I. Convergence

by Sevenstars

Vin ignored it all, secure in the knowledge that he had crafted a shelter as good as anything short of a sound buffalo-hide lodge. He arranged his dry sticks wheelspoke-fashion, so the fire would give off a maximum of heat without much smoke, and scattered a handful of tinder atop it, punkwood scrapings and fat drippings from the doeskin pouch he kept for precisely that purpose. Holding his flint in his right hand and his steel in his left--he had matches in his pouch but preferred to be thrifty with them--he hit the steel a hard brisk stroke with the flint, and a spark answered immediately, dropping onto the waiting tinder. He blew on it steadily, lightly, and evenly, adding fine dry pine needles one by one, then one-inch twigs, and at last a big handful of small dry stuff. In minutes he had a cheery little blaze leaping before him. He made a soft pad of smaller branches way back under the angle, spread his tarpaulin on them and laid out his buffalo robe and blanket on top, while jerked beef frizzled with salt pork in his little skillet and a potato roasted in the ashes. With beans and grits and a little pan bread, plus coffee with a little molasses in it, he had the best meal he'd enjoyed since his flight began.

He ate slowly, letting the food's energy sink into his body, and thought about his situation. He was quite sure he'd never seen Eli Joe before, so he couldn't imagine how the man could have had a grudge against him big enough to want him to hang. Had it been, rather, that his enmity had focused on Kincaid, and Vin, with his oft- expressed envy for the man's carbine, had simply been a handy scapegoat on whom to pin the crime? Tanner knew there were some at the fort who distrusted him--his defiantly long hair and knee-high cougar moccasins, ornamented Comanche-style with dragging fringe and beaded all around with shells from a streambed, ensured that, not to mention his Indian-made shirt, the medicine bag strung around his neck, and his facility at the Comanche and Kiowa languages--and of course it was well known that he carried a knife and wasn't afraid to use it. He'd been working as a military despatch rider out of Belknap for better than six months now, long enough for anyone who cared to establish his character and his routines. Shit. Should'n'a got so careless. Know better. But the pay had been good--sixty dollars a month, lodging, and supplies as needed for each ride--and the work light, and often he'd been able to amplify his income by a little private hunting for the bachelor officers' mess or the wives of the married ones. Not that money mattered all that much to Vin, whose needs and tastes were elementary; his biggest expenditures were ammunition and the colorful shirts and bandannas he loved. Still, he knew it was a necessity in the white man's world, and having no one on whom he could fall back, he intended to make sure he could take care of himself if the need arose. He'd learned to give his trust reluctantly, and kept his savings on him, in a buckskin money belt made to order by Sergeant O'Leary's Wichita squaw Molly. Here in the Nations, the Five Civilized Tribes and the trading posts that serviced them accepted Washington's currency freely; he would be able to buy supplies and ammunition, though he thought it would be wisest for him to swing wide of Warren's post and Fort Arbuckle, and do his trading privately at the farmsteads of the Chickasaws whose country this was. Farther north, beyond the Canadian River and Camp Holmes, he would find the long narrow strip of the Seminole Nation, sandwiched between the Canadian and North Canadian, and then the Creek Nation east of the Cross Timbers and unoccupied lands west.

