Just breathe, in and out.
Silas had told this to a variety of people over the years, some with better results than others, but it had always been good advice. When you got down to it, the act of breathing was all that stood between living and dying, both literally and metaphorically, simple as that. Silas was not ready to die yet, no matter what his heart might be telling him in the cooling heat of the moment. Usually he would have been the first to put the violence behind him and move on with his life as if none of this had ever been his concern, untouched in mind if not in body, but seeing Jay bleeding out on the floor like he was had knocked something more than just the breath out of Silas, so he stayed there on his knees, reminding himself to breathe over and over again inside the privacy of his mind, because he couldn't think of anything better to do now that the shootout was over and Jay Cavendish's jackrabbit luck had finally run out.
Breathe. In. And out.
He inhaled. So much for not having a mark on him. The bullet holes in his leg and in his shoulder were a constant ache with an extra stabbing throb of pain accompanying every beat of his heart, but Silas had learned to get used to pain long before he had ever needed to get used to Payne, and his injuries did not seem to be bad enough to kill him, at least not from blood loss. Both bullets seemed to have gone through the meat with without fucking up any major blood vessels or bones, so he probably didn't have to worry about needing to get his arm taken off or anything like, at least not immediately. There was always the chance that infection could set in later, but that would be later, hours, days, or weeks, if it happened at all. In the grand scheme of things, he was lucky really. Yeah, grand schemes and luck. What a joke. He exhaled.
Silas kept breathing. The air whistled through his clenched teeth. The lingering dust and smoke from the battle coated his tongue, his throat, his lungs, and maybe the whole inner surface of his very being, but he kept breathing. He wanted to tell Jay to keep breathing too, but the kid looked to be past the point of hearing advice or pleas or apologies, not gone yet but fading fast and maybe taking part of Silas with him as he went. All Silas could do was try to breathe for the both of them and try to fool himself into believing that such a futile gesture would somehow be enough. He knew it could never possibly be enough. He did it anyway.
Silas wanted to reach out, take Jay's face in his hands, lean in close, and kiss him hard. Even if it was only a kiss goodbye, it would still be one kiss better than none, and maybe taking a little of that brightly burning innocence would act as balm for his ever more damaged soul, but Silas remained motionless beyond his breathing. He stayed where he was. He kept his hands and his lips to himself, just like he had on all the other occasions such a desire had risen up in him over the short few days of his acquaintance with Jay, because Silas Selleck had done quite a few terrible things in his lifetime, but there were a few lines left which he refused to cross. There were certain things he would not take unless they were freely offered. He was not Payne. He never would be, especially not to Jay.
Rose, on the other hand, needed no such prompting. As far as Silas could tell, she had indulged in her one brief moment of paralytic regret and then shaken it off in favor of picking herself up and beginning the business of salvaging what she could from her ruined life and moving forward. Not that Silas blamed her for such behavior, no, far from it. He should have been doing the same thing, and the fact that he was not doing exactly that left him feeling somewhat baffled. Rose, plain yet beautiful Rose Ross, whose wanted poster had not come close to doing her justice despite being a passable enough likeness to let every bounty hunter on the continent have a chance of recognizing her face, she was already back on her feet and busy.
Silas paid no conscious attention to her once she was up and out of his view, but a small portion of his brain which was still coming down from the rush of the fight tracked her position behind him by the sound of her footsteps. Given the circumstances of their meeting, he half expected her to try to put a bullet in the back of his head and wipe out the last available man who knew both her name and location, because she seemed like the pragmatic type, had to be to have survived this long really, but he couldn't quite find it in himself to care just then. That would probably change in an instant if he heard the click of a cocking gun, but until then he only had eyes for Jay.
Silas had to give Jay credit where it was due, because the kid was tenacious. He had lost track of how long he had been kneeling there. Maybe it had been ten minutes, maybe longer, not very long at all really, but it had already been far longer than Silas would have expected anyone to last with such a bloody great big hole looking like it went straight through his heart. Even the strongest man in the world should have been gone in seconds from a shot like that. Even a bear should have. Yet there was Jay, glassy eyed and not really conscious, his skin even more pale than the aspen bark powder smeared across his face, too thin and too young, but still alive, still breathing, and showing no intention of stopping.
Silas had said it before, but the statement held even truer now than it had previously: the kid was a wonder and lucky to be alive. No, Silas corrected himself after a moment of further thought, Jay was more than a wonder. He was a miracle. And if Jay Cavendish remained the miracle that he probably always had been, then there was no reason why this needed to be a death watch.
