Ferret rode hunched over against the cold. His hand was wrapped in Pesos thick mane and under it so he could feel the warmth from the horse. He had his legs pulled up high so they were covered by the ends of the blanket and warmer than if he d let his legs hang.
He traveled slowly through the crunchy snow winding down the mountain path. It took two hours before the snow turned to slush beneath Pesos hooves and another hour before the slush turned to mud. But as the day passed and Ferret got lower on the mountain, the air turned warmer and the sun shone brightly.
Finally, when the sun was directly overhead Ferret could see Chris shack. He pulled up and looked around carefully. There was no sign of anyone being there. The small corral was empty and there was no smoke coming from the stove pipe. Ferret slowly rode up to the cabin looking for sigh to tell him if Chris was just out riding or gone.
Finally, when he was in front of the porch, he decided that Chris was gone and had been for at least a day. Now what? Do I go to the white town or do I go home. It would take about the same amount of time to reach either. Looking up at the sky, Ferret tried to decide which way to go. Then he saw the hawk. It was circling overhead when suddenly it dived north screaming as it caught its dinner. Thank you Brother, home it is. Mother will know how to help Cricket and I know where she is.
Ferret turned Peso north and headed out. The weather was pleasant but Ferret was scared about running into the bad white men that took the children of the village, so he and Peso stayed off the road and kept watch of any riders.
He stopped and let Peso get a drink at a stream but he ate a piece of jerky as they rode knowing that getting off the horse was no problem but getting back on without help would be. Hed need something to climb to get up on the tall horse bareback.
The sun began to lower and the air chilled, Ferret was so tired he caught himself leaning over, his head resting on Pesos neck, dozing off several times. He was so tired. But it was only a little ways further and he would be back home.
As it got darker, Ferrets eyes got heavier and he leaned down his cheek, resting on Pesos withers. The lull of the rocking gate let him doze until Peso suddenly stopped and whinnied. Answering whinnies called from up ahead. It was dark and Ferret expected the village to be quiet and asleep but as he rode in he saw there were many fires and a great celebration. Confused at the sight he rode up to Uncle Kojays lodge and began sliding off.
"Ferret? What are you doing here and where are the others?" Grandfather walked up to the horse and small boy.
"Grandfather? I had to come." Large yawn. "Cricket is hurt and needs help but Chris wasnt at his lodge and so I came here. I knew Mother would help Cricket."
Nathan wedged between people. "Vin is hurt? How?"
Ferret looked up at the tall black man. "Na-than? Cricket needs you. I I " The boy turned to Kojay. "Uncle I dont have the words, will you tell Na-than what I say?"
"Cricket was attacked by an elk. We killed it but when it fell its antlers went through his side and arm. The side is okay, but his arm is full of sickness. We drained it and drained it. Cricket said not to come but I had to, hes getting sicker, and sicker. Wind stayed with him."
Nathan listened carefully to what Kojay said and asked, "Where on his arm?"
Ferret showed on his arm about half way between wrist and elbow in the middle.
Nathan nodded, then asked, "Can he move his fingers."
"Yes, the bone isnt broken. There is only the sickness in it."
Chris looked around at the worried faces. "Well leave at first light. Ferret can you tell us where you are camped."
Ferret shook his head. "No, I can show you. Grandfather, I told Wind and Cricket I would bring back help."
Grandfather nodded and placed a hand on his small shoulder. "You have done well, grandson. You are no longer Ferret; it is a childs name. You have acted as a man would. You are now Rides Alone."
Ferret/Rides Alones eyes widened at the honor of a new name. "Yes, Grandfather."
Willow stepped forward. "Come Rides Alone, I know you are hungry and must eat and rest before you leave again." She took the boy by the shoulders and guided him inside, setting him down she served him a bowl of stew and fry bread.
Outside six of the seven waited until it got quiet and then began talking. "Nathan, can you tell how bad Vin is by what Fer Rides Alone said?"
Nathan shook his head. "A bit. Sounds like his arm is infected from the puncture wound. Cant tell how bad til I see it."
