Merging Lives

by Subjective Reality

Little Britches - Future Universe

Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em or make money from ‘em.

Comments: Thanks to Gray who let me use the basis she established in Phenom and Four Days. You don’t have to read those stories before you read this one, but it’s great reading and Four Days would be particularly helpful in adding depth to the references I make to what occurred in that story. You could read any of her other stories as well, she has a great feel for the relationship between Chris and Vin and I so enjoy her writing. I also have to express my appreciation to the wonderful authors of the Little Britches universe, I have spent many an enjoyable afternoon reading them. Thanks. Comments, complaints, thoughts are always welcome. Please do not distribute without my permission.

Part 1
Chris wiped the sweat from his face and focused on the rider coming in. He recognized the figure even though it was still some distance off. He knew his son. He smiled as he saw that Vin looked Indian rather than white. He had on his hide pants and moccasins, a vest covering his torso with a buffalo robe pulled across his shoulders. Feathers were still entwined in his hair that appeared darker from the dirt and sweat. A braid hung over his right ear revealing the shortened hair underneath that identified him as one of the tribe. Dark reddish brown paint darkened his skin, blending him into the earth on which he had been hunting. Vin never returned dressed this way. Chris only saw him like this when he visited Vin at Kojay’s tribe, and even then he was rarely so Indian. The paint and feathers were reserved for hunts or raids. The vest was normally replaced with a shirt. Chris smiled at the figure he presented, proud of the young warrior who rode with such confidence. For the comfort of Buck, and perhaps as a comfort to himself, Vin always changed into his "white man" clothing before he returned home so Chris enjoyed this glimpse.

Chris wasn’t concerned by Vin’s appearance. He suspected that Vin had rushed home knowing that Chris was worried and not likely to wait much longer before searching for him. Vin had been due back two days before. Chris had made himself wait. Vin was fifteen, more man than boy. He knew his son’s capabilities and knew that the people he was with loved him nearly as much as Chris did. So he had waited and made more progress on the fence in the last two days than the previous month. The hard labor kept him occupied and almost made him tired enough to sleep dreamlessly before the worry brought him awake again.

Vin stopped the horse next to his father and smiled down, relieved to be with him again. He found a peace and identity with Kojay’s tribe, but his home was here with the man before him. Chris was the first person who made him feel safe and loved after his world turned upside down. Chris never faltered in his support of Vin whether it was spending time with the Indians, learning outside of the schoolhouse or finding peace in the wilderness. Chris accepted and embraced him. Fate had been kind to him and left him a kindred soul who loved him fiercely. He could love his father no less. And so he smiled down at Chris, his delight at being home evident in his sparkling eyes and lopsided grin.

"Hey cowboy," Vin rasped.

Chris clapped a hand on Vin’s thigh. "Watch it pard," Chris replied with a smile. "How was the hunt?"

"Sorry I’m late. Had to go further than we thought to find the game, but we got enough for the tribe to make it through winter."

"That’s good. You look tired."

"Reckon it’s been a long few weeks. Pulled my back some," Vin replied with a hopeful look.

Chris ignored the veiled request and waited to see if Vin would ask more bluntly for Chris to massage in the liniment Nathan gave them, but Vin decided to change the subject instead.

"Buck here?" Vin asked and couldn’t help feeling relieved when Chris shook his head.

"In town. He and JD will be back later today."

"Guess I better get cleaned up and change."

"Sleep would do you good too son," Chris added eyeing the fatigue etched in Vin’s face. "If you lie down after you clean up, I’ll work in some of that liniment."

Vin’s blooming smile assured Chris that he would be taking it easy. Chris was fairly confident that the teen would fall asleep in the process so they both would get what they wanted. With a satisfied sigh that Vin was back, Chris began picking up his tools so he could head to their home as well.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was lying stretched out on his stomach while Chris worked the liniment into the tight muscles in his back. Initially it was painful but as the muscles relaxed, Vin gave in to the sensations. He could ignore the pain, often did. He was getting too old to have his father rub his back like a baby. But Vin often found himself conflicted of late. He couldn’t wait to be grown and then it suddenly dawned on him all the things he would lose and wished to remain a child. He found more comfort in these moments than just a touch easing sore muscles. It was knowing that the hands soothing him would never bring him harm and that the attempts to ease his pain were borne as much from love as compassion. Vin didn’t really think Chris would quit caring for him just because he was grown, but he didn’t want to find out if he was wrong. Most fathers and grown sons he saw didn’t seem close. There was respect but not the fierce belonging that he shared with Chris. He didn’t know if those fathers and sons never had it or if the feelings eased as the sons grew. He would never be ready to grow up and lose this. And that was the last thought he had before the soothing touches lulled him into sleep.

Chris sat beside Vin as he slept. It allowed him to look more closely at Vin without his being aware of the scrutiny. He had noted the smattering of bruises when Vin took off his shirt to lie down. There were a few scrapes and abrasions. No less than you would expect when a man went on a hunt. Chris shook his head slowly at that. Vin was a more man than boy, but he wasn’t ready to forget the boy part. It did his heart good that Vin still sought his touch and presence. Lord, he didn’t want to lose that. Vin was more than a son to him. Vin reminded him how to love, how to be concerned about how he acted and how he was perceived. He was a better man in being a father to this child. Vin’s desperate need to be wanted, and his fierce loyalty once he had accepted that he was, was a salvation to Chris. He wouldn’t ever be ready to let go of that connection, but he knew that it was a father’s job to do so. He had to let his son find his own path and not keep him hobbled to his own. But he wasn’t ready yet and wasn’t sure that he ever would be. With that last thought, he rubbed his hand once more along the thin back which was still more boy than man and left Vin to his sleep.

