Somebody get Nathan! There's a man down, there in the street, bleeding! Somebody oughtta get Nathan. We need a doctor! Somebody get that healer fella!
That healer fella was the one down in the street, the one with his lifeblood flowing across his chest and dripping into the dirt. He was bleeding and there was no one to yell for.
Josiah leaned against a wagon, mug in hand, while Vin perched above him, legs crossed and drawn under, angled back, palms down, eyes roving across the 'dance floor': the street blocked by wagons and tables, three fiddlers and a piano made music for the townsfolk to step to. They'd built extra fires around the perimeter, and the area was well lit.
"Why ain't ya dancin', preacher?"
quot;Waiting for a waltz. You?"
Vin smiled and turned to him, inclined his head slightly towards the crowd. He dropped one foot off the edge of the wagon seat and tapped the air in time with the music.
"They're afraid." He shrugged. Goddamn people. What do they think I'm gonna do, shoot 'em at a street dance? Can't just one of 'em look me in the eye when they're talkin' to me? Do they always gotta be lookin' at my gun? Hell, sometimes I think I could leave and see 'em ten years from now and they wouldn't know who I am cause they never even seen my face. Ten years. A lifetime. Ten years.
Josiah nodded. They were. The 'fine and decent' women of Four Corners, the unattached ones, anyway, were afraid of Vin Tanner. The whores weren't, most of them were running from something themselves. But there weren't any whores here tonight. They'd not be welcome at a town function like this, although Vin had actually screwed up the courage to ask one of them to come along. And been laughingly denied.
Lily just laughed and laughed. Punched me and giggled and shook her head. 'Vin Tanner, you are a fright! Onliest way to be more so is to take a whore to the dance. You come 'round and see me and you won't even miss the dance, honey.' We're all sposed to be there or I'd take her up on it. Wish she'd take some money, though, be easier on both of us iffen she would.
"You could dance with Casey." Josiah suggested. "Or Nettie."
"JD'd shit if I danced with her. Nettie's a waltzer, too." Gotta get too close to someone to waltz. Don't wanna get too close to nobody.
Rain and Nathan came up to the two men, hand in hand, smiling.
"Nathan won't dance with me!" Rain protested with a scowl.
Damn fool he is.
"I ain't no dancer!"
Vin and Josiah exchanged looks.
"Opportunity knocks." Josiah said with a smile. Vin leaped from his perch, took Rain's free hand, and pulled her out into the swaying crowd. Nathan frowned and began to speak, but stopped as the two of them began to dance. They started out in a two step, but the dance mutated into something different. Ain't danced like this in a long time. We did it like this back in Texas. They taught me pretty good.
"Where did he learn to dance like that?" Nathan asked himself, deep in thought.
Josiah watched the strange look on Nathan's face. "He probably made it up, Nathan."
"No, he didn't."
As Rain and Vin began to swing across the dirt circle, the music faltered, two fiddlers stopped and the piano trailed off, until only a lonely, off key fiddle played on. The dancers around them slowed and then stopped, looking at one another and then at the two young people remaining on the floor. Nathan and Josiah sensed something ominous at the same time and stepped forward protectively. Vin and Rain were oblivious, until Vin responded to the unmistakable sound of a revolver being chambered and cocked. He took Rain's hand and pulled her behind him at the same time he turned to the sound. Jed Porter stood, gun in hand, eyes narrowed at the edge of the firelit circle.
What the hell is goin' on now? Can't a man take just a little bit a time to just be nobody without causin' no trouble?
"You ain't gonna dance like that here."
Vin frowned as Rain pulled out of his hand and turned away. His eyes swept the other dancers, silent and still. He glanced at Nathan, coming forward to reach him.
"Nathan I ain't-" he cut himself off as he realized his mistake. Done this before, and remember who paid for that, Tanner? Member who paid for you bein' white and her bein' red? 'Member Tanner? DO YOU REMEMBER? They looked you in the eye, then, didn't they? Just to see if your eyes were blue or brown. Ain't you that's not good enough for 'em this time.
"Ain't no white folks dancin' with darkies here, white trash or no." Porter threatened.
Vin turned to encompass the other dancers, the ones who had stopped when he'd brought Rain to dance with him.
You think you're all so much better'n this, don't ya? You all take what you want from Nathan but he ain't really welcome here, is he? Him and his kind-you'd all burn him out in a minute iffen a real doctor put down stakes here. And you'd all turn around and go home and pretend it never happened.
