Comments: The title comes from a favorite album of my daughter's. I interpret it as an expression of the fragility of life, which Vin and the boys ponder on for a brief spell - although it somehow came out as more of a mother's day story.
"I'll take watch," Vin offered, though the gruffness in his voice made it sound more like a demand.
No one argued, but Buck quickly spoke up, "I'll relieve you in a few hours."
"Don't bother. I won't be sleepin' tonight."
"Yes, you will," Chris replied, and Vin was struck once again with how Larabee's tone so often contradicted his look. Hard voice, soft eyes - Chris felt sorry for him, but he wasn't about to let him get away with anything.
Vin didn't argue; wasn't worth the effort at the moment. He could stay awake and watch out for the boys, or he could stay awake and watch the stars. Didn't matter.
He unsaddled Peso and was vaguely aware of his six friends copying his actions for their own horses. It was unusual, all seven of them being together; it wasn't like that so much anymore. If two men could take care of it, they did. Sometimes three or four, but rarely seven were needed.
Not this time. As terrible as it turned out, it would have been a whole lot worse had they not had every man, every gun, every bullet.
Under different circumstances, the night would have been inspiring with its simple beauty. A bright white moon had lit their path long after sundown, and fall was in the air, crisp and cool with that unique autumn smell that Vin never could identify. Maybe it was the turning leaves, maybe the earth herself, but October always felt different, smelled different. It was his favorite month. Used to be, anyway.
The climb up the rocky slope was easy, long as he ignored the pinch in his back. He chose a perch high enough to get away from the rumble of his friends' voices, but close enough to keep an eye on them. The quiet would be good, the stillness exactly what he needed to set it right in his mind.
It wasn't the first time one of his bullets didn't go where he'd aimed. Hell, if five out of ten hit the target, a man was considered a good shot. He more likely averaged eight in ten, and had long ago reconciled himself to the idea that the two that didn't go where he wanted, might end up somewhere he didn't want at all. That was just how it was. Hell, he wasn't some young colt like JD. It was a damn shame what happened to Annie, but it was an accident. It wasn't JD's fault. Shit happened.
Just like earlier that day, shit happened. A big, damn pile of it, and he winced just thinking of the graves they'd dug, the pain in his back sharpening as a tangible reminder. Thank God there were seven of them, took them all afternoon as it was.
Peace and quiet - that was what he needed. And he'd have it, high up on a rock, far away from the good-hearted but misguided intentions of his friends.
Or so he thought.
"Vin? You mind if I sit with you a bit?"
Nathan stood about ten feet downhill from him and even in the shadows, Vin could see that his face was pinched, his jaw tight. He'd be fussing over him in about thirty seconds - if he let him.
"I'm fine, Nathan."
Nathan turned like he was about to go back down to the camp, but then he apparently changed his mind, because he continued up the hill and squatted down across from Vin.
"That wasn't the question. But since I made the climb up here -"
He said that like he'd gone half a damn mile, rather than a hundred feet, Vin thought with a shake of his head.
"- why don't I rub some of this ointment on your back? Might ease the ache a bit. Even had to use some on Josiah. And I don't mind sayin', my own back is feelin' the strain."
"Will y' leave quicker if I let you?" Vin wasn't usually quite so abrupt, but he wasn't in the mood for pussy-footing around.
"Might," Nathan responded with a wide grin.
Vin heard the other part of his reply in his head . . . Might not.
"Go on then," Vin muttered.
He already had his coat off, even though there was a definite nip in the air. But the gentle breezes had felt good on his heated skin. The damn ointment felt good, too, he regretfully admitted. He remained seated right where he was, just bent over a little more so Nathan could lift his shirt and get to the small of his back. And Nathan had miracle hands, no denying that.
"Ain't your fault, Vin, what happened back there."
Yeah, there it was - the real reason Nathan came traveling all the way up that long hill. Vin wondered if they'd drawn straws to decide who would approach him - and if Nathan lost. Almost made him feel sorry for the man. Almost.
"I know. Ain't no reason for you to be here talkin' t' me about it. I said I'm fine and I meant it. And I ain't talkin' about it. Not t' you, not to Ezra, not Josiah or Buck or JD. And tell Larabee he might just as well close his damn eyes and get some sleep because I'm not talkin' t' him, either."
