by Sevenstars

Tuesday night, July 9, 1878
The Rincon County Orphans’ Home was a large, ramshackle, barnlike building consisting of two dormitories--one for the boys, one for the girls--connected by a central area that housed the kitchen, dining hall, director’s office, and other such facilities. It had been built on a hill about three miles south of the town of Broken Bow, at the edge of the Alamo Bench, a thirty-mile-wide strip of grama grass lying eight hundred feet above the desert at the foot of the Grenadiers. This was the best country for livestock in sixty miles’ distance or more, chiefly on account of the plentiful water provided by the Bonnykate River and its subsidiary creeks. To the west was semidesert, dropping into desert, with more mountains beyond, over which in the evening the sun created a blaze of gorgeous color; south, indifferent grazing land fought for brief life on the flanks of the lesser range. To the north lay the deep, sheltering pocket where Broken Bow sprawled beneath a jumble of buttes, and beyond that a less hostile land where ranchers, making the best of a mediocre deal from Nature, fought drought, rains, and rustlers, and sometimes prospered. Hard to the east lay the Grenadiers themselves, a corkscrew tangle of wind- and water-eroded sandstone which, when viewed from the rim, somewhat resembled a tangle of snakes caught writhing and petrified for eternity. Color filled them, a hundred shades of red and purple, sullen grays, rusty oranges, yellow and white sand and quartz, miles of black malapais, miles more of bile-tinted scarps, pinnacles, gargoyles, and buttes. Primarily it was a country for prospectors, none of whom had up till now succeeded in finding any more ore than would keep them in beans, but even in the wildest part of it, cut and seared by arroyos, barrancas, and draws, covered with mesquite and chaparral, and broken by hills and mesas, the cattle ranged, ekeing out a living on whatever vegetation they could find for the sake of the shelter the landscape offered. Most of them were longhorns brought out from Texas twenty or thirty years ago, now being pushed off the better range as the cattlemen began to improve their breed with Eastern bulls, and were well suited to the terrain they inhabited, which was perhaps why the ranchers didn’t try to sweep them out altogether: at least having them there made an otherwise unproductive land to some extent useful. They were lost in the chaotic roughness and heavy vegetation and only showed themselves when they straggled down to the river or a creek to drink. A thousand head were thought to dwell there, but ten times as many would have been little more noticeable, and indeed was not beyond the realm of possibility: many of the locals remembered how the herds back in Texas had increased by twenty-five per cent each year of the War, unchecked by Indians, Mexican banditry, or even the widespread drought of ’63 and ’64.

Where every prospect pleases, and only Man is vile, thought twelve-year-old Ezra Standish as he carefully manipulated his lockpick in the keyhole of the director’s office door. And then, with a mental snort: "Orphans’ Home," indeed! Ezra had lived a nomadic life for as far back as he could well remember, being left with this relative and that while his mother went about her cons and husband-hunting, and the concept of home was little familiar to him, but even he knew it should not be attached to such a purgatory as this. He rotated his shoulder cautiously, still not altogether sure it wouldn’t pop out again, although the doctor from town had assured Mr. Whittington ("Witless Dick," the older children called him behind his back) that he’d resettled it properly in place and that there was no reason it should cause further trouble as long as the boy was given a week or so to rest it.

Ezra was nothing if not an opportunist--his mother’s training had seen to that--and he had recognized this convalescence period as probably the best opportunity he was going to have to make his escape. Whittington might not be the sharpest knife on the table, but he certainly knew which side his bread was buttered on, and he was too fond of the deal he had going here to provide Dr. Burnell with ammunition that would increase the medical man’s suspicions of the Home. So Ezra had been grudgingly let off work for the time prescribed, and allowed to rest and given a bit more food. He had waited as long as he dared before making his move: he wasn’t sure his hands were completely healed yet, and he was positive his back wasn’t, but his week would be up the day after tomorrow, and he’d made up his mind to go now while his strength was about as close to peak as it was ever likely to get.

