Day four found everyone in about the same positions and the same moods. With the exception of Chris, who was actually getting calmer. That was a scary thought to the people who knew him well. "Look lively boys, company comin'. They look mighty satisfied with themselves and that can't mean nothin' good" Chris spat at the step just before Carter put his foot on it. "Mr.Larabee, good to see you again. Is Judge Travis about this morning?" Chris' answer was to move an inch so that the man could squeeze by him.
"What can I do for you today Carter?" the Judge was buried in another book.
Carter threw a piece of paper down on the desk. "Seems we are called back two days sooner than expected on an emergency. We are going to have to finish our business here tomorrow and then leave first thing in the morning"
"What exactly do you mean by 'finish your business'?" the Judge had stood up.
"Well, unless we see some sort of pardon in our hands by tomorrow morning, Mr.Vin Tanner is going to have his sentence carried out at 8 am.'
"They can't do that, can they?" JD was almost hopping up and down he was so mad. Chris spat again, as the judge picked up the paper.
"I'm afraid so. This is a telegram telling Judge Carter to finish his dealings here and start back to Texas tomorrow morning on urgent business." Judge Travis looked despondent as he sat back down in the chair. Carter tipped his hat to him as he left the room. Everyone started in an uproar again as soon as he had left the room. Only Chris had heard Vin speak, and everyone turned when Chris asked him what he had said.
"She'll be here. She will keep her word. I bet my life on it."
"You are." Snarled Chris as he stalked from the room.
Nathan went quietly to each man and gave him a shake. He had coffee going and handed out the cups.
"What's up my friend?" asked Josiah without looking at Hannah.
"We have some serious decisions to make here. I have done all I can. I have thought hard about this. There is some serious infection and I don't have the medicines here to treat them. She might have some broken bones in her face, a concussion, and I'm not sure what else. Her mind isn't here; I can't get through to her. The Seminole used to talk about things like this, but I have never seen it before. She can't travel by horseback in this condition." He took a serious look around with his hand on his chin then looked back to the group. " Here is what I think. Someone needs to ride like the devil to get that pardon back by tomorrow. I can stay here to look after Miss Hannah," "I'm not leavin" Buck didn't look like he should be challenged, so Nathan continued. " I have penicillin in my room back in town, and we really need a wagon to move her. I don't think the penicillin will be enough though, I think we need to take her to her people. They are closer than town, and with the wagon we can have her there in a day. We need to split up."
Josiah carefully took the papers out of his pocket and double-checked everything. "It all looks to be in order, I suppose I should go." He started to get up but Ezra gently took the papers from his hand. "I do believe I have the faster mount between us sir, and at this point I desperately need an occupation or I shall go mad" "Josiah put his hand on his shoulder "Ride like the wind friend"
Ezra was mounted and ready to go in minutes, he gave Buck a long look, then looked once more at the helpless body lying there. He put his hand on his breast pocket where the gardenia was pressed in a small booklet and spurred his horse into a gallop. He was gone from sight in minutes.
Josiah was mounted up right behind him and Nathan looked at him in surprise. "Best to have someone watchin' your back, 'specially where life and death are concerned." And he too was gone in a flash.
Buck and Nathan took turns wiping Hannah's head down with cool water and settling down for the wait.
Vin was wondering if he had made enough right choices in his life as he walked down the street. He would have liked to have his hands free, just to swing them one more time. He would have liked to lose himself in her eyes just once, or to smell her scent on the air. Not very many people out to see the happenings. Mary and the Judge fighting with Carter all the way down the street. JD walking silently next to them. Chris was nowhere in sight, but Vin knew he was watching him from somewhere. He let his senses free and turned to see him on top of the saloon with his rifle in hand. Chris was a good friend. Vin knew he would fight for him to the death. He thought himself lucky to have such a friend and wished he could tell him so. He could sense something was terribly wrong with Hannah, but couldn't feel what it was. Once he even thought he heard her whisper his name on the wind and it felt like a caress on his cheek. He wondered what made things happen the way they did sometimes, what purposes there were for people. He had almost a look of contentment on his face that was scaring the heck out of Chris. 'Don't you settle for this' Chris muttered fiercely from his perch. "I'm here and we're gettin' out of here together" The thought must have been loud, for it made Vin turn to take another look at Chris. He understood then what Chris meant to do and took another look around. JD wasn't as complacent as he first thought. He had a couple of bulges around his waistcoat that spoke of guns. He smiled and again, counted himself lucky. He was walking up the steps to the gallows now, and wondered how it was all going to go down. He saw Chris ready himself, and saw JD pick his mark out. Things seemed to be moving in slow motion. Carter was holding out the rope towards him. Suddenly there was commotion at the far end of town.
