The Wolf is at the Door

by Pat

Alternate Universe: Two Bloods

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+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish rode quietly with Bransen riding in front of him. They had left the colt at the Larabee Ranch. One reason was that Chris planned on gentling him tomorrow and the other was that he didn’t want Blossom to be jealous of the animal.

So he rode quietly, his green eyes taking in all his surroundings even though it looked like he was half asleep.

He had a dream now. It was one that he had not yet shared with the pack. He wanted to have this goal firmly in hand before he surprised the others.

And surprise them he would. Ezra Standish wanted to buy a mountain.

And he didn’t want just any mountain. He wanted the particularly inhospitable one that was the most direct route between the Larabee Ranch and the Wells Place. The purchase of the real estate in question would link both ranches. It wouldn’t add any to tillable land or range, although there were springs on the mountain that might be valuable during a dry year, and there was lumber too. But it would provide a hunting sanctuary where certain wolves could prowl and stalk prey in comfort. It could provide sanctuary for humans if necessary as well. The fact that the mountain was rough, tall, and beautiful played into the plans as well.

The mountain had one played out mine and belonged to the rancher who had provided Midnight Dancer. His mining operation had closed, along with his interest on the real estate. He had purchased land on the other side of town and retired, raising blooded stock.

What Mr. Stockton wanted in life now was the property adjacent to his. It was prime planting land and had a large pond and several swimming holes that had never gone dry in recent memory. His son had married and Stockton wanted him to build on the land next door.

Ezra had won half the land next to Stockton in an all night high stakes game and was in the process of completing his purchase the for the rest of the parcel. He had purchased several small pieces of real estate, improved them and them sold them at profit and now had negotiated carefully with Stockton. Stockton considered the land to be worthless and was concerned that once they became a territory that he’d be saddled with taxes on it.

It took a great deal of talking to convince Stockton that he wasn’t going to use the land in a crazy scheme. Finally, he had explained that he was trying to put down roots in the area, and wanted the water rights for both the Wells’ and Larabee places particularly because he regarded them all as kin. Also, he wanted a quiet refuge for Vin Tanner to be able to get some peace and quiet and had personal dreams of retiring to a well-built hunting lodge.

He was brought out of his pleasant dreams of wolves dancing under the moon on mountain trails to the child who had inspired him. Bransen had leaned back confidingly against his chest and started to fall asleep. He put one arm around those still too thin shoulders and smiled. Mother would be appalled. He was going to put the mountain in joint tenancy with all of the Seven, Nettie, Casey and have it held in trusteeship for the two children.

So the mountain would be jointly owned by all of them and a legacy for the pups.

In the meantime, Ezra had learned innumerable in’s and out’s in the sale and purchase of land. While he’d been involved in limited land swindles in the past, knowing the area and the needs of the people gave him opportunities that he’d never dreamed of as a conman. As part of his learning period, he had acquired an old icehouse in town and a very nice home near the Potter’s that could provide shelter to Nettie if necessary and would also be a suitable home for their young Sheriff and Casey if they decided to tie the knot.

Now all he had to do was wait on a few signatures from the Judge and he’d be able to announce his newest venture to the Pack and hope Larabee wouldn’t’ shoot him.

He smiled to himself and listened to the infinitely lovely sound of Bransen sleeping in his arms and thought of Buck in wolf form hunting, howling and dancing through the mountain, free from hunters and trappers.

+ + + + + + +

Blossom Wilmington was having a bad day. Her beloved Bransen along with her papa had left and she was alone and unable to turn into her wolf. Nana and Casey were busy working and there was no one to play with. Bransen had been the one constant in the bad cage and it made her fretful and nervous to have him gone. She couldn’t turn into a wolf and chase chickens and she couldn’t try to go back to the pond and hunt without a hunt leader.

Pouting she surveyed the house and decided there was nothing she could play with without wasting valuable food, although her nose tickled to investigate the pantry and its mysterious contents. Nana made wondrous things from the contents of the pantry and she like them too much to risk spoiling something that might make cookies or pies.

She considered her options. She hadn’t been told to stay in the house. She walked out regally on the porch. She had never chased chickens as a human, because she wasn’t fast enough to catch them. She surveyed her favorite prey, the chickens silently. They ignored her as a human and scolded her when she was a pup, which was more fun.

She couldn’t turn into a wolf. It would scare Casey. She wasn’t sure if Casey knew she was a Two-Blood or not, but she had definitely scared Casey this morning and they had stopped hunting. Stopping hunting was not a good thing.

Blossom glared now at the offending chickens and then thought about some of the things she’d learned this morning, about stalking prey.

She could stalk the chickens! They’d never realize she was a wolf girl, they didn’t have enough brains for that kind of thing. She might even catch one. If she did, they could eat it for supper. Blossom loved Chicken and Dumplings.

She slowly made her way off the porch on her first official stalk.

Nettie and Casey had finished their chores when a terrific cackling of upset chickens filled the air.

“Durn it, Blossom!” Nettie cried, “You’ll put them off laying or we’ll have bloody eggs.”

Casey and Nettie ran to the yard and stopped. There in the middle of the yard stood Blossom with a large, extremely offended chicken in her arms. The chicken was almost as big as Blossom and it looked ready to fight. Blossom had obviously already been pecked, judging by the scratches on her cheek.

Her little lips were pursed in concentration and she held onto the furious bird for her life. She had feathers in her hair

She smiled beatifically at Casey and Nettie and said, “HUNT!”

Nettie started to chuckle. “I think Vin is going to have competition.” She remarked.

Then she strode up to the struggling baby and divested her of her prey. Blossom had feathers in her hair and on her pinafore and dirt on her knees. It had evidently been quite the fight.

“Supper?” asked Blossom.

Casey started snorting.

“I don’t remember being this much of a scalawag,” commented the girl.

“You were worse, child,” said Nettie. “You let the pigs out and rode them into the woods. Took a whole day to get them rounded up.”

Nettie looked at the chicken and then nodded. “I reckon we’ll have chicken for supper, but tomorrow. I’ve got sausages for supper tonight.”

Blossom clapped her hands and Casey wondered what it had been like to ride a pig.

Nettie held up her finger to Blossom and said, “Blossom, you are a good little hunter, but you can’t hunt chickens unless I say so. We need the eggs to make cake and pies.”

This got immediate attention and Blossom nodded obediently. Blossom had great respect and admiration for food.

She sighed, “No hunt,” she said sadly.

