Quiet as the Grave

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

Author’s Notes: A birthday story for Hephaistos.


The town was quiet. Chris looked along the dusty main street and could recognise everyone he saw. That usually promised a peaceful day, and it was looking good so far. Buck and Ezra had come in from the early patrol with nothing to report. Ezra had muttered about the appalling sight of the dawn and headed for a cup of coffee; Buck had sighted Miss Teresa with a heavy basket and hurried to offer a gallant arm.

Chris glanced the other way, towards the sheriff’s office. JD was puzzling over a law book; give the kid credit, he was always keen to do a job well. Josiah had just begun on the church roof, and Nathan was cleaning up little Sam Roper who’d taken a tumble on the way to school.

That only left one man missing…

With perfect timing, something – not as definite as a sound, more a slight shift in the air—told him Vin was approaching.

“You turning into a mind reader?” he asked without looking around.

“Nope,” Vin said, leaning on the rail next to him. “Don’t need t’ bother. Yer predictable. Yer standing here thinking it’s quiet, same as y’ thought yesterday ‘n th’ day b’fore.”

“Not often we get three days without trouble.”

“The others are gettin’ bored. They’re hopin’ fer somethin’ t’ happen.”

“Well, I’m not. I’m fine with a quiet life.”

Vin followed his gaze along the street, then out into the distance. “Might be about t’ change. Someone’s comin’ in fast.”

Chris thought his own eyes were good but it was half a minute before he could see the dust cloud that had caught Vin’s attention. Vin had taken out his spyglass by then. “Looks t’ be John Cooper, but it ain’t like him to run his horse into th’ ground.”

“Wife’s been ill,” Chris said. “When he was in for some stores a couple of weeks ago he told me she was ailing.”

“Uh huh. Saw Jimmy with him; told me his ma was sick.”

Nathan, who was just sending Sam Roper and his mom on their way, with a peppermint candy for Sam, must have remembered the same thing. He stepped out into the street as Cooper arrived.

“Man’s hurt,” Vin said.

Chris had already noticed the awkward angle of Cooper’s arm; he saw now that there was blood on his sleeve.

“Problem?” he asked, as Cooper dismounted. Vin silently saw to his horse. Cooper looked like a man pushed beyond what he could cope with.

“My wife, she’s real sick now,” he said, the worry twisting in his voice. “Been getting worse all this last two weeks. Can’t keep anything down, and this morning, she just… she can’t even get out of bed. Never seen her like it. She’s a strong woman, but it’s like all the life’s gone out of her. I was riding in to ask you to come see her, Nathan, and someone took a couple of shots at me. Not much worse’n a graze, but why the hell would anyone think I was worth targeting?”

“Let me take a look,” Nathan said, but Cooper shook his head.

“I stopped the bleeding. I’d rather we got back to Ellen. She’s bad… I left Jimmy with her, but all he could do is sit and watch, maybe get her a drink if she could swallow it… And if there’s trouble on the road there could be a gang about.”

“I’ll come along,” Chris said. The road from the Cooper’s place into town was normally one of the quietest into Four Corners; Chris followed it a ways when he rode out to his own land, and plenty of other folk relied on it. A shooting there was a surprise.

“I’ll get Peso,” Vin said.

Chris glanced at him. Peso had been sullenly nursing a very slight strain, and Vin had been reluctant to take him out. Vin’s face gave nothing away, but Chris knew him too well to miss the unusual tension in his movements. Did Vin know the Coopers better than he thought?

Ezra, who had stepped out with his cup of coffee to overhear most of this, said, “I will accompany you; Chaucer hardly exerted himself earlier, and evidently Mr Wilmington and I failed to observe some miscreant outside town.”

Chris stared at Ezra blankly as he followed Vin to the stable. He was concerned for the Coopers himself, but it was a fact of life folk fell sick, and Nathan was the one who could do something about it. There was the unknown shooter, but he doubted very much that any gunman out there would have attacked a well-armed and alert party of three. Quite why both Vin and Ezra were coming, regardless of Peso’s temper and Ezra’s preference for a quiet life, he really couldn’t imagine. If it had been Buck and JD he’d just have assumed they were bored, but not these two.

