Disclaimers: dont own them never will. But I play with them sometimes. No money made. No copyright infringement intended.
Notes: I really struggled with this, afraid I would not be able to portray Indians the way I wanted and at least in the spirit of truth. I chickened and simply took the series way out and they are kind of a generic Southwestern Indian. No specific tribe. The Story of Sad Eyes I got from a book called "Old Father the story teller" by Pablita Velarde, Dale Stuart King, publisher Globe, Arizona 1960. I have to thank Winnie, Julie and especially LaraMee for their help and encouragement.
The trick Vin and the boys play on Dove is one my husband played on his mom when he was little at the instigation of his father. To his dying day Dad denied knowing anything about it.
A horned toad, or horny toad is a small round lizard with little horns all over its back and head. Some are soft and the two large ones on the head are sharp and hard. In Southeastern New Mexico where I grew up we used to catch them all the time. If you rub their tummies they fall asleep and stay that way until you turn them back over and set them down. They are almost gone now. Too bad - they ate ants.
Feedback: yes please especially if you like it. No flames 'cause Ill cry.
Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in October 2009.
Vin Tanner lay half buried under the rock and mudslide. The sun baked down on his nearly naked body. The force of the slide having pushed him down the hill ripping to shreds his shirt and pants, his skin red from the blood of many little cuts and too much sun with an underlying bluish purple of the deep bruising. The mud he lay in was drying out with a crust of cracked dirt on top. The right side of his head was slashed and bleeding. It was the red bandana fluttering in the wind that attracted Winds attention.
Slowing his pony Wind rode closer until he saw the longhaired man lying in the mud and rocks. Turning his pony the eight-year-old raced back to where his mother, grandfather and older sister and little brother were traveling. Sliding his pony to a stop in front of his grandfather he said. "Grandfather there is a man hurt by the rocks there."
"Does this man breathe?"
"I dont know."
"Then come we shall see."
The old man followed Wind back to where Vin lay. He got stiffly off his horse and approached the body. His eyes taking in most of the injuries before he even knelt beside the still tracker. The old man reached out and turning Vin was astonished to see the remains of a medicine bag showing between the fingers of his hand. Grandfather noted the shallow steady breaths and the dried blood that covered the face of the young man.
"Is he dead Grandfather?"
"No he lives, bring your mother."
The old man with a practiced eye looked over the young man. He was not of the People yet clutched in his hand was a medicine bag the leather thong still partly around his neck. The wound to the head looked very bad because there was so much blood. Grandfather wondered at the power of the Spirit Guardian this one had that he still lived. The sun was already turning his skin red where it wasnt covered with mud and blood. Touching the forehead of the wounded man Grandfather could feel the beginnings of a fever radiating from the still form.
He heard his daughter approach. Her breath hissed. "He is a white man. Let us leave him here and go."
"Yes, he is white, but Willow he wears a medicine bag."
"Perhaps he stole it."
Neither noticed the eyes flutter. Voices, he heard voices talking a long way off. His head hurt so, his whole body hurt. Why? The voices kept talking he couldnt think. "Please help me." Vin rasped out. He tried again to open his eyes but it was so hard, the light was so bright.
The old man and his daughter stopped. The white man spoke the language of the People. Kneeling again the old man reached out laying his hand gently on Vins shoulder.
"We will help you young man."
His eyes opening only enough to make bloodshot slits Vin squinted up at the old man, asking in the same language hed heard. "Grandfather, did my pony throw me? Is he alright?"
"Yes, rest now we will tend you."
Vins eyes slowly closed as he sighed and relaxed back into unconsciousness. The old man looked at his daughter. He raised an eyebrow in question.
"Yes, Father, we will tend him. He is of the People."
The woman set about getting the things she needed and ordering the children to build a small fire and gather wood. As she worked she worried. They were just one family traveling alone in hostile territory. Even though there was only five of them and three being children, she feared attracting unwanted attention. Her father had decided they must join a nephew and his band and had pestered the agents until the small family was given permission. Willow sighed again, she was still young and it had been four years since her husband had been killed. Her boys needed a man to teach them. Her father tried, but boys of eight and six years werent interested in the spiritual things her father was expert at. Now they added an extra burden in the form of this white man. But it was her duty to take care of him. Her father had said he was of the People, and it must be so.
She spread a hide robe to move Vin onto. She and the grandfather gently moved Vin being careful not to aggravate his injuries. Willow then began treating his wounds. She removed the shredded shirt and pants and washed and put salve on all the cuts. The cut on Vins head had stopped bleeding so she left it alone except for the healing salve. None of the cuts required stitches. Through out all her ministrations Vin didnt wake or even moan even though she pressed on the numerous bruises at times. There wasnt anything she could do about the deep bruises especially the one on his lower back, until they camped that night. Then she could put drawing poultices on them. The tracker didnt wake or react, not even when they loaded him onto the travois and started moving again.
While Willow worked on Vin the old man walked around the area where the mudslide had stopped. He saw hoof prints but found no horse or any of the young mans tack. He went back and watched his daughter finish her treatment of the mans injuries. He noted the many scars on the limp body and wondered at this ones hard path.
The youngest boy Ferret, who was six, was assigned to watch about him and to call if he started to move or woke up. The old man rode slightly ahead of the rest deep in thought. This young man was a puzzle and he needed to understand why they had crossed his path. As he body rocked in the familiar rhythm of the walking horse his mind drifted in prayer and meditation.
They traveled another four hours before they came to a camping place with water and wood. They set up camp quickly. Each person in the small group knowing exactly what they had to do for the night. Once a fire was started and the horses tended the woman and girl Dove started cooking. The boys were busy gathering wood for the night and making sure the campsite was safe from snakes and other unwelcome guests.
Vin was laid in the shade. The old man sat beside Vin and was the first to notice when the blue eyes opened. "Rest easy son, you are safe."
Vin looked around his eyes just slits. Even the dim light hurt enough that just holding his eyes open took great effort. His head hurt, in fact everything hurt and he couldnt remember how he got here. Closing his eyes against the pain he asked in the same language, "Howd I get here?"
"We found you by the trail, there had been a mud slide."
"I dont remember."
"That is not uncommon. You hit your head." The old man took a cup of water and carefully holding up Vins head let him drink a little. "Not so much or you will be sick. Slowly."
The words didnt quite make sense to Vin but he tried to understand. His pain so great it was easier not to think and just drink the water. When it was taken away he hadnt the strength to protest, but just lay limply waiting for what came next. His eyes clinched closed against the dagger filled light and the noise of the camp. Bringing his arms up he tried to cover his ears and eyes to block out the painful sounds and light. Suddenly he rolled away from the old man and expelled the water hed just drunk. Over and over the muscles in his stomach contracted until his whole body trembled from the effort. Finally when he was past the point of tears he could stop. Rolling back flat he gasped for air and again covered his head with his arms, the movement sending waves of agony up and down his back. He tried to even out his breathing, taking slow shallow breaths that didnt seem to hurt as much.
Willow walked over to the makeshift bed and knelt down. "Here young man, this will help your stomach." She gently lifted his head a bit and placed the brim of a cup just touching his lip.
Vin could feel the heat and smell the mint as it steamed. He carefully sipped the herbal drink understanding that the tea was for settling his stomach. It did taste good but he could only drink a small amount before he slipped back in to unconsciousness.
The woman looked at the old man. "He could die."
"We could be blamed for killing a white man."
"Yes, but we will make him one of our own. I have thought of this since we found him. I do not know why he was sent to us but we must look after him. I have been told he is special and must be protected from those who would harm him. I think there are many men who would. We will protect him from those who would do so, red or white. I also know there will be those who search for him, they are friends."
"How will you know the difference?"
The old man took a deep breath, "we shall see. But we must keep him hidden from prying eyes until we know. Until his friends come."
"Will he accept this?"
"I do not think he will have a choice. I do not think he remembers anything. He gave no indication of who he was when he woke the first time. Perhaps the next time he wakes he will be able to tell us something."
The old man sat quietly watching the others sleep. It was late and like many old people he needed less sleep. He watched the young man toss and mumble in his sleep but he never said anything that gave the old man a clue of who he was or where he was from.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Chris Larabee watched the moonrise rubbing his arm and shoulder absently. The town was silent and asleep as he should be, but he couldnt sleep. He told himself that he was acting like an old woman, jumping at shadows and dreams. Chris frowned at the thought of dreams. The past two nights his had been a jumble of images he couldnt make sense of. Try as he might the images would disappear if he thought on them too hard. All he had was a restless uneasy feeling. Larabee, get aholt of yourself. Vin isnt even due back for two more weeks at best. Damn you gotta stop this or Bucks gonna lock you up. It didnt do any good he still couldnt get rid of the knot in his stomach that said Something was wrong, very wrong.
If only Nathan had let him ride out with Vin a week ago. But no, Nathan had insisted that he needed to heal some more before he did any riding. " I know you Chris, youll forget to work that shoulder or youll pull it hurting it worse. Youre staying and for once doing what I say."
Vin had looked at him with laughing eyes. "Well Cowboy, it aint as if Ive never been on the trail alone before." Then with a more serious tone, "Its ok Chris. I just need to get away. Be off by myself for a while. Ill be back after the next full moon. Maybe Ill bring that stallion back with me."
"Watch your back. And if you arent back a week after the moon fills, Im coming to find you."
Vin tipped his hat before he mounted Peso, smiled and said, " Ill remember that Cowboy."
The moon would fill next week.
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The next morning Vin still hadnt stirred. Willow checked him for fever and found only a slight one. She checked the deeper cuts for signs of infection and found none. Sighing she looked at the old man. While not a shaman her father was considered very wise and in tune with spiritual things, many of the People sought him out for advice. That is why she didnt argue when hed told her his plan.
The girl Dove had the morning fire going and it was time to fix breakfast. Willow watched her with pride. She was turning into a fine young woman, it would only be a few more winters and shed be courted, and married. The boys were rounding up the horses and watering them in case the grandfather decided it was time to go. They needed to move to a place with better grazing if possible.
The old man watched Vin sleep. He had become restless since the sun had come up and would turn his head away from the light. Even with his eyes closed it seemed to be painful to him. "Wake up young man." The grandfather said.
Vin could hear a voice. He wasnt sure what the voice was saying. But the sound of it soothed him and made him feel safe. If only the pain would go away. He rolled again this time his eyes opening wide and a gasp escaping as white hot arrows of agony shot up his back and down his legs only to meet and fight for dominance with the pounding in his head.
"Be still, the pain will be less if you are still."
Vin blinked trying to clear his vision. "Who are you? Where am I?"
"Ah, questions. Better yet who are you?"
Vin thought but no answer came to him. He tried to find some kind of answer but there was nothing, no words, no faces, nothing to latch on to and say this is me. He looked at the old man in panic. " I .I cant I dont know. My head hurts."
Grandfather patted Vin shoulder, "It is alright, you were in a mudslide. Your head was hit. Memory flees sometimes from this but comes back. You are safe here with us, with my family. You will come back to yourself in time."
Vin looked at the old man trying to understand what he meant. But it hurt too much to keep his eyes open. The light even in the dimness of the lodge was too bright and sent daggers into his skull. He closed his eyes, not in sleep but just to ease the pain. He tried to move, to roll over and the slight movement woke the wolf in his back. He bit his lip holding back the scream that was in his throat but couldnt stop the tears that rolled out from under his lids. Barely breathing he lay absolutely still trying to wait out the pain.
The old man could see the struggle that Vin was going through so he continued to talk to help distract him. "My grandson Wind found you. We are traveling to join my nephews band. We found you yesterday, there had been a mudslide."
Vin cracked one eye, "did you find my horse? A big black with a blaze."
"No, there was no horse."
Vin signed, Damn Mule musta run off. Frowning in confusion he added, "I dont remember." Vin tried harder to remember until the pain was unbearable and he sank into uneasy sleep his face tight.
Willow brought the old man his breakfast. "He woke?"
"Yes, but has no memory of what happened to him or who he is. I have thought on this all night. We must hide him among us."
"Hide him how? He is a white man any fool can see that."
"Yes, if they look and truly see. But if we let his skin darken from the sun, braid his hair and dress him, as a young boy, most will not give him a second glance. He has no name now, we will call him Cricket."
"Thats a childs name." Willow protested.
"Yes, we will imply he is Spirit Touched, that he is only a child in his mind. That way if we see any whites they will look the other way. They do not understand about Spirit gifts. Our people will not question, at least not in front of the whites. He and we will be safe this way. When he comes back to himself then he can decide what to do."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
"Damn it Nathan that hurts." Chris growled as Nathan gently rotated his shoulder.
"I know, but if I dont do this you aint gonna be able to move that arm at all. Now hush for just a few more minutes. Were almost finished and then you can start squeezin that ball I made you."
"What good is that gonna do?"
"I told you it strengthens the muscles and helps you recover sooner. Whats got you so grumpy this mornin? Someone piss on your bedroll?"
"Hell no. I.. Im sorry Nathan. I didnt sleep last night. Got that uneasy feeling you get just before the storm. Dont know why. Ouch, Nathan."
"Ok, Im finished." Nathan eased the healing arm back into the sling and handed Chris the homemade fist sized ball. "Here, start squeezin it. Act like its my head if it makes you feel better." Sighing Nathan continued. "Look Chris, you torn the muscles and stuff in that shoulder pretty bad. It didnt help that the night before that cowboy bounced a chair off your back at the saloon. You was already sore and bruised. Then when you got throwed, you landed wrong. I told you to wait on workin that filly but no, you just had to do it your way. You didnt break anythin, but all those strings of muscle got twisted and torn. Thats why I had your arm strapped down. But now we gotta start movin it slowly makin those same muscles stretch and loosen up. If we dont they tend to freeze into one position, so now we start working them. Weve both seen too many men who dont heal right and lose the use of their arm. You do too much and it aint gonna heal right. You do too little and the muscles will still freeze and you wont be able to use that arm at all. So be mad at me if you like, just do what I tell you for once and Ill be happy."
