by Patricia Semler
Disclaimer: All rights owned by Mirisch Corporation and Trilogy Group. I'm not getting any money from this, only the satisfaction of taking the boys out to play for a while.
Author's Notes: For any Native American fans I've come as close as possible through research to depicting shamanic practices. No insults are intended through use of language that was part of the culture of the 1800's. Some mild sex and the obligatory violence.
Vin was exhausted. It had taken near a week to isolate Lame Deer's trail from all the false ones the Chiricahua had set down. Then another two to herd the renegade into the waiting arms of the Seventh Cavalry. Lame Deer did the only sensible thing when faced with annihilation. He sent his warriors home in shame, gave himself up to buy their lives. Vin saw no reason to stick around after the trial. He collected his pay, packed his gear and headed home. It would be good to lay down to sleep without worrying about some brave sneaking up on him.
He found a snug hollow in the hills, secured his horse and indulged in a small fire to keep back the chill desert night. It had been a gut wrenching decision to work for the Army. He still hadn't settled his turmoil. Indians from many tribes had been his friends all his life. He respected and enjoyed their ways, but Lame Deer had gone on a murderous war path to clear Apache land of white settlers. The man needed to be caught and punished and Vin accepted the temporary assignment before the renegade inflamed the territory into an open war that would prove disastrous for all involved. It was an ugly business that left him with a sour taste in his mouth and a growing dislike for Army methods. He drifted to sleep with the roll of thunder in his ears.
Chris assumed his post outside the saloon. People made a point of circling wide around him. The fury that could turn his guarded blue eyes into ice hard diamonds wasn't present. The set of his thin mouth had yet to take on the edge of anger. He merely sat as he had the last three weeks, eyes roaming causally but finding the livery every few minutes, waiting the return of his friend.
He had offered to accompany Vin on his manhunt but the tracker proved stubborn about accepting any help. As efficient and dependable as the seven had become they would be no match for desperate angry Apache. Vin forced his arguments home with a rare fury until Chris gave in. He knew Vin was right. City boys Ezra and JD would be serious handicaps. Even Josiah and Nathan had to be considered liabilities for the strength of their compassion. Buck and Chris himself could have made some contribution, but even they had limited experience with the natives. Chris had never fought an Indian war. He was pretty certain Buck hadn't either. Ultimately they were also dead weight to the tracker who had to move as easily and eerily as the Indians he trailed.
That didn't mean Chris had to like the situation. The young wilderness man had touched him in a way so very few in his life had. Without words, very often with only a look to confirm he already knew what the older man was thinking, Vin had become Chris' confidante and friend.
In an unsettling way Vin was as important to him as Sarah had once been. If any harm befell the tracker... Chris frowned, not liking the direction his thoughts were taking. He loved Vin like a brother. That was all there was to it. Wasn't there? Then why did he sit this vigil with worry eating at his guts?
A plum colored coat caught the edge of his side vision. His head reared up. "Ezra."
The southerner stopped short, light eyes darting with apprehension. "Mister Larabee."
Chris stifled an urge to laugh. It wasn't often Ezra was caught off guard, but then he was always wary around the gunslinger. Chris rose to his feet. "Walk with me."
He turned for the livery, not looking to see if Ezra followed.
It was quiet and stifling in the afternoon haze. Chris always felt more comfortable with horses around and he knew that Ezra prized his own mare more than any other possession. He'd come up on the gambler currying the horse in the wee hours of the night more than once when sleep failed to possess him.
Chris shrugged out of his duster, threw it over a peg, followed with his hat then picked up brushes and clucked a greeting to his horse before moving into the stall.
Ezra waited. He possessed the patience of the proverbial saint. A necessity in his line of work. Larabee had startled him badly in the street, but he wasn't a man to conceal his ire. If Ezra had been under attack for some slight Chris would have addressed it then and there. No, something else was on the gunslinger's mind, something he apparently found difficulty in addressing. If only Vin were here instead of ...
Was that it? It had to be. Vin Tanner had a near symbiotic rapport with Larabee and he was absent going on a month now. Ezra felt a great relief lift off his shoulders. He wasn't in trouble. Larabee was undoubtedly merely seeking affirmation of his decision to let Vin go on his mission alone. Just to be certain he gave Chris a chance to voice what was on his mind.
"Think you can put your southern gentleman schooling aside and talk man to man real plain?" Chris finally asked.
"I shall endeav ... I'll try," Ezra stammered.
A smile came and went on Chris' face. "In your line of work I imagine you've seen all kinds of things. You ever ..." Chris hated being circumspect, but the subject he was about to broach made his insides squirm.
"You're concerned about Mister Tanner's welfare," Ezra offered, puzzled by the unusual consternation showing in the gunslinger's face.
"It's more than that," Chris said softly. He kept his eyes on the back of his horse. "I think I'd go nuts if he didn't come back. That's not natural to care about another man so strongly," he finished with a small explosion of the conflicted emotions he kept pent up.
"Are you implying that you might be in love with Mister Tanner?" Ezra voiced the unthinkable.
Chris only hung his head, mortified that the nagging thought was now openly articulated. Laughter brought fury to his eyes and he glared at Ezra. The southerner had a handkerchief out, dabbing at his eyes, he was laughing so hard. Chris put on his most ruthless look which only increased Ezra's mirth to the point where he plopped down on a barrel and fell back against an upright beam.
"What is so goddamn funny?" Chris demanded.
"You and Mister Tanner," Ezra managed to gasp. "In ... In coit ... Together." The image was just too ludicrous. It was undignified to be so out of control but it also felt good to let go of his pretensions in the company of a man he trusted.
Chris found himself fighting a smile. Not once had he even considered the obvious. Vin certainly didn't appeal to him as a sex partner. Only one time in his life had he been offered a male to male coupling and it had sickened him then. What was he thinking to remotely consider Vin as a substitute for his wife?
Laughter came slowly as if he had forgotten how. He found a bale to sit on, hung his head. "If you tell anyone," he threatened.
Ezra held up his hands in surrender, still too overcome to speak.
"Must have been one hell of a joke," a new voice drawled.
Both heads jerked around. Vin stood just inside the door, a silhouette against the outline of his horse. Both animal and rider burdened with fatigue.
His sharp eyes saw the relief that lightened both faces. Neither man could stifle his laughter though. Vin just shook his head and led his gelding to an empty stall. On the one hand he was relieved that Chris hadn't worried himself back into a whiskey bottle, but it unnerved him to find his best friend near helpless with uncharacteristic humor in the company of the rascal of their group. What had gone on in his absence?
"Welcome home, Mister Tanner," Ezra finally called, his voice a little high pitched from his giggling fit.
"You must have made a bundle on the betting pool to be in such a good humor, I reckon," Vin snarled. It pleased him perversely to see the hurt that flickered in the quick sobering eyes. A bucket of cold water couldn't have turned Ezra's laughter off so fast.
The gambler found his feet, brushed some stray dust off his sleeve, graced Vin with a smile that was as cold as a winter's gale. "I see your sojourn hasn't affected your dry wit any," he commented and headed out.
Vin stared after him. It wasn't like Ezra to show hurt feelings. A chill crept up his spine and he swung around to Chris' frosted eyes.
"You can fill me in after you've rested up," Larabee was out the door abruptly.
"What the hell?" Vin muttered. He had looked forward to getting home and now that he was finally here an urge to leave again gripped him. City life had always stifled him and friendship was a burden he could do just as well without. The hell with all of them. A few days to rest and eat regular and he'd ride out without a second look back. He attacked his saddle straps with impatient fingers.
Chris' long strides caught up to Ezra outside the saloon. The gambler swung a look over his shoulder, frowned.
"Buy you a drink?" Chris offered.
"Nothing will be said of our exchange," Ezra affirmed.
Chris sighed impatiently. He hated being second guessed.
"Friendship is a precious gift, Mister Larabee," Ezra added quietly.
"Too precious for the likes of a gambler?" Chris countered.
Surprised widened the green eyes. A smile came and went, at once gracious and wistful. "A gambler must refuse. Such encumbrances muddy the odds. A gentleman, on the other hand, accepts such rare gifts with true humility. I'm honored. Now see to your other friend. He's had a hard ride of it."
With that he was gone into the saloon. Chris took up the chair that had been his home for three weeks. Ezra was right. It was amazing how often he was right about things. Vin was home in one piece and no doubt the trip had been hell on him. He was entitled to some slack for his manners. Besides it had to look odd himself and Ezra laughing like schoolboys playing with frogs.
"Ezra tell that good a side splitter?"
Chris looked up into Vin's face. The pale eyes were rimmed with red fatigue and darker things.
"When he puts his mind to it," Chris nodded, poured a shot of whiskey from the bottle that waited his return. "Wet your whistle, cowboy, and tell me your story."
Vin pulled up a chair, fondled the glass. That darkness in his eyes seeped out of every pore. "Won't be near as good as Ezra's."
"Has to be better. You're back in one piece," Chris coaxed.
Vin studied the amber liquid. "Once asked a man what he was thinking about. He said whiskey, a room, a bed and more whiskey." He threw down the shot. It burned all the way to his gut. "Sounds about right to me," and pushed to his feet.
"I'll be here," Chris called after him.
Vin barely nodded, didn't look. If he looked he'd have to talk and he didn't want to talk, because then he'd remember the thunder that wasn't thunder, and the terrible dreams of an insane persecutor who danced around him screaming obscenities. All he wanted was oblivion.
"What gives with Vin?" Buck asked sharply. "He about tore my head off."
Chris shrugged. They sat, five of them, at a table in the saloon. It was too early for Ezra and Vin had chosen to keep to himself more than usual since his return.
"Has he told you anything?" Josiah wanted to know.
"Not yet," Chris admitted.
"It's like he's possessed or something," JD blurted. "He just stares into the distance like something was chasing him."
They were gathered over breakfast. Chris sighed, pushed to his feet. "I'll take care of it."
They all expected him to go out the front. Instead he climbed the stairs to the back rooms.
Chris knocked on Ezra's door. It was barely nine. In all likelihood the gambler had only fallen into bed shortly before dawn. "Ezra."
No answer. He tried the knob. It was unlocked, so he pushed the door open a crack. "Ezra."
"This building had best be on fire," came the sleep thick drawl, followed by the click of a gun being cocked.
"Smoke is so hard to get out of clothes," Chris shot at him. "I need your help. Put the gun down."
He waited for the hammer to be thumbed back to neutral before stepping in. Surprisingly clothes were folded neatly on a chair. Ezra's bare feet stuck out of the quilt he had rolled himself into. The derringer rested under his hand on his chest. Sleep drugged eyes followed Chris minutely.
"What on earth do you possibly think I could say that you couldn't to illicit answers from Vin?" he grumbled.
Surprise caught Chris up short. Ezra shrugged him off. "An obvious conclusion. He's been out of sorts since his return. Why me?"
"You can talk a pearl out of its oyster. If you can't get him to open up I'll just have to beat answers out of him."
"Hardly practical. Has Nathan looked at him?"
"He's not hurt."
"Not all injuries are obvious. Perhaps he got into the locoweed. My own head is pounding from last night's abuse. Please can't this wait?"
"Some time today, Ezra," Chris barked.
"Some time today, Mister Larabee," Ezra promised then sunk back into slumber.
Ezra studied the tracker where he sat outside the saloon. There was a furtive nervousness foreign to his nature in the quick darting eyes, the small starts to everyday sounds. Chris was correct to be concerned. Something was definitely amiss.
He advanced, making certain Vin saw his approach. "Might I interest you in a game of chance, Mister Tanner?"
"You're talking to me?" Vin looked him straight in the eye. Ezra suppressed a shiver of apprehension. The man he knew as companion wasn't behind those eyes.
"Is there a reason I should not?"
"I insulted you back in the livery," Vin offered almost tonelessly.
"Greater men than yourself have maligned me in far more vile invective," Ezra shrugged. "A game of checkers perhaps?"
A host of emotion seemed to assail the normally placid tracker. His eyes fixed on the game board at his elbow. A calm came over him. "Yeah, I'd like that. Thanks, Ezra."
Ezra took the opposing chair. The first dozen moves were made quickly, in silence. Then came the need for strategy and Vin's nerves showed once more in reckless play and indecision.
"You're cheating, aren't you?" he snapped.
"You are not applying logical thought," Ezra shot back. "One would think you had other matters on your mind."
"Is that what this is?" Vin snarled. "Chris sent you to get me to spill my guts.
"I find that euphemism grotesque and unsettling," Ezra complained. "If you should feel inclined to express what is troubling you I will listen. If you choose not to ruminate I'll accept your need for privacy and press no further."
Vin glared into the placid green eyes sitting across the table. Anger chewed at him. He resented Ezra's polish and education. The man wore class like a king his crown, and worse still, it suited him. Ezra was born to manners and decorum just as Vin was not.
