We are made to persist---that's how we find out who we are. ----Tobias Wolff
He watched as she put his things into the small satchel. She moved around the room very slowly, pausing again and again to retch and gasp. Tears ran silently down her face. She whispered to him to get this or get that, which he quickly did, then returned to his chair by the fire to watch her. Fear gripped him and he began to cry. She put the bag down, tied a piece of twine through the handles and struggled to get to the mattress before she collapsed.
"Oh, no. I --forgot-- the bible.Get it,--- please,-- honey?" She whispered and coughed and blood ran from her lips. He handed her the little book, and she wrapped it in a bandana and pressed it into his hands.
Then she patted the mattress next to her, and he lay down beside her. She wrapped her arms around him and felt his sobs. "Don't cry, please don't cry. I won't if you won't." The smell of the sickness inside of her permeated the room. He choked back the tears as she squeezed him closer. "Grandpa will take care of you." He lay there next to her, staring ahead, and made himself a promise he would break only one other time in his life. As he stared at the small satchel by the door of the tiny cabin, his whole and entire life, Vin Tanner promised himself he would never cry again.Chris and Vin leaned over a patch of sand, each with a stick in their hand. Other people moved around and past them as they studied scratches in the dirt in front of them, just off the boardwalk in front of the saloon.
"Yeah, but they'll head right along that canyon wall, and if we put a catch pen 50 yards or so from the end, and hide it good, they'll go right in."
"No. I tried that before in Indiana. They'll come up alongside the pen and go around."
"They got walls like this in Indiana?"
"Close enough. We get enough men together, we can get 'em all down here." Chris drew a long line in the dirt. Vin rocked back on his heels, shaking his head. A man walked up beside them, and tapped Vin on the shoulder.
"Got a telegram for ya, Vin."
Vin turned and squinted into the sun at the telegraph operator, but didn't respond. The man fidgeted for a time, then held out a piece of paper. Vin looked at him impassively. A long moment passed, then another. Finally, Vin reached out and took the paper , studied it, and then folded it carefully and put it in the pocket of his coat. His gaze returned to the ground. Chris watched him for a long while, silent. Vin pointed to the lines in the sand.
"JD'll be in, and Buck and Nathan, mebbe Josiah. We put a man . . ." His voice trailed off when he looked up at Chris. "Somethin' wrong?"
Chris didn't answer, but studied him with interest. Shook his head and went back to their plan to round up a little band of horses running the canyons and coulees outside Four Corners.Late that same evening, Chris found himself studying Vin again. This time inside the saloon, as the tracker leaned up against the bar. Chris knew exactly what Vin was doing, leaning on the bar like that. Chris did the same thing with his table in the corner. Vin had taken up a spot at the bar, but he didn't sit. Leaning like that, he could move away from anyone coming too close. And no one would. They might stop for a time to say hello, but they would get comfortable somewhere else in the bar. And Vin would be alone. Just like Chris and his 'git ta'hell away' look. Chris smiled to himself and shook his head. Since when did he care who did what, or why? Wasn't no concern of his what was in that telegram, or why Vin hadn't said. Wasn't no concern of his why a man with a price on his head would even get a telegram anyway. No sir. No concern at all. Chris tapped his finger worriedly along the shotglass beside his hand. And why was Vin watching Ezra? Hell, it just plain bothered Chris when those two got together. No telling what kind of ideas they could come up with. Or what kinda mess they could get into. Or why the hell they'd be together at all. Different as night and day, those two. Inez's shapely form blocked his gaze and he looked up in surprise at being interrupted in his thoughts. She smiled at him and held up a bottle with a question in her eyes. He nodded and she refilled his glass.
Ezra was wondering what was going on, too. Tanner had been leaning on the bar for the better part of the evening, watching him like a hawk. It made Ezra awfully uncomfortable to be watched, especially by someone as mystifying to him as Vin Tanner. It was getting late and most of the patrons had cleared out, leaving the regulators; Buck charming one of the courtesans, Josiah and Nathan and JD sharing a friendly game and Chris sitting in back, watching Vin. A strange evening, indeed.
The voice was so soft Ezra thought he might have imagined it. He was wiping off a tap and looked over at the sharpshooter. Startled by the intense blue eyes watching him, he realized the man had, indeed, spoken.
"Yes, Mr Tanner?"
