~~ The South Wind ~~

by TJ


Vin Tanner had quite a nice little camp set up. He’d had lots of time to work on it. After all, he’d been here now for more than two weeks. He had been seven days out of Four Corners when an eagle circling high above had caught his attention. They weren’t that unusual up here in the mountains but he’d felt like this one was talking to him. Gazing up at the circling bird, the woman’s words floated back into his consciousness. Call all you want my friend! She won’t find me here.

He had voiced the words but wasn’t convinced of what he’d said.

His wagon was backed up against a stand of trees, while the workhorse and his horse were secured on long ropes. There was plenty of grass to feed the animals and their lines allowed them to get to the stream. The tracker had built a lean-to beside his transportation to shelter supplies. Securing a good spot for his fire, he had set out a circle of stones. During the days, he did a little scouting and hunting. At night he sat by the fire and watched the stars. He’d missed being out in the wilderness.

This afternoon he was sitting at the edge of the lake doing some fishing. The water was calm and the sun was warm. He sat relaxing against a boulder, using his spyglass to watch some deer on the opposite shore. All of a sudden, they scattered. Vin sat up. He couldn’t tell at first, what the reason for their anxiety was. Then he spotted two men. It was obvious to the sharpshooter that the two were inexperienced hunters. They tried to get close to the deer again and scared them off a second time. He laughed to himself before pulling his pole out of the water and returned to camp with his catch.

A couple of hours later Tanner was busy cooking up the fish when he abruptly became aware that he had company. He slowly straightened up from his position over the fire and rested a hand on his mare’s laig. He waited and listened but didn’t move again until they were inside his camp.

"Howdy there friend," the big man greeted the sharpshooter.

The tracker turned to face the two intruders. He wasn’t going to be taken in by their polite tone or manners. He smiled a little. "Can I help you fella’s?" he asked. His hand still rested on his weapon.

"Nice of ya tah ask friend," the other man put in. "Ain’t had much luck with our hunting fer a spell. Sure could use some of that there fish you’s frying up."

The sharpshooter’s ears were listening to the smaller man but his eyes were focused on his much larger friend. The big man had taken all of about thirty seconds to size up Vin and his camp. It was obvious he figured they could handle the tracker and relieve him of his supplies.

"Reckon you got enough supplies for a while. You got company or you just figuring on stayin’ around a might longer?" the larger man asked. He eyed Tanner’s weapon intently.

The sharpshooter smiled cordially. "Reckon I can spare some of the fish," he replied. He tried to distract the man from his plotting by offering the smaller man a seat near the fire.

His companion happily accepted the sharpshooter’s invitation but the big man stayed back.

"Ain’t you hungry?" he tried once more to bring the other man forward. If they caused problems, it would be easier to have them both in his sights.

Shaking his head ominously, the big man stood back by the wagon while his companion served himself some fish and started eating.

Tanner took note that the smaller man had laid his rifle down and his pistol was under his plate. He tried one more time to draw the big man closer. "Reckon you should probably get some before ya friend here eats it all."

The big man just smiled at the tracker. They both stood their ground.

For several minutes, the only movement in camp was the shoveling motions the smaller man made to get the food into his face.

And then, without warning, the big man went for his gun.

The sharpshooter reacted quickly. He hit the ground and rolled. He got off two rounds and managed to take the big man down but his friend by the fire had been given more than enough time to draw his pistol. From where he was at, there was no way he could miss the tracker. Cussing his stupidity, the sharpshooter laid down his weapon and raised his hands.

"You’d best say yer prayers, young fella," the smaller man snicker, "I ain’t planning on taking no prisoners." He leveled his weapon at Tanner’s head and smiled.

The tracker looked the man straight in the eye. If it was his turn to leave this world, Vin was determined to do it with his eyes open.

… A single shot rang out across the lake.

The smaller man stared questioningly at the gun in his hand. He exchanged disbelieving looks with the tracker before his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell down beside the fire.

Not letting his momentary relief cloud his judgement, Vin looked anxiously past the two dead men and into the tree line. Someone was out there but he couldn’t see or sense a presence. He slowly reached for his mare’s laig and pulled it in close.

