Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #15, 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 Mary Fallon Zane and Lorin Zane 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 two peacekeepers rode into Julestown leading three prisoners. Stopping out front of the sheriff's office, Chris slid tiredly from his saddle and disappeared inside while Vin waited with the three men. A few moments later, Larabee stepped back outside, a barrel-chested, middle-aged lawman following him out onto the boardwalk. The sheriff looked up at the three prisoners, then turned his head and coughed loudly, spitting the sputum into the dusty street.
"These are the men, huh?" the lawman asked, coughing again.
Chris shot the sheriff a disgusted look when his wad of mucus nearly landed on the gunslinger's boot. "That's right, Sheriff. You wire Judge Travis; he said he'll come for the trial as soon as he finishes up in Landon."
The man grunted and nodded, running his fingers over his bristly moustache to clean away the last of the mucus that clung to the tips of the stiff hairs, then cleared his throat and jerked his chin toward the jail. "Bring 'em inside then." And with that the man turned and went back to his desk, dropping onto his chair, wheezing slightly.
Outside, Vin swung down from his saddle, then walked over to the first of the prisoners and dragged the bound man off his horse. The outlaw was a good six inches taller than the tracker, and easily fifty pounds heavier, but Tanner still caught the man before he fell, then gave him a shove, sending him stumbling over to Larabee, who pushed him through the open door and into the jail.
The other two men followed in the same fashion, the two peacekeepers, stepping into the office behind them, waiting until the sheriff tossed them the keys to the three cells and they had them safely locked up.
Chris pulled a document from his pocket and handed it over to the sheriff, who hadn't moved from his chair. The man squinted at it, reading the words slowly. He grunted when he finished and searched his desk, finding a pencil and signing the paper. Handing it back to Larabee, he sank back and ran his hand over his face, which was grey and damp with sweat.
"I'll get that telegraph off to the judge in a little while," the man said, reaching up to rub at his chest. "Reckon he'll deliver the reward to ya the next time he passes through; ain't got that kind of money on hand here, or I'd give it to ya now and get a reimbursement from the cattlemen's association."
Chris nodded, frowning slightly. He had plans for his portion of that three-hundred and fifty dollar reward, but they would keep until he saw Judge Travis. "That'll do," he said, then turned and left without another word, Tanner right behind him.
The peacekeepers sent a wire of their own, letting Travis know the prisoners had been delivered, the reward had not been paid, and the sheriff would be in touch. Then they mounted their horses and rode straight out of town, both hoping to reach Eagle Bend before nightfall.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sitting in one of the small restaurants in Eagle Bend, the two men shared dinner in companionable silence, broken now and again with short comments and requests for the bowl of green beans or the mashed potatoes. The plate of fried chicken was in reach of both men.
Their meals eaten, the pair walked over to the saloon, bought themselves a fourth of a bottle of whiskey, and found a table in the back.
Sitting down, Chris filled each of their glasses, then sat back and took a sip. "Should make it home by tomorrow night," he said.
"Yep," Vin agreed.
"Sheriff looked pretty bad."
The tracker nodded. "Figger he wired Travis?"
Larabee shrugged. "He'll get around to it."
Tanner grinned slightly. "B'fore they starve t' death?"
That made the gunslinger grin. "Maybe."
They finished off their whiskey, then rose as one and made their way to the hotel, taking a room. They stripped down to their long johns and climbed into the single bed, both men falling asleep almost immediately.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sunlight streaming in through the curtain-less windows woke them.
Larabee was the first one up, dressing quickly. Tanner rolled out of bed and pulled on his clothes as well, coughing softly as he shrugged on his heavy hide coat.
Chris frowned at him. It was already warm and muggy, holding the promise of a hot, humid afternoon if the rains developed. Still, he'd seen the tracker wear that damn hide coat when most other men would have been stripped down to their shirtsleeves, so he didn't dwell on it.
They headed down to the hotel restaurant and ordered breakfast and coffee, eating their fill before making their way to the livery to get their horses. Larabee tipped the owner an extra two bits when he saw that both of the animals had been well groomed. Whoever had tackled Peso was probably still regretting it.
Climbing back into their saddles they started for home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Tuesday night, late
The two men decided to stay on the trail, too close to home to stop and make camp along the way. Still, it had been dark for several hours before they finally rode into the small community of Four Corners. The street fires had almost burned themselves out, and no one was out, although the lights were still on at Digger Dan's, and, as they passed, they could hear the sounds of one of the working girls laughing near an upstairs window.
They headed straight for the livery, waking Tiny's stable boy so he could take care of their horses. That done, they made their way down the boardwalk to the boarding house, Chris bidding Vin a good night before going in and climbing the stairs to reach his room.
Tanner continued on to his wagon, preferring the coolness sleeping outside afforded him. He climbed in and removed his coat, then opened his bedroll and laid down, his Mare's Leg within easy reach should any trouble arise during the night. He coughed and rubbed absently at his chest as he drifted off to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Five of the seven peacekeepers met at the Standish Tavern the following morning, sharing a hearty breakfast and cups of strong coffee at a large table near the back of the saloon.
"Think Chris and Vin will be back today?" JD asked the others around a mouthful of freshly baked biscuit.
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra chastised, "I would prefer it if you didn't spew crumbs into my breakfast, if you please."
JD grinned. "Sorry."
"Chris and Vin are already back," Nathan said after wiping his mouth to remove the bacon grease from his lips. "Saw their horses in the corral this mornin' when I come down."
Buck frowned. "Ain't like them to miss breakfast, especially Vin – th' boy's a bottomless pit."
"Probably still sleeping," Josiah offered. "Long ride from Julestown to here. They must've ridden half the night to get back this fast."
Buck nodded. "Ya got a point there, Josiah. Hope them three didn't give 'em too much trouble on the way."
JD grinned. "They were too scared to give 'em much trouble."
"Yes, Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner do have a way about them when it comes to the more unsavory types," the gambler added, a twinkle in his jade green eyes.
"Think we ought to save 'em something?" JD asked, looking longingly at the last two biscuits on the plate.
"Eat up, John Dunne," Josiah replied. "They can always stop by the restaurant if they're hungry."
With the flash of a smile the youngest member of the Seven grabbed the two biscuits just as Buck reached for one of them. "You're gettin' slow, Buck," he teased the ladies' man.
Wilmington flashed the young man a frown, but then he grinned and replied, "You'd be a little slow yourself, if you'd spent a night like I did."
Nathan rolled his eyes. "We don't need to hear the details at the breakfast table," he scolded the ladies' man.
Buck wagged his eyebrows at the healer. "Them kind of details a gentleman never shares."
"Then what, pray tell, is stopping you?" Ezra asked casually.
The others laughed in response to Buck's hurt expression, but the ladies' man quickly joined in, adding, "Nothin' but the fact I have to get out on patrol, and it'd take too long." He stood and dropped his hat onto his head, then touched his finger to the brim, saying, "Boys."
They watched the ladies' man go, then finished off the remainders of their breakfast and drifted off to their own tasks for the day.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wednesday, nearing noon
Josiah was heading back to the church, the small bucket of nails he'd bought at Watson's hardware in his hand. He whistled a tune softly under is breath, and tipped his hat to the ladies he passed.
Drawing close to Vin's wagon, his steps slowed and he frowned. The tracker was climbing out of the back, but he was moving slowly, carefully, like he was hurt.
Hurrying over to the man, Josiah set his bucket on the edge of the boardwalk and asked, "Vin, you all right, brother?"
"Yeah, 'm fine," Tanner rasped, but even as the words left his mouth the lights dancing in front of his eyes began to explode and he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Whoa!" the big man yelped, lunging forward and catching the smaller man in his arms before Tanner hit the dusty ground. He could feel the intense heat radiating from the man's body, burning right through his clothes. "Vin?" he called.
When he got no response, he turned and headed straight for Nathan's clinic, carrying Tanner as if he weighed no more than a child. He climbed the stairs and used his boot to rap on the closed door at the top.
A moment later Nathan opened it, his smile of welcome fading the instant he got a look at the man in Josiah's arms. "Bring him in," the healer said, pulling the door open all the way.
"He's burnin' up, Nathan."
"Put him on the bed and get those clothes off 'im. All of 'em. God knows what he got tangled up in," Jackson replied, heading off to grab some powders and putting some water on the stove for tea.
Josiah did as he was told, first settling Vin on the small bed and then carefully removing his clothing. The tracker moaned softly and tried to pull away, but the older man ignored that, saying softly, "Easy there, Vin. I'm just tryin' to help you, son."
Before long Tanner was lying naked on the bed, and Nathan was beside him, trying to rouse him enough to get him swallow some of the honey-sweetened bitter tea.