The lock gave way with a faint click, and Ezra stood up, slipping the pick back into his shoetop, and quietly opened the door just wide enough to eel his slender body through the crack. He waited a few minutes for his eyes to get used to the light, looking around and locating all the furniture so he wouldn’t crash into something and make a noise. The staff, Whittington included, lived just upstairs, and sound travelled upward.

In the corner, behind Whittington’s big golden-oak desk, was Ezra’s goal: a small cast-iron safe that locked with a key. He was very lucky that Whittington hadn’t thought a full combination safe necessary--Mother had only just begun teaching him about safes the last time they’d been together. He skirted the desk carefully, gently pushed the worn old swivel chair out of the way, and drew his pick again.

He hadn’t expected to find much money, and he didn’t, but even fifty dollars petty cash was a good stake for one as practised as he in extracting a living from those of lesser wit than himself. And fortunately Whittington hadn’t yet had an opportunity to dispose of any of the small valuables Ezra had had on him when he arrived. The boy spared a wistful thought for his trunk and the clothes in it, all of good quality--Mother was always concerned with appearances--but hardly suited to the kind of flight that lay before him, and in any case perhaps rather too conspicuous. He wasn’t at all sure the character of his dress hadn’t been one of the things that had attracted Sheriff Addison’s unwelcome attention to him in the first place. If he could just get to the rendezvous where he was supposed to join her, he was certain Mother would be able to think of a way to extract his possessions from durance vile, or at least finance their replacement.

As he carefully worked his way through the safe’s meager contents, he came upon something that didn’t quite seem to fit. There was a stack of large leather-bound ledgers, something he had expected, but deep in the bottom of a drawer, under a pile of old letters, was a small leather-laced account book that resembled them only in the way its pages were ruled. The faint moonlight that sifted through the window wasn’t enough for him to make out details, but he could tell that these pages weren’t given over to the kind of double-entry accounts that filled the larger books; they seemed instead to make up some kind of list. Well, he thought, anything that is out of the ordinary is usually worth closer attention, and he slipped the book into his shirt, returned the letters to their place, and quickly closed and relocked the safe.

His next stop was the kitchen, or more correctly the pantry, which was also locked but proved no hindrance to his pick. A joint end of smoked ham, a pickled buffalo tongue, a smoked turkey breast, two loaves of sourdough bread, some onions and potatoes, apples and pears, two pounds of coffee, sugar, macaroni, dried fruit, a round of Dutch cheese, and as many canned goods as he dared burden himself with, as well as a can opener, three dozen matches, a stamped-ware cup, two small gray enamelled fry pans, a carving knife, a tin plate, and a fork and spoon, were quickly and efficiently looted and stuffed into a pair of clean feed sacks, after which he tied the latter’s mouths together and slung them over his shoulder, wincing at its soreness. He’d spent the last three days planning his escape and assembling a mental list of the necessities he would have to take with him; even with the money he’d burgled out of the safe, he felt it would be wiser to avoid human habitation as much as possible. His experience in Broken Bow had only served to reinforce his mistrust of adults in general. He was pretty sure Whittington wouldn’t try too hard to get him back, and once he got over the county line, which he knew was somewhere past the northern buttes, the man wouldn’t have any authority in any case, but he wasn’t going to chance ending up in whatever similar facility existed on the other side of it.

He neatly relocked the pantry and turned toward the back door, only to be interrupted by a low voice. "Where ya goin’, Ez?"

He jumped, clawing the derringer out of his pocket, and had the little weapon levelled and the hammer cocked before he fully registered the lightness and softness of the voice and then the identity of the speaker, who shrank back as he realized there was a gun pointing at him. "Mr. Wilmington," Ezra hissed, slowly uncocking his weapon and putting it away while he tried to slow his heart rate, "what are you doin’ out of bed?"

"The second step squeaks," the other boy explained.

