Flashback by Jeanne

OW - Vin, Chris and OC's

My thanks to LaraMee for her encouragement; she more or less holds my hand when I'm doing a new story. My thanks also to Lynda who suggested Vin's adult Comanche name. She's always willing to help when I write.

This story was born out of the frustration by the line in the pilot where Chris asks if Vin was a buffalo hunter. Vin replies 'among other things'. This has always bothered me because anyone who lived with the Indians would never be a buffalo hunter, a person who slaughtered an animal sacred to Native Americans for only its hide. This could be one explanation to that line.

Warnings: There is a lot of violence done to a young Vin in this one. But this is NOT a LB story by any means and the violence done to Vin is bad. So I give it a FRT but late teen.

Notes: In some research I found that Appalachian children in the 1800's wore in the summer nothing but long tunics. Both boys and girls wore heavy belts with knifes and were barefoot. So the clothing I described for Vin and the two boys was pretty close to reality.

Not mine never will be but I do own the DVD's so in a way they're mine. This is for fun and no profit is made except for my experiences writing.

A big thanks to Chris for beta-ing for me. She did a wonderful job, any mistakes left are mine. Also a big thanks to LaraMee for the beautiful college she made.

Flashback - recall painful memory: to recall an intensely vivid memory of a traumatic experience.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner walked outside with a fresh cup of coffee in his hand. The dawn was crisp and cool before the days heat started. He leaned against the door still. Chris sat leaning back against the wall. He glanced up at the tracker, "Morning Pard."

"Mornin'." Vin took another sip of his coffee and looked down the street.

An old rickety wagon pulled by two scrawny mules slowly came down the road. Larabee noticed that Vin straightened slightly as he watched. Coming closer, he saw the wagon being driven by an ancient 'hider'. It wasn't until the two boys walking behind appeared that Vin let out a strangled sound. Chris glanced up frowning.

Vin looked like he'd been bled out and he leaned heavily against the door frame staring.


The tracker didn't say anything just stared at the two young boys for a heart beat and then let out another strangled sound and almost ran back inside and out the back door.

Chris's chair thumped as he stood looking more closely at the wagon. The two thin, scruffy boys wore long tunic type shirts with a belt and knife sheath. Their legs were bare, as were their feet.

Shaking his head, the gunman followed his friend. He found Vin in the back bent over, his body shaking from the dry heaves. "Vin? What's going on?"

Tanner just shook his head. He finally stood up gasping great gulps of air.

"Vin, talk to me."

"Can't....thought it was gone....I gotta get out of town."

Chris frowned, "Go to my place. I'll be out as soon as I can."

Vin looked at the gunslinger, his eyes saying what he couldn't voice. Nodding once he headed toward the livery. For once it didn't take long to saddle Peso and he spurred the horse into a run, leaving town like the fires of hell were after him.

He didn't let up until Peso was covered in a white lather. Then he only slowed long enough for the horse to blow and then speeded up again.

Once at Chris's place he unsaddled and turned his horse out and stumbled into the shack. With trembling hands he shut the door and pushed a chair against it.

Throwing off his hat and coat he began searching the cabin. Finally he found the unopened bottle of whisky behind some canned goods. He toed off his boots and sat heavily on the bed. Scooting back he thumbed at the seal with trembling hands.

Absently he reached down and rubbed his ankle. He felt the ridge of scar tissue even through the thick socks. Tearing off the seal and pulling the cork, he took several large gulps. Tears sprang to his eyes as the whisky burned past his tongue and throat and thudded into his stomach.

He tried to make the memories stop but they wouldn't. God help him, they wouldn't stop. He gulped down more whiskey.

When Vin didn't come out as he rode up Larabee knew something was wrong. He pushed his way into the shack scooting the chair out of the way. Vin didn't even move at his call. "Vin?"


Larabee walked over to the bed and sat down. He gently reached out and took the bottle from Tanner, "Vin? VIN?"

Wide shocky blue eyes wandered over to where Chris sat. Vin blinked once slowly and then again. With a strangled voice, he said, "Chris?"

"Yeah. What's going on Cowboy? What happened in town? What'd you see?"

"Ghosts. My ghost." Tanner stopped and licked his lips. His now empty hand went to the scar ridge on his ankle and began rubbing it.

Chris waited hoping Vin would start talking. Finally in a dead voice Tanner started. "I's around thirteen I think, when the bluecoats took me from the People. I told you once a little about that but I didn't tell you...they...they kept me in a cage for maybe two m-months and then they sold me."


The old hider drove his wagon into the fort. Half fort, half trading post it was the only place to get supplies within a hundred miles. He climbed down and glanced at the two young men climbing out of the back of the huge wagon. "Clint, go start getting them supplies. Dub ya stay with me." The slighter man nodded and headed toward the store, while Dub stood and watched. The large round face was devoid of expression drool running down his chapped chin.

"Come on boy, let's see if ol' Jack's got ya a new pet."

The old buffalo hunter pounded on the heavy wooden door. It opened just enough for the man inside to see out. "Open up Jack, we come to see if ya had me some new help."

The corporal opened the door wider and looked around outside before he let the two inside. Jack talked as he led the hider through the building and out back where there were several open air cells. "We got this boy away from the Comanch a couple of months ago. He's a tough little bastard. Don't know if he doesn't remember or just won't, but we ain't got him to speak one white word the whole time he's been here. We took him down, shaved his head and dressed him proper but the minute we put him in the cell he takes everything off and throws it in a pile. After a couple of weeks fighting him we gave up. Figured once it got cold he'd have to put something on. Still fights us whenever anyone comes close."

The corporal stopped and pointed inside one of the cells. Crouched in the far corner was a figure. His skin was multicolored with bruises under the deep tan. His knees were drawn up and his arms crossed over them. The head lay on the arms facing away but they could see the half- healed cuts and bruises through the stubble that was growing on the boy's head. The man/child didn't move even though he heard them coming.

Bob Hicks spit a stream of tobacco juice into the cell. "No one claim him?"

"Nope, major sent notices all over Texas. Don't reckon he's got any decent folks left."

"How old ya reckon he is?"

The corporal twisted his face thinking. "Hard to say. He ain't got no man hair yet, but he lost any baby fat he ever had."

Hicks nodded. "He'll take a powerful lot of taming, being wild like he is. How much ya want fer him?

"He's strong - oncet you tame him, he'll pay for hisself. Besides he's the onlyest one we got."

The old man whistled, "Hey! Boy! Look at me, boy."

The head rose slowly one eye was completely swollen shut but the other blue eye looked at him with such hatred that it made Hicks want to back up. Instead he snorted, "He's a wild one all right. Throw in a set of leg shackles and ya got a deal."

The corporal nodded. "Got just the pair. Be here tomorrow before dawn. Your boys will have to help me get them on him."

Hicks nodded. "We'll be here. Come on, Dub. We'll get yur new pet tomorrow."

The giant grinned and followed the old man out.

Jack watched them go and the turned toward the boy. Maliciously he said, "Yer one in a long line of 'pets' I've sold to that old man. You better pray you learn fast or that hider and the dimwit will bury you."

He laughed as he heard the boy start to cuss. He knew it was cussing because of the tone of voice. Before he closed the door he called back. "Ol' Hick'll break ya of that. He hates more than anything Injun talk."

Vin Tanner laid his head back down on his arms. He'd forbid himself to cry or give into the white devils. But if he understood the words he'd heard he was sold like a stray dog to the man who stunk of death. Despair filled him and he softly began singing his death song. Everyone he'd ever cared about was gone, he wanted only to join them. Now he was condemned to being sold to the hated hiders.

+ + + + + + +

They came in the chill of pre dawn, the lantern the corporal carried casting long shadows on everything. The three men entered the cell. The old hider, a young one and the giant from yesterday spread out cornering the boy. Vin slowly stood, his knees slightly bent, arms hanging loose. He watched each of his enemies looking for an opening. Carefully the three moved closer to him and closer to each other.