With that realization shaking him from his torpor, Silas struggled out of his shirt, which was easier said than done, given the state of his shoulder. He took hold of the tail of the shirt with his teeth and pulled with his good hand, tearing the garment down the middle. Then he took the half that was not already partially soaked in blood and, ignoring his own protesting injuries, shuffled forward on his knees to press the wad of cloth against Jay's chest. It was not the ideal bandage material, but Silas figured it should be good enough as a temporary measure.
He still wanted to kiss Jay, just to reassure himself that those lips would be warm with life and not secretly holding the chill of death hidden beneath the hallucination of a mind cracked by grief and denial, and now that they were so close the urge was almost impossible to ignore. Silas compromised by shifting to brace himself against the wall with his good arm while holding the compress against Jay with his injured one. Jay was slouched low enough that Silas's new position was not as awkward as it could have been; gravity did most of the work. Silas leaned in closer and let his forehead rest against Jay's.
Their breath mingled. Even through the crumpled layers of fabric, the beating of Jay's heart felt surprisingly strong under Silas's hand. Or maybe Silas was feeling his own heart pulsing down through his fingertips. Or maybe as long as they were together it could be both intertwined.
They both kept breathing. Whatever the future held, this moment here on the floor was not going to be the end of anything, least of all the ending of Jay Cavendish. That was good enough for Silas.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Some of its events included the following, not listed here in chronological order:
At some point, the field of wheat stopped burning.
At some point, Rose helped Silas drag Jay into the bed and then helped Silas lie down too. Like everything in the house but Rose, the bed had not gotten through the fight unscathed, but it was still whole enough to be functional once the splinters and broken shards were shaken from the blankets.
At some point, Rose tended both Silas's and Jay's injuries, dressing the wounds as best she could with what was available. Her hands were steady and deft, and she never made eye contact if she could avoid it.
At some point, there must have been a meal.
At some point, Rose came to check whether Jay and Silas were both still alive.
At some point, the sun went down.
At some point, Rose dragged Payne's body out of the house.
At some point, Rose told Silas that her lover's name had been Katori.
At some point, Rose suddenly appeared with a pair of all too familiar looking children in tow, one clutching each of her hands, and she looked like she had already come to a decision about what she was going to do about them.
At some point, Rose went and dragged her dead Indian out of view of the still open door. Soon, Silas heard the sound of an awkwardly laden horse plodding away. He caught a brief glimpse of a fine chestnut mare carrying no rider but a blanket-wrapped body. It was out of sight again in an instant. The horse's pace had looked steady, as if it was on its way home and knew the route without any prompting or urging. The sound of its hoof beats faded away into the distance.
At some point, Silas could hear the sounds of digging outside. It went on for hours and was probably just long enough time to chip out a single grave from a patch of sunbaked earth which had never before felt the touch of a shovel.
At some point, the sound of digging started again, different this time, filling in the hole instead of making it bigger, one small scoop of dirt at a time. After hearing less than a half dozen shovelfuls of dirt being cast onto the mortal remains of John Ross, a thought struck Silas, and he called out, "Bury the woman too," because he remembered catching a glimpse of a woman outside during the fight, and the part of Silas's mind that would probably never stop being a bounty hunter knew that someday someone else might decide to dig up that grave, at which point an extra skeleton down there in the dirt might mean the difference between Rose Ross being forgotten for good or hunted down again. Jay startled awake with a pained grunt at the sudden noise, but only gave a bleary scan of the room, saw Silas at his side, and then settled back to sleep again almost immediately, all without a word. Rose made no reply either, but the sound of digging paused for about the right amount of time to find and drag a body, and then there was a soft thump right before the digging resumed.
At some point, Rose started another fire outside, and it was all Silas could do not to gag at the too familiar smell that he knew was not burning pork.
Later, Silas would never be able to remember the order in which any of those events had occurred. All Silas really knew was that, through it all, Jay kept breathing, and that was all that mattered.
The days, weeks, and months that followed would also turn to a blur in Silas's memory, but this time it was from the sameness of them all blending together until in retrospect they seemed like a single endless day that covered two seasons. Early on, Silas found another copy of Ho! For the west!!! in amongst the Ross', now just Rose's really, scant possessions. He read it from cover to cover in less than an hour, not because he was riveted by its contents or because he was a fast reader in general, but because the book was a scant forty pages long if you were generous and counted the covers. The damn thing also turned out to be from 1856, making it nearly as old as Jay, and wasn't that a sobering thought for so many different reasons?