"Do you have what you need or do we need to go to town first?"
"No I have everything. How far is it to where they are?"
Chris shook his head. "Two maybe three hours ride uphill from my place. I know the general direction but thats why we need the boy, he can save us lots of time by leading us straight to them. Its a big mountain. Well have to horseback out; there are no roads and no trail wide enough for a wagon. Its rough country."
They left just at dawn riding as hard as they could and not wear out their horses. Peso again carried Rides Alone bareback. Once past Chris cabin, the boy led the way. He never faltered on where to go and they reached the small meadow in the late afternoon.
Wind came out of the lean to when he heard the horses. He looked very tired, and Nathan handing the reins of his horse to Buck, grabbed his bag and went inside.
Nathan glanced around and went straight to Vin. He reached out checking for fever, then he carefully lifted Vins right arm. Vin didnt react to being touched or having others inside the lean to.
Nathan glanced at Wind, and asked, "How long has he been asleep?"
"All day. He sort of woke up this morning and I got him to drink more tea but he hasnt woken since, not even when I drained his arm again." The worried boy answered.
"You did good, Wind." Josiah placed a hand on the boys shoulder. "Come, let Nathan do his work and we shall build another fire outside."
Nathans attention turned back to the unconscious man. He began undressing Vin, knowing he could attend the wounds easier if he were naked. Chris joined him in his efforts when he saw what was being done.
There were various fading bruises all over him and the bandage around his middle. But his bare arm looked even worse. It was swollen from fingertips to past the elbow with the skin around the wound stretched and had red streaks. Nathan sighed in relief that there was no sign of gangrene, yet. He stretched Vins arm out and then began looking in his bag. Taking out a small packet he turned to Chris. "Would you ask Josiah to start a tea of this, make it strong and then ask him to come in and help me?"
"I can help, Nathan," the gunslinger protested.
"I know Chris but Ill need you later. Josiah is use to helping with bad wounds and hell know what I need before I even ask."
Chris looked back at his pale friend and nodded.
When Josiah came back, Nathan had begun draining the wound again. Copious amounts of pus ran from the wound. Josiah handed Nathan rags. Still, although the pain must have been great, there was no reaction from Vin, his arm lying relaxed and limp in Nathans lap.
Nathan sat back on his heels frowning. "Josiah, in my saddle bag is a wooden box with a latch on it. Would you bring it to me and some more clean bandages?" Nathan glanced up at the standing Josiah, and added, "Dont let any of the others in here."
Josiah nodded and when he returned Nathan hadnt moved. "Are you sure about this."
Anger showed in his voice. "No, I aint sure. But I am sure ifn I dont do this by tomorrow that arm will be gangrene and Ill have to take his arm to save his life. Even then I aint sure itll save it. But these," he opened the box and looked at the small insects inside, "are his only chance to clean the inside of the puncture."
He carefully scooped up the white wormlike things and laid them gently on both sides of the arm. Then he carefully covered the area with a bandage. Once hed finished that he turned his attention to the wound in Vins side.
It was healing well he decided. He only needed to clean it, add a liberal dose of salve, and re-bandage it. He also decided not to stitch it at this late stage of healing. Throughout all his painful ministrations, Vin hadnt moved or reacted. His fever was high, and from the evidence of his clothes, he hadnt expelled any body fluids. "We gotta get him to drink and we gotta cool him down. Im gonna make a wash thatll cool him and make him start to sweat. You can start spooning some of the tea down him. Careful, just a drop or two at a time, if he starts swallowing, then you can do more. But be careful and dont choke him. Ill go and talk to the others."
Nathan stretched his back when he got outside. He looked around and saw it was dark. He hadnt realized how much time had passed. The healer looked around at the expectant faces looking at him. "I done cleaned the wound and well see how its doing tomorrow. The boys done a real good job of taking care of him. Now we have a fever to fight."
"Can we take him home tomorrow?" Chris asked.