The old man spoke, "Make it easy on yerself boy. Yer coming with us one way or 'ther."

Vin sneered, "I'll never surrender to you! I am Two Ponies of the Red Hill People," he said in Comanche.

"Boy, don't never use that heathen talk around me. Get him, Dub, Time's a wasting."

The giant smiled, and faster than Vin thought possible the man grabbed him, flipping him around and pinning his arms in a bear hug. He squeezed tighter and tighter until Vin saw stars and thought all his ribs were going to break. He gasped for air but couldn't seem to suck any in. His vision faded to darkness and the sounds he heard were far, far away. He was vaguely aware of something happening to him but it was so far away it didn't seem to matter.

Tanner woke to the motion, the stumble bump of an old wagon. Each lurch aggravated the bruises and when he tried to move to roll over he found he couldn't. His arms were stretched above his head and some kind of cloth covered his face.

With the next bump he tried drawing his legs up. But while he could move them it was as if they were weighted down. Another bump and a groan escaped his tightly pressed lips. Then he felt something pat the top of his head.

Pat! Pat!

Then it would stop. But with the next bump, pat, pat, pat. It felt like a hand, a large hand. Memory came rushing back to him of the giant man holding him, and squeezing him until he could no longer breathe.

On and on the wagon moved. No one spoke; the only sound was the squeak of the wheels and the plop of the hooves of the animals that pulled the wagon. The other constant was the incessant patting and occasional rub up or down his arm, all the more terrifying because he couldn't see anything through the cloth that fluttered over his face.

Vin could see the light change as the day matured. It was shadowy before the wagon stopped. He felt his arms drop and someone pulled him out of the wagon where he fell in a heap in the dirt. Pins and needles ran through his arms and legs and he gasped for air trying to stifle the pain. Sitting up slowly he saw the old scruffy boots.

"Get up boy. Ya got work to do." The gruff voice of the old man commanded. When Vin didn't move, the swish of a short whip followed by the sting as it fell across his back.

Slowly Tanner stood, looking up into the old man's face.

The old man held out a canteen. "Thirsty, boy? All you have to do is say 'water'."

Vin eyed the canteen, the tip of his tongue running over dry lips. He looked up at the man and set his lips tight in defiance.

Hicks laughed. "Yer a tough one, that's for sure. But hear me boy, I'm tougher. You, ya little shit are going to learn that. I know ya understand me boy. Iffin' ya want to eat ye'll do yer work. Start gathering firewood. Don't think of runnin' cause ya can't," Hicks kicked at the heavy chain that connected the shackles around Vin's ankles. " These will slow ya down. Now git." The old man turned and didn't give Vin a second look.

The boy stared after the hider and down at his feet. Heavy iron shackles encircled his ankles with a chain between them. He raised one bare foot and then the other testing the weight.

From behind him he heard the swish of the short whip and a whispered voice. "Get to it, piece of shit, or ye'll get a taste of my rose."

Vin looked around at the young thin man. The brown eyes blazed with hatred, and the short whip whistled again. The boy fought not to jump and staring at the man turned and began his search for firewood.

It was a desolate place they'd stopped at and wood was scarce. Vin stumbled learning how to take short steps dragging the heavy chain with each step. He could feel the iron bands rub his ankles with each step. Trip after weary trip he walked to the campsite carrying arm loads of wood. He hated each pulled step, hated the long tunic style shirt that had been put on him. Every trip, every armload ended with a whistle from the rose. The blow stung across his back or bare legs. He wasn't allowed to stop until well after moon rise.

Dropping the latest arm load of wood and trying to catch his breath eh heard the old man say, "That's enough boy. Get over by the wagon. Dub, ya fasten him good."

Vin felt the large man's hand on his arm and tried to shake it off. But Dub's hold tightened like a vice. He half dragged the boy to the back wheel of the wagon and pushed him down.

Kneeling beside Tanner he pulled a long rawhide thong from beneath his shirt. Grasping the key in one hand he grabbed Vin's foot with the other. The mute unlocked the shackle and relocked it to the top wagon spoke. Once that was done he reached out and patted Vin on the head and ran his hand down Vin's arm. His smile made Vin shudder.

Clint came over and stood beside the others. "Ya get to eat when you say its name. Say food."

Never! The boy said to himself but the cramps in his stomach said a different thing. How long hand it been, two days, three?

Clint kicked the free leg, "Say it, nice and loud."

Glowering Vin said 'food' in Comanche. Throwing the plate down, screaming, Clint brought the rose up and across Vin's chest and back again and again. "Never use that savage jabber again. Ya hear? Never. Only words come out of yer mouth better be white man's words." Each word was punctuated with another blow from rose.

"'Nuff, Clint!"

At the sound of the old man's voice Clint stopped, turning he walked away. He left the boy in a huddle, his thin arms protectively wrapped around his head.

Dub crouched down beside the boy and reaching out patted him on the head. Then he left.

Tanner lay barely breathing, not daring to move, his body on fire from the welts left by the whip. The stings of the whipping almost made him forget the ache in his belly.

Vin tried to go to sleep but he jumped at every sound and he had started shivering from the evening cold. His whole body trembled. He scooted closer to the wheel to ease the pull of the still manacled ankle. Dub had set the other shackle so high that the other foot wouldn't quite reach the ground.

After a time he heard someone come over and tensed waiting. Looking up he saw Dub who held out a couple of dry biscuits and in the other hand was a blanket.

Vin reached for the biscuits and ate them in three bites. His stomach rumbled and growled worse after that. Dub tried to drape the old horse blanket around Vin's shoulders and he reached out and patted his head. Vin started and pulled away from the halfwit.

Dub frowned for a minute and then reached under his coat. He pulled out a small canteen and swished the water inside.

At the sound of the water Vin's head snapped around. He was dry, but hadn't realized how dry until he heard the water. Now after the dry biscuits he was even thirstier than he'd thought.

The boy held up a hand and reached for the canteen, only to have the mute pull back. Then grinning Dub held up the canteen with one hand and made a stroking motion with the other.

Tanner hesitated only a moment before reaching again for the water. The other made the stroking motion again and Vin nodded once. Taking the canteen he tried not to gulp the water but to drink it slowly and carefully so he wouldn't lose it.

Once the canteen was dry Dub took it back and then slid closer. He first patted the top of the boy's head. Then his hand stroked down the neck and the back, over and over until he fell asleep.

Vin shuddered and sighed when it stopped. He knew the giant wasn't right in the head. Told himself that it meant no more than a dog or a rabbit being petted. But he wasn't a dog, he was a man and he hated these people as much as he hated the blue coats.

Somehow he slept because he was jerked awake with a kick, "Get up shit, ya got work to do." His leg was jerked out and the shackle fastened around his ankle once again. He was lifted up and pushed toward the mules.

"Clean 'em up and grain 'em. When yer done wait here until I say ya can move." Clint pushed Vin in the direction of the animals.

Catching himself before he fell he limped over to the mules and began currying them. He stood by the mules while they ate preferring their company to the men around the campfire. His stomach growled at the smell of the cooking bacon and his mouth watered so he had to swallow repeatedly the saliva that gathered there. He leaned tiredly against the tall mule, trying to ignore his surroundings.

After the men finished and put out the fire Clint called again. "Get over here and start loading this into the wagon. Move boy, or ye'll taste the rose again." The man flicked the whip to emphasize his words.

Sighing Vin stumbled over and started loading the heavy boxes. They were heavy enough that they taxed the boy's strength to his limits. He was panting and leaning heavily against the wagon by the time he finished. He was shaking all over from the strain when Dub came up behind him and lifting him, tossed Vin into the wagon.

