“Wind’s dying down.”
“Bout damned time,” Chris muttered, watching the last of the McCormick Brothers caravan roll out of town. “Maybe we can get things back to order.”
“Mary doing good?” Vin’s voice was low, tired, and Chris glanced to him. In the light of the morning sun, he looked worn and dusty, as if he had slept outside last night – and maybe he had. Poplar’s death – and the admissions before it – had cleared Josiah, and it had been a big relief for the town as a whole, but Chris knew most of his men had been restless and unsettled, Vin and Ezra particularly. Nathan had ridden all the way back to the Seminole village with Rain, leaving them short a man. They hadn’t actually needed anyone – despite the relief and the fact that the McCormick Brothers show took full advantage of it, even going so far as to let JD race again, as he had forfeited the earlier race to save Mary.
“She’s all right,” Chris said, glancing down the boardwalk to where Mary stood with Gloria, outside Gloria’s store. They, too, were watching the caravan leaving town, both smiling. The sun caught in Mary’s hair, turning it to silver and her skin to a creamy porcelain that made Chris think of Poplar and his two attempts to get to Mary.
The bastard. He’d gone after Rain, too, in the stable, after he’d confessed to Josiah. While there might have been some problems with that confession in a court of law – as Josiah was the only one who had heard it, and he was in jail, accused of the murders Poplar had committed – the fact that both Nathan and Rain could identify him as the man who had attacked Rain would have held up in court.
No need for that now though. The only court now was the one of popular opinion, and in that one, Josiah was clear.
“You still think you don’t know Josiah?” Vin asked, as if reading Chris’ thoughts. Vin’s voice was lower now, though there was no one on the boardwalk near where they were standing, leaning against a pillar. It brought to mind their conversation several nights before, when Vin had been so sure of Josiah’s innocence and Chris had not been sure of anything. Maybe that was what Vin was thinking, too.
Chris sighed. He’d known when he’d said it that he’d hit some kind of nerve with Vin, had known it in the way Vin had walked away from him. And in the way Vin had gone to such lengths to prove Josiah’s innocence.
“I know he was innocent,” Chris muttered, because he had, at the heart of it. Hadn’t he defended him in the saloon – and still had the bruises to prove it.
Vin didn’t say anything but Chris could feel his doubt, as if it were a vibration in the post between them.
“Glad to see the backside of them!” Buck was surprisingly cheerful for this time of the morning, and Chris turned to see him striding down the walkway toward them, his boots loud on the wooden planks. Maybe that had been the vibration he had felt. “Reckon they’re running with their tails between their legs, after what JD did in that race yesterday evening! Whoowhee, he had that McCormick boy on the run!”
“Reckon I’ll go see about Josiah,” Vin said, just loud enough for Chris to hear, and before Chris could answer, the other man was gone, leaving him to Buck’s tall tales of the night before, the women fawning over a blushing JD who had drunk almost three whole beers before stumbling off to his bed in the boarding house.
But the sense of unease that Chris had felt before this whole mess started still burbled in his stomach, and he felt a prickle of unease as he went through the day, not finding Vin about when he usually was.
It was almost dinner time before he saw Vin again, this time perched on the steps of the church, talking to Josiah. Their heads were together, talking low, and Chris’ unease rose to a disquiet. He looked around, wondering if he was feeling trouble on its way – more McCormicks, or another Poplar, or – who knew what.
But the town was quiet in the late afternoon, some people milling around the stores and restaurants, more around the saloon doors, but most people in their homes or farms, getting back to work after the fun of the past few days.
He looked back to Vin and Josiah, and his disquiet spiked as Vin grinned and reached out, his hand falling on Josiah’s thigh. It was a casual touch, friendly and affectionate.
Josiah smiled, looking up at Vin and nodding, even as he said something that Chris couldn’t hear. Then Vin stood, tugging at his pants, and stepped down the two stairs to the roadway. He was walking away from the church, toward Chris, and smiling. At ease, his long stride unhurried and graceful, comfortable.
Until he saw Chris. The smile fell away and he stiffened, his back straightening and his stride slowing, as if he were reluctant to come forward. He glanced about, as if he were looking for anywhere else to go.
Maybe that was why Chris did what he did, calling out, “Vin! Everything all right?”
It was an innocent question, or so he thought. But Vin stopped, one hand falling to his mare’s leg, as if he, too, sensed trouble. He looked around and eventually shrugged and nodded. “Seems so,” he said, his hand slowly dropping from his gun. He looked to Chris and shrugged again, then he started walking again.
Chris fell into step beside him, assuming they were heading for the saloon, but as they neared, Vin turned away.
Chris slowed and asked, “Beer?”
Vin turned and looked back but didn’t stop. “Got some things to do. Maybe later.”
But Chris didn’t see him again that night. As he stepped past the swinging doors onto the boardwalk, the music and laughter still loud behind him, he felt a chill, as if a slight breeze was stirring along his right side. In the space where Vin usually was.
The chill was there the next day, as Vin still wasn’t. In the course of some litany about JD, Buck let slip that Vin was out at Nettie’s working on some fences and maintenance for her. Which he had every right to do.
It bothered Chris, though, that Vin hadn’t told him. It was unlike Vin.
And a sign of something bigger.
The disquiet was growing into a full-on worry.
The next afternoon, Chris was saddling up his horse, thinking to ride out and about, for the sake of exercising the horse, when Josiah came into the livery. It was the first time Chris had seen him - well, since he’d seen him with Vin two days before.
That realization brought back the memory of the disquiet he had felt then, and he looked around the livery, wondering if they were in danger.
“Chris,” Josiah acknowledged, walking into the tack room to get his gear. When he came out, he said, “Reckon I owe you an apology. I was too caught up in my own problems to think about how much trouble I was causing you and Vin and the others. I appreciate all you did to prove my innocence – despite my own obstructions.”
“Well,” Chris said, pulling the cinch tight around his horse’s belly, “would have been a damned sight easier if you hadn’t been so hellbent on getting yourself hung.”
Josiah pulled open the door to his horse’s stable but he look back and around his saddle to Chris and gave a sort of grin. “Vin said something of the same. More than once. And pretty loudly, too.”
Despite himself, Chris laughed. “Yeah, he did.” He’d heard Vin yelling through the closed door of the jail, in a tone that was rare for the usually calm man.
But the calmness he was used to in Vin had yet to return. The stillness was there; Vin had stood beside him on the boardwalk, as still as a rock on a desert flat, but Chris had felt the tension in him. Not the calm he was used to.
“He’s a good man,” Josiah said, hanging his saddle on the door of the stall and turning to his horse. “A better friend than I deserve. I’m still irritated that he rode to Vista City and confronted my sister. Need to go see about her, make sure she’s all right.”
“That where you’re headed now?” Chris asked, catching his horse’s reins and leading him out of the stall. For some reason, the answer to this question was important, though he wasn’t quite sure why.
“Riding out to Nettie’s. I promised I’d help with a new section of fence that needs to be put in. Figured I owed it to Vin, first, seeing as he saved my life. And he said he’d ride with me to Vista City, so I could formally introduce him to the Sisters of Mercy – and to Hannah, if she’s calm enough.”
The worry of the past day hit Chris full in the belly, like a gut punch, and he had an inkling as to why. “The two of you are leaving town together?”
Josiah smoothed his horse’s blanket into place then turned to lift the saddle. The movement was effortless, a testament to the man’s strength.
That same effortless strength had knocked Chris into the wall of the saloon not so long ago, had upended a table that almost hit Mary, had thrown Vin back and away with ease, as if he weighed nothing. If Josiah got mad again – if he got drunk and mad, and he and Vin were alone together -
“Won’t be gone long,” Josiah said. “And I won’t come back as messed up as I have been. For all the bad that came out of this, telling Vin about Hannah – well, it was a good thing. Confession is good for the soul, something I’d forgotten.”
Chris swallowed, a fire lighting in his belly. “You spending a lot of time with him as of late.”
Josiah was cinching his saddle as he spoke. “Seems so. He’s been worried about me. Came by last night for a long talk.”
Vin had been with Josiah last night. Chris stared at the older man, hearing his own words echo in his head: ‘How well do you really know anyone?’