A dust cloud was coming at them, which could only mean one thing. A rider coming in, and coming in fast. He looked hard but could only see one, then a moment later a second rider, but only the two. His heart dropped as he realized that neither of the riders were her.
Ezra's horse skidded to a stop not two feet from where Judge Travis stood and hung his head in exhaustion. Ezra jumped down and practically threw some papers at the judge and started running for the stables. Chris had leapt down the drainpipe and was running up to the judge when Josiah pulled up. His horse was blowing hard also and he had only eyes for Vin. Vin barely noticed that his hands were now free, how had JD managed that without him seeing? Mary was hugging everyone in sight, he could only see the look on Josiah's face. "Where is she?" he asked.
"She's hurt bad Vin. Nathan and Buck are with her, but she doesn't look good. You best come." Before he had even finished his sentence, there was Chris, mounted and with Vin's horse in hand. 'Just in case we needed a fast escape" Chris grinned and handed him his reins. "Where are they Josiah?" "Let me get a fresh horse and I 'll show you. Ezra is getting a wagon and some medicine for Nathan." Josiah was not long in riding out of the stable and the three set off at a gallop with Ezra not far behind.
"We need to wash these wounds out again Buck or they are going to fester up bad." They set to work unwrapping yet again, and trying to wash away the fever that had set in her wounds. Vin, Chris and Josiah had dismounted and were walking quietly in; making sure there was not trouble. They were not prepared for the sight, and they startled both Nathan and Buck. Chris put his hand on Vin's shoulder to hold him back as he said "My god, what the hell happened?" Vin shrugged the hand off and went to her side. He felt her forehead, and brushed her hair back from her closed eyes. He couldn't take his eyes off of her back. He ran his fingers gently over the discoloration on her face. Buck watched quietly. When he finally raised his eyes, the men all saw what murder looked like.
"I've done all I can Vin. She's just not responding. I think she needs her people, they know more than I do, I think they could help her. It's worth a try." Nathan hung his head. Vin put his hands on Nathan's shoulders until he looked him in the eye. "Thank you for everything Nathan. It was lucky that you were there."
"No, not luck," Nathan said." Remember, she asked for us each specifically, like she had a premonition or something." He started to walk away then turned back to Vin. "I also found this, and thought I shouldn't leave it behind." He held out his hand and dropped something into Vin's hand. 'I thought it looked familiar." and he walked away. Vin looked at the object in his hand for a long moment then went back to her side and gently tied the amulet on. He wanted to cover her back up again, wasn't sure where to begin, and suddenly Buck was there beside him helping.
By the time Ezra got there with the wagon, they had her all bundled up. Nathan gave her some penicillin, and then Buck made as soft a spot as he could in the bed of the wagon. He went to pick Hannah up, but Vin was already there and placing her in the back. Their eyes met for a moment and something passed between them as Buck moved aside to help. Vin tied his horse to the back of the wagon along with the mare, then climbed up with Ezra. Ezra, unlike Buck, was more willing to accept his place in the scheme of things and handed him the reins. They all mounted up and started the trip to the Kiowa village. Chris was giving Buck an appraising look, and when he caught his eye, Buck gave a shrug, pulled his hat down low over his eyes and rode off by himself. As Chris was lighting a cheroot and mulling that over, Josiah pulled up next to him. " Buck has been through alot with Miss Hannah here these last few days. I think he kind of took on the role of her protector. He never disrespected her once, and I don't think I have ever seen him fall quite that hard before."
Chris took a pull off the cheroot "And just how did Hannah respond to all of that?"