The mute climbed into the wagon with Vin and once the wagon was moving he handed the boy a biscuit with some half raw bacon in it. Grabbing it Vin wolfed it down and then took the canteen that the giant offered. He nearly lost what he'd eaten when Dub started his incessant petting again.

"I fought 'em Chris. I fought 'em tooth an' nail. Didn't do no good. We traveled for more 'n a week I reckon. I don't 'member much, 'cept being hungry an' hurting and bein' so scared I didn't know nothing ' cept fightin' 'em. I guess I just thought I'd die only they's real good at not killin' me. Didn't break nothing neither." Shame crept into the tracker's voice, "I should have fought them harder."

The afternoon had turned cold and blustery as they traveled the last mile. The teen hobbled behind the wagon watching the ground. He'd learned from experience that if he tripped or fell the wagon wouldn't stop and he'd be dragged until he somehow regained his feet.

The hunger of barely enough had retreated into a dull constant ache as his mind shut down and refused to grasp reality. He saw things, people that were no longer alive. All of them calling to him, asking something he couldn't quite hear.

He bumped into the halted wagon. Looking up he saw they were in the yard of a sod house. There was a well and a small barn and corral. The cold wind flung grit into his eyes as he tried to see where they were. He felt the rawhide rope around his wrists loosen and his arms fell to his sides. He jumped as a voice spoke close to him.

"Get over to the well and start pumping water for the mules."

Vin blinked at where Clint pointed. He had no idea what he was supposed to do or what exactly a 'well' was. A memory came to him as he walked closer to the contraption. He saw an older white haired man pumping the handle and water splashing out. A childish voice echoed in his head.

Me Grandpa, me, let me. Let me carry the bucket."

Over the memory came the harsh voice, "Get busy ya little shit or rose will hurry ya along."

Vin took another hesitant step forward and gingerly touched the handle. He took the pump handle and tried to move it. But it wouldn't budge. He tried harder until a cuff to the head sent him sprawling.

"Ya stupid shit, don't ya know nothing. Ya have to prime the pump." Clint took the jar that was beside the pump and opening it carefully poured the water over the 'workings' and moved the handle until it went up and down easily. "Get busy and do as yer told. Fill the trough and them barrels over there."

Vin spit out the blood that had collected in his mouth and again put his hands on the pump. Up! Down! Up! Down! Until he thought his arms would fall off. The mules drank their fill and were turned into the corral. Buckets of water were filled and carried into the soddy by Dub and still the large trough wasn't filled.

Up, down, up, down. The rhythm was all Vin was aware of until big hands stopped him and jerked on his arm. Vin looked up at the man that was pulling and wearily followed Dub inside.

The soddy was small with the only light coming from the fire in the fireplace. There was a crude table and three stools and three horse hair cots. By the hearth there were several crate shelves with cooking items on them.

Dub led the boy to the far corner away from the door and the fire. He pointed to a pile of musty old blankets and pushed Vin toward them. The halfwit placed a heavy hand on the boy's shoulder pressing down. He took the lead and looped it around a peg above the giants head, leaving Vin enough slack to lie down.

The boy scooted as tightly as he could into the corner and watched. He waited for what would come next.

The three seldom talked, but worked with long practice of being together. Soon they were eating as the table. Vin's mouth watered at the smell and his stomach growled loudly. Once the three were finished Dub scraped what was left onto a tin plate and took it over toward Vin. He held it up and waited. Clint stood behind and to the side of Dub.

"Say it boy, nice and loud." Clint said looking at Vin smiling like a cat ready to pounce.

Vin opened his mouth but it took several tries to get sound past his bruised lips." Food. Eat. Me." He rasped out.

Dub grinned and handed Vin the plate. The boy leaned forward and grabbed it. He scooted back and used his fingers to scoop the meat and potato chucks into his mouth. The food was gone before his hunger was satisfied and he licked the plate clean and sucked his fingers trying to get just a little more. Still he felt hollow, and he watched fearfully as the giant took the plate and then crawled over beside him.

The old man nodded, "Ya been a good boy today, Dub. Ye can have yer time with yer pet. Jest remember don't hurt him too bad. He's got work to do tomorrow."

Vin tried to pull away. He hated Dub, hated being pawed by him; hated the nightly pets, the idiot's grin, the drool that sometimes fell on him. He didn't want to be touched. Fighting usually resulted in a beating and being choked down until he couldn't fight any more. Yet still he resisted trying to back away from those hands, trying to push them away. He fought until an open handed slap knocked the breath from him and he was pulled over onto the idiot's lap. Hands ran from his head down his back over and over. His own arms and hands pinned under him so he couldn't move. Still he wiggled and tried to get away until a heavy hand slammed into the small of his back, making him grunt in pain. After that he couldn't move, he simply endured.

Finally it stopped and he was allowed to crawl back to the corner. The fire was banked and the others snored from their cots. The teen squeezed his eyes closed and tried to shut out the sounds.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke from the sharp pain of a kick. He grunted and scrambled to a sitting position as the second kick came.

"Get up ya lazy shit. Ya got work to do."

Vin looked around the room. There was no one there but Clint.

"Git outside and start pumping water. Don't stop less I tell ya to." The man growled as he untied the tether on Vin's wrist.

Vin stumbled outside and paused for a split second to look around. It wasn't even light yet and the early morning chill made him shiver.

The rose whistled and landed on Vin's back. "Move!"

Winching from the blow but saying nothing Vin limped to the pump. To his dismay the huge trough was almost empty. He grasped the icy handle and began pumping.

Water splashed into the trough, sending an icy spray onto Vin's bare legs. Tremors from the cold ran through his body. The boy watched Dub come over and dip a bucket into the trough scooping up water and then emptying the water into a large barrel. Eventually the exercise warmed Vin enough that he stopped shivering. His arms felt like they were going to fall off and still the trough wasn't full.

He watched as Dub took what looked like a rolled up buffalo hide and pushed it down into the water weighing it down with something large to keep it under water. Then he did the same to a second one.

While the hides soaked the large man took buckets of water to the corral and watered the mules. That done he dumped the water from the first barrel and began filling it again.

It was almost midday before Vin was allowed to stop pumping. His arms ached and his stomach growled. But he wasn't allowed to move away from the pumps. Finally Clint and the old man came from the barn carrying two frames.

"Watch close boy. 'Cause from now on ya'll be doing this." Clint said as they stretched the hide on the frame. Once it was secure Clint said, "Get over here boy."

Vin hobbled over. Clint handed him a scraping tool. He more or less recognized it because it was similar to the one his Mother and sisters used.

"Ya'll start scraping the hide. Ya get every last bit of salt and offal from it. Ya punch holes in the hide, the rose will teach ya to be more careful."

Vin took the tool and eyed the hide. It leaned against a fence in a stretching frame and the boy had to stretch on tip toe to reach the top. He began scraping. This was considered woman's work and he hadn't much practice. Off came bits of fat and flesh as he worked. Salty water ran down his arm, the salt stinging the raw rings on his wrists. As he got lower he could kneel and then sit, relieving his aching legs and back. He tried to be careful but still the tender hide broke in several places.

It was mid afternoon when Clint walked by looking at the almost finished hide. The teen had done a good job for his first one. There were fewer breaks than he thought, but he had to be punished. Hides with even small holes were worth less. He pointed each break to the boy before he used the rose. The thin shirt was no protection against the singing leather strap. The man smiled as the boy cringed and occasionally a faint cry came from him.

With the last stroke of the whip he grabbed Vin's arm and jerked him up and pushed him to the second hide. "Get busy. Ya still gotta oil these two 'afore ya get to quit."

The three men went about their own work expecting fear of another beating and hunger would keep their new boy working, as they didn't seem to watch him closely. When Vin was finished with the second hide Clint came over. "Rub this oil into each hide. As much as they'll hold." He handed the boy a jug.

