Mary Travis stood quietly, unnoticed amidst the quiet buzz of speculation that followed Vin's departure, and walked to the door. It was now midafternoon, the warmest part of the day, and a somnolence had fallen over the settlement, partly in response to the weather, partly as a reaction to the earlier excitement. It took her a few moments to locate Larabee, but his blue uniform stood out. He had settled down in the shade of a hackberry tree and was sitting in a comfortable niche between a couple of roots, his back against the gray, warty bark, a bottle resting between the toes of his boots, but he wasn't drinking from it, only staring silently off into space. She picked up her skirts and crossed the "street" slowly, her eyes on his profile. He didn't acknowledge her arrival, but she felt sure he was aware of it.
"I understand quite a lot, now," she said softly.
That fetched a response: a slanting of the pale eyes toward her, a tilt of the head. "Sergeant Wilmington just told us about your family. I lost my husband too. I understand how you feel."
Chris Larabee's face hardened. Yes, he remembered Buck saying that Travis had been murdered, as Sarah and Adam had been. But it wasn't the same. "No, ma'am. You don't," he said flatly. "And Buck talks too damn much."
"He cares about you," Mary insisted, sinking down into the sparse grass five feet to his left and in front of him. "And he blames himself for keeping you from being there for them."
Chris's mouth twitched. "Wasn't his fault. I was the commanding officer. I wasn't obliged to listen to a damn thing he said if I didn't want to. I could have ordered us back to Laramie and I didn't."
"Did you ever tell him that?"
For a moment the pale eyes widened. "Why should I?"
"Because he needs to hear it. I don't care how long you've been together or what you've gone through, he can't read your mind, least of all through his own pain and guilt. He's a good friend to you; I've seen it all along, but especially just now, at that table, when he talked about what happened. He deserves better of you."
His eyes flashed. "Don't make me out the villain in this, Mrs. Travis. I know about your husband, but he didn't die the way my family did. You didn't see what the Sioux left of them."
"That has nothing to do with Sergeant Wilmington," Mary retorted with spirit. "Or, for that matter, with Mr. Tanner."
"What?" Now the anger gave way to confusion, underlain by a powerful current of distress. "How's Vin come into it?"
"He's leaving. He just walked out the back of the restaurant. He wouldn't explain why, but it must have been something about what the Sergeant told us, because he was fine until then."
"Damn," growled Chris, getting his feet under him, "damn scruffy scrawny hunter, what's he think he's doin'?" He stood, leaving the bottle where it was, and turned to glare up and down the length of the row of buildings. "He'll have to get his horse, and that means the stable," he muttered. A quick lingering look at her: "I guess I owe you one, Mrs. Travis." And he set off, angling toward the high shape of the barn.
+ + + + + + +
Just outside the kitchen door Vin stumbled to a halt, his chest suddenly feeling full to bursting. He couldn't breathe, didn't even have enough air to walk the two hundred feet or so to the stable where Peso was waiting for him. He hooked an arm around the peeled upright pole that supported the sheltering roof, his heartbeats shaking his lean body till they threatened to throw him to his knees. Is this why you sent me here, Ma? Why you told me not to move on after I got to Miz Nettie's? Did you want me to find him? Didn't you know about his family? I figured you knew everythin' now. How can I go? But I got to. I can't stay and see how he'll look at me, when he knows--
The door behind him opened and closed, and he heard Buck's voice. "Now just where the hell do you think you're goin', Tanner?"
"Don't gotta 'splain myself to you," he muttered defiantly.
Buck's big hand fell on his shoulder and Vin reacted on sheer reflex. As the sergeant yanked him around his right hand flashed to his left cuff and there was a flicker of steel as a blade corkscrewed out of the sheath strapped to his forearm and lifted to touch its point to Buck's throat. It wasn't a Bowie like the knife in his boot, but a Spanish dagger of Toledo steel, the blade eight inches long and one wide, with a blood trough from guard to point, and a Navajo-made bone handle added to it at some point in its history, inset with silver and lapis lazuli. "Git your hand off me," he hissed through clenched teeth.
Buck didn't flinch. "Go ahead if you're minded. You think it could hurt me any worse than watchin' what's happened to Chris these three years? Boy, don't you got no notion at all what went on between you and him today? Or are you just too plain damn close up to it to see? You touched somethin' in him that's been buried under layers of hurt, and somehow you woke it up when he'd made up his mind never to let himself feel it again. You ain't walkin' away from that, boy, not without you go through me first. The least damn thing you owe me is an explanation."
