Soiled Dove

by Kati

Vin looked up at the sky as he tightened Peso's saddle girth. He pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders as the cold air rustled his hair and sent chills down his spine. The late October air was turning cold in preparation to greet the winter.

"Have a safe journey," the wizened old man holding on to Peso's bridle told him.

"I will, Kojay," Vin answered, shaking hands with the Apache chief. After making sure his mare's leg was secure, he easily hopped up into the saddle. "I'll see what I can do for you back in Four Corners."

"Thank you, my friend," the man said sincerely. He turned his head. Vin followed his gaze to a finely dressed man walking amongst the basket weaving women. The frustration was obvious in his aged eyes. "The missionaries have given us so much trouble in the past, yet the spirits feel the need to keep sending more to us. I feel that it is best that we meet some of their demands."

Vin nodded his head, masking his anger. The sight of the arrogant white man strutting through the village made him shake in fury. With a final nod towards Kojay, he turned his horse's head in the direction of Four Corners.

Soon the small village was far behind him, but the image of the missionary still burned in his mind. He had nothing against the religion, and his brothers that chose to follow it. It was when people like the new missionary Robertson forced it on people that really got to him.

Vin sighed as his thoughts strayed to the children he had seen chasing the dogs around and watching in awe as the young men prepared their knifes and spears for the upcoming hunt. He wondered how many of them would grow up still knowing the old customs of their people. If missionaries like Robertson had their way, the answer was none. Ezra had read him an article from a recent newspaper out of Chicago. The fancy talking gambler mentioned the word assimilation. Vin wasn't quite sure what the big fancy word really meant, but after visiting the Apache village, he had formed his own opinion. Robertson had talked to Kojay about boarding schools for some of the children. He had made these schools seem like a dream come true for the struggling tribe. They would receive a real education and be properly clothed and fed. After years of schooling, the children would return to their village respected members of both their tribe, and the United States society.

At first, Vin has thought it was one of the best ideas he had ever heard. He remembered watching his friends fall prey to starvation during hard winters and the lack of respect given to them when they entered the towns. He remembered the conversation he had held with Ezra about a month ago.

"Why do you talk 'bout this assimilation thing like it's a bad thing? The children will get the best of both worlds. They will learn their customs as small children and be taught about the white men's world. They'll return to their villages as educated adults."

"If only that were true, my friend. Now I must confess that these are mere rumors. Discussions that I have overheard during my extensive travels, but I believe I know enough to paint you a more accurate picture than this broadsheet provides.

"These "boarding schools" are drab buildings where fifteen children are piled into a room meant for two. The teachers tutor their pupils, but not in the caring way our lovely Ms. Carrey does. These Indian children are taught with whips and fists. The objective of these abuses is to, quite literally, beat their heritage out of them. The goal is to kill the Indian, not the man. The children learn skills such as cooking on stoves and keeping house for the girls, and agriculture techniques for the boys."

"But those are completely useless when they return to their reservations," Vin answered, beginning to understand.

"Exactly," Ezra explained.

The conversation had ended there. The part of the conversation that had the tracker was the harshness he had heard in the gambler's voice. As much as he liked Ezra, Vin knew the southerner still held onto many racial tendencies. Maybe the influence of the other six peacekeepers was finally rubbing off on him.

After his visit to Kojay, Vin realized that southerner had been correct. The chief had not seemed that surprised. He had only sighed in sadness.

"So it has come to this," he had whispered.

Vin remembered watching Kojay's face through the dancing flames of the fire. The man had suddenly seemed a lot older. Together the two of them had worked out a plan together, something that would surprise the hell out of Richardson.

His plan was still rushing through his mind when the outskirts of Four Corners came into view. The sun was setting behind his back; He dropped the reins, giving the horse full use of his head. Peso picked up his pace without much urging from his rider. The lure of good grain and his warm stall drew the sturdy Indian pony home.

Vin rode into town unnoticed. He guessed that the cold temperatures had driven most people inside. He dismounted at the livery.

Tiny was there to greet him.

"Did you have a good ride, Mr. Tanner?" the old man asked.

"Yeah," Vin answered. "I'll take care of him tonight, Tiny."

The old man nodded his head and went to get a bucket of grain.

Tiny returned just as the tracker was putting the brushes back on the shelf. He dumped the bucket into the trough.

"Reckon I better go and rustle up some grub for myself," Vin stated. "You got the time?"

Tiny looked at the old cracked watch. Vin often wondered how the man could see the hands through the splintered glass.

"Reckon it's about six o clock," Tiny answered. "I saw them heading into the saloon," he stated, guessing what the next question would be.

Vin nodded his thanks and grabbed his gun and saddlebags. After giving Peso a final pat, he walked into the evening. He watched as a few dark clouds appeared to the west. More rain was on the way. It had been raining for almost a week, but had disappeared for two days. Now it looked like it had come back. . His thoughts strayed back to the reservation. He wondered if they would be prepared for the early season snow.

"Hey, Vin!"

His thoughts quickly changed to the here and now as he saw the dark haired sheriff walk towards him. He couldn't hide his smile as he watched the exuberant young man trot towards him.

"Hey, JD," he greeted.

"How was your trip to the reservation?" JD asked, matching pace with the tracker.

"Fine," Vin answered. "They've got themselves a new missionary. Never knew a man of God to spend more time on his clothes than preaching, but what do I know? Reckon I'll drop my things off in my room and head to the bathhouse. Tell Inez to have my supper waiting?"

"Sure thing," JD answered. "I better tell Chris you're back in town. He was starting to get a little nervous."

Vin watched as JD walked past the swinging doors of the saloon.

"He's getting worse than an old mother hen," Vin grumbled. He wouldn't admit it, but it felt good to have someone watching his back. He walked down the empty boardwalk. The only sign of a living creature was a small roan pony, stomping his hoofs and waving his head around.

"Relax, Namid," a voice answered.

Vin turned his head and saw a slight figure loaded down with packages walking out of the Potter's store. Her open buckskin jacket blew in the wind. The paper covered most of her facial features. She stumbled off the step and landed on her knees. Her hat slipped off her head, revealing long dark brown, almost black hair. The packages landed around her. He saw the package of sugar tear open and spill into the dirt.

"Damn," the woman swore, as she pulled herself to her feet.

Vin dropped his saddlebags and walked over to her.

"Could you use some help, ma'am?" he asked

She looked up at him, and Vin found himself staring into a pair of startled dark brown eyes.

"No, thank you, I can manage." She bent down and reached out for the package of sugar. She grabbed for it and winced in pain.

"You okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine," she answered. "Please, sir, I just need to be alone."

Vin knew when he wasn't wanted. He backed away from the young woman and was about to pick up his saddle bags when he heard screaming. He quickly turned his head to see a little dark haired girl running into the street.

"Mama! Mama!"

Her screams echoed throughout the entire street. The doors to the saloon swung open and six men walked out. Buck was the first one to intercept the distraught child. A woman flew out the general store, and past Vin. Gloria Potter's mother instinct was completely in tune with her daughter.

"Easy there, darling," Buck soothed, scooping the eight year old up into his arms. "What's the matter?"

"Miss Carrey and the other kids are trapped inside one of the giant pits and it's beginning to fill up with water. Miss Carrey hurt her leg trying to help out the boys."

"What?" Mrs. Potter asked, taking her daughter from Buck.

"What are they doing in a pit?" Josiah asked the storekeeper.

"The schoolteacher was taking them on a fieldtrip down to the creek," Mrs. Potter explained. "I don't know what they're doing down inside."

"I bet a bunch of the kids were playing down in those mines near Silver Gulch," Nathan answered. "Some of them were mentioning to me that they wanted to show the area to Miss Carrey. All it would take is a few more inches of water for it to fill up.

"But the creek in that area isn't more then a foot and a half deep. It shouldn't be flooding like that," Vin stated. "It's all dammed up."

"I saw a beaver dam break about five miles upstream when I was riding into town," a voice answered.

