That same morning
Vin, making his way back to Four Corners from his turn on dawn patrol, spotted the smoke as soon as it began to rise into the morning air. He frowned, wondering who would be so stupid, but there were many possible answers new settlers who didn't know about the threat of the renegades, travelers passing though, prospectors, bandits, outlaws, hell, damn near anyone who didn't know any better than to signal where they were, which was most folks he'd run into since coming to Four Corners.
With a sigh he decided he'd better find out who it was for sure, and pass along a little wisdom. He reined his black gelding and gigged him to a lope, covering the ground swiftly.
When he neared the camp, he slowed, moving silently, gaze continuously sweeping the landscape as he looked for any signs of an ambush. Nothing looked wrong, smelled wrong or sounded wrong, but it felt wrong to the tracker.
He dismounted, tied the black gelding to a mesquite and moved slowly, carefully, toward the campsite.
Beyond the brush and trees he could see an old mule and a man, whose back was turned to him. Vin stood for a moment and watched the man, dressed in homespuns and a baggy rag coat. He was squatting, watching a coffee pot that was sitting too close to the flames of the smoking fire.
As Vin continued to watch, the man reached out for the pot, grabbing the hot handle. He immediately jerked his hand away with a hiss, then sucked his fingers into his mouth.
Vin grinned. Greenhorn, he thought, stepping out and saying, "Easy, friend, I see you"
The next thing he knew, Vin was surrounded by several young Apache men, each of then holding a weapon on him.
Ah hell, he thought, huffing and shaking his head. I walked int' that like a damned greenhorn m'self. Gettin' soft, livin' in town.
Two hours later
When they reached the Apache camp, Vin was roughly escorted to a blanket that had been spread in the center of the camp. His hat was taken away, leaving him unprotected under the already blazing sun. He dropped down, sitting cross-legged and waited, looking totally relaxed and untroubled despite the worry that gnawed at his thoughts. Five of the young men stayed with him, making sure he didn't try to leave.
Several minutes later, a small group of warriors approached him, led by an older, silver-hared man. Vin studied the man as he drew closer, wondering if he'd seen him before. He looked familiar, but Vin had no clear memory of ever having met him. He was Apache, or perhaps Kiowa-Apache, so there was a chance he'd crossed paths with him while he was riding with the Comanche.
Vin stood, but stayed on the blanket and waited for them to reach him.
The older man stepped up to the edge of the blanket, but not onto it. He spoke in Kiowa-Apache, a language Vin didn't really understand, although he'd heard it often enough to recognize it. He just shook his head and shrugged.
The old man tried again.
"I catch a little 'a what y're sayin'," Vin replied in English, recognizing many of the Apache words from his days living among the Jicarilla while he'd been hunting buffalo.
"Do you know the language of the Comanche?" the old man asked him in that tongue.
Vin gave a single nod and answered in the same tongue, "I do. And Kiowa. I am known as Long Eyes by the People."
The old man nodded. "A good and well known name. I am Bloody Knife, a name that strikes fear in the hearts of the Comanche and makes the Kiowa go pale with fear."
Vin met the old man's eyes, saying, "But I was born pale, so it has no effect on me."
The old man held Vin's gaze, both of them smiling ever so slightly, then he nodded and his expression turned serious as he said, "By your hand you have killed the husband of Northwind." He gestured and a woman stepped out from behind several others, two small children holding tight to her skirts. "The tracker, Jean-Luc La Croix, was her husband, a Jicarilla by marriage and our customs."
Vin met the women's gaze, recognizing her as the one he'd seen when La Croix had been killed. He looked back at Bloody Knife, saying, "Her husband was breaking the law."
"What law? White man's law?" one of the young Comanche men in the group demanded. "Our law calls for a life for a life, blood for blood! If you were of the People you would know this!"
Bloody Knife held up his hand, silencing the young man. "You killed her husband. Take Northwind to wife and be her husband. You would be welcomed among us, Long Eyes."
"Bloody Knife, will y' hear some honest words from 'n honest man?" Vin asked the old man in English.
The Jicarilla nodded.
Vin shifted back to Comanche, saying, "I was Christian born and Indian raised, and I could pick a woman of my own kind for my wife. But if I chose an Indian wife, she would be Kiowa and no other."
"You are a brave and honest man," Bloody Knife replied, his eyes narrowed, "both of which may cost you your life."
"Then it's a price worth payin'," Vin replied, again in English.
The old man sighed sadly. "You will be tortured before you die."
Vin nodded his understanding.
"I have heard the stories. You are a brave warrior, Long Eyes," the old chief said, hoping to change Vin's mind, "and you will be tortured as a warrior, which means your torment will be more than the common mans'."
Vin nodded again. "It'll be as you say, Bloody Knife, an' I accept it, but I'll ask y' t' grant me a furlough. I give y' m' word I'll come back t' face yer warriors."
When someone translated his words from English to Apache, the young men raised their voices, arguing that Vin should not be allowed to leave, that he would run away like a frightened dog, but Bloody Knife raised his hand again, silencing them all. "And will you give me your word on this, Long Eyes?"
"Yes," Vin said with a nod.
"Why do you wish this furlough?" the old chief asked him.
"T' make peace with m' friends, but most important t' me, t' make peace with m' dearest friend a man who is more 'n a brother t' me."
Bloody Knife nodded. "Very well, but you must return before the sun sits on the mountains, or we will kill five of the whites." He looked closely at Vin and then asked, "And what will these friends say when they learn that you will be tortured?"
Vin thought for a moment, then said in Comanche, "What they say will not be as important as what they will do."
"And what will they do?"
"For every hair on my head they will kill an Apache."
Bloody Knife nodded solemnly. "So it will be. You admit you killed Northwind's husband. And you refuse to take her as your wife."
