This was inspired by Debbi K.'s story The Man With No Name. You don't have to have read that to undertand this one, but it's a good story, and if you do want to read it, you should read it before you read this one, because this one contains a huge, big honkin' spoiler.
The characters of Corn Woman and Running Deer were also created by Debbi K. in the story Seven.
Much thanks to Marnie, my ever faithful beta reader!
They had walked for four days. He had no idea how far they'd gone in that time. He'd been carrying Vin for two days, at least. He wasn't heavy - Vin was only five, and he'd weighed just 34 pounds the last time Ma had weighed them both on the big grain scale in town. That was just a couple of weeks ago, before she took sick.
He'd tried to get work in that same town, but because Ma had died of putrid fever, everyone was afraid to be near him, lest it be catching. Maybe it was. His little brother was very sick, he knew that. He didn't think it was the same thing as what killed his ma, but he couldn't know that for sure. Vin had said his head hurt, not his throat. Putrid fever made a person's throat just rot right out. It was a slow, horrible death. He'd almost been glad when his ma had finally breathed her last.
They had no place to go. Their pa was gone, too. It was just him, and Vin, and an empty cabin where there was almost no food and the firewood would run out before the winter did. He'd have to find someplace else - someone, somewhere, to take them in. He could work. He was 12 and big for his age. Well, tall, anyway. Tall enough to look many grown men in the eye. And strong enough to have carried Vin for two days.
They didn't have a horse. His ma had to sell it so they'd have money for food to see them through the winter. Now, it was nearly Spring, and even though she never spoke of it, he had known his ma was worried about how they were going to get by. The land their cabin was on was fertile, but without a horse or a mule, or any other livestock, it wasn't going to be enough to keep them alive.
Then she had gotten sick and now she no longer had to worry about any of that, or about her boys. That was his job now. He'd packed what little food was left - some bacon, some flour and some beans. He didn't know what to do with the flour. He didn't know how to make bread or biscuits. So he'd traded it and the beans at the general store for some hard tack. It wasn't much, but at least they had food. All he had of any value was the Navy Colt that had belonged to his father, and he'd die before he gave that up. He knew how to use it - was very good with it, in fact - way better than most men fully-growed.
They'd slept in someone's barn the first night, and he'd stolen two eggs that he and Vin ate raw. Vin liked raw eggs, dumb little shit, but he'd only eaten his because he was hungry and he didn't know how long he'd have to make their food last. The second night, they'd slept on the ground. He had a bedroll, but it wasn't more than just a couple of thin blankets, so they were cold. He'd held Vin in his arms and kept him as warm as he could but neither of them slept much. When they woke up in the morning, Vin said his head hurt, and then he threw up. Awhile after that, he just dropped, unable to stay on his feet. He'd been carrying him ever since. His breathing had gone all raspy and it sounded like he was having a hard time of it, but there wasn't that awful smell of putrid fever. He'd given him water a couple of times, and he could swallow fine, so no, it wasn't that. Still didn't mean he wasn't sick, though - he was burning up.
The third night, he'd leaned against a rock and let Vin rest against his chest. He seemed to breathe a might easier if he was sitting up, but he wasn't getting any better. When morning came, the little boy was so still that were it not for the noisy way he was breathing, he would have thought he was dead.
After his ma died, he'd been afraid they'd be sent to an orphanage, and at first, he had vowed he would not let that happen to his brother. He swore he could take care of them both. But now, he was bone tired, and he was thinking if they didn't find someplace - any place - soon, that as bad as an orphanage might be, it had to be better than his other choice, which would be for the two of them to just lie down and die together. But that had him thinking, what if he died, and Vin didn't?
Vin coughed, a deep, wracking cough that caused him to upchuck again. It got all over the front of his shirt. He didn't care. He was too tired to care. To add to their misery, the air had turned cold and smelled like snow - that didn't often happen this close to Spring, but it did happen. That would finish them off, he knew. He'd lose the trail they had been following, and they'd freeze to death. He was thinking he might as well give up right then and there when he saw it - a column of white smoke in the distance.
He had no idea what or where it came from, but he had run out of choices. He headed in that direction.