Nathan shook his head. "No, not for several days Im guessing. Itd be best if most of yll go home. Even when we can move him well have to carry him horse back down to at least Chris and well have to go real slow."
Chris looked around the campfire. "Josiah, tomorrow you take the boys home. Buck, you JD, and Ezra get on back to town. Im staying with Nathan and Vin."
Throughout the night each man took a turn sitting with Vin and bathing him in the Plumajillo water trying to break the fever. They each spooned down the willow tea Nathan insisting that Vin was dehydrated and needed all the liquid they could get down him.
Morning came and the others left. After seeing the others off, Chris went back to sit beside Vin, hoping that hed wake. But the tracker lay perfectly still except for the movement of his chest as he breathed. Chris could count every rib. He thought he could see each heart beat, but told himself he was a fool thinking that.
Vins hair was damp and his eyes were slits, although Chris was certain that he couldnt see. "Come on, Vin. You gotta wake up soon. After all, we come all this way to find you. You gotta wake up now and stop making Nathan worry so much."
Chris reached out and touched the trackers good arm. The skin was still so hot. He took the cloth and wiped him down again. Over and over this was repeated all day and all that night. The next day brought no change. Vin lay limp and unresponsive. The fever raged as Nathan and Chris took turns bathing the burning body down with the ice cold water.
Chris wiped Vin down again continuing his liturgy of begging the tracker to wake up. "Come on, Vin, wake up. Its been too long and you need to wake up for us."Vin sat beside a lake. It was so green and the water so blue. The air was warm but he felt a cooling breeze once in a while. The peace of this place calmed him and he just sat, not really thinking of anything.
"You gotta wake up now, Vin."
"Im not asleep."
"Yeah you are. This is just a dream."
"No, I like it here and its nice."
"Come on, Vin, you gotta wake up, youll die if you dont"
"Yeah? Well maybe dying aint so bad if its like this."
"Dont say that, dont never say that. I we need you, Vin. The boys need you."
"Wind and Fer .Rides Alone. They need you to show them how to live in both worlds."
"Aint done such a great job of that, Cowboy."
"Now youre feeling sorry for yourself. Not pretty. You do just fine. Just think how bad its gonna be for the boys without your help."
"You can help them."
"If youre not around, I wont be either."
Vin turned and looked into those green eyes. "Where you gonna be, Chris?"
Chris shook his head, and replied, "Not in Four Corners, not without you. None of us will stay, me especially."
Vin stood with one smooth movement and faced Chris. "I like it here, its peaceful. Where will you go?"
"Six feet under, probably."
"Dont say that. Dont never say that."
"Its true. Dont you remember? The day we met, it was like we both got a second chance. A chance to make something of our lives, to do better then we had done.
"It aint your time, Vin. Come back with me. The path we walk aint finished. We havent hardly begun walking our path together yet."
Chris faded and Vin stood alone. He could still hear Chris calling him. He looked again over the crystal blue lake and up at the bluest sky hed ever seen. "I like it here," he whispered. A hawk flew overhead screamed at him and flew away.
"Please," the whispered voice came to him, "please wake up, Vin."
Vin moaned, moving his head ever so slightly.
"Vin? Come on, Cowboy, wake up."
The blue eyes opened slightly, staring at Chris without recognition. The tip of a tongue flicked out and covered dry lips.
Chris saw the open eyes. "Hey, Cowboy."
But Vin just stared at him. Chris smiled and holding up Vins head a little held a cup of tea to his lips. Tipping it, slightly he said, "Drink."
The liquid poured into Vins mouth and he swallowed reflexively. Chris set the cup down and laid Vins head back down. "Vin? Hey, Pard, can you hear me?"
But Vin simply stared straight ahead and then his eyes fluttered closed.
Chris sighed and scrubbed his face with his hands in frustration.
Nathan came in and at once read the dejection in Chris posture. "Whats wrong?"
Chris looked up at Nathan, and said, "He woke up, kinda."
"His eyes were open but he didnt seem to hear me. I did get a cup of tea down him."
"Why didnt he know me or answer me?"