Their two sets of blue eyes met and clashed a moment, and then Vin slowly lowered the dagger and returned it to its hiding place. "I ain't the only one," he whispered.
Buck's grip on his shoulder eased a bit. "Ain't the only one what?"
"That felt somethin'. You ast me did I know what went on. Hell, I couldn't missed it. If it been any plainer to me it'd busted my heart plumb open like a lance. I ain't ever knowed nothin' like that, ever in my life." He hesitated then. Maybe the man was right, maybe he did owe him some justification for what he was about to do. And it came to him that there wasn't just one reason he had to go; there were two, one for each of the men most closely involved. He could give one explanation to Buck, and a second to Chris if the necessity arose, and neither one ever needed to know the other.
He thought again of the epiphany that had come upon him, watching Nathan and his wife. Warmth. Belongingness. He hadn't had them since--well, not since Ma. His aunt had always made him feel like an outsider, a Duty. The Comanches had accepted him wholeheartedly and treated him like one of their own, but among them he had always been conscious that he wasn't born an Indian, that his blood was all white. And after he had left them, enough of their influence had hung on that he always felt a half-and-half creature, a man suspended betwen two worlds but belonging to neither. He wanted to have these things. But not at this cost.
"You was here first," he said quietly. "I won't be between you and him. I can't do that to a man that was coverin' my back without knowin' nothin' about me. Wouldn't be right."
Buck's eyes widened. "Is that it? You afraid you'll push me aside in his life? God, Tanner, you really don't know shit about how friendship works, do you? I been with Chris twelve years now, and I know that man better than anyone livin', or at least I thought I did. Till today, till he found you. But a man's heart ain't somethin' he gives in just one chunk. There's hundreds of ways to care about folks--close family, distant kin, friends, a wife, casual ladies, he can have all them things, and even more than one of each, and it don't diminish what any of 'em gets from him. Never once in the eight years Chris was married to Sarah did she, or Adam, or I think that we were takin' anything from any of the others. It's a damn shame we ain't got but one word for all the feelings we lump together as love,' because we'd spare ourselves a lot of grief if we did."
Vin's brows drew together in confusion, but Buck forged on relentlessly. "I care about that man, Tanner. He's about as close as I've ever had to a brother, and it rips me apart to see how he's changed. I've been watchin' him die slowly these last three years. The damn army is the only thing that's given any meaning or structure to his life, and for a man like Chris that ain't nowheres near enough. He tries to act like a big desperado and put out this get-the-hell-away-from-me message, but if you'd known him back when I first met him you'd know how wrong that is. He needs people in his life that he can trust and care about, and he needs to have a sense that there's a job he can do. But the most important thing is the people. Without them the job don't mean shit, 'cause he can't relate it to anyone real."
A pleading look came into his indigo eyes. "You're good for him, Vin. I don't know what there is about you, but it's there, it's touched somethin' he's tried to deny for too damn long. After all the crap we've been through, we're still friends, and that's a miracle in itself; God help me, I don't know how we've done it. I've done the best I could for him; I owed him that, owed it to Sarah and Adam's memory. It's what they'd have asked, and it's what I wanted. I'll always be there for him, any time he calls. But I was never able to pick up his thoughts and fill in his sentences the way you done today, least of all without so much as knowin' his name. And I saw how he looked at you after the fight, and I've never seen him look that way at anybody. As God's my witness, I don't know how he kept gettin' up every morning all them weeks and months and years. I kept expectin' to wake up one day and have someone tell me he'd put a bullet through his head. I reckon I know now why he didn't. He was waitin' for you to come along. He didn't know it was you, or when you'd show up, but you're what he's been lookin' for all this time. You can't leave him now. I don't say he won't fight you. He won't make it easy. But don't you give up, boy. Whatever it is you got with him, he needs it. And he wants it somewhere down inside, only he's scared shitless to admit it."
"You think that's why I'm goin'? On account of I want to?" A momentary flare of anger heated Vin's heart. "That's crap. I know him. I felt him. I got a...a sense of him...that was like I was inside his head. Scared the livin' shit out of me--and yet, right alongside it, was like half of me had been missin' all my life and I didn't know it till that minute. I want to keep it, more than I've ever wanted anything. I'd give my life for him without ever thinkin' about it. But this ain't about me, it's about him." His voice dropped to a pained, trembling whisper. "It's about what he'll think, when he knows who I am--what I am."
