Over the next few days, Vin gradually gained strength. He required less oxygen and he started his rehab.
Chris returned to work that following Monday. Now that Vin was on the road to recovery, the rest of the team resumed their routines, although they spent a great deal of time with Vin at the hospital.
There was, however, something bothering Chris, and after the morning briefing, he asked Josiah to wait a few minutes. The others filed slowly out of the conference room. When the senior agent continued to sit and stare at his coffee cup, the older man decided to take the lead. "Vin?"
Chris glanced up with a small smile, "Am I that transparent?"
Josiah gave a short laugh, "I think weve all noticed that, even though Vin seems to be doing well physically, he doesnt seem to be quite the old Vin"
Sighing, Chris nodded, "Yeah, at first I thought it was just because he was in pain and didnt feel well."
"But?" Josiah prompted when Chris stopped to gather his thoughts.
Chris shrugged, letting his gaze drift. He tried to put his feelings into words. "Im not sure I can explain it, but somethings not right, it just kind of feels out of balance. Do you know what I mean?" Chris looked at the profiler for confirmation.
The big man nodded. "You mean, like, even for a quiet man, hes quieter than usual. He says all the right words, but theres a lack of belief behind them."
Chris agreed, "But, more than that," he looked intently at his friend, "its his eyes."
Josiah finished the thought, "Like they are haunted."
Chriss gaze once again focused on something only he could see. "He rarely will look directly at you, but when he does "
Both men sat in silence a few moments, recalling the lost look in the telltale blue eyes. Finally, Josiah asked, "Has he talked about the shooting?"
Knowing the former preacher had come to the crux of the matter, he replied, "No, not really, and I havent pushed it."
Josiah leaned forward, folding his big hands in front of him. "Does he know what happened?"
The blond nodded, "Yeah, a couple of days ago, when he was able to talk a little better, he asked about the shooting. I filled in the parts he couldnt remember."
"What did Vin say?"
"He asked if the girl made it. When I told him no, he closed his eyes and wouldnt talk about it any more."
Josiah nodded. Knowing he would have to tread carefully, because he wasnt sure of how Chris would react, he said, "Do you think its possible he might feel guilty because he lived and the others died?"
Chriss eyes grew cold and he frowned. "What the hell are you saying? That Vin thinks he should have died, too?"
Despite the warning in his bosss eyes, Josiah met his look squarely. "Im saying that, maybe, he doesnt understand why he made it and the other two didnt. Maybe, he doesnt understand why it even happened in the first place. Why him, of all the people in the world, was he in that place, at that time?
Chris just stared at him a moment before he stood. Running his fingers through his hair, he paced a few steps, turned, paced back, and then leaned on the table. "Shit, Josiah, no one can answer those questions. If thats whats bothering him, how in the hell are we going to help him?"
Josiah shook his head. "We are just going to have to be patient. Im sure, right now, Vin himself has no clue as to what is wrong."
The big man took a deep breath, "Lets get him well first, then well deal with the rest of it."
Chris glared at him a minute then sighed with resignation. "All right," he agreed, not because he felt it was the right thing to do, but because, for now, he didnt know what else to do.
After work, Chris headed to the hospital. He had managed to arrange a meeting with Dr. Woods before the physicians shift ended. Although Vin seemed to be doing well in his recovery, Chris just couldnt shake the feeling that something wasnt right and from the surreptitious glances the rest of the team gave Vin, he suspected they thought the same.
Chris waited impatiently while the receptionist had Vins physician paged. Finally, he heard his name and turned to face the slightly harried surgeon.
"Sorry, Mr. Larabee. Its been a busy day in the ER."
Chris shook Dr. Woods hand and smiled grimly. "No, Im sorry. I know youre busy, but I wanted to talk with you a minute about Vin."
"Sure." The doctor waited expectantly.
The senior ATF agent took a deep breath, not quite sure how to put his concern into words. "Exactly how is Vin doing?"
Woods raised an eyebrow. "Well, considering what happened, hes doing very well." Peering intently at Chris, he perceived that this wasnt what he wanted to know. "Why are you asking, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris looked down at the floor a minute, and then looked the doctor in the eye. "Im not questioning your skill doctor, but something just doesnt seem right. He isnt acting normal."
The doctor shrugged, "Well, all I can tell you is that physically he seems to be making steady improvement. His labs are good. He is cooperating well in his physical therapy. He is pleasant and agreeable. While I dont know him personally, everything seems to be going well."
