By Judi Milling

Vin could hear the cries. If he didn't know better, it almost sounded like a baby crying. He knew he was tired. He had been riding for almost a week. He had needed some time away from Four Corners, so he had headed out going nowhere in particular. The area in front of him was a dense forest. Behind him were spotted areas of trees and rolling hills.

He heard it again. He edged Peso closer to the wooded area where the cries were coming from. Getting off his horse, he quietly walked towards the sound. Through the bushes, he saw two men holding something small, wrapped in an Indian blanket. So it was a baby he heard crying. And what in the hell were these two cowboys doing with an Indian baby. Staying quiet, he looked around for a woman who would surely be there tending to the little bundle. He saw no one and as he started to acknowledge himself, he heard of the men say to the other. "Too bad for this little squalling Injun. That chief will regret stealing them guns from us and not paying us."

The other man laughed. "Yeah, when we drown the little brat, the chief will know we meant business." Both men walked over to a nearby stream, bending over with the crying bundle.

As Vin came through the bushes, he swung his rifle out, pointing directly at the two men. "You best be putting the baby down, real gently like." Both men swung around. Thinking they could get the best of this buck skinned man, they placed the baby on the ground and pulled their guns. Vin didn't hesitate. He shot at both men, hitting them both. But as they went down, one shot hit Vin in the shoulder. Both men lay dead in front of Vin. Wincing from the pain, he went over and picked up the baby. "Well little feller, I guess we need to find where you came from as soon as I fix myself up."

Vin did the best he could mending his shoulder. It wasn't too bad. The bullet had gone clean through, but he knew he needed some help soon, or both of them wouldn't make it. Maybe the tribe was fairly close by, with any luck. With a lot of effort, Vin was able to get on his horse and try and find the trail left by those two men, back to the Indian camp. Near dark, Vin spied a glow in the sky not far from where he was. He was getting pretty weak from the wound, and hopefully, the glow was from a friendly campfire.

Riding up Vin saw that the glow was from a fairly good sized Indian camp. Well, he hoped it was friendly, because if not, he didn't think he had to worry about his wound anymore.

They had seen him approach and recognized the blanket he was holding in his arms. Yells went out and Chief Red Hawk came from out of his teepee. Vin stopped his horse and greeted this powerful looking man who stood in front of him. Red Hawk did not know this man, but he had in his arms what it looked like his son. Vin's eyes were getting blurry from the loss of blood, trying to hold on to the baby. That's all he needed was to drop the bundle, then he knew he wouldn't need to worry about his health anymore. From the noise everyone was making, Vin guessed that the baby belonged to the chief. He even detected somewhat of a smile forming on this powerful Indian's face. Motioning to a woman to take the baby, Vin stayed in the saddle. He sure didn't want to so anything to upset the Indian protocol. "You have found my son and returned him safely. Join my counsel."

Feeling relieved, Vin let out a sigh and slid out of the saddle trying not to show his weakness. "My friend, you so not look so good." That's all Vin heard. His knees buckled out from under him and sweet darkness took over.

When Vin woke up, he was lying on soft robes of fir. He started to stir, and heard giggles. Focusing his eyes, he saw a bevy of young Indian women scurrying about. Then he realized that his clothes were gone and he was stark naked. One woman stayed, but as he focused his eyes more, he noticed she had long auburn hair and not black hair, hanging in braids. As she looked up into his eyes, he realized that she was a white woman. Noticing the surprise in Vin's eyes, she quickly averted hers, got up and started to walk out of the tent. As she was leaving, Chief Red Hawk came in. He stopped her, talking with her. Vin noticed her seeming to shake her head back and forth, hands up in a pleading gesture. She finally hung her head down and left.

"White Willow says you will be fine in a couple of days. You have lost a lot of blood. Did this happen saving my son?" Vin was surprised at the chiefs good English and proceeded to tell him what happened. Satisfied that the men had paid dearly for their error, he left Vin with the statement that later they would talk when he was stronger. The white woman the Chief had been talking to came back in. Not once did she look again at Vin, but kept her head down, looking only at finishing doctoring his wound. "I take it you can speak?" Nothing. "Can you tell me your name?"

Not looking up, the white woman speaking softly, "White Willow. My name is White Willow."

"No, your real name, your Christian name?"

Even more softly, "Ellenor. Ellenor Winslet. That person does not exist anymore. Please don't ask me any more questions." With that she went back to working on Vin. He knew she must be a captive or at least used to be one. And Vin wasn't sure of his status either. Captives were not common anymore, so how did this woman fit in.

