Ezra laid his book aside and squirmed his shoulders into a more comfortable position against the pillows, then reached up to the conveniently hung olla and tilted it in its ingenious sling arrangement, sending cool water cascading into the pottery cup. Mr. Tanner had been as good as his word in contriving the device, and extremely clever in designing it. Sipping his water slowly in the afternoon warmth, he thought about everything the Texan had told him four days ago. He now knew that it had been basically himself and Mr. Tanner in the house that day: the Larabees had all gone off to Four Corners so they could do their shopping and Mr. Larabee could be at hand in case he was needed to help keep the peace, but they had known they couldnt leave Ezra all by himself, so Mr. Tanner had volunteered to stay with him. Ezra had felt troubled that Mr. Tanner, who was after all a sort of deputy, had neglected his duties for his sake, but Mr. Tanner had only grinned and said it didnt matter. "Aint like there wasnt three more fellers Chris could call on iffen he needed em," he had said. "But then you aint seen Chris in action afore, really, have you? Twas kinda dark when he shot Addison, and you was underneath of JD at the time. He can make out pretty good on his own, iffen he has to, Chris can."
Ezra held no grudges against the Larabees for leaving him alone (well, almost alone); he was, after all, accustomed to being left behind, and in any case they did have to buy food, and hadnt been able to go into town for a couple of Saturdays, the first because of the quarantine and the second because Buck was just getting over the measles and couldnt go with them. He was, in fact, a little surprised to find how pleasant the memory was of his long day with just Mr. Tanner for company. The young man had been wonderfully informative, telling him all about how CL-Cross had come to be and how it worked and how the customs and laws of the range affected it, and drawing maps on his brown-paper moccasin pattern to show where the ranch lay in relation to the town, how it used the land belonging to it, where the neighbors were located and why they had settled where they did, how the trails went and how the lay of the land forced them to go in certain ways. It was a most absorbing lesson in geography and social history, and Ezra soaked it up not only because (as Mother had always said) knowledge was power and it might one day have use, but because he found it interesting. It was also a time during which it became plain to him that, while Mr. Tanner didnt speak as well as he did (or even as well as Mr. and Mrs. Larabee), he was still a very intelligent man and knew quite a lot.
Having lived all his life heretofore east of the Missouri River, Ezra was accustomed to the concept of people owning outright all the land they used, but here on the frontier, he had been surprised to learn, this was more often the exception than the rule. The plains, Mr. Tanner told him, were a very dry country, with an annual average rainfall much nearer the arid desert level of ten inches or less than the satisfactory level of thirty or more that prevailed in good farming areas. And the natural water-storage conditions werent good: often when the rains did come, they came in great storms called cloudbursts, the water ran off so quickly that not enough was retained, and rivers, streams, and springs dried up. But in places where sufficient water was available, or could be had through well-digging, irrigation, or other means, an area could flourish and grow. This was why the West had seen so many scraps, lawsuits, battles, and wars over the control of water supply, the diversion or damming of streams, and other liquid issues. If you controlled the water at which your stock drank, you controlled, in essence, all the land it grazed on, even without owning a foot of it; only a farmer felt driven to acquire legal title to his entire parcel, in part because he hoped that doing so would give him the right to fence out wandering range stock that might otherwise eat his crops in the field--or sue their owners if he couldnt fend them off.
