Josiah wasn’t sure about God, not always.
The Lord came too often filtered through the self-righteous voice of his father, through those moments of insanity that had eventually driven him and his sister away from home.
He wasn’t sure about churches for the same reasons, however pretty and calm they looked on the outside. For all that, though, he was always drawn to them like a moth to a flame. He wanted them to be places of familiarity and promise, whatever their size and history. Places of shelter and learning.
The church at the end of the street drew him all right. First of all, he guessed, because it was in disuse. Damaged and disrespected, the broken heart of town. None of the others seemed to see it quite the same way as he did, or experience the same curiosity and awe to see the white clapboard building half in ruins. There’d been a partial fire by the look of it, the back windows were taken out and the front ones badly boarded over. No way to treat a holy place.
J.D. had been momentarily distressed once he thought on it. Some things were sacrosanct to him still, despite all the new lessons he was learning about men’s strange behavior and lack of control. However stoutly he was taking on his new duties as a peacekeeper, with all the iron-hard edges that involved, a burned-out church touched some nerve he wasn’t sure he should reveal and he’d not settled until Josiah said he was going to do something about it.
“Guess it shows just what we’ve taken on,” Buck had said, walking around with them that first morning they were left on their own. After Chris, Nathan and Vin had ridden out on the search for Ezra, the three of them had shared a stiff drink, and then started to work out how they were going to safeguard this mess of a town.
Josiah took down the boards, opened up the doors. He moved his belongings into the small room at the side, swept up, lit some candles and wondered who’d pay for new glass for the windows.
“Church needs a preacher,” J.D. reckoned. “Maybe you could be the preacher, Josiah?”
“I’m a teacher not a preacher.”
“Huh.” Buck wasn’t impressed. “School and church, church and school. Always seemed like the same thing to me.”
“Well anyhow.” J.D. stood at the scraped and splintered lectern, hat in hands. “Reckon there’s gotta be some folk who might like to come in and say a prayer.”
Buck snorted again. “I wouldn’t count on it, kid.”
“School, hospital, sanctuary… whatever it’s used for,” Josiah said, leaning on his broom and squinting at some of the holes in the wall, “a church should always be open. Letting in the light.”
They split their time over the next weeks between the jail, the saloon and the church, and the church seemed the one place they were left alone. A few people came by to say they were glad to see life was returning to normal, but there were no requests for spiritual guidance.
Josiah said a prayer or two. It was an ingrained habit he’d tried in the past to stifle, embittered first by his father’s iron heart and then God’s apparent absence as war clattered down on everyone around him. Even when he shut his ears against them, prayers always came back somehow, a life force all their own. It wasn’t always inside the church that it happened. Sometimes the words arrived when he was weaving back from the saloon, the church nothing but a fuzzy shadow at the end of the street. Alone in the livery, head bowed against the sweaty flank of his horse, he stumbled over a prayer for the deliverance of J.D. and Buck from a bullet-storm outside of town. He mouthed a generalized prayer for peaceful times more or less whenever he thought about it.
“They ain’t found nothin’ yet,” Buck reported to him one day, bringing over the first of the too-few telegrams they received from Chris. He turned the flimsy paper over discontentedly in his hands. “Still goin’ west.”
A nail between his teeth as he hammered, Josiah offered a garbled but heartfelt entreaty for finding Ezra alive. Later, plastering holes in the wall he hummed an appeal for the safe return of all four. And he found himself reaching for a special prayer for Vin, too, sometimes, when he paused for a moment.
It seemed likely that a fair number of devotions had been made by Maude for Ezra over the years, to greater or lesser effect. Josiah didn’t reckon the same was true of Vin, though, and no better time than now, when something seemed so calamitously wrong.
There’d been a disturbing disquiet about him, Josiah thought, from the moment they’d arrived to try and spring him from jail. Something over and above the way being behind bars evidently sapped at his soul. Josiah believed he’d seen it, clear as day, even though he didn’t know Vin that well. He thought he’d felt fear when he’d gone to give him fresh clothing in the bath house. Something tangible and unexpected that had tightened a knot in his own gut it was so elemental.
