Main characters: Nathan, Vin, Josiah, Mary
Pairing: Chris/Mary implied, Chris/Vin implied
Summary: Six go to find One
Author's Notes: This is in response to:
Author's Note 2.: Despite myself, I'm establishing a sub-universe of my own, as it were - this story is not the only one I'm working on at the moment, and all three have the subtext of Chris and Vin trying to figure out their relationship around the demands of others. Also, all of the stories I'm working on in this context seem to be 'missing scenes' or 'interludes' between episodes; this one particularly is between scenes of the episode. I've tried to make it so that you can see where they fall, but if it's not clear, please let me know and I'll try to set it up better.
|"For Vigilia, or Inability to Sleep: Apply to the forehead, for two
hours, cloths four times doubled dipped in cold water. I have known this
applied to a lying-in woman and her life saved thereby . . . Drink no green
tea in the afternoon."
- John Wesley, Primitive Physick, 1776
They trotted, the cool, fall weather giving the horses a little more energy. And the men as well; despite the tension of the past several weeks, and the reason for their current ride, it felt good to be out in the chilly air, nature slowly changing color before their eyes. While they were less than ten miles from Four Corners, they were moving into the more rolling foothills of the nearby mountains, the trees taller and wider, the grass greener because of the recent rains and the lower temperatures.
"We may be coming upon winter," Josiah said, "but it's as beautiful as Spring. I guess the Lord likes a good closing to the year as well as good beginnin'."
Nathan smiled at his old friend. Josiah had been a bit quiet since their return from Red Fork; it was nice to hear him talk.
"Just hope that the beauty isn't marred by anything," Josiah sighed.
Nathan nodded his head. "Thirteen days is a long time, even for Chris. I know Buck knows him and all, but - well, he said he'd be gone three."
Josiah was rubbing at his Bible, an unconscious movement that Nathan associated with his friend's anxiety. "Buck's been Chris's friend for a lot of time," he agreed. "But being a friend doesn't necessarily mean knowing a man."
There was a hint of something in his voice, and Nathan wondered if perhaps Josiah were referring to their friendship.
The older man turned to him and smiled. "Present company excepted, of course."
Nathan grinned back. "No offense taken. I have to say, I agree with you. I know that Buck and Chris go way back - but they're so diff'rent. 'Course, Chris ain't like many people I've ever met."
Josiah nodded. "Just one I can think of, and we're on our way to him now."
Nathan blinked, surprised, but, after a moment of thought, he realized that he couldn't argue with words; while he hadn't actually given it a lot of thought, Josiah was right. If there was anyone like Chris, it was Vin. It wasn't an exact match by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something at the core of each of the two men that was the same. Outwardly, it manifested in a calm and quiet that was, at times, frightening.
No, he thought as they rode along, what surprised him more was that Josiah had given it that much thought. Well, that wasn't quite accurate either; Josiah was a deeply insightful man who spent a lot of time thinking. It was just that his thoughts were usually broader and more general.
Nathan hadn't actually considered how aware his closest friend was of the other five of them. For a moment, the idea of what Josiah might understand worried him.
But he didn't have time to pursue the thought; ahead of them, there was the sudden sound of pounding, the rhythm regular and familiar.
Vin worked diligently, not looking at them as they approached. Nathan knew better than to think he didn't know they were there; Vin had probably heard them long before they heard him - heard them and knew who they were.
"Brother Tanner," Josiah called when they were within range.
Vin continued to hammer until he had the board securely attached to the two new fence posts, but Nathan felt his gaze light upon them from time to time as they drew near.
Their horses were stopped and pulling at the thick grass when he finally dropped the arm wielding the hammer, his other arm rising to wipe sweat from his brow. He had taken off his top shirt, and even unbuttoned the top to his long john so that they could see not only the sweat that had saturated the fabric on his back, but the trail of it winding down his sternum and along his belly. The waistband of his pants was dark and damp, and his hair was plastered not only to his forehead, but to his neck and shoulders.
He looked up at them, his eyes squinting in the sunlight. Nathan saw the tiredness in them, the red lines and dark circles that told him the younger man hadn't been sleeping well. He also saw the sharp lines of his ribs and the way his pants hung lower than usual, even for the spare body.
Vin nodded by way of greeting then said, "Thirteen days." His voice was gravelly. "Mary send you?"
Nathan glanced to Josiah, unprepared for the edge of hostility he heard in Vin's voice.
But Josiah didn't seem at all surprised. Without preamble, he said, "Buck's decided to worry as well."
Vin wiped at his forehead again, then tossed the hammer to one side. It made an audible 'thump' as it hit the ground, suggesting that Vin had put more muscle behind each attack on the unwieldy wood than Nathan had assumed.
"Don't matter. Rain washed away any tracks he mighta left - "
"Mary's been wiring towns in the area to see if Chris went through," Josiah said calmly. "She's gotten a few responses back. Seems he headed away from Purgatory."
Vin met Josiah's gaze, and Nathan knew that there was something more to this.
After a few seconds, Vin sighed and looked away. "Stand a better chance of brinin' 'im back without - "
"Waiting any longer?" Josiah's voice was still calm, but Nathan heard an edge in it as well.
It was like watching a conversation between Chris and Vin, he realized, so many things that he didn't understand. But unlike the enigma that was Vin and Chris, he knew that at some point, Josiah would explain it to him. It might be a while, but he would, eventually understand.
And Vin knew it as well. He sighed again, and for an instant, his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed. He seemed defeated, which was so at odds with what Nathan had anticipated from this meeting that he hardly comprehended it.
