Returning Kitty

by Angie

Alternate Universe "Two Blood"

Warning: Some mild slash content.

The unrelenting sun beat down on the dirt road that ran between the buildings that made up the town. It had been weeks since they'd gotten any rain to speak of and the citizenry were getting anxious. Josiah and Nathan sat in the shade of the boardwalk watching to see if the heat would drive someone to do something stupid and, as usual, it did. The two men backed out of the bank, guns out and pointed back through the open door. The taller man holstered his weapon long enough to swing up into the saddle. The shorter man sprang up without bothering to put his gun away.

Exchanging a knowing look, Josiah and Nathan slowly came to their feet. The two would-be bank robbers were coming right at them. They waited until the horses passed them before drawing and firing. The taller man toppled from the saddle and rolled several times before coming to rest against the side of the church. The shorter man was only winged but he pulled up at seeing the other man fall. Fear caused him to raise his hands in surrender. He didn't even cry out as he was dragged from the saddle and shoved toward the jail. Josiah knelt over the other man and checked to see if he was still alive. Whether from the bullet or the fall, the man was dead and the former preacher said a brief prayer for the lost soul. He looked up to see that the undertaker was already coming toward him.

In the jail cell, Nathan cleaned and dressed the through and through wound in the man's shoulder. He filled the water pitcher and set the waste bucket inside of the cell before locking the door. Josiah shook his head sadly at the unspoken question about the other man.

Several hours later, Chris and Vin returned from their patrol and were briefed on the prisoner. JD was out at the Wells place helping them with the small herd of beef cattle that Nettie had inherited from a distant relative. Ezra and Buck were out at Chris's place, the two-blood recovering from a bad fall off of the hotel roof in the last shoot out they'd had with the men too stupid to leave the small bank alone. The heat seemed to addle their brains.

The next morning, early, a pair of wagons rolled into town. Two men and a handful of women got out and headed for the restaurant. Josiah greeted them with a friendly smile and struck up a conversation with the men while they waited for their food. Vin circled the wagons, looking with interest at the magnificent draft animals pulling the lead wagon. He had never seen horses as big as they were and he stepped closer. The one on the left side of the team nickered softly. The tracker stroked the velvet nose as he visually measured the width of the animal's chest and the size of his hooves. When he'd satisfied his curiosity, he headed for the restaurant.

Josiah was sitting with two strangers, discussing the temperamental nature of the weather and climate. Vin tipped his hat as he joined them and motioned the waitress to bring his usual meal. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the young, blue-eyed woman at the next table glancing at him. He smiled and the woman quickly returned her gaze to her plate. When they finished their meals, the strangers paid the waitress and went on their way. They had bought the place over the hill from Nettie Wells and were eager to see their investment.

It was several days before they thought about the strangers again. They made a point of stopping on their patrol rounds to make sure they were alright but didn't stay long. JD commented that while the men were friendly enough, the women were downright scarce when he stopped. It wasn't until Buck was up and around that they got a clue as to why.

Buck and JD were making the routine patrol. It was the first time the two-blood had been allowed to take a patrol since his injury. The young sheriff rattled on and on about the new family. He had learned that the men planned to use the large horses for breeding. The animals were descended from a breed imported from Europe. They hoped to find a market for the large, sturdy draft animals. When they rode up, Buck sat straighter in the saddle and his nostrils flared.

"What is it?" JD asked, knowing immediately that his friend had picked up a scent that bothered him.

"Not yet, JD," Buck said as he nudged his horse back into motion.

The two men, Patrick and Mick Hutchins, were making a repair to the barn door while the women were working a small garden. JD tipped his hat in greeting as he passed the women. Buck stared at the women for a good while before he realized that his horse had stopped and he stepped down.

"Mr. Hutchins, this is one of the other peacekeepers I was telling you about. Buck Wilmington, this is Patrick and Mick," JD said as he indicated each man in turn. Instead of his usual, easy going attitude, Buck fairly glared at the men before nodding. When he turned to look at the women again, they had gone into the house.

"Are you looking for something in particular, Mr. Wilmington? Our wives are of some interest to you?"

"Wives? There were four or five women out there," Buck answered tersely.

"Our religion allows for the taking of more than one wife, sir. We each have two and Mick has a concubine. I trust that won't be a problem?"

