Late morning, on an early June day
In the corral behind the livery stable six peacekeepers and various townsfolk gathered to watch an expert at work. Inside the already broken fence, Vin Tanner battled to gentle a feisty buckskin mustang Chris had brought into town the day before, using all the skills taught to him by the People, the Comanche. It was a sight to behold, the onlookers all agreed, and almost as entertaining as the annual 4th of July picnic.
And, as the crowd continued to enjoy the show the young tracker and the stallion were giving them, four soldiers rode slowly into town, pausing to watch the unfolding spectacle as well.
Almost an hour later, when Vin finally had the buckskin under his control and responding to his gentle touch, the onlookers cheered and clapped, every one of them, except for the four soldiers.
The leader of that small group, a sergeant, was whipcord thin, with sharp, hawk-like features and small, hard grey eyes. He rode forward, spat into the dust and growled to the man he'd stopped next to, "What is he, some kind 'a half-breed?"
Josiah Sanchez, standing toward the rear of the crowd being tall enough to see over most of the other onlookers glanced up at the sergeant, his smoky, gray-blue eyes narrowed. "Our brother spent some time living among the Indians, but he's a white man, just like you or I," he said in a deep, rumbling voice.
The soldier's eyes narrowed as well, nearly disappearing in his weathered face as he continued to watch Vin. After a few moments, he shook his head. "That breed ain't like you an' me, mister. What was it, Apaches?"
"I believe it was Comanche," Josiah said, feeling his righteous ire begin to unfurl.
"Comanches, huh? Figures. They know their way 'round horses, all right but they're still a bunch 'a filthy, murderin' dogs," he said, then spat again.
Josiah glanced heavenward, silently asking, Why do you try my patience like this, Lord? If it's a test, you already know I'm gonna fail.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris Larabee, leader of the seven regulators who safeguarded the small town of Four Corners, in the Arizona Territory, had seen the four soldiers arrive. And he'd watched the sergeant's conversation with one of his men, wondering what the Army wanted with Four Corners, or anyone in it. Given the way the sergeant was eyeing Vin, it probably had something to do with the tracker, or trouble Vin Tanner seemed to attract trouble, in spades.
Larabee finally sighed and walked over to join the former preacher, asking, "Some trouble here, Josiah?"
"No, no trouble," the big man replied, but his tone was less than generous as he shot the soldier a glower, "the Sergeant and I were just discussing where Vin learned his remarkable skills with horses."
Larabee glanced up at the soldier, suspicious and a little hostile. He'd seen what soldiers thought about white men who'd lived among the Indians.
The sergeant looked away from Vin, glancing down at Larabee, who was dressed from head to toe in black, and said, "We were sent from Fort Buchanan. Looks like the Apaches are makin' trouble again might be Victorio and his boys, but we can't be sure 'til we round 'em up. They hooked up with some reservation jumpers from the Indian Territory, Kiowa-Apaches mostly. Major thinks they might be headed for Mexico. We're here to see to it they don't bother any of you fine people none." His voice dripped with sarcasm. "Heard there's some hired guns, or the like, lookin' out for this town?"
Chris nodded, inclining his head toward Josiah. "You've found two of 'em."
The sergeant grunted and spit into the dust near Larabee's boots. "Major McNabb wants t' talk to whoever's in charge of the bunch. We're bivouacked 'bout a mile out from town, along the creek."
"I'll ride out later," Chris said, fighting the urge to shoot the man where he sat, just on general principles. Something about the soldier rubbed him wrong, and he didn't like the way he was watching Vin like Tanner was a rabid dog that needed to be shot before he bit somebody.
"Major wants to see ya now," the sergeant said.
"The Major will just have to wait," Larabee growled, turning away and starting back to the corral just as another of the peacekeepers, Buck Wilmington, opened the gate and Vin rode the dancing buckskin out into the street, scattering the onlookers who didn't want to get too close to the still half-wild horse. Vin was talking to JD Dunne, the youngest of the regulators, who was pointing and gesturing excitedly.
"Hey, mister!" the sergeant called, starting to ride after Larabee, but Josiah stepped in front of his horse, stopping him.
"Tell the Major we won't be long," the former preacher said, then flashed the sergeant a toothy grin. "We just have to see a man about a horse first."
The soldier looked over to where the man in black was talking to the half-breed and frowned. "That breed one of you regulators?"
"He is," Josiah said, his voice low and hard, carrying a clear threat of the consequences if the soldier meant Vin any harm.
The sergeant grunted, shook his head and spat again, then reined his horse around and started away only to stop again when Vin let loose with a war cry that rattled the windows before he took off after JD and his fleet gelding, the two young men racing, full out, into the hot noon-day desert.
The atmosphere among the onlookers immediately turned more festive, bets on both men being called out. Ezra Standish's voice rose among the other, setting odds and defining terms.
Josiah watched, curious, as Buck shimmied up a corner post with a bandanna held between his teeth.
"They're almost to the big mesquite!" Nathan Jackson called down from his vantage point outside his second story clinic. "JD's in the lead, but not by much!"
"Go, JD!" Buck hollered at the top of his lungs, waving the bandanna wildly from his precarious perch.
The crowd shifted, men rising onto their toes as they watched two riders reach the large mesquite tree and circle tightly around it before racing off toward an old, broken down wagon, Vin edging into the lead as they circled that object as well. The competitors turned their horses, thundering back toward the livery corral.
Josiah watched the soldiers as they observed the race, a cold chill settling in his gut. Lord, whatever's coming, I hope you'll keep a close watch over us, especially Vin, he prayed silently, then walked over to join Chris, Buck, and Ezra, asking, "What're they racing for?"
"I have no earthly idea," the gambler replied with a sigh. "It is too ungodly hot to be out here working, let alone racing but, since we find ourselves here, we might as well make the most of it." He turned, taking more bets with a flash of his gold tooth when Nathan called out that JD was in the lead again. When he looked back at the others he added, "After all, there is no reason we shouldn't add to our profits."
"We?" Chris asked Josiah, who just grinned and shook his head.
"Here they come!" Buck whooped, then yelled loudly, "Come on, JD! Come on, kid! You can do it! Come on!"