He’d said them to Vin, wanting Vin to consider the question, especially as it came to Josiah and the mystery surrounding his strange visits to Vista City and his even stranger moods when he returned. He’d wanted Vin not to rush headlong into a defense that might turn up things Vin wasn’t prepared to deal with.
Truth be told, he didn’t want Vin to get hurt.
But now . . .
Josiah finished with his horse, slipping the bridle on and the bit between the horse’s teeth. He turned to lead the horse toward the door and frowned as he saw Chris.
Chris drew a breath and willed himself to swallow again, to get his head together. “Thinking of heading out to Nettie’s myself,” he said, owning up to the idea that had been rambling around in his skull since he’d heard Vin was there.
Josiah nodded and the frown faded. “All hands welcome, or so I was told last night.”
Chris wondered about that. Seemed Vin would have stopped by the saloon and tried to get others if that were the case.
Seemed Vin had been spending a lot more time with Josiah than Chris knew.
The gut punch struck again.
They rode for a time in silence, Chris thinking on how it had come to this, where this – this – this – thing between Josiah and Vin could have started. How he could have missed it?
“Guess you think I was an idiot for what I did,” Josiah said after a time. “No need in denying it – I know I was, and if I still had doubts, Vin has made it pretty clear over the past couple of days that I was. I’ve explained a lot of it to him, and to Nathan, and if you want to know, I’ll tell you. But if it’s all the same, I’d just as soon let Vin explain it to you – he knows it’s all right with me. Nothing’s secret anymore, not since Poplar got into this.”
“I’m sure he’ll tell me in his own time,” Chris said, more to keep Josiah from saying any more about it than because he believed it. Vin shared Chris’ belief that a man’s past was his own.
Or – did he? Vin had told Chris about the price on his head soon after they’d arrived in the Seminole Village. While they’d not talked much about any of the others, from time to time, Vin had told him little things about his past, about his mother’s death, about living with the Indians, about being captured by the Army and forced to work for them as a scout.
Not long stories – not the way Josiah would go on if Chris let him have the chance – but still, more information than Chris recalled returning.
‘How well do you really know anyone?’
He knew Vin well. Not that he had doubted it, but now, thinking on it, he realized just how well. How much Vin had told him.
“I said it earlier, but I want to say it again: thanks for standing behind me, Chris. I know it wasn’t easy. I appreciate what you did.”
Chris felt the heat rise in his neck. “Didn’t do that much.”
“Vin said otherwise. I know you’re not one to say much about your own efforts, but Vin doesn’t lie.”
The statement, bald and unsolicited, caught Chris off guard. It was true, he thought, Vin didn’t lie. He might not say something, like admitting to the world at large that he had a bounty on his head, but he didn’t lie. It wasn’t in his nature.
Josiah fell silent again after that, but Chris didn’t notice. He was thinking on Vin, on what he knew. What he really knew.
Vin’s faith in Josiah had been complete from the start – because he knew the man. Vin had told Poplar that he’d known Josiah because they’d fought together. It was the same way of knowing a man that Chris had of Buck and now, of the others. In the Army, during the War, it had been the best way to know a man, to know how he thought in the heat of battle, to know which way he would go in the face of a cannon ball or a hail of bullets. It had saved his life more than once – and still did today.
But since the War, he had learned that being in battle together, while more important than most things, wasn’t a full statement on a man’s character. Men had other demons, ones that didn’t come out in the roar of guns or the noise of death.
Some demons, like the one that haunted Poplar, only came out in the quiet of the night. Demons like the ones that haunted Guy Royal and Stuart James, men who had everything but wanted more.
Demons like the one that had haunted Cletus Fowler, leading him to take money for burning a woman and child to death.
Vin knew the same things about men and demons. He’d seen James and Flower – he’d been the one who’d led the fight against Royal, defending Nettie Wells.
So what had Chris been trying to protect Vin from?
Had he been trying to protect Vin at all?
They were in sight of Wells’ property when Josiah spoke again. “Is it all right if Vin and I leave for a few days? Now that the wind has died down and the traveling circus has gone? Nathan’s back, in case you haven’t seen him.”
Chris looked at him. “Would it matter if I said that it did?”
Josiah grinned. “Well, some, of course, but probably not as much to me as to Vin. He’s worried that you will think less of him – though he won’t say as much. It’s in the things he doesn’t say.”
Chris stared at the other man, too many thoughts running through his head. The one that finally came out was, “What he doesn’t say?”
Josiah nodded. “He doesn’t say that you had doubts about what Poplar said. He doesn’t say that he’s avoiding you – though I reckon that’s why he stayed with me, letting me ramble on, until pretty late last night. Usually, he’s tired of hearing me go on about the Bible by the time night falls.”
Chris swallowed, knowing he was still staring. There were no words that would come, just the image of Vin with a Bible in his hand.
Vin who couldn’t read, with a Bible.
Josiah was looking at the road as he continued, “While back – after Eli Joe tried to kill him and you killed Eli Joe – Vin started to come by. It wasn’t a regular thing, wasn’t anything other than a visit every now and then. He was raised by his grandma for a time and she had her own ideas about the Bible and about – well, sin. He’s had a hard time of it, bearing the weight of his grandmother’s anger and grief. And he’s confused about how much he brought on himself. The whole thing with Eli Joe – well, he’s working out some strange idea about whether that was meant to be or not. That’s what we started talking about - still talk about.”
The idea of it, that Vin might think he bore some responsibility for what had happened, touched a nerve in Chris. A different one, anyway. He didn’t want to think on why - that was too close to a scar that wasn’t healed. But he had had a hand in this one - it’d been his action, his shot, that had killed Eli Joe. To save Vin.
“Eli Joe was gonna kill him,” he said, seeing once more, for the hundredth time, the events unfold on that rooftop, Eli Joe with that big hunting knife, going for Vin. “I could not let that happen.” The words were out before he thought about them, words that had become a constant for him. It had been right then, and it was right now. Because he could not have lived with himself if Eli Joe had killed Vin.
“None of us disagree with that. Not even Vin,” Josiah said mildly. “But that isn’t what Vin is concerned about. Just as you’re not really worried about Buck talking you into staying in Mexico the night your wife died.”
The words – the reminder – hit him low and hard, as much for the jolt of surprise that Josiah would say them as for the guilt that as never very far away. The anger roared through him, spewing out of his mouth instinctively. “What the hell do you know about that, Preacher? What the hell business is it of yours?” His fingers were on his gun, which was halfway out of his holster before he even knew it.
“None of my business,” Josiah shrugged, unconcerned. “But people talk, as you well know. And we all know each other’s demons.” He said the words lightly enough, but he turned to look Chris in the eye as he said them.
‘How well do you really know anyone?’
Chris drew a deep breath, struggling with his temper. Eventually it gave way, mostly to the curiosity that came with a small voice of reason in the back of his head: why was Josiah telling him all of this? Even for the garrulous preacher, this was an odd line of conversation, especially, now that Chris considered it, as he kept coming back to it. As if he were trying to tell Chris something.
“Vin’s wondering about himself and what he should do now that he can’t take Eli Joe back to clear his name,” Josiah said flatly. “He’s blaming himself for not taking care of it while he could. Especially after the . . . situation with the Richmond woman. He’s still – well, he’s still sorting that out.”
He drew his horse to a stop, the big animal stomping at the ground a few times but not complaining too much. Chris’ horse slowed too, and for a few seconds, Chris considered using his spurs to remind the animal who was in charge.
But that was an instinct he had learned long ago to control. A man didn’t abuse his horse or any other animal. So reluctantly, he swung the horse around so that he was facing Josiah. The big man was leaning forward, one forearm resting on the saddle horn. It made him appear smaller than he was, Chris thought passingly.
“What do you want me to do?” Chris snapped. “I’ve can’t bring Eli Joe back to life.”
Josiah sighed and looked away, leaning lower in the saddle. His jaw worked, as if he was chewing on something. Making up his mind about something.
Chris wasn’t sure he cared about what it was. He tugged the reins toward the right, drawing his horse around and back to the path, but as he did, Josiah said, “He was deciding whether he was going to leave for Tascosa after we went to Vista City. Before this whole thing with Poplar, he had decided that staying here was more important. Seems he’s changed his mind – I don’t know why he has. All he says when I ask him why is something about making a mistake.”