Later, Vin was by himself. Outside, he could hear the giggles of the Indian women. Chief Red Hawk came in and sat next to Vin. My woman tells me that you are better. You will be good as new in a few days. I hear the young squaws outside are interested in this man with the buckskin clothes. I think they are interested in the man without his clothes. The Chief smiled then looked pensive. White Willow will continue to treat you. She is very wise and knows her place. She will keep all the young women away from your lodge so they will continue to work and you can get well without distractions. The Chief guessed from the look in Vin's eyes that there was more to White Willow than he was told. Saving his son ingratiated Vin to the Chief. "I must repay you for you returning my son. My wife was beside herself. "

"I am sure White Willow was glad to have him back."

A sad look came over the Chief's face. "No, my son belongs to Little Feather, my second wife. White Willow and I lost our son, many moons ago. I did not want to loose another." With that the Chief got up. "I will be back when the moon rises three times."

Several days later, when darkness fell, Chief Red Hawk and White Willow came into the teepee. "Vin Tanner, you have saved the son of the Chief. Nothing I have will ever repay you. But, I do cherish my two wives." With that, the Chief, untied the ties from White Willow's dress, letting it fall to the floor. In the fire's glow, Vin could not believe how beautiful this woman was. She was probably in her late 30's or early 40's, pretty good looking in the face, and a beautiful body. Her hair hung heavily down her back and front, softly curling apparently just being loosened from her braids. She continued to look downcast. She wasn't very tall, about 5' 2" or so. Just staring at her made his blood start to turn hot. Red Hawk, gingerly lifted her chin to look at Vin in the face. "I offer you my first wife, Vin Tanner. She still is in child bearing age, she is a hard worker, and she has kept my bed very warm at night. She will treat you well." With that he looked at her longingly, turned and left.

Vin didn't know what to do or say. White Willow hung her head again, tears falling. Softly, but with an aire of dignity, Willow spoke. "It was very hard for him to do that. He loves me even though I could never love him back the way he wanted." Vin stood up and lifted her dress to cover her. "I can't accept him giving you to me. It's not right. Besides, what the hell are you even doing in this camp?" As she was adjusting her dress, White Willow told him the story about how over 20 years ago, she was the only survivor of an Indian raid. Red Hawk had been very young and he had proven himself by bringing her home to his father. In return, his father had given her to Red Hawk as his wife.

White Willow remembered how he had always treated her with respect, but had demanded all his rights as a husband. She had always responded to his touch, never turning away from him. She accepted his nightly advances and honored him with her own. Belonging to him made her protected from the other maidens who were jealous of this white woman who had stolen what they wanted. "You must not turn his gift down. He will be insulted. I was his first wife. That gave me status and respect. They would laugh at him. I would become lower than a dog. Vin Tanner, I do not expect you to want me. I do not want you. I do not agree that I can be given away to satisfy an obligation. We can leave together then you can go on your way. I will find my own way."

Vin just ran his fingers through his hair, cursing under his breath. "This is what I get for sticking my nose in some else's business." But he knew she didn't belong here. She needed to be with her own kind. "Damn. I should be ready in a few days to travel then we can leave. I'll tell Red Hawk that I accept his gift."

White Willow stayed in the same lodge as Vin. Due to custom, she slept under the covers with him at night, discarding her clothes. She was to stay with him after he accepted her as his gift. White Willow did not say much those several days, but having her sleep next to him at night, so close, the heat coming from her body, put him on edge.

Each morning Red Hawk had asked if she had joined with him. He was becoming insulted that Vin had made no attempt to mate with her. After several days, Red Hawk had approached Vin. "You are not pleased with my gift. White Willow says that you have not mated with her."

Vin, being uncomfortable with the whole idea, was trying to figure out a way to get out of it. It's wasn't that he didn't want to. She was beautiful and seemed very willing, although it seemed she would have done it just because it was required of her.

"Do you not want to mate with this white woman because she has mated with an Indian?"

"No. No. She is beautiful. I don't want to rush this. White men take a little longer."

"Not so, Vin Tanner. I have seen your people with my people. White men do not treasure the woman. I expect you to mate with her or you will give me insult." Vin knew he would have to figure something out.

That night, Red Hawk sat the entrance to the lodge. He did not trust this white man totally, and he knew that White Willow could not lie to him. He would see if the white man would insult his gift. A gift that was hard for him to give up, because he cherished this woman, even though she never once had shown him anything but respect. She had given herself willingly, but had never given him her soul.