"They're going for that bandanna?" Josiah asked, nodding at the square piece cloth Buck had hung, suspended by a piece of twine from a post that stuck out from the eaves of the boardwalk, which ended at the livery, at the southern edge of town.
"They are indeed," Ezra said. "And I strongly suggest we give ground, since I, for one, plan to live long enough to enjoy my winnings when Mr. Tanner triumphs. The man is a positive miracle worker when it comes to horses."
The four regulators moved away, along with many of the spectators as the riders' bore down on their goal, dust flying up behind their straining horses.
At the last possible moment, as they reached the corral, Vin veered off, the buckskin stallion streaking though the enclosure and leaping the far fence, the top rail of which had been broken earlier when the animal had tried to crush Vin against the wood, breaking it in half.
The tracker grabbed the bandanna, shoved it between his teeth and then hauled back on the reins, the buckskin sliding to a stop with a snort, his haunches tucked under him. Several men in the crowd hooted and hollered while others loudly groaned or cursed. Several seconds later JD reached the tracker, his horse also sliding to a stop.
"You cheated!" the young sheriff accused, surprised by the maneuver but still marveling at how easily the mustang had leaped over the barrier.
"Cheated?" Vin asked hotly, grabbing the cloth from his mouth. "Whatcha talkin' 'bout, JD?"
"You took a shorter path!"
"Hell, kid, all y' said was: 'n' back t' the livery. Y' didn't say how we was supposed t' get here."
Chris and the others all laughed at JD's confounded expression.
"Think he's got you there, JD," Buck said, shaking his head and grinning.
Then Vin grinned and handed Dunne the bandanna. A cheer went up from the men who had cursed earlier, and the ones who had cheered now groaned.
Ezra glanced around nervously. "The race has already been won, therefore there is no merit in giving Mr. Dunne the bandanna," he stated loudly for everyone to hear. "You are the winner, Mr. Tanner."
"Both paths t' the prize had merit," Vin countered the gambler. "We both won; we just took different paths is all."
"You both won?" Ezra echoed, chuckling softly. "That, Mr. Tanner, is like saying there are two sides to the truth."
"Well, there is, sometimes," Vin replied with a grin.
"Oh really?" the gambler asked, his hands on his hips, head cocked to one side in challenge.
"Yep when one's yours and one's mine," the tracker said, wheeling the buckskin away and galloping off down the street, JD following on his heels, laughing.
Some of the crowd pressed in around Ezra, who announced loudly, "The winner was Mr. Tanner! I will pay those who bet on Mr. Tanner!"
Chris shook his head, watching the gambler work the crowd. "Guess we better go see what Major McNabb wants," he said to Josiah, then looked up and gestured for Nathan to come down and join them.
The former preacher nodded even as he sighed heavily.
"Major who?" Buck asked his long-time friend, looking curious and confused at the same time.
Chris nodded at the soldiers, now heading slowly out of town. "Sergeant said the Apaches are on the prowl again. Army's have set up a camp outside of town to keep 'em off our backs. Man in charge is a Major McNabb, and he wants to talk to us."
"This I got t' hear," Buck said, his expression sour.
"I admit I'm curious as well," Josiah agreed. "I haven't heard anything about renegades being on the prowl around here."
Chris turned to the healer when he joined them. "Nathan, we're riding out to see what the hell the Army wants. Keep an eye on Vin, will ya? You know how he can get when there's Indians involved."
The black man nodded and grinned. "If I can catch him, I'll do that."
Larabee grinned and shook his head, glancing off down the street, the two racers nowhere in sight. "Yeah, good luck."
A short while later
The three regulators rode into the Army camp, the majority of the soldiers ignoring them as they went about their assigned tasks, but a few looked up, watching them pass, their expressions hostile to one degree or another.
"Brings back more 'n a few memories, don't it?" Buck asked quietly, glancing around the encampment.
"Yeah," Chris agreed, "most of 'em bad."
"Amen, brother," Josiah agreed.
The big ladies' man nodded as well.
They stopped just short of the largest tent in the camp two of the canvas walls having been rolled up and tied off, providing both shade and allowing a cooling breeze to flow though the tent and dismounted. A young man hurried over and offered to take their horses for them.
"Just stand here and hold 'em, Private," Chris instructed the boy without really looking at him. "We won't be long." And with that he ducked and stepped under the canopy without bothering to knock or announce himself. Buck and Josiah were right behind him.
McNabb looked up from where he sat, reading over the latest duty roster. He stood, and when the three men reached his desk he extended his hand to Larabee, who he could sense was the leader of the men, saying, "Major Zebulon McNabb. I've been expecting you, gentlemen."
McNabb was a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark red hair and piercing green eyes. His uniform was clean and well-tended, his hand soft. And Larabee took an instant dislike to the man. The major reminded the gunman of other officers he'd met during the war men who saw the Army as a means to climbing a social ladder right into Washington D.C. and a safe, profitable, government job.
"Major," Chris replied, taking a step back and hooking his thumbs under his gunbelt. "Your sergeant said you wanted to talk to us."
McNabb nodded as he sat down. He gestured to other chairs in the tent. Buck and Josiah sat; Larabee stayed on his feet.
The officer scowled slightly, but he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desktop, the pads of his fingers pressed together in a somewhat prayer-like gesture, and said, "So, the three of you are the law in Four Corners?"
"There's more of us," Chris said, then waited for the man to get to the reason they'd been asked there.
"More? How many?"
Chris hesitated for a moment, but then replied, "Seven."
"Seven? Well, the townsfolk are lucky indeed to have so many guns looking out for their welfare."
Chris made no reply, still waiting for the man to get to the point.
"Yes, well," McNabb said, "I can see you're busy men. We've had reports of renegades in the area Apaches from over near Ojo Caliente in New Mexico Territory. They hooked up with some Comanches and others who left the Indian Territory. The Apaches are probably some of Victorio's men, but we can't be sure. In any case, we believe they're all getting help from some of the domesticated tribes around here. We don't know which ones yet but we will find out who the sympathizers are, and when we do, they will be appropriately punished. I'd appreciate it if you'd pass along any information you might have, or overhear, and have your men ready in case we run these savages to ground. If the locals rise up to defend them, we might conceivably need help protecting your community until more troops arrive from Fort Bowie or Tucson."