"I dont know, Chris. Sometimes with a high fever, the brain kinda stops sometimes." Nathan reached out and checked Vins fever. "Its going down. Thats good. Chris, hes a very sick man and it will take some time."
"That why you didnt want to move him?"
"Yeah, dont know that hedv survived ridin down off this mountain."
Chris nodded and automatically went back to wiping Vin down. He wasnt going to quit; no matter what, he wasnt going to quit.
Vins eyes opened again just before sunrise. Again it was Chris sitting beside him. "Vin? Here, drink." He held the cup to Vins lips and waited.
This time Vin was looking at him. Watching him for the longest time, then his lips parted and he drank.
"Good boy. Want some more?"
Those bottomless blue eyes kept staring at him. When Chris turned to fill the cup again, Vins eyes followed his movements.
"Vin?" But Chris got no response. He carefully fed the tracker another cup of tea and watched at the eyes fluttered closed.
Oh God. Please let him be okay. Please dont let anything be wrong with his mind. Chris reached out and brushed a curl away from the cooling forehead. Dont matter none, Ill take care of you. No matter what, you aint alone and you never will be.
The man in black reached over, and getting a clean blanket, laid it gently over his friend, tucking the edges in with tenderness most people wouldnt believe.
But Nathan believed, hed seen it more then once. He watched in silence from his blankets as Chris tended the most personal needs of the ill man. Not many people were privileged to see this side of Chris Larabee and most would deny that the notorious gunman had a tender side. But Nathan had seen it when one of them was hurt or sick. But Nathan kept his council and held it close to his heart. This tough, killer of men, was also the gentlest of men under the right circumstances. Nathan frowned, knowing that if Vin didnt recover, Chris would become the cold killer hed been known as before. And if Vin lived, but didnt recover Chris would nurse the man until one or the other died.. Nathan closed his eyes against such sad thoughts. No, Vin would be fine. Somehow they were blessed beyond any understanding, all of them. He refused to think that one of them, any of them, would be brought down like this.
+ + + + + + +
Early afternoon and Chris and Nathan had just finished cleaning up the still unconscious tracker. His fever had broken, and they had cleaned him and dressed him in warm long johns. They had just finished, and Nathan had gone outside for some fresh air, when Vin began moving, turning his head toward the light of the fire.
Chris noticed Vins eyes open again. "Hey, Vin, howre ya feeling?"
Vin frowned, his eyes watching Chris talk.
Vin licked his lips; his eyes still following Chris every move.
Chris reached out and laid a hand on Vins good arm. "You thirsty? I got some water for you."
Vins eyes went to the cup sitting beside Chris.
Chris picked up the cup, and lifting Vins head, he held it so Vin could drink. Once the cup was empty, Chris laid his head back down. "That enough? "
The words faded until all Vin could hear was the voice. He wasnt sure what the words meant, just that the voice called to him, made him feel safe. He listened, following the man with his eyes, until he couldnt hold them open any longer and he drifted to sleep again.
Later, while Chris and Nathan ate, Chris asked, "Nathan? Vin seemed to understand me a little this after noon, thats good, right?"
"Yeah, I think so. Every time he wakes hes a little better isnt he? Itll just take time, Chris."
Later that night, again Chris was watching.
"Ohhhh." Vin tried moving. "Chris?" Vins voice was soft and slurred.
"Hey, welcome back, Cowboy."
"I been somewhere?"
"Nah, just sleeping."
Vin looked around the lean to and this time seemed to really see it and recognize it.
"We still on the mountain?"
"Oh," a pause, then, "The boys?"
"The boys are fine. Home by now."
"Home? No, theyll get them, take them off." Vin tried to sit up too fast. Not a good idea, as he became dizzy from the sudden movement.
"No, relax, everythings fine. Drink this." Chris reached around and held Vins head up enough for him to sip the warm tea. "Youve been real sick. Rides Alone came and got us."
"Ferret. Grandfather gave him a new name cause he rode all the way down to the village to get help, by himself, too."