They all turned to see the young woman standing a few feet behind them.

"And you are?" Ezra asked.

The woman shrugged her shoulders, and didn't answer his question. "I think you'd better hurry up. The water was rushing pretty fast. If those kids are wet and the temperature keeps dropping like this, they're going to be in trouble."

"She's right," Buck answered. He looked at Molly, still clinging to her mother's neck. "Molly, do you think you could tell us where Miss Carrey took you and the other kids?"

"There was a big tree near the water. It took almost five of us to wrap our arms all the way around it," the little girl answered.

"That's the Grandfather Tree," Vin answered. "They're in Silver Gulch alright."

"Nathan, you, Ezra and Buck saddle up and head on out there. I'll come with you. Vin, Josiah, get a wagon ready with warm blankets and food. Head out there as soon as you can. JD, see if you can't find anyone else to help us. Ride out to the nearby homesteads; most of them have got kids who went on that field trip. Tell them to bring warm clothes."

The orders were carried out quickly. Vin and Chris were the only ones remaining

"Gloria, do you think you rally the people in town together?" Chris asked. "Tell them to head out?"

The woman nodded her head.

"Excuse me. Could you use some more help?"

Both men jumped slightly. They hadn't realized that the strange woman was still standing there.

Chris looked her over quickly. She was thin, too thin, and he didn't like the idea of trusting strangers. But she looked like she knew how to take care of herself in the wilderness, and if things were as bad as he thought, they were going to need all the help they could get.

"Ride with the wagon," he answered.

"I would rather come with the first group if you don't mind. I need to...well, I have a way with kids."

Chris was about to protest, but Vin put a hand on his shoulder.

"She is already saddled up." Vin pointed to her horse.

"Fine," Chris answered. "But we won't wait up for you, if you slow us down.

"I won't slow you down," she answered quietly.

Ten minutes later, Vin watched as the men and the new woman rode out of town. JD walked over with a load of blankets and tossed them in bag of the wagon.

"Who is she?" he asked.

"Don't rightly know," Vin answered, adjusting the harness on the horse. "You know anything about her, Josiah?"

"She came into the saloon for a drink, but didn't stay long. She didn't look too comfortable being in a town."

"Cherokees usually aren't," Vin stated.

"How do you know she's Cherokee?" JD asked.

"She definitely got some Indian blood," Vin answered. "Her horse has a Cherokee name. I put two and two together."

+ + + + + + +

Further down the trail, Chris rode with his men, setting as fast a pace as their mounts could handle. The terrain was unstable and the horses were having difficulty on the loose rocks. The woman's smaller pony appeared to have an easier time. The animal's rider hadn't said anything since they left town.

"That's a nice horse you've got there," Chris complimented.

"Thank you," the woman commented. "We've been through quite a bit over the years." She patted the horse's neck affectionately.

"You got a name?" Chris asked.

"Sing," she answered. She didn't offer anymore and Chris didn't ask.

"That's a mighty different name," Buck stated, trying to make small talk.

"I was born with a different name, but my father started calling me Sing when I was little. He said I had a pretty voice and gave me the nickname. Liked it so much, he just started calling me it all the time. I don't even think he even remembered what my real name was."

"May I be so bold as to state that you aren't from around here?" Ezra asked.

"You may," she answered with an indifferent shrug.

"Judging by your accent, I would guess somewhere in the Midwest."

"I was born in Oklahoma, but we moved to Missouri when I was a little girl."

"Awfully far way from home," Nathan said.

"Wasn't ever my home," she answered. "Just a place to get a job done," she answered.

A low rumble echoed over the hills. They all watched as dark storm clouds rolled their direction.

The horses turned a corner towards the rushing creek.

"If this water's moving this fast downstream," Nathan stated. He didn't need to finish his sentence. Chris urged his horse into a faster pace; the other animals followed.

"Silver Gulch should be just ahead," Nathan stated.

"I see it," Buck answered. "Look there's a big picnic basket and some blankets."

"And the outsized tree," Ezra pointed to the large cedar.

"The cavern should be about a half mile up."

The men kept their eyes on the rushing water and felt their stomachs tighten. None of them stood a chance if the water had filled up the cavern. As they got closer, loud screams echoed over the crashing of the water.

"Thank God," Ezra said, when they reached the pit. The five riders quickly dismounted and ran to the open hole.

"Careful," Nathan warned, "this whole area's full of covered pits.Any of them could give."

Chris and Buck peered over the edge and sighed in relief. Thirteen children were down inside. A young blond woman was sitting on the ground clutching her leg.

"Is everyone all right down there?" Chris called.

"I'm cold and wet," one of the little girls cried. The men noticed that the children and their teacher were sitting in a puddle of water. It was almost up to some of the younger kids' knees.

"Somebody's going to have to go down there," Buck stated.

"I'll do it," Sing answered.

"It's too risky," Chris shook his head.

"Any of us go down there, you might knock a rock and cause a slide," Sing countered. "I'm lighter, there's less of a risk if I go down."

"She has a point," Buck commented. "We tie a rope to her; she can slide down without knocking too many of the rocks."

After a few seconds of hesitation, Chris looked his companion in the eye.

"You sure you want to do this?" he asked.

Sing nodded her head.

"I'll do what you tell me, Mr. Larabee," she answered.

"Buck, go see if you can find something to use as a stretcher. We're going to have lift Miss Carrey out of there."

Buck nodded his head and carefully treaded his way through the site to find a sturdy piece of wood. Ezra walked over to his horse and quickly returned with a rope.

"So what is the best approach to solving our predicament?" he asked.

"I'll tie it around my waist and climb down," Sing said. "I'll tie the rope around the little ones' waists and you can hoist them up. The bigger ones can probably climb up the side of the wall if they're careful."

The rain was pouring down harder. The temperature of the falling water made the rescuers shiver.

"I'm cold!" a small voice yelled. Several others echoed similar comments

"Let's get moving," Chris ordered. Ezra handed the woman an end of the rope and she quickly tied it around her waist. "I'm going to go get a fire started," Nathan stated. "We've got to keep their little bodies warm until the wagon shows up.

Once the rope was secure around her mid section, she began climbing into the hole. Ezra braced himself at the other end while Chris took up the slack. Carefully, placing her feet, the woman made her way down into the pit.

Although nobody on top could hear her quiet voice, they noticed that the children began to relax slightly. Sing untied the rope and tied it around a little blond haired boy near her left.

"All set!" she called.

Ezra and Vin heaved carefully on the rope as they lifted the little boy out of the underground hole.

Nathan was waiting to scoop the child up in his arms and place him in front of the newly blazing fire. The process continued as eight more kids were lifted out of the ground. It had taken almost two hours to get the kids out, and the standing puddle of water continued to rise. The fire blazed under the tarp that the healer had set over it to shield it from the pouring rain.

The men glanced at each other nervously as the water line on each child's clothes went farther and farther up on each child they rescued.

"We're moving too slow," Chris grumbled. "The water was almost at Sheila's waist where the hell is Buck?"

"You have a better idea?" Ezra asked, wiping water out of his eyes. The rain was now coming down so hard; it was getting difficult to see.

"Think this will work?" Buck asked when he returned with a large piece of bark.

"It will have to," Chris answered, as he untied the rope from the last child to resurface.

Buck leaned down and cut holes in the corners of the wood and Ezra weaved them inside.

"Miss Sing, we've got a stretcher coming down!" Chris called.

The men carefully lowered the stretcher until it reached the bottom. They watched as Sing helped the teacher limp onto the wood and lay down. At first the blonde protested, but the Cherokee woman whispered something to her and she agreed obediently.

Gently, the men began hoisting the stretcher into the air. A few inches from the top, a loud ripping noise echoed throughout the pit. Before anyone could do anything, the top right corner of the weak wood tore off. They all watched in horror as the woman slid off and free fell to the bottom.

Chris closed his eyes, expecting to hear a loud thump. Instead he heard the loud crash of rocks. The rocks on the side began falling to the bottom.