"No, no problem. JD, we should get going. Chris will worry if we aren't back on time today."

To his credit, JD didn't ask questions, he simply nodded to the two men and remounted his horse. He waited until they were well out of earshot before speaking.

"What's wrong, Buck?"

"One of their women is two-blood."

"Are you sure? Wait, duh. Sorry. Do you think they know?" JD had learned the etiquette for two-bloods since finding out that his best friend was one. He knew that a new two-blood couldn't just set up shop in the area without approaching the alpha and getting permission and Chris hadn't mentioned anything.

"I'd bet they know, but they don't realize that they're on our territory. If it's just the one female, the men probably don't even know we're here."

"What are we going to do?"

"I need to talk to her before I decide, JD."

That evening, at the Hutchins place, the family gathered for supper. The younger girl cautiously approached the table and knelt at Mick's side. She didn't dare speak until he gave her permission.

"What is it Katherine?"

"That man, the one who was here today, he's like me. I just thought you should know."

Mick's eyes narrowed and he grabbed the woman by the arm. "Why didn't you say something? How long have you known we were on another pack's territory?"

"I scented it when we first arrived but it was faint. I figured that it was just one passing through, like me. I smelled it on the men making the patrols but you never let me close enough to figure it out."

The enraged man shoved his chair away and came to his feet, dragging the woman up before he backhanded her, sending her crashing into the hearth. She lay against the stones, blinking back tears and cringing in fear. Mick advanced on her, yanking her to her feet and dragging her to the small door in the corner of the living room floor.

"No! No! Please don't lock me up! I'll be good! Please!" Katherine begged before the man hurled her through the door and let it drop closed, kicking the hasp locked even as he returned to the table.

Hitting the dirt on her side, the woman gasped at the pain in her arm and shoulder. Coming to her knees, she debated screaming and yelling but she knew that would only earn her another beating. Shrinking into the corner, she curled into a ball and cried softly. It was cold in the dirt cellar and completely dark. Mick knew how terribly afraid she was of the dark, he used it to punish her every chance he could get.

For the next few days, Buck surreptitiously checked the Hutchins place. He never saw the woman again but his sensitive nose told him that she was still there. Finally, one night, in desperation, he undressed in the woods and made the change, approaching the house in his wolf form. He circled the buildings a couple of times but couldn't pick up any recent tracks. Worried that they had done something to the woman, he hid in the tree line, turned his nose to the stars and howled. The long, mournful howl raised gooseflesh on the occupants of the house. Even more disturbing was the higher pitched answering howl that rose from the dirt cellar. Mick Hutchins knew then what he had to do. She had promised that she wouldn't turn into her sinful form again and she had, Katherine would have to be punished.

+ + + + + + +

"I'm telling you Chris, she's there and she's not there voluntarily. We have to do something!" Buck paced angrily across the width of the cabin's common room. He had returned from his survey of the Hutchins place with a full head of steam. The entire pack now sat around the room trying to decide what to do.

"We could drive them off. The townspeople aren't too thrilled about having bigamist's in their midst," Ezra offered.

"But it isn't illegal, Ezra. I checked with the judge," JD answered.

"You're certain she's being held against her will?" Josiah asked. He couldn't imagine anyone holding a two-blood against their will. "Could be that she's accepted them as her pack. If she's his concubine, she's getting his attention at least part of the time. From what I've seen, the women are close knit."

Buck's open hand slammed on the table top in answer, his blue eyes flashing with barely controlled rage. Chris reached out and rested his hand on Buck's shoulder, calming him immediately. The big two- blood stalked across the room and sat down on the floor, leaning back against Ezra and Vin's legs as he scowled up at the blond alpha.

"Maybe we could invite them into town for supper or something. Josiah could invite 'em to Sunday service. Anything to get them off the property so Buck could find the girl and talk to her," JD suggested.

"It's worth a try. But you've got to stay away from that house, Buck. Especially in wolf form! The last thing I need is for one of them to put a bullet in you and turn you into a rug," Chris said as he smiled fondly at the two-blood.