White Willow came into the teepee, removed her dress, and slid between the pelts. Vin walked back and forth, wondering if he could out wait the Chief. Several hours passed and the Chief was still sitting. Vin sighed thinking things could be one hell of a lot worse than making love to a beautiful woman. He took his shirt and pants off and slid between the pelts next to White Willow. Both lay there for some time. He was close to sleep when White Willow turned to him.

Afterwards, White Willow lay her head on his chest, sweat mingling with sweat. Vin's arms wrapped around her back, and instinctively kissed her hair. She smelled so good, fresh and clean like early morning after a rain. Both lay there for a while. Leaning up, White Willow looked into his eyes, pain filled, knowing that she had some how given this man a part of herself that she had never shared with Red Hawk. And that bothered her. She knew this man had done what had to be done to ensure his safety. A small price for him to pay for it.

White Willow was confused at how this man made her react. She had never been with anyone else other than Red Hawk, and he was quite skilled at lovemaking. He had taught her everything from the day she became his wife. This man who was with her now, made her go to heights she had never been before, taking a part of her from within.

The entire time Red Hawk had been watching the two. Not once had White Willow reacted to him like she did with this white man. He was jealous, but happy that his strong willed woman had found what she always kept to herself. This man would capture her spirit. He hoped he would keep her safe from the white people who would scorn her for being an Indian captive. Both Vin and Willow had forgotten about Red Hawk watching them. They slept soundly that night wrapped in each other's arms, not realizing that Red Hawk had left before they had begun their second flight.

Vin woke up first, Willow sleeping soundly next to him. God, he wanted to make love to her again. Willow stirred and looked into those blue eyes. Lips touched. Bodies touched. Red Hawk stood watching, craving for that same desire from a woman whom he had given up. Red Hawk finally spoke up. "It is time for you to leave, white man, before I do dishonor to my tribe." Red Hawk turned and left. Willow had seen the sorrow, then hate, in his eyes for her and Vin Tanner. She also knew it was time to leave. Leave and never look back.

Vin mounted his horse and pulled White Willow up behind him. She had nothing to bring with her but the clothes on her back. As they rode off, Willow turned to see the camp one more time. She had spent many years with the Indians and it had become her home. With sorrow heavy in her heart, she raised her hand to Red Hawk as he turned his back to her. Her life here was over. She was leaving behind her home, her husband, her son that lay buried in the earth. Sadly, she turned to look at the back of the man who was a new step in her future. She leaned against Vin, arms tightly encircling his waist. Tears fell down her face, and Vin could sense, feel, her fear and sorrow. Getting back into the white man's life would not be easy for her, but he felt responsible to do the best by her. Maybe the next town they come to would be her salvation or her downfall. He hoped it would be her salvation. If not, she would have been better off with Red Hawk.

They traveled until almost dark, when Vin found a fairly secluded area next to a small lake. Willow remained silent the entire time, even though Vin had tried to get her to talk. Vin unsaddled Peso while Willow gathered firewood. After catching some fish, and eating dinner, both sat quietly watching the flames. "Willow. Ellenor, we should be getting into a town in a few days. We'll get you some clothes, and try to find a way to get you settled." She said nothing, but continued to stare into the fire. "Ellenor, I, uh, hell!" Vin stood up.

Ellenor kept staring into the fire. "Vin Tanner, I told you at the camp that you are not responsible for me. I will make my own way."

Vin ran his fingers through his long hair, wishing he had never set eyes on that baby. "Ellenor, no one said I was responsible, but I want to help you."

Ellenor stood up thinking it was odd to hear her Christian name again. "You know it has been so long since I lived in a white man's world. I don't even know if I can fit in. I. I will take a bath now." With that, Ellenor walked into the moonlit darkness, shedding her clothing.

Slowly, she waded into the cold water. It felt wonderful and she needed to be alone. She needed to wash away the sadness and the need for this handsome man that effected her. Vin sensed in her the need for solitude. Wading out breast high in the water, it seemed to help dissipate her fear, her sadness. But then her tears fell. She wanted the water to end her feeling of loneliness. Vin had waited quite a while and was starting to get worried. Walking over to the water's edge, he called her name. No answer. Again he called. No answer. "Damn, I knew I shouldn't have let her be by herself." Listening more closely, he thought he could hear sobbing. "Oh God, I don't want to do this." Vin started pulling his clothes off. It was too cold to get his clothes all wet and he wasn't about to freeze to death all night long. And brother, the water was so damn cold. Vin followed the sounds. Ellenor had not heard Vin approach. She was still trying to make a decision about trying to live or letting the water slowly edge the life from her, bringing her the peace she had never really had.

