THE STARS IN THEIR COURSES

By Jo

CHAPTER 5:

 

The path that led down from the high edge of the Mogollon Rim was steep and it took John

some while to make his way down it slowly and carefully so that his horse did not slip and fall.

He could feel him back there, feel Javair like some looming presence in the forest he was

leaving behind.  The man wouldn't give up, would never just let him be.  His shoulders sagged

as he rode with the weight of that knowledge.

 

All he wanted was to make a life for himself, just to be left alone to live.  He was lonely and

the idea of a family was a dream he had.  Javair, though, would keep him forever on the run,

always moving, never being able to settle and make a home.  He turned in the saddle, looking

back at the rim, wondering how long it would take Javair this time to find him.  Was there

even really a point in trying to find a place for himself in Winslow?

 

 

Soon the trees began to thin then turned into scrub.  After another mile or two the scrub

gave way to the desert plain.  Watering his horse at a small stream, he filled his canteens.

It would be a long ride ahead now with no water, no real cover for a man to conceal himself

should the need arise.

 

 

Javair rode steadily, his mind filled with the intense concentration he brought to tracking a fugitive from the law. There was even a quiet pleasure in it, in the doing of something that was

so undoubtedly right.  He had a sense of destiny about it all.  It was his assigned task to bring

order out of disorder and he would do it no matter how long it took him to do it.  It must be

done and he knew he would eventually do it.

 

There was a rise in the desert and when Javair rode up it late in the afternoon, he could see

for miles across the open land.  He smiled.  A lone rider heading northeast.  He knew by

instinct it was Valshaun. It was nice to be right.  He sat there a long moment on his horse

feeling like a hunting falcon staring at a rabbit. 

 

"Soon, Valshaun," he said.  "Very soon you will be mine."

 

The circle of justice that had been broken by the man's escape would be mended.  Soon the

one who had faltered, had fallen, would pay the price.  Then there would be another. There

was always someone else willing to disrupt the divine order of things.  But this one, this John

Valshaun, he had plagued Javair for years, his path into unrighteousness growing ever darker,

ever more in need of being stopped. 

 

His eyes scanned the desert landscape.  About two miles to Valshaun's left was the huge crater

he'd heard about.  No one knew how it had come to be there in the middle of nothing twenty

miles from Winslow.  It was thought perhaps at one time it had been a volcano.  Perhaps the

science of some future year would discover its origins.  That was not his concern today.

 

 

The hair on the back of John's neck began to prickle and he turned, looking back the way he

had come.  Oh, God...there on the ridge behind him sat a rider, not moving, just looking out

over the desert.  It would be Javair.  Inevitably it would be Javair.  This time he wouldn't even

make it to the next town.  This time Javair had him out in the open.  He squeezed his eyes

tightly closed for a moment, his hopes crushed before they'd even had time to rise at all.  Should

he just stay where he was and wait for Javair to come?  He thought about that for a while. No,

he couldn't go back to prison.  He knew it was not in him to survive that again. 

 

He stood in his stirrups.  There was a sharp ridge some distance to his left. He had no idea what

lay beyond it, but it was the only feature at all in the desert that promised any sort of barrier

at all between him and Javair.

 

 

Ah, Valshaun was heading for the crater, was he?  He knew nothing about it other than it was

a huge hole in the earth, barren, treeless.  Did Valshaun think to escape him on its rocky

slopes?  He smiled, shaking his head at how absurd the thought was, then spurred his black

down from his position, riding hard in the direction his prey was going.

 

 

The edges of whatever it was were steeper, more covered with loose shale than he'd expected

and Valshaun had only gone a little way up when he was forced to dismount. There was no time now to try for anything else.  Javair had rapidly closed the distance between them.  Scrambling, practically clawing now with his fingernails, John went as fast as he could up the sharply-angled slope, hoping maybe there would be some place he could hide on the other side. He was tearing

the flesh of his fingers, falling, scraping his elbows and knees, little showers of rocks tumbling

down behind him as he went up.

 

 

At the top he abruptly halted, shocked beyond measure at what lay in front of him.  He was on

the rim of a huge bowl of nothingness.  He'd never seen anything like it in his life.  He'd been

coming up so fast, he had to pinwheel his arms to keep from toppling into the thing.  The sound

of Javair's ascent was not far behind him and he knew he had to do something, he just didn't

have any idea what that might be.