The next morning, Katherine looked up hopefully as the door to her dark prison was opened. Her hopes were quickly dashed as the bucket was lowered down and the door closed again. Whimpering softly, she crawled over and lifted the dishtowel from the top to find out what they'd given her to eat. The food was cold but she choked it down, not knowing how soon they would forgive her and let her out. The water in the canteen tasted brackish, it was just their way of further punishing her for insolence. Shortly after drinking the water, she began to feel dizzy and sick. Curling up in the corner, she panted until consciousness slipped away.

When she awakened, Katherine was terrified. They were now in the barn. She was secured to one of the main supports, her hands tied together above her head. In an instant, she realized what they meant to do to her and she began to struggle.

"Patrick, she's awake," Orpha announced.

"Good, maybe she should be awake for it. Maybe now she will remember what she was told about becoming that sinful, evil animal," the man said, the madness of near insanity shining brightly in his eyes.

"Patrick, she's your own daughter!" Leah protested. She was immediately backhanded for her blasphemy. Cupping her hand to her split lip, she bolted from the barn and ran for the house to seek solace from her sister, who was Mick's wife.

As the man approached her with the knife in his hand, Katherine growled a warning. Her growl immediately became a scream of raw pain as the blade flashed and opened a furrow along her ribs. The other woman rushed up and shoved a handful of rags in her mouth to muffle the screams. Patrick felt the air pressure swell with the impending change and he slammed his fist into the bound young woman's stomach, preventing her from assuming her lupine form. In almost the same motion, he struck her jaw, rendering her unconscious again. Stepping around behind the girl, he used the knife to cut the dress, ripping it to the waist before taking up the whip.

When she opened her eyes next, she was back in the dark. This time, her hands were bound behind her back and she was still gagged. Whimpering softly, she shed silent tears. The next time she wakened, burning with fever, she began to pray for a speedy death.

The seven peacekeepers rode up on the Hutchins place and stopped at the sight of the pair of rifles pointed in their direction.

"You don't really mean to threaten us, do you?" Chris asked.

"Just turn around and ride out of here. We don't need your patrols and we don't need your help," Mick called out as he glared hard at Buck.

"She's hurt. The scent is real strong," Buck whispered to the blond.

"We just want to make sure everyone is alright. Why don't you call your women out and we'll go as soon as we see for ourselves that they're healthy," Chris offered.

"Our women are none of your business!" Patrick yelled. "Now turn around and ride out of here!"

Watching the two men closely, Ezra and Vin detected that they were going to shoot. Simultaneously pulling their weapons, they fired, striking both of the men and sending them to the ground. The women burst from the house, crying and pleading for them not to kill the men. Patrick tried to raise his rifle and Chris cocked his Colt, preparing to take a fatal shot. The man's jaw tightened before he let the gun fall to the ground.

Buck and Nathan ran for the house to search for the fifth woman. Buck could smell that she was hurt and he led the healer directly to the trap door. Throwing the door open, he peered into the inky blackness.

"Too dark to see anything down there. I'll have to get a rope and lower you down," he told Nathan. JD held out the rope he'd grabbed when he leapt from his mount, somehow the young sheriff had known they would need it. He also grabbed a hurricane lamp from the bureau and lit the wick. Buck quickly secured Nathan and handed him the lamp before lowering him into the dark hole.

Her vision grayed and she smelled the other two-blood. From the depths of her fever induced delirium, she growled in warning. With her limbs bound, she knew she could not defend herself. Buck, hearing the tone of the growl, cautioned Nathan.

"Be careful, she's hurt bad."

"She's burnin' with fever, Buck. We gotta get her out of here so I can treat her," Nathan called back, he could see the fever-induced glazing of her eyes.

JD raced out and headed for the barn. He grabbed the sturdy ladder that went to the loft and dragged it back to the house. Josiah detached himself from the group standing guard over the Hutchins men and followed the young sheriff.

Buck, now able to see how deep the cellar was, dropped into the hole to help Nathan. The growling in the corner grew louder and he could see the woman trying to avoid them.

"Why doesn't she change?" Nathan asked. He could feel his knees shaking as he watched, fearful that the woman would turn into a wolf and tear into him before they could stop her.