The hand on her shoulder made her jump and turn. "Vin Tanner, please, do not stop me from doing what I know is best. Let me die with dignity and not at the cruel hands of the white man's noble causes. Years ago, when I was first captured, I did not have the courage to kill myself rather than live with the Indians. A brave woman would have done it. So I learned to live with them and become like them. Now I am expected to change and forget my old ways. I don't know if I can. I can't."

"Ellenor, you can and you will. Look, it's too damn cold in this water to stay here. Come back to the fire with me."

Ellenor continued. "It wasn't long after I became Red Hawk's wife that he named me White Willow. He said that the Willow tree is strong and stretches out it's life's fingers to gather water. The closer to the water, the stronger and bigger the tree. My strength came from my will to survive and I did. Now, I am like the old tree that dies without water. I do not have the strength to or desire to search for that water."

Vin held out his hand, hoping she would take it. Ellenor kept looking into his eyes, pulling her into their depths. The moon shown brightly on the water, basking both their bodies in soft glowing light. Slowly, Ellenor released her hand from the cold fingers of the water and placed it into Vin's hand. He shivered not knowing if it was the water or the look she was giving him. Her eyes were filled with fear, pain, loss, and just a flicker of life. It was instinct that he pulled her to him. Ellenor became lost in his eyes. Her lips came closer to Vin's lips, both mouths parting as they touched. Vin scooped her up from the water and walked toward the shore.

Moonlight bathed them both as he gently placed her on the soft grass, damp from the dew. Later, both dressed and went back to the fire. Vin squatted down in front of her, lifting her chin to look him in the face. Neither said a word, but even as Vin gave her a slight smile, he saw pain reflected in her eyes. He wanted to take away the hurt, the loneliness she must feel. He hadn't planned on making love to her. Both of them were looking for something, something neither could figure out.

Sighing, Willow spoke. "Vin Tanner, you have taken my body and in turn I took yours, as I have done with Red Hawk. My sadness is not having been able to give part of myself to Red Hawk. That part of my soul. He knew it too. Yet, you are a stranger to me and you took from me part of that soul that I kept hidden deep. I can not let that happen again. Loosing your soul makes you weak and vulnerable."

Vin felt as though Ellenor was almost talking to herself. Looking into her eyes, Vin sighed. "Best be gettin' some sleep. We have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow." Vin needed to get her settled in somewhere, safely, and separate himself from her. He had also given her something he had never planned on giving anyone. He had given her part of himself. And whether he wanted to believe it or not, his feelings were growing so strong for her that if he waited much longer, he wouldn't be able to let her go. Damn, he didn't need or want a woman filling his life, not the life he had.

They rode most of the next day. Vin didn't want to tire Peso out with two people riding him, but he really wanted to get to a town because of his growing feelings for Ellenor. They finally stopped close to dark. Vin had shot a rabbit so they ate a good hot meal. Most of the ride and evening was done in silence. Vin ached for her. Just being around her was bad enough, but he knew if he even touched her, he would loose his reserve. Before sitting down in front of the fire, he had found a single purple flower growing near some rocks. Thinking Ellenor would like it, he picked it. Trying to break some of the silence, Vin walked up to her, handing over the small, delicate flower. Ellenor looked up, and carefully took the flower offered to her. "Pretty flower for a pretty woman, especially when she is smiling." Vin wasn't much on compliments, so it did sound kinda lame to him.

Ellenor smiled, with a "thank you".

Clearing his throat, Vin started the conversation. "Ellenor. You know that's a pretty name but really doesn't fit you. Has anyone ever called you Elly?" That seemed to break the code of silence between the two.

Ellenor laughed. "Well, my father used to call me that. I'm afraid I was not a very well bred young lady growing up. I would rather have been climbing trees and riding horses, than going to dances or meeting beaus. I think I would like to be called that. Elly. Brings back lots of happy times. Thank you Vin Tanner. Thank you for bringing up memories I had pushed far behind me."

Vin smiled back at her, noting that her smile seemed to put so much more life back into those light brown eyes. And when she smiled, she was even prettier. "Oh, do we one favor. Stop calling me Vin Tanner. Just Vin. Reckon it makes it sound too formal."

Elly smiled again. "I guess it is time I tried to stop talking like an Indian squaw learning English, Vin T..., Vin."