Ezra had noticed that, but he hadn’t thought anyone else in the boys’ dormitory was so light a sleeper as himself--or, if anyone was, that they’d be less than deep in exhausted slumber after a typical day of farm labor. The Home was theoretically supposed to be at least partly self-supporting, producing its own garden truck, fruit, pork and dairy products, eggs, and so on, much like a regulation farm; when it was first established, the hope had been that this would alleviate the chronic shortness of county funding that made so many such institutions something out of Mr. Dickens. It also raised dairy cattle, hay, corn, sorghum, cotton, and wheat for sale, along with some fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The boys did the field work and looked after the irrigation ditches and the livestock, and the older ones were expected to learn carpentry and how to repair farm machinery; the girls tended the gardens and poultry and did various housekeeping chores. In a nation where the ownership of a farm was still regarded as the pinnacle of economic independence, training orphans in farm management had seemed the best way to insure that they would become productive citizens. Under Whittington, the for-profit end of the farm had become the chief raison d’etre of the place, and the daily schooling that was supposed to be given the inmates went by the board; most of the younger ones had never seen so much as a slate, let alone a schoolbook. With a population of eighteen, not counting Ezra and his interrogator, there were many hands to do the work, but that didn’t make it a lot lighter.

"Then you had best avoid it on your way back up," Ezra suggested, settling his sacks of plunder more comfortably on his shoulder. He turned toward the door again.

"You’re runnin’ away, ain’t you? Ez, take me with you! I gotta find Miz Abigail. Ma always said I’d go to live with her if anythin’ happened to her, but these folks here don’t listen to me when I tell ’em that."

Ezra turned back, eyeing the younger boy thoughtfully. Buck was big for his age--though he claimed to be seven, he could easily have passed for ten on height alone, standing four feet five in his socks when he had any, and Ezra, who had always tended to be small for his, topped him by only two inches. He was a handsome boy too, with thick glossy black hair and the most amazing indigo-blue eyes Ezra had ever seen. Like Ezra, he was dressed in the plain, inexpensive clothing that was issued to all the boys: a fifty-cent shirt of striped cotton cheviot, dark striped cottonade long pants, and a tattered, buttonless old gray cloth vest much like the ones cowboys wore, with a pair of badly run-over front-lace shoes held in one hand to spare noise. He’d been the next to last of the children to come here, arriving a couple of weeks before Ezra had.

The older boy had never had a great deal of motivation to develop compassion or remorse, but he did have a healthy respect for the concept of self-preservation. Buck was awake now, and all he’d have to do was go pound on Whittington’s door till the director woke up: it might get him a whipping, but it would also certainly result in Ezra’s being run down and dragged back long before he could get any distance. Ezra had heard enough whispered horror stories from the other children not to want to risk that. "Very well," he said grudgingly. "Can you ride?"

Buck caught his breath. "Are you gonna take a horse? Ez, that’ll make you a horse thief! If they catch you they’ll hang you!"

It wasn’t a possibility that had escaped the young Southerner, but he only shrugged. "I should have no chance of gettin’ well away before mornin’ if I depended on my own legs," he said. "If the prospect disturbs you, you are free to remain here."

The younger boy hesitated, and then a look of resolve settled on his features. "No. I gotta find Miz Abigail. I’m comin’."

"Then let us not stand about discussin’ it," said Ezra, and he turned the latch and drew the door open.

In the barn, Ezra went directly to the stall that housed Whittington’s blood bay saddle mare; like most mares, she was lighter in build than a stallion or gelding of the same height, and not as strong or enduring, but she was the best to be had, the rest of the farm horses being thirteen-hundred-pound half-Percheron drafters used for plow-work and wagon haulage, and the two boys put together wouldn’t weigh as much as her master and his saddle, which might make up for her innate shortcomings. Ezra found a blanket and strapped it to her back with a surcingle--he wasn’t at all sure his bad shoulder could tolerate the heft of a saddle--before hanging his feed sacks across her withers and slipping the bridle on her head. "Open the back door, Mr. Wilmington," he directed, "and then come back here."

