+ + + + + + +
Randall glanced up from his work at the sound of horses outside the cabin. Standing he glanced at the sleeping young man as he grabbed his long gun and went outside. He curled his lip at who was there.
"Randall! Get yur ass out here."
"What do you want Hicks?" Jacob said coming outside but standing in the shadow of the cabin.
The old man spit a stream of tobacco juice before he spoke. "Me an' Clint are lookin' fer a murderer. He done kilt Dub. We aim to make 'im pay."
"How'd that happen?"
"Damn breed stabbed him. We give him a place to live, feed him an' he repays our kindness by stabbing poor dumb Dub."
Jacob almost laughed at the old man's description of Dub and at the idea of the Hicks being kind in any way. "You let the law take care of this."
"Ain't no law. We take care of our own. That savage will pay. You seen anyone? He'd be young, light hair. Not much on, less he stole it. Real mean like."
Jacob thought of the frightened boy/man asleep in his cabin. "Ain't seen no one like that. Now get off my mountain."
"Listen squaw man, that heathen kilt one of ours and we aim to find him."
Jacob's grip on the long gun, resting in the crook of his arm tightened. "I said there ain't no one like that here. Now get off my mountain."
The two Hicks looked at the trapper for a breath and then turned their horses and rode away. The horses sloshed in the muddy snow, and every once in a while one of them would turn in the saddle and look back at him.
Jacob waited until they were out of his little valley and then went back inside. A small sound made him turn. Vin was crouched against the wall, the skinning knife held out in front of him in a defensive stance.
"Stay away from me. I won't let ya touch me again." The teen's eyes grew huge and dark in the half light of the cabin.
"Two Ponies, its Jacob." Randall answered in Comanche softly.
"No they were...I heard voices..." Blinking the young man really saw Jacob. "I won't go back. I'd rather die."
"Ya won't have to. I sent them away."
Vin watched the older man turn his back and set the rifle against the wall. Then in English he asked, "Ya hungry, Lad?" He watched for a reaction when he switched languages.
"Yes," Vin answered in the same language. "'m always hungry."
"That ye are Lad. That ye are." Jacob laughed and began spooning the stew into a bowl.
Tanner ate in silence carefully finishing every drop. He wanted more but was afraid to ask. Afraid of what Jacob might do if he did ask.
The old man watched the teen cradle the empty bowl. He waited for several minutes, hoping Vin would ask for more. When he didn't Jacob asked, "Would you like more?"
Big blue eyes shot up in surprise, "Yes."
Jacob took the empty bowl and filled it again. "Ye need only ask, Lad. It's no sin to want more."
Vin took the full bowl and took a bite. "Why do you call me that?"
"That, 'lad'. I don't know that word. You keep calling me that."
Randall frowned and snorted. "I guess it comes from my childhood. A 'lad' is a young man. Not a boy but not fully grown yet. Do you mind me calling you that? What is your name?"
"I am Two Ponies of the Red Hills Clan."
"Do you remember your white name?"
Vin gave the old man a surprised look, "Vin, Vin Tanner." The words feeling strange in his mouth he thought about the other question as he ate. "No I don't mind, I like the word."
"So, you are Two Ponies among the People and Vin Tanner with the whites. Which shall I call you?"
"I...it don't matter."
"Yes, it does. To you it does. I will call ya which ever name ya want."
Tanner nodded, frowning because at the moment he didn't feel like either one. He wasn't sure who he was anymore. It wasn't clear like it had once been. When he was little and first came to the People he'd put aside Vin Tanner and become Heart Son to his new mother and father. Then he'd earned his adult name, Two Ponies, and he knew who he was and where he belonged. But he hadn't really forgotten his other name, it just didn't seem important.
Then he was with the Hicks' and he'd rather die then tell them anything. But they'd never asked either. Now this old man was asking him which name he wanted. Who was he, Two Ponies or Vin Tanner? The confused teen looked up at the old man, "I don't know who I am anymore."
Jacob nodded, "That's all right, Lad. It'll come to ya someday, then ye'll know who ya are."
+ + + + + + +
It had been a couple of days since Jacob had brought Vin to his cabin. The teen seemed to be healing slowly, mostly sleeping and eating although he jerked awake at the slightest sound.
Randall went about the small cabin gathering what he'd need to go start his trap line. Checking the fire one last time he turned and saw Tanner's dark eyes watching him from the shadows. Stopping as he shrugged into his heavy coat he said. "I'm going to set my traps. I'll be gone most of the day. You have water, wood and there's plenty to eat on the fire. You rest and eat all you want."
The boy watched him and finally nodded slightly, his unseen hand gripping the knife tighter.
Jacob slung the back pack over his shoulder and opened the door. "See ya around dark, Lad."
The sudden blast of icy air made Vin pull his blanket tighter around him. He watched as the older man left and then lay waiting almost afraid to move in case the man came back. Finally necessity made him get up and make his way across the floor, winching slightly from his tender feet. Pulling off his socks he went outside and took care of business off the edge of the porch overhang. Quickly turning he went back inside the warm cabin. He stopped briefly and looked around the outside before he closed the door.
The little valley was covered in deep snow. He could see the horse and two mules as dark shapes digging in the snow for graze. The sky was cloudless and bright blue and the sun made the snow sparkle. He followed the tracks left by Jacob with his eyes until they disappeared into the tree line.
Turning he closed the door, pausing to make sure he could open it again if he wished. Sitting down on the floor he pulled the socks on his cold feet. Once that was done he stood and began walking around the cabin. His hands tucked under his arms, he examined everything with his eyes afraid to touch anything.
The large stone and adobe fireplace took up most of one wall. The fire was used not only for heat but also for cooking and light as well. There was on one side the bunk he'd been sleeping on and on the opposite wall another larger bed. A few clothes hung from pegs along the wall. In the middle of the room was a large hand hewed table with stools and benches around it.
The fireplace had ledges on each side that held extra pots and pans and a large hearth that could be sat on to cook or get closer to the fire. To the left of the fireplace was a hanging hide. Vin walked over to it and stood in front of it for several minutes. Finally taking a breath he lifted the edge of the buffalo robe, but it was so dark behind it he couldn't see anything.
Looking around he saw the unlit candle on the table. Carefully lighting it he again lifted the edge of the buffalo robe. The cold air took his breath but he stepped inside. It appeared to be a shallow cave with shelves and baskets hanging all round. The shelves were full of dried food and pots sealed with wax. There were large cloth bags of things that Vin couldn't put a name to but tickled his memory as if he should know what was in them.
Seeing that there was no door on the other side, he turned and went back into the warmer room. Tanner blew out the candle and setting it down he saw a wooden bowl and hand carved spoon laid on the table. It wasn't used. Was it for him? Did the old man mean it when he said he could eat? Vin's stomach growled and he grabbed the bowl and went to the kettle on the hearth. Filling it he squatted down beside the warm fire and began eating never taking his eyes off the door. He half expected to see Jacob come back and be angry with him for eating.
Licking the empty bowl clean he sat it and the spoon down on the table where he'd gotten them. Vin went to the door opening it and closing it and then went to his bed and pulling the blankets up he lay down placing the large knife under his pillow. He watched the fire burn. Tanner occasionally got up and added wood to the fire and got another bowl of stew. Each time he ventured from his bed he'd check on the door making sure it would open and then he'd go back to his bed. The boy always had the knife in his hand as he moved about the cabin. He slept a great deal of the day but kept waking at the slightest sound the grip on the knife tightening in preparation to fight.
