II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

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“You think this is the trail we want?” Chris asked. “We can´t take the chance of following the wrong one; Ezra may not have that much time.”

“Two horses,” Vin replied, brushing his fingertips lightly over the shod-hoof marks cut clearly in the dry sun-baked surface of the clay flat they had discovered, “one with prints near right on top t´other. That´s a pack horse, or anyways a horse on lead. If it ´s crew goin´ out to change off at one of the camps, they´d be two or four rode and as many, maybe more, pack--ranchhands ain´t much for workin´ single, and mostly if they´s based at some shack they´ll ride out every day in two opposite directions till they git to the halfway point and meet a man from the next. Each man´d have his own packhorse with his bed and such, but that´d be a light load, fifty pounds maybe; this here led horse is carryin´ two hundred or better, from the depth of his track. Man and a saddle.”

Buck nodded somberly. “He´s right, Chris. Line riders can be away from headquarters for weeks at a time, with nobody checkin´ up on ´em except a driver with a wagonload of supplies every month or two, so they gotta operate on a partnership system; if one of ´em falls into trouble out on the range, gets snakebit or set afoot or what not, or if he gets sick or hurts himself doin´ chores around the shack, he wants to know he´s got somebody who´ll come lookin´ if he´s late gettin´ back, or look after him if he can´t do for himself. Ain´t one big outfit I ever rode for in Texas didn´t work that way. Plus each man´d take his own string of ponies out with him: once a horse is cut to you, he´s yours as long as you ride for that brand, and nobody else has a right to throw a leg over him.”

Larabee inclined his head, accepting the expertise of the two men he trusted above anyone else on the planet. “When did he come through?” he asked.

Vin studied the tracks closely. “Edges ain´t been melted by the damp night air,” he murmured, “but they´s crumbled some, and the sun´s dried ´em up. Sometime this mornin´. Might be Ez weren´t conscious and they had to wait till he had enough sense to stay in the saddle. Or might be they just didn´t care to ride by night--always takes longer to get anyplace that way.” He grinned briefly. “Ain´t much chance I´ll lose ´em, that´s sure. Led horse got a broke shoe on the near hind--likely would´a got fixed today if he´d stayed at the ranch, lucky thing for us they picked him for Ez to ride. They might´s well´ve left a mile-high sign, they ain´t never gonna shake me now.”

“What happens after they get off this flat?” Josiah inquired. “Grass won´t show shoe tracks in that kind of detail.”

“Naw, but we´s in dry season,” Vin reminded him. “Grass pressed down this time of year holds the direction of the impress and gets yellower every day. All´s I´ll need is that, and a few clear prints now and then to make sure it´s still the same horse, to keep on ´em.”

JD listened in fascination. Vin had taught him much in the six months they had known each other, especially the first two of that, but it had never occurred to him how the knowledge of two men of widely differing experience could complement each other--and, of course, he had never before had occasion to track long distance in dry season. “All right,” Chris decided, “you take point, Vin, and the rest of us will follow about twenty yards back so we don´t mess up the sign.”

They fell almost unconsciously into a comfortable formation: Vin out in front, Chris next, then Nathan and Josiah side by side, and Buck and JD bringing up the rear. “Buck?” the kid ventured. “How far do you figure they took him?”

“James claims the whole length of Paint Creek and everything for five miles north of it, on account of that´s as far as a cow will walk for a drink,” the big man told him. “But even beyond that there´s waterholes and smaller streams, enough almost to bridge the whole nine or ten miles till you get within distance of Lodgepole Creek. And he´s been here so long he ain´t got a hell of a lot of competition. I never had cause to explore his range much, but my bet is some of his camps are a good ways out, likely almost to the water divide.”

“But if that´s where they´re goin´, shouldn´t they be headed north, or maybe northwest?” JD wondered. “I know I can´t track like Vin, but even I can see these horses are movin´ almost straight west.”