"With the utmost grace as I have ever seen. She let him down so gently he didn't even know he had hit the floor. He's not meanin' to disrespect Vin, but it will take him a bit of time to find his new place in the order of things, if you know what I mean. I think he lost a big piece of his heart to this lady. I think we all did." And at that Josiah tipped his hat and rode off by himself as well.
Chris pulled on the cheroot and watched his men lost in their own thoughts.
Vin had an unreadable expression on his face. He alternated looking straight ahead and looking back at Hannah, but never at Ezra. They had gone quite a distance without speaking a word. Ezra was alot more sensitive than even he was willing to let on, and actually understood the pain Vin was going through. He was going through a bit of his own pain himself. He was struggling with himself and took a swig of whiskey out of the flask he always had handy. He started to put it back but on second thought, handed it over to Vin. He took it without speaking, drank deep and handed it back.
"Decided yet?" asked Vin without turning his head.
The sound of his voice was startling it had been quiet for so long.
"Decided? Mr. Tanner?"
"Decided to tell me what the hell happened? You been fightin' with yourself since we started movin'. Just wonderin' which one of you won."
And there was the opening. Ezra poured out the story in a quiet voice. He knew instinctively that Vin would know if he held anything back, so he told him as straight as he could recall the events.
"We weren't thrilled with the proposal Miss Hannah had concocted, but we were lacking for any other solution to your predicament. She knew we would have to commit to her plan if she waited long enough to tell us. Very shrewd move, that was."
Vin stopped the wagon and looked at Ezra, right into the depths of his eyes. Ezra felt like his soul was being read and wasn't sure if he really liked the feeling. He was waiting for Vin's wrath to fall upon him, but wouldn't turn from his gaze.
"You didn't follow the plan though Ezra. You went into the house when it wasn't planned."
"You have the right of it there sir. That I did."
Vin held out his hand and Ezra stared at it startled for a moment.
"If you hadn'ta gone half cocked, as you usually do anyway, we might not be here right now. Just want you ta'know I 'preciate it"
Ezra took the offered hand still stunned, and then, after a moment continued. "Buck went in also. He actually was ahead of me, and it was hard on him, to see her I mean. She's a very special woman and we all have been deeply touched by her, but he feels a certain responsibility for what happened. He feels he should never have left her there alone."
"I can see he's hurtin' Ezra, but it was gonna happen her way or not at all. I think we all know that much about her. It ain't no one's fault but the son of a bitch who's gonna pay for it."
And that was the end of the conversation. Ezra put his hand on the pocket where the gardenia was and knew he would carry it forever. They made the rest of the ride in silence.
Chris, meanwhile, had wheedled enough of the story out of Josiah and Nathan to want to turn around, find Gordon Hill, put a rope around him and drag him all the way back for his friend to have the pleasure of dealing out whatever he saw fit for justice. He knew how it felt to lose loved ones, and though they had just met, he knew there was something unique between his friend and the woman. He was glad Vin didn't have to feel the kind of pain he lived with every day. He wouldn't wish that on anyone. He also knew his men, as he thought of them, had feelings that needed to be dealt with.
Fortunately, Ezra was a smart man and wouldn't let his judgement be clouded with dreams that could not be fulfilled. He knew the man would work it out within himself, and had that feeling confirmed when he saw the two men finally start to talk.
Buck on the other hand, well, he knew Buck had a big problem coming. He had known the big man for a long time, and knew how he worked. He had seen it on his face as soon as they had arrived. Every time Buck looked at her in fact. It would take a blind man not to notice. He wondered how Vin would handle the situation, and hoped he would show patience. He spurred his horse up to Buck who had been riding the entire time off by himself.
He was surprised to see Buck turn his head away and take a swipe at his eyes.
"You okay Buck?" He pretended not to have noticed the movements of his hands.
"Sure. Great. Ah hell Chris. I'm torn up inside. I shouldn't never have let her follow through with such a stupid plan. I should have got there sooner. I shouldn'ta left in the first place. Hell in blue blazes, I walked her down the street on my arm like some dandy and just handed her to him on a silver platter. Look at her Chris. Look what I let happen." It all poured out in one sentence. He choked back a sound in his throat and looked at Chris with such remorse and pain that it took him aback.
"Buck, this is not your fault. You did not do this." He reached out to touch his friend's arm but Buck turned away for a moment.