+ + + + + + +
It was dark when Jacob came back. He entered the cabin quietly with an arm full of wood. He stamped his feet to free them of snow before entering. The stamping also alerted the boy that he was back.
Vin startled awake at the sounds and scooted back against the wall. He watched wide eyed as Jacob walked over to the fire box and dumped the wood. Turning he smiled at the boy seeing that he was awake.
"Well, Lad, did ya have a good day? Plenty to eat? I'm going to get some more wood and water for the kettle. I could use a cup of hot tea. It's cold out there." The older man briskly turned and went back outside and then back with another arm load of wood and a bucket of water.
Vin watched with his heart pounding as Jacob built up the fire and poured water into the copper kettle and set it close to the hot coals. He didn't know what to expect from the man or what was expected of him.
Jacob leaned over and glanced into the pot that he'd left. He smiled to himself noting that the level of stew was considerable lower. "He ate quite a bit, Twilight. That's good."
"Yes, but he still fears. Reassure him husband that he did right in eating so much."
Randall turned and shrugging off his coat he smiled at the nervous teen. "I see ya ate good while I was gone. That's good, Lad. I'm hungry myself but there's plenty. Do ya want some more with me?"
Tanner frowned and tried to find the trap in the old man's words. Was it a trap? If he tried to eat more would the old man be angry and beat him? Vin bit his lips. No, the old man had been nothing but kind to him. Finally the teen nodded his assent.
"Good, Lad, I like company when I eat. Been living up here alone too long. Can ya make it over here to the table now or do I need to help ya?"
Getting up Vin said, "I make it." He hobbled over to the table and sat down. "Is good food," the teen added.
Smiling Jacob said, "Thank ye, Lad. A man alone must learn to do for himself." He sat down with the two bowls and some tea he'd made. "It's cold out there, that's for sure. I'm glad to be home. After we eat, I'll doctor yer feet again and then we can get some sleep."
+ + + + + + +
Jacob sat watching the young man he'd found. He tried again to discern just how old Vin was. His body was at that odd age that he could be both a child and a man. There was a light blond fuzz beginning to cover his cheeks yet if you didn't look into his too old eyes it was easy to think of him as no more then twelve or thirteen.
Vin had gentled some, relaxed a little and his use of English was improving although he still had to search for the word he wanted sometimes. Jacob took the pipe from his mouth and asked, "Vin, how old are ya?"
The youth frowned, "Not understand."
Jacob thought for a minute, "How many winters have you seen?"
"Oh...I...I don't know. I's.." Vin stopped looking and his hand, fingers out separated and straight. He held his hand up to show Jacob, "I's this many?"
Vin nodded. "Five, I couldn't remember the word. I's five when my Ma died. My grandpa took me in, but he died in the winter. I's passed around to different families after that. Only most could hardly feed their own kids much less a stray. Seems I was always cold and hungry then. They weren't bad folks, just had too many mouths to feed. I's too little to earn my keep." Vin shrugged as if this explained everything. "They sent me to a...a or-pigh? They was mean folk there. I stayed as long as I could then I ran. Figured if'en I was to die out on the prairie no one'd care a whit. But at least there'd be no more beatings and I'd be free. I was on my own fer maybe three days when the Red Hills Clan found me. They took me in an' Blue Bird Woman became my new Ma.
"Before...before the blue coats come I'd gone on my first raid." Vin sat up straighter, fist tapping his chest. "I got two good horses all to my self. One was a paint stallion. My father gave me my adult name then. Two Ponies, we was preparing for ..." Vin's voice caught, "I had just become a warrior..."
Jacob nodded. He thought most young men became warriors somewhere between thirteen to fifteen, usually they were somewhere in the middle. Vin could be seventeen but by his appearance Jacob doubted he was.
"How old, is that important to the white man?" Vin asked shyly.
"Yes and no. Mostly if yer old enough to do a man's work, then yer a man no matter how may years ya have. But it's a comfort to know how many years ya've managed to make it through."
"How many years? Are you?"
"Come this spring I'll be sixty three. That's six tens plus three." Jacob held up his hands to show Vin how many that was.
Tanner studied the older mans hands, and then held up his, "I am more than this, but less than this two times."
"Yes, I think so. Maybe what we call sixteen. This many and one more hand."
The teen looked down at his hands. "This many when my Ma died, one more when Gran'pa died, maybe two when I ran," Vin looked up, "This is how many?"
Vin studied the remaining fingers. Then closing his hands into fists he said, "Don't matter, I am how old I am. Giving it a name don't give it power over me."
"No Vin, it doesn't. I'll tell ya one thing though that does count. Yer a man grown by yer actions. That's all that counts."
+ + + + + + +
Vin forced himself to sit still his hands fisted and hidden under the shirttail of his over large shirt. He watched as Jacob carefully examined his feet, barely enduring the man's touch.
"Well, Lad, they seem to be healed up now." Jacob paused and looked up at the young man. "Do ya know how to make yourself some soft 'boots' ?"
"Good, I'll get you the materials." Jacob stood and looked inside a large wood chest. He brought back some soft leather and two pieces of thick elk hide. "Here ya go, if ya need any help just ask."
Vin nodded examining the leathers. He worked quietly cutting, measuring and fitting.
Jacob went back to what he'd been working on before he'd tended Vin's feet. After almost an hour of silence, he spoke up. "Vin, Lad, if ya don't start talking once in a while it's gonna be a very long winter. Ya'll get mighty tired of listening to me."
Vin stilled his hands. He licked his lips, "Ain't easy talkin'. Got use to not doin' it. Didn't have nothin' to say to them bastards. Didn't have the white words neither. Got to where after awhile I didn't... any words were hard to think of. They didn't want me talkin' anyway. It's only since I been here that the words are comin' back. I...I guess I got use to not talkin' at all. If I...if I spoke the language of the People they beat me. If I tried to say more then just answer them....they beat me. Finally there was nothin' I wanted to say."
Jacob nodded, "How'd ya end up with the likes of them?"
Vin shrugged, "They bought me from the blue coats."
"They bought ya?"
"Yes. I was a...a captive of the blue coats for...three moons? They would not give me an honorable death as a warrior. Instead they put me in a cage, they shaved my head, took my things and tried to make me wear stinking white clothes. I fought them, but they would not release me or kill me. I hate them all."
"Perhaps you didn't understand. They might have been kin."
"NO!! Not family...there was only my Ma, an' 'm Granpa. No one claimed me. Then the hiders showed up. I saw them pay the blue coat in oro?'
"Yes, gold. Why do the whites and the Mexican's want the yellow rock? You can not eat it or wear it. It isn't even pretty for the women."
Jacob smiled ruefully, "Now that's a question for the ages, Lad. I don't know why, I just know that if you have gold you can trade it for anything. Lots and lots of anything."
"Do you have this 'gold'?"
"No, I get what I need by trading furs. Never could see the value of that stuff. Guess I lived with Twilight in Summer and her people too long."
Vin sighed, "Have I talked enough yet?"
"Aye, Lad, it'll do for a while." Jacob smiled at him. He didn't know what else to say to the things Vin had told him. "Twilight?"
"Just listen to him, my Jacob. He has a great pain that must come out before he can begin to heal."
Jacob continued to watch Vin as he reached for a rabbit skin. The boy showed a lot of skill in softening the hide without damaging the fur. "You do good work, Lad," he said finally hoping to lure Tanner into more conversation.
