|Webmaster Note:This story was previously posted
at another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2003.
Author Note: This story takes place shortly after
the episode, Obsession.
by Robin Moore
Sweat ran down the matted bangs to disperse in the stubble of a three-day-old beard. Along the boardwalk, a ragged gash had formed in the planks where he had played the rowel of his spur. The metal gleamed in the last of the sunlight and turned purple blue each time his heel dipped behind the long shadow cast by the table.
He must've cut a grim sight, seeing how people crossed to the other side of the street in front of him. Reckon he earned their wariness along the line, but at the same time had to wonder what they thought he'd do to them. He was their peace-keeper, for Christ's sake. The sarcasm probably didn't help much either. Only made him look more sinister, like some cat playing with its meal.
The bottle was nearly empty -- the crossroads sign, again.
The burning arced under his right breast, from the middle of his ribs to the top of his shoulder, where metal had passed through over a month before -- a steady pain the alcohol wouldn't dull. And judging by the sparkle of pinhole lights dangling in the haze each time he'd lift his head, it was getting on time to decide.
A radiant, lone cloud poised on the horizon with the look of mounded butter heaped on top of the Rincons. Beyond it the heavens turned to chrome ... a solid kind of infinity ... the barrel of the gun of amazing grace ... I once was lost, but, now ....
Buck had found something in the girl who sang that. Hilda ... Hilga? There was no way to ask her name now. At best he could only remember ... remember how his foolishness caused her death.
God ... Ella. The walls seemed to collapse and heat waves engulf the room as he stared at her treasure trove of keepsakes, the stolen trophies of his own family. Ella Gaines had been blessed relief one day and a pound of flesh to pay the next. "How the Legendary Chris Larabee Stained the Sheets of His Wife's Killer." There was a good one for a dime novel.
Invisible hands wrung his guts.
What would you do, boy, if Ella was pregnant?
Reckoning turned its eyes on him ... made for a hotter hell than chasing phantoms across the desert.
Sobriety would be a good start -- if he wanted to do this battle. But, sobriety was easy. How many times had he picked the stuff up and put it back down again? He'd dried up good after the stint in Jericho, only to pick it up again in Mexico right before running into Ella. Maybe he could have seen it coming more clearly if he hadn't been four rooms away from himself, crocked, trying to win a contest of who was the bigger idiot. He won, too.
He felt four rooms away now, but that was hardly far enough. Did drinking really kill the grief, or was grief just an excuse to drink?
Stand in the middle of a crossroads long enough and you will get hit.
Nathan kept at him about the wound, about food, about the liquor. And somehow that was part of why he kept drinking, and why he wasn't getting any sleep, and why he didn't care to eat, or heal properly. Push him and he would push back in the other direction ... just to prove he was the idiot of idiots at the top.
It was tied into their blessed forgiveness, when he needed to atone. They shouldn't want him to get well after all he had done.
An errant weed rolled against the woodpile across the street as Somers pulled down the shade in the telegraph office.
He had a better chance to dry out if he could get away from everyone ... left for the cabin. It would be better for them, seeing how he was the thorn, he was the heel, that dragged them down.
The temperature had to be falling, or it was the frigid thoughts that made for frozen limbs. But each moment drove every idea closer to the bone. He could only hope that it would lead to a numbing cold -- hard, final, careless.
The Mexican's Day of the Dead followed Halloween. Inez laid out small wooden statues on a painted tray in the wide inner sill of the saloon window. A black horseman, his skeleton painted on the outside of his skin, rode beside a coral. His skeletal wife and numerous skeletal children waved at him from the doorway and open windows of their casita. Dozens of candles surrounded the small altar and Inez lit them all for the second evening in a row.
At dusk Vin tipped his head with a sigh of relief to see Chris Larabee still in town. From a concealed place he watched the shadows fan down Main Street ... watched as the dark hid all but the grave face and hands. The contrast reminded Vin of moonlight on the desert sand ... the gauze coating, while everything shielded was open to guessing ... open to the other world.
The silver tacked to the black leather of his gun belt and spur straps glittered like tiny constellations. Other than those slender trails of spots there was no telling where the man left off and the night began, which was as Chris preferred.
