Chance Encounter2015 Gamblers and Gunfighters Winchester Award
by Mary Ann

Beta - Rosalee - Thanks Girl

Main Character: Vin - guest appearance Chris & Buck

Wish they were mine. But for a little while they are...

Chapter 1

Skinny legs pumping, long pants rolled up around his ankles and tied at the waist with a piece of rope, a faded, too long green shirt tucked into the pants; the boy raced from the barn towards the house. His morning chores done, he was hungry and wasn't allowed to eat until the barn had been cleaned. Knowing it took him almost until lunch time the lady of the house always gave him a biscuit to tide him over.

The small long-haired boy known as Vin Tanner slowed as he reached the clapboard house. He could see the two teenage boys coming from the corn field with their father. For a moment he wished he could work in the field in the morning sometime, and then changed his mind, he'd rather be around the horses.

The pan of wash water sat under the roof overhang on the bench beside the back door. Vin smiled as he washed because for once it was clean water; usually he was the last one to get to the house and had to wait for the others to wash off. Savoring the fresh water, he washed his face and hands and decided he'd try to get to the creek later in the day to take a bath. Drying his hands on a piece of towel, he hung it up, entered the house, sat down at the table and quietly waited for the others to arrive.

He heard the man and his sons as they washed up. Mr. Turner, the first through the door, hung up his hat and walked to the head of the table.

"Your barn chores done?" the tall man asked looking at Vin as he sat down.

"Yes sir, all done," Vin replied.

The teen brothers barreled into the house shoving and playing as they walked through the door. They straightened up and slid into their seats, the younger boy sitting beside Vin, the older across from them. As soon as the boys got quiet Mrs. Turner brought filled bowls to each one; the bowl held savory stew with a piece of bread placed on the edge. Mr. Turner was served the largest helping, then their sons and lastly Vin.

Vin was almost drooling at the smell of the food and fresh baked bread. He swallowed and bowed his head, knowing better than to dig in before the prayer was said. Mr. Turner closed his eyes and began to pray. Vin wished he'd hurry, Turner went on for so long that their food barely stayed warm.

Finally the man said, "Amen," and the boys began to eat. Vin was careful not to be the first one done, he had learned that he would get more only if the others hadn't finished the food off first. Mrs. Turner was a good cook, but many times didn't make enough food to feed three growing boys and two adults. Vin hid his smile when he got another helping of the stew and a small piece of bread. He quickly ate to satisfy his hunger.

When the boys were finished eating they sat quietly until Mr. Turner had his plate cleaned and finally rose to his feet. The teens, David and Joseph, jumped up and before Turner was away from the table were out the door.

"Come to the field when you are finished here," Turner told Vin as he walked out the door after kissing his wife on the cheek.

Vin waited until Mrs. Turner got up, a hand on her enlarging belly. Vin knew she was going to have a baby in a couple of months and had wondered what it would be like to have a tiny person in the house.

When the dark haired woman walked into the kitchen area, Vin rose and began clearing the table. David hadn't eaten his second piece of bread and Vin shot a glance over his shoulder to see where the Misses was. Seeing she had turned away from him he slipped the bread into his pocket to eat later.

Stacking the used bowls and silverware beside the sink he took the wet cloth from Mrs. Turner and carefully washed the table, making sure there were no crumbs or drips on it. Finished, he handed it back to her and waited for her to let him know what else needed to be done.

Mrs. Turner told him he could go and Vin hurried out the door and towards the field. He glanced at the sky and knew the weather had changed since he'd come from the barn. The air had stilled, there was no breeze and the sky had an odd color to it. It was hot and hard to breathe. He pushed his long hair back and felt it crackle, a storm was coming and by the feel of it, soon.

Reaching the field he was told to pull weeds and which rows to do. Vin worked fast and quick, the voices of the teens and Turner easily carrying in the silent afternoon.

It was getting dark when Turner called to the boys, telling them to head to the house. Vin slowly straightened, his lower back ached and his hands felt like claws and he worked his fingers to loosen them. David and Joseph hurried after their father as Vin lagged behind trying to work the pain out of his back and hands. The afternoon had changed to rolling dark clouds that steadily got worse.

By the time Vin reached the house dark had fallen. A kit lantern hung by the door, over the wash bench. He quickly washed his hands in the dirty water and hurried inside, to his place at the table. They were served the left over stew from lunch with larger pieces of bread with honey. Milk from the cellar was cool and Vin enjoyed the refreshing drink.

Once dinner was finished and the dishes were cleaned and put away, the family gathered around the fireplace and Mr. Turner read from the Bible for a half hour.

Vin could barely keep his eyes open, he still wanted to go to the creek to wash. Finally the Turners all made their way to their beds. Vin's ladder was in place so he could get up into his 'room' in the attic. A lantern was left on in the kitchen, turned low and placed safely in the middle of the table. From its dim light Vin made his way up the ladder, felt around and grabbed the towel and soap that he was allowed. With them tucked under his arm he descended the ladder and went out the door.

Outside Vin paused a moment. He could smell rain and watched as a flash of lightning lit the eastern sky. For a minute he stood there, not sure if it was a good idea to go to the creek. Rubbing his chest under the oversized shirt, he made up his mind, and took off at a jog towards the creek that curved around behind the barn and house about 300 feet away.

Cool water flowed slowly around rocks and a small deep spot made the perfect place to bathe. Vin stripped and eased into the water, goose-bumps rose on his thin body but the coolness felt good after the heat of the day.

Ducking into the water, Vin quickly washed his hair then the rest of him. It felt good to get the grime of the last few days off him and he wasted several minutes just to enjoy the water.

Lightning flashed and the sound of far off thunder rolled over the countryside. Vin reluctantly got out of the water and toweled off. Pulling on pants and shoes he carried his shirt, towel and soap and headed back to the house.

Up in the attic Vin opened the windows at each end of the stuffy, narrow space. A small breeze began to blow. He hesitated a minute then pulled his bedding to where he'd piled four trunks and laid a piece of canvas over them with the sides weighed down with other trunks and boxes.

He'd found that the roof leaked in several places a short time after he was taken in by the family almost a year ago. The first rain storm had soaked him and his bed and clothes; he'd ended up huddled in front of the fireplace and had to endure a lecture from Mr. Turner at how disrespectful he was to make more work for Mrs. Turner. His punishment had been to scrub the floors of the living and the kitchen/dining area. He has learned that he wasn't allowed to sleep anywhere but in the attic.

After that he'd found the piece of canvas in the barn and snuck it into the house one night after the family had gone to bed. He had made himself a small tent like enclosure with the trunks and other things stored up there to keep the rain off him and his few belongings and blankets for when it rained. Vin found it worked well in the winter also, the canvas was long enough to fold down and enclose the trunks and his bed, keeping him warmer.

Vin fell asleep before it began to rain. The lightning and thunder never quite reached the homestead. The rain came down hard for a short time but barely wet the parched ground. Lightning continued to flash in the sky the rest of the night to the east of them.

Morning dawned overcast with dark rolling clouds overhead. A hot wind stirred limbs in the trees along the creek and the apple trees near the house. Vin made his way down the ladder after closing the attic windows. Mrs. Turner handed him a warm buttered biscuit as he paused in the kitchen. A cup of milk was offered and he gratefully accepted it.

The house was overly warm and Vin was happy to get outside, even though the wind blew hot, it still moved. He hurried to the outhouse then to the barn to start his chores.

He'd turned the horses out into the horse pasture and the milk cows into their pasture and was busy cleaning stalls when a loud crash of thunder overhead made him jump. The wind rattled the doors and windows of the barn as lightning lit the building. For a moment Vin huddled in the stall as the storm seemed to build right over the barn.

The wind howled and lightning crackled as thunder seemed to roll around the corners of the barn's roof, starting at one corner and circling around to crash with deafening noise where it had started.

Shaking, Vin continued to work, thinking he was safe in the barn. He found that emptying the wheel barrow outside the back of the barn was almost impossible. He pushed it out the back door where the power of the wind picked up the loose straw in the barrow and then whipped the loaded wheelbarrow out of his hands. Horrified that the mess was now blowing all over the place he dragged the barrow back into the barn and stood there not sure what to do. The front double doors suddenly blew open and crashed against the walls, Vin ran to try to latch them closed. When he reached them he smelled smoke and paused, looking everywhere for the source.

Blue eyes took in the house and he realized it was on fire. He saw Mrs. Turner come out of the house carrying something as her skirt whipped around her in the wind. She placed her burden next to the tree at the edge of the yard and hurried back into the house. Vin ran as fast as he could towards the house, scared but needing to help.

In the house he called out for Mrs. Turner who appeared from a back room.

"Vin, take this out to the tree then go for Mr. Turner and the boys. We need help," she said as she handed him a huge blanket wrapped bundle.

"I can help you Ma'am…"

"No, go for help."

"But … You be safe?"

"I'll be careful, now go," she pushed Vin towards the door.

Vin left, he could hear crackling in the attic and had a feeling his few belongings were being burned. All of a sudden he remembered, the only thing he had left of his mother was there. He dropped the bundle by the door and ran to the ladder and swiftly climbed to his attic room. The end of the room was engulfed in flames that were quickly spreading. He stayed low and crawled to his bed and rolled his blanket around his few clothes and found the small box that held the picture of his mom and the harmonica that belonged to his father.

He heard Mrs. Turner scream for him and he rushed to the ladder and flew down, tucked the box under his rope belt and ran across the room to the bundle he'd dropped. Mrs. Turner was at the door, the panicked look on her face smoothed out when she saw him.

"Get this outside and go… NOW!" she screamed at him.

Vin grabbed the heavy bundle and half dragging it ran out the door with her behind him carrying another bundle. As soon as he dropped the bundle under the tree he turned and raced down the road to get the others. He saw Mrs. Turner drop her things and hurry back into the house. Instinct told him she shouldn't be working like that, running and carrying heavy burdens. He ran faster.

As he ran the wind seemed to be trying to drag him backwards and twice he was knocked off his feet when a powerful gust struck him. Bruised, he rose and ran on, wishing now that the corn field was closer. Minutes, that felt like hours later, he reached the field and gazed in horror at all the flattened corn stalks. For a moment he didn't see Mr. Turner or his sons and he began to worry when he caught sight of colors that weren't corn stalks beside the road below a slight bank. The three Turners were sheltered from the worse of the wind, Mr. Turner holding his sons to him.

Taking a deep breath, relieved that they were there, Vin urged his shaking legs into moving again and ran towards them. Mr. Turner turned his head towards Vin and a worried look crossed his face before it was replaced with an angry one.

"What are you doing here?" Mr. Turner yelled at him over the thunder overhead when Vin stopped beside them.

"Fire…. House is on … Fire… Mrs. sent me for … you," Vin gasped out as loud as he could to be heard.

For a moment Mr. Turner stood staring at Vin in shock, before he looked back towards the rise that hid the house and barn. He couldn't see anything other than the grass and nearby trees whipping in the ferocious wind. Releasing his sons he ran; the brothers right behind him. Vin followed slower as he caught his breath and got his quivering legs under control. Happy that the wind now pressed against his back, it pushed him along rather than having to fight his way into the face of it again, he hurried towards the house.

When he topped the small rise, Vin saw Mr. Turner reach his wife and hold her as their sons stopped beside them. They all stared at the house that was now totally engulfed in flames.

Vin stopped several feet away from the family as smoke and ash swirled around and around in the wind, making the house burn faster. Vin dropped to the ground and wrapped his arms around his legs as he watched the inferno and shivered as another thought crossed his mind. He was homeless; would the Turners keep him or send him away?

A shout from Turner had Vin scrambling to his feet and hurrying towards the barn with the man and the teens. A few sparks were dropping near the structure and they began to stomp them out while Mr. Turner grabbed buckets of water and threw the water at the front of the barn.

With another blinding flash of lightning and deafening crash of thunder rain came down in a heavy downpour. Relief flowed through the man and boys as it quickly put out the sparks that had landed where they couldn't reach them. Thankfully the wind started to die out also; they weren't buffeted as hard as they had been.

Hearing a loud cry behind them they turned back to the house and saw Mrs. Turner struggling to carry the things she'd gotten out of the burning house towards them.

"Get the things from under the tree, put them in the barn," Mr. Turner ordered as he hurried towards his wife, the three boys ran to the piled items while Mr. took the heavy burden from his wife. She went back for more as her husband hurried into the barn.

Vin was amazed at what the woman managed to get out of the house in the time she had. His small bundle was there with the others and he carried it with a pile of blankets into the barn.

Chapter 2

The family and Vin stood in the dry barn and watched as the fire consumed the house and then as the flames eventually died in the downpour.

"What are we going to do Adam?" Mrs. Turner asked as tears rolled down her cheeks.

"We'll be fine Ruth. We have enough put aside to rebuild. For now we'll bed down in here. I have enough lumber to make a cover to cook under. We'll get started as soon as we can."

"What about the baby? Will the house be ready by then?" she buried her head in her husband's shoulder.

"All will be fine, my dear. Our neighbors will help and so will our boys. Besides Jesus was born in a stable, we can do the same if need be," he reassured her as he held her against him.

Adam Turner turned his head to his sons and Vin. "Boys, clean out the first two stalls, to the ground. They are going to be our bedrooms for awhile. Vin get the wheelbarrow. David, Joseph get to work," He led his wife to his work bench where his tack and tools hung in a neat formation over the top of the bench. He pulled out the chair he used and sat her down, glancing at the boys to be sure they were working, then began stacking the items on the work bench out of the way. When he finished he brought over various bundles Ruth had saved.

Vin and Joseph cleaned the stalls while David wheeled the loaded wheelbarrow out the back door and dumped it. When the stalls were cleaned they climbed into the loft and pushed fresh hay and straw down into the stalls. Once the hay was deep enough, the three boys finished cleaning the barn and what Vin had not completed before the fire. David complained as he worked, unhappy to have to do Vin's chores. Mr. Turner finally told him if he didn't be quiet he'd do all the barn chores the next day.

When the boys had finished Turner asked them to remove stored lumber from the loft. He helped them as they eased the long boards over the loft lip, catching the ends and laid them in the aisle.

As the boys and her husband worked, Mrs. Turner covered the work bench with a piece of burlap and began to set out the food and other things she had manage to save from the fire. She wouldn't let herself fret over what happened, they were all safe and no one injured, life went on. She did mourn the loss of her cook stove and lace tablecloth for a few minutes then turned to opening more blankets that she'd packed with things, not sure what all she'd manage to grab. When she saw Vin's blanket and the small bundle he'd made she looked up to where he worked in the loft, feeling guilty she hadn't even thought of him and his few belongings and was relieved that he had. She found bread and meat and covered them on the bench; she'd make sure the little boy had a good meal, the best she could do right then, for all of his help that day.

After removing all the lumber from the loft, the rain seemed to have decided the countryside had enough moisture and slowed down then stopped. A short time later the sun came out and started the process of drying things out.

It was mid-afternoon before Joseph mentioned that he was hungry and asked if they could they eat something.

Vin was happy someone had asked; he was so hungry that he had a headache, but was scared to mention it after all that had happened that day. He never complained before, and wouldn't now.

Mr. Turner brought a bucket of water to the barn and they washed as Mrs. Turner prepared sandwiches.

Thanking Mrs. Turner, Vin sat on the board bench Mr. Turner had put together, a wide board nailed to the top of two short barrels. When Vin bit into the sandwich he realized it was thicker than the sandwiches she'd made for the brothers. Eating, Vin shyly looked up at the woman, she smiled at him before turning back to the makeshift kitchen.

After lunch Mr. Turner and the boys drank some water and then walked to the house. It was still smoldering and too hot to get very close. They circled to the back of the house, where the cellar was located. There had been a way to get to the underground room from the house, and also from the outside. The opening had several burned timbers in the stairway, too hot to touch, but it looked as if the heavy wooden door hadn't suffered too much from the fire. He was sure once they got the timbers moved they could get into the cellar. The entrance from the house that connected it to the cellar entrance had caved in and burned wood poked from the muddy ground.

With a purpose now, Mr. Turner headed back to the barn, he had seen that the fireplace was still intact and the iron cook stove seemed in one piece with just burned wood around and on it. It might be salvageable.

At the barn he told the boys to get the horses and move the cows into the corral beside the barn.

Vin headed out, he had an idea where the horses would be, out of the storm. The brothers complained and pushed and shoved each other as they walked through the wet field.

They found the cows in a corner of the field and Vin told David he would get the horses if they wanted to herd the animals back. David quickly agreed to that, he didn't care for the horses saying they didn't like him, not admitting he was scared of them.

Once they had the cows moving Vin headed to where he thought the six horses would be sheltered. A short time later he found them right where he figured to find them. The creek, at one time had flooded and cut a deep bank into a short wide ravine and then changed direction, by-passing the ravine. It left the ravine over 50 feet long and 20 feet wide filled with deep lush grass early in the year. The sides were over 10 feet high and make a perfect place to get out of the wind. The horses were scattered in and just outside of it.

Talking gently to the horses, Vin caught the mane of one of the chestnut draft horses and led it to a boulder. He climbed up on the rock then slid onto the horse's back. Using his legs and hands he guided the horse around the others and urged them towards home. The horses lined up and walked along, one now and then pausing to look around, still a little spooked from the storm. Vin talked to them and kept them moving and before long the barn and corrals came into view. The cows were in the small corral beside the barn and the larger corral gate stood open. Vin urged the horses towards the corral, moving to turn them when they tried to turn away.

Mr. Turner waited by the gate as his sons tossed hay into the fenced area for the horses which immediately broke into a trot when they spotted the clumps of hay. When his mount stopped by some hay Vin slid down his side and with a pat to the horse's shoulder he climbed through the fence and watched as Mr. Turner haltered his riding horse and led it out the gate and into the barn to saddle it. Vin wished he was going with the tall man but knew there was no way he could.

After Mr. Turner ordered the boys to help Mrs. Turner, he rode off to check on the corn, the neighbors and then to town to order lumber.

After doing everything they could for the pregnant woman, Mrs. Turner told them they could go play. The brothers took off together and Vin wandered over to the smoldering house. Knowing he had to be careful, Vin cautiously worked his way as close as he could, being alert to hot places. He pulled some wood from the edge of the house into the wet yard. Before long he had a pile of blackened, burnt wood and a path to where the kitchen had been.

From the trail he made, Vin stood looking at the kitchen area and could see not only the cook stove but some pots and pans and some blackened dishes. He thought some of the items could be saved but it was still too hot to get any closer to the interior of the house. With a sigh Vin turned away, he looked down at himself and knew he'd be in trouble if he didn't get cleaned up. His hands and arms were black as were his clothes and he only had one more set to wear.

Entering the barn, Mrs. Turner looked at Vin and screeched, "Where have you been? You are filthy!"

Vin had brushed off as good as he could but the black clung to him. "I'm sorry Ma'am. I's working by the house, there's some kitchen things I think can be saved. I'll go to the creek and clean up, wash my clothes…"

"You better. Just a minute," the woman said as she went to the covered work bench and dug through a can. "Here's some soap, get as clean as you can," she told him handing the soap to him.

"Yes ma'am," Vin took the soap and from his blanket pulled his clean shirt and pants out, making sure his precious box was hidden in its place. Hurrying out the barn he set off for the creek.

Having never washed clothes before Vin wasn't sure how to do it. He'd watched Mrs. Turner do it, but she had a big tub and a strange board she called a washboard to rub them on, and lots of hot water and smelly soap. He dropped his clean clothes on a dry rock by the creek with the towel he'd been given, taking off his boots he stepped into the creek with his clothes on. It was deeper than the night before and felt colder too, but he ignored it and found a place to sit down and began to wash the clothes on him. Once he had them soaped and rinsed a couple times he took them off and washed them again, happy to see most of the black soot being washed away. He scrubbed himself and ducked under the water to get his hair wet then washed it too.

Finally satisfied he and his clothes were as clean as he could get them be stepped to the edge of the creek and wrung out the clothes then picked up the towel. Stepping on the dry rock he finished drying then pulled on his clean clothes and then socks and boots. Running the towel over his wet head he dried his shoulder length hair a bit then brushed it back out of his face.

He picked up the wet clothes and headed for the barn, stopping long enough to hang the wet items over a rail attached to the back of the barn, and out of reach of inquisitive animals.

Inside he found Mrs. Turner sitting on the chair staring out the door, tear trails down her cheeks. Vin stopped beside her, his hand reached for her shoulder then he drew it back, unsure if he should touch her. Her head turned and she looked at him.

"It'll be all right Ma'am. We'll build you a really nice house."

Ruth Turner wrapped her arm around the small waist of the boy beside her, looking into his large blue eyes she smiled through her tears.

"You are right Vin, you all will build me a nice house. Thank you for everything you do for me. I really appreciate it. Now you go play for awhile, as soon as Mr. Turner is back we'll have dinner."

"Yes ma'am. Can I brush the horses?"

"Be careful around them."

"I will. They like me. Will you be all right?"

"I'll be fine, go on," she gave the slight boy a tiny push that had him moving to a bucket off to the side that held several brushes. Picking one out he raced out the end of the barn. Ruth smiled; he was a nice quiet boy, even though sometimes she got the impression that he was older than his seven years, and more mature than her two sons.

Dinner was cooked over a campfire in a cleared area in front of the barn. Under Ruth's direction the boys had dug the ground down to dry dirt making a shallow hole surrounded by rocks and dirt. Using some firewood that escaped the fire, and wood Vin brought in from the pasture. She let her husband do most of the actual cooking, when he returned, as it had become hard for her to bend over a lot. She had everything prepared and Adam just needed to heat food in a frying pan.

Adam Turner brought news that their neighbors were fine; a couple had sheds blown down but no fires. There would be help in the morning to build an overhang on the front of the barn for a cooking and eating area. He hoped by the time they finished they could reach the stove and get it out of the house for his wife. In two days, more neighbors would be arriving to help clean up the burned dwelling. Once the cleanup was finished building would begin on a new home for them. He had been assured that the mill near town had plenty of lumber available.

That night the boys went to bed in the second stall, over the rails several horse blankets had been placed to afford the adults some privacy in the other stall. Vin made his bed on the sweet smelling hay and straw above the two brothers who argued about which side they wanted to sleep on.

In the morning, before the others were up, Vin fed the horses and cows as Mr. Turner milked the two milk cows. After breakfast the boys were sent to check the on the corn and to pull weeds and straighten any stalks that were bent over. Vin was surprised that they had breakfast before they left.

At the corn field the three boys separated and worked their way through the field, pulling weeds and lifting many bent stalks, stomping the roots deeper into the ground and mounding more dirt around them. They saw two riders head over the hump towards the homestead, and knew help had arrived.

The boys finally finished the field and headed back to the barn area in the mid-afternoon. The five acres of corn were weeded and all of the stalks were upright, the boys were tired out.

Vin trudged along behind the brothers, wanting nothing to do but lay down and rest, his back was aching. He breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the barn and found the overhang was done and somehow the men had been able to remove the stove from the house and brought it to the barn. It was cleaned as much as Mrs. Turner could do and she had cooked dinner on it for all of them.

Two men who Vin had seen a time or two were there for diner and were finishing putting a long bench together. Already a three board wide table sat under the overhang and Vin grinned, he wouldn't have to sit on the ground to eat. The men spent the night there, sleeping under the new overhang in their bedrolls.

The next day the three men were joined by several others and they started cleaning up the burned house. After cleaning the barn with David and Joseph's questionable help and carrying the milk container to the creek to keep it cold, Vin headed off to help the men.

By the end of the day the men and boys were black from the work they had been doing, but more than half of the burned house had been cleared away. As Vin said, they found cooking pans, utensils and some plates, bowls and cups that once cleaned could be used again. In one corner of the room, a trunk which contained extra blankets, towels and baby items had somehow escaped the fire. One corner was scorched and mostly black, but everything inside turned out all right, just needing to be aired out.

They had cleaned out the area in front of the cellar and that night Mrs. Turner produced a filling meal for everyone.

Only one man spent the night, the others had gone home, promising to return the following day. After cleaning up in the creek the men and boys headed for bed, all worn out.

Over the next few days, men arrived to help with clean up, and make plans for the new home. Once the charred wood and timbers were moved, most of them were burned in a bonfire, the boys raked the ground and flattened it. Stakes were placed where corners of the new house would be. With borrowed paper and ink, Mr. and Mrs. Turner drew out plans for the new house.

Vin went with Adam Turner to cut the stakes then he helped place them. Following directions he used the shortest ones to mark off the rooms. Vin was impressed, the new house would be larger and more comfortable, and he would have a small room for himself.

Chapter 3

Almost a week after the fire a wagonload of cut lumber was delivered and the men and the boys began sorting it and shifted it into place. Later that day the second load arrived. Turner was told he'd have to come for the next loads as the owner had no time to deliver them.

The next morning Adam Turner sent his sons to the cornfield and asked Vin to corral the draft horses. In a short time the man had them harnessed and with Vin's help led them to the large wagon stored beside the barn. Working quickly the horses were hitched to the wagon and Turner turned to look at Vin. For some reason he trusted the little boy more than his sons.

"Vin, I want you to go to the mill and pick up the next load of lumber for us. I don't have time to go today, I am too busy building our house," he told the boy.

"I don't know where to go for it," Vin said as the man lifted him up and placed him on the high seat.

"Head for town. When you can see the first buildings there is a road that goes off to your right. It's like a V, you have to turn a little and you'll be at the mill in a short time. Henderson has the order and you just have to wait for it to be loaded, and then come back. It should take you about three or three and a half hours to get there, a little longer to get home. You should be home before dinner. Here," Adam passed Vin a cloth wrapped package. "Mrs. Turner packed you a sandwich for your lunch. Be careful and we'll see you this afternoon."