Buck frowned, having noticed the same thing. “Just because it don´t make sense to us, don´t mean it ain´t got some,” he said. “No matter how crazy a thing looks, boy, you can always bank on it that the man doin´ it has a good reason in mind.”

JD thought of what Vin had said about the ways Ezra could be “softened up” for interrogation. “We´ll be losin´ the light before too long,” he mentioned. “Sunset´s around a quarter to six. Don´t give us but about a couple more hours--unless Vin can track as good at night as he can in daylight.”

That too had occurred to Wilmington, and it bothered him--not merely because of the chance of losing the trail, but because of JD himself, who was, after all, just barely out of Nathan´s care. Fortunately Nathan had pointed out that Ezra, when they found him, might not be in any condition to be moved, and had insisted that they supply themselves with enough rations for a night or two on the trail. Vin kept looking ahead as far as the terrain would allow, hoping to get a glimpse of whatever building Ezra´s captor meant to take him to, but none appeared. A little before sundown he finally checked and suggested they make camp. “I don´t know this country as good as you and Bucklin,” he told Chris, “but we gotta be off James´s range, or close the edge of it, by now. Somethin´ about this don´t feel right to me. Best we camp, rest the horses and fix up some grub, then maybe I´ll scout on ahead a ways. Could be this feller´s got some abandoned soddy or such in mind that we´re just out of sight of, and I´ll find it quicker if I´m alone. Then I can come back and get y´all. Night´s good for gettin´ a man out of a place he don´t want to be; his guards ain´t so likely to see you comin´ in, and the longer you wait, the likelier some or all of ´em´ll fall asleep. We ain´t got but the one to worry about, far´s I can tell.”

Larabee frowned briefly. “If we´ve guessed right, Ezra´s a valuable prisoner. James wouldn´t want to take any chances on his getting away before he could be questioned. Why just one guard?”

“Reckon that´s part of what´s got me flinchy,” Vin admitted.

They made camp, Vin digging out a block of sod intact and building their coffee fire in the bottom of the hole so its light wouldn´t glare out like a beacon for fifty miles in every direction, as was all too possible on level plain. Buck took JD on a hunt for sagebrush, whose roots, trunk, and branches, though small, were sound, hard, good wood, very like oak, and burned with a hot, bright fire, sending up a sweet smell but no smoke; they consumed quickly and had to be fed constantly to keep going, but were far superior to soft cottonwood, often the only wood available on the plains, which wouldn´t burn at all if it was wet and burned too quickly if dry. Josiah produced a skillet and began frying up bacon; Nathan found a small dry creek bed and prodded at the bank with a stick till he discovered a spot where the earth was very soft, as if recently dug up and covered over, and about a foot below this was a gopher cache, neatly covered with dry shredded grass, of perfectly preserved vegetables, their roots and tops already trimmed by the industrious rodent. Even Chris pitched in, mixing flour, water, and wood ashes into a thick batter and spreading it thinly over the bottom of a pan, which he placed on the hot coals till a lower crust had commenced to form. He then tipped the pan on edge and held it far enough from the fire that a little heat could reach it and raise the loaf. At last he pushed it, still on edge, to within baking distance of the coals, and left it there till the resulting “frying-pan bread” was done. With coffee, and some raisins and a big can of peaches to finish off, they had a substantial meal. Meanwhile the horses, pegged out on tethers, grazed their fill, a process that took about an hour. When he thought Peso was sufficiently rested, Vin saddled up again, and started off to examine the trail of Ezra and his captor by the light of the half moon.

JD and Josiah cleaned up while Nathan and Buck prepared beds for everyone. The kid did his best to stay awake, but the lingering effects of his bout with flu soon caught up with him, and before a half hour had passed he had dozed off against Buck´s side. The big man gently slipped him into his blankets and settled down beside them, feeling unaccountably proud of the kid. It took grit and toughness to hold the kind of pace Vin had set so soon after nearly dying. His hand lingered a moment on JD´s shoulder as a tenderness he couldn´t recall ever feeling in his life before warmed his heart. JD, for his part, made a small murmurous sound in his sleep, the sound of someone who feels content and knows he´s safe, but didn´t wake.

