Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
- 1 -
All six of us are sitting here again, playing poker just like we have the past few nights, all of us wondering and none of us saying. To tell the truth, I feel foolish worrying about a grown man. Okay, so Vin's a few days late but a man's entitled to shake off the shackles now and again. Of all the men I know, I can't think of one who can take of himself better, but then there's a price on his head and something could have gone wrong. Even without that, there was one hell of a storm last week: it's hard to see Vin getting caught in a flash flood but it was the worst I've seen in years and there are folk around town still putting things to right now. If that was the way of it, I doubt we'd be in time to do him much good... the idea sends a shudder through me.
Still, the fact is that I wouldn't have given it a second thought so soon but for one thing: he said he'd be back for Mary's recital last Saturday. I don't see him letting her down and I don't see him missing it. Since that competition in her newspaper a while back, the poetry bug seems have bitten him harder than I've seen anything bite him before. He's a thinking man and he's got some thoughts that're worth folk hearing.
Mary's been worrying ever since the recital. She's asked me three times to go take a look and I know she's gotta be worried to keep at it like that. She would have been concerned anyhow but I know they've gotten pretty friendly since she's been teaching him to read and write. For a while, I figured maybe there was more to it than friendship but then I saw when I left with Ella that she was hoping I'd be back. I felt the same when she was courting Gerard. It seems like we're drawn to each other, against our better judgment as folk say, but I'm not ready to get hitched again and I wouldn't expect Mary to consider it without and there we are.
Anyhow, looking around now, it's not just Mary. We're all starting to wonder if we oughta be doing something. Thinking back on how Vin led them out after me that time, I finally put them out of their misery.
'First light, fellas?'
There's no argument, just grins all around. It's only been a few days, and Vin's probably fine, but we're his friends and I can't think of a time he's ever let one of us down, not even when it cost him dear to put us first.
Next morning, we're on our way before the sun's hardly off the horizon. Vin told Nathan he was reckoning on taking in the hog's back on the return journey. I've heard tell it's real nice up there but it's right in the middle of nowhere, not somewhere a man'd ever have reason to go. I guess Vin must have heard the same - maybe it's part of this poetry thing - but, whatever he had in mind, at least it gives us a start. It'd be hopeless looking for a man in this country without a lead. We both know that to our cost, him with Eli Joe and me with Ella.
I never thought it could happen after the fire but there are a few things in my life that make it worth living again. Five of them are with me now, and a sixth is somewhere ahead. There's not much to beat riding open country on a fine day with good friends. It takes us two days to reach the hog's back but, even with the worry over Vin, we're still feeling pretty good at the end of it. Now we sit back and look at what Vin wanted to see.
'Hell, it's big.'
JD never minds stating the obvious.
'It don't look much like a hog.'
Nathan sounds disappointed. Maybe he was expecting ears and a snout.
Buck rides out to take a closer look, loops around a couple of times, and then comes back.
'There's a pretty clear trail up the middle by the looks of it. Don't see any reason a man wouldn't follow it.'
'Since when did Mr. Tanner need a reason to be perverse?'
Ezra always keeps a distance from Vin, with the Mr. Tanner bit and all, but I reckon he's got a soft spot for him on the quiet. I guess we all have. Vin's the kind of man you can't help but take to. He's quiet but, when he says something, it's worth hearing. He doesn't ask for much but there's not much he won't do for a friend. Come to that, there's not much he won't do for a stranger. I haven't known many men as kind as he is but, in a tight spot, he's the surest gun I know. There's no doubt that he's a friend worth looking for. Ezra's right though: Vin's apt to suit himself and he's not one to follow the crowd. Still, if he came to admire the view, he'd want some height to look at it from.
We pick our way along the ridge for a day and a half. Folk are right: it is pretty country and the weather's just about as good as it gets, with a clear blue sky and a cool breeze on our faces now that storm has cleared the air. I'm no poet, so that's the best I can do for a description. I'll tell you what, though, it makes me feel free and that's what's so great about the land out here. It's not gonna be this way for ever, so maybe we should stop and smell the roses more often. Maybe that's the point of poetry, to remember how it was when everyone who knew it is dead and gone.
'Hey!' JD's pointing up ahead.
We all shade our eyes and take a look. There's Vin, moseying along as if he's got all day. He hasn't even seen us, which is real strange for a man with the sharpest eyes I've ever known. Ah, now he's got us. He even deigns to break into a jog. I wonder if he's hurt but, as he gets closer, there's no sign of it. Looking over, I see the same thoughts are going through Nathan's mind. We all stare at him, as he rides up like nothing's amiss.
- 2 -
What the hell are the fellas doin' up here? C'mon, Peso, move yer ass.
'Hey, boys. What brings you up here? Trouble?'
Ezra sidles up, looking at me real close as if I've suddenly grown two heads.