"Both are true," Vin agreed in Comanche. "But know this, Bloody Knife, La Croix took a white woman against her will, and he would have lain with her against her will. He deserved to die."
"Liar!" Northwind screamed at him.
Vin met her eyes and, and she looked away. He added in English, "La Croix also killed Eagle Child, one 'a Walking Bear's warriors. I know Walking Bear 'n' his people have been helpin' ya." He glanced around, recognizing some of the faces he saw there as men and women he'd met or seen in Ko-Je's camp over the past year.
Northwind glared at him, but she said nothing.
Bloody Knife turned to her, asking in Apache, "Is this true?"
She glared at Vin, then nodded sharply.
"Why?" Bloody Knife demanded from her.
"I do not know," she said. "He did not tell me."
The old chief scowled, but he looked back to Vin, who finally realized why the old man had looked familiar. "Go, but return as I have told you."
Vin nodded, saying, "I'll be back." He grabbed his hat back from one of the warriors, and headed for his horse.
Later that day, back in Four Corners
Vin rode hard back to Four Corners, heading straight for the Standish Tavern. Walking in, he glanced around, seeing several of the men he sought were already there. He crossed to where Ezra sat, playing poker with several of the locals.
"Need t' talk with y', Ez."
The gambler looked up, his expression slightly annoyed. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Tanner, but"
"It's 'bout m' life, 'n' maybe m' death," Vin said softly, holding the man's gaze. "Would mean somethin' t' me if y' come."
Ezra blinked, seeing the sincerity in the tracker's blue eyes. He swallowed hard, becoming worried, and looked back at the other players, saying, "I fold. If you'll excuse me, gentlemen?" as he scooped up his winning and hurried after Vin, who was already talking to Buck and Chris, both of whom looked equally worried.
Within a few minutes all seven regulators sat around a large table in the rear of the saloon, listening as Vin explained what had happened and what he had agreed to do.
"Well, hell, son, it's easy enough," Buck said, smiling nervously. "Y' just don't go back."
"Got t' go back, Bucklin," Vin replied. "Gave Bloody Knife m' word."
"This is madness," Ezra said, shaking his head. He was honestly worried about the tracker and that both surprised and scared him. When had he let himself actually become friends with these men? "Torture?" he argued. "It's barbaric. And it's completely uncivilized to expect a man to hand over his life for the likes of a worthless animal like La Croix."
Vin met the gambler's eyes, his small smile saying thank you louder than words ever could, but he replied quietly, "Civilization never made a man out 'a human bein', Ezra. M' word's all I got, so 'm goin' back." He glanced around the table. "I asked fer the furlough fer two reasons," he told them. "First was t' ask y' not t' take no revenge if I get m'self killed t'morrow."
"Can't do it," Chris said, shaking his head, his expression closed down to a cold, stony glower. He was pushed back away from the table, sitting with his arms folded over his chest.
Vin met the man's penetrating glare and growled, "It's m' own damned life, Larabee, c'n spend it however I see fit. I don't want no more 'a them people gettin' hurt. They're just trying t' survive 'n' keep the life they've known fer generations. Some of 'em are my people."
"And the second reason?" Josiah asked the tracker before Vin and Chris ended up in an argument.
"T' make some plans," Vin said, then grinned slyly at the group. "Hell, told 'em I'd come back, J'siah. Didn't tell 'em I'd come back t' die."
The others chuckled, except Larabee, who glowered at Tanner, sure the man was going to get himself killed and determined to save him from himself, one way or another.
Some time later
Chris walked out of the saloon with Vin. They headed down the boardwalk to the livery, the trip passing in silence. Once there, they both paused, leaning against the corral fence and staring out at the desert. Heat rose from the arid ground, creating shimmering waves in the distance.
"You really think you're gonna walk away from this?" Chris asked him softly.
"Hope to. Ain't sayin' it'll be easy, but 'm goin' t' try. Northwind knows more 'n she's sayin'. We get her t' tell Bloody Knife the truth, he won't let 'em kill me."
"You killed her husband, Vin. What makes you think she'll come around?"
The tracker shrugged. "Man who'll play all sides ain't much 'a man. 'M bettin' she knows that. If Ko-Je confronts her, she'll talk."
Chris shook his head, still not liking the tracker's plan. "Don't know if I can just wait while you try to get yourself killed."
"What 'm askin' is hard, Chris, I know that," Vin said, reaching out to rest his hand on Larabee's shoulder, "jus'"
"Damn it, Vin, you can get killed, and for what?"
"Fer honor, an' fer some people who jus' want t' be left alone t' live their lives in peace, on their lands, in their way. Ain't much t' ask, is it? Hell, Cowboy, any one 'a us c'n get himself killed any day, fer no damned good reason. This means somethin' t' me. Help me get these people out 'a here safe. An' help me keep Ko-Je's people from endin' up dead fer helpin' 'em. Please, Chris."
Larabee sighed. "Just don't want to collect that bounty any time soon, you hear me?"
Vin smiled. "That shack 'a yers could use a new roof, y' know."
Chris leveled a sharp, green glare on the man. "Ain't a shack."
"Sure as hell looks like one t' me."
Larabee shook his head and sighed heavily. "You better get out of here before I save Bloody Knife the trouble of killing you," he growled, but he reached out, clasping the tracker's forearm tightly. "Watch your back, pard," he added, his voice rough.
"Y' do the same, Cowboy," Vin replied, then rolled onto his gelding. "Just keep the rest of 'em away from the camp t'morrow. It'll be over by nightfall, one way or the other."
"I'll do what I can."
Vin nodded and headed out of town.
Chris watched him go, then sighed heavily and turned around, heading back to the saloon. They had a lot to do and not much time to get it done in if they were going to pull this off.
Vin rode back into the renegade camp, meeting the eyes of the men and women who came out of their lean-tos to watch him pass. There were a few hostile stares, but for the most part he saw respect in their eyes.