"Watch out!" Ezra yelled, but the two woman and remaining children were sitting ducks. They could do nothing by watch as the rocks continued to fall. Sing pushed the remaining five children against the water and shielded them as best as she could.

In a few seconds, the rock slide had stopped. Nobody wanted to peer down inside for fear of what they might see.

Chris was the first one to glance over the edge.

The teacher's blonde hair was the only thing visible.

"Oh God," Nathan whispered, trying to shield the rest of the kids from the sight.

"Can anyone hear me?" Chris called

"Mr. Larabee?" A familiar voice answered. "I've got the kids with me. I don't think anyone's too hurt."

A collective sigh of relief spread through the men, but another dismal fact began to settle on them. How were they going to get them out? It would take hours to remove the rocks and the water continued to rush faster.

"What about the teacher?" Sing called.

Chris glanced at the unconscious woman. Her face had been smashed in and was bleeding profusely. Standing next to him, Nathan closed his eyes and winced.

"Don't worry about her anymore," Chris called back in a monotone voice.

There was a long silence. Miss Carrey had only arrived a few months ago from Boston. She was a nice young woman, but had not been up for the harsh life of the West. Any seasoned frontier person would know not to crawl down into a mine pit.

"There's a tunnel next to me. It's not too full of water. I'm going to try and take the children through it, and try to end up in anther pit."

Chris looked at his men. They all had grim looks on their faces. Every single man knew that they woman and kids were almost already dead. Even if Sing could find another pit before the water filled the entire cavern, there was no telling if they could get them out on time, or even find the pit where they ended up.

"Go ahead, we'll try and keep track of you," Chris called. He could hear the children crying, but their voices slowly got quieter as they followed Sing.

"Damn," Buck swore as he rubbed a hand over his face. Nobody else had a response.

"Where's my brother?" one of the children cried. Buck and Nathan went to try and comfort the freezing children.

Ezra and Chris were left to stare at the closed pit.

Loud yells and footsteps interrupted their thoughts.

Vin was leading the wagon horse over the rocky terrain. JD and Josiah were close behind. About ten men were following them.

"What the hell is going on?" one of the men called.

Chris quickly filled them in on what had transpired over the last few hours. The mixed reactions from sorrow to anger had been expected.

"So what are we supposed to do now?" one of the farmers asked.

"Pray that God will grant Miss Sing the ability to find a way out," Josiah answered.

"My daughter's still down there, preacher! I don't have time for God!"

"Calm down, Mike. Getting angry isn't going to do Cora any good."

"Easy for you say, Tom, your boys are sitting by that fire right now!"

"Shut up," Chris hollered, "arguing amongst yourself isn't going to do anyone any good."

"You have a better plan, Larabee?"

"You're the one who sent a strange woman down to rescue our children. What the hell were you thinking?"

The criticisms towards Chris and his men continued to fly. The men just took them. Vin sighed and walked a few feet away from the bickering, with his head down. He watched the water continue to rise. They didn't stand a chance. The large raindrops began to make tapping noises on the mud. Vin stopped and listened closer. The tapping wasn't coming from above ground. It was coming from below it.

He dropped to knees and tapped frantically. He was answered with another tap, more frantic this time.

Miss Sing, can you hear me?" he called. He didn't receive a response, but there was no doubt in his mind that they were under there.

"Chris, I've got them!" Vin called. "They're under here!"

The ten men rushed forward, but a shot from JD's gun stopped them in their tracks.

"You all rush in there like madmen, you're going to collapse the pit," Josiah said.

"Now I'm going to need a pick, a shovel or something," Vin called.

One of the men walked over and grabbed a small shovel and handed it to Vin. The tracker listened to the knocking again and determined the location where it was coming from.

He was about to a step forward when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to look in a pair of hazel eyes.

"Be careful," Chris told him.

"Always am," Vin answered, and walked carefully forward. He tested each spot to make sure it would support his weight.

"Watch out," Vin yelled, not sure if Sing could hear him or not. He began lifting out dirt and mud, aware of the anxious glances at his back. After what seemed like hours, a small hole began to emerge.

"JD, come help me," he called. The kid's light weight might prove to be an advantage.

The hole was soon big enough for him to look inside. He got down on his hands and knees and looked inside. The water was almost three fourths of the way to the top. The children were clutching desperately to the rocks, trying to stay above the water. This new pit was on a slightly higher elevation. If it had been the same as the other, the children would surely have drowned by now.

"Go ahead and climb out," Sing told the children. "The two men will help you."

The four older boys carefully made their way up the rocks. Vin and JD helped lift them out of the hole.

Sing looked down and at the twelve year old girl a few inches below her.

"All right, sweetheart, now you."

The little girl appeared to be petrified. Sing climbed down and tried talking to her, but she wouldn't move.

Vin watched as Sing dangerously let go with one hand and grabbed hold of the child's. Sing's coaxing had no effect on the terrified girl. Now both of them were stuck and unable to climb. The water had was now just below Sing's shoulders.

"Get me a rope," Vin called. Ezra quickly tossed one to him. Quickly, making a lasso at the end, he dropped the rope into the pit.

He got lucky.

It hooked around Sing's dangling arm; he pulled it tight, and began to pull. Vin's strength easily broke the little girl's grip. He dragged them over the top, just as the water began spilling over the top. The dangerous water that had almost killed the six victims was not a threat on the wet surface where it was quickly sucked up by the dirt.

JD picked up the little girl and carried her over to Nathan. Vin grabbed Sing's arm and pulled her out of the way of the water. She cried out in pain.

Vin noticed the red liquid begin soaking through her jacket.

"Nathan," he yelled.

Nathan was by his side in an instant.

"She's burning up," Nathan commented, but his attention was quickly diverted to the woman's bleeding arm.

"I'm fine," Sing said. "Leave me alone." She struggled violently, but Vin grabbed a hold of her, so she couldn't move.

"He just wants to help," Vin stated. "You must have hit your arm pretty hard against one of those rocks."

Nathan had whipped out his knife and had cut her jacket and shirt sleeve off.

"Jesus," he whispered. "This isn't no cut, it's a bullet wound!"

"Please, just let it be." Sing cried desperately, but Vin could feel her strength leaving her as she collapsed onto him.

"The wound's infected," Nathan stated. "That's why she's got a fever."

"The bullet still in there?" Vin asked, as he shifted the weight of the unconscious form.

"No, looks like it was cut out with a knife. We've got to get her warmed up and in dry clothes. Put her in the wagon. We've got get her back to town fast."

Vin lifted the woman up and followed Nathan. He couldn't help but notice the scars covering her bare arms, and right side of her neck.

"What about the kids?" one of the men asked.

"None of them are hurt bad. Ride to Miller's Ranch and get his wagon. Right now, she needs more help."

"Why are we helping a whore like her?" Tom asked, putting his son back on the ground. All eyes turned to look at him.

"I saw her working in a small town in Missouri at one of the brothels. I remembered her the second I saw her walk into the saloon."

Nobody seemed quite sure what to say for a few minutes. Buck took a step forward.

"She's getting help, because she just saved the lives of your children. They would have drowned if it wasn't for her." He growled.

Vin didn't hear the farmer's response. He was already steering the wagon away from the mob of people.

+ + + + + + +

Three days later, the tracker walked into the saloon. He strode towards the table where Chris and Josiah were sitting, a bottle of whisky between them. Chris took his boots off the tipped up chair and pushed it out for Vin.

Vin sat down and grabbed the bottle, without saying a word. Nobody questioned his actions.

"Hey, Buck, listen to this new story that came on the coach today!"

The saloon doors swung open, and Buck walked inside with a disgusted look on his face. JD was only a few steps behind him.

"Kid, if I have to listen to another story about Kit Carson or..." Buck grumbled, as he sat down at the table.

"This is about a woman named Calamity Jane," JD huffed, but he didn't push the subject anymore.

"So how is our little soiled dove?" Josiah asked.