"I am responsible Chris, I don't know if I can live with myself over this. I will make him pay over and over for what he has done."
"That's not for you to take on Buck" He hated to say it, but knew it had to be, so he said it gently. They looked at each other for a long moment. Chris saw the understanding on his friend's face and truly felt bad for him at that moment. Buck looked toward the wagon for a minute before he answered. He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the delicate handkerchief folded neatly there.
"I know Chris. I know. It is just gonna take me some time. It's a hard one pard."
And Chris knew that things would be okay again in time. They rode together in silence.
A couple of riders came out of the trees to ride beside them. Vin figured they had been following them for at least two hours that he knew of before showing themselves.
The two braves rode past the other men on horseback. Each of the men nodded at them and they continued up to the wagon and looked inside. They looked at each other, made a sign and one went galloping off ahead and was soon lost from sight.
Vin looked at the man on the horse and they each nodded their respect.
"How much farther?' he asked the brave.
"Over that hill" He pointed ahead and didn't speak again.
There was a crowd to meet them, and a tall good looking man was standing at the front. They all could see this was Hannah's brother. There was an older man next to him. Vin knew that this would be the medicine man. There were women with baskets, and when the wagon reached them, Vin was forced to stop. Two men immediately went to the wagon and started to pick Hannah up. Buck and Vin brushed past them, and then they looked at each other for a moment. Buck jumped into the wagon and the men held their breath for a moment. Buck got down gently with Hannah in his arms, and gave her a tender look before looking straight at Vin. "She said you were the piece to her puzzle." And he handed her to him. He then placed an envelope into Vin's pocket. At his questioning look, Buck said simply "I promised her you would get it." An unmistakable understanding went between them that everyone could feel and the tension was gone as fast as it had arisen. He turned on his heel and was gone. Vin was ushered off to a teepee while other Kiowa took the horses to tend to. The tall man approached Chris with dignity.
He held out his hand and said in a deep, resonant voice "My name is Tsayaditl-ti " then he leaned close and said with a smile in his voice "it means white man,"
Chris took it and answered "Chris Larabee"
The big man looked at him sideways, "Well, now that the official greeting is over, I suppose you could just call me Carlos. I think we need to talk" He clapped Chris on the shoulder and led him off. Chris wasn't used to being clapped and gave the usual Larabee scowl to the hand touching him, but Carlos didn't seem to notice. Chris knew he was going to like this man, as long as he didn't do too much more of this clasping thing.
The other men knew they were being watched warily, and didn't want to do anything to provoke these people. They made a spot together by their horses and the wagon and sat in a huddle without speaking. Buck jumped up and at the sudden movement two braves were there instantly. Josiah held his hand up peaceably and a look passed between them. Instead of backing away though, they let Buck pass and joined the men in their huddle and signaled to a woman who was passing by. Soon they had food and drink and some of the tension slowly eased.
Chris finished talking and looked Carlos straight in the eye. They were in a corner of the teepee while the women were cleaning the mess that had once been Hannah's back.
"I wasn't there. I can only relate what I have been told, but I can tell you my men are honest and trustworthy. I believe what I have been told and I stand behind them to the end."
Vin, who was near Hannah, was trying not to listen to the two men talking, but his shoulders tightened as the story progressed. He would not take his eyes from her. At that moment, he didn't think he would ever leave her side again.
Carlos was thoughtful. "This is the man she was saving?" he nodded towards Vin.
"He carries her in his heart." It was a statement of fact and required no answer from Chris.
"They all do I think," Carlos continued, " but the big man is struggling. Will there be problems?" Carlos looked back to Chris.
"No. No problems. I give you my word."
"You were right to bring her to us, and you have my thanks. Go with
Maahina, she will tend to you and your friends." He motioned to a small woman who took Chris by the elbow to lead him away. He stopped for a moment to look at Vin, saw the barely perceptible shake to his head, and went through the flap with the woman. He saw Buck pacing on the side of the teepee, but left him alone.
He was taken to a large teepee, and Maahina made him sit by a fire that was burning nicely. She left and moments later food and drink were brought to him. A couple of women had brought blankets and were piling them in the corners quietly. Then in came the rest of the boys with two braves in tow. They all sat by the fire with Chris. Josiah introduced the two men as Apiatan and Tapco. Soon Josiah and Nathan had spread their blankets out and were drifting away. It had been a long week for them.
