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A Few Days' Rest

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At dusk Sean brought his horse up at a copse of trees next to the stream. He dismounted and knelt by the water, washed the dust from his face, his neck, and he and the horse drank, the water cool and quick. The horse nickered and Sean looked to the horizon. Dark shapes pierced the pale pink and dusky blue line of sky, man and horse, the first squatting on the opposite bank, the other standing unsaddled but bridled in the stream, water up to its hocks. Sean approached them, drying his face on his sleeve, his hands on his thighs.

"Evenin'," the man said. He was chewing on biscuit, softening it in a tin of river water.

"It is," Sean said, looked to where the sun should have been.

"This your land?"

"Not quite."

The man sat quietly and Sean said, "Where you headed?"

"'bout forty miles thataway," the man pointed West and Sean looked behind him in that direction then back at the man.

"Ain't much forty miles that way. Ain't much eighty miles neither."

The man squinted up at him though there was no sun and the moon was already a pale circle above the skyline. "I expect I'll find somethin'," he said. "Always do."

Sean nodded, looked to the man's horse, a plain sorrel, no markings to be seen, tired looking and too lean, though no more than its rider. It looked at Sean then snuffed at the water.

"You got grain for that horse?"

The man smiled, not the wicked smile Sean expected. "Not quite."

Sean shook his head, almost smiled but looked down. "Got grain at my place. Not far from here. You promise me no trouble and I'll put you and your horse up tonight and you can get your forty miles in the morning."

The man stood, taller than Sean expected. "Kind of you," he said, "but I work for what I get and you don't look like a man who leaves work undone."

"Work can be made," Sean said.

The man nodded, gathered his saddle and blanket and walked into the stream to sling them over his mare. "I don't wanna ride her unless I have to," he said, crossing the river on foot and leading the horse, "pretty long day."

"Ain't too far to walk," Sean said, extended his hand when the man stood next him, and gave his name.

"Viggo," the man said, hand dry and calloused in Sean's, face dark in the dusk, and together on foot they headed north until night had fallen utterly and the stream was silent behind them.

That night Sean showed Viggo into a small room not far from his own in the little wooden house that Viggo figured Sean had probably built. The bed was smaller still and likewise constructed, but he did not ask what body it had been meant to hold at its making nor why it did not do so now. The room was otherwise bare save empty shelves and a rocking chair too small for a man.

They ate a modest dinner in a kitchen fairly larger than the little bedroom.

"Help yourself to a bath," Sean said after a while. "Showed you where the well is, stove's right here,"

"Always was a man could take a hint," Viggo said, smiling.

"Just thought you might want to is all."

Viggo shook his head. "Perhaps in the morning. All I can do to sit upright just now."

Sean leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms. "Some reason you're in such a hurry to get west you'd run your horse down like that? Yourself for that matter?"

A slow chew, slower shrug and Viggo said, "Ain't so much the hurry as the distance. And time. Slips away when you're by yourself and every day becomes yesterday before you even know it's today." He smiled. When Sean didn't seem to accept this as an answer he added, "Don't usually let her get so bad."

Sean nodded, then stood and cleared the table. "I'll say good night," he said. "If you stay for breakfast I'll have a look at your horse."

In the morning Viggo shuffled barefoot across cold boards and stood uncertain in the pre-dawn light that filtered through curtains in long need of replacing. He was unsurprised to find Sean had made breakfast, eaten, and drawn and warmed bathwater.

"She's got a couple of quarter cracks could be trouble," Sean said when Viggo found him in the barn. " And she could stand a few days' rest."

Viggo leaned against a board, looked west.

"I got a fence needs putting up," Sean said after a while. "Could take a few days."

A sound caught Viggo's attention and he looked to his horse, Sean's hand on her flank. He nodded.

Outside the barn Sean asked, "You lose your boots?"

Viggo watched the ochre earth shift through his toes. "Habit," he said.


In a week they set out for town in a small wagon with Sean's gelding between the traces. On their way they passed a family whose wagon was overturned and they helped the father right the vehicle and re-stow his load. The man spoke little English but lavished gratitude upon them as clearly as he could, and Sean watched as Viggo made a cornhusk doll from an ear ruined in the upset and handed it to a tow-headed girl who sat upon her mother's lap, kicking at her mother's dress with every swing of her feet.

A half mile out of town Viggo asked why Sean had no livestock.

"Used to," Sean said.

In a tent marked by a hastily constructed sign that read "CLOATHS AND SUNDRYS", Viggo bought a new shirt, an assortment of sewing needles, and a spool of pale yellow thread.

The Sunday after they went into town Sean came in after dark carrying a basketful of eggs. He put the basket on the kitchen table and sat to remove his boots.

"There's a bolt of yellow fabric in the linen closet," Viggo said from the doorway, surprising him, "I wonder would you mind if I made use of a bit."

Sean looked up at him. Viggo shuffled his feet and Sean knew they were bare. He looked at his own.

"No," he said at last, looked up again when Viggo hesitated uncertainly in the doorway. "No, I don't mind."

In the early fall Viggo planted turnips behind the barn and he could be found there when he could be found nowhere else.

"I wondered," Sean said, then removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve and replaced his hat.

Viggo looked up at him from where he squatted near the tiny green buds.

"I wondered if you was still in a hurry to get west."

Viggo stood, rubbed the dirt from his hands. "Never was in a hurry."

Sean nodded. "I was thinking, if you wasn't in a hurry. I was thinking of going down to Ballard's, buying a dozen head or so."

Viggo noticed the axe in Sean's hand and the dirt on his knees, as if he'd come to this decision mid-chore. He picked up his hat and tipped the dirt off the brim.

"I'll get my boots," he said.

In the morning Sean sat on the edge of his bed, watched as sunlight shining through new-sewn yellow curtains moved across the floor in a slow line toward his feet. He picked up one foot and removed his sock, then put it back down on the floor and waited. When the light warmed his toes he almost laughed at himself, then didn't, then replaced his sock and got up to make breakfast.