Telling Chris about the dream seemed to have brought Vin a little peace. He slept after that, and for a few hours, it was a calm, restful, sleep.
Chris slept, too, but around midnight, he was awakened by that sixth sense he'd developed over the years that told him when something was wrong.
Vin had pushed his blankets off and was mumbling in his sleep. When Chris got closer to him, he saw that Vin's undershirt and hair were soaking wet. He tried to wake him up, and became alarmed when he couldn't.
He poured some water into the wash basin and wet the washcloth. He wiped the sweat from Vin's face and neck, and then unbuttoned his undershirt so he could sponge his upper body with the cool water. He kept at it, dabbing the cloth across Vin's chest down to his waist, but after several minutes, he was still frighteningly hot, and Chris wondered if he should fetch Nathan. It would mean leaving Vin alone, though, and there was probably nothing Nathan could do that he couldn't do himself.
Vin was just barely able to cooperate as he sat him up and pulled the sticky undershirt off of him. He laid him back down and dipped the washcloth into the basin, only this time he didn't ring it out. He let the cold water drip from the cloth over Vin's body and face and down his arms. He turned him onto his side so he could get some of it on his back, too. He didn't worry about wetting the bedclothes. They were already damp from Vin's sweat.
He'd noticed the previous night how banged up Vin was. There was no way the injuries weren't somehow connected to his ordeal. JD had found him trapped in a hole. Okay, that was bad, but he really didn't think that would have driven Vin to the brink of madness. He probably would've been pissed as hell with the idea he was going to die there, but once JD found him, everything should have been okay. Happy ending. But Vin only vaguely remembered being found by JD. That event was still linked in his mind to whatever had happened before JD even got there.
Chris couldn't imagine what might have happened to Vin. His back and shoulders and arms were scraped, but not bruised. He hadn't been beaten. He'd taken his shirt off - or it had been taken from him - even though without it, it was certain that the volcanic rock would scrape the hell out of him.
As far as Chris knew, Vin hadn't been afraid of anything, before. Why was he afraid to be alone in the dark now? Even in an outhouse, for crying out loud? And what had made him remember what had happened with his mother all those years ago?
Nathan had said get him to talk. Maybe the best thing would be to just come right out and ask him those questions.
He had to get his fever down, first, though. He dabbed the cloth carefully over the sores on his back. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt him any more.
He held the cloth against the back of Vin's neck, letting it absorb some of the heat from his body.
Vin opened his eyes and frowned at him. "What're you doin', Chris?"
"You're too hot, Vin. I'm just tryin' to cool you down a little."
Vin nodded. He wasn't completely awake. "Feels good," he sighed.
Chris wanted to let him go back to sleep, but he knew that when he was just on the edge of sleep, he often found himself thinking with perfect clarity about things that never entered his mind when he was awake. He'd often remember people and places and events he had long since put from his memory. Vin was in a similar trance-like state brought on by fever and exhaustion. He wondered if he couldn't use it to his advantage....
He very gently traced a finger over one of the healing abrasions on Vin's back, sending a shudder though him. "Vin, how did you get scratched up like this?"
Vin's eyes opened again and darted back and forth. Chris didn't know if he was trying to remember or trying to come up with a way to avoid answering; but either way, Vin didn't say anything, so he tried another question.
"Do you remember where you were when JD found you, Vin?"
Vin heard him, but again, he didn't answer.
"The hole," Vin whispered. "I was in the hole."
"How did you get there?"
Vin frowned. "I dunno."
"Yes, you do, Vin. Think about what you were doing just before you were in the hole."
Vin's voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "I don't remember, Chris..."
"You were looking for Lon Porter, remember?"
Vin's hands immediately covered his ears, as if Chris had just said something he didn't want to hear.
"NO!" Vin yelled at him. "STOP IT!"
Chris knew he'd hit a nerve. He pulled Vin's hands down. "What is it, Vin? Was it Porter? Did he do something to you?"
Vin squeezed his eyes closed and clenched his teeth. "Get him away from me," he begged.
Chris clasped his shoulders. "Who? Porter? What did he do to you, Vin?"
Vin's eyes opened wide, and suddenly, he looked perfectly lucid, and mad as hell.
He pushed Chris away from him and got up from the bed so he was looking down at him. "Just leave it be, Chris! Goddamit, just LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"Take it easy Vin..."
"YOU take it easy. Everyone keeps harpin' at me to remember what happened out there. Why the hell does it matter?"
Chris remained calm. "Because whatever happened made you crazy, Vin."
Vin raked a hand through his wet hair. "I'm not crazy," he whispered, as if he didn't actually believe it.
"Then what is it, Vin? What's the problem? If Porter hurt you somehow..."
Vin shoved Chris hard enough that he fell backwards onto the mattress. "SHUT UP!" He stepped closer. He was shaking with rage. "You don't know nothin', Chris. If you wanna talk about crazy, look in the fuckin' mirror."
"Vin, what's the matter with you?"
"You can't do it, can you Chris? Why not? Is it because when you do, you see the ghost of your son?"
"That's enough, Vin."
"Do you see him screamin' while he burns, wonderin' where the fuck his daddy is?"
Something inside Chris snapped. He wasn't even aware he was moving towards Vin until he felt a sharp pain travel up his right arm from where his fist had connected with Vin's jaw.
There was such force behind the blow, and Vin had lost so much weight, that he literally bounced off the wall behind him and fell in a dazed heap at Chris's feet.
"Oh Jesus," a sob caught in Chris's throat. He sank to the floor beside Vin and took him into his arms. The blow to his face had split his lower lip open and it was bleeding. Vin looked up at him, his eyes glazed and confused. He was burning up. Oh Christ, Vin was frail and weak and out of his head with fever and he'd hit him... he'd hurt him. How could he have done that?
He rested the side of his face against the top of Vin's head. "Vin, I'm sorry...."
"You left him alone," Vin said softly, sadly.
Chris got a strong feeling that Vin wasn't talking about Adam.
"You ain't alone, Vin," Chris whispered. "I'm here. It's over... whatever Porter did...."
Vin jerked in his arms and uttered a sharp little cry as if the name "Porter" itself frightened him. "Shhhh," Chris calmed him. "It's okay, Vin. You don't gotta think about him."