Ezra was stretched out, but it would be a long time before sleep would overtake him. He took the booklet out one more time and opened it. At the smell of the gardenia he closed his eyes to see a different picture. He took a deep sigh and closed the book slowly, realizing he was not unnoticed, he tucked the book back into his pocket and lay with his hands behind his head looking at no one.
Vin never left her side. He had yet to open the letter, but kept touching his pocket to make sure it was still there. Carlos came in and out checking on them. He was worried for his sister. Gomda, the medicine man, had been chanting, rattling things, and applying pungent salves to the wounds. The women had brushed her hair and washed her face with sweet smelling water. Vin could not stop himself from running his fingers gently over the ugly bruises that had formed there. He was anguished for the pain she must have felt. He looked up to see Carlos watching him and was surprised to see the tenderness on the big mans face. "My sister has made a good choice I think." he said quietly.
Gomda struck his staff onto the ground three times and all of the background noises stopped. He went to the girl and put his head close to her heart. He stood up thoughtfully and looked first at Vin and then at Carlos. Vin had not realized that he had all but stopped breathing. Then he started speaking in an authoritative voice at first, which soon changed to sing song. The women had started to move again and Carlos stood up. Gomda thinks it is a good idea for us to have a sweat ceremony. He thinks all of you should join."
Vin wasn't moving from his appointed place.
"He says it is important for you especially." That got Vin's attention but he still made no move.
Gomda knelt down next to him and spoke softly while gesturing to Hannah. He touched her lightly on the forehead and then tapped Vin on the forehead.
Vin looked a long time at Hannah.
"He says you are connected in all things and she will come to you if you ask. He says also that the rope that bound you will draw her back to you. She does not know that you are not lost and is confused. You must go to her before she becomes the lost one."
He rose in a fluid motion. "I know what he says, I just hope his faith is not misplaced" He turned to the medicine man "aahóow" he said and walked out the flap.
He never looked to see him, but had known he was there all along so he stopped for a moment and without turning said" C'mon Buck, we got somethin' t'do" and continued walking.
Carlos decided he liked this man well and took the lead.
"I don't care what anyone says, I ain't takin' my clothes off and my gun ain't leavin' my side." Chris did have his hang ups once in awhile. "Y'all do what you need to do, and I'll do what I need to do, which is to stay alert." And out he stomped.
The sweat had been prepared and they were ready to go. They all had blankets wrapped around them and they entered into the hut. It looked like the frame was made from small saplings, and had been covered with many hides. Vin, Nathan and Josiah had been in sweat lodges before, but for Ezra and Buck it was a new experience all together. Ezra felt a vulnerability that he wasn't used to. Buck was just numb. Carlos was sitting on the North point, and one of the braves they had met earlier also came inside. Then there were seven. The significance of that struck all of them at once, and they shared a look of comfort between them. Soon the sage, sweetgrass and cedar smells were wafting through the lodge, and Carlos lit a pipe. He spoke soft words and pushed the smoke softly with his hand into the air. He reverently passed the pipe to Vin who held it for a moment before speaking his own words and repeating the motions then passed the pipe over to Josiah, who did the same. Buck was next and looked at the pipe without taking it. Josiah, with his eyes still closed, said softly, "you tell your prayer to the smoke and send the smoke into the world to find answers to your prayer." Buck took the pipe and did not hesitate with his quiet words. He took a long pull from the pipe and sent alot of smoke out with his hand. This continued until the entire group had smoked. When the pipe got back to Carlos, he placed it gently on a piece of leather and put it aside. He started a quiet chant that Apiatan soon joined him with. The men had all sat back and were getting lost in the hypnotic smells and mystical sounds.
Suddenly Vin felt her. He heard her voice and caught a whiff of her smell. He looked around but couldn't see her. He started to run when a voice in his head told him to relax and see with his mind. He stopped and closed his eyes. He relaxed his breathing, opened his eyes and there she was. She had no bruises, her hair was glowing and she took his breath away. She was sitting on the edge of a cliff with her hands on her knees looking off into the distance and he could feel her sadness.
