Vin got the boys up early the next morning and while they were eating breakfast he said, "I saw sign of elk yesterday. Would you like to hunt elk today?"
Both boys nodded.
"Alright, well see what we can find. Wind, you carry my rifle and Ill carry the mares leg. Well take Peso, this time, to pack out the meat."
It wasnt long before Vin found sign, and pointed it out to the boys. "Wind, you go on ahead and see if you can come up on the young elk. Ferret and I will follow." Vin wanted the boy to have a chance to track on his own.
Vin and Ferret lay on the hill, watching Wind sneak up on the young bull elk grazing below. Vin was prepared to step in if Wind missed or didnt get a clean kill. Elk werent like deer and some turned on their hunter to fight.
Vin was so focused on Wind that he was unaware of the mature bull that was coming from behind. At the sound of Winds shots, the bull elk bellowed and charged down the hill. Vin turned, and pushing Ferret out of the way, he raised the mares leg and fired. The bull bellowed again but before Vin could get off another shot, he was tossed through the air like a rag doll by the six foot span of antlers. Landing hard, the air knocked out of his lungs he couldnt move. The elk lowered his head and scooped Vin up and tossed him over his shoulder again. Then he turned to stomp the object of his pain.
Ferret watched and crept toward the mares leg Vin had dropped. Picking it up, the seven year old leaned into the stock and began firing. Over and over he shot until it was empty. With the last shots still echoing the 1700 pound bull fell to his knees and then side. His antlers piercing the still form as he fell. One of the tines in Vins left side the branch staking the trackers outstretched right arm to the ground.
Ferret stood, breathing hard, not even aware of the spreading bruise on his shoulder from the recoil of the gun.
Wind ran up beside him. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, but Cricket is not."
Both boys approached the monster animal with care, not sure he was dead. The heavy head lay across Vins legs, the extension of the antlers dug into the ground preventing it from crushing them. They could see blood seeping from Vins side and arm.
"Go get Peso. We can not lift the head without him," Wind ordered Ferret. Nodding, Ferret, ran off and Wind approached the prone figure of his friend. He placed a small hand on Vins cheek. "Cricket?" There was no answer but he could feel a weak pulse.
Ferret came running back leading a snorting Peso. Wind took the reins, and looking Peso in the eye, stroked his soft nose. "I need your help, Peso. Cricket is pinned to the ground and you must help Ferret and I get the elk off him."
Pesos eyes darted to the dead animal, his ears flicking back and forth then he blew softly out his nose. Taking that as an agreement, Wind took the rope off the saddle and tying one end around the upright antler, he tied the other on the saddle horn. "Ferret, come lead Peso away. He must lift the antlers off Cricket."
Ferret grabbed Pesos reins, and talking softly led the horse away. The rope became taut and groaned as it stretched. Peso dug in his heels and pulled. The head was heavy, maybe 200 pounds and Peso had to work hard to move it.
With a sickening sucking sound, the antler pulled out of the ground. It lifted Vins arm, at first, then the arm dropped as the tine came free. As the tine in his side tore out the semiconscious man screamed in pain and curled around his wounded side. Ferret made Peso pull until the head and horns were twisted back away from Vins body. Only when Wind signaled did he ease Peso back, allowing the head to fall harmlessly to the ground.
Ferret ground tied Peso and ran to his brothers side. Wind was on his knees beside Vins head talking to the semiconscious man. Vins eyes were mere slits of pain.
Vin rolled his head toward the sound but he couldnt quite see who it was or understand what they were saying. He tried to reach up with his hand and the movement sent agony up his arm. Groaning, he gave in to the darkness that called him.
Wind sat back on his heels and tried to remember what his mother had taught him. Taking the bandana from around Vins neck, he wrapped the wound on Vins arm. The punctures were half way between wrist and elbow. He tied it tightly, hoping to stop the bleeding.
Over his shoulder he called, "Look in the saddlebags and get me something for a bandage." Wind gently opened the buckskinned coat and looked at the large wound just below the ribs. The antler had ripped out, rather than pulled out, and there was a jagged slice longer then Winds hands.
