Vin and Chris had taken off together for a fishing trip while Chris healed from Ella Gaines's trying to kill the Seven to cement her insane hold on Chris. They sat in silence, their poles in the water, just comfortable being together. The way it had always been, since they first met and that eerie connection between them had sprung into being. Vin had even taken his hat off and his curly dark hair waved free.
Vin's pole twitched, and he hauled back on it without a word.
When it came up, fishless, he sighed. "So much for Bucklin's cheese bait 'sure thing'."
"You just don't know how to work the line," Chris mumbled, and gave his own rod a twitch. The water exploded, as a young bass gulped the bait whole, and fought against the hook like a wildcat.
"Whooo!" Vin cheered and shot to his feet, grabbing the pole and helping Chris reel it in. There was a hitch in his laughter -- and it struck Chris after the fish was on land how much that distinctive hitch sounded like Sarah's.
He cast an odd look at his friend, while he cut the line and slapped the fish against the bank almost absentmindedly. "I think I've had enough fishin'," he grunted, and picked up his hat.
Vin cast an odd look at him back, his blue eyes squinting slightly in the sunlight. "Sure thing," he said, puzzlement in his voice. "Whatcha feel like doin' now?"
"In the saddlebag," Vin said, jerking his head toward Peso and Midnight. "Mind tellin' me what brought on this sudden mood swing?" He grinned just a bit. "You ain't no lady, so that time can't be your excuse...."
Chris' expression replied that he wasn't in the mood to find that remark humorous, either. He stalked to the horses, and retrieved the bottle without another word.
Vin crouched beside him, building a fire and beginning to gut the fish and clean it. After the fire was made, Chris took note of a little quirk about Vin he'd often seen before but had never quite noticed in the same way.
Once the fire caught, Vin involuntarily flinched and was super-careful not to burn himself as he efficiently lay the fish on a flat spit over it.
"Guess it's true," he said softly, offering the bottle to Vin, after taking a last, long pull from it.
"Guess what's true?" Vin replied, taking a pull and wincing as the fiery liquid hit his system. "Damn, cowboy, where'd you get this? Fresh outta the gut?"
Chris snorted. "It is a bit raw, yeah... and I reckon it's true what they say, about a burnt child dreadin' the fire... you always seem uncommonly cautious around a blaze..."
He shrugged. "Never liked fire. Stuff o'nightmares." He looked up at Chris. "You of all people know that, don't you?"
"Yeah.... reckon so..." Retrieving the bottle, he did his level best to reach the bottom.
They sat in silence for a few minutes more, then Vin said softly, "Ella sure brought it all back, didn't she?"
"Shit... Ella started it all...." Chris snarled, murderous fury coming into his eyes.
"We'll find her, cowboy." He reached out and squeezed Chris's arm. "And I'll personally hold her down while you shoot her."
"Somehow, I don' think even seein' her brains soaking into the dirt's gonna help, now."
"I can't reckon as I understand, Chris." Vin took the bottle back and took a long pull on it. "I lost my ma when I was five.... lost someone else earlier... barely remember my pa....." He shook his head. "Can't say as I understand the rage o'losin' an entire family."
Chris slid an eye sideways, but didn't turn his head-- afraid of scaring off the creeping lethargy and temporary numbness granted by the whisky. "Hope t'hell you never do, either..."
"Me too, Cowboy." He looked off in the darkness, lost in the memories. "I ever tell y'bout my ma?"
"Nope..." Chris reached for the bottle again, but found it empty.
"She was a good woman. Very pretty. Nursed me back to health when she found me under the wagon wheels." He smiled. "Took me in, raised me as a Tanner. Best year of my life. When the putrid fever took her, I'll never forget it. She sat up, turned a switch and the lights came on, and she told me 'You're a Tanner now, boy, and it's a name to be proud of'. When she died, I got sent to an orphanage for a bit --- then I ran. Kiowas and Comanches took me in -- they's livin' on a reservation together -- and I was raised like one of them."
"Do you remember your real Ma at all?"
He shrugged. "I's real little when she died --- three, maybe four. I remember her laugh, her eyes, her smile..." He smiled, his eyes closing. Then he frowned. ".....an' I remember how she died." He shuddered involuntarily and ran a hand over the bare sleeve of his red shirt.