Once he was finished with it, Silas passed the book to Jay, and maybe it was Silas's imagination, but it seemed to be a turning point in the kid's recovery. Jay stopped looking like he was toeing the threshold of death's door. With that book clutched in his hand like a talisman to ward off all ills, he started gaining strength faster and started breathing easier. Silas would not admit it out loud, but he breathed easier when Jay breathed easier, in a way that was more literal than he would have ever thought possible a scant week ago.
Rose noticed even as busy as she constantly was these days, because she was a sharp one, but she kept any thoughts on the matter to herself.
The days went on.
Autumn was spent recuperating. Silas helped out where he could around the homestead as much as his still healing body was able, and eventually Jay was able to join him in some of his smaller tasks. Between the two of them, they patched all the bullet holes in the walls so only the chimney's flue sang when the wind blew instead of the entire house.
The winter was surprisingly uneventful. A well-stocked root cellar kept them from starving despite the wheat crop being a total loss and nobody wanting to replant the field that was scattered with charred bones. Nobody died that winter. Nobody even seemed to come close to it. It might have been another miracle.
Some kinds of miracles couldn't last forever though, and by the first hints of spring Silas was going stir-crazy. He hadn't stayed in one place for so long in decades, not since those long gone days back in Ireland before the Famine. He had spent his adult life drifting from place to place as easily as smoke on the wind, but now here he was pinned like a dead butterfly in a collector's box, held in place by forces that seemed greater than the sum of a weak arm, a half-lame leg, Jay Cavendish, Rose Ross, and two children who still barely ever spoke to anyone but each other. Everyone else seemed to be feeling it too, until the whole lot of them, even the little ones, were restless and irritable, chafing against invisible restraints like birds right before the start of a migration.
And then winter ended and the world began clawing its way back to life, just like everyone in that small house already had. Nobody would talk about, but everyone could feel the tensions coming to a head. Something had to break. Silas couldn't stand the thought of leaving Jay, and to a lesser extent Rose, behind, but he began gathering travelling supplies in secret. As it turned out, he was not the only one to do so.
Rose left first. She slipped out some time before dawn one day without waking Silas, which somehow seemed to surprise Silas more than it did Jay. She took the children with her when she went, which surprised neither of them. Silas silently wished her luck and the kind of quiet life somewhere that wouldn't lead to anyone else to blindly throw their lives at her feet. She was a regular Belle Dame Sans Merci and knew it, and the fact that she did everything she could to reject that power rather than embracing it was what ultimately made Silas unable to resent how thoroughly she drew Jay, and to a lesser extent Silas himself, to her like a moth to a flame.
"You gonna go after her again, kid?" Silas asked, because Jay had already saddled a pair of horses and was staring westward, finding the direction Rose must have gone as easily as a compass always found north. Silas had never asked Jay how the kid had known how to find his way to Rose when he knew so little about the world and that book of his didn't even cover Colorado Territory, but he had clearly not lost the knack.
"No," Jay answered, but he swung himself into the saddle anyway. It was a slow process and did not look to be entirely pain free, but he did it on his own without help.
"Home then?" Silas looked away, not wanting to see Jay's face when he inevitably said yes. He held his breath and waited for the answer.
"You mean Scotland?" The kid sounded almost confused. Jay let out a soft sigh and then drew a deep and only slightly shaky breath into his lungs, and Silas copied the motion at the same instant. He hadn't meant to, but it was involuntary, even after all this time. When Jay breathed, Silas breathed too, a little gift that would always let Silas know at least a tiny bit about Jay's wellbeing, however much distance might soon part them forever. "No, I'm never going back there," Jay finally said, shocking Silas into turning to look at him once more. The kid was grinning, not mournful. He held up that old battered copy of Ho! For the west!!!, which Rose had not bothered to take with her when she went. "There's a whole continent here that I've barely seen," he continued. Then, hesitantly but not shyly, he leaned over and put a hand on Silas's shoulder, slid it around to cup the back of Silas's neck for a brief moment before withdrawing. That hand was full of promises. "I was thinking I'd like to see Canada."
The invisible weight that had been freezing his heart vanished, and Silas gave an answering grin. "Sure, kid, whatever you say."
"C'mon, Silas, let's drift."