Vin took a piece of paper from his pocket, spread it carefully out on the bar in front of them, smoothing it out with several strokes of his hand. Then he pushed it slowly across the bar at Ezra. He nodded questioningly and tapped it with his finger, and looked up at Ezra expectantly.
Ezra picked up the telegraph paper, studied it and sighed. He began to read quietly and quickly. "GRANDPA DEAD STOP SENDING THINGS STOP". He folded it back on it's original lines and handed it back. Vin nodded briefly, and folded the paper over and over into tiny pieces, until because of the thickness of it, it would fold no more, closed his fist over the tiny scrap, and downed his drink with his other hand. He nodded again to Ezra, threw himself away from the bar, and walked out into the night.He walked up and down the streets of Four Corners that night, restlessly moving from one shadow to the next, the thoughts tumbling through his mind, like the grasses waving on the prairie. But he didn't _feel_. He couldn't. There was nothing _to_ feel, was there? What had Grandpa ever been to him, but a tyrant and terrorist? And what 'things' were being sent? And by who? Hell, knowing Grandpa,he sent the telegram and the 'things' he was sending was some bounty hunter. And Vin Tanner had best get his ass out of town. Yeah, that sounded like something Grandpa would do. Only Grandpa might be that mean, but he wasn't that smart. No, Grandpa must really be dead. The thing he had dreamed of and wished for and replayed over and over in his mind had happened. Morris Tanner was dead. The only thing different about it was Vin had always thought he'd be the one to kill him. He remembered once after he took off from that jail in Tascosa, he considered going straight back home and killing him. He figured wasn't no reason to hang for somethin' he didn't do, might just as well get the pleasure of killing him before he hung. But he hadn't gone back there. And when Grandpa had showed up in Four Corners to get that wagon, Vin kinda figured they'd have it out then, too. But really, he wasn't the nightmare Vin had remembered him being. He was smaller, somehow, and old. And the urge to beat the livin' crap out of him had just . . . .
Vin shook his head. Aw hell. Still had that catch pen to put together, and those horses to catch, and . . .
There were a lot better things for him to be doin' than wanderin' this damn town all night thinkin' about things that would never be, things he would never know or understand. He went to the livery and stretched out in an empty stall, and went to sleep listening to the soft snuffling of the horses nearby.Two weeks later, six men returned semi-triumphant from their roundup in the hills. They brought with them four scrawny horses, but they were laughing and joking with success. It had been a good day, Chris thought. They hadn't got but a small number of the band they had gone after, and the sorriest looking creatures in the whole lot, but they'd had fun, and Vin had seemed to have forgotten whatever it was had been bothering him since he got that telegram. He'd never offered, and Chris, being Chris, never asked.
They rode up on Ezra, waiting for them outside the saloon. "The mighty warriors have returned . . . defeated, I presume?"
"Nope, Ezra, we caught four of 'em." JD called out.
"Mr. Dunne, these creatures look like they followed you home in the hopes of finding something better to eat. Surely you do not intend to ride these animals?"
"Ride 'em we will, Ezra. JD here is the master horse trainer. He's gonna really turn these colts around, ain'tcha, JD?"
"The only way he could turn them around would be to shoot them." Ezra turned to Vin. "Mr. Tanner, a package came for you on today's stage. It's inside."
Vin lifted his eyebrows slightly in surprise, but nodded noncommitally and dismounted.
"So, who's buyin? I'm the only one who roped anythin' today, so someone's gonna buy me a drink, right?"
"That's because you're the only one who let his horses crash the pen. I ain't buyin you nuthin, cowboy."
Chris stretched the word into a sneer and grinned. Vin just shook his head, flipped the reins of his horse over the rail and walked inside. Chris followed. But when Vin's eyes saw the satchel sitting on the floor beside their customary table, he gasped out loud. He stopped so suddenly Chris bumped into him, then he dropped his head momentarily, sucked in his breath, and caught himself. It was just a plain blue tapestry satchel, string tied through it's wooden dowelled handles. But Vin was looking at it like it was alive.
"Since when does a man with a bounty get packages?"
Vin looked over at him, shook his head, picked up the bag and silently walked out of the saloon. He dropped into a chair outside and set the bag on the boardwalk in front of him. Chris paused long enough to grab a bottle and followed him out. The rest of the men shrugged at each other and sat down inside.
