II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Unable to see or speak, Ezra had little option but to bide his time and use his available senses to keep a running tally of his situation. He felt the sun strengthening against his shirt, the steady rhythm of the horse underneath him--his captor seemed to be holding to a nice easy six- mile-an-hour jog--and the richly scented autumn breeze on his face. He heard the steps of another horse, the creak and jingle of its tack, and guessed that he and his escort were alone. He heard the horses´ footsteps change character occasionally as the terrain varied, heard the yelping howl of a hunting coyote, and several times the distant clamor of migrating waterfowl overhead. The manner of his restraints allowed him to use his hands to brace himself on the pommel rather than giving his entire attention to keeping his balance, but he was never quite in sync with the horse and it was tiring.

After what seemed a very long time, his horse slowed and halted, and he heard the other saddle creak as the rider dismounted. Someone freed his ankle bonds and loosed his hands from the pommel, though they left his wrists tied together. “Get down, gambler.”

Having little choice in the matter, Ezra obeyed uncertainly, his foot groping for the earth beneath him. Once he was down, his captor unwrapped his blindfold and pulled the gag out of his mouth. At first the sudden restoration of sunlight was almost overwhelming and he could only blink and squint painfully against its brightness and swallow dryly, trying to get his saliva flowing. Eventually he was able to look about him and get a picture of his surroundings. He had expected a line cabin or other isolated building of some sort, but instead he saw only a shallow draw, studded with scattered thickets of slender ash and box elder like beads on a string, and a waterhole where his captor was letting their horses drink. Neither was Gambit, and he found himself wondering if anyone had found and cared for the chestnut.

His captor turned, and Ezra recognized him: Spencer Irely, who, as he had told Chris Larabee almost six weeks ago, had very little reason to love him. The Missourian grinned thinly at Ezra´s evident bewilderment. “What were you figurin´ on, Standish?”

Ezra did his best to freeze the man with a supercilious stare. “I hardly think you should expect me to confide my misgivings in you, sir.”

Irely didn´t seem at all insulted, and Ezra got the uneasy impression of secret glee from him. “Better sit down and rest. We got a ways to go yet.”

Ezra found a sturdy-looking young tree to use as a backrest and complied, not because he was feeling submissive, but because it was true now, as it had been last night, that he needed to conserve his energy and be fit to move fast if an opportunity opened up. Irely staked the horses to graze, with bits slipped under their chins, and gave him a canteen, which he accepted with inward gratitude. The Missourian then produced cold beef, beans, and biscuits, dividing them evenly with his prisoner, and a can of California pears. It was an awkward business eating with his wrists still tied, but at least Ezra could feed himself. He ate slowly, watching Irely out of the side of his eye, determined not to give him the satisfaction of asking where they were going and why. Irely seemed relaxed, yet contentedly anticipatory, and quietly amused at Ezra´s stubborn silence. After a while he said, “You know, Standish, it´s a damn shame you and the boss couldn´t have met differently. You´re better than you look. Mr. James could´a used you.”

“I don´t doubt it,” Ezra retorted coolly. “I imagine the man is in the habit of usin´ anyone who comes within his orbit--yourself included, Mr. Irely.”

The ex-bushwhacker´s eyes narrowed briefly. “Nobody uses me, Standish. I´m smart enough to know what I´m good at and what I ain´t. That´s all there is to it. Hell, I´ve got more out of workin´ for Mr. James these last two years than I did in the four till then--and that included bein´ in on the Lawrence raid in ´56.”

“I expect an executioner must of necessity rate a higher level of compensation than a mere foot soldier,” Ezra observed. “And I surmise that you look forward to gettin´ a great deal of satisfaction out of endin´ my life, once you have the answers to whatever questions your leader has instructed you to ask of me.”

Irely grinned again. “No questions, Standish. Mr. James knows your kind. You don´t trust easy. Hell, if you´d let anybody in on what you figured out, you´d´a had somebody with you to play lookout. Likely all you planned on was some good blackmail. Though I gotta say, I wonder how you guessed about the wagon trains.”

“If you expect this transparent tactic to spare you effort, Mr. Irely, I fear I must disappoint you. I have no idea to what you are referrin´. And if I did, why would Mr. James´s activities, illicit or otherwise, be of any significance to me? I am hardly a representative of the law, such as it is in this country. I am merely a businessman with an eye to the main chance. There is always more profit, and satisfaction, in victimizin´ the prosperous than the indigent.”