'We are the rescue party, Mr. Tanner, though you seem in little need of us.'
'What would I need rescuin' from?'
They all look at me, half like I'm mad and half like they're stupid.
'I was jus' makin' my way back t'town. Y'all knew what I was about.'
Buck shifts around in his saddle like he does when he ain't so sure about somethin'.
'You're over a week late, Vin, and we knew you wanted to make Mary's recital. You hit some-?'
I hold up a hand to stop him. 'A week late? No, I ain't.'
They don't say nothin' but they're startin' t'look like maybe I ain't jus' half mad.
'C'mon fellas. This a trick or somethin'? Last time I checked, I knew how to count the days.'
Chris gives me that penetratin' look he's got, tellin' me that he means what he's about t'say.
'No trick, Vin. It's Wednesday, three weeks after you left.'
I stare at him. I know he's gotta be wrong but why the hell would they ride all the way out here to lie t'me?
'Can't be. I ain't never lost a day, let alone eight.'
'Are you saying that all six of us, in town as we have been, have suffered some mass delusion?'
There's somethin' off in Ezra's voice, like I'm simple or sick or somethin'. I edge Peso into the side of his gelding, making it real jumpy.
'I'm saying this must be some kinda pick-on-Vin day and I don't like it.'
I ride away from 'em, fair riled up. I was feelin' so good with just the sun and the land for company. I can do without my friends if they got nothin' better to do than rile me. Chris jogs alongside and catches my arm.
'We're not joking, Vin. We rode out here on account of you missing Mary's recital when we knew you were dead set on being back for it. You'd better let Nathan take a look at you.'
I rein back and look at him. It ain't long afore I gotta admit there ain't nothin' but worry on his face. I take a look around the others and see the same. I give a slow nod and step down. Maybe I did take a knock on the head or get sunstroke or somethin'.
The fellas get a fire goin' an' some coffee brewin', while Nathan prods just about every inch of me. He looks sort of defeated when he sits back on his heels and admits he can't see nothin' wrong with me. He goes to his saddlebag and gets out his new toy. A doctor come through town a few weeks back and took a likin' to him - it's easy enough to do - an' he had two o' these things so he give Nathan one.
'Take off your shirt, Vin.'
'Hold up, there, Nathan. You already said there ain't nothin' wrong with me. I ain't an excuse to play with your thingy-scope.'
He frowns at me. He always gets like that when his patients won't do as they're told so I go along with it while he listens to my heart and makes me breathe in and out so he can listen to that too. He moves around behind me but then, instead of checkin' me out, he stands up and lets out a low whistle.
'Ain't you havin' us on, is it Vin? You bin livin' it up in Clarkstown?'
'What are y'goin' on about now?'
I swear my friends are tryin' to tip me over the edge. I'd think they were after my money if I had any. I feel like I'm in a circus or somethin' as they all take a look at my back, so I have a feel myself. Seems t'be some little scabs there. I don't recall how I got 'em but they ain't nothin'.
'Oh, c'mon Vin, you can tell us.'
I know what we're talkin' about now from that tone of Buck's. He thinks I been gettin' my banana peeled but, if I did, I've got no recollection of it. I put my shirt back on, wishin' I'd kept that kinda evidence t'myself.
Chris comes back around the front and takes a long hard look at me. Reckon he must be satisfied with what he sees though, 'cause he settles back down with his coffee.
- 3 -
Poor old Vin. I don't know what's going on but he's gone from being a man without a care in the world to a man doubting his own mind, all in the space of fifteen minutes. There's only one way to get scratches and bruises in neat sets of five like he's got but a man reckons to remember, especially a man like Vin who hasn't chased after but one woman since we've known him. They're not the great weals that some women make, almost like they're marking their territory, but just the little fingerprints and pinches you sometimes see when a man's given a woman a real good time. I don't know what to make of it. I've never seen any man lose eight days through drink and I sure as hell can't see one who drinks as light as Vin doing it. Besides, he looks like a man who's been on vacation, not one who's just crawled out of a saloon. It must have been some vacation - I don't recall the last time I saw him so easy with life, at least until we came along and shattered his peace.
Still, no matter how good he's looking, I reckon we need to find out what's going on.
'You better tell us just what you do remember, Vin. I wouldn't feel right about eight missing days, and I doubt you do either.'
He gives that little tilt of his head that stands in for a nod. I watch him think for a long time, gettin' more frustrated every minute. Eventually he looks around us all.
'I remember Clarkstown. Everythin' went fine and I left on the twelfth. I know that 'cause the livery fella said so when he reckoned up. I remember right through to reachin' the hog, ridin' along... an' then meetin' you boys.'
He's frowning again.
'I can't recall anythin' out of the ordinary but it feels it feels like it don't match up.'
'How's that?' Josiah prompts him.
Vin takes his time over answering.
