Old West "Little Britches" Universe
Vin ate the jerky. You never turned down food no matter what. A lesson hed learned a long time ago. As he chewed he tried the bonds that tied his wrists. They were tight enough to hold him but not so tight as to cut off his circulation.
As Vin finished the jerky Little Bluff came over and handed him a water skin. Vin stiffened but the older boy did nothing. Vin sipped the water and watched. He was so tired he hoped theyd stay the night, but as soon as the moon rose fresh horses were brought. Vin was lifted onto the back of a big black. He Fights jumped on behind him. They rode most of the night. Not at the neck breaking pace theyd been going at but still traveling mile after mile further away from home and JD.
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They had been riding hard since before dawn. Now at the hottest part of the day they had come upon water. He Fights called a halt just long enough that the horses could have water and snatch a few bites of grass. He had forbidden Vin to dismount. The boy sighed and bending up his legs so that his feet lay on the broad back of the horse. Scooting back he laid down his head on his hands just above the horses withers. His fingers ran under the leather thong that still circled his neck although the lead had been cut so it was no longer than he was tall. It still served as a reminder that he was a captive and could not do as he pleased.
He Fights watched the boy seemingly fall asleep on the horse, his little body moving with the pinto as the mare wandered seeking fresh grass. Without warning the boy sat up his whole body tense. The blue eyes swept back and forth taking in every detail of the far horizon. He Fights glanced behind himself and saw nothing. Still the little blond searched. Then just as suddenly he collapsed back down laying on the horses as before.
What had the boy been looking for? What had he seen? The warrior looked for Antelope calling to him. Antelope, go back a short way and make sure we arent being followed.
The teen nodded and rode back the way theyd come. He Fights watched Vin but the boy seem to have slipped into a light sleep. Frowning he again turned and scanned the horizon but still saw nothing.
+ + + + + + +
They were letting the horses rest. He Fights watched as the boy tugged on the tether and went behind a bush. He frowned as he noticed the limp when the boy returned and sat down in the shade.
Going over to Vin the man reached down and grabbed a foot. Startled Vin tried to jerk it back but quickly quit fighting when he got a warning look. He Fights wiped off the bottom of the foot. There in the arch was a red swollen spot. The warrior pushed on it getting a hissing intake of breath from the boy.
//Be still.// He ordered as he pulled out his knife. Taking the point he pricked the head of the sore and then taking his thumbs he pressed. He ignored the slight jerk of the leg as he worked. Pus and a small black thorn came popping out. He Fights pressed until he got blood and clear fluid, and then wiping the area clean with water and a rag, he took some powered leaves from his pouch and rubbed them into the foot.
Vin hissed again at the sting of the leaves but his foot immediately felt better. The man dropped the foot and lifting the other one examined it. Grunting in satisfaction he got up. Looking at the boy he said, // Stay// and gestured.
Vin nodded and laying down in the shade he rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. He lay still listening. The others were laughing and talking, finally he rolled over again and watched them.
It was Little Bluff that noticed him first. //Uncle, the boy is watching us again.//
He Fights glanced over at Vin. //This is good. He will learn our ways faster.//
//I dont like him watching. Hes like a hawk or falcon watching his prey.//
//Ahh, does the tiny, white boy scare you, Little Bluff? Maybe he wants to beat you in a fight again.// Antelope said making his hands like talons and playfully swatting at the young teen.
//Thats not funny. Hes not watching you.// Little Bluff said in defense.
//Yes, he is. He watches all of us.// He Fights said looking at the boy.
He Fights got up from his seat and took a skin of water with him. //Hold out your hands.// he said gesturing what he wanted Vin to do.
Vin held out his still bound wrists. The warrior reached out and cut the thong from his wrists, leaving the one around his neck. He threw the water skin at the boy. //Here, Falcon.//
Vin caught the skin and looking at the man said softly. Thank you.
He Fights pointed at himself. Ahiga. He said slowly.
Vin licked his lips and repeated, Ahiga.
//Yes.// the man said and then pointed at Vin. Chyton.
Vin frowned. No, Vin.
Again Ahiga pointed at the boy and repeated more strongly, Chyton.
Vin closed his mouth tight not saying a word.
He Fights jabbed the boy in the chest with his finger, Chyton!
Vin clinched his teeth. He didnt want to do this. If he accepted this new name what happened to Vin?
Again He Fights jabbed the boy in the chest more insistently. Chyton.
Vin glared at the man and rubbed his chest. Then he whispered Chyton, and under his breath he said Vin Tanner. Luckily Ahiga didnt hear the last part.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had no idea how long theyd been traveling. He was beginning to understand some of what the others were saying. The moon had been full when he and JD and Josiah had gone fishing and it was full again. But he didnt dwell on that. It hurt too much to think about JD and Josiah. JD who was lost to him and Mr. Josiah who was dead. Little Bluff had his necklace. Hed run and let Mr. Josiah be killed.
It was mid afternoon as the others seemed excited. He Fights had put him on a small pinto this morning. He was riding alone even though the warrior led the pinto. While they rode the leather strap was tied around his waist but when they stopped the long end was held by one of the older teens.
Vin was surprised when they topped a small sloping hill and below was a village. He counted ten teepees and off to the right grazed a heard of horses. There were people, women, and kids all over the little valley. Some of the kids were playing on the edge of a small river that cut through the valley.
Ahiga lead the way into the village with Little Bluff and Antelope herding the horses and whooping as they rode showing off. The older man led the pinto to a lodge where a woman stood waiting.
Without a word he dismounted and taking the strap from around Vins waist he lifted the boy down. Then pushing the child ahead of him he held out the end of the tether to the woman.