There’d seemed no reflection of it in Chris and Buck, even though they were the ones who knew the man so deeply. Josiah tried to find that at first, but although they were chasing their tails with worry, it seemed to him they weren’t seeing what he saw.
Once Chris had left again, Buck didn’t say anything. He just fell to alternately fussing over and riling up J.D. Josiah would have liked to ask if he’d noticed anything about Vin, just to make sure, but he felt he maybe shouldn’t unleash that fierce, protective force any further. Buck had his hands full facing up to being a lawman instead of an outlaw, and it didn’t look like an easy transition for him.
The trickle of news coming from the far west re-directed all their worries after a while anyhow.
“Ain’t found him,” Buck would report, taking off his hat and raking a hand through his hair in frustration. “Trail must be cold by now.” He’d crush the telegraph paper in his hand, eyes sparking with a rage that had nowhere to go. “Damn, Ezra. What the hell?”
It seemed that anxiety set off a whole unstable mix of reactions in Buck and Josiah thought even more he’d best keep silent. Knowing himself all too well, he had to hope he didn’t drink too much liquor one night and spew everything out in a haze of drunken brotherhood.
Then, when they finally heard the good news, heard they were all four headed home across the miles, the lack of celebration in the wire had about been palpable.
“Take ‘em a while to get back,” J.D. observed, uneasy. “Chris didn’t say not to worry.” A pause. “Hope nobody’s hurt.”
Josiah considered the strange cruelties that were mayor Quimby’s stock in trade, and felt a prayer or two more for Ezra might be advisable. And with those disquieting thoughts crawling around in his head he couldn’t help but consider Vin too, even as he carried on patching up more walls and sanding down more floorboards.
Of course, he hoped things would have righted themselves somehow, for both of them, by the time they got back. The fact that it took them so long was not reassuring. J.D. was convinced that someone must be sick. Buck tended to the view that Chris’s shoulder wound had flared up again and Nathan was maybe insisting they stay off the trail for a while. Josiah sat in his slowly-animating church and thought about Ezra and Vin.
It was plain the way home was likely to be rough, one way or another.
And sure enough they all four looked like they’d been living on nothing but air and stale coffee by the time they were back. But Chris had Ezra safe at his side and the overwhelming relief of that was all Josiah could read from him and Nathan. Even though to his eye Ezra looked about as stable as a dynamite dump. And Vin Tanner seemed to have returned with even less of himself than he’d taken away.
“The church, Josiah…” Nathan had been the one to stand back, and admire, in the moments they’d all seven stood on the street, reunited.
“It’s a workshop and a place to sleep,” he’d replied, not wanting to raise hopes that the Lord was truly in town quite yet. It had served as a mortuary too in the last few weeks, not to mention the best place to drink liquor in private.
Nathan had just grinned at him.
“Gonna make us respectable,” Chris had said.
“We’re a long way from that, believe me.” Buck’s easy laugh had rumbled out then and JD had been happy too. Only Vin and Ezra hadn’t smiled. Ezra looked whey-faced and stunned from the kind of fatigue Josiah didn’t quite recognize, and Vin… well, he just wasn’t there; wasn’t nearly caught up.
Josiah worried. There were important reasons why these men needed to be whole, never mind that he cared about them now, as friends. He was glad Ezra had Nathan watching over him by day and Chris, thanks to Buck’s forethought, watching over him by night. But it seemed clearer and clearer to him that one of them at least ought to be watching over Vin. In a different way to Buck and Chris. They watched him all right, but it almost seemed to be without seeing.
Tanner made it hard though. He was quicksilver, never sticking to one spot long enough to bottle. Since Josiah had first met him on the road to Cheyenne, dug out the bullet that had felled him, and stitched it up after, he’d been hard to pin down. Had more of a prowl on him than a coyote. Josiah knew this because he kept strange hours himself. He’d seen Vin more than once, very late at night or very early in the morning, padding about town. He didn’t seem like he was on the search for anything, or keeping watch on something in particular. It was an urgent, restless, miserable prowl that made Josiah surprised most days to realize Vin was still with them at all. Something about it seemed hard and deep-seated. As if he was trying to work some wretched ache out of his bones or some itch from under his skin that somehow kept getting worse.
