Written in response to a challenge to do a brief character study of a character you don't usually write about.

When a Man Respects You

More than anything I wanted to be his friend.  That sounds easier than it was, really.  Because he wasn’t the easiest guy to get to know.  Oh sure, he came across nice enough, when he wanted to be.  He could grin, let his eyes sparkle with laughter, but he didn’t let too many people get inside his skin.  And that’s where I wanted to be.  At the heart of him.  Where it mattered.

I’d grown up on my own, so to speak.  Had to do most of the raising of me by myself.  My ma was too busy, working her fingers to the bone to put food on the table.  She was doing it for me.  But it took her away when I needed her.  I didn’t want to burden her with petty troubles, little trials and tribulations that most kids’d take to their mothers.  She was so tired at night, sitting in her rocker, her fingers still working as she knitted.  It was always something for me.  Socks, scarves, mittens, a sweater.  I can’t recall now ever seeing her do nothing for herself.  But I couldn’t burden her then, or ever.  So I took care of myself, best I could.

It should have made me feel guilty, but I was just a kid.  What do kids know?  Wasn’t that what mothers were supposed to do?  Work until their fingers bled, scrubbing the floors and kitchens of the big house, and then come home and knit sweaters for their sons?  I thought so at the time, but now I know better.

Because it killed her.  It made her old before her time and she died.  I wasn’t ready for it to happen.  Is anyone ever ready to say goodbye to their ma?  I was just a kid.  But I’d made my own way for so long, I told myself I could just keep on doing it.  There just wouldn’t be anyone coming home at night to rock and stitch and keep me company as I worked at the books she forced on me.

She had big dreams, my ma.  I was gonna go to school.  One of those big fancy private schools.  She’d get stars in her eyes when she talked about it.  And then she’d press her lips together and work an extra hour or two at the big house.  Wouldn’t let me work extra in the stables, even though I begged for the privilege.  No.  I had to go home and study, because I was going to be a big man.  A rich man.  The man who owned the big house, not curried the horses in the stables.

But she died.  And when they counted out the money she’d hoarded away for my education there wasn’t enough.  I was glad she was dead then.  Glad she’d never know that her bright dreams were all for nothing.  I wasn’t going to go to that fancy school and be a big man.  Her dream died with her.  Her dream. It’d never been mine.  But I’d have done it for her.  I’d a done anything to make her proud of me.  But she was dead and buried and I was left alone.

As I rode first the train and then the stagecoach on my way out west, I thought about her leaving me alone.  And I knew that in a way I’d been alone my whole life.  This was no different.  I could still be that big man.  Just not the way she’d expected.  I could be somebody out west.  I’d been practicing with my guns for months.  Since I’d made the decision to go.  First thing I bought with her money was a pair of ‘em.  I could ride better’n any man too.   That’s all it took out west.  A fast gun and a good seat on a horse.  I could still make my mother proud.  Except that she was dead and buried in a cold Eastern grave.

First thing I saw when I got off that stage was him.  He passed by me.  All cold and bleak and dressed in black.  He marched in the middle of the street, and people pressed back away from him, so’s he wouldn’t touch ‘em when he went by.  There was another fella at his side, younger, not so cold, but still with that air of … I didn’t know what.  But whatever it was, it was enough to make me follow ‘em.  If I was gonna be a big man I had to be like them.

What they did in the cemetery was amazing.  For all my practice with my six-shooters, I couldn’t do what they’d done.  And when I tried to help, he turned and yelled at me.

“You don’t shoot anyone in the back, boy.”  He almost spat the words, disgust plain on his face.

I felt my knees go weak when he glared at me, and I wanted to vomit.  He was a big man.  Not the kind of big man I’d known back East.  Those were smooth-looking gentlemen in fancy clothes, all spit and polish and preening themselves on the shine of their shoes and the turn of their cloaks.  This man wasn’t like that at all.  Not even very tall, really.  But he was a big man.  And I wanted to be his friend.  I wanted him to smile at me the way he smiled at the buckskin-clad man beside him.

They headed for the saloon, the dark-skinned man they’d saved walking beside them.  And I followed.  I had to be with them.  I had to make them see I could be like them.  I could do it, and I would.  I was going to make that man like me, to see me as being worth something. I was going to make my mama proud if it killed me to do it.  She’d died trying to make me special.  And I wasn’t going to let her down.