Elly didn't want to get close to this man, but placing her hand on his arm, with a "thank you" made her feel like she had found a friend. Vin wanted more than that hand. The touch of her hand made him want to hold her, kiss her, and smell her. She had smelled so good last night when he held her in his arms. It might take a little bit of time, but he knew she would be able to put behind her those days living with the Indians and get on with her life.

Elly continued. "When my son was born, Red Hawk was so happy. The other women were jealous of what we had. I was a white woman who bred a son to the Chief. Red Hawk worshiped the ground that baby walked on. He used to just sit and watch me feed him. He would stroke his cheek while the baby drank milk from me. He heard his first words, watched his first step. He was so proud that his son had shown the makings of a fine warrior. I loved my son. He was my heart and my soul. Red Hawk had hoped for more children. I lost several more. As much as he loved me, he wanted more children, so he married Little Feather. I'm afraid she and I did not get along too well. I was still Red Hawk's first wife, and had given him the first son, the one who would follow him. Little Feather did not treat me kindly and taunted me that she slept with Red Hawk and she was going to have his baby -- a pure Indian, not mixed breed. Her baby should be the rightful one to follow in Red Hawk's footsteps." Elly smiled. "Red Hawk used to look so tired of trying to keep his two wives from not killing each other. One day, our son, Little Eagle, came back to camp from a hunting trip. He was nine years old. He had become feverish. As the night wore on, the fever got worse. I tried everything, but nothing worked. By morning, our son was dead."

Tears rolled down Elly's cheek, remembering that night. She lost a part of herself when their son died. "Red Hawk blamed himself for taking our son out. He needed to be older. But nothing would have saved him. It was something that just happened. I mourned for so long. Red Hawk was patient. He loved me and our son so much. I could never love him back the way he loved me. After a while he took me back to his robes, against Little Feather's wishes. But we never had another child to live. Little Feather had a son, a beautiful baby. Red Hawk was so proud, but he still hurt so much for the loss of our son. So, when you brought back his only son, he could not thank you enough except to give you what he loved just as much as his son. I am sorry you got mixed up in this and got stuck with me. But I will be no more trouble to you after we get to the town. I will try to make a life of my own, and you can go on your way. You will be free of your obligation."

Vin listened to her. This was a woman who had so many hardships. Red Hawk was right. She was strong and he knew she would survive. But why in the hell did he feel he was close to loosing something he didn't want to loose. Vin and Elly sat for a long time just staring into the fire. When it was time to sleep, Elly put her head on Vin's chest. He held her, but did nothing else. This was a woman who deserved some kind of happiness, and by damn, he would try and help her find it.

On the fourth day of traveling, they came to a small town. It didn't look too bad as towns go. Seemed pretty civilized and all. Stopping in front of the local boarding house, Vin went on in, while Elly some items Vin had strapped to Peso. "Need one room for several nights, and a bath tub, if'n you have one." Vin was ready to try a nice soft bed. He had gotten used to them in Four Corners, plus he was gettin' too damn old to keep sleeping on the ground.

As the clerk was turning the register around for Vin to sign, Elly came in. She must have looked a sight in her Indian dress, moccasins, and feather dress in her hair. The clerk, seeing her, cleared his throat. "We don't cater to Injuns around here."

Vin turning, seeing her, motioned to Elly. "It's all right. She is with me."

"You don't seem to understand mister, I don't care if she is with you, I don't want no Indian's white whore in my hotel."

Elly's eyes opened more widely, looking at Vin, and starting to turn around.

Vin's anger showed on his face. Leaning over the desk, Vin grabbed the clerk by the front of his shirt, pulling him partially across it. "First of all, she ain't no whore, and second, I think I told you I wanted a room with a bath." Fearing for his life after looking at this angry man's face, the clerk, clearing his throat asked to be let go.

Elly was near tears. "Vin, please, I do not want to stay here. I understand. Please, let us go."

Vin released the man. "Now I want that room, mister."

The clerk, running his finger around the inside of his collar so he could breath, handed Vin the key.

Vin signed the register and he and Elly went upstairs to the room. Going in, Elly turned to Vin. "Why could we not just leave? They saw me and knew by my dress that I had been with the Indians." Vin didn't say a word. Turning, he said he would be back real soon. Elly sat down on the bed thinking this was the softest thing she had been on in years. She had already forgotten about what had gone on downstairs.