+ + + + + +
Zachariah Stokes was dozing behind his counter when he was roused by a cold blast of air. He didn't get a lot of visitors other than the occasional farmer or rancher stopping by on the way to or from Tascosa, or sometimes an Indian or two, looking to trade. There were two of the latter there now, huddled near the fireplace. Corn Woman and her husband Running Deer had walked a good 10 miles that day, bringing woven blankets and earthen pots, both of which were a popular item at his establishment - he loosely referred to it as a trading post, even though it was just a small adobe hut with a leaky roof and no windows. He'd get a far better price for them than what he'd paid them, so he figured the least he could do was let them wait out the storm that had hit full force a half hour before.
This visitor was different from the others he usually got. He carried a flour sack and a bedroll, but no saddle bags. He wore a Navy Colt slung low on his right hip, and surprisingly, there was a child on his back. The stranger stood just inside the door, looking warily around the room as Zachariah sized him up. It didn't take much looking to realize that even though the stranger stood maybe five foot eight or so, he had small hips and shoulders, and his face bore no trace of a beard. He was certainly very tall for his age, but he was also a child.
"What're you doin' out in this weather, young feller?" Zachariah had noted that the smaller boy wore a thin coat, but the older one had none at all, just a sheep-skin vest.
The boy looked him in the eye. "We got nowhere to go. My little brother is sick."
Zachariah noted with interest that as he said this, the boy's hand hovered near the Colt. Was he planning to use it if he was told to get lost? Zachariah honestly thought he might, not that he intended to turn them out, anyway. Wouldn't be right.
"Get in here and shut the damn door, for Chrissake," he barked. No point in being too soft on the kid.
Corn Woman and Running Deer had both turned to stare. They said nothing but they scooted over and made a spot by the fire.
"Name's Zachariah," the trader introduced himself. The boy didn't respond. "Might as well sit yourself down," he told him, and then frowned when he noticed that the smaller child was draped limply across the older boy's back. "What's ailin' that young'un?" he asked.
The boy sat in front of the fire, and shifted the smaller boy into his arms. "Don't know. He took sick two days ago. . . . I think he's pretty bad off."
Zachariah walked over and felt the little boy's forehead. It was hot and dry - he had a raging fever. He then sniffed and made a face. The older boy looked down at the dried puke on his shirt. "Sorry for the smell - he threw up on me."
"Get that shirt off. I reckon I got a cleaner one around here somewhere." He rummaged through a barrel full of an odd assortment of goods that folks had traded for beans or bullets. He found a faded blue shirt that while worn and patched had been boiled clean before being traded. He tossed the boy's dirty shirt in a bucket. When he got time, he'd clean it and trade it to someone else. The youngster looked grateful, but embarrassed. "Ain't got no money to pay ya," he said, "but I can work."
Zachariah looked at the smaller boy, huddled almost lifeless on the floor in front of the fire. The Indian couple were whispering and talking to each other, too softly to be understood by him. "Why don't you just sit with your brother a spell. I'll get you some food."
"I have food," the boy stated. He held up the flour sack he still held.
Zachariah took it gently and peered inside. "That young'un is too bad off to eat this. He needs milk or something . . ." But he was at a loss. He'd never had kids, or even had them around that often.
Suddenly, the boy's head whipped around and he glared in the direction of the fireplace. The Indian woman sitting there had bent over Vin and had her hand on his head. Zachariah saw the boy's hand go for the Colt again. He grabbed the youngster's wrist. "None o' that," he warned him. "She won't do him no harm."
"She's an Injun . . . how can you know that?" the boy said.
"I've known them two since I've had this place. They's decent enough folks."
+ + + + + + +
He didn't want anyone touching Vin, especially not strange Indians. But he couldn't just start shooting people. That could get him and Vin both killed, like it had their pa.
"Sit down," Zachariah said. "And keep your hand off that gun."
The boy moved back to the spot in front of the fire. Zachariah brought him a tortilla filled with some kind of shredded meat. He accepted it eagerly, but kept a watchful eye as the Indian woman wet a piece of cloth from a canteen, and started wiping Vin's face with it. She looked up at him and said something he didn't understand.
He looked to Zachariah to see if he understood a word of it. The man nodded and said, "She says this baby is very sick - but you already know that much."
