Chris wasnt looking forward to the "talk" Josiah had suggested he have with Buck. Hell, he wasnt even the boys official pa yet. And he realized he was going to have to approach the issue very delicately--first because he didnt want to alienate Buck by making him think others had a negative picture of the mother he had so obviously loved, and second because he wasnt really sure how much Buck understood. Adam at the same age had already had a pretty good functional knowledge of sex, but Adam had grown up surrounded by animals; hed seen the roosters and tomcats mounting their mates, seen Leo Stacys dairy bull brought over to service the cows, seen the CL-Cross stallions fetched in to do their duty by other peoples mares. He even knew that his father paid Stacy for the bulls use and was paid for the use of the stallions, so he was able to comprehend the concept of commercial sex, although at first it had bewildered him that the men would pay rather than being paid. He had seen, and no doubt made mental comparisons between, calico-clad farm women visiting Four Corners, better-dressed town and ranch women like his mother and Gloria Potter and Mary Travis, the girls from the saloons in their short spangled on-duty clothes and showy street outfits, and the professional prostitutes from Virginias on their promenades, and hed seen the social chasm that existed between the "good" women and the "bad" ones. Buck almost certainly had some experience of the last of these, if their guess about his origins was right, and since he came from Kansas City he was probably even more familiar with a variety of human types than Adam was, but as for the rest...when did a prostitute explain these things to her children?
Chris finally decided the best way to go about it was to let Buck set the pace. After breakfast and chores, with Vin upstairs helping Ezra get settled for the day and Sarah starting her weeks baking in the Dutch oven outside the back door, he took the boy into the barn, sat him down on a haybale in the cool, and began carefully setting the stage. It probably would have helped, he reflected, if Buck could have seen Josiah in his other personas, as part-time deputy and unofficial preacher to the town. But while hed been taken in for last Saturdays shopping, he hadnt yet attended church services--partly because hed been so worn out from excitement after his first visit that Chris and Sarah had decided a second the next day would be too much stimulation, and partly because he didnt have any suitable clothes to wear. Gloria Potter had been completely out of Sunday suits the right size for him--she had said she hoped to have more this coming week--and of course Adam only owned one, so he couldnt share that the way hed been doing everyday things. And while Josiah had managed to get back from Watsonville in time to help Chris and Nathan and JD with the Saturday-night mayhem, it had been dusk by the time he did it, and Sarah had long since taken the buckboard, with Adam and Buck and Katie and the supplies, back to the ranch, as she usually did on Saturdays, leaving Chris to do his sheriffing and get whatever sleep he could on the cot in the office, then ride home in the wee hours after the saloons had closed and things had mostly quieted down.
Buck was perfectly willing to answer questions about his life and observations in Kansas City, though he seemed a little puzzled that Chris didnt already know all these things. Clearly his opinion was that all children lived as he had, which Chris supposed was natural; as a farm boy hed had some difficulty understanding the town boys when he was four or five years old and just getting to the point of interacting with them to any extensive degree on the Larabees regular trips to town. And at least Buck did know that ladies got babies from being with men. Chriss first care was to gently correct his vocabulary, so that hed understand that all "ladies" were also "women" and most "women" were also "ladies," while a "man" and a "gentleman" were, at least in all Western affairs of ceremony, basically the same thing. Josiah had set the stage by defining marriage, which helped too. And Bucks mother had instilled in him a respect for all adult females, regardless of age, status, or even color, that bordered on worship, although he found it a bit difficult to reconcile this with his natural resentment of the "good women" who had scorned her on the streets. "Whyd they do that, Mister Chris?" he asked. "Ma never done nothin to hurt them. Like I told Mr. Sanchez, she never caused pain to nobody."
"Did you ask her why?" Chris responded.
"Yessir. She always said Id understand when I got older."