‘How well do you really know anyone?’
Chris turned the horse in a full circle so that he was back facing Josiah. “He’ll get himself killed,” he said shortly.
Josiah frowned, his big face scrunching together. “I think he knows that, Chris. In fact – I think he almost wants it. And I promise you, I have pointed out the irony of this: that he fought so hard to save my life from my own stupidity but he’s so damned willing to walk into it himself.”
He turned again and looked straight at Chris, then he slowly sat up. He straightened his shoulders and Chris felt an instinctive threat. But the big man merely stared for a few seconds before saying, “Vin took it upon himself to save my life by going to Vista City and finding Hannah. That wasn’t any of his business, though I am glad that he did. But I guess it gives me some call to return the favor by talking to you.”
Chris thought about it for a time, making the connections. Vin had pushed himself into Josiah’s private life by going to Vista City and finding Josiah’s sister – breaking into a nunnery from the sound of it. And Josiah was returning the favor of saving Vin’s life by telling all of this to Chris.
Because Vin wasn’t planning to.
There was still something missing. He knew Vin was pissed at him, but this was more than that. He thought back on Josiah’s tale. Being pissed wasn’t enough to make Vin change his mind. He wasn’t a fool like that. That thing with the Richmond woman?
“You got no idea what changed his mind? Was it maybe seeing your sister or something, reminding him of something from his past?” Chris searched through what Vin had shared with him and he couldn’t recall much in the way of kin that Vin had back in Texas – and not in Tascosa.
Josiah sighed and shook his head. “It ain’t what’s there, Chris. It’s what’s here. Or – what he thought was here.”
‘How well do you really know anyone?’
Chris shook his head and sighed. “I didn’t mean nothing,” he muttered. “Guess I need to talk to him.”
Josiah nodded. “If we’re going to keep him from running off to Tascosa, reckon you do. That’s why we had this talk.”
They didn’t talk any more after that, Josiah setting a pace that was quick, perhaps intentionally. Chris wondered if the older man felt guilty for saying all that he had.
Then he wondered if Josiah had said enough. The memory of the two of them together, the sense of unease and then disquiet came back to him. Why couldn’t Josiah talk Vin out of it himself, if they had gotten so close?
But that was a thought for another time. Right now, he needed to talk to Vin and get this hare-brained idea out of his head.
Nettie met them on the porch as they road up, wiping her hands on her apron. She smiled at Josiah then nodded to Chris, frowning. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to show up,” she said, and Chris found himself frowning, not sure what she was talking about.
Josiah turned his head away from Chris but he thought that the other man was grinning.
“Nettie,” he said with a nod. “You got fencing to be done?”
Her frown deepened and she glanced to Josiah before looking back to Chris. “I’ve got horses and cows There’s always fencing to be done. Vin is out behind the barn.”
Something in the way she said the last part made it seem that the two things – fencing and Vin – were not connected, but he didn’t have time to dwell on that. Instead, he touched the brim of his hat and nudged his horse forward, toward the barn.
He was almost to the barn when he realized that he was alone, that Josiah hadn’t followed. He looked back over his shoulder to find that his companion had dismounted and was standing close to Nettie, the two of them talking. He couldn’t make out the words, but Josiah was smiling now while Nettie seemed to be – well, Nettie. Surly and irritated.
Vin was behind the barn, at the far back of the big pasture. He was digging post holes – hard and sweaty work – and because of it, he had stripped off his coat and shirt, leaving only his worn longjohn shirt which was dark with sweat and clinging to his lanky frame.
Chris found his attention on Vin’s body, on the way he worked so efficiently, no wasted movements but no laziness, either. He was using a post hole digger, a pretty new one from the look of the handles, which required lifting the long wooden handles vertically then driving the metal ends, which were in the shape of small shovels, into the ground. Once there, the shovels were forced together, by pushing on the wooden handles, so that they could trap dirt and that dirt could be lifted out and put to one side, creating the hole.
This did, however, have to be done over and over, as each hole needed to be about three or four feet deep to support the post that would go in it, and then the dirt would be pushed back around the post to hold it upright.
Vin’s back was to Chris, and as he got closer, he could see the ripple of Vin’s muscles as he worked. It was a sight he had appreciated before, when Vin had dug post holes for him. Smooth movements, forceful, efficient, effective. Regular, like the click of the second hand on a watch or the sound of horses hooves on hard ground.
The thought that this might be the last time he saw this left him cold. He slowed his horse, taking his time so that he could watch and mull over Josiah’s words again. Mull over the best way to talk Vin out of this stupid plan.
As he got closer, Vin called out, “Was wondering if you’d changed your mind and decided to go to Vista City without me.” His voice was rough and the words punctuated by grunts as he kept working, striking the eat, catching dirt, then pulling it out and emptying it off to one side.
Chris drew his horse to a stop and leaned forward, propping himself on his saddle horn, as Josiah had done earlier. Watching Vin was distracting. Yet he couldn’t seem to take his eyes away.
He’d had this happen in the past, usually when Vin was doing something like this, some rote work that didn’t require a lot of attention. Vin got into a rhythm, as if he had done this a thousand times – and maybe he had. He’d done so much in his short life, and most of it was physical labor.
Watching him was a sort of pleasure, Chris had decided late one night when he had awakened from a dream about Vin working. He’d spent some time thinking on it, as he hadn’t been able to go back to sleep because he was so hot – which was why he remembered it was the middle of summer, a July night. He’d decided then that watching Vin work was a pleasure – because he was so efficient.
It had nothing to do with the way his clothes clung to his body, drawing the eye to the curve of his muscles. Or the way his body swayed as he moved, as if he were dancing to some silent music.
Which stopped abruptly as Vin slammed the diggers into the dirt and broke the pattern by turning around, wiping at the sweat on his face with one forearm as he said, “You aiming to help or - “ The words cut off as he caught sight of Chris.
“Reckon I am,” Chris said, sitting up straight, then dismounting from his horse. He caught up his canteen after he reached the ground and pulled the top off. “Though I wasn’t planning on going to Vista City.” He held out the canteen toward Vin, who was still rubbing his face with the sleeve of his longjohn shirt.
“Thought you was J’siah,” Vin said, looking at the canteen, then slowly reaching for it. “Thanks.”
“He’s back at the house, talking to Nettie. We rode out together.” He watched as Vin lifted the canteen to his mouth and drank, his long throat working as he swallowed. Like the post hole digging, he drank with a rhythm, and the movement of his throat was hard to look away from.
When he finished, Vin lowered the canteen and looked at Chris, frowning. “He told you we were working on the fence?”
Chris shrugged, remembering the conversation in the livery that had led him to this. “Told me you asked him last night for help. He said that you said all hands were welcome – though you didn’t mention it to me.” He looked around, seeing a stand of trees nearby and noticing that Vin’s horse was ground tied in the shade. He started walking that way, leading his own horse.
“Figured you had enough to do,” Vin said. “But seeing as you’re here . . .”
“Reckon I’d best be doing what I can while I can,” Chris said, settling his horse near Vin’s. He turned to walk back to where Vin stood, drinking once more from the canteen, his head thrown back and his throat distracting. But it was the perfect time to see what reaction he’d get, so he managed to keep talking. “Seeing as you’re planning to go off and get yourself killed.”
He almost smiled as Vin jerked, pulling away from the canteen too fast and choking on what was in his mouth. He coughed and water spewed, leaving Chris to change the path he was walking so as not to get caught in the splatter. But when he finished coughing, Vin spewed a few choice words before saying, “Wasn’t enough he had to bring Nettie into it, now he’s got you, too?”
Chris studied the other man and the anger stirred again. But with it was something else, a feeling he wasn’t accustomed to. It wasn’t the unease or disquiet. It was a feeling of, well, hurt. “Why did he have to tell me at all?” he asked quietly, coming to stand close to Vin.
As the words came out of his mouth, the sense of hurt grew. He thought Vin was his friend. And he’d thought Vin thought the same. Was this really because of what he’d said about Josiah? Was Vin that upset about that?