He watched the woman. She was older than his ma - a lot older - but the way she took to Vin reminded him of her. He felt an empty feeling deep in his chest, but he quickly ignored it. The woman spoke again, and again, he had to look to Zachariah to translate.
"She says she can help."
"No!" He didn't know why he said that. Maybe he didn't like Indians, even though he didn't actually know any. Maybe he thought he should be the one to take care of Vin. But he was so very tired himself. He could feel his eyelids growing heavy just as he sat there in the warmth and comfort of the fire, his belly full.
"She don't mean no harm," the owner said. "She an' Running Deer only had one little one, and he died summer before last. Reckon she misses him."
"Why couldn't she take care of him?" he asked, knowing he sounded belligerent and hateful.
"Weren't nothing she coulda done. He was standin' on the river bank tryin' to grab fish when it gave way and he fell in. Poor little feller drowned."
The boy watched as the Indian woman took his little brother into her arms. She began to sing some kind of Indian song to him. He didn't want her holding Vin like that - like his ma had - but he was so tired, and the old woman's voice was soft and soothing. His eyes closed despite his best effort to keep them open.
+ + + + + + +
The sound of the door crashing open and cold air slamming against his face woke the boy rudely. He was on his feet in an instant, sleep fogging his brain only momentarily before he was fully alert. His ma had always wondered at his ability to go from a sound sleep to fully awake so quickly. His pa had said that it might save his life someday.
Three men had come through the door. The boy sized them up quickly and decided they were up to no good. They paid no attention to him, so he ducked into the shadows in the corner of the room.
Zachariah was nervous. These men were trouble. They were unkempt and dirty and all carried rifles and wore guns on their hips, and they were all part of the Whitlock clan, all of whom were dishonest, greedy and mean. Zachariah was pretty sure these three were the brothers Jude and Seb, and their cousin, Byrne. "What do you want?" he asked nervously.
"You got liquor?" Byrne asked.
"This isn't a saloon," Zachariah pointed out, with a sweep of his hand.
"That ain't what he asked," Jude said, pointing a rifle at him.
Zachariah reached under his small counter and pulled out a bottle of whiskey that he had traded for a wagon wheel. "This is all I got. Five dollars."
The three men looked at each other and laughed, then Byrne just grabbed the bottle, opened it and kept swallowing until Seb grabbed it from him. All three of them took a hearty drink, and no one offered to pay.
"Get us some grub," Byrne ordered.
"I don't have . . . " Jude's rifle discharged, the slug hitting a sack of flour on a shelf right behind Zachariah's head. The frightened trader motioned to the fireplace where a pot of beans was boiling. They weren't full done yet, but that didn't stop the men from heading straight for them.
The commotion had roused Vin, who moaned softly in his sleep. The Indian woman pulled him close to her, hoping they wouldn't be noticed, but that was hopeless because the building was small - the only reason the three men hadn't already seen the two Indians was because their eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness. Byrne walked right past the boy to get to Corn Woman, clearly not even noticing he was there.
He grabbed her cheeks in his dirty hand and turned her face towards him. "A might long in the tooth, but I reckon she'll do just as good as any other whore," he laughed. The other two joined him.
Running Deer said something in Indian, and the man drew his pistol and backhanded him with it. Corn Woman folded herself protectively over Vin, but the little boy's blond hair caught the firelight - and then Byrne's eyes.
"What're you doin' with a white kid?" he asked Corn Woman, pointing his gun between her eyes. "You got no right. Hand it over."
Corn Woman was clearly terrified, but she tried to turn away, shielding Vin from harm. Byrne cocked his gun.
"LEAVE HER ALONE!" the boy shouted. His voice hadn't changed yet. He still sounded like a child, so when he stepped out of the shadows, the three men were surprised at his height. He was taller than two of them. "Get out," the boy said.
The three men just laughed.
"Get out," the boy repeated. "Not telling you again."
Byrne turned his gun from Corn Woman to the boy. Whatever he was planning, he never got to do it.
The boy whipped the Colt from its holster and shot him between the eyes. Zachariah let out a yelp of surprise. Seb and Jude were slow to react, unsure of what they had just seen, but even so, they had gone for their guns by the time Byrne hit the floor.
The boy shot them both, Jude before he'd even cleared leather.