Before he reached the center of the encampment war cries erupted and he was surrounded by the warriors. They pulled him off his horse and forced him over to the same blanket he'd been confined to earlier that day.
Bloody Knife pushed though the younger men and met Vin's gaze, nodding. "Your word is good, Long Eyes."
Vin nodded once.
"I give you a chance to live. Take Northwind as a wife. You can still take a Kiowa wife later, if you desire. You have proven you are a man of honor."
"Cain't do it," he replied in English. "She lies."
Several of the women gasped and some of the warriors cried out for Tanner's blood when the words were translated. Bloody Knife's eyes narrowed. "Why do you say this?" he demanded. It was an extreme insult to the woman.
Vin shifted to Comanche. "Bloody Knife, I believe Northwind knew what her husband was up to here, and it was more than just protecting you and your band on their trip home. I believe she knows why La Croix killed Eagle Child, and, if I survive, I will ask her to tell me that truth before you take my life."
Northwind paled slightly, but she kept her head up, her gaze locked on Vin's, her eyes defiant. She had thought he was nothing more than a white man, and now she wondered if she hadn't made a terrible mistake.
Bloody Knife pointed to the blanket and Vin sat. The tracker knew he would be there all night, and that was just fine. It would give him a chance to think about what he would face the next day, and the friends he might not see again.
The next morning
Vin watched the camp slowly come awake. And, as soon as the sun rose above the horizon and the morning meal had been eaten, Bloody Knife and the other warriors assembled across the camp from where he sat. They talked for a short time, and then they headed over to join him.
Bloody Knife looked down at the tracker and nodded. "We will begin."
"Wait!" someone called. "Others are coming!"
"He told the Army where we were!" one of the warriors cried in Comanche.
"No, I didn't," Vin snapped.
Northwind's oldest son, a young man in his late teens, grabbed his knife, but the old chief reached out, stilling his hand before he could strike at Vin. "Who comes?" he called to the scout, watching from the top of a jagged hill.
"It is Walking Bear, and several white men."
"Army?" Bloody Knife asked the lookout.
"Ko-Je comes, with white men," Bloody Knife told Vin in Comanche.
Vin made no reply, but it was clear to the old chief that Long Eyes had not expected this, and he was worried. And well he should be. Whoever had come, their fates would now be determined by how well Long Eyes handled the trials to come. Knowing the lives of these others hung in the balance would put an additional burden on the young man.
Several minutes later Ko-Jo, and the rest of the Seven, minus Chris, rode into the encampment. Vin sucked in a sharp breath and cursed softly under his breath.
Ko-Je swung down first and walked over to meet Bloody Knife, the two men exchanging words that became heated several times, both men raising their voices and gesturing angrily.
Bloody Knife finally nodded, and then turned back to Vin, saying in Comanche, "We will continue. But know this, Long Eyes, the lives of these men now rest upon your shoulders."
Vin heard Ko-Je translate that for the others. The peacekeepers all looked surprised, but confident in him. He sighed softly. Sometimes, he decided, they had too much faith in him.
Vin turned to Bloody Knife, asking, "Will y' let me talk t' m' friends? There's a reason they came, 'n' I need t' know what it is. Y' do as well."
The old man nodded.
Vin hurried over to the five men, asking them in a soft rasp, "Why th' hell 're y' here?"
"The Army's on the way," Buck said quietly. "They started lookin' in the right direction yesterday evenin'. I crossed paths with a scout when I was out on patrol this mornin'. They'll probably find this place before nightfall. Ko-Je's braves are tryin' t' lead 'em away, buy these people some time to get away."
"Damn," Vin hissed. "But why're y'all here?"
"We thought if the Army showed up, maybe we could keep these folks from gettin' killed if we were here," JD said, glancing nervously around the encampment.
Vin closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at them and growled, "That's only goin' t' work if these people don't kill y' first."
"We just wanted to help, Vin," Josiah said, glancing nervously at Ko-Je, who stared impassively at the old Jicarilla chief.
"I know y' are," Vin said, "but these folks ain't like Ko-Je's people, or the folks at the Seminole Village." He paused, looking first to Ko-Je, who ignored him, then looked to the others and asked, "Where's Chris?"
"Has a plan of his own," Nathan replied.
"We will be safe here, won't we?" Ezra asked the tracker. "After all, we are here to help these people."
"Ain't that easy, Ez," Vin told him. "I want y' t' listen t' me, 'n' hear me good. Whatever happens, don't say nothin' 'n' don't do nothin'. Promise me; give me yer word, all 'a ya." When they had all agreed, he added, "Stay where they put y' 'n' keep quiet 'n' we might get out 'a this alive," before he turned and walked back to Bloody Knife. "These men had nothing to do with La Croix's death," he said in Comanche. "But they bring important news. The Army is getting close. They came here because they are my friends, and very foolish, believing that they can protect you and your people if the Army finds you."
Bloody Knife considered the man's words and then nodded. "If what you say is true, and I believe your words, Long Eyes, then they are worthy friends, and honorable men, but nothing has changed for you, only the reasons for it. We must honor our ways, or we will lose them. If you fail, your friends will die at your side."
Tanner sighed softly and nodded.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"What did they just say?" Josiah asked Ko-Je, worried by the concern he saw in the tracker's expressive blue eyes. "And what did you say to Bloody Knife earlier?"
The old chief met Josiah's troubled, stormy gaze and said sadly, "I never thought to see this day, my friends, but my brother does not believe me."
"Your brother?" Buck snapped at the old chief.
Ko-Je nodded. "As for what they said Vin will be tortured in our place. And, if he fails, we will all die."
"What?" JD squeaked. "But I thought they were gonna do this because he killed that woman's husband?"
"Things change," Ko-Je sighed as he and the others were led over to two blankets that had been spread out on the ground and told to sit. They did, wondering what would happen next.