"Soiled dove?" JD questioned.

"It's another term for a working girl," Buck explained. "Judging by the rumors flying around this town, it seems like she's had quite a career."

"Damn McFalls," Chris cursed. "That man never knew when to keep his mouth shut. I'll bet he's got the whole town turned against her."

"It's funny," Vin answered. "I can't tell if they're avoiding her because of her past or what she is."

"The life of mixed heritage is a difficult one," Josiah agreed.

"She's had it harder than most," Vin stated. He took another swig of alcohol.

"Was talking to her earlier this morning. Her pa was Indian and her ma was white."

"Sounds familiar," Chris stated. "Why do I have a feeling that their story doesn't have a happy ending either."

"Ma was killed by Sing's uncles; guess they didn't like having her on the reservation. Would have killed Sing too, if her father hadn't escaped on time. Only way the two of them could make money for her to start working when she was fifteen."

"Damn," Buck shook his head.

"She came home early one morning to find her pa hanging from a noose in front of the shack they lived in. Guess a couple of the local ranchers got drunk and fancied a killing. Three weeks later she was on her way to Missouri."

"What's she doing out here all alone?" Buck answered. "And how did she end up with a bullet in her arm?"

"Says she escaped from a drunk client. Man got pissed and winged her on her way out," Vin answered.

"She rode all the way here from Missouri with a bullet in her arm?" JD asked.

"Looks that way," Vin answered. "She says that she wants to keep moving on, but Nathan won't let her. She still looks pretty sick."

"With the way the town's talking about her, it's no surprise," Chris huffed.

"They're not all like that though," JD answered. "I've had a bunch of people come up to me and ask how she's doing."

"Then they should stand up for her and not let these rumors fly," Chris huffed.

"Gentlemen," Mary greeted.

The five men turned to see the blonde reporter standing at the side of the table.

"Mary," Vin greeted.

"I was wondering how Miss Sing was feeling this morning," she stated.

"Nathan thinks she'll make a full recovery,' Vin stated. "Looks like you've got yourself a full newspaper."

Mary nodded her head.

"I haven't got any sleep in the last few days, what with Katie Carrie's tragic death and the heroic rescue. Sing will be getting a front page story. I was waiting to publish the story until I could get an interview."

"Somehow I don't think she'll like that too much," Vin answered. "In fact, I bet she...."

The sound of galloping horses interrupted his statement. They all looked to see twelve horses ride into town.

What do we have here?" Buck whispered.

"If it's another bunch of drunk cowboys, I'm just going to shoot them right there," Chris growled, getting up and pulling out his gun.

The four men walked outside. Ezra emerged from the bathhouse and Nathan left his spot near the livery.

"May we help you gentlemen?" Ezra asked.

"We're looking for somebody," a tall blond man at the front of the pack stated.

"Must be pretty important if you need a twelve men posse to find him," Nathan stated.

"She murdered her husband and a little boy," the man answered. "We've chased her to this area all the way from Missouri."

"Missouri?" Vin answered, exchanging looks with Chris. "Seems awful far way to run."

"Oh she's a sneaky one, got Indian blood in her. She's used her old heathen ways to make her way down here. We almost had her when Harrison winged in her in the shoulder." He pointed to man sitting on his left. The family resemblance was starting.

"You say she murdered her family?" Chris asked.

"We don't rightly know what happened to Ben," Harrison answered "My big brother just had a knife in his chest."

Chris took a step back, next to Nathan's side

"Go get Sing," he whispered. "I want to get some answers"

Nathan nodded and walked up to his clinic.

"Name's Hank Larson. This is my brother Harrison." The man held out his hand.

Nobody took it.

"So have you seen the little devil?" he asked, eying the six men suspiciously.

JD opened his mouth to say something, but Buck stepped on his foot. The sheriff didn't say another word.

"We heard rumors that there was an Indian woman in town," Hank continued. "Thought we'd come and if it was who we were looking for."

"That woman just saved the children in this town from drowning," Ezra stated. "She is quite the heroine of the hour for most of the town.

A loud gunshot echoed throughout the street. The sound had come from Nathan's clinic.

"What the hell?" Buck swore. He took off at a sprint. The others were close on his heels.

"Sing?" Vin stated, eying Chris before they followed Buck.

"So that bitch is here," Hank cursed.

"Just calm down," Harrison stated.

"I've waited almost a year to get my hands around her neck, I'm not waiting any longer," Hank cried, before following them.

Buck was the first to rush up the steps.

"Nathan!" he cried.

"I'm fine," Nathan called, as the door was opened. Buck almost fell to his knees when the weight of five men almost plowed him to the ground. A gun was laying on the ground not far from him.

The healer was propping up Sing's unconscious form.

"What the hell happened?" Chris swore, walking in and picking the gun off the floor.

"She was trying to kill herself," Nathan answered. "I got the gun out of her hand, but it discharged."

"Trying to avoid a noose," Hank snorted from the doorway. "I thank you gentlemen for holding her for us, but me and my brother will take it from here. She's got a date with the gallows." He took a step forward.

"Nobody's hanging anybody," JD stated, stepping in front of Hank.

"Out of my way, you little runt," Hank answered raising his hand to take a swing at JD.

The click of safety clicking off prevented the action.

"I wouldn't," Buck growled quietly.

"If this woman's guilty of two murders, then she'll pay for her crimes," Josiah stated. "But not until she has been given a fair trial."

"You think you're going to stop me?" Hank asked. His blue eyes flashed. Seven guns were raised.

"Yeah, we do." Vin answered.

"Mr. Larson, I think it would be a wise idea for you to leave right now. We'll make sure that she is taken care of and the judge is wired," Chris stated.

Hank looked ready to say something else, but his younger brother stood in his way.

"Come on, Hank, they can't do anything anyway. Not while we're in town."

Hank let his brother lead him away.

A small moaning sound escaped Sing's lips.

"Sing?" Nathan asked, looking down at the patient in his arms.

"You should have just let them kill me," she gasped.

"I have a hard time believing that you did what those two bastards said you did," Vin told her.

"You should learn to trust people more," Sing gasped.

"You saying you killed your son?" Chris asked.

"I'm not saying anything," Sing answered.

"Sing, we can't help you if you don't tell us what really happened." Josiah stated.

"My brother-in-law told you what happened," Sing answered, her breathing getting more and more haggard. "Ben's dead because of me.

"What did you do?" JD asked.

"Ask Hank," she stated.

"Hank's version would have you swinging," Buck answered.

"So be it," Sing answered.

"That's enough of this," Chris growled. "I'm not sitting here and playing games with you."

Sing didn't answer.

"JD, put her in a cell until the judge comes."

"Chris, she's real sick. She could die..."

"That's what she wants, isn't it?" Chris answered, before stalking out of the room.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked into the jail cell. Chris was not that far behind him. Ezra stopped the constant shuffling of his cards when he saw the two men walk inside.

"Can I help you gentlemen?" he asked as if had no clue as to why he would be visited at such a late hour.

Vin's eyes strayed to the cell. Sing had coiled herself up in one corner of the cot. The blanket that Nathan had given her was curled up in a ball unused. Her only motion was the slight up and down movement of her shoulders. The sound of her haggard breath filled the air.

"Has she eaten anything?" Chris asked.

Ezra shook his head.

"She's not going to make it much longer in here, Chris." Vin stated.

"I concur, Mr. Tanner," Ezra agreed. "This wintry and moist air is doing nothing to assist in her healing process."

"We can't do anything if she doesn't talk," Chris sighed. "She needs to tell us the truth. Maybe she really did kill her husband and little boy."

"Do you really believe that?" Ezra asked harshly, letting his indifferent demeanor drop for a few seconds.

The rare raw emotion of the gambler left Chris speechless for a moment. He looked into the jail cell.

"No," he answered. "There's got to be some reason. I've looked in those eyes. She wouldn't be trying to kill herself if she murdered that boy in cold blood. But if we are going to help her, she's got to give us some answers."

