Four Days

by Gray

Future Little Britches AU

One Month Earlier—(Four Corners)
Chris Larabee strode toward the jail with angry purpose in his gait. For too long he’d had two annoyances nipping at his heels and he was hoping one of the other peacekeepers could finally tell him they were making progress with one or the other. At this point, he didn’t really care which.

The first annoyance had put Larabee in danger of being at odds with the United States Government more than once. Namely, he’d come close to shooting one United States commissioned Sergeant Davis more than once. In Larabee’s opinion the man was arrogant, controlling, and on a perpetual search for ways to abuse his position for power. Larabee had seen this occur in the most gentle of men—as soon as they received a position of authority they began to abuse that position of authority, and became upset and dangerous when their position of authority was challenged. Sergeant Davis was an apparent victim to all of the above.

Problems with the man and his soldiers hadn’t really come to fruition until the conclusion and signing of the most recent treaty with the local tribes in the area. It hadn’t been unusual before the treaty was signed to see soldiers appear in Four Corners, seeking supplies or other things, but the men usually left after a day or so and were generally respectful of the townspeople in the process. The recent week had been very different. Among other things the new treaty stipulated that the army must finally vacate their post at Fort Apache, a process which the soldiers had already begun under the hooded belief that this time the treaty would be honored. But with nowhere else to go until the soldiers received their marching orders, more and more had been appearing in Four Corners—Sergeant Davis at the forefront. Apparently the man believed since he could no longer maintain the private kingdom of Fort Apache—Four Corners would have to do. Chris Larabee disagreed. The town’s four other peacekeepers disagreed and the townspeople disagreed.

Chris’s first desired course of action had included violence. Buck and Nathan convinced him that even though the brash sergeant was annoying, Chris probably shouldn’t shoot him; and Ezra took the liberty of sending wires to the appropriate places in an attempt to have the army remove their men from the area.

"Ezra, did you hear anything on those wires?" was the first thing Chris asked as he walked into the jail. The gambler was tilted back in the hardwood chair with his legs stretched out in front of him, one foot propped toe to hill on top of the other. Chris could never figure out how the gambler did that, but when the man folded his thin form from the stretched position he reminded Chris of the barn-cat that balanced itself so precariously on one of the thin support beams in the barn as it slept, without ever being in danger of falling.

Ezra grinned. "Indeed I did, Mr. Larabee. I finally received a report from a Colonel Jeffrey. He insisted that orders are being wired today to Fort Apache which will include the new postings for the soldiers there, and he sent a wire to the good sergeant just a few moments ago, which the man is across the street reading right now." Larabee looked out the door to see the man in question pacing angrily on the boardwalk while reading the yellow paper in his hand.

"Finally," Chris breathed, "maybe things will get back to normal around here."

"Speaking of normal," questioned Ezra, "will our young Mr. Tanner be appearing for his math lesson today?"

Turning his attention back to the gambler Chris shook his head in denial, "I didn’t want him coming into town…so I let him ride out to Kojay’s a day early this week."

Standish nodded in understanding. Sergeant Davis had made a few snide remarks regarding Vin’s appearance a few days earlier. He didn’t fault Larabee for wanting to be cautious. Who really knew what this soldier was capable of? At least by tomorrow he and his men would finally be out of their hair.

Chris was about to ask Ezra about their second annoying problem when they both noticed Davis walking toward them with a purposeful stride. Standish rose to stand next to Larabee as Davis stepped into the room.

"Gentlemen," the brash man began, "I have received orders for me and my men and must inform you that tomorrow I will have to leave the charge of this town once again in your novice care."

Chris twitched and Ezra risked laying a restraining hand on his shoulder. Chris stilled.

"I will, however, be informing my superiors of the severe lack of capable leaders in this area. I do not, and nor would they, approve of gunslingers enforcing their version of the law. I am appalled by the things that are allowed to go on around here. You allow unqualified men to practice medicine, an unqualified person to print your news…and you are allowing your people to be indoctrinated by a preacher who is known to consort with savages. You have no rule or order in this town. If my services weren’t urgently needed elsewhere, I would remain until suitable law enforcers could be found."

This time Ezra twitched and Chris made no motion to restrain him, knowing it difficult to restrain the man’s mouth in the best of circumstances.

"Sergeant Davis, while your presence in our humble town has been repugnant, we wish to kindly inform you that you never had managerial duties here, no matter what you might have inferred. We enjoy our town and the townspeople enjoy our town. You, on the other hand, we find derelict in whatever duties you may have held and above all consider you to be a most recreant human being."

Chris wasn’t surprised by the confused look the man turned in his direction, but he knew the man was surprised by the fist that suddenly flew across his face. The soldier slumped to the floor in a heap. Larabee's lips slimmed into a wry expression. "I thought we were supposed to play nice, Ez?"

"At least I hit him softly, Mr. Larabee. You would have broken his jaw."

