Chapter 6 (cont.)
As the years went by Vin grew quickly and filled out like his father before him. Though he never knew his father, he did remember what his mother had said about him. Her voice seemed to echo in his mind when he thought hard enough about her, or when he saw something that reminded him of her. He couldnt remember her face, or the color of her eyes, but he did remember the sound of her voice. It had been soft and warm. He missed her subtle confidence, and her independent strength.
The Turners never warmed up to him, and for some reason Vin felt as though they saw him as an unacceptable replacement for their son. Vin knew he wasnt, his parents had already passed, and he didnt want anymore. He was simply looking for a tolerable existence. He tried hard, worked hard, and did everything he could to make things right, but it was never enough. Perhaps, nothing would ever be enough.
Vin was fourteen and it was time to move on. It was hard enough living in the New Mexico Territory with a war raging in the South, without the complications of his life here at the Turner ranch. Hed spent most of his time working in the fields, working the horses, and hunting for winter meat. The latter was what he had enjoyed the most. Being alone on the land and with his thoughts. His accuracy had improved a tremendous amount and hed been true to his mothers word. He could shoot the center out of a coin. Knowing that, made his heart sing, and he knew that if she were able, shed be smiling down on him from above.
Hed managed to make extra money by trapping furs and the first thing on his list to purchase was a horse and saddle. The rest, if and when he needed, would come later. It was Helen who had purchased Vin his long rifle. She had done it behind Johns back. The weapon wasnt fancy but it was suffice and Vin used it every time he went out on a hunt. Like his knife given to him by Evan, the rifle was his best friend.
Vin finished packing up his bag and he took one last look around his room. Today was the day. He was leaving. The sun had yet to rise, he wanted to leave before anyone awoke. Helen knew he was going, she didnt know when, just that he was. Carefully, he opened and closed the bedroom door then snuck down the hall. Everyone was still asleep. With his bag on his back, his rifle in hand, and money in his pocket he headed out the front door. The warm air hit him like a new friend. The wind was calling his name and he wasnt willing to fight it.
Vin didnt looked back at the house or the farm as he headed at a walk off the property. Town was only a few miles away and he knew the livery would have a horse that he could buy. From there, he shrugged his shoulders, what did it matter what he did from there, as long as it was someplace different.
Hes a work horse, Ian, the livery owner said, leaning against the corral rails. He aint the prettiest beast out here, but hell getcha where you goin.
Vin looked the lean bay over again. The animal was sound and carried himself well. He had a bit of a roman nose but his wise eyes made up for it. How much?
Thirty dollars and Ian smiled, Ill throw in the saddle.
Vin nodded his head in agreement. The price was fair, and thankfully hed earned enough with his furs. Slowly, Vin slipped through the corral railings and walked up to the big gelding. The animal nudged his shoulder and stood still while his new owner looked him over. Teeth, bone structure, and soundness were the main things Vin was looking for. Evan had told him all about horseflesh and what to look for. Even John had taught him a little.
Ill take im, Vin said, from across the fence. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of dollar coins, then handed thirty over to Ian.
Ill go get your equipment. Ian clutched the money in his fist then headed for the barn.
Vin chuckled when his new horse nudged his shoulder. He grabbed the halter and headed for the gate when he saw the liveryman set the saddle, bridle, and pad down on the hitching rail.
Whats is name? Vin asked, leading the horse forward.
The liveryman paused a moment: Satan, he replied with a chuckle, before heading back inside the barn.
Vin looked at his new horse and the beast shook his head in disagreement. No offense Satan, but were changin your name. The horse nodded in agreement. I had a skunk named Tiny once, but you aint exactly small. Vin started saddling his new mount all the while talking to him.
The liveryman watched from the barn entrance with a smile on his face. That horse had tossed more men than Miz Dolly from the brothel, but it looked as though he found himself a friend. Ian had only known Vin from when he came into town with John, and the boy had a special way about him. Everyone but John knew it. Even that dumb horse saw it, and without question, he found his new master. The only thing Vin needed to learn, was that horse picked him, he didnt pick that horse.
Ian held his breath as Vin mounted up on the big bay. They were two old friends meeting for the first time. He watched them ride out of town at a gallop and he wondered what life had in store for them. It didnt matter really, as long as they followed their hearts.
As 1864 rolled around Vin found himself enlisting in the Union army, and at seventeen he wasnt ready to face the horrors of war or so he thought. Hed been traveling, drifting really, all over. Trying to find a place to settle down. To the shock of many men his age, he wanted to stop and raise a family. Have a child of his own, and share his life with a good woman. So far that desire hadnt happened.
Vin was almost six feet tall, with a slight build. Though he wasnt as strong as many of the men he came in contact with, he was quick, and sometimes that mattered just as much. He grew his hair out so that it hung just above his shoulders, it made him easier to hide, and he knew it. Besides, hed always hated getting his hair cut.
Vin needed a change, which was why he found himself putting his mark on the Army enlistment papers. So, he couldnt read and write, those things didnt put food in his belly, or clothing on his back. The Union was looking for more able-bodied men. They wanted to put an end to this fighting, and they were learning the hard way that the Southern states wouldnt be stopped that easily. They were made up of more than fancy clothing and slaves. The South had a passion in their reasoning for fighting, and that was harder to kill than anything.
There were no uniforms being disbursed, the money was needed elsewhere. However, ammunition and weapons could be found and retained at the supply tent. All new soldiers received a pistol, a rifle, and plenty of ammunition.
You got any special talents, boy? Lt. Commander Bailey asked, walking up behind the new recruit.
Vin turned and looked at the sharply dressed commander. He wasnt sure if he should salute, he hadnt been trained yet. I can shoot. If thats what your askin?
How well can you shoot?
See that pebble on that there rock, Vin said, pointing to the large bolder a ways out of camp.
Yes, I see it.
Vin smiled then pointed his rifle toward the pebble. He disregarded all the noises going on around him and concentrated on that pebble. He didnt hear the bets being made, the clang of change moving from one hand to the next, or even the sound of cannon roars in the distance. With a soft finger, a strong shoulder, and a confident mind Vin pulled the trigger.
Nobody moved, until Vin stood up and carefully positioned his rifle against his chest.
You didnt hit it, the commander said in disappointment. Moans and applause could be heard from behind him.
Yes, sir, I did, Vin responded confidently. He started walking toward the bolder with the commander right behind him.
The commander stopped at the bolder and watched in wonder as the kid continued on for another hundred feet. There in the distance was a large bolder and he watched as this soldier with the eyes of a hawk and the skill of a veteran stood by that large rock and picked up a small stone. The commander shook his head in wonder. This kid was good.
Vin held the stone out for Bailey to inspect. A large chip where the bullet had struck captured his eye. Welcome to the 105th Missouri, sharpshooters. The commander held out his hand and smiled when the kid shook it. Sergeant Gibson Dempsey is your CO, hell get you outfitted.
Thank you sir.
Thank me when this war is over, son. He smiled. Hell, with a shot like you, those Rebs are bound to turn tail and run. He slapped Vin on the back and headed for his tent.
Vin stood silent as soldiers gathered around him, wanting to know how he learned to shoot like that. What was he going to tell them? That his mother had been the one to show him how to use a rifle, or Evan had made him practice until his shoulder was so bruised that it hurt to move. It didnt matter how he learned, just that he could shoot. Hell, out here, its kill or be killed, and Vin wasnt going to lay down and die for anyone.
As a boy, Vin never had any trouble climbing trees, but he was barefoot and he didnt have a heavy sack on his back. It seemed every tree he went up, another tree heard about it and tried everything it could to keep this kid out of its branches. One minute he was getting his backpack caught, and the next he was falling hard to the ground when the branch broke. Trees were not the best place a sharpshooter could find to hide, so why did Sergeant Dempsey always order it?
Mansfield, Louisiana seemed to be calling US Major General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks. The General saw fit to move onward while battles continued to rage on and men from both sides fell to their deaths only to be replaced by someone else. Confederate General Richard Taylor, the son of former President Zachary Taylor, had backed into Mansfield and refused to move further. He stood by his men and waited. They would not leave. Banks sharpshooters were positioned carefully around the Louisiana town. Banks would not lose this fight.
Vin looked out toward the town, he was stationed high in the dense forest. This was beautiful country. Rolling green hills and pine trees for as far as the eye could see. For a sharpshooter, finding targets after the battle started was futile. Smoke, gunfire, and dust filled the air bringing the visibility down to nothing. On April 8th, the battle started. Horses screamed, cannons roared, and men cried for their mothers. It could all be heard, watching it only made it worse.