 

All he could think was to get away from where Javair was, so he started to go to his right along

the edge of the rim, his eyes still pulled to the side where the amazing barren basin loomed. If

he lost his footing, he'd tumble forever down the rock-strewn sides.  At the bottom, there was

no place to hide, not one thing that could serve as cover...nothing.  He was breathing hard from

the climb, from the desperation that was gripping him, and he stumbled, slicing open the knee

of his right pantsleg, feeling the blood welling up.  There was no time to stop and check it, no

time to do anything but put distance between him and the lawman.

 

Javair climbed to the rim with steady determination.  He had him now.  There was no place

for Valshaun to run, nowhere to hide.  A grim smile was locked in place as he made his way

to the top.  Even though he had heard of the place, he was startled by what he saw, not having

expected anything of this size.  The bowl of it had to be at least a mile across.  His eyes ran

quickly around the whole rim, which he judged to be about two and a half miles in circumference.  There was not a single thing Valshaun could use to elude him in this place and

his horse was down at the outer base, useless to him now.  He watched the man a moment as

he hurried along the edge of the rim, falling, then limping as he went on.  Pressing his lips

together, Javair went after him.

 

 

John had to stop and catch his breath so he looked back over his shoulder.  Javair was on the rim now.  He turned his head, looking off toward the horizon.  Nothing, and he was on foot with

a leg that was barely supporting him now.  He saw Javair smile and it went through him more

sharply than a blade.  No, he would not stop, would not be taken back to prison.  No.  There was no point in even trying to go down into the basin.  Nothing was there and he would simply be

trapped.  His only hope was to circle around the rim until there was an easier way back down

onto the desert.  Maybe then he could get to his horse.  Maybe then. 

 

John went another forty yards, his knee paining him more with each step.  He even considered

just letting himself roll down the slope to the desert.  No, that would more than likely kill him.

So he went on and then on some more, Javair gaining on him.

 

 

Valshaun was slowing, his limp growing more pronounced.  Javair knew within moments he'd

have him.  He could shoot him now, get it over with, but he wanted more than death for Valshaun.  He wanted him back in prison.  That was what justice demanded.  The man had

been sentenced to prison and to prison he would go.  That was what order demanded.

 

He could tell, though, that Valshaun was not going to stop, so he quickened his own pace, the

distance between the two men growing less and less.

 

 

It wasn't easy going around the rim, especially not when one was trying to go fast.  John slipped

and fell again, right on the knee that was already bleeding.  It took him some while to struggle

to his feet and Javair came faster, was a mere dozen feet behind him now.  John took a step and

a sharp pain shot up his thigh.  As he let out a cry of pain, Javair pounced.  With no idea how

he did it, John side stepped him and Javert landed hard on his chest, knocking the wind out of

him and causing him to roll to his left.  He went over the edge, his arms flailing, trying to find

something to grip onto.  A piece of ledge just below the rim stuck out about two feet and as he

slid past it, he managed to grab it.  He dangled there, his feet hanging over empty space, the

550 foot deep crater yawning beneath him.

 

John limped to the edge, looking down at him, his face a mask of surprise at the unexpected turn of events.  Javair was gritting his teeth with the effort to hold onto the rock and he looked up

into Valshaun's face, reading the surprise and indecision there.  He clamped his jaw shut tightly. He would not ask for help.  He would die before he would ask this man for help. 

 

John had lost his gun, but he still had a long knife in a sheath at his belt.  He pulled it out, more

as an instinctive defense rather than any intention of using it as a weapon of attack.  Javair did

not know that, though, and he expected to feel the blade sinking into his flesh within seconds.

There was nothing he could do to defend himself against Valshaun now.  He knew desperate men

did desperate things and Valshaun would kill him so he could get away.  It was what criminals

did, was part of the disorder of their way of life.  They thought only of themselves as it was only

possible for them to do so.  They lived in darkness and their ways were the ways of the dark.

Their departure from order was constant and it was a revulsion to him, to everything he based

his life upon. So he hung there, staring up in hatred, waiting for the criminal with the knife

to kill him.

