There was a sharp nip in the air in the pre-dawn hours of October fifth as JD stood beside his saddled pony, waiting for the westbound courier to arrive. The thermometer outside the station´s front kitchen window had stood at thirty-five when Miz Nettie woke him, and that, according to her, was colder by a couple of degrees than the normal low for this time of year. Already there was word of blizzards in the high country as long ago as two weeks, and the old hands were saying that the Sierras would see their first snow late this month, rather than in mid-November as was more usual; some talked of 1846-7, the year the ill-fated Donners had gone over, when there was three feet on the ground in the High Sierra on the first of November, five feet two days later, and an accumulation of eight to twelve before season´s end. Vin had ridden out from Jamesburg last week with news of the birth of Rain Jackson´s baby, a little girl who had been named Susannah, and he agreed that they were in for a bad winter. The muskrats, he said, were building large houses well back from the channels of the streams, which was a sign that they expected a hard winter, a lot of snow, and high water in the spring; the squirrels had completed their nests by late September, the prairie dogs were holing up early, and the frogs were being unusually silent for the time of year; the pine trees were shedding an abnormal amount of brown needles; the beavers were damming and storing with a feverish intensity, making their lodges bigger and in deeper water; the buffalo were feeding ravenously, and the deer moving out of the high mountains; the owls had begun to hoot much earlier than was their wont, and the ducks and geese were flying south ahead of schedule; animals wild and tame were putting on extra- heavy coats; the yellowjackets were building their nests high in the trees instead of low in the bushes, an indicator of deep snow to come; walnuts were falling from the trees by the bushel, the husks on the corn were extra thick, and the skin on the apples was tough; there were early snow flurries in South Pass, and in the high country the morning frost sometimes lasted till afternoon. Besides that, the goldenrod was an especially deep yellow, the berries on the sumac especially red, the oak trees hanging onto more leaves than usual, and the heads of the cattails inordinately long, all of which portended deep snow, heavy cold, an early winter and a late spring to come.
JD had dressed for the weather, in long underwear, long stockings, a shield-style flannel shirt as thick as an overcoat, and over his blue Pony trousers a pair of frontiersman´s leggings of buckskin, which Vin said was the warmest thing you could wear when riding in a cold wind. He was reluctant to carry a heavy coat for reasons of weight, but he´d tied a slicker across his saddle pommel, with his sweater rolled up inside it. In his holster rested one of the two matched Remington Navy revolvers Buck Wilmington had pressed upon him when he left Nathan´s care two weeks ago. The big man had utterly refused to, as he said, be a party to a damn suicide by simply doing as JD had requested and buying a replacement wedge pin for the one he´d lost out of his Colt in the running fight with the road-agents. Just don´t you say it, boy, he´d warned, as he presented JD with the new revolvers. I ain´t lettin´ you ride out of here with that damn Colt on your hip. I may not have much to say about what Company issues, but by God I can make sure at least one rider´s got a decent proper sidearm and I aim to do just that. No-- don´t say it! You take these, you wear ´em, and you use ´em. You can pay me back if you want to, a little at a time, but you´re takin´ ´em.
JD had been so bewildered by Buck´s interest in his safety that he hadn´t put up anywhere near as much of a fight as he could have done. He still didn´t like the idea of taking charity, and he had made up his mind that he would pay Buck for his outlay, but mainly he was trying to get a handle on why Wilmington should care. Most of a lifetime spent working around, or trying to avoid the crotchets of, adults had taught the boy to read their moods and character, but Buck had concealed his so well under his bluster that JD was unable to comprehend the motivations behind the gift. He had asked Vin, whom he trusted, and Vin had only shrugged. I got a notion Bucklin ain´t plumb sure in his own mind why he done it, JD, he´d said, which only confused the kid all the more.
