by Sevenstars

Lying at the crest of a low ridge, with his body from the chest down trailing down the backslope, Vin carefully drew his bead on the knees of the antelope he had selected, took in a breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet went high, as downward shots usually do, and broke the animal’s spine just back of the shoulders; it dropped like a puppet with the strings cut. Vin stood, uncaring that the sudden movement instantly attracted the attention of the rest of the herd and sent them kiting off for safety, and worked his way down to the flat, where the crippled pronghorn was struggling to rise. He got around in back of it, slapped a hand around its muzzle as it threw up its head, and cut its throat, mercifully ending its attempts. Then, as yesterday, he set to work butchering it out.

It wasn’t yet noon when he completed his task, and he peered at the sun and nodded to himself in satisfaction. He could turn homeward now and make it back to the ranch in time for supper, even if he stopped off at Miz Nettie’s to share his kills with the old lady who had adopted him as a sort of honorary grandson. He heaved the carcass onto his shoulders and angled up the slope to get his horses, which he had left concealed behind it.

Much to his surprise, when he got to the crest, he saw that where he had left two horses there were now three. And what astonished him even more was that Peso wasn’t trying to drive the stranger off. Not till he got closer did he understand why: it was a mare. Peso thought he was still a stud, so he tended to regard all male, or formerly male, horses as prospective rivals, but females were different. This one wasn’t in season, so he wasn’t trying to mount her, but he was hoping to encourage her to stay around so she’d be within reach when the time came.

Vin saw that she wasn’t wearing a saddle, only a blanket and surcingle. That would ordinarily have indicated that she belonged to an Indian, but she also had a full bridle, its reins broken off about six or eight inches from the bit, with a stable halter underneath, the lead rope tidily tucked under the bellyband. Indians didn’t use bridles--at least not the regular bitted white-man kind. Glad of the crosswind which kept the horses from picking up the blood scent from the pronghorn carcass, Vin lowered it to the ground and moved in slowly, making soothing sounds until he could get a grip on the hanging loop of cord. His Comanche training recognized the horse’s quality immediately: a seventeen-hand blood bay with a race and snip on the face and a white sock on the off hind foot, branded Hooked M on the left shoulder. And then he realized that this was exactly the way that telegram on Tuesday had described the stolen horse out of Rincon County. Just to be sure, he parted her jaws and looked at her teeth. All the permanent teeth were in, twelve pairs of molars, six of incisors--she was no younger than her sixth year. The deep folds or pockets, called "cups," that stood out from the softer dentine and cement were almost fully worn away from the first incisors, but nowhere else; that put her at seven or eight years. "Well, lady," Vin murmured, "you come a fair piece from home, ain’t you?" He eyed the broken reins and the blanket and surcingle curiously. The bridle suggested that the thief had been riding her, but wasn’t an Indian. Yet the lack of a saddle pointed to the opposite. And those broken reins meant that no matter who the thief was, she’d taken fright at something and run off. Horse thief or not, Vin wasn’t leaving any man afoot in this country--and, being a deputy, it was his duty to bring the man in if he could anyway. There was lather dried on the mare’s coat; she’d been running hard and far, so her trail should be easy to follow. No doubt she’d stopped chiefly because she’d encountered Peso and the packhorse: horses loved company, and a lone one would always try to ingratiate itself with any others it found on the range.

He slipped the halter line out from under the surcingle and tied it to the pack saddle, then went back to get the antelope carcass and heave it aboard.