“Shouldn’t have told you at all,” Vin muttered, his jaw clenched right. He still held the canteen in his hand, his fingers white with the pressure of his hold. He looked as if he might throw it down, but after a few seconds, and a long history of knowing better than to waste anything he might need later, he relaxed his grip and let his arm and the canteen drop to his side. “Thought when he told Nettie that that’d even the score for me finding out about Hannah. Reckon he’s still pissed.”
The sense of hurt grew stronger, but with it, so was the anger. “Maybe,” he said slowly, “he’s more concerned about you getting yourself killed. Why in the hell do you want to run off and do this? I though we had this sorted out.”
Vin sighed and turned to look at Chris. The wariness that had been so much a part of him these last days was there, but there was something else, too. A sadness that Chris hadn’t seen before.
A sadness that tamped down on the anger but seemed to feed the hurt Chris was feeling. It made his stomach cramp, and he had to look away.
“Reckon you don’t know me too well,” Vin said softly. “But that ain’t no surprise to you, is it. What was it you said? That we don’t really know nobody?”
‘How well do you really know anyone?’
Chris shook his head. “I wasn’t talking about you. I wasn’t talking about us.”
Vin looked at him, his eyes seeming to grow wider. “You were talking about Josiah. And we’ve known him as long as we’ve know n each other.”
Chris let the words settle, though mostly because there were too many responses competing for attention in his head. Which was probably why the words that finally came out of his mouth were ones not even he expected. “I thought we knew each other better. Hell, I thought I knew you best – and you knew me best.”
Vin frowned harder. “You confusing me with Buck?”
Chris drew in a deep breath, stalling to let his brain catch up with his mouth. He almost took the opportunity to back out, to let this go.
But even as he thought it, he saw the look in Vin’s eyes – the return of the sadness. The expectation of – something.
“Buck knows me,” Chris said, struggling to find the words. “He’s been a part of my life since – well, since before Sara. He was there through all of that, and since – thought it ain’t been easy for him.”
Because Chris had tried hard – desperately hard – to push Buck away.
Because Buck wouldn’t let him punish himself for what had happened to Sara and Adam.
But this wasn’t about Buck. Buck wasn’t trying to go off and get himself killed. In fact . . . the irony of it struck Chris. Buck had spent a lot of time in recent years trying to keep Chris from killing himself. Just like he was doing now with Vin.
That, though, was a thought for later. Staring into Vin’s eyes, Chris once more let his tongue loose without using his brain. “But what’s between you and me – it ain’t the same. Well, it is, but it’s different. You ain’t Buck, thank God. I couldn’t stand another one of him.”
Vin blinked, and while the sadness was still there, it wasn’t as close. He drew in a breath, and once more wiped at his face with his forearm. He seemed to be looking for something to say, so Chris rushed on, not wanting to give him time to come up with an excuse.
Not wanting to see that deep sadness again.
“When we met, back at that lynching, it felt like I knew you before I even knew your name. Felt like we’d known each other for – hell, a lifetime. Still feels that way - ‘cept for these past few days. I didn’t mean nothing about Josiah when I said that. Hell, Vin, I didn’t want to see you get hurt if it was him.”
“So you did think it was him.” The question was slow, each word drawn from deep inside.
Chris sighed and shook his head. “It didn’t feel like it was him, but I don’t know him as well as – well . . . as well as you do, I guess.” He swallowed and looked away. “Vin, I . . . I don’t know many people as well as I know you, and Buck. I didn’t think it was him – didn’t feel like him. But I wasn’t as sure as you were.”
Vin looked at the ground and blew out a breath. “Reckon there is a difference, as you said. You don’t want to know people. Given what’s happened in the past, you got a right to worry on getting hurt again. But that ain’t my way, Chris. Seems you were right when you said what you did. I thought I knew you, but I was wrong.”
He turned away and took a step, then he turned and held out the canteen to Chris.
Chris looked from Vin to it, and then back. He swallowed, taking the canteen without really thinking about it, focusing instead on the words Vin had said and the deep sense of dread that was building in his gut.
“Don’t go to Tascosa,” he heard himself say. “Go to Vista City, but when you leave there, come back here. Let me – let me think on this.”
Vin shrugged. “Not sure what there is to think on. It is what it is.” He turned back around and Chris reached out, catching him by the shoulder.
Vin tensed at the contact, and Chris saw the flex of Vin’s shoulders, as if he would push Chris away. Instead though, Vin stood still, very still. Not even breathing. But he didn’t say anything.
Leaving it all up to Chris.
“Come back from Vista City. Let me – let me try to find a way to explain.”
Vin didn’t say anything for a time, though he did breathe. And he did, slowly, relax. Chris tried to think of more words, but the feel of Vin’s body beneath his palm, the hard bones and taut muscle, the pulse of his heart, steady and strong – they made it hard to find any more words.
Instead, he curled his fingers tighter, hoping that the gesture, the desperation, would do what his mouth couldn’t.
Eventually, Vin took in a breath and let it out very slowly. “All right,” he said, so low that Chris barely heard him. “I’ll come back here.” With that, he moved one foot forward, as if he were going to step away, but he didn’t. Not for a few seconds.
When he did, he seemed to turn so that the last thing that moved was the shoulder Chris held.
As if he didn’t want to break that connection anymore than Chris did.
Later, while he was waiting for Vin and Josiah to return, Chris took some comfort in the fact that they worked well that afternoon together, as they always did. By nightfall, they had put in twenty new fence posts, and JD and Buck would be able to run the barbed wire when it came in to Gloria Potter’s hardware sometime in the next week or so.
Though Chris held out hope that Vin would be helping with that as well.
Apparently Nettie did, too , as she caught him by the sleeve after dinner and asked softly, “You get him sorted out?”
Chris glanced to the yard, where Vin and Josiah were mounting up – but talking, too. The unease stirred, but this time, he held it at bay with the thought that Josiah didn’t want Vin to go to Tascosa anymore than Chris did.
“Got him to agree to come back here after Vista City,” he said. “Gives me a few days to come up with something to convince him to stay.”
Nettie looked at him, her forehead scrunching as if she didn’t understand what he was saying. After a short time, she said, “Think you know what to say, Chris Larabee. Though maybe – huh.” She looked at him some more, than glanced to where Vin and Josiah were waiting. “Maybe,” she said as if to herself, “maybe that’s the real problem. You really don’t, do you.”
Chris stared at her. “If you have some advice here, I’d be willing to hear it.”
She looked back at him, still frowning, but more with confusion than irritation. In the background, Chris could hear Casey in the kitchen, doing the dinner dishes, the sound of dishes clanking against each other making him think of better times, happier times. “Tell you what,” she said, her voice still quiet. “You think on it for a day or so, and if nothing comes to you, you ride back out here and I’ll see if I have some ideas. But you might think on this: you know Vin pretty well. How well do you know yourself?”
He blinked, not sure he’d heard her correctly. But before he could ask, she turned and stepped off the porch, walking toward Josiah and Vin and calling out her thanks – again – for the work.
The ride back to town was quiet, the three of them moving at a pretty steady pace, as it was already dark. They all rode to the livery and brushed down their horses, Vin and Josiah making comments about what they needed for the trip tomorrow and who was going to bring what – the usual planning that went into a trip that involved at least two meals on the road.
Chris listened, working to keep his unease at bay. There was something about the familiarity between the two men that made him irritable. But as he listened, and as he thought, it occurred to him that Josiah had been trying to convince Vin not to go to Tascosa for a while – and apparently failing. Josiah had had to bring in first Nettie, and then Chris himself, in hopes of trying to get Vin to stay.
Which meant that whatever was between Vin and Josiah, it wasn’t strong enough – at least from Vin’s perspective – to get Vin to stay.
He thought on that as he finished up and patted his horse on the rump, going out and closing the stall door. Vin was also finishing up, and he called a good night to Josiah as he left his horse’s stall. Chris waited at the door of the livery, watching as his friend walked toward him. Tired, Chris thought – though he was too; the work was hard and Vin had done more than his share of it.
“Buy you a beer?” he said, ignoring his tiredness in hopes that he could get started on putting things to right with Vin.
But the younger man shook his head. “Need to get some shut eye,” he said, stepping past Chris into the night. “Figure you can do it in a couple of days, when we get back.”
That was – something. Chris thought it was a good something. A promise.