Nathan kept up a gentle massaging motion on his back as he lowered his voice a pitch. "I ever tell you about the plantation I grew up on? Lord God, but it was a beautiful place. Cotton fields and live oaks as far as you could see. There was this pond we used t' swim in, and it was so stock full of fish, you could feel 'em brushin' your legs as they swam on by. Water was as blue as the sky."
He hadn't expected this. If Nathan talked about his past, it was generally because of some incredibly painful reminder, but there was a wistfulness in his friend's voice that he couldn't recall hearing before.
"Wasn't all bad, y' know. Can't say I don't relish my freedom - thank God every day for it - but I had some good times growin' up. And I always had a roof over my head, food in my belly."
Vin's stomach dropped a little at that; he couldn't say the same about himself.
"Sometimes we get so caught up thinkin' about all the bad things, we forget there were good things, too," Nathan said.
He went on then to talk about shining his shoes for Sunday morning services, Miz Bailey's fried chicken, the whoopin' he got for sticking his finger in the jar of molasses. As he talked, Vin could picture a young black boy picking cotton in the fields, swinging from a long rope and splashing feet-first into the pond, licking his fingers . . .
"My father - he was a good man. Guess you know that now, huh? I wasn't so sure at the time. Why is it we don't recognize what we got until it's gone? Well anyway, there was this one time . . ."
The mostly one-sided dialogue continued, and almost against his will, Vin felt himself relaxing into the smooth voice and gentle touch.
And then Nathan's voice softened to a near whisper. "Missed my ma somethin' fierce, though."
Vin could only nod, his throat suddenly gone dry.
"Hard thing, growin' up without a ma. Harder still growin' up with no family at all." Nathan pulled Vin's shirt down and gripped his shoulder. "That little girl - well, it might've been for the best."
He stood then and headed towards the camp while Vin was left to ponder his last words. He knew what Nathan was trying to say, but it wasn't true. Life was always preferable, always the first choice. She didn't need to die, any more than the other unfortunate souls from that wagon train. Only difference was in the way she died - and the reason behind it.
Besides, she was a girl; that would have made a difference. Someone would have taken her in, given her a home. It wouldn't have been the same for her. She wouldn't have been on her own, left hungry and hurting.
Leaning back against the rock, he tipped his head up to the sky and tried to blot out the face of the child with the light of the moon. In his peripheral vision, he caught the sparks from the campfire below. The boys would be heating up something to eat, and he wondered who would be delegated to bring him a plate. His guess was JD.
His instinct was dead-on, and fifteen minutes later, JD appeared in the exact same spot where Nathan had stood just a short time before.
"Not hungry," Vin growled. Last thing he needed was JD's company right then. Not that he didn't like the kid, he did. But if he wasn't in the mood for regular talking, he sure wasn't in the mood for mindless chatter.
"I ain't goin' back down with this in my hands. You know between Nathan and Chris . . ."
He didn't finish it because he didn't have to. Vin was about to say he didn't give a damn what either man said, but JD was already sitting the plate in front of him and dropping down casually to sit across from him.
"Aw, hell," Vin mumbled, mostly under his breath, but not quite.
"Yeah. It is hell," JD replied sympathetically.
No. He was not going to talk about this with JD. "I don't know what you're talkin' about, JD and I don't wanna know," he grumbled, hoping JD would take the hint and go away.
"You don't know what I'm talkin' about?" JD's eyes were round and he sat up on his heels. "Hell, Vin, we buried eight people this afternoon."
Vin shrugged. "I've seen worse." And buried more, he thought.
"What? Vin - what the hell-? How can you talk like that?"
Good thinking - piss JD off and he might leave. It almost worked, too, but then something must have shown on his face, because just as JD was getting set to stand up, he narrowed his eyes and settled back on his knees.
"You think that's why they did it? For revenge?"
He sighed. As bad as this conversation was, it was far better than discussing what it felt like to kill an innocent woman or child. So he answered the younger man, "Maybe. Don't matter now. Dead is dead."
"Look, Vin, I know you understand the Indians better than most, but-"
"Murderin' bastards come in every color, JD."
"I guess so. You really not gonna eat that? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I'm starving."
Vin raised his brow. Digging eight graves obviously didn't affect the kid's appetite. He used the toe of his boot to push the plate towards JD. "Take it with you."