The teen glanced up and then back at the fur he held. "Lern't to be careful. Them Hick's would beat me if I ruint a hide."
"Did you ruin many?"
"At first. I was scairt, an' didn't know what they wanted but I learn't fast." The anger began to simmer deep in Vin's gut. "I hated it, I hate them. They bought me just like a mule or a dog. Chained me up so's I couldn't run. Beat me when I tried to. I hated them, hate all whites."
"I'm a white man, Two Ponies."
"Ya ain't. I mean ya lived with the People. Ya ain't like them."
"No, I'm not. But not all whites are 'bad' just like not all Comanche are good. You've been unfortunate enough to meet some of the worst. There are good white men and women."
Vin looked at Jacob in unbelief. "Don't matter none."
"Ain't fit to be with good folk. I shamed m' family, shamed m' name."
Jacob frowned. How could a boy Vin's age shame so many people? "How Two Ponies? How did you shame your name?"
Tanner swallowed and stared hard at the fur in his hands. "I let them Hicks hurt me. I let them do things to me, 'specially Dub." He waited for Jacob to be angry and tell him to leave. When he finally looked up the old man was simply waiting.
"Vin, Lad, you didn't 'let' them do anything."
"I did. I..."
"Did you fight them?"
"Did you try to escape?"
"Yeah, I'd run, but Clint would always catch me. He'd drag me back, behind his horse, trussed up so I could barely walk. Beat me. The last time he's gonna bust m' leg so I couldn't run no more. He had this big club. He hit me. I couldn't help it. I screamed it hurt so bad. A'for he could hit me again the ol' man stopped him. Said if he busted m' leg I couldn't work. They'd have to put me down. Clint, he was so mad I thought he was gonna break it anyway. But he just hit the other leg, then he dropped the club an' walked away. Bones weren't broke. Didn't matter, I couldn't walk, couldn't even move for a long time."
Jacob watched as the teen unconsciously rubbed his thighs.
"Thought they was gonna leave me outside in the cold all night. I wished they would. Freezing to death didn't seem so bad that night. But Dub finally came out and he had to carry me inside. He had to carry me the next day too, m' legs wouldn't work proper. Don't 'member how many days he had to carry me before I could walk again. Didn't matter I could hardly move, I still had to do my work. Clint was there with his little whip to make sure I worked. After that... after that, I didn't try to run no more. I was a warrior and I shamed my father and brother by not escaping, by letting them hurt me, by not dying fighting them." He looked up at Jacob his eyes shiny with unshed tears.
Randall leaned closer to Vin. "Ya listen to me. I've seen Clint in a rage and I've seen Dub. He's three times yer size. Ya shamed no one. Ya fought them as long as you could. Ya didn't give up and die. And finally ya did get away. Ya fought and killed Dub and escaped. If ya were my son, I would be very proud of ya. If ya were my son ye'd be welcomed back with feasting and dancing and ye'd have a place of honor in my lodge. Ya shamed no one least of all yerself. If there's any shame it falls on the Hicks and the way they treated ya."
Vin stared, wide eyed as Jacob spoke until the tears started to fall. Once they started there seemed to be no end to them. The tears of sorrow that had never fallen over the years he'd lost all those he'd loved. Not the tears of desperation that had threatened to fall when he'd endured everything the army and the Hicks had dealt him. He doubled over into himself with great wracking sobs as his grief drained from him. It seemed they would never stop.
Jacob carefully moved over next to the teen and held him. Not moving or saying anything. Just holding the boy as the pent up grief finally poured out. When he thought Vin could hear him he spoke. "Yer a good man Vin Tanner. Ye've been dealt a rotten hand and have seen a lot of bad things in yer short life. Ya have two choices, ya can let what's happened to ya rule your life and end up a bitter man. Or ya can use what's happened to make ya a man who sees and understand what people can do and protect those who can't fight back. There are good people out there; ya just have to look for them. Don't matter what color their skin is."
Vin pulled away for the old man. He was so tired, his mind wouldn't wrap around the meaning of Jacob's words. " 'M tired. Gonna lay down."
"Ya do that Lad, this will keep."
Tanner stumbled over to his cot and fell on the bed. He was asleep before he could roll over.
That night, the nightmares began.
+ + + + + + +
The old man watched as Tanner dreamed. He could tell the young man was trapped in another nightmare. He reached out and tried to wake Vin. But the boy jerked from his touch and kicking and punching, Vin had to escape the hand. The boy backed into a corner eyes wild but not really seeing anything.
"Easy, Lad, easy. I was just trying to get ya out of the dream."
Vin was panting and through gritted teeth said, "Don't touch me, don't never touch me."
"All right, Lad, I won't."
Vin didn't sleep the rest of the night he was so tense. To hopefully relax him Jacob pulled out his mouth organ and started playing.
Vin watched in fascination. "What ya do?"
Jacob stopped and held the harmonica out. "It's a mouth organ. Ya blow here and the sound comes out. Purty ain't it?"
Vin inspected the instrument without touching it, "Blow more," he commanded.
Jacob started again. This time playing a happy fast tune, he'd long ago forgotten whether what he played were real songs or just the noise in his head.
"Do ya want to try?" he asked holding out the harmonica.
Hesitantly Vin reached out and took the small instrument. He carefully brought it to his mouth copying Jacob's movements and blew. A sweet breathy sound came out. The teen grinned and eyes sparkling he continued to blow.
+ + + + + + +
Randall again watched as the young man stirred restlessly in his sleep. An occasional moan escaped the tightly clinched lips. Vin had lost that skeletal look over the last month. His body had healed from most of the physical damage. He was speaking better and volunteering information about himself and his life. Tanner had even showed his sly mischievous sense of humor.
But with a happier more relaxed awake Vin came the nightmares. It was almost impossible to wake the teen once he was gripped by the nightmares. Touching him to wake him had disastrous results. Only one thing worked for some reason. Jacob pulled out his old battered harmonica. The soft soulful sound for some reason soothed the teen. Sighing Jacob got up and built up the fire. Vin was always cold once he woke. Turning back Jacob saw this was going to be a bad one.
Vin's arms were stretched above his head wrists held together as if tied. He rubbed them back and forth as if trying to get free of whatever held him. His movements became frantic and Vin's whole body tensed and strained. His breath coming in gasps as he tried to find some release from what held him captive, his whole body twisting and dodging unseen blows.
Jacob slapped his palm with the musical instrument and began to softly play an old tune from his childhood. As he played the frantic eye movement slowed and stopped. The painful rubbing of skin on skin slowed and stopped. Finally after long minutes the tense body relaxed. The arms lowered.
It was then the shivering started. The trembling shook the whole bed as if harsh chills were wracking the young man. Teeth chattered as Vin tried to curl into the smallest ball he could.
Still Jacob played his healing music until the teen began breathing even and smooth. At last the dream seemed to have stopped and Jacob lay back down to wait for the next time.
+ + + + + + +
Jacob looked over at the restless youth. Even though Vin hadn't moved the need to do so radiated from him. Randall looked down at his last trap. He was ready and the weather seemed to be holding, it was time to check on his traps again. "Would ya like to come with me, Two Ponies? To check 'm traps," He asked.
Vin looked up startled at the sudden question. "Yes, but no coat." Then he corrected himself. "I don't have a coat."
"Oh, I think that can be fixed." Jacob started digging though a large trunk. Finally he pulled a hide coat. "Twilight made this for me many years ago. It got too snug in the shoulders, she was a good cook, but I could never throw it away or re-cut it. You're welcome to use it."