“I will,” he said, reaching out his hand for Vin to shake. Vin looked at it, then he smiled, a quick flash of his teeth in the shadows, as he caught Chris just below the elbow. It was the way they had sealed their agreements from the start – a clasp that meant more to both of them than the traditional palm-to-palm contact used by businessmen back east.
It was something else Chris took comfort in over the next few days as he searched for some way to convince Vin that stay.
As he worked through the dreams that started that night, almost as soon as he fell asleep.
He woke groggy the next morning, his sleep restless and painful. His muscles hurt, which he thought was part of the problem, but he also remembered parts of his dreams – nightmares, really. Vin at the end of a noose, Chris unable to save him. Vin turning his back on Chris and riding off into a hail of bullets.
Josiah riding back in alone from Vista City, smiling that big horsey grin of his.
A burning house, the screams of people he cares about – Vin’s voice loud among the dying.
It was in the wake of that dream that he woke to the sun streaming through the window. He squinted, his head aching, and it took him a while to remember that he hadn’t had much to drink last night, just a couple of beers with Buck and Ezra, to check on the town.
He rolled away from the window, closing his eyes, but the images of the dream were still too real – Vin, burning with Sara and Adam and -
Vin and Josiah and Vista City.
He sat up, looking again to the window and the sun. Josiah and Vin had been planning to leave at daybreak – and it was well past that now.
In fact, when he made it down the stairs, buckling on his gunbelt, his hat bouncing on his back as the string bit into his neck, he found that it was almost noon.
The town was quiet, which was a relief. He still felt out of sorts, as if he were caught in the dreams still, and he had to look twice at things – places, people, the shadows – because they seemed unfamiliar, as if they were what they were supposed to be – but not.
The first cup of coffee helped, but not by much. His head still held a dull throb, and he wondered more than once if he had forgotten drinking whiskey, or if it had been in his beer and he’d not noticed.
Or maybe he was coming down with something?
As the thought flitted through his brain, Nathan appeared. At first, Chris thought it was a dream, but as the other man came across the saloon, calling out a ‘good morning’ to Inez, Chris knew he was real.
“Reckon Josiah and Vin got gone,” Nathan said as he settled into a chair across from Chris. He smiled as Inez brought him coffee, and Chris wondered anew how the woman managed to be so damned cheerful in the morning -well, early afternoon at this point. She was already serving up beans and tortillas, her usual midday fare which was what Nathan was here for.
The thought of food made Chris a touch queasy, but he thought it might be a good idea, but he ordered something less flavorful – a cold meat sandwich with a side of potatoes.
“For all the trouble it caused,” Nathan said as he sipped his coffee, “the thing with Poplar helped Josiah – not just with Vin finding out about Hannah, but also with making Josiah realize that there are some things more evil than his own father.”
Chris hadn’t heard the whole story – didn’t really want to, truth be told – but he nodded. Nathan rambled on for a time about his town trip to the Seminole Village, about his and Rain’s future plans – which seemed to include a lot more visits that would take Nathan out of town and bring Rain into it – and about the sick and injured here in the town. Their food came and Chris ate more than he’d expected he would. Inez did have a talent for grub, and seemed to know what her patrons needed. Nathan’s came with a big side of the spicy peppers he favored, and Chris’ sandwich was a tender chicken with some slices of hoop cheese beside it on a thick white bread that couldn’t have been more than a day old. The potatoes were fried in bacon grease and he’d eaten them all without being aware of it.
“Think talking to Vin has helped Josiah a lot, too. He thought his childhood was bad – and it was, from what he’s told me. But Vin’s – well, Josiah hasn’t told me the details, and I wouldn’t want him to, that’s Vin’s story to tell. Seems though that it was bad enough to make Josiah stop feeling as sorry for himself.”
Chris looked at the other man, his attention caught. He quickly reviewed what he knew of Vin’s childhood: mother died when he was five or thereabouts, lived with his grandmother for a time, took off on his own at some point for – some reason Chris had never asked after.
He’d not thought much on it; Vin never complained about his past, and usually when he told Chris something about it, it was in context to explaining how he’d come about some piece of knowledge or a skill.
But then he recalled what Josiah had said the day before, that he and Vin had been discussing the Bible, because of Vin’s grandmother. Because something in the way his grandmother had interpreted the Bible had led Vin to question himself.
Chris’ ideas about grandmothers came from the only one he’d ever known, his father’s mother, a short, stocky woman who only spoke German, always read her Bible before bed, and made the best apple pastries he’d ever had, to this day. She’d died when he’d been about ten, and he’d assumed every grandmother was like her.
Though now that he thought on it, that made no sense. All grandmothers couldn’t speak German. Nettie didn’t.
And now that he thought of her, he started seeing a lot of similarities . . .
The sound of his name brought him out of his thoughts and he looked up to find Nathan frowning at him. “You all right? You look a little peaked.”
The last thing he wanted was Nathan’s attention. “Didn’t sleep well last night – too hot, I think,” he said. Unsolicited, the dream-image of the burning house flashed in his mind and he shivered.
Nathan reached out a hand, as if to touch Chris’ forehead, and Chris jerked back. “I’m fine,” he said, waving away Nathan’s worry. “Like I said, I didn’t sleep well last night. Need to get out and get moving, wake up some.” As he said it, he pushed back his chair and pushed to his feet, digging into his pocket to find some coins for his meal.
Nathan started to protest. He got his mouth open, then he shook his head and sighed, ending it with, “You know where I am if it gets worse. Drink some water.”
Chris waved a hand as he walked away, but the thought of water actually sounded pretty good, so as soon as he was out the door – and well out of sight of the saloon’s windows, he stopped at a well and drank several cups of water. Not that Chris would ever tell Nathan, but it did help, at least to clear his head.
Through the course of the day, he considered the situation with Vin and what he could say to him. He’d explained already what he’d meant – had even gone so far as to tell Vin he hadn’t wanted him to get hurt. Why that wasn’t enough confused Chris.
And Nettie and Josiah seemed to think more was needed too. What had Nettie said the night before? Something about knowing himself? What the hell was that supposed to mean?
He spent the afternoon on his horse, riding around the town to check on things, then riding out to his own place to check on it. He nailed up some boards that had come loose in the wind, opened up the small cabin to let it air. Still needed to replace a lot of the boards that the damned Nichols boys had shot through – and to replace some of the furniture that had been hit. Fortunately, there wasn’t much in the place, as he’d yet to settle in too much.
As he worked, he kept finding himself thinking of Vin – remembering Vin. The last time he’d worked on the fence, Vin had been here, bringing out a load of wood in a wagon borrowed from Nettie.
Vin had also saved his life that day, or at least saved him from getting shot and his horse taken by Don Paulo and his ruffians.
The last time he’d been out here, working on patching up the cabin, Vin had been here, too. After that damned debacle with the wagon train – and Vin’s poor showing with the Richmond woman. Vin had worked extra hard that day, as if he had to make up to Chris for what had happened.
Not that Chris could say much – well, other than what he had said, the one time he’d tried to calm Vin down. It had been a surprise, no doubt, to see Vin so powerfully drawn to someone else.
Chris almost swallowed the nails in his mouth as he caught himself on that last thought. ‘Else’.
Had Vin been drawn to him?
Even as he considered the question, he knew the answer. Why else would Vin have shared as much as he had, so soon after their meeting? And so regularly since then?
And to be honest with himself – wasn’t that at the heart of his disquiet and unease these past few days? The thought that Vin had been equally as drawn to Josiah?
As he collected the nails from where he had spat them on the floor, he thought about it, trying not to let Nettie’s words run back through his mind. Well of course he was jealous – Vin was one of the few close friends he had. One of two.
And losing Hank, for all that he’d still be angry with the man for the way he’d done Sara, made Chris a little more aware of the people he cared most about.
So yes, he had been a surprise to see Vin so powerfully drawn to the wife of another man. Or, in his own head he could admit that it had been a surprise to see Vin drawn to any woman. That had never seemed to be his way.
As he drove another nail into the board he was placing over a set a holes, he let himself think on that point. He’d never really confronted it head on before, the idea that Vin wasn’t one for women. Early on, Buck had made note of it, as Buck always did when a man had more discriminating tastes – or self-control – than Buck did. But somewhere along the line, Buck had let it go. Chris didn’t recall any particular time that had happened, just that it had struck him that during the ride with the wagon train, Buck had also left Vin alone after Vin had gotten in his face about the Richmond woman. That was also unusual behavior for Buck, though he’d heard Vin apologize for it later, on the ride back.