But JD picked up the plate and began scooping up the beans where he sat. In between bites, he managed to spout, "Never used t' eat beans. Hated 'em. My mother, she could cook. Chicken and dumplings, beef stew, apple cobbler - hey, you want the biscuit at least? It's kind of hard after sittin' in Buck's saddlebag all day, but it's not too bad."
"So anyway, my ma used to make this cinnamon bread on Sundays. Couldn't touch it until after church, of course, but I swore I could smell it sittin' there in the pew. We had this preacher who could talk for hours, and all I could think about was that cinnamon bread, waitin' for me at home."
Vin smiled in spite of his sour mood. JD's ma surely had her hands full with him; he could picture the little black-haired boy squirming in the pew and impatiently tugging on his ma's sleeve.
He couldn't imagine the bread, though; no one ever cared enough to make him something special like cinnamon bread. His ma might have cooked for him, surely she had, but he didn't remember it.
"So after church, I'd just about run home. I tell y', Vin, Sundays were the best - well, after church, I mean. Some days we'd go . . ."
JD rambled on then about visits to the big city; about picking dandelions in the afternoons and catching fireflies at night. He admitted that he once snuck a bottle of wine from the wine cellar of the mansion where his mother worked, got drunk, and threw up for two days, and he told Vin about the time he snuck behind the barn to kiss a girl that he later found out was his cousin.
And to Vin's surprise, he wasn't all that annoyed by the kid. He even laughed out loud a few times.
But then JD's voice grew solemn and he said, "My mother - she died slow, y' know? I don't wanna go out like that. Those people today - it must have been awful but at least it was quick. And the girl - she didn't even know, Vin."
JD finally stood up then and brushed the crumbs from his pants. "Nathan won't like it that you didn't eat. Chris - I don't even wanna think about what he'll say if he finds out that I-"
"Quit yer worryin', Kid. I ain't gonna say a word."
With a grateful nod, JD headed back for the camp, tossing a "G'night, Vin," over his shoulder as he left.
Vin was left to his thoughts once again. He supposed he'd have more visitors before the night was through - Larabee more than likely would put in an appearance. But for the moment, he could sit back and sift through JD's words. There was some comfort to be gained in dying quick, JD was right about that. His own ma had died slowly, and how unfair was it that he could remember her death far better than her life?
Not dying at all was the point, though. They'd been called on to help those people today. Travis had sent a wire about a rogue group of Indians terrorizing wagon trains, and they'd arrived just in time to witness the massacre in process. When it came down to it, they were lucky they only had eight graves to dig.
But it should have been seven.
She moved, though he wasn't using that as an excuse. It was just a fact. The warrior held the little girl up by the arm, and just when Vin thought he had a clear shot at the bastard, the girl squirmed. It wasn't much, but it was enough for the bullet to hit her heart instead of his. Shit happened.
"Really, Mr. Tanner, I think it's quite unfair of you to claim the advantage after such a disastrous day."
"Huh?" Vin turned sharply to find Ezra standing just over his shoulder. He must have been even more distracted than he thought if Ezra could sneak up on him.
"I'm talking about taking first watch. By the time your turn is completed, the others will be fast asleep, and you will be spared their repetitive ramblings."
Vin figured they must be desperate if they sent Ezra up to talk some sense into him, but he refrained from making that point and kept quiet.
"Nathan is still going on about being unable to save more of the travelers, of course. How many times do you suppose we'll all be subjected to his incessant harping about his lack of medical education?" Ezra asked as he brushed off a smooth rock across from Vin before wrinkling his nose in distaste and taking his seat.
Vin wasn't sure what Ezra wanted him to say exactly. Nathan did go on about the fact that he wasn't a doctor, but it had never bothered him in the least. Fortunately, he didn't have to reply because Ezra was already talking again.
"Josiah is reciting his prayers for the dying, which was amusing the first one hundred times I heard them, but they have lost something in the telling by this point. Buck and JD are picking at each other like a couple of school boys. It seems the more grievous the battle, the more arrogant and annoying JD becomes. Which only serves to fuel Buck's insatiable need to aggravate the young man."
He was starting to get irritated by Ezra's criticism of their friends, but he couldn't drum up a biting reply, so he remained silent.
Reaching in his coat pocket, Ezra pulled out his flask of whiskey, took a swallow, then offered the bottle to Vin before continuing, "And Mr. Larabee is in a foul mood, sullen and withdrawn, as usual."