Irely shook his head in wry admiration. “Damn, your ma must´a been frightened by a dictionary, the way you talk.” He smirked. “Be interestin´ to see how she takes to bein´ lady of the manor.”

Ezra frowned. “I beg your pardon?”

The Missourian´s smile widened. “Well, hell,” he said, “who else is gonna inherit your holdings in Jamesburg after you disappear? And Mr. James still figures to get his building back. He can´t win it or buy it, maybe, but he can marry it.”

Instinctive filial concern tightened a fist around Ezra´s heart. For all the disappointments Maude had dealt him, she was still his mother, and he cared about her welfare. He also knew how she treasured her independence--it was one of the traits they shared. “He cannot honestly believe that she will consent to be his bride, and place her inheritance under his control? She is quite well aware of the circumstances under which I acquired it, and of the ill feeling it has created between myself and your employer. Any proposition he tenders her will meet with her severest suspicion, I assure you.”

Irely shrugged. “No skin off me either way. There´s other ways he can get it, once you´re out of the picture. Up to your ma whether she makes him send her on to join you or not.”

Ezra struggled to retain his control. Such casual reference to the possible murder of any woman disturbed him, even if it wasn´t Maude. “That makes twice you have implied that you are takin´ me to my demise. I must admit I find it curious that Mr. James does not insist on bein´ a witness to it. As matters stand, for all he could know, I might induce you to permit me to purchase my liberty and quietly move on to greener pastures.”

“Ain´t nothing you could pay that´ll matter to the folks you´re goin´ to,” said Irely cryptically.

After an hour or so, the horses having eaten their fill, he put the gag and blindfold back on his prisoner, got him into the saddle, and started off again. The warmth of the sun on Ezra´s face suggested that they were moving west. Presently he felt his horse ascend a gentle slope and check, and Irely laughed shortly and dismounted. Ezra heard scuffling sounds, then the scratch and hiss of a match being lit, and smelled the acrid smoke of buffalo chips. There was a wait, then the sound of hoofbeats approaching--faint, light hoofbeats that made more a chopping, tamping sound than the steady rumble Ezra was accustomed to, but definitely more than one horse. His horse shied under him, snorting in distress. Irely shouted something in a language that wasn´t English, and two or three other voices responded. Ezra´s nose twitched at the unfamiliar odor, dominated by smoke and buckskin, that came to it. He was aware of other horses crowding around his own mount, felt eyes on him, staring curiously.

Irely´s voice sounded again, a lengthy diatribe. Ezra heard gasps, then a gobbling yell, and something struck him on the shoulder, a sharp, stinging blow but not enough to draw blood. His body swayed reflexively away from the strike, and someone grabbed him by the collar to yank him upright; his shirt tore down the back, and a lash fell across the bare skin underneath. He nearly choked on his gag as something sharp skinned along his ribs and a quick warmth answered. The buttons on his shirt popped, the violated garment falling away from him. He heard shouts, grating grizzly-bear coughs, more gobbling yells, and then Irely shouting, his tone one of firm command. Gradually the assault fell off and ended, though low angry mutterings continued to sound. Irely spoke, quick, unafraid, sure of himself. Another voice replied, using the same sequence of sounds--grudging agreement underlain with savage anticipation. Then Ezra´s horse lurched into motion again and started down a slope, and he heard and felt a cordon of other horses all around, escorting him.

The pace picked up to a trot. Ezra concentrated on staying in the saddle and tried to ignore the smarting of the shallow wounds that had been inflicted on him. After what might have been a couple of hours, he heard shouts from his escort, then the sound of horses lunging forward in a gallop, and found himself coughing in the dust they left behind. Only one besides his own seemed to remain, presumably Irely´s. It shifted to a lope, his own following suit. They swept forward, and as suddenly came to a halt.