Slowly, Vin descended the tree, his last hideout and started searching for his horse. The big bay, Gus, was as devoted to Vin as Vin was to him. They were never very far from each other. With a loud whistle Gus came trotting. His big feet plodding the ground like a posthole tamper. In one swift move Vin mounted up and headed to where hed be more useful. Even through the confusion he could tell that other men from his regiment were thinking the same thing.
The Union Army abandoned wagons full of supplies, horses, and weapons as the Confederates took over Mansfield. The battle had been a failure. Even Gus was feeling the devastation of the loss. His head hung low and he didnt bother chewing on his bit. Something he always did.
Vin held onto the reins tightly as they walked toward their new camp. Tents, fires, and men lined the rows and everyone was silent. They had been expecting a win, but instead they received a large loss. The mood around the campfires was melancholy and nothing seemed to be able to cheer them up.
The war was supposed to be over, not dragging on like it had. Men wanted to go home to their families and their farms. They didnt want to be fighting in the mud, rain, and heat anymore. The long days and even longer marches were wearing on everyones nerves. They were tired of the color blue, tents, and living out of a satchel.
It was the men whod been there from the start that kept everyone moving forward. It was them who supplied the words of encouragement when the need arose. Theyd been at it the longest and they were the ones that had seen it all. They knew the grief the new ranks were feeling and most importantly, they understood it. Longevity would win this war, not numbers. The South had already proved that, so it was up to the North to wait them out.
Vin continued to carve on his stick as the sun slowly made its descent. He contemplated his choice in joining the Union Army. Was it the right one? Or was it the wrong one? He understood what had to be done and part of that included putting a stop to the Confederacy. Keeping the Union together was the most important initiative, though slavery had become an important issue as well.
Slavery wasnt an issue Vin was familiar with. Not that hed never heard of it or the horrific stories that followed, but hed never seen a black slave. For the most part Texas was a part of the Confederacy because they wanted to secede; though slavery was common Vin had never witnessed it.
There had been enough that Vin had seen to last him a lifetime. Beatings from John, the loss of his mother, and the Indians that had killed Bea and Evan, that didnt include traveling from place to place after leaving Helen and John. It was a hard country with many unspoken rules and most of those rules had to be broken at least once.
Didja hear that a bunch of us sharpshooters are joinin up with Generals Meade an Grant? Oliver Harper said, sliding into a seat across from Vin.
Aint heard that, Vin responded, never taking his eyes off his stick.
Damn, Vin, Oliver shook his head, his long black hair falling into his eyes. Aint you excited about workin with Grant, the mans a legend and he aint even dead yet.
Vin looked up and shook his head. Hed fight where he was ordered, despite who was leading him. He didnt care about names and reputations, in the west they only meant one thing a challenge. Someone was always willing to fight or shoot in order to make a name for themselves and Vin didnt want any part of it.
Its about damn time we send those Johnny Rebs back with their tails stuck between their legs. Oliver continued, From what I hear Grants got plans to end this skirmish.
Like the plans he had at the start of this war? Vin asked, with a smiled creasing his lips.
Oliver threw a small pebble and sighed. For as little as you talk Tanner, you sure know how to bring a man down.
Dont mean to bring you down, Vins grin widened. Besides, its better to win the war than talk about it.
Hell, I aint goin to argue that point with ya. Oliver sighed and leaned back against the log. Well, if I get orders to go Im headin out.
Why aryou in such a hurry to get dead? Vin asked, looking up from his carving.
I aint in a hurry to get dead, I just want to finish this war. Hell, Ive got me a pretty little gal back home just waitin for me to pop the question and I aim on doin just that when I get back. Oliver kicked his heal into the ground. Her names, Joanna, he said her name carefully and well pronounced.
Sounds like a right pretty name.
Shes got a face to match
You boys apart of the 105th Missouri? A young man asked, stepping up to the fire. He waited until he saw the others nod their heads. You boys have been ordered to
HA HA, I knew it! Oliver jumped to his feet.
Weve been ordered to what? Vin shook his head and asked. The kid had yet to finish his announcement.
Youre riding out with Sergeant Dempsey in the morning to support Grant and Meade. The generals are heading to an area of land called the Wilderness. Grant wants sharpshooters stationed up high because visibility is so bad. The young man shifted his feet uncomfortably.
When are we leavin? Vin asked, putting his knife away.
Dawn, came the sullen reply.
Vin nodded in understanding and watched as the young corporal headed back toward the Lieutenants tent. Oliver was still dancing the I told you so two-step.
You know Olly, Vin said with a chuckle, he knew Oliver hated the nickname. If you dont sit down someones liable to shoot you just for the hell of it.
Well, Vinny, Im celebratin cuz I was right. He grabbed his canteen and took a long swig. Besides, Im ready to see some real action, and I know I will with Grant.
Vin shook his head. Real Action. What more action did they need to see? Vin had seen enough, even though hed only been fighting a few months. How many men did he have to kill? How many bodies did he have to tread through? Vin didnt think hed ever have to hear the sounds of wounded men crying and pleading for help, or the sight of horses struggling to move forward. Vin never wanted to be around the stale smell of gunfire smoke again.
Virginia was a state that brought with it warm weather and green plantations. Though much of the land had been devastated by battles, its resilience was already showing through. Vin truly enjoyed the country. While others in his regiment complained about the bugs and heat, Vin soaked in what the land had to offer.
The Union Army had 115,000 men ready to face the thick dense forest, rough outcroppings, and second growth trees. The Wilderness. Sharpshooters stationed themselves in areas where they could best see the enemy approaching. Vin, with his rifle in hand, crawled up a large Maple tree that gave him the best visual of the land. Hed heard stories about the Wilderness. How men had tried to cut it back, only the growth grew back with a vengeance making it even harder to traverse.
Vin had learned early in life to respect your surroundings, because if you didnt, your surroundings wouldnt respect you. His mother had taught him that. And when you rely on the land for your survival its important to know what to expect. He knew this battle wouldnt be pretty. The Union was through with it. They wanted this war to end and would stop at nothing to see it. Vin knew it. He knew that by winning this battle it was the beginning of the end for the South. Two of the countrys best generals were going to meet. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, two proud men were here to start the end. Vin believed they both knew it, now, whether or not their men knew it was something else all together.
Vin looked out past the front lines and sighed. There were a lot of men out there ready and willing to give their lives. He pulled his rifle up closer to his shoulder and sat as still as he could. Hed shoot as soon as the enemy showed their faces.
Vin had little to compare the Wilderness to, but he did know that it was the most horrific battle hed ever fought. For two days the Union Army pushed the Confederacy back with cannons, gunfire, and sheer determination. Men fell wounded, and dead only to be consumed by flash fires. As the smell of burning flesh and cries of pain filled the air the Union Army pressed on. They would not lose.
While sharpshooters fired at distant targets they could hardly see, artillerymen made their cannons sing, and the Calvary moved in to finish things off. For two days this went on and most knew that this was the beginning of the end for the Southern Armies. Vin didnt care. He was ready to leave the bloodied battlefields, and the nightmares that would follow.
Vin looked out past Arkansas, Sileam Springs, into the Unorganized Territory. The West had been calling him by name since his departure so many years ago. The war was over. He hadnt wasted any time leaving the South after Lees surrender.
Hed survived the war, escaping injury and illness. He didnt know why so many men he stood with fell, but he was thankful he didnt. It was time to move on and do something with his life. He kicked Gus into a slow jog and headed home.
Most of the Indians were being forced onto reservations and only a very few were left fighting the government. After fighting in a war that decided the rights of the Southern states, Vins views of the Indians rights had changed dramatically. At the start of the war it had been easy for him to choose a side. It wasnt until he left the South and witnessed the devastation done to the country that he decided he might not have been right in his decision. Who wouldnt fight for their homes and their lands?
Gus trotted down the road at a steady gate perking his ears at the noises of the wind and plains animals. Dirt swirled around the base of trees and along the paths edge. On occasion a deer would sprint across the fields, and hawks would dive for their prey. With the sky so blue and clouds looking like fresh pulled cotton, a sense of peace fell over the sharpshooter.
Indian tribes such as the Shawnee, Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche had most white settlers fearing for their lives. Part of living in the West meant dealing with the natives, and sometimes blood was shed. The government had tried to do everything they could to remove the Indians from their lands, including supplying them lice infected bedding, rotten foods, and no medical supplies.
