‘Cos the Grass Ain’t Green
Vin knew this place, had been here many times before. But what had possessed him to come back after all these years? And what was that heavy, hot pressure building deep within his chest? Was the sun burning him as he lay in this wide, open expanse of land?
Tanner’s head was slightly turned to the right, and his cheek was pressed into the long, thick grass that was native to this particular region of Texas. A bright yellow wildflower, its splayed head open and nodding gently in the breeze, caught his attention, and he stared in rapt wonderment. Vin smiled, puffing out an ecstatic sigh.
The man recognised those flowers, had loved to race through the fields where they grew near his home when he was a young child. Vin recalled picking them during that last summer with his mother, and making a colourful, bright necklace for the person whom was the epicentre of his existence.
The simple token had been difficult to construct, with Vin’s small fingers fumbling awkwardly to thread the pulpy stems together. But finally he’d completed it, and had shyly offered it to his awe-struck mother. She had smiled, a warm spontaneous smile that conveyed such love for her child, and she had blushed when Vin carefully placed it around her neck. His mother had hugged him to her then, thanking her son for the gift, and telling him how clever he was. After that, woman and boy had romped hand in hand through the sweet-smelling meadow, laughing and giggling as dust and flower seeds floated into the sultry air as they passed. His mother had worn the emblem of her son’s love for the rest of that magical day, and Vin had truly believed he was the happiest boy alive.
The vividly poignant memory made the adult Vin Tanner gasp, and his heart contracted when he saw the shadowy, almost misty, image of the beautiful woman in front of him. Had she returned to him? This thought sent a quiver of sharp, channelled pain to his heart, and he winced from the agonised sensation. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d had such powerful recollections, or conjured up such a clear picture of his adored mother. The intense hallucination played on, although it suddenly had a darker aspect to it. The gates had been flung open, and a solitary tear tracked down Vin’s cheek as he re-lived the grief of his mother’s untimely passing. Ominous thoughts of that awful day bubbled up from deep within him. Despite knowing the pain of loss would return, the dam had been fully breached, and Vin was helpless or unwilling to stop the flow of memories.
The plain casket had rested between two chairs in the bedroom, and he’d been forbidden from entering the room. But the five-year old Vin had been lost, bereft and searching for his mother, not understanding why or where she had gone. So he’d stolen into her room when his grandfather wasn’t looking, expecting to see her lying in the bed that had become her home during the weeks previous. But the bed was empty. Only that strange object was there, incongruous, out of place in the familiar room that held so much of his mother’s vibrant personality. Unable to resist the pull of curiosity, Vin had tiptoed across the room, and peeked inside the wooden box.
Vin’s anguished cry of denial reverberates around his brain, although no sound escapes his tightly clenched lips. The pain in his chest has re-ignited with the cessation of the dream, and it brings him back to the present day with an uncompromising jolt. The tracker’s eyes are screwed shut against the furnace that’s sending tendrils of heat to the rest of his body, but a man’s rich, deep voice cuts through the breath-stealing agony. Vin can hear someone else speaking too, although it seems to be coming from a long way off. The concerned voices dwindle into the background and he silently watches shadows ripple across the lush grass, vaguely making out the shape of boots as men gather around someone else. The young peacekeeper instantly recognises those hushed voices, but the words seem disjointed, and it’s hard to put a name to a face. However, Vin knows he shares a connection with those men, and he valiantly attempts to drag himself from the fiery chasm he’s rapidly sinking into.
Thoughts of another man flit through the tracker’s addled brain, and the visage that has become as familiar as his own, the other half of his fractured soul, suddenly appears before Vin. Chris Larabee. Yes, this man is his brother, his comrade, fellow law enforcer and the person whom he trusts above all others. But his friend’s in danger, trouble has sought him out, and Tanner isn’t going to be found lacking in his role as ‘back watcher’.
"Chr…is! Ya… gotta keep yer… head down!"
Everything around him is mixed up, out of context and fading in and out, so Vin isn’t sure whether his warning’s in time. He eventually manages to lift his head when he hears another voice he knows and has the utmost faith in.