After a few minutes, Josiah leaned over and asked softly, "Ko-Je, can you tell me what's happening here? Maybe if we understand it, we can find a way to stop this before somebody gets killed."
The old man sighed again and said, "It cannot be stopped, my friend. But I will tell you this I told my brother that Northwind's husband came to me and demanded we give him silver, or he would tell the Army of the help we gave my brother, and we would be killed by the man called McNabb. I told my brother I knew La Croix was also taking silver from the Army as well. One of my warriors saw this happen. My brother did not believe me."
"But why did he get so mad?" the preacher asked, remembering Bloody Knife's furious expression from earlier.
Ko-Je turned, meeting the preacher's eyes and said, "The woman, Northwind, is our sister. I have dishonored her by saying her husband lied to all of us, since she did not tell us of his deception, as she should have. I am very disappointed in her. La Croix has killed her spirit, but my brother refuses to see this is true."
Josiah sighed softly. They were in trouble. "What're they doing to Vin?" he asked the old chief as the women stripped the tracker of his clothing.
"He will be tortured," Ko-Je said sadly. "It is a test, in four turns, sometimes five."
"A test?" JD asked, looking over at the old man, confused and worried.
Ko-Je simply nodded.
"If this test is not conducted swiftly, the Army might just arrive and put an end to it by killing us all," Ezra said hotly.
Ko-Je leaned forward and turned so he could see the gambler. "That may be so, but it is too late to stop it now."
The regulators watched in silence as Vin, who appeared completely unconcerned about his sudden public nakedness, was led over to an old tree, long dead when the spring that had once fed it dried up.
Nathan's eyes narrowed slightly as his trained gaze took in the various scars on the tracker's body. "Vin's seen some rough times," he said softly, shaking his head.
"They are about to get much worse," Ko-Je replied.
A rope was tossed over the largest of the weathered limbs and Vin was deftly tied and then pulled up so he was suspended several feet off the ground. The women, each of them carrying switches, formed a circle around the tracker and began to beat him as they hollered and keened.
"What kind of test is that?" Buck hissed softly.
"A test of strength," Ko-Je said, watching the man's torment impassively. "Listen well, my friends. Vin spoke the truth. You must not interfere. If you do, then we will all be killed, your friend included. You understand? You must allow Vin to face these tests alone. Ask the spirits, or your God, to make him strong, because he carries all of our lives on his shoulders."
Buck shot Josiah a hot look, but the older man shook his head. "We wait," he said.
"Damn it," Buck snarled.
The peacekeepers continued to watch as Vin jerked and twisted under the almost constant rain of blows. At first he pulled his knees up, trying to protect his genitals, but as time passed, he couldn't keep them tucked against his chest and, after he started to shake, he finally had to lower his legs and endure whatever blows fell.
The women continued to circle around him, scourging him as they went.
"How long's this gonna go on?" Nathan asked the old chief several minutes later. Vin was sweating profusely, his sodden hair plastered to his face, every inch of his skin crisscrossed with red welts.
"Until they are finished," Ko-Je replied.
"He ain't goin' to be able to take much more," Nathan said softly, watching Vin's chest heaving as he sucked in huge gulps of air. But he refused to give voice to the agony he was enduring.
Ko-Je had no reply.
Each of the regulators continued to watch until they could no longer stand to see Vin's suffering and had to look away. Ko-Je, however, watched every blow fall and, across the camp, Bloody Knife did the same.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin wasn't sure how long they'd beaten him; he had stopped feeling the pain somewhere along the way, finding that place in his mind where it could no longer reach him, a place he had discovered a very long time ago. He focused on staying in that place, and enduring, without letting the women see his pain. He could tell his body was suffering, but he felt none of it, resting in his place of silence, his place of balance.
Some time later he heard one of the women shout and the rest of them turned and walked a short distance away, taking among themselves for a few moments.
Then the woman who had shouted nodded to Bloody Knife.
The chief waved to the two men standing next to the tree and they cut Vin down.
Tanner fell heavily into the dust, the sudden impact jarring him from his sanctuary. He forced himself to stand straight, his shoulders back, his head up even as his arms and legs trembled and sweat poured down his face and chest. His entire body felt like it was on fire, but he ignored the searing pain and waited.
Several minutes passed and then the women all began to keen, shaking their switches at him before they threw them aside and walked away to join the warriors who had been watching.
Vin sighed softly, his shoulders sagging just slightly. It was over for the moment.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"I take it he passed this barbaric trial?" Ezra asked, looking away from the red welts that covered the tracker's body.
Ko-Je grunted and nodded.
They watched as several of the younger men stepped up and surrounded Vin. One grabbed the rope that still bound Vin's hands while another rolled onto his horse. The rope was handed up to the man on horseback and he started off.
"What're they doing now?" JD asked the chief, watching Vin as he jogged alongside the man and horse.
"Endurance," Ko-Je stated as the young man on horseback picked up the pace.
Over the next hour they watched Vin struggle to keep up with the small paint mustang as it moved through the desert. He jogged, he ran and, after falling a few times, he was dragged.
The last time he fell, Vin eventually stopped the horse and rider by looping the rope around a rocky outcrop and yanking the horse to a stop, which prompted a series of war cries from the warriors watching.
"Can he do that?" JD asked worriedly.
The horse stopped, Vin jerked the rider off and the regulators could see him yelling at the Indian, although they were too far away for Ko-Je to hear what was being said and translate it for them.
Then, suddenly, the two men were racing on foot across the desert.
"Come on, Vin," Buck encouraged softly. "You can do it, stud."
Vin and the man reached the camp, running side by side, the tracker matching the warrior stride for stride. And, when they stopped, Tanner stood straight, breathing hard, but refusing to gasp in the air his lungs craved. Beside him, the young Apache did the same, begrudging respect in his eyes.