Vin was convinced that the Army didnt do anything graceful, and they wouldnt make peace with the Indians. He understood why the natives were fighting for their rights. They had a right to. Nobody deserved to be kicked off their property because of the color of their skin, and thats just what the government was doing. Punishing Indians for being Indians.
The deaths of Bea and Evan had stuck with Vin for a very long time, but the war had changed the way he viewed their deaths. They didnt die for nothing and they didnt die in vain. They were casualties of war, lives taken to prove a point, and Vin wouldnt dispute what the men who killed Bea and Evan were trying to say. How could he? He didnt understand their way of life, or their beliefs, but he did understand what it meant to fight for your home.
Summer had arrived in the west with its usual finesse. The earths floor absorbed the suns rays while plants either flourished or perished. The distant mountains seemed to glow in the sunlight, while shadows crept across the ground. This is what Vin had missed, the solitude and peace of the West.
Gus stuck his nose into the crisp cool water as his rider dismounted. Night had descended leaving only the light of the moon to light their way. Frogs, crickets, and owls echoed in the distance as if making conversation with each other.
Vin uncinched the saddle and threw it down onto its pommel. He laid the saddle pad on its back, allowing it to air out for the night. Gus seemed content splashing around in the creek, munching on the green grass near the waters edge. This was the perfect place to stay for the night, a tree for shelter, and a crick for fresh water. Using a few dried branches Vin got a small fire going and started to make himself some coffee.
The night was always the most peaceful, as the animals bedded themselves. Vin leaned against the downed log. Things had changed so much since hed been here. He wasnt seventeen anymore, and though hed never looked at life through naive eyes, he had learned a new respect for all people. Not everyone was raised the same, believed the same, or cared the same.
At nineteen Vin was facing life on his own again. Only this time, there wasnt someone standing over him ordering him around, telling him what to do, or forcing him to do it. This time he intended to live life on his own terms. He had the skills to do it. Hed made a name for himself in his regiment as one of the best sharpshooters around. It was true that he could hit the eye out of a nickel from fifty yards away. Most men found it difficult to see a nickel from that distance, much less shoot it.
Vin jumped when he heard a scuffling sound coming from behind a handful of weeds. He pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it in the direction of the bushes. He wasnt about to get jumped now, not this close to home. Vin shrugged his shoulders, where was home?
You best come on out a there! Vin called to the bush. He noticed Gus had stopped eating and was looking toward the bushes as well.
The bushes moved again and longer this time.
I aint gonna be real happy comin in after you! Vin called again, walking slowly toward the shrub.
The smell of coffee and jerky filled the air and Vins stomach growled when his nose captured a whiff of the aroma. He was really hoping whatever was hiding in the bushes wasnt bigger or hungrier than he was. With every instinct telling him to turn tail and run, Vin snuck up closer to the bush. Carefully he grabbed a branch and pulled.
Awe, hell, Vin swore, capturing the sight of a young Indian woman holding on tightly to her child.
The woman jumped back, using her body as a shield to protect her child. Dirt, mud, and debris covered her clothing, face, and hair. The stranger knelt down in front of her. The woman didnt say anything; she just eyed the strangers every move. She didnt understand what he was saying, but she recognized the tone, soft, even, and non-threatening. She jumped when the stranger moved, putting away his gun, and she turned her attention back to his face. He smiled softly at her. With the touch of a mother, she gently wiped her childs face free of dirt and hair.
Vin reached into his pocket and removed a handkerchief that was full of jerky and hardtack. I know this aint much but its all Ive got, he went on to say, handing the woman his food. Tentatively, she reached out and took it. Ive got some coffee goin as well, Vin said, getting to his feet. He tried not to make big or fast movements, like a skittish colt, he didnt want to scare the woman any more than she already was.
The sound of the coffee boiling over grabbed Vins attention and he quickly reached around and grabbed the pot. He yelped when the steaming fluid seared the skin on his right hand. The coffee pot dropped to the ground spilling its contents.
Hachi, the woman said, walking up from behind Vin. With her child in her arms she reached up and touched the stranger on the shoulder. Hachi inkomoolichi, ihoopa.
Vin turned quickly with his left hand holding his right wrist tightly. I dont understand. He shook his head, watching her movements carefully.
The woman touched her chest and spoke softly and clearly. Ana, Opako. She touched her chest again. Opako.
Opako, Vin shook his head again, then suddenly it dawned on him. Youre Opako. He watched as the woman smiled and nodded her head.
Gently, the woman took Vins arm and looked closely at the red burn. Ana Ih`allatka aloopa, she said softly, pulling her new patient towards the downed log. She wasnt threatened by him.
Maam, Vin started, but was quickly hushed by receiving the bundle of blankets with the child wrapped tightly inside. I dont understand what
Opako grabbed Vins hand and then using a soft piece of doeskin she wiped the area clean. Ya isna s`ahmoosi inkomoolichi, yam`a?
I dont understand
Inkomoolichi? She gently touched the red area that was already starting to blister.
Yes, pain, Vin confirmed.
Opako chuckled and continued to tend the strangers wound. She watched as her son continued to sleep in the mans arms.
Why are you out here on your own? Vin asked, knowing she wouldnt be able to answer. The woman looked up at him and smiled then quickly returned to her task. Vin grabbed her hand and directed her attention toward the child. Name, whats is name?
Haskiina, Opako spoke softly and waited for Vin to repeat the name, and he did. She pointed toward his chest and nodded. Hachi?
Hachi oh, my name. Vin chuckled to himself. Vin, Vin Tanner.
V i n, she said softly, careful to pronounce every syllable. She smiled confidently when she noticed the man nod his head in approval. Her long black hair fell over her shoulder and she pushed it back out of the way. With the practiced ease of a healer she wrapped the soft doeskin cloth around the wound and tied it off with a leather strip.
Opako gently took her child back into her arms. Without warning she opened up her buckskin dress and pulled her child to her breast and started to feed him. Vin jumped back, feeling as though he was intruding on a moment and moved toward his saddle and immediately started laying out a bedroll.
It was obvious to Vin that the woman had either escaped, or possibly had hidden herself from something or someone. Shed been here a while, that much was obvious, the way she devoured the food hed given her. It was hard to say from what tribe she was from, being that there were so many in the area.
Opako? Vin called, he then turned and looked at her. He motioned with his hand to the bed hed made up.
The woman shook her head. She understood what he was telling her, but she settled herself further down into the leaves. Shed make herself comfortable by the fire. Ana `aata y`aali.
Vin shook his head in frustration. The language barrier was getting in the way. Without being asked, Vin picked up his blanket and took it over to Opako who shook her head in refusal. Vin ignored her protest and carefully placed the blanket over her shoulders.
I cant leave ya out here alone, Vin said, squatting down in front of her. He watched as she smiled and nodded her head. He didnt know what he was going to do, he didnt even know if he could find her people. Did she want to find them? Slowly, Vin stood up and moved closer to the fire. What was he going to do?
Gus didnt want anything to do with a child. So the idea of Opako and her son riding the large beast was out of the question. Vin decided to lead Gus and walk with the Indian woman and her infant son. They were headed to a small trading post, and there, Vin hoped to find another horse.
Opako spent most of the morning in silence, speaking only to her son on rare occasions. If it wasnt for the fact she walked a few steps in front of Vin he wouldnt even know someone was with him. On occasion Gus would reach out and nip at green foliage, trying to sneak a bit to eat when he could.
The trading post was simply a wooden shack out in the middle of nowhere. A round corral rested across the way and thankfully there was some good horseflesh ready for purchase. Three horses were saddled and tied to the hitching rail outside the shed. Opako looked unsure of Vins decision to enter the post, but his confidence seemed to calm her worried nerves.
Vin tied Gus to the hitching rail away from the other horses and then he headed inside. Opako stood next to the door, unwilling to follow.
The post was dark and smelled of rank tobacco, whiskey, and body odor. Three men sat at a table in the back of the room while the owner of the trading post worked behind the bar counting furs. Nobody looked to have bathed within the last year and facial hair was in abundance.
Hey, boy, whatd you want? one of the men from the table asked, spilling his drink in the process.
I need to buy a horse, Vin answered, and then he cleared his throat.
Theres a corral full of em. You can take yer pick, the owner replied with a smile.
How much you askin? Vin looked curiously around the room. Animal skins hung from the walls and in stacks beside the tables. Canned goods, bundles of tobacco, and crates of red eye lined the far wall.