That was it. Porter. Whatever had happened to Vin had something to do with the outlaw. Chris would hunt the son-of-a-bitch down and peel his hide a strip at a time to get it out of him if Vin couldn't tell him what had happened. Whatever it was had hurt Vin bad enough that he'd fought back the only way he could when Chris had tried to force him to remember. He'd struck out at Chris with the memories he knew were most painful to him.
He picked Vin up off the floor and put him back in bed. He wiped the blood away from his lip with the washcloth. Vin didn't flinch, didn't even look at him. He'd gone back into that dark place where he felt safe.
Chris didn't blame him. Vin didn't have any place else. He'd never really had a place where he belonged. Chris had had his home taken from him, Josiah and Buck had left their old lives willingly, and Nathan had made a new one. Ezra had his mother, such as she was, and JD had his memories. But Vin was a solitary creature who circled the pack without ever joining it. He'd become so accustomed to surviving on his own that he didn't know how to lean on anyone else when he had to. And now, when he'd dared to try it, he'd gotten punched in the face for his trouble.
Chris swallowed the lump in his throat. He'd pushed Vin too hard. What difference did it make if it took Vin three days or three weeks or three years to remember what happened out there in the desert?
He stroked Vin's hair, the way he had done with Adam so many times. "Vin? Would you rather have Nathan look after you?"
He didn't think he was going to get an answer, but finally, Vin shook his head.
Vin still trusted him. Adam had trusted him too. Adam had counted on him to be there for him, and he hadn't been. Maybe this was his chance to make it up for it somehow. Vin couldn't replace Adam, of course. Adam had been his son, and there was no other bond between two people quite like the one between a parent and a child.
But Vin filled a large part of that big, empty space that he'd been left with when he'd lost Adam and Sarah. He hadn't been there for them - for Adam. But he'd stand by Vin, as long as he had to.
Chris didn't sleep the rest of the night. He tried to keep Vin's fever down. He made him eat a few bites every hour or so, and made him drink to replace what was sweating out of him.
He had time to think, about what Vin remembered, and what he didn't remember.
Porter was the key. Chris could come up with only one thing that could have happened between Vin and the outlaw that might have left Vin in the state he was in. His gut instincts were telling him he was wrong, but maybe that was only because he wanted to be.
Get him away from me - those had been Vin's exact words when Chris had mentioned Porter to him. Had Porter forced himself on Vin?
The problem he had with that, besides the obvious one, was that he really believed Vin was stronger than that. If the outlaw had taken him that way, Vin would have been sick over it - what man wouldn't be? - but not like this. Vin was too much of a survivor for that. Maybe he would want to track Porter down and kill him, but he wouldn't let it devastate him to the point that he was virtually helpless.
Or would he? Who could say how a man would react to being used that way by another man?
How could he just forget something like that, though? Maybe he was lying. Maybe he did remember and was just so ashamed he couldn't talk about it.
Vin's fever had finally broken about an hour before dawn, and Chris had shifted him to the other bed because it was warm and dry. Vin slept right through the sunrise, which was unusual for him. He was still asleep when Nathan arrived just after six.
"You look like hell," was the first thing he said to Chris.
Chris pushed his short, blond hair back. "It was a long night, but I think he's doin' better."
Nathan bent over Vin and felt his forehead with that practiced hand of his. "Fever's almost gone," he said, but then he noticed Vin's bruised, swollen lip. "What happened to his face?"
When Chris didn't answer, Nathan turned to him with an accusing look that demanded a response.
"I hit him," Chris admitted.
Nathan could not think of any reason to use that kind of physical force on the quiet, even- tempered tracker under any circumstances, and especially not in the shape he was in. His voice was cold. "Why?"
Chris tried to be casual about it. "He got a little wild on me."
Nathan very reluctantly gave Chris the benefit of the doubt. He'd seen Vin's outbursts. Chris didn't really outsize Vin by that much, so maybe that had been the only way to get him under control. "Did he say anything?"
Chris nodded. "But it was between me an' him, Nathan, and it's gotta stay that way."
Nathan understood that, but he could tell there was more Chris wanted to say. "Somethin' on your mind, Chris?"
He motioned Nathan away from the bed, so there would be less chance of waking Vin up.
"Whatever happened to him, Lon Porter was involved," Chris began, and then paused because he wasn't sure about divulging his suspicions, even to Nathan. If he was right, Vin would not want anyone to know.
But Nathan surprised him. "You think Porter took him."
Chris was fumbling for a response when Nathan added, "Josiah thinks the same thing."
"What about you? What do you think?"
Nathan shook his head. "It's possible, but I scrubbed him down after JD brought him back to town, and I didn't see the kind of injuries on him I'd expect to find from something like that." He looked over at Vin with an unreadable expression on his face. "Unless he didn't fight back."
There was no innuendo in Nathan's voice, but Chris bristled at what the statement itself implied. He didn't try to hide the anger in his voice. "What the hell do you mean, Nathan?"
Nathan shrugged. "I don't mean nothin'. I wasn't there. If that's what happened, maybe the only thing Vin could do was just let him."
"Porter's twice Vin's size," Chris protested.
Nathan shrugged. "I ain't passin' judgment on the man."
He was, though. Goddammit, he was. Chris could see it in his eyes. Maybe he wasn't judging Vin directly, but his thoughts about a man who would let another man do that to him were written all over his face. Nathan, of all people...
But then, he thought, why not Nathan? Why should Nathan be different from any other man? They were all going to think less of Vin if any of them found out another man had done him that way.
"Nathan, if you mention this to anyone, I'll kill you."
Nathan didn't seem to doubt for a moment that Chris would carry out the threat. "I wouldn't do that Chris." He shook his head. "You know, though, I'd expect him to have bruises, probably bleed some, even if he went along with it. I really don't think that happened."
That was somewhat of a relief, but it still left Chris with the question of exactly what Porter had done to Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slept until mid-morning. He seemed out of reach again, but he washed and dressed himself with no prodding. He did finger the cut on his lip when he was shaving, but he gave Chris no indication that he remembered how it got there.