Vin arrived back the same time the tub and hot water was being delivered. "The tub is for you and so are the packages. I'll be back in a little while." With that, he left Elly alone in the room. Opening the packages she found some wonderful smelling soap, a beautiful blue flowered dress cut low in the front, underclothes and shoes. But what got her attention was the pretty brush for her hair. Slipping into the warm water, Elly felt everything drain from her.

She was still in the tub when Vin knocked. "Come on in."

Vin opened the door. Elly sure looked pretty with her hair piled on top of her head, soaking in the water. "I am sorry. The water felt so nice that I forgot about getting cleaned up." Vin handed her the soap and cloth. Seeing her struggle with washing her back, he took it from her and started rubbing her back. She had never felt so good. The water was warm. The soap smelled so nice and Vin's hands were strong yet gentle on her back. Vin removed the pins that held her hair up, so that the dark auburn curls, fell down her back. He slowly wet her hair, lathering the soap in it. Elly thought she had died and gone to heaven. His hands felt so good. Vin finished washing her hair, rinsed it, and handed her a towel to dry off. As she stood up, Vin turned around with his back facing her. There was no way he could look at her now, without wantin' her.

Elly went over to the bed and slipped on her under garments, then her dress. It fit her perfectly, hugging all her beautiful curves. "Vin I can not get the dress hooked. Please. Will you help?" As Vin stood behind her, he drew in her clean, fresh scent. His hands wanted to linger on her back and feel her soft warm skin. Elly could feel his hands slowly hooking her dress. His hands brushed her skin and sent chills up her and deep yearnings. The worse part was the shoes. She hated them. She had forgotten how women's clothes were so restricting. Cursing a few Indian words, she finally got the shoes on.

"Ma'am. Would you do the honor of having supper with me?"

Elly giggled. Vin was glad to see her smile again. Damn that desk clerk. He could have rung his puny neck for saying what he did in front of Elly. Both walked down stairs, Elly having some problems with steadying herself in those blasted shoes. Dinner was wonderful. Elly had forgotten what wonderful foods the white man ate.

The desk clerk had averted his eyes when they had left and arrived back at the boarding house. So far, unless the desk clerk blabbed it all over town, people had not given the two even a glance. Vin unlocked the door, bid Elly good night.

Elly panicked. "But, where are you going? Please do not leave me here."

Vin smiled. "I'm just gonna be next door at the saloon. You get some rest." He knew if he had walked into that room with her, he would have to make love to her. He thought she was beautiful before, but in her new clothes, she was breathtaking. It would be harder than he thought to leave her in a couple of days. He had already checked into getting her a job at the local dry goods store. She would get enough to get her by and he thought she would be happy here.

Days later, everything fell into place. Elly seemed to like her new surroundings. Vin knew Elly would have a rough time adjusting to a new life, but she was strong and he knew she would make it. A week later, Vin decided it was time or him to leave. He had to. He needed to. Being in her room with her every night, seeing her, was really working on his nerves. If he didn't leave soon, he wouldn't be able to leave her at all. Elly knew in her heart that Vin was going to leave soon. She tried to make it look like she was happy and ready to fit in to a new life.

"Elly. I'm leavin' in the mornin'. I need to get back to Four Corners. If I come by this way again, I'll stop by and see how you are doing."

"Vin, thank you for all you have done to help me. I told you that I would take care of myself."

The next morning, Vin and Elly were standing outside the hotel. "Vin Tanner take care of your self."

"Elly, I..." Elly put a finger to his lips.

"I know Vin Tanner. I know. May you be watched over and protected from all harm." Vin looked at her eyes, hoping not to see tears. Elly held them back as he mounted Peso. He tipped his hat and rode off. Tears fell down Elly's face. "Part of my soul goes with you Vin Tanner," she whispered, and turned to go back into the hotel.

Weeks passed. Vin had seemed pretty edgy since he had gotten back into Four Corners. The rest of the seven men had noticed a change in their friend. Chris carefully watched Vin. They had become the closest of all the others. In the saloon one night, Vin, sitting quietly, kept drinking one shot after another. "Want to tell me about what happened to you?" Chris had known this quiet man long enough to know something was bothering him.

"Ah, hell, Chris. I shouldn't have left her."

Chris looked at Vin. "Left who?"

Then Vin proceeded to tell Chris about Elly and Red Hawk. Chris knew that this man had left his heart with this little lady. "Vin moping around here isn't going to change things."

"Yeah, I know. I just don't know if I'm ready to settle down. Don't know if she would want me either."

