IN THE YEAR … A Beginning

Author: Mary Ann
Beta: Lacy, Muse 7
Main Characters: Young Vin, Others Characters, Nettie Wells
Universe: My new AU - In The Year
General, some violence
I have borrowed Vin and Nettie for this story, all others are of my creation, out of my head? This loosely follows 'Contents Fragile.'

Chapter 1

"Remember son, you are a Tanner," the pretty brown-haired young woman said as her warm arms wrapped around the small long-haired, five year old boy. "Vin, remember I'll love you until the end of your days. I may not be with you, but I will be in spirit. You are a Tanner and you'll make me proud of you. I love you, my heart. Take care of yourself and never forget who you are …" she weakly wiped tears from her eyes and placed her hand on her son's head and kissed his cheek. "My darling, I'll be with God shortly. I want you to go with the Phillips; they'll take good care of you."

"Momma don't go. I want you to stay wif me," large tear-filled blue eyes gazed into faded blue ones as Vin's head rose from her shoulder and he looked at the thin, fever-ravished face of his mother.

Fragile, shaking hands rose to cup her son's face, "I'm sorry my love I can't stay... You are going to have to be brave for me. I love you so … much … remember … you are … a Tanner … remember … always … love you …"

The young woman's hands dropped as her last warm breath washed over her small son for the final time.

Vin's tears dropped onto the pale face of his mother as her fight to live came to an end. The frail body was finally at peace from the badly infected wounds in her back and leg. For a long time Vin sat beside his mother, one hand on her shoulder, the other gripping her hand. He didn't know how much time passed as he sat there, but he felt his mother's hand and shoulder cool under his own hands and finally he crawled off the wide bed and pulled the blankets over her. He gently tucked them tightly around her, kissed her forehead, and walked out of the room. Walking through the small house he stopped and gazed out the front window at the bright green expanse.

His thoughts went to the little farm, they had worked hard to grow several kinds of vegetables, and now the corn was ready to pick. He and his mom had taken a load of tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans to town two weeks ago, and when they returned home, had been attacked by six men trying to take over their farm. A blaster shot had deeply scored across his mother's back and she'd screamed in pain, dropping her blaster in shock as she fell to the ground.

Vin had grabbed it off the ground and promptly started firing at the men coming at them. Two men were killed instantly and a third was badly wounded. Before his momma could take the blaster from him she'd been hit in the leg and fell to the ground. The man had made a mistake and gotten close to their old horned horse, who, though still hitched to the cart, had lashed out with his hooves and shortened horns. The man had died before he could raise his blaster again.

The last two men, still alive, had run as the five-year old shot at them, wounding one man before they reached their mounts. Vin had grabbed another blaster from one of the dead men and was firing steadily at the men and their horses. In a panic the loose horses ran, quickly followed by the other two once their riders managed to get into their saddles. One horse roared in pain as a blast scored along its side and across its rider's leg. They had finally disappeared and Vin lowered his shaking arms and turned to his mother.

Tears rolled down his face when he ran to help her. He could see a wide swathe of blood across her back and more soaking her torn pant leg. She was moaning softly in pain when he dropped to her side.

Following her directions, he helped her into the house and to her bed. She had him get their first aid kit and heat water while she got undressed.

Vin had gently washed the blood from the long, ugly gash across her back. The edges of the wound were black from the blast. He liberally spread cream over it and with her help wrapped a bandage around her. Following her directions he cleaned her leg and bandaged it. She told him to call the neighbors and warn them of the raiders before she passed out.

The radio was on a table by the front door and Vin had made the call, warning the Phillips and telling them his mom had been hurt. Once the call was made, he'd checked on his mother then went outside. He went over to where the old horse patiently waited, still hitched to the cart, and led him to the rock barn and unhitched him from the cart. Vin was to short to easily take the harness off but as he stood there looking at the dead men he knew he had to move them away from the house. He got a length of rope from the barn and tied the traces together and looped the rope through them. Going to the horse's head he spoke to him. "We have ta move those men, Sinbad, an' we need to do it right away. So come on, let's get done so I kin go back to momma."

The tall horse lowered his black and white head and snuffled at Vin's long hair as the boy patted his head. Taking the long reins into his hands Vin led the horse to the first man and quickly tied the rope around the man's legs; then moved to the next body. When they reached the third man the one Sinbad had struck down the horse snorted in distain at the body and watched as Vin tied rope to the legs.

Once the men were attached to the rope Vin led the horse across the green stretch of land and to the far edge of the property and cut the bodies loose. He hadn't thought to bring a shovel, and it was too far to go back for one, so he tried to cover them with loose dirt and rocks, knowing if there were wolves in the area they'd make short work of the bodies.

Tapping Sinbad on the leg, Vin watched as the old horse bent a leg and lowered his body down so that he could grab the harness and mount. With the rope still dragging behind them and the long reins gathered in his hands the boy and horse made their way back to the house.

It took Vin another half hour to get the harness off the horse and to brush and feed him, before he closed the barn door and raced to the house.

His mother was still asleep so he contented himself to go outside and gather the men's blasters. He took them inside and hid them, and then made a sandwich while he waited for his mom to wake up.

For three days he waited, sleeping next to his mother, scared she'd leave him in the night. He'd wake and place cool cloths on her when she cried out in pain. Sometimes when she was quiet he'd gaze at the crystal rose sitting on the side table beside the bed; it had sat in that place for as long as he could remember, she'd told him it had been a gift from his father. He'd talk to the injured woman and make up little stories about the rose when she became restless, his voice soothing her back into sleep. During the daylight hours he tended to their garden, watering and picking some vegetables and caring for Sinbad. On the fourth day as he worked in the garden, he heard a noise and then Sinbad's roar of greeting and knew someone friendly had come. He quickly finished and turned on the sprinklers he'd just moved then ran to the house, stuffing the blaster into his waistband.

Vin found Mr. and Mrs. Phillips's wagon in front of the house and raced inside. Mr. Phillips grabbed him, preventing him from running into his mother's room.

Jake Phillips held the squirming boy in his tight grip for several minutes as he tried to reassure the boy that his mother was being cared for.

Exhausted, Vin slumped in the big man's hold and was finally released. Vin scrambled across the room to fall to his knees beside his mother's bedroom door. For over an hour he sat there, his blue eyes locked on Phillips as the man wandered around the neat little room. Vin saw a look on the man's face that chilled his blood and made him very nervous of the man. Vin shivered whenever the brown eyes landed on him, and he tried to make himself smaller.

At last the door opened and Vin scrambled to his feet and tried to dart into the room. He was stopped when a large hand fell onto his shoulder and gripped it halting him in his tracks.

"Cora?" Phillips asked as he held onto Vin's shoulder.

"I've done all I could for her. She needs the doctor immediately."

"All right. I'll see if I can raise him on the radio." Jake moved to where the radio sat near the front door and started
to flip the switches.

"Momma?" Vin looked up at the large woman standing by the bedroom door, a question in him eyes.

"Go ahead Vin. She's sleeping. I changed the bandages and cleaned her up, and now I'm going to make some soup for her. She'll be happy to see you when she wakes." Cora told him.

Vin rushed into the room and climbed onto the bed beside his sleeping mother. Her long dark blonde hair lay in a long thick braid over her shoulder and disappeared under the blanket. Vin touched her smooth cheek with his
hand, feeling the heat radiating off it.

Kneeling beside her warm figure, he picked up her hot hand and held it. "Momma, I took care of Sinbad. He's in the small field right now. I'll put him in the barn 'fore dark. Some 'matoes are almost ready to pick. I picked all'a beans and cucumbers and they're in the cooler. I changed the sprinklers today too … Are you gonna to wake up and make supper? I's ate all the bread and meat, an' fruit that was in the fridge ... There isn't anything else I can make to eat without your help. Will you make some more food? I'm a little hungry, momma." Vin asked as he patted his mother's hand.

A little while later Vin was rewarded when his mother's eyes fluttered open and her head turned towards him, a smile on her pale lips. Vin's wide smile almost broke her heart as she noticed that her son looked dirty and had a hungry look on his small thin face.

"Moma! You's awake. Can ya get up? I'm hungry."

"No son. I'm in a lot of pain. Is Cora and Jake here?"

"Yes. They's callin' the doctor."

"Would you go ask Cora to come in for a minute?"

"Momma, are you gonna be better? I want you," Vin pleaded as he put her hand down and started to climb off the bed.

"I'm going to try to get better son. Now please get Cora for me."

Van ran into the other room and saw Cora working by the sink, cutting vegetables into a pot. Another pot was already simmering on the stove.

"Mrs. Phillips, momma's awake and needs you, please."

Cora rinsed her hands, filled a glass with water, and hurried into Mrs. Tanner's room, shutting the door behind her. Vin sank to the floor once again beside the bedroom door. He could hear the mummers of the two women's voices. He watched Mr. Phillips come into the house and tried to make himself smaller. The man was huge and made the cozy house look tiny. Vin was scared of the big man who had a strange look on his face whenever he looked at Vin.

The bedroom door opened and Cora helped Vin's mother through the door and to the table where the young woman sank onto a chair. Vin forgot his misgivings and rushed to his mother's side a smile lighting his face. She wrapped her left arm around her son and weakly pulled him close.

"I'll be fine soon Vin. You are doing a wonderful job with the chores," she told him as she kissed his head where it rested on her chest.

Cora sat a cup of coffee in front of the injured woman and went back to the stove. "The stew will be done shortly. I brought you some bread and milk. The supply train will be in town day after tomorrow. Jake, when will the doctor be here?" Cora looked at her husband.

"Three or four days. He's on the far side of T3. Some babies are coming and it looks like there was an attack on several farms the day he arrived, so he's caring for them too."

Cora looked at the young woman sitting at the table holding her son close. She shook her head and hoped the
doctor would be there in time. She knew the woman was strong and she had a feeling she would be all right.

"I'll change the bandages before we leave and I'll come over tomorrow afternoon. I don't know if you should try to come to town. We can get the supplies you need and bring them to you."

"Thank you Cora. I'd appreciate that."

"You can give us a list of what you need tomorrow. Now is there something we can do for you before we leave?"

"Could you put a roast to cooking? Vin can get it out of the oven when its done. He needs some meals, and I don't think I can stand at the stove too long."

Cora smiled, "Already have one in the oven; it should be done in two hours. I've made plenty of stew and will package it so Vin can easily heat it for both of you. Are you sure he can handle the stove and microwave?"

Vin's head nodded. "I can Mrs. Phillips. I heated food before. Momma taught me."

Cora's smile widened as she looked down at the little boy, "All right. I'll package the stew so you can heat it easily."

"Thank you Mrs. Phillips. Momma, I'm hungry."

"Why don't you wash up then you can set out the bread and butter, the stew is almost ready." Cora said.

"Yes'm." Vin ran into the bathroom and quickly washed his hands and face then raced back to the kitchen/dinning area. "I'm here. Can I have some milk too?" He asked as he got the bread and butter Cora had brought and placed them on the table. He hurried to the cabinet and took out several bowls and silverware and set the table. Then took two settings away when Cora told him they weren't staying.

An hour later the Phillips left and after making sure his mom was resting, Vin went out to take care of Sinbad and turn off the sprinklers for the night.

Days quickly passed. The doctor never made it to the Tanner farm to check on the wounded woman. Vin diligently cared for the garden and horse, and his mother the best he could.

Vin's mother forced herself to get up each day at least for a few hours. She knew something was wrong with her but didn't say anything; she prayed that her back would get better and stop hurting.

The Phillips came late in the afternoon the day after the doctor was supposed to have been there, bringing the supplies for the Tanners. Cora was angry the man had never come and had Jake call for him again, only to find that he was still a long ways off, caring for others who had been attacked after he left the last group of people.

Cora decided they needed to stay the night and Jake stabled their horses in the barn where Vin was getting Sinbad settled for the night. The old pinto gelding snorted at the other horses as Jake led them in. Vin froze, his hands stopped their brushing of Sinbad, his eyes glanced frantically around the spacious barn. He was afraid of Jake Phillips and didn't want to be near the man.

When Phillips ignored him, Vin quickly finished brushing his horse and stepped down from the little ladder then he folded it and placed it in the corner. He hurriedly got a large measure of grain for Sinbad and standing on tip toes dumped the grain into the feeder. Closing the stall door he glanced at the man then rushed outside and to the house.

Cora cooked several meals for the Tanners, making up packets of the food and freezing them for future use. In the morning she prepared breakfast then helped Mrs. Tanner to the table. The young woman was grateful for the help and thanked Cora and Jake as they ate.

Cora got her friend settled in her room then cleaned the kitchen. Not noticing Vin seated in an arm chair she talked to her husband. She was worried about the wounded woman and thought the doctor should be there, now. She wasn't sure what was wrong and she didn't want to leave Vin alone, he was too young to be so alone.

Jake told her quietly that they had their own place to run and didn't have time to stay longer than a few hours. Their
children and especially their two young teens needed supervision, and he didn't want them to get into trouble. He then told her that if something happened, Vin could come live with them, as the boy seemed to be a good worker and he could help on their place.

Vin's blood ran cold. He didn't want to leave his home and his mom was going to be all right. He didn't like Jake Phillips and there was no way he'd work or live with the man. There was something in the man's manner and eyes that Vin didn't trust. He made a promise to himself; he would not go with the Phillips no matter what.
The couple left a while later and Vin hurried into his mother's room. He found her asleep and lay down beside her, his hand on her arm. He'd protect her and care for her, no matter what happened.

For several more days Vin's mother forced herself to get up and work. She didn't want her son to have to do everything himself. After the fifth day, from the time the Phillips had dropped off the supplies, she knew something was terribly wrong. The wounds weren't healing properly and she had a constant fever with chills. The sixth day dawned with the grey radio-active irradiated clouds covering the sky as she stood weakly leaning against the door frame on the deep front porch. The sky mirrored her feelings and she knew she would not survive it many more days. The pain in her back had migrated up into her shoulders and down over her hips into her upper legs. She'd seen red lines from her leg wound extend up and down her leg. She found several more lines across her shoulder and down over her chest. Tears rolled silently down her cheeks as she watched her son lead Sinbad to his pasture. She had so many dreams for her child and now they had disappeared into the angry clouds above. She wished his father was there, to care for Vin. But Michael had died four days after their wedding; barely two months after they'd met, never knowing she was pregnant.

Michael Tanner had been a peacekeeper for the area and was killed in an ambush where he and four others had died. She and Michael had fallen madly in love the moment they set eyes on each other. Her mother had always told her, "No one falls in love with each other immediately. It takes time." She smiled a little; her mother had gone to her grave not understanding how her daughter could know she was instantly in love.

Sadly she shook her head and looked at the sky, "I'll be with you soon my one true love," she said then turned and slowly shuffled back into the house, making her way from one thing to the other, holding on tightly to keep from collapsing. In her room she fell onto the bed, tears flowing as her little son's face formed in her thoughts. She didn't want to leave, Vin needed her, he was only five, but she knew that death wasn't far off. For minutes she gazed at the crystal rose, her thoughts on the gift her husband had given her on their wedding day. She had always treasured it, and hoped her son would too. Her tears silently rolled down her gaunt cheeks, she didn't want to leave Vin.

She had talked to Cora and Jake earlier, and they would take Vin in, see that he received an education with their children who were several years older than Vin. The Tanner farmstead would be held for Vin until he was old enough to take it over. It had been in her family for a long time and she was sure Vin would be able to make it prosper. She was relieved that she had everything worked out for Vin's future, he would be taken care of.

Hearing Vin come into the house she quickly dried her tears on the sheet and had a smile in place when he raced into the room. She would try to make her last days with her son as memorable as she could.


With her last words she passed two days later. Vin sat beside her for several hours before going into the front room. After staring out the window at the garden, barn, and corral, Vin turned and ran to his tiny room. There he gathered his clothes together, found a gunny sack in the kitchen and stuffed them into it. He stripped his quilt and blanket off his bed and rolled them as tight as he could and put them into a second sack. Sitting the sacks by the front door he found the well kept saddlebags that had been his fathers and stuffed them with food. At the last minute he found the small box that held money that his mother had earned and stuffed the money in the first aid kit. He crossed to the fireplace and took a 5x7 picture of his mother and him and carefully wrapped it and slid it into a side of the saddlebags.

Vin stood by the door for a moment trying to think of what else he would need. His eyes lit on where he had hid the blasters from the men who had attacked them, and he hurried to the cabinet to get them.

His mother had taught him how to shoot and care for a blaster the year before and had made a holster for him so he could wear one when they were on the road to town. He slipped the belt and holster on, and checked the blaster then slid it into the holster. He looked at the other four, then got another blanket and wrapped them and placed them into another sack. After filling a canteen he carried everything outside to the edge of the porch then went to get Sinbad.

The big horse sensed something was wrong when the small boy called him from the pasture, and then led him into the barn. Vin climbed on the ladder and quickly bridled the large black and white horse. He next slipped the light weight collar over the horses' head and settled it on his shoulders then hooked a piece of harness to it, slid it around his girth and tightened it. Lastly Vin threw several warm saddle blankets over the horse's back and cinched it in place with a cinch and more harness pieces. Vin filled a bag with grain then tied it to the collar and led Sinbad out of the barn and to the house. He quickly tied his sacks to the collar and placed the saddlebags over the horse's withers. The filled canteen still rested on the porch.

With a last look at his supplies on the horse Vin went inside and got his coat and hat then made a large sandwich with the last of the bread and meat. He ate and picked up the radio and called the Phillips to let them know his momma had died and quickly cut it off. He didn't want to hear them tell him to stay there, to wait for them. He finished his meal then slowly crossed the room and with tears in his eyes he went back into his mother's room and kissed her cold cheek.

"I love you momma. I'll never forget I'm a Tanner." With a last loving look he walked out of the room, out the front door and to Sinbad. The horse stepped to the edge of the porch as Vin pulled the canteen strap over his shoulder then leaped onto his back. Gathering the reins he nudged the horse into motion. Within minutes the house had disappeared behind a small hump of the green landscape as Vin and Sinbad headed west.

Chapter 2

For a month Vin and Sinbad slowly journeyed northwest. The stayed away from towns, Vin was afraid that the Phillips' would be looking for him. With the horse's good nose they found their way from one green area to another. Days would pass when they would make camp wherever they could in the desolate grey land. Vin found out early that he had forgotten to pack an ax and matches. He was happy that the weather was still warm at night. He was comfortable in his quilt, but he knew winter was coming and he needed to find a place for them to stay or get more supplies to get them through the winter.

One day, after traveling through a huge green area, the sun came out, dispatching the grey clouds that had plagued them for almost a week. From the top of a hill Vin spotted a huge city spread out ahead of him a couple miles away. For a long time he sat quietly on Sinbad as he took in the sight, in awe of what he was seeing. His mother had told him about the city she had lived in for several years. She'd told him about things called cars and trucks and that there were stores where you could buy almost anything; and that there was lots of people in the cities and that a person could easily get lost in them.

From his vantage point, the city stretched as far as he could see along a wide river. All sorts of vehicles were traveling in and out of it on what his mom had said was a paved highway that snaked off into the far distance. He saw many wagons pulled by horses, some wagons so large that they had six to ten head of horned horses hitched to them. Several wagons had outriders and he figured they carried valuables. Single riders rode alone or in groups.

Vin was scared to go into the city but he needed food supplies, matches and an ax. A heavy coat too. He counted out the money he had stored in the saddlebags and thought he would have enough for some items. He decided he could trade one of the extra blasters if he had to. With a sigh he kicked Sinbad into motion, and a short time later was heading into the city beside the paved road. His eyes were glittering and heart pounding with excitement.

Even at his age Vin realized he should not be alone, or look like he was alone. When a wagon passed him carrying a family of five he fell in behind them. He rode far enough behind the wagon but close enough that it looked he could be part of the family.

As they got closer to the city more and more wagons crowed the roadside, and tall trees lined the busy thoroughfare. Houses became numerous. Vin saw all kinds and sizes of homes and many yards with children playing in them. He shuddered. The closer to the city the closer the houses became. They were too close for his comfort, he couldn't understand how anyone could live like that.

Following the wagon with another wagon behind him, they crossed wide paved roads and Vin looked in awe at the vehicles that ran without horses. Many were passing the line he was in to his left, but there were more on the side roads. As they moved deeper into the city the buildings changed and Vin gazed up at them, soaring higher and higher into the sky.

Suddenly Vin looked around him. He had no idea where he was and felt panic start to rise in him. Though the road he traveled on was very wide the buildings were starting to close in on him.

Sinbad tossed his head feeling the change in his rider. Turning his head he nuzzled the boy's leg with his nose before he raised his head and looked around. He didn't like where they were either, the noise was distracting, and the smells assaulted his sensitive nose, making him blow and snort often.

Vin ran his hand along Sinbad's shoulder. He knew the horse had picked up his unease and he tried to calm himself. The wagon turned right and entered a huge expanse of green, park-like area where many other wagons were lined up in rows with tailgates open. People milled around the wagons and Vin realized they were buying things from the wagons. The wagons ahead and behind him swung wide around the market and made their way towards empty spaces in the lines. Vin noticed that no horses were in the area by the wagons so he turned Sinbad and looked for a place he could safely leave him as he checked out what the wagons were offering.

Almost 20 minutes later Vin found a tree near the river that had no wagons or other horses under it and quickly rode over to it. VIn smiled when he saw a large rock beside the tree that had been hidden as he rode over to it. Halting Sinbad, Vin tapped the horse on the shoulder and the horse bowed low enough that Vin could slide off. While Sinbad was still low Vin released the cinch that held the blanket on his back, then unhooked his belongings from the collar then the collar. Sinbad lowered his head as Vin slipped the collar off him. With a grunt Sinbad rose and shook himself then lowered his head to pull at the grass around him.

As the horse grazed, Vin carefully placed his belongings between the tree and rock with the collar and harness on top of them. He'd left out one of the blasters and put his in with his clothes, he didn't want to lose it since it was from his mother. Taking some of the money he stuffed it into a pocket in the front of his jeans.

With a last look at his small pile of belongings Vin wrapped the reins on a limb by the rock and pulled Sinbad's head up. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Guard our things Sinbad," he told the horse, petting his head.

Sinbad nuzzled the boys long hair as if he was telling him he would.

With a last pat on Sinbad's head, Vin looked around one more time to be sure of his bearings then headed towards the line of parked wagons. A gunny sack was wrapped around his waist, that at the last minute he thought he might need.

Two hours later Vin hurried to where he'd left Sinbad. The gunny sack was lumpy and almost filled with his purchases and he staggered under the load. Reaching the tree and his horse he breathed a sigh of relief. He turned Sinbad loose to graze while he repacked his sacks and saddlebags. Vin gave Sinbad half of the apple he was eating for his lunch. As they munched the apple Vin traded the blaster he'd taken to sell for his own, glad he hadn't needed to get rid of it. He packed the warm coat, jeans and scarf in with what was left of his clothes. A brightly colored, heavy wool blanket went into the sack too. He placed the food packets in the saddlebags and the matches he'd been lucky to find. A small sharp hatchet with a protective cover was attached to the horse's collar. The whetstone went in with his food, next to his knife. Finally he was ready to leave and couldn't wait to get out of the city. There were just too many people around, and he was uneasy with that, and the many different vehicles, noises and smells. He decided he did not like cities at all.

Standing on the rock he got the collar, harness, and blanket on Sinbad. Carefully he tied his possessions on then with a quick look around, mounted, and turned the horses' head back towards the wide road.

Once out of the city, El Paso, he'd heard someone say it was called he urged Sinbad northwest. Vin had overheard some talk as he shopped, that there was a town about ten hours away. He wasn't sure if that was by one of those cars or by horse and wagon, but he decided to head that direction. He still needed a place to stay for the winter and where he could get food for the two of them.

The days passed and before long the weather began to get colder as Vin and Sinbad continued on their journey. They had found the town he'd heard about but bypassed it, it was a very large town crowded with people. When they'd find a grassy area Vin would spend a couple days crossing it, letting Sinbad eat his fill. With the hatchet he had a fire at night to keep him warm and he hunted off and on, easily finding the large rabbits or quail that were plentiful in some areas.

As it got colder he started to look for a place they could stay. One day the sun disappeared just as they reached another green expanse, though the grass had long changed to a dry brown color and the brush and trees had lost their foliage. Vin shivered from cold as snow started to fall. In alarm he looked around and saw a small town nestled at the end of a wide V-shaped valley. Houses dotted the big basin, and he could see several wagons moving through the area. Urging Sinbad into a canter, the headed for the town, knowing they couldn't stay out in this weather. He slowed the big horse when they reached the town; his blue eyes darted from one building to the other. It was a small town, he could count on his two hands the houses that lined the wide street. There were a few businesses and at the far end of the town, a large rock and timber stable.

Sinbad snorted when Vin kicked him. With a toss of his head the old horse trotted towards the barn where he could smell grain and other horses.

They were white with the falling snow when Sinbad stopped at the stable and bent a leg for Vin to dismount. The little boy slid to the ground and reached up, pulling one side of the wide doors open. Leading Sinbad inside Vin dropped the reins and quickly pushed the door closed behind them. He turned around and eyed the tall man coming towards him. Sinbad nuzzled his shoulder, but his large brown eyes were also on the man. Vin relaxed a bit as he rubbed the horses nose.