Chris let him decide where to go when they left the hotel, and the first place he headed was the livery. This time, he emptied out his saddle bags and unrolled his pack instead of just rifling through everything. Vin owned practically nothing, but contrary to what other people might have thought, Chris knew that didn't mean that material possessions were unimportant to him. Vin's meager belongings were him. They were the furnishings of his own private little world, and they gave him a sense of "home" and who he was. The others would never understand that, but Chris knew it without Vin having to explain it to him.
"What are you looking for, Vin?" he asked him.
Vin slipped on the medicine bag given to him by the Indian Chanu after Vin had cleared him of the murder of Claire Mosely. But that wasn't what he'd come for. It had been one of the first things he'd taken out, and he'd continued to go through his stuff after finding it. "Nothin'," he said softly. "It ain't important."
Chris sighed. "You know, Vin, you need to open yourself up just a little bit more once in awhile."
Vin glared at him. "Why? So you can pop me in the face again?"
The remark stung, but oddly enough, Chris was glad to see Vin reacting with something other than a blank stare. "You had that one comin'," he said.
Vin gave him a dirty look and finished stuffing the rest of his things back in his saddlebag. "Yeah, I reckon I did."
"Wanna get somethin' to eat?"
Vin picked up his rifle. "I'd rather get a drink."
"Lead the way..."
The saloon hadn't gotten crowded yet. Most of the townsmen didn't drink that early in the day, and most of the die-hards who filled the place at night, like Ezra, were still asleep. Buck and JD were there, sitting at a table with the most recent issue of The Clarion spread out before them. Chris wondered if Mary Travis had written anything about Vin. But, he figured if he sat down with Buck and JD, Vin might feel left out. So, he nodded a brief greeting at the two men and then indicated for Vin to follow him to the bar.
One of the town's two whores, Wen, sidled up beside them while they were waiting for their drinks. She wasn't officially working at that time of day, but Wen liked Vin. He'd gone with her a time or two when the mood was on him, but that probably wasn't her reason for approaching him. Vin's natural shyness appealed to her. Chris thought maybe she saw him as a challenge, because Vin didn't really seem to seek out her kind of company any more than he did any other.
Chris felt a pang of guilt that he was actually hoping Vin would go upstairs with her. It was because of what he suspected about Porter, he knew, and that made him angry with himself. Vin didn't have to prove anything.
Wen liked to tease Vin, because it was easy to embarrass him with suggestive remarks. But this time, she did nothing more than put her arm over his and squeeze his hand. "How ya' doin'?" she asked him, and to her credit, she sounded like she really cared.
"Got no complaints," he said softly.
Wen had no doubt heard plenty of gossip to the contrary by that time, but she kept it to herself. Vin pushed his drink in front of her and ordered another one for himself.
Vin seemed okay. Still and quiet, but he was often like that, and Wen's presence didn't seem to be bothering him. He even seemed to enjoy the attention, in his own way. Chris left them at the bar and joined Buck and JD.
Mary Travis had indeed written about Vin in the paper. A scowl formed on Chris's face before he even picked the article up, but as he read it, he relaxed. Mary had reported just the facts, although he was certain she had heard the gossip. JD's name was mentioned more than Vin's.
He tossed the article towards the boy. "Won't be long before they're writin' dime novels about you, JD."
JD blushed, but Chris could tell he was pleased. "She kind of made it sound better than it was," JD said.
Chris shook his head. "Vin would be dead if it wasn't for you, JD."
Buck leaned close to JD and in a conspiratorial voice whispered, "What Chris is tryin' to say is, you done good, kid."
Chris smiled at him and nodded. At that moment, JD felt like he could do anything.
His glory was short-lived, though. "Aw, crap!" His eyes drifted towards the batwing doors, and Chris and Buck followed his gaze.
Cole and Ramage were back, and this time, they had reinforcements. That was bad enough, but they were going to get to the bar - and to Vin - before any of them could.
Vin heard them, but he didn't even turn around. It was as if he didn't care if they did anything to him.
JD started to get up, but Buck stopped him. "Not yet, JD. Don't push 'em into anything."
JD didn't agree with that one bit. For some reason, he felt fiercely protective of Vin now, even though Vin would probably laugh his ass off at that.
JD noticed Chris's hand slide down to the butt of his gun. Suddenly, there was a cold fear in his gut, because he'd replaced the ammunition in Vin's guns with blanks. He'd been worried about Vin walking around with loaded weapons. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but if Vin hadn't noticed that he'd done it, he was literally unarmed.
Not that it mattered. Vin made no move to confront Cole and Ramage. He ignored them completely. It probably wasn't personal. Vin's mind was somewhere else these days. JD knew that, and so did most everyone else. But Cole and Ramage wanted a fight, and it pissed them off that Vin didn't look like he was about to give them one.
Cole pushed his way between Vin and Wen. He shoved Vin roughly aside and grabbed Wen's shoulders. He planted a slobbering kiss on her unwilling lips while she struggled to get away from him.
Vin didn't seem to know what to do. He stood there, frozen. Not by fear, JD didn't think, but because something had his brain so addled that he couldn't take all of this in at once.
Ramage laughed. "She don't want you, Cole. She'd rather have her a half-wit."
Wen jerked her way out of Cole's grasp. "I'd rather bed a pig than either of you."
Wen wasn't stupid. She could see what was coming. "C'mon, Vin, let's go upstairs." She took Vin by the hand, and it almost looked like she had diffused the situation.
But Cole was still between her and Vin, and he stuck out his foot to block Vin's path.
Vin didn't look angry or upset, he just looked so damned confused that JD wasn't sure he even knew that Cole and Ramage were trying to pick a fight with him. "We gotta stop them, Chris..."
The three of them got up, but as soon as they did, the four men backing Cole and Ramage turned to face them.
Without the need to discuss it, Buck, Chris and JD fanned out so that they'd be three separate targets instead of one big one.
JD was the closest one to Vin, but he still hadn't decided what he should do. Vin wasn't fighting back. If he continued to ignore Cole and Ramage, maybe nothing would happen...
Cole grabbed Vin's chin. "What'd you do to your face, pretty boy? Larabee been kissin' you too hard?"
