snow when it's as hot as it is.

We stop over t' the saloon fer coffee and Burke's already there, scarfin' down a big plate 'a eggs and potatoes. We sit down with, and ask fer plates 'a the same. Don't know iffen I kin eat mine - havin' trouble jist swallowin' m' coffee, but I pick away at it. Too early in the mornin' t' have Chris and J'siah on me.

There's jist seven of us headin' out. Seems t' be my number. Well, and J'siah's too - with all the preachin' he's bin doin' lately outta the book of Revelation 'bout the seven churches and the seven angels and the seven plagues. J'siah says all that misery they poured out on the earth at God's bidding was supposed t' make the wicked repent of all the evil they done. I wish I knew how t' repent. J'siah makes it sound easy - mebbe it is iffen ya ain't got much t' repent for. He says all ya got t' do is say yer sorry and then live good after that, but that ain't near as easy as it sounds. Leastways, not fer someone like me. Must be b'cause I'm totin' more guilt and sin around than most. I's sorry fer a lot of the wrong I done, but I ain't sorry fer all of it. Some of that wrong needed t' be done, and some of it even felt like it was right. Not what I done in the War - weren't none of that felt right....killin' folk on both sides of a fight that never should've bin. There's good and bad all the way around, no matter what yer point of view, and I know that better'n any, seein' as how I was there. Guess the long and the short of it is that I ain't never gonna be forgiven. J'siah says that don't mean I should stop tryin'. He's a smart man, and I'm lucky t' know him, so I guess it won't hurt none t' try t' do as he says.

Guess I know why I don't spend too much time thinkin'. It's hard work when ya cain't figure nothin' out fer yerself. Sometimes I wish I weren't so stupid. Hell, all of the time I wish I weren't so stupid. It ain't never bothered me b'fore - that I cain't read or write m' own name or that I don't know nothin' about nothin'. Don't know why the rest 'a them want t' bother themselves about me - I mean even JD, green as what he is - knows a lot of stuff. I done talked t' Mary 'bout her maybe teachin' me m' letters and she said she'd be happy to, but b'fore I kin start I gotta think of somethin' I kin do t' pay her back. I know she don't want nothin', but I don't cotton t' havin' folk put themselves out fer me lessen I kin do somethin' in return. I jist ain't worth that kind of effort.

All this yakkin' t' m'self is givin' me a headache. I ain't bin payin' a whole lot of attention - jist hopin' Peso will follow along and not throw me off. Don't really remember stoppin' fer lunch - kinda dozed off I guess, and now it seems we're here at the mine and goin' t' make camp fer the night. I ain't bin much help at all this trip...... I's jist so tired... mebbe Chris was right - I shoulda stayed home. Makin' more work fer him, that's fer darn sure, and right now I cain't figure how I'm gonna git offa m' horse without fallin'. Don't take long fer him and J'siah and Hal t' notice that I ain't movin'. All three are at me at once, haulin' me off and luggin' me inta the shack and what all else I don't rightly recall, 'cause everything's swirlin' around me and m' brain' shuts down and I'm gone.

Part Nine

"He feel warm to you?"

"Don't worry, Chris, he's probably just wore out."

Josiah helps me lay Vin out on the floor, in the corner, out of the way.

"I'll go get his bedroll. Burke's men are out scouring up some wood - looks to be a shed out back - hope there'll be some dry in there."

"Hope you're right. He's lookin' mighty pale....."

Josiah's gone and I'm talking to myself. Burke comes in right then and stands beside me, looking down at Vin.

"He OK? He ain't lookin' so good."

Whatever else I might think about Burke, I'm glad to have some company when it comes to fretting over Vin. Doesn't make me feel quite so much like the mother hen Vin's always accusing me of being.

"Josiah thinks he's just wore out. We'll get him settled and see if he comes around. Maybe try to get some food in him."

Burke's not lookin' too convinced about this - just stands there and shakes his head.

"He was an amazing kid, ya know. Of all the men I done had under me, back than and since, I ain't never had one that I trusted like I did him. He was always calm, no matter what was goin' on around him. I think the rest of the men was afraid of him - not in the way of fearin' for their lives or nothin' like that, but it's like they knew he was somethin' special. Never saw no one who could shoot the way he could. He always seemed t' look at things from this quiet far away place and see what was really going on. I never seen him walk away from anyone who needed his help. I never seen him angry. Could be darn stubborn, though - was pretty intent, once he got something in that damn head of his. He was smart, but ya know, it was more'n that... he was... well, old, somehow, wise I guess, like a whole life time 'a hurt and hope and wisdom was all squeezed inta this little kid. I'll never see or know or feel what that boy has if I live t' be a hundred."