How much ya got? came the menacing reply.
How much for the little bay? Vin ignored the previous question.
Ya sure that little bay aint gonna be too much hoss fer ya? The longhaired man with a patch over his eye asked, wanting to get a rise out of the much younger man.
How much for the bay?
Twenty, unless you got somethin worth tradin?
Vin ignored the comment then headed outside. If there was going to be a conflict he wanted to do it out in the open and someplace where he could see better. There were too many things he wasnt familiar with inside. He eyed his surroundings then headed to the corral.
The little bay mare trotted up to the fence when the stranger approached. She quickly nudged his shoulder and without any effort he slipped on the soft leather halter. Like a well-trained pony the little mare followed Vin with encouragement in her feet. Vin looked up in time to see the trading post owner step out of the building and eye the Indian woman. Quickly, Vin led the mare in the mans direction ready to defend this woman regardless of the fact he hardly knew her. He pulled twenty dollars in coins out of his pocket and handed them over.
You know who that is? The owner asked, leaning towards Vin.
Vin shook his head, not giving Opako another thought.
Thats Yellow Buffalos wife He looked again at the woman and her child. The Alabama tribe. He returned his look to Vin. He finds out you have er he chuckled, yer as good as dead. He slapped Vin on the shoulder then headed back inside.
Vin watched him only for a moment and then turned his attention back to the little bay. He knew who Yellow Buffalo was. Hed heard the stories about the Alabama Indian, and none of them were pleasant.
Opako rode the little bay bareback and with her son strapped to her back. She rode ahead of Vin, as though she felt confident with him beside her and hed get her back home safely. She knew the way, and the signs to follow. It had been four Apache that had captured her and only after theyd gotten drunk one night was she able to escape from them. Her desire was to get back to her husband, and this man with her would make that possible.
They rode for four days stopping only at night to sleep. Vin had managed to kill them some food, and Opako had prepared it. The language barrier was still a problem but theyd managed to come to an understanding by signing and gestures. Most of the time Vin felt ridiculous but the problem was being solved.
On the fifth day, the two rode into the Indian camp. The natives looked at Vin in distrust, revulsion, and hatred. He couldnt blame them. It wasnt until the chief came out of his hut that everyone hushed. Opako slid off her horse and rushed to her husband. Within seconds Vin was pulled roughly from his horse and thrown onto the hard ground. Gus spooked and kicked out trying only to protect himself.
Fists pounded down on Vin while he curled up into a ball trying to protect his head and midsection. He heard a yell and the abuse stopped. Peaking out between his arms he noticed everyone backing away. Slowly, Vin uncurled himself and sat up. The crowd looked at him in wonder, and they looked at the chief with respect.
Yellow Buffalo stepped forward with his wife and son right beside him. Opako says you saved her? his accent was strong and his voice was low and rough. It didnt match his elegant attire of deerskins, and horsehair.
I just didnt think she should be left out there on er own, Vin answered honestly.
She was taken a week ago, I am in your debt for returning her to me. A strong arm came forward with an extended hand.
Tentatively, Vin reached out and grasped the hand and he was quickly pulled to his feet. He looked around at the untrusting faces and then back to the chief and Opako. Ill get outa your hair.
First, the chief smiled, we eat. He slapped Vin on the shoulder and pushed him toward the cook site.
Vin looked curiously around. He didnt want to put these people out. Plus, he didnt want to press his luck.
Opako tells me you bartered for the horse she rides? Laana Yanasa, or Yellow Buffalo, motioned for Vin to take a seat.
My horse Gus, hes hard to get to know and wouldnt
Gus? The Indian chief looked strangely at Vin. Such a strange name.
Hes a strange horse, Vin replied with a laugh.
The chief looked thoughtfully at his guest and paused. He knew the stranger was uncomfortable, as well he should be, but there was a gift the young man held that captured the chiefs attention. Most white men would have left his wife, not bothered to return her home, but this one had. This man had offered up his food, blankets, and money for an Indian woman with a child.
My people fear the white man and his ways. Seriousness filled the area and Vin nodded at Yellow Buffalos words. Do you fear ours?
Dont rightly know em, Vin admitted.
The chief nodded in understanding. You are welcome to stay for as long as you need. He smiled and took the bowl that was handed to him. He watched as Vin took another bowl and nodded his head in thanks. There was something special about this young man.
Vin gave Gus a pat on the neck before he unsaddled the large animal. Most of the Alabama Indians had warmed up to him within the first few hours, while others kept their distance, despite what the chief had told them. Vin was to be treated as family, after all hed saved and returned Laana Yanasas wife and son to him, and that was all that mattered.
You have a fine animal, one of the tribesmen said, stepping up beside the large horse.
Vin nodded and returned a subtle smile. The man was short, but he had a strong build. Vin guessed that he didnt lose many fights. His hair was long and hung free over his shoulders down to the center of his back. His eyes were far apart but their size more than made up for it.
Gus, Vin said. His names Gus.
Why are you here?
Vin gave a low chuckle. I just brought Opako back then Ill be headin out. He didnt want to over stay his bounds.
Do you always quite so easily? The Indian asked, with a smile appearing on his face.
Vin laughed and shook his head. He knew when hed been had. Names Vin. He stuck his hand out.
Hipli Chola, he returned the firm handshake. Not many men gain Laana Yanasas respect, and no white man has ever done so. He watched as Vin nodded in acknowledgement. Id be honored to let me call you friend.
Vin looked up, taken back by the statement. Feelins mutual. He smiled then clasped onto Hipli Cholas hand.
Gus stepped over the rocky terrain with his head down while trying to keep his footing. Small stones moved under the big horses feet like chips of ice on a wet floor. Vin gave him his head as he followed Chola and his paint pony. Theyd been tracking the Apache who had taken Opako and her child.
Normally, Vin wouldnt have gone along, but because he was whom he was, Lanna Yanasa, permitted it. Vin, like a sponge, absorbed everything he was learning. What to look for while tracking, things like footprints, plants, and the direction of the wind. A hunter could simply find his prey by following a scent, or blades of broken grass. Chola knew his hunt like most men knew themselves, and Vin realized early that he was learning from the best.
Vin slipped from Gus back when Chola dismounted. Both men crept slowly around the mountain ridge. They could see a small clearing where three Apache sat below, resting in the shade. Chola motioned for Vin to take aim with his rifle, they knew there was another man around and they wanted to make sure they had him in their sights before taking any action.
With the horses ground tied, Chola jogged further down the ridge so he could get a better view of the land. He left Vin positioned on the crest, ready to fire a shot when needed. Capturing these renegades would mean a great honor among the tribe, and not just for Vin, but Chola as well. Laana Yanasa was a man who demanded results and because of it all the best trackers in the tribe were out searching for the men who had taken his beloved wife. Chola had been the only person willing to take Vin, the white man, with him on the hunt.
Vin kept as still as a cat ready for the pounce as he watched the men down below. None of them seemed concerned with what was about to happen. Even from the mountain ridge Vin could smell the alcohol theyd been consuming, and their horses were more than twenty yards from their positions. So, even if they did want to escape, it wouldnt be easy.
It was only a few moments before Chola slipped back in beside his friend. He was as quiet as a cat and as obvious as a ghost.
If the fourth man is out there? Chola shook his head. He hides very well. His voice was soft as to not alert the men below.
What doya wanta do? Vin asked, never taking his eyes off the men below.
Chola smiled mischievously. How good can you shoot that gun? He motioned toward the weapon Vin was holding.
Vin returned Cholas smile, and carefully cocked the weapon. What doya want me ta hit?
Chola slapped his friend on the shoulder and chuckled. All of them, though he said it as a joke, but something inside him told him that Vin would hit them all.
Vin nodded and carefully positioned his rifle then fired.
Chola watched in amazement as the Apache closest to the horses went down. In rapid succession the weapon was fired and like an extension of Vins arm, he fired without second-guessing himself. He worked the gun as though it were a part of himself and not a tool that one needs to get accustomed to using. The other two Indians jumped up and franticly started for their horses but before they could reach them were cut down. The horses scattered and then fled all together.
You shoot good, Tanner! The tracker slapped Vin on the shoulder then stood up. Will you one day hunt me the same?
Vin looked hard at Chola and shook his head. Never, my friend.
Vin and Chola led their horses down to the clearing. The area was green and a perfect place for hiding. The three Indian ponies that had fled earlier were now grazing peacefully off in the distance. While Vin kicked dirt on the fire, Chola checked the bodies of the dead men.