Casey picked her up. “We’ll hunt lots, Dear. Don’t you worry. Just obey Aunt Nettie and we’ll have lots of fun.”

“Froggie?” asked Blossom, new interest in her eyes.

“Now we have to cook supper. Wanna help?” asked Casey.

Blossom nodded eagerly.

Casey saw Aunt Nettie give her a look. Blossom was too small to hold a knife and had a tendency to stir with a little too much enthusiasm. Casey decided she’d find things that Blossom could do and teach her as much as she could. And she hoped that supper would survive the experience

+ + + + + + +

The growing town that had been the scene of Ezra Standish’s first meeting with Blossom and Bransen was a remarkably civilized little burg. It barely noticed poor visitors and the group that visited today on foot weren’t worth comment or concern in the minds of the townsfolk.

They got off the train and walked into town like they had business. Their clothing was eastern and well worn. They had no luggage, but backpacks. A sneak thief looked at them appraisingly and decided they didn’t have enough to make them worthwhile marks. Then one of the men looked him in the eye and the boy froze. No – they were definitely not worth messing with at all, if the predatory gleam in that man’s eye meant anything. He decided to look elsewhere, far elsewhere. He had a bad feeling.

They walked through the entire town quietly, never bothering anyone or asking questions. They went to the spot where the small sideshow had been sequestered and spent a great deal of time there. They also walked to the hotel where Ezra Standish had stayed. They avoided the grand entrance, and took the same back entry-way that Ezra had used and walked unerringly to the room where the children had hidden. The room was unlocked and empty and they went in and stood there a long time, breathing the air.

Then they heard the sound of a maid’s cart making its way down the hall and disappeared down the back stairs as silently as Indians.

They made their way to the telegraph office, the local mercantile and the livery where they seemed to rile the horses.

Ignoring this, they turned and walked out of town. The sneak thief saw them leave into the wilderness without horses or supplies and shivered. Maybe he needed honest work. It idea of staying inside a warm normal house with a fire and a lock on the door suddenly had allure.

No one else noted their passing.

+ + + + + + +

In Four Corner, a group of outlaws showed up to rob the bank and were captured at the bank’s door by an irate trapper and a black healer with long deadly knives. The trapper shot the guns from their hands, and the healer impaled their leader’s booted foot to the boardwalk.

“Outlaws are getting soft,” said one long-time resident.

“No, the Seven are getting better,” said his wife.

+ + + + + + +

Casey Wells had never been to the Larabee Ranch, but apparently Nettie visited often before she came home and now Ezra Standish had invited them all to supper.

So she drove the team over to Larabee place with Aunt Nettie at her side and Blossom and Bransen in the back wiggling with excitement.

Casey was surprised how nice the place looked. Larabee hadn’t painted it like the boys had Aunt Nettie’s but the barn and corral were well made and the house was sprawling. It had that fireplace that Josiah had been working on. JD had helped and told her about it. It surely looked fine.

No one had mentioned the nice kitchen garden they’d started, or the well. Casey looked over the garden with wise eyes and nodded. She knew about the chickens, because Buck had been so interested in them. JD rushed to meet them, his eyes bright with pleasure and Casey grinned at him.

He didn’t help her down from the seat because he knew she could do that on her own, but he did take her hand and smile welcome at her. He picked up Blossom, who giggled at him, and Bransen and set them down and kissed Aunt Nettie on the cheek with real affection.

And Casey felt a sudden warmth over her heart. JD kissing Aunt Nettie like that seemed right. Like they really were kin and maybe more in JD’s case.

Nettie smiled at their young sheriff and said, “I haven’t laid eyes on you for a week. Did you think you had to come with a haunch of venison before I’d let you in the door.”

JD grinned at her, like a rapscallion. “No Ma’am. Been helping Josiah and Vin with the fireplace so it would be ready for today. I’m glad you are here. Ezra’s nervous as a cat in a dog pound.”

Nettie frowned, “Is he in some kind of trouble?”

“Ain’t sure, Ma’am,” said JD, “Sometimes he grins like a fool and sometimes he seems like he’s not here at all.”

Nettie’s frown went away, “Likely he has something up his fancy sleeves, but it will be something good.”

Casey got the baskets of desserts out of the back of the wagon and followed everyone up to the house.

Good smells in the air were what she noticed first walking into the big kitchen and dining room. The room was spacious and had a masculine feel to it. It was also surprisingly clean and Casey wondered mildly if they’d washed up special because of their two guests.

Buck was enthusiastically mashing a big bowl of potatoes and Josiah was taking a big dish of beans out of the oven. Casey almost giggled. Ezra Standish was cutting fresh loaves of bread with all the solemnity of a judge. He didn’t seem nervous to her, but Ezra always seemed calm, even when running full bent to stop a robbery. His green eyes flashed at her in greeting and she saw just a hint of fear in them.

The table was set and a huge ham sat sending up steam and a heavenly aroma that made Casey’s mouth water.

Blossom and Bransen ran to Ezra and waited for him to put the knife down. Then they practically crawled up the man to kiss him. Then, after some furious hugging and giggles, they went to greet Buck and then the rest of the boys. Casey wasn’t sure, but she’d almost thought she’d seen Blossom bite Buck’s ear.

She shook her head. No one was fussing about it and Buck seemed his usual energetic self. She looked at the big cowboy and considered his usual rollicking good humor, his love of fun, and thought, “They’re kin.” Blossom was dancing around the table, sniffing and peering up at the food and Casey wondered if Buck knew anything about Blossom’s ability. Surely he didn’t know how to turn into a wolf. She stared at him until Buck looked at her and asked, “Am I doing something wrong?” rather plaintively.

Casey smiled at him, “No I was thinking how Blossom and Bransen don’t look like kin, but they sure act like kin.”

Buck grinned at her, and JD came up to her and said, “May I help you be seated?”

A year ago, she would have punched him and told him she knew how to sit in a chair, but now she realized he was being polite. And today she liked it. She smiled at him and nodded.

They sat and then Aunt Nettie looked over at Chris Larabee. “It’s your house, Mr. Larabee.” She said, “So it’s up to you to decide how to give thanks.”

Casey had never seen Chris Larabee get such a funny expression before. He shot a quick look at Blossom and then said smiled, like he’d been outbid at poker. “Miz Nettie, I’d be proud to have you give thanks today.”

Aunt Nettie smiled at him and then bowed her silvery head. Casey noticed Buck grabbing Blossom and seating her on his lap and holding her hands. Buck looked like he wanted to laugh.

When grace was done, all the men were smiling. Aunt Nettie nodded at Chris Larabee and he nodded back, respectfully.