By and large, early settlers tended to locate along rivers "in full flow"--downstream some distance from the source--in part because the land was always better at the heart of a valley than at the head or the foot. Later comers laid claim, if possible, to lands upstream, which put them in possession of more remote, less desireable country, but in a position to cut off, use up, or divert the water to which the downstreamers felt they had a prior right. The latter were protected by a basic law loosely expressed as "First in time--first in right," which translated roughly as first come first claim. These early comers tended to be chiefly cattlemen--sometimes big ones, sometimes not--because of the difficulty and expense of gaining full legal title to farmland prior to the passage of the Homestead Act. Conversely, few prairie farmers lived by streams, which had generally been long since claimed by the time they began filtering into a given neighborhood; the nearest one to the homestead might be ten miles away, and most relied on shallow buffalo wallows to catch rainwater, or they made cisterns. Even if well-drilling machinery had been efficient or common (which it wasnt), the sodbuster had so little capital that he couldnt have afforded to hire it (an itinerant driller would charge sixty dollars for a three-hundred-foot hole six inches in diameter, not counting the casing, which cost ninety-eight cents to $1.78 per foot at a hardware emporium in town), so he had to dig his own--with a "spring-pole" rig, which was basically a weighted drill bit hung by a rope from a springy pole and moving up and down in the well-hole like an old-fashioned pestle for grinding corn, if he was lucky and had a helper or two, and with a pick and shovel by hand if he wasnt. Often he had to go down two or three hundred feet through hard clay and rock (twenty to forty was usually enough in the East), taking as much as two years to finish the job (as against perhaps ten days for the Eastern farmer), with his family meanwhile hauling their water in barrels from wherever they could find it, and more than one had been overcome by gases and died. Then once he had his well, he had to bring the water to the surface. In a dug well he could use a bucket on the same windlass that had brought up the excavated dirt, but with a driven or drilled one he had to have a pump, even though a good iron pump cost money--twelve to twenty dollars not counting pipe. The cheapest part of the operation was the windmill, which everybody had as soon as he could buy or make one--and making it was easy: any man with a slight mechanical turn could do it. All he needed was a tower (not a very high one on the flat plains), a fan of four to ten feet diameter to mount on it, and a vane behind to keep the fan angled into the wind. The Larabees had one: it pumped water for the tank in the barn, the troughs in the corrals, the cistern in the washhouse and the towering copper kitchen boiler in its intricacy of pipes.
A would-be stockmans first care was to find a live stream with an ample (he hoped) supply of water; this done, he would establish a headquarters camp at a desireable adjacent spot, most preferably one with trees. He then secured by one means or another a narrow strip of stream frontage, which enabled him to claim all the land facing the stream, on one side or both as he preferred, for as far as he dared--sometimes fifteen or twenty miles--and as far back from it as a cow would walk for a drink (usually reckoned as five to ten miles), plus another five to fifteen miles for elbow room, commonly to the ridge that formed the "water divide," beyond which lay another stream and the land of another rancher. (The land not within cow-walk of the stream could still be used for grazing if it had natural springs, tanks, or waterholes, or if the stockman installed windmills on his range.) Thus for each quarter-section he actually owned, he controlled a minimum of another 1600 acres--two and a half square miles--of pasture. If no stream was available, he could homestead on a waterhole, and with the backing of Federal land laws control all the surrounding ranges as effectively as if theyd been fenced. Most of the big cattlemen did this anyway with any open waterhole or spring they happened to find on their range, in hopes of preventing farmers from edging in; often theyd pay their cowboys to file, let them prove up and get their patents, then buy the claims from them. Control of water gave control of land: a cowmans range could cover a million acres even though the owner only held title to a quarter-section on a stream or near a waterhole, where his buildings were. While land was plentiful and the range open, it was common courtesy not to establish yourself too close to a ranch already in operation; fourteen miles was considered a comfortable distance, since cattle couldnt walk more than seven miles to water and back to the limit of the grazing area in a day, but the headquarters of a big outfit might not have another building within twenty, or even fifty if the country was dry. The small ranches were likely to be much closer together, say a couple of miles, as Ezra could see by Mr. Tanners maps. Often (lurid reports in dime novels and Eastern newspapers to the contrary) a rancher didnt even have to hire gunmen to drive the "nesters" off; he just had to be patient. The farmers were poor and ignorant, often gulled by some booster back East or in Europe; most had no experience in cultivating semiarid lands, and thousands had never owned a bit of property in their lives, and were easily deluded into believing that mere title to such a vast tract as 160 acres would automatically give the owner a handsome living. Theyd come in and keep planting and hoping, and each year the crop would come up just fine--fine enough for feed--and then dry up. After a few years of this theyd be hit with a dry spring, or maybe a plague of grasshoppers, and then theyd be glad to sell for enough to get home on, or anywhere else they could get to. If the rancher insisted on gaining title, he could sometimes buy Government land for as little as twenty-five cents an acre, or lease it from the nearest Reservation for two per year (frequently payable not in cash, but in beef to supplement the erratic Indian Bureau issue). Whether or no, generally he placed a notice in a newspaper, listing his brand (and earmarks if any) and fixing the extent of his claim by naming its various boundary landmarks, as well as recording both in the state or territory brand books. Thereafter he maintained control of his claim under a "customary range" law, which provided for fines and jail sentences for anyone who drove stock off its customary range without the owners leave. Because the quantity and quality of grass, as well as of water, in a given section determined the number of cattle it could support, and unstinted water might cause the stock of several ranchers to intermingle on it, the man whose stock first drank at a water source (or his heirs after him) had prior right to that source thereafter; he didnt have to share it unless he wanted to, and even if he did, he could fence it off at any time. The second comer had second right, and so on. No latecomer might graze his animals on a tract unless all animals belonging to earlier comers were assured of ample fodder.