Most people saw Chris with his hat-to-heels black outfit as some kind of menace -- something kin to the devil himself. Black meant sin. Darkness meant ignorance. Black was the road to damnation. At best the color was for mourning, or the likes of gambling men. But even Ezra didn't wear it much.
It was funny how people could see a thing so contrary.
To the Lakota, black was the man's road. Black meant difficulty, and the courage to face it. Black meant "to grow." Thunder Beings from the western sky gave a man this road to teach him how to conquer his fears. A warrior traveled it in his visions. From then after, he painted black on his face and on his pony in symbols of what he'd learned from the thunder.
In the light of the street fires Vin noticed the cast of Chris's fingers. Bones ... showing bloodless through paper skin. Chris was starving.
Eyes, the shifting colors of blued steel ... the same as the barrel of his Colt ... lighter ... seen through ice ... he kept folks away. The drinking helped too ... kept him in a place by himself. Maybe he was all the way broke down by this run-in with Ella, and now he meant to waste in the whiskey ... give in to it all the way ... and die?
The thought bothered Vin, and he shook his head to throw it off. That simply wasn't Chris. Chris might look like he was winding down, but the farther down he went, the more he'd fight to get back up ... the pendulum that swung back the other way, as far as it was pushed.
Wouldn't matter a lick whether Chris understood ... whether he knew it or not how much he was the warrior, old as the mountains. He had to have powerful guides to have made it so long living by the gun. Starving -- hell, that could be fasting. The way he shut everyone out ... a separate journey ... the first steps of visions.
Vin thought he might even be ready to bet Ezra on where Chris was going with this.
Nightfall brought a fury down from the mountains. It siphoned debris off the desert and littered the streets with leaves from sycamores Chris had never seen around Four Corners. He watched J.D. and Buck start on their nightly rounds. Both wore heavy coats and secured their hats. J.D. hugged himself while Buck buried his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders.
The Miller boy ran to each mesquite fire, dousing the flames against the wind, leaving only the saloon and a few second story windows to light the street. The glass blushed much the same as the mica-front cast iron in the parlor of the boardinghouse.
He stood from the table. Fifty years seemed added to his forty-two in one day. He tried to grip the post and felt as if he'd been speared in the back. Let that be a lesson, Larabee. Do not remove Nathan's sling. At least it served as a reminder not to use that arm.
He came close to falling as the step off the boardwalk took everything out of him. His duster's tails spread like wings and flew level with his waist as he struggled to catch breath. He fumbled with the gaucho's draw string in his left hand. Boot leather, flesh, didn't matter, the wind seeped into every pore, intimate as frozen water.
The further he moved into the street the more his stomach seemed anchored to the last place he'd been. Saliva filled his mouth. As he swallowed to flush it, more filled, until he knew what came next.
In one burst the day's alcohol spewed from deep inside, leaving only time enough to turn out of the wind.
He shivered and locked his wrists together when a second wave of heaving followed. The bile burned as he fought to take in air. The weight of a dozen wool blankets seemed draped across his back.
Dry coughs came next. His heartbeat hammered in his head. Sooner or later his lungs would come up in pieces if it didn't end soon.
The lights on the street sped away as he tried to grab for them.
J.D. couldn't hear his heels clomp above the racket of his trousers flapping like loose sails on a ship. His eyes watered and stung from the sand blasted at them. No one would be stupid enough to venture out on a night like this. No one but the sheriff. He reminded himself that duty was an honor, not a stupidity, as he raised his eyes to survey Main Street.
Something blocked the way, discarded in the middle of the street.
Guns drawn, he eyed all avenues as he approached.
"Buck!" But the banshee on the wind snuffed his cries.
He ran to find Buck below Marianna's window, pining over the silhouette of one of the girls.
"Aw, kid. He's just good and drunk. That's all."
J.D. shook his head as he towed Buck by the sleeve. Things weren't right with Chris. Buck of all people should know that.
Buck dreaded what the look on the kid's face meant. God, let him really be drunk and passed out is all.
