When the legends die, the dreams end;
there is no more greatness.
If you have read Vocabulary and its first sequel, this happened before all that.
"JD needs you over at the jail!"
Billy burst through the doors of the livery breathless from running. He looked excited, not scared, so Chris smiled calmly.
"What's going on, Billy?"
"Not you, he wants Vin. There's an Indian kid in there and he don't know what to do with him."
Vin finished pulling the latigo from the cinch, secured it to the saddle and tossed the Visalia over a saddle rack. He looked briefly at Chris, slapped the horse easily on the hindquarter and the two men headed towards the jailhouse. Billy ran ahead and back like an excited puppy as they traveled down the street.
When they entered the jail, JD was arguing with a well dressed but dusty man, who was pointing to the cell door.
"I don't want to lose him. I want him locked up, just for safekeeping, that's all."
"He's a little kid!"
"He's a savage."
"What's going on, Sheriff?" Chris spoke up easily between the two men.
JD turned to him with a look of relief. "This fella wants me to put him in a jail cell." With that, he pointed to a small boy standing against the bars in the shadow of the sun.
He had large brown eyes that stared back, not with fear, but defiance. His hair trailed down his back in one long braid, wearing clothes that hung off his small frame in folds, a pair of lace-up boots standing on the too-long pant leg of one over the other.
The regulators looked from the boy to the man without speaking.
"I am Kenneth McCoy. I represent the United States Government and I have traveled here to meet a representative from the Carlisle School, who will be arriving within the next few days to pick up this lad and take him and some others to Pennsylvania. I cannot allow his escape, and during my travels I have learned that the safest place to house these young reds is in the local jails. Your sheriff seems to disagree."
"He ain't even 10 years old, Chris!"
Chris nodded to JD and turned. "Think that's a bit harsh, don't you, Mr. McCoy? He don't exactly look like something you can't handle."
"I cannot be with him twenty-four hours a day. I intend to have a bath and a decent meal, perhaps a game of cards. Then we will be going on to meet the train in Eagle Bend. Until then, I'd like him contained."
Vin, who stood silent during the conversation, squatted down and eyed the boy.
"What happened to his people?"
"That," McCoy responded sharply, "is none of my concern."
"No, don't guess it would be."
"JD, put him in the cell," Chris said flatly.
JD gasped, then motioned the boy towards the cell. Vin turned and walked out.
"Thank you, Mr. ..."
Chris nodded silently and turned to follow Vin. He caught up with him a few yards down the boardwalk.
"This is just until that fella leaves. Sooner he gets what he wants, sooner he'll do that."
Vin acknowledged Chris's words with a quick nod, but kept on walking.
Mr. McCoy sat in on a poker game later that evening, and he and Ezra enjoyed a friendly rivalry. Chris noticed Vin come in, down a quick shot at the bar, and ask for another, rocking his elbows on the bar and throwing up a wall around him no one would breach. His eyes swept the room and settled momentarily on the government agent. He regarded him with a look Chris couldn't put a name to, and left.
Vin slipped down the boardwalk to the jail, nodding to JD silently and stealing a quick look at the child in the cell.
"Still don't think it's right, putting a little kid in jail."
"Reckon you oughta do what Chris wants, JD. The boy had anythin' to eat tonight?"
"Mary brought him some stuff. He didn't eat it."
Vin lifted the towel that covered the plate and studied the food left there.
"He's used ta' eatin' buffalo 'n deer n' other game."
He drew a cloth wrapped package from his pocket and held it out to the boy. "Pemican. It'll taste better to ya than that beef." The boy accepted the package without speaking.
"You don't think this is right either, Vin, how come you don't say something?"
Vin took a chair opposite JD's and lifted his boots to rest on the desk. He kept his eye on the child until he turned to answer.
"I spoke my piece before when it comes to these people, JD; ain't like what I got to say now's gonna mean anythin'. You gotta remember they ain't considered no more'n livestock by the government. That's just how it is." His voice was quiet, and JD had to listen carefully to make out the words. Vin pulled his feet off the desk and rocked forward so that his arms rested on his thighs and his eyes lowered to the floor.