Vin slept through Buck and JD’s arrival, and even more telling of his exhaustion, slept through the smells of dinner. Buck fretted but Chris wasn’t worried. He had seen Vin awake and knew he was well. He had also seen his son like this before. He would take on a task and forget the needs of his body in pursuing it. The tribe needed the buffalo for its meat and its hide. The army wouldn’t provide enough to last them through the winter. Chris knew that the hunting party would have had to leave the reservation to find the buffalo. The white settlers had decimated an animal that had once been plentiful.

Chris had known when he let Vin go that the hunt would leave the reservation. It had been hard to do but there had really been no choice. When he allowed Vin to embrace his life with the People, he forsaked his right to pick and choose what parts of that life Vin could experience. He had learned the cost of trying to shield his son from the harsher aspects. Vin had experienced their tragedies and only found peace in sharing their grief. It was hard to leave Vin in that, but Chris had gotten better at spending time with the tribe as well. He would never be one of the people like Vin, but he had an understanding for their life and thus a better understanding of his son. Vin had worked hard at proving himself and being acknowledged as a warrior. Just because Chris didn’t want him in danger, didn’t allow him to stray from a path he had pledged to Vin years before.

And he knew that Vin’s exhaustion wasn’t just physical. The hunting party had not only had the pressure of providing for the tribe, but a desperate vigilance not to be seen once they left the reservation. The army often needed no reason to bring death to the tribes living on the land promised to them. To see a hunting party, sure to be called a raiding party, would ensure retribution for all tribes in the area, not just their own. It would have been a hard few weeks, both physically and mentally. He had no doubt Vin had earned the sleep and he was at ease knowing his son was alive and well, finding peace and safety in his home.

"Damn it Chris, you sure?" Buck asked for the fifth time that night when he returned from checking on Vin.

Chris held his impatience in answering the question again. He knew that it came from Buck’s own love of Vin. "Yeah Buck, he’s fine. Just tired."

"Wished you wouldn’t let him do these things. He’s gonna get hurt one day. You know they had to go off the reservation."

Chris was surprised by Buck’s knowledge of what Vin had been doing. Buck seemed to find comfort in knowing as little as possible about what Vin did when he was with the tribe. Maybe what you didn’t know, couldn’t hurt. Vin’s time with the tribe was a known fact that just wasn’t discussed for the peace of all involved. Buck and Chris were never going to agree and it wasn’t fair to put Vin in the middle. So Chris was surprised that Buck knew why Vin had left, however, he wasn’t surprised that Buck would have thought out all the negative outcomes that would have arisen from it.

"Well?" Buck demanded, pulling Chris from his thoughts.

"Well what Buck?" Chris sighed. "The tribe has got to eat and you know as well as I do that they won’t get enough from the army. They did what they had to. No less than you and I would have done for our own."

Buck blew air like a bull soon to charge. Chris never got it. Vin was their own and they already provided. Vin didn’t need to go risking his life for Kojay’s tribe. Josiah gave them food and supplies every winter. Nathan gave his time and skills. They helped without pushing themselves into a life that wasn’t their own. Vin was white, entitled to all the benefits and responsibilities of being white. It was begging trouble to have him merging himself into a people who were doomed. Buck didn’t believe what was being done to the Indians was right, but he was wise enough to see that nothing was going to stop it. The people who viewed them as uncivilized beings would never stop until they were all dead or looked enough like the whites to be considered one. There was no sense in making Vin a target. People knew where he went. And while he might not braid his hair or wear Indian attire, his long hair and demeanor screamed for a scrutiny and prejudice that he didn’t have to bear, shouldn’t have to bear.

Vin wasn’t as close to him as he was to Chris, but that didn’t mean Buck didn’t love the boy and see him as a son. It was clear that Chris and Vin shared an understanding from the beginning that bore respect. Buck deferred to that bond, allowing Chris to take the lead on decisions in Vin’s life when his own protective instincts demanded different outcomes. His deferral didn’t mean his silence, and Buck never wavered in expressing his disagreement with Chris’ decision to allow Vin to spend part of his upbringing as an Indian. He was sure that one day it would result in him finding Vin among a massacre. It was a needless disaster, but Chris and Vin refused to see it.

JD had told Buck about the hunt. Vin never mentioned his time away and Chris did so sparingly. And so Buck often worried in silence, watching Chris to gage when Vin was due back. Praying each time that his nightmare wouldn’t come true. He knew that Chris was right and Vin was merely tired, but his pent up anxiety needed some release. And so he paced and worried and looked forward to seeing blue eyes sparkling in the morning above a lopsided grin. As long as Vin was close and well, Buck could forget for a while what might one day be his fate. And so he blew air in an effort to release his frustration at a situation he seemed unable to change.

"I’m going to bed," he called as he turned on his heel, hoping that sleep would make the night pass in speed.

Chris sighed his relief that Buck gave in so easily. They had been known to growl endlessly at each other over this. It seemed pointless to Chris and a source of pain to Vin. They understood Buck’s point of view but were unable to deviate from a path which had been set by fate. When he had been marked as a child, fate had set Vin’s path to fulfill a destiny still unknown. Chris had no desire to fight it because it had also brought Vin to him.