The old man walked over to the teen and held out the coat. Vin stood and shrugged into the coat. It had fringe and was soft and warm, and was a little large on his slender frame. Jacob looked critically at the fit. "Well, I think with an extra shirt on for warmth, and a belt it will work just fine."
Vin's hand ran down the coat feeling the grain of the hide. Its heavy weight felt good and it was so warm and comfortable. "I like it Jacob. Thanks."
"Good lad. We'll leave at first light. It'll really help having ya along. Seems it takes me longer and longer to make m' rounds."
The next morning the sun shone bright reflecting off the snow. "Would ya mind carrying the backpack Lad? While I carry these extra traps."
"No, I carry." Vin shrugged on the pack. He liked being asked rather then ordered. He quickly achieved a rhythm as he walked behind Jacob.
It was a long walk up the mountain and around the canyons. The work was hard but was nothing Vin hadn't done before. Around noon Jacob stopped. "Here, we'll eat a bit and then if you would go down that fork, I'll go around the upper one and we can meet at the end. Then it'll just be a short walk home. Can you do that?"
Vin was breathing hard when he reached the second fork. There was no sign of Jacob so Vin brushed the snow off a bolder and sat down. The view was the most beautiful he'd seen in a long time. He spotted a dark dot of movement high in the cloudless sky. Tanner watched as the dot grew larger and became a Peregrine Falcon. He watched as the bird leisurely came closer.
The bird startled Vin by landing on a bare branch near him. "Greetings, Two Ponies."
"Greetings, Falcon. I am glad to see you once again."
The falcon preened a few feathers. "Did you think I would not come to you again?"
"I was not sure. Much has happened since I last saw you."
"This I know."
"What must I do, Falcon? How can I return to my People?"
If a falcon could sigh he would have. "That can only be answered by you. Only your heart can tell you what to do. But Two Ponies, who are your people?" The falcon spread his wings and flew away before Vin could answer.
Tanner stared at the disappearing falcon. He frowned trying to understand what the Spirit Guide had meant. He was Two Ponies of the Red Hills Clan, wasn't he? Those were his people, weren't they? But what about his true mother's people. What about his Gran'pa and the stories he told about his gran'pa. Weren't they his people? He wished he understood. That he could just say 'I am this...' and it be true.
"Ho, Two Ponies."
Vin turned at the voice to see Jacob coming. He smiled, "Ho Jacob. I'm happy to see you."
Randall stopped beside the young man. He looked up at the darkening sky. "Storms coming. We'll be lucky to get home before it's snowing again."
Tanner jumped up happy to be moving again in the increasing cold. Slinging the pack onto his shoulder he fell in behind the mountain man.
It was almost dark when they reached the cabin. Stamping off the snow Jacob lit a candle and began bringing the ash covered ember back to life. "Vin, Lad, could ya stow the hides and bring in more wood?"
Vin stumbled twice as he carried the wood in. He didn't realize how tired he was, he just wanted to lie down and sleep. It was hard to make his hands to do what he wanted they were so cold. He dropped the last arm load beside the wood box.
Jacob getting the fire burning brightly said, "Thanks," and then he turned and looked at the teen.
He was shocked at how bad Vin looked. The long curly hair hung in dripping hanks. The young face was gray and his lips had a blue tinge around them.
"Lad, quickly get out of those wet clothes and get by the fire. Yer freezing."
Vin tried to comply but his brain seemed to have fallen asleep. His fingers refused to do what he willed them to do. Looking up he pleaded, "I c...c...can't. "M so c...c...cold."
Jacob quickly stood. "Here let me help ya." The older man quickly stripped the shivering teen and wrapped him in a heavy blanket. Then he sat Vin down on the hearth.
"Stay there. I'll get some water to boiling." After he'd put the water over the fire he asked, "why didn't you say anything? Why didn't ya tell me how cold ya were?"
Between chattering teeth Vin said, "I didn't know. It just kinda snuck up on me."
Jacob took the steaming water and added some tea and a pinch of herbs to it. He swished the water around to speed the steeping. Taking a cup he half filled it. "Here, Lad, sip this. It'll help warm ya."
Vin nodded through chattering teeth. He was finally beginning to feel the warmth of the fire. "D...d...don't know what's wrong with me. Was never this cold before. Had less on, but was never this c...c...cold."
"Yer in the mountains now, Lad, it's a lot colder here. And you got wet too. Seems before ya were on the flats in the dry lands. It's a different kind of cold, just as it's a different kind of heat."
Handing Vin the cup he watched as the teen sipped the warm liquid. He'd only half convinced Tanner with his explanation. Truth be told he didn't really know why Vin should react to the cold so strongly. Perhaps it was because he was so sick before or was inside so much while he was healing. Hopefully he'd get use to it eventually. Turning away he stirred the heating stew. "This'll be warm soon and we'll get something warm into ya besides the tea."
"It's alright, Jacob. I'm feeling much warmer now. I liked going with you. I want to go again if that's alright."
Smiling at the teen Jacob said. "I'd been pleased to have you along any time Lad." Damn Twilight, the Lad's game to anything. He's one to ride the river with that's for sure.
Of course my husband, he was raised by the Comanche. The People have the best warriors of all the tribes.
Couldn't be just a little slanted in your view about that could you?
Twilight in Summer's soft laugh filled him with warmth as he spooned up the bowls and handed one to the teen.
They ate in companionable silence. As Tanner was finishing his last bites his eyes started to droop.
Smiling Jacob said, "Lad? You'd better put on some dry clothes and head to bed. Yer about to fall asleep at the table."
" 'M fine." Vin mumbled but didn't argue as he got up and dressed in dry warm clothes. He curled up in his bed and pulled the blankets over his head. He fell asleep with visions of the mountain in his head.
For once, there were no nightmares.
+ + + + + + +
Randall carefully set the table trying to remember just how it was done. It was harder than he thought trying to remember something he'd never given a second thought to and hadn't bothered with in years. Nodding he looked at his handy work. There was a plate, a knife, a two pronged fork and a cup set out for each of them. Setting the Dutch oven on the table he look over at Vin.
"Time to eat, Lad."
Vin looked at the table and frowned but still came over and sat down. Jacob spooned a mixture of root vegetables and meat onto the plates.
The teen took a torn piece of tortilla and scooped up a bite of meat. Randall sighed, "Use the fork Lad."
"Why?" Vin asked, "Don't need it."
'Because it's what's used when ya eat at a white table."
Vin defiantly scooped up another bite and shoved it into his mouth with his fingers. "Don't care, don't plan on eatin' at a white man's table."
"Ya are eating at a white man's table right now."
"But ya ain't....I mean ya...aw hell it don't count."
"Yes it does, you must learn these things, Vin. Things like eating with a fork, tipping your hat to a lady, what to say and when to say it. All these things will make it easier for ya to fit. Now use the fork!" Jacob pointed to the instrument beside Tanner's plate.
Vin stared at the older man words tumbling over themselves in his head. The harder it became to find the right words the angrier he became. "Ain't gonna live in the white world. Won't need that stuff. Hate whites. Hate their ways." The words burst out of him and he picked up the hated fork and threw it across the room along with the cup and the half full plate.
Jacob leaned back calmly looking at the angry teen. "Where ya gonna live, Vin? Even old mountain men like me need people once in a while?" He asked with more patience than he felt. He waited for the young man to answer.
"I'm findin' my people, I'll go back to the Comanche."