His hand itched to go for his gun and blow the smirk off the southerner's face. Just as suddenly Vin knew fear, a terrible gut wrenching fear. Ezra was his friend. For all his pretensions, vices and haughty behavior Vin liked him. He had a quick mind and sharp wit, enjoyed trading barbs that hid behind innocuous words, and was not above getting his hands dirty when the need arose. Oh he'd grouse about the indignity but he'd let himself be coerced. Didn't he float Nettie Wells that loan when she needed it and not nag for the interest that Vin had welched on paying?
"His mother was a shaman," Vin blurted out. It was no longer possible to keep it all within. Ezra would understand his awful loneliness. He had been alone enough in his own life.
"Shall we start at the beginning?" Ezra coaxed. Vin's eyes were seething with emotion. He couldn't be certain how long the tracker would hold still. "You were asked to track a renegade."
"Lame Deer," Vin nodded, fingers busy stacking and unstacking the checker chips. "Found his trail, hounded him into a dead end. He bargained for his warrior's lives, gave himself up so they could go home."
"A sound decision for a leader."
"Old woman didn't like it. His ma. She came down to bargain for his life. Judge wouldn't hear of it, not after he killed all those families. She cursed us all when he hung."
He should have felt better getting this off his chest. If anything he felt worse. Drums rumbled in the back of his mind. A screeching dervish poked and pierced his body with ceaseless pinpricks of annoyance.
"She made it stick, Ezra. Her curse. It's following me. She's following me. I won't have no peace till I'm dead."
Vin slammed a fist to the table, making the chips dance. Ezra jumped a little himself. "You weren't there! You don't know what a shaman can do. I'm a walking dead man. If you know what's good for you you'll steer clear of me."
With that he pushed to his feet, paraded down the street.
Ezra stared after him. He knew very well the power of suggestion. Making someone believe in whatever he was promoting strongly enough to part with money was fundamental to his craft. Contrary to Vin's opinion Ezra did have some idea of what a shaman could do. There was a Creole-Creek woman back in the woods of the Louisiana bayou his uncle had occasion to visit. Her ability to diagnose an illness and brew up a remedy had been uncanny, and she delighted in scaring the boys with lurid tales of evil doings.
Ezra's cousin Eric went everywhere with his father and insisted Ezra be included on all trips. Eric was one of the few relations he had fond memories of. In her odd way that old woman had clarified some of the finer points of the con that the young Ezra found elusive. Playing to the imagination and the power of subtle suggestion were learned on her hearth. If her victim believed she could kill with a look invariably that mark took sick and died. Vin was right about one thing. The power of a shaman was nothing to be trifled with.
"I don't see where I can help him," Nathan started.
"I am not sitting idle while he tears himself apart!"
"Chris! Let me finish."
Dark eyes bored into light. They were in Nathan's loft, practically nose to nose. Chris felt his anger threaten to break loose from his control. He drew in a breath. "Go on."
"He won't sit still for me. I tried being casual about it. He threatened to draw down on me. I didn't see any evidence of a blow to the head."
"Have you considered the possibility of poison?" a new voice ventured.
Both men whirled, hands reaching for weapons. Ezra stood just inside the half opened door.
"How long have you been standing there?" Nathan demanded.
"Do you need a recitation of the entire conversation?" Ezra shot back.
"Just explain your poison theory," Chris inserted before the pair really started snapping.
"Mister Tanner is under the delusion that his quarry's mother has placed a curse on him. Not to disparage his intellect but he is unsophisticated. With the proper hypnotics such a suggestion is not easily set aside."
Chris looked from him to Nathan. He expected rancor. Instead the dark man's lips were pursed in consideration. "That would explain a lot of things." Nathan admitted. "It also tells me I can't help him. Poisons are beyond my schooling."
Silence dropped on the group, thick and oppressive. Ezra watched the firestorm in Chris' eyes gather force. Helplessness was not a situation Larabee took with easy grace.
"What can we do?" Chris finally asked.
"I could read up. There are ways of flushing poisons, but I'd have to know what he was given," Nathan shrugged.
"Would your friends at the Seminole village be of assistance?" Ezra offered quietly.
Nathan started to negate the idea as too far fetched, but it sparked a new thought. "Kojay up at the reservation! He might be able to help. And I think I can get Vin up there without too much trouble if I ask him to ride as escort."
"Do it," Chris decided. "Take Josiah with you just in case."
Nathan grabbed his hat and coat, hurried out. Chris didn't move for a time, just looked at the gambler curiously. The man never ceased to surprise him with the depth of compassion he could display.
"I abhor cheating. Poison is the tool of a coward and a cheat," Ezra shrugged.
Vin stared into the heart of the flames, enjoying the little pops and hisses, anticipating the sudden explosions of sparks from super heated air pockets in the burning sticks. The reservation camp brought back good memories of his days with the Kiowa and Comanche in the panhandle. It was only a handful of years back, but time settled on his shoulders like an eternity.
"What troubles you, my son?"
Vin flicked a glance as the old chief settled beside him.
"I feel old, Kojay."
The Indian laughed, a deep rolling slow chuckle. "If you feel old then how ancient does that make me? I have found that sharing a burden lightens the load."
Vin smiled, ducked his head. He knew better than to be shamed by the open offer of help, but somewhere deep inside he didn't feel worthy of the friendship. He had been alone or nearly alone most of his life, self sufficient and prone to doing for himself even if help were readily available.
He was that way with the six. More than once one or all had jumped to his aid without waiting to be asked. A man could consider himself lucky to have one such ally in his life. He had six.
A sigh escaped. Vin shook his head. "I feel like this black cloud is following me. Any day now it's going to swoop down and swallow me up."
Kojay frowned. This was a bad vision for a man to carry. Evil spirits were powerless against a man in good health and thought, but let that same man drop his guard for a moment and he would be gobbled up slowly until there was nothing good left.
"Can you see this cloud? Does it have a shape?"
Vin brought his eyes back to the fire under a sudden chill.
"You cannot force vison. Relax your mind. Let it wander," Kojay coached. "Tell me what you see."
"No. Tell me what you see."
Vin floundered. He wasn't much good with words. Patience, Little White Wolf, a Kiowa elder had once scolded him. Stillness. Vision comes to those who can be as still as the rocks.
"Yellow flames. Red coals. Black ... That damn Eli Joe laughing at me, bragging how he set me up. I can't go back to clear my name. He's dead for real this time. Sheriff won't give me a chance. He'll just hang me."
A hangman's noose. Vin had watched it settle over Lame Deer's head. The Apache held his impassive stone face throughout the trial, then faced death with an arrogant disdain for the crowd on onlookers that hooted and hollered like they were at a carnival. Vin had to admire the man's courage. He knew in his heart of hearts he couldn't face the noose waiting for him in Tuscosa with the same kind of resolve. Lame Deer's neck snapped on the drop, dead before the first swing rocked his body back and forth.
Vin caught the old woman's voice then. Her wail cut through the cheering of the mob and her cursing words drowned everything else. They were dead, all who had a hand in hanging her son, walking dead men to be hunted and hounded by the spirits of vengeance until true death took them. She cursed them, but she singled out Vin for a more harrowing fate since he had led the hunt. He would know no rest in this world or the next.
Kojay watched the emotions play across the suddenly gaunt face whose wide eyes no longer saw the world before him. He put a hand to the younger man's wrist, willing peace to settle on him once more.
"I was just doing my job. That boy was a stone cold killer," Vin mumbled.
"Be at peace, my son."
Something evil swirled around the young hunter, cutting him off from Kojay's influence. The old chief felt his hand forced from its grip by unseen fingers.
Cold guarded eyes turned to him. "You can't help me." Vin said flatly, then with a struggle. "I appreciate your trying. I'm not worth the effort."
They gathered in the church. Six grim men. Ezra shuffled and dealt out cards but no one was interested in playing. It was an almost nervous habit he had. It also helped him think.
Josiah detailed the trip to the reservation. "Kojay agrees with Ezra. Vin has been poisoned. The cure isn't as simple as getting the stuff out of him. His spirit has been poisoned as well."
"Can he help?" Chris cut in. He wasn't interested in philosophical debates.
"Yes and no. Don't get testy with me, Larabee. I'm doing the best I can. This is new to me too," Josiah snarled.
Ezra's hands stilled. Tension flew around the table.
"Short and simple for us simple folk, Josiah," Buck coached.
"I managed to liberate Vin's canteen and left it with Kojay to see if the water's tainted. Then we emptied his saddlebags of food. Wasn't much, but I pray that it's the source of our problem. When Kojay finds something he'll tell us how to treat it."
"You seem pretty calm about this." Chris hissed.
"If that old woman had wanted Vin dead he'd be bones bleaching in the sun," Josiah returned calmly. "She wants him to suffer and he is. I believe we have time to at least try to help."
She sat at her fire, cackling at jokes only she could hear and appreciate. The hunter had become the hunted and it wouldn't be long before he fell to her demon wolves. White men were such fools when it came to the energies of the great beyond. Wasn't it her own mother who taught her all the sorcery handed down from mother to daughter in her black tribe's way? Wasn't it that reckless young war chief, Red Horse, who took her mother to his bed and made her his wife, promising that their first child should be given to the shaman for tutoring? So Dark Willow, born on a night of the new moon and promised to the elder gods as a willing servant, grew bright and strong and learned all the otherworldly secrets of two races.
She herself married but had no daughters. One by one each of her four sons were taken from her by sickness and war and the greed of the ever possessive white devils. Her last hope, Lame Deer, had only recently taken a wife but produced no children. She was left without a legacy unless she found a promising student to take under her wing. First she had business to finish with the man Tanner for his part in the murder of her sole surviving son.
She brought out the token taken from him. A medicine pouch that a white should not possess in the first place, but it was personal to him and she made it his simulacrum, rubbing it in his sweat and blood before taking it from him. Now she placed it to swing over a low fire. The heat of fever would further weaken his will and her demons could nibble at his soul until he fell screaming into the final death.
Laughter shrieked from her tent and the warriors who stood guard outside shivered, making signs against evil.
Six men rode to the reservation the next morning. A young boy took their horses. Josiah led the way to Kojay's lodge. The old man waited for them to settle down, noting with a small smile the care the man in the red coat used to find a seat. Hard faces stared back at him. He could smell their fear and nodded to himself. It was good for a man to have friends that cared so greatly.
Chris chaffed as the chief took his time. Josiah had warned them all about Kojay's deliberate ways. He didn't have to like the delay. Fingers barely touched his wrist. He shifted his gaze to Ezra just on his left. An infinite patience looked back at him.
Chris bit back the need to push. Just then Kojay brought out a bundle, unwrapped the pieces of a pipe. With the care that Chris applied to his own pistols the Indian fitted the stem to the bowl, tamped in tobacco and lit the smoke. Once he was satisfied with the light he passed the pipe to Josiah sitting on his left. Round the circle it went, hand to hand. JD naturally inhaled too deeply and choked. Buck pounded his back, threatening to take his mind off the bite of the smoke by breaking his ribs. Nathan returned the pipe to Kojay who set it in the ground between his crossed ankles by the pointed stem.
"Welcome to my home. You have come to hear hope and I have little to give you."
"Where is Vin now?" Chris demanded.
"On the hunt with Chanu. He is very disturbed and will not sit still."
"Can you help him?" Nathan spoke up.
"I can prolong his suffering. My poor skills are no match for the evil worked upon him. You must seek a true healer."
Chris' agitation rose in a red flood. This time Ezra's hand closed on his wrist. He jerked free. "The hell with patience! We need to help Vin."
"Your white medicine may cure the poisons of his body. It will not destroy the poisons in his spirit." Kojay spoke, ignoring the outburst. "He slept poorly last night. We spoke at great length. What men call his soul is being eaten away."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Chris was losing the tenuous hold on his fury.
"If you'd give the man a chance," Buck chastised, "I'm sure he'll tell us everything we need to know."
Kojay allowed silence to hold for a moment. It wasn't in his nature to be rushed or speak directly as was the white practice. This man in black who seethed under the sway of his own demons had stood for justice at his son's side when the preacher Mosley betrayed his God by killing his own daughter and blaming Kojay's son, Chanu. Kojay flinched under the weight of the gunfighter's fears. It made his rude behavior almost tolerable.
"What you believe as truth is of no consequence," Kojay adopted a scolding tone that riveted the younger man's attention. "Vin Tanner believes he is cursed. He will die if the curse is not lifted properly. This is beyond my skill. I have heard of a Navajo of great power. She could possibly effect a cure."
"Where can we find her?" Chris asked in a more subdued tone.
"I can point in the direction I have heard. It is for you to seek."
"Thank you, Kojay."
"This debt I owed to you for the life of my son. Be warned also that the witch is close by. This is why her magic is so potent."
Kojay was amazed that the energy fluxing around the six seemed to focus at that instant into a formidable force. It gave him some understanding of why the seven were so feared when they acted in concert.
The one in the red coat spoke. "Killing the witch will not solve the problem, will it?"
"It will not lift her curse, no."
It was decided that Josiah, Nathan and Ezra would handle the search for the wise woman. Chris, Buck and JD would maintain a watch on Vin as Kojay did what he could to counter the poisons and hopefully ferret out the details of the curse. The travelers left before noon that day, riding west at top speed.
