II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

4. Clues
The eastbound rider was late. He was due into Knutson´s at one P. M. on Friday, and he didn´t show till almost two hours later. When he did, he was afoot, with his saddle and mochilas thrown over his shoulder. His horse had stepped in a dog-hole and broken a leg, and he´d had to put it down and walk the rest of the way. Stumbles, mostly in the dark but sometimes not, were one of the great hazards of Pony riding, along with swollen streams, Indian attacks, road agents, cloudbursts, dust storms, burning heat, and buffalo herds smack across the trail.

JD knew he had no chance of making up the lost time; the best he could do was to try to cover his section of the route within the time allotted to it--less if possible, since he wanted a moment or two to let someone at Jamesburg know that a horse had been lost and a replacement would have to be sent out. He took the mochilas and spurred out of Knutson´s gate.

He changed mounts at Rush Creek without incident, and cantered on toward Lodgepole, which was the last relay before Jamesburg. As he went he thought about the news Buck Wilmington had imparted before he pulled out of Knutson´s the day before yesterday. After riding for the Pony in this division for more than five months, JD had heard enough rider, passenger, and stage-driver gossip to know something of how badly Royale had been running it. He didn´t feel he actually knew Chris Larabee well, but he did know that the man had served in the Army for over twenty years, risen to command of a company, received commendations in the war with Mexico; he felt certain that he would prove to be efficient at his job.

At Lodgepole the head stocktender was waiting, his face thin-lipped and tense. “You´re late,” he said.

“Charley´s horse hit a hole. He had to walk the best part of ten miles,” JD explained. “Where´s my remount?”

“You see a remount?” the other retorted. “You see anything that looks like a horse anywhere around here?” He swore bitterly. “They hit us like this two, three times a year.”

“Indians?” JD guessed.

“Indians, hell,” said the stocktender. “Division don´t send us enough feed, so while the grass holds up we got to try and loose-herd the stage horses while they graze, and still watch the station. What grain we get we keep for winter, and the Pony stock. The eastbound comes through here about three in the morning, and the westbound an hour later; after that we turn the stock out to feed, and start our own breakfasts. I had to leave ´em to themselves this morning and help Walt--” that was the blacksmith-- “and Earl was off huntin´. I aimed to bring in your remount after dinner, but they beat me to it.”

“Who´s they?” JD asked.

The stocktender swore again. “Breeds, Snakes, Sioux, Cheyennes, hardcases, and for all I know, Sunday-school teachers. All I´m sure of is that they´re horse thieves.”

JD felt a sudden pity for the man. For forty dollars a month each, paid quarterly, he and his partner, with the blacksmith as backup, lived a solitary, dangerous existence under the moral obligation to keep their little section of the line functioning. They were at the mercy of any passing band of Indians, of whatever tribe--the Company only fortified the home stations--and this high-plain area and the mountains to the west of it housed half the riffraff in the West. “They cleaned you out?”

“Right down to the buckboard team and our saddle horses. We ain´t even got a way to send word in to Jamesburg.” He looked at JD´s black- spotted bay. “You always take good care of your mount; he should have some go left in him. He´ll have to take you on into the settlement. You pass the word on that we´ll stick till the Super can get someone out here to take this over.”

“You´re quitting?”

“We talked it over, Earl and Walt and me, when we found the stock gone. It ain´t worth it. Wilmington came through and told us about the change, but that don´t do much to make our lot better. We don´t figure to pass a winter out here. You tell Larabee he´d best get someone out here in a week, or we´ll throw the keys in the water barrel and ride out.”

“Ride out on what?” JD asked.

The man suddenly grinned. “All right, walk out.” He slapped JD´s shoulder. “Best move, you´ve taken more than your two minutes here as it is. Good luck.”

JD shook his head wryly. “Today sure ain´t Company´s day for it, not on this stretch,” he observed, and turned back to his horse. The other stocktender had been walking the animal up and down during their exchange, so it wouldn´t stiffen up. He threw the mochilas back into place and took off. Almost sixteen miles into Jamesburg.