Taking the cloth Ferret had found, he pressed it into the torn flesh and tied it tight, hoping the bleeding would stop. Looking up, he ordered, "Bring Peso over here close, then hand me the canteen." Taking the canteen from his brother Wind splashed a little cold water on Vins face. "Cricket? Cricket wake up. You must help us. Ferret and I cannot lift you. Cricket?"
The gentle slaps and water brought Vin back, and he managed to ask. "Ferret you okay?"
"We are both fine, Cricket. You must try to get up, and on Peso so we can go back to our camp."
Vin looked at Wind then twisted his head to look up at Peso. He really didnt think moving was a good idea but couldnt think why, until he did move. Hissing at the pain that seemed to encompass him, he slowly reached for the stirrup but stopped when the pain in his arm became too much. Trying again, with his left hand, he managed to grasp the stirrup but when he pulled it set the wound in his side on fire.
Gritting his teeth, Vin continued to try to sit up and then stand, barely aware of the support the slight boys next to him offered. He managed to stand and leaned heavily against Peso, his face covered with sweat. Right arm wrapped tightly around his middle holding the pain in both places, his head spinning, he whispered, "Wind, Im gonna need you to boost me some when I try to mount. Okay?"
Both boys nodded.
Taking a deep breath, Vin raised his foot into the stirrup and pulled himself up. Gritting his teeth so hard he felt they would crack, he managed to get high enough to throw his leg over the saddle. Practically lying across Pesos back, Vin managed to gasp, "Get us to camp."
Ferret led Peso and Wind walked at Vins side, wondering if he could catch his friend if he had too.
Vin held tightly to the saddle horn trying with all his might to stay wake. He knew two small boys could not move him if he fell off Peso. He had to stay in the saddle. His head swam from dizziness, and his stomach rolled, he knew he was still losing blood. Please dont let me die and leave the boys alone up here. I gotta take care of m boys
Suddenly, Wind was shaking his arm, saying. "Cricket, wake up. We need you to get down."
Vin raised his head and looked around. They were back at camp and Wind had gotten Peso to stand still beside the lean to. All Vin had to do was get down and he could lie down in the shade. But it was so far. It took all his will and strength to lift his right leg over the saddle and slide down the side of the horse. Finally, he felt the ground under his feet, and opening his eyes, he slowly let go of the saddle and stumbled the few steps to his blankets. Trying not to fall on his wounded side he fell to his knees and then stretched out flat on the pad.
Wind tried to roll him over and once he was lying with his left side exposed the boy looked at the bandages. The one on his side was red and slick with blood. Frowning, he said, "Youre still bleeding Cricket. I dont know how to stop it."
Vin tried to raise his head and look at the wound but it took to much energy. He reached with his fingers, touching the wet ragged edges. Vin tried to think clearly so he could tell the boys what to do to stop the bleeding. Even thinking seems to use an enormous amount of energy.
Looking at Wind he saw a determined boy having to face things way too early in his life.
"Ferret, you need to go take one of the cups and get some thick mud from the stream bed. No rocks, just mud."
Ferret nodded and took off.
"Wind, when he gets back you must pack the wound with mud. The mud will stop the bleeding. You cant stitch it; its the easiest way I can think to make the bleeding stop. Do you understand? First the mud then the bandages, Im sorry, Wind, I dont know if Ill be able to tell you what to do as we go. I may pass out, you understand?"
Wind, eyes huge, swallowed and nodded.
Vin took several breaths to gain some control over the pain, then he started again. "Get some blankets and roll them up behind me sos I cant roll away from you. Go get them now."
Wind stood and went over to the packs. Bringing the blankets back he rolled them and propped Vin up on his side.
The mud had to work otherwise hed bleed out before the night was over. He carefully reached down and moved his shirt and long johns out of the way. It was then that he felt the piercing agony in his arm. Looking at it, he saw the matching holes. There was little blood but moving his fingers felt like bone scraping against bone. Mentally shrugging, he pushed away the thought of the arm for the more urgent problem.
"Heres the mud, Cricket."
