Heroes and Villains

by JIN

Major characters: Ezra, Vin, Chris

Disclaimers: Yawn. I am completely out of creative ways to say that I don’t own or profit from this work of fiction (not that I ever had any to begin with).

Warnings: Cursing, violence, h/c stuff, and sappy ending (you’ve been warned).

Comments: This is sort of a challenge for me. I’ve never quite seen the Vin/Ezra friendship thing, and I’m not real good at getting inside Ezra’s head, so what better excuse to try and write a fic starring the tracker and the gambler? Of course, Chris is there, too, because where Vin goes . . . you get the idea.

Ezra fans, please forgive me if I haven’t done justice to your man! (But he gets to be the hero, if that helps.)

Ezra . . .
Something is wrong with Mr. Tanner.

It is quite apparent and quite unsettling. Even more disconcerting is the fact that I appear to be the only one aware of it.

I have observed him for several days now, and with each passing hour, I am more certain that something is troubling our normally unflappable tracker. I have been unable to determine if it is a physical matter or some other dilemma, but whatever the cause, it is becoming more and more noticeable

In spite of the fact that I am the only one who appears to notice at all.

There is something strikingly incongruous about that -- that I, of all of us, should be the one to know that this problem exists. After all, Mr. Tanner, or Vin if you will, and I are not exactly the closest of friends. We work together, ride together, share a game and a meal on occasion, but truly, I should be the last to know. We’re different, Vin and I. We have few common interests, totally divergent upbringings, and widely dissimilar personalities.

And although I consider myself a good judge of character with a keenly developed sense of intuition, I certainly do not understand Vin better than the others. On the contrary, I am far from an expert on interpreting the behavior of relatively uncivilized, uncouth, former buffalo turned bounty hunters.

Yet, I’ve noticed that something is wrong with Mr. Tanner.

Perhaps it has something to do with the bounty on his head? But then surely Mr. Larabee would be aware. Chris and Vin are best friends, after all. Not that any formal announcements have made to that effect, but it is generally known and accepted. Heaven knows, I wouldn’t challenge Mr. Tanner for the privilege of being our notorious leader’s closest confidant. I have enough difficulty living up to the man’s expectations as it is.

Chris and Vin also have a rather annoying habit of communicating without words. Certainly, Chris knows that something is wrong with Vin. But he doesn’t seem to, as evidenced by our conversation this morning.

“Mr. Larabee,” I began, “is there perhaps something we can do to assist Mr. Tanner in his current predicament?”

He looked at me in that way he often does, that way that says he thinks I am possibly from another world, and he shrugged indifferently. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Ezra. But hell, I rarely do.”

With that, he was on his way. And I was left to ponder why I could so clearly see what he obviously had not.

We are all surreptitiously aware that Vin’s back causes him considerable discomfort, and lately, the lean he has mastered so flawlessly is even more pronounced. Surely Mr. Jackson has noticed, as well. Surely Nathan has also observed that, recently, Vin pushes away his plate, and that he is up before dawn and in bed well after the others. This is our healer’s area of expertise, after all. Surely he knows that something is so wrong that it is affecting our partner’s health. But he appears not to. I asked him about it earlier, in fact.

“Nathan,” I asked as I passed him on the street, “is Vin feeling better?”

He looked at me in that way that tells me that I have, once again, said something offensive, before replying, “What? What’s wrong with him now? He didn’t say anything t’ me. Damn fool. Well? What is it? Where is he?”

I stammered and coughed and generally embarrassed myself when I admitted, “I don’t know. I just thought . . . he seemed . . . never mind.”

I was on my way before he could glare at me further; Mr. Larabee’s considerable influence, no doubt.

There was always the possibility that it was a matter of the heart. This would be Buck’s forte, and so I went to him.

“Buck?” I questioned, somewhat timidly at this point. “Vin seems to be unusually quiet and aloof of late. Perhaps some female companionship is in order?”

He grinned at me and gave me the look that clearly said he found me amusing, though I was unsure why at that moment. “Well, Ezra, female companionship is always in order. But I think Vin can manage on his own.”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps he is having some . . . difficulty at the moment and could use some . . . brotherly advice.”

Buck cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “Vin? Hell, I think he’d more likely shoot me if I stick my nose in his personal affairs, if y’ catch my meanin’. Remember Charlotte?”

Yes, I remembered her well; nearly as well as I remembered Vin telling us in no uncertain terms to mind our own business. As I hadn’t observed Vin with any of the women around town, love appeared to be an unlikely source of the problem, anyway.

Of course, Vin likes to roam; a restless spirit, so to speak. Maybe that was his problem--he was feeling closed in. And if that was the case, Josiah might be able to shed some light on the matter. Sanchez understands about spiritual quests and the call of the wilderness and other such nonsense. Perhaps Vin had confided in him?

