Author’s notes: Thanks to Pammie Kae for the plot bunny and guidance, as well as doing Beta duty on this one. Thanks to Jan and Nora for Beta duty as well! Any remaining mistakes are on me.I had hoped to be able to be more descriptive with the sign language, but the PISL (Prairie Indian Sign Language) materials I found didn’t have any words that would work in the story!
Dedication: Since this should be online around her birthday, I’d like to dedicate this story especially to the memory of Sue Fulton.
The spring sun shone down on the little homestead with a much welcomed warmth after a late winter. Below, at the little creek that bordered the land, two men had stripped to the waist, their bodies glistening with perspiration, as they worked. Each man was on either side of the creek, trying to clear away the debris that had gathered in such a way that the water was effectively dammed up.
“Hate t’ tell ya this, Cowboy, but reckon we’re gonna have t’ blow this if we wanna clear it any time soon.” Vin Tanner stood, staring across the creek bed, looking his friend in the eye.
With a heavy sigh, Chris Larabee nodded, “Reckon you’re right. What do you think, one stick, or two?”
Eyeing the debris, Vin shook his head and replied, “Two’ll save us time.”
“Alright. You figure out where to plant them; I’ll go get the dynamite.”
Half an hour later, the two men looked at their handiwork with satisfaction. Chris looked across the creek, where the other man stood and said, “We go on three... don’t dawdle.”
“Might wanna remind yerself ‘a that, seein’s yer so much older than me,” Tanner teased as he scratched the match he held to life against his thumb. In synch, each held a match to one of the fuses. Staying only long enough to make certain they lit, the men sprang to their feet and quickly started moving away while the fire rushed up the fuse.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Five steps away, the former bounty hunter lost his footing as the drying mud caught at his boot, causing him to stagger. Before he could recover, he landed face first on the ground, only vaguely hearing a panicked “VIN!” before the world erupted in twin explosions.
“Vin!” Chris was already on his way to his friend before the ground had completely settled. He dropped to Tanner’s side, gently checking him over for signs of injury. Finding nothing, he carefully rolled him over, taken aback when he found himself staring at a pair of open, blue eyes. “Vin?”
“Yeah?” His voice was trembling; soft with a vague quality to it.
Chris smiled. “No, you’re not dead.”
“Reckon I’m okay, then,” He reached out a hand and allowed Larabee to help him to his feet, but was suddenly struck with a nauseating wave of vertigo. “Shit.”
Holding onto Tanner as he fought to keep his balance, Chris coaxed softly, “Take it easy, Pard. We’re in no hurry.” Carefully he guided him back to the ground, keeping a hand on the man’s back to steady him.
“Jist a little dizzy, s’all,” Vin rubbed a hand across his face.
“What the hell happened? One minute you were on your way, I turn back around and you’re on the ground.”
“Lost my balance is all.”
“Vin Tanner, the human mountain goat, lost his balance?” Larabee asked in a shocked tone.
“Go t’ hell,” the bounty hunter growled. “Can happen t’ anyone.”
“If you say so,” Chris teased. Then, sobering, he said, “Let’s get you back to the cabin, and take a break.”
“Nah, I’m fine. Let’s finish this... don’t fancy still workin’ on it tomorrow. Got plans t’ go see Miz Nettie in the mornin’.”
“She back from visiting her sister?”
“S’posed t’ git home last night.” As he spoke, Tanner carefully rose from the ground. He stood for a minute, testing gravity and the Earth’s axis, before deciding that he was okay. Grinning at the blond, he said, “Let’s go... ol’ man!”
By sundown the creek was running freely again, and Tanner’s accident was remembered only as a close call. Scrubbing in the cold, snow fed water, they walked back to the cabin in a companionable silence. There, Vin went to take care of the horses, while Chris fixed a dinner of beans and tortillas. When the younger man returned to the cabin, Larabee noticed a look of pain on Tanner’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’, jist a headache,” the sharpshooter waved away the concern.
“Well, get in out of the sun and eat. I’ve got some whiskey to cut the coffee, that should help the headache.”
“Hell, more like t’ give me a worse one,” Vin grumbled.
“You’re in a cheerful mood,” Chris teased.
“Eh...” Vin waved his hand, dismissing any further discussion of his mood, or anything else.
They ate in customary silence, broken only occasionally by a comment from one or the other man. Larabee began to notice that Vin seemed to be getting more and more agitated, but didn’t say anything. Whatever it was, it was Tanner’s concern. He’d share it if he needed to, or he’d stay silent.
After dinner, they settled on the porch, watching the sunset as they passed a bottle of whiskey back and forth. Vin still seemed to be on edge, but he didn’t say anything, so Chris didn’t either. Just as the last light was fading, the younger man leaned forward, rubbing his temples and then massaging behind his ears.
“Yeah,” Tanner groaned softly. “Damn ears ‘r ringin’, too.”
Frowning, the blond repeated, “Ringing?”
“Yeah,” this time it was said with a groan.
“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“You gonna fix m’ ears?” Vin growled, giving the other man a frustrated, sideways look.
“No... but maybe we could have headed back into town... had Nathan take a look at you.”
“He ain’t back from the reservation ‘til tomorrow, remember?”
Noting the tone of impatience, but letting it go, Chris simply said, “Oh, yeah.”
“Look, I’m jist gonna go t’ bed. Maybe sleep off the headache. See y’ in the morning.”
Larabee nodded. “See you in the morning.”
Sometime before sunrise, Chris was woken from sleep by the sound of his front door closing. He sat up, looking over near the stove, where Vin had laid out his bedroll. The blankets were empty. Pulling his pants on and shoving his feet into his boots, he slipped from the shack. Outside he found Vin standing out by the corral, staring up into the night sky. Chris made no effort to be quiet, knowing that Tanner had probably heard him get out of bed. Just behind the other man, he said, “Vin?”