He laughed and pushed his thumb against the sore on Vin's lip. That got a reaction out of Vin because it hurt. He slapped Cole's arm away, but the cut had reopened, filling his mouth with blood.
Vin spit the blood out on the floor and then stood there, transfixed by the small, red puddle.
"Nobody spits on me!" Cole snarled. He went for his gun but didn't draw. He backed away, his eyes trained on Vin. He was daring Vin to make a move, despite the fact that Vin wasn't even looking at him. Vin put his hand to his mouth and wiped more blood off on it, and then just stood there, staring at his hand. His face went so pale that JD thought he was going to faint.
Cole's hand still twitched over his gun. The man was too stupid to see that Vin wasn't even thinking about him.
Chris and Buck were in a bad position. If they opened fire, they could easily hit Vin. JD was the only one in a position to stop Cole. Chris didn't doubt that Vin could outdraw Cole. Hell, Vin moved like lightning with a rifle in his hand; the sawed-off shotgun in his holster would be no problem. But he was just standing there, oblivious to everything but the blood smeared on his fingers.
"Leave him be, Cole," JD said softly. "He ain't done nothin' to you."
"He spit on me," Cole said. But even his friends knew that wasn't true, and they appeared reluctant to go along with him now that they were facing Buck and especially Chris.
Then, in one of those split seconds where the timing couldn't get any worse, Vin looked up and seemed to suddenly realize that Cole was about to draw on him. JD saw what was coming and reflexively dived straight at Vin.
Wen shrieked in terror and JD heard two shots. There might have been more, but all he heard was two. Vin's gun had discharged. He'd seen the flash. The other shot must have come from Cole.
People were shouting. He heard Buck call his name an instant before all of his senses were blotted out by a flood of pain from his right knee that was so intense it made him gag.
He sensed that others were moving around him, but he couldn't see anything except flashes of white light. Oh God, it hurt...
He tried to say Buck's name. He probably should have been thinking about Vin, wondering if he was okay, but his brain was all full of that terrible pain... He would never have thought anything could hurt that bad. He was dimly aware he was praying. Please oh please let me pass out....
+ + + + + + +
It was over in an instant, like gunfights often were. Only it hadn't really been a gunfight. JD had pushed Vin out of the line of fire and before Cole could get off a second shot, Chris and Buck had wrestled him to the floor. Chris held a gun to his head while Buck hurried over to JD. The four men who had come in with Cole and Ramage had beaten a path to the door with their tails between their legs as soon as the shooting had stopped.
Vin was sitting on the floor with that confused somewhere-else look on his face, but much to Chris's surprise, he'd had the presence of mind to pick up JD's Colt and train it on Ramage. He was shaking and needed both hands to steady the weapon, and Chris didn't know if he was actually aware of what he was doing. But Ramage wasn't sure, either, and the coward had dropped his gun.
JD had been hit in the leg. It wasn't a mortal wound, but the kid was writhing on the floor in agony, trying his damnedest not to scream.
Chris brought his gun butt down hard on Cole's head and knocked him out. He snatched up all the loose weapons and then shoved Ramage towards his friend. "Get that piece of shit outa here before I change my mind about lettin' you live."
Nathan was there in what seemed like seconds, Josiah following close behind him.
JD didn't want to be moved. The kid was half-crazy with pain and didn't want Nathan to even touch him.
Buck was trying to calm him down, but Buck wasn't too good at keeping his own emotions in check, and JD was picking up on the panic in his voice.
"JD, we can't leave you on the floor, you understand?" Josiah said in his firm, gentle voice.
"I don't care. Leave me alone!" He had a vice-like grip on Buck and he tightened it and moaned. "It hurts, Buck..."
"I know, JD, but we can't fix you up here," Buck let some of that easy charm into his voice. "I'll carry you. I'll be real careful..."
JD nodded, conceding defeat. Sweat was pouring down his face, and Nathan knew he was going into in shock. One man could carry JD easily, but despite Buck's promise, it was going to take the five of them to move him without jostling his injured leg any more than was necessary.
Nathan took charge and started giving the orders. "JD, put your arms around me and Josiah... Buck and Chris, slide your hands under his butt and his legs..." He looked uncertainly at Vin. He was pale and stunned, but he seemed aware of what was going on. Nathan nodded to him and said, "Vin, hold onto his foot, and mind that his knee don't bend."
To his relief, Vin quickly moved into position with the others.
"Okay, now, JD... " Nathan instructed, "you take some deep breaths and tell us when you're ready. I ain't gonna tell you it ain't gonna hurt, because I'd be lyin' to you. You can holler if you want. Ain't no one gonna blame you."
"I ain't gonna holler," JD said through clenched teeth. Then, like Nathan had told him, he inhaled deeply three times. "I'm ready," he said uncertainly.
The other five men were as careful and gentle as possible, but as soon as JD's weight was off the floor and in their arms, the mere pressure of their touch on his injured leg increased his pain beyond what he could bear. He didn't scream, but he was gripping Nathan and Josiah so tightly that it became a race to see if they could get him to his bed before one of them was strangled.
Josiah went for Nathan's medical supplies while Buck and Nathan carefully removed JD's pants. He was lucky to be wearing the moccasins Josiah had given him, because pulling a boot off his foot would have been torture.
JD was trembling with shock. Nathan propped his good leg up on a pillow and covered him with a blanket, but seconds later, the kid announced to Buck that he was going to throw up, and then promptly did. He narrowly missed Buck, but not the blanket.
Nathan sent Chris for some clean water and more blankets as he gathered the mess up and tossed it out into the hallway. Maggie would not be pleased to find it there, but he wasn't going to worry about it.
He was looking around for something else to keep JD warm when Vin came up silently behind him and handed him his jacket. Nathan was worried how Vin was coping with this bad situation, but he had to keep JD first in his mind at that moment. Buck had JD on his mind, too, but he turned on Vin with fire in his eyes.
Vin flinched from the look Buck gave him, even before Buck opened his mouth.
"You happy now, Vin!? See what you got us into?" He jabbed a finger at Vin's face. "I don't care what you gotta do, but you better get your fuckin' head back together before you get one of us killed!"
"Take it easy, Buck..." Nathan said softly.