“We’ll ride with you to the Coopers, but then the rest of us will go on to some of the other smallholdings, find out if anyone else has had trouble,” Chris said quietly to Nathan. “We don’t want to overwhelm them.”

“Can’t imagine we need four of us,” Nathan agreed, hastily checking through his bag.

John Cooper hardly seemed to realise he had a large escort as they left town, but even he looked up at the sound of hooves behind, only to discover it was about to be a bigger one.

Chris glared, more exasperated than surprised, at the other three riders coming up.

“Saw you ride out, stud,” Buck said. “Folk in town said there was trouble.”

JD was always glad to be out of doors and on horseback. Josiah had been called down from the church roof by Buck, who’d gotten the impression from passers-by that a whole gang had attacked the Coopers’ place — and all three of them were eager for a break in the monotony of the week. It was good Buck had come though, Chris thought. The warmth of his concern got through to John Cooper more than anything else had done. Cooper lost his distracted manner and began to talk more coherently to Nathan.

“Ain’t cholera, nothing like that,” he said. “Don’t think it’s anything catching at all. I’ve not taken sick, even for a day, nor young Jimmy.”

The boy would be five or six years old, Chris thought. He was a quiet, serious child, grown-up for his age, but young to be left alone with his mother so sick.

“I couldn’t get anyone to sit with her,” Cooper said, as if he guessed what Chris was thinking. “Mrs Kaufman’s gone to her daughter’s while the girl has their first grandchild, and the kids at the Terril’s place have got what sounds like whooping cough; couldn’t risk bringing that over when Ellen was already so sick.”

“Has she had loose bowels?” Nathan asked, getting back to the symptoms.

Ezra looked at him in horror, and rode on ahead. Chris joined him, Buck flanking them on the other side.

“Man has to ask,” Chris said. “Can’t diagnose anything otherwise.”

“I, however, do not have to listen, and I am quite sure Mrs Cooper would prefer these matters to be discussed with a modicum of privacy.”

“Time we took a look around, anyway,” Chris said. “From what Cooper said, this is the stretch where someone took a shot at him. Buck, you take JD; Ezra, with me.” He glanced back; Josiah seemed to be offering some comforting words to accompany Nathan’s questions. Vin was off to one side, maybe concentrating on Peso, maybe just somewhere remote. He seemed to be staring grimly at a blossoming serviceberry. Buck looked at him and his normal cheerful expression creased into slight concern, but he rode off to gather up JD.

Chris caught Ezra glancing in the same direction as they left the track.

“Something I need to know?” Chris asked.

“No… or rather, it would not be appropriate for me… Perhaps you should summon Mr Tanner to ride this reconnaissance with you.”

“Nope,” Chris said. He and Vin were two of a kind over anything personal — and he could guess from Ezra’s discomfort that this was in some way personal. Vin knew Chris didn’t miss much; he’d talk about it when –if—he was ready. “You and Buck saw no sign of anything at all unusual this morning?”

“Apart from Mr Wilmington’s prolonged – tediously prolonged I might say — description of his recent amorous adventures, our patrol was entirely quiet and uneventful.”

And those were the words Chris would apply to their ride now, although the quiet which had seemed peaceful to him before somehow took on a darker tone. Quiet as the grave… Maybe it was their errand and Cooper’s obvious fear of what he’d find, but Chris couldn’t shake off that sense of sorrow and loss.

They saw no sign of a gunman anywhere along the route. Maybe Cooper had been unlucky, surprised someone who’d then taken himself off. But it was odd, especially as Cooper had seen no sign of a rider. “Thought I heard some shouting, though,” he said, when Chris questioned him about the incident. “Nothing that made much sense, and by then I was going hell for leather for Four Corners. I was worried about leaving Ellen, but she needed the doc so bad…”

Cooper sank back into the black depression that had hung over him before. He was pushing his horse as much as he could, given it was already tired, but they could all see he was afraid of what they’d find when they arrived. By the time they sighted the small home, Vin was ahead of the rest of them in spite of Peso; Chris thought of riding up beside him, but gave him space instead. He sensed Ezra hesitating then making the same decision.

Maybe they both got it wrong. Vin was down from Peso and at the open door before the rest of the riders. He stopped abruptly. Chris jumped down, a step behind John Cooper. After the brightness of the day, it was a moment before he could make out the scene inside the small cabin; when he could, the sadness of it moved him in spite of years of growing hardened to death and grief.