By midafternoon Ezra had realized that Buck wasn’t just tired, he was definitely ill--and seriously so. The younger boy had developed a fever and hacking cough; he was sneezing and complaining of fatigue and a sore throat, and his nose was running. His temperature was rising steadily, and he had no appetite. All Ezra could do was wipe his face with water from the bag, give him sips of it when Buck would accept it, and try to think how he could find help for him. The water wouldn’t last forever, and they’d lost their horse. There had been a doctor in China Springs, and by now Sheriff Addison had probably moved on, having satisfied himself that the boys weren’t in town--but how to get Buck to him? Nearer, probably within walking distance, was the stage road and its stations. Could Ezra make his way to one of them after it got dark, and steal another mount? But even if he did, what was he to do afterward? He wasn’t at all sure Buck could get up on a horse in his condition. And if he could, what then? Take him back to China Springs? Leave him at one of the stations and hope the people there could--would--take care of him? But in either of those cases, even if Ezra abandoned him and went on to Four Corners alone, what would become of him? He’d be returned to the Home, or end up in whatever the nearest local analogue was. Ezra found himself thinking of all Buck’s natural charm, the total trust the younger boy had given him, the loving heart so clearly demonstrated by his memories of his mother and his gentleness with Climber. No, he couldn’t let his companion--his friend--meet such a fate.

Friend? The word was one he had never had much reason to use. He had been on his own, emotionally at least, many times in his life--in some ways all his life. And he had never really felt lonely, because loneliness exists only for those who encounter it suddenly. Over time he’d convinced himself that caring about other people wasn’t worth it. Even most of his cousins hadn’t really accepted him, and he’d been just as well satisfied that it was so. Perhaps if he hadn’t come so recently from the Valley, where the Ainslies had been almost the first of his many relatives to actually make him feel welcome, he wouldn’t have had it in him to accept what Buck had offered him. Yet he was experienced enough in reading others to know that with Buck, what you saw was what you got. The younger boy had no ulterior motives, no hidden agenda: he was who he was, and he accepted everyone else on the same terms. With him and with the Ainslies Ezra had tasted something of what it meant to have someone in his life who seemed to care, and where he had never really missed it before, because he had never known it until then, he knew he couldn’t be happy without it. Not now.

He remembered yesterday by the dry streambed, as they rested and waited for darkness. He had told Buck more stories from the Lambs and encouraged him to tell stories of his own, to reminisce about his mother and Miz Abigail and the "pretty ladies" who had lived in her house. Once he had asked idly what Buck saw in his mind when he thought of the autumn. The younger boy’s thoughtful, ruminative response had surprised him in its comprehensive character. "I see the leaves goin’ down in gentle zigzags," he’d said slowly. "I see pumpkins turnin’ yellow and milkweeds turnin’ brown. I see chestnuts fallin’. I see the birds goin’ south. I see the trees with pretty near all their leaves off." That so young a boy could appreciate the beauty of nature so thoroughly had been more than Ezra had looked for. He’d never had much to do with other children--especially those younger than himself, who, it had always seemed, wanted nothing but to run randomly around and shriek--and he hadn’t expected such a reaction. Yet Buck seemed to have something of the same love of beauty that Ezra possessed. He might not have been reared as a gentleman, as Mother always claimed she was trying to do him, but he wasn’t unintelligent, and his manners were really very good, taking his age into consideration. And he might come from an environment scorned and vilified by "decent" folk, but that was all the more reason for Ezra to feel a sense of identification with him: he and his mother had been outcasts of a kind for as far back as he could remember.

He had lived most of his life knowing that he was of less consequence in the lives of those around him than a pebble tossed into a pool, and that he wouldn’t be missed when he left; one uncle had gone so far as to say that his life was utterly worthless and that no one would ever want him. He had learned that it was better to be slow to trust, quick to put himself apart, and careful not to let any weakness show, even among those who claimed to be his friends. Perpetually the newcomer, stranger, outsider, or all three in whatever household was sheltering him at the moment and whatever school he was attending, he had been forced more and more into a self-sufficient, standoffish, reluctant-to-trust mold as he came to the conclusion that anyone he met was out to either get him or use him in some way. Struggling not to show how much he hurt, he covered his aches with airs and a sort of pretended superiority. Independence, especially the emotional kind, had become a necessity of survival for him. Now, for the first time, there was someone depending on him--not merely Maude, who had often made use of him in her cons or to try to make herself seem more acceptable to the peers of her gentleman friends, but someone who really needed his skills and greater experience. He found that he liked the strange new feeling this gave him, and he didn’t want to betray the trust he had so unwillingly assumed. And while he had often wondered why no one seemed to like him--not even his kin--in Buck he had found someone who did, who refused to be put off by his hard-won aloofness, and whose innocence and genuineness, he realized, had in three short days wormed their way under his skin. Buck didn’t know or care about his past: he accepted Ezra for who he had been since they’d known each other. The idea of losing that troubled the young Southerner. He certainly didn’t intend to do anything that would hasten the process.