"You can do this, Wind. Ferret, help me lift my arm and guide it to the tree." When Vin felt the rough bark he grabbed a hold of it squeezing until his knuckles were white with strain. "Now, h hold the two sides together and pack the mud over the wound, press it in then take the bandage folded up and place it over the mud. Ill be as still as I can. Ferret, get behind me and help Wind wrap a bandage around me. Well get this done."
Wind took a deep breath and holding the wound closed with one hand, he packed the thick clay like mud against it, layering it over the entire area. Then taking the folded bandage, he laid it over the fresh mud. Afterward, taking the long strip of muslin he and Ferret wrapped it around Vin twice before tying it off.
Wind sat back on his heels letting himself look at Cricket. But Cricket had passed out, so he looked at his brother instead. He could see the fear in Ferrets eyes but he couldnt think of anything to say to lessen it. "Take the blankets away; we will roll Cricket over and let him sleep. We must make something to eat and take care of Peso."
Ferret nodded and started helping his brother, glad for something to do. When he reached over and moved Vins right arm he noticed the forgotten puncture wound. "Wind, what about this."
Wind looked at where Ferret was pointing. He pushed up the sleeve and looked at the nickel sized hole. "I dont know. Well wash it good and ask Cricket when he wakes up. Its not bleeding so it can wait."
+ + + + + + +
Vin lay very still. He hurt all over. Especially on his left side, but it was his arm that screamed agony when he moved. The early morning light filtered through the trees and gave little help to Vin as he tried to see what was wrong with his arm. He raised his head a little and then dropped it down. It just hurt too much. He tried to raise his arm, but that was an even worse idea. The pain shot through him, causing him to try to curl around the injured limb. What . What was going on? What happened to me? Think Tanner. Youre in the mountains with Wind and Ferret. We were hunting yesterday .. Realization hit him, The Elk .The boys.
"Wind? Ferret?" His voice was dry and whispery. He felt movement beside him.
"Were here, Cricket. Are you better? We made you some willow tea. Mother makes it for us when were sick."
Vin looked at the small boy. "Some tea would be great. Im really thirsty. How long have I been asleep?"
"Since yesterday. Since we packed your side with mud. The bleeding stopped, Cricket."
Vin tried to remember what had happened. "Are you two alright?"
"We are fine. Cricket, I should ride to get you some help."
"No, Im fine. Its too dangerous for you to try that. Someone might see you."
"But you need help."
"No, Wind. Ill be fine. You did a good job and Ill be up in a day or two. Now help me sit up and let me drink some of that tea."
Vin struggled to sit up without putting any pressure on his throbbing arm. Once he was sitting, he sipped at the bitter brew and waited for it to work. He looked down at his injured arm. Even through his shirt he could see it was swollen. When he rolled up the sleeve he could see and feel the hot stretched skin. There was no drainage from the puncture wound and the skin was puckered around it.
"Wind, take my knife and heat it in the coals."
Wind nodded and went to the fire. Vins head began to throb in time with his arm. This wasnt something he wanted to do. He closed his eyes, Wish you were here, Cowboy. But wishing never got him anything. In a few minutes Wind came back with the heated knife.
"Now cool it with clean water. Get the brown bottle from my pack."
The metal hissed from the water. Then Wind handed the knife to Vin.
Vin nodded. "Okay, we got to drain the sickness out of my arm and then pour some of Nathans healing water from the bottle on it. But only after we finish draining it."
Vin braced his arm against his leg, and with the tip, opened the sealed wound. Vin set his jaw against the pain as he laid down the knife and began squeezing. Black blood and pus poured out. Wind, using large leaves, wiped it away as it flowed out. He threw the leaves in the fire after each wipe.
Finally, the opened wound showed only bright new blood. Licking his lips, Vin said, "Open the bottle and pour some on my arm and some on the folded bandage."
Wind nodded and did as Vin said. The carbolic stung like fire as it poured over the tender flesh.
Vin hissed but managed to wrap the wet bandage around his arm. By the time he finished he was breathing in short pants. Leaning back, Vin closed his eyes and waited for the shaking to calm.