"You know what the Army done with the scouts when it was over? When the trackin' and the chasin' and the findin' was past and the Indians was rounded up? Sorted 'em out. The white scouts collected pay and the Indian scouts got stripped and throwed in with the rest of 'em goin' to the reservations. The men that sat around the fire with 'em at night and shared whiskey with 'em and saved their sorry asses from gettin' kilt throwed 'em away like they was cullin' beef. Some of 'em got kilt for it. But some of 'em, their people decided to let 'em live. Cause it was better for the people. Everything is for the people. Not one man, not one family, but for their tribe. Indians is different than us JD. Not less, just different. An Indian who dies with nuthin' is rich to his people. It means he gave everythin' he had to his people." His voice trailed off in utter sadness, and he bent so far forward, to JD it seemed that the floor might swallow him up in the shadows. Finally, he shook away the despair and looked up again.
"Chris is just doing what he thinks is right 'cordin' to the law." He looked up and smiled. "You know what's right, JD. That's what matters. Don't mean you can do anythin' about it right now, but it matters."
"But . . ." JD started to say more, as Vin's head turned so that his eyes shone in the shadows of the lantern light, but the younger man was stopped by the look there. JD sighed, and shook his head. They both turned silently to look at the boy in the cell, who, in exhaustion, had fallen asleep.
"McCoy says this school in Pennsylvania will teach these kids to read and write, teach 'em a trade."
Vin nodded at Chris's words, and continued walking down the street. Larabee groaned inwardly. Who the hell made Vin Tanner keeper of the Indians? Chris was tired of fighting drunks and bank robbers and his own men. The silence today hung heavy in the air, and Chris was tired of that, too. If Vin had something to share, he just damn wished he'd up and spit it out. This man McCoy was a government agent, and that was something the regulators didn't need to be messing with. The man was paid to do a job, and for all intents and purposes, he was doing it. He wasn't hurting the kid, and soon he'd be putting him on a train to someplace he'd have a decent place to live, something to eat and a way to improve his life. If he could just keep Tanner in line until that happened. . . . But Chris had a feeling Vin was just biding his time. And that made Chris nervous, like nothing had in a long time.
While the thoughts played over in his mind, he watched Vin toss his coat over a rail near the end of the street and idly begin trimming his horse's feet. Chris finally went into the saloon and stretched his legs out at a table in the corner. A few minutes later, a boy's shrill screams filled the air. He bolted from his chair and hit the street running.
When Chris entered the Clarion office, Vin was already there, and he had Mary's wrist tightly clenched in his fist, her extended hand holding a pair of shears. The boy was in the corner, huddled down, eyes wide.
"You ain't cuttin' his hair." Vin's voice was low and ugly, and Mary's eyes were fixed on him, wavering uncertainly.
"Let go," she begged softly.
"He has to have it cut before he goes to Carlisle. Or they'll cut it there." She wasn't moving, and her eyes never left Vin. She was afraid, Chris realized.
Vin raised his eyes and half turned to Chris. There was a flash of something there, something dark and deadly that obscured the blue and which Chris had never seen before. The something, Chris realized, that had made Vin a hunter of men, a slaughterer of buffalo, a gun for hire; something that Chris may have recognized in himself, if he had been able to look in a mirror in those dark times.
Vin's eyes bore into Chris's.
"Cuttin' his hair and puttin' him in clothes like this don't make him white and it never will."
"No more'n puttin you in buckskins makes you red," Chris shot back. Damn, he was sick of this. He watched then as the fire went out, the light and the fight in those blue eyes died away and was replaced with a smokey black sadness as dark as a moonless night. The same despair that had filled those eyes when Chris had shot and killed Eli Joe and taken from him the hope of ever being truly free.
"Let me go."
Her soft, pleading voice came to them both, staring at each other there, Mary and the boy momentarily forgotten.