"We haven't heard anything," Buck said, then asked, "These renegades killed or hurt anybody?"
"Just a few cattle and sheep so far, but it's only a matter of time. Now, can I count on your help?" He glanced at the three men, waiting for someone to respond.
Finally, Josiah nodded, saying, "We'll let you know if we hear anything, but we know the Indians who live around here, rather well, and I find it hard to believe they'd do anything to harm"
"You'd be amazed at what some of these savages will do, sir. But I have seen the depravity they can embrace." McNabb sighed and continued, saying, "Sergeant Evans tells me there's a breed living in town as well."
"He's no half-breed," Chris said, his voice turning low and dangerous. "He's a white man, just like the rest of us in this tent."
McNabb leaned back. "I see. But it is true he spent some time living among the Indians Comanche, I believe the Sergeant said is it not?"
"And Kiowa," Buck goaded, leaning back and folding his arms over his chest.
"Isn't something you need to worry about, Major," Larabee interrupted, his tone icy.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. I'm assuming this is the same man who was involved in the Mosley incident?" the major asked them.
"The Reverend Mosley accused an innocent man of kidnapping his daughter," Josiah said, leaning forward, his gaze locked on the officer's. "He killed his own daughter, and blamed it on Chanu, who was her husband."
"Yes, I'm aware of the facts; your Mrs. Travis provides an informative newspaper, even if her editorials are somewhat naïve, shall we say, when it comes to the Indians. But I understand that this bre Excuse me, this white man, released the buck from jail when it still appeared that he was the one guilty of kidnapping and rape."
"Rape never entered the conversation," Buck snapped, sitting up again, blue eyes flashing.
"And he didn't let him go. Chanu damn near killed Vin escaping," Chris snarled, remembering the flash of icy terror that had raced through his guts when he'd seen Tanner lying on the floor that night.
"All I'm trying to say, gentlemen, is that there may be a sympathizer in town someone who's helping these renegades. And they must be getting help. They've eluded us and our tracker at every turn. Perhaps it's someone besides the local tribes. I'm only trying to determine if this man poses a threat to"
"We'll keep an ear open," Larabee interrupted him, "and let you know if we hear anything about these renegades of yours, but Vin's no threat to you, or the folks in Four Corners. Be best if you remembered that, and left him alone." He turned and left without a backward glance.
Buck and Josiah both shoved to their feet.
"I don't want this Vin fellow helping these renegades," McNabb warned them. "If I find he has been"
Buck flashed McNabb a hot glare, then followed on Larabee's heels. Josiah stopped, his hat in his hands. He looked down at the major, saying, "Vin's not the one you need to be worrying about, Major." Then he settled his hat on his head, turned and left.
McNabb watched them go, then sighed and shook his head. He would find the renegades, and whoever was helping them, regardless of who it might be. And when he did, he would kill all of them, which, hopefully, would be enough to get him transferred back East, where he belonged.
Chris and Vin rode together toward Larabee's shack. The buckskin stallion, now wearing a halter and lead, tied to the gunman's saddle horn, followed along after the pair, dancing, his head tossing.
A comfortable silence had fallen between the two men after Larabee had told the tracker about his visit with Major McNabb, Vin turning over the news in his mind. Finally, Tanner broke the quiet, saying, "Reckon I better go see if they's really renegades on the prowl, or just a few Indians, tryin' t' find family down Mexico way."
"Don't think that's a good idea," Larabee replied. "The Major gets wind you're anywhere near those Indians, he's going to assume you're helping 'em."
Vin grinned. "Hell, been one step ahead 'a blue-bellies most m' life. They ain't goin' t' see me."
Chris fought back a grin at the cocky assurance in the man's voice. "All right, if you think you should."
They continued on, silence falling between them again. When they reached the turn off leading to Chris's shack, Larabee pulled up and asked, "You want to me to come along, watch your back?"
Vin shook his head. "Best if I go alone. I'll be back by mornin' after next at the latest."
The gunslinger nodded. "Watch your back, pard."
Vin nodded, touched his finger to the brim of his hat, then reined his big black away, the gelding heading off at a comfortable, ground-eating lope.
Chris watched until his friend was out of sight, hoping he would be all right. But something in the pit of his stomach told him trouble was coming, and when it did, it usually found Vin Tanner. He shook off the thought and glanced over at the buckskin, saying, "Come on, boy, time to get you home."
The following morning
Chris rode slowly up to join Josiah on a small ridge just northeast of town. They had both completed their morning patrols and met up at the familiar landmark to ride back to town together.
"Morning," the preacher greeted as Larabee reached him.
Chris nodded. "Anything?"
Josiah shook his head. "No sign of the renegades, and no one's complaining that they've seen them, or lost any stock. You?"
The big preacher started to turn his horse for home, but paused. He cocked his head to the side and squinted, peering into the distance. "That what I think it is?" he asked Larabee, nodding.
Chris turned in his saddle, looking off in the same direction as Josiah. "Shit," he swore softly, fear making his heart beat faster. "Vin's out here somewhere."
"Then we'd better take a look," Josiah replied.
Larabee nodded. "Let's ride."
The two men reined their horses and started off at a fast gallop toward the circling carrion birds, neither man voicing the thing they both feared most.
Several minutes later, Chris jerked his gelding to a halt, panic flaring through his chest with his first glance at the body lying sprawled on the ground. He took a deep breath and dismounted, walking over to stop next to Josiah, who had knelt down on one knee beside the dead man.
For a brief moment the man's hide coat and buckskin trousers had turned the gunslinger's blood to ice, but the dead man's long, black hair assured him Vin was still alive.
"You know him?" Larabee asked the preacher.
Josiah nodded, reaching out to gently squeeze the dead man's shoulder. "I've spoken to him several times in Ko-Je's camp. They call him Eagle Child because of his gentle soul; his thoughts were always up in the clouds, soaring with the eagles." He shook his head. "He can't be more than eighteen years old."
