Ezra Standish settled his gaze on the young woman riding beside him and a smile of happiness came to his lips. "I'm pleased Missus Potter could spare you this afternoon," he admitted.
Nica smiled. "She is kind to me. I like her… and the children," she confessed.
Before Ezra had purchased the small ranch where Nica now resided, tending, and training horses, the widowed townswoman had taken her in and given her a place to stay and a job looking after her children, thereby making it possible for the young Indian woman to stay in Four Corners. While many of the townspeople had accepted her, there were still those who frowned on her presence, but no one made any disparaging remarks in front of the young woman, the gambler, or his six friends.
Nica still helped out with the Potter children when needed and the gambler couldn't help but smile thinking how many afternoons he'd seen the children of Four Corners hurrying down the road in the direction of the property where Nica lived a couple of miles outside of town.
"I am fond of her as well. She is a fine lady," Ezra readily divulged, delighted the townswoman had helped ease Nica's life with her gracious assistance. He knew there were still those residents who would just as soon run the young woman out of town as look at her.
He reined Chaucer to the left and motioned towards the nearby creek bank. "I believe this location will do." Swinging down, loosening the cinch and slipping the bit to let the horse graze, he snagged the picnic hamper from where it rested on his saddle and turned to assist the woman from her mare.
But Nica had already vaulted down and turned the horse loose to be with Chaucer. With graceful swinging steps, she moved to the creek and stood at its edge, closing her eyes and reveling in the sounds of the water, the birds, and the smells of nature.
Ezra smiled as he watched her for several minutes, realizing once again that she truly was a child of nature, much like Vin Tanner. Although Nica chose to stay in Four Corners, trying to fit into what passed for civilization, she was beyond a doubt most at home in the wilds. In addition, he marveled yet again that a woman such as she had stolen his heart….
Pushing his musings aside, he moved to spread the red-checkered tablecloth on the lush grass under the sheltering branches of a huge cottonwood and began removing the food from the picnic hamper.
Only then did he call Nica to join him and watched as she moved across the grass to drop tailor fashion on the grass beside him.
They ate in comfortable, companionable silence, and finishing, Ezra pushed aside the hamper and lay back on the creek bank, blissfully content as he lazily watched Nica chasing butterflies amongst the wild flowers.
A smile touched his lips. His heart had belonged to the young woman the first time she'd stared at him with those large dark eyes. She had been leaning against the sharpshooter, in pain and depending on a man she'd never met, yet Ezra knew the young woman had immediately sized him up. It still stunned and amazed him she hadn't found him lacking.
Hearing her happy laughter as she chased the flitting butterflies, Ezra rejoiced in the fact she was unlike any woman he'd ever known. Totally uninhibited, innocent, and guileless, she was an intriguing combination of woman and child.
It still amazed the con man the woman, who'd been abused by both the men of her own tribe and white men alike, had chosen to trust him from the beginning. What indeed had generated her faith in a con man such as he?
The young woman was honest, proud and independent with a fierce, passionate spirit to match her beauty and lately he'd found it becoming harder and harder to remain a gentleman where she was concerned. On too many occasions, his thoughts drifted to her and he found himself constantly dreaming of what it would be like to wake up every morning with her in his arms.
Trying to shake aside that thought, he sighed in utter pleasure. In all his years he had never dreamed his life could be so complete… and filled with such happiness.
The southerner snorted under his breath. Surely he wasn't worthy of such joy. He knew Maude would go off on a tirade to end all tirades if she only knew how happy and satisfied he had become. She would be shocked to know he had given up a high stakes poker game to laze here on the creek bank with a Native American woman. No doubt about it, his mother would be very dumbfounded at the change in him. A change, which he himself recognized and knew deep down, was for the better.
The change had begun when he'd accepted Larabee's offer. It had continued with each day he spent in the company of the six regulators. Those changes had aided him in refusing his mother's numerous attempts to drag him off to assist her in her swindles and the disruptions caused by her irregular visits. Most importantly, he knew those subtle changes had helped prepare him for the love offered to him by the beautiful woman who was now laughing in delight as she watched the elusive winged creatures flitting about the meadow.
He shook away thoughts of his mother’s endless diatribes and focused on Nica. She had cautiously dropped to her knees beside him and held out her hand.
He leaned forward, taking in the fragile winged creature, which sat contentedly on her finger, its brilliantly colored wings moving slowly up and down.
"It's lovely," he whispered quietly, afraid his voice might frighten the winged jewel to take flight.
Yet even as he admitted that truth, a shame washed over him at how many times in his 30 odd years he had looked over, or even trampled, such beauty as he had blindly rushed to his next card game or the next town to be conned.
'That delicate creature's beauty fades in comparison to yours,' the southerner thought, but could not bring himself to voice. Again, he couldn't help wondering what indeed he'd done to deserve the happiness he'd discovered since the fates had graced him with the gift of this magnificent woman's affections.
"It's a shame Mister Tanner isn't here. I'm sure he could tell you its name." He was aware from their patrols together the young Texan knew every flower and species of creature in an intimate nature the gambler now envied.
While it was true the southerner knew know to read cards and people's faces, while he could survive in the wilderness and immediately discern the safest way out of a dangerous situation, Ezra had come to realize over the past months, there was more – so much more! – to life than that.
"Butter-fly-away…" Nica whispered as the winged creature walked up her hand and paused on the tip of her finger. Then, turning to face the young woman, its antennae moving in her direction, it lifted off in flight and flew across the meadow.
The two humans watched it move across the field of wild flowers, stopping on one flower, then moving on to another. That action was not lost on Ezra. He had lived most of his life in that same fashion, moving from town to nameless forgotten town, stopping when the pickings were good, moving on when they were depleted.
That had his been his plan the day he had stopped in the Four Corners' saloon. Replenish his empty pockets and move on…. Instead, he had encountered Larabee and his men. And the rest, as the authors were prone to write, was history.
The con man had stayed to pay off his debt to the Judge and gain his amnesty and it had taken Ezra quite some time to realize exactly why it was he lingered on in the dusty hamlet, which really had nothing to offer a high stakes poker player such as himself.
He stayed, he realized, because he had found a place to belong. Granted, most of the townsfolk didn't think much of him, and there were times when he knew the six men he rode with had their doubts, but Larabee had given him a second chance. A chance he wasn't about to waste. And so he stayed on, forming the first friendships in his life with the other peacekeepers. They were all outcasts, of one kind or another, but here, in each others' eyes, they'd discovered an acceptance they had never found anywhere else.
Nica's soft word and touch on his arm drew his attention and he focused on her. The gambler was surprised by her use of his given name, and something in her tone caused the hackles on the back of his neck to rise.
She pointed, "Someone comes."
He straightened, his hand dropping to his pistol as he studied the approaching horseman. Although the horse was strange to him, there as no denying the longhaired lithe man who sat in the saddle. "It's Mister Tanner."
As if confirming that, a shrill whistle floated on the air followed by "Vin, comin' in!"
The longhaired tracker drew rein and swung down beside the couple. "Hey, Ez, Kne'ka…"
"Mister Tanner…" There was a suspicious note in the southerner's voice as he studied the other man's face. This was supposed to be Ezra's day off and the Texan wasn't usually one to intrude on another's privacy.
