"I know who you are," the drunk sang out from the saloon steps, where he sagged against a support beam with an empty bottle in one hand and a pretty girl in the other. Kid wasn't startled at first, he just tipped his hat at the man, smiled and kept on walking. "I know who you are," the drunk repeated.
"You know him, Kid?" Noah asked as they kept walking.
"Not that I recall," Kid answered and turned back to look at the man. He found two bright blue eyes staring back at him. He snapped his head back and focused on where he was going, "No," he stated evenly, "I've never seen him before."
Behind them, the drunk shouted in a sing-song voice, "Chrissie Bird! Chrissie Bird!" Kid didn't turn around and eventually the sound faded in the distance.
"You forgotten about the way he beat us? Beat mama?"
Kid remembered Jed's words with the residue of the guilt he'd felt when he'd first heard it. He had forgotten, as he had forgotten most of their father. His memories of the man were few and disjointed, but none contained the monster of Jed's own memory.
When he was seven Kid had been very sick, and his father had sat at his bedside, singing and brushing the Kid's hair away from his face, flush with fever. Kid's memories were blurred by time and fever but he remembered that his father's hand had been tender, and vaguely he remembered his father singing to him. Though memory had turned the songs' words to jibberish, the melodies haunted the corners of Kid's mind, both familiar and mysterious. More clearly did Kid remember the stories his father would tell while they worked the small farm, of people that became animals and animals that tricked or loved or fought people. Jed never had use for the stories, but then he was older and lacked the Kid's gift for dreaming. And Kid remembered his father's nickname for him, which only his father ever called him. It was what Jed called him that had stuck and in time supplanted his real name just as Jed eventually took the place of their father, and Jed's memories, twisted and inflated, had replaced Kid's own.
If there was one lesson Kid had learned long ago and learned it well, it was how to become invisible. It had once been a requirement in his life and it was a habit easy to fall back into. Excuses to avoid trips into town came to mind easily and fell off his tongue like the truth. He'd never been talkative and no one noticed that he was suddenly even quieter.
But it was a balancing act and Kid knew that. You could only disappear so far before your absence became conspicuous and the last thing he wanted was questions. So when push came to shove he went into town for supplies and prayed that the old man had moved on.
Kid didn't see him at the store. He managed to get the supplies loaded without catching sight of him. Feeling reckless, he agreed to a game of checkers with Teaspoon, knowing that the sheriff's office was the least likely place to run into Charles Lebeau.
But the game was only half over when Barnett came in, hauling a stinking mess of a man behind him. Teaspoon sighed as he left the game to unlock a cell. "You again, huh?" he said with an eyebrow raised at the filthy man. "I've had about enough of this. Next time one of us hauls you in here, you're stayin' till your sober and then you're gettin' out of town. You got that?"
"Understood, Marshal. I'll be movin' on directly." The man's shoulder length hair was matted, dirty, and streaked with gray. His skin was weathered and rough, dark with dirt, and his eyes glowed from the filth of his face, sharp and clear. He was dressed like a trapper, with a floppy hat a few years out of style and a pair of holey moccasins that reached his knees. He reeked of liquor and sweat.
His eyes locked onto Kid's. "Chrissie Bird," he said delighted, "I thought I was dreamin' you."
Teaspoon looked over at Kid, "You know him, Kid?"
Kid's answer was automatic, "No, sir." He'd been denying him so long, it was like second nature and Kid hardly noticed anymore the way his guts twisted at the words.
"Ah, Chrissie Bird," the man said sorrowfully, "you haven't changed."
Charles Lebeau walked into the town of East Creek, Virginia from the woods to the west. He caused something of a stir, for he was handsome and dashing and mysterious. He'd come from the Carolinas, where he'd been hunting since he was a boy, but now after a few tough winters, he was ready to settle in to town life and took a job working at the livery in town.
