If he hadn't dropped by the Red Pony, he might never have known.
He'd spent half the afternoon out at the Winding River Ranch taking yet another report on a stolen horse. It was the third incident in six weeks, and it was starting to smell like insurance fraud. Vic had been helping him with the case, but she was off Saturday and Sunday. It didn't seem right to call her in for something non-life-threatening when she already had to work Labor Day.
She would have done it if he'd asked. That was the hardest part for him: Her loyalty was stronger than it had ever been, and he didn't deserve it. She hadn't put in her notice, either, not yet at least, and the bitterness that had been there before their little fling hadn't returned afterwards. She kept her distance physically, but in every other way, she was back on the team.
It was late afternoon by the time he finished up. He wasn't planning on stopping, but Henry was out front helping Marco Leghorn attach his trailer barbecue while the extra event staff folded the tables and chairs and moved them to the shed in the back.
The sun was low in the sky.
"You missed Marco's culinary extravaganza," Henry said.
"Another stolen horse."
"Are you staying for a beer?"
He didn't feel much like it, but part of his plan for not slipping back into the hole he'd finally climbed out of was to spend more time with Henry.
"She is still here," Henry said as they walked through the saloon doors.
"You couldn't have mentioned that before?"
"I did not realize you were ducking her now."
She was down at the end of the bar with a cowboy on either side of her. Enthralled as she was with the conversation, she didn't notice them come in. His stomach knotted up, and he considered leaving.
Henry got him a Ranier, and he stood at the center of the bar for a few minutes until she noticed him in the mirror. She smiled and said something to the cowboys that got them to clear out. Both tipped their hats to him as they passed.
He stayed where he was and so did she. Henry bussed the cowboys' bottles and said something to Vic he couldn't hear. He felt lonely.
"My ride ditched me," she said to him in the mirror.
"Who was your ride?"
"Cady. And pasty-boy."
"They were here?"
"Yup. But they had to go. I think they're still pretty horny for each other."
"That's my daughter, Vic."
"You're right. Gross. Sorry."
She got off her stool and slid her longneck down the counter with her as she walked. She sat on the stool next to him. She smelled like barbecue and flowers and beer.
He still hadn't gotten past the desire to kiss her when she got this close, which wasn't very often.
"Horace lost another Appaloosa overnight."
"You're shittin' me."
"He thinks everyone around him is stupider than he is."
"That philosophy works better when it's true."
"There's no data on that. The people it's actually true for don't think it," he said.
She smiled at him in that way that used to make him think she might love him, too.
"Want another one?"
"I still have to walk home."
"I'll take you," he said.
She raised her eyebrows. "Oh really."
He felt his face redden. "You know what I mean."
"One more then," she said. She was a little slurry.
Every time he talked to her for any extended period, he battled with the same anxiety that churned inside him now: He was terrified that she was going to tell him she was leaving, and if he could just hold it off, keep it at bay, somehow get from this point to the end of the conversation without her saying it, then maybe that dim ray of hope could remain on the horizon for one more day.
It was dark by the time they walked out to the Bronco. The air was warm and still. Now not only was she a little slurry, but she was a little wobbly, too.
He opened the door for her and she got in.
"You're always such a gentleman, Walt."
"Not always," he said.
He hadn't meant it to sound as suggestive as it did, but she didn't seem to notice. She just stared down into her lap like she was gearing up to say something else.
The whole seven minute ride back to her house he waited, but she never got around to it. When he pulled into her driveway, she opened the door.
"Hey," he said, his hand on her shoulder. "What's going on?"
"I drank too much."
"You'll be all right. Drink a lot of water."
"I have to work tomorrow."
"On Labor Day."
She nodded then got out.
He came around to the other side. As soon as he stepped into the triangle of white light from the cab, she hugged him. He couldn't recall her ever initiating a hug, except maybe on the Fourth, before his final, fatal mistake.
He held her. A damp spot expanded on the front of his shirt.
"Vic, what is it?"
Here it was, the moment he'd been fending off.
She said something into his shirt, but it was muffled, and he didn't get much of it.
She pulled back and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand then looked up at him. She poked him in the chest.