"And it would be nice if we could wait a few years till you were really older, " Chris agreed, "but we cant do that, not if youre gonna live here and be my son. Four Corners is a small town, youve seen that. Everybody pretty much knows everybody elses business, and people have to try to get along. If the folks in town find out where you used to live and what your ma did to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly, theyre likely to treat you just the same way all them good women and their children did back in Kansas City."
"Because--" Chris took a deep breath-- "your ma was whats called a prostitute, and the house she lived in was a bordello, or a brothel, or--well, there are some other names for it that aint so nice. Josiah told you about how men and women get married and promise not to make babies with anybody but each other. A prostitute doesnt get married, or if she does, a lot of times her husband doesnt care who she makes babies with as long as she brings in money. She makes babies with any man wholl pay her to do it." Hed decided it was easier to put the thing in those terms than to try to explain why sex didnt always result in babies. "Some of those men already have homes and families, which means theyre breakin the promise they made when they got married, and of course their wives dont like it, same way you wouldnt like it if somebody promised you something and then didnt carry through with it. Others aint married yet, but the girls who might get courted by em and someday marry em--and their mothers even more--dont like havin competition from women like your ma."
Buck looked at him with solemn eyes, processing what had been said. "Does that mean Ma did do things to hurt em?"
"In a general sort of way, yeah, she did. I know thats hard for you to understand, because she was always nice to you. But the fact is that--well, you know about the Bible and the Ten Commandments, dont you? One of the Commandments says, Thou shalt not commit adultery. Adulterys a big grownup word that means breakin the promise you made when you got married. If somebody breaks a promise they made to you, its kinda hard for you to trust em after that, aint it?"
"Well, thats the way those women feel, the ones whore already married to the men who pay the prostitutes, or hope they or their daughters might get married to em one day. Now your ma wasnt married, so she wasnt breakin any promises. But they were angry at her cause she was so pretty that their men wanted to be with her instead of with them. Jealous too, most likely, cause they werent pretty enough to hold onto their men--and maybe a little bit cause they couldnt live the same kind of free, independent, easy life your ma could live."
Buck pondered this for a minute or two, and Chris waited and gave him some space to process it all. "Did Ma know whose men she was with?" he asked after a while.
"That I dont know," Chris admitted. "Maybe sometimes she did; maybe by the time the men came to her shed already seen em with their rightful women around town. Most times probably she didnt know exactly which men were married and which werent, not at the start, anyway."
Again a pause while Buck considered. "Is that how come she always said the gentlemen werent gonna admit to knowin us when they met us on the street?"
"Yes, thats how come. Because if they were with their own women at the time, that would show that theyd been breakin their promise, and maybe get em in trouble at home. And if they werent, somebody they knew might still see em and tell about it. Now from what youve told me about Miz Abigails place, it was a really high-class sort of bordello, and the men who came there had money to spare. Probably they were mostly men who had position and power in the town or around the county. Men like that can be hurt badly among their own level of society--do you know what society is?--if it gets out theyve been with prostitutes."
"But what if they meet each other in the parlor and the bar? They mustve done that a lot. I know they did, cause sometimes they got into fights with each other, like I told you before, and Mike would throw em out."
"They did," Chris agreed. "But gentlemen have a sort of silent agreement that whatever goes on inside a bordello stays inside the bordello. They only talk about it when theyre private, not with people they dont know go there sometimes."
"You mean its a secret?"
"Exactly," said Chris. "And the women in the bordello do them the same courtesy by not lettin on in public that they know em. Its sort of the way a banker has an obligation not to tell any outsider how much money one of his depositors has put away with him, or how he gets it or what he does with it--even if he knows. Or a doctor takes an oath not to talk about his patients. Or a lawyer cant be made to tell in court what his clients have confided in him. Its whats called professional courtesy. "
He saw Bucks lips carefully shape the new words. The boy thought hard about what hed learned, then spoke again. "Am I sposed to show pro-fession-al courtesy too?"
