Everytime Ezra glared at him it only made Buck laugh harder. In lieu of a wig, they'd used a white liquid concoction to dye his hair and makeup and other theater tricks to age him. He used a cane and a pronounced accent to embellish the masquerade. For the last two days, he'd dropped hints around town. Now Buck had stolen a table in the corner and listened as the rumors began to spread about the rich stranger. He eyed Ezra leaving for the night and nodded, finishing his beer. He kept a close watch on the other man's, from a safe distance. He waited a couple minutes, then followed his disguised friend out the batwing doors of the Saloon. He saw Ezra on the ground and drew his gun.
"You okay, Old Timer?"
"Uh...Uh...I...appear to...be..." Ezra stammered, keeping accent intact. He eyed the familiar body in black, and cast a worried glance backwards. Where the hell was Buck?
"Here, Let me give you a hand up"
"Chris?" Buck's voice rose in incredulation as he witnessed the brief interplay. Even under the light from the saloon window, Chris didn't recognize Ezra. Ezra was staring hard at him, wondering what to do. Buck gave him a negative look and watched as Chris Larabee hauled the 'Old Timer' up.
"You ought to be more careful. Man your age could get hurt wandering around this late at night." Chris warned. "Buck? What are you doing here?"
"Hired on as a bodyguard." Buck said, eyeing the deserted street and glancing at the rooftops and hotel windows.
"Bodyguard?" Chris squinted, hands on his hips. He saw the other's eyes darting around the street. "Town's deserted...I was careful. She ain't here."
"She? Oh Ella..." Buck nodded. "Wait in the saloon and I'll fill you in. Mr. Morgan here needs somebody to watch his back." Buck hustled Ezra into the shadows. "Seems he's got a pack of angry fathers chasin' him from New Orleans...left quite a few young ladies enceinte"
"En what?" Chris snorted, wondering why Buck was acting so strange. Then a familiar voice lashed out at Buck, along with a cane.
"With the untold litters of Wilmington mongrels romping about the broad expanse of this country..."
"Cut that out, Ezra..." Buck hissed as the cane swatted him. "That smarts...hey watch where your aimin' that thing..." Buck covered his groin.
"Brain injury?" Ezra retaliated.
"Ezra? What the hell are you doing in that rig?" Chris laughed.
"Get in the Saloon, would you, Chris." Buck warned, all the humor gone. "I'll explain later. Ezra if you hit me again I'm gonna knock that gold tooth down your throat."
"Enceinte? It would appear you're picking up more than social infirmities from those 'young lovelies' you entertain." Ezra tossed backwards.
"Stick to Gamblin', Ace," Buck tossed back, keeping several paces behind. "Your attempts at humor make about as much sense as a hair-lipped preacher trying to whistle."
Chris shook his head as the insults continued to fly and entered the Saloon. Fifteen minutes later Buck joined him. He quickly filled the leader in on their mission. He eyed the bottle in front of Chris and wiggled his fingers.
"Pass over that Tonsil Varnish, Amigo..." He asked. After downing a shot he saw that Chris's features were relaxed. "Givin' up the hunt?" He asked of the mission to find Vin Tanner. The blond head dipped once as the weary hand lifted the whiskey. "You okay?"
Chris lifted his eyes, knowing the quiet concern he heard from his oldest friend would be matched in the dark blue eyes. "Yeah..." he breathed. He felt lighter in the last few days, since leaving the Seminole Village. He'd had quite dream...running across endless miles of road through a storm. He'd woken up tired, as if the dream journey was real. But he felt a calmness in him when he thought of Vin, not the troubled waters he'd been fighting for weeks. "Vin's okay...and he'll be back."
Buck was going to question that thought, but something confidence that rode in the voice and the glimmer in the green eyes halted him. He knew better than to question the bond the two men shared. "How'd you end up here?" He wondered.
"On a new hunt..." Chris replied, sipping his whiskey.
"Oh...she ain't here."
"Didn't figure." Chris agreed. "But she's got somebody doing her dirtywork." "...and you're just itchin' to uh...parley with them?" He grinned.
"Don't go Ezra on me..." Chris chuckled, and saw Buck drain his last shot.
"Gotta go...duty calls."
"Judge in town?"
"Hell yeah...he's itchin' to parley too. Ezra's getup is his idea, some guy named Morgan who used to run with the Phantom. He's braggin' all over town...hopin' Ella's spies will tip their hand. The Judge is expectin' an update from his Pinkerton guys tomorrow."