Nathan started to stand, wanting to check the bleeding wounds Tanner had picked up out in the desert, but Ko-Je reached out and grabbed his arm, shaking his head.
The healer settled back, but his eyes flashed angrily.
Bloody Knife stared at Vin for a long moment, and then nodded. A cry went up from the warriors and one of them stepped forward. The rope that bound Vin's hands was cut loose, falling into the dirt. Then the tracker was handed the knife, which he accepted, glancing warily around to see who his opponent would be.
A sturdy man in his early twenties stepped out from among the others to face him.
"They gonna fight now?" Nathan asked Ko-Je, his brow furrowing with worry.
The old chief nodded. "A test of cunning."
"They gonna give him some water?" the healer asked. "He needs water. Or some clothes?"
But Ko-Je had no reply.
Buck shook his head, the others muttering to themselves.
"Want t' take any bets on this one?" Buck asked Ezra, but it was no criticism of the gambler.
"Of course," Ezra replied, trying to sound lighthearted. "I have complete faith in Mr. Tanner's skills."
"The real question is whether Vin does," Ko-Je said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin checked the weight of the knife in his hand, his gaze scanning the assembled warriors for who he would be facing. When the muscular young man stepped out, he felt his heart begin to beat faster.
Could he defeat the man? His legs were weak and trembling, his arms sore and sluggish. But he knew he had no choice. Defeat meant death, his and his friends, and that was something he could not allow. He knew he couldn't rely on his body this time; he would have to outsmart the man to defeat him.
Vin and the young man circled each other a few times, sizing each other up. Watching closely, Vin could see the man was strong, but not as fast as Vin had expected. The warrior would try to overpower him with his strength, which meant he had to bide his time, staying swifter until an opening came.
Vin allowed his mind to drift into the hunter he knew lived in his soul. It was that part of him that could track and kill a man without hesitation. It was that part of him that was patient and sure. It was also relentless and merciless.
When the hunter arrived, Vin allowed himself to relax and watch, knowing he would find the opening he needed to defeat his foe.
The killing dance was familiar and, in some odd way, comforting. And, when he and his opponent moved as one, each lunging in, swinging their knives at one another, and then backing out again, Vin breathed in the heady thrill of it. The process was repeated, again and again, blood being drawn on both sides.
Vin knew his body was slowly failing, but the hunter was stronger than his flesh and it pressed on, baiting the man, and slowly luring him in for the kill.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After several long minutes it was clear to those watching that both men were tiring, but Vin in particular seemed to be struggling.
"Come on, Vin," Buck encouraged softly. "Take 'im."
And then, as if he'd heard Buck's words, Vin erupted with a burst of speed, his foot lashing out, kicking the Apache's knife out of his hand.
"Look at that!" JD yelped excitedly. "I've never seen nothing like that!"
"Indian fightin'," Buck said, watching the unfolding battle, his eyes narrowed with concern. Vin had been holding his own, but he was obviously tired and hurting. Wilmington could see the bruises that were developing on the tracker's ribs and back. And he was bleeding from several cuts he'd picked up out in the desert, not to mention those carved into his skin by the knife-wielding warrior. The Apache warrior only had to wear him down and then overpower him. "Come on, Vin," he said softly. "Quit stallin' and take him while y' still can."
Then, seeing what he thought was an opening, the young warrior took it, dumping Vin onto the ground and coming down on top of him. But the tracker had known what the man was planning, and had let him do it. Now, Tanner swung his legs up, wrapping them around the man's neck and flipping him off his chest.
Vin rolled with the man, in a fluid motion, coming up with his knife still in his hand. He pressed it against the young man's neck, his lips curled off his teeth in a feral snarl. "I c'n take yer life," the hunter growled at the warrior, but his gaze darted to Bloody Knife, who expression gave away nothing, "but I won't." Vin stepped off the man, still holding his knife, just in case. "Y' fought well, brother."
"As did you," the man replied in Comanche.
But Bloody Knife held up his hand, putting an end to the fight.
Ezra released the breath he'd been holding, saying, "It appears our Mr. Tanner's skills extend beyond those with horses and are even more amazing than I had once imagined."
"Ain't that the truth," Buck said, sighing with relief.
"But he's payin' for it," Nathan said softly. Before he could ask Ko-Je what was coming next, Vin was hauled over to the same dead tree where his ordeal had begun. A broken limb had been tied to the trunk to create a cross-shape that the tracker was lashed to, his arms held securely out at his sides.
The young men gathered in a group, whooping and screaming, working themselves into a kind of frenzy.
"Ko-Je?" Josiah asked, frowning.
"The hardest test," the old man said. "Courage."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin allowed them to tie him to the old tree, still trying to catch his breath. His tongue felt thick and his mouth was dry, making it hard for him to swallow. He welcomed the ropes, which took some of the burden from his tired, aching muscles. He was thirsty, but knew there would be no respite until the trials were over.
He watched as the warriors worked themselves into a fury and knew he had to stay calm if he was going to survive. A task easier said than done. It would help that he was starting to feel lightheaded, or that his body was failing him both the result of the thirst and the heat, he knew.
After several minutes passed, one of the warriors stepped out with a knife in his hand. "You are lower than a woman," he jeered and Bloody Knife translated the man's words into Comanche for Vin. The tracker could see Ko-Je doing the same for the other peacekeepers.
The warrior hurled his knife at Vin and it sunk into the trunk of the dead tree with a dull thunk, several inches from the tracker's face.
"Nothing is lower than snake," Vin jeered back in Comanche, Bloody Knife translating again. "You are a snake. You are at the bottom."
The man glowered at Vin, who could feel his heart racing as he panted for breath, but the warrior stepped aside for the next man. Vin drew in a deep breath through his nostrils and held it a moment before letting it out again. The muscles in his legs and abdomen twitched uncontrollably and he hoped it didn't show. Any sign of weakness and he would be dead, the others right along with him. And he could not allow them to die. He had to stay strong a little while longer. Digging down deep inside himself, into that part that had helped him survive every horror he had ever faced, Vin pulled up the strength he needed to continue.
