Four friends lost to the yellow earth of the Mexican land. Was it worth it?
Whether or not it was worth it doesn't come into it, Chris curbed his thoughts. He didn't want to start down that trail.
They'd ridden for two days since leaving the village. Truth be told, Chris already missed Chico. He'd admitted as much to Vin, who had shaken his head in mock disapproval and smugly remarked; "Still a sucker I see.". Well, sucker or no, he'd become fond of that kid, and it was no secret to anyone the kid worshipped him. If he'd offered the slightest invitation, Chico would've followed him to the ends of the earth. But it was no kind of life; always on the road, no home, no family, living on perilous work, and the soul-crippling solitude. The kid belonged at the village.
He glanced beside him where Vin rode with a slight grimace on his tanned face. It would be a few weeks at least before the gunshot wound on his leg completely healed. So far he hadn't complained, much. He seemed preoccupied with some thought these past two days. It came over him now and then, plain on his face. Chris had a policy of never asking for more information than a person chose to give. Vin would say what was bothering him in his own time, and by his increasingly frowns and mutterings to himself, it would be sooner rather than later.
Vin noticed Chris looking at him. He lay his problem aside for the minute to ask something else he’d been wondering about.
"You uh- you got any idea where you're headed next?"
Chris lifted his hand in that slow, deliberate way that commanded all his movements, and pointed straight ahead in the direction their horses were walking.
Tch! Vin internally cursed both Chris and himself; Chris for always being a wise guy, and himself for not seeing it coming.
"That's not what I meant." Vin clarified, though he knew Chris knew it.
A smile tugged at the corner of Chris's mouth.
"This is as far south as I've ever been. I think I’ll go a little further.”
"A little further and we’ll be out of Mexico.”
“South America? You wanna go to South America?" Vin's surprise was evident.
Vin narrowed his eyes and it didn't have anything to do with the sun. Chris would have to offer some explanation.
"I’ve heard good things about Bolivia.”
Vin furrowed his eyebrows now and pursed his lips but didn't say anything. He didn't buy it, but he knew he wasn't going to get any more out of Chris just then.
The truth was, Chris was tired of lawlessness. He didn't have anything to go on that things were different in South America, just a vague hope that different land bred different kinds of people. He wanted to try his hands at something else. What, he didn't know yet, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to find it.
And where are you headed? Chris glanced at Vin. The job was over, Vin was free to go where he pleased. For now he seemed happy enough to tag along, but $20 wouldn’t feed a man for long and as soon as he caught word of a job, Vin would be off.
Once again, Chris curbed that trail of thought and instead tried to concentrate his attention on his horse. She was a beautiful chestnut mare with a glossy coat, her steps were strong and steady. The village elder had made sure to furnish them with good horses. Soon it'll be just the two of us, Chris thought and patted her neck appreciatively. If we stick together long I'll have to give you a name.
That night they made camp at the base of a sweeping mountain. In daylight, the land was rocky and barren as far as the eye could see. Miles and miles of dry yellow earth covered the landscape before them, dotted with occasional trees and cactuses. But at night the black heavens above them sparkled with millions of twinkling stars, abundantly smattered across a never-ending velvet sky. The quiet of their surroundings seemed to amplify those gentle stars so that they shone down all the brighter on the wards they were guarding in dusty plains.
The horses were dozing, tied to a nearby tree, while Vin and Chris rested beside the campfire, silently passing a bottle of whisky between them.
As they watched the fire sparks crackle up to join the stars, Vin decided now was his moment.
"Ya know," He started. "I hold you responsible for getting shot."
Mildly surprised, Chris raised an eyebrow.
"Yup.” Vin took a hearty gulp of the whisky and continued, “The way I figure, if you hadn’t been a sucker and taken that job, I woulda never wound up there in the first place.” He leaned back, and stretched out his legs before continuing in all seriousness, though a twinkle lurked in his eye, "-you owe me."
That first statement wasn’t true and they both knew it. If Vin had been the one the villagers had approached with their plight back in that town, Vin would’ve agreed to help them, with or without Chris. But Chris could also see that Vin wanted something and this was just his roundabout way of getting it. Friend, Chris thought, bemused, there's isn't a lot I would refuse you. But he narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin in a charade of contemplating that statement.
"Suppose I do owe you, what's your price?"
"Suppose?" Vin scowled, feigning indignation. "Suppose?! Fine thing we have here! A fella goes and lays his life on the line for the good o' his friends, and them friends hardly know it! Suppose!" He raised his voice so Chris knew how disgruntled he was.
Curiosity over whatever masterpiece Vin had been concocting in that head of his for the last two days made Chris continue with the charade.
"Alright, alright." He offered to appease his companion, "You're right, I'm sorry."
"Damn straight!" Vin glared at him some more for good measure but his phony indignation soon dissipated as his mind turned to the next part of his plan. He really was an open book.
"Well," Chris prompted after a while, "What do I owe you?"