The Woman of Many Names stared into the dancing flames before her. The signs had been strong over the last quarter moon. Her talents would be sought and her guests would soon arrive. Seven. That number repeated and repeated in her dreaming. A number of power and portent. They would come seeking help from a quarter none had a reason to trust nor believe in. That alone intrigued her. White men shied from red spirituality with a fear that bordered on dementia. Their need must be great indeed to embrace that which was inimical. Or was there more to the crisis?
She had felt the upper powers stir and move to a human call. The threat had not been directed against those under her protection so she took no open hand to block the dark forces thus called, but she watched and waited. Nothing good ever came from such abuse of power.
She was tilling her small garden the following day when the voices of horses carried to her. Putting on the aspect of an untried maiden she went to greet her guests.
A trio of men emerged from the deep afternoon green of the pines, followed by the ghosts of four who did not travel with them in flesh. An odd collection even to her eye, all fatigued and laden with the dust of a long trail. The one was an elder, gray touching his dark hair and deep misery gutting lines in a face that had once known unparalleled joy in the Creator's gifts. Death rode at his shoulder, not as a threat, but as a conscience. Snowy owl mantled on his opposite shoulder telling her this was a man who ever sought wisdom, one who had traveled many paths in his search and faced many more in his quest, a restless spirit haunted by great personal grief.
The second was of that dark race brought to these lands by white men for slave laborers, surprising for the clear light of a healer in his soul. The brutality of his youth had forged a stronger spirit rather than crushing it as had most black men who crossed her path. Mouse cleaned his whiskers on this man's shoulder. Here was also a seeker of truth but one who looked within himself for the small things that made a man humble before his God.
The last was a splendidly dressed, handsome youth on the cusp of his physical prowess. Aspect layered over aspect with this one and she drew a sharp breath. Coyote! The woman withdrew her probing thought touch quickly. There was no rhyme nor reason to Coyote, only acceptance of whatever he choose to show. She did get a sense of a terrible loneliness hiding in his heart however. Always Coyote walked as one apart. That didn't mean he always enjoyed his isolation.
"Afternoon, miss," the black spoke, showing even teeth in a smile. "We're looking for a healer. Have you heard of one hereabouts?"
"I see no wounds." she countered. White men made a conscious choice to be contrary, never openly stating their true intentions. Power told her she had no need to fear these men, but she was still human and a woman. Many a red woman had been raped as thanks for her generosity.
The elder eased down off his horse, approached a few steps, hands out and empty in supplication. "We won't hurt you. A friend of ours has been poisoned."
"You would be better served by a white doctor, yes? If this friend dies retribution would fall on all my people." She was intrigued by his spirit, so in tune to the divine, yet so terrified. So young and old at the same time. A prime candidate for the mantle of shaman if only he could find true belief in the Great Spirit of his fathers.
Ezra sat back and absorbed the baiting. He had already decided to let Nathan and Josiah take the lead as they approached the isolated cabin in the high hills. It was his nature to study a situation and size up his prey before taking action. He was also leery of Indians in general. They were a naturally stoic people and he had yet to determine common signs that indicated bluffing. It was also a logical choice. Both his companions were as comfortable with the dusky native race as he was not. His travels rarely took him onto reservations.
The girl who parried words so slyly was a beauty by any race's standards, lithe and buxom under her plain dress and coiled braids. There was something else about her that he couldn't put his finger on. Something that unsettled him and so he let the others do the talking.
"If you must see her, then you may ask this boon of her. She may say no to your request. If that happens you must leave."
"We agree to your terms," Josiah promised. If she had asked him to strip naked and stand on his head he would have done so without a second thought, anything to secure the help his tracker friend so desperately needed. Vin had given Josiah his all when the murderous Pinkerton agent Poplar used Josiah's misery to frame him for a vicious series of knifings, not allowing the preacher to cave in to the depression that assailed him every time he visited his insanity plagued sister. He owed Vin his best.
They entered the hut. Ezra edged to one side past Nathan's broad shoulders. The place was rough hewn, sparse of furnishings. Herbs hung from the unfinished rafters in bunches. Baskets lined three of the four walls. Knotted fibers hung in hand made webs between the eaves. Smoke eddied from a small brazier, stung his eyes. He turned his shoulder, rubbed away the sting. When he looked back a heavy set old woman had taken a low stool on the far side of the fire.
She must have been pushing seventy for all the wrinkles in her burnt chestnut, age puckered face. Opaque eyes stared at the men with the civility of a rat evaluating its supper. Her dress was buckskin laboriously fringed with silver bells and quill work. A string of animal teeth hung about her neck. She mumbled something he couldn't quite catch, waved a lazy hand at the low fire. Sparks crackled up in an eye-searing geyser. Unseen hands shook invisible rattles and a drum sounded softly, ominously.
Ezra caught his lower lip between his teeth in an effort not to laugh. A snicker did escape and Nathan flashed an indignant glare his way.
"You could try to show some respect," the Negro cautioned under his breath.
That only served to destroy what little hold Ezra had on his decorum. He laughed openly. Josiah scowled over, jerked his head at the door. Ezra held up his hands, let himself out.
He crossed to where the horses were tied off, let out the lead on his mare's line to allow her to drink from the tiny stream with greater ease. Movement just at the edge of his side vision brought him around. The maid watched him from a short distance.
"You do not believe the old one is she whom you seek?"
"That woman is no more a witch than I am," Ezra replied.
The girl edged a few steps closer. "You see her power with your own eyes and do not believe?"
"Parlor tricks and foolishness for the unwary. I've seen far too many frauds, my dear, to suffer another one lightly when my friend is in dire need. Is there a healer about or not?"
She kept closing, angling to catch him in a sideways look under her lashes. "You would know one of power when you saw such?"
Ezra fought a rise of annoyance. A gentleman never lost his composure in discussion with a lady, and a professional never endangered a con with petty emotion. He did allow a bite of irritation into his answer however. "If I had such divinatory powers I wouldn't be standing here trading riddles with you."
A nod of acquiescence and she faced him directly. "This must be a very good friend indeed. Would you give your soul for him?"
Surprised, Ezra barked a laugh.
"You misunderstand my amusement. I would hardly hesitate since we would get the better part of that bargain."
She smiled. "Something of value then? Your right hand perhaps?"
Ezra's breath caught. Fear rose as he stared into velvet brown eyes that wouldn't release him. An awesome ancient power stared back at him, weighing every nuance. "Now you do hesitate."
The bite of nails into his palms from his tightly clenched hands gave him the nudge he needed to break the hold of her eyes. He fought to slow his racing heart, frightened as he had never been in his life. For a brief instant it seemed as if she had peered into his very soul. God help him, he wasn't ready to be judged by any deity.
"I will look at your friend. I can promise nothing until I do." she said firmly.
"I have done nothing yet for thanks. Your companions will see an old woman."
Ezra dared a quick glance, found the harmless young woman they had first met. She smiled with a gentle amusement. "People see what they wish to see. This you know as truth."
"Indeed I do. What may I call you?"
"Whatever you wish. I have many names."
Irritation flared at the coquettish riposte, but he contained it, studied her. "Aurora suits you. In Ancient Greece she was the goddess of the dawn."
A wider smile lit her eyes with a charming delight, touched his heart with a strange warmth. Confidence filled him. They had wrought well on this part of the journey at least. His hand went to his pocket for his flask. Immediately the girl frowned.
"This is forbidden to you until the travail is done."
Ezra paused uncertainly. "May I ask why?"
She put out a hand to his wrist, delicate fingers gliding over the pulse point there. Her eyes took on a dreamy introspection then she broke the contact. "Because I tell you what is so."
Ezra had the disconcerting feeling he was being tested, and he hated being baited by women. It reminded him all too vividly of the arrogance his own mother could display toward him, and the less than motherly attentions of various aunts and cousins as he was growing up. He failed to understand how his abstinence from alcohol could possibly affect Vin's health, but he wouldn't get answers by ignoring the puzzle or the puzzle master. He executed a courtly half bow and put the flask away unopened.
"Let us call your friends. It is time to leave." the woman turned briskly to the cabin. Ezra sighed. A puzzle indeed.
The Woman of Many Names felt the charge of power from the camp before setting eyes on it. The riders topped a soft rise, came into a sloping valley of long dead, fire scorched trees. A ribbon of a stream ran clear through sharp rocks off to one side. Horses grazed at the grass and wild flowers that had taken root with abandon now that the sun blocking branches no longer held leaves. A place of death and rebirth. A good omen. One by one men came out to greet the party.
Dressed all in black the fair haired man stood outside the ring of stones that afforded some protection to the campers. He wore a darkness of spirit as a battle shield. She set her inner sight to work and Brown Bear stood at his shoulder. As much as this man seethed with bitter anger he was also a man of conviction and ultimately a champion of justice. She found a liking for him in spite of her fear.
A tall merry eyed man came forward. He was handsome in spite of the growth of hair that hid his upper lip, gangly and bursting with energy. Racoon bobbed his head from this one's shoulder. Little brother to Coyote he was, just as mischievous and contrary, but with a great innocence in place of Coyote's deliberate cunning.
Then there was a youth, a man by her people's standards, and the aspect of Frog rippled all around him. This the woman found interesting then she considered the group as a whole and understood the boy's importance. The dark one commanded loyalty, this youth inspired community. His passion for life touched all the men, gave them cause to grow outside their own concerns and act in formidable concert.
Chris watched the riders into the small camp. With Vin fretting worse under the proximity of the witch at Kojay's reservation he had chosen to ride after his searchers and meet them on their way back. Josiah had marked their trail as instructed and Chris' party made good time.
A young woman rode in the center of the men. Chris' eyes narrowed as she dropped off her horse. Josiah offered an arm as he would an infirm elder, brought her to Chris.
"Chris, this is Old Woman of the Snows."
Chris shot at look at Josiah, baffled. Why would such a young woman have an old name? He bit back the questions that demanded answers, nodded a greeting. "Ma'am."
"Where is your injured man?" she asked simply.
"Over yonder," Chris inclined his head to one side. She released Josiah's arm, crossed the camp. Buck and JD made way for her with a strange deference.
Chris turned back. Josiah and Nathan were already busy with the horses. "Ezra, you mind telling me what that girl is doing here?"
"She is the healer."
"She's barely twenty!" Chris hissed.
Ezra shrugged, unable to frame an argument that wouldn't sound as if he had lost his wits. The ride back had only deepened the puzzle the young native was to him, each conversation birthing more questions instead of answers. He was more than relieved when Josiah and Nathan pulled her attention off him with pedantic cross examinations of her healing methods.
"God, we're wasting precious time with this goose hunt," Chris moaned.
"Chris, let her talk to Vin. If she can't or won't help then we'll take him to San Francisco."
Some of Chris' irritation melted under the gambler's calm assurance. "That'll be expensive," he argued.
"I have enough to get the three of us there. After that, " he shrugged. "Poker games are plentiful."
Chris had to wonder at this inexplicable generosity. Ezra had proven himself fiercely loyal to the group, finding possibly a surrogate family that he'd never enjoyed as a youth. He'd never openly admit the attachment but Chris knew it was the camaraderie of the men that kept the wily gambler on and nothing more. At the moment he was glad Ezra's practical nature was in full force taking some of the weight of worry off his shoulders.
The Woman of Many Names found the afflicted man seated by himself staring into the distance. Beaver sat with him. It was a rare occurrence to find a white man in tune with the rhythms of the earth. There was a great weight of tribulation riding the gentle spirit. Even at a small distance the stench of evil hung about him as a shroud. She muttered wards of protection, plucked a token from the pouch that hung at her belt.
Racoon skittered to the ground and across to the man, climbed up and down the rangy limbs, tasting here, spitting there, making a survey of all vital organs before leaping back to her shoulder to report all he found into her ear. She offered a thanksgiving, returned the token to its resting place and Racoon vanished. Poisons of the earth and poisons of the spirit. The witch had found that which troubled the young man and used it to build her curse. It would take great power to heal the rift in his soul. She advanced.
Vin glanced up at footsteps, found himself staring into deep brown eyes. A woman. Navajo by her dress and hair. He couldn't rightly assess her age. Those eyes held him. He scrambled to his feet.
"Be at ease. Sit." she commanded.
She found herself a seat on a fallen log in front of him. Vin hunkered down once more, unable to shake the idea that he was naked before her.
"What ails you that I am summoned from my home?"
"There's nothing wrong with me that a month of Sundays away from these old hens won't cure," he snapped.
Disapproval narrowed her eyes. Shame washed through Vin and he turned away. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I got no call to be rude with you."
"You certainly do not," she switched to Kiowa. "Be aware that I will not tolerate any more such behavior. If you cannot control your tongue you are too far gone for my poor skills to effect a cure."
Vin blinked his surprise. He caught himself staring, quickly lowered his head. "Yes, ma'am."
"Now, tell me what lies so heavy upon you."
For the first time in days he warmed under a surge of hope. It crushed out quickly and he hung his head, unable to put the fear that claimed his heart into words. Thunder rumbled in his ears and a naked woman danced around him, causing flames to spark from each footprint to surround him in a circle of fire that choked the very air from his lungs.
