And here’s another chapter in the V&H saga. Apologies, this one’s a bit long, but it made sense to keep it as one chapter rather than break it into two parts.
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Fin turned around to see who was approaching. His thoughts excitedly jumped to Bea Roundtable. She and he came to this spot on the river a time or two before to talk and have a laugh. Fin loved to listen to Bea talk, and if she let him, kiss her. A lot, if she was feeling sweet.
Fin’s excitement quickly turned to disappointment when he saw it was a man approaching. It took a moment to realize who was tipping their hat at him. Thomas Samuels. Touching his fingers to his forehead, Fin returned the salutation.
“Best place anywhere on the river,” Thomas said, looping his horse’s reins around a tree.
“I reckon,” Fin replied.
“Mind if I…” Thomas pointed to a log next to the rock on which Fin sat.
Thomas sat down on the sandy river bank and propped his back against the log. He let out a short sigh, keeping his focus across the water to the opposite bank.
“You Thomas Samuels, ain’t ya?” Fin asked.
“Yep. And you’s Fin Garrett. Apple Alice’s your ma.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Fin replied.
Thomas said, “Figured I was the only one who knew ‘bout this spot. Come out here all the time, but never seen you nor anyone else ‘round here.”
“I thought d’same. Figured I was the only one ever know’d ‘bout this place.”
“Well, let’s keep it that way. Rather nobody know’d ‘bout it.”
Fin nodded, suddenly panicking, wondering if Bea ever told the girls back at the saloon about coming out here with him.
“So,” Thomas said, “you seem like you’s thinkin’ ‘bout things.”
“Oh, yeah? How you figure?”
“A feller sittin’ out here, alone, nothin’ doin’. Figured you takin’ time to think things through.”
“Yeah, well, you might be right, there.”
Thomas turned to face Fin. “Any chance you seen your ma today?”
“I thought you might have had a word or two with Miz Garrett today.”
“Like I say, she ain’t seen fit to speak a word to me today, or the day before that, since you be askin’.”
“Hm,” Thomas grunted.
“What brought you out here, if you don’t mind me askin’?” Fin asked.
“Me? Oh, well…” Thomas didn’t finish his thought. His horse softly whinnied and fought its bit. The young men turned to see what was bothering the animal, but a moment later it returned to its grazing.
Fin continued, “So, you come out here to think a bit, too, I reckon.”
Fin took a moment before asking,“What’s it to ya if Alice been talkin’ to me today?”
“They come back with a decision. ‘Bout pa’s land. Figured she left the meetin’ we just had to go tell ya.”
Fin’s heart raced. He never thought in a million years he’d actually hear anything about Victor Samuel’s land. The whole notion of being a part of something big, like owning land, just because Apple Alice says Fin is Victor Samuel’s son, and his bastard at that, was more than Fin had ever been able to comprehend.
Thomas continued, “The judge up to Boise decided all us kids, that is, pa’s children, own it. I mean, we don’t actually own it, but we, uh, we will see to it, in the eyes of the law. That’s the best way I know how to explain it.”
“I don’t rightly understand. We own it or not?”
“Then, who then?”
“See, it’s like this: ‘Cause they don’t got proof pa’s dead, they can’t give ownership over to anyone, not even us kids. But they figure he’s dead and, ‘course, a dead man cain’t own land. And it ain’t my ma’s neither ‘cause she’s a woman. At least, I mean, before she married my new pa, Mr. Davenport, she couldn’t own it all on her own. Now she’s married again, she ain’t pa’s widow no more, so she’s got no more claim to the homestead either. Follow?”
Fin nodded, but Thomas wasn’t sure he did. He went on anyway. “The government men and the railroad men and all them tried to just take the land, sayin’ it oughta belong to the territory, but Mr. Davenport made sure they couldn’t do that neither, and this judge up to Boise agreed with him.”
“I still don’t figure how we don’t own the land if’n a judge, like you say, says so.”
“That’s just it. He don’t say we own it. They got this thing they call a ‘Trust.’ My new pa says it’s like the folk who run the school.”
“I thought Miss Schmidt run the school.”
“She don’t. Bunch of folk from the town do. She’s just the teacher.”
Fin shook his head. “Gotta be honest, I don’t get it.”
“It don’t make lick of sense to me neither.”
Fin picked up a stone and gave it a toss into the river. “Makes no nevermind,” he said. “I never figured I was really part of the deal, anyhow.” He picked up another rock and tossed it after the first one. “If’n ol’ Victor is my pappy, I still is a bastard, not his kin, like you. I mean, I’ma told Alice is my ma, but you know’d she didn’t raise me.”