Deep in the manzanita thicket he couldn’t see what was going on outside, but he could still hear, and he came alert, his body taut, at the sound of hoofbeats nearby. He doubted that the mare would have come back of her own accord, but perhaps the horse was a loose range animal.

That possibility was scotched when he heard the creak of leather as a rider dismounted. Buck half-roused and Ezra quickly clamped a hand over his mouth, lifting his free forefinger to his lips in warning. Climber shrank back against Buck’s body, his tail-tip slightly lifted, ears spread and quivering. Footsteps shuffled softly in the dry grass and sandy ground. Ezra held his breath and listened. If there were two people or more, they should talk to one another, and so betray their numbers. If there was only one--he had a horse: maybe Ezra could force him to give it up to them and get himself and Buck clear away. He had replaced the spent round in his derringer from the little stock of bullets he kept in his vest pocket, which gave him two shots. At close range, he knew, the weapon could be genuinely deadly. Ezra had never killed a man, but he had seen it done. And he was desperate enough now to genuinely think he could, if forced to it.

"Stay here," he whispered to Buck, "and don’t make a sound." He drew the derringer and began squirming through the maze of the bushes toward the perimeter.


As Vin had expected, it hadn’t been difficult to backtrack the mare: her hoofprints were deep and widespread wherever she had crossed bare ground, and the grass she had trampled, flattening it after the heat of the day had commenced, was still lying prostrate, retaining the direction of impress. There were no bug tracks in the prints, which meant they’d been made since sunrise: crawling bugs didn’t venture out into the open in the daytime, it was too hot for them. The hooves tended to track in a single line instead of leaving two parallel lines of marks; she’d been loping or galloping, which supported Vin’s guess that something had frightened her. He had even found the place where she had slowed from the faster gait but kept up a brisk pace; whatever had scared her must have been clear enough in her memory that even when she began to tire she still wanted to keep going. The trail was so distinct that he was able to follow it from the saddle, often moving at a long-reaching trot, and could even have gone to a lope if he’d thought the mare could stand the pace, but he wanted to spare her, and there was plenty of daylight left.

After four hours or so, he raised a manzanita thicket, the first real landmark he’d seen since leaving the ridge, and since it provided a possible tethering spot for the mare, he slowed and made a swing around it. Sure enough, he soon found the place she had started from. Here was a trampled area where she had stood, the deep prints where she had spun and kicked off, and the broken ends of the reins still knotted to a branch. Now, what had set her off? He dismounted and began skirmishing around. It took only a moment or two for him to locate the shattered body of the rattlesnake. He stirred it cautiously with a stick. Deader than last year’s birds’ nests, and killed by a bullet--a pretty fair-size caliber--or he was no judge. Gun meant a man, man afoot meant tracks--where were they?

When he found the shoeprints he wasn’t sure at first that the sun hadn’t gotten to him. The shoes were worn and run over at the heel and definitely not cowboy boots--or moccasins like his own--but what really surprised him was their size. Hell, he thought, even JD ain’t got feet this small. What made these--a kid? What would a kid be doin’ out here all alone, and most of all with a stole horse? Iffen it was a Injun kid I could understand, but a Injun kid would’a got rid of that bridle, or never tooken it to begin with--and he wouldn’t’a had no gun.