"Wind, get fresh bandages and the brown tin of sulfur salve, and well see to my side as well."
The boy brought more strips of muslin and sat them beside Vin.
Vin licked his lips. "Now after you take off the bandages gently pry the dried mud off. Then wash the wound with water, after that pat some of the salve on the wound and then re-wrap it."
Wind nodded and carefully did what Vin told him. By the time he was finished, Vins breathing was ragged with pain again. Wind waited until Vins breathing smoothed out. "Would you like some stew?"
Vin opened one eye. The thought of eating made his stomach roll but he knew he needed to eat. "Perhaps, a small cup of stew, Wind. Wheres Ferret?" Vin frowned suddenly realizing the younger boy was missing.
"Hes gathering more wood and branches. It looks like it might snow tonight and we need to close up the lean to some more. Its very cold outside." Wind handed the cup to Vin.
Vin sipped slowly. The warm broth felt good on his throat and it tasted good too. His stomach settled as he ate. "Thats good. You can go help him. I I think Ill sleep some." He scooted down trying to get comfortable and was soon asleep.
The boys worked all afternoon gathering wood and making the lean to more weather proof. They fed and watered Peso and the filly and picketed them where they could get out of the wind but still graze the lush mountain grass.
They stacked firewood around the base of the lean to, so that it would be close, but it also served as an extra wind break. They had enclosed the small fire pit inside so that the now almost closed in shelter was warmed by the fire.
Wind brewed more healing tea and they ate again. They tried to stay busy. Being busy meant they didnt have to think about what needed to be done or worry about what they might miss.
Vin woke twice, drank the tea and went back to sleep. He said very little as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He never noticed the rising heat inside him or the increased throbbing in his arm.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was waiting in front of the boarding house when the others rode by. Josiah was driving the wagon. Somewhere hed found an old Conestoga wagon still covered by its canvas top.
"Excellent, Mr. Sanchez. If you would be so kind, I have two trunks to be loaded." Josiah got down from the wagon seat and lowered the tail gate."
"Whats in there, Ezra?"
"Tools of the trade, Mr. Sanchez. Im very pleased you found such a large wagon."
"Well need a large one to bring all our kids back."
"Yes, of course."
As Ezra climbed into the wagon Buck looked Ezra over. "You dont look like any priest I ever knew Ezra."
Ezra glanced at Buck raising an eyebrow. "Tell me, Mr. Wilmington, just how many priests have you known?"
"Morn my share, Ez, and they never once wore green coats."
"Well, sir, I have not yet donned my priestly persona. But I promise when I do so there will be no doubt as to whom I am."
JD laughed. "He said when hes ready youll know for sure who he is."
Ezra sat down beside Josiah and they started off. Ezra looked at Josiah. "Tell me, Mr. Sanchez, hows your French?"
Josiah glanced at Ezra one eyebrow lifting. "Better than my Chinese. We spent some time in New Orleans when I was a boy."
"Then we shall do wonderfully, Mr. Sanchez. You shall translate my poor English, n est ce pas for the benefit of the Army."
Josiah smiled his full toothed smile. "Oui bien sur."
Nathan followed Chris down the stairs. "I dont know that its a good idea for you to be riding. Its goin to be a long day and youre still pissin some blood."
"Nathan!" Chris hissed at the healer. "Why dont you shout it from the roof top. Then everyone will know. Im fine. If the riding gets too rough I can always ride in the wagon."
Nathan stood, lips pursed together, watching Chris carefully climb into the saddle. Sure you will, Chris Larabee. I can see it now. "Nathan I dont feel well, I think Ill ride in the wagon for a while. You were so right, I wasnt ready to ride." Yeah! In a pigs eye. Damn stubborn gunslinger. Dont know why I bother.
Chris turned Pony to face Nathan. "You coming, or are you going to stand there like an old woman sucking on something sour."
Nathan, being a person of great self control, mounted up and vowed that next time hed dose that smug gunslinger with a really good tonic and teach him a thing or two.