The room was filled with the scent of gunpowder. Jude and Byrne Whitlock lay dead. Seb was still moving and the boy aimed for his head.
"No," Zachariah said gently, and pushed the gun down. "We need him alive so their kin will know we didn't do it." He motioned to Corn Woman and Running Deer who stood motionless, shocked.
Vin opened his eyes, looked at his brother for a moment, then closed them again.
Vin was safe. He was still alive. That was all the boy cared about. There was truth in what Zachariah had just said. If there was revenge to be had, it should be on him. He'd done the shooting.
He helped Zachariah and Running Deer haul the two dead outlaws outside. They placed all three Whitlocks on their horses and sent them on their way. The cold was bitter and the ground was frozen. Soon, the corpses would be, too. It was a good bet coyotes would get them all before they made it home.
No one spoke.
When they went back inside, Corn Woman whispered something in a soft voice.
Zachariah translated. "She says your little brother needs medicine to get his fever down. Injun medicine."
The boy understood what wasn't spoken. "They ain't taking him."
Zachariah nodded, and provided the translation. Corn Woman looked at the boy. She was angry, but said nothing.
"Son," Zachariah said softly, "you just killed two men, maybe three. They got kin who are going to come after you, probably sooner rather than later. You can't stay here."
The boy nodded that he understood. He didn't want to go back out into the cold, but he didn't want to die, either, and he especially didn't want to get Vin killed. They'd leave.
He moved to take his brother from Corn Woman. She held Vin tight and spoke angry words.
"She says if you take him now, he'll die."
It was as simple as that. The boy knew she was right. He hated it but he knew.
He didn't know what to do.
Zachariah put a hand on his shoulder. "She's a good woman," he said of Corn Woman. "She won't hurt him."
The boy could see that was true. Corn Woman had been ready to give her life to save Vin's and she barely knew either of them.
"What will happen if I leave him?" He really had to know.
Zachariah told him the truth. "He'll grow up Injun, I reckon, but ain't that better'n not growin' up at all?"
The boy didn't know the answer to that. Life as an Indian wouldn't be easy, but then life as his brother wouldn't be any easier, even if he didn't die. He'd probably go without food and shelter and it was for sure he'd never have a place to call home unless it was some orphanage somewhere.
He looked at the doorway. He couldn't just leave his little brother. He couldn't.
But he had to. He knew he did.
"I'll come back for him," he told Zachariah. He meant it, too.
Zachariah nodded, and then said something to Corn Woman.
"Give him to me," the boy said. "Just for a minute . . . "
Corn Woman let him take Vin from her arms.
He was so small, so fragile. So very sick.
He sat in front of the fire and pressed his mouth to Vin's ear. He wasn't sure the little boy could hear him, but he said softly, "I won't forget you. I'll come back for you. I don't know when, but I will." Then he kissed his hot, dry forehead. "I love you."
Vin's blue eyes opened for a moment. He smiled faintly. Corn woman said something softly, tenderly.
"She says he has the sky in his eyes," Zachariah spoke.
The boy nodded. He couldn't speak around the catch in his throat. He picked up his bedroll and flour sack and turned to leave. Running Deer stopped him before he went out the door. He held out a folded piece of thick, coarse cloth. The boy wasn't sure what to do with it, so Running Deer unfolded it. It was a poncho, grey with a white design woven into it, and white fringe at the bottom. Running Deer placed it over his head. The weave was tight, the threads thick. It was warm.
"Thank you," he whispered. And without looking back, he left.
Six years later
The young man watched from a distance, not approaching the mud hut - now attached to a regular log cabin - that he'd walked away from so many years ago, leaving three dead men in his wake. He'd learned that none of the Whitlocks had made it home alive, but no one knew who had shot them. Zachariah had apparently claimed they were never there.
He watched the group of boys as they shoved and pushed and tripped each other, laughing the whole time, the way boys did. The way he might have done, once, if he'd had the chance to be a boy. It seemed like he'd gone from childhood to manhood in the space of three shots from the Colt he still wore on his hip. The Colt he now used to make a living as a gun for hire.
The boys were Indians - dressed in buckskin leggings and moccasins, their hair long and braided. One of them was blond, his skin tanned but still paler than the others.