Burke goes quiet then and leans down and puts his palm on Vin's forehead.

"Better make sure he doesn't wake up and catch you doin' that. You'll likely lose that hand if he does."

Burke smiles a bit and straightens up.

"He is runnin' a fever. That boy's wastin' away t' nothin'. Mrs. Mullen there at the hotel give me some caudle all ready made - I'll put that on t' heat and when he comes around we kin try t' git some inta him."

It's my turn now to crouch down and run my hand across Vin's face. He don't look no more'n a boy, lying there like that, so white and still, and all of a sudden it hits me that I can't lose him. Not that I could lose him, because I don't think he's in that kind of danger yet, but that I can't. He knows what I feel and need and want before I know myself. He would take on any pain or discomfort or anguish, and I don't mean just the physical kind, to spare me. He puts himself out for me in ways that nobody other than Sarah ever did. No wonder he's come to mean so much to me. He's filled that space inside that's been empty since Sarah died. He's the other half of my soul.

It makes me smile to see Burke fussing over Tanner like he is. Vin's come around a bit now, growling at Hal t' get away from him with that God awful concoction of spiced wine and sugar and soggy bread that he's got slopping around in that bowl. Says it looks like something a person would feed a baby.

"Hal, jist leave me be. As Bucklin would say, 'I ain't so far gone that I cain't chase women and take nourishment.' Don't think I'll ever be so far gone that eatin' that disgustin' mess will seem like a good idea. Better git it outta here quick, b'fore I heave on ya."

"He will too," I say helpfully, "just ask Ezra."

I grin when Hal backs away and shakes his head. But Hal ain't grinning, and I know he's thinking we gotta get something into Vin before he disappears. I get down on my heels beside the bedroll.

"Is there anything we can get you that you think might stay down? You really do have to eat something, Vin."

"I know." Vin closes his eyes and I can see that he's exhausted. "P'raps some tea would set on m' stomach all right."

It's not enough, but it's better than nothing. At least we've got the fire going and someone's put the kettle on the boil. Turns out the wood's wet, and there's lots of smoke and not enough heat and a fair breeze blowing in through here, but all in all, we should pass a fairly tolerable night. Josiah helps me settle Vin closer to the stove and away from the worst of the draft, and we hunker down to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Being as how we're only two days out of town, Burke's man cooked up a pretty good breakfast - eggs and beans and fried potatoes. Vin actually had some, and we've been out on the trail going on two hours now and it ain't come back on him yet. The snow yesterday didn't amount to much, and I think it's a little warmer today, though you wouldn't know it to look at Vin.

"How you holding up?"

He slants a look at me from under the brim of his hat.

"I'm OK."

"Yeah, you look it."

"Go t' hell, Chris."

"Not without you, Pard."

"Think I's ready t' go now." He shudders and pulls his collar tighter around his neck. "Least it'd be warm."

He's started making a rattling, wheezing noise when he's breathing this last going off, and when I ask him about it, he says it's likely 'cause of the air getting thinner. I bite my tongue over that one - don't hear no one else soundin' like the bellows at the blacksmith's, but might as well let the boy think he gets the best of me every once and awhile. Burke's been back to check on him - me and Vin and Josiah's bringing up the rear. Vin's idea. I figure he wants to be sure when he falls off his horse, there won't be nobody but us to see him. He's hanging on for dear life, and starting to list to the side, and I can tell from the way Peso's steppin' that he knows Vin ain't up to par. Vin's over there now, trying not to cough, when all of a sudden he looks over at me, eyes wide.


With that he leans to the left and proceeds to puke all over Peso's side, and I reach out to grab him and hold him steady. When he finishes he looks at me again, and it goes right through me when I think how much he looks like Adam did when he was sick - almost like he's surprised and a little afraid that his body would betray him like that. I'm just about to send Josiah up front to find Burke and tell him it's time for a break, when the order to stop comes back along the line. Josiah goes forward anyway to see what's going on, and I wrangle Pony close to Peso and take Vin's arm to hold him in the saddle. I don't know how much time goes by that we just sit there in the snow - muffled silence, waiting, and then Josiah's back and whispering that the cabin is just ahead. Burke sent a couple of men out to scout around, and they found three horses tied out back and tracks that say somebody'd ridden out.