 

John studied Javair's face, saw the unmitigated loathing in his eyes glaring up at him, knew

the man would never stop tracking him, never leave him in peace, never let him have a home

or a life or a family.  He saw that the lawman's fingers were beginning to tremble with the

strain and slip toward the edges of the rock.  He need do nothing but wait and Javair would

fall to his death and he would be free. 

 

John dragged his eyes away from Javair's face, looking away from the barren basin up into

the clear blue dome of the sky above him.

 

 "Don't forget. Don't ever forget!"  The words seemed to come out of nowhere, yet everywhere, surrounding him.   "Don't forget. Don't ever forget!"

 

It was what Father Michael Alexander had said to him after he'd saved him from arrest by

telling the police he'd given John the stolen silverware then adding the two candlesticks to

the sack. "Don't forget. Don't ever forget!"

 

"You've promised to become a new man," the priest had reminded him of what he'd said at

dinner.

 

"Why...why are you doing this?"  he had asked, the treatment foreign to his existence.

 

"John Valshaun, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. I have bought your soul, ransomed

you from fear and hatred," the priest had paused, an immutable look forming in his eyes, "and

now I give you back to God."

 

"Now I give you back to God," John whispered to the sky.  He could hear Javair's breaths

coming in sharp little pants, knew he couldn't hang on much longer. Vaguely, he was aware

of blood trickling down his leg inside his pants. Shed blood.  Yes, there was Blood that had

been shed that was more important than not going back to prison, more important than opening

a new store in a new town.

 

He put his left knee down on the rocks, not able to put the injured right one there, looked

down at Javair, and said, "Take my hand." 

 

Javair looked up at the hand Valshaun was extending to him.  No, he could not take the hand

of a fugitive.  He lowered his lids halfway and shook his head no.

 

So John put his injured knee down on the rocks as well, his eyes widening briefly at the pain

that caused, and he gripped hold of Javair's forearms and let himself fall backwards, pulling

the lawman up as he fell.  Javair lay there face down, utterly stunned, unable to process what

had happened. 

 

John was on his back, trying to breathe through the stabbing pains in his leg, waiting, expecting

Javair to get up and point his gun at him.  But Javair didn't move and after a while John sat up,

looking at him.  When he still didn't move, John struggled to his feet and hobbled back to where he'd come up the outside of the rim.  He sat down, mostly sliding, sometimes almost tumbling,

but he made it down to the base, scratched, bruised, bleeding.  With great effort he got back on

his horse.  Javair's black was nearby and he could have taken it but a man on foot in this

desert wouldn't stand a chance.  He left it where it was.

 

There was no point in going to Winslow anymore so he decided to cut back to Flagstaff.  Taking a long drink from his canteen, he headed west into the sunset.

 

 

After a long time Javair rolled over onto his back. He hurt worse than he had ever hurt in his

life.  It wasn't a pain of the body, but of the soul.  He pressed his hands to his chest because he

could feel his soul cracking apart and wasn't sure he could endure it. 

 

 

With his hands still pressed there, he watching a falling star streak across the sunset sky.

Always when a star fell from the ordered universe, it fell in flames.  Always it was like the

fall of Lucifer, who had been a creature of beauteous light but who had flamed into darkness.

Always those who fell had to pay the price. It was how the universe was kept in order, how

his life had been kept in order.  A man fell into darkness, became part of that darkness, and

he had to pay the price for it.

 

What sort of devil was Valshaun that he had him trapped, hanging in total vulnerability from

the bit of rocky ledge, yet chose to pull him up?  It was Valshaun's hour of triumph.  He could

kill him and his dark past would be wiped away, his slate washed clean.  It would take nothing

more than a flick of his knife, or a wait of a few moments for tired fingers to falter.  Vengeance

was in Valshaun's grasp, belonged to him, yet he had given him back his life.

 

 

He thought of the countless nights he'd camped out, watching the movements of the heavens,

resting in the immutable order of it, finding his meaning in the fact of it.  Born into disorder

in jail, he'd grasped onto that divine order more tightly than he'd been gripping the rock

ledge.

 

 

But now everything seemed turned upside down.  Had Valshaun felt...pity...for him? Was that

why he'd given him back his life? No...no!  He was the law and the law could not be mocked

by pity.  His face contorted into a grimace.  He would spit Valshaun's pity right back into

his face!

