First the others, now Nettie. Vin shifted uncomfortably in her gaze. He shook his head. "Don't think so, Miss Nettie. I'm keepin' an eye on things outside so's everyone can enjoy their Christmas. Me and JD got some plans."
"I think you can keep an eye on things from inside the church and JD's going to be sitting in church with Casey. It's just a short service, what are you afraid of?"
He started at the question. He looked down the street, past the old apple tree, past the livery and the wagons at Watson's store, past the dry desert air and the faint hint of the mountains far off; past something that hung in his heart and haunted him. Finally he smiled. "You."
"Not much, or you'd be in that church for service tonight."
Damn her, she just wouldn't give up. He sighed. "Memories, I reckon." His eyes came to rest on her. "When I was just a little sprout, Grandpa and Grandma'd go to church and tell me to sit outside and watch the team. I'd sit there thinking they was in there talkin' 'bout how to make my life more mis'rable than it already was, cause Grandpa'd come outta church hellbent on beatin' the devil outta me."
He watched her fingers clench and unclench, and worked her jaw in anger. He smiled at that. Bet she was a damn spitfire with that husband'a hers, and the Spencer carbine, in her younger days. Hell, today even.
"Wasn't til I got a whole lot older I figgered out what goes on in church. I then I thought none of them people knew what he was doin' . Hell, they knew, they'd just sit there talkin 'bout how to be good people and not carin'. Never seen no need to go back."
"Not everybody's like that, Vin."
She smiled sweetly at him. Last card.
"Well, it'd mean a lot to me if you'd be there, son."
Then she turned and walked on down the street.
At dusk, Vin watched from the walkway as the townsfolk made their way to church. He saw the long look Nettie gave him, and Josiah, and nodded back when Chris and Mary and Billy moved past him, Chris tilting his head in an unspoken question. Casey went past, escorted by JD, and Buck had a fine young lady on his arm, too. He threw himself away from the post and drew a deep breath. He was alone on the dusty street.
He slipped into church last, intending to sit in the very backmost pew, until he saw the space beside Nettie. The space she had saved for him. The place reserved with a blinding faith for him and no other.
Damn damn damn.
He eased carefully up the aisle, walking softly and silently as he did when tracking a cat, keeping his head down, until he came to stand beside her. She smiled at him, then, and suddenly it was almost alright. She slipped a finger upwards, and he tilted his head back to look above him---then remembered, pushing his hat back off his head.
He felt the eyes of his friends on him, and the eyes of the other townsfolk. His eyes trailed his patched coat, dirty bandana, dusty pants and grimy boots. Even Chris Larabee had worn a tie tonight. Why hadn't he cleaned up a little?
They sat, and Josiah began to speak. He wouldn't remember later what Josiah said, because he sat frozen in time. Beads of sweat broke on his bare forehead, and he struggled to keep his breathing to a dull roar. He stared at his hands resting on his thighs. Nettie reached out and covered his rough, long fingers with her gnarled, wrinkled ones. He raised his head to meet her eyes, and smiled.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
And people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.
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