"Glad I found ya. Chris needs ya to ride ta Eagle Bend with him. Somethin' 'bout that saloon shootin'. He said iffen I was ta see ya, ta tell ya he'd meet up with ya at Siler's Crossin'."
Ezra made a disgusted face as he shook his head. "I was told I had the day off, Mister Tanner," he pointed out. His plans for an afternoon picnic with Nica had been no secret and it had been Larabee who'd offhandedly suggested this idyllic spot by the creek.
Vin shrugged. "Can't help that, Pard." He scratched at his scruffy chin. "All I know is Chris got a telegram from the judge and headed out. Said he'd wait on ya there." He hesitated, and then added, "I'll see Miss Kne'ka home iffen ya wanna go on from here."
"Like I have a choice," Standish muttered sarcastically under his breath as he turned to the young woman. "I'm sorry, Nica, but I must go with Mister Larabee. Mister Tanner will safely escort you home."
"But Ol' Ez --"
She started to protest, but he silenced her with a gentle kiss. "I must go, little one." Hurrying across the field, he rounded up their horses and led them back, tightening Chaucer's cinch, and bridling him. Passing the mare's reins to Nica, he gave her another kiss before swinging up into the saddle. "I'll see you as soon as I return."
He shifted his gaze to the shaggy haired Texan, "I fully expect you to see she is safely returned to Missus Potter or home. Whichever she prefers."
Tanner nodded. "Ya know I will, Ez. Ya ride safe," he called after the southerner as Standish reined from the meadow and headed out. Nica watched Ezra ride away, twisting the mare's leather reins in her hands. She finally looked at Tanner. "He will be all right?" she questioned somberly.
Vin nodded. "Sure he will. Chris'll watch his back and he'll be back afore ya know it." He motioned towards the remains of the interrupted picnic. "I'm really sorry ya didn't get ta enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Guess we'd best get this packed up and get ya back to town."
Suiting actions to words, he crossed to pack the supplies back in the hamper, pausing to eye the last piece of apple pie. He gave Nica a wink, "Iffen ya don't want it, there ain't no need fer it ta go ta waste..."
She couldn't help but smile as she nodded, "Would ya like it?" Nica had spent many hours in the evening listening as Ol' Ez talked about the town, its residents and the men who'd become his family so she knew of the tracker's appetite for pie. The gambler had often joked about how the Texan must have a hollow leg as much as the man could eat and yet always remained thin enough the women in town insisted on attempting to fatten him up.
The Texan nodded vigorously. "I rode out afore lunch…." he confessed.
"I'm sorry there is nothing else left," she admitted.
"This'll tide me over…" Gathering the hamper, he tied it on the back of his saddle and giving the young woman a hand up on her mare, he mounted up and they reined for town.
The horses moved briskly across the meadow. Nica glanced at the man beside her and motioned to the horse he was riding. "Is not your Peso…" she remarked quietly.
Vin smiled and shook his head as he reined the chestnut next to her pinto. "Nope. Ol' Peso pulled up with a stone bruise while we's on patrol, so I left him with Tiny and borrowed one of his'n. Would a left 'im with Ol' Ez's new partner, but seems she was on a picnic eatin' apple pie." He grinned; pleased his teasing had made her smile. The sharpshooter waved a hand towards the animal beneath him. "Ain't near as smooth gaited as ol' Peso…" he remarked.
Nica smiled at his loyalty to his missing mount. She knew a good horse was hard to find and had heard the others speak of the connection between the fractious gelding and the tracker.
Vin nodded toward the little mare she was astride. "That paint workin' out okay fer ya?"
She nodded vigorously. "She is a good horse."
"See ya left that foal b'hind t'day," he commented drolly.
Nica nodded again. "It was time."
"'Fraid 'em kids in town have spoiled it." Not only did the Potter children play with the foal, but Billy, Emma, and even Mattie when she and Lucy were in town, all had a hand in caring for the rapidly growing foal. When the Indian maiden had moved to her new home, it had become the children's habit to regularly visit Nica, each of them carrying some treat for the young horse. Of course, with that kind of attention, the filly would be an easy handling animal.
"Ol'Ez said perhaps when it is old enough, you would break it to saddle," she remarked hopefully. Nica knew she could do it herself, it wouldn't be the first time she'd broken a horse, but worried for her safety, Ezra had made her promise to let someone else handle that part of her horse business and had offered to speak to the Texan for her.
She knew Vin, having lived among the tribes, would know the best way and use a gentle hand so as not to break the filly's spirit. "Reckon I could, when it's time," Tanner agreed, pleased she'd felt comfortable enough with him to request the favor.
She nodded and they rode on in silence, the click of the horses' hooves on the rocks loud in the quiet afternoon stillness. Nica finally spoke. "Will Ol' Ez be long?" A touch of impatience colored her words.
Vin shrugged his shoulders. "Can't rightly say. Law proceedin's move at their own pace."
The young woman frowned, not sure of his words, but somehow certain Ezra would not be soon returning... at least not within the next day or two.
"Is what he does dangerous?" she questioned suddenly, a fearful note creeping into her voice. The woman had been around the peacekeepers long enough to know they put their lives on the line using their guns to protect the town, but this was different. Ezra was going with Larabee to another town where they had only each other and no authority.
"Nah. He just hassa tell the judge who he saw and what happened. They'll listen and write it all down and then some men'll decide iffen the fool he's talkin' about is guilty or not. Ain't no danger in that, lessan Ez talks them to death," he joked, laughing.
His laughter was cut short as his horse bellowed in pain and stumbled to its knees. Even as he kicked free of the stirrups, Vin heard a rifle shot ring out across the meadow.
Nica yelped in fear and surprise as the mare beneath her crow hopped to get away from the falling gelding. Caught unawares and off balance, she was unable to maintain her seat and tumbled to the ground.
Tanner hit the ground hard and grunted in pain as a severe bolt of pain streaked through his leg like lightening across a clear sky. Blinking away the dark spots dancing before his eyes, he jerked his rifle from its scabbard and crawled away from the dying horse, ignoring the agony caused by his movements. Half stumbling, half scrambling he made his way to where Nica lay in a motionless heap.
Keeping his rifle ready, ducking his head as another bullet kicked up dirt near his foot, the tracker grabbed the young woman's upper arm, dragging her behind the shelter of the dead horse.
"Kne'ka..." He shook her gently, glancing up at the sound of approaching hoof beats pounding against the hard ground. "Kne'ka…?"
There was no response and he growled in frustration at the dark bruise already forming on her forehead.
Spinning around, he located the horsemen who had reined to a stop a short ways from them. A vaguely familiar burly rider leered down at him from the saddle,
"Told you'd I'd remember ya, ya meddlin' sonuvabitch…" Tate sneered, raising his gun, "and I'd have that half breed whore. She's bought and paid for and I intend ta enjoy what rightfully belongs ta me."
Without thinking, acting purely on instinct, intending to protect Kne'Ka from the white man he had freed her from months earlier, Vin swung his rifle upwards, his fingers squeezing the trigger even as the man was talking. His bullet took the man in the chest, throwing him backwards from the saddle.