Nathan and Josiah soon turned in as well, but Buck sat up watching Chris sit up, and thinking about how much his old friend had changed in the four months since the fight at the river. A year ago he never would have roused himself to this extent for a virtual stranger, a gambler least of all. Hell, a year ago he wouldn´t even have accepted Steele´s offer of a job--or Mary Travis´s invitation to Sunday dinner. Whatever it is you´re doin´, Tanner, just keep on doin´ it, he thought to the absent tracker. In three years I ain´t made a tenth as much progress with him as you have. He´s actually startin´ to live again, to care. He might even get to be a human being if he keeps on like he´s goin´.

Sometime after midnight the muffled hoofbeats of a horse at a steady range lope announced Vin´s return. In the low light of the fire his face looked taut, older than usual, and Buck came alert. “You find him?” Chris asked.

“No, but I know for sure we´s on his track now,” Tanner replied. “Picked this up about twenty miles on.” He hurled a wad of fabric into Larabee´s lap. Unfolded, it proved to be most of a man´s white linen shirt, with frilled chest and ruffled cuffs.

Chris examined it carefully. From the condition it was in, it had been ripped off its wearer none too gently, but he couldn´t find any bloodstains. He frowned and looked up at Vin. “Why would the man who´s got him leave his shirt on him for thirty miles or more and then strip it off?”

“Couldn´t tell for certain in the dark, but I got my notions,” Vin told him. “Found this too.” He produced from his jacket pocket a long, coarse-looking plume of a bluish-gray color, with a bit of thong still wrapped around the butt where it had been fastened to something. “That ain´t eagle. It´s heron, I reckon. You know any tribe uses heron? Comanche don´t.”

Larabee frowned. “I´ve seen feathers like this. So have you, Buck. Remember when we had that smoke with Crop-Eared Wolf, just before Steele came to town? Didn´t some of his braves have them on their coup sticks?”

Buck toyed with the feather, running it between his fingers, testing the texture. “Yeah...” he breathed. Then he looked up at Vin. “You sayin´ Ezra and James´s man fell crossways of the Arapaho? Hell, they ain´t at war, not with us, anyhow--just mostly with the Ute and Crow.”

“Tell better in the light,” Vin answered meagerly. “All´s I know´s what you see there.” He turned away. “I gotta see to Peso.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was confused and worried. Very little that had happened to him in the past twelve to fifteen hours made any sense. He had awakened, dizzy and a little nauseous, in such utter darkness that at first he feared he had been struck blind. Attempts to move demonstrated that his wrists and ankles were bound, and he could feel a firm, cool surface beneath him, a tamped clay floor, he thought. After a time it occurred to him that he must be in some sort of windowless shed: not even his keen night-vision could do him any good if there was no light at all reaching it. He also realized that his jacket had been removed, along with his side holster and shoulder-rig. Gradually he remembered his foray into James´s study and understood that he must have been ambushed as he left the house. How anyone had detected his presence was more than he could imagine, but clearly someone had. And if he´d been searched to the point of having his jacket and guns removed, his captors had probably discovered the bounty in his pocket.

Like Chris Larabee, he quickly reasoned that Stuart James would want to know why he had come there in such a clandestine manner, why he had chosen to take only as little as he had. Indeed, being the intelligent man he was-- Ezra did his best never to underestimate the opposition--James might well guess, from the character of his loot, what the Southerner´s aim had been, and in that case he would want to know just how much Ezra had figured out and whether anyone else shared it. Therefore, he would be reluctant to kill Ezra outright. No, he would want to interrogate him.