"Mary's 'pecting a few more wires this afternoon, so we're thinkin' to head out first thing in the morning," Josiah continued.
Vin was so still that Nathan wondered if he'd heard. Then, with another sigh, he nodded, a slight movement of his head. Without a word, he turned to locate his hammer, reaching down with a certain awkwardness to pick it up.
Nathan opened his mouth, remembering the unusual curve in Vin's spine that was obviously causing him pain - and would only be worse tomorrow, in the saddle, if he continued to work on this fence.
Again, Josiah's voice interrupted. "'Spect you'd feel better if you left Ms. Nettie with a finished fence." With a grace uncommon in a man his size, the former preacher dismounted, ground-tying his horse. "Make shorter work of it if I hammer and you hold the boards," he continued as if they were discussing the weather.
Nathan smiled to himself as he also dismounted. In his own way, Josiah was as manipulative as Ezra. Sometimes, though, he had more guilt than the gambler did. Afterwards, at least.
+ + + + + + +
They rode by Nettie's when they finished, accepting her thanks for the work and a supply of biscuits, cabbage and squash - her first fall crop was coming in and the vegetables were young and tender. Nathan and Josiah accepted her gifts gratefully and with pleasure, and Vin spoke several words as well, and even attempted a smile for her.
Nathan saw her watching the younger man, though, and he wasn't too surprised at the frown that appeared on her lined features as they were mounting up to leave.
"You'll find him, Vin," she said calmly and with conviction as she stepped closer to Peso than was usually safe. To his credit, the horse simply tossed his head and then looked down at her.
"Do my best," he said softly, lifting one hand to the brim of his hat.
But she wasn't done with him yet. "You always do, my boy, just like your mamma taught you."
He stopped moving and Nathan saw him look down and actually meet her eyes. He couldn't see Vin's face, but whatever was in it made Nettie's frown deepen.
"Vin Tanner, don't you give up on him," she said sternly, but she reached out and placed one strong hand on Vin's thigh, just above his knee. "Bring him home, so you two can work it out."
The last part was so quiet that Nathan almost didn't hear, and he knew that Josiah, on the other side of him, certainly couldn't have heard. But a shake of Josiah's head drew his attention to the other man, and the look of worry on his friend's face made Nathan wonder once more at just what Josiah did know.
The thought made him a little anxious and without thinking, he said, "Gonna be a long day tomorrow - and I need to get some things packed up, in case there's trouble."
"Lord loves a man who's prepared," Josiah intoned, pulling his own mount around. The big horse moved as easily as its rider, turning gracefully off and away. "Evenin', Mrs. Nettie," he tilted his head to their hostess. "Lord look after you."
"And you, Josiah, Nathan," she turned and smiled at them as Nathan followed Josiah, but her hand still rested on Vin's leg.
As Nathan moved past, he saw her say something else to Vin, and Vin looked away from her. His face still wasn't visible, but just before Nathan moved out of visual range, he saw the tracker duck his head once, then without looking back, he reached down and caught her hand in his, squeezing it for a few seconds, before letting it go and turning Peso away.
As was his habit, as soon as they were away from the cabin area, Vin spurred Peso forward and took the lead. He trotted for a while, putting some distance between Josiah and Nathan, which was also usual for him. This time, though, Nathan felt that the younger man wanted space, and he himself wanted a moment to talk to Josiah.
"You still think Chris don't wanna be found?" he asked softly.
Josiah was slouching in his saddle, his gaze on Vin's back ahead of them. "Hope not," he said as quietly as Nathan. "Don't think that boy could live with himself."
Nathan nodded his agreement. He started to ask another question, then hesitated, uncertain.
With the understanding of long friendship, Josiah said, "Mrs. Nettie's right. Whatever it is that's going on between them can be settled, but not before we get Chris back home."
Nathan smiled. "I'll be sure to pack extra bandages. Seems like when I do, we don't need 'em."
Josiah chuckled. "Providence, my friend."
Shadows were long as they entered the town, and Tiny was more than happy to take their horses. Nathan knew he needed to get to his rooms to prepare for their departure, but before he could part company with the other two men, Buck and JD blocked their path.
With no preamble, Chris's oldest friend stopped in front of Vin, his face grave. "I'm sorry, Vin, I should have listened - "
"Don't." Vin held up one hand, his spine so straight that Nathan knew it would still be hurting in the morning. "Let's jist find 'im."
He tried to move past Buck, but with the tenacity of guilt, the taller man stepped to block him, large hands catching Vin's shoulders and stopping him. Nathan winced in sympathetic pain as he saw the tracker tighten even more at the confinement. "You'd think I'd learn," Buck said, stepping closer so that Vin had to look up at him. "After the thing with Chanu, I even said I shoulda trusted ya, but I still didn't - "
"Shut the hell up, Buck," Vin snapped, his arms coming up to knock away Buck's hold on him. "No reason for you to trust me - hell, half the time I don't even trust myself." He stepped past Buck this time, putting distance between them.
Something in the tone of his words made Nathan shiver. Beside him, Josiah shifted, and a glance told Nathan that his oldest friend was a bit disquieted as well.
"You went to Purgatory," Buck stated, turning to look at Vin even though this time he didn't move in close. "He wasn't there."
Vin shrugged once, and Nathan thought that perhaps it wasn't really an answer, just a way to adjust the tension in his back. But after a few seconds, Vin said, "Better pickin's somewhere else, I reckon."
Oddly, Buck's face flushed, and Nathan remembered the offhand comment Buck had made in front of Mary. Apparently, word of it had gotten around. But it was strange to see Buck feeling embarrassment because of it - and to Vin, of all people.