These land laws and customs tended to weight the scales in favor of the stockman, who had, or could accumulate over time, more capital than the small farmer would ever hope to see. Though Federal land could only be acquired in parcels or multiples of 160 acres, the law didnt specify how many such parcels could be claimed: it was completely legal for the same person to take up a homestead and a pre-emption claim, 320 acres total (although in the case of the latter he had to be able to cough up $200, where the former cost him only a total fee of $18), and more recently another quarter-section under the Timber Culture Act of 73 and a full section under the Desert Land Act of 77. It was also not an uncommon practise for a man and woman, united by clergy or common law, to erect twin "claims shacks" with a common wall on the boundary of adjoining tracts, and each file for a homestead, thereby getting twice as much land. In addition, there was still "soldier scrip"--warrants awarded to veterans of everything from the French and Indian Wars onward up to the Civil--floating around, some of it in blocks of up to 12,000 acres; most of the soldiers who got this scrip had quickly sold it a steep discount, and it continued to circulate.
Though they didnt raise cattle for a living, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee had seen no reason not to take advantage of range custom in order to acquire their land. Because horses trample as much grass as they eat, they needed more acreage per head, but you could make a good living off less of them because their selling price was higher. When Chris made up his mind to settle in the Four Corners district, he and Sarah between them had filed on a total of 640 acres--one homestead and one pre-emption apiece--which gave them effective control of 6400 more: a total of eleven square miles, which, with good underlying soil, could support some 350 head of horses. Five years ago they had each filed on another quarter-section under the Timber Culture Act, and Vin, once he reached the age of twenty-one, had filed on three adjoining; this had increased the partnerships holdings to a size sufficient for almost eight hundred. In practise they kept three "stud bands," each consisting of a stallion and thirty or forty mares, plus the young fillies not yet old enough to breed and the two-, three-, and four-year-old geldings. The bottomland where they raised their hay could be counted on to give them at least a ton and a half per acre per year; one ton would support a single horse through the roughest kind of winter, and any left over could be sold to the Army or the feed and livery businesses in town, as could oats and barley raised on the unused land. They usually bought a few yearling steers each spring and "finished" them for their own use or for sale when they hit two, and, like most small ranchers, they did a little small-scale farming for their own use, as Ezra had already seen. They had built up a good breed of stock that blended several strains: Missouri fox-trotter, thoroughbred, and quarter horse, with a little native mustang thrown in for endurance and self-reliance. While a big rancher was much likelier to get into a quarrel with his cow-raising neighbors (small- or large-scale) than he was with hopeful farmers, cattlemen of every degree hesitated to antagonize a horse breeder, because he raised the animals without which it would be impossible for them to carry on their business; so although the CL-Cross family had never liked the two cattle barons of the area, Stuart James and Guy Royale, and James and Royale returned the feeling, they co-existed in a sort of wary peace.
It astonished Ezra to realize just how comfortable he felt with Mr. Tanner. At first he couldnt understand why this should be. Certainly the Texan was easygoing and diffident, not a man to give offense, but he clearly wasnt the kind of "gentleman" Ezras mother expected him to become. What did they really have in common, apart from both being born in Southern states? Ezra hadnt spent most of his boyhood among the Indians, as Tanner had, an experience which had obviously marked his entire life. It was only after he pondered it for a day or two that the boy had begun to see below the surface and realize that the literal circumstances of their raisings werent the deciding factor. Rather what mattered was the way they had learned to see themselves. Both had grown up essentially alone in the midst of others--Vin because he had been so conscious of his whiteness even during his years with the Comanches, then had been unable to fit fully back into civilized life after returning to the whites; Ezra because he had been a perpetual, and usually unwelcome, stranger in the various households where he had lived. Both had trained themselves to be alert, perceptive, quick-thinking, and able to draw accurate conclusions from small amounts of data. Both had had to learn to draw on their own inner strengths for comfort and sustenance, yet both secretly ached to belong, to have people in their lives they could count on, to find places where they could put down roots and know they werent going to be forced to leave. Both were loners, not by choice but by necessity, forced to develop emotional self-sufficiency by the peculiar circumstances of their upbringing, yet on some level longing for closeness. Vin had learned, early and painfully, that trusting people and caring about them came at a heavy cost; Ezra had been taught from the age of six not to let anyone in, always to maintain his mask, and the nomadic lifestyle he had lived, by insuring that no attachment he formed could possibly last, had only reinforced that teaching.