"Well young fellow, what can I do for you?" the man asked, eyeing the small boy and his huge horse.
"Mister, we need a place to stay for the winter. Do you know anywhere I kin get a job?"

Taken aback the man scratched his head as he took in the child who couldn't be over five or six years old. His gaze went to the horse, knowing it had been a farm animal due to its trimmed horns, and figured the gelding had to be thirty years old or older. The horse's eyes were on him as its nose nuzzled the boy's long wet hair that had escaped the dark blue scarf.

"Do your parents know where you are?" He finally asked as his eyes noted the bedraggled clothes and shivering as the boy pat the horse's nose that now rested on his shoulder, as if comforting the child.

"Don't got none," the husky voice answered as the boy's eyes glimmered in the dim light.

"Where are you from?"

"Our farm. That a way. Do you know where I kin get a job, mister?" The child pointed behind him then looked up at the man.

Thinking fast, the man asked, "What can you do?"

"I's good with horses. Can clean stalls and feed 'n brush them. I kin work in the garden, 'n clean house," Vin answered in a rush.

"Well son, I don't know anyone around here who needs help right now, but the towns growing. If you are good with horses, I could use some help here," the man said.

Vin solemnly nodded. "Thank you. I can start now."

"Well, I have everything done for the day, except your horse. I can help you care for him then I'll show you where you can stay."

Vin thought for a moment, then a shiver shook him and he nodded his head. "This is Sinbad. He could use some food, sir. I can take care of him."

"No problem. With both of us working on him he'll be cared for faster. By the way my name is Nicholas Carter, but everyone calls me Nick and you can too," Nick said sticking his hand out to the boy.

"Vin Tanner, sir. Thank you for the job," Vin gravely slid his hand into the mans large one and shook hands.

"Now lets get your Sinbad settled and then ourselves," Nick stepped to the horse's side and reached for the cinch that held the blanket on the horses back and wondered how far the boy had traveled. He knew they weren't from around there but, where did he come from?

Vin waited as Nick took the blanket off Sinbad then tapped the horses leg and waited as the horse lowered himself to where he could reach the collar and his belongings. Quickly untying the sacks Vin dropped them to the ground and pulled the saddlebags off too. The canteen on his shoulder dropped to the floor also.

Nick watched as the boy took his possessions off the horse in practiced ease and shook his head at how fast the boy worked. In less than two minutes the three sacks and saddlebags were on the ground and the collar was off the horse. The old paint patiently held his position, one leg stretched out in front of him, the other folded deep under him so it was out of the way of the collar and harness.

"Up," Vin said and Sinbad rose, his joints creaking and snapping. Holding the reins in his hand Vin looked at Nick who smiled down at him.

"Let's put him over here," Nick turned and led the way down the wide aisle to a large box stall filled with fresh straw. There was a manger with an attached grain feeder to the right of the door, and a large water trough on the other side.

Nick turned on a faucet as Vin led the horse into the stall and took the bridle off.

"I'll show you where the grain is stored and you can give him some. I'll get him some hay while you get the grain," Nick told Vin as he walked from the stall. Vin followed him to the end of the barn where several huge storage containers were built against the wall. Opening one, Nick watched as Vin reached in and scooped a measure of oats into a grain can. Nick smiled as the boy carefully walked back towards the horse's stall. With a sigh he quickly climbed the ladder into the loft and then making sure the boy wasn't below him he dropped a large armload of hay through a hole in the floor over the stalls manger. When the hay landed in the manger Vin looked up in surprise then a grin crossed his face as the man above waved at him through the hole.

By the time Nick had descended from the loft, Vin had hung Sinbad's bridle on the peg in front of the stall and was gathering the rest of his tack. Nick took them from Vin's hands and nodded to his pile of belongings, "I'll put these in the tack room for you. Why don't you get your things and we'll find a place for you to sleep."

"I can sleep in the hay. It's warm in here and the hay will be soft," Vin answered as he gathered his sacks.

"I don't allow anyone to sleep in my loft. I do have room in my house. I don't think you'll take up too much room. Come on." Nick told him.

Vin followed the man and watched as he hung the collar, harness, cinch and blanket on a saddle hanger in the tack room, low enough that Vin could reach them.

"Here, I'll help you carry your things. We'll go through that door over there." Nick took two of the sacks from Vin and led him to a door near the grain bins. Nick opened the door and a cold wash of air swept over them. Vin hurried out and looked around as Nick closed the door behind them. Vin saw he was standing under the cover of a breezeway that was eight feet wide and maybe fifteen feet long. Wind and snow swirled around him as Nick passed him to lead the way to the door to the building at the end of the breezeway. Opening the door Nick waited for Vin to move into the house, then closed it behind him.

Stomping the snow off his boots Nick led Vin through another door and into a cozy warm room with several large arm chairs, a deep couch, a desk with a radio and equipment took up the wall area beside the door. At the far end of the room was a large kitchen with a table and chairs to one side to the stove. Several open doors were spaced around the room, two to the left, and one on the right. Something smelling like stew bubbled on the stove and Vin blushed when his stomach growled loudly.

Nick smiled at the boy, "In here, you can use this room for now." and led Vin to the first door on the left.

Vin entered the small room and found a large bed that took up three quarters of the room, a dresser with a lamp on it, a window across from the bed. On the end of bed several heavy, warm looking blankets were neatly laid across the bottom.

Nick gently placed the two sacks he carried on the bed and showed Vin where he could hang some of his things on the wall alongside the door. He pointed out several baskets on rollers under the bed also for storage. "Get your things sorted and then come to the kitchen. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. The bathroom is the next door."

"Yes sir," Vin replied and watched the man walk out the door. He looked at the large bed. He hadn't slept in a bed for a long time, and his bed at home wasn't even half the size of this one. It had barely been wide enough for him to lay on his back. His momma was going to get him a new bed the next time they went to town. He dashed the tears from his eyes and quickly stripped out of his coat, scarf, and boots. A smile crossed his face as his feet touched the rug on the floor; it was warm and felt wonderful on his cold feet. He hung his coat up and quickly emptied his clothes sack, putting his few clothes into a dresser drawer. Vin carefully unwrapped the blasters and placed them into another drawer, his own he hung on the bedpost. Quilt and blankets filled one of the baskets under the bed.

For a moment Vin looked around the room, his blue eyes filled with wonder. It was huge to him and on the wall above the bed a picture of mountains and horses was painted. With a smile he opened his saddlebags and took out his little bit of money and the picture of his mother and him and hid them in the drawer under his clothes.

Hearing the clink of dishes, Vin picked up the saddlebags and left the room. He spotted Nick setting the table and walked over to him.

"I've got some food I can share," Vin said quietly and sat the bags on a chair.

"You don't have to share with me, I have plenty, but thank you anyway," Nick answered the boy as he sat a pot of stew on the table next to thick slices of bread and containers of butter, honey and jam. He went to a large refrigerator, opened it and grabbed a pitcher of milk. "Do you like milk Vin?"

"Yes sir," Vin quickly answered feeling his mouth watering from the smells of the food and thought of a glass of milk. He made his way to the bathroom and washed up then took the seat Nick pointed to. Nick placed a large bowl of stew in front of Vin and a moment later they were both eating.

As they ate, darkness fell as the snow silently piled up around the valley. Before long the meal was finished, Vin was full the first time in a long time and he thanked Nick for the good meal. Vin picked up the table and on Nick's insistence put his saddlebags away, then for the first time in months he had a hot bath. He had been thrilled to actually be able to wash his hair and scrub totally clean and not freeze doing it. Nick had seen the condition his clothes were in and convinced him that he could wash and dry them for him. Vin could barely remember when he had really clean clothes and was happy to have them washed.

Vin wrapped up in a thick towel after his bath and moved to sit in front of the fireplace. Nick, after tossing Vin's worn but now clean clothes in the dryer went to his room and pulled a sweat shirt out and gave it to Vin to wear until his clothes were dry. The shirt covered Vin from his neck to the floor, the sleeves had to be rolled up several times and when he walked he had to hold the shirt up off the floor or trip on the hem of it.

Nick smiled as he watched the little boy out of the corner of his eye. The brilliant blue eyes were having a hard time staying open. Vin was curled in one of the armchairs near the fire, his shining clean, long-hair curling as it dried. Vin's eyes blinked then slid closed and didn't open again. The small body relaxed and became a small warm lump in the chair.

After a little while Nick quietly rose and went to the spare room, pulled the blankets back on the bed then went to get Vin. Gently he picked up the sleeping boy and carried him to the bedroom and tucked him into the bed pulling the blankets tight around the boy. Stepping back he grinned as Vin shuffled deeper into the blankets until he could only see the top of his head.

For several minutes Nick stood in the darkened room and watched the child sleep. He wondered what he was going to do with the little boy, but realized he'd already lost his heart to the waif and hoped Vin would decide to stay with him longer than just through the winter. It was nice having someone there, to talk to and do things for, even if it was a little boy. Smiling, Nick made his way through the house turning off the lights, but leaving the bathroom one on just in case. Within minutes he was in his bed and as his eyes closed he had a feeling it was going to be an interesting winter season.

Chapter 3

That winter was long, but Nick and Vin working together, had kept the stable clean and well cared for. Several new families had moved into the town during the winter months, keeping the stable busy. On clear days, when the snow disappeared for several days at a time, people gathered and built houses from the supplies brought in by wagon and the supply train that passed a mile to the north of them.

The town was new, and with its close proximity to Denver, it was growing quickly. Less than a day's horseback ride north, the city of Denver drew people to the area. Fertile fields stretched in all directions above the valley, drawing more people. With being so close to Denver many came to live in the valley and commute to Denver to work during the week. A van was garaged in town and was used for the commute; it could make the drive in three hours, where on a horse it could take up to five hours, depending how hard the animal was pushed and the weather. The van made the round trip three times a week. In February a bus came to town twice a week bringing mail and more people, the construction was ongoing to house the new comers.

Snow finally gave up its fight against the warming weather in late April, and by mid May it was totally gone and Vin was ready to leave. With the roads opening more and more he was afraid that Phillips would come looking for him and take him back.

During the long winter months Nick had taught Vin some things about tracking. When the weather permitted, they'd ride up to the fields that had been swept clean of deep snow, but with enough snow still on the ground to find tracks. Nick was surprised how fast the boy caught on to tracking animals. In less than two months Vin could tell how old a track was, what had made it and unerringly follow it to its source even if it was mostly gone. He could easily track through the snow and also on the ground when the snow began to disappear.

Long evenings Nick showed Vin how to work leather, to make bridles, halters, ropes, snares, a coat and poncho, and everything else he could think of. Nick was again surprised at how the child seemed to soak up what he was told and learned things fast. Though fairly quiet, the boy asked direct questions and Nick knew Vin was picking everything up and would remember what he was being taught.

The most surprising thing that he found out about the child living under his roof, besides being a fast and accurate shot with not only a blaster but also with the heavy revolver that Nick carried on their trips to the fields; he found the boy had a great love and understanding of the horned horses. Vin could calm an uneasy horse with his soft raspy voice and his quiet, gentle way around them eased their anxiety.

Watching the boy eat, a mystified grin crossed Nick's face as he shook his head. That boy could put away a lot of food and still stayed rail thin. He knew Vin was getting very restless and seemed to be looking over his shoulder more often since the weather had changed. When the bus pulled into the town the boy stayed behind the barn doors, watching as the new arrivals unloaded. Nick wondered where Vin was going. He knew too, that Sinbad, Vin's trusty mount, would not make it too much longer. The horse had developed a cough that wouldn't leave, no matter what care he and Vin gave to him. He was hoping that once the old fellow was eating just grass he would stop coughing, but he didn't really think the horse would live through another year, he was very old and time was against him. He felt sorry for the boy as he thought of the horses that the boy had cared for over the last months.

One horse he mainly thought of had been stabled with them for several weeks in December. The big dark red chestnut was beautiful, but half wild. It had been scared of the barn and its rider had to force it inside during one of the many blizzards they'd had. The horse's lethal horns had slashed left and right at the other horses who'd looked curiously over stall doors. They'd gotten him into a stall that had walls tall enough he couldn't see over them and the door had heavy mesh over the opening. Horns couldn't get caught in it, nor could he cut through it without spending a long time at it.

Vin had dropped hay from the loft into its feeder as Nick and the owner talked over the fees. Since the horse was so inhospitable, it would cost the man more. Nick didn't notice Vin when he came down and went to the stall door talking to the horse. When Nick saw the boy, Vin had already opened the door and stepped into the stall. Nick and the owner rushed over and stopped scared that anything they did would startle the horse and it would attack the little boy.

Vin stood by the manger, his voice calm and gentle. The horse eyed the boy from the corner he'd moved into when the hay fell from above. Its head finally lowered, ears flicked forward and he took a step towards the short person talking to him.

Vin held out his hand, still talking and the horse finally stepped up to him and lowered his head so Vin could pet him, being careful to keep his horns away from the little human. Vin scratched his head and ears then worked his hands around the horses horns. A deep rumbling came from the horse as the gentle hands worked around one horn then the other.

Vin knew Nick and the owner were close, and without changing his voice he said, "Nick, he has a sore across his head by the upper horn. We need to put something on it."

Nick heard and eased himself away from the door. Sliding his blaster back into his holster he hurried to their Vet supplies. He grabbed a can of salve then rushed back to the door, slowing before he was sighted. The owner stepped back to give him room.

Carefully Nick opened the door a little farther. "Here Vin. I've got the salve, its open," Nick told the boy in a quiet voice.

One of Vin's hands reached back and Nick placed the container in it. Vin never took his eyes or other hand off the horse who seemed totally happy and leaned more into his hands, eyes half closed. Vin sat the container on the corner of the manger and dipped his fingers into the creamy substance then rubbed it into the injury. The chestnut groaned in gratification.

Cleaning his fingers on the horses head, Vin gently pushed the large head away. "Now go eat your food. You'll be fine, that will heal now. I'll put more on later," he told the horse who nuzzled his hair then calmly turned to his food.

The owner had paid triple for the care of his horse after seeing how Vin cared for his mount. He hadn't found the horses injury, but with Vin's care it had quickly healed. The horse was like a new one, so calm and responsive and the man had been thrilled. Vin had been able to brush the horse, carrying a step ladder into the stall and standing on it to reach the horse's back. Nick and the man had been surprised how the horse had responded to the boy and after the second day didn't watch from the aisle as Vin worked on him.

Nick had been looking for another mount for Vin, but hadn't found anything suitable for the small boy without a lot of training. He didn't know where the boy was going but knew he wouldn't stay much longer. He wished he'd have been able to buy the chestnut from the man. The horse and boy had gotten along so well together during the time the horse had been stabled with them, it would have made a good mount for Vin.

Smiling, Nick took the dishes Vin handed to him and dumped them into the dishwater. Vin shyly smiled back at him as he turned to clear the last of the dishes off the table. Nick suddenly realized that Vin was really leaving, and he didn't want the boy to go. Over the last six months it had been a joy to the single man, having Vin there with him and he had come to love him as a son. He didn't want the boy to leave, but he couldn't convince Vin that he was safe. He prayed it would be a few more weeks before Vin left and hoped Vin would change his mind and stay.

The next day a stranger rode into town and stopped at the hotel-restaurant that had sprung up less than a year ago. Vin walked out of the small grocery store, carrying two bags of groceries. He stopped when he saw the strange horse then spotted the man walking into the building. His face blanched and he quickly ducked into the alley next to the store and raced for home.

Nick heard the pounding of feet as he walked to the house and knew it was Vin. He turned to help him with the groceries and stopped in surprise, seeing the boy's white face and his eyes wide and full of fear. He hurried and opened the door for Vin and grasped the boy as he stumbled into the house.

"What's wrong Vin?"

"He's here Nick. I have to go now," Vin answered as tears rolled down his face.

Nick took the bags from the boy, "Vin …"

"I can't stay Nick. It's not safe." Vin said and rushed into his room. Nick grabbed the saddlebags and stuffed them with food and some money. He went to Vin's room and picked up one of the larger leather bags they had made already stuffed with Vin's blankets and blasters.

"I'll get Sinbad ready," Nick told the boy who was stuffing the last of his clothes into the other bag.

Within minutes Nick had another sack filled with grain and Sinbad's bridle on. He'd made a bareback pad for the horse, thick, and strong enough to hold Vin's possessions. As he was cinching it on Sinbad, over his large saddle blanket, Vin raced into the barn. Scared blue eyes glanced around the barn then settled on Nick, who was attaching the bags to the pad's special holders. Once everything was in place Nick opened the back doors that led to several corrals and the stand of trees behind the house.

Nick turned to Vin and the boy threw himself into Nick's arms. "Thank you Nick," Vin said through his tears as they hugged.

"Come back to me Vin. You know you will always have a home with me. I love you like a son. Take care of yourself, be safe," Nick told him choking back tears as he hugged Vin a last time then lifted him to Sinbad's back.

"I love you too Nick. I'll be careful," Vin's hand rested a moment on his blaster, a small smile crossed his wet face.

A roar sounded at the front of the barn and Vin's face changed, "Thank you for everything Nick." Vin half whispered and nudged Sinbad out the door and rode for the trees as Nick shut the door. Nick walked to the front of the stables to meet whoever had arrived, wiping tears from his cheeks as he moved slowly, giving Vin time to get out of the immediate area. Vin had told him of someone looking for him, and he'd tried to convince the boy that he could protect him, to no avail. He'd finally let it drop, seeing the distress it had caused Vin, he wished Vin would have had enough confidence in him that he could protect him no matter what. But the boy was too afraid of the man, and what he might do to someone he cared for. Nick, opened the door and looked at the man standing there.

Vin rode the black and white horse through the trees and into a ravine that he and Nick had used to get out of the valley and up into the fields above the town. With a last glance over his shoulder when he reached the edge of the valley, Vin faced forward and didn't look back again.

Keeping the tall mountain range on his right Vin rode south along the foothills for almost three weeks before turning more west. Slowly they worked their way through some low mountains. Vin barely slept during the nights knowing wolves and bears could be in them and attack at any time. Even with Sinbad on alert he didn't sleep much.

Sinbad, though he stood guard over him, was getting weaker, his age catching up with him. His cough had eased as he grazed on the grass as they traveled. Vin fed him a couple handfuls of grain when they stopped for the night until it ran out. He made sure Sinbad had water and was brushed daily. Sinbad seemed happy as they wandered through the countryside and became a little fatter from the tasty green grasses. Vin felt better, not worrying too much for the time being, if Sinbad would make it another year or several.


Months passed and Vin knew winter was coming as they made their way farther west. He began looking for another small town in hopes of staying there. He wished for the hundredth time that he could have stayed with Nick. The big man had treated him like a son and he'd learned many things from the man, numerous things that he had practiced while he rode west.

Wrapped in his quilt Vin eyed the rolling sky overhead. He had watched the dark grey clouds building for two days, thinking they were the radioactive ones he was used to seeing. Suddenly a thunder storm crashed to life almost overhead. Sinbad jumped mightily in surprise when the thunder crashed right over their heads.

Unprepared, Vin went flying from the pinto's back, hitting the cold ground hard. His head connected with a rock, and blackness overtook him.

Something nuzzled over his face and Vin finally slowly opened his eyes, blinking against the rain that hit him in the face. His head hurt along with his back and right leg. Vin moaned and closed his eyes for a moment, only to have the persistent nose come back to nuzzle him.

"Sss … Okay Sin … Sinbad. Not your … fault. I'm alright," Vin ran his hand over Sinbad's nose and then rolled over and struggled to his feet, clinging to Sinbad's long heavy mane tightly as the horse tried to help him by raising his head.

For several minutes Vin leaned against the horses foreleg, shivering from the wet and cold. Tears leaked from his
eyes as pain washed over him. Finally taking a deep breath he wiped his face and straightened. He tapped Sinbad's leg then pulled himself up onto the horses back when Sinbad lowered himself. Vin pulled a blanket out of a sack and wrapped it around him. The wet quilt was slung over his legs and the horse's neck. Head bowed under the pounding rain, Vin nudged Sinbad and the horse stepped out, sensing that there was something wrong with his beloved master.

Sinbad carefully moved through the thunderstorm that pounded down on them. After almost two hours, he lifted his head, nostrils wide as he sniffed the air, then his steps slowed. The rain suddenly changed into snow that lashed at him and his slumped burden. Sinbad turned and headed with the snow and wind, keeping it behind him and Vin.

Another hour passed and Vin was slumped onto the horses neck, unconscious. He had tried to wrap the quilt around him a short time before he passed out. His hands were fisted tightly in the horse's mane against his neck where they stayed a little warmer. The horse had smelt blood on his rider, but no longer, just his weight on his neck.

The old horse shivered with cold as he topped a ridge and cautiously started down the other side. He was cold and the snow was quickly getting deeper. Several times he slipped on the icy ground, but managed to right himself before he fell, always pausing to be sure his rider was still hanging on. The snow was coming down so heavily that he couldn't see more than ten feet ahead of him and many times he turned into another direction to avoid boulders and drop offs.

With a loud roar of defiance, Sinbad pushed through another knee high drift. An answering roar sounded ahead of him and Sinbad instantly answered.

All of a sudden Sinbad halted as figures materialized around him. He lowered his head in a show of submission.

Four horses and riders surrounded Sinbad and his rider, horses on the alert. One man on a huge, powerful bay pinto rode close to Sinbad who lowered his head more. The rider touched the small bundle on Sinbad's back, then jumped from his horse and reached for Vin as another man rode closer and dismounted on the other side of Sinbad.

"Alive?" the second man asked.

"Barely. He, or she, is almost frozen to the horse. Get some blankets. We have to get'm home immediately," the first man said as he worked stiff fingers from the horse's mane.

"Cloud, go for the doctor. Bring him to my house quickly."

A horse and rider disappeared into the swirling snow as the first man was handed a thick blanket. The fourth man helped the other get Vin off Sinbad as the first pulled the frozen quilt and blankets from around the limp body.

"Damn Running Elk, he's almost frozen to these blankets," the second man remarked.

"I know Little Buffalo. Hurry Grey Horse, get that other blanket off him," Running Elk said as he held Vin close.

A minute later the last stiff blanket came away from Vin and Little Buffalo wrapped the dry blanket around his half frozen form. Another heavy blanket was wrapped around him from over his head to over his feet. Grey Horse held him as Running Elk vaulted on his horse and opened his arms for the boy.

Once in his arms, Running Elk pulled the long poncho he was wearing over Vin, holding the small body close to his chest, covering Vin totally from the snow falling on them.

"Bring the horse, he needs attention," Running Elk said as he nudged his horse into motion, Grey Horse at his side. Little Buffalo took Sinbad's reins, mounted and followed at a slow trot leading the old horse, as the other two disappeared into the snow at a fast clip.

Less than a half hour later Running Elk and Grey Horse arrived in town and minutes later stopped in front of Running Elk's home. Running Elk slipped off his mount as Grey Horse took his reins and led the horse towards the stable. As Running Elk walked across the porch stomping his booted feet, the door was thrown open. Cloud held it as the tall man entered the warm dwelling, then shut it behind him.

"Dr. Morgan's there," Cloud pointed as he helped Running Elk out of his poncho.

Doctor Tim Morgan stepped away from the table and held out his arms. Running Elk handed Vin to Morgan and helped him unwrap the cold body and remove his belt and blaster holster.

"We need to get this child out of these clothes and warm. There's blood on his head," Tim said as Cloud helped him. Running Elk shed his heavy coat, hung it up next to his poncho, and then moved to the table where the other two were working to strip the, boy, they found out. He could see blood frozen in the boy's hair on the back of his head.

A smile crossed the doctor's face as they peeled layer after layer of clothes off the child. "He was trying to stay warm, but was too wet. Ahh, but what happened?" he said as the last clothes were cut off and the boy began to shiver. Reveled on the cold boy were some large dark bruises on his back and right leg. His skin was tinged grey and cold to the touch.

"Get that blanket by the stove and let's get him wrapped up. I need to check his head. Can I get some warm water to get that frozen blood off him?" Tim said as he dried Vin's arms and legs.

Cloud handed Running Elk the warmed blanket as a blonde woman poured water into a basin and sat it on the table with a cloth in it. The blanket was quickly wrapped around the unconscious boy. The woman paused beside Running Elk a moment and he greeted her with a quick hug and kiss. "I brought someone home with us, Wife," he told her as he kissed her once more and with a smile, she headed into the kitchen

"Thanks. Hold his head up please. Thank you," Tim said as Running Elk lifted the boys head. Tim slipped the basin under Vin's head and started soaking the frozen blood from the long hair. Soon he was probing the large lump and cut on the back of the childs head.

Another warm blanket was brought over and Cloud and the woman quickly exchanged the cooled one for it. A few grins crossed faces in relief as the child moaned and tried to move.

Shivering violently Vin felt something warm wrap around him and more warmth on his head. He tried to turn his head but it was held immovable and he struggled to open his eyes as panic started to rise in him.

"You're safe. Stay still just a couple minutes longer and then we'll have you bundled up and warm." Vin heard a gentle voice tell him as his head was dried with a warm towel. He suddenly realized that he was inside, the rain and snow were not falling on him. His foggy mind skittered as he tried to figure out what had happened. Still shivering he forced his eyes open.