The second man, stunned, gaped at his fallen friend, and then stupidly went for his gun only to have Vin's second shot end his life as well. Even as the man was falling from the saddle, Vin was turning back to Kne'ka.
Ignoring the pain streaking up and down his leg, Tanner scooted closer to the woman.
"Kne'Ka…?" Fearing what he would find, he reached out, his trembling fingers checking for a pulse and he let out a held breath as he felt a strong steady beat under his fingertips. "Kne'Ka?" Brushing the stray strands of hair from her face, he lightly patted her cheek, but still received no reaction.
Retrieving the canteen from the saddle of the dead horse, he soaked his bandanna and tenderly wiped the young woman's face, worry furrowing his brow when she didn't respond. Other than the bruising there didn't appear to be a serious injury, but he'd been around Nathan long enough to know any blow to the head could be dangerous, even life threatening.
Knowing he needed to get her to the healer, he looked around for her horse, but there was no sign of it. Frightened by the gunfire, he knew Nica's mare most likely wouldn't stop running until she reached the security of her stall.
Struggling to his feet, Tanner swayed, determined to remain upright, biting back a scream as pain tore through his body, his muscles trembling and bitter bile surging in his throat. Taking several deep breaths, waiting for the landscape to stop spinning, putting as little weight as possible on the injured leg, the sharpshooter cautiously made his way toward the dead men's horses.
Reaching the nearest animal, he gathered up the trailing reins, and then grabbed the saddle horn, biting his lip as the head shy horse sidestepped, almost knocking him off his feet. Vin waited a moment before shakily leading the horse back to where Nica lay.
Clinging to the reins, he gathered the small woman in his arms. Struggling against the lightheadedness, the tracker tightened his hold, hoping to shield her from further harm, as his leg buckled when he attempted to rise.
After several attempts, tears of pain escaping and rolling down his scruffy cheeks, the sharpshooter succeeded in placing her in the saddle, gingerly mounting behind the petite woman.
It was a long moment before the agony subsided enough for the world to settle back into place. Wrapping one strong arm around her tiny waist, he gathered the reins and urged the horse toward town. He had to get Kne'Ka to Nathan. She needed the healer's help.
It never crossed the young tracker's mind he was in need of the healer's ministrations himself. His only concern was for the woman his friend loved. He had no doubt his southern brother loved Kne'ka just as Vin himself loved Lucy Garth.
His friend who had trusted him to see to Kne'ka's safety in his absence and Vin had failed, not only Ezra but himself. In the months since her rescue, the Texan had come to consider the Indian woman a good friend. In many ways, she reminded him of Lucy, displaying more strength and courage than some men he'd known. In the short time since entering their lives, she'd stood steadfast, letting nothing prevent her from helping those she thought of as friends, just as Lucy had. Her very presence made not being able to regularly see the woman Tanner loved, just a bit easier.
Kne'ka was his responsibility, not only because Ezra had trusted him to watch over her, but because she was his friend and Vin had always taken his responsibilities very seriously... especially his responsibilities to his friends.
There was a streak of fierce loyalty in the young man. Like his trust, it wasn't a gift Vin easily gave. It was something a person earned, but once given, it was forever. He had discovered long ago, what was most important in life and he would stubbornly protect –even to the death – anything that was his.
He didn't have much in the way of tangible things – his gun, his horse, his old hide coat – hell, his personal possessions could all fit into the old covered wagon he called home, but he knew one of the most precious things he owned was Ezra's friendship…. And he would allow nothing to destroy that bond.
Clutching the unconscious woman to his chest, Tanner concentrated on blocking out the pain, which flooded his body with each step of the rough gaited horse.
Vin raised his head and looked around, trying to focus his blurry vision. Lost in a world of red-hot agony, he couldn't help but wonder if at some point he hadn't blacked out. He was however pleased to discover he hadn't lost his hold on the Indian maiden and subconsciously pulled her closer, securing his grip on her.
He slowly looked around, but nothing in the brown dust covered landscape looked familiar. He had expected the horse to take him to Four Corners, just as Peso would have, but without guidance, the animal had instead taken him further out into the wilds.
He hated to admit it, even to himself, but until he was able to spot a familiar landmark, he was lost and now he wasn't even certain he would be able to distinguish the difference between a cottonwood and a pine tree.
Studying the shadows cast by the slowly descending sun, Vin reined the horse towards the east, praying he was right in his estimation that was the correct direction of home.
The horse carefully picked its way over the rocky ground cover, the reins hanging loose in Vin's hand as he swayed with the horse's motion. Kne'Ka showed no sign of regaining consciousness and he focused on her to stop the roiling of his stomach.
The Texan had been shot, stabbed, suffered broken limbs and had participated in the sometimes-brutal tribal rituals. He was used to dealing with pain, but he couldn't remember ever dealing with anything like this. The pain in his leg had finally turned to a constant throb and he could feel the skin drawing tight as the flesh swelled. Luckily, he didn't think it was broken.
He discounted the pain for Nica was all that mattered. She needed help. Nathan's help.
How would he face Ezra if he didn't reach help in time? He knew the gambler had given his heart to the young native girl and it would crush the southerner if something were to happen to her…. How could Vin live with himself if he let it happen?
The horse suddenly snorted and stopped, throwing its head back in alarm. Attempting to grab for his gun, without losing his hold on Kne'ka, biting back a sharp cry of pain, Vin centered his attention on what had caused the animal's distress.
There, in the barely discernible trace, stood three Indian braves, their weapons aimed at him and the helpless woman in his arms.
Drawing in a deep breath, Vin urged the horse forward. Currently, the tribes in this part of the territory were at peace with the white man. Most likely, these three were simply hunters. At least he hoped so.
Reaching out and snatching the reins, one of the braves dragged the animal to a halt, almost unseating the Texan.
"She needs a healer."
Self-disgust washed over him as unwilling to further endanger Kne'ka by doing something foolish, and feeling helpless, Vin sat silently as he was stripped of his weapons. Steadily meeting the gaze of the man who seemed to be in charge, Tanner didn't see the expression which flashed across the face of the brave closest to him as he got a better look at the injured woman.
The man who had taken his weapons poked at Vin's swollen leg with the barrel of Tanner's rifle, forcing a sharp hiss of pain from the Texan and the other men laughed. "You hurt too…"
The sharpshooter gritted his teeth, breathing through the pain. He didn't care about his own condition. His needs weren't important. His only concern was for the injured friend in his arms. "She needs a healer..." he repeated "…now."
"She your woman, squaw man?" the one standing beside the horse questioned.
Vin ignored him. To hell with this! Kne'ka needed a doctor! Drumming a heel into the horse's side, he kicked out at the brave still holding tightly to the bridle.
Startled, trying to following the orders given by its rider, the horse nearly tossed the Texan and his unconscious burden into the dirt as it fought the Indian's firm hold.
Swearing in his native tongue, the brave retained his hold with one hand, slamming the rifle butt against the tracker's thigh with the other.
Tanner choked back a scream, tightening his hold on Kne'Ka as his world exploded in red hazed agony. Burying his face in Kne'Ka's hair, Vin struggled to retain consciousness, hearing, but unable to comprehend the argument taking place between the braves.