Where to go once over that? Lingering in the Nations might be safer than he assumed, despite its proximity to Belknap--white law had no power there, and the Indian Lighthorse Police generally left a white man alone if he returned the favor. Farther north yet, beyond the Kansas Territory whose eastern reaches seethed with border trouble and whose western end swarmed with the gold-seekers around Denver and Pike's Peak, the vast Nebraska Territory sprawled, extending from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide and reaching north all the way to the Canadian border. That was the land of the Sioux, Crow, and Blackfoot, proud, warlike tribes of whom Vin had heard much, and whom he had sometimes thought of visiting. Once there he would have a quarter of a million square miles in which to hide, and his skills would keep him alive and even thriving. Only a few scattered forts-- Pierre between the White and Cheyenne Rivers, Sarpy on the Yellowstone, Union where the latter forked off the Missouri, Benton at the Teton branch--imposed the white man's presence on that sweeping vastness of buffalo plain. No one--not the Army, not whoever had set him up, whether Eli Joe or another--would ever find him there. But would such a course be the brave thing to do, the thing a Tanner should do? Vin reached down under his buckskin shirt and the soft, bright-red flannel one underneath it, past the thong that held his medicine pouch, to the little round gold locket that hung down on his chest by a thin golden chain, and pulled it up to turn it slowly between his fingers. On one side it was engraved with a heart, on the other with an intertwined set of initials he couldn't read but knew to be his ma's, just as he knew that this was the gift his pa had given her on their wedding day. A compassionate neighbor had given it to him rather than allowing it to be buried with her, and it had never been out of his possession since. It was his last link to her. When he was deeply troubled or confused, unable to decide what to do, he would use it as a focus, hoping to somehow draw the essence of her spirit to him and gain her advice. "What you reckon, Ma?" he whispered in a husky, raspy drawl that was drowned by the roaring of the wind. "Go up to Sioux country? Go back the way I come and try to run down that snake Eli Joe and squeeze the truth out of him? Or somethin' else?"

He closed his eyes and waited, stilling himself inside as he did when he was hunting, listening for her voice. It never came as actual words, yet always he emerged from these trances knowing, as if by a kind of osmosis, what she thought was best for him. Behind his eyelids a vision slowly assembled itself, of gleaming snow-capped peaks rearing above a flat cut by dry creek beds and tenanted by a sprawling assemblage of cabins and frame and brick buildings, people and animals and vehicles of every sort swarming through the unpaved streets that divided them. The signs on the buildings meant nothing to Vin, but he knew it was no town he had ever seen before, and clearly it was a civilian community, not a fort. Perhaps it was the mountains and the shortgrass plain that fronted them, the scarcity of adobes and the thickness and heterogeneity of the traffic, which told him what town it must be--or perhaps it was a comprehension his mother sent directly into his spirit. He thought somehow the latter, for when he opened his eyes onto the norther's driving rain, he knew not only its name, but that it lay some five hundred eighty miles away from where he sat, and exactly how best to reach it. "Denver," he murmured aloud, tasting the name. The prospect of being among so many people made him feel uneasy, but he knew Ma was right: the best way to lose your tracks was on a well-travelled road, and the best way to lose yourself was in a busy town. Yet he wouldn't be so far from Texas that he couldn't return easily--and perhaps get news from there. Or, if his power was truly with him, maybe Eli Joe would take it in his head to try his fortune in the mines, and when he did, Vin and his big ten-inch Bowie knife would have some words to say to him.

Sometime during the night the rain slackened and the wind dropped from a roar to a grumble. In the morning the sun was shining again, but the Red was swollen to three times its size and Vin's breath hung like smoke in the air, his nose and ears and fingers stinging with the cold. His trail--the true one as well as the false--would be washed out now, and the river impassable for at least a day. His guardians had looked after him well. He knew that by nightfall the air would be getting warmer, and in a few days it would be pleasant enough for a man to take off his red flannels if he wanted to. That was provided he didn't travel any farther north. But Vin Tanner had a journey before him. He poured water on the remains of his fire, stirred the ashes and wet them a second time to make sure no sparks remained, then packed his gear and saddled Peso, ignoring the big horse's shuddering back, avoiding his snapping teeth, and well aware that he'd have a bit of a fight before him as the gelding tried to warm himself up. "Settle down, you blockhead mule," he muttered. "Got a long ways to go, we do. Plenty trail for you to git them chills out of your blood."

4. Wells Road Ranch (RM&W Home Station No. 6)
South Platte River, Nebraska Territory

On the High Plains the travelling conditions in the months from about November to April could fluctuate between favorable and impossible, but the Company personnel were experienced men who knew that their oxen could survive the worst the weather had to offer if turned out to rustle their own living, and that for themselves, with a few boards for a windbreak, a drift of insulating snow, a buffalo robe to wrap in, and a supply of pemmican or jerky--to say nothing of the edibles they usually carried in their wagons--they could last out even a mountain winter. Thirty-four days and a few hours out of St. Joe, Jared Burkey, the bull train's wagon boss, turned his saddle horse and jogged back from his point position to the leader of the eight "teams"--each consisting of eight yoke of oxen drawing one large wagon and two smaller trailers--to fall in alongside it and call out over the rumble of the wheels and the profanity and snapping whips of the whackers. "There she is, son. Wells Ranch. Your headquarters."