Chris sighed and put he feet up on the rail around Nathans balcony. He began tightening his fingers around the ball. They were stiff and didnt want to close; he could feel the ache all the way up his arm. Gritting his teeth he kept trying to ignore the pain. His eyes wondering from one end of town to the other as he worked.
Nathan shook his head. "Not too long and not too hard. Too much will do as much damage as too little. Ill be inside if you need me."
Chris nodded absently his eyes drifting toward the outskirts of town. Hoping for the sight of the big black ambling into town.
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Vin opened his eyes. The dimness didnt hurt this time so he looked around stopping at the sight of a small boy sitting and staring. "Hello. Do I know you?"
The boy said nothing, just stared at him.
"What are you doing?"
"I am to watch you. Im Ferret its my job."
"You are wounded and sick. Grandfather wants me to watch you in case you get worse or better.
"Which am I worse or better?"
The boy shrugged, "Dont know. Weve talked before like this."
"We have?" Vin frowned, trying to remember having seen the boy much less talking to him. But there were no memories only pain. "How long have I been here?"
"My brother Wind found you 3 suns ago. You were in a mudslide."
Vin forgetting his back tried to sit up but the movement only awoke the pain. His head throbbed and the old familiar ache in his back almost made him scream when he shifted. His breath came in hard gasps as he fell back attempting to gain control of the pain.
Ferret watched him, and then remembering his duty offered Vin water. "Here, Grandfather says you must drink." He carefully held the carved cup to Vins lips. Vin managed a few swallows before his stomach started to roll and he turned his head away.
"No, no more," he said closing his eyes attempting to relax. Sometime during this attempt he drifted into unconsciousness again.
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Chris tossed and turned on his hot bed. The ache in his shoulder wouldnt stop and for the hundredth time he cursed Nathan and his damn exercises. Giving up, Chris pulled the whisky bottle from the drawer and took a long pull from it. He opened the window full up feeling the breeze brush his bare chest. The whisky tasted awful tonight but it would dull the ache.
Chris took another drink looking at the setting moon and unconsciously flexed his fingers. He would never admit it, but Nathans torture was working. It was easier to move his arm. But it still hurt like hell. Chris sighed taking another drink and looked at the moon again. I wish youd come home early Cowboy. Three days more and the moon would fill. Rolling his shoulder once more he put the stopper back in the bottle and sighing looked back at the moon.
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Over the next two days Vin drifted in and out of consciousness as they traveled slowly away from the place they had found him. He was, when awake in agony and always being pestered to drink something. His only respite was to fall again into the black hole that waited for him. By the fifth day he was more aware of the people around him and was beginning to remember who they each were from one waking time to another.
In the dim light of the evening he watched through cracked eyelids as the family began to set up camp. The girl Dove helped her mother pitch the lodge and start a fire. Then Dove went off somewhere and he could only see Willow moving about. Most of what he saw didnt seem to make sense and he tried to understand what was going on.
Before long the old man came and sat by him. "You are awake again." It wasnt a question.
The old man offered Vin a cup. "Drink."
Vin reached for it but missed. He tried again and his hand still couldnt find the cup he saw. He grunted in frustration as he tried to make his hand and fingers go where he thought they were supposed to go. After another try and failure Grandfather placed the cup in Vins hand and waited for his fingers to close around it before he let go.
Vin concentrated hard trying to make his fingers close firmly around the cup. At last he had a firm grip on the cup and with help lifted it to his mouth. Only his mouth wasnt where it should have been and he almost spilt the liquid instead. Again the gentle hand guided his to the correct place and he finally drank. But as soon as the old mans hand was gone Vins grip slipped and the now empty cup fell.
He turned his head and looked at it lying on the ground beside him and slowly reached out and tried to again pick up the cup. But again his hand couldnt find the cup and finally in frustration he balled his hand into a fist and swiped at it, missing. The angry movement only woke the throbbing in his back. He turned away his stomach clucked in fear. What was wrong with him? Why couldnt he do anything? Why wouldnt his body do what he told it to? He looked at his hands lying beside him. They didnt even seem like his. They seemed to have a will of their own. Was it his hands that wouldnt obey or did his eyes deceive him? Was he seeing what wasnt there? The harder he thought on it the worse his head hurt until his stomach rebelled and he lost everything hed drunk.
Vin was vaguely aware of Willow beside him murmuring softly and gently cleaning him and the bedding up. He felt her hand brush his forehead but was unaware of anything else as he drifted again to the comfortable darkness. Willow looked at her father. "He grows worse, if he can not eat or drink he will die."
"It seems so. But I believe he will survive, he is very strong. The Spirits sent him to us for a reason. Most men would have died in the slide."
7 7 7
"Chris Larabee you were supposed to be in my clinic an hour ago."
Chris looked up from his whisky-laced coffee at the irate Nathan. "Let it go, Nathan."
"Nah, I aint gonna let it go Chris. I know it hurts, and I know how much you hate this. But it has to be done. Unless you're gonna take up farmin instead of gun slingin."
Chris glared at Nathan but he didnt back down. Growling Chris stood knocking over the chair and stomped off toward the clinic. "I hate farming!" He said under his breath.
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When Vin woke again the grandfather was sitting quietly beside him.
"You are awake again. Do you understand me?"
Vin blinked several times before he carefully nodded his head. "Yes."
The old man spoke softly and slowly making sure Vin followed what he said. "When I was a boy there was a young warrior who was hurt very badly. He was kicked in the head by a wild horse and we thought he would die. But he did not die, he lived, but at the beginning he could not move or even talk. He was young and his mother would not give up on him. She took care of him as if he were a baby. She taught him to do things again. She made it a game and got all the children involved. She was a wise woman and each of us took turns trying to teach this young man how to use his body again. It was not only a victory for him but for each of us as we helped him. By and by he could do everything he could before. Everything, except he never talked again. But he tamed that horse."
"I can talk."
"Yes, you can. But you must be patient with yourself; you may find other things difficult to do. You will not heal overnight. It is a great fight you must win before you are better. Perhaps when you win this battle you will also remember who you are."
Vin just looked at the old man so Grandfather continued. "We will call you Cricket until you remember. There is a thing you must do. There are white men all around us. I have paper saying we can go to find my nephew but you are a young warrior and any whites would be suspicious of you. If any come to us you must play the part of a Spirit Touched one. If you have the mind of a child, one who needs to be cared for, and then we can explain you being with us. Whites are afraid of the Spirit Touched, they will not want to be near you, and they will not even look at you but past you. But you must not let them see your eyes. They are sky colored and if the whites see them they will take you away claiming you are not one of us and lock you up in a bad place. I have heard of such places, they kill a mans spirit long before his body dies. The Spirit has told me that we must protect you, especially from some white men."
"My eyes are sky colored? How is this so?"
"It is true, I do not believe you were born to the People but you are one of us nevertheless."
Vin closed his eyes, the questions as well as the pain growing by the second. Who was he? If he didnt belong with this people where did he belong? He felt a great sob growing deep in his chest but before he could shame himself in front of the old man he passed out again. The darkness was becoming a welcome friend.
The old man watched the battle raging on Vins face. He knew from the scars on the young mans body that hed fought many battles. But he felt sure that this man won them, somehow. He only hoped Cricket was strong enough to win this new battle.
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Vin was dreaming. No, dont, Peso!!!!! He jerked wake the sudden movement bringing on a burst of agony. "Peso!!"
Instantly Willow was by his side, offering him a drink. She gently rolled him onto his side and lifted his head. "Here, you must drink, then I will change the poultice on you back."
Vin sipped at the liquid and looked around everyone else was asleep. He looked up at Willow. "Do you know the word peso?"
Willow shook her head, "No. Perhaps my father does, he has traveled far. It is a strange word peso yes?"
Vin blinked sleepily, "I guess, dont remember what it means, just the word."
Willow helped him roll back onto his stomach and taking to cooled damp poultice from his back she started preparing another. When she returned to Vins side he was asleep so she gently packed the hot greens on the now multicolored bruises and covered them to keep the heat in as long as possible.
Vin moaned in his sleep at the heat but didnt wake.
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Buck Wilmington burst into the stable, "Chris Larabee what the hell do you think you're doing?" He almost shouted seeing his old friend struggling to saddle Pony one armed.
Chris looked up leaning against Pony for support. "I gotta get out of town for a while Buck. Im just going out to my place for a while."
"Are you crazy? Nathan will skin you alive. You can hardly take care of yourself, how you gonna ride out to your shack and take care of you or Pony when you get there?"
Chris tightened his jaw. "Ill manage. I have to go Buck, I..I just have to." Chris stepped back lifting the heavy saddle one handed to swing it onto Ponys back.
Buck stepped forward and taking the saddle from Chris laid it on the horse and cinched it up. " I wont tell on you Stud. But I will come by later to make sure you're still standing, or sitting as the case may be."
Chris nodded. "Thanks Buck. I just need to go, cant explain it."
By the time Chris got to his cabin he was holding onto the saddle horn for support. Maybe this wasnt such a good idea after all. He hadnt hurt this bad since the day that green filly threw him. He was hoping he could manage once he got to the cabin to control the growing ache in his side and shoulder. He kept flexing his fingers trying to make the tingling go away.
Pony suddenly stopped and raising his head nickered a greeting. Chris head shot up hoping it was Vin. Not seeing the tracker on his porch he looked toward the corral. There standing by the water trough was Peso. He rode closer shocked by the sight of the usually well cared for horse.
Peso stood with his head down and holding his left front hoof up. He was covered with mud, and what looked like scratches and scrapes. His saddle was gone but he still had on his bridle although the reins were broken off near the bit. At Ponys nicker he raised his head and shaking it softly whinnied back.
Chris slowly approached the usually skittish horse and dismounting walked toward him talking softly. "Easy Peso, easy. Its ok boy, what happened to you." With his hand out he reached for Pesos bridle. "Easy Pard."
Peso watched him ears forward, but as Chris touched his bridle the ears went back, not quite flat but giving warning. "Easy you knot head, youre not dealing with Vin and I will shoot you." Despite the words, Chris tone was soothing and gentle. Once he had a hold on the bridle he lead Peso closer to Pony to get a lead rope. Attaching that Chris turned to go over the bedraggled horse to check him for injuries.
He carefully ran his hands down Pesos neck and shoulders then down the front legs and across the back and down the back legs. While he was caked in dried mud and covered with scratches he didnt seem to have and serious injuries other than favoring his left front leg. The whole time Chris talked softly and reassuringly to the frightened horse.
"Wheres Vin boy, huh? You two get into some trouble? Easy, let's get you back to town and let Yosemite take care of you." Holding the lead rope Chris turned to Pony, taking the reins, he closed his eyes gathering strength before he swung into the saddle and headed back the way hed come.
It was one of the longest rides Chris could ever remember. By the time he reached the outskirts of town he was swaying in the saddle barely conscious. Pony went straight to the saloon and stopped.
Buck glanced out the window and frowned when he saw Chris and the two horses. "JD, Nathan," he called as he headed out the door.
"Chris? Hey ol son." Buck called as he approached the slumped man. Just getting within reach Chris leaned over and started to fall from Ponys back. Buck reached and caught him. "Chris?"
Feeling Bucks support, Chris managed to open his eyes. "Buck? Found Peso at my place. I ." With those few words Chris sank into the darkness that had been beckoning for such a long time.
Buck scooped Chris into his arms and turning toward Nathans clinic called back to JD.
"JD, take care of the horses," Buck hurried up the stairs with Nathan following.
Buck laid Chris down and let Nathan check him out. "Nathan?"
"Give me a minute Buck. He dont seem to be hurt just wore out. What in hell possessed you to let him ride off in the first place? None of you got any sense at all." Nathan continued to grumble under his breath as he carefully examined Chris for new injuries.
Buck was only half listening when it dawned on him that Chris had been leading Peso. But where was Vin? "Nathan?"
"Hes ok, just worn out I think."
Buck nodded and leaving said, "Im going to see about Peso."
Nathan looked at Bucks retreating back, "Peso?"
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Buck found JD washing down Peso muttering to himself as well as the horse. Peso was enjoying the attention; he liked JD while he only tolerated the others. Buck watched for a few minutes. Then called softly, "Hey JD. How is he? Can you tell what happened to him?"
"Hey Buck. Hes ok, just banged up a bit. Looks like he was in a fall of some kind. I think his leg is just bruised a little. Yosemite is getting some salve for the cuts. Wheres Vin? Vin wouldnt leave Peso like this? You think Vin is hurt somewhere? Whered Chris find Peso? Hows Chris?"
"Take a breath kid. I dont know to most of that, Chris seems to be ok, just over did from what Nathan said. Well have to wait to ask him where he found Peso. Then maybe well figure out where Vin is. Im going back, you got things well taken care of here."
Buck Wilmington walked slowly back toward Nathans clinic. He knew he shouldnt have let Chris go this morning but hell, Chris was a grown man. But now the mystery of where Vin was had grown. The tracker cussed that horse as much as he loved him and woe to anyone who tried to hurt him. So why had he showed up so dirty and beat up? Buck shook his head, he just knew this was going to get ugly and he hated ugly.
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Vin lay on his side while Willow checked out some of the deeper cuts on his back. He felt better than he had in days. The headache was less but the throbbing in his back and legs wouldnt go away. No matter how he lay or sat they ached. If he lay too still they ached, if he moved they ached. Willow had said they would try another herbal poultice on his back tonight. It was to draw out the soreness and make the bruising less. Shed said again but Vin couldnt remember any time before.