“No, sir. I didn’t know’d that.” Thomas always wondered why he couldn’t remember ever seeing Fin around when he was a boy. He waited for Fin to say something more about it, but when he didn’t, Thomas continued.
“Apple Alice always has said you, that is, that you and me is…brothers. Eliza and lil’ Emmett your kin, too. My ma and new pa don’t dispute it. Never have.”
Fin stopped tossing rocks in the river. “It sure is kindly of them to not make a fuss about it. Still, seems strange.” Fin shook his head in an exaggerated fashion, and went back to tossing rocks in the river. “Ask me, it feels like the go’mer’ment still got it’s say so. Feels like they still got what they wanted, if’n no one owns the land and they’re still sayin’ what’s what.”
“Ya know, I think you’re right ‘bout that,” Thomas said as he stood up. He stretched and started to make his way back to his horse.
“I best be gettin’ on. I promised my girl’s pa I’d stop by with the news.” Thomas shook his head as well. “A real shame. Lydia’s expectin’ me to make a promise to take her hand in marriage when I’m a’age and getting’ the land was gonna make that all happen, but now…” Thomas shook his head again. “Anyway, it was nice to finally make your acquaintance, Fin.”
Thomas shook Fin’s hand and Fin walked with Thomas back to his horse. He was thinking the same thing as Thomas. If he owned a piece of land, he’d be in a pretty place to ask Bea’s hand in marriage. The thought of having Bea to wife put a broad, silly smile across his face.
“What’s so funny?” Thomas asked, misjudging Fin’s smile.
“Nuthin’ funny.” Fin started to explain when he abruptly stopped. “Hey! Wait durn minute! You say all’s they need is proof Victor’s dead?”
“I know where he is!”
Thomas’ eyes widened. “How you know’d that?”
“I found him,” Fin confessed.
“Up yonder,” Fin gestured in the direction of Parson’s Ridge.
Thomas didn’t know what to make of Fin’s assertion. Had his father been in hiding? Over the past seven years, Thomas had traversed every square foot of Parsons Ridge and the ravine below and never saw anything that indicated that anyone, other than the occasional traveler making their way to from one coast to the other, or back and forth to Canada, had been living in those woods.
“What he say for hisself?”
“What?” Thomas question confused Fin for a moment. “Oh, no, no sir! He ain’t ‘live. He just bones now.”
“Bones? You find you a skeleton? I ain’t never seen no skeleton around there.”
“Don’t reckon you would. Weren’t for my dog take off after some critter, don’t reckon I’d even found it myself.”
“How you know’d it was him. You ever met him?”
“No sir. I was still livin’ with that homesteader and his wife back then. I just figured, ’cause he was a tall drink of water, like you ‘n me. And big, by the looks of him. My ma always says our pap…that is, beggin’ your pardon, that Victor was a great big feller and very tall.”
Thomas thought a moment and said, “You figure you can find this skeleton again?”
“Sure! Been there a couple times now.” As soon as the words fell out of his mouth, Fin regretted it. The unmistakable look of confusion and anger on Thomas face made him feel small.
“Git up,” Thomas barked as he mounted his horse. Fin was unaccustomed to riding, so he made a bad show of mounting. The horse bucked slightly and sashayed, making things even trickier.
“Here!” Thomas barked again, “Gimme your arm and I pull you up,” and with a single heave, Thomas dragged Fin across the saddle in front of him, straddling his body as if he were a corpse.
“Hold still while I get us over that log and then we can set up proper.” Thomas jumped off onto the log and held the horse in place by the bit. He instructed Fin to swing a leg toward him. “Now, sit up, and scooch back, off the saddle just here on the rump,” slapping the rear of the animal, “then I’ll get back on.”
“Horse won’t mind?” Fin said, a little skeptical. Thomas shook his head.
Fin did as instructed, and Thomas mounted the saddle again, in a slightly awkward fashion Fin noted, but somehow always in control of the animal. “Now, hold to my sides, else you fall off.” Fin, a bit reluctantly, complied. Thomas gave the animal a click of his tongue and they trotted off toward Parsons Ridge.
Thomas stood over the skeleton, wordless.
“See what I seen?” Fin asked. “He was a big ol’ bear.”
Thomas reached for the rifle, but it seemed somehow lodged in the bark of the tree. He wiggled it a time or two, finally freeing it from the tree’s grip.
How many times as a child did he try to lift the thing, twice the height as he and practically the same weight, only to end up dropping it and getting boxed around the ears by his mother for touching it. He took to studying his father’s rifle instead, taking in every inch through his eyes and imagining what it would be like to fire it. One day, he remembered thinking, I will be big and strong like my pa and will carry a rifle like his.