"Yes, because you lived in the bordello, and should keep its secrets just like your ma did, or Miz Abigail, or the black women who helped out, or Mike and the other men who worked there. But also because..." again he hesitated, reluctant to say anything that would diminish the boys picture of his own worth-- "because bein the son of a prostitute, youre what a lot of people would call a bastard. It means you were born of people who werent married to each other. It doesnt really have a damn thing to do with what kind of person you are, but a lot of folks dont see it that way. They think a bastard is bad by nature and can never amount to anything decent. The only way you can protect yourself against those thoughts is not to let on where you came from. If people dont know, they have to take you for whatever youve been and done while theyve known you. They have to accept you for the person you are."
He could see the boy making mental connections. "Is that how come the grownups at the orphanage used to call Ma and me all them names?"
"What names did they call you?" Chris asked.
Buck told him. The man had to clamp down hard on the fury that boiled up in him at the utter injustice of punishing a child for something hed had no hand in. "And they said Ma had gone to Hell," Buck added, his voice beginning to tremble and sound thick with tears. "They said she was...was wicked and wanton and--and--" The tears broke free and began spilling down his cheeks. "Mister Chris, it aint true, is it? It cant be true! It cant!"
Chris drew the sobbing boy into his arms and held him close, rubbing his back and letting him cry it all out, all the hurt and grief and loneliness and bewilderment. "No, son," he said quietly, reassuringly. "No, I dont believe it can be true any more than you do. I think your ma was like a lot of prostitutes, just doin the best she could to get on in the world. Probably she made one mistake when she was a young girl, and had to suffer for it the rest of her life. That happens to a lot of people, not just prostitutes. It happened to Vin. You know that he lived with the Comanches when he was a little boy, and then was taken away from them and put back among white people. And a lot of white people thought it made him no better than a savage. Thats why he kept running away and tryin to get back to the Comanches, whod been kind to him just like your ma was always kind to you."
"But Vin aint bad," Buck protested through his tears, hiccupping. "I like Vin. So does Adam."
"Sure you do. Adam cause hes grown up knowin him, and you cause nobody ever taught you that people were bad because of livin with the Indians. When we think bad of people on account of somethin they cant help--like what color their skins are, or what country they or their parents came from to get to America, or where they were raised, or how much money their families had or didnt, or what they believe about God and how they worship Him--thats whats called prejudice. And Im sorry to have to tell you that there are an awful lot of narrow-minded people in this world who live and treat others according to beliefs that are set by prejudice. People like that will think youre bad on account of what your ma did for a living. Often they think bad of a person because hes made a mistake once in his life, even if hes paid for it since, by bein in prison or somethin like that, and has made up his mind to try to do better."
"Ma said," Buck told him, sniffling, "that Jesus taught we should forgive people who do wrong. She said there are a lot of folks who say they follow Jesus, but they dont really live by the rules He set."
"Your ma was absolutely right," Chris told him. "Theres another big grownup word for people who behave that way; we call em hypocrites. "
"Hippo...?" Distracted from his tears, Buck struggled with the new term. "Doc Lovelace in Kansas City told me once that doctors take a Hippocritic oath. Is that the same?"
"No," said Chris, trying not to laugh; he could see why the two words would sound very much alike to a child. "The oath he was talking about is pronounced a little different--like this: Hip-o-crat-ic. Its spelled different, too; its got an i in it instead of a y. It comes from the name of the man who wrote it, an old Greek named Hippocrates. The Hippocratic oath is a good thing. It requires the doctor to always do the very best he can for the people he treats, and to keep their secrets, like I told you before."
"So Hippocratic is good," said Buck slowly, "but bein a hypocrite is bad."
"Now youve got it," Chris agreed. "The bad word, the word that means bein a hypocrite, is hypocritical--you can hear how its different from Hippocratic. Maybe Ezra can explain to you why the two words sound so much alike but have such different meanings; you know he knows a lot about words. You can ask him later, if you want to. Right now we have to make sure you understand that you must never, never let anyone know that your ma was a prostitute or that you lived in a bordello, unless Sarah or Vin or I tell you its okay. Well only tell you that when were sure the person youre tallkin to isnt a hypocrite."
