Wagon Train

By: Helen Adams

Moved to Blackraptor November 2009

It was time. He had known it was coming for some time now; felt its approach the way one felt an oncoming thunderstorm raising the level of electricity in the air around them. He had waited for it patiently, biding his time until the right moment, knowing that to approach too soon would bring nothing but anger, pain and resentment. For a long while that was all there had been, but things were different now. Better. Destiny had steered both of them onto a new course, and having something to hold onto in the present had eased his friend’s frantic need to cling to the past. Buck sensed that Chris was ready to move forward. He only needed a nudge.

“Hey, bud,” he said, casually leaning against the door frame of the bedroom, watching the other man frown and shake his head as he rummaged through a trunk that sat at the foot of his bed. “Lose something?”

Chris glanced up. “Hey. You seen that old set of spurs around here anywhere? You know the fancy silver ones I picked up in San Antonio that time? I told Josiah and Vin they could have ‘em for the charity auction they’re holding at the rodeo next weekend. I’ve looked in the barn, the shed, the attic and now here and can’t find the damned things.”

Buck took a deep breath. He knew where the spurs were and this would tell him what he needed to know. This would show if it was safe to proceed; if this was the moment to give his friend that necessary push. “I think they’re still in Adam’s room.”

For a moment, the world went still. No sound, no movement, not even a breath. Then Buck continued, “Don’t you remember how he used to beg us to strap the spurs on those old boots of yours and let him stomp around the house in the things so they’d jingle when he moved?”

A bittersweet smile flickered over Chris’ face. “That’s right. It looked so funny to see those little short legs of his knee-deep in those big ol’ boots. He sure did love them, though.”

“He loved anything that had to do with horses or the Old West,” Buck agreed.

Seeing the sadness in his friend’s eyes, Buck paused. Then the look faded, leaving only the wistful little smile and a tone of resignation as Chris said, “Yeah, he sure did. Guess my boy’d be happy to know he was giving something that might do some good for other kids.”

Buck came all the way into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed, body turned so that he faced Chris. “That’s for sure. The little squirt was generous right from the start. Loved to give things away just to see other people smile.”

“Took after his mother that way,” Chris commented, perching on the edge of the now closed trunk.

With a nod, Buck asked, “You recall that time when Adam was about three and he heard me teasing you and Sarah; saying I wished I had me someone warm and cuddly to sleep with at night?”

A snort answered the question. “He brought out his favorite one of that new litter of pups we had and offered it to you. Started crying when you said that wasn’t exactly what you’d had in mind and you were such a soft touch you agreed to adopt the mutt just to calm him down.”

Chuckling at the memory, Buck absently rubbed at his nose. “Cost me three years worth of allergy shots just to live in the same house with it. If I hadn’t met Nathan and talked him into the idea that he needed a watchdog, I’d still be itching and sneezing!”

The two old friends shared a grin and then a moment of silence as each recalled that Buck had only given up the dog after Adam had died. After he would no longer know about it. After the sight of Buster became too much of a reminder for Buck of the boy who would never come to his home to play with the animal again. It was something the two men had never spoken of, but as their eyes met now, a silent acknowledgement of the fact passed between them. Chris nodded, understanding and a silent apology in his eyes.

Buck smiled – acceptance and forgiveness for the slight in his own gaze. “You know, when Vin came up with the idea of Wild West day to raise money for the orphanage, it got me thinking about some of the stuff we put together when Adam was little. I volunteered to be in charge of prizes for the kids’ games next week and Josiah wants everything to have a western theme. I wondered if we might have time to make a few copies.”

Chris’ brow wrinkled. “Copies of what?”

“Of the toys. You know, like those little wooden horses and things you used to carve. Some of those weren’t half bad. I’m betting the orphan kids would like them a lot, and I was thinking maybe I could put together a few wagons to go with ‘em.”

A faraway expression entered Chris’ eyes. “God, I forgot all about that little wagon train we made. Adam loved that thing.”

“Suppose it’s too late to get started now, though,” Buck said with regret, subtly eyeing his friend. “The three of us spent almost a month putting that one of Adam’s together; you carving horses and a team of oxen; Sarah and me fixing up the wagons to hitch ‘em to.”

Chris smiled. “Remember how horrified Sarah was when you said we could use old shoelaces to hitch the teams? She spent almost two straight days braiding those tiny leather harnesses for them. She was just set on getting everything as perfect as possible, right down to making supply sacks and matchstick boxes to load the wagons with. I think you two had as much fun putting those things together as Adam ever did playing with them.”

Buck grinned. “And you didn’t? You were the one who started telling him all those stories about adventurous families crossing over into the frontier.” After a moment’s silence spent dwelling on the memory of a newly turned five-year-old’s crows of delight over his hand-made birthday gift, Buck mused, “I wonder what ever became of that.”

Giving him a measuring look, which Buck returned with perfect equanimity, Chris seemed to come to a decision. Jumping to his feet, he strode toward the door, jerking his head in a small beckoning gesture. Buck followed close on his heels, not at all surprised to see that they were headed two doors down to the left; Adam’s room.

The room had altered little in the five years since Adam and his mother had been killed. Chris had done very little to change it, packing away clothing and keepsakes, removing the bedding, but leaving the decorations and toys in place on the shelves. The windows were still covered in brown and yellow curtains of an Indian weave pattern. Cowboys on wild mustangs still galloped across the cream colored wallpaper. The whole room had an air of waiting, as though its young occupant had only gone temporarily, perhaps on a camping trip or away visiting his grandparents. The sight of it tore at Buck’s heart, knowing that his friend’s spirit had been conducting that same painful wait; never quite able to let go of the past.