This time, Chris turned his head, to look at his friend with bleary empathy. "What happened?"
Vin looked at the roasting fish. "She burnt to death. I's in the house with her when it caught."
"Awww.... shit..." Chris drawled, his emotions expressed more by the tone than by the profanity. He wrapped his arms around his shins, and rested his chin on his knees as he, too, contemplated their small blaze, while seeing a long gone conflagration. "How'd you get out?"
"She picked me up and carried me to the window. They's a boy stayin' with us that night. Dunno who. She set me on the sill and hugged me.” His eyes closed and his voice hitched. "...she said 'Run, little pard. Pretend you're one of daddy's horses and run like the wind. I'm behind ya. I love ya.' Then she threw me out the window an' went back fer th'other boy." He shuddered and opened his eyes, wiping them with the back of his hand. "Roof went in a second later. I did what she tole me. I run."
Silence met that revelation, but it wasn't the silence of disinterest, rather the type of silence that falls around a funeral bier.
After a long moment, Vin added, "Ran till the wind lifted me up. Next thing I know, I'm wakin' up under a parked wagon on a busy street in Dallas. Ma Tanner found me a few minutes later." He smiled. "Rest o'it you know. Lived with the Indians till the wind caught me again. Landed in Tascosa.....bounty hunted there for a year or two -- then Eli Joe happened." His jaw set.
Chris' eyes narrowed. "It's prob'ly the whisky, but I ain't followin' ya too well. The wind?"
He nodded. "Like a cyclone. Lifted me up and toted me twice. From where the fire was to Dallas, from Dallas to Tascosa."
"Danged long-winded cyclone!"
"Yup. Was a wrench after the second one, though." He ran a hand over his face. "I'd kinda gotten used to gas lights an' seein' horseless carriages." He smiled. "But it's nice t'be back where they ain't none again."
"Gas lights I've seen, but what the hell is a horseless carriage?"
"It's a carriage -- but it ain't got no horses. It's got a damned huge crank on the front and it wheezes and coughs till it runs. It uses gas like lights to, only to move. Y'steer it with a second crank on its end, practically in yer lap." He wrinkled his nose. "Think I like Peso better."
"Yeah, but would that contraption try to bite your kneecap off ever time you wanted to take a ride?"
Vin smiled. "Definitely like Peso better!" He laughed that odd, hitching laugh again.
Chris stared at him again, the humor dying out of his eyes. "Did I ever tell you I hate the way you laugh?"
"Nope. Ya tellin' me now?"
"Suit yerself. I laugh the way I laugh, ain't gonna change it fer you or nobody."
Chris heaved himself to his feet, and wove a bit, on his way back to the horses. Retrieving another bottle, he pulled the cork with his teeth. Sipping at it, he stared off into the encroaching darkness. "Sounds like Adam's..."
"What does?" Vin called after him.
"Damn, cowboy....I'm sorry. I can't change it, but I am sorry."
"Reckon I'll just have to quit regalin' you with my sparklin' sense of humor, then, won't I?" Chris took another long pull from the bottle. The motion of removing the bottle from his lips seemed to provoke the ground into lurching a bit under his feet.
"Whoa!" Instantly Vin's hands were on his shoulders. "C'mon, I think you've had enough."
"Don' think they've ever dishtild enough..." the other man mused, shrugging off Vin's hands.
"Least get the fish in ya." He carefully picked it from the fire and set it on two tin plates.
"Fish?" Chris sat down heavily, and stared into the plate. "Y' burned it."
"Says you... you been knowed to eat possum..."
"Trust me. Old Kiowa cure for hangover --- food." He put the plate into Chris's lap. "Eat."
With deliberate precision, Chris did. "Tastes like burned bass..."
"Good. It's done then." Vin chuckled.
"Meal's done when it starts to smoke?" Chris chuckled around a mouthful, and washed the taste out with whisky.
"Yup. Smoked fish!"
The gunslinger's comment on that was muddled, which was just as well, as it sounded like some rather rude speculations on Vin's ancestors. And their carnal preferences.
In the morning, Chris woke alone -- to Peso whuffling in his face!
"Aagh... you smell like you've been eatin' rotten tomatoes!" he protested, shoving the gelding's muzzle aside roughly.