His grip loosened, and she pulled her hand away, rubbing the bruised wrist. Vin stood staring at her for a moment, a reddening line of shame moving up to color his cheeks, before he lowered his eyes. No one spoke, there was so much and yet so little to be said. He felt the crushing pressure in his chest forcing him to take a breath, to do the simple, life-giving thing that he seemed to forget in that long moment of despair. He struggled with the pressure of those around him, beside him and between himself and the sometimes lonely freedom that lay just beyond the doors of that silent office for both he and the boy.
He turned finally to the child, going to him and squatting before him. Vin's shirt was open at the collar, and the boy's eyes fixed on the medicine bag hanging there. Vin rubbed his hands over his face, lowered his voice, but there was no privacy here, in this silence brought deadly with feeling. McCoy was there, and JD and Chris and Mary. Silent and staring. Waiting.
Vin licked his lips and a shudder ran through the two of them together.
"My Gran--," he paused, shook his head. No, this child would not understand that. "Someone cut my hair; I was 'bout yer age. Put his hand on my chest and held me down and cut it. First time, I hollered and fought. Didn't make no difference. Still got cut. Ain't in yer hair. It's in here." He reached out and gently tapped the boy's chest. "You'll get bigger. Then you kin let it grow back. It will. I promise." He closed his eyes and swore softly at the absurdity of a promise to the Indian people. "You're a warrior, and you always will be. Can't no one take that from you, no matter what else they take." Vin stood and turned to Mary. He held out his open hand, but it trembled noticeably. "I'll do it."
Mary turned the scissors over in her hands. "Please. I cut Billy's. May I?"
Vin nodded, motioning for the boy to stand beside him. Then he nodded to Mary.
Vin stood beside the boy, both of them staring straight ahead out the window into the street and beyond; past the jar on the ledge. There was no sun, there was no dancing light, no magic. It was just a Mason jar, full of cheap colored glass beads.
The moment Mary finished, the government agent spoke up.
"Put him back in the jail cell. "
McCoy didn't know the ground on which he tread, Chris thought, not breaking his gaze from Vin.
"Tomorrow I'm riding for the train in Eagle Bend, and we'll be out of your way. I'm obliged to you for cooperating with me."
Chris nodded at McCoy, "If you want some company, we'll ride along. Tanner gets along with the boy, that'll make it easier."
McCoy nodded back. "I appreciate that. We'll leave in the morning, then?"
Chris never let his eyes leave Vin's back as he nodded. Briefly he thought that he, Larabee, should be the one to leap on his horse and ride out of this town as fast and as far and as long as he could, and he should have done it a long time ago.
When the others had left the room, leaving only Mary and Vin, the two of them stood in silence, Vin still looking out the window, Mary looking at his back, noticing the dark circle of sweat that colored the dusty blue shirt in the center of his back, the suspenders bowing over his shoulder blades as his head hung.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, but even so, it seemed to fill the room with sound.
He nodded. She inched closer, wanting to reach out and touch his arm, but afraid.
He finally turned to her, nodding again. "I'm sorry." His voice was hoarse and dry. He raised his hands and turned them open in front of him, waving them helplessly. "I--", his voice cracked and fell silent. She stepped to him, taking his hands in hers, clutching them to stop the shaking. There were no words, so, silent they stood, together, his eyes watching the tiny droplets fall on the wooden planks beneath them, the tiny droplets that were her tears mixing with the shiny black hair that lay on the floor. She let go of his hands when they stopped trembling, and went to the window, taking the jar down from the ledge. She turned back to him, holding it up.
"The magic is still there, Vin, you just can't see it until the sun comes out."
The ride to meet the train was a long one, and when Chris thought back on it later he couldn't remember that Vin had spoken a single word in the five hour trip. Not a single word. Not to Chris, certainly not to McCoy, not even to the boy. Chris would think about that for a long time, sure that he must be mistaken, Vin must have said something, but he just couldn't recall him having said a single word. Chris was surprised, too, that Vin showed no outward emotion of caring for the Indian child at all. No physical affection, no soothing chatter, nothing. He was cold and hard and still. The boy rode double behind Vin, as silent as the rider in front of him. Chris listened absently when McCoy spoke, sometimes nodding, more often finding himself lost in his own thoughts.