She looked into his eyes and then at the tether. Taking it she looked closely at the boy. He was small and very thin. His skin showed layers of sunburn and peeling but was turning to a darker brown with each layer. His eyes were huge and a startling blue but sunken from exhaustion. His hair hung to his bony shoulders in lank strings. It was hard to tell what color it really was.
The boy stood watching everything. He stood ready for what was to come and not cowering, his clear eyes taking in everything that happened around him.
//I have named him Falcon, you will see why. I wish him to become a son of my lodge, Morning Peace, will you accept him?//
The woman looked from the boy to her husband. She said in her soft voice. //If it is my husbands wish, he will become a son of this lodge.// Morning Peace turned and led the boy inside the lodge. She pointed to a spot away from the fire. //Sit.//
Vin glanced from her to where she pointed and scurried over and sitting his back to the lodge wall. Ahiga followed them inside and sat in his place. His wife silently served him and he ate in silence.
The raid for horses was successful? she asked.
The young ones were pleased. Especially when we came upon the white man and the two boys. They got to count coup and feel like true warriors. But times are changing. There are too many whites. They are every where. We had to ride twice as hard as usual to get away. Then we split up. Roman Nose took the younger boy and he went east. It wasnt until after we split up that I felt wed lost who ever followed. I do not think there will be many more raids for us.
The woman nodded. Were they after the horses or the boys?
I dont know. Perhaps both.
Vin listened closely. Surprised he understood so much. Startled to learn they had been followed, the boys first thought went to Chris and Buck. Maybe thats who followed. He sat perfectly still betraying neither his understanding nor his growing hope that came from the information.
His stomach growled loudly and he pressed a small fist into his belly. Hed learned quickly not to ask but to wait.
Once the warrior was finished he left the lodge. When he was gone Morning Peace gathered several things into a bundle and taking the end on the tether she looked at the boy. Come. was all she said.
Vin got up and followed her through the village to the river bank. Even though it was late afternoon the sand was hot on his feet. The boy stood very still as she lay down her bundle and took off her moccasins. She was joined by several older women who stood waiting in the water.
//Stand still here// she ordered.
Vin stood knee deep in the cold water shivering but he stood still
The woman began dipping water and pouring it over him. Once he was thoroughly wet she and the others began singing as Morning Peace began scrubbing him with a creamy substance that was also abrasive. She covered his whole body head to toe and then started rinsing.
//Wash away the hated white blood.
New clean this one reborn to the Principal People.
New clean his heart
New clean his mind
A man of the People he will be
A man of the People he will be.//
Over and over they sang until Vins skin glowed despite the cold. Then she led him out of the water. Much to the boys dismay they all began rubbing some kind of oil into his stinging skin. It soon felt very good and relieved the itching and stinging.
They groomed his hair parting it and braiding it into short braids. Morning Peace took a small knife and cut off the tether around his neck.
The women backed away a step ending the song, //Welcome, man child of the Principal People.//
Morning Peace sang the last line, //Welcome, man child, son to my lodge.// Taking a fringed shirt from one of the women she slipped it over Vins head. He stuck his arms through the arm holes and she tied a belt around his waist. The fringed bottom hung almost to his knees.
Come, Falcon, she said leading the way back to camp. At the opening of the lodge were several small gifts. Morning Peace, her eyes shinning at the kindness of the others smiled and handed the items to Vin.
These are for you, son.
Me? Vin said, I dont understand.
Her heart sang the boy spoke in the language of the People. For you, to welcome you.
Vins widening eyes swept over the gifts. There was a carved bowl with a spoon, a blanket, a pair of moccasins, a small boys bow and a knife in a belt scabbard.
Come, we will eat now. Morning Peace led Vin to a central fire. There sat the younger children, mothers and grandmothers. They fed Vin first and then everyone ate. The women laughing at his mistakes continued in trying to teach Vin new words.
Little Bluff and several of his contemporaries watched the impromptu party. They were too old to be included and while they were pleased they were to be excluded from the younger children they missed it, too. The boy folded his arms. Look at the chicken hawk, he thinks hes a real person now. He sneered. The others laughed but quickly left, they were to be included in the warriors fire tonight.
+ + + + + + +
Later that night Vin followed Morning Peace back to their lodge. She spread several robes out and the new blanket. You will sleep here.
Vin lay down and watched as the two adults went to bed. The fire was banked but it gave a soft light. Vin rolled over facing the wall and whispered quietly to himself. My name is Vin Tanner. My Ma said never to forget Im a Tanner. I live in Four Corners, New Mexico Territory with Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington and my little cousin JD Dunne. He may be Falcon now but he wasnt going to forget he was Vin Tanner.
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At dawn the voice of a young boy called from out side the lodge. Falcon, come.
What is it? Vin asked the boy as he stuck his head out.
Its our turn to watch the horses today. The others are already going.
Alright. Vin went back to his bed and slipping on his moccasins and grabbing something to eat he ran out to join the other boy. They raced to join the other pre-teen boys whose duty it was to follow the herd as it grazed. To keep the horses safe and not let them wander too far. The older boys lead by Little Bluff very seldom saw the younger as they went about their training.
The four or five boys would play games or ride different horses or sharpen their tracking or hunting skills through out the day. Vin soon led the other boys in setting snares and catching rabbits or grouse for supper.
The other boys had adjusted to Vins slow speech and his often stopping to try to think of a word. They helped him with new words and didnt laugh when he said things funny or wrong. But each was uneasy with his habit of stopping suddenly and searching the horizon. Vin would stare, his eyes scanning, then hed take a deep breath, sigh and continue on with what ever hed been doing. When theyd asked him what he was looking for he always answered, I dont know.