Buck had hung his shoes around his neck by their laces; he padded barefoot down the centerway and put his husky shoulder into pushing the sliding leaf back far enough to let the mare pass through, then returned to where Ezra had positioned her beside a bale of hay and scrambled awkwardly aboard. "Hang on to my waist," Ezra told him, "and don’t lose your grip--if you tumble off I may be unable to find a similar mounting block for you to use." He squeezed with his legs, and the mare moved out willingly. Buck’s breath was warm on the back of his neck.

"Ez?" the younger boy asked after a few minutes. "Where are we goin’?"

"North," Ezra told him, his eyes on the dirt road that wound down the hill and through Broken Bow to the buttes beyond. He wasn’t entirely sure how far the journey would be, but he knew in which direction the stage had been bound, and he knew the name of the town where Mother had sent for him to meet her. "To Four Corners."

Wednesday late morning, July 10

"Somebody comin’ in," said Vin.

Chris Larabee straightened his back, resisting the temptation to put a hand to the small of it, and reached for the bandanna from his jeans pocket to wipe the sweat from his face and eyes before shading the latter with a hand and squinting past the gate to the road. July was supposed to be the slack time on a stock-and-grain ranch, and ordinarily it would have been, but the CL-Cross horses had gained such a name over the last few years, thanks in no small measure to Vin’s skill at gentling and training, that it was becoming imperative to put in a couple of new weaning corrals before November--and August and September would be occupied with haying and roundup. "Looks like JD," he said after a moment. "Wish to hell he’d get rid of that hat."

Vin grinned crookedly, his blue eyes twinkling, and Chris knew he’d been tricked again: Vin had an eagle’s distance vision and an Indian bent for practical jokes, and had known all along who was approaching--he’d just pretended it was a stranger to see what kind of rise he could get out of his partner. "Go on, Tanner," he said, "keep it up, and one of these days you’ll find yourself ridin’ out that gate."

"Jus’ ’cause your eyes is gettin’ old along of the rest of you, cowboy, ain’t no call for you to talk about firin’ a man," the young Texan retorted easily as he reached for his shirt, which was hung on the nearest fencepost. It had taken literally years for him to get comfortable with the concept of his "family" seeing him half-stripped, and he still wouldn’t show himself that way to anyone not of the ranch, unless he couldn’t help it.

The little light bay mare with the white forehead star jogged in through the gate and up to the corral, where JD Dunne drew her up. "Hey, Chris--Vin."

"JD," Larabee acknowledged. "Climb down and water. What brings you out here?"

"Official business," JD explained, reaching into the inner pocket of his brown city suit, which always looked so at odds with the twin ivory-handled Colt Lightnings buckled high around his waist. "That come in this morning." He passed a telegraph flimsy over the fence, then slipped out of the saddle and led his mare over to the trough.

Vin moved up to read over Chris’s shoulder as the older man slowly scanned the words on the form. The message was a standard alert for a stolen horse, in this case a seventeen-hand blood bay mare with a race and snip on the face and a white sock on the off hind foot, seven years old, branded Hooked M on the left shoulder. She’d been made off with from her owner’s barn sometime during the night of July 9--yesterday, Tuesday--but there was no hint given of who had taken her or which way he was thought to have gone. The telegram was signed by Jarrod Addison, Sheriff, Rincon County.

"Addison," grunted Vin. "Crap."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, as JD came up, having left his horse to drink her fill.

"What are we gonna do about it, Chris?" the kid asked, his hazel eyes seriously questioning. He had no personal experience of Addison or Rincon County, but he could hardly have avoided hearing what his four fellow peacekeepers had to say about them.

Larabee sighed. "Not much we can do about it," he said resignedly. "It’s a legitimate request for help, and whatever we think we know about Addison and his county, we can’t encourage horse theft by failing to do our part. But then, anyone who makes off with a horse as good as this one is sure to figure on telegrams being sent out, and he’s not likely to ride into a town as near to Rincon as we are, not in broad daylight, anyway."