Nathan didn't think Buck was mad at Vin so much as he was just mad and needed someone to take it out on. Still, even JD cringed at his outburst.
"Don't... yell at him.... Buck." the kid gasped. "It ain't... his fault...."
The boy proceeded to explain what he had done to Vin's weapon, and how he'd left Vin unarmed.
But Vin didn't hear that part of it. He'd withdrawn to a corner of the room and sat down on the floor, as if he wanted to keep himself as far out of everyone's way as possible.
Chris felt a certain obligation as the leader of the group, so when he returned, he focused his attention where it was most needed at the moment. JD was frantic with pain by this time, and it was wearing Buck down trying to calm him. Buck was too emotional for the job, and too close to JD. Seeing the kid hurting like that almost seemed to be causing him physical pain.
Chris drew Buck carefully aside and let Nathan get to work.
"JD, I need to touch this wound to clean it and see how bad it is. You can holler or cry if you want, but you can't move. You want someone to hold you down?"
JD shook his head. "I'm okay," he gasped.
Nathan tried not to hurt the kid, but there was no way to avoid it, and JD did scream a couple of times, but he never moved, not once.
Nathan had given him a big swig of laudanum, but after he'd examined him, he said, "Laudanum ain't gonna do him much good. He needs morphine."
"You got any?" Chris asked.
"Yeah. I hope it's enough to see him through the worst of it."
"How bad is it?" Chris wanted to know.
Nathan shook his head. "Looks like the bullet just glanced off the top of his kneecap. Took a little nick outa it, but it ain't busted up too bad. He'll be okay, but it's gonna hurt like hell for two or three days." He removed a hypodermic syringe from a velvet-lined case, and JD eyed the long needle nervously.
"What are you gonna do with that?" he wanted to know.
"I'm gonna stick it in your backside, and you're gonna thank me for it," Nathan told him.
"Is it gonna hurt?" That seemed like such a silly question, considering JD was already in so much pain he was holding back tears.
"Yeah, it's gonna hurt, but it'll make your knee stop hurtin' so much."
"Let's do it then. I can't take this much longer, Nathan..." His voice finally cracked, and he bit down on his lip.
Vin looked up from where he was sitting, saw the pain in JD's hazel eyes.
This was because of him. That stupid, brave, sweet kid was hurting because Vin Tanner's brain was so addled he couldn't even see a gunfight coming at him. He couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand the way JD's breathing was quick and ragged because he was trying not to cry. Couldn't stand all the blood, on JD's clothes piled on the floor, on Buck's shirt... on his own hands.
Blood on his hands...
As he stared at them, they seemed to fade out of his view until he wasn't looking at anything but hot, black darkness. Rocks. A hole. He could see the sky, but it was so far away....
That was stupid. The sky was always far away......
What was happening to him? He'd seen blood before. Had blood on his hands before...
But now, when he looked at it, something deep in the back of his mind tried so hard to push itself out that keeping it at bay left him unable to do anything else - not feel, not think, not even move...
Make it go away....
He rubbed his hands on his pants, trying to get the blood off. NO! Not on my hands... GET IT OFF!
Pictures were flashing in his head, so quick that he couldn't really see them, but slow enough that he knew they were images of something unspeakable... Blood on his hands. More than blood... flesh... bone.... sinew... dripping between his fingers. He was bathed in blood... it covered him... in his eyes, his mouth... Oh God, he could taste the filth!
"Mr. Tanner?... VIN!?"
The sound of his own name cut through the fog, that haze of red that smelled of decay and filled him up inside like he was drowning in it.
Where had Ezra come from?
He looked up at the gambler's green eyes. Ezra was holding his hand out to him.
"Perhaps you would accompany me to less encumbered surroundings?" he said.
Ezra was smiling, so why did he feel so bad? He felt sick to his stomach. He wanted to cry, and he didn't even know what he wanted to cry about.
He let Ezra take his hand. The normally fastidious cardsharp didn't seem to care about the blood on it.
Oh no... JD....
He looked over at the bed as Ezra pulled him to his feet. Nathan was tucking a blanket around the boy. His knee was bandaged and resting on a pillow, and he was breathing easily, his eyelids heavy from the morphine. When had they fixed him up?
He frowned and Ezra put a hand on his shoulder. "He's fine, Vin."
Chris was sitting next to the bed, talking with JD. Telling him things the kid wanted to hear instead of how stupid he'd been to risk his life for... what had Cole called him? A half-wit? That about said it all.
Hell, "half" was probably being generous. He didn't think he had any wits left at all, at least, not any he recognized.
That big whatever-it-was that had gotten into his head was taking up too much room.
Chris turned to him. "Go with Ezra, Vin."
Was Chris pissed off? Vin couldn't tell. No way Chris was happy about the kid getting shot. He wasn't one to show it, but Chris liked JD. Hell, they all did. He was sometimes foolish, but that was because he acted from the heart, sometimes before he thought about what he was doing. He could be like an annoying little pup - got on your nerves, but you didn't have the heart to kick it aside because you knew it would follow you to hell and back.
How could he have let this happen to him?
"Vin?" Chris was talking to him. "Go with Ezra. You don't need to be here."
He looked beyond Chris and saw the look on Buck's face. Disgust, anger. The big man had every right to be both disgusted and angry with him. They all did.
Vin nodded. He understood. He wasn't needed here.
He wasn't needed here or any place else.
Ezra Standish loved words, and he never seemed to run out of them, but he walked to his hotel room with Vin Tanner in total silence. He'd never really talked to Vin, because Vin just wasn't a talker. He wasn't the type you could make small talk with, and they didn't really have anything in common beyond the fact that they were part of the group hired to protect the town.
He'd seen the need to get Vin away from JD, though. He'd gone to look in on the young man after he'd gotten word that the lad had been injured. He'd found the tracker huddled in a corner of the room, staring at his hands but not seeming to see or hear anything.
A nod from Chris Larabee had told him that he agreed that Vin probably should be taken somewhere - anywhere - else.
It was a sad and sorry condition that Mr. Tanner was in. Normally, there would have been no way that Vin would have come along with him, but now he seemed to have no will of his own. It had been sucked out of him.