Chris was startled when Tanner whirled around and assumed a fighting stance. Eyes wild, the former bounty hunter yelled out, “Fuck!”
Moving back and putting his hands up and out, Larabee stammered, “S-sorry! I figured you heard me!”
Making a conscious effort to get his breathing back under control, the slender man, replied, still breathing hard, “Didn’t. Ringin’s too fuckin’ bad.”
Turning back to the corral fence, and leaning his head against the rough wood, Vin said, “Jist lookin’ fer quiet... damn it... cain’t find no quiet...”
The blond reached out and placed a hand lightly on the other man’s shoulder. “Take it easy, Vin. Sometimes an explosion will set your ears ringing. It’ll clear up in a day or two. Soon as the sun’s up, we’ll head into town.”
“Kay.” The word seemed small and forlorn.
What was left of the night passed quietly, Chris dropping off to sleep when it seemed that Vin was at least resting. When the sun had risen enough to see, the blond went outside and readied the horses. By the time he returned to the little shack, he expected to be greeted by Tanner but was surprised to see the other man still burrowed into the blankets. Remembering the man’s reaction the night before, he made every effort to alert Vin that he was approaching. The prone figure didn’t move, so he squatted down beside the bundle and reached out to carefully touch Tanner’s shoulder. Other than a startled jerk, Vin reacted fairly calmly. When the other man’s eyes blinked open, he said, “Hey, your ears stop ringing?”
“Ha-ha, Larabee. Real funny.”
With a frown, Chris asked, “What? What’s funny? Are they still ringing, because I --”
“Cut it out! It ain’t funny!” The Texan yelled angrily.
“Vin, calm down! What are you talking about?” Any further questioning came to a halt as Tanner swung a fist, catching Larabee in the jaw. “Son of a bitch!”
“Stop it! Stop actin’ like yer talkin’! It ain’t funny!”
“Oh... hell...” Carefully, he wrapped his hands around the man’s biceps, holding on firmly and looking Tanner directly in the eyes. “Vin. Stop. Calm down. Please.”
Blue eyes staring wildly at first, the younger man slowly began to calm down. He watched as his friend slowly enunciated each word. He spoke softly, his voice trembling. “Chris... what’s wrong? I cain’t... I cain’t... why cain’t I hear ya?”
Shaking his head, he shrugged his shoulders to indicate that he was just as confused as the other man. Larabee reached out and turned Vin’s head first to one side, then to the other. No blood... no nothing. He wasn’t certain what he was looking for, but he saw nothing to indicate a problem.
Catching Tanner’s frightened gaze, Chris pointed to his ears, then gestured toward the general direction of the creek. He repeated the motions several times, finally seeing realization dawning on the Texan’s face.
“The ‘splosion. The explosion? But... I could hear yesterday.” Chris felt helpless as he could only sit there, watching as Vin slowly pieced it together.
“The ringin’,” Tanner continued. “It... it hurt b’hind my ears. I... the headache. Damn it, what am I gonna do? What... what if it’s perm’nent? What if... ah sweet Jesus!”
Chris wasn’t prepared for the other man’s reaction, and barely had time to brace himself when the other man grabbed hold of him, long fingers digging into his arms. He yelped, then recovered, doing his best to loosen the other man’s grip. “Come on, Pard, calm down. Come on now.” It took several, long minutes for the blond to calm Vin enough that he could get his attention. Even then, the other man regarded him with tear filled, panic stricken eyes. But, finally, Tanner slumped back, head down, breathing hard for several minutes.
As he raised his head, eyes searing into his friend’s soul, Vin asked again, “What am I gonna do? Chris, what if this is f’rever? Oh God...”
Taking the other man’s face in his hands, Larabee mouthed “Stop. Just stop.”
“What am I gonna do, Chris? A deaf wanted man? Fuck, I might ‘s well jist shoot m’self right now!” He laughed then, a sound edging on hysteria.
Shaking his head adamantly, the blond could only mouth the word “stop” over and over again. Finally he reached out and clasped Vin’s arm in their familiar handshake; forearm to wrist. He squeezed Tanner’s arm, nodding as he mouthed, “Together.”
Vin relaxed just a little, and squeezed the other man’s arm in return. “Y’ might be th’ bad element an’ all, but not even you can watch over me every moment of every day.” One blond brow arching elegantly, Chris just stared at him. The Texan snorted and amended, “Oh, hell, maybe y’ can.”
Chris grinned now, and motioned to get his friend to his feet. Vin had another bout of vertigo, but the blond simply stood there, holding the wavering man until he was ready to move. He got Tanner to put on his shirt, boots, coat and hat, then led him out into the yard where the horses waited. Making certain Tanner got mounted, he stepped into the saddle of his own animal, and they headed toward the little town where, both men hoped, they would find some answers.
“I don’t know, damn it! We sure Vin’s the only one who can’t hear?” Nathan Jackson growled as he tried to answer Chris Larabee’s question for what seemed like the thousandth time. He had examined the injured man and consulted his medical books. Everything he looked into pointed to the same thing, Tanner’s hearing had most likely been taken by the explosion, and only time would prove his deafness permanent or temporary. At the moment, however, he had to contend with the gunman glaring at him angrily, while the object of their argument sat between the two other men, eyes going from one to the other.
“Well, it’s easy t’ see you two ain’t swappin’ dumplin’ recipes,” Tanner interrupted the tirade. When he had both men looking at him, he locked eyes with the healer as he continued, “Reckon you don’t know much about this... whether m’ hearin’s gonna come back or not.”
Jackson shook his head as he slowly enunciated, “No. I’m sorry.”