Tanner poured some into his palm and started rubbing it into the freshly scrapped hide. He kept going between the hides until Dub came and grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the soddy.

He blinked hard. He hadn't noticed it had gotten dark. Once inside he was pushed to his corner. Gratefully he sank down onto the pile of rags, sighing softly at the warm air and the relief of resting. Tiredly he watched as the others ate. Dub again stood and scrapped what was left into a tin plate and brought it over and waited.

Vin swallowed and tried to find his unused voice. "Food. Eat. Me," he said. It wasn't much but he ate every bite and licked the plate clean. Then he curled into the corner as tight as he could and prayed that tonight the halfwit wouldn't bother him.

In the stillness his hands began to cramp. He rubbed them together trying to ease the cramp. He froze, feeling the mute coming closer. Dub dropped to his knees and sitting hard he pulled Vin closer. He took the boys hands and began massaging them. It didn't take long for the sore muscles to ease and Vin started to relax. Then Dub pulled him closer still and started petting him again.

Vin's hair was growing, just enough for it to catch in the man's rough hands. After several snags Dub grabbed a handful and jerked hard.

Tanner's hands flew up to protect his scalp. The angered idiot started slapping at the boys hands. Vin instinctively tried to curl into a ball trying to protect himself. Open hands became fists and Vin grunted in pain.

After several hard blows the old man said, "That's enough Dub. Ya hurt him and he can't work we'll have to put him down. Then ya'll have to do his work, too."

The big man quit as suddenly as he started and without a glace back went to his bed. He was snoring as soon as he lay down.

Tanner didn't relax until he heard all the others snoring too. He hurt so bad but was afraid to move lest he wake his tormentors.

+ + + + + + +

The days blended together with sameness. Up before dawn and working straight through until after dark. His hands cracked and bled from the cold and salt water, the only relief the oils he rubbed into the hides.

One morning there was a dusting of snow on the ground and the air was still and frozen. Before he could get up, the old man spoke.

"Dub, take them shackles off him and give him this to wear."

Tanner watched in the dim firelight as Dub fished the key from under his shirt. Taking the shackles off, he handed Vin some wool pants and a wool shirt.

The old man spoke again, "Take that shirt off and put on them pants. We'll leave them shackles off. But if you try to run, we'll weld them on ya and they'll never come off. Ya understand me boy?"

Vin nodded and said, "I understand."

The shirt and pants were too big, the sleeves hanging past his hands and the legs puddling over his feet. He hastily rolled both up to keep them from getting wet.

Once outside the wool was some protection against the chilling wind but he still shivered until his blood warmed from pumping the water. The cold seeping into his bones through his bare feet made it worse, especially when the snow melted under his feet.

This day he spent kneading the hides, rolling them between his hands and adding more oil as he worked until the skins were soft and supple. At least they let him work on the leeside of the soddy so that the freezing wind didn't get to him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was pumping water like he did every morning, for his whole life it seemed he'd stood in the morning pumping water. Clint walked toward him. Inwardly he cringed and looked down. His back was still raw for the beating he'd received yesterday. The man had been in such a foul mood that he'd forbidden Dub to feed Vin and sent the idiot to bed with out his nightly petting.

"Dub's saddling the mules - come with me, breed."

"I got a name. My name is uah puuku (Two Ponies)." Vin spoke under his breath. He hadn't meant for the hider to hear.

But he did, and like a snake striking he turned and backhanded the boy knocking him to the ground.

Vin stood spitting blood. This time Tanner looked the hider in the eye. "I got a name," he said again.

Clint raised his hand to strike, "No, you don't. Listen close, piece of shit. You're Dub's 'pet'

And since Dub can't talk you ain't got no name." Clint struck knocking Vin down again. The man bent over the boy, "Don't never talk back again or I'll cut your tongue out, just like Dub. Now get up." He waited until Vin was standing and grabbed the teen's arm forcing him to follow him to where Dub stood holding the shackles.

Vin had never noticed the door that now stood open over a hole in the ground. Clint tightened his grip until his nails dug into the boy's arm.

"Put them on him!" he ordered the mute.

Vin stared at the hated irons. "Why? Not run." He blurted out.

Clint smiled showing his black crooked teeth, "We're goin' huntin'. You're staying here, ....in there."

Dub snapped the second shackle shut and Clint pushed Vin down into the dark hole. He fell to the earthen floor several steps below the surface. As he looked up he dodged the two canteens thrown down beside him and a small cloth bag. Then the door was slammed shut.

"No!" the boy whispered. He quickly scrabbled up the steps to the door. He pushed against it with his shoulder but it wouldn't move. There were cracks in the wood that let a small amount of light seep through. Vin turned and looked at his small prison. Standing on the floor he could stretch his arms out and touch the sides. Reaching up above his head he could touch the ceiling.

He reached the back wall with four paces. Sighing he lowered himself down to the frigid earth and crawled over to the canteens. He picked up the cloth bag and pulling the draw string felt the content inside. It was jerky, several large pieces of jerky.

He gathered the old blankets and piled them in the hopes of insulating himself against the cold.

He then pulled the sack of jerky to him and reached in taking out a small piece. He put a smaller piece in his mouth and chewed slowly, never taking his eyes off the streak of light in the door.

Taking a deep breath he looked around his prison once again. Over in the far corner was a bucket. Raising and shuffling over to it he examined it with his hands and eyes. It was a slop bucket. He lifted the lid, relieved himself and went back to his pile of blankets. He pulled the top one up and around his shoulders.

The light faded to dark. If Vin looked very carefully he could see a single star. He sat shivering occasionally as the time passed in total silence. It was hard to fall asleep in the silence. He'd gotten use to the sounds of the others in the small soddy and found it hard to bear the quiet.

He woke and he knew it was close to dawn although it was still dark. His stomach growled and he began slowly chewing on another strip of jerky, pausing to sip the stale water from the canteen.

As the day lightened he explored his tiny prison more closely. By noon he started talking to himself. "Okay, Two Ponies, what is this place? Don't recall ever seeing it used before today. Maybe it's a place to store things. It's sure tight 'nuff to keep most critters out or in." He said with a snort.

It wasn't much comfort and he wasn't used to talking anymore. He answered questions with as few words as he could. The mean one didn't like it if he made too much noise. He'd learned quickly to endure the beatings in silence. If he cried out the beating was worse.

He lay down, curled up with the raggedy blanket pulled tight and blinked at the small streak of light. Some time later he started singing, softly without words, the songs his mother sang to him and the other children.

He hoped she'd survived the attack. He made a picture in his mind of the whole family sitting around the fire eating buffalo and squash and corn stew. The scene became so real he could feel the heat of the fire.

Then the tears tried to come. The tears he hadn't allowed to fall when the soldiers took him, when they'd beat him and shaved his head and taken his medicine pouch. The tears he'd held back when he'd been sold and more beatings came, when his hands and feet cracked open and bled from the salt water and cold. He blinked hard, gritting his teeth to stop them, to show no weakness even in this dark lonely place.

His mother looked at him, her dark eyes shining with love. The dark eyes turned blue and instead of shiny black hair there was light brown curls. "Ma?"


"Please Ma, let me come to you. Help me Ma."

"My sweet son. You've grown so. You're a man now. A Tanner, never forget that. You're Vin Tanner. This is only for a short time. A test. You have made your pa and me so proud. Hold on Vin, and remember who you are."

"I will Ma. I miss you, stay with me."

"I'm always with you, Vin Tanner. Now go to sleep. Rest."

Vin slept. When he woke it was morning again. He reached for more jerky but found the sack empty. "Just as well, 'm stomach's gripping me anyhow." He sipped on the last of his water instead, trying to make it last. He leaned against the dirt wall picking at it with a finger nail. It was hard and didn't crumble but he picked anyway. Vin wouldn't let himself think about how small the space was. How full the bucket was getting. How badly he wanted out. At least working on the hides was out in the open.