Chris squinted his eyes at the doctor. "Thats it! Thats what Im talking about. You dont know Vin Tanner. He hates hospitals and he usually is about as cooperative as a caged cougar. The fact that he is being so easy to get along with isnt right. Something is wrong."
Dr. Woods look appraisingly at Chris. "Well, Mr. Larabee, Ill have to take your word for that. It wouldnt be uncommon to feel some depression after nearly dying. I can have a psychiatrist go by and talk to him, but physically hes doing as well as can be expected.
Chris snorted, "I seriously doubt that Vin will talk to him, but sure, it would be worth a shot."
"Very well, Ill order a consult."
"Thanks doctor." Chris shook the surgeons hand and then proceeded to Vins room.
He paused in the doorway, taking in the sight of the best friend he had nearly lost a little over a week ago. The head of Vins bed was raised so that he was almost sitting. He was asleep with his head lolled to one side. His color was vastly improved. All the lines and tubes except for one peripheral IV were removed. They still had him on antibiotics.
Chris entered the room and quietly took a chair on the other side of the bed. He decided to let the young man sleep. Picking up the TV remote that was lying by Vins hand, he turned the sound down and started flipping through the channels.
Chris jumped slightly when a more raspy voice than usual asked, "Your TV a home broke?"
The older man sat up and turned to see a wanly smiling sharpshooter. "Thought maybe yours had more stations," came the reply.
Vins grin grew slightly wider as he tried to straighten himself up. The movement initiated a coughing fir and the young man grimaced in pain.
Chris waited for the spasms to pass and then helped his friend take a drink. After, Vin lay his head back against the pillow with his eyes closed. Chris saw that his face was covered with a fine sheen of sweat. He wet a washcloth and tried to wipe the young mans face.
"Don need no damn nursemaid," he growled, turning his head away.
Taking a deep breath, Chris refrained from commenting and tossed the cloth onto the over-the-bed table, sat down and resumed flipping through TV channels, hoping to give Vin a chance to compose himself.
Several minutes went by before Chris heard a barely audible, "Sorry."
Chris wasnt. It was the first sign of the old Vin he had seen since the shooting. He hoped that it meant Vin was beginning to come around.
Deciding to change the subject, he said, "The doctor says that if you keep improving like youve been, you can go home by the end of the week."
If Chris thought that the information was going to cheer his partner, he was wrong. Vin merely nodded slightly and turned to stare out the window.
Frustrated, Chris, who was not known for being overly patient, had about reached his limit. "Vin, what the hell is wrong with you?"
If he expected an angry retort he was in for a surprise. As Vin turned moist eyes toward him, he asked in a small voice, pleading for answers, "Why me?"
Shit, Chris thought, I am not the one to have a metaphysical conversation with. Wheres Josiah when you need him? Then again, Chris realized that Vin wouldnt have asked the ex-preacher that question, especially when he was feeling this vulnerable. Vin needed simple answers and Chris wasnt sure he could give him any answers. "What do you mean?"
Vin shrugged slightly and looked down at his hands, not sure if he could put it into words. "Is between em," his Texas drawl was thick with emotion."The bullet went through me."
Chris waited as Vin swallowed convulsively. "She died," he whispered, " and so did he."
Turning back to the window, he asked, "Why was I th only one t live?"
There it is, Chris thought. He hadnt a clue how to answer Vin, because he had asked himself that same question a million times. Why were Sarah and Adam killed by a car bomb that was meant for him?
Shaking his head, he said honestly, "I dont know Vin. I guess there are some things we arent meant to understand. Josiah would probably say it is all part of some bigger plan that we cant see. But, I do know this; you tried to save her. You tried to diffuse the situation. Thats all anyone can ask. Hell, its more than most people would do."
Vins sorrow-filled eyes met Chriss. "It wasnt enough."
Tears coursed down his cheeks as he closed his eyes and turned his head away from Chris.
Unable to think of a reply, the senior agent just sat quietly, saying a silent prayer for the young agent who had come to mean so much to him.
Thursday evening found the whole team gathered in Vins room. It had been almost two weeks and Vin was scheduled to be discharged the next day. The boys had brought pizza and soft drinks en lieu of beer, and were noisily eating, watching TV and playing poker in an impromptu game Ezra had started.
That is, everyone but Vin. Vin nibbled on a piece of pizza and sipped on a Coke. He smiled and answered questions when asked directly, but other than that, he didnt participate in the festivities.
