Main Characters: Vin and JD
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
It had been the dream again, he knew it as soon as he came to his senses sitting bolt upright, fists and jaw clenched so tight the muscles ached. With a deep sigh he slanted a look across the fire at his companion. JD. It had to be the Kid, didn’t it? Damn. He saw the clear hazel eyes peering through the darkness and light between them, a question forming there long before he spoke.
“Vin? You okay?”
“You hollered so loud, I thought –“
”I’m fine JD, go on back t’ sleep.” Before the younger man could finish voicing his thoughts Tanner dropped back to the ground, pulling himself into a ball beneath his blankets. He heard Dunne mumble to himself for a minute before growing quiet. Vin slept even lighter than normal, his mind never quite losing hold of consciousness as he guarded against further dreams.
Morning broke, bright and cloudless, mocking the tracker’s mood. They ate and broke camp in silence. The young sheriff, usually talkative enough for three people, said nothing for the first few hours on the trail. But, finally, his nature overcame his common sense and he turned in the saddle to face the man beside him. “Vin?”
“Yeah,” the word was delivered in Tanner’s usual calm, raspy twang.
“Who’s Paul?” The young man regretted the question immediately as he watched the handsome face pale, the square jaw twitch, and the blue eyes darken with pain.
“Why?” His voice held an edge now.
“You yelled the name in your sleep right before you jumped up.”
“Oh,” was the only response.
After a long silence JD debated whether or not to press the man for more information. Vin Tanner was something of an enigma that intrigued the Easterner. Only a few years older than Dunne himself, Vin had spent much of his life on his own, scrabbling to keep body and soul alive. JD had the suspicion that the life they all shared now was a great deal better than much of what had gone before for the Texan. It was almost all speculation, though. The young hunter spoke little about himself for the most part.
As the sun reached it’s zenith, they stopped at a spring, letting the horses drink their fill. Dunne could tell that the other man’s mood was no lighter than it had been since the night before. He sat on the grassy bank, knees drawn up and supporting his crossed arms.
Looking back later, Vin would never quite understand why he did it, but he began to speak, sharing a dark and painful chapter from his past. For his part, JD Dunne would never look at the soft-spoken man in quite the same way ever again.
“Paul was a friend.”
The words were nearly whispered, so low that JD wasn’t even certain he had heard him. “What?” he asked tentatively.
“Paul was a friend. You asked me who Paul was...he was a friend. We worked t’gether for a time; collectin' bounty on one feller or another. ‘Fore that we took our share a buff hides. We had us a good ol’ time runnin’ wild an’ not thinkin’ much past the next mornin’.” He paused, a smile tugging the corners of his mouth upward as he remembered those far away times.
JD took in the words in unusual silence. He knew, as did the others, that Tanner had spent the years prior to their becoming a group of compatriots as a hunter of both man and beast. He had assumed that other than his time with the Indians it had all been a pretty solitary existence; Vin had given no indication that it had been otherwise.
“How long since you’ve seen him?”
“‘Bout six years or so I reckon,” he answered in that soft, even tone.
“Where is he now?”
“Dead.” He delivered the word matter-of-factly with a single nod.
“I’m...sorry Vin. Didn’t mean to stir up memories for you.”
“Reckon th’ dream did that JD.”
“Is it...is it his death you dream about?”
“Yeah...” Tanner answered with a sigh. After several minutes of quiet he said, “You ever had t’ do somethin’ y’ knew was right...’r at least it seemed right, even though it was th’ worst thing y’ ever had t’ do in your life?”
He had witnessed and participated in many violent and painful acts, especially since jumping from the stage that fateful day. Somehow Dunne sensed that whatever Vin was talking about went beyond anything in his repertoire however. He shook his head no.
“Me ‘n Paul was huntin’ this feller; a real nasty cuss name a Colt Bryan. Bryan was a sick bastard who’d rounded up a gang just ‘s mean ‘s he was. They’d spent a time goin' along th’ territory robbin' an’ murderin' men, women ‘n children, takin’ whatever...or whoever...they wanted. No one could stand against ‘em, and most was afraid t’ try. But th’ bounty on Bryan an’ his boys was gettin’ bigger by th’ day. Me an’ Paul was ridin’ pretty poor ‘bout th’ time we heard ‘bout ‘m. Figgered if we could collect th’ bounty on even two or three of them bastards, we’d be set fer a spell.
“We spent th’ rest a our money on ammunition and headed out trackin’ them fellas. Spent near a week goin’ deeper ‘n deeper into the wilderness. Finally we come on their camp just ‘fore sundown. Figured we’d watch ‘m a time, get the lay a th’ land sort a. Paul, he was eager t’ get done an’ get goin’. See, he’d met him a girl a few weeks earlier, an’ he was itchin’ t’ get back ‘fore she fergot ‘im.” Vin paused, favoring the other man with a slow smile. Then he sobered and continued. “We snuck up on’ m ‘fore they got stirrin’, ‘fore they knew what hit ‘m. Things was goin’ good for a time, but then a few of ‘m managed t’ get organized ‘n they started fightin' back. Then...” Vin’s voice trembled with emotion then hollowed out with pain as he continued. “Then I heard Paul scream. It was so loud he damn near drown out everythin’ else goin’ on.” He stopped again for several minutes, struggling to quiet the memories enough to allow him to continue.