Now came the stocktender´s familiar warning shout from the stockade gate, and a moment later the incoming rider whirled through the opening and stood in his stirrups to fling his mochila on ahead--the tactic that Vin had taught JD this spring, and that had spread quickly by way of the riders at either end of his relay, until within a couple of months all Pony riders were doing it. Josiah caught it and tossed it over the saddle of the waiting claybank sorrel. For a moment he clung to the bit as JD hurled himself aboard, and his eyes met the boy´s, bright and grave but still rimmed with red from a recently ended two-day binge with a jug, the first JD had seen him endure. You be cautious, John Dunne, he warned. I´ve seen crows over your head this last week gone; that was what drove me to the whiskey.
Crows? JD repeated, equally as bewildered as he´d been by Buck´s gift.
Harbingers of death, Josiah explained. They foretell danger. Be cautious, son. We all care for you, and we don´t want to lose you. Then he turned loose of the bridle and JD spun the sorrel away and out the gate, though it did its best to kink its back in a bid to warm itself up. As it hit its stride the urge to buck passed, the process of fast movement being sufficient to get its blood stirring.
The sun had been up a little over half an hour when JD passed through Jamesburg, dropping off the settlement´s mail packet, still wondering what Josiah could have meant by his reference to seeing crows. He´d learned enough, over the last few months, to know, or at least guess, that the blacksmith had done some preaching in his time, but was also familiar with the signs and omens of many cultures and had some of the Indian faith in visions. He wasn´t quite sure whether he accepted such things himself, but even if he did, danger was a part of riding for the Pony; the very recruitment poster that had led him to sign up had warned that riders must be willing to risk death daily, and he´d already had one very close call not too long ago. The experience had driven the possibilty home to him, yet his own ability to deal with it and not give way to panic had made him feel much more certain, more confident. He knew he needed to keep alert, though the fact that much of his relay had of necessity to be covered in the dark made that difficult. He had made up his mind to simply do the best he could and be ready to run--or fight--if he had to.
At Knutson´s they had a fresh horse waiting for him, but no rider standing beside it. Where´s Charley? he demanded as he came out of the saddle.
Got thrown yesterday working a green pony, the Mormon stationkeeper told him. Racked his back up pretty bad. It´s not broke, but he won´t be in any shape to ride for at least a couple of days. You´ll have to cover for him and go on to Fort Laramie. Here´s some more cold tea and saddle rations, and he passed JD a canteen and a napkin-wrapped packet.
JD didn´t hesitate. He had had to do this once before, only in the other direction--seventy- one miles east and then back the same--when the westbound courier failed to show owing to, of all things, a case of measles. In the six months since his initial ride he had toughened up a good deal, and his regular six-hour circuit no longer left him on the verge of collapse. The stretch between Knutson´s and Fort Laramie was a long one, 133 miles, and he´d have to do the return trip as well, though at least he´d have a couple of days´ rest in between. I can do it, he told himself, and accepted Knutson´s offering. Thanks, he said, dropping the packet into his side pouch and leaping into the saddle, tossing his slicker-and-sweater bundle ahead of him so his weight would hold it in place until he could refasten the ties.
At this season wagon traffic had fallen off almost to nothing, but the trail wasn´t yet obscured by snow, and was easy to follow in the full daylight. He checked out his food packet on the run, knowing he couldn´t reach Fort Laramie till well past six. Martha and Rebecca Knutson had been generous. There was part of a hard, round, scarlet cheese from Holland, some cold fried chicken (both wishbone and thigh), two thick sandwiches of bread and butter and wild-grape jelly, fresh doughnuts, an apple, raisins and hard sugar candies. JD ate the chicken first, munching as his horse cantered along the trail, washing it down with short gulps of tea and tossing the bones away behind him, then used his knife to pare off some bits of cheese, and last popped the raisins into his mouth by generous handfuls, savoring their sweetness and pleasant texture. That was his late breakfast, a substitute for the one he would have been served at Knutson´s after seeing to his pony. Due northeast fifty-two miles, three horse changes, until he picked up the North Platte, where he ate one of the sandwiches and some of the candies for the sugar jolt they could offer; then onward along the river´s south bank, using the skills Vin had taught him to read the ground. Two of the ponies along that stretch needed the top taken off them--not an uncommon experience for JD, many Express horses being half-outlaw; some of the riders actually seemed to delight in the challenge of dealing with that kind. This was unfamiliar ground to him. Between the river and Pumpkin Creek, the latter flowing almost due east, intervened Wildcat Ridge, and visible at its west tip, a dozen or so miles to JD´s south, clear in the crisp autumn air, was Hogback Mountain, more like a hump or butte than like what its name suggested, said to stand better than five thousand feet above sea level. Distant to the north, on the far side of the river, loomed Box Butte Table. JD remembered Vin explaining that a mesa was a large flat- topped hill, and a butte a smaller one, which mostly had a steep side in front, always full of chimneys, and a lot of slope to the back, seamed with water-cut canyons and canyoncitos; every butte, he´d said, was once a mesa, whittled down over long rolling years by ice and rain and wind and the dust the latter carried, and might, over many centuries more, erode still more into a chimney, like the famous landmark, Chimney Rock, eighty miles downstream from Fort Laramie, which JD was passing even now. Six more changes to go.