On his haunches Buck watched pillows of dust eddy, swirl and blow off in tendrils around Chris. Other than the spectacle the wind made, he'd seen this drama before, played out in towns too many to name, here and across the border. Buck clasped Chris by the shoulder and his hand jerked with spasms as Chris coughed trying to get up the poison. Buck stood, scooping Chris into his arms.
As often as he'd cradled the man's son off to bed, it seemed there was hardly more weight to him than to Adam. And the hardware he carried had to make up the bulk of it. Damned spurs. Jabbed above his knee every time he moved. What the hell did he mean by spurs, anyway? He was gonna ride out? Well, the devil help him find his horse.
"J.D.! He don't need Nathan. He just needs to sleep it off."
He wanted to believe that ... especially wanted the kid to believe it, but J.D. wouldn't. Buck watched him pound on Nathan's door before he followed up the stairs, cautious of a loose arm about to catch in the rails.
He wanted to hold onto the gratitude he felt that that bullet hadn't ended Chris in front of Ella's porch. Wanted to ignore the way Chris hit the bottle afterwards. But the frailness of the man in his arms slapped it clear just how low he'd gone. Buck caught a glimpse of Vin at street level as he leapt up the stairs easy as a cat scaling boulders. The long hair, buckskin fringe, droopy hat -- all flapped with each stride.
Bull in a china shop was how he felt every time he entered Nathan's low roofed quarters. It was hard to navigate his own frame through without the added effort to keep Larabee's four directions of limbs from toppling apothecary bottles, canning jars, books, and whatnots, that were packed into every cranny.
Pungent fragrances steamed from the cook-stove and from dried herbs and leaves pegged to the vigas. The mixture was unpleasant. It was like the house of a woman he'd courted whose aunt was a curandera -- once you got out of the room where the mixtures were kept the rest of the place was homey.
J.D. had pulled the covers to the foot of the bed by the time Buck reached the back room. He lowered Chris's head to the pillow and both he and J.D. removed the bulk of his clothes.
Buck turned to Nathan in the doorway of the little room. "He'll be all right if he sleeps it off, right?"
He raised the blankets and tucked them under Chris's chin. In the lamplight he noticed the pasty hollowness of his cheeks, dotted with sand and beads of sweat. His lips had a blue tone. Chris was struggling to breathe.
Nathan moved Buck aside and sat at the edge of the bed. One hand went to Chris's forehead while the other held his wrist. He pulled the blankets down to expose the bandages and began cutting. The skin at the wound had the wrinkled look of being kept in warm water for a long time. Purple and yellow blotches circled the pattern of toothy stitches.
Not a one of them hadn't seen this before, or didn't have their own scars the likes of it. The wound was healing about right to Buck's eye.
Nathan got up, left for awhile, then came back carrying a basin of water with a clean rag swirling in it. He wrung the rag and dabbed it against Chris' face and chest.
The edgy, sawing sound of Chris's breathing made Buck uneasy. It was getting worse. It made him think of how, as a kid, he'd picked up a little no-feather bird that had taken a fall from a nest tucked high on a ledge. It made the same strangled gasps. Died before he'd ever made it home. From then on, everything that struggled to breathe brought him back to that one little bird.
"Has he got a fever?"
Nathan looked up at J.D. shaking his head. Then he turned back to listen to Chris's chest through something like Vin's field scope made out of wood. "Heartbeat's slowed down some. Whiskey does that. Likely he can't get warm."
Chris wheezed as Nathan turned him on his side. Moving to the bed Buck supported him. He stroked the finely clumped hair as Chris leaned into his shoulder. His trembling eased some and Buck felt the steady rhythm of warmth against his neck. Holding him this way, he remembered ... the same fine hair ... same contour of the back of the head ... the likeness of how father and son felt in his arms.
Both J.D. and Vin huddled close as Nathan pealed red, soaked cloth from where the bullet had exited.
Tears welled in J.D.'s eyes.
From shoulder nearly to waist, one turbulent bruise covered his back. The skin was torn at the clusters of stitches. For a second Buck wrung a hand full of hair. That had to hurt, and hurt bad, Larabee, you stubborn sonofabitch.