Five miles out of Lodgepole station a bullet whined past his ear. He looked around wildly to see a clump of riders pouring out of a ravine and straight at him. With a desperate oath, he hit his pony with the spurs and got out of there. The riders pursued, their guns blazing. JD knew that no one could shoot accurately from the back of a moving horse, but a man firing straight ahead, as these were doing, had the advantage over one who must twist and turn to fire to the rear--and there was always sheer luck. All that had saved him from being brought down without ever knowing it was that the ravine, which was the only cover big enough to hold a group so large and still be out of earshot of either Lodgepole or the South Platte crossing just before Jamesburg, was also too far off the trail for anyone not using a rifle to be sure of hitting him.

JD had heard of riders being pursued and shot at by outlaws, though there was no record of any being actually held up or killed. Why outlaws would be interested in the Pony at all he couldn´t figure: it didn´t carry money or other valuables, simply because they were too heavy for the postal charges--anyone who wanted to send such things generally entrusted them to the insured express boxes on the stages. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it hit him. The men at Lodgepole were on foot, with no means of communicating with Jamesburg. If no fresh stock got to them before the eastbound stage came through, the coach, like himself, would have to double, going on with tired, hungry horses--which wouldn´t have much chance of pulling a loaded stage fast enough to get away from pursuing holdup artists whose mounts were fresh and had no weight to carry but themselves. And the eastbound, coming as it did from California by way of the Comstock, was very likely to have money or even gold or silver in the box, and more on the passengers. By isolating Lodgepole and depriving the coach of its change of horses, the outlaws would make their own way just that much easier--but to be sure their scheme would work, they had to keep JD from getting to the settlement. And that meant, in turn, that they must not only set him afoot, but kill him.

They had picked their spot well. Vin had told him the sound of a shot would carry at least three or four miles--farther at night, in cold weather, or in high, thin mountain air. Even if the men at Lodgepole had heard the first shots, which was doubtful, they wouldn´t be able to reach him, on foot, in time to do any good. It was all up to him and his horse, and the horse wasn´t fresh. Pony riders were under strict orders never to fight unless it was absolutely necessary- -but protecting the mail, their mounts, and themselves would certainly count as a necessity. JD throttled his instinctive surge of panic and tried to stay cool. He urged his bay to greater speed, counting on its history of grain-feeding to give it a bit of an advantage over the probably grass-fed range ponies his pursuers would be riding, but didn´t try to lift it to its all- out best; as a former jockey he knew that, while some race horses had been clocked at thirty-eight miles per hour over a full mile course-- just under ninety-five seconds--none could do more than a quarter mile at its absolute top speed, and only Morgans could last at a sustained gallop for as much as twenty-two minutes, during which time they would cover an average of nine and a half miles. He had eleven to go before he was likely to reach help. He had to fend off his attackers long enough to get within range of a last desperate surge of speed.

He quickly tied his rein-ends together and dropped them over the bay´s neck, giving the animal its head and guiding it by knees, while he drew his Navy Colt from the holster at his side. There were many tricks Vin had shown him in the months that had passed between his first ride for the Pony and the hunter´s recent move into Jamesburg to work with Chris Larabee. Instead of attempting to twist his whole body to fire back at his pursuers, he slipped one foot out of the stirrup, grabbed the horn with his left hand, and swung around so he was hanging suspended alongside the saddle, his right side turned toward the road-agents, presenting a smaller target and permitting him to sight back straight along his arm. He remembered Buck´s admonition of two days before: “...train yourself to aim before you bring your weapon into line...” He fixed his eye on the rider out in front, a man riding a brick-dust red horse and wearing a ponyskin vest, and settled his gaze on one particular spot on the latter as he lifted the Colt, timing the lunges of his galloping bay, waiting for the perfect instant before he squeezed off his shot. His first round missed. His second didn´t. The man spun backwards off his mount, his weight pulling back on the reins as his dying grip spasmed tight on them, causing the animal to rear and tumble sideways, briefly fouling the ones behind it. Several of them split around it, but that still gave JD time to gain a couple of good jumps of distance.