There was movement… and then… a familiar figure moved from the shadows.

Aiming his weapon at the stranger, the sharpshooter hesitated. "Athena?" he whispered to himself questioningly.

A big floppy hat and black duster hid the gunman from view, just as they had done the first time he laid eyes on her. Yet, the sharpshooter couldn’t feel or hear her in his thoughts. He was confused. Back in Four Corners, he knew she was around by her presence in his mind. Even before she’d hit town he had known something was different. It can’t be her… can it? …Damn! …Looks like her… but I can’t feel her.

The stranger watched as Tanner cautiously got to his feet.

The tracker couldn’t take his eyes off the shadow figure. "Athena?" he called out to her.

Cocking her head, the woman slowly holstered her colt. She stood for a long time, just looking at the young man. Taking a deep breath, she slowly let it out. The last one…

The past month had been like a dream for Athena. Never before had she questioned herself so much. It had all seemed like any other calling, at first. She had felt the chaos and the spirits had shown her the way to that little town. She hadn’t realized that the task would encompass a group of seven men but initially; she had hoped that only one or two were in need of her guidance. In helping a few, she could make sure they saw destiny together. It wasn’t until her eyes had first gazed at the small group that she had understood that they were four separate paths for her to travel. And, her initial fears had been right. These responsibilities were asking more from her than she’d ever given before.

Athena shut her eyes tightly, trying to block out the memories. But, these men would not leave her consciousness so easily. Her guidance for the first two men had been relatively simple… but the third… Oh, how she wished she could forget… but in her heart, she knew she would always remember

Athena’s instincts had forewarned her that the gunslinger would take more from her than she would normally ever give. In many ways, …her feelings had been so right.

The departure from his home being a day later than planned... With no clear guidance from her spirits, Christopher’s invitation to delay her journey for just one more day had been accepted readily. But, his deepening state of mind compelled her beyond her normal boundaries. Yet, Athena held no real regrets... she knew in her heart, that everything that had past between them had happened for a reason. For all that he had taken; Larabee gave her so much more.

She had bid her fair-haired cavalier a pensive farewell and headed out in search of the final lost soul she needed to send home. That had been fifteen days ago. Now she stood before this fourth man, a lost soul herself. As the East and West winds had guided her closer to his position, her bond with them had deteriorated. Yesterday she had caught sight of the tracker across the lake but could not sense his presence in her mind. She understood that the spirits would not be able to assist her in this final phase, yet she felt completely lost without their guidance.

How can I possibly help this man if cannot feel him?

Not only had her spirits abandoned her but the tracker had also mastered the ability to block his thoughts from her mind. The woman had known before he had left town, that when she saw him next, she would not be able to hear the reflections of his soul.

Just as she had been with Larabee, Athena was uncertain of what to do next. Yet this time… she was truly on her own. Standing here staring at Vin now, she knew she could never allow herself to be that vulnerable again… but how could she ever help him without understanding…

Considering how close he had just come to death, Tanner wasn’t taking any chances, if this wasn’t the woman he knew. Still peering down the barrel of his mare’s laig, he called again. "Athena?"

Slowly she looked into his eyes and realized he was as confused as she was, with the lack of contact they had in their minds. She took off her hat and her long braid fell over her shoulder. She smiled gently for him.

The sharpshooter didn’t relax his hold on his weapon. His eyes recognized the woman but his mind was telling him different. He frowned. "Athena?"

She lowered her gaze. She knew in her heart why he questioned her. "Nanomonestotse," she whispered quietly.

Vin understood the Cheyenne word she spoke and he slowly lowered his weapon. It was as though she called softly to the essence of his soul. Yes! …We can be at peace.

At Athena’s insistence, they had loaded the bodies onto the workhorse and she had simply disappeared into the trees with them. Tanner knew she believed them to be ‘unworthy of respect’ and understood her desire to return them to the creatures of the forest. He had agreed without argument. He didn’t feel like digging graves anyway.