Chris rose to check on the boys one last time. JD gave a wave as he read by the lantern. "Bed time," Chris said.

"Okay, just let me finish this chapter."

"See you in the morning," Chris said as he pulled the door closed and went next door to check on Vin.

Vin was still lying on his stomach, appearing to have remained in the same position Chris left him hours before. Chris pulled the blanket a little higher and ran a hand over the unruly curls. No, he had no dispute with fate.

Part 2

Vin woke up to the early morning sounds. He could hear Buck’s soft snores mixing in with the birds calling. He shifted and smiled when his back didn’t send a shooting pain. His dad definitely had the magic touch. He would be good for days. Vin pulled on his clothes and eased his door open, unsurprised to see Chris sitting at the kitchen table. For the first several days when Vin returned, it seemed he and Chris craved spending time together. Vin would tell Chris about what he had done over some chore and Chris would update Vin about things in town. It allowed them to share their separate time and maintain their balance.

They went out together. Chris headed to the barn while Vin went to the well to draw a bucket up. They hadn’t separated more than fifteen feet when they both froze. Before they had time to do more than look around them, the shots rang out. Vin saw Chris’ eyes widen as he sprinted toward him. Vin was turned as a bullet found his upper left shoulder. Too quickly he saw men coming towards them as Chris threw himself the last few feet, offering his body as cover to his son. Vin saw blood splatter from Chris’ chest, the wetness reaching him before his father’s arms could. Their eyes locked and Vin saw desperation in Chris’ eyes that he knew clearly reflected his own. They weren’t ready for this to end. And then Vin felt the impact of Chris’ body colliding with his own, the weight bearing him to the ground.

The impact left him breathless for a second. The sounds of gunshots continued to ring in his ears and he realized that he was hearing shots from the cabin as well. God no, not Buck and JD. He rolled to ease Chris from him, comforted by the resistance and growl of disapproval. Chris might be down but he was aware of what was going on and protesting Vin’s removal of the protection his body offered. Vin heard breaking glass and saw an object thrown his way. Chris’ revolver and gun belt fell within five feet of him. He lunged to grasp it, turning and firing at the men who were still peppering shots at them.

The weight of the gun was not foreign to him. Chris had been teaching him to shoot for years. He could never rival his father’s speed but he had the same unerring accuracy with a revolver as he did with a rifle. He despaired that the gun was in his hand in a situation like this. Chris was as likely to be an unstoppable specter rising in the fray, seemingly invincible as his gun issued a permanent ending. But the best Chris could offer was a hand on Vin’s ankle, staying him from rising and offering an easier target. Red leeched into the ground spreading to darken Vin’s pants. Vin tried to ignore it as he reloaded, hearing JD’s rifle joining in.

Sharp cries and explosions marked the morning. Vin felt anger spear through him as the bullets marred the cabin which was his home. A sharp cry from his brother found him shaking loose of Chris’ fierce hold and rising. He shot with the accuracy he was born to. He didn’t register the passing of bullets except as a barometer of where to send his own. As his gun clicked on empty, Buck’s gun spat three more rounds and then there was silence. The rising smoke from the guns and the smell of gunpowder and blood seemed to weigh everything down. Vin allowed the gun to drop and turned back to his father, an agonized moan breaking the air when he saw blood trickling from his father’s mouth as his eyes appeared locked at half shutter.

Desperately he tore the bandana from his neck, rolling Chris over to press the material to his wound. His other hand found a path to his father’s face, wiping the blood and dirt so it would appear whole again. He never heard his soft keening as it rose with the agony of what he was sure he had lost. Blood coated his hand while he screamed his denial. Only the soft flutter of Chris’ eyelashes eased the flood of emotions. Clear green eyes pierced him and assured him that Chris was not done and that his son should not surrender so easily either. Chris saw the desperate need blazing in Vin’s eyes and tried to give him assurance that he was not defeated. The agonizing pain was a reminder that he was still here and that he had to hang on.

Vin gave a smile as tears spilled down his cheeks. "Keep hangin’ on, we’ll get help." Chris squeezed softly in assurance and allowed himself to sleep once more where the pain was easier to bear.

Vin rose to his feet and managed to run into the house. "Buck? JD?"

"In here," Buck called and Vin followed his voice to JD’s room. His stomach did a slow roll at the blood pooling around his brother’s head.

"It’s not as bad as it looks. I think it just grazed him," Buck said, willing his heart to stop racing. He hoped that he was speaking the truth. It was hard to tell with all the blood flowing.

"Chris is bad. I’m gonna drag him in here so you can keep pressure on his wound while I go for help."

Buck merely nodded as he tried desperately to slow the blood so he could see the wound clearly. Vin turned without another word to retrieve Chris. The task was easier than he thought. In his mind Chris was larger than life. Somehow he thought that it would be impossible to move his dad, but he found his weight easy to drag. Vin found that disconcerting, wondering if the lightless somehow signified an ebbing of his father’s life.

Vin left Buck between Chris and JD. Linens were pressed to wounds and Buck focused on keeping them both alive. Before he left, Vin checked each body to ensure that they no longer posed a threat. He was dismayed to see tracks that showed three men had escaped. Buck had loaded guns in easy reach, and Vin could only pray that Buck wouldn’t need them.

Vin hastened his horse to a pace that had the stallion’s hooves appearing as blurs which floated above the ground. Vin stayed low over the mane, blending into the horse in an effort not to impede his speed. Coming into town tested his patience as Nathan grabbed supplies; time was wasting and he was sure that there was no time left. Lathered and sweating, Peso still set the pace back, allowing Vin’s anxiety to spur him.