Vin scowled again and his face seemed to say ‘What the hell-’, which were probably the words that preceded most of his foolhardy endeavours. He cleared his throat.
"The way I figure," He began the short, flimsy argument he’d been rehearsing, "-it’s your fault I got shot, and now nobody’ll hire me seeing as I can’t get around, not even as a store clerk. So if you wanna square things out, you’ll have to stick around to see me right." He finished with a single, emphatic nod to seal the matter.
This was what he'd been turning and tossing over in his mind for the past two days. When the last bullet had been shot, when Calvera had been defeated and the villagers had come out cheering, he'd stood in the aftermath of the fighting and known that things would never be the same again. Some folk go through their whole life never questioning the cards they get dealt, the thought that they could be playing some other game never even crossing their minds. Maybe they're the lucky ones, Vin had thought to himself. If he'd never met Chris in that wayward town, if the last six weeks hadn't happened, he probably would’ve keep drifting along by himself like he’d done for most of his life. But life had different things in mind for Vin. He recalled the thrill and sense of comradery as he’d sat beside Chris on that funeral wagon the day they met. From then on he’d always kept nearby. He’d never meet anyone like Chris ever again, of that he was certain.
As for Chris, it all became clear now. Vin didn’t want to say goodbye, not yet at least, but considering their backgrounds, he was also having a hard time saying ‘How about you and me stick together for a while?’
He lit a cigar, took a long drag and gazed up at the vast cosmos.
“Well, let no one say Chris Adams doesn’t honour his debts.”
That night they both slept easier than they had since burying their friends.
Three more days passed before late one evening, the distant lights of a small town came into view. The journey from the village had been long and monotonous. The anticipation of what this Mexican town might have to offer cheered their spirits.
As they drew nearer, it became evident the town was bustling with life. The sound of people chatting emanated from several late night establishments. Warm, inviting lights and the lively sound of a guitar poured out of one establishment which appeared to be an inn. They looked at each other and in silent agreement dismounted their horses to go inside.
Inside, several couples were dancing to the music, surrounded by jolly onlookers who were clapping and singing along. A few people paused for a moment to study the strangers that had just come in, northerners rarely wondered this far south, but they soon went back to their merrymaking.
Suddenly a thought occurred to Vin.
"Chris, you speak Spanish?"
"A little. You?"
"Only with the ladies."
Chris considered for a moment what that meant before deciding all the Spanish Vin had learned back at the village was how to sweet talk the ladies. With no success, Chris jovially remembered. Petra had only had eyes for Chico and the other single ladies weren't interested in drifting vagabonds.
They sat toward the back of the saloon at a table with a good view of the entrance so they could see who came and went. Old habits die hard. A pretty, plump waitress came over to take their orders. She rattled away the menu in fast, silky Spanish. Vin squinted his eyes as if that would help him understand the unfamiliar words, but he knew when he was defeated. He gave the waitress a smile and said "I'll have whatever my friend here is having."
Chris who had acquired a wider Spanish vocabulary than Vin at the village ordered for them both. The food was delicious and spicy and made them remember the last time they’d enjoyed such a meal in the company of friends. As they ate, they both kept Bernardo in their thoughts. And Lee, and Britt, and that poor fool Harry who would’ve escaped with his life if he hadn’t come back.
They'd mourned the loss of their friends along with the villagers. At the time, they’d only been able to produce wooden crosses for their graves, but the village elder had promised he would see they got proper gravestones to make sure no one in the village ever forgot their names. Chris had no doubt he would honour his promise.
The next day Chris left the inn early in the morning to scout the nearby shops for work. He came back from his excursion to find Vin in the saloon, eating breakfast and chattering away to the waitress from last night, injecting the few Spanish words he knew here and there for the benefit of his bewildered audience. Relief replaced the confused expression on the waitress’s face when she saw Chris, and she politely extracted herself. Vin greeted Chris with a wide grin. A wash, a bed, and a hearty breakfast obviously agreed with him and he was in good spirits.
"Not here.” Chris replied, “But the butcher said his brother is looking for men to build a small house for his soon to be married son. They live in the next town."
"Building, huh?" Vin considered, "How long's the job?"
"The butcher thinks about three months."
"What's the pay?"
"Enough to live on and spare some besides."
"You ever build a house before?"
Chris shook his head, but that evidently wasn’t going to stop him taking the job.
"Well now,” Vin said, “Can't exactly say I know how to build a house-”
Chris's eyes remained steadily on Vin. He always seemed to know what he was thinking before he even knew it himself, his god-like eyes saw everything. Another man might find the experience alarming. But not Vin. He knew the sort of man Chris was; strong but fair, independent but loyal. They’d only known each other for the best part of two months, but already Vin trusted Chris with his life.
“-but I figure it can't hurt to learn."
Vin gave Chris one of his easy, charming smiles, and Chris kept his gaze as a slow smile formed on his own handsome face. They both knew they'd be spending the next three months together, and neither of them minded a bit.