Chris just shrugged, not denying the truth of the statement. Just then Nathan Jackson stepped through the doorway. He looked for a moment at the man obstructing the entrance, and then at the two men smirking down at him, wondering which one had finally hit him. "I’m glad one of you did it, because if you hadn’t it would have been me." It was said wryly but with truth.

Ezra plucked the yellow telegraph from the now moaning man’s still slack hand and read it while Davis picked himself up from the ground and turned to face them, full of indignation. "I should have you thrown in jail."

"Probably," said Chris.

"Yes, but you can’t, can you?" added Ezra, waving the yellow paper. "As it so clearly states here in your orders…you are to desist in meddling with the local law enforcement or risk losing your command."

The Sergeant glared and snatched back the paper. "You men should show a bit more respect," he gritted. "At least when we were posted here relations between the towns and the tribes were kept civil. See what happens when we’re not here to keep the Indians in line."

"I imagine we’ll be just fine," stated Nathan firmly, holding the door open for the man to exit. With one more look of disgust, Davis finally stepped out of the jail.

Chris sighed, a gesture mingled with relief and lingering apprehension. "Nathan, any news on the sheep?"

That was their second annoying problem. Most of the farms and ranches focused on raising cattle or horses, but there were several that had turned to raising sheep, following after some of the tribes in the area who had learned long ago that sheep could handle the desert grazing, probably better than the cattle could. However, lately several of the sheep farmers were reporting dwindling numbers—numbers of missing sheep too high to be accounted for by a wolf or coyote. The lawmen had never dealt with a sheep rustler before, and they couldn’t quite figure out where they’d all been disappearing too.

"As a matter of fact, yes," said Nathan.

Chris grinned. Both of his annoying problems were going to be resolved. It may turn out to be a good day after all. "Well?" he questioned. Ezra sat on the edge of the desk. He also wanted to hear what Nathan found out.

"Bob Billings," said Nathan.

"Bob Billings?" repeated Chris and Ezra.

"Yep," Nathan grinned.

"What’s a Bob Billings?" asked Ezra.

"Bob Billings," said Nathan patiently, "is the handy man that works for the pastor by the settlement in Grover."

"Grover," Chris repeated. He knew the name. It wasn’t much of a settlement, really just a large ranch/mission run by a kindly pastor who took in orphaned children. Chris had visited once or twice. The children there seemed happy and well fed. He could admit that he liked the both the man and his wife and was pleased with the efforts they made toward helping people. He didn’t remember a handy man though.

"Yeah, Grover. It seems the old pastor and his wife were having trouble keeping everything in top shape, so they hired Bob Billings. He’s been working out there for a couple years now…but when things get slow he does repairs for some ranches and farms in this area, too."

"Okay." Chris still wanted to know what this had to do with missing sheep.

Nathan held up a hand to indicate he was getting there. "Two months ago, something got into the water on the edge of the Grover land…they lost some of their cattle, and some of their sheep. They started to get worried that they wouldn’t have enough to feed the kids come winter."

"So they started taking sheep?" asked Chris.

"Well…Bob Billings did. But I think the pastor knew what he was doing."

"Wait a minute," said Ezra. "If he was taking so many sheep from so many different farms, surely someone would have noticed."

Nathan grinned again. "Well, that’s the genius of it. Whenever he went out on a job he took his half-wagon to carry supplies and stuff…but when you drop the tail board you can pull out a little ramp…that leads into a space of the wagon designed specifically for sheep. He’d be out fixing a fence…lead a few sheep into the wagon bed when no one was looking…lock up the door to the compartment so no one was the wiser…and carry on his merry way. One sheep there, two sheep here…everyone would think it was a coyote."

"Incredible," commented Ezra.

Chris, on the other hand had to roll his eyes. "Dang it, Nathan we can’t go and arrest a pastor taking care of kids. People will be madder at us than when we couldn’t find their missing sheep."

"I know," Nathan was obviously pleased with himself. "Josiah is down at the church talking with Bob Billings. They’re going to work something out to compensate the people who lost their sheep and keep the pastor and his charges from starving. Apparently they’ve wired the Women’s Relief Society organization in St. George and they’ve agreed to send supplies to down to Grover as soon as possible."

"Nathan," Chris had to smile, "you do good work."

Nathan gave an equally pleased nod. Yes, this day may not be as bad as any of them originally thought. Now, they just had to wait out the departure of the Fort Apache soldiers.

Both the waiting and the departing took longer than Chris would have liked. Several soldiers left Four Corners to go back to the fort for a final gather of the supplies that had been left there, wary of tensions with the local tribes that they knew were watching and waiting for their departure.

Some of the other soldiers had stayed in town, purchasing further supplies that would be needed for their journey. And still a few others spent their final hours in town sitting in the saloon getting drunk and keeping the peacekeepers on edge enough that Chris and Buck both opted to stay in town rather then return to their homestead. Sergeant Davis was somewhere in the mix of it all, mingling with the townspeople but staying away from Chris and the others. It was well past dark when the resentful leader pulled out with the last straggling soldiers.