"Show me how a white man trembles!" the next warrior snarled in Comanche.
The tracker's eyes narrowed and his lips curled off his teeth. "I do not tremble for mosquitoes or vermin, why should I tremble for you?" Vin asked him in the same tongue.
The man cried out his rage and hurled his knife, which landed only a couple of inches from Vin's ribs.
Then, before Vin had a chance to really register just how close the second knife had come, one of the Apache warriors charged him. The young man screamed his war cry and raised his knife up over his head as if he planned to plunge it into Vin's chest when he reached him but, at the last moment, it sank into the wood just above the tracker's shoulder. Tanner had held the man's gaze the entire time, refusing to blink or look away.
The man held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned and walked away. Vin allowed himself a soft sigh and swallowed hard.
One of the warriors began to laugh and he handed his knife to an old man, gesturing toward Vin.
Tanner swallowed hard again, worry creeping into his eyes for the first time. It looked like the old man was blind, or damned close to it. His hands were also gnarled and trembling.
"Take your time, grandfather," Vin called in Comanche. The warriors laughed when Bloody Knife translated.
The old man nodded and carefully lined up his throw several times before he actually took it. The blade sunk into the tree trunk, an inch below Vin's genitals.
"Oh, shit," Buck wheezed, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment.
"Yeah," JD gasped, fighting the urge to cup himself protectively.
"You have my respect, Grandfather," Vin called to the man in Comanche, grateful his voice didn't shake or break like he'd expected to. "Even half-blind you are better than these younger dogs by far."
When Bloody Knife translated the words the Apache warriors exploded. Knifes and arrows thudded into the tree, a few nicking Vin's skin but, through it all, the tracker's expression remained steadfastly calm and unconcerned, as if he were waiting for them to acknowledge he was even there.
"Bloody Knife, more come!" the scout called, putting an end to the test.
"Who?" the chief asked, his brow furrowing with worry.
"Two white men and a white woman. One of the men is carrying a peace flag, the other is a soldier."
Bloody Knife nodded and the three new arrivals were allowed to enter the camp and dismount.
Vin cursed softly under his breath, wondering what in the world Larabee thought he was doing. He was going to have some words with the man if any of them escaped with their lives.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Mary's eyes widened when she saw Vin, standing naked and bloody, but being cut loose from where he'd been tied to an old tree. She quickly looked away, feeling her cheeks turn pink.
"Why have you come, woman?" Bloody Knife asked her in English.
Mary swallowed and said, "I have come to ask you to spare Mr. Tanner's life. He is a good and honorable man. He killed the man called La Croix because La Croix forced me to go with him. I have no doubt what he planned for me, but I was spared that horror, thanks to Mr. Tanner's actions."
Bloody Knife called for his sister and Northwind joined him. "You heard her?"
Northwind nodded, but she said nothing.
"I am very sorry you lost your husband," Mary said, reaching out to touch Northwind's shoulder. "I lost my husband as well. He was killed by men who wanted to silence the truth he was speaking about them. If you allow Vin to be killed, you will be guilty of doing the same to him. He has told you the truth about what your husband has done."
Northwind looked up, meeting Mary's frightened blue eyes, holding her gaze for a long, silent moment, then nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. She turned away from Mary as they began to fall, ashamed of the weakness she had shown in front of a white woman.
Bloody Knife frowned and glanced over at Ko-Je before he addressed Chris, who standing next to Mary, holding Sergeant Evans, whose hands were tied behind his back.
"The Sergeant here has something to tell you," Larabee said, adding, "if you'll listen."
Bloody Knife glanced briefly at his sister, but nodded.
Chris gave the sergeant a jerk and Evans said, "La Croix was gettin' paid by the Major to track y' down. But I knew 'bout his wife being with ya. I told him I'd help him turn the Major to the locals if he paid me, and he did."
"Tell 'em about Eagle Child," Larabee snarled softly.
The sergeant sighed, flashing the gunman an angry glare before he added, "The kid came across me and La Croix out in the desert. La Croix told me to leave, so I did. I heard the boy screamin' while La Croix cut him up."
Bloody Knife looked down at the ground, muttering in Apache. When he looked up again, he said loudly, "Long Eyes will not be killed," and then repeated it in Kiowa-Apache and Comanche.
"No! He deserves to die! He is a white man. They steal our homes, kill us!" one of the warriors yelled. He stepped out and hurled his knife at Vin, who twisted away, the blade sinking into the tree trunk. He grabbed it by the handle and, a moment later, a fight was on, everyone scrambling back out of the way.
It was a short, vicious battle, Vin quickly ending up straddling the man, his knife pressed against his throat as he snarled, "Want t' show me how 'n Apache trembles?"
The warrior looked up at Vin, real fear in his eyes. He hadn't understood the man's words, but he understood the emotions flashing in the pale blue eyes.
Vin saw the man's fear and felt the hunter's anger dissolve. He took a deep breath and stepped off the young man. He tossed the knife down and walked over to where his clothes lay in a pile, putting them back on. When he was dressed again, he walked back to Bloody Knife.
"So, where do we stand?" he asked the old chief in Comanche.
"I have learned much today, perhaps too much," the old man said, his tone sad and defeated. "You have earned your freedom, Long Eyes."
"And m' friends?" Vin asked him.
"Tell me why I should spare their lives and I will do so to honor a brave and honest man," Bloody Knife replied, holding the tracker's gaze.
With that, Ko-Je stood and the others followed his lead. The old chief walked over to stand with Chris, Mary and the sergeant.
