Heroes and Villains
Major characters: Ezra, Vin, Chris
Disclaimers: Yawn. I am completely out of creative ways to say that I dont 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 (youve been warned).
Comments: This is sort of a challenge for me. Ive never quite seen the Vin/Ezra friendship thing, and Im not real good at getting inside Ezras 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 havent 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. Were 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, Ive 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 wouldnt challenge Mr. Tanner for the privilege of being our notorious leaders closest confidant. I have enough difficulty living up to the mans 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 doesnt 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. Dont know what youre 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 Vins 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 healers area of expertise, after all. Surely he knows that something is so wrong that it is affecting our partners 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? Whats wrong with him now? He didnt 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 dont know. I just thought . . . he seemed . . . never mind.
I was on my way before he could glare at me further; Mr. Larabees considerable influence, no doubt.
There was always the possibility that it was a matter of the heart. This would be Bucks 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 hed 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 hadnt 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, weve 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 ones 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 Tanners obstinate horse that was the problem, I doubted JD would be the one Vin would turn to.
Ive 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. Its not even six oclock, and hes 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, weve been in a partnership for well over a year now and Vin doesnt frighten me. Too much.
I dont 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, its 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, Im 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 cant hear what they say and it irritates me. It irritates me even more that I care. Vin rises and Chris calls out, Why dont 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 Id stop by on my way around tnight. Ill see yall 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 Im going to do something Ill regret. Or, at the minimum, say something that Ill regret.
And here it comes, Do you think one of us should accompany Mr. Tanner?
They look at me as if Ive 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, hes quiet and withdrawn and --
Hes 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 hes not eating well.
Vin eats what he wants when he wants. Ever noticed him on a hunt? Hell go for days without eating, then spend an entire day catching up. Pass me the salt, Nathan? Josiah asks without concern.
Hes up before dawn and prowling about until all hours of the night, I persist.
Hell, that aint different. He dont 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 isnt 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. Larabees 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. Im not sayin I think theres 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. Larabees 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, thats never stopped him before. I look him in the eye, and he meets me straight on.
Well, damn. He really is concerned about Vin. Im still not convinced he has a reason to be, though, until he offers to ride with him. Hes 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. Whats going on? Is Vin in trouble? Why wouldnt 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 Vins back. I have a bad feeling about this, yet who am I to argue? I didnt even catch on that Vin was troubled. Obviously my instincts regarding Tanner arent to be trusted.
How did I miss it?
I stand at the doorway until I see Ezra trail Vin out of town. Im curious what Standish said, how he managed to convince Tanner that he needed to come along, but thats not the most important issue at the moment.
I go back to the table and pour a drink, but I cant seem to raise the glass to my lips. I cant stop myself from replaying the past few days in my head, specifically my encounters with Vin. He has been quiet, but thats not unusual. He has his moods, like all of us. I havent shared a meal with him lately, but thats not uncommon, either. And I sure havent noticed his sleeping habits. Were close, but not that close . . . although were closer than he and Ezra are. I think. I thought we were.
Now that I really think on it, Vin and I havent spent much time together the past few days. Maybe hes been avoiding me because he knew that Id know. I dont know exactly what he knew that Id know, but surely I would know.
But then again, I didnt know.
Ezra did. How does he know that Vin is hiding something when I dont? Could it be that Standish is just that good at identifying deception? He makes his living deceiving others; maybe hes just as good at seeing a lie as he is at living one.
Im jumping the gun here. Vin hasnt lied. I dont 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?
Im two steps from the door before I turn back around. Im 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. Hell eat at Netties. 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? Ezras imagining things.
Not like him, though . . . Ezra, I mean. It isnt 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 theyre just not close. It doesnt make sense that he would see something and I wouldnt.
Damn. What did he see? Whats 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.
Im halfway to the door when it occurs to me that maybe Vin doesnt want me getting involved. No, hes made it clear that he doesnt want me involved. If something is going on, hes keeping it to himself. And hes allowed. Hes 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. Its 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 aint 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, Dont 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, theres gotta be a reason.
He hem haws around and finally he says, Alright. If you must know, Im concerned about you.
What? I repeat, out loud this time.
He sighs again. Im 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, Im gettin a mite spooked. Ezras worried about me and hes callin me Vin.
He couldnt know, could he? No. Chris dont even know. And me and Ezra--well, were friends n all--sort of. But were not exactly close. He couldnt know.
He cant know.
Aint 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 dont believe I will.
Im lookin at him now, tryin t make it real clear that I aint up t arguin. But hes lookin right back at me and I got the idea that he aint arguin, either. Well, damn.
Fine then, I say as I ride off. But it aint fine at all.
Hell, nothins fine at all. But Ezra cant know that. Be better if none of the boys know it. Theres some things a mans gotta work out for himself. Ive 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 dont even know Im 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 havent felt right since. I cant sleep or eat. My head hurts and my back aches and my brain feels like its 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 Im gonna do. Of course, it sure didnt work that way tonight because, aw hell, Ezras 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 heads 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 weve 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 thats happened t me all week. I can see it real clear; Ezras 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?
Whys he talk like that? Why say humorous when funny will do? Everything is so damn complicated anymore. The past dont 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 cant 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 shouldnt have followed me t begin with.
Funny, Ezra, I spit back at him, and even Im 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.