The loss of their leader gave them pause; for a moment or two they checked their way, uncertain. JD fired twice more, not really hoping to do any damage but figuring they´d duck or peel off anyway when they heard the sound, then lifted himself back into the saddle before his hanging weight could throw his pony´s balance off. Experience allowed him to guess accurately at the animal´s speed, reckoning it at about twenty-seven and a half miles an hour. He pushed up to thirty for an interval, using his advantage, but glancing back over his shoulder every few strides to see where his pursuers were. When he saw that they were beginning to make up the distance he repeated his tactic. A horse went down, and a man´s hand flew to his thigh. JD swung back up into his saddle. They weren´t giving up, and now his Colt was empty; he´d have to change to the preloaded cylinder he carried in his side pouch.

He glanced ahead as far as his eyes would reach, making sure of the ground the bay would be covering in the next several minutes, and then knocked out the wedge pin, holding his free hand cupped underneath to catch it and promptly popping it into his mouth for safety, as Vin had said mountain men did their bullets when they were hunting buffalo a-horseback. He poked the Navy´s barrel through his belt, pulled the empty cylinder off the rod and dropped it down inside his shirt, and, holding the frame and butt assembly in his right hand, slipped his left into his pouch for the extra one, lying as low against the bay´s neck as he could to cut wind resistance and present a difficult target, and doing his best to ignore the continued banging of the outlaws´ guns. His fingers found the smooth thin coat of melted beeswax which guarded the cylinder against moisture but didn´t affect its ability to function, and he slipped it out and onto the rod, pulled the barrel out of his belt and fitted it into place, bent to spit the wedge pin into his waiting palm--

and missed. Whether it was a trick of his eye or an unexpected hitch in his pony´s pace, the little part overshot his hand and went flying into the grass. There was no way he could grab it or turn back for it. He remembered Buck´s wry warning: “You do that and you ain´t got a gun no more, just a real fancy seven-and-a-half- damn-dollar rock.”

“Damn,” he gasped, and flashed a look back over his shoulder. They weren´t gaining, but they weren´t dropping back either. Now it was truly a race. He dropped the useless Navy down inside his shirt, picked up the reins and urged the bay on, watching his marks. If he could just keep ahead for another three miles, he´d be in sight of the rush bridge over the South Platte. His pursuers wouldn´t dare follow him any further than that for fear someone would get a look at them--or a clear shot-- from the bridgetender´s shack on the west bank.

The bay was beginning to labor now, weary and hungry, its lungs roaring like a bellows. “Hold on, boy,” JD begged it. “Just hold on--it ain´t much further now--”

Something like a hot poker seared along his right ribs, just above the waist. At first he didn´t fully understand what had happened; there was no real pain, and it wasn´t till he put his hand down and felt along the place, bringing his fingers up stained crimson, that he realized he´d been shot. Then the first shock wore off and he felt sick and weary. He clutched desperately at the saddle with knees and one hand, the other pressed against his side in a reflexive effort to hold in the blood and pain, not daring to come off, but still his body lurched forward and his head hung along the pony´s side, dizziness assailing him at the blurred sight of its racing legs. He squeezed his eyes shut and hung on. Then he felt the pony´s pace change as it hit the last long downslope before the river, and he lifted his heavy head and peered past the bay´s extended neck to see the line of growth along the South Platte enlarging steadily across his horizon. He glanced back--the road-agents were pulling up. I made it--I made it--just let me hang on to the bridge, please God--

The pony was running free now, almost unchecked. JD was dimly aware of the bridgetender, alerted by the sound of shots, racing out on his own horse to intercept, waving his arm and shouting. The bay broke stride, peeling off, but the bridgetender´s horse was fresh, and in seconds the man had come up alongside, seized its bit and dragged it to a heaving stop. He knew JD, of course. “What happened, kid?” he demanded.

“Road-agents,” JD gasped. “Sh-shot...get me to...to Mr. Larabee...hurry, please!”

He never really felt the man turn back and lead him across the bridge.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had arranged for Arthur Jerrenson´s funeral to take place at noon. By eleven-thirty Ezra had brought young Jerrenson out from wherever he had spent the night; they were waiting for Larrabee on the gallery, the gambler uncharacteristically somber in a plain black frock coat, black silk cravat and dove-colored brocade vest. The kid seemed to have recovered some of his self-possession; at least he managed a wan smile and a nod. “Anything you need?” Chris asked him.

“No, sir. I´m fine, Mr. Larabee.”

Chris looked him over as he might a new recruit to his company at the Fort. The kid was slight and thin, maybe sixteen, but there was a set to his jaw that said he was in a hurry to become a man. “How are you fixed for money?”