"We need to get you outta here, Chris."
‘Yep, that’s real sensible advice from a good man’, the tracker muses happily.
The image of a handsome face suddenly springs into Vin’s mind, and he sees a friendly, open mien, topped by a shock of dark, wavy hair. A tall, moustached man with a warm and steadfast gaze, that is almost at odds with the booming and over-enthusiastic voice. That wide mouth, most often than not curved into a smile, and blue eyes continually crinkling up with laughter, especially when he’s teasing a dark-haired youngster. This man enjoys life to the fullest, and Vin knows him well. Buck Wilmington.
"No, don’t try to move, Chris, ‘cause you’re hurt real bad. Let us help you."
Buck’s worried-sounding tone and words assaults Vin’s ears once more, and he struggles to get up - but fails miserably. He tries to move his lips to speak, but no words come out. The tracker hears Nathan’s low, calming tones next, and the truth suddenly dawns on him. Oh, God, Chris has been shot! Through the green lines of grass that are partially obscuring his vision, Tanner sees the other peacekeepers have lifted his closest friend from the ground. They’re taking him to the clinic! Oh, thank you, Lord! Utter relief sweeps through Vin and he relaxes down again, allowing his hurt body to slump back into the delicious scent of the knee-high grass. Chris was safe, and nothing else mattered to him. With that blessed idea to comfort his weary form, the Texan accepts he can return to the past now, and seek out his mother.
"Put me…down! Don’t… st… stop… B… b… Buck!"
Vin hears a faint, stuttering call, but immediately knows who’s spoken. Why is Chris stopping his friends from saving his life? What has possessed the gunslinger? A delay could mean the difference between living and dying. No, the former bounty hunter couldn’t have Larabee’s death weighing on his conscience too. He had sins aplenty resting upon him, but he couldn’t bear that heavy load; that burden would finish him completely. The other men had to listen to his plea, they had to hear him and ensure that Chris survived. Otherwise, how could Vin leave?
"No! Don’t… stop! Nate… Buck…. J’siah…. help Chris! Save ‘im. Jes’ get him outta… ‘ere!"
Vin’s pleading words were lost in the whisper of wind-ruffled grass, but he manages to outstretch an arm, noticing that his hand is trembling from the effort. The tracker frowns in abject confusion. Why is there red stuff on his hand and arm? The entire length of his jacket sleeve is glistening with the substance and Vin stares in rapt fascination as a globule of crimson fluid slowly drips from his cuff. Was that blood? Had he been shot? Was this what dying felt like?
"Buck… Vin’s lying over…. th… there! He’s… hurt bad! I can… feel it. Help… him!"
Chris’ weak voice is laced with pain, but to Vin’s ears, there’s no mistaking his demands or the gunman’s intent. A man’s face suddenly hovers above the long-haired peacekeeper, his concern evident as he peers down at the prostrate tracker. Nathan. Oh, Lord, he’d had it now! The healer would be fussing, pulling and probing at him with those compassionate, skilful hands, stitching and bandaging until Vin was driven to distraction – or simply passed out. Those same competent hands would then strip him naked, would soothe his fears and banish any fever that dared visit.
Nathan Jackson was a tireless healer, a dedicated medical man, and he would work overtime to make certain Vin stayed in that hated clinic bed to recover. The final insult for the stubborn tracker was the dreaded skunk’s piss medicine his friend would force down his throat. Tanner groaned as he realised what was in store for him. Aw, hell! He could already taste the healer’s foul brew in his mouth! Surely dying was easier on a man!
Perhaps it was the sight of Nathan, or maybe his damaged form and nerve-endings were finally catching up with his sluggish brain, because all of a sudden Vin’s body screamed out in white-hot pain. It overwhelmed him, driving away all cohesive thought, and the tracker curled his knees up as he tried to extinguish the blazing agony exploding outward from his ribcage.
"Sweet Jesus!" the healer breathed as he finished his initial examination. "Josiah, get yer ass over here now! Chris was right, Vin’s bin shot too! He’s caught one in the chest!"