It was obvious they had been here for some time. The grass had been flattened down for bedding and most of the dried wood had been picked up and burned. There was even a trail leading down to the stream, something Vin never would have noticed before. He tried not to look as Chola took the scalps of the Apaches. He didnt do it out of revenge or anger, but rather because he needed proof to show the chief when they arrived back in camp.
Vin jumped when Gus snorted and pulled back on his reins. Chola rushed toward his own pony when he saw the strange horse and rider charge the camp. A native scream was shrieked and echoed throughout the air like a hawks piercing cry. Stampeding hooves struck the ground as ferocious weapons. Vin pulled his weapon and fired but nothing seemed to strike the phantom rider.
Another cry pierced the air and Vin fell to the ground clutching his side. Gus snorted and tried to get free. Chola rushed forward and with his tomahawk in hand. With all his might he threw the carefully constructed weapon, striking the fourth Apache warrior in the chest. He fell to the ground, dead.
Vin lay on the ground clutching at the arrow that had pierced his lower left side. Gus had calmed down and now stood nervously over his master. Blood seeped between the wooden shaft of the arrow, clothing, and fingers as Vin continued to grasp at the wound. He tried to sit up but the pain bit back and kept him down. He pinched his face when he felt hands grab his arm and then his wounded side.
Aw! Vin yelped, when his shirt was ripped open.
You cry like a woman, Chola said, in good humor. He gently helped his friend sit up and immediately started removing his upper body clothing. With careful hands he began to examine the wound. The arrow had gone through and was protruding from both sides.
What are you goin to do? Vin asked, grasping for breath. He noticed the large knife Chola had pulled from his belt.
Do you trust me? Chola asked.
Do I have a choice? Vin replied sarcastically.
The tracker laughed at his friends sense of humor and immediately went to work. Carefully, he cut the shaft a few inches from the entryway of the wound. Then, with steady hands, he cut a groove into the pipe. Vin hissed in pain but tried not to move. Blood continued to seep steadily from the wound and beads of sweat started to gather all over his body. He watched as Chola placed a small amount of gunpowder in the groove hed cut. He looked up into Vins face and paused.
Ready? Chola asked, his eyes laced his concern.
Vin just nodded, unsure of what to expect.
Chola placed the blade of his knife on the end of the shaft and with a steady hand he lit the gunpowder then shoved the shaft all the way through the wound and pulled it out the back side. Vin gave into the darkness that was calling him.
Every step Gus took seemed to send shards of pain through Vins body. He didnt know how he got mounted, or how long ago hed been wounded. A blanket had been thrown over his bare shoulders and he tried to concentrate on just hanging on.
The smell of fires burning, and hides grazed Vins senses like a distant memory. He felt hands pull him from his saddle and carry him into someplace warm.
Chola entered camp just as dusk was setting. He jumped off his mount and rushed to his friends aid. Chief Laana Yanasa stepped out of his hut while others gathered around their most trusted tracker and the white man. Chola reached up and grabbed Vins shoulders and was relieved when several others came in to help him. He watched as Vin was taken into the healers cabin. He felt a hand on his shoulder and he looked up into the Chiefs eyes.
He is a good friend?
Chola nodded then reached for his belt and removed four scalps. He handed them over to the chief and sighed. Only one is mine.
Laana Yanasa looked at his warrior in surprise and then he nodded in understanding. Ifaylichi will heal him, if it is meant to be.
Chola reluctantly agreed. He wasnt sure why he felt guilty over the possible death of a white man, but this wasnt any ordinary white man. He was a friend a brother. Slowly, he headed into the hut theyd taken Vin into earlier. Ifaylichi was a good medicine maker, and Vin was strong.
A small fire burned in the center of the hut while Vin lay motionless on a pile of pelts. He was covered with a blanket to his waist while doeskin bandages covered his wounded side. A fever had started and now raged on in his body and he fought his dreams quietly for now. The medicine maker, an older woman and a rarity even for the Indian people, moved in symbolic motions around the sick bed. Her long graying hair swayed with her every motion, and the chanting of her voice somehow managed to bring comfort to the young man lying at deaths door.
Chola looked on and wondered if this man would perish. The one, and only, white man whod given his word that he would not hunt Cholas people.
Vin opened his eyes slowly and tried to regain his composure. He wasnt quite sure where he was at or what had happened. He felt warm and comfortable, but a gnawing pain kept coming from his side. He moved the heavy blanket back and noticed the bandages covering his side and he lay back remembering. The hut was dark and quiet and Vin could make out one other form in the small quarters. He took a deep breath and released it slowly, not wanting to aggravate his wound.
Ifaylichi, says you are destined for greatness, the low voice of Cholas echoed in the small area.
Vin chuckled and then took another deep breath. Cant say I agree with that.
She says you heal quickly and bury your pains deep.
Vin didnt respond to that statement, instead he closed his eyes and tried not to concentrate on the pain. Some wounds didnt heal, and others just festered. He heard his friend move closer to him and then settle himself on the small pallet next to his bed.
I have never seen a man shoot like you, nor learn so quickly. Chola bowed his head and then looked back to Vin. The people here are calling you, Istinka, the gift, they think you will save us from our enemies.
Vins eyes shot open and he looked up to his friend, stunned by his announcement. Ah, hell, he swore, more to himself than at the situation.
You will leave? The question was soft, honest, and touched with pain. He looked at his friend knowing he would eventually go.
I reckon I will, Vin responded truthfully.
Chola nodded. He pulled his knife out of his belt and looked hard at Vin. Brother, he said softly, then cut the palm of his hand.
Vin nodded, and then stuck his own palm out for Chola to cut. The pain was sharp but quick and both men clasped each others hands.
Brother, Vin replied, through clenched teeth.
It wasnt until two years later that Vin decided to leave. He didnt depart the company of the Alabama people for any particular reason it was just time to go. Everyone there understood it. This had been the only place hed stayed for any length of time but the winds were calling him again. To what, he didnt know, just that it was time to move on. He was going to miss his friends, Chola especially. The two had shared more secrets with each other than a congregation shares with their priest. Vin had even stood up for him when he got married. Now, Chola was a married man with a child of his own, and Vin had been able to see that happen.
Though Vins mother had taught him to respect the land and lean the ways of it, Chola and his people had taught him he was a part of it. The land could not only keep him alive, but it could kill him. It would provide everything hed ever need if he knew where to look, and now he did.
The Indian people werent savages that needed to be controlled. No. They were people who had developed with the country, evolved with it, and become a part of it. Not like the whites that felt that they needed to conquer it. Here, there was a reason and a respect for everything and Vin had the privilege of learning it.
As a departing gift, Cholas wife, Nita`lo`osi Pakaali, or Morning Glory, had made Vin a buckskin rifle case, decorated with small pieces of bone and obsidian. It was Opakos gift that he cherished the most. She had given him a buckskin jacket after spending months working on. He promised her hed wear it always.
Gus traversed over the barren land like the sure-footed animal he was. He looked up when the occasional hawk would fly out of the sky capturing their prey. Being a drifter wasnt as easy as it sounded. Moving from one town to the next, taking every job that came his way, and never knowing where his next meal would come from. None of it was easy.
As Vin entered Colorado Springs, he stopped in front of the saloon and went inside. There werent many people out; most were inside trying to stay out of the rainy weather. A few patrons were sitting around various tables, drinking and playing poker. A few saloon girls served up drinks and appeased their clients in different ways.
What doya have? The bartender asked, pulling a glass from the counter before his new customer even bothered to order.
Beer, Vin answered. He leaned against the bar and looked casually around the room. The wall behind the bar was filled with glasses of all styles and bottles filled with red eye. A painting of a voluptuous woman clad only in a red satin scarf rested between the shelves filled with beverages. Tables, many having seen better days, rested in different positions around the room. Many had been carved into, or filled with buckshot; a few had even been hastily repaired with sting and nails. Spittoons that hadnt been cleaned since the dawning of man sat at each table and at the corners of the room. The final touch was the carpet that had been red at one time, was now covered in mud and manure.
Hey, young fella! a man called from the back of the room.
Vin stood up strait and turned to look at the older man.
You lookin fer a job? the man asked, making his way toward the bar.
Maybe, Vin replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Names Clay Black. He stuck his hand out for the younger man to shake. Noticed you and yer horse when ya rode up, he ran his fingers through his long hair and continued, thought maybe I could interest ya in a job.