"Are they gone?" Chris asked as Josiah and Nathan drew closer to where he stood on the boardwalk, the only light coming from the lit street fires and an eerily red moon. Chris knew sometimes when the moon rose before the sun set, it could retain the red glow the sun seemed to cast on it, but it gave him an uneasy feeling in his stomach. Some of Vin’s superstitions were rubbing off on him, he reflected.

"They’re gone. They left about thirty minutes ago," Nathan said and then hesitated like he wanted to say something more.

"What?" questioned Larabee.

"I don’t know," admitted Nathan. "I just don’t feel right about the whole thing..."

Chris caught Josiah’s eye, concluding that the preacher was agreeing with Nathan’s sentiments. "What doesn’t feel right?"

"I don’t know," said Nathan again. "I just got the feeling like…he wasn’t done here yet."

Just then Chris spotted Tiny shuffling along the boardwalk toward them, obviously on his way to his room for the night. Chris knew the liveryman to be a discreetly silent but observant person, and on a hunch decided to ask him, "Tiny, can we ask you something?"

The withered looking man gave a nod. The three peacekeepers noted the puzzled look on his face.

"What’s on your mind, Brother?" questioned Josiah.

"Well, truth is I was coming to find you, Mr. Larabee. I don’t reckon it’s anything too important but…well, those soldiers were talking up a storm before they rode out of here. And not talking like they were leaving either…more like they were getting ready for a fight."

The dark sky and red-tinged moon seemed more ominous than ever as Chris asked, "What did they say?"

"Well now…nothing specific jumps out in my mind…just a general feeling. I was a soldier once, Mr. Larabee…I can tell when a man’s getting ready to do some fighting."

Chris puzzled over this. He had thought that if Sergeant Davis wanted to take out any of his frustrations on leaving his command at Fort Apache he’d take them out on the town like he’d already been trying to do. The only other people that he would want to take out his frustrations on would be…

Larabee snapped his head toward Josiah and Nathan, "Get Buck and Ezra…he’s going to attack Kojay’s tribe."

"Now Chris…Kojay’s people aren’t the only ones around here…and even if he disregarded the treaty, he’d have to have some way to justify an attack like that." Nathan sounded more like he was trying to convince himself more than the others. They all knew Vin was out there.

"The sheep," said Josiah. "He’s been around town…he knows that the local farms have been missing sheep. It would be awfully easy to pin something like that on Kojay’s people. And Kojay spoke out against Sergeant Davis specifically during the treaty negotiations. He doesn’t seem a man that would forget something like that." Josiah knew this well—he'd attended most of the meetings.

"But we figured out that it was Bob Billings," Nathan stated, with increasing tension in his voice.

"Sergeant Davis doesn’t know that…and probably wouldn’t care. We ride now!"

Jackson nodded and sprinted in the direction of the saloon, while Chris and Josiah ran toward the livery…Tiny in their wake.

Inside Chris was cursing at himself…maintaining the mental tirade continuously as he saddled his horse and started preparing the horses for the others. Why? Why had he thought Vin would be safe out there? Why hadn’t he considered what the Sergeant might have been planning? He looked up from Buck’s horse as the man burst into the stables and rushed up to catch his gray’s reigns.

"We never should have let Vin be out there…ever!" the ladies' man said in anger.

Chris didn’t have a good reply, and he didn’t want to take out his own anger on Buck, so he simply clipped out, "Let’s ride," as he vaulted into his saddle, spurring his horse into the distance, knowing the others were right on his heels.

(The Reservation)

Vin wasn’t sure what woke him…was only certain that something had, and that whatever that something was had created a worried knot in his stomach. Both Chris and Kojay had drilled into him the importance of paying attention to his senses. His grandfather, Joe Standing Hawk, had taught the same lessons. Vin listened for a moment, trying to figure out by his senses what had stirred him from a comfortable sleep. The silence of the dark revealed nothing.

It probably was nothing, he thought. Probably just an animal, or someone else in the small village that was up and about, not able to find sleep…though that was unlikely, Vin concluded. It was customarily disrespectful to step over another’s sleeping form. Vin had learned this early on. This mannerly custom led to two things—everyone in the village rose with the sun, so that whatever work needed to be done in the living areas could be done without having to step over someone’s sleeping form—and if someone woke during the night, the person tried to stay put to not disturb the other sleepers.

It was for this second reason that Vin stayed still a moment longer than he might have if he were back at the ranch, puzzling over what woke him before he gingerly pushed his warm fur covering down off of his bare shoulders to carefully sit up. He scanned the tent’s other occupants, the knot in his stomach flaring and tightening when he came face to face with Chanu’s very awake and worried eyes.

And then it started.

First there was the sound of distraught and upset horses, followed by a baby’s cry, the smell of smoke, a gunshot, followed by another. Vin lost track of the order of it all. At some point Chanu’s older brothers appeared in the entry of their tent, giving them orders and ushering the boys out of the tent to be swept along with Chanu’s mother and sister, away from whatever evil had suddenly descended upon them.