Vin managed a few swallows, then coughed, the sound of it like a wet rag being ripped in half.
"That sounds bad," Josiah commented, frowning.
Nathan nodded. "Ya see Chris yet today?"
"No," the former priest replied, his brow creasing with worry. "Want me to go find him?"
"Think maybe you better," Nathan said, nodding. "He might be sick, too."
Josiah nodded and headed out, leaving the healer to do what he could for Vin.
Nathan watched his friend go, then turned his attention back to the tracker. The first thing he did was cover the man with a sheet, to protect his modesty, then he dipped a couple of towels in a bucket of water he'd brought up earlier that morning. After wringing out the excess, he draped the damp cloths over Vin belly and chest, hoping that might help bring down his fever.
When that was done, he rose and went to the shelves where he kept his herbs and medicines. He frowned as he considered several possibilities.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah stopped at Larabee's door and knocked softly, calling, "Chris?"
When there was no reply, he tried the door, finding it unlocked. He pushed it open and looked in, seeing the blond curled up on his side in bed. Going in, it only took a moment for him to determine Larabee was suffering from the same fever as Tanner.
He gently squeezed the man's shoulder and called, "Chris, can you hear me?"
"Huh?" the blond managed, green eyes blinking open sluggishly.
"You have a fever, Chris," Josiah said. "Nathan wants you to come over to the clinic. Think you can walk?"
Larabee nodded and pushed himself up so he was sitting on the edge of his bed. He reached up, rubbing at his chest, then coughed, the sound similar to Vin's. Before he could stand and get his clothes on, Buck appeared in the doorway, asking, "Chris? Josiah? What's going on?"
"Chris and Vin are sick. Nathan wants Chris over at the clinic," Josiah explained.
The ladies' man nodded and went to work with the preacher to get Chris dressed, Larabee helping more than they expected, given the glassy look to his eyes. Then they started for the clinic. Both men ended up helping Chris when his wind left him and he couldn't continue under his own power.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By the time they had reached the clinic, Nathan had pulled his own bed out from the small space where he usually slept and had it ready, close to where Vin lay unconscious. The tracker was now draped all over with damp towels, and the window was open to allow the breeze to blow over them, helping to cool the fever.
Josiah and Buck got Chris onto the second bed, helping him to undress. When he was also naked, Nathan covered him with a sheet and damp towels as well.
"Chris," Nathan said as he finished, "you and Vin spend time around someone who was sick?"
Larabee nodded. "Sheriff in Julestown," he wheezed. "But we were only there a little while… didn't stay in town."
Nathan nodded and turned, frowning, to speak to Buck. "Send a telegram to Julestown, see what's going on – how many are sick, if they have a doctor, and what he thinks it is. And ask about the sheriff. Then bring what you need and come back here. You'll be staying for a few days from the looks of it."
Wilmington nodded and left to get the wire off.
Turning back to Josiah, Nathan said, "Might be they got something contagious. Best pass the word, ask folks t' stay away from the clinic for now. Then get what you need and come back, too. Best if you and Buck stay here 'til we see if you're gonna get sick, too."
Josiah nodded. "JD and Ezra can keep an eye on things, bring what we need. I'll have a word with them."
"Just don't get too close."
Josiah nodded his understanding.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan unfolded the telegraph Ezra had slipped under the door of the clinic and read it.
"Well?" Buck asked him.
The healer looked up. "Sheriff in Julestown is dead. Doctor there says he don't think it's cholera, typhoid, or dysentery, but I knew that already. Ain't rightly sure what's causing it, seems t' me. Six folks dead, though, and he's got another dozen or so sick. Don't seem to be spreadin' past that."
"That's good news, right?" the ladies' man asked.
Nathan nodded. "It is, but a third of his patients dyin'… that don't sound so good. Says here it runs its course in a week t' ten days."
"That's a long time, fever might not have killed all of those people," Josiah offered.
The healer nodded his agreement, but then he looked at the two men who were fighting for their lives and hoped that they would be among the survivors. Nathan frowned. "Was thinkin' it's the grippe, but if it ain't spreadin'…" He shook his head. "Send a wire back; ask if the doc thinks it could be the grippe, and if they're using a quarantine."
Josiah nodded. "You need anything?"
Nathan thought for a moment, then said, "Could use some more fresh water, and ask Mrs. Potter if she has quinine."
"Will do," Josiah replied, heading out once again.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Both Chris and Vin worsened overnight, their fevers rising, both men suffering severe chills. The three men worked tirelessly through the long hours, keeping them covered with damp cloths, spooning them teas and medicines, and keeping them cleaned up. As morning broke their fevers seemed to retreat, leaving both sick, exhausted men sleeping.
Nathan and Buck made up two pallets on the floor, grabbing whatever sleep they could after wolfing down the food JD had delivered earlier, leaving it waiting outside the closed clinic door to be retrieved by the hungry men once he had gone.
Josiah sat between the two beds, keeping an eye on both men as they slept. He held his Bible in his hands, reading or reciting passages as he prayed for them.
Vin moaned softly and Josiah stopped mid-prayer, waiting to see if the tracker would wake enough to take some of the tea the Indians used to treat fevers. But the tracker only began to mutter softly in one of the Indian languages he spoke.
The former priest and preacher cocked his head to the side as he listened, the words rekindling the spark of an old memory, long forgotten. He'd heard those same words before, but where?
His brow creased with concentration.
Yes, he was sure of it. He had definitely heard those words, those exact words, once before, many years before… at a fort in the middle of nowhere, where he'd stopped on the way to Indian Territory. He had planned to seek out a Cherokee holy man he'd read about in a newspaper…
The memory tickled at his awareness, slipping away, just out of reach for several long moments, then he was able to grab onto it.
There had been a boy, a white boy, who had been living among the Kiowa… Josiah's eyes widened as he remembered…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Camp Runnels in the Comancheria, 1858
The camp buzzed with activity, Army soldiers and Texas Rangers trying to deal with the Indian prisoners Captain John Ford had captured in the Battle of Little Robe Creek, fought recently in the Canadian River valley, near Antelope Hills.
Josiah Sanchez grabbed a sergeant's arm, keeping him from striking a small boy again. "I think that's enough, Sergeant," he rumbled dangerously. The itinerant preacher was as tall and as wide as the sergeant, and a good ten years younger, so the threat in his voice didn't pass unnoticed.
"Ain't none of your business, preacher," the soldier growled, still holding tightly to the small child's arm. The boy, however, refused to cower in front of the big man, glaring up at the sergeant with hate-filled blue eyes. "Boy's full 'a heathen ways, ain't but one way to teach him better, and that's the beat the red right out 'a 'im."
"Beating that boy won't make him a white man, it'll just make him hate whites more than he already does," Josiah argued.
The sergeant cursed softly under his breath, but he flung the boy at Josiah, who grabbed him to keep him from falling. The child immediately tried to bolt, but the preacher easily scooped him up and tossed him over his shoulder.
"Give it a shot yourself," the soldier snarled. "You'll see, ain't nothing gonna get through to that little devil 'cept a beatin'. You mark my words."
"The Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee," Josiah quoted.
The sergeant shook his head. "Boy ain't got no soul, preacher. Damn Injuns done stole that from 'im when they took him from his white family." And with that the soldier turned and stomped off.
Turning, Josiah headed back to the small quarters he'd been given to use while he was at the camp, preaching to the soldiers and the rangers as he made his way north. The boy yelled loudly in Kiowa, kicking his feet and beating his fists against Josiah's back as hard as he could, but the big man ignored the tantrum, wishing he spoke the boy's tongue. Although he had no trouble at all guessing what the child was saying, based on his tone alone.
Once they were inside his small room, he set the boy down on the floor. Pale blue eyes glared up at him, then flickered to the closed door. He made a dash for it, but Josiah only had to take a half-step to the right to block his path. "Sorry, son," he said gently, "but you need to stay in here. It'll be safer for you."
"Want go home!" the child snarled in English. "Now!"
Josiah sighed softly. Well, at least the boy still remembered some of the language of his parents. "Where is home, son?"
"Home. Kiowa. Red Bear."
Josiah felt his heart catch. "You were with Red Bear's band?"
The boy nodded once, emphatically. "You. Take me. Now."
He shook his head sadly. "I can't, son. Your family, they were white – your mother and father – you need to be with folks like you."
The anger shooting through the boy's body was palpable and the flash in his eyes would have been enough to move a weaker man. "Me Kiowa! Want go home! Now!" he snarled.
"I'm sorry, son," Josiah said, shaking his head.
"No son 'a yers!" the thin child cried, his anger slowly shifting to fear and sadness, but Josiah could hear that he was reaching some part of the child, that part of him that was white, and it was coming out more and more as his speech shifted into something more familiar, if still heavily accented.