Yet Vin had overcome his early handicaps. He had found Chris Larabee, who had brought Sarah and the children into his life, given him a home and a purpose, a feeling of being needed. He might be a rustic, but he was more inwardly complete, more at peace with himself, than anyone Ezra had ever met. His self-control and self-possession were remarkable to the boy, who knew something of the gift, and his laconic façade was equal to the best poker face Ezra had ever seen. His dry humor and the easy banter he exchanged with his much older partner, his crooked, oddly warming little smile and soft reassuring drawl, were somehow comforting to the boy. He thought it might be possible to come to like Tanner very much; he certainly wasnt surprised that the Texan held so high a place in Mr. Larabees estimation. At the same time, Ezra sensed that there was far more to him than perhaps most people realized, and that he could be cunning and even ruthless where the safety of those he cared for was involved. He had seen men much like Tanner in his life, men down from the hills, the "up-country" of the western Carolinas, East Tennessee and Kentucky, the mountains of Alabama, and West Virginia, which by their numbers and loyalty they had taken right out of the Old Dominion to make of it a separate state--lone, silent hunters with Indian ways, who could follow the trail of a ghost and read the mind of a wolf, and whose prowess as sharpshooters had been legendary from the days of Danl Boone. Quiet men, not inclined to quarrel, but hard, loyal as iron to their families and those few they acknowledged as friends, fierce as lions toward anyone who stood a threat to them or theirs. Watchful, half-wild men who saw/heard/smelled things no one else could, who were ever alert to all that was around them. Yes, Ezra reflected; he might not know Vin Tanner well, but he knew the Texans breed. Mr. Larabee and his family are fortunate to have him in their midst, he thought, and found himself wondering how it would feel to be accepted as a part of Tanners world. Not that he could believe it would ever happen...and then he thought, But why not? He knows what it is like to be alone. I feel somehow that he senses a similarity between us, as I do.
He shook off the wistfulness. There was no point in yearning after something that couldnt be; Mother would come back for him, once his leg was healed, and everything would go back to the way it had always been. He sighed and glanced toward the window, before which Sarah Larabee was sitting in a carpet-covered rocking chair that had been brought up from the Larabees bedroom, while Katie played quietly with her rag dolls and wooden building blocks at her mothers feet. Wednesday was, in most households, the day for sewing and patching, and since Adam and the men had ridden out to oversee the horses on the range, she had decided to come up here and do her tasks once the regular daily chores were out of the way. Vin had assisted Ezra in seeing to natures business, a duty he seemed to have fallen naturally into assuming, had carried the chair up the stairs, and then the three had taken off with packets of cold food, leaving Sarah to her needlework and the "children"--convalescent Ezra, Buck who didnt ride yet (at least not well enough for range work), and little Katie. They had had a break a little while ago for dinner--a light one, since the weather was warm and no one had been doing heavy labor: savory lentil soup, garden-fresh tomatoes sliced with cucumbers on curly lettuce leaves, a big pile of sandwiches of bread and butter and jelly, cold roast beef, cheese and lettuce, and egg salad, and the remains of last weeks baking of cookies, a fresh batch of which would be made tomorrow, with a pitcher of cold lemonade to drink. Ezra was drowsy with good food and the warmth of the midsummer afternoon, and very much tempted to fall asleep, but reluctant to do it because it seemed discourteous to his--hostess? foster mother?
He remembered Buck thundering up the stairs yesterday at midmorning and racing into the room to tell all about how he was going to be adopted and stay on the ranch forever, and how Ezra was going to be staying too, and wouldnt that make them brothers? Ezra, of course, had already known about the arrangement, but had done his best to seem both surprised and pleased. Pleased he was, for Bucks sake; after all, he knew what it was not to have a home, and he wouldnt have wished it on anyone else for all the gold in the Treasury--certainly not on happy, generous, loving Buck. It was good that one of them at least was going to come out of this experience ahead of the game. Yet he found it troubling to think of the way Bucks eyes glowed when the younger boy looked at him. He had seen that kind of look in other children, when they were with idolized older siblings, beloved uncles or aunts, or had the opportunity to meet some public figure they had learned to revere. He wasnt used to either giving or receiving that kind of worship, and the latter especially left him bewildered--what he had ever done to deserve it? Of course Buck was too innocent to know what Ezra was, or perhaps more accurately what his mother had decreed he must one day become. He ought to be discouraged now, before his misplaced adoration led him into trouble, and perhaps into conflict with his new-found family. How did you discourage hero-worship? Most of all when you were going to have to live under the same roof with the disillusioned worshipper for the next two months? Better, perhaps, to just pretend he hadnt seen, and try not to do anything that would increase the intensity of it all. He would be going, sooner or later, and Buck would forget him; hed have plenty of other people around to love and be loved by.