'Well, you know like if you go into a room and maybe somethin's missin', you can't place what's different but you know it's changed? It feels akin to that. Yesterday there was a hell of a storm brewin', now there's not a cloud in the sky, but I don't recall it breakin'.' He rubs his chin. 'Yesterday, I was halfway to a beard, now I got a day's stubble, but I don't recall shavin'. Yesterday seems a long time ago.'
'Maybe somethin' bad happened,' Nathan says. 'Folk sometimes forget real bad stuff.'
Buck's snort makes it clear what he thinks of that. 'I'll have a bit of that kinda bad stuff.'
Ezra gives him one of those cool looks. 'I thought you did. Most days.' I can see Ezra's as worried as any of us and it's making him snitty. 'I take it that you don't remember a lady in Clarkstown, Mr. Tanner?' he asks.
'Plentya ladies. None of 'em scratchin' at my back, far as I recall.'
We all look around. The ridge is broad and thickly wooded in parts. There's no shortage of places to hide but it's hardly somewhere that anyone, least of all a woman, would be likely to live. I don't set too much store by Vin's memory right now, but some of the marks on his back are fresh and we're a long way from Clarkstown.
'What's the last thing you remember before the bit that doesn't match up? Can you pick that out?'
It's not easy to imagine what it's like to have memories that don't match up but it might help to know.
Vin thinks on that. 'Well, the last thing I seem to recall in the stormy weather was takin' a leak. I was ridin' along the trail, then I stepped down and went over to a big ol' pine on the edge of a bit of a wood. I was jus' buttonin' up an' an' I don't recollect ridin' on.'
I can see Josiah's interested now. He's looked into a lot of the Indian's ways with meditation, herbs and such like. I reckon he sees this as something akin to that.
'Did you hear anything?' he asks. 'Or smell anything?'
We wait again while Vin works it through.
'There was a thunderclap miles off, and I smelled juniper.'
'How about we head back along the trail?' I ask. 'See what we can find?'
Even while I'm saying it, Vin tenses up. He hardly moves but men like us can spot a muscle twitch at twenty yards.
'There ain't no need for that. Let's jus' get on back into town.'
His voice is tense too. I can't put my finger on it but he doesn't sound like himself. Looking around, I can tell that the others have picked up on it as well.
'Worried we'll find something?'
'No.' He fidgets, then says, 'Look if you like. It's just a waste of time is all.'
So we pack up and get moving. We've done all sorts of things since we've been watching over the town but this has to be one of the weirdest. The way Vin's acting, you'd think he'd murdered someone and tried to cover it up but that's not Vin. Price on his head or not, I've never met a man I trusted more.
What we're following's not a human trail; it's a deer track. I don't know how they decide on a route but shortest distance doesn't seem to figure in it. We wind about a bit, working up and down the side of the ridge, and we've been going an hour or two when we reach a fork.
'Head up shall we?' I ask.
Vin seemed to be back to normal but that's sets him off again. He reckons we should take the lower track. I hope that's his memory talking and do what he wants. We do that a couple more times before Ezra catches a chance to take me to one side.
'I am not certain that we should be following Vin's directions.' He looks me in the eye, wondering how I'll take what he has to say. 'Call it intuition if you like, but I have the distinct impression that he is steering us away from the rejected trails, not onto the chosen ones.'
I don't argue because the same idea's been floating around in my mind. Like I said, weird. The next time we get a choice, I ask Vin if he's sure. He gives a nod and keeps moving so I catch his arm.
'We'd get a better look from higher up.'
I see a flash of temper in his eye but he stamps on it. 'I didn't go up high.'
'I thought you said you don't remember.' He doesn't have an answer for that. 'Let's give it a go.'
I turn my horse back and take the other turn. Vin's beside me in a second and this time it's him who grabs my arm. He doesn't plan to let me take that trail. Wondering how far he'll push it, I move my horse forward.
- 4 -
What's happenin' to me. I don't know what's up that trail but I know I can't let 'em go that way. Chris is gonna push me, see what I'll do. The thing that worries me is that I don't know what I'll do.
'No, Chris. Not that way.'
'Yeah, Vin,' he tells me, real quiet. 'This way looks good to me.'
Before I can stop myself, I pull him towards me by the arm I'm holdin' and catch him a left hook on the jaw. It ain't a big punch but enough to knock him out of his saddle all the same. When he looks up at me, he jus' seems kinda curious. I'd expect him to be mad and hit me back but he don't seem to be plannin' on that.
'I'm going this way, Vin. You're gonna have to shoot me to stop me.'
I draw my gun and point it at him. I see the others lookin' edgy outta the corner of my eye but none of 'em makes a move. Chris just looks at me. He don't believe I'll do it. An' he's right. I lower the gun and holster it.
'Have it your own way.'