"Let's go up and talk to Hal about how we're going to handle this." Vin's pale, but his grip tightens on the reins and he makes to nudge Peso forward.

"You sure you-"

Vin cuts me off.

"I feel better now that I bin sick. Let's go."

+ + + + + + +

Burke figures there ain't no point in trying to hide the fact we're out here. The cabin's in rough shape, and the only window there is has the shutter pulled to and there ain't no way we can sneak up there and have a look see what's going on. Burke waves the rest of the men back and signals them to spread out and surround the clearing. Burke and the three of us hang at the edge of the trees and he waits until he's sure everyone is in place.

"Hello the camp!"


"You're surrounded, boys. Let's see you come out with your hands up and nobody'll get hurt."

Still silence.

"Mattson! That you in there? Show yourself!"

The shutter at the window moves just a little - we've caught someone's attention.

"Lonnie! It's Hal, Hal Burke. You remember me? From way back when? Vin's with me - we just wanna talk. No need fer anybody t' git hurt."

Just then the door swings open and there's a girl standing there - looks to be about sixteen, and she's scared. There's an arm tight around her neck and a gun at her head, but beyond that, we can't see nothing.

"Lonnie! This here's Vin Tanner. There ain't no need t' be terrorizin' innocent folk. Ya want a hostage? Let the girl go - ya kin have me."

Vin's voice is stronger than I would have thought given how weak he is. I can't help but give him my best 'What kind of a fool are you anyway?' look, but I know from past experience it don't work real good on Vin no how.

Things is quiet for a minute.

"Well, well, well. Vin Tanner. Still the hero. OK, Vin, you come on in and I'll let the girl and her Pa loose. Get rid of your guns, and don't try anything."

The girl's pulled back into the cabin and the door bangs shut.

Me and Hal swing down off our horses and I go over to stand beside Peso.

"Vin, you aren't in any shape to-"

"Look, Chris, we want to get that girl and her pa away from him. I'll just go in and try to talk some sense into 'im. I don't think he'll try anythin', and if he does, well..... at least the girl and the doc'll be safe."

Vin hands me down the reins then, but he don't make no move to get off. Just sits there.

"I ain't sure I kin walk that far." He gives me that half grin of his.

The door's open again and the girl with the gun at her head is back.

"Come out into the middle of the clearing. Unload your guns and leave 'em there. Then come on up here with your hands out where I can see them."

I grab Peso's halter.

"You stay put. Me and Hal'll get you to him."

We make our way out of the trees and into the open space in front of the shack. We unbuckle our gunbelts, empty our guns and leave them in a pile, then work on getting Vin offa Peso.

"Just Vin." Mattson's giving me the eye when Hal speaks up.

"The boy's sick Lonnie. We'll just get him settled in with you and then we'll back off."

I can feel Vin trembling beside me, but his face is calm and I know he ain't afraid. He's about all in and I wrap my arm tighter around him and pull him close.

Lonnie's got the girl held hard against him. Her eyes are huge and damp, face smudged with dirt and tears, arms crossed tight against her chest. An older feller is sitting on the corner of a bunk just inside the door - he's itching to get to the girl and is stretched as far toward her as he can reach. Must be her pa.

We all just stand there for a long minute, looking at each other like a bunch 'a simpletons.

"Who the hell is that?" The young feller jerks his head in my direction and shifts some.

"Vin's friend - Chris Larabee. Chris, this here's Lonnie Mattson."

Don't know why this strikes me funny. You'd think we was at the church social, bein' all proper and polite like we are.

"He ain't got no business here."

"Vin's my friend. Where he goes, I go."

Lonnie looks kind of amused by that.

"Fair enough. You want t' go where Vin goes - I got no problem with that at all." He licks his lips and waves his gun at the pa.

"Here." He reaches into his pocket and flicks something at Hal. "You take them cuffs offa the old guy and cuff Vin here to the end 'a the bed."

Hal does as he's told, and soon Vin's sitting on the floor between the bunk and the stove with his right hand fastened to the bedpost.

Now that he's been freed, you can tell the doc's fighting back the urge to grab his daughter and bolt. He's shifting from one foot to the other and hasn't taken his eyes off the door. "What's your hurry, Doc? Don't ya want t' git t' know the good feller what's ready t' trade hisself fer you and yer little filly here?"