Ezra stood up and started carving ham in great glorious slices. The food was really good and conversation ceased as they proceeded to eat everything in sight. It felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas to Casey. She found herself grinning at JD and offering him choice morsels of food.

When the main course was finished, Aunt Nettie brought out a wealth of her peach and apple pies. Vin Tanner looked like he could eat one of each. Blossom slammed the end of her fork on the table and shouted, “PIE!”

“I think that says it all for me,” said Chris Larabee

Finally, they all sat, full of good food with the lingering taste of spices, apples and peaches pleasant. Vin Tanner even looked like he was full.

Ezra stood up now and looked at them all with just a touch of unease in his glance.

“Ah have an announcement,” he said smoothly. “Ah’ve been doing some thinking.”

“Lord help us!” cried Buck and Josiah smacked him on the head.

Chris Larabee fixed his hazel eyes on their resident conman and said, “Go on, Ezra. We’re listening.”

“As you know, my entrepreneurial activities have recently expanded into real estate.”

Blank looks fell over many faces. Vin perked up and said, “He’s been buying land.”

“That’s what Ah said,” said Ezra. “Ah have been surprisingly successful in this endeavor and recently completed a rather large purchase, which represents my entire holdings except for a few lots in town.”

Herein Ezra looked nervous. “Ah hope none of this is distressing to anyone. Ah assure you all this was meant as a gesture of solidarity and a hope for the future.”

He went to the window that looked up to the mountains nearby and opened the shutters, revealing the crisp cool air and scent of pine trees. His hand trembled just a bit and he pointed at the big mountain that separated them from Nettie’s ranch.

“Ah have taken the liberty of purchasing the mountain and putting it in all our names legally. Now your ranch, Mistah Larabee’s and Miz Nettie’s are joined, and have the whole mountain shared alike between us all. This will provide a free hunting ground for all of us, and a future for the children.”

Now the suave conman looked really nervous. No one was talking, they were all staring out the window.

“It appears Ah may have made an error in judgment,” muttered Ezra, “If so, I beg your forgiveness. I only hoped to provide a further tie to bind our family together. I didn’t mean to anger anyone….”

“You purchased a whole mountain,” said Vin softly, his voice filled with wonder. Chris Larabee stood up and walked toward the shaking conman. Ezra’s eyes turned bleak and Casey realized he was expecting to be beaten up or yelled at and would accept it.

Chris Larabee’s powerful arms shot out and clutched Ezra by the shoulders. He looked into Ezra’s face and smiled at him. “Ya done good, Ez. I never would have thought of such a thing, but you’re right. It’s perfect.”

Ezra gave a squeaky little laugh and passed his still shaking hands over his eyes. He looked at them all, and now saw smiles and wonder, not anger.

Miz Nettie nodded thoughtfully, “This means that Vin has a place to roam in that’s his own where no one can trespass. And it’s a big mountain with water and lumber. There’s enough hunting up there to feed us all if need be. It will be a good place to teach the youngin’s hunting too. Ezra you must have spent every penny you had.” She said now and looked at the conman with those clear seeing eyes of hers.

Everyone stopped looking at the mountain peak and thought about all the luxuries Ezra had been buying for both the Larabee and Wells Ranches. “How did you get the land from Stockton?” asked Chris.

Ezra smiled, “His only claim on the land now is that if we find silver, he gets a 20% interest. All the rest of the land, the water rights, the other mineral rights, are ours. I got him the two ranches next to him for his son and new daughter-in-law. His only interest in the mountain was in the mine. I’m also going to dynamite the entrance, so no one can get hurt in it, if that meets with everyone’s approval.”

“And what about you, Ezra Standish?” asked Nettie, “after buying a whole mountain, you must be broke.”

Ezra grinned and his gold tooth gleamed.

“My needs are relatively simple, dear lady. Providing for the little ones seemed much more important. And I must confess, that I’ve never had such a run from Lady Luck.”

Bransen stared out the window and then went to Ezra’s side. “Can we learn to hunt up there?” he asked, and he looked excited.

“Lordy yes!” exclaimed Buck. “Old man Stockton didn’t care much for the mountain, just the mine, and he never really explored it beyond looking for mine sites. We could all go up there and inspect our new property.”

Ezra turned, “Not until we’ve taken care of the mine. It’s old, and unstable. I won’t risk my family in it.”

Buck started to look disappointed, but Chris Larabee nodded and Vin Tanner nodded along with him. “Good idea, Ez.”

Buck laughed now and gave Ezra a smothering bear hug. “Damn, Ezra, you’re a great provider.”

Ezra’s head shot up and he stared into Buck’s eyes, as though gauging the statement for veracity.

Buck smiled down at him and whatever the smaller man saw there, made his face light up with a smile of sheer joy.

“You did really good, Ezra.” Said Buck, softly, “I’m proud of you.”

Then all of the others jumped up and proceeded to hug Ezra till he started complaining about fabric wear, which made them all laugh.

Ezra had apparently already purchased the dynamite necessary to take care of the mine, so it was decided to let Vin and Ezra handle closing the old death trap, under Larabee’s supervision.

+ + + + + + +

Bransen stood in the corral next to Midnight Dancer. The men had gone away to the mountain and Miz Nettie had taken Casey and Blossom to town. Only Buck stayed at the Larabee Ranch and the big Two-Blood was asleep. Bransen wasn’t sure he was supposed to be this close to his horse, but an instinct he couldn’t deny told him that Midnight needed him now.

His feet were bare and his pockets filled with sugar cubes, apple slices and carrots. Midnight wasn’t afraid of him at all and was snuffling at his pockets with great interest. He took out some sugar cubes and placed them in the flattened palm of his hand and felt the horse’s lips delicately devouring the morsels.

“I love you, Midnight,” he murmured and started to gently touch the horse.

Midnight nuzzled his great head against Bransen’s chest. The boy felt joy rise in him. Midnight loved him back.

“Can I ride you?” he asked.

Calmly the boy started touching as high as he could reach on Midnight’s back, petting, loving, speaking words of praise and kindness. The horse nickered but didn’t flinch.

Bransen jumped just high enough that he had a leg over the back of his friend.

Midnight snorted and Bransen went utterly still. He knew he could be hurt badly if Midnight bucked him off. He held on, but gently and thought about how beautiful his friend was. Midnight calmed down and one ear flicked back as though wondering what his new friend was doing back there. Gently, Bransen slid all the way on Midnight’s back, keeping his head pressed to the horse’s neck.