So apparently Vin did like women. Which was a relief. One less thing to have to worry on Vin getting shot for.
Though he’d almost gotten shot by a jealous husband – again, another area Chris thought to be Buck’s purview.
He’d almost lost Vin then, but Vin had stayed, realizing that the Richmond woman wasn’t really in love with him, just in love with the idea of being in love. In the end, she’d stayed with her husband, which Chris had figured she was going to do anyway, if he’d have her back.
And Vin had stayed with him, spending the days after trying to prove himself. He’d been everywhere around the cabin and the corral, working himself hard. Post hole digging, as he had been yesterday. Hammering boards. Sanding down rough places, pulling out nails and bullets, sweeping up wood splinters. Everywhere Chris looked, he saw images of Vin working.
As if he lived here.
That thought should have made him uncomfortable. He’d had Buck underfoot for years, often sharing the same quarters – even, at one point, having a bedroom in his and Sara’s house. The one that had burned.
The memory of the dream came back and while it was still bad, it wasn’t as unnerving.
But it did make him mad. Vin was running away again – but this time, to get himself killed. For no good reason that Chris could come up with.
He used the irritation to work harder with the cabin, hammering up boards until he ran out of them. Almost all of the holes were covered now, and he’d put wooden covers on the window. He’d get more glass, when he could afford it, but for now, the place was good enough to sleep in.
Which he considered. But it was getting on to dark, and he didn’t have anything with him to eat – or to drink. And he still felt the weight of recent events – even before Poplar and the strange wind, there’d been the Nichols family and the attempt by that gang to burn down the town. He was pretty sure that Lucas James and Guy Royal had been behind it, and he didn’t trust them not to do something again.
So he headed back to town, ate dinner with Ezra and Buck, listened to the news of the day, drank whiskey and lost some money to Ezra, then headed off to bed, feeling tired, drowsy, and relaxed enough not to worry about dreams.
Which was why they were such a surprise when they started back up. They were the same ones as the night before – the burning house, grinning Josiah, Vin hanging. But there were a couple of new ones to really set him on edge: Vin naked in a bed, his head thrown back, his face in a grimace that could have been pleasure or pain. Vin laying on the roof, Eli Joe’s knife buried to the hilt in his chest, blood covering everything, Vin, the shingles of the roof, the boardwalk and road below.
Vin holding his mare’s leg, the end of it smoking from just being shot, standing over Chris and saying, “I’m right here. I’ve always been right here. But I guess you don’t really know anyone, do you.”
Chris jerked away, dizzy, his head pounding. Like yesterday, the sun was streaming through the windows and he could hear the noises of a day well underway.
He looked over at his dresser and saw the bottle of whiskey that he kept there. It was as full as it had been last night when he went to sleep. Or seemed to be.
But just like yesterday, his head throbbed and he wasn’t sure about the things he was seeing, what was real and what was still part of the dreams.
He was sure, though, that he had to come up with some way to keep Vin here.
He pulled on the same clothes he’d worn the day before, and he stumbled out into the daylight. He had a sense of deja-vu as he buckled his gun belt and stepped off the stairs.
As with the day before, he found it was almost noon.
He also found that Nettie Wells was in town and looking for him. Or so he was informed by Casey who was sitting in the sheriff’s office with JD, the two of them pretending that they knew more about rifles than they did.
Though Casey did seem to know her way around cleaning one, which she was doing with a vengeance, while JD, still anxious over accidentally killed Casey’s friend, went out of his way to tell her what a god job she was doing.
Chris sighed as he walked back into the daylight, wondering where the older woman was. He had a passing idea what she wanted to talk about, and while he didn’t blame her – they did have the same objective in mind – he hadn’t really had been able to come up with any coherent argument. In fact, he was feeling more disoriented than he had when he’d gone to bed the night before.
He headed toward the saloon, thinking mostly about coffee and some food, and the possibility that Nettie, being a respectable matronly sort, would stir clear of it, the same way that Mary usually did.
He wasn’t really surprised to find himself wrong. Nettie sat at a table with Nathan, Buck, and Ezra, the four of them talking about the goings-on in town.
As he stood in the doorway looking at them, he was struck once more by the similarities between her and his grandma.
He suspected his grandma had had a Winchester rifle too, now that he thought about it. She’d lived on her own until the last year or so, when she’d become too frail to stay alone and his pa and ma had put her in his sisters’ room.
Though looking at Nettie, he couldn’t imagine her frail. She’d still be giving people a piece of her mind until the day she died. Knowing her, maybe even after.
He was in the process of turning to go back out when Ezra, the bastard, hailed him, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “Mr. Larabee! We were debating the relative merits of sending out a search party for you! We thought perhaps that you had returned to your cabin in the woods without informing us!”
Chris sighed but walked over, nodding to them as he approached. “Morning,” he said, though as soon as he said it, he knew it was later than he’d thought. Ezra arched one eyebrow and cut his eyes toward Buck who was also grinning.
“Hardly,” Nathan said. “Was worried you’d taken sick – do I need to -”
“I’m all right,” Chris said, more sharply than he’d intended, which, of course, only fed the fire.
“You are looking right flushed there, War Dog,” Buck said, not even trying to hide his grin. “You sure you ain’t ailin’? Right late for you to be -”
“Is there a problem?” Chris said, loud enough to cut across Buck’s words. He glared at his friend, which did manage to shut him up though it did not wipe the grin off his face.
“Depends,” Nettie said, tilting her head back to look directly at him. “You figured out what to say to keep Vin here?”
Her tone was sharp and her words were blunt – and they stopped the lightheartedness of the other three as if someone had set off a stick of dynamite.
Ezra was the first to recover. “Mr. Tanner is thinking of leaving us?” he asked, sitting back in his chair. “Whyever for?”
Nettie was quick – as if she had planned this. “Seems he’s got that Tascosa mess on his mind again. Thinks he needs to get it sorted out – even if it gets him hanged.”
“That’s damned crazy,” Buck said, looking at Nettie. “I thought he was settled here, especially after that mess on the wagon train.”
“Indeed,” Ezra agreed. “He seemed to have determined that his place was here.” He looked at Nettie, but then he turned and looked at Chris, a frown on his face. “What happened?”
Buck, too, was looking at Chris, as was Nathan. Nettie, too, looked at Chris, one eyebrow arched.
“How the hell do I know?” Chris said, defensive. “Ask Josiah – he’s the one Vin’s been spending all his time with.”
He didn’t know why it was the wrong thing to say, but he immediately knew that it was. Buck, Ezra, and Nathan all exchanged glances, shaking their heads, and Nettie sighed. Pushing to her feet, she said, “Reckon it’s time for us to talk.” She walked around the table, her boot heels sharp on the wooden floor and cutting off any other conversation. She didn’t ask, simply reached out and snagged the sleeve of Chris’ jacket as she walked past, drawing him along. Behind him, he heard something that sounded like a snicker, which he knew had to be from Buck, then Ezra clearing his throat before saying something very quietly that sounded like, “Anyone care to wager on the outcome of this conversation? Or the odds that Mr. Tanner will truly be leaving?”
He looked over his shoulder, glaring at the men at the table, but only Buck was looking at him. As always, his old friend grinned wide, the ends of his mustache twitching with his glee.
Before he could consider how to get even, Nettie had pulled him through the saloon doors and onto the boardwalk. He didn’t have to go far, though; she let go of him and headed for the chairs that were set along the wall. There were people moving along the board walk, some of whom spoke to her and to Chris, but the chairs Nettie had picked were in a shadow, giving them some privacy.
As she sat down, she looked up at him and asked, “Well? Have you figured it out yet?”
She asked the question as if there were an obvious answer, one that Chris should have figured out. The fact that he didn’t have an answer made him feel like a school boy who hadn’t done his homework.
It was a feeling he disliked intensely, which was why he answered before he thought. “I told you already – if you have an answer, tell me. I’ve told him he’s a damned fool and that there’s no call for this.”