Swallowing a mouthful of liquor, Vin quickly jumped to his friend's defense, "He can't help it. He feels things deeper than most. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
Ezra raised his brow. "Of course he can help it. We all choose to behave in a certain way, to react in a certain way. There are times, such as this one, that I find our leader's propensity for self-pity to be - quite frankly - unbearable."
"Then get the hell out. Nobody put a gun t' yer head and forced you t' ride with us," Vin spat. What was wrong with Ezra, talking about their friends like that? Vin's blood was boiling, the anger he'd held in check all day long threatening to spill over in the form of a fist to Ezra's face.
But Standish didn't appear to notice. "So true. No one put a gun to your head, either, Vin. Yet you continue to subject yourself to impossible situations and hold yourself to unattainable standards."
Standish was baiting him, but he couldn't figure out why. And he didn't get a chance to ponder it because Ezra was already speaking about something else.
"Did I ever mention the year mother and I spent in New Orleans? I was twelve at the time. A miserable age, under the best of circumstances."
Vin wanted to say that he didn't care what Ezra did when he was a kid, but he soon found himself swept up in the man's descriptions of the hotels and casinos his mother had taken him to; of the extravagant parties, the lush gambling boats, the wealthy people of high society. He told Vin about how his mother once forced him to spy on a future mark by hiding under the man's bed for six hours. Another time, she passed Ezra off as a street urchin to further one of her cons - complete with dirty, ragged clothes and filthy, shoeless feet.
The shoeless urchin was the only part of the story that Vin could begin to relate to - Maude could have made a fortune off of him, he thought. Though why any mother would force her child to endure such an indignity was beyond him. Surely if his own mother had survived, he wouldn't have been without shoes for even one day.
Standish finally concluded, "I was bitter for a long time, though I was a master at hiding it. I denied my anger, even to myself. Of course, I realize now that she did the best she knew how. She truly didn't recognize that there was huge difference between using a child and - and raising one."
Vin got the impression Ezra was about to say, "and loving one," before he caught himself.
"It was unfair what happened today," Ezra said as he rose to his feet and brushed off his backside. "For her, for you. You have every right to feel angry."
"Never claimed t' be angry."
"No. Of course not. That would lead to the assumption that you care. And it is so much easier to present one's self as unfeeling, is it not? It appears to be a matter of strength." Ezra leaned forward then and added softly in his ear, "But it's not. Get mad, Vin., and be done with it. Don't let it eat you up inside until you become someone you no longer recognize . . . or respect."
Ezra was right, it wasn't fair. But Vin had spent the majority of his life trying to cool his temper, not stoke it. Still, the look of terror on that little girl's face . . .
He'd gotten the bastard on the second bullet - and the third and the fourth. His hand twitched on the handle of his mare's leg as he remembered that moment; it would feel so good to pepper the stump that he'd propped his feet on with another round of lead. Waste of good bullets, though, so he settled for standing up and kicking the damn thing, instead.
"Might be easier to use an ax, if you're looking for kindling, Vin."
Vin sheepishly backed off at the sound of the rich, baritone voice, wincing when the ache in his back flared up again.
Josiah, apparently noticing his grimace, stated calmly, "Better to lay your woes on the back of a friend; whole lot sturdier - not to mention far less painful."
"Ain't layin' nothin' on nobody, so you might just as well go on back down t' the camp, Josiah," Vin said, turning his back on the man.
"Alright," Josiah replied.
But by the time Vin turned back to make sure his friend was taking his not-so-subtle hint, Sanchez was already stretched out on the ground, his back against the offending stump, legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles.
"Traveled by wagon train myself as a child," Josiah said, as if Vin had invited him in for a comfortable chat, "though on a smaller scale. My father took his mission to all kinds of remote locations, and we always seemed to pick up stray travelers along the way."
Shaking his head, Vin gave up the fight for peace and quiet and took his seat as the older man continued. Josiah described for him the places they'd traveled to in his young life, the variety of people they'd met. He told Vin about the time his father caught him drawing pictures of naked ladies during one of his sermons, and how he hadn't been able to sit down for a week afterwards. Another time, his father found a bottle of whiskey Josiah had 'borrowed' from a logging camp; he'd been confined to their wagon for ten days after that 'sin' with nothing but bread and water for sustenance and the Bible for company.