They rode in silence for some time stopping only to rest the horses and to eat the lunch that Inez had packed them. By late afternoon, Chris came up beside the wagon. "Were coming up on a nice camping spot. Were only a couple hours out side of Engle. If we ride in tomorrow morning we can get out of there hopefully by noon. With fresh horses, we can get back home by late tomorrow night with any luck."
"Excellent, Mr. Larabee. This wagon seat is becoming rather hard. I can prepare myself tomorrow before we leave." Ezra did not fail to notice the white knuckled hold Chris had on the saddle horn.
Chris stiffly got down and JD was there to grab the reins. "Ill take care of Pony for you, Chris."
Nathan watched, "Get yo self over there under that shade, such as it is, and rest. It wont do us any good if youre sick tomorrow from being stubborn." Then it worried Nathan that Chris didnt argue but carefully lowered himself down. He checked back later to find the man sound asleep, confident enough that the others had his back that he could sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Very early the next morning Ezra began unpacking his trunks while Josiah watched.
Mr. San . Josiah, are you sure youre okay with this. Perhaps one of the others could take your place."
"No, I told you Im fine. Had me a long talk with the Lord over this little charade and we agreed that its for the children and I should do this.."
"Very good, Mr. Sanchez, or should I say Brother Josiah. I have a cassock for you. I think it should fit. I shall go inside the wagon and prepare."
Josiah held the cassock at arms length and looked over the coarse brown cloth. Shaking his head and sighing deeply, he slipped it over his head and looked down at the sandals that Ezra had left. "Ez, theres no way these sandals will fit."
A muffled voice came from inside the wagon. "Well, do what ever you must, Brother Josiah to make the right impression."
The men waited with the horses snorting and stamping their impatience to be gone. Finally, as the sun came over the eastern mountains, a small, elderly priest emerged from the wagon.
His hair was silver and gold and his face a mass of wrinkles. Behind the wire spectacles, green eyes sparkled. The shoulders were slightly stooped and the gentleman held a fine hickory walking stick to steady his walk. He wore a little round hat with what looked like a pom pom on top.
"Well, mes amis, are we not ready to leave yet? Le Frere Josiah, do you not have the horses ready so we can rescue our children?" Came the thin high voice of old age.
Everyone stood staring at the man with mouths open. Buck smiled his biggest shit eating grin. "Well, damn, Ezra, Ida never known ya."
The old man smiled. "That, Mr. Wilmington is precisely the point," came Ezras natural voice. Then smiling the benign smile of old age, with a shaky voice, he asked, "and, mon ami, how long has it been since your last confession?"
Flustered Buck backpedaled, "Well, uh, uh, oh hell, Ez, you cant hear confession. Can ya?"
Chris snorted and turned to Pony, telling the others, "Lets ride." Mounting he turned the horse, and looked at Ezra now sitting on the wagon seat. "You sure that this will work."
"Mr. Larabee, one never knows for sure if a sting will work, but we have a good chance." Ezra shrugged, adding, "We can only try."
After an hours ride, the men stopped before coming into view of the rail head. Each wore a grim expression.
"Gentlemen, I feel it best if everyone stay here and just Josiah and I go down into the camp."
Nathan spoke up before anyone could protest. "Listen, we all need to rest. We gotta be ready when they get back." The whole time his eyes were on Chris.
Dismounting, Nathan followed Chris.
"Im fine Nathan."
"Sure ya are. Hows your pee? Still bloody?"
"Not so bad. Its better, Nate, just a little pink this morning. The headache is a dull one now and the ribs are still sore. But Ill do."
Nathan grinned back at the frown. "I never doubted it, Chris Larabee. Just not sure how youre gonna stand up to twenty or so scared kids. Now, before you raise a fuss, I want you to rest while were waiting. Its gonna be a long trip back."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah slapped the reins, and after taking a deep breath, they started down the hill to the teeming rail camp. All along the dusty street there were groups of frightened, but stoic, Indian children, the older ones hugging the younger ones protectively. Everywhere there were soldiers, none who appeared to be happy to be there.
