Main Characters: Vin, OFC
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in June 2012.
She sat before the old cracked mirror, combing her thick dark hair. A movement distracted her, and she lightly stroked her swollen belly. The baby within her womb was moving again, anxious to come into the world. It would only be a few days, and their family would begin.
She heard the door of their little cabin open and close, and a familiar footstep announced that her husband had returned. He came into the room, greeting her in the mirror with that smile that had won her heart and continued to take her breath away each time he treated her to it. Coming up behind her, he wrapped his arms around her, kissing her on the neck. “Howdy, sweet woman,” he said softly.
“Hello husband,” she replied. “How was the hunting?”
“Tolerable. Reckon one more go and I’ll have enough t’ get us through the winter. Clouds are shapin’ up t’ look like snow in the next day or so.” His blue eyes spoke to her, letting her know he was torn.
“Reckon y’ best be headin’ out in the mornin’ then. Me an’ your son’ll wait right here.”
Another of those breath-taking smiles. “You been certain since the first this is gonna be a boy. What’s gonna happen if it’s a little girl, pretty as her Mama?”
“Love her,” she said evenly. “But it’s not gonna be. Now best y’ tend your horse, I’ll have supper on the table when y’ get back in.”
Delivering another kiss to the dark-haired beauty he’d taken as his wife just over a year ago, the rangy young hunter left to do her bidding. True to her word, she had the meal ready when he returned. The stew, the aroma of which had called to him long before he could see the little cabin as he returned home from the hunt, sat in the middle of the table, accompanied by potatoes, cornbread and fresh-churned butter. They ate sitting next to one another, as they always had, talking about nothing in particular. As usual Rebecca talked more, discussing the plans she made for the winter, when he had promised to stay close to home and their new child. There were many things that needed done around their little homestead, and ‘Becca was going to see that they were at last done.
With the disappearance of the sun they retired to their bed, where he held her close, feeling the warmth of her body next to his. From time to time one hand stole to her heavy abdomen, reveling in the wonder of what they had created consummating their love. It had been strong since they had first met. He fell into a deep sleep with his hand spread across the top of her belly, dreaming of being a father to a dozen children. They each looked just like their mother.
As the morning sun slowly warmed the little cabin, she surprised him with a feast of a breakfast. Food enough, she swore, to keep him full until his return. Pulling her to him in a gentle embrace, he kissed her fully, murmuring his love to her. Never one for voicing his feelings, he had found it the easiest thing in the world when it came to his wife. ”Becca my love, I will be back before the snow comes, and we’re gonna spend the whole of the winter together,” patting her stomach he said, “just the three of us.”
”I’m gonna hold you to that promise husband. You be safe, and hurry back,” taking his face in her hands, she stared into the blue eyes and said, “I love you handsome man.”
Three days passed. Her time drew near, the pains coming in waves that crashed against her with rising intensity. As the forth day came and went, she lay abed, the impending birth and growing fear wearing her out. As the fifth day dawned a new voice greeted the sun as their son came into the world. Opening the door to the outside on the sixth day, she was greeted by heavily packed snow that blocked her view of the trees, hills and valleys beyond. Closing the door, she realized it didn’t matter; she had no need to look out across the countryside. He wasn’t coming back. Something had happened; she may not ever know what it was, but it had taken the life of the only man she had ever loved.
No, she corrected herself with a bittersweet smile, not the only man. For there was another man who had stolen her heart. He reminded her of that fact with a loud, newborn wail from the cradle her husband had built her the day after she had told him of her condition. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she went to see to his needs.
The weeks and months passed, only the two of them in the stark white world. There were days she felt she would lose her mind, the ache of longing; the need to hear another human voice driving her to the edge. But then her son would do something to bring a smile to her face. By the time spring blew warm breezes through the chinks of the log walls, the baby was crawling around the hard-packed dirt floor of the cabin. He had his father’s curling brown hair, cornflower blue eyes, and broad, easy smile. She imagined she saw her husband when he smiled, realizing that she hadn’t completely lost the man who had stolen her heart.