The summer grew hotter even in the mountains and a good part of their time was spent along the river bank swimming and doing what boys do. Vin watched the weather knowing when the leaves changed color they would go to meet with the others and hed see JD again.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and the other boys were herding the horses again. The men and older boys had left yesterday to hunt. It was a beautiful morning. The sun bright and hot the air still. The boys were taking turns sitting in the shade while the rest were watching, keeping the horses from wondering too far away. Vin was sitting on a bay mare looking off to the horizon. Being on the mare gave him the advantage of more height. He saw the dust first.
Some one comes. He told the others. The boys stood with some climbing onto the backs of their horses to see.
Who is it? Falcon, you see farther than we can, can you tell? One boy asked.
Vin stood balancing himself on the back of the mare. He shaded his eyes and studied the dust and below it. Its not the warriors returning. These horses are traveling two by two. I I think its soldiers. He added in a shocked tone.
Blue Coats? One of the younger boys asked.
Yes! I think so. Vin answered still looking at the dust cloud coming closer.
We must warn the others. Nodding the boys rode toward the camp.
Vin jumped off the mare. Morning Peace, he called.
Here, Falcon, whats wrong? she called from the rack where she was drying meat.
Morning Peace, there are Blue Coats coming.
She stopped and looked at the boy, Are you sure?
Before he could answer her she saw for herself the soldiers were surrounding the village.
A Ute scout shouted, We dont want to hurt anyone. Stand peacefully in front of your lodges and there will be no one hurt.
The women gathered their children near them still not running. Not wanting to start the killing. A baby started crying.
One of the soldiers rode forward a few feet. By order of the United States Government you are ordered to surrender yourselves to be transported to a site deemed suitable by said government. Resistance will be met with force.
One of the older woman shouted. What is he saying, Ute?
He says you must go with the soldiers or be killed. They have a place for you to live away from here. The scout shouted back.
But this is our home. The Principal People have always lived here.
The Ute looked around. Not anymore. The whites have claimed it all. If you want to live, for your children to live, you must do as the whites say. They will kill everyone. I have seen it.
Standing Bear was a very old man. Bent with age unable to even stand straight he stood proudly and said. This is the place my fathers and my fathers fathers lived. I will not go. In an act of defiance the old man jabbed a spear almost as old as he into the ground. If you want your freedom RUN! He shouted and then drew his bow.
Before he could loose an arrow several shots were fired and the old man fell. Screams erupted and the women and children scattered like a covey of quail.
Cease fire! No more shooting. Ill shoot the next man myself that fires. Round these people up and get them in the wagons. The lieutenant shouted. Surprisingly his men listened and they used their horses to herd the frightened women and children toward the wagon that had entered the village.
Morning Peace grabbed Vins hand. Run, Falcon, run to the river and hide. She tried pushing Vin ahead of her only to have a large Calvary horse cut them off.
Vin was terrified. The screams, the dust, the palatable fear emitting from everyone crippled his ability to think or reason or move. When he felt hands other than Morning Peaces on him he fought with everything he could until a sharp blow to his head made it all turn black.
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He was moving yet he wasnt. There was a jarring thump that made the pain in his head split with white hot pain. Vin groaned not opening his eyes. He felt the comforting hands stroke his forehead. The boy blindly reached for that comfort.
Be easy, Little Falcon, I am here. she whispered.
Vin licked his lips. Where are we? He asked as he tried to open his eyes. But even the moon light hurt his head.
We are in the Blue Coats wagon. They will not stop. They say we must travel until we are at their fort.
Oh, Vin managed to say before he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Morning Peace looked around at the other mothers. We must keep Falcon hidden from the whites. They mustnt know about my son. Who knows what they would do to him?
The others nodded. We will protect your son. One of the older women said.
Vin slept most of the time the next three days. Each time he woke the pain was a little less. Morning Peace would try to get him to eat and drink. She managed to get the boy to drink but had no success getting him to eat. The motion of the moving wagon kept him nauseous and the whimpering of the babies made him seek the comfort of the dark place hed found.
Finally the wagon stopped beside what could only be called a large cage inside a compound. The tail gate was dropped and more soldiers forced the frightened women and children out of the wagon and into the compound. At one end was a table with buckets of water and food. The cage had thin willow branches woven over the top, which gave some shade.
Morning Peace gathered her few things and the limp boy carrying him over her shoulder. Once inside she went as far away from the gate as she could. One of the others helped her spread the small blanket she had and she gently laid her son down. She hoped hed recover faster now that the wagon had stopped.
The woman looked around at the others. Some of the babies were sick and the younger children were uncharacteristically still and quiet. The frightened women did their best to calm the children and to feed them the unfamiliar food.
The days blended into each other. There was nothing to do. Twice a day food was brought and water. But no one talked to the captives. They lived in uncertainty everyday.
Vin regained his strength and his headaches slowly disappeared. But he was always afraid and hid behind Morning Peace whenever any of the soldiers came close. He was sitting watching the people when the strange wagon with two men on horses came into the forts compound.
He frowned at the horses, one big gray and the other a shinny black. He felt he should know who these horses were.
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Chris and Buck rode into the destroyed camp days after the village had been taken. The lodges were still smoking and the body of Standing Bear still lay in the hot sun.
Chris called back to the wagon. Josiah, keep JD away. Go down to the river.
Whoa! Josiah said as he stopped the wagon. JD peeked around Josiah. Whats happened, Mr. Josiah?
I dont know, JD. Lets go water the horses. Josiah said to divert the boy.
Buck and Chris rode through the camp looking around. Everything had been ruined and the lodges burned. The body of an old man had been left. Covering their mouths and noses with bandanas to help with the smell they wrapped the remains as best they could and buried it.
Afterward they joined Josiah and JD up river. Josiah had set up camp and had supper on the fire while JD ran and played in the shallows. The men took care of their horses and went to the rivers edge to wash up.
JD spotting Buck ran to him. Da, did you find Vin? The little boy shouted as he ran to Buck dripping wet.