Lonnie brushes the blonde hair away from the white face, leans in and runs his tongue up the line of the girl's neck. She's shaking now, and her father just stands there, looking numb.

"What do you think, Vin? Should I let them go?"

"That was the deal, Lonnie."

Vin's voice is low and cool - sounds like he could be out on the porch of the saloon talking 'bout the weather over a coffee. Lonnie doesn't take his eyes off the doctor, and the gun doesn't move. Nobody says nothing for a minute or two, and I switch m'self around some so I can get a good look at this Lonnie feller for m'self. Looks to be about Vin's age, similar build, long stringy blond hair and a nose that don't exactly seem t' fit his face. Looks like he musta broke it a time or two, but all in all, nothing much about him that would make a person sit up and take notice. Leastways, that's what I think til I look at his eyes. They's blue, but so pale they look like they don't have hardly no colour at all. And they's....empty. Glittering some - think the man's running a fever, and I take a closer look and see that he's got a bandage round his thigh dark with blood that's dried there, and then I notice that something smells. Bad. I notice then that he's sweating too, but the hand holding the gun is as steady as a rock.

"Yeah. That was the deal."

He lets go of the girl, and she steps toward her father and buries her face in his shoulder. Lonnie waves the gun at them, and they start out the door. They've just cleared the stoop - we can see them out the open door, when Lonnie raises the gun again and points it at the doctor's back. He thumbs back the hammer and I swear I can see his finger getting tight on the trigger.


It's Vin. His voice is sharp and hard.

"Yer word don't mean nothin' no more?"

The gun lowers.

"There ain't no need fer that. Let 'em go."

The girl and her father have started to run, and they finally reach the edge of the clearing and safety in the circle of Burke's men. I can see Vin shoulders slump in relief, and he turns his gaze back to Lonnie. They sit and stare, sizing each other up.

Lonnie's first to speak.

"You ain't changed a whole hell of a lot. Would've known you anywhere. And

you-" he's looking at Hal now, "you ain't changed much neither. Hair's goin', put on some weight - more'n can be said for you, Vin. You're a pretty sorry looking sight, Tanner."

Vin's cracks that half grin of his.

"Ya ain't seen yerself lately then."

"Yeah, I know." Lonnie looks down at his leg.

"That looks bad." Hal actually sounds sorry for the guy. The guy who just two minutes ago was ready to gun down that girl and her pa.

"Doc says it should come off. But I weren't gonna let him. Don't much cotton to life as a cripple. Two of my boys is dead, and the two that ain't done run off. Took the money too."

Hell, I hope he ain't expecting us to feel sorry for him! I don't even want to look at Vin and Burke - I'll likely have to kill them if I see anything even close to sympathy on their faces.

"When did it happen, son?"

Damn it, Burke! The man's a killer and a thief!

"Had a difference of opinion after Fort Lyons. Holden got killed, and Cooper took one in the side. It was bad, and Weaver and Myers wanted to dump him- leave him behind. Just before Branson, they put one in m' leg - somethin' to remember them by, and run out on us. I took the doc there, t' patch Cooper up, but it were too late. He's out back, in the wood shed. I was doin' OK, up til yesterday and then m' leg went bad all of the sudden. Gangrene." He looks up at Vin then. "When'd you and Hal hook up?"

"Coupla days ago. Ain't seen nor heard nothin' 'bout one another since '65."

"Yeah, now look. Like a goddamn reunion." Lonnie huffs bit over that, and goes back to studying Vin.

"So tell me - what you bin doin' with yourself all these years?"

Vin lifts his head and leans it back against the wall. Mattson slides down off the bench to rest on the floor beside him with the gun pointed at Vin's head, but still at arm's length away.

"Bit 'a this and that - hunted buffalo, chased bounty, doin' some peace keepin' jist east of here."

"Peace keepin'? Upholdin' the law? Still playin' the saint, eh, Vin?"

Vin shrugs.

"Seems t' me I done saw yer face on a poster not too far back. Five hundred dollars for murder in Texas. Mebbe ya ain't so good and holy as folk might think."

"Ain't many folk never confused me with nothin' good and holy."

I can feel Burke stir beside me - he obviously wasn't aware of the bounty, and I warn him to be quiet with a shake of my head. Another minute goes by and then Lonnie laughs.

"You didn't do it, did you? Somebody set you up."

Vin's saying nothing.

"Hal? You hear that? Kin you picture your Vin killin' somebody in cold blood? Not likely, is it?"