He felt a warmth in his chest. It was a feeling he scarcely remembered. Sometimes he wondered if he even still had a heart, or if he'd left it behind all those years before. How long had it been? The blond "Indian" boy looked about the right age.
The boys were carrying cotton sacks on their backs, filled with something. Nuts, he suspected, since pecan trees were abundant in that area.
He waited while they went into Zachariah's place, and then came out again with fists full of candy sticks. He whistled sharply to get their attention, then he motioned for them to come closer.
When they did, he studied the face of the blond boy carefully. He had blue eyes and freckles across his nose. He was skinny, but not scrawny. His leggings were well-made, decorated with small beads and arrowheads. Truth be told, they were much nicer than what the other boys had. He was covered in dust from playing hard, but he wasn't truly dirty. His hair was neatly and recently braided and tied with leather thongs at the end.
He looked cared for.
"Any of you speak English?" he asked.
The blond boy looked hesitantly at his friends, but finally replied. "Me. Some."
"What's your name?"
His reply was Indian words, then he stammered, "It means . . . uh . . . Sky In His Eyes." The boy pointed to his eyes. "'Cause my eyes are . . . uh . . . blue? Is that the word?"
The young man smiled. "Yeah, blue. What's your real name, your White name?"
The child looked thoughtful, but only for a moment. "Tanner. Vin Tanner. I think."
The young man didn't know what more to say. He had planned to just ride off with Vin if he found him, but now that he'd seen him, he wondered if Vin would even want to go with him.
"You live with the Indians?" he asked Vin.
Vin hesitated for a long moment, before hesitantly replying, "Yes." And he looked ready to bolt. He doesn't want to be taken away from here.
"You got a ma?"
The child nodded.
"She good to ya?"
The boy thought for a moment. "She won't let me go to the river 'less she's with me," he said indignantly.
"That's not what I asked you."
Vin looked down at his feet, shuffling his moccasins in the dust. "I reckon she is."
The young man relaxed in his saddle. "Well, it's nice to meet you, Vin Tanner." He pulled out two bits and tossed it to the boy. "Get something for your ma, an' maybe some more candy for yer friends here."
Vin showed the coin to the other boys, who were suitably impressed. They turned to head back into Zachariah's.
The young man decided that now was not the time to tell his little brother who he was. He'd be back in 3 or 4 years. It would be easier then.
He'd never stop regretting what he'd had to do when he was 12. Because of it, his brother was growing up not knowing or caring who he truly was. It seemed like a dishonor to his ma's memory. He'd set that straight when he saw him again.
He went into Zachariah's to talk to the man when the boys were gone. Despite the fact that he'd grown 8 inches and was six years older - a man now - the trader recognized him.
"You saw him? Your little brother?"
"Yeah. He seems good."
"He is good," Zachariah assured him. "Don't see too many young'uns spoiled like that one."
"Spoiled?" the young man frowned.
"Meaning nothin' by it, mind you, just that Corn Woman dotes on that boy something fierce, like he was her own."
The young man bristled at that. "But he's not."
"No . . . but I reckon he might as well be. He's come to be as Injun as any of 'em, he has. I make sure to talk English to him whenever he's here, so he doesn't forget. And I've told him about you, so he knows he has kin that are White folk."
"I shouldn't'a left him."
"You did the right thing. That little feller almost died. He was sick all that Spring and into Summer. They'd bring him in here all wrapped up an' cozy like, but he couldn't walk. Had to learn to do that all over again. He wouldn't'a made it if he'd gone with you."
"He's an Indian now."
Zachariah grunted, "He ain't unhappy about that. You shouldn't be, neither."
The young man nodded. Zachariah was right. Vin was alive. He was fine. He'd leave it that way, for now. "What did he buy with the two bits I gave him?"
"More candy - and a set of sewing needles. God knows what he needs that for."
The young man smiled at that. It told him that Vin was honest, and that he cared for the woman who had probably saved his life. It told him that his little brother might be a good man one day.
"Don't tell him I was here," he warned Zachariah. "I'll be back for him. When the time is right, I'll be back."
Zachariah nodded that he understood. "You know, I never knew your name."
The young man smiled slightly. "No one does. Let's leave it that way." He walked out and mounted his horse.
It was easier to leave this time.
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