New smells reached him: smoke, cooking food, people. He heard dogs yapping, human voices murmuring and occasionally calling out, the distant whinny of a horse. He sensed a considerable number of people--most of them afoot, he thought--pressing in about him on all sides, and felt again the concentrated stare of many eyes. His head turned blindly as he tried to gather in every bit of information ears and nose could offer. He heard Irely, not shouting now, but speaking in a normal, almost respectful tone, as if to someone directly in front of him. He heard another voice respond briefly, and then it spoke again, more loudly and in a different sequence of sounds. Harsh hands fell on his legs and forearms and he felt someone cutting the bonds that secured him to the saddle. Then he was yanked roughly to the ground, hauled to his feet, and hurried about a hundred feet or so forward to be thrown into some sort of enclosed shelter. He tripped and fell full-length, his shoulder striking something hard and cold with force enough to bruise it.

He didn´t know how long he lay there, sightless, confused, his minor wounds stinging and stiffening. Gradually he became aware of darkness settling against his blindfold and guessed that the shades of evening were gathering. Then he heard a whispering sound and felt a breath of air, and struggled to push himself up on one elbow, turning his face toward the sound of movement. He heard a voice--Irely again, he thought--say a few quiet words in the same language he´d used before, and felt the movement of air. Then someone pulled him into a sitting position and removed the gag and blindfold. He had never been inside an Indian lodge before, but he guessed immediately that this was one. A tiny fire burned within a circle of stones in the middle of the floor, its flickering light just sufficient to illuminate Irely´s face as the man squatted beside him. Ezra would have been the first to admit that he had no idea what sorts of things should furnish an Indian shelter, but this one seemed curiously barren of both personal items and storage.

“You better eat, gambler,” Irely suggested, and Ezra noticed a wooden bowl on the bare earthen floor, along with a plate hollowed out of a cottonwood knot and holding a large portion of some sort of bread. “Here.” The Missourian offered him a big tin trade cup from which arose the heavenly aroma of coffee. Ezra accepted it gratefully and drank eagerly, trying not to gulp. The coffee was rich and strong and flavored with plenty of sugar-- more than he ordinarily took, but it restored his energy with an almost painful jolt. The bowl proved to be full of a stew of meat cooked in a thin gravy, hot and fresh, a bit curiously flavored but more than satisfying to a man who hadn´t eaten in at least twenty-four hours. There was also some sort of vegetable that looked and tasted much like small new potatoes, plus the bread, which was cold, but filling, and seemed to have been made with white flour. A metal spoon had been provided and Ezra forced himself to use it and eat slowly, washing it down with coffee and wiping the bowl clean with the last of the bread. Irely watched without comment.

Ezra put the bowl aside and slanted his eyes at the Missourian in a flash of green. His pride insisted that he give the man no more ammunition than he could afford, but this was so far from anything he had expected that he didn´t know what to think. He settled for a simple question: “Why?”

Irely shrugged. “Don´t matter what grudge we got against you, you´re still a white man, and you deserve whatever strength you can get. Likely you´ll need it. Anyway, they always like it if a man´s got the beef to give ´em some sport.” He replaced the blindfold, then the gag. “This´ll only be for a while now, just so´s you can´t say no spells or cast no evil eye till the medicine man gets here. They´ll be comin´ for you before too long. See you in hell, Standish.”

Ezra listened to his steps crossing the lodge, heard the swish of the doorflap being lifted and dropped, and knew he was alone again. And now, for the first time, he began to be really afraid.

+ + + + + + +

Vin´s companions stood well back from the spot where he had found Ezra´s shirt and watched as he quartered carefully to and fro, scanning the ground. “Somebody had three fires here, littl´uns, all in a line,” he said. “That´s Injun sign for good news. Whole bunch of barefoot ponies come up the slope from the southwest, ten, maybe twelve--must´a seed the smoke, so whoever made them fires was tryin´ to get their ´tention; likely spotted ´em crossin´ that little valley down below. They all clumped up around the two horses we been trailin´, Ez´s and t´other; looks like Ez´s horse done some dancin´ around, and there´s a little bit of blood on the ground. Then they all moved on, headin´ the way the Injuns come.”

JD looked questioningly at Buck, who only shrugged, indicating that he was just as much at a loss as the boy was. “Is that lead shod horse still moving like the rider´s controlling it, Brother Vin?” Josiah asked.

“Seems like,” the tracker agreed. “And it´s still leadin´ the one Ez is on. I got a notion the rider´s somebody they know and they´s just givin´ him a escort. Hell, Bucklin was the one said the Arapaho ain´t fightin´ the whites.”