"Where were you born, do you remember?"
"Don't matter," the boy said, turning his back on Josiah, his small shoulders hunched.
"What was your name, son. There might be family looking for you."
"Ain't nobody lookin'," he said, sinking down in the corner, his knees drawn up, his pale blue eyes, having lost their fight, now desolate.
Josiah frowned, almost preferring the fire he'd seen while the boy was being beaten to the lost, forlorn expression he saw now.
And it didn't get any better over the next few days. Josiah tried everything he could think of to reach the boy, but he had withdrawn, refusing to speak in English or Kiowa, refusing to eat, or to sleep in the bed in the small room. The preacher had resorted to tethering the boy to keep him from running away, and, through it all, the sergeant watched, shaking his head and muttering about how he'd told Josiah the boy was beyond saving.
It didn't take too long before Josiah realized he was in over his head. So he did what he thought would be best for the boy, and started sending out telegraph messages to preachers and pastors in the closest communities, looking for some good Samaritan who might be willing to take the boy in, but he found no one, and he knew he was going to have to move on soon.
It wouldn't have been as bad if he didn't know the older sergeant was just waiting to get his hands on the boy again, to pick up where he'd left off. Josiah couldn't in good conscience allow that to happen. If he had to, he'd take the child with him, although he knew that to do so would be to take his own life in his hands. He had no doubt the boy would kill him while he slept in order to return to the people he considered his "family."
The preacher shook his head, wishing the Army had left the boy with his Kiowa family, but they were headed for a reservation, and who knew if they would even survive the trip. No, the Army had done what they had to. He just wished it had all been unnecessary. The Indians might not be Christians, but they were an honorable people, and they deserved better than they were getting from the government of the United States. One day the country would pay for its arrogance, he was sure of that, but he was also afraid that there might not be any Indians left to appreciate the fact.
Then, a couple of days before he'd planned to leave, Josiah received a reply to one of his many telegraph inquiries. There was an orphanage just a half-day's ride outside Lubbock. He could afford the time the detour would take, and it specifically took in children who had lived among the Indians. It sounded perfect, and they said they had room to take the boy. Josiah was overjoyed. Surely these people would know how to deal with a child like this, and he would have peers who had survived a similar experience. It was the best he could do for the child, and far better than he could do himself.
So he took the boy and they left the camp, making their way to Lubbock where a young man who had grown up at the orphanage met him, taking the child.
"This is for the best, son," he told the silent, glowering child. "You can start a new life now. Good luck to you, son."
"Ah-koe maw-khaw hehn thaw," the child replied. " Ah-koe maw-khaw hehn thaw."
He wasn't sure what the words meant, but he knew they were no thank you.
"Tell me, in English," Josiah begged the boy.
"I will just die," the boy whispered. "I will just die."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ah-koe maw-khaw hehn thaw… And that was what Vin was whispering now, over and over, as the fever took him back to his childhood, to that moment when Josiah had handed a small boy over to an orphanage. When he had handed Vin over, he realized.
Josiah's body began to shake. Lord, had that child really been Vin Tanner?
Looking at the feverish tracker he could see the echoes of the boy, grown now into a man: same chestnut-colored hair, same blue eyes, same deep silence.
Josiah began to weep. It had been one of the major turning points in his life, sending him on a multi-year spiritual journey from the knee of a Cherokee holy man, through Europe and beyond, to India, as he'd tried to understand why God allowed such terrible things to happen to his children, why men could so easily hate other men just because of the color of their skin, or the God they worshiped. He hadn't found the answers he'd sought, but he'd come to better understand why he was asking the questions. And for that he had one small white boy, raised by the Kiowa, to thank. A boy who had grown up into a man he called friend, a man who had saved his life more times than he could count.
He shook his head. Did Vin know? Had he recognized him when they'd met the first time, or sometime after? Had he ever forgiven him?
And there was much to forgive, Josiah knew. He could clearly remember the newspaper article he'd seen after he'd returned from India. There, among the many articles about the on-going war, was a small story about an orphanage in Texas where horrible things had happened to young boys and, he guessed, to the small child he had handed over to a nightmare.
He'd actually gone back to the orphanage after he'd read the article, but it had been shut down, the children formerly housed there scattered to the four winds. He'd asked around in the closest towns, trying to find news on the boy, but no one knew anything about him, and fewer wanted to remember the orphanage and what had happened there. Besides, the war occupied peoples' thoughts, and they had no time to worry over one boy. As for himself, Josiah had headed north after that, working with the underground railroad for a time before enlisting in the Union Army…
Josiah leaned forward, brushing back the lank shanks of hair that had fallen across Tanner's forehead. "I am so sorry, Vin," he said softly. "If I'd known what you'd be facing, I would've taken you back to the Kiowa myself."
A soft cough drew his attention away from the tracker and he glanced over at Chris, who was waking up again. He rose and fetched the gunman some tea, helping him to drink it, and waking Nathan and Buck in the process. But he didn't forget what he had remembered.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra watched Nathan, Josiah, and Buck leave, knowing that they needed the hot baths and hot meals that were waiting for them. They looked exhausted. Not quite as bad as the two men lying in the clinic beds, but close enough – especially Josiah, although he wasn't sure why that should be the case.
The gambler settled into the rocking chair Josiah had brought up from his living quarters at the church and placed between the two beds. It seemed that both Chris and Vin were resting, their color marginally better than the last time he'd gotten a glimpse of them.
Glancing around, he noted the two cups of water waiting on the bedside table, no doubt dosed with one of Mr. Jackson's medicinal powders. If one of them actually awoke, he knew he'd need to get him to drink the foul-tasting draughts, one way or another. But it seemed to Standish that both would only sleep as the day stretched on.
Ezra occupied his time, reading for a time, then shuffling his cards and dealing out four hands, playing a game poker against himself. A soft cough broke his concentration and he glanced over at the bed, finding Chris awake and starring blearily at him.
Ezra tossed down the cards he was holding and picked up one of the cups of water. Shifting to the bed, he reached under Larabee's head, supporting it as he lifted the cup to the man's lips.
Chris took several swallows before the bitter taste penetrated his fogged mind and he pulled back. "Enough," he wheezed, making a face.
Ezra set the drink aside and lowered the blond's head back to the pillow. "How are you feeling?"
"Hurt," the blond admitted. "All over."
"Sounds positively miserable," Ezra replied with sympathy. "There's some broth on the stove. Do you think you could eat some?"
"Try," Chris replied, swallowing past his sore throat.
While Standish went to get the broth, Larabee pushed himself up a little so he could lean back against the headboard and still eat. He hoped he was strong enough to lift the spoon to his mouth.
The gambler returned a few moments later, holding the bowl for him, and eventually spooning him the broth when Larabee's strength failed.
Between two swallows, Chris wheezed, "How's Vin?"
"Mr. Tanner is sleeping, although I'm not convinced it isn't a ploy in order to avoid any of Mr. Jackson's dreadful teas."
That prompted a small smile from Larabee. "He's right, y'know… stuff does taste like horse piss."
"I believe the last description our intrepid tracker gave was that it tasted like 'boiled skunk,'" Ezra informed him.
"That works, too," Larabee agreed.
"Yes, well, be that as it may, I am under strict orders to see to it you consume the entire cup," the gambler stated, picking up the cup and holding it out to the blond.
Chris scowled at it for a moment, but then a cough tore at his lungs, prompting him to reach out and take it, forcing it down as quickly as he could. He almost threw it right back up, but he swallowed convulsively several times and managed to keep it where it might do him some good. He sagged back against his pillow, hot and aching, and miserable. He envied Vin his ability to sleep though the sickness.
"Would you like some more broth?" Ezra asked.
Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. The very thought of food was making his stomach start to rebel. He listened as the gambler rose and took the bowl back over to the stove. When he returned and sat down once again in the rocking chair, Larabee asked, "What're you doing here?" without bothering to open his eyes. "Thought Nathan was keeping everybody away from us."
"He was. Until he was sure that he and the others wouldn't contract this fever. Since that didn't happen, Nathan, Josiah, and Buck have gone to bathe, eat, and get a proper night's sleep in their beds. JD and I will be looking after you today."
Chris nodded. "So nobody else is sick?"
"Just you and Mr. Tanner."
As if responding to his name, Vin moaned softly, his legs stirring slightly where he lay. His fever was running slightly higher than Chris', so he was still draped with damp cloths.
Chris forced his eyes open and glanced over at Vin, calling his name in a soft scratch of a voice.
"I'm afraid he cannot hear you," Ezra replied. "His fever is still strong, and he seems to be lost in another world."