Buck moved then, reaching out, but Vin shied away. "First light," he stated. "Be ready." He turned away from them, moving quickly away, and Nathan almost had the impression he was running.
"Vin!" a voice called, and Mary Travis stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the Mrs. Potter's store, moving swiftly toward them. Her skirts were gathered in one hand, and she carried papers in the other, papers that she was waving as she moved. "I've got some news!"
All of them turned - well, almost; Nathan was peripherally aware that Vin was slower than the rest, but it was to him that she was moving.
She stopped close to him, too close, apparently, for Vin once again was stepping back, his arms pulling away as well as she tried to force him to take the pages she carried.
"I've been wiring all the towns in the area to see if Chris had passed through. There are a few who I haven't heard back from, but several of them have reported a stranger in black riding through about ten to fourteen days ago."
"Which way, Mary?" Buck stepped up to them, distracting her from Vin.
"Northeast," she answered. "He got as far as Landon, 12 days ago, and I've gotten reports from Flat City, 11 days ago. I think he was headed back this way by then - I've plotted it on the map in my office - "
"Let's go look," Josiah stepped up.
"Yeah!" JD seconded, already starting down the street.
The kid's youthful energy - and the sense that they were actually pushing forward toward something, encouraged them along quickly, and it was only with a little more noise that they entered the office of The Clarion.
Mary had the map laid out on one of her long printing tables, and they all gathered as near as they could.
"This way," she pointed to several pins that were stuck in the map, holding down scraps of paper that had dates written on them. "As you can see, he was here," she gestured toward the pen farthest from Four Corners, " twelve days ago, then here," she pointed to the next closest one, "eleven. There are still a couple of towns we haven't heard from, but Mr. Weidner at the telegraph office has promised to let me know as soon as he hears anything."
"Does look like he was moving back this way," Buck agreed. He was standing closest to Mary, JD on his other side. "Don't you think, Vin?"
It was then that Nathan realized that the tracker was farthest away from the map, and his gaze was directed out the window.
Mary's voice, oddly insecure, seemed to cut through Vin's distraction and he turned back. He blinked several times, then looked at Buck. "What the hell's in Landon?"
Mary answered before Buck had a chance, her voice more solid. "Not Chris, and that's the important thing right now. Everything else can wait until we get him back home."
Beside him, Josiah murmured, "I couldn't have said it better myself," and Nathan smiled.
Vin, though, still stared at Buck, as if expecting an answer, and for his part, Buck appeared to be thinking about it. Eventually, he shook his head. "Don't know," he said softly. He pushed himself away from the table. "Let's find him so we can ask him."
Vin nodded, moving to the door. "First light," he repeated.
"Vin," Mary said, and again there was the strange tone.
He stopped, his fingers wrapped around the door knob, and he even though he waited, he didn't look to her.
She opened her mouth, then glanced about, seeming to realize how many people were in the room. "I'll . . . if you meet here, I'll meet with Mr. Weidner, make a final check of what's come in on the wires."
"Gonna be early," Vin said more to the door than to the rest of them.
"He won't mind," she rushed.
With a nod, Vin lifted his fingers to his hat and opened the door.
He had never looked back at Mary, or at any of them.
+ + + + + + +
It'd been a long day, the enthusiasm of the morning waning as the day had worn on. Ackwright, the first town on the way to Landon had been a quick and easy conquest, as Buck had put it; nothing more than a livery, general store, and saloon, it had taken them less than an hour to determine that Chris hadn't made it this far. Between the six of them, they had managed to interview everyone in the town, and some of them, like Miss Anna, the proprietor of the saloon, twice. Both Buck and Ezra had promised to spend the night on their return, and Nathan thought that those two, at least, weren't feeling quite as frustrated as the rest of them.
They were well on their way to the second town when darkness settled in; no one had suggested stopping, but no one had argued when Vin had finally raised a hand and said that the horses were getting tired.
They were all familiar with the routine, settling quickly for the night. Conversation was sparse, even JD and Buck feeling the weight of the long day, and Nathan was glad when Ezra suggested a game of cards. They needed a distraction.
He wasn't too surprised when Josiah didn't join them; he was surprised though, after several hands, to discover that his friend was gone. As he glanced around, Buck said, "Think he's off with Vin."
"Is it just me," JD said, "or is Vin even less talkative than usual? I know he's worried about Chris, but so are the rest of us. I mean, I am, and I know Buck is, and I don't think you guys would have come out if you - "
"It's okay, JD," Buck cut him off, but he was smiling, "I suspect we all know what you mean."
"Indeed," Ezra nodded, looking at his cards in the light of the nearby camp fire. "We are all concerned about our erstwhile leader, and we are all fond of him enough to risk our veritable well-beings and, for some of us, creature comforts, in our quest to return him to our midst."
Not hesitating in the slightest, Buck continued, "Ezra, however, no one understands. Raise you 3 cents."
Nathan couldn't stop himself from grinning at the exchange, especially when Ezra huffed in annoyance. "Three cents? You insult me and raise me a pittance in the same breath - why, that's two slights in less than a minute! Were I not so impressed with your manipulative abilities, I would be quite infuriated!"
JD laughed at the banter, forgetting his question as the game continued. Eventually, Josiah joined them, settling down on his bedroll near Nathan and watching as well, chuckling at the witty exchanges between Buck and Ezra and seeming to relax.
It was only as Ezra was tucking away his cards, and the last pot, that the subject came back up. This time, though, it was Ezra himself who brought it up, and Nathan suspected that the timing was intentional; Buck and JD had risen to do a last check of the horses and collect water for the morning coffee from the nearby, but not very close, stream.