"Watch your...uh...derriere." Chris grinned as Buck's chuckling form departed.
+ + + + + + +
The afternoon sun was dipping low and Vin eased himself from the water. He dried himself off with his bedroll and got dressed. On the way back to the cabin, he recalled another afternoon, when he'd ridden back with his heart heavy. He glanced behind him, almost expecting to see Black Jack's body draped across a horse. He still saw her face when she ran out to greet them. The beautiful smile and flushed cheeks peeking from under the furry hood, quickly changed. He winced as he slid from Diablo, still hearing her screams and feeling the fists pound on his chest. Her numbing shock dissolving into grief driven anger, lashing out at him. He flinched as he remembered the tears freezing on his face in the swirling snow as he dug the grave. Then spent, both physically and emotionally, he'd collapsed by the fire. When he woke up, his side was cleaned and bandaged and she sitting beside him, shivering and rocking, eyes wide. He opened the fur pelt and drew her close. They clung to each other that night, each drawing strength from the other, until overcome by grief, they finally slept. The months that followed were the happiest of his life. He knelt at the grave, pulled out a bottle from his pocket, uncorked it and raised it.
"How ya doin' Black Jack?" He rasped, toasting his old friend. "s'been awhile. I got somethin' sittin' in m'chest. Thought if ya didn't mind bendin' an ear..." He sat down and eased his injured hip into a more comfortable position. He took several swigs, hoping the burning fluid would be stronger that the fire inside. He shared his troubles silently, conveying the painful past weeks with wide-eyed glances to the setting sun. He longed to hear the booming laugh, feel the solid clap on the back and the thick accent from the kind man with the laughing eyes. He eyed his own hands and recalled how large and strong Black Jack's were. How that iron grip could snap a man's bone or gently enfold you in an embrace. He leaned against the mighty pine that Black Jack was buried under and rested his aching head. His dozed off and the large Trapper appeared, pelts in hand on the snowy trail.
Wallowing is for the pigs...no? You are young and the young are often too intolerant. Think...mon ami...of your friends...brothers...and listen to your heart.
Vin's eyes snapped open and he took a long, cleansing breath. Maybe it was Black Jack's voice that had drawn him here. He nodded and touched the rough-hewn cross. He traced Little Star's scratched epitaph. He read each word outloud as his fingers caressed each letter.
"De mari...de pere...Ami" He stumbled and rememebered. "Husband, Father, friend." He bowed his head and rested his hands on either side of the cross. "Didn't know any proper words when we buried ya. I got some in m'head...I got a preacher friend, named Josiah Sanchez..." He paused and smiled, thinking on how well the two would have gotten along. "Ya'd have had a right good time talkin' with 'im...he's quite a man...he's real smart...a helluva teacher. I learnt alot from 'im. Anyhow, it's from the Bible..."
Vin took a deep breath and lowered his head. "The Lord is m'shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me ...uh...no...maketh...me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me...leads...aw, hell...that ain't right." He frowned, and shook his head, almost hearing the loud laughter. "I reckon yer gettin' a kick of me stumblin' around these words like a fool..." He snarled, "he..leadeth me beside still waters." Vin continued slowly, trying to remember most of the Psalm.
He read it over and over in the back of Josiah's church. The preacher had said it at a funeral and the words stuck with Vin. He was now glad he'd memorized them. "...surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of m'life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord ferever." He ended and closed his eyes as a gentle wind kicked up and embraced him. He smiled and raised his eyes, as a single brilliant ray shone down and enveloped him. "Thanks, Old Man..." He whispered and turned towards the cabin.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris?" Orrin Travis's voice was full of genuine surprise as the lean young man entered his room.
"Buck filled me in...What have you got?" Chris asked, eyeing the paperwork on the table.
"Help yourself..." The Judge waved his hand and the gunslinger sat down. "Coffee?" He invited, pausing at the cart delivered prior.
"Thanks." Chris nodded.
The two were locked in a discussion, when a loud knock interrupted them. Chris retreated to the corner of the room, obscured from the door. He had his gun drawn as the Judge approached.
"It's me ..." Buck answered, then found himself in the room when the door opened. "Got a wire from Josiah. A couple strangers rode in yesterday, asking about Cavendish."
"She's not wasting any time." Chris murmured. "Trouble?"