The first thing he did when they reached his room was lead Vin to the wash basin. His hands were covered with blood. He assumed it was JD's, but when he caught a glimpse of Vin in the mirror, he noticed the fresh blood caked on his lip. He still didn't know everything had happened at the saloon, only that JD had been shot by Ted Cole. He'd heard the boy mumbling about putting blanks in Vin's gun. He had surmised that his chivalry was attributable, at least in part, to fear of the possible consequences should Cole draw on Vin, which, unfortunately, he had..
He moistened his handkerchief and handed it to Vin, pointing to the injury on his lip. Vin dabbed at the blood, getting most of it off, but then he stared at the brown stain on the handkerchief until Ezra took it away from him.
"What is it Vin?" he asked. He kept his tone informal. He didn't want Vin to be intimidated, which was the effect he knew he often had on people.
Vin looked at him. "Ezra... I..." But then he shook his head. "Never mind, it don't matter."
"Perhaps if you talked about it?"
"About your thoughts, Mr. Tanner. Clearly they are elsewhere, and it is equally apparent that they are troubling you."
"Ezra, you talk too damn much."
"I know, my friend," Ezra smiled, "but the disclosure of one's innermost contemplations can often lift the heart's heaviest burdens..."
"Ezra...." Vin sighed.
Ezra smiled mischievously. "What I am attempting to suggest is that if you want to talk, I'll listen."
"That would be a switch."
"Touche." He picked up a bottle of fine brandy from the bureau and poured a glass for each of them. Then, he held his tongue when Vin tossed it down his throat like cheap rotgut and set his glass down so it could be refilled.
He poured him another glass. Even though he lacked the fundamental endowments of a cultured gentleman, Vin was a friend. He supposed he was worth it.
"Everybody wants me to talk about what's in my head, Ezra, and I ain't got the words for it."
That was quite possibly the longest string of words Ezra had ever heard Vin put together.
"Perhaps if we start with the essentials and work our way up?"
Ezra sat down on the room's only chair so that Vin would have to sit on the bed. He was still so weak from his ordeal that Ezra fully expected he might collapse, and he didn't fancy the thought of tucking him in.
"What have the others told you?" Ezra asked.
"About what happened to you?"
"Nobody knows what happened, Ezra. That's the problem. Not even I know. It was just something that..." his head dropped and he shook it slightly.
"That what?" Ezra prodded.
"It's something so bad I don't wanna remember it, Ezra." He looked up at the gambler. "I know it is. I seen plenty of ugly things in my time. What could be that bad?"
"I don't know, my friend," Ezra said softly. "I shudder at the possibilities."
Vin studied Ezra's face, his eyes. He wasn't making fun of him. He was acknowledging that whatever had happened to him had to have been as bad as Vin feared. It was Ezra's way of feeling sorry for him.
He supposed he should resent the gambler's pity, but it cost Ezra a lot to be nice on the outside. Funny how they were a lot alike in some ways. What was underneath wasn't what everyone saw on the outside.
"Is JD really okay?" He changed the subject.
Ezra nodded. "He'll be hobbling around awhile longer, but I am certain that will not deter him from yielding to his impetuous nature."
"He wouldn't have been shot if it hadn't been for me."
Ezra sighed. "I have never known young Mr. Dunne to need an excuse to get into trouble. He pushed you out of the way because he had disabled your firearms and knew you were defenseless."
"He did what?"
"He replaced your ammunition with blanks. He meant well, I'm sure. He usually does."
Vin patted his right thigh, but his gun was gone. Someone had taken his gunbelt. How did that happen? How did he drift so far out of touch that he didn't even know when someone was undressing him?
I don't want to be this crazy...
He covered his face with his hands, but he could still smell the blood there, and the scent made him feel weak and dizzy and he had to put one hand on the mattress to keep himself from keeling over.
He felt Ezra's firm hands on his shoulders, pushing him backwards.
"Lie down, Mr. Tanner."
Vin let himself fall sideways, so his head hit the pillow. Ezra picked his feet up and dropped them on the mattress.
He wasn't really sleepy. He'd almost gotten used to the constant feeling of weakness and exhaustion that had been with him since... that hole. That miserable hot stinking hole... He hated to sleep. When he slept, he dreamed he was back there. Or in his dead mother's arms. He wasn't sure which was worse.
But he closed his eyes, anyway. He didn't want to have to talk to Ezra any more, even though Ezra was right. He needed to talk to somebody. He needed to get that thing out of his head, or at least make it smaller so he could function again.
Not with the other six, though. He didn't want to expose himself that way, not to them.
He forced himself to calm down so he wasn't breathing so fast, so his body would relax. It felt better than being all knotted up inside and out, and he wanted Ezra to think he was asleep.
The ruse worked. After a few minutes, he heard Ezra walk softly out of the room and the door click shut behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra had only gone to get a newspaper. He hadn't the slightest inclination to play nursemaid to Vin Tanner, but he knew there would be hell to pay if he left the tracker alone and he did something foolhardy in his present state of discomfiture. So, he resigned himself to the task, and decided some reading material would be a vastly more enlightening way to pass the time than sitting there watching Vin sleep.
He never left the hotel, and was never out of sight of the stairs or the exit. As a result, he was altogether confounded when he returned, less than five minutes after he'd departed, and discovered that Vin was gone.
Vin knew Ezra wouldn't tell the others he was gone until after he'd tried to find him. Even if he did manage to discover he'd left town, Ezra couldn't track a buffalo herd through a mud puddle. It wouldn't be difficult to stay one - or even two or three - steps ahead of him.
Still, he wasted as little time as possible getting his horse saddled and checking his gear. He wasn't taking any supplies. He didn't plan on needing any. He searched his saddle bag to make sure the little pocket-sized Colt was still there. He had to have a gun, and they had taken his other weapons away from him. Nobody even knew he had this one, though.
He checked to see if it was loaded, even though it always was. He made sure the ammunition was real, this time.
Maneuvering his saddle and mounting up was a lot more work than it normally was. He wasn't sure how far he was going to be able to ride in the piss-poor shape he was in.
No matter. He just had to get away from the town. From the others.