I approached the church with some trepidation and, I might add, a bit of consternation. We are men of an untamed land and, as such, we’ve learned to adapt and adjust and basically squelch our personal feelings and fears, but this was becoming a tad alarming. Looking the other way to preserve one’s dignity was one matter, ignoring one of our own when he was deeply in need, another thing entirely.

Oh dear Lord, did I really have that thought? When had I become the mother hen of the group? The concerned friend? The, heaven forbid, do-gooder?

I heaved a sigh of relief when I entered the church and saw Josiah busily hammering away. Concerned friend, perhaps, but I was definitely out of the running for the do-gooder title.

Josiah dropped his hammer and peered at me with a look that clearly asked what on earth had possessed me to enter his sanctuary. He stood and grinned, promptly noting my discomfort. It was at about that point that I questioned why I persisted in getting to the bottom of this business with Vin, but now that I had started, I intended to finish.

“What is it, Ezra?” he asked.

I tried to be subtle and simply prompted, “Have you noticed that one of our fellow peacekeepers has been a bit restless the past few days?”

Josiah frowned at me. “Which one?”

Not a good beginning to the conversation, I thought. Apparently, Sanchez had no more insight than the others.

I switched tactics. “Are you perhaps going out to the reservation soon? Do you think it would be prudent to offer one of our colleagues the opportunity to accompany you?”

He assumed the exact same expression as Buck, complete with the cocking of the head and the squinting of the brow. “You got someone in mind, specifically?”

One word entered my mind: dense. How could these men be so incredibly thick-headed and unobservant?

“No,” I muttered with a sigh. “Forget I mentioned it.”

I came back to the saloon after that. I could have spoken to JD, I suppose, but unless it was Tanner’s obstinate horse that was the problem, I doubted JD would be the one Vin would turn to.

I’ve been sitting here most of the afternoon now, as has Vin. He is seated back in the corner, blending into the walls, as is his custom. It’s not even six o’clock, and he’s on his third drink--which is decidedly not his custom. Not that anyone would notice, apparently.

Something is very wrong with Mr. Tanner.

I take a quick drink and steel myself to approach him. It sounds ridiculous, I know. After all, we’ve been in a partnership for well over a year now and Vin doesn’t frighten me. Too much.

I don’t actually believe he will resort to violence, in any case. But still, there are feelings to consider. A man has a right to his secrets, and Vin is highly protective of his. Of course, he has good reason. Considering his past, it’s nothing short of astounding that he is as open with us as he is. Except when he is hurt or ill or something is bothering him, in which case . . . perhaps I should mind my own business and let it go.

I turn back to my table just as the others enter for their evening repast. Inez greets them and heads back to the kitchen for their meal. She spoils them, I’m afraid, but I say very little. She spoils me, as well, after all.

Chris spots Vin in the corner and he heads over towards him. I can’t hear what they say and it irritates me. It irritates me even more that I care. Vin rises and Chris calls out, “Why don’t you stay and eat with us before you head out, Vin?”

He will say no. He will offer an excuse and Chris will buy it. Dense.

“No, thanks. I best get goin’--promised Nettie I’d stop by on my way around t’night. I’ll see y’all in the mornin’.”

Chris nods and moves over to sit with Buck and JD. Josiah and Nathan slide in to sit with them, and they give Vin a cursory nod as he heads out on patrol.

I should join them. In fact, Buck looks over at me and says, “You feelin’ unsociable tonight, Ezra?”

I stand and approach the table and I just know I’m going to do something I’ll regret. Or, at the minimum, say something that I’ll regret.

And here it comes, “Do you think one of us should accompany Mr. Tanner?”

They look at me as if I’ve grown another appendage.

Chris cocks his head and narrows his eyes as I roll mine back in my head. Dense does not cover it . . . blind, deaf, and dumb, perhaps.

“Why? Since when has Vin needed company on a routine patrol?”

I feel my face flush, but I am strangely unable to stop myself from replying, “Since he has not been . . . himself.”

“How so?” Nathan questions, and I can see that he is genuinely puzzled.

“Well,” I sputter, “he’s quiet and withdrawn and --”

“He’s always quiet,” JD says matter-of-factly as he digs into the tamales Inez just placed on the table.

“Yes, but this is different,” I protest. “And he’s not eating well.”

“Vin eats what he wants when he wants. Ever noticed him on a hunt? He’ll go for days without eating, then spend an entire day catching up. Pass me the salt, Nathan?” Josiah asks without concern.

“He’s up before dawn and prowling about until all hours of the night,” I persist.