Buck heard the raw grief and despair in that voice, and his own warmhearted compassion responded to it. He had met men like Vin before, loners by reason of bitter experience or inborn inclination, who would only let you get so close before they pulled away. If you pushed, you lost them for good. Dealing successfully with them was a matter of maintaining a delicate equilibrium. The big man's voice softened. "Why the hell do you think he went stormin' out of the restaurant like he done? Now that he's come down off the rush of the fight, now that he's got a chance to think, he's realizin' what's happened with him and you--in his gut, not just his head. He's afraid too. He's scared to death of lettin' himself feel again, 'cause he can't bear to think he might lose the person he lets in. He ain't got the least idea how strong he really is, which would be funny if it wasn't so scary--and so painful. You both gotta go through some changes, make some adjustments. It don't mean either of you has to leave. It just means you gotta try." He paused a moment. "I don't know what's gnawin' on you, what it is you think will make him hate you, and I won't ask. It's between you and him. But don't you figure you owe it to him to tell him why you're droppin' him like a hot potato, rather than just sneakin' off like some goddamn beaten cur? You're better than that, boy, and he deserves better of you." The bruising hand on Vin's shoulder became a gentle pat. "Go to him, Vin. Go, and do whatever you have to so you can stay. Please stay, and help me heal my friend. You're the only one who can."
Vin trembled. "Ain't nobody ever said nothin' to me like that afore. Ain't nobody ever thought so much of me, ever thought I was so...so valuable."
"Everybody&acu te;s valuable, son," Buck told him. "Ain't one human being in this world is worthless. We all got a job and a place, it's just sometimes it takes us too damn long to find it. Now you go and find yours." He stepped back, reached for the door handle, and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Vin alone.
Vin stood without moving, struggling to bring his trembling body and heart under control. Slowly, with the help of the techniques he had learned among the Peneteka, he began to recover his equilibrium. He pulled himself straight and breathed deeply in and out several times, letting his eyes slip half closed as he reached out tentatively for Larabee. In the calm darkness behind his eyelids a cool green flame stood up, crackling with leashed energy. He groped his way toward it. Where are you?
Then he opened his eyes and set off toward the barn.
+ + + + + + +
The barn was dim and cool, filled with the sharp but not unpleasant odor of horses, sweet hay, dung, ammonia, saddle oil, musty straw, grain and dust, old and new leather, mash, liniment, whiskey, and cigar butts. As Vin stepped through the rear door a shadow moved beside the stanchion defining the side of Peso's stall. "You got a damn mean- natured horse here, Tanner."
"How you know he 's mine?" Vin asked.
"'Cause he suits you," was the meager reply. Then: "I hear you're leaving."
"Thinkin' on it." Vin advanced slowly until a bar of vagrant light from some unknown quarter showed him the officer's face. Chris's hat was off, his cropped hair ruffled into spikes as if he'd been running his hand through it. The part of Vin that was Comanche, that would always be Comanche, whispered, There is puha in this man. He has very strong medicine. He had felt it from that first moment. It was like the sense he got when there was a thunderstorm or a tornado in the offing, the crackle of chained energy, but an energy that was of the mind and character rather than visible.
"Took you long enough," the officer observed.
Something in Vin told him not to betray the part Buck had played in his decision. "Come to see I owed it to you to say why."
"All right." The older man nodded. "Why?"
"Buck done told us how you lost your wife and little boy," Vin began. "Reckon it was Sioux?"
"We figured so," Chris agreed. "They'd always been the strongest tribe along the trail, the ones likeliest to make trouble. Even five years before that damn fool Grattan got himself killed over a cow, the country between Laramie and Bridger was lived in by branches of the Nation who'd been pushed off their ancestral lands by white settlers, and they wouldn't miss a chance to steal livestock and even kill stragglers. And when we took back the broken arrows we'd found, all the scouts at the Fort agreed they were Sioux- made." He tilted his head. "What's that got to do with why you're leaving?"