He drifted to a sunny day when he was riding his pony, the lazy summer afternoon when the sun shone warmly on his back, he was content. He was accepted and had gone on his first raid last week. The pinto he'd captured walked slowly grabbing bits of the high prairie grass, the other one following him. They were his by right and soon he knew he'd get more until he had a bride price. He smiled thinking of the pretty young girls. Which one would he choose to be his woman?

Abruptly the clatter of the door falling open made him jump and his mouth went dry at the hated familiar voice. "Get yer ass up here. Ya got work to do 'afore dark."

Vin crawled up and out shielding his eyes against the bright sun. They were back. He almost wished he'd died in that hole rather than face his owners again.

"Get over there an' skin that antelope," Clint ordered, pointing, "be careful about it. I fancy me a new antelope coat."

The teen stumbled at the drag of the shackles but by the time he got to the animal Dub had hung the field dressed carcass. The mute handed Vin a knife blade, the handle had been broken off. He looked down at the blade in his hand imagining plunging it into Dub's heart. The all too familiar whistle of the rose brought him out of his revelry as he stepped forward and began skinning the small buck.

Once the hide was removed Clint and Dub took the meat to the shady side of the barn and hung it. Vin was left to scrape and clean the hide. With growing tunnel vision he carefully scrapped any fat or flesh off. Working one particularly nice piece free he popped it into his mouth and swallowed it without chewing. He waited to see if his stomach would rebel at the fresh raw meat. It grumbled and rolled but he kept it down. He kept working past dark finishing the first stages of tanning by moonlight. Clint had brought a small barrel for him to put the hide in to soak once he finished scraping it. It would soak for several days until the hair started to come off, then Vin would scrape it clean and begin working in the oils to make the hide soft and pliable.

+ + + + + + +

The weak winter sun shone and with no chilling wind it felt just this side of warm. Vin sat working on a hide. One end he held in place with his bare feet while he pulled and kneaded the other end making the leather smooth and pliable. He had been working on the hide since he'd finished with the pump in the morning. None of the others were around. He'd somehow gotten extra to eat the night before so his belly wasn't cramping from hunger. Clint had been in a good mood and Vin figured he hadn't been beaten in at least two days, maybe three.

The pull-tug rhythm was comforting and it lent itself to a song his mother use to sing while she worked the hides. Unbidden the song came to him and he softly began singing. His lips barely moving as he worked and sang. Suddenly he felt hard fingers digging in his scalp pulling his head back by his hair. The old man's voice was screaming in his ear.

"Ya crazy bastard, ya piece of crap. How many times we gotta tell ya not to use that savage gibberish. Ya ain't fit to be around decent folk with that injun screeching coming out of ya." Each word was punctuated with a punch or a slap.

Vin reached up trying to get away. One punch landed on his temple making everything go black for a second.

Hicks was an old man with deceptive strength. He dragged the struggling teen over to the trough and lifting him slightly pushed the boy's head under the icy water.

Tanner struggled against the hold. He fought coughing out the water he'd sucked in when he'd first felt the freezing liquid.

Hicks pulled Vin's head out of the water allowing him a second to sputter and cough before he plunged the boy under water again. A second time Vin was pulled out of the water and there was no struggle against the cruel hands, the old man shaking him like a dog shakes its prey.

"No wonder no one ever claimed ya. Ya ain't fit to be claimed. Ye're worthless, stupid, been ruint by them savages. I'll teach ya to use that heathen talk."

Vin weakly tried to break free of the tight hold but the shock of the coldwater and gasping to fill his water clogged lungs was all he could manage. Then before he could get a good breath he was underwater again.


Hick's toothless mouth snapped shut.

Clint stormed over kicking the teen out of his way breaking the old man's hold. Tanner slipped out of the water and fell to the ground curling tightly into a ball. He gasped and coughed trying to free his lungs of the water.

"Leave him, Pa. Ya kill him we ain't got no one to work the hides. I'll take care of him. Make sure he won't do it again." Clint said grabbing the old man's arm. "Let me and my rose take care of him."

The old man looked down at the huddled gasping boy and spat, then without a word walked away.

Clint swung the whip, slashing across the boy's shoulders. "I don't know what ya done to up set him like that, but ya'll regret it." Again and again the whip fell. Vin covered his head and tender areas from the lash. His whole body shook violently from the cold water soaked shirt and the pain of the beating. Finally Clint tired. He reached down and grabbing Vin's arm began dragging him, "He's right you ain't fit to be around decent folk. Maybe a day or two in the cellar will teach you your place."

Vin pulled back, "no...please..."

Clint grinned cruelly. "What's the matter? The white Comanch scared of being locked in a cellar? Too bad, maybe ye'll learn your place faster this way." He jerked Vin hard enough that the teen thought his arm would break. He stumbled as he was pulled along still pulling against the strong hand that squeezed his arm. His stomach knotted when he could see the gaping black hole that was the entrance to the cellar.

With a backhanded blow that stunned the boy Clint threw him down the steps and slammed the door closed, the latch making a resounding hollow thud as it locked.

Vin lay still gasping his eyes squeezed shut. He tried to calm his breathing, calm his mind. He shivered from his wet shirt and the pain across his back. He lay wishing he could pass out or just fall asleep so he couldn't feel the walls closing in. They were so near...there wasn't any air...he couldn't breathe. Looking up his eyes fixed on the beam of light streaming though the small hole.

Reaching up he stood never looking away until he was as near to the light as he could get. He gulped great breaths of air until his heart calmed and the new set of hurts made themselves known. Strips of fire crisscrossed his back, legs, and upper arms. The side of his face ached where the old man had hit him with a fist.

He slowly pulled the dripping wool shirt over his head and hung it on a root sticking out from the wall. He shuffled to the back of the cellar and wrapped himself in the musty blankets. He was so cold he knew he must be blue. His body shivered uncontrollably trying to warm itself. Finally the shivering slowed and by dark it stopped. He wasn't warm but he wasn't as cold as at the beginning. He waited but no one came. Vin dozed but couldn't really sleep.

The sun rose and arched through the sky. The beam of light changed as time passed and no one came. This time there were no canteens of water, no sack of jerky.

Vin stood the morning of the second day and slipped the still damp shirt on. Then he wrapped the blankets around him again waiting for the chilled wool to warm.

By the third day he stopped thinking, great stretches of time were lost, the boy unaware of the passing time. He simple stared at the light beam and rocked back and forth. Thirst and hunger had ceased to bother him. He simply waited.

Two Ponies stood alone in the summer prairie grass. He'd been tracking...something. He and the others young warriors had been given a task. He remembered that much but he frowned trying to remember what he was suppose to be doing. Looking around he was all alone, not even his horse was there. It was then he heard the shrill call of a falcon.

The Peregrine sailed in the sky and landed in front of the teen. A bird meant for the sky it seemed awkward and off balance walking on the ground. But it came closer.

"Greetings, Little Brother."

"Greetings, Falcon," Vin answered politely.

"You have come a long way Two Ponies."

Vin looked around. He knew this place. It was near where his people camped in the

Summer. "I do not understand Falcon. I know this place."

The Peregrine turned his head from side to side. "This is a place you have come to in your mind. This is no longer a real place."

"Yes it is. We're camped just over that rise."

"Are you sure?"

Two Ponies could feel his heart begin to pound.

"What is over the rise?" the bird asked.

The teen's mind filled with gun shots and smoke, screams and blood. He groaned, "No, please...I can't...I can't... no more."

"Listen to me Little Brother, your time of trial is upon you. The Spirits test sorely those they would honor. There will be more trials and you will despair many times. I tell you to hold fast to the teachings of your People. You will be rewarded in the end. But you must persevere."

Two Ponies didn't understand. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

The door to the cellar slammed open bringing Vin back to himself.