"I kinda thought so myself," JD observed. He might still be pretty green--he’d only been out here not quite four months--but he was bright and a quick learner, and never ashamed to listen to more experienced men. As long as he wasn’t in a battle situation, there was no fault to be had with his reasoning, though he still tended to get impulsive when excited.

"JD! JD!"

The kid turned just in time to brace himself against the flying weight of Chris’s son Adam, nine years old and as towheaded as his father must have been at that age, before his hair had begun to mellow into a soft brown-sugar hue. "Well, hey, tiger," Dunne greeted, laughing, "where’d you come from?"

"I been stackin’ kindling for Ma," Adam explained, "and I saw your horse when I came around the house with the last load. Did something happen in town? Did the bank get robbed? Is James and Royale cuttin’ up again?"

"Adam," said Larabee quietly.

"I mean Mr. James and Mr. Royale," the boy corrected himself, somewhat sullenly. He didn’t like the district’s two big cattlemen, but then nobody much did.

The house door opened and Chris’s wife Sarah emerged onto the deep porch with the low shake roof, her little daughter--named Kate for the mother-in-law who had died even before Sarah herself had been born, and a month short of her third birthday--toddling close behind her. "Daydee!" the child squealed delightedly, and took off across the yard, only to be caught and scooped up by her mother before she’d gotten more than three sturdy steps.

"Hello, honey bunch," the kid greeted her as Sarah carried the child over to him, smiling at how she held out her arms to be transferred to his custody. " ’Morning, Miz Larabee." JD had never had siblings, and had taken readily to being "adopted" by Chris’s children, who in turn found this Eastern "big brother," with his dazzling handspeed and jockey-trained horsemanship, a delight. "Say, now, is that a new dress?"

"Mew dess!" cried Kate, though whether she was consciously confirming JD’s guess or just trying to imitate what he said was debatable. It was a new dress, a starched gingham in a bright Scotch plaid, with a broad band of rickrack running all around the stiffly flaring skirt, underlain with spreading petticoats and lace-edged pantalettes.

"We weren’t expecting you, JD," Sarah told him, "but you’re welcome to stay to dinner. I’ll be dishing up in twenty minutes or so anyway." Her eyes twinkled. "Vin brought in a string of cinnamon teal yesterday, and I just finished a three-layer jelly cake."

"You don’t have to ask me twice, Miz Larabee," JD assured her, his face alight with anticipation at the thought of Sarah’s method of preparing wild duck, with rice and sage-and-mushroom dressing. "Let me get the saddle off my horse and give her a feed, and then I’ll get washed up."

"I think that’s our cue, Vin," Larabee observed. "We’d better get to the pump before JD runs it dry."

Dunne laughed, and so did Sarah. "Twenty minutes," she repeated, "or I’ll throw it to the pigs." Taking her daughter back, she headed for the house, Adam galloping ahead to set the table.

Walking over to the trough to pump water for Vin, Chris reflected on how much more easily than he’d anticipated peacekeeping had managed to fit in with family life--though a good deal of that was because of JD. Vin and the Larabees had lived here since Chris and Sarah had first gotten married, not quite eleven years ago now, but it wasn’t till this past spring, with the arrival of the new Federal circuit-court judge, Orin Travis, that they’d been drawn into the life of the town to any major degree. They could hardly have missed how the place was deteriorating over the last couple of years, ever since James’s crew had run the preacher clean out of his church, but to them it wasn’t a major concern. They knew the cattlemen had to have horses in order to run their beef, which was one reason horse ranchers were a bit disposed to consider that their vocation gave them a slightly better standing, and any spread that produced the grade of horseflesh CL-Cross did could count on a good deal of respect from the cow-ranchers, who were generally anxious to keep its owners thinking well of them. Chris for his part had cared little for the world beyond his own boundary lines: he left it alone and expected it to return the favor, and generally it had done so. He had wanted nothing but the joy he had found in his safe, quiet, happy home, his wife and children, and the young partner--half son, half best friend--who stood beside him. He wouldn’t have traded any of it for anything else in the Universe, and by the same token he refused to risk it. He, who had earned a living by his gun since he was seventeen, who had fought in some of the hottest battles in the War, had given up that life and all the wealth and fame it could bring, for the sake of his family and his friend. He had risked death often enough in those dozen crowded years, but with his marriage--indeed, almost from the moment he first met Sarah, that day in Albuquerque--he no longer wanted to. He wouldn’t take that chance, regardless of how low the odds might be against him. He had too much to lose.