He caught Buck's eye to one side, a slight shake of the head and a 'no'; Chris to Buck's right, he could see Chris didn't want this to escalate, either. Shit. He turned back to Porter. Mebbe they'll let you go on this one, but I ain't. I ain't gonna take this no more and neither is Nathan and Rain. I ain't gonna walk away, I'm gonna fuckin' show you how you ain't gonna do this no more.
"Ain't no fucking way you're gonna tell me who to dance with." He advanced directly on Porter, unarmed but for his fury.
Your mistake, Porter, I ain't got nuthin to lose.
Suddenly Nathan was there, pushing him, yelling at him to stop, and something else, but the words were drowned out by a single gunshot and Rain's scream.
Buck and Vin lay Nathan on the bed and the two men exchanged looks. Who's gonna help Nathan?
"You," Buck said with finality.
Vin turned to Ezra, who blinked skeptically.
"Mr Tanner, were Mr Jackson to be so obstinate as to deny my ministrations, Mr Larabee and the lot of you would blame me forever. You have the most to lose, you'd better fix him or stop leaping in front of bullets."
Weren't me leapin' in front of bullets, it was Nathan.
Vin turned to Josiah who had followed them inside. He shook his head.
"I heal the spiritual."
Vin swore as Rain stepped forward and pointed at him.
Shitshitshitshit. How did everything get so messed up? I didn't want him to get hurt for this. Shit Tanner, when you gonna think before you mess up?
"Get his---," he turned to JD and gestured vainly with his hands, "stuff," Vin murmured softly, and peeled back Nathan's bloodied shirt. He stuck his fingers into and around the bullet hole, then rolled Nathan to his side, pulled up his shirt in back, and groaned at the lack of an exit wound. JD piled things onto the bedside table, and scooted it down so close Vin couldn't get up from the bed without hitting it.
Vin shucked off his coat, turned back his sleeves, washed his hands in the basin and offered it silently to Josiah, who left to refill it, returning a moment later. He rummaged through Nathan's medical supplies, finding the things he wanted and pushing aside the rest. He held one brown bottle up to his nose questioningly. Everything got to be in these same damn brown bottles?
"Laudnum," Ezra offered.
Vin nodded and held up another.
He kept that one and turned back to Nathan, sloshing a generous amount into the open wound. He grasped a scalpel and bent over his patient, holding the tool so much like a Bowie knife Ezra winced. Ezra and Buck traded doubtful looks, but shrugged. There wasn't anyone else stepping forward to take over the job, and Vin wasn't asking for any help.
When did it get so hot in here? Just like guttin' buffalo, it is. Same muscle and gut and bullet holes... Same smell. Funny how blood smells the same whether it's man 'er buffalo.
Twenty minutes later, a bullet lay on the wooden floorboards, and Vin crouched over Nathan, stitching the tissue closed. He had begun the ordeal sitting on the stool, working closer and closer to the edge of the little chair, then pushed the stool away and knelt at bedside, and now, finally, he bent so far over his work his nose was a mere few inches from the wound he so laboriously stitched closed. His jaw clenched at a crooked angle, his eyes narrowed, he frequently scrubbed away with the back of his wrist at the sweat beading on his forehead. There was none of the gentle, familiar chatter that Nathan used, describing what he did or why, no practised, even sewing of the muscle or skin. If any of the men watching had any qualms about Vin's ability to heal Nathan, none of them voiced his opinion. At one point Vin gasped out, "Open the fucking window, Ezra," but since it was already open, no one moved. When the last stitch was in, and tediously tied, Vin tossed the needle and gut to the table and rocked back on his heels. He poured the last of the carbolic over the top of the zig zag , and sank down to the floor, slid back so his back rested on the side of the bed, leaned his head forward with his arms across his knees and closed his eyes. All other eyes were on the silent man in the bed.
God, if you ever heard me, hear me now and heal him up? Don't make him die for this stupid ass thing I done.
"JD, ask Inez for some ice to chip and put it in a flour sack and kinda pack it over that bullet hole, 'kay?" Vin mumbled from his place on the floor.
JD nodded and hurried out of the room. Without another word, Vin struggled to his feet, swaying slightly, and walked past Rain to follow JD. His shoulder hit the doorframe, as though he didn't see it; he grabbed at the frame for a moment to steady himself, then started down the stairs. Josiah began to clear off the table, pushed the stool out of the way and pulled a battered chair up next to the bed. He placed a fresh basin of water on the table, and when JD reappeared with the ice he took it from him, placed it in position and seated himself next to Rain. Nathan moaned softly but did not stir.
Chris watched from the boardwalk as first JD, then Vin left Nathan's room, JD passing Vin silently on his way back up the stairs after leaving the saloon. Vin stopped at the trough in the street and shoved his arms into the water, scrubbing away at something in the darkness. It seemed to take Vin a long time to wash his arms and hands, then he stopped suddenly and sank down to the edge of the boardwalk across from where Chris perched. There he sat, resting his head in his hands. Chris crossed the street silently and stood in front of him until he raised his head.