“So what´s going on?” Chris wondered. “You said Ezra´s guard signalled them. Of course James has good relations with the Arapaho; they´ve traded at his store since he established it, and his nephew is married to one. But why would he want to send one of his men to them with Ezra, instead of having Ezra questioned?”

“Reckon they ain´t but one way to find out,” said Vin, flinging himself onto Peso´s back. “´Leastways with a bunch this size they ain´t much chance of losin´ the sign. Don´t like it none, though, not if they´s tearin´ Ez´s shirt offen his back. Best we keep a good lookout.”

They moved on, cautiously, until in the distance, just the other side of a low ridge, they made out the tops of a line of trees, all at this season more or less bare, the sign of a stream, such as a village of nomadic Plains Indians would require for a campsite. A score or so of birds was visible in the branches, fluttering from one to another, and a shift in the breeze brought to the searchers the sound of jabbering and raucous caws. “Crows,” Josiah muttered uneasily.

“Injun camp,” Vin added. “If they´d just found somethin´ dead they´d gone down to the ground, and if they´s eatin´ they wouldn´t be hollerin´.”

Chris and Buck exchanged looks, consulting the mental map of the region that each had developed over two years of wide-ranging patrol. “My guess is that´s Cedar Creek,” Chris decided. “The local Arapahoes have used it as a camping spot for more years than they can count.”

Vin frowned. “They know you. Likely we could ride straight in. But maybe best not to, till we can find out why Ez is there. Let´s pull off and circle around north a ways so´s the wind ain´t like to fetch our scent to the ponies or the camp dogs. Be sundown in another three hours or so.”

They found a small waterhole and let the horses drink, then moved on, getting well away from the water before they made a cold camp in a plumbrush-choked draw. “White man travellin´ mostly keeps to low ground,” Vin explained to JD, “and as a gen´ral thing he´ll always ride along a stream if he can, ´cause it´s easier on a tired horse and rider. Injuns know that, and they know better´n to camp in creek bottoms lessen they´s a whole village of ´em, but they also know it´s a white habit. They like the high ground, theirselves. You keep away from both, and don´t camp near water, which is the first place your enemies´ll look for you, and you got a fair chance of gettin´ by ´thout them noticin´ you.”

“But the Arapahoes are at peace,” JD objected. “Buck said so. And that heron feather you found was off an Arapaho coup stick.”

“We don´t know that for sure, JD,” Chris told him. “We made an educated guess, on the basis of what we´ve seen before. And Vin´s right: if they´re tearing Ezra´s shirt off, that´s not a good sign. There are always wild young braves who don´t go along with the treaties, formal or not, that their chiefs follow--and James has influence with the tribe besides. We need more information before we decide what to do.”

“Soon´s it gets good´n´dark,” Vin added, “but afore it´s so late that most of the village´s like to´ve went to bed, I´ll go make a scout. Maybe if that man of James´s is still there and wanderin´ around, I can get my hands on him and ask him a question or two.”

Chris frowned. “Sure you don´t want one of us to go along?”

The tracker grinned. “No ´fense, cowboy, but you´n´Bucklin´ll make more noise´n a stray cow dancin´ on dry crackers. Anyhow, y´all smell like white men. Them dogs get a scent of you and they´ll set up a racket fit to raise the dead. Me, I smell more like a Injun; if they pick me up they might just figure I´m one of theirs goin´ to the bushes.”

Larabee hesitated a moment, then nodded grudgingly, as if recognizing the maxim that the man best suited to a job by natural ability was honor-bound to take it. “Watch your back,” he ordered.

“Always do,” said Vin.

The sun set a little before quarter to six. The six men ate lightly, not wanting to be slowed down in case they ended up in a fight, and then Vin checked his knives and Dragoon .44 and mounted up. By seven-thirty it was dark enough for him to feel safe, and he began moving in.

There was a dance going on in the central plaza of the camp--not a big one, maybe fifteen or twenty figures altogether, but not a social dance either. Indians always danced when they got worked up. One good thing about it was that it was holding the attention of just about everyone who was up and about, and the drums and chanting would cover most sounds he might make. Vin scanned the open space carefully through his spyglass, thankful for the light of the fires, but could see no sign of a white face. That was both good and bad. If James´s man wasn´t still in the camp, if he´d headed home, the chance of Vin finding anyone he could question would go ´way down. He´d picked up a bit of the Arapaho language in his wanderings--he actually understood it quite a lot better than he spoke it--but his knowledge wouldn´t do him much good if he couldn´t get his hands on someone who had at least a little English.