Vin ran into the cabin fearful of what he would find, only to see the same scene he had left. Buck was still holding pressure to the wounds and Chris and JD were still holding on. As Nathan and Josiah moved in to take over, Vin felt himself sliding down the wall. He distantly heard Ezra calling his name and then there was nothing.

Part 3

Vin awoke with a start. "Easy Vin. You’re fine," Josiah’s rumbling voice whispered in his ear.

Vin blinked and tried to bring himself to awareness. He was in his room. He heard Buck’s and Nathan’s hushed voices in the background. Terror forced his eyes open as his memory surged forward. "Chris, JD," he cried.

Josiah grabbed him by his arm and shoulder. "They’re still with us. Slow down and we’ll go see them."

Vin eased some at that statement. They were still hanging on. They just had to keep hanging on. With Josiah’s support, he sat up. His shoulder throbbed with the beat of his heart. Knowing his unease of restraint, Nathan had not tied his left arm to his body but had merely wrapped the wound tightly. The bullet had taken a chunk of muscle, but had passed high enough to miss bone. It would be painful but not debilitating.

Nathan met them at the door. "Vin, get back to bed and let me check on you." He expected to see the pleading look of a boy and was stunned by the grim determination of a man. Vin didn’t waste time responding, but pushed past Nathan to reach his family. He moved to his brother’s room first. Buck looked up as Vin entered and held whatever comment initially sprung to his lips.

"He’ll be okay. He woke up a little bit ago. Got a headache from hell, but he should be fine."

Vin looked closely at the swollen face, already purple and blue. He watched JD’s chest rise and fall in regular patterns and searched for any other injuries. Finding none, he closed his eyes in thanks for a moment. It could have been worse. He gave a short nod to Buck and turned to Chris’ room.

His steps never faltered though his heart began to race with each step. He could feel the change in the air, something desperate and longing lingered here. He stopped almost sure that he could see death waiting. His jaw tightened and a fierce growl erupted. It would be waiting for a long time.

"Vin?" Ezra’s voice called.

The simplicity of the greeting merely highlighted the seriousness of it all. There were no words to make what lay before him any easier. Vin squared his shoulders and walked to face his worst nightmare. He wanted to ask Ezra how Chris was doing, but the sight of him lying as pale as the sheets took his breath away. He knew it was bad. He had seen the bullet tear through his father, felt the blood spray out from the force of it. He knew it was bad, but he didn’t want to believe that it was over.

"Cease immediately," Ezra barked.

Vin jerked his gaze in surprise. "I know that I have taught you better than to judge things by appearances. He’s pale, it’s to be expected. He lost blood, but he’ll make more. He’s quiet, but he’s breathing. And I am sure that Nathan would say that resting is what he needs most. It’s been a day since he was shot and he hasn’t developed a fever. Things could be worse and thankfully they are not."

Vin felt the color return to his face and dropped his eyes from Ezra’s forceful stare. He drew in a deep breath and looked back up. "Thanks Ezra."

Ezra rose and walked to Vin. He embraced him, thankful that it was no worse. And then he left, leaving Vin to find whatever peace he could from the sound of his father’s breath.

Vin dropped into the chair left vacant by Ezra’s departure. He reached for his father’s hand, still finding it warmed from where Ezra had held it. Buoyed by Ezra’s assessments and his earlier sense of fight against the grimness that seemed to linger here, he whispered feverently "hang on" into his father’s ear, convinced that somehow he would.

Nathan didn’t temper his words. He wasn’t sure how much damage had been done by the bullet. It sounded like both lungs were still inflated although there were decreased sounds from the right lung. He had cleaned the wound as best he could, sutured it so the bleeding would stop. Chris hadn’t come to yet but his breathing hadn’t shown signs of stress and there didn’t appear to be any fever. God willing, with time to overcome the shock done to his body, Chris would wake up and recover.

Vin had listened and heard all the things that hadn’t been said that could happen as well. His father was a practical man and had taught him to be as well. You didn’t rely on wishful thinking but planned for everything and worked for the positive outcome. Vin wouldn’t think negatively, but he wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of believing everything was fine just yet. His father would let him know when he could do that.

Part 4

Buck arched his back and rolled his head in an attempt to ease the locked muscles. Had it really only been little more than a day when this started? He had heard Vin and Chris talking quietly before they left the cabin to do the morning chores. He felt the knot in his stomach ease as he heard Vin’s quiet laugh. When he heard them exit the cabin, he had risen to start breakfast. He figured Vin had to be starving and he had his own tradition of welcoming Vin home by making pancakes. He had barely pulled on his shirt when he heard shots fired. He grabbed his gun and raced to the front window of the cabin, breaking the glass as he heard bullets striking.

He roared as he saw Chris and Vin go down. He paused long enough to grab Chris’ guns from beside the door and threw them as close as he could to where they were lying. God, it looked like Chris had been hit. He never heard JD come out and grab his rifle. He was too focused on trying to see and eliminate the gunmen. The bark of JD’s rifle was the first indication he had that they were all in the battle now.