Speaking of Buck, where was he? Hed said something at dinner about wanting to play with the kittens in the barn; that was probably it. Hopefully hed have better sense than to tumble out the loft...The door slammed downstairs and footsteps sounded in the narrow stairshaft. "Miz Sarah! Miz Sarah! Somebodys comin, I seenim out the loft door!" Buck shouted, startling everyone as he burst into the room.
Sarah laid aside her sewing and scooped up her daughter, who had burst into tears at Bucks noisy advent. "All right," she said, "calm down and get your breath and tell me about it. Was there just one?"
Buck gulped air, hesitated and nodded. "Yesm. A big, big man on a big horse, with a big wide hat. A giant!"
"Oh," said Sarah with a little laugh, "that sounds like Josiah. You havent met him yet, have you? Lets go down and see what he wants...Ezra, its almost Katies nap time, and I dont want to take her down with me and have Josiah playing toss-the-baby, itll get her so stirred up shell never go to sleep. Would you mind having her on the bed with you, just till I find out whats brought him by?"
"Of course not, Mrs. Larabee. I shall be delighted to look after her while you are entertainin Mr. Sanchez." Ezra had naturally met "the preacher," as JD called him; hed been there in Broken Bow, along with Chris and Vin, when the boy had awakened in Dr. Burnells office the morning after he was shot.
Sarah deposited her daughter on the mattress where Ezra could get an arm around her, on the side away from his bad ribs. "Well now, Miss Katie," the boy said, distracting the childs attention with a finger to her nose, "what are we to do to keep you out of mischief? I know...a young lady must commence early on to assemble the contents of her hope chest. I fear I am no hand with a needle, but perhaps I can contrive to assist you in findin the wherewithal for silver and other such treasures. Why, look at this...you have it already!" And with a flourish he produced a half-dollar from her left ear. Katie laughed in delight and clapped her hands as her mother and Buck quietly left the room.
The man who swung down off his heavy-boned sorrel at Miz Sarahs invitation was the biggest man Buck had ever seen, except for Mike: not as tall as Nathan, but broad and solid, with a belly like a boulder, large hands, a jutting shelf of brow and a jaw like the butt end of the splitting maul Mister Chris used to drive wedges into logs. He wore a vest with beadwork on it, and brown broadcloth pants of a pattern Buck had never seen before, slit at the ankles and with buttons and brocade and silver bits all up the sides. His saddle, too, was strange--similar to the ones Mister Chris and Mister Vin rode, but not the same, the tree covered in white rawhide, the horn as big across as a dinner plate, exposed rigging for a single cinch fastened around the base of it; the stirrups were sheathed in leather covers that looked like pictures Buck had seen of Dutch wooden shoes. There was a gun on his left hip, and a big knife on his right. Buck watched him uneasily. Men who came into the house from outside could be trouble, and there was no one here but him who could protect Miz Sarah if this one tried to hurt her, as men sometimes did the ladies of ones house. He knew he was supposed to avoid the "gentlemen" when they came to the house, but Ma had told him he must never let a woman be hurt by anyone, and his Mas teachings came above every other rule. He edged closer to Miz Sarah and scowled at the stranger.
Miz Sarah didnt seem to be worried about her own safety, but then ladies didnt know a man was planning to hurt them until it happened. "Hello, Josiah," she said, extending her hand. "What brings you out this way? Im afraid youve missed Chris and Vin, theyre out checking the horses."
"I wasnt looking for them, Sister Sarah," the big man replied, in a deep rumbly voice that seemed vaguely familiar to Buck, but he couldnt remember exactly where he might have heard it. "Just stopped in to see if I might water my horse and maybe get a glass of lemonade. Ive been up by Woolly Ridge since eight this morning, trying to get a line on some missing cattle."