Vin reached into his pocket and took out the tiny folded piece of paper, silently handed it to Chris, and drew his Barlow knife from its sheath. He flicked the blade through the twinestring and the handles fell apart. For a bit he stared into the open bag, knife dangling from his hand. Then he replaced the blade in its keeper, rested his elbows on his knees, leaning over the little satchel, peering inside, but not touching it--remembering.
Chris handed the paper back and stretched his legs out on the bench across from Vin.
"Sorry don't rightly fit the news your Grandpa is dead."
"No." He said flatly, paused and drew a deep breath."My ma packed this the night before he come and got me."
He pulled out two small shirts and a pair of knickers. Chris winced at that. Worn out, tattered knickers--a five year old boy's clothes. The last thing he'd seen Adam in. Dropping them on the walk beside him, Vin drew out a yellowed knuckle bone and grinned.
"Connor's bone," he whispered to himself. Chris leaned forward a little, not sure if the words were meant for him.
Vin raised his head. "Connor's bone--my dog. Ma sent it along. I knew when she put it in there, I wasn't never comin' back."
There was a pair of boots in the bag, and a sling shot--they both grinned when they saw that---a few colored stones and a little carved horse.
He reached into the bag a final time, and took out a bandana wrapped around something. As he unfolded the red cloth, something clattered to the wooden boards beneath his feet. A badge. A Texas Ranger's badge. Both men stared at the silver circle with a star in the middle.
"Shit." The younger man picked it up and turned it over in his fingers. He shook his head and ran his hand across his face, but he couldn't take his eyes off the badge. When he finally raised his eyes to meet Chris, the same thought passed between them. Vin tossed the pin to Chris, averted his eyes, rose and began to walk away. He paused briefly and cast a few words back over his shoulder.
"It'd be just damn funny, wouldn't it?"
Chris could only look at the star in his hands and shake his head.
Twilight has always seemed like God's indrawn breath, a pause in the progression of time.---Emilie Richards
If it seemed to Chris that Vin had been bothered during the time since he had received the telegram, it was nothing compared to the silence and solitude that followed the arrival of the satchel. Vin avoided the saloon entirely, preferring instead to hang around the wild horses that had been rounded up by him and his friends. Chris thought Vin had been up to his shack in the hills, too, when the weather had turned bad for a few days, but since Vin was always more than willing to keep an eye on the roads and hills around Four Corners, he hadn't asked. Whatever it was, he'd work it out. Nettie Wells had asked Chris what was going on, so he knew Vin wasn't talking to her. Josiah, too, had cast some worried queries about Vin. Chris didn't know, and it seemed no one else did, either.
Vin wasn't talking. If he'd been asked, he would have denied _anything_ was wrong. He went on, keeping a protective eye on the town and its people, but avoiding Chris and Mary and Nettie. He didn't want or need their sympathy for his memories, and their looks of concern only angered him. It was much easier to take up with Buck and JD, who could make him forget, if only for a while, and the mustangs, who didn't ask any questions, nor want any answers.
He had a lot more questions than he had answers, anyway. Who sent him that satchel, and why? He remembered Grandpa putting it in the wagon that day, but then he'd never seen it again. And the star, what the hell was that all about?
"Ride 'er yet today?"
JD's enthusiastic voice interrupted his thoughts as he hung his arms over the rail of a pen on the edge of town, staring at, but not really seeing, the thin framed bay in front of him. He shook his head.
"Ain't fillin out much, is she?"
Vin shook his head again, then shrugged.
"I seen a lot worse lookin' horses than this'un outrun anythin' the army had under _them_, back when I was with the Kiowa. Sometimes these little wiry ones'll surprise ya."
JD nodded. "I got the two chesnuts going pretty good. They're gaining better than this one. You want me to sack her out for ya?"
"No, but thanks. I'd rather pony her a bit. Ever done that?"
"I figgered maybe ya had. You get along good with these ponies, JD."
He flushed with pleasure. JD had always been confident around horses, but Buck had never allowed JD his thoughts on the matter. Vin's praise was music to his ears. JD liked the way Vin broke horses, too; out here, most of the cowboys just climbed on them and rode the buck out of 'em. When they got tired and defeated enough, any horse would give in. But Vin liked to sneak up on 'em and make 'em come around, thinkin' it was all their idea. Vin didn't do much the hard way, JD had noticed that.
Vin went into the pen, saddled and haltered the filly, then tied a couple of cotton reins on the head collar, along with a lead rope. The filly was quiet and followed him easily. The time he'd spent out here in the last few weeks was paying off. He looked at JD.