But that didn’t mean he was willing to stand by and watch murder done and not take a hand in it; a man still had to be able to look at himself in the mirror every morning. And so, when a crew of liquored-up trail hands had taken it into their heads to lynch Nathan Jackson, the Negro healer who was the best approach the town had to a doctor, he and Vin had stepped in and shown them the error of their ways. When Judge Travis pulled in, a week later, the battle was still the talk of the town. Since the local sheriff--who was widely suspected of having purchased his badge from Travis’s recently retired predecessor--had run off rather than stand up to the trail crew, Travis was looking for someone to take his place. He’d bought Chris and Vin a round of drinks and offered the reformed gunfighter the job. At first Chris had refused. "I’ve got a family," he’d said. "I’ve got a ranch to run. And I don’t do that kind of thing any more. I’ve hung up my gun."

"From what I hear," Travis had said mildly, "you were wearing it, and using it, very noticeably last week."

"That’s different," Chris retorted. "You don’t stand by and let a man be lynched, least of all for something that wasn’t his doing."

"Exactly," Travis agreed, "and you don’t let a town collapse back into the dust it rose from if you have what it takes to prevent it. This is your town as much as it is anyone else’s, Mr. Larabee; you do your trading here, you have friends--you need Four Corners: more than it does you, I think. You’d hardly be the first rancher to wear a badge on the side, as I suspect you’re well aware."

Chris had to grant the truth of this. The office of sheriff, unlike that of marshal, was generally elective, which meant that the man who held it tended to come from the local population rather than being a peripatetic town-tamer, and a rancher, who routinely had more use for and skill with a sidegun than the average townsman did, was the most likely to have the necessary gifts, to say nothing of being better known in the neighborhood--and knowing the country better. Most such were cattlemen, who were of course in the numerical majority on the range, and these "cattlemen’s sheriffs," who were representatives of the ranching faction, were actually likely to be lawmen in name only, figureheads--"paper sheriffs," they were sometimes called. If such an officer hired a good deputy, he could get along very well--better indeed than the "miners’ sheriffs" and the "soft sheriffs" who took the taxpayers’ money while attracting a rough element by their easy reputations.

"I’m not a politician, Judge," he hedged. He’d seen enough, in his gunfighting days, to know that a sheriff, apart from being fast with a gun and knowing how to track a man down, also had to be able to satisfy both his county’s inevitable factions--those who wanted strict law enforcement to protect their lives and property, and those who, being in the business of purveying liquor, women, and other indulgences, wanted visitors with plump wallets treated diplomatically. "Vin says I’ve got no more tact than a bull buffalo, and he’s probably right. I don’t have a lot of patience with hypocrisy, and I don’t see much reason to get all heated up about vice as long as it keeps its head down."

"Nor do I," said Travis. "And, after all, you won’t have to worry about stroking the voters to get re-elected; as long as you do the job to my satisfaction, that’s all that’s needed, till this town gets itself a patent and the county is organized. By that time the people around here may well decide they like your style of keeping the peace enough to make it official."