Doin what? Vin asked, taking another sip of his beer.
Huntin, Clay responded with a smile.
Anythin that brings in money. Clay leaned against the bar and tapped the counter signaling for the tender to pour him another drink. Ive been huntin buffalo, but, pelts of any kind ill work.
So why ya askin me?
Because nobody around here looks like they could catch a cold, much less a buffalo. He chuckled and slapped his leg in amusement. Ill split everythin fifty-fifty. Clays voice went from a joking tone to a serious one.
Vin turned his attention from the man next to him to the painting on the wall. He needed the job; there was no contemplating that. When do we leave? he asked, turning his attention back to Clay.
Tomorrow, Clay answered, with a smile.
Vin woke before dawn and carefully slipped out of the bed hed slept in. He didnt want to wake the young woman lying next to him. Quickly, he got into his clothing and disappeared through the door. The sun had yet to come up, it was the perfect time of day.
Gus nickered from his stall in the livery when the door opened and Vin walked in. Clay was already loading his wagon with supplies. The wagon was large, larger than most, with high sidewalls and heavy wheels. The wagon bed was deep, enabling Clay to carry more buffalo hides. The team of horses stood patiently while chewing on their bits.
Well head south at first. I heard there was some good sized herds thereabouts. Clay jumped down off the wagon and stretched his back.
Vin nodded in agreement, while pulling Gus out of his stall. The big horse stomped his front foot and waited patiently for his master to finish saddling him. Twitching his ears he looked forward as the barn doors were opened and the team of horses were led out pulling the heavy wagon behind them.
The mornings cool breeze felt good on Vins skin as he led his horse out of the shelter. Clay was seated in the wagon, waiting. They were heading south. The Unorganized Territory and Texas, it had been a long time since hed been there, the place where he was born, and the place where his parents were buried and he didnt even know where.
The slapping of reins on the team of horses backs brought Vin out of his moment of reverie. He kicked Gus in his sides and urged him on. Texas. He was going home.
Dead carcasses of buffalo littered the land like that of cactus in a desert. Their bodies had been robbed of its only protection from the elements. Flies and scavengers now fed on their unprotected flesh. Vin looked out over the land and sighed, so much devastation for a little bit of cash. The wagon was loaded with buffalo skins and the stench filled the air.
This wasnt what Vin wanted to be doing. Killing so needlessly. He kicked Gus into a gallop and left the area ahead of Clay. The fringe on his coat moved with his horses every movement. Autumn had arrived, and with it came cool, gentle winds, and long rains.
Vin had told Clay that he was moving forward to search for place to stop for the night. In reality he needed to leave the area, and clear his head. Clay was a good man with his own ideas about the world, and Vin generally liked him, although he could do without the late night gastric episodes, or the constant belching. There was a reason Clay Black had earned the nickname, gasbag.
They had been working together for over a year and Vin was ready for a change. It was hard being a part of the reason the buffalo were disappearing. He didnt need to be told that he was the cause. He saw it every time he fired his weapon. Every bird, coyote, and fly were a reminder of what he was a part of.
Clay tied the horses out then made his way toward the campsite. Vin was squatting down next to the fire pouring himself a cup of coffee. It was obvious the kid was worried about something. He was normally a quiet individual, but when he always got quieter when he was thinking about something.
Whats on yer mind? Clay asked, seating himself on a log.
Vin shrugged, not sure how he was going to put his concern into words. The buffalo are just bout gone
Hell, therere still plenty out there.
I dont want to be a part of killin em all. Vins voice was sharper than he intended.
Clay nodded his head. He understood the kids concern. Therere plenty of things you can do. Hell, how many cats did you track down fer farmers?
That aint what Im worried bout. Vin held his cup of coffee between his hands, warming his fingers. I picked up one of them wanted posters in the last town we was in
You wanta give up buffalo huntin for bounty huntin? Clay asked in disbelief.
Pays more, not so much work, and Vin tried giving a list of all the benefits, we wouldnt be killin no more.
There it was, Clay sighed: How long you been thinkin on this?
Cant say for sure
You become a bounty hunter youll be killin men, not just animals. Clay ran his fingers through his hair.
The sheriff in Dixon done said that these posters usually call for dead or alive
Vin, youre a real smart kid but sometimes you need to think bout things. He sighed and watched as Vins shoulders slumped. Ive done been a bounty hunter, I know them ropes. These men youre gonna be chasin aint gonna wanta come easy, theres a reason the laws after em. He tried to explain the reasons why he didnt want to hunt men, but it wasnt enough. Killin men is different.
Dont lecture me Clay. I know all bout killin men
Yeah, I reckon you do. Clay nodded his head. Livin out here aint
Aw hell, Vin sighed, and then he threw his coffee cup into the fire. Is born out here, I know all bout livin it. His voice was harsher than Clay had ever heard it, and he knew this was a decision Vin had already made.
I help you with your first bounty then youre on your own.
Vin nodded, that was a start.
Mohegan was wanted in every county he entered, he and his band of renegades. The Comanche warrior had taken it upon himself to kill for all the injustices done to him and his people. However, his crusade had gone too far. Nobody was safe from his tirades, not even his own people. Many Indians called him a bad spirit, perhaps the rebirth of an evil warrior. The white settlers simply said he was a crazy savage that needed to be hung and any other Indians that got in the way of that should to be hung as well.
The US Army had gone after him and come up short, and even the Texas Rangers were having problems capturing the rogue Comanche. It was the $1000 dollar reward that had every bounty hunter from California to Georgia out hunting him down. Everyone wanted the prize money, while the Texans simply wanted him dead.
Vin had learned from Chola that in order to find the prey, he must become it. At the time he hadnt understood what it was his friend had been talking about, but searching for Mohegan had in some way, made him understand. A man running from the law wouldnt be running for mayor in the next town. No, hed be looking to disguise himself then hed run for mayor.
Clay, who was familiar with the rules of bounty hunting, showed Vin where to look, who to ask, and most importantly, how not to get killed. Outlaws, of any kind, werent outlaws because they followed the law and were nice people. They were outlaws because they didnt follow the rules of the land, instead they ignored them, sought them out as a challenge to be broken
The wanted poster in Vins hand did little to capture the true likeness of Mohegan. It didnt show that he was over six feet tall, weighed over 200 pounds, and had the deadest eyes anyone had ever seen. No, it did nothing to capture who the real Mohegan was.
Vin nudged Gus sides and carefully guided his big horse around the sidewall of the canyon. Clay followed on his big gray. Hed sold his wagon, knowing hed never use it again, and his team of horses. Hed fallen in love with Lady when he saw her standing alone in the coral. So, hed reached in his pocket and purchased her.
Going on gut instinct, Vin had decided to head northwest in search for Mohegan. The land was more fruitful this time of year, and water was easier to find. Though most of the obvious signs were telling the duo that he should head south, something in Vin was telling him differently. Clay had put up a fight, but at the last moment decided to follow.
They knew they were on the right trail when they came across a sight theyd never wanted to lay eyes on. Three men, Texas Rangers, had been tortured and then killed. They were then scalped and left out in the hot sun. This had been Mohegans doing. Vin and Clay buried the men and gave them irregular crosses to mark their graves. It was the best they could do under the circumstances. The two former buffalo hunters headed out, they knew where they were going.
Dust swirled at the base of the canyon and the horses hooves striking the dry ground sounded hollow through the high rocky walls. Vin checked the position of his rifle, not wanting to get it caught on something before pulling it out of its boot. Lizard Butte was the perfect hiding place for anyone who knew about it. Outlaws of every kind had sought out its refuge on more than one occasion. The rocky outcroppings and steep inclines made it difficult for even the best of sharpshooters to hit their targets successfully. Rather, nobody really tried, afraid of where the ricocheted bullet would end up.
Vin dismounted Gus and ground tied him, and then he grabbed his rifle. Clay did the same. While Vin took up a position on the canyon wall, Clay stayed back knowing his partner not only had the better eyesight but the better shot as well. They knew Mohegans band had abandoned him and he was now left with only two other outlaws, both of whom refused to leave his side.
The shadow of a bird flying over the canyon crept across the ground and Vin turned his attention toward the butte. Three horses were resting near the base of the hill, saddled and ready to go. One warrior stood guard with the butt of his rifle resting against his hip pointing towards the sky. Vin would wait until the other two made their appearance.
