Tom woke up in the gray of early morning. Sofia's side of the bed was empty and he could hear the sounds from the kitchen that she was already busy making breakfast. Through the open bedroom window he heard the particular screech of the privy door and the jangle of harness. One of the boys must be up early.

After a few more minutes waiting to come fully awake, Tom got out of bed and got ready to start his day. Drawing on his socks and trousers, pulling his suspenders over his undershirt and carrying his boots in his hand, he padded down the hallway past the boys' bedrooms.

Through the half open door of the first room he saw Tommy getting ready to start shaving.

The next two doors were closed. Max was probably still asleep, Robert was probably just stirring.

Behind Eugene's door, Tom could hear the scritch scratch of his pen. If he showed up at breakfast fully dressed, he'd been awake all night, writing.

The last room, Vin's room, stood wide open and empty. He'd been gone nearly a month; he'd turned eighteen since the last time his family saw him. Telegrams from fellow sheriffs who knew Tom and had standing orders to report sightings of the prodigal had reported him up to three hundred miles away. The last telegram, seven days ago, had him a little more than one hundred miles from home. He'd joined a posse, suffered a graze from a ricochet, and turned for home as soon as the stage robbers were behind bars.

Seven days were more than enough time to ride one hundred and twenty five miles. If Vin wasn't home today, Tom was heading out to find him.

Stepping out of the back stairway, he stepped into a kitchen filled with the sounds and smells of breakfast; coffee perking, biscuits baking, ham and eggs frying. Sofia stood at the huge black stove, managing everything at once, happy and busy by herself in the kitchen.

Tom set his boots down and walked behind her to wrap his arms around her.

"Buenos dias novia." He whispered close to her ear. She smelled of warmth and spices.

"Buenos dias amore." She turned her face to accept his kiss on her cheek but she continued cooking. "Breakfast will be on the table in three minutes."

"The boys will be downstairs soon." And that made Tom think of something. "Is someone outside? I heard harness out there."

"No, not that I know of. You are the first awake as usual."

Tom pulled on his boots and went out the front door and across the porch. The yard was still shaded in gray, with dawn only a chunky red line in the distance, but he could see the saddled horse at the trough, drinking deeply. Next to the trough, harder to see in darker shade, with his knees pulled up, sat Vin. Tom went to stand in front of him. Prodigal and horse both looked done in.

"Boy - where the hell have you been?"

Vin slowly lifted his head to look up at him.

"Sofia don't cotton to cussin'."

"Yeah well - you let Sofia get a good look at you and I bet you'll hear words you never heard before."

But Vin didn't answer, he looked down, and Tom softened his tone.

"You just pull in?"

"I gave Gabby his head and he came here."

"You're just in time, your Mama's just putting breakfast on the table. C'mon in and we'll take care of your horse." But Vin didn't move. "You hear me boy?"

Vin lifted his head.

"I can't stand up."

That didn't worry Tom; given the condition of Vin and poor Gabby, he figured the boy was just plum exhausted. "C'mon, I'll give you a hand." He hooked an arm under Vin's and started to pull him up. Vin's yell surprised him.

"NO - WAIT - DON'T."

Too late Tom realized it wasn't only exhaustion. Nearly upright, Vin crumpled to his left side with only Tom's arm keeping him upright.

"What is it? What's happened to you?"

Even as Vin didn't answer, the front door burst open and the boys rushed out, followed by Dingo. Tommy still had flecks of shaving lather on his face. Max was barefoot and hadn't even pulled his suspenders over his undershirt. Robert was fully dressed except for buttoning up his shirt. Eugene was fully dressed as well, he even had his good jacket on.

Last of all Sofia hurried out, nearly passing the boys as they all ran to Vin.

"What happened?" Tommy asked first. "Vin?"

"Don't - touch - me." Vin breathed out, still sagging in Tom's arms. "Please."

"Sheriff Burns said he'd been hit with a ricochet." Tom said. "Boy - where'd you get hit?"

"Gilmer." Vin managed to say.

"He musta got hit in the funny bone." Max offered. He knelt and despite Vin's weak protests, ran his hand along Vin's left side.

"Sorry Stinky, we gotta know." He looked up at their father. "His hipbone, it's hard and it's hot. We gotta get him into the house."

"Don't touch me. Please don't touch me."

"We have to get you in the house boy." Tom said, and promised, "We'll be as gentle as we can."

Vin felt like somebody was driving a ragged stick down his thigh and into his calf. Any movement was agony and sent shudders of sweating cold throughout his body. He didn't care if he laid out here in the dust for the rest of his life, as long as nobody moved him. Now they were talking about carrying him up the stairs and into the house. That would kill him.

"Don't touch me. Please don't touch me."

"Can you walk on your own boy?"

"Let me try." But one step on his own had Vin nearly buckling back to the earth in agony; only Tom's arms kept him upright.

"Let me take your weight boy." Tom said. "We'll get this sorted out."

Then more things were said that Vin couldn't quite make out over the pain shrieking in his head. Tommy was bossing, Max was talking too fast, Robert and Eugene were standing close by. Sofia was sent back inside. Something about hot water. Something about an old door in the barn. Dingo muttered in his throat, dancing on the edges of the small crowd. Tom just kept holding on, keeping Vin close and upright.

Tommy and Robert carried the old door out of the barn while Tom kept Vin upright and Max pulled aside his shirt and undershirt to get a better look at the damage.

"How bad is it?" Eugene asked. He'd been at a loss the whole time Vin was gone. Those two were so close Tom was surprised Eugene hadn't felt Vin's wound in his own body.

"We'll get him on the mend again." Tom answered, cutting off the answer he could see in Max's face. "You know he's as tough as rawhide."

"No he ain't." Eugene answered softly.

"We'll get him through."

"All right, how're we doing this?" Tommy demanded. "Lift him on?"

"No, please don't touch me."

"Set it on the ground and lay him down on it?" Tommy went on while Tom spoke comfort and soft encouragement to Vin.

"Shouldn't we lift him onto it?" Max asked.

"Stand it up behind him." Robert said. "Lean him against it and lift that way."

Tom nodded his agreement and took a stronger hold on Vin.

"All right boy, let us do the work. Just relax and let us do the work."

Vin could barely hear what Tom was saying, all that came through was the sound of his voice. Tom was talking, the boys were moving around, Eugene was taking hold of his free hand. Something was pressed against his back and he was lifted off his feet. The pain flooded past his hip, up his side, and spread across his guts. If he'd had anything in his stomach, he would've lost it for sure.

Over the pain and the nausea, he became aware that he was moving. Flat on his back, with the brightening sky moving overhead, Vin saw that he was being taken up the stairs and into the house.

The grip on his hand let go as they cleared the front door, and he watched the parlor ceiling go by until he recognized the punched tin ceiling of the dining room. He stopped moving then but was in too much pain and too queasy to wonder what he was lying on or what was about to happen.

He'd only just started to get comfortable on his hard bed when he felt the clothes being pulled away from his throbbing side and something hot and sopping wet was laid on his wound. The resulting explosion of pain made Vin scream in agony. He tried to sit up, clawing blindly to stop the torture. Strong arms held him back and restrained his hands, and he turned his face into a broad chest, sobbing and pleading for the pain to stop.

A tumbler of wine was pressed to his lips and he gulped it down, half out of thirst and half because he knew it would dull the pain. A lot of it spilled down his chin and onto his neck and as soon as it was gone another tumbler full was pressed on him. The effect of the liquor on a stomach that'd had little else in it for three days was strong and immediate. The world rolled up like a window shade and Vin was gone.