"We take you to the village," the leader of the trio finally announced. Turning he moved back into the trees, as jerking the reins from Vin's hand, the other two followed, leading Tanner's horse.
It was several miles before Vin caught the whiff of smoke in the air and heard sounds which indicated the nearby encampment. Releasing his white knuckled grip on the saddle horn, Vin gently brushed the long strands of hair from Kne'ka's pale face, whispering reassurances, promising to keep her safe.
She hadn't stirred or uttered a sound and his frown deepened, his brow furrowed with worry. It wasn't a good sign.
Motioning for the other two to continue on, the brave holding the reins halted the horse and stepped back. "You come," he motioned for Vin to dismount.
With difficulty, the tracker stepped down from the horse. His leg buckled and clutching the small woman, he tumbled to the ground, rolling to keep from harming Kne'ka. A thousands pinpoints of light danced before his eyes as the wind was driven from his chest.
The Indian's stoic expression never changed as finally catching his breath, Vin struggled to his feet, still clutching Kne'ka's limp body against him and began to hobble in the direction of the encampment.
The brave shook his head and made a curt motion towards the young woman, "Leave her."
Vin shook his head. "No."
"I take you to the shaman. She stays!"
Vin cocked his head to one side and gave him a wry grin, "She goes or I ain't goin'."
The brave shrugged. "It is your decision," he started to walk away, tossing over his shoulder, "but why should you suffer because of a woman like her?"
The words sank in and Vin frowned. "What'dya mean like her?"
"All of Kojay's people know she is nothing more than a white man's whore… not worthy of notice."
"This is Kojay and Chanu's band?" Relief flooded through Tanner as the brave nodded. "Then take us to him."
"Our chief and his son not here. And she..." he lifted his nose in disgust, "is not wanted."
"How will your chief feel if you let his brother's daughter die?" Vin questioned sharply.
That gave the brave pause and he looked at the ground. "You are welcome here as a friend of the people. Tales are spoken of you and the other protectors. I will ask the shaman to come to you. That is all. Do not expect him to tend to the likes of her."
Realizing arguing was just wasting time, Vin nodded and sank to the ground, settling the young woman beside him, her head resting on his good leg, using his body to shade her from the hot afternoon sun.
As the sun inched across the cloudless sky, Vin shifted his position to keep the young woman in the meager shade his body offered. It was precious little protection, but he knew if she became dehydrated, her condition would worsen.
More than once, he prayed he could find a way to get her to Nathan…. At least now, he knew the way home if he couldn't convince the shaman to tend her injuries. He couldn't let anything happen to her. Ezra would never forgive him and he would never forgive himself for destroying his friend's happiness.
Wishing he could get to his canteen, he glanced down more than once at the pale features of the young Native woman, wondering how it was the fates had drawn him to her and her to Ezra.
He could still recall Lucy's declaration the gambler was 'smitten' with the young girl the first day he had seen her. Like he and Lucy, it seemed Ezra and Kne'ka were destined to be together and he knew he hadn't seen the gambler any happier than he was when he was with the young girl.
Vin dreaded the day when Maude would arrive and find out exactly who her 'charmin' boy' had fallen in love with. He'd venture more than fur would fly.
Tanner had nearly given up on the shaman, deciding to head out for town, when he felt Kne'Ka shift against him. Looking down, he saw her dark eyes were open and she was staring up at him, a befuddled expression on her wan face. He smiled at her. “Hey."
She blinked, licking at her dry lips and frowned up at him. "Tracker Vin?"
He nodded reassuringly and kept a close eye on her as she slowly pushed away from him and sat up.
Looking around, the frowned deepened on her face. "What happened? Where are we?"
The sharpshooter shrugged, giving her an apologetic smile. "I ain't exactly sure. We got jumped by a couple a no good bushwhackers." He decided against identifying the men who lay dead on the road outside the meadow. When he returned, Ezra could reassure her she wouldn't be bothered again by the man who'd bragged about buying and paying for her. "As for where we are... I can only tell ya we're within a stone's throw from Chanu's village."
She stared at him intently, thinking perhaps he was joking, and then her eyes flew open wider as she heard the sounds echoing from the nearby encampment.
"N-nooo! You shouldn't be here!" she whispered, a frantic note creeping into her voice.
"Why?" he questioned, puzzled by her reaction. He knew her reasons for avoiding the village, had explained those very reasons to the gambler, but why she was suddenly concerned for his safety eluded him.
Her voice shook. "You are in danger here," she whispered.
"Kne'Ka…" he admonished lightly in a tolerant tone, "no one's in any danger. The people know me and I promise ya I ain't gonna let nobody hurt you neither."
Struggling to stand, she grabbed his arm and attempted to drag him to his feet. "Please, Tracker Vin, believe me! You must leave! I would not lie to you."
Vin pulled away from her, swaying slightly on his injured leg, "What 'bout ya?"
She shook her head. "It does not matter about me! You must go… now! Before they see you--"
"Kne'Ka, they've already seen me… us."
Her dark eyes grew large. "Someone saw you... with me?"
"Three braves... on the trail. They brought us here."
Her face fell and she stared down at the ground, her shoulders slumping as she compressed her lips into a tight line. "I am sorry," she whispered.
Vin reached out, lightly tugging on her chin to raise her eyes to meet his. "What’dya have ta be sorry fer?"
She shook her head, her expression crestfallen.
He lightly patted her shoulder. "Don't ya be worryin' none 'bout me, Nica," he inadvertently slipped into Ezra's version of her name. "We need ta be getting' help fer ya--"
She brought her gaze up, her expression changing to one filled with fierceness. "I don't need any help--"
"Ya's unconscious fer hours. That's serious and ya need medical help. They brought us here so's the shaman could--"
His words trailed off as she backed away from him, shaking her head, fear lacing her words, as she pleaded, "Not the shaman! Vin, tell me, ya did not send for the shaman!"
Before he could respond, they heard someone approaching. Nica grabbed his arm again, frantically pleading one last time, "Leave, Vin… just go!"
Before he could react to her request, an old Indian was in sight. His sharp gaze took in the young woman clinging to Vin's arm, then dismissing her, he turned to the tracker. "You are injured." It was not a question.
Vin eyed the man before attempting a small shrug. Obviously, the other brave had informed the old man or he wouldn't be here in the first place.
"Remove your leggings."
"'Cuse me?" The sharpshooter blushed furiously, his gaze darting to Kne'ka.
"Is your healer so powerful he does not need to see the injury?"
"Course he looks at it!" Tanner retorted sharply. "But he don't make us drop our trousers in front of a lady." The very thought of Nathan ordering him to strip in front of the women in town deepened the vivid red staining his scruffy cheeks.
Kne'ka turned away, silently telling the tracker he need not be embarrassed because of her.
The shaman moved closer, motioning him to sit down on a nearby boulder.
Warily, Vin complied, easing down his buckskins and sucking in a sharp breath as the old man bent to run strong fingers over his knee. Grunting to himself, he finally looked up into the tracker's face. "It is not broken."
Vin gritted his teeth. That's what he'd been telling himself all afternoon, but contrary to what the old man said, it felt as if his bones had separated.