Midafternoon. The second sandwich, two doughnuts, the rest of the cheese. The pony he picked up at Scottsbluff Station, his fourth since Knutson´s-- twenty miles past Chimney Rock, sixty till Laramie--had nearly had him off in the dust twice, apart from its capers at the outset, but he´d hung on. He´d been in the saddle nearly twelve hours now, his body falling into the hunched unconcern of weariness. The fall sun eased him a bit, the temperature probably in the middle sixties, but it couldn´t restore his energy; he ate a few more candies, hoping they´d do so. Clouds in a mackerel pattern speckled the sky, signalling the approach of a cold front, and intermingled with feathery cirrus that pointed to a far-off storm.
Relay number five. Six. Seven. It was almost four o´clock--slightly less than an hour and a half till sundown. The seventh pony not only took off like a shot but actually bolted off the trail, and JD had much ado to turn it back, fighting every lunge of the way. He was edging on exhaustion now, and his canteen was empty; there was no more cold tea to wake himself up with. Once he got the pony straightened out and was fairly sure it knew who was boss, he ate some more candies and quenched his thirst with the apple. The sugar jolt left him edgy, but at least awake, his eyes burning from the wind of his passage, cheeks whipped crimson. He´d developed tunnel vision with a vengeance: he was aware of nothing but the rhythm of the pony´s movements, the bite of the quickly cooling air, and the pale streak of bare pounded-down earth that was the trail he must follow.
He never knew how very close his runaway pony came to carrying him straight into the middle of a cluster of thirty or forty Sioux braves of various ages, watching the trail from a thick clump of juniper and serviceberry scrub. One of the younger men, gaudy in large bright bandanna handkerchieves after a common Lakota fashion--one around his neck, a second worn as a headband, and others run through each armlet--lifted his tasselled and pennoned lance and made to urge his claybank pony in pursuit as JD swung his mount back and away from them. His leader barred his path with his extended maple-knurl war club. No. Let him go.
Why? the young brave demanded. We have come to make war on white men, have we not?
Above a face whose lower half was painted red and its upper yellow, the leader wore a bonnet of crow feathers, with beaded hair tubes encasing the braids that trailed out from under it. Let him go, he repeated. I know that one. I know his hair, black as Sioux, and his brown medicine hat. He is not the rider who goes this way on most days. I have watched. If the spirits sent him this way, it must be a message to us. That one lives in the lodge of the old white woman we call Shot-Close Woman, the one for whom the big man with the Comanche beading on his vest is mazakaga [man- forms-metal, blacksmith]. She has always treated the Lakota honestly and well, even after they took the scalps of two of her sons. We will spare him in payment for their lives. Besides, he added, if we kill him and he does not get to the soldier fort, they will send men to see what has become of him, and that will make it difficult for us to do what we have come out for.
A murmur of agreement ran through the others in the party, and the young brave gave ground without argument. Now, the leader went on, I will take twenty of you and ride east. The rest will go west with Drives-His-Horses. We will meet as we planned, on Wildcat Ridge above the double bend of Pumpkin Creek. Hokahey! H´g´un!