Chris looked around the room, frowning slightly as he took it all in. Reaching out a hand, he touched the back of a dusty stuffed pony wearing a small cowboy hat. Then, wordlessly he moved to the open closet door, pulling a large box down from the shelf and setting it on the bed.

Buck’s breath caught, more affected by the sight than he had been prepared for. Inside the box, padded carefully against damage, was the wagon train. The carved animals, though a bit rough around the edges, still looked lively and full of energy. The wagons – four of them – still looked sturdy enough to face the roughest weather and toughest obstacles a small boy’s imagination could conjure for them. The little canvas tops and lovingly made supplies were a bit faded, dilapidated by much handling, but Adam Larabee had been a good wagon-master, handling the beloved creations with a reverence rarely seen in young children, and in fact, rarely bestowed upon any of his other toys.

“He’d be eleven now,” Chris said softly, picking up one of the light wooden horses. “Probably be covering every surface in the room with model airplanes, or posters of rock stars or some kind of video game I never even heard of. He wouldn’t have wanted all this to stay the same, would he?”

Laying a warm hand on his shoulder, Buck gave it a squeeze. “No, he probably wouldn’t. He’d have grown out of these things and moved on to something new.” Picking up a wagon, he lightly blew a bit of dust away from the surface. “Sooner or later, he’d have put these things away in this box and kept it as a memory of good times. He wouldn’t have looked at it much again, but he’d have kept it, maybe just until he had kids of his own to pass it down to.”

In a voice that was hushed and husky, Chris said, “I guess he wouldn’t have wanted me to hang onto everything either. He’d probably be happy to give some of these things to Josiah’s orphans.” Clearing his throat impatiently against the traitorous quiver in his words, he drew a deep breath. “I guess maybe I should too.”

Buck smiled and replaced the little wagon in its place, looping one long arm over Chris’ shoulders. “Letting go of a few things doesn’t mean you lose what you have left of him, Chris. A few keepsakes to put with the pictures and papers are all you really need to keep his memory alive. That, and somebody like me who’ll always love him too, and always be happy to help you if those memories ever start to fade.”

Allowing the words and the touch to comfort him for but a moment, Chris soon moved away, going back to the closet and searching the dark corners. After a minute, he reached into the back and pulled forth a pair of scarred, stained, once-black boots, worn down at the heels and slumping at the top from much wear. Still attached to the backs were a set of finely etched silver spurs, the tips blunted to prevent injury but still impressive to look upon. The contrast between the condition of the boots and the quality of the spurs made both men smile.

Gently disengaging them, Chris handed them to Buck. “Drop these off at Josiah’s place on your way home after dinner, okay?”

With a silent nod, Buck accepted them. And then he waited.

Chris took another long look around the room and decided, “You might as well take along these other things too, I guess. The toy horses, the war bonnet, the cowboy statues.” He paused, studying the little horse still gripped in his left hand. “But not these, Buck. They can have the rest, but I’ll be keeping these.”

Twirling one of the shining silver rowels of the spurs in his hand, Buck smiled. “Reckon that’d be just fine.”

Chris stroked a fingertip lightly, thoughtfully, over the back of the carving in his hand. “Eight days until the fund-raiser. Didn’t used to take me more than a couple of days to rough out a horse; maybe another day or so to touch it up into something a kid might be happy with. Not as good as these maybe, but I figure I could get a couple done in time, if you really want them.”

It took a fight for Buck not to whoop with joy. To his knowledge, Chris had not touched his carving supplies since the day his family had been taken from him. “That’d be great. Bet I could even get the boys to help, if you want them to.”

An incredulous twitch bent Chris’ lips. “Who? Nathan may be good with a surgical knife but otherwise he can’t even make a straight cut in a block of cheese! And Josiah and Vin are both up to their eyeballs with all the things they’ve volunteered to do for the event. For that matter, so are you.”

“So? That still leaves JD and Ezra,” Buck reminded him. “I don’t think the kid can carve, but you can set him to sanding off the rough spots and polishing up the finished ones. That’ll save you some time.”

“And Ezra?”

Buck smirked. “Just hand him a block of wood and a knife. You’ll be surprised.”

At the suggestion, Chris’ eyebrows rose. “You expect Mister ‘Tactile Sensitivity’ to risk getting a splinter trying to carve a toy horse? You gotta be kidding me.”

“Ah, but there’s more than one way to improve a person’s manual dexterity,” Buck returned smugly. “You know as well as I do that Ezra spent a hell of a lot of time on his own through the years. You don’t think he reads and plays cards all the time, do you?”

“You’re serious.”

“Sure am. When Christmas time rolls around, take a good look at all those little angels and rocking horses and things decorating his tree. Last year, after he’d had a little too much of Josiah’s special eggnog at the Christmas party, he told me about picking up carving as a hobby when he was a kid. It gave him something to do in the dull times when his mom was off doing her own thing.”

“I’ll be damned,” Chris muttered. Turning the horse in his hand to study it with a critical eye, he asked, “You think he’d do it?”

Buck smiled. “Don’t see why not. You know what a sucker he is for the little ones, and all you’d have to do is insinuate that you don’t think he can make a toy horse as well or as fast as you can. I guarantee we’ll have more than enough prizes for the kids come next Sunday.”

The last bit of residual sadness faded from Chris’ eyes as he began to laugh. “I expect you’re right. All right, then. We’ll do it. But first…” He laid the little carving carefully back into its cardboard and cotton batting home. Lifting the box, he glanced around the room and nodded. “I think it’s time these were set up in the display case out in the front room. They’ve been tucked away in the dark long enough.”

Buck did not ask whether his friend meant the toys or the memories associated with them. Seeing the peaceful expression on Chris’ face, he did not need to. It was indeed, time.



The End


“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.” Gloria Naylor – 1950


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