It's hard though. The further we go up the trail, the worse I feel. My head's spinnin' and my stomach's churnin', like when a man's spent too long in the sun without a hat. When we hit another fork, the worry peaks again. I turn Peso to block the trail.
'Let's turn back, fellas.'
I don't like what I hear in my voice. I sound yeller, like I'm beggin'. It takes me a minute to recognize it but I am afraid. Fear ain't somethin' I feel that often, and I sure ain't in the habit of being afeared o' nothin', but I guess that's what this is. I can't remember a thing but I'm scared rigid.
I can see Chris weighin' it up. He can face me if I put up a fight but I reckon he ain't so keen on makin' me beg. I'd like to say that's my plan but I'd be a liar - the fear's real enough all right.
'How about we camp here tonight and decide in the morning?' he offers. 'It's a good enough spot.'
I nod, glad he didn't push me. It ain't over, just put off till mornin'. I let the others make camp - all of a sudden, I feel real tired. I hear JD bag a rabbit but I don't reckon I can stay awake till it's ready.
- 5 -
I look at Vin, dead to the world as he is, wondering where he's spent his week. Watching him when he threatened me, I could see he was real upset about taking the high trail but I could see something else too. He hasn't lost his mind. I could see the same Vin in those steady eyes that I always see - he won't be hurting any of us. I reckon I'm more sure of that than he is.
When I look around, I know the others are as confused as I am. 'Any ideas, boys?'
'You ever seen one of those mesmerists on stage?' Josiah asks me. I shake my head. 'I saw a couple back in San Francisco. They could put people in a trance, make them do things and then forget all about it.'
'Merely a hoax to part fools from their money.'
Ezra may be right but something sure is making Vin act strange. When I say so, there's no argument.
We're halfway through our supper when Vin starts to get restless. We left him sleeping, figuring he could eat his share cold for breakfast if he wants, and now he's dreaming. He mutters, like he's delirious, and Nathan leans closer to listen.
'He's saying something about black eyes.'
'A fight?' JD says.
Nathan shakes his head. 'Not much of a fight that don't leave a bump or bruise anywhere on his body. I know Vin's good but no one's that good.'
Vin doesn't stir again and it ain't so long afore we join him. I hardly seem to have shut my eyes when I wake to the faintest glimmer of dawn on the horizon. Vin's silhouette stands watching it. When I go to his side, he looks at me and the light's just about good enough to make out a tear track down his cheek.
- 6 -
'Phoebus, arise, and paint the sable skies, with azure, white, and red.'
I don't know where the words came from but I felt like I had to say 'em.
'One of your poems?' Chris asks.
'No, it ain't mine. Jus' seems like I heard it someplace.'
He tells me that I was talkin' in my sleep, about black eyes. I ponder on that. Matter of fact, I'm still ponderin' when we're all up and fed. I reckon Buck's been ponderin' too because he looks over at me from where he's saddlin' his horse.
'Maybe they weren't black eyes like in a fight. I met this Spanish woman once, not Mexican but from a real old Spanish family. She had these big eyes that seemed jet black right through. Musta been ten years ago but I can still see 'em now.'
'They must have been extraordinary,' Ezra says in that cutting way of his, 'To linger in Buck's memory for more than a week.'
I've got no time to think on that now. I've been feelin' the tension while we loaded up, on the worry about which trail we'd take, knowin' the others are on the worry too. A trickle of sweat runs down the side of my face. The sun ain't hardly in the sky yet; it's cold, scared sweat.
Chris looks at me, probably wonderin' if I'm gonna hit him again. I don't know why I did that. Ain't like I could take on all six of 'em, with my fists or my gun, an' I was jus' bluffin' with the gun - ain't no way I'd shoot any of 'em. But I got this need to stop 'em somehow.
'We going up?' he asks me.
I shake my head. 'Can't do it. Can't let you do it.'
I think for a minute but it's like when you try to remember a fella's name and it jus' won't come to you. Even tryin' makes me feel kinda light-headed.
'Don't know. Just can't.'
His face seems almost sad for a second then, too fast for me to make a move, he lands a hell of a right on my jaw. I stay up for a second or two, feelin' surprised more'an anythin', then it starts to get dark. Last thing I see afore the lights go out is a pair of eyes big, black and intense.
- 7 -
I rub my knuckles, trying to smooth out the jagged pains that are shooting up my arm. I wanted to put him out with one blow but I hope I haven't gone too far. I can see Nathan's none too thrilled but he squats down to check Vin out.
'He all right?' I ask.
'Seems it. Reckon he'll be out for a while.'
I give a shrug. 'Seemed easiest in the long run. Better one quick punch than a brawl. He wasn't gonna let us go up there without a fight. Let's load him up.'
Josiah picks Vin up like he's a little kid and swings him into the saddle. A couple of turns of rope should keep him there. I don't like binding a friend but I tie his hands too. If whatever's up here was gonna hurt him, I figure it'd have done it already. Meantime, we don't need him taking a swing at us every time we reach a fork in the trail.
