When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.---Samuel Johnson
Sarah would've loved Vin. She would have taken one look at him, standing there all quiet and scruffy and thin, walked up to him, sized him up and down, and declared it her personal task to fatten him up. And she would've wrapped him up a a big bear hug, and he would've stood there, scared half to death, like a tree, not knowing what to do. Vin may not be scared of Chris Larabee, but he sure would have been petrified of Sarah.
Chris wasn't sure why he was thinking about Sarah now, like this. Vin had been gone a week, and he expected him back anyime now, but he wasn't late. Not really. Not . . . . yet.
Vin studied the river thoughtfully. It was high, true, but he'd seen it higher, and the longer he waited, chances were it'd just get worse. He rode down parallel to the bank for a while, until he came to a bend, then studied the swirl of the current and tried to pick a good place to cross. He'd been away from Four Corners long enough; he needed to get back. Didn't need anyone riding out to try and find him. He'd only planned on bein' gone a week anyhow, he figgered he was already a day past due. Might just as well get back. Weather had been lousy, and didn't look like it was gonna improve anytime soon. Sometimes it was good to have a dry inside place to sleep.
He let Peso pick his way down to the river's edge, where he paused briefly. From the very edge, the gray of the water showed the turbulence beneath the surface. Besides the usual debris drawn downstream, Vin could see larger chunks of wood being pulled rapidly along. He began to have second thoughts about crossing. Finally, he turned the gelding back up the incline away from the river. They'd already gone too far, though, because as the horse pushed up with his hindquarters, the bank began to crumble and fall.
Vin felt the horse began to drop beneath him, and urged him up. The black didn't need any encouragement, as he leapt and scrambled upwards. He couldn't get any solid footing, and finally the two of them dropped into the river below.
The rush of cold water took his breath away and he grabbed for leather. Vin was still pretty sure Peso was strong enough to stay upright and find a way off the river. A moment later, when the horse hit something underwater with his legs and began to panic, Vin pushed away from the thrashing horse and struck out for shore on his own.
And Vin would've fascinated Adam, just as much as Buck did. The two wouldn't have talked much, probably, but Adam would've trailed him all over, just watching him. Then he probably would've wanted to grow his hair long, like he'd wanted a mustache just like Uncle Buck's. Sarah would have thrown a fit about that, for damn sure. Like she did when Adam started spitting 'just like Uncle Buck.'
"Whatcha smilin' about, pard?"
Chris straightened and turned to Buck, a smile still on his face. He looked into the eyes of his old friend, and Buck was startled by the look he saw there. Amusement. Pride. The look of the "old" Chris Larabee. The family man.
Chris spoke so softly Buck had to concentrate just to figure out what he was saying.
"I was remembering, Buck. Adam. And Sarah."
"You were smilin', Chris."
When a chunk of wood hit him in the temple, he was disoriented and fighting just to keep his head above water. He tried to watch for the branches and logs to avoid them, but failed miserably. He was taking a beating from the water, and all the things in it, and finally turned and began to swim with the current in the hopes of resting enough to make another try for shore.
The cold of the water was beginning to numb his body, and his water soaked leather coat was getting heavier and heavier. He tried to shuck out of it, but when he did, he went under. He had to get out. Now. He kept grabbing anything he touched, and when he felt his boots graze bottom he would push up desperately for the surface, for a look around him. It was getting so dark, and so cold . . . his hand touched and grabbed a root, and suddenly felt the jerk of something that held fast. His shoulder felt like it was dislocating from the pull of the current, but he refused to let go. He pulled himself, hand over hand, until his chest rested on the muddy bank. He wrapped his arm around the tree on the shoreline, hooking it there, and laid back to rest. His body shuddered with cold.
Sarah would have wanted to mother Vin. Just like she did Buck. But while Buck revelled in it, teasing her and loving her and allowing her to do all the things that made her happy, Vin would've just barely tolerated it. She would have laughed at his practical jokes, though. Probably encouraged him and helped him think new things up. She'd have figured out a way to boil enough beets to dye that horse purple, that's for sure. The time Vin spent trying to figure out something big enough to get hot enough to boil enough beets to make enough purple dye . . .
Chris realized he'd drifted off in his thoughts again, and picked up the stack of wanted posters JD kept stashed in the desk drawer. He rifled through them briefly, surprised to find Vin's face among them.
Now what is this doing in here? You'd think that kid'd have the good sense to get rid of it, in case somebody we don't know comes in here. $500. That's enough money to turn a lot of heads.
He sighed, folded up the parchment and place it in his pocket. He put the rest of them back in the drawer, picked up the empty tin cup he'd come in with, and went outside to watch the rainy night haze settle over the town.
What if Vin met up with a bounty hunter? What if, at this very moment, he's being dragged back to Texas, wondering where the hell I am, and . . . . what if he's already dead?
Chris shook the thought away. He stopped at the Clarion office and put the cup on the printer desk. Mary looked up from a talk she was having with Gloria Potter, and smiled and nodded, and he stepped back outside.