"Oh, that how ya got here?"
"Yeah, now hush, and drink."
Vin didnt have the strength to resist Chris. He drank the bitter tea, knowing that there was something he should remember, something important. But he felt numb, floating, until Chris jostled his arm. His breath caught and he tried not to scream.
"Easy Vin, Im sorry, I didnt mean to move it."
" M arm? It itches, hurts. Whats wrong with m arm?"
"You hurt it, remember? Its infected and Nathans been doctoring it. Dont know why it itches."
Vins eyes began to close.
"Aint goin nowhere, Cowboy."
Chris laid Vin down and pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. I know, Id hunt you down where ever you went.
Nathan came in a little while later. "Chris?"
"He woke up, Nathan, and this time he talked to me a little. I got a whole cup of tea down him."
Nathan reached out, feeling Vins forehead. Letting a big breath out, he said, "Thats good, Chris. Next time he wakes well try to get some broth down him and Ill change the bandage. Dont want to do it too soon though. Need to let it have time."
Throughout the rest of the night and the next day Nathan and Chris took turns taking care of Vin, feeding him all the tea and broth they could get down him and trying to make him comfortable.
Finally, toward the evening, Nathan decided to see if the maggots had done their job. He carefully removed the bandage and was happy to see the flesh clean and healthy, with no swelling. He quickly cleaned all evidence of his little miracle workers, away and putting a healing salve on the wounds, wrapped them again. "With any luck, we should be able to head down the mountain in a couple of days. Youre healing well, and I think you can make the trip."
Morning light woke Vin. He opened his eyes to the shadows of the bare branches moving in the wind. He tried to decide what the moving thing was but it took too much effort. Turning his head he looked around. Chris? Chris had always been there, hadnt he? Someone was always there to give him something to drink. Looking around, there was someone asleep. Chris? It had to be, dont remember anyone but Chris being here.
There was a noise from outside. NO, somethins out there. Gonna get in, gonna get me. Vins breathing became pants as he became more agitated. "Oooo, go way."
Chris jerked awake. Rolling over he crawled over to Vin. "Vin! VIN! Whats wrong?
Vin didnt hear him. Chris took is chin and turned his head, "Whats wrong?" he asked slowly and clearly.
"Somethin out there," Vin managed to gasp out.
Chris listened, "Its just Nathan. Hes probably brewing you up some more tea."
Vin was confused. "Nathan?" Whos Nathan? "Is okay? Not "
Chris shook his head. "Its okay. Nathan takes care of us. Vin, how do you feel?"
Chris smiled at that answer. "Sure you do." He let go of Vins chin and reached down lifting his arm. "How does your arm feel? Can you try to move your fingers?"
Vin looked at his arm for a time. "My arm? Doesnt feel."
Chris nodded, "Yeah, your arm," He reached with his other hand and tried closing Vins hand into a fist.
Vin jerked it away from Chris. "Dont! That hurts!" He started rubbing the aching arm. "Why?"
"According to Wind, one of the tines on the elk antler pierced it. Then it got infected, thats whats made you so sick. But its better now."
"No, still hurts."
"Yeah, well, it may hurt for awhile. Until you get the muscles strong again."
Vin glanced up as Nathan walked in, and a big grin of recognition lit up his face. "Nathan!"
"Morning Vin. How are you this morning?"
"Fine, Nathan. Ya fixed me up good."
Nathan sat down across from Chris. "Well, I try. I need to look at your arm now, Vin."
"No." Vin hugged the arm close to his chest, covering it with the other one. "It hurts."
"Ill try not to hurt you Vin, but I need to put some more salve on it and a clean bandage." Nathan waited patiently while Vin thought.
"Okay, Nathan." Vin sighed in resignation.
When Nathan was finished, he smiled and looked up at Vin. "See, that wasnt so bad."
" S okay. My head hurts."
"Ill give you some tea but you gotta drink it all and then try to sleep a little."
Vins eyes were pinched almost closed. "Ill drink it, gotta big drum banging in m head."