That fall, one of Edward Carmody's matched whites picked up a stone and the horse was slow to heal. Charles Lebeau seemed to have a knack with such things, and he was called on to look after the horse. The youngest Carmody girl, Lorraine, was pale and wan and retiring with one leg lamed by a childhood fall from her father's carriage. She'd watched as one by one her prettier sisters had been married until she was the only one left in their father's house. She had only been trying to be gracious and hospitable when she'd offered Charles a cup of coffee and some cold chicken, but suddenly she found herself caught up in something else. For the girl that everyone else had passed over, was the apple of Charles Lebeau's eye. He was charming and gentle and he made her laugh, and Lorraine, looking down the barrel of forty more years of spinsterhood, did not let propriety stand in the way of her happiness.
They were married on New Year's Day. Lorraine was disinherited and Charles lost his job at the livery. The Lebeaus did not mind. They bought a small farm six miles out of town, the terms of the mortgage unfavorable, and lived happily in the cabin with the moss growing green on the roof. In June Lorraine gave birth to their first son, Jed.
Life on the farm was never easy. They grew enough to eat, but barely. And the limited crop of the farm was stretched to its limit once Christopher was born. Charles' ability as a hunter kept meat on the table most months, but even at that they were often hungry. The winters were cold and the wind blew in at the edges of the cabin's windows. Despite it all, the Lebeaus were happy. Pink colored Lorraine's cheeks and her once pinched lips were often stretched in smiles. For his own part, Charles Lebeau found settling down to his liking and after years of wandering, he was more than content to finally be home. The boys were happy too. Jed was given to mischief and practical jokes, had a furious temper from the time he was small, but loved his mother and baby brother with a fierceness any man could take pride in. Christopher was of a milder sort. He looked like his father but it was Lorraine he took after in personality. He was shy but sweet and stubborn. He sang often, warbled to himself through chores and sang himself to sleep. His father took to calling him Chrissie Bird because of it, and together they made up conversations with the songbirds that filled the trees outside the cabin. They told each other stories of the dandified finch, and the rascally mocking bird. Charles did not share the stories with his wife or his elder son. They were a secret between himself and Chrissie Bird, and Christopher felt all the more loved for it.
The truth arrived in East Creek via a wanted poster for Charles Longbow, a Creek Indian who had stolen a horse years before. Kid had watched as his father was led away in chains, not comprehending the way his world had suddenly tilted and changed.
At dinner Kid picked at his food. His stomach was a stone and he couldn't eat. He concentrated on staying seated, on picking at his food in a manner that would avoid suspicion. He glanced nervously around the table. He knew their secrets, but still wasn't willing to trust them with his own. Teaspoon cleared his throat and Kid hardly noticed. It was only in the following silence that it dawned on him that Teaspoon had also said his name. "What Teaspoon?"
The station master peered at him, "I was wondering if you had any idea why Charles Lebeau is so convinced he knows you."
"Can't say I do, Teaspoon," Kid answered innocently, without taking time to think. He blushed with shame; lying shouldn't come so easily.
"He thinks you're his son," Cody said quickly.
"What?" Kid's head snapped up and he stared across the table at Cody.
Nonchalantly Cody kept eating and talking, not caring what people saw of his half chewed meal. "He's the drunk Teaspoon keeps lockin' up, right? Well the other day I was in town and I stopped by to talk to Teaspoon and while I was waitin' I struck up a conversation with him. He's a might interestin' fella. Been a lot of places, seen a lot of things. Anyway, he has some fool notion that you're his son, Chris. He said he'd seen you the other day and he described you to the letter, Kid. Hell, if I didn't know you myself, I mighta believed him."
"This the same fella we saw a few days back outside of the saloon?" Noah asked, his tone indicating he was taking the story more seriously than Cody's telling of it.
"Guess so," Kid muttered, feeling the air get hotter around him and his stomach begin to heave.
"I can see how he'd be mistaken," Cody continued, oblivious to any reaction to his story, "He's got those same blue eyes as you and - "
"You been starin' at the Kid's eyes a lot, have you, Cody?" Jimmy said slyly with a smile and a wink.
But nothing stopped Cody and not deigning to answer the question he forged ahead, "And the two of you got the same sorta hair and such. But clearly he ain't your father."
"Why not?" Kid asked quickly, and just as quickly noted the sudden arch to Teaspoon's brow. He cursed himself for speaking without thinking.