"We never did speak the same language, my father and I. But my mother . . . you think I have a silver tongue? That's only because you never met her. She always knew exactly what to say and exactly how to say it. She knew how to listen, too, which was more than could be said for me or my father. She had this crystal vase, passed down for generations from the women in her family, and she kept it wrapped up in a flannel blanket in the wagon. It was her most prized possession. Sometimes at night, I'd see her unwrap it and gently run her fingers over the intricate carvings, and I could only imagine what she saw in the finely etched glass."
Josiah paused then, like he was gathering his courage to say something difficult, and Vin braced himself for whatever was coming next.
"I was thirteen when the wheel of our wagon caught on a boulder as we traveled along the Mississippi River. It must have been loose or cracked because it broke free, and our wagon turned over on its end. My mother was thrown, and her neck was broken. The entire incident took less than thirty seconds. I found her vase several yards down on the river bank, shattered. I remember thinking at the time how heartbroken she would have been, had she known. I wrapped up all the pieces I could find, and we buried them with her. Maybe it was fitting, in a way, that the vase was destroyed at the exact same moment her life was taken."
Vin's eyes grew moist as he pictured a young boy scrabbling along the river bank to gather the remnants of his dead mother's precious vase. But he said nothing as his older friend continued his story.
"I've often thought how life is like that crystal vase: meant to be protected, cherished, revered. But when fate deals her hand, nothing we say or do can change it. One moment can mean the difference between perfection and obliteration, between life and death."
"Thanks for remindin' me," Vin muttered sullenly as the image of the young boy was quickly replaced with the wide eyes of the little girl.
Josiah stood then and walked behind him to grip his shoulder. "It was her time, Vin. Nothin' you could do to change that. We're only passengers on this journey, and it's not up to us when we reach our final destination."
The anger flared up again. "Then what the hell is the point? If everything is gonna happen the way it's gonna happen, then why even try t' make a difference?"
"Well now, Vin, I've been studying that my whole life, and believe me, if I knew the answer, I'd share."
Vin was beginning to wonder if Josiah came up there to make him feel better - or worse.
"But I reckon," Josiah went on, his voice low and smooth as velvet, "that we try because sometimes we win. Sometimes fate goes our way. The same amount of lead that stilled that little girl's heart, saved Nathan's."
He couldn't argue with that, and even if he could, Josiah would have been long gone by the time he got the words out. There just seemed to be an awful lot of thoughts caught up in his head. What he needed was time to sort them all out, put them in some sort of order that made sense.
But no sooner had Josiah made it down the hill, than Vin heard footsteps climbing up.
It wasn't Larabee; he'd know that long, graceful stride with his eyes closed and his ears plugged. So it had to be Buck.
"I'm fine, Bucklin," Vin said, not bothering to turn his head to look at his friend. "Don't need my back rubbed or nothin' t' eat. Don't need t' hit nothin' or talk about nothin'. And I don't need t' sleep, either. So just tell Larabee t' quit his worryin' and get some sleep and I'll see y'all in the mornin'."
He was beginning to think he was invisible - or at least unintelligible - because like his friends before him, Buck ignored his words and sat down anyway.
"Whoo-whee! It surely does smell good up here, don't it? Always have been partial to this time of year."
"Uh-huh," Vin mumbled, still not meeting Buck's eye.
"Reminds me of my ma," Buck went on, impervious to Vin's indifference.
Of course it does, Vin thought, why would Buck be any different than the rest of their friends? But then he realized what Buck was implying and he had to ask, "Your ma smelled like dirt and leaves and -" Vin paused and sniffed the air - "smoke?"
Buck laughed. "Well, sometimes, but that wasn't exactly what I meant."
"I suppose you're gonna tell me now what you did mean," Vin said with obvious resignation.
"Well, since you asked . . ."
Vin knew that Buck's mother was a working girl, though the man had never actually spoken to him about her.
But he was speaking now. "She loved this time of year - said God painted the trees in her favorite colors. We used to sit by the fire at night when the air had chilled, and she'd read to me," Buck said. And even though he was sitting just a few feet away from Vin, his eyes and his voice were far away. "She didn't work every night, you know. Never on Sundays."