"Guess we'd better take him back to his people," Chris said with a tired sigh, beginning to check the ground for any signs that might tell him who had killed the young man. He didn't find anything. "Maybe it's the renegades," he said, frowning. "There are a lot of tracks here, almost all of them unshod."
"Or an overzealous soldier," Josiah replied. "Army's been known to take their horses' shoes off when they're tracking renegades, so the Indians can't tell who's following them."
"Maybe Vin can tell us who was responsible when he gets back," Chris said.
"Even a humming bird leaves a trail in the air, if we have the eyes to see it," the preacher said, "and I do believe Bother Vin could do just that."
Chris snorted softly, but he nodded. "Some days, watching him work, I'd believe it too."
Josiah grabbed a blanket from his bedroll and the two men bent over and rolled Eagle Child onto his back, both of them jerking away when they saw the boy's open, bloody wounds. He had been cut up, badly.
"Good Lord," Josiah breathed, "this boy's been tortured."
Chris nodded, his lips disappearing into a thin line of anger and worry.
Without speaking, they rolled Eagle Child into the blanket and draped him over the back of the preacher's horse, tying him down securely. Then they set off for Ko-Je's camp, both men grim-faced and silent.
The following morning
Vin rode into Four Corners, heading straight for the saloon, but he slowed and tipped his hat when Mary stepped out of the Clarion office, dressed in riding clothes.
Shading her eyes from the bright morning sun with her hand, she smiled up at him and said, "Welcome back."
"Where y' headed?" he asked her.
"I'm going out to talk to Major McNabb, for the paper." She frowned. "Mr. Larabee said you were checking on the Army's story about the Indians. Are there really renegades out there?"
Vin shrugged. "Some Indians out there, but they ain't renegades, no matter what McNabb tells ya. All the same, y' be careful."
She looked a little surprised. "I will. But are they Apaches?"
"Some of 'em," he replied enigmatically.
"Vin," she said, stepping up alongside the man's horse. She reached up to rest her hand on his forearm and continued, "After I talk to Major McNabb, I'd like to talk to you about what you've found; what you think is going on here. I don't want any bloodshed if it can be avoided."
He nodded his agreement. "Reckon that'll be all right."
"Thank you." She started off toward the livery and Vin drew up at the Standish Tavern. Sliding out of his saddle, he paused, watching until Mary was out of sight, then walked inside, finding Chris and the others just finishing their breakfasts. He caught the flash of relief in the gunslinger's eyes and it warmed him. Friendships had always been fleeting over the course of his life, most of them stripped away by death or sickness, but these six men had proved to be an exception, and for that he was profoundly grateful. Larabee, in particular, had filled some missing hole in Vin's heart. The blond was more than a friend, more than a brother. Chris was like a piece of his own soul, living in another body, which, he thought, might explain the uncanny way they seemed able to communicate without words.
Walking over to join the others, Vin sat down in the empty chair at the table and reached for what was left of the food.
"Well?" Chris asked him once Vin's plate was full.
Vin looked up, saying, "There's Indians out there, but they ain't renegades. Mostly 'paches Jicarilla from the looks of 'em, but they got some others with 'em, too. Comanche and a couple 'a Kiowa-'pache that are prob'ly married t' Jicarilla women. And they got women and kids with 'em, too. Don't think they'll give us any trouble." He met Larabee's gaze adding, "McNabb's either stupid or lyin'. They ain't headed t' Mexico, they're headed northeast. Prob'ly got split up when they's rounded up and sent t' whatever reservations they's on before they ran. I'd be willin' t' bet they're tryin' t' get t' back t' their lands."
"If that's so, why come here?" Buck asked, looking confused. "This ain't exactly on the way north from New Mexico Territory."
Vin glanced around the table, wondering how the men would react to what he'd discovered. "Reckon they come t' pick up more family livin' 'round here 'fore they turned back north. Ko-Je's people have been helpin' 'em, so I reckon some of 'em were livin' on the reservation with 'im."
"Are you sure about this?" Josiah asked, then immediately shook his head. "Sorry, brother, I know you are."
Vin met the older man's eyes and said, "They ain't been botherin' nobody, Josiah. They don't get crowded, they ain't goin' t' slow down, 'cept maybe t' kill a steer here or there t' keep 'em from starvin' on the trip, and hell, I figg'r they's owed that much for what's been done t' 'em."
"Definitely sounds like the Army ought to know they ain't heading to Mexico by now," Chris said, looking worried and annoyed. "Especially if they hired themselves a tracker."
Vin nodded. "Should, but McNabb's got his boys out looking south 'n' southeast. Either he's purely stupid or he's gettin' some bad leads t' follow."
"Well, one thing is sure, these renegades wouldn't have killed one of Ko-Je's boys if they'd found him out alone," Josiah said. "That just leaves the Army or someone local."
Vin looked up, surprised. "One of Ko-Je's people got killed?"
Josiah nodded sadly.
"Where'd it happen?"
"Few miles north of the tall ridge," Chris said. "Happened yesterday, early morning from the looks of it."
Vin shook his head. "Weren't these Indians then. They slipped south 'n' they've been travelin' north along the western hills fer three days. And they're makin' 'n effort t' stay away from settlers 'n' the Army. Who was it?" he asked Josiah.
"Eagle Child," the preacher replied. "Chris and I found him yesterday and took him back to the reservation. He'd been cut up pretty badly looked like someone took their time on him. I'm going to ride out there later this morning and talk to Ko-Je about what's going on."
"Damn," Vin said, his appetite disappearing. "Y' tell Ko-Je and Chanu t' be careful. What I saw an' overheard, McNabb's jus' lookin' fer a reason t' kill hisself some Indians, an' he ain't gonna be particular which ones. Ko-Je's people get caught helpin' these folks, McNabb'll have his men ride down on 'em out 'a spite. But y' best wait 'til t'morrow t' go. They're gonna have t' get Eagle Child ready to meet the spirits t'day."
Josiah nodded, wishing he knew half of what Vin did when it came to various Indian cultures.
Vin looked over at Chris. "Y' show me where y' found Eagle Child?"