"If what I hear is right, he's gone into pneumonia." Nathan looked at each man with hang-dog eyes. "The man just won't let hisself heal."
I see his shadow appear on the street. The line of his rifle points straight at J.D., who faces the other way where he cannot look up in time. From the rooftop the bastard has a clear shot. No way I can make it stop but to plow JD down.
Next, my gut is ablaze and I roll in the dirt to extinguish the flame.
I recall riding in the back of a wagon, my back to the boards. Buck cradles my head in his lap.
I keep my knees hunched. Everything inside twists. If I straighten my legs the pain worsens. I turn on my side to bend into it, hands wringing at the blankets. Buck pries my fingers lose, "It'll be all right." He turns me back onto his lap. His eyes are afraid. His shirt is covered with blood.
Every time we hit a rock or a rut in the road I am shot again. Where are we going? Do we have to? I can't take this.
Buck rests my face in one hand, the other hand grips mine in his. "I won't let you go, buddy. You hold on."
I remember the look in Mary's eyes when they carried me to the wagon. Worry ... fear ... love? But, that's a mistake, Mary, for you to care that way. What I want, too ... that's a mistake. You need my kind to get out of town.
Buck says, "He ain't gonna make it through this, Nathan. This ain't a time for you to lose your nerve."
"Doc Fields is the only chance he's got."
"It's too far."
"You don't understand. Don't you think I'd be doin' something if I could? I've done all I know."
"Well, make something up because that's all he's got!"
We met because she was a whore. The most damned beautiful whore Buck and I ever bet over. I lucked out -- did I ever luck out.
A stallion's lustful bliss I'm in for, nothing more, so I think. But it's interrupted when I kiss her and touch her face, and find that both cheeks are wet.
Now her crying is audible and her breasts quiver beneath me. I roll off her because I can't do this anymore.
Hair covers her forehead so I brush it back and kiss her there. I push the covers away on my side. As I am about out of bed she leans over, touches my arm, and asks me to stay.
I lie back down and she eases. She takes me back inside her and talks to me with the way she moves ... tells me that she is all right ... teaches me what it means to be touched by someone who cares. I don't even know her name. I don't understand. But with every bend of her body she tells me not to leave ... tells me where she wants me.
Much later, when we were married, and after she had Adam, Sarah explained it. Earlier, she had miscarried her first pregnancy. I was the first, when she got back to her work again. She had a broken heart. It surprised her that any man in bed would notice what she felt ... or care ... surprised her that I would give up what I'd bought and paid good money for.
Everything, from that day on, between us, was a care returned in kind. Like mind, like station -- not like us, Mary.
"Get him to the cot in the jail. It's closest." Buck says. Then he yells for Nathan. There is no light anymore. Over the rapid thump and shuffle of boots, the moan and shriek of metal, the dried piss dust cotton, I hear Nathan yell, "Get his shirt off, and those damned spurs off his feet. I don't want to get kicked by those. And Vin should be the only one to stay. Everyone else should leave." Then I hear the scurrying thumps of retreat.
All is fire. To burn alive. I know, Sarah, how to be with you.
I have Ethan's hand in mine. My shirt is covered with his blood. My father beats the team to go faster. He knows they can't go fast enough. He knows Dr. Fields is too far. Ethan will never make it.
I beg my father to stop. Each lurch of the bed crucifies him. His teeth clench and his hands grasp, afraid he'll go under.
The rims are mounded in black paste from the latest rain. We slide to the bank on every turn. Clods volley everywhere. They fly off the spokes and the horse's hooves. The team has nothing to hold to. We'll be lucky if they don't fall in their traces.
It's just that my father can't face what he's done. No matter that it was an accident -- it's the wide, questioning eyes of his first born, their questions fading. He left me to try and answer. All I can say to Ethan is, "Easy. It'll be all right."
Finally I let my father know it's over. He can stop now.
He reins in the team. But the running never ends.
I can't raise my legs. That would ease the pain if I could. The darkness has a current, seems charged with a storm ... lightning on the underbelly of clouds. Off in another room someone asks for J.D..