JD, perched atop the lead wagon's load, shaded his eyes with his palm and squinted, trying to make out what Burkey was referring to. At first, accustomed to the concept of buildings that stood forth freely from the land, he could hardly tell the ranchhouse from the prairie it sat on. It was the huge barn, more than the house, that marked the place out, attended by a complex of corrals with bales of hay piled up nearby, and beyond a series of fenced pastures. "Where?" he demanded.

Burkey laughed. "Ain't you seen soddies enough yet, boy, to be able to spot one?"

JD flushed in embarrassment and anger. The wagon boss was right. He'd seen the damn things even from the train across the Illinois prairies, where settlers had been putting them up for the past thirty years. "If the house is sod, how come the barn ain't?"

"'Cause Company needed the station to have a bigger one than Luke Wells did when he first 'steaded here," Burkey explained. "Hauled out the wood for it myself, I did. Old one's still there, t'other side of it, but it's only used for the family's own stock."

As the train advanced, JD picked out more details. A stockade of logs, presumably either cottonwood harvested along the riverbed or pine hauled out from the mountains, surrounded the buildings, which, apart from the company barn, included a blacksmithy, repair shop, and a vaned wooden windmill on a tower fully a hundred feet tall. A quarter-mile out, a firebreak encircled the complex, two furrows plowed about ten yards apart, with the grass burned off in between. Out behind the house could be seen a multi-holed privy, and beyond that the sturdy door of a springhouse or root cellar dug into a little rise of ground. A flag on a tall peeled pole stood beside the front door. A truck patch sprawled between house and barn, where spoiled hay and old manure could make a natural stop on their way out, and scurrying dots in the yard resolved themselves into chickens. A couple of cows nosed in the remains of the hay that had been forked out for them that morning. Under the windmill stood a small pump house. There were several smaller structures, which seemed to include a smokehouse, washhouse, corncrib, and hog house, plus a shed for fuel, which, as JD had learned on his journey out from Leavenworth, was most likely to be "chips"--dried buffalo droppings.

The house might have begun as a simple oblong soddie, but had apparently taken the gout. A large frame wing--as big as the whole rest of the house, it appeared--projected from the west end in front, a full-size crosswing had been added onto the east, and a low saltbox ell was built out in back. To JD's surprise, the main block appeared to be two storeys tall, with a tower at the back west corner which probably accomodated the stairs. "Jeez," he exclaimed, "how'd anybody do good enough way out here to have such a big house?"

"Well, the wing on the west end is the trading store," Burkey told him, "and the one in back is the layovers' quarters--you, stage drivers, any passengers that want to break their trip, drifters coming through on their way to Jamesburg. But the center section and that east cross are original, and the second floor was put on five years ago. Miz Nettie'll tell you the whole story if you ask--once she gets used to you--but the bare bones of it is that they've been makin' a good profit almost since they settled here. They buy sick, footsore, and worn-out cattle, horses, and mules from emigrants at panic prices, sell 'em sound ones at boom prices, let the new ones recuperate, and then resell those too, in a few weeks or months, to the next batch of passersby. If folks ain't got money, they take trade--anything an emigrant is startin' to realize is too heavy to carry along, or more stock for boot. They do a sideline in horses too—catchin' and breakin' the wild ones and sendin' 'em to Missouri to be sold. Then they hunt and trap, so they've got barrelled meat, dressed deerskins, and small furs. And they do some trade with the Indians, though a lot of those druther go on another fifty miles or so and sell what they've got in town."

"So how'd it get to be a station?" JD inquired, genuinely interested now.