With a nod and a shrug, Vin said, “reckon we... reckon I... jist wait’t out.” His voice dropped until it was nearly inaudible, and his gaze dropped to the ground. He tried to envision a life where he had to rely on his friends to, in a very real way, watch his back. It was not pleasant, and he didn’t forsee a lengthy future. Becoming more and more distraught, he began to feel panic setting in, only beginning to calm when he felt a familiar presence beside him. He looked up only when Chris once again grasped his jaw, forcing his attention on the blond’s face.
“Together,” Larabee said, once again, with conviction.
Heaving a sigh, the deafened man could only nod in response. He had no plans on becoming a burden on his friends, but neither was he a quitter. He would give it some time; see if his hearing returned. But he knew that there would come a point where he could no longer be dependent on his six friends.
The seven peacekeepers sat at a corner table, eating dinner. Six of them talked amongst themselves, their conversation growing animated from time to time, but never becoming loud. The seventh member of their group sat quietly, staring off into space. Inez watched from the bar, trying to decipher what was going on. She had heard that Chris and Vin had ridden in right after sunrise, heading straight for the clinic even before Nathan returned from the Indian village.
Now, they were all sitting together, talking quietly. And staring. She watched as, one after another, the other six stared at Vin Tanner. He looked fine, although there seemed to be something off about the quiet young man. She frowned, trying to put her finger on it but failing. Shaking her head, she took an empty tray and headed for the table. There, she smiled and got their attention. “Good evening, gentlemen. Is anyone ready for another drink? Some dinner?”
“Thank you, Inez,” Ezra returned her smile. “Could you bring us a pitcher of beer... my finest... and seven of the specials?”
“Si,” She replied, glancing around the table. Vin, who had been staring off, glanced over and saw her standing there. She read a quickly banished expression of shock, before the man managed a smile and nod. She smiled back before returning to the bar for the drinks.
“Chris, we can’t just let him wander around without someone with him. I mean, on a good day, he’d be safe, but what if bounty hunters get wind that... well, that he’s deaf?” Buck asked after the bar manager left the table.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Larabee growled with barely restrained anger.
Vin reached out and placed a hand on the blond’s shoulder. “Slow up, Cowboy.”
The blond turned to look at his other friend, an expression of frustration and disbelief on his handsome face. They had been able to communicate without words since that first moment, and they did now. Looking into those soulful, blue eyes, he drew a ragged breath and slowly nodded. Turning his gaze toward his oldest friend, he said, “I’m just... worried... about what could happen if he... if he doesn’t...”
“Chris,” Buck said softly, “We’re all worried about it. All I’m sayin’ is, what’s the best way to handle things? How do we keep him safe?”
While the two old friends discussed the situation, Josiah found his attention drawn to the former buffalo hunter. He could see that Vin was struggling to keep calm, but the situation was creating a great deal of anxiety in him. Unable to keep still, Tanner began to drum his fingers along the edge of the table, the digits dancing across the wood. It was clear, too, that he was watching the discussion that continued between the two other men; wanted to intervene or contribute. There was nothing he could say or do, nothing he could offer as an alternative to the idea of his six friends becoming his guardians in a very real sense.
Josiah watched those drumming fingers; slowly, something came to mind. With a broad smile, he reached out and laid his bigger hand over those dancing fingers, getting Vin’s attention. Then, hesitantly at first, his own fingers began to move; hands making strange motions in the air.
At first, Vin simply stared at the other man, then recognition dawned, and he smiled. He began to make similar motions, more animated and sure. Josiah motioned for him to slow down, and he laughed.
“What the hell are you doing?” Buck asked the older man.
“It’s a hand language... uh, sign language... the Kiowa use it for the members of their tribe who’re deaf. I wasn’t certain, but it looks like our friend knows it. I think that we should be able to communicate with him, at least in some fashion.” Sanchez explained to the others. He then returned to talking to Vin with his hands.
“What are you saying?” JD asked.
“I’m telling him that I remember some of the signs... from when I was doing missionary work with my Father. I can’t promise that I’ll get it all right, but I’ll try to help him understand what’s going on.”
“Brilliant,” Standish proclaimed. “Completely brilliant, my friend.”
“Can you teach us, Josiah?” Dunne asked.
“I can certainly try, my friends.”
He sat in the shadows, in a corner of the landing outside Nathan’s clinic, staring out across the town. It was after midnight, so he could pretend that it was supposed to be quiet right now. But the occasional light showing through a window, or vague movement as someone walked along the boardwalk, told a different story. This silence was complete, even the ringing had disappeared.
He never thought he’d miss his ears ringing.
Taking a sip from the bottle of whiskey he’d brought with him, he could do little but think about the tomorrows stretching out before him. Josiah knowing some of the signs he had picked up while living with the Kiowa, had given him some brief hope. There was a way for his friends to communicate with him.
But the hope hadn’t lasted long. Remembering the hand shapes and gestures, so long disused, had been difficult for both of them. Some of the signs the other man used, too, didn’t seem to fit his memory. He had voiced what he read, only to have Josiah shake his head and try again. In the end, they had been able to only agree on perhaps a dozen signs. What if there were never any more? Could he live the rest of his life with only a dozen words?
As he worked to remember his time with the tribe, and the gestures they had used, he couldn’t help but remember the reason they used those signs. There had been a few members of the tribe who couldn’t hear. One had been an old man, who’s hearing had been taken slowly by time. Another was a young brave who had been injured in battle and had awakened to silence. The third was in his teens, and had been born without the sense of hearing. There were also two children who had lost their hearing to illness when they were barely more than infants.