"She isn't gong to be able to talk, if she's dead," Vin said quietly.

There was a long pause.

"Give me the damn keys, Ezra," Chris growled.

Ezra tossed him the jingling ring.

"Go wake Nathan up and tell him he's got to do some doctoring. Get Harrison out of bed. If you need help, wake up Buck and JD."

Chris was surprised when he received no complaint. Ezra quickly exited the building. He turned to look at Vin.

"You're right; we're not going to get any answers if we let her die on us. Come on, help me carry her."

Chris opened the cell and walked inside. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around the woman. Sing didn't even open her eyes. With ease, Chris lifted her off the bed.

"Jesus, I think she's lighter than a sack of flour."

Vin held the door open and let Chris go ahead of him. He followed the man down the street.

Chris held onto her tightly in case she woke up and tried to free herself, but he didn't have to worry. The only sound or movement she made was nonsense murmurings.

The heat from her fever radiated through her body. The gunslinger couldn't help but wonder if he had waited too long.

He quickly climbed the stairs to Nathan's clinic. The healer already had the bed prepared and a cool pitcher of water waiting. Chris set her down on the bed, and put a blanket around her shivering body.

Nathan looked her over quickly.

"This isn't going to easy," he whispered. "The infection has got a strong hold of her body. I don't know if I am going to be able to help her."

"Do your best," Chris answered. "Vin and I got work to do, think you can manage up here?'

Nathan nodded his head as he grabbed a cloth and placed it in the cold water, already absorbed in his patient.

Chris watched for a few seconds, and then motioned for Vin to follow him. The two gunslingers existed the building. They saw Ezra and Buck leading a drowsy Harrison Larson through the street.

"Sent JD to go and get Josiah," Buck explained.

Chris nodded his head.

"Let's talk in the jailhouse," Chris said nodding to the men.

The five men walked inside the jailhouse.

Larson didn't look like he was that surprised at being woken up and forced into the jailhouse.

"Have a seat," Chris answered, opening up the cell.

Larson hesitated.

"Feeling a little guilty? Think we've got something to lock you up for?" Buck snickered.

"It's not everyday a man gets dragged out his bed at two in the morning and asked to sit in a jail cell," Larson answered sitting down. "You haven't got something to drink, have you?"

"This isn't the time for drinking," Vin stated. "Your sister-in-law is dying right now."

"Jesus," Harrison answered, rubbing his tanned hand over his tired face. "That poor girl."

"Tell us about that poor girl," Chris answered. "How did that little boy of hers really die?"

"Why the interest in a half breed slut like her?" Harrison asked. Buck lunged forward at the man, but Vin stepped in front of him.

"That young woman just risked her life to save the children of this town," Ezra answered. "This society has the habit of taking care of its heroes."

Harrison chuckled quietly. The door to the jailhouse opened and Josiah and JD walked in. Both men leaned against the right wall.

"We never would have caught her if she hadn't stopped in this town," Harrison answered. "Sing never did know when to worry about herself." He sighed as he looked at the hard faces of six men.

"Look, I'm not like my brother. I'm not a hothead out for revenge. I just want to know how my nephew died. I can guess what happened to Horace."

"You better start explaining, Larson. My patience is wearing thin," Chris growled.

The man sighed.

"I don't even know the whole story. Sing didn't trust anyone. All I can do is tell you what happened after Horace met her."

"Talk," Chris ordered.

"My brothers and I were stupid kids. Our father was the richest rancher in the area. We thought we could do anything we wanted. We figured we owned the town, including the working girls at Betty Lee's.

"That's where I first met Sing. She stood out in that place.She was something different than the whores who would throw themselves at any man with a shiny coin. That dark exotic skin stood out amongst the painted faces. She carried herself with dignity, wouldn't go to bed with just anyone. We all were attracted to her, but Horace wanted her. Hank and I knew better than to mess with our older brother. Horace swore that he would be the one to bed the Cherokee beauty.

"Sing had other ideas. She would always disappear when Horace came looking for her. One time, he made a move on her on the street with everyone looking. She punched him right there in the face, with the whole town watching. You can imagine what that did to Horace, showed up by some half breed prostitute. I watched as Sing became an obsession of his.

"I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I didn't see Sing at the brothel anymore. By that time, I was beginning to grow out of my wild stage. I prayed that she had gotten away, escaped my brother. Boy, was I wrong. Almost a year later, she shows up at our ranch with a baby in her arms, begging to see Horace. It was that baby that dragged Sing back. My father was dying at that time, and he had hoped to see a wife and grandchildren before he went. Horace decided to honor his dying wish. My father was blind and had lost part of his mind a while ago, so he never knew that is daughter in law was part Cherokee. Benjamin had blond hair, just like his pa, so nobody guessed that he had Injun blood in him.

"Sing loved that little boy, more than anything I figure. So much that she quietly took the beatings and abuse from Horace. Hank and I both saw the bruises that mysteriously appeared, the limp, the broken arm. Hank just didn't give a damn. Me, I was a coward. Horace was my big brother and I guess I still stood in awe of him. But for as much as Horace hated Sing, he loved that little boy. We all did.

"Last winter, my brothers and I brought our cattle down to market. We got caught up in a snowstorm. Horace decided that he was going to risk the storm and try to get home. He was always scared that Sing would run and take Ben with her. I always suspected that's what she was going to do.

"Hank and I got home two days later and found a knife stabbed into Horace's chest. We found Ben's body on the side of the house. I remember holding his little body in my arms. Looking into empty brown eyes that had once been so full of life. Three years on earth just didn't seem long enough," Harrison choked on the last sentence.

"Chris couldn't help but feel sorry for the man. He washed away the memory of holding the burned body of his own little boy.

"Hank still swears that Sing killed Ben, but I don't believe it. That girl would have died to protect her little boy. There wasn't a mark on his body, but his hands and feet were cold and his skin was pale. I figure the boy froze to death. I don't know why Horace was killed, but I'm guessing Sing snapped. I still love my brother, but I don't blame her for his death. Like I said, all I want to know is what really happened to Ben."

"You might not get the chance," Vin answered. "Sing's pretty sick. That bullet she took in the arm caused quite an infection."

"I thought if I winged her she would stop," Harrison sighed. "I wanted to help her. Help get Hank and his cronies off her tail. I have to admit that girl's got spirit."

"Let's hope she's got enough spirit to pull her through her sickness," Josiah answered.

"Hank's still going to be looking for blood," JD stated. "How are we going to keep Sing upstairs without him knowing?"

"I do believe Mr. Wilmington and I were very successful in pretending that we had another native blooded guest in this hellhole in the past," Ezra chuckled. "We should be able to mange until when our comely friend is healthy enough to talk."

"If," JD answered quietly.

"When," Ezra corrected firmly.

"I'll do my best to keep him out of the way," Harrison answered, getting up. "I'm glad Sing finally found good men willing to stand up for her."

They all watched as Harrison walked out of the jailhouse.

The six men began filing out of the room.

Buck watched as JD picked the dime store novel off his desk and toss it into the garbage.

"There's no such thing as a happy ending, is there?" JD asked.

"Now kid...."

"No, look at all this, Buck. I figured the West wasn't going to be all the stories made it out to be, but I wasn't figuring on it being like this. Everybody's got a sad story to tell."

JD walked out into the night. Buck sighed.

"You're growing up, Kid, yup you're learning good." He picked the paper book out of the garbage and put it in his pocket. He wasn't sure if he liked that idea.

Three days later, Vin was sitting outside the saloon, stroking the handle on his beer mug. Josiah, Chris, and JD had to ride out to Eagle Bend to pick the judge up. The stagecoach owner received word that there was group of bandits hiding in the area and decided it wasn't safe to send the coach as far as Four Corners. Vin knew that the judge would settle things.

He chuckled as he watched Buck and Ezra talking to Hank. Ezra was lounging comfortably in a wood rocking chair, his feet resting on the banister, the ever present deck of cards in his hands. Buck was leaning against the railing, reading the Clarion News. Neither one seemed fazed by the intimidating Larson.