"Oh, you'd be surprised how many agents at home stations own the station as well as running it," Burkey asserted. "They take up the land, put up the buildings, and then, weeks or months or years later, get a contract with the company. It's a good deal for a settler--he can ease his existence and make some extra money by puttin' up riders and horses. Or sometimes the stationkeeper is the most prosperous rancher in a thinly-settled neighborhood, and his home's been a center of local activity all along on account of its location. It don't take much time out of the day to tend to company business, so the agent and his family can farm, hunt, raise stock, all the things the Wellses do. The main thing it needs is to be the right distance from the station on either side of it. Wells Ranch just happens to fit the bill."

The people at the station had sighted the approaching wagons now, and six or eight figures could be seen streaming toward the gate from all quarters of the compound. Someone dragged the gate open, and Burkey waved the lead wagon forward to deliver the supplies consigned to this stop. "Grab your grip, son," he urged JD, "and hop on behind me. I'll give you a lift right to the front door."

Realizing that this was to be his home for an unknown length of time to come, and eager to make a good first impression, the boy reached back for his suitcase, which was securely nestled into a cranny in the load, and settled his bowler more firmly on his head against the brisk March wind before stepping off the wagon and landing astride behind the saddle of Burkey's dancing black mare, which the boss had brought up as close to the vehicle as he could. Instantly he snaked his free arm around the man's waist as the horse shot forward.

Waving a greeting to the little group gathered beside the gate, Burkey made the showiest entrance he could, galloping across the foreyard and pulling up with a flourish before the plank-and-pole porch to sweep his hat off and bow from the waist to the woman waiting there. "'Morning, Miz Nettie."

"'Morning, Jared. You have a good trip out?"

"No troubles but the usual," the wagon boss grinned. "Got somebody here for you to meet. This is JD Dunne. He'll be ridin' Pony out of your station. Son, meet Miz Nettie Wells, the agent here."

JD did his level best to imitate Burkey's gallant gesture and ended up bumping the wagon boss's spine sharply with his elbow; Burkey didn't seem distressed, but the boy felt himself heating with embarrassment. Way to go, JD, he thought, make yourself look like a fool before you've even shaken hands, why don't you? Miz Nettie, as Burkey called her, was probably fifty or more, a lean, ramrod-erect figure in an old denim skirt and a baggy blue-and-white striped hickory shirt that had probably been intended for a man, a rusty black coat pulled over all, her gray hair parted smoothly in the middle and gathered back into a plain knot. A shabby black Kossuth hat perched atop her head, and square-toed man's shoes peeped out from under her hem. She had a long thin nose that made JD think of a bird's beak, and keen bright eyes that supported the impression; her skin was weathered and her jaw hard and firm. She looked as if she might have sprung from the very prairie sod; JD couldn't imagine her as ever being as young as he was, or even as young as his mamma had been when she died.

"Welcome to Wells Ranch, son," she greeted him. "Get on down and we'll get you settled. Casey!" The shout rang like a bugle over the lowing of the oxen as they drew the wagon up to the door of the east wing. "Casey, get over here and show this young feller where he's to sleep!"

A slight figure in a round-crowned, straight-brimmed brown hat, gingham shirt, and copper jean trousers held up by a single strap passing over one shoulder in lieu of suspenders, a sheepskin jacket hanging open, paused on its pelting way from the gate to the side of the wagon. "Aw, Aunt Nettie! I wanta talk to the bullwhacker!"

"Any news he's got worth your hearing I'll tell you come suppertime," Miz Nettie replied. "I got to look over the bill of lading and make sure Company sent us everything it's supposed to. You come do like I tell you, now!"

The little figure turned away from the wagon's temptations and trudged with slumped shoulders to the porch steps as if on its way to its own hanging. As it got closer JD made out a pouting suntanned face and brown eyes almost as big as his own, and long wisps of light-brown hair escaping from under the hat. He was tempted to slide off over the rump of Burkey's mare but knew she was quick with her heels, so he let the wagon boss give him a crooked arm for purchase and threw his leg over in conventional wise. "This is JD Dunne," Miz Nettie passed on Burkey's introduction, "the new Pony rider we been expecting. Show him his bed, and mind you ask if he's hungry."

"Yes ma'm." Casey waited a moment until the woman had stepped down off the porch and Burkey had dismounted, tied his mare, and joined her progress toward the wagon, which by now had pulled up to the east wing at the whacker's stentorian "Whoa!", then turned toward the door with a graceless, "C'mon."