"But I've never driven four horses far, what if …"Vin started to say.

"Vin, you'll be fine. It's like driving two horses, but you've driven four before in the cornfield. Keep them to a walk and all will work out fine. Now go on. They like you, just talk to them."

"Yes sir," Vin gripped the long reins in his hands and with almost all his might slapped them down on the horses' backs. "Get up. Go Merry, Zak, yeehaa."

The front team stepped out and the wheelers fell into step. The wagon lurched and then rolled easily away from the barn. Passing the field he saw the brothers picking corn and remembering Mrs. Turner had said they'd have fresh corn for dinner, hoped he'd be back in time. He liked corn on the cob. They reached the turn for the road to town and he turned the teams onto it. He breathed a sigh of relief as the horses turned easily onto the well packed road and walked steadily onward.

Vin relaxed a little on the seat as the horses moved along. He was a little surprised that Mr. Turner let him take the horses and wagon to pick up the lumber, if anyone, he thought, David, the oldest should be here, not Vin, the youngest.

"Oh well, I guess it's alright, I don't have ta work hard today," he told the horses as they plodded along. It seemed to take forever before he spotted the town in the distance. Watching closely he saw the road that branched off to the right at the bottom of the small hill they were crossing over. He pulled the reins tight to keep horses from breaking into a fast gait as they went down the hill. At the bottom Vin turned them to the right onto the other road. He glanced at the sun and figured it was close to noon, he was hungry and hoped Mr. Henderson didn't close for lunch. He decided to eat his lunch while the wagon was being loaded.

A man was standing on the porch of the mill's office when Vin arrived. Vin was told to drive the team around the corner into the yard where the lumber was waiting. Turning the horses towards the wide gate Vin managed to guide them around the building, through the gate and into the area in front of a long shed that was quiet now, with piled lumber and trees nearby. Another man waved Vin to a stack of lumber and Vin pulled the horses to a halt beside it. He let his arms fall limply into his lap, relaxing arms and shoulders from the strain of holding onto the reins.

Vin ate his lunch and got water from the water pump near the office building. After drinking his fill he watered the horses. He filled the bucket three times before the four horses had slaked their thirst, and then he replaced the bucket and climbed back onto the wagon.

A short time later the wagon was loaded and Mr. Henderson told Vin to tell the Turners he still had plenty of lumber, at the price he'd quoted him. He gave Vin a sheet of paper to give to Adam Turner that Vin folded and placed in his pocket for safe keeping.

With a "Be careful," Henderson stepped away from the wagon as Vin released the brake and shook the reins, to get the horses moving.

The horses moved along steadily, the large load moving easily along and soon they were at the small hill where they struggled for a moment before getting into step and pulling hard, large hooves digging into the hard ground. Vin urged them on as they hauled the load up the hill.

At the top, Vin breathed in relief as he reined in the horses to a slow walk, letting them rest from the climb. Once on the flat they traveled a short time before trees closed in around the road, blocking the view for several miles. Vin looked at the trees, many tall enough to tower over the wagon, making it almost like a tunnel. An uneasy feeling overcame him as he drove through the area. Knowing the horses could sense his unease he forced himself to calm down, he didn't want them to run away on him.

Vin kept an eye out for what was bothering him, but didn't see anything in the forest. As the lead team cleared the woods a huge flock of prairie hens flew up and away almost under the leader's feet. Merry half reared, neighing loudly as Zak jumped sideways, almost knocking the big mare over. The wheelers danced in place as Vin fought to pull them in line and to a stop. Shaking her head Merry lunged forward pulling the others with her, breaking into a rough trot and then a canter as she gained her stride.

"No! Whoa Merry, come on slow down Zak. Whoa, whoa guys, whoa …" Vin braced his feet on the footboard of the wagon, frantically trying to get the big horses to stop, while tightening the reins and calling to them. Working hard to stay calm and gain control of the four horses, Vin didn't see the rider coming from the west and a little behind him.

The young man passing through the area was headed no-where in particular. He had come out of the forest a half mile back, heading a little more southeast when he saw the heavily loaded wagon come out of the trees. When the hens exploded under the horse's feet, he wondered for an instant if they'd try to run off.

As they took off, slowly at first, then faster he continued on his way figuring the driver could handle the team and get them controlled quickly. As he rode on he heard what sounded like a child's voice calling out, and he looked closer at the wagon. There was no man to be seen, just a small figure that looked as if it were tangled in the long reins.

"Gypsy, go," he urged his bay mare into a run.

Vin's arms felt as if they were being pulled out of his shoulders as he fought to get control of the four horses. His lower back was burning as he braced himself. He wasn't sure how long he could hold out and kept calling calmly to Merry and Zak, while they fought to break into a run. 'Least we'll get home sooner, if we don't crash' he thought for a moment.

Something edged into his mind and he glanced around looking for danger. Instead he saw a horse and rider angling towards him at a run.

Relief washed through Vin as the rider got closer, then a stab of fear. 'Was this help or a robber?' He glanced at the rider whose hat had blown off and was hanging down his back, blond hair glinted in the sun. 'Help', Vin decided and turned back to his horses.

Vin's hands were slipping on the long reins when the dark horse passed him, going to the lead horses. Reaching down the man grabbed the bridle by Merry's bit and pulled back. Merry shook her large head and finally began to slow with Zak slowing beside her as the rider exerted pressure on the bit and calmly talked to them.

Finally the horses were stopped and stood quietly, blowing and breathing hard. The rider turned his horse to the small figure slumped on the seat of the big wagon.

Arms shaking, Vin sat on the seat, reins loose in his numb hands. He was exhausted from the fight that felt like it lasted all day. He heard the rider stop beside him, and raised his head.

"Are you alright?" the blond asked as large brilliant blue eyes rose to gaze at him.

" 'm fine," Vin replied as a green-eyed gaze swept over him and something else.

The blond studied the skinny boy that looked no more than seven years old - if that - then looked behind him at the loaded wagon and beyond. He thought there had to be an adult somewhere.

"Jist me. Others are at the farm rebuilding the house," Vin replied and realized the blond was only about 10 years older than him

"They let you come alone?"

Vin shrugged. "I's the only one they could spare."

Green eyes once more studied the youngster, noticing how thin he was beneath the oversized clothing, and how exhausted he looked. With a shake of his head the teen reached for his canteen.

"Here, have a drink of water," he said as he passed the canteen to the boy.


Accepting the canteen, Vin smiled and took a deep drink then replaced the plug and handed it back.

"'preciate that," he said looking around a moment then reached for the reins. "Guess I better get on before I's late."

"Are you sure you can control them now?" the blond asked eying the fragile looking boy again.

"Yeah. Merry an' Zak don't like birds flying up under their feet. I'll keep better look out for that so's it don't happen again. I think they're settled down now. Thanks for stopping them, don't think I could have." Vin said as he looked into the green eyes again and felt something go through him he'd never felt before.

Green eyes gazed back at him and then blinked as if the same thing was going through the teen's thoughts too. The blond finally nodded his head and pulled his horse back so the wagon could continue on. He felt reluctant to leave.

"Maybe I'll ride a little ways with you to be sure your horses won't act up now," he said.

"Alright, thanks," Vin slapped the reins across the horses' backs. "Get up Merry, Zak, step out. Time to get back, haaa…" Vin called to the horses.

The lead team put their shoulders into the harness and started forward with a jerk then lined out as the wheelers fell into step with them. The heavily loaded wagon moved forward rolling steadily behind the four draft horses.

Smiling as the slight figure got the two tons or more of horseflesh moving smoothly, the teen watched the lead team. After several minutes he realized the horses were completely settled and were listening to the boy again. They would make it home safely now.

Pulling close to the wagon the blond looked across at the youngster, he felt like he knew the child and should stay with him or take him with him on his journey. But he pushed the odd feeling away and smiled at the boy when he turned his blue gaze towards him.

"Looks like you know your horses. I'll head out, have to go that way. Get home safe," he told the youngster as he pointed off to the left of them.

"Thanks for the help. Have a safe trip. Thank you," Vin told the blond.

With a wave the bay horse and his blond rider rode away heading southeast as Vin and the wagon moved southwest. Vin watched the horseman leave and then realized he didn't know the teen's name, but he was too far to call to him. 'Oh well, will never see him again,' he thought.

When the rider had disappeared Vin looked forward, with a glance at the sky he figured they still had a couple hours before reaching he farm.

It was just past sundown when Vin pulled the horses to a halt near the building site. He was exhausted, his arms and back ached from the strain the four horses put on him. The last hour had been demanding on him. The horses knew they were almost home and kept trying to go faster. He had fought the rest of the way to the farm, sometimes having to stand braced against the footboard to hold onto the horses.

Mr. Turner and another man hurried to the loaded wagon where the small boy was slumped on

the seat his arms hanging limply at his sides. Climbing to the seat Adam took the boy in his arms and passed him down to his friend, telling Vin he'd done very well.

The man passed Vin back to Turner who gently carried him to the barn and inside. He placed Vin on his hay bed and covered him. Vin pulled the blankets over his head and was asleep before Turner moved out of the stall.

Vin's arms, shoulders and back still ached the next morning and he was slow getting up. When he walked out of the barn, Mrs. Turner called him to the table where she had placed a filled plate of food for him.

Thanking the woman, Vin dug into his breakfast as his stomach growled in hunger. She placed a tall glass of milk in front of him and smiled as she turned away. In a short time Vin had eaten everything and Mrs. Turner asked if he would like some more. Surprised by the question, Vin nodded.

"I'm pretty hungry today ma'am," he told her.

"I know child. You missed our usual lunch, and dinner last night. But you did a good deed getting the wagonload of lumber home safely," Ruth Turner said as she ladled more bacon and eggs onto his plate. Another biscuit appeared and a last griddlecake.

Vin finished everything on his plate then carried everything to the wash pan. As he turned to the barn to do his chores Mrs. Turner called to him.

"Vin, no chores for you today. The animals weren't in the barn last night and they've been fed. You can rest or do whatever you want today."

"Oh, thank you," Vin looked around. He could hear the pounding of hammers and turned towards the building that was going on.

At the house site Vin was surprised at how much had been done. There was a floor laid, and most of the outside walls were framed up, only the back wall frame needed to be done. He watched as six men and four teenage boys worked then went to help as much as he could.

By evening all of the frame work was done and almost all of the rafters were built and ready to be placed. The next day the rafters would be put in place, and the roof started. The walls would be next, and the fireplace, after the chimney was checked. As soon as the roof was on, the fireplace and chimney would be examined a last time before the roof was sealed around it. They were expecting several other men to be coming in the next two days, as well as two men from town bringing wagons of lumber.

Vin and the Turner brothers were working in the corn field two days later. Harvest time had arrived. The wagon and team stood quietly in the field as the boys worked. They broke the ears of corn off the stalks and tossed them to the boy in the wagon who put them placed the ears on a pile, to ensure they were not damaged. The boys took turns on the wagon, it was Vin's turn to catch the corn and move the team when it was needed. None of the boys expected the sudden attack.

Chapter 4

Vin was laughing at David's words as he tossed the cob up to Vin when he heard a yelp from Joseph on the other side of the wagon. The horses moved nervously as Vin looked and saw the teen on the ground.

"Joseph," Vin called, then heard a yell from David. Turning Vin grabbed the whip and reins not sure what was happening, thinking the boys were playing a trick on him.

The horses snorted and started to move restlessly in their traces. Vin gripped the reins tightly and raised the whip in his hand, wishing he had some sort of weapon.

A painted face all of a sudden appeared beside the left horse's haunch and Vin swung the whip with all his might catching the man across his face. The face disappeared and Vin slashed the whip the other way as another one appeared by the other horse. Watching to the front he didn't see the Indian brave that came up behind him, over the top of the harvested corn.

Strong arms grabbed Vin. He silently fought like a wild cat in the brave's arms. Fear and thoughts of being killed raced through his head and Vin fought harder, landing several blows to the man's body. Vin's long hair blinded him for a moment as he struggled, he heard a laugh and several voices around him. A minute later he felt the wagon move under him and fought harder to break free. A sharp, hard blow landed on the side of his head and blackness fell over him, his last thought was he didn't want to die.

The brave held the slight boy in his arms as the wagon jerked then rolled ahead, the team carried two of his friends on their backs. Yellow Feather almost tossed the boy into the field with the others, then seeing his friends' bloody faces decided not to. He figured the boy would be killed for what he did, but he wasn't sure what he'd do with the youngster.

More braves surrounded the wagon as it left the cornfield heading south. They pushed the horses into a lope, once Yellow Feather slipped onto his horse with his burden. Several of the men were enjoying the fresh picked corn as they rode.

Vin woke to pounding in his head and feeling cut in half. He felt the need to vomit and struggled to sit upright. He was gagging, and seeing the white and light brown horse leg flashing below him made him cough and squirm more. The movement stopped abruptly. He was hauled upright by a strong hand then placed on the ground beside the horse. Grasping his stomach he looked up at the man holding him as he fought not to throw up.

Yellow, red, black and white markings were painted on the brave's broad face. The man was naked except for something covering his body parts and knee high boots, leggings, Vin corrected himself. More strange markings decorated the man's chest.

When his stomach was under control, Vin nodded. He was lifted and placed astride the horse, in front of the warrior. Vin grabbed a handful of mane and hung on as the horse took off after the others. As they rode along he realized that he wasn't going to be killed and relaxed a little. He was sure if they didn't want him the brave would have either left him or … He didn't want to think of that, and turned his

thoughts to what lay ahead for him.

The braves moved at a fast pace for several hours before pulling the team and wagon into some trees and brush. While one brave cut the two horses free of their traces while the others filled deer hide bags with as much corn as they could carry. Vin was placed in the back of the wagon and handed a hide bag by the man he was riding with. He quickly stuffed the bag, placing the corn in it in a way that when it was filled he couldn't lift it. He looked helplessly at the mounted brave.

Yellow Feather watched the boy as he worked, noting he placed the corn into the bag in a certain way. When it was filled the boy turned to lift it to give it to him but was unable to doso. He saw the look on the child's face and felt his heart melt a bit. Glancing around he called to Water Dog to help the boy.

The brave named Water Dog jumped into the wagon and grabbed the bag. He had to stop and get two hands on it before he could lift it. He said the bag weighed as much as he did as he handed it to Yellow Feather.

Vin watched the fierce looking brave lift the bag he'd filled a moment before he turned and moved to the seat of the wagon and reached under it. He pulled out several burlap bags and opening one began to fill it. He knew he was being closely watched, he could feel the dark eyes on him but he continued working. Before long he had four bags filled and tied closed and he looked at the man on the pinto who still watched him.

At a nod from Yellow Feather, Water Dog hefted a filled bag and staggered to the edge of the wagon handing it off to another brave. The man asked how they were supposed to ride loaded down with the corn.

Vin realized the problem even though he didn't understand what was being said. Looking around he saw the two draft horses standing tiredly by some of the braves horses. He climbed down and moved to the discarded harness, moving slow and carefully so he wouldn't have another Indian strike him or think he was trying to escape. He picked up a piece of the long reins and moved back to where the brave stood with the filled burlap bag beside him. Tying the rein as tight as he could around the top of the sack he looked up at Water Dog who was closely watching him, and motioned for another sack. Vin was surprised when another filled bag was passed over the side. He wasn't sure the man would know what he meant.

The second bag was tightly tied to the first bag with a foot of rein between the tops. Vin then walked to the sorrel team and grabbed Merry's bridle and began to lead her over to the wagon where the two bags sat.

The large mare snorted and tried to pull away from the small boy and Vin pulled her heavy head down to where he could look into her eyes. Looking intently at her he told her to behave if they wanted to get out of this alive and patted her cheek. Merry blew a breath of air over the boy who she'd learned would not put up with her antics. Lowering her head more she gently nudged his chest and then followed him quietly.

Stopping beside the tied bags Vin looked at the man standing beside them, then up to the brave on the horse. He shrugged, he didn't know if they understood him but he said as he gestured at the bags, "Put them over the horse's back and let her carry them. One on each side." He pantomimed placing the bags on the mare.

Yellow Feather had watched everything since Vin filled the bags. He knew when he'd gone to the horse that the boy was too small to mount one of the large draft horses, and wondered what he was doing. When he controlled the mare and led her to the sacks and then looked up at him, he realized what the boy meant to do with the sacks. Listening to him he didn't let on that he could understand what he was saying, but with a few words he told Water Dog and Lobo what to do.

Vin held Merry still as the two men lifted the bags and placed them over her. With the foot of rein between the bags they hung in place across her back.

Moving, Vin tied the mare to the wagon and climbed back into it and began filling the last two sacks. As soon as they were filled they were tied together and hung over the Merry's back. Finally all the sacks and bags were filled and tied. Water Dog and several others tied them in place on the mare and then some on the other sorrel, Zak. Once on the horses' backs they were lashed so they wouldn't fall off and the men mounted their horses and picked up the shortened reins of the work horses.

Vin stood at the edge of the wagon not sure what they were going to do with him. He hoped they'd leave him, he was sure Mr. Turner would be coming after the wagon if not him. His hopes fell when the brave he'd been riding with handed his bag of corn to another rider and edged his pinto close to the wagon, his dark eyes boring into Vin.

Moving fast Vin climbed over the side of the wagon and was grabbed and placed in front of the man again. He grabbed a handful of the long mane as the horse picked up speed. Minutes later the wagon was left behind in the dust and the riders disappeared into the tree covered countryside.

Vin woke when the horse abruptly stopped. He hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep and now leaned back against the brave behind him. The man's arm was around his waist holding him in place. It was dark and he couldn't tell where they were, or how long he'd been asleep.

The brave holding him released Vin and slid from the horse then pulled him down. Vin was left standing alone for a moment. He knew it was probably a test and if he tried to run he'd be chased down, so he followed the brave and his horse to where the other horses were corralled in a small brush enclosure. In the dim light he was barely able to see the braves as they made camp. He quickly began to gather dead limbs around the area for the fire.

With an armload of dead wood he walked to where a man was starting the fire. The brave ignored him as he dropped the wood nearby and turned to gather more. By the time Vin dropped the second armload a fire was burning and the brave signaled for him to go sit down.

With a glance around, Vin saw the brave he'd been riding with sitting near a tree so he made his way to him and sat down a couple of feet away.

Yellow Feather, silently watched the boy from the time he'd placed him on the ground. He was surprised by his behavior. Most children the tribe had taken cried and tried to run away, until they were traded off. This boy was helping, first with the corn, now by gathering firewood. He was showing no fear of what was going on around him. When the boy sat down near him, he wondered what was going through the child's mind. Would he try to run during the night? Hearing a noise coming from beside him he turned his head a little, glancing to where the boy sat.

Vin sat silently, wishing he had something to eat as his stomach growled. He wrapped his arms

across his stomach and pulled his knees up hoping no one had heard him. A wave of dizziness washed over him, he decided to lie down and ignore everything else. Curling on his side, he pointed his feet towards the fire to try to keep warm. The weather was cooling in the evenings and he wished he for a blanket. Pulling his legs closer to him and he wrapped his arms tightly around his body as his head settled on the cold ground. His eyes slowly slid closed.

Dark eyes watched as Vin laid on the ground then went to sleep. Yellow Feather realized the noise he'd heard had been the boy's stomach and almost smiled as the child tried to quiet it.

Food was brought out and meat from a deer was spitted and placed over the fire. Before long the braves were eating and talking among themselves. Yellow Feather nudged the boy when he sat down beside him carrying some meat and pemmican.

Vin woke instantly and sat up not sure what was happening. Rubbing his eyes he saw a hand in front of him and looked up at the man. The hand nudged him again and held out the strip of meat. Vin took the meat and when his stomach growled again he bit into it. The brave nodded and looked away as he ate his own food.

Forcing himself to eat slowly, Vin ate the warm meat savoring the juices that dripped off. As he ate his gaze went around the area and he blinked in surprise, he thought there had been only a handful of braves, as many as his fingers on one hand. Now it looked like twice that many were in the camp. He wondered where they'd come from and if there were any other children with the newcomers.

Licking his fingers Vin was handed another piece of meat and he automatically said, "Thank you," to the man sitting next to him. A grunt came from the brave and after a quick glance at the man, Vin felt his face reddening and turned his gaze back to the men sitting around the camp fire. The food was filling but bland, Vin wished Mrs. Turner was cooking, she could cook anything and it always tasted good.

This time when he finished the brave broke a piece of pemmican off and handed it to Vin. Not sure what it was, Vin tentatively bit a small piece off. It tasted of berries and meat and other things and he chewed then swallowed it down. Finally full Vin wrapped his arms around his knees again. Placing his chin on them he shivered and tried to draw into himself more.

Yellow Feather reached behind him and grabbed a blanket that lay there. He handed it to the boy then picked up the second blanket and wrapped it around himself as he observed Vin from the corner of his eye.

Vin wasted no time in opening the blanket and wrapping it around him. With a little smile he lay down and curled up, snuggling deeply into it and closed his eyes.

The man next to him grinned as the child disappeared into the blanket. All he could see was the top of his brownish blond head. With a few words, Yellow Feather settled the camp and placed the guards for the night. Once his orders were understood, he laid down and went to sleep.

The sky showed a hint of light in the east when the camp was broken, and some braves mounted and hurried away. Vin once more rode in front of the tall brave. As it got lighter he noticed that the paint on the men's faces and chests had been cleaned off. For awhile he considered that, trying to figure out why they'd paint their faces in the first place. The sun lit the sky more and he saw there were a lot of horses without riders, some with packs. He spotted Merry and Zak, this time they carried only two sacks of corn and what looked like some blankets. He was happy to see them and began to think of catching them and escaping from the Indians.

With a small smile he looked ahead. He knew there was no way he could escape, there were too many men around, and he knew the horses they rode were a lot faster than the two draft horses. Another thought crossed his mind as the sun rose above the horizon, Mr. Turner told them that Indians ate horses, especially slow fat ones.

Tears suddenly sprang into his eyes. He didn't want to eat the two horses. He'd cared for them for a long time, they were his friends. He twisted and looked back into the herd easily picking out the bright chestnuts. The man riding with him looked down at him and he hid his face for a moment to get rid of the tears.

"I could ride Merry or Zak. I've done it before," he said to the Indian motioning to the two horses, despite being sure the man didn't understand him.

Yellow Feather had heard the quiet gasp from the boy when he looked at the horses and wondered what the child was thinking. With the words the boy spoke, he glanced at the two bright chestnut horses in with the others. He let a smile cross his lips for a moment when one flattened its ears and lunged at another horse that came too close to it. It had to be the mare, only a female would show her temper. He thought for a bit then decided he'd let the boy ride the angry mare, knowing there was no way he could get away from them. Though. for some reason, he felt the boy had no intention of trying to escape.

Decision made, Yellow Feather looked at the countryside to gauge where they were, and realized that they would shortly turn north. A river had to be crossed and he'd let the boy ride when they reached it. Glancing at the sky he noted there was still plenty of day left, and he knew it wouldn't be long before they reached the turn off then the river.

Chapter 5

An hour and a half later they arrived at the river. Yellow Feather called out to a couple of braves as he dismounted and settled Vin on the ground. Vin stretched and made his way to the slow moving river, kneeling he took a drink then splashed water on his face.

The cool water felt good and he ended by dunking his whole head into the water. Shaking his head he ran his hands through his hair and wrung some water out of his long tresses, then let it loose to drip down his back. Vin stood up drying his hands on his pants and turned back to the brave he rode with. He blinked in surprise seeing Merry standing near the bay pinto. The sacks and blankets were gone, her bridle was still in place and a brave was holding her as she tried to bite him.

"Merry, stop that!" Vin commanded as he stepped to her side and slapped her on the shoulder. With a huff the horse stopped and turned her head to him.

Relief flashed over the braves face as the man released the bridle, glanced at Yellow Feather then walked away. Vin stood at the horse's head with part of the rein in his hand, confused he looked at the brave.

Saying a few words in his language, Yellow Feather pointed to the horse then him.

For a moment Vin looked at the man in confusion but when the motion to mount came, Vin grinned widely. He could ride the mare. "Thank you!" he exclaimed and pulled the big head down and pulled off the headstall of the bridle. With deft hands he stripped the bit from the heavy leather then used a strip of leather to make a simple, light weight headstall with a chin strap. He placed the bit back into the horse's mouth and slipped the leather over her head and behind her ears. Glancing around he picked up the discarded piece of rope that had been tied over the blankets the horse had carried. Tying one end to each side of the bit he then tossed the rein over her head.

Vin could feel gazes watching him as he looked around for something to stand on to mount, but nothing tall enough or near could be found. So he stepped back to Merry's side and tapped her knee. When the leg came up, Vin stepped back and jumped. His left foot landed on her leg and he propelled himself onto the broad back, slipping easily into place on her. He picked up the rein as her leg dropped to the ground. Vin straightened and looked at the man still standing on the ground.

"Thank you. My name is Vin Tanner," Vin said placing his hand on his chest. "Vin Tanner," he said again. The tall brave nodded solemnly at him and pointed to himself.

"Yellow Feather."

Grinning Vin replied, "You can speak English!"

The man mounted and motioned to the others to move out before looking at Vin. "Yes, many of us can speak the white man's words Vin Tanner. Now go."

With a nod Vin turned the mare to the river and kicked her forward, crossing confidently through the slow moving water.