We set off, no idea where we're headed or what we'll find but figuring we should go up, seeing as how Vin was so set on going down. It's only a quarter of an hour before he stirs and we stop to let him come around. He gives me a sad-eye look that makes me feel like a skunk. Holds up his hands and raises his eyebrows.
'Going up Vin, like it or no.'
He nods, resigned but far from happy.
We been riding for a while when he says, 'You were right, Buck. I saw the eyes after Chris hit me, afore I went under.'
'Woman?' Buck asks.
'Don't know,' Vin tells him.
JD's been quiet this morning, thinking on all this I guess, but now he comes out with what's been on his mind.
'Josiah, you ever hear about ladies that sing so lovely that men have to go to 'em? I remember sailors talking about 'em on the docks back East.'
'Sirens. Yes, but they're mythical. What made you think of them?'
Ezra gives that little laugh of his. 'Well, Mr. Tanner does appear to have been diverted from his course by a lady a somewhat unusual lady, who it seems seduced him and then erased his memory of the encounter. Such an experience makes one wonder if sirens and mermaids are as mythical as convention dictates.'
As we go on, Vin looks worse and worse, shaking and sweating like he's got a fever. Nathan stops us twice to check him over. When I ask what he thinks, he shrugs. A nasty thought's been gnawing at me for a while now.
'Wasn't the punch, was it?'
Nathan wasn't keen on me doing it but he's not one to let a man stew.
'Don't think so. Ain't never see a punch do this. If I didn't know Vin better, I'd say he was scared, panickin'.'
JD looks worried. 'Maybe we should turn around. It ain't like we gotta go back there - Vin's all right, ain't he?'
Vin don't say one way or the other but it seems to me like the animal in him wants to turn and run but the man wants to know what happened. I know if it was me, I'd want to know. A man doesn't just lose a week and say heigh-ho. Looking around, I see that the others feel the same and so we get on with it.
We head upward each chance we get, watching the view open up - and Vin shut down - as we get higher. It's Josiah who pulls us up with one word.
He's right; the scent's real strong. We look around and, sure enough, there's a big old pine on the edge of a wood. There doesn't seem much doubt that it's where Vin's memories run out. He stares at the tree, his shakes gone while he thinks on it. The rest of us take a look around.
- 8 -
I remember this place. Last time, the sky was full o' thunderheads and the air felt too close to breathe. Seemed a sure thing the storm was gonna come right over. I'd been meanin' to stop for a while and it was a relief when I did. Guess it musta took most of a minute to empty out. I stood a second or two more, feelin' horny but not inclined to do anythin' about it right there and then. So I buttoned up.
'Huh?' I realize Josiah's been talkin' to me. 'What was that?'
His eyes are real kind when he repeats himself. 'Get any further this time?'
Only new thing is what I was feelin' an' I ain't so sure I wanna talk about that. He knows there's somethin' I ain't sayin', and knowin' I ain't sayin' it makes it seem more'an it is, so I give it up with a grin.
'Ain't nothin'. I can remember bein' here clear enough. I was bustin' and kinda proud is all. Don't see that's got nothin' to do with nothin'.'
Buck grins back at me. 'You shoulda seen to that in Clarkstown. It ain't good for a man to bottle it up.'
Ezra's still on his case. 'I take it you base that assessment on observation, rather than experience. When have you ever bottled it up?'
'What's with you, Ezra? Maybe you need to get yourself sorted.'
Chris gives 'em both a look that says Buck's lovelife ain't the order of the day. 'So, you walked over there on a stormy day, took a leak and, next thing you know, you're riding toward us under a clear blue sky?'
'Near enough,' I admit. ''cept I'd been riding for maybe half a day when I see you boys.'
I watch 'em lookin' around beyond the pine tree. Any other time, it'd be me searchin' for signs but I don't feel up to it and they wouldn't trust me anyhow. They ain't even untied me. My head's achin' and the sweats and shakes are back. They eased up while I was thinkin' on the rest stop but when I try to go forward they start up again.
Course, they don't find nothin'. Whether I remember it or not, I reckon the storm came all right. There ain't gonna be no tracks. After a while, Chris takes me by surprise. He takes a hold of Peso's bridle and leads him around a bit, watchin' me all the time. Ain't so long afore I catch on to what he's up to an' it ain't much longer afore he's decided which way makes me turn the worst shade. The others mount up and we move out.
- 9 -
I can't say I feel easy doing this. You don't take a friend and lead him towards something that scares him rigid... not normally, anyhow. But there's nothing normal about this setup. So we head on, always taking the trail that makes Vin shake more. He's in a bad way now, past talking and not thinking so clear by the look of him. It's half an hour or so before Nathan says what's on his mind.