The tracker had washed away the bloodstains and set about cooking up some more fish. He never gave it a second thought that she wouldn’t return. He was too busy trying to understand why she wasn’t in his head anymore. They had exchanged no more words before she left, although he desperately wanted an answer. Now the sun was setting and he looked towards the tree line and wondered if she was coming back.

Tanner knelt to turn the fish when the sound of a horse found his ears. He looked toward the stream and saw the woman and the workhorse drinking from the running water. He watched as she removed her boots and socks to soak her feet. He couldn’t help but wonder how she could stand the ice-cold temperature of the mountain stream. The sharpshooter’s eyes followed her as she took the workhorse back to his tether and retrieved her footwear from the grass. She moved back into the trees and then returned several minutes later with her saddle and blanket, her rifle and bags. After depositing her belongings under the lean-to, she came to the fire and stood beside him. Vin continued to stare at the woman.

Athena ignored his eyes and sat down to brush the dirt from her feet. "It would be best if you turn the food before it burns," she said softly after a few minutes.

The tracker realized he hadn’t been paying attention to their supper and quickly turned the pieces before the pan caught them. He looked at her again and smiled that famous Tanner smile. It had been a month since he had first laid eyes on her and three weeks since he left Four Corners. He hadn’t realized that he had missed her company that much. "Took ya long enough tah find me."

She looked across the fire into his sparkling blue eyes then lowered her head before she spoke. "It was necessary for me to guide the others before I began my search for you." She remembered the men that she had left behind. Each memory, in its own special way, she would cherish eternally.

The sharpshooter considered her words carefully. Standish and Wilmington were still in Four Corners when he had left. He recalled how different the gambler had been that afternoon he caught them coming out of the hotel. He remembered clearly the words the southerner had spoke that day ‘… and I do believe that young lady has shown me where I truly belong’. Vin also considered how uncharacteristic Ezra’s actions were, the day of the raid. He surmised that Athena had somehow shown Ezra his true place amongst The Seven. The sharpshooter had questioned her motivation then. Only now did he actually understand. He smiled to himself and pushed the fish around in the pan.

Wilmington was another story. He’d been fit to be tied the morning the tracker had pulled out of town. He’d refused to acknowledge Tanner and Vin thought it was probably for the best. Buck’s temper always seemed to get the best of him when he figured his friends were in danger. The kid was usually at the top of his list. The sharpshooter felt he had let them both down the day of the raid and he’d left the tall rogue to his own anger.

Looking back at the girl again, the tracker flipped the fish one more time. Her manner was calm and Vin understood how her gentleness might have soothed the fire in Wilmington’s heart. No man seemed to be able to cool the hot head down when he lost it. Vin also considered that the ladies’ man’s usual passions might have reciprocated the action. It wasn’t out-of-the-question that the tall rogue had been relieved of his anger. A smirk crossed Tanner’s face as he reached for the plates he’d set by the fire to warm. He glanced at the woman quickly. It wasn’t hard to imagine Athena and Buck together.

Vin served the fish and handed Athena her share. She accepted the plate from him but showed little interest in its content. He studied her face carefully and watched as she twisted the end of her braid though her fingers. "What about Larabee?" he asked. He gauged her reaction carefully but couldn’t understand the body language.

Athena closed her eyes slowly, licked her lip and then dropped her chin. She deliberated about her answer before speaking. "Christopher has returned to his rightful place." She still didn’t look at the tracker.

There was no way for Vin to satisfy his curiosity except to ask the question that was on his mind. He couldn’t help but notice the mood the gunslinger was in the night he left. He’d seen the whiskey he took back to his shack. Any sane person would have steered clear of him for a long time but he didn’t think Athena would have allowed herself that option. Tanner had also noticed the healing cut on the woman’s lip. The thoughts that crossed his mind made him angry. "He hurt you… didn’t he?" he asked quietly. The anger was clear in his voice as he stared at her.

Athena closed her eyes and tried hard not remember her first moments with the gunslinger. Nevertheless, as the memories flashed through her mind she covered them with remembrance of her last few hours with the real Chris Larabee. "Your leader has returned," there was a long pause as she looked back at the tracker and studied his eyes. "As must you," she finished off.