"You mean I have to keep it a secret? Like gentlemen keep it a secret theyve been to the house?"
"Exactly. If you dont, those narrow-minded hypocrites are never gonna give you a chance to prove what a good person you really are and what a lot of fine things your ma taught you. Theyre gonna behave toward you just like the people you used to meet on the street in Kansas City, the ones who wouldnt have anything to do with you and tried to act like you werent there, and the boys who used to call you names and try to beat you up." He met the boys eyes unflinchingly. "This doesnt mean you should be ashamed of your ma, because you shouldnt. You just need to do this to protect her and yourself. When people come out to the West, a lot of times they leave bad pasts behind them wherever they came from. They come West because they want to make a fresh start someplace theyre not known, someplace where everybody begins from the same scratch mark, like horses startin a race. You have the chance to do that now, on account of your ma bein gone and us bein ready to adopt you. But you have to do like those other folks do, and keep secret about your beginnings. Do you understand?"
"I think so," said Buck slowly. "Is it kinda like I just got born all over again?"
"Thats a very good way to think about it," Chris agreed. "Its like youve got a fresh new writing slate thats never been used, and you can do anything you want to on it. Some secrets are bad, but some are good. If you were gonna give your ma a present for Christmas or her birthday, youd keep secret what it was, so shed be surprised when she got it, wouldnt you? Well, this is the same kind of secret. If you keep it, folks wont think bad of you or call you names. Theyll accept you for whoever and whatever youve been since theyve known you--our son, Sarahs and mine, just like Adam is. Its a way of savin yourself a lot of unnecessary hurt."
"I understand, I think," said Buck slowly. "Its a secret, but its a good secret cause it saves me from gettin hurt and Ma from gettin called names, even if she aint here to hear em no more."
Well have to talk about the different kinds of secrets sometime, Chris thought. But not now, Ive already given him a lot to chew on. "Thats just about the size of it. And Ill tell you another thing. Even though your mas not here, the part of her that loved you--her soul--is still watchin over you, and you should always remember to try to live the way she taught you to, just like Vin tries to live up to bein a Tanner. Youll always carry the memory of how much she loved you. Youll prove how much you loved and respected her by always keepin in mind the things she told you about how a man should live. You cant see or touch her any more, but she can see and hear you, and you can talk to her, out loud or in your head, and ask her what you should do if youre ever troubled or confused. I know Vin talks to his ma like that, and sometimes I talk to mine; she was bitten by a rattlesnake and died when I was only a little older than you are now and we were all goin out to Oregon to live. When folks die, its really only their bodies that die; thats why we say they have immortal souls--immortal is another of those big grownup words, it means somethin that cant die, ever. And if they loved us when they were here, they dont stop doin it just because theyre not with us any more. They listen to us and help God watch over us, and as long as we remember them, theyre never really dead."
Buck took a minute to absorb this, then smiled through his drying tears. "I like that," he said.
"I kinda thought you would," Chris agreed, smiling back. "Now, just so you know, what secret have you promised to keep?"
"I mustnt ever tell anybody that Ma was a pros-ty-toot," said Buck. "I mustnt ever tell anybody that we lived in a bor-dello. Everything that ever happened there I have to keep to myself, just like the gentlemen kept it to themselves about goin there and seein other gentlemen. I mustnt ever tell anybody where I came from or how I started out."
Not unless you know you can trust them, thought Chris, but youll figure that out as you get older. "Thats right. Starting from when Judge Travis writes his paper, youre our son, Sarahs and mine, and youre startin your life all over, and everything that happened to you before you came to this ranch is just like it never was any more, as far as anybody else is concerned. Its a secret that we all keep, you and me and Sarah and Vin and Ezra and Adam--Katies too little to understand it. And Josiah, cause he already knows."