"Thats not very pleasant country to be in this time of year," Sarah observed. "Of course you can have some lemonade, I just made a pitcher fresh for our dinner. Buck, take the horse over to the trough and let it drink, and then tie it in the shade."
Buck hesitated, torn between his desire to please her and his trained imperative to defend. But then he realized hed never be out of yelling distance of the house; if this big man tried to hurt her, shed scream--ladies always did--and hed know and could come running back to help. "Yesm," he said quietly, and dropped off the porch to edge past the stranger and pick up the sorrels trailing reins. Miz Sarah seemed to know the man, but that didnt mean anything. Sometimes a gentleman came to the house several times before he showed his true colors; "establishing his bona fides," was what Miz Abigail called it.
He saw to the horse as hed been told to, then circled around by the back gate and went in through the kitchen door. The room faced north, which helped counter the heat of the stove, and was located in a one-storey ell with windows on three sides and the doorway to the dining room on the fourth, creating a constant crisscross of fresh incoming air no matter which way the breeze was blowing. The big man was sitting at the kitchen table with a big glass of lemonade and a sandwich. He had taken off his hat and hung it on the back of his chair, and now that he was out from under its shade Buck could see that he had a rugged, weathered face and deep-set blue eyes--not sky-blue like Mister Vins, but paler, more like the blue equivalent of Ezras. His hair was curly and mostly gray, but he didnt look or sound old. "You two havent met, really, have you?" said Miz Sarah. "Josiah, this is Ezras friend, Buck Wilmington. Buck, say hello to Josiah Sanchez."
"How do you do," said Buck, and held out his hand as his ma had always told him he must.
"Hello, little brother," the big man replied, and shook it gently. "Ezra told me about you. I had hoped Id get to meet you Saturday when you were in town, but I was unexpectedly called to Watsonville."
"Do you know Ezra?" Buck asked. This was unusual. A gentleman might know you if you belonged to a lady hed been with, but he very seldom connected you to any of the other children in your house.
"Yes, indeed, and his mother as well. I hear youre going to be part of this household permanently?"
"Thats what Miz Sarah says," Buck agreed, polite but cautious.
Mr. Sanchez looked at Miz Sarah with a lifted eyebrow. "Not mother?" he asked.
"Oh, Josiah, its barely a month since he lost his real one," she pointed out. "I dont think its fair to expect him to call me by the same name he did her, not so soon. I can be patient and wait. Im sure hell think of some term of affection and respect for me eventually; hes a very bright little boy, and if it isnt ma Ill accept it." She smiled. "After all, I already have one little boy who calls me that."
"Its a fine thing you and Chris are doing," said Mr. Sanchez. "But then, from what I know of the boy, Im not really surprised."
Miz Sarah turned away with an embarrassed blush. "What about those cattle?" she asked. "Im surprised you didnt stop on your way and ask Vin to go with you. Woolly Ridge isnt easy country to follow a trail over, from what hes said of it."
"Im pretty sure they were just drifting, looking for water," Mr. Sanchez explained. "It looked as if theyd been drinking from a tank and it dried up. There wasnt anything to suggest theyd been pushed out by anyone trying to move them quickly or hide the sign. I stopped by Frasers and told him so."
"Youd think his own crew would have been able to figure that out, without making you ride all the way out there in the hot sun," Miz Sarah groused.
"I dont mind. Remember, Ive spent time in much hotter climes in my day. And theres a stark beauty to that part of the country that I find somehow reassuring. As if God is telling me that even in what seems a harsh and forgotten landscape, were not forsaken."
Buck listened silently, trying to be unobtrusive and figure out what would happen next. Most gentlemen didnt talk about God. "You come here a lot, Mr. Sanchez?" he asked.
"Often enough," he was told, "though perhaps not as much as Id like to. Seems there are never enough hours in the day."
The boy looked at Miz Sarah. "You want me to go up and help Ezra with Katie till youre done, Miz Sarah?"
"Done?" The woman turned to face him with a puzzled expression. "I dont understand, Buck."
"Well, I know you dont go upstairs to bed, like we do," Buck replied. "So you must be goin in there, aint you?" He nodded toward the Larabees bedroom door, just visible on the east side of the dining room. "We can wait, I reckon, but Adam and Mister Chris and Mister Vinll be wantin their supper when they come back, so dont take too long." He looked solemnly at Sanchez. "Youd oughta not come till after dark. Most gentlemen gives us time to eat first."