"Now it is I who must apologize for lack of manners," The woman soothed as soon as she saw his distress. "We should speak of less vexing things. Take this." Vin put out an automatic hand, a little surprised when she placed a rock on his palm. "Look on it. Tell me what you see."
He turned it around and around in his fingers, feeling the cavities and angles in the thing. Leaning both elbows on his knees he held it close to his eyes. It appeared to be granite, pebbly with gray specks and moss colored veins, not at all smooth like rocks plucked from a stream. He continued to play with it, stroking his fingers down one side, up the other. If he held it a certain way in the afternoon light he could see ...
The truth was he couldn't see anything. It was a stone, worn down by the elements with little to distinguish it from any other stone, only one of the thousands and thousands of stones at his feet. Despair rose up to choke him and tears fell unbidden.
"I'm lost," he whispered. "Part of me is lost."
A hand caressed over his where he clenched the rock. Buckskin brushed against his leg and the smell of cinnamon and honey brought back a stray memory of a Thanksgiving dinner Mary Travis had invited the men to. He tried to hold onto that warm thought but it slipped away.
"Shhh, you only tire yourself fighting ghosts."
Vin focused on the deep brown eyes before him and the drums that haunted him receded. He clutched the woman's hand in turn, too tightly he knew, but he couldn't help himself. She only smiled a little and nodded.
"Can you help me?" he begged.
"Do you trust and I will serve as best I can. As strong as your fears are, they are no match for the combined wills of your friends. You must freely give permission for help."
"She knew I wouldn't ask for help. I work alone."
"That is not so. You have worked side by side with heart companions before. You stand with such companions now. Accept that they will not rest until you are whole once more."
"She'll go after them. I can't let that happen."
"So you would fight to the death to defend your friends?"
"Good. We are all here now. We stand together. We fight together for all our lives. Do you trust?"
Vin frowned, feeling vaguely as if he'd just been conned. Not unlike the feeling he often had when dealing with Ezra, but somewhere deep in his heart he knew she was right. The only way he could protect his friends was to let them protect him. No power on earth could stop them from trying. A little flame of hope sparked up and he cupped it in his hands.
"I trust and thank you. Hold this for me." He offered his hope on both palms, terrified that the witch would somehow snuff it out again before it could be protected.
The Woman of Many Names solemnly took the stone from Tanner's hands, breathed on it then placed it in her medicine pouch among her own tokens. The evil closed in on him once more.
"What the hell do ya'll think you're doing?" he snarled without warning. "You can't help me! She stole it away. I'm a dead man without it."
The pair were surrounded by worried men in the space of a breath, alerted by Vin's bitter tirade. Chris drew the woman to her feet away from the tracker just in case he decided to lash out.
"Stole what?" Buck asked of no one in particular.
They all stared at the distraught tracker. Lack of proper sleep and haunting dreams were tearing him apart before their eyes.
"Vin, what is it we should look for?" Josiah asked gently.
"My heart, my soul, my ..." One hand clutched absently at his chest then dismissed them in a continuation of the gesture. "Forget it. Just forget it. You can't help me. It's gone. I'm lost."
Ezra frowned, remembering an odd moment, turned to Josiah. "Would he be referring to that wallet thing Chanu gave him?"
Josiah turned startled eyes on the gambler. Ezra shrugged, perplexed by his own thought. "He's not wearing it unless it's under his shirt."
"A medicine bag! Brilliant deduction, Holmes!" Josiah slapped Ezra's back, staggering the shorter man. "It doesn't physically contain a warrior's heart or soul, but it is a symbol for that which a warrior invokes to protect himself. It can become a part of that person so that he's lost without it."
"Explain this to me," the woman directed.
"Our Mister Tanner has many friends among the tribes," Josiah continued. "And a measure of reverence for native ways. He was given a medicine bag as a gift for saving a young man from hanging."
"Why does Buffalo shadow him?" she asked.
Baffled frowns answered her. She kept her eyes on the thin young man in front of her. After his outburst he'd lost all interest in the conversation, lowered his head into his hands.
"He was a buffalo hunter for a time," Chris finally offered.
"When there was buffalo left to hunt," Vin mumbled.
The net of evil tightened around him then released ever so slightly. The Woman of Many Names understood that time was short indeed. "I require a sweat lodge. We must begin our journey as quickly as possible."
"Where we going now?" Buck demanded. The whole business was under his skin. He hadn't the vaguest notion of Indian ways, set no store by them and his impatience to be doing something constructive to help Vin nibbled away at his normal good humor.
"How big?" Josiah asked.
"Six people," she answered.
He nodded. "Buck, Nathan, I'll need your help."
While the men worked the woman picked certain berries, mashed them with dried herbs from her stores and just enough water to make a syrup. She had the afflicted man whose name was Tanner, drink it down then bade him go somewhere private as the purgative was quick working.
JD balked at the thought of stripping and sitting naked with the others. It was just too foreign to him. It was also humiliating. The men were so much older than himself. And he discovered a weird kind of revulsion to the thought of seeing his friends, men he respected, in the altogether. Josiah tried hard to explain how spiritual and profound a sweat lodge was supposed to be, but to JD's eastern, city bred sensibilities it was just plain embarrassing.
It was Ezra who approached the boy as the rocks were being heated in a fire pit and the last blankets anchored in place over the framework of woven branches.
"Mister Dunne, I understand you will not be joining us."
"No, Ezra. I can't."
"May I ask why?"
"You know I'd do anything for Vin. I just can't ... do this." JD hedged, refusing to meet the gambler's green eyes.
"If it's Buck you are concerned about ..."
"It's everybody, Ezra. Sitting there. Naked." He shuddered. "It's not something I can do."
Ezra took a moment to consider his strategy. He had no doubts that he could talk the boy into action, but he wanted him to feel comfortable with the decision. "Well, I'm glad to hear that I am not the only one who considers this an imposition. Vin is the person afflicted, after all. Why on earth should we be made to adhere to all these taboos and restrictions?"
"Josiah said it had something to do with us being special. You know, sharing a destiny."
"JD, I've heard better lines from the most inept hustler offering second rate wares at exorbitant prices."
Ezra smiled patiently. "That destiny business is fantasy, my boy. We're together because we're being paid to be together. Nothing more. And as for this," he waved an elegant hand at the sweat lodge, "I believe I've sacrificed enough in foregoing liquor for the duration."
"You did that for Vin?" JD knew how much Ezra enjoyed his high priced brandy. He also had a suspicion that the gambler didn't actually drink as much as he made people believe. You couldn't lie worth a damn when you were deep in your cups and Ezra always had his wits about him. "Gee, Ezra. If you could go that far, I guess I could ... It'll be dark in there, right?"
Ezra patted the boy's shoulder. "I imagine we all feel a little embarrassed about this, including our erstwhile Casanova. I'm told we are allowed to maintain some semblance of modesty by employing blankets ..."
JD rounded on him, indignant. "We can wrap ourselves in blankets! Buck didn't tell me that! That sneaking low down snake in the grass. And why didn't you tell me up front? That's not right."
Ezra couldn't keep the smile off his face. The boy's passions were just too volatile and infectious. JD scowled. "Not funny, Ezra. You're as bad as Buck."
"I assure you, Mister Dunne, I can be far worse. However at the moment I'm inclined to limiting your torture. I suggest we dawdle while the others situate themselves."
JD's scowl deepened as he worked on deciphering Ezra's meaning. "Huh?"
"Last persons in get to sit by the door," Ezra explained patiently. "Less heat, less sweating. Am I making myself clear enough for you?"
"Last ones in. First ones out. Yeah! Good plan, Ezra. Thanks."
JD was indeed the last one in and the first one out. He succumbed quickly to the heat and humidity of the sweltering lodge. It bothered him to be such a failure. Almost as much as it bothered him to be participating in rites he had no business giving even lip service to. If they were going to ask the Almighty for intercession then the only way to do it was through proper prayer. Josiah may have lost his faith in God but JD hadn't. He accepted Nathan's help outside, found a spot just outside the entrance and closed his eyes to pray for his friend.
Nathan returned to his seat next to Buck after getting JD settled and stared at the glowing rocks.
He was a healer. At least he considered himself a healer. He had learned herbal craft from the older women on the plantations, then picked up native remedies as he traveled west. He listened to and studied his patients and he knew that nine times out of ten if the ailing person trusted him to help then a cure could be had. If he was going to be of any use to Vin here and now he had to curb his own impatience and trust the shaman to lead the way. Her deliberate and elaborate rituals went against everything he learned during the war about delivering help expediently, but he fought his bias and the fears of inadequacy that went with it.
Buck squirmed around, trying to find a comfortable place where little pebbles and burrs didn't poke into his bare backside. He felt stupid sitting there in the dark with a bunch of grown men. Men just didn't comport themselves so. He preferred to share the dark with a woman, any woman, and it didn't necessarily have to be pitch black. Candlelight made for interesting shadows to play in, sort of like the shadows the steaming rocks were throwing around. He shifted weight again, leaning forward abruptly to cross his arms over his knees, making sure the blanket muffled his rising erection. Damn, he was easy, wasn't he! It wasn't but five days ago he and that pretty little Maggie ... Oh damn!
Chris opened an eye when Buck groaned. "You okay there?"
"Yeah," was the surly answer.
The gunslinger swallowed his chuckle, let his eyes close again. Leave it to Buck to find something erotic about a steambath with a bunch of men. Sitting on his left Josiah began to hum some kind of chant under his breath and Chris let the sound take him far away from the worries of the present.
Josiah looked over as Chris' chin dropped to his chest, wondered if he should nudge the man awake. Spirits could talk to a man in his sleep but dream messages were never forthright and even a holy man sometimes had trouble deciphering the images. He choose to remain still. Heaven knew Larabee had enough to trouble him. A rest would do the man a world of good. Instead he reached for the ladle and sprinkled water onto the rocks to send up a fresh veil of steam. Ezra sent a murderous scowl his way and adjusted his blanket so that he was barely modest.
Josiah only smiled and offered him the ladle. Ezra declined the invitation and Josiah rested the utensil in its hook. He had spent years trying to unravel the mysteries of native worship. That it was far simpler than anything he or his father preached he knew, and it was that very simplicity that vexed him. Each time he thought he had a grasp on the ultimate truth some new angle would present itself and he was back to square one. Frustration was his enemy, he decided. He knew all about frustration, and he would be damned if it let it win this fight, so he stared at the steam and did his best to still his doubts.
Ezra knew all about doubt and fear and frustration and loneliness and second guesses. That basically would describe his life. He also knew about endurance. He had spent his life enduring with a stubborn belief in himself that no one could derail. There had been many a night when he lay awake wondering what he was searching for. Destiny. The word drifted into his conscious thought and brought with it a sharp intake of breath as he considered that perhaps he had been too hasty in dismissing the concept with JD earlier.
While the six sweated their way through cleansing The Woman of Many Names took her charge to the stream and had him bathe. He balked and turned a bright crimson when she wouldn't leave him to privacy. White people were most peculiar in their modesties. She deferred to his pleas by turning her back until he was in the water, then stood at the stream's edge and directed him through the ritual bath. He was lithe and muscular in a lean way, a handsome catch for the woman who managed to capture his heart.
Vin sank under the water a sixth time, staying down for as long as his lungs held out. The cool wet felt good cascading around his body. In a strange way he felt safe here. A fat trout slithered past him with an indignant glare that brought a smile to Vin's face. He pushed up and broke the surface, letting go a laugh before breathing in.
"What brings such amusement?" the woman asked him.
"I'm glad I'm purifying out here and not in that sweat lodge."
She smiled a little, dipped a hand into her pouch and threw some herbs over his head into the water. "Once more under."
Vin back pedaled to the silty shade behind a fallen log, let himself under. Without warning a hand tangled in his hair and held him down. He groped for the arm. His hands were swatted off with a stinging nettle. He twisted to get his feet underneath only to find the bottom gone out from under him. He was being drowned with no way to help himself and no hope of help from his friends who were all dozing their way through a ritual steam. Fear rose up to clutch his heart. His lungs burned for air. He was going to die.
A stray memory awoke. He was ten or so, living with his father among the Cherokee in Oklahoma. "Trust, Little White Wolf," the elder had scolded him. "This word comes easily to the lips of the white man. It rarely touches his heart."
The shaman asked for his trust. He had given it out of fear, because he had no other choice. As he focused on the tiny feet of the woman who held him under water he understood how shallow his promise had been. He ceased to struggle, willed himself to float on her support. Her hand released, the ground was back under his knees and Vin heaved himself up, choking for air.
Deep brown eyes considered him with a smile that came close to matching the smirk Ezra often wore while playing poker.
Vin shook his head. "Why do you people have to make such a project out of things?"
"A project? This is the easy way to reverse the curse upon you. You may come out now."
She stepped lightly to the shore, headed back to the camp. Vin pulled himself out of the water, wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and lay in the sun to get his breath back. "This is the easy way?"