"You don't have room for me in there."
It was so far from what he'd expected that he had trouble processing the words.
"What do you mean?"
"You're at capacity."
A tear trickled down her cheek, and she wiped that away, too.
"No," he said because it seemed like something he should deny, but he hadn't had time to make sense of it yet.
She'd never mentioned this. She'd never said much of anything.
"Even if we did have something more than what we had," she said, wistful and beaten, "I'd always be second in line."
She made a choking sound and brought her hand up to cover her mouth.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She looked up at him, a crinkle between her brows.
"No," he said. "I didn't mean that. I don't think it's true, Vic. You never told me you felt that way."
She stood on her toes and kissed his lips lightly.
"It's okay, Walt."
"It's not okay," he said. "It's not true."
She kissed him again. Everything felt off balance and out of alignment. He should have just left it at that, but he couldn't.
"You can't just bring this up and not follow through," he said.
She kept kissing him. It was very distracting. He held her upper arms and eased her back.
"We need to talk about this. When we're both clear-headed."
He walked her to the door.
"I understand," she said, and she started untucking his shirt.
Her hands on the skin of his torso made him feel like his head might explode.
She hadn't even unlocked the door yet when she unbuckled his belt and reached into his pants. He slid his hand up under her shirt, his fingers under the lace of her bra, and when he made contact, it was too much.
He backed away from her, mostly because he'd already started, and even now, with her hands off him and his hands off her, he thought it might happen. He buckled his belt.
"I want this, Vic, but we can't keep using it to avoid communicating."
"This is a form of communication."
"I know. But we have to talk, too."
"You don't have to say anything, Walt. I already know."
"What do you know? You don't know how I feel. You've never let me tell you."
"Oh, so this is my fault?"
He ran a hand through his hair.
"What is it that you think you know?"
"I know I can't compete with the kind of love that made you do the things you did."
He turned around and leaned his head against the stucco. It was warmer than the air. He'd always known this was coming, maybe not consciously and maybe not how exactly, but on some level he'd known this is what it would come down to.
"It wasn't love that made me act like that," he said.
"You sure seemed to believe it was." She wasn't slurring her words anymore.
"I was confused, Vic."
"That love defines you."
"Not anymore it doesn't."
He'd asked her to come with him out to the trailhead to meet with the criminal growers and their parents one last time. She'd agreed, but half an hour before they were set to leave, a call came in about a loud gathering at an abandoned ranch. She'd said she'd come if she finished up in time, but he'd talked with the kids and their parents and collected the logs of their volunteer hours and wished them all well, and she still wasn't there.
After the families were gone, he followed the trail the way they'd followed it three months earlier, when it all started. Fall was still three weeks out, but already there was a dusting of snow on the north side of the mountain. He walked all the way to where they had left the trail and hiked up to the ridge. He stood on the edge, looking down into the ravine. There was no mist now in early September and it looked even deeper than it had back then. The slope seemed more treacherous.
The days were noticeably shorter now, and already the sun was out of the frame. About a quarter mile from the bottom, he saw a figure coming up the trail.
When he realized it was her, he stopped.
"I came as fast as I could," she called up to him. She was a little out of breath.
"Yeah. I said I'd come didn't I?"
He started walking again.
"But you didn't believe me."
"I don't know," he said.
She stopped and looked down the steep incline. "This is the spot."
They sat down together on the edge of the trail with their legs down the slope.
"Don't slip," he said.
He could hear the creek a thousand feet down in the bottom of the gulley, and a woodpecker on a tree behind them. He smelled the ponderosas and the pine and her shampoo.
"There's room in here, Vic," he said. "I don't expect you to trust me, but I'm telling you there is."
"I don't know that yet, Walt."
"But I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be there at some point."
He put his arm around her and pulled her closer. She rested her head on his shoulder.
"You know why you didn't get hurt any worse than you did?" he said.
"You saved me."
"Before that, I mean."
"You didn't tense up. You were fifty feet down there before you knew what was happening."
"I guess if you have to fall, that's the way to do it."
"I guess so," he said.
Just under the wire! Thanks for reading, and have fun on the 10th!