"You insultin' my horse, cowboy?" Vin called from the ridge, laughing that odd, hitching laugh.
"Like it'd be the first time? Lord, Peso, you're even uglier from this angle!" Pushing at the persistent gelding once more, Chris sat up, a bit worse for wear.
"Breakfast is ready --- berries and even an apple in your hat, if the ornery so and so ain't got to it yet."
Chris peered into his Stetson. "Yeah, and he slobbered green spit all in it, too... Oh well, ain't much got the belly for breakfast, any how."
"Don't reckon ya do." He closed his spyglass. "Ya got wasted on me last night."
"Thanks for the headline. You ever considered going into business with Mary?" Hauling himself to his feet, Chris turned his back to his friend and watered a small bush.
"Maybe make a livin' as a poet, iff'n I kin ever learn t'read and write better'n a five-year-old." Vin replied very seriously.
"The way I see it, you don't have to... hire somebody else to write down what you tell em."
He smiled. "Maybe." He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. "Gonna be rainin' by sunset. Reckon we ought'a head to your cabin for the night?"
"Yeah..." Chris swung himself into the saddle. "I am purely gettin' too old for sleepin' on the ground..."
That caused a chuckle. "And too old fer drinkin' the mem'ries away. What was it last night? Couldn't have all been my laugh...."
Slewing around in the saddle, Chris regarded Vin with a puzzled frown, as he tried to herd together liquor-scattered memories. "Yeah, it was that-- and you tellin' me how you lost your Ma... And hell, it was Sarah's birthday, yesterday."
"Ma died of putrid fever," Vin tried to backtrack, hoping he hadn’t spilled some things in the alcohol and friendship-induced daze.
"No... your other mother-- the one that died in the fire..."
"Damn." Vin took a deep breath. "Cowboy, that was a very long time ago...."
"Yeah. But you still dread the fire-- and I still dread the day."
Vin didn't know how to reply to that. Instead, he looked out over the horizon and asked, "Y'ever know things'll happen?"
"No, but I've heard of folks that do... Don't think that's a gift I'd care to carry around."
"It's not. Seems like things happen round me that I heard talk of fathers and grandfathers tellin' about. Odd feelin'."
"Yeah... I think I kinda know what you're talkin' about-- like when you walk in somewhere, and you know you haven't been there, but you remember it anyway?"
"Yeah, only with me it's.... "He licked his lips. "Okay. When I was a kid, maybe fifteen, maybe sixteen, there was a big to-do about Utah becomin' a state. I remember it plain -- the elders were excited. Now I hear from Mary talk that Utah is voting t'become a state."
"Sounds like you've just gotten one gun butt over the head too many.... rattled your memories around some."
"Maybe..... but then explain t'me why the People lived on Reservations and why now they don't?"
"Most of em do... "
"Not the Seminoles. Not the Kiowa. I went to visit the Kiowa village last month, look for Standing Elk." He chewed on his lip. "They showed me a child."
"What're you trying to say, then?"
"I don't know. I just know that things I grew up with ain't no more -- and things that were familiar to me don't seem to be here yet. Adults, should be old as me, are kids. Kids I knew ain't even born yet."
"Sounds to me like you're saying you feel like you're almost your own grandpa or somethin'..."
"Feels that way sometimes." Vin sighed. "Been that way since the wind dropped me the second time. Did I tell ya bout that?"
"Yeah..." Chris rubbed his head. This conversation, on top of a hangover, was beginning to make him wish he himself had never been born.
Vin sighed. "Been first I've been able t'really think about it since Eli Joe framed me." He looked at Chris. "Till I saw you. Saw you, it was like comin' home."
"You knew me before, somehow?"
"Now see, that's the odd thing. Wanna say I have, but I can't place ya. Ya just feel like...family."
"Be some hell of a note if we turned out to be cousins or something," Larabee chuckled.
"Yeah.....it sure would." He chuckled back. They rode in silence for awhile, then Vin asked out of the blue, "Chris? think you could help me trace down who I was before I became me?"
"Vin, you know I'd do most anything for you, if I had the dimmest idea what the heck you're askin' for!"
He smiled. "I wanna find my pa. I know he's out there, somewhere. But I don't know his name or where he is."