A faint flush touched the kid´s cheeks. “Mr. Standish took care of that, sir. He helped me turn my ticket in and made up the fare back to St. Joseph, and gave me money for the boat passage to Terre Haute.”

Larabee raised his gaze past the boy´s shoulder to the gambler, who met it coolly, features schooled into their usual easy imperturbability. “Your family´s there?” he asked, returning his attention to young Jerrenson.

“Not close family, sir.”

“What do you plan to do back there?” Chris pursued.

“I--I don´t rightly know, sir. My uncle had friends there, maybe one of them can find something for me.”

“You like the idea of going back?”

The boy seemed puzzled by the question. “It´s about the only place I know, sir.”

Chris had thought out what he was going to say, lying in his bed last night, trying to still his active mind after his conversation with Ezra. “You want to work for me, here? I´ll tell you what you´d do and you think about it. This is a division point, a big one--not just a disbursement station for the home and swing stops between here and Salt Lake, but for everything between here and Denver as well. I´m in charge of it. I´m expected to buy grain, hire workers, run down horse thieves, and a lot of other things. The man who had this division before me made a hash of the files. You can read and write, can´t you? I´ll be needing help with bookkeeping, inventory, mail sorting-- pretty much the whole housekeeping end while I keep the division running. I´ll pay you seventy-five dollars a month--out of my own pocket if Company won´t spring for it; it´s worth that to me, not to be bothered with the paperwork. Mr. Standish here will see you get a room in his hotel, or maybe you can board with someone. At the very least, it´ll give you a chance to earn some money while you make up your mind what you want to do next.”

A fleeting look of pleasure touched the young face. “You think about it,” Chris repeated, “and I´ll see you after the funeral.”

“Yes, sir.”

“By the way, I don´t know your first name.”

“It´s Owen, sir.”

“Owen.” Larabee offered his hand and the kid shook it firmly. “By the way, Owen--I know there was a lady on the coach out with you and your uncle, Mr. Standish´s mother. Were there any other passengers who were still on board when you pulled in here?”

Owen considered the question. “Yes, sir, there was one. A man got on two changes east of Wells Ranch; he said his horse had pulled its picket peg and run off and he wanted to get on to here and buy a new one so he could go to Denver.”

“Did he talk much to your uncle?”

“He mostly sat on the top seat, behind the driver and the guard. He asked Uncle Arthur if he´d like to ride up there too for a while. Uncle Arthur took a turn and so did I. I don´t know if they talked.”

Chris thought this over. What with all the luggage Maude Standish had brought with her, to say nothing of the bags belonging to the Jerrensons and whatever he might himself have been carrying--certainly a saddle at least--that must have been less than a comfortable perch to choose. And why would the unhorsed traveller pay his fare all the way into Jamesburg when he could less expensively have gone no farther than Wells Ranch? There were always horses to spare there.

The driver and guard would have been intent on the trail and the teams; probably they wouldn´t have paid a lot of attention to whatever conversation was going on behind them. By choosing to sit up top, the man Owen had mentioned would have avoided being seen by everyone except the two who shared his spot. Travellers talked, and in talking they revealed something of their prosperity. Maybe Uncle Arthur had talked himself into his grave.

Ezra´s Indian boy had ridden out to Wells Ranch last night with a note from Chris, and Josiah Sanchez had left as soon as it was light enough to see. Larabee had seen him ride in on his big-boned sorrel around half-past ten; he presumed the blacksmith had gotten himself directed to Owen so he could ask a few questions about the deceased. Certainly the funeral eulogy he offered was ecumenical, nondenominationally Christian, simple, yet eloquent and passionate; it seemed to give Owen comfort. Mary Travis was present, and the Potters, Inez, Willoughby the barber, Jacob and George, Virgil Watson, Yosemite, Jock Steele, even Maude Standish. Vin didn´t come within earshot, but Chris observed him about a hundred yards off, squatting on his heels beside his saddled horse, his head down, hat removed and held over the insteps of his boots. He listened to Josiah´s deep voice and wondered how a blacksmith had acquired this kind of poetical gift. Since he´d lost Sarah and Adam, he no longer considered himself a particularly religious person, but something about the big man´s words seemed to ease a little of his outrage and guilt--not so much over his family as over Jerrenson.