"You should stay off it. I will make a poultice to pull out the swelling," the old man pointed out and Vin abstractedly registered he was as bossy as Nathan. "Your healer will know how to use it and make another if needed." The old man straightened and started away.
"Hey, wait!" Vin hastily adjusted his clothing, putting out a hand to stop the old man. "She's had a bad fall and was unconscious. Ya need to check her out."
The old man ignored his words and continued down the trail.
"Hey!" Vin called after him, "C'mon back here!"
Nica grabbed his arm. "Let him go, Vin. Let us leave here."
Vin turned azure eyes in her direction. "But he deliberately 'gnored ya!" he responded angrily, sagging back against the large rock. "Nathan says head injuries ain't nothin' ta fool 'round with! That old man's 'sposed ta help people! Ain't that why the spirits chose 'im?"
She gave him a small smile. "It is nothing."
"The hell it ain't! He's a healer. He's supposed ta see ta injured folk!"
"He did. He looked at you," she pointed out.
"Yeah, but ya's hurt, too. Nate wouldn't ignore no patient like that."
"He is not Healer Nathan," she remarked quietly.
"Still ain't no call fer him ta shun ya like he done," he rose to her defense, bringing a small thrill to her at his desperate willingness to protect her. He was truly Ezra's friend and it struck her hard, hers as well.
"You lived with The People, Tracker Vin. You know their ways. I am nothing here, nothing but a white man's whore." She had lifted her head defiantly at the last words, but he saw her chin quiver.
"They're damn fools," he muttered bitterly.
She chose not to respond and watched as he pushed away from the boulder and to his feet.
The injured knee gave him pause, but he gave her a reassuring lop sided grin as he straightened. "It'll be okay, Kne'Ka. We need to go. Soon as we get back ta town, Nate can take care a ya."
She nodded in agreement. She was certain she didn't need the healer's attention, the throbbing in her head was already dissipating, but she would do as he asked knowing it would please Tanner.
Vin snagged her arm as she moved to capture the trailing reins of the horse who'd wandered several yards away to munch on the scrub grass. "Maybe they'll lend me one of theirs fer ya. We can make better time if we ain't ridin' double... Sides gotta get my rifle and mare's leg back."
She started to point out to him the People would give her nothing, but he had already headed for the village. Kne'ka hesitated, not wanting to follow him, but not wanting to wait alone for his return. Vacillating a moment longer, fearing for his safety, she shook her head and hurried after him as he hobbled down the over grown trace.
The noise increased as they drew closer to the village. Children's laughter and high-pitched squeals filled the air, as did the barking of the camp dogs jumping at their heels. Horses nickered in the meadow beyond and happily, chattering voices mixed together, not very different from the normal street sounds heard in Four Corners.
Kne'Ka had moved up to support Vin, placing his arm across her shoulders and wrapping an arm around his waist, letting him use her as a crutch.
He felt her falter and attempt to hang back as they made their way toward Kojay's lodge, but he gave her a small smile and tugged her closer.
From the look on his face, she knew he would not let anything happen to her. Her thoughts turned to the many summers she'd spent in this village when the tribes came together for hunting and council meetings.
The happiest day of her life had been when Tantu had arrived with the offered ponies as his bride price. She would live in the village of her uncle who had always treated her as a daughter. Elated a great warrior had chosen her for his wife; she had bid her father good-bye and followed the man who was to be her husband to her uncle's village.
The women of Kojay's village would help her make a home for Tantu and prepare for the wedding, which would take place after the great council. Kne'ka's only regret had been her mother had not lived to witness her daughter's proudest moment.
But Tantu's attitude had altered dramatically once they were away from her father's watchful eye. Two days ride from the village the taunts had turned to beatings, the man kicking her as she tried to escape his fists.
Her dreams were still haunted by the perverse look of glee on his face as he laughed at her distress, sneering, "Did you truly believe I would dishonor my ancestors by lying with a half breed whore? My sons will be great warriors. Their blood will not be tainted... weakened by having a half breed slut like you for a mother."
‘A half breed slut like you…’ The damning words he'd repeated so often still echoed in her ears. "Once I am made Chief I will take a worthy wife and have many brave sons."
"Chanu will take his father's place when it is time." The comment had earned her the back of his hand. Then he had traded her away the next day for white man's whiskey and a horse.
The last time she'd entered this village had been in search of Healer Nathan, after the tornado had destroyed Larabee's home. Her welcome then had not been kind. and she forced herself not to touch her cheek, thinking of the cut caused by a thrown rock.
The gentle calling of her name brought her attention back to the man who stood beside her. She focused, and tried to give him a small smile, but knew from his expression, as Ol' Ez would say, Vin wasn't buying it.
Vin smiled at her reassuringly, certain if for some reason he couldn't protect her, neither Kojay or Chanu would allow harm to come to Kne'ka.
"Can I ask ya question?"
"If you wish." Kne'ka nodded, chewing her lip. She wouldn't lie, but it worried her that he wanted to know about Tantu's treatment of her.
"How come ya's worried about my safety here in the village?"
"The People know you. They know you are a good man who cares for the People --"
"But?" Tanner urged.
"They will not care about that. They will only see that you protect a... half breed whore."
“Don’t you ever say that again!" The sharpshooter growled, fighting the urge to shake her. "Ya ain't what they think and even if ya was, it wouldn't matter. I've known some mighty fine women who might be considered a whore... they but got more dignity and pride than some upstandin' citizens."
Tanner almost lost his footing when, before Kne'ka could answer, with a sharp gasp, she suddenly stopped in her tracks as four braves stepped into their path, blocking further passage. He glanced down to discover the color had drained from her complexion and her dark eyes were full of fear.
One of the braves strutted up to Vin and with a hand to the tracker's chest, gave him a hard shove. Vin would have fallen if not for Kne'Ka's support. "You aren't wanted here, white man," he sneered, “you or your 'breed whore."
Tanner's affable expression darkened and anger filled his eyes and voice as he rasped out, "Watch you mouth, ya stupid ass hole! Didn't yer momma teach ya no manners? If ya know what's best, ya won't call Kne'ka that again."
The brave stuck out his chest and glanced sideways at his friends, "Why not, squaw lover? That's what she is… not fit to be around The People."
Vin felt Kne'Ka's trembling as she stood next to him and he tightened his hold on her, trying to reassure her. "I jist came ta borrow a horse so I can take her home."
"There's none to spare for a bitch like her," the brave growled, his friends nodding in silent agreement.
"Where's Kojay?" Vin questioned. "I'm sure he'll lend her one of his'n."
"He's gone to a neighboring village, and his son with him…." the brave trailed off, laughing. "So don't expect any help from them."
"I'll pay fer a horse." The sharpshooter dug in his pocket, withdrawing several silver coins.
"Pay... like you paid to lay with her?" the brave remarked sarcastically. "How many of your coins does she make you pay...? Or do you give her beads and trinkets?"
Vin looked down at the ground, then without a word, exploded, smashing his left fist into the brave's mocking face. Satisfaction flowed through him as he saw the blood spurt and he felt the man's nose crunch beneath his knuckles.
