Disclaimer: The characters from The Magnificent 7 don't belong to me, they belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy. I'm not making any money off them. If you'd like to sue, you'll have to take a number behind the student loan people, Visa, and the car loan people.
Notes: Thanks so much to my wonderful betas: Judy, Trish, and Lynda.
This is in response to the tattoo E-day challenge. The inspiration for this
story came from an article I read on the history of tattoo art in North America,
which can be found at
Mix that with the fact that, to the best of my recollection, Vin never took his shirt off in any of the episodes, and here's the result.
Chris wasn't in his shack. He'd ridden out earlier in the evening, after drinking more than he should and staring into the bottle like it held the secrets of the universe. Vin had tried to resist the urge to follow. He knew the man wanted time to himself now and then. He knew that there were certain days that brought back memories that should be happy ones, of family and home, but instead tore Chris's insides to shreds and caused a fury to rise in him that was dangerous to himself and everyone around him. Vin respected his need to be alone with his demons. Hell, Vin had a demon or two himself he was on speaking terms with, and he didn't want anybody, not even Chris Larabee, to get in his way when those demons came calling.
After Chris had ridden hell bent for leather out of town, Buck had told Vin what it was that had Chris upset; the next day was Adam's birthday. That meant it would be one of those days for Chris, a remembrance of something happy that instead ate away at him like a rat to cheese. Buck told him that Adam had died before his sixth birthday; Chris had even gotten him a present in Mexico, a tiny wooden horse with legs that really moved, but he never got to give it to him.
"Don't know what happened to that horse," Buck said, before downing another whiskey of his own.
What Vin didn't understand was why, even knowing what he did about Chris wanting to be alone, he decided to follow him anyway. He didn't stop to think about it; sometimes he reckoned it was best to just follow your gut and deal with the consequences. He searched the shack, even though the corral was empty and the little house completely dark. Then he weighed his options. He could just give up and head back to town, and let Chris ride it out alone. Or he could follow him, more than likely to Purgatory. Purgatory wasn't the safest place for an ex-bounty hunter turned bounty hunted turned lawman. But it wasn't safe for a man blinded by grief either. So Vin made his decision, checked his supplies, and set out towards Mexico.
He'd ridden a few hours, and was about to stop for the night in a cave he knew of near a pond, when he noticed something out of place. At first he couldn't tell quite what it was, but as he neared the cave, he saw it was a fire, burning low near the mouth of the cave. He saw Chris's horse tied near the pond, stripped for the night, but he didn't see Chris. He tied off his own horse near Chris's black, and looked down near the pond to see if the gunslinger had decided to get some water. When he didn't see him there, he walked towards the mouth of the cave, making sure the jangle of his spurs was loud enough to alert anyone inside of his presence, calling out "Chris?" as he entered the cave.
What he saw stopped any additional words from forming. Chris sat near the back of the cave, almost hidden in shadows, carving on his arm with a knife. He didn't even look up when Vin entered. As the point of the knife neared his wrist, Vin ran to the back of the cave and tackled him, wrenching the knife from his grasp.
"What in the hell are ya doin'?" Vin yelled at him, tossing the knife out the opening of the cave. Chris pushed him off.
"Get off of me. This ain't none of your business," he said, standing. Vin also stood and grabbed his arm.
"Ya ain't goin' after that knife. I'll deck ya if I have ta."
Chris looked at him, and Vin could see he was treading on thin ice. He tensed slightly, waiting for Chris's next move. Instead, Chris sighed and sat down against the back wall of the cave. He pulled out a bandanna and wrapped it around his bleeding arm.
"You don't understand," he said. "It's for Adam. For his birthday." He wiped away some of the blood to show Vin his arm. There were already three old scars in the skin, straight lines from elbow to wrist. "One for every birthday I can't be with him," he finished, so softly Vin almost didn't hear him.
Vin sat down beside him, untying his own bandanna from his neck. "Let me do that," he said as Chris tried to tie the bandanna to stop the flow of blood. He put pressure on the wound, wondering if it was deep enough to need stitches. "Ya do this ta honor him?" Vin asked.
"I guess," Chris asked. "Or maybe so I remember. So I don't get too comfortable and stop hunting."
"Ya could end up joinin' him, ya keep openin' yer wrist like that."
Chris's smile was sad. "Ain't worked yet," he answered.
"And it won't, long as I'm around. Here, hold this so the bleedin' stops," he said, pressing Chris's other hand to the wound. He backed away slightly, then removed his jacket and started unbuttoning his shirt.
"What do you think you're doing?" Chris asked. "I don't like you that much."