No, wait a minute. Not one kid--two. Different length of stride, different way of throwin’ the weight on partic’lar parts of the foot, different pattern of seams and patches. ’Most the same size by the look of ’em, though. Can’t be no more’n a couple inches or ten pounds ’twixt ’em. He eyed the scuffled sand at the margin of the thicket. What’d they do, crawl in there? Not a bad notion. Shade deep inside’d keep ’em from dryin’ out. Smart kids. He knelt to peer under the boughs--

and found himself staring into a pale, resolute face, two glittering emerald-green eyes, and the deadly black over-under barrels of a derringer clutched in a white-knuckled hand.

"Well, now," he said quietly, settling easily back on his haunches and letting his hands hang freely over his knees. "You reckon to use that?"


Ezra stared into the startling sky-blue eyes, set in an angular face tanned golden-bronze by much sunlight, framed by wavy shoulder-length hair and shaded by the loose brim of a clay-colored slouch hat, and felt something deep inside his chest resonate to the sound of the stranger’s soft drawl, as Southern as his own. Don’t let him trick your guard down, he rebuked himself. He may be Southron, but that doesn’t make him a good man. And even if he is, this is about survival--yours and Buck’s. "I don’t wish to," he said, "but I will if you force me to it, sir."

To his surprise, the man’s head dipped in a brief thoughtful nod. "Good rule to live by. Me and my partner, we try to work the same way. Ain’t always easy, but we do our best." The blue eyes pinned his. "Speakin’ of partners, where’s yours at?"

Ezra’s tongue-tip flicked out to touch his upper lip. "I can’t imagine what you are referrin’ to, sir."

"Name ain’t sir," said the other. " ’S Vin Tanner. And the two of you leaves right plain tracks. He back in yonder?"

Ezra felt torn. He had grown accustomed to having to look after himself, and he accepted the necessity of it. And deception had been so prominent a part of his life and his mother’s that he was inclined to be suspicious of everyone’s motives, particularly since Maude had taught him ever since he was old enough to understand that all other people were out for themselves, that everyone wanted something from him. He had learned from an early age, not merely from his mother but from bitter experience, that the best way to protect himself was to keep others at arm’s length--not something most of them made very difficult. He had learned that sometimes--often--not even the people who claimed they loved you were to be trusted, so he could scarcely keep from developing a healthy suspicion of strangers. Yet now it wasn’t simply a matter of his own welfare; it was Buck’s, and Ezra might have played a part in his share of cons, but he had always tried to be reasonably honest with himself. He knew he was ill equipped to care for a sick boy, especially when he didn’t even know what malady that boy was suffering. An adult might have a better idea of what to do in this situation. This adult was talking softly to him, not rebuking him or demanding that he give up his gun, and seemed to feel that he was old enough to be treated with respect. That wasn’t something Ezra was used to: even Mother, while she always preferred him to behave like a gentleman and treated him accordingly (at least in public), respected no one and nothing but herself. To his confusion--even horror--he found that he wanted to trust this stranger, wanted to share the burden of his responsibility. Yet how could he know if it was safe to do so? It was, after all, adult strangers who had put him in the Home and kept him there--who had done the same by Buck even though his mother had carefully made provisions for his care in the event of her death. This man wasn’t someone he had ever seen before, certainly not in Broken Bow, but what did that mean? He hadn’t seen such a lot of Broken Bow and its people, after all.

Vin watched the boy quietly, reading the signs of tension and of carefully controlled fear. He didn’t have the least doubt that the boy would shoot if he believed he was being threatened. His hand was steady, his eye-pupils dilated, his every muscle held at an almost unbearable tensity. The derringer’s barrels looked like twin canyons at this distance. The bullets were probably .41 caliber, more than sufficient to kill at such short range. Very likely this was the weapon that had dispatched the rattler, which meant the kid was a better-than-average marksman and had a lot more control than most boys that age--he didn’t look to be much more than eleven, maybe only ten. He was ragged and dirty and scared, but grimly determined to protect himself and his friend. Vin respected that. He’d felt the same way in his time.