Chris watched the goings on from a chair beside the bed. He was acutely aware of Vins somber mood, despite the smile. As he had feared, the interview with the psychiatrist was stonewalled by Vin, and the young man refused to talk about it any more with Chris.
Chris was grinning at the antics of Buck and JD when he sensed someone at the door. Standing there was a tall, lean, nice-looking young man in his late twenties, early thirties. His skin was the coppery hue of Native Americans, his long hair pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck. He wore worn denims, a blue shirt with a buckskin jacket (much like the one Vin wore) and cowboy boots. He seemed to not notice the ruckus as he stared intently at Vin.
Feeling someone other than Larabee staring at him, Vin raised his eyes. When he saw who it was, his mouth dropped open in surprise.
Grinning, the other man moved forward, extending his hand to Vin.
Recovering, Vin grinned and gripped forearms with him.
"Haw kola," the man said.
"Haw," Vin returned.
"Doe ksh kay ya oun hey?" he asked.
Vin replied, "Waste."
The other man gave a short laugh, and then said in accented English, "It is good to see you again, my friend."
Remembering his manners as Chris rose to his feet and moved closer the bed, he made the introductions. "Chris, this is Tommy Yellowhawk. He an I were in th Rangers together. Tommy, these are my friends an the guys I work with: Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, JD Dunne, Ezra Standish, Josiah Standish an Nathan Jackson."
Tommy shook hands with Chris, who was closest and nodded at the others, who were now giving him their undivided attention. Vin rarely talked about his past and they had never met any of the friends he had before joining the team.
"How did you know I was here?"
"We heard about what happened. Grandpa sent me."
His statement was met with stunned silence from Vin.
After a few moments of searching his friends face, Vin asked, "He OK?"
Tommy nodded, "Yes but " He stopped and looked toward the other men in the room.
Taking the hint, Josiah stood. "Well boys, I think its about time we call it a night."
"Yeah, an we do have to work tomorrow, " Nathan agreed, as they began to pick up the remnants of their party and took their leave. All of them telling Vin theyd see him tomorrow and telling Tommy it was nice to meet him.
Slowly and noisily, they trooped out of the room, all except Chris.
Chris resolutely stood next to the bed, arms crossed, a cold glint in his eye. He was a little surprised at the brief stab of jealousy that flared through him when he saw the easy familiarity between his best friend and this man from Vins past. He had no reason to suspect the man would somehow hurt the young agent, but Vin was vulnerable now, physically, mentally and emotionally, and Chris was damned if he would let anyone hurt him further, even an old friend.
As the doors closed, Yellowhawk raised his eyes to meet those of Chris. Chris saw compassion there, but no intimidation. It was then that the senior agent realized the Indian meant no harm. In fact, if he was reading him right, he was here to help.
Chris had no idea why he thought that. It definitely wasnt in his nature to be trusting. The only other person he had trusted instinctively from their first meeting, was Vin. With dawning realization, he recognized some of Vins qualities in this man. He saw the peace in the mans eyes, an inner peace that comes with balance. A look, that before the shooting, had been in Vins eyes, but now had been replaced by one of confusion and turmoil.
However, he wasnt ready to leave his best friend unprotected, so he wasnt leaving.
"Tommy, Grandfather?" Vins concern for the old man caused him to fail to notice the appraising looks being exchanged by the other two men.
Shifting his attention back to Vin, Yellowhawk continued to reassure his friend. "Vin, grandfather is fine, but youre not and thats why he sent me."
Vin scowled, "Im fine."
The big Indian grinned. "Uh-huh"
He watched Vin for a moment while the sharpshooter averted his eyes and started picking at the bedspread. Resuming a more serious expression, he placed a flat package on Vins lap. "He sent you this."
The package was a brightly painted parfleche. Vin stared at it several moments before moving shaking hands to untied the leather strips that bound the bundle. Carefully, he unfolded the aged leather to reveal a single eagle feather, dyed red.
Eyes wide with wonder, he looked at his old friend. Yellowhawk nodded. "He said you have earned it. He said for you to come when you are ready."
Chris watched the byplay curiously. He really wanted to know what it all meant, but a sixth sense told him that now, if ever, was not the time to ask.
Vin reverently lifted the feather. Chris could see that his eyes were moist. The senior agent knew next to nothing of Native American traditions, but he could see from Vins reaction that the feather had a very special significance.
Holding the feather with both hands, he turned grateful, if still confused eyes to his old Army buddy. "Thank-you," he whispered.
Once again the two men locked forearms and then Tommy said, "Well, Id better get going. I need to catch a bus back to the rez."