Chris stalked the camp, worry gnawing away at his insides as the day lengthened into night. The time spent in the blistering heat of the sweat lodge had done nothing to help his mood. He had fallen asleep and woke with a headache, disturbed by visions of animals and death that refused to make any kind of sense and left with a dread that all their efforts would be in vain.
He wanted a drink bad but the woman had strictly forbidden them all from alcohol. He kept his distance from her. Nathan and Josiah were already dogging her heels, absorbing what they could of her arts. He knew he'd only blow his top with her irritating way of turning a question back on the questioner.
Ezra joined him at the fire. "What kind of woman do you see?" he asked.
"A girl, barely a woman," Chris sighed.
"So do I. Buck and JD see a mother heavy with child. Josiah and Nathan are convinced Aurora's a crone. How can you tell me she has no power?"
Larabee wanted so much to believe. It was like a knife through his heart that he couldn't find an ounce of faith. "I'm afraid to lose him, Ezra. This hocus pocus ..."
"Is helping Vin," Ezra soothed. "He hasn't been this calm in days. Go talk to him."
Chris took himself to where the tracker sat with the young woman. Vin's eyes came up. A glimmer of humor sparkled. "Where ya been, cowboy?"
"Looking after things. How do you feel?"
"Better. A long ways from all right yet. I should apologize for being so ornery."
"You were ornery?"
Vin winced, managed a fresh grin. Chris smiled back. Hope returned to his heart.
The woman rose to her feet. "He needs to rest and we must talk."
The Woman of Many Names gathered the six. "The poisons of the earth have been countered. The poisons of the soul remain. That which was stolen in truth mirrors that which was taken in spirit. We must attend to both for him to once more have peace. The journey to the underworld to retrieve that symbolic part will be difficult. I would have you all understand what is required of you."
"Underworld?" Buck wanted to know. "You don't mean ..."
"Indians don't believe in hell," Josiah explained. "In their culture there are three parts to the world. That which is above ground where man lives and dies. That which is below ground where spirit helpers and the knowledge of the universe resides." The woman nodded in agreement. "And that which is high above, the kingdom of the Great Mystery where the mighty spirits dwell."
The woman took up the detail. "All men have spirit guides. Not all men listen to the good sense their guides try to impart."
"Like guardian angels?" JD asked.
"More likely an animal," Josiah hedged. "You might want to begin, ma'am, before he really starts with the questions."
She took them step by step through the impending journey. What they would likely feel, what they should look for and how to comport themselves, then the journey itself began. In the darkness of the sweat lodge six men sat with eyes closed as the woman rapped a tatoo on a drum and led them with words through the tunnel to the spirit world that lay below the true world.
Chris scowled through fits and starts. He saw the cave within the tree that had intrigued him as a six year old, managed to imagine himself crawling in far enough to skid down the roots some, then the vision eluded him with fits and starts. He'd be there then he was back in the tent, then falling again toward a hazy light that had no business being deep below the earth. He came to a rest in a bright cave of some sort, everything wavering just beyond his ability to focus. His failure ate at him like a canker making it more difficult for him to see what his logical mind said was pure fantasy and foolishness.
"Easy there, Ezra," Nathan's voice cut through Chris' concentration, brought him back to the here and now with a jolt. He could barely make out the gambler's head down close to his knees. "Just breathe deep."
"What happened?" Chris demanded.
"I saw it," Ezra's voice sounded strange. Chris put a hand to his pocket for his matches. The woman beat him to it, lighting the small pile of waiting sticks.
Ezra raised himself slowly. Even in the dim light of the small fire it was easy to see the color had pulled from his face. "The roots and tunnel, a feeling of being very deep in the earth, then there was a huge cavern, with it's own sun."
He frowned, deeply troubled.
"Did your spirit guide make himself known?" the woman asked.
"Yes," he barely whispered. "A raven."
His expression changed in an instant. The bemusement was gone and his normal haughty demeanor back in place. A quick eye went around the group. "No one else saw anything?"
JD looked his usual flustered self. Buck bit back a snicker. Nathan shrugged. Josiah wore a doubtful look. "I think I saw mine, but I wasn't allowed to enter past the mouth of the tunnel." he sighed. Chris avoided Ezra's eyes.
"This can't be," Ezra protested. "This is to fall on me? I don't even believe ..."
"I saw mine," Chris cut him off. "A deer."
Ezra glared, at once relieved and piqued that Chris had withheld immediate acknowledgment. The woman's attention shifted. "Three times?"
Chris shook his head, doubting his own clarity of mind. "The third time came with Ezra's mention of his bird. Does that count?"
"Standing guard over a buffalo calf?" Ezra ventured, horror seeped into his drawl. He had a vivid imagination, necessary to his line of work, but this exercise had felt too real at the end to be explained away as simple hypnotic suggestion.
Chris' eyes swung back to the gambler in shock, seeing again the fiercely antlered buck, forefeet slashing a warning as it stood before a stricken buffalo calf. A black bird wheeled a circle above both larger animals. A crystal clear image, one that wouldn't release him.
"How in the royal hell," Buck exploded, "could you both see the same thing? All I got was some sort of green world and a sighing wind."
"Power walks among us," the woman recaptured their undivided attention. "It chooses champions as it needs. I would speak with you both alone."
Josiah led the exodus out, leaving Chris and Ezra with the woman who held an awesome power he couldn't begin to comprehend. He had taken spirit journeys before, always guided and sometimes fulfilling. It concerned him that he was denied this mission, but as she said, power chose as the situation demanded. It intrigued him even more that Ezra seemed to be at the center of all the activity taking place, Ezra and Chris and Vin. Three. A powerful number going back to antiquity and Josiah had to wonder just how it pertained to his friends.
"Why me?" Ezra complained.
"It is for you to lead the others back from beyond. There will be many false trails for unwary feet. Only Coyote cunning can unwind truth from falsehood."
"My dear, I haven't hampered your efforts because I have no faith in what you're attempting."
"Therefore you have no illusions. This is good, Ez za rah."
It tickled him to hear his name dragged out in her curious dialect. He knew better than to let idle fancies distract him from the business at hand. "At what cost?"
"Just do what she tells you, Ezra," Chris snarled.
"The question is valid, Chris Larabee. Do not scold." She looked from one man to the other, feeling out their differences and fears. "Blood is easy to spill, a life offered without thought. What the spirits demand of you is far more costly, Ez za rah Standish. A sacrifice only you can put a price upon."
Ezra held her eyes. She was as adept as his mother at redirecting attention and diverting personal questions, but there were things about her he was confident about. She was a healer and she meant to do everything in her power for a man she never met. What could possibly be more valuable than life itself, and he knew it wasn't money. Money was an end to a means, as easily lost as gained. What did he have to offer that was any greater than the others of their party? He had no illusions about his worth as a compatriot.
"I believe you've chosen your champion poorly, but I am yours to command," Ezra gave in. He hated introspection. There was no way to get a proper position to view all possible angles when the subject was himself.
Dark Willow danced to drums only she could hear. The fire smouldered and smoke filled her tent thickly, shrouding her naked limbs. The man who gave his heart and liver for her sacrifice lay discarded to one side.
Her warriors had reported the arrival of the Navajo girl to the camp of her enemies. They called her a maid and a shaman in training by her bearing and the deference paid her by the men surrounding the man Dark Willow claimed for torment. She herself dared a look to take the girl's measure. No maid could match the power a grandmother could command. There was nothing to fear. Still, Dark Willow contemplated her revenge and decided to end the tracker's torment. The disgrace of failure brought down on the head of the young healer with his death would only sweeten her victory. So she made her sacrifices to gods best left undisturbed and ordered her demons to destroy the captive.
The Woman of Many Names stood before the camp fire. Every sense she possessed alerted her to a change in the rhythms of the world. The witch had dabbled again, this time unleashing powerful forces to do her bidding, no doubt alerted to the shaman's presence and desiring to consummate her vengeance. So she forced the fight to her advantage, using the dark of night as a shroud for her depredations. They could expect a physical attack to come swiftly on the heels of the spiritual assault.
But the witch had overlooked the fact that it was the night of a new moon. Healing magic was just as powerful, if not greater than, corrupting spells. Urgency pressed upon the shaman. She must act swiftly and decisively. A choice presented itself to her. If she coupled with one of the six she could tap into the ultimate energy of the universe and gain that much more advantage. Such a union did have its perils. The man had to be willing to open himself to the deeper mysteries beyond the union of flesh.
But which one?
The elder, Josiah, was a man of deep spiritual bent. She had enjoyed their talk on the way to join his waiting friends, but he also held a deceptive contrary nature. She couldn't be certain if he would not engross himself in mysteries best left untouched or fall prey to possession in his eagerness to learn more than he could hold. There was also the warning his spirit guide had given against attempting any such journeying at this time.
Her eyes next fell on the youth, deep in conversation with his mentor. One untried and the other jaded by a lust for the sensual. Neither of use in a union that required conviction and focus as well as abandonment in joy.
The dark one was likewise not a suitable candidate. All his thoughts were centered on the health of his friend, and his strength would be needed to sustain the stricken man through the ritual passage back to the true world.
That left the black and the emerald eyed Coyote who dared tell her he had no faith in her magic. She embraced the black's spirit as he labored over a brew of herbs, saw immediately that he too would not serve. Although more open than the others to native heal craft he held reservations of faith that would defeat the purpose of the union. His God was a jealous God.
Ezra looked up at the woman's approach, rose to meet her.
"We must talk," she said then turned to lead him away from the camp.
Ezra followed the shaman into the trees. She stopped in a tiny copse guarded on three sides by thick blackberry bushes, far enough from the camp for a momentary feeling of being alone in the world. Had he been a less cultured man it would be a lovely spot for a rendevous. She circled the enclave once then faced him. It seemed to him her resolve wavered then hid behind a formal decorum.
"Bad news?" he ventured.
"No. An undertaking that would prove most beneficial, but one that will appear self indulgent, even sacrilegious to your companions."
He waited courteously. It was refreshing and unnerving to spar words with the young shaman. He constantly felt two steps behind the woman. Something he should he accustomed to, the more cynical part of him reminded, considering his own mother still played him like a trump.
"What could you possibly ask of me that would enrage them?"
"Coup ..." The thought simply wouldn't jell into coherence. "As in intimate relations?"
"What on earth for?" he had to ask. He couldn't imagine how such an act now could possibly help Vin.
"It is the way of the universe," she explained patiently. "All things are born of the coupling of male and female. The union of man and woman is the greatest power anyone can command. It is the quickest way past the defenses the witch has thrown up."
She watched his eyes closely. So far he seemed to follow her logic. "It is no small thing I ask of you, Ez za rah. You must put aside animal lust and follow me to the higher planes of communion."
"I don't understand."
"You need not understand, only trust and serve."
A blush colored his cheeks. She knew full well it was not his way to speak so directly, but there was no time for word games.
"One more truth you must know before you say yes or no. Close your eyes for a moment then look on me again."
That she was not the untried maiden she appeared he already knew. To see her true nature frightened him suddenly. It wasn't just the thought of servicing a crone that appalled. He realized in that moment that he found her attractive in ways that had nothing to do with physical pleasure and he didn't want to spoil the illusion. But he did as she asked. She had given him a choice not an ultimatum.
When he opened his eyes he beheld the same face albeit a more mature one. Black hair was touched gently with gray and her cheeks lined with a lifetime spent in the elements, but the eyes remained youthful. She was likely Maude's age, perhaps a handful of years younger. His heart beat a little faster. The young wielder of power intimidated. This true woman intrigued him on a level no other ever had. But, but, but, part of him screamed for attention.
"As I understand your request this is not mandatory. Dare I venture to say it is most unusual?"
"Unusual yes. Dangerous yes. The witch has used dark rites to block our path to Vin Tanner. She would have him dead before the sun rises. Such a union can break her defenses with less risk, so we may serve your friend swiftly. You are Coyote and Coyote was always one to walk the balance between light and dark. If you can trust you need have no fear, and I might draw down the strength of the Creator of all through you."
Ezra caught a glib response before it could get past his teeth. The woman was entirely earnest and he sensed, uneasy. She would need to be as open with him as she asked of him. Such a union with a stranger had to cause trepidation in any woman, red or white, shaman or no. Little doubts assailed him. There was so much to evaluate in too short a time.
"I do understand that the union of souls is purported to be the highest manifestation of the Divine.
He sighed, shaking his head sadly. "My dear, I am not as disciplined as you require."
"Neither am I. Come to me now and we will learn together." She tugged at her shoulder lacings, let her dress fall to the ground.
Ezra's breath caught as he took in her naked body. Old enough to be his mother, his baser self scolded. A woman of maturity and passion, he corrected. She was not a trim lithe twenty year old, no. Her curves were generous and supple with a grace youth couldn't match. Propriety assailed him and he dropped his gaze. He couldn't do this. How could he? It wasn't the physical attraction that was stirring in his groin. He could control that. The hours, days, hell years, spent in conning and playing poker had made him a master of his baser self. It was the threat to his heart that unnerved him.