By sundown the braves, horses and small boy had traveled many miles. Yellow Feather had kept a close eye on Vin for the first few hours but the child had proven to be skilled at riding the big horse, to the point that when they were walking the horses, he'd fallen asleep. Yellow Feather hid a smile when he saw the boy lay over the horses neck, hands twisted in the long mane, legs still gripping the mare's sides. He noticed the mare lowered her head a little, making it easier for her rider to rest.

It was almost dark when they stopped for the night. The scouts rode in while camp was being made with news that no one behind them and so far it was clear ahead of them.

Holding Merry's mane, Vin slid off her side to land on the ground then grabbed a couple handfuls of dried grass and brushed Merry off as much as he could reach. Before total darkness fell he checked her feet before turning her loose with the other horses. Over his shoulder he packed the bridle with him while he gathered an armload of firewood. He dropped it near the place Lobo was busy building a fire. He moved over to where Yellow Feather was sitting, off to the side, and sat down beside him. The brave handed him a blanket that he wrapped around himself, the darkness having brought out the cold of the evening.

Yellow Feather kept an eye on the boy as he worked with the big horse, caring for her and then going for firewood. He heard the boy's stomach grumbling when he sat down and carefully placed the bridle beside him. The small figure almost disappeared in the blanket, and the man grinned to himself thinking of a butterfly before it emerged from its cocoon.

A bit later food was brought over and Yellow Feather woke Vin so he could eat. As soon as Vin was done he passed him the skin of water and waited while he drank. When it was passed back with a quiet, "thank you," from the boy as he lay down and curled up under the blanket.

For two days the braves and Vin made their way north without seeing any people. Vin had asked Yellow Feather to teach him some words of his language. Riding side by side, that is what the man did.

Vin realized the man was a chief, or someone important, by the way the braves listened to him and quickly obeyed his orders. All of the other braves talked respectfully to him, and he seemed to be counseled about things as they traveled. Vin didn't ask, he didn't think it was something good to do. He wanted to learn words as fast as he could so he could talk to the men and knew what they said. He'd seen the looks that some of the braves shot at him and wondered if they were mad at him.

The fourth day dawned dark and overcast. Vin knew it was going to rain, and hoped it wasn't like the last storm that he'd been through. He wasn't surprised at how fast camp was broke and within minutes everyone was mounted and moving out at a fast pace into the rough hills around them.

Yellow Feather watched the boy named Vin Tanner, closely as they pushed deeper and faster into the surrounding hills. He didn't think the child could keep up the fast pace. With the first crash of thunder of the oncoming storm hit he saw Vin jump and grip the horse tighter. As heavy and wide as the horse was, he knew the boy was going to have trouble staying on her when she got wet. His thoughts proved correct as the sky opened and rain poured down on them. Vin constantly readjusted his balance as they galloped into the face of the storm. Edging his pinto closer to the mare, Yellow Feather was ready when she stumbled, grabbing the boy before he could slide off her back.

Vin figured he'd have a problem when the storm broke. Merry had a slick hide in the summer though in the winter it was thicker, but when she got wet it was like holding onto a wet fish. He was sliding and having a problem staying on her. He saw the pinto's head beside him and wasn't to surprised when Merry stumbled, and he felt an iron arm around his waist. A moment later he was on the pinto in front of Yellow Feather.

Merry caught herself and moved away from the pinto shaking her head. Vin fisted his hands in the multi-colored mane and held on. After a bit he finally bowed his head against the rain and shivered as he leaned against the warm chest behind him. As they rode through the rough terrain that seemed to get more rugged with every turn, Vin wondered where they were and if they would ever stop.

Vin lifted his head as some of the braves yelled and yipped out loud. The noise seemed to echo around the hills that closed in on them. The loose horses broke into a run as they were pushed onward by the yelling braves. Vin shivered wondering what was happening.

They swept around a steep cliff and into a huge open meadow, and Vin could see riders coming towards them. Behind them, in the mist of the rain, he could just make out teepees covering a large area, and to the right of them, a large herd of horses.

The oncoming braves separated as the free horses ran towards the herd in the distance, and then most joined the returning riders.

Almost every brave looked at Yellow Feather and his small companion. Vin ducked his wet head as he drew the interest of the others. He could feel his cheeks burn and was happy for the rain coming down, giving him an excuse to hide his face. Several of the oncoming braves went after the horses as the rest continued to the village, where men and women were gathering to welcome them back.

Vin wished he was at the Turner farm, he didn't like all the attention he was getting from the people in the village. He couldn't stop shivering from the wet and cold, and now he knew everyone was looking at him. He kept his head down in an effort to hide.

Yellow Feather glanced down at the shivering boy in front of him before looking up. He spotted his wife standing on the edge of the crowd ahead of them. He was happy to see her. It was good to be home again.

Thunder crashed overhead as the returning men reached the village and dismounted. The chief, wrapped in a warm blanket stepped forward, and Yellow Feather lifted Vin off as he greeted the man. Vin stood in front of the pinto and watched through his wet hair over his eyes as Yellow Feather and the older man spoke together. Braves came forward with the sacks of corn and other things that had been on the loose horses.

Vin jumped when a hand touched his shoulder. He quickly looked up as he gripped the pinto's rein tighter. A woman was looking at him. Her long black hair was braided and hung over her shoulder. She was dressed in a tanned deer hide dress with another piece of hide over her shoulders, like a shawl Mrs. Turner wore when it was chilly. High, decorated boots clung to her legs from below her knees. She said something to him and took the rein in her hand, for a moment her hand squeezed his shoulder and she said "Come" as she walked away.

With a glance at Yellow Feather, who nodded at him, Vin turned and followed the woman. They walked past several teepees and many people, before she stopped in front of one of them and opened the hide door, motioning him inside. Vin did as she requested, ducked through the opening and felt warmth wash over him. From the partly opened door he saw her put the horse in a small rope corral beside the teepee with another one. She pulled the bridle off and latched the fence closed then walked to the teepee. Vin moved to the side as he scanned the inside of her home.

The center of the round space held a fire. Around the base of the hide walls were piles of hides and many different sized containers made from grasses and what he thought was mud. He wondered what they held.

The woman ducked inside and pulled the hide cover all the way over the opening. She looked at the small boy standing beside the door, arms wrapped around his shivering form. She moved quickly across the floor to where deer hide clothes were piled. Rummaging through them she pulled out a long shirt and turned to the boy.

"I am Little Butterfly," she said haltingly pointing at herself and seeing the boy's blue eyes get larger. She smiled. "Come, out of wet clothes, need to get warm."

Vin moved closer to her and she grabbed the shirt he wore and pulled it off over his head.

"Off," she demanded pointing to his boots and pants.

Vin felt his face flush red but did as he was told, he was too cold and wet not to. As soon as he was out of all of his wet clothes she dropped the hide shirt over his head and pushed him closer to the fire and motioned for him to sit down on the bearskin. When he sat down another hide was draped around his shoulders. He felt fur against him and tucked his bare feet under the edge of it. His fingers stroked the fur and he thought from the color it might be a wolf pelt. He watched as she placed what resembled pots, though made out of clay, close to the fire and put different things into them pouring water over the contents.

A noise woke Vin and his eyes flashed open as he looked around in confusion. He was warm and comfortable and he didn't remember lying down. Across the fire he saw Yellow Feather drying himself off with something Little Butterfly had given him as they quietly talked. Smells in the teepee made his stomach growl and the tall warrior glanced his way as he pulled on his deer-hide pants.

Sitting up Vin could hear the rain pounding on the teepee hides and felt happy not to be outside. He watched as Yellow Feather accepted a hide shirt before taking a seat on the other side of the fire. Vin rose and held the wolf fur around his shoulders walked around and sat beside the man.

"Is this alright?" he asked, unsure if he was allowed to sit there.

"Yes, you may sit there." Yellow Feather said as he watched his wife ladle food into a wooden bowl.

Little Butterfly handed her husband the steaming bowl then filled another and handed it to the blue-eyed boy who was watching her.

"Thank you ma'am," Vin said taking the bowl and the strange looking utensil. He watched how Yellow Feather handled what looked a little like a spoon then did the same thing. The food was tasty, warm and filling. A short time later Vin had cleaned the bowl. Little Butterfly took it from him and put more stew into it and handed it back. Vin quickly finished but held onto the bowl, he was pleasantly full and wasn't sure he had to help her to clean up as he did for Mrs. Turner. So he sat and waited as the two adults finished eating.

Little Butterfly collected the bowls and utensils and sat them outside the door to fill with water. She wasn't sure what to do with the big eyed child and asked her husband what they were going to do with him. As the boy fell asleep sitting by Yellow Feather, the man and woman talked and came to a decision to keep the boy for now. He would be taught the ways of the People, and over the next 12 moons they would see what happened.

So it was that Vin began his journey into becoming a member of the tribe. Over the following weeks he learned the Comanche language, how to use a bow and arrow, and in his spare time Yellow Feather taught him to track. Yellow Feather was surprised and impressed at how fast the child picked up tracking.

Little Butterfly made Vin deer hide clothes that fit him better than anything he'd ever worn before. When he'd first taken off the wet pants and shirt, she had found a strange instrument and a tintype with the likeness of a woman and Vin on it. She had carefully dried them and made a small pouch to hold them for him. When she showed them to Vin, his eyes filled and tears ran down his face. In English he explained to her it was a picture of his mother and the last thing she'd given him before she died a couple years before, just after his fifth birthday. He had forgotten that he'd put them in his pocket, one that buttoned closed, for safe keeping, after the fire destroyed the Turner's house. He wanted to keep them close to him and not risk losing them ever again. He thanked her for making him something in which he could now keep them close to his heart.

Her heart went out to the boy, and it bothered her that such a young child had been on his own. Over time she learned that he'd been taken away and given to a family as a worker, then later to be taken by Yellow Feather and brought to the village. She was pleased to see how hard he worked to fit in and how fast he learned things. She watched how he interacted with the other children and noticed that he helped the younger ones. It would be a couple more years before Vin would get his true name, but for now he was called 'Sleeps on Horses' as the braves with Yellow Feather called him, and it fit him.

Chapter 6

During the next two years Vin, living with the Comanche, learned not only their language and ways, but also became an excellent horseman. Though he wasn't as tall as most of the other boys, he could mount and ride a moving horse, and gentle a wild one. He could shoot better than most of the boys and many of the men with a bow and arrow, his eyesight and aim always true.

Thanks to the training of Yellow Feather he also became an exceptional tracker. The older man took him tracking as often as he could, teaching him and answering his questions. Yellow Feather was thrilled that the boy was learning so much so fast, and though he was quiet, he wasn't afraid to ask questions.

Vin helped when they packed up and moved, though other boys around his age didn't seem to help their mothers or any others. Vin worked side by side with Little Butterfly, and any other women who needed help. She was appreciative and would make a special meal for him when they settled into their new settlement.

Settling into their fall camp this year, the men left to hunt buffalo for the village. They left the women, younger children, old warriors no longer able to risk the rigors of the hunt, and boys to protect the small community. Several boys on horseback were posted around the village on high humps of ground where they could see the surrounding countryside for a long distance.

As he sat on his chestnut pinto, east of the village, Vin watched, alert to any movement in the surrounding area which was heavy brush that stretched a mile east and ended in a narrow draw three hundred feet from his location.

A flurry of wings then a large flock of prairie grouse erupted from the brush. They flew out into the open plain, flying low, then quickly scattered when they reached one area.

The pinto's head came up, its gaze locked on the bushes in the distance. Vin tensed as the horse blew loudly through his nose then ducked its head and threw it up again. The horse quivered as it watched the brush. Vin saw movement and then the figure of a horse through the limbs, another horse followed. Both had riders, Vin finally saw, with splashes of color on them.

Vin whirled his horse and hanging on tightly he raced back to the village. Leaning low over the horse's back he shot a glance behind him and saw horses coming out of the draw.

His main thought as he rode was to warn the village and protect his family. As the village came into sight he let out several loud yells that echoed around the vicinity. He saw another rider coming in fast from the south. Ahead he spotted boys running for weapons and the old warriors were armed and moving the women and younger children towards the river and safety.

Behind him, Vin heard the first whoops of the attacking warriors. Reaching the village he pulled the horse to a stop and slid off its back, running to where he was lined up with the other riders to face the oncoming attackers. Two old men joined him, Running Buffalo on one side and Dark Horse on the other. They covered the faint trail where the women had disappeared into the bushes along the river. Notching arrows they waited until the warriors were closer before firing.

A horse went down, another arrow struck the chest of a rider and a smaller arrow went through the throat of a rider. Two more men and a horse fell but more took their places.

Vin didn't take time to think as he shot into the riders as fast as he could. He knew he wasn't as strong a shooter as the old men were and tried to make his arrows hit where they'd badly injure a man if not kill him outright. Several more braves fell with arrows in their throat before Vin heard a heavy thud then a cry as Dark Horse fell with two arrows in his chest as the riders swept past them.

Running Buffalo cried out and Vin turned to the old man. An arrow was imbedded in his side as he staggered back a few feet. Vin ran to his side and grabbed his arm, turning him towards the river. All he could think of was he had to get the old man to safety. Running Buffalo was a friend who taught him how to make and use the bow and arrow and had praised him on how well he'd learned. Vin respected the old man and his talents, and he loved to listen to the stories he told. He didn't want him to die.

Reaching the river, Vin paused to look where he could safely leave his friend. The old man pointed to a tree and they moved to it. Vin realized it was near where the women's hidden trail began. Running Buffalo would protect that spot as long as he lived. Following the older man's direction, Vin broke the shaft off and pushed the arrow through the man's side. He grabbed two handfuls of mud and packed the wound. Finally he was told to get back to the village.

Vin ran back toward the village, arrow notched and ready. He slowed as he passed Dark Horse and the dead invaders, his gaze flew around the open area then he headed to where he heard cries and whoops.

As Vin ran around a teepee he saw several warriors around two of his friends, teasing the young boys and trying to get them mad enough to attack them barehanded. The boys were out of arrows and both had blood seeping from various scrapes and wounds.

Before the men knew what was happening two fell with arrows through their necks, a third fell with one in his lower back near his spine. Two more men turned and jumped aside as arrows flew at them.

The distraction gave the two boys enough time to escape, weaving their way around the nearest teepees. Vin turned and raced around the closest teepee wishing for more arrows, hoping he had enough to last until the attackers left. Hearing yells behind him, he dodged around a burning teepee and realized that several of them had been set on fire. Racing past another one he paused and turned around to shoot another arrow at one of his pursuers. Notching another arrow he turned to run and ran smack into a huge brave with war paint across his face and chest.

The man grabbed Vin before he could let the arrow fly. A large hand knocked the bow and arrow out of his hands; the other hand grabbed his hair and pulled him against the rock hard body.

Vin fought like a trapped wolf, but the man gripped him harder and laughed. Two more braves arrived and Vin flinched in surprise, he understood what the men were saying. A blow to the side of his head brought a veil of blackness over him and he went limp in the brave's hand.

For several minutes the men argued before another rode up and ordered that boy to be taken with them.

The brave carried Vin to his horse and mounted holding the boy over the horse's neck. Other

braves gathered together, many carried things from the teepees before they were set on fire. Two more young boys were across other brave's horses. Gathering at the edge of the small village the attackers put their dead and wounded on horses gathered the horse herd and rode away.

Once again Vin woke up across a horse, and promptly vomited what little there was in his stomach onto the dizzily passing ground below. He was lifted up when he stopped, and sat across the horse's withers in front of the saddle of the brave. Head hanging Vin looked around as best as he could and saw they were behind the herd of horses. There was another brave to their right keeping the horses moving. Through the dust he could see several more riders. He wondered where they were going. His hand gripped the small pouch that hung around his neck, glad the brave that had taken him hadn't cut it off. He hoped he'd be able to keep it, he would fight for it.

They moved along at a mile eating canter for hours. Vin was worn out balancing on the sharp withers of the horse, but didn't dare say a word. He watched the land change from plains to rough breaks that twisted and turned into valleys then deep gorges. They were going northwest Vin thought when the sun went down. They crossed into a valley that stretched several miles to the west as the shadows lengthened.

The herd of horses slowed as it moved through the valley, hungrily pulling at the grass. The braves let them graze but continued to push them slowly along. Vin needed to get down, to walk a little and relieve himself, but he didn't know if he should say anything. Finally he couldn't hold it any longer and turned his head towards the man behind him.

Just as he opened his mouth to ask, the horse was halted and the warrior dismounted and pulled him to the ground. Relieved he didn't have to say anything, Vin quickly took care of his pressing problem and breathed a sigh of relief. The warrior shot him a small grin then finishing himself, he mounted and reached down for Vin. Vin gripped the man's arm and was hoisted onto the horse, behind the man this time.

"You will stay there or I will kill you," the man said in Comanche.

"I will," Vin answered and gripped the back of the saddle as the horse stepped out.

Minutes later the horse herd began moving at a trot through the darkening valley. Reaching one area of the valley the herd dropped over a lip and began winding its way down. They passed through rocks and boulders as large as houses, towards a narrow silver ribbon of a river below.

It was totally dark when they reached the river that was swollen with the runoff from recent heavy rains. The horses were turned and pushed along the river bank until they reached a small valley opening in the rocky bluff. They were pressed onward into the valley, then left to graze on the grass inside. The braves made camp at the mouth of the narrow opening, blocking it with several campfires being built so no horse could escape past them.

The three boys were ordered to gather firewood and under the watchful eye of a brave they did, knowing what could happen if they didn't obey. Once fires were started, they were told where to sit and the three huddled together where they were in sight at all times.

Too scared to talk, the boys watched the men as they celebrated their victory and the escape with the horse herd. They finally settled down and two men sat where they could watch the herd and the boys. Three pairs of eyes gazed at the guards, after a while the boys laid down, two falling asleep instantly. Vin stared into the night, his thoughts in turmoil. He couldn't believe this was happening to him, again. He'd been happy with Yellow Feather's tribe, treated well and learned a lot. He didn't know what to expect, he hoped these men's tribe would be all right but he wasn't sure. He'd never seen other Indians interacting with Yellow Feather's people in the time he'd been with them. This attack was horrifying to him and he never wanted to have to go through this again.

Vin turned his head and glanced around, wondering if he could disappear into the dark and get away. His heart sank when he saw the brave watching him, his hand holding his bow. It was as if the man knew he was awake and what he was thinking. With a sigh he rolled to his side and closed his eyes, too tired and chilly to think of anything anymore.

Dawn was barely a few pink streaks in the sky when the braves mounted and forced the herd out of the valley. Vin was again riding behind the large brave holding onto the Indian's saddle as they moved the horses. The herd exited the enclosed valley and was turned along the river and pushed into a canter. An hour later the horses were urged into the river, forcing them to cross.

Vin was relieved when the water only hit his bare feet, though it was cold enough to numb them. He shivered and once across he quickly brushed the water off.

Horses shook and walked up the bank where they were gathered and turned into a narrow opening in the bluffs. Once through they were pushed into a gallop, following the brave leading them.

Vin looked up at the overhanging cliffs, surprised that he could see daylight above him since the cliffs were so tall. He wondered where they were going and what would happen to him and the other two boys.

The herd finally cleared the rocky cliffs, coming out onto a plain that stretched as far as Vin could see. A few smudges of green marked where some trees or brush were. Vin looked back to the cliffs they'd just come through, they looked like a small pile of rocks. Looking ahead, he tried to see if there were more rocks that might suggest other cliffs, but could see nothing but the flat land.

For the rest of the day the braves pushed the horses north, though sometimes a little east or west for a short time. They alternated the gait from a trot to a canter throughout the day.

Late in the day an exhausted Vin, worn out from riding behind the large brave and having to hold on so much, saw a smudge on the horizon. He tiredly watched it as they moved closer and he finally could see some of it came from fires. He sat a bit taller as he realized it was a town or village they were heading to, peeking around the man in front of him. Glancing at the herd he saw several of the braves head off at a gallop, whoops carrying on the breeze.

It took another half hour before the village came into view, spread out in a huge basin. Vin watched as people gathered in front of the closest teepees, and a small group collected to the right where several teepees sat alone. He wondered what that meant, who those people were.

Young boys on their horses came racing to meet the herd, riding to circle the horses and help drive them to where the other horse herd was being held, to the far left of the village. As the young riders took over the herd, the braves turned towards the gathered people.

As they got closer, several women ran out to meet the returning men and others began to scream

and lament as they saw that their men weren't among the riders. More and more men and women pressed around the mounted braves, several braves called out to the women.

Vin listened and picked up a few words of what was being discussed by the villagers. When the horse he was riding stopped, the brave dismounted and he was ordered to stay there. Swallowing, Vin looked over the people crowding around them as the brave talked, so fast that Vin couldn't make out any of the words. He saw the man point to him as he spoke harshly to several women. One woman screamed and slapped him where she could reach him. Another woman pulled on him, dragging him off the now nervous horse. He tried to pull free of her to run but another woman began to hit him with her fist knocking him to the packed ground where she kicked at him.

Vin didn't understand what was happening, the screaming women were all around him. He thought some of the words were 'killer' but he wasn't sure, since many were yelling and striking him at once. He curled into a tight ball and hoped he'd live through this. A kick to his head brought blackness down all of a sudden.

Several gunshots rang out and the women backed away from the boy as an imposing brave walked into the circle around the child. Several tall braves flanked the man. He stood over the unconscious boy and spoke, his words in a different language but everyone understood what he said and backed away. The man picked Vin up and walked away, ignoring the angry women. The men who'd come with him strode a step behind him, watching his back as he carried Vin away from the angry crowd.

Chapter 7

Vin woke with a jerk, thinking only of getting away from the angry women. He jumped up then sank down again when pain rippled through him from his head to his thighs. He suddenly realized he was in a teepee lying on a buffalo hide, a blanket covered him. His blue-eyed gaze studied the interior of the teepee and he realized he wasn't alone. Two wide-eyed little children were staring at him from across the coals of a fire.

The oldest, Vin thought a girl maybe four years old, smiled then pointed at a deerskin bag beside him. Vin sat up then picked it up, discovering it was a water bag. He thirstily drank from it. Replacing it he watched as the girl went to the opening and called out, before returning to her place next to the quiet little boy.

A large brave that Vin had never seen entered the teepee followed by a woman in a doeskin dress. Vin cringed back when he saw the woman, not sure what she would do to him. He watched as she picked up the boy and taking the girl's hand she led them out the opening.

Sitting near Vin, but not too close the brave studied him before speaking. Vin felt his face flush and as he gazed at the man and held up his hand. When the man stopped talking, Vin told him in Comanche he didn't understand him.

Eyeing the boy a minute the brave wondered where he'd come from. He was not of the People, but from what he'd heard he was deadly with the bow. The long, light, streaked brown hair and big blue eyes that gazed back at him spoke of white, but he fought like the People. He wondered if he'd made a mistake in taking him. With a quiet sigh he switched to Comanche, the original language of his people.

"You will come with us now. We leave in the morning for our lands. We will expect you to help; you will be watched do not try to leave."

Vin listened to the accented words and nodded. There wasn't anything he could do about his situation, he was sure he'd of been killed that day if this man hadn't come along. He told the brave that he would do as he was told, and stay alive.

The brave nodded his approval. "That is good. I am Watcher. You will help my woman, Blue Hand, with whatever she needs."

"I was called 'Sleeps on Horses' my real name is Vin Tanner. I will help all I can."

With a nod the man rose and started for the opening, then paused and looked back at the boy, "Sleep and rest now."

"Yes sir," Vin sank down on the warm hide and before Watcher was outside he was asleep.

In the pre-dawn the next morning the small camp next to the large village, stirred awake and was broken and packed with amazing speed. Vin helped as much as he could, knowing what to do from living with Yellow Feather. This tribe did some things differently but it still was done without a wasted movement. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when the people headed off.

Blue Hand instructed Vin to ride on a horse with her daughter. The little girl was named for some kind of flower that Vin couldn't pronounce, so he called her Blossom. The horse was pulling a travois with some bedding, food and other items tightly wrapped and protected from the weather. They were directed to ride beside Blue Hand whose horse pulled the travois with the teepee on it. Several other horses on lead lines were also pulling travois with other belongings. The braves rode out from the women and children and the travois laden horses.

For several days they traveled east through the flat prairie. Each night they found trees and water to camp by. No shelter was put up, everyone slept around the campfires with the women and children closer to the brush around the creek or stream. The men took turns guarding them.

On the fourth day the weather turned. Dark clouds covered the sun, a cold wind swept across the plain. Watcher and another brave scouted ahead of the small band that moved steadily northwest.

Blue Hand gave Vin a deer hide shirt to wear when she saw the boy shivering when they were breaking camp that morning. She realized the boy was almost naked when Watcher had brought him to their home and would need something. She didn't have time to make clothes for him yet, and he needed everything from shirts to boots. She gave him a warm blanket so he could wrap up in as they rode. At night she worked to get a shirt fixed for him. Watcher was too large; she found an old dress of hers that she cut down for him. She took off the decorations, knowing males didn't care for a woman's version of decorations, unless it was a special shirt. That morning when the boy pulled it on, his bright smile and happy thank you brought a smile to her lips. Once he was dressed he helped her daughter onto their horse and mounted in front of her. As Blue Hand mounted her mare she hid her smile and wondered where this child came from.

Vin rubbed his hand over the soft shirt happy to have something to wear, since the day turned dark and cold. As the group headed off he wondered where they were. The land looked flat but really it wasn't, it rolled and dipped and distances were misleading. Concealed in low places were trees and streams. Ravines and valleys were hidden in the land too, unseen until almost on top of them.