He remembered screaming ‘no’ as Vin rose and began firing Chris’ gun. It all seemed to go to slow motion then, bullets passing within a hair’s breath of him and he just kept turning and firing. It seemed to end suddenly. Buck realized his gun was the only one firing and Vin was back on the ground. He had run to JD’s room to check on the boy before he went to help Vin with Chris, but had froze when he saw JD sprawled on the floor, blood spreading beneath his head. He felt his stomach drop and a terrible sensation grabbed him. It was desperate disbelief that gave life to his feet and found shaking hands seeking life where he refused to admit death might be. The fluttering heartbeat released him and he began to stem the blood, anxiously looking for proof that the wound wasn’t as bad as it appeared.

Vin’s arrival brought him more in control. The time between when Vin left for help and Nathan arrived seemed to have been mere minutes. He wasn’t sure how time fled but Buck felt like the quick passage had saved them all. Now after a day of sitting with JD or Chris, he felt his muscles ache in ways that he was almost sure his heart would not have to. JD had been awake off and on, and Chris was still hanging on and showing no worse signs for the passage of time.

Buck stepped out on the porch and found Vin staring at their home. "Vin, you alright?"

"They came to our home," Vin whispered and Buck understood the sanctity which they both gave this place. You expected trouble in town or out on the road, but they had found a sense of peace here that had been largely undisturbed over the years. Chris had left his guns hanging by the door to do morning chores because trouble wasn’t supposed to find them here.

"Yeah son, they did, but we’re still standing."

Vin eyed the holes and felt the rage build in him. They had come to their home, shot his father and brother. And while their dead had been hauled into town, their blood still stained their grounds. More importantly, Chris’ blood still stained these grounds. Vin closed his eyes and sought guidance. When his eyes opened, the warrior in him looked out.

Buck saw the feral look that overcame Vin. He had seen that look on Chris more than a few times. He wasn’t sure what to say. It was one of those times he would have normally stepped away and allowed Chris to handle it. Chris always seemed to know how Vin felt and could help him work through it. But Chris couldn’t step forward and that was making the fire blaze that much higher.

Vin turned and began walking the yard. Buck thought he might be walking off his anger. Lord knows Buck had done his fair share of pacing of late. But when Vin started checking the ground and looking at the sky, Buck felt his heart sink.

Part 5

"Vin, I forbid you to do this," Buck yelled.

Vin froze and turned. A warrior mix stood before Buck. Vin had braided a strip of his hair, revealing cut hair that Buck had never seen before. The feathers in his hair and the dirt streaked on his face and chest seemed to vibrate with the intensity of him. His mare’s leg was strapped to his leg, a gift that Chris had given him two years ago which he rarely wore by agreement. A boy wearing a gun was a man that was fair game. His pants and shirt were his normal attire, but his boots were replaced by moccasins. His eyes sparkled with an anger that seemed insatiable.

"Don’t do this Buck. I don’t want to choose against you. They came to my home and tried to take my family from me. There’s no choice for me. I’ve hid part of who I am so you would accept me, but I can’t hide it now. I can’t. Accept me or not, but you won’t sway me from what I have to do."

Had Vin struck him, it would have hurt less. He saw the boy still shining in the man’s eyes, hurt because he felt there was something about him that Buck hated, something he had to hide. He saw the longing for understanding and the desperate need to ensure that what happened here would never happen again.

"Vin, dear God Vin, I would have never rejected you. I just wanted to protect you. I don’t want you going after those men because I don’t want to lose you. We’ll get a posse together and we’ll get them. They’ll never have a chance to come here again."

"A posse will take too long to gather. They’re already a day and a half ahead of us. It’ll be easier to track ‘em alone. I have to do this." Didn’t Buck see, Chris would have done the same. There was no way that he would have allowed someone else to avenge his family. He wouldn’t have left a rock unturned until there was no longer a threat. Vin could do no less. He hoped that the parts of Chris he admired most were so entwined into himself that no one could tell any longer what were just lessons hoping to be learned and what was his character now. Honor and family were highest among them.

"Then I’ll go with you. It’s my home and family too," Buck claimed as the voices of Josiah and Ezra rose in protest. They had waited to see if Buck could bring order to this chaos and now he was joining in it.

But Buck ignored them and stepped toward Vin, "I understand." And Vin thought he did.

"We leave in a half hour," he said as he turned to see Chris again before he left.

He heard Buck arguing with the rest of them and tuned it out because it didn’t matter. He had been truthful with Buck, he wouldn’t be swayed. If he did any less and the men returned and finished what they had started, he would never be able to live with himself.

Vin sat beside his father and leaned close. "I know you’ll do the best ya can. I expect you’ll be here when I get back. Reckon ya know that I can’t make it without ya. Got too many things I want to tell ya. Got too many things I still need ya to teach me. I know ya won’t be happy with what I’m doing, but I think you’d understand."

Vin searched his father’s face for any sign that he heard him, but the pale features remained unchanged. Vin leaned forward so he was next to his father’s ear. "I love ya. Hang on." And with a final squeeze to the hand still warmed by the people who loved him, Vin left.

Part 6

Buck watched in amazement as Vin followed the trail with an ease that was belied to his own eyesight. Buck saw the occasional blood trail, a horse print which clearly reflected those of the men they were following, but what Vin saw in those long intervals in between, he didn’t know. And Vin rarely faltered. Occasionally he stopped and studied more carefully and then as if some trail sprung before him, he would mount again to ride.