Mohegan threw his rifle to the ground and squatted near the entrance of the cave at the base of Lizard Butte. He watched the land, the horses, and the sky searching for anything that could cause him harm. He knew he was wanted, but it didnt stop his rampaging. Hed just killed a family not a hundred miles from the spot he was at. A family that hadnt done anything except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mohegan was hungry for blood and everyone knew it. He did like being in the spotlight. He liked the idea that he was creating this larger than life being, but he was confusing respect with fear.
A soft breeze picked up through the cave entrance and the Comanche warrior stood back up and looked at the entrance of the canyon. He never saw the bullet that hit him. The Indian ponies jumped and then scattered, while the other two Comanche warriors ducked for cover.
It only took a few seconds after the first shot for Vin to finish off the other two outlaws. He felt Clay slap him on the shoulder.
Damn, Vin, I knew you were a hellava shot, but shit
Vin didnt reply. Hed just shot and killed three men, there wasnt a reason to rejoice, no matter what it was that theyd done. He turned and headed back toward Gus who was waiting patiently for him and mounted. The big horse seemed to know his riders mood and wasnt about to make things any more difficult for him.
It took both Clay and Vin to get Mohegan on the back of one ponys. While the other two men werent as hard to get strapped to the back of the other horses it did take a lot of effort. At one point, Clay was comparing moving these men as to the difficulty of skinning a buffalo hide.
The town of Pedro was less than a days ride from Lizard Butte, and thats where they were headed. They didnt want to have to travel around with these bodies for an extended period of time, for many reasons, not just the obvious one. Vin took the lead, ponying the small paint and Mohegan. Clay followed, with the others.
Pedro wasnt much bigger than an outpost station. A few buildings lined the streets, a bank, sheriffs office, and of course a saloon. People bustled down the boardwalks trying to get along with their daily activities. Vin and Clay stopped their horses outside the sheriffs office and tied them to the hitching rails before they headed inside.
I done told ya Charles, you cant be out the sheriff looked up when the front door opened and two rugged individuals stepped through. His deputy Charles moved to the side of the room to be out of the way while at the same time able to see everything that was going on. Can I help you with somethin?
You the sheriff? Clay asked.
Yeah, Im Sheriff Malcolm Stiles.
Clay nodded. Weve got Mohegan outside he didnt have time to finish as the sheriff and his deputy jumped up and rushed for the door.
Maybe they was expectin im, Vin said with a chuckle.
Clay sighed, then poured himself a cup of coffee and waited for the two men to reenter the office. It was only a few minutes before the Stiles and Charles entered the building carrying the renegade Indian between them. They laid him on one of the cots in the cells and then covered him with an extra blanket.
Whered you find im? the sheriff asked, confronting the two men.
Whats it matter? Vin asked.
Listen kid, Stiles snapped. You just brought in one of this states most wanted outlaws, so dont give me any shit on where you found im.
Vin clenched his jaw then turned his attention to the two individuals that entered.
Oliver, Stiles said with a more relaxed smile. He reached out and shook the older of the two mens hand.
Everythin all right here Malcolm? Oliver asked, looking questionably at the two rough looking men.
These two buffalo hunters brought in Mohegans body. The sheriff motioned with his head for his friend to enter the cell where the body was covered.
Oliver walked into the cell and threw back the blanket and took a closer look. Who shot im? he asked, seeing the carefully placed bullet wound to Mohegans head.
The sheriff looked carefully at the two bounty hunters and noticed the younger of the two nod his head. The kid, he responded, for Vin.
Damn good shot, Oliver replied, walking out of the cell.
Too good, Stiles spit out.
Im Oliver Perry of the Texas Rangers and thats my partner, Buck Wilmington. He leaned back against the desk and gave the young deputy a look of warning before he continued, Whered you find im?
Lizard Butte, Clay responded.
What about the dead Rangers? Perry asked, needing as much information as he could get.
They was dead when we got to em, Vin replied softly. We tracked the three of em from there and when we found the scalps we knew we had the right men.
You shoot im? Perry asked, wanting to hear it from the kid.
Whats your name kid?
Tanner, Vin responded confidently.
Well, Oliver stood up and went around the desk then pulled out a receipt from the top drawer. You can take this to the bank and theyll pay you the reward money. He handed it to Clay because the kid was keeping his distance. Just out of curiosity, what are two buffalo hunters doin this far south?
Clay smiled and slipped the receipt into his coat pocket. Huntin buffalo, he responded with a grin.
Well then, Oliver stuck his hand out and shook Clays in a firm grasp, be careful the buffalo down here tend to shoot back.
Clay nodded with a knowing smile then exited the room. Vin tipped his head to the men in the room before following his friend outside. He grabbed his horses reins and started for the saloon.
Clay folded his 500 dollars and stuck it into his pocket. It was good to have some money on him, and it felt better knowing it would last him a while. Lady was saddled and ready to go.
Ya know Vin, Clay smiled, Youve got a good head on yer shoulders.
No shit? Vin asked, through a chuckle.
Clay stuck his hand out and shook Vins with a reinforcing grip. Take care of yourself, he said quietly, before turning and mounting up on Lady.
Vin waved him off and watched him disappear into the flat desert ground. Once again he was on his own, but this time he wasnt so young, and he wasnt so naive.
Vin slapped Gus on his butt and closed the gate. The horse had been with him longer than anyone and it was time for him to retire. The old horse had bowed his tendon for the last time. Now, thanks to the liveryman in the small town of Tascosa, Texas, Gus would live his last few days in comfort.
For the past few years Vin had been running in bounties from all over the Unorganized Territory and Texas. The job wasnt easy, it never was, but it provided clothing, food, and warm beds to sleep in, when he was fortunate enough to be in a town. He didnt really like the job of hunting men, but he was good at it great at it. Everything that Chola had taught him was utilized, and everything Clay had taught him was as well. The years hadnt been easy on him, but they had prepared him for his future.
Vin eyed the large black gelding that stood quietly at the back of the corral. He looked as alone as Vin felt, and for some reason that brought a smile to his face. How much for the black?
The liveryman nodded. Youve got a good eye for horseflesh. He rested his forearms on the fence railing. Ill take forty for him.
Vin nodded before crawling through the fence railings toward the animal. He immediately started rubbing his hands over the horses legs, neck, and chest.
Hes only four, the man who owned him said he was a racehorse back east, Payton added.
Then whys he here?
Payton shrugged. Guess he didnt like to run. He chuckled.
Vin nodded, then walked up to the fence where Payton was standing. His new horse was following him. Vin reached into his pocket and retrieved the cash needed to purchase the animal. He then slipped a halter on the horses head and led him out of the corral. Gus turned his attention from his feed to Vin and the horse his old master was leading. Vin tried to ignore the look but a pang of guilt ate at his heart.
Ill write you up a receipt. Payton slapped Vin on the shoulder as he headed for the barn.
The big black nudged his new masters arm. Vin gave the animal a pat on the neck before saddling him. Like a pro, the horse stood still accepting his new bit and new equipment. When the large beast started pawing the ground with his hoof, Vin smiled, Digger seemed to be the perfect name.
Vin pulled out the wrinkled wanted poster and looked out over the flat barren land. Eli Joe was wanted for bank robbery, and for leaving a few bullet holes in walls, tills, desks, and windows. There was a 200-dollar bounty on the man and Vin had been hunting him for a couple of weeks. Hed finally found him.
The small farm seemed unnaturally quiet for an early morning, but Vin tried not to let it bother him. There was one horse running loose in the corral while chickens ran free in the yard. A few crows sat motionless in the tree next to the house, almost daring the stranger to enter the premises.
HELLO, THE HOUSE! Vin called, pulling his weapon from its boot on the saddle. He listened carefully for a response and none came. Slowly, and carefully, he slipped from his saddle and ground tied Digger.
With his eyes focusing on every aspect of the farm Vin crept up to the front door of the house. Smoke was coming out of the chimney, but there wasnt any action or sounds coming from within the poorly built home. Vin jumped when he caught the reflection of a chicken in the window then chastised himself for being so jumpy. He grabbed the doorknob as though it were a hot potato and with his rifle ready for anything, swung it open.
The house had been ransacked. Dishes, furniture, and clothing were spread out all over the floor. Vin brought his weapon up when he noticed the legs of someone in the doorway leading into another room. It was the blood that captured his attention and as he got closer to the body he knew the victim was dead. Obviously, the murder or murders were gone.
Vin kneeled down and checked the body. It was Eli Joe, he was sure of it. Now all he had to do was get him back to town.