She sighed. “Good. So you’ve repeated the same things Josiah and I have. But we’ve also told him that he want him to stay because we love him. Have you said that?”
Chris stared at her, struggling to understand. Again, he was reminded of his grandmother – who had no trouble telling people how she felt, love or hate. And how had no trouble calling a fool a fool and a liar a liar.
It made sense that Nettie, a mother and grandmother herself, could feel at ease telling Vin, who she obviously cared for, how she felt.
But – Josiah?
The unease came back, sharp and biting in his belly. Only this time, he knew it for what it was: jealousy.
“Josiah said that to him?” he asked, sitting down in the chair beside Nettie.
Nettie looked at him, and he saw something in her eyes, a sort of humor. “Yes,” she said slowly, and he thought she might be trying not to laugh.
Chris glared at her. “This is some sort of joke – Buck and the others set you up for this?”
The humor he thought he had seen her in was gone, if it had ever existed. What he got now was the hard, determined woman who had come to him almost a year ago, fighting to keep the land she had worked and struggled to keep for half a century. The ice in her voice reminded him of the cold Illinois winters of his youth – and of his mother, a hard woman, too, who had raised seven children, taken care of her husband and his parents, and left her own when she was a teenager, never to see them again. “Vin Tanner is a son to me. I will do everything in my power to protect him, even if it means putting up with your stupidity, Chris Larabee. Yes, Josiah loves Vin – as a brother, as a friend, as a man who loves the word of Jesus and the Gospel of Love.”
She stood up, her hands on her hips, and stared down at him. “You could do the same, you damned fool. Or you could actually think about how you feel – how we all know you feel – and talk to him about that.”
She didn’t have him time to response, turning and walking away in a swirl of skirts and a clatter of boot heels.
Chris was too stunned to watch her go, though. He was reeling from her words. The very idea that she thought - that she presumed to know how he felt about Vin – and that the others – who the hell were these ‘others’? Was that what Buck and Ezra and Nathan had been talking about? Did they think that he had some feelings for Vin – love? What in the hell -
Chris was on his feet before he thought about it, his hands on his pistols. Ezra stood in front of him, though Chris realized passingly that the other man had stepped back. He also realized that Ezra had his hands up, placating, and that he was glancing about to see if anyone else was close to hand.
Thankfully, there wasn’t. Though Chris couldn’t decide if it was because he didn’t want anyone to see his reaction – or he didn’t want anyone to see him shoot the other man. “What the hell was going on in the saloon earlier? What is it you think you can bet on?”
Ezra held up his hands a little higher and said slowly and calmly, “We were merely kidding about. I assure you, though, that we did not make any bets. I did not make any bets.” He looked at Chris, his face unusually somber. After a few seconds, he went on, “There are a very few things, sir, that I do not take bets on. Situations like this – well, those are one of them.”
Chris snorted. “Situation like this?” he snarled. “What sort of ‘situation’ is this?”
Ezra swallowed but he didn’t look away. “Perhaps this would be a conversation better had . . . in a less public place? Perhaps with some alcohol?”
There was something unusually vulnerable in the way he asked, very unlike Ezra. It didn’t make Chris any less angry, but it didn’t make him any more so.
And it did, despite it all, make him curious.
They ended up a Digger Dan’s, the other saloon in town – though to call it a saloon was to insult Inez’s place. It was darker, all the windows pretty much shot out and covered over with wood; the only light came from the open door and the lights on the walls, though this time of the day, there was some light coming in from the bullet holes scattered liberally about the place.
Chris tried not to compare it to his cabin, which was easier now that he had finished with the repairs.
Ezra led his through the open room, pointing out bodies of unconscious and snoring drunks as they went, to a back table in an area where the light from two lamps didn’t meet. Chris had the distinct feeling that the other man was very familiar with this table, though he was hard pressed to remember a time when he didn’t see Ezra in the Standish Tavern plying his trade.
But apparently he was enough of a regular here that the barman brought over a bottle of brandy and two glasses, without being asked.
And the brandy was not the rotgut that Chris was used to with the whiskey.
As he took a second sip of the brandy, he noticed that Ezra had finished his first two fingers and was pouring himself a second one. It was unusual for Ezra to consume so much so quickly – especially at this time of day. Whatever it was he had to say was not casual – or easy for him.
Chris’ curiosity grew, pushing away more of the anger. Though he was still unable to make Nettie’s words reconcile with anything he could understand.
Ezra took a long sip of his second pour but he didn’t drink it all, the way he had the first one. After he swallowed, he put the glass on the table and moved it between his hands, his fingers flexing with a rhythm that reminded Chris of the way Vin dug holes.
It was not a memory he wanted right now. Not an image he wanted in his head.
“What’s this about?” he said sharply, pushing away the vision.
“I suspect that I know some of why Mr. Tanner is considering what he is – considering,” Ezra said, watching the movement of his glass and avoiding Chris’ gaze. “As you may recall, he saved my life when we were looking into the mess at the railroad camp.”
Chris nodded, recalling the story he had heard from both Vin and Ezra, separately. They had told the same story, more of less, of Vin overhearing Ezra’s voice and figuring out what was going on. Luck, and good luck for Ezra, as it had saved his life and helped them solve the mystery and the blackmail.
“In the wake of the events of that particular adventure,” Ezra said, still staring at his glass, “Mr. Tanner and I shared a dinner and some drinks – at my expense. It seemed the least I could do. I was unaware that Mr. Tanner had never had brandy before and therefore was unaware of its potential effects.”
Chris snorted. “You got him drunk.”
Ezra glanced up at him. “I did not ‘get him drunk’,” he said sharply. “I was simply unaware that he did not have a tolerance – or experience – with it. I assure you, sir, that were it not for this most recent information from Mrs. Wells, I would never have considered discussing this with you – and certainly with no one else. But the thought that Mr. Tanner is so distraught that he would take his chances – which seem to be quite poor – trying to clear his name -”
“Get to the point,” Chris growled, taking another sip of his drink. As it slid down his throat, he understood how Vin could have been unprepared for its potency – especially tasting as good as this did.
“During the course of our conversations that evening, Mr. Tanner explained to me that he had never had much of a sense of ‘home’ before. It was a feeling I understood – understand. For Mr. Tanner, however, I do not think his sense of attachment is tied to the town so much as it is tied to – well, to you, sir.”
It was not what he expected to hear, but it also was not a surprise. It was more or less what Josiah and Nettie Wells had been saying in their own ways.
And it was a lot less . . . well, it wasn’t as intimidating as the way Nettie had put it just a few minutes ago.
But it still brought him back to the same place.
Chris lifted his glass again, only vaguely aware that he did the same thing Ezra had done – drinking down the rest of his drink in one long swallow.
Ezra leaned forward, catching up the bottle and pouring more into Chris’ glass. As he did, he said in a tone very similar to his pleasant, card-hustling voice, “He attempted to prove to himself that he could find a home elsewhere, find someone else. I doubt I have to explain to you that attempt or what happened. I can, though, tell you that in the wake of that, he thought that perhaps you were as . . . invested in him as he was in you.”
Chris jerked, looking up at Ezra. “Why – what in the hell made him think . . .” But before he could finish the sentence, the denial, he knew. Vin had become a part of Chris’ cabin – his home. Vin was always right there at his side, so much so that when he was gone, Chris felt a physical absence.
Ezra hadn’t looked up from where he was pouring the brandy, and he went on, as if Chris had not spoken. “I cannot speak for anyone else, of course, but it has been my observation that Vin’s presence in your life has been of some comfort to you. Perhaps you do not feel the same reliance upon him that he does upon you, but you do rely on him to some extent. And you do want his presence in your life, I think.”
“Of course I do. He knows that. I’ve already told him that.”
Ezra looked up at him. “You have said those words?”
Chris shifted, thinking about what he had said yesterday. “He knows,” he said, wondering how Vin could think anything else, given the actions between them. That handclasp last night. The way they worked so well together.
Ezra had set the bottle aside and looked at Chris, as if to ask a question – or, more like, to push the point. But after a few seconds, he returned to watching as he moved his own glass between his hands again. “So I guess then that you are at an impasse of sorts. You must determine how much you are willing to give to keep Mr. Tanner here. .”
Chris studied the other man, tempted to argue. But he knew better. Ezra was right. He hadn’t actually said the words.