+ + + + + + +
JD made it into Fort Laramie only two minutes late, at exactly six-thirty, a bit more than an hour after sundown. He was too tired to do more than offer a terse explanation of why Charley wasn´t making this run as he was supposed to, and fall into the bed kept for the other rider at the Laramie home station. He slept for fourteen hours, and woke slightly stiff but at least refreshed enough to notice his surroundings. The stationkeeper´s wife served him a huge breakfast and he went out to walk the kinks out of his muscles. He would, he knew, have slightly under sixty hours to recover before he had to make the return trip, supposing the eastbound rider was on time.
He wasn´t. JD was waiting for him in the station yard at quarter to four Monday morning, but he didn´t arrive till ten minutes to eight. It wasn´t really his fault: the other terminal of his relay was located about sixty-five miles up the North Platte, and the mail had been late getting in there too. Apparently the snow was already falling in the High Sierra and the Wasatch east of Salt Lake--not much of it yet, but enough to have delayed the unprepared riders along those portions of the route. JD, supplied with a double- size canteen of cold tea and a good packet of rations, set out for Wells Ranch, knowing, as he had on that day three and a half weeks ago, that he couldn´t make up the lost time, but had some hope of covering the 228 miles between there and Fort Laramie in the scheduled fifteen hours and a quarter. At least the sun was up, having risen about twenty after six; he´d be able to cover the entire unfamiliar route by daylight.
There was rain coming; he´d learned enough from Vin to have caught the signs--leaves blowing so their light undersides showed, birds and bats flying low to the ground, smoke heading straight up and then beating downward, a gray sunset last night followed by a pale moon with hazy edges and a ring around it, no dew or frost, no veiling of spiderwebs on the grass. The clouds obscuring the morning sun formed a smooth gray-white sheet across the sky, neither lowering nor very high--a frequent indicator of prolonged rain or snow. JD peered up at that sky and shivered slightly. It was partly anticipation: with a heavy shirt or two underneath it, a slicker didn´t make a bad overcoat in dry cold, but Buck had told him that in damp cold you could freeze to death in one quicker, and at a lower temperature, than in any garment ever invented by man. Yet the chill he felt went deeper than that. He didn´t know why, but he felt uneasy, apprehensive, edgy. Quit that, he told himself sharply, and keep your mind on the job and the road. You´ve been thinkin´ too much about Josiah and his crows.
The pony he was riding was the thirteen-and-a-half-hand light bay mare with the white forehead star that he´d had for the first leg of his very first relay on the fifth of April. Resting for ten days between each of her runs, she´d been working her way gradually westward through a succession of stations, and JD hadn´t seen her since June, but she seemed to have remembered him; when the Laramie stationkeeper brought her out and she caught his scent, she nickered softly and nuzzled at him. She was a good little horse, swift and enduring, with a gait as smooth as cream, and her wildness was generally expressed in fighting the blacksmith when her shoes were changed; under saddle she was spirited yet gentle, preferring to expend her energy in running rather than bucking--and she loved to run. He´d thought about her more than once in the past few months, wishing she belonged to him rather than to the Company; she was just the kind of horse he had always longed to own.
He held her to his customary steady canter, watching the sky and the countryside around him. His first change of mounts would be about twelve miles down the North Platte from Fort Laramie, at Lingle´s station, which lay opposite the mouth of Rawhide Creek. He was a couple of miles out from it, the clouds overhead becoming lower, covering the sky with the thick, even blanket that usually brought rain or snow, when he saw, above the streamside tree growth, a heavy lingering blot of blue-gray woodsmoke that was almost lost in the menacing sky. He wouldn´t have thought anything of it--of course there was always a fire on at a Pony station, for coffee if nothing else-- except that just then the wind shifted. His pony broke stride, shying and falling off, and JD snorted, blowing out the smell that came to his nostrils. It was a sharper, more unpleasant smell than the familiar aroma of campfire or stove smoke, and there was an underlying odor intermingled with it, a clinging, sickeningly sweet one that made his spine prickle and the hair rise up on the back of his neck. He checked, pulling up, squinting. What was it Vin had said? The smoke from a burned wagon or building was heavier than mere campfire smoke. Maybe they´d had a fire at Lingle´s since he´d been through on Friday.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Always listen to the voice in your head, Vin´s soft drawl rang in his mind. It knows things you don´t guess at. A man notices a lot more´n he thinks he does. ´Way deep down, where he ain´t aware of it, his mind is pickin´ up on everythin´ and tuckin´ it away. He´s only gotta pay attention. Get in the habit of payin´ attention. It´ll save your life--more´n once.