"What do you mean?" Chris asked, worried, but knowing there wasn't anything he could do to help his friend at the moment.
"He's been muttering in one of the Indian languages he picked up," the gambler explained. "Didn't sound particularly happy, either."
Chris' frown deepened. That couldn't be good. He knew Vin had lived among the Kiowa and the Comanche, but he didn't know when, or why, really. Still, he'd never gotten the feeling that much of Vin's past was good. He sighed, his eyes falling closed again. He was so damn tired…
Ezra watched as Chris slipped back off to sleep, then turned and began to exchange the warm cloths for cooler ones. As he worked, he listened to Vin muttering, the sounds occasionally becoming words, and then strings of words.
When he was done changing the cloths, Ezra sat back down and picked up his cards again. He had just laid out a game of solitaire on a small table Nathan had made available to him when Vin began to get restless again.
Ezra turned away from the cards, looking at the tracker only to find him awake, or at least his eyes were open and he seemed to be staring at the gambler.
"Vin?" he called softly. "Are you awake?"
Tanner continued to stare at him, although Ezra had the uncomfortable feeling that the man was really looking through him to whatever it was the fever was making him see. And whatever it was he was seeing, he was clearly apprehensive about it. "I assure you, Vin, everything is perfectly fine here," Ezra told the sick man. "All you need do is rest, regain your health."
Vin blinked, his forehead wrinkling with doubt. "Y' need t' fix that wheel," he said softly.
Ezra's body jerked as if he'd been touched with a hot poker. "Ex— excuse me?" he managed to stutter out, his voice sounding breathless.
Vin's frown deepened. "No," he muttered. "I's just tryin' t' help…" A soft whimper escaped the man, and Ezra bolted up from his chair, just reaching the bucket at the foot of Chris' bed before he retched.
It wasn't possible. It just wasn't possible, he told himself. There was no way the young soldier he'd met on the road that day was the man he now knew…
Or was he?
His body quaking, Ezra wiped his mouth and staggered back to the rocking chair, dropping onto the seat and staring down at the tracker. He'd always thought Vin was familiar somehow, but he'd never coupled the quiet man with the boy who had stumbled across him that day… They were so different. But now, looking down at the man, he could see the echoes of that boy in Tanner's face.
The gambler's body began to shake harder, and he swallowed several times to stop his stomach from turning over a second time. Dropping back against the chair back, he sighed deeply, tears springing into his eyes as he remembered…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Near Athens, Alabama, 1864
Ezra rode along, silently cursing his mother. The stiff uniform he wore chaffed in more than physical ways. Beside him, three slaves labored in the dusty road, pulling a handcart that had been filled with booty from the plantation where they had been staying. The Confederate Army had overrun the beautiful home which had survived the Rape of Athens in 1862, scavenging what they could before moving on. Luckily, they had had warning, and had helped the master of the manor move his valuables. But a run-in with a pair of deserters had ended with the landowner dead, and his mother determined to liberate the man's valuables for herself.
And so he found himself here, on this dusty road, dressed as a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, trying to get the slaves his mother had managed to hire from God-only-knew-who to hurry. He knew there were real soldiers nearby, he had seen several of them in the distance, but, so far, they had left him alone.
He only had to get the objects, hidden in sacks of flour, rice and sorghum in the handcart, to the river. There his mother waited, having acquired the services of a boatman to ferry them to the other side. But the slaves were slower than he'd anticipated…
A noise to his left had his horse shying away and he drew his weapon, lowering it almost immediately when he saw a boy a few years his junior step out from the trees. He was dressed in a ragged Confederate uniform.
The boy looked from Ezra to the struggling slaves and back. "Everythin' all right, sir?" he asked, his voice heavily accented and marking him a Texan.
"I assure you, everything is perfectly fine here, Private," Ezra replied.
One of the rickety wheels on the handcart hit a rock in the dust, coming up and then landing on the foot of one of the slaves. She was a young woman, closer to Ezra's age than the boy's, and she cried out in pain.
The boy hurried forward, checking on her.
"Private, out of the way," Ezra ordered, catching sight of other soldiers moving through the trees. "I'm on a tight schedule."
"She's hurt," the boy returned, pale blue eyes full of defiance.
"Then her two companions will simply have to work harder," he snapped back, feeling the panic beginning to build. The men in the trees were now headed in his direction. If he were caught with contraband he wouldn't just end up conscripted into the Confederate Army for real, but severely punished, maybe even hung.
He raised the quirt he was holding and used it to strike one of the two male slaves who now struggled with the handcart.
The boy lunged forward, catching the quirt on the next down stroke. "Y' need t' fix that wheel. Needs t' be tightened, or it's goin' t' come off all the way."
"Out of the way, boy," he hissed at the private, using his horse to drive the boy away from the cart. The slaves struggled on, just wanting to get their work over so they could return to the plantation from which they had been rented. The girl had already hobbled back and was trying to help her companions.
"What's going on here?" a strong male voice demanded.
Ezra swiveled in his saddle, cursing silently as a captain rode up. Without thought as to the possible consequences, Ezra snapped, "This private seems to think that the convenience of these slaves is more important than my timetable."
The captain scowled down at the boy, who looked just as defiant as he had earlier. "That so," he said, his gaze shifting from the boy to Ezra.
"Yes, sir. I must reach the river within the hour to assure these goods reach my men, who are camped on the far side. We have been without provisions for several days."
The man looked back at Ezra, his gaze sweeping over the younger man, taking in his new uniform and polished boots. He wasn't impressed, Ezra knew, probably thinking he had purchased himself a safe position behind the lines, but right now he didn't care. He just wanted to get away from these men and rejoin his mother, preferably with the hidden booty. If he was successful, he and his mother would be someplace safe before Christmas from which they could wait for the outcome of the war.
The captain was silent for a moment, then nodded. "Get on with it, then, I'll take care of this whelp."
Ezra nodded, jabbing his heels into his horse's flanks, the gelding lurching forward with a bound. But he no sooner reached the handcart than the wobbly wheel came free, falling into the dust.
Ezra cursed and ordered the slaves to make repairs. As he waited, he found his attention drawn back to the boy and the captain. They had been joined by several other soldiers. He couldn't hear what was being said, but it was clear that the boy was trying to defend himself, but his commanding officer was having none of it. Then, as he watched, two of the soldiers grabbed the boy and dragged him over to a tree at the edge of the road. The captain climbed down from his horse and, taking a whip where it was tied to the saddle, walked over to the stand behind the youth.
Ezra swallowed hard, knowing what was about to happen. He had never seen someone whipped before, although he had heard it happen once, when he was much younger. The cries of pain had frightened him, and he'd run and hid in the barn, pressing his hands over his ears so he couldn't hear the cries any longer. He'd never seen the man who had suffered the punishment, at least that he was aware of, but the crack of the whip and the man's cries of agony had haunted him ever since.
But now he found himself unable to look away as the boy's uniform jacket and shirt was forced off him and his arms were tied around the tree. The captain loosed the whip, a sharp crack sounding in the air, the sound speeding the efforts of the three slaves.
Ezra frowned. He saw the blood appear on the boy's back, but he hadn't cried out, at least not so Ezra could hear.
Another crack sounded and Ezra saw the boy's body jerk and shake, but there was still no cry. He could, however, see the boy was panting.
A third crack broke the stillness, leaving a third bloody stripe on the boy's back, his body jerking more violently.
Without thinking, Ezra urged his horse closer to where the boy was tied.
One of the soldiers was untying him, and when he was free he collapsed to the ground with a whimper that reached Ezra's ears. His shirt and uniform jacket were thrown at him and a sergeant ordered him to put them on, kicking the boy when he didn't move immediately.
On shaking legs the boy stood and pulled his clothes back on. Blood almost immediately began to stain the back of his dirty uniform and Ezra swallowed hard. It was his fault. His lies had cost the boy three lashes…
His stomach threatened to rebel, but one of the slaves called to him, the handcart once more moving off down the dusty road. Ezra looked from the boy to the cart and back. Pale blue eyes stared back at him, the boy's spirit unbroken by the punishment. "Thief," the boy mouthed at him with a knowing look in his eyes.
Ezra felt his heart constrict and panic flared through his veins. He jerked his horse around and rode back to the cart, urging the slaves to hurry. He was sure the boy would betray him at any moment, but the soldiers simply mounted and rode on.
He didn't look back as he heard them leaving, but neither did he ever forgot that boy…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra reached up and wiped the sweat that had broken out on his upper lip off with his hand. It couldn't be possible. That boy, Vin?
But now, looking at the tracker, he could see the boy who had been whipped. And they all knew that Vin had whip scars on his back, as did Nathan, but no one knew where they had come from… until now.
Did Vin know that he was the reason for those scars?