"I don't know," Buck said as he knelt down and looked at the woman. Her face was swollen and bruised as she looked up at him in fear. Coming to a decision, he stood and began to peel off his clothes. As the last bit of cloth hit the dirt, he initiated the change, becoming a beautiful example of lupine majesty. Dropping to his belly on the floor, he slowly approached the woman, whining pleadingly. He inched across the floor until he could nuzzle against her face. He pulled the dirty rags from her mouth and tossed them toward the corner. Her growling stopped and she whimpered, closing her eyes and surrendering to unconsciousness again.

After changing back and tugging on his clothes, Buck turned to help Nathan. The healer had cut away the ropes binding her arms to her sides and holding her hands together. As soon as he did that, he realized that the back of her dress had been split and she was covered in bloody welts. Slashing through the rope on her ankles, he moved aside to allow Buck to pick her up.

"Be careful with her, she's been whipped," Nathan said as the two- blood slipped his hands under the girl.

"Who do you want to stay?" Chris asked Buck and Nathan. He figured they would know which of them was best able to help with the sick two- blood female. When Buck looked to Vin and then to Ezra, they nodded. Josiah rested his hand on the woman's head and said a brief prayer before rising.

"Then lets get them to the jail before I lose the fragile hold I have on the Commandments, Chris," the graying man said as he glared at the six people tied up in the wagon.

"Bring the wagon back and we'll take her to Chris's," Nathan added. "And grab some more supplies."

Between the four of them, they managed to undress and wash the woman quickly. Nathan hissed and cursed over the spreading bruise on the woman's stomach, as well as the one on her face. The wound on her ribs was puffy and weeping with infection, he opened and drained it before wrapping a drawing poultice on it for the time being. The next most urgent problem was her high fever. Ezra and Vin found a bathtub and carried it into the house. The filled it with cool water. Nathan agreed that immersing her in the water was the fastest way but he was concerned that she would go into convulsions. Wrapping her in a sheet, they gently lowered her into the water. After several minutes, they lifted her out and put her back on the bed.

Several hours later, Katherine opened her eyes and blinked in confusion. The pack scent was very strong and she was being petted and soothed. Rolling her head, she caught sight of three different faces.

"Nathan, she's coming around," Ezra called urgently. The healer had started the tea kettle to make one of his herbal remedies. Buck reached out and cupped her chin, pulling her gaze to his face.

"What's your name darlin'?"

"K - Kitty," she whispered. "You're pack!"

"Yes, we are. Can you tell us what happened?"

"I changed," she answered, as if that made all the sense in the world.

"The Hutchins were unaware of your peculiar nature?" Ezra asked.

"They knew. P - Pa - Patrick forbad me to do it."

The four men's eyes met and their expressions hardened. The teapot began to whistle and Nathan hurried to get it so he could steep the herbs. Buck drew Kitty to a sitting position as the others put pillows behind her.

"Who did this to you? Patrick?" Buck asked.

Kitty nodded, "he said he would teach me not to become that sinful, evil animal again."

The return of JD with the wagon ended the discussion temporarily. Vin and Ezra went to move a mattress into the wagon to make it more comfortable for Kitty on the ride to Chris's place. Nathan carried in a cup of tea and handed it to the woman. She sniffed at the cup and looked doubtfully at the healer.

"It'll help with the fever and pain. It's just herbs, it won't hurt you none," he assured her.

After she finished the tea, the healer handed her some soft clothing he had found in one of the dressers. Buck gathered her into his arms and carried her out to the wagon. He cradled her in his lap and Nathan covered her with a light blanket. The others gathered the horses and followed. Kitty dropped into a deep sleep, surrounded by the comforting pack scent.

At the jail, Patrick and Mick sat scowling through the bars. Their wives sat in the other cell, weeping softly. Josiah paced back and forth in the jail, irritated almost beyond endurance that the men were unrepentant about what they'd done. After Leah confessed that Katherine wasn't Mick's concubine but Patrick's daughter and her niece, the gentle preacher lost his temper. It was only Chris's flat out refusal to give him the key to the cells that preserved the two men from harm.

"What are you going to do with us?" Leah asked timidly.

"That's up to the judge, Ma'am."

"He can't stop me from disciplining my own daughter," Patrick spat bitterly, "especially after I tell him about the abomination she becomes."