"Well, hello there. I'm Doctor Tim Morgan. You are safe and we will have you all warm and toasty in a little bit. You have a lump and a cut on your head. I'm going to close the cut and then you can have something warm to drink." Tim explained when he saw the boy's eyes open and glance around. He smiled into the beautiful blue eyes and continued drying the light brown-blond streaked hair.

"Thanks Nicole. Alright son this might hurt for a moment but I'll work fast," Tim said after taking the laser from the pretty blonde woman. He worked as he talked to Vin and before he finished speaking he was done.

Vin blinked his eyes in surprise as the doctor patted his shoulder, he hadn't felt anything.

"All done. See how fast I was? Did I hurt you?"

Vin shook his head a tiny bit and shyly tried to smile at the man. "Th … Thanks …" he said between chattering teeth.

"You're welcome. Here comes another warm blanket for you."

" 'k …' Vin muttered as he was carefully lifted, the blanket on him was pulled away and another one wrapped quickly around him. "Th … s…" he tried to say thanks as his eyes slid closed and he drifted into sleep.

Vin was laid on the couch that had been pushed closer to the stove and Nicole placed another warm blanket over him. Finished, she moved into the kitchen and poured large mugs of coffee for the men.

Running Elk looked over the boys holster and blaster as he sipped his coffee, then suddenly lifted his head. Before he could say anything there was a knock on the door and it opened as Little Buffalo pushed in carrying several sacks and saddlebags. He dropped the items beside the door and brushed the snow off his coat and head before stepping farther into the room. Nicole handed him a cup of coffee when he got his coat off.

"How's the boy?"

"He should be fine as soon as he warms up. Are you alright?" Dr. Morgan asked.

"Fine Doc. Here are the boy's belongings he had attached to his horse," Little Buffalo said pointing to the items he'd just brought in.

"How's the horse?" Grey Horse asked as he walked into the room from the kitchen carrying a large platter of steaks and another of potatoes.

Little Buffalo shook his head. "He's bad. I don't think he will last the week. He's very old and weak, has a bad cough, and is barely eating and drinking. It's a wonder he made it this far with the boy. I didn't think he'd make it to the barn. He's dying."

"Nooooo …" A small raspy cry sounded from the couch and everyone's eyes snapped to the small figure that was struggling to push himself up and out of the warm blankets. Just as the boy pushed the last blankets away a racking cough overtook him and he fell back, curling up as the cough shook his small frame.

Chapter 4

Doctor Tim Morgan was instantly beside the boy and held him as he coughed. While he held the cool body he quickly gave instructions to Running Elk and Nicole. Moments later when the child collapsed Nicole handed him a cup of heated milk with medicine in it. The doctor pressed the cup against the boy's lips and encouraged him to drink.

Vin weakly tried to turn his head away but the man again pressed the cup to his lips.

"Drink this son; it will help with that cough and warm you." Vin heard and finally unclenched his lips. The milk tasted good and he drank it all. His chest felt better as he was laid back down and covered again with warmed blankets.

"You need to rest. You were very close to being frozen. So relax and get some rest. I don't want you up and around until you are totally warm," the doctor sternly told Vin.

"Have … Sinbad … needs me …" Vin said haltingly a of couple minutes later, as tears began to leak from his eyes as he shivered uncontrollably.

"Sinbad? Is that your horse's name?" Little Buffalo asked as he knelt down beside the couch Vin was on.

Vin nodded his head, "He's all … I … have left."

"What is your name? I'm Little Buffalo," the black haired young man said.

"Vin Tanner." Vin answered as he pushed himself up against the pillows, so he was sitting up, with the blanket clutched tightly in his hand.

"Well Vin Tanner I'll take good care of Sinbad for you. But he is a very old horse and his time with us is almost over. He is being called to the Great Spirit in the sky to the beautiful home that is waiting for him." Little Buffalo told Vin gently as he watched the tears flow unchecked down Vin's face and drip onto the blanket under his chin.

After several minutes Vin raised his head, the tear-filled blue eyes gazed at Little Buffalo in understanding of what he had told him. Drawing a deep breath Vin wiped his face dry with a shaking hand. "Have to see him … he's all I … have …" tears welled again.

Little Buffalo placed his hand on Vin's shaking shoulder and gently squeezed it, "You will Vin. As soon as you are warm and feeling better, I'll take you to see him. Now you need to eat this good soup Nicole has prepared. It will help you on your way to getting better."

"Alright," Vin replied quietly as he looked up at the blonde haired woman who held a deep mug with a spoon in it.

Nicole handed the mug to Vin and watched as he shakily started to eat. A few minutes later she took it from him, a smile on her face. "Lay down and I'll get you covered up. When you wake up you will feel better," she told the boy as his eyes blinked several times.

The mild sedative the doctor had put in the soup was beginning to work. Vin sleepily smiled at her and laid down. He felt cold but the soup had started to warm him from the inside out. His eyes slid closed and he felt the warmth of blankets being tucked around him again as he drifted to sleep.


After everyone finished eating and had helped Nicole with the clean up, Cloud left for his home and Running Elk and Little Buffalo bundled up to go check on the horses. When they opened the door to leave, wind pushed snow and bitter cold air into the heated room.

"Doc, you better stay here for the rest of the night. There's a blizzard out here and we don't want anything to happen to you. Nichole can prepare a bed for you. We'll see to your horse," Running Elk said just before he and Little Buffalo firmly closed the door behind them and disappeared into the blinding snow.
Nicole smiled, "We have plenty of room. You are welcome to stay. It will be good if the boy needs you yet tonight, you'll be close. I'll get a room ready for you, enjoy your coffee. I'll be back shortly."

Dr. Tim carried his coffee to an armchair near the couch. He paused a moment to pull the blankets up around Vin as he passed. Feeling the boy's head he could tell that he was beginning to warm up. As he sat in the comfortable chair, listening to the wind howling around the snug house, he wondered where the child had come from, how long he'd been out in the storm alone. His examination of Vin had shown him that the boy was underfed, too thin and he figured him to be no more than six or seven years old. With a shake of his head he pushed the anger that was rising inside him down. What kind of parents would let their young son be out in this weather? Where were they? Why was this boy not home where he belonged? He drank the last of his coffee and rose, making his way to the kitchen to fill his cup again. He returned to the living room and stopped and looked out the window.

It was heavily snowing, the wind making it swirl as it flashed through the light from the window. The doctor could tell it was piling up fast. He shivered; glad he wasn't out in it as he glanced at Vin, then back outside. He figured it would still be a cold ride home in the morning. At least he and his mount would be able to see, hopefully. Just as Nicole entered the room from the hall he saw movement on the deep porch. Running Elk was there stomping his feet as he brushed snow off his coat and head. Tim moved from the window as Running Elk walked inside.

"You're room is ready Doc, second door on the right. The heat is on and it will be heated shortly. Would you like more coffee, Doc, Running Elk?" Nicole asked when Running Elk finished taking off his outside clothes.

Both men refused and as Running Elk stood by the stove gazing at the sleeping boy he shook his head. "His horse is bad. I don't know how long they've been riding, it could have been months. It's a wonder they weren't lost in this storm. Well, another hour and they would have been gone I think."

"Less than that for the boy. If you hadn't found him when you did …" Tim added quietly.

Hearing a strange noise both men looked towards the open dining room where Nicole was bent over the table.

"Nicole, what are you doing? It's late." Running Elk asked as the two men headed her way.

Not looking up from the table, Nicole replied, "Vin needs some warm clothes to wear to go see his horse. I have plenty of heavy material and skins to make him something." She continued cutting the soft haired hide with the small laser.

The men watched quietly as she worked. A partly dried pair of Vin's jeans were laid over the hide that had been doubled. The laser cut through the prepared hide without burning the hair still on one side. Nicole worked slowly and carefully and a short time later she had two parts of the pants cut out. She set it aside then bundled the left over hide up and sat it at the end of the table. Picking up a piece of what looked like quilted material she repeated the process. Within fifteen minutes she was putting all the pieces together. A smile crossed her face as the two men watched her closely. Her husband had seen her sew many times, but the look on the doctor's face was priceless. He'd never seen anything like this she was sure.

In less than an hour Nicole had the pants finished, the hair side out and the quilted material inside, the pants would be very warm and last a long time. She was working on a shirt for the boy when she noticed that Doc was yawning and his eyes had gotten heavy.

Within minutes Nicole had shown him to a warm spare room with two beds. Running Elk carefully carried Vin into the room and placed him in the second bed. Tim had insisted Vin share the room with him in case he woke or needed something during the night. Making sure Vin was comfortable everyone retired for the night.

Tim was awakened once by Vin who was coughing as he looked for his clothes so he could go to the bathroom. The doctor wrapped a blanket around him and led him to the room. While Vin was in the bathroom Tim hurried to the kitchen and prepared him a warm cup of milk. He was back beside the door when it opened. After getting Vin back into bed, Tim handed him the milk and watched as Vin drink it all. He was glad to see that Vin drink it with no fuss, the little medication in it was helping ease the cough Vin had developed.

Vin drank the milk, thanked the doctor, then curled up under the blankets that the doctor covered him with and went back to sleep. Tim could barely see the top of Vin's head sticking out of them.
It was three days before Vin was well enough to go to see Sinbad. Vin had developed a bad cough and ran a fever. Dr. Tim had radioed his office the first morning to find out if he was needed and was able to extend his stay at Running Elk's for another day to care for Vin.

Vin wasn't sure where he was, other than he was hot, and someone was caring for him. His fever had risen and dropped several times and once had gotten so high that Tim had put him into a tub of cool water. The second morning his fever finally broke, the cough had eased, and Vin was breathing easier.

The doctor was called to his office but deemed Vin was well enough that he could leave him. He knew that Nicole and Running Elk would take good care of the little boy.

Weak from the effects of the fever Vin forced himself up. He had to see Sinbad and today was going to be the day, no matter what. Running Elk helped him dress in the winter clothes Nicole had made for him. Vin gravely thanked Nicole when he entered the living room; the clothes were warm and fit him perfectly.

Nicole smiled at the serious little boy and helped him into his coat then placed a warm poncho with a hood on him.
"You'll be warm now, but don't stay out long. It's very cold out there, and you are just starting to get better."

"Yes ma'am," Vin replied and followed Running Elk out the door and onto the porch. Vin looked wide-eyed around the area. Snow was shoulder deep to him; a trail was dug out from the house's porch to the road that was cleared by a large truck with a snow plow on the front of it. It was still snowing, but not like it had been the last several days, and Vin could see several houses nearby half buried in the snow. Taking a deep breath of the bitter freezing air Vin moved down the steps with Running Elk walking beside him. Vin paused when they reached the road and Running Elk pointed to their left. Slowly they moved along the cleared road.

Running Elk greeted the few people they met on the road and a couple of minutes later he led Vin to the huge barns where many of the towns mounts were stabled. As he opened the door he looked his small companion over. The boy was shaking and his face was paler than when they'd left the house. He kept watch over Vin as they made their way to where his horse was stalled. He was ready to catch the boy if he collapsed.

Running Elk opened the stall door for Vin when they reached Sinbad's stall. The old horse's head came up and a low rumbling roar greeting came from him as he scented, then saw his little master.

Vin stepped into Sinbad's stall as he pushed the hood off his head and looked at his beloved horse. Tears welled in his eyes as Sinbad's head dropped onto his shoulder. The horse was so thin yet his winter hair was thick on his face and neck, his knees and hocks were swollen, a thick blanket was covering him and there was an overhead heater to help keep him warm. Fresh sweet smelling hay was in the manger and a measure of grain in a pan, nothing had been touched. A self-water fountain was beside the feed. As Sinbad rumbled and lowered his head Vin ran his hands over the horses face, scratching him around his horns then his ears and sunken eyes. The old horse nuzzled through Vin's hair and lipped his shoulder and arm.

Looking up at Running Elk, Vin said, "He's dying, isn't he?" Tears rolled slowly down his face.

"I'm sorry Vin."

Vin wrapped his arms around Sinbad's neck, above the horse's ears and buried his face in the rough mane. For several minutes he and Sinbad stood quietly, the horses eyes closed in contentment as his nose nuzzled Vin's leg, his rumbling soothing the boy for long moments.

Vin stepped away from Sinbad with a last loving touch. "You'll be fine Sinbad. You can rest now. I love you; you were my greatest friend, my only friend. I'll never forget you and your help. Take care my friend, now rest."

With a last loving nuzzle the old horse, looked into Vin's eyes, and nodded his head as if he knew what Vin had said. Slowly Sinbad eased his large body down into the deep straw; his head dipped then rose as he looked at his beloved master as his deep rumbling sounded in the stall.

Vin rubbed Sinbad's muzzle one more time then left the stall, staggering. Running Elk looked at the horse, his dark eyes connecting with the soft, faded brown ones of Sinbad. Sinbad's eyes blinked once then his head lowered into the straw with a sigh and his rumbling quieted.

Running Elk gently closed the stall door and turned just in time to catch Vin as his legs gave out. Quiet sobs shook the boy as Running Elk carried him down the aisle then out the door. Outside, Grey Horse and Little Buffalo were just arriving and at Running Elk's nod they knew that the boy's horse was dead.

"We'll take care of everything," Little Buffalo said as Running Elk passed the two men, his eyes showing his sadness for Vin's loss.

"Thanks," Running Elk said as he headed towards his home through the snow that had started to come down heavily.

Running Elk held the small figure close as he strode through the snow. When he reached his house he brushed snow off Vin, who had quieted and seemed half asleep.

"It will be alright little one. We will take care of you now, for Sinbad's sake," he quietly told Vin.

At Sinbad's name, tears started from the brilliant eyes. "He was all I had left of home," Vin whispered.

"You will have a new home now. You are welcomed into my family as long as you wish to be here."

"Th … Thank you …" Vin mumbled as he was carried inside.

Nicole took one look at her husband and the boy and tears welled in her eyes as her heart went out to the lost looking child. Blinking quickly she managed to smile as Vin was set on his feet, though Running Elk's hand hovered near his back.

"As soon as you are out of your outdoor clothes, come into the kitchen, I have a nice hot chocolate drink for you Vin, and coffee for you husband," she told them then turned and hurried into the kitchen before Vin could see the tears that were falling.

In minutes Vin and Running Elk's outer clothes were hung by the door and Vin and the adults were seated at the table enjoying their drinks and the cookies Nicole had made. Running Elk kept a close watch on Vin, who was very pale and still shaking with emotion.

A half hour later Vin was asleep, snuggled deeply into his blankets. The hot chocolate laced with a little bit of sedative the doctor had left, had calmed him and he had fallen asleep. Nicole closed Vin's door part ways and quietly walked back into the kitchen almost blinded with her tears. Running Elk engulfed her in his strong arms and pressed her head to his neck, feeling her hot tears soak his collar. He held his wife until she finally stepped back and wiped her eyes, then touched his face where there were tear tracks down his cheeks. Together they moved into the living room and sat on the couch and watched as the snow fell silently outside the large front room window.

Running Elk and Nichole had talked earlier about what to do with Vin. Not having any children of their own they had decided that Vin could stay with them, if he would like to, even though they had found that the boy was very independent. They also had a feeling that he was running from something or someone. Since he had come into their lives, they wanted him to stay, to become a special part of their lives.

That evening, when Vin woke and walked into the living room, his mind was in a jumble. He didn't know what he was going to do now. He was afraid and sure that Jake Phillips was still looking for him and would come for him as he had before. He'd have to leave fast and he'd be on foot. Tears fell again and he leaned with his forehead against the cool window. Outside snow was piling up higher from what he could see in the light from the window that spilled outside. For several minutes he watched the silently falling snow, and then suddenly wondered where he was. He'd never seen so much snow in his life. Last winter with Nick, he'd seen quite a bit of snow, but nothing like this. It seemed to have been snowing forever.

A slight noise behind him had Vin running his hands over his face, wiping his tears away. Vin turned around and shakily smiled at the two adults who had entered the room.

Nicole smiled at Vin as she sat down in the chair near him. Her husband sat on the couch closer to the fire.

"Vin," Nicole held out her arm to the boy who hesitated a moment, then moved to lean against her chair. Tentatively she wrapped her arm around Vin.
"We would like for you to stay with us for as long as you want. We have plenty of room and no one else to share our house with."

Vin looked at the woman then at the quiet man across from them. The dark eyes held his for several seconds before Running Elk nodded his head and smiled.

Running Elk sensed the boy was struggling with something in his past but he wouldn't ask; he'd just give him the support he needed and the freedom to leave if and when he wanted.

"Vin, you are safe with us. You can leave whenever you want. We hope that you will stay though," Running Elk said sincerely.

Vin looked at the two people who had helped him the last several days. He trusted them and liked the other men, the friends of Running Elk. Nicole was a nice woman and she did make the best cookies. Making up his mind, Vin smiled shyly at the man. "I don't have anywhere to go right now. I don't even know where I am." Shaking slightly he went on. "We got lost in the rain then it began to snow, and I don't remember what happened. I am a good worker. I can work with horses, they like me and I can do house work too." His nose wrinkled for an instant. The adults didn't smile though they wanted to from the look on his face. "I can help with anything, and I'm a good shot too."

"You don't …" Running Elk stopped when his wife shot him a quick glance.

"We'll thing of something for you to do to help us Vin, but right now you are still too weak from your ordeal and illness and you need rest and nourishment. Once you're stronger we will figure out what you can do. But, I want you well first." Nicole told him.

"Yes'm. I am feeling a lot better," Vin said as a smile lit his face.

"I know child, but you are still shaking," she added, her own smile coming easily.

"J'st a little cold. I can do something," Vin earnestly said.

"Yes, you can. And you will. Now, you slept through dinner and I saved you some. Come to the kitchen and you can have your meal." Nicole rose and held out her hand and pointed towards the kitchen.

As Vin ate a meal of chicken and dumplings he wondered to himself if he should tell Nicole and Running Elk about Phillips. He was thrilled that this man and woman were giving him a home and he was thankful, not only for that but for saving his life. When Nicole sat a heated piece of peach pie in front of him he made up his mind and felt better for it. Finishing, he carried his dishes to the sink and then asked the two if he could talk to them.

"Let's go into the living room. Its warmer there, and more comfortable too," Running Elk stated, picked up his cup of coffee and headed into the other room.

Vin sat on the edge of the armchair closest to the stove. Nicole, seeing him shiver, draped a warm afghan around him, then sat on the couch beside her husband.

For a couple of minutes Vin sat quietly, fingers twisting in the warm weave. Finally he looked up and taking a deep breath started talking. He quietly told them about the loss of his mother and not wanting to be near Jake Phillips, how he'd stayed with Nick Carter the last winter, and that Phillips had suddenly showed up; of his flight from the town and some of his travels. He ended, "I know momma and I lived near TS15 but I don't know where I am now."

Running Elk answered, "Our town is C529. We are located in the San Juan Mountains, a part of the Rocky Mountains. The largest city closest to us is Durango, to the west of us about 3 days travel. We go there several times a year to get supplies and sell our products. How did you get here?

"I don't know," Vin shrugged his shoulders. "We went west then south then southwest. I tried to keep the mountains to my right. When the clouds came, sometimes I couldn't see them for a long time, and then … we got lost," he ducked his head a moment then raised it when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"It's alright Vin. I'm glad we found you, and now you will be safe here with us," Running Elk said as he squeezed the narrow shoulder lightly. "Now I think this is enough talking for the night. It's late and we all need our rest. So bedtime," the tall man smiled at Vin as he rose.

"Yes sir," Vin smiled back and rose, as he folded the afghan carefully. "Thank you for putting me up. I'll help you in any way I can while I'm here," he said then headed for his room. He didn't see the tears that suddenly rolled down Nicole's cheeks as she buried her face in Running Elk's shoulder.

Chapter 5

Several days later Vin followed Running Elk to the barns. He was a small, quiet shadow, with bright blue eyes that took in everything he could see. The snow still fell off and on and it was well over his head in depth. Running Elk advised him about staying on the road and not wandering off the paths that had been made. Vin had never seen snow this deep and stuck close to the tall man. He helped Running Elk care for his three horses, making friends with the large animals and several others.

Little Buffalo, Grey Horse and Cloud entered the barn on a rush of cold wind and snow, talking and laughing. The three men stopped when they spotted Vin coming out of a stall. Running Elk stepped from the stall behind Vin and closed the stall door. Vin smiled tentatively at the three young men, not sure who they were for a moment.

Little Buffalo grinned back at Vin and walked forward, happy to see the little boy looking so well. "Hey Vin, its me Little Buffalo. You remember Cloud and Grey Horse don't you?" At his words he saw the small frame relax and received another shy smile in return.

Little Buffalo dropped to one knee in front of Vin, and put his hand into his coat pocket. "I have something for you Vin. I hope you will like it." He drew out a tightly braided length of black and white horse hair, and held the long braid out to Vin. "This is some strands of Sinbad's mane. I thought you would like this memory of him."

Tears welled in Vin's eyes as he reverently took the 18 inch long braid and held it to his chest for a minute. Taking a deep breath he fought the tears back and wrapped the braid into a tight circle and stuck it into his shirt, close to his heart. He would have Nicole tie or braid it into his hair when they went home. He looked at Little Buffalo and gave him a watery smile. "Thank you Little Buffalo. I'm happy to have something of Sinbad to keep. I'll value this all my life. Thank you."

Little Buffalo gripped Vin's shoulder for a moment then he rose. Vin kept his hand on his chest as he stood listening to the men talking in the wide aisle for several minutes, making plans for a hunting trip in a couple of days. He was hoping that he could go with them. He was anxious to get away from the house and out into the countryside again.

Vin was almost walking on clouds as he and Running Elk went home awhile later. He'd been invited to go with the men. He'd be riding with Running Elk but he didn't care. He was going to be doing something useful.

Ten men and one little boy rode out leading eight pack horses. From the back of the huge pinto Vin could see a long ways. The little town lay to one side of a large valley. Hills rose all around the basin and mountains rose behind them on all sides, like a barrier keeping the world at bay.

It took almost an hour to reach the closest foothills to the east of the town. Once there the men split into teams of two and moved easily through the snowy hills looking for game. Two hours later Running Elk and Little Buffalo ran across a herd of deer, and choosing carefully they killed three of the large animals.

Vin, who had listened attentively to Running Elk as he told him about the countryside and the wildlife that lived there, helped pack the meat on the pack horses after they'd cleaned the deer. The men made sure the area was cleaned once the meat was packed so the deer would return later.

As they headed back towards the meeting place several miles away, Vin's quick eyes spotted movement to the right of them. He pulled his blaster as a huge dark shadow erupted from the snow before he could yell a warning to the men.

A huge brown bear lunged out of the snow, long claws wide, mouth gapped open and with a roar that had the horses dancing as they swung towards the bear's attack. Horned heads lowered instantly towards the threat. Before the bear could go more than a step Vin fired as fast as he could. His first shot caught the bear in its chest as it started to rise onto its back feet and stopped its movement. He shot three more times, the blasts going into the gapping mouth and the bear dropped dead barely two feet from where it had appeared.

Roars from the horses echoed around the area and Running Elk and Little Buffalo calmed them before they dismounted. Walking over to the bear they smiled. It was three times the size of the three deer they had killed, and was still fairly fat from foraging before winter had set in.
With Vin standing guard, the two men quickly skinned and quartered the bear. Within an hour of the bear's appearance, the meat was loaded onto the pack horses; the hide was tied over one pack. Vin helped clean the area before they mounted and headed once again towards the meeting area.

By full dark the hunters had met and transferred some of the bear meat to another horse, then set off for home. It had been a successful hunt and the men were happy. The addition of the bear was a bonus. It was the first bear taken in winter in over 20 years, and they believed it was a good sign, bringing good luck to the town.

While many of the town's people built two large bonfires, the horses had been unloaded and cared for, leaving the hunters to clean up. The large fires kept most of the people warm as they ate, sang, and danced. Though Vin fell asleep during the town's festivities a couple hours later, he was happy. He'd been accepted into the close knit town as one of their people, and given the name of "Hawk Eyes" for his quick sight, reaction, and bravery. Nicole had carefully braided Sinbad's colorful braid into Vin's hair, on the right side of his head, when they'd arrived home to wash up and change clothes before going to join the celebration. It was late into the night when Vin succumbed to sleep. It had been a long, busy and exciting day for him and he had been out in the cold all day. He woke a little when someone stripped him out of his clothes and bundled him into his warm bed. He muttered a thank you and went back to sleep.

The next weeks passed, more snow piled up and the weather turned bitter. Every day, no matter what, Vin went to the barns with Running Bear to help care for the horses. He learned more about the animals as the days passed, and when a mare foaled in one of the other barns he was there with Cloud, making sure everything was all right with mother and baby. He helped care for the mare and foal, learning from Cloud what to do. After that, everyone knew where to find the little boy, in with the mare and foal. Though the foal was new he still was a lot taller than Vin, but they got along well. Vin seemed to know what the foal needed or wanted just by being there. With his gentle, quiet ways he brushed the colt, finding all his itchy spots, and cared for his mother too, always brushing her first. Before the colt was a month old, Vin had him leading and picking up his feet on command.