When they arrived at the train stop, the train was already there, rumbling loudly on the tracks, hissing steam in regular gasps. They tied their horses up and walked together to the third car; not a passenger car, Chris noted, but a box type. McCoy knew the routine; he led the two men and his charge up the steps and swung the heavy carriage door along the track and open. What Chris saw inside made his stomach heave and churn, and his mind swim.
A few rows of wooden benches lined one side of the car, and on the benches sat Indian children, some looked to be older, maybe ten or eleven, and some as young as five or six. All of them were male children, all had their hair cut off straight at the ears, all dressed in poorly fitting white men's clothes. Some of the children raised their eyes at the sound of the door, others remained with their heads bowed in resignation.
Vin's face was blank as he indicated a place for the boy to sit on one of the benches. Without a word, he turned, stepped to the door of the rail car, leapt to the ground below and walked away. Chris watched him silently, then turned back to the children before him.
He imagined Adam for a moment, being taken from him and taught to eat new things and wear new, different clothing, to speak a new language and to live a new way of life; taught something as foreign to him as this school in Pennsylvania would be to these children, half a country away from their people. All to be made like me, thought Chris, to be made white.
Chris rode back to Four Corners alone, arrived quietly and answered as few questions as possible by casting an angry glare towards anyone who ventured too close. The six regulators waited, some patiently, some not, for the seventh to return. Almost three weeks after Vin disappeared, Mary approached Chris on the boardwalk. Her eyes looked out to the mountains, and Chris knew her question before she voiced it.
"Do you think he'll come back?"
He could only shrug and look away towards the same mountains in the
Almost a week later, Nettie Wells drove her buggy into town, with a set to her shoulders that Chris could see from his chair outside the saloon. He watched as JD went to meet her, helped her down from the seat, and saw him point up the street towards him. Inwardly, he groaned. The last thing he wanted to tell her was that Vin was gone.
"Mr. Larabee, I want to know what is going on with that boy."
Any other time, Chris would have grinned. He got no end of amusement out of her calling Vin Tanner 'boy'. It seemed to Chris that nothing was farther from a boy than the tracker, but to Nettie, that was her favorite description.
"Don't know where he is," he spoke defensively.
Nettie cocked her head at him, confused. "What are you talking about?"
Chris suddenly got the distinct impression she knew something he didn't. It wasn't a feeling he liked much.
"What are you talking about?" he answered with his own glare to match hers.
Buck, standing on the boardwalk, had to laugh. This was something he wished Vin could see. Nettie Wells and Chris Larabee, toe to toe. He rocked back against the wall of the store to watch.
Nettie paused, assessing the man in front of her.
"Vin Tanner showed up at my place a week ago. He's been fixin' and repairin' everything he can. When he's done, I'm thinkin' that boy's gonna leave and I want to know why."
Chris was surprised, that Nettie was sure of. What she didn't know was what had surprised him the most.
Buck looked across at Chris, and JD's face lit up. "Vin's at your place?"
Nettie frowned at the younger man. "Why, yes." She turned back to Chris. "He hasn't been around here lately?"
Chris shook his head. "No. Not for weeks. Not since we took that Indian kid to the train. I thought -- we thought he took off."
Nettie nodded. "Well, then, I reckon he's just cleaning up loose ends before he does. What are you gonna do about that?"
The accusation was clear. The person keeping Vin from coming back to town, from staying here, was standing right in front of her.
"I ain't his keeper." Flatly, stubbornly, he spoke.
"Not now. Don't you dare go there, Mr. Larabee. You asked him to stay here to start with, you dang well better straighten this out so he stays." With that, she turned away, while the men stood on the boardwalk watching her, returned to her buggy, climbed in and wheeled the horse and carriage around, snapping the horse into a fast trot out of town.
"You're gonna go talk to him, ain't ya, Chris?"
Larabee turned the deadly glare to JD. "Go ta' hell!"