Vin wondered if his own ma had read to him. He didn't think so. Maybe she didn't know how to read, maybe that was why he'd never learned. It seemed like something he should know about his ma. Seemed like there were a whole lot of things he should know about her that he just didn't and never would. But he pushed those thoughts aside and listened as Buck continued.
"She was a beautiful woman, my ma, and she always smelled so good. Like rose water in spring."
Rose water? Vin cocked his head as he tried to imagine the woman Buck described. When he thought of working girls, all that came to mind was harsh perfumes that made him dizzy and half sick.
"She was a smart woman, too, my mother," Buck rambled on. "Taught herself to read and write - hell, she taught herself everything she knew. She had to - never had no family, except a bastard uncle who beat her and made her life a living hell. That's why she run off and became what she did - she didn't have no choice. None of 'em had a choice."
The "none of them" turned out to be the other women Buck had grown up around. There was Sadie, an older woman who'd taken his mother under her wing and traveled with them from place to place for nearly a decade. And Anna, a spirited, high-strung girl from the east who taught him everything from how to throw a good punch to taking off a corset. Buck smiled sadly as he recalled Selena, a timid little gal who died young in childbirth, and Ruth, who was beaten to death by a drunken sailor on her twenty-first birthday.
"My mother, she could have been a different kind of working woman, one like Mary Travis. But she never got the chance." Buck shook his head and repeated sadly, "She just never got the chance."
"I'm sorry, Buck," Vin whispered.
Buck gave him a small smile as he reached over and patted his knee. "This world is hard, Vin - even harder for a woman on her own. That little girl's at peace now, rompin' in heaven with her kin. Leastwise, that's how I prefer t' see it. There are things worse than death, y' know."
Vin did know; he'd experienced a few of them firsthand, in fact. But just because Buck's mother had a difficult life, didn't mean that little girl didn't at least deserve a chance for something better. He liked Buck's vision of heaven, though; that might be enough to get him through the night, anyway.
Or hell, maybe not. He had so many images crowding his brain right then, he wasn't sure he'd get them all sorted out by next year, let alone the next day. With a long groan, he lowered his head to his hands, but a firm grip to his shoulder brought it right back up again.
"Should've known you'd show up," he said, without looking up at his latest visitor.
"Don't feel like talkin'. Besides, I've heard it all."
"Alright," Chris replied as he sat down across from him.
"I suppose you're gonna tell me about your ma, too?"
"Yeah. Ain't figured out yet what everyone's ma has t' do with me killin' that little girl, but apparently what we did today's got all the boys doin' some heavy ponderin' on their growin' up years."
"And their mothers?"
Chris shrugged. "Well, my ma was a fine lady."
"That it? Ain't y' gonna tell me how hard it was growing up with her - or without her? How good she cooked or how nice she smelled or how easy she was t' talk to?"
"I guess I can, if you think that would help."
"No. I mean - I don't know. "
"That all they talked about?"
"No. Hell, no. You know how long they all been sittin' up here jawin' at me."
"Did it help? Whatever they said?"
Vin nodded thoughtfully. "I reckon. I reckon it helps most just knowin' they care."
"You really not gonna say anything else?"
"Wasn't plannin' on it."
"Maybe I will add just one more thing: I'm proud t' ride with you, Vin. You're a good man."
It had to be exhaustion that made his eyes sting, Vin decided. And maybe, since Chris was there, it would be alright to lean back and rest for just a few minutes. But he soon realized that he couldn't truly relax until the circle was complete.
"Chris? Tell me about your ma."
"You really wanna know?"
"Well, she was tall and blonde - I reckon you'd say she was a handsome woman. And yeah, she smelled good. She could cut you down with a single look though," Chris said with a laugh. "She was a decent cook, though not as good as Sarah. But her pancakes were really special, I swear they'd melt in your mouth. I tried telling Sarah once how to make 'em like my ma did - that was a mistake. Anyway, my ma was easy to talk to - long as you said somethin' she wanted to hear." He grinned again. "I remember once . . ."
As Chris continued to talk, Vin closed his eyes and allowed his friend's soft voice to take him away to a place of corn fields and summer fairs, where a young boy with white-blond hair climbed apple trees, pulled little girls' pigtails, and begged his ma for pancakes.
"Yeah, my ma was a fine woman," Chris concluded after several minutes.
Vin peeled open his eyes and peered at his friend. "That it?"
Chris cocked his head. "Vin, I really don't know what else you want me to say."