In moments Vin found himself running across the desert earth in bare feet dressed only in his buckskin leggings. Chanu ran just ahead of him, clutching the hand of his small sister, the glow of sudden fire lighting up both the night and the other running children. Vin realized he could no longer see Chanu’s mother or his older brothers.

Slaughtered, Vin thought…the word appeared in his mind unbidden, bringing memories and stories of death and destruction.

A war cry split the chaos and Vin knew the men and older boys had somehow organized themselves enough to start fighting, at least he hoped. He kept running and when Chanu’s sister fell he picked up her other hand and the two boys ran with her, barely letting her feet touch the ground, not listening to her cries. Just a few more feet and they could hide themselves in the large rocks of the canyon wash next to the village camp. They ran, trying to ignore the other sounds that cursed the night.

Suddenly an angry horse and a man in blue cut off their path. Vin backpedaled while Chanu darted left with his sister. A large hand caught Vin by his hair and the boy found himself face to face with a sneering man wearing a bushy beard. "White boy!" he heard the man hiss before a hard blow cut across his head, dropping him painfully onto the rocks layering the ground.

He tried frantically to gain his senses quickly enough to scramble away but the hoofs of the horse danced around him, trapping him into crawling in circles. He realized the man’s intent. If he did gain his feet the man would just grab him again…but if he stayed on his knees, sooner or later he’d be trampled by the horse. Scrambling left again and then back to dodge the turn of the horse he decided he’d have to risk being grabbed. In one fluid motion he gained his feet and was instantly caught again by the hair and yanked forcefully upwards. He felt himself pinned against the side of the horse by the man’s big arm as they galloped towards the center of the fray.

Vin knew when he dropped this time he’d have to land on his feet or he’d be in the same situation he'd found himself in just moments ago. Trying to focus on the moving ground he twisted and bit at the same time, miraculously being released and landing on his feet at a dead run. He ran for all he was worth, angling to run back towards the rocks. He could feel the soldier bearing down on him. He knew he wasn’t going to make it. And he wouldn’t have, if not for seeing Chanu appear almost right in front of him.

His friend pulled firmly on his arm so that Vin, following his lead, darted right. For a moment after that, all that was under his feet was empty air. A second later he hit the steep ground and started to roll, feeling gravel, rocks, and Chanu roll with him. The fall wasn’t far, but Vin realized it was far enough to keep the horse and rider from following.

Reaching the bottom of their descent, Vin and Chanu lay in a tangled heap of false relief. For a moment, all they could hear was their own heavy breathing, and all they could feel was the coolness of the night touching their assorted bumps and bruises. Soon enough, however, the distant shouts and sounds of battle returned.

The night was not over yet.

With this returning realization both ten-year-olds scrambled after each other in the dark until they found an upward slope shallow enough for them to climb, allowing them to make it back to where they’d been trying to get in the first place. As soon as they crested the ridge they could see the flames from the small village lighting up the ardent battle, leaving them both feeling horrified and helpless.

What do we do now? Vin wondered. In conflict, they knew boys their age were expected to look after the women and those younger than themselves. Vin felt Chanu tap his bare arm and signal with his head toward the rocks they’d been running to. Vin could see the worried eyes of those that hid there, peeking out at them. Carefully, trying to stay hidden, they headed once more in that direction.

At one point they had to dart across an open space where they would risk being seen. As they crept they saw where a soldier had fallen from his horse, leaving his weapons scattered around him. Hesitating only a moment, Vin reached down to grip the long rifle the man had been apparently using, then scrambled with it into the rocks where Chanu was already sitting guard-like above some of the other children. Vin climbed up to sit next to him, trying to let his eyes adjust to the contrast of the red lit moon against the blackness in the rest of the sky…the stars had long since been washed from his vision by the brightness of the flames coming from their tents.

"My mother isn’t here," said Chanu, glancing down into the maze of boulders that eventually led up the canyon wash behind them. It was the first time either had spoken since they’d woken. It would become the only thing said between them that night and all that was said between them for weeks to come.

They shared another worried look as they attempted to focus on the battle…watchful that it didn’t near them and their charges, both crouching low to avoid whatever detection they might give away from their high perch, and watchful for ways that they might be of use to their people.

After a time it became apparent that the soldiers were beginning to retreat from their destruction. Whether this was because they were losing the battle or because their taste for blood had been satisfied, no one knew. So they kept watching, trying to discern any recognition of the distant forms, hoping for those they knew and those they cared about.

Vin also tracked the departing soldiers and watched with rising apprehension as one of them, still mounted, rode out from the village in their direction, followed by another. The second soldier handed something to the first that Vin couldn’t see, before riding off in another direction. A split second later the first rider was headed straight for them. Nervously, the young Tanner ran his hands along the long rifle he’d been holding. He carried his own rife with him now. One that Chris had given him. But even though he was good at it, and at times spent hours shooting at the different targets he so carefully set out, he didn’t like to shoot things. He didn’t like to watch things die, knowing he had a hand in it. Kojay told him he would be a mighty hunter. He had hunted with both his mentors before…but it had never changed what he felt inside.