Vin looked imploringly at him. "Cant ya stay? We didn even have time t catch up."
Yellowhawk grinned and said knowingly, "I gotta get back, but well have plenty of time to catch up when you come to see Grandpa."
Vin frowned, "Tommy I don "
The Indian grasped Vins shoulder, "Youll come. Grandpa said so."
It would be disrespectful to argue, so Vin just let it go.
Looking at Vin with compassion, Tommy again shook his hand. "Take care kola."
Vin nodded. "You, too, kola."
Tommy gave his old friend a final nod and started to leave. On an impulse, Chris stopped him, "Yellowhawk!"
The Indian turned and waited patiently. Chris wasnt sure why he had said it and scrambled to come up with a reason. "Why dont I drive you to the depot?"
Yellowhawk gave him a measuring look, and then glancing at Vin, he said, "Appreciate it."
Chris grabbed his coat, and then approached the bedside of his best friend. "Im taking off tomorrow at noon. Ill come by and pick you up and take you back to the ranch."
Larabee watched as Vin scowled momentarily, knowing that he was going to protest, but in the end, he merely nodded. Frowning a little, he held Vins eyes with his own. To him it was another symptom of Vins depression, for him to give in so readily. He still saw how lost his friend was feeling, but he also saw a glimmer of something else, although he couldnt quite put his finger on it until Vin broke the contact and picked up the feather once more. Hope, thats what he saw, a thread of hope that maybe there was a way out of the chasm of his despair.
Chriss face set in the grim lines of determination, he led the way out to his truck. Yellowhawk followed, amusement dancing in his eyes. The Indian had seen the various emotions chase through the older man. He knew that Larabee wanted to protect Vin from further hurt at all costs. It pleased him that his adopted little brother had found such good friends and a champion in the form of senior ATF agent, Christopher Larabee. God knew, if anyone deserved that kind of loyalty, Vin Tanner did.
Chris didnt say a word until they were in the truck and underway. He glanced sideways at his passenger, noting the casual and relaxed attitude.
"Which reservation are you from?" he asked. Damnit, he wasnt any good at small talk - he really wanted to know where this guy was coming from, but on the other hand he didnt want to piss off Vin by insulting an old friend.
"Pine Ridge," Yellowhawk answered.
"Is that where Vin met your grandfather?"
After a moments hesitation, the Indian said, "Yeah, he stayed with us a while after we got out of the Army."
Although Vin had only referred to it briefly one time, Chris knew that something had happened on Vins last mission with the Rangers that had left emotional scars.
"It sounds like he and your grandfather are close." Chris felt like he was betraying Vin somehow. He knew his younger friend would be furious with him if he found out, and honestly, he didnt know what possessed him. He just knew that he had to find out this mans intentions, for Vin.
"Yeah," was the cryptic reply.
Chris smiled grimly. He was right. This guy and Vin were cut from the same cloth. He decided to try once more, but a different tactic.
"Vins having a rough time."
The reply was short and sweet and obviously all the man was going to offer.
This guy was beginning to wear on Chriss nerves. As he parked the truck at the curb next to the bus depot, he turned to Yellowhawk, and with ice in his voice and glare, he said, "I dont want to see him hurt further."
The big Indian met his eyes frankly. "I dont either. Look, Larabee, Im Vins friend. I wouldnt do anything to hurt him. My grandfather knows Vin and knows that he is tearing himself up by what happened."
The mans eyes took on a haunted look as memories best forgotten, surfaced. "Grandfather wanted to remind him that his spirit is honorable. That what he did was honorable. My grandfather is offering him a way to find peace with that."
Chris continued to stare at the man for several long minutes as he analyzed this bit of information. Vin had alluded to time spent with Indians, but had never told him much beyond that. He believed in the Indians sincerity and felt like a dozen kinds of idiot for interrogating him, but he had to be sure. Then, smiling, he offered his hand. "Just had to be sure."
Returning the smile, Yellowhawk assured him, "I know. You are a good friend."
He opened the door and disappeared into the bus terminal.
It was a month since the shooting. Vin was back in his own apartment and back to work, on limited duty. On the surface the young agent seemed to be recovering well, but they all noticed the far away look in his eyes. He would pretend to participate in the normal group activities of Team 7, but he was quieter than usual, the familiar twinkle in those expressive eyes, gone.