"Wanta ride her for me?"
JD grinned. "Sure. What do you want me to do?"
Vin led her out of the pen, handed the lead rope to JD and mounted his big black. He reached out for the lead, dallied up close and motioned JD to the bay. "Just slip up on her real quiet like. I'll keep her moving forward and she won't throw no fit. 'K?" JD nodded and did as he was asked. The horse remained calm. It wasn't until Vin began to lead her out next to his horse that she became scared. By then, she was being dragged closely along by Peso, and there wasn't much for her to fight. All of them, together, moving. Within the hour, Vin handed the leadline over to JD and the filly rode off like a broke horse.
They rode together for a couple of hours, passing the time quietly, JD sometimes telling Vin about horses he had ridden back east. Mostly, though, they rode in silence.
"Pretty pansy-ass way to break a horse, huh, JD?"
JD was intently turning the horse in figure eights in a small meadow. He stopped her, looked over and shook his head.
"Buck 'n' Chris'd think so, though, wouldn't they?"
"Hell, Vin, Buck's full of crap."
Vin laughed out loud. "You're learnin' Kid, you're learnin."Mostly, Vin's thoughts were taken up by questions. Questions he had never allowed himself to ask. Now it appeared there might be someone who could supply the answers. Someone back in Texas, who had at least known that Grandpa had come here for the wagon, and had guessed that Vin might still be around. Someone that had wanted him to know about the badge.
He hadn't thought much about going back to Texas since Eli Joe had died. He couldn't go back. But he could, couldn't he? As he'd told JD once, a man _always_has a choice. Always. Going back didn't have anything to do with the bounty, now. He knew Chris and the others would throw a fit about him goin'. He couldn't leave them a note; he didn't feel right about just disappearing. But his options were limited. He could no longer live without answers.
And so, one morning, when the other regulators gathered at the saloon for an early morning breakfast, Vin's chair was empty.Thinking back on it later, Chris felt bad about not realizing Vin was gone. He wasn't the only one. Vin had been so quiet lately, so absent, that no one had thought much about it when he didn't show up for breakfast. By midmorning, he was 'missing' to the other regulators, but even then, it was more just a wondering of where he was, and what he was up to. Then JD discovered Peso in the pen and the bay filly gone, and it was assumed he was just gone riding. It nagged at Chris, something just _wasn't _ right, but he let it go. He went to Vin's room in the boarding house, but it was normally so empty anyway . . . and most of his things were still in the livery. He wouldn't leave without that black gelding. Still, Chris remembered the way Vin had looked at him in the street the evening before. What was it he had said?
"If I was a cowboy, I'd give you my horse."
He heard it in his head again, and thought about how, exactly, Vin had said that, and then laughed it off, like it was a little too much whiskey talking. Chris turned midstride in the street and ran towards the church.
"Josiah! JOSIAH!" The heavy doors swung open. "Where was Vin's grandpa from?"
"Sweetwater, I think, why?"
"Get the others. Damn him, he took off! He's goin' back to Texas!"
Josiah blanched. "Without sayin' a word? That don't sound like Vin."
"Get the others and tell 'em to meet me at the livery. I'm goin' after him."
Josiah nodded. "Me too, brother, me too."
Chris and Josiah, leaving the others to watch the town, set out straight away for Sweetwater, Texas, in the hopes that Vin would stay to the rough country to avoid people, and they could make faster travel on the roads. They rode hard and long; unable to ask questions about Vin's whereabouts on the way or think about what they'd do once they got there.Vin moved carefully into Texas; the panhandle was flat and barren--beautiful, in it's own way, but sacrificing no cover for a man in hiding. He remembered how quickly he'd left this country, how fast he'd been moving, how scared and angry and dazed he'd been then; how he'd just lit out and headed straight for the mountains. How, when he got to the cover of them, he had felt comforted and safe and sure.
He crossed the Palo Duro breaks and headed towards Kings Mill. He rode around the old farm, noting how little had changed; still couldn't grow anything in this part of Texas. He shook his head. All Grandpa had ever done was complain about how nobody could grow anythin' in Texas sand 'ceptin' for horny toads and rattlers. And go on and plant again. He saw the old house, and the empty barn, and the tree where he'd tied the dog. He found the place Grandpa had taught him to shoot, and the places where he'd hid from a whippin'. He found where he'd buried the dog. Texas really was a whole other lifetime. He sat on his horse and tried to think why he'd come here, and what he should do.Chris and Josiah rode into Sweetwater, tied up at the livery and then stared at each other with the same question. What now? What if they were dead wrong about why Vin had disappeared and this was just a hard ride into the desert?