A voice called down. "Come out ya piece of shit. Ya got work to do."

Vin slowly stood on shaky legs. He reached out to the wall to steady himself as he shuffled toward the light. As he emerged Clint grabbed him by the hair jerking back his head.

"I hope you learned your lesson."

"Yes," Vin whispered looking down to the ground refusing to look at his tormentor.

The hider roughly pushed the teen toward his work area. "Git to work, an' watch what comes out of yer mouth or I'll make sure ya never talk again."

Vin stumbled toward the pile of hides waiting. He ignored the cramps in his belly. He was so glad to be outside in the sunshine and to feel the wind on his face again. He vowed to himself he'd never again make unnecessary sounds. He'd answer direct questions with as few words as possible. He clamped his mouth shut with resolve.

+ + + + + + +

It was hot even thought it was still early morning. Vin kept pumping water even though the sweat ran down his face he couldn't stop. He'd reach up with one arm or the other and wipe the stinging water from his face with the damp sleeve of the long tunic he wore again. He watched as the others hitched the mule team to the wagon. Then they loaded the wagon with supplies.

Finally Clint turned to Vin with a cruel smile. "Get over here," he ordered.

Vin stopped pumping and walked over to stand before the man. He looked at the ground his head bowed; gut clinching in anticipation of what was coming.

Grabbing the teen's arm tight enough to bruise Clint pulled him toward the hated cellar. "We're going on a hunting trip. Ya'll wait for us here."

Vin eyed the hole in the ground. His heart began to race. He started shaking his head. "No, I help on trail. I work hard."

Clint laughed, "No, we ain't got time putting up with Dub's nonsense and always keeping an eye on ya to keep ya from running."

His breathing becoming short Vin gasped out, "I not run, I work hard."

"Sure you would kid!" Clint said as he pushed Vin down into the cellar. Then before the teen could stand up he threw in the familiar sack of jerky and the canteens of water. "Make it last boy, don't know when we'll be back." Then the hider slammed the cellar door down and latched it.

He stood listening until he heard the half sobbed groan from the dark. Smiling to himself he walked away.

Vin collapsed on the pile of rags in the back of the cellar. It was marginally cooler inside but it still meant it was hot. While the air was breathable now he knew the stench would become almost unbearable as the days passed. He reached out and gathered the three canteens and the sack of jerky. It was good it didn't take much to fill him up, the trouble being that the salt used to cure it would make him even thirstier. So the less he ate the longer the water would last. Sitting against the far wall he leaned into the cool dirt and let his mind drift, always keeping his eye on the hole in the door.

It was big enough he could get two fingers through it now. It was his life line to the outside. He watched the days pass until he lost any sense of time. He was out of water, had been for days? he didn't know how long. He felt if he were outside in the wind he'd blow away like fall leaves. He didn't even sweat anymore.

Bright light flashed followed by earth shaking thunder. Over and over coming closer and louder as it moved. Tanner watched with vague interest until it registered somewhere deep inside him that there was rain, dripping down through the holes in the door, making wet spots on the earthen floor.

Slowing raising up to his hands and knees he shakily crawled forward. Dry tongue ran across dryer lips. Shaking hand reaching out and touching the damp spot convinced that it would disappear when he touched it. But it didn't and a drop fell on the top of his hand. He stared at it long enough for several more drops to fall. Slowly he lifted the hand until he could lick the moisture off.

Water! It was truly water. The teen struggled to stand and pull him self up to where the rain dropped into his open waiting mouth. It was raining hard now and the drops had become a steady stream. Forcing himself to stop gulping the water, Vin stumbled over and grabbing the empty canteens held them under the stream, trying to capture as much of the water as he could. After each canteen filled he took another drink. Finally with all three filled he simply stood under the stream and let it run over him. He reached up and ran his hand over his head. The short stubble was the result of the shearing given him when the weather warmed and they'd given him the long tunic to wear again.

Dub had held him a bear hug preventing the boy from fighting as Clint took the long bladed sheep shears and hacked off the winter's growth.

"Can't have ya harboring any critters now can we? 'Specially since we share sleeping quarters."

Vin had learned quickly to be very still. Clint was not careful and didn't seem to care when the shears cut scalp as well as hair. The blood ran down his neck and Dub leaned down and sucked it off. Tanner froze at the feel of the idiot's lips and Clint laughed at his horrified expression.

Glad now that there wasn't much hair to trap the water he relished the feel of the wet skin and wet tunic. The water chilled him and caused him to shiver from cold. The storm passed as suddenly as it had started and then heat began to rise again.

+ + + + + + +

The canteens were empty again before Vin heard the wagon creak past the cellar to the corral.

The door flung open and the hated voice called down, "Come out little shit, ya got work to do."

Tanner crawled out into the bright light. Moving hurt, the light hurt but nothing would keep him inside the hole that had become his own personal hell if he could help it. He heard Clint laugh when he stumbled and almost fell.

"Get over there and start pumping. The mules are thirsty. Ya been laying around long enough."

Vin reached for the pump handle with unsteady hands and began the familiar up and down motion. It was all he could do the keep it moving as cramping unused muscles rebelled at the sudden misuse. The trough seemed never to fill as the thirsty mules and horse drank their fill. But finally the water level stayed at the top of the trough and Vin leaned down and drank his fill also.

Only then did he look around staring at the filled wagon. It was full over the top of the sides with green hides. Despair washed over the teen. Why didn't he just die? Why couldn't he have been killed with everyone else? Why this living death with the hated white men? He thought briefly of running again. But that wouldn't bring his pain to a stop. They would only run him down, as they had before, then he'd be shackled again, beaten more, but they wouldn't kill him. They needed him for the tanning. Clint wouldn't do it, the old man couldn't do it and Dub, he was too stupid and ruined the hides making them worthless. So they would beat him into submission. Vin swayed in his exhaustion and wasn't even aware when Dub grabbed his arm and pulled him inside the cabin. He waited until it was his turn to eat and the numbness that filled him protected him from the over enthusiastic 'petting' that he got that night.

The man/boy that was Vin Tanner sank deeper behind the wall his mind built. The body continued to do the work, to endure, but Vin had hidden behind the wall and locked the door in his mind. Nothing touched him and he responded to nothing.

Hicks shook his head. He'd seen this before with the others. They just gave up and died. But this one was strong; he might last through the fall. At least until they took the hides to the trading post to sell. He hoped so; he really didn't want to break another boy in. When they reached this stage they worked hard, did as they were told, and caused no trouble, until they died of course.

+ + + + + + +

Vin didn't feel the cold wind as he went about his morning chores. He didn't notice anything anymore except what was placed before him to do. So he was startled into some awareness when

Clint grabbed his arm and started dragging him to the cellar.

Fear bubbled up from deep inside him when he saw the door open and waiting. Breaking free from the loose hold he screamed "No, not again!" and ran.

"Dub, grab him." Clint called.

The big man moved into Vin's path waiting to catch him but Vin veered away and ran on. A lasso sang and snagging his feet Vin fell into the pile of dry bones. Still he struggled, shouting, screaming incoherently. He felt the bones under him, jabbing him, he felt hands grabbing him, hitting him. Doubling up into a tight ball he tried to shield his head and middle with knees and arms.

Clint roughly grabbed first one ankle and then another snapping the shackles on. "Throw him in the hole Dub." The mute picked up the trembling boy and carried him like a sack of grain over to the cellar door and dropped him inside. The door slammed shut.

"You listen good dummy, you don't let him out for nothing. Check on him, feed him once in a while but you don't ever let him out. We'll be back soon. If you let him out, I'll know and I'll punish him and I'll punish you. You understand."

Dub grinned his slobbery grin and nodded.


