Supper finished, Sam sat quietly against the near wall, as the saloon slowly began to fill up. Out on the ranges, the fall work was winding down. The cattle had been gathered in to winter grazing, the last shipments made, the last, late calves branded. Now was a time for fun, for the young men who rode the far hills. Dusty hats bobbed, spurs jingled with wide, bold strides, and loud jocularity burst often from sun-bronzed throats. Young men used to having the freedom of all of wide-open creation seemed to flood the place like an exuberant tide. Ezra excused himself to take a seat at a green felt table, and soon sat amidst a semicircle of broad-brimmed hats.
On the wash of this rollicking human tide drifted another; Chris Larabee sliding in like a length of shadow, to join Buck and JD at the corner table. Larabee's cool gaze swept over Sam, catalogued, dismissed, and the youngster was content with this. A bottle appeared on the table amongst them, but the level within barely dropped, as three of the town's watch dogs made small talk and watched jolly chaos unfold. Sam sat at a long arm's reach, too far to be drawn into conversation, but close enough to share the tiny island of calm the peacekeepers maintained.
As late afternoon shadows stretched across the streets outside, whoops of joy or raucous groans often burst from the crowd around the green table, be-spurred spectators cheering or bemoaning their comrades' luck. Behind the bar, Inez and a balding bartender slid about as if on wheels, quick hands ever reaching for tap, bottle or glass. Often Sam saw only the tops of their heads, amongst the ebullient crush of hats and shoulders.
Movement at the door became the darky healer, Nathan, whose solemn eyes seemed to sweep the room with especial care, then Vin Tanner strolled in at his heels. The tracker's glance met Sam's, and Tanner touched a finger to his hat brim. Chris leaned forward as they spoke to him, then nodded, and sat back with shoulders relaxed. Moments later, Josiah's big frame eased through the crush, to also bend over Chris and speak briefly. If Sam were to guess, the troops had just reported an all's-well from the streets outside.
A whoop of rowdy laughter jolted Sam's attention to the bar. Bodies parted to reveal a young cowhand sprawled on the floor, laughing, with one arm upraised and holding a beer. Apparently that was an attempt to salvage what had not already spilled all over both floor and cowboy, but the effort was in vain. Clumsy hands and much laughter resulted in the cowhand regaining the semi-vertical, only to teeter and collapse again, taking with him two of his fellows. A light brush against Sam's shoulder proved to be the hem of Vin Tanner's coat, as the young tracker stepped past, to take a slouching yet watchful stance against the wall.
Nature chose that moment to make its demands, and Sam threaded a careful path towards and out the back door. From light to cool afternoon shadows, and back to light again, the glare and din of the saloon seemed almost a physical force. Amongst the clamoring voices, one rose in higher note ~ Inez. Sam saw the woman with both hands braced on the bar, dark eyes snapping as she hotly addressed a florid-faced young cowboy. Their words were lost in the general commotion, but Inez's pique and the cowhand's drunken leer were plain enough.
Then to Sam's shock, the cowhand slapped both hands onto the mahogany, and vaulted himself on top. Sam did not remember moving, knew only to slam both hands into the back of a rough coat, seizing hold and hauling with full body-weight, back and down with a shuddering crash. Quick as thought, Sam rebounded to both feet. Snatched an empty beer mug from the bar and wheeled to face the fallen man.
"God!" The fellow lay sprawled with bug eyes and mouth agape, his chest heaving with the effort to breathe.
Two cowboys scrambled to their partner's side, one raising the young man's shoulders. Suddenly Sam became aware of the mumbling quiet, the veritable sea of staring eyes. Pulse thundered in the youngster's ears, breath rasping heavily in a dry throat, as fear and fury collided. Oh, Sam, now what have you done?
A lean, black-clad shape appeared from the crowd, bent briefly over the fallen cowboy. Finally the young man sat up unaided, hatless, gasping, but apparently suffering no more than the wind knocked out of him. As voices in the room rumbled back to full volume, Larabee straightened, and turned his gas-flame stare on Sam McLachlan.
"He was - he was climbin' over the bar," Sam gulped. "Miz Inez was -."
"I saw." The black hat shadowed Larabee's face from the lamplight. "Mind telling me why you thought it was your job?"
"I just . . . I - I couldn't . . . "
A light touch took the mug from Sam's hand, and Inez said fiercely, "Sam was closest, that's all. I was about to wrap one of these -." She brandished the mug at Chris. "Around the head of that that borracho! Sam did him a favor!"
"You watch yourself, farm boy." An angry young voice knifed to them. One of the cowboy's friends spoke with clenched jaw and jabbing finger. "I'll kick your scrawny ass, if you -."