"Roll over." Willow ordered.
Vin lay back facing Willow. "Thank you for taking care of me."
Willow shrugged. "My father wished it."
"But?" Vin added
"But having you here puts us in danger. You are a white man and if you are found here my children will be in danger. But my Father is a wise man and he, he the Spirits talk to him. They tell him what he must do. That is why we are on this journey. Now they say to take care of you and protect you so we do so."
Vin hung his head. "Im sorry. How do you know Im white, do not any of the People have sky eyes? Maybe only one of my parents was white, that would still mean I belo .I was still one of the People." Vin paused with a sigh, "I do not wish to cause you any trouble. You have been nothing but kind to me and I will repay you if I can."
"There is no need. Kindness its self is enough. I will send Ferret over to sit with you. He likes the things you show him." Before she left Willow gently placed her hand on his shoulder, "Sometimes, not often, but sometimes we do have light eyes." She said trying to ease the sorrow she heard in the mans voice.
"I like Ferret to, hes a good boy. He reminds me of someone ." When Ferret got there they continued their game. Vin would make tracks of animals in the sand and Ferret would guess what each one was. While Vin lay curled on his side, he would wiggle his toes while Ferret guessed at the tracks he drew in the dirt. It sent tingling pains up his legs but each day it became easier. With each track he drew it became easier to control his hand and make it do what he wanted.
When she had the herbs hot enough Willow laid them in a soft rabbit skin and took them over to where Vin lay. "You must lay on you stomach. This is very warm but you must be still and let the hot herbs do their work."
Vin rolled over with some effort. Placing his arms under his head he felt Willow lower the waist of his breechclout. He hated this, hated having to let anyone touch him, to tend to him. He closed his eyes hiding his face, trying to hide his shame. She gently packed handfuls of the wet comfrey up and down his spine and then placed the fur over it to hold in the heat longer, pulling it tight and making sure it covered the whole area. She felt Vin shudder.
"You must lie still and let it work. I will remove it when its cool."
"I will." Vin said through gritted teeth. He could feel the heat burn his skin but underneath the bruising was soaking up the healing warmth. Vin laid very still his eyes closed again taking small even breaths as he waited for the poultice to cool.
Finally when it was cooler he opened his eyes to the full moon rising in the evening sky. Vin frowned, a full moon, there was something about a full moon. He concentrated hard on the moon willing it to tell him what he wanted to know. But as he tried to think the headache crept back and started pounding inside his head until the heat of the poultice fought the throb from his head making him sick at his stomach until he fell into the familiar darkness he spent most of his time in lately. Gladly he went toward it, the dark being the only respite from the unanswered questions and the constant pain.
Willow knelt down beside Cricket gently testing the heat left in the poultice. It had cooled but when she started removing in. Cricket tried to pull away from her.
"No, no more. Not another one p please."
Willow laid a hand on his shoulder, "No not another one tonight. The bruising is much less. I think some sweet oil rubbed in would help more tonight."
Vin raised his head a little and looked at Willow. "Alright, just no more hot." His head sank down again and he looked out at the full moon. "Did the moon fill tonight?"
Full moon, be back the week after Vin closed his eyes, what does that mean? Willow was massaging his back where it hurt the worst. Her strong hands kneading the tight muscles and making them relax under her ministrations. Vin sighed at the relaxing of his back muscles feeling the results down to his toes. He turned his head and watched the moon rise higher. Then there was something blocking the moonlight. Vin blinked and stared harder. It was the shape of a man, hat covering his face and long dark coat hiding his shape. Then as the figure stepped closer the light flashed on silver conchos at his hip. Vin reached out toward the aberration wanting more then anything to touch it, to name it, knowing somehow that this person was his safe haven.
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Chris slowly opened his eyes and looked around. Nathans again, it was night, but the bright moonlight let him see around the room. He looked out the window at the raising moon. It was full tonight. Where are you cowboy? What happened? Then as if sending a message out by thought, dont worry cowboy, Peso and Ill find you, somehow, well find you. Chris felt chill down his spine he reached out toward the window, swallowing the fear that rose he whispered aloud. "We will find you."
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Vin watched the sun rise. He tried moving various limbs, testing once again how much he could move before the pain became unbearable. It seems today he could move a little more. He hated having to depend on the others for every need. Once again he searched his mind also trying to remember something, anything from before now. Fuzzy pictures came to him of running and playing with other half naked boys, racing ponies and trapping small game for supper. None of the faces were clear and the voices were far off and he couldnt quite understand what they said.
Vin looked down at his hands, seeing them clearer than before. They were a mans hands full of calluses and scars and brown from the sun. Where were the years that were between now and the memories he had? Who was he? Where did he come from? The more he tried to answer these questions the tighter the knot in his stomach got, until clinching his fists he closed his eyes and his mind to these thoughts. He rolled over and lay flat on his back and the slowly bending the knee lifted one leg and then the other, stretching his muscles and testing his back to see if he could stand the movement. He gritted his teeth but wrapped his arms around one leg and carefully pulled it down to his stomach. Then repeated the movement with the other. He felt the sweat break out and cover his face and his breathing increase but he wouldnt stop going back and forth from one leg to the other until he had tears running from his eyes.
Willow came into the lodge and saw what Vin was doing. "Stop that. Do you wish to undo all the good we have done for you back?"
Vins lower lip pushed out and his eyes flashed in anger. "Woman, I wish only to walk again and be done with your ministrations."
"Then be still and do not push yourself so hard. You will heal, but it will take time."
Vin dropped his leg and pounded his fists into the ground in frustration. "Cant breath in here, cant ."
Willow losing her anger said softly. "Cricket, we are staying here for today. Perhaps if you are strong enough later we can try to stand."
Blue eyes instantly went from anger to pleading. "Really?"
"Really, I have sent Wind on an errand and if he finds what I sent him for, well, well see."
Vin grinned up at Willow forgetting his sudden anger. "Thank you."
Once Wind and his grandfather were back they and Willow carefully helped Vin outside. Standing Vin bit his lip trying to keep his balance but the ground kept swaying like a ship at sea and wouldnt be still.
When Vin seemed to have his balance the old man called, "Wind?"
Vin looked up as Wind came closer he was carrying a long pole, almost as tall as Vin and as thick around as his wrist. It looked sturdy and was straight. Frowning Vin looked at Grandfather.
"It is for you to help you get around."
Vin took his arm from around Willows neck and reached for the pole. Feeling its sturdiness and smoothness he could see lots of work went into making it for him. "Thank you," he whispered. Grasping the staff firmly and bringing it closer to him, Vin slowly let go of Grandfather and stood on his own. He was unsteady as a newborn foal, and his back protested but he was smiling. He carefully took a step forward, then another. By the third step everyone was smiling and clapping hands.
Then before his triumph turned into failure, Willow went to him and helped him sit down. "Not to much, you must heal. Falling would not help."
Vin was too happy to argue, hed walked, more or less on his own, and although his back was protesting it wasnt screaming. He grinned his happiness up at Willow. Dove pushed a pack for him to lean against.
"Stay there, I will bring you something to eat and some more healing tea."
"Horse piss" Vin said in English.
"What?" Willow asked frowning at the strange word.
Confusion! Vin looked at Willow, "I I dont know. The word just came to me. Grandfather?"
The old man shrugged, "It sounded like a white word, maybe?"
Vin sipped the tea, where had that strange word come from? What did it mean? He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep only to wake startled by a strange dream. He was riding a big black with a white blaze and his brothers surrounded him, but he couldnt see their faces. When he looked at the rider next to him, the sun flashed on the silver conchos at the riders hip. The word BROTHERS? echoed in his mind.
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Nathan watched as Chris dreamed. He had had a restless night and even though he didnt admit it Nathan knew that he was in pain. Not only from his shoulder but also from not knowing what had happened to Vin. They all knew that something had happened because Peso would never have been left alone and in the shape he was in, if Vin could help it.
Chris mumbled in his sleep and sweat popped out on his forehead. He tossed his head and reached out toward something only he could see. Then with sudden despair showing on his face, his hand dropped to the side of the bed and green eyes opened. He looked around the clinic and at Nathan, but he had no words to describe what he was feeling. Nothing could make the heaviness in his chest any less. Vin, something was wrong with Vin.
Nathan wanting as always to ease the pain he saw in Chris eyes started to speak. But could think of nothing to say. He reached out and laying his hand on Chris arm squeezed. Hoping the action would in some way convey the reassurance he wanted to give. "Well go lookin tomorrow Chris."
Chris Larabee gritted his teeth, "Today." He growled out.
Nathan shook his head, "Tomorrow, if I think youre up to it. It wont do no good to take off and then have to come back carryin you 'cause you collapsed on the trail."
Chris tried his glare, "I m grown man Nathan, I know when Im ready."
"Sure you do Chris, thats why you collapsed when you rode into town yesterday evenin."
Chris stared at Nathan, then signing relaxed. "I hate this."
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Vin was walking, or hobbling along with the boys and Dove. The walking strengthened his
back as well as gave him something to do. They were walking along the edge of a deep arroyo when Vin saw the cowboys ride up to where Grandfather and Willow were riding. He signaled and couched down watching. He slammed his hand down in the air signaling the boys and Dove to crouch down too. His heart beat faster and his breath suddenly came in gasps as the unnamed fear clinched his stomach.
"Dove, you stay here no matter what. Get low in the bottom of the arroyo. Boys you must stay back and out of sight. You might be needed to protect Dove." Vin shook the sudden appearance of terrifying images of blood and screaming. "If they if it seems they will hurt Grandfather or your mother run, separate and run and hide. Be sure to lead them away from Dove."
The three children nodded. Dove found a bushy place under the edge of the arroyo where she could hide and watch. The boys scattered crouching behind the gray green bushes seemingly to disappear.
Vin watched studying the three cowboys. Somehow he didnt think the men meant any harm. Their attitude and the way they moved was belligerent but not hateful. He must keep them from getting deadly. Vin looked around and under a near by bush was a huge horned toad. Grabbling it and rubbing its belly until it was still Vin left his staff and stumbled forward. Going toward the cowboys scared him more than anything he could remember.
The three cowboys were bored. Theyd been riding looking for strays for almost a week and had heard each others jokes and stories at least 3 times over. When Tommy Jo saw the old Indian man and the woman he though it would be a break from the boredom.
"Spud, let's go have some fun." Spud the youngest of the three grinned. "Sure Tommy."
Tommy led the way pulling to a stop in front of the Indians. "Hey ol man where you goin?"
Grandfather stopped his horse and sat quietly. Willow watched keeping herself from looking around for her children.
Vins leg dragged some and he let it show more than he would have normally. He even let the pain of moving without the support of the staff show on his face. Hopefully making himself sound very young he called. "Grandfather look what I found."
At the sound of his voice the cowboys turned. Coming toward them was an almost naked young Indian man. He walked funny dragging one leg. In his hands was the biggest horned toad theyd ever seen.
The old man jumped from his horse. Walking toward Vin, playing his part, "Cricket, Thats a very nice Toad."
Vin his head down looking at the toad while he rubbed its tummy furtively looked through his hair at the placement of each person. Then as if seeing the cowboys for the first time let out a small scream falling to the ground he covered his head with his arms. Saying over and over a word that sounded to the cowboys very much like devils.
Jason looked at the frightened man and suddenly remembered his baby brother who never grew up.. "God Tommy Jo leave them be. They got enough trouble."
Tommy spit trying to get rid of the bad taste in his mouth. "Yeah, let go." The three cowboys rode away avoiding looking at the pitiful man and the old man comforting him.
Vin peeked between his fingers. "It worked? Grandfather? They ride away?"
"Yes. You did well. Where are the children?"
"I told them to hide in the arroyo."
Willow turned her horse and rode over calling "You can come out now its safe."
Grandfather looked at Vin carefully. "Are you alright? That was a very brave thing for you to do."
"Im fine." Vin looked away staring into the dust left by the cowboys. "I couldnt let it happen again." He almost whispered.
"Let what happen again?"
Vin looked back at Grandfather. "I I dont know. Something bad something very bad." He started rubbing his temples. He closed his eyes as the pain in his head increased.
Seeing Vins pain and distress the old man said, "Come Cricket. Lay down on the travois, you have done enough for today."
Unresisting Vin let the elder lead him over and lay him down. He sighed in relief as the cool damp cloth was laid across his eyes. Before they were moving again he slept.
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Buck shook his head in wonder, could anything else happen. He looked up at the clinic door knowing he was going to have to tell Chris about the telegram. Hed almost rather get shot. Instead he walked up the stairs and entered to find Chris sitting on the bed dressed.
"Hey Stud, youre looking better."
"Sure I am, whats up?"
Buck cleared his throat, "got a telegram from the Judge."
Chris held his hand out, "and?"
"And the Judge needs four of us here in town for the next week or so."
Chris looked past Buck, thinking. "Then Ill go alone."
"No you wont. Josiah said hed go. Nathan would, but Mrs. Romero is due any day and hes worried about her. So we decided, its you and Josiah."
Buck stood straighter, "Yea, we talked it over and we decided."
"Do I get a say?"
"Not this time Stud, youre out numbered and in the shape youre in you cant go alone."
Chris knew Buck was right; he just hated to admit it. "Fine Im leaving as soon as I get saddled up."
Grinning Buck nodded. "Josiahll be ready."
When Chris got to the stable Josiah was waiting with Pony saddled and Peso on a long lead. Chris simply nodded and gathering the reins mounted.
"Which way Brother."
Chris eyed the distant horizon. "Vin said one time he wanted to go up in the Caballos. Said Chanu told him of a big horse herd running up there lead by a big paint stallion. Said he had a hankering to see that stallion. I guess well head that way."