Vin opened his eyes and looked around. He couldn't do this again. He couldn't be here, locked up again. Sitting up he unclenched his hands. And he stared in the dim light at what was in his lap. It was a rib bone. How? Shaking his head as if to clear it he tried to remember what had just happened. He'd fallen, in the bone pile. That had to be where the rib bone came from.

Holding it up to the light he looked at it closely. It was about a foot long, thin and narrow and broken at one end. He ran a finger down the jagged end. He could rub this end on the sandstone walls and possibly work it into a useable point. Crawling over to the exposed sandstone he began rubbing the bone against it.

It gave him something to focus on, honing the bone. When it got too dark to see he curled up and slept, restless because of the nightmares. But once the sun was up he again began honing the bone.

The door swung open and he crouched in the back. The shadow of the big mute blocked out the sun. A canteen was dropped down and the cloth sack. Then the door slammed shut again. Crawling over never taking his eyes off the door Vin reached for the food and the water. The shackles were cutting into the scars around his ankle creating new raw rings. He crawled back to the rag blankets and slowly chewed the jerky. Once finished he began rubbing the bone against the sandstone again.

Dub was being good. He knew what he was supposed to do but he wanted to let his pet out. He missed him. At night when it was dark he curled up in the sleeping corner that the pet slept in and let the familiar smell help him sleep. He didn't know how many days were gone, but he wanted his pet. He sat by the door for days knowing if he disobeyed Clint he would be punished.

Vin crouched, his bone knife clenched tightly in his hand. He knew Dub was outside, that he'd spent the last few days sitting by the door. He waited, the idiot wouldn't be able to wait much longer before he opened the door and let Vin out. The teen raised his chin. This time it would be different. This time he'd get away.

Tanner jumped when the door opened. He waited knowing that the space was too small for Dub.

The large man held out a plate and Vin could smell the fresh cooked meat. Hiding the makeshift

knife inside his sleeve he crept out. Dub held the plate out but when Vin reached for it the mute grabbed his arm and jerked the teen to him.

Vin resisted, "Stop it, Dub. I ain't a dog."

Surprised that Vin would fight him Dub frowned and jerked harder pulling the lighter boy to him. Smiling the idiot grabbed the back of Tanner's neck and released the hold on his arm. The teen was forced down to his knees by the larger man's weight. Dub leaned over the crouching boy and rubbed Vin's head.

Vin gasped at the pain in his neck. Dub was holding so tight he couldn't move, so he simply collapsed. The simple minded man sat down pulling the limp body to his lap. He let go of the neck and making sounds in the back of his throat he patted and rubbed. A mindless humming came from him as he rocked back and forth and petted. The warrior in Vin waited, willing himself to relax and let Dub do what he wanted to. He hoped that this time as before the man would relax and Vin could surprise him.

The movements became slower as the big hand lingered over Vin's back and moved slowly up and down the curve of his spine. Grunting Dub reached with both hands and started to roll the boy over. Once his hands were free Vin moved with all his strength and pushed the knife in and up under Dubs sternum. He watched as surprise filled the mute's eyes and then nothing. Blood gushed out over Vin's hands. With quick moments he reached under the mutes shirt and found the thong with the keys. He pulled them out and breaking the thong he opened the lock on the shackles.

Once free he stood and looked around. The corral was empty. His eyes looked northwest. There were mountains in that direction. He could faintly see the pale outline on the horizon. Looking down at the dead man, Vin made a fist, raising it above his head. "I am Two Ponies of the Red Hill People, I am not a dog, or a pet. I am a man." Vin stepped over the body and began to run. He was free. He meant to stay free or die. The warrior training kicked in as he jogged. Impervious to the cold, the wind, thirst and hunger his eyes never left the mountains in the distance. He wasn't thinking, he just ran.

+ + + + + + +

Jacob Randall self-proclaimed hermit, mountain man, squaw man and trapper was on his way home and happy, home being a cabin in the high country. He'd run late this year on his trip to civilization to sell his furs. The furs had sold for a good price and he'd been able to stock up on supplies that would get him and his animals through the winter. The old man looked at the sky gauging that he had enough time to get home before the winter storm set in seriously. Right now it was just clouding up and the wind was picking up. It would take him most of the day to get home, but he didn't expect it to start snowing until afternoon, plenty of time to get home and unpacked. His still sharp eyes scanned the land around him. "Come on mules," he said as he pulled on the lead rope, the mules staying out of striking range of his mare's hind hoofs.

The trapper's faded blue eyes never stopped moving as he searched the land around him for anything out of the ordinary. That's how he'd kept his hair all these years, always watching. The first thing he noticed was an off color something fluttering in the wind. Frowning he watched it while riding closer. It wasn't until he was practically on top of him that he saw the body. It blended so completely in with the landscape, the tan shirt and tanned skin melding in with the brown dirt and rock. His horse snorted and tossed her head at the smell. Jacob pulled the mare to a halt and carefully dismounting, ground tying her. Keeping his rifle at ready the old man knelt beside the body. He rolled it over only to be surprised by the groan that came from the unconscious form.

He could see no wounds but there was dried blood everywhere on the body. What the blood didn't hide was the yellow and green signs of healing bruises. The face was young, and even now showed pain.

Standing, Randall retrieved a blanket and wrapped the teen in it hoisting him into the saddle. The mare stomped her feet. "Whoa Sadie, yer just gonna have to carry double 'til we get home. Besides this boy is skin and bones. Don't look like he's had much to eat for a long time." Jacob mounted behind the unconscious boy and urged the mare to stretch out in a mile eating walk.

It was moonrise before they entered the small valley Jacob called home. Dismounting at the door of the cabin, he carried the teen inside and left him on the bed. Then he returned to quickly unsaddle the horse and laid the packs down against the wall. The mules and mare wandered off to roll and graze.

Gathering an arm load of wood the mountain man quickly built a fire in the stone hearth. While the cabin was warming he brought in several buckets of water and put the kettle on coals to heat some water.

He unwrapped the too thin body and began searching for wounds, starting with the head. The short filthy tangles showed nothing. Taking off the shirt Jacob discovered that the thin ragged tunic was the only thing the boy had on, despite the freezing weather. He saw no open wounds so he poured some heated water into a wash pan and with a rag and soap slowly began washing the lax body.

He knew the teen was young but he looked even younger relaxed as he was. Jacob shook his head in disgust as he could count every bone the boy had. Too old for anger to rule he felt a deep sadness grow as he catalogued the injuries on the too young body. The hair-thin white scars that covered his back, legs, and arms were evidence of ongoing abuse. Shackles worn for a very long time were the only things that could have made the knotty ring of scars around the ankles overlaid by new raw ring. The calluses and scars on the long fingers showing hard hurtful work.

Once he had Vin reasonably clean the old man sat back with a cup of coffee and thought. "Twilight in Summer? What do I do now? How do I help this poor boy?"

Her soft voice came to him as it always did, "Feed him broth from your good rich stew. Oil his skin with my fine rich fat in the blue pottery bowl and most of all be patient."

"Yes, you're right, Twilight. He can drink smooth liquid even as he is."

Jacob stood and stretched and set about starting a big pot of meat and vegetables simmering over the fire. He then looked in the back storage where his wife had put things for future use. Rummaging around in the handmade pots he finally found the one he'd been looking for. Breaking the beeswax seal he sniffed the contents. "It's not rancid."

"Of course it's not. I cleaned it seven times to make it pure. Soften it a bit and use a small amount at a time. Rub it all over, the boy will never know, but it will make him more comfortable."

Jacob nodded and sat down beside the prone figure. Starting with the right arm he carefully massaged in the healing oil. Once he was done he covered the teen and lifted his head and shoulders just enough to aid in drinking, he held a cup of water to the chapped lips.

"Drink, Lad," he whispered pouring just a few drops past the slack lips. When Vin swallowed he poured more, until the cup was empty. The he added cooled broth, all the time whispering soft encouraging words.