“Hell, that ain’t different. He don’t need sleep like the rest of us. These are mighty fine, Inez,” Buck says with a lecherous grin at our waitress.

“Yes he does!” I realize that I am sounding almost petulant about this, so I add more calmly, “He isn’t right. Something is very wrong with him.”

Finally, I get a response. Chris stops and stares at me, his fork mid-way between his mouth and his plate. “Anybody else notice anything?” he asks.

The others shake their heads and mumble collectively as they refill their plates. Were I not so concerned about Vin, I would be sorely tempted to comment on their table manners.

Considering Mr. Larabee’s distinct lack of faith in my judgment, I am surprised when he fails to dismiss me and turns to scrutinize me instead. Apparently, he is appraising the sincerity of my words. Suspicion clouds his eyes and I determine that he is weighing what I have said with possible motives. Of course, he finds none.

His expression swiftly changes. He is a bit disconcerted that I may have caught on to a problem with Vin that he missed. I meet his eyes. It is not my imagination, I tell him.

Finally, concern edges the fine lines of his face, and I know I have made my point. He rises to follow, but for some inexplicable reason, I offer to go instead. I knew I would do something stupid.

Chris hesitates for a moment, but he finally nods and follows me to the door. “I’m not sayin’ I think there’s anything wrong,” he says. Of course not; if he were fully convinced, no amount of coercion could keep him from following. “But just in case,” he adds, “just . . . watch his back.”

I understand his unspoken instruction. I am to return our tracker in the same condition in which he left--unhealthy, unnatural, and unnerving though it may be.

I turn to leave and am surprised when I feel his hand grip my arm. I turn back and he says hesitantly, “Watch yours, too.”

If I were the emotional type, I might be rather touched by Mr. Larabee’s uncharacteristic concern for my welfare. As it is, I merely tip my hat and head to the livery.

Now all I have to do is come up with an excuse for volunteering to go on patrol with Vin. Good Lord, what was I thinking? It occurs to me then that perhaps there is nothing at all wrong with Mr. Tanner.

But it is entirely possible that there is something wrong with me.

Chris . . .

Standish would have no reason to lie; no reason to make it up. Of course, that’s never stopped him before. I look him in the eye, and he meets me straight on.

Well, damn. He really is concerned about Vin. I’m still not convinced he has a reason to be, though, until he offers to ride with him. He’s serious; this is serious. Normally Standish is paying the others to take his turn on patrol, and anyone who knows Ezra knows how difficult it is for him to part with his cash. But this time, he wants to go with Vin, or feels he needs to, at any rate.

Damn. What did he see that I missed?

I follow him to the door, my mind reeling with every step. What’s going on? Is Vin in trouble? Why wouldn’t he tell me? How does Ezra know?

Is this a good idea?

I know the answer to that, even as I hear myself tell Ezra to watch Vin’s back. I have a bad feeling about this, yet who am I to argue? I didn’t even catch on that Vin was troubled. Obviously my instincts regarding Tanner aren’t to be trusted.

How did I miss it?

I stand at the doorway until I see Ezra trail Vin out of town. I’m curious what Standish said, how he managed to convince Tanner that he needed to come along, but that’s not the most important issue at the moment.

I go back to the table and pour a drink, but I can’t seem to raise the glass to my lips. I can’t stop myself from replaying the past few days in my head, specifically my encounters with Vin. He has been quiet, but that’s not unusual. He has his moods, like all of us. I haven’t shared a meal with him lately, but that’s not uncommon, either. And I sure haven’t noticed his sleeping habits. We’re close, but not that close . . . although we’re closer than he and Ezra are. I think. I thought we were.

Now that I really think on it, Vin and I haven’t spent much time together the past few days. Maybe he’s been avoiding me because he knew that I’d know. I don’t know exactly what he knew that I’d know, but surely I would know.

But then again, I didn’t know.

Ezra did. How does he know that Vin is hiding something when I don’t? Could it be that Standish is just that good at identifying deception? He makes his living deceiving others; maybe he’s just as good at seeing a lie as he is at living one.

I’m jumping the gun here. Vin hasn’t lied. I don’t even know if there is something wrong for sure. I take a good, long drink and set the glass back down on the table with a little more force than necessary. Buck looks at me out of the corner of his eye, but he stays quiet.

That bad feeling is creeping up on me again. Maybe I should have gone. Of course I should have gone. Vin is maybe, possibly in trouble and I left Ezra to take care of him?

I’m two steps from the door before I turn back around. I’m overreacting. Vin seemed fine to me. If Ezra wants to waste his evening following Tanner around, let him.

I sit back down and take another drink and ignore the peculiar look Buck is giving me.