Vin swallowed. "I's fetched up in Texas," he began, "and I done heard ain't no other farmin' frontier in forty years run head onto no long-rangin', war-makin' Injuns like we done there. Every year from '36 when we got free of Mexico, they's been a couple hundred Texians killed or taken captive; hell, ten years back the Comanche was still takin' scalps on the outskirts of Austin. It...done things to folks. Wasn't no Texian but Sam Houston was willin' to make no place amongst whites for reds, and likely that 's on account he'd lived a spell with the Cherokee. Everybody else reckoned they's vermin. When I's a little feller, growin' up around Sherman and Santone, everybody had, or knowed somebody that had, kinfolk tortured to death or taken off. They hated the tribes for that."
He drew a deep breath and rambled on, not daring to look up and see the disgust he knew his story would bring to Chris's face, the revulsion he had seen on the faces of those who had tried to reassimilate him after he was "rescued" almost a decade before. "When I's ten I run off from home, it don't matter why now. Got within sight of the Blue Mountains and a Comanche huntin' party come on me. Figured I's gone sure, and I made my mind up I'd make 'em know they'd been in a fight, so I pulled out a knife and faced 'em. But what between me actin' brave, and havin' what they called sky-eyes, and them not havin' to shed no blood or lose no friends in a raid to get me, they wasn't hot to kill me. One of 'em got down off his pony and talked to me in English, ast me where my people was, and when I told him, he ast me did I want to come with them and be Peneteka. I couldn't hardly credit I'd found somebody that wanted me.
"They took me back to their village, treated me real good the whole trip, made sure I ate the same as them and had a warm bed at night. The one who'd 'vited me along, his name was Goes Ahead, he took me to his family's lodge and give me to his pa, to be a new son to him. Right from that first day, they never once made me feel like I's any less'n their own boys. It didn't matter I'd been a white, a Texian, a member of a tribe they hated. It mattered I's Comanche now. They named me He-Tans-Skins and I lived six years with 'em, till I's sixteen and some Rangers found me in their camp and forced me to go back to livin' amongst whites."
"Sixteen," Chris mused. "Old enough to be a warrior."
"Yeah," Vin agreed. He raised his head and stared defiantly, but his vision was blurred with tears. "That's what I was. Didn't never take no white scalps, but that 's only on account I wasn't never 'vited on no war party against nobody but Mexicans and other Injun tribes. Would'a' likely done it, if I had been. Took th'other kind, though. Had three on my war lance when I left 'em." He was beginning to tremble again. "Now you know why I gotta go."
"No," Larabee told him. "I don't."
Vin's jaw dropped. "Ain't you heard nothin' I just said?!" he cried. "I's raised Injun, Larabee! I's a warrior! I went on raids and I took scalps, just like somebody took your wife's and your boy's! Don't that mean nothin' to you? Don't you hate th'Injuns-- all Injuns--for takin' your family from you?"
"Why should I?" the officer demanded. "If they'd been killed by white men, would that mean I had to hate all white men? That would make just about as much sense. If I were going to hate anyone for their sakes, it would be the Sioux. You weren't Sioux; you were Comanche. You had nothing to do with it--hell, you weren't even with the Indians any more when it happened."
Vin stared at him, blinking, tears drying on his lashes. "You don't hate me?" he whispered incredulously. "You don't think I'm-- I'm some kind of animal--on account of how I lived and what I done? You don't want me to go?"
"Did you honestly think I would?" Chris pressed. "Is that the kind of treatment you've gotten from your own kind since you left the Indians? Damn, Tanner, just because a lot of white people are damn blind prejudiced fools, do you think all of us are? You found out first hand that Indians could be kinder and better than you'd ever been led to believe they were. Don't you owe it to your own blood to accept that we can too?"
Vin's head was spinning and his knees felt weak with shock and astonishment. He collapsed onto a bale of hay and put his head down between his legs, fighting to hold onto consciousness: a Comanche warrior didn't faint. It was all too much; he couldn't take it in. Before his eyes spun a collage of pictures of scornful or disgusted or incredulous faces, the faces of white people who couldn't understand how a white child could turn into an Indian in his thinking and behavior, who wouldn't accept that there was much good in the Indian way of life and belief. Many of them had never even seen what was left after a raid, only heard stories. Some had never lost loved ones to red incursion, yet they had absorbed the hate that filled their neighbors. Yet here was a man who was a warrior for his people as surely as Vin had been for the Peneteka, who had found and grieved over the mutilated bodies of friends and a wife and child, who had spent three years mourning his loss, and he claimed not to hate, not to think less of Vin for his past. How could that be?
