II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

10. Rescue
Vin wiggled a peg out of the ground, lifted the bottom skins of the lodge between the two on either side of it, and squirmed inside, drawing himself up into a crouch with his hand on the hilt of his Bowie, just in case there was a guard. He remained still, nostrils searching for scent, listening for any betraying sound-- breathing, the rustle of restless movement--and letting his eyes get used to the darkness. Tipis didn´t have windows, but like Army tents, and unlike conventional buildings, their walls were more translucent than opaque; some of the light of the dance fires filtered through from the central plaza, apart from the skyshine--or moon- and starlight, when they existed--that always sifted in through the smokehole.

It didn´t take him long to decide that there was no guard, that he and Ezra were alone--which, considering the prisoner´s situation, didn´t surprise him. The Southerner had been fastened spread-eagle between two upright poles, maybe four feet clear of the rear wall of the lodge, his arms and legs pulled painfully out to their fullest extent. He was unconscious, his head drooping against one shoulder, hair soaked with sweat, body weight sagging against the bonds so they tore into his wrists. He was bare to the waist, and shallow knife cuts laced his chest and upper arms. There was a small scabbed- over wound on his ribs, just above the waist, where it looked as if a lancepoint had nicked him; several welts on his back and left shoulder from the lash of a quirt, and a random pattern of bruises all over his upper body, but no wounds that seemed life- threatening. Vin noticed that the Indians had painted figures in black--the color usually associated with evil--on Ezra´s skin that looked vaguely familiar to him, not unlike those that were embroidered on his own medicine pouch to protect it and its contents from evil-fingered persons.

The tracker felt delicately at Ezra´s neck for a pulse, and found it--a little too fast, but steady. He carefully positioned his palm over the prisoner´s mouth, then clamped it down hard. Ezra came back to consciousness with a violent start, shaking the poles. His eyes were wide with surprise and fright, and Vin could feel his whole body draw up against his bonds, trembling. Tanner put his lips against the Southerner´s ear. “Easy, Ez. It´s me--Vin.”

The green eyes rolled toward him, questioning, almost unbelieving, trying to make out the distinctive features half obscured by Vin´s war paint. The Texan shifted a bit so Ezra could see him more clearly. It couldn´t have been easy, there being no fire in the lodge, but Ezra´s eyes were used to the darkness, and after a moment or two Vin felt some of the tension flow out of him, though his body still quivered. “I´m gonna take my hand off your mouth,” he whispered, “but only if you ain´t gonna yell. Okay? You gonna keep still?”

Ezra´s eyes met his, the promise clear in their gaze, and he nodded slowly. Cautiously Vin peeled his hand back, holding it ready in case he had to stop a cry, but Standish only drew in several deep shuddering breaths. “Mr. Tanner?” he inquired in a hushed, breathless voice. “Have you also been taken captive by these aboriginies?”

“Naw. Come to git you out.” Vin knelt and drew his Bowie to cut the lashings at Ezra´s ankles, so the gambler´s legs would be ready to take his weight once his updrawn arms were no longer supporting it. This done, he stood and peered at the wrist bonds. “You gotta hold real still, Ez. Them thongs is cuttin´ into your flesh somethin´ fierce and I don´t want to hurt you no worse gettin´ you free.”

“I understand,” Ezra assured him. “I shall endeavor not to stir.”

Carefully Vin slid the Bowie´s tip under the uppermost turn of the thongs and began the task of freeing Standish´s right wrist. As the bonds gradually fell away, he extended a crooked arm across the Southerner´s chest, to catch him as the tension was released and keep his full weight off the other arm. Ezra sagged into it with a strangled grunt as his freed arm fell strengthless at his side. Vin shifted carefully and began working on the other. Through his sleeve he could feel the heat of Ezra´s flesh: the man was running a low fever, probably the result of a minor infection to the torture cuts he´d suffered.

Ezra remained still, exhausted by his ordeal, as Vin cut the last of his bonds, then slumped forward, his knees giving way. Vin caught his sliding weight and eased him to the floor of the lodge. He knew something of the exquisite torment of returning circulation and found himself amazed that the Southerner was taking it so well, without even a whimper. Standish´s teeth were clenched, his face was white and his eyes filled with tears, and he was shaking again, but he adamantly refused to utter a sound. Vin sheathed his knife and began gently kneading the man´s bare back and shoulders, working out the tensions of the forced constrained position.

After what seemed a very long time Ezra´s head lifted and turned. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I believe I am somewhat restored now. But I...I am not certain my legs will support my weight.”

Vin grinned. “´S okay. All´s you gotta do is crawl out under the back lodgeskins, same way I come in. Once you´re out I´ll help you. I got Peso and a ´Rapaho pony waitin´. You reckon you can stick on bareback?”

“There is nothin´ on four legs with hair that a properly trained Southern gentleman cannot ‘stick on,´ as you express it, whether with saddle or without,” Standish declared with dignity.

Damn, the tracker thought admiringly, this man´s still got spirit enough for three, even after everythin´ he´s been through. I´d´a never guessed it. It amazed him that Ezra, who had never been past the Missouri River till a few months ago, never had much of anything to do with Indians, and spent most of his time indoors, had somehow kept his courage throughout what must have been, for him, a terrifying experience. He´d rather have expected the Southerner to break early on. Bigger and stronger men than he was had cracked wide open when lashed to a torture frame. Clearly Standish had reserves none of them had expected. Maybe, Vin reflected, it tied in somehow to the attributes so necessary to a professional gambler: the cultivation of coolness, impassiveness, and presence of mind; the iron resolution to meet whatever offered with equanimity; the steady nerves and trained ability to hide his feelings.