Vin is fine. Just fine. So maybe he did skip dinner tonight. He’ll eat at Nettie’s. Probably twice, if she has any say in it.

Maybe he did cut me off this morning when I asked him to sit a spell and have coffee. And so what if he was up early? Ezra’s imagining things.

Not like him, though . . . Ezra, I mean. It isn’t like him to worry over any of us, but especially Vin. He and Vin are like oil and water, most days. They get along alright, but they’re just not close. It doesn’t make sense that he would see something and I wouldn’t.

Damn. What did he see? What’s going on? I hate being left in the dark. Maybe I should just go on and check this out. Give Vin something to laugh about, anyway, if he catches me checking up on him unnecessarily.

I’m halfway to the door when it occurs to me that maybe Vin doesn’t want me getting involved. No, he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want me involved. If something is going on, he’s keeping it to himself. And he’s allowed. He’s a grown man and he knows where I am if he needs me.

I sit back down and finish my drink in one swallow before refilling my glass. “Shut up, Buck,” I say as he chuckles softly beside me.

Vin is just fine. It’s Ezra I should probably worry about.

Vin . . .

Aw hell. Ezra.


“Excuse me, Mr. Tanner. Would you perchance enjoy some companionship this evening?”

I got a headache already.


He sighs. He knows this is a bad idea, but he says, “I was asking if you mind if I accompany you.”

“I know what you said, Ezra--just ain’t sure why y’ said it.”

“Must there be a reason?”

Yeah. Pretty sure there must be for Ezra t’ come traipsin’ after me, so I answer, “Don’t remember the last time you volunteered t’ come out on patrol, Pard. Oh wait--that might be because there was no last time. In fact, as I recall, there was no first time. So yeah, there’s gotta be a reason.”

He hem haws around and finally he says, “Alright. If you must know, I’m concerned about you.”


“What?” I repeat, out loud this time.

He sighs again. I’m wonderin’ if his head is poundin’ as much as mine. “Is it so difficult to believe that I might be interested in your welfare, Vin?”

Vin? Okay, I’m gettin’ a mite spooked. Ezra’s worried about me and he’s callin’ me ‘Vin’.

He couldn’t know, could he? No. Chris don’t even know. And me and Ezra--well, we’re friends ‘n all--sort of. But we’re not exactly close. He couldn’t know.

He can’t know.

“Ain’t nothin’ for you t’ concern yourself about, Ezra. You can just ride on home,” I say, and I pull up on the reins and meet his eyes t’ make my point. He needs t’ just ride on home.

“Yes, I suppose I could,” he says as he pulls his horse up along side Peso. “But I don’t believe I will.”

I’m lookin’ at him now, tryin’ t’ make it real clear that I ain’t up t’ arguin’. But he’s lookin’ right back at me and I got the idea that he ain’t arguin’, either. Well, damn.

“Fine then,” I say as I ride off. But it ain’t fine at all.

Hell, nothin’s fine at all. But Ezra can’t know that. Be better if none of the boys know it. There’s some things a man’s gotta work out for himself. I’ve got t’ take care of this on my own.

I keep tellin’ myself that it might come t’ nothin’. It was a long time ago; I was just a kid. He probably don’t even know I’m still alive. It sure as hell was one big shock when I saw that he was. JD pulled out that new stack of wanted posters and I saw his face and I thought the floor just might open up and swallow me whole right then and there.

I haven’t felt right since. I can’t sleep or eat. My head hurts and my back aches and my brain feels like it’s full of quicksand--suckin’ me into the past no matter how hard I try ‘n stop it. I keep takin’ patrol so I can just get off by myself and get my head together--decide what I’m gonna do. Of course, it sure didn’t work that way tonight because, aw hell, Ezra’s still talkin’. This is one big, bad idea.

“. . . and so you see, Mr. Tanner, I felt it might be wise for you to have some company tonight. Not that I doubt your capability to take care of yourself, but there are times when a man needs a--dare I say it?--a friend to assume some of the burden. To lighten the load, carry the weight . . .”

Oh God, I gotta shut him up or my head’s gonna explode.

“And of course, there is the matter of safety in numbers. I have often wondered why any of us traverse these untamed lands late at night alone, considering the number of enemies we’ve managed to collectively gather since we came together. Obviously, it would be wiser . . .”

Here it comes, any minute now, blood and brains splatterin’ all over Ezra and his fancy coat. And the sad thing is, that would probably be the best thing that’s happened t’ me all week. I can see it real clear; Ezra’s expression as my head just busts clean off my shoulders, and it makes me laugh real soft. Probably somethin’ wrong about that . . . guess Chris is right about my sense of humor.

“Mr. Tanner? Have I missed something humorous?”