JD shrank back from the scathing retort. He straightened, narrowed his own eyes, turned away from the man he admired most and walked away.
Buck pushed himself off the wall to stand defiantly at Chris. He'd been the recipient of that cruel tongue more than once. Before he could speak, Chris turned on him.
"Tanner ain't no snotty nose kid who needs his ass wiped."
"Nope." Buck said with finality. "And neither is JD. They're 'most all growed up now. They're 'bout ready to figger out they could have a friend to back 'em up, if they found one. When you gonna join 'em?" He turned on his heel and strode away.
Damn you, Buck Wilmington. Damn you all. Chris growled to
himself before he retrieved a bottle of whiskey, stuffed it into his saddle
bag and rode away.
When Chris's gelding jogged up to the Wells' ranch, the sun was already setting. He was glad of that, because when she came to stand on the porch to see him in, Nettie's face was hidden in the shadows.
"Vin in the barn?"
"He hasn't been sleepin' here. I thought he was goin' back to town come nightfall. I guess I was wrong."
Chris nodded and looked around. The fence was straight, a few new poles had been replaced on the corral. There were some new split shingles on the house where before there had been some missing, and the porch railing was new.
"There any hollows around here you think he might lay up in at night?"
Casey came to stand beside her aunt.
"He always heads towards the lake." She waved a hand east. "Down along the edge of the pines, that's where he's been campin'."
Chris smiled. "Thanks."
"You set things right, Chris."
He turned back to her and sighed. "I'll try, Nettie, I'll try."
Chris sat on his horse at the edge of the camp, waiting silently. He could make out Vin propped against a rock to the side of the hollow, twenty or so feet away. He hunched over a small fire, poking at a pan propped over the flames.
"Yer late. Nearly burnt the panbread."
Chris dismounted. He silently unsaddled the gelding, led him towards the lake and hobbled him. He carried his gear up near the camp and dropped the saddlebags hanging over his shoulder to the ground at his feet.
"Brought some whiskey," Chris offered.
He spread out the things he'd brought with him. He worked silently, casting a few glances towards Vin, who closed his eyes and lay his head back on the log behind him. Chris pulled the whiskey bottle from his bag before settling back against his own rock. There, in the semi-darkness, they studied each other in silence, each with his back to the wall.
"You gonna share that bottle or polish it off your own self?"
"Not 'til you and I have it out. I don't want to have to tell JD I kilt you when you were drunk."
"Nothing to have out. I been around this place too long as it is. Best I be on my way."
Chris shook his head. "Town needs you around here. So's JD. Hell, Buck even needs someone he can count on."
"They both got you."
"I reckon if Buck heard that he'd disagree with you."
Vin raised his head to give Chris a long, even look. "Reckon he might." No sarcasm nor fault laid there, just the truth, simple as it was.
"Sides, Nettie'll likely use that Spencer on me, if you ride outta here."
Vin smiled. "Reckon she might."
Sometime during the night the fire they'd shared in the long space between them went out and Chris fell asleep. Later he awoke and raised his head. What had he heard? What had awakened him? He lay there in the darkness, listening. He could hear Vin's steady breathing, then the voice floated out softly in the total darkness, full of sorrow and despair, with absolute certainty that Chris was awake and listening.
"It ain't a bad life they were livin', before. Don't gotta have book learnin' to teach a person what's right and true."
Chris nodded in the darkness. "I was wrong."
There was a long silence.
Chris lay back, closed his eyes and slept, soundly and without dreaming.
When he awoke in the dawn, it seemed to Vin that Chris was closer than when he had gone to sleep the night before. Maybe it was the dim light of the late moon, or the early glow of the sun, but the long, empty space between them seemed smaller. He raised his head, took another swig of whiskey and closed his eyes again.
The next morning, Vin was standing under the large arm of a pine in the full sun, and he turned to look at Chris. Resolute, Chris thought. That's what he is. Just like Sarah.