The old man was difficult to talk to, especially when it was discovered that age was also taking his sight. He still spoke, but it was mostly inaudible mumbles and slurred words. The brave still spoke well, and was proficient in reading the gestures that the others spoke to him through. The other three managed to communicate through signs only; having no ability to do more than grunt or babble from time to time.
What if he became like that old man? What if he found it nearly impossible to communicate with the others soon? How long would it be, before he forgot what his own voice sounded like? How long before he couldn’t communicate at all?
No. It wouldn’t get to that point. He knew, that if this was permanent, he could see no other option but to end his life. He wasn’t certain if he would do it himself, or if he would force that little chore on someone else. He had sworn for years that he would not end his life at the end of a rope, but he was still a wanted man. If he could keep the name Tanner out of the mud, well hell, death was death.
And deaf was deaf.
And a deaf, wanted, man had a very short life expectancy out here. When it was all said and done, he could not, and would not, expect his friends to babysit him for how ever long that life was. No, he would have to make a stand when the time came.
The air seemed to grow very thin suddenly and he found it all but impossible to catch his breath. He straightened, back rigid, as he tried his best to force air into his lungs. He managed to take a long swallow of the whiskey, feeling it burn its way down his throat and into his belly. Still it was hard to breathe. Another swallow, another breath. His skin began to crawl and itch, the prospect of being at the end of his life soon was one that turned the blood in his veins into ice water. It seemed so very unfair. He had a home and a family now, a place to belong, a reason to get out of the blankets each morning.
Another swallow, drinking from the bottle until it was running down his chin. Maybe, if he drank enough, it would all go away.
Josiah stood at the front of the church, preparing to teach those gathered to learn to speak to Vin Tanner for as long as he couldn’t hear their words. The younger man at the center of all this sat nearby, eyes flitting back and forth between the individuals that made up the small gathering there in the church. Not only were the other five members of the little peacekeeping force there, but Inez, Mary, and Gloria had come to see what they could learn. As had Yosemite and a few of the other town’s people. Even as he prepared to begin teaching, the church door opened, revealing Nettie and Casey Wells. The former preacher couldn’t help but look over to where Vin sat. He wasn’t surprised at the look of happiness and relief that came over Tanner’s face. For first time he had seen the fear pushed to the far edges of the younger man’s features.
“And why, might I ask, wasn’t it important enough for someone to come let me know what was goin’ on?” Nettie asked in a tight tone. “I had to find out from Elisabeth over at the restaurant, that Vin had been hurt?”
Nobody could miss the pain in her voice. Every man there had stood up when the Wells women had entered the little building and finally Chris stepped forward, offering up a quiet, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Wells. We’ve just... well, we...”
“Sorry, Nettie,” Vin came up behind the gunslinger. “I’s comin’ out t’ see y’, but I got a little blowed up, and... well... cain’t hear a darn thing.”
The older woman stepped around Larabee and threw her arms around the Texan. Vin returned the gesture briefly, then moved back. Looking down into her worried face, he said, “‘Siah’s gonna teach y’all some signs we learned from the Kiowa. Make it easier t’... well, t’ talk to me.”
Nettie nodded, and said in that no-nonsense tone of hers, “Then let’s get to it.”
The morning passed in study, as Josiah explained what he knew of sign language. He described the signs he could recall, teaching those that could help them communicate with Vin. From time to time he would forget a sign, or make an incorrect gesture, and Tanner would correct him.
By lunchtime, the group had learned the handful of signs that Josiah and Vin remembered. After a lunch that Inez brought over from the saloon, they spent the afternoon practicing those signs. Nettie sat near her “boy” and formed and reformed the signs until her joints ached. Finally, Tanner took her hands in his and held them snuggly.
“Yer doin’ fine, Miz Nettie. Why not rest a bit? I know I ain’t the best comp’ny right now, but would y’ care t’ take a turn ‘round the town?”
Smiling, Nettie nodded and said, “I’d like that.”
Standing, the slender man helped her up, and then took her arm. He looked around until he spotted the gunslinger. “Chris? Me and Nettie’s goin’ fer a little walk.”
Larabee hesitated, uncertain of just how safe the other man would be. But, seeing the look of challenge in the other man’s eyes, he nodded. Then, more to Mrs. Wells than to his friend, he said, “Watch your back.”
“I’ll keep him safe, Chris,” Nettie said with a smile.
The blond smiled as the duo left the little church. He had a feeling that, with Nettie Wells at his side, Vin was safe.
Vin kept his steps short as he walked beside his favorite “old biddy”. He felt more comfortable in her presence than he had since being injured. He could almost consider a life without hearing if she was at his side. Almost.
Just as they reached the end of the street, he staggered as another wave of vertigo hit him. His hold on Nettie’s arm tightened reflexively, and she looked up at him, startled. “Vin? Honey, what is it?”
The buckskin clad man moaned, grasping his head as the world spun wildly around him. He leaned heavily against the nearest upright, cursing as he tried to force the world back to rights. Then, he felt someone take his arm and coax him down, until he was sitting on a chair. “Ah, damn, somebody make it stop.”
Kneeling before the man, Nettie said, “Honey, what is it? Vin?” She tried to get his attention, but Vin sat with his eyes closed tight, hands pressed tight against each side of his head. He continued to moan softly, trying to ride out the nausea. Neither he nor the older woman noticed a rider stopping nearby, watching the interaction.
“Vin?” Chris jogged to where Tanner and Mrs. Wells were. He had just come outside to smoke, when he saw that something was wrong with his friend. He was so focused that he didn’t notice the stranger either; didn’t notice when the man turned his horse back toward the saloon.
“Mr. Larabee, what is it? All of a sudden he seemed to be in pain, and couldn’t stand without holding on to something.”