Anger flamed anew, as Sam shot back, "You best learn how to treat a lady!"
"That's enough!" Larabee's metallic tone did not require a raised voice, and both youngsters' mouths snapped shut. Turning towards the cowboys, he said, "You boys have your fun, but the next man out of line will spend the night in jail. Now, move along."
Sam was trembling, now, shaking like a dog passing peach pits, as Larabee turned back to face the youth.
"Kid," said Larabee quietly. "Leave these things to us, hear?"
Swallowing against a sudden queasy turn of the stomach, Sam crammed shaking hands into britches pockets. Just the body's natural reaction to unused adrenaline, but knowing it could only look like weakness set the youngster's jaw in stubborn lines.
"I don't hunt trouble, Mr. Larabee. But I don't stand by for what's wrong, neither."
Larabee's mouth seemed to work a bit, and Sam felt horribly certain the man was about to laugh. What would be the odds of popping him right in the kisser, and then getting away unscathed?
Yet all Chris said was, "Vin, why don't you make a scout around, and take Sir Galahad, here, out for some air."
Scalding embarrassment washed over Sam, as the brown man replied in affirmative, from behind Sam's elbow. Who in hell gave Chris Larabee the right to appoint a babysitter?
Before another thought formed, Sam spat, "Leave me the hell alone!"
With a quick twist, the youth slid past Vin Tanner and out through the boisterous crowd, onto the sunset street and away. Damn them, damn them! What in hell did they know? Who were they to tell Sam McLachlan when or when not to do the right thing? With an oath, the youngster swung a vicious kick at a tin can, watched it ratchet sharply off a support post and bounce, clanking, into the dusty street. Oh, yes, Sam knew about waiting, and about praying for rescue that never came.
+ + + + + + +
Wild things often took refuge in high places, and Sam found haven now on roof of the livery stable. A cautious step led out from the hayloft led onto a lower section of roofing, which capped stalls along one side of the building. There, facing the sunset, Sam drew knees to chest, and tried to let the sense of elevation and detachment sooth frayed nerves. Peacekeepers, hell, they were just a bunch of meddling, overgrown boys, tamped plumb to the muzzle with themselves. Now the sun pried long, golden fingers under the youth's hat brim, as it sank beyond the rim of the world.
Somehow, the scuff of boots on the ladder inside the barn did not come as a surprise. However, the will for any fight seemed to be seeping away, and so Sam said nothing.
"Belly feelin' a bit peculiar?"
The young tracker's voice came quietly from the hayloft doorway. How did he know?
"A bit. It's goin' away."
"It will. No shame to it, just yer guts gettin' loose of a fight." A pause, then Tanner said, "Mind if I sit?"
"Suit y' self."
Leather scuffed wood shingles, as Tanner eased onto the roof and sat, Indian-fashion, some yards away. Go ahead, mister, make sure the kid don't start any brawls or burn any barns. Reckon you got nothing better to do. Yet the tracker only faced into the sinking sun, and said nothing.
After a moment, Tanner said, "Josiah would say it was a righteous fight. But a body's got to look past just the start of the fight, to how ya want it to end."
"I just wanted that man to quit climbin' on the bar at Miz Inez."
"Yeah, but what if he had come up at you, after you put him down? You had that beer mug, which was good. But he had friends, which could get you hurt. You got to look at the whole fight."
"What the hell should I have done? Pretend I didn't see nothin'?"
"Nope. Shoulda give us the nod."
"I don't need the law or anyone else to fetch for me."
"It ain't that. You gotta make the odds right. Either have something they don't, do something they won't, or let a pard stand with ya."
"Ha. I ain't got no pards."
"Yeah, ya do."
Sam heard the quiet reply, felt something itching up from inside, a squirmy feeling that brought a deep, sagging sense of . . . regret? Had Larabee only meant well? Had he only seen an undersized kid taking on a full-sized fight, and worried for it?
A drift of breeze brought the sweet scent of hay, the earthy odor of the corrals below, and a vague whiff of some dry, bitter desert herb. The end of the earth is where Sam now sat. A huge, bald land of crumbled dirt, burnt grass, and plants that twisted in parched, bristly shapes. Hell of a place for a new life. When God built the world, this must have been His barrow pit. Why, whole armies could blast hell out of this country, and no one would ever notice. If ever a drop of water fell here, surely the very stones sucked it up.
"Sam." Tanner's low voice startled the youngster. "Quit nursin' misery. It only sours yer stomach."
"I don't mean to. I just . . . "
"A man alone can drown in himself. You gotta remember to look around, Sam."