"What's happening?" Chris whispered to Ko-Je, who explained that Vin had proven himself worthy and would not be killed, nor would they, if Vin could provide a reason Bloody Knife accepted for them to be spared.
Chris's gaze flashed to Vin, and he caught the man's eyes. The casual assurance he'd come to reply on was there in the blue depths and he sighed softly with relief. Vin would get them home, alive.
For his part, Vin took a deep breath and chose his words carefully. He spoke them in Comanche, Ko-Je translating them into English, Bloody Knife into Apache. "Mrs. Travis only came to try and save my life. She does not understand your ways. She is a kind and decent woman, who holds no hatred for anyone, which is reason enough to spare her life. Please, Uncle, spare her so she may return to her son and teach him to be as kind and honorable as she is."
Bloody Knife considered the words for a moment, and then nodded.
Vin's gaze shifted to JD and he continued. "JD's no more than a boy, but he has proven himself both brave and loyal. He will be a man worthy of your respect, if you allow him to live and learn."
JD blushed furiously when Bloody Knife glanced and him, taking stock of what he saw, and then nodded.
Vin pointed to Nathan, saying, "Nathan is a healer, and a good man. He was once a slave, but he never let the hatred that can poison a man who's been treated as less than human touch his heart. He doesn't look to see what color a man is before he cares for him. He heals all who ask for his help."
Nathan met Vin's gaze and nodded his thanks. Bloody Knife nodded as well.
The world spun slightly and Vin took a deep breath before he looked to Josiah. "J'siah is a man of God, but not the God of the missionaries who come to strip you of your ancestors and your ways. J'siah is a wise teacher. He has learned of many gods, and many paths to reach them, and he walks his own spiritual road with purpose, a companion to any who befriends him."
Josiah grinned slightly and dipped his head to Vin in silent thanks. Bloody Knife weighed the words and nodded again.
Vin's gaze shifted to Ezra. "Ezra is still fighting the demons in his heart. He sometimes has trouble seeing the goodness in himself, but he is learning, even if the lessons are sometimes painful. Allow him to live, Uncle, so he might finish his journey and come to see himself for what he truly is a brave and honorable man; a good friend to us all."
Ezra's eyes rounded with surprise as Ko-Je translated Vin's words. He felt his cheeks turn bright red and tried to keep his poker face in place, but couldn't. Was that truly how Vin saw him? If so, then Ezra knew the tracker had more faith in him than he did in himself. And, for the first time in his life, Ezra wanted to live up to someone else's expectations.
Bloody Knife's eyes crinkled when he saw the man's face turn red, and knew Long Eyes had seen into the man's true heart and read it wisely. He nodded.
Vin's gaze shifted to Buck, who shifted nervously from foot to foot. "Buck is a special kind of man. He loves women, and because he does, he sees them in a special way. He protects them young or old, beautiful or plain. Buck sees the beauty that lives in every woman's heart, and nothing gives him more pleasure than to see that beauty set free. His heart is kind, his spirit loyal. Spare him for all the women who will keen and wail should he die here."
The ladies' man blushed a deep red and tried not to smile. It wasn't what he'd expected to hear, but it was all true, and he was glad that someone besides Chris knew the truth that drove him into so many women's arms.
Bloody Knife regarded Buck for a moment, and then looked to the women, who stood together to one side. The oldest nodded her approval, and Bloody Knife nodded as well. Then he said, "You do not need to speak for my brother, Long Eyes. I know he is an honorable man. My pride blinded me, and I can only hope that he will forgive me that insult."
Ko-Je nodded and offered his brother a small smile, as well as his hand. The two men embraced briefly, then stepped apart again, all insults forgiven, on both sides.
"The soldier, what will we do to with him?" Bloody Knife asked Vin.
Tanner thought for a moment. "You should spare the man's life, on one condition that the Sergeant returns to his unit and tell the Major the renegades have fooled them yet again. That they have escaped into Mexico. The threat is gone, and he still doesn't know who was helping them. It was probably just La Croix, trying to make as much money for himself as he could."
Evans shot Vin a burning glare, but he held his tongue, knowing he could end up at the end of a rope if the Major found out he was in cahoots with La Croix. And there were eight white witnesses who could tell him, if he didn't do what the breed wanted him to do.
"I will spare his life if he agrees to do this," Bloody Knife said.
"Well?" Chris said, giving the man a shake when he didn't reply to Ko-Je's translation.
"All right, damn it. I'll do what he said," the soldier snarled.
Bloody Knife nodded and looked to Larabee. "And this one?" he asked the tracker.
Vin thought for a moment and then sighed and said, "I give you no other reason than that I would endure your torture again, and again after that, to spare his life."
Bloody Knife looked from Chris to Vin and back again. "Such a bond is rare and worthy of respect for its own sake. He may live." Chris met and held Vin's gaze as the old chief added, "You will always be welcome among us, Long Eyes."
"Thank you," Vin replied. "It is an honor to be respected by those whom you respect."
Bloody Knife nodded, then grinned and added, "Even if you do not tremble with fear."
Vin inclined his head slightly and grinned back, saying in English, "Guess 'm jus' a stupid white man sometimes."
Bloody Knife threw back his head and laughed, the other Indians joining in while the rest of the Seven and Mary looked slightly offended.
Vin horse was led over and he rolled into the saddle, waiting while the others mounted as well. "Hurry," Tanner told Bloody Knife. "We'll make sure the Army don't find y' fer at least a few hours."
The old man nodded, and then turned to his brother saying, "My mistake is unforgivable."
Ko-Je shook his head. "Things have changed. We are not the same as we once were, but we are still brothers."
Bloody Knife nodded. "Come with us."
"I cannot. My people have made peace with the whites. We will live here, with our friends."
Bloody Knife glanced at the seven men and the beautiful blonde woman and nodded again. "With friends such as those, your decision is a wise one. Safe journey."