The bed had been moved downstairs into the living area. Ellen wouldn’t have been able to climb the ladder for a while. She lay there now, a thin shaft of light falling on her still face, and Chris took it all in at once: her sunken cheeks, her complete stillness, the little boy sitting there, silently holding her hand while the tears dripped from his face.

Then Cooper was stumbling in, gathering up the boy into his arms, his own grief breaking through, and behind him Nathan hurried in as urgent as if they’d not come too late.

Chris turned to the rest of the seven. JD stood holding two horses. Buck looked at Chris’s face and sighed. Josiah moved slowly to the cabin door. He’d give more comfort than any of the rest of them could. Ezra stood torn – which was the point when Chris realised Vin had already disappeared – but moved to follow Josiah.

“Jimmy,” Ezra called softly, seeing that the father was trying gently to put the boy to one side.

The little boy looked up, and his misery seemed to lighten a little when he saw Ezra, who managed to draw him outside ‘out of the doctor’s way’.

Chris heard Jimmy saying, “Nathan makes a lot of folk better, doesn’t he Mr Ezra?”

Ezra shot a very worried glance at Chris.

“Nathan’s the best,” Chris said firmly. That wasn’t a lie, and he could see … which Ezra couldn’t … that inside the cabin Nathan seemed to be examining Ellen Cooper as if a spark of life was still there. “Buck,” he went on, “You and JD go to the Kaufman’s, find out if they’ve had any trouble with a gunman. I’ll go to the Terrill’s.”

“Vin’s gone,” JD said. “He went right away. Said he’d had the whooping cough, so he’d be the best to ride there.”

Chris frowned. Whooping cough wasn’t like to bother any healthy adult, and anyway, he reckoned they’d all have had it as kids. That was just an excuse. For some reason Vin, who’d been in such a hurry to get here, had been in an equal hurry to leave. Not wanting to intrude now, maybe, but it wasn’t like him to go without a word.

Buck and JD rode off; Ezra was showing Jimmy how to make a coin disappear; Chris decided reluctantly that no helpful purpose would be served by taking off after Vin. He turned back to the cabin, and to his surprise, Nathan was putting some water on to boil.

Josiah stood with his arm around Cooper’s shoulder. “She’s alive,” he said, “and that means there’s hope.”

“She ain’t hardly breathing,” Cooper said. “She don’t know me.”

“She knows you,” Nathan said. “She’s too weak to show it. Sit by her now while I make some sugar water. She’s dehydrated and there’s nothing in her to give her strength. Chris – in my saddle bag there’s some ginger. Can you bring that for me?”

For the first time since he’d looked in the open door, Chris realised that maybe this situation wasn’t as hopeless as he’d assumed. Nathan was moving purposefully, as if he thought there was something he could do more than ease his patient’s last moments. Chris watched him make a sweetened tea with the ginger and other herbs, and watched Josiah support Cooper, and realised they were doing all that could be done in there.

He went back outside, and turned his attention to some of the daily chores of any smallholding; even if Cooper could get to them later his arm would hinder him. Ezra and the boy came and lent a hand. Jimmy worked silently, but as much, Chris thought, because he was a quiet self-contained child as because of his concern for his mother. Jimmy had glanced inside a couple of times to see Nathan feeding her his brew a teaspoon at a time and seemed to be confident now that it would make her better.

Ezra glanced in the same direction more doubtfully, clearly sharing Chris’s reservations; he was good at coaxing a small smile out of the boy though, and they kept him occupied until Cooper came out looking like a man reprieved and took him in so his mother could see him.

“But not to say goodbye,” Ezra murmured to Chris.

“Nope.”

“Mr Cooper had the expression of a man who just found four aces in his hand.”

“Nate never looked like it was desperate, but to me, she was just about gone.”

“Unfortunately, I believe to Mr Tanner she was already departed.”

“Yeah.” Though it still made no sense to Chris that Vin should be so struck by this family’s situation. They saw similar and worse often enough; Vin must have lost all his own folk before he was much older than Jimmy…

Chris thought back to the sad scene when they’d first arrived, and the rare fragments he’d ever heard from Vin about his childhood.