It had always seemed to Josiah that Buck and Chris thought Vin more part of themselves than he did. That they naturally thought of the three of them as family, but that half the time Vin’s mind was someplace else, with some other home. Long as they could see him, Chris and Buck thought he was theirs, but Josiah wasn’t so sure.
So he was both anxious, glad and grateful some weeks after their return when Vin came up to the church with a message from Nathan. The doctor had set himself up in a proper clinic above the livery and was always busy there when he wasn’t needed at the jail. Although he was never too busy to send offers of help.
Tanner it was playing messenger today, hatless and in shirtsleeves. Quiet as a shadow he slid through the half-open door, took a few paces inside and then waited where he was for Josiah to stop hammering.
“Nathan asked me to tell you he found a stack of good planks out back of the Livery. Dry and solid he says. Thinks they maybe might help for that floor you still got holes in. Or on the roof.”
The voice was low, with a roughness that spoke of a disquiet in both body and mind. Josiah was appreciative but he made sure to be quiet and calm in response because he’d noticed how damn jumpy Vin was, too. “I’ll go along and take a look,” he said.
“Doc says he can come if you need him, although he’s helpin’ some feller with bellyache right now.”
Vin advanced a pace or two more, then stood still, gazing at the gothic-arched window behind the pulpit. That surprised Josiah. Vin had come to the church once or twice before, with tools or a message from one of the others. He’d stayed mere seconds, ducked back out the door and disappeared before Josiah had time to engage him. Now he seemed almost transfixed.
There’d been nothing but a pile of colored glass underneath the window when Josiah had first walked in the church, one wicked shard still stuck in the frame like a bloody tooth. He’d knocked it out, tacked some dark canvas across the opening. It looked ugly and didn’t seem right. Vin couldn’t seem to stop staring at it.
“Oh I think the bellyache takes precedence,” Josiah said. He had a strange churning feeling in his own belly. The message wasn’t complicated, didn’t need a long conversation. It surprised and almost scared him that Vin wasn’t on his way out the door already. Looking closely Josiah could see the exhaustion etched on the younger man’s face. He looked ready to fold and Josiah wondered if perhaps… maybe something other than Nathan’s message had brought him here. Was keeping him here.
Vin gave one of his small nods at Josiah’s words but he didn’t smile. He took a brief look around, made an effort to speak.
“Comin’ on good.”
Then his head turned. Josiah tried to look him in the eye, to see what he could learn. He tried to hold his gaze. Upon seeing him enter he hadn’t actually intended to speak his heart straight away, but now he reckoned if he didn’t it would just get harder and harder to keep Vin there. The man’s slide back into the dust of the day seemed only seconds away, and small talk made him skittish at the best of times.
“Just needs some care,” he acknowledged, determined to keep the eye contact. “Some watching over and fixing up.”
There was the faintest flicker of reaction. A nervous tension, very slight, that seemed to run up Vin’s back, making him shift position. He didn’t look like he’d slept too good for much too long now and Josiah thought, not for the first time, and not without a frisson of guilt for the accusation, that Nathan was so busy looking out for Ezra that he wasn’t noticing what else was under his nose.
Vin gave every appearance of considering what Josiah had said. He nodded again, tried a smile but didn’t manage it. Josiah’s last words seemed to have hit home, just as they were intended to. He opened his mouth like he was going to ask a question, but he didn’t manage that either.
Josiah let the hammer swing in his hand gently like a pendulum for a while, then stilled it with the other. He cleared his throat.
“You can tell me to take it elsewhere, and perhaps you’d be right to, but I believe you to be carrying a particular burden right now, brother. A burden you might do well to share.”
There was a long silence while Vin looked anywhere but at Josiah.
“Is that right?” he said eventually.
There had been many little things. Josiah could have cataloged them. Many little things that showed this Vin to be very different to the one who’d sung dirty songs around the camp-fire, showed his teeth when he laughed, and been as much as part of those precious moments of solidarity as any of the rest of them.
He nodded at Vin’s defensive question, wondering how much of his own suppositions he should reveal, how clearly he’d sensed the taint of violation. All he knew for sure was that it was the time to push. And it was the place. He just had to trust his gut that Vin was here now because he was thinking that too.