It was like tossing a bucket of ice water on Chris as he realized the implications. After all that they had given to protecting their two-blood friend, this man would tell the judge about his daughter and probably about Buck. They couldn't be allowed to reveal the information, they just couldn't.

At Chris's cabin, Buck carried Kitty to the rear of the wagon and handed her to Nathan. Her fever had broken on the ride and she was glistening with perspiration. Her hair was hanging in damp ropes from her head. While Ezra and Vin tended to the horses, Buck and Nathan carried the woman to one of the small bedrooms and settled her comfortably.

"Do you need to stay with her?" Nathan asked Buck.

"Nah, she'll be asleep for a while. I'm going to head into town and let Chris know that she'll be alright and see what he wants to do about patrols. I'll leave you my shirt. If she gets agitated, put it on, you don't carry my scent like the others."

That was another thing they had learned, scent was very important to other packs. Chris and Buck regularly marked the perimeter of their territory to prevent another pack from trying to settle there. Except for the Red Stone pack, no other pack had bothered them for a while. Because he and Josiah weren't as willing to join the others in the touching and cuddling that had become so much a part of their lives, they didn't carry the two-blood scent on them like the younger men. That could have been a large part of the reason Kitty had reacted to him the way she had.

Back in town, Buck barely got into the jail before Chris pushed him out to the boardwalk and dragged him across to the church. Once safely behind the doors, he told his friend what the Hutchins man had threatened. Buck cycled from anger to rage to fear and back to anger in a matter of seconds.

"What are we going to do?"

The blond man pinched the bridge of his nose and then drew his hands through his hair before slamming his palm against one of the pews. The sound was like a gunshot in the enclosed space. "I don't know. We can't let them tell the judge that you're a two-blood."

"Do you think he'd believe it? It isn't like I'm going to change so he can see it and I don't think Kitty will either."

"We still can't take the chance on them planting the idea in people's minds. We have to make them go away, somehow. What about the woman, is she going to live?"

"Nathan seems to think so. He lanced that wound on her ribs and gave her some of his tea. Her fever broke and she was resting peacefully when I left."

"One of the women said that Katherine, Kitty, is her niece and Patrick's daughter, wouldn't that mean that one of them is also two- blood?" Chris reasoned aloud.

"I didn't smell it on any of the others."

"Is it possible that they are and you couldn't tell?"

"I don't think so. Could I talk to the woman?" Buck asked. Chris shrugged and went to get her.

Leah Hutchins shrank into the pew, terror showing plainly on her face. She watched the two men who stood in front of her without any of them speaking. Finally, Buck shook his head.

"She's not. I only smell Kitty on her. If Patrick or Mick was, I'd smell it on her."

"Did you and Kitty's mother have the same parents?" Chris asked.

"Yes! Of course we did! What are you implying, Sir? My parents union was blessed in the church, just as Patrick and Amanda's was," Leah answered indignantly.

"Amanda was Kitty's mother?" Buck clarified.

"Yes she was, God rest her soul. It was the birth of that child that killed her! Mick wanted to drown her when she was born but Patrick thought she was his penance."

"Penance for what, Ma'am?" Chris asked.

"For not protecting Amanda. He was off courting Orpha when it happened. A stranger broke into their house and forced himself on her."

"Then Kitty isn't his," Buck said. "It makes sense. It had to have been a pack. He sired the child on her and took off. If he knew about it he would have come back for her."

"Patrick killed him. He came home and caught him in the barn trying to steal one of the horses. Killed him with his bare hands. The doctors said he was out of his mind because he said that the man turned into a wolf. After Katherine was born ..." Leah shuddered, "My sister took one look at the thing she birthed and up and died."

"Poor woman, no wonder he treats her that way," Chris said softly.

"It isn't Kitty's fault!" Buck shouted before storming out of the church. A couple of minutes later Chris heard the thunder of Buck's horse racing out of town.

"What will happen to them, my husband and brother in law?"

"I don't know, Ma'am," Chris answered as he drew her to her feet.

Buck returned to the cabin. Nathan assured him that Kitty was still deeply asleep. Buck went in the room and sank to the floor next to the bed, his hand stretched out to enfold her wrist. Kitty whimpered and struggled in her sleep, each time waking Buck. He would wake her and coax more water down her throat before petting her back to sleep.

