The morning sun tapped him on the back, and he squinted at her in return. He packed the last of the items he'd picked up in the trading post and closed the strap on his saddlebag. Coffee, soap, dried meat, flour,whiskey, tins of food and other necessities were secured and waiting. He rolled the woolen socks, woolen pants, and gloves inside the wool blanket and tied it. He eased onto Diablo and anxiously set off.
As he rode along, he eyed the cerulean sky accented by juniper and pine trees. The air was crisp and it embraced him as he urged his steed forward. As morn bowed to the afternoon, the bold sun kept him company. His sky eyes drank in the majestic landscape around him. The land sloped downward from lofty mountain peaks filled with deer, antelope, elk, bear and wolf. Eagles soared overhead, proud and free. This country sparkled with lakes and rivers that rolled gently down to the valleys, becoming the drinking pool for the wildlife. As he paused to appreciate a long waterfall, his mind traveled back in time, to when he wore a younger man's clothes.
It was just after the war, when he was escaping from the horrors that only a soldier knows. He'd wandered into this beautiful spot and was sure if there was a heaven it would be in Pagosa Springs. The Ute tribe that had lived here for centuries, called it "Pagosah" or healing waters. The minerals in the Hot Springs, gave it the medicinal power for which it was known.
The Indians of the area were largely nomadic. The Utes maintained a stronghold on their mountain bastions, and so far had prevented displacement by tribes attempted to penetrate from east of the Rockies. But pressure from the Sioux in the North caused the Arapaho and Cheyenne to the south, which in turn forced the Kiowa south into Comanche Territory. The area was turbulent at times, as the tribal wars over the land were common occurrence.
It was here in the afternoon shadows of the San Juan Mountains, at the edge of the mesa, where he first felt God gentle touch. Fleeing the aftershock of the prison he'd been detained in during the war, he was suffering from fever, near starvation and barely alive. The emotional trauma of the war and the time in the p.o.w. camp had left him internally scarred. He didn't remember wandering into the wondrous healing place. He woke up wrapped in warm thick folds of animal fur on a soft pelt bed. A fire provided warmth in the small cabin and the gentle hands that bathed him left him utterly contented. When he peeled his eyes open, a beautiful Indian girl smiled down at him.
"Saguache...Little Star..." He smiled, lost in the past, and still drowning in her beautiful dark eyes.
The memories of those nine months spent in this blissful haven filled him as he eyed the familiar cabin. Now dormant, it seemed to need him as much as he needed the shelter of its sturdy, rough-hewn arms. He eased off Diablo and spent a few minutes drinking in the majesty of this peaceful place.
His trepidation nearly tripped him as he opened the door and entered the log cabin. He sucked in his breath and rocked back slightly, seeing the fireplace. He closed his eyes and heard her soft laughter, like chimes in the wind, as he chased her through the door. He'd caught her and they fell onto the thick folds of fur, where the fire danced off their skin as they shared one breath.
"Heaven..." He sighed, opening his eyes and breathing wistfully.
The cabin showed signs of a former occupant. A wooden cot now resided in the corner of the room, complete with an Indian blanket. A single chair stood beside a barrel, converted into a crude table. A bearskin rug covered most of the floor and a pair of fur boots stood in the corner, by the door. The hearth was empty and without ashes, indicating nobody had been here recently. Trappers moved throughout Colorado Territory, claiming a remote cabin as they saw fit. Vin moved his things in and set up house. He walked around the side of the cabin and saw the large ax. He grinned, recalling how the first time he'd swung it, eager to impress the pretty Indian girl; he'd fallen over backwards. He could still hear the large Frenchman laughing at the skinny boy from Texas who was blushing sinfully.
"Black Jack..." He murmured, fingering the wooden handle and pulling the ax free. The broad grin was matched by a lump in his throat for the kind-hearted Frenchman who'd taught him more than he could every repay.
By nightfall, a fire roared in the hearth, basking him in much needed warmth. He'd caught two rabbits, and cooked them. The hard ride aggravated his hip and doused it with carbolic and swore a blue streak that would have made the Old French Trapper proud. The fever was gone and he was able to save the last of the willow bark tea. He stretched out on the rug and pulled the blanket he'd bought in the last town over him. As the cracking fire lulled him to sleep, the pain returned. He rolled to face the fire, seeing their faces mock him in he orange and crimson flames. Distant whispers sauntered through the cozy room, slipping into his aching head. The murmurs grew louder and he closed his eyes and covered his ears, as they slammed into him.