Easy, girl, JD whispered, patting the mare´s neck. Let´s go in sidewise and check this out. He turned her to the left and down into the trees and brush that lined the river, then into the water, which at this season was at its lowest. He kept her moving, knowing that to hesitate might mean catching both of them in a patch of sand, until they scrambled out on the north bank, then began edging her through the concealing growth, seeking out the heaviest patches of soft old leaf-litter and sod packed with dry grass. The mare was a light mover and her steps made almost no sound. JD opened his mouth a bit so he could hear better, but none of the familiar bustle of even a small swing station reached his ears--no ring of metal on metal, no human voices, no sound of horses talking to one another or moving around in their pens.
The growth thickened as the tree line along the North Platte met the lesser one that edged Rawhide Creek. JD checked again, feeling the same disquieting shiver that had gone through him as he set out. Quietly he slipped from the saddle and tethered the mare in a wild-rose clump, fastening her reins with a slip-knot that he could pull free in a hurry if he had to, then moved toward the water, proceeding by short rushes and using every bit of available cover. By the time he got to the river´s edge his nerves were screaming, and it was all he could do to hold back his pace. He eased down onto his belly, pulling off his bowler, and worked his way under a heavy clump of currant- bush to peer through its lowest branches.
There had been a fire, sure enough. The log cabin and barn that formed the core of Lingle´s had both burned, recently enough that the night damp had brought the smell out again, plain and retchingly sharp. The corral gates hung open, the pens themselves bare of horses. Even that might have been excused--hay sometimes had a distressing way of taking fire by spontaneous combustion, as JD had learned in his experience as a stableboy, and if the barn had caught, the station personnel would rather have turned the horses out and taken the risk of having to hunt for them than chanced their being injured by the fire or one another--but in that case, knowing that a rider was due today, at least one of them would have stayed behind to meet him and let him know that he´d have to ride on to the next stop without the expected change of mounts. There was no sign of any such greeter. And as JD´s eyes tracked slowly across the scene, he made out a couple of dark ominous shapes in the yard, one with a long slender something standing up at a slight angle from it- -something that looked, even at that distance, much like the pennoned Sioux lance that was displayed over the fireplace in Miz Nettie´s front room. A small conventicle of crows squabbled quietly over it. Not buzzards: the air before a storm was thin, making it difficult for soaring and high-flying birds to stay on the wing. Crows. Crows. Josiah had seen crows.
JD knew then what that other smell was, the strange sweet clinging one that made his nose wrinkle and his stomach roil. He knew there was no reason for him to cross the stream and check to see if anyone was alive. All he´d see was something he didn´t really want to. There was nothing he could do for Lingle and his people; the Indians--almost certainly Sioux--had done it already. Swing stations, lightly staffed as they were, always made a tempting target for raiding parties--and an easy one: a dozen braves, especially if they hit quickly and by surprise, could take out all the men in a few minutes.
He could turn back, let the people at Fort Laramie know what he´d found, but that would just make him later than he already was. Better to ride on to Torrington´s, the next relay downstream; they could send someone up with a wagon to get the bodies. Anyway, he´d need to change to a fresh horse, and if he went back he´d just end up subjecting two mounts to a double turn. His mare still had plenty of go in her; she´d been cantering along for less than an hour, and with these Western horses, as JD had learned, the lope was the best gait, one they could maintain over great distances, which was why Vin had told him to use it on his rides. He eased himself to his feet, sure now that no Indians were lingering around to spot him--they´d have no reason to stay now that they had what they wanted--and shot a last glance back over his shoulder, shivering at sight of those crows. How did Josiah know?
As he began making his way back to the waiting mare, the rain started to fall, light and slow, the sign that it could be expected to last.