Slowly, cautiously, he flattened his body to the earth, not taking his eyes from the vivid green ones that stared at him over the derringer’s sights. He laid his palms flat to the ground, elbows out to either side, and rested his chin on them, a position from which it would be nearly impossible to bring a weapon into play. He was careful not to make any gesture that might have been interpreted as an attempt to reach for the gun or its owner. "You kill the snake?" he inquired.

"Yes. It frightened our horse away."

Our horse. Aw, hell! That means they’re the ones that stole it. Chris is gonna have a conniption. "You done good," Vin said. "Don’t look like it took you but one shot. That takes nerve, to kill clean when your horse just went tearin’ off and a rattler’s coiled to strike you. I can see you’re a regular fightin’ man. But you ain’t got no call to fight me, I don’t mean you no harm. Man afoot in this country don’t need no more grief than what he’s already got. Might be I can help you get wherever you was goin’."

He could see the boy struggling with this issue, with the question of whether he dared to trust. Why would a kid this young be so wary? It made Vin think of his own experience. The Comanches had been kind to him from his first day among them, had treated him no differently than they did their own boys, yet he had always been conscious of his difference, his whiteness, of being "a Tanner"--even the name they gave him, He-Tans-Skins, had been a constant reminder of the pledge he had made his dying mother, of the fact that these weren’t really his people. He had grown up essentially alone in the midst of others--first the Comanches, more recently the whites. Only Chris and his family had ever really accepted him. Suddenly it occurred to Vin that this might be the answer. As a kind of outcast himself, he had, perhaps, a certain sense for detecting others of the same breed. The lonely, ingrained self-reliance he saw on this handsome young face, the almost too smooth features, the self-contained, too-old eyes that said, as clearly as words, I’m fine, I can do it alone, I don’t need any help--they spun him back to the way he had been at a similar age, the face that had looked back at him from every mirror he saw, the scared stoic who feared to show his fear, who was adrift and alone and grieving in a society he didn’t understand, and who knew--knew--that there was no one in the living world left that he could count on. The question was, did the reverse also hold true? Was this little pariah (that was a word he’d learned from Josiah) sensitive enough to know when he was facing another like himself, someone who knew what it was like to be forced to fall back on his own resources because there were so few people willing to accept the responsibility?

"You know," he went on, "it ain’t no disgrace to be scared. It proves you’re smart enough to know when the odds is against you. Courage ain’t about never bein’ afraid; it’s about masterin’ that fear and doin’ whatever’s best for the situation you’re in. Now I got a notion you and your partner is in a bad spot. I got a partner too, and if us two was ever up against a wall and somebody come along and offered to help us, I’d sure think hard on it afore I refused him, ’specially iffen I had reason to figure it might mean life or death to Chris, on account of his life means more to me than mine does."

The boy blinked, and again his tongue darted out nervously. "Why is that?" he asked. "Isn’t self-preservation the first law of nature?"

"Well, I reckon it is," Vin agreed, "but right or wrong, us human folks ain’t always plumb in line with the way Nature works. Anyhow, Chris, he’s got folks dependin’ on him. He’s got a wife and a couple young’uns, and I ain’t. So the way I look at it, he’d be missed more’n I would. We got a friend that says the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one; that’s how come armies work."

Buck would be missed, Ezra thought. At least, he would be if his Miz Abigail knew of his situation. Of course she doesn’t, but that is Sheriff Addison’s doing, not his. He gazed at the stranger’s face, trying to read it. There was the faintest hint of a crooked little smile on the lips, and the eyes were clear and serene, not the eyes of a man who was comfortable with untruth. Those eyes met his steadily, with no effort to evade. Dare I trust? No--the question is, how can I not dare? I know Buck needs care. I know I cannot provide it. I must trust, though it goes against everything I have ever been taught to believe.

Slowly he lowered the hammer and put the derringer away, waiting a moment to see whether the man who called himself Vin Tanner would demand its surrender. When he said nothing, but only continued to wait patiently to be invited to take a part in their lives, Ezra allowed himself to relax just a bit. "Do you think you can creep in after me? My--Buck isn’t well."