Josiah nodded. "Heard theyve had some pretty good rains up there the last few weeks. Folks passing through have talked about the wash outs all over the hills."
Chris nodded and turned Pony heading out of town, leading Peso.
Nathan stood by the clinic stairs watching, "Ya remember what I told ya to do Chris Larabee, I told Josiah what to do too." He called out to Chris and Josiah as they rode past.
Chris ignored him as he rode on by.
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Vin leaned back his head looking at the sky. Everyone in camp had something to do but him. A deep-seated frustration crawled through him making ready to jump out of his skin. He hated being helpless and he hated doing nothing. Grandfather lead Winds pony over to where Vin sat.
"We will travel today. There is a place we should come to before dark. There is a spring and grazing and trees. It is a good place and we will stay there a day or two. Rest the horses, let Willow gather her herbs ."
"And give me time to heal some more?"
"That is another reason, but not the only one. If you wish you may try riding Winds pony today."
Vins eyes lit up.
"But, you must say when it becomes to hard. Do not bother to protest, it will become to hard and you must ride on the travois again."
Vin awkwardly got to his feet and the old man gave him a leg up. He settled himself and felt sure he could ride all day. But within an hour the constant rocking motion made his back began to ache and by the time they stopped for a noonday rest and meal he was pale and sweating from the pain. His lips tightly clinched to keep the moans inside. Wind had to lift his right leg for him in order for him to slide off the horse. When his feet touched the ground his knees gave and he would have fallen if Willow hadnt caught him. She half carried him to the travois and helped him lay down.
Shaking her head and clucking her tongue "Foolish man. You never know when to say enough. Does your head hurt also or only your back?"
Vin clenched his eyes shut; "Im fine."
Willow snorted, not bothering to answer and went to get some tea shed made that morning. She knew shed need it. Shed never met a man that had any sense when it came to being hurt. Bringing the container back she sat and lifted Vins head so he could sip the cool liquid. Men were all the same they always said they were fine while they were not. Vin sipped a small amount of the tea before his stomach rebelled, which brought on the new headache.
He looked up at her afterward. "Maybe not fine. My head hurts. I .I dont feel ." Before Vin could finish his eyes rolled up in his head and he went limp in Willows arms.
Willow shaded his head and looked at the others, "we can go on now. He will feel nothing for a while."
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Grandfather watched for the entrance to the small canyon he wanted. It was hard to spot and hid the valuable fact that it had water in it. There was a small spring at the back. Fresh cool water that trickled out between rocks and before it flowed outside the canyon entrance it dried up. Unless you knew of the spring no one would consider going inside the canyons confines to camp. But he knew that there were trees and grass for the horses and lots of small game for the boys to hunt. They were coming to the hardest part of their journey and the horses needed to rest and they needed to stock up on food and water while they waited for Cricket to either get better or die. He didnt really think he would die, but life was fickle and hed learned long ago not to try to second-guess it.
He liked the young man, learned much of his character watching him battle his pain and confusion. He thought on the things hed heard while Cricket slept, mumbling for the most part things he couldnt understand but he would catch a word or two. He had learned of Cricket being forced from his life with the People. Of his pain and anger. The old man shook his head why couldnt the white man understand that some things should be left alone. It was an arrogance that they would some day pay for, if not in this life then in the next.
But what had happened between now and the time he was separated from the People? There were not so many as 10 years. Of those years there were no words, only tight-lipped grimaces. Only when he said the word Chris did his face relax and his breathing become slow and restful. This magic word, what did it mean. Was it a person, a place? For the first time the old man wished his English were better. He knew that it was a white word but its meaning eluded him.
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Chris and Josiah rode silently. The easy silence was comfortable to both men each lost in their own thoughts. They rested only when Josiah insisted because of the horses and at night Chris seemed never to sleep. On more than one occasion Josiah would wake hearing Chris talking to Peso, standing beside him smoking. Chris was always the first up and the last to lie down. But Josiah being a wise man said nothing and simply watched over his friend.
It took three days to reach the edge of the mountain range called Caballo. Then came the hard part, finding where Vin went in or if he did. They stopped at a small Mexican village. Josiah approached the group of old men sitting in the shade of the cantina. "Please, does anyone speak English?" He asked in halting Spanish.
One old man stood. "I do Senior. What is it you wish to ask?"
"Some time ago a friend of ours went looking for the big wild horse herd in the mountains. We were wondering if youd seen him. Longhaired fella, in buckskin, rides a big black with a blaze. That big black." He pointed to Peso.
The old man squinted at the horse and back at Josiah, "Maybe so, a man ride threw like that."
"If a man did, looking for those horses, which way would he go into the mountains?"
The old man turned and conferred with his friends in rapid Spanish. "There is a canyon, maybe so a half days ride. This herd has been seen there, Que no?"
The other men nodded "Si."
"You will know it Senor, there was a mudslide, three maybe four weeks ago."
Josiah touched the tip of his had. "Gracias, Thank you." And he and Chris turned again toward the mountains.
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Josiah stood back watching and waiting for the enviable blowup that would come. The rock and mudslide had been huge; it spread out over a mile. The mud now dry and sandy sifted and blew in the ever- present wind. Little tuffs of green were appearing in the cracks of the dried dirt.
Chris stood looking down at the broken saddle laying upside down, half buried. Finally Chris pulled the saddle out of the hard clods and turned it over. Still tied to the back was what looked like the hide coat of the Tracker. With shaking hands Chris untied the leather straps that still held the saddlebags and coat in place. He lifted the coat, stiff from being wet and covered with the mud. Chris shook it hard once to dislodge the dried mud and to get some since of its shape. Squatting down Chris laid the coat aside and reached for the saddlebags. His breath came faster as his hand paused over the buckle. Then almost savagely he tore the flap open and dumped the contents. Out fell an assortment of trail gear, a spyglass and an old beat up harmonica.
Taking in a ragged breath Chris picked up the harmonica and squeezing it in his hand he shut his eyes whispering "Vin "
Josiah took a step forward "Chris .I ."
"Dont Josiah. Dont say a word." Chris stood looking down the canyon, "He aint dead. Id know it if he were. Hes out there, somewhere. Peso survived. Vin did too. We just have to find him."
Turning his head Chris stared into Josiahs eyes he said again. "He aint dead. Id know if he was." Clinching the harmonica and spyglass Chris picked up the coat and turned to the horses. He walked stiff legged and straight backed his face devoid of emotion. Mounting he turned Pony toward Josiah. "Lets ride," and kicking Pony he started down the edge of the slide looking for any sign of Vin having walked away from the disaster.
They rode in silence each looking at the ground searching for a clue anything that might tell them where to go next. It wasnt long before they found something. Lodged against the roots of a grease wood bush were large pieces of cloth, tan cloth and blue. Chris dismounted and reached under pulling out the tattered fabric. Holding it he looked up at Josiah. The cloth was worn and stained with what looked like blood but along the edge of one piece it looked as if it had been cut. They looked around for more, but nature had done its job and there were few signs to be found. Some half burned sticks, more blood stained cloth and to one side deep ruts of what looked like a travois, the ruts deeper as they went north and away from the slide.
Chris mounted and started following the ruts. He absently rubbed his shoulder as he rode. Again Josiah chose to be silent. Lord, let this be a sign. Let us find our lost Brother. Keep him safe Lord, hes a good man and if we loose one we well surely loose a second brother too.
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Vin grinned down at the mouse nest he and the boys had uncovered. They spent the morning gathering pinion nuts and accidentally uncovered the nest full of small hairless mice. Chewing on his lip he looked at the boys. "You know, I bet Dove would like some help filling her basket." He looked hard at the boys raising an eyebrow.
Puzzled at first then smiling the boys scooped up the tiny mice and raced back to the camp. Looking around they found the small pouch that Dove kept pieces of flint in. Finding it they put the hairless babies in it and went back to help Vin bring in the nuts they had gathered.
Vin hobbled behind the picture of innocence. He sat down off to the side where he had a good view of the camp.
Dove seeing her little brothers in camp before a meal was ready was curious as to why. Shrugging she went over to her things and picking up her pouch she reached in. Feeling the unexpected squirmy warm something she let out a frightened squeal dropping the pouch and backing away quickly.
Ferret and Wind unable to keep quite giggled and then laughed out loud until an angry Dove started chasing them with a stick. They turned and ran past Vin. Dove stopped looking down.
"It seems my brothers have developed a mischievous nature lately."
"Umm, yes." Dove raised an eyebrow, smiled slightly. "I must fix the meal." She turned and walked away missing the twinkle in Vins eyes.
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Dove watched her brothers and Cricket out of the corner of her eye. Shed get them back for the trick they played. She knew her brothers wouldnt have thought of such a thing on their own. It had to have been Cricket. Him sitting there so innocent and nice as if he had no idea what was going on. Dove smiled to herself, she knew just how to get back. She stirred the stew that was cooking and prepared to serve her grandfather first. Taking the bowl to him she waited for his nod of approval and then went back to the fire and filled a bowl for Cricket. In her hand, hidden she had some dried chili pepper that she stirred into the bowl as she took it over to Cricket. She handed it to him and went back to the fire and repeated the little addition for each of her brothers.
Vin took a bit of the stew and after a couple of chews his mouth was on fire. He looked at Grandfather who was peacefully eating and didnt seem to notice any fire. Swallowing, he blew out threw his open mouth and looked for some relief. Finding none he took another bite hoping the heat would be less. It wasnt, he was on fire and grabbing the water he poured it down but instead of quenching the fire it just seemed to spread.
The two little boys were faring no better; they were trying to hide the fire they had but were less successful than Vin. Grandfather noticed the strange antics of the boys and asked. "Is there something wrong?"
Vin cleared his throat as best he could, "No Grandfather. Doves stew is just very warm tonight."
The old man grunted, "It taste fine, as it always does. Dove is a fine cook, just like her mother."
Dove smiled sweetly, "Thank you Grandfather, More?" Her eyes went to Vin and the smile took on a decidedly wicked gleam. "Cricket? Would you like more?" She raised an eyebrow daring him to do or say anything.
"Uh, no, thank you Dove. This is just fine." And since hed said it was fine he was forced to eat every drop. Breathing fire in and out he promised himself not to ever play a trick on Dove again. Or at least not one shed figure was from him.
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Josiah watched under half closed eyes as Chris morosely tossed small sticks into the fire. Thankful there was no bottle available and no town near by. Chris had been silent all day answering Josiahs questions with grunts or not at all. Hed once tried to talk about Vin and had received a scalding glare for his efforts. Half afraid that if he pushed too far Chris would truly shoot him he got quieter as the day wore on. And now it was late in the evening and still not a word. Sighing Josiah took his life in his hands, "Chris, I need to work on your shoulder."
"Leave it." Chris growled.
"Cant. I promised Nathan Id work on it every night. You dont want Nathan mad at me do you Brother."
Chris tried glaring at Josiah then in defeat sighed and turned around. "Go ahead, get it over with."
Josiah thanking God silently started the series of exercises Nathan had asked him to do. Chris enduring them silently barely able to sit still while Josiah worked the sore muscles.
When he was finished Chris got up and spreading his blankets out he lay down. Signing his hand went to the pocket that held the harmonica. Taking it out he clinched it thumb rubbing gently over the worn engraved side. His mind reeled he couldnt form a plan or a thought. All he could see when he closed his eyes was Vin buried under mud and rocks, pleading for help. He was so tired, but he couldnt sleep and when he did finally fall asleep he was plagued by dreams. He pretended he was asleep so Josiah would give up watching him.
While he was waiting for the telltale snore Chris drifted off.He was lost, walking in dense undergrowth. The air was thick with wet fog and little light filtered through. He was searching for something but didnt know where to turn. Which way to go, he was lost. There was a noise just ahead of him. Straining to see what it was he called out. "Hello. Vin?"
Chris started toward the sound, stumbling over roots in the way but determined to follow the sound. The closer he though he was getting to where he heard the sound the further away they got. He kept moving faster and faster until he was running, stumbling, falling only to get up and run again. Then suddenly the fog parted and moonlight fell on the figure he was chasing.
Before him stood a young Indian man. A warrior, standing proud, muscles well defined on his lean frame. He held a long staff.
"Wait." Chris called.
The warrior turned his head and looked straight at Chris with sky blue eyes. The gunslinger gasped.
Grunting Chris rolled over onto his bad shoulder and instantly sat up regretting the quick movement. "Damn that hurt." Holding his arm he slowly rotated the shoulder trying to ease the cramp. "Damn Nathan, for being right. If he didnt exercise the shoulder it stiffened and then he couldnt move it." Chris rotated the shoulder again fighting the pain. Josiah had given him a good workout and now he was paying for it.
The fire was burning down and the family had gathered. "Tell a story Grandfather." Ferret asked.
The old man grinned, " I think it is Doves turn to pick a story. Which story would you like Dove?"
Dove grinned shyly, " Tell the story of Sad Eyes Grandfather."
As he started the children settled down. Vin lay stomach down with another hot poultice on his back. His eyes half shut as he listened to the story.
"Whenever you hear the early morning call of the Deer Dance Ceremony you are hearing the echo of a song once sung to the deer by a boy who loved them.
It was pinion-harvesting time, and everyone in the village was camping on the high mesa near Puye. Men, women, and children started out early at dawn. A girl among them was expecting a child, and being young and inexperienced, she wandered deep into the woods, and there she bore her son. Frightened, she made her way back to camp but could not remember which direction she had taken, and although a search was made the child could not be found.