"I gather that Mr. Tanner will be taking first watch, as usual," he said casually.
"Said he wasn't tired," Josiah answered. "He'll wake me when he's ready."
Nathan didn't like the sound of that and he started to say so.
But Ezra spoke first. "He seems to be taking Mr. Larabee's disappearance rather personally, wouldn't you say?"
He wasn't looking at either of them, more concerned about the wrinkles in his jacket, but Nathan knew the question was directed at Josiah. As he was curious himself, he decided to ignore the whisper of annoyance that tickled at the edge of his awareness.
Instead, he looked at Josiah, watching the familiar grey eyes studying Ezra. "You ever been really close to someone, Ezra?" Josiah asked after a while. The tone of the question was more curious than provocative.
Ezra was startled; he looked directly into Josiah's eyes as he answered, "Surprisingly, yes, once or twice, in my youth."
Josiah nodded. "Ever say something or did something to that person and regretted it - but didn't know how to apologize?"
Ezra canted his head to one side. "Is that it? Vin and Chris argued and - "
"I don't know what it is," Josiah lifted a hand reflexively. "Vin didn't say and I didn't ask. Ain't none of my business. But I'm guessing that something did happen and that Vin hasn't had a chance to say his peace about it. And I suspect that that's eating at him as much as the fact that Chris ran out on him."
Nathan felt a stir of anger, but he wasn't certain at what part of Josiah's words. "Chris ran out on him? You think that?"
Josiah shrugged. "Left without telling him - or any of us, for that matter, where he was going or why. Ran out on all of us, if you look at it from one angle."
"Indeed," Ezra commented, and something similar to an emotion flashed across his face. "What a delightful perspective, Mr. Sanchez." He grinned, a flash of gold glittering in the firelight, then continued, "I suspect the question at the moment, however, is whether Mr. Tanner agrees with that perspective. I suspect that he does; it would explain why he commenced this quest upon your return from Red Fork only to allow himself to be distracted by the needs of the wizened old crone he so greatly admires - no offense intended, my good friends, I assure you," he hastened to add as Nathan turned to glare at him.
Nathan didn't intend to snap but the cumulative stress of the day finally got to him. "I don't know which is worse, Ezra - the idea that you can't understand having a friendship like Chris and Vin have, or the idea that you begrudge it to them." He stopped to take a breath, intending to continue with a word about Mrs. Nettie, but a hand on his shoulder drew his attention.
He turned to find Josiah leaning towards him, a gentle smile tugging at the older man's mustache.
"What's got you so riled, Nathan?" Buck's voice called from behind him. Nathan could hear him sauntering back toward them, and within seconds, he had dropped down on his bedroll, just across the fire.
"Where's JD?" Josiah asked, giving Nathan a moment to gather his control. The warm hand on his shoulder slide away as Josiah sat back against his saddle and pulled a blanket around himself.
"He'll be along," Buck answered. "'Call o'nature. You boys talking about Chris and Vin, I reckon."
"Actually," Ezra said drolly, "I suspect that Mr. Jackson was about to lambaste me for my description - apt as it may be - of the elderly Mrs.Wells."
Buck snorted. "Don't waste your breath, Nathan. Ez's just jealous that Ms. Nettie treats Vin the way a real ma treats a boy of her own."
It might have been meant as a casual comment, but Nathan saw the comment strike home in the sudden clenching of Ezra's jaw.
"I assure you," Ezra retorted, his tone sharp with bitterness, "I envy Mr. Tanner not at all, certainly not the curse of Mrs. Well's questionable maternal instincts, nor the especial bond he shares with Mr. Larabee, a bond that one might consider to be bordering, perhaps, on the perv-"
"Don't start something you ain't ready to finish." The voice was low, heavy, ominous - and one they rarely heard directed at any of them.
Nathan didn't turn, instead keeping his eyes on Ezra as the gambler stared at Josiah in stunned surprise.
As ever, he bounced back quickly so it was only seconds before he was fluidly spewing his words as weapons. "You surprise me, Mr. Sanchez. I would have thought that a man of your conviction would find even the hint of such affections to be - "
"My conviction is strong, Ezra. As are my beliefs. I believe in Christ's words and actions, which I find are often contradicted by the laws of man and the strictures of many Christian doctrines." His voice was still low and still ominous. "Right now, I believe that you're angry, and in that anger, you might say something that you will regret - much as I believe that the same might have occurred between Chris and Vin. There's no need in any of us repeating a mistake."
Nathan felt himself warm with pride in Josiah, and a little bit of shame in himself for worrying. He'd known the man for many years. He'd known how tolerant he was of so many things that others, good Christians even, had sought out to punish.
Ezra took a deep breath, holding Josiah's eye. It was Buck who broke the silence.
"You know, seems to be that we're really basing this - this - idea, on one thing - on one man. Now, I've known Chris for a long time, and I know," he stressed the word, "that in many ways, he and Vin are more alike than Chris and I are." He paused, looking from Ezra to Josiah and back, and in that look, all of them knew that he was being self-deprecating.
But it worked to take the edge off the tension, and when he continued, the air seemed a little lighter. "But I think we may be rushing to a judgment here. For myself, I really don't care one way or the other - okay," he held up his hands as all three men turned to stare at him, "maybe I do. But I guess what I really mean to say is it ain't none of my business. Chris is like a brother to me, and all I really want is for him to be happy again. My own personal belief is that that's gonna be with Mary and Billy. I know they can't replace Sarah and Adam, and I know that Chris knows that. I think whatever this problem is with Vin is . . . . well, I think Josiah's right. Once we get Chris back, it'll work itself out. So let's just hold off worrying 'bout anything else until we find him." He looked over to Ezra. "You okay with that?"