On days when the snow wasn't falling, Vin would ride out with Running Elk and another man to check the trails and make sure the pass was open to the southwest. The wind blew constantly through the pass, but the way the rocks and mountains were formed in that area, the pass was usually clear enough that a wagon could get through. On the occasions that the gap was blocked, Running Elk radioed for help and depending on how badly the blockage was, camp supplies. Together they all worked to clear the pass, making it safe for anyone using it and for supplies to get through to the town.

Vin loved this time. Working on the clearing the mountain pass and camping out with the workers. It was hard work and everyone was exhausted by the end of the day, but the men told him stories as they sat around fires at night. During the day, when they'd stop for a break, or lunch, they'd point out the numerous tracks and told him what they were. They also taught him of the different trees and brush, what was safe to eat in the summer months, and what could make him sick.

It was late winter, spring hopefully a month away. The tired men, and Vin, were heading home after clearing a bad slide that had closed the pass for three weeks, holding up several supply wagons. The call had come in from the wagon master, and fifteen men with several young teens had quickly packed supplies and headed off to the pass. For three weeks they had worked to clear the pass of rocks, snow, and downed trees. At last it was cleared enough for the wagons to come through, bringing the needed supplies to town. The tired workers surrounded the heavily laden wagons and they all slowly made their way towards the town and homes they hadn't seen in three weeks.

All of a sudden the horned horses, almost as one, roared out their loud challenges and started to prance in place. Heads with their lethal horns swung back and forth as they roared. The wagon teams, though having trimmed horns, turned their heads out facing something only they could scent at the moment. The fifteen riders held their horses in place as they danced and roared, guns and blasters appeared in everyone's hands.

Vin clung to Running Elk's waist with one hand as the big pinto danced under them, its head swinging as it roared in challenge and apprehension. Vin's blaster came up as the men pulled in closer to the wagons, all eyes turned to the trees on the near hillside. The horses, under their masters' hands settled, though they huffed and grumbled as fore hooves raked the muddy snow. They were all facing the hillside, totally on alert.

Figures suddenly burst from the woods and raced downhill towards them. "Wolves! Don't let them near," Grey Horse yelled out as he started firing at the huge beasts.

For a moment Vin was in shock. He'd heard about the wolves and seen their tracks, but had never seen one, alive or dead. They were huge, and seemed to have a mouth filled with rows of teeth. Snapping out of his astonishment
he picked his target wolf and shot, glad to see the animal fall dead, only to have another take its place.

Roars from the horses, howls from the wolves and yells to each other from the men echoed loudly around the hills. Movement at the head of the wagons pulled Running Elk's attention and an instant later they were plunging forward, a wild, unearthly yell sounding from Running Elk. A horse went down just as Running Elk and Vin arrived. Their mount speared the wolf that had grabbed the downed horse's leg. Vin and Running Elk fired at the other wolves converging on the horse and rider who were still on the ground.

Little Buffalo was on his knees firing over his horse as Running Elk and Vin fired over him at the wolves. His wounded horse scrambled to its feet, his head swinging, and hooves lashing, as it tried to protect his master. Little Buffalo, blood covering his left side from chest to knee stepped to his horse but couldn't mount. Running Elk pulled close to the man as the fight went on around the wagons. Vin and Running Elk protected the wounded man and his horse for several more minutes before the wolves that were left finally disappeared.

Little Buffalo crumbled unconscious to the ground beside his horse just as Running Elk dismounted. Vin slid into the saddle as the man dropped to Little Buffalo's side. Moments later several men were beside them, first aid kits in hand.

While the men worked, Vin and five others sat their horses, eyes on the hillside, on guard against another attack. All of the dismounted rider's horned horses were on alert, the horses standing in a semi-circle around the working men, heads pointing away from the men as they guarded the men's backs. The teamsters watched also, and two were making a place to lay the wounded man in the lead wagon, a third was on his radio calling for the doctor.

Once Little Buffalo was stabilized, Running Elk carried him the few steps to the wagon and with help, soon had Little Buffalo settled as comfortably as possible in the wagon. Vin had followed Running Elk to the wagon and waited on the pinto for the man to settle Little Buffalo and then mount. He was shocked to see the pain on Running Elk's face as he stepped to the horse's side. Vin slid back out of the saddle to let Running Elk mount in front of him. The lost, pained look on the mans face worried Vin. He'd never seen anything like it before.

For almost two miles the riders and wagons traveled quickly and quietly, still on the alert. All of a sudden Running Elk urged his pinto closer to the wagon and leaped across to it. Vin quickly moved forward catching the reins, wondering what was going on. He watched as the tall man wrapped his arms around Little Buffalo and held him still. Vin could see Running Elk's lips moving but couldn't hear what he was saying. Confused he reined the paint a little ways from the wagon and continued to watch for another attack.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the town came into sight. A rider was spotted entering the town from the other direction and they knew by the color of the horse that it was the doctor. Twenty minutes later the lead wagon pulled to a stop in front of Running Elk's house and Little Buffalo was carefully unloaded and carried inside. Then the wagon continued on its way. For a moment Vin sat on the paint as he wondered if Running Elk would come outside again. After a couple minutes he nudged the pinto and they headed for the barn, he'd care for the horse before going home. As he headed for the stables he spotted Cloud ahead of him. His shoulders were slumped, and he was leading Little Buffalo's limping horse.

After caring for the pinto Vin went to where several people were helping Cloud work on the injured horse. He watched quietly for awhile and seeing that the horse would be alright, he headed home.

The house was quiet when Vin arrived there, the smell of fresh bread wafted around him as he entered. Dropping the bedrolls and saddlebags next to the front door he went looking for Nicole who he knew was nearby. He found her in the kitchen cooking, and was directed where to find the others. Moments later he stood at the door watching as Doctor Morgan worked on Little Buffalo. Running Elk was helping as much as he could by handing instruments to the doctor. A while later they had the injured man bandaged and Running Elk stepped to Vin's side, placed a hand on his shoulder and lightly squeezed it. The doctor tucked the blanket around Little Buffalo then smiled at the two in the doorway.

"Hello Vin, nice to see you again. You look a lot better than the last time I saw you," the doctor said stepping to Vin's side.

"Hi Doctor Tim," Vin answered shyly. "How's Little Buffalo?"
"He's got some nasty scratches and bites, and lost a lot of blood. But I've got everything cleaned and closed. He should be fine in a couple of weeks."


Tim nodded as he glanced at Running Elk, "I've given him something to help him sleep now. You need to get some rest too, Running Elk. You look almost as bad as Little Buffalo does, and you weren't injured."

Pushing a hand through his long black hair, the tall man answered, "I know Tim. I'll get a bite to eat then sleep. I'll feel him when he wakes and will need to be with him then."

The doctor nodded his head, "If it gets bad I will sedate both of you. Now go eat then sleep."

Running Elk's hand tightened slightly on Vin's shoulder as he nudged him from the room. Vin looked up at the man a puzzled look on his face. He was confused by what the doctor had said.

In the kitchen Nicole pointed at the table and the man and boy sat down. She placed a filled plate of food in front of each, then a third plate and large mug of coffee on a tray and carried them to the doctor.

"Why would Doc Tim …" Vin started, then stopped not sure it was all right to ask what the doctor meant that he would sedate Running Elk too.

For a moment Running Elk gazed at the blue-eyed boy, not sure if he'd understand the connection he had with Little Buffalo. With a tiny smile he remembered that there were several people in town that had this unique connection with someone. He was a little surprised that Vin didn't know about it, then realized that the little boy had been alone for some time and maybe his mother hadn't told him, or known herself. He knew there were many people around the country with this special connection, or bond, and thought everyone knew about it.

"Vin, I hope you will understand. I'll try to keep this short. There are some people who have this mysterious connection, or bond with another. We, who have it, feel it is a blessing to us. We have the brother or sister we never had, or in addition to one. There's this feeling of, peace and joy that happens too. Some of us can talk to our brother, no matter where we both are. One can be miles away and we will hear them, in our head." Running Elk paused. He could see confusion in Vin's eyes, and took the plunge. He'd tell the boy everything.

"What happened to Little Buffalo and me, we were maybe 12 years old, and he lived in another town. He and his father came here to meet the supply wagons. I was helping unload a wagon and this feeling came over me. I looked around and there was Little Buffalo sitting on his horse just looking at me. Our eyes met and it was like a flame went through us. We felt it here," Running Elk placed his hand alongside his head, then over his heart. "It was like we knew each other instantly, like our soul's were one, beating with two hearts. We both were stunned, we didn't understand what was going on; our first thought was to talk to our fathers, then we thought maybe the Shaman would be better. We were shocked again; we had heard each others thoughts. When the wagons were unloaded we met, even though we felt that we already knew each other. Little Buffalo and I had about an hour before he had to leave and we made the most of it. We made comments in our heads to see if the other picked it up, and it worked. We knew exactly what the other was thinking or saying in our heads. We could talk to each other without anyone knowing what we were saying. When it came time for him to leave we didn't know what to do. He had to leave, to return to his home. We made plans to meet and then he was gone. I could still feel him in my head though. Not all the time could we feel each other, usually when something happened. Over the years we were able to meet a few times. When we were 16, his town was attacked. Almost everyone was killed or taken prisoner for a slave trade that was beginning. I could hear him screaming for help in my head. By the time we got there, well I found Little Buffalo; he was alive but badly injured. He came to live with my family and now, even though I'm married, he is still a close part of me. Today I heard him yell when he was almost cut off by the wolves." Running Elk glanced towards the hallway, "I can feel his pain and am blocking it so it doesn't take me down. Doc would sedate me if I can't block Little Buffalo's pain, when it gets bad. Right now he is asleep, so I don't feel it so much." The man looked at the boy, who was studying his face.

"Does this make sense to you Vin?"

"Think so," Vin answered after several moments. He would have to think over everything Running Elk had told him.

"Just remember, not everyone has this bond or connection. No one knows if, or when or even who will have it. It
just happens all of a sudden. Can be old or young, girl or boy, man or woman. Little Buffalo and I have this bond, but Nicole and Doc don't and neither does Grey Horse and Cloud, but White Feather and Lady Dancing do. They are husband and wife now, but so far none of their children has it. There is no way to tell who will get this. If it happens to you, it will in its own time and place, or it won't." Running Elk ran a hand over Vin's head and down his shoulder and arm, then squeezed his shoulder for a moment. "I need to go to Little Buffalo, he is very restless. If you have any questions, you can ask me later," with a worried look on his face Running Elk hurried out of the kitchen and down the hall.

Vin gathered the dishes and washed them for Nicole. His thoughts were sifting through everything that Running Elk had told him. When Nicole came in she thanked him, and he asked her if it was alright to go and see the mare and foal. With a smile Nicole told him to go but be home before dark fell.

As she watched Vin dress in his warm winter clothes and leave, Nicole hoped that he would be with them for a long time. She shook her head and turned to the clothes she was making to sell when they went to Durango in the spring, she realized that she loved the little boy even though she wasn't his mother. Vin was a joy to be around, quiet and helpful, and though he was young, smart in the ways of living on his own. He was very good with the horses, and she thought he would be a great addition to the town as a horse trainer when he was older. She was proud of what he'd accomplished in the months he'd been with them.

With a sigh, Nicole worked on a pair of pants. Vin should be in school. He needed to learn more that what they could teach him. She and Running Elk had talked and decided when they went to Durango they would see about getting Vin into school there. He would have to stay at the school's dormitory, but it would only be a few months before school was out for the two summer months.

Over the last 20 years schools had built large dormitories to house students during the school year. Classes ran from September 1st to June 30th, with two weeks off for Christmas. Hours ran from 8am to 4pm, with some classes earlier or later. Most children attended for 10 years and graduated at the end of the 10th year. Colleges were in the larger cities, and could hand up to 80,000 students a year.

Nicole didn't think Vin would want to go to a college, but it was a nice thought. She wasn't even sure he would agree to go to school. She knew they wouldn't force him. He wasn't their son, but she hoped that he would go for awhile.

Vin leaned against the tall fence watching the foal play in the enclosure. The mare patiently put up with his antic's, keeping her lethal horns high enough that he couldn't hurt himself when he played near her head.

Vin pressed his forehead against the rail as his thoughts raced. Over the past months he had noticed sometimes the way Running Elk every so often would pause and tip his head, occasionally he'd leave for awhile. Other times he'd just look distracted for a couple minutes then go on with what he'd been doing. Vin had never heard of this 'connection or bond.' Then thought it would be really nice, he'd have a friend he could share his thoughts with and do things with.

With a sigh, Vin straightened. He was sure he'd never have anything like this, connection; he'd never had a close friend to share things with, just adults. He wasn't of these 'People' as they called themselves. He'd found out they were considered, Natives, who at one time, had been called 'Native Americans' and even longer ago, 'Indians,' but not in many years. The People were generally tall, dark to black haired, and they had a bit darker skin, as if tanned all the time, not light like his was. They did intermix and marry out of their own People. Nicole was a beautiful, blonde haired, dark green eyed woman, her braided hair reaching almost to her hips. She and Running Elk had met and fallen in love seven years ago when they met in Durango, and she had instantly moved to his town where he lived and worked.

Vin's mother had never spoken of anything like this connection, so he figured she didn't know of it, and wondered if his kind even knew about it. With a last look at the mare and foal he left the corral and headed home, feeling that he didn't really belong here either, and wondered if he would ever belong somewhere or have someone to share things with.

Chapter 6


Vin glanced around the large room as he entered; his heart pounding in his chest. With his backpack of clothes clutched tightly in his arms, he followed several other children his age farther into the room, to where a woman stood.

Each child stopped in front of the adult and gave their name and what town they were from. When it was Vin's turn he did the same thing in a low voice. The woman smiled down at him.

"Mr. Tanner, you will be in Room 23. If you will take a seat, Jeff will be here in a couple minutes to show you where it is," she said and pointed to a row of chairs to her left.

Vin quickly took a seat and soon there were two more boys seated beside him. Wide-eyed the boys watched as other children moved to other chairs around the room. A short time later a tall young man paused a moment beside the woman then walked to the three boys.

"Hi I'm Jeff. I'll show you around, if you'll come with me."

The three rose and obediently walked with Jeff out the door and down a wide hall, with many doors spaced along one side and windows all along the other. Vin watched closely where they were and where they were going, if he had to leave quickly.

Jeff led them to a large door with numbers on it. "This is room 23. This is your room." He said pointing at the numbers as he pushed the door open.

Vin swallowed. Bunk beds lined one long wall spaced 10 feet apart. Between the beds were dressers and narrow cabinets. Each bed had extra blankets on the ends. Across from the beds was a long wide shelf with books, lamps, and papers laying upon it. Chairs were tucked under the shelf, and there were single drawers attached to the bottom of it. Vin realized it was a kind of desk for the people in the room. Several couches and armchairs for the students to use were placed in one corner of the room.

"These bunks are empty; you can choose one for yourselves. Place your belongings on the bed you choose and later you can put everything in the dresser or cabinet. You will be assigned a place on the desk," he motioned to the long shelf. "Hurry along, so I can show you the rest of your dorm and the school," Jeff said as he pointed to four sets of bunks at the end of the row. The three boys quickly walked to the beds.

Vin chose the last set, taking the top bunk. There was a window beside his chosen bunk, and he glanced quickly out of it as he placed his backpack on the bed. A wide expanse of a green field ended near a row of houses, maybe 500 feet away, separated by a fence. He sighed, he didn't feel so closed in now.

Jeff quickly assigned a dresser and cabinet to each boy, and an area on the long desk. He showed them the large bathroom with its separate toilet stalls and shower area. Looking at his clipboard he then led them out of the dormitory, through a covered walkway and into another huge building.

"You three are new and since you've never been to school, you'll be in this room for now. There are several other children who are here with you," Jeff pushed the second door on the right open. A redheaded woman turned to him, a warm smile on her face. Behind her were several rows of desks and 14 boys and girls of various ages from 6 to 10 years old were seated at the desks.

"Boys, this is Mrs. Collins. She'll be your teacher for the next six weeks. I'll be right back with them Mrs. Collins, have to show them the cafeteria," Jeff said, then led the boys from the room and farther down the hall to a wide double door. He stepped to the side as he pushed the double doors open.

Vin's eyes widened, he'd never seen such a huge room in his life. It held row after row of tables and chairs. On three sides of the room were long wide openings in the walls and he could see men and women working in the room behind them.

"This is the cafeteria, where you will eat all your meals. You pick up a tray from there, and slide it along that rail and get your food, then take it to a seat. Breakfast starts at 5:30am, lunch starts at 10:30 and supper at 4:30pm. Snacks are available in the evening until 10pm. Your first meal today will be lunch and you will come in with your class," Jeff stated and then guided the boys from the room. On the way back to the classroom he showed them where the closest boy's bathroom was, then continued to Mrs. Collins classroom.

Taking the papers that Jeff handed to her, she smiled and sent Jeff on his way. She greeted the boys, asking them their names then had them sit in desks together. She quickly assured them it was only a temporary placing when she saw the looks on their faces.

Vin was terrified. He'd never been in a building this large or around so many people in a room at one time. With a shaking hand he brushed his long hair back as the teacher handed him paper, pencil, notebook, and a large sized paper backed book with writing in it. She explained where to store things in the desk and what the book was. Vin opened the book as instructed and saw letters, numbers, lines and pictures. While the other children worked on something she explained to the three what the book was for and had Vin and the other new boys copying the first few letters on lines of the first page.

By the end of the day Vin was working on the letter 'D' and the number '5'. He was relieved when the teacher had the class put things away and a couple minutes later led them to the cafeteria. It was early but there were already several other classes lined up at the door.

Vin was relieved when dinner was over and he could escape back to the dorm room. When he arrived he almost turned and ran, there were 21 boys in the room, many seated at the 'desk' working on homework. He saw the other two new boys he'd been with most of the day and quickly made his way towards them. At the last minute he decided to go to his bunk. From his bed he could see the green field lit by lights from the buildings and light poles. Curling under his blankets he stared out the window until he fell asleep.

Two weeks later Vin was totally frustrated. He was learning things and paying close attention to Mrs. Collins, but he couldn't get many of his letters written the way the book showed them. His teacher was keeping him after class to help him work on them. When Saturday arrived he had to come to the classroom for a few hours to work with Mrs. Collins. He could hear children playing outside and his gaze would go to the window now and then. Vin handed his papers to his teacher and took his seat as she went over them.

While he waited, his thoughts turned to Running Elk and Nicole. They had talked to him about going to school. Explaining to him where it was, and how long he'd be there, if he would attend it. Vin could tell going to school and learning was something very important to them, and after thinking about it a few days, he had agreed to give it a try.

It had been over a month before the weather was good enough to leave the valley, and Little Buffalo was able to get around better. Little Buffalo decided not to go with the wagons this time, though he was well, he and the doctor, didn't feel the long trip was good for him to so he stayed behind to watch over the town and those who hadn't gone.

Eighteen wagons had headed for Durango, carrying the town's winter products. Crafts, clothes, leather items, hides and many other things the town's people had made, or gathered, were stored tightly in the wagons. Vin had been excited about going. Though he was nervous about staying and attending school, he had enjoyed the trip.

When they reached Durango, he stayed close to Running Elk and Nicole. The city was large and busy, but not quite as large as the one he'd visited the year before. It was still big enough to get lost in. They set up the wagons in a large park-like area. More and more wagons arrived all day long almost covering the whole area. The next day hoards of people flocked to the park, looking at and buying the items people had for sale. Nicole's clothes were popular and she sold out the first day. The wagon was then pulled out of the sale line and a new camp set up under some trees, close to their horses. The next day the three of them walked around the city and the adults explained where they were and what they were seeing to Vin. They showed Vin the school and its well kept grounds. The school sat on almost 50 acres with buildings two and three stories high. Most were connected by covered walkways. The following day they made their way to the school and Vin was enrolled and whisked away from his friends. They didn't know it would be years before they'd all see each other again.

"Vin." Vin snapped back to the present time, rose and went to his teachers desk. "I know you are working very hard to get your letters and numbers correct. You are doing very well. But I think you have what we call dyslexia. It means that you see some letters and numbers backwards. This is nothing to worry about, and it can be corrected with a little help. I'm going to put you into another class Monday. Mr. Banks is the teacher and he is very good. He will be able to help you and things will get easier for you. I'm sorry I didn't catch this sooner, but now that I know the problem, we can get to work on it and you'll soon be writing fine. Get your books and papers and bring them with you now. I'll show you where his class is, then you can put things away and go play."

Mrs. Collins rose, and waited as Vin gathered his school belongings. Once he was ready she led him out the door and down the hall. Moments later she stopped in front of another wide door, five doors from her room and on the other side of the wide hall.

"All right Vin, this is Mr. Banks' room. You come here Monday morning. I'll let him know you will be here, before classes start." She watched as Vin studied where the door was located in the hall and the door's number. She smiled when the wide blue eyes turned back to her.

"It was nice having you in my class Vin. You will be fine in Mr. Banks class too. He is a good teacher. Now go put your things away and go play." Mrs. Collins said and started down the hall again.

"Thank you Mrs. Collins," Vin said as he walked beside her. When she stopped at her classroom she smiled at him before going inside. Vin hurried to the dormitory and put his school things in the empty drawer in his dresser then hurried outside, happy to get out into the fresh air.

The next day several older boys were going into town, and they let Vin and two others walk with them. It was overcast and warm, radioactive clouds were rolling over their heads, and they were glad it wasn't raining yet, just dark and threatening. The eight boys wandered around the city streets, window shopping, and watching the traffic passing by. In their wanderings, they found one street had been blocked off and a carnival had been set up covering three blocks. Several rides and a lot of food vendors with a scattering of games were intermixed. With large smiles the boys made their way through the carnival, enjoying the sights and sounds of people having fun at the different activities.

None of the boys had any money so they just watched, as they slowly made their way through the crowd. Now and then they'd stop at a booth and cheer someone on as they threw balls or rings at various items. Vin looked longingly at the shooting booth. He knew he could hit the moving targets that were going in many different directions, but couldn't without money. Reluctantly he moved on behind his school mates when they headed farther down the street.

All of a sudden the hair on the back of Vin's neck stood up and the feeling that he was being watched washed over him. Keeping his head partly down he glanced at the people milling near him. Not seeing anyone paying him or the other boys any attention he lifted his head and looked boldly around.

A tall man standing by a ride was staring right at him. Freezing in place for a moment Vin looked the man over and wondered who he could be. Then recognition struck him and the beginning of his forward step faltered. He'd run from his momma's side because of this man. It was Jake Phillips and he was watching Vin closely, his eyes narrowing. When he took a step towards Vin, Vin's eyes widened and with a, "I'm goin' back," to his friends he took off running, dodging around people and weaving through the carnival towards the exit. He heard a shout behind him, but ran faster, his mind rolling in panic.

Vin came out on a wide street and turned towards the school, running through the pedestrians that crowded the sidewalk. He heard another yell and dared a quick glance behind him. Phillips was racing after him, half a block away. At the next corner Vin dodged around several people and raced down the side street, then crossed and turned back towards the school. His breath coming in gasps, Vin looked for someplace he could hide in for a few minutes. Phillips had fallen back, but he was still coming quickly. Across the street Vin saw an open store with shoppers going in and out its door. Switching directions, he ran into the street dodging in front of a team of horned horses pulling a wagon, their steel shod hooves barely missing him. A large truck's breaks squealed as he ran in front of it and a car swerved to miss hitting him. Vin didn't stop until he reached the door, then walked through it in front of a family with several children. Turning down the first aisle he circled around until he could see the door and saw Phillips rush past.

With a sigh Vin leaned back and caught his breath. After several minutes he looked around for another door, hoping there was one opening onto another street. With a little smile Vin headed for the other wide door he spotted on the other side of the building. He cautiously slipped outside, looking back and forth and all around carefully. Not seeing Phillips he once again set off for the school at a slow jog, watching for the tall man.

Vin breathed a sigh of relief when he jogged through the open gate of the school grounds. He hurried to his dormitory and inside. In the dorm room he passed some boys who were working on homework, and glanced out one of the windows, back towards the gate. He slumped against the wall beside it for a moment. Phillips stood looking over all the buildings. Vin saw a smile cross the man's face as he walked through the gate and turned towards the building that housed the administration offices. Backing away from the window Vin ran to his small area and pulled the bottom drawer of his dresser open. Grabbing his backpack he opened it and started stuffing his few belongings into it. He took his blaster and holster from where he'd hidden them and strapped it on, then finished packing. He pulled a blanket off his bed and rolled it as tight as he could and stuffed it on top of his clothes. Buckling the pack closed he paused and realized that the room had fallen silent. A chill went up his back and he slowly turned around.

The boys in the room were all watching him. Vin felt his face redden as he noticed many were staring at the blaster on his thigh.

With a small smile Vin said, "Have to leave, there's a man here who wants to kill me. I have to go," then ran out of the room, his pack over his shoulder.