Lonnie chuckles some more, and we all sit there a spell, doing nothing. They're a pretty sorry lookin' pair - Lonnie all bright-eyed with fever and his leg all swelled up the size of a tree trunk, Vin thin and white and about as done in as I've ever seen anybody that was still breathing. "You two can go now. Me and Vin got things to discuss."

"Lonnie, there ain't no need for this. Let us take care of you. There ain't nothin' t' gain from all of this."

"I want t' talk t' Vin. When I's finished, ya can come back in. Not until I tell you though. Stay away from your guns. Now go."

Burke nods at me and we start out the door. Peso's been waiting by the step, and I gather up his reins and we walk about half way back to where we dropped our guns and crouch down in the damp of the melting snow to wait.

Part Ten

"So, who's this feller Larabee you're ridin' with?"

I can't b'lieve Lonnie really cares.

"You really want t' know, or are ya jist makin' conversation?"

"That's it Vin, cut right to the chase. I ain't never seen nobody as tight with words as what you are."

"Yeah, well, most folk don't got nothin' t' say worth sayin', and I ain't no exception."

Lonnie shuts up then, but not fer long.

"Yeah, but that don't stop 'em from sayin' it anyway."

I can't be bothered t' even reply t' that.

"This feller Larabee - he a good friend?"

"Mebbe. Why d'ya want t' know?"

"He ever run out on you?"

"No. He never would. He'd die fer me without me even askin'."

Lonnie's quiet another spell.

"You ever find out iffen ya had any kin out there in the world?"

"None blood. Lived awhile with the Kiowa and the Comanche - they done treated me like one 'a their own. Since then, I guess I found m'self a family of sorts. Chris and the rest of the boys - there's seven of us all told - we's workin' fer a judge over Four Corners way. They's the finest bunch a feller could ever ride with. They's like kin t' me."

"Never could figure what you had that made folk take t' you the way they did. Always hated you fer that. Guess I still do."

Lonnie slouches down and stares out the door t' where Chris and Hal might be. I cain't see nothin' from where I'm sittin', but I'm certain sure they're somewhere close, waitin' on me.

"You ever think about what's gonna happen when ya die, Vin?"

"Think on it a lot. Haven't figured it out yet, though."

"How come ya never told Landry ya never killed that dog?"

Wish Lonnie'd shut up soon. All this ramblin' from one thing t' the next is makin' m' head hurt.

"We already been through this long time since. Ya know why."

"Don't ya ever git tired 'a folk walkin' on ya, Vin? Don't ya ever git tired 'a doin' without when others got more'n they need? Didn't it ever make ya mad t' think that people'd take from ya only b'cause they could? Don't nothin' ever git your back up?"

Lonnie's got this strange kinda look in his eye, and iffen I weren't wonderin' where he was goin' with this b'fore, I'm sure as hell wonderin' now.

"Don't ya ever git scared, Vin? I think I'd like t' see that. You scared."

This ain't soundin' good.

"Would it make ya feel any better t' know that I was? What do ya want me t' be scared of? Want me t' say I's scared 'a dyin'? Well, all right then, but I ain't so much scared 'a dyin' as I am dyin' b'fore I git the chance t' make amends fer all the wrong I done. That make ya happy?"

I's a mite wore out when I finish m' little speech and it takes a minute t' catch m' breath. Too bad Ezra ain't here - think he'd be proud.

Lonnie shifts around, reaches under the bench b'hind him and draws out this long slim knife. He hefts in his left hand, bein' as how his right one's still busy with the pistol.

"I think we should be blood brothers - what d'you think Vin?"

Not sure whether I should say I got all the brother I need in Chris. Prob'ly won't help me none, so I don't say nothin'.

"Mebbe I should jist give ya somethin' t' remember me by - jist like m' friends did fer me."

I gotta say, with his eyes glitterin' and his lips all drawn away from his teeth like that, Lonnie looks plumb crazy. Iffen he's tryin' t' give me the jitters, he's doin' a right fine job. Wonder iffen he'd b'lieve me if I promised t' remember him without no reminders that's likely gonna involve blood.