Josiah drove the wagon to what looked like the officers official tent. As he pulled the horses to a stop, one of the guards stepped forward.
"You cant stop here."
Ezra peered over his spectacles and muttered something to Josiah in French. Then he turned back to the young man.
"But my dear young man, this is precisely where I want to be. I insist you take me to the person in charge." Ezra thumped his cane on the wagon floor.
Josiah quietly got down, and reaching up he helped Ezra down. Then he stood behind the seemingly elderly priest, hands tucked under the flap of his cassock. He kept his head down and waited for Ezra to work his magic.
"I insist, young man, that you get your, mmm, boss?" Turning toward Josiah he whispered loudly in French. "Is that the right word, Frere?"
"Oui, mon Pere, boss will do."
Ezra nodded his head. "Oui, I must talk to your boss. I must have mes enfants returned." Ezra pounded his cane on the ground in emphasis.
At that moment Agent Haycock came out. "Whats going on here?"
Ezra managed to appear to be looking up at Haycock. "Ah, at last a man of authority. My name is Pere Emile Saunier. This is my assistant, Fere Josiah, we are here to get mes enfants, my children."
"Your chil ..Im afraid theres been some mistake. The only children here are Indian children bound for boarding school."
"Yes, yes " Ezra said impatiently. "But the group of children you picked up a day or two ago are my children. I and my assistant have been working with these people for months. We are in the process of building a school and a church. Is that not so Brother, you are building a Church?"
"Oui, mon Pere. I am building a church." Josiah smiled to himself. Ezra was a wonder; so far he hasnt lied.
Haycock looked suspiciously from the priest to his giant companion. "Nevertheless, these children have been assigned to the Carlisle School. Theres nothing I can do." Turning as to dismiss Ezra, Haycock started back inside the tent.
Ezra took a step closer. "Another moment, if you please. I have here a copy of your charter. Yes? It states in, ummm?" Again he mumbled in French.
"Page ninety-seven paragraph eight. " Josiah said in English.
"Yes, yes, page ninety-seven, paragraph eight, "That if there is a school or a religious establishment already in place at a native village the children of said village, shall be left under local care."
Haycock began sputtering. But Ezra thrust the mound of paper under his nose and the priest began to demand shrilly and loudly. "I want mes enfants, would you refuse Mother Church her right to teach these poor enfants." Ezra raised his cane shaking it in Haycocks face and then pounding it into the ground.
The noise attracted the attention of everyone. Haycock looked around nervously, "Fine, if the children recognize you, you may have them."
Ezra nodded his head. "Bon."
Haycock spun around and strutted swiftly down the way.
Josiah helped Ezra into the wagon, and then leading the horses, followed the furious agent. They stopped at one group. Josiahs anger began to grow. These were children he knew. Children hed been with. They stared up at him fearfully.
In the language of the People Josiah said. "Fear not, friends of Cricket. You are safe, come to me."
Haycock looked at one of the scouts. "Well, what did he say?" He demanded.
The scout shook his head. "He say not be afraid, friends of cricket."
The scout snorted, and said, "It is a noisy bug."
Haycock lifted his nose. "I know what a cricket is."
The children looked carefully at Josiah and then slowly went to him. The youngest, a small girl tugged on his robe.
"Hello, Bright Flower."
The little girl whispered. "Are you taking us home, Josiah? I want to go home. I want my mama."
Josiah picked up the little girl, "Yes, Flower, the Father and I are taking all of you home. See, we even brought a wagon for you to ride in." Looking up at the other children. "Quickly, before the white man changes his mind, get in the wagon. The other friends of Cricket wait over the hill. We will have you home by tonight."
The children jumped up and scrambled into the wagon, sitting on the blankets laid on the wagon bed. When the last was loaded, Josiah climbed onto the wagon seat, and nodding at Ezra, he headed out. It broke his heart to see all the other children watching; but he couldnt save them all. He stopped looking to the sides and looked only down the dusty road, driving the wagon.