Li Pong had undone him with her innocence and trust, opening him to the possibility that maybe he could love and be loved. Now this woman asked for a sharing that went deeper than any union he had ever contemplated and that terrified him. He had learned way too early in life never to completely open himself to anyone. He knelt to retrieve her dress. Her fingers found their way through his hair. Her belly was right there before his eyes and below that pleasant curving ...
No! He wouldn't think about it, wouldn't consider the intimacy she asked of him. There had to be another way to aid his friend. Still his arms went around her. Tears streamed from his eyes. She came down to her knees within the circle of his arms, held him in turn. Her mouth opened under his kiss and he was swept up by the currents of power swirling around her. Images raced across his mind's eye. He barely had a name to one when it disappeared under another. They came faster and faster until he was disoriented. Vaguely he was aware of his clothes dropping away, of warm flesh pressing against his. Aurora's voice crooned over him and he stopped fighting for coherence, let the scenes play out for themselves, engrossed himself in the pleasures of intimate touch.
Vin woke out of sleep with a cry. The dream had returned. This time there were bodies within the wall of flames that surrounded him, the bodies of his friends, crucified on gaunt dead trees, and a maniacal laugh taunted his helplessness. He had to leave. He had to get far away to keep them out of danger.
Slipping out of his blanket Vin crept to the line of horses. He was settling his saddle onto the thick padding when he woke to the realization of what he was doing. He stood there, hands on the leather, bewildered by conflicting necessities.
That was Josiah, off to his right. A shadow within the shadows of the trees.
"Couldn't sleep," Vin lied.
Boots crunched gravel softly and the tall preacher appeared on the other side of Vin's horse. "Lot of that going around lately," he observed.
"I keep seeing her, Josiah. Every time I close my eyes that crazy bitch is dancing and screeching. I don't know how much more I can take." He hung his head, ashamed of his weakness. "Stupid, ain't it? Believing I'm cursed."
"It's not stupid, Vin. She's taken away your faith in your friends and put fear in its place. Fear is the devil's playground. It'll eat you up just as surely as guilt or rage or vengeance. You can't outrun it. You can't outwit it. All you can do is face it."
Vin felt the leather under his hands. Every fibre of his being told him to run like hell into the night and take his chances that he could outdistance his persecutor. Abandon his friends before they became convinced he was insane and locked him away for his own good.
A hand dropped over his. Josiah held his eyes with a serene confidence. "Chris is up for the next watch. You might want to get a move on if you're going."
With that he strode for the campsite and the men sleeping around the fire. Vin watched him go. His gaze fell on the fire. Drums thundered in his ears and he jammed his palms against his head. A wolf howled its hunting call. Bird calls and the yips of coyotes followed. The hunters were on the move. He had to go now if he was going anywhere.
"Vin, you okay?"
Vin swung around, knife slashing out to threaten. "Don't touch me!"
Chris managed to evade the unfocused thrust, held his hands up. "Easy, pard. I'm on your side."
"I trusted you. You were supposed to be there for me," Vin screamed. "Where the hell were you?"
"I'm here now. Let me help." Chris noted the others moving up from the camp behind Vin.
"You can't help me! Nobody can help me. I just want it over with." The knife arced for his own throat.
"Vin, no!" Chris howled. Buck came out of nowhere, caught Vin's right arm into his, twisted until the knife fell from numb fingers. Josiah moved in to trap the other arm. The tracker screamed and fought but he couldn't budge the combined weight of the big men. Without warning he simply collapsed. Nathan moved in, felt for fever.
"He's burning up. Get him back to the fire. JD, find that shaman."
Sex had always been rather mechanical for Ezra. His Aunt Rosalyn, a very young widow, introduced her teenage charge to the intricacies of male female union without ever considering his feelings. She played with him, used him, but never once cared about him. The young man left her tutelage with another weapon in his arsenal of tricks and a heart firmly guarded against trusting any intimacy.
Until now. An immense peace settled on Ezra even as the rush of physical pleasure raced through him. From one breath to the next he found himself flying high above the earth. People were mere specks on the land, the clouds his playground. He was free and uninhibited and a reckless joy he had known only a few rare times in his life filled him. He had to be close to the gates of heaven he felt so good.
A companion rode the winds beside him, admonishing him with a request to attend to business. He considered ignoring it. The bliss was too intoxicating to give up. His life had been so brutally harsh. Surely he was entitled to this unbridled pleasure. The call came again, more urgent yet still gentle. That other understood his temptation. With that tiny realization Ezra was back in the copse, intimately entwined with a doe eyed woman who smiled tenderly up at him.
"What ... was that?" he stammered.
"The home of the Thunder Beings. It is time to get dressed," she urged.
A breeze drifted across his bare backside, inciting a shiver. He lifted off her, looked for his clothes, chagrined to find them in humiliating disarray. God, she must think him an idiot with no sense of decorum whatsoever. He dressed quickly, back to her, listening to the small sounds she made while dressing.
Sneaking a look he found that she was ready, plaiting her hair into a single braid. Somehow he couldn't meet her eyes. "I'm sorry."
"I failed you."
She had to duck her head to catch his eyes, touched by his strange diffidence. "You wrought better than you know, Ez za rah."
He stole a glance. No longer did he see her as a young maid and that gave him confidence. His head lifted. "I don't understand."
"You cannot. You are not trained in the ways of power. It was for you to trust, which you did."
"I fear I am also in love."
Her eyes narrowed with consideration. He was under the thrall of power. He would be until her work was finished. Now was not the time for such discussion.
"We shall see," she said. "First we must attend to your friend."
That eased some of the anxiety in the emerald eyes. He nodded, offered an arm. Unsure of the proper action she delicately slid her hand around his elbow, walked beside him.
It occurred as she knew it would. Hard eyes turned on them, measuring every step, the now easy familiarity. The dark one moved forward. "Where have you two been?" he demanded.
Ezra fought a rush of fear under Larabee's ice hard eyes. Damn the man. He knew.
The Woman of Many Names stepped between them. "Power does not walk to the demands of impatient men. Ez za rah is called upon to aid me in ways I am not inclined to explain," she scolded.
"Ma'am, I've had enough of your ways. Vin's come down with a fever."
"He is fighting for his life. As we continue to do. Ez za rah, you will ride to the witch's camp and reclaim the token she stole from Vin Tanner. They are camped north of here."
He nodded, pulled his Remington to check the cylinders.
"If at all possible do not draw first blood," she urged, her fingers still resting lightly on his arm.
"Buck, JD, go with him," Chris ordered, daring the shaman to defy his authority.
She didn't flinch from his eyes. "Only the one may enter and leave undetected. You may go to guard," she turned to Buck, "Do not attempt to pass into the circle of tents. Na-tan, you have the tea ready?"
Nathan nodded from the camp fire, finished filling a small bottle with some of the liquid. He brought it to the shaman. She held it between both palms, eyes half closing and crooning softly over it before turning to Ezra and offering it.
"This is for you. Once you have the token drink this as soon as practical."
Ezra secreted the bottle in the pocket normally reserved for his cards, turned for the horses. Chris formed a protest but the woman put out a hand to him.
"Come. It is time for you to prepare."
Hard hands dug into his hair, pinched crippling holds on his arms. The old woman stepped up, breath puffing foul into his face.
"Choose the place of death," she ordered.
Still dazed from the sneak attack, Vin didn't quite understand. Memory stirred. A heartbeat later they stood in a valley of death. Buffalo carcasses stripped of hides and tongues rotted under the high Kansas sun. Thousands upon thousands of animals as far as the eye could see.
The woman crowed her delight, showing gaps in her brown teeth. "So be it."
Knives came out to rip his clothes from his body. He was dropped naked on his back. Leather strips were looped around his limbs and staked to poles deep set in the baked dirt of the plain. The witch hiked her skirt as she squatted over him, chanting to her gods in a tongue he didn't know. The touch of her against him brought a sickness to his mouth. He squeezed his eyes shut, fought the arousal but his body refused to obey his mind's orders. She rocked herself on him until he released, willing or not.
Pain shot up his left arm. Vin's eyes flew open. The witch held an eagle's talon, razor sharp claws dripping with his blood. "Suffer and die, Vin Tanner."
She drove the talons down at him once more. Vin bit back a cry. The cuts weren't that deep, but they stung and bled. She raked his chest and belly, opened up his thighs, found every sensitive patch of skin including the soles of his feet. She cackled when he finally screamed then left him alone in the field of rotting corpses.
Vin fought his ropes instinctively. He had no chance of dislodging them. Fear rose that his friends wouldn't find him. They'd look. Of that he had no doubt, but would they think to look here? How would they know to seek out the source of the great guilt that tainted his soul? They couldn't. They were white and that realization withered his hope for rescue.
Preparations were completed rapidly and when done two men lay on bedrolls. Vin had fallen into a coma like sleep after his outburst and lay barely breathing. Chris hesitated over his share of the potion. Both men had been stripped to loincloths. Faces, bellies and limbs painted with signs of protection. The woman knelt between them. Once Chris was safely under she would follow him to the spirit world.
Josiah sat at their feet, a drum between his knees. His doubts had settled once it occurred to him that the reason he was denied the spirit journey was the need for his presence in the true world. Someone had to stand guard over the sleepers and no one else of their group had the faintest idea what dangers to watch for. The shaman had given him a smile when he arranged his strange assortment of demon warding gear on a blanket just south of their feet. He nodded encouragement to the leader of their group.
"Bring him home, Chris."
Chris let out a sigh. He had less faith in this nonsense than Ezra, but he gulped the brew and lay back. His eyes had barely closed when he felt fingers twine into his then he was skidding down a dark tunnel on the roots of a tree that reached way down deep into the earth.
He landed hard, losing his breath with a whoosh. Pushing to hands and knees his head felt too heavy. Had he injured himself? Was it possible to injure this so-called spirit self? Opening his eyes he found a silver thread of a stream just ahead. He dragged himself over, leaned in. The antlered head of a stag stared up at him from the mirror bright surface of the water. He put out a hand, only to see a split toed hoof. Panic flooded through him and he wobbled on shaky knees.
The girl came to him, hands catching his head, patting him gently. "There is nothing to fear."
"I'm an animal," he screamed. It came out of the stag's throat as a bellow.
"It is your spirit guide's form you wear. Be at peace, Chris Larabee. This is good, not ill. Seek your friend."
She continued to stroke his shoulders and neck. Chris stamped his irritation, fought his fury into some semblance of control. He turned a circle, surveying the rolling hills around them. Trees hugged the sides of the stream. The sky was high and clear with nothing to indicate direction. In the distance quick sharp ridges poked up from sun baked clay floors. It seemed familiar in a way but he couldn't place it as any vista he'd ever seen. He turned back to the girl.
"Follow your heart."
Why had he agreed to this? Chris closed his eyes, let his head swing slowly side to side as Vin's name repeated in his mind. This was all so alien to him. Something grabbed and pulled him to the right.
Gazing in that direction the forest climbed a sloping ridge. The slight tug gained strength and he turned fully. A kit fox skittered atop a fallen tree trunk, scented the air, bobbed her head and took off running. Chris followed with a bound, lengthening his stride to put miles behind them.
As they neared the base of the first towering rise, gray shapes erupted out of the rocks. Coyotes, slavering and narrow eyed, determined to halt their advance. Chris snorted a warning to the pack. The ranks split to attack from both sides. The fox leapt to a high rock then across to his back. Tiny talons dug holds into his shoulders.
Chris gave a bellow, lowered his head and ran full bore. The coyotes charged recklessly. He caught the first on his antlers, tossed it kicking and spinning into a heavy oak. The second fell under a vicious kick then he was past, bounding up the slope in huge leaps from boulder to boulder. The demons regrouped and charged up after him.
That nagging familiarity with the hill came back full force as Chris cleared a switchback. Fear flared a warning and he came to a sudden lurching stop. The side dropped off in a vertical cliff. In his dreaming he had plunged off to his death.
He swung around. The pack was closing fast and the advantage was all theirs. He had no room to maneuver. He faced the drop. The ridge resumed on the other side, but it was a good twelve feet away. Chris backed up as far as he could. It wasn't like he had a choice. The yapping scavengers were just about at his heels. Muscles bunched and he lunged forward before he could second guess this hare-brained idea, launched himself in a mighty leap from the very edge of the cliff.
Forelegs caught solid purchase. His right foot came down solid. The left skidded off unstable dirt that gave under his weight. He kicked frantically for a solid purchase as his weight dragged him backwards off the cliff. The fox leapt for safety.
The girl screamed at him. "Think of the man! Be a man!"
Chris skidded relentlessly over the side. Then his hands closed on an exposed root. He clung for a moment, pulling in air to calm his overworked nerves. Hands closed on his wrist, gave him support as he dragged himself up. The pair sat huddled, exhausted by the near miss.
"Christ!" Chris swore. "A little warning would have been nice."
"I could not know the face of the witch's guardians until the journey was begun. We have done well to get this far. She will have saved the strongest wards for the last."
Chris nodded grimly, pulled himself to his feet to trace the journey down the ridge. A vast plain spread below them, dotted with mile upon mile of buffalo carcasses. Heat rose in shimmering curtains. Despair threatened to overwhelm him. "Good Lord."