As he threw the punch, his weight shifted and he grimaced when pain raced up his injured leg, nearly dropping him to his knees. Only Kne'Ka kept him on his feet.
"Get outta our way," he warned the others who closed ranks to defend their fallen friend. Grabbing Kne'Ka's hand, Vin pulled her close and stumbled past the brave lying on the ground.
"You should not have done that," Kne'Ka warned him as they moved out of hearing range.
"Why not? He insulted ya--"
"I've heard worse, Tracker Vin. Much worse. Surely you know words cannot hurt a person."
He paused and looked down at her tear bright eyes, "That ain't so, Kne'Ka, and you know it. Sometimes, they hurt worse'n bein' shot…. And are just as deadly, iffen ya let 'em be."
She shook her head, and didn't look at him as she spoke, "You don't have to defend me, Tracker Vin. It will only bring you trouble."
"I can handle trouble." He grasped her shoulder and turned her to face him. "Ya think I'm gonna go back and tell Ezra I let 'em treat ya like that? Well, that ain't gonna happen! They ain't gonna talk ta ya like that as long as I'm around. Ain't no body gonna say them things ta ya -- or about ya -- includin' yerself. Ez wouldn't let 'em and neither will I!"
The conviction in his words caused the welled tears to slip down her cheeks. Where were this man and his friends when she was so lost? How would Vin or Ol' Ez react if they truly knew of Tantu's brutal treatment of her?
Unbidden, the memories surfaced of those horrible days with the man who was to be her husband. He had beaten her for no reason, taking great delight when his hard blows had knocked her to the ground where he could kick her senseless. She would come to and drag herself away in the underbrush to escape him, whimpering in pain and fear.
The soft drawling sound of her name drew her attention back to the longhaired man beside her. Suppressing the shiver, which ran down her spine from the memories, she gave him a small smile. She would never know the answer to her silent question because they would never know of Tantu's abuse. That secret would remain locked inside her.
"I am fine, Tracker Vin." Tucking her arm about his waist, she motioned towards the village with her free hand. "Let us find your belongings."
They slowly made their way on and reached the center of the village, drawing a crowd that stared and uttered loud whispering as they crossed towards the remuda. The tracker turned to face the gathering crowd, prepared to offer the silver coins for the use of one of the horses, but hesitated at the soft touch on his arm.
"There is no need to give away your earnings, Tracker Vin." She pointed to a dark gray mare with a black mane. "That is Tianka. She is mine. A gift from Chanu three summers ago." The horse had carried her from her village toward her new life. Kne'Ka motioned to a nearby tree stump. "You wait. I'll catch her."
Not giving the tracker a chance to refuse, she slipped away quietly and he watched as she approached the horse. The huge animal seemed pleased to see her and in short order she had it bridled and was leading it towards where he waited. Pushing to his feet with a grimace and a groan, he started across the short distance to meet her.
Intent on making his left knee work and not fall flat on his face, his gaze turned downward to look for roots and rocks, he grunted in pain and surprise as he bumped into something solid.
Drawing his gaze upward, he realized it was a surly looking brave who blocked his way. Muttering an apology, he stepped around the man, only to have a hard grasp on his arm spin him about, throwing his weight on his knee.
"What are you doing here?" the brave demanded arrogantly as Vin straightened.
"Came ta borra a horse," Vin jerked his chin in Kne'Ka's direction.
The brave turned, his expression becoming livid as he saw the young woman. He swung back to Vin. "So you are the white man sleeping with 'breed trash," he mocked coldly. Then raising his voice to the natives who had gathered close, he called out, "This is the white man that half breed slut chose over me!"
As if the man's remark wasn't enough to signify his identity, the shocked look Tanner saw wash over Kne'Ka's pale face was more than enough.
"This man stole the woman who was to be my wife!" Tantu bellowed out.
Those gathered began muttering amongst themselves and gave Vin openly hostile looks.
"I demand justice!" Tantu called out and those gathered nodded and yelled in agreement, pressing in closer on Vin.
"NO!" Kne'Ka dropped the gray's reins and ran to Vin's side, facing Tantu. "You lie!" she yelled out, her voice ringing over the crowd. Whirling, she faced the villagers, "Tantu lies! He sold me to three men who crossed our trail for whiskey and horses." Her voice was filled with shame. "This man," she pointed at Tanner, "saved me from them."
Tanner grabbed the brave's wrist in an iron grip, preventing the warrior from slapping her. "Don't even think about it," he growled, wondering now if the bruises Kne'ka sported when he had first found her hadn't come from someone who was supposed to love and protect her.
Jerking away, Tantu laughed. "Who among you believes this woman's words?" He made the word sound like a curse. "She would say anything to protect her white lover! Just as he tries now to save her from the punishment she deserves."
Tanner studied the people who pressed in closer and saw doubt in many of their eyes.
A middle-aged brave standing close to Vin eyed the pompous brave. "You came back from Hanta's village with horses and firewater, but no bride.--"
Several older men behind him nodded in agreement.
Tantu flustered. "I-I found--"
Kne'Ka didn't give him time to answer. "Tantu lies! You know this man," she motioned to Vin. "He saved Chanu and is the chief's friend. Send for Kojay and ask for your chief's judgment. Have the shaman speak with the spirits. They will tell you who speaks the truth."
"She only wants time to get him free of the camp," Tantu bellowed, his face darkening as those who believed him murmured loudly, attempting to persuade the others. "He was waiting when the breed whore slipped from camp to meet him. I say he stole the woman who was to be mine and I demand justice!" Grabbing his knife from his belt, the brave lunged at the tracker.
The Texan's injured knee saved his life. Watching the growing crowd, Vin, caught off guard, jumped back, the leg giving out and sending him crashing to the ground as the brave's knife slashed the air where, moments before, he had been standing.
Unwilling to let the sharpshooter die for her, Kne'Ka grabbed a knife from the nearest brave's belt and ran at Tantu. Only a warning cry from the crowd saved the man as he spun, the knife intended for his back slicing down his arm instead. With an angry scream, he swung at the young woman, his back handed blow sending her reeling to the ground.
Latching onto the dropped knife, Vin scrambled awkwardly to his feet. Straightening, he faced the brave, the expression turning his face into a feral mask with cold glittering eyes.
Kne'Ka could only watch half dazed as the two men charged each other….
Pushing to her feet, rushing forward to help the tracker, she found her path impeded by the older warrior who had questioned Tantu. He gripped her arm, his words barely audible above the shouts of the crowd. "Let it end here, my child. You were right. The spirits will decide who speaks the truth."
It was over in minutes as Tantu hit the ground hard, losing his grip on the sharp blade which had sliced a long tear in Tanner's shirt, just missing his ribs.
Adrenaline overriding his pain, the tracker dropped beside the man. Wrapping his hand in the brave's hair, he jerked Tantu's head back, pressing his own blade against his opponent's throat. "I reckon ya oughta apologize ta the lady. In case yer wonderin', I ain't gonna kill ya. Now all these folks know yer nothin', but a lyin' coward who likes beatin' on women. Sure wouldn't wanna make life easy on ya by puttin' ya outta yer misery." He leaned closer, his cold voice like ice, "Listen ta me real good now, ‘cause I'm only gonna say this once. Iffen I ever hear ya talkin' bad 'bout Kne'ka again, I swear I'll cut yer tongue out and feed it ta the coyotes. Then iffen yer lucky... I'll kill ya," he hissed, eyes flashing.