They asked at the saloon about Morris Tanner, with no results. They asked at the general store, and the livery, and were directed to the church. The preacher there knew Morris Tanner was from Kings Mill, not Sweetwater, so they mounted up and headed back north and east.Vin camped outside of Kings Mill, in a pathetic little bunch of scrub that wouldn't offer tinder for a fire. He tried to sleep, but could only regret coming here. It just didn't matter anymore. The past here was over and done with, and he had left so much behind him. He was overwhelmed with loneliness for the first time in a very long time.
Them that die do not create the agony and the strangeness of life. Only the living can do that.---Clara's Heart
Riding into Kings Mill, Josiah was surprised it was this easy. He saw the man in the buckskin coat ducking his head and moving along the sandy street at about the same time the man saw him. Vin shook his head and allowed a tiny smile to cross his face before assuming a lean against the nearest building. He waited while the two men approached him.
"Y'all from around these parts, boys?"
"Just lookin' for a friend. He's worth some big money, thought we'd tag along."
"'Bout five hunert dollars."
Vin grinned this time, and his friends were relieved. They hadn't been sure of the welcome they'd receive. For his part, Vin was surprised by the feeling he'd gotten when he saw them. They shook hands and he motioned them down the street.
"Just goin' down to the cemetery to see if Grandma's gone, too. I thought she musta been the one sent the bag, but she ain't at the farm no more."
They were walking past the church to the graveyard gate when Vin paused. He looked at the hitching rails, and tilted his head up the few steps to look at the whitewashed church. He jerked his head up towards the doors. "Pastor might know somethin, too."
"You go to church here, Vin?" Josiah asked.
"Nope. I just sat out front. Watched the team. Grandpa was a friend of the parson's back then. I stole that team right out from under 'im whilst he was sitting in church." Vin smiled, remembering the exhiliration he'd felt that day, swinging the team around and driving them right down the road, out of town, while Grandma and Grandpa sat in church. He'd been scared, too, that he might get caught, and scared not knowing where he was going. Interrrupting his thoughts, a man came out the doors of the church.
"Can I help you men?"
Vin looked at him, recognizing the same man that had preached here so many years ago.
"You remember Morris Tanner?"
"Yes sir, I do. I'm sorry to tell you he passed over a few months ago."
Vin nodded. "I know. What about his wife?"
"She died almost three years ago."
Vin sighed. Well, that'd been a bad guess. His eyes travelled over to the little shack next door to the church. It hadn't changed much from what he remembered.
"Did you know them?"
Vin's gaze returned to the man on the steps. "Pastor Richter, I'm the little kid used to sit out here and watch the team while they went to church. 'Member me?"
The man's eyes widened slightly, and flickered between Vin and the other two men.
"Now, I reckon you know I'm a wanted man, and I figger you could keep your mouth shut til I'm done with my business here. Think you could do that?"
The man nodded quickly. Chris and Josiah were surprised by the quick and quiet threatening tone Vin's voice had taken on.
"You know anybody else who knew my mama; anybody who's still around here, that mighta sent me somethin'?"
He pointed to the little shack Vin had been looking at a moment before. "The old colored woman still lives there. She'd be the only one I know of."
Vin nodded. "Thank you, sir."
"I'm sorry about what your Grandpa did, boy."
Vin had already turned away, but he paused and tilted his head slightly to the side, considering the comment. He turned back around.
"Morris had a hard hand with you, boy, we all knew that. But he was a deacon here. I reckon we could understand how you coulda turned out like you did."
Vin nodded, biting his lip and shaking his head. "I reckon you could, Parson. But . . ." He mounted the steps in a couple of strides so that his face was inches away from the pastor's. The man's face went white and he leaned as far back as he could without moving his feet to get away from Vin. The tracker's voice lowered and he growled softly, "You stupid sonofabitch. You stand in there preachin and tellin people how to live and be good damn Christians. To hell with you and your damn church. And if you ever tell anybody I was here, I'll come back and fuckin' make you wish I had killed you today." He turned and dropped off the steps and stalked across the lot to the shack.