...misbegotton whelp...why couln't the bullet have found you...murderer...murderer...not safe for decent people...decent...decent...hang your head in shame...shame...shame...
"No...no...God make them stop..." he moaned, eyes full and heart heavy. The pain in his chest gripped him so fierce he cried out. The voices built to a deafening crescendo, before a softer one chased them away. Gasping for breath, he closed his eyes and almost felt her sweet breath on his face, as her soft arms enveloped him. He saw the fleeting image of a calico quilt...a small cloth horse...and remembered the velvet touch. His body rocked back and forth, keeping in time with worn rocker. As her love surrounded him, like a stellar cloak, he gave a long sigh and surrendered.
+ + + + + + +
The end of the day found the weary traveler nearing familiar landmarks. Left to his own company Chris Larabee had a long, silent debate, weighing his options. As the sun began to set he once again replayed his arguments. As much as he ached to find Vin, would that prove anything? If Vin rode out to find peace, as Josiah indicated, was it fair for him to force a confrontation when the battle-scarred tracker wasn't ready?
His own selfish need was deep and angry, it's razor-like teeth eating a path through his insides. That was drove him on this journey. His 'want' overpowered his 'heart'. As much as he needed the bearer of those blue-eyes, to fill the void that burned in him, he couldn't hurt Vin anymore. It would be wrong to force him into a corner, when he wasn't ready. His heart ached for the return of the kindred spirit, but it ached more for Vin Tanner. Vin needed to heal and he needed to have faith in him. Faith...he snorted, that was what started this whole mess. His lack of faith in himself...when his best friend had shown unyielding credence.
He reined in Caesar and slid off the strong steed's back. Stroking the silken mane, he eyed the beautiful sunset. He sat on the rock overlooking the mesa and thought of the first time he'd sat in this same spot. His green eyes glanced over a few feet away. He felt the grin appear, loose and free, as it had that evening. Just as the sun set, when a soft wind lifted the shoulder length hair, the sky eyes crinkled in mirth and that Tanner smile was born.
So I figure if a friend collects, I get the last laugh.
Chris's smile faded as the image of Vin's face, tinted golden by the departing rays, faded away as the sun set. The picture was gone, but the feeling remained. That cocky, spit-in-your-eye attitude combined with the drawl and the wicked sense of humor brought the grin back. It had been a long time since he'd felt so open with anyone. He'd been touched that the new friend he'd made had trusted him to the point of bearing his dark secret. That was the very moment Vin Tanner took a hold on his heart. When that surge of blind faith, soared from the blue eyes into his soul. The blood red sun was gone now, swallowed up by the greedy earth. He climbed back on his horse and let his eyes rest on the spot once more. He'd ridden in to protect an Indian village from a mad band of ex-confederates; He'd ridden out with his soul restored.
"Would you care to explain to me again, why we had to arrive in this urban cesspool under the cover of nightfall?" Ezra complained, as they road into town.
"The element of surprise." Buck replied, ears perking up as the lively sound of a piano and ribald bursts of laughter wafted from The Golden Slipper, the large Saloon at the end of the street. "This way if anybody got wind the judge is headed here tomorrow, we'll get the drop on them."
"More likely your intention is to 'drop' onto a supple, soft body after imbibing a large amount of alcohol." the Gambler huffed.
"All work and no play makes Buck a dull boy." The tall man responded, handing the care of Annabelle, his large gray bay, over to the Livery Boy.
"That would explain your lively nature." Ezra noted, handing Deuce over and taking his saddlebags.
"I think that's an insult." Buck frowned, eyeing the sign on the door. "Two bits each, pay the man, Ez, I running a little short." He called back, jogging up to the Saloon door.
"The story of your life." Ezra grumbled, pulling out a handful of coins.
By the time the Conman arrived, Buck was lounging in a chair. The foam on his lips from his half-empty beer was being licked off by an overly endowed redhead. One hand held the beer while the other was splayed across the girl's backside.