A family of deer came down to the canyon to drink at evening time. Father deer was leading as usual, with mother following, then the young one. The old buck sensed something strange, and after sniffing the air he approached a clump of bushes, where he found the little human boy. He called the other two deer and they all sniffed the child and licked him with their tongues. Mother deer said she would nurse the boy, and while she fed him she began to love this little human child and made plans to carry him home. This she did by laying him across the father deers antlers, and in this manner they carried him with them wherever they wandered.
As time went by the child grew and was happy with life. He was as wild as the animals and as swift-footed. He knew he was different but did not know how he came to be so. He understood the ways of the deer, for he was one of them. He knew the changes of the seasons and became aware of the dangers around him.
One year, when the leaves had changed and fallen, he was saddened for the first time in his life, because his deer brother whom he loved very much was missing. He went to look for his brother, and during his search he came near a camp where he saw being like himself sitting around a fire, making noises. He could not understand why they sat so close to the fire, for to him fire was dangerous! He heard one of them lifting his voice above the others, and it made him want to do the same thing. He tried it, but he was heard and seen by the men, and soon he was running through the thicket to escape, which he did easily by outrunning his pursuers.
When he came back to the cave where he lived he told Father and Mother Deer what he had seen, and tried to sing the song. Although they did not understand him, they listened and approved. It became a familiar sound to them to hear the boy sing as he rode on the back of the father deer.
At the village there was excitement at the news the men told of seeing a wild boy in the woods. It was decided to hunt him down, as he might have been the cause of their many hunting failures the past few seasons. The first tries were disappointing: they could not locate the boy or even a deer. At last they encircled the water hole and sat in wait for the deer to come for their daily drink. They heard singing and saw a heard of deer coming, with the boy riding on the back of the biggest and oldest buck in the herd!
As the boy jumped off and lay flat on the ground to drink, the hunters closed in and captured him. They took him to the village and locked him in a room with a very small opening, and he was bewildered and very frightened.
He could not eat the food given him. All his life he had eaten roots, berries, and nuts and had drunk milk from mother deer with new fawns. His stomach pained, but still he would not eat. His eyes grew sadder every day.
One evening he heard voices as a woman outside his room begged the guard to allow her to see the boy. At first the guard would not listen, and became angry with her, and pushed her out of the way. She fell, and her eyes filled with tears. Her eyes had such sadness in them, the guard felt very sorry he had been brutal, and he helped her up and let her enter the room, with a last warning that the boy was wild and might harm her.
As she entered she saw the boy crouching in a corner and she knelt beside him and studied his features. A deep feeling drew her to him, but when she lifted her hand to touch him he sprang out of reach. As they gazed steadily at one anther, the sadness in his eyes seemed to be asking something of her. She knew the strange boy was miserable, and she smiled gently at him. His expression did not change, but after a time he did not seem to be afraid of her.
After that, the woman was allowed to stay with the boy. She made him sandals, and a kilt, and when she dressed him she was pleased to see he was a handsome young man. She showed him how to tan animal hides and to use the bone awl and sinews of the animals for sewing. She made a quiver out of the skin of a lynx, taught him how to make arrows with flint tips, and brought him a bow. He even learned to say a few words, just as he had learned from the deer their way of talking.
Hs sometimes smiled at the woman now, but his eyes did not lose their sadness. Most of the day he stood at the small window humming his song, looking up at the fog clouds, the cloud flowers, on top of the mountain. Slowly the woman came to know he would never be happy with people. She thought of how she herself had often gone alone to the mountain and found peace there, feeling near to the Great One as she listened to the mountains breath sound. She promised herself that when the time was right she would help the boy find his way back where he belonged.
In the mountains the deer had missed the boy, too. In dangerous attempts to find him some had lost their lives. As time passed they thought his life, too, must have been lost, and more sadness came into their eyes.
One day the woman was allowed to take the boy for a walk, that belief being that he had forgotten the deer. They walked toward the mountains, the boys hand held tightly in hers, and when they turned to come back she saw the boys eyes fill with tears. "Ahi, ahi, what can I do," she chanted softly, and she let his hand go. As he walked away from her he was singing his song, and the woman knew this time it was for her.
Now it is she who looks from her window up at the mountain, but her eyes are not sad. She has just finished a water jug, on it a new design, "The House of the Deer". To her it means the dwelling place of the spirit deer, a place where he has eternal freedom, and this brings her happiness for the strange boy."
Grandfather looked around the campfire at his listeners stopping briefly at Dove and then looking at the hooded sky colored eyes. He sent a small smile to his granddaughter understanding why this story was the one shed requested.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Josiah and Chris rode early the next morning. Heading in the direction of the travois ruts. It was their only clue and there was no better choice. They came across a campground. Looking around they found nothing of interest and kept going.
It was early afternoon when they came upon the camp of the three cowboys. "Hello the camp." Josiah called out.
"Come on in." Was the answer. "Want some coffee?"
Josiah took off his hat and wiped his face with his sleeve. "That would be mighty welcome friend." He dismounted and walked to the fire. Chris followed quietly watching the three. They each poured a cup and squatted down.
"Were looking for a friend. Longhaired fella, buckskins, might be hurt. Might have past this way."
Tommy Jo shook his head. "We aint seen nobody cept that Indian family. Old man and a woman it was. Had a young man with them, but he wernt right in the head. Saw them couple days ago. They was headin north east."
Josiah nodded, " That all, no kids?"
"Not that we seen, course they coulda been hidin. The young fella come from off to the side, really surprised us. Couldnt walk good. Started screamin and callin us names. Sounded like devils or somethin. Like I said he wernt right. We rode away. Aint seen nobody else."
Chris took another swallow and stood. "Thanks for the coffee fellas. Josiah?" He turned abruptly and mounted.
"Thanks, were uh, looking for his brother, been missing a couple of weeks." With that Josiah turned and mounted, earning a glare for Larabee. Josiah raised an eyebrow, "No call to be unfriendly, Chris."
They rode on is silence for a while. "You think that could have been Vin?"
"Dont know. Dont see how but its all we got." Chris wouldnt look at Josiah, " I just got a gut feeling this is the way to go."
"Its ok, Chris. I do believe in your gut feelings. Well go this way as long as we have to."
They rode on in silence. Josiah was beginning to wish one of the others were with them. Chris didnt seem so quite when there was someone else to talk to. He started praying as they rode, praying that they would find Vin soon but also that hed know what to do to say to Chris. They man was a simmering volcano. The longer it took to find some kind of answers the worse the explosion would be when it happened. And Josiah knew it would happen, the question was when and how.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
In the darkness Chris reached for his saddlebags. There were a couple of bottles of whisky hidden inside them. Wrapped in his extra pair of long johns. Josiah didnt know about them Hed managed to stay away from it this long. But the siren call was too strong tonight. Josiah slept in exhaustion but sleep wouldnt come to the man in black. His clothes matched his mood and his emotions. He pulled one bottle out and looked at it. Then opening it he smelt the whisky inside. Rubbing his thumb over the mouth of the bottle he knew that if he started he wouldnt stop until the whole bottle was gone. Till he was so drunk that the pain stopped too, then he could sleep. Then he would not dream. Then those hed lost wouldnt haunt him. Then the Texan would leave him the hell alone. Chris took a long gulping drink.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
From a distance Chris could see three boys playing off to the side of the lodge, two younger ones and an older boy. There was a girl and a woman by the campfire while an older man sat in the shade of the lodge watching. Once again Chris was grateful that it was Josiah that was with him. Josiah usually managed to communicate with everyone somehow.
As they rode down Chris eyes were again drawn to the boys. They had stopped playing and stared at him then they scurried away like a covey of quail. Chris frowned, there was something about that older boy, but he couldnt see him clearly enough to really see his face.
They rode closer to the lodge carefully approaching in a non-threatening manner, with Josiah in the lead ready to talk to the elder. As Josiah started talking Chris stood slightly behind him. His attention wondered, only to be brought back by Peso pulling on the lead rope. Before Chris could tighten his grip the big gelding pulled free and whinnying trotted toward the direction the boys had disappeared. "Peso!" Chris shouted and started after him.
Peso trotted to the edge of the arroyo and whinnying again jumped down. When Chris showed up Peso had his head down pushing against the chest of the older boy who was scratching between his ears. Chris wasnt sure what to do, he didnt want to scare the boys but he did want to get Peso back.
Approaching slowly speaking softly he said, "Im sorry he got away."
At the sound of his voice the boy spun around, his whole body tense to run, terror written on his face. Then blue eyes meet green, and breathing stopped.
Before Chris could move he was gone, the two smaller boys standing before him as if to block his way. "Vin?" Chris whispered.
Shaking the shock away Chris looked around "Vin!" he shouted looking past the boys desperately seeking the Tracker. "Vin!?" Had he imagined it? Had that instant of recognition been truly Vin? Peso was again pulling, trying to break free. Chris looked down at his hand holding the rope and slowly opened his fingers letting go. He stood watching as the big black walked off ears at attention.
Peso knew exactly where to go. Hed watched Vin disappear. Snorting out his nose Peso walked over to the lodge sticking his head inside.
Willow went over, tree branch in hand swatting at the big horse, "Out, out you cow. Back up." Under her voice could be heard "Go on ya mule, get out."
Josiah stood mesmerized watching Peso trying to push into the lodge, the Indian woman hollering, and Chris in hot pursuit of Peso.
Josiah looked back at the old man. The Grandfather stood stock still for a heartbeat and then pushing the stubborn horse out of the way spoke one command word to the woman. She stopped and backed up, grabbing the lead and pulled Peso away.
Chris ran up prepared to enter the lodge but the old man blocked his way. "Josiah, tell him to get out of the way." Chris growled, glaring at everybody.
"Chris, calm down." Josiah tried to think of the right words to say to the elder while he tried to placate Chris.
Grandfathers eyes darted between the two white men and the stamping horse. It was obvious that the horse knew Cricket. But who were these men? Taking a breath he began to speak slowly making sure Josiah understood.
Josiah translated for Chris. "He says that is his son inside. That hes, umm, not right in the head, that hes a child in a mans body, and that hes terrified of white men."
Chris stood absolutely still staring at the old man, still barely breathing. "It was Vin, Josiah even Peso says so." He said threw clenched teeth.
"That may be Chris, but he didnt know you and right now hes hiding from us. If we back off a bit, and everyone calms down well try to figure this out. Chris??? You cant bully your way into a persons home."
Chris stared past the old man, trying to see threw the walls of the lodge. Everyone waited. With a last pain filled look at the old man Chris nodded once turning, he grabbed Pesos lead and walked away.
Josiah turned back to the elder "excuse him, we search for a lost brother. His pain is great. We will camp over there, yes?" Josiah pointed with his chin to a grassy spot up stream.
Grandfather nodded and watched the large white man walk away. Wind walked up to stand beside his grandfather. "Are they gone?"
"For now. They mean no harm. They search for a lost brother." Still he stood watching, waiting, but Vin didnt come out. Sighing he turned and went inside, only to find Vin arms wrapped around his head rocking in pain, near unconsciousness.
Grandfather was surprised. Over time as his wounds had healed the headaches had become less and less. But this one seemed to be as bad as those when they first found him. "Willow? Cricket needs you." The old man stepped out of the way back outside to watch and make sure the white men didnt come back.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Late that night Vin woke. Careful of how he moved his still aching head he looked around. In the moonlight he saw the form of the old man sitting near by. "Grandfather, why has the dark spirit from my dreams come here?"
"You know this white man?"
"No I.. no, but he haunts my dreams." Vin began to rub his temples. "When the great pain comes hes there."
"Bringing the pain?"
"No." Vin paused thinking. " No, he stands between me and the pain. Holding it back so that it does not consume me." Vin was becoming more agitated as he spoke. "Why is this so Grandfather? Why does this white man come to me?"
The old man gazed off at the other campfire. "It has not been asked before but must be asked now, what do you remember of before you joined us?"
Vin looked away from the older man. He ducked his head in shame. "I remember some things, long time ago things, but nothing of before I joined you Grandfather. The shadows have closed my mind. Even in my dreams there is nothing but shadows, I know I dream but when I wake theres nothing. Except for this shadow of a man. A man with silver on his hip."
"Yet you recognize the one in black as the spirit in your dreams?"
"Why? He is the enemy, is he not? Why is he haunting me so? Why do I know him?"
Grandfather shook his head. "I think maybe before you were hurt you lived among the whites. Perhaps you even knew this man. In your sleep and in your pain you call for someone or something. I heard this word again this day out of the mouth of the large one. Chris he called the one in black Chris."
Vin frowned, "Chris." He said trying out the feel of the word. "Chris." Saying it again feeling a sudden stab of sadness in his heart. "I .I dont know." Vin stared out at the other campfire. "I want them to go away. I dont want them here. Im happy here." His words came in small gasps as he tried to control the welding emotions.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
The black panther paced back and forth in front of the fire absently rubbing his arm and shoulder. Josiah watched. "What the hell is going on? Why did he run? It was Vin Josiah, I saw him plain. Why?" Chris kept staring at his saddlebags. He knew there was another bottle in there but he was determined to leave it alone.
His balloon of anger deflating Chris stopped and stared across the darkness to the other campfire. "Why? Josiah, why did he run from me?"
"I dont know Chris. He had a head wound. Memory is sometimes affected by that kind of wound. I dont think he remembers anything. In time it may come back. But you have to face the fact that it might not. He may never know who we are."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
The next morning Chris walked up to where Vin was sitting. Vin jumped up turning toward him. "Dont be frightened. I wont hurt you."
"Not fraid. Go way white man."
"The names Chris. You call me Chris, or sometimes cowboy." Chris added with a soft sad smile.
"NO." Vin was tensed ready to run if the man tried to get closer.
Chris raised his hand in what he hoped was a calming manner and sat down near by.
"Were friends you know. You got hurt and dont remember."