+ + + + + + +
JD followed the north bank of the river for two or three miles and then crossed back to the main trail, which would take him into Torrington´s. At first he didn´t even bother to put on his slicker: the rain was so gentle it was more of a mild nuisance than an inconvenience, and he was already late--he didn´t want to stop and tie the mare (which he would have to do, lest she spook at the flapping oilskin). He wanted to make time before it got any worse and turned the trail to a bog or a slippery river of mud.
It was chiefly the rain and the lowering cloud cover that prevented him from getting the kind of advance warning of the situation at Torrington´s that he´d gotten in time to avoid riding blind into Lingle´s. He´d been out about three hours when he cantered into the yard and pulled up hard, seeing first the torched and fallen-in barn, then the cabin, wondering wildly for an instant whether he´d somehow gotten turned around in the rain--and only then realizing that the layout was different, the barn set opposite the cabin on the south side of the trail, rather than being downstream from it on the north, as had been true at Lingle´s. As his eyes swept around the scene, he got a look at the stripped bodies lying in the mud, at what the Indians-- and the scavengers, before the rain chased them under shelter--had done to them, and spun away, bending over the side of the mare´s neck and squeezing his eyes shut so he wouldn´t have to look any more. The mare took matters into her own hands, or perhaps hooves; she didn´t like the smells here. She bounded forward and away, carrying her rider out of the carnage, and he barely managed a reflexive tightening of his legs against her barrel to prevent himself from leaving the saddle.
He didn´t pull her up for four good miles, and when he did he slid out of the saddle and down on his knees in the thickening mud, her reins wrapped around his hand, shuddering and gasping at the memory-vision burned into the backs of his eyelids. He´d heard about the things the Sioux liked to do to their dead enemies, but he´d never seen it before. Fortunately it had been long enough since he'd eaten that his breakfast was largely digested and didn´t come back up.
Likely the same raiding party, he told himself, fighting to steady his nerves and churning stomach, then looking up at the mare as she pushed her soft nose into his shoulder. All right, girl. I didn´t mean to scare you. You´ll have to go another change worth of trail, I guess, the Indians got all the ponies. I´m sorry, I´ll try not to make it any harder than it has to be.
He realized suddenly that it seemed warmer--much warmer--than it had been when it first started to rain, which meant it would rain harder soon. He took advantage of being out of the saddle to get into his slicker, though his shirt was already pretty wet, and then remounted and went on, trying to watch all around him at once. With the rain, there was no way he could guess how long ago the raid had taken place; the Indians might still be in the area. It occurred to him then that, if they were, since they´d be driving the captured horses, they´d want to keep to the lower, easier ground for as long as they could. And, being Sioux, when they left the river they´d almost certainly cross it and head north. So he turned south and sent the mare scrambling up into the low ridges that stood above the bottoms. Though there would be no dust clouds in this weather, the higher vantage point might allow him to see the war party before he rode right up its backs.
No sign of them materialized, but at least he was saved from riding into a second bloodbath. He made out the now-familiar signs when he was still a mile out from Horse Creek Station. The rain had transformed into a steady curtain by now and he couldn´t see the clouds at all for the water that was falling out of them. He paused, shifting uneasily in his saddle, aware of a sudden symphony of aches and pains, particularly in his head, back, and muscles, answering his every move--and the mare´s. He´d have thought he was just getting tired, but he hadn´t even gone as far out from Fort Laramie as Jamesburg was from Wells´s, and he did that three times a week. He wiped his forehead with a rain-slick hand, realizing that it seemed warm--too warm. God, I can´t be gettin´ sick on top of everything else, can I? I felt fine this morning.
He eyed the ruins of Horse Creek apprehensively. One station or even two wasn´t so bad, but three in a row? JD was beginning to think this was more than just a small party out to pick up horses and a few scalps. It might, indeed, be a big ambitious raid, very possibly the last the Indians would make before winter sealed the land--they lived out here, they´d know the signs of a rough season even better than Vin would. He glanced over his shoulder, thinking again of the possibility of heading back the way he´d come; certainly he´d seen enough to make it worthwhile to report to the Army at Fort Laramie. Then he remembered the maxim given to him by Mr. Majors the day he signed up: Think first of the mail, second of your pony, last of yourself. The mail had to go through.