Chris smiled. From what Vin had said about her, shared with him, shared with him some of those private times, he knew his friend had found a very special woman. And he didn't think she would turn him away from what he had learned from Vin. "Vin. Life is too short not to take full advantage of what is offered. Before you know it, it could be all gone. Why don't you and I take a ride and see if this little lady is willing to turn you away."

Rolling his hat around in his hands, Vin smiled. "Yep. Think I'll take a chance. Thanks Chris." With that both men, got up and walked out of the saloon.

Hope. That was the name of the town. As soon as Vin had left, the next day, Elly found her possessions out on the walk. Sneering at her, the hotel clerk had told her that he didn't want her here. Everything was changing. The owners of the dry goods store didn't want her working for them anymore. Word had apparently spread about her living with the Indians. No decent person wanted to talk with her or help her. The hotel clerk told her that the saloon might want to give her work and a room. "They're always lookin' for working women there."

Elly had no where else to turn. Vin had left her. But she was a survivor. Straightening her back, Elly walked next door to the saloon. The owner was a big breasted woman, Hanna, who at first seemed to have pity on the auburn headed beauty. There was no problem. She could work downstairs serving drinks. Maybe later she might want to earn more money by serving the customers upstairs. She knew that Elly would be a draw to the men. Dress her up in something very revealing and Indian looking. Men were always looking for a challenge and knowing that they would be lusting after a woman who had been with the Indians, would give them another diversion for proving they were better.

Elly's first couple of days went quite smoothly. She served drinks and put up with a few lewd remarks and pinches. But her outfit she had to wear made her quite uncomfortable. She was dressed in all white buckskin. The straps were down on her shoulders, fringe lined. The front of the dress dipped very low to reveal her rounded breasts. The dress hugged her figure tightly revealing every curve she had. It was almost ankle length, but had a slit up the middle all the way up to the top of her legs. The back of the dress was cut open to reveal her entire back down to her waist. Her hair was left long and flowing but was pulled back on one side with a silver beret with feathers. Her working name was the name Red Hawk had given her -- Willow. And the men liked that name. She had been proud in the village because even as a white woman, she had been treated with respect. Here, she felt dirty and demeaned. As soon as she could, she would leave this place. If she lasted that long.

Several more days passed. They did not go as well. The patrons in the bar started noticing her more and touching her more. She would walk by a man he would grab her, and pull her down to his lap. Sometimes their hands explored more. They would catch her off guard and kiss her, rubbing her back. They made her sick. "Come on Willow honey. Be nice to me."

One night Hanna called her into her office. "Honey, I can't afford to keep paying you for just serving drinks. I need you to, you know, keep the customers happy." Elly chilled. She knew exactly what Hanna was talking about. "I can pay you well. Them men out there want you real bad. I am sure you can show them a good time."

Elly had no choice. She still didn't have hardly any money so she could not leave town. She finally agreed to work for Hanna upstairs. Hanna told her she would be starting tonight. As she walked out, Hanna was thinking that this woman would be working a long time before she would have much money. She would make sure of that. She wanted this little lady to stay here. Willow would bring a lot of money in and she would make sure she charged these men a high price for it.

He was a big man and very handsome. He had been eyeing Willow for days, hungering for her. He had already made a deal with Hanna and had paid a high price for this woman. He had been known for his bad treatment of the ladies in town. He had beat up several of the ladies in the saloon when he wasn't satisfied. Seeing Willow walk out the door and behind her, Hanna acknowledging that a deal had been struck with her, he casually walked over to Elly. Elly had heard about the man. He scared her. He walked right up to her, putting his arm around her, pulling her to him. "Well, little moon beam, are you ready to light up the sky?" With that he turned with her in his arm, picked her up, and carried her upstairs. A room had already been set aside for them.

He kicked the door open, and deposited Elly on the bed. Her dress flared open revealing two beautiful tanned, shapely legs. He caught his breath. She was more than he hoped for. "My God, you are a beautiful woman." Elly steeled herself, knowing she had to do this, in order to be free. In fact she felt more like a prisoner here than when she was with the Indians. At least, there, she had been treated with respect. She closed her eyes. The sting on her face brought her back to reality. "You bitch. You keep your eyes open. I want you to see everything." He had hit her. She had never been hit before. Her hand went instantly to her face. He leaned over grabbing both hands in his large one, putting her arms over her head. With his other hand, he ripped her dress down the front. His greedy eyes took in her slim body. Elly kept her eyes open in fear she would be struck again, but her mind tried to wander somewhere else, hoping it would be over soon. When he finished, told Elly, "Tomorrow night, same time." And he walked out. Elly turned, crying into the pillow. How could she last.