“Ez,” he said slowly. “You know how old Vin was when he lost his ma?”

Ezra kept his attention on the open door to the cabin but after a moment he said, “Almost certainly about the same age as Jimmy.”

“He said he was talking to Jimmy a couple of weeks back when he came into town with his pa. Guess he’d understand how the kid felt better than most would.”

Ezra sighed, but to Chris he looked relieved rather than beleaguered. “I do not believe this indirect form of communication suits you, Mr Larabee.”

“No; it suits me better to beat an answer out of someone.”

“In view of the deductions you have already made, I don’t think that will be necessary. As you have apparently surmised, Vin lost his mother at very much the same age, in what I think must have been sadly similar circumstances to what seemed to have happened here.”

“He tell you?”

“I was there when he was talking to Jimmy; I had been entertaining the boy while his father made purchases. He… told Jimmy to look after his mother, and that she was a strong woman, she’d fight the sickness. Something in the way he said it made it clear to me he had some personal recollection in mind. Later we were drinking, perhaps a little more freely than usual, and he told me how hard his own mother had fought against some infection – typhus, I would guess. It’s purely an assumption of mine that he was with her at the end.”

Chris nodded. It made sense. Too much sense, because he could still picture the misery on Jimmy’s face and Mrs Cooper so lifeless on the bed. Maybe, if God and Nathan put their minds to it, there’d be a happier outcome here after all, but he knew what Vin had thought – and it was too easy to imagine a six-year-old Vin lost and bereaved.

“He should be back soon,” he said. “Terril’s place is close enough.”

But it was Buck and JD who came back noisily an hour or so later.

“We got the… what’s that you call ‘em Ezra? The miscreant,” Buck said.

“It was Mrs Kaufman’s old pa,” JD told them. “The one who’s gone a bit strange. With her being away, no-one was really watching him.”

“Thought he was back fighting the Mexican war,” Buck explained. “Hell, sounds like he must have been out there since dawn with his old rifle. They guess he was firing at anything that moved till they found him. Sheer chance he actually hit Cooper – his eyes are near as far gone as his memory.”

“Mr Kaufman and the boys are really upset about it,” JD went on.

“Scared what Bessie’ll have to say to them when she gets home.”

“I don’t hear you calling her Bessie when she’s here,” Chris said drily. Mrs Kaufman was a good woman and you couldn’t ask for a better neighbour but she had a sharp tongue. “Well, luckily John Cooper’s the last man to make trouble and his arm doesn’t seem too bad. Besides, he’s too relieved to care about anything else just now.”

Buck looked as surprised as he was glad. “Nathan could do something? I didn’t even like to ask.”

Chris gestured to the doorway. He and Ezra had been glancing in from time to time, and it looked like Nathan had worked more than his usual in the way of miracles. Mrs Cooper still looked sick, but she was propped up on her pillows and holding Jimmy’s hand, even managing a few words to her husband between sips at the potions Nathan was getting her to drink.

Seeing them all peering in, Josiah came out, probably with the hope of shooing them away.

“Is she really going to be all right?” JD asked.

“She’ll need to rest a lot for the next few weeks, then the sickness should ease up, Nathan says. The ginger’s helping her keep some fluids down. And he’s got these bracelets some old Chinese woman from the railroad gave him after he helped her daughter. Put ‘em in the right place on the wrists and they stop sickness, he says.”

Buck raised an eyebrow. “He’s giving her ginger?”

“That mean something to you?”

“Maybe.”

Whatever it meant, he wasn’t saying. Chris dismissed it in favour of what was more urgently on his mind. “You two see Vin out there anywhere?”

“Yeah. We told him about Mrs Kaufman’s pa, and he said the Terril kids were all running about playing and he didn’t hear no coughing,” Buck said.

“So where is he?”

“He rode over to your place,” JD said. “He thought he’d let Peso rest up there a bit before he headed back to town.”

Buck nodded, his face rather troubled again. Chris could guess Vin had still been far from his usual self.

After what Ezra had told him, Chris thought Vin wouldn’t be planning to be back for a day or so. The sight of Jimmy and his mother must have reopened a very old wound in Vin — one of many, but one that cut deep. Vin would hide up and suffer on his own, same as he did for any hurt. The tracker knew how to be a good friend, the best, but he hadn’t learned it went both ways.