Buck grabbed the boy and hugging him said, No, Little Bit, we didnt.
Chris glanced up at the man and boy. JD, get some clothes on. He growled at the child.
JD turned his head looking at the gunman without letting go of Buck. Buck said I didnt have to wear clothes when we was alone. He said.
Its time you started acting like a civilized boy. Chris shot back.
Back off, Chris. He aint hurting no one running bare out here. Buck said sharply cutting off what Chris was saying.
The blond locked eyes with the brunet and it was he that backed down. Turning sharply on his heel he stomped back to his saddle bags and pulled out a brown bottle he walked away, ignoring Josiahs call that supper was ready.
Later they sat by the fire. JD leaning against his almost Pa said, Da, why is Chris so mad at me? I wasnt doin nothin wrong.
Buck rubbed the little boys back. He aint mad at you, JD. Hes just really sad cause we havent found Vin yet. So he sounds mad.
The dark haired boy thought about this for a while. Is he mad cause you found me first?
No, not really. Chris just gets mad at everything when hes very sad.
Maybe you ought to go talk to him and make him feel better. JD suggested.
I think your right, Little Bit, can you stay here with Josiah for a bit?
Sure, Josiah tells good stories.
Nodding Buck stood and headed in the direction the man in black had gone hours before. He saw Chris sitting on the bank, his arms resting on his knees. The almost empty bottle held between them.
A tilt of the head told Buck that hed been heard. He walked closer and sat down beside his long time friend. He waited in silence for a short time and then said. You shouldnt have jumped on the boy like that.
Chris took another drink. Boys got to learn sometime, he cant run around bare assed.
Come on, Chris, all boys play in the water naked I bet you even did it.
This is different.
No, it aint. The boy is only five years old. He dont understand why you jumped on him that way.
And you do?
I seen it before, Chris, when when we buried Sarah and Adam. This time I aint letting you take it out on JD. If you gotta get drunk do it away from camp. Dont ya ever come down on my boy again.
Or what? Chris asked at the unspoken threat.
Buck looked at his oldest friend, his eyes hard and glittering in the star light. I wont be easy about stopping you this time. I wont lose and I wont let you beat me like before.
Chris looked at the man next to him. He wanted more than anything to scream or hit, anything to ease the pain in his chest. But he saw something new in the mustached man. He looked down at the bottle in his hands rubbing his thumb around the rim. Wont happen again, Buck. Not in front of JD. Cant promise I wont drink though.
Buck nodded, Good nuff, just not around JD.
+ + + + + + +
Major Hendricks looked at the gunman. He did not need this man here now. He had enough trouble trying to get rid of the Indian problem in his front yard. Mr. Larabee, I assure you there are no white children with those Indians. While I sympathize with your plight Im sure we would have noticed a white boy.
Chris glared. He was tired and did not want to waste time arguing with this army stuffed shirt major. I appreciate that. But weve followed your men for over two weeks. All I ask is you give me leave to look at the children. If for no other reason than to assure myself that my son is not there.
The Major sighed. He could hear the desperation in the mans voice. Very well, Mr. Larabee. Well go over and look. But just you, the rest of your party must wait by your wagon.
Chris didnt like it but he agreed. He steeled himself against another disappointment as they walked toward the compound. Once there he was shocked at the conditions in which the women and children had been forced to live.
Scout, tell them we are coming to see the children to line them up. All of them.
The Ute scout nodded and repeated what the major said. He watched, as in fear and resentment, the women lined up the children.
Chris went through the gate and walked slowly toward the waiting group. His eyes flickering over each child, disappointment growing in his chest until he saw a small filthy hand clinching one womans skirt. The boy the hand belonged to stood head down bare shoulders hunched apparently trying to look smaller than he was. Chris tried to get a better look at the boy but the woman desperately tried to get between him and the child.
The scout motioned with his rifle for her to move. In despair she stepped aside.
Chris felt like his heart stopped. The boy refused to look up dark greasy braids hiding his face. The gunslinger squatted down. The nose, the jaw line, the brows, it had to be Vin? he whispered as he gently reached for the chin and lifted it. There frightened blue eyes. Vin, dont you know me?
Vin looked at the mans face. The green eyes seemed to see right into his heart. He felt something deep inside him wake up. He tried to wrap his mouth around a word he hadnt said in what seemed a life time. Chris?
Yeah. Chris hand went to Vins bare shoulder and down his arm. He wrapped his fingers around the boys arm, Come on Vin Lets go.
Falcon? The woman whispered.
Hearing Morning Peaces voice sent him into panic Vin pulled against the hold Chris had on his arm. //NO! Let go. Morning Peace!// He called in Kiowa.
//Falcon!// The woman stepped forward to save her son but the rifle stopped her. //Falcon.// She whispered in hopelessness as the white man lifted her struggling son and carried him out.
Vin fought the strong arms wanting only to stay with the familiar. Chris walked hurriedly toward their wagon holding the struggling boy and talking softly. Vin, stop fighting me. Youre okay now. Youre safe now.
He didnt know if Vin heard and understood him or not. The boy fought until JD, leaning out of the back of the wagon, hollered VIN!
The fighting boy froze at the voice. JD? He looked around searching for the smaller boy.
Chris walked faster until he was beside the wagon.
//JD, you are here?// Vin called after seeing his cousin.
//Yes, Da bought me. We have been looking and looking for you.// the small boy answered back.
Vin let Chris put him in the wagon. He was so happy to see his cousin. //I missed you.//
//I missed you, too.// JD whispered back.
English, boys. Bucks voice came through the canvas of the wagon.
Yes, Da. JD carefully said and sighed.
//You are not allowed to speak the language of the Principal People?// Vin asked defiantly still speaking in Kiowa.
Vin, they dont want me...us to forget English. I been teaching Uncle Josiah to speak Kiowa.