His hands started to gently pat the horse and he could tell Midnight loved it. “I will never hurt you,” he whispered.

After a long peaceful time, he slid off the horses back and gave Midnight Dancer all the carrots and apples in his pockets. Midnight nuzzled him once more then cavorted around the corral, dancing just like his name, pleased with the attention, the treats and his friend.

Bransen watched him quietly till he was done and then slowly walked out of the corral. He made sure all his movements were steady and that even his thoughts were calm. Midnight must never fear his friend.

He turned and saw Buck Wilmington standing on the porch. Buck was completely pale and looked scared out of his mind.

“Buck!” cried Bransen, softly, still worried about scaring the young horse, and ran to Buck. Buck’s eyes were blinking and he sat down heavily on the end of the porch, holding his chest.

“Buck are you sick?” asked Bransen, desperately worried.

To his immense surprise, the big man swept him up in his arms and held him so close he had to struggle to breath.

“I thought you were going to be killed,” said Buck, gasping. “Lord, you could have been bucked off and trampled.”

Bransen felt slightly offended. He had been making friends with Midnight ever since the wonderful day when they’d brought him home to the ranch.

“I was very gentle,” he chided softly, “He doesn’t fear me and it was quiet so nothing would scare him.”

Buck lay back on the porch, still holding Bransen in his arms.

Bransen wiggled a little and looked at the big man’s face and was astonished. Buck was crying. He was the bravest man in the world and the biggest Wolf in the world. “Why are you crying, Buck?” he asked

“Cause you just scared 20 years of life off me,” gasped the big Two-Blood. “I thought I was going to lose you and it just about broke my heart.”

Bransen smiled incredulously. Buck had been crying about him? What a wonder!

“I love you, Buck,” he said, “If it scares you so much, I won’t try to ride Midnight Dancer any more.”

Buck sat up and looked at him. “No, you don’t have to promise that. You’re a natural born horseman. Just let me or one of the others be around when you train Midnight, just in case he gets spooked by a bird or animal.”

Bransen got hugged again and wonder if Buck was going to squish all the air out of him.

Grownups were harder to understand than horses.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells rode into Four Corners and headed to the newspaper office. Casey helped with the horses.

“I’m going to go in and tell Mrs. Travis that they’re using dynamite on the mountain,” explained the older woman. “Can you and Blossom take this order of sausage to Mrs. Potter? She’s expecting it.”

Casey nodded and grabbed up the big wrapped packages. “Come on,” she called merrily to the children, and they all went to Mrs. Potter’s mercantile and general store. Mrs. Potter loved the children dearly and they seemed to love her and her children right back.

“Pretty Lady!” said Blossom in anticipation.

“Yeah, and knowing her, she’ll have cookies for cute little girls,” said Casey.

“Me cute!” said Blossom.

“You sure are!’ agreed Casey.

They walked into the Mercantile with smiles and then Blossom stopped in astonishment.

There, in a basket, were a bunch of kittens sleeping, fighting, purring and pouncing.

Casey put down her packages on the counter and went to her knees before the basket. “These are kitties, Blossom. They’re just babies. They grow into cats and catch mice and rats.”

Blossom giggled and then sat next to the basket and began to very gently touch the kittens. Casey was pleased that she was so careful with the little things.

“They like to be patted like this,” she said, picking up one little tiger kitten and demonstrating. The kitten started to purr furiously.

“Grrrrrrrrrr,” said Blossom questioningly.

“It’s called purring, Blossom. That’s what kittens and cats do when they are happy.”

“Purrrrrrrrr,” said Blossom, picking up the sound pretty well. She patted a little black kitten gently and it too began to purr.

Mrs. Potter bustled in from the back room and smiled.

“A farmer dropped them off. They’re old enough to leave their mother, but he’s afraid the dogs on his farm will kill them.”

“Purrrrrr,” said Blossom softly. She looked up at Mrs. Potter and said, “Pretty Lady!”

Casey laughed and put her kitten down. She would ask Nettie about getting a kitten for Blossom.

Out in the distance there was a rumbling boom, like thunder.

“My goodness, is that rain?” asked Mrs. Potter.

“No, Ma’am, I think it’s the boys dynamiting the entrance to the old silver mine. Ezra is worried someone will get hurt in there.”

She explained that the boys now owned the mountain.

Mrs. Potter looked really happy. “If they’re buying land, they’ve settled in more and plan to stay. That’s good. They’re a big blessing whether they know it or not.”

Nettie entered the store and was immediately amenable to having a cat on the farm for hunting small varmints. They drove back to the Well’s ranch with a purring black kitten and a purring Blossom.

“You don’t need to purr all the time, sweet heart,” said Nettie.

“Kitty!” squealed Blossom and then went back to purring.

“Girls got great lungs there,” said Aunt Nettie. Casey agreed. She didn’t think Blossom had breathed in since she met the kittens.

Later that evening, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish came over with Bransen, who was wildly excited about the dynamite and his horse.

“Boom!” he would yell from time to time.

“Men just seem to love playing with things that make loud noises,” said Aunt Nettie, but she smiled at the men.

“You tell Chris Larabee that I’ve been thinking about his idea and I’ve decided that it will be good for us all,” she announced.

Ezra sat up, carefully holding Blossom and a rumbling teapot of fluff that was now known as Kitty. “What idea?” he asked.

“Well, he figured he’ll take the youngin’s for one week, and then we’ll take ‘em for one week. That way we won’t get so terrible lonely for the little scalawags, and Bransen will get to spend more time with his horse.”

Blossom looked up inquiringly, “Kitty?” she asked.

“Yes, dear, Kitty can travel with you. That way you both can play while Bransen works with Midnight Dancer.”

She looked at Ezra, “And don’t worry, we already discussed getting a pet for Blossom, so he won’t get riled with you if she brings Kitty with her.”

Vin and Ezra exchanged glances, both wondering what that conversation had been like.

After they left, the two men talked.

“They both don’t mince words. I wonder what they said?”

“A week at a time,” said Ezra in his best approximation of Nettie’s voice.

“Yup”, said Vin in his best Chris Larabee imitation, “Horse will take a lot of time.”

“Pets?” asked Ezra again doing a Nettie voice.

“Yup,” said Vin.

Both men started to giggle.

+ + + + + + +

The schedule that Miz Nettie and Chris Larabee had agreed to worked well. Both households had a week of down time from little scalawags, but the children weren’t absent long enough to be too horribly missed. Chris Larabee noted that the Seven had been neglecting some of their patrol schedules too. Vin suggested swapping routes around, to throw off if anyone was watching the town with evil plans.