Chris jerked his head towards the clinic above him.
"Don't know. Got the bullet out and stitched him up." But then, you'd know that if you'd get your ass up there.
"Want a drink?"
Vin looked down the street doubtfully. The saloon looked a long way off.
No. Twenty, mebbe, but not one. A bottle ain't gonna be far enough to go tonight, and the saloon's too damn far away.
"Look me up if you change your mind."
Vin nodded and watched him walk away. How can you walk away from it? How can you just turn away and let it go. HOW? Just once, I'd like to drop it all and walk away and be somebody different and not look back. Always lookin' back-hell, I can't walk straight no more for dodgin' shadows and dancin' around ghosts. I don't give a shit if I live or die, so how come I'm still walkin'? How come I can't just turn my back and walk away like there ain't a rifle aimed betwixt my shoulders? I'm tired of wantin' so damn bad to keep livin'.
Josiah watched the tiny red bead of a cheroot glow in the darkness below Nathan's room. Vin. He glanced at Nathan sleeping peacefully for a moment, Rain beside him, then left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him and making his way slowly down the stairs to the alley below.
He eased his large, tired frame into the chair behind whereVin sat on the edge of the boardwalk, nursing a hand rolled.
"You always been a day late and a dollar short, Vin?"
Without seeing his face, Josiah knew the younger man smiled.
You're so damn smart, ain't ya?
"You did all could be expected---". He stopped when Vin turned to face him.
Yeah. All I could. I just wanted a dance, and now it's all turned back and twisted around and everything's bloody. Again.
"He doin' ok?"
"She's all right. She's a strong lady. Feeling a mite responsible . . ."
"She shouldn't. Didn't exactly get asked, if I 'member." No, she just got jerked out there into a crowd who didn't want her and...
"Ain't nothing bad about a dance."
Tell Rain that. Tell Nathan.
"Shoulda thought about it." Vin shook his head angrily. "Hell, if I'da thought about half what I done, wouldn't be so many people dead."
Josiah sighed. "I imagine that could be said for the lot of us. We could look in the future, we'd do a lot of things different."
You're tellin' me that?
"Chris stilled pissed?"
"Chris isn't pissed because of you dancing with Rain. He's pissed you went after an armed drunk with no gun of your own. That was stupid. Just plain stupid."
"Ain't never been known as an educated man. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. Ain't gonna let pricks like Porter tell me what to do. Chris wouldn'ta either."
'Cept he can do what he wants and not give a shit about getting' kilt. Cause he can let it go. But he can tell ever'body else what to do.
Josiah sighed and let it drop. "Nathan's been awake, you want to go talk to him?"
"Nope. Ain't got nuthin to say."
Vin dropped the cheroot and squelched it out under his boot.
"Vin, wait. Maybe Nathan's got something to say to you."
Vin snorted. "Like, why the hell you tryin' to get my girl hurt? Yeah, I bet he's got a lot to say to me. It can wait, iffen it's all the same to you."
"Nathan ain't going to hold any of this against you."
"You ain't even sure he's not gonna die yet."
"What if he lives?" Josiah accused.
"What if he don't?" Vin shot back.
"Then you tried. You saved him before, from that lynch mob, and you dug the bullet out of him at the prison... ."
"He was awake then, tellin' me what to do. When they were hangin' him, he wasn't Nathan then, he was just some feller bein' strung up."
"Is there a difference?"
Vin nodded. "There is." A hell of a difference. That day I didn't give a shit whether he lived or died. Just keepin' my own neck out of a noose, sorta. Somethin' like that, anyhow. It was just one shot.
"So you just fail when it counts, is that it?"
Vin paused a long time. "Sometimes, seems like... . Like the more you want somethin' the less you get."
Josiah nodded. He couldn't fault that. But goddamit he was sick of Vin's lopsided sense of responsibility. They sat together in the darkness, waiting.
Nathan heard JD rise and speak to someone, and wondered through his haze why no one answered. He listened to the door close and someone come to bedside. Who ever it was, he wasn't talking. Chris, maybe, or Vin? Ezra would be sighly loudly by now, shuffling cards and pointing out the atrocities of nursemaiding an ingrate. Josiah would be telling stories or quoting scriptures, Buck would be reciting his latest conquest . . . Had to be either Vin or Chris. It was too much trouble to open his eyes, though. Who ever it was scraped the mortar and pestle across the table picking it up, Nathan knew the sound of the stoneware. Heard a match strike-probably Chris, then. But there was no smell of tobacco, there was a different smell. Sweet. He thought for a fleeting moment of someone burning him out, that'd happened before, hadn't it? But there wasn't that same gut wrenching fear, the crashing and breaking and burning and... besides, he was so tired. So very tired. Smelling that sweet, burning smell, tired but safe, he rested. When he awoke again, Vin was sitting near the window and Rain's head rested on the bed beside him.