There was no way for Tanner to understand the look on her face. Ezra’s poker face came to mind as he puzzled over the expression. For an instant, he thought he saw anguish and then it had turned to… something else… Now there was no emotion to be read on the face at all. No… not Ezra. Chris! "He’s gone back tah town?" he asked simply.

"He has … returned to his rightful place." She looked towards the man and their eyes locked, "and so must you," she repeated again.

For three weeks, the sharpshooter had been dreading those words. He’d guessed she would come looking for him and it wasn’t hard to figure out that it would be to take him back. He’d had all this time to think on it though. He’d missed being out here where he could think straight. Where he didn’t have to listen to any of Josiah’s high words or Ezra’s complaining. Where he didn’t need to bother with Larabee’s moods or the healer trying to look out for everybody. And then there was Wilmington and the kid. Tanner closed his eyes and smiled. Well, maybe he missed their constant bickering just a little bit. "Don’t see no reason tah go back... Reckon we’s never gonna really know each other anyway." Vin set his empty plate on the grass and leaned back to stretch. "I’m doin’ just fine out here on my own."

There was a long pause before she spoke. "You have never let anyone know you… completely."

The tracker turned slowly and looked deep into her eyes. He studied the face carefully and suddenly realized that there was something missing… Something she didn’t know. It didn’t make any sense. Vin was so used to Athena knowing everything about him. "Why don’t you know… me?" his gaze took in her changing expression and all of a sudden he realized the truth. It wasn’t just him.

"You can’t get inside my head, anymore." He sat up but never took his eyes off her. "Can you?"

Athena stared back at him as he recognized the reality of the situation. She got to her feet and turned to stare across the lake.

Following her, the sharpshooter looked bewildered. "Why?" he shook his head questioningly.

There was a long pause before she answered. "The spirits guided me to your town more than four weeks ago Vin Tanner… to you. To your friends… It took time but I could sense the truths they denied. I was able to guide them back to become more complete than before." She turned and looked at him again. Her face showed confusion and disappointment. "Your secret still remains yours… I cannot resolve what I do not know… I have failed you."

They stood silently and looked into each other eyes.

The tracker spent most of the night tossing and turning in the bed of his wagon. Athena had refused to say anymore before curling up under the lean-to. She had ignored him completely and he knew something had changed.

Vin woke well past sunrise to the smell of biscuits cooking. Frowning, he stretched and crawled from his bed, only to be greeted by something he hadn’t expected. He gazed at the woman as she tended to the biscuits baking in the stone oven she had constructed. She had on a flowing skirt and a colorful cloth, tied about her waist and neck. Her back and shoulders were bare and her hair swayed freely as she moved around the camp. If not for the gun belt strung around her hips, the tracker wouldn’t have guessed this to be the same woman. He watched her curves as she mixed some more dough. He could see the tattoo below her hair and he wondered again, if the young woman had been cursed or blessed. Shaking the lingering thought away, he jumped down from the wagon and he moved to join her. He marveled again at the sight. She’s definitely a woman! Taking up a seat on the large log beside the fire, Vin grinned. "Mornin’."

She smiled her reply before laying a plate of biscuits on his lap.

Tanner’s ‘thank you’ was an even bigger grin. He watched as Athena busied herself removing the remaining biscuits from her oven. When they were all safely on the extra plate, she took one for herself and sat at his feet facing the fire. He munched on the food and looked curiously at the construction off to one side of his fire pit. Although buried partially in the ground, the stones stood up proudly. "Reckon you done ya self proud. Quite the little oven ya got there," he said after a while.

They sat quietly and enjoyed the biscuits before she leaned over and retrieved a fourth one for him.

The sharpshooter thanked her again with another smile. "Where’d ya find them flat rocks?"

Looking pleased with his comment, Athena looked over her shoulder and pointed to the stream.

Vin nodded slowly, "‘Course," he replied. He’d never even considered building what he saw. But then again, he probably wouldn’t have even come close to her perfection. Finishing off the last biscuit, the tracker motioned no when she offered another. He did accept the coffee she‘d made though.