"Go ’head on," Tanner said, "and iffen I get hung up I’ll holler."


Climber uttered a miniature growl as Vin squirmed into the little nest the boys had found in the heart of the thicket. He cautiously drew himself into a crouch, aware of his guide’s restless green eyes switching from him to the animal and the other boy lying on the plush-lined lap robe. His nose wrinkled briefly at the smell of sickness, but he took the time to reassure the boy’s guardians. "He with you?"

The green-eyed child seemed to catch the reference at once. "Buck found him in a canyon where we camped two days ago. He calls him Climber."

"Good name for’im," Vin observed. "He’s what’s called a ringtail. Some call ’em cacomistle or miner’s cat. Plenty sourdoughs keeps ’em for pets; they’re right good at catchin’ mice. This here must be a young’un, last year’s birthin’ likely--this season’s kits ain’t weaned yet. He ain’t learnt to be scared of humans, not that his folks is hunted or trapped much. Looks like he’s plumb tooken to your partner." He extended a hand, palm up, wary of the animal’s small but sharp teeth. //"Be still, little brother,"// he murmured in the Comanche language. //"We mean no harm. You are a brave warrior and a loyal friend, but it is time now to let others help."//

The ringtail’s soft ears swivelled forward on its head. It craned its neck, sniffing cautiously, and made a rapid-fire chucking sound. "You’re not going to harm him, are you?" the boy asked. "Buck is very fond of him. He would be grieved if Climber weren’t here when he awoke."

"Naw," said Vin. "Ain’t no call for us two to be fightin’, any more’n me and you done. We all want the same thing, that makes us friends." Climber’s active nose touched his fingertips, jerked back, and repeated the venture, maintaining contact this time. //"Yes,"// Vin told him, //"you know I am of the People. Come..."// Very slowly and gently he slipped a hand around the ringtail’s rump, lifted him, and handed him to the watching boy, who accepted him automatically, eyes never leaving the still form of his friend, and cradled the animal on his lap, stroking it soothingly.

Vin edged his way closer to the lap robe, scanning the boy for any outward signs that might indicate the nature of his illness. He seemed langourous, confused, lethargic; indeed he hardly gave any hint that he was disturbed by, or aware of, the stranger’s advent. "How long he been sick?"

"He began complainin’ of a generally unwell feeling this mornin’," the other boy answered. "He wasn’t feverish at first, but he has become so gradually over these last several hours. He has been sneezin’ and coughin’ and snifflin’; if he weren’t so warm, I would think he only had a cold."

"Don’t seem like the right season for that," mused Vin as he felt of the boy’s forehead. "He ain’t got wet or nothin’, has he?"

"No, only washed in a waterhole in the canyon."

"Drink from it?"

"Yes, we both did."

Vin nodded. "And you ain’t been took down, so it ain’t that." He frowned. "I got a notion we need to get him to somebody that knows more about sickness than we do."

"There is a physician in China Springs," the boy offered. "I noticed his sign."

"Hmm," Vin muttered. "No ’fense to that doc, but I don’t know him. And I do know a man in Four Corners that’s helped a plenty through one thing and another. It’s a long ride, but I’d feel a lot better about havin’ this young feller in Nathan’s hands."

"Four Corners? Is that where you reside?"

"Well, not ’xac’ly," Vin admitted, guessing at the meaning of the unfamiliar word. "Me and my partner, we got a horse ranch ’bout ten mile out. But that’s likely just as well, Nate ain’t got the most comfortable bed you ever laid on." He scanned the little mound of gear. "You two get this in here?"

"I accomplished the task alone. Buck wasn’t feelin’ well enough to help."

"Then you can get it out again, I reckon. Best we don’t waste no time goin’ the hard way, though. I’m fixin’ to get up and see can I break a path to the horses. Then I’ll carry--what’d you say his name was, Buck?--out of here and take him up on my saddle."

"As you wish," the boy agreed.


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