+ + + + + + +
Long shadows of late afternoon spread across the floor of the lean to. Vin slowly opened his eyes and looked around. The pounding in his head was almost gone. "Chris?"
"Im here, Vin."
"The boys okay, Chris?"
"Theyre fine. Josiah took them home."
"Home. Can we go home now, Chris? Don know bout yall but Im ready."
" We will, as soon as Nathan says you can travel. We have to ride down the mountain and you havent exactly been up to that."
" M fine now. The fuzz is gone from m head." To prove it, Vin tried to sit up, and he almost made it.
Chris reached out and helped him lean back against a saddle. "That better?"
"Yeah, m tired of laying. How long I been out of it?"
"Four or five days. You got really sick before Rides Alone came to get us. He said you told them not to go for help."
Yeah, Is afraid that the soldiers would get them. Rides Alone?"
"Grandfather gave Ferret a new name, for riding alone to find us."
"Oh, you tell me that before?" Vin started rubbing his temple.
"Yeah, a couple of times. Dont worry; Nathan says its the fever that makes you forget. Youre getting a lot better."
"Good, well go tomorrow. Im tired of being here."
"How bout we wait and see what Nathan says."
Vin sighed. " M fine, just get tired and wanna sleep some more. You reckon Nathanll let me eat something tonight?"
Chris smiled and shrugged, "Maybe. You want to start working that hand?"
Vin looked down at his right hand. Sometimes it seemed it wasnt even his arm or hand anymore, just something that got in the way. "No, but I will." It took all his concentration to start the fingers moving, open, close, open, close. It made the whole arm ache and after a few times he started rubbing the arm trying to avoid the actual wound.
Chris nodded, and said, "Well keep at it. Nathan said the muscles need to be stretched and worked or the whole arm will stiffen. You cant be our sharpshooter if you cant use that arm."
Vin glared but kept working the hand and then the wrist.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning Nathan looked Vin over carefully. "Its a long ride, you sure you dont want to wait another day?"
"Hell, no. How much does it take to just sit a saddle and let Peso do all the work?"
"Morn your ready for I bet. But we can give it a go. The thing is Vin; the trail is too steep and narrow for anything but riding. Promise if you get too tired or get to feeling sick youll say something. You can always ride double with one of us."
"Ill promise just about anything to get out of this lean to."
"Okay, well eat and then head out."
Vin managed to mount without much help. It felt so good to be really outside and in the saddle once again. But it didnt take long before each hoof fall pounded in his arm, side and head. After only an hour he was slumped over, holding onto the saddle horn as tightly as he could.
Chris noticed and kneed Pony closer to Peso. "Vin?" he called softly.
Vins head came up. "What?"
"You want to stop?"
"You want to get on Pony with me."
"No! Im fine."
"Sure you are."
Vin looked Chris in the eye, "Cant stop, Pard. If I stop I dont think Ill be able to start again. We gotta keep going."
Chris saw the desperate determination in Vins face and heard it in his voice. "All right,"
He agreed, but kept close, just waiting incase the tracker collapsed.
Peso guided himself right up to the porch and stopped. Vin didnt even look up. Chris quickly got off Pony, and went over to the fractious horse. "Whoa, Peso, you stand real still and Ill make sure you have sweet oats for the month." Chris reached up and guided the barely conscious tracker off the horse and into the cabin. He laid Vin down on the narrow bed.
Nathan followed, and as soon as a lamp was lit, he began examining Vin.
"Leave me be, Nathan. M head, and everything else hurts, jus let me lay for a spell."
"Ill let you rest til we get stuff in, then I want to check out that arm and side. Make sure youre not bleeding nor nothing."
"Aint bleeding. Jus tired."
Nathan helped Chris unpack the pack horse and then put Pony, Peso and the filly in the corral with feed and fresh water.
"Im gonna see about Vin and then head on into town. I been gone a while, folksll be lookin for me."