The two adults stared first at him, then at each other, and an expression of mingled horror, dismay, and embarrassment washed over Miz Sarahs face, which gradually turned a deep red. Mr. Sanchez looked puzzled at first, then suddenly clapped a hand over his mouth as if to hold back laughter, his shoulders shaking. "Oh, Lord have mercy," he gasped in a muffled voice. "Id forgotten where Dr. Burnell said his mother probably came from."
Buck was confused. He would never have spoken if hed thought it was going to distress Miz Sarah. He knew it was near as wrong to vex a lady as it was to hurt her. "Buck," she said, her voice a little strangled, "you dont understand. We dont have that kind of--of gentlemen coming to this house."
"You dont?" he responded. "But whered you get Adam and Katie, then? You told me theyd been born to you. Ladies only have children after theyve been with a gentleman."
"Let me try to explain it, Sister," Sanchez broke in, and he gestured to Buck to come closer. Still cautious, the boy obeyed, poised to do the quick twist Miss Olivia had shown him, the one with the front kick to the shin. "Buck," the man said, "its true that a lady cant have a baby unless shes been with a man. Only one lady ever did it without, and she was the spouse of the Holy Ghost. But Miz Sarah, and most other ladies, only go with one man, as long as he lives, anyway. Thats whats called being married, and the man is called the father of the ladys children, and her husband. "
Buck recognized the words but still wasnt clear on how they applied to human folks. "Like the stallion is the father of the little colts?" he asked, groping toward an understanding, his brows drawn together in thought.
"Well, sort of," said Sanchez. "But animals dont get married; only people do that. If another stallion were to come along and fight the first one and chase him away or kill him, the mares would belong to the new one, and he would make colts of his own with them, and the mares wouldnt mourn, or feel that they were doing anything to betray the first stallion. People, men and women, when they want to become husbands and wives, go to church and make vows--promises--before God to love and cherish and be faithful to each other, and one of the ways they do that is not to make children with anyone but each other. Do you understand?"
"Im not sure," Buck admitted. He remembered some of the things theyd told him at the orphanage. "My Ma never had a--a husband. But she had me anyway. Does that mean she was bad?"
Sanchez took a slow breath. "There are many cruel, shortsighted people in this world who would say she was," he said carefully, his voice like deep organ music in the quiet kitchen, and suddenly Buck remembered where he had heard it before--from Ezras bedroom the night they brought him back from Broken Bow. Mr. Sanchez was so big, he must be very strong, just as Mike had been; strong enough to carry Ezra and his heavy splints up the stairs. "But I dont believe that any woman who could be the mother of such a fine, handsome, mannerly boy as yourself could be bad. I dont believe you could have loved her as much as I know you did, if she had been bad. I dont believe a bad person would have taken thought for what was to become of you in case she died. To be bad is to commit sins, but I dont define sin the way a lot of people do. To me, sin is causing unneeded pain to any living thing. I dont think your mother would have been the kind of person who would do that. Was she, Buck?"
"No, sir. Ma never caused pain to nobody." Buck was beginning to think he liked this man.
"You remember that, then," Sanchez told him. "Has Vin told you yet about what his ma said to him when she was dying? She said, Be brave and remember youre a Tanner. He has held that truth in his heart all his life and tried to live as he believes a Tanner would live. You must hold the truth about your mother in your heart too, and never let anyone turn you from it, any more than Vin has."
Buck remembered his Ma telling him about "holding the truth in his heart." That Mr. Sanchez would use the same words as she had reassured him. And he liked the idea of imitating Mister Vin, even though he liked Mister Chris just a little bit better of the two of them. "Ill remember," he promised.
"Good," said Sanchez. "Sister Sarah, I think youd better ask Chris to have a little talk with this boy before he starts forgetting himself around town. Now, how is Ezra doing today? Is there a chance I might see him for a minute before I ride on? Id like to be able to give Nathan a report on him--it might save Nathan a ride out here."
They climbed the stairs, all three of them, quietly so as not to startle Katie as Buck had done. Miz Sarah went first and peeped in at the bedroom door, then turned back with a smile and put a finger to her lips, beckoning Buck and Sanchez to join her. Both crept softly up the short stretch of hallway to where she stood and craned around her to look.
Ezra was sound asleep, the breeze from the window playing across his body, and lying belly-down on his chest, with her head turned to one side and her thumb in her mouth, was Katie, also sleeping.
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