Seated together, as they were, anyone traveling by might have suspected a much deeper bond between these two strangers but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Athena sat staring at the countryside wondering what she was supposed to do now. For the first time in her life, she was a woman without any special gifts. She had a mission to accomplish and nothing to tell her how she should proceed… yet she could not fail… To lose one would be losing them all.

Her urgent need to send this man back to where he came from was her only reason for being here… If not for that, Athena knew she would never have come. But, …there was a strange satisfaction in being alone in the wilderness with this near stranger. An unusual peace seemed to be enveloping her... something that she could never remember feeling before. Even the telltale whispers in her mind were strangely quiet. Confused by her apparent normality, she felt as though she knew nothing… but she also felt compelled to finish what she had started. She simply just… didn’t… know how.

The sharpshooter eyed the woman carefully. He’d trained himself to gauge people by the façade they presented, but nothing had prepared him to deal with this woman. At first, she was a strong forceful presence in his subconscious. Her personality was a confused mixture of ups and downs and he hadn’t had enough time to understand what he perceived. One minute calm and focused and then efficient and intense. Each facet had played an intricate part in his last eleven days in Four Corners but after the incident, his doubt and anger had taken over and all he’d thought about was getting away.

Those men were his friends but they didn’t understand him. He’d let them down. He had no more reason to stay. But then Athena had come back into his thoughts. The quiet, peacefulness of his surroundings made Vin think of the woman that now sat below him. Glancing at her reassuringly, he couldn’t help but see the natural beauty this place brought out in her. He knew his oneness with the wilderness brought out something special in him but he’d never met a woman for whom, it did the same… until now.

Vin spent the morning showing the woman around his little part of the mountain valley. In the afternoon they wandered further out to check on his traps and brought back a rabbit and some wild roots. The sharpshooter now busied himself fixing a hearty stew to go with the left over biscuits while Athena sat quietly on the lakeshore. They had talked very little throughout the day, although they both had things on their minds.

The woman’s thoughts wandered as she stared at the majestic surroundings. Different shades of green and brown dotted the hills. The deep blue of the lake contrasted wonderfully with the rich hue of the clear sky high above. Everything seemed so fresh and alive and Athena found it hard to concentrate on the task that she was here to accomplish. Glancing back at Vin, she smiled gently. It was rare to find a man who appreciated this kind of beauty as much as she did. Yet, he seemed more at peace here than he had before. She didn’t need to see the reflections of his soul to understand the quiet calm that filled his spirit. Clearly, they were both drawn to this existence but…

Interrupting the woman’s musings Tanner called, telling her that the stew was ready. Neither spoke during the meal. The cautious smiles they exchanged seemed to be enough convey their mutual contentment. When the food was gone, Athena got to her feet first and took charge of the dishes. They smiled at each other again as she headed for the stream.

When Athena returned he was sitting on the large log again. A blanket and her coat were resting beside him. She stowed the pot and plates in the lean-to and moved back to the fire. Vin offered the woman her coat and watched as she put it on and sat down at his feet again. The sharpshooter laid the blanket gently across her bare feet and legs.

The setting sun cast long shadows across the valley as the two sat quietly and surveyed the spectacle. Tanner couldn’t help but watch the girl, too. He knew his own reasons for enjoying this life so much but he wondered what the appeal was to Athena. The more he thought about her reasons, the more he thought about her. So many different questions flooded into his mind. A half-hour passed before Vin finally broke the lingering silence. "Do ya hear everyone’s thoughts?" he asked softly.

Athena glanced at him quickly before hiding the hurt in her eyes. With the peacefulness of the day, she had all but forgotten what she had lost. She shifted her position and her gaze wandered to the far off lakeshore.

The minutes ticked slowly by.

"I do not know how I perceive another’s reflections… But, no," she finally answered quietly. "I only understand those who need my help… and sometimes those who are closest to them." She closed her eyes and smiled as she thought about the other men that made them seven. "It is always different… what I can understand. This time there have been many images."