The door, which was fashioned of a double thickness of planks, each layer laid crosswise to the other to cut down on drafts, let directly into a large room which might originally have been the sole chamber of the house but was now the main dining hall. It measured about sixteen by twenty feet and was decently lit and ventilated by long four-over- four sash windows, which had interior shutters folded back butterfly- fashion on hinges off the frames. The walls and window wells were plastered with a mixture of clay, ashes, and water and whitewashed, thus lightening the room considerably and eliminating most of the vermin--mice, rats, bugs, spiders, sometimes even snakes--which otherwise infested sods taken from the earth and laid in place still damp. The floor and ceiling were of boards tightly matched side by side. A rock fireplace centered the back wall, with a door to either side of it that must lead into the saltbox ell JD had seen from without. To the left, or west, a short bar, its end built flush to the corner where the front wing was pasted on, was backed by a rack of shelves holding bottles and glassware; between its inner face and the wall was a door that probably gave access to the wing. Opposite, behind a half-height counter, was a kitchen furnished with a mighty eight-hole range, a sturdy tin-lined wooden sink with a grooved wooden washboard, red-painted hydrant pump, and even a drain hose to the garden, a pie safe with pierced tin panels, a round oak table set about with homemade cane-bottomed chairs and draped with a gay red- and-white cloth, and an old Dutch cupboard with scrolls and birds across its doors, on which a respectable collection of silver pieces was displayed. The kitchen was about ten by sixteen feet, and in its rear wall another door hung open, giving JD a teasing glimpse of a vast hooked rug finished with a wool fringe, a rocking chair or two, a case of books, and what looked like a fine rosewood parlor organ. The dining hall was furnished for hard use, with plain board tables and mismatched cane- and cowhide-bottomed chairs, but a large array of inexpensive gaudy cottage pottery was displayed on the shelves of a tall open cupboard directly to the right of the single break in the divider counter, cheesecloth curtains hung at the windows, a large bearskin served as a hearthrug, and several comfortable-looking homemade chairs, including a big splint rocker or two, were arranged to focus on the fireplace. Currier & Ives lithographed prints alternated with trophies--an Indian war bonnet, bow and arrows, the skin of a silver fox, a buffalo head, the mask of a wildcat, the antlers of a blacktail deer over the door--and a long mahogany barometer on the walls. Several rifles rested on pegs on the chimneybreast, and the mantelshelf underneath displayed a walnut clock with a busy brass pendulum, a stag and ceramic lion of flint enamel ware, and a couple of milk-glass vases. An untidy pile of illustrated papers, fashion magazines, and well-thumbed newspapers on a small table provided the prospect of reading matter. In the left rear corner was a door which must give onto the stairs in the corner tower. The whole place gave an impression of brisk efficiency teamed with welcome, comfort, and a certain grace--not unlike a good farmhouse.

JD's guide was studying him critically. "That's a stupid hat," was his first comment.

JD's hand flew defensively to his bowler. "It is not either a stupid hat! In New York all the office workers wear 'em. My mamma gave it to me to wear to church on Sunday, for my sixteenth birthday. Before she got sick," he added without thinking.

"Sick with what?" Casey demanded boldly.

"Pleurisy. Not the dry kind, the other one." He swallowed. "She died. It took two years, and at the end it was pneumonia."

"Aw, shoot," said Casey. "I'm sorry. My ma died too. Reckon we can start over?"

"Sure." JD stiffened his spine and stuck out his hand. "JD Dunne."

"Casey Wells. I'm Nettie's niece."

JD jerked his hand back from hers as if she'd burned him. "You're a girl?!"

"What'd you think I was, a side of beef?"

"Well, no, it's just--well, jeez, you don't look like a girl!"

Casey indignantly snatched her hat off and a cascade of straight hair which had been stuffed casually up underneath it immediately tumbled down around her shoulders. "There! Think I'm a girl now?"

"I didn't say you weren't one," JD protested, "I just--I mean I--aw, heck!" He smacked his open hand against his thigh in disgust. "I guess maybe, out here, with so many strangers comin' and goin' all the time, and chores and all, it's better for you to dress like that." But he knew he didn't sound at all convinced of the idea.