"J.D.'s here, Chris." ... soft voice of Vin. "C'mon, buddy, open your eyes." ... strong voice of Buck.
I rise to the surface of dark water to a rush of pain ... gasp for that first breath ... and light ... familiar faces in the light.
I push against the weld of time and fear, and as the door opens, air, light and dust stir in the room. I clutch the frame to keep steady before I can enter.
This house is solid and sound -- but hollow, and ruined as thoroughly as my own.
"So many ghosts," she said, "Please help him."
It was as I told Mary then when she asked. "I'm not sure I can be of much help." How could I? What can I tell the boy when nothing I've ever said to myself has ever meant a damn?
I scour through the cobwebs. "We're going to stay in your old house where it's safe, Billy." I hear myself voice this strangled deceit. For whose benefit? This place is the farthest from anything safe.
I remember Billy then -- that I've abandoned this tiny child to wrestle with the devil by himself on the threshold.
I turn to him and drop on my heels in the doorway. He is so much like Adam. Same age as when Adam died. Same length of straight, bowl-cut hair you can't help but want to tousle. Same big eyes full of questions and trust. Slivers of glass, shards of ice, rake at every nerve, turn me shy like a mustang caught in a reata, bucking to break away.
"I met the devil, more than once, and he ain't beat me yet." ... a bluster ... another lie.
It surprises me where he finds the courage, but Billy walks around me to come inside, into the quarters and halls of so many ghosts. This brave child ... open to face what I can't, and don't tell anyone ... open to look at what was murdered before his eyes. I can only wonder if it's worse to see and be able to do nothing, or to never know exactly what it was they suffered.
Watching Billy find his courage passes some of it on to me. It's the trust in his eyes, seems to reach ... to restore what I thought was lost. It builds what was never there before -- reassures me that I am up to more -- ready for more. Still, I would bolt from here. But the nearer I let him come, the more I know I'll do anything not to let him down.
Likely, Billy thinks it's the other way around.
Chris noticed the warmth first, spreading from a tended potbelly. Looking around, he saw Vin asleep on the floor beside his bed. Somehow he managed to look comfortable without a blanket and only his hide coat for a pillow.
Nathan's things ... Nathan's room. The last he remembered was being sick in the street, the wind yowling just as fierce as it sounded now.
Easing his hand over the immaculate dressing, the tidiness belied how it felt beneath, like the inside of his chest harbored a badger trying to claw its way out. At some point wool rags must've been stuffed in his mouth and then removed. A cup of something ... tea, or soup, sat on a table beside the bed. Reaching for it brought a stifled moan and a series of coughs before he caught his breath.
Damn ... didn't want to wake Vin.
He shinnied closer to the cup to lift it. It was another one of Nathan's crap-tasting teas. Whiskey would be better. Hell, whiskey probably brought him here in the first place.
Propping the pillows higher against the headboard to sit up and balance the concoction in his lap, he studied Vin's profile. Even while asleep there was an integrity that emanated from him ... a clear spring running over granite ... easygoing, gentle natured and right.
Chris grinned. Vin was also a warlock, with the devil beat for mischief.
And Vin was a man who should never lie groveled at anyone's feet like some faithful dog.
His insides were tempered by a blow of ice. He looked away from Vin out the wedge where the curtains parted and saw his reflection in the black blade of glass. If Adam had grown, he would have hoped to see him become a man with as much range and as much to give as Vin.
That day when they came for Nathan, he had waited. Most likely he would have done something to stop it ... for Mary, or maybe for his own conscience, or even just to have a chance to fight ... a chance to be taken out with a noble excuse. But he had waited, deliberately ... waited for a proof ... waited long enough to see if anyone would make a stand for something right ... just as Mary had asked ... but without knowing that his gun would be there to back them.
And there came Vin Tanner, restoring a measure of faith that he thought had been lost forever. Until then, he had no reason to hold out for people.
Hope. Hope was what Vin restored.
Hope could hurt like hell.
When you hope for something, you have something to lose ... something that can be taken.
Nathan had asked for advice some months back ... wondered how close he should get to Rain. Said he didn't know, after everyone he'd ever come close to either ended up dead or sold off. Chris had been surprised at the answer that came from his own mouth.