Larabee nodded. "Planned to, but finish your breakfast," he told the tracker.
Vin flashed him a grin, knowing Chris could be worse than an old mother hen he if got to worrying over someone. He pushed his sadness aside and dug into the meal, knowing he was going to need it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
As Mary rode along the creek road, her spine slowly stiffened. She glanced warily around at the desert landscape. It felt like someone was watching her, but she couldn't see anyone, and her horse didn't seen at all nervous. Still, she'd learned to trust her instincts so she stayed in the center of the wagon road, only leaving it to avoid the occasional clumps of trees and brushes the path passed when it wound closer to the creek bank.
And her instincts were good. In the shadows of several palo verdes, a tall, dark-haired tracker watched her ride past. He licked his lips as he stared at the swell of her breasts, her long, graceful neck, her shining, blonde hair. His eyes narrowed as his desire rose and he knew he could take her, if he wanted to. And he wanted to.
But then the ubiquitous buzz of the cicada disappeared and he heard the sound of another rider approaching along the road at a fast lope. The tracker stayed where he was, cursing softly to himself as one of McNabb's soldiers appeared.
"Mrs. Travis?" the lieutenant asked the blonde woman as he pulled up in front of her.
"Yes," she replied, her hand reaching for the rifle in its scabbard.
"I'm Lieutenant Fitzhugh, ma'am. Major McNabb sent me to escort you to the camp. With renegades on the loose, he didn't want to take any chances. I'm just sorry you got this far without an escort."
"Very well, Lieutenant," Mary said, relaxing. She glanced around, wondering if the soldier was what she'd sensed earlier, but somehow she doubted it.
"If you'll just ride along with me, ma'am."
The dark-haired tracker watched the woman and the soldier continue on toward the encampment together and sighed, frustrated. Turning, he stalked back to where his own woman waited with two horses. He grabbed his reins from her and swung up into his saddle.
"I'm goin' to the Army camp. You come, but no talk to nobody, y' hear, woman?" he snapped at her.
Northwind nodded, her gaze averted. She could hear the two horses moving down the road, and wondered who it had been, and why La Croix was so angry.
"I catch y' talkin' t' anyone," he snarled, "I'll cut out your tongue." He turned his horse and headed off at a lope, already wondering who the blonde was and what she was going to see McNabb about.
Northwind watched her husband leave, then shouldered her heavy pack and took the pack horse's reins and started walking, trailing behind him as quickly as she could. It would not be wise to be late with the mood La Croix was in.
A short while later
The dark-haired tracker rode into the Army camp, glancing around. He saw the blonde woman's horse tied in front of Major McNabb's tent and frowned, wondering again who she was. She didn't look like a necessary woman, which was part of what had attracted him to her, but he could be wrong. What other kind of woman would be coming out here?
But he had other things to attend to in the camp, and he knew it was time to get on with them. He dismounted and walked over to the mess tent, getting himself a cup of coffee and listening to the soldiers talk. Eventually, his woman caught up, walking into the encampment, her head down. Northwind went straight to his horse and stood there, waiting like a faithful dog for him to return and tell her what to do next. He smiled and chuckled softly to himself. Yes, she was his faithful bitch.
He stood and walked out to join her, snarling softly, "Remember, no look, no talk."
Northwind nodded, her head down, gaze on the ground, just like he expected.
The tracker left her there and went to search out Sergeant Evans, who, after they had spoken, told him McNabb was busy, talking to Mrs. Travis, who ran the Clarion, a newspaper in Four Corners. The tracker laughed and shook his head a woman who worked her own newspaper? She must be loose, living like a man.
Several minutes later he saw the blonde step out of the major's tent. She saw Northwind and stopped, speaking to the Indian woman, but Northwind looked away and refused to reply to her. The tracker smiled. He had trained his squaw well, and he couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to train the blonde. A much tougher fight, he was sure, but it would be well worth it in the end, he was sure.
Northwind met his eyes briefly and he saw the blonde glance his way as well. He met her eyes and smiled hungrily. She looked away, her cheeks flushed rosy.
He licked his lips as he watched Mrs. Travis mount her horse and leave. He would make sure he saw the blonde woman again.
The sergeant called him over before he could follow her then, holding the major's tent flap open for him and telling him to hurry, the major was a busy man.
The tracker cursed softly and walked over, entering as he'd been bid.
"La Croix, what the hell are you doing here? I paid you a ransom in gold to find those damned savages, not prowl around my camp. We haven't found anything where you said to look, not a damned thing. Why aren't you out there, looking for them?"
"I'll find them, Major," the tracker said, reaching out to help himself to a half-sandwich setting on a white china plate on the officer's desk. The scent of the blonde woman lingered in the air and he knew the food was something she had declined. "Thought I'd found 'em, but it was just some reservation buck, out lookin' for game."
"What did you do?" McNabb asked, suddenly suspicious of the look in the tracker's eyes.
"Just asked him a few questions, Major, that's all. He ain't gonna be a problem."
"I don't need any outbreaks of hostility among the domesticated tribes interfering with this campaign, La Croix. Unless, of course, you find that they're helping these renegades, in which case we'll see to it they don't ever help any of these murdering beasts again, domesticated or no. I plan to round these filthy savages up as quickly as possible and get back to the Fort. I do not plan to spend a single day more of my career in this godforsaken desert than necessary."
"Ah, yes, well, you'll be doin' these settlers a service, Major," the tracker said with a grin, "killing these renegades. Have you seen what the Apaches and their friends can do to a body?" he asked, knowing the officer had not. "It is not the dyin' that hurts, Major, it's the gettin' to be dead. Oh, yeah, there's the real agony."
"Yes, well, we have more than enough men here to deal with these savages. If you can find them. So, I suggest you get back out there and do what you've been paid to do, La Croix."
"And I will, Major, but I need more money, to buy information from some of the local tribes. And when I do, I'll also know who's been helpin' them renegades give us the slip."
McNabb stared up at the tracker, wondering if the man was lying or not. Not that it mattered, as long as he found some heathens for him to kill. Still, something about the tracker bothered McNabb. But until he could find someone to take La Croix's place, he was stuck doing business with the man. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a small leather pouch. Opening it, he took out a few silver coins.