"That's enough of this bullshit!" Hank yelled. "I want to see her now!" The man's voice was so loud that it echoed through the street.

"Please, Mr. Larson, there are young ears circling around. I do believe their parents would be less than pleased with your use of profanity."

"When I can I see that little heathen's face," Hank growled.

"I have informed you on this matter several times. No one is permitted to observe the defendant until the formidable judge arrives in town."

"How long will that be?"

"Well, you know how those lawmen work," Buck smiled. "They aren't ones to follow anybody's schedule. Could be here today, could be here a week from now."

"They aren't going to be able to keep this up much longer," Harrison said, joining Vin.

"Hank's about ready to blow his top. Those words will be turning to bullets pretty quick."

"It won't have to be much longer. Nathan said that Sing's fever is down. She woke up this morning and was talking. Nathan figures its best to let her heal a bit more, before we make her talk."

"How's her arm?" Harrison asked.

"Nathan says that with a little help, she should be healthy in a few weeks. He can help with the physical healing. The emotional, that I'm not so sure about."

Harrison nodded his head. Both men sat in silence. Vin took on final swig of beer.

"I'm going to go up there and see her." He patted Harrison on the shoulder and walked towards Nathan's clinic. Making sure nobody was following, he walked up the steps. He knocked quietly on the door.

"Nate, it's me."

"Come on in, Vin."

Vin opened the door and walked into the dimly lit room.

Sing was sitting up as Nathan was feeding her bowl of soup. There were red rings around her eyes. Vin couldn't get over how pale she still was. He figured it had been Mary who had tied her hair back. The knife scar was even more evident on her pallid skin.

"Nathan, why don't you let me take care of her for a little while?"

Nathan looked at Sing questioningly. Sing smiled and nodded her head. He set the bowl on the small table and got up.

"Don't go anywhere," he cautioned, with a smile.

"I don't think my legs would let me," she answered.

Nathan patted Vin's shoulder on his way out.

The tracker took the seat that his friend had just vacated.

"Do you want some more soup?" he asked.

"No, I'm all right."

"Now, I know that Nathan's going to have my neck if you don't finish your meal," Vin answered.

"Give it here," she answered.

"Do you need help?" he asked, as he placed the half empty bowl in her shaking hands. He quickly grabbed it before the hot liquid swished out off the sides.

Sing sighed in frustration, and he saw her eyes well up with tears.

"From what I hear tell, you aren't used to getting help from men," he stated. He filled up the spoon and Sing took it obediently...

"Thank you," she answered.

"I was doing this for Chris couple months back. Old cuss went and caught the fever on us. Weaker than a kitten, he was."

"That's a hard image to picture," Sing answered, taking another spoonful. "No I mean for..."

"I know," Vin answered.

"What made you help me?" she asked. "Why help a murderer?"

"Do you think you're a murderer?" Vin asked, not answering her question.

"I killed Horace Larson," she answered, "stabbed him right through the heart."

"But not your boy?"

Sing sighed heavily and leaned back into the pillow.

"There's more types of murdering than with a gun and a knife."

"Harrison thinks that Ben froze to death," Vin stated.

"Because of me," she answered. ."

"I'd sure like to hear how you're responsible for that," he stated.

A gunshot shook the small building. A woman screamed.

"What the hell?" Vin asked. He rushed to the window. "Damn."

Hank Larson was standing in the middle of the street. The townspeople around him rushing for cover. Two of his men were propping up Nathan's unconscious form.

"Tanner, I know you've got that half-breed bitch up there! Bring her down here now or I'll start shooting your friends!"

"Let the bastard kill us, Vin!" Buck called. Vin swore again, when he saw the gunslinger on his knees with a gun pointed at his head. Ezra's prone form was lying next to him.

"Get a move on or I'll shoot the darkie first," Hank yelled. Vin reached for his gun, but remembered that he had left it down in the saloon.

"Larson, you don't have to do this. Let's talk about this," Vin called. "Chris went to get the judge. Things can be settled by tonight. If she's guilty, Travis will take care of it." He was trying to buy time so he could figure out a plan. Nothing was coming to him. Even if Buck could manage to get free, they were still outnumbered six to one. Not very good odds.

"I'm not waiting and watching that that little savage work her devil magic and convince the judge to let her off! You've got two minutes to get down here with the girl or bullets start flying."

Vin opened his mouth to yell back, but a loud crash behind him caught his attention. Sing had tried to get up and collapsed on the floor.

"What are you doing?" He asked.

"Too many good men have died on account of this whore. I'm not going to let it happen to you and your friends too."


"Either help me up or let me be," she answered.

"Fine, but I'm going to carry you down there."

"No," she answered.

"You are too weak to even stand. How are you planning on getting down the steps?" he asked.

"I'll manage,"she gasped.

"Uh-uh," he answered, before he scooped the young woman up in his arms.

"Vin, please!" Sing pleaded as he carried her down the stairs. "Don't do this. You can't get yourself killed too."

"Don't worry. I've got a plan," Vin answered.

"What?" Sarah asked.

"I haven't got the whole thing yet."

Vin walked into the bright sunlight.

"Well, little Sing, you've gone and worked your Indian charms again." Hank laughed when he saw them. "Tell me, is he as good in bed as Horace was?"

"Go to Hell," Sing spat.

"You'll be heading there first, sweetheart, and my brother and nephew will be dancing on the clouds watching," he answered. "Tanner, put her down."

Tanner pulled the girl protectively closer.

"Please, Vin," Sing answered. "Do as he says."

"He'll shoot you," he whispered in her ear.

"Not right away," she answered. "He wants to know the truth. I'll keep him guessing a while, buy time for you to work out that plan of yours."

Vin sighed, knowing that she was right. He gently sat her down on the ground.

"Connor, take care of him," Hank growled. One of the men standing near the man walked over and bound Tanner's hand behind his back. He pushed the tracker over to where Buck was sitting.

"Hey, Pard," Buck greeted. "Looks like we've got ourselves into a mess, haven't we?"

"Ezra?" Vin asked, looking at the unconscious gambler.

"Got knocked on the head. Neither one of us idiots saw the bastards sneak up behind us."

The butt of a gun was shoved into the man's face. He winced.

"Shut up, or we'll shoot you right now!" one of their guards yelled. Nathan was thrown next to them.

Vin watched as Sing struggled to pull herself to her feet. The will was there, but the strength hadn't quite returned. Vin wanted nothing more than to shoot the bastard right now.

"Take your time, darling," Hank laughed. "We've got all the time in the world."

"Cowards," Buck stated.

"I know, if only I had my gun."

"No, Vin, I mean these damn town folk. Look at 'em. Their faces pinned to the windows, too scared to risk their own hides for the girl that saved their children's lives."

"Can't really blame them, though," Vin answered sadly. He turned his eyes back to Sing, who was still valiantly trying to pull herself up, his mind working in overdrive to try and come up with a plan.

"Hey, Sing, you know how you always said you tried to act like that Jesus fella did?" Hank asked. "You are kind of like him now, walking to your own death at the gallows."

"That's enough of this!"

Vin turned his head as he watched Harrison stalk out from his place under the saloon. The man walked into the street and lifted the woman up. He sighed, thank God for small favors. He thought that Sing might kill herself trying to get up.

"What are you doing, little brother?" Hank asked in disbelief

"If Tanner was right about the judge coming, we're going to have to hurry."

"You're right, Harrison. Good thinking," Hank complimented. "Let's get a rope and head down to the edge of town. Bring the gunslingers. I want them to hear the truth about their little hero. Eddie, Mike, you guys stay behind and make sure these townsfolk down get any bright ideas.

"What about the unconscious ones?"

"Put them in the hotel. Let the women take care of their hired guns."

Vin and Buck were forced to their feet, and forced to walk behind Harrison. They were close enough to hear the conversation between the two relatives

"Always knew you were the smarter one," Sing stated.