Ezra was not so lucky, for he could not stop looking and saw all the dejected faces, the smaller ones tear streaked, and the older set in determined bravery. They were trying so hard not to show how scared they were, and how much they missed their families. "How in Gods sweet name could people do this? Rip children from their families and force them so far from everything they know." The motto of the school came back to haunt him again. "Kill the Indian and save the Man." But these children already looked like the walking dead.
Ezra gripped his cane. If nothing he was a practical man, and he knew in his heart that they had managed to save their children, and he should count that as a great victory over bureaucracy. But it still left him sad and angry.
They rode quickly over the hill and stopped where the other were waiting. Nathan went over, and lifting the tarp, glanced into the back of the wagon. "Any of yall hurt?"
The children shook their heads, they knew Nathan too, and werent afraid of him.
"Yall hungry? I got some biscuits and some apples, some canteens of water, too. We got to keep moving but when you need to stop just tell Josiah."
Then the men mounted and rode out. Not surprisingly, none of the children complained or asked to stop. Ezra wiping the age off his face climbed over the seat and sat down with them. "Well my children, we shall have you home safe by tonight."
An hour later Josiah glanced back to find the younger ones asleep, piled up around Ezra like puppies. Little Bright Flower was sitting in his lap, her head on his shoulder. Ezra looked up and smiled contently at Josiah. Smiling back, Josiah clicked the reins and they kept moving.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slowly opened his eyes. In the semi darkness he looked around. He tried not to move; afraid the pain that surged through his body would increase. He looked up at the smoke hole and could see the tiny snow flakes falling. Its snowing? Where..?
Where are the boys?
Vin looked around, risking more pain. There was no one with him and the fire was down to bright embers and a small flame. Moving woke the intense throbbing in his arm. Taking a breath Vin lifted his arm. It was swollen again to twice its usual size. His fingers looked like fat sausages. Gonna have to lance it again His thoughts drifted, unable to complete what hed been thinking. Where are the boys? was his last thought before he drifted back to sleep.
Outside, Wind and Ferret gathered wood, stacking it on the sides of the lean to for protection against the mounting snow.
"We need to get help, Wind."
"I know, but Cricket said not to go, its too dangerous."
"It doesnt matter anymore what he said. Hes getting sicker and we dont know how to help him. Weve cleaned out his arm three times and its not doing any good."
Wind frowned laying down his armload of wood. "I know. Do .do you think you could go down the mountain and find Chris? He could get Nathan to come."
"Yes, I know I could."
Wind looked at the cloudy sky. Its too late today. Youll have to go first thing tomorrow morning."
"Perhaps if you ride Peso he will know the way to Chris and he is a wise horse."
"I will, Peso likes me, I trust him more then the filly."
Their minds made up and having a plan they went inside the lean to and built up the fire. They added fresh snow to the stew to make more and stirred it. It was all they had now and it must last Vin and Wind while Ferret rode for help.
+ + + + + + +
Vin felt movement around him and struggled to open his eyes. When he finally succeeded, he saw the face of a boy. "W Wind?"
"Yes, Cricket, it is I."
Wind looked around. It was relatively warm inside the lean to. He reached out and touched Vins forehead. It was very hot. "You have a fever, Cricket. That is why you are cold. I must change the poultice on your side now."
Vin opened his eyes again. "Alright. Whe .where are we?"
"In the mountains, remember, we came up here to get away from the bad white men."
Vin swallowed and licked his dry lips. "We? Ferret? Wheres Ferret?"
Wind pointed, "Over there, hes making the poultice for me."
Vin slowly turned his head, squinting to see the other boy. "Oh, m thirsty."
"I have some tea for you. Here." Wind lifted Vins head and helped him slowly sip the brew. He was grateful Vin was drinking now because when he finished changing the poultice he was going to have to take care of the arm, and that would be very painful.
"Cricket, I must lance your arm again an drain the poison out."
"Mmm, I know. M sorry Wind not taking good care of you."
"You are hurt. We take care of you."
Wind unwound the bandage and removed the old poultice. The wound was healing and there was no sign of bleeding. He smeared the warm poultice over the affected area, and placing a clean bandage over the wound, the long strip around Vins narrow middle.