Spotting something on the horizon Vin locked his gaze on it and watched. He noticed that the lead brave changed directions and they were moving southwest now. He watched the spot until it disappeared. He noticed that there were several wide trails that they crossed, the widest one looked like a wagon road to him. Thoughts of the Turner house and what happened there the day he'd been first taken raced through his thoughts. There was no way he could get back to them he knew, and for a few minutes he wondered if the brothers were still alive. With a last look at the wagon road he put the Turner family out of his mind, it had been several years since his life changed.

Shivering as the wind cut through him, Vin glanced back to where the smudge on the horizon had been. He saw Blue Hand looking at him and asked her,

"What was that? Why did we turn south?"

Blue Hand frowned at the boy. She realized he was a white child taken by someone, his looks screamed white from his light hair to the large blue eyes. Though he was darkly tanned he was still lighter than her people. His odd way of pronouncing their language gave him away also. But this time he'd seen the fort. She couldn't believe he could see so far as to see something that they knew was there but never went near. She would have to talk to her husband about the boy again. For a minute she considered what to tell him. She didn't think he would try to go to the fort, but she wasn't sure. With a glance around she spotted Lone Deer not too far from them and knowing he would stop the boy if she called out, she turned her head back to the child on the horse next to her.

"Soldier home. Bad, come after the People if we go too close."

Vin nodded, he knew a little about the soldiers from his friends in Yellow Feather's tribe, that they killed the People, and thought they were all bad. Vin thought about that for awhile, but since he hadn't even seen a white man in a long time he didn't know what to believe. On the other hand, he never heard anything about Indians fighting with each other when he lived with them. Then he corrected himself as he recalled he once heard of fighting between whites and Indian's so whites could live where they wanted. Vin shook his head, he didn't understand, from all the country he'd been through lately he thought they could all live peacefully, there was a lot of land that no one lived on.

With a shrug he glanced back seeing that the dark dot had disappeared then looked forward again. Vin was aware that Blue Hand was watching him out of the corner of her eye. He had no intention of trying to leave, he was content and happy with the Indians. He smiled at her and pulled the blanket tighter around him. Blossom was asleep in front of him and he held her in place with one arm, pulling the blanket around her as much as he could before he grabbed the rein again. With a sigh he buried his nose in Blossom's black hair as the cold wind blew over them.

Blue Hand nodded and looked forward, satisfied the boy wouldn't try to flee. She was happy they only had a couple more days before they were home, back with their people and in their winter camp.

Three days later, the small band began a long descent into a valley protected by tall cliffs and trees. As they traveled downwards, cold, wind driven snow began to swirl around the riders. The day before, Watcher and two other men killed two buffalo, and everyone stopped on the prairie to quarter and skin them. More loaded travois were being dragged by horses now, carrying the meat, hides and everything else they would use from the animals.

Vin gripped the blanket tighter around Blossom and him as they dropped down toward the valley. His feet and legs were wrapped in pieces of deer hide but he could still feel the cold. He was glad when the wind finally died, except the snow was still coming down. He knew it was winter when the cold settled in, but snow was something different. He'd never seen it before. It was new and at first it was fun to see it, the way it drifted down so silent, not like rain. He found that the flakes that landed on the dark blanket were all different sizes and shapes and very delicate. At a loss for words to describe the flakes he watched them with interest, sometimes pointing one out to the little girl in front of him.

The night before Vin learned the hard way how cold snow could be. It made his bare feet and legs numb when he walked in it. It took a little time before he moved to the fire and sat beside it, rubbing his feet and legs trying to get the numbness and cold out of them. Vin was scared that he could no longer walk when Blue Hand found him.

Watcher's woman found the youngster shivering beside the fire frantically rubbing his legs and feet. She'd called to Watcher to get the boy before he was frostbitten. Watcher had gathered the trembling Vin into his arms and carried him to the small brush shelter they'd built for the night. Inside Vin was placed on his bedding near the fire and Blue Hand began to rub his legs herself.

Pins and needles stung Vin's extremities but it wasn't long before he was warm again. Blue Hand covered him and went to work on a piece of deerskin. Before long she'd formed two leggings with a moccasin type foot in them. She wrapped them around Vin's legs and feet, hair side in. She explained that when they reached the village she would make him a better pair, these were only to get him there.

Thankful for the leggings, Vin was able to help gather wood for the night, wishing he had the warm clothes that Little Butterfly made for him. As he lay in bed that night he wondered what happened to Yellow Feather and Little Butterfly and hoped they were all right. He missed them.

As they currently travelled through the swirling snow Vin caught sight of a large village in the valley as they worked their way down the side of the cliff on the slick, snow covered trail. A few teepees were at the edge of the trees that covered the whole area on the north and east side of the valley. Many of the tepees were laid out in front of the trees, though some extending into the tree line. A herd of horses were to the right of the village with two riders watching over them.

People were coming from the teepees, watching the newcomers riding towards tghem. Once the band reached the valley floor several braves raced to the village with whoops and yells, happy to be home.

The two buffalo carcasses were quickly butchered and the meat given to the people. The hides went to the braves' families who killed them, their women began to work on them right away.

Curious, people looked at Vin, knowing he wasn't one of theirs. They were too polite to ask who he was and why he was there. Blue Hand lead the way to their place in the village where they would be living. It was marked with several teepee poles that had not been taken down. Several women showed up and helped Blue Hand set up their teepee.

Vin cared for the horses and was told where to put them when he was finished. On his way back from turning the horses loose he looked around but hurried to where the teepee was almost completely erected. He watched in amazement as it was finished. It always surprised him how quickly the poles were set up and the hides placed over them, and that it was water proof and always warm inside. Once it was completed, he helped Blue Hand move all their belongings that had been on the travois into the teepee. A couple of women brought bundles that had been left in their care, while Watcher and Blue Hand were gone.

With Blossom beside him, Vin was directed to where he could find firewood, and the two set off into the woods. It took awhile as others previously found the wood closer to camp. Vin dragged a long limb he'd found behind him as they returned to the teepee with their arms loaded with wood.

As winter took over, things settled down for the tribe. Vin learned they were Kiowa, an off-shoot of the Comanche People. Their language was different enough that Vin had to learn it too. It took longer for trust to develop though, and he was watched constantly when around the horses, and not allowed any weapons without supervision.

During the long winter, Vin showed his expertise with a bow as twice in late winter he was allowed to ride with Watcher. Both times he brought down a deer. The third time they rode out he spotted a small herd of buffalo when the other riders would have rode past them.

The hunters got three of the buffalo and to Vin's surprise he'd been sent back to the village to get help to pack the animals home. By the end of winter he had earned the trust of many of the men of the village.

When spring finally broke the whole Kiowa village packed up and moved to their spring grounds, a four day ride from the valley. Once during the summer they moved. From that camp the braves rode out on buffalo hunts, looking for enough to feed the village during the upcoming winter. Deer were also hunted.

Vin picked up the language quickly and though he had found the first buffalo he was only allowed to go on the deer hunts, which were few this time of the year.

Once the buffalo hunt was over, the meat hung in strips, drying on drying racks over fires throughout the village. The hides were being cured, and a small band of braves armed themselves and rode out.

Watcher took Vin aside and taught him how to shoot a rifle. Which astounded Vin, the trust the man had in him to handle the weapon. Watcher was surprised at how fast the youngster caught on, and how good a shot he turned out to be. He had taught many of the younger men how to shoot but he was sure the boy could shoot better than any of them, himself included, after only a week of practice.

Vin was thrilled to learn to shoot. After the first few shots, he got into a rhythm and hit the targets every time. Vin knew there wasn't a spare rifle in the village and it would be awhile before he could have one like the other braves. He would practice when he could, and learn all he could about the weapon. He smiled one day after practice, when they sat down and he took the rifle apart and cleaned it. Watcher had been impressed. Vin explained that when he lived with another family he'd watched and learned to do it when the man of the house worked on his rifle.

Reassembling the rifle, Vin handed it to Watcher who closely examined it. By watching the boy, he learned something from him and decided they would check all the rifles in the village, and clean them. He would let the boy teach the braves how to care for their firearms.

Chapter 8

The next four years moved along. Seasons changed and also Vin. Vin grew taller and his blond streaked brown hair grew longer. It was now below the middle of his back and he would tie it with a strip of leather when he needed to keep it out of his face. He finally received his name from the tribe, 'Hawk,' as he could see farther than most others in the village. A horse was given to him during his naming ceremony, and a new rifle. At last he was allowed to ride with the hunters and helped bring in deer and buffalo for the people.

In the fall of his fourth year with the tribe, the hunters had to travel long distances to hunt for adequate food for the village. The women kept busy gathering berries, grasses and roots. Only a few deer were found, and the buffalo seemed to have moved even farther west or north. Once the village moved to their winter valley the hunters rode out, from a few days to a couple of weeks at a time looking for anything they could find. Prairie chickens, groundhogs and a few deer were brought back, but it wasn't enough for over 125 people to live on for a whole winter. Then the snows came and filled the valley with up to three feet of it, making it harder for the now starving people. The weakest were the first to die, mostly babies whose mothers' milk had dried up, the nourishment they needed gone. Elderly men and women began to die from the cold and no food. The village was in constant mourning.

Watcher, the chief, and several of the stronger braves would daily check on the remaining people, now less than 50. Finally in desperation the chief ordered older horses killed for food. Even though they were thin, there was sufficient food in order to survive until they could escape the valley.

Blue Hand kept her family alive by feeding them scraped deer hides boiled in water with a small handful of seeds she and Blossom had gathered during the summer and fall. Other concoctions fed them too. Tough stringy horse meat was cooked for hours with some seeds or berries to make it edible. By the time the trail cleared and the valley had opened sufficiently for them to leave, they were mere shadows of what they had been, but still alive.

Vin rode out ahead of the village members with Watcher and all the braves that were healthy enough to sit on their horses. Once on the prairie the men spread out looking for anything that would feed the starving families.

Watcher, Vin and a brave named Rabbit Hunter, rode west and several hours later Vin spotted something ahead of them. They moved slowly, letting their horses eat as they went, if they were to continue to hunt, they knew their horses needed fodder.

It wasbarely after sundown when they heard the noise of horses nickering and cows bawling. Dismounting they crawled to the top of a hump and looked over.

Six wagons were pulled into a circle and people were moving around inside. Horses and mules were tied to sides of the wagons, on the outside of the ring. There was a small herd of cattle on the east side of the wagons with a man watching over them.

Watcher moved them back to their horses and they began to plan how to get the cattle. Finally it was decided that Hawk would go in under cover of darkness and let loose the horses and try to scatter them quietly, while Watcher and Rabbit Hunter went after the cattle.

Vin had suggested trying to take some of the well fed horses if they could. Watcher finally agreed and Vin moved to the hump to study the wagons and watch the people that move around them. He saw several men stake the horses and mules out a little ways from each wagon, so the animals could graze on the growing grass. Lying there he studied the horses and worked out what ones to turn loose and which ones to take. The three waited until total dark fell, and the campfires burned down and there was no movement from the circle of wagons before they made their move.

Between two and four horses were staked out near each of the wagons with several others a bit closer to one wagon. Vin wasn't sure about the mules, if they would fight him or what, he hadn't been near any in a long time.

Finally Vin silently moved to the wagons, while Watcher and Rabbit Hunter rode closer to the cattle. They would have to dispose of the guard before doing anything with the cows. Vin looked for a guard but could see no one watching over the horses, and thought maybe the one watching the cows was supposed to watch the horses too. All the other people had disappeared into the wagons.

Reaching the first wagon, he heard some snores coming from it. He ghosted over to the horses staked nearby. Vin crept silently to the closest horse that blew loudly through his nose at the stranger. Vin quickly placed his hand over the horse's nose before it let out a nicker as he began to brush its quivering neck. Once the horse relaxed he worked the rope loose and moved to the next horse. Minutes later he was leading the four horses away from the wagons and out onto the prairie. Slipping the halters off the horses he slapped them on their rumps making them trot away. When the horses disappeared in the darkness, Vin quietly returned to the wagons. He moved from one wagon to the next, leading the horses away and chasing them once they were far enough from the encampment that no one would hear them. Luck held when he reached the first mule, it curiously nosed him, then followed him quietly, encouraging the other three mules to be calm also.

With a pat to the friendly mule, he turned the mules loose and chased them off, then he went back for the last of the horses, the five closer to the one wagon.. He silently freed the horses and led them away. Once he reached a safe distance from the camp, Vin tied them together. He planned to ride one and lead the others, all four would be led by ropes around their necks that were tied to each other. Making a make-shift bridle for the one, he mounted and urged it forward, pulling the other horses along. They moved slowly across the prairie, and then came over the hump to where his pinto still stood, grazing hungrily on the short new grass. Halting near him, Vin slid off the wagon horse and grabbing his horse's rein he tied it to the tail of the horse he was riding, remounted and headed in the direction he hoped to connect with Watcher and Rabbit Hunter, hoping they were not too far away.

The half moon was shining in the sky, dimly lighting the prairie in black and white light when Vin heard a cow bawl ahead of him. Within ten minutes he caught sight of the black moving forms of the cattle in front of him. As he approached the animals he wondered for a moment where the two braves were, and almost jumped when Watcher materialized out of the darkness beside him.

Watcher greeted Vin, seeing the horses that were following the youngster. He halted his horse, turned it loose, and put the bridle on one of the led horses and mounted. Watcher then called to Rabbit Hunter to pick a fresh horse, and then returned to the cattle. Once Rabbit Hunter switched horses, he turned his horse loose to follow or not, he and Vin returned to herding the cows.

Leading the last horses Vin kept to one side of the herd while the two men moved back and forth

and along the other side of them. They kept the cattle moving through the night at a steady walk. As the dawn began to break the men urged them to move faster. Vin eased the horses into a trot then a slow canter, balancing easily on his mount's back. An hour after dawn they met several riders of the hunting party, one horse loaded with a two deer carcasses. The men surrounded the cattle and they moved them faster. When the steers and few cows began to balk at the fast pace they slowed them to a walk. The cattle spread out and hungrily pulled up the new grass that was springing up after the long winter. The horses they rode grazed as they moved along, greedily pulling mouthfuls of grass.

Watcher told the others how Hawk had single handedly stolen the horses from the wagons, and the ones he was leading were his. Vin was surprised but didn't mind sharing the horses with the others. Rabbit Hunter told him he earned them for what he'd done in the night. Riding taller Vin glanced at the horses behind him, the one he was riding and the other two were fine animals, though he wasn't sure what he would do with them. His pinto trotted along beside the one he was riding, thin and slab-sided, but his first.

Vin let the riders know camp wasn't too far away, ahead of them beside a stream. He could see faint smoke rising into the air. A brave rode off with the packed horse to alert the women that food was coming and to be ready.

The cattle were herded closer together and walked and trotted the rest of the way to where the small band was camped.

Four of the heaviest steers were picked out and slaughtered as soon as they got close to the small camp. Women worked quickly to butcher and cut up the meat. The rest of the herd was moved into a hollow with what was left of the tribe's horses. New grass and water was plentiful there and would keep the animals satisfied for several days.

Vin returned to the camp and already could smell meat cooking. His stomach growled as he walked to where Watcher was helping his wife cut the meat into long strips to dry over fires. Meat cooked over all the campfires in the little camp. Blossom and her brother tended their fire, turning the meat as it cooked. Both were as thin as Vin, ribs showing, arms and legs looking more like sticks, but with the food cooking they had smiles on their thin faces. Vin offered to help and was put to work scraping the cowhide.

The small camp was quiet as everyone ate their fill. Hunger was quelled for the first time in several months.

When morning arrived, people were packing and getting ready to move to their spring camp. The few small children that had survived the winter, played and ran around the working women, smiles on their gaunt faces. The teenage boys, including Vin, gathered the herd of horses and cattle and readied them for their trip. A few braves helped the women get travois filled and mounts ready. Before the sun had fully risen the tribe was making its way across the prairie.

Vin rode one of the stolen horses alongside the horse herd. Their instructions were to let the animals graze as they moved along, the horses pulled the new grass with every step they took.

In the afternoon they crossed a stream, pausing long enough to let everyone and the animals drink, then turned north and moved several more miles before reaching the stream again. There they made camp for the night. They would reach their spring camp late the next day.

The next morning amid the commotion of breaking camp no one noticed a line of soldiers approaching until they rode over the rise where the camp had been made.

Women and children dropped what they were doing and raced to the brush along the creek while the braves and the few older boys scrambled to make a line of defense to protect them.

Two men rode forward, leaving the soldiers who had spread out in a line facing the camp. The chief and Watcher mounted their horses and rode slowly to meet them. Vin sat on his thin horse with his rifle butt resting on his thigh and his bow and arrows across his back. He was ready as the other 20 braves scattered to the left and right of him.

For long minutes the four men talked. By the posture of the People Vin thought they were mad or upset over what was being said. Finally he saw a soldier turn his horse and wave the line of blue riders forward. When they were close to the four mounted men they halted, except for eight who moved to the man who signaled to the blue riders.

Watcher and the chief rode back towards the camp with the soldiers. Vin turned his horse and moved to where his family's camp had been a short time before, and dismounted. He wouldn't let anyone go through the packs or take anything. He stood as a sentry on guard duty in front of their belongings, rifle ready.

Vin watched as the soldiers made their way through the camp looking over the braves and packs. He heard the chief call out to the hidden women and they came out of the brush, the few children held on to their mothers. Blue Hand held Blossom and Little Tree's hands, the children clung to her as they hurried to stand with Vin.

Once the women were in the camp, the soldiers spread out and rode past each family. The one that rode past Blue Hand and her children pulled his horse to a stop and stared at Vin who gripped his rifle tighter, pointing it towards the horse's legs. The man looked across to his commander who sat his horse beside the chief. He called out to him and the two rode over to see what he spotted.

The man pointed at Vin and said something to the officer as a couple more soldiers rode closer. Blue Hand moved to Vin's side and placed her hand on the thin youth's shoulder as the translator arrived. He listened to the chief as he spoke, then Blue Hand as she added to what the chief said.

Confused Vin stood still listening to everyone talking. He hadn't heard or spoken English for almost six years and it took a few minutes for some of the words to make sense to him. 'No' he thought when he realized what they were talking about. The soldiers wanted to take him away from his family.

Vin gripped his rifle tighter and took a step back then another one. Blue Hand turned to him as Blossom reached out and wrapped her arms around him and buried her face into his naked chest. Vin's arm automatically wrapped around her and he whispered to her when he felt her tears wet his chest.

Watcher strode up to see what the holdup was and seeing Vin holding his daughter he turned to the chief and soldiers, speaking fast he demanded to know what was going on. The chief lowered his head as he told Watcher the soldiers were to take Hawk and the cattle. That Hawk was not of the People, he was white, and had to go with the soldiers, or they would attack and take the boy.

For several minutes silence fell over the area other than the jingle of the soldier's tack as their horses moved restlessly. Watcher gazed at Hawk, then looked around at his starving people. His thoughts pulled at him, Hawk was his adopted son, had been with them for four years, but his tribe for generations. He didn't want either hurt and looking at the soldiers he knew they would be happy to kill everyone. They had the manpower to do it too. His people were too weak to put up much of a fight, maybe they could get Hawk back once the soldiers were away from his people.

When Watcher turned to Vin, Vin knew he would have to go with the blue coats. His arm fell from Blossom and she turned to her mother, her tears falling silently. For a moment Vin stared at the man who was his father for the last four years, then he took off his bow and arrow quiver and laid them on the pack next to him. As he took a step forward he heard the click of several guns and looked up at the mounted soldiers next to the one in charge. Their guns were pointed at him. For a moment he was confused but then he realized when he looked down, that he still had his rifle in his hand.

Raising his eyes, Vin looked at the men then turned to Watcher and handed his beloved rifle to him. He glared at the soldiers a moment then moved to his horse that was standing nearby and mounted. He nudged it and moved up to the soldiers side.

The closest soldier reached out and jerked the rein from Vin's hand and then turned his horse and headed to the line of blue waiting outside of the camp.

Vin glanced back once seeing Blue Hand standing with Watcher's arm around her shoulders, tears running down her face. Blossom and Little Tree were hanging onto her waist. Vin nodded at them then quickly looked away. Blinking hard he stared at his horse's mane, not wanting the soldiers to see the tears that welled in his eyes. Finally he lifted his head, stiffened his back, and gazed ahead, not looking at anyone or anything as they reached the other soldiers. They halted and waited for the officer and the ones herding the cattle. Vin let his face go blank as his thoughts churned in his head. He didn't know what would to happen to him, but he wouldn't do anything to embarrass his people, until later when he'd escape. He would escape. He didn't want to be with the soldiers and hoped he had a chance to get away from them in the next hours.

Several hours later Vin spotted a few wagons on the horizon and realized they were the ones they'd taken the cattle and horses from. The line of soldiers headed towards the wagons where they dropped the cattle off. The people stood around talking and several pointed at Vin who sat on his horse proudly, head held high, eyes straight ahead. He could hear what they were saying and again though he hadn't spoken English in a long time, he was beginning to recognize a few of the words that he'd long forgotten. Right now he was happy to be with the soldiers, and not facing the angry whites alone.

Chapter 9

Leaving the small wagon train the soldiers turned northeast, heading for the fort. Vin watched the land, he had an idea where they were and he knew he could return to his people with no problem. He would make his break as soon as the soldiers relaxed around him.

Using his knees, Vin guided his horse to the outside of the soldier leading it. The man looked back at him but Vin kept his head down, pretending he was relaxed and not paying attention to anything. As soon as the man turned forward Vin glanced around judging the closest men, wondering how fast they'd react. He hoped he could take them by surprise.

It was sundown, long shadows from the small humps and hills in the land were slowly growing darker. Vin's head rose a little, he didn't think the line of soldiers were going to camp for the night. He sensed they were getting closer to their destination.

Vin waited until the sun set and the shadows were longer and blacker. The land darkened as the last light faded. He finally moved, slowly leaning forward he reached under his horse's mane moving up to its ears. With a furtive look around he eased the headstall over the horse's ears. As the bridle dropped off the pinto's head he pressed his hand against the warm neck and turned him towards the dark prairie. Gripping handfuls of mane, Vin kicked his heels into the pinto's sides and they took off at a dead run away from the line of soldiers.

For several long moments nothing happened behind him and Vin laid low over his horse's neck, making himself smaller as they flew across the land. They were 500 feet from the soldiers before shots rang out and then the sound of pursuit. Vin watched the land in front of them, looking for a dip or hill that he could use between him and the pursuing soldiers. Another gunshot sounded and he bent even lower on his horse and he urged him faster.

For a while the valiant horse ran flat out for Vin, legs flying over the rough ground, but the long winter with only tree bark as food finally took its toll on him. He was still starved and couldn't keep up the fast pace for long.

Vin heard the labored breathing of his horse and knew it wouldn't last much longer. He glanced behind him and his keen eyes spotted several riders getting closer. He worried they could see the white markings on his horse as they came straight after him. Looking ahead he spotted a darker shadow a little to his right and turned the horse towards it. When they reached it he slowed the heaving horse and with a pat on his neck and a thanks he slid off and let it go. The horse continued moving away from him and disappeared into the night.

Vin ran the other way, hoping the soldiers hadn't see him dismount and would follow his horse. He ducked when three riders passed him, following the sound of his horse. Another three following a bit behind the first ones spotted him and turned their mounts.

Hearing hoof beats coming, Vin ran faster, wishing he had a weapon other than the hidden knife in his legging. Out of breath he grabbed the knife and turned to fight the riders.

The soldiers stopped, surrounding the thin kid on three sides. Grins appeared on their faces as

they took in the kid's stance. He was a feisty boy but he couldn't stand against them alone. One man drew his weapon and shot the boy in the leg putting an end to the standoff.

Vin's gaze went from one to the other rider as he stood facing them. He didn't see the one on the left draw his gun. The gunshot took him by surprise and a yelp of pain escaped his lips when a searing hot pain went through his right thigh, the shock of it knocked him off balance. As his leg collapsed under him Vin managed to slide his knife into his legging as his other hand reached for his thigh. The pain and shock of the wound threw him into darkness and he slumped to the ground.

"Get him and let's get back," the sergeant growled as he put his revolver away. The other two riders quickly dismounted and ran to the boy. One pulled his neckerchief off as they knelt beside the unmoving body. They wrapped Vin's bleeding leg then picked him up, surprised how light he was. One man mounted and Vin was slipped into his arms, as soon as the other mounted they started back to the slow moving line of soldiers.

The three men who were chasing the horse caught up with them as they rode towards the column. Seeing the unconscious boy they told the sergeant that it took them a bit of time to catch up with the horse. Once they found it, it was rider less, so they let the animal go and came back, riding faster when they heard the gunshot.

Five of the six men wondered about the little band of Indians. They'd seen how thin and gaunt looking all of them were and noticed that there was very few small children and older people with them. They realized why the cattle had been taken now, the people were starving.

The man holding Vin agreed, telling the others that he was holding mostly bones and skin. He thought of the boy's leg wound and thought if it wasn't treated soon the boy could die, since he was so undernourished, if the shock didn't kill him.

When they reached the rest of the column they told the officer in charge what happened. The young commander, knowing they were still several hours from the fort, called for a faster pace. The column was on a well traveled road and it was easy for them to slip into the faster pace for the rest of the trip.

Two hours later they reached the wooden wall of the fort and passed through the opened gates. The officer and the soldier carrying Vin rode straight to the doctor's clinic where they found the man reading a book.

Captain Peter Reed MD, and resident barber, was surprised when the skinny boy was brought into the office and placed on the examination table. His eyes took in the small pouch around the boy's neck, the ribs that he could easily count, thin arms, legs, face, the leggings, breechcloth and moccasins.

"What is this?" Reed asked taking a step back.