"Call him. If he loses all hope before we find him we will lose him forever."
Chris got a firm hold on his own fears, pushed them behind him. "Tanner! Vin Tanner!"
Vin stirred out of his daze, not opening his eyes. The sun hadn't let up. He could feel the moisture being sucked from his body, the heat of sunburn adding to the fever from his now inflamed gashes. Was that a breeze caressing his skin or the call of an animal? Actually it sounded just a little like Chris. But it couldn't be. Chris had no idea where he was.
A sigh escaped his parched lips. "Larabee."
Chris felt it. He couldn't describe it but he felt Vin's soul. The tracker was still alive. Without thinking he was once more a stag. The kit fox resumed her perch on his shoulders and he skidded downslope in a rush to the valley of despair.
Ezra slithered through the slit he ripped in the tent wall. He made a circuit of the area with his eyes before moving. All the trappings of a witch were there, debased and vile even to a man who spent his life on the wrong side of good and ill. Vin's medicine pouch hung on a branch over a low fire. He grabbed it free, slipped the string over his head.
A bowl of flaky material caught his eye. He rubbed a bit between his fingers, impulsively scooped up a handful and backed toward his hole.
The witch burst in with one of her guards. She was far cruder than Tanner had intimated, an emaciated harridan, frazzled wild hair adorned with knuckle bones, face painted in hideous display. She pointed a bony finger at him, screeching insults and curses in her own language. Her other hand passed over the fire, igniting a geyser of sparks.
Ezra caught up short. The woman smirked a smug derision at the hesitation she caused.
"Madam, I've worked with better hustlers in Atlantic City." Ezra demurred and flung his handful of nitrate into the fire, causing an eye searing ball of flame that had the pair blinking for sight while he slipped out into the night.
JD and Buck were ready with the horses. Ezra was barely in his saddle before they were pounding up the trail away from the camp. They ran a good distance before they were forced to a walk by the uneven rocky ground. Ezra looked hard down their back trail. There was no sign of pursuit. He slipped the small bottle out of his vest pocket.
"You're not going to drink that now?" Buck protested.
"I was instructed to do so at the earliest opportunity."
"Ezra, it won't take but ten, fifteen minutes for us to get back. You can wait that long. Just to be on the safe side."
Ezra studied the brackish liquid. Something deep inside him screamed for action. Vin didn't have fifteen minutes. He bolted the shot, stuffed the bottle away. Without warning the world spun.
"I believe I require some assistance."
"Ezra!" Buck shot out a hand to steady as the gambler started to fall backwards. He ripped off his bandanna. "JD, get his reins."
The boy moved in, taking the leads from the lax fingers. Buck quick lashed Ezra's wrists to the saddle horn. He was listening hard to the night, caught the sound of hoofbeats coming in fast.
"Get him back to camp, pronto."
"Buck, don't do anything stupid."
"I'm just gonna slow them down some. Now go." Buck slapped the rump of Ezra's horse to get them both moving, grabbed his rifle and slid from his own saddle. He brought his gelding into cover behind a stand of rocks, set up for discriminatory fire. He had counted eight or nine men at the camp. That didn't mean there weren't more he had missed. It just meant a sleepless night for all of them. He wasn't about to contemplate any of his friends dying, and lined up his sights.
Ezra tumbled down the narrow dark shaft, unhurt, just disoriented by the abrupt transition to the spirit world. Bursting out into the light he spread his arms, wings rather, and took to flight. It didn't occur to him that he couldn't fly. The compact little bird's body he now wore felt completely natural. He swept low under downy clouds. There was a purpose to this journey. Something, no someone he had to find.
Just then his name rang in his mind, "Where the hell is Ezra?" That was Larabee. He targeted his direction, drew in outspread wings a bit and plummeted toward the ground.
JD pulled up hard at the camp, as out of breath as his horse. Josiah came up to meet them.
"Ezra took that potion," he gasped.
Josiah went to the gambler's side, undid the restraining knots. "I got him, JD. Take care of the horses then go up on the ridge to watch."
Long arms and soft crooning words eased Ezra to the ground. The entranced man retained enough sense to maintain his feet and walk under guidance to the sleepers. Josiah removed Ezra's hat and coat. That's as far as he got.
"Chris," Ezra barely hissed then sank to his knees beside Vin.
Chris caught the lithe black form against the bright sky. At least the heat had died down some. "There he is! Ezra."
He raised his arm. The bird mantled at the last second, perched on the offered hand. Aurora edged
in on the other side. Vin's medicine pouch hung around the ebony neck.
"Vin's in this field somewhere," Chris explained. "Maybe you can spot him from the air when I call. Can you do that?"
The raven's yellow eyes blinked then he bobbed his head and took to the air. Chris watched him climb. The howl of wolves swung him around. They were hunting, himself or Vin. It didn't matter. Urgency gripped his heart with icy fear.
He swung back to business. "Tanner," he bellowed. "Vin Tanner, hold on. We're coming."
Ezra circled. He had no idea what to look for among the bloody bodies. Instinct kept one thought at the front of his thoughts. Vin Tanner needed help.
Chris' call echoed across the valley. A golden beacon of light flared up from the ground. Ezra banked left, winged for the shimmering pillar. Cruising lower he identified the gray lumps as animal remains. There were more than he could count, then he saw the man staked out. A cloud blocked his vision momentarily. When he broke free of it the beacon had vanished.
He swung lower still, circled in a narrowing spiral. Six, no seven men lay below. In various stages of dress and decay. All with Tanner's face. Several called to him.
"Ezra, over here."
Only one could be his friend. Something told him he had only one chance to choose correctly. A wrong cast would mean his death as well as Tanner's. Aurora's words came back to him. Coyote alone can see illusion from truth. He needed to see the truth when his eyes were being deceived. A small adjustment of wings brought his descent into a hover. He closed his eyes and prayed for the Almighty to make the choice for him.
"Vin Tanner," the bird's voice was caustic to his ears.
An invisible lariat settled on him, pulled him spiraling down to the naked wasted form of his friend. Ezra landed, hopped over. Tanner was in bad shape to say the least. Burnt and dried out from the sun, covered head to toe in blood. He nudged one cheek, chirped for attention.
Vin kept his eyes shut tight. He didn't want the buzzards eating them out of his living skull. Maybe he should just let go and expire. He was past the pain. All he wanted was peace.
Ezra hopped onto Tanner's collarbone, nudged him again. He needed to know his friend still lived. Vin shuddered. A small groan escaped the cracked lips.
Ezra's relief chilled as a shadow passed over them and the battle cry of an eagle scaled down his spine. He ducked under the grabbing talons, twisted his head to track the bird's ascent. The miss astonished him. It could have killed him easily.
The medicine bag bumped his feet as he righted himself. Of course. The bird was after the bag. He couldn't fight properly with the burden and to lose it now was unthinkable. He slipped the loop over his head, caught it in his beak and dragged it to Vin's right hand. Placing the bag itself on the lax palm, Ezra wove the string into and around Vin's fingers.
Josiah sat at Ezra's side. Periodically he waved a feathered bone rattle in the air over the sleepers, danced fingers of one hand on the drum in an encouraging rhythm. The gambler had gone motionless after sitting back on his heels. Now his hands moved spastically and he leaned forward to release the medicine bag. Josiah knew better than to interfere. The most he did was hook one finger in the string to help it over Ezra's head. Ezra folded the token into Vin's fingers.
Satisfied that the bag was as safe as possible Ezra launched himself into the air on an intercept course with the eagle.
Chris found the black birds circling on the currents, pushed his pace until his heart pounded against his ribs. More hunters were on the prowl. He heard the voices of wolves clearly now, caught sight of Indians darting from cover to cover. Time had run out. Clearing a last corpse he crashed to a stop at a buffalo calf's tortured body, limp under the web of leather ties that held it staked to the ground. The kit fox leaped to the ground to gnaw at the ropes holding the creature prisoner. Chris turned to face the attack, throwing his head high.
The brave crept silently on the camp through the dark. He carried a bow and two arrows in one hand as he scaled the rocks. He had been on the tail end of the hunters when rifle fire brought down half their number and so had escaped injury. Better able to see at night than his brothers he had taken his horse into a rift to work his way to the enemies camp. Now he lifted one eye to scout the small hastily made camp. Five, six men and one woman. Two arrows. He sighted his targets. First the tracker to show the rest that their efforts had been in vain, then the thief who dared violate her sanctum as punishment for his audacity. The others were of no consequence
Chris stampeded the clutch of wolves by running through the pack with antlers lowered and rear hooves flailing. They died quickly under his ferocity. Three braves threatened him with spears and knives. He twisted and lunged, took crippling thrusts but wouldn't turn away from his defense.
High above Ezra battled fatigue in his duel with the heavier bird. He couldn't win a fair fight with the mightiest hunter of the skies. Just that quickly he changed tactics, feigned injury. The eagle dove for him with a scream. At the last second Ezra banked upside down past the outstretched talons, drove his own claws though pin feathers into the eagle's shoulder muscle. The bird screamed as the wing ripped in half and plummeted for the earth.
Craning around to follow the death fall Ezra sighted an Indian taking aim on Vin with a bow. Chris was engaged with overwhelming odds and an out of control fury. Continuing his roll, he pulled wings in tight and dove.
Josiah started when Ezra suddenly reared up, eyes still shut tight but seeming to search the night. His Remington came out and up. The Indian taking aim also jumped at the move, switched targets and let fly a bare instant ahead of the bullet that rocked him backwards off his perch.
The arrow drilled into Ezra's chest. He collapsed into Josiah's arms.
"Ezra's hit!" Josiah called out. JD fired into the night. Across the camp Buck came barreling in, flew off his horse and took up position. Nathan balked over the helpless dreamers.
"I got them," Josiah encouraged, shifting Ezra's weight to the ground to take up his rattle once more. The healer nodded. He kicked the fire apart to douse the flames, moved out to join the perimeter guards.
Chris impaled the last warrior with his horns, shook the man off. A bird's scream brought his head up. The raven was down, an arrow piercing its breast. He turned on the shooter with a roar.
"No!" The shaman called. "He is nothing. Your duty is here." Sure enough a red hawk screamed out of the clouds and tore into the man's face. Chris would have to thank Josiah for taking his sentry duty very seriously.
He joined the woman at Vin's side, kneeling beside the tortured body. Grief, sickness, anger all surged through him. She pressed a canteen and cloth into his hands. "Clean his wounds. Quickly."
The Woman of Many Names put her hands over Tanner's hand that clutched the medicine bag so tightly. They faced their greatest challenge now. Convincing him that salvation had truly come. Larabee swabbed the wounds with a great gentility, starting with the lash marks of the left wrist and continuing down the arm. As he wiped away the blood the wounds healed. The woman crooned into the stricken man's ear tender songs of love and encouragement.
"That which was taken is returned to you. Be as one, Little White Wolf, also known as Vin Tanner."
Chris finished his attentions quickly, inspired by the near instantaneous healing. Even the raw red sunburn seemed to fade away. He wiped the rag over Vin's face, pressed some of the liquid between the lax lips.
"Come on, Vin. You're a Tanner. Fight for your life."
A sob escaped. "I betrayed the buffalo."
The Woman of Many Names caressed his face. "You were betrayed by the men who employed you. Buffalo knows your heart is good and forgives. Your death will not atone for your sins. You must live."
Chris prayed as he never had since he lost his family. Take me. God, please take me in his place.
Vin's eyes fluttered open, fixed on the woman. "Yes, Little White Wolf, live and guard the spirit of the buffalo as only you can."
Vin fought a rise of hope. It was useless to hope. Wasn't it? He had been cursed to die a slow death far away from his friends, paying for a crime against nature that he had committed in ignorance. Larabee's hand closed on his shoulder, the face swam into focus.
"I'm here, cowboy. What say we go home now?"
Thunder rumbled the ground beneath them. Vin cowered, throwing himself into Chris' arms. Chris shot a look around at the violent purple clouds quickly overwhelming the sky. They weren't out of danger yet.
"Come on, Vin. Pull yourself together. We need to move."
Vin raised his head only to look past his friend and stare a massive white buffalo dead in the eye. The cow stared at him intently in turn. He brought his hand up in tentative greeting, medicine bag swinging a bit. "I'm sorry. I didn't know." With that his strength gave out and his head lolled back.
Chris felt for a heartbeat, overcome with a dark misery at finding none. He held on tight, threw his head back and roared. "No!"
The Woman of Many Names caressed Vin Tanner's face, kissed his mouth, breathing in the grace she carried within her from the home of the Thunder Beings. "What will you do for us?"
Eyes opened, remained focused on other realms. Chris clutched Vin's hand tight against his chest, willing life back into his friend. Vin's voice came softly, barely audible. "I will do all I can to guard the animals that remain. So will my children after me. This I pledge to Buffalo Calf Woman for her forgiveness."
"Your path will never be easy. This we accept as penance for your folly. Come back to the world, Little White Wolf also known as Vin Tanner."
Vin shuddered through a deep breath. Chris held him in a near strangling embrace. "Might want to get a hold of yourself there, pard," the tracker wheezed. "People will talk."