Chris and Josiah smiled to each other, and Josiah spoke to the man shaking on the steps.
"Yes, sir . . . ." he jerked his thumb toward Vin's retreating form, "what he said." He turned to Chris. "You gotta watch them little wiry ones."
The two men followed quietly after Vin.The tracker stepped carefully up on the porch of the little cabin, afraid a misstep could cause the whole thing to collapse. He knocked softly on the door. After a moment, the door eased open, revealing a short colored woman as wide as she was tall. She peered up into Vin's face and gasped.
"It's all right, ma'am, I ain't gonna hurt you. I think you knew---"
"You're that Tanner boy, ain't ya?"
"Yes ma'am. Do you know---"
"Lordy lordy, look at you boy--you growed some!" She looked him up and down in obvious pleasure. "Still skinny, though, ain't ya? Been nobody feedin ya, son?"
"Yes ma'am, I get plenty to eat." Vin was grinning now. "I 'member the stuff you used to give me, though."
She looked from Vin to Josiah and Chris doubtfully. It occurred to Vin it might be right unpleasant to be an old colored woman with three white gunpackers standing on your front porch.
"They're my friends. Ain't none of us gonna hurt you."
She nodded, reached out and grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. "You all best come inside, caint's have people aroun' here seein' you."
It was a crowded but pleasant little room; clean, if worn and poor. The old woman never turned loose of Vin's hand, and kept up a round of chatter the likes of which none of them had heard before. Vin realized he was just gonna have to break in if he wanted any of his questions answered.
"You knew my ma?"
"Sure I did. Nicest woman ever was. Pretty too. She just adored you, boy, and she worked hard to try to have somethin' for ya. She was always bringin' you down here to see me. And then when she died---musta just broke her heart knowin there weren't anyone to take care of you. She wanted to leave you here with me, but them white folks wouldn't hear of it. And your pa---"
Vin rose slightly off the chair. "You knew my pa?"
She nodded. "Just a bit. That's why I knew ya, son. You look just like 'im."
Vin was stunned. He rocked back on his chair like all the air had collapsed out of him. She noticed and gripped his hand harder. She shook her head. "I's sorry, boy."
He regained his breath and covered her hand with his. If it bothered him that Chris and Josiah were hearing all this about his past, he didn't show it. "Where is he? Where did he go? What's---"
"Oh, now, boy, he's dead. He's just gotta be. He'da never left your ma. Or you. He come here just once after you was born, walked all over this town holdin' his little baby son in his arms, grinning like he's loco."
"Well, I guess no one really knows, but he'da come back for you and her if he was alive."
"Don't go there, boy. That man woulda come back if he coulda. Trust me."
Vin freed his hand, reached into the pocket of his coat, withdrew the ranger's badge and held it out to her.
"You know about this?"
"Oh, _yes_ he was a lawman, your daddy. That's why I always thought it was funny, you know, when they all said you . . . .you done that thing. I just couldn't believe you woulda done that."
"But my name's Tanner."
She nodded again. "Well, they never did get married. It don't mean nothin' less, though. They was just young and things was happenin' then and that lawman job took him away afore they could get that done. That and your grandpa, he kinda owned that churchman. Your grandpa just hated your pa. I reckon that's why he took such a dislikin' to you. 'Cause everytime he looked at you, a person could just see that man go crazy. Wasn't right, though, how he treated you."
Vin was exhausted. He'd learned so much, in so short a time; things he'd never expected to know, and the thought that all of it had been right here, all along, overwhelmed him.
"Listen, though, boy, you got to get outta Texas. There's people'll hang you without thinkin' twice." Her eyes were filled with concern for him. Chris and Josiah rose. Vin looked up at them, and Chris wondered briefly if Vin was in any shape to ride.
"You sent me that bag?"
She nodded. "I heard him talkin' to folks when he come back with his wagon. I thought mebbe you was still aroun' there. Didn't s'pect you to come back and see me though, Vinny."
He winced and Chris and Josiah grinned widely. He reached into his pockets for something to give her, but all he had was his harmonica. He held it out silently to her.
"Lordy, no, boy, you don't needs to give this ole colored woman nuthin. Just seein you's all right is enough for me. I never thought I'd see the likes of you agin. You go on, now, git. And keep yourself safe. And lordy, boy, you eats somethin'. Got no more meat on you than them chickens your grandpa used ta give me and call hisself a Christian." She engulfed him in a bear hug, and clutching his forearm, led them to the door.
