Disclaimers: Not for profit. Not a surprise.
Author's Notes: The story is not a history lesson, but it was inspired by one. You can read more about the facts of the story (as I know them) at the end.
Josiah pounded a nail into another shingle on the chapel roof and wiped a drop of sweat from his forehead with his thumb. He scanned the town, quiet now in the twilight, after decent folk had turned into their homes for the evening, before the rowdies made their way to the saloons for the night.
A lone shadow ambled toward the chapel, fairly dragging one leg in a stilted gait. Josiah watched as he drew closer, the light of the waning sun stealing between the buildings and lighting his face for moments at a time. Its paleness couldn't be hidden, but Josiah lifted his eyes to the sky with a grateful heart.
Pale as paste was worlds better than the ash grey tone Vin's skin had when Chanu carried him into town a week ago. Vin had been gone three days longer than expected and Chris – well, all of them, really – were getting anxious. It wasn't unusual for Vin to take the long way home when the mood struck him, and it wasn't unusual for any man to get delayed on the trail for any number of reasons. But something burned in Chris's gut that told him something just wasn't as it should be. And they'd all come to know that Chris's instincts were to be trusted as no one else's, except maybe Tanner's own.
He'd lost so much blood, Vin had. Nathan hadn't been sure he'd been found in time, Josiah could tell from the look on the healer's face. He could only do his best and let the rest to the good Lord's will.
The sharpshooter had been quite a sight as Josiah took the limp form from Chanu's tired arms. Clothing torn and filthy, spotted with blood so the buckskin coat more resembled a patchwork quilt. Sweating, hot to the touch so that Josiah thought Nathan'd have to treat him for burns before he got Vin up to a bed. Shivering with icy chills, so that no number of blankets Ezra'd been able to scrounge seemed to ease Vin's coldness. And one puncture, jagged, deep, and dirty, from the knife still protruding from his thigh, that brought forth all the rage and curses Larabee could muster.
So, even to see Vin moving in his wobbly, weakened state was nothing short of a miracle. Josiah wondered if Nathan knew he was up and around, let alone traipsing down a dingy street on his own.
Vin stopped at the bottom step, grasping the banister with white-knuckled fingers, and removed his hat. "J-J'siah?"
"Hang on, Vin. I'm comin' down," Josiah called as he moved toward the ladder.
"Good thing, preacher," Vin said, his voice a mere rasp. He struggled for a breath, no doubt worn out from his long trek. "Don't reckon 'm up ta th' climb fer t'day." He rocked back and forth on unsteady feet as his skin grew another shade whiter.
Josiah saw the eyes grow wide, large black pupils rimmed with blue, and jumped the remaining rungs. But he wasn't quick enough to catch his friend before he crumpled into a bony heap with a soft unconscious moan. Josiah picked him up and took him into the coolness of the sanctuary.
Vin's eyes shifted open as soon as Josiah had him resting in a weathered pew. "Sorry 'bout that, J'siah. Meant ta come askin' a favor, not beggin' at yer feet fer one." He managed a tiny grin.
Josiah settled back against the seat, keeping one hand at Vin's shoulder to ease him back when he made to stand. "Hold on there, Tanner. You see why Nathan told you to wait another week? You've got to take it easy."
Vin breathed in and out slowly, catching his wind. "Weren't just out fer a stroll, J'siah. Like I said, I come ta ask a favor."
"What could be so blasted important that you couldn't wait another week? Or better yet, wait until I stopped by this evening?"
Josiah watched him pull a shaky hand from his pocket. "Wanted ta have ya do it here, iffen yer of a mind." He held a worn black book out in his callused hand for Josiah to take.
The cover was battered, cracked along the edges, and even had a bite missing from it here and there. It wasn't large, but it was thick enough for Josiah to recognize it.
"M' Bible," Vin said.
Josiah nodded, fingering the filmy page edges. "So I see. You want me to read something to you?"
"Nah, leastways not right now," Vin said. "Want ta know if you'd do some scribin' in it fer me?"
Josiah looked into those tired blue eyes, relieved at the tiny flicker of light resting there. "Sure, but—"
"Cain't ask Ezra. It'd jest embarrass 'im, rememberin' he laughed me out the last time I asked, even though I shoulda known better then ta ask 'im when he's been drinkin' too much." Vin waved his hand. "Done asked too much a' Nathan already, and don't know that even once I learn m' letters if I'd be able ta read Buck ner JD's scratchin'. Chris'd read too much inta this, after the last week. So, I figured I'd come ta ya first, anyway."