"How, Vin? Ya said they were all dead. Think. Is there anyone to go back too?" His calm voice making Vin's agitation even more evident.
Tanner's hand inadvertently went up and started rubbing the scar under his hair on the side of his head. "I... they...someone might have lived, surely some of them lived. They are my people -they'd welcome me back."
"Would they? Ya been gone almost two years now are ya sure the Comanche would let ya come back if ya are the only, or even one of a few survivors. Are ya sure yer white skin wouldn't get in the way."
Vin stared at Randall, his breathing coming hard and fast as the screams echoed in his head, the terror of the Calvary riding down on the village and the terrified crying of the children and women as they were slaughtered. He began shaking his head denying what he was seeing. "No! Someone has to have lived. Someone has to be out there," he whispered. Coming back to the present he looked pleading at Jacob, "Someone has to be out there," he repeated.
"Perhaps, Lad. All I'm trying to do is help ya. Ya know how to get along with the tribes. Ya know how to live off the land. But ya need to know how to get along with white people. There are more and more settlers coming here all the time. With the war over there will be more. Families will be coming trying to escape the horror of the war and to start over. Whites don't take kindly to those who favor the People's way of life. For ya to have a fighting chance ya have to be able to walk both paths. There will be those who hate ya simply because ya seem too Indian to them. And other's that will hate ya because ya ain't Indian enough. Yer in a tough place, Vin. Somehow ya must learn to walk in both worlds. It doesn't mean ya have to forget who ya were with the People. But ya have to be able to get along when yer in white towns too."
"How? How am I going to be able to do that. I hate whites." The teen felt the fight deflating from him. He sat down and looked at his hands. "What am I to do then, Jacob? I don't know who I am anymore."
"No. Ya hate some whites. I'm white, do ya hate me?"
"No, but, yer not... yer not like them."
"Neither are most of the whites. Most are just good people trying to take care of their own and live their lives. Ya had the bad luck running into some real scum. Most are not like the Hicks. The truth is most folks would have nothing to do with people like the Hicks."
Vin stared at Jacob, not quite believing him.
Jacob chuckled. "Ya can stay here as long as you like. I enjoy your company. When it's time for ya to move on we'll both know. Then ya'll know who you are. Ya wait an' see when my son comes in the spring he'll tell ya all about the white world."
+ + + + + + +
Tanner sat watching up the path. He checked again the position of the sun. Jacob was late. Later then he'd ever been. He held his hand up fingers against the horizon, measuring the distance. It was too long. Burying the fear that something had happened he stood.
Vin hid the hides and traps and began climbing up the trail, hoping against hope that he'd meet Jacob on the trail. The path was slick and muddy from snow melt and he almost fell several times.
Coming up on the narrowest part of the trail he stayed well away from the sheer drop down into a gorge. His eyes swept the path ahead of him. After a steep turn he spotted it - Jacob's backpack, the strap broken. His gaze followed a long smear of mud going right over the edge.
"Jacob?" Vin whispered. He carefully went to the edge and holding onto a sturdy branch of a nearby tree he leaned over scanning the drop. Rocks and mud showed the clear path of Jacob's fall. Vin saw what he thought was the mountain man almost hidden in the debris below.
Easing himself off the side by the seat of his pants Tanner began his slipping and sliding decent. Stopping himself once he reached out and grabbed Jacob's long gun. The way down didn't allow him to stand and the slick half melted snow kept him from moving too fast.
After an eternity he reached the old man who lay face down wrapped around the trunk of a large tree.
"Jacob?" Vin called as he neared the still form. He crawled under the low branches and reached out with trembling hands to turn the old man onto his back. Then Vin leaned down holding a hand in front of Jacob's nose and mouth. He drew in a steadying breath and waited.
There was a faint movement of air. He still waited not sure he'd felt the slight breeze. Convinced that Jacob was still alive the teen looked around trying to think of a way to get the unconscious man out from under the tree and back to his cabin.
Tanner realized he couldn't carry Jacob anywhere. While he was as tall as the older man, Randall out weighed him by a good hundred pounds. He thought he'd followed the gorge from the cabin a short distance. He hoped this was the same gorge.
Grabbing the shoulders of the mountain man's coat Vin pulled him out from under the low trees. In the brighter light Vin tried to find what injures Jacob had. The first thing he saw was the growing bruise on the side of Jacob's face. There was a slight trickle of blood coming from the corner of the old man's mouth. Undoing Jacob's coat Vin carefully felt Randall's chest. The ribs seemed intact but going lower he felt a tightness that shouldn't be there. Going on down he felt a break in the bones between the knee and ankle of one leg but the other felt undamaged.
Pulling the coat back in place the teen sat back on his heels and looked around. His eyes scanned the landscape, the trees, the patchy snow, and the trickles of water, the mud and rocks. "Please Jacob wake up. I don't know how to help you. I don't know what to do." Tanner sighed knowing that all the wishing in the world wouldn't change anything. He would have to rely on himself.
Checking on the old man again Vin scrambled back up the side of the mountain, and after many scrapes and bruises he made it back to the top. Once there he grabbed the pack. Looking through it he laid out the small ax and some ties. The traps and most of the hides he stowed into the top of a tall tree. Taking the leather ties and the ax he strapped them and the hides to his back and began the arduous trip back down to Jacob.
After checking Randall Vin turned to the small saplings he thought might work. He found two fairly straight trees around two inches in diameter. Chopping one down and then the other he hurriedly stripped the poles and lay them down parallel to each other.
Looking up at the position of the sun he fought the need to hurry with the need to be careful. Stretching the green furs skin side down between the poles he began punching holes and wrapping the pole he laced it into place, doing first one side and then the other until he had all the hides in place.
When he'd finished Vin critically examined his work. It was an assortment of different furs with gaps between them but he would be able to pull Jacob on it. Just barely, but it was all he had.
Glancing at the long shadows he laid the travois down beside the still unconscious man. Tanner carefully lifted Jacob by the shoulders and laid him on the top of the travois. Then he placed the trapper's legs on the stretched hides. Lifting the poles he placed the thick strap across his chest and holding the ends of the poles he took his first step.
The travois moved, but not easily. Each step was a battle against the rough uneven terrain. The poles bounced and snagged, sometimes almost pulling the teen over. Vin would growl deep in his throat and tug until the travois was free and he could continue on. He would have several free steps and then again have to tug one pole or the other free.
The roughness of their way made Vin grateful that Jacob was unconscious. The ride would have been agony with the old man's injuries.
The sun was setting and even though the moon was almost full it wouldn't give enough light to see to travel. The next reasonably level spot Tanner came to he set the travois down and began gathering wood. Clearing a small circle of dirt in the sheltered place he laid a fire and got it to burning brightly. Once he could feel the heat he moved Jacob to where he was laying between the stone wall and the fire. The stones reflecting some of the heat back over the prone body.
Once he had Jacob situated Tanner gathered a large pile of wood, stopping only to take a drink from the small stream of snow melt before he'd continue gathering wood.
Finally Vin sat down beside Randall. His head fell back resting on the fire warmed stone. He was so tired and he hurt but he dare not fall asleep. He had to keep the fire burning hot and bright not only to keep them warm but also to discourage any wild animals. He heard near the cabin not only wolves but also the call of a cougar throughout the winter.
It was the longest night of his young life. Keeping awake, keeping the fire going, keeping his fear in control. He was never more grateful then when the eastern sky started to lighten.