Why’s he talk like that? Why say humorous when funny will do? Everything is so damn complicated anymore. The past don’t ever go away and the secrets keep pilin’ up and even if you want t’ tell people, it sticks in yer throat and keeps y’ up all night. And then yer stuck ridin’ with a man who deliberately picks the biggest words he can find just t’ make y’ feel stupid or maybe just t’ complicate matters and why the hell can’t anything be simple? All of the sudden it just makes me mad and the only person around to be mad at is Ezra. His fault. He shouldn’t have followed me t’ begin with.

Funny, Ezra,” I spit back at him, and even I’m surprised by the venom in my voice.

“I beg your pardon?”

“What the hell is wrong with the word funny?”

“Well, nothing, I suppose,” he stammers.

He’s looking . . . I guess confused would be the best way t’ describe it. Can’t imagine why. I’m havin’ no trouble followin’ my train of thought. I’m pretty sure Chris would catch on, too. How is it that Ezra figured out things weren’t right and Chris didn’t?

Of course, I have been avoidin’ Chris just so he wouldn’t catch on because if he did, and he was here, ridin’ beside me, I’d likely go and do somethin’ stupid like spill my guts and I just ain’t ready for that.

Talkin’ . . . Standish is still talkin’.

“. . . and so you see, how one expresses their sentiments has a great bearing on how they are perceived. For example, if one were to . . .”

As appealin’ as that picture of my head explodin’ all over Ezra is, the poundin’ in my head is startin’ to hurt; really, really hurt. So I close my eyes--Peso knows the way t’ Nettie’s with his eyes closed--and I let the natural sounds of the night drown out Ezra.

“Mr. Tanner? Vin? Did you hear me?”

Oh God, this is such a bad idea.

Ezra . . .

Good Lord, I’m rambling! I am aware of it, but can’t seem to stop myself. Vin is becoming more aggravated with me as the minutes pass, but the more aggrieved he becomes, the more I ramble.

And Ezra Standish just does not ramble. All of my words are carefully chosen to convey only what I mean to convey and I certainly do not ramble. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time with young Dunne? Yes, that’s probably it. I must make an effort to limit my conversations with our young partner and perhaps his tall friend, as well. Heaven knows that Buck can carry on with little provocation and it’s no wonder that I seem to have picked up this odd habit of rambling and dear Lord! I’m even rambling in my mind!

“Ezra. Just. Shut. Up.”

There, you see? That was highly uncharacteristic of Vin. There is something wrong with him. Yes, yes, he is a man of few words and certainly does not hesitate to get straight to the point, but normally in a situation such as this, he would simply snort at me, race ahead, and blatantly ignore the fact that I existed.

I will have to play this very carefully.

“Yes. Alright. I will refrain from speaking,” I assure him.

I will have to choose my words wisely.

“You will not hear another word from me, Mr. Tanner. Unless, of course, you initiate the conversation, in which case I will be happy to participate . . . or to just lend an ear,” I add.

I will have to wait patiently until he is ready to confide in me.

“Although sometimes, it is helpful to discuss matters which lay heavily upon us . . . not that I’m implying there are such matters weighing on you at the present. However, if there were, I would be happy to lend my support--should you choose to speak of it--whatever it is. That is, if indeed there is something to speak of.”

Vin is groaning and laying his head on his horse’s neck. The man is simply not well.

I force myself to remain silent--an unusually difficult task at the moment--and follow along behind, pondering once more the possible obstacles that could be troubling our partner. No great insight comes to me, however, and since Vin is completely silent, I am unlikely to make headway on the issue in the foreseeable future.

I find myself inordinately relieved when we finally come upon the Wells’ small shack. That in itself is a concern. Mrs. Wells is a colorful woman; strong and stubborn and difficult. She could be Vin’s mother, in more ways than one. It is no secret, in fact, that she dotes on Vin. Me, on the other hand, she tolerates. Barely.

So I am obviously in desperate straits if I am practically overjoyed to reach the old woman’s humble homestead. Although it is nearly dark when we approach, she is outside sweeping her porch. She lifts her head and smiles warmly at Vin and mutters a hollow, “Mr. Standish. Wasn’t expectin’ t’ see you this time of night.”

It is nothing short of ridiculous that the old crone renders me speechless. I would very much like to tell her that I would prefer to be nearly anywhere else at the end of the day. However, since none of my cohorts have a clue that there is something quite wrong with her adopted son, I am in the unenviable position of following him around for the evening.

Fortunately, she is spared my dissertation because Vin answers for me.

“Ezra apparently had nothin’ better t’ do,” he mumbles while climbing stiffly off his mount.