Josiahs dead, JD. Vin said harshly shaking his head.
Nahuh, hes not. Hes driving the wagon. See? JD got up and crawled over boxes and crates. He stuck his head out over the seat. See? Hey, Uncle Josiah.
Josiah turned slightly Hey, JD. Hey, Vin.
The older boy paled seeing the man he thought was dead.
Im not a ghost, Vin. I didnt die. Weve all been looking for you and JD all summer. The older man tried to reassure the boy.
Youre not dead? Youre not mad at me? Vin whispered.
Mad? Why would I be mad at you? Josiah asked truly puzzled.
We .I ran away. Left you. I knowed you was hurt but I ran and made JD run, too and hide. Vin explained.
Josiah took a deep breath, such a lot of guilt being carried on such small shoulders. He glanced around. Chris was still in the majors office. He turned until he could sling his legs over the low back of the seat and joined the boys sitting on one of the piles of blankets.
Vin, you did what you had to do. Trying to save yourself and JD. I told you to run, remember? The preacher said trying to reassure the boy.
Vin searched the older mans face. Im not going to be punished? Was always punished before for being bad. Thats not why you come for me?
Punished? No, no, Vin. We came looking for you and JD because we love you. We wanted you back because youre part of and you belong with us. The only reason Nathan and Ezra arent here is theyre home watching after Four Corners and the ranch. Other wise wed all be here. Losing you was very hard on all of us, but especially on Chris.
JD nodded in agreement. Yeah, Chris been adding special medicine to his coffee all the time. Buck got real mad at him bunch of times
JD. Josiah interrupted.
What? Well, he has. JD defended.
Josiah raised an eyebrow.
Chris makes me wear clothes, too. JD said lower lip pushing out.
Yes, he does, and so do I. Josiah said with a smirk. Come winter youll be happy for them.
Vin listened carefully to Josiah and JD. He was remembering more words now. Could Josiah be right? Chris missed him and had come for him because he wanted him back? He watched as Chris came out of the soldier building and walked toward the wagon. He was upset, Chris looked sick. The man barely matched the picture in his head.
You ready to go, Josiah? Chris called.
Josiah turned and got back on the seat, gathered the reins and said. Any time.
Chris looked into the wagon, Are you ready, Vin?
Vin looked into the gunmans eyes. Yeah. He felt that connection that hed been missing. It was back.
The boys sat in silence for several miles. Then Chris called a halt. It was late and it would be sundown in a couple of hours. Josiah climbed down off the wagon and helped the two boys down. JD ran to help Buck but Vin stood at the wheel uncertain what to do. Chris unsaddled Pony and then went to the creek and got several buckets of water. He placed the buckets close to the fire Josiah had built.
It was then he looked at Vin. Shocked that the boy hadnt moved made him pause. Is something wrong, Vin?
The boy shrugged, but still didnt move. Uncertainty radiated from him. The man was reminded of a skittish colt. The slightest sound or sudden move could send him running. He felt uncertain about how to handle the boy who seemed to have changed so much during one short summer. The blond turned abruptly and went to the wagon, climbing inside he started searching through the things Josiah had neatly stacked.
Finally Buck leaned into the wagon. Lookin for something, Pard? Can I help?
Chris glanced up and then continued his search. Have you seen that good soap that Josiah brought from Ezra?
Nope, last time I saw it was with the towels and extra shirts. Buck frowned. What you need it for?
Im going to get Vin a haircut and a bath. Theres no telling whats crawling under that shirt or vest or what ever you call it. He needs to clean up and get some clothes on and then maybe hell feel more like our Vin. Here it is. Chris held up the clear soap. He then grabbed a hand full of towels and the number 10 tub that was in the wagon.
Climbing out he carried the tub over to the fire and poured the warmed water into it. He sat down the other items and looked over at the boy who still hadnt moved.
Now? Chris, its almost dark and getting cold. Cant it wait until we get to a town and he can have a proper bath? Hell, none of us are all that sweet smelling right now. Buck said after watching Chris..
Chris looked at his friend and then walked past him carrying the empty buckets back to the stream to fill again. He came back and set them close to the fire so they would heat, too.
I want it done now Buck. Done and over with.
Josiah looked up from the pan he was cooking in. He probably shouldnt say anything but he couldnt help himself. You cant wash away the summer with a simple bath, Chris.
I didnt ask your advice, Preacher. Hes getting a wash tonight and thats all there is to it. Chris said in a flat voice.
Walking over to where Vin watched he squatted down by Vin and held up a pair of boy sized coveralls. I think youve grown some. These seem to be a little short, but theyll do I reckon until we get some new ones. Vin, I got water heating so you can bathe. I dont know how you can be so filthy. Youll need some new clothes soon, too. But this will do until we get to a town.
Vin hung his head. The soldiers wouldnt give us no water cept to drink. Before we were caged I swam everyday in the river. He said softly not understanding the underlying anger he felt from Chris.
Chris had to listen hard to catch what was softly said. Why didnt you tell them you were white? They would have taken you out of there, tried to find us.
Vin looked at Chris like hed lost his mind. They kilt ol Setimeka, he didnt even have no gun. Is afraid. Awendela and the others hided me sos the so the soldiers wouldnt hurt me. I didnt want to go to them. Not even when Huyanas baby died. They was bad men and they scared me and the others, too. I I was ascaired. Im sorry, I should have been better.
No, Vin, you had every right to be afraid. But you shouldnt have been afraid of the soldiers.
The Ute said theyd kill us all if we didnt keep quiet and do as he said. He come around when no one was looking and telled us what the whites were goin do to us. I was safe as long as I was with Awendela. Vin tried to explain to the man.
Alright, well talk about it later. Come on over by the fire and you can get in the warm water in the tub. Chris said thinking What the hell do you say to that anyway?