LaCroix held out his hand, but McNabb let the coins fall onto the desktop instead of into the man's open palm. "I'll expect some positive results within the week." He looked up at La Croix, holding his gaze. "Or I will find myself another tracker. One with better skills. There's a breed in town, maybe he can find these savages, if you cannot."
La Croix reached out and swept the coins off the desk and into his hand. "I'll find 'em, Major, don't you worry about that." He walked to the tent flap and paused. "Goin' t' try to the west. You have your boys ready to ride, if I find something." He shoved the flap aside and stepped back out into the heat and sun. He snapped his fingers and Northwind came over to join him, leading his horse.
The tracker mounted, then leaned over and grabbed the woman by the hair, saying, "Go make camp, along the creek where we stopped. Understand?"
He gave her a shove and rode out without looking back.
Northwind watched him go, her eyes flashing angrily. She glanced back at the white officer's tent, then sighed softly and set out to do as she'd been told.
That same day
Vin knelt, carefully studying the ground in front of him. Then he rose, walked a few feet away and squatted down again, repeating the same process he'd been using for nearly an hour. He reached out, touching the desert sand, brushing aside grains and peering at the ground. Finally, he stood again and glanced out at the landscape. He waited for a moment, turning things over in his mind, and then gave a small nod, satisfied he'd come to the right conclusions.
He walked back to where Chris had been patiently waiting for him, watching Tanner at work and marveling to himself.
"Tracks tell two stories," Vin said. "A few of the renegades, four, maybe five, met with some of Ko-Je's people here. Ko-Je's warriors prob'ly gave 'em food 'n' other supplies. That was two, maybe three days ago. Found Eagle Child's tracks, too. He wasn't with 'em fer the exchange. He was out, trailing game. He met one man; not an Indian, who'd been waiting here for a spell. Willin' t' wager it's that tracker them Army boys hired t' find the reservation jumpers. Tracker might 'a thought he'd found one 'a 'em and cut Eagle Child up some t' find out where the rest were hidin', but he had t' know when he killed Eagle Child he weren't no renegade." The man's blue eyes turned stormy. "I c'n find 'im."
Larabee shook his head. "Not sure we want to get caught between the Army and these renegades, Vin. I know you said they're only interested in going home, but if they've drawn Ko-Je's people into helping them, and we get involved, well, things might get complicated all around."
"Eagle Child's family deserves t' have the man who killed him, take their vengeance so the boy c'n move on t' the spirit world with an unburdened heart," Vin argued.
"If that tracker's workin' for the Army, and McNabb finds out Ko-Je's people killed him "
Vin nodded and sighed, frustrated. "If the tracker knows, and he ain't already told McNabb, then he'll probably try 'n' trade that knowledge fer whatever he can get out 'a Ko-Je Might be why the Army's lookin' in the wrong direction, too. He might be gettin' paid by the Indians t' pass along the wrong direction t' McNabb. 'Til the jumpers 'n' the Army's both gone, best t' tell the folks at the Seminole Village, and Ko-Je's people, t' stick close t' home from now on."
"Just a shame Eagle Child had t' cross paths with this tracker. He was a good kid," Vin said, walking back to his horse and rolling into his saddle. "When this is over, 'm goin' t' find the man."
Chris looked over at Vin, remembering what Eagle Child had looked like and said, "When this is over, I'll go with you."
Later, back in Four Corners
Riding into town, Chris and Vin found Mary and Mrs. Trace climbing into a wagon, the bed loaded with a few baskets that were filled with food stuffs and other supplies
Larabee frowned and stopped, saying, "Mary, Mrs. Trace," as he lifted a finger to the brim of his hat. "You taking a trip?" he asked the newspaper woman.
Mary climbed into the wagon seat and took up the reins. "Mrs. Winthrop's too ill to make it into town. We promised to deliver some supplies."
"Mary, there are renegades and trigger-happy soldiers out there," Chris said. "It'd be foolish to go out to the Winthrop place alone right now."
"I'm not alone," Mary said, glancing at Laura Ann, who smiled back at her, warmed by Mary's confidence in her.
Chris wasn't sure what to say to that. He glanced at Vin, but the tracker's amused expression offered no help. He looked back at the two women and sighed. "At least take a gun with you, just in case."
Mary looked skeptical, but Mrs. Trace reached down and lifted a shotgun, resting in across her lap. "Of course, Mr. Larabee," she said to the gunman. "We wouldn't think of going without it."
Chris smiled slightly, then touched his finger to the brim of his hat again, saying, "All right, ladies; be careful."
"We're always careful, Mr. Larabee," Mary promised him before slapping the reins across the horse's rump and heading of.
Larabee looked back at the tracker, who was grinning like an idiot. "What the hell's wrong with you?" he demanded testily.
Vin shook his head, saying, "Not a damned thing."
The man in black huffed and continued on to the saloon where he dismounted and started inside, ignoring the chuckling man who followed him. But he paused at the batwing doors and turned. "Ah, hell," he said and sighed heavily. He walked back and climbed into his saddle again.
Vin, who hadn't bothered to dismount, grinned and followed the gunslinger as he rode out of town. They were going to drop in on Mrs. Winthrop, it appeared.
On the way to the Winthrop farm
Mary and Laura Ann rode along in silence for a time before the blonde turned to the school teacher and asked, "Laura, how long were you married?"
Mrs. Trace glanced away, saying, "Five years."
Mary nodded. "It was only a little longer for me. You don't talk about him, your husband, I mean Did you love him?"
Laura Ann thought for a moment before she replied. "I thought so, at first. He was much older than I an old friend of my father's and somewhat possessive."
Mary glanced at the young woman, wishing Laura Ann was more forthcoming about her past. She could sense the woman was hiding something, but she wasn't sure what it was, and she didn't want to pry, even if she was curious. Laura Ann was a wonderful school teacher and she'd become a good friend since she'd arrived, but Mary could sense the woman needed to tell someone the truth about what had really brought her to Four Corners. But she couldn't force her to talk about it if Laura Ann didn't want to.