+ + + + + + +

Bransen hid in the brush, barefooted, completely silent and yet filled with expectation. He forced himself to calm down. Vin and Ezra were “hunting” him on the mountain. Their mountain, the mountain that belonged to the Four Corners Pack. Bransen couldn’t remember anything more fun, except being with Dancer. He could smell the plants on around him and he could smell just a bit of the lavender soap that Ezra used. The breeze was from the north, which was where Ezra and Vin were searching for him.

This was his week with Chris Larabee. Blossom and he had been taken on exploring expeditions, although some spots were bypassed by over protective grownup types. They had been allowed to romp as wolves; they had played to exhaustion, and now were playing new games. Bransen felt incredibly proud of the way he could hide from even Vin, the tracker. Blossom always wiggled and was caught. She didn’t wiggle when hunting, but never could wait patiently to be hunted down. Ezra said it was because she liked being caught by them, shrieking and being tickled.

He could hear Ezra’s nearly silent step, and was aware that Vin was a bit closer. The boy smiled to himself. His life in the Circus had been hellacious and boring, but now he had a real pack that loved him, food, the most beautiful horse in the world and a mountain to play on. A bug crawled on his nose, but he stayed silent, barely breathing, mentally becoming part of the bush and the earth, just as Vin and Buck had taught him.

After half an hour, he could hear Ezra going away and some infinitesimal sense of agitation came his way. Ezra was beginning to worry.

“Can we have lunch now?” he hollered and he heard Ezra give a gasp of relief.

Vin Tanner came up and jumped in the bush and grabbed Bransen, tickling him. Bransen giggled happily but also knew he’d beaten the territory’s best tracker.

“You done real good, Bransen. I’m right proud.” Was Vin’s comment.

“Indeed, you did an incredible job. I was beginning to fear you had moved off.” Ezra sounded matter-of-fact, but Bransen knew that he had begun to worry about him.

Bransen smiled and hugged both men shyly but joyously.

They made a quick camp by one of the many small springs they’d found. Chris and Buck had packed the abundant basket of food. There were enough cookies to feed a small army, and Vin could apparently eat enough for a small army, although he made sure Bransen and Ezra got their fill first.

When their feast was done, Ezra washed his hands carefully and then took out the map he was working on to show all the trails and places they had found on the mountain. He had also made a journal of notes on hunting, minerals, trees for possible lumber (but not too much, he said that the beauty of the forests must be preserved) and listed plants for both food and medicine.

Vin looked around them quietly and then lay back against a tree and closed his eyes. Bransen looked at the tracker, who seemed so quiet and unheeding of his surroundings. Vin was more like a wolf than any one-blood Bransen had met thus far. Even though he was relaxed, he was listening, feeling and smelling the world around him and would leap in the air in an instant if danger threatened.

Ezra, who dressed so fancily and seemed so absorbed in his writing, was also paying attention to everything as well. He looked up at Bransen and their eyes met.

“Perhaps you would like to change and take a nap by Mr. Tanner?” the red-coated man suggested.

Vin’s blue eyes opened and he patted his chest invitingly. “Sounds nice,”

Bransen didn’t need to be asked again. He neatly folded his clothing near Vin, changed and then cuddled up next to the rangy tracker. Vin Tanner’s hand came down and touched his head and Bransen rested his head on the tracker’s chest, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon, the smell of buckskin and the gentle hand that caressed him. This was his pack brother, who would kill to defend him.

Content in the safety of Pack, he slept.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner slept underneath the old tree, with Bransen cuddled up to him, his head trustingly snuggled against the trapper’s buckskinned chest. The boy slept peacefully and Vin smiled to himself. Ezra, while busy, was standing watch too and would fight to protect them. And the little boy they both knew as kin trusted them to watch over him well.

Vin could smell the sun heated fur coat. He lay content, listening to Bransen’s tiny respirations and the scratch of Ezra’s pen in his big journal. Birds sang above.

Then, slowly, the breeze changed.

Bransen appeared unaffected at first, but then the slack body came to attention. The wolf pup sat up and sniffed the wind.

Suddenly he was a naked boy smelling the breeze.

“Two-Bloods,” he whispered fearfully, “Two-Bloods up the mountain.”

Vin jumped up and peered in the direction the breeze came from. He listened, he felt, he smelled and even tasted the breeze with moistened lips, but no sense of danger came to him.

Ezra had stood up immediately and put all their gear away, ready to move. “Could it be Mr. Wilmington?” he asked, also looking up mountain.

“No,” said Bransen. “Not a pack member.”

The boy continued to sniff the wind, and jumped when Vin Tanner’s hand gently covered his shoulder.

“Let’s go back to the ranch,” he said in his raspy voice.

“Excellent suggestion,” said Ezra.

“Shouldn’t we see why they are in our Pack territory?” asked Bransen.

“Later,” snapped both men simultaneously.

Vin helped him struggle into his shirt and then they left down the quickest route to the ranch.

Bransen wondered, but didn’t question. They were older pack members and he would obey them. But part of the boy was saddened that the day’s excursion was cut short. They had had so much fun!

They have found several small caves suitable as shelters in rain or bad weather. The two men had not let Bransen enter until they had checked the caves out thoroughly, but finally had let him in after they had the first crack at exploration.

They had noted a salt lick up higher in the mountain and Vin had pointed out all the signs of game. He had even promised to bring Bransen with him when he went to hunt.

He had learned a bit about surveying and map-making from Ezra and they had gathered sample herbs for Nathan and Nettie. Some of them were cooking herbs. Two were plants Vin hadn’t seen before and wanted Nathan to identify.

He followed the two men down the trail, and was surprised at the speed with which they walked, with determined almost galloping strides. Ezra stopped suddenly and looked back at him and said, “Walk next to us,” that let Bransen know Ezra was worried.

They finally reached flatter ground where their horses were tethered and grazing laconically.

Midnight Dancer raised his head and whickered at him in greeting. Chaucer snorted and Peso tossed his head.

“Mount up now,” said Vin shortly and Bransen mounted quickly, glad that his training of the beautiful horse had advanced so rapidly. They silently rode back to the ranch.

Bransen knew that One Bloods didn’t have as good of senses as he did, but when Larabee came to the door with his gun, he wondered a bit about their alpha. Sometimes, Chris Larabee seemed more than a One Blood to the boy.