"Sing, I..."

"Don't, I understand."

"No, don't forgive me. Not yet. Whatever happens let me take care of this okay?" "I don't know what you're planning, but all right," Sing agreed.

Once they were in the graveyard, Hank grabbed Sing out of his brother's arms. The only form of defense she could muster was to spit in the man's face. Her reward was a backhand to the face.

"I'm going to kill that bastard," Buck growled from his and Vin's location at the edge of fence.

Sing was placed on a horse as Hank secured the rope around her neck. Vin was glad that Nathan was back in the general store. He didn't think the man would be able to handle watching this.

"I'll watch them," Harrison told the man standing near Buck and Vin. The man knew better than to argue with a Larson.

"Are you just going to sit here and watch this happen?" Buck growled, but he received no response.

Vin didn't worry about Harrison. He was searching for Sing's gaze. He got it. The brown eyes met his and they stayed there.

"Now, you little bitch, we are all dying to hear how you killed my brother and his son," Hank stated.

"Why?" Sing asked. "You're going to kill me whether I tell you or not."

"Yeah, but I haven't heard a good story in a while."

Sing closed her eyes, and her mind seemed to leave the current location.

"It was just Ben and I alone that night. You men had left me all alone to manage the entire ranch; I knew there was a storm coming in. All the signs of the woods showed it approaching. The way the animals were storing food, the trees swaying in the wind..."

"Enough of the witchcraft!" Hank yelled, and slapped her in the face. Sing took a deep breath.

"I locked Ben and myself into the house as soon as the storm came blowing in. Despite what Horace said, I had been preparing for it. Ben and I had enough food and firewood to last us a week. I went to put more logs on the fire, when I realized that my wood pile wasn't in the house anymore."

"Of course it wasn't," Hank answered. "That wood made the house smell like one of these tepees you're used to living in. My mama would have been rolling in her grave if we had let that wood stay inside."

"Idiot," Vin shook his head.

"I knew we wouldn't have enough wood to last the night, so I walked out into the barn to get some more wood. I didn't think I needed to lock the door and worry about a key. I was only going to be gone a few minutes," Sing stated guiltily.

When I got to the barn, the horses were spooked. Namid was frantic. His blood told him that he should be seeking shelter during a storm, not stuck in a wooden barn. I tried to calm him down, but I guess I got kicked in the head.

"I don't know how long I was out. I remember feeling the pain on my neck when I came to. I opened my eyes and saw that Horace was holding the burning blade to my throat. I remember him hitting my face, kicking my body, telling me he was going to kill me. He had said that a lot, but this time I knew it was for real. I just didn't know what had driven him over the edge like that. I felt the blade push so far into my neck that it started to bleed."

Vin closed his eyes. She was so graphic in her description; he could picture the memory in his mind.

"My father had taught me what do in case something like this ever happened. He didn't approve of how I was bringing money home, but he was damn sure his little girl wasn't going to let any man get the better of her. I slid out from under his body. He came after me with his eyes burning." She took a deep breath and continued talking. "He lunged at me, and I grabbed the knife. I didn't realize I had stuck it in him until he was cowering on the floor. The blood was spurting out of him now; I knew it was too late. His final words weren't more than a croak.

" 'He was calling for you, you little bitch. I was holding him when he died, but that boy wanted you.'

"I was out of that barn, and I saw the front door flapping open in the wind. Screaming Ben's name, I ran around the house. My foot caught something in the blowing snow and I fell to the ground."

Sing's voice chocked and Vin could see the tears well up in her eyes. Even from a distance, he could see the shame in them.

"It was my Ben's body. The snow had almost completely covered him. I don't know how long I sat in the snow clinging to his body. I didn't cry. I didn't feel anything. All I knew is that his uncles had a right to know what happened, so I left him there. I saddled Namid and left."

She seemed to come back from her daze, now that her story was over. She looked at Vin. The tracker felt no accusation towards the young woman. Only remorse over the tragic circumstance she had to be a part of. His gaze seemed to give Sing confidence.

"You..." was the only word Hank could stutter.

Vin watched as Sing's sad eyes turned to ones of fierce resolve.

"Yes, Hank, I killed your brother and I would do it again. The only good thing that piece of shit did on this earth was give me my son. I made a mistake by leaving that door open and it is one that will haunt me for the rest of my life."

"You killed Horace's son," Hank answered.

"My son," Sing corrected. "Horace realized that when he returned home during the storm. Ben had come looking for me, and was calling out my name. I'm not afraid of you anymore, you bastard! Kill me now, you son of a bitch!" Her voice grew softer. "I will be with Ben in a cabin of our own in heaven. Ben told you that's what he wanted to do, and we would have run that spring. While Ben and I are fishing for trout in freshwater streams, you will be burning with your brother in Hell. I can't wait to be with my son."

There were several moments of complete silence. Vin heard galloping hoofs and shouts behind him. Buck gasped beside him.

Ezra was leading a mob of townspeople, his gun drawn.

"Turn around," Harrison whispered. He and Buck did as they were told. Vin felt the ropes around his wrists fall to the ground.

"What the hell is this?" Hank asked.

"I believe that I have already informed your brother that this town takes care of its heroes," Ezra answered. "Now please kindly take that lariat from the young lady's neck."

"Like hell," Hank answered. "She killed my brother."

"From what I hear, it sounds like self defense," a voice called.

Vin couldn't recall a time when he had been so glad to see the Judge. Orrin Travis was sitting on a borrowed bay horse. Chris and the others were by his side.

"Give it up, Larson," Chris called. "Or you'll be the one standing trial for murder."

"Throw down your guns," Josiah ordered the men.

"Killing this Indian isn't worth my life. I got a wife and kids at home to worry about. Sorry, Hank."

Hank's men began to throw their guns down. Realizing that he was outnumbered, Hank slowly began to walk away from the horse. Nathan emerged from the crowd and walked over. He handed Buck and Vin their guns.

"How's the head?" Buck asked.

"Think I'll live," Nathan answered. "We are going to need to Sing inside real quick. She's fading pretty quick."

They all looked over at her. She was swaying slightly, causing the horse to start twitching nervously.

Chris leaned over to talk to JD. "Go get the horse," he whispered. "But don't spook Larson into doing something stupid."

JD nodded his head and dismounted. He slowly walked over to the jittery horse. He grabbed onto its bridle and began talking to it soothingly.

'Thanks, JD," Sing whispered. JD nodded his head.

Hank continued to walk away from Sing and the horse.

"That's it, son, this has all been a big misunderstanding." The judge coaxed. "Too many lives have already been lost."

Hank stopped dead in his tracks. He looked around at the people and his eyes clouded over.

"Damn you, Judge! Damn you all! That little witch had cast a spell on you all."

He pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sing.

Guns were fired, but not one of the weapons was quick enough.

"No!" a voice yelled. Harrison dove in front of his brother. His body jerked back as the bullet tore into his chest.

Seconds later, bullets plummeted the middle Larson brother. His gun dropped to the ground, followed by his corpse.

JD was nearly lifted off of feet trying to keep the horse from rearing.

"Easy boy!" He coaxed.

Another gunshot rang out and Sing slid to the ground, inches away from the dangerous hooves. Vin was there to pull her away before she was stepped on. JD quickly led the spooked horse away.

"Miss Sing?" Vin asked, as knelt down on the ground next to her.

"I'm all right," she answered, although her voice was like a haggard breath. Vin quickly pulled out a knife and cut the ropes around her hands and her neck.

"I need to see Harrison," she gasped.

Vin glanced over and saw Nathan and Josiah kneeling next to the Larson brother. Judging by the looks on their faces, he knew they were fighting a losing cause.

"Sing, I don't think he's..."

"I know, Vin, but I need to talk to him."

Vin nodded his head as he looked into her eyes.

"Let me help you then."

"Help me walk then. I don't want to be carried."

"All right." He pulled her to her feet, and ended up taking most of her weight.