And from the way everyone else was going on, Vin apparently needed to hear them.
He drank down the brandy that was in his glass, wondering how he’d gotten to this. Part of him wanted to go get his horse and ride away – maybe do the same thing Vin was doing.
“I have to say,” Ezra went on, pushing the bottle toward Chris, “that after we disbanded in the wake of Marshall Bryce’s arrival, I discovered that I do find our situation here most . . . well, pleasant. I believe it was that incident that truly made me come to appreciate the unusual position we find ourselves in. In fact, I am fond enough of it that I attempted to purchase a business, which I suspect you know about.”
Chris looked at the bottle, debating, but not for long. This time, though, he did not pour himself but a small measure. “Heard about it,” he said. “Heard your mother messed it up for you.” A tale he had heard from Buck, of course, who had told it in an attempt to divert Chris’ attention from JD’s story about Buck’s almost-paternity.
All of which had been going on while he was trying to keep Vin from being dragged back to Tascosa – and which led to him killing Eli Joe.
“I suspect that it was at about that time that Mr. Tanner also came to the awareness that he preferred things here. And perhaps he also would like to establish some sort of permanency.”
Chris shook his head. “Don’t see how going back to Tascosa is going to accomplish that. Just get him killed. And even on the slim chance that it don’t, don’t sound like he plans to come back here.”
Ezra shrugged. “I am merely making a suggestion,” Ezra said. He picked up his glass and drank the rest of it and got to his feet. “I leave you the rest of the bottle. Perhaps it will serve you when you talk to Vin. I do wish you luck – for all of us.”
He turned and made his way toward the door, leaving Chris at the table with the bottle to think on his words.
On Vin and how Vin felt.
And, as the brandy settled more warmly in his stomach, on how he felt.
The images of Vin dying were strong, and he knew he’d never be able to forgive himself if that happened.
Josiah and Vin didn’t get back that night, which was a relief. Chris spent the afternoon back at his place, rebuilding the furniture that could be salvaged and working in the barn. The spectre of Vin was still here, and he spent some time thinking about what it would take to banish it.
Spent more time considering whether he could live here if it were gone.
He left early enough to be back in town if Vin and Josiah arrived, but didn’t wait at the saloon. Instead, he ate a quiet dinner at the hotel restaurant and went back to his room, where Ezra’s bottle of brandy sat next to his own bottle of liquor. He sipped on one whiskey as night fell, sitting by the window and reading a small edition of poetry, one that had been given to him by a friend, during the War. He had read it often, but tonight, it seemed to speak to him in ways it hadn’t before.
Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth,
speeding swiftly the country roads, or through
the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, sti-
fling plaintive cries;
Hours discouraged, distracted—for the one I cannot
content myself without, soon I saw him content
himself without me;
Hours when I am forgotten, (O weeks and months are
passing, but I believe I am never to forget!)
The words came back to him when he finally lay in the dark, the town quiet and still. A breeze blew slightly through the window, and he thought of the ‘him content himself without me’, wondering if the ‘him’ was Vin or himself.
He expected the dreams tonight, and in the way of things, he was both surprised at the lack of nightmares, and strangely pleased by the other dreams. At first, he was unnerved by the sight of Vin in the bed, naked, until he realized, in his dream mind, that Vin’s back was to him. In that way that happened in dreams, he knew that what he was seeing was a reflection of the sight of Vin in his sweat-covered longjohns – not truly naked, just – an appearance of nakedness. He knew that it meant something, that he was imagining, in his dreams, Vin naked. He also knew that it meant something that he was conjuring a fantasy of Vin naked and aroused.
Or, if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart, or rest
upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
For thus, merely touching you, is enough—is best,
And thus, touching you, would I silently sleep and be
In the dream, Vin turned, looking over his shoulder. His eyes were heavy-lidded, his skin flushed, his hair haloing his face and neck.
Vulnerable, needy, and out of control.
The idea of it alone – so different from the person he knew – made Chris hot.
And he understood, in the dream, that the heat was not because it was July.
He also understood, when dream-Vin held out his hand in invitation, what that meant. And what it meant for him when, after a time, he took it.
He awoke in a tangle of sheets, and didn’t need to feel the stickiness to remember the days of his adolescence.
Or to remember the dream and what it meant.
The sun was still low in the sky when he made his way out of the boardinghouse, but this time, he went to the bathhouse, taking advantage of the early morning and the hot water to wash, shave, and make himself more presentable than usual. He put on clothes fresh from the laundry, still smelling of soap, even took a rag to his boots and hat before walking down the boardwalk to the saloon for coffee.
It was not quite 9 am, and the saloon doors were open, the smell of fresh coffee resting in the air. He glanced around, not ready to actually engage with anyone yet – not ready to have to defend anything he was thinking. The memories were still fresh, erotic yet frightening, and he wasn’t sure yet what he was going to say to Vin.
He was more than a little surprised to see Ezra sitting at a table, and his first thought was that there had been trouble and he had slept through it. But as he came in the door, he saw that Ezra was still wearing the coat and vest from yesterday, and his hair was flat on his head, a sign that he was coming into the morning from a long night, not fresh from bed. Ezra looked up as Chris approached, nodding a greeting and yawned at the same time – though he did try to hide it behind his hand.
Inez came through the kitchen door with a pot of coffee in her hand and she caught another cup as she came toward them, calling out a quiet greeting. Chris had a cup of coffee, Ezra had his refilled, and Inez was off to get them plates of eggs and beans before Chris had actually sat down at the table.
“Long night?” Chris asked, though it seemed an obvious question.
Ezra shrugged, sipping from his own mug. “Lucrative, as it were,” he answered. “Might I hope that you have come to some internal balance?”
Chris wavered, but was just relaxed enough that the smile won out. “You mean, have I figured out what I plan to say to him?”
Ezra smiled back – and it was a smile. A sincere, relieved smile, not the usual expression that graced his face. “I gather that you have.”
Chris shook his head, but he was still happy enough not to be annoyed. “Don’t want to see him die,” he said slowly and quietly. “And don’t want him to leave. Everything else – well, I guess that will come in its own good time.”
Ezra smiled at him, that ‘real’ smile again. “I suspect that it shall,” he said.
Vin and Josiah showed up late that afternoon, dusty and tired. Chris met them at the livery, asking after the trip, which had gone better than Josiah had expected. Hannah had been more aware than usual, recognizing him and gradually accepting that Vin was a friend.
The three of them made their way to the saloon where they spent the evening in the company of the others. No one said anything to Vin about his plan to head to Tascosa, but everyone made a point of letting him know how glad they were he and Josiah were back.
Chris knew that Vin was suspicious and he was thankful that he had nothing to do with this. He did get a chance, later in the evening, to ask Vin if he’d be willing to come out to the cabin the next day and maybe look at the work he had done on it. Vin frowned, but agreed.
Three days later, they arrived back in town, in time to hear the news about the pending trial of Pud Garber. If he needed more to help convince Vin to stay, this was it. Garber was up for a hanging, and Chris was glad to be able to offer comfort to Vin – and a few pointed reminders that that would have been his on fate had he been stupid.
Chris didn’t need more, though. The tension in his friend was long gone – as was Chris’ own tension.
Nettie Wells smiled more at Chris, and Chris often found himself listening to Josiah and Vin talk about the Bible and faith and religion.
And every now and then, Ezra shared some of his brandy, which Inez had started stocking as well.
It got them through the aftermath of Ella Gaines, and Chris’ own stupidity. In the end, it was Vin and Buck who pulled him out of the fire, each in his own way. And it was Ezra who found her, finally, leaving Chris free of his past and both Vin and Chris open to a different future.
They didn’t talk about it - didn’t need to, not anymore. No one questioned their work at the cabin or their companionable silences in the saloon. It was no different from before.
Just the way it was, the way it had been.
Early in the winter, he stood on the new porch of the cabin drinking coffee, the steam rising from the cup to warm his face. He watched as Vin chopped firewood, his strokes even and regular, rhythmical. Just as he dug post holes.
Just as he hammered nails.
Just as he did almost – almost – everything.
Chris found himself smiling, and thinking that this was the way it would always be.
“I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with
him I love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together—We
never separate again.”