“You’ve not been easy in yourself of late, since you came back. At first I thought perhaps it was because things had been so rough out there, finding Ezra, getting him back.”
“They were pretty rough. You’ve seen how he is.”
“I’ve seen. And I’ve seen how you are. Jumpy as a box of frogs. Weary and heartsore in a way most men don’t care to see.”
“Hell,” Vin said quickly. “I’m just wonderin’ if this is the right place for us all to be, if this is the right way to be livin’ our lives.”
“Ah. Well that’s a mystery yet to be revealed I suppose. Seems that we’re needed, strange as that may seem. But I don’t think that’s it, what’s bothering you. What’s making you uneasy in your own skin.”
Silence, but no immediate withdrawal. Then the voice, lower and rougher than ever. “You think I’m going to tell you.”
There was a touch of heavy resignation that Josiah hated to hear. He couldn’t stop now though. It would just make things worse.
“Forgive me, but yes, I do.”
Vin looked straight at him, looked him fiercely in the eye. As if he had to be very strong at this moment else he’d crumble completely. Josiah knew he’d speak. Fancied he’d wanted to, somehow, all along – or needed to at least. And that something – maybe him, maybe the church with all its scars – was pressing him to do it now.
“I don’t know, Josiah,” Vin said. “I just… don’t know.”
“Well, hope you can tell at least it’s not my aim to make you uncomfortable, to drive you away. I can’t read your mind, brother, nor do I want to, but I do believe I have an idea of what it is that pains you so bad.”
If it was to come at all, like he sincerely hoped, Josiah had expected a blurted confession, half inarticulate and preceding an abrupt departure.
“The bounty hunter,” Vin offered instead, oddly calm and composed although the pain of it all flared so bright in his blue eyes that Josiah felt nearly burned. “”fore I ever got here, ‘fore I ever got locked up. “ He licked his lips once, tipped his chin. “I was roped up, couldn’t fight him. Anyhow, more I tried to, more he… “ The composure nearly buckled but not quite. “Well he beat me pretty bad, just for the hell of it… but then he beat me harder… had me pinned.” He looked Josiah full in the eye again and the courage of that made the breath catch in his chest. Vin’s eyes were hard to look into now, damn hard. “And then he… took me against my will – that’s how Ezra says it anyhow.”
Josiah remembered the first tales they’d heard, when Chris and J.D. had come back from some town where they’d been searching for news of John Dunne Senior. They’d known El Negro to be a base and wicked man then. As base and wicked as Mayor Quimby, and maybe in some of the same ways. The thought of the violence he’d have used, though, the restraint…
“Yes,” he said, voice coming out heavy, like it had weights on. “That’s what I feared.”
“Ezra always knew it.” Vin looked pained. “Hell, by the time we found him he didn’t hardly know his own name but he knew that.”
Josiah nodded, unsurprised. “Chris?”
“Didn’t want to. Hell, Josiah, I didn’t want Chris to have to know, but he was puttin’ it together. And with him and Ezra…”
Another nod. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe it’s spending time in here. Makes me think I’ve got something to say.”
Vin didn’t answer that straight away, then he said, “Guess here’s as good a place as any to go confessin’ things.”
He took a few steps, sat himself down on the edge of one of the pew benches, as if he needed to make sure he didn’t fall down. He looked around, listless. Then reached out a tentative hand and touched fingers on a pile of books.
“Not even the Bible,” Josiah said ruefully. He took a pace or two forward, eased himself down on the other end of the bench, put the hammer between them.
Vin had set his feet square on the floor. His hands were on his knees now, shoulders stiff. “Seems you ain’t too surprised.” There was something of a challenge in the tone.
“I’d have expected a man like him to treat prisoners rough. Threaten them. Taunt them. Be violent any way they could think of.” Josiah paused. “Reckon you’d have expected it too. But your face didn’t say that. There was more.”
Vin dropped his head a little between his shoulders.