Surely he didn't, or he would have told the others and they would have run him out of town…
Ezra didn't know what to think, but he was absolutely sure that young boy and Vin were one in the same. And he had no idea at all how to live with that fact.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck sat at Vin's bedside, having just replaced the damp cloths with fresh ones. Chris was sitting up in his bed, leaning back against a stack of pillows and breathing in the steam rising from the bowl of hot water Nathan was holding.
Larabee coughed, bringing up more of the greenish mucus that filled his lungs.
Buck winced with sympathy, but at least Chris was awake and able to cough the crud from his lungs. Vin remained unconscious, his fever raging again.
The ladies' man shook his head, wishing the tracker would wake up so he could take some of the tea Nathan kept forcing down Chris' throat – it seemed to be helping the blond, even if it was the foulest smelling concoction he'd ever smelled.
It wasn't that Vin was totally asleep, but you couldn't call him awake, either. He was caught somewhere between waking and sleeping by the fever, muttering on and off, sometimes crying out, sometimes, like now, humming a tune softly under his breath.
Buck sat back, wiping his hand over his face and wondering why the mumbled tune sounded so familiar. He was sure he'd heard it before, but he couldn't remember when. He scowled and tried to force the question from his mind, but it wouldn't let go of him.
"He's sleepin' again," Nathan said quietly of Chris. "I'm going to go get some more of this oil, you be all right here alone for a little bit?"
Buck nodded. "Sure, you go on."
"I'll bring us back some of Inez's lemonade," the healer added.
That brought a smile to Buck's face. "Be even better if you got her to bring it up."
Nathan grinned at the ladies' man. "You just don't give up, do you?"
"Nope," Wilmington replied, grinning back.
Shaking his head, Nathan left the clinic.
Buck turned his attention from his longtime friend to Vin, who was still humming the tune that was now haunting the ladies' man's thoughts.
"Damn, Vin, wish ya could tell me what that's supposed to be… Swear I've heard it before someplace… Maybe back in the war…"
And then he remembered.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Near Franklin, Tennessee, 1864
The battle had been long and hard fought, but the Union regiments had gotten the upper hand. Now they were moving in on the last hill, a pair of snipers making it impossible for them to reach the supplies they wanted to liberate from the Confederates they had routed. One of the snipers kept humming the same off-key tune over and over again.
Sergeant Larabee had been leading a squad of men up the hillside to silence the snipers, but an earlier explosion from a cannon blast seemed to have done the job, the humming having come to an end. They held their position for a few moments, then started back down the hillside.
Events unfolded so swiftly Buck wasn't really sure what had happened until it was over and he'd had a moment to let it all come clear in his mind.
He saw the Confederate soldier stand. He was no more than a boy, Buck was sure, but his rifle was up in his hands, and he had a clear line of sight to Larabee, who was standing, his back turned to the danger.
Buck started to raise his own rifle, knowing he would be too late to save his friend's life. But the kid didn't pull the trigger. Pale blue eyes caught Buck's darker blue, understanding passing between the two of them without words. The kid wasn't going to shoot a man in the back, no matter who he was. And Buck could feel the rife he was lifting already beginning to drop; Buck couldn't kill a man who showed honor to his enemy.
But then a shot rang out and Buck yelled, "No!"
Larabee spun, his sidearm in his hand so quickly it would have been hard to see. But it was too late, the kid was falling, blood flying from his head.
"Damn it!" Buck yelled, stomping his foot as another man stood from farther up the hillside. Tall and thin, the man was grinning as he lifted his rifle in a gesture of victory.
"Only good Reb's a dead Reb!" the man called down to them.
"That kid refused to shoot Chris in the back!" Buck yelled angrily. "You had no call to kill 'im! Ta shoot 'im in the back!"
"Didn't shoot 'im in the back," Uriah Carter said, still grinning. "Shot 'im in the head."
"Son of a bitch," Buck snarled, starting up the hill, but Chris grabbed him and stopped him.
"What happened?" Larabee demanded.
Buck told Chris about the kid, and how he'd had a bead on Larabee, but had refused to take the shot.
Chris swallowed hard. "Damn," he breathed a cold chill racing down his spine.
Buck nodded, still angry and frustrated by the waste.
"Maybe we should go find him," Chris said, looking up to the side of the hill where he'd seen the soldier fall.
Buck shook his head. "Saw the blood…"
Chris swallowed again and nodded. The two men turned and continued on.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"That's it!" Buck said, slapping his knee with his palm. The song! It was the same one he'd heard coming down the side of that hill as they'd crawled their way up, trying to find the snipers. It had been that kid, he was sure of it.
Looking down at Vin, Buck frowned.
That kid had had the same color hair as the tracker… Same color eyes, too.
His heart starting to beat faster, Buck reached out and gently carded his fingers through Vin's long hair, his fingertips finding a scar along the side of the tracker's head. "Good Lord," he breathed. "Ya can't be that kid… can ya?" he asked the man.
Vin gave no reply, still softly humming the song as the fever held him trapped someplace between living and dying.
Buck glanced over at Chris, who was still sleeping. Since that day in the war neither man had held to shooting another man in the back, regardless of who he was, or what he'd done. But how could that kid have been Vin?
Not that it couldn't have, he thought. Vin hadn't ever said if he'd served in the war, but given his roots in Texas it was a good bet that, if he had, it would have been with the Rebs. So maybe it had been Vin that day.
When the man finally woke, Buck planned to ask him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan returned, and he and Buck shared a pitcher of lemonade before he sent the ladies' man to get some sleep. Josiah and Ezra would be coming back in a couple of hours to take over so he could get some rest himself. Until then he planned to sit between the two men, keeping a close eye on them, especially Vin, who didn't seem to be getting any better.
He shook his head, wishing he could do more for the tracker.
It wasn't the first time he'd felt that way; in fact, it seemed like he'd spent a good deal of his time as a healer feeling like that. If he was a real doctor maybe it would be different. But he'd never know for sure.
He had to remember the ones he'd managed to save, he reminded himself, his thoughts taking him back to a boy he'd crossed paths with in a Union prisoner of war camp.
The Army hadn't wanted to pay for a real doctor to see to the Confederate POWs they were holding, and Nathan hadn't been able to find any other job after recovering from a gunshot wound that had nearly killed him. His leg wasn't going to be strong enough for him to return to the field and resume his job of stretcher bearer for a few months, so he'd accepted the posting to the POW camp, willing to tend to those same men who had wanted to keep him in chains.
But, as he quickly discovered, the overwhelming majority of them would rather die than allow a Negro to tend to them, and many of them had. But there had been one notable exception.
He was just a boy, too. Nathan hadn't been sure exactly how old he was, and the kid had only shrugged and said he guessed he was fifteen or so. He'd come into the camp with a head wound, a graze that had become infected, along with three infected whip marks on his back. Fever made the boy's body shake, and it wasn't all that colored the kid's face. When he'd finally gotten too weak to defend himself from the other prisoners, he'd found his way to Nathan and asked for help.
The healer hadn't asked the boy's name, and the boy hadn't offered it.
Nathan had been surprised when he'd found whip wounds on the boy's back, and he'd asked the kid about them, but all he'd gotten was a shake of kid's head and a "Ain't important," from him.
He was pretty certain the kid had been abused by one or more of the prisoners, too, but he'd kept that to himself, treating the boy's wounds while he lay unconscious, fever burning through him.
It had taken him nearly a solid week of nursing that kid, working around the clock, before the fever finally gave up its hold and the kid began to heal. Nathan had shared what little food he was allotted, afraid the kid might starve if he didn't. They didn't talk much, but it was clear when they did that the boy held no hatred toward Nathan, or any other Negros, for that matter.
One day, his curiosity got the better of him and he asked the kid why he'd been fighting in the war. Blue eyes started up at him as the kid replied, "Men with guns grabbed me, gave me clothes 'n' a gun 'n' told me t' shoot or die. Other men started shootin' at me, so, I shot back."
Sweet Jesus, Nathan had thought, the Confederates must be getting desperate if they were grabbing children to fight for them now.
When he'd gone in to check on the boy later, he was gone.
He'd looked for him in the camp, afraid that the fever might return, but he never found him.
At first he'd thought the kid might have escaped, but no alarm was ever raised, and no one seemed to think that they had misplaced a prisoner, so he assumed the kid had chosen to return to his friends. And he'd thought the kid must have friends, because no one survived in the camp if they didn't.
But some part of him had always suspected that the kid was out there, alone, fending for himself somehow.
He'd worried about that kid for days, then another wounded man had tried to kill him while he was working to stitch his belly closed after he'd been knifed by one of his own brothers, uttering ugly slurs at him as he did. Nathan's anger had flared and he'd resigned from the post, opting to take a position at a field hospital until his leg finished healing.