Something else occurred to him then. If it was a big raid, there might be enough braves to take even a home station, like Knutson´s. But they´d be slowed down by their own numbers, to say nothing of the weather and the horses they´d taken so far. Maybe, being alone, he could get ahead of them and give warning. Certainly his loyalty to Russell, Majors, & Waddell should require him to give thought to the safety of its other personnel.
He wiped his forehead again, letting the cool damp of his slicker sleeve ease the feverish heat of his skin. Let´s go, girl, he said.
+ + + + + + +
By the time he drew even with Scottsbluff Station JD knew he´d been right on both counts: he was coming down with something, and there was a big war party out. Mitchell´s station had been hit and destroyed, as had Scottsbluff. JD thought about the other stops between here and Knutson´s--McGrew´s, Wildcat, Overlook, Dalton´s--and shivered, not entirely from the cold air or the chills that seemed to come with the fever he was developing. He´d been sick often enough in his life, but this was like nothing he´d experienced before; he wasn´t just miserable, he was wiped out. His mind felt thick, as if his skull were stuffed with cotton, and it was hard to decide what to do. I´m not gaining on ´em. I haven´t even caught a look at ´em. And if there´s as many of ´em as I think there are, there´s no way any three men at any of those stations--or four if I stay--can fight ´em off. I´m likely too late to save anybody now--except, just maybe, the Knutsons. If I cut off the trail here, I won´t save a lot of distance, and I´ll miss any chance of gettin´ a fresh horse if there are any to be got, but I might still be able to get ahead of ´em.
He felt under the mare´s crest. She was warm and sweaty, but not hot, her muscles moving loosely and easily under his hand. Think you can do it, girl? Think you can make it another sixty-five miles? Think I can? He squeezed his eyes shut a moment; they were painful and beginning to burn, and seemed sensitive to the flat glare of the clouds. He swallowed and felt a prickly soreness in his throat. He´d had nothing to eat since his breakfast at three-thirty, which hadn´t been heavy to begin with, but he felt too nauseous to try to down any of the rations in his side pouch. I ain´t in too good a shape, girl. I feel awful. But we gotta try, don´t we? The mail´s gotta go through, and we gotta give the Knutsons warning, if we can.
He patted her neck. We gotta try, he repeated. Let´s go.
+ + + + + + +
The ground still squelched a bit under Buck Wilmington´s boots, though the rain had finally let up a couple of hours after sundown, and it was now coming up on one in the morning. The settlement was quiet with the hangover-hush that always seemed to hold it for two or three nights after each Saturday, a condition exacerbated by the diminishing traffic along the trail; the bar was still open, but only about half a dozen patrons still lingered there.
Over the last couple of weeks Buck had gotten into the habit of taking a slow walk around each night after the rest of the community was in bed--just in case, as he told himself, some disgruntled former employee of the Company might be up to mischief. Blossom or one of his other lady friends was usually willing to entertain him for a few hours until he thought the time was right to make a patrol. Tonight, though, he hadn´t been to see any of them. The stage from the west, due in a little after five A.M., had never arrived. That could have been explained by a breakdown or a holdup, but this was also one of JD Dunne´s days to be on a run, and he had been due in from the west at ten after four. He hadn´t come. And Buck had a bad feeling.
He´d tried to tell himself that there were any number of things that could have held the kid up. The weather, for one. A lamed pony, or one with a busted leg. Or he might just have gotten a late start out of Knutson´s, if the rider he took over from had been delayed, as had been the case that day he´d had the brush with the horse thieves. These things happened. JD had been riding this route for more than six months now; he might be green in a lot of ways, but this job and this stretch of trail he knew.