Vin Tanner dismounted and said, “Bransen smelled Two-Bloods – not pack.” Larabee nodded as though he’d expected it and looked up at the mountain.

“Sometimes they travel through this way,” he said tersely.

“I for one prefer we be at full strength for such an encounter. I have no intention of exposing our young pack brother to their curiosity.” Ezra’s voice was almost mean sounding, like he was ready for a fight.

Chris put a surprisingly gentle hand on Bransen’s shoulder.

“Do you smell them now?”

Bransen turned and sniffed the air, concentrating. He walked around the yard, checking for stray zephyrs that might bring a rogue scent. Finally he shook his head.

“It was weak before and it’s gone now.” He said, hoping he wasn’t in trouble.

Chris Larabee, his alpha, looked down at him and then smiled kindly. “Good,” he said briefly and helped them with the horses.

Brushing a horse is a soothing activity, and Bransen felt better, as well as proud that his horse was so beautiful and already so well behaved.

He took slices of apples out of his pocket (left over from lunch) and fed them one by one to Midnight as the horse delicately took each one in obvious pleasure.

He heard Vin say softly, “Buck coming in tonight?” Midnight finished the apples and began to examine his jacket pockets for more traces.

“Yup,” returned their Alpha, “About supper time.”

Vin sounded pleased and yet determined as he said, “Reckon we’ll go together and check.”

“Take either me or Ez with you.” Was Larabee’s response.

“Better to have two here with Bransen. I don’t want them to sneak around us after the boy.” Said Vin.

“Good thought,” said Larabee and fell silent as he began to fill the mangers with hay and a bit of oats.

Chaucer nickered to his owner in appreciation and began to shift excitedly, wanting to feed. Ezra patted the rear of his mount, “Go, on, dear friend, eat up.”

Bransen shattered any hopes the adults had that he wasn’t listening, “I can fight. You don’t need to babysit me,” he whispered it.

To his surprise, all three men surrounded him and Ezra picked him up.

“My darling boy, don’t you realize you are the center of the pack? Everything we do takes your safety into consideration. We already know you are brave and resourceful, but you and Blossom are in our hearts. That’s why we are so worried. Some traveling Two-Blood may decide you need to be rescued from we lesser beings, and we would be broken hearted.”

Bransen’s chest got very warm. No one had ever talked to him like these men did. He had no memories of being cherished or considered important.

“Blossom is the important one,” he blurted, “She’s a pure blood. I’m not important.”

And he stiffened in terror, because he felt rage fill the whole barn like a cold menacing mist.

“I’m sorry,” he stuttered, “I should have told you all first thing.”

Then Ezra’s forehead met his own and he realized that Ezra had tears in his eyes. Maybe they weren’t angry at him.

“Whoever told you that can go straight to hell,” said Vin

Chris Larabee spat out words that Aunt Nettie had told him never to use.

Ezra suddenly kissed his forehead. “We don’t give a fig for that. We love you. You are pack. I don’t care if you are wolf or boy, white or red or black. You are part of me and I’ll gladly beat the hell out of anyone who says different.”

“Amen,” said Vin approvingly.

Chris Larabee now eased him from Ezra’s unwilling grasp. He looked into Bransen’s eye and Bransen wondered if he were going to cry too.

“I’m a one-blood. I don’t have a drop of Two-Blood in me and I’m the alpha of this pack. You don’t think I’m not important, do you?”

Bransen stiffened. He had never thought of that. “No sir!” he said fiercely, ready to fight anyone who said his Alpha was unimportant.

Chris continued, “Vin and Ezra are both One Bloods, but they are both seasoned protectors. You don’t think they are unimportant.”

Bransen nearly growled at the thought, “NO, SIR!” he said.

“When I first found you in the circus,” said Ezra in his molasses voice, “I didn’t know if Blossom was Two-Blood or only a pup. I gave all I had to make you safe and didn’t even discover our little Magnolia Blossom till later.”

Bransen crinkled his nose. He hadn’t thought of that. He was important to these men even if he wasn’t a pure blood.

“And Buck is only part Two-Blood. You wouldn’t put him down, would you?” asked Vin, who was smiling for some reason.

“HECK NO, SIR” said Bransen and then he grinned. They were right. They were pack and he was loved by them all.

“Don’t let Miz Nettie hear you saying heck, boy.” Said Chris, who was now smiling at him. “She’ll wash your mouth out with soap and believe me, it doesn’t taste good.”

“Does that mean you too have sampled our beloved Miz Nettie’s skills as a soap-maker?” asked Ezra slyly.

Their alpha glared at both men who were now grinning at him.

Then the barn door opened and Blossom came in.

“Bransen!” she cried in delight, and the horses all twitched. Blossom’s voice could crack rock when she was in full squeal mode.

“Good Lawd,” said Ezra, “We left our angel to her own devices for almost half an hour!”

“Chickens!” said Blossom.

“OH NO!” said Chris, putting Bransen down and running out to see what Blossom had done. Blossom had a predatory interest in chickens that had put more chicken on the table than their new flock could really handle.

After dealing with extremely aggravated chickens, and checking the house for collateral damage, they went in to prepare supper. Blossom did all the table settings by herself. Bransen now was old enough to peel potatoes and vegetables and he did each task proudly and with great determination. He was helping feed the Pack!

Kitty came up and rubbed around Chris Larabee’s feet, purring happily.

Blossom began to absently purr as she sat out napkins and made sure all the forks were lined up correctly.

“How is Kitty assimilating to a Two-Blood household?” said Ezra as he put Bransen’s carefully peeled potatoes on to boil. Bransen went to gather the spices that Aunt Nettie recommended for the chicken dish that Chris was making.

“I reckon she’s a mite less rattled,” said Vin, who was slicing the bread with a wicked looking knife that Bransen wasn’t allowed to touch.

“She sleeps with us when we are wolves now,” volunteered Bransen as he started peeling the turnips from Miz Nettie’s garden.

“Excellent,” said Ezra. “I’d say she’s done remarkably well.”

Chris Larabee tried very hard not to accidentally step on Kitty as he worked on the meal. She purred happily and began to tread on his boots.

“Just pray she doesn’t run into a real wolf,” he said, almost tripping.

He grinned a little evilly while remembering Kitty’s transition period. While they were not allowed to turn into wolves at Nettie’s house when Casey was there, at Chris’ house Blossom and Bransen were allowed in wolf form. There were protocols to it, as Ezra explained, which meant that they asked Chris or whomever Chris had put in charge and they always checked the perimeter for visitors first.