Chewing the last of his jerky Vin stomped out the last of his fire. Making sure it was truly out he shrugged on the strap and began again winching as it pressed against already sore muscles. Tanner continued on down the gorge stopping only to make sure Jacob was still breathing or to get a drink of the freezing water.
Sometime in the afternoon the terrain began to look familiar and the path became smoother. Relief like he'd never felt before washed over him when he saw the cabin. "We made it Jacob. There's the cabin."
Seeing the cabin gave Tanner new energy and he pulled the travois strongly knowing that they were almost home. Stopping in front of the door Vin painfully shrugged off the strap he'd made and opened the door. Lighting a candle he set about building a fire to start warming the cold cabin. Once the fire was burning strongly he returned to where Jacob lay in the shade.
"I have to lift ya, Jacob. I know it'll hurt but I have to get you inside." Vin wasn't sure Randall could hear him, but it made him feel better if he said the words anyway.
Being careful of the broken leg and trying not to put too much pressure on the damaged abdominal area Vin lifted the old man and carried him the few steps to the bed. He gently lowered Jacob. Before laying him flat Tanner took off the old man's coat and dropped it on the floor. Laying the man down he carefully lifted the legs and covered Randall with a blanket.
Standing and looking at the mountain man he was startled to see the eyes open. "Jacob?"
A rough barely heard whisper came to him, "Ya did good, Lad. Ya got me home." Then the eyes slid shut.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked at the injured man. He'd done everything he could think of. Through it all Jacob had laid white lipped and still. The fire blazed and the water was heating for willow bark tea, the only thing he knew for the pain the man was so obviously in. Glancing around the cabin Vin knelt down beside the bed. "Jacob? I don't know what else to do. Please tell me what I should do."
It seemed like hours before Jacob opened pain filled eyes. He worked on focusing on the teen beside him. "Ya done all ya can. I'm busted up something fierce inside. Ain't nothing to be done."
"I'm so sorry Jacob...I hurt ya carrying ya home."
"No, Lad, ya did yer best. Just let me lay still and rest. Ya go on an' do what'ca need to do."
Vin nodded, and standing went outside. His heart was aching more than his back. Chopping firewood caused him to gasp from pain. But he welcomed it. It took the worry and heart pain to a more bearable level.
Jacob watched Vin go outside, "Twilight?"
"I'm here, my husband."
"Do I get to join you this time?"
"I need to see Josh."
"He's on his way, my Jacob. It will only be a day, maybe two."
"I have to hold out until he gets here. I have to tell him about Vin. I have to say goodbye."
"You will my husband."
"Don't leave me Twilight in Summer."
I'm here, I won't leave you."
Jacob opened his eyes looking around the cabin. There standing beside the bed bathed in a golden glow was Twilight in Summer. Jacob thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever known. Her hair was long now, raven black and shining in the light. She was in her best dress, the doe skin tanned almost white with the long fringe and the blue quill work. She smiled at him and her face lit up with love.
The pain whipped through him and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again Vin was back, sitting quietly beside him. Blinking he tried to clear his vision. Licking dry lips he spoke. "Vin, Lad how long have ya been there? Have ya eaten?"
At he sound of the cracking voice, Vin's head jerked up, "Jacob?"
Clearing his throat Jacob asked again, "Have you ate anything?" Knowing that the boy would forget to eat if he were worried.
Blinking confused, Tanner said, "I got some tea for ya." He jumped up and got the cup. Lifting the old man's head enough to drink, he helped Randall sip the warm bitter tea.
After only a few sips Jacob said, "Enough, can't drink more. Ya need to fix yerself something. Josh'll be here by full moon. Ya'll need to help him."
Eating hadn't been on Vin's mind. He wasn't even aware of how long it had been since he had eaten. "Don't matter, ain't hungry."
Jacob's eyes drifted closed. There were things he needed to tell Vin, but not yet. He was so tired he'd rest awhile.
Tanner watched the old man sleep. He waited for each breath to come. The night passed, the sun came up. Still Vin didn't move. Finally his body demanded he take care of its needs and he went outside briefly. He took a deep lung full of the warm spring air. He was afraid, recognizing the same helpless feeling he'd felt as a small boy watching his mother and then his grandpa sicken and die.
Vin rushed back inside, terrified the old man had stopped breathing while he was gone. Sinking down onto the stool he let out his held in breath when he saw the shallow rise and fall of the old man's chest. "Don't die on me, Jacob." The teen didn't know he was speaking aloud. "Don't die on me. Everyone dies, m' ma, m' gran'pa, m' Red Hills family. They all die, an' leave me alone. I need ya, Jacob. Ya ain't taught me enough." Refusing to let the tears fall the young man simply sat and waited.
He knew Jacob was dying despite his pleading, he knew it was going to happen. There was nothing to stop that. Or change it. There was nothing he could do but sit here and wait.
+ + + + + + +
Sometime in the afternoon Vin heard the mare whinny a welcome. Grabbing Jacob's long gun he went outside the door. Staying in the shadows he held the rifle in the crook of his arm.
A young man, not much older then he rode up with confidence. He had sandy blond hair and blue eyes. On his hip was a sawed off Winchester instead of a pistol.
Pulling his horse to a stop the man asked, "Who'r you?"
"Vin Tanner. Who'r you?"
"Josh Randall, this is my Pa's place."
"You're Jacob's son? Come in. He's been hurt."
Randall dismounted and ground tied his horse and rushed inside. "Pa?"
His eyes quickly adjusted to the dimly lit cabin. He went to where his father lay and knelt down. "Pa, I'm here."
The old man slowly opened his eyes. "Josh?"
"Yeah, Pa it's me."
"I gotta talk to you son..."
Vin backed out of the cabin, knowing instinctively that this was a private conversation between father and son. He wondered what his own pa had been like; wishing they'd had the chance to talk like this.
Vin waited until the sun started going down and then he took Josh's horse and unsaddling him he hobbled the gelding and let him join the mare and mules to graze. He went back to sitting on the porch overhang and waited.
The younger Randall finally came out. He looked around and spotting Vin said, "Pa wants to talk to you."
Nodding Tanner went inside. Kneeling beside the old man he took the cold hand. "I'm here, Jacob."
"Vin, Lad. I want ya to take what ever ya want from the cabin. Josh is to burn it down after...I don't want no one to claim my cabin."
"I will. Jacob, I remembered something. Something my ma said. She told me, 'Boy you're a Tanner'. I reckon I'll be trying to live up to that. I know who I am now. I'm both Two Ponies and Vin Tanner, I must be both to be true to myself."
"That's good, Vin, I know you will. I think I'll sleep now, Lad." The old man's eyes drifted shut.
Vin sat there holding Jacob's hand. He was loath to let go of it. He could still feel the faint pulse and that reassured him that Jacob still lived. He was vaguely aware of Josh coming inside and building a fire. The younger Randall began cooking moving about the cabin with old familiarity.
"Vin, I have something to eat ready." Josh said softly. His father had explained some of the teen's past and he accepted the closeness the two had developed.
"Suit yourself. I'll leave some for you. By the way, thanks for taking care of my horse."
Vin only nodded, his attention once again on the old man.
During the predawn hour Twilight in Summer came. "Jacob, come my husband, it is time."
Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. He no longer hurt. He reached out and took the hand of his wife. "I'm ready." Standing he looked back at the sleeping boy who'd refused to let got of his hand and at his son leaning back in a chair dozing. "I wish them only peace Twilight."
"They must find their own way Jacob. I can tell you this, the young Comanche will find where he belongs someday. Come!" She led Jacob Randall away.