He hadn't thought about that kid in years…
Looking down at Vin as the tracker's eyes fluttered open, his fever-reddened cheeks sharp, the healer sucked in a breath. Jesus, Vin— That kid— "Vin," he called softly.
Blue eyes tracked sluggishly in his direction. "Nate…" Vin breathed, his name so soft the healer couldn't actually hear it, but he had seen what the man said.
"Here," Nathan said, reaching out to lift the man's head and pressing a glass of water to his lips.
Vin managed several small sips before he started to pull away.
"Okay, easy," Nathan said, setting the glass aside and resettling the tracker. "How you feeling?"
Vin blinked. "Like hell," he breathed out.
Nathan nodded. "How's your chest feel?"
There was a long pause, but Vin's eyes didn't close. Finally, he said, "Hurts some."
"And your breathing?"
"Still breathin'," Vin replied.
Nathan managed a small smile at that. "Yeah, ya are. Does it feel hard to breathe?"
There was another long pause, then, "Ain't important," Vin said, his gaze pulled to Larabee. "How's Chris?"
"Doin' better 'n you," Nathan said, his hands, which were clasped in his lap, were shaking. "Vin, can I ask ya something?"
Tanner's head rolled back so he was looking up at the healer. He nodded.
"Why'd you risk your life for me that day them drovers tried to hang me?"
Vin blinked, the question clearly taking him by surprise. "Was the right thing t' do," he said a few moments later.
Nathan's eyes narrowed slightly. "Ya didn't owe me?"
Vin frowned slightly. "Owe ya?" he echoed, clearly confused.
"Black man ever done anything for you?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded. "Black folk… Indians… Mexicans… few white folks, too, tho' fewer 'a them 'n the others when it come right down to it. Why y' askin', Doc?"
Nathan stared down into the man's eyes. Vin didn't recognize him, he was sure of that. He smiled. "No reason, just curious, I guess."
Vin's eyes started to drift closed.
"You in the war, Vin?" Nathan asked.
Tanner nodded. "Man shoots at ya, y' shoot back," he murmured as he fell back to sleep.
Nathan shook his head. "I'll be damned," he said softly, a surprised smile spreading across his face.
"What?" Chris called softly from his bed. "Vin all right?"
Nathan swung around on his chair to meet Larabee's eyes. "Yeah, he's holdin' his own."
Chris nodded, looking relieved. Seeing the troubled look on the healer's face, he asked, "Something wrong?"
"No," Nathan replied, "just thinkin' on how things sometimes come back around."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Saturday, a week later
Nathan finally let Chris leave after he promised to go straight to his room at the boarding house and rest there for a few more days.
Buck assured the healer that he'd see to it that Larabee took care of himself, leaving the healer to concentrate on Vin, who was still fighting the fever, although his lungs had never filled like Chris' had.
Nathan tried everything he could think of, and a few he made up on the spot. He even tried a few of the suggestions given to him by other folks like Mary, Mrs. Potter, and Mrs. Wells, but noting seemed to drive off the persistent fever, and he was getting worried. Vin was weak, dehydrated, and losing weight. They needed to get the upper hand with the fever, or the man was going to lie right there in his bed and waste away.
Nathan sent Josiah out to talk to the Seminoles and Ko-Je's people, and he brought back a tea an older woman had given him in Ko-Je's camp. She was new in the camp, the former preacher not having seen her before.
Nathan accepted the tea and started forcing cups of it down Vin's throat every time the man came around. And, after four days, the tracker seemed to be getting stronger, even while his fever hung on, although less than before.
During that time the healer spent day and night with the tracker, but, eventually he had to admit he needed sleep and he'd gone to the boarding house to collapse into JD's bed while the younger man went to sit with Vin for a few hours.
Not knowing what else to do, JD began to read from his favorite dime novel. It was a special edition, one he'd saved his pennies for in order to buy. He must have read it at least a hundred times by now. It was the story that had fueled his constant desire to go west. It was supposed to be a true story, too, about a young white man who had once lived among the Comanche.
He opened to the beginning of the story and began to read, quickly losing himself in the tale, which included Indians, the Army, settlers moving west to try and make better lives for themselves, a Texas Ranger, and the hero, who stood in two worlds, but wasn't really a part of either. Sky Eyes had come to the Comanche after the Civil War, first as a slave and then as an adopted member of the tribe. There he learned to hunt, track, and fight. He learned to sneak up on a herd of wild horses and catch one to make it his mount, and so much more.
JD had dreamed of doing those things at least a thousand times, and he stopped reading long enough to tell Vin so.
But times were hard for the Comanche; more and more white people were moving into their lands, forcing them to fight. Clashes with the Army grew more numerous, and more deadly, until, one day, Sky Eyes and his Comanche brother, Black Wolf, returned from a hunting trip to find their settlement destroyed. Bodies were strewn across the land – old men, women, and children, all dead. And the Army was lying in hiding, waiting for them.
The hunting party was attacked, and Black Wolf was the first to fall. Sky Eyes slid from his horse's back, trying to help his brother, but it was too late. The Army nearly killed him, too, but when they realized he was a white man, his life was spared.
The Texas Ranger, there with the Army to try and find a white girl who had been abducted by the Comanche, took Sky Eyes and nursed him back to health, teaching him to remember the ways of his white family. In the end, Sky Eyes, became Vincent Tabor once more, and he joined the Texas Rangers…
"Ain't the way things happened," Vin whispered quietly, his voice raspy and brittle.
JD jumped, surprised by the sound of the man's voice. He set the book aside and grabbed the cup of water that was sitting on the bedside stand. "Here, Vin, drink some of this," he said, moving to support Vin's head so he could drink.
The tracker drank the cup dry, then closed his eyes as he rested from the effort.
"Didn't mean to wake you," JD apologized. "I was just reading my favorite book to you… You were sleeping so soundly I didn't think you'd really hear me."
"Was only restin'," Vin said. "Heard y' just fine."
"What'd ya say earlier?"
"Ain't the way things happened," Vin repeated.
JD frowned, then his expression exploded with knowing surprise. "You knew him, didn't you!" It was a statement, not a question.
A small, sad smile lifted the corners of Vin's mouth. "Didn't know him…" he said, and JD expression fell. "Was him, kid…"
"You—? Sky Eyes! That was you?"
"M' Comanche name was Long Eyes…"
"And you lived with the Comanche and had a brother who was kill—" JD stopped abruptly. "Ah, Vin, I'm sorry…" JD looked down at the cover of the book and really studied the figure, dressed like a Comanche and riding bareback. It did look like Vin, just like Vin. Why hadn't he seen the resemblance before? "Did you really become a Texas Ranger?"
Vin shook his head. "Weren't no Ranger."
"But then how—?"
"Army didn't kill me when they caught me," Vin said, his voice sounding as sad as he looked at the cover as well. "They sold me off t' a pair 'a buffalo hunters."
"Sold you?" JD echoed, feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach.
Vin nodded. "Forced me t' hunt buff t' buy m' freedom…" He looked up at the younger man. "Y' really think I'd kill off the buffs if'n I didn't have ta?"
JD looked away shamefaced. "Guess I never really thought about it."
"Ah, hell, that's all right, kid. Not like I ever told ya…"
JD looked back at Vin. "This book… It was the reason I came out here… I got it into my head that I was going to be a Texas Ranger one day. All I could think about was going west. Then, when I found out I didn't have enough money for school… I took it as a sign that I was supposed to come west… I decided to use half of the money to come out here, see where that got me…"
"Y' overshot Texas, kid."
JD grinned. "Yep, I sure did. But hell, Vin, at the time I didn't know that! Landed here right in the middle of a gunfight…" JD shook his head. "Guess I ought to be sayin' thank you, Vin."
The tracker shook his head. "Didn't have nothin' t' do with it," he said.
"It was your story that put my feet on the path," JD argued.
"Not even a true story," Vin countered.
"Well, maybe one day, when you're feelin' stronger, you can tell me the real story."
Vin thought for a moment, then nodded. "Reckon I could do that," he said, his eyelids drooping tiredly.
"I'd like that, Vin, I truly would," JD replied, watching as the man fell back to sleep. He looked down at the novel again and ran his fingertip over the drawing on the cover. Sky Eyes was his friend… "Now, if that don't beat all," JD said quietly, shaking his head.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few days later
After waking up to JD's reading, Vin's recovery proceeded speedily. The fever finally disappeared, and while the tracker was left feeling tired and weak, he was able to drink Nathan's teas and eat the broth and mush the healer provided several times a day.