After the service Owen thanked the smith and went back to his room to sift through his uncle´s things and think about Chris´s offer. Just before Virgil closed the office for the night, he turned up at the stage agency to give his answer. He had decided to stay. Chris had reckoned it his duty to meet every incoming stage and Pony rider; he´d been expecting JD Dunne at four-ten, and when he didn´t show up on schedule, he waited half an hour or so, then headed back to his office, leaving Buck and Max to wait with the relief horse. Owen´s advent gave him cause to check the time again, and he wondered that there was no word of JD´s having come through. He decided to take a walk down before supper and check, inviting Owen to go with him while he tried to decide what to put the kid to doing first. Probably inventory was the most vital question; did they have enough grain and supplies on hand to take the outlying stations through the winter? If they didn´t, getting it out from the river towns before the first snows hit would be chancey, and it would only get more so the longer they waited. He explained this to Owen, who seemed to understand the urgency of the matter. “Where do they keep the supplies, sir?” he asked.

“Company leases one of these warehouses you see,” Chris told him. “I´ve got the keys in my office.”

Then he saw Buck approaching at a run, his hat bouncing down his back by the jaw strap. The big man started giving his news before he was less than twenty feet away. “Chris! JD just rode in shot. Some road-agents tried to hold him up.”

“Is the mail all right?” was Larabee´s first question, and then, guiltily, remembering how courageously the kid had backed the rest of them against Vern Harper´s outfit, “How bad is he?”

“Don´t look like it done more´n scrape along his ribs, but he´s bleedin´ like a stuck hog. I sent for Nathan. Max says he can take the mail on, they didn´t get it.”

Chris remembered that Max was small and wiry, though probably a good ten pounds over the preferred maximum weight for Pony riders; a lot of men like that had taken work as stocktenders and station helpers just so they could be part of the effort and maybe eventually get a chance to carry the mail. “Tell him to go, and to let Miz Nettie know what happened,” he ordered, and Buck spun on his heel and went pelting back toward the barn. Chris picked up his own pace, Owen jogging alongside him.

Max took off on the fresh pony in a cloud of dust when they were still fifty feet from the barn. Someone had thrown a tarp on the ground and lain JD on it; Nathan Jackson was kneeling beside him, his back to the approaching Superintendent, working over the kid´s right ribs, while Buck squatted at his head, holding his hand back out of the black healer's way. Chris observed, with surprise, that his old sergeant´s face was drawn with concern, his indigo eyes fixed on JD´s slack, pallid features with a look not unlike that Larabee had seen him wear when Adam was sick. He slowed and paused where he could look over Nathan´s shoulder. “Is it bad?” he asked.

“Could been a lot worse,” Jackson replied without looking around. “It punched clean through, though I´m gonna have to make sure it didn´t knock no splinters off his ribs, or break any of ´em. Biggest worry I got is gettin´ all the bits of cloth and leather and dirt out of the wound where the force of the bullet drove ´em in. He´s lost a fair bit of blood, but he´s young and strong; if he can lick any infection that comes along, he should recover with nothin´ more than a right interestin´ scar. Some of you fellers want to carry him on over to my place?”

Several of the men who worked around the barn moved in to get a grip on the corners of the tarp and lift it like a stretcher. Buck rose with it, not letting go of JD´s hand, and glanced over at Chris. “I´ll go with him,” he said, voice a bit hoarse and raw, as if he were fighting tears. “He ain´t been conscious since Ben brought him over the bridge. If he wakes up and´s got enough sense to tell me what happened, I´ll come and let you know after.”

“All right,” Chris agreed. “I´ll be in the office.”

+ + + + + + +

He was warm, and there was a pleasant aroma compounded of sweetgrass hay, burning chips and sage, assorted herbs, tobacco, liniment and smelling salts, lamp oil, and the good horse-leather-whiskey-fresh air smell of a man who spent much of his time outdoors. His side ached dully and he could feel something pressing against it and something else bound firmly around his lower rib cage; he was reminded of the time a new horse at the Endicotts´ had bitten him and a thick compress had been tied over the wound. He drew in breath and hitched sharply as his aching ribs protested. Immediately he felt a presence hovering over him, and a quiet voice spoke: “Take it easy, kid. Don´t try to take in so much air. Just breathe normal, okay? You hearin´ me? Hey, Nate, I think he´s wakin´ up.”