By morning, Nathan was worried. The wound on her ribs was still seeping puss and there were red lines radiating out from it. He had to do something drastic. Calling the others aside, he laid out the situation.

"If I can't stop the infection, she'll die. She's getting weaker from fighting the fever. I want to open the wound and try to find whatever is keeping it infected. She's too weak for laudanum or chloroform so I'll have to do it while she's unconscious. If she comes around, and she probably will, you'll have to help me to hold her down."

Something like an hour later, they were ready to begin. Nathan had bound Kitty from the hips down to the bed. Buck would hold her hands and try to keep her calm. Ezra and Vin were in charge of making sure she didn't move too much and handing him the instruments as he asked for them. As expected, Kitty awoke almost as soon as the operation began.

A low growl rolled from the female two-blood. Buck tightened his grip on her arms and murmured soothingly as Vin wiped her sweat soaked brow. Nathan used his sharpest blade to open the healing wound. Kitty resumed her struggles and whimpered. Blood and puss boiled up in the incision and Ezra reached out with a clean rag to wipe it away. Not seeing anything, Nathan cut deeper.

"Please stop!" Kitty begged, "I'll be good. I promise!"

Vin and Ezra both reached out to try to soothe the girl as Nathan removed more blood and gore from the wound. Finally, the healer made his own growling noise, startling the other three men. He grabbed a pair of pliers and plucked a small bit of metal imbedded in her rib. The tip of the knife had broken off in the bone instead of the whole knife glancing off, which would probably have killed her.

Kitty screamed and thrashed as the wound was cleaned with carbolic. Finally, mercifully, she passed out. Ezra wrung out a clean cloth and wiped the sweat from Buck's face and then Kitty's. Once he was sure the wound was clean, Nathan stitched the skin, leaving the center of the incision open to drain. After Kitty was lightly bathed, she was put back to bed.

That night, leaving Nathan and Ezra to watch over the girl, the pack met at the jail. Chris had decided to try scaring the Hutchins' into leaving quietly. After laying out an oilskin canvas, Vin hung a small doe he had killed only an hour before. With a feral gleam in his eyes, he explained that there were ways to remove the skin that would leave it almost completely intact. After casting meaningful glances at the two men, he demonstrated. One of the women fell apart, sobbing and pleading to be released. As Vin was finishing up, Josiah came in with his battered, leather-bound Bible. He read the descriptions of slayings from the old testament, adding his own gory commentary as he taunted the supposedly 'righteous' men. JD came in with a stack of newspaper articles he had purloined from Mary Travis and began 'reading' about Chris Larabee and his 'exploits' in the frontier town. Letting his expressive eyes roll as he explained how the blond had once shot a man for buttoning his shirt crookedly, he added to the prisoners' fear. With the gunslinger sitting in the corner cleaning his pistol, Buck came in and approached the bars.

"Have you ever seen Kitty when she changes? Have you ever seen any other two-bloods? I'll bet you haven't. Let me show you what a full grown, well fed, loved two-blood looks like," he said as he peeled off his clothes. The women cringed, their faces coloring in embarrassment at the sight of the tanned, half naked body. Mick jumped to his feet and began to yell.

"You can't do this to us! It is an abomination! It is against God!"

"God made me this way!" Buck yelled, dropping the last of his clothes, he swiftly made the change and lunged at the bars, growling deep in his throat. Both men sprang from the bars, Patrick actually clawed at the wall trying to put distance between himself and the massive wolf. The women were too frightened to scream, tumbling over each other in their haste to reach the farthest corner of their cell.

"Ya ought to see what he does to flesh and bone," Vin goaded as he pulled the doe down and dropped it on the canvas. Buck grabbed the carcass and dragged it over closer to the bars so the men could hear the sound of the neck breaking under his massive jaws. He ripped into the helpless animal, gutting it and pulling the heart and lungs from the ribcage.

"That's enough, Buck," Chris said calmly from the corner. The wolf whined pleadingly and the hazel eyes held firm. Tucking his tail, he went across the room dropping lower as he got closer until he was crawling on his belly. The blond leaned over and patted the large head. "You're good." Chris complimented the two-blood as he looked to see what reaction the prisoners were having. While Buck crept to the corner and changed, washing in the bucket of water thoughtfully provided by Vin, the blond got up and approached the bars.