Hes looking . . . I guess confused would be the best way t describe it. Cant imagine why. Im havin no trouble followin my train of thought. Im pretty sure Chris would catch on, too. How is it that Ezra figured out things werent right and Chris didnt?
Of course, I have been avoidin Chris just so he wouldnt catch on because if he did, and he was here, ridin beside me, Id likely go and do somethin stupid like spill my guts and I just aint 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 Netties 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, Im rambling! I am aware of it, but cant 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 Ive been spending too much time with young Dunne? Yes, thats 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 its no wonder that I seem to have picked up this odd habit of rambling and dear Lord! Im 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 Im 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 horses 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 Vins 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 womans 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. Wasnt 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 Netties 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, Dont you feel the need for some fresh air, Standish?
Nettie . . . Vin says with a sigh and a roll of his eyes, but he doesnt finish his sentence because shes burning a hole through him. Im only glad that, for once, I am not the object of her wrath, as I head for the door.
Its not a thick door, and the walls are not much sturdier, so Im fairly certain Ill 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 Netties porch. Its a lovely evening. The stars seem exceptionally bright. Or is it always like this and Ive 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. Hes a good man, of course, but not one I particularly care to emulate.
I hear Netties voice, soft yet firm. Something is very wrong with you, Vin Tanner. And I dont aim t pry, but I dont aim t let you ride off and get yourself killed, either. So if you can look me in the eye and say its nothin for me t worry on, Ill let it go. But if you cant . . .
Obviously, I need to add smart to Netties 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 dont 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 Im 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. Im 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 doesnt even like me much.
Im 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 Im 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 youre out here, Mister, he says. Come on out or you can clean up whats 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 cretins 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. Vins 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. Its 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. Ill 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. Its a foreign thing, seeing Vin afraid; an experience Ive yet to . . . experience. As if reading my mind regarding my intended actions, he pleads with me in a weak voice, Dont, 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 hes 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, Ill go with you, Sid. Just leave them be.
Go with us? Hell, you aint goin with us! Is he, Sid? You said we was just gonna kill him, so lets 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 Ive yet to determine--I believe Mr. Sid would have difficulty killing Vin, Im quite certain Mr. Patch would not.
So here we are: two miscreants with four guns--including mine and Vins, 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.
Youll 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 Vins confiscated mares 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, Im 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 mans 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 criminals admission. She keeps her hand on Vins shoulder, however, and her eyes never leave his face.
I get the distinct impression that Ill soon have my answers. And Im equally convinced that Im not going to like them.
Vin . . .I cant believe this is happening. Not here, not with Nettie.
And Ezra. It aint fair t him, either. He just wanted t help me and I led him straight t this. I shouldve told him, warned him, let him make a choice.
But I didnt think Sid would find me so soon. I thought Id have more time. Im 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 dont remember fallin. I just know that someones yanking me up and my shoulder feels like its gonna explode right along with my head. I try not t groan--dont wanna upset Nettie any more than she already is.
And then he says it. I loved you like a son.
Im gonna be sick. I can feel Netties 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 aint 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 theyre all waitin for me t say something, anything, but I cant. Im not ready. I thought Id 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 wont have t see his face, even though its all Ive 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 cant 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 doesnt say anything. I want to look away, but I cant; all these emotions are slammin through me so hard and fast and I cant think straight. Im not ready. I need . . . time.
I hear Patch speak up then as he finishes tying Ezras hands behind the back of the chair. What the hells goin on here? You said we finish this and we move on t Mexico. If you cant do it, I will.
Patch points his gun at my head and I hear Nettie gasp. Im just prayin she wont do somethin stupid and get herself hurt on my account.
Put it down, Patch, Sid says real quiet, his eyes still on me. Well go when Im 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 couldnt do it! Youre 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 werent for me, youd still be rotting there, so shut the hell up and go keep watch. Tanner has friends and theyre not to be taken lightly.
Patch aint hardly older than JD, Im thinkin, and he aint takin kindly t bein bossed around by Sid, but he does it. He goes t the window--and all of the sudden I cant 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, Shes safe in town, Vin. Remember?
No. I dont recall hearin that, but Im relieved just the same. My shoulders burnin something fierce and I dont recall what thats all about, either.
I feel sick. My heads spinnin again and Sids voice sounds real far away when he says, Go ahead and tend to him.
I could be of assistance, if I were untied. Ezras voice is driftin away from me, but I can hear Sids laughter real clear and it takes me back to a different time and place.
You feeling better, Son?
Youve 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. Thats how it works. Aint nothin free.
Ha! Well now, youve got the world figured out, have you? Pretty smart for such a
The knife twistin in my shoulder pulls me back, and I cant keep from gaspin. Netties voice is close t my ear, The bullets 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. Ill not let him die. You can count on that.
That doesnt surprise me in the least, Sid says. Vins got a way of getting his hooks in a person.
I dont 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 youd care to untie me . . .
He aint stupid, Ezra, I mumble.
Wouldve been easier if he was. Everything mightve been different if Sid wasnt 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.
Ive already forgotten what were talkin about; cant seem t stay focused. But hes right about Nettie . . . wonder where shes keeping that Spencer Carbine?
Ezras 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 its funny or maybe just t prove hes payin attention.
I laugh real low at that because Ive been tryin all night t get him t shut up and it still aint happenin, but then Netties pressin on my shoulder and this time, I cant swallow the groan as the world turns black.