The approaching soldier stopped several yards away from them. Close enough to be in throwing distance of their location, and both Vin and Chanu could see the dynamite he was holding in his hands. The man’s intentions were clear.

Vin wouldn’t remember later if it was instinct, courage, or fear. But, almost without thinking, he put the long rifle to his shoulder, hunching down with it to avoid having to compensate for its heavy counterbalance. In one exhale he pulled the trigger.

* * *

When Chris Larabee and the other peacekeepers finally arrived at the small Indian village, it was apparent that whatever destruction had taken place…had already taken place. They would not be the heroes of this story.

The only evidence of the soldiers’ previous presence, were the dead they'd left behind. The night was still fairly dark, and even the fast approaching glimmer of gray light in the east brought no hope or comfort.

"They probably haven’t been gone long," Josiah stated, arriving at that conclusion from the chaos that still seemed to surge around them. Weapons were aimed in their direction as they rode further into the destruction’s wake. They held their hands away from their weapons to show they were friends, and soon they were recognized and dismissed as not being threats. But even then, nobody stopped to talk with them, nobody stopped to tell them where Vin was. They simply continued to work steadily, trying to put out the more raging fires, help their wounded, and account for their own children and families who had been lost or scattered in the destruction—account for their dead.

Chris stepped carefully off of his horse, followed by the others. "Find Vin," he commanded, not willing to believe the boy could be a casualty of this event, not willing to let the thought even enter his mind. The men spread out, looking frantically for their missing charge, occasionally trying to help where they could and where they were allowed. Hostility and suspicion sparked in many of the eyes that viewed them.

"How did you know to come?"

Chris was startled by the voice and spun quickly to see Kojay standing behind him looking weary and hurt. He fell into step with the Chief as they made their way swiftly across the village, scanning the faces of those they passed.

"Where’s Vin?" Chris asked him, hoping he knew, but doubting that he did.

"I do not yet know," he answered, his eyes indicating that he too wanted to know the answer to that question. "The children were told to run to the rocks." Kojay pointed in the direction they were already headed. Chris noted that the gray light of the morning was starting to spread quickly now as the sun peaked over the hill, turning the wisps of morning clouds into streaks of red. Chris was oddly grateful for the light, if only for the fact that it could help find Vin sooner.

When they reached the edge of village boundaries they saw him, or rather, they saw them. Chanu sat hunched on a rock leaning into one of his older brothers, while allowing his tiny sister to lean into him. Another of Chanu’s brothers stood off to their right, as though keeping vigil, over the fallen form of a woman. Off to their left was Vin kneeling in the sandy earth, looking bruised and defeated.

Larabee approached him in a gait compromising between rush and caution. The gunslinger was elated to see him alive, but knew that Vin would not be feeling the same elation. Kneeling carefully in front of him, he touched his shoulders and spoke, "Vin?"

The boy’s focus was on the fallen form of who Chris now recognized as Kojay’s wife…and Chanu’s mother. She had been important to Vin, too. How many people would this boy lose before he reached adulthood?

"Vin?" he asked again.

This time the boy looked at him, "Chris."

Larabee was shocked by the emotion in his voice. He pulled Vin to his chest, feeling the coldness of the child’s bare arms under his hands. The day would be hot, but the night had been cool, leaving a crispy chill in the early morning. Chris eased Vin back carefully, trying to see where he might be hurt. A large bruise marred the side of his face and a small gash seeped blood into his hair. More bruises spread down across his torso, accompanied by a spattering of cuts. He was dusty and dirty, but alive.

"Are you okay?" Chris asked, needing Vin to give some kind of answer, no matter how false it would be.

He kept his warm hands on the boney shoulders as the boy nodded. Vin sat still for a second and then twisted his head to look back behind him. Chris followed his gaze. Not ten feet away lay a fallen soldier, obviously dead. One of the few, Chris realized. The soldiers had the element of surprise on their side and it showed.

"I killed him," said Vin, the anguish apparent. Chris looked down at him in surprise.

"I killed him," he said again.

Larabee didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want Vin to deal with this—any of it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He tightened his grip on Vin’s shoulders and glanced around, grasping for the right thing to say. His drifting eyes caught those of Chanu’s and held them. The other boy’s sad eyes drifted to Vin’s dead soldier and then down to the tiny girl now asleep with her head in his lap, leaning into his own father when he sat behind them holding them both in one careful and grateful embrace.

Whatever had happened here, Chris knew by the looks of those around them that his surrogate son had done only what he had to, and he told him so. "I’m sorry you had to do that, Vin." The words were whispered.