Took some doing on my part to get them to let me join the group they formed.  Six proud men, riding side by side.  And me.  Trailing ‘em.  Begging like a kid to be with them.  I wouldn’t let them turn their backs on me.  They were going to see me, if it killed me.  I did everything I could to convince ‘em.  And in the end I got to stay.  But I wasn’t his friend.

He kept me closed out, at arm’s length.  When he looked at me, he looked through me.  I don’t think he meant it to be an insult, but I hated it.

Now Buck. He liked me.  He was like a big puppy dog, funning and fooling and tormenting the daylights outta me.  I liked Buck too.  He was the big brother I never did have back East.  But it wasn’t enough.

I wanted Chris Larabee’s friendship so bad I could taste it.  I wanted him to see me when he looked at me.  I wanted him to lean back in his chair and to have his eyes seek me out.  But they didn’t.  They looked for Vin, first.  Or Buck.  Never me.

I did everything I could to show him I could be a big man, the man my mother had dreamed I could be.  I even volunteered to be the Sheriff in that pokey little town, when most men were too afraid.  But even that wasn’t good enough.  He looked at me then, but he shook his head in disgust.  Didn’t think I’d be able to do the job, I guess.  But I was going to do it, and I was going to do it damn well too.  Just to show him I could.

Things got easier over time.  I guess he saw that I wasn’t going to go away.  And sometimes, I even thought I caught a gleam of a smile turned in my direction.  But he wasn’t my friend.  And I ached for that.  Oh yeah, I could clown with Buck, and tell jokes to Nathan and Ezra, and take advice from Josiah.   But I couldn’t get under Chris Larabee’s skin.  I couldn’t see past the cold eyes and the gleaming teeth to the man underneath.

Vin could, and I envied him for it.  He didn’t even flinch when Chris lost his temper.  Me, I’d jump a country mile and the stutter would creep into my voice.  Vin never turned a hair.  I figured after Vin started seein’ me as a friend, Chris might too. He trusted Vin’s judgment.

Vin had a good heart, and he didn’t turn me away.  He’d be kicked back in a chair outside the sheriff’s office blowing those notes on his mouth organ, and he’d stop and swap stories with me.  We’d joke and talk too.  Vin was my friend.  He was everyone’s friend.  Good old easygoing Vin.  Vin with the bounty on his head.  But even with Vin on my side, Chris Larabee didn’t open up to me. See there was one thing about Vin.  Even after we became friends, Vin called me ‘kid’, just like Buck.  They could be friends with a kid, but Chris couldn’t.

You’d think a man would be flattered that a kid wanted to follow in his footsteps.  But Chris hated me for it I think.  I should’a realized it was the wrong way to be his friend.  Should’a knowed that he didn’t like the way he was, didn’t want a shadow of himself.  But I was just a kid.  How’s a kid supposed to know those things?

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I know now where I went wrong, but I’m older now.  Back then, I did everything the wrong way.  I swear, sometimes Chris must have thought he had a yearling pup at his heels.  He looked like he didn’t know whether to kick me away, or pet me on the nose and offer me a bone sometimes.  But he saved his friendship for men he saw as equals - Vin, Buck, Nathan, Josiah - maybe not Ezra - but even Ezra  was someone he'd count on in a tight situation before me.  Never me.  The kid.  The over-eager kid who needed protecting.  He kept Ezra at arms length too.  Didn’t quite trust him, he was so slick, I guess.  When he let Ezra into that circle too I ached.  Felt like he’d stomped my heart flat.

It took me a long time to realize that Chris couldn’t be my friend.  He felt like he needed to watch over me, and he hated it.  He didn’t want ties.  Didn’t want obligations.  Didn’t need some stripling kid getting himself into trouble and needing his back watched.  Chris wanted to walk by himself, beholden to no one.  I got in the way of that.  He couldn’t be my friend while he felt responsible for me.

I know that now.  Years have gone by.  And I know why Chris wasn’t my friend.  But at the time I’d lay awake nights trying to figure it all out.  Plotting what I could do or say to make him like me.

In the long run, it was easy.  Took years to do it, but the answer was simple.  I had to grow up.  I had to be the man my mother wanted me to be.  But in the end, it worked.  In the end, he was my friend.  When I didn’t need a keeper.  When I could stand on my own two feet without him worrying -- then he was my friend.

The End


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