"Everybody else found some way t' tie in what happened today t' their story," Vin explained.
"I'm sorry, Pard. I don't know how to do that. What happened today was - well, it was a terrible tragedy and there's nothing I can say to change that or make it easier."
"Well some help you are!" Vin growled as he sat up indignantly. "At least you could say that that little girl lost her whole family and it would have been tough for her to go on by herself, even if she was a girl."
"That's true, although I don't quite understand what being a girl has to do with it."
"Or that she died quick and didn't suffer."
"Well no, she didn't."
"And hell, I should be angry because - because - it wasn't fair. I tried - I did the best I could and it wasn't enough so sometimes - sometimes it's alright to get mad."
"You won't get an argument from me on that."
"And sometimes the glass breaks and there ain't a damn thing you can do about it."
Chris knit his brows as he pondered the last statement. "Josiah?"
"Yeah. And really, who knows what would have happened to her if she grew up alone like that? She might've ended up a whor-- in even worse shape than dead."
"Might have, I guess."
"Some help you are," Vin muttered again.
"Sounds to me like you've had more than enough help already."
Pausing for a long moment, Chris finally said quietly, "So now that you know how everyone else feels about the situation, why don't you tell me how you feel?"
"Don't wanna talk about it," Vin repeated.
"Aw, hell. I feel - I feel - I feel selfish."
"Yeah. A child lost her life today - at my hands - and all the time the boys are up here talkin' t' me about their ma's, I ain't thinkin' about her - I'm thinkin' about me."
"Yeah. About bein' hungry and dirty - lots of times I didn't have no shoes - and no one ever made me cinnamon bread or pancakes. Don't remember if my ma listened t' me or read t' me or if she smelled good. And even Maude, well she tries, y' know? Ain't her fault Ezra is . . . Ezra."
He could tell Chris was trying not to smile, although he didn't succeed all that well. "I don't think that's being selfish, Vin - it's being human. But let me remind you of something: you said once that there is one thing you do remember about your ma, one memory that you hold in your heart, and that is her telling you to always live up to your name, right?"
Uncertain what Chris was getting at, Vin nodded slowly. "Right."
"So ask yourself this one question: did you do anything today to dishonor your name?"
Vin allowed the day's events to run through his mind in rapid succession: he'd led the boys directly to the wagon train, riding as fast as his horse could go; he'd aimed straight and fought hard, never letting up until the last marauder was dead or long gone; and then he'd ignored the pain in his back and the ache in his heart, working till long after sundown to bury the dead and comfort the living. He'd done all he possibly could to live up to his name.
"No," he replied softly.
"That's all you can ask of yourself at the end of the day, Vin."
Chris gripped his shoulder again then, but he didn't get up to leave. Instead, he signaled his intention to stay put by pulling out a cheroot and easing back against the stump. Vin studied his friend's face in the light of the moon and thought how lucky he was to have this man in his life - how lucky he was to have six good men in his life. He might not have had this if his ma had lived; his entire life probably would have been very different. Maybe sometimes things happened for a reason, maybe even death happened for a reason.
Josiah was right when he said that there wasn't much a man could do about how or when he reached the end of the road. But along the way, he could make choices and forge his own path. He could rise above the chains that imprisoned him and choose to see the good in others. He could seek out adventure when the plans for his future were tragically altered. He could live a life of dishonesty and anger, or turn that life into something more - albeit reluctantly at times. He could preach about his faith - or he could live it. He could find the beauty, rather than the shame, in those who survived by less than honorable means. And he could get up every day and keep fighting for justice for others, even when justice for his own had been denied him.
He could live up to his name.
That was all his ma had asked of him, and it had been enough to guide him through his journey so far. So maybe he didn't have fond memories of cinnamon bread or fancy hotels or moments shared with a loving mother - he had something better. He knew who he was and what he stood for. And that day, he'd done the best he could; he'd honored his name. So while he'd always feel sorrow for the loss of the child, he'd make his peace with it.
And maybe - he admitted to himself with a small smile - maybe the uninvited prattle of his friends had helped a bit, too.
Knowing Chris would keep watch, he leaned back and closed his eyes as images of little boys, books by the fire, apple trees, and crystal vases flitted through his mind. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was that maybe Nettie knew how to make cinnamon bread; maybe if he asked her real nice . . .