Yet, when he turned it all over in his mind, Vin began to understand that he had been as much a misfit among the Indians as Chris was among whites. Indians drew on the immense power of the natural world to provide peace, relaxation, and a deep sense of well-being. They weren't like white people, who mostly lived on the world, not in it. They were at one with their universe and knew the power well. Their lives were inextricably woven into the fabric of Nature. Their comfort and security were solidly anchored in their sense of spiritual belonging to one world. Much of this Vin had absorbed from them; he lived in tune with the earth and its creatures as no conventionally reared white could. But because he hadn't gone among them until he was older than were most white children they adopted, he had never quite been able to fit himself into that pattern as they did. He had done his best. He had gone up on a high place and starved and smoked and prayed until he received his vision; he had sought out the medicine things that would keep him safe and bring the spirits to his aid; he had taken part in the peyote ritual; he had cut his flesh in mourning for those he lost; he had lived as much in the Comanche fashion as he could, and had never really entertained the notion of leaving them, until he was forced to it. He still rejected the stern Presbyterian Christianity of his aunt in favor of the red man's spirits. But always a part of him had clung stubbornly to the memory of his roots. Even the name the Comanches had given him, He-Tans-Skins, had been a constant reminder that he wasn't really an Indian--and every look into a still pool, or into his little trade mirror when he painted his face for war or special occasions or when guests came, had reinforced it. And although no Comanche had ever openly accused him of any disloyalty, actual or potential, to the tribe--as more than one white had, since his return to them--he thought they had sensed some of what had gone on inside him. Maybe that was why they had never asked him to go on the warpath against the race from which he had sprung. Whether it was a lingering hint of mistrust, or simply a compassionate wish not to force him to choose between loyalties, they had recognized it and respected it.
"Vin," Chris said quietly, and he felt the officer's strong hand on his shoulder, felt the warmth and comfort that seemed to flow from it. "I don't say I'll always be the easiest son of a bitch to get along with. God knows I've made life hell enough for Buck. But there is nothing in our pasts, either of our pasts, that makes me think any less of you. When Mrs. Travis told me you were leaving...God, I haven't felt so torn up since I lost my family. Inside me, it's like I've known you forever. I can't figure it out, I've never known anything like it, but I can't deny it either. And that's just what I'd be doing if I pushed you away." Vin's field of vision was suddenly filled with midnight blue as the older man squatted down on his heels in front of the haybale. "And let me tell you something else. What you told me just now...it took a lot of guts to take that step, to trust me enough to do that. I honestly can't imagine the kind of knocks you've had to take on account of it before now. I feel like I could punch the lights out of every goddamn person who's ever made you feel like dirt under their feet just because you found--what did you say?-- somebody that wanted me,' " he finished, imitating Tanner's Texan intonation. "Well, now you've found somebody else that does, and by God, I'm not letting you slip away. Do you hear me, Tanner?"
"I hear," Vin whispered, his voice shaking as he looked into the pale green eyes in wonder and awe. "Don't understand it none. But I hear." He swallowed. "They's somethin' else you need to know. Down Fort Belknap they think I killed a man--an officer. Think I put a knife in his back so's I could have his rifle."
"Because you lived as a Comanche, I'll bet," Larabee supplied, not giving any sign that the news troubled him.
"I reckon so." He hesitated. "I don't--I ain't--I reckon news of it'll come to your fort if it ain't already. If--if they know that--about me and you bein' friends--it'll be--bad for you, Larabee."
"Then they don't have to know," said Chris. "But you need to tell me the whole story. If this man is dead and somebody thinks you're to blame, there has to be more reason to it than just that. The Army doesn't accuse people of murder because of their pasts alone. We'll figure out a way to clear your name, Vin."
Vin drew a shuddering breath. "I reckon we will," he agreed.
"Damn straight," said Chris. He wrapped his hand around Vin's arm, just below the elbow, and Vin reflexively returned the grip as the taller man pulled him to his feet. He lurched an instant on his moccasined feet and looked down at the grip that still linked them, then up into the pale eyes that held the vision of home.
Outside the rear door, Buck Wilmington drew back silently in his moccasins and paused to look up into the sky. "Thank You," he whispered, and turned to make his way back to the restaurant.
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Continues in Horse Thieves