Chris sliced the belt that was tied around Vins waist and pulled off the shirt he had on. Looking at it in disgust he threw it in the fire to burn. Then as he reached for the medicine pouch that hung around Vins neck there was a small tug of war. No, dont take it, please. The boy begged terrified that the man would throw it in the fire like the shirt Awendela made him..
The gunman was exasperated and willing to fight to get rid of it. Stop it, Vin. He said sharper than he wanted to.
Vin, I will hold it and keep it safe for you. Josiah interrupted trying to stop something that could ruin the relationship between the man and the boy.
Both stopped struggling. Vin tilted his head studying the older man. Then with a curt nod he jerked it from Chris relaxed hand and slipping it over his head and handed it to Josiah.
Get in the tub, Vin. The blond ordered. He stood and watched as the boy climbed into the tub and stood looking at the man. Chris sighed, You can sit down if you want theres room. When the boy didnt move Chris frowned but Vin stood passively as he soaped him down and rinsed him off with dippers of warmed water. Rather than deal with the long braided greasy hair the man took his knife and cut the braids off at the nap of the boys neck. The blond was so busy scrubbing and looking for lice he didnt notice the tears in the boys eyes as the braids burned with the shirt. He didnt see the chill bumps that ran up and down the boys arms until he started rubbing him down with the rough towel.
Once the child was dry the boy stepped into the coveralls. They were too short but loose around. Still Vin squirmed at the confining feel of the cotton pants. They felt so funny after not wearing pants for months.
Chris looked with satisfaction, running his fingers through the drying clean light brown locks, the blond streaks once again visible. Before him stood the Vin he remembered, almost. He had his boy back, the man kept telling himself. Now they could go home and get back to their life.
Supper. Josiah called interrupting Chris reverie.
Great Is hungry. JD shouted from across the clearing where he and Buck had been watching for frogs by the stream.
Slow down, Little Bit. Theres plenty if I know Josiah Bucks voice came afterward.
After supper Buck took JD and they bedded down away from the others.
Why we have to go way over here? JD asked.
Oh, I want you all to myself and Chris and Vin need some time for just them. Its been a long time since they got to be together. Buck tried to explain.
You mean like me and you wantin to be next to each other when you traded for me? JD asked innocently.
Yeah, something like that. Now lie down and go to sleep. We got a long day tomorrow. Buck said trying to cover the boy up and get him to be still.
Vin stared at the man who sat beside him. He felt so at home next to the blond yet it felt strange, too. Finally he asked. Can can I ask you something?
Chris blew out a stream of smoke. You can ask me anything, cowboy.
Vin frowned thinking carefully of what he wanted to say, to ask. Before, when I came first to the Kiowa, Awendela washed me. She said all my white blood was gone, then she said I was her dua, her son. She she took care of me, even after the whites come. Now you have taken me back an washed me an given me new clothes. Did you wash away the Kaigwu blood? Am I your son now?
Chris almost choked at the questions. He took a deep drag on his cheroot and let the smoke out slowly to give him time to think. Then, clearing his throat, he said. Vin, I dont know why she washed you, maybe it was some kind of ceremony but your blood is still your blood. It doesnt change but your heart can. She she wanted you to be her son so she called you son. Chris reached out to the boy and gently stroked the bare brown arm. He wanted to pull the boy close but deep down knew he had to wait for that.
Youve been my son for a long time. When we found Josiah I thought Id die it hurt so bad you being gone. I was afraid you were lost forever but I vowed Id never stop looking for you; no matter how long it took. Our blood isnt the same but you are as much my son as if it were. Its not blood that counts; its how you feel about someone. Buck loves JD with all his heart but hes not the boys father or even kin.
Vin sat very still thinking on what Chris had said. He understood it - mostly. The clearest part was the man had said Vin was his son. Finally, nodding he lay down on the blankets Chris had spread for him. Emotionally and physically exhausted he fell asleep.
Chris sat beside the sleeping boy occasionally lightly stroking his arm as if to assure him self that his boy was really there. Yet he stared into the fire frowning and sipping the doctored coffee.
Josiah put more wood on the fire. What troubles you, brother? he asked.
Josiah, what is in that pouch?
I dont know, Chris. I would never look. But in general terms it will have sacred and special things that mean something to Vin. You were just going to toss it in the fire, werent you? But you cant. Listen, Chris; Ive lived with the Cherokee and a few other tribes. Their ways are different from ours, better in many ways, too. Vin has lived with them, as one of them, for nearly four months. He was welcomed, accepted, dare I say loved. He had friends and family and if I know Indians had not one worry until the soldiers came.
Josiah paused thinking about what he wanted to say. Chris, listen to me. Even though the boys were only with the Kiowa for a short time their lives will be forever changed. Little things, little ways perhaps but through out history captives never quite come home. A part of them always stays Indian. Right now its JD hating to wear clothes, who knows what it will be in the future? Chris, let Vin be who he is now, not the boy you remember. Accept who hes become, defend him from small minds. There will be plenty of those. Dont try to force him into being anyone other than the precious little boy he is.
The preacher watched the other man hoping hed said the right thing and that the gunslinger would be able to cope with a changed Vin.
Chris nodded, thinking on what Josiah had said. He was sure he could put up with anything as long as he had his boy back.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was getting impatient. Hed come back into camp and Vin seemed to be missing. Hed looked in the wagon and down by the stream but had had no luck.
Walking past the fire, he asked, Josiah, you see where Vin went to?
Josiah looked up from the skillet that breakfast was cooking in. Did you check the horses?
Chris growled, No, damn it. I told him to stay away from them. The angry man stormed off in the direction theyd staked the horses to graze the night before. Some of the younger trade horses werent broken and he was worried. Coming around the stand of trees he spotted Vin.