"Yeah, weve been riding together for over a year. There are seven of us. Theres you, and me, Josiah, Buck, JD, Nathan and Ezra."
"Ez-ra. Gold tooth shinning."
"Yeah. Thats him. The others had to stay back at Four Corners. Thats why theres just Josiah and me. Four Corners, thats where we live."
Vin kept listening to the strange words. Some brought flashes of pictures but with the flashes came stabs of pain. He reached up and began to rub his temples. "No. I here. Go way. Hurts." He stood too quickly and lost his balance. Chris jumped forward to catch him. "Vin."
Vin steadying himself looked up. "No, not Vin. Go way." He turned and limped away from Chris as fast as he could.
Chris just stood stunned at Vins reaction to him. He started to follow. "No Chris let him go."
Without thinking Chris spun around hand on gun. "Josiah? Dont sneak up behind me."
"Wasnt sneaking. We need to talk."
"Theres nothing to say. Thats Vin and were taking him home."
"Thats just it Chris. That isnt Vin right now." Josiah sighed wiping his hand over his face in frustration. "Come on Chris let's go have a cup of coffee and Ill tell you a few things." Josiah turned and went back to their camp expecting Chris to follow. He knelt down pouring a cup for himself and for Chris. "Ive been talking to the old man, Grandfather. He said to call him that because hes so old that hes everybodys grandfather now. Willow is his daughter, the daughter of his old age. Young wife. Anyway they are traveling to his nephews village. Thats when they found Vin. He was hurt pretty bad. They took him in and took care of him Chris, despite the danger to themselves."
Josiah glanced up to see if Chris was listening. "Anyway, they discovered Vin, he dont remember anything about his past. So Grandfather cooked up the story about him not being right in the head. It works too, remember those cowboys? Remember their reaction to Vin and the others? Chris, Vin doesnt know us, except for some kind of dream hes been having. He dont remember being with us or who he is."
Chris stared at Josiah clinching his jaw. "Then well make him remember. Hes a wanted man Josiah. He cant afford not to remember."
"You're right but it's not that easy. You cant just make him, even if he wants to remember he might not ever."
"What do you mean even if he wants to remember?"
"Come here Chris." Josiah led Chris back to a spot where he could look out of the Indian camp. Josiah pointed to where Vin was with the two boys. "Watch." He commanded.
Vin was showing the boys something. It was obvious that they were having fun. That Vin was totally relaxed where he was. One of the boys said something and Vin laughed. Chris could hear it. Vin never laughed loud. He chucked, smiled, snorted. But hed never just laughed out loud as if he didnt have a care in the world.
Chris felt the knot in his gut tighten; this Vin didnt have a care in the world. This Vin was happy and free. The gunmans head dropped and his shoulders slumped. "So what do we do?"
Josiah put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "We go with them for a ways. Perhaps all the way to this nephews village if we have to. We dont push Vin. We wait. It wont be easy, but maybe with us around, familiar faces and all, maybe hell remember. Grandfather said we could go with them."
Chris stood watching, becoming more and more aware of the ache in his shoulder. "Ok." Then he turned and went back to where his saddlebags were. Digging out a bottle he popped the stopper and took a swig. Looking up at Josiah, "For medicinal purposes only."
"Sure Chris. Want some help with that shoulder? Its bound to be stiff and sore."
"Why not," thinking Maybe one pain can cover-up the other.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
The next morning Chris and Josiah waited as they others packed their gear and prepared to leave the canyon. He noticed Vin limping more than yesterday, leaning heavily on the staff he had. Taking Pesos lead he walked over.
"Vin? You can ride Peso if you want. Hes your horse."
Vin turned at the sound of the voice. Eyeing the white man and the outstretched hand with the lead for the big black in it. Vin looked around, everyone had stopped to see what would happen. He cautiously reached for the rope half expecting the white man to grab him. Snatching it he pulled the horse closer. He looped the rope around Pesos nose and swung up. Looking down at Chris he nodded. " I am called Cricket." He said before digging his hard heels into Pesos sides.
Vin galloped past Wind shouting something that made the boy jump on his pony and take off after him laughing. They raced around the valley and back sliding to a stop in front of Grandfather who grunted and nodded.
Willow said something to them and even though Chris didnt understand her words, he certainly understood her tone and the "aww Ma " tone the boys gave back to her. He had to smile; moms were moms no matter where they were from.
They set out, Josiah riding beside Grandfather conversing in both languages.
Willow and Dove followed with Willows horse pulling the travois. The boys and Vin rode all around, Ferret riding behind Wind sometimes and Vin sometimes.
Chris followed at the end like a black cloud glaring at everybody, talking to no one. He kept watching Vin laughing and playing with the boys. His mood becoming darker as the day progressed. Finally in the afternoon Josiah turned back and pulled up beside Chris.
"You gotta stop glaring at everybody Chris especially at the kids. Youre scaring them. Ferret keeps asking Grandfather if youre going to kill them and steal Cricket."
"What?! I wouldnt hurt a kid."
"I know that, you know that but Ferret dont. To him youre this big scary white man who wants to take his friend. You glaring at everyone, especially when one of the kids climbs up behind Vin on Peso and they ride off having fun. So stop it."
Chris turned his glare on Josiah. "Nope, dont work on me no more, but I aint a six year old kid neither."
Chris sighed, "Ok, Ill try. I dont mean to scare the kids. This is hard, harder than I thought it would be. He..Vin, he wont come near me, wont even talk to me."
"Nope, and he wont not until you give a little. Call him Cricket, Chris. Its what he wants."
"Aint his name."
"Nope it isnt, but its the only name he knows right now. Its simple if you want him to come near you, you gotta give in on this one thing. At least for now."
Chris nodded. "Josiah what are we going to do if he doesnt remember?"
"Dont know, maybe Nathan can look at him."
"Nathan? Nathans in Four Corners."
"Yep. Well end up right near there. Didnt I tell you, Grandfathers nephew, is Kojay." Josiah laughed at the look on Chris face. "Been waiting all day for the right time to tell that one."
Chris grit his teeth. "Someday Im gonna shoot ya."
"Yeah, but not today." Josiah said as he rode back to the front laughing.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Chris spent the rest of the afternoon watching the children. They skittered away from him if he got close and avoided looking at him. As they camped that night he became even more quite because of his fowl mood. He looked through the wood for the fire and finding a likely piece sat down and started whittling. He seemed to ignore all the others but watched from under the brim of his hat.
Josiah and the grandfather sat apart and watched, making comments to each other in low voices.
The boys became more and more curious to what he was doing and began to beg Vin to ask him. They would get closer and closer for a better view always ready to run if they needed to.
"Cricket" Wind called "ask him what hes doing."
Vin had stayed on the far side of the camp rubbing down Peso. "No."
"Please Cricket. We dont know the words. You do. Ask him please."
Vin leaned against Peso. He didnt want to talk to the white man. It made his head hurt to think of the right words to use. But he couldnt refuse the pleading eyes. Sighing and with a final pat for Peso Vin walked over.
"The boys," He cleared his throat. The words felt so strange in his mouth. "The boys ask what yer doing."
Chris didnt stop or look up. "Just whittlin."
"Are ya makin somethin special?"
"Oh, it might turn into something." Chris wouldnt let himself look at either Vin or the boys. He was half afraid hed scare them off. At least this way Vin was talking to him.
Vin quietly talked to the boys, when suddenly Wind said, "Its a horse."
"He said its a horse."
"Well, I guess hes right."
Vin looked critically at the carving. "Its ears is too big. Maybe its a mule instead."
Chris risked a glance at Vin, "Maybe its Peso."
Vin stared at Chris, lost in those green eyes. Then abruptly he stood and ignoring the sudden pain in his back he turned and quickly walked away.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Vin sat outside the fire circle, his arms wrapped around his knees. Hed awaken from another bad dream and couldnt go back to sleep. Hed come out side to stare into the dark remembering. He was beginning to remember things he didnt want to remember, heartbreaking things that should be buried and forgotten.
Grandfather watched him for a time before he went over and joined Vin. He too stared into the darkness.
"Make them go away Grandfather."
"I can not. Why do you want them to go."
"I I dont want them here. They make me see strange things. Remember things, bad things. It makes my head hurt."
"Perhaps it is best to remember these things."
Vins breath caught. "I dont want to remember. I want to stay here with you and Willow and the kids. I want to be Cricket. I dont want to be Vin. I .everything about him is covered in blood. Ive seen it tonight in my dreams. There was screaming and dying and blood everywhere."
The old man waited. Finally Vin started again. "I remember my mother. My real mother, she died when I was younger than Ferret. Then theres a dark time I dont remember much of except being hurt and running scared. Then Im with the People. I have a new family, mother, father, brothers, and sisters." Vin stops and takes a ragged breath. "Then theyre all dead. Theres blood everywhere, blood all over me too. The blue coats took me. It it was a bad time. They cut my hair and took my clothes. They took everything that was me. Made me dress in white mans clothes, made me talk like them. Beat me if I spoke the language of the People. I cannot remember all of it. Mostly just how alone I felt. I was alone a long time."
Vin stopped and looked at Grandfather. "For a little while I belonged here with you. Now now I dont know where I belong."
There were no words of comfort for the old man to give. He sat in silence thinking and praying for guidance. "Perhaps you do belong, with these men. This Chris is a good man. I think maybe he is your brother also. Not by blood but by spirit. He looked for you long past what just a friend would do. He and Josiah stay with us. They have done many things to make themselves welcome in our camp."
"But I dont remember them." Vin sighed repeating himself softly. "I dont remember them."
"Yet there is a connection of some kind. I have seen it, when your eyes meet; your soul knows that this is your brother. It is there so strong it is like a shining sinew between you. Holding you together. Would you deny such a blessing in your life?"
"Yes, blessing. There are many people who touch our lives. Some of these people are friends some are enemies. But sometimes, we find a brother, someone our soul knows and intertwines with. If a man is lucky he finds one such friend in a lifetime. It is a precious gift from the Spirits and must be treated as such. To throw such a gift away because it is painful would be a great offence to the Spirits. You are greatly blessed," Vin snorted, "Yes, greatly blessed despite the dark times. Because you have found six brothers and you are bound together. It will come to you, the memory. But until it does, listen to your heart, it knows the truth. Your head is just more stubborn."
Vin looked away, staring into the distance. Whispering almost to himself, "I dont think I can, Im afraid." Vin ducked his head ashamed of admitting aloud that he was afraid.
" Yes, any man would be. What helps us face the present is what we have faced in the past. To lose that would be to lose part of ourselves. Yet you acted without thinking when you told the children to hide and came out to face the three white men. You did this without thinking of your own safety. You have faced the figure in your dreams. You stand up to him; you look him in the eye. These are not the actions of a coward. I think this is what you are most afraid of."
The old man sighed, "I do not know what your choices are. I have no answers as to what your path should be. I know only that you are a good man, and I think a very brave one. You must decide the path you wish to walk." Grandfather placed a hand on Vins shoulder. "I have begun to think of you as my son. If you chose not to go with these men you are welcome at my fire." With that he rose stiffly and left Vin to his thoughts
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Chris lay very still. He could hear the voices. Not understanding the words brought the underlying pain in Vins voice across stronger. Then he could hear the comfort from the old man. Vin was in so much pain. Did it hurt not to remember? There had been many times over the last few years when he would have given anything not to remember. To be able to wake up in the morning and not have to face the cold knowledge that his family was gone, that he had lost everything. Gone forever because he wasnt there to protect them. What if you could make all that go away? Or the memory of the war, buried now under many layers but still there. What if you could make those memories go away as if they never were?
Was he asking too much of Vin? I know Vin hasnt had much in his life but bad times. What if we let him stay Cricket, the Indians would protect him. Josiah said they would. Would he be happy then? Or would he wake up someday and curse me for taking away his life and robbing him of who he was? What if Nathan couldnt help? What if, what if?
Chris sat up quickly in disgust and reached for the saddlebags. Walking away from the fire and in the opposite direction of where Vin was he searched for a peaceful place to drink again. Only as the hours passed he didnt fine relief in the bottle or in the solitude. He sat alone watching the sun come up and still had no answers. Looking down he found hed only drunk a small amount of the fiery liquid.
Signing heavily Chris started to get up. Half way up he looked up and discovered Vin standing several feet away watching him. Standing the rest of the way up he stood waiting.
"Why are you here?" Vin asked in a tight voice.
"I told you we came looking for a friend."
"He aint here."
"Yes, he is. He just doesnt remember."
There was silence, Vin trying to formulate his next question and Chris just waiting. Finally Vin asked. "What if he never remembers?"
"Then well become friends again. But theres things he needs to remember, things that could cause him harm, or those around him."
Chris took a deep breath. He really didnt want to get into this. "Vin Tanner is wanted for murder in Texas. He didnt do it, but hes wanted. Some men wouldnt care if he remembered or not theyd take him and kill anyone in their way. Theres a $500 reward on him head and thats a lot of money."
"You dont want this money?"
"I told you hes innocent. Hes my friend."Youre my brother Vin, cant you feel it. Even if you cant remember it cant you feel it. Surely you can feel the connection.
Vin stared at Chris his words echoing " Kill anyone in their way " His breathing came faster as all he saw was bodies, and blood. "No," he choked out.
Chris in three swift steps was beside Vin reaching out. Vin doubled over the lighting pain once again screaming through his head. Chris reached out holding Vin steadying him. "Easy cowboy. Here sit." Chris eased Vin down to where they were both sitting.
Vin holding his head tried to slow his breathing. "No," he whispered, "not again."
Vin wrapped his arms around himself. Rocking slightly he stared at the growing light sky. "I cant stay. Ill get them kilt. Just like just like before. Just like before." The rocking grew hard as he repeated himself over and over.