"I can ride and shoot and throw a knife as good as any man," Casey declared, "and I can cook, wash, and sew too! So there!" She whirled and headed for the door to the right of the fireplace, somehow managing to flounce even in britches. "Come on," she ordered ungraciously.

JD trailed after her into a room about ten feet wide and sixteen deep, simply furnished with four wide canvas-covered cots lined up against the left wall, pegs above for clothing, packing boxes stood on end between to use as nightstands, and between two windows opposite a varnished pine washstand with three drawers in it and a big square mirror mounted above. At the foot of each cot stood a little tin or hide-covered trunk. "You can put your clothes and stuff in this," Casey told him, stopping at the cot nearest the door and pointing to its trunk, "and after Aunt Nettie gets done out there she'll bring you some covers to pile up on it so you can pull 'em over you as you need. You eat in the kitchen with us and the rest of the folks who work here, and your laundry gets taken care of with ours."

"Who are these other beds for?" JD asked, a little gingerly lest she nip his head off again.

"One's for the rider who'll take over from you when you come in from the west," Casey explained. "The other two are for the stage drivers on the COC&PP who have this station as the end of their runs, same as you riders do."

Somewhat emboldened by this reasonably amiable reply, JD decided to try again for friendship. "You lived here long?"

"'Most all my life," Casey admitted. "My pa was Uncle Luke's younger brother--that was Aunt Nettie's husband--and he and Ma and them all came out here together. I was three. I'm fourteen now. Ma died when I was eight and a half, and Pa two years ago."

"Is Casey short for something?" JD pursued.

She glared at him. "Katherine Cecilia," she spat. "I hate it. Pa took to calling me K.C. after Ma died, you know, initials, because she was Cecilia and he didn't like bein' reminded of her all the time, and it sort of slipped into Casey from there."

"My whole name's John Daniel," JD offered.

"It ain't nowhere near as bad as mine," Casey grumped.

"No," he admitted, "I guess it ain't." Awkward silence fell between them.

"You want to see the ponies?" Casey asked after a minute. "Company delivered 'em last week."

"Yeah, sure, I'd like that. Let me put my things away, okay?"

She brightened. "I'll go talk to the bullwhacker," she said at once, and departed at a run.

JD unpacked his suitcase slowly, tucking it under the cot when it was empty and putting his clothes away neatly in the trunk. Near the top, ready for use when the time came to prepare for his first ride, he laid out the official uniform that had been issued to him after he signed up: a neat dark cap, red flannel shirt, blue trousers, embroidered leggings, buckskin jacket for cold weather, bearskin cap and long beaver gloves for winter, high glossy boots and silver-plated spurs. There were also two Colt Navy revolvers, each with an extra cylinder, a belt knife, a horn to blow as he approached a station, and a Spencer rifle. And a small Bible bound in calf leather which had been given him personally by Mr. Alexander Majors, along with the guiding rule: "Think first of the mail, second of your pony, last of yourself." He remembered the warning of the waiter at the Monroe House and thought how very apt it had been. He had been required to take an oath, just as if he were the President or someone being sworn into office: I do hereby swear before the great and living God that during my engagement in the employ of Russell, Majors, & Waddell, I agree not to use profane language, not to drink intoxicating liquors, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly, not to quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm, and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. I further agree that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. If I violate any of these conditions, I agree to accept my discharge without any pay for my services. So help me God.

I guess you'd have liked it if I'd grown up to be the kind of gentleman Mr. Majors expects us all to be, Mamma, he thought. But I don't think anybody much really follows that oath. Certainly the bullwhackers, who were Company employees as surely as himself, hadn't put a lot of stock in the part about profane language; generally they seemed to use their whips more for cracking and inspiration than for actually lashing their oxen, but their command of colorful idioms was impressive, to say the least, and they weren't the least bit bashful about using it. At Fort Kearny, where they had laid over while part of their cargo was offloaded for the installation's use, they had all partaken quite freely of whiskey. And since part of the load consisted of a shipment of barrels of it for Jamesburg, each evening after they tended to their stock and got a little fire going, they'd drive one hoop of a barrel out of place, bore a little hole with a nail or bit, draw off enough for a single generous round, plug the hole with a whittled peg, and pound the hoop back. JD had asked Burkey if anyone the liquor was consigned to ever noticed. "Evaporation, son," the wagon boss had explained with a wink.