"Will he tell?" asked Buck worriedly.
"No, he wont tell. You see, Josiah is also a deputy of mine, like Vin is, and besides that hes a kind of preacher, and preachers are like lawyers and doctors, they have to keep secrets too."
"Do you trust him?"
"Yes, with my life."
"Okay," said Buck. And then he drew an X on his chest with his forefinger and said, "I promise Ill keep our secret, Mister Chris, cross my heart and hope to die."
Chris knew that to a child this was the most solemn and serious promise that could possibly be made. "Thats good," he said. Then he pulled a bandanna out of his back pocket and wiped the boys face. "Lets get you cleaned up, or when Sarah sees youve been cryin Ill be in trouble, cause shell think I did somethin that made you feel bad."
The boy submitted without a word, then asked, "Mister Chris? When will the Judge write the paper and make me your son?"
"I dont know exactly," Chris admitted, "but hes due into town in the next few days, and as soon as he comes hell send someone out to tell us, cause he knows how important this is to us."
"Is it portant for me to be your son?"
"Very," said Chris. "Every boy should know hes somebodys son and has a home and people to look after him."
"Ma always said I was real portant to her," said Buck. "She said I was the most portant thing in her whole life."
"Ill bet you were," Chris agreed. "And you know something? I think Sarah and I would have liked your ma quite a lot, just because we know what a fine little boy she raised."
His previous misgivings overcome by this praise for the person who had stood first in his life for as far back as he remembered, Buck left the barn in a lighthearted skip, clinging to Chriss hand.
Sarah was just removing the last batch of the weeks baking from the Dutch oven when JD rode into the yard around four oclock. Adam, Buck, and Katie were sitting on the back stoop, eating fresh warm bread with butter and brown sugar on it, and Chris and Vin were doctoring a brood mare in the small corral. Chriss shout of greeting and JDs cheerful response had Adam flying over the garden gate and across the packed yard surface to meet his friend. Buck looked questioningly to Sarah--he knew enough about small children to know that you should never leave someone Katies age unattended--and received a smile and nod that sent him in Adams wake, though not so quickly. He could tell that this newcomer was someone the family knew, and once he got clear of the house he could see that it was Mister Chriss deputy, whom he had seen from a distance when he was in town last Saturday but had never been formally introduced to: it had seemed every time JD hove into sight he was running somewhere or other to deal with some deputy type of crisis. And despite Mister Chriss assurances that Four Corners would accept him as one of the Larabee family, Buck retained memory enough of negative contacts on the streets of Kansas City to be just a little cautious about strangers. JD might not be a "gentleman" such as those who had come to Miz Abigails, but he was a grownup and an outsider, and Buck had things to unlearn still.
Getting closer, he could see that JD wasnt tall, but he was wiry like Vin, and wore two guns, which very few men hed seen on the frontier did. Yet there was a comforting familiarity about the way he was dressed; even his bowler hat wasnt strange to the boy. Most men in Kansas City wore planters Panamas, broad-brimmed Army Kossuth felts, shortened "riverboat" top hats or boatmens caps, but every so often you would see a bowler, usually on a man of some substance, like a banker. And Buck hadnt realized before how young JD was; he didnt look a lot older than Ezra did--in some ways younger, since he didnt have Ezras ingrained cynicism. Buck stopped far enough back not to seem as if he was horning in on Adams time with him, but not so far that JDs quick eyes didnt notice him. "Well, howdy," he said, giving Adams shoulder a quick pat to promise him more attention later. "Now I bet youre Buck, aint you? Im Chriss deputy, JD. They told me all about you, how Chris and Sarah are gonna dopt you and such."
"Yes, sir," said Buck. "Hlo." And he held out his hand politely, just as he had to Josiah.
"Not sir," said JD, "its JD. Pleased to meet you." There was something so open and genuine about the smooth youthful face and bright hazel eyes that Buck felt instantly comfortable with him. The boy smiled broadly and pumped the deputys hand vigorously, making him laugh.