They all, in their various ways, had tried to pull their friend out of his depression, but to no avail. Josiah and Nathan had even suggested professional counseling, which had been met with a scowl and a typical Im fine. Chris hadnt mentioned his conversation with Tommy Yellowhawk, but was starting to wonder if maybe he should. Maybe encourage him to take the Indian up on his offer. He didnt know what they could do for him that his friends couldnt, but Yellowhawk seemed to think they could help. Only Chris would have to think of a way for Tanner to decide that it was his own idea.
Surprisingly, it was easier than he anticipated.
That Saturday, the whole gang came out to the ranch for the first BBQ of the season. It was early spring, still cold in the evening, but the trees were budding and the grass starting to turn green. The winter had been long and cold. Everyone was ready for warm weather and new beginnings.
Most of the team was settled in the den, some were watching a movie and some were playing pool. Chris finished the clean up in the kitchen, grabbed a beer and went to join the others. He paused in the doorway surveying the room and soaking up the warm feeling the easy camaraderie of this group brought. As he scanned the room, he noticed a face missing. Sighing and not really surprised, he put his beer down, put on his jacket and headed out to the corral.
Vin was leaning on the fence, head resting on crossed arms and his foot on a railing. Chris walked up beside him. The younger mans expression was wistful as he watched the sunset.
"Sure is purty, ain it?" It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yeah," Chris agreed, admiring the dark reds and deep purples signifying the last vestiges of the setting sun.
When at last the sky lost all traces of color, Vin said, "Chris, I been thinkin."
Chris waited, knowing his friend would get to it in his own time.
"Member my friend, Tommy Yellowhawk?"
Again there was a long pause. "During my last operation in th Rangers, we got into a bad situation tha went t hell real fast. Some things happened tha Ill have nightmares about till I die. Tommy an me barely made it out alive."
Caught up in the past, Vin swallowed hard. "Ise havin a hard time dealin with what happened. Before that, Id thought about being a lifer, but that all changed. Got my discharge. Tommy did, too. Hes probably th only one knew what Ise goin through, cause he was there. Didn know wha Ise gonna do. Just knew I couldn do that anymore. Tommy was headed back t th reservation and he invited me t go with im."
Vin was silent for a long time as the memories, good and bad washed over him.
"Tommys grandfather is the spiritual leader there. He helped me learn how to live with it."
There followed another long period of silence. Chris was afraid to say anything, afraid that if he did Vin might stop talking and it was rare for the young man to open up about his past.
Finally, he said, "Im thinking maybe, I need t take a little time off. Maybe go visit Tommy and try t get my head on straight."
Slowly, Chris let out his breath, there it was, as close to a confession that he needed help as he was probably going to get. "I dont think thatll be a problem, Vin.... If you want, Ill go with you," he ventured.
Vin turned to look at his best friend, and even in the dim light from the back porch, Chris could see the emotions at play on his face. "Thanks, Chris. Id like that." His voice was rough.
The two locked forearms and Chris clasped the sharpshooters shoulder.
"Wed better go in. Its cold out here and if Nathan catches you out here, hes gonna have a fit," Chris said, grinning.
Vin returned his grin. "Give me a minute, OK?"
Chris nodded and returned to the house. Vin watched as he walked back. Taking a deep breath and resuming his former position, he allowed himself a little nod and smile. For the first time since that fateful day over a month ago, he felt like things were going to be OK.
Chris was appalled at the evidence of extreme poverty he was seeing as they drove through the Pine Ridge Reservation. As though reading his mind, Vin said, "Theres about a 75-85% unemployment rate here. Theres above average alcoholism and drug abuse, especially with the kids. The suicide rate for teens is about 10 times the normal."
"Why doesnt the government help?"
Vin snorted sarcastically. "This is th result of governmen help. They took away everythin that made The People who they are and left them with nothin. Til th 1970s, it was against the law for them to have their ceremonies an practice their religion."
Chris glanced at his friend, a little surprised at the depth of the anger evident in Vins voice and in the way he was gripping the steering wheel.
Taking a deep breath, Vin continued, "Tommy and several others are trying to bring back th ol traditions. Give The People a sense a' identity."
Eventually they pulled into the yard of a slightly larger, well-kept house. Already waiting for them was Tommy, an older man, and a pretty young woman holding a baby.
As they parked the car, Chris asked, "How did they know when we would get here?"
Vin grinned and winked at his friend, "Moccasin telegraph."
Chris stared at him, trying to decide if he was serious, but didnt have time to comment as the family moved toward the car to greet them. As they all shook hands, Tommy made the introductions. "Chris, this is my grandfather, Jim Yellowhawk," he paused while the old man shook hands with Chris and then embraced Vin. He could hear his grandfather saying something to Vin, but couldnt make out the words. Whatever it was caused Vin to duck his head, nodding, overcome with emotion. He gave the young man a moment to recover, and then he continued with the introductions.