"Because you lost them, are you sorry you ever had them?"
The tea was gone and as he set the cup down he noticed his clothes folded on a chair. He thought about pushing the covers off, stepping out of bed, mindful not to disturb Vin, dressing in all but his boots. He crept across the wide plank floor, lifted every latch without a sound. As soon as he was out he slid his boots on and let the wind cover his stride down the stairs, on to the livery, and on to escape.
But even as he played it through his mind something held him ... something made him back-track to the place where he'd fallen ... where it first felt like a bottle had been nailed into his thick skull. Something reminded him that what he had tried to throw to the wind was worth something ... to whoever carried him up the stairs, undressed him, changed the bandages, brewed tea, worried.
Lately, he kept adding reasons ... the beginning of the end ... doubt. The truth was he didn't know whether he could put the whiskey down. All he really knew was that he was old, and tired, and dead inside from losing, and afraid to lose again. He didn't want them, his men, around to witness more of his failure. He just wanted to run.
At the crossroads again. He stood staring at the signposts. The road out of town was the same road his father took after losing Ethan. God, it had been years since he remembered that.
A burst of rain pounded the tin roof.
Chris grinned at the quick response. Vin had been awake all along.
"I can spare some room up here. It's gotta be better than the floor."
"You know me, pard, I sleep out under the stars ... rocks as a mattress ... leaves as a quilt."
After a prolonged silence Vin stood, rubbing his eyes.
"If you're sharin' you gotta move over some. You're not that whittled down."
Vin added a log to the fire as Chris sidled closer to the wall. The effort brought on coughing. When it ended he let his head fall back on the pillow. Shivering, he pulled the covers up and ran his hands against his chest to warm his fingers and to smooth away the feeling that the bandages cut off his air.
As soon as Vin stretched onto the bed Chris realized what he'd done -- asked for Vin to wedge him in, pin him down, prove that he was staying, tucked in for the duration.
"You talkin' to me?"
"You got pneumonia."
Vin had readied, aimed and fired the words into a noticeable threat that made Chris bristle. But in the following silence, Chris smirked, imagining what Vin meant to add: So, no whiskey, no women, no wandering, and no whining for you, Larabee.
In time he noticed how the rhythm of their breathing fell into synchrony. He listened to the rain run off the eaves and clatter into puddles at the foot of each building. The room lit up from charges off the desert that echoed and swelled through town.
Vin had ragged on himself once about how stupid it was for him to stay put in a town where anyone could come and collect the price on his head. Stupid of him to let people get so close ... to stay in one place ... a town, a room, a friend ... when, to survive this life, you had to keep a distance.
Far from some dog groveled at his feet, for Vin to make a place beside him was as rare as having some great wildcat come off the mountain to offer companionship.
An imbecile would drink away a trust like that -- and that's what he was doing.
When he became a father, self-respect was the first thing he acquired ... a new kind of pride that had to be earned daily. And when he was unable to protect his son, when Adam died, so had all measure of self-respect.
But he was being offered another chance.
Live up to something, and you live.
If he rode anywhere, alone, it would be running from this -- living.
Chris closed his eyes and listened to the rain ... the earthen rumble in the body of the storm ... to the tender progression of water moving as it tamped out furrows that turned to rivulets ... shifting ... wearing down the ancient sandstone grain by grain, purely by chance, to move it to another place. Inside, it felt the same ... dark recess in a downpour ... run-off ... the feel, the pain of breaking ice. The melt overflowed and trickled from the corners of his eyes.
Inez Recillos stood beside the altar at the last of All Souls Day. The bright flames reflected in the window and multiplied the rows of light, while beyond the panes droplets absorbed the illumination and teamed with flickering light.
In the middle of her prayer a flash outlined the rooftops and the ridgeline to the west giving her a sign that her homecoming for the loved, both living and dead, had been heard.
Thunder answered further as it brushed her skin in the warmth rising from the candles and continued to frame her in the dark as she blew the flames out. With the curtains closed around the altar, she flicked her hair behind her shoulders and began collecting glasses to wash for the new day.
e-mail: Robin Moore