Chris nodded and helped him with Vins jacket. "No bleeding, no swelling. I think hes just tired. Might sleep the rest of the day, even through the night." Nathan straightened and stretched his back. "Ya make sure he works that hand and wrist and doesnt over do. Ill leave ya some tea for the pain if he needs it. Ya only feed him soft easy food for the next couple a days. Hell feel a lot better if he dont overdo on the eating."
Chris followed Nathan to the door. "Someone of us will come out and check on ya in a couple of days."
"Thanks Nathan, I think I know how to take it from here. Ive done it before."
"Yeah, I know. Too many times." Nathan said sadly as he rode away.
A week later
Buck rode up to Chris cabin. Then he called out "Hello the house."
Chris stepped out onto the porch. "Buck. Come on in."
"Hey, ol son, hows it going? Nathan said you might want some company and I brought some supplies."
"Thats good." Chris saw Buck looking around. "Vins over yonder under the big oak."
Buck looked where Chris pointed. Under the tree he could see the lean trackers form. "Hows he doing?"
"Better every day. Gets tired easy. That fever left him very weak. His arms working better. Actually threw his cup at me this morning."
"Getting testy is he?"
"Yeah. Vin dont take to being what he thinks of as helpless too good."
They walked over to where Vin was. "Ya don have to talk bout me like Im not here."
"Well, hell Vin, its the only way to get anything said. You being such a talker an all."
"Bucklin," Vin said satisfied that hed know the tall man right away. Sometimes, the names of things and people eluded him.
"Hey, Vin. I come by to bring you some news."
"Yeah. Josiahs been meeting with the village Elders. Only it seems the Grandmothers have been showing up, too. Anyway, Josiahs been talking to them about what to do to keep the government from taking the kids again.
"They werent too happy, mostly cause of the Mosley thing, but they listened. Josiah told them he knew of a group that would set up a school an all. He explained they were Quakers and would teach the kids, but leave them alone otherwise, if thats what they wanted.
"The Elders werent real happy bout lettin more white missionaries in but, well, Josiah wouldnt tell us all that went on. Said he couldnt talk bout it. But when the Grandmothers got through the Elders had agreed. Josiah sent out letters an were waitin for answers.
"The boys said to say hello and Wind sent you a present. Ill go get it. Got it in my saddle bag."
Buck came back and handed Vin a beautiful dream catcher.
Vin fingered the delicate work and the feathers and turquoise. "A piece of the sky."
"Thats what turquoise is called, a piece of the sky. The Dream Catcher is supposed to stop bad dreams."
"Hows that supposed to stop bad dreams?"
Vin held it up. "See its like a spider web. That catches the bad dreams and lets the good ones through."
"Thats right purty, Vin. Reckon we can all use some of them dream catchers sometimes."
"Yeah," Vin said as he stroked the dream catcher.
Buck frowned and looked at Chris. Chris shook his head.
"Come on, Stud. You can help me unload that poor pack mule. Nathan an Inez sent enough stuff for ten people."
"Sure, Buck. You okay for awhile?" he asked Vin.
"Yeah, Im fine," Vin, answered his eyes still on the dream catcher.
Once back in the cabin Buck asked. "Whats wrong Chris?"
"Vins had a few nightmares. Wont talk about them. But he talks real good while hes dreaming. From what he says, it sounds like; in one he dreams the elk kills one or both of the boys. In the other, Nathan cuts off his arm."
Buck shook his head. "Damn."
"Its better. At first he was having a couple a night. Now, well, he even skips a night. Cant tell what starts them. Maybe when you go back Josiah could ask Wind and Rides Alone to come see him. Maybe just seeing them will help."
"Sure I will. Howr you holdin up?"
"Could use a drink."
"Youre in luck. Ezra sent this." Buck dug into the pack box and brought out a bottle.
"Woo wee, its that good stuff."
Chris looked at the label. "Looks like it. Damn, open it up, Ill get cups."
Buck poured two shots and Chris sipped. "Oh, thats smooth."
A voice from behind called out, "Ya gonna hog all that or ya gonna share?"
"Come on in Vin. Well share." Buck poured some into another cup.