Tantu's eyes widened at the raw rage he saw in the tracker's blue eyes and he swallowed hard as the blade pricked his skin drawing blood.
With a quick glance over his shoulder, Vin called the young woman's name. As she moved up beside him, he gave her a small smile. "I reckon ya might have somethin' ta say to him--" he offered, thinking she needed to face this demon of her past or would be forever dragging him around with her.
Straightening, Kne'Ka stared down at the defeated warrior. This man, whom she had thought loved her, had betrayed her, destroyed her dreams and sold her to men as evil as himself. She realized now he had only wanted her for a wife because she was related to Kojay. He had sold her to those men because he was afraid, trading her for whiskey and horses to save his own life. Afraid of her telling the truth, he had turned the people of Kojay's village against her so no one would discover what kind of a man he truly was.
She saw the fear and hatred burning in the warrior's narrow eyes and suddenly found herself thinking of Ol' Ez's beautiful grass green eyes which twinkled with laughter and gazed upon her with such love.
Suddenly a smile graced her pretty face and she looked at the Texan who had helped give her a new life. "I have nothing to say to him, Tracker Vin. Tantu only wanted to marry me because I was daughter to the great war chief and niece of the mighty Kojay. He thought our marriage would help him become chief. He is nothing. The spirits have shown me my future is not here. I do not think it ever was."
At Vin's questioning look, she nodded, and with a smile of understanding Tanner shifted, releasing the brave and driving the knife blade into the dirt near Tantu's ear.
The warrior scrambled to his feet. Shooting Vin a look that promised retribution, he folded his arms across his chest, hoping to intimidate Kne'ka with his very presence, but she turned away, ignoring him.
Several nearby people heard her remark and began muttering under their breath. She was forgetting her place as the chief's niece, someone murmured.
Kne'Ka whirled about to face the very same reproachful angry people she had faced the day of the tornado. Her fear that day had been pushed aside by Larabee's urgent need of Nathan and her promise to Ezra. Now, she moved to help Tanner stand, drawing strength from the man she knew to be her friend, re-enforcing her own courage
"Why should we listen to the words of one who has turned her back on her people?" a warrior standing near Tantu questioned loudly.
"Seems ta me, yer the one's who turned yer back on her," Tanner spoke up. "I came here whilst she was laid up. I told y'all this girl had been found and she had been hurt. Most of ya didn't even wanna hear what happened." He motioned towards Tantu. "Ya'd listened ta that skunk and believed what he said and didn't even give her a chance ta tell her side of it."
"Her blood is tainted. She is weak... Not one of the people!" Tantu cried out, emboldened by the hostile murmurs of the warriors who followed him.
"Yer right. She t'aint Indian and she t'aint white," Vin quipped. "Seems ta me she's the best a both worlds. And I'll tell ya something else..." Ignoring the pain in his knee, the sharpshooter straightened, his sapphire eyes flashing fire as he faced down the crowd. "She ain't weak! She's one of the strongest, bravest women I've ever met... and I know some perty amazing women."
The petite woman's dark eyes widened in amazement. She knew the Texan's words were meant for her as much as the villagers, but it surprised her to discover he thought of her in the same class as Lucy or Nettie, especially knowing how he felt about them.
Facing the possible wrath of those who still doubted her, Kne'ka's voice rang out with a newborn pride. "I have not turned my back on my people. I have learned to accept the ways of both great tribes whose blood gave me life. My mother loved our people and my father loved her. For many years I thought of this village as a second home and had hoped for a life among you, raising my own children to be great warriors, but it was not to be. Tantu did not want me because of my mixed blood. He tells you I love a white man."
Her eyes danced with joy as she smiled up at the man using her support to remain upright. "This man before you is not the one I love. He is my friend and the one the spirits chose to guide me. He saved my life and led me to the man who holds my heart--"
"A white man," Tantu spat disdainfully.
"Yes," Kne'ka refused to lie. "Like Tracker Vin, he is a brave warrior who watches over those in need. He is a good, gentle man who treats me with kindness. He accepts me as Tantu --as many of you -- never could and I am proud to be his woman."
His arm around her shoulders, Vin gave the small woman a gentle hug. He could easily read the mixture of shame, understanding, or hostility in the eyes of those who'd listened to the passionate words of the petite woman at his side.
"If she did not choose to go with the white men, why did she not do the honorable thing and end her shame?" a toothless old woman questioned in her native language.
"She don't have no reason to be ashamed. She didn't do nothin' wrong!" Tanner snapped angrily. "When I come along she was holdin' them three fellas off with a knife. Too bad she didn't slit their damn throats fer 'em. The only one who should be ashamed is the low down skunk that put her in that position ta begin with. You say because her blood is mixed -- tainted -- she's weak, but I've lived with The People and I can say I've known some mighty fierce and honorable warriors with mixed blood." Vin continued, his raspy voice ringing with firm conviction, "Your chief's son followed his heart and married a white woman. If she had lived, the child she carried would have the blood of both The People and the white man. Ya reckon he would have been weak. Or would he have grown up to be a wise and honorable man... A mighty leader of his people?"
The murmurs grew louder, people nodding in agreement.
The sound of someone clapping drew the tracker's attention and he looked up to see the very familiar form of Josiah sitting horseback heads and shoulders above the gathered crowd, Nathan at his side.
"Well said, Brother Vin!" Sanchez's baritone boomed out, and everyone turned, falling silent at the sight of the huge man and his companion.
Nathan swung down and pressed through the crowd to where the tracker and the young woman stood.
"Sure am glad ta see you fellas," Vin motioned towards the girl. "She needs tendin', Nate. She came off her horse and hit her head. Was out cold for a long while…"
Tanner almost lost his precarious balance when Kne'ka crossed her arms over her chest, taking a step backward as Nathan moved towards her.
Shaking her head, she nodded towards the sharpshooter. "Tracker Vin is hurt. His leg is injured. Tend him, healer Nathan."
Nathan looked from one to the other and shook his head in disgust. "I never saw two such stubborn folk. Nica, ya feelin' okay now? No light headedness, no blurry vision?" He studied her closely. Her eyes seemed clear and other than the bruise on her forehead, she didn't appear in need of immediate attention.
She shook her head. "I am fine now."
"Good. Then let me tend this hard headed Texan…" He turned back to Vin who backed up a step, only to find himself against a solid wall… a solid wall of Josiah's chest.
"Aww, c'mon…" he started to protest, but the healer motioned him to the tree stump near the remuda. Realizing he couldn't escape with his bum knee, the tracker complied, allowing Josiah to assist him, muttering under his breath as he did so.
"Youse don't stop that mutterin', I'm gonna cut these trousers offen ya and give ya somethin' to really bitch 'bout--" Nathan warned.
"Ya become a partner in Missus Potter's store or ya just enjoy ruinin' perfectly good clothin'? Surprised I ever got anythin' at all ta wear way ya hack up things!" Vin groused as Nathan removed his boot and rolled up the leg of his pants.