There was another silence as Athena turned back to Vin and looked at him doubtfully.

"Your Josiah and Nathan. They are good men, with good hearts. No matter what may come, they will ground your friendship. I knew they needed no guidance to ride through the storm…"

Tanner considered her words and he couldn’t help but think about his friends. He knew she had come for four of them. Sanchez and Jackson made six. "What about JD?"

A grin appeared on her lips as she looked up at the tracker slyly. She understood that he knew the answer himself but she would speak the words for him. "He is young and impressionable. His emotions may not yet be controlled but his bonds are strong. Your town is his home now. He will remain…" she looked into his eyes, "no matter what."

Vin smiled. She seemed to know them all so well but… As he stared at her hazel eyes, the tracker again thought about her. He bowed his head away from her gaze. "Tell me about Athena," he prompted quietly.

Still looking at him intently, she lowered her head and considered his request. It was almost like an unwritten rule… no one ever asked about her… and even if they did, she never responded. Athena pursed her lips in frustration. Closing her eyes, she thought about what he had asked. Maybe… revealing long kept secrets…

An idea slowly crept into her mind. Maybe the way out of this predicament was for them was to discover each other’s secrets. She knew the sharpshooter’s confidence was very important to him. Perhaps if he felt that she was sharing her own, long kept mysteries… then he might reveal his own. Several minutes passed before she replied. "I will tell you what I can… then you must tell me about…Vin Tanner."

The sharpshooter smiled at her words. Her talk was always very calculated. She knew exactly what to say and when. "Alright," he nodded.

She moved closer to him and rested her hand on his knee. They looked at each other for an eternity before she spoke again. "Everything…"

The sharpshooter could have sworn an hour passed before either of them moved. They held each other’s gaze. He could not move… nor did he want to. "Alright," he whispered slowly.

Athena turned back to the fire and tucked the blanket around her curled legs. She leaned against him and made herself comfortable. A long, meditative breath preceded her words. "The child was born in a city called St. Louis... The woman who bore her could not understand the child’s essence. Much anguish finally drove her back to her family. Her brother accepted her request for help… The Uncle had spent much time with the tribes. He was a teller of their tales in the white man’s language. He told the woman of a guide who might understand her child..."

Shifting her position, Athena sighed heavily. "Together the Uncle and the woman took the child to the plains tribes he had stayed with. The elders remembered the man and told him the child was chosen for a path he and his sister could not provide… The Uncle stayed for a while as he had done when he was young. He understood the teachings but he wanted the girl to know more… The elders helped the child to understand the whispers. They introduced her to the spirits... The Uncle taught the girl his language and literature. He was there and gone many times… until the red wolf came… Then he came no more."

Vin took his own deep breath. He’d heard her words. He’s also understood the emotion in her voice as she related this life story. Clearly, this wasn’t something that she shared easily. "That child was you?" The tracker already knew the answer but he was curious as to why the woman referred to herself in the third person. It was as if she were trying to deny that it happened to her.

She only nodded her head in reply.

Looking around at their darkening venue, Tanner couldn’t help but continue his questions. "Who gave ya yer name?" he asked quietly.

Athena’s eyed betrayed her convictions. "The woman knew her child was not like others… She believed the name reflected a strength the child did not have... She who bore me did not understand but the Uncle has always smiled when he hears it. He believes it a fitting name."

Vin smiled to himself. Her mother may not have known about her daughter’s gift but both the woman and her brother were right about the name. It was a fitting name for one so strong and mysterious. "When was the last time you saw them?"

Athena lowered her head at the recollections. "When the woman left I was not yet four… She could not understand… The whispers possessed me. I was not hers to hold…" she glanced up at Tanner. There was no expression on her face as she rested it back on his knee. "The Uncle was there and gone many times. I learned new things each time he came. The white man’s way, he said, would keep me from harm. I last saw him in my twelfth year amongst the tribe… but I send him my accounts. He sends me readings and teachings… and your money, too."