Vin took it, sniffed it and finally took a drink. Blowing air he looked at his two friends. "Ya know, ol Ez has a point bout the finer things in life."
"He does at that." Buck took another drink.
"That he does," Chris added.
Buck looked over the rim of his cup. "Nathan say you could drink that?"
Vin took another sip, and carefully with his right hand, held up his third finger.
Buck and Chris almost choked laughing.
Two days later
Vin sat on the porch. His legs were stretched out, his whole body soaking up the afternoon sun. It was warm and felt good on his still aching body. A slight noise caused him to crack an eye open. At the far end of the valley he saw a horse and rider coming.
"Ya specting company, Chris?"
Chris came outside, and replied, "No."
"Well, someones coming."
As the horse came closer, Vin recognized the small brown and white pinto that Wind rode. "I think its the boys. Wonder what theyre doin way out here?"
Chris shrugged, "Dont know. Could be they come to see you."
Vin looked up at Chris, "Ya send for them?"
"We got anymore of them sweet cookies Miz Travis sent?"
Chris smiled, "I think I could find a few. You sharing?"
"Its the way ya welcome guests, aint it?"
Chris chuckled as he went inside to find the hidden cookies.
The pinto stopped in front of the house and two anxious faces peered down at Vin.
"Hello Wind, Rides Alone. Get down and sit a spell."
The boys slid off the pony and went over to their friend.
"Are you truly all better, Cricket?" Rides Alone asked.
"Yeah, getting better every day. Are you doing better now?"
Both boys nodded, then Wind added, "The elders say we have to go to school. That Josiah found someone to come here, and teach us. That the Agent will never be able to take any of us again."
"Thats real good, boys. I want you to try real hard at school. Its important to your people that you younger ones know how to take care of all the People."
"Cricket? Can could we go hunting again sometime? We didnt get to stay long and you got hurt and ." Rides Alone ducked his head.
"Well go hunting again, as soon as Im up to it. Only this time well take Chris to watch our backs. Is that alright?"
Both boys got large grins on their faces, and nodded yes.
Chris came out with a tin of cookies. "Did I hear my name?"
"Yeah, the boys wanna go huntin again and I told them we had to take you to watch our backs."
"Oh, sounds good to me. But first, how about some cookies?" Chris held the tin down so the two small boys and one big one could get a cookie. He left the tin beside Vins chair.
"Thanks, Cowboy. Would ya bring those things I been working on out?"
"Sure." Chris went back inside and brought out a cloth wrapped bundle, and handed it to Vin. "Here ya go."
Vin took the bundle and held it tight for a minute thinking. "Wind, Rides Alone, I want to give you something. For you to have something to remember our trip by, and to remind you how brave you were. You saved my life, and you risked your own to do so. Not once but twice. I got Chris to fetch what hide was left of that big elk and I made you these." Vin slowly unwrapped the bundle.
Inside were two hunting knife sheaths. They were tooled with beautiful designs and each one covered a new hunting knife. The boys eyes grew large as they saw the gift Vin had made for them. Reaching out, each boy took one and ran his hand over the soft leather sheath.
"You use those with honor, to take care of your People," Vin admonished them.
Two sets of big eyes looked up into Vins. "We will, always," they responded in unison.
"Now, you boys better be heading back, I dont want Willow or Grandfather angry at me for you being out too late." Vin reached out and placed a hand on each small shoulder. "You remember something else, you can always come to me if you need help."
"We will, Cricket. Youre our brother."
Vin smiled, "Yes, and you are my little brothers. Now git."
The boys smiled, and helping each other up on the pinto, they waved and left.
Chris leaned against the door frame, watching the boys ride away. "So thats what you wanted the hide for, and what you been working on all this time."
"Its important Chris. A boy needs his . He needs to know others see the hard thing they did."
"You did just right, Vin."
"I hope so, Chris. It aint gonna be easy for them or their kids, being Indian."
"Itll get better Vin, someday itll be better."
"I hope so Chris. I sure hope so."
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