"Maybe iffen ya learn ta be a bit more careful and wasn't constantly injurin' yerself, I wouldn't hafta be cuttin' up yer clothes," the healer retorted brusquely. Nate glanced up at Josiah, seeing the slight shake of the big man's head. There'd be time later to find out what happened.
The sharpshooter jerked and hissed out a painful breath as the healer poked and prodded at the swollen black and blue knee. "Damn, Nate… that hurt! Ya tryin' ta cripple me?"
"Seems ta me yer doin' a damn good job of that on yer own." Vin made a face but wisely kept his mouth shut.
"Gonna need ta make a poultice ta take the swellin' down," Jackson mumbled. "Really should get them pants off ya so I can get a better look at that leg."
"Ya may use my lodge."
Vin was stunned to find the medicine man standing a few feet away. The old man stepped forward, offering the needed poultice. "Night comes quickly. You are welcome to take shelter in my lodge." Tanner glanced at Kne'ka, remembering the shaman's earlier treatment.
"Do not fear for Kne'ka. She will be safe and is welcome in the lodge of our chief." He smiled at the young woman. "...And in mine."
Ezra reined up as he approached the little cabin. A smile played across his face as he realized how much this place had come to mean to him and exactly how much the young woman who lived there had come to mean to him as well.
It had been three days since the disruption of their picnic and his sudden departure for Eagle Bend. Upon his return the previous evening, Inez had informed him Vin wanted to see him as soon as possible.
Asking around, it was Nathan who supplied the tracker's location, stating if the stubborn sharpshooter knew what was good for him, he was still in his wagon where the healer had left him, with his injured leg propped up.
Purchasing a bottle of whiskey, Ezra had accepted Larabee's silent company, knowing the gunslinger wouldn't relax until he saw for himself Nathan was right and ascertained for himself Vin had suffered no more than a severe bruising.
Making their way down the alleyway, quietly calling Tanner's name to warn him, the gambler and gunslinger had been pleased when the tracker had eased himself from his bedroll. Moving gingerly to sit on the tailgate, he shared the bottle of whiskey and quietly related the events, which had occurred the afternoon of the gambler's departure.
Standish listened to the tracker's quiet words as Tanner briefly explained in his raspy drawl the ambush that had led to the face off in Chanu's village. He was quick to point out Josiah and Buck had taken care of the bodies and removed the carcass of the dead horse. Ezra was grateful; Kne'Ka's only memories associated with the pretty little meadow would be of butterflies and her picnic with the con man.
Tanner had rushed on to assure the gambler, both Nathan and the shaman had agreed she would suffer no ill effects of the fall. The Texan apologized profusely for any wrongdoing on his part – perceived or otherwise.
Larabee had remained silent, pleased when Ezra had been equally quick to assure Vin he had trusted the tracker would see Nica safely home, and that trust hadn't been misplaced as she was indeed safely home.
Chris hid his smile as the southerner used all his persuasiveness to convince the Texan he had nothing for which to apologize.
As much as Ezra had wanted to rush to the young woman's side, he had waited until this morning to ride out to the cabin. A woman's reputation was too easily tarnished by the slightest hint of misconduct. Nica's place in Four Corners was still tenuous at best and her association with the gambler made her an easy target.
Now, in the shade of the trees lining the trace to the front yard, he stopped, leaning forward to rest his arms on his saddle horn. His green eyes softened as he watched Nica sitting on the front porch, her head bowed as she studiously worked on an object in her lap.
A soft sigh escaped as a feeling of contentment washed over him. How was it a shiftless con man like him had fallen into such luck as to have the love of a woman like Nica and the friendship of such an honorable man as Vin Tanner?
A momentary shudder coursed through him as Ezra realized what he had nearly thrown away that afternoon on the bluff above the Seminole Indian village. If he hadn't reined back… If he hadn't turned around… If he hadn't tried to rescue those six brave men… If he had ridden on by and hadn't even stopped in that dusty little burg that afternoon to con the good citizens out of their hard-earned money… If Chris Larabee hadn't made that offer….
He couldn't bring himself to even reflect on where he would be and what he would be doing if he had chosen any other option… Where would he be now? Somewhere far from here, friendless, loveless…. Alone and lost…. Perhaps dead and buried in some unmarked grave….
His gaze focused on the cabin and he shook his head. Lifting the reins, he urged the gelding forward, the animal's hooves bringing little puffs of dust up into the air as he made his way towards the structure.
Hearing his approach, Kne'Ka jumped to her feet and rushed down the wooden steps, throwing herself into his arms as the gambler dismounted. "Ol' Ez!"
Where indeed would he be if...? Most assuredly not here, holding this delightful, wonderful creature, wrapped in the warmth and love she offered…. He shoved the thought aside, pleased and happy to be here, now….
Her feet dangling from the ground, Ezra gathered Nica's slender body against him, returning her hug and burying his face in her glossy black hair, reveling in the smell and feel of her. He relished the emotions surging through his system as she clung to him. Perhaps there was truth to the old saying that absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder…
Setting her on her feet, he stepped back, reluctant to disengage himself from her welcome, but wanting to see her face. There was peacefulness, serenity in her countenance he'd only seen once or twice before. The sadness, which often seemed to haunt her dark eyes had disappeared and as foolish as it seemed, there appeared an iridescent aura surrounding her as if she glowed with a new found inner happiness.
Perhaps the sight of him brought about such an impression…. While it was most likely the fact her two worlds had finally come together at last, perhaps he could humor himself by thinking her joy was a result of his return.
"I have missed you, Ol' Ez," she proclaimed breathlessly.
"So, I noticed, little one," he admitted with a chuckle, adding, "I missed you, too."
She smiled brightly at that and grabbing his hand, she dragged him up the steps and happily backed him into the chair she had vacated. "I have much to tell you," she declared.
"Oh?" Teasingly arching an eyebrow, he motioned towards the objects she had dropped in her mad scramble to rush to him.
She laughed as she scooped up the blue shirt and leather leggings, ignoring the other chair to sit cross-legged on the floorboards. "These are Tracker Vin's. He said the healer is always ruining his clothes so I am repairing his shirt and I am making him a new pair of leggi... pants. I traded for the skins... Feel how soft... It was some of the finest in the village." She looked up at him with a small frown, as he ran his fingers lightly over the smooth buckskin. "Does this displease you?"
Ezra shook his head as he pulled her up onto his lap, placing a light kiss on the fading bruise gracing her forehead. "Not at all, little one. Not at all. It's a very generous gift and I'm certain Vin will be very pleased." He tossed his hat on the porch floor and made himself comfortable. "Now, you tell me of your adventure and I shall tell you of mine…."
She began speaking, her eyes wide, her voice, and actions animated as she told him everything that had happened since the picnic. Even though he knew of the events from Vin's telling, he smiled happily, listening to Nica's version of how brave the tracker was and how loyal a friend Ol' Ez had in him.
His smile deepened, his dimples flashing, his mind returning to his earlier thoughts… ‘Where indeed…'
Fortunately, the fates had deemed he be here… And he was only too pleased to willingly agree.
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