"This is my wife, Maria and this ," Taking the baby, " is your namesake, Michael Vincent Yellowhawk."
They all laughed at the open-mouthed astonishment on Vins face. Slowly, a big smile spread over the young mans face as he reached for the little boy. Not the least bit afraid, the baby smiled as Vin took him into his arms.
Looking at his old friend, he said, "Why didn ya tell me?"
The Indian shrugged and grinned, "I just did."
Chris watched his friend with the baby and thought he could already see less stress. Yes, this is definitely what Vin needs, he thought.
Tommy led them into the house. "You guys are just in time for graduation."
Vin saw the puzzled look on Chriss face and smiled. "Tommy is a teacher at the reservation school. An Indian graduation involves a dance an a Pow-wow. Its a big celebration. The whole tribe gets involved. Therell be a lot of good food."
Vin was still holding the baby, who had a tight grip on one of his fingers and Chris thought that he hadnt seen him that relaxed in a long time.
It was assumed that the two men would stay with the Yellowhawks. When Chris questioned this privately to Vin, since it was obvious space in the small house was limited, he told him that to refuse their hospitality would insult them.
They spent a pleasant evening together, talking about things in general and reminiscing about some of Tommy and Vins escapades while in the service. Later, after the family retired, the two agents were getting ready for bed. They were sharing a sofa bed in the Yellowhawks' living room.
Vin was tired but feeling better about things than he had in a while. Maybe tonight he could sleep without the nightmares, but first he needed to talk to Chris.
"Hmmm?" came the sleepy response.
"Can I tell ya somethin?"
Forcing himself to wakefulness, he said, "Sure, Vin."
There was such a long pause, Chris thought maybe the younger man had fallen asleep, but then in a voice torn with emotion, and barely a whisper, "I I keep seeing his eyes evertime I close my eyes, I see his."
"I saw I saw the light go outta his eyes before he pulled the trigger. Its like his soul left God, Chris, it was awful."
Chris reached over and placed a hand on the tense shoulder.
Finally, his voice tight with self-loathing, he said, "I couldn stop im. Three fuckin feet away an I couldn fuckin stop im."
Tightening the fingers on his friend, trying to break through the anger, he said, "Eye-witnesses said it was split second. The man brought the gun up a little and just fired. Then he turned the gun on himself. You couldnt have stopped him from shooting, Vin. Even if you had thrown yourself at him, he would have still pulled that trigger and more than likely it would have been you that died."
Vin abruptly pulled away from him and sat on the side of the bed. "But, she would be alive and maybe him, too."
Moving to sit beside his distraught friend, he tried to reassure him. "You cant know that. He might have killed you then gone ahead and done exactly what he did anyway."
Vin shook his head, still refusing to give up his guilt. "There should have been somthin, somway I coulda stopped it."
Chris sighed in frustration. "Vin, I dont know what to tell you, but I do know this; for some reason you are alive, and I cant begin to tell you how important that is to us to me."
Vin turned and looked deep into the eyes of his best friend. Drawing on the strength of the one person that was closer than a brother, Vin knew that no matter what, this man would be by his side. For now, that was enough.
Chris woke the next morning to discover that Vin was already up. He washed up, dressed and followed the tantalizing smells of frying bacon and baking bread.
Chris smile at the pretty young woman standing at the stove. "Morning."
Maria smiled back. "Good morning. Would you like some coffee?"
"That would be great." His eyes searched the room for his missing friend.
Placing a cup on the table, Maria said, "He left before sunrise." She nodded toward the old man sitting at the end of the table.
The ancient Indian met Chriss gaze. "This is a journey he must travel alone."
Chris frowned but didnt argue. He wasnt sure that in Vins state of mind, being alone was such a good idea, but Vin had come here searching for peace and his friend felt like he could find it here. So, for now, he would let things ride.
Yellowhawk, the elder, finished his breakfast and left the table. Just as Chris was finishing, he heard what sounded like a hammer hitting a nail. Raising his eyebrows, he looked at Maria.
"We are building a new room, for the baby," she explained.
Knowing Tommy had gone to the school to finish up last minute details on the graduation ceremony, Chris wondered if the builder was the old man. His suspicions grew stronger when he observed the long pause between blows. Pouring himself another cup of coffee, he wandered outside toward the sounds.