It didn´t help. By suppertime Buck had already been so uneasy that he´d been unable to do more than choke down a smoked-sausage sandwich in the bar, rather than sitting down to one of Inez´s ample and delicious meals with Chris at the restaurant. He´d gone up to the barn to make sure they had a relief pony ready for the boy when he came in--he wasn´t going to say if he came in!--and then settled himself on the gallery, waiting, making two glasses of whiskey last as many hours and feeling jumpier with every minute. At last, unable to sit still, he´d started roaming, stopping to check his watch every time he found enough light to do it, returning again and again to the barn, where Max always reported that there´d been no sign of JD.
If he ain´t in by four, the big man told himself, I´m goin´ out and look. He´ll bitch, but I sooner hear him do that than go crazy waitin´. He didn´t stop to analyze the reason for his concern. All he knew, or cared about, was that JD wasn´t where he was supposed to be--and the boy was more dependable than that.
His feet carried him back toward the barn again, as if without any conscious direction. He was within fifty feet of it when he paused, head tilting. Was that the muffled rhythm of hooves hitting damp ground? The bellows sound of a tired horse blowing?
Buck set off running. Out of the thick midnight darkness a lighter blur materialized--a light bay horse with a white star, a slicker-draped shape like a ghost astride its back. That shape sagged ominously over the animal´s neck, and Buck could see a pale hand lying along the lathered shoulder. My God, he gasped, and started bellowing. Max! Vin! Get out here!
The horse shied but was too weary to run. Its movement sent its rider lurching perilously sideways, and Buck´s long legs barely got him to its side in time to grab its bit with one hand and catch JD´s sliding form with his other arm. The barn´s main door crashed open and Max appeared at a full run, leading the relief pony behind him. An instant later the loft door opened too, and Vin leaned out, half- dressed, his Volcanic carbine at the ready; he took one look, slung the carbine over his shoulder on its thong, reached out, grabbed the hay-lift rope, and slid down it to the ground.
JD´s weight hung against Buck´s arm and the left stirrup, his upturned face stark white under the low-pulled bowler in the bobbing light of Max´s small lantern. What´s wrong with him? the stocktender demanded.
Don´t know, but God, he´s burnin´ up, Buck replied, letting the reins drop and easing the kid down out of the saddle. You take the mail and go. He ain´t in no shape to do the rest of his run, hell, he ain´t even conscious.
Vin came jogging up as Max peeled the mochilas off the bay´s saddle, slapped them onto the relief pony, and spun it around, taking off with a lunge. The hunter leaned in over Wilmington´s shoulder as the big man eased down in a crouch, arranging JD´s weight more conveniently in his arms. He hurt?
Can´t tell with the damn slicker, Buck told him. Look, you take his pony in, get somebody up to see to it, and then run on ahead to Nate´s place and see he´s awake. I´ll bring the kid along.
Tanner vanished without a word, the weary bay plodding after him. Buck ran his thumb lightly down the side of JD´s face. Hey, kid, you there? Can you hear me?
JD stirred, eyelids fluttering, then snapping open to reveal pupils contracted almost to pinpoints. No! he gasped, struggling feebly to sit up.
Easy, kid, easy, Buck advised. You´re all right. You made it. You´re in Jamesburg. What happened? Are you hurt someplace?
Buck? The voice was a dry husky whisper, hoarse with exhaustion--or perhaps something else.
That´s right, kid, it´s me. Can you tell me why you´re so late?
He saw JD struggling to organize his thoughts. War party...they...I didn´t...no remounts...all gone, the boy got out. Stations...Lodgepole back to...to Fort Laramie...everybody...all dead...Sioux... His voice broke. Oh, God, Buck...Mrs. Knutson...I...
Jesus have mercy, Buck thought, stunned at what he thought the kid was trying to convey. All the stations? Twelve of ´em? Everybody dead? My God, if they killed all the Knutsons, that´d make--what?-- forty-five? Three hundred fifty horses or more gone? He glanced toward the hotel. Chris needed to know about this.
JD stirred and whimpered in his arms, and Buck´s priorities shifted. The news could wait a while. If the kid was right, there was nothing they could do now that couldn´t be done just as well, if not better, in daylight. Right now he had to get JD to Nathan. He rose smoothly to his feet, carrying the kid with him as if he weighed nothing at all.
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