No. Vin's careful, and he was headed north. There's been a lot of rain, and he had to cross the river. Maybe it was too high, and he's waiting for the rain to stop. Maybe he's run into some Indian friends, or maybe he's just enjoying being away from here for a while. Hell, now THAT sounds like Vin. He likes being away from town, living off the land. Maybe he just wanted some peace and quiet. 'So much for peace and quiet.' Vin was there when I needed him that day, wasn't he? Just there, without asking or telling. Vin 's funny that way. If Vin had been with me that day in Mexico, maybe he'd of known we needed to get back home. Maybe. . . .
He couldn't really sleep, and rest, he was too cold. Shaking and trembling, he pushed himself up and crawled up away from the river. The rain was still falling, softly, and the night was filled with the sound of the running water and the falling rain. He couldn't hope to find the horse in this blackness, so he kept walking upward until he came to a small stand of pines. He huddled there, under the trees, to wait for morning.
"Wouldn't even really know where to start looking, would we?"
Chris looked up again at Buck. Surprised by the concern in his voice.
"For who, you mean? For Vin. He shoulda been back a couple a days ago."
Chris studied Buck. Nodded.
"He'll be fine. Just taking his time, I reckon."
"But me and JD, we could head out, just to kinda see if things are OK, if you wanta stay here and keep an eye on things."
"No, Buck, he'll be back soon."
When the gray sky lightened, Vin was shaking uncontrollably. He could see Peso just downriver, standing with his head down in the wet grass. He walked down to him, pulled off his kack and carried it back up under the trees. The horse was bruised and battered, but walking ok.
He pulled gear from his saddle bags. Wet. Everything was wet. He rocked back on his heels. He wasn't sure which way was which, now, with no sun, no stars, no landmarks. The river was there, but he wasn't even sure which side of the river he'd ended up on now. Hell, he wished there was someplace he could dry out, get something hot to eat . . . he'd been shaking so long his back was knotted with cramps. And all he had to eat was some soggy hardtack.
Larabee'd think this was just damned funny, wouldn't he?
Vin's never even been up to their graves. Why didn't he want to go up to the old farmstead? As soon as we got close, he just made up some stupid ass lie that he had to ride off when I went up to the burned out house, and the graves up on the hill. Like he knew I'd wanta be alone up there and he wasn't gonna make me ask him. Buck and I haven't been up there together. Not since . . . How come I keep thinking about Vin and Sarah and Adam meeting each other, and what that'd of been like? Jesus, like I don't have enough crazy ideas in my head as it is.
Vin watched a rabbit from his perch under the tree on the soggy ground. His instincts and his empty stomach told him he could pinch off a shot, but there was no way to start a fire. Matches were wet, wood was wet, grass was wet . . . and he wasn't gonna eat raw rabbit. He'd been that hungry before---hungry enough to eat raw meat---but he wasn't that hungry now. Not yet. He finally decided to saddle up Peso and strike a lick for Four Corners. He'd studied the terrain, the current, the sky, and was making a guess about direction. The constant fall of the rain and the haze made picking out landmarks to mark his progress difficult, but not impossible. He didn't like getting away from the river, as uncertain as he was about how far down river he had been swept, but he decided it was the best route.
Hell, if I don't get dried out purty soon, I'm gonna rot.
"So where do you think he mighta gone, Chris?"
"I dunno Buck. He shoulda been back by now, though."
"Maybe Josiah could go talk to Kojay."
"Yeah, might be a good idea."
Vin had left 10 days ago to accompany Chanu on a trip north. There was talk of a visionary up there, something about a Ghost Dance to bring prosperity back to the people. Chanu wanted to make the trip alone, but Vin was getting stir crazy in town anyway, and the two of them had decided they'd travel together for awhile before Chanu went on north. Vin was supposed to have been heading back to Four Corners when he made his detour.
"We could just kinda head north, see if anyone has seen the two of 'em."
"Yeah, Buck, I'm sure they'll be stopping every town or so to have a drink. You can just stop at every saloon, and say, hey fellas, you seen a young buck with a chip on his shoulder and a long haired feller with a sawed off? You could always show'em that wanted poster just to make sure it was Vin." Chris's grin was almost evil in the sarcastic way he responded to Buck.
"Yeah, well, at least I can admit I'm worried about him. Not like you, sittin' there in that chair, watchin the road like it's on fire, pretendin' you don't give a rat's ass whether he comes back or not."
"You'd best shut up, Buck, before you make me shoot you and I'm down TWO men."
Vin was trying to remember how many days he'd be late now. He had stayed an extra day with Chanu, then waited a day for the rain to stop, and lost a day when he and Peso went into the river. Or had it been two? And then waited another day to try to dry out. Not dry out, really, just be less wet. And now, he'd been riding another day.
Still wet. Goddamn rain.
And now another detour. He rode right up on a Crow burial ground.
Shit. Too far north. Had to be. Unless . . . the Army had pushed the Crow farther south than they used to be. That would explain the burial ground. But it 's good sized, so it's been here a while. And I'm gonna have to go back, ride around it. Crow are purty damn particular about burial grounds, and I ain't gonna ride through it. Buck and Ezra'd probably just hoot about me bein 'afraid of Crow Spirits, but to hell with 'em.