Vin ran out of the far door of the large dormitory, and raced across the grounds to the stand of trees in the southwest corner. He slowed as he worked his way through the trees and then walked along the boundary to where he'd earlier found a weak place in the high chain-link fence. Dropping to the ground he lifted the fence up far enough to slide under. On the other side he dragged his pack through then let the fence drop back into place. He brushed dead leaves over the small hole and made sure he hadn't left any tracks. He pulled his pack back on and rising ran through the trees. Ten minutes later he came out in a vast housing area. Houses were scattered in all directions for several miles. Many small roads were connected to larger streets and then the city. Vehicles traveled on the streets and several trucks lumbered by.

With a last glance behind him, Vin jogged down the closest road. At the first intersection he turned in another direction, then another, changing direction at each intersection or cross roads. By late afternoon Vin was nearing the end of the housing area, houses were spaced farther and farther apart. Overhead the dark grey sky and clouds rolled together casting a grey pallor over the land. Vin glanced up and figured there was a storm coming. He needed shelter, and food. As he jogged along the last road in the darkening day, he mumbled to himself, "Stupid. Stupid. Didn't get food. Now what am I going to do? Stupid, I'm so stupid." He slowed as he passed the last house, noticing there were no lights on there. It was quiet, almost as if it was deserted. Nothing moved in or around the house other than what the rising wind blew around. A line of bushes lined the far side of the house, as if it was holding back the invading countryside. Vin slipped behind the first bush, then followed them to the back of the house. A shed stood 200 feet from the house and a fenced in area stretched out from it. Vin wrinkled his nose at the smell coming from the shed, pigs, he thought. He turned his gaze to the house, it was still quiet, and there wasn't any kind of vehicle parked anyplace.

A flash of lightning streaked across the sky and a loud crash of thunder made Vin jump and caused him to hurry to the back of the house. He knocked on the back door as the thunder crashed almost over his head. Knocking a little harder the door suddenly swung open and Vin stepped back in surprise. Cautiously he walked to the open door and hollered, "Hello. Anyone there?" Hello, anyone home?" No one answered him except the bright flash of lightening and the loud crash of the thunder overhead, and then the rain came down hard, drenching everything in mere seconds.

Vin stepped through the door as it banged open then swung back and forth in the wind. He grabbed the door and pulled it closed behind him, not wanting to let the rain into the house.

For several minutes Vin stood in the quiet entry listening, then called out again. The house stayed silent, so he stepped through the inner door and found he was in a large kitchen. Dust covered the table and counter tops, and he wondered if anyone even lived there. He made his way through a wide entry doorway and found the large room there had dust covered furniture. Not touching anything he walked through the room then up the stairs where he found three bedrooms. Everything had a layer of dust on it. No one had been there for some time. He found the bathroom and tried the water, finding that both hot and cold worked. He made use of the facilities he then returned to the kitchen and began to look through the cabinets. Just as darkness settled over everything he found a candle and matches in a lower cabinet and quickly lit it.

As the house creaked and shuddered around him in the ferocious storm, Vin looked carefully through the cabinets and the pantry in the kitchen. He found cans and jars of food and made himself a cold meal. As he ate he continued to look through things and found canisters of dried fruits and several bags of jerky. He packed some into his backpack for later.

Carrying the candle he went into the living room and removed the dust cover from a large armchair and curled up in it. He was tired from jogging and running for hours, and he was scared. Vin realized he had no idea where he was, he'd made so many turns he wasn't sure he could find his way back to Running Elk's town. The clouds had been low and covered most of the higher hills and mountains as he ran. He couldn't get a sense of what direction he was going. He just knew he had to leave the area and as fast as he could.

Vin shook his head. He couldn't believe that Phillips was still looking for him, that he was there in the city. What was he going to do now? The house shook under a blast of wind and Vin curled tighter into the chair after blowing out the candle. His last thought as he slid into sleep was he hoped the houses owner didn't come home tonight.

In the middle of the night Vin woke shivering. The thunder and lightning had moved on but it was pouring down rain and the wind was still rattling the house. He felt around the end table until he located the candle and matches and lit the candle. Holding the candle steady he headed upstairs to find and collect a blanket. In the upstairs hallway he saw a narrow door and carefully opened it, not sure what it was. He found it was a small closet with stacks of towels and bedding, including blankets. Vin picked up a thick blanket and hurried back downstairs to the chair. He blew the candle out and wrapped up in the blanket and curled into the chair again. Minutes later he was asleep, wrapped in warmth.

Chapter 7

Grey dawn crept over the land and vaguely lit the room Vin slept in. The rain had stopped, except for a light drizzle, but the heavy grey churning clouds promised more rain would be coming. The wind was still blowing hard and the house creaked now and then from the powerful gusts.

Vin slowly opened his eyes and for a moment wondered where he was. Then the previous day came back to him in a rush and he pulled the blanket tighter around him for a few more minutes. Finally he untangled himself from the blanket, stretched and rose. Vin made his way to the kitchen and looked out the window at the low, rolling grey clouds. He noticed the wind was still blowing the bush and tree limbs in several different directions. For a few minutes he debated with himself whether to leave or stay until the storm passed. Shivering he made his way upstairs to the bathroom and quickly took care of business. Back in the kitchen, after eating the rest of the food he had opened the day before, he gathered food together. As he worked he kept an eye outside and by the time he was finished eating and gathering supplies, the rain had totally quit. He found several canvas sacks folded in a cabinet and took one. He stuffed the warm blanket and the food that didn't fit in his backpack into it.

Vin hurriedly pulled on his jacket and pocketed the matches as he put the candle back where he'd found it. Making sure everything was put back in place he then headed for the back door.

Outside, Vin paused and looked around. The clouds seemed to be lower than before with the wind tossing them around. He still couldn't see much of the surrounding countryside, but knew he had to leave. Somehow, he thought Phillips was closing in on him, and he didn't want to be caught by the man. With a sigh Vin headed out, moving past the shed and following the fence line. When the fence stopped he continued on, hoping he was heading northeast, but he wasn't sure. The sun was nonexistent, the clouds were still low, and the wind swirled around him as he moved into the unsettled countryside. He hitched his backpack higher onto his shoulders and gripped the sack in his left hand, trying to keep his right hand free in case he had to draw his blaster. A short time later he was over a hump and had left the city and houses behind, nothing stirred other than the wind in the brush he passed.


Almost three weeks later Vin stood on a low ridge and looked over the land below him. There was a large expanse of green halfway to the low hills in front of him. He couldn't see where it ended, but he had at least a half days walk to get to the edge of the green.

As he rested a minute, he thought of the last weeks. When the sun had finally come out five days ago, he realized that he was far away from Running Elk's area. Vin figured he was traveling south west, instead of north east. He had debated what to do, try to go back north then east or continue the way he was going. He finally continued on, he was weeks away from the valley and town and had a feeling he wouldn't be able to find it again. With a smile he looked up at the sun, happy that it was still out, that the clouds weren't covering everything as they had been. He had found a small cave late in the afternoon after leaving the house, and had waited out the storm that had returned with a vengeance. For two days he waited for the wind and lashing rain to stop. When the third day dawned, the storm had passed and the day was warmer, though still grey. He'd waited until what he thought was noon before setting off. The thirsty land had dried somewhat and he was able to jog and walk quickly through the shrub brush. He wanted to get as far away from the city as he could. He hadn't seen any other people, but he kept going as fast as he could.

With a sigh, Vin turned and followed a dim trail that snaked down the ridge. A few hours later he was on the flat grayish ground with rocks scattered across it. He looked around then headed towards the green that was invisible in the distance.

It was late afternoon before the ground changed. Thick green grass was growing in clumps here and there. Vin spotted some trees in the distance and headed that way. He wanted somewhere to sleep and not out in the open. He had been lucky not seeing anything larger than a bird or rabbit in the past days, and he didn't want to meet anything any larger. Several of the small animals had ended up as his meal over the last weeks.

A bright, full moon had risen by the time Vin reached the trees. The ground had turned into a heavy carpet of knee high grass. As he looked around in the shadows under the tall trees, Vin realized that he wasn't alone. Quickly he climbed onto one of the large tree branches. He was glad the limbs provided handholds as he climbed as high as he could. Reaching the last thick branch he could safely climb on, he settled against the trunk to wait to see who shared the treed area with him.

Vin pulled his backpack to the front of him and slipped his arms into the straps again. He checked his blaster before he let his head rest on the pack nestled against his chest. He hoped he could move out in the morning as he had to find food again. The supplies he'd taken from the house were long gone and the rabbit and quail he'd gotten were also gone. He needed to hunt.

Vin dozed off and on during the night, jerking awake now and then when he heard odd noises below him. The noise would quiet after several minutes and he'd sleep again.

When the sky began to lighten with the dawn, Vin woke and looked around. From where he sat in the tree he could see the green area extending for miles around him. Several low hills were in the distance with higher ones beyond them. Looking down he froze in place. Below him, through the tree branches, he could see several brownish tan shapes and realized finally that they were deer. As he watched silently, the large animals milled around then with a shake of their antlered heads they slowly began to move out from under the trees into the grassy plain beyond.

In awe Vin watched. He'd seen deer before, and hunted them with Running Elk, but never from this close.

The deer, fifteen of them with several young ones, had all finally moved out of the trees. Vin made his way down to the ground and looked around for water. He found a small stream at the edge of the timber and quickly drank and washed his face. Drinking once again he filled a jar with water then shouldered his pack, crossed the stream and headed towards the hills he could see ahead of him.

Vin had been walking for over an hour when he heard a wild howl from behind him. Whirling around he looked back. In the distance he could barely make out the forms of the deer and they were fighting with a pack of wolves. With a gasp Vin turned around and started to run towards the distant hills. He knew that the wolves could come after him when they were finished with the deer, if they were still hungry, or out of curiosity if they scented him. Howls echoed throughout the area.

Vin ran until he was out of breath, then slowed to a jog, holding his aching sides. Once he caught his breath again he broke into a run. The howls had at last quieted, but he didn't know if they were coming for him or too busy with the deer. He raced on. A small ridge of rocks appeared in front of him and Vin quickly looked around for an opening as he ran towards it.

A trail snaked down then through the rocks and Vin slowed to a jog not wanting to trip or injure himself on the rocky ground. As he came out of the rocks he felt the hair on his neck raise. He pulled his blaster out and looked around. An instant later he was knocked over. As he rolled he tried to see what had hit him. On his back he glimpsed a large reddish-grey shape just before sharp teeth grabbed his right thigh and hip and began to drag him along the rocks. A scream of agony echoed around the area as pain so intense and deep paralyzed him for a moment. Pain in his left shoulder snapped through him and he started to think again. His blaster was still clutched in his right hand and he realized it was a young wolf that had him and it was dragging him towards an opening in the rocky ridge.

Vin lifted his arm and pulled the trigger. The blast hit the wolf in its hindquarters and for an instant its teeth tightened on Vin, then with a howl of pain it released Vin and turned to nip at the pain. Vin shot again and this time the blast caught the animal full in the face as it's head swung back towards him. It dropped dead beside him, mouth opened, the sharp teeth stained with his blood.

Vin rolled away from the wolf and moaning in pain he slowly got up, sliding his blaster into its holster as he limped away. He could feel blood flowing down his leg; it hurt so bad he was dizzy from the pain and then blood loss moments later. He staggered a few more feet then dropped to the ground. Feebly he tried to get his backpack open to get a shirt to tie around his leg, but passed out before it was all the way off his shoulder. He didn't hear the horned horse and rider coming at a canter towards him, the blaster in the rider's hand sweeping over the rocky area in front of them.

The big chestnut horse halted beside the unconscious boy and lowered its head to sniff the figure. A deep roar sounded as a shod hoof scraped the ground. The rider grabbed her saddlebags and quickly dismounted and dropped to the ground beside the boy.

"Guard," she said as she ran her hands over the figure, then down his legs, checking for breaks. Opening the saddlebag she pulled a roll of bandages out and several thick pads. Not wasting time, she packed the pads over the wounds then ran the bandage over and around the boy's upper leg and hip, and tied it off.

The horse suddenly roared softly at her and shook its head, its gaze fixed on the rocks behind her. Without a glance she packed the saddlebags and gathered the boy into her arms and rose. On command the horse lowered his leg and a moment later she had the boy on the horse's back. She leaned him over the horse's neck then grabbed her saddlebags and swiftly tied them behind the saddle and mounted. Once settled into the saddle, she nudged the horse and pulled the boy back against her chest. The horse rose and turned in one fluid motion and headed away from the rocks. Settling the boy better against her, she urged the horse into a canter and once clear of the rocky ground into a smooth gallop. Far behind them they heard howls and the horse picked up more speed almost flying over the ground.

Twenty-five minutes later they topped a hill and raced towards the tiny buildings that were scattered across the landscape. They headed to the right towards a neat little farm that sat among a scattering of trees. A log house stood fifty feet from a large barn that had tall fences surrounding it on three sides. Several cows were grazing in the largest enclosure and another large horned chestnut horse stood alertly in another pasture watching them. A log shop stood a little ways behind the house and a man walked out the door. He glanced at the horse in the pasture then looked at the horse and rider racing towards him. He ran to the front of the house and waited for the rider, knowing something was wrong.

"Nettie?" The man questioned as the horse came to a halt beside him.

"Allen, help me get him inside, he's bleeding again. Got to see if we can reach Doctor Mark. He was attacked by a young wolf," Nettie told her husband as he took the boy from his wife.

Nettie dismounted and ran into the house to their son's old room and threw a blanket on the stripped bed. As Allen laid the boy down she rushed into the kitchen and got a small bucket and filled it with hot water. She headed back to the room, but paused a moment at a hall closet to grab bandages and medical supplies.

Allen had the boy stripped out of his backpack, shirt, blaster, and boots. He waited until Nettie returned before cutting the makeshift bandage and pants off. With a glance at his wife he hurried out of the room to put in a call for the doctor. He was surprised to catch the busy young man not too far away. Allen went back to the bedroom and helped Nettie wrap a fresh bandage around the boy's thigh and hip.

"Mark will be here in a half hour or less. Caught him on the road. What happened?"

"I was checking the perimeter and heard a scream. Wally took off before I could think to stop him. We topped the north hump just as the boy shot the wolf with his blaster, then tried to walk away. He dropped before we got to him. I don't know who he is or where he came from. He's pretty young and as far as I can tell, alone. We'll have to see if he belongs to someone in one of the towns." Nettie said as she covered the boy with a warm blanket, seeing that he had started shaking.

"Honey, I think he might be going into shock, get his feet up. Talk to him. I'll go get some water," Allen said as he watched the child a moment before rising.

Nettie quickly did as her husband said while the man hurriedly left the room. Once she got the boys feet propped higher than his heart she sat down beside him and gently took his hand. She rubbed it and ran her hand up and down his arm.

"Hello child. I'm Nettie Wells. I found you a little while ago and brought you home to my and my husband Allen's home. You are safe, the wolf is dead. We'll take care of you. The doctor will be here shortly, so just relax and all will be fine," she told Vin as she glanced at the door wishing Mark was there now.

"H … hu … hurts …" a whispery voice said.

Nettie looked down and into brilliant blue eyes that were filled with pain. Her hand brushed the long hair off the child's forehead as her other hand continued to rub his arm.

"I know son. The doctor will be here soon and then the pain will be taken care of. I'm Nettie Wells, my husband Allen is getting you some water. Just stay still and we'll take care of everything for you."

"'mm … Vin … Vin Tanner … Th …thank … you …" Before he could say anymore the pain overcame him and tears leaked from the corner of his eyes. Vin tried to curl away from the agony in his hip and leg, gasping for breath.

Allen appeared at his wife's side as she tried to hold Vin from rolling over. He quickly placed his hand on hers then handed her the glass of water with honey in it. Nettie took the glass and watched as Allen gathered the boy in his arms and gently held him still so he wouldn't injure himself any more.

Rocking the thin frame, Allen quietly talked to the child, telling him anything that came to mind. He could feel the boy shaking then his tears were soaking into his shirt where Vin's face was buried against his chest. Allen held Vin and rubbed his back. When Vin calmed a little he pressed the glass to his lips and watched as Vin sipped the sweetened water.

Nettie patted her husband's shoulder. Before leaving the room she told him the boy's name. In the kitchen she quickly prepared a pot of soup and got coffee going. Hearing a roar outside she hurried to the front of the house. Opening the door Nettie felt guilt wash over her. She'd been so worried about the boy she had forgotten about her chestnut horse, Wally, who was still saddled and bridled. She looked at the horse again and noticed his stance. His head was turned towards something only he could see. The lethal horns on his head moved with the slight movement of his head from side to side. He was standing four-square right in front of the porch steps, his long blond tail swishing slowly. He was on guard. Nettie shaded her eyes and looked in the direction the gelding was looking. In the pasture, Ivan, their other horse, was on the alert also, standing with his horned head slightly lowered, horns pointing east. A couple minutes later Nettie caught sight of a rider headed towards the farm at a mile eating canter. She recognized the white spotted horse that Mark rode and stepped closer to Wally whose head had lowered more and a roar of warning rang out from him.

"All right Wally, it's the doctor. It's fine," she said as she placed her hand on the horses shoulder.

Wally turned his head and nuzzled Nettie's arm as he relaxed his stance, then he turned back to the oncoming rider.

"Hey Miz Nettie, I got away quicker than I thought. Mr. Allen said a child had been attacked by a wolf? He's alive?" Doctor Mark asked as he pulled his spotted horse to a halt near the corner of the house. He knew the chestnut horse was watching him closely. Mark, a tall, thin, gangly black haired man with warm brown eyes dismounted. He dropped his reins to ground tie his mount and grabbed the heavy saddlebags and grey leather bag off his horse.

"Wally, go to the barn," Nettie told the chestnut. The horse looked down at her, then with a grumble turned and walked towards the barn. Nettie glanced at the doctor who had watched the exchange with a smile on his face. With a shrug and a smile Nettie said, "He's better than a guard or pet dog. Come on Mark, the boy needs tending to. He's in a lot of pain. He said his name is Vin Tanner."

Mark followed Nettie into the house, "Allen said a wolf got him?"

"A pup, though large enough to be trying to drag the boy into its lair. Vin was bitten in his hip and thigh. He managed to kill the wolf, but not before it injured him. There, Allen is holding him, trying to calm him." Nettie pointed to where Allen was seated on the bed, his back against the headboard, strong, tanned arms wrapped around a blanket wrapped figure held to his chest.

"Hi Mark, glad you made it. Vin's in a lot of pain and he's got a fever building," Allen told the man as Mark placed his bags on a nearby table and opened them.

"Let's see what we have here. I'll give him a sedative and pain killer while we check him out. Just hold him still another minute Allen," the doctor said, as he prepared a hypodermic, then uncovered Vin's arm and quickly gave him the injection.

Vin shook in Allen's arms a couple more minutes before Allen felt him relax. "There you go Vin. This is Doctor Mark. He's here to take care of your injuries. I have to lay you down so he can see them. I'll be right here beside you if you need me. Mark will get you all fixed up son, and you'll be fine." Allen gently laid Vin down and then blinked in surprise when the boys eyes opened and gazed at him a moment before they slid closed again.
"Strong boy here," Mark commented as he quickly cut the bandage off Vin's leg and hip. "Do you know if he's had the rabies shot?" he asked.

"No, Mark, I don't know. I found him unconscious, just after the wolf got him. We've never seen him before. All he's said was his name was Vin Tanner, but there's no Tanner's in this area that we know of." Nettie answered as she gathered the soiled bandages. "I'll get rid of these," she said as she walked out the door.

For a half hour Mark worked on Vin. He carefully cleaned the wounds, happy that he could find no infection.
Once he had the wounds cleaned and packed with antibiotic salve he used his laser and closed them. Slathering more antibiotic cream over the closed wounds he lightly bandaged Vin's thigh and hip. He prepared a rabies injection and gave it to Vin, followed by an antibiotic injection. Finally he stood and glanced at the worried couple who stood at the end of the bed.

"He'll be fine. I think we caught it before any infection set in, and I cleaned everything very well. I've given him antibiotic's, that should ward off anything that might cause a problem. The rabies injection will protect him from the disease for two years. He has a fever and will need to be cooled, and get him to drink as much as you can to fight it too. If everything works the way it should, the fever should be gone tomorrow."

"Will he lose any movement of his leg?" Allen asked, seeing the worry in his wife's eyes.

"I don't believe so. The wolf's teeth that got his hip grazed the bone, with the deepest holes in his upper thigh, which are the worse. Very deep, but he was lucky it was a smaller wolf, a larger one would have crushed bones, and, well, he was very lucky. Those teeth also missed the leg's main artery. He will be very sore and the wounds will be painful for a few days, until the healing is complete. He'll probably limp for awhile, but should be fine in a few weeks. Make him rest for at least three days. Lots of liquids for 24 hours. Soft foods when he's hungry for two days then he can go on regular food. I'll leave you some light pain medicine and antibiotic pills. I want him to have one in the morning another one around dinner time, or 8am and 6pm, for five days. I want to be sure he doesn't get an infection," Mark paused a moment, looking down at the boy. "He is underweight, malnourished, looks like he's missed a lot of meals. He's too thin for his age and need's to be built back up."

"We'll take good care of him Mark. Do you have time for some lunch and coffee?" Nettie asked as she covered Vin and touched his head. Feeling the warmth, she followed the men out of the room, and went for a basin of cool water and a cloth. She made sure the men were eating, then Nettie hurried back to Vin's bedside and began the task of keeping the fever at bay.

An hour later Vin was sick, and Mark, who had barely gotten a mile away turned around and hurried back to the Wells' farm when he got the call from Allen. Seeing the child delusional and throwing up, Mark quickly checked the writhing boy over and found a rash developing on his chest and arm where he'd given him the antibiotic injection. Quickly he prepared another injection and gave it to Vin.

"He's having a reaction to the antibiotic. This should counter-act it, and then I'll try another antibiotic. I don't want him without protection. This should help him," Mark said as he quickly injected the medicine, and then mixed another antibiotic to give Vin.

"Let's see what happens now," Mark said as he rested his hand on Vin's hot, sweat soaked head.

"Will you …" Allen stopped as Mark held up his hand.

"I'll stay awhile, to be sure that injection stops the reaction, then I'll give him this new antibiotic and we'll see how he does with it. Could I get another cup of coffee, Nettie?" Mark asked, trying to distract the worried couple.

"I'll get it. And a fresh basin of water too," Nettie picked up the basin and left. Allen sat down in a chair near the bed.

Several hours later, Vin was sleeping easily. The bout of sickness had passed and his fever was low. Mark left after dinner, Nettie having insisted he eat before he left. Mark was relieved that the youngster was doing better. The child had been so sick that for awhile he had been afraid they would lose him. After one last check on Vin he took his leave, knowing the boy was in good hands.

Nettie settled into the comfortable chair beside Vin's bed to watch over him during the night. Allen checked on his
wife in the middle of the night and found her busily working on her crocheting and talking to the boy when he stirred.

Allen brought Nettie a large cup of coffee, before kissing her head and going back to bed. She assured him that she was fine and would call if she needed something. He would sit by the child in the morning after he finished the outside chores and let Nettie sleep. He smiled into the darkness; it had been awhile since he'd seen his lovely wife so enthralled by someone. She was doing what she was content to do, taking care of a child.

Chapter 8

Vin woke bit by bit. Keeping his eyes closed, he lay still and listened, trying to figure out where he was. After a couple minutes he remembered the wolf grabbing him and he groaned with remembered pain, his hand quickly going to his hip and leg. He felt something wrapped around him and realized he was covered with a warm, soft blanket. Slowly he forced his eyes open and gazed around the dimly lit room. His gaze automatically went to the window. It was dark outside. He glanced around the room and his gaze stopped on a figure sitting in a chair beside him. A woman with her eyes closed, her hands holding a colorful array of something made out of yarn, her blondish-grey hair framed her lined face.

'Where am I?' Vin thought as he looked around the strange room again.

Nettie's eyes opened slowly as she felt someone staring at her. Her light grey eyes met brilliant sky blue ones and she smiled gently at the boy gazing back at her.

She sat her crocheting aside and moving slowly, so not to startle the boy, eased to the edge of her chair.

"Hi, I'm Nettie Wells. I found you this morning and brought you home. You were injured and the doctor was here and took care of you. How do you feel?"

"I'm fine," Vin's raspy voice answered her.

"Would you like some water or milk?"

"Milk? Can I have some milk, please?" Vin asked.

"Of course. I'll get you some, it's nice and cold."

"Thank you."

"I'll be right back," Nettie rose, turned the lamp up a little higher then left the room.

Vin looked around the room again as he pushed himself up to lean on the headboard. The honey colored walls had several pictures on them. The wall across from the foot of the bed had a large picture of mountains and a herd of horses grazing in the foreground. As he stared at the picture he realized the horses were different than the one's he knew. They looked smaller and had no horns. A noise from the hallway drew his eyes to the door and his thoughts back to wondering where he was. There were two other doors to the left of him and the long narrow window to his right. Though it was only two feet wide, it was at least six feet long. A light green curtain was pulled back so daylight could come through, though now it was moonlight that cast light onto the floor of the room.

Vin tore his gaze from the window as the woman walked into the room, a smile on her face. She carried a tray in her hands.

"I though you might be a little hungry so I brought you some chicken soup too. Are you sure you feel like sitting up?" Nettie asked as she sat the cookie sheet she was using for a tray on the table beside the bed.