It was a solemn chase. Other than Buck urging Vin to eat some jerky or stop and drink water, he deferred to the boy, quickly realizing he was more man. Buck didn’t think Chris could trail this well and wondered if Vin had learned it from the Indians. It was a sight. Not just the ease that he followed the trail, but the ease in which Vin seemed to shift into the surroundings. Vin had startled him more than once when he appeared suddenly after responding to the call of nature. It was if the earth and Vin were one and the same and he suddenly rose from it. Buck felt a sadness that he had never seen this before. It was clear that this was as much a part of Vin as the quiet, giving child whom he had lived with the last eight years. He hadn’t seen it or considered that this part of Vin was there.

Dusk settled and they reluctantly called it a day. Buck changed the bandages on Vin’s shoulder and whistled at the swollen bruised flesh. "You okay?" Buck asked as he laid his fingers beside the wound to see if he felt any heat.


"It’s okay to admit that it hurts. I ain’t going to make you go back."

Vin chuckled at that. Buck still didn’t get it. This wasn’t about what Buck would allow or not. Vin agreed to Buck coming along because he loved him and knew that it would hurt Buck more had Vin left him. And Vin had done it for himself. He had no doubt how this journey would end and that he would be back home once it was over. He didn’t want to come back to hard feelings between him and Buck. Just like he willingly hid his time with the Indians to keep peace, he made his decision here to keep it as well. It was more important to him that his family was whole even when he wasn’t allowed to be.

"What?" Buck asked in confusion.

"Nothin’. It only hurts if ya let it," Vin replied, although it wasn’t clear whether they were discussing the same hurts at all.

+ + + + + + +

Vin grabbed the pot and poured a cup of coffee. "Tsowy," he asked Buck without thought. Buck blinked in confusion for a moment while Vin kicked himself for the lapse. It was natural for him to sleep into the people’s language when he was out like this. Chris knew many of the words and they conversed easily in a mix when they were out.

"Coffee?" Vin clarified.

"I knew what you meant. Just surprised me is all. Appreciate it," Buck rambled as he took the cup from Vin. He was angry at himself for his reaction. Hell it wasn’t like he didn’t know that Vin spoke their language; he had just never heard him speak it. Why had he been trying so hard to deny this part of Vin? He didn’t know and wasn’t sure any reason was good enough to justify the last eight years. So he sat in silence and hoped he didn’t screw it up anymore.

"I’m still the Vin ya know," Vin spoke softly in the silence.

"No, you’re more than that. I’m ashamed that I haven’t seen that before. That I made you feel like you had to hide things from me. I’ve just been so scared that the soldiers would come again when you were there and you wouldn’t make it out, and there was no reason for you to be there."

"There’s every reason for me to be there. Kojay says that the people’s ways will only survive by white men learning and living ‘em. They have knowledge of things I can’t even explain to Chris. It’s like I can touch the earth and feel its pulse. I can look at the forest and hear it speak to me. There’s a lot more than what we know. Things ya can’t see or be taught but what ya have to feel and believe."

"How you going to keep those things alive if you’re dead with Kojay and his tribe?"

"Seems I could’ve died just a few days ago and I was somewhere ya would have never thought me safer." And that statement hung between, reminding them of all they might still lose and why they were here on this cold night.

"Yeah, but until a few days ago, I didn’t have a reason to think that."

"Buck, I know ya only want what’s best for me. Chris says ya only say the things you do because ya love me. And I know ya love me. But sometimes ya only see what ya want and there’s a lot more there."

"Yeah, I’m starting to see that."

Vin smiled then. The first smile he could find in the last several days. "Good," he said as he rose to check on the horses one last time. Kojay said that from everything rose good and bad outcomes, sometimes it just took a while to see them. The fact that his father was fighting for his life and his brother suffering were easy to see. That Buck might come to accept his way of life, that he might never have to choose between Buck and what he felt was right, well that was a good he hadn’t seen coming.

Part 7

They rose with the sun and began to follow the trail again. It wasn’t long before they found the man leaving the blood trail, slowly lingering, left to fend for himself. Buck barely registered that they had found him before Vin was out of the saddle, knife in hand, pulling the man to him. If he hadn’t known it was his son, he would have never recognized the person as his gentle and shy fifteen-year old boy. The buffalo robe swept around him giving an appearance of size that he had yet to achieve. His teeth flashed as he growled his anger, demanding answers.

The man was disoriented, near bled out from the wound he had been carrying. His ebbing life merely spurred Vin to extract what information he could before the man died. Buck couldn’t see what Vin did, but the man’s eyes opened wide and a cry sounded from him.

"Tell me why you were shootin’ at Larabee or I’ll gut ya," Vin hissed.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," the man gasped in return. The last was bitten off as the man gasped as Vin extended the knife a little further.

"You can go fast or slow," Vin said and the man believed him, even as Buck believed him and he would have never thought that possible.

"Some woman paid us. I don’t know her name, just that she hired Smith to do it and he got us."

"Where? What did she look like?"

"We were in Fairfax. She was a pretty thing, black hair, eyes like onyx, young."

"Where’s Smith headed?"


"What’s the other man’s name?"

"Tom Mears. It’s all I know, I swear."

With a satisfied nod, Vin stood up, pulling his knife free. The man fell forward, hand covering the wound to his belly. "You said fast," the man uttered, so tired of the pain and knowing he still had more time left before it was over. Vin nodded and pulled his mare’s leg and shot him in the head before Buck even knew his intent.

Buck was stunned by the ferocity of Vin’s actions. He knew Kojay and his tribe, knew their kindness and timidity. His resistance to Vin being raised partially by the tribe had nothing to do with this. He had never seen or considered that the hard man in front of him would have learned these traits from them.