So he turned around, and gave up another day. And now, he rode through the trees, crested a ridge, and there, before him, was the river.
The f*cking river.
Should be below me to the south, but there it is straight goddamn in front of me.
Yeah, them boy's would get a laugh outta this.
Goddamn it all to hell.
The tracker was lost.
Sarah would NOT have tolerated Vin's language. She'd of whipped him up one side and down the other for talking like he does in front of Adam. And God help him if Adam used any of the colorful expletives Vin used when he got good and pissed off. Yep, she'd of rung his bell, all right.
"You're smilin again."
"What the hell does a man have to do to you Buck, to make you get the hell outa here? No, wait, I'll ask Inez, she's pretty good at gettin' rid of you."
"That hurts, Chris, it truly does." Buck placed his hand over his heart as if mortally wounded and watched as Chris shook his head and walked away.
Vin spread out his gear, again, and it was a little drier this time. The rain had finally ended, although the sky still hung dark and gray, and he worried it would begin again.
Could be a different river. Or the same river, turned back.
He watched Peso graze along the hill, and thought about his options. He wasn't ready to ride off, half cocked, in the hope of finding a landmark he'd recognize. He thought maybe Buck or JD would have done that, but he hated backtracking; didn't matter if he lost a day sitting still, while the horse rested, or wasted a day heading off in the wrong direction. He was tired. Bone tired, wet, hungry. He didn't know what day it was anymore. Not that that would bother Vin. What he really wanted was a warm fire. A big old blaze to warm and dry him.
Chris hates fire. I reckon I can see why. Shit, though, a man can't hardly get along without it. That's all I want fer Christmas. A fire. 'Member when JD asked me last winter what I wanted for Christmas. Like I'd be 'spectin somethin' anyhow. He's the damndest thing, that kid. Always wantin what ya can't have. Or what's too damn hard to get.
He fell asleep dreaming of fire.
Chris stood in the livery studying his horse.
Vin's gonna be pissed if I find him and he's on his way back here. Madder than hell. Thinkin I'm doggin him like . . .
And I don't even know where to start looking.
In his dreams, he could feel the warm flames dance before him, building and dying, flickering with life.They grew brighter and brighter, until he had to cover his eyes from the intensity.
He sat up suddenly and squinted his eyes at the sunset. A great blazing ball of sun with a long line of clear sky around it. And smiled. The stars would be out soon. And the stars would talk!
Damnit, Vin, where the hell are you?
He angled the big black southwest, and kept an eye on the stars. And kept moving. The sky was bright with the full moon, a moon that bathed the land in light, and cast shadows. He loved it like this. The land was alive, wolves howled and owls hooted. The rain was done, he was sure of it now. And maybe by tomorrow, he could get a fire going.
Then Peso, picking his way down a small decline, turned his head to the left. Vin looked, but saw nothing. He dropped the reins across the horn, and let the horse have his head. And off he went. Vin grinned; trust a horse to take you home. Within the hour, the land began to look familiar to Vin, too. And the closer they got, the faster the horse went.
Chris was standing on the boardwalk, staring off into his memories, when Vin rode in. He nodded to the younger man, who was smiling broadly. He stopped his horse in front of Chris, and hooked a knee over the saddle horn.
"Hey, pard, did I miss anythin'?"
"Nope, been real quiet since you left."
"Good. Did ya'all miss me?"
"Hell, didn't even notice you were gone. 'Cept there's been more grub around."
"Well, that's about to change."
"Where were you?"
"Got lost. Fell in the goddamn river, got wet and got lost."
Chris laughed, and Buck, Ezra and JD came out on the boardwalk.
"Where ya been, Vin?"
Chris clapped his shoulder. "He don't wanta talk about it. Says he got lost."
JD smiled. "Yeah, right, you got lost? What really happened Vin?"
"Bet you found some nice, warm lady to curl up with, didn't ya? You sly dog, you."
Vin dismounted, flipping the reins over the hitchin' rail. He looked at the horse and sighed.
Nice to be home.
The five men walked into the saloon, Buck heading for the bar, Vin breaking away from the others and moving over to the potbellied stove in the corner. There was a small fire going inside, and he picked up a poker, worked the door open, and squatted down in front of it. He pulled several larger pieces of wood to him and stuffed them into the stove, blowing gently to encourage the flames. When it was a roaring ocherous fire, and the others began complaining about the heat, he rocked back and admired his work, rubbing his hands thoughtfully before the flames. Chris stopped for a moment beside him and leaned over, placing a folded piece of parchment in the fire before going to sit down.
When Vin finally joined the other men at the table, Chris nodded at him silently and pushed the bottle across the table towards him.
"Hey Buck, I got a joke for you."
"Where do you find a dog with no legs?"
"Right where you left him."
Vin shook his head, and despite himself, broke into laughter. Chris ducked his head, smiling to himself.
About damn time you got home.
The Spirit fills the darkness of the heavens
It fills the endless yearning of the soul
It lives within a star too far to dream of
It lives within the heart and is the whole
It's the fire and the wings that fly us home.
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