Vin smiled. "Get over yerself, Larabee. Ya ain't that purty." He shrugged out of his shirt and pulled his undershirt over his head. Then he turned around and let Chris see his back. He'd never showed it before to anyone, not even the working girls he sometimes visited. He tensed, waiting for Chris's reaction.
Chris couldn't believe what he was looking at. The pale skin of Vin's back, from just below his shoulder blades to just above the waist of his pants, was covered in an elaborate drawing of a black howling wolf, its haunches tensed and its back arched. The image was so real, so lifelike; Chris thought he could almost hear the wolf's mournful cry. He gingerly reached out to touch the wolf, half expecting to feel fur, and was surprised when he felt Vin's warm skin and the hard knobs of his spine.
"No wonder we ain't never seen you without a shirt," Chris said. Vin heard amusement in his voice, but a bit of awe too.
"That ain't why," Vin replied. "I just didn't want ya feelin' inadequate."
Chris laughed. "Vin, you're scrawnier than a scarecrow." He tapped lightly on one of bumps of Vin's curved spine. "There's no meat on you at all."
"I got plenty of meat, cowboy, don't you worry none," Vin said. Chris laughed again. It was a nice sound to Vin's ears.
"Where's the moon?" Chris asked quietly.
"The moon. He's howling, but there's no moon."
Vin hesitated; telling him would mean revealing a lot about his past and his soul. He didn't know if he was ready, or if Chris was.
"Vin, I didn't mean to pry. Ain't none of my business," Chris said.
"Naw, it's all right. It might sound silly to ya, that's all."
"No, it won't."
Vin took a deep breath. "It's right here," Vin said, pointing in front of him. He could feel Chris lean slightly to look over his shoulder.
"Where? On the wall?"
Vin shook his head. "No, in front of me. It's kinda like the horizon, I guess, 'cept it's what guides me." He took another deep breath. "I ain't makin' sense."
"Yeah, you are," Chris said. His hand still traced the wolf image. He couldn't believe how real it looked. When Vin breathed it was as if the wolf breathed. When he tensed, like he did when Chris first touched him, the wolf tensed as well, ready to attack. The warmth of Vin's skin and the slight heartbeat Chris could feel beneath his fingertips felt like the heat and pulse of the wolf, tamed under his hand, yet still dangerous. He wondered what it would look like as Vin slept, although he doubted Vin ever completely relaxed, even in sleep. He reluctantly pulled his hand away.
Vin looked over his shoulder. "Didn't mean ta spook ya," he said as he pulled his shirt back on. "Just wanted to show ya there's ways to honor better than just slashin' away at yer wrists."
"I know," Chris said, his face hidden in shadows. They were silent as Vin buttoned his shirt and pulled on his jacket. He realized he'd forgotten his undershirt, so he stuffed it in his pocket rather than get undressed again. Then he sat back against the wall and pulled some jerky from his saddlebag, offering some to Chris, who took it silently. They ate without talking, until Chris said, "Did it hurt?''
Vin grinned. "Hurt like hell," he said. "But ya can't let on that it hurts, 'cause that means you're a strong warrior. If'n ya holler, the whole village'll think yer yella, and fer a white man like me, probably end up bein' stoned." He took another bite of jerky before continuing. "And ya can't get drunk first neither. Can't do nothin' to dull the pain."
"Well, it has to do with what you'd call spirits. Most people think it's hooey, but to them it means honor and courage, even into the afterlife." He glanced at Chris to see if he believed any of it, and he saw curiosity instead of scorn, so he continued. "Ya see, life is a journey, and the journey continues after death. And like in life, there are problems along this journey. So in order ta enter the spirit world, the warriors have ta prove their worth. One way is ta show the guardians the drawin's on their skin, ta show they were brave in battle and lived and died with honor. If they ain't got any marks, the guardian turns 'em back, and they got ta wander this world in shame." Vin took a deep breath. Chris had closed his eyes as he spoke, listening to the poetry of Vin's beliefs.
"So the wolf means you'll get into the spirit world?" he asked.
"Don't know 'bout that. Just have to wait and find out."
Chris hesitated before asking his next question. "Can you do it for me? To honor Adam." When Vin didn't answer, he thought maybe he'd overstepped his bounds. "Never mind. I had no right to ask."
"No, I was just thinkin'. I don't know if the Indians would mind me borrowin' their custom, but I can try. I ain't no good at drawin', though. Might look as ugly as a constipated buffalo."
Chris smiled. "Then put it on my back. That way I won't be the one to see it."
"And like I said, it'll hurt like hell. You'll be real sick after, for a few days probably. Shakes, fever, can't keep nothin' down. Could even die, if'n it gets infected."
Chris thought it over, and then nodded. "I trust you," he said. He sat up and removed his jacket and shirt. The cool air caused goose bumps to rise on his flesh.