They’d worried a bit about Blossom, but the child seemed very stern about not scaring “her Casey.”

The boys were used to Buck changing and had not been put off or surprised when two wolf pups charged into a room. Kitty was another thing entirely.

The first time Blossom changed in front of Kitty, the poor thing jumped about six feet in the air. "Gonna be a jumper!" Vin had remarked in laconic tones, watching from Chris’ newest rocking chair.

Kitty stayed on top of a cupboard snarling and spitting dramatically until Blossom turned back into her little girl. Then the cat jumped on her, sniffed her all over, and proceeded to clean the perplexed child.

“Ah don’t think Kitty feels safe with wolves, my dear little magnolia Blossom,” said Ezra.

“Why?” asked Blossom, pouting as her nose was licked against her will.

“Well, you know, wolves tend to eat cats in the wild. She might figure you were gonna eat her up.”

Blossom’s mouth dropped open in shock.

“But Kitty’s my FRIEND!” she exclaimed in one of her first full sentences. The kitten started to purr.

Josiah and Chris had rushed into the room. They looked inquiringly at their little scalawag.

“Yes, gentlemen,” said Ezra, “you heard a full sentence of at least four words, five if you don’t count contractions.”

Blossom was unimpressed by this. “Me wuv you Kitty,” she said, pronouncing her second sentence.

Kitty purred.

“Give her time, Blossom. Kitty’s never met a Two-Blood afore. She’ll realize you ain’t out to eat her and then it will be okay.” Vin’s rough voice had sounded calm and sure. Blossom had come and sat in his lap with Kitty and was rocked till she fell asleep. It was a very pleasant memory for Larabee to contemplate, both of the child and the tracker.

He frowned down at the purring ball of fluff that appeared to be trying to shred his boots and sighed.

So now Kitty was completely unafraid of the children in pup form, and also unafraid of the peacekeepers. When meant the dad-burned thing jumped into Chris’ lap and spilled hot coffee if he didn’t pay her enough attention.

“Buck is coming in,” said Bransen happily. The boy stood silently at attention and then grinned, ”Nathan is with him, I smell herbs.”

“I reckon I’ll help em with the horses,” said Vin.

Chris sat the chicken in the hot oil and listened to the oil dancing. Lord he was domesticated again. He grinned, a feral wolf’s grin. And he was loving it.

“Blossom be wolfie?”asked the child.

“Did you check?” asked Larabee.

“Yes!” was the prompt reply.

“Don’t scare the horses.” He admonished her and listened to the sound of tiny feet rushing to the bedroom. A literal few seconds later, and he heard wolf pup claws scratching on the wood floors.

He watched as Ezra opened the door for the bouncing pup and then returned to pop his rolls into the oven.

Bransen was mashing the turnips and Ezra now joined him to work on the mashed potatoes. The smell of the frying chicken and baking rolls filled the air pleasantly.

“You can change if you’ve a mind,” said Larabee conversationally, but Bransen shook his head. “No Sir, I’m helping make supper,” he said decidedly.

When Larabee sat the big platter of fried chicken on the table, the door opened. Vin, Buck and Nathan walked in.

“Sure smells good in here,” said Nathan Jackson, “I reckon some of Casey and Nettie’s skills are wearing off on us.”

A pup dashed through the door and jumped into Buck’s arms and proceeded to nibble his ear delicately.

“Whoa, Blossom, Old Buck just cleaned up,” said the older Two-Blood.

The Pup in his arms yipped and then wiggled to get down. She launched herself onto Nathan Jackson, who was ready for her, and didn’t complain about receiving wolf-style kisses or ear nibbles.

“My rolls are done,” announced Ezra somewhat fiercely. Nathan chuckled and put Blossom down, “Quick little one, don’t make your Papa fuss. You know how he is about his cooking.”

Blossom raced into the bedroom and came back just as quickly. She hopped into the chair that Vin and JD had made to bring her level with the table top for eating and clapped her hands. “Chicken and rolls!” she crowed.

Buck sat next to Bransen and Nathan on the other side. The usually quiet boy began to regale them with an account of his day. “You outfoxed old Vin, did ya?” said Buck, “That’s good. Next time, you can try hiding from me and I’ll hide from you. That will be the real test.”

Bransen’s eyes widened and then began to gleam. Obviously this was a challenge.

All the food was on the table, and Ezra presented his fresh rolls with a flourish. Buck breathed in the good food smells and said, “You’ll make some lucky man a great wife, Ez.”

Ezra immediately sacrificed one of his culinary creations and hit Buck right between the eyes. Buck chortled in evil glee and caught the roll as it bounced off his nose.

“Mighty fine, rolls, Ez.” He grinned and popped it into his mouth.

“All right, let’s eat,” said Chris warningly.

They immediately settled down, although Ezra gave Buck a look that intimated future reprisals.

Blossom banged her spoon on the table and asked, “Grace?”

The men began to chuckle. Even Bransen smiled.

“Um, Nathan you say the blessing today,” said Chris after glaring threateningly at his unruly pack.

Nathan looked pleased. He bowed his head and everyone finally settled down and followed suite.

“Thank you Lord for the food and this here family,” he said softly and now there was silence from the grownups as they contemplated each other and the two children now under their protection.

Blossom grew impatient and was starting to reach for the drumsticks.

Ezra quickly got one into her chubby hands before she could wreak havoc.

“Good move, Ez,” said Vin approvingly and they watched her rip into the drum-stick with gusto.

Larabee felt something snagging at his trousers and found Kitty demanding her share. He pulled off a large piece of chicken without bone and surreptitiously put it on the floor for the cat.

Kitty began to purr loudly and Larabee shook his head. Whipped by a baby girl and damn cat.

+ + + + + + +

After supper, Vin took Buck aside and told him about Bransen scenting Two-Bloods distantly on the mountain. Both men left and were gone for hours. Bransen and Nathan did the dishes and Ezra put all the clean things away. After that, Ezra took the children aside and began to teach them numbers. Blossom could count to ten and began to go around the house counting chairs, beds, and pack members. Meanwhile, Ezra taught Bransen about addition and subtraction and then went on to multiplication.

When it was time for bed, Vin and Buck weren’t home. Blossom turned into a wolf pup and was out like a light as soon as she curled into a comfortable ball, but Bransen stayed a boy and kept looking at the door leading to the kitchen..

Ezra sat on the bed, stroked the boy’s head and said, “Don’t worry, dear boy, they are experienced woodsmen.”

Bransen grinned at him, “Yes, Buck is an experienced wolf.” Both the conman and the little boy giggled.