"Peter, this is a white boy who has a leg wound. He needs attention right now," Captain Brooks told him after dismissing the corporal who'd carried Vin inside.

"I can see that Tom. Look at his hair and he's to pale for a heathen," Peter snapped as he gathered his instruments and began to cut off the legging on the wounded leg. "You guys couldn't just bring him in? Had to shoot him? Since you're here you can help me. Get that other legging off and his moccasin, then wash up. We'll have to find him some clothes and cut his hair, or he'll have a hard time fitting in here."

Pulling off his gloves and jacket Brooks went to work. As he stripped off the right legging he found a knife sheath strapped to the boys leg with the knife in it. Shaking his head he untied the sheath and laid it aside. Moccasins were placed with the legging and knife. Brooks washed up and watched as Peter worked, handing him items when he asked for them. It wasn't long before the wound was cleaned and stitched.

Peter washed his hands after bandaging the wound then looked at the boy's eyes, checking the pupils. He noted that the kid was shivering, tremors shaking the thin body.

"Damn, he's going into shock, get his feet up, above his heart," he rushed to a small table that held a pile of towels and blankets and grabbed several. Covering the child he put rolled up towels under his feet and had Tom pull his legs into place on them. A couple of strides took him into the small kitchen where he poured warm water into a mug. Back at the exam table he lifted Vin's head and dribbled the warm water into the slack mouth.

"Rub his legs and feet, see if you can get them warm," he told his friend as the boy swallowed the water.

Tom did as directed, rubbing the youth's legs until he could feel warmth through the blanket. A while later the two men heard a sigh come from the child, and Peter told Tom they'd managed to stop the shock. Once Vin was stable Pete grabbed his shears and cut the long brownish blond hair off at his shoulders. He trimmed the hair around the thin face before stepping back and looking at his patient.

"There, he doesn't look like a damn renegade Indian anymore. We'll have to get some decent clothes in the morning and get him out of that breechcloth," Peter stated as he picked up the almost two foot long hunk of hair he'd cut off the boy. Moving to the other room he threw it into the stove and let it burn. He washed his hands and returned to the examining room. "No telling what vermin was in his hair. He needs a bath too, but it'll have to wait a few days. Help me move him to a bed. I wonder if I'll need to tie him to it. Wait, I want to see what's in this thing around his neck, it probably needs burning too." He reached out and pulled the rawhide string with the pouch over Vin's head then opened the soft pouch.

"Well I'll be," Peter exclaimed.

"Must be his mother and him," Tom said as they gazed at the small tintype.

"Maybe his father's harmonica," Peter added fingering the old harmonica. "We'll let this be for now," he added as he replaced the items, including a feather and arrowhead and placed it over the boy's head again.

Tom carried Vin into a room with several beds and laid him on the one Peter had prepared.

"He's pretty warm now," Tom said as he laid Vin on the bed and covered him.

"Just his body fighting off infection. I'll keep him quiet and get cold water to cool him down if he gets any warmer," Peter said as he walked out of the room.

Peter pumped a basin full of cool water and picked up a cloth before returning to the room.

Feeling Vin's head he sighed, pulled a chair over, and settled into it.

Tom watched Pete for a minute before turning away, "I'll see you in the morning, to check on him. I need to report to Colonel Patterson. See you later."

Peter glanced up as Tom left then turned back to the boy placing the cool cloth on his head. He thought the boy to be around twelve or thirteen years old but wasn't sure. The youngster had the long legs of a young teen but he didn't seem very tall. And as thin as he was, it was hard to tell, he could even be eleven.

During the night Peter kept watch over his young patient, and continued to cool him down. He listened as the boy called out in his fever several times, only once picking up a word he knew, 'mama.'

At dawn the fever finally broke and the young teen lay limp and cool in the bed. Peter pulled the blankets back on the next bed and gently moved Vin over to the dry bed and covered him with the warm blankets. He tiredly smiled as the boy curled into the blankets and shuffled down until only the top of his head could be seen.

With long learned expertise, Peter pulled the damp bedding off the bed and carried them to the exam room sitting them on the table. He'd take them to the laundry woman when they opened for the day.

Yawning and stretching, he walked into the kitchen and stirred the coals in the stove, adding some wood he started a pot of coffee, then some breakfast. The boy would need something to eat when he awoke, Peter decided to wait until he was more awake before working on that.

It was after 7AM when Captain Tom Brooks walked into the office. He saw the pile of bedding on the exam table, failing to see Peter in the room or the kitchen he walked into the wardroom. Peter was asleep in a chair beside the second bed, the boy was a lump under the blankets; the top of his head barely visible. Peter's head was on his chest and his legs stretched out, one on the bed, the other on the floor.

Tom rubbed his neck, the position Peter was in almost painful to him. Reluctantly he decided he better wake the other man and placed his hand on Peter's shoulder, shaking him awake.

Stretching and working the kinks out of his back and neck, Peter followed Tom into the kitchen where a pot of coffee and stew were sitting at the back of the stove.

Tom grabbed some more firewood and stuffed it into the stove while Peter dumped the old coffee and put together a fresh pot, placing it over the stove lid to heat. He moved the pot of stew over to begin re-heating. Bread, butter and jam were placed on the small table followed by bowls, utensils and coffee mugs, before either man spoke.

Tom looked at Peter, "How's the boy?"

"Had a rough night. Finally got his fever down and it broke at dawn. Thought for awhile I'd have to dunk him in the water trough to get it down. Glad I didn't have to. He called out several times, only once for his mother."

Glancing at the door, Tom said, "I wonder how long he's been with the Indians."

"No idea, but he speaks their language extremely well."

"How old is he?"

Thinking for a bit, Peter finally answered. "By his looks, I'd guess a young teen, could be as old as fifteen. But I really don't think he's that old, maybe around thirteen. As starved and thin as he is… Well, my guess anyway." Peter replied as he ladled out the steaming stew then poured them each a cup of coffee.

As the men ate Peter listened for the boy in case he woke. "What is the colonel going to do with him?"

"He wants to return him to his family once we find out who he is."

"He should be awake soon, someone can talk to him then. Since we don't know how long he was with the heathens, it'll depend on how much English he remembers. Who's going to take him in?"

Tom shook his head, "I have no idea. I don't think there are too many families who want to take on a teen that's been living with the Indians."

"None of them would trust him to live in their home or be around their children. He might kill them all while they sleep and rape their daughters."

"Peter, not all Indians are like that. They don't rape women and children. I'll give you they might take them like this boy, but they don't do that."

"How do you know? You've only been out here less than a year. I've been here a hell of a lot longer. I've seen things, lived through things. You can't trust any of those heathen Indians, they'll kill you just for the fun of it," Peter spat out.

"Peter, I've…"

A long moaning, raspy scream cut through Tom's answer. The two men rose and rushed from the warm kitchen.

Vin woke in a strange room, not sure where he was. His eyes looked wildly around as his mind tried to figure out what happened. Then the memory of the soldiers coming to the camp and taking him came back. He pushed himself up from the bed, looking for his leggings and moccasins. Dizziness overtook him and he slumped back down.

For several minutes he sat on the edge of the bed, blankets knotted at the foot, and stared at the bandage on his thigh. He ran his fingers over it, then raised his head and listened, hearing two voices coming from another room. His sensitive nose picked up the smell of something cooking and his stomach growled.

Turning his head Vin froze, something was wrong. His hands flew to his head and found the short hair. His hair had been cut! It barely touched his shoulders. In horror he pushed onto the bed, until his back was against the metal headboard, one knee bent up almost to his chest, his hands frantically running over his head.

"Kee!" (No) A long drawn out scream escaped him as he began to rock, his hands pulling at the short hair. He was horrified at the loss and the 'no' came out loud in several native languages as he rocked in despair.

Chapter 10

"Heathen's awake," Dr. Reed said as Captain Brooks rushed into the wardroom, where the wounded boy was screaming in different languages. Peter followed slowly, mad that he had to shelter the heathen.

Tom entered the room and saw Vin sitting against the small headboard on the bed. His bandaged leg stretched out in front of him, while his other knee almost touched his chin. Thin hands pulled at his cropped hair, a horrified look on the too-pale face, as Vin rocked back and forth. The wide, brilliant blue-eyed gaze was flying around the room and Tom sensed he was preparing to run.

Vin saw the tall, blue clad man enter the room and cringed harder against the bed. He glanced at the only window in the room, but before he could gather himself to make a run for it, another man moved in behind the first and stood in front of it.

The first held out his hands and gently spoke to him, and Vin looked back at him shaking. He couldn't understand the words and yelled at him in Kiowa to let him go home, his family needed him. The man eased onto the bed and continued to speak to him. Vin pulled his hair a last time and spat out in Kiowa, 'What did you do to me? Why did you do this?' in Kiowa, but the man just shook his head and continued to talk. Vin drew his arms around his knee and began to rock again. His leg was hurting, the pain making him lightheaded.

The calm, gentle words continued while Vin's confused mind tried to understand. Suddenly a word he vaguely remembered was said, 'name'. Vin looked at the kind looking soldier as more words were spoken, several that he recognized.

Tom kept his dark eyes on the thin youth in front of him as he talked. The yelling and screamed words had stopped and the blue eyes were fixed on him as he spoke. With the attention on him he asked the boy his name. Placing a hand on his own chest he said,

"I am Tom. Tom," he patted his chest then pointed to the watching boy. "What is your name?

Squinting his eyes in thought Vin tried to remember English words he hadn't spoken in many years. Finally he pointed to himself and said, "Hawk."


With a nod Vin tapped his chest, "Hawk." Vin pointed to Tom and said, "Tom."

Tom smiled and asked, "Do you remember your English name? It wasn't Hawk. That is your other name."

For a couple of minutes Vin thought, the words revolving around in his head, and Tom repeated the sentence two more times before Vin hesitatingly spoke.

"First … name?"

Tom smiled and nodded, glad the boy was able to speak English.

"Vin … Tanner," Vin replied, and then a rush of memories and words emerged. In a daze he looked at Tom and slowly said with a soft raspy Texas accent.

"Vin Tanner… Always ... remember … you're … a Tanner."

Tom smiled and held out his hand, "Nice to meet you Vin Tanner. I'm Tom Brooks. That's Doctor Peter Reed."

Vin looked at the outstretched hand and slowly held out his. The large hand engulfed his fine boned one and it was gently shook a moment before being released.

"We'll see about contacting your family, let them know where you are. Can you tell me their names?"

Frowning, Vin tried to remember words long unspoken. Finally he looked at Tom and with a shrug of his shoulders he said,

"Watcher … Blue," he looked at his hand and held it up. "Blue Hand."

Having been quiet during their exchange, Peter laughed and clapped Brooks on his shoulder.

"Heathens. He claims THEM as his family. A bunch of dirty, family killing heathens."

Confused at the man's words, Vin drew back as far as he could, he didn't like this man. The second man stepped away from the window and Vin glanced at it. Freedom lay just beyond. He gathered himself but before he could move the man walked in front of it again, as if sensing what he was planning.

"I don't think so heathen. You are here to stay," Peter snarled as he looked the boy over, noticing the expression on his face.

"Be quiet Peter," Tom said with a furious look at his friend. Looking back at the boy he touched his foot, drawing the wide-eyed blue gaze back to him.

"Do you remember your mother and father, the Tanners?"

Several minutes passed as Vin wrangled with words long unspoken.

"Momma," Vin said and moved a hand towards the ceiling. "Died … Heaven … Spirit."

"Your mother is dead?" Tom questioned, at Vin's nod he asked, "Your father? Daddy?"

Vin stared at Tom for a moment before shrugging his shoulders. "Not … know."

"Do you remember where you came from?"

With his head cocked a little to the side, Vin thought a moment before saying, "Comanche, south? A family … Mister … God man."

Peter snorted. "God man?" then laughed evilly.

"Shut up Peter. God man, a preacher? Is that what you mean Vin, a preacher?"

With a glance at Peter, Vin nodded his head slowly, "Preacher … God man all time."

"Do you remember his name? What happened to him?"

Things Vin hadn't thought about in years flashed through his head and he was quiet for several minutes. Images of a dark haired young woman singing to him; trying to wake her up, being dragged away. A man and woman, and two older boys on a farm; a terrible storm and fire. A blond teen helping him with the runaway horses, living in a barn. Indians killing or hurting the boys and taking him. Sleeping on the back of a horse.

Blinking, Vin looked up at Tom, "Mister Adam and Mrs. Ruth. Fire. Boys hurt by Comanche. Take me … food."

"The Comanche took him and killed the others. Looks like we're stuck with this damn kid. No one to send him to. Who wants a heathen in their family? No telling what he'll do to the people here."

Tom rose and turned to Peter, speaking calmly. "Looks that way Peter. I'm sure you don't have to worry about who he'll be with for now. The colonel will be taking care of that. I don't think there will be a problem."

Laughing Peter gazed at the teen on the bed who was watching the two men with a wide curious look on his face.

"What do you want heathen? If you're placed with a family are you going to kill their children and them in their sleep? Scalp them? Then kill everyone you can while we all sleep?" He snarled and took a step towards Vin.

Tom grabbed Peter's shoulder, stopping him, knowing the man wished to kill the boy. He knew that Peter's wife, brother and his family died at the hands of the Apache a couple of years ago on their way to meet him here, at the fort.

"He's only a young boy Peter, he didn't do it. He was with the Kiowa not the Apache."

Peter relaxed under Tom's hands, he was still upset but he calmed himself. He saw fear and confusion cross the boy's gaunt, handsome face before it turned blank again. Tearing his gaze from the boy, Peter looked at Tom.

"Sorry Tom. That won't happen again," he glanced at the boy then away. "I'll get him something to eat. He's starving; he needs some food before there are other problems."

"Thanks Peter. Yes, the little band of Indians were …are …starving. They all look like him or worse. There's only one or two small children left and I think most of their older men and women are gone also. They took the train's cattle and a few horses, they didn't kill anyone doing it."

"Good to know. I'll get him something to eat." Peter walked out of the room leaving Vin staring after him.

Vin watched the exchange between the men and listened to the one called Peter yell at him. He felt as though the man wanted to kill him and when he'd stepped towards him he was sure. For a moment fear raced through him, but then it changed to confusion. He didn't know this man, or this place, or why the man wanted him dead. For once he was glad that the man, Tom, was there and had stopped Peter. His thoughts kept turning and he wondered, why? He didn't want to be here and would rather be dead than in this white soldiers' place.

Tom sat on the end of the bed, his kind gaze on Vin as he saw the boy's face reflect some of his thoughts. He watched as the blue eyes came to rest on him.

"Peter won't hurt you. We'll find a place for you to live, a good family. For now you have to stay here and get well. Do you understand?"

Vin listened closely to what Tom was saying. He did understand some of the words, remembering more and more of them, and their meanings.

"St … stay here. Want to go home. Help Watcher, Blue Hand, Blossom…" Vin said and hung his head. He knew in his heart he'd never see the little family again. The soldiers would not let him go back. He would try to leave though, he was needed at home. He'd wait until they weren't watching him so close and his leg felt better. He felt a touch on his leg and looked up at Tom.

"Sorry Vin. You can't go back, you were a captive of theirs and you need your own people. You will be fine. Do you know how old you are?"

Frowning at the words from the man, Vin tipped his head ignoring what Tom first said and tried thinking about his age.

"Mama died. I's 5. With Ms Ruth two summers. Yellow… Feather ... two winters. Watcher four winters." Vin looked at Tom and added, "My family Watcher."

Tom shook his head but didn't say anything on seeing the defiant look on the boy's face. A sound from behind had him glancing over his shoulder to where Peter stood, having come into the room carrying a small tray with a bowl of stew and a piece of bread. A glass of milk stood beside the bowl.

Vin looked at the tray. The smell of the food made his stomach growl. It had been a long time since he'd last eaten and he almost drooled as Peter sat the tray on a pillow on his lap. Vin reached for the chunk of bread first and took a large bite before reaching for the spoon.

"Slow Vin, eat slowly. Don't want you sick," Tom said quickly, halting the loaded spoon half way to Vin's mouth.

With a nod, Vin swallowed the bread then took a bite of the stew and forced himself to eat slowly. He didn't want to lose the first decent meal he'd had in ages. The stew was packed with meat, potatoes, apples and some other things he couldn't remember the name of. The juice thick and tasty.

It didn't take him long to finish the stew and bread, he put the spoon in the empty bowl and reached for the glass of milk. As he drank the cool liquid he tried to remember its name, it had been a long time since he'd had any. Suddenly the word came to him, milk. Over the last years he'd had some, but it was mare's milk and it tasted different than this. He could drink this every day he thought.

Lowering the glass Vin looked at Peter then Tom, a small smile on his milk-mustached lips. Licking them off he said, "Good."

Tom smiled, "Milk, that is milk."

Vin nodded his head and finished drinking the milk and placed the glass on the tray beside the bowl. His gaze went to Peter and he stuttered, "Th … thank …Was good."

Peter took the tray, "You're welcome. Now rest."

Tom saw Vin yawn as his eyes begin to droop and realized Peter put something in the boy's food. He stood and moved to Vin's side.

"Lie down and sleep for awhile, it will help your leg heal. Here let me help you."

Tom leaned Vin forward and pulled the pillow out from where it had been squished against the low headboard. With a shake of the pillow he placed it on the bed beneath the headboard; the boy was getting heavier as the drug worked. He lifted the drooping body and laid Vin down on the bed, straightened his long legs out and placed his arms along his thin body before covering him with the sheet and blanket. He watched as Vin snuggled down under the covers until only the top of his head could be seen.

Peter entered the room glanced at his patient and walked out again. Tom followed the other man into the kitchen and accepted the cup of coffee Peter poured and handed to him.

"I hope you find a place for him soon, I need him out of here in the next day or so."

"It's up to the colonel where he will be placed, and when. I'm sure he'll be here later today to check on Vin. I have to take the men out at noon. I'm not sure when I'll be back. Patterson wants us to make sure that the wagon train is all right and we're to check the surrounding area for Indian movements." Tom looked at Peter, "I would take the boy myself, but I'm single and I don't think Patterson would let that happen. He seems to be a nice kid, just needs someone who cares enough to help him come back from what he's been though."

"He's a wild heathen, and I would be afraid of having him near my family, around my children…if I had some," Peter growled.

"Peter, he's a child who was taken from a family and forced to live with Indians, it wasn't his choice. He's only thirteen years old and seems to have gone through a lot in those few years. We were lucky our mother and father's were there for us, looking out for us, teaching and loving us. He's lost his parents, maybe twice, counting the family he was living with, when he was taken at seven by the Indians. What were you doing when you were seven? Until you joined the Army? Think on that Peter. I have to go. I'll see you and Vin as soon as I can." Tom rose, grabbed his hat and jacket and left Peter sitting at the table in his kitchen with his thoughts.

A while later, Peter carried salve and a fresh bandage into the other room and placed them on the bed next to his patient's bed. For several moments he glared at the boy who looked no more than nine or ten years old. He was glad he'd slipped the laudanum into his food, he didn't have to watch him so close. Finally he flipped back the blankets and set to work examining Vin's wounded leg.

Finding that infection had set in the wound, Peter went to his kitchen for some hot water. Adding some carbolic to the water, he then cleaned the wound until the infected area was free of the puss and clear blood welled. Covering the wound with the salve then bandaged the wounded leg. Dumping the water, he rinsed the basin out, and after putting clean water in it, he retrieved a towel and cloth went back into the other room. He washed the lax body, cleaning off the dirt and grime to make the boy presentable for when Colonel Patterson visited.

Peter was in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee from the fresh pot he'd just made when the tall colonel walked in after a short knock. Patterson took off his hat as he entered. His bald head glistened in the sunlight as he closed the door behind him. Peter hurried to pour another cup of coffee, adding a dollop of milk to it, to keep from smiling over the vision of the sun kissed bald head.

Colonel Patterson was a tall, muscular man, a career soldier in his late forties, who worked his way up through the ranks to where he now was. A fair, but stern man and well liked by the men under his command. He greeted Peter and asked to see the boy who had been brought from the Indian encampment.

Standing beside the bed, Patterson looked Vin over, letting Peter tell him everything Tom found out about the boy. When Peter finished he shook his head.

"He doesn't look old enough to have lived such a life. Too bad his folks are gone. It'd be too hard to try to find this preacher and his family, if they're still alive. I'll ask around, see if I can find a family who would take him in. There are no orphanages in this area, that he could be taken to," he finished with a little smile at Peter.

After finishing the cup of coffee, Patterson left. His thoughts going to the few families that lived in the fort.

The column of soldiers left at noon, and after lunch Peter had an emergency, he was needed right away. One of the soldier's wives went into labor, her baby coming a little early and she was having problems. For a moment he wondered what to do with the youngster, and then cleaned out the bottom of the closet in the infirmary's office. It was large enough to place the boy in it on some blankets, and it had a latch that would keep the door closed. The kid couldn't escape from it without outside help. Placing a couple of blankets on the floor inside, he then carried Vin to the closet and placed him on the blankets, then covered him with another one. Straightening he stepped back and closed and latched the door. The heathen wouldn't escape to hurt anyone he thought, as he grabbed his bag and left the clinic.

Chapter 11

Vin woke with a start. His head felt stuffy and ached. The wound in his leg made him grind his teeth, the pain so intense, his stomach felt queasy. It was pitch black, and he wondered what time of the day it was. With a moan he tried to stretch out and roll onto his back. He froze when he felt a wall at his feet, and couldn't stretch his legs. With a quick movement, he stretched out his arms and felt all around him. He was in a small room, a very tiny one it felt like. The ceiling wasn't that far above him, he was surrounded by wood. He got the fingers of one hand along the edge of the ceiling but couldn't touch anything above it. Vin thought it faced the same way he was laying. Time seemed to stand still for him as his breathing hitched.

Panicked fingers flew around the enclosure as Vin frantically tried to find a way out. All he found was that the wall in front of him was thinner than the one behind him, and there was no way out. Thinking it was the door he pounded on it and yelled until he was almost hoarse, but there was only silence.

Sweat poured off Vin as he wrapped his arms across his waist, gripping his sides to keep from injuring his hands, and to stop himself from pounding on the door again. Tears flowed for a few minutes from the pain in his head and leg before he pushed them away.

Taking several deep breaths Vin tried to calm himself so he could think more clearly of how he could get out of the little room. It didn't work, all he could think was that he was trapped, with no way out and his imagination took flight. The walls were squeezing in on him and the air was almost gone.

Vin fought the tears back and struggled for air. His eyes closed tight as his thoughts scattered. He was sure he was dying. Breathing in gasps he began to sing his death song. He'd heard it enough times in the last months that he knew it by heart. He could barely breathe, and as his forced, raspy voice sang the words he began to calm down. He didn't realize there was plenty of air, in his panic he was causing himself to hyperventilate.

Finally the song was finished and he drifted off to sleep, sure he'd die while he slept, as the elderly people in the tribe had. He decided he was ready to be with his momma.

Peter wearily entered his kitchen and stirred up the coals in the stove, fed kindling then wood to the stove then started a pot of coffee. He opened his bag and cleaned the few instruments he'd used, then carried the repacked bag into the other room and put it away. Back in the kitchen he lit the lantern and with a wide yawn sat down at the table. Elbows propped on the table he rested his head in his hands. He felt drained, the delivery had gone on and on. He couldn't believe that he'd left the day before just after lunch, and now it was almost 3AM the next night.

All he wanted to do was go to bed and sleep for a day, once he got a big cup of coffee. The babies were breach and one died before it could be born. He had never seen twins like that, but he managed to save the second baby, a tiny boy, and the mother's life also. He would check her again the next day, he was afraid she'd never be able to carry a baby again though.

Yawning he rose and poured a cup of coffee. Standing beside the table he took a sip then stretched his back as he tried to decide if he wanted to eat something. With a sigh he sat down, a feeling that he was forgetting something overcame him, and he lifted his head and looked around the dimly lit

room. All of a sudden he remembered the boy.

"Oh lord, how could I forget the heathen?" He asked himself as he jumped up and rushed into the other room, to the closet near the door, pulled it open and looked down.

The boy was laying in at awkward angle, his eyes opened to narrow slits, arms wrapped around his thin waist.

"Sorry boy, been a hard, long day. Let's get you out of here," Peter said as he knelt down on one knee and reached for his patient.

As Peter began to pull the boy from the closet, alarm spread through him as he realized the teen was not responding in any way. He was limp and as he looked close at the blue eyes, they were dull and unresponsive. He realized the boy was alive, except possibly in shock.

Placing Vin on the bed he lit the lantern then hurriedly got some warm water, and cleaned him off, running the warm cloth over his sweat chilled body. He then checked the wound, added more slave and replaced the damp bandage. Placing Vin's legs on a rolled blanket he covered him with two others to get him warmer. Going into the kitchen he wrapped the two bricks he'd sat on the stove in toweling and laid them under the blankets alongside Vin to help him get warm faster.

He placed a metal cup on the edge of the stove with milk in it then went back to Vin and started rubbing his arms and legs. Once Vin began to stir he retrieved the warmed milk. Sitting beside Vin's head and shoulders he raised Vin and leaning him against his chest. He placed the warm cup of milk to the boys lips. Peter began to rub Vin's throat as he tipped the cup and dribbled a little of the warmed milk into his mouth.

At first most of the milk went down Vin's chin, then finally he started to swallow. Peter grinned as he dribbled a little more into the boy's mouth.

Vin swallowed the milk then drank more as it was offered. His hand shakily came up and he weakly placed it on the cup and his eyes opened more as his vision began to clear. The drink began to warm his insides. He relished the warmth spreading through him. His sides and legs felt less cold, and the wound wasn't nearly as painful either. Blinking his eyes he looked at the cup of milk then realized someone was holding him up, he was leaning against a warm chest. With a flinch Vin leaned forward away from the man behind him. The man released him and let him take the cup into his own hands.