“That his?” Fin asked.
“Might be,” Thomas said. “I mean, he had one very much this a’one, but don’t recall it had any particular marks on it that say it were his.” Thomas reached back in his memory for a scratch, or mark that would confirm this was his father’s rifle. Nothing came to mind.
“How ‘bout the pistol?” Fin asked.
Thomas put the rifle back against the tree and picked up the pistol. He turned it over a couple of times and then popped open the cylinder. The bullets looked almost new. He dumped the bullets into his palm. They did not look like they’d been sitting in a gun that had been left out in the elements for the past several years. It looked clean. Too clean. Squinting, he spun the barrel round to his nose and took a whiff.
“This guns been fired not too long ago.” he flatly stated.
“Oh?” Fin felt the sweat on his brow grow. “How can ya tell?”
“Just smell,” Thomas said, assuming everyone knew that if you smell any scent of gun powder, it’s not been long since a gun’s been used. Fin stuck his nose to the barrel and absently nodded
“Sure. ‘Course. Huh.”
Thomas pocketed the bullets and tossed the gun back at the skeleton. It landed with a thump in the dusty ground and spun a bit, tucking under the skeleton’s femur.
“No way this here’s my pa.”
Fin struggled with deciding whether to tell Thomas it was he who fired the gun. On one hand, he knew he could explain why the gun had been recently shot. He came across the skeleton and thinkin’ nothing of it, took the gun. Shootin’ practice. He’d be a hero being the one who finally found Victor Samuels. But, if anyone ever found out the real reason he shot the gun, it would be the end of him. He was more afraid of being found out a killer than being called a hero. He could imagine the look of fear and disappointment on Bea’s face.
But, getting a piece of that land was hard to give up. Fin made one more effort to have it both ways. “Don’t see how that figures. I mean, if that there pistol’s been fired recently, like you say, then why’s the skeleton so far gone? Don’t it take time for dead folks to become a skeleton? And his clothes look like they gone through a few winters, I wager.”
Thomas throughly took in Finnian Garrett for the first time since they met. Though two years younger, he had almost an inch on Thomas. His hands and feet were as large as his own. His ma told him a while back that having large feet and hands as a youngster was a sign of growing up to be a large man like his father. Fin had Alice’s coal-black hair and same toothy smile, but there was something about Fin’s eyes that looked familiar.
“That rifle do look familiar,” Thomas finally said, “and you make a good point about the skeleton. I know’d my pa had a pistol, but I don’t remember it much. Couldn’t tell ya about the clothes, but the fact he got a big ol’ bottle o’ whiskey lying right there beside him… well, I know most men drink, but pa…” it was then that Thomas noticed the broken leg bone.
Thomas looked up the ridge and immediately saw the whole story. Even after all these years, the telltale broken branches confirmed a bad fall. No one used the ridge in winter for this very reason, but Victor was lazy, and most likely drunk, so he wouldn’t have been thinking clearly or sure on his feet. He must have dragged himself to the tree after the fall to get some cover, probably thinking all he needed to do was sleep it off before he could find a way out. He might not have realized the severity of his leg injury. How he managed to keep hold of his rifle on the way down was anybody’s guess, but folks who live in wild lands like these, no matter their state of mind or chaotic circumstances, keep a fast hold to their weapon.
Thomas took another look up to the ridge. Victor’s spot against the tree was completely obscured to anyone looking down from there. His stomach twisted in a knot, remembering the hours he sat up there looking down, wishing he could find him, but hoping his father would suddenly appear along the ridge trail he made sure was kept well defined throughout that whole winter, just in case he came home, right as rain, with a wild tale of some misadventure.
“So, what’cha think?” Fin asked, his voice bringing Thomas back into the here and now.
“I think we’re a lucky coupl’a fellers your dog went after a critter,” Thomas said. He thought a moment, trying to contain his excitement, before continuing, “Still don’t think that’s his pistol. It’s plain as day it’s been used not too long ago. Dunno why anyone would leave a pistol sittin’ around a skeleton.”
“Maybe they dropped it, like the way ol’ Victor fell?” Fin suggested.
“Like hell!” Thomas snapped. “No gun’s gonna make it’s way over here from up there!”
Fin made no reply. He didn’t want to get in any deeper than he already was.
“Well,” Thomas said, “we best get back to town, right quick, before sundown, and tell our folks what you found. They’ll all wanna see for themselves.” He turned to Fin with a grin as wide as any he’d ever smiled across his face.
“You know what this means, a’course?”
“Sure, I guess.”
Thomas clapped Fin on the shoulder. “Brother.”