"Utterly Amazing..." He shook his head and eyed the busy drinkery. His lips curved into a smile and his seagreen eyes lite up when he saw the trio of well-dressed businessman at a corner table. Reaching into his pocket, he fingered the deck of cards.
"Hey Ace..." Buck muffled, pulling his mouth free. "Hand over some bail money." He wiggled the fingers on the plump derriere that was resting on his leg.
"Excuse me?" Ezra scowled, grimacing as the busty patroness gave him the once over, a bold wink and licked her lips.
"One of them city slicker's ain't gonna take kindly to gettin' swindled out of his money. Somehow, you'll end up behind bars or with a hole in your coat. Either way, I'll need money, to bail your sorry ass our of jail or get a box and send the body back to Four Corners."
"The depths of your concern for my welfare never ceases to amaze me." Ezra drolled. "Rest assured, I can provide for my own well being." He paused, "...and I resent the intonation of the word swindle. A Standish has never resorted to..."
"You're full of shit, Ezra." Buck hooted, and smiled broadly as a ripe brunette appeared behind the ladie's man and whispered in his ear. Her deft hand disappeared down his shirt and his eyebrows wiggled. "I've love to stay and chat, but duty calls...Don't wait up..." He winked and smacked Ezra's red coat.
"Stamina thy name is Buck Wilmington..." Ezra amazed as the mustached gunslinger disappeared up the stairwell with a bottle of whiskey and a girl on each arm. "Gentlemen...may I sit in?" He inquired of the trio, eyeing the stacks of coins and grinning.
+ + + + + + +
The stone face that greeted him left him wondering. He slid off his horse and approached cautiously.
"You greeting me with hospitality or hostility?" Chris Larabee asked Kojay, the chief of the Seminoles who lived in the village. Somehow, the wise elder had been expecting him. He didn't question the man's ability, rather he'd come to expect it. Kojay seem to sense when Vin was in trouble and one look at the tense features in the rigid face answered his nagging suspicion.
"Eat first, then we'll talk." the silver-haired elder commented and nodded to an open flap of a doorway.
Chris ducked inside and dropped to the mat on the floor. The room was warm and he was chilled. A comely maiden handed a hand-forged clay mug to him. She placed a large bowl of stew, loaf of bread and a bowl of honey by his feet.
"Thanks." He nodded, sipping on the steaming herbal tea. The stew was good and he wasted no time consuming it, along with the bread. He was exhausted and laid back on the mat, waiting for Kojay to appear.
Kojay entered and saw the weary gunslinger sleeping. He called to his granddaughter to collect the plates and bring a blanket. She covered the handsome, slumbering man and took the dishes away. He paused over the body, though sleeping, was far from rest. The blond man's spirit was troubled and he felt the ripples in the force that bound him to the lost one with blue eyes. He laid one hand on the blanket covering the fitfully breathing chest and the other on the pale forehead.
"Rest now...he is well and safe. His journey home is not yet ready to begin. He needs your strength. He can feel your uncertainty. Send him your faith...go to him...his soul waits to reunite."
He heard the sharp intake of breath and then felt all tension leave the troubled man's body. The breathing became shallow and the muscles slack. Kojay smiled and left the spirit to it's journey. He eyed the distant sky and raised his arm.
"I call to you my friend...hear my words. He reaches out for you, embrace his spirit..."
The winds howled and blew the snowy hair off the proud man's shoulders. He stood a long time, listened to the battle of the wills. Then the winds died and he smiled. He glanced back into the room and saw the serene smile on Chris Larabee's face. He nodded, knowing the twin smile was resting on the Vin Tanner's face.
Red Fork Inn, noon, Judge Travis's room
"Gentlemen, please have a seat." The Judge greeted the two gunslingers from Four Corners. He glanced in the hall and Ezra Standish answered his concern.
"No one saw us."
"Good. Did you notice the theater at the end of the street?" He asked the Conman and frowned at Buck Wilmington's haggard expression.
"Yes...The Diamond Opera House, as I recall."
"The owner has agreed to loan us the use of some of their makeup and costuming. After our meeting with Harrison Lewis, the pinkerton agent I'm expecting, we'll go over there. The sooner Gregory Morgan is seen about town, the better."