Peter sighed with relief when the young teen started to respond to the milk, and when he leaned away from him he let him go making sure he was steady with the cup in his hands. He rose and placed a couple of pillows behind the boy aware he was being watched. Once he leaned Vin back and covered him he told Vin,

"I'm going to get you some food. Drink that slowly and when it's gone I'll get you some more."

The blue gaze watched as Peter left the room, glad the man was gone for a bit. Slowly Vin drank the warm milk down. He was hungry, as he drank wondered for a little while why he hadn't died. He realized his stomach was tied in knots from being locked in the tiny room, and he didn't trust this man, Peter. He wished he could be somewhere else. Vin looked up when Peter entered the room carrying the little tray again, it held a bowl and a large chunk of bread on it.

"I'll take that," Peter said as he placed a pillow on Vin's lap and sat the tray on it, not noticing the alarmed look that crossed the boys face. "I'll get you some more milk." Peter took the cup from Vin and handed him a spoon then turned away.

Vin held the spoon a moment before taking a tentative spoonful of the stew. His hand began to shake as he lifted the bite to his mouth. He was so hungry he barely got it to his mouth without spilling all of it. Barely chewing he spooned another spoonful as his hand began shaking harder.

Peter came back with a filled cup and looked at the teen. He shook his head, the boy looked frail, pale and thinner. He was shaking hard enough that he barely could feed himself. He sat the milk down and lowered himself to the bed beside Vin's legs, which he noticed, were quickly drawn away from him.

Peter patted the leg closest to him then took the shaking spoon from Vin's hand.

"I'm sorry to have left you so long. I didn't know it was going to take her so long to have her babies. And I lost one, it was a fight to save her life and the other baby," he told Vin as he started to feed him.

Vin drew back from Peter when he sat beside him, and when the man took the spoon he froze, scared the man was going to take the food away. He was surprised when Peter began to talk to him and feed him. Warily he opened his mouth for the first bite, but hunger forced him to take one bite after another as he listened.

A few words came back to Vin as he chewed, he looked at the man again as he thought over what he was saying.

"Baby?" he rasped between bites.

With a nod Peter held his arms out as if holding a baby and rocked them back and forth a couple times before filling the spoon again. The blue gaze locked on him.

"There were two, one died. Almost lost the mother too, but she will be alright now."

"Two babies?" Vin said in awe. He knew that women had one baby but never knew they could have two. As he chewed another thought struck him, how could a mother feed two babies and keep them full. The Indian women worked hard but they seemed to feed their babies often. He looked at Peter and thought for a moment then asked, "Feed babies … how? Busy?"

Peter listened to the hesitant words the boy said, then smiled when he realized what he was asking. He held one arm out like he was holding a baby, then placing the spoon in the bowl, held out his other arm the same way but in reverse, and rocked them as if rocking two babies.

Vin watched Peter closely. When the man said, "Babies in arms." Vin nodded in understanding. His eyes widened when Peter patted his chest with one hand, then pointed to Vin's at the dusty nipples on Vin's bare, narrow chest.

"One baby on each side," Peter told him as he picked up the spoon once more, a grin on his lips. He knew the boy understood as his face changed colors, the pale features turning red clear to his ear tips.

After a second bowl of food, Vin leaned back and closed his eyes, hoping the man would leave

him alone. He needed to think of a way to get out of the room, and back to his people.

Peter pulled the blankets over Vin and tucked them against his thin body, he didn't really think the boy was that tired, but he'd let him rest. He carried the used dishes and utensils back into the kitchen. Hungry he finished off the warm stew himself then cleaned everything up. As he worked he wondered if the colonel had found a place for the heathen yet.

A quick check on his patient, Peter found him asleep and went to his own bed for awhile, a small bedroom next to the wardroom. He figured he'd hear Vin if he started moving about. He was asleep a few minutes after his head hit the pillow.

Late afternoon found someone knocking loudly on the clinic's door. It clicked open and a woman hurried inside calling for the doctor.

Peter woke from the deep sleep surprised how late in the day it was. As he pulled his shirt into place and stepped into his boots he wondered what Sergeant Walker's wife needed. He hurried out the bedroom door as he tucked his shirt into his pants.

"Mrs. Jansen needs you, she's having some trouble," Susan Walker told him wringing her hands together.

"Damn. I'll go, let me grab my bag." Peter said and rushed to get his medical bag. Mrs. Jansen didn't need any more problems, losing one baby the night before was more than enough. As he put several things into the bag he remembered the boy in the other room. He glanced in at the teen, and saw that he was awake, bright blue eyes gazed at him in alarm.

"Stay here, don't get out of bed. I'll be back as soon as possible," he ordered Vin who stared at him wide-eyed.

"Mrs. Walker, I have a young patient, could you stay here for a little while to make sure he stays in bed? He hasn't eaten since the middle of last night, if you could find him something. There's bread and butter and some left over stew in the kitchen. I'd appreciate if you could feed him some of the leftovers."

"Go, go, I'll take care of it until you return," she told him and almost pushed him out the door.

As Peter trotted towards the Jansen home, Susan Walker looked at the old pot of stew still on the back of the stove. Smelling it, she picked it up and dumped it outside. It smelled bad. She would not feed it to any person. Back in the kitchen she went through cabinets and shelves and found enough stored foods to make a decent meal.

While the food cooked she cleaned the stew pot, and then thought she should check on the patient. Thinking it was one of the young soldiers, she walked into the room and was shocked to see a boy laying in the bed. For a moment she was speechless, and when the thin, high cheek-boned face turned to her, she exclaimed, "Doctor Peter told me he had a young patient but didn't let on you were a young boy."

Vin gazed at the older woman as he pulled the blankets up around his neck and tried to understand the words she had spoken to him. With a grimace he shook his head.

"Not boy. Man. I am Hawk."

Susan paid attention to the short raspy words and a shiver ran through her. 'Indian boy? No, he has beautiful blue eyes and light hair. But he spoke differently. What if he attacks me? Peter said he was a patient, what's wrong with him?' her thoughts raced through her head.

For a long minute Susan stared at the youngster and he held her gaze. With a shake of her head she pulled her eyes from his and looked at the thin form outlined under the blankets.

"Are you alright? Do you hurt anywhere?" she finally asked.

With a shrug Vin pulled the blankets tighter around his neck. "Soldier shot me … it hurt some. Will be fine … then go home," Vin answered haltingly.

Susan listened to the softly spoken accented words, and realized this was the young teen Colonel Patterson was trying to find a home for.

"I'm glad you're feeling better. I'll bring you a meal in a few minutes," she told him and turned back to the kitchen.

"Thanks ma'am," she heard as she hurried from the room.

As she turned the ham and made several more flapjacks she wondered how the teen ended up with the Indians. It surprised her that he seemed to have manners, and those stunning blue eyes, someone could get lost in them. She realized that she wasn't afraid of him, he seemed quiet and gentle. She piled the cooked food on a plate, layering butter and warmed syrup between the cakes.

Carrying the plate into the room she saw the boy pull himself into a sitting position, she could tell he was hungry by the way his eyes were locked on the plate of food. She handed him the fork and pulled a folded blanket onto his lap, she then sat the plate on it.

Vin looked at the fork a moment before he remembered how to use it, and when the plate of flapjacks and ham was placed on his lap he dug in.

The first mouthful of the syrup covered flapjacks made Vin smile at the woman watching him. Between the light and fluffy cakes and the sweet syrup Vin thought he could die happy with the taste of the food on his lips.

"Do you like that?"

"Yes ma'am," Vin replied after swallowing another forkful of the heavenly food, and taking another bite.

"Don't eat too fast, there's plenty if you want more when this is done," Susan said with a warm smile.

Vin slowed his eating and was glad when the woman left and he could eat without someone watching over him. He looked up when she entered the room again, his eyes going to what was in her hand.

"I brought you some milk. It's nice and cool."

"Thank you ma'am," Vin replied reaching for it.

"You're welcome. Do you have enough to eat?"

"Yes'm … getting full ... Is good."

"Why thank you … Can I ask you something?"

Warily Vin finished his meal and drank down the milk. With a nod he leaned back and looked at her.

"I … um well. Do you have family to go to when you leave? And what is your name?" Susan asked timidly.

"My momma's dead … many years. They … won't let me go … to my family," Vin replied after thinking of the words for a moment. He realized he was remembering more English words. "I'm called Hawk, and Vin Tanner."

"I'm sorry for your loss, and that they won't let you go back to … the Indians?" she paused and at his nod she continued. "We lost our son several years ago and we have no more children. If it wouldn't be too hard for you, you could come live with us. I'm sure my husband would enjoy your company."

The words, when Vin worked them out in his head surprised him. This woman wanted him to live with her and her man. He knew he couldn't stay here, didn't have any desire to. He gazed at her, she seemed nice and she could cook. He could leave this place if he wasn't with the doctor. He nodded his head in acceptance.

Chapter 12

Doctor Reed returned to the clinic a couple of hours later, and found Mrs. Walker reading a book to his young patient, who was listening intently to her words.

Susan smiled at the doctor then looked at Vin who was half asleep, a small smile on his face from the story she was reading to him. She knew he was trying to understand the words as she slowly read, but she was happy to see him relaxed and enjoying it. She closed the book and rose.

"I'll finish this later," she told Vin who nodded then snuggled down into the blankets, letting his eyes drift closed.

"How did things go Mrs. Walker?" Peter asked as he put his bag away.

"Fine. He's a very nice boy. Peter, I'll get right to this. Has Colonel Patterson found a place for him? I'm going to talk to my husband when he returns and see about taking him."

Peter stared at her in surprise. "You want that heathen?" he blurted out.

Anger flashed through Susan. "He's no more a heathen than you are. I'm going to go talk to the colonel." With that she stormed out the door slamming it behind her.

"Damn it." Peter snarled and looked towards the doorway to the other room. Before he could storm into the room he heard the fort's bugle calling a warning out. Grabbing his holstered gun he quickly buckled the gun belt around his waist as he hurried outside.

Several minutes later the column of soldiers who had left a few days before, rode through the gate. Peter watched the men, seeing a couple with arms in slings, and several empty saddles. The supply wagon at the end of the column turned in his direction and moments later pulled to a halt in front of him.

"How many?" Peter asked as he moved towards the back.

"Three, the fourth one is badly wounded, he needs his leg attended to right away," replied the man as he tied the horses off.

"I'll prepare the beds. Bring in the most seriously wounded first," Peter said and rushed back into the clinic. He'd have to move the boy and keep him away from the soldiers. He didn't trust the wounded teen, remembering the knife they'd found on him.

Going to where the blankets were stacked he grabbed several and carried them to the closet and made a bed in it again. He quickly entered the ward and with deft movements picked up the sleeping boy and carried him and his blanket to the closet.

Vin's eyes snapped open when he was lifted, and his leg banged into the door frame as he was carried into the other room. He made a grab for Peter as he was set down on the blankets and covered. "No!" he rasped out when he realized where Dr. Reed had placed him.

Peter pushed the boys hand off his arm, "Stay there." He growled as he stood and closed the

heavy door and latched it just as the clinic door opened and two men entered with a stretcher between them. The man on it was unconscious.

Vin fought the rising panic that flowed through him as Peter pushed his hand off his arm, then rose and closed and latched the door. Sweat formed on him as he shut his eyes tightly. Swallowing hard he fought not to lose the food he'd eaten earlier. His hands clutched the blankets tightly as he began to hyperventilate. He could feel the small, dark space closing in on him.

From the other side of the door he heard men's muffled voices and the thump of footsteps. With an effort he forced himself to listen and kept telling himself he wasn't alone, there were people out there, on the other side of the door. His panic finally eased somewhat as he listened to the voices; he could feel the vibration of the floorboards under him when the men walked around. 'Not alone. Not alone,' he kept telling himself.

As the footsteps quieted Vin turned his thoughts to the story Mrs. Walker had been reading to him, about a flying horse and the man who was trying to catch him. He hoped that was what she was telling him anyway, as he only understood part of the words.

After awhile he fell asleep, holding the vision of a flying horse with long beautiful eagle wings.

It was late on the second day, after the soldiers returned to the fort, that Tom stopped in to see how Vin was doing.

Tom paused when he entered the clinic, thinking he'd heard some thumps or something. Not seeing anything or hearing any more, he went through to where he heard voices. He paused in the doorway as his gaze went over the four men in the beds. A frown furled his brow. Peter was tending the man with the ugly leg wound that had become infected. The two men in the beds beside the soldier were watching and talking while the forth man slept in the far bed.

Not wanting to interfere with what Peter was doing, Tom stepped farther into the room looking for Vin. Not seeing the teen anywhere, a sense of relief washed through him as he thought the boy had been placed with a family. He'd ask Peter who took Vin so he could check on him and see how he was adjusting.

With that thought he visited with the two men who noticed him. A few minutes later Peter gathered the soiled bandages and other items, rose and headed for the door.

Tom took his leave of the men and followed Peter to the other room.

"Who took Vin? I'd like to see how he's doing," Tom said to Peter who stiffened at his words and slowly turned around, his gaze traveling to the latched closet door.

Tom's eyes followed Peter's gaze and his face paled as he realized what Peter's look meant.

"Peter, you didn't!" Tom exclaimed as he rushed to the closet door and threw it open. Anger and disbelief washed over him as he knelt down beside the small form curled on the floor of the closet. The light pounding he'd heard earlier overwhelmed his thoughts, it had been Vin.

With gentle hands Tom eased the half conscious teen from the closet feeling the sweat covered body trembling. He lifted Vin into his arms and stood up, the smell of the soiled teen assaulted his nose

and he turned angrily to Peter.

"Get him cleaned up. I'm getting him out of here as soon as it's finished," he hissed at the other man.

Peter threw a sheet over the exam bed and let Tom lay Vin on it. Tom didn't care what anyone said he was taking the boy out of this hell. As he unwrapped the thin body, blue eyes opened a little and gazed up at him for a moment before sliding closed again.

With a pan of warm water, Peter began to quickly clean Vin. He was angry that he had to care for the heathen over the wounded soldiers. A heathen that kills soldiers and white families like his own. Cleaning the boy made him angrier and he had to steady his hand to keep from hurting him as he worked, especially with Tom standing there watching him. He would be glad to be rid of the boy, the sooner the better.

"Check his wound and replace the bandages. I'll be right back for him," Tom commanded angerily when Peter finished drying the thin body.

Before Peter could say anything, Tom was gone, the door banging shut behind him.

Peter turned and got the items he needed to care for the wound, then cut the bandage off Vin's leg. He cleaned the wound, checked the stitches, made sure there was no infection then covered it with salve and wrapped the clean bandage around the leg. As he finished, the door banged open and Tom strode in carrying some clothes.

Laying the clothes beside Vin he looked the boy over. Vin was clean, the sweat and filth washed off him, and the fresh white bandage stood out on his tanned leg.

While Peter cleaned the basin and his hands, Tom shook out the small shirt he'd found at the store and gently sat Vin up and slipped it over his head and arms. Lying Vin down he worked his legs into the pants, knowing they'd be too large, but not caring. He was taking the boy away from there.

Vin slowly opened his eyes as he felt warmth engulf him. He saw the man named Tom bending over his legs and realized he was putting something on his cold feet. His gaze lifted and he saw the doctor watching them from several feet away, an furious look on his face, his stare made a cold shiver go up his back.

"How long did you have Vin in that closet?" Tom asked, his anger barely controlled, as he pulled a sock onto Vin's foot.

Peter pulled his gaze from the blue eyes watching him and turned to Tom.

"Had to do something with him, needed the beds for the men."

"Two days? Man are you crazy? Look at him, he was what? In shock when I got him out of there? There is no excuse to treat a boy that way. He was wounded. You could have made a pallet in the corner for him, instead of locking him in a damn closet for two days. Did you even feed him? What is wrong with you?"

"He's a heathen, a killer. I didn't want him near the men, he could have killed them," Peter hissed.

Tom looked at Peter in disbelief. "Kill them? When he's so weak he can't even walk around the room? Kill them with what? These fragile hands? What you did to this boy is despicable. I'm putting you on report, and taking Vin out of here. I'll be back for bandages and stuff for his leg. You aren't to be near him again." Tom stated as he gently gathered Vin into his arms.

"Good, and when he kills you or someone else, I'll say, I told you so," Peter snarled as he opened the door for his friend then slammed it behind Tom and his burden.

"Dumb son of a b …" spotting several women on the boardwalk coming towards him, Tom cut off what he was going to say. He felt Vin shift in his arms and glanced down at the boy.

Blue eyes met Tom's dark gaze a moment before turning to the women for an instant. Vin turned his head away from the ladies as red flushed his cheeks.

Tom looked at the women and realized they were watching him closely, their eyes locked on Vin. Abruptly he turned and cut across the parade ground at an angle heading to the officers' quarters. He would let Colonel Patterson know where Vin was as soon as he got him settled. Tom knew he couldn't keep Vin more than a few days, he was a single man, his quarters were barely large enough for him.

When he reached his cabin, Tom pushed the door open and carried Vin to the bed positioned across the back of the sparse room.

"You'll be safe here Vin. This is my quarters. I'll take care of you until a home can be found for you."

"Thank you," Vin rasped and leaned back against the wall as he looked around the clean room. His face flushed when his stomach growled.

"Ahh damn. Food! He locked you in and never fed you?" At Vin's hesitant nod Tom cursed for a minute, he didn't have anything but a few trail rations. He hadn't expected to have a house guest.

Running a hand through his hair, Tom looked at Vin. "Alright. I'll go to the mess and get something for you, for us, since its dinner time. Will you be all right here? Can you stay put here until I get back? It won't take me long," he said hoping Vin understood him.

"I be fine," Vin answered, understanding most of what Tom said, his thoughts were now on how glad he was to be out of the doctor's closet, and how hungry he was. Tom patted his shoulder and quickly left, and Vin turned to look at his surroundings. At his new home, for now.

To Vin's right was a small wood stove, and he thought it would heat the room well on cold days. Along the wall beside it were several cabinets, a sink with a window above it and some storage bins. The wall in front of him had a tall closet-type cabinet, the door, a window next to the door, and what he thought was a big odd-looking box, with straps peeking out from under it. The wall on his left had another window with a table and two chairs pushed under it. Shelves on the wall held what looked like a stack of clothes and some squares of something sitting upright on them. He thought for a couple of minutes and thought they were called pictures, he could see some figures on the closest one. The corner near the head of the bed had a quilt covered stuffed chair, with a lamp on a shelf between the chair and bed. There were two other lanterns, one on the table the other beside the sink. When he leaned forward to look past the foot of the bed Vin saw firewood stacked beside the stove.

Leaning back he wondered where he was going to sleep, there wasn't enough room on the bed for two and he wouldn't sleep on Tom's bed anyway. Looking at the floor he decided he'd sleep there, it was cleaner than the dirt floors he'd slept on before. He wondered if Tom had a buffalo hide, it would make the perfect bed.

A sigh escaped his lips as Vin leaned his head against the wall, and let his gaze roam over the room again. He took in the items on the shelves and the clothing hanging near the door. Then he spotted the sword, and a holstered gun hanging beside the long blue coat. For a moment he stared at the weapons before he glanced at the tall cabinet and spotted a rifle leaning in the corner against it. Thoughts of escaping flew through his head as he turned his gaze to the cloth covered, open window to his left.

With a shake of his head Vin looked away, he'd seen some of the fort, and knew there was no way he could get out of it alive. The gate was well guarded, and he had no idea where the horses were kept. The walls that he saw were high with no way to get over them without someone seeing him. Men were everywhere. There was no place he could go that he wouldn't be seen. With a last glance at the weapons he looked out the window by the door, it was open, the cloth over it moved a little in the slight breeze coming through it. He could never hurt Tom, he and Mrs. Susan were nice to him. His thoughts turned to what was going to happen to him now.

He wanted to go home, but where was home? The Turner family, he didn't know if they were alive, or how to find them. Yellow Feather and Little Butterfly, Watcher and Blue Hand, he had no idea where any of them would be by now. Watcher and his people had enough problems from the winter and he knew he was another mouth to feed, even though he could help.

Another sigh sounded in the quiet room, He decided he'd have to stay here for now and later he would try for his freedom.

The door opened and Tom walked in carrying a large covered tray. He was followed by a soldier carrying more supplies. Tom grinned at Vin as he placed the tray on the table then directed the other man where to place the things he carried.

Thanking the soldier, Tom closed the door the man before he turned to Vin.

"Would you like to sit at the table to eat?"

Cocking his head Vin worked the words out in his head then threw the blanket back, "Yes sir, I would." He replied.

Tom helped Vin to stand, staying beside him in case he needed help. He wasn't sure how well the wounded leg would hold the boy.

Vin gritted his teeth but was determined to walk the few steps to the table. His leg hurt and he felt like he was as weak as a new born colt. He stood still for a moment then carefully walked to the table and sat down on the chair Tom pulled out for him.

Tom smiled, "You are getting stronger. Good. Now here's our dinner." Tom uncovered the tray containing plates and bowls. Vin licked his lips and his stomach growled as Tom sat a plate and utensils in front of him.

Vin didn't know where to start. A plate was piled high with fried chicken. A bowl held mashed potatoes with gravy, another one held green beans with strips of bacon in it.

"Dig in," Tom said as he picked a couple pieces of chicken and placed them on his plate, then spooned some of the other foods beside the meat.

Vin eagerly chose a piece of chicken and placed a spoonful of potatoes on his plate followed by a few beans. With a glance at Tom he picked up the chicken and began to eat. It was the best food he could remember eating in years, next to the flapjacks Mrs. Susan fed him.

Tom smiled to himself as he covertly watched the teen eat. He knew Vin hadn't eaten in several days, and looked it. The boy had to be starving, but he was eating slowly, not gulping down his food. He wished he could keep Vin, but knew a single man couldn't. He had no wife and it was against Army regulations. He promised himself he'd make sure the lad went to a good family, someone who wouldn't mistreat him as Peter had. He would talk to the colonel when he reported to him what Peter did to the boy, and see what could be done.

Chapter 13

Vin stayed with Captain Tom Brooks for almost two weeks. Tom cared for his leg, and made sure he was well fed and able to get around.

Under Tom's care, Vin quickly healed, and enjoyed three good meals a day. His lanky thin body began to fill out a little, though Tom thought he'd likely always be thin.

Colonel Patterson visited one day. He told Tom that Vin would be moved to the Walker's quarters. Sergeant Walker and his wife Susan, had talked to him several times.

So less than two weeks after Vin met Susan Walker, he made the move to the Walker's home.

He had his own room, though quite small it fit him. Vin, happy to have windows and a bed, kept the window open all the time. At Tom's, he'd insisted he could sleep on the floor and slept on a pallet in front of the tall cabinet.

Sgt. Mike Walker, though a tough and burly man, was kind and treated Vin well. Vin helped around the house as much as he could, though Mrs. Susan kept the house spotless. Vin always looked for ways to do more for the couple. Several times Mike took him outside the fort to hunt deer and antelope.

Vin cherished those outings. Happy that Sarge, as Mike told Vin to call him, trusted him not to run off. Each time they came back they brought something home with them, deer, quail or a hard to get antelope.

Sarge couldn't believe how accurately Vin shot, and how far he could see. After their first outing, as Susan cooked deer steaks, the couple asked Vin about his time with the Indians, and how he came to shoot so well. Susan prompted him with her remembering he'd told her his name was Hawk.

The couple listened as Vin slowly told them how he'd come to be living with the People and the things he'd gone through with them. Susan wiped her eyes over the loss he suffered when taken from Yellow Feather, then Watcher. She again turned tear filled eyes away as he told how many starved and died the last winter.

Susan couldn't hold back, and as tears rolled down her cheeks she hugged the teen whose bright blue eyes fought to hold back his own tears.

As she hugged his slight form a few tears leaked from his eyes, but Vin quickly blinked them away. He was a man, men didn't cry. He accepted her apology for crying on his shoulder with a small tight smile. She knew he didn't like to be touched, but was thrilled when his arms went around her for a moment.

For eight months Vin thrived with the Walkers. He filled out and grew taller, though Susan told him he'd always be slender, he didn't mind. Mike taught Vin how to care for the different guns and rifles they had at the fort, cleaning and making simple repairs. Often they left the fort and he allowed Vin to practice shooting. Mike couldn't believe how good a shot Vin had become, he could hit anything he aimed at, with ease, and never a wasted movement.

Susan found clothes, or cut down some for him. Though it became warm, Vin seemed to be cold

most of the time. She made sure he had plenty of long sleeved shirts. Some she got from the post supply store others were donated, and she spent hours sewing them so they would fit Vin.

Tom Brooks stopped in often and visited Vin. He brought him candy when he found that Vin had a sweet tooth, along with a streak of mischievousness. Tom learned a lot about the People, when Vin started to move on from his capture by the Army. Talking about the families he'd lived with and the day to day happenings, appeared to help Vin recover from the abrupt removal from the people he'd lived with and cared about for so many years.

Tom told Vin about his family and different things about Boston, the city he came from. He found the teen fascinated about ships, not knowing what they were, and when Tom drew pictures of them, Vin hung them on his bedroom wall. Tom knew many people had never seen large bodies of water, and the concept of an ocean almost beyond belief. So he'd taken Vin for a ride out on the prairie. At the top of a low hill, he told him to imagine the waving grass as blue-green water for as far as he could see.