“Sometimes I think I know what I reckon about it, and then sometimes I only think I want to fuckin’ kill him. With my bare fuckin’ hands.” His knuckles tightened on his knees and a vibration of raw hatred rippled right through the church. He stood up abruptly and a small pulse beat warningly in Josiah’s temple. Having invited the knowledge, thinking it the right thing to do, he wasn’t at all sure he knew how to deal with it from now on. All he knew was that Vin had gone as far as he could for the moment.
Maybe even too far. The agitation was back, the clench of one hand into a fist, the slight start at the sound of raised voices out on the street .
“Come here anytime.” Josiah spoke quickly, voice as steady and sure as he could make it, although his heart was thumping. “Don’t ever hesitate, you hear? You come if you need to.”
“I ain’t much of a church-goer,” Vin said, looking to the door.
“And I’m not much of a preacher. I can tell you, half the time I’m not sure if there’s a God here or not. He’s just as likely to be out there in the wind far as I can make out. But that’s not why you shouldn’t hesitate to come. This is a space to sit, to be quiet. A place as safe as I can make it. And a place where you won’t be judged or have to explain yourself.”
Vin looked back at him a moment, then at the door again. Caught between desire for comfort and desire to bolt. “Well,” he said, “wouldn’t be to talk to God or nothin’, if I came.” He hesitated a moment more, desperate to leave now but not wanting to show it.
Josiah would have liked to have stood up, approached him. His instinct was to curl a hand over a shoulder. Embrace him, even. Press as much warmth and humanity into his bones as he could. But he knew more clearly than he knew most things that it wasn’t time and he remained where he was.
“Tell Nathan I’ll be right over,” he encouraged instead.
Still Vin stood, breathing in and out slow and steady like he was trying to calm himself.
Josiah trusted that letting evil things go, letting them out even when you half thought keeping them walled up was the safest thing for everyone, was right. Didn’t solve things though. In fact, he thought likely it made for a whole new heap of troubles. Digging out hurts like Vin’s and finding a way to treat the ugly wound left behind was no small affair. Could be weeks and months in the healing. Could be years if it happened at all.
“Can’t go no further.” Vin’s harsh voice snapped Josiah back to the moment. He’d trained his eyes to the covered window again, although this time not really looking at it. “What I said in here… it can’t go no further.” His head lifted, eyes sparking with a dangerous warning.
“That’s what this place is.”
“But you ain’t a preacher!” Vin burst out. There was anger there. And the fear was back, crawling all over him, tightening his limbs. “You ain’t bound by nothin’, Josiah.”
Josiah could hardly get the words out. “I won’t speak of it.”
“That has to be a promise, Josiah. Else I…”
“A promise, an oath, whatever you want to call it. Trust me.” Josiah swallowed past the constriction in his throat, licked his dry lips. He leaned forward although he stayed on the bench. “Not because this is a church, or because I’m playing at preacher. But because you trust me, as your friend.”
“Buck,” Vin said tightly. “Especially don’t tell Buck. He wouldn’t… I couldn’t…”
“Not Buck. Not anyone.”
In truth, it made Josiah feel slightly sick. The thought that he’d be keeping this new knowledge to himself, in his own heart and mind. He doubted his wisdom for a moment. His ability to take the burden.
But then Vin nodded. It was half to himself, a fierce kind of a nod. As if he was trying to shake something into his head. He looked back to Josiah, held his eyes for a long spell, searching.
Thank God, thank God he seemed to find what he was looking for. It’s a start, Josiah told himself. At least it’s a start.
Then all of a sudden Vin turned. It was a swift, fluid movement, quiet as a cat. One second he was there, standing in front of Josiah, the next he was out of sight, footfall rapid and almost-silent on the floor. When he’d gone a complete kind of silence drifted through the church.
Left alone once more, Josiah closed his eyes and sat still for a long while. He didn’t move a muscle. The admission, the words, the impact… it all needed to be marked, to settle. Opening his eyes, he picked up his hammer, even though he hardly had the stomach for the work anymore. The implement felt heavy and useless in his hand and he tightened his fist around it. Things needed to be shored up, made good enough to stand firm—like they were supposed to.
Just from the breath of air on the back of his neck he knew Vin had left the door wide, let the light and air pour in.