With spring she introduced the little boy to the outdoors. It quickly became evident that he was never happier when he could feel the sun on his face and the breeze blowing through his tousled hair. Just like his father. As she planted a tiny vegetable garden he would content himself exploring the wilds of the thick grass nearby. As she sat in the doorway of the cabin shelling peas he napped beneath the blue sky. As she chinked the walls of their home, he watched in amazement as the air filled with butterflies.
As summer warmed the mountains, he learned to walk. Taking the rifle in one hand and his tiny hand in the other, she began to hunt for game to replace their dwindling supply of food. Their days took on a routine of their own, as they prepared for the onslaught of winter. It was never far from her mind; often her days were lost in plans for the coming hard times and memories of her husband.
She could never have been prepared for the day she found him, nor would she ever forget it.
They had been tracking a herd of deer, the thought of venison pushing her to go farther than they had gone before. Her little one whimpered occasionally as his tiny legs complained at being pushed so hard, but he didn’t cry. He rarely did, suffering the indignities of childhood with stoic silence. Picking him up, she balanced him on one hip and settled the rifle in the crook of her arm. Hiking through the heavy wild grass, she stumbled over something unseen and nearly fell. Looking down in irritation, she prepared to kick the offending object angrily.
It was her husband. Rather, it was all that nature and predators left behind. Crying out in shock, rage and sorrow, she lowered her burdens to the ground, for once ignoring the little boy’s cries of fear. Dropping to the ground, she frantically drew the scattered bones together, gathering them in the tattered remains of his familiar hide coat. The sight of his corpse pulled her over the edge into insanity, anguish blinding her to everything save the pain-filled and final realization that he would never return to her. After long hours of wailing grief, the baby as inconsolable, although he hadn’t a clue as to why, she curled up in a ball next to her husband’s remains, drawing the baby into her arms. They spent the night like that, a gruesome family reunion. In the morning she drew herself up, buried her husband, and returned to her preparations for the coming winter.
Three winters more passed, the two of them the only people in the world. Her son grew from chubby toddler to handsome child. They spent day and night together, one another’s only company. She allowed him to explore the world around them, keeping a loving eye on him, but giving him space to roam. He quickly learned to appreciate the wonders of the natural world.
It was just after his forth winter that they found themselves with company. The years had taken a toll, leaving her like nothing so much as the willow, thin and reedy, but far stronger than she appeared. She had used her husband’s meager wardrobe several times over the years, cutting it apart and making clothing for her son. Now there was little left to use, and she had supplemented it with the cured hides of the animals they had. To the people in the little wagon train it seemed that two scarecrows stepped cautiously from the rundown little cabin to greet them.
The wagons stopped nearby, and some of the travelers came to visit. She had spoken so seldom in so long that she could scarcely manage a conversation without becoming light-headed and giddy. By the next day she had made a decision. Packing up their few belongings, she and her son joined the travelers on their journey. He cried, begging to stay in the only home he had ever known, but she held firm. She knew that this might very well be her only chance of giving her son a better life; one that included more than their mountaintop, their tiny cabin, and a grave.
They said good-bye to the kind people of the wagon train at the first settlement they arrived at. She had no desire to settle in a place that held too many people, preferring to put down roots in a rustic little gathering of buildings. She soon found a job helping out in the little settlement store. As soon as she could, they took up residence in a tiny shack at the edge of town, giving her son the freedom of the countryside once more. Cautiously she left him alone at the little homestead, rushing home as often as she could to check on him. He quickly became self-sufficient, caring for himself better than she could have expected. And he began to show a great heart. As soon as he began to learn the ways of civilization, he began visiting another little hard-scrabble homestead, this one populated by a withered old man and his crippled wife. More than once she would come home to find him gone. After the first panic-stricken time she knew to check their neighbors first. Usually he would be sitting on their tiny porch, helping to clean rabbits caught by the old man’s snare, or shelling peas with the old woman. Although he was smaller than most boys his age, he was strong and quick to help. She smiled to see her baby growing into such a fine person.
His fifth birthday was the first that she had been able to give him the gifts she dreamed of bestowing on him. He awoke to find his Mama had fixed his favorite breakfast, and three items, wrapped tenderly in brown paper, sat at his place at the table. Blue eyes wide with wonder, he could barely manage the knotted twine. One by one he opened them, starting with the smallest. When he had finished, he stared in open-mouthed amazement at his treasures; a bandana, a bag of marbles, and a harmonica. Bounding about the room in excitement, he hugged his mother time and again, thanking her with actions as much as with words for the wonders of the day.