"Why don't we move closer to the fire?" Vin said. "It'll be warmer, and light's better." Chris stood, walking to the fire. Vin hesitated before following. He didn't know why he had agreed to this. He hadn't ever done it, just seen it done a few times, and had it done to him. He was liable to mess it up badly. But the memory of seeing Chris slicing into his own arm made the decision for him. He grabbed his saddlebag and moved to the fire. He took out a bottle of whiskey and handed it to Chris.
"I thought you said no whiskey," Chris said.
"That's for warriors. Ain't nobody to prove nothin' to out here."
"Except myself," Chris answered. And you, he added silently.
Vin took the bottle back, and took a swig himself. "It don't say nothin' about the one doin' the drawin' easin' his pain," he said with a nervous smile. He then removed the medicine bag given to him by Chanu from his neck, and opened it, pouring the contents into his hand. He could feel Chris's eyes on him as he picked up a long sharpened claw from among the items, then replaced them in the bag and re-hung it around his neck.
"Bear claw," he explained. "Found it on a dead mama bear, who was shot protecting her babies from goddamn hunters." He then took a bandanna and reached quickly into the outer edges of the fire, where small pieces of burnt wood, charcoal, and ash lie smoldering. He collected it in the bandanna, and directed Chris to turn around. "What do ya want me ta draw?" he asked.
"You choose," Chris answered. Vin thought about it as he used the claw to stir the ash-mixture into a finer powder. He remembered what Buck had told him about the horse Chris had bought for his son. Using the claw, he lightly traced the outline of a racing mustang across the tight skin of Chris's back. Chris shivered a bit at the soft ticklish touch. Vin started with the head near the right shoulder blade, mane flowing and legs in full gallop, the back hoof curving slightly around his waist.
When the image was traced, he pulled out his knife and whittled the claw to a sharper point. He dipped it in some charcoal, and held his hand poised over Chris's back. "You ready?" he asked. Chris nodded slightly. Vin placed the claw at the top of the horse's head and pushed the claw under the skin, just deep enough to cause bleeding. Chris tensed and drew in a breath.
"You weren't kidding," he said, as Vin moved on to add another puncture right beside that one.
"Ya can't do it all at once," Vin explained as he worked, hoping to take Chris's mind off the pain. "Like mine, they did the outline, and after I was healed and had no more fever, they started filling it in to make it black." He paused to rub some charcoal into the open wounds, smearing the blood and charcoal back into the wound. The mixture would darken the scars, making them permanently black.
"Did you know what they were drawing?" Chris asked, his jaw clenched. He wasn't going to cry out, though, as another puncture was made in his skin.
"Nope. Still ain't ever seen it. Just told me what it looked like."
"You've never seen it?"
Vin grinned. "Can't turn my head that far 'round."
"Guess not. It's incredible, Vin. It looks alive."
Another puncture, and more charcoal smeared into the wounds. He wiped away some of the blood running down Chris's back before it pooled into the back of his pants, then started on the horse's mane. "The man who did mine, he was the best. I wasn't too sure at the time though. He was 'bout 100 years old, and his hands shook worse than a leaf. I thought I'd end up with my skin in ribbons. But when he got ta work and concentrated, he didn't shake at all." He took a sip of whiskey. "He had a little help from this stuff, too," Vin said.
Chris shook his head. "You've seen a lot of things, Vin."
"That I have," he answered. The mane was finished, and he started on the neck, muscles stretched taut as the horse galloped.
"You planning on staying?" Chris asked, then wished he could take it back. He didn't know where the question came from.
Vin didn't sound shocked by the question. "I guess it depends," he answered.
"Depends on what?"
"On whether ya shoot me for cuttin' ya up."
Chris smiled at the answer, and stared into the night as Vin continued outlining the horse.
Two hours later, Vin was almost done. "About finished, cowboy," he said, sharpening the claw some more before he finished the final hoof. "Ya still with me?"
Chris nodded, but couldn't answer. He was on fire, and thought if he did anything other than breathe he was going to pass out. He clenched his hands to stop them from shaking.
When Vin finished sharpening the claw, he held out his own hand, and dug the claw into the skin just above his own wrist. Blood bubbled from the wound, coating the claw, and he dipped it into the charcoal and finished the hoof, completing the image with his own blood. Then he rubbed some charcoal and Chris's blood into the wound on his wrist. He grabbed a clean bandanna, wet it from the canteen, and wiped Chris's back gently. He noticed him starting to shake. "Ya better lie down, Chris, on yer stomach. Best take off them pants too. The fever'll set in soon, and I'll have to stop infection with the whiskey there.