Then he took Vins right arm and stretched it out away from Vins body. Taking the tip of the knife he again sliced through the skin, letting the corruption run free. When it slowed he pressed on the sides to force more out. Only when it was bright blood did he stop. He ignored the trembling in the arm and packing the open wound with more of the poultice, he bound it loosely. Only then did he glance at Vins face.
Vins eyes were closed and his lower lip was red from biting. Vin breathed in short quick breaths and when he felt Winds eyes on him he opened his. "Its fine, Wind, you did a good job."
Wind nodded, and asked, "Can you drink more tea or maybe some broth?"
Vin considered it, and said, "Not now, later maybe. I .I think Ill sleep now."
Wind watched as his friend slipped into sleep again. He tried not to show it but he was scared. He didnt know what else to do for Cricket, and the bad weather frightened him, too.
He glanced at Ferret and nodded. They ate and then lay down snuggled together. Wind watched the fire and kept it burning bright. He wished his mother were here, or Grandfather. They would know the right thing to do.
Just before dawn the clouds cleared and the bright moon shone down on the snow. This was good because it made it light enough to see, but it also made it much colder than it had been.
Wind took one of the blankets and slit it in the middle for Ferrets head to go through. The sides fell down almost to his wrists and Wind wound the back side to the front overlapping them with the front and tying them with a string. They took strips of blanket and wrapped them around Ferrets legs and punched holes in a pair of Vins socks to make mittens.
Crunching out through the snow to where the horses were, Wind put a blanket on Peso while Ferret slipped the hand warmed bit into his mouth. Leaning close, Ferret whispered. "Peso, Cricket is very sick and you and I must ride to save him. I would not ask this of you but you are wiser then the filly and you know the way to Chris place. Peso, we must ride fast and bring Crickets brothers back to save him. You must help me." Ferret rubbed Pesos nose and forehead. The horses ears flicked back and forth, as if he were listening to every word. Then he snorted softly into Ferrets hand. Ferret placed his cheek on Pesos nose. "Thank you, my brother. We will ride together."
Wind gave Ferret a leg up, and then placing one small hand on Ferrets foot, looked into his brothers eyes. "Be safe, brother."
"I will return with help."
Wind nodded, stepping back, and watched his little brother ride away in the early morning light. Fate had forgotten that they were only small boys and forced them into doing a mans job.
+ + + + + + +
It was well after dark when the dogs in the village announced that some one was coming.
The wagon pulled to a stop in front of Kojays lodge. Josiah called out softly. "Kojay. We have brought back your children."
Kojay and Grandfather stepped out of the lodge and Chanu stood behind them, his rifle resting in the crook of his arm. Kojay walked over to the wagon, and at Josiahs nod, looked in.
The older children were coming awake and sitting up looking around. JD lowered the tailgate and they started to climb out. Suddenly, overjoyed parents surrounded them as they claimed their children. Fires were built or added to and happiness settled over the once distraught village like a blanket.
Kojay invited the men into his lodge, offering them food and drink. Once the formalities of hospitality were met, he asked, "How is it you return our children to us?"
Chris grinned. "You have Ezra to thank for that. He discovered a way to get the children back, and not have to fight."
Kojays eyes went to the gambler who was once again dressed is his fine green coat. "You saved our children. We thank you."
"It was my pleasure, sir. But there are a few things you must implement in order to keep these governmental boors at arms length."
Kojay looked at Josiah.
"He said he was happy to do it. But that there are some things you must do to keep it from happening again."
"You must start a school here for the children. One that will teach them to read and write, a skill I might add that will serve them well in the future. The government agencies must think that their goal of making the children over in their image is working, even here."
"This will keep the white agents from taking our children again?"
Ezra looked down at his hands. "There are no guarantees in this. But it will help, perhaps long enough for this particular rule to be forgotten."
"It is enough. If they come back we will be prepared for them. We thank you for your help and for bringing our children back. We are in your debt."
Chris shook his head. "Children belong with their families. Vin regards you as family, we could do no less."
Kojay nodded, nothing else need be said.
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