The next night, he came back right on time. Other customers had listened to his. They knew that he had full rights on her. He had paid Hanna dearly for those charms and he would get full use of that money. She had been given a new dress and was told to remove it before he ripped it. The last one would come out of her pay. He saw her and pointed to the upstairs. Knowing not to argue, Elly went upstairs with him trailing behind. Later, Elly sat there, more scared that she had ever been. Putting her hands to her face, she cried uncontrollably. "Vin. Oh Vin. Why did you leave me here?"

The next night Elly was already upstairs. He had walked in and went straight upstairs to Elly. He was going to enjoy this night even more than he had the last two nights. As he walked upstairs, two strangers walked into the bar. The one long haired man had been over at the general store, asking for Elly. Vin had been told she had left town over a week ago and had no idea where she went. It sure didn't sound like something Elly would do. She would have made sure she had everything she needed to leave and she hadn't had enough time to do that.

Vin met Chris back at the bar. He was trying to figure out what to do next, when he overheard a couple of men at a table talking with a big woman. "Now gentlemen, I know you are interested in her, but Mr. Marks has paid quite highly for her."

"Awh, c'mon Hanna, we should all have a some time with that Injun lover."

Chris saw Vin straighten, turn and walk over to the three. "Injun lover? Sounds interesting." Vin had said looking at the three.

Hanna looked at the handsome young man clad in buckskin. "Look handsome, Willow is busy, but I am sure I could find a young girl to satisfy your needs quite well. Besides, she is reserved for one man. And he is already upstairs with her now." Vin turned livid, wanting to grab the woman by the throat. It couldn't be anyone else she was talking about except Elly. Chris saw his friend's anger and sided up beside Vin.

"Lady, you best be telling us where she is or my friend may decide his gun is better outside than inside its holster." Hanna had seen the anger in the young man's face, knowing her life was in real danger.

"He paid me a lot of money for that woman," thinking that she could get something back on her losses.

Vin and Chris both pulled money out and threw it on the table. "It's gonna have to be enough. You're only other choice is not getting any at all." Hanna knew these men meant what they said and something in their faces made her decide to coup her losses. Besides, they would have to deal with Marks and she might win double with their money and their deaths.

Vin and Chris quickly went up the stairs to where Hanna had told them Elly was. Elly cringed back to the end of the bed. She had to steel herself. She felt so sick wishing it was all over. "Please, please don't do this."

"Listen you bitch, I paid for you, an you are going to pleasure me." With that he hit her. About the same time, Vin kicked the door open, leveling his rifle at Masters. Masters looked at this young man, rifle pulled, hate reflected in his eyes. Vin's face is what made him take a breath. The muscles in Vin's cheeks were rigid, but his eyes had shown so much hatred.

Vin looked at Elly then back at Masters. "You best be puttin' it back in your britches unless you know you won't be needin' it anymore." Masters looked shocked. His gun was not where he could reach it quickly. Thinking he might be able to grab it, he started to lunge. "I told you, you son of a bitch to do somethin'. Now do it! Masters decided no woman was worth it. Grabbing all his stuff, he went past Vin and Chris. Chris decided to follow him while Vin stayed with Elly.

Elly looked like a scared doe caught in a trap. Vin's heart went out to her. With only a few steps, his arms encircled her, pulling her to him. Leaning against his chest, Elly started crying. She cried until there was nothing left but sobs. "As soon as you left, they kicked me out in the street, fired me from my job. All I could find was this. Please get me out of here. I want to go home. I want to go back to Red Hawk. I can live with their hate, not with the white man's hate." Vin ached. He had brought her to this. How was he going to convince this woman, who he knew hated him too, to come back to Four Corners with him.

Bringing her face up in his hands, he looked deeply into her eyes. She was ashamed. She didn't want to face this man whom she had given her soul to. He lightly kissed her lips and then held her close. He gave her comfort and peace she hadn't felt since she arrived in this town. She couldn't bear the thought of seeing him then loosing him again. "Please take me back."

Vin tightened his hold on her. "I can't take you back to Red Hawk, Elly."

"Please Vin, why?"

"I can't because I came back to take you back home with me. I'm..... I'm in love with you. I don't want to be away from you. Come back with me."

Feeling the peace she had not felt for a long time in this man's arms, she decided that sometimes the Willow tree needs only to go deeper not farther to find strength to grow. Looking up into those beautiful blue eyes, she could see his love for her. She smiled, and Vin knew what her answer was.