JD sat silently as well, knowing that he was not going to like hearing the rest of his friend’s tale, but at the same time he felt a terrible need to know the rest of the story, and deep down a twinge of pride that the quiet man had chosen him to tell it to.
“I managed t’ get t’ ‘im, “ Tanner finally continued, his voice soft and distant, “the two ‘r three fellas still standin’ was takin off quick’s they could git t’ a horse. I could’na cared less though, I just wanted t’ get t’ Paul. But when I did get to ‘m, I just wanted t’ run away...they’d gutshot ‘m...with a shotgun from th’ look of it.”
Dunne swallowed hard and unconsciously rubbed the scar from the injury that had early cost him his life thanks to one Maddy Stokes. He couldn’t imagine how it could have hurt worse, but knew that a shell would have done far more damage than the bullet she had used.
“He was tryin’ t’ yell, but nothin’ was comin’ outta his mouth...’cept blood. There’s blood everywhere, and nothin’ I could do ‘bout it. We’s near a week from anywhere civilized enough t’ have a doctor. I opened up his shirt t’ see if maybe there’s somethin’ I could do...” His voice dropped, became the embodiment of pain. “Stupid I reckon, but I couldn’t just sit there.”
JD wanted to tell him that it hadn’t been stupid, that he had been trying to help his friend. Wasn’t that what Vin Tanner did better than anyone...help those around him? But the words wouldn’t come.
“Paul tried t’ holler again, but all that come out was this gurgglin’ sound like nothin’ I ever heard b’fore...an’ ain’t heard since. He grabbed hold a m’ hand an’ pushed me away. I could see th’ beggin’ in his eyes then. He knew better'n’ I did...wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do. He was dyin’ an’ it was gonna be slow ‘n painful ‘less there was somethin’ done.
“He took my hand then and hefted his gun in the other. He put that gun in m’ hand and looked up at me again. I knew what he wanted...weren’t no question of it...” Vin trailed off again. He said nothing more for so long that Dunne thought perhaps he would never know what had come next. Then Tanner cleared his throat and continued in a voice that sounded very old and very tired.
“I told ‘m that there wasn’t a way in th’ world I could do what he wanted. I begged ‘im not t’ put me in that place. But he just kept on starin’ at me, an’ I knew there wasn’t a way in th’ world I could just sit there an’ watch ‘im dyin’ slow like that. Finally I nodded, an’ he smiled...even though he’s cryin’ at th’ same time. I took long ‘nuff t’ tell ‘im I’s glad we’s friends, and I’s sorry things had come t’ where they was...then...” He stopped, clearing his throat. When he began again the pain was even clearer in his voice. “Then I done th’ hardest thing I’d ever done in m’ life. I pushed th’ barrel a that pistol up under his chin...an’ I pulled th’ trigger.”
JD gasped, staring at his friend in disbelief. “You mean y-you...Vin, you...”
“I shot ‘im Kid...I killed ‘im,” the hunter's voice grew sharp with anger, but the anger wasn’t directed toward JD. “Reckon it sounds pretty cold-blooded now...maybe it is. Never could get it right in m’ head. I just knew I couldn’t sit there watchin’ ‘im die, an’ there wasn’t nothin’ else could’a been done.” As if to get away from the pain of his memories, Vin leapt to his feet and strode toward his horse. Mounting the big black he rode off, leaving J.D. to hustle and catch up with him.
They rode in silence for the rest of the day, a quiet that continued into the evening as they made camp. Squatting near the lean hunter beside the fire, J.D. finally put voice to his thoughts.
“Vin, I can’t say I know how it was for you, because I don’t know. I don’t know what I would have done if it had been me. I’ve been trying to picture it all afternoon, what I would have done if it had been you, or Buck, or any of the others. I can’t even picture it, it’s like my mind keeps shutting down. But I do know one thing for certain; you need to stop blaming yourself. Maybe this is a strange way of saying it, but what you did took a lot of strength and courage –“
”JD you can’t – “
The young brunet held up a hand, “I know that anything I say is going to carry a lot less weight than if it was Chris or Josiah talking – “
”Don’t sell yourself short Kid. You got smarts th’ rest of us ain’t never gonna have. I just don’t want y’ tryin’ t’ make what I did sound noble. I was scared J.D., plain ‘n simple.” He shook his head, poking at the fire with a stick and watching the sparks dace upward on the wind.
“Scared of what Vin?”
“Of sittin’ there watchin’ Paul die slow, of them fellas comin’ back an’ finishin’ us both off. Hell, you name it and I was scared of it right about then.”
“You could have just run away.”
“Think that scared me most of all, just th’ fact that it come t’ mind a’tall. But it did.”
“But you didn’t...you stayed with him.”
“And spread his brains out over th’ landscape. Ain’t no pretty way t’ put it.”
“There wasn’t anything pretty about the whole thing Vin. You did the best you could in a lousy situation. You did the best you could for your friend. You did what he asked you, despite your feelings and the pain it’s caused you ever since. I don’t know the right and wrong of it, how it stacks ups against the other things we’ve all done...” the young man paused, drawing a heavy breath; a look of pain crosse his young face. “I do know the pain of someone dying by your hand when they shouldn’t have...I just wish I knew what to say to make some of the pain go away. Guess you would have been better off talking to Chris or Josiah.”
Tanner smiled. “Don’t reckon there are any words that can do that...but reckon just bein’ able t’ talk ‘bout it with a friend helps...” he nodded, clapping a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “It helps a lot.
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