Chris followed without question, burying his head in his folded arms. He felt tears in his eyes, and whispered, "Happy birthday, Adam."
+ + + + + + +
Chris was as sick as Vin said he would be. He shook all over, was both sweating and shaking with cold, and thrashing and delirious with fever. His arms and legs would kick and spasm uncontrollably, and Vin held his head so he wouldn't bust it open as he flailed around. When the spasms subsided, Vin bathed his forehead and chest with water, and cleaned the wounds with whiskey. Once the blood was wiped away, the shape of the horse could be seen clearly. It wasn't too bad for his first time, Vin thought. The wound was still black and red, but it didn't ooze, so it looked like it would heal up nicely. Which was a damn good thing, or else Nathan was likely to kill him.
Chris muttered occasionally in his sleep. Vin couldn't pick up most of what he was saying. Occasionally he heard "wolf" and he thought he may have heard his name, but he couldn't be sure. When the spasms started again, he held Chris's head between his knees and grabbed onto his hands, saying softly "Hold on, cowboy, looks like we're going for a ride."
Chris could hear Vin's words, and could feel his hands on him, hot as fire. But it wasn't fire that burned. It was fire that strengthened. At times he felt like he was flying, over the rocks and sand of the desert, flashing past him and below him faster than he could register. Then he realized what he was seeing. He wasn't flying, he was galloping. He was seeing what a horse sees at full run, legs racing along the ground, faster and stronger than anything else in the desert. He felt free and powerful, and like he could run forever. As he galloped, he noticed a dark blur beside him, and knew it was a wolf, racing him to the edge of the desert, as free and strong as he was. As his seizure abated, he rested with that image in his head.
For two days, Vin cleaned Chris's wounds, wiped away his sweat, and held him through the worst of his thrashings. On the third day, he woke as dawn entered the cave and he knew something was different. He sat up quickly, instinctively reaching for his gun, but stopped as he saw Chris standing in the entrance of the cave, staring at the sunrise. He turned slightly as Vin stepped up behind him.
"How ya' feelin'?" Vin asked.
Chris smiled weakly. "Never better," he replied. "It's a horse, right? What you drew?"
Vin nodded. "How'd you know?"
"Had a dream."
Vin lightly touched the skin of Chris's back. "Fever's gone, and it's healed up nice," he said.
"Never doubted," Chris said.
They stood still and silent for a while, watching the sunrise slowly over the mountains in the east.
"Chris," Vin said after a few minutes. "Ya do realize yer standing here naked, right?"
Chris laughed, glancing down. "Wondered why I felt so free."
Vin went back into the cave and tossed him his pants. "Best leave the shirt off another day. If yer feelin' up to it, we can head back to town tomorrow."
Chris groaned as he bent to step into his pants. "It's a wonder they didn't send out a search party."
Vin prepared a light breakfast and coffee for them, and Chris yawned as he ate. "Ya should try to sleep some more. I'll get things taken care of for our ride back."
+ + + + + + +
The next day, Vin was already up and packing up the camp when Chris awoke. He groaned as he stretched his tight muscles.
"Gettin' old there, cowboy," Vin said.
Chris answered with a glare.
Chris could smell coffee and bacon as he dressed. He wondered at the emotion he was feeling; he hadn't felt it in so long he almost didn't recognize it. Peace. He didn't think he'd ever feel it again, and he wasn't naive enough to think it'd last, but for that moment, he embraced it like a warm blanket.
"What are ya smilin' at?" Vin asked.
"Nothing, " Chris answered. Vin would laugh his ass off if he told him anyway. He reached for some bacon and biscuits, sitting gingerly on a log. "When are we gonna finish the horse?" he asked.
"You need to get more strength back first," Vin answered, pouring himself more coffee. "I had an idea, but I don't know what you'll think of it."
"Tell me," Chris said.
"Well, I thought we could come back next year, to this place, and fill in the horse some more. Not all at once, maybe just the mane and tail. Then keep addin' more each year. That'd be your way to remember and honor at the same time."
Chris stared at him. "You reckon we'll be around that long?" he asked. There was an unspoken question behind it, but he knew that Vin knew what he was asking without him having to say it.
"Can't say. But I ain't plannin' on goin' nowhere," Vin answered.
Chris smiled. "Me either," he said.
They finished their breakfasts and loaded up the horses, then rode slowly back to town in comfortable silence. Vin thought about the unspoken question-will they be around together this time next year. Vin had seen enough to know that you couldn't predict what would happen, and he was going to keep living each day as it came. But no matter what happened, no matter where they each were, Chris would have that horse on his back, drawn by Vin's hand, and their sweat and blood mixed in a bond that couldn't be broken.
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