The hammering had stopped. As Chris came into view, he could see the Indian laboriously trying to maneuver a long 2 x 4 into position. Quickly, Chris set down his coffee and hurried to help him. Taking the board, Chris placed it where he indicated then watched as the old man slowly walked over to pick up some nails and the hammer. He carried them back to Chris and handed them to him.
Surprised, Chris took them and even more surprised when the ancient one grinned and winked. The ATF agent shook his head and chuckled, what the hell, he didnt have anything better to do but worry about Vin.
He set to work, but paused when he heard a low chuckle. He looked up and then around, the old man was nowhere to be seen.
Tommy arrived home later that afternoon to find Larabee had completed the frame for the new room and was starting to cut the plywood for the walls.
He whistled in appreciation, handing Chris a cold lemonade and a towel.
Taking both, the older man smiled. "Id forgotten how good it feels to build things."
Yellowhawk nodded. "Youve done a great job. Is this Grandpas doin?"
Wiping his face and bared chest with the towel, he said, smiling, "Your grandfather is a special man."
"Yeah," the other man agreed warmly.
Regarding the agent intently, the Indian observed, "You and Vin are real close."
Guardedly, unsure where this conversation was going, Chris replied, "Yeah."
Measuring the mans expression carefully, Yellowhawk asked, "Enough to help him, even if you dont understand or believe in what is going on?"
Chris had no idea what the man was talking about. His knowledge of Native Americans was as good as or maybe a little better than most non-natives since he was an American history buff, but he knew his knowledge of their beliefs and traditions was almost nil. Like most people, it seemed to him, to be shrouded in a cloud of mysticism that might be beyond his understanding. However, this was his best friend and that friend needed help. He was willing to suspend his own beliefs, or lack thereof, and any skepticism he might have, to help Vin.
"Yes, I would." The firm resolve in the mans tone was obvious,
Grinning, Tommy said, "OK, lets go."
"Go?" Chris asked, grabbing and pulling on his shirt.
"To Vin," was all the answer he got as they climbed into Tommys truck.
Emotionally, Vin was exhausted. He had come to this spot just before sunrise. He had discovered the place several years ago when he was looking for other answers, for some peace, for some balance. On this ledge, overlooking the Badlands, he had watched the magnificent sunrise. He always felt so small and insignificant in the majesty of that spectacle. Yet, it always made him grateful that the Creator had seen fit to place him in a position to see and feel the wonder of it.
Now, it was that very position he questioned. Why? Why had he been driving down that street? Why him when that girl ran out in front of his jeep? What made him get out to help her? Why did they both die? Why couldnt he help them?
He knew there really werent any answers. It was just the way things were. Now, he just needed to find a way to live with it. Hed been down this road before.
Throughout the day he had relived those minutes (God, had it only been a matter of minutes?) a hundred times. He wasnt any closer to answers, but out here in the vastness of this incredible sample of Creation, he was taking the first steps toward peace.
Suddenly overhead, an eagle soared into his line of sight. All other thoughts left him as he watched the noble bird swoop, dive and make graceful, lazy circles in the sky. At the moment, this deadly raptor wasnt the efficient hunter; it was simply one of the Creators children enjoying being alive.
With a final piercing scream, the eagle made a last dive and flew out of sight and Vin knew it was time to take the closing steps in his cleansing journey.
As he rounded the crest, he wasnt surprised to find them waiting, but after fasting for almost twenty-four hours, the scene definitely had surreal qualities.
Parked some distance away were the two modern vehicles. Close by, the men had built a structure as old as time, a sweat lodge. There, sitting around an open fire, were Tommy and Jim Yellowhawk and Chris Larabee.
The three men stood as Vin approached. Nodding to the two Indians, he locked eyes with his best friend. As he had so many times in the past, he saw the complete faith and support this man gave him, that meant so much to him.
Without saying a word, the men stripped, first going to a nearby creek to bathe, they then entered the lodge, which the Yellowhawks had already prepared. On the way to the site, Tommy had briefed Chris on the ceremony. He wouldnt participate. He was there solely to support Vin. He was also told that if, at anytime, he felt he wasnt able to withstand the heat and/or the humidity; he could leave, with understanding.
Hours later the men emerged. Vin was the last to crawl out of the small opening. Lack of food, some dehydration and the sweat ceremony left him feeling weak and slightly dizzy. Chris and Tommy helped him to stand and move to a sleeping bag laid out by the blackened fire pit.
