THE clump of clay Vasquez kicked into the grave hit the wooden coffin with a hollow thunk. He tried to think of Joshua as he was the night before the fight, laughing and red faced from liquor, but he couldn’t shake the image of the mangled mess he knew was in that coffin. The preacher and funeral party had long left, and the heat was beginning to make him dizzy, yet he made no move to leave. He’d been over it a million times, from wasting extra bullets on McCann to when he heard the explosion, grasping at straws trying to find a way to take responsibility for what happened. Dry grass crunching behind him broke him out of his stupor, causing him to raise his head, but not to turn around. Gravediggers, he thought. He knew the grave needed to be filled, he knew he would have to go inside at some point, but he couldn’t help feeling cornered.
“I didn’t speak for four days after I lost Matthew.”
She moved to stand parallel to him, their shoulders just brushing.
“The blackstones wouldn’t let us move the bodies at first, and I was likely to get myself shot if I stayed by his side, so I locked myself in the house, didn’t come out till Teddy came and told me he’d been buried.”
The silence sat between them, waiting patiently to be filled.
“Why do you tell me this?” Vasquez was quiet, almost reverent.
Emma scuffed her boot on the edge of the grave, knocking dirt in.
“I don’t pretend to know what Mr. Faraday was to you, but I know he was something, and I wanted…” She paused, gauging his reaction. “I want you to know you can talk to me about it… if that’s what you want.”
Normally he would be defensive, quick to ask why she had the impression their situation was even remotely similar, telling her she had misinterpreted the whole thing, but right now he was dead on his feet. He felt like he was going to pass out from the heat, he was exhausted from a long week of hard work and minimal sleep, and Dios, he was sad.
Instead he turned to face Emma, and she turned to face him. She turned her head, considering him. She was unflinching, as always, her earlier hesitation invisible on her countenance.
“Thank you, Señora, but I think what I need right now is a good night’s sleep.”
She nodded in response and pressed something into his hand.
“Sam said he found this on him.”
Vasquez looked down to see a worn deck of cards, the box worn and tearing at the edges, the whole thing stained with blood.
“I’m sorry.” She said, giving his shoulder a quick squeeze before heading back to her cabin.
Vasquez tossed and turned in bed, fading in and out of consciousness, unable to get comfortable. The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, casting blueish light through the peeling white shutters.
“Tia Agnés! Where are you going?”
Alejo looked up at his aunt, his eyes welling with tears and his throat closing up from nerves. She set her bag down and knelt, opening her arms gesturing for him to come to her.
“I have to leave, mi sol.”
Alejo knew she wasn’t coming back, if the fight he had overheard that morning was any indication.
“Can I come visit you?” He said, barely louder than a whisper into her shoulder, her curly hair tickling his nose.
“When you’re older.” And it was said as a statement, not a suggestion.
Vasquez threw his pillow across the room, frustrated. He got up and opened the window, breathing in the crisp morning air. Sleep or no sleep, the day was starting. There was no point in waiting any longer, he knew where he needed to go. He got dressed, splashed water in his face and gathered his few belongings. Ignoring his aching muscles and stifling a yawn, he headed downstairs. There were a few women, and one boy already hard at work preparing breakfast. He tried to slip past them but didn’t make it far before he was spotted.
“Skipping breakfast?” One of the women asked.
She looked young, but streaks of grey were beginning to show up in her hair, and there was a tiredness in her eyes that seemed all too common among the people of this town.
“Heading out.” He admitted. “Had plans to catch my breakfast.”
“Well at least refill your provisions.” She smiled, and it showed in her eyes. “We owe you too much to let you steal away without supplies to at least see you to the next town.”
He ducked his head in thanks. He wasn’t about to ask for provisions before he left, and was more than grateful that he didn’t have to.
By the time he stepped outside onto the wooden porch, arms laden, the sun had fully risen. He sighed, squinting into the sun, and headed to fetch Ciela. She lifted her head as he approached the fence, but didn’t come to him. Depositing his newly acquired provisions on the ground, he unlocked the gate and slipped inside. Grabbing her tack off the fence, he made his way towards her, his footsteps soft and quiet. Despite the other horses shying away from Vasquez, she stood still and allowed him to loop the reins around her neck and slip the halter, then the bridle over her face.
“Good girl.” He crooned, patting her on the neck.
Leading her over to the fence, he made quick work of saddling her up. After loading his supplies and mounting, he clicked at her to start walking. He made his way out of town, Ciela attempting to stop and eat the tiny patches of grass in the road. Vasquez only shook his head as he urged her on, towards more plentiful grazing. As he passed Emma’s house he noticed her outside, picking herbs from her garden. She noticed him at almost the same moment and stood up to wave to him. Before Vasquez could wave back, she hurried inside her house, returning with her hands free of herbs to beckon him over. Smiling, he rode closer.
“Join me for breakfast?” Emma said, squinting up at him and using her hand to shade her eyes.
Vasquez laughed, but nodded. He could make his own breakfast tomorrow, and the day after, and all the days to come on the long journey he had ahead of him.
“Mhm.” Vasquez nodded, around a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving as well.”
Emma didn’t flinch as she said it, didn’t shy away from eye contact. It was clear the thinking part was over with and she was well into the planning.
“Been thinking since I left rose creek, actually.” She did look away then, her gaze straying to her plate.
Somewhere behind the cabin a rooster crowed. If he wanted to make it out of town without a going away party, he needed to leave soon. Despite that, he wanted to hear what Emma had to say.
“Made me realize I’m stronger than I thought I was. I loved… I love Matthew, but he believed it was his job to protect me, didn’t like it when I got my hands dirty. My father, he wasn’t like that. He expected me to be strong, he wanted me to be safe no matter what happened to him. I think I forgot that part of myself after I got married.”
She pushed her chair back and stood up, gathering the dirty dishes from the table.
“And now that Matthew is gone, God rest his soul, who’s to say I can’t leave?”
She considered Vasquez for a moment.
“Where are you headed?”
“Oh… Home, I think.” He said, taken aback at the change of direction the conversation had taken.
They looked at one another for a moment, as if waiting for the other to speak. Vasquez knew she wasn’t going to ask what she wanted to ask him, she was too proud. Thinking back to when he’d been offered provisions without asking, and how thankful he had been, he knew what he needed to say.
“You… want to come with me? I have a long journey, probably shy from towns due to, you know.” He gestured vaguely to himself, smiling. “But you’re welcome to tag along until you get bored of it.”
The way Emma’s face lit up while he was telling her this, told Vasquez the extra time she would add to his journey would be well worth it.
“I would love to travel with you.” She said before she disappeared into the bedroom and emerged with her already packed saddle bags.
Vasquez grinned then, toothy and feral, full of amusement at Emma’s foresight into his actions and relief that maybe… he doesn’t have to deal with everything on his own. He’d never admit it, but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to eight weeks of travel alone, and as a wanted man. Despite herself, Emma was smiling too, possibly her first real smile since Matthew died. Vasquez stood up and threw his arm around her shoulders.
“Let’s go, Mi Amiga.”