"Yeah...and another thing. They know about Ezra...uh...Morgan. She's got spies here too."
"She won't wait...she'll be making a move on Ezra. Have him buy a ticket to Four Corners. The Judge can ride back in the stage with him and we'll shadow them. I guarantee they'll know before we leave that he's on his way. Let's get this done." Chris decided.
"I'll inquire with the front desk about the departure time." the Judge advised, "You update Mr. Morgan." He nodded to Buck.
Five p.m. Four Corners
The shout from the street brought J.D. and Josiah from the Saloon. The preacher saw the riders trailing behind, and recognized the large gray bay from distance. He recalled Buck's brief message that the Judge was arriving with a client named Morgan and he and Chris would shadow them. He, J.D. and Nathan kept their eyes trained for the strangers, who were absent.
"Judge..." Josiah nodded and took the bags from the driver.
Buck and Chris rode up and dismounted, keeping wary eyes on the street and their guns out. They ambled towards the Saloon, staying close to the stage.
"Young Man, please see to my bags. I'm pre-registered at the guest establishment in this town. Although it is not in the class to which I am accustomed, I will endeavor to..."
"Ezra...what the hell happened to you?" Josiah asked straightfaced, as J.D. wheeled around in shock and the bag hit him in the chest, knocking him down.
"Real smooth operation..." Chris muttered, causing Buck to grin, while J.D. and Nathan began to laugh.
"So much for your second career." Buck laughed, "At least you fooled Chris."
"It was dark and I was tired..." Chris pledged, tossing his head. "Judge's is waiting at Mary's. Knock it off...we don't know who's watching."
They split up and made their way to Mary's separately. J.D. flanked Ezra, carrying his bags and trying no to lose control at Ezra's accent. Buck and Chris lingered and entered the Saloon. Josiah followed them and noted the strangers were missing. The three went through the back and got to Mary's via the alley and the widow's back door. Nathan entered through the Clarion's front door. They assembled in the kitchen. The Judge filled them in and Josiah handed him a sealed envelope.
"The Pinkerton delivered it yesterday."
The Judge nodded and opened it, his face remained expressionless. He sighed and scanned the legal form. "Well...well...small world..."
"What is it?" Buck asked.
"It's Elliott Cavendish's will." He frowned, "and I quote...'...being of sound mind and body, I leave all my accumulated wealth, real estate holdings and worldly possessions to my only child." He paused and saw Ezra stop itching his dyed head and his mouth drop. Chris Larabee's eyes widened in shock.
"No..." The blond denied, stunned.
"May I hazard a guess..." Ezra found his voice. "...to my daughter?"
"Ella Gaines." The Judge finished, eyeing the shocked faces around him.
Daybreak, Pagosa Springs
Vin sat up and yawned, wondering what had interrupted his dreamless sleep. He cocked his head and listened, sensing a presence nearby. A scruffing, scratching sound and a low moan came from outside the door. Frowning, he pulled his pants and shirt on and grabbed his gun. He opened the door a crack and saw the empty porch and yard. He stepped outside and eyed the area, and shivering in the chilly morning air, headed back indoors. He saw it as he turned.
"Hey there..." He greeted softly, eyeing the young wolf. He saw the thin animal stagger and fall and he approached it cautiously. The wolf's eyes were clear and it wasn't foaming at the mouth. "I won't hurt ya...Ya hurt?" He soothed, kneeling a few feet away. He the outlines of the animals ribs. "Hungry?" He paused, wondering why the predator couldn't find food. He spent several minutes talking slowly, and inched his way closer. The pink tongue flicked out, and the animals nose nuzzled his leg. "Looks like ya could use a hand..." Like all animals, this one trusted Vin Tanner, and allowed the tracker to carry her indoors. Vin didn't find any wounds and held a cup of water and allowed the animal to drink. He prepared breakfast for both of them and fed the weak female. He talked to her softly and stroked her neck and shoulders under she fell asleep. Shrugging, he set about to cut more firewood and then head out for a hike.
Back in Four Corners
"Why would she be paying her own father?" J.D. asked, breaking the silence.
"A ruse..." Ezra decided, "To allow him to maintain his identity." "The apple sure don't fall far from the tree..." Josiah noted of the twin devious minds, harboring evil and murderous intent.
"Any trace of her?" Nathan asked.
"Not since she fled six weeks ago. She vanished into thin air." The Judge replied.
"How do we play it?" Buck inquired, eyeing Chris's stone face.