Alone? Turning to study the man's sun-touched profile, Sam wondered, did Vin Tanner know about that?
"Look for what?"
The tracker's slouch hat tipped up, and his blue eyes glinted with humor. "What do you see? Out yonder." His voice held the soft rasp of a man more used to breathing sand than talking. "And I know you got eyes to look."
Shifting uncomfortably, Sam turned away from that penetrating gaze, stared down at cracked wooden shingles. Yet Tanner's voice gently pursued.
"What do you see?"
A long moment passed, and Sam looked out, beyond silhouetted rooftops and glowing windows, let old habit be a guide. Earth and sky. In foreign form, yet governed by the same forces.
"Hawk. Two hawks. One yonder about a half mile." Sam got the sense that Tanner was waiting, and reached further. "Dust out on the hill to eastward."
"Wind or critter?"
Pausing for long study, Sam finally replied, "Wind. Went away quick."
"Dust devil," Tanner replied. To Sam's puzzled glance, he added, "That's what we call a whirlwind, out here."
Nodding, Sam watched for more dust devils, but saw none. Felt a brief wash of breeze hush past and drift, sighing, into distance. Tanner idly tapped something in his hand, which upon closer look proved to be a harmonica. Now long pools of shadow drifted slowly from the barren hills, filled the streets with a soft blue tide of coolness. The tops of the hills gently took on a golden blush, as the sun sank towards its bed. The wind arose again, an invisible current that rolled in a chill, whispering rush past thin shirt, floppy hat, and on into dusty infinity. Where did hawks sleep, with nary a tree in sight? Then down the long hills a thin wail arose, wild and desolate and raising the hackles on Sam's neck.
"Coyote?" Sam whispered.
The tracker's hat bobbed once in reply. He brought the harmonica up in cupped hands, as if he would join in, but did not. Again the high, eerie yell rose, dissonant and haunting, spun from far and timeless winds. Now a second shrill yowl lifted, and yet more, wailing in a wild, keening chorus that touched things deep and primordial. Rising and falling, the thin cries of the coyotes seeming to entwine in feral rapture, soaring through vaults of sky in an unearthly carol of perfect discord. At last the wild song stuttered to sharp yaps, and finally fell to whispering silence.
Tanner never moved, as if sprung from the aging wood upon which he sat. He drew the great stillness to him, until it lapped about them like an unseen sea. Nor was it a silence that excluded, and Sam sat listening to distance and space. Deeper grew the pooling shadows, velvet blue in the dry washes, softly glowing rose washing along the bony, furrowed flanks of the hills. The sky darkened gently, winking now with a single eastern star. One last blaze of day remained, as the sinking sun caught a gauzy wash of mares-tail clouds. Silently they burst into white incandescence, which dimmed slowly to gold flame, then glowing pink. At last and slowly, the color died to ashen purple, and the final touch of pink winked out of the world. Only the sky remained alive, deepening to indigo along the eastern horizon.
"Takes more than just yer eyes, Sam." Tanner's voice then drifted gently as a dry breeze. "A man sees hard things in this life, things that he could as well do without. You got to take what you can of the good, to hold with you. Times will come when you'll need that."
Sam met the tracker's knowing blue eyes, and no longer found any threat there. Only then did Sam realize that the belly-knots were gone, the tight chords of shoulders and back had relaxed.
Quietly, the youngster said, "I reckon sometimes . . . sometimes you just gotta stop and take on a little more peace and quiet, huh?"
The tracker's eyes smiled, as Tanner touched his harmonica to his lips. He breathed a minor-key flow of notes and then was still. Sam contentedly let it be so. A man who would take the time to share silence would not be one to look for tales to tell
+ + + + + + +
Sam McLachlan sank into the stream of the town's life with scarcely a ripple. Starting over seemed to have finally become a reality. The livery stable fired a hostler for drunkenness, and Buck made sure their Tennessee stray was the first face the stable owner saw, the next morning. Grooming horses, shoveling stalls, saddling rental horses, harnessing and hooking up hired buggies, or cleaning saddles and tack became the stuff of Sam's life. No great future in it, but there was contentment, the good company of the horses, the clean strain of honest labor. Each of the horses was an individual whom Sam came to know as if they were kin, which was sensitive about his ears, who needed coaxing to take a bit, who was most likely to swell his belly while being cinched up. Horses brought in for boarding received no less kindly attention. The owner of the stable demanded only a good day's work, respect for his animals and property, and a willing body to show up each morning. Sam filled the bill with ease.