The last thing JD unpacked was a little daguerrotype of his mother and himself as an infant in a leather frame, which he stood on the packing box beside his cot. "I'm gonna try to make you proud, Mamma, I promise," he said aloud, as his fingers brushed across the smiling face in the picture. "I know you wanted me to get an education and be a fine gentleman, and I don't think I could'a' ever been too happy if I had. But I can still be a good man and do my job right, and I will."

Then he settled his bowler and went out to explore his new home.

The ponies--a mare and two geldings--had been chosen for stamina, speed, and the ability to outrun Indian mounts. The mare, who was the youngest, was four years old; the elder gelding was seven. None was over fifteen hands high, and the mare, a light bay with a white star, was barely thirteen and a half. They were leggy and fine-headed, with stout bone, slanting shoulders, deep broad chests, and knees set neither too high nor too low. They were just about to be shod, and Casey made JD known to the station's smith, Josiah Sanchez, beside whom the young man felt positively tiny; Josiah wasn't all that tall--only about six feet one, five inches above JD's own height--but he was big-boned and massively built, as a good blacksmith should be, with large hands, heavy shoulders, and long, thickly muscled arms. He was probably about fifty, with graying curly hair, a brow like a ledge of granite with penetrating bright- blue eyes deep-set beneath it, and a heavy scoop jaw that was, in JD's opinion, the last place any sane enemy would think to try to hit him. Down on his barrel chest hung a string of beads with cryptic Indian charms threaded to it and a simple wooden cross on a thong. Yet despite an air partly fearsome and partly reclusive, he had a deep pleasant voice, a sincere handshake, and a quick grin that revealed a display of bright teeth.

The geldings seemed to accept the prospect of having their feet seen to without too much fuss, but the mare had other opinions. She circled the corral at full pelt, neighing and skipping her hind feet up in quick kicks, until one of the station's two hostlers, to JD's astonishment, not only roped her and more or less hauled her out the gate to the smithy, but threw her and sat on her head. "Hey!" the young man burst out. "Do you gotta do that?"

Josiah, bringing his parer and rasp, looked up curiously. "Hell," said the hostler, "you saw how she was actin'. She's wild as the wind."

"Ain't no reason to do her like that," JD retorted. "Let her up and let me take her. I bet I can make her stand."

The hostler squinted at him. "I got five dollars says you can't."

I agree not to gamble... JD's oath as a Rider rang briefly through his head, but he dismissed it. He wasn't gambling. Gambling meant you were in doubt of what was going to happen. JD wasn't. "It's your money," he said.

The other man threw his leg over the mare's neck and got up. She lay for a moment as if stunned, then scrambled to her feet and stood snorting, her coat shuddering as she tried to shake the dust out of it. "Whoa, girl," JD said softly, reaching out to take the rope. "Easy, now. No need to be scared, this won't hurt you...Which foot do you want to do first, Josiah?"

"Off hind," the big man replied, and JD, hanging onto the rope and humming a wordless tune in the mare's ear, reached down and deftly grabbed hold of her near forefoot, pushing his weight into her shoulder for just a second so he could lift it off the ground.

"Go ahead," he said. "She'll have too much to do keepin' her balance to cause you any trouble now."

In this manner the mare was shod, while Casey and the hostler looked on in mild amazement. In the end, with a bemused but good-humored headshake, the man handed over the promised five dollars, and the mare, sweating but not seriously traumatized, was turned out with her mates in the exercise lot adjacent to the barn.

"How'd you learn to do that?" Casey demanded.

JD shrugged. "I was a stable boy since I was eight, and an exercise boy sometimes, and I did some jockeying. You learn a lot of little tricks to make the work easier."

The girl looked at him with a hint of respect. "You're not so bad, for an Eastern greenhorn," she admitted. "You might make it."

JD felt as if he'd just been awarded a medal.


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