Vin hung his head, leaning into Chris’s support as Chanu had done with Kojay. Carefully Larabee pulled him closer. Worried now about the coldness he felt in the small body, he lifted him as he stood, wrapping his arms more securely about him. As he did, Chris felt Vin surrender against him in a way that he hadn’t felt for a long time. It worried him as much as it gave him relief. He knew logically Vin would be suffering from the cold and the crash that came after any intense situation, but Vin had always been an independent child. As much as he liked Vin’s closeness, he was again saddened at what brought them to this point.


Buck’s voice. Buck had found them.

"Is he all right?" The man hovered near, trying to get a look at Vin’s face.

"Yeah but…" Chris let his gaze wander to the soldier Vin had killed. Looking back up at Buck he said simply, "He seems to be…but I think we need to get him out of here…and give me your jacket."

The man didn’t hesitate, helping Chris wrap it around the child in his arms who had either fallen asleep, or was too exhausted to respond to their voices.

"I’ll get the horses," Buck said when they were through. "Josiah found Peso…he seems all right…we’ll take him back on a lead…" Buck’s voice trailed off as Kojay approached them. The chief let his hand rest for a moment on Vin’s head, showing weariness and grief in the simple gesture.

"We’re going to go now," informed Chris. "Josiah and Ezra will stay to help…Nathan, too."

"He should stay here," Kojay denied. "We have much to heal from…he should mourn with his people."

"We’re his people," clipped Buck. "He’s already seen too much here…he shouldn’t see any more."

Kojay’s sad but dignified eyes met Buck’s firmly. "He should stay here," he reasserted. "You could stay here with him. They tell me he had to kill." He gestured toward Chanu and the others in his family. "He will be out of balance. He will not be able to heal without the balance…if he does not mourn with his people…the ghost sickness may take him."

"I’m sorry for your loss, Kojay. But he had his balance just fine back at the ranch. That’s where he should have been all along, that’s where he’s going now," asserted the mustached man.

"Buck." Chris tried to calm his old friend with a wave of his hand, worried about what the argument might mean for the boy he knew was listening. Chris turned to Kojay, "Thank you just the same, Kojay…but I think we need to get him home."

The chief gave a nod, but Chris had a feeling it wasn’t a nod of agreement. Just the same, he carried Vin away, grateful he had the opportunity to do so, and fairly certain he wouldn’t risk the boy being taken from him in such a way again.

Day Four—(The Reservation)

Chris Larabee approached Kojay’s reconstructed village carefully. Having not been able to stay away the four days Vin would need for Kojay’s ceremony, he’d compromised by camping just over the hill from them the final night, mounting his horse early the next morning to ride into the camp to find Vin.

The timing of his arrival and his purpose here seemed eerily familiar. This time, however, he was met by growth instead of destruction, by less hostility, and by Kojay.

The man waited patiently as Larabee stepped off of his horse and allowed it to be led away by a tall young woman. The two then walked in silence. Chris wanted to ask about Vin, but tried to wait for Kojay to speak. Vin had at some point told him that talking with Kojay about anything serious always meant waiting…and every story had to start at the beginning.

"He is well." Kojay smiled at the relief and masked impatience on the other man’s face.

Chris closed his eyes to let out the breath he’d been holding.

"He knows he had to do what he did," continued Kojay, "but I think he should also discuss it with you. It has been a heavy thing for him to think on."

Chris gave a nod, not sure what to say.

"It was good that he came back. The cycle was incomplete in him. He has now been able to mourn among those that know his loss."

Larabee opened his mouth to protest but Kojay uncharacteristically cut him off. "He has been able to mourn with those that lost what he lost."

This time Chris nodded.

"The young always have a difficult time understanding death."

"I wish Vin didn’t have to understand it so well yet."

Now Kojay nodded. He then waved toward a cluster of boys standing near a fire, Vin’s lighter head standing out from among them, though it was obvious the boy hadn’t noticed them yet. "He will still be very tired. Much has been in his head and sleep the last month has not come to him. Make sure he sleeps."

Chris rolled his eyes a little. That would be a challenge, he knew. One he could admit to looking forward to. "I’ll make certain of it."

Kojay called out to the boys and Vin turned. He did look better, Chris thought. He wasn’t ducking his head or wearing his hat to hide his eyes, and calmness had returned to his body, if not totally erasing the shadows he’d been carrying in his slumped shoulders and shallow face.

With a light yet slightly apprehensive smile Vin approached them. Chris grinned inwardly when he realized Vin was restraining himself from running. As he drew closer, Kojay reached over to pat his shoulder and then walked away leaving them in privacy.

Chris leaned knelt down in front of him, again echoing the events of one month ago, placed his large hands on Vin’s shoulders and looked into his face for evidence of the despair that had been haunting him. Vin reached his hands up to balance them on his mentor’s forearms, giving them an affectionate squeeze. He caught Chris’s gaze and he gave a calm smile. The impish twinkle Chris loved to see was returning. Giving in, Chris hugged him tightly, feeling him return the hug before stepping back.