"Stop it Vin. No ones going to get killed." Chris wanted to shake his friend to get his attention away from what ever it was he was seeing. " Vin!" Placing his hands on Vins shoulders he forcibly turned him to where he was looking straight at Chris. "Listen to me. No one is hurt or dead. You understand. Oh, God, Vin, Im sorry I shouldnt have said anything."
Vins eyes searched Chris face. "No its its better I know. I dont know what to do. I dont member bein white. But I cant stay. Cant put Grandfather, Willow and the young uns in danger. I .." His voice trailed off, lost in the enormity of his dilemma.
Chris looked at Vin then. Really looked at him. This time he saw the short braids and the buckskin shirt, the sun browned bear legs and feet. The old familiar leather pouch tucked inside. This man that sat before him wasnt Vin. Not really. He hoped that Vin was still inside that head somewhere but right now right now Cricket needed him. "Cricket?"
Vins eyes widened in surprise at the use of his new name.
"Cricket, theres no need to make any decisions right now. Josiah and I will go with you and the others for a bit. It seems the nephew is an old friend of ours. Well make sure everyone is safe.
You dont have to worry about anyone hurting your new family. When we get to the village, then well figure out what to do. OK?"
Chris gently helped Vin up. "Now, I bet Willow has breakfast ready and Josiah is probably looking for me too. You gonna be alright?"
Vin nodded as he got his balance. He started limping away and turned. "Thanks Mister."
He didnt see the dejected look on Chris face or hear the barely whispered "anytime Cowboy."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Traveling was easier that day. The tension that had ruled the day before seemed to have gone away during the night. The boys and Cricket would even ride beside Chris and Ferret and Wind would shyly ask questions through Cricket. Several times Chris breath would catch at the glace of the twinkling blue eyes.
It was late afternoon when the column of dust was spotted. First by Vin and then by Wind who brought it to the attention of the men.
"Theres riders heading this way." Vin told Chris.
Chris squinted in the late sunlight. "Can you tell who."
"Nah, maybe four or five horses by the dust."
"Vi . Cricket, tell Grandfather to let Josiah and me handle it if it's white men."
Vin nodded and rode over to Grandfather.
Josiah rode closer to Chris. "Expecting trouble Brother Chris?"
"I always expect it Josiah. Best be prepared." Chris squinted harder. "Armys been sending out small patrols making sure people stay where they belong. This could be one of them"
Josiah nodded. "Grandfather has traveling permits. There shouldnt be any trouble." He added hopefully.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
It was another hour before the riders were close enough to see. Chris could feel the mounting tension of those around him. Even Josiah felt like a coiled spring even though he looked relaxed almost asleep in the saddle. Vin had dismounted leaving Ferret on Peso and climbed onto the travois curling up to make himself look smaller. Chris watched in fascination as Vin transformed himself. He smeared dirt and grim on his face and hands and winking at Chris stuck a thumb in his mouth. With his other hand he played with the ends of the lashings. The transformation for man to very young boy so complete that no one would notice the blue eyes that saw everything. Nor would anyone see the long knife hidden between the bundles.
Chris and Josiah rode slightly ahead of the rest of them. Watching as the four Calvary soldiers rode closer. Then they stopped waiting looking the soldiers over. Chris stopped Pony crossing his arms over the saddle horn leaning slightly. Josiah did the same.
The sergeant rode ahead and stopped. He was an older man, by the look of him not new to the west. His eyes swept over Chris and Josiah noting the guns strapped low and then took in the Indians waiting behind them.
"Sergeant?" Chris spoke first.
"Id be askin ye sir whats yer business here with them?" He voice betrayed a slight Irish brogue.
"Just riding with some friends. Sargent. Making sure they get where theyre going."
"Ummm, and would they be havin papers for travelin? Sir?"
Josiah reached inside his pocket. "I think youll find these in order."
The sergeant looked over the papers not noticing one of his men riding around and giving the hostiles a closer look.
"It says here two adults and children. Im thinking its three adults I see."
Josiah smiled, "Well now that all depends on how you look Sergeant. You see the young man there is a child." Josiah nodded knowingly at the soldier. "Not right in the head you see. Thats why they got permission to travel. Theyre joining family to help take care of the poor unfortunate."
While Josiah spoke, Chris attention was drawn to the corporal who was watching Vin. He had ridden closer to the travois and was poking at him with his quirt. Chris clinched his jaw trying not to say anything. At first Vin ignored the man but when the poking became more insistent he batted at the end of the quirk.
The man dismounted for a closer look at Vin. "Hey Sarge, they got a dummy here."
"Leave him be corporal." The sergeant said without even looking up.
The weasel-faced corporal grinned "Sure Sarge." But he poked at Vin again, hard this time hitting tender flesh. Vin batted at the quirk again. But his inaction seemed to goad the man on. Glancing around under the cover of his hair Vin made sure he knew where every one was. When the next poke came Vin jumped up screaming and falling off the travois he babbled fearfully and crab crawled away from the man. Once started it wasnt hard to let the hysteria creep into his voice as he continued to move.
Willow had sat quietly beside grandfather until Vin had screamed. She jumped off her horse and scolding the white man went to Vin. She stood between them the turning her back she crouched down by Vin holding him and speaking softly. "Are you alright Cricket?"
The sergeant watched with his mouth open, then coming to his senses "Corporal!! Get the hell away from them."
The corporal looked up at his sergeant knowing hed gone too far he mounted up and returned to the others. In the background Willow could be heard trying to calm Vin and Vins voice sobbing.
Vin clinched Willows arm and whispered in her ear between sobs. "I hurt my back. I cant move."
Handing back the papers to Josiah the sergeant dipped his hat. "Sorry for the trouble." He glanced over at Vin "Real sorry." Then turning his horse he quickly lead the rest away.
Chris waited until they were out of earshot before risking turning to Vin.
"m fine, j.. jest twisted my back some when I got up so fast."
Willow shook her head and spoke quietly to her father.
"He got more than a little hurt." Josiah said quietly to Chris.
Chris was off pony in a flash and at Vins side. "How bad? And dont you dare say Im fine."
Vin leaned his head into Willows shoulder. "I twisted it good. Cant move." He said between clinched teeth.
Willow spoke again. Josiah raised an eyebrow. "She says we cant go any further. That we need to stay the night and she can treat Crickets back with hot poultices."
Chris looked around it was flat, dry with little graze for the horses. "What about water?"
Josiah nodded. "Willow has several skins of water and theres our canteens. Well make due." Then he added after looking at Vin. "Dont think Vin can do any traveling right now Chris."
Chris glanced again at his friend. He hadnt moved but the gunfighter could hear the harsh pain filled gasps. "Ok, what do we need to do."
Josiah asked and then translated. "She needs wood for a fire and we need to make a place for Vin to lay down on and then she needs to heat some water. Well have to move him Chris, I dont think he can do it himself."
Dove had already begun to unpack the travois and she laid out the robes that they would lay Vin on. Chris and Josiah helped spread them out while the boys gathered fuel for the fire.
Walking back to Vin Chris knelt down. "Cricket, were going to have to move you to the bed. I aint gonna lie to you about this. Its gonna hurt like hell."
Vin squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. Willow said something to Josiah.
"Willow said to lay him down on his stomach and try to straighten out his legs."
Chris glanced at Willow and then and Josiah. "Let's do it. Are you ready Cricket?"
Again Vin nodded and when he felt hands he took a deep breath. Biting hard on his inner lip he managed not to yell. But the ears of those moving him heard the moans and grunts he couldnt suppress. Laying Vin down partly on his side because they couldnt get him flat. Forcing his legs straight so he was lying fully on his stomach would be too painful.
Willow dug through her herbs finding what she needed she added them to the steaming water. In another pot she added Willow bark to make a tea for the pain. She walked over and knelt by Vin. "Im going to put the hot poultice here" she lightly touched the spot, "and here. It will be much like before Cricket."
Vin nodded, in too much pain to protest the added pain of the hot poultice. He knew that it would help once the heat worked on the muscle spasms.
When the herb leaves were limp and hot, Willow dipped strips of cloth in the steaming water and wringing them out carefully placed them on Vins back. The only sound he made was the sharp intake of breath.
Chris sat down by his friend. He saw the fingers claw at the blanket he was laying on. Carefully taking the hand he asked "Would you like me to tell you how Vin and I met?"
"Well, little over a year ago I rode in to this dusty nowhere town. My only thought was to have a drink at the saloon .."
Josiah sat watching nodding as Chris told the story of the seven saving the Seminole village. He would occasionally translate a part for Grandfather and Willow. He wanted them to understand how much Vin meant to them.
As Chris finished telling the story of Chanu Grandfather spoke. "I did not know that he was the one that saved Chanu. Word came to us from my nephew about his sons loss. He spoke of the man who helped them." Grandfather looked at Josiah and smiled, "He also spoke of the one who found his balance."
Josiah ducked his head, "Kojay is a very wise man. I think perhaps he gets it from you."
Chris continued to talk, telling Vin tales of their adventures together. He never let go of Vins hand and felt the grip tighten every time Willow replaced the cooling cloth with a new hot one. What little tea she got down Vin did nothing to relieve the pain. Even so the only sign of his discomfort was the death grip on Chris hand.
Hours later Josiah softly laid a hand on Chris shoulder. "Chris, Willow says you can stop now hes asleep."
Chris jerked and looked at Josiah. "What?"
"You can let go now. Hes asleep finally. Shes going to let him rest. Willow says you need to rest too. Its been a long night and it's almost dawn."
Chris eased his hand away from Vins watching to make sure he didnt disturb him. Reaching out for the arm Josiah offered he stood stretching his cramped muscles and then walked a little ways away. "Damn Im getting to old for this." Every joint ached from sitting in one position so long.
"Aint it the truth brother? But you did good, Vin was listening and you eased his pain some by just being there. It was easy to see. I watched Willow and Grandfather as they watched you. I think perhaps they feel a lot better about us being here now."
Chris nodded, "You got any coffee made?"
"Yeah, you want something to eat too I bet."
"Sounds good, I could eat Peso right now."
"Brother that would be asking for big trouble. It seems even Cricket has a liking for that mule.
Chris grinned, "Yeah there no accounting for taste is there?"
While Chris was eating Grandfather came over. "We must move on, there is water not far so we will let Cricket sleep for a while longer. I do not think moving will be easy for him today. He was still healing from before. This will be even harder now." He looked speculatively at Chris "And I think hard for you to see him in pain."
"Hes my friend." Chris said simply.
But Grandfather heard, "Hes my brother."Cricket was walking along a flat stretch of land. There was no one around. It was a warm summer day but he didnt feel hot or thirsty. He walked a bit further and stopped. Where am I going? he looked around again looking for some familiar landscape. There was nothing. Turning around he looked behind him and discovered a horse was following him.
The big black gelding shook his head and blew out his nose. The black came closer and nudged Cricket with his nose. When Cricket didnt move, he pushed harder stamping his foot.
"What? Ye damn mule leave me be."
Peso stomped again and pushed Cricket/Vin again. Cricket reached out to touch the horse but he shied away snorting again. "What?" Peso gave him whole body shake this time. Then pushed Cricket/Vin again. "Ok, ok, Im going. Dont know where the hell Im post to be going though."
Cricket turned and was face to face with a white man. The man just stood watching him. He had shoulder length brown hair and was dressed in tan pants, blue shirt and hide coat. His eyes were sky blue and stared right at him. Cricket gasped. "Who are you?"
"Ye know who I am."
"Youre a white man."
"So are you."
"No, Im ."
"Yeah ya are. Ya just dont want to face it."
"Do I? Then who are you?"
"Nah, thats just what the old man calls ya 'cause he aint got no other name ta use. A man cant hide from who he is. Vin Tanner is who you are, and ya got friends, brothers wholl ride the river with you. Ya have a choice to make. Ya can stay here in this nowhere place and be Cricket the rest of yer life or ya can come to yer self again. Its yer choice."
The image faded and was replaced by the man in black. Cricket/Vin looked into the green eyes trying to understand. "You have to choose Vin."
Then it was Josiah "Only you can make this choice."
Other voices, other faces looked at him "Ya gotta choose Vin."
"Come on stud you gonna walk away from all this?"
"You cant just not come back Vin."
"Mr. Tanner, the choice lays squarely on your shoulders."
"I cant, it hurts. My head hurts too much. NO. No!
Vin jerked awake, sending waves of pain down his back. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry and tasted awful. Slowly he opened his eyes a crack trying not to move. It was daylight but thats all he could tell. There was no one near by.
Vin tested his legs and back by carefully moving. There was some pain but nothing like before. He decided that perhaps he could roll over and sit up. The rolling over was easy but the sitting up started everything screaming in protest. Gasping he tried to lay back down and relax before the pain got worse.
"What are you doing?" Willow rushed over to Vin. "Are you trying to undo everything?"
"I was just trying to sit up."
"Well ask for help."
"Didnt see anybody around."
"Cricket, you are as stubborn as, as the man in the stories last night."
Vin looked at Willow. "Im sorry Willow, I know you're trying to help."
Willow knelt down and placed her hands on either side of his face. "Cricket, you're no different than any other man Ive known including my father. Now you must be careful of your back. I cant have my little brother hurting himself."
Vin swallowed hard before he could speak, "Youd let me be your little brother?"
"Yes, you make my children happy, you make my father happy, and you make me smile. You are welcome in our family if you chose to stay. If you choose to go, you will be always welcome in my lodge." She reached up and brushed an errant lock off his forehead. "You have truly become my little brother."
Vin was too overcome with her unconditional welcome to say anything. But the words echoed in his mind. If you choose." "Your choice" Then Willow faded before him and he was staring across a dusty street. His eyes found the green ones; a slight nod and they both stepped into the street to walk side by side. "Chris." Vin whispered breathlessly. "Willow, I remember. I remember who I am, who they are." His breath was coming in gasps. "Willow ."