Vin couldn't believe there were bodies of water so large that it took months to get across them. And ships so large they held more people then he could count, since he could barely count. The few lakes he'd seen he could easily ride around in a short amount of time, but Tom described a body of water so large that no man could ride around it, no matter how long he rode. He decided he'd like to see this thing Tom called an ocean some day.

Late October came, a chill in the air and the green prairie changing into dry, dead brown colors. One day two couriers rode into the fort and headed straight for the colonel's office. Dust covered and tired, the two men left their weary horses standing heads down in front of the building.

Vin saw the two men ride in. He looked closely at them, thinking he'd seen one before somewhere. When they entered Colonel Patterson's office he picked up the brush he'd just finished using on Sarge's horse, and walked over to the two dust covered horses. Loosening their saddles he began to brush them down. He'd water them as soon as they were cooler.

When the two young men stepped out of the office they paused in surprise. Their horses were dust and dirt free and feeding on a small pile of hay that lay in front of them. The blond turned to his taller, dark haired companion.

"They're in better shape than we are," he said.

"Wonder who did this for us?" The dark blue-eyed-gaze already moving around the area, looking over the few men they could see.

"There. The kid over there," he nodded to their left and the blond looked that way.

A thin teen was brushing a horse tied beside a cabin, another horse stood tied to a post on the other side, it's coat gleaming in the late afternoon sun.

"Get them ready to go, I'll thank the boy," the blond said and headed towards the boy, seeing the kid watching them.

Vin saw the blond soldier look his way as he took a last swipe of the brush over his horse. He stepped back from the animal, and watched the man approach. He knew he had seen and talked with this man before. He tried to remember where as the blond halted in front of him.

"Thank you for caring for our mounts, they came a long way."

"Wasn't much," Vin answered raising his eyes to meet the other man's. An odd feeling flashed through Vin when, as his eyes met the green gaze, he realized he recognized the young man.

The blond nodded as he studied the slender teen in front of him. The bright blue eyes returned his gaze steadily. Something went through him as he looked into the blue eyes. He felt he'd met the kid before, somewhere. Something about the boy drew him closer.

For a long minute they stood there, staring at each other, before the blond was reminded of his obligation, by a call from the taller man with their mounts.

"Come on stud. We have to get a move on, if we're to finish out assignment today."

Green and blue gazes turned to the other man who sat on his horse holding the reins to the blonds horse.

"I am," the young soldier said, and looked back at Vin. "Thank you again for what you did for our horses. We appreciate it, and they do too I'm sure," the blond smiled a little. "We have to head back. You take care,' he said as he took the reins from his friend.

Mounting the blond and his friend looked at Vin one last time then with nods they turned their horses towards the gate.

Vin watched the men leave. As they reached the gate, it hit him where he'd seen the green eyed blond before. Several years ago, both of them younger, when the blond stopped the runaway team of horses before Vin lost the loaded wagon. He watched as the two rode through the gate and wondered if he would ever see the blond again, if he'd ever learn his name. With a sigh he led his and Sarge's horses to the corral and turned them loose inside.

The next week erupted into a flurry of activity, as the fort prepared to close. It had been a surprise to the residents; but they were used to packing up and moving out. Families were allowed a wagon for their personal belongings, and single soldiers packed their possessions to go into other wagons or onto packhorses.

Vin heard that a war had broken out in the east, and the soldiers were ordered to report to a place called Washington DC. He didn't understand what it was all about. Something about a man who became president, and the south didn't want him to have power over them. There also were slaves in the South and the man, Lincoln, talked about freeing them. Vin didn't understand the problem; the People he lived with before had slaves, taken in battle and raids, he didn't see a problem with that.

Susan took him aside and explained what slavery meant. That in the south there were thousands of black people who'd been captured from another country many years ago. They were brought to this country in chains on big ships, and sold to work on plantations, with nothing to look forward to but beatings and whippings if they did something wrong. They would never be free; many having been slaves for generations. She told him about how some were forced to be with women, sometimes they were forced into marriage to produce children, who were at the mercy of their owner. Any of them could be sold, killed or whatever their masters wanted with them. Some slaves were treated like everyday possessions and traded or sold often; breaking up families, it didn't matter to some owners. She explained that this country had been built on freedom, and it wasn't right to force people into slavery.

Vin's sense of freedom and fairness led him to think deeply. He'd never seen a black person, but didn't think they could be much different than the Indians or Mexicans he'd seen. He knew slaves of the Indians were treated harshly, often had little food, but some were taken into the tribe and lived as one of the People. He didn't think it was right to force people from another country to come here and become slaves, even though Susan told him it happened a long time ago.

Vin knew though, that he didn't want to go to this new place, this 'Washington,' with the soldiers and families in the fort. This fort was too enclosing already, but in a larger place, with a lot more people and buildings all around, no, he couldn't go there. He needed open spaces and the freedom to move where he wanted to go. His gaze turned south and he knew he now had to leave.

Susan watched Vin as she packed and prepared for the trip east. She could see the longing in his eyes when she'd find him staring towards the south. She knew in her heart that he would not be going with them.

The day before the fort was evacuated, Susan and Sarge stood beside Vin in the mostly empty house. Susan's eyes filled with tears as she looked at the teen who she'd come to love as her own son.

"Vin," Susan gripped Vin's arm gently a moment before she dropped her hand. "We know you don't want to go east with us. You have your horse, and your belongings are packed. You can head out if you wish. We are not going to force you to do something you don't want to do," tears rolled down her cheeks as she leaned forward and hugged a surprised Vin.

He held Susan a moment, his blue gaze going from Susan to Sarge who stood close by.

"You mean …"

"You can head out as soon as you want," Sarge said and lifted the pack that he held in his hand. "Susan packed you some food. It should last you five or six days. I've added bullets for the rifle too; they're in your saddlebags with your clothes."

Vin looked back and forth between the two people who had treated him as their son. A lump formed in his throat. Though he wanted to leave instantly, he felt he owed them something. He opened his mouth to tell them he couldn't leave them, but Susan's hand lightly covered his lips.

"No Vin, you are a free spirit, and we won't force you to do anything that would keep you confined. Hawk does fit you. I hope and pray that you will remember us in a good way and know you will always be in our hearts and prayers. And maybe someday we will all meet again. I hope you find what you are looking for. Now, it is getting late in the day, you'd best be on your way before the gate is closed for the night."

Vin wrapped his arms around the woman and held her close for a minute. Tears in his eyes he said, "I will never forget you Mrs. Susan and Sarge. You both will always be in my heart. Thank you for everything, you've done more for me …" At a loss as to what more to say Vin released Susan and turned to Sarge.

The muscular man folded Vin into his arms unable to say anything, after a moment Sarge released him and carrying the pack of food went out the door.

Vin followed Sarge to where his horse stood, tacked up with the rifle Sarge had let him use

tucked into a scabbard.

"Sarge..." Vin started to say when he saw the rifle.

"No Vin. It's yours. You are a better shot with it than I am."

When Vin finished packing the food on his horse he turned to see Sarge pull a hunting knife in a long leather sheath from beneath his dark blue jacket. "I got this from Tom. Not sure how or where he got it, but he said it belonged to you."

For a moment Vin gazed at the knife Watcher had given to him, the sheath, handmade by Blue Hand and presented to him with the knife. Tears sprang to his eyes as he reverently took the knife from Sarge.

"Thank you Sarge... I... I never thought I'd see it again. Please thank Tom too …" his hand touched the medicine bag under his shirt, Tom had made sure he had it when he left the clinic. "Tom has helped me in many ways." With deft movements he tied the knife to his belt and shifted it into place. Later he would place it on his lower leg where it belonged. A smile crossed his lips as he settled it in place.

With a last hug from Sarge, Vin mounted and turned his horse. Susan hurried out the door and moved towards him, tears falling unchecked down her face. She gripped a bulky coat in her hands and moved close to Vin and his horse.

"Vin, you might need this soon. I was going to give it to you when it got colder. I almost forgot I had it." She handed the blanket lined dark tan coat up to the thin teen.

Instead of tying it onto the saddle, Vin pulled the warm coat on.

"Thank you Mrs. Susan, it's warm ..." Vin bent and gave her a last hug, straightened, nodded to the couple and urged his horse into a canter towards the gate.

"God bless you Vin." He heard from the Walkers as he rode away, and tears sprang into his eyes. He didn't look back as he passed through the gate and headed south on the road. When the road forked east and west he kept heading south, across the plains.

Thoughts in turmoil, Vin kept his horse at a steady gait. He was free, to go anywhere he wanted. Should he try to find Watcher and his people or just see the country? He knew he would need to get some kind of job. He didn't have any money to buy supplies he'd need to keep traveling. For now he thought he would be all right, he had food, clothes, and bullets for his rifle. Hunting food would be no problem; he could easily do that. He also knew how to dry meat and make pemmican.

Smiling, Vin knew how to tan hides and could make simple clothes out of them. Thanking Little Butterfly and Blue Hand for teaching him, he settled his horse into a steady canter as the fort disappeared into the distant haze.

Two days later, Vin found the canyon and valley that he'd spent the worst winter of his life in, with Watcher's People. No one had been there for a long time. As Vin made camp near the water he wondered if the People would ever return. It remained a good, protected place for a camp, but the spirits of the many who died seemed to be everywhere. In the morning he left, he hadn't slept much that night, too many memories of the people who lived and died during the winter had crowded in. Daylight barely lit the trail to the top of the cliff when he rode up it. At the top he paused, looked back into the dark valley then rode away. He would never be back to the valley. It was too dead.

For the next two weeks he traveled south, at times veering a little to the east. He saw very few people and a couple of towns. It got colder, and knowing winter wasn't that far off, he began to look for a place he could work and spend the winter months.

Near a small town one day, he spotted several men moving a herd of cattle and rode towards them. He turned several of the longhorn cows back into the herd as he approached the oldest looking man.

The man welcomed Vin, and set him to work with the other men, gathering the cattle and moving them to another area for the winter. Once they finished, he rode to the ranch with the others, having been hired for the next several months.

Winter brought freezing weather and several snowstorms. The storms dropped several inches of snow, never getting as deep as the previous winter. The ranch hands and Vin often hunted the cattle who drifted with the wind, and moved them back onto their range.

Vin was thankful for the warm coat Mrs. Susan gave to him. He wore several pairs of pants and socks which managed to keep him fairly warm, most of the time. But he looked forward to spring, he was getting tired of the cold weather.

Chapter 14

Spring came with a bang. The freezing weather had sucked the moisture out of the dry land, and the first storm brought a wildfire. The rain held off for hours as the land went up in flames.

Ranch hands were busy moving the cattle away from the fire to a safe area across the small river. The high winds swirled the fire one way then the other, there was no rhyme or reason to it as it made its own fire storm that continued to grow larger.

When the wildly blowing wind changed the fire's direction once again, the cowboys were racing like mad to save the cattle. Vin and Eric, one of the ranch hands, gathered a small bunch of panic stricken cows, and became partly surround by the fire. Finding there was no place to go Vin fought his wild-eyed horse to Eric's side. Above the roar of the fire and wind, Vin yelled to the redhead.

"Get your gun. Drive the cows through the fire over to where it's already burnt." The man nodded and Vin whirled his horse around, and with his pistol in the air raced towards the cows, Eric beside him.

Shooting and yelling they ran the animals through the flames. They followed, their horses at a dead run as they passed through the flames. In seconds they had cleared the inferno.

Cows ran bawling over the scorched ground, the riders after them, slapping at the sparks that had landed on their clothes and their horses. Gathering the cows again they drove them across another portion of the burnt land towards the ranch. Once safely near the ranch buildings they left the animals and headed back towards the fire, to see if they could find more steers.

By the time the rain came, and the fire was put out, only 65 head of cattle had been gathered and brought to the ranch. Two men and their horses were missing.

The men changed tired horses for fresh ones, and rode back out looking for the missing men, lost somewhere in the 50,000 acre fire.

It was near midnight when the riders returned with the remains of the two men, one burned beyond recognition, the other killed when his horse ran off a rocky outcrop in the smothering smoke.

Later that morning they had a quick burial service, and the ranch owner paid the men. Letting all but two of older men, who'd been with him for years, go. There weren't enough cattle left to require eight additional hands. His finances had taken a huge hit with the loss of over 300 head of cattle.

Vin, Eric, and the remaining men were treated to a filling dinner that evening. As they ate, the released men discussed what they were going to do following day. Several men stated they'd heard there was a place in town to sign up to fight for the Confederacy. It would be fighting against the north, who it seemed wanted to take the South's livelihood from the stated. None of them really knew what it all meant, or cared. But they liked the idea that everyone signing up were guaranteed to get pay, food, uniforms, and ammunition. Everything they needed for a little of their time.

Vin was unsure about this however, he decided to ride with the others to check it out. Everyone agreed that the fighting would soon be over; the south would triumph. The war was getting old, now that winter was mostly over. Everyone needed to go home to their families and farms, the cowboys thought.

Seven men and one young teen reached San Antonio the following afternoon, and were surprised to find the town teeming with men, many dressed in grey and blue uniforms. The soldiers who wore blue had taken them when the Federal supply depot in San Antonio was taken over by the Confederate soldiers earlier. Many of men wore packs on their backs and all had new looking weapons. Everyone looked happy and many of the men called out to the riders.

Vin and the others heard shooting and rode over to investigate. Reaching the open area at the edge of town, they found a stern sergeant directing target practice while a captain observed. The officer directed the most accurate recruits to a particular group, letting the men know where to find the group.

Eric and the other riders knew what a good shot Vin was and urged him to shoot first even though none of them had signed up yet. They told the two military men they were thinking of joining and thought Vin should try first to shoot, before they made up their minds.

Since there was a lull between shooters, the captain directed Vin to go ahead and shoot at the targets that were set up in the field. He informed Vin he had three shots to hit each target, the last target was 50 yards away, no one had hit it yet.

Vin stepped up to the line and with three quick shots took out each of the targets centers. For a moment silence reigned, then his friends and the two soldiers broke out in congratulations. The captain smiled then handed Vin another rifle and asked him to try for the farthest target again. Behind Vin's back he and the sergeant exchanged a smile.

Studying the rifle, Vin hefted it and sighted along the barrel, and then brought it to his shoulder and fired. The shot hit the edge of the small bull's-eye. He turned and handed the rifle back to the man.

"It pulls to the left a little. It's an all right rifle but whoever shoots it needs to know."

"Son, we need all the men we can get, and with your skill in shooting, well, we sure could use you. You're only the third man who has been this accurate in three days. We need more like you," the sergeant said.

"You would be well paid. We need sharpshooters. Would you join us?" The captain asked.

The men with him encouraged Vin. Eric slapped him on the shoulder.

"Do it Vin, you don't want to be a cowboy all your life. This is good, and the pay is steady. I'm not as good as you are, but I'm signing up." With the others agreeing they all turned towards the captain.

"What do we need to do to get in on this?" Eric asked.

Within an hour the men and Vin were signed up, issued new uniforms, and told where to meet the other men in their companies.

Vin and Eric were placed with the Texas Sharpshooter Battalion and were quartered near the old Alamo fort. The new soldiers would head east the next day.

Vin spent the rest of the day repacking his few belongings, and getting used to the confines of the new grey wool shirt and blue pants. He cared for his horse and cleaned his tack and guns. With their enlistment pay Vin and Eric had scoured the town for a gunsmith in order to purchase a revolver for Vin and rifle for Eric, with a holster and scabbard. They'd gone back to the shooting area and practiced a few times to get use to their new weapons.

Following target practice with the new weapons, they returned to camp in order to prepare for departure the next day.

Months later and with winter falling, Vin positioned himself in a tree which had yet to lose all its leaves. He wished he had his warm coat, more food, a horse and better clothing. His clothes were tattered and hanging off his thin frame. A patched grey pouch hung from his waist holding bullets for his rifle. Tired blue eyes gazed along the track in the woods, waiting for the line of blue clad soldiers that were supposed to be coming, per the scouts.

Vin rubbed his eyes and carefully shifted; he wasn't sure where he was. One of the men called this area Virginia, but another argued it was Tennessee. He didn't care, he would have been happy to be back in Texas.

The last months had been a nightmare to him. He hated this war and constant moving, marching, hiding, shooting, then running. Men fell, and they still moved on. Eric had been killed the second month when a cannon fired on them. Men and horses died, others were badly wounded. The northern army almost wiped their company out. When Vin's horse had been shot out from beneath him, he'd laid behind the warm body, shooting with deadly accuracy at the soldiers that didn't seem to stop for anything. With two other men nearby, they managed to stop some of the blue wave that was overrunning their position. When the call to retreat sounded, he managed to grab his bedroll and saddlebags before fleeing for his life. The blue army had chased them for almost two miles before turning back.

With so many of his battalion lost, Vin had been attached to a new company and his life changed to misery; he'd never been so unhappy before. At least before, he'd had his own horse to carry him through the countryside, through the mud, rain, wind or heat. Now it was his legs that mucked through the mud and rain, and he had no friends to talk with. When he began to think the rain would never stop, the sun would come out and dry the mud to what felt like rock. With the sun came the heat and bugs. Now it was cold winds and less sun.

Shivering, Vin looked at the track barely 100 feet away. A noise alerted him and he froze against the thick tree limb, his thin body becoming one with the tree. Movement had him cocking his rifle as he watched between limbs and foliage. Three men dressed in blue crept from tree to tree along the track. Vin knew they were scouts for whoever followed. He watched the men pass silently below and then turned his gaze to the direction they had come from.

Minutes later the jingle of bridles and thud of horses' hooves reached Vin and moments later three riders appeared. Several yards behind the riders a blue, mud splattered column of men walked two by two.

Vin aimed his rifle at the man on a thin bay horse who looked like an officer. Taking a bead on the man's head he jerked the rifle down in surprise. It was the blond he'd run into twice in his life. Blondish red stubble covered his face; he looked extremely tired, or perhaps sick. Vin couldn't shoot him and turned his sights to the man on the blonds' right and paused again. This was the dark haired man the blond was with at the fort, the blonds' friend. With a sigh he turned his sights to the third man, not knowing him he took the shot, knocking the man from the saddle. As chaos erupted, Vin spared a glance at the two friends before turning his gaze to the column of soldiers who were scattering off the track. Three quick shots knocked down three men. The two men on horses began to ride through the running men as they scattered, calling them to order. A few more shots rang out and the bay horse stumbled to a stop. As it collapsed the blond threw himself away from the dead animal, rolling safely away.

Vin shinnied down from his hidden perch, hit the ground, grabbed his pack, and raced away into the brush and trees amidst the bullets flying into the trees around him.

As he dodged through the forest back to the Confederate line, Vin felt happy that he hadn't killed the blond. He was the only person that he, for some reason, felt close to. And he didn't even know his name.

A month and a half later, Vin was in another tree, shivering in the cold rain that poured relentlessly down on him. He was miserable with cold, and wet to the bone. Hands, almost like thin claws gripped his rifle. Every now and then he'd tuck a hand under his arm to try to get it warm. He was a small bump on a tree limb, barely covered by the dead leaves of the tree.

Below Vin, scattered to his left and right in the brush were the men from his company, and twenty yards behind them another line of men. Vin wasn't sure this ambush was going to work, but he wasn't in charge, he just followed orders as everyone else did.

His eyes zeroed in on a movement, and a minute later, the first of the Union soldiers appeared. Vin sent the warning and gripped his rifle as the men in blue poured into the meadow. Vin held his fire, ordered to take out officers, who were usually the men on horses.

Moments later several riders appeared. Relieved none were the blond and his friend, Vin began firing. The cold and rain affected him. The man on the first horse fell, wounded, the second bullet took out the next rider's horse, and his third shot took the hat off the third man.

Gunshots around him were deafening as Vin repeatedly fired at the Union column. At first no bullets came near him, but as the minutes passed more were aimed at the tree. The blue wave kept coming.

Vin slipped to the ground as several grey clad men ran past him only to be cut down in mid stride. He heard a shout from a Confederate officer in charge of their second line farther back. With the orders, he began to run back towards the line with several other men.

He had almost reached the line when hot pain struck him across his left hip, and then more pain erupted in his right side knocking him into the wet trampled grass. Before he could do more than cry out blackness closed over him.

Shaking woke Vin sometime later. A low moan of pain escaped him before his eyes opened and he blinked the fuzziness away. He was in a tattered tent with several other men, all of them lying on the ground covered with thin blankets.

As he fought back the pain in his hip and side he gazed at the tent above him, wondering how he got there. Minutes later, he turned his head and looked around

He could hear voices all around the tent and wondered where he was. Something didn't feel right. Cautiously and little by little, Vin pushed himself to a sitting position, tugging the blanket around him. He'd just noticed that the men around him were wounded when the tent flap was thrown back. A thin man in a blood splattered grey colored apron over a blue coat entered with two large soldiers flanking him.

Vin tightened his grip on the blanket realizing that he must be a prisoner. The thin man looked across at him and Vin felt like he wanted to hide. As the man moved towards him, Vin saw he carried a black bag.

Alarmed, Vin looked around, thinking, escape, but not knowing what was outside the tent or how he could do it, if he could. His side and hip hurt, throbbing pain filled him. He tried to get his legs out of the blanket to get up. Intense pain stopped him and then it was too late, the man was beside him.

"I'm the doctor here, and I only have a short time to check you men over, so don't give me any problems or I'll have the guards hold you." The thin man that smelled like blood told him.

"I won't sir," Vin replied hoarsely as the doctor uncovered his legs.

"Lay back down so I can check your wounds. I think they're still infection free, but I want to make sure."

Vin eased himself back down and turned his face away as the doctor pulled his pants down then cut the bandage from around his hips away. He gritted his teeth as the man checked and cleaned the wound. Something was smeared over it and a soft pad covered the wound. A fresh bandage was wrapped around him as one of the guards lifted Vin so the doctor could pass the bandage under him.

Gasping in pain, Vin was sat up. He opened his eyes to see the doctor unwind the bandage from around his middle, just below his ribs.

"Hold still boy, we're almost done," the man holding him upright said, as his grip tightened on Vin's shoulders.

"Hurts," Vin hissed between gritted teeth.

"Sorry boy. This is worse than your hip. At least the bullet went through. You're thin enough. I believe this is clean, but there was a lot of dirt and material that had to be dug out. I see a little bit of infection here, but I'm not surprised, as dirty as this was. It needed to be cleaned well. I need to get rid of the infection." The doctor said in a gentle voice as he worked, drawing the boy's eyes to his face as he cleaned the nasty looking wound that had passed through Vin's side, from back to front.

Black spots were in front of Vin's vision as he tried to control the pain the doctor was causing. It felt as if his lower back and whole side were on fire, with streaks of flames reaching for his chest. He tried to stop the moan that rose in his throat, unaware it escaped as he arched in pain before collapsing in the guard's hands.

"Hold him James. I'm almost done here … There, got it. Missed a small thread. Now he should start to heal," the doctor said as he pulled the thread from Vin's back. With deft movements he cleaned the entry wound until the infection was gone. Packing the hole with an herb salve he placed a pad over it. He did the same to the smaller wound in the boys abdomen area. He then placed a pad over it and wrapped a long bandage quickly around the unconscious boy and tied it off.

"There, he should be all right to get out of here in a couple of days." He said as he stood and turned to the next man as the guard, James, laid Vin down and covered him.

As James moved from the boy's side he wondered how old the kid was. The boy didn't look a day older than his own son, who just turned 12 years old. he couldn't be. He snorted, the boy didn't have any whiskers either. He shook his head as he helped the doctor turn the next prisoner over. War was hell, it was too bad children had to be involved in it.

Chapter 15

Vin gazed dull-eyed at the shifting humanity who passed the flea-bitten tarp attached and covering the corner of the tall wood wall. He sat shivering on a tiny dry spot of dirt barely under the edge of the tarp, the cold wind still blew over him. The cold penetrated him, even with the men crowded close together.

Pulling his ragged shirt tighter around him, Vin curled into himself trying to make himself smaller to stay warm. When a man jostled him as he stepped out from under the tarp, Vin looked around. His agile mind taking in the wall that he could see over the heads of some prisoners. Blinking awake he stared at a small section about 25 feet from where he huddled.

It was the lowest section in the wooden fence, not quite an arm's length taller than him. He'd checked it out several nights in a row, and knew he could get over it. All he needed to escape was wait for the right time. Guards were spaced between 30 and 40 feet apart along the outside of the wall watching the men in the muddy enclosure. The guards changed every nine hours. Vin knew they weren't enjoying the cold, wet weather anymore than the prisoners they guarded.

Night came quickly now and the men began to stir, dinnertime was approaching. Slowly Vin uncurled and rose as men shuffled towards the gate to line up for the sparse meal they received. His lower back ached and the wounds he'd received pulled. He was relieved that both were healed enough that the scabs didn't pop open when he moved anymore. His hip caused him to limp slightly but he was sure once it was totally healed the limp would be gone. Right now all he could think of was escaping, food and warmth.

A week after he'd awakened in the tent, the doctor had told the officer in charge that Vin was well enough to join the rest of the men. He'd been taken to the gate and ordered inside when a door in the gate opened. With a last look around the area before the gate closed behind him, he'd seen cabins and tents. He noticed the large corral of horses on the slow walk to the gate, and that a slow moving river flowed to the east. In front of one large tent were two guards, and he noted it sat a little apart from the others. Listening to the blue clothed soldiers talk, he found out it was an artillery tent, holding a small stockpile of ammunition, rifles, guns, powder and the arms from the prisoners.

He looked quickly away so the two men taking him to the gate didn't notice him checking the tent over. Once the gate was closed behind him the smell of many warm, dirty bodies, latrines and despair hit him. He was scared to take a deep breath.