Cody looked startled by Kid's reaction as well, "Hell, Kid, it's obvious ain't it? Charles Lebeau is mostly Indian, and you ain't."
"I've never seen an Indian with blue eyes," Buck said.
"He ain't full-blooded," Cody said through a mouthful of carrot, "Had a French grandfather and a white wife somewhere back East." Cody kept eating happily and conversation turned down other avenues. Kid ventured a look up from his plate and caught Teaspoon studying him. But with a shake of his head the old man turned back to his meal and Kid started to breathe again.
Chris had been seven, just old enough to sense the shame of carrying his new name but unable to understand the reason behind it. As Chris Lebeau he'd been a happy child, the world had been friendly, and he'd felt safe. Now that he'd suddenly become Chris Longbow all of that had changed. The storekeep used to give Jed and Chris bits of licorice on the sly, ruffle their hair, ask how their little scruffy dog was doing. And now he shooed them out of his store with irritation. At school the children teased them mercilessly. Doritha was hesitant around Chris, only wanting to talk to him when no one was looking and his friend Garth refused to speak to him altogether. None of the children had known there were real live redskins in their class before, and realizing it now they pounced on Jed and the Kid with malice. Jed responded by beating the tar out of anyone who so much as looked at him cross-eyed, and Kid learned his famous vanishing act, the method of being right there and being nowhere simultaneously.
The trial was quick. The jury had little to deliberate. An Indian had stolen a white man's horse and had married a white man's daughter; a guilty verdict was the only option. Lorraine had grown pale when the judge sentenced her husband to hang and she was silent as she walked back to the farm with her boys in tow.
Her sons went to bed without being asked and fell asleep as they listened to her sobbing. Chris had ventured to ask Jed why she was so sad and had cried himself when his brother had said that it was because their father was going to die because he was a bad man and an Indian to boot. Jed had hushed him and Chris cried silently into his pillow until his face was sticky with tears and he was too tired to stay awake.
He had woken up when Jed shouted and hadn't hesitated before scrambling out of bed and into his father's arms. Jed's face was red, the fire in his eyes burning so high it would never be fully extinguished, and he stood before his mother, the rifle from over the mantle gripped tightly in his hand. Chris pressed his face into his father's neck, inhaling the familiar aroma of his father's sweat. "Jed said you were going to die," Chris cried, "That they put you in jail and you couldn't get out."
His father held him close. "I changed into a sparrow and flew through the iron bars," his father said with a chuckle.
"Put him down!" Jed yelled. "Get out of here! None of us want anything to do with you. You're an Indian and a thief." Tears were streaking Jed's face too.
"Lorraine?" Charles asked, looking at his wife. The color had drained from her face long before and she was too weak to make any answer. He set Chris down and turned towards the door as Jed continued to shout, throwing insults at his father as his voice choked on his tears.
"I'll go with you!" Chris called out, running after his father. But Jed had held him back and his father had not turned around. The door closed and his mother stumbled as she called out after her husband. Jed went to help her and Chris stared out the window into the blackness that had swallowed his father's retreating figure.
Kid left in the morning before the others were awake. His stomach churned the entire ride into town. He had no words to say, no apologies or recriminations, no planned speeches, no accusations, no forgiveness to offer. A litany of questions pushed through his mind but he didn't think he wanted an answer to any of them. Later, lies for his morning absence would roll off his tongue easily, like honey, and he'd ignore the guilt that twisted his heart around its fist.
It was still early enough when he got into town that very few people were out. Tompkins' store was still closed and at the laundry no clothes flapped in the wind. Nobody noticed Kid as he tethered Katy outside of the Marshal's office. On a bench outside the office Barnett sat sleeping, a rifle gently cradled in the crook of his arm. He snorted as Kid stepped past and opened the office door, but with a smack of his lips he was again sleeping soundly.
The first light of the sun hadn't quite made its way through the office windows yet, and Kid paused, squinting through the dim light. "Pa?" he whispered softly, his voice trembling on the long abandoned word.