Buck giggled in response and didnt protest at all when JD scooped him up onto his hip. "Is that your horse?" he asked.
"Sure is, you want to sit in her saddle for a few minutes? Chris, you mind?"
"Go ahead," said Larabee, as Buck gave an excited little bounce. "Just hold her reins, we dont know if hes ever really ridden before, except hangin on behind Ezra."
JD boosted Buck up onto the back of his mare, who was a mustang cross and barely thirteen and a half hands high. Sarah and Katie came over and there were more greetings exchanged while Buck stared around the yard from his suddenly higher vantage point; Sarah had stopped in the kitchen long enough to get JD a slice of bread just like the ones the children had been enjoying. "So," said Chris after a few minutes, "what brings you out here this time, JD? Another stolen horse?"
"No, this time its the Judge. He got in on the afternoon stage. Said he knew you wanted to be told as soon as he was there, so I came out to tell you."
The rancher nodded. "Thanks, JD, we did want that." He looked to his wife. "Think we can find room at the supper table for one more, Sarah?"
"Oh, theres always room for JD," was the immediate reply. "Buck, may I put Katie up there with you, and JD can lead you both around the yard? And, Adam, Im going to need some wood carried in for the stove."
"Always knows, dont she?" mused Vin after theyd been left alone.
"Same as you," agreed Chris, "and if youre lucky, Tanner, one of these days youll find a woman who knows you just as well." He leaned an elbow on the nearest fencepost. "Im thinkin it might be a good idea to go into town tomorrow and get Bucks paperwork done while things are quiet--and on a Friday they should be, everybodyll be buildin up strength for the next night."
"Seems likely," Vin allowed. "How bout Ezra?"
"How about him?" Chris retorted. "Travis has already met him, and he knows about Maude; he can do the temporary custody without the boy being there."
But Vin was shaking his head. "No good. Boy learns to trust by bein trusted, cowboy. Learns hes got value by seein that others treat him with kindness and respect--not like he s just somethin like a piece of property that can change hands thout nobody havin the courtesy to let him be there."
"When did I say I thought that?" demanded Larabee with some asperity.
"Aint talkin bout what you think," Vin told him gently. "Talkin bout what he thinks. Member his ma done went off and left him. Dont care he says hes used to it, point is we gotta show him we dont put so low a price on him. Gotta treat him like he s growed and mattered some."
"Hes not growed, and you know that as well as I do."
Tanner sighed. "Didnt say he was. But he aint Buck, and hes done a lot more growin up than Buck has. Reckon Id know, dont you? Done some myself afore you met me."
Chris hesitated. "Say I agree with you. Its going to be a hell of a job getting him down the stairs with those splints on his leg."
"Could rig up a stretcher," Vin replied. "Got plenty tarpaulins in the barn, and I can cut a couple cottonwood poles down in the bottom."
"That might work," his partner agreed. "But hes gonna take up most of the back of the buckboard by the time we get a mattress lain down in there for him. We wont be able to pick up supplies, just maybe Bucks boots--" the boot-and-shoemaker who had moved into town a couple of weeks ago was hand-crafting a pair to the boys measure-- "and some Sunday clothes for him if Glorias gotten that shipment she was expecting."
"You could drive the rig in Saturday early," Vin suggested, "and get what we need afore things started gettin busy. Take Blackhawk on the lead behind like you usally do, just in case you need him." His vivid eyes challenged the older man. "Chris, I done told you once, that boy aint never had no plain common love, aint never rightly been made to feel he was part of a famly. Iffen were figurin on makin Buck a part of thisn, we gotta do somethin to show Ezra we think just as high of him, even though we caint rightly dopt him yet."
Chris studied him for a moment. "This is somethin you think is pretty important, aint it?"
"Wouldnt say it iffen I didnt," said Vin.
Chris drew a breath in and let it out again, then nodded. "All right."
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