Nettie watches him covertly and turns a raised brow in my direction. She is alarmed, in her own unique way, and thank God I am not the only one who notices that Vin is not right. I should have known Nettie would see it. I should have come to her first. I file this information away for future use as I give her a slight shrug.

Less than hour later, we are seated at Nettie’s table. She is a rather amazing cook, I must admit, and it takes very little persuasion for me to consume a second helping. Vin, on the other hand, looks as though he is choking on every bite, though he is nervously trying to hide that fact.

Nettie is no more fooled than I, and so I get the less than subtle hint when she suddenly blurts out, “Don’t you feel the need for some fresh air, Standish?”

“Nettie . . .” Vin says with a sigh and a roll of his eyes, but he doesn’t finish his sentence because she’s burning a hole through him. I’m only glad that, for once, I am not the object of her wrath, as I head for the door.

It’s not a thick door, and the walls are not much sturdier, so I’m fairly certain I’ll be able to hear their conversation from the porch. Or at least, I hope that is the case. This entire situation is driving me to distraction by now. I need answers, or at the very least, I need to know the questions.

I gently close the door and breathe in the night air as I lean against the railing of Nettie’s porch. It’s a lovely evening. The stars seem exceptionally bright. Or is it always like this and I’ve failed to notice? I generally spend my evenings on patrol counting the hours until they are over. Perhaps I should pay more attention. Perhaps Vin is rubbing off on me. I shudder at that sobering thought. He’s a good man, of course, but not one I particularly care to emulate.

I hear Nettie’s voice, soft yet firm. “Something is very wrong with you, Vin Tanner. And I don’t aim t’ pry, but I don’t aim t’ let you ride off and get yourself killed, either. So if you can look me in the eye and say it’s nothin’ for me t’ worry on, I’ll let it go. But if you can’t . . .”

Obviously, I need to add ‘smart’ to Nettie’s list of distinguishing qualities. I wish I had the ability to be as forthright, but it is highly doubtful I would get the same response from the tracker anyway. Speaking of which, I wait breathlessly for his answer . . .

“Nettie,” he chokes, and I lean closer to the door so I can hear. He continues, “I just . . . I don’t know how t’ . . .”

His voice is disturbingly distraught, and I am quickly reminded that whatever is bothering Vin is causing him very real pain. And I’m suddenly feeling quite remorseful at my attempt to eavesdrop. The least I can do is respect his privacy; deny the fact that I am positively salivating to know what the situation is and leave it between the two of them. I really despise myself when I bow to these noble intentions.

With a deep sigh, I quickly step off the porch and take a walk while I ponder what the devil has come over me. I’m taking a walk--of all things--in the dark of the night around a flimsy shack in the middle of nowhere, fawning over stars and worrying myself sick over a man who doesn’t even like me much.

I’m several yards behind the house, contemplating how refreshing the gentle night breeze feels, when shots ring out, the vibrations nearly simultaneous with the breaking of glass. I crouch low and pull out my weapon as I cautiously make my way around to the front of the cabin. At least one bullet pierced the window, as I suspected, though I’m unable to see inside from where I am crouched near the landing steps.

It has been mere minutes from when the shots were fired, but I quickly realize that I am too late; the shooters are already inside. A moment later, one man emerges from the door, holding Nettie tight against him with his gun pressed to her head.

“I know you’re out here, Mister,” he says. “Come on out or you can clean up what’s left of her.”

A distinctly unappetizing image, and although Mrs. Wells and I are not close friends, I certainly wish her no harm. There is also the likely possibility that Vin is harmed or otherwise compromised inside. I rise to my feet, keeping my pistol trained on the cretin’s obviously brainless skull, and step up onto the porch. Through the broken glass I see Vin inside, being pulled to his feet by another brute. Vin’s hand is pressed to a bloody wound on his shoulder, but he remains upright, for the moment at least.

A quick assessment of the situation reveals that we are in serious trouble; outgunned and temporarily outsmarted, though it pains me to admit it.

The outlaw holding Nettie laughs as he pulls her inside and instructs me to hand over my weapon. It’s a bad idea, but I know that I have another up my sleeve, so I argue only enough to make it believable before turning loose of my gun. I’ll simply have to wait for the opportunity for a clean shot at both men. I know it will come; stupid men always make stupid mistakes eventually.

I turn my eyes to Vin and if I thought he looked sick before, I am shocked at what I see now. His face his pale, his eyes wide with sorrow and regret and fear. It’s a foreign thing, seeing Vin afraid; an experience I’ve yet to . . . experience. As if reading my mind regarding my intended actions, he pleads with me in a weak voice, “Don’t, Ezra.”