As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he peered through the iron bars into an empty cell. He whirled around as he heard a chair scrape back across the floor behind him. "He's gone, son," Teaspoon said, "I came in early to release him, but Barnett must've beat me to it." Kid turned quickly toward the door without answering and felt his nerves jump when Teaspoon's hand on his arm stopped him from leaving. "Kid, you got somethin' you want to talk about?"
Kid could not meet his eyes, and looking at the ground, shook his head vigorously. Teaspoon sighed. "Ignorin' a thing don't make it go away. A man don't face the things he's afraid of and sooner or later when they catch up with him, he's going to break."
"I'm not afraid, Teaspoon."
"Ain't you?" Teaspoon let go of his arm and stepped out of his way. "Fear ain't always about facing a gun. Kid, you don't have to tell nobody the truth about Charles Lebeau, but son, you better face that truth yourself, or one day you're gonna look in the mirror and not know the man lookin' back at you." Kid left the office without another word.
It was Jed who'd pleaded their case to Edward Carmody and eventually the old man took Lorraine and Chris into his home. Jed, already fourteen, left to find work and sent back the occasional letter and money. Mr. Carmody was a stern and genteel fellow who took pride in propriety and flushed red anytime his dubious son-in-law was mentioned. He often told Chris what a comfort it was to see that none of Charles Lebeau's heathen ways had been passed on.
In truth any evidence of Charles Lebeau was stricken from Chris' life. His mother never mentioned him and nobody ever knew if she'd been ashamed of her marriage or if she had loved him in spite of it all, or perhaps the secrets Charles had kept from the rest of the world had long been known by his wife. If Chris mentioned his father he was quickly reprimanded by his grandfather, and he learned to smother up any thoughts or feelings he had for him. His grandfather decided it was best that Chris and Lorraine use the name Carmody but it made little difference. The town was small and everybody knew the truth and whispers followed Chris no matter what name he gave.
When his mother died, Chris thought he saw a figure standing in the shadows at the cemetery, a familiar silhouette leaning against a willow tree. As he walked past, he heard a whistle like bird song and looked over to see a tall man with tired blue eyes and a bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand. "Chrissie Bird," the stranger called to him, "Remember me?"
As he squinted to see the man better, Chris felt the heavy hand of his grandfather fall on the back of his neck. He shook his head. "Sorry, mister, I don't think I know you," he said to the man leaning against the tree and turned away. In the morning he'd walk away from East Creek forever, headed toward a new place where any name would do.
Kid had seen the place as he rode past, a sudden rise in the earth that ended abruptly in a jumble of rocks twenty feet higher than the surrounding plains. It had always seemed to him a lonely and desolate place, the few trees around it twisted and stunted by the wind. He rode towards it now, pushing Katy to her limit and feeling his heart thunder in his chest to the beat of her hooves in the earth. The slope was gentle at first and he rode Katy halfway up before tethering her to gnarled trunk of one of the sentinel trees. He climbed the rest of the way himself, scrambling atop a flat rock and standing tall over the landscape. The plains looked sad and dreary and he felt a sudden, piercing longing for the green woods and slow moving streams of Virginia, for the smell of a tobacco leaf crushed in his hand and the chattering of the songbirds in the morning. Around him now was silence, a sea of tawny grasses, and a vast and empty sky. He closed his eyes and turned towards the sun, lifting his face so that the light and warmth poured onto his skin, soaking in and filling the empty spaces inside him. He reached his arms out to the world as though beckoning more sunlight towards him. He heard his own breath, felt his pulse throb in his neck. A memory played out on the back of his eyelids, and he felt it as though the years in between had fallen away and he was a child again.
His father's rough hand rested heavily on his chest. His father's eyes peered with concern down at him. His father's voice was gentle and low, a murmur. "Your heart is like a hummingbird, Chrissie. It keeps moving so quickly all the time. It will miss many things if it doesn't slow down. Do you know that when I went out to the barn this morning, all the birds were crying? And they said to me, 'Where is that fat little robin that lives in your house and sings to us? We miss his songs.' I told them that when you are well we will hear your voice again in the morning."
Some distance away, a tall sturdy stem of grass bent low with the weight of a meadowlark, as he opened his throat and sang.