“It’s part of his injury, ma’am. It should pass in a few minutes.” He placed a hand on the other man’s shoulder, silently lending Vin support as he dealt with the pain and sickness that battered his weakened defenses. Larabee’s estimate proved to be dead on, and a short time later Vin seemed to relax. Slowly his hands dropped from his ears, and he lifted his head.
“Sorry, Miz Nettie,” He said remorsefully. “Didn’t mean t’ --”
Pressing her fingers against his lips, she responded, “Hush, now, Vin Tanner. Let’s just get you back to the church.”
Not certain what she had said, Vin looked from her to Chris. The gunfighter gestured in a hesitant manner, indicating that they should return to where the others were still gathered. He nodded, accepted a hand up, and moved with the two people he cared most about, back to where his other friends were practicing a new language. Just so they could talk to him.
If that wasn’t the damndest thing.
“You sure?” Walton Beaman growled at the man sitting across from him. He poured both of them a shot, sliding one across the table.
“Hell yes, I’m sure. Seen ‘im with my own eyes.” Ike Burton insisted. “Doubled over, holdin’ ‘is head, and that old woman hoverin’ over ‘im like she’s ‘is ma. Then that gunman come runnin’ over, lookin’ all concerned. Looked for all the world like that smart ass hunter’s off ‘is feed.”
Walt smiled, a very cold, very ugly, smile. Vin Tanner had shot and killed his two cousins four years ago, in front of him. He had found himself, then just a teenager, left behind in the small border town, alone and frightened. Tanner had taken them in for the bounty on their heads. It had just been by coincidence that he’d recognized the man a few days ago when they’d come to town. He had changed enough that Tanner didn’t recognize him.
The bastard would know who he was before he killed him.
Chris escorted Vin to the newspaper office that evening. Nettie and Casey were spending the night with Mary before returning home. It didn’t take much for them to figure out that Nettie just wasn’t ready to leave Vin quite yet.
Nettie met them at the door, kissing Vin on the cheek, before ushering them through the newspaper office to Mary’s quarters beyond. Tanner smiled as he smelled a mixture of aromas that he quickly identified as Nettie’s cooking. The trio disappeared through the office; never noticing the two men standing across the street, watching the interaction.
As the three people disappeared into the rear of the building, Walt turned to his companion. “Seems like the old woman’s sweet on Tanner.”
“‘Pears so,” Ike agreed.
“Reckon I know how we c’n git ‘im away from his babysitters.”
He woke to a fourth, silent, morning. He was on a cot in Larabee’s room, having given in to the others insistence that he couldn’t be alone. Not as long as he was having the bouts of dizziness and the headaches. Not for as long as he couldn’t hear.
But what if that never changed? They couldn’t ignore the fact that it could be permanent. He could be deaf forever. And, if that possibility did become fact, he wasn’t going to live with it. Couldn’t. It would cost him too much of his freedom, the others would see to that. Not that they’d do it out of malice; they had nothing but his safety in mind. But they didn’t understand just how important freedom was to him.
A movement in the periphery of his vision caught his attention, and he turned to find Larabee climbing out of bed. “Hey,” he said quietly to alert his friend that he was awake.
Chris waved, offering a “morning,” with a hopeful expression. When Vin’s own expression didn’t change, that hope fled his features. The fact that his friend was still deaf became evident. He sighed, forcing himself to keep his disappointment from registering on his face. Mimicking putting something in his mouth, he suggested, “Breakfast?”
“Just gotta hit the privy first,” Vin said softly as he pushed himself carefully off the cot. Walking side by side, the two men made their way from the room and down the stairs. A short time later, they were entering the restaurant where the others were already gathered. “Mornin’ boys.”
The others smiled, gestured, and returned Tanner’s greeting. It was immediately obvious to all of them that nothing had changed with the Texan’s health. As soon as the seven men were all seated, Chris signaled for the waitress, trying to hide his irritation when he saw her hesitate before she nervously approached the table.
“Good morning, what can I get for you boys?” Molly Jenson asked as she gave them her best smile. As they each, in turn, gave her their order, she made notations on a pad of paper. The entire time, she studiously ignored the sharpshooter. As she turned to leave after the sixth order, Vin spoke up.
“I cain’t hear ya, Molly, but I can still talk... and order a meal.”
The young woman grew even more flushed as she dropped her head and mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
“He can’t see you speaking to him,” Chris said curtly.
“Look, just bring me ham an’ eggs... Josie knows how I like ‘em... and coffee. And we need a basket ‘a biscuits if none of the others have ordered ‘em yet.” Turning his head, he effectively dismissed the young woman, who hurried away toward the kitchen.
Long, agile fingers began drumming again, announcing to the others that Vin was struggling with his emotions. Placing a big hand on his arm, Josiah got his attention before signing, “Stop.” while saying evenly, “She didn’t mean anything. Ignore it.”
“How?” Vin asked. “Y’ know she ain’t the only one’s gonna act like I’m a leper. Seen folks do it with others. They git uncomfortable an’ do stupid things.”
“They fear the unknown, Vin. They hurt you because they try hard not to hurt you,” Josiah said gently, looking into that hurt filled face. “All we can do is try to help them understand.”
Tanner slumped back in his chair, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Damn it... don’t wanna be a teacher... don’t wanna feel like I’m on display.”
Vin stood, leaning against his big black, taking comfort in the feel of muscle and bone beneath the sleek, dark coat. Straightening up, he patted the horse, then offered him a honey coated biscuit. Peso lipped it gently from the man’s open palm and made quick work of the treat. Then he nudged the slender man, pushing against his shoulder.
“Settle down, mule,” Vin mumbled, knowing that neither of them actually needed the words, but taking comfort in the vibration in his throat. “I know yer bored, but I ain’t quite up t’ ridin’ out t’day. Maybe t’morrow.”