I narrow my eyes as I try to ascertain what exactly is driving his words--fear or guilt or does he perchance have a plan? Before I can determine the right course of action, the tall man holding Nettie laughs again and nods at me as he instructs his partner, “Search him, Patch. Make sure he’s not hiding something and then tie him up.”

Patch? Good Lord, who would name a child ‘Patch’? Pushing that disturbing thought aside, I realize that if I am to take action, it must be now. With my usual grace and agility, I reveal my hidden weapon and aim for Mr. Patch, but the big man with the increasingly annoying laugh moves in front of him. Mrs. Wells is still clutched in his arms, the gun aimed at her head, but I feel confident I can make the shot.

Vin apparently feels otherwise because he intones once more, “Please, Ezra.” Then he turns his gaze to the tall man--who bears somewhat of a resemblance to Mr. Wilmington, by the way, albeit a bit older and grayer--and he says, “I’ll go with you, Sid. Just leave them be.”

“Go with us? Hell, you ain’t goin’ with us! Is he, Sid? You said we was just gonna kill him, so let’s get on with it and get out of here,” young Patch reminds his partner.

But the man named Sid, which is only a marginal improvement from the name Patch, yells back, “Shut up!” And for the first time, I get the sense that Sid does not find the situation as humorous as his laughter has implied. In fact, I get the impression that there is much more going on here than meets the eye. These are not simple thieves or bounty hunters. This is personal business.

Vin has known all along, of course, and it suddenly makes me angry. He knew something like this was likely to happen and he should have had the courtesy to warn me. He should have confided in me and given me the opportunity to make a choice, because I am distinctly choice-less now.

I am still standing near the doorway with Sid and Nettie directly in front of me. Patch is behind them, his gun now trained on Mr. Tanner. Vin sways, his hand gripping the table in an effort to keep himself standing, as blood saturates his shirt. And while--for some reason I’ve yet to determine--I believe Mr. Sid would have difficulty killing Vin, I’m quite certain Mr. Patch would not.

So here we are: two miscreants with four guns--including mine and Vin’s, an old woman, a wounded friend, and . . . me. I find myself in the unlikely and highly unlikable position of being called upon to play the hero, a role I am not well-suited to as the past has clearly proven.

I drop my weapon, even though I know it is a bad idea. Vin chooses this moment to slip to the floor with a rather remarkable thud, prompting the uncharacteristically reserved--up until now--Nettie Wells to wrench herself free and rush to his side.

“You’ll not take him!” she says in a tone that no wise man would argue with.

Wisdom has no bearing in this matter, however, and Sid laughs obnoxiously while young Patch pokes Vin’s confiscated mare’s leg into my chest and prods me over to sit in a chair. In spite of the fact that he has a good four inches and possibly a hundred pounds on me, I’m certain I can take him.

Unfortunately, I am unable to make my move because I am riveted to the drama unfolding before me. Sid suddenly pushes Nettie out of the way and pulls Vin up by his good arm to slam him into the chair across from me. Vin stifles a groan and keeps his head down, unable or unwilling to look our captor in the eye. The older man’s mood swiftly changes again; the amusement replaced with something angry yet melancholy.

“I loved you like a son,” he says suddenly, softly, and Vin stiffens.

Nettie, who has moved next to Vin and started to peel away the sticky fabric of his ruined shirt, stops and waits at the criminal’s admission. She keeps her hand on Vin’s shoulder, however, and her eyes never leave his face.

I get the distinct impression that I’ll soon have my answers. And I’m equally convinced that I’m not going to like them.

Vin . . .

I can’t believe this is happening. Not here, not with Nettie.

And Ezra. It ain’t fair t’ him, either. He just wanted t’ help me and I led him straight t’ this. I should’ve told him, warned him, let him make a choice.

But I didn’t think Sid would find me so soon. I thought I’d have more time. I’m not ready.

My head is throbbing and I feel sick. I try t’ hang on, t’ help out Ezra when he flashes that little gun of his, but the room is spinnin’ and Nettie . . . oh God, if anything happens t’ Nettie . . .

I don’t remember fallin’. I just know that someone’s yanking me up and my shoulder feels like it’s gonna explode right along with my head. I try not t’ groan--don’t wanna upset Nettie any more than she already is.

And then he says it. “I loved you like a son.”

I’m gonna be sick. I can feel Nettie’s hands on me, as well as her eyes, and I want t’ tell her t’ stop worryin’, but I reckon losin’ my dinner all over her ain’t likely t’ help with that, so I swallow and try t’ take a breath.

He loved me like a son. The words echo in my head and I know they’re all waitin’ for me t’ say something, anything, but I can’t. I’m not ready. I thought I’d have more time. I need more time.