Vin closed his eyes and listened to her words in his mind. He didn’t really understand what she meant by whispers but he knew they had plagued her since she was born. They had driven her mother away but they had also given her another family instead. She’d learn both the Indian way and the white man’s way... and she had learned of the spirits as a way to calm her mind. He knew that’s why the tribal council would have marked her with the tattoo. Only the guardians of the four winds could communicate with the spirits. "The elders marked you when you were sixteen?"

She simply nodded her head.

"Through the cycle of the moon?" he questioned.

Athena turned and looked at the man again. She knew of his time with the tribes but she had not realized that he understood their teachings so well. "The receivings took much effort," she closed her eyes as she turned away. The memory wasn’t pleasant but…

The tracker couldn’t see her face but he felt her distress though the quiver of her words. They sat quietly for a few minutes and just watched the fire. "Why you?" he finally whispered.

"Many times I have asked this question," she replied after a while. "But each time there is a calling, the spirits come as the elders foretold. I can help… and each time I do… I know the answer in my heart… I am guided I know not where but when it is done I can go forward again because my essence is stronger than before…"

Vin shook his head. "I hear the fulfillment in your voice, Athena… But I also hear loneliness."

A long silence preceded her words. "The spirits keep the whispers at bay. For this, I am always grateful. People cannot understand… what I am driven to do. But I am not always alone." Again, the woman readjusted her position. "I have the time with those I guide through their journey…" she lowered her head away from his eyes. "It is difficult to know someone’s thoughts… and not become… attached for a time… and when there is no calling... then I can return to the tribe… I always have the spirits."

Spirits, callings, whispers, journeys… Vin had to admit that he didn’t completely understand. He closed his eyes. Raising his chin high, he smelled the sweet odor of fresh air and listened to the sound of the mountains. No matter what terminology she used, he understood in his heart what she was saying. He remembered how quickly he and Chris had become close friends because they seemed to ‘understand’ each other so well. He recognized the attraction she might feel but he sensed her solitude, too. "But… your spirits have abandoned you now."

Athena listened to the crackling of the fire as she stared off to the distant lakeshore. "I am not lost to them… I understand I must complete this journey without their help. I do not know why… but I do not question their wisdom…" She turned to face the tracker again and looked deep into his sparkling eyes. The firelight reflected in them but she could not feel his heart. She missed hearing his thoughts and closed her eyes to the absence.

Tanner thought he saw suffering in the woman’s eyes. He reached down and held her face in his hands. He couldn’t help but think he might be the cause. "Why do you believe you have failed me, Athena?"

Opening her eyes slowly, she placed her hand over his heart. She spoke softly. "You have a secret deep in your soul that is important to you… I could not reach it with my thoughts… I know only that it exists… and…" She looked up at him again and tilted her head in his hands, "and that it keeps you from the others."

The sharpshooter looked at the woman. He shook his head gently as he acknowledged what she had said. It instantly became clear to him what had happened back in town. Before that day, she had bided her time, searching out their souls in an effort to understand each man’s reason for being with The Seven. Each man’s weaknesses were made clear to her so that she knew in which direction to guide them. She hadn’t spoken to him then, because he hid something she did not understand. Her ability to comprehend the other’s reasons had helped her return them to the group but she couldn’t sense his reason as she had done so easily with the others. Vin lowered his head as he released hers. "I guess it ain’t important to most… but it’s personal to me…" The tracker gently moved her aside as he stood and retrieved a stick to tend the fire. "I know they see me different than I really am," he continued as he stoked the fire and added more wood. "Reckon I’m more comfortable being me out ‘ere, alone… than havin’ tah hide... than always havin’ tah play along… pretend I’m that way!"

Athena watched the tracker as he tended the fire. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable with this topic but she had no idea what it was. "Can you tell me?" she asked, "… maybe I can help."

Tanner looked at her warmly. Yeah, … she could help. Just don’t have that kind ‘a courage is all. He was glad she couldn’t read his thoughts tonight. He turned his eyes from hers. "What’s gonna happen if I don’t go back?"

She looked at him for many minutes then followed his gaze to the far off mountains.

Four days passed with very little change...