The gambler half-smiled, touching the brim of his hat with a finger. He looked to Josiah and said, "I apologize, Mr. Sanchez, and I thank you for calling my attention back to the matter at hand. Better the bird in the hand, as it were, than the two in the proverbial bush."
Josiah smiled back at him. "We're all feeling the weight of this, Ezra, and we're all wondering about how we got to this point. Blame, however, is never helpful."
They all tensed as a twig broke nearby, followed by the sound of footsteps.
"Damnation!" JD exclaimed, finally breaking out from the undergrowth of two nearby trees and stumbling into the cleared area near the fire. "I damned near got lost!"
The laughter that followed wasn't so much at the newcomer as a release of the tension. And none laughed louder than Josiah and Ezra, which helped Nathan relax. For the moment, the crisis, and the strange questions that seemed to be haunting them, was past.
But when he awoke just before the sunrise, he realized that he had never been awakened for his watch. It didn't take him long to decide that none of them had.
He felt the anger and concern grow as he made the first pot of coffee, trying to keep his movements quiet so as not to wake the others. By the time he had poured a cup for himself and for their sentry, the concern had won out. If it hadn't, it would have when he caught his first glimpse of the lone man.
Vin sat on a rock yards away from where the horses were tied, his mare's leg draped over his lap even as his hands held it loosely. The first rays of dawn were slipping through the trees, casting his angular face in shadows that concealed his colors but not the glitter of moisture where it clung to the sharp lines of his cheeks.
He nodded as Nathan moved close, then nodded again as Nathan extended one of the cups of coffee. His voice was barely audible as he mumbled his thanks, but Nathan nodded back, then leaned close, sharing the rock. Vin drank deeply from the cup before setting it gingerly on a level section of the rock, just at the length of his arm.
The silence between them was awkward, and to his credit, Vin was the one who broke it. "Can't sleep when I lay down." His voice was so rough that it was hard to make sense of the sounds. "Figured it's better to jist stay awake."
Nathan sipped his coffee before replying. "Dropping dead from exhaustion ain't gonna help us find him."
Vin shrugged, or that was what Nathan assumed. The movement was so spare that he wasn't quite sure he'd actually seen it. "If I'm dead, I won't give a damn."
Nathan turned to look at the other man, wishing that there was more light. Several different thoughts collided in his mouth, which turned out to be a good thing. It gave his brain a chance to take over again.
"Some of us would, though," he said. "Some of us would care a lot, Vin."
"Y'all'ed get 'im back." He reached for the coffee, smoothly tilted the cup, taking another deep, long drink before setting it back down..
Nathan waited until he swallowed before saying, "I wasn't talking about him."
His timing was still a bit off; Vin sputtered then coughed. Nathan moved to pat him on the back, but he held up a hand, coughed once more, then sighed. His voice faded in and out as he spoke. "You're a good man, Nathan, you and Josiah 'specially. You put up with a lot. But there some things you don't know, some things I don't want you to know - "
"We all got secrets, Vin, every one of us. 'S part of what makes us who and what we are. And no matter what secrets you got or think you got, I know you're an honorable man. And I know you'd do anything for your friends. I like to think I'm one of 'em."
With that, he pushed himself off the rock, turning to toss the coffee grounds in the bottom of his cup onto the nearby dirt.
As he straightened, Vin caught his upper arm. "Thank you, Nathan. It's been an honor t' know ya."
Nathan looked at him. "Stop talking like it's over." He stood, refusing to let Vin look away even after the tracker's hand dropped.
Something in Vin's eyes drifted, as if the man was fading away.
Nathan caught his wrist, feeling the other's tension. "None of us care about what happened between you two, Vin. And once we get Chris back - "
"Chris cares - why the hell do you think he left in the first place?" His voice was still low, still a rough mixture of exhaustion and emotional fragility that made him seem more like JD than the man leading the team.
"Vin." Nathan squeezed tighter with his fingers, hoping to get the other man's attention. "You're not thinking straight - and even if you are, the first step is to get Chris back. Whatever problems the two of you have, they can't be solved until he's back."
"I know," Vin breathed, closing his eyes. He took a deep breath and seemed to get more control of himself. "I'm sorry. You're right, I'm tired. Should'a tried for at least a couple of hours - "
"Go now," Nathan urged. "I'm up and it's gonna be a little while before the others are ready to pack up. At least try. We need you clear-headed, Vin."
Perhaps it was the last part, but after a few more seconds of indecision, Vin's shoulders slumped. He levered himself off the rock, moving with the stiffness of the night's cold loneliness and the weight of a world only he saw.
"Go now," Nathan urged again, pushing lightly at Vin's back even as he forced his own empty cup into Vin's hand.
It seemed hardly any time at all before he heard movement other than the horses, and he looked up, prepared to find Vin staggering back. He was relieved and pleased to see Josiah instead, especially as the other man was making his way carefully through the fading gloom with the coffee pot in hand.
"Morning," he murmured as Josiah extended the pot.
"Take it Vin lost track of time," Josiah responded, refilling the cup that had been Vin's, then setting the pot carefully on the ground near, but away from them.
Nathan snorted. "Says he can't sleep. I told him to try. He's so tired he's . . . " He hesitated, unsure of how much he could divulge.