The boy stood at the head of a three year old black gelding they had bought for trade. Even at a peso the damn horse had cost too much. The young horse was cantankerous, and a bully to the other horses. The only horse he couldnt bully was Pony, but the other horses stayed as far away from him as they could. The three men had learned to be careful, too, because snapping teeth and flying hoofs came their way regularly.
Yet, there he stood his head down where Vin could scratch behind his big ears. Chris could faintly hear Vin talking to the young horse, it almost sounded like singing. The horses eyes were half closed in pleasure.
Amazing, aint it?
Chris started at Bucks voice right behind him. How long you been here? he asked.
Since Vin came out. That boy has a gift. He surely does.
They watched in silence and Vin took the lead from the rope halter and looped it around the colts lower jaw. Then leading the complacent horse to a big rock he climbed up on it and then swung up on the colts back.
The black snorted and threw his head back all the while Vin kept patting and talking. Chris and Buck stood mouths open in amazement. No one had been able to ride that horse. But there sat an eight year old bareback with nothing but a rope halter.
Vin looked up and saw the men watching. He squeezed his legs and guided the horse over to the still astonished men.
Can I ride him, Chris, instead of riding in the wagon? Hes such a good horse. Can I keep him? Ill work to pay ya for him.
Vin, get down that horse isnt even broke. Chris said as quietly as he could.
The boy looked at the man not understanding what Chris meant. Sure he is, watch.
Turning the horse they loped away. Vin making the colt run in circles, do turns and stops, and finishing by sliding to a stop in front of the men.
Buck whispered, Hes got ya there, Pard.
Shut up, Buck. Vin .
Please, I spent all summer with the horses of the Kiowa. I know what Im doing.
Vin, pick a better horse. One thats broke. That one peso horse has a mean streak.
No, he doesnt. You just gotta understand him. We got us an understanding going here. Hell be good. Whats his name?
Ornery son of a He doesnt have a name. Only paid a peso for him, was meant to be traded off, only no one wanted him.
Vin smiled. I want him. Ill call him Peso, sos we remember his beginnings.
Chris simply turned his head and headed back to camp. Only Buck heard him say softly If he hurts Vin he gets a two bit plug between his one peso eyes.
+ + + + + + +
They rode into the small dusty town. Theyd been traveling for a week and this was the first town theyd come to. They sold the extra horses to the livery and Josiah went to send a telegram to Four Corners before they tried to sell some of the goods in the wagon to the local general store.
The boys were excited about seeing a store again. Buck had promised them a penny each to spend and they couldnt wait. Promising to be very good they went through the door a little bell ringing as they headed straight to the candy jars.
The store keeper came from around back and not seen the men he zeroed in on the two little boys chatting happily in English and Kiowa. The man stormed over. HEY! What are you two doing in here? Didnt you see the sign, NO injuns, NO gypsies and NO coloreds. That means no thieving half breeds, too. Get. His voice increased in anger as he spoke.
The boys jumped at his voice and stared at the shop keeper not understanding what he was saying. But the two men understood. Their heads came up at the first word.
Chris stomped over to where the boys were. Something wrong? he asked quietly.
Sorry, mister, dont know how these breeds got in here. We dont allow their kind in town.
The storekeeper said trying to placate the man.
Ice green eyes stared angrily at the man. One of those boys is my son, and hes no breed. Hes just smart enough to be able to speak more than one language.
Buck picked up JD, Come on, JD, were leaving. They aint got nothing we want.
Feeling the anger in the room the small boy clung to the mans neck and said nothing. Big eyes stared back at the shopkeeper.
Chris turned sharply and nodding at the big eyed blond boy they followed Buck together.
Theres a sign we dont allow their kind in here. The man called after him.
Chris slammed the door as they left. Josiah was coming toward them.
Were leaving. Chris said with out looking up.
The preacher took in the angry men and the frightened boy and decided questions could wait.
Later that night after the boys were asleep, Josiah asked. What happened in the store?
Chris took an angry pull on his cheroot but didnt say anything.
Buck answered for them both. Store keeper started hollering at the boys, calling them thieving breeds. Boys were just talking about the candy to each other. The man bout had a conniption.
Josiah nodded, and asked. Talking like they usually do, a mix of Kiowa and English.
Buck frowned trying to remember, Yeah, I guess.
Folks are going to assume things when they hear the boys talk. We gotta warn them not to speak Kiowa in front of other people. Josiah noticed the way Buck was frowning, How did folks treat you when they found out what your ma did?
Buck glared at Josiah, but he didnt say anything.
We cant hide them away somewhere. They did nothing wrong. Chris ground out.
No they didnt, neither did Buck when he was a boy. But some dont care. They just hate anyone different. We need to teach the boys to be more discreet. Hopefully with out making them ashamed of who they are and where theyve been.
How? The two fathers asked.
That is the gold plated question. I dont know but we gotta try. Josiah said shaking his head.
+ + + + + + +
Buck waited several days hoping Chris would decide to talk to the boys himself. When nothing happened one evening after supper he said. Boys, we need to talk about something important.
Both boys looked at him startled. Buck sounded serious, and he almost never sounded serious.
What bout, Da? JD asked.
Well, Little Bit, tomorrow well be home to Four Corners and I need for you two to do something real special for me. The dark man stated.
What? Vin asked suspiciously.
The ex-lawman cleared his throat. I need I mean it would be best if you would try real hard to only speak English when were around other folks.
Why? Vin asked.
Cause, well, some folk dont like Indians or anyone that does like them.
Like the man in the store? JD asked.
Yeah, like the man in the store. Buck said.
But thats not fair, they was real good to us an its just not fair. JD said exasperated.
Buck glanced over at Vin seeing in his old eyes resignation and sadness.