Hallowe'en came and went, as the season grew cold teeth and long shadows. Mornings in the desert dawned pallidly and coldly, with thin ice often rimming the water troughs. Down the long horizon, far peaks sometimes awoke under brief caps of snow. JD dropped off an old coat he claimed to have outgrown. It was still two sizes too large for Sam, but warm enough that the youngster protested the charity with only half a heart.
"Well, it's either give it to you or throw it out," JD said with a shrug.
Although disbelieving that, Sam gratefully put the coat on. And slowly, the little canvas bag hidden under the youngster's bed gained the weight of hoarded coins.
Nowadays Sam avoided crowded saloons, but occasionally, during quiet times, slipped in for Miss Inez's excellent cooking. More often, Sam sought out JD, in his cheerful company able to simply laugh and be young, to entertain a lightness of spirit that the Tennessee youth had almost forgotten existed. JD learned of Sam's Remington pistol, and soon after, he and Buck took the youth out shooting at the town dump. There, all their foolishness and hijinks fell away. These men knew their profession, Buck especially speaking with blunt purpose. Aim, think, be aware, and take your time - fast. Above all, be right. Perhaps, Sam once thought, this is what friends were like.
On mornings when not having breakfast with Josiah, Sam caught the thin, cold sunshine over coffee on the saloon porch. Larabee would sometimes be there, and though Sam seldom knew what to say to him, the company was not uncomfortable. Nor did the man voice disapproval of a teenager's presence. Times like those, there seemed a quiet gentleness about the man that belied his steely manner and hard reputation. Nathan, well, there was no getting away from the Negro healer, as he was a frequent fixture at the church, helping Josiah's work. Sam found few words for him, either, but, more and more, Sam's own hands reached to help the tall black man, holding a ladder, cutting a board, handing up paint or tools. The gambler, Ezra Standish, remained a distant figure, their hours and paths seldom crossing, but anyhow, there was nothing a kid from the Tennessee hills and a fancy gentleman would have to say to each other. Vin Tanner drifted in or out like a solitary brown wolf, yet he always had a slow smile and kind words for the youngster. I ain't got no pards. Yeah, you do.
Sam held the bridle of a buggy horse, while a renter hustled himself out of the stable office. The black canvas top of the buggy jiggled, as the man clambered into the driver's seat, then a distant, clattering rumble drifted up down the street.
"Stage is comin'," Sam called, and held the horse as the coach hurtled past the stable yard in a jangling rush.
Then the renter clattered off on his way, and Sam stepped out to the street, hands in pockets. Four doors down, by the hotel steps, the stage loomed motionlessly in a drifting haze of settling dust, the usual bustle centering around its arrival. A lean form sauntered to Sam's side, fingers touching a drooping hat brim above smiling blue eyes.
"Where I first saw ya," Vin said, jutting his chin at the stage coach. He chuckled and added, "You looked like you'd dropped right off the end of the earth."
"Felt kinda like that. Seems like a right smart ago, don't it?"
"Little over a month."
"Ye reckon Mr. Larabee's quit worryin' I'll steal someone's silver, yet?"
"Aw, he never thought that."
"Yeah, bet he didn't."
"He didn't." The look Vin gave was frank. "It just fretted him that a young 'un out here had no folks. He don't like that someone misused you, in a town he's promised to protect. None of us do."
"Just how the cards played, is all."
Tanner turned his attention back to the activity around the stage, imperturbable scrutiny measuring new arrivals. When he strolled a few yards closer, Sam absently kept pace, contemplating repairs on a crupper strap, more than the people around the hotel.
Then a man stepped into view, a tall frame in simple clothes, reaching up for a bag the driver handed down. Sam's world thundered to a halt. No. No. No.
Panic had a color. White. Blinding, incandescent white, that erased all thought, all conscious action, white that froze blood and heart and all faintest hope. He was here, could not be, surely God could not do this. Fate must shudder in horror from it, but there was no mistake. Even in sleep, Sam knew that man, the way he held his head, his shoulders, the way he moved, knew even the way his brow furrowed as he squinted up into the afternoon sun, the awful familiarity in the way he gestured to the driver atop the coach. Knew even the way he would smell, ah, God -.
The tracker's body suddenly blocked the view, broke Sam's transfixed stare. "You all right?" Blue eyes stared down in concern, yet the youngster had not one word of reply, not one thought with which to explain. The only thought left was flight, and Sam was gone, running and dodging and plunging into the stable's shadowed recesses. Up in the hayloft, where rafter beams slanted close to the floor, Sam found hiding. Knees hugged to pounding chest, the youth crouched tightly around a gigantic, swelling, unvoiced scream. No. No. No.
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