Maybe it meant something he’d headed for Chris’s place…

“Was thinking of riding over there myself,” he said. “Nate seems to have things well in hand here, and the shooting shouldn’t happen again.”

“No – the Kaufman boys have promised one of them’ll be with their grandpa all the time.”

“Good. We can leave the Coopers in peace, then. Buck, JD, you can take care of things back at the town for now.”

“I’ll wait and ride back with brother Nathan,” Josiah said. “He’s not planning to stay too much longer.”

Chris turned to Ezra. “If you’ve nothing urgent on, maybe you’d like to ride over with me. I leave the place empty so often I need to work out some way of storing stuff to keep it out of sight of passing riders. Reckon you might have some ideas for that.” Ezra wouldn’t miss the real offer, to show Vin what it meant to have friends.

Ezra smiled. “I believe my advice in that area might be valuable. But perhaps we should first make a polite farewell to Mr and Mrs Cooper.”

As they crowded into the small room, Chris caught Buck’s eye. “Maybe you’ll ride out and join us if the town’s quiet?”

Buck nodded. They didn’t need more words, and John Cooper was already offering awkward thanks, accompanied by a weak smile from Ellen. “I put you to so much trouble,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”

“It’s good to see you looking so much better ma’am,” JD said. “I hope you go on well.”

A faint hint of colour came into Ellen’s cheeks. “I’m sure I will with Nathan’s advice.”

She looked… embarrassed? Chris glanced at Nathan, puzzled. He didn’t find out the answer till Buck and JD were on their way, though. Then Nathan said to him quietly, “Didn’t want to say nothing in front of Jimmy, nor JD for that matter, but seems like there’s a pretty natural reason for Mrs Cooper’s sickness.”

Chris waited for him to explain this; Ezra, who was knowledgeable about the most unexpected things, murmured, “Mr Jackson, are you trying to tell us Mrs Cooper is enceinte?”

“If that means goin’ to have a baby, yes, I am. Reckon she’s expecting twins.”

“Didn’t know a woman could get that sick with it,” Chris said.

“Sometimes it takes ‘em real bad,” Nathan said. “She didn’t guess that’s what it was, that’s why she’s a bit shamed. Seems like she’d reason to think she weren’t expecting — I don’t need to go into what — and she’d never been more than a bit sick when she was carryin’ Jimmy. But now she’s got some fluid into her, she’ll do better. The ginger’ll help, and those bracelets — they seem to work every time. Some kind of Chinese doctorin’, makin’ sure they press in the right place on the body. We could learn a lot from it.”

Chris shook his head. “So it’s life, not death,” he said slowly.

“Well, she’s got a hard few months coming and it’s no easy task birthing twins, but yes, they’re real happy just now,” Nathan said. “I’ll make sure she’s settled then leave them in peace.”

Chris caught Ezra’s eye, and saw that the same thought was in both their minds. This ought to help chase away Vin’s ghosts. “Let’s go,” Chris said.

It was less than an hour to ride over to his patch of land, but it was hot, the afternoon not far gone.

“Hope Vin’s the sense not to be working too hard in this sun,” he muttered.

“Mr Tanner has remarkable levels of endurance,” Ezra offered, which probably meant that, like Chris, he didn’t imagine Vin had that much sense at all.

Vin wasn’t working on the cabin or around the yard, though. For a minute, Chris thought they’d missed him and he’d already gone back to town. Then he realised someone was talking softly on the other side of the house, where there was a bit of shade at this time of day.

He couldn’t imagine who Vin might be talking to…

He dismounted, and closely followed by Ezra, walked around the side of the cabin. Vin was sitting with his back against the planks and the bottle of whisky which Chris kept hidden under the stove was in his hand. That was unusual enough; the fact he didn’t hear them coming even more so. But what made them both stop was the fact the other participant in the conversation was Peso, who stood there, head down, as if politely absorbed.

Chris wasn’t sure whether to go on or quietly turn back. If he’d been half way down a bottle of whisky and chatting to Pony he wasn’t sure he’d want an audience. But then he picked up on what Vin was saying. “Ain’t never bin able t’ see th’ berry blossom without thinkin’ on it. It was this time of year. They put it all around when they buried her. Saw it this mornin’ and all it said t’ me was death and more death, always good folk dyin’ and their kids grievin’.”