While the Yellowhawks dressed and rebuilt the fire, Chris handed Vin a towel and a bottle of water. The older man put his clothes on, placed Vins beside the younger man, grabbed a bottle of water for himself and knelt down next to his friend. "You OK?"
By now the fire was going strong, so Chris was able to see the expression on Vins face and the light in his eyes. When Vin met Chriss eyes, he could see the peace there. "Yeah, Im OK."
The young agent put his clothes on then accepted a mug of warm soup and a hunk of bread from his Lakota friend. He ate slowly, savoring the rich taste with newly refreshed senses. He covertly watched Chris, wondering at how this experience affected his friend.
As if reading his mind, Chris looked at Vin and Vin saw the wonder there. The young man knew that his battle-hardened friend had experienced some of the wonder of the inipi.
Chris smiled, shaking his head. He didnt understand it, didnt understand the words to the prayers or songs, but something had happened in there, something that left him feeling more at peace with himself than he had in a long time. Part of it, he tried to rationalize was probably a reflection of Vins sense of well-being, but Again shaking his head, he decided maybe it was best not to think about it. He didnt consider himself a religious or spiritual man. Most things, he found, had a logical explanation, but what he had felt in there , then again maybe he was just being sensitive to the atmosphere, although he thought, chuckling to himself, he didnt consider himself a particularly sensitive person.
Vin could almost hear the war going on inside his friends head, but the sweat is a very personal experience and Vin would wait for the time if or when Chris wanted to talk about it.
After the men had rested for awhile, they put out the fire, dismantled the lodge, and returned the landscape to much of its former self, and then they returned home.
The next morning all four men woke rested and for the two agents, the new day dawned on a new and refreshed outlook on life. Breakfast was eaten amidst the easy conversation of men who had experienced something special together, as if they shared a secret, which, in fact, they did.
"So Vin, you havent forgotten how to dance, have you?" Tommy enquired, figuring that Larabee wouldnt know about this aspect of Tanners life. His suspicions were confirmed when Vins head ducked in embarrassment and after and initial surprised look, Larabees eyes took on a wicked gleam.
"Why Vin, you never told me you danced." the team leader teased.
Vin squirmed and scowled but didnt say anything.
"Yeah, Vin does one mean sneak-up," Tommy offered.
Vin shot daggers at his old friend.
Seeing that he had pushed Tanner about as far as was safe, the younger Yellowhawk grew serious. "Hey man, kidding aside, we would be honored if you would dance with us wichasha."
Vin looked up sharply at the honor title, then he looked at the elder Yellowhawk, who smiled and nodded.
"I dont know its been a long time," Vin hesitated.
"Your spirit will remember," affirmed Jim Yellowhawk.
Slowly the young man nodded, "OK, sure, it will be an honor."
"Did you bring the feather?" Tommy asked.
"Good. Ill add it to your regalia and then well go on over to the school to help set up for the graduation and the dance."
"OK," the other two said in unison.
Chris went with Vin to retrieve the parfleche Tommy had given him when he was in the hospital. As the young man gently removed it from his gear, he looked at Chris. He could see the question in his friends eyes but knew he would never ask.
Vin untied the bindings and removed the red-dyed feather. Holding it where Chris could see it, he explained, "Its a coup feather, an eagle feather given t warriors tha have proven themselves in battle. Its dyed red t signify tha th warrior was wounded."
Chris could tell by the expression on Vins face, how moved he was to have received this honor. Knowing that words were insignificant, Chris squeezed his friends shoulder.
Chris sat on the sidelines as the dancers made their way into the circle. After the graduation ceremony, Vin had donned the regalia of a Lakota Traditional dancer, explaining the symbolism behind each article of the costume. His coup feather was now part of the porcupine roach he wore on his head. The ATF leader could tell he was self-conscious, but the other dancers seemed genuinely pleased that he was there.
As his friend watched, the singers started beating their drum in the center of the circle,and then added the vocables of the honor song for the new graduates. Chris stared in surprise and amazement as Vin gracefully began the dance. Soon, the swaying of the feathers, the rhythm of the drum and the blur of colors as the various dancers whirled by, held him mesmerized.
He heard the eagle-bone whistle when Vin blew it and high overhead he heard an answering cry. Looking up he saw an eagle soaring majestically, as if in time to the music, and for this moment in time, all was right with the world, for Vin was dancing with eagles.
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Note: I have placed Vin in the regalia of a Northern Traditional dancer. This dance represents the scouts and the trackers of a hunting or war party. The eagle in Lakota belief, represents healing.