Chris laughed, squeezed again then loosened his hold as life quickly returned to the tracker's body. Vin squinted at the blackening clouds. "Oh, that's one nasty storm a brewing."
The Navajo woman moved away from them to cradle the injured bird to her breast. She stroked the feathers smooth, yanked the arrow from its chest.
"Bring us home."
Vin was certain the bird was far too injured to move, but it gamely took to the air that grew increasingly turbulent. The woman held out a hand to him. "Quickly, before he tires."
The Woman with Many Names sat up. There was gunfire all around her, but that was the concern of those standing guard. She turned to kneel beside Ezra, put her lips to his breastbone, ignoring the arrow that caressed her cheek and breathed his soul back into his body. She ran a hand over his face, kissed the crown of his head to tell his soul it was home. He groaned softly.
Satisfied with his response, she turned to Vin Tanner and repeated the ceremony. He heaved a deep uncertain breath, opened puzzled eyes. She left him to recover on his own, moved to the dark one who had fought beyond all endurance for his friend.
Chris came alert fast. The first thing he saw as he sat up chilled him. "Ezra!"
"I got him," Josiah called, dropping some kind of rattle and picking up his rifle. "We have bigger problems."
"How many?" Chris demanded as he and Vin both scrambled for weapons. Gunfire off to his right made a racket, stopped abruptly. JD slid under cover to reload. "Maybe six left now," he answered matter of factly.
Vin declined his sawed off in favor of his Sharps. His head swivelled, almost scenting the night.
A flash of lightning revealed the witch on a peak near five hundred yards distant, spurring on her warriors with wild shrieks that cut through the night like a banshee.
He checked his load, set himself without haste. There was no room for mistakes on a shot of this range. A second flash of lightning broke the night and he made a tiny adjustment of his sight. He flipped his hand to secure the medicine bag that still hung from his fingers away from the trigger guard, caressed the trigger. A bare held breath and he fired.
A moment stretched taut then a shrill scream pitched down into the ravine and the night went very still. The clouds parted and moonlight streamed over the land. The men cautiously got to their feet. The attacking party had vanished, either dead or gone. One by one they turned to stare at the shooter, every man stunned by the shot. Chris signaled Buck and Josiah to do a quick scout.
Vin left his post fully certain that the danger was over. He returned to the low fire and the man crumpled on his back. Nathan was on his knees on one side, a look of terror in his eyes as he fumbled with Ezra's clothes. The Navajo woman on the other. The shaft of an arrow stood tall out of Ezra's chest, quivering under his shallow breathing.
"It sliced into the big artery," Nathan sputtered. "He'll bleed to death before I can sew it closed."
Vin knelt beside the woman. She gave him a steady look over her shoulder. He slid his hand over Ezra's where it rested on his belly, medicine bag folding between.
A slight shift of breath and the pale eyes opened, found Vin. Lips curved in that half smile Vin found infuriating. "Still with us, Mister Tanner?'
"Nowhere else I'd rather be. Don't you check out on us."
Nathan closed his hand over Ezra's other hand. Surprise flickered his way then Ezra's fingers closed on his. The Woman of Many Names waited. Power was all around her, waiting to be focused. It could not be forced. It had to be earned by free will.
She felt the dark one come up behind her to rest a hand on Vin Tanner's shoulder. The elder Josiah did likewise behind the black. The others fell in between, joined in sorrow, linking hand to shoulder until the circle was complete.
Seven men. One destiny. So much lay before them to accomplish. So much that could not be faced with any link in the circle broken prematurely. Vision held her. She saw another number for the future. One that demanded the present remained fulfilled. Power to heal filled her. She rested her hands on the dying man's chest, leaned in to catch his eyes.
"What would you remember of this?" she whispered for him alone.
Ezra kept her in focus with an effort. "The promise of bliss."
"It is yours. What was joined in power is released by power." She grasped the arrow, jerked it free. Ezra convulsed.
One second he was seared by white hot agony, the next he was in the clouds. Not flying this time. Rather he stood somehow in the mist before an awesome undefined Presence he dared not look at. The face of the divine was not meant for mortal eyes. Judgement was upon him and he knew a cold dread that he wasn't talking his way out of this.
Another Presence drew close, lesser and yet just as powerful. A tender warmth enveloped him as if arms circled him. "You are our beloved child. You've done better than you believe."
Love cascaded over Ezra, unexpected, undemanding and encouraging. It pulled tears of joy from him and he embraced the Presence that had the aspect of an adoring mother before the thought hit that one didn't act so familiar with divinity. Amusement tickled over him, a tender hand caressed his face.
"You are welcome to your rest unless you choose a greater sacrifice."
What was more precious than life itself? The riddle had bothered him since the shaman posed the question. He considered and discarded material possessions one after the other until he'd exhausted his private dreams and desires. Something only he could put a price on. What did he value above any possession? What could possibly be worth relinquishing in order to remain within the circle of the seven?
Insight pulled a gasp from him. In order to become one of a community he would need to subvert his independence. Was it as simple, and, as complicated as that? He had been near savagely independent all his young life. It was necessary to his survival as he was tossed from relative to relative, never developing attachments or deep friendships. In his line of work trusting the wrong person always led to disaster.
Ezra's eyes flew open. He was surrounded by an intense yet soft white light. A luminescent being hovered before him, not quite visible to his sight, but beautiful in a way that made his heart ache. She smiled encouragement.
Trust these men? Stop thinking of himself first? Open himself to caring? What would his mother think, or say? He caught that thought up short. He had to do what was right for himself and he knew then that he wanted more than anything to ride with the six who tolerated his petulance and made good use of his talents for deceit. He needed to repay Chris Larabee for giving him the chance to make good the reprieve delivered in the Seminole village. It wouldn't be easy. He had been solitary too long. A sacrifice only he could put a price on.
The mother Presence smiled again. Her arms encircled him and a kiss touched his brow. "Go in peace, child. Your sins are forgiven you."
A wind erupted around them. His eyes closed under the searing brilliance of that male Presence as it too enveloped him in an unconditional love before darkness took him.
"I don't know how to explain it," Nathan sputtered. "The rib must have deflected the arrowhead away from the artery. There's barely a scratch here that will heal just fine."
Ezra stirred under the touch of a cool breeze across his bared chest. Hands tugged at his shirt. "I do hope there is a perfectly legitimate reason for this familiarity with my person, Mister Jackson."
"You're awake! Good, you can sit up so I can get this bandage on you."
Strong hands were under his shoulders, lifting him. "Lean on me, Ezra," Chris prompted. Ezra gasped at the pain the movement caused. What the hell had hit him? He found himself facing Vin Tanner's narrowed worried eyes.
"Still with us, Mister Tanner?"
A question flickered across Vin's face, then a soft smile formed. "Hell, if you're going to be crazy enough to take an arrow for me I guess I better stick around and teach you how to keep your fool head down."
Ezra managed a chuckle that choked off quickly. "We can discuss that once you have resumed your normal attire."
Vin took a look at himself, embarrassed to be wearing more paint than anything else.
"All right, you, stop jawing and ease on back now." Nathan scolded. He and Chris lowered the wounded man carefully. Ezra barely managed a nod before oblivion claimed him, and he so wanted to ask the name of the enchanting woman who sat at Tanner's side.
The Woman of Many Names sat away from the men. It had been a harrowing fight and the drain of power demanded an equally long rest. She would take her leave with the sun and return home to contemplate the potential of the circle of seven.
The dark one approached, waited for her to acknowledge his presence then sat down.
"I need to thank you for all your help," he said flatly. "And to apologize. I threw up every obstacle I could."
"Your fear was only natural," she returned. "The ways of power are not for white men. Let there be peace between us, Chris Larabee."
She offered a hand. Chris took it, surprised at how dainty she truly was. For some reason he had the impression of a larger, strong woman in his mind.
"Why do I get the feeling you'll refuse an escort home?" he asked.
"But I always travel escorted," she baited back.
A smile tugged at Chris' mouth. He had no doubt she would be entirely safe traveling alone. Outwardly alone, he corrected himself. He nodded, withdrew his hand. "If you ever have need of us, don't hesitate to send for help."
"I accept your gracious offer as payment for my services. You should rest now."
He couldn't refuse that dismissal, got to his feet and headed into the night to the ledge Vin had claimed for his bedroll. The tracker's head turned slightly as Chris pulled up a rock. They sat in silence for a long time, watching shooting stars streak across the clear night sky.
Chris had no idea when he fell asleep. He simply woke with the sun, a blanket spread over him and some kinks in his back from the pebbly ground. He also felt rested. His sleep dreamless for a change.
He looked down on the camp. Buck and JD were squabbling over something, chasing each other like a pair of ten year olds. Josiah hunkered down over pots of boiling oats and coffee. Nathan was with Ezra, checking the wound for infection. Chris looked further for Vin, not picking up any sign of the young tracker.
The sighing music of a harmonica drifted to him. He lifted his head to the highest point of the ridge he was on, looked for the easiest climb.
Vin lounged on the summit, facing the rising sun. Where Chris expected to find peace in his friend's face, he found a deep consternation. Vin didn't look up when Chris stopped beside him.
Chris let the silence hold for a moment only. "One of these days maybe you could learn to play an actual song on that thing?"
Vin grunted a short laugh, slid the mouth harp into a pocket, "I made a promise."
"Yes, you did."
"How am I supposed to keep it?"
Chris considered the problem. Vin could be just as obstinate as Ezra, sometimes more so. He dropped low onto his haunches. "Seems to me that young lady made you a promise in return. You are going to live long enough to father children. Raising them up is another story. You're not getting any younger, cowboy."
Vin's trouble disappeared into a sheepish grin. The start of a blush colored his cheeks. "I never gave a real thought to settling down."
"Could be you're not meant to. Women generally follow where their men lead. Find one that don't make a project out of cleaning dirt floors."
A real laugh pulled out of Vin, grateful to have this man as a friend. If only he didn't have that damn bounty hanging over his head.
"Tuscosa will keep," Chris offered, reading the sadness under the smile.
Vin glanced up, nodded. "I guess it'll have to if you have anything to say about it."
"Pay your respects then you have a travois to build. I'd rather be on the move than listen to Ezra grouse about sleeping on the ground."
The Woman of Many Names parted company with the seven, watched them ride for the distant plains. Her hand stroked her belly and the new life seeded there. A gift from the powers she served for a lifetime of obedience.
A daughter, she foresaw, with her father's green eyes and coyote nature. The woman would not call him back. He was as unsuited for her world as she was for his. This she understood from the moment their souls touched in that first meeting of eyes. Bliss she had promised him. He would find it in the arms of another for she had also granted him forgetfulness of their union and the power they held together. A tear escaped her eye and she turned for home.
Ezra sat outside the saloon, feet propped up on a low box, left arm bundled tightly into a sling. Nathan had outdone himself with the knots this time, fed up with the gambler discarding the thing as impractical and unbecoming a gentleman. It was just so damn awkward. Somehow not having both hands free made him feel trapped and he didn't like the feeling. His cards moved through the fingers of his right hand with barely a trace of effort though.
Vin stood across the street for a time, watching the gambler. The nimble fingers were never still. Never. That bothered the tracker and he didn't know why. One day he would figure it out. Before he could drop off the step and cross the street Chris came out of the saloon. The tall gunslinger placed Vin quickly then turned a chair to sit facing Ezra.
"Don't you ever get tired of doing that?" Chris asked.
"Doing what?" Ezra returned, looking up.
The gambler had slept most of the journey back. When he did wake it was with complete amnesia of the adventure starting just after he and the others left to locate the Navajo shaman. At least that's what he insisted every time the subject came up, listening with bemused detachment to everyone's recollections of the ordeal.
"Ezra, I need you to think real hard. The woman you called Aurora asked you to make a sacrifice, something only you could place a value on, something worth more than a life. What did she mean?"
"I believe your question is, what do I consider more valuable than life itself," Ezra corrected gently. A woman's voice whispered in his mind.
"Seven builds upon the foundation of the three. Three will stand together to their lives' end and great good will come from this. Coyote ..."
"Brown Bear and Beaver," Ezra muttered in concert with the fast fading shaman's voice. A half remembered dream nudged at him and his card turning stalled.
"You okay there, Ezra?" Chris asked.
Ezra roused himself to find Vin had joined them. He stared from one frowning man to the other, sifting for that elusive memory. Someone else had asked him about sacrifices and he remembered how surprised he was at his answer. His eyes dropped to the card showing at the top of the deck. He flipped it out and up with a deft move. Vin caught it, eyebrows rising at the three of spades before showing it to Chris.
"Three's a good sign. Powerful magic." He offered the card back.
"If you believe in that sort of thing, Vin."
He reached for the card. Chris put out his hand just at that moment and for a second all three hands came together. No words were spoken. None were needed. It all likelihood none would ever be needed. Ezra had become a partner in the bond of friends.
Chris smiled a little. Ezra's casual use of Vin's given name was a small start to the new partnership, but with Ezra small steps were the only way to advance.
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