B'fore I kin even blink, he's on his knees in front of me and the knife's flashin' and all the breath is sucked outta m' lungs when I feel this white hot pain slice through me. I try t' pull away, but I cain't move. I'm growlin' now through m' teeth and Lonnie's rocked back on his heels and is lookin' at me like I's a bear caught in a trap. I kin feel m' stomach drop t' the bottom of m' boots and all of a sudden, the room's gone cold and I think I'm gonna be sick. After a couple of minutes, when it finally looks like I ain't gonna pass out any time soon, I come t' realize that the knife's gone right through m' side and I's stuck fast t' the wall. Kinda wish I hadn't figured that out, because knowin' only makes me feel like I could puke again. Once he sees the blood, though, Lonnie seems t' come back t' himself. It's like he can't take his eyes offa the red that's seepin' through m' shirt, and after a bit he looks up and stares me in the face.

"Do you hate me now?"


It's funny, but I don't. I's tired and sick and sore, and hatin' him would take more strength than I got in me at the moment. Figure iffen he's gonna kill me, then that's what's meant t' be. I feel a shiver of somethin' - regret mebbe - when I think about Chris, but right now I's feelin' a mite closer t' throwin' in m' cards than I am t' seein' the hand through. Guess I must be wool - gatherin' - Lonnie's sayin' somethin', and I got t' ask him t' repeat it.

"Do ya fergive me? Fer all the wrong things I done to ya."

"Lonnie, ya ain't never did nothin' any worse'n what most folk done. And I don't want t' be goin' off t' the next life bearin' a grudge 'ginst no one, so - yeah - I fergive ya."

He's practic'ly sittin' on m' legs now, and the gun's waverin' back and forth in front of us and I jist want it all t' be over. He's lookin' right through me and what little colour that was in his eyes seems t' be all leached away and his skin's so white ya kin almost see through it. He looks like a ghost, like the ghost 'a that boy I knew once, and even his voice when he speaks is like a shadow that barely stirs the air around.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I really am."

And then I hear the gun roar, and its song of death fills the silence b'tween us.

Part Eleven

Hal shoves his hat back on his head and sighs. Not sure how long we been out here, but it's getting a mite uncomfortable, squatting in the snow.

"So, Vin's got a bounty on his head. How long that been there?"

"Not rightly sure. Year and a half maybe. He didn't do it."

Hal gives a short chuff of laughter.

"I know."

"Seems anybody that actually knows Vin seems pretty certain of that. Even Lonnie."

"Especially Lonnie. They were pretty close there fer awhile. Vin always looked out fer him. Especially at Rock Island. Lonnie was scared and Vin - well- I ain't never known Vin t' be scared 'a nothin'."

"Yeah, reckon he still ain't. Leastways nothing where he's the one at stake."

We can't see inside the cabin from out here. There's no sun to speak of and the door is a block of black in the grey of its face.

"It's funny, ain't it, the way two people kin live through the same things and come out so different. I mean, when I hooked up with Lonnie and Vin they was a lot alike. Just two boys suckered by the promise of adventure and excitement, caught up in a man's war. Vin was always the steadier of the two - took everything as it came, never complained or asked fer anything- accepted all that happened as jist his due. That way the whole time I knew him - put everybody else b'fore himself, always ready to help or make things easier, even fer those he didn't know. Asked him about it once - told me his Ma told him t' always remember he was a Tanner and he knew by that she wanted him to make her proud. Vin said the one good thing 'bout havin' nothin' meant that it weren't no hardship t' do without. I don't know what all was goin' on in that fourteen year old brain 'a his, but I reckon his twisted view 'a the world and his place in it is what's kept him alive all these years."

"You never did tell me how you ended up in Andersonville."

Hal rocks back on his heels and runs his hand through his hair.