He felt some guilt at tricking Chris and the others, but he just needed some time alone. So, he had feigned a headache after breakfast and headed toward the room he was now sharing with Chris. He promised to lock the door, so the blond had agreed that he would be alright alone. He frankly didn’t care whether or not he was safe; he just wanted some solitude. So he had slipped off and headed for the livery, knowing that spending some time caring for his horse would help him relax, as it always did.
Taking up a brush, Vin began to run it over the animal, knocking loose straw and bits of dust and dirt as he did. He smiled as he shook his head. Yosemite and Tiny were very competent livery men but, let Peso out in the corral, and he was going find any and every way to get dirty. The damn mule took great pride in it.
Just as the animal’s coat was clean enough to glisten in the beam of sun coming into the stable, Vin was surprised by a frantic jerk on his arm. He turned, ready to defend himself in any way he could. Then he stopped short.
“Vin, help! I don’t know what to do! You’ve got to save her! Please Vin!”
Taking hold of the young woman’s arms, Tanner said, “Casey, slow down. I cain’t understand ya. What’s wrong?”
Taking a deep breath and swiping at the tears coursing down her flushed cheeks, the young woman said, “Nettie. Two men. They’ve got her.”
“Cabin... our place. They want you. Vin, I think they... plan on killing you!”
“Son of a bitch,” Tanner muttered. Then, eyes tight on the young woman’s lips, he said, “Do you know who they are?”
She shook her head, saying carefully, “Strangers.”
“Go get Chris, and --”
“No!” She exclaimed, jabbing a finger into his chest. Carefully, she said,“They said just you. Nobody else.”
“Damn it... a trap,” Vin sighed. “Okay, let me saddle m’ horse.”
“You’d better pray Vin don’t come out here,” Nettie Wells bit out, staring angrily at the two men sitting nearby. They had bound her to her rocking chair, which sat in one corner of the main living area of the little cabin.
“You better pray he does, ol’ woman,” Walt growled in response. “Else, yer gonna need buryin’.”
“Think that scares me? I’ve faced death more times than I can count, boy, you don’t scare me.” Unless you hurt Vin, she added in her mind. She couldn’t hide the fact that she was concerned for the life of the young man who had stolen her heart so long ago.
“Yeah? Well, reckon he means as much t’ you as you do t’ him. Reckon he’ll come ridin’ out t’ rescue y’... his very own damsel in distress.”
Nettie glared at the man, but didn’t say any more. She simply sat there, offering up prayer after prayer that Vin wouldn’t come out after her alone, that he and Casey would alert the others.
He rode the familiar path, heading toward the Wells place. He had formulated and discarded several plans knowing, deep down, that he would just end up playing it by ear when he got there. That thought caused him to laugh; by ear. If only.
There was only one thing that was important; rescuing Nettie Wells. He thought back to the first time he had spent any time with her, back when Guy Royal was making a bid to run out or kill all of the smaller ranchers in the area that he thought the railroad was going to be buying out. He smirked when he recalled that the man had been wrong. The railroad had come through along a different route. Then he sobered as he thought about Cody Porter, one of four people who had lost their lives because of Royal’s greed. And the man was still operating, untouchable simply because he had the money to keep himself out of prison and off the gallows stairs.
Since that time, since his admission that she reminded him of his mother, they had gotten even closer. He found some reason, at least once a week, to go out to see her. He loved helping around the ranch and had considered,ore than once, just moving his wagon out there and helping her full time. The town needed their services less and less, and he’d only been a couple hours away if they did need him. He’d always decided against it, because he still had a price on his head.
Now? He couldn’t move out there now. Not as long as he couldn’t hear. Nettie and Casey would have to be forever on the look out for someone coming after him. Whoever it was that was holding her hostage was making it very clear that nobody would be safe around him. Not when he couldn’t protect himself. It had also made up his mind for him. As soon as he was certain that Nettie was safe, then he didn’t give a damn what happened to him. Whether by his own hand, or someone else’s, he had no plans on living much longer. Not as a burden.
Chris Larabee stood at the edge of the boardwalk, surveying the little town. Things seemed quite peaceful, but there was... something...
He turned toward the voice and saw Casey Wells running full out from the livery. “Casey? What’s wrong?”
“You’ve gotta help... gotta go after him!”
As the young woman came abreast of him, the gunman grasped her arms and ordered, “Calm down, what are you talking about?”
“It’s Vin! He’s gone after Aunt Nettie! Mr. Larabee, two men, they came out to our place, grabbed Aunt Nettie, and told me I had to go... go get Vin! They said... said no one else, Vin said don't tell, but I couldn't... just couldn't--”
“What’ve you done?” Chris bit out, reining in his temper before he shook the story out of her.
“Chris!” JD came roaring up, wrapping a protective arm around the young woman. “I saw Vin riding out about five minutes ago. I was just on my way to find you.”
Larabee cursed under his breath, looking around. The others were all approaching, having been called to the ruckus. He called out, “Ezra, Josiah, you boys stay here. The rest of us are heading out as quick as we can get mounted.”
Vin laid flat of his stomach, watching the little cabin through the tall weeds. Everything looked normal, there was no sign that there had been a struggle. He was relieved to see that, he couldn’t stand the thought of Nettie Wells being harmed in any manner.
Now, if he could just figure how he could keep her that way.
He’d been laying there, watching the cabin for a while, studying the lay out of the land, as if he’d never seen it before. He knew this place better than almost any other. Yet he couldn’t figure out how he was going to approach without being a very open target.
Something popped him on the shoulder. With a frown, he turned, looking for the offending... whatever it was. Nothing. He trained his attention back on the little cabin, only to have something smack him on the back of the head. Turning quickly, he saw the attacker. Well, attackers. He heaved a sigh that turned to a growl.