"Why are you sad" he thought in his head, and was surprised to hear an answer.
"I have failed." She never turned and her mouth did not move, but he heard her thought as clear as if she had been standing next to him.
"What have you failed at?"
"My heart is empty. I cannot find my soul. I am lost. "
"Where have you looked?" he asked
" I have looked ahead a long ways, and all I see is the sky." She took a heavy sigh.
"Have you looked behind you?" he spoke softly.
"I have been there, and there was nothing but pain and sadness on that road. Loneliness waits back there for me. I must look ahead to find the way." Her voice was full of sadness and it nearly broke his heart. He saw a single tear fall onto her cheek.
"Have you looked behind you?" he asked again.
"I will miss my soul if I am not vigilant in my watch. I cannot let that happen twice" She was unmoving.
He tried once more "Have you looked behind you?"
Her hands went slowly to the ground beside her and he could see the struggle she was having.
Slowly she stood and again, her beauty struck him. He stood also and waited.
As she started to turn he took a step forward. Her eyes were closed when she finally turned to him. He held his breath. When her eyes opened and she saw him there, a small sound escaped her as she ran to him. His arms enveloped her and he buried his face in her hair. After a moment, he lifted her face to his with both hands and said softly "Come back to me" and then she was gone. He was startled to open his eyes and find himself back in the lodge.
It took him no time to grab his blanket and run for his clothes. He knew it was a rude way to leave the lodge, but he needed to see her. He never saw the smile on Carlos' face, heard the quiet "aahóow" he uttered, or the relief on Buck and Ezra's as he ran out. He was still tucking his shirt in when he burst through the flap of the medicine teepee. The commotion had Chris right on his heels. Gomda was standing at the foot of the bed and watched silently as Vin slid to his knees in front of her. He gave a grunt, turned and smiled as he walked out of the teepee. He lifted his face to the sun raised both arms high and let out a long sound. The people looked pleased and started moving about their business.
Vin held her face in his hands and whispered the words to her again. "Come back to me" And then her eyes were open and looking right into his. A sound escaped him as he sat back on his heels, but his hands never left her face. He wiped the tear with his thumb that was forming from her eye before it had a chance to fall. He gave her a soft kiss on the forehead and her eyes never left his. Chris was moved by the sight and backed out to leave them to their privacy. He took his post by the door and would not let them be disturbed.
They were just about finished getting the horses ready. People were milling about and Carlos and Chris were standing to one side taking it all in.
They had stayed just about two weeks, longer than Chris had liked, but necessary for Hannah's sake. He did it for his friend.
Nathan had headed back to town a week earlier with Josiah and the wagon. He had taken some new medicines with him, and was lucky enough to have added a few more friendships to the ones he already had. Buck had flat out refused to go and Ezra had stayed silent, but never left.
Vin and Hannah had been inseparable. No one ever saw them touch, and they barely spoke; yet there was some unique communication between them always. They were just walking back from the river after having filled the canteens. The bruising was almost gone from her face, but every once in a while she would flinch from the pains still in her back.
She stood it as well as any of them could have, and Chris gave her alot of credit. She had gained his respect and that was not an easy thing to do.
Buck and Ezra had been working with the villagers and the hidden looks they had been throwing Hannah had been lessening with the time they had spent here. He even wondered what it would have been like if he had gone along, would he too have been a victim of circumstances? He doubted it, but who knew why these things happened. Chris felt for them, but knew everything would turn out for the best. He knew Carlos had been watching also and was satisfied as to how things were turning out. He quite liked the man standing next to him and knew he would be back.
"My sister has always been unaware of the devastating effect she has had on some people" Carlos gave Chris a wry smile "I think that is part of her charm!"
Chris gave him a wry smile back and took a puff on his cheroot. "She's one hell of a woman Carlos. A man could be proud to have her for a sister. He stepped on the cheroot and gave his arms a stretch. 'Spose we should be gettin' on. " And he held out his hand which Carlos took with a firm grip. "You are welcome to our village anytime Chris Larabee."
Chris swung up onto his horse and tipped his hat "Just might have to take you up on that one day."
"Anytime" Carlos gave him the traditional sign for leaving before going to his sister who he held in a gentle embrace. They spoke a few words quietly together and he held her horse while she mounted.