"Yeah. Andersonville. Well, I told ya we took the amnesty and said good bye t' Rock Island..... lot of the fellers there went west - Galvanized Yankees- two regiments from the Rock alone. But like I done told ya b'fore, them two boys could shoot too good t' waste them fightin' on the frontier. So we got all fitted out with the Feds then - new guns, new uniforms, couple of dollars in our put on the train and shipped off t' Virginia. Best part of the war, iffen war kin have a best part - that trip from Davenport t' Roanoke. Took the best part 'a two weeks and there was places where the land had been ploughed over and the green was comin' on the trees - sometimes it was almost enough t' make ya ferget there was a war goin' on at all. Didn't last long though. The closer we got t' Virginia, the closer we was to the war agin, and that ride on the train might jist as well have bin a dream. And it turned out, too, that after all we done went through t' git outta Rock Island, we should never 'a bothered. All in all our 'freedom' mighta lasted two months and then we found ourselves in the thick 'a the fog at Proctor's Creek. Butler got us beat by the Rebs and we's off t' prison agin. Only this time it was worse. Rolled inta Andersonville end 'a May. Weren't quite finished - they never really did git done buildin' it. Was supposed t' hold ten thousand men but by the time the first 'a July come around there was thirty two thousand of us all crammed in on top 'a one another. Here we were in the middle of cotton country and hardly no canvas to be had. Lots 'a wood there abouts, too, but weren't no axes t' cut it with, nowheres t' mill it, and no nails. The Rebs had old men and boys doin' guard duty, and they couldn'a kept control of us no how even if we was allowed out t' cut wood. Summer was comin' on and Lord was it hot! We was lucky, fer once, and managed t' scrape t'gether the goods t' get a tent rigged up. I ain't never bin so glad t' have a 'roof' over m' head in m' life. That piece 'a canvas was the most valuable thing I ever owned. We took turns sleepin', just so's one of us would always be awake t' make sure that nobody tried t' come and take it off us. It's a miracle all three of us survived that hell. Lonnie - well, he learned t' git by on the backs of other folk and Vin jist learned t' git by. Not sure how. Lucky I guess."

I gotta choke back a laugh at that. Yeah, Vin's been real lucky, getting the life he got. I don't say nothing, though, and Hal keeps on.

"Soon found out we just one traded one brand 'a misery fer another. Moldy food, what little there was of it, dirt, disease.... they set up somethin' of a hospital, but a feller was better off t'avoid it iffen he could. We was all sick, but we tried t' look out fer ourselves. Vin was doin' not too bad fer awhile. That month or two we was b'tween camps - he got a bit of his strength back. Then - guess it was round about was bad.....I thought fer sure his time had come."

I don't say nothing - just wait til Hal's ready, and after a minute he goes on.

"There was this dog - yappy, long silky coat, bout the size of rat. One 'a the fellers in charge - can't remember his name - weren't matter, this here feller always had this damn little dog with. Stuck it in the front of his coat so's its head poked out b'tween the buttons. Didn't we all hate that dog. Kinda foolish now's I think on it, t' spend all that energy hatin' on a stupid little animal like that. But we did. Guess jist knowin' that it was bein' fed and treated better than what we were and havin' it paraded around in front of us every day - was a mite hard t' take. Well one day, doesn't this pooch git away from.... Landry - that was his name - it gits away from him and takes off. Runs right out inta the mess of us sittin' there in that stinkin' hole, and - well - that was the end of that. He was somebody's dinner b'fore ya could blink an eye and Landry was beside himself. Offered extra rations to anyone who could tell him what happened to his toy. Talk started that it were one 'a the kids what took it. Turned out it was Lonnie, but when Landry came t' face him about it, he said it were Vin what killed that mutt. Landry took Vin out and had him whipped in front of us all. Damn near killed him - the boy couldn't move fer weeks - jist laid there with his back all torn t' shreds, burnin' with fever. There weren't much I could do for him but feed him water and try t' keep the flies away. Asked him why he didn't stand up fer himself. Said he'd bin whipped b'fore - knew he could take it, and that Lonnie couldn't. Far as Vin were concerned, it were over and done with, but I don't think Lonnie ever forgave him."

We's both quiet after that - Hal thinkin' on days best forgotten and me thinking on Vin. About how little I know about him. About how little that matters. I see ripples of that boy in the man he has become, and I realize that I don't need to know about him. I know him, and that is enough.

Something occurs to me then.

"Hal, it just come to me that from what you're saying, Lonnie ain't real charitably disposed t'wards Vin. If that's the case, p'raps we better be doin' something about getting him out of there."

Hal's just about to answer - turns toward the cabin and opens his mouth, and that's when we hear it.

The sharp short bark of a gun, and the sound strikes through me with all the force and pain of a bullet. When I find I can move, I sprint t'ward the shack with Hal hard on my heels, my breath gasping in and out on the words,

"Please, God, no."

Part Twelve

I can't see nothing inside the cabin after bein' out in the light of day. Hal runs into the back of me when I stop quick in the doorway, and it ain't til my eyes start to get used to the dark that I make out the grey shapes on the floor. Vin's still cuffed to the bunk, his hand and arm the only things I can make out in the haze. For a minute I think they're both dead and my heart near stops, then I see that hand move and hear a long whispered groan.