A year before Adam was born, Sarah had miscarried. They'd talked about it, how she believed it'd been God's way, how they'd have other children, how they'd accept and try again. When Adam was a year old, he'd found her sobbing in the barn for the child that might have been. She'd dried her eyes, composed herself, and had never cried for the baby again. She'd been resolute that she would not think of it, not hurt for it, not lose any part of this life pining for what was gone. Chris wondered sometimes why Sarah, and now Vin, was so damned forgiving.
Chris turned away from him, and began saddling his horse.
"You were right, too, I reckon. I ain't Indian, never will be. Guess fer a while I figgered I'da been better off iffen I was." Vin shook his head. "I just fit in a little better in their camp than this'un."
Chris nodded and smiled. "I s'pose we're all lookin' for someplace we fit in a little better. Maybe it's here."
"Maybe 'tis. 'Member when I lost your hat, up there on the mountain?" He jerked his head up towards the cave.
"All I could think about in that damn cave, laying there hurtin' like hell, was ---he's gonna be pissed. I lost his hat. And then, there's Buck, and I'm thinkin' --- he sent Buck out here ta' kill me for losin' his hat."
Vin threw back his head, chuckling about the absurdity of it.
"Yeah, well a man's hat is a purty important thing to be losing. I reckon kinda like that kid's hair." He tightened the rear cinch and threaded the latigo through its keeper with a snap of finality. "You figured on dying didn't you, Vin?"
"Yep, at least twice. But I'd do it again."
"You know, Vin," Chris paused for just a moment, weighing the thought. "Mary thinks a whole lot of you. She'd be quite a catch, a woman like that."
Vin laughed out loud. "I reckon she would, Chris. A beautiful, smart woman and a man on the run. Yep, that'd be a match. It's you she wants, 'cept yer too dumb and bull headed to see it. Typical cowboy."
Chris was smiling when he shot back, "I've shot men for less, Tanner. Let's ride."
The two men smiled at one another and mounted up for the ride home.
A couple of weeks later, Vin was lounging silently in front of the telegraph office with JD and Chris when Mary came hurrying up the street, clutching a paper in her hand. Chris could see the excitement in Mary's eyes when she called out to them, but he also noticed something else when she got closer: her attention was directed to Vin. When he looked up at her, and their eyes met -- what was that there? he wondered. Trust. Two people worlds apart that trusted each other, for reasons he neither knew nor understood.
"Vin, I just opened some mail I got from a friend up North. She included a newspaper and there's something here you should hear."
Vin pushed his hat back a little so that he could look more intently at her. She fingered the paper happily and looked around at the other men. She cleared her throat and began to read:
"May 12, 1879, Federal Court Judge Elmer Dundy declares that an Indian is a person within the meaning of the laws of the United States of America, as a result of the trial of The United States versus the Indian Standing Bear." She paused triumphantly.
Vin nodded silently.
"What's all that mean, Mary?" JD asked.
"This man, Standing Bear, was confined to the reservation, and when his son died, he wanted to take his body to the tribe's homeland along the Niobrara River to be buried. When he left the reservation to do that, Standing Bear was arrested. This ruling means that Indians have the right to travel. To be free. It's . . . . it's a very important step, JD." She turned to Vin.
He nodded again.
"Vin, this is so important, I thought you'd be happy." Her face clouded over in frustration.
He looked around at the small group of them there, which now included Josiah, who had joined the little gathering as Mary began to read. He shrugged.
"They was people all along, just callin 'em that don't make it different." But he looked up to her then and smiled "It's a good thing, Mary. Just a long time comin'."
He struggled to his feet, nodded to his friends and walked off down the street laden heavy with dust.
"You think maybe things'll be different for the Indian people, now, Chris?" JD asked with the youthful hope of things wished for.
Chris turned to Josiah with a question in his own eyes.
The big man shook his head at the gunslinger's silent query and turned to JD.
"We can only hope so, boy. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, a hundred years from now we'll all be gone."
"Not us, Josiah," JD answered with a determination that made the others turn to him, "We'll be legends."
He hopped off the step and followed Vin down the street.
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