He glanced at the boarding house and thought about JD. Poor kid. He shouldn't just leave without saying something to him. The boy had saved his butt twice now. It didn't seem right to just walk away from him.
But, he didn't want to face Chris and especially Buck again.
He made reasonably sure no one was really paying attention, and quietly rode out of town.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish wasn't prone to panic. It was counterproductive in his line of work.
But if he didn't find Vin Tanner, Hell would be demanding its proverbial reparations. He had erroneously assumed that Vin would stay in town, so the livery was, by unfortunate happenstance, the last place he looked.
"He rode out half an hour ago," the hostler said amiably.
Ezra tried his best to be intimidating. "Which way?"
It didn't work. "Didn't notice. South, I think..."
Ezra was trying to think of what lay to the south of town when the hostler added, "...or maybe west..."
The problem was obvious. Ezra was an expert at cards; Vin was an expert at hiding himself. Both required a certain generous degree of cunning, but that was about all the two of them had in common. Ezra barely knew how to follow a marked trail. He left tracking people to those who cared, and he certainly wasn't going to be able to track the tracker unless Vin wanted to be found.
He had two options, either pick a direction and take a chance on being right (or wrong), or let Chris Larabee know how ridiculously easy it had been for Vin to get away from him. He'd let Larabee down before, more than once. He didn't relish the thought of facing him with the news that he hadn't the slightest idea where Vin was.
He also felt a twinge of guilt for his reluctance to accept even temporary responsibility for Vin. By nature, the tracker was astute and observant, and had no doubt sensed that Ezra viewed keeping company with him as more of a chore than a friendly gesture. Ezra could occasionally be so cold-hearted that even he didn't like himself. Vin Tanner was in pain, as surely as if he'd been shot or broken a bone. Exerting a reasonable modicum of compassion on his part would not have cost him anything, and it might have kept Vin from feeling as if he was somehow in the way.
He hoped the opportunity to make restitution would present itself. Vin and the others were the only friends he had. The only real friends he'd ever had. Sometimes, he wondered if his own mother even liked him. Vin deserved better.
Just as Ezra suspected, Chris was livid when he told him, but he kept his voice down so as not to awaken JD.
"Where the hell did he go? Why would he leave?" Chris demanded of no one in particular. He was mad at Ezra, to be sure, but he also knew that Vin could move like a cat. He had no doubt that had he wanted to, Vin would have given him the slip almost as easily as he did Ezra.
Nathan was looking pointedly at Buck, and Chris noticed. He turned to his friend. "What is it, Buck? What's going on?"
Buck looked embarrassed. "I said some stuff to him I reckon I should've kept to myself."
"What 'stuff'?" Chris glowered.
"I told him it was his fault, what happened to JD."
Chris held his temper for all of about two seconds, during which time his gaze cut through every man in the room except for JD. "What were you thinkin' Buck? Care to tell me?"
Buck squirmed, but Chris's voice only increased in volume. "How the hell could you say somethin' like that to him?!" He turned back to the others. "And where the hell were the rest of you when he was doin' it?!"
JD stirred slightly.
"Take it outside, before you wake him up," Nathan snapped. "Better than that, quit standin' around placin' blame and go look for him. No tellin' what he's got on his mind, the state he's in."
Chris knew Nathan was right. He remembered finding Vin on the roof during the storm. He honestly didn't know what Vin might have done that night if he hadn't come along when he did.
Nathan had to stay with JD, but Chris didn't even question whether Buck, Ezra and Josiah would join him in the search. He assigned each of them a road out of town and told them not to come back until one of them found Vin.
+ + + + + +
Ezra had ridden past the rock formation called the Ship's Prow a dozen times, but he'd never really stopped to contemplate it. Nature did not hold any mystical allure to him, and most likely, when he had passed it on other occasions, he had been counting the steps to the next bastion of civilization.
The formation was aptly named - an outcropping of basalt that gave the appearance of an enormous ship cutting its way through the sea of surrounding rock. The angled sides were almost sheer, and the "deck" was a good hundred feet above the trail.
How the hell Vin had gotten up there was anyone's guess, but that's where Ezra spotted him.
"Mr. Tanner!" he shouted, not even sure Vin could hear him at that height. Vin was precariously close to the edge of the outcropping. His legs dangled on either side of where it came to an almost perfect point. Vin didn't respond to him, or even look down. "VIN!" Ezra shouted as loud as he could.
"Leave me be, Ezra!" Vin shouted back, still not looking down at him.
Ezra considered waiting Vin out, but one look at the sky convinced him otherwise. There was a storm brewing to the east, and Vin's lofty perch was a dangerous one even without the added peril posed by the rock being wet and slippery.
And, Ezra's instincts told him Vin wasn't going to come down. How he had managed the difficult climb to the stony pinnacle was a mystery in and of itself, and it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he simply didn't have the strength to make the descent now that he was up there.
Ezra looked up at the rocky abutment before him. He couldn't climb the Ship's Prow itself, but he might be able to work his way up the rocks along the side of it.
Lord, how he detested physical exertion....
He pulled off his coat because it was expensive, and he entertained no hope of it surviving the climb unscathed. He wished he had a pair of gloves. His hands were accustomed to handling cards, not clinging to craggy rocks.
He began his ascent and didn't look behind him. Ezra hated heights. It wasn't that he was afraid of them, but rather that he was uncomfortable with the vision they inspired of his crumpled remains testifying to one moment of inattentiveness while negotiating them.
It took him twenty minutes to reach the top. By that time, he had come to doubt the veracity of a statement Vin had once made about it not being possible for a man to drown in his own sweat. His clothes stuck to him, and his hair was plastered to his forehead in damp ringlets. In a few minutes, however, his presently sodden state would go unnoticed because he'd be drenched by the imminent downpour signaled by the thickening clouds above.
Unless Vin had been stricken both blind and deaf, he knew Ezra was there, but he didn't turn to acknowledge his presence. He waited until Ezra had worked his way onto the outcropping and was standing just a few feet behind him. "Go away, Ezra," he said flatly.
Ezra dragged his arm across his face to get the sweat out of his eyes. "Mr. Tanner, I did not just accomplish that inadequate impersonation of a mountain goat only to be told it was all for naught. I have no intention of leaving here until my purpose is satisfied."