JD opened his eyes slowly and blinked, trying to clear the haze out of them. He saw a black face bending over him, an equally dark hand holding a “solar” coal-oil lamp, with a specially-constructed cap on the wick that fed more oxygen to the flame, permitting greater brightness than most other models could offer, and a modified Argand burner and interior shade for the flame which made it a column of light. Behind the lamp-holder´s calico-clad shoulder he made out a slighter figure in buckskins and a tall form with unruly waves of black hair tumbling across a broad brow, a relieved grin showing beneath a bar of black mustache. “Nathan? Buck?” he whispered. “Rain?”

“Damn, he knows us,” Wilmington exclaimed. “That´s gotta be a good sign, don´t it?”

“It sure ain´t a bad one,” Nathan Jackson´s dark molasses-brown voice responded. “No fever yet...You hurtin´, JD?”

“Some...” He swallowed dryly. “Thirsty...”

Nathan nodded. “Any wound in any weather´ll make a man want water.” He said something to his wife and moved aside so she could ease her child-swollen body onto the low stool beside the bed, slip her arm behind JD´s shoulders and half lift him so he could drink from the pint cup she held. He took the water gratefully, eagerly sucking at it until the vessel was empty and she laid him back down again.

“You know where you´re at?” Nathan asked.

JD frowned, trying to think. “Did I...get t´Jamesburg?”

Buck´s grin broadened. “That´s right,” Jackson agreed. “You´re in my place. Maybe after we see how you do the next day or so you can move to the hotel, or we can send you back to Miz Nettie´s, but I wanta make sure you ain´t gonna get no infection first.”


“Mail´s okay,” Buck assured him. “You brought it through, kid. You done good. We sent it on with a substitute rider.”

“Gotta...talk t´...Mr. Larabee,” JD declared. “Lodgepole...horse thieves hit it...las´ night?” He frowned, unsure of whether he´d lost a day somewhere. “Is it...still Friday?”

Buck pulled a tarnished goldine watch out of the pocket of his red waistcoat and popped the lid. “Got about an hour yet to go,” he agreed. “You been havin´ a nice long nap, kid, better´n five hours. Didn´t even make a sound while Nate was cleanin´ out your wound and sewin´ you up.” He frowned. “Did you say horse thieves hit Lodgepole station?”

“Yeah. Cleaned it out. Even took the staff´s saddle horses.”

“Damn,” Buck said quietly, “no wonder that pony of yours was so done up. You must´a rode on from Rush Creek without a change?”

“Yeah,” JD said again. “´N´ then...road-agents jumped me...´bout five miles this side Lodgepole...” Memory jolted him. “Buck--Buck, they gotta be--figurin´ to hit th´eastbound stage...wanted t´make sure it wouldn´t have no fresh teams t´outrun ´em with...´s why they tried t´get me--”

“Easy,” Nathan commanded, leaning in to pin his shoulders. “Don´t you go thrashin´ around. I done washed that wound with peroxide and put some purple cone-plant paste and a good cornmeal poultice on it, but I don´t want you rippin´ them stitches out. And you lost a lot of blood, you want to rest.”

JD had found that out on his own; his heart was racing in his chest and he felt breathless and dizzy. He lay back and listened as Buck said, “I better tell Chris about this. But we´ll need to know more about what happened to him. You reckon he´ll be okay to talk to us a little later?”

The healer hemmed and hawed a moment. “If he falls asleep I ain´t wakin´ him, Buck. He needs to rest. But he oughtta have some food so´s his body´ll have the strength to make new blood. Rain done fixed a good thick soup with ham and beans in it, and I got some herbs good for his pain, guaiacum and St. John´s wort and valerian. I´ll hold off on givin´ him anythin´ that´s like to make him drowsy, at least for an hour or two. That´s the best I can promise.”

“Be as quick as I can,” Buck told him, and JD heard his steps crossing the soddie´s planked floor and the latch on the door opening and closing.