 

He thought of the long years he'd hunted Valshaun. How could he live in his debt, how could

he permit him to hold dominion over him?  It was...unthinkable.  It had been Valshaun's

right...his right...to kill his hunter!  And it had been his own right to die.  Valshaun had taken

that from him.  He had let him live but, oh, God, he was living now in hell.

 

 

He sat up, burying his face in his hands, trying to block from his sight the night stars as they

winked again into view. "No," he said, repeating it over and over. "No...no...no!"

 

He could barely think.  His thoughts were scattering here and there and he couldn't grab

them and force them into stillness.  Who was John Valshaun that he could break the patterns

upon which he himself based his life? How had he done what he had just done?  He had seen

something on Valshaun's face that didn't belong there, was not a part of the darkness in

which he believed with all his heart the man lived.  He had seen...compassion...forgiveness.

Javair groaned aloud at the memory of it.  His groping hands filled with desert dirt and he

let it sift down over his head in an ageless act of mourning.

 

 

It was not just his soul that was splitting in half, the very universe itself was cracking down

its center.  In all these years he had never once doubted the rightness of his thinking, yet

here he sat, consumed, eaten alive by doubt.  Had John Valshaun found...forgiveness? Had

his crimes been given some divine reprieve?  He felt his very heart tremble as the world he'd

known was lost in shadow.  Was Valshaun from heaven...or hell?  Did he even realize that

by giving him back his life today, he had killed him even so?  He seemed to be reaching for

something now ungraspable and all the stars he'd loved had turned black and were cold.

 

He stared down into the black void of the crater just beyond his feet.  Night had come and

it looked like a bottomless pit.  He felt drawn to it for it was the reflection of what his soul

had become.  Behind him, somewhere far, far behind him, would be the lights of a city and

that was where Valshaun was heading, that was the world of Valshaun.  He couldn't, he

simply could not live in a world that belonged to Valshaun.  He began to scoot toward the

edge of the rim until he was seated on the protruding rock, his legs dangling off either side.

There was nowhere left for him to turn.  There was no way he could go on.  He let himself

tip forward, off the rock, into the void.

 

 

Late the next afternoon John stopped by a homestead way on the outskirts of Flagstaff near

Walnut Creek.  It looked a little rundown to him and at first he wasn't sure anyone was home.

He dismounted slowly, bearing his weight entirely on his left leg, leaning against his horse.

Hearing footsteps, he looked around and saw a slender woman, her long hair pulled back into

a bun but with several strands come loose, blowing around her face. 

 

"I...I don't mean to bother you, Ma'am," he said, "but I sure could use a bite to eat...if...if you've

got any to spare, that is."

 

She looked at him with kind, brown eyes.  "I've made bread this afternoon.  Still got some

warm...if you'd like that."

 

"I'd be most grateful," he smiled tiredly.

 

"You come a long way?" she asked.

 

"A very long way, yes."  He took a step but his knee gave way and he had to clutch his horse

to keep from falling.

 

"Oh, you're hurt!"

 

"My knee.  Nothing much but it hurts to walk."

 

She came right up to him and put her arm around him.  "Here, when one is injured, two can

walk together."

 

They went slowly and he was glad there were only two steps up to her small porch.  Once they

were inside, he sat at the table and she cut him off two large chunks of fresh bread and gave

him a dish of butter and a glass of milk.

 

"This is wonderful, but best I be going on my way before your husband gets home.  He might

not like a stranger in his house."

 

"What's your name, stranger?"

 

"John.  John Alexander."

 

"I'm Peggy Warden," she said, "and now we're not strangers, are we?"

 

His eyes were caught by a silver candlestick on her wooden mantel.  It looked very out of place

in the humble surroundings.  She saw what he was looking at.  "Oh, that.  That used to be in a

church where my husband was pastor back east.  He died last year just after we came out here.

I keep it, you see, to remind me that even in the midst of great harshness, there is beauty and

there is light.  Do you know about such things, John Alexander?"

 

He smiled, from his head to his toes he smiled.  "I know things about silver candlesticks, Peggy

Warden, that I will never forget, never ever forget."

 

 

"I'm right glad to hear that, John Alexander."

 

"John," he said softly.  "Just John."

 

"Would you like more bread, Just John?"

 

 

 

 

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