Vin still didn't turn around. "And what purpose is that, Ezra? Come to take in the freak show?" he said with uncharacteristic bitterness.
He was moving something around in his hands, and as Ezra edged closer, a chill went through him when he realized it was a gun. Not Vin's mare's leg - Josiah had taken that off of him back in JD's room, and Vin hadn't even noticed, much less protested. This was a smaller gun, similar to the one he sometimes wore up his sleeve. Vin could have had it hidden anywhere.
What worried Ezra was that he was sitting out here, alone, with it.
Ezra moved forward slowly a few steps, and then dropped to his hands and knees. The outcropping was very narrow at this point, and lowering his head reduced the possibility of vertigo. It also put him at eye-level with Vin, even though Vin's back was to him.
"Mr. Tanner?" he said softly. "Might I inquire as to your intentions regarding that weapon?"
"Ain't none of your goddammed business, Ezra." Vin tried to keep his voice steady, but he didn't succeed.
"I believe it is my business, Mr. Tanner. I do not for a moment revel in the possibility that you may be contemplating using it."
Vin sniffed and rubbed his forehead. "I can't... So what if I am? What does it matter?"
Ezra didn't know what to say to him other than, "Don't, my friend."
"I ain't no use to anyone like this, Ezra..."
His tone of voice frightened Ezra more than the gun did. He suspected Vin was crying, or on the verge of it. He had never seen the tracker express any kind of intense emotion. It scared him to think that what he did or said next could literally be a life or death decision.
It was another one of those times when words failed him, but he had to say something, and sometimes, words from the heart were the most eloquent of all. "Nobody wants to lose you, Vin. This will pass, like a bad dream. I know you don't see that right now, but time will bear me out. Just give it a chance."
Vin wiped at his eyes. He didn't say anything.
Ezra considered just grabbing him, but the footing was too narrow. If they weren't perfectly balanced, they'd both go over the side.
To his relief, Vin's posture abruptly changed. He seemed to relax, and his right hand dropped to his thigh, still holding the gun.
"Ezra, you talk too much," he said softly.
"You have already pointed that out, Mr. Tanner." Ezra eased himself into a position so that he was sitting on Vin's right side. He let his feet drop over the edge. The height was dizzying, but the view was spectacular.
"One can appreciate an entirely new perspective from this vantage point," he said.
Vin wasn't stupid. He caught Ezra's double meaning. "Yeah, I reckon so."
Ezra considered his options and decided that with Vin Tanner, the direct approach was best. He held out his hand. "Give me the gun, Vin."
Vin looked at him, squinting. The sun was not bright, but Vin often squinted when he looked directly at people. They said that the eyes were the windows to the soul, and it was almost as though Vin was afraid that if he opened his eyes all the way, he'd allow too much of himself to be revealed. "I prob'ly ain't gonna do it, you know."
Vin looked down at the gun, and Ezra wasn't sure if he meant he wasn't going to give him the weapon, or he wasn't going to use it on himself. So, he tailored his response to fit either scenario. "I refuse to consider that possibility." He didn't squint when he looked at Vin. He wanted Vin to see into his soul. He wanted the tracker to see that at that instant, in that place, Ezra Standish cared about nothing else other than Vin Tanner. "Give it to me, Vin."
Vin broke eye contact, and looked out over the vista below them. "Don't reckon I really ever meant to do it. Guess I just had to play with the idea in my head for awhile so I could see that..."
He gave the gun one last, furtive glance and then casually handed it over. Ezra realized he'd been holding his breath.
Vin hung his head, and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "I can't keep goin' like this, Ezra. Buck is right. I'm gonna get someone killed."
Ezra held the gun securely. "This wasn't the answer, my friend."
Vin nodded. "Yeah. I know. The answer is out there somewhere. Back at that hole where JD found me." He looked at Ezra again, not squinting this time. "I gotta go back there, Ezra. I gotta know what this thing inside my head is."
Ezra nodded. "No battle can be waged, nor victory won, until the true nature of the enemy has been revealed."
Vin cocked his head to one side. "You know, Ezra, sometimes you're pretty damned smart."
Ezra tried to look affronted. "Only sometimes?"
Vin smiled slightly, but his face quickly became somber again and he nodded towards the gun Ezra was holding. "Ezra, don't tell Chris about this."
"Mr. Tanner, I can almost assure you that Mr. Larabee has been to the edge of that dark abyss himself. He would understand."
Vin shook his head. "I don't care. I don't want to be addin' to his burdens. One way or another, I ain't gonna be anyone's problem."
Ezra nodded. "I won't mention it, you have my word. Although we are presuming, of course, that Mr. Larabee and I are still on speaking terms when we return."
Vin frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Suffice it to say that he was somewhat less than enchanted by your abrupt departure."
"You sayin' he was pissed?"
"He may still kill me."
Vin managed a hint of a smile.
There was a crack of thunder in the distance and Ezra glanced up at the gathering storm clouds. "Mr. Tanner, it is my heartfelt recommendation that we get the hell down from here."
Vin looked uncertainly at the tortuous route Ezra had taken to get up there. "You fixin' to climb back down them rocks?"
"I harbor no illusion that it will be easy, but I will assist you, should it be necessary."
Vin gave him a mischievous look. "Reckon we could just take the trail."
Vin pointed to his left. If Ezra had bothered to ride as far as the other side of the Ship's Prow, he would have seen the gently winding path leading to the summit.
Ezra heaved a sigh, annoyed with himself.
But he laughed in spite of it, because he saw something else, too. For that brief instant, the cloud of pain and confusion had lifted from Vin's eyes. The Vin he knew was in there, and had decided how he was going to fight this battle that raged within him. Was it that simple? Did he just need to know that someone cared if he came back?
He swung his legs back up onto the deck of the "ship" and maneuvered himself so that he was behind Vin. He grabbed the tracker's arm and steadied him as he moved away from precipice and the many bleak possibilities it represented.
Vin could hardly stand up. Getting this far had taken a toll on his weakened body. Ezra looped Vin's arm around his shoulder to support him.
Vin was his friend. There was no way he was going to let him fall.