It was the boys.
Chris waved him down to join them. Still cursing under his breath, he slid back down the little hill, until he could stand without being seen. Then he strode to where Chris, Buck, Nathan and JD stood, waiting for him. “She wasn’t supposed to tell you!” He looked around, but Casey wasn’t anywhere near.
“Not. Alone.” Chris signed to him, frustration making the signs beat the air as he prepared to argue with his friend. “We’ll back you up.”
“Chris, they said jist me. Y’all are gonna git Nettie killed!”
“Together.” Larabee signed. At the same time, he said distinctly, “They won’t know we’re here.”
Vin sighed heavily. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he asked no one in particular, “I got a choice?”
Chris shook his head, smiling grimly.
Nettie could see the men getting anxious, their bravado had given way to short, angry exchanges. She used their distraction to work at her bonds, doing her best to loosen the ropes that held her to the chair. Realistically she knew that she wasn’t likely to free herself, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to try. She stopped moving when the man who seemed to be in charge looked over her way. “So, tell me, what’s got your britches in a twist, son? Why are you after Vin?”
“Shut up, ol’ woman,” Walt growled.
“What? Are you afraid of something? Afraid of me?”
He stomped across the room, grasping the arms of the rocker, and tilting it back until he was looking her in the face. “I ain’t afraid of a damn thing! Now, shut the hell up, ‘fore I shut y’ up.”
“You won’t do that,” Nettie said calmly, “I’m your insurance that he’ll come out here, and your guarantee he won’t do it with his guns out. So, what’s it gonna hurt to tell why you’re so het up to kill me?”
“Oh, what the hell,” Walt muttered. “Least it’ll pass the time.” He released his hold on the chair, grinning as the sudden movement caught Nettie unawares.
She gasped as the chair rocked haphazardly for several seconds, before beginning to slow down. She struggled to regain her balance, vertigo threatening to cost her the breakfast they’d just eaten before these men came to the door.
“So, why do I wanna kill your... friend? Simple. He killed my family. Right... right in front of me.” Beaman grew angrier with each word, until he was spitting and snarling each syllable. “Shot ‘em dead, dragged them over the backs of their horses, and rode off. Never even looked back. Left me in the ass end ‘a nowhere, on my own, no money... not a damn thing ‘cept the clothes and boots I stood up in that mornin’. That’s why I’m gonna kill the bastard.”
Nettie could only shake her head. She knew what Vin had done before meeting up with the other men. She knew his chosen profession wasn’t looked on with a great deal of respect, most people looking at bounty hunters as nothing more than human carrion. But she knew Vin, too. He was one of the most honest, caring and upright young men she had ever known, and he had more than her respect. He had her love, just as she would have loved a son, if she’d had one. To her captor, she said only, “If he killed your family, then son, they deserved it.”
She didn’t see the man’s fist flying toward her, she only felt an explosion of pain as he punched her in the jaw. Walt fairly screamed at her this time. “They didn’t deserve t’ die! Not shot down in the street like some mad critter! And I didn’t deserve t’ end up on m’ own, with nobody... NOBODY!”
She spit out a mouthful of blood, glaring at the man for a full minute, before she said evenly, “That man’s gotten through life since he was little more than a babe, without family, and he’s done just fine. So, stop blaming him for your failures, boy. If your life isn’t what you want it to be, then change it.”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” He drew back his fist, ready to hit her again, but stopped when the sound of a single horse announced a visitor. Backing away, he turned to the other man and said, “Go check.”
Ike nodded, slipping to the little window. Peering out, he nodded, then said, “It’s him, Walt.”
Beaman hurried across the room, peering out the window as well. He smiled a cold smile. “Well, I’ll be damned.” Turning back to where the widow Wells sat, he said “I guess he does care about y’.”
Outside, the object of their scrutiny sat calmly atop Peso, wrists crossed over the saddlehorn and a long strand of dried grass dangling from his lip. Despite the outward look of calm, Vin Tanner was anything but. He watched the house, praying for signs of life. Praying for Nettie’s life. Just then the door opened, and the elderly woman stepped out, firmly in the grasp of a man he didn’t recognize. “Let ‘er go.”
Nettie was watching Vin closely, looking for any sign that his hearing might have come back. There was no indication, however, nor was there any sign that he was armed. She ran through the words she’d been taught, trying to think of one to convey that she wanted him to stay safe, and to put himself first for once. She knew there was no such word, though. Instead, she settled for “Boy. Thank you. Go. Ride.” She kept the movements small, doing her best to keep her captor from noticing them.
With a crooked smile, the long haired man said only, “You got me. Let ‘er go.” As he spoke the words, he motioned to Nettie. “Boys. Here. Get down.”
Eyes widening slightly at the signs, she nodded, then began to struggle. As Walt’s hold loosened on her, she dropped to the deck of the porch. As she did, the air came alive as bullets exploded through the air. Walton Beaman danced like a drunken marionette before he fell, dead, near Nettie Wells prone form.
“Nettie!” Heedless of the other man still standing just inside the open door, Tanner ran toward his “old biddy”. As he did, Ike Burton broke cover, only to fly back against the cabin’s wall, blood flying from four different wounds.
“Nettie!” Vin cried out again as he dropped to his knees beside her. Gently he turned the woman over, seeing the darkening bruise on her chin, and eyes just fluttering open. He smiled as she focused on him, breathing a sigh of relief as he said once more, “Nettie.”
“Vin... honey... are you okay?” She made certain he was looking at her and exaggerated the pronunciation of each word.
Chuckling, Tanner said, “I’m fine, more worried 'bout you.”
“Never better, sweetheart. Never better.” With that, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she dropped back to the porch.