Vin wandered around the enclosure, unsure of how many men were there, but knew it was too many for the cramped space. There were several tents made out of shirts and pieces of canvas with numerous men in them. Several corners of the enclosure held canvas tarps stretched from wall to wall, patched with shirts and pants and packed with men. The first night in the prison he'd huddled close to one corner, unable to get close enough to be under the tarp stretched there. A couple of days later, with the deaths of two men, Vin moved under the edge of the tarp, and wasn't bothered by the others.

He was a little surprised he was able to keep his spot under the tarp; the men seemed to respect the hard-earned spots, and no one fought him to take it away from him.

As days passed it turned colder. The soldiers took some prisoners out daily to cut fire wood for the guards and prisoners. Vin wasn't well enough yet to go on the wood details, but he helped unload the wagons that were intended for the captured men. It didn't take long before campfires sprang up in the enclosure and men crowded around them trying to get warm.

As the lines of men moved slowly forward to where the food was given out, a stir swept through the men. Word of mouth traveled fast and within minutes all the prisoners heard that they were to be sent north to another prison camp.

Vin accepted his plate of beans and a biscuit and moved to the side to eat. Guards were in a line behind the food servers, making sure no one fought to take another man's rations, and to protect the men serving the food. The prisoners had to give their tin plates back, they were counted and if any was missing the inmates were searched.

Before the guards and food servers left, water barrels were re-filled and the metal cups chained to them were checked, making sure they couldn't come loose.

Once more under the corner of the tarp, Vin listened as the men near him made plans to escape. None of them wanted to be sent north, their families were all in the south. Vin wasn't sure rushing the gate was a good idea, and no one had weapons to take on the guards beyond the gate. His eyes moved over to the low place in the wall, surprised that no one thought of that spot.

Listening to the whispered talk, Vin made his own plans. He just hoped he could find food and not run into more blue troopers. He figured out what direction he needed to go, well, wanted to go, and prayed that there wouldn't be any major battles to run into as he headed west.

A horse would be good, Vin thought and, of course, some warm clothes. With winter upon them, he knew he'd freeze without more clothes and blankets. In the dark his gaze once again moved to the wall and he decided when the others rushed the gate he'd try the wall. The north sounded too cold to him, he didn't want to go there any more than any of the other men did. It seemed that a larger prison would have many more prisoners, and more guards. He already felt as if he was suffocating with the press of the men around him.

The next day passed slowly. Men aimlessly moved around the enclosure. Vin kept to himself, keeping an eye on the men who had accepted him earlier by letting him squat at the edge of the tarp. His thoughts again turned to his first days inside the enclosure. Several men, who were hungry for a woman thought a young boy with long hair, would fulfill their needs. They attacked him the second day he was in the camp. He'd fought like a wildcat, though his hip and side were so painful he almost passed out from the pain. He knew if he did, he'd be hurt in a worse way. The other men came to his defense and with heavy fists drove the attackers off. Melting away, the men vanished into the sea of men around them.

Vin was helped to his feet and led to a small fire where he tried to dry off and get warm. The muck clung to him, and with the first hard rain that came down he stepped away from the wall that gave little protection, and let the heavy downpour clean his clothes. He used his cold hands to wipe as much muck off as he could before hurrying back to the wall. The next day he was able to get under the tarp a little; he relished the little warmth and protection from the rain it provided. Though he hadn't seen any of them in over six weeks, he kept an eye out for the men who had attacked him, he was sure he would recognize them.

Darkness began to fall, once more the wind picked up and snow began to come down. Dinner arrived and the miserable men lined up for the meager rations.

This evening Vin, for once in the first part of the line, ate his rations and dumped his empty plate into the bucket, when the lines of men surged forward. Prisoners barreled into the food servers and took the guards with them.

Moving quickly Vin got out of the way, and hurried to the low wall. Men were screaming and heading for the gate as fast as they could go. A few men hastily moved out of the away, while those in back pressed forward, forcing more and more into the gate.

Yells and then gunfire rang out. Vin spotted the closest two guards on the wall above him move so they could cover the gate better. With a quick grab, Vin snatched his blanket and another one off the ground, and as he ran to the wall tied them around his waist.

Snow swirled over the camp as the prisoners fought their way through the gate, wood cracking and finally the huge gates fell, as the men pushed through, destroying the barrier, and knocking guards to the frozen ground

Vin jumped and grabbed the top of one of the posts. Agilely he shimmied up the wall and paused at the top edge to look around for a moment. Not seeing any guards he pulled himself up and over. Landing on the narrow catwalk around the perimeter of the wall, he crouched down. Pausing long enough to look around, he glanced towards the gate. The chaos was easing, there were still plenty of gunshots, prisoners were falling, but many men still rushed headlong out of the broken gate. One of the corner tarps was in flames and a couple of prisoners were trying to put it out with blankets and muddy water.

With a last look, Vin launched himself off the catwalk. He landed on his feet and raced for the woods. Vin circled around the soldiers camp, running past the cabins and tents, glad for the darkness of the trees and the distraction of the breakout.

Stopping behind the one tent, which had been guarded the last time he'd seen it, Vin paused. Looking all around he could see no guards anywhere nearby. Through the snow that was falling heavier he eased closer to the back of the tent and listened. Nothing could be heard but the noise from the prison break.

Silently he eased under the edge of the tent, and with slow motions, straightened up in the dim interior. His gaze went around the tent as fast as he could turn his head.

Rifles were neatly stacked in rows and bunches of six, their barrels leaning teepee fashion against each other, their butts on the ground. Boxes of ammunition were stacked along the sides of the tent, sitting on long boards that rested across the top of several barrels of gunpowder. Several revolvers and knives laid on a cloth on top of some of the ammo boxes. Not wanting to disturb the rifles, realizing one missing would have alerted the soldiers, Vin chose one of the revolvers. He made sure it worked and found a belt and holster in a corner. He quickly found bullets and stuffed handfuls into his pockets and filled the belt loops. With quick fingers he made a pouch in the corner of one blanket and added more before tying it and wrapping it around his waist. Before he left, he ran his hands over the knives on another box, and picked up several, wishing one was his. Unable to find his, he chose one that felt good in his hand and tucked it into the belt he'd wrapped around his waist. He moved the remaining revolvers and knives around to cover the empty spots.

Moving to the back of the tent he slipped out and left the tent behind. In the heavy snow he couldn't see anything behind him, though he could hear cries and gunshots. He turned west, and almost ran into a horse.

Vin stopped so fast he stumbled and hit a rope that the horse was tied to. Stepping back he looked at the line of picketed horses, and noticed that there were quite a few horses tied to it. The horses moved restlessly, hearing the muffled shouts and gunshots. For a moment Vin gazed at the horses, then with a curse he untied the first horse and tied him to a nearby tree. With all his strength he pulled on the line, stirring up the horses until they fought to get free. With a sucking sound the deeply driven picket post pulled free of the mud and half frozen ground. More horses fought as some tried to move away, then the second post pulled free and the horses trotted off, moving away from the noises coming from the camp.

Vin went to the horse tied to the tree and fashioned reins from the halter rope, brushed snow off its back and mounted. He turned the horse and nudged him into a walk away from the prison.

Vin knew he had to go slow, he didn't know the area, and didn't want to run into anyone who might be using the snow as cover. Blindly they moved through the woods, only Vin's sense of direction kept them moving westward.

The snow finally slowed down and by dawn it stopped, yet the sky was still dark grey and overcast. Vin felt sure it would be snowing or raining before too long. The woods thinned and Vin rode with care, his eyes moved continually, alert for any kind of movement.

He had no idea where he was, or how far he had to go to get away from the soldiers, of both sides he decided. He had no desire to fight anymore for something he didn't understand, what made no sense to him.

At the edge of the woods Vin pulled the horse to a stop. His keen gaze searched the area. Nothing moving as far as he could see, but he was reluctant to leave the cover of the trees. He turned the horse and rode along the edge of the open area. He stayed just enough inside the woods that he could watch the countryside and not be seen. Since it was so much lighter, even in the woods, they moved at a faster gait.

Several hours later Vin caught himself falling asleep. The horse stopped and Vin jerked awake, reaching for the gun. In front of them was an old dilapidated barn or shed, parts of it already down. Three walls were still standing holding up a collapsed roof that was on the ground on the forth side. A broken water trough leaned against one wall and parts of a one-time fence lay scattered around the frozen land, with a few crooked, broken fence posts still in the earth. What looked like a window had fallen apart and gaped open almost to the dirt and weed covered ground.

Vin studied the building before he glanced all around the surrounding area. The woods were silent, not even a breeze moved. He nudged the horse into a walk and looked for any kind of tracks. The grass was longer than in the woods, brown and drooped over, frozen in place.

Drawing the horse to a halt, Vin slid off and tied him to a tree beside the old building. With gun in

hand, Vin circled the building. He checked for tracks or anything that would indicated someone or something had taken shelter there. No tracks showed, except for a couple from small animals. Vin entered the building through the window and carefully checked the inside. In one corner he found a pile of wood and a circle of black rocks with several old, rusted tins beside it, he figured they once held some kind of food. The other corners were empty. He found evidence that a horse at one time had been stabled in one of the corners. Stepping back outside, Vin looked all around once more before untying the horse and leading the animal inside. He barely got the horse under cover when it started to snow.

With the horse tied to the wall, Vin started to work to get a fire built with the wood piled by the rock circle. He found old bird and rat nests, and used them as kindling. Before long the fire took off.

Wrapped in the blankets, Vin huddled close to the fire and thought of what he needed to do to get west. It was daunting. The main thing was to avoid all soldiers, Confederate and Union alike, and find food. He knew he could hunt and trap, but he needed a few supplies in order to do that. He didn't want to use the gun unless it was absolutely necessary. Clothing was first though. He needed warm clothes to survive the winter, the sooner the better.

Vin ignored his growling stomach as he fed the fire, he relished the warmth going through him for the first time in weeks. Realizing the next days were going to be hard, he considered how he needed to get out of the war zone, without being caught, and stay alive. He wasn't sure how he was going to do it, but he would somehow. No matter what happened, he was leaving.

Night fell and Vin curled up beside the fire and finally began to slip into sleep. He wanted to leave early and hoped he would run across a farm or small town the next day. He needed food right now; 'coat' ran through his mind as he fell asleep.

Snow was still coming down when Vin led the horse from the building early the next morning. He mounted and headed west again. A bitter chill drove him through the woods with the blankets tightly wrapped around him. By mid-afternoon, shivering with cold, he started looking for a place to spend the night. The snow had fallen off and on all day, however he'd made good time pushing the horse between a jog and canter, walking when the terrain got too rough. Luckily the snow was still only a few inches deep, and when it stopped falling they moved faster.

Vin was glad he hadn't seen anyone anywhere yet, he was sure it wouldn't last long with the weather changing constantly.

As darkness began to fall, Vin spotted a farm in a large open field. There were lights on in the house but the few outbuildings were dark. Teeth chattering Vin watched the farm until darkness fell and all but one of the lights went out in the house, he then urged the horse towards the largest outbuilding. The horse needed food as much as he did, and it looked like the outbuilding could be a barn that might have hay in it. He thought he could smell cows as they got closer to the structure and hoped there was some hay or grain; he wondered if he could find something to eat in one of the other outbuildings.

The house was totally dark when he reached the back of the barn and slid to the ground. He checked to ensure no one was around before opening the door. He led the horse inside just as snowflakes began to fall.

Chapter 16

Vin pulled the door closed as the horse pushed against him, trying to reach the hay that lay scattered on the floor of the small barn.

The dim light from outside came through a couple of uncovered windows built into the wall at the front of the barn. Vin let the horse eat while his eyes adjusted to the darkness around him. He heard the movement of several animals and saw a cow in a small enclosure and a calf lying at her feet. A swaybacked horse was in a stall next to the cow its head turned towards the invaders of his warm barn. Bundles of hay were stacked on each side of the stalls and along the wall across from the penned animals, all out of reach of the animals.

Vin pulled a bundle of hay free and gave it to his hungry horse. While the horse began to eat he moved around the barn looking for anything he could use in the semi-darkness. He found a bucket hanging on a post near the horse's stall, and looked at the cow who was watching him, her mouth moving slowly as she chewed on her cud. He was hungry and milk would taste good. Carrying the bucket he went back to the pen the cow occupied and climbed over the rails. Patting her he spoke calmly to her as he knelt down at her side.

Within minutes Vin had a quarter of the bucket filled with warm milk and stepped away. Moving from the pen he drank some of the milk as he continued to prowl around the barn. Careful to just sip the liquid he moved to the front area by the double doors and found several nails holding a few pieces of clothing, one was an old heavy coat. Carefully setting down the precious bucket of milk, Vin took the coat down and pulled it on.

The coat was too big. It hung almost to his knees, and the sleeves hung over his hands, but it felt warm. Vin sneezed several times, it was also very dusty. He didn't think anyone had worn it for a long time. He spotted a long wooden box under the other pieces of clothing hanging there and carefully lifted the lid, trying not to disturb the thick dust that covered the top. Inside he found more clothes and wondered why they were in a box in the barn.

Gently Vin dug through the garments and found his answer. Most of the items were for a baby and a young boy. Another small pile held larger clothes and he pulled out a shirt then a pair of heavy pants he thought might fit him.

Stepping away from the box, Vin laid the clothes over the stall rail and pulled off the coat and the tattered shirt he wore. Shivering he pulled the new shirt over his head and found it was a little large on him. He could easily wear another shirt under it. Toeing off his boots he dropped his pants and pulled the other pair on. They were too large on him but warmer than what he was wearing.

Vin moved back to the box and dug a little more. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found another pair of pants and then a couple shirts. Sitting them aside he carefully replaced everything and eased the dusty lid closed. He then carried the precious clothes to where his old clothes lay. He stripped out of the new shirt and put his old one on then the three new ones on top of it. He did the same with his old pants, though the second pair of new pants he pulled around his shoulders, with the legs around his neck he tucked them into his pants. The coat came next, then his boots.

Finishing the milk, he already felt much warmer and as he watched his horse eat he remembered the other outbuildings. Using a handful of hay he cleaned the bucket and hung it back where he'd found it and then moved to the door he'd come in through. Silently he slipped out the door and into the wind driven snow.

Making his way around the barn he checked the house to see if there were any lights on, not seeing anything through the driving snow he hurried to one of the small outbuildings. The first one he found was an outhouse and he veered away from the smell and ran across to the second little building. Vin noticed the snow barely covered the ground around it and he could smell smoke. When he touched the brick wall it felt a little warm. He moved around until he found the latched door and opened it slowly.

Inside he found hanging haunches of meat and strings of meat in some sort of casings. The wonderful smell almost overcame him and his stomach growled and mouth watered. The remains of a smoking fire was under the meat and he realized this was a smoke house.

In the dim light coming from the open door Vin stepped to the hanging meat. Knife already in his hand, Vin paused, he didn't want anyone to know he'd been there. He stepped over the smoldering fire to the back corner. There he checked the meat and sliced off several chunks. The first one he cut into bite size pieces and ate as he worked. As he cut the smoked meat, he realized he would need something to carry it in.

With a sigh, Vin pulled off the coat and the shirts. Taking the tattered one off he quickly re-dressed and then wrapped the meat in the old shirt, adding a little more before he tied it closed and stuffed it into a deep coat pocket. He partly filled the other pocket with more meat and then left the building. He made sure the door was tightly latched.

Making his way through the snow he went back inside the barn and sat on a pile of hay for a bit. He was tired but scared to sleep; he needed to leave the barn before daybreak. He was sure the owner would be out to care for his animals and milk the cow no matter what kind of weather. Vin didn't want to be found here. The warmth of the coat and hay under him seeped into him and even though he didn't want to sleep he dozed off minutes later.

A snuffling noise and a nudge woke Vin. Jerking awake he looked around, his horse's nose was almost in his face as it pulled some hay out from beside him.

Vin jumped up, looking all around he saw that the windows were letting in a small amount of daylight. It was getting lighter outside, though the snow was still coming down. Pushing the horse aside he checked the house, not seeing any lights in the semi darkness he grabbed the bucket and hurried over to the cow's pen. He pushed the calf away and quickly milked the cow, enough to give him something warm to drink.

As he drank the warm milk he patted the cow then climbed out of the pen and glanced around the barn. He had to leave but he didn't want the owner to find anything out of place. Cleaning the bucket he hung it up and then kicked the horse piles into the old horse's stall. Catching his horse Vin led it to the back door. He stopped before he opened it, turned and grabbed a bundle of hay. With it tucked under his arm, he led the horse out the door and into the blowing snow. Latching the door closed he mounted and stuffed the bundle of hay under his coat as he turned the horse away from the farm.

Vin kept the barn between them and the house as he rode swiftly away, finally disappearing into

the snow. Awhile later they were in the trees once more and Vin slowed the horse to a trot as they followed a dim, partly covered trail in the snow. He sensed that they were still moving west and kept the horse moving steadily.

Afternoon came and the snow began to slack off. The trees thinned and Vin slowed the horse as he guided it carefully, alert for any kind of movement or noise. It was almost dark when the horse's head came up and his ears snapped forward listening. Vin heard voices and turned the horse swiftly towards a thick, dark clump of brush. Working his way deep into the bushes he slid off his horse and placed his hand over its nose.

A couple of riders rode past them about 100 feet away, and minutes later a column of Union soldiers marched by.

An hour later, full darkness had fallen, and the column of men were still marching past Vin's hiding place. A new sound reached him and he backed the horse several steps deeper into the brush.

A loaded wagon rolled by Vin's position. A lantern hung on an upright near the driver's seat, throwing odd shadows all around. Three teams of horses labored to pull the loaded wagon through the muddy track. Vin could distinctly hear the horses heavy breathing as they passed. Three more wagons went by, several outriders with rifles at the ready passed with them.

The light from the wagon lanterns finally disappeared and the last riders, providing rear guard for the column went by.

Vin waited another hour before he swung up onto his mount's back and nudged him into motion. Vin knew he had to get out of the area as fast as possible. It looked like the soldiers were heading for a battle. He didn't want to get involved with it.

For several hours Vin traveled in the track the column of soldiers made, through the woods then across a treeless area. It was dark enough that Vin couldn't tell how long the field was, but he felt like it probably extended miles. He stayed on the mud trail until it turned to the north, he wasn't going in that direction.

The hard packed snow turned to slush on the ground, and Vin didn't worry about leaving a trail, the ground was churned up and muddy enough that tracks were swallowed up in the muck. They kept moving west.

Dawn began to break over the quiet land, when the horse and rider stopped on the edge of a wide river. Vin was bone tired, they'd been moving steadily for two days, after leaving the farm. He just wanted to find a place to sleep and rest, and to try to figure out how to get across the river.

Following the river Vin finally spotted a number of caves back from the water. Dismounting Vin led the horse towards the first one. He pass it by, it wasn't large enough. He then several more before he found a partly hidden one large enough to shelter him and the horse. Above the opening were several dead trees that had fallen over in the last months, their limbs dangling with dead leaves still on them. The trees and limbs covered the cave opening from anyone who might pass by. They would have to be looking hard to spot the cave.

Vin checked the cave and sighed in relief, it was empty and deep enough for the horse to stand comfortably inside. Leading the animal in he tied it to a root sticking through the side wall of the cave. Opening his coat Vin dropped the last of the bundle of hay in front of the tired animal. Going back outside he got a drink of water and covered the tracks they'd made in case someone came along.

As he returned to the cave it began to rain and a cold wind began to blow. Snow was mixed in the rain and he hoped it didn't affect his hiding place. In the cave he pulled the coat off and unwrapped one of the blankets from around him then made a bed on the ground in front of the horse. Bundled back in the coat and other blanket he ate a piece of meat and pondered on what he was going to do. He'd escaped the prison and headed west, to what he wondered. For a few minutes Vin thought of the war he hopefully left far behind him and how much longer it could last. He wondered what he would find when he got to Texas, and what he would do when he got there. For a moment he wondered if he could find any of his Indian families alive after all this time. As he finished eating he considered what might lay ahead for him in the coming days. With a sigh he wiped his fingers and pulled his coat and blanket closer around him, curled up on the one blanket and went to sleep.

Four mornings later, Vin pulled the horse to a stop in the shelter of the winter trees lining this part of the wide river. He watched as a flat raft with a couple of men and horses on it landed on the level beach below him. A log cabin and several outbuildings and corrals were high on the bank, well away from the river.

Vin watched as the men disembarked and a warmly dressed older man stood talking to them before they mounted and rode away. The man tied the raft to a huge post partly buried in the dirt and walked towards the cabin.

Making up his mind Vin kicked the horse into motion and headed towards the walking man. This was the first thing he'd seen in days that might provide transport across the river. He knew he couldn't swim the horse across, it was just too wide, and very cold. Vin realized that his mount had lost a lot of weight, what grass they'd found dry and not very filling. His own food, almost gone, some of the meat had spoiled and he'd thrown it away. He was hungry and chilled from the rain or snow that often came down. And bone tired from all the stress of keeping watch for troops. The last few days he'd followed the river south, mostly at night looking for a way to cross it. He tried to find places to hide during the day, but slept fitfully as he kept an eye out for anyone moving through the area. He had only to take to the brush two other times since he'd hidden from the column that passed him during the night.

The walking man stopped and turned towards Vin when the horse and rider rode closer. Vin saw his hand move to rest on his holstered gun, and carefully kept his hands where the man could see them.

Vin halted the horse near the man and nodded to him.

"Evening Sir. I need to get across the river. Is there a charge?" Vin asked quietly, his voice raspy from not talking above a whisper to his horse.

A hard gaze went over Vin and Vin let the man see how tired he was. As the man took in every detail, Vin wondered what he saw, other than a tired kid on a thin horse.

Jess Holmes noted more about the thin youth and horse than Vin realized. The boy had a gentle raspy Texas accent, but the horse he was riding was a Union one, by the halter that hung on its head. He could tell that the kid was wearing all the clothes he owned, and they hung on him. He would have taken him across for free, but the proudly held head let him know the kid wouldn't accept that. Seeing the boy shiver he made up his mind.

"Ten cents for you and the horse," Jess stated, one tenth of what he charged most people. Jess watched as the boy's shoulders slump.

"Is there another way across the river?" Vin asked hopefully, he didn't have anything to pay their way across.

Making a show of scratching his head, Jess looked up at the boy. "Well, no way south of here, it gets wider then goes into bayou and swamp land, alligators in a lot of it. There might be another ferry or a way across a couple hundred miles north. But as far as I know, I'm the only one who dares to cross the Mississippi in these parts. She's too wide, deep, besides swift and too cold to swim no matter how good a swimmer someone is."

For several minutes Vin thought, he needed to get across no matter. "I don't have any money. All I've got is this gun that'd be worth anything."

Jess was studying the rider closely, and had a feeling he could trust the boy.

"Son, I don't want your only protection. I do need some firewood split. I have been pretty busy lately and haven't had time to chop much in the last three days. How about, if you're up to it, you split some wood and I'll take you across in the morning."

Vin studied the man a moment, then nodded his head in relief. "I'll do that, sir. Where is the wood?" he asked sliding off his horse and holding the rope rein.

"Put your horse in the corral, there's hay in the shed in there, give him some. Water's already there. Come to the house and I'll show you where the wood pile is."

Leading the horse Vin turned it into the corral and made sure the water was free of ice, before opening the shed door. He found a bunch of bundled hay inside. He gave two bundles to the horse that tore into the hay quickly. Using a handful of the hay Vin wiped the animal off before heading to the house. He knocked on the door of the cabin and while waiting for someone to answer he glanced at the wide river and shivered, no way could he have swum across it.

Jess' wife opened the door and invited Vin inside. Jess standing by the fire, turned around when Vin stopped inside the door.

"My wife won't let you work without food. Supper is almost ready and you can join us for dinner."

"I'd rather get the wood chopped sir. You don't have to feed me ma'am."

"My choice boy. If you want to chop some wood, I'll call you when it's ready. Jess, show him to the wood pile," Megan Holmes ordered.

"Yes love," Jess smiled at his wife as he put his coat back on. With a peck on her cheek he headed for the door. He led Vin outside and around back to where the wood shed stood and showed Vin what needed to be done.

Vin nodded and took off his coat and the blankets that were wrapped around him. He began to split the wood with the axe Jess handed to him.

Jess smiled to himself and returned to the house, Megan would be horrified to know what the boy was wearing.

That night Vin slept in front of a warm fire after a filling meal. The next morning Megan made him eat a big breakfast and handed him a bundle of food before he followed Jess to the ferry. An hour later Vin was across the mighty Mississippi River and Jess was collecting fees from several people wanting to cross.

With a wave at the older man, Vin rode west, feeling he was safe from the war now.


Several years later, in front of a store in a dusty little town, Vin swept the dirt off the walk. Some drunk cowboys from the trail herd passing the town rode in and began to cause problems. The cowboys took the town's black healer, dragging him down the stairs, accusing him of killing their boss. They were going to hang him. A woman tried to stop them with a shotgun but one man took it away from her and knocked her down into the road. Other townspeople just ignored what was happening, hurrying on their way getting away from the confrontation.

Vin went into the store. Took off the apron and grabbed up a rifle and a handful of bullets before heading outside again as he loaded the weapon. Outside something drew him. He looked up and met the green gaze of a man dressed completely in black standing on the other side of the road. A shock went through him as the man's eyes widened also with feeling. Then with a nod of his head, the blond invited him to walk with him.

Together they walked up the middle of the street after the healer and the drovers, moving as if they'd known each other forever.

Both men's destiny had crossed once again. A brotherhood formed that would now surpass time.


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