Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Dana Ely and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The sun climbed to its zenith and then slipped toward the western horizon while Chris and Vin rode across the open range, shadowing a small band of mustangs. They had already driven two other bands of the wild horses into a box canyon, cutting out two of the best looking young mares from the group each time. But it was the stallion that held their attention this time. The animal was big and powerfully built. A black, too, like the geldings they both rode, but without any white facial markings.
Chris heard his companion curse softly. "What?"
"That damn lead mare is smart," Tanner replied. "She's herdin' them mares down int' the washes. We won't be able t' catch 'em, not t'day."
Larabee cursed as well. He wanted that stallion. The black would be the perfect stud for the new mares he and Tanner had been cutting from the herds of wild horses that roamed the open range of the territory.
"We'll come back fer 'im in a day or so," Vin said. "They like this area. Won't be too hard t' find 'em."
Chris nodded. Besides, he had to admit that he was hot and tired, and ready to call it a day. They pulled their geldings up, watching as the small herd worked steadily away from them. The stallion stopped, standing on the crest of a small hill, watching them as the mares continued on to safety. Then the big black stud tossed his head, swished his tail and turned to follow after them.
"Another day," Larabee said softly, knowing he would catch the animal eventually.
"Feel like a bath?" Tanner asked when Larabee finally looked away from the retreating stallion.
Chris glanced over at the tracker, rivulets of sweat making tracks in the dust on Tanner's face. Vin looked as hot and as dirty as Larabee felt, so he nodded. It did sound good, but how Tanner thought he was going to find water out here, the gunman wasn't at all sure. But then maybe he meant at the bathhouse back in town.
But when the tracker swung Peso to the southwest and headed off, Larabee following him, the blond knew Tanner had something closer in mind.
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Nearly an hour or so later, Tanner led the way off the grassland and into a deep fissured canyon. A short while later, he pulled up where a small creek emptied into a shallow pool before continuing on to eventually join the Santa Cruz.
They let their horses drink below the pool, then walked them over and tied them in the shade, pulling off their saddles to let the animals cool off and dry.
The two men walked back to the pool, which was half-hidden in the shade where the walls of the canyon almost came together in a graceful arch above it. The curve of the stone cast the rear of the pool in deep shade for almost the entire day.
They undressed there, laying their clothes out on small bushes growing in the sun at the base of the canyon wall so the sweat would dry. Later they would smudge the material with smoke to kill the odor.
Larabee knew Tanner was a private man, generally preferring the privacy of a bath in the wilderness to one in the bathhouse, but Vin didn't seem the least bit shy now. In fact, it almost seemed like he didn't realize he was walking around naked in front of the blond. Not that Tanner had anything to be ashamed of. The tracker might seem be slight, but that was due more to the loose clothing he wore. He was made of well-honed muscle, which moved under his slightly tanned skin like some sleek predator. And he would probably give Buck a bad case of envy if the ladies' man ever saw how well-endowed the tracker was.
Vin slipped into the cool water, which – as Chris watched the man wading across it to the shade –was only three or so feet deep. There, Tanner sank down so only his head was out of the water. The startling blue eyes regarded him with friendly humor as Larabee continued to undress.
"I catch you starin' at me, I'll shoot ya," Chris said when he was finally naked himself.
Tanner chuckled softly. "Hell, Cowboy, ain't no mystery."
Chris grinned and shook his head, then walked over to the pool, slipping into the water as well. He sucked in a sharp breath as the cool liquid engulfed him, but he made his way over close to the tracker and sank down. Damn, but it felt good.
"So, y' gonna shoot me?" Vin asked him lightly, blue eyes dancing with humor.
"Might," Chris growled back, but there was no sting to the word. "Folks could get the wrong impression."
"White folks," Vin returned, then leaned back and let the water come up to soak his hair. When he straightened, he cupped more of the cool liquid and used it to wash his face clean.
Larabee watched him, wondering what the taciturn tracker meant by that. "Just white folks?" he asked him.
Tanner shrugged. "The tribes understand how two souls can be closer than life itself, but not take a… proddy turn."
"The ones you've lived with?" Chris asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Vin nodded. "Saw a lot of different kinds livin' among the people… men who acted like women; dressed like 'em, too, was even taken as brides. Warriors who liked t' spend their nights with other warriors, 'stead 'a their wives…" Vin shrugged. "Weren't much of a fuss made over any of it one way or th' other."
Larabee took it all in, then nodded. "Seen cowboys like that, too, though they never missed an opportunity to buy themselves a whore when they hit town."
"Buffalo hunters were 'bout the same. No women 'round, less'n they got themselves an Indian wife, so they made do. Some of 'em seemed happy 'nough with what they had… or what they could take."
Chris noticed the shadow that passed through the tracker's eyes and wondered what Tanner was remembering. Whatever it was, it wasn't pleasant.
"You miss livin' with the tribes?" Chris asked.
"Sometimes," Vin agreed, then grinned and added, "But think 'a all the fun I'd missed."
Larabee snorted. "That what you call it? Hell, you must have as many lives as a damn cat."
Tanner shrugged one shoulder. "Reckon I used up more 'n half 'a 'em."
Chris' head dropped and he stared at the surface of the pool. "Haven't we all," he said softly.
"The way the Indians figger it, ain't when a man dies that matters, just how well he lives 'fore he does."
Chris grinned and blushed at that, hearing the unspoken valuation of his own life. "Hell, Tanner, don't think I'll leave much of a ripple behind when I'm gone."