Vin knew that Buck didn’t understand. He always saw things in black and white and didn’t understand the variation of shades that came before and after them. Chris and Kojay had taught him practicality. From a people that had suffered and lost, from a man who had loved and mourned, there was no greater battle than the protection of the lives of those you loved. Vin did no less or more than he needed to. There was no time to lose in indecision and self-doubt. You did what needed to be done and you moved on.

Vin looked over at Buck and was angered at his expression. "Would you have left him to die slowly over the next day, maybe two? We couldn’t have saved him, couldn’t have slowed down enough to travel with him until he passed."

Buck heard the anger but couldn’t shake himself free from the shock. What would he have done? Well first he would have thought about it. Might have made sure the man had a loaded gun so he could do what he wanted. Might have wanted to let the bastard suffer for shooting his best friend and his sons. Might have done a lot of things and wouldn’t know which one until he thought about it. But there hadn’t been any thinking for Vin, he obviously had been clear from the beginning on what he was going to do. Lord the boy was like Chris in so many ways.

"Not sure what I mighta done but it don’t matter now. He ain’t gonna hurt none of ours again," Buck said and mounted the horse. "Edgefield is this way," he continued as he legged his horse forward while he tried to make sense of it all.

Vin stood for a moment more looking after Buck’s departing form. Did he understand? And why did he care whether he did? Why was he sure that he would always care? Vin mounted his horse and started after the man he still wanted acceptance from.

Part 8

Too many things were turning in his head. Regrets for things he had done and hadn’t done. Confusion on how a woman was behind it all. Worry on those they left behind. The thoughts chased each other around until Buck knew he had no hope of making sense of it all any time soon. He threw more wood on the fire hoping that it would somehow burn away his confusion.

He and Vin had passed the remainder of the day in silence. Buck was afraid he would say the wrong thing if he didn’t straighten out what he thought. But he never seemed to straighten out his thoughts before Vin went to bed, and here he sat, thinking he might not ever figure it out.

Vin’s cry caused him to turn quickly. Eyes still lost in a nightmare showed such despair that Buck went with what he felt and not what he thought. He moved over and embraced his son and could tell when sleep left and Vin realized that the arms around him were real. Buck was shocked again when Vin didn’t pull from the embrace but settled into, finally weeping for all that had occurred. Buck pulled him tighter and found solace in grieving as well. This was still the boy he knew, resilient and loyal. This was still the boy he loved.

Neither of them mentioned the incident in the morning but the tension was gone between them. Buck thought Chris might have something with the no talking thing. They had never said a word and yet he felt like they had. It was with a sense of anticipation that they started out. Edgefield was a few hours away.

+ + + + + + +

The town was larger than Four Corners. It had a railroad stop and businesses that didn’t rely on farming or mining. Vin stabled the horses while Buck went to the sheriff’s office. Some things had become clear for Buck and the first was that Vin was right, they needed to be sure that the threat to their family was gone. The fact that the men hadn’t been seeking revenge or just stumbled on their home made it clear that a bigger threat existed than just two unaccounted for men. Buck hadn’t puzzled out how a woman could be behind it, but he figured before the day was out he might.

The sheriff was a decent man and was more than happy to help the law from Four Corners. It didn’t hurt that Edgefield was part of Judge Travis’ territory as well. Smiths were a dime a dozen, but Tom Mears was a local who the sheriff knew and had little use for.

"Let me head over to saloon and see if I can track Tom down and bring him back. No need for him to see you and make this more difficult," Sheriff Dobbs said. Buck nodded in agreement and sat down to wait for Vin to join him.

Buck looked up as Vin entered. "Horses are taken care of and I sent a telegram to Four Corners. Figured someone would get word to Josiah and the others ‘bout where we’re at."

"Good thinking. The sheriff went to find Tom Mears and bring him over here. Think you can let me handle this one?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded shortly, "Your family too."

"Yeah we are," Buck returned softly and leaned against the wall to wait.

It wasn’t a long wait before the door opened and a man preceded the sheriff in the door. He had been looking down and startled at the growl that sounded in front of him. Buck recognized this man. He had been one of the few he had seen clearly.

"What’s going on?" the man cried as he stepped back.

"That’s what I’d like to know Tom," the sheriff answered as he stopped Tom’s back peddling. "These men tell me you shot up their home and family. What would you know about that?"

"I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been visiting with my cousin."

Buck stepped forward, straightening to his full height, and it was an impressive height to little Tom Mears. Buck wrapped his hands in Tom’s shirt front, slowly and calmly. The sweat was already beading Tom’s forehead as he craned his neck to see Buck’s face. There was no emotion there, not anger or a smile. Nothing, nothing that gave Tom any clue of Buck’s intentions. When the shirt was well wrapped around his fists, Buck began lifting slowly like Tom didn’t have any weight. The shirt bit into his body and began to rip as Buck continued to lift him and finally held him at face level. The only sound was Tom’s harsh breathing. Buck just held him until the shirt ripped loose and Tom dropped to the floor.

He hadn’t been expecting the release and his legs failed to lock, dropping him to the floor. Before he could register what had occurred, a boot caught him in the side rolling him across the floor. As soon as he stopped rolling, a boot lodged on his chest pinning him to the ground. Tom felt like the boot was driving into the floor, robbing him of breath. His hands flayed to the leg in an effort to dislodge it, but it held steady. Just when Tom thought he might lose consciousness the pressure eased and then the boot kicked again rolling him further along the floor.