"How are you doing?"

Vin didn’t answer vocally, simply nodded his head up and down. The two started to make their way down toward the creek and the shade of trees offered there. As they walked Vin finally started talking, "After we leave…will you care if I come back as much as I did before?"

"Vin, I wanted you to stay away from here. I admit it. But, it was just because I didn’t want you in a place that you could get hurt. I know this is important to you. I’m not trying to take it away from you. You don’t have to choose between loving them loving us."

Vin nodded. He looked relieved and seemed to fumble for more words as Chris sat with him on a smooth rock by a deep area of the creek, skipping a rock across the smooth surface as he did. "I just…it was more than the ghost sickness. I know you don’t believe in that."

Chris stopped him. "Vin…I believe in it a bit more than you think. I just wasn’t sure about the cure."

"I also…" Vin hadn’t articulated any of his feelings in the last month. He hadn’t felt able too. Voicing them even now was a struggle. "I needed to come back because I wanted to see that people here were…that they were okay."

Of course, thought Chris. He hadn’t even considered that part of it. He’d only thought of Vin, and the danger he was in. He hadn’t thought of the people that Vin would be worried about. He needed to see that they were healing…and not left forever destroyed by one act of terror. "I know you did, Vin. I’m glad. You did what you needed to do. Your parents would be proud of you. I’m proud of you."

Vin smiled then, a genuine smile which quickly turned into the recklessly impish grin he was famous for as he asked, "Is Buck proud of me?"

Chris snorted at the tease in Vin’s voice, but knew there was seriousness behind the question. "Buck wants to see you as a regular happy kid. That way, he can know that everything is always okay. When he doesn’t understand everything…it’s hard for him to know if everything is okay or not. That’s why it’s hard for him to accept this. You with me?"

Vin pondered it, skipping another stone into the water before giving his nod.

"Can you accept that about Buck?" Chris asked. "I can’t promise the two of you won’t ever have conflict about this in the future."

Chris watched Vin’s serious face stare at the water as he spoke. He watched as the corners of Vin’s mouth twitched. "I can handle old Bucklin." His face split into another full smile at the surprise on Chris’s face that the boy knew Buck’s full name.

Falling into the trap, Chris reached over to playfully pull Vin to him, locking his head under his arm and messing up his hair as he said, "You better not let old Bucklin here you call him that!" He tickled Vin’s ribs as the boy struggled.

"Bucklin or old?" laughed Vin as Chris attacked once again.

Chris released Vin, and as the boy straightened and brushed his fingers through his hair, he answered, "Well, If I had to pick just one…I’m betting you’ll be safer with ‘Bucklin’ over ‘old.’" The two laughed together and sat another long while in peaceful silence before making their way back toward the village.

Vin went into one of the reconstructed teepees to gather the clothes he would wear back to town but Chris stopped him. "I don’t think we’ll go back right away."

Vin lifted an eyebrow in question.

"I think I’d like you to show me around a bit here…help me understand this…part of you." Chris wasn’t sure how else to say it, but by the intense and grateful look in the boy’s eyes, he was pretty sure it was okay. He’d been sending Vin out here about twice a month since he was eight, first with Josiah and then on his own, but he’d never really taken the time to see what went on out here, or how Vin was out here. He was thinking now he should.

Throughout the day the boy showed him everything he could, pointing out people he’d mentioned at home, and showing Chris some of his and Chanu’s favorite spots.

Chris was shocked by the ease in which Vin interacted with those they came in contact with. It was a side of Vin that Chris rarely saw, causing him to question less and less the role of Kojay’s people in his child’s life. There was still evidence in Vin of a sadness and worry Chris wished he didn’t have to bear, but he was better…he was finally getting better.

These were the thoughts that ran through the gunslinger’s mind later that evening as he sat alone under a large juniper.

"Every triumph brings a loss, it seems." Kojay interrupted Larabee’s reverie as he sat with him to watch Vin and Chanu in the distance. "What must be decided is, was the triumph worse the loss?"

Worth the loss? Worth the cost, Chris thought. Was it worth the cost? All this destruction and loss over one more treaty and a soldier’s pride. Chris had updated Kojay on the departure of Sergeant Davis and the remaining soldiers from Fort Apache. The incident with his village would be covered up and forgotten, more than likely to save face for the government officials who would not like to be seen as attacking an innocent village over an already identified sheep rustler. Had it been worth the cost to Kojay?

The chief seemed to read the question on his friend’s face as they looked out to where Vin, Chanu, and Kojay’s older sons ran wildly, involved in some game Chris didn’t understand. But it looked like Vin was having fun. He was smiling. Had it been worth the cost to Vin?