Mick came to his feet, disgust at his brother's weakness written in every line of his face. He glanced down at the eviscerated doe and swallowed hard. "You've made your point. We'll leave the area as soon as possible."

"And the girl?" Vin challenged as he came to stand beside Chris.

"You can keep her."

"And what will you tell people about this town?" Buck asked as he stepped back into the light, dressed and cleaned up.

"We won't tell anyone. I doubt that anyone would believe us but we won't tell a soul about you or my niece. We'll never mention this place again," Mick Hutchins promised.

"That's good, 'cause if you did, we'd have to come after you. And there isn't any place you can hide from a two-blood. There are more of us out there than you know. If they find out what you did to Kitty, they'd be honor bound to exact revenge, according to pack law," Buck threatened.

Two days later, the Hutchins' place was back up for sale. They had loaded everything into the two wagons and rode away without looking back. Buck and JD had kept watch over them, never letting them forget the warning they had gotten. When Leah approached, it was with her head down and trembling hands.

"Would you please give these things to Katherine? They belonged to her mother and I know she'd want her to have them. We're also leaving her furniture and clothing in her room. I don't know if she wants the bed and such but she'll need her clothes."

"I'll do that, Ma'am," JD answered dutifully as he took the things from the woman.

"And would you tell her that I'm sorry, that I tried to stop him from hurting her."

The young sheriff could see the fading bruise on the woman's cheek and he nodded. "I'll tell her when she gets better."

"How is she?" Leah asked, curiosity getting the better of her.

Kitty had run a raging fever after the operation. Nathan and Ezra had constantly bathed her with cool water and alcohol to bring her body temperature down. They were both afraid that she would change and attack but she never did. Her fever had only just broken that morning, finally. The healer had crawled into a corner of the big pack bed and dropped into an exhausted sleep, leaving the others to watch over the girl. Vin and Chris were trading off with Ezra but Nathan refused to rest until she was out of danger. He was keenly aware that he wasn't a doctor and that he could have done her more harm than good by operating.

"Her fever finally broke. Nathan figures she'll be okay in a few days," JD said before Leah turned to scurry back to the house under the watchful eyes of the two-blood and her husband.

Buck and JD followed the wagons for the better part of a day before turning and coming back home. They reached Chris's shack about the same time as Kitty was waking up for the first time.

Pain radiated from various places on her body as she slowly regained her senses. She was warm and the bed was relatively soft, she was reluctant to have to leave it. A small sound startled her and she realized that she wasn't alone.

"It's alright, Miss Hutchins, you're among friends," Ezra said softly as he poured her a glass of water. Sitting lightly on the edge of the bed, he lifted her head and held the water to her lips. When she'd taken all she wanted, he set the cup aside and brushed her bangs off of her forehead. "Do you want me to call Nathan to give you something for pain?"

"No, thank you. Where am I?"

"Chris Larabee's place, the den of our pack," the southerner replied.

"I thought I'd imagined it," she whispered as sleep claimed her again. The door opened and Buck peered around it. He watched Ezra smoothing the blankets and slipped in quietly.

"How is she?"

"Still weak and disoriented. I trust that those cretins have left our municipality?"

"JD and I followed 'em all the way to Greeley. I don't think they'll be coming back," Buck answered as he knelt beside the bed, leaning against Ezra. The southerner smoothed his hand over the back of Buck's head until the two-blood relaxed against his lap with one arm around Ezra's waist and the other one resting lightly on Kitty's shoulder. After several minutes, Ezra roused Buck and sent him to lie down.

It was several days before Kitty was strong enough to get out of bed under her own power. Nathan allowed her to sit in the rocker on the porch for a few hours. As she got better, she came to know the gentler sides of the seven men who made up the Four Corners pack. Buck was surprised that the girl was mostly ignorant of the ways of her kind. When Nathan thought she was well enough, Buck encouraged her to change. After blushing through several shades of red, she hesitantly slipped from the room. The tell-tail sensation of the change filled the air and the seven men remained absolutely still. A minute later, the door was nosed open and a small, silver-gray wolf slunk into the room. Her body language screamed her fear and she dropped lower and lower to the floor as she approached Buck. He turned his head, steering her to the alpha, to Chris. Her movement became even slower as she approached the blond.