Lonnie's shot himself - his body is lying across Vin's legs and Vin and the wall behind his head is covered in blood and bits of skull and brains. Most of Lonnie's face is gone, but Vin has his one free hand on the back of Mattson's head, strokin' his hair like he was comfortin' a child. Josiah comes up behind us then, and I hear the sorrow catch in his voice and the whispered litany as he prays for yet another lost soul.

Vin's looking past me to where Josiah's standing, and his eyes are full of wonder and surprise.

"He said he was sorry, J'siah. He wanted me t' forgive him. Is it really that easy?"

Josiah breathes out a long sigh of what sounds like relief.

"Yes it is, son. Yes it is."

It takes me a minute to remember I can still move, and I get down in front of Vin and take his bloody hand in my own. Hal's still got the keys to the cuffs and he fishes through his pockets til he finds them, climbs over Vin and frees him from the chain. It ain't until we make t' help Vin onto the bed that we find that not all the blood we're seeing belongs to Lonnie.

"Chris - no don't-" Vin's grip on my hand tightens and his breath quickens. "I can't..."

That's when I see the knife poking out from under his ribs and I figure we best wait til we get the doc in here b'fore we try to move him. Hal and Josiah have got Lonnie by the feet and they drag what's left of him out the door and back around to the woodshed to keep company with his friend. Vin's all froze up against the pain, and he's hangin' on my hand so hard I swear I can feel the bones crack. Josiah sticks his head back in the door long enough to say he's going' fer the doc, and Hal and me can't do nothin' more'n kneel there and tell Vin t' just hang on. The doctor - Thorpe's his name - comes in on the run, and finds the bag he left behind in his hurry to get himself and his girl out of there. Lucky for Vin he has some laudanum with, and much as Vin hates the stuff, Thorpe manages to convince him he really don't want to be awake when that knife's comin' out of his side. We start forcing the drug inta him, and it takes awhile because he just can't keep it down. Seeing him sick like this about does me in. I'm startin' to think it might be quicker and kinder all around if I just clock him with my gun, but finally he drifts off and Thorpe gets to work. He's got to put some stitches in him, says Vin's got a fever and from the way he's breathin', he's likely got pneumonia. Hal figures there's a lot of snow coming, and even though the doc don't want to move him, he agrees we should try to get Vin back to Branson before we end up stuck here til next spring. He says he'll keep Vin dosed to the eyeballs for the two day ride out of the hills and promises us he won't feel a thing. We'll take turns carrying him, me and Hal and Josiah - reckon we'll each be happy to have him in our arms a spell.

+ + + + + + +

We been back in Branson now going on three days. We've been staying at the doctor's so's we can be close to Vin. Thorpe says he thinks he's going to be all right, though he's lost a lot of blood and is fighting the cold in his lungs and the infection from that little cut in his side.

Right now, Vin's half sitting in bed with pillows piled up behind him so's he can breathe easier. He's asleep, looking young and peaceful and pale. Hannah Thorpe, Vin's latest admirer, comes in with food for me and Hal and Josiah and she sets the tray on the small table under the window. This girl's got a bad case of hero worship going on. All the young women in town have heard about the stranger who saved her life and they're practically lining up at the door to try to get in to meet him. The only thing that's saved him is being sick, and Vin, when he's awake, is embarrassed beyond words. He's comin' around now, and like usual, his coughin' turns to pukin' and Hannah's there with the basin, holding back his hair and murmuring words of sympathy. We're sorry he's sick and all, but it's too funny to see him so mortified, and we can't help but laugh at him behind her back as she wipes his face and lays him back on the bed. She's off then to fetch him 'a nice herb tea to settle his stomach', and he's blushin' and beggin' us to save him from her. The doc comes in then, probably at Hannah's urging, and goes over him, listening at his chest, tapping his back with his fingertips, and seems satisfied enough with what he's hearin'.

Thorpe leaves then, and for now it's just the four of us. Hal's perched on the end of the bed. I situated m'self at Vin's side while the doc was checking him out, and I still got my arm around his shoulder. Josiah's moved into my chair, his hand resting on Vin's arm. Hal's teasin' the preacher, and Vin's laughing now over something Josiah's just said, and all of a sudden it hits me what I could have lost. I thank God right then that he's still with us. Guess he'll never know what he's worth to me, to everyone who knows him. But all that matters is he's going to be all right. That my soul is safe for now.

His face when he looks at me is calm and free of shadows and I am reminded again of those pools in the river.

The ones where the trout are.

Where the water is still.

And runnin' deep.

The End