"Gregory Morgan?" Buck whispered, easing into a large wing chair and rubbing a hand over his eyes.
"Long night Buck?" The Judge inquired then grinned at the cocky smile that was born.
"A night to remember..." Buck managed a weak grin, his eyes like slits.
"Hah!" Ezra scoffed.
"Those green eyes of yours are tailor made, Ace," Buck wiggled his eyebrows and winked at the bemused Gambler.
"Jealous? Moi?" He patted his silk vest, "The sun has yet to arise on that day."
"Greg Morgan was an associate of Cavendish's and thought to be connected to the kidnapping trade. He was scarce as the Phantom, and hasn't surfaced in quite some time, so it's safe to assume he's long gone. This is a drawing I had the U.S. Marshall bring to my home. I think with the correct disguise..."
"...and some poor lighting." Buck chuckled, "Hell, that guy's good looking." "I'll forgive your current state of blindness due to your nocturnal activities." Ezra replied, glancing at the drawing. "Background?"
"Age not known, but late fifties, most likely. You match his height and complexion...it's just a matter of the hair, a mustache and some aging. He's from New Orleans, so brush up on your French."
"le langage des rois..." Ezra bowed.
"Hmph..." Buck snorted, taking another sweetroll, "Guess hot air is international."
"Do you have a course of action outlined?" Ezra pursued, ignoring his partner.
"Yes...Once youre in...well...once Mr. Morgan arrives, he'll subtlety make it known that he's come into some money, courtesy of an old friend..." "...and I assume Mr. Morgan has arrived from Four Corners?" Ezra added.
"Yes...drop some hints as to not fearing the friend's reprisal...give the illusion that he's dead."
"You figure that Ella will come huntin' her money?" Buck guessed, sipping on some hot coffee.
"I do..." The Judge frowned. "Especially if she thinks Morgan's partner has Billy."
"He okay?" Buck worried.
"He's fine." The Judge paused, "He's with my wife and Mary under the watch of a team of U.S. Marshall's."
"I take it this is a silent partner?" Ezra guessed.
"Yeah..." The Judge sighed and refilled his cup. "From the notes Cavendish left in that book, he was due to meet her in a few days. She's too smart not to have him checked. I wired Josiah, so they'll be prepared. With all the connections she has here...I wouldn't be surprised if she has someone on the payroll. You better be convincing Ezra...it may be your own life youre saving."
"Ah, hell," Buck imparted, seeing a moment of doubt flicker in the green eyes. "You know Ezra's half cat...got nine lives and always lands on his feet."
"You see that he does..." The Judge warned and Buck nodded. "Come on Standish, eat up, it's going to be a full day."
Midday in Pagosa Springs
Vin eased himself into the hot stream and settled back, resting his head on the rock. The steaming water covered him up to the neck. He'd awakened to find the hole inside him had narrowed considerably. He had a very vivid dream about a wolf and a rain storm. The harsher the storm became, the harder the wolf fought. Finally the storm subsided and the triumphant wolf nudged him and howled. He stared at the beast as it left, it's green eyes glinting in the moonlight. He embraced the sign and the felt a calming strength return to him.
During breakfast and on his hike over here, he'd thought on his troubles. Sorting out the bits and pieces of his shattered soul was exhausting. Chris Larabee was more than his best friend and he realized just how wrong he'd been. Chris had hurt him deeply, but Nathan and Josiah were right. Chris had lashed out at him through hurt and confusion. Ella's deceit had wounded him too, and he struck back the only way he knew how - at the one person who meant the most to him. Compassion and forgiveness...he pondered his inner turmoil and sorted through the mire. He saw the Larabee grin appear, and the smirking eyes. He felt the familiar warmth invade him and felt his hand slide on the soft black flannel he wore. Maybe Chris hadn't lost faith in him, maybe he'd lost faith in himself. Maybe being blinded by Ella had done that. He should be angry with her, not Chris. He took a deep breath and felt all the hostile energy he'd harbored for Chris Larabee sail away on the morning breeze. He wasn't angry at his best friend anymore, and carefully unbuttoned the oversized black shirt. He'd folded it and left it with his other clothes, as he slipped into the hot water.