Willow felt a certain sadness come over her. Now he would go away. "Are you sure Cricket?"
"Yes, but where you're going isnt far from where I live, I I can still be your brother yes?"
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
"Do you want to try to sit up now Cricket?"
"Yeah." Vin reached out for his staff and for Willows hand. She gently pulled and lifted until Vin sat up and then with a nod they tried standing.
Leaning heavily on the staff Vin took a tentative step and then another. While it hurt he could tolerate it and nodding he headed for the bushes.
Chris saw him walk away and followed a little behind. Staying behind Vin he came a few steps closer. "Need any help?"
"Go to hell Larabee, I been pissing by myself a long time." Vin said without looking up.
"Yeah, but you can hardly stand by yourself right now What did you just say?"
Vin finished and turned around. "Which part didnt you get?"
Chris swallowed looking into the clear blue eyes. "Vin?" Are you really back?
"Yeah Cowboy its me." At least part of me. With that Vin held out his hand and Chris snapped his in the full arm handshake they shared.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris Larabee almost shouted making Wind jump, Peso snort, and Vin slump over his now stamping horse.
"Im trying to get on my horse and get going."
"Damn it Vin you cant ride. Hell you can barely walk. Willow says you need to ride on the travois."
"Aint gonna be walkin gonna be ridin my horse."
"You cant ride."
"Dont need your permission Larabee."
Chris stood still going over his options. "Ok, if you can get on that horse by yourself you can ride."
Vin looked sideways at his best friend. Then taking a breath he jumped up landing half way on Peso. Thats as far as he got. His hands white knuckled and wrapped in Pesos mane he kept trying but could not lift his right leg over Pesos rump. He laid half on and half off for what seemed like a very long time before in defeat he slid off almost collapsing before Chris caught him.
Nodding at Wind, Chris put Vins arm around his neck and mostly carried him to the travois. He carefully lowered Vin into a half reclining position and backed up a step before he looked into Vins eyes.
The hurt and the pain reflected there nearly did him in. "Vin?"
"Shut up Larabee, aint you layin here."
"Thats right its my friend whos laying there. Look Vin, were getting close to home tomorrow Josiah can ride ahead and get Nathan. Maybe he knows something to help that Willow doesnt. But you have to take it easy or youll hurt your back worse."
When Vin didnt answer Chris squatted down beside him. "What else is wrong?" he asked quietly.
Vin put one arm over his eyes and sighed. "I when I told you I membered? Theres big holes around the things I do member I theres parts missin." He looked at Chris from under his arm. "What if I dont member somethin important?"
"Dont know, somethin, anythan that could get someone kilt."
"You got us to watch your back, until it all comes back. It will get better Cowboy, it already has."
"Aint you layin here on this thang either."
"Nope, and for that Im grateful. You gonna let Wind ride your mule?"
"Yeah" Then speaking to Wind. "You ride him, but watch him hes smarter than most horses and hell dump you if he can."
"Ill stick like a grass burr Cricket. Peso will not lose me." To prove his point Wind turned and jumped on Pesos back before the wily horse could move. Peso snorted and shook his head, but he felt the firm hand Wind had on the reins and decided to behave, at least for now.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Before dawn the next day Chris was helping Josiah saddle up. "You tell Nathan to meet us at the village. Tell him whats happened and how Willows helped him. Dont let everybody come racing out to see him. Hes gun shy and dont need everybody fussing."
Finally in desperation Josiah interrupted all the instructions. "Chris, I know what to tell Nathan. I know what to do. Stop worrying will you? You're gonna drive everybody crazy."
Chris took a breath and hung his head. "I know Josiah, ride safe ok?"
"I will brother and Ill bring only Nathan back."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Chris watched Vin closely although the tracker never said anything he could tell that riding on the travois was hurting him. He had one arm over his face shading his eyes. Chris hoped he was asleep but wasnt sure.
The headache that hed had when he woke that morning was steadily getting worse. He felt each rock, rut and bump the travois went over with increasing pain. His back ached, his head ached and the light was starting to send daggers right to the center of his brain. Sighing Vin tried to relax and sleep. He drifted in that half way place that comes between wakefulness and really asleep.Vin could feel the rope rubbing his throat the broken fibers sticking him like needles. His hands were tied and he was alone. Surrounded by the enemy. Where was Chris where were the rest of them. He could feel the rope pull making him sit up straighter in the saddle. He could hear laughter as the rope tightened.
"No. Chris?" He was gasping grabbing at his throat.
Scratching the tight hold of something strangling him. Eyes still closed Vin felt his stomach about to erupt and crawled to the edge of the travois. He leaned over the side emptying his stomach on the ground. He continued to heave until tears ran down his face from under his tightly closed eyelids.
Even with only the dry heaves his body continued to attempt to expel what wasnt there. Each convulsion sent hatched sized daggers of pain into his head and back. He could feel hands on him and was vaguely aware of voices talking to him. Finally he lay gasping for air, the heaving stopped. Vin felt a cup to his lips and sipped the cool water. The voices were all around him now but he couldnt seem to make sense of any of them.
Then one voice came to him clear "Vin, can you hear me."
"Vin, open your eyes."
"Cant hurts too much."
Chris looked at the other worried faces. "We got three or so hours riding to go. We got to keep going."
"I know. Im fine."
"Sure you are." He placed a hand briefly on his shoulder and nodded to the others. They started again.
Later Vin felt what had to be Ferret climb up beside him. He felt the six year old lean down close to his ear. "Cricket? The one with the Honey Voice is back."
"Honey Voice, you mean Josiah?"
"Yes, Jo..zi..ah . He is with the strangest white man I ever saw."
"What do you mean Ferret?"
Before Ferret could answer Vin heard, "Where is he?" and then closer "Vin?"
"Nathan? Youre the strange white man?"
Nathan frowned, "aint never been called a white man before."
Vin smiled under his arm. "Ferret said it. Hes only six Nathan. He just sees yer clothes and to him yer just a strange white man."
"It's ok Vin. How are you feelin?"
Nathan looked up at Chris. Chris frowned and shook his head.
"Dont know why I bother to ask. The truth Vin."
"Head hurts some."
"And your back?"
"Vin Im gonna give you some laudanum. Were still maybe three hours to the village. Itll help you sleep til we get there and can get you laid down proper."
No argument that worried Nathan. Vin always argued about taking medication. Unless he was hurting so bad he couldnt argue. Nathan dug out the hated bottle and poured a dose into a cup.
Vin felt strong arms lifting his head and the cup at his lips. He swallowed the bitter drink without protest. Sighing he waited for the strong medication to take effect. He could hear Nathan talking but the voice kept fading in and out until the pain free darkness took over.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
They arrived at the village just at dark. Nathan hovered over Vin making sure he was still under the influence of the strong medicine. Seeing Chanu standing back watching Nathan walked over to him.
"Chanu where can we take Vin? Hes still asleep from the laudanum I gave him and we need to move him before he wakes."
Chanu glanced over at the man whod saved his life. "You can bring him in here."
With the help of Chanu and Josiah, Nathan carried Vin into a lodge and carefully laid him down. Chris followed feeling helpless because he couldnt help lift Vin. Nathan then proceeded to examine Vin more closely.
While he was doing this he glanced at Chris. "Hows the shoulder?"
"Its fine. Hows Vin?"
" Bout as good as your shoulder. You been letting Josiah work it for you?"
"Some," before Nathan could say anything else Chris added, "It is better. Gets stiff in the morning but it works out quicker all the time. Ive worked it; Josiahs worked it, like I said I hate farming. Now hows Vin?"
Nathan sat back on his heels hands resting on his legs. His eyes never stopped going over Vins body. "From what I can tell hes just bruised some. Twisted his back good, the first time, and then this last time just aggravated it again. It aint the things I can see that worries me, its the things I cant. You said hes starting to remember stuff now?"
"Yeah, some. Told me this morning that theres still some things he doesnt remember. Was worried about it too."
Nathan shook his head, "If its startin to come back to him, he should member everything soon. Been havin headaches?"
"Yeah real bad ones from what Willow said. But she said they were getting better."
"Willow done a good job takin care of him." Pausing to listen to the noise outside the lodge. "Sounds like they got a party started."
Chris glanced out the door opening, "Yeah, I guess the old man is more important than any of us thought. He treated Vin real good Nathan. Took him in, cared for him. Not everybody would do that for a stranger."
Nathan nodded and started going threw his saddlebags looking at the herbs hed brought. "Itll be a while before he even starts to wake Chris. Go get something to eat and enjoy the party for awhile."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Late in the night, the party still going Vin started moving. Then he groaned. Without opening his eyes he tried to determine where he was. There were voices at a distance, voices he didnt recognize. He could tell it must be dark and he wasnt on the damn travois and moving anymore.
He decided to risk opening one eye.
Nathan saw the eye slit open. Hed seen Vin wake like this before. Careful not to move or give away that he was awake while trying to place everyone around him and where he was. He reached out and lightly placed a hand on Vin shoulder.
"Vin, youre safe, youre at Kojays village."
Vin flicked his tongue out over dry lips. "Nathan?"
"Yeah Vin its me. How ya feelin?"
"Dont know, aint moved yet."
Nathan held a cup to Vins lips. "Here Drink. Itll help."
Vin squinted down at the cup. "What is it?"
"Never mind its what you need right now."
"No, but if I thought thatd help thats what youd be drinkin. Now hush and drink or Ill get Willow in here to help me."
"Ah hell." But Vin opened up and swallowed as much of the bitter tea as he could. " Nuff Nathan, ya tryin to drown me."
Nathan set the cup down. "Not yet. Can you roll over for me?"
Vin thought about it, and then grunted "Yeah." He moved very slowly catching his breath when he twisted too much but he managed. When he was laying on his stomach Nathan pulled up the shirt and starting at the shoulders massaged his was down Vins spine.
"You tell me when I get to a tender spot. Its the only way Ill know where youre hurtin."
Nathan worked his way down, watching Vins face often, knowing the flinches would tell him more than anything where the hurt was. When he got to a particular sore spot Vin would finch away from him and of two occasions he yelped.
"Alright, Im finished. Ya hurt your back real good Vin, its gonna take some time for it to heal."
"When can we go home Nathan?"
"Maybe in a couple of days, Ill just have to see. Listen to me Vin, even if we do leave that soon you wont be up to much ridin. Maybe back to town and then itll still hurt like hell. And then youll be sittin around town for another few days or weeks."
Vin buried his face in his arms. "I know Nathan. But I cant stay here."
"Why Vin, why cant you stay."
"Dont want to put no one in danger. Cant take care of myself much less the others."
Nathan shook his head, "Ya let me and the others worry bout that. Aint no one goin to bother ya here. Want me to rub yer back some more."
Yeah, it helps."
Nathan smiled as he massaged and he watched Vin drift back to sleep.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Vin took one look at what Nathan was holding up and prepared to bolt. "NO! Theres no way youre getting that that thing on me. Forget it. I been doing everthin ya tol me to do for four days now. But I aint wearn that that thing."
Nathan sighed; he knew this was going to be hard. "Now Vin "
"Dont now Vin me. Thats a corset and I aint wearin it."
"Yeah ya are and let me tell you why. That back of yours needs support. It's never gonna heal with out it. Vin, it aint the bones thats hurt its the muscles around them. These here" He pointed at the whalebone stays. "Will give your back the support it needs. Ive cut it down and adapted it sos itll fit you. Give it a try Vin. If you dont you might never walk normal again. Or ride either. You want that?"
"You gonna try it?"
Vin shifted and the ache flared. "Ok, but you better not tell the others."
"If they say anything Ill hurt them myself. Now take off that shirt."
Nathan carefully fitted the former corset where the stays braced the weakened muscles. Then he tightened the lacings.
"Oh, hush up. Aint near as tight as it could be. Women wear them much tighter." After he tied the lacings he helped Vin finish getting dressed and handed him his staff saying. "Give it a try.."
Vin carefully stood and took a step, then another. While he was using the staff a little his weight was mostly on his own legs.
He grinned. "Damn Nathan, it dont hardly hurt."
"Tol ya, now dont over do."
"Can I ride with this?"
"Think so. If it pinches we can cut it down more. Vin its important that you not strain your back. Its gonna take months to heal completely and you're gonna think it's fine and it wont be. If that brace," Nathan emphasized the word brace, "works Ill make a couple more so you always have one."
"Thanks Nathan. I "
Nathan smiled "Its ok, Vin, I owe you a whole lot more even if you dont remember it all."
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Two days later the others were on their horses waiting. Peso even stood quietly with his new saddle. They watched as Vin said goodbye to his other family.
Vin squatted down in front of Ferret and Wind.
"You dont look like Cricket, you look like a white man." Wind said his lower lip threatening to push out.
"Can you not see inside my heart?"
Wind nodded his head, "I can, inside you're our brother, its just the outside that looks white."
Vin smiled "Yes, in here," he taped his chest and then Winds, "In here Im Cricket, Im of the People. I will come back and visit you often. I have to make sure you learn to be a good tracker."
Wind drew himself up as tall as he could. Sticking out his small chest he said, "I will be a great tracker. Cricket when you are old, as old as Grandfather you can come live in my lodge. My sons and I will take care of you."
Vin smiled and placed his hand on Winds shoulder. "Ill do that, when Im as old as Grandfather, if you still want me."
"Ill still want you."
Vin gave him a squeeze and nodded. He laid a hand on Ferret and his eyes met Grandfathers, Willows, and Doves. Then he turned. His gaze met Chris. He mounted and turning Peso to face Chris then Vin nodded.