Another shrug, then Tanner shook his head and said, "Reckon I don't see it that way."
Chris glanced over at the man. "How do you see it?"
Vin shifted, scrubbing his face again before he leaned back and said, "Kiowa have a story… 'bout a man who didn't like being 'round his people. Spent most 'a his time out huntin' or fishin', anything so he wouldn't have t' be 'round people. Didn't even attend the dances where the men looked for wives."
"Sounds like a lonely life," Chris offered softly.
Vin nodded. "Reckon it was… Then, one day, while he was out watchin' the herds of wild horses, he saw another man, just sittin' out there like he was, watchin' the horses."
"Did he shoot 'im?" Larabee asked, a note of humor in his voice.
"Nope," the tracker said, lifting a leg and scrubbing his hands along his calf. "In fact, he got curious, so he got up and walked over to where the stranger sat."
Chris nodded. "If it'd been me, I'd probably do the same."
Tanner grinned. "Hell, Larabee, I figgered y' just shoot 'im." He watched as a slow smile lift the corners of the blond's mouth.
"So, what happened?" Chris asked.
Vin scrubbed his other calf, then said, "Well, ol' Walks Alone he goes over and sits down next to the stranger. Now, the stranger, he don't say nothin', just keeps on watchin' the horses." Looking over at Chris he added, "So ol' Walks Alone he goes back to watchin', too."
Chris' eyes twinkled, knowing there was a point to all this. "And?" he prompted.
"Well, a long while after, the stranger, he grunts and points to one of the horses and says, 'That is the one I would stalk. He runs faster than the wind.'"
Larabee nodded. "Sounds like a good pick."
Vin smiled. "Ol' Walks Alone shook his head and pointed to the same horse, and he says, 'That is the one I would stalk. He is strong and tireless.'"
"What'd the stranger think of that?" Chris asked.
"He just grunted and nodded."
Vin leaned back and let his head dip back so he could soak his hair in the water. When he sat up again, he said, "Well, the two of them just sat there, watchin' that horse. When it grew nearly dark, ol' Walks Alone stood up and looked down at the stranger. He asked him where his people were and the stranger told him his people were all dead."
Chris' expression turned sorrowful, but he nodded.
"Ol' Walks Along jerked his chin in the direction of his peoples' camp, and the stranger rose and followed him back to the camp," Vin told him. "No one knew quite what t' think. Walks Alone had never been seen with someone from the camp, let alone a stranger."
The tracker scooped water up in his cupped palms and used it to scrub his face again. When he was done he continued, "But no one said a word, just watched as Walks Alone took the stranger to his teepee. They shared a meal, 'n' the stranger slept there. The next morning, the stranger joined Walks Alone at the big fire. They shared a bowl of stew t' break their fast, then they walked out 'a the camp, goin' t' find the horses.
"This went on fer days 'n' days, then moons. They caught the stallion they both admired, then another one, then several mares. They started breedin' horses, ones that were strong 'n' fast as the wind. Soon other bands, 'n even their enemies, envied the tribe their horses."
That made Chris smile.
"An' the stranger became one 'a 'em, too, even took a wife 'n' raised a family, but he spent nearly all his time with Walks Alone.
"At first the people thought theys brothers, but then they realized they had a bond deeper 'n that 'a brothers, since they hardly ever fought, 'n' showed little jealously when one 'a 'em made good.
"An' it was clear they weren't like the warriors who took other warriors to their bed, since the stranger took himself a wife, 'n' later, Walks Alone took the stranger's wife's sister t' his own bed fer a wife.
"They had many children, 'n' the shaman knew it was time for Walks Alone t' get a new name, and for the stranger to get a real name, so they had them a big ol' festa, with lots 'a food 'n' dancin' 'n' games. An' 'fore it's over, the shaman, he tells the people the stranger will now be known as Walks-with-his-friend, 'n' Walks Alone would be known as This-man's-friend."
Chris laughed softly. "Bet it sounds a little better in Kiowa."
Vin grinned and nodded. "Reckon it does."
"And did they stay friends?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded again. "They got t' be old men, with many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They saw many wives die, 'n' survived many battles. An' everywhere they gone, they went shoulder to shoulder. So it came as no surprise t' their families when they announced one day that it was their time t' die.
"They picked up their blankets, 'n' a pipe, an' they walked out to a tall hill, where they could look down and see the herds of horses they had helped make s' strong 'n' fast. There they spread their blankets, side by side, then they lit the pipe and passed it 'tween 'em. Then, when the sun began t' set, they laid down on their blankets, shoulder to shoulder, 'n' closed their eyes. In the night, the Spirits come 'n' took 'em up into the sky where they still live, shoulder t' shoulder."
Chris let the story settle in his mind, then he nodded and said, "Guess that's where they'd want to be."
Vin nodded his agreement. "After that, the people knew that there was a bond that was as deep as that 'tween a man and his woman, or that between two brothers, an' they honored it."
"What do they call it?" Chris asked, knowing that it was the relationship he had found with the tracker.
"They who walk shoulder to shoulder," Vin replied.
Chris nodded. "You think we walk shoulder to shoulder?"
Vin thought for a moment, then he nodded. "Reckon we do, Cowboy."
Larabee sighed heavily. "Ya keep callin' me a cowboy and I'll have t' shoot you, then you'll be He-who-lies-in-the-dirt."
That made Tanner laugh.
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