"We let Mr. Morgan tour this fair city." The Judge replied, "...and then we wait for them to make a move."
"Wonderful." Ezra drawled, "Excuse me for not applauding."
"Come on, Ace," Buck patted his back, "Time to take center stage. Don't worry, I won't let them put any holes in that fancy coat."
"Is that supposed to reassure me?"
"We'll keep an eye out..." Josiah nodded, "You best stay away from Lettie Palmer." The preacher noted of the widow who owned the bakery. "She's just hankerin' for a three-legged stud." He tapped the cane.
Ezra ignored the comment and Buck's chuckling and exited the house.
"Something on your mind, Chris?" The Judge asked, seeing the wheels moving behind the green eyes.
"Yeah...the hell we're gonna pay when she finds out about her old man."
"From the reports I received, they had a rather unique relationship. He was aware of her
Existence from birth. He sent her mother large sums of money to make sure Ella went to the finest schools. But he never saw her until about a year ago, despite her attempts to contact him."
"That explains a lot." Chris nodded of the deranged feline stalker.
"Sure does. Looks like his rejection of her, caused those obsessive tendencies." Josiah noted.
"She's a man eater." Chris agreed. "I was a fool...and Vin was a prophet." He hissed, slapping his fist on the table. "I should have shot her down like the dog she is..." He berated, thinking on the potential consequences to his friends when she retaliated.
"Leave it be, Chris. It's done." Josiah advised, "By the way, we buried him and covered up the grave." Josiah relayed. "Come on Son," he tapped J.D.'s leg. "We still have a border to patrol."
+ + + + + + +
"Ain't you done strutting yet?" Buck whispered, pretending to pick an apple from the basket outside the General Store. Ezra was inside, perusing a shipment of books newly arrived.
"I'm getting tired...and thirsty. It's been two damn hours." "Is that all?" Ezra replied, "With all the whining you've been doing, I was certain it was closer to six."
"Damn shame about them salesmen from St. Louis..." Buck planted the seed and waited. "Yup...sure most be lonely, them having a three hour wait until the stage leaves." He eyed the glass window and saw the dyed head cock and smiled.
"Well I suppose an afternoon aperitif might be refreshing."
"Now you're talking..." Buck approved and waited for Ezra to move ahead of him. He frowned as Ezra stopped and pulled out tinted small spectacles. "What the hell are they?" He asked, but got no response. As they neared the saloon and the potential victims, he saw Ezra moving the cane from side to side. "You dog..." He laughed. "A blind card shark...that's low...how do you sleep at night?"
"Like a baby." Ezra purred, swinging the cane and connecting with Buck's knee. The cry of pain gave him an evil grin. "Don't crowd me...The bright lights cause unrelenting pain to my sensitive eyes."
Buck got a beer and Ezra stood at the bar a few feet away, surveying the room. The mustached man saw Ezra turn slowly and line up his prey. Then he saw the jaw clench and heard a low hiss.
His eyes followed the line and he saw Bert Thomas sitting with the two salesmen. "Don't let this get personal Ezra...he ain't worth it." He warned.
"Having to look upon that spineless cretin makes my stomach turn..." Ezra gritted.
"Yeah...I hear ya." Buck agreed, thinking of the endless amounts of garbage the lowlife spewed about Vin Tanner. "You okay?"
Ezra heard the change in the rogue's voice and felt uncomfortable. He admired Buck Wilmington, maybe more than any of the others. He had innate ability to make friends easily. The broad grin that graced his face, was fueled by a natural charm and gregarious ease that the Southerner envied. He enjoyed the bawdy jokes and barbs that flowed from the mustached man's lips. Buck Wilmington could make you feel like you were the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the world to have him for a friend...and you'd believe it, because it was true. The true concern that came with the question made Ezra shift. Why was it so hard to accept? After all this time, he still wasn't sure of his standing. The fact Buck was attached to him these last few days, like a mother hen and willing to take a bullet for him, made him uneasy. He startled slightly at the tap on his shoulder.
"I'm fine." He winced, stung by the sharp tone in his voice. He felt the comforting hand jerk away and turned. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for..."
"S'okay Old Timer...I draw the line at shooting blind cripples." Buck smirked and winked. He saw the Southerner's lips rise slightly and felt better. "Go on...this I can't wait to see..."
He slapped the bar and saw the owner approaching. "Inez Darlin' you're a sight for sore eyes."