He did love me. I always knew that, and it made it so much harder t’ live with. I can count on one hand the people in my life that loved me--and still have fingers left over.

“I picked you up out of a dark alley--a sick, starving kid,” he says as his hand grips my chin and forces my head up.

I close my eyes so I won’t have t’ see his face, even though it’s all I’ve seen in my mind for days now.

“This wound needs tendin’,” Nettie breaks in, and even though my eyes are closed, I can see the set expression on her face.

I can’t let Nettie rile him up, so I finally force myself t’ look at him. “You can kill me or take me with you. Just leave my friends alone. Please, Sid.”

He keeps his eyes locked on mine, but he doesn’t say anything. I want to look away, but I can’t; all these emotions are slammin’ through me so hard and fast and I can’t think straight. I’m not ready. I need . . . time.

I hear Patch speak up then as he finishes tying Ezra’s hands behind the back of the chair. “What the hell’s goin’ on here? You said we finish this and we move on t’ Mexico. If you can’t do it, I will.”

Patch points his gun at my head and I hear Nettie gasp. I’m just prayin’ she won’t do somethin’ stupid and get herself hurt on my account.

“Put it down, Patch,” Sid says real quiet, his eyes still on me. “We’ll go when I’m ready. And if you so much as touch Vin, it will be the last thing you do.”

“I knew it! Two years of sharin’ a cell with you and all you talk about is findin’ Tanner and settlin’ the score. I knew all along you couldn’t do it! You’re nothin’ but a fast talkin’ coward, Sid!”

Sid finally turns away from me and stares hard at this Patch fella and he says real low, “This coward got you out of that hell hole. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be rotting there, so shut the hell up and go keep watch. Tanner has friends and they’re not to be taken lightly.”

Patch ain’t hardly older than JD, I’m thinkin’, and he ain’t takin’ kindly t’ bein’ bossed around by Sid, but he does it. He goes t’ the window--and all of the sudden I can’t remember where Casey is. Could she come ridin’ in at any moment?

I turn my head towards Nettie and I try t’ whisper but it comes out more like a moan, “Casey?”

Nettie looks at me and I hate seein’ the tears in her eyes as she says, “She’s safe in town, Vin. Remember?”

No. I don’t recall hearin’ that, but I’m relieved just the same. My shoulder’s burnin’ something fierce and I don’t recall what that’s all about, either.

I feel sick. My head’s spinnin’ again and Sid’s voice sounds real far away when he says, “Go ahead and tend to him.”

“I could be of assistance, if I were untied.” Ezra’s voice is driftin’ away from me, but I can hear Sid’s laughter real clear and it takes me back to a different time and place.

You feeling better, Son?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’ve been real sick; spent the better part of a week caring for you.”

“Why? What do y’ want from me?”

“What makes you think I want anything from you?”

“Cause. That’s how it works. Ain’t nothin’ free.”

“Ha! Well now, you’ve got the world figured out, have you? Pretty smart for such a

little guy.”

The knife twistin’ in my shoulder pulls me back, and I can’t keep from gaspin’. Nettie’s voice is close t’ my ear, “The bullet’s still in him.”

I pull my eyes open in time to see her turn and stand eye t’ eye . . . well, maybe more like eye t’ chest, with Sid and she says, “He needs a doctor. I’ll not let him die. You can count on that.”

“That doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Sid says. “Vin’s got a way of getting his hooks in a person.”

I don’t know what he means by that, but then I seem t’ be havin’ trouble followin’ along.

Ezra pipes up then, “I just happen to know an excellent physician who, coincidentally, lives nearby. If you’d care to untie me . . .”

“He ain’t stupid, Ezra,” I mumble.

Would’ve been easier if he was. Everything might’ve been different if Sid wasn’t so damn smart and so damn greedy. He was always lookin’ for a way t’ make a quick buck. It only took him two years t’ figure out I could help him do it; only took me two more t’ end it.

“I would dare to differ with you, Vin. Only a fool would take on Mrs. Wells,” Ezra says.

I’ve already forgotten what we’re talkin’ about; can’t seem t’ stay focused. But he’s right about Nettie . . . wonder where she’s keeping that Spencer Carbine?

Ezra’s still talkin’, of course. “Not to mention that this cretin dares to hold the most popular man in Four Corners hostage.”

Nettie throws him a glare and he adds real quick, “I was speaking of Vin, of course.”

“Shut up, Ezra,” Sid says and he draws out the name like it’s funny or maybe just t’ prove he’s payin’ attention.

I laugh real low at that because I’ve been tryin’ all night t’ get him t’ shut up and it still ain’t happenin’, but then Nettie’s pressin’ on my shoulder and this time, I can’t swallow the groan as the world turns black.