Then he tried to answer JD. No, its not fair and its not right but some folk are just that way. They dont like Nathan cause hes colored or even Miss Raine and no matter how good the person is if theyre Indian they dont like them either.
JD frowned trying hard to make sense of what Buck was telling them. He didnt like it but he trusted Buck.
Vin nodded wisely and said softly. They wont like us either cause we lived with the Kiowa. Its just another reason not to want us.
Chris leaned over and placed a hand on the drooping shoulder of the boy. We want you.
Vin glanced sideways at the gunman doubt shining in his eyes.
Chris tried again. We want you, and Josiah, Nathan and Ezra want you, just because your Vin and JD. It wont matter that you lived with the Kiowa, that wasnt your fault. But strangers that dont know you wont understand about you speaking Kiowa so its best you dont.
Vins hand went to the small pouch that hung around his neck.
Itd be best to keep that hidden, too, Vin. Chris added.
The boy nodded sadly. He knew only too well how other people treated you if they didnt want you or like something about you. Alright, Chris, we wont let any strangers know about us. But I aint forgettin an JD an me will talk anyway we want when no ones around. The boy said raising his chin in defiance to what the men were saying.
Fair enough, but you keep a handle on JD. Chris agreed.
JD listening to all that was said added, Its still not fair.
Buck reached out and gave him a hug. Nope its not but thats just the way it is. Some things are just never said aloud.
They reached Four Corners late in the afternoon. JD was riding with Buck and Vin was beside Chris on his one peso horse. As they rode through town several townspeople came out and smiled and waved. Mrs. Potter stood on her porch and waved, tears in her eyes. Mary Travis had to hold Billy back from running out into the street. He jumped up and down waving.
VIN! JD! Im glad your back. The Travis boy shouted jumping up and down in excitement.
The two boys waved shyly back.
Ezra and Inez came out of the saloon, each with a large grin on their faces. Nathan rushed down the stairs wanting to make sure for him self that the boys were all right. From a side street walked Conklin. His mouth opened at the sight of the weary travelers. Then closed in a tight thin line as he rushed toward them trying to catch up.
Whatd you bring them back here for? We dont want their kind here. He started shouting.
JD just looked at him with big eyes and leaned back into Buck. But Vin stared ahead sitting a little straighter on Peso. His jaw working as he gritted his teeth.
Its bad enough you keeping that orphan train trash but now after all this time with a bunch of dirty injuns. No telling what they picked up.
Chris kept riding looking down the road beside Vin. The boy took the cue and rode staring straight ahead and his back ramrod straight. From the corner of the gunslingers eye he saw Ezra walk by Conklin.
Suddenly the man let out a huff of air and stumbled back.
Oh, I beg your pardon Mista Conklin. How careless of me. Ezra seemed to be helping the man when in fact he pushed him into a shaded corner of the alley. His steel hard green eyes matched the dagger blade in his voice. A word of advice, sir, you will not ever say another disparaging word about those young gentlemen. You are unfit to occupy the same space as them, much less talk of them. If I ever hear, and I will hear it, of you ever saying another unkind word about them you will regret it. It would be extremely unfortunate if Mrs. Conklin were to find out about your more unsavory nocturnal habits.
Conklin opened his mouth and then closed it. For the first time he was truly afraid of the Southern dandy.
They stopped the horses at the livery. Chris dismounted and went to help Vin down. As he reached up he asked. You okay, Cowboy?
Vin finally looked down at the blond his eyes shinning with unshed tears, showing Chris how much the words had hurt. He swallowed, I aint trash.
No you arent. Youre my son and a Tanner and you just cant get better than that.
Vin smiled shyly and leaned over into Chris waiting arms. Thank you, Chris.
The man gave the boy a quick hug. Dont you think its time for you to call me Pa?
Blue eyes widened. Alright .Pa, the last word came out as barely a whisper.
After a welcome home dinner cooked to perfection by Inez, the two stuffed little boys slept peacefully in the arms of their new fathers. Ezra watched reminded of how often hed wished for a comforting male presence in his childhood.
Clearing his throat he spoke softly. You neednt worry about that sanctimonious wind bag, ever saying another word about our boys.
Chris looked at the gambler, What did you do, Ezra?
Ezra smiled, gold tooth flashing in the lamp light. Lets just say that being proprietor of the saloon has its advantages when one needs to know the secrets of some of the more prominent citizens of our little burg.
Chris hid his smile by looking down at the small head using one of his legs for a pillow. He reached down and brushed a lock of sun bleached hair away from the face. Taking a deep breath he looked up. I want to thank all of you for your help in finding our boys. We would never have been able to find them so fast without you. I He stopped not knowing what else to say.
Buck shifted the small weight in his lap and grinned under his mustache. What Chris is trying to say is your help saved our boys. Ezra, somehow well pay you back for all the money you sent to bankroll us.
No need, my friend, we helped because those two are dear to us as well. We only did what we could. Since its so late I have reserved you rooms so that you may rest here overnight before you head out to the ranch. I trust you will find it in good shape. Miss Nettie stocked the pantry when Josiah wired us you were on your way back. Nathan and Raine have even kept the goats fresh, milking them everyday, so there will be milk for your young men there. Ezra said as he handed over the keys.
Hey, Cowboy, wake up its time to go. Chris said leaning over the sleeping form.
A sleep heavy voice drifted up, Are we going home?
Not to night. Were going to stay in town and then, first thing tomorrow, well go home. Chris said softly delighting in the fact that Vin was again calling the ranch home. He shifted his weight and lifted the boy onto his shoulder; reveling in the feel of small arms wrapping themselves around his neck. Nodding to the others he walked toward the stairs.
Buck followed carrying his boy, too. Neither one of the men saw Ezra stand and lift his glass. Welcome home, my friends, we are now complete.
Josiah and Nathan lifted their glasses, Here, here.