It was soon after that she realized something was wrong. Her throat felt raw, her voice hoarse. She ached day and night, barely having the strength to walk to town. Her hands trembled when she scooped out beans or flour for the customers, and she often found it necessary to rest against the counter. Often she coughed, finding her handkerchief flecked with red and yellow stains. Soon she could take no nourishment other than broth, and even that caused her great agony. She made use of the remedies she knew of, but didn’t complain. There were no healers around, there was no use of fretting over what wasn’t available. The only thing that concerned her was that her little boy would become sick as well.
Then the day came when she could make it no farther than the front door. Collapsing against the rough wood, she sobbed. Not for herself, but for her son. She knew that he would soon be orphaned. Haltingly she instructed him to go to his elderly friends and ask the old man to come for a visit. A short time later a knock on the splintered door announced the neighbor. Ushering him in, she told him that she would soon be going to join her husband; that their son would be alone. With tears in his rheumy gray eyes, he promised that what little they had would be shared with her child, that they would give him the best life they could manage for as long as they were able. Both knew that the chances of this arrangement lasting for more than a few years were slim; the elderly couple were not long for the world themselves. But at least, perhaps, he would have a better chance of making it in the world.
The man left, promising to return with his wife later in the day. They would keep her company in her final hours. She managed to stumble back to her bed, barely able to lift her trembling legs up onto the thin mattress. As she struggled to pull the old blanket over her thin, quivering body, she heard the door. Her mind drifting with the waves of pain and fever that washed over her, she thought the approaching footsteps were those of her husband. When she looked up into the pale blue eyes, she saw the man she had married, rather than their son. Then he spoke, his tiny voice bringing her back to reality.
Seeing the fear in his finely chiseled little face, she did her best to banish the sadness in her own. One quivering hand stroked his cheeks, brushing the tears that began to flow. How could she make him understand what was going on? How could she help him come to terms with the fact that he would too soon have to make his way through the world alone?
“Mama? You gonna go find my daddy?”
How could he know? She should have realized. He had always been able to see through to the truth of a thing. It only made sense that he would be able to understand what was going on now. Unable to find her voice, she nodded.
“Can I come with y’, Mama?”
She shook her head, tears flowing freely now.
“Don’t cry Mama. Why are y’ cryin?”
“I’ll miss you baby boy,” she whispered, blood dribbling from the corner of her mouth as she spoke.
He stroked her face now, pale and emaciated from weeks of sickness and years of a hard life. He could scarcely understand any of it, but when Mr. Whitaker, their neighbor and friend, came back to the house a short time earlier, he knew he had to return to his own home quickly. Both Whitaker and his wife tried to get him to stay, but he only shook his head and sprinted back through the hardscrabble grasses and weeds. Something pulled him back to their little house, an urgency forcing his legs faster and faster.
“I’ll miss y’ Mama, “ he whispered in return. “I’ll always miss y’. I’ll do my best t’ be a good boy, too.”
“I know y’ will baby. Y’ always made me proud… proud as a mother could be.” She paused, choking on the gore that filled her throat. Time was short; there was so much yet to say, but no time in which to say it. Little voice to say it with. How could she manage to give him all the life’s lessons she needed to in the time she had left? Then a smile came to her pain-wracked face and she took his hand in hers. Looking up into the tear-filled eyes she taught him the most important lesson she could.
“Boy, you’re a Tanner. Don’t you ever forget that.”
”You gonna tell me about her? Your ma.”
“Well she raised me til I’s five, then she got sick. Putrid fever got her. She put up a heck of a fight though.”
“Sounds like a strong woman.”
“Yes ma’am, she was. ‘Fore she died she told me ‘boy you’re a Tanner. Don’t you ever forget that’. Even though I’s just a little feller those words’ve echoed in my heart to this day. Reckon I just wanna live up t’ bein’ a Tanner.”
“You do son…you do.”
Vin and Nettie Wells
~~ The Collector
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