Much later after banking the fire Jacob lay down but only allowed him self to doze, as he listened for any sound for his guest, knowing that when the boy awoke he'd be confused and scared in this strange place.

It was just after dawn when he heard the mumbled slurred speech. Getting up he reached out to the teen's flushed face. Jacob knew without touching the boy had developed a fever. Getting a cool wet cloth he wiped the teen's face.

Feeling the cold cloth even deep in his delirium, Vin cried out.

Jacob frowned. These weren't English words, not entirely. Twilight had taught him to speak her language and although he spoke it poorly he understood it quite well.

Trying to soothe Vin, Jacob answered the boy in Comanche. It seemed to quiet him although his eyes barely open they showed blue eyes darting back and forth. It was only when he spoke English that Vin became agitated and struggled against the old man.

Jacob kept feeding him water and broth and cooling him down until late the next night the fever broke. Little by little he pieced together some of what the teen had been through. He knew the Hick's were scum, but he had no idea how low they were until now.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was warm, a good warm. He didn't want to wake up and find he was back in the cellar. But at the smell of good food and the soft mumbled voice he risked opening his eyes. Frowning he looked around. This wasn't the soddy, or the cellar, or his mother's lodge. This was someplace he'd never been before. The teen searched his memory for some clue of where he was, but the last thing he remembered was running, running toward the mountains.

Randall was getting another cup of willow bark tea when he turned and saw the blue eyes watching him.

"Hello there," Jacob watched as his words caused the teen to stiffen. Then in Comanche, "It's alright, you're safe here." The old man slowly walked over to the bed, noticing how Vin shrank back. Holding out the cup he said, "drink this, it will help with the fever and pain."

Vin eyed the man holding out the cup. But his eyes kept darting toward the door. He slowly and painfully sat up. With the movement he discovered he was naked under the blanket. Pulling the blanket up to his chin the teen reached hesitatingly for the cup. He slowly sipped it his eyes darting around the small cabin.

"It's all right, it will make you feel better. Do you think you could eat some stew? I set some clothes out for you if you want to get up." Jacob said as he turned back to the fire giving the teen some space.

Vin sipped the tea making a face at the bitter taste all the while gauging how long it would take him to reach the door and freedom. Carefully setting down the half empty cup he pushed the blanket back and slowly got up. Never taking his eyes off the old man he crept toward the door. Not even the thick socks helped with the pain from his raw feet. He didn't care; he had to get out, before this white man did what the others had done.

Jacob bit the inside of his lip at the sight he'd caught of the scrawny teen, naked except for the thick socks. As Vin reached for the door he said in English, "Ya can go any time ya want to. But it's snowing outside. Has been since last night. Yer going to get mighty cold with nothin' on but them socks." Then he turned and faced the scared man/child. "Ya can leave any time ya 've a mind to. I'm not holding ya here. Ya can stay or go. But if ya go I'd be obliged if ya'd put on some clothes. I don't want to find yer body a few feet from my door cause ya froze."

Tanner kept moving and opened the door. Seeing the piles of snow he quickly shut the door and turned around. Going back to the bed he looked down at the old long johns folded and left for him. Slipping them on he felt warmer but never took his eyes off Jacob for more than a second. He put on the too large shirt and pants tying the leather belt tight to hold them up.

Jacob filled two bowls with stew and set them on the homemade table. Then he set a pile of warmed flour tortillas and cups down. "Come on if ya 've a mind to eat." He sat down and tearing a tortilla apart began eating.

Vin's mouth watered at the smell of the stew and he cautiously went over to the table. He gingerly sat on the stool and grabbing a tortilla he tore in into pieces and began shoveling the hot stew with it. It was thick with not much broth so that the tortilla piece worked perfectly. He finished by licking the bowl clean. Carefully setting to bowl on the table Vin looked up at the old man.

His eyes suddenly widened in distress and he jumped up and ran to the door going out side heedless of the cold and wet.

Jacob followed and saw the teen bent over the edge of the porch. Every thing he'd eaten had come back up. 'Now that was stupid ol' man. No telling how long since he's eaten and you let him stuff himself.'

Tanner slowly stood and wiped his mouth. Taking a shaky breath he turned to see Randall looking at him.

"Come on back inside. I should have known better."

Vin looked at the white man. He was starting to shiver from the cold and the fire looked inviting. He took a step toward the door but waited until Jacob backed away before he went inside. Holding his belly he limped to the bed and sat down wrapping the blanket around his shoulders.

Jacob watched as the teen hobbled over to the bed, he muttered to himself, "I was a fool, Twilight, I shouldn't have fed him so much at first."

He heard her chuckle, "Give him some warm tea and a tortilla. Then if that stays down try the stew again. He's been hungry a long time. His body doesn't know what to do with good food anymore."

Jacob set a mug of warm tea down and then a flour tortilla beside it. "Try that, Lad. It should be easier on yer stomach. Eat it slow an' it'll stay down this time. I guess its' been awhile since ya ate. I need to take those wet socks off and put dry ones on." Jacob said setting down the cup and reaching for Vin's feet.

Drawing his feet back Vin spoke, "No, don't touch."

"I ain't gonna hurt ya, Lad. But I need to doctor them feet and get them dry and warm." He held out the blue jar, "This is a salve my wife Twilight made, been using it on ya since I got ya here. Won't hurt none."

Slowly, watching every move the man made, Vin straightened his legs and feet to within reach of the man.

Nodding Jacob said, "Good, Lad. I'm Jacob by the way. What's your name, Lad? I'm gonna take off these wet ones first." Randall explained before he even touched the boy.

Vin thought for a minute, confused at what to answer then he softly said, "I... I am Two Ponies of the Red Hill People." He hissed at the sock pulled on the skin it had stuck to. Taking a sip of the tea he asked, "Where is here?"

"Yer in my cabin. Been here for more than thirty years. These mountains are called Bear Mountains. I found ya at the foot of Rabbit Ear Mountain and brung ya here. Ol' Rabbit Ear was m' father in law. There, that's done. How's yer stomach?"

"Fine, 'm fine," Vin mumbled.

"Good, we'll give that tea and the tortilla a while and then ya can try the stew again." Jacob got up and went to the table to eat his meal. He could feel the boys unease. "What'll I do Twilight? He'll never rest like he is. He's scared to death."

Vin watched the old man mutter to himself. He couldn't quite hear what was said. Who was he talking to? Vin looked around the cabin again. Maybe he was touched by the Spirits? Vin felt his heart start to beat faster. What was he going to do? He could get the ghost sickness from this old man.

Jacob got up and walked toward the bed. Vin tensed waiting. Jacob held out his hand. Vin looked down. The old man was holding a hunting knife out to him handle first. Frowning, Vin looked up at the man.

"Ya keep it as long as you need to feel safe. Just know, I'm a light sleeper, in case ya get the urge to wander around while I'm sleeping. My Comanche isn't too good. Can ya understand white man talk? "

The teen looked long and hard at the man trying to see the trick, then he slowly reached out and quickly took the knife holding it close to his chest. He nodded once.

Jacob went back to the fire and watched as the teen lay down and slipped the knife under his pillow, his hand staying under too. "I guess you were right, Twilight."

Soft laughter came to him, "When am I not right, my husband? The boy will rest better now and so will you."

Jacob opened one eye without moving. He watched as the young man crept over to the door and opened it. Vin stood there watching the snow fall for a few minutes his shoulders hunched as if expecting a blow. When none came he shut the door and went back to the bed. Shivering he pulled the heavy Hudson Bay blanket up over him and curled up under it, his hand again reaching for the knife handle.

Jacob smiled to himself, and drifted off back to sleep. This was the fourth time that Vin had checked the door. By now Jacob expected it to happen again before dawn. "Sleep, Husband. He needs to know that he is truly free to go if he wishes. But he is not stupid, he will stay, at least for a while."