Josiah tried to hide a grin. "Glad to see I rate so high on your list."
"Nah, jest hate ta bother a holy man. Reckon ya got plenty else ta keep ya busy is all."
Josiah refrained from reminding Vin that he was a former man of the cloth, and never quite "holy". He needed to get this over so Vin could get back to the clinic for some rest. Hopefully before Nathan discovered him missing. He turned the Bible over in his hands. "So, what do you want me to write?"
"Open th' front flap there," Vin directed.
Josiah did, only to find a white printed panel fixed inside the cover. ***May 14, 1862, Bible House, San Antonio -- From the Texas State Bible Society to _____________ Soldier in the 1st Regiment, Company H of Texas Volunteers.*** Someone, possibly even Vin himself, he guessed, had scribed VIN TANNER in tiny, well-formed letters.
Josiah smiled to himself and continued reading silently. ***Should I die on the Battle field or in hospital, for the sake of humanity, acquaint ____________ of ________________ of the fact and where my remains may be found.*** The remaining blanks were empty. Josiah chewed his lip.
"M' ma died long before the Confederate States took shape, an' I never knew m' pa, nor any other family. So when they came askin', I joined up with a Texas regiment and marched right alongside the men." Vin's gaze took on a faraway look. "Musta been prit-near ten, but I could shoot, an' that's about all that mattered ta them. Real pretty lady handed these out with our haversacks. Never had nobody give me a' book b'fore, an' I's too 'shamed ta tell 'er I couldna read it."
"No shame in that, Vin," Josiah said. "You know that don't make you less of a man, not to anyone here who matters."
Vin continued without comment. "There's a preacher marched with us. Could blast the wings off a fly at fifty yards, I swear. Good man. He'd read ta me from thet book anytime we got a chance. Lots a pretty words in thet, ya know. Some'd make ya feel real good, an' then others'd make ya squirm. Preach never sugared 'em, though, an' lived up ta every one. Always figured us Rebs'd win, cause we's fightin' fer th' right. But Preach always said he figured maybe God was jest so sick a' th' lot a' us, He'd let us to our own fool notions. Reckoned he's right, cause it sure never felt like God was anywhere near where we was. An' I don't blame Him."
Josiah wanted to disagree, but somehow felt almost as if he were in a confession of sorts, as much as Vin felt compelled to say, and as unusual as that was. "Did you have a favorite, Vin? Verse, I mean?"
Vin smiled, and the light from his blue eyes lit the dim sanctuary. "Always wanted 'im ta read from thet book thet's all poems. Preach said a king wrote most 'a them back even b'fore Baby Jesus came. I learned one verse 'special an' said it over an' over ta myself, maybe ta jest kinda prove ta m'self thet God hadn't left us alone: 'If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.'"
"Psalm 139," Josiah whispered.
Vin allowed the silence to play out a moment before he continued. "Anyhow, never had n'one ta care iffen I lived er died, never had anywhere particular ta send m' things. Til now."
Josiah blinked, watching the spasm of pain that crossed Vin's tired face as he shifted slightly on the pew. "Glad you feel that way, Vin."
"Thought a lot about it, being out there 'n not able ta move ta get back here, knowin' I's bleedin' like a stuck pig an' likely would leave nothin' but a cold body b'hind. Still carry thet Bible, ya know. Read what I could 'til I lost too much blood an' couldn' stay awake no more."
"We didn't know, Vin," Josiah said. "We didn't want to look foolish for crowding you—"
Vin waved a bandaged hand, cut when he had tried to pull himself along the trail before he passed out. "Wouldn't expect ya to. Chanu was meant ta find me, I reckon. Worked out, anyhow. Thet's not why 'm here."
"I know. I wanted to tell you, just the same. We'd never let you behind."
"Know thet, too. But iffen I had thet Bible filled out, wouldn' have ta die worryin' about ya'all findin' out an' gettin' my stuff back. So could ya fill it in fer me, J'siah?"
Josiah moved to the pulpit, worn and cracked, and pulled a nearly empty inkwell and writing stylus from behind it. "Of course, I will. How do you want it to read?"
Vin chewed the edge of his lip, thinking. "Not enough space ta list all ya'all." He rubbed his head, staying away from the deep bruise from where he'd fallen on the rocks. "Reckon iffen ya put 'my friends' at 'Four Corners', that'd give folks enough ta find ya. Think that'd be alright?"