"Don't know much on how to go about it, but I'll help all I can..."
"I think his initials are CS."
"Well, that oughta cut down on it some. Not much, but some. Know where you were born?"
"Round here's someplace." He opened his shirt. "Was holdin' this when Ma Tanner found me. Always reckoned the initials were m'pa's." He opened his medicine bundle and drew out a delicate bracelet.
"Mind if I take a look at that?"
Vin handed it over. "Careful, it's made outta hair."
With all due care and respect, Chris took the ornament. When he saw what he held in his hand, his world spun circles around him-- and not from the aftereffects of the poisonous whisky. Softly, he called on deity, as his hand closed convulsively around the bracelet.
"Hey, don't crush it!" Vin reached to take it back.
It was as if he hadn't spoken at all.... "Sarah..." Chris choked, still holding the bracelet as if it were a lifeline.
"Hey, cowboy!" Vin raised his voice. "Gimme back m'bracelet!"
Moving like a sleepwalker, Chris' hand opened over Vin's palm. He was pale, and sweating heavily.
Vin tucked it away again before reaching out and taking his friend's arm. "Chris?"
Chris's voice was tight, shaky. "Vin... that's Sarah's!"
Vin's eyes widened. "I was holdin' this when I was found. That's all I know bout it."
It was very hard to talk, through shock-numbed lips. "That's Sarah's... when I... when I had to leave her for a while, when we were courting-- she cut my hair... and wove that bracelet for herself. That clasp is a locket. Open it."
Vin removed the bracelet again. "I... I can't. Been stuck for years." Once more, he handed it over.
"Not stuck... just gotta know how to persuade it," Larabee whispered, and pried with fingernail, while squeezing the clasp. The cover flipped open with a tiny click.
Vin moved over and looked over his shoulder. "Aw, shit...." he breathed. "....no freakin' way..."
"No... no effin' way... but... we're both lookin' at solid proof... Somehow, you have Sarah's bracelet."
"And I have had it all my life!" Vin breathed, looking from the tiny painting to Chris's face. "Damn, cowboy, you aged well...."
"That bracelet ain't more’n 11,12 years old..."
"An' I'm 25...."
"I know I'm not the brightest lamp on the table, but those numbers don't add up, unless you're one hell of a big young'un!"
Vin lowered his head, then his eyes widened. "There's tales of Timewalkers.....people who're brought back an' forth through time by cyclones."
"Tales told by who?"
"Heard tell o'em when I was with the tribes. Said the legends weren't theirs, but they were familiar with them."
"Sounds like you're one of them... but... even if you are... how'd you wind up with Sarah's bracelet all your life?"
"Hell if I know!" Vin gasped. "Always assumed it was my ma's....but there's no way! Not if it's Sarah's!"
"And you don't remember how you got it?"
He shook his head. "All I know's I had it when I was found burnt under the wagon!"
"Wonder what Josiah would have to say about all this?" Chris mused, his mind refusing to wrap around the puzzle any farther.
"Why don't we ask him?" Vin asked, pointing Peso toward Four Corners.
"Don't start on me, cowboy..."
Josiah came out of his chambers and smiled. "Well, well. What brings you two to my humble abode on a Thursday?"
"A mystery," Chris told him bluntly, heading inside.
"Ah. Well, sit down, and let me in on it."
"Vin?" Chris prompted, as he dropped into one of the straight chairs and rocked it back on its back legs.
The story came out in bits and pieces.
"May I see the bracelet?"
Vin handed it over.
Josiah struggled with the catch. "It's jammed shut."
Vin copied Chris's movements and opened it.
"My word... the likeness certainly is startling," Josiah murmured, glancing from the miniature, to Chris, and back. "But paintings can be deceptive... and Mr. Larabee has rather classic features."
"Except that this was Sarah's," Chris said firmly.
"How can you be sure?" Josiah clicked the locket closed, and handed it back to Vin.
"Cause I braided that myself," Chris said softly.
"Again, I have to ask... how can you be sure? This type of jewelry strikes me as a bit macabre, but I certainly see it ornamenting a large number of ladies."
"Dammit, Josiah, I'm sure! Nothin' macabre about it -- I had to leave her an' she wanted somethin' to remember me by, so I made her that!"