As always, Josiah understood. "According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas felt so guilty for betraying Jesus that he hung himself." He leaned back on the rock beside Nathan, starting out into the spreading dawn. "Some theologians argue that it was a mindless sacrifice, as he was predestined to betray Christ - how else could the resurrection have occurred? Someone had to let the Romans know where he was." He sipped from his own cup. "But his guilt prevented him from seeing anything but where he was at that exact moment in time and place, and even though it was necessary and, indeed, part of a greater plan that even he knew of, he could only see the results of his own actions."
Nathan held his coffee close, but didn't drink. Instead, he stared into the rising steam, thinking before he answered. "Don't know much about predestination," he said slowly, "but I do know that that guilt and exhaustion don't make for clear thinking, or thinking beyond the moment."
Josiah nodded. "Then we'd better make sure Brother Vin doesn't have a rope."
+ + + + + + +
They made it to Three Creek by sundown, all of them tired from the hard ride. The town was a little larger than Ackwright - two saloons, a hotel, and a boarding house, along with the general store, and a restaurant that served breakfast and lunch but closed up in the early afternoon.
There was little discussion, habits and assumptions taking over. Buck and Ezra led the way to the livery, establishing quickly that there was room for all six horses, as well as sweet feed and hay, and that both saloons and the boarding house had rooms to let, more than enough space this time of the year for the six of them to have private, if they needed it, double or more if they couldn't afford otherwise.
When Vin, last in line, hesitated, Josiah calmly and deliberately reached up to Peso's bridle. "Be quicker if all six of us stay in town and close. We can all ask questions first thing in the morning to the people Ezra and Buck don't get to tonight."
Vin sighed, looking past Josiah to the other end of the town. But he didn't argue, eventually dismounting and leading Peso by the reins into the livery.
Buck, Ezra, and JD were long gone by the time Vin had settled Peso and gathered his saddle bags, and from the way he studied the ground, Nathan suspected that the tracker would have preferred that he and Josiah had also abandoned him.
"Boarding house?" Josiah asked pleasantly.
"Sounds good to me. We can let the boys handle the saloons tonight and we can handle everything else first thing in the morning," Nathan agreed.
Vin just trudged along behind them. He only frowned when Josiah asked for a room large enough for the three of them, then settled on the floor near the window, despite Nathan's offer to share the larger of the two beds with Josiah.
Vin slept longer than he did the night, well, morning, before, but Nathan wasn't surprised to find Vin gone when he himself awoke just after first light. Fortunately, when he and Josiah caught up with the tracker at the livery, he looked better, and he even managed to eat a little when they forced him to join them for breakfast - and for interviewing the townfolk about Chris.
The end result, though, was the same, and by the time Ezra, Buck, and JD were up and moving, they knew that Chris hadn't made it this far.
"Jericho," JD announced as they headed out of the town. He sounded less enthusiastic than usual, his mood mirroring everyone else's.
Oddly, Vin was the one to throw the light on the situation. "We know he got to Landon," he said softly, his red shirt bright in the morning light. "So no matter what, we're getting closer." Before anyone could comment, he spurred Peso forward and took the lead.
Nathan looked to Josiah who was looking at him. As the others picked up the pace Vin had set, the preacher said, "Maybe that rope ain't as close as we thought."
Nathan nodded, hoping he was right - but like Josiah, wary enough to stay close.
+ + + + + + +
"It's Chris' gun, Vin - you know he didn't just give it up!" Nathan paced anxiously as Vin opened the cylinder on the revolver, studying it closely.
"That old woman - we need to talk to her," Buck stormed, his fists clenching and unclenching. "She's lying to us - been lying - "
"Yep." Vin closed the cylinder, then held the gun with both hands, almost reverently.
Nathan paused in his pacing, watching the younger man. Something in Vin changed in that instant.
"Vin?" Josiah asked quietly, also watching.
The tracker was still staring at Chris's gun, but his tone was even and oddly relaxed. "Buck's right, gotta talk to 'er. Josiah, that's you. She respects you and your preachin' ways. Buck, you keep your dander up. Maybe a little of the devil is called fer here as well." He stroked the grip of the gun, a fluid, almost innocent gesture, then caught it in one hand and started down the street. "Ezra, you and JD stay with the horses in case this moves quick. We'll be back." His stride was long and fluid but not hurried. Determined, Nathan thought as he fell in behind. Controlled.
It was the same later, as they left the saloon and Ezra to his 'subtlety'. Vin hadn't needed to be told that having all six of them hanging around the saloon wasn't very subtle - and it was also likely to raise the sheriff's hackles, as they had already promised to head out of town as soon as they had supplies. Not that they had seen the sheriff recently, but they needed time to get the truth and that was best bought by laying low.
The area around Jericho was nicely wooded, so it wasn't difficult to find a comfortable place to settle in for the afternoon. They were restless though, all worried about Chris, and Nathan felt his patience being tested as Buck ranted yet again about needing to get the truth out of these people.
The hell of it was, he knew, that they were all angry and worried and would have felt a damnsight better if they had someone to hit.
"Ez's right," Vin said calmly. He was sitting on the ground, his back to a tree, cleaning his shotgun with a thoroughness that bespoke his own frustration. "We ain't gonna get nothing else outta those people by scaring 'em. And he's the best one us ta be asking. We'll go back in 'bout nightfall - if he don't know nothing by then, we'll take the damned town apart."
"'Bout damned time you saw some sense," Buck mouthed off. "Something's happened to Chris, something bad - "
"And sitting here thinking about it isn't going to help any of us," Josiah said calmly. He was next to Vin, stretched out comfortably, his own back against a tree. His Bible was on his lap, opened, Nathan noticed, but he couldn't see to where.