Chris waited until she was almost within reach before squatting down and reaching for her. A soft yip of fear burst from her throat at his gentle touch. The alpha waited for her to settle down before reaching for her again. He nudged her until she shifted her weight and lay on her side, her tail and legs still tightly held to her body. Chris ran his hands lightly over her, smiling as he saw the first hint of a wag in the bushy tail. When he sank back against the wall, she crept closer and licked timidly at his hand.

After Chris acknowledged her, Buck moved closer and stroked her fur. Vin came forward next and then each of the others. Nathan ran his hand over her ribcage, checking for any deformity in the bone and smiled at not finding any. He watched the way she moved and appreciated the graceful way she carried herself as she became more comfortable with them. Buck slipped out of the room and changed, returning in his lupine form. He nuzzled against her, marking her with his scent and letting her know that it was alright. Vin opened the door and the two wolves slipped out into the night. Buck had convinced Chris that Kitty needed to learn some of the ways of her kind before she decided what she wanted to do.

A month had passed since the Hutchins' left the territory. They settled near Salt Lake City. Leah had managed to convince the men that they owed Kitty something for the way they had mistreated her. Mick wired some money to Four Corners for his niece to use to start her new life. Kitty used the money to purchase a horse of her own.

Kitty stayed with Nettie and Casey over the winter months. Buck explained that the two women didn't know about the pack, so she would have to keep it a secret. He made time every week to spend with her, teaching her about the ways of the pack. As her confidence grew stronger, she was determined to try to find her father's pack. As soon as the first whispers of spring reached the desert, she set out, headed south and east. She wrote and wired every so often to let them know where she was.

Mary Travis looked at the unusual looking envelope addressed to Buck before she tucked it into the pocket of her apron. It had come in care of the Clarion. Walking down the boardwalk, she peered cautiously into the saloon.

"Are you perhaps considering a venture to see how the other half lives?" Ezra teased as he came up behind the blonde newspaper woman.

"Oh! Mr. Standish, you startled me! No, I was looking for Buck, this came for him," she said as she fished the envelope from her pocket.

Seeing who it was from, Ezra tucked it securely into his jacket pocket. "I shall ensure that it reaches his hands with all due haste." He tipped his hat as he hurried to the livery to collect his horse.

Chris looked up from where he and Josiah were setting a new post for the corral fence when he heard the rapidly approaching horse. Recognizing the bright verdant jacket, he turned his attention back to the task at hand for the moment. Ezra dismounted and tossed the reins casually over the porch railing, knowing that his trusty steed would remain there without further need of tying. He entered the cabin, calling for Buck.

Vin and Buck stopped what they were doing when they heard Ezra bellowing for Buck. They had just managed to right their clothing when the southerner burst in waving the envelope.

"It's from Kitty. She's in a town called San Paulo, on the Texas/Mexico border," Ezra said as he handed off the letter. Buck opened the envelope and pulled out the sheet of fine parchment paper. As his smile grew, he began to read aloud. Before he had said more than three words, the rest of the pack had hurried in and flopped on the big bed platform.

Dear Buck,

I hope this letter finds you well. I wanted to thank you and your friends again for all that you did for me. I have finally found my family. My father was part of what is called the Conch River pack. They settled here after being driven from their ancestral grounds before I was born. It seems that my father was the son of their Alpha. His mate had been killed and he attacked my mother in his anger. I don't hold any hard feelings against him, he paid the ultimate price for his actions. I find myself suddenly endowed with scores of cousins. It is very different here and I often long for the time I spent with all of you. I hope to one day return to for a visit. Rodrigo, my Alpha, would like to meet you.


Kitty Hutchins

"Sounds like she's happy," JD said, breaking the oppressive silence.

"She deserves to be happy, that's for sure," Buck replied.

"Well, now that he's read the letter, do you all mind leaving so we can get back to what we were doing? I deserve to be happy too and I was almost there," Vin said. As the blush crept slowly up his cheeks, the others laughed knowingly and left the room, Chris pulling the door closed as he was the last to leave.

"Just don't wear him out too badly, we need help setting more posts," the blond called through the door.