"I'm sorry, my friends... I have no answers for you. What had to have happened, for this bracelet to be in Vin's possession as he's related-- is an impossibility, at least, as I understand reality."
Vin told him the Timewalker legend.
Josiah listened, and then sat for a long moment, impassive, his fingers steepled against his lips. Then, he spoke. "If we accept that as truth, then you, Vin-- was born Adam Larabee, 12 years ago..."
Vin's eyes widened. He stiffened, his jaw dropping open. "......I'm....I'm...?!?!"
"A wiser man than I once said, 'When all other possibilities are exhausted, what remains, no matter how strange, must be the truth.'"
Vin was almost frightened to look at Chris...but he did.
Chris was staring at him, his face unreadable.
"....cowboy...." Vin whispered.
"T'ain't possible... " Chris shook his head. "You gotta be mistaken, about how you got that bracelet..."
Slowly, Vin shook his head. "I was holdin it when I was under the wagon. Didn't know I was burnt till Ma Tanner hugged me." His voice was a ragged whisper.
"Don't change nothin'. " A muscle in Chris' jaw jumped.
"Nope." Vin nodded and stood. "Don't change nothin'." He put a finger to his hat and walked out. Only Josiah noticed the trembling.
"What do you mean?" Josiah asked gently.
"My wife and son are still dead."
"Your wife is," Josiah nodded toward the doorway. "Your son... your best friend.... is hurtin'."
"Vin's my best friend, but he ain't Adam... Adam is... would be... 12. Not 25!"
"Not if he Timewalked." He nodded. "And it appears, from what he's said, he has."
"I'll talk to Vin-- but Adam's still dead and buried, for me," Chris ground out. His face set, he rose and stalked out the door.
"God guide them and protect them," Josiah whispered.
It took several long strides to catch up to the tracker, but Chris came alongside, putting his hand on the leather-clad shoulder.
Vin stopped. Didn't turn around.
"I can't wrap my mind around as easy around this as you and Josiah seem to."
"As Josiah has," came the answer in a trembling voice. One that sounded tear-clogged.
"Yeah... well, I've never put much stock in anything I can't see or touch. You know that... "
"For a man that ain't even sure he's got a soul, Vin-- this is a fair chunk to swallow raw..."
"You've got a soul."
"I'm glad one of us is sure of it." His hand tightened on Vin's shoulder. "Ain't so sure, though, of what's supposed to happen, now. You're too damned big to dandle, if you are Adam!"
Vin turned around and to Chris's surprise, the eyes were blazing, though brimmed with tears. "Ain't had a dad in years. Don't rightly know if I want one now. Just wanted t'know who he was. Never 'spected..." His throat closed up and he turned back around.
"Reckon I'm not anybody's idea of dear ol' Pa..."
"I hear that."
"So, what're we gonna do about this now we know?"
Vin sighed. "I don't know. I....." He bowed his head. "Hell, I don't know!"
Chris stared off into the same distance Vin was gazing at. "I couldn't ask for my son to grow up to be a finer man than you've made."
"I...I gotta be alone awhile."
Chris nodded, and glanced at Vin's set profile. "You think you'll come back?"
"I always do."
"I'll be countin' on it."
Without another word, Vin mounted Peso and rode out.
Without a backward glance, Chris went to the saloon, purchased a bottle, went upstairs-- alone-- and drank until oblivion claimed him.
Buck found him the next morning. "What happened to your fishing trip?"
"Vin ca' fry fish worth shit..." he slurred, still drunk as a sawyer.
"So the kid can't cook," Buck shrugged. "Why's that got you so bent outta shape?"
"Shuddup or I'll bend y'r nose outta shape." Chris rolled over and pulled the thin, stained pillow over his head.
"Already done that, Stud," Buck said, pulling the pillow off. "C'mon, talk t'ol' Buck."
Fixing blood red eyes blearily on him, he grunted, "S'her birthday..."
"I know. Went to the grave and left a gift."
"Shure she appreshated it..." Chris mumbled, half-scornfully, then with astonishing speed and dexterity, jerked upright and slammed his fist into the wall, several times in rapid succession.