'Are you sure about this, Chris? We don't wanna push him past the point of no return.'
No, I'm not sure but I tell him how I see it.
'When we stopped by the pine and he was thinking about what went before whatever happened, he was right as rain. Seems to me, as soon as he's clear of all this, he'll be fine.'
Nathan considers that for a while and then nods. I wouldn't say he's happy but I don't see that he'd want a week-long hole in his memory any more than I would. I've lost plenty of nights passed out drunk but I've always woken up more or less where - and when - I expected. As it turns out, we don't have much further to go anyhow. Not ten minutes after Nathan asked if I was sure, we see a clearing through the trees. There's a little cabin, neat and homely, with a vegetable garden fenced in on one side and half a dozen hens pecking in the dirt on the other. A curl of smoke drifts up from the chimney but, apart from the chickens, nothing else is moving. In the doorway, a woman watches us approach.
I would have taken her for Mexican, I guess, but she could be Spanish like Buck said. Her black hair's scraped back tight in a chignon and she's wearing the kind of loose blouse and skirt that Inez does. None of that really seems to register, though, because I can't take in anything but her eyes: big, black and penetrating. It's not surprising they're all Vin can recall - the rest of her somehow fades away next to them. They scan us all and then widen when they settle on Vin. She runs out to him and rests a hand on his leg, but he hardly seems conscious any more.
'Why have you brought him back?' No introduction, just a furious demand. 'Can't you see it isn't good for him to come back?' Her fingers flit over the ropes around his wrists and legs. When she turns those eyes back on me, they're filled with rage. Somehow, I can feel it - reaching for me and then curling around me like the smoke above the roof. I shudder as it plunges right inside me.
I don't see her lips move but I hear, 'Cut him loose!'
I dismount and do as I'm told. It feels like I don't have a choice. Josiah helps me get Vin down and we have to carry him over to sit on the steps outside her cabin. She kneels in front of him and strokes his face but he seems way past feeling her touch. We all just stand and watch, wondering what the hell is going on.
'Vin Vin, darling Can you hear me? It's Sable. I'm here. I'm right here with you.'
Sable? I trawl my mind for a second and then find the memory. I repeat the words Vin said at dawn.
'Phoebus, arise, and paint the sable skies, with azure, white, and red.'
She looks at me, her eyes sharp and startled now. 'Where did you hear that?'
'Vin said it seemed like he'd heard it someplace. Here maybe?'
Her face softens. 'He shouldn't have been able to remember.' She turns back to him. 'Oh, Vin. You stubborn old mule ' She holds his face between her hands and forces him look into her eyes.
- 10 -
It's so dark down here by myself. Everythin' I ever feared as a kid seems to be down here with me. I wanna run but I can't. I don't know what's happened but I can't move my hands and my horse don't take no notice of my legs. Can't see nothin'. Can't hear nothin'.
I don't know how long it's been but somethin's changed. Don't they say the darkest hour is just afore dawn? A while ago, it seemed like things couldn't get no worse but now they don't seem quite s'bad. Like the first light on the horizon after a wild night. There's a breeze blowing through the leaves that sounds almost like a voice almost like Sable's voice. I ain't alone no more. She's here with me. I can't see her but she takes my hand. The light's getting brighter and that ain't the leaves rustlin' - it's her callin' me.
'Vin, you can come back now. The bad things are gone. It's safe here. Safe to come back. Safe to remember.'
It ain't dark at all. It's bright sunshine and she's walking by my side. She smiles and I know it's all right now. I can't even remember what I was afeared of. She kneels in front of me and I look into her eyes. I sway as the world seems to lurch away from me and then come right back with a jolt. I'm sittin' on the steps of her cabin and she's kneelin' right in front of me. Tears shimmer in those great pools of reflected midnight sky.
'You coulda trusted me, Sable. Y'didn't have to do that.'
'No, I couldn't trust you. Not because of you because of me. I told you that I'm not good at trust.'
'I'da never brought 'em here if I'da remembered. You shoulda trusted me. You musta known how I felt...'
She's crying but, through the sobs, she says, 'Yes, you're right. I did know but I was afraid you would change when you got back to your own life. I couldn't believe that you were truly so different from people I had known. I thought I might be mistaken... it's been so long since I have been with people.'
I take her in my arms, hold her close and try to soothe her. 'It's okay. It don't matter. No harm done.'
It's a few seconds afore Chris clears his throat. 'You all right now Vin?'
I look up at him, understandin' how worried they've all been, how worried I'da been if it was one of them.
'Yeah, I'm fine.' I stand up, pulling Sable up with me, and then turn her to face 'em. 'This is Sable. She's she's kind of unusual. We shouldn'ta come back but, now we have, you may as well get to know her.'
She shrinks away from them and cowers against me. 'No, Vin. Please, make them go away.'
'There's no need for that. You can trust 'em but they need to understand why it matters.'