The gambler had little real hope that anyone would bother to come after him even if he was eventually missed. Why should they? What would his life mean to anyone in the settlement, except possibly Inez? Yet life was pleasant and he had no wish for his to end prematurely. When, after an uncertain length of time, he heard the rattle of a key at the door, he quickly shut his eyes and brought his breathing under control, playing possum.

Cool air rushed in, but no sunlight touched his eyelids; he guessed it was still night, or rather the very early morning hours, before sunrise. “-- want to wake Lamb, so I left his things on this barrel,” said a voice. “You can look in the bag yourself.”

“No need.” The first man´s identity he wasn´t sure of, but this second speaker was definitely Stuart James. He heard footsteps, barely audible against the cushioning clay, and a rustling sound. “Looks like he´s still out. I hope you didn´t hit him too hard.”

An amused snort. “Trust me, I done this before.” Ezra was aware of body heat as someone knelt beside him, and of fingers groping at the side of his neck. “Naw. Pulse is strong as an ox. He´s just sleepin´.”

For a moment the Southerner thought of kicking out, trying to bring down this unknown--apparently the person who had attacked him; he and James seemed to be alone, if Ezra could take them both out...Then he let the thought go. He didn´t know just how the man was positioned, and didn´t dare open his eyes to look; he didn´t know where James was, or whether he was armed, which he probably was; his hands and feet were bound, and he either lacked or couldn´t get to his weapons. He wouldn´t have a dog´s chance in Hell. He lay quietly and kept on breathing slowly, deeply, steadily.

“All right,” said James, “as long as he´s alive. No need to wake him, there´s no point your getting on the trail with him till it´s light.”

Ezra felt his attacker stand up and move away from him, heard the two of them start out the door and the panel creak loudly on its hinges as they closed it. He caught part of a sentence from James: “--up around the headwaters of Cedar Creek this time of year--” Then a jingle of chain, the clank of a hasp swinging into place and the rattle of a lock being set, and silence again.

He opened his eyes in the darkness and thought about what he had heard. Apparently, as he´d figured, his attacker had found the bag of booty, and had checked its contents; they didn´t seem to surprise or upset him, so he must have some knowledge of what James was up to on the side. And clearly he had gone into the settlement to fetch his boss and told him what he knew of Ezra´s foray. It seemed that James had already determined his prisoner´s fate, and that it didn´t involve keeping him at the ranch. Well, that made sense. If they were going to question him, they would want to feel reasonably assured that any sounds he made wouldn´t carry to anyone who wasn´t already aware of James´s illegal interests. Ezra wasn´t sure just where Cedar Creek was, though he presumed getting there would involve a horseback ride. But what did the time of year have to do with it?

Despite his somewhat unusual sleeping patterns, Ezra was well aware of the importance of rest, all the more when physical trials lay ahead. He couldn´t make any attempt to improve his situation until he had a better picture of exactly what it was. Whatever was in store for him at Cedar Creek, it would almost certainly involve less opposition than would any move made here, at James´s headquarters. Or perhaps he could see an opportunity to turn the tables on his captor between here and there. In any event, he would need to be fresh and alert. He made himself as comfortable as his circumstances allowed, calmed his racing mind, and slipped into a light but refreshing sleep.

He was aroused by the opening of the door, the sweep of chilly dawn air and the gray light of earliest day, and hands on his arms, pulling him up. He was now able to see that he had apparently spent the night locked in James´s powder magazine--which made sense: even if he´d yelled, no one would have heard him through walls designed to withstand all sorts of weather from outside and the possibility of a blast from in-. The cords on his ankles were cut, he was offered a drink of water from a canteen, then blindfolded and gagged and led outside. His wrists were untied and refastened in front of him and he was boosted into the saddle of a waiting horse, after which he was secured to the pommel and his feet lashed to the stirrups. He heard James´s voice: “You know what to tell them?”

“Yeah, I know.” It was the other voice from last night. Ezra could catch the sadistic amusement in the tone as it spoke again. “Let´s go, card-shark.”


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