He and Vin exchanged a long look and a sign, and then they smiled their respect for each other. Vin touched his hat and spurred his horse forward with Hannah by his side.
As Buck and Ezra moved to go Carlos held up his hand to stop them.
"I just want to thank you for all you have done for my sister. Without you, I would be speaking only with her spirit. Our entire village is indebted to you both." Mahinna
stepped forward with two bundles in her hands and handed them to Carlos. He gave one to each man. " You are always welcome here." He moved aside to let them pass and both men touched their hats to him. Buck looked at his gift and was surprised to see a beautifully carved hunting knife wrapped within the leather. He knew the amount of work and pride that had gone into the making of that knife and was proud to have received it. He sat a little straighter in his saddle and moved his horse on. Ezra was hesitant in opening his bundle, as he wasn't sure he deserved much of anything, but did not want to appear rude. His eyes opened wide when it revealed the pipe that they had smoked in the lodge. He was deeply touched by this gift as he had never partaken in such a ceremony and his vision had been very special to him. He looked up to see Carlos watching him and gave a reverent touch to his hat. "Thank you my friend, I will treasure it and the memories it brings me always."
"I knew that you would." Carlos waved him off.
He tucked the pipe carefully into his saddlebag and was off to join the others.
The trip back was uneventful for them. They spent a quiet night along the river. The fire was going and a pot of beans were cooking when Vin came walking into camp after tending his horse. Hannah was tending the coffeepot and Vin leaned in closer than was probably necessary. His chin nearly brushed her hair and her cheeks flushed.
"Somethin' smells good." He said giving her a sideways look. He moved to put his pack down and Hannah never took her eyes from the pot.
"Why Mr. Tanner, I do believe that was a proper innuendo from you!" laughed Ezra. The other men looked to Vin but he just smiled that secret smile of his.
"Nope, just a fact Ezra, just a fact." He smiled again and bent to his task of unrolling his bedroll.
They all grinned and went about their business.
All slept well but Vin, who watched quietly throughout the night.
It was near noon the next day when they saw riders approaching and it wasn't long before Hannah raised her hand in greeting to a couple of men.
"Hola Senora Hank. Padrina! We are off to check some of the west fencing before heading back to the ranchero. Welcome home."
"I think I will join you Paulo, hold up for just a minute, if you don't mind"
"No problema, Senora. You're the padrina!" He smiled at her as he gave her a mock salute.
She nudged her horse over to Ezra and gave him an even look. "Thank you for everything Ezra Standish. A finer companion a girl could not ask for and I feel lucky to count you as my friend." She held her hand out to him and he took it gently and raised it to his lips. "I feel I am the lucky one Madame, so it is no exaggeration when I say the pleasure was, and is, sincerely, all mine." And he kissed her hand before letting it go. She gave him a smile and looked to Buck who had moved off a bit.
Chris and Vin moved up to Ezra who had a bit of a blush about him. Vin tactfully averted his eyes while Hannah went to Buck.
"Well Miss Hannah" he looked at her sideways "It has been a hell of a ride, I must say"
"That it has my friend, that it has."
There was silence for a minute and she wasn't sure how to say what she felt for the big man.
"Buck, I want to thank you for everything. I wouldn't be here without you."
"Ah hell, Miss Hannah," she cut him off.
"Buck, you are one heck of a man. You will always have a special place in my heart, and I will treasure our friendship." She reached out and touched his cheek.
"The woman who gets you will be one lucky woman indeed." She smiled at him.
He leaned over and kissed her forehead and then looked over to where Vin was. "And I will say the same Miss Hannah. I will say the same." He touched his hat and she went back to the group. She shook Chris' hand and looked to Vin as she moved her horse to go. She made the motion with her hand and he gave a smile as he returned it and then she was off in a cloud of dust.
The men had all formed a group again and as they watched her ride away Chris said out loud.
"That's one hell of a woman."
Vin gave his answering smile and Ezra said, "Well spoken Mr. Larabee, well spoken."
Buck finally looked at Chris and said "Think she might have a sister hidden away somewhere?" Everything was going to be just fine between them.
They all gave a chuckle and rode out the other way.
Part 2: Winter Storm