Josiah cleared his throat. "I'm sure it would, Vin. I'm sure it would." He dipped the point and carefully wrote the words in as fine a print as he could muster, hoping to match the original penciled name. He waved it softly to dry.
"So, did you keep in touch with Preach after the War?"
Vin scratched his chin and shifted his gaze away and Josiah wished he could steal the question back. None of them – well, except maybe JD – ever asked about the past. What they'd done before was part and parcel of the man they'd each become, and no explanation was needed. He'd crossed some line none of them ever spoke of, but all felt.
Then Vin's voice came soft, raspy. "Always said if th' fightin' ever ended, I could go home with 'im, be like 'is own boy. Never had anyone but m' ma ever wanted me ta be their own. Preach did, though. Said it every night we got ta sleep. 'Got a little scratch a' land, Tanner. When we're all done with this, I'd like ya ta come home with me. I pastor a little church there, lots a pretty gals live near. Maybe you could help me pick one out. Lots 'a room ta run and four solid walls. What d'ya think?'"
Vin's gaze flashed, and Josiah saw one piece of the sadness that always seemed to lurk behind his casual demeanor force its way through. His chest felt heavy, knowing he'd caused it. But Vin continued. "He died in Devil's Den at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Kin see 'im sometimes, caught between those rocks where he fell when those Union boys got 'im from Little Round Top. Couldn' get to 'im 'til dark, but could sure enough see 'im. Second day 'a fightin', an' not many of us made the runnin' march home with Lee over those hills n' back across th' line."
"Sorry, Vin, I didn't mean—"
"Nah, reckon ya have the right. 'm the one who asked the favor."
Josiah wanted to protest, to make Vin understand that a favor was just that – that no repayment of any kind was needed between friends. But, he supposed one example would not be enough to convince a man who'd experienced the contrary his entire life. "Here's your Bible, Vin. You keep that close, now, okay?"
"I will, Preacher. Thanks." Vin took it with a slow grin, staring at the letters that made little sense to him, though he was improving under Mary's instruction. Josiah felt humbled by the trust Vin had shown in asking him to write and trusting he had written what he'd been told.
Vin limped toward the door, a little slower than he'd come in, if that were possible.
"Hold up, Vin. Mind if I wander along beside you? You heading to the saloon?"
Vin glanced at the sun, judging the time, and rubbed his pale face. "Reckon I'd better head back ta th' clinic 'fore Nate figures out I's gone. 'Sides, 'm feelin' like m' horse drug me here from Abilene."
Josiah gave him a critical look. "You look like it, too. But if Nathan catches you, you're on your own."
"Thanks a lot, J'siah. Yer a real friend."
Josiah laughed at his tone, but stopped when Vin grasped his hand in his own grasp, weaker than usual, but his gaze as firm as ever. "Really, J'siah. 'm proud ta call ya m' friend."
At a loss for words, Josiah caught his elbow to support him down the dusky street. "I'd say the same, Vin. We all would."
"One more thing, Preacher. When we get back ta thet jail Nate's got me in, ya reckon ya'd read some ta me? Ain't had nothin' but m' memory ta go on since th' day Preach died. I'd be grateful t' ya."
"I'd be honored, Vin. Now, let's see if we can't beat Nathan back. Or he'll be reading us a little sermon all his own."
The two walked on in the evening quiet.
***The verse is from the King James Version of the Bible, Psalm 139:9-10. I personally think it's even more beautiful in the NIV Version, but of course, that wasn't around in OW times.
***The plate from the inside of Vin's Bible is from an actual Confederate Bible I saw at General Lee's Headquarters in Gettysburg, PA. The wording is basically the same, except that the Bible on display there was actually issued by the Maryland State Bible Society. (It was actually completed by a Corporal Miller, who asked that "my mother" be notified of his death.) Texas did have a regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg, and Confederate sharpshooters did push the Union troops back to Little Round Top and picked them off as they could by placing sharpshooters below the hill at a rock formation known as Devil's Den. Several died from return fire, and several more were killed even before the Union took the hill, as the Confederates pushed them back into that area.
Everything else, is of course, fictional. But that Bible I saw on a recent trip to Gettysburg just clicked into my head and wouldn't let go. I hope you enjoy the history of the story as much as I did.