"Perhaps if you were sober, Senor, that wouldn't be a problem."
"Ouch!" Buck clutched his chest and took his beer to a deserted table, near the door.
It didn't take long. In less than an hour, 'Gregory Morgan' had charmed the profit from the Linseed Oil Salesmen. They were spectators, watching the other two play out the hand. Buck couldn't believe Bert Thomas didn't recognize Ezra. The drunken grin on his face shone like paternal pride. Ezra was cleaning Thomas's clock and Buck couldn't be happier.
"Buck..." a voice whispered from beyond the batwing doors, on the sidewalk.
Buck turned his head slightly and caught Nate flick his eyes to the upstairs railing. Buck casually glanced over and saw a would-be-drunk with his arm draped around one of the Saloon girls. "That one of 'em?" He asked with his inquiring eyes and saw healer nod. Buck stood and mouthed the word 'Chris' and Jackson nodded, leaving to get the leader. The tall gunslinger eyed the table where Ezra's unprotected back was a broad target for the stranger coming down the stairs. He was on his way over, when gunfire erupted outside. He saw the stranger freeze, then bolt. He hit the bottom step and headed for the side door. Buck thought of Nate's path across the deserted street and headed for the doors. He didn't hear the gunfire from the saloon; it was muffled by the assault of more flying bullets. He dove for the water trough and saw Chris and Nathan pinned down. He followed the path and spotted a gunman hiding behind the sign over the freight office. He got Chris's attention and motioned. He waited until Chris updated his partner and began firing. The gunman twisted to get out of range from the new assault, the last bad move he'd ever make. The end came swiftly; Chris Larabee's bullet was true.
"We got this..." Nate called, running to check on the fallen body. "Shit..." Buck slapped his head and ran back inside. He was relieved to see the dead body of the stranger stalking Ezra splayed on the floor by the bar. Then he saw Inez fly past, shrieking at him in Spanish and heading for the kitchen. His heart sank into his gut and he felt a chill go up his spine. The two salesmen rushed past, clutching money. He forced his eyes to the table and saw the empty chair.
"Ezra?" His voice hushed and he strode forward. The sight that met his eyes, caused a molten anger to erupt. His face colored in a mask of furious rage, which spilled from his lips. "What the hell are you doing, you fuckin' vulture!" He screamed, eyeing Bert Thomas rifling through the prone Gambler's pockets.
"I'm getting my money back. He cheated..."
"You move them fat fingers away from him or I'll blow that claw right off your fuckin' redneck wrist."
The tinted glasses shielded them from seeing Ezra's eyes. But the green eyes didn't miss the irate Wilmington face or the unbridled fury in his voice. He tried to move, but the pain in his side prevented that. He slid his hand from the wound on his side to push away Bert Thomas's grubby fingers.
"You don't hear so good!" Buck screamed and grabbed Thomas by the neck. He slammed his head into the wall and heard the weasel sputtering. He was about you teach him some more manners, but was interrupted.
The weak voice was the only thing that penetrated the six-foot wall of rage. He glanced down and saw the scarlet-stained hand tugging at his pants. He shoved the cowering fool hard and issued a stern edict. "You get your lazy ass out there and get Nathan." Buck screamed, and saw the hesitation. "NOW!" He ended, drawing his gun. That put the coward in motion. He took the linen towels from Inez and sent her to find the healer, not trusting the fleeing would be felon.
"He'd steal the pennies off the eyes of a dead man..." Buck though aloud and knelt by the Southener's side. He took off the dark glasses and saw the pain riddled green eyes. "Easy now..." He soothed, trying to find the unfocused gaze. "I'm gonna check for an exit..."
"...your specialty..." Ezra gasped, noting the rogue's often hasty departures, one step ahead of an irate husband.
"How long you been waiting to work that one in?" Buck chuckled and gently eased Ezra onto his side. He sigh of relief was felt by the wounded man. He wadded up one of the towels and covered the exit wound, then eased Ezra onto his back. His gentle hands began to unbutton the bright red vest. "You'll live to cheat another day, it went right through. Good thing you wore red...blood won't show."
"...had no...choice..." He eyed the dead stranger painfully and Buck found the wound. "...trap...you...caught..."
Buck flinched as he pressed the wound and Ezra grabbed his forearm. He heard the words and suddenly understood. Ezra took a bullet that was meant for him. "Guess this means I have to pick up your bar tab this month." He teased and grabbed the blood slick hand.