There were tears in her eyes when she finally turned loose of him, and the three men mounted up and rode quickly out of town--toward home.
Some places you may leave, but a part of you remains there; the void within you is replaced by a piece of that place, and you carry it, like a precious stone polished in a pocket, forever. ---Ken Marsh
They rode in silence for a long while, across the open, sandy stretches, through the flatlands and toward the hills. The hills gave way to more and more cover, and finally, when Vin was sure they had left Texas behind them, he relaxed. The words of the old woman hung softly in his mind, like the gentle murmur of a bell mare at night. He forgot that Chris and Josiah were there with him at all, so intently was he remembering what she had said.
"You look just like him."
" . . .walked all over town, holding his little baby son in his arms . ."
"He'da come back for you and her if he was still alive."
"You gonna ride that horse right off the edge of that rock, or you wanna come 'round down the trail with us?"
Chris's light-hearted voice interrupted his thoughts, and he reined up and turned to them. He nodded and followed the other two horses down a path through the rocks.Late in the evening, when they had stopped and camped, despite Vin's desire to go on, they were laughing about the preacherman's facial expression after Vin had threatened him. Vin missed it, and the two older men were trying to convey the absolute fear he had imparted to the man.
"Thought he'd just go right there and wet himself." Josiah shook his head.
"Serves him right. Jackass."
"That ain't what you called him back there." Josiah chuckled. " Vinny."
Vin started to rise and Josiah laughed, leaned back and feigned fear. Chris just threw his head back and laughed out loud.
"I'll show you the face of a scared man iffen you call me that one more time."
Vin settled back down and set his tin cup of coffee near the fire, fiddled with his harmonica and drew some long low notes from the mouth harp.
"Didn't have to take off without tellin' anyone." Chris changed the subject with a quiet admonishment that hung in the air.
"Seein's how you lit off after me, I don't reckon I'd got outta town alone. This was my business, and figgered I'd keep it that way. You got a whole lot more to keep you in Four Corners than I do."
"That mean you're gonna take off on us again?"
"I didn't sign on for the long stretch, Chris, you know that. You got enough men to back you up."
Vin would no longer look at Chris, and Josiah was a little uneasy with the tone the conversation had taken.
"You coulda told somebody. Or left a note."
Josiah made a sudden sharp intake of breath at Chris's statement, and Vin's eyes flickered between the two men.
"Ain't nobody in that town that wouldnta gone runnin' to you---'ceptin maybe Ezra, and you'da ended up turnin' that on him. You must be the only one don't know by now I can't read."
Vin shoved the harmonica in his pocket and leaned back against his saddle, crossing his arms defiantly in front of him.
"How'd you read the telegram?"
"Sonofabitch. I thought you two were plannin' somethin."
"Like we'd tell you."
"Got a lotta secrets, doncha?"
"More'n you'll ever know."
Vin went back to his harmonica. Chris, being Chris, had to have the last word.
"Damned ole woman shoulda took that thing when it was offered."
Vin faltered for a note, then went right on playing.
When they arrived back in Four Corners, they received a hearty welcome and a dramatic recreation, courtesy Buck and JD, of the excitement they'd missed while they were gone. Ezra mused the retelling took longer than the gunbattle, and Nathan pointed out there was a lot less bloodshed without Chris and Vin and why didn't they take off more often? Buck went after Vin with a full bottle of whiskey and allowed how he was gonna get Vin drunk again, to which Vin looked like he might actually comply. Then Chris broke in with a narrow eyed stare that silenced the room.
"When he gets good and drunk, find out what he did with my hat."
Five heads swivelled around to catch Vin's reaction. He maintained his stone face, then rose from the table and levelled an accusing finger at Chris Larabee.
"You're damn lucky to be alive and you oughta be thankin' me for not just ditching your sorry ass to those gunslingers and takin' Mary and Billy and gettin' ta'hell away my own self." He drew himself up to his full height, defying Chris to answer.
Chris nodded, slowly rising from the table himself. He lifted his glass to Vin, and smiled. Suddenly, a roomful of people around him, Vin knew with true and absolute certainty what Chris Larabee was going to do. Get even. And there was nothing, short of pulling his mare's leg, he could do about it.
"I will be forever in your favor for the bravery you exhibited on that mountain. And I would like all of our friends to raise a toast---to Vinny".
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