"Vin?" he whispered.
Slowly Vin turned to look at him, rose and came closer. "Yeah?"
"Where'd you learn to dance like that?"
Vin frowned in confusion. Dance like what? That's the first thing you say?
"That dance, where'd you learn that?" Nathan insisted.
Vin turned away again and went back to the window. He studied something in the street for a moment before he spoke.
"Grandpa had a slave. He taught me. Him and his family." I run off, Nathan, and I coulda took him when I did. We coulda gone together. Him, me, his family, we all coulda. But I didn't. Grandpa wouldn't waste his time chasin' me. But he woulda hunted down his slave. Cause that slave, he was a whole lot more important to that old man than me. But I didn't ask him if he wanted to go along, cause I was yella.
Nathan nodded. "Don't see white folks dancin' like that."
"Not even white trash?"
"I'm sorry for all this, Nathan. I shoulda known better."
"Yeah, I reckon we all shoulda."
"What was you smokin' in here?"
"Little bit'a stuff a medicine man give me a long time ago." Vin turned again to look back at Nathan, but his eyes were closed-he had fallen asleep. Cure what ails you, Nathan, sweetgrass and sage. Makes me 'member when burnin' it could make things all right.
When Josiah came into the room in the morning, he noticed a small dish of ashes sitting on the floor next to the bed. He picked it up and set it aside, and took up a chair beside Nathan, who stirred gently.
"In the flesh. You back with us?"
"Feel like hell, but I guess Vin done a good job, cause things are feeling like they oughtta be."
"I reckon he did at that. He here last night?"
"For a bit. He was burnin' somethin', though, smelled funny."
Josiah laughed. "He was just fixin'you up the best way he knows, brother."
As Josiah sat down in the chair beside the bed, he chuckled again.
"What's so funny?"
"Just thinking how Vin's always thinking he's going to hell-how surprised he's gonna be when angels meet him at the gate."
"Seems like you cured him." Chris took a swig off a bottle and then passed it to Vin, who perched on the edge of the boardwalk on the street. "Ever think of going into a saloon to do your drinking?"
"Nope. Tastes better out here." 'Sides, a man ain't gotta shove his back up against a wall and watch a door and who's behind you and over there, and comin' in and listen when it's too damn noisy to hear a bullet comin'.
Josiah ambled up to the two men and held out his hand for the bottle they shared. "Nathan's doin' pretty good, Vin, you done a good job."
" Probably all that fancy stuff in his bag 'a tricks."
"Maybe," Josiah agreed, "But I think it was the sweetgrass and sage done the trick."
Vin's eyebrows shot up, but he didn't respond.
"The medicine men used to burn sage and sweetbrush in the Indian villages, I remember my Father ranting at those savages for their beliefs. So they'd wait till we left at night, but you could still smell it in the morning."
"I seen that done, too," Vin admitted.
"Everybody oughta believe, Vin, don't matter what, as long as you believe in something."
"I reckon." But what if you forget what you believe in?
Vin came into the room full of men, carrying a teapot, a tin cup hooked in his fingers. He nodded to his friends and turned his attention to Nathan.
"Brought you some tea. It'll help your healin'." He poured a generous cup and held it out to Nathan. When Nathan took it, he set the teapot down on the nearby table and cast a quick look around the room. He stepped to the dresser and pulled open the drawers until he found what he was looking for. He took a short stack of pants and tucked them under his arm.
"Don't reckon you'll be needin' your pants, Nathan. You need to be restin', that's what I recall you tellin' the rest of us."
Nathan scowled at being caught in Vin's trap, resting on one elbow and holding the cup of tea in his other hand. He took a drink, and immediately spat out the contents to the floor below.
"What the hell is this?"
Vin grinned as he stepped to the door.
"That," he said with a wicked grin, "is twice as good as the shit you give me. Steeped horseshit, Doc, that's what it is. Good for what ails you."
He shot out the door as the tin cup hit the doorframe and the other regulators broke into laughter.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin' might mean takin' chances but they're worth takin'
Lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin'
Don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter
When you come close to sellin' out, reconsider
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance...
I hope you dance.
---I Hope You Dance, by Mark Sanders and Tia Sillers
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