As the Seven rode out of the encampment, along with Mary, Ko-Je and the sergeant, they passed men and women, all of whom chanted a war song for the white man known as Long Eyes. Vin sat straight in his saddle, grateful his friends couldn't understand a word of it, and wishing the desert would stop spinning past his eyes.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Once into the desert, Chris pulled up, saying, "Buck, take Josiah, Ezra and JD with you and get the sergeant back to McNabb. See to it he lives up to his end of the bargain."
Buck nodded, taking the reins to the soldier's horse from Chris.
Vin started to follow them, but Chris reached out and stopped him with a hand on his arm, saying, "Not you. Nathan and me are taking you back to town so he can get a look at you."
"'M fine," Tanner slurred as he blinked owlishly.
Nathan edged his horse up alongside the tracker's and handed him an open canteen. "Here, drink some water, Vin," he said, frowning worriedly.
The blue eyes shifted to the healer, and he blinked, trying to force the man's face into focus. Then his eyes rolled back into head and Vin slipped bonelessly off his horse, landing hard on the ground.
"Vin?" Mary gasped, watching as both Nathan and Chris rushed to the fallen man's side.
"Vin?" Chris called, scooping the smaller man up and cradling him in his arms. "Vin, ya all right?"
Nathan reached out, checking Vin's pale cheek, which felt cold and clammy to his touch, although sweat glistened on his skin as well. "We need t' get him into some shade," he told the gunman.
"The creek's not far," Chris suggested. "Plenty of water to cool him down with."
Nathan nodded and together they lifted Vin and got him onto Chris's horse. The gunslinger swung up behind Tanner, gently holding onto the tracker, whose head lolled against his shoulder as they headed for the creek and the shade offered by the palo verde, cottonwood and mesquite that grew scattered along the sandy banks.
As soon as they found a spot close to both water and shade, Nathan took the unconscious man from Larabee and carried him to the shadows, laying him down on the cool ground. With practiced efficiency, Vin's coat and shirt were quickly removed.
Nathan then soaked the tracker's shirt in the creek and wrung the cloth out. He laid it over Vin's chest and sat back to see if that helped bring the man around.
"Here, let me help," Mary said, taking a seat on the ground between Tanner and the creek. She leaned over to wet the scarf she'd been wearing and used it to bath the tracker's sunburned face.
After a few minutes, Vin moaned and opened his eyes.
"Hello," Mary greeted him, her voice bringing Nathan and Chris to stare over her shoulders.
Vin looked up at the three worried expressions dancing in front of his eyes and frowned. "What's wrong?" he asked, his voice dry and raspy. "What happened?"
"Lack of water and too much work out in that desert done took their toll," Nathan told him. "Think ya can take some water?"
Vin nodded, more thirsty than he could remember being in a long, long time. He slowly sat up, his muscles protesting the movement and sending spasms of liquid fire racing along his arms, shoulders and back. His damp shirt fell into his lap and Mary glanced away from his naked chest, her cheeks flushing as the sight reminded her of what the rest of him looked like.
Vin saw her blush and quickly pulled his shirt on, buttoning it. The damp coolness felt wonderful against his skin.
Nathan handed him a canteen, warning, "Take small sips or it'll come right back up."
The tracker did as instructed, the fresh, cool water tasting better than any of Ezra's fancy, imported liquors. His eyes closed and he moaned softly.
"Vin?" Chris asked, sounding worried.
The tracker's eyes opened and he looked up at Larabee, grinning. "'M fine, Cowboy, jus' water ain't never tasted this good b'for."
Nathan grinned as well. "I ain't surprised. How's your stomach feelin'?"
"Fine," Vin replied, taking several more sips, and savoring each one.
"Little," Vin admitted.
"Legs or belly crampin' up any?"
Vin shook his head. "Just got a twitch that's hangin' on."
The healer nodded. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected. "Ya just find a place to lean back and rest fo' a bit. I want ya to drink as much of that water as ya can. Just take it nice and slow."
Vin nodded, unable to protest the way he usually would with Mary sitting there, looking worried and motherly.
She dipped her scarf into the creek again, wrung it out and handed it to Vin, saying, "Tie this around your neck, it'll make you feel cooler."
He took the cloth from her and did as she'd asked. "Thank y', Mary," he said, a blush coloring his cheeks.
"You're very welcome," she said, standing. "I'll go see if I can help Nathan."
When she stepped away, Chris took her place. He reached out, giving Vin's leg a gentle squeeze. "You feelin' better?"
Vin nodded. "Ready t' ride."
"You just stay right there and finish off that water like Nathan told you," Chris said. "You look like hell, pard."
Vin grinned. "Reckon I might, but 'm a fair piece from dead."
Chris shot him an annoyed glare, but he just didn't have the heart to put any force behind it. "Looks like they tried their best."
Vin shook his head. "If they'd wanted us dead, we'd be dead."
"At least it's over," Chris said, absently rubbing the tracker's leg when he felt the muscles begin twitching under his hand.
"Hope they make it home," Vin said softly, a faraway look in his blue eyes.
Chris hesitated for a moment, and then asked, "You miss it? Living with 'em?"
"Sometimes," Vin replied softly, nodding. Then he looked at Larabee and smiled. "Helluva lot easier 'n livin' with a bunch 'a mule-headed, deaf, sons-a-bitches who can't seem t' understand a word I say."
Larabee grinned. "What's that?"
"Y' heard me jus' fine, Larabee," Vin growled.
Vin rolled his eyes and shook his head. Damn, sometimes having family was a real pain in the ass but he wouldn't trade any of them, for anything especially the infuriating blond grinning at him.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, A Small Circle of Friends #8, a recycling zine published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. In this case, the story is a liberal recycle of the Hawkeye episodes "Furlough." When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane (also Kacey Tucker, Nina Talbot, and Sierra Chaves). Story last edited 9-28-2005. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com).