"How's the school coming along?" she asked instead.
"Very well, thank you. Josiah's been a great help. He even put up a blackboard at the back of the church for me to use."
They continued along, talking about the school, their children and their hopes for the small but growing community of Four Corners. The dark-haired tracker, when he appeared, startled them both.
"You, blonde," he snapped, pointing at Mary, "come here, or die where you sit."
Mary glanced at Laura Ann, who started to lift the shotgun to her shoulder.
"Don't prove yourself a fool, woman," the tracker snarled at her, drawing his Colt before Mrs. Trace could fit the gun snugly to her shoulder.
He guided his horse closer to the wagon. "Now, blonde," he snapped at Mary. "Come here."
Mary stood and started to climb down, saying softly, "Go back to town; get Chris."
"Mary," Laura Ann whispered, "you can't."
"Go back to town, please," Mary begged, afraid the man might just shoot Laura Ann if she didn't cooperate.
The school teacher scooted over and picked up the reins, but she couldn't force herself to leave. She watched Mary walk over to the tracker, who offered her his hand. Mary took the proffered hand and allowed the stranger to pull her up behind him on his horse.
"Mary!" Mrs. Trace called, angry and scared.
"It'll be all right. Go back to town," she said as the tracker wheeled his horse away and kicked it into a gallop. Mary grabbed onto the edge of the cantle and hung on, her heart beating frantically in her chest.
Laura Ann watched for a moment, then cursed under her breath and turned the wagon for home. A moment later Chris and Vin streaked by her on their horses. "Thank God," she breathed, pulling up the horse, determined to wait in case someone ended up hurt and needed to be taken back to town in the wagon, and praying all the while that wouldn't be necessary.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Their horses hooves thundering, necks stretched out as they ran, Chris and Vin urged more speed from both animals as they raced over the desert, finally coming up on either side of the fleeing tracker and Mary.
La Croix had heard them coming and gigged his own gelding to a run, but burdened with two riders, the older mustang wasn't able to outdistance his pursuers.
Coming up alongside the dark-haired tracker, Chris reached out and grabbed Mary around the waist, lifting her off the man's horse and carefully setting her down once he got his own mount stopped.
"Are you all right?" he demanded.
She nodded, trying to catch her breath. "Go!"
He hesitated a moment, then his gelding lurched and he was chasing after Vin and the stranger. Mary watched him go, one hand pressed to her chest, the other lifted to shade her eyes as she tried to see what was happening in the distance.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin stayed with the dark-haired tracker, his big black gelding easily matching the man's tiring paint. And, when he saw an opportunity, Tanner launched himself from his saddle, tackling the tracker around the shoulders and forcing him to the ground where they landed roughly.
Both men rolled to their feet, the dark-haired tracker coming up with a knife in his hand. He slashed at Tanner, who jumped back and dropped into a crouch, ready to fight.
La Croix lunged, slicing at Vin, who stepped deftly to the side and lashed out with a swift punch to the man's kidney, almost sending the dark-haired man to his knees. But the tracker grunted and spun, slashing at Tanner, catching the sleeve of his hide coat, but not drawing blood.
Vin grabbed the man's arm, trying to break his hold on the weapon, but La Croix twisted away.
The pair circled one another, clashing violently, and then pulling back again. Vin finally saw an opening. He dropped his shoulder, feigned an attack and charged in another direction, catching the off-guard tracker in the midsection, flipping the man up and over his shoulder.
La Croix landed with a thud and didn't move.
Approaching the fallen man cautiously, Vin finally leaned in and turned the tracker over. The knife was embedded in the man's chest, and his eyes were rounded with surprise, but they were no longer seeing.
Chris edged his black closer, his Colt in his hand and pointed at La Croix. "He dead?" he asked Vin.
Tanner nodded, panting to catch his breath in the hot, dry air. A movement in the bushes nearby caught Vin's attention and he caught sight of Northwind disappearing. He sighed heavily. "Tracker had an Indian woman with him," he said, then cursed softly.
"Probably his wife," Mary said from the seat of the wagon as she and Laura Ann rolled up and stopped beside the two men. "I saw them together at the Army encampment."
"Come on," Chris said, turning his horse. "Let's get you back to town. I'll send Josiah and Buck out to deliver those supplies to Mrs. Winthrop."
"That won't be necessary," Mary said, glancing at Laura Ann, who nodded. "Mrs. Trace and I will be able to finish the trip now."
"I'm fine," she said. "Really."
"All right," Larabee said with a resigned sigh.
He and Vin watched Mary climb back into the wagon and the two women started off, Mrs. Trace carrying the shotgun across her lap again. This time it was cocked and ready to fire.
"Them two got grit," Vin said, watching them go.
"Foolish if you ask me," Chris muttered, but he felt the same way. "Let's take this one back to the Army, see if they had him on the payroll."
Vin shook his head. "First we take him to Ko-Je. Eagle Child's family deserve t' see his killer's dead, then we can take 'im t' the Army camp. 'Sides, I want t' know if he was gettin' paid t' keep his mouth shut 'bout Ko-Je helpin' the jumpers."
Larabee nodded his agreement. "All right."
Vin looked down at the man and frowned. The tracker was wearing a mix of clothing, but the woman he'd caught sight of was dressed like the Jicarilla he'd seen on the run. But why would someone traveling with the renegades also be working for the Army? Unless it was to ensure the Army didn't find the renegades. But if that was the case, why had the tracker killed Eagle Child? The questions continued to haunt Vin as they wrapped La Croix up, tied him onto the back of Tanner's gelding, and started for Ko-Je's camp.
The two regulators rode into the Army encampment, immediately drawing the attention of the men they passed. The thin sergeant from town broke away from a group of soldiers and walked over, eyeing the bundle tied behind Vin's saddle.
"That one of them renegades?" he asked, then spat, his gaze locked on Vin's.
"No," Chris said, dismounting and cutting La Croix's body loose. It rolled off the back of the gelding and landed on the ground, the blanket falling open to reveal the tracker's face.
The sergeant stared down at the dead man, the muscles in his jaw twitching furiously. "Shit. Renegades get him?"