+ + + + + + +
The fire burned hot and bright belying the cold darkness Vin felt. The cabin had been burning for hours, turning to ashes all that Jacob Randall had except for the few things Tanner and Josh and taken.
Josh had asked, "Are you sure you don't want to stay here? Pa said you could have the mountain if you want."
"No. Can't stay here without Jacob."
Now as the fire burned itself out Josh turned. "Pa said if you didn't want to stay I was to take you with me. Teach you how to be a bounty hunter, if you want."
"What is 'bounty hunter'?"
"Well, there are bad men that are wanted by the people that they hurt. They ran away before they could be punished. It's my job to hunt them and then I turn them over to the law and the law pays me.'
Vin frowned. "What is 'law'?"
Josh chewed his lip and frowned. "You'll see. It's kinda hard to explain."
"I'm too stupid?" Vin ducked his head.
"No, ain't that. I just don't think I can explain it to you. It's somethin' you grow up with knowing. You'll learn though." Randall stopped and watched the roof fall in.
Vin watched the slim man. He knew that Josh was grieving yet he could see no evidence of it. Maybe the white's mourned different. Vin held in his grief also,.it wasn't his place to sing. So he would watch Josh and learn how to act in the white world.
The fire burned all night, finally around dawn it started to drizzle putting out the last embers.
Standing Randall looked around. "Let's saddle up. We can take Pa's furs and sell them and get you outfitted. Don't suppose Pa taught ya how to shoot with a hand gun."
"No just long gun."
Josh nodded, "Good enough. We'll work on the hand gun when we get 'cha one."
Vin frowned and pointed with his chin. "Want one like yer's."
The mules loaded with supplies and the horses saddled the two rode out of the valley. Vin turned in the saddle and looked back at the smoking ruin. //Goodbye Jacob.// He wanted to say more but didn't know how to express it or what to say. He had found himself again leaving all that he knew. The evil done to him had been if not healed at least beginning to heal with the old man's kindness. Vin rode away knowing who he was and that no one would ever take his freedom away again.
"I rode with Josh a couple of years, then he wanted to try Arizona Territory. He taught me all he knew about bounty hunting. I didn't want to leave Texas. I thought....I hoped that I'd find some of my clan..." Vin hesitated plucking at the blanket.
"Did you find them?" Chris asked.
"No, guess they all died that day. I kept hoping and looking for a long time." Haunted eyes looked up, "I still look for them whenever we see any of the People."
"What now, Pard?"
"Don't quite know. I made myself forget about those years and now they're back. Thought I'd buried all this." Vin took another long pull from the almost empty bottle.
Chris frowned. He'd seen Tanner drink before but never so much, yet he didn't seem drunk. Not thinking he reached out and laid his hand on the tracker's arm.
There was an explosion of movement and in a blink Tanner was crouched over him. One hand twisted in Larabee's shirt holding him down. The other hand was holding a razor sharp skinning knife to this throat. "Don't touch me. Don't never.....Oh God...." The feral look left Vin's eyes and he dropped the knife blade. His eyes never left the thin line of blood that had appeared as the knife clattered to the wood floor. Stumbling Vin ran outside.
Chris took a deep breath and followed the tracker only to find him on the side of the porch throwing up all the whisky he'd drunk. Larabee started to go forward, "Vin?"
The sick man shook his head and held his hand up as if to stop him from coming near him. "No, don't come no closer. Just leave me the hell alone. I ain't fit to be near decent folk."
"That's not true, Vin, you're the most decent man I know..."
"No, ain't fit.....I...." Vin's eyes rolled up into his head and Chris barely caught him as he collapsed.
Carrying the tracker back inside Chris mumbled to himself. "Damn, Tanner you sure did it this time. What am I going to do with you." The gunman laid the unconscious man on the cot and tried to make him comfortable. His hands straightened Vin's legs and he paused finger rubbing gently over the scars on the ankles. "I never knew, never thought where the scars came from. You explained a lot about yourself today and I bet you don't even know it."
Making sure Vin was breathing all right Larabee went out side and sat in the shade. Vin's story had given him a lot to think about.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee poured himself another cup of coffee and sat back down. He watched as Tanner slept. He found himself really looking at his friend. He'd always known that Vin was younger than he, but had never really looked at the man. The hat, the scruffy beard, the loose baggy clothes had seemed to mark Tanner in Larabee's mind. That and the piercing blue eyes that seem to have lived forever and seen everything. Hell, he acted older than Chris most of the time. But now Chris looked past the squint lines around his eyes and past the scruffy unshaved beard. Chris was startled at how young Vin looked lying there asleep. He couldn't be more than twenty. But then maybe Vin's reckoning was all wrong; maybe he'd forgotten how the years went. It was so hard to think of him as not much older than JD. But then JD acted like a kid, and from what Vin had said he'd never been a kid at least not for very long.
Chris sipped the coffee and thought over what Vin had told him. How did he survive? How could anyone survive what the hiders had done to him? And knowing Vin, he'd left a lot out, had minimized much of what happened. He'd told it all so matter of fact as if there was nothing strange or cruel about what had happened, as if everyone lived through things like that.
Larabee's thoughts turned to Jacob Randall. He was thankful to the man for the care and kindness he had showed the boy that he found. That he taught the teen Two Ponies to live with Vin Tanner and be able to walk between worlds spoke of a remarkable man. If he hadn't learned to do that there would have never been that fateful meeting in Four Corners.
Larabee took another sip of the strong drink and glanced out the open door. The sky was lighting up and it was almost dawn. Vin had more or less slept all night. He'd been restless, haunted by dreams but the whisky in his system hadn't allowed him to fully waken. Glancing back at Tanner he saw one bloodshot eye cracked open.
"Hey, Pard." Chris said softly.
The eye squeezed shut. "Ya don't have t' shout."
"Not shouting, Vin, it's your head."
Rolling over onto his back Tanner pressed his hands to his head. "Damn, what'd I do?"
"Helped yourself to a bottle of my whisky. Drank most of it by the time I got here too."
"I don't....oh God...." Vin moved faster than Chris thought possible as he ran to the door and outside.
Chris followed the man outside and watched as he bent over heaving, his empty stomach determined to rid itself of what wasn't even there anymore. Finally the painful retching stopped. Putting an arm around the slender waist Larabee helped Vin to sit down in one of the chairs he kept outside. "I got some of Nathan's tea for stomachs inside. You ready for a cup?"
The tracker barely nodded but it was enough. Chris went inside and brought out a cup of steaming tea.
"Thanks." Vin managed to rasp out. He sipped the tea slowly waiting for it to settle his rolling guts. He wished it would kill the pounding in his head too.
Finally the cup was empty, but Vin sat there staring down at the leaves at the bottom. He frowned through the pain trying to remember what all he'd said yesterday. Glancing up at the gunfighter he saw the narrow streak of dried blood along Larabee's neck. Tanner's eyes widened as flashes of him holding a knife to the gunfighter's throat came back. "Oh God Chris...I..."
Larabee turned to his friend, "What?"
"I held a knife to ya."
"You were drunk. Of all people I have no right to say anything. I've been there, done that." Chris grimaced at the flashes of memory involving Buck and whisky and pain that wouldn't stop.
"I was running off at the mouth, wasn't I?"
"You told me some things about your past. Sort of explained what happened in town yesterday."
"Town? The hider and the kids, shit." That triggered his memory, made him want more whisky. He didn't want to remember anymore.