They shared each other’s company so easily, yet there was always underlying frustration. It was as if they shared one spirit at times… and then some small thing would be said and they would remember the tension. Vin would remember his reason for not wanting to go back and then he would recall her real purpose in being there with him. It wasn’t to enjoy his company, as they did so easily… for this, he resented her intent… but try as he might, the sharpshooter couldn’t stay mad at the woman.

Athena would remember her task and her need for a clue... perhaps the only thing could help her return this man to where he belonged. Oh, but he loved being out here in the wilderness. She couldn’t get the thought out of her mind. What right did she have to send him away from here? The more she reconsidered her own purpose, the more anxious she became. Why were this man’s innermost feeling beginning to plague her, just as Christopher’s had done. Her vulnerability troubled her when she lingered on it too long… but then Tanner would smile… and all her misgivings would just disappear.

Four days had passed and confusion, doubt and bewilderment mixed freely with admiration, wonderment and a growing attraction. Neither party quite willing to acknowledge any feelings… both quietly aware of every single emotion that baffled them so.

The following afternoon, they were walking across a nearby meadow when the tracker casually glanced at the woman. It was early summer, yet there was an unusual chill that filled the mountain air. Athena had on her long coat to cover her shoulders and Vin couldn’t help but smile at the image. The garment was so obviously a man’s, yet the long, flowing hair covering it didn’t match at all. Suddenly he felt an urge and unlike any such impulse he had ever had before, he acted upon it… the sharpshooter reached out and took the woman’s hand.

Completely taken by surprise, the woman withdrew her hand hastily. This was a gesture that she had never experienced before and she was shocked. She gazed at him questioningly. The twinkle in his eye and the smile on his handsome face explained his intentions as nothing but involuntary indulgence, yet she couldn’t help but feel uneasy with his beckoning. This simple touch could mean so much more…

The tracker looked at her and frowned. He cocked his head and grinned reassuringly before holding his hand out for her to take.

In his contented demeanor, Athena watched all the confusion of the past few days disappear. She didn’t comprehend any significance to the gesture but she felt such a strong urge to place her hand in his… any meaning to this touch didn’t matter anymore. Slowly she reached out to wrap her fingers around his…

An eternity elapsed as they stood and stared at one another. Then they simply continued on their walk as if nothing had past between them. Their hands remained joined as they made their way back to camp.

Dusk found them settled by the fire as usual but Vin had chosen to sit on the ground this evening. Athena was curled into his shoulder. "You cold?" he asked as she snuggled even closer.

She looked up at him and smiled.

The setting sun had cooled the temperature even further. Tanner gathered the blanket from the log and wrapped it around both of their shoulders. They had dressed for the cooler weather today but he too was feeling the cool breeze. "Spring’s been ‘ere a while. Reckon it’s a little left over wind off the mountains."

She nodded her head in agreement and glanced up at the man beside her. She grinned at his easy manner.

The tracker looked down at her and could see only comfort in her eyes. He pulled her closer and ran his finger through her hair and across her cheek. She rolled into his caress and then looked back at Vin. They gazed deep into one another’s eyes and kissed gently.

Athena was comfortable in his arms and with his touch, yet she resisted him when he wrapped his arm around her waist. She was so used to knowing a man’s thoughts when she was this close.

Tanner felt her mood change and looked at her questioningly. "Somethin’ wrong?" he asked quietly.

"No…" she replied as she adjusted her position a little. She looked at him and rubbed her hand across his temple. She closed her eyes. "I just wish I could hear you." She looked into his eyes again then returned to her place on his shoulder. "It is more lonely than you can know," she added.

Taking her hand from his face, Vin set it over his heart. "You can hear me, Athena," he closed his eyes briefly before focusing on her hazel reflections. "Just a matter ‘a learnin’ what tah listen fer is all." The tracker held her in his arms and whispered that everything was going to be all right.

The loneliness and frustration eased as the hours slipped by. She couldn’t hear this man’s thoughts in her mind… but he was right… being close with him… almost made up for it.

They spent that night together under the lean-to... each in their own bedroll, one blanket laid across them both.


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