Vin ponied the small chestnut mare that had been in the corral with Eli lying across her back. He entered town and headed directly to the sheriffs office.
Sheriff Mark Central was a short fat man who wore his hat all the time to hide his baldness. He liked to think he was an important part of the community, but in reality he was the town joke. He liked to drink and more times than not his red nose and rosy cheeks gave away his weakness, but nobody cared. Crime wasnt really in issue in their small backwater town. Sure, a few saloon fights and the occasional theft of a pig, but nothing overwhelming.
Vin entered the sheriffs office and averted his eyes from the man behind the desk whod been drinking on the job. Sheriff Central quickly replaced the bottle of whisky in the drawer and wiped his lips free of any evidence.
What can I do for you? He asked, trying to sound confident.
Vin reached into his pocket and pulled out the wanted poster of Eli Joe and handed it to the sheriff. Im bringin im in.
Okay, the sheriff replied, getting to his feet. Ill need to see the body. He grabbed his gun belt off the desk and slipped it on before heading outside.
Vin followed, hed done this many times before and wasnt expecting anything different. He watched as the sheriff grabbed a handful of hair and picked up Elis head, trying to compare the real face with the image on the poster.
Son. The sheriff looked up and drew his pistol.
Vin jumped back in surprise and raised his hands in the air. He wasnt about to get shot now.
That aint, Eli Joe. He motioned with his weapon for Vin to go back inside the office. Thats Adam Carter.
I didnt kill im, he was dead when I found im, Vin tried to explain, but his pleas werent being heard. The sheriff was too excited about catching his first real outlaw. It was the end of the pistol that pushed Vin into the only cell the sheriffs office had.
The door slammed shut and Mark seemed to be glowing. He went to his desk and took another drink out of his bottle of red eye. Whats your name?
Vin leaned against the far wall of the cell trying to think of a way out of the situation. Tanner, he replied coldly.
Vin Tanner, his voice was softer this time.
Well, Vin Tanner, youre goin to stand trial for murder, and then a wicked smile appeared on the sheriffs face, youre gonna hang. He laughed, before opening the door wide letting the sun enter the room. Ill only be a minute, he said sarcastically, then headed outside. He grabbed the lead rope of the horse that carried Adam Carter, and headed for the undertakers.
Vin slammed his fist against the wall scraping his knuckles against the harsh stone. He glanced outside and could see his horse still tied to the hitching rail. He could tell Digger was twitching his ears because he didnt understand what was going on. Vin didnt know what he was going to do. He knew Eli Joe had set him up; it was a gut feeling that hed chosen to ignore until now. Hed been on the outlaws trail for too long and hed given him too many opportunities to learn Vins tactics. So, Eli Joe set the young sharpshooter up framing him for murder.
When Vin leaned forward he rested his arms on the iron bars knowing hed never last long in a place like this. Hed lived his whole life in the open, and the racing of his heart, and the sweat that seemed to gather at his forehead only confirmed his fears. When the door to the cell moved, he stepped back and looked carefully around. He pushed again on the iron door and it swung open. The iron was so old it hadnt locked when the sheriff had slammed it shut.
Hesitantly, Vin took a step outside the cell and then made the determination. Hed find the real Eli Joe and bring him in. This wasnt running, just finding the truth. Vin took a peak outside and determined that nobody was coming around. He rushed out of the office and jumped on Diggers back and kicked the animal into a fast gallop. If he used to be a racehorse, now was the time to prove it.
Vin could hear someone shouting and then the sound of gunfire filling the air, but thankfully nothing hit him. He knew hed have to worry about a posse and eventually a wanted poster of his own. He would eventually clear his name. He didnt know how and he didnt know when just that he would.
Vin looked at the wrinkled up poster of himself and sighed. The likeness was horrid. He was now wanted with a five hundred dollar bounty on his head. He wrinkled up the poster and threw it into the blazing fire. This wasnt the way things were supposed to turn out. Digger stood behind him, munching on some grass. The horse had more confidence than he did at the moment. What was he going to do? He couldnt go anywhere without the bounty following him wherever he went. He was out of money, no job, and he didnt own anything of real value.
Digger took a step forward and nudged his masters shoulder as though trying to comfort him. Vin chuckled. The thought of being tied to the back of a horse and hauled in for a crime he didnt commit disturbed him. Not just because he didnt do the crime, but because it caused him to wonder how many men hed brought to justice that had been innocent. Some never denied their guilt, others never had the chance, but there were a few that did, and it was those that gnawed at his conscious.
Vin kicked some dirt on the fire to extinguish it. He needed to find a job, something low profile. Hed used up all his resources, hed even sold his rifle, and for a man who was wanted he needed to be armed with more than a knife and a fast horse.
He had to thank Bea and Evan for teaching him how to hide, and he had to thank Chola for teaching him how to hide his tracks. Being on the run had taught him a new respect for the weather, the land, and people in general. It was the little things that mattered now. Things like the smell of a fresh baked apple pie, or the sound of horses hooves pounding the ground, and yes, the soft touch of a gentle breeze.
There were a great many things he wanted to accomplish before his time on earth was over. Hed never been in love with a woman, or known what if felt like to be loved passionately in return. Hed seen love and felt the love his mother had for him. But it wasnt the same. He wanted to belong to something bigger than himself, something with meaning and destination. Though his life had been full of experiences, to him, it felt empty.
Vin mounted up on Digger and kicked him in an all too familiar direction. This time however, his destination was unknown.
Town bustled with activity. Not the kind of activity that most towns were familiar with. No. This town ran wild with outlaws. Men that Vin felt he could blend in with. If bounty hunters didnt enter this town, afraid of the clientele, then it was a safe bet that Vin would be safe for a while.
It looked as if the town had at one time been full of promise, with a newspaper, sheriffs office, bank, and several other small shops. Though many had been abandoned and boarded up, there was still a few that remained open.
Outlaws, drunken cowhands, and troublemakers in general ran up and down the street firing their weapons and causing problems. Even the sheriff stood off to the side, more afraid to make an arrest than put a gun to his own head. Vin shook his head and stopped his horse in front of the hardware store.
Virgil Watson stood behind the counter counting his new shipment of door hinges. He was an older man with a thick head of hair and heavy glasses. He looked up when the bell above the door rang and a younger man with wiry long hair, a simple blue shirt, and light brown pants entered the hardware store. Unlike many of the towns other occupants, this one wasnt drunk, didnt carry a weapon, and he looked in need of something.
What can I do for you? The storekeeper asked, setting his pencil down on the counter.
I, uh, Vin paused, moving closer to the counter. Im lookin for a job.
Virgil nodded. This aint the best town to be looking for a job, he said, looking the younger man over.
Vin shrugged his shoulders. Better than some places worse than others.
Cant argue with you there, Virgil said with a chuckle. Job aint glorious, but it pays five dollars a week.
Sounds good. Vin smiled, shaking his new employers hand.
Virgil introduced himself and then quickly showed Vin the ropes, some of that included a broom and apron. Not an vital job by any means, but one that supplied him and his horse a place to live and food to eat. Hed managed to acquire an old abandoned covered wagon, which he quickly turned into his quarters. Though he didnt have much to fill it with, it did suffice as a place to sleep and shelter from the rain. Digger, however, stayed in the livery, with a stall of his own and fresh food and water.
This might not have been the life Vin had dreamed about as a child, but it was a life regardless. With all the other activity in town nobody ever noticed him. He was just the young man that worked for Virgil Watson, better than being the outlaw worth five hundred dollars.
When several of the towns current residents decided to hang a man, Vin decided hed had enough. He threw his apron onto the counter and then grabbed one of the rifles from the weapons rack and a handful of bullets. Mr. Watson followed him out of the store, not wanting to lose the rifle.
It was the man in black across the street that captured Vins attention. In any situation it was better to have someone to watch your back, and for some reason the young sharpshooter knew hed found the man that would do it. Vin nodded when he captured the subtle movement of the dark strangers eyes.
Nobody was going to get hung today.
Notes: Putrid Fever, also known as typhus or diphtheria, depending on where you look, was a morbid and painful way to die. For the purpose of this story I did not go into any detail on the suffering Vins mother would have gone through.
The Alabama Indians were forced from their land, from what is now known as Alabama, and down into Texas over 200 years ago. They did not live in tee-pees, but rather small huts or cabins. For the most part they were a very peaceful tribe, however, they did fight with ferociously with other tribes.
Next: Noahs Dove: - Josiah
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