Larabee still wasn’t sure: he’d never worn a badge before, had preferred to hire himself out as security for mines, stage lines, and wealthy individuals, or occasionally in range disputes, usually for whoever he perceived as the underdog. He’d always thought of peacekeeping as a pretty thankless job, not to mention one that involved a hell of a lot more paperwork than he was interested in dealing with. Justice meant a great deal to him, and the temptation was strong, but he still doubted whether the job was suited to a man with his pre-existing responsibilities--perhaps all the more because of his reputation, although it was now several years out of date. It had taken JD to change his mind. The kid had jumped off the stagecoach just in time to try to get a piece of the lynch mob and be discouraged by Chris’s bullet in the sand in front of his toes when he went to shoot a fleeing trailhand in the back. But when Travis stepped out into the street and offered twenty dollars to any man who’d accept the job of sheriff for just one week, JD had been the only one with the brass to come forward. Chris hadn’t even needed Vin’s mildly challenging glance to know he couldn’t leave an Eastern greenhorn to get himself killed. So now JD was first deputy, the man on the scene in town, and Chris and Vin came in every Saturday to deal with the crowds and whenever an emergency came up. Nathan doubled as JD’s backup when he wasn’t on call, and a friend of his, a former priest named Josiah Sanchez who’d moved into town about that same time and started fixing up the abandoned church (he called it his "penance"), rounded out the group. They hadn’t been together long, except for Chris and Vin, and were still settling into a knowledge of one another, but Larabee had been genuinely surprised at how well they worked together. They’d already nailed Stuart James’s nephew Lucas for the murder of Randolph Potter, the owner of the dry-goods store, dealt with a brutal pimp named Wickes and a female safecracker named Teresa Greer, and solved the year-old murder of Steven Travis, the Judge’s son, who’d founded the local newspaper, now edited by his widow Mary.

Vin thrust his head under the stream of the pump and held it there a moment, then came up gasping in pleasure and shaking his long sandy hair back out of his eyes. Despite the fifteen years’ difference in their ages, he and Larabee were closer than any pair of partners the older man had ever known. They’d been together twelve years now, ever since Vin was only thirteen. He’d been taken in by Comanches soon after his mother’s death, which had occurred when he was five, and had grown up as an Indian boy, keeping his English (rough as it was) only because his foster father had insisted that it was good for Comanches to have people among them who spoke the languages of neighboring tribes. By the time the Army "rescued" him at the age of twelve, he was more Indian than white. He had no family left that he knew of, and kept running away from every home he was placed in, trying to return to the Comanches. He’d fallen afoul of three tough white men who were abusing him when Chris Larabee--a young Union veteran working his way back to the West where he’d made his name--stepped in and stopped them. As Vin later told it, all it took was for their eyes to meet once and he no longer wanted to go back to an Indian lodge. He knew he’d found his home; it was wherever Chris Larabee was. They’d ridden side by side from that day on. Sarah had taught him to read and write, and Vin had earned his keep by hunting meat for the family and using the skills he’d learned among the Comanches to turn out horses so exquisitely trained that they didn’t even buck. Uncomfortable with a sixgun but aware that a rifle wasn’t well suited to close-in work, he’d compromised by adopting what he called a "mare’s leg" for its kick--a Winchester with its barrel sawed off to forearm-length, carried in a specially designed sideleg sheath. He’d gradually settled into living as a white man, but he still preferred moccasins to boots and refused to cut his hair--"Injuns figure whites is cropped close ’cause they’re scairt to lose their scalps," he’d once explained when Adam, aged four, asked.

Cooled and refreshed, he took his turn at pumping onto Chris’s head, then began buttoning his shirt and shouldering into his galluses as they walked toward the house to soap up at the washbench by the kitchen door. Chris paused long enough to shoot a dark look southward. Rincon County, hell, he thought morosely. Eleven years now he’d been accustomed to thinking that nothing ever came out of Rincon--its formal organization notwithstanding--but bandits and bad weather. Hope to hell that horse thief headed for Mexico, I don’t need Addison comin’ up here to claim him.


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