He let his mind wander to Mary and the townspeople. Mary saw her only child lying in a pool of blood, she had every right to be upset. She shouldn't have condemned him...that hurt. He flinched as he recalled her stinging words and the cruel names hurled by the crowd. He didn't care about Addy Ford, Bert Thomas and the other small minded louts. He'd accepted the fact that some people are just mean spirited. But that nobody stuck up for him...that hurt. And Mary...how could she say those things? He pushed that episode away and Nathan's face came into view. He dove under the water and threw himself into strong strokes, crossing the springs and back several times. With every ounce of strength he pushed himself hard through the water, each stroke trying to force the image away. But that horrid night sprung up fresh with every stroke...the taunts...the whip...the knife poised at Nate's unprotected leg...and that scream. He stopped and stood up, gasping and blinking as the bloodcurdling sound stabbed him. His hip throbbed, angry at the frantic movements. He pulled the wet, tangled hair from his face and waded slowly. He sighed and slid along the springs, finding the flat underwater rock just as he'd left it. Settling in, he felt the healing springs invade his skin. He sank down until the water hit his neck and raised his face to the sun. He inhaled deeply, recalling her gentle hand massaging him under the water and her velvet lips as they kissed. He heard her soft laughter and he drifted back to another time when his soul was wounded.
Six years earlier, Pagosa Springs
Jean Carboneau looked up from the pile of pelts he was loading onto Elise, his pack mule. He shook his head and ran a hand through his graying black hair. His blue eyes crinkled in mirth and he stroked his speckled beard. The exuberance flushed her cheeks to a rosy hue and the little girl he'd brought into the world seventeen summers before, was a ripe young woman. Her features were his, bearing strong links to his French Canadian roots. But her coloring and high spirits were Latoray's. Her mother would have been so proud. She died when Saguache, his beloved only child, was four.
They'd been happy up here, in this piece of heaven. The burly Frenchman and his Ute bride made this place their home. He trapped and hunted, and went to the spring trading festivals in the valley. He moved freely among the tribes, his kind heart and honest ways made him welcome there. They thought they would never be blessed with a child, they'd been married for many years, when his little star was born. She was beautiful...he knew that wasn't a father's prejudiced remark. He'd seen the way the men in town looked at her. He worried, now that she grew older, about her future. It was nearly ten months until the next festival, where he wanted her to remain with her mother's people. She could choose a husband there and have the life she deserved. He'd been putting if off for the last few years. Her grandfather has been patient, but last year he'd made the Frenchman promise. His heart ached to think of his world with his little star, but she deserved to be happy.
"Ce qui mon enfant?" He asked of her excited state. What could be wrong?
"Un garçon d'homme...... mort je pense."
A dead man or boy? She was excited and rambling. When her mother died, he'd switched to his native tongue, but she knew some English and Ute as well. The large man grabbed her slim shoulders and tried to calm her down.
"Où est-il?" He asked of the body.
She tugged at his arm and pulled, then gave up and retraced her path. He followed as a slower pace, and frowned when he came to the clearing by the simmering springs. A young man, whose emancipated state and pale, sunken features made him appear younger. The large trapper noted the shredded gray uniform and recalled hearing the War between the States had ended a few months ago. He squatted by the young man, who he judged to be anywhere from fifteen to twenty. He felt a pulse, weak but steady and laid a hand to the flushed face. He had a fever and his shorn head and bruises told the wise man he was from a prison maybe. He lifted the slight form effortlessly and carried him back to the cabin.
It was very late when he added more timber to the fire. He chuckled at his daughter's devotion to the boy. She'd not seen many white men that close up and was fascinated by him. She hadn't left his side since the Canadian placed him in front on the fire and stripped the filthy rags from his body. She bathed him and coached water and broth into him. She soothed his delirious calls and stroked his face tenderly. The lash welts on his back were inflamed and the cuts and festering wounds that covered him added to the feverish state. His ribs were showing, punctuating too many weeks, months perhaps without enough good food. He was stirring the pot of soup he'd carried to the table, when her gasp got his attention. He turned and saw the confused blue eyes, bluer than his own even, staring at her.