"Whisky won't help Pard, you know that. Don't make you forget, just makes it worse the next day. Vin? What are you going to do?"
"Don't know," but his whole being wanted nothing more then to mount Peso and ride hard as far away as he could.
"You can't run, Vin." Chris said sadly.
"Ya takin' to reading m' mind?"
"No, I just know you better then you know yourself sometimes."
Tanner stared at the horizon, "Them kids, did ya see them?"
"Did they look...Aw hell, I don't know."
"When I left town they were sitting on the tail gate of the wagon talking to each other. They looked fine. Not scared, or cowed. Just normal kids in town, acted like it was a big deal to them, but they weren't afraid of the man or anyone else."
Larabee thought for a minute watching his friend. "Vin, you need to go back to town. You need to face them and the older man. Talk to them. See that they aren't ... that they don't live like you did. You need to know that they aren't you. Aren't living what you did."
Vin stood and threw the wet tea leaves out on the ground. He turned and stared into Chris' eyes. "An' if they are? Then what?"
"Then the boys and US will help them anyway we can."
Tanner saw the truth in what Chris said and nodded, "Good 'nuf. I'll get m' boots and we'll ride into town."
The men rode in silence toward town. Just before they got there Vin turned in the saddle and squinting against the bright light said, "Chris..."
Before he could finish Larabee shook his head, "Don't worry Vin, what you told me is between us. I won't say a word until and if you do."
+ + + + + + +
Buck spotted the two riders first. Glancing between them he made a mental note of how tense and pale Vin looked. Stepping down to the street he called, "Chris?"
The man in black nodded and turned Pony toward the rogue. "Buck. Did you see where the hider's wagon went?"
"Yeah. They camped south of town by the creek. I don't know if they're still there or not. Were looking for some mules to buy. Tiny didn't have any but he sent them to Anamis."
"Thanks Buck." Chris nodded at both him and the silent tracker.
"Not now Buck," the gunman said quietly as he put spur to Pony's side to catch up with the already moving tracker.
They quickly found the camp site and followed the trail the wagon left. They caught up with the wagon as it had stopped to rest the old mules.
Hearing the horses the man met the riders with his rifle in the crook of his elbow. The two young teens stood behind him, their hands resting on the hilts of their knives.
Vin looked hard at the hider while Chris talked. He didn't ever hear what was being said. The hider was whip cord thin and seemed to be somewhere around Josiah's age. His streaked hair was pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck. He was dressed in buckskin that while worn was in good repair.
Vin's gaze slid past the man and rested on the boys. They had darker skin than the man and their hair was dark brown or black. Vin knew instantly the boys were half breeds. He subtly made the sign for 'hello' to the teens.
//I Two Ponies of the Red Hills Clan of the People.//
Their eyes widened in surprise and then one of them signed. // I Swift Runner.//
//I Grey Feather. Our mother was of the Thunder Mountain Clan.//
//This white man father?//
//Your mother's people?//
//They were sent to a bad place. Father swore we'd never go to the bad place. So we live free gathering the bones of the sacred ones.//
"Hey?" The man shouted, noticing for the first time Vin and the boys signing.
"It's alright, Pa. He's one of us." Grey Feather quickly said.
The man cocked an eyebrow. "Yer a breed?"
Vin shook his head, "No. Lived with the Comanche though. Didn't mean no harm talking to yer boys."
"No harm done. Charlie and Sam just need to be careful who they talk too. Name's Jamie Lewis. Light and sit a spell. Don't have no coffee but got some rabbits on a spit. Yer welcome to join us."
Vin slowly dismounted and dropping Peso's reins he dug into his saddle bags. "Vin Tanner, and that's Chris Larabee. Got some coffee here if'n ya have a pot and we can add some biscuits and the coffee to those rabbits."
Jamie looked over his shoulder, "Boys, get some water. Come on and sit a spell. We gotta rest the mules. They's old and tire easy. That's why we were in town. Hopin' to find somethin' a bit younger fer our wagon. We'd never have come to town otherwise."
Vin nodded knowingly as he added water and the coffee grounds to the pot. "It's a thing they gotta learn though."
Jamie looked at the tracker, "Yeah, it is. With their mother gone and the tribe rounded up, I took them. Won't let my boys be penned up just 'cause their mother weren't white."
Vin was surprised that the man had told him this much. Men like Jamie Lewis seldom told anyone anything. He was pleased to see five large fat rabbits on the spits over the flames. "Yer boys are good hunters," he said as the older boy brought more wood.
The boy blushed at the complement. "My grandfather is a good teacher." He said with some sadness creeping into his voice.
Vin nodded knowingly.
It was only a few minutes before they were all sitting around the fire sipping the bitter brew and eating the rabbits and biscuits. The conversation was quiet and sparse, mostly between Jamie and Chris.
Larabee would catch himself watching Vin watch the boys. He hoped that seeing the boys well cared for and obviously happy would ease the tracker's mind.
"Ye know of anyone raising mules along this way?" Jamie asked.
"Yeah, one about as fair and honest as they come. He's a hard ass but he'll deal fair," Larabee said, "If you keep going south another 25 miles, give or take there's a fork in the road. Take the left one and another three miles you'll come to an old ranch house. Man who lives there is an ornery ol' cuss but he raises good mules. Name's Jeremiah Harwell, you tell him Chris Larabee sent you and to give you a fair deal on some young mules. Watch out for that wife of his, she'll want to feed up your boys. She's from Tennessee, somewhere around the Cherokee Trail." He smiled as he mentioned Mrs. Harwell. The woman was one of the best cooks in the territory and always had extra for a man riding though.
Jamie wiped his hands on the legs of his pants and stood. "I thank ya for yer help, and for the coffee. Me an' the boys need to be getting on now."
"Glad to help," Chris said as he held out his hand. Jamie took it briefly.
Then the hider turned to Vin and said in Comanche. "You said you were of the Red Hills Clan. She who was my wife told me once that there were some of the Red Hills people that joined her band. I do not know who they were. But they said many were killed in a raid by white soldiers. They took refuge with us."
"Where did they take the Thunder Mountain People?"
"I herd they were shipped off to Oklahoma Territory. By then me and my boys were on the run. Maybe someday I can take the boys back to see their family."
"Maybe someday." Vin turned to the boys. They were harnessing the mules. He walked over to them. "Ho Grey Feather, you are a good hunter. You and Swift Runner do your grandfather proud."
The boys nodded, blushing.
Deep down Vin wanted to say more. To tell them...he wasn't even sure what he wanted to tell them. But he couldn't find the words so he chose silence. Turning back to Chris who was waiting with the horses and Jamie, Vin held out his hand to Lewis. "Ya got good boys there."
"Yep." Jamie agreed. "Thanks for yer help," he told both men.
"No problem." The gunslinger said as he mounted his horse and turned back to town. He cocked an eyebrow at the tracker. "You coming with me?"
Tanner looked around at Jamie and his boys. Then nodding almost to himself, "Yeah, let's go home." Vin turned Peso and began riding away.
Larabee followed and watched his friend wondering what was going on inside the tracker's head. He rode in silence for a while and then asked. "Vin? You going to be alright with this now?"
Vin glanced at his companion and then looked up, "Don't rightly know yet. It's been near ten years but right now it feels like it happened yesterday. Gotta get some distance again."
There was silence again, only the horse's hoofs and the creak of saddle leather making any sounds. The piercing cry of a Peregrine Falcon broke the quiet. Tanner looked up and spotted the falcon flying free and high. It cried again and Vin smiled.