"Sing?" Harrison gasped when he saw the two walking towards him. Nathan and Josiah moved back.

Sing dropped to her knees and grabbed hold of Harrison's hand.

"I'm sorry I didn't do anything to help you and Ben."

Sing's welled up with tears. Harrison lifted up his other hand and cupped her face in his hand.

"I think I'm ready to be forgiven now," he stated.

"God, yes," she answered. "I forgive you a hundred times over."

Harrison smiled. "I needed to hear that," he stated.

Sing squeezed Harrison's hand

"Take care of Ben for me?" she asked.

"I'd like nothing more," Harrison answered. "We'll be waiting for you."

Vin saw the light fade from his eyes, as the man's last breath exited his body. Sing kissed the hand she was holding, then let go.

Nathan knelt down and felt for a pulse to confirm what they already knew.

Sing lowered her head onto her shoulder.

"Are you all right?" Vin asked kneeling down next to her. His response was her limp body collapsing onto his knee.

+ + + + + + +

"I find the defendant not guilty," Judge Travis answered as he banged his gavel on the bench. A loud cheer erupted throughout the saloon.

"I do believe this call for a drink," Buck cheered, as he hopped over the bar and began pulling out glasses. "This is a good idea, Judge. Have the trial in the saloon, so we can all toast to the defendants; good health."

"Or to his doomed neck," Ezra answered, grabbing hold of the first glass Buck set out.

Sing smiled when Vin and Chris joined her at the table.

"You are looking much better," Chris answered. "I'm starting to see some color in those cheeks again."

"Nathan's quite a doctor," she answered.

"He's just too stubborn to lose anyone," Vin answered, as Nathan sat down at the table with them.

"Damn right," the healer answered. "I must say that she's a better patient than any of you ever were."

"Aww Nathan, that hurts." JD answered, taking a sip of beer. He started to cough and Buck clapped him between the shoulder blades."

"I charge double for alcohol," Nathan chuckled.

"What will you do now that you don't have a gang of vengeful ranchers on your tail?" Vin asked.

"She's not going anywhere for the next couple of weeks," Nathan answered sternly. "I'm not giving her a clean bill of health yet."

"Well when Attila the doctor gives you a clean bill of health then," Vin answered.

"I am glad to see that those history books I gave you are serving some purpose," Ezra stated, also joining the table.

"Well?" Vin asked.

"I don't know," Sing answered. "I think I'll look for that cabin in the woods somewhere."

"Won't you get lonely?" JD asked.

Sing smiled.

"I've been alone so long, one gets used to it. I might actually enjoy it now that I don't have crazy men with guns chasing me."

"No one gets used to being alone," Chris answered quietly, but his statement was covered up by Buck's approach.

"Hey, anyone knows where Josiah ran off too?" he asked.

"Only God knows," JD stated than began laughing hysterically "Do you get it? Josiah used to be a preacher and..."

"Yes, we understand, son," Ezra answered rolling his eyes. The doors to the saloon swung open. "Speak of the devil."

"I resent that statement," Josiah answered, as we walked into the bar room. "Vin, you've got a friend here to see you."

Vin got up and Josiah took his seat.

"Who's pouring?" he asked.

"JD, get the man a drink."

"Why me?"

Vin shook his head as he listened to the banter between his friends. He wondered who wanted to see him. He smiled when he saw the man dismount the black horse.

"Chanu," Vin greeted as the man walked up to him. The men shook hands. "I didn't think you would want to set foot in village again."

. "I don't like the missionaries, but some of the things in that book of theirs sound good. I like the idea of forgiveness."

"So do I," Vin agreed. "Is your father in trouble?"

"No, our hunting party was not far from town and I wanted to stop at tell you our good news."

"Robertson is gone," Vin laughed, guessing the answer.

"How did you know?" Chanu asked.

"Lucky guess," Vin shrugged his shoulders with a smile. "How did you manage to do it?"

"The Great Spirits felt the need to, how shall I put these in Robertson's terms? Scare the living God out of him on his way to the latrine a few nights ago." "And did the Great Spirits have any help in this endeavor?" Ezra asked, joining them on the steps. Josiah wasn't far behind him.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Chanu answered.

The comment caused a roar of laughter to escape from Josiah's lips.

"What's so funny?" Sing asked, also joining them on the porch. Chanu turned his head when he saw the young woman.

Nobody on the porch could contain their smile.

"May I have the privilege of introducing Ms. Sing, umm?

"Sing is fine," she answered.

"Sing, this is Chanu. He lives up on the Apache reservation," Vin stated.

"Stories about you have reached the reservation, the Cherokee woman who has disgraced our people."

Sing raised her eyebrows, but she didn't get a chance to respond. Chanu's horse spooked and the man was forced to go and calm him.

"Remember the man I told you about?" Vin whispered in her ear. "The one was lost his wife and child? He's the one."

Sing eyes sparked her interest as she walked down the porch steps to the man and his horse.

"Wild creatures were not meant to be white man's towns," she stated. Chanu looked at her.

"And what would you know about that? You have turned into one of them."

"I have been taught in the ways of both peoples," she answered. "Both have their evils. White men took away my son and father, but it was one of my own that killed my mother," she answered.

Chanu lifted up his head and looked her in the eyes. She didn't drop his gaze.

"Chanu, there are bad people in every race and creed," Vin stated. "That's why the good ones can't fight each other."

Chanu sighed, but didn't say anything.

Sing looked up at the men standing on the porch, then back at Chanu.

"Vin told me your father was looking for a teacher for the children. He wants someone to teach the children to read and write."

"A foolish old man's dream," Chanu answered. "No white woman has enough courage to come to a reservation."

"A white woman? No, probably not," Sing agreed. "But an Indian woman might consider it." Chanu lifted his head and looked at her, searching for any signs of jest.

'You are telling the truth?" he asked. Sing nodded her head. "We talk," he stated.

Vin watched as the two walked down to the end of the street where they could talk unnoticed. He realized the tip of the hats and the acknowledgement that Sing received from the people on the street. The half-Cherokee working girl hadn't found many people that respected her during her short life, but maybe things would change now.

"Hey, Vin," JD said coming to stand beside him.

"Yeah, kid?"

"What do you thinks going to happen to her?" he asked.

"I don't rightly know. Figure she never thought she'd live this long and maybe be able to have a happy life. Not everyone is lucky enough to get that chance, but that's how things work out here don't they?" He patted JD on the shoulder and walked back into the saloon.

JD was left standing alone on the porch.

"You want to rethink that happy ending?" Buck asked, coming to stand by JD.

"Yeah, maybe," JD stated. "Wish I wouldn't have thrown away that story now."

Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumbled book.

"What, you mean this?" He asked.

JD's eyes lit up.

"You saved it? Thanks Buck!" He reached for it, but Buck pulled it away from him.

"What is this shit, JD? White Devil of the Yellowstone?"

"Buck, give it here!"

"You come west cause you think all the girls are going to be whisky drinking, sharp shooting scouts? "

"Buck, I swear..."

"Hey guys listen to this," Buck called walking into the saloon,

"The stage was surrounded by Indians, and the driver, Jack McCall, was wounded by an arrow. Although the other six passengers were men, not one of them had nerve enough to take the ribbons. Seeing the situation, Jane mounted the driver's seat without a moment's hesitation and brought the stage safely and in good time to Wild Birch," Buck chuckled.

"Was this before she single handedly saved the town of Deadwood from smallpox?" Vin laughed.

"I figure it must have happened after the fine lady fearlessly rode in the midst of a battle and rescued the captain of her scouting unit," Ezra laughed.

"It's better than all that fancy stuff you read, Ezra," JD shot back. He grabbed the book out of Buck's hand when he lowered it.

"All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality, the story of escape," Ezra stated "Arthur Christopher Benson."

"I reckon there isn't much I want to escape right now," Buck answered sitting down between Nathan and Chris, and putting his feet on the table.

"Feet off the table!" Inez yelled.

"Amen, brother," Josiah answered, taking a swing from his beer.