Tom expected the boot to lodge in his chest again and wasn’t disappointed. The pain was agonizing, the treatment disorienting. The process repeated itself until Tom lost count. He didn’t even know why. The man hadn’t told him what he wanted.

Black dots and buzzing sounds surrounded him and he eventually realized that he was sitting in a chair and that man was right in front of him. He whimpered and pulled back before he even realized he did it.

"I’ll only ask you once. Why were you shooting at Larabee?"

"We were paid to do it."

"Paid by who?"

"Some lady, named Elly or Ella. Gus talked to her. He’d know her name," Tom replied, hoping that the man would be pleased, but Buck’s face remained neutral.

"What’s Gus’ last name?"

"Smith. Gus Smith."

"Where’s Gus now?"

"He was at the saloon when the sheriff got me. I don’t know if he’s still there."

"Where would he go if he wasn’t there any longer?"

"I don’t know. I swear I don’t know!" the man screamed when Buck shifted forwarded.

"What’s Gus look like?"

And Tom answered. Buck could ask any question he wanted in that soft voice and Tom answered like the wrath of hell was upon him. Vin couldn’t help smiling in admiration. Damned if he had known Buck had this in him. He had seen Buck smiling and loud, yelling and angry, but he had never seen him so soft and dangerous. Lord, it was a sight and it made him proud. Buck got it. He understood what Vin had set off to do. Come hell or high water, the men were going pay for what they had done.

The sheriff placed a relieved Tom Mears behind bars while Buck and Vin set off to find Gus Smith. It didn’t take much tracking to find Gus liquored up in one of the rooms upstairs from the saloon. Buck and Vin alternated playing bad guy, both realizing Gus was the man who knew the most. But even liquored, Gus was tough and didn’t think he would break under any circumstance. Two hours later and several pints of blood lighter, Gus decided dying slow wasn’t worth it. He gave Buck a name that left him confused and sickened. Ella Gaines, why in the hell would Ella Gaines want Chris dead?

They got Gus’ body out of town and buried him where he wouldn’t easily be found. It all seemed hopelessly endless now that they knew someone else was behind it. Vin was determined to see it out, but Buck knew that it was time to go home. He just needed to find a way to explain it to Vin and was surprised when it was so easy. As soon as Vin understood that Buck thought Ella might have had something to do with Sarah and Adam’s death, Vin gave up. Buck didn’t know that it was because Vin knew Chris would want to handle hunting her down and bringing an end to the questions that haunted him more than a decade after their deaths. He also knew that he would go with Chris so he would keep the promise to himself as well. But for now, he just needed to deal with Tom and see his father again. He needed to be sure that Chris had hung on.

Buck had Judge Travis wire the necessary papers to allow him and Vin to take Tom to Four Corners for trial. Tom was trussed up like a turkey but it was unnecessary. A mere look from Buck had him wishing they had left him in Edgefield. But Buck and Vin never laid a hand on him again, they got what they needed. Tom would stand trial and be found guilty. The scaffold in Four Corners hadn’t been used in a while, but there was no doubt that he would be sentenced to hang for trying to kill Chris and his family. Neither Buck or Vin found any enjoyment in it, just a grim resolution that it had to be done.

Part 9

Vin rode hard into the yard, dismounting before Peso came to a stop. Buck took Tom into town so Vin could go check on Chris. Vin stopped as the guns were re-holstered and the admonishments started.

"Mr. Tanner, are you eager for an early demise?" Ezra asked even as he smiled in relief at Vin’s return. "I presume Mr. Wilmington is well?"

"Yeah, Buck took a prisoner into town. How’s Chris?"

The three smiling faces were answer enough as Vin rushed past. He found Chris in bed, no longer pale. The air felt like home with nothing lingering here.

"Hey cowboy," Vin rasped although this time it felt like it was Chris who had returned.

Chris stretched his hand out trying to take it all in. Vin was dirty and a hodge podge of Indian and white. The mare’s leg he had given him was securely strapped to his leg. He looked tired and old, but not weighed by worry or regret. "You okay?" he asked when their shared look wasn’t enough to assure him that things were fine.

"I’m fine. Buck too. He took the last man into town to wait for trial."

"The rest?"

"Won’t be a problem again. Buck will tell you the rest. He understands it better than me," Vin replied. He and Buck had agreed that Buck would share the information about Ella. Buck had known her and could help Chris work through it. Vin was alright with that. He felt he had done what he needed to. He would be able to sleep in his home knowing that at least those men were gone and his family was safe. And when Chris was able, he would go with him to avenge his family. In the meantime, he would keep Chris safe.

Chris looked at their arms locked at the wrist. It was an exchange of men, a bond pledged and answered. Chris knew there would be no going back for Vin. Vin had taken a path into manhood which Chris didn’t doubt would have the mare’s leg permanently strapped to his side. Danger would see him now. There would be no delaying it because he was merely a boy. But danger had already come and found Vin and he had stood against it. Chris saw again Vin rising amid the shots shooting like an unstoppable specter, seemingly invincible as the gun in his hand issued a permanent ending. He was a man who had made the hard choice of leaving Chris in uncertain times to assure his safety. He was a man who had done things that Chris felt sure Vin would share. He wasn’t sure why he had been scared of the boy passing and the man emerging. The man was still his son and he knew his son well. With a contented sigh that his family was home again, Chris found the comforts of sleep and peace.