"The one woman that died was very dear to me," said Kojay, drawing Larabee’s attention back to him. Larabee knew Kojay was speaking of his wife, customarily omitting her name. Chris hadn’t always understood why those of Kojay’s people observed this particular taboo. Vin, in trying to explain it to him, had told him it was partly out of respect, and partly out of not wanting to call the ghost of that person to them. The boy hadn’t used the word ghost, but that was how Chris had understood it. Sometimes when Chris was alone he would whisper Sarah’s name and when he did he could almost feel the name repeated back to him on the wind, an instant ache of missing her coming with it.

"She was a good woman," Kojay continued. Chris listened. "They say…the sun always smiled at her."

Larabee nodded, wistfully thinking again of Sarah, and wondering at the emotion he heard in the Indian’s voice.

"The treaty brought one night of loss for us…great loss…but we hope and believe it has brought our people closer to being free from such loss in the future. We hope. This is all we can do."

Chris nodded again, not certain he agreed, but willing to allow Kojay his hope. "Will Vin be better now?" He had to ask.

"He has now mourned for those lost. He has mourned for what he had to do. The conflict in him that took him out of balance…out of harmony…has been removed. He is one with himself again."

Chris would take that as a yes, but be wary for moments of struggle the boy might still have. He still hadn’t spoken about killing the soldier. Larabee had a feeling Vin still felt unresolved about that. He would bring it up before they went back to the ranch. Hopefully Vin would come to peace with himself about that as well.


Chris did bring it up, the next evening as they road towards their home.

Vin’s response to his query was silence for a long time…silence that lasted nearly their entire trip. He also, having changed back into his regular clothes, pulled his hat again low over his eyes. Chris didn’t want to push but he wanted Vin to talk about this. Finally, Vin tipped the hat up and asked, "Chris, when you’ve killed people…are you sad?"

"I’m not happy," Chris answered seriously, carefully, nudging his black horse to the left as they rode over a small creek. He knew as soon as they crested the other side of it they would be able to see their ranch.

"I feel…I feel bad." Vin figured that sounded kind of stupid, and was a definite understatement.

"I know." Chris waited for Vin and Peso to catch up with him on the other side. "I know you feel bad, and I wish you hadn’t had to do something like that. But you did do what you had to do. You defended yourself and others from someone who wanted to kill you…someone who put you in danger."

Vin gave a nod. "I didn’t think about it…I just…it was like I wasn’t there."

"You have good instincts, Vin. I wish you hadn’t had to…but you did have to."

The young Tanner nodded, letting his thoughts on the matter settle, at least for now. In the meantime he let a smirk cross his face and, after riding up on Larabee’s left side, he urged Peso into a run. Chris followed his lead, not pulling up on his horse’s gallop until they were nearly in the barn. Vin still beat him.

Buck and JD were there to meet them. JD smiled at seeing Vin smile, letting the older boy ruffle his hair before giving him a hug. Buck was smiling, too, and Vin hugged him as well, grateful to feel him hug back. He missed the surprised look that Buck gave Chris as he did it. He wasn’t sure where they stood, but he was glad to see the man apparently wasn’t mad at him for leaving.

"There’s food on the table," Buck stated. "You two go on. Chris and I can take care of the horses."

Vin suspected they would be discussing him again, but couldn’t bring himself to worry on it. His stomach growled at the thought of food and he easily followed JD toward the house.

"Is he okay?" Buck asked Chris once the boys were gone.

"How does he look?" returned Chris while removing his horse’s saddle, not willing to rehash their old argument.

Buck sighed. "He looks better."

"He is."

"And you’re going to let him keep going out there?"

"Buck. I’m not going over this with you again. I don’t have the right to stop him, and neither do you. He’s better now. They’re a part of him. Let it go."

"I will for now," Buck agreed, responding to the edge in Chris’s voice that few ventured to test. "I won’t say I understand. But I’m glad he’s getting better."

Finishing with the horses Chris gave a nod of appreciation. And as they slowly walked toward the house, he clapped Buck on the back, producing from the man a relieved smile. "I’m real glad he’s better, Chris."

"So am I," stated the man in black, "So am I." The two men stepped into the house, hearing JD update Vin on all that had happened at school while he’d been away, Vin grunting occasionally through the food in his mouth to show he was listening. The sounds sounded content…and normal…sounds that hadn’t been in their home for the last month. Buck and Chris sat down and started to eat. And for just a moment, all the abnormalities of their little family disappeared and didn’t matter anymore.

The End

Comments to: —they are very much appreciated.

Notes: First, Fort Apache is a real place. However, the historical context I place it in is not. Also, you’ll notice that though I allude to customs, I do not state a specific tribe for Kojay and his people. I do this on purpose, since I can not speak for the specific traditions of any tribe and do not wish to. I am however very familiar with the four corner states and have been extensively across the lands and wilderness there. The traditions I have learned in those situations gave me a basis for the background and ideation. Just want to make it clear no offense, infringement, or fact, is attempting to be expressed here.

I also realize this story may have been a little difficult to follow with the different timelines. Let's just say I'm still learning as a writer and of course any comments or suggestions are definitely allowed.

Thanks also to those who gave this a read through before posting. It was very helpful.