"Am I the only one worried?" Buck demanded. "Chris is out there somewhere without his guns - hell, he's probably dead - how the hell else would - "
The word was hard, cold, and just loud enough to cut through the rant. With the grace of a predator, Vin was on his feet, standing right up against Buck and glaring up at him. Nathan saw that the tracker's gun was still dissembled and that he had lain it to one side before rising, but the look on his face wasn't reassuring, nor were the hands that were wrapped into Buck's jacket, holding the larger man close.
Only Buck could see what was in Vin's eyes, and later, Nathan would decide he was happy that he himself was ignorant, because whatever it was made the taller man pale and subside. After glaring at each other for what seemed an eternity, Buck took a deep breath and looked away.
As his shoulder slumped, Vin released his hold and stepped back. His words were quiet in the unnatural stillness, but no one missed them. "We go until we find him, one way or 'nother. 'Til then, don't borrow trouble. We'll find more than enough as 'tis."
Buck nodded, then slowly turned to catch Vin's eye. "Sorry. I just feel . . . "
Vin nodded back. "We all do. Waitin' ain't my strong suit, either."
Despite himself, Nathan grinned, and to one side, JD started to laugh, then caught himself. Josiah's chuckle got him started again, and eventually, even Vin and Buck grinned at the patent contradiction. Of all of them, Vin was by far the most patient.
+ + + + + + +
"You as crazy as your friend here - no, never mind," the Doc said as finished putting the bandage on Nathan's shoulder. "You're gonna need to wear that sling - "
"He knows," Chris interrupted as he finished buttoning his jeans. "Believe me, he knows."
The Doc laughed, patting Nathan on the shoulder. "I'd best check on those others." But as he stood, he stretched out a hand to Chris. "Gonna miss you around here, Larabee."
"Hell, Doc, you ain't gonna be here to miss me." Chris laughed - a good sound, Nathan thought, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, he felt some of the tension leave his own body. "You ever get over to Four Corners - "
"I ain't never getting over there," the other man interrupted. "But thanks for the offer. And if you ever get to - well, wherever the hell I end up, you can stop in and see me as well."
They shook hands, still grinning at each other, then the Doc ambled out of the small building that served as the infirmary.
Chris let out a long sigh, scratching at his head, then looked down at Nathan. "Damn good to see you," he said for what Nathan thought might've been the hundredth time. But then, given what they had found when they had arrived - and worse, what they'd found in this last little while, during the mopping up - he knew he would have felt the same way if he'd been in Chris's place. Hell, he had been, only for him, it had been called 'slavery'.
"Just sorry it took us so long," Nathan said, wincing a little as he leaned back on the bed. "Mary was worried when you didn't show back up the fourth day, but Buck thought - well . .." He trailed off, unsure as to what to say.
But Chris merely smiled, shaking his head. "Yeah, I know what Buck thought. And truth be told, he was right, in a way. I wasn't in a hurry to get back."
Nathan looked at him, studying the dirty, lined face, the long hair clinging to it. Chris had washed up as much as he could, but the weeks in this hellhole weren't going to go away with a simple scrubbing. His clothes, usually tight as a second skin, hung loose on him now, and the circles under his eyes and the mild shake in his hands were tell-tale signs of an exhaustion that was going to take weeks to heal.
But there were other things that needed to start healing as well, and even though he knew better, right now, he was feeling a bit reckless in his elation. "Vin seemed to think that as well - even though he did light out for Purgatory as soon as we got back from Red Fork and Mary said you were gone and overdue."
He was watching close, so he saw the tension that Vin's name provoked. Chris' voice didn't show it, though. "Vin's a good friend," he said neutrally, looking at the floor.
"Damn straight," Nathan agreed. "Took some real courage to agree to walk in here with them knowing he was wanted. I'm not sure I could've done it."
Chris looked up at him. "That how it happened? Vin told them who he was?"
Nathan nodded. "More or less." He held Chris' gaze as he said, "He's still around here somewhere, helping Josiah with sorting out the prisoners, I suspect. Even though the Army's on their way."
"Army?" There was an edge of concern in the raspy voice and Nathan felt a perverse sense of vindication.
"That guard - Johnson? As soon as he thought we were breaking in - which, I guess we actually were - he telegraphed the Army at Fort Yuma. He thinks that an advance party will be here about mid-day tomorrow."
Chris nodded. "Then we'd better be the hell away from here first light." He rubbed at his head, and Nathan thought he might have lice - most of the men here seemed to. "I owe Vin that much - hell, more, I guess."
But Nathan saw the frown on his face and the discomfort in his posture. "Chris?" he pitched his voice low. "Whatever it is that's going on between you two, I just wanna remind you - you ain't never gonna have another friend like him."
Chris' stare was direct, and Nathan knew he was looking for something. Nathan wasn't sure what it was, but eventually Chris seemed satisfied and the scrutiny gave way to a half smile. "Had a lot of time to think of that these past two weeks. Funny thing is, not once did I ever doubt that. I knew you boys would find me, and I knew Vin would be leading the pack of you."
Despite himself, Nathan laughed out loud. "Yeah, and pack about sums it up. We were snarling at each other enough."
Chris laughed as well. "Yeah, I'll just bet Buck was biting at everyone and everything. He's always been a bit ornery when he thinks he's let something get away from him."
"Him and Vin - gotcha a pair of biters there," Nathan continued. "Lucky they didn't do more than slobber and snap. Thought a few times we might have to tie 'em at opposite ends of the porch."
Chris laughed even harder at that, shaking his head.
As they sobered, Nathan said again, "Good to have you back, Chris."
Chris patted Nathan lightly on the shoulder, careful of the wound. "Thanks, Nate. Now, let me go round up my pups. You get some rest - morning's coming and I, for one, am damned glad of it."