Ezra glanced at Chris., who could guess that if this was anyone but Vin, Ezra would have left hastily. As it was, the gambler was torn between embarrassment at overhearing Vin’s thoughts and genuine distress at his pain.

“Guess that’s what J’siah meant when he said last week about th’ whole world groanin’ and travailin’,” Vin said, taking another long swallow from the whisky. “But I was hopin’ that much that Jimmy’d not have to lose his ma…”

Chris needed a gulp of that whisky; there was something sticking in his throat. And Vin needed to hear some good news for once.

He walked over to Vin who looked up at him with rather bleary confusion. “Chris? What’re you doin’ here?”

“My place; my whisky, remember?”

Vin held the bottle out. “Here, have a drink,” he said generously. “You too, Ez. All have a drink. Except Peso. Don’t let’m slobber on it no more. Push’m away.”

Chris had a long drink and passed it on to Ezra, who made no complaint about drinking from a bottle that had already not only passed from Vin to Chris but might well hold traces of ‘slobber’ from Peso’s attempts to share.

“Ain’t much for wakes,” Vin said, “but…”

“Vin, she’s not dead,” Chris said.

Vin froze, staring at him as if he doubted his own, whisky-sodden hearing, or maybe Chris’s knowledge.

“I know it looked bad,” Chris said. “But Nate knew what the problem was, and she’s doing better.”

Vin went on looking at him blankly.

“I’ll draw some water and make coffee,” Ezra said quietly.

“Thanks,” Chris said. He crouched in front of the tracker, dodging Peso’s attempt to nibble his hair. “Vin, Mrs Cooper was real sick, but it’s not an illness, not as such. Nate says she’s going to have twins. Guess maybe that makes a woman sicker.”

“She looked gone…”

“I know. I thought the same. But I reckon Nate already had in mind what it might be from the questions he was asking. She’s already doing better with the liquid he got into her. Looks like Jimmy won’t lose his ma.”

He wondered if he shouldn’t have said that much, but Vin had enough whisky in him to have his normal perceptivity blunted. He just nodded. “Glad fer him,” he said quietly. “Saw him sittin’ there cryin’ and…”

“Yeah.” Chris could still see that too. The trouble was, his mind kept substituting the image of a six-year-old Vin, losing all he had in the world.

Peso, in an extremely rare moment of affection, nuzzled Vin’s bowed head.

Vin looked up. “I ought t’ draw some more water,” he said, perhaps realising Pony and Chaucer would be emptying the trough, probably just awkward with revealing any more of his thoughts.

“I’ll do it,” Chris said, but Vin got to his feet anyway, only slightly less gracefully than normal. When they walked around to the front, they found Ezra already attending to the water.

Vin stopped dead. “Reckon I got that – what they call it? Where y’ drink so much y’ start seeing things. Only it ain’t spiders ‘r pink buffalo; it’s Ez doing all the work.”

“Ha, ha. Very humorous, Mr Tanner,” Ezra said. “I am in the process of brewing some adequate coffee, which should dispel the remaining effects of Mr Larabee’s rotgut.”

“That was decent whisky,” Chris said. “Coffee’d be good though.”

He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or frustrated that Vin could so quickly return to his normal self; sure, the news about Mrs Cooper must have lifted some of Vin’s gloom, but he wished he’d had a chance, somehow, to say a little more to him – to find words that showed he thought Vin’s past mattered, that they were friends close enough for them to care about long-past griefs. Maybe Vin understood it without the words, but Chris felt he’d offered him less comfort than the damn horse had…

Ezra poured surprisingly good coffee, made from his saddlebag supplies rather than Chris’s store. They talked a little, at least Ezra did, but about old Mr Kaufman, and the local landholders in general. Like Chris, Ezra could show his support by being there, but was tentative about words that might seem to break into Vin’s privacy.

Chris was more glad than he’d ever have showed when they heard the horses greeting a friend, and Buck arrived. He was the least tentative person Chris knew, especially when a friend was hurting.