"Who...where..." The weak croak came.
"Bonjour, Mon Ami..." He boomed, dropping to the boy's side.
"Huh?...yer talkin' funny..."
"Oui...uh...yes...I am Jean Carboneau...you may call me Black Jack. This is my daughter Saguache. We found you two days ago...like a dead man, yes..." He paused and saw the eyes crossing again. Then he saw the boy look at his daughter and the face softened and a smile formed.
"Sa...wa..c....sa...say what?" He stumbled, "...I'm sorry..."
"Little Star...my own star of the heavens..." He bragged, kissing her forehead. He looked at both young faces and shook his head. Oh to be that young again.
"Vin...Tanner..." he fumbled, trying to find his hand under the pelts.
"You are in my home...in Pasoga, near the Springs. You have been very ill. You must eat." The older man relayed, shaking the weak hand.
He knew the thick French accent was hard for the boy to understand, and smiled at the concentrated effort. He gave Little Star the bowl and helped the weak boy sit. He supported the boy's slight frame, while she carefully spooned the rich venison broth into him. The herbal tea that followed, lulled him into a long sleep.
In the weeks that followed, he watched the boy's strength come back. The muscles long dormant, now fueled by food, began to thrive. He took Vin hunting and trapping, teaching him everything he knew. They talked of many things, and he found himself growing very attached to the quiet young man who held such sorrowful secrets. He soon found out the boy was a crack shot, and skilled in tracking. He learned of Vin's painful childhood and brief home with the Kiowa's before the war. He grinned as his young friend complained about the 'damn interferrin' blue bellies what snatched me from my kin...ain't no blue-eyed Indians my ass'. He'd escaped from the Calvary only to be claimed by the Confederates and later put in prison.
As the weeks turned into months, Black Jack saw the inevitable began to happen. Stolen kisses in the woods...long lingering glances...quiet walks after dinner. He liked this boy and didn't want to deny his daughter the happiness that shone in her eyes, but he recalled the promise he'd made to Gray Eagle, Little Star's grandfather. She was promised to Red Hawk, a fine strong, warrior who would one day be chief. He eyed the graying January sky, spilling with snow and sighed. He kissed he daughter on the forehead and joined his young friend. He eyed the brown curls, now shoulder length and laughed.
"You have such pretty hair..." He teased, his accent enhanced. "It's almost as long as Saguache's"
"I aim to keep it that way..." The boy growled, and he paused, seeing the deep hurt, "Ain't nobody touchin' it again."
He wondered what caused that look and recalled the boy's story of how first the 'damn interferin' bluebellies what took me' had held him down and cut off his long hair, when they'd 'rescued' him from the Kiowas. Then after it grew back, the Army prison guards had done the same thing, when they'd captured the fiesty Rebel. The storm came in faster than the planned and they were nearly finished their mornings work, when the attack came. The bear stood over twelve feet and he saw the boy eyeing his knife. The bear roared and charged. He moved swiftly, throwing himself against the young man. Out of nowhere there was a blur and a scream. He saw Vin scramble for the shotgun and fire. The angry bear, now wounded, turned from his playtoy and sought the moving target. Vin stumbled as the mighty paw swiped his chest. He watched as Vin rammed the barrel into the bears mouth and fired. He saw the body stand and closed his eyes, thanking his God.
He opened his eyes when he heard the anguished cry. It wasn't loud, rather barely audible, but the depth ripped at his dying heart. One hand was futilely trying to hold the large gaping hole in his stomach together. He felt the breath of the Death hovering and reached his other bloody hand up to touch the boy's tear streaked face.
"Do...not...weep...for...this...Old...Man..." He whispered.
"Yer a cold hearted bastard, ya know that...some twisted sense of humor of yers...up and dyin' on me..."
"You must promise...to take...Little Star...to...to..."
"I ain't takin' her nowhere. I love her...I aim t' marry her..."
"No...you cannot...she is promised...to another...Red Hawk...a great Ute warrior. Her grandfather...I gave my word...promise me, my friend...take her..." He begged and saw the solemn face dip once, in agreement. The last image he had as his white puffy breath danced in front of him, was those tortured blue eyes lost in the swirling snow.
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