"Ya finished?" Buck asked calmly as he got out a handkerchief and bound the bleeding knuckles.
"Cain't take it no more, Buck," he confessed, with a morose shake of his head.
"You can," Buck insisted. "Losin' em was hard, but ya gotta move on."
"Why? Why cain't I just... quit?"
"Cause that ain't you."
Inflamed blue eyes met brown. "I ain't been me since I dropped that first shovel o' dirt on their graves."
"You were starting to get there again."
"Yeah, well life seemz t'take great joy in kickin' me in the nuts as soon as I show signs of standin' back up."
"What happened, stud?"
A snort, and an aborted, humorless laugh. "You wouldn' believe me if I tol' you... hell, I don't half believe it m'self..."
"Ah, you'd be surprised."
"Huh... not as much as you, bet.... "
Buck grinned. "Try me."
"Vin's my son."
"See? Tol'ya you wouln't believe me." The pillow went back over the head.
"Geez, stud, you got around early!"
"Wish it was that.... normal..."
"Things can't be normal with us, can they?" Buck sighed.
"That made no sense, stud."
"Sorda the point..."
Chris sat up, and rather disjointedly, told the whole confusing tale.
"Adam. My son. My dead five year ol' son... somehow. He's got her bracelet, any way-- no doubt, and he swears he's had it since the fire... "
"My reaction exactly... where'd that damned bottle get off to?" Chris started rummaging through the tangled, threadbare bedclothes.
"You drank it all."
Giving in to the obvious, Chris lay back and dropped his arms over his face. "Now will y' go away and let me be hung over in peace?"
"Why not?" made its way out from under his forearms, almost sounding pathetic.
"Cause, Chris, this time I think you've drunk a little locoweed."
"Go talk to Josiah before you cart me off t'some nuthouse..."
"Now... please? Before my head blows up?"
"Wait right here, stud."
"Trust me Buck, I ain't goin' nowhere... "
Buck returned, looking totally shaken.
"Yeah, you told me."
"Still gonna cart me off to some asylum?" Chris grunted as he leaned over enough to pull on a boot.
"And gonna get the room next door."
"Hell, I always heard young'uns grew up quick, but this..."
"Timewalker, huh? Think he'll be back?"
"Hope so... hope he doesn't get sucked somewh..time... else..."
It was dawn two days later before Vin rode into town.
"Welcome back," came the soft greeting from under a broad brimmed black hat.
"Told ya I'd be back." He smiled as he dismounted. Peso nudged him and he grunted, "Ease up, ya mule..."
"How're you doin'?"
Vin mounted the boardwalk and sat beside Chris. "Got a few things sorted out."
"Glad one of us has," Chris grinned ruefully.
Vin returned it. "Ain't comfortable callin' ya 'Pa'."
"Good, cause I don't think I'd cotton to it much m'self."
"An' been 'Vin' so long, 'Adam' sounds odd."
"But so many things add up. How ya can read me so good."
"Felt like I'd known you all my life, first time we met..."
"Same here. Got somethin' t'admit, and us bein' who we really are, it don't sound so bad."
Vin took a deep breath. "Love ya, cowboy," he said, his voice a whisper. "Always have -- an' now I know why." He smiled. "Glad it ain't why I thought it was!"
An eyebrow quirked. "Not half as glad as I am!"
There it was... that odd, hitching laugh. Quick and sunny, then gone behind a worried frown.
"I owe you an apology.... "
"Yeah... for bitin' your head off for laughing-- and for not believin' you, from the start."
"Hell, if I'd'a knowed the way it'd turn out, I wouldn't'a believed me!"
"Vin-- can I see that bracelet again?"
Vin lay it in Chris's hands. "How come?"
A callused finger traced over the brown, glossy hair. The gesture was all the answer needed.
Vin nodded and stood. He cut a bit from the shoulder fringe of his leather coat and took the bracelet from Chris. He folded it in the makeshift pouch and threaded a length of leather cord through it. Then he lay the new medicine bundle around Chris's neck. "Now you'll always have a part of her close t'yer heart."
"Two parts of her," Chris whispered huskily, reaching out to touch his friend... his son's... shoulder.
"I hear ya..." Vin pulled him close and hugged him, burying his face in his shoulder, the one other word nearly inaudible.
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