Ezra saw the gratitude shining down from the blue eyes. He felt the intense grip and managed a weak smile. "...month?...surely...you...jest...annual accrual I think..."
"Don't push your luck, Ace." Buck joked, lifting the dyed head and slipping some of the towels underneath, to form a pillow. He felt his arm locked and look down to see the bewildered green eyes.
"Why do you call me that?"
"Aw, hell, Ezra...I'm sorry. I didn't mean nothing by it." Buck quieted, missing the intonation.
"No...please...don't be...not what I meant." Ezra gasped and licked his dry lips. "Nobody ever took time...friend..." He coughed sarcastically. "...moniker reserved for ...those you are ...intimate...intimate..."
"Watch them fancy words, Ace." Buck choked, feeling a physical pain at the younger man's confession. Maude Standish did a bang up job...he felt an anger. He suddenly saw a boy who was desperate for friends, shuffled from place to place. A hungry loner punished for the mere act of trying to shed the mask. He recalled Ezra telling him, his mother's admonishment for 'letting them see who you are...you're a fool'. "That's one rumor I don't need following me around."
"Huh?" Ezra frowned then realized what the smirk was for. "I beg...your pardon ...I did not mean to infer that you were ...aspiring to change...your...your...gender pref..."
"Shut up, Ace." Buck laughed, using one hand to staunch the blood flow and the other to squeeze Ezra's shoulder. "You got a lot of wind for a dyin' old geezer..." He paused and suddenly felt uncomfortable. It wasn't a serious wound, but could have been fatal. "That fancy peashooter of yours comes in handy sometimes...Thanks Ezra."
"Good Lord...I must be dying...sincerity?"
Buck laughed and jerked his head around, wondering where Nathan was. He turned back and saw the rare show of emotion in the unguarded Standish eyes. "You okay? Ain't like you to quit jawin'"
"I was contemplating the...the...ease...at...at...which you lend...your...yourself to any given...situation...bravery, brawn, brevity...astounding..." He didn't hide his pride or envy.
"Where the hell is Nate?" Buck teased, grinning with full eyes at the wounded man's admiring ones. "You're getting delirious." He answered the ramble and saw a weak smile. "Hey, how about putting 'handsome' on that list?"
"I'm not that delirious..." Ezra replied and relished the deep laugher and the grip intensify on his hand. He felt his own laugher slipping out and followed by a sharp pain. He didn't mean to cry aloud..."I'm sorry..."
"For what?" Buck said quietly, leaning down and catching the half-mast eyes. "...being human? It's okay to holler when you're hurt, Erza...God gave you a mountain of emotions. It's about time you started using them."
"Like...comfort of...a friend..." Ezra gasped and saw the warm smile.
"Now you're learnin'" Buck eased as he saw the eyes fading. "You rest easy, friend, I gotcha."
In the days that followed, Vin hiked and traveled around the terrain, where the refreshing breezes met the cool lush forest of the mountains that framed his vision with spectacular scenery.
It was in this mixture of fantasy, mysticism and sacredness that the Texan began to heal. He traveled to the hot springs daily, sinking into the steaming water and letting the healing powers invade him. He rested his head and closed his eyes, and let his mind totally disappear. He spent afternoons meditating; combining what he learned with the Commanche and from Josiah.
Vin tended the sick animal and made a furry friend. As she gained her strength back, she became a good listener. She kept her distance, but followed Vin wherever he went. He left her food outside at night and she was waiting to accompany him each morning. Then one day, the nearby sounds of hooves and gunfire sent his canine friend to the hills where she came from. The band of trappers passing through sent a chill through Vin. For three days he left food, but she didn't return. He felt awful, having used her...seeking comfort for his long days and now she'd paid the supreme price. Then one day while he was hiking back to the cabin, he saw her standing on the crest of a hill, with a larger dark wolf by her side. She bayed and tossed her head, sending him her final goodbye and reassurance. He smiled as she departed, her new mate by her side.
His euphoric relief turned inward. As he made supper that night, he heard the wolf's call. The message rammed through him like a silver dagger. He blinked and nodded, and suddenly the desire for home and his friends nearly overcame him.
"How could I confuse being safe with being free?" he mused aloud and began to pack. Tomorrow at dawn, he'd head south. The peace inside him gave him the courage to face Nathan and the lurking demons. It was time to cross the horizon and find his way home.
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