She helped Vin to sit up straighter and put several pillows behind his back. Once settled she placed a napkin on his lap and sat the tray on top of it. She helped steady the tray as Vin took a drink of milk then tasted the creamy soup. His eyes opened wider in surprise at the taste and he spooned another bite into his mouth.

Though he ate slowly, the soup quickly disappeared and then the milk was slowly drank.

"Thank you, it was very good, Mrs. Wells."

"You're welcome young man. But you can call me Nettie, Mr. Tanner."

"You know my name?!"

Nettie smiled at the surprised look on Vin's face. "You told me when you woke up once before the doctor arrived. What would you like me to call you?"

Vin blushed, he didn't remember talking to her until waking up now. "You can call me Vin, Mrs. W … Nettie."

"Vin is a nice name. Now I think it's time for you to rest and sleep. I'll get rid of these and bring you some water and your medication. The doctor closed your wounds, but he wants you to take it easy for several days, to be sure no infection sets in. I'll be right back." Nettie picked up the tray and left.

Vin yawned then squirmed down into the bed pulling the pillows from behind his back and fixing them under his head. He was just settled when Nettie walked in with the pill and a glass of water. Vin took the pill and drank some of the water. Handing the glass back to Nettie he looked around the room, his eyes dropped.

"I need to go," he said as his face changed colors, embarrassed.

Nettie hid her small smile, the little boy was adorable, and the blush added color to his pale cheeks. "Right through that first door is a bathroom you can use Vin," she pointed at the first door on the left.

Vin carefully got out of bed and slowly made his way to the door that Nettie had opened. She reached inside and flipped on the light as Vin entered. Nettie closed the door then straightened the bed in preparation of his return.

Several minutes later Vin walked back into the room and to the bed, his eyes almost closed. Nettie made sure he was well covered as he dropped off to sleep instantly.

For almost two days Nettie and Allen were able to keep Vin in bed as he healed and got stronger. The morning of the third day they found him in the living room gazing out the window when they came out of their bedroom.

Exchanging a look with his wife, Allen moved to Vin's side as Nettie headed for the kitchen. "Beautiful morning isn't it?"

"Yes sir," Vin answered glancing up at the man before turning his gaze back outside.

"Looks like you are feeling better now. Would you like to go to my shop with me after breakfast?" Allen asked, not looking at the quiet boy beside him.

"I should be going," Vin quietly replied.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't know you needed to be somewhere. Guess I'll work on my project alone. Do you need a lift? I have to go to town tomorrow for supplies, I could drop you off."

Vin's thoughts began to roll. He liked the Wells. They were a very nice couple, and Mrs. Wells made the best cake, cookies, and hot chocolate. He didn't have to be anywhere; he didn't even have any idea of where he was. Vin dropped his head; he was tired of running from Jake Phillips. He wanted to … he paused; he didn't really know what he wanted to do. He had found a home with Running Elk and Nichole and their friends, and he still missed them, but he didn't know how to find them, to get back to them. Now, he admitted to himself, he wished that he could stay here, with these people, he decided. He was sure he had lost Phillips and since he was lost, didn't think the man would find him for awhile.

Nettie had come into the room when Allen was speaking. She stood quietly watching the different emotions racing across Vin's young face. She wanted to wrap him in her arms and take away the lost look on his face. She shot her husband a glance and stepped to his side.

"Vin," she said, and watched the boys beautiful eyes slowly lift to meet her gaze.

"Vin, we would love it if you would stay with us for as long as you would like. Our son left us a couple of years ago, so we have plenty of room, more than we really need. We don't have much to offer but we would love to share it with you."

Vin swallowed, this woman had saved his life and his instincts told him that she and her husband were very sincere, that they really did want him to stay. He knew he would have to tell them about Phillips but he sensed he
could trust them completely. Slowly he nodded his head.

"I would like to stay. But I might have to leave suddenly sometime. I will try to tell you though," Vin said quietly and was rewarded with smiles from the Wells.

Allen stepped forward and held out his hand, "Welcome Vin Tanner. Welcome into our home and lives." Allen didn't add, 'and our hearts' though the long-haired boy had gotten into his and Nettie's hearts, filling the void their son had made when he had disappeared.


For several years, Vin Tanner lived with Allen and Nettie Wells. He worked with Allen almost daily; learning how to make things from wood Allen gathered and bought. He found joy at carving intricate pictures into the wood. Allen was surprised how easily wood carving came to the young boy, who in three years time could carve just about anything he put his mind to. Vin's artistic ability improved with each piece he worked, surpassing Allen's work as time went on. The things the two made were sold in surrounding towns, the carved items bringing in more than they ever expected.

Nettie watched the child grow, happy that after the first few weeks he had relaxed and now and then acted as a child his age should. She found he had a mischievous sense of humor and that he could do just about anything with the horses. His quiet easy ways eased the horses when one was injured or in pain, he could treat them better than the veterinarian could. When they purchased a third horse, they took his advice and found that the horse was one of the best they had ever gotten. Vin's knowledge of horses far surpassed theirs and they were happy with his choice. Vin worked with the horse and in no time it was ready to work in the field with the others. They found too, that he could ride very well without a saddle, seeming to be a part of the horse.

The little farm prospered and many improvements were made to the large house and outside also. The wood shop grew in size as Allen and Vin took on more projects as the demand for their work became greater. Vin's enthusiasm over his carvings egged Allen on to try his hand on different things, not just chairs and rockers, but other furniture and cabinets, even doorways and window frames and shutters.

Over time, Nettie and Allen saw Vin relax, though several times a year Vin would leave for anything from a few days to a week. He would get a look of being closed in on his face and sometimes watching over his shoulder for, they didn't know what. Vin would tell them what direction he was going in, and they let him go. The look on his face and in his eyes told them he needed the time alone, and that he would return. The couple worried the whole time Vin was gone. He was still very young, and they knew the dangers that were around, and that the man looking for him was still somewhere out there. Vin did go armed everywhere, even to town, but they still worried. After the first time he left and came back, they let him take Wally, who seemed to have become attached to the boy, as a trusted dog would have been.

Upon the boys return all smiles and happy, with Wally well cared for, they would celebrate with his favorite meal and dessert. Nettie would make a chocolate cake and a peach pie, which she had found out Vin couldn't resist. Nettie swore the boy could live on sweets and couldn't figure out why he stayed so thin for all that he ate. Allen would assure her that Vin was a growing boy and if she remembered Douglas, their son, at that age had been a bottomless pit.

One day Nettie realized Vin should be going to school. The years had passed so quickly, she was embarrassed that she hadn't thought of it sooner. As close as they could figure, Vin was around 12 years old, and she and Allen sat him down to talk about going to school. Vin, remembering the school Running Elk and Nichole had sent him to, and what happened, had argued that he would be fine, that he would not go away to some school. When they pressed him a little he told them everything that had happened since his mother died. Nettie gathered him into her arms for a moment, knowing he didn't like being held, but that he needed the comfort and support. She held him and wiped the silent tears that rolled down his cheeks. With a last hug and a brush of her hand over the long blond-streaked brown hair she released him.

"Vin, we will never send you away, for anything. This is your home as long as you want. You are like our adopted son and are in our hearts always. We'll work something out. We have books and paper, we can teach you here. That way you don't have to go away to school. We can help you as you are helping us," Allen told Vin, holding his wife's hand.

Vin trusted the man and woman in front of him, they had become like parents to him over the last few years and he
felt deeply for them. Nettie had tears in her eyes as he nodded his head in agreement. He hugged them both in a rare show of love. "Thank you," he said before heading for bed.

Nettie wrote a letter the next day to the school district asking for books and guidelines for teaching a child at home. Almost two months later she received the requested information when they went to town for supplies. As she started to teach Vin, she realized he had a problem that left him frustrated to the point that he would run out of the house going either to the shop or the barn. She didn't know how to help him. He told her that his one teacher had said he'd have to go to another, special class, but he didn't remember what it was called, or what the teacher said he had. She promised to look into it and let him go for now.

The next time they went to town, Nettie had a letter and some of the pages Vin had written ready to be mailed to the school district. She was sure they could see the problem from his writing and had asked how she could teach him.

It again took months to hear from the school and a harsh winter didn't help. Vin had gone hunting just before winter got a tight grip on the land and returned several days later. Wally was pulling three large deer over the snowy crust to the little farm. While Allen and Vin skinned and cut up the half frozen meat, Nettie was kept busy canning and freezing it. Vin, from his time living with Running Elk, had learned how to dry the meat and make jerky. The first year he was with Nettie and Allen he had shown her how Nicole had made jerky, and Nettie made some too. Once Allen and Vin were finished, they placed the meat in containers and left it in the snow until they had time to finish with it. Nettie was glad that she had as many canning jars as she had, and with Allen and Vin's help she worked to get the meat canned for later use.

When a neighbor needed help, she sent Allen and Vin to help them any way they could, and one of the containers of frozen meat as food supplies. By the end of the winter they still had almost all of the canned meat and some jerky left. The frozen meat had been all used.

Only once during the long winter the three had made it to town. As soon as the snow had melted down enough to get the wagon through, they headed off. The wagon was piled high with Allen and Vin's winter work and many jars of Nettie's canned meat and some of her crocheted items.

Three days later they returned home. The wagon was filled with needed supplies and Allen and Vin had several orders, and Nettie had the long awaited school items. A booklet explained that what Vin had was called 'dyslexia' and how it affected a person. For a week she poured over the teaching book and guidelines, learning how she could teach and help the boy. The following week she began to work with Vin on letters and numbers an hour a day, feeling that longer at first would frustrate him to the point he wouldn't want to continue. She would gradually lengthen the time once they figured out what they were doing.

To Nettie the days seemed to fly and it all of a sudden was May and it was time to head for town for supplies again. Vin knew she was planning something special as it was close to his birthday, as close as he could remember anyway. But two days before they headed out, Vin came down with what the doctor had called a virus. Running a fever, vomiting, and with a bad headache, Vin could barely tolerate light during the day.

Nettie didn't want to go, but Allen needed her help since Vin couldn't be there. Dr. Mark insisted she go, that he would stay as long as he could with Vin, who felt a little better but still could not travel. Finally, not able to put it off any longer Nettie left with Allen, promising Vin they'd be back in three days.

The next day dawned sunny and warm. Vin was up and wandering around the house like a caged animal, until the young doctor let him visit the barn to check the animals. It wasn't long before Vin was back. Mark, noticing his damp and pale face, made him sit and eat the soup Nettie had prepared the day before for them. Then he gave Vin a spoonful of fever reducing medicine.

After Mark cleaned the kitchen, he found the boy lying on the couch bundled in blankets, his eyes watering from the light. Pulling the curtains, Mark sat in an armchair and to distract Vin he started to tell Vin how he'd decided to become a doctor, and what he'd gone through with his studies. Vin asked questions and before long Mark was telling the boy how to care for various injuries and sicknesses. Before they realized it, it was evening and getting dark. Mark hurried to make them dinner while Vin checked on the livestock, making sure they were all inside for the night. After dinner they talked a while before turning in.

Before noon the next day Mark received a call and had to leave for a few hours, but told Vin he'd be back as soon as he could. He felt that Vin would be fine for awhile and hurried off to see his patient.

Vin watched Mark leave then ate the sandwich Mark had prepared before leaving. After cleaning up his dish and glass he wandered out to the barn and cleaned the horses' stalls and prepared them for the night. He checked the inside area that held the few cows and prepared it also. Several hours later he went back to the house and lay on the couch for a bit. He felt better, but was still weak and knew he had over done it that day. He woke to noises in the kitchen and quickly rose. Mark was making dinner and Vin quickly washed up and set the table. They talked again after dinner for several hours before calling it a day.

Once again Mark was called away, this time just as they finished an early lunch. He knew the Wells' were due home by evening so he told Vin he wouldn't be back, and would see him in a couple of days. Once Mark was gone Vin headed to the shop and began working on the bookcase that he had been carving figures into the sides of, putting the finishing touches on it. Hours later his stomach growled and Vin realized it would be dark in another 2 hours. Stepping back he looked at the carvings and with a last rub of the oiled cloth put his tools away. Several minutes later he walked into the house and fixed a sandwich for dinner.

Vin was in the barn getting the horse and cows settled for the night when a cold feeling ran through him and he ran outside. He knew something was wrong but everything was peaceful and quiet. He ran into the house and grabbed his blaster and holster and ran out the door again. He raced back into the barn and grabbed Jolly's bridle and quickly bridled the big blonde chestnut. Outside he tapped the horse's knee and as the horse lowered himself, Vin leaped upon his back and they were off, racing for the road to town.

Jolly wasn't as fast, or agile as Wally was but he tried hard and a half hour later Vin spotted a line of wagons coming his way, faster than they usually traveled. Low sounding roars were coming from many of the horses.

Vin's eyes scanned the wagons as he and Jolly galloped towards them. Something was wrong. When he spotted the Wells wagon a sick feeling went through him. There was only one figure on the seat. He suddenly became aware of other riders converging on the wagons as he slowed his headlong rush and eased Jolly into a canter, then into a trot. Something white flashed in the corner of his eye and he turned his head, seeing the big white spotted horse of Doc Mark racing their way, then past him.

Minutes later Vin pulled to a stop beside the Wells' wagon that had stopped in line with the others as help arrived. Vin's eyes filled with tears when he looked across to Nettie. She held her left arm tight against her side, but he could see blood seeping through the rough bandage that was wrapped around her just above her waist. When their eyes connected he knew that Allen was dead even before he saw the covered body in the back of the wagon. He leaped from Jolly's broad back to the empty seat beside Nettie, unaware of the tears that rolled down his face.

Vin took the reins from Nettie's shaking hand and she buried her face into it, her sobs silent but hard enough to shake her.

Vin held the reins tightly as thoughts raced through his head. It was his fault that Allen had died; he should have been with them, to watch their backs. He hadn't been there for them when he was really needed and now Allen, the man he loved as a father, was dead and Nettie … his tortured blue gaze went to the woman beside him, was hurt and crying as he'd never seen her do while living with them. Tears flowed harder, he had to leave. He'd stayed too long, and because of that, one of the people he loved as much as his mother was no longer. He wouldn't let his love for Nettie destroy her too. He would leave as soon as he could.

Taking a deep breath, Vin wiped his eyes on his sleeve then placed an arm around Nettie for a few minutes. His mind made up, he was at peace for now, he knew what he had to do, what he would do. He sat quietly beside the grieving woman and several minutes later she raised her head and watched as Doctor Mark stopped beside the wagon and climbed up to her side.

Mark gently checked her wound, happy that it wasn't any worse. A long bloody graze was quickly closed and he put antibiotic salve over it then bandaged it for her. He then stepped into the back and checked Allen, a moment later he gently pulled the tarp back over him. With a shake of his head at Vin he placed a hand on Nettie's shoulder.

"I'm sorry Mrs. Wells. He was a wonderful man and friend. I'll see you have help when you get home." Eyes burning, Mark patted her back then climbed down and went to the next wagon, talking softly into his radio.

Vin urged the horses into motion. Pulling out of the line of wagons he headed cross-country for home with Jolly closely following.

Chapter 9

Allen was buried two days later, near the tree that he loved to sit under and relax at the end of a long day. It had been his special place, to watch the sunset when the sun was out and listen to the breeze blowing through the branches. Many neighbors arrived for the short service conducted by a preacher who was passing through the area.

Nettie put on her best face for her neighbors, near and far, who came for the service and bearing food for the luncheon afterwards. She kept an eye on Vin, she knew how he felt and that he was going to leave. He had told her it was his fault and he didn't want her hurt too. She couldn't convince him otherwise and hid her sorrow from him. He'd been part of her - and Allen's - life for almost five years, and she would miss having him around. She also knew that after the first tears Vin had shed on the wagon, he hadn't grieved, that he was holding it all in, and keeping her at arm's length from him.

On this day Nettie looked around for Vin and saw that he was back, away from the crowd of people who had come. A while later she saw Vin talking to Dr. Mark and wondered what the two were talking about. She was distracted a moment and when she looked back she didn't see either of them so turned back to the women who had spoken to her.

Vin was pleased to see so many friends arrive for Nettie, and knew she would be fine when he was gone. She had many friends who would be there for her. When he saw the doctor ride in, an idea flashed through his head and he made his way to Mark's side. He asked Mark to meet him later; he wanted to talk to him about something important. Mark agreed to meet him as soon as he could get free after the service.

Mark found Vin an hour later sitting on the steps of the shop. Taking in the hunched frame and haunted eyes of the teen, Mark knew something was up and figured he probably wouldn't like it. Mark settled on the step beside Vin, careful not to touch him, and while he waited for Vin to speak his gaze roamed over the neat little farm. He had watched as it had grown in the last years and was happy that Vin had made such an imprint on the Wells' lives. The peace settled into him as he waited. This little farm was set in a pretty area and he liked it, and the people who lived here. When Vin started to talk, his words surprised and dismayed the young doctor.

"Doc Mark, I'm leavin'. Was my fault that Allen got killed. I can't lose anyone else, so I'll be gone in a few days."

"Vin, this wasn't your fault! Things like this happen now and then. There's no rhyme or reason to what men do. Those robbers, no one knew they'd attack the wagons, just as no one knows where or when they will strike … "

"My fault … I was needed and I wasn't there. I should have gone with them. I didn't and … Allen … I have to go. I don't want anything to happen to Nettie, but I can't stay here, if I do, something will happen. Don't ask me."

"Vin, Nettie loves you, she will be heartbroken if you leave, especially now. She needs your strength."

"No! I can't do that. Listen. You need a place in this area so you don't have to travel so far. The …" Vin swallowed as he quickly glanced behind him, then continued, "it'll be … empty now. You can make it into your office. Nettie could use the extra income if you pay her something now and then. The house is large; she might enjoy your company. There are shelves and storage areas in here." Vin nodded behind him. "It won't take long to make it into an office."


"No. Please Doc Mark. I can't stay. I can't take it to see someone I love … die again. I have to go …" then in a whisper Vin added, "I'm a good hunter too. I'll find those men sometime."

Vin's promise made shivers run down Mark's back. "Vin, you're too young to go on your own. Please stay, for Nettie's sake, she really needs you," Mark pleaded looking at the boy who looked a lot younger than he was. He flinched when the large blue eyes rose to his, tears swimming in them. But the look was old, older than he expected from a thirteen year old. Mark took a deep breath, thirteen, they thought Vin's birthday was this month. He knew of the celebration the Wells were planning to have for him this year. It would have been tomorrow. Mark's hand rose and touched the young boy, whose eyes now looked way older then he was. He gripped Vin's thin shoulder a moment, feeling the fine bones under his hand. Then he let him go.

"I'll talk to Nettie as soon as everyone leaves. Will you stay until this is taken care of? Help me set up if Nettie agrees?"

Vin shook his head as tears slipped from his brimming eyes and slid down his cheeks. In a hoarse whisper he said, "I can't … I can't … I'm sorry," and jumped up. With a tortured look at the shop he turned and raced off, around the corner of the building and into the meadow behind it.

Mark rose and followed him to the corner of the building, and watched Vin until he stopped at the edge of the stream that cut across the field. His heart ached as the teen dropped to his knees and folded in upon himself. Mark turned away from the sight of Vin's grief and walked towards the house deep in thought.

Vin's idea had struck him deeply, and as he slowly walked he turned it over in his head. It was a good idea; he did need something in this area. He wasn't sure if Nettie would be up to talking about it yet though. She just lost her husband, and was about to lose the boy she loved as a son. He decided he would go slow and feel her out, not push her. He didn't want to see the older woman alone right now and if Vin did leave shortly, she would be devastated.

It was dark when Vin slipped into the quiet house. He paused, hearing voices coming from the kitchen. As he moved to go to his room he heard Nettie's voice.

"Vin could you come here for a minute?" Vin shook his head. How did she know he was there he wondered as he walked to the warmly lit kitchen.

Nettie smiled at him, "Wash up. Your dinner is ready."

"Yes ma'am," Vin replied and nodded at her then at the tall man seated at the table, a cup of coffee in his hand. "Doc Mark," a small smile crossed his lips as he headed for the bathroom to clean up. He hoped that his idea was worthy of their thoughts. He liked Mark a lot and the man had become a close friend to Allen and Nettie over the years. His heart clenched and he fought the tears that tried to return and tore his thoughts from the man who had meant so much to him these last years.

While Vin ate his dinner, Nettie told Vin that Mark was going to rent the shop as an office and a spare bedroom a couple weeks a month. Vin felt his heart lighten as she talked. He was glad his idea would work out.

Nettie held back her tears, knowing there was nothing she could now do or say to encourage the boy she loved to change his mind, to keep him there. The losses he'd had in his young life were making him run in fear that something would happen to her. She understood and was grateful that Mark had approached her. She liked the young man, and as he'd explained Vin's idea she could see it would work to her benefit. Her life was changing again, and a new chapter was opening for her, and though it didn't have her beloved husband in it, or the child she loved as her son, she knew she would go on, and be there if and when Vin returned.

Vin thanked Mark, happy that the man had talked to Nettie, so she wouldn't be alone. He carried his dish and utensils to the sink and cleaned them, aware of the two pairs of eyes on him. He was content, Nettie wouldn't be totally alone, and he could leave in the next few days. He was devastated over Allen's death and having to leave Nettie, but he felt a peace come over him. It was the right thing to do, the right time to leave, and Nettie would not be alone, someone would be there for her, to help her, he told himself again.

Two mornings later, in the half light of pre-dawn, Vin slipped out of the quiet house. A large backpack was on his back and his blaster, in its holster, on his hip. Another blaster was attached to the side of his pack where he could easily reach it. A revolver that Allen had given to him on his birthday the previous year was safely tucked into the pack with ammunition, and a large knife in its sheath was attached to his left thigh. Clothes, blankets, and some food were in his pack, the food would last him a couple weeks if he was careful with it. Woven into some of his hair on the side of his head, was the braid of Sinbad's hair.

For a moment Vin paused and looked back at the quiet farm, his home for five years, but no more. With a shake of his head he turned and headed northwest and walked steadily away.

As Vin walked away he didn't see the woman who watched from the porch, tears slowly rolling down her face as she prayed that Vin would be safe and come home again, safe and sound. Nothing she or anyone else said changed his mind about leaving. She hoped once he was alone and thinking straight he'd realize it had been Allen's time and nothing could have prevented what had happened. Vin had promised her that he'd be back, but he wasn't sure when.

Nettie wiped the tears from her face; she couldn't hear any footsteps in the field nor see the boy in the darkness. Slowly she moved to the rocker on the porch and sat down, and watched the sunrise two hours later. A new day had dawned. She was happy that the sun was out for now, at least Vin wasn't walking in the grayness they'd had the last few days. It was going to be a nice day, a good day for a new start. A noise had her turning her head and she smiled a little. A wagon was coming towards her, the outrider on a white spotted horse. Doctor Mark was coming to move in. She smiled, that child thought of everything. She rose to meet the man and his helpers.


Several months later - - Mixed POV

He looked around him in a daze. Bodies lay scattered in death sprawls all around him; he couldn't believe he was still alive. His family and friends were gone; there was nothing he could do for any of them. The wolves were also gone for now. The attack had happened so fast no one had had a chance to run. They all had fought valiantly, but the odds were overwhelming. Within fifteen minutes the fight was ended and quiet reigned once again over the land.

With a shake of his head he slowly limped away. Pain burned in is hip and leg and he staggered several times. The knowledge that he had to get out of the wide ravine if he wanted to live urged him on. Finally he was in the open and he stopped and gazed around. Desert stretched to his left, water a long way off. Looking the other way he spotted the purple-blue mountains rising into the grey clouded sky. He could loose himself there; slowly he turned and started the trip that might save his life. As he trudged along he tried to force the pain to the back of his mind, only to bring it sharply into focus when he stumbled or caught his foot on a rock or clump of something. The crushing feeling of being abandoned flicked through his head now and then but he wouldn't dwell on it. He was alive, for now, and needed to get far away from the deaths behind him.

After almost a day of limping through the inhospitable countryside he found grass under his feet. With a sigh he raised his head. Shaking long strands of hair from his eyes he spotted small trees and brush ahead of him and knew he would find water there. He desperately needed a drink of water, he was so dry. Slowly he walked towards the trees, and soon was pushing his way through the brush, groaning when stiff branches connected with his injuries. He found a small stream no more than four feet wide but flowing several feet deep in places. Walking into the water he drank then lay down and moved his stiffening leg through the coolness. It felt like heaven and he didn't want to leave the cool water. Finally the dried blood was washed away except where it had heavily clotted. With a deep groan he pushed himself up and staggered from the water. Barely a couple of feet from the stream he laid down and instantly fell asleep, unaware of the pair of eyes closely watching him.

He woke with a jerk. The dawn was a ghostly grey color with clouds slowly drifting through the gun-metal sky. His sensitive nose picked up an odd smell and he raised his heavy head and gazed around. His hip and leg were almost pain free, but something was around his neck and he shook his head and tried to dislodge it. Then he heard a gentle voice.

"Take it easy boy. You'll be fine. I took care of your cuts. It's alright, just stay calm. I won't hurt you."

Large liquid brown eyes locked on the small human figure kneeling behind him. The boy didn't move away, just continued to run his small hands over his back and side in a gentle flowing motion.