Nathan was still far from ready to let him leave the clinic, but Vin was sleeping more normally, and getting progressively more recalcitrant about lying about all day and night. In light of the man's deteriorating cooperation, Nathan asked the others to drop in and keep Vin occupied, as he wanted to keep him at the clinic for at least a couple more days. That wasn't going to be easy, the healer knew. And he couldn't do it alone.
So Josiah was the first to come by, finding Vin sitting up in the preacher's rocking chair and looking out the window to the street below. He had a quilt draped around his shoulders, and still looked too thin and pale for Josiah's liking.
The former priest smiled, knowing that what he'd brought with him would be a welcome sight. He watched as Vin lifted his chin slightly and sniffed, then turned to look at Sanchez. "That what I think it is?" the tracker asked. "How'd y' get it past Nathan?"
"Nathan's over at Mrs. Potter's store. Seems her son took a tumble off the ladder while stocking the shelves and needed a couple of stitches."
Vin grinned. "Well, ain't that I like t' profit from somebody's misfortune, but…" He looked on hopefully as Josiah brought the dessert over and set it on the small table next to Vin. A cup of hot coffee went down beside it.
Vin dug into the custard with relish, clearly enjoying the treat.
Josiah sat and watched the younger man eat, then, when Vin was finished, he said, "Vin, there's something I need to say to you."
The tracker looked at Josiah curiously and nodded. "Reckon y' ought t' spit it out then."
"When the fever had you strong in its grip, you said something that brought back a memory."
"I did?" Vin asked, surprised.
"Yep," Josiah replied, nodding slowly. "It was something in Kiowa, I believe, and it reminded me of a time when I met a young boy who'd been raised by Kiowa. He didn't know it at the time, but his Indian family had been killed by the Army, and he'd been taken to a military camp in Texas…"
Vin visibly blanched, which was something of a feat given his already pale complexion. "You…?" Vin said, trailing off, but then it came to him. "The preacher!"
Josiah nodded, his expression sad. "Vin, I read about what went on in that orphanage I took you to…"
Vin shuddered as the memory of that time assailed him. Terrible things had happened in that place, but he'd managed to escape with his life, which was far better than many of those boys. He swallowed hard, and took a couple of deep breaths before he said, "Ran off when I's fourteen or so… got scooped up by the Confederates," he added in a whisper.
"I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about what happened. If I'd known—"
"No way y' could've," Vin interrupted, glancing over to meet Josiah's eyes. The preacher's lips were pressed into a thin line. "Hell," the tracker said, "nobody in that town knew what was happenin'… Ain't sure they would've cared if they had, t' be honest. We's just a bunch 'a heathens far as they's concerned."
"Still, I was the one who—"
"Y' can stop right there, J'siah," Vin said, his voice growing stronger. "Way I look at it, if'n I'd stayed at that military camp with that sergeant, chances are I would've been dead inside a month – if that."
"Still," Josiah said, "there are some things that are worse than death."
Vin shook his head. "No siree. No matter what happens t' a man's body, his mind is always free… Ain't sayin' it was easy, or that I'd ever want t' face it again, but if yer breathin', there's hope. Ain't no hope in a dead man."
Josiah shook his head, his eyes moist with tears. "Vin, you are a damn wise man… All the same, I needed to tell you that, and ask for your forgiveness."
"Hell, J'siah, how many times y' saved m' life?" Vin asked.
"Don't matter if it's one or a hundred, Vin," he replied. "I'm askin' that little boy to forgive me – if he can."
Vin thought on that for a moment, then he nodded. "If'n it's forgiveness y' want, then it's yers, J'siah."
Those tears welled up in the older man's eyes and trickled down his face as he nodded. "Thank you, Vin. I truly thank you for that."
"Weren't no hardship," Vin told him, looking slightly embarrassed by the older man's emotions.
"Means a great deal to me, son."
Vin dipped his head and said, "Then I reckon I'm glad I could give it."
"Me, too," Josiah said. "Now, why don't you get back in bed and get some sleep. It'll make you stronger, and that'll keep Nathan happy."
Vin grumbled something under his breath that would be unquotable in polite company, but he stood and left the quilt on the back of the chair, walking back to the bed. Climbing in, he called to Josiah, "Sure appreciate the custard, J'siah, it was mighty fine."
"I'll see if I can't bring by some more tomorrow."
"Yer a good friend, J'siah, always have been."
Josiah nodded, a small smile on his face. The weight he'd been carrying since he'd realized who Vin was had finally been lifted from his soul and he felt like a new man. Forgiveness was a rare blessing, but then, Vin Tanner was a rare friend.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
To Vin's surprise it was Ezra who arrived with more custard the following day. "Josiah asked me to deliver this while he ensures that our resident healer is occupied for a short while," the gambler explained as he set the bowl and a cup of coffee down for the tracker.
Vin grinned and tossed back the covers, climbing out of bed and padding barefoot to the rocking chair by the window. He sat down and started in on the treat, his eyes closing as he savored the first bite.
Ezra sat on the edge of another chair, looking decidedly uncomfortable.
"Somethin' eatin' ya?" Vin asked, watching the man as he continued to eat his pudding.
The gambler jumped slightly, then forced himself to sit back, striking a more relaxed pose, but it didn't fool Vin for a moment. "No, nothing," the gambler stated, but his eyes were looking everywhere but at Vin.
"If y' say so," Tanner replied, digging back into the custard until it was gone, followed quickly by the coffee. He sat back when he was done, a satisfied smile on his lips, his eyes closed.
The silence stretched on until Ezra finally said, "Mr. Tanner… Vin… I… I find myself needing to… make a confession."
Vin's eyes blinked open as he replied, "Reckon Josiah be more 'n happy t' hear it."
Ezra chuffed out a sad laugh. "No, it's not our resident preacher I need to make this confession to, it's you."
That put a half-worried, half-confused look on the tracker's face. "Me?"
The gambler nodded. "It has to do to with the war…"
Vin waited for several moments, thinking Ezra would go on, and when he didn't he said, "Men do lots 'a things in war they's sorry for."
Standish nodded. "I would agree with you, but I was never in the war, not exactly."
That put a small grin on the tracker's face. "How can y' be not 'xactly in a war?"
"I never fought," Ezra stated.
"Didn't reckon y' had," Vin admitted.
Ezra smiled sadly. "Yes, Mother and I were able to spend that time in the relative peace and safety of Santa Marta… in Mexico…"
Vin nodded. "Been there once; nice enough place."
Ezra nodded as well. It was a lovely seaside town, with villas and wide streets. The wealthy from all of the United States went there for the climate and the digression of the local inhabitants. But that wasn't what he needed to talk to Vin about. He cleared his throat and said, "I never fought, but I did wear the uniform of the Confederacy… once. And, yes, Santa Marta is nice, more than nice, really, but we were only able to afford our time there with the riches we acquired when a friend of Mother's was killed."
Vin thought for a moment, still unsure what this had to do with him, and said, "Well, reckon if it was a friend, he would've wanted a friend t' have it."
"Perhaps," Ezra agreed. "He was rather fond of Mother, but it was in the course of acquiring that booty, and transporting it to Mother, that I caused harm to a young Confederate soldier…"
Vin's forehead wrinkled for a moment, then his eyes rounded with surprise. "The lieutenant with the wagon!"
Ezra nodded, his cheeks going rosy red. "You said something while you were feverish that brought back that terrible memory…"
Vin scowled. "Just how much was I talkin' while I's sick?"
"Enough," Ezra said, amusement on his face. "The point of this being… I am so very sorry, Vin. I never intended you harm. I only wished to escape the situation as quickly as possible, without my lie being found out."
"And with the goods," Vin added, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. They all knew Ezra P. Standish was a gambler and grifter, card sharp and swindler, but he was also their friend – a man who had put his life on the line for each one of them many a time.
Ezra's cheeks turned a deeper red. "Yes, well, you were right that day. I was nothing but a thief but, as I said, the man was dead, and Mother and I needed the goods to escape the war…" He looked over at Vin. "I am truly sorry, my friend."
Vin nodded, realizing that Ezra had come looking for forgiveness as well. "I forgive y', Ezra. Y' were just doin' what y' had t' in order t' survive. We all were."
"Still, knowing that boy was you… I wasn't at all sure I could live with that knowledge…"
"Weren't that bad," Vin said with a half shrug. "Faced plenty worse before that, an' after…"
"Then I am even sorrier that was the case," Ezra said in a whisper.
Vin shrugged again. "Just the way things worked out," he said, his own thoughts drifting back. He'd been weak after the whipping, the wounds never really healing. It had made him less careful, and in the end that had cost him a bullet to the head that had damn near killed him in that POW camp… "Don't do a man much good t' dwell on it," he said a little thickly, not really wanting to think on those days himself.