“Nathan!” Vin called out, uncertain of where their healer was. A light touch on his shoulder drew his attention, and he turned a concerned gaze toward the big, dark man. “She... she hurt?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Jackson gently nudged the smaller man away from his patient and delivered a quick examination. She began to come around even as he finished. “Mrs. Wells, how’re you feelin’?”
Patting the big hand he laid on her shoulder, she replied, “I’m fine, Nathan, just got a little overwhelmed I guess.”
“Well, ma’am, there’s not a person out here that wouldn’t get a bit overwhelmed about what just happened.” Chris knelt just beyond Vin, a quick squeeze to the other man’s shoulder delivering silent reassurance.
Allowing Nathan to help her to sit up, Nettie waved off the words. “Reckon I’m a bit long in the tooth to be getting involved in such shenanigans.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Chris replied, “but, for now, I think we should take you back into town, just ‘til we’re certain these were the only two men involved, and we can repair the damage to your home.”
It was clear that Nettie wasn’t happy with the idea of leaving her home, but she saw the sense in it at the same time. “Don’t much care for bein’ run off my place by a bunch of worthless cowards.”
Vin stepped over and laid his hands on her shoulders. Looking into her wizened face, he said seriously, “Miss Nettie, please. For my sake? Cain’t say I cotton t’ the idea of you gittin’ hurt on account ‘a me.” He gently stroked along the edge of the darkening flesh where Beaman had hit her.
She knew she was done for, Vin never asked for more than a slice of pie or a biscuit, and he brought so much to her life. He would lay down his life for her without a second’s hesitation, and think it a good deal. How could she say no to him? With a begrudging smile, she said, “For you, son.”
It only took a day for them to be fairly certain that it had only been the two men. Although neither man stood out for any reason other than they were strangers, several of the townspeople remembered seeing them. He had accompanied Chris while the other man had questioned several people.
It only took a second day for them to get the Wells home back into shape. They had scrubbed the bloodstains from the wood and patched the holes in the walls. They even took care of the flowers in the flower boxes along the front porch. Nettie and Casey had insisted that they stay for dinner. They had enjoyed fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and biscuits. And blackberry cobbler for dessert. That had been the best, as far as he was concerned, and he’d had a second helping. They had ridden off just after sundown, sated and happy.
And he still couldn’t hear a thing.
He hated to lie to the boys. Especially Larabee. But things were settled, and he was finished. Finished being a burden. Finished needing others to take care of him; watching his back. So now was the time to finish it all.
Slipping out of Chris’ room, carrying the bottle he had brought up from the saloon and his mares leg, he headed for the only place he felt like he could breathe free in the town. The rooftop. Climbing onto the roof of the boarding house, he settled against the storefront wall, staring up into the sky. The morning sun was just beginning to bring light to the sky, the blackness paling to gray. It was his favorite time of day, quiet and peaceful. Free.
He wanted to be free.
He pulled out the scrap of paper he had carefully printed a simple “SORRY” in the chicken scratch handwriting Mary had spent so many hours teaching him. He had spent hours trying to decide what to scribe out; how to explain what he planned to do. But, in the end, all he could do was say sorry. Not that any apology would suffice. Vin sighed, tucking the note back in his pocket. He hoped someone would find it, anyway.
The sky lightened another shade. The town would begin to wake up soon. He imagined that he could hear the shop keepers opening their doors, sweeping the boardwalks in front of their stores, and settling some of their wares there. He could imagine the sounds of Mr. Tan throwing out stale bath water and drawing new from the well. He could imagine Mary Travis calling out to anyone on the street, offering the latest edition of the newspaper.
But they were only sounds that he imagined.
He looked his gun over once more. He had cleaned and oiled it just a few hours ago, making certain that it had never been cleaner or better cared for. The rising sun glinted off the barrel, the metal seeming to glow in the pale morning light. It was the most expensive thing he had ever owned in his life. His most valued possession. Setting it aside, he pulled his handgun from its holster. He had cleaned and oiled it as well, but not with the care he had shown the shotgun. It had been a necessity; a utility. It would do the job he needed it to.
“Don’t. Just... don’t.”
He startled at the words. Jesus, now he was hearing Larabee’s voice in his head. Growling, he cursed. He couldn’t help it, he found himself looking around, half expecting to see the gunslinger standing there.
It was difficult to decide just who seemed more surprised.
“Vin? Don’t. Don’t give up. Please.” He frowned as Tanner’s response was to begin laughing. “What?”
“Jesus, never thought I’d be happy t’ hear yer voice!” Vin bounced to his feet, crossed the roof, and grabbed the blond in a hug.
Chris stood still for a few seconds, shocked at the other man’s actions. Then it slowly dawned on him. Tanner had heard him! Returning the hug, Chris whooped, calling out, “You can hear me?”
“Ever’ word, Cowboy! Ever’ word!”
Seven men sat together in the saloon, the table they surrounded stacked with empty bottles, glasses and plates. The conversation was lively, even the most taciturn among them chattering like magpies. They kept the wait-staff busy, bringing beer, whiskey, milk, beans, cornbread. And pie. Vin had already eaten three slices, and was debating a forth.
“You got your hearin’ back, you didn’t get a second stomach,” Nathan scolded, as if he was reading the Texan’s mind.
“Ah, Nathan, it’s a celebration,” Tanner pouted. Then he chuckled at the healer’s reply; rolling eyes.
“Oh, go on, Vin,” Chris said softly. “have another slice. You only live once.”
Tanner sobered, locking gazes with the blond. Larabee had known, despite all of his attempts to hide his intentions. But he saw something more there. Understanding. Larabee had ridden that bronc once himself.
With a broad grin, Tanner said, “Inez, another slice ‘a pie, please.”
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March 11, 2016