The boy talked in a raspy whisper that had the large black horned horse cocking his ears to hear more. Gentle hands caressed him as the soothing voice continued.

For several minutes the horse watched and listened to the figure, then with a shake of his horned head he pushed his forelegs out in front of him and with a heave rose. He towered above the boy who showed no fear and had stood up as he did. The black shook himself then turned his head and sniffed at the wounds on his hip and leg. A smell of herbs came from the goop on the wounds. He turned his head and looked at the human again, cocking his head and ears at the gentle voice that was still talking.

"I'm Vin. I won't hurt you. I'm sorry I couldn't help your family and friends in the desert. But there were too many wolves; they would have come after me too. I'm happy you were able to leave. I followed you and I'll help you for as long as your wounds need tending, or you let me," Vin said as he and the black horse gazed at each other.

With a snort the horse regally lowered his head several minutes later, as he acknowledged what the human had done for him. He was alive and the pain was just a whisper of what it had been. He would be able to race over the countryside again. And he thought he might like to do it with this small, kind human.

Vin raised his hand and rubbed the black's nose then a little higher.

The horse kept his head turned enough that his lethal horns didn't get close to the boy as he nuzzled the boys hands then his long hair. The fine strands tickled his sensitive nose and he suddenly sneezed all over the boy who laughed and stepped back.

The large head lowered more and Vin rubbed around the horns then the base of the horses ears as a low rumble came from the horse. Eyes closed as the horse leaned into the clever hands that found several itchy places on his head. Finally Vin stepped back and brushed his hair covered hand off, a crooked smile on his lips. Large brown eyes slowly opened and Vin and the horse gazed at each other for a moment. Vin raised his hand and petted the black's nose once more, thinking the wild horse couldn't be much over three years old. With a final pat he turned to where his backpack lay. Pulling the pack on, Vin checked his blaster then walked to the stream for a last drink. The black followed him, and when Vin headed across the green expanse towards the distant mountains, the horse limped slowly behind him, the old piece of rope dangling from his neck. Both horse and young teen sensed they belonged together and would be together from this day forward.


Nettie Wells carried a covered tray of food to Doctor Mark's office and smiled at the young lady who was just leaving. She entered the office and greeted the doctor who was busy putting instruments away as she sat the tray on his desk.

"Thank you Nettie. I was so busy this morning I missed lunch," he said as he ran a hand through his black hair.

Nettie smiled, "That's alright Mark. I saw the people coming and going all morning. Decided to just bring you something and hoped you had time to eat between patients."

"I'm starved," Mark said as he sat down and uncovered the tray and began to eat. "Thank you Nettie this is really good."

"I'll leave you in peace while you eat. I'll be back for the tray in a bit," Nettie said and walked out the door and down the steps. Slowly she made her way around the little medical center that had been her husbands work shop. She walked to the large shade tree that had a small white fence surrounding a headstone under the stretched out branches. For several minutes she stood looking down at Allen's grave. The daffodils, and tulips she had planted were in full bloom, very late this year but a colorful spot surrounded by green. Though her grief had dulled, she wished he was still with her. And Vin also. She was concerned about the boy. She'd heard nothing of him, or seen him in over a year now, and it did worry her more than it should have especially now.

She thought back two months ago when a stranger had stopped, asking questions of a boy he was looking for. Vin Tanner. The man said he'd been appointed Vin's guardian and had to find him. She didn't tell him anything, other than admit Vin had lived there for awhile, since he already knew it from talking to her neighbors and people in town.

The man had ridden off to the north and she'd prayed that Vin was nowhere the man was. She hoped her boy was safe. She could see the man was obsessed with finding Vin, and remembered Vin's fear of him. Finally she made her way back to the office and picked up the tray. After a few minutes with Mark she headed for the house.

Mark followed Nettie outside as he answered a question she asked, then stood on the steps a moment talking another minute with her. He liked Nettie immensely, and was thrilled to be there. He paid her rent for the building and room and board that he used two weeks a month. When he wasn't busy with patients he helped her around the farm and made sure she didn't do any heavy lifting. They got along very well and had many stimulating conversations.

Mark's gaze caught a movement and he looked to the west. A rider was coming slowly their way.

"Looks like my afternoon's going to be as busy as the morning was," Mark said watching the rider.

"Yes, it sure does," Nettie answered as she watched the dark horse moving in their direction. With a laugh she
added, "With all your patients, soon you'll be able to enlarge the clinic."

Mark laughed. "I can do it now, if I had the time. Jed offered to help and his two sons too. I just need a few days. The lumber has been ordered and should be here tomorrow."

"Good! I'm sure things will slow down for you."

Nettie held a hand over her eyes, shading them as she looked at the large black horse coming closer. A roar from the horses in the pasture snapped her gaze to the penned horses. In surprise she saw them spaced along the fence, their lethal horned heads weaving back and forth as hooves dug furrows in the dirt. The four were on alert, letting them know it was a total stranger.

Nettie and Mark exchanged glances and he stood next to her and loosened the blaster he'd automatically picked up when he left the office. His eyes scanned all around looking for danger but not seeing anything but the black horse and its rider.

In silence, other than the roars from the horses, they watched the stranger. A loud oddly sounded roar from Wally rang out, warning the black off as the others roared threateningly. The black slowed to a ground eating walk, but his head was high as he gazed around. The rider came in sight now and then as the horse swung his head from side to side.

All of a sudden Nettie gasped and the tray in her hands fell to the ground as she stepped forward several steps, then she stopped abruptly. Mark hurried to her side, seeing tears rolling down her face he looked back to the rider, and a wide smile crossed his face.

"Vin!" Mark and Nettie exclaimed at the same time as the rider pulled the black to a halt and slid off.

Vin, a smile on his lips, dropped to the ground and patted Peso. He dropped the reins to ground tie the nervous black and after a few words the horse calmed and Vin stepped away, his blue eyed gaze on Nettie and Mark. He strode away from the horse towards Nettie who began to run, tears streaking her cheeks.

Nettie's arms closed around Vin as he wrapped his arms around her and his head touched her cheek. They stood that way, not sure who was holding the other up for several minutes. Tears washed over both faces.

Finally Nettie pulled back, her hands going to Vin's face as she looked the beautiful face over minutely. The face she loved and had been scared she'd never see again. Brilliant blue eyes blinked tears away in the tanned face as a smile again crossed Vin's face. Nettie drank in 'her boy' as she stepped back another step. He was as tall as she was, his light brown hair was liberally streaked with blond from the sun and hung well over his shoulders, Sinbad's braid was woven in the hair beside his right ear. He was still thin and gangly, his tanned face, also thin, made his eyes stand out even more.

Finally the blue gaze turned away. "Doc Mark, nice to see you," Vin said, his hand coming up.

Mark grabbed the teen's hand in both of his and shook it, unable to stop the smile on his face. "It's so good to see you again Vin. We've been wondering when you'd be back. You're looking good."

"Thanks Doc. I was going to be here a couple weeks ago but got hung up by a flooded river. I couldn't get across it for a week."

"Come into the house Vin. You need some lunch," Nettie said, her hand still on Vin's arm.

"Yes ma'am. I'm hungry. Ran out of supplies two days ago then couldn't find anything but some wild vegetables. Need to take care of Peso first. Can I put him in the little pasture? He isn't use to barns yet."

"Yes, turn him in there, there's plenty of grass and water. Vin, he's a beauty," Nettie said as they got closer to the black, whose head lifted high into the air as the strangers approached with his friend.

"Behave yourself Peso. This is Ms Nettie and if you bother her or the Doc you'll be made into jerky," Vin told the horse.

With a loud snort, Peso proudly lowered his head and sniffed the two people as Vin untied the cinch that held a blanket on the horses back with a bedroll and saddlebags attached to the back of it. With a sigh the horse nuzzled Vin's shoulder as he picked up the reins and led him through the gate into the pasture. As soon as Peso was released inside he lay down and rolled, groaning and grumbling in pleasure. Vin stopped a moment to pet Wally who nuzzled his shoulder a moment in greeting, before Vin walked back to his possessions.

Vin picked up his gear and with Nettie on one side an Mark on the other, walked to the house, then inside. Vin was
happy to be home, even if it was only for a short time. He basked in the love and companionship of Nettie and Mark. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

Chapter 10

Vin stayed at the Wells farm for over three weeks, enjoying good meals and the company of Nettie and Doctor Mark. Mark accepted Vin's help to add to the clinic and they went to work on it. Jed Driver and his sons, Jason and Miles, who were a little younger than Vin, were there off and on to help Mark and Vin. The brothers were quite a bit larger than Vin and could easily carry heavier loads but they all worked well together.

It had taken them 16 days to get the addition completed. Vin happily spent several extra days carving figures into the new doors and the exam table's stand. As he oiled the door for the last time he tried to shake off the feeling of being watched. He carefully glanced around but could see nothing out of the ordinary. But his neck hairs were standing on end. The horses were calm, grazing in the pastures, everything was peaceful and quiet. He could hear Nettie singing in the house and smiled, she was happy and he was happy for her.

Shaking off the feeling, Vin gathered his tools and carried them to the barn, where he stored them with all the other wood working tools. For a moment he stared down into the large wooden box that held the tools, and remembered how Allen had taught him the use of each different implement. With a sigh he closed the box and latched it, he still missed the man that had been the only 'father' he'd ever known. Slowly he made his way to the house; it was time for him to leave. He stopped on the porch and looked around at the nicely laid out farm, Allen still in his thoughts and missing him and his gentle ways. The feeling of being watched washed over him again, stronger, as if the watcher was closer. He backed slowly to the door and turned and entered the house. He had to leave, he didn't believe this feeling was a danger for Nettie, and if he left he might be able to draw whoever it was away from her.

That evening Mark came riding in. He had been away for the last three days and Vin quickly took him aside. In a quiet voice he told him he was leaving, and about the feeling of being watched. They discussed whether they needed to call someone in or wait. Vin was sure if he left they would be alright, but Mark wasn't sure. He hadn't had any feelings as he rode in, everything had been peaceful, even the horses, but he decided to do as Vin asked for now. Vin wanted to make sure that the farm was closed up, in case it was wolves that he was feeling instead of the two-legged kind. Mark helped him get the horses and cows settled for the night. While Vin convinced Peso to stay quietly in the stall and looked over his tack, Mark made sure all the animals had enough water for the night. A bit later they shut the barn, made sure a wolf couldn't get in there then headed to the clinic where they shut it down and closed the window shutters, latching them tightly. They walked around the house and shut shutters then went inside and latched them. Just as they finished Nettie called them to dinner and they had a nice evening together.

Nettie knew Vin was leaving. She didn't want him to, but she still made a large pack of food for him, and placed it all into a pair of saddlebags that she had found that had belonged to Allen. She had made sure that Vin's few buckskin clothes were clean and patched, and that the blanket he carried was replaced with a new, thick and warm one, then made sure everything fit nicely in his pack.

Once again Vin left in the early morning, but this time Nettie and Mark were up to bid him goodbye. Nettie had a large breakfast prepared and made him eat before hugging him a last time before he left.

Mark, with his arm around Nettie's shoulders watched as Vin swung up on his horse and rode away. Mark could tell that Nettie was crying softly, but she held her head high and smiled as Vin turned and waved a last time in the gun-metal grey dawn. They watched as the horse and rider disappeared into the distance, heading west, before going back into the house.

Vin rode west for almost two hours before he felt the hair on his neck raise. Someone was watching him. Slowly he glanced around. The countryside had changed several minutes earlier to grayish desert, rocks, and wide open spaces. Suddenly he spotted movement behind him as a horse and rider cleared a jumble of rocks; then two riders appeared closer to him, one on each side of him. He nudged Peso into a faster gait and noticed that the three riders also sped up, but stayed a certain distance from him.

As he rode, Vin loosened the blaster on his hip when he spied two more riders. These two were ahead of him and on his right side. He knew all of the riders were out of blaster range and wished he'd been able to get to the revolver and ammunition in his pack; he was traveling too fast to risk going for them. He watched the riders as he got closer, but they just sat their horses watching him. He veered a little to the south to bypass them.

Confused, Vin wondered what was going on as he continued on. After three hours of riding Vin slowed Peso again from the gallop they had been in and out of over the hours, letting the horse get a little rest. He had realized that the five men were herding him in a certain direction they wanted him to go some time before. When he slowed they slowed, if he went faster they moved up, he couldn't shake them, and they always kept just out of range. When he tried to turn north they cut him off, forcing him to turn south again. A couple times he tried to trick them into thinking he was to tired to go fast, letting Peso trot a ways to catch his breath, then turn suddenly and take off in a different direction at a dead run. Blaster and gunfire turned them back and Peso would roar in anger that he couldn't leave these riders behind.

Vin let Peso walk a ways, he was getting tired and hungry. He pulled the saddlebags to where he could open one side and grabbed a sandwich that Nettie had packed, then closed it and let it slide back behind him. He quickly ate and looked around, seeking a place to hold up, or to get away from the riders. Glancing around he saw the riders were in a large V shape around him. With a shake of his head he looked forward again. Ahead he saw a jumble of boulders and smiled tightly. He was going to go north when he reached them; he had a good idea where he was now. He could tell Peso had caught his breath and was now moving easily under him. Vin hadn't planned to be this far west, but he knew there was a town a couple hours north of the rocks.

With the rocks coming closer, Vin nudged Peso into a run and they headed towards them. They'd been this way earlier and knew where the trail to the town turned off. Just as they reached the rocks several new riders appeared, cutting them off from turning onto the north trail. Peso roared a challenge as riders spread across the trail and began shooting at them.

Vin quickly turned Peso south and they raced away from the riders closing in on them. Leaning over the horse's neck, Vin grabbed handfuls of Peso's mane and urged him faster, his legs clamped tightly to the horses barrel. Peso roared his displeasure as he ran ahead of the riders, his instincts telling him to run from them, and he did.

Vin and Peso were tired. Vin had never ridden so hard and long in his life. He could barely feel his legs, and his hands were sore and cramped from hanging onto the reins and Peso's thick black mane. All he could think of was to stop and sleep, to get his aching body off Peso for awhile. He was sure he couldn't hold on much longer. For a few disjointed minutes he wished he had a saddle to ride in, he could tie himself into it, but he didn't have the money to buy one.

All of a sudden Vin heard hoof beats coming up on him and with a glance behind he kicked Peso into a run again. Vin almost fell off when the horse leaped into a gallop with a roar of annoyance. Several shots were fired at them and Peso swerved to the right to avoid being hit. Ahead a trail opened between two rock bluffs and Vin realized the riders were trying to push them into it.

Determination set in. Vin was sure it was a trap and he turned Peso sharp to the left. They were only allowed to travel about a hundred feet before riders appeared in front of them, firing blasters at them. Flashes from the blaster bolts lit the grey dusk and Peso once again changed direction.

For a second time in minutes, Peso had to swerve hard to keep from being shot as three riders appeared out of the semi-darkness, and they were once again headed towards the trail in the bluff. Blaster fire struck the ground on either side of the running horse, driving them in one direction. As Vin pulled his blaster he tried to turn Peso from the only route open to them, but was once again turned back. He slowed Peso to a canter and turned and fired at the closest rider on his right. He fired at the shadowy riders as they were forced onto the trail towards the opening between the bluffs. Vin ducked as a barrage of shots went over his head. Peso broke into a run and raced into the gap in front of him. For several minutes all they could hear was steel clad hooves striking the rocky ground, and then many more behind them. The trail opened into a large cliff enclosed valley with several buildings scattered around it, acres of green stood all across the far side. With a roar Peso charged across the grey ground towards the water he could smell on the far side of the green area.

Vin slumped exhaustedly on Peso's back, knowing he could go no farther. They'd been running for 12 hours or more and he couldn't figure out who would want them so badly they'd run them down this way. As Peso slowed Vin stiffened, he wouldn't go down without a fight. When the black stopped and dropped his head, Vin uncurled his fingers and slid off his back only to crumble in a heap when his legs totally gave out. He crawled several feet from where Peso thirstily drank from the stream and slowly pushed himself to his knees. Bringing up his blaster he started firing at the riders coming towards him. Two men and a horse went down under his deadly shooting before something struck him on the side of his head and he dropped to the ground unconscious.

Slowly Vin became conscious, and he had the feeling he'd been asleep for a long time. Opening his eyes he tried to look around, wondering where he was and why it was so dark. He carefully turned his head a little as it started to pound, he could barely see his hand in front of his face but nothing else. It was totally silent also. Vin stretched his hands out to each side of him and felt a cold rock wall behind him and rough boards in front of him. Warily he pushed himself up to a sitting position, feeling all around him as he did, trying to gage where the walls were and how high the ceiling was. His hands hit the ceiling as he straightened up, it was maybe a foot over his head, and as he moved around the area he found that the walls were close to him. Something dragged on his left ankle and he ran his hands down his leg when finished feeling around the small space. A wide piece of metal was around his ankle and a length of chain. Fear washed over him as he frantically tried to pry the binding metal off his leg but it didn't do anything but abuse his bare ankle. He found that his boots were also gone.

After several minutes Vin gave up, there was no way to free his leg. Shaking, he leaned against the wall and wrapped his arms around his raised legs and tried to figure out where he was and who had captured him, and why.

For a long time Vin sat in the little room still tired, but now also hungry and cold. Shivering he dozed and slept off and on. Awhile later he curled up tightly on his side trying to stay warm. A loud grating noise startled him and he pushed back against the cold rocks behind him.

A wide wooden door in front of him swung open and light flooded in. Vin raised his hand to shade his eyes from the brightness. A dark shadow blocked the light for a moment as someone reached in and grabbed his shoulder and dragged him from the room.

It took Vin a couple minutes to get his legs to work. The dragging chain hooked on rocks and roots several times as he was dragged to the closest cabin where a tall bearded man stood waiting, a smile on his thin lips. For a moment Vin stared at the big man, wondering who he was. All of a sudden a shudder went through him as he remembered the man. Jake Phillips. The man who'd been after him for almost 10 years. Vin clenched his teeth together so he wouldn't say anything.

"Well Tanner, this time you are in no position to run from me. I knew if I kept an eye on that woman's place you might show up. And yep, you sure did. Now I have you," Phillips said as he grabbed Vin's arm. "Now you are mine and are going to work off all the expenses and losses you've caused me. Don't even think of escaping this place. It's well guarded, with only one way in and out. And as you can see, you are mine …" Phillips's bearded face snarled close to Vin's as the grip on his arm tightened.

Vin saw the hate in the man's eyes and wondered fleetingly if he would get out of the valley alive. He vowed he would get away if it was the last thing he ever did. On the heels of that thought he decided he wouldn't talk, no matter what.

Phillips saw the blue eyes regarding him change slightly and wondered for a moment what the teen was thinking. He had control now; the boy was his, something he'd wanted and obsessed over for years, and now that he had him, Tanner wouldn't get away. Tanner had caused him to lose his family and now … With a smile he backhanded the teen, knocking him to the ground. The wide blue eyes flared and he smiled again.

"I have work for you. We need more pasture for the horses. You're going to clean that ground and plant it, since you were raised as a farmer," he grinned cruelly. "Then you will build a fence around it, and then, well, I'll think of more things for you to do. If you don't work, you will be beaten. You start right now. Lyle here will show you where to start and give you any directions you need." Phillips nodded to the man who'd brought Vin to him.

Vin wiped the blood from his mouth and glared up at Phillips. He wasn't five years old and wouldn't give this man the satisfaction of knowing that he was really afraid of him. He remembered how the man intimated him when he was small and how he hadn't trusted the man instinctively. There was something evil about him then, and he could still feel it. He would escape no matter what the man towering over him declared. Slowly Vin rose to his feet. Still glaring at the hate-filled man, he didn't say a word as he straightened and met the man's gaze.

Phillips grinned seeing the teen's glare of defiance. "I'll break you kid and totally enjoy it. Lyle take him, you know what to do." Phillips motioned to Lyle and stepped back into the deep shade of the overhanging porch.

Lyle grabbed Vin's shoulder and pulled him towards another small building, more of a tiny shed than anything else. The chain dragged in the dirt behind Vin.

At the shed, Lyle opened the door and shoved Vin inside. He picked up the end of the chain. "Stay right there," he said as he moved to a heavy wheelbarrow that had a length of chain welded to it. With a few deft movements he hooked the chains together and stepped back. "There, you won't be going anywhere with that hooked to you. Grab those handles and let's go."

Vin did as he was told, his gaze flashed quickly around the shed for anything he could use to free himself, or as a weapon. He pushed the wheelbarrow in the direction Lyle indicated, his eyes never still as he looked over the valley, getting the lay of the land. He finally spotted Peso in a small corral with an extremely high fence around it. He breathed a sigh of relief; his horse was alright. Now he just needed to get them safely away from Phillips.

Days passed. Vin struggled in the field as he picked up rocks and hauled the filled wheelbarrow to an area where they were dumped. He was stiff and sore from the heavy loads. His bare feet dirty, bruised and cut from the rough ground, his ankle was bruised and raw where the shackle rubbed. Dark circles surrounded his eyes and he had lost weight. At night he was forced into the small dark hole after given time to eat the one meager meal and drink some water. The first several days Lyle had to shove him into the dark prison, but the fifth night Phillips grabbed him by his hair and beat him until he fell unconscious to the ground, and was thrown into the hole by the man. After that Vin was knocked into the hole by Lyle if he didn't get in fast enough.

One morning he was dragged from the prison and taken to Phillips who smiled down at the bedraggled teen. The sun was out and heat waves rolled around the valley. Sweat dampened Vin's ragged clothes that were stiff with dirt and old sweat. His shirt barely covered the bruises on him. He was dirty from head to bare toes, his hair matted and smelly.

"Your appearance offends us," Phillips said as Vin lifted his head and glared at the man.

"Don't look at me like that," Phillips demanded and backhanded Vin hard enough that he flew backwards to crash into Lyle who quickly pushed him forward again.

Vin staggered trying to stay upright. The side of his head hurt from the blow and he blinked his left eye several times to be sure he could see out of it. He wouldn't let the man see the tears that threatened to fall. He was so tired and his muscles ached from all the rock picking he'd been doing. The blisters on his hands had finally turned into calluses and his feet had finally toughened up, but the day before he had stubbed his foot on a rock he hadn't seen as he carried a load to the wheelbarrow, and it was sore and made him limp. He couldn't keep the hate from showing in his eyes and was happy that he hadn't said a word to anyone since he'd been taken.

"You are going to be cleaned up, now. Get him to the stream and use this on him, I want him clean so he can start on his new job," Phillips laughed as he tossed a scrub brush and soap to Lyle.

Vin fought like a wild cat as he was dragged to the stream near one wall of the enclosing cliffs. Another man finally grabbed his other arm and his hair, pulling his head back as far as it would go. Vin was bowed back to keep his neck from snapping. The two men laughed as they reached the stream and threw him into it. Lyle and Chuck pulled off their boots and waded into the water. Lyle pulled a knife as Vin was raising from the water.

Vin stood watching Lyle approach with the knife. He would fight; maybe he could get the knife from the man. His hopes were dashed when the second man grabbed him around the neck before he could dodge away. With an arm across his neck he had to stand still knowing the choke hold would tighten if he moved. He watched as Lyle stepped to him and thrust the knife under his tattered shirt, slitting it down the front of him. Vin's jeans were stripped from him too, the knife making short work of cutting them off him.

Phillips, on the stream's bank, grinned and tossed the soap and brush to Lyle from where the man had dropped them on the bank when he went into the water. His grin widened as he enjoyed the humiliation the teen was going through.

Vin felt his face turn red as Lyle soaped the brush and began scrubbing him. He struggled as the brush moved below his waist, but the arm tightened around his throat to the point that he was seeing black spots in front of his eyes and his legs threatened to collapse. He felt every rough scrape the brush did to his body and was sure he'd lose some skin from it. After several minutes he was turned around, the man holding him gripped his shoulders tightly as his back was scrubbed. Chuck's hands suddenly forced him to his knees then down lower as his head was pushed under water. As fast as it was shoved under the water, his head was jerked up and Vin gulped in air. Lyle's laugh echoed around him as his head and hair was scrubbed. Once again his head was dunked into the water and when Vin thought they were going to drown him, he was released. Vin threw his head back out of the water and coughed hard to clear his lungs of the water that he'd swallowed.

Vin staggered to his feet gasping for air and saw the man who'd held him right in front of him. With a silent snarl he brought his right knee up as hard as he could and felt it connect with the man's groin. Chuck screamed in pain and dropped to his knees in the water. Vin swung around, his hands fisting together and hit Lyle on the side of his neck, dropping him instantly. Bending swiftly, Vin grabbed the trailing chain and ran from the stream in the opposite direction from where Phillips was still standing.

Once out of the water Vin raced towards the corrals and the one that held his black, Peso, as fast as he could in his weakened condition. With his gaze fixed on the corral and his horse he didn't see Phillips come after him until all of a sudden a hand buried itself in his long wet hair and yanked him off his feet.

Vin's breath was knocked out of him when he connected with a hard body. A large arm flashed in front of him and wrapped around his chest, pinning his arms down. The hand in his hair jerked his head back exposing his throat and grinding the bones in his neck.