"No. Caught him trying to have his way with Mrs. Travis," Chris growled, adding, "He got what he deserved."
"You killed him?" the soldier asked, eyes narrowing as he looked at the gunslinger.
"Fell on his own knife " Vin said. "While he was fightin' with me."
The soldier's gaze shifted. That made more sense. He'd heard Larabee was good with a gun, but the breed, it figured he'd use a knife. "Fell on it, huh?" he snarled and spat again.
"That's the truth of it," Larabee snapped at the man. "I saw it happen myself."
"Major hired La Croix to find those renegades," the sergeant said, then spat and looked up at Tanner. "You gonna take his place?" he asked Vin.
The man's beady eyes almost disappeared when they narrowed. "You want them savages t' start killin' folks hereabouts?"
"Them people are on their way home," Vin snarled. "Y' leave 'em be they won't bother nobody."
The sergeant shook his head. "Heard it all before."
"You'd do well to listen this time," Chris said as he mounted.
The two peacekeepers turned and rode out of the camp, leaving La Croix where he'd fallen.
When they were on their way back to Four Corners, Larabee sighed, saying, "So, he was working for the Army."
"More like he was workin' for hisself," Vin replied. "His woman's dressed like the renegades. She's one of 'em. Bet he got hisself paid by McNabb so he could keep the Army off their backs. But he was workin' for hisself when it came to Ko-Je's people."
"Nothing but a damned thief."
The sergeant opened the flap to the major's tent and stepped inside, saying, "Excuse me, sir, but La Croix's squaw is here to see you."
McNabb looked up, surprised. "What?"
The sergeant shrugged. "I can send her away, but I thought La Croix might've told her something 'bout the renegades. Says she won't talk to nobody but you."
McNabb set his pen back in its well and sighed. "Very well. This is intriguing, if nothing else. Send her in. I want to hear what she has to say."
The sergeant nodded and left. A few moments later Northwind ducked inside and walked to McNabb's desk, stopping and looking down at the ground.
McNabb's gaze swept over her. She was passably easy to look at but she did not rouse his passions, being, in his mind, nothing but a dirty savage, and a heathen to boot. "So, Northwind, isn't it? What have you come to see me about?"
"Justice," she said in thickly accented English, still looking at the ground. "I want justice for my husband."
"I cannot give you that," McNabb said. "He laid hands on a white woman. He deserved the quick death he was given."
She frowned, her lips pressed into a tight line. She had seen the woman, the one with the golden hair who had spoken to her here, in the soldier's camp. She knew what La Croix had intended to do to the woman, but it did not matter. She was without a husband. "You provided for my husband, you should provide for me, and my children."
Major McNabb stood and walked around his desk. He stopped, leaning back against it and crossed his arms over his chest. "You husband provided a service, Northwind. What can you give me?" he asked her.
She lifted her chin, meeting his eyes briefly. "You will not help me," she stated, seeing the truth in his green eyes.
"No, I will not," he replied. "Not unless it is to my benefit anything to get out of this godforsaken wasteland. That, I'm afraid, is the way of the real world."
She looked up again, this time meeting his gaze and holding it, her expression defiant. "Your real world and mine are not the same."
"No, they are not," McNabb said, adding, "thank God. Go, Northwind, find yourself another husband among your own kind; there is nothing here for you."
She dipped her head again, turned and left without another word, or a look back. She knew who was to blame, and she would have her revenge.
McNabb watched her go, frowning. La Croix had been a useful annoyance until this last time, when all of his skills seemed to have evaporated like spilled water in this infernal heat. He frowned. Perhaps the renegades weren't getting help from the breed in Four Corners after all. Or maybe La Croix and the breed were working together. A falling out between them could explain how La Croix had ended up dead.
The major walked back around his desk and sat down, thinking. Northwind was an Apache woman, he could tell that much from her dress.
McNabb cursed softly. Had La Croix been lying to him the entire time? The renegades weren't headed for Mexico, they were headed back to where they'd come from north. "Sergeant!"
The next morning
Josiah rode up to where Ko-Je stood, lifting his pipe to the spirits, wishing Eagle Child a swift journey into their spirit world. He dismounted and walked over to join the old chief. He stood in silence until he felt the time was right, and then said, "It is a good morning, Ko-Je, and a fine day. Eagle Child will have an easy journey to the Spirit Land."
Ko-Je nodded. "Yes, Eagle Child will have an easy journey and once there he will chase spirit deer and live without hardships alongside his ancestors." The old man looked to Josiah, adding, "But that is not your belief."
Josiah grinned. "Ko-Je, it is my belief that my Heaven and your Spirit World are neighbors, with no fences between them. And that there are many paths to each."
The old man smiled and nodded his approval. "The tracker, La Croix, was he the one who killed Eagle Child?"
"Vin thinks so, yes."
The old man nodded. "Then he is the one. I did not see them when they came yesterday, with the man's body." Ko-Je sighed sadly. "Tell Vin that the tracker had a wife, a Jicarilla."
"Like the renegades?" Josiah asked, frowning.
Ko-Je nodded. "She is sister to one of the chiefs."
Josiah cocked his head to the side and studied the old man. "Why do I think there's more to this than you're telling me?"
"It is there for you to see, if you have the eyes," the old chief replied.
"Ko-Je, if there's something about these renegades we need to know, you should tell me."
He shrugged. "Many tribes have been scattered by the white men the Army, ranchers, settlers "
He shrugged again.
Josiah sighed, a little frustrated, but his attention shifted when he saw smoke rising from along the creek that snaked through the landscape in the distance. "Wet wood," he mumbled. "Who would be that stupid?"
"A white man?" Ko-Je offered with a small smile.
Josiah grinned and chuckled. "More 'n likely."
"They come here, they build, but they learn nothing and they die."
"Well, maybe this one will run into a good Samaritan."
"I have heard of that tribe," Ko-Je stated, nodding. "They were a good people."
"Yes, they were," Josiah said with an amused grin. Then he frowned, still watching the rising smoke. "Something so obvious, it's either a sign of peace, or a trick."
Ko-Je nodded, his expression unreadable, and Josiah knew there was something more going on, something he needed to understand.