Then Bransen sat up and his eyes shone. “They’re coming back,” he said.

The pup curled next to him twitched and began to paw the air. “Grrrrr,” said Blossom in her sleep.

“I do believe our dear little magnolia blossom is dreaming of the hunt,” Ezra looked at her fondly.

Their conman stood up and smiled down at Bransen, “I’ll have the boys come in to kiss you goodnight.”

And true to his word, he could hear Ezra in the other room telling the boys that Bransen had worried about them. Soon both men had come in and hugged and kissed Bransen quite soundly. A little bit later, Chris Larabee came in and tucked him in. Bransen watched the blonde man as he walked out of the room and gently closed the door behind him.

Blossom sighed in her sleep and Bransen put his arms around her. Finally, he slept.

He woke and the house was filled with a strange red mist and there was no light under the door jam. Blossom was gone from his side. He stood up, frightened. The house was too silent.

He walked into the big ranch kitchen and wondered that they had let the fire go out. And why the door was opened. Then he smelled blood. He turned, and there lay his beloved Ezra on the floor, blood blossoming at his throat, spurting and reflecting in the dim star light of the open window.

“NO!” he screamed.

Strong arms grabbed him and he fought and then realized he was still in bed and Chris Larabee was holding him tight.

“It’s okay, Son, you’re safe. Its just a bad dream,” said their Alpha.

“Ezra!” Bransen sobbed, still horrified at his night terror.

Soon Bransen heard rapid soft footsteps that were familiar. His heart leapt in gratitude when Ezra came in, in a fancy robe, and sat next to him, stroking his sweaty hair.

“Never fear, young Sir, I am well and safe. We all are.”

Bransen held out his arms and was soon firmly held on Ezra’s lap, his feet held and stroked by Chris. They felt his forehead gently, and touched his cheeks as though checking for fever. Bransen decided that no one but these men had ever done that for him. He grabbed Ezra and hugged for all he was worth.

This time, he didn’t fall asleep with just Blossom. Ezra ended up laying on the bed snuggling him and the now snoring Blossom. Chris Larabee groused in a gruff voice about the bed being too durned small and kissed Bransen.

“I’ll leave the door cracked a mite so you can see the light from the fire.” Said the peacekeeper. “Sides, wouldn’t want Ez to get scairt.”

“Humph,” said Ezra.

Bransen slept the rest of the night peacefully. Any dreams he had were of wolves dancing before the fire and Ezra’s tooth gleaming in the firelight.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning Blossom looked up from chasing innocent chickens and announced to Vin that “Simite coming.”

As per Chris’ usual instructions, she ran into the house, but Bransen had already changed from wolf and was putting on a pot of coffee.

“Simite,” she said.

Chris looked at her puzzled.

“Yosemite is riding in,” explained Bransen.

When Yosemite got there, they had hot coffee and cookies for him. The liveryman looked very pleased.

“What’s happening?” asked Vin, watching Yosemite inhale the cookies.

“Miz Travis sent me to fetch everyone,” said Yosemite, smacking his lips on the last cookie. “Judge wired her that he needs at least 5 of the peacekeepers to come to Dunstown. The caught the Rustlers, and the Judge needs ya’ll there to make sure they don’t hang them before the trial.”

He looked down at Bransen and smiled. “JD says probably him and Ezra should stay to watch the town and asked me to fetch the youngin’s to Miz Nettie’s place. I’ll switch off with the boys watching out for your horses and chickens while you’re all gone too,” he added.

“That’s mighty neighborly of you,” said Vin politely, looking down forlornly at the children. He didn’t like leaving them, even though he knew Nettie would be delighted to get them a few days early. And Ezra had planned on some new fancy twice yeast raised rolls for supper too.

“Well,” drawled Yosemite, “Ya’ll have done a site of neighborly things for me too.” He nodded at Ezra, who helped train horses for the livery, and Vin who brought him herbal cures for all sort of things that bothered horses.

Ezra looked at Chris Larabee and nodded. “I’ll get the carrier for Kitty and write Nettie a note.”

Chris nodded and Vin went looking for Buck and Nathan. Chris noted to himself that even though they were getting domesticated as hell, they still were saddled and ready to go in a quarter hour.

Kitty was in a cat papoose carrier that Ezra had made in town for Kitty. Blossom could carry Kitty in front of her on horseback. It made for fewer traumas on the weekly trips to each different ranch. Vin said that Blossom had a way with cats since the kitten never fussed but just enjoyed the ride. Blossom petted the trapped feline and Kitty purred. Yosemite put Bransen and Blossom in front of him on his horse and chuckled at the purring kitten.

Ezra handed him a package of roll batter and said, “Tell Nettie to let it rise once more and it makes fine rolls,” said the conman regretfully.

Yosemite smirked and Ezra glared at him menacingly. Yosemite coughed and took the package. “Yup,” he said, hoping Ezra wouldn’t shoot him in front the youngin’s to remind him that the conman was still dangerous as hell.

The peacekeepers waved at the children and headed back to town to meet with Josiah.

The ride to Miz Nettie’s was pleasant. Yosemite told them stories about the Seven and the children listened to him while the kitten purred.

Once he got to Nettie’s place, Nettie came out to meet them on the porch with her Spencer in hand.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, and Bransen said, “They have to help the Judge with rustlers.”

Nettie looked relieve that no one was sick or shot and came forward to take Blossom from the horse.

“Nana!” said Blossom happily and Yosemite noted how gentle the normally rambunctious baby was with the older woman and how tender Nettie was with the little one.

Bransen dismounted without assistance and looked quickly to see if Yosemite noticed.

“Looks like someone is turning into a fine horseman,” said Yosemite, pleased that his approval meant something to the boy.

“Come on in and eat with us,” said Nettie, “I’m much obliged for you bringing the youngin’s over.”

Yosemite was no fool. Miz Nettie Wells was one of the finest cooks around.

He took his horse to the barn, brushed him down and washed up. When he got to the house, he noticed for the first time all the improvements and wisely realized that the Seven were responsible.

He tapped on the door and came in to the smell of fresh bread and venison steaks. Casey came in from chores and grinned to see the children. She made Nettie sit down and began to dish out a meal to put meat on any bachelor’s bones. Yosemite had to waddle back to his horse after and hoped he wouldn’t strain the poor thing. Casey was getting to be just as good a cook as her aunt.

The ride back to town was quiet. Mostly he just watched the trail and patted his contented belly. He barely noticed when he heard a wolf’s distant howl from the mountain.