"I told you, you couldn't escape me, ever! And now you're going to pay for what you just did to my men."

Vin was shoved away from the man, his hair still grasped in Phillips hand. A hard hand hit him on the side of his head and if the man hadn't been holding his hair he'd of been on the ground. Hot anger flashed through Vin and when Phillips released his hair he launched himself at the big man.

Kicking and punching the man only caused Phillips to laugh at the naked teen in front of him, until one of Vin's rock hard fists hit him solidly in the nose, breaking it.

With a yell of pain, Phillips hit Vin with his fist. It was a glancing blow on Vin's shoulder as the teen dodged away. His other hand connected with Vin's side knocking him sideways.

As Vin scrambled to stay on his feet he was hit again and again by Phillips. A blow to Vin's head finally knocked him down and Phillips commenced kicking him, rolling him around in the dirt several feet.

Vin rolled, trying to stay away from Phillips's boots as they thudded into him. Finally he rolled into a fetal position trying to protect his stomach and vulnerable parts. For a second he was happy that he hadn't cried out so far, and hoped he'd pass out before he screamed in pain. A blow to the small of his back had him shoving his hand over his mouth as pain over took him and spots appeared in front of his eyes. Another solid blow landed bringing tears and finally blessed blackness.

Phillips was posed to deliver another kick to the teen on the ground when Lyle grabbed his arm and pulled him away, shouting at him.

"You want him dead?"

Phillips paused, breathing hard, hands fisted at his sides. His gaze flashed to Lyle then to Vin. For a moment he wondered if he'd killed his prisoner then he saw a small movement of his shoulder. He stepped back another step and looked at Lyle and Chuck who'd come up from the stream.

"Rinse him off and put him back in his hole. Tomorrow he starts cutting grass," Phillips ordered, then with a laugh he nudged Vin with his booted foot and walked towards his cabin, his hand wiping blood from under his nose.

Lyle stepped to Vin's side, and with Chuck on the other side of Vin they reached down, each grabbed an arm and pulled him up. Vin's head hung down and he was totally limp in their grasp. They dragged the slight figure to the stream and threw him in, laughing when he hit the water and weakly thrashed in it.

Vin woke when the cool water closed over him, and he tried to force his head above the water. He hurt all over and just wanted to curl up and die. Weakly he tried to push himself up out of the water, his arms shook under him, and his back screamed in agony. Just as he felt himself start to slip back under he felt hands grab him. Vin clamped his lips tight to keep from crying out as he was pulled up out of the water. He fought to get his legs to work under him but they kept collapsing as pain shot through his back. Vaguely he heard cursing next to him then hands were holding him up as some one wrapped something around his waist and between his legs. With a last tug to tighten the cloth, Vin sank into oblivion, free from pain.

Lyle cussed as he grabbed the limp teen before he hit the ground. Chuck made sure the breechcloth was tight on the boy then walked with Lyle to where the prison hole was. While Lyle held the unconscious teen, Chuck quickly opened the wooden door and stood back while Lyle rolled Vin into the dark dank hole then shoved the chain inside. Lyle moved back as Chuck closed the door and latched it. The two men made their way to the cook cabin ready for a needed lunch break; their laughter rang around the area.

Chapter 11

Vin moaned softly as he rolled to his stomach in the darkness of his prison hole. His lower back hurt and he tried to rub it. He almost screamed as his arm moved and pulled his ribs and shoulder. Tears filled his eyes as he managed to finally slowly rub his back for a few minutes. He finally let his arm drop to his side relaxing his sore shoulder, then he lay still fighting to stay awake and trying to push the pain down. He turned his mind onto something else, and wondered how late in the day it was. His head was turned away from the wooden door so he couldn't see if there was any light around it.

After a little while he fell into a fitful doze and woke with a jerk when he heard loud thudding coming from outside. He shivered as he listened to the noise and finally realized it was horses going by. The ground rumbled for a few moments before silence once again fell. For several minutes Vin listened, wishing he had some water and a blanket to wrap up in. Finally he fell asleep, not sure if the riders included Phillips and his guard, but not caring.

Bright light flooded into the hole and over Vin some time later. He was still shivering and didn't move when a hand reached in, grabbed his shoulder and dragged him out into the sunlight. Vin was dumped on the ground, but in pain he just curled into a ball, not wanting to move.

"Get up Kid, you have work to do," Lyle's voice sounded above him and Vin's eyes squinted as he looked at the man. "Now. You've been off for two days. I let you rest, but if Jake gets back and doesn't see you working, well … you think what he did the other day was bad, you won't know what to call it this time. Now get up!"

Vin slowly uncurled, and straightened his legs. His back instantly started hurting and he moved even slower. He got to his hands and knees and after several minutes he was able to push himself upright. His face was twisted with the pain that was pounding through him and he was gasping for breath.

Lyle winced seeing the black bruising on the teen's lower back. Though there were bruises also across his shoulders, on his chest, arms and legs, his back looked bad. He was surprised that the kid didn't cry out, speak, or anything and wondered if maybe he was mute. He could see sweat dripping off Vin's face and wondered if he should call for Davis to come and check the boy out. Before he could call for the other man, Vin took a step and looked at him, eyebrow raised.

"All right, come on," Lyle headed for the shed without looking back.

Vin slowly limped behind the dark haired man, his lips clamped shut against the pain rolling through him. He breathed heavily through his nose to keep from crying out. He stopped at the door of the shed while Lyle opened it and walked inside. A moment later the man reappeared with a scythe almost as tall as Vin. Vin shuddered looking at the old grass cutter. He'd seen them before, Allen had one and had showed him how it was used, but it was hanging on the barn wall, to old to use for anything anymore. There were better things to use to cut hay now days. Vin wasn't even sure he could heft the thing the way he felt.

"Over here," Lyle said as he moved away. He kept one eye on the almost staggering teen. He was pretty sure Vin wouldn't last long between the deep bruises on his body and the hot sun overhead. He felt a little bad that he hadn't even given him water since dragging him out of the hole. He'd checked on the teen several times since Phillips and the rest of the men had left almost three days before. Every time he'd opened the wooden door, the kid never moved. Even when he would bump him, there had been no response. He finally had to do something and this morning he'd made up his mind to haul the kid out and get him to work, if he was still alive. He was relieved that the kid was alive, and was determined to get him working; he didn't want to have to explain to Phillips why the grass wasn't cut.

Vin stopped at the edge of the large field of high grass and gazed around at the almost 3 foot tall grass. In a daze he wondered how on earth he could get it cut. Lyle handed him the scythe and stepped out of range. For several minutes Vin just stood there, trying to get his body to move. Finally he gripped the scythe and took a practice swing, and almost collapsed from the pain that shot through him. He fought to get the pain under control, biting his lips until they bled and finally took the first step swinging the scythe in an arc and cutting a wide swath of grass. For awhile he grimly worked, but after an hour he sank to the ground unconscious.

Lyle had been watching Vin work, surprised that he was swinging the scythe properly, and actually cutting the tall tough grass. For an hour he watched Vin work, then he saw Vin's face suddenly turn white and a moment later he sank to the ground. Lyle walked forward and nudged him with his boot. When the teen didn't respond he dropped into a squat and tried to find a heartbeat. After a moment he gathered Vin into his arms and headed to the cook cabin where he was sure he would find Davis drinking coffee.

A half hour later Vin was back in his little prison, though this time the wooden door was open and the chain that was attached to his ankle was hooked to a metal stake driven deep into the ground outside the door. A blanket covered him and a wide bandage was wrapped around his lower back and ribs. Davis had found several cracked ribs and with the bad bruising on Vin's back he figured he also had bruised kidneys. Since the teen hadn't had anything to eat or drink for several days nothing was being flushed from his body. Davis instructed Lyle to make the boy drink as much as he could when he was awake. Davis also gave him some salve to put on the bruises that covered many parts of Vin's body.

Every few hours Lyle checked Vin and if he was partly awake he forced him to drink as much water as he could take. It was almost dark when he forced more water on Vin and Vin struggled to rise. Wondering, Lyle helped him out of his prison and to his feet. Vin staggered a few steps and stripped out of the breechcloth and did his duty. Lyle saw that there was some blood in his urine and hoped that Vin would be alright. As he watched the teen he realized that the kid had still not spoken, but he did everything he was told to do. His eyes spoke volumes when someone took time to look at him, but usually he kept his head down and just worked. A few days ago, he'd found the kid had a temper and he'd seen the fight in his eyes when Vin turned on him. As Vin slowly wrapped the breechcloth back around him Lyle watched how he moved and was relieved that he seemed to be moving easier. Maybe tomorrow he could get the kid back to work. He wanted some of that field cut before Phillips returned and saw nothing had been done per his orders. He didn't think the kid could live through another beating.

Once Vin was settled, Lyle walked away. Vin listened to the footsteps fade into the darkness and wished he felt better. He thought he could get the stake out of the ground if he worked at it during the night. But he wasn't sure how often Lyle or someone else would check on him so he pulled the blanket they'd finally given him around himself and went to sleep. He would try another day.

Several days later, Vin was in the field cutting the grass and stacking it into piles. He was still bruised and moving slower but he was working steadily in the afternoon heat. Lyle sat in the shade of a tree and drank from his canteen now and then as he watched the tanned kid work. A sudden roar from several horses in the corrals alerted him that someone was coming in. He rose and stepped deeper into the shade and pulled his blaster, one eye on Vin the other on the dark opening in the cliffs. Minutes later he heard hoof beats and riders appeared in the opening. Lyle breathed a sigh of relief when he saw who it was. He waited then saw the big buckskin horned horse come through the opening and head straight for him. With a glance at Vin he stepped from the shade and waited while the horse and rider approached him.

Phillips glanced at Lyle and then to the almost naked figure in the tall grass. He noted that Vin was cutting the grass, and ignoring what was going on around him. He noticed the bruises still covering much of Vin's chest and back, and that there was a bandage around him. Pulling his horse to a halt beside Lyle, he dismounted and stretched as Lyle stepped to his side.

"Any problems?" Phillips asked.

"No. It's been quiet. He's been working pretty well once he got the hang of the scythe. How was the trip?"

"Successful. Only one wounded, but we hit at the right time and came away with more than we expected." Phillips watched Vin quietly for a few minutes, until his horse bumped him with its nose. Phillips scratched the horse's head for a moment while still watching Vin. "Have him feed some of that hay to the horses. They traveled a ways on short rations and need feed. When they're fed he can get back to work." With a nod to Lyle, Phillips led his horse towards the corrals where some of his men were busy unsaddling their mounts while others were unpacking the pack horses.

Lyle walked to where Vin was working and gave him the orders to feed the horses the grass he'd cut. Vin stopped, then laid the scythe down and looked at Lyle. For a moment Lyle gazed at him in confusion then it dawned on him that Vin was staked out in the area he was cutting, he had to turn him loose if the horses were to get fed. With a sigh Lyle went to the stake and stood over it for a minute, then making up his mind he pulled a key from his pocket and walked to Vin. Bending down he quickly unlocked the manacle that was around the thin ankle and set Vin free.

Vin watched in surprise as Lyle unlocked the manacle and pulled it from around his ankle. He squatted down and
rubbed his raw and bruised ankle where the wide iron ring had been. He lowered his eyes, letting his hair fall over his face as he watched where Lyle put the key again.

"Come on, the horses need feeding," Lyle growled at Vin.

Vin rose and slowly moved to the closest pile of grass and gathered a large arm load and turned towards the barn and corrals. Lyle followed behind him, staying several feet back. Vin walked to the closest corral and tossed the hay over the top rail, he froze a moment later, when it hit him that it was Peso in the corral. The black horned horse came to the rails and gave a small delighted grumble to Vin. Before he realized it, Vin had raised his hand and thrust it through the rails and patted the horse's nose, then scratched his cheek as Peso turned his large head a little. Tears flooded Vin's eyes over the joy of touching his horse once again.

Lyle saw the tears in the teen's eyes and glanced around to see if anyone was watching them. Not seeing anyone he let the boy pet his horse another couple minutes before he told Vin, "Time to get the others fed, and you better hurry before Phillips see that you aren't doing what you were told. Let's go."

Vin nodded to Lyle then caressed Peso's head one more time before turning back to the field for another load of drying grass. An hour later he had fed all the horses, and had given them not only grass but grain and had made sure they all had plenty of water. Lyle pushed him back to the field and minutes later he had re-hooked the manacle around Vin's ankle and told him to get back to cutting the grass. Vin did as he was told when he saw Phillips closely watching him from the porch of his cabin. Vin shuddered at the look on the man's face, Phillips was enjoying himself at Vin's expense, but there was something else in his gaze and Vin quickly looked away.

Time seemed to crawl by and Vin worked to get the large field cut. He had to feed all of the horned horses now, and when he fed them Lyle would release him so he could walk easier. The manacle was always rubbing badly on his ankle and several times Davis had doctored it, complaining that he was tired of tending the infected ankle. Vin hoped that the infection would ease, since he was free more and more of the time. He hoped they'd forget to chain him at night soon; he needed to be unchained to get out of the valley. He had finally figured out how to get the wooden door opened, and if he could stay un-manacled at night he could get away. Every night Lyle hooked the manacle around his leg and attached it to the stake outside his little prison, always making sure Vin couldn't get away before latching the wooden door.

One afternoon weeks later, Vin was cutting the last of the - now - hay field when Phillips walked into the field to watch him. Even though Vin was quite thin and he could see his ribs plainly, he had enjoyed watching the youngster the last months. The teen's long hair was shoved behind his ears and sweat dripped off him. The slight figure was darkly tanned and the long hair was heavily streaked blond from the sun. There was no fat on the kid, but then he was half starved thought Phillips as he licked his lips and grinned at the sweaty figure. With a shake of his head he crossed to the stake that held Vin in the dried grass, reached down and pulled it out. He saw Vin stop and stare at him and he dropped the grass he was piling up.

"Come with me, now," Phillips ordered and jerked on the chain.

Vin tentatively stepped after Phillips, then realized what the man was up to and quickly glanced around. No one was in sight and he felt fear wash over him. He jumped when the chain was jerked harder throwing him off balance. For a moment Vin wondered what he could do, then he did the only thing he could think of. He ran forward and hit the big man in the back as hard as he could, knocking Phillips to his knees. He was knocked back a couple steps when he collided with Philips, but instantly gathered his feet under him again and grabbed the length of chain in his hands. Before Phillips got completely to his feet, Vin whipped the chain around him and tried to pull it tight around his neck.

Phillips saw what Vin was trying to do and laughed as he grabbed the chain and tore it out of Vin's hands before he could tighten it around his throat. With a might jerk he pulled Vin's leg out from under him and rose. Vin, on his back tried to scramble away, but Phillips held the chain preventing Vin from going anywhere, his foot held high off the ground. All of a sudden Phillips' anger took over and he kicked Vin, rolling him several feet before Vin pushed to his feet. Vin tried to move away from him, his arm wrapped protectively around his side.

As Vin backed away from him, Phillips lashed out catching him with a hard blow to the side of his head and Vin twisted and dropped as if pole axed. Breathing hard Phillips stood over the unconscious teenager and cursed his luck as Lyle and Davis ran up. With a last kick he turned his face to the two men. "Take him away. I don't want to see him until tomorrow morning, then bring him to my cabin at dawn, any way you have to." Spinning Phillips stomped away.

The two men watched Phillips cross to his cabin and with a glance at each other they bent and lifted the unconscious teen and headed to his little prison. At the front of the hole they dropped Vin and Lyle proceeded to hook the leg chain to the stake.

"Wait a minute," Davis said suddenly as he bent over the figure. "He's not going anywhere. Get that manacle off his ankle, I want to check it." Davis ordered as he checked the side of Vin's head where a bruise was already forming across his cheekbone and temple, from the blow to the side of his head.

Once the manacle was off, the men gazed at the torn skin that oozed yellow pus. Davis cursed then said, "Go get me hot water and my medical box. This needs to be cleaned or he could lose his leg." As Lyle jogged to the cook cabin where Davis's box was stored, Davis straightened Vin out and checked his ribs, finding two cracked ones again. Cursing under his breath he sent a nasty look toward the cabin that Phillips had disappeared into. His thoughts dark as he ran his hands over Vin's back and then each leg and arm, he was not happy over what Phillips wanted in the morning. Vin had never done anything but what he was told, except the one time. He didn't think he deserved the treatment he was getting. Then a thought struck him and he gazed down at the tanned, bruised face. He would see that Vin wasn't chained up for the night, and hope that the boy would wake up and leave. There was only one guard that patrolled the valley and he thought the teen would be able to slip past him.

With that idea rolling around in his head, Davis set about cleaning the ankle when Lyle returned with hot water and his medical box. Once the raw injury was cleaned he generously covered it with a medical salve and bandaged it heavily, making the bandage to large for the manacle to fit over. He generously wrapped Vin's ribs even though there wasn't much he could do for them. He was thinking the kid could use the extra bandages on his ankle if he escaped. He cleaned the bruised face and put salve on the bruises before sitting back on his heels.

"Well, that's all I can do, the rest is up to him," Davis said as he began to gather his supplies together.

"How come you put so many bandages on his ankle?" Lyle asked as he helped.

"It's not too good, I put extra salve on it and maybe this will help it get better," Davis lied as he stored his things and rose.

Lyle reached for the manacle, "Not sure I can get this around that ankle, oh well, he's got another one," he reached for Vin's other ankle.

"Wait. Let him free. He's out and by the looks of it, will be for hours. He's not going anywhere in that condition. We can keep an eye on him tonight, but I wouldn't be surprised if he isn't awake by morning. He took a very hard blow to his head. He won't be doing much for awhile," Davis said, trying to keep his voice steady.

Lyle thought for a bit, his gaze going over the supine figure, then with a nod he decided. "Okay. We'll keep an eye on him tonight. Help me get him into his hole and then let's go eat, its dinner time."

Minutes later they had Vin in his hole and the blanket had been thrown over him. They closed the wooden door and headed for their dinner. Lyle pulled the prison's door open an hour later, and checked their prisoner. Vin hadn't moved an inch so he closed it and went back to the cook cabin. A card game was in progress and whiskey was flowing.

Vin rolled his head around a bit, and slowly opened his eyes. It was totally dark. He couldn't see his hand in front of his face; carefully he pushed himself into a sitting position. For several minutes he listened and not hearing anything he worked on the wooden door. Minutes later the door swung open, cool air rushed in brushing over his heated body and he sat quietly listening. His hand rubbed over the thick bandages on his ankle and around his chest. He wondered how bad he was, though he had a headache he felt pretty well. When nothing disturbed the night he slowly moved out of the hole and rose. His gaze raced around the area. He knew there was a guard, but where were the others he wondered. Slowly he made his way to the cook cabin and silently glided up the steps to the open door. Inside he heard the snoring of several men and paused. For several minutes he listened then entered the building. He'd never been inside, and he moved slowly and carefully around the room to the kitchen area where a large whitish stove stood with cabinets on each side of it. A large refrigerator was on the wall to the left of the stove and shelves loaded with canned and packaged food was beside it.

It took him only a minute to find a gunny sack that had held flour and moments later he was quietly putting supplies into it. Food, he thought. He was so hungry his mouth watered as he put the goods in the sack. With it three quarters filled he moved to the refrigerator, for long moments he debated whether to open it or not. The snoring continued uninterrupted from the front part of the cabin so he opened the door, a dim light blinked on and he froze. When nothing happened he looked inside and found left over meat, vegetables, and other things. He grabbed the meat and took a bite out of it then stuffed it into the sack. He closed the door then silently made his way back to the front door and slipped out.

For several minutes Vin stayed hidden under the porch's deep overhang, trying to see where the guard was. He finally spotted movement down by the stream and saw the guard sitting on a rock gazing at the water. His mind made up Vin raced back to the hole that had been his home for almost five months and grabbed the blanket that had been covering him. He carefully stuffed it into the sack, then closed the wooden door and latched it. With a look at the guard who hadn't moved, he ran quietly across the open area to the barn. Peso greeted him with a low grumble and he quickly quieted him, not wanting to alert the guard. Since he'd been caring for the horned horses he knew where his belongings had been tossed and he quickly retrieved them, happy that his blaster and the revolver and ammunition were still in the saddlebags, and he found Sinbad's braid where he's packed it. Within minutes he had Peso tacked up and the food re-distributed into his saddlebags. He pulled on a pair of pants, that hung on him and he grabbed a short piece of rope to use as a belt. Leading Peso to the back of the barn he started forward, opening stall doors as he got to them. He patted each of the horse's noses as they wandered out of their stall and down the aisle in front of him. He had made friends of all the horses in the last couple of months, and was happy that they trusted him enough not sound any alarm. Once the horses were all turned loose, he mounted and edged around one side of them and urged them towards the valley's opening. Slowly the horses turned and headed in that direction.

Suddenly a shout to stop echoed around the valley and Vin yelled and kicked Peso into a run. The whole herd of horses surged forward startled by his raspy yell, then the blaster fire that erupted behind them. Vin ducked low on Peso's back as they raced into the opening, the freed horses running all around them. For several minutes the horses, with him and Peso in the middle of them, ran through the long, twisted notch. Finally they burst out of the bluff, over twenty brightly colored horned horses racing in all directions. Vin turned Peso's head to the north and let him run as he desired, both of them happy to be free once again.

For an hour they ran unheeded, reveling in the freedom after months of being penned, and chained up. Vin finally pulled Peso down to an easy canter, as fast as they had been traveling they would reach the town he knew of in a matter of a couple hours. He needed to eat something and get more clothes on before the sun came up. With that thought he noticed the sky was beginning to lighten up in the east. Today the sun would be out. Vin looked around the semi darkness, they were on the outer edge of a green area, and he tried to see where there was water. He patted Peso and talked to him in a raspy voice. He hadn't spoken a word for months and his voice was rough from being unused. Peso tossed his head and grumbled at Vin as he cantered easily over the land. Vin grinned, it was as if the horse was cussing him out for the months of inactivity.

Peso's head suddenly rose and he snorted loudly and pulled at the bit. Vin let him go and the black broke into a gallop heading for something only he could scent. Minutes later he slid down a bank and splashed into a wide knee deep stream. Vin grinned as he spoke to his horse. Once Peso had his fill he walked to the bank and Vin slid off. Carefully he stripped the bandages off his ankle and from around his ribs then threw himself into the water. Using handfuls of sand he washed the dirt and sweat off him and then dunked his head and washed his hair as well as he could. Carefully walking out of the water he grabbed a piece of a bandage and dried himself off. He checked his ankle in the early light then wrapped it again. Once he got his pants back on he dug in his saddlebags and found a shirt, and after wrapping a piece of bandage around his ribs, pulled it on, another first in months. Taking Sinbad's braid from the saddlebag he quickly braided it into his hair. He was surprised that his boots had been stuffed into one saddlebag and under them in a hidden opening in the leather he found the little bit of money he had hidden there. He needed winter clothes, and a safe place to stay for the winter. Later, he thought.

Vin laughed out loud, he had money and food and was almost to the town. He quickly pulled on his boots; they were loose on his slender feet. Rising he stuffed the money into a pocket and then mounted. He wanted to get to the town to make his purchases and get out of the area quickly. He knew he'd have to watch for Phillips all the time now but - he was free - and not going to ever be taken by the man again if he could help it.

With a laugh, Vin nudged Peso into a gallop and headed north. He'd make the stop in town then disappear for now. As they ran through the early dawn's light he threw his arms out as far as he could and yelled for the joy of it. He was free again.

"Vin? Vin, are you alright?" **Come on Pard, talk to me, I need you back!** Vin heard as if from a long distance away and slowly turned his wet head and tried to force his eyes opened. He knew that voice and it sounded very worried.

"That's it Vin, I need to see those blue eyes of yours, come on." The voice urged.

With a sigh, Vin opened his eyes a slit and looked at the fuzzy face close to his. It finally registered that it was Chris looking back at him, and as his eyesight cleared, he could tell Chris was very worried.

" 'm here," Vin tried to say, but it came out as a whisper. His head was raised a little and a cool glass was pressed to his lips. He thirstily drank some water, and groaned when Chris took it away.

"We need to be sure it stay's down, then you can have some more. How do you feel?" Chris asked as he gently lowered his head back to the pillow.

"What happened?" Vin asked weakly.

"Nathan said you got a childhood sickness and it really knocked you for a loop. You've been down with fever, chills, and a rash that had us tying your hands to the bed to keep you from scratching yourself to pieces. The rash finally left yesterday, but you never woke up and we were getting pretty worried that you wanted to stay wherever you were. You still have a little fever but, you needed to wake up." Chris said in a concerned voice.

"Thanks Chris. I was … I think … reliving my life over again," Vin paused a moment and looked at his soul brother, and knew that whatever he had been going through, Chris had been right beside him.

"It's all right Vin. It was interesting and I wish I could have been there for you when your Mom died and for all the things you had gone through from that day on." Chris's hand clasped around Vin's forearm and Vin returned the grip, "You are here now and safe, and will never be alone again if I can help it," Chris vowed.

With a smile, Vin nodded, then felt his eyes grow heavy and start to slide closed. "Rest, I'll be here when you wake up." A warm feeling washed over Vin and he fell asleep, knowing his brother was watching his back.