He reopened his eyes to find Rain settling down next to the bed again, with a big bowl of coarse, thick white crockery and a tin soup spoon. “Do you think you can eat?” she asked.

“Don´t need to be fed...”

“You mind your tongue, white boy,” Nathan told him, only half angrily. “You got your right arm tied up in a sling so´s you don´t bump them ribs. You let Rain do the work, hear?”

JD sighed. “´Kay...” His eyesight had cleared sufficiently for him to see that he was lying in the healer´s dispensary room, on a single-width pine rope bed half shielded by a caught-back Hudson´s Bay blanket suspended from a crosspole, with a tick filled with sweetgrass hay under him, and an Autumn Leaf quilt thrown over him. He let Nathan sit him up, and accepted the soup as Rain spooned it into him. Not till the first couple of mouthfuls hit his stomach did he realize how hungry he was. He heard the door open again but didn´t pay it much attention until a familiar rumbling bass asked, “How are you feeling, John Dunne?”

“´Siah?” He looked up past Rain´s shoulder at the big man, puzzled. “What are you doin´ here?”

The smith´s face sobered briefly. “Chris sent for me to preach a funeral. Didn´t want to crowd the room too bad, not when Brother Buck needed to be in here with you, so I been sittin´ outside talkin´ with the Lord about you. You doin´ all right?”

“Been better...guess I´ll be okay...Nathan thinks so.” He frowned. “Funeral? Who died?”

“Nobody you´d know. Traveller bound for Denver. Don´t fret on it.”

JD nodded and took another swallow of soup. “Buck...needed...?” he repeated, puzzled, when he could speak again.

“He was plumb heavyhearted about you,” Josiah agreed. “Hasn´t left your side since Brother Nathan said he was finished fixin´ up your wound.”

JD thought about that while he finished his soup and the homemade biscuits that came with it. Josiah stayed long enough to assure him that word had been sent to Wells Ranch about him, then presently gave way to Chris, Buck, and Vin. “Buck says you need to tell me something, JD,” Larabee said.

Slowly JD recounted the story of his ride--why he´d been late starting out, what he´d found at Lodgepole and what the head stocktender had said, how he´d been ambushed. “I got one of ´em,” he said proudly. “Think he...was the boss. ´N´ there´s another one...ain´t gonna walk without a limp for a spell.” He grinned at Vin. “I done that trick you taught me...ridin´ on my horse´s side with my weight on one stirrup. Works real good. Thanks.”

Vin nodded, his blue eyes warm with satisfaction and pride. JD went on to repeat his reasoning about how the attempt tied in with the theft of Lodgepole´s horses, watching as Chris´s face grew tight and grim. “Vin,” he said, “go down and tell them to get up thirty horses for Lodgepole, and saddle my Blackhawk too. You and I´ll go along and escort the stage in. And tell them to start a buckboard with five sacks of corn from the warehouse after us as soon as it´s light. I´ll be down by the time the horses are ready to go.”

Vin nodded and left with no more sound than a wisp of smoke. Chris paused a moment to speak to Buck. “You can stay with him if you want,” he said, “but once the coach is safely in, we´ll have to go back out, all of us, and see if we can find out where they took the horses. You okay with that?”

“I reckon,” Buck agreed, with a sigh, and watched as his old friend went out. Then he pulled up a splint-bottomed chair and focused his attention on JD. “See now, what´d I tell you about that Colt,” he crowed. “If you´d´a had a good Remington you could´a maybe made ´em keep their distance to where you wouldn´t´a been shot.”

JD grimaced. “And you ain´t about to let me forget it, are you?”

“Damn straight,” Wilmington told him, leaning forward in the chair to clamp a hand over his bound arm. “This ain´t a country that forgives mistakes, boy. And if you don´t learn from yours, you won´t make it to Christmas.”

JD´s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “How come you care?”

The big man unexpectedly ducked his head and furrowed his hand through his thick glossy hair. “Been a noncom too damn long for my own good, I reckon,” he muttered. “Got too used to runnin´ Chris´s company for him and lookin´ out for green recruits like you.”

“All right, Buck,” Nathan interrupted, appearing with a cup. “He needs to take this tea and get some sleep.”

“I´ll give it to him,” Wilmington declared at once. “C´mon, kid, let´s get that head up a minute...”


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