Buck came in, hot and dusty, talking before he was in the door. “Got a present from Inez here. Says she made more empanadas than she could use.” He wrapped an arm around Vin’s shoulders. “It’s you ‘n me she’s thinking of. Ol’ Chris here isn’t the sort for presents, and she says Ezra don’t appreciate her cooking!”

Vin stood awkwardly under the hug, but didn’t try to escape. Ezra protested, “It was a misunderstanding! Ah have praised her cooking countless times…”

Ignoring this, Buck went on, “And I brought a bottle to drink to Mrs Cooper’s good health. Nate told me when he got back to town. Twins.”

In a couple of minutes , they were sharing Inez’ crispy empanadas and Buck’s bottle – Chris’s domestic arrangements didn’t run to glasses, so it was again a case of passing it around. Ezra licked his fingers delicately and said, “Do I get the impression, Mr Wilmington, that Mrs Cooper’s condition was not a total surprise to you?”

“Only after I heard Nate say about the ginger,” Buck said. “Y’ know I grew up around a lot of working women. There’d be times when one’d fall pregnant, and my ma learned a bit of that sort of doctorin’. It was always ginger for the sickness. She’d take good care of any girl, my mother; she was a kind-hearted woman.”

Some kind instinct of Buck’s own had led to that opening in the conversation, Chris thought.

“My mother too,” he said quietly. “What time she had left from raising us she’d use to help any neighbour, especially a woman with young ones. Wish she’d lived to know Sarah and Adam.”

He found that hard to say aloud, but it cracked Vin’s reserve like nothing else could have done.

“Only knew my ma a few years, but she done taught me ever’thing I needed t’ know about how t’ live right,” Vin said softly. “She’d share any of what little we had.” He took a gulp from Buck’s bottle. “They told me not t’ cry when she was gone, b’cause she was sure t’ have gone to a better place, but I was only a little kid…”

“Age don’t make a difference,” Chris said equally quietly. “Six years old or full grown, you just want them back again.”

Vin looked up, met his eyes and there was that jolt of understanding that sometimes passed between them. After a moment Vin said, “Emily she was called. She was the only kin I had, so there weren’t anyone t’ remember her with. Folks weren’t unkind, but they hadn’t the time t’ talk about her or my pa. Guess I got out of the habit of ever speakin’ of them.”

“Be glad to hear about her anytime,” Buck said warmly. “Be glad to talk about my own ma come to that. Beattie she was, and I’ve never met a woman to equal her. I haven’t had a chance to talk about her in a long time, but I reckon now’d be a good time, among friends.”

Chris stood up to make more coffee, dropping a hand lightly on Vin’s shoulder as he went to the stove. It was his own, silent way of saying he, too, would be glad to listen – and that Vin had kin now, by heart even if not by blood. Maybe later, on the ride back to Four Corners, he’d get a chance to put it plainer.

Vin finished the last empanada, looking more like his usual self than he had since John Cooper rode in that morning. Buck, relaxing, realised he’d forgotten to share with them how JD had half-overheard Nathan and had made the mistake of asking Casey what ‘morning sickness’ was. He told the story with enthusiasm. “Damn if the kid didn’t go redder ‘n Josiah that time he tried those habanero chillis!”

Ezra joined in the laughter, though he’d been unusually quiet till then. Maude loved him, Chris reckoned, but she had a funny way of showing it, and maybe mothers weren’t his favourite subject. Still, Ezra had been listening intently, almost wistfully, to Buck and Vin as they shared their memories, and Chris knew he hadn’t missed a word or a thought.

Seven months or so later, when Ellen Cooper gave birth to two healthy little girls, and called them Emily and Beatrice, Chris thought of the gambler’s expression that night and could guess who it was had given her the idea.

“Nice choice of names, Ez,” he murmured when they stood among the guests at the christening.

Ezra smiled his most enigmatic smile, giving nothing away. Chris looked at the awed pleasure on Vin’s face as he looked at tiny Emily, and Buck’s large grin as Beattie gurgled. He wrapped an arm lightly around the gambler’s shoulders.

“Nice to see a happy ending for a change,” he said.

Ezra gave up on dignity and accepted this gesture of friendship. “If you should happen to be purchasing, Mr Larabee, I’ll drink to that.”

~ End ~