Ezra nodded his understanding, and agreement. "Still, I wanted you to know that I'm sincerely sorry, and if there was a way to change it, I most certainly would."
"That's good enough fer me," Vin replied with a small nod, forcing the memories back into the dark corners they usually occupied. Then he smiled shyly and asked, "Think maybe y' can find me another helpin' of that custard?"
"It would be my pleasure," Ezra replied, standing and smiling. Somehow he'd known Vin would forgive him, it was just the kind of man Vin Tanner was, but he was relieved, and more grateful than he could ever say.
He hadn't told Vin, but the events of that day had raised the first questions in his mind as to how he and his mother made their living. And while he hadn't left that path, he had always hoped that, one day, he might do so. How very ironic it was then, that, now that he had, it was in the company of the very man who had first nudged him in this direction…
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The next day it was Chris – with a slice of apple pie – and Buck – with a bowl of custard, and a cup of coffee – that arrived to see him. Vin looked from the two treats to the two men and back again, saying, "Ah hell, tell me I didn't say somethin' that made ya remember somethin' that happened in the past that has t' do with me!"
Buck choked and coughed, nearly dropping the bowl of custard, while some of the coffee sloshed over the rim of the cup, falling onto the wooden plank floor.
Chris shot the tracker a surprised look, but it was Buck's reaction that really took him by surprise.
Vin closed his eyes, groaned, and shook his head.
"What's goin' on?" Larabee asked, glancing from the still-healing man to his oldest friend.
Buck, who was as pale as Vin, took the custard and coffee to the small table near the rocking chair and sat down. He glanced over at Vin, who was regarding him with a wary look.
"Whatever it is, I forgive ya, okay?" Tanner said, scooting up in the bed, his hand coming up as if to fend off whatever Buck might say.
That put a flummoxed look on the ladies' man's face. Then, he laughed – loudly. "Well, if the truth be told, it's Chris here who owes you a long-overdue word of thanks," Buck said, leaning back, still chuckling. "Ain't no forgiveness involved."
"What are you talkin' about, Buck?" Chris asked, looking even more confused as he stuck the plate with the slice of apple pie into Vin's hands and then sat down in a chair of his own.
Buck folded his arms over his chest and rocked in the chair as he said, "Ol' Chris here never got a look at ya, but I did," he said to Vin, watching as tracker made quick work of the pie. "Battle of Franklin mean anything to you, Vin?"
Vin choked on the pie he was swallowing. His eyes rounded.
"Reckoned it might," Buck said, nodding, a knowing smile on his face. "Most of the fightin' was done, and we had orders to secure some of Johnny Reb's supplies," Buck said, his eyes taking on a faraway look as he recalled that day. "Problem was, Rebs had a couple 'a snipers positioned up on a hill to protect those supplies… Cannon fire killed one of 'em, but the other one kept hummin' the same tune, over and over."
All the blood slipped from Tanner's face and he pushed shakily from the bed, walking over to drop into a chair and start in on his custard and coffee, his hands trembling hard enough that both men could see it.
Buck's voice took on a more gentle tone as he continued, "That sniper had a shot… had ol' Chris clear in his sights, but he didn't take that shot…" Buck smiled at Vin. "…Ya know why?"
"Didn't cotton t' shootin' a man in the back, no matter who he was," Vin said quietly, but both men heard him.
Buck laughed, and Chris' eyes rounded with surprise. "That was Vin?" he asked, looking at the ladies' man.
He nodded. "Hearin' him hummin' that damn song brought it all back ta me…"
Blue eyes met green. "Never recognized ya, either of ya, I swear," Vin said, shaking his head, then he offered them a wry smile as he added, "'Course I got shot in the head back then, ended up in a POW camp, probably knocked the rememberin' right out 'a me."
Buck's amused expression disappeared in a instant. "Damn, Vin, I had no idea… 'Course I thought ol' Uriah Carter had killed ya that day. Probably why I never recognized you, either, not 'til I heard that damn song…" His forehead wrinkled and he asked, "What was it anyway?"
"That damn song," Buck replied.
"Hell if I c'n remember," Vin said, going back to his dessert.
"Well, hell, Vin, ya mean you're gonna leave me hangin'?" Buck groused.
Vin shrugged, his mouth too full to speak.
Chris just shook his head, amazed at the way life turned out sometimes. Chris Larabee lived by few rules, but ever since that day, he'd adhered to never shooting a man in the back, and that had meant he'd had to think about the rest of the rules he chose to stick to, the exercise making him the kind of man Sarah had fallen in love with… Yeah, he was damn amazed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three days later
Vin lay on his bedroll in his wagon, a contented smile on his face as he enjoyed his new-found freedom. Nathan had finally let him out of the clinic, and he planned to enjoy himself – eating when and what he wanted, sleeping like a normal man, and picking up his duties as well… in a day or two.
And, as he lay there, his thoughts drifted on the revelations that had punctuated his recovery. He realized that the six men he called his friends, his family, had actually been a part of his life all along. It was a rather frightening notion, like maybe there was a plan to it after all.
Josiah had saved him from that sergeant, Vin was sure of that. It was true, too, that Josiah had placed him in a place of horror, but that hadn't been Josiah's fault. He hadn't known what was happening there. And him being there had helped bring that horror to an end.
Of course, running away from the orphanage had landed him in a Confederate uniform, and he'd been forced to do what he'd had to in order to survive, but he never gave a damn about the things the Confederacy was fighting for. At the time, it all seemed rather pointless to him, though he knew the Negros were glad to be free, and he was glad for them.
Chances were, he would've pissed off that captain enough the man would've killed him. But that run-in with Ezra had weakened him more than he already had been thanks to lack of food and constant forced marches. But the whipping made it certain he was with the stragglers, and that was why he'd been left up on that ridge to guard supplies, rather than fight in the battle itself. If he hadn't already been sick, he would have been in the thick of the fight, might have killed both Buck and Chris that day. As it was, he'd spared Chris his life, and ended up getting shot.
And if he hadn't gotten shot he wouldn't have ended up in that POW camp. His time there was pure hell. He knew he would have died, too, if it hadn't been for that Negro healer.
Vin abruptly sat up. Nathan. That Negro healer had been Nathan Jackson. That was why Nathan had wanted to know if Vin owed him the day he'd saved his life. Well, Goddamn.
Dropping back onto his bedroll, Vin shook his head and chuffed out a laugh. If that didn't beat all… Nathan Jackson had saved his life in that camp, and he'd returned the favor, saving Nathan's life the day those drovers had tried to hang him. And since that day they had saved each other's lives more times than either man could count.
Being in that POW camp had meant he wasn't killed on the battlefield somewhere. And when he was released, the horrors he'd seen in the war and in the camp had made him believe he had no place in the white man's world, so he'd returned to the Comancheria, looking for any survivors from his Kiowa family. There were none, and he was captured by the Comanche, made a slave, and then adopted into the tribe.
Those had been good years, and he had learned a great deal while living with the People. When the Army had come to take them to Indian Territory, he had fought beside them, would have died with them, but the color of his skin saved his life. Still, the Army hadn't wanted anything to do with a white man who willingly chose to live among the Indians. Better to tell themselves they had saved him, made him white again, just like they did in that book JD prized so highly. But if it hadn't been for that book JD might not have come west. They might be without their "youngster." So some good had come of it.
But the truth was the Army had sold him like he'd been no more than a horse, or a pot. They sold him to other white men who were less human than most he'd met in his short life. The buffalo hunters had put his skills from the war to use, though, killing off the very animals both peoples he'd called his own depended on for survival. But his people, his Kiowa and Comanche families, they were all dead. And he had been dead inside then, too. So he'd killed buffalo until he'd been able to slip away from the hunters, wandering aimlessly until he'd picked up another way of life – bounty hunter.
Looking back now, it all seemed to fit together in ways he'd never seen before, and he had to think that maybe that was because his friends had been there. That crossing paths with them was what had led him here, to Four Corners, and to the same men who had been shaping his life from the start.
Because, God knew, bounty hunting hadn't ended well, either. He was a wanted man – the very thing he'd hunted – and the one man who could clear his name was dead. But the men who had shaped his path so many times in the past were here as well, each of them watching his back. He chuffed out another small laugh and shook his head. Josiah was right, he decided. God worked in ways too damn odd for a simple man like him to understand. He was just grateful he'd crossed each of their paths again.
But it was odd, and he couldn't help casting back his thoughts, looking for any others he might have run into before… a pretty blonde girl, a stern-looking mature woman…
He smiled. He'd always known that he was where he was supposed to be, although he'd never understood why. Now he knew. He was here because they were here, because that was the way it was supposed to be all along, and he was at peace.
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