"Make a plaster of poplar bark by taking the bark of the root, boiling it down in water to an extract, mixing it with a little spirit, and applying it to the rheumatism or any other pain."
Ladies' Indispensable Assistant, 1852
Nathan wasn't surprised as Vin swept past him, taking the lead as the seven moved away from the camp. By the time they had made certain that every thing in the camp was under control, and that the men who had no business being there were going to be freed and returned their belongings, it was well into mid-morning.
He was a bit surprised when Chris made no effort to call the tracker back, not even when they stopped in the early afternoon, well away from the camp and Jericho, for a rest. Nathan was grateful; his shoulder was beginning to throb and he assumed that he wasn't the only one who was tired. Chris certainly looked it, and had he not called a rest, Nathan was seriously thinking about pleading injury himself.
They gathered in a circle, leaving the horses saddled but grazing near a slender creek. Buck and JD bantered, amusing everyone, and no one let Chris get more than a few feet away from them, except when he had to piss and even then, Buck joined him, as if afraid to let him out of his sight.
"Shoulder aching?" Josiah asked, helping Nathan to ease onto the ground.
"Like the devil," Nathan answered honestly. "I've got some white willow, will help with the pain, as soon as I get up the energy to unstopper my canteen."
Josiah took the hint, smiling as he not only opened the canteen but also dug out the tin mug from his own saddle bag so that Nathan could make up his concoction.
Josiah ended up doing most of the work, mixing the ground bark with the water and stirring it until it dissolved enough to drink. Ezra had settled close to them, stretching out and letting the brim of his hat fall over his eyes, so they kept their talk quiet.
"I take it I didn't miss anything between Chris and Vin last night," Nathan said as Josiah swirled the mixture in the cup.
The older man shook his head. "Vin made himself pretty scarce whenever Chris came near."
Nathan shook his head. "Chris has had a rough few weeks. Gonna be a while before he's firmly in the saddle again."
Josiah nodded. "Vin was so relieved to find him alive that I doubt he'll make much of it for awhile. If at all." He peered closely into the cup, nodded, then handed it to Nathan. "Drink up, think it's as mixed as it's gonna get."
By the time Chris called for them to mount up, the willow bark was working and Nathan was feeling a little more himself. He noticed that Chris looked a little better as well, the rest and the time with Buck seeming to take some of the weariness out of him.
But he did little more than lift a hand in acknowledgement as they rounded a bend in the road and spotted Vin in the distance, waiting. The tracker turned and rode out of sight, staying that way until they stopped for the night.
They settled quickly, a large fire in the center of the clearing, JD and Josiah settling the horses while Ezra collected water for the morning coffee and Buck hovered near Chris, pretending that he wasn't.
As darkness fell, Josiah and JD returned to the group carrying the last of the saddle bags and blankets. Buck was frying salted bacon over the fire, and Ezra had managed to produce reasonably fresh bread and cheese, as well as a large bottle of whiskey that he had already distributed to Chris and Nathan.
"Vin on watch?" Chris asked Josiah as the big man settled down near Nathan, pulling the powdered willow bark from Nathan's saddle bag.
"Pope live better than most kings?" Josiah countered as he set about making another dose of pain relief for his friend. This time, he took advantage of the fire to heat water for tea; Nathan appreciated the concern, and the awareness that the hot water would be more effective, producing a stronger medicine. It was always good to know someone paid attention to his attempts to educate them.
Ezra and Buck, however, laughed at Josiah's sarcasm, and then laughed harder at JD's affronted surprise at the criticism of the Holy Roman Church.
Nathan took the mug Josiah offered, then tried covertly to add some of the whiskey to it, a feat that was quickly observed by both Josiah and Ezra, and which led to quite a round of good-natured offense from Nathan's usual patients, who were more than a little accustomed to his admonitions to refrain from mixing alcohol with willow bark. It was sometime during this heated debate about why he could get away with doing something he told them not to do - because he knew they were going to do it anyway, so he hoped to at least moderate the amount of liquor they consumed, he tried repeatedly to explain - that Chris rose, claiming the need to check the horses. Buck made to go with him, but Chris was gone by the time Buck had explained the finer points of frying bacon to JD, and after an obvious debate with himself, and an exchanged glance with Ezra, he settled back down, crouching near the fire and giving JD the benefit of his trail cooking wisdom.
Most of the bacon was gone by the time Chris returned, Vin in tow. Buck fussed about no one appreciating his cooking, even as he pushed the pan carefully back into the fire to warm what was left. No one commented when Chris sat next to his old friend, nor when he reached up and snagged Vin's wrist, drawing him down to sit on his other side. Ezra sighed and rolled his eyes dramatically, pretending to take offense that no one appreciated the effort that had gone into his acquisition of the cheese they were eating - taken from the larder of the dead warden, along with the bottle of whiskey they were liberally enjoying. The announcement of the origins of the bounty brought a laugh from Chris and commendations to Ezra on his pilfering skills, and no one commented when Chris gave half of everything he touched to Vin.
As the fire died down and everyone settled, Chris passed the bottle around one more time, making certain everyone had enough for one toast. The bottle ended up at his side and he put it in Vin's hand, then lifted his own mug. "To the best friends a man can have," he said. "Thank you."
"Nothing you wouldn't do for us, Big Dog!" Buck laughed as they all drink and cheered.
But Chris looked to Vin, nodding to the tracker, then touching his cup to the bottle and drinking only when Vin did.
Nathan nodded, watching, then Josiah caught his eye, and they smiled at each other, making their own toast before taking a second swallow.