We settle the horses and sit ourselves down on the benches out back of the cabin. Sable brings out a pot of coffee, then sits beside me. I take another look at the fellas and smile at how hard they're gonna find this to believe. I know how hard it was for me to believe.
I was standin' by that ol' pine, hardly finished buttonin' my pants, when I looked up and into her eyes. I could see the thunderheads reflected back at me, even darker than they were up above, an' it seemed like there was another world inside her head. I felt her reach right into me, lookin' around in there until she knew all about me, everythin' I'd ever done and everywhere I'd ever been. I don't know if it lasted a minute or an hour. It was like I drifted out of my body, then slid back in, peaceful as that. I didn't see her thoughts or nothin' like that but I still kinda felt like I was gettin' t'know her at the same time. The caress of her mind around mine told me everythin' was jus' fine an' that seemed t'be all I needed t'know. I guess it shoulda seemed strange but it didn't. I didn't understand what she was doin' till later.
'A lady like you shouldn't be watchin' a man take care of his business,' I said, kinda teasin' her.
'Perhaps a gentleman like you shouldn't be taking care of his business on my tree,' she said, doin' the same.
She laughed, took my hand and brought me home, Peso followin' behind. That was all there was to it, and then eight days in paradise.
'Sable sees things, does things, that you ain't gonna find easy to believe,' I tell them. 'She's a Romany, and they seem t'be somethin' like Indians.'
Ezra don't believe me - no surprise there - but Josiah asks what I mean. I leave Sable to speak for herself.
'We remember the old ways, Josiah, and I far more than most. As the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, my birth was an auspicious event much celebrated by my people, who believed that I would bear a great gift.'
She fixes her eyes on him and I see him drift. He's only away for a few seconds and comes to with a start.
'What did she do?' JD wants to know.
'The second sight?' Josiah asks, without givin' JD an answer.
Sable nods. 'My gift for seeing beyond the here and now was foretold. Only my gift for seeing into the minds of men was unexpected. My people found that almost as unnerving as yours. It came to be my curse.'
'How come you didn't know we was comin' then?' JD wants to know.
'I heard you about an hour ago. I thought you were looking for Vin. I didn't know he was with you but, by then, I don't think he really was. I would usually do better but I have been under the weather since Vin left yesterday morning.' She gives me a faint little smile. 'Potato wine.'
Buck, Ezra and JD are struggling with it but Josiah's halfway there, with Chris and Nathan not far behind him. I reckon Chris would be a hell of a lot more skeptical without the past day or two.
'You can make people do things, can't you?'
He ain't happy with that. Who would be?
'Not exactly. I can't make people do things they don't want to do. You wanted to cut Vin loose - I simply hurried you along. I can sometimes make people do what they want to do instead of what they ought to do, like pressing Vin to stay with me when he had promised to be back for the recital. That was naughty of me but I did tell him afterwards. It was foolish too, as it has brought you here.'
Ezra raises his hands in bewilderment.
'Come now, gentlemen. You aren't saying you believe this, are you?'
Sable smiles and makes him take the deck of cards out of his vest pocket and put them on the table. He looks at them suspiciously, knowin' he put them there but not knowin' why.
'You like tricks, don't you Mr. Standish. Deal a card.'
He lays it face down.
'Look at it. How can I know what it is if you don't?'
He looks at the card.
'Seven of hearts.'
She's got his attention. He takes another card.
'Nine of clubs.'
He goes through a dozen more, from all over the deck, hidin' 'em, looking around for mirrors.
Finally, he says, 'That is impossible.'
'But it just happened.'
'Are you claiming that you can read my mind.'
'Not exactly. I can read some of your thoughts.'
'I fail to see the difference.'
'The mind is a very large and complicated place, Mr. Standish - yours more than most. There are many thoughts and memories there that you cannot access - what makes you think I would be able to do so? But, when you look at a card, it is at the front of your mind and easy for me to see.'
Ezra's still not convinced. 'It's a trick. Just because I don't know how you do it doesn't mean it isn't a trick.'
Sable looks at me and laughs. 'Remind you of anyone?'
Ezra's back on it. 'All right, Miss. Sable. Tell me about myself.'
'That can be difficult. If I want to know where you were born, how do I find that information in your mind? If you ask me where you were born, that is easier because you are thinking of the answer. St. Louis.'
Ezra's taken aback. 'How old am I?'
'Those could be things that Mr. Tanner has told you.'
As far as I recollect, I didn't know where Ezra was born or how old he is but I let it go.
'Who brought me up?'
'Aunts and uncles. May and Harold, Daisy and Charles, Kitty and-'
'When is my birthday?'
'23 June 1842.'
Ezra stares at her. When he finds his voice, he's predictable.
'You could make a fortune. Why shut yourself away up here?'
That vexes her 'cause she's heard it too many times afore, sometimes from her people as well as mine.