He located what he figured was the medicine lodge, or council tent, and was surprised to see a little group of men sitting in a circle outside it, passing a pipe around a fire. He frowned. Why hold a council outdoors at this time of year? Not that it was really cold yet--he´d guess it was a good dozen degrees over freezing--but it was certainly chilly enough that anyone who wasn´t being warmed up by dancing, or excited by watching it, should want to be indoors...

Unless Ez was being held in the lodge.

Vin nodded thoughtfully to himself as he closed his spyglass. When Comanches brought back prisoners from a raid, they were usually kept in the camp´s medicine lodge till time for the scalp dance; it made sense Arapaho would behave the same way. He scanned the village once again, establishing the pattern of lodges and shadows, and turned to Peso. “All right, you damn mule,” he said, “let´s move in, and see you keep quiet.”

The lodge entrances all faced east, so Vin went in from the west, more or less following the course of the creek by which the camp had been pitched. When he was about five hundred yards from the circle, he found a tangle of wild cherry where he could tether Peso and paused a moment to grasp the fractious gelding´s ear and twist it hard, till the black´s eye rolled to meet his own. “Now listen good, mule,” he commanded. “Maybe you don´t much care about me or my scalp, but I know damn well how you like your oats. You fall into Arapaho hands and you ain´t like to taste ´em again as long as you live. So you stay where you´re put and keep hush till I come for you, hear?” He waited a moment until some silent signal passed from the horse to him, then nodded briefly in satisfaction and released Peso´s ear. “All right,” he said, and produced a couple of slices of dried apple from his pocket. Peso lipped them delicately from his palm and munched contentedly, watching him. Vin stripped off his light-colored Comanche-made antelope shirt with its Mexican-coin ornamentation, in favor of the navy-blue white-man shirt underneath, removed his big iron spurs, and reached into his waist pouch for the little horn containers of war paint he still kept there. He quickly smeared a couple of hand ladings of black horizontally across his face in broad irregular bands, breaking up its outline and cutting down on the chance of its lightness being spotted, and then began moving in.

The camp couldn´t have been more than a day or two in this spot: there was still a good deal of grass that hadn´t been trampled down by the day-to-day activities of the inhabitants even within the limits of the circle, and Vin eeled his way through it, using every bit of shadow he could find. The dance was still going on, which was all to the good: the firelight should pretty much blind the spectators to his presence as long as he kept clear of it. He made it to the medicine lodge and edged along the base until he was close enough to hear the councilmembers talking. “It is strange,” one was saying, “that evil can walk side by side with courage. A person who uses dark magic to get what he wants, instead of following the warrior´s path, should be a coward, yet the green-eyed one seems strong and brave.”

“Yes,” another agreed, “he faces death well. He must understand that he will not leave here alive, but he has not cried out, or begged for mercy.”

There was a scornful sound from a younger man on the other side of the circle. “We will see how brave he is. He has barely been tested yet. There is the pole to come. By tomorrow it will be ready for him.”

They got him, Vin realized, and he´s alive. Likely been abused some, but not bad, not yet. He remained still and continued to listen, piecing together the words he knew, his eyes widening in astonishment at what he heard. Damn. How´d James ever get ´em to believin´ this? Don´t see how they´d lit on it by theirselves.

I could go back and get Chris and the others. They respect him. But this--

No. I gotta get Ez out, and the sooner the better. If they´s this scared of him, ain´t no guarantee he´ll still be alive come next dark.

He retreated cautiously, working back to the west arc of the circle, to a lodge he had marked on his way in, where a slim-legged dun mare was tethered with the rest of the most valuable horses of the family. There was a risk inherent in moving her now: if her owners decided to call it a night early, and discovered she was missing, they´d give the alarm. But Ezra might need help getting to where Peso was, and Vin didn´t want to have to deal with him and a pony that wasn´t used to either of them at the same time. He loosed the mare´s hobbles, soothing her with soft sounds, and led her out of the circle, back to the cherry tangle where he´d left Peso. He tied her well out of reach of the gelding, who was inclined to bite, and fashioned a nose-wrap for her out of his bandanna so she couldn´t whinny. Then, with a quick prayer to his guardians, he headed back. For Ezra.


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