Well, that certainly explained a lot! ‘Ah, thanks fer lettin’ me know, Nate!’ Vin thought sarcastically. Still, at least he understood now why he was having trouble breathing, plus it gave him the reason for not being able to move. A blade of grass persistently tickled the tracker’s nose, and he snuffled out a soft breath through his nostril to move the tiny green sward. He groaned again, as even that minute movement sent barbs of molten pain cascading through his torso.
"Dammit, he’s lost a helluva lot of blood! Let’s get ‘em both to the clinic. Hurry up, Ezra, they’s bin hit bad!"
That was Nathan again, snapping out instructions, chivvying the other four men along. That thought drifted lazily through Vin’s mind, but then another surge of pain brought him back to a reality he really didn’t want to accept. Fucking Hell! That hurts, Nathan! Why don’t ya leave me be? Jes’ let me stay in this here purty meadow and dream of my ma. That ain’t too much to ask, is it?
Hands were holding Vin now, turning him and straightening his legs as they prepared to move him. The tracker remained still, but glanced down at the grass, noting the red carpet, crumpled, sticky and flattened from where he’d lain. His vision was swimming, his stomach roiling, but an absurd concept flitted through his mind. ‘The grass ain’t green!’ It was red…but… why was the grass red? Grass was green! Knowledge pounded into the tracker like a hammer blow then. That was his blood, his life fluid seeping into the earth. Aw, shit! There was a lot of it, and…. Damn! He was going to be sick if they kept on jiggling him around like that…. Vin hated it when he puked. How did he get to be in this state?
That answer came to him in a flash. Vin saw Chris again in his minds eye, the lithe, nimble gunslinger darting across the street by the church. Determination was etched into every fibre of his being, and his gun was unerringly trained on those bastards who’d just robbed the stage. Larabee was in full lawman mode, alert for treachery, eager and ready to bring those wrongdoers to justice. But something was wrong. Vin groaned anew, wincing and gasping at the fresh attack of pain, as he tried to draw breath to cry out a warning. The horrific scene being played before the tracker was running its course now.
Chris had broken cover, hadn’t ducked when lead started flying and, in that fleeting moment when Vin spotted the outlaw coming up behind the pair of them, he realised his friend wasn’t going to dive to safety. The tracker’s mare’s leg had bellowed out then, taking down the nearest threat, but Vin had been a few seconds too late. Chris had jerked as the bullet ploughed into his shoulder, and then the young Texan had felt something slam into his chest, causing him to fall to the ground some twenty yards from the black-clad gunslinger.
Shit! He didn’t think a bullet would hurt this much. ‘They’s jes’ tiny lumps of metal.’ Vin grinned as that rationale scuttled through his addled brain. Yeah, right! He’d have to remember to tell that one to Larabee. That would be right after he’d finished his lecture to the older man on the merits of finding suitable cover in a heated gunfight. Dammit all to Hell! Tanner had gone through a similar agonised fear with his closest friend some months ago, but Chris had done exactly the same thing all over again. Did that ornery, skinny-assed, Yankee gunslinger think he was invincible? Hadn’t he learned his lesson after nearly losing his life before?
Looking down at the red-hued grass as he was lifted up, the tracker thought once more about his deceased mother and that field in Texas. Suddenly, Vin’s blue eyes met pain-filled hazel ones, and a silent message seemed to arc between the two fallen men. They were being carried side by side to safety and, although badly wounded, the pair knew they would survive to fight another day. They were too stubborn to do anything else.
Besides, Vin had too much to share with his friend to contemplate leaving. The tracker wanted to take Chris to the fields surrounding the older man’s cabin, where they could lounge in a meadow and talk of their past lives. It had been a long time coming, but now they had been recalled, Tanner needed to speak of those previously submerged memories of his mother. Chris was the only person who would understand his closest friend’s need. Vin would make the time to talk it through with the person whom he trusted above everyone else. But first they had to have the healing period, and mend their broken bodies.