'Because people like tricks, they don't like the real thing. When even my own people found my gift unsettling I knew what to expect from yours. I would spend my life hiding my true nature. It is the way of my people to travel, but I would always be fleeing the last place instead of moving on towards the next.' She pouts when she adds, 'Besides, I don't want to hear your thoughts all the time but I can't help it - the nearer you are, the louder I hear you. It's not just your thoughts. I feel what you feel... your anger... your pain...'
I put my hand on her shoulder and she begins to calm down. We had a talk a lot like this after she admitted how things were. She hadn't planned on tellin' me but I saw for myself that there was somethin' different about her and it wasn't too long afore she came clean about it. I started out thinkin' on all the things y'could do with a gift like that, but then I got around to thinkin' on how y'might not wanna know everythin' y'found out. Sometimes, it's hard enough livin' with your own thoughts, without hearin' what everybody else thinks... about you... about each other. An' she's right about how people'd feel about having their thoughts read.
'Think on it a while, boys,' I say. 'It's like she said. Time passes, people get suspicious, and before you know it the trouble starts. Don't get too much burnin' at the stake these days but folk ain't come so far from it.'
Josiah looks at Sable sympathetically, understandin' fast jus' like he always does.
'Did Vin just stumble onto you then?'
She blushes. She looks so pretty when she's embarrassed, her cheeks as pink as the flowers she's stitched onto the flounces of her skirt.
'Not exactly. I I suppose I had been spying on him.' She looks at him. 'His thoughts are a little like yours, peaceful, kind. I wanted to get to know him.'
I hide a smile at that. My thoughts weren't what I'd call peaceful from the moment I set eyes on her, an' I'da been tryin' a lot harder t'rope 'em in f'I'da known she could hear every last one of 'em. I can see how that could bring troubles of its own if things weren't right between a man and his woman but it wasn't no problem f'me. When we laid down together, she wasn't jus' feelin' what I was doin' but what I was feelin' too. I reckon I do all right when it comes t'makin' a woman feel good but it's never been like it was with her, knowin' that she was sharin' in my pleasure, seein' it in her eyes. The memory's enough to send my blood poundin' again.
'So I made him come here,' she goes on. 'I usually make people not come here.'
Buck grins, always quick t'make light of anythin'. 'That's one hell of a trick. I could use that.'
Sable smiles back at him. I told her a bit about all of 'em and so far they ain't let me down.
Chris picks her up on it. 'But you couldn't have done it if he didn't want to come here?'
She shakes her head. 'Of course, with something like that, it's just a nudge. When you reach a fork in an unfamiliar trail, you don't feel strongly about it - you just take the one that best fits your direction. It isn't difficult to make one seem more appealing than another, to suggest that the game might be more plentiful or the view better. But, no, I couldn't have kept him here if he didn't want to stay.'
'What about when we were headed this way? Vin punched me and pulled a gun to try to stop us.'
'He would never have come near if you hadn't forced him. I made this a terrible place for him, filled with fear and horror. You cannot know what you put him through when you brought him back - something darker even than the torments that you endure. He did only what he would normally do if someone tried to coerce or hurt him. He would never kill, or even seriously injure, any of you. I couldn't make him do so, and nor would I want to.' She fidgets uneasily. 'What I did was bad enough. I had no right to steal his memories. Like you, we have rules and what I did was wrong.'
I give her a hug. 'Ain't a big deal. Chances are I never woulda known if the fellas hadn'ta caught up with me so quick. I'da wondered when I got back to town how I took two weeks over the trip but I'da put it outta my mind soon enough.' I ain't so sure that's the truth - I reckon it woulda played on my mind somethin' fierce and she'll know that jus' like she knows everythin' else about me - but I'm back on safer ground when I add, 'I'm glad I got 'em back though - it was too good a week to forget. This ain't a place t'fear.'
'You're not mad at us for bringing you back then?' Chris wants to know.
I reckon he feels pretty bad about it, now that Sable's explained how it was for me, but I shake my head.
'Truth is, I don't remember the fear much better now than I remembered Sable afore y'brought me back. You were right: no man wants a hole in his memories, and especially not when the missin' ones were s'good.' I squeeze her hand. 'It'll be tough sayin' goodbye again but I'll be by now'n'then so don't you try t'stop' me.'
'I won't,' she promises. 'It was a mistake. Now I have to trust seven of you, rather than only one.'
'They're friends, Sable. We all need friends. Even men like us. Even - maybe 'specially - someone like you.'
I know she gets lonesome up here all by herself, however hard being with people, even her own kin, might be. I heard it in her chatter during them bright sunny days we shared, and I felt it in her passion during them dark steamy nights. But she don't need to be lonesome no more.
The title comes from a song written by the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1614:
Phoebus, arise, And paint the sable skies, With azure, white, and red.
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