He slapped Ezra´s shoulder lightly. “Good man. Let´s get goin´.”

Standish glanced uneasily toward the doorflap. “Are you certain? There seems to be a good deal of commotion goin´ on--”

“Yeah. Most of the camp´s still up. But that´s all the better. They got a dance to watch and fires to blind ´em. We stick to the shadows and they won´t ever see us. Come on.”

“I bow to your knowledge, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra murmured. “Lead on.”

It wasn´t as hard as he´d feared it might be. Standish was no plainsman, but he was too weary to move very fast, and with Vin´s supporting hand under his elbow as a guide, he was able to pace himself and avoid making noise. Once they were past the ring of lodges, Vin picked up the pace a bit, knowing it might be hard on the exhausted Southerner, but not wanting to waste any more time. By the time they got to the cherry thicket, Ezra was breathing in the quick, hard rhythm of near-collapse. “You okay?” Vin asked him. “Hurtin´? Want to rest a bit?”

“Do we dare?”

“If they find you gone we´ll hear the yellin´. Take ´em a while to get this far out. I got the pony herd spotted. If we need to we can tear plumb through and scatter it. That´ll make ´em think they´s under attack, and Indians always panic in a surprise attack.”

Ezra drew a long shaky breath. “I will confess, I have rarely known such fatigue.”

“Set down a bit, then, and get your wind back. You cold?” he added, watching the shivers shudder across the lean shoulders.

“Y--yes. I apologize, sir--you must think me quite hopeless--”

“Hell no. I think you got a lot of sand. Here, put this on,” he added, passing the erstwhile captive his own antelope shirt. “Wind´s comin´ up some, and buckskin´s the best thing to have on when it´s windy.”

Ezra accepted the garment without comment; it sat a bit loosely on his frame, but wasn´t over large for him. Vin thought about the hard flat muscle he had seen on the Southerner and was impressed. He scrubbed the paint off his face with the tail of his shirt, offered Ezra a drink from his canteen and took one himself. After ten minutes or so Ezra seemed to have caught his second wind. “How did you contrive to determine my situation, Mr. Tanner?” he asked. “Did you venture this foray unaccompanied, or do you have cohorts who have not yet betrayed their presence?”

“Found your trail, you and that feller who fetched you here. After we figured out you wasn´t bein´ held at James´s no more, all we had to do was make a swing around till we come on it. And I ain´t alone. Left Chris´n´Bucklin´n´th´others hid in a draw ´bout ten mile out.”

“Others?” Ezra echoed in puzzlement.

“JD, Josiah, Nathan. We all come lookin´ for ya, Ez. Was gonna do it even afore your pony come home. After he turned up we knowed for sure you was in trouble.”

“Gambit? He´s uninjured?”

“He´s fine. We figure he slipped his tether and went lookin´ for somethin´ to eat after you´d been gone longer´n he liked.”

“Did he indeed,” Ezra murmured. “It seems he has talents of which I was not aware.” A pause, then: “You mentioned James´s. You knew I had gone there?”

“Took a while to figure it out. Then I ´membered all them things you said in the bar, how you felt ´most as guilty as them fellers been raidin´ the emigrants, how you´d ought to´ve knowed somethin´ weren´t right. Figured you ´s wantin´ to make it right. Figured it on account I´d´a wanted the same.” He laid his fingertips lightly across the back of Standish's wrist, as he had done that afternoon. “Reckon me and you´s more alike than we think, Ez.”

“I found what I was seekin´, you know,” the gambler said quietly after a moment or two. “Mr. James´s safe is--or was; I daresay he has relocated it by now--quite glutted with jewelry and watches, much of it bearin´ the names of its late owners or the likenesses of their loved ones. I removed a few samples of the type, hopin´ that Mr. Larabee would be able to find a means of employin´ them as evidence against him. Unfortunately it seems someone detected me goin´ in or out. I was rendered unconscious and my booty discovered, and Mr. Irely, whom you no doubt recall, brought me here.”

“Time we get movin´, if you think you´re up to it,” Vin told him. “Ain´t no need you have to tell the whole story twice´t. Best we find Chris´n´th´others, ´n´ get on our way afore them Indians see they done lost you.”

“Nothin´ would give me greater pleasure--apart, perhaps, from a bath and a full meal,” Standish responded.

Vin made a stirrup, prepared to help more if needed, but Ezra managed to boost himself up onto the mare´s back. Following the creek bottoms and using the thick growth that lined them as cover, Vin led the way northwestward, away from the steady clamor of the dance. When they ran out of creek, he turned almost due east, checking the contours of the land for the subtle signs that would give him his directions, and set off at a steady jog, not wanting to tire the horses out--or exceed Ezra´s already strained capabilities. He was conscious of the Southerner´s thoughtful gaze on his back, processing what he had said about the search that had been mounted for him. Acts like he don´t believe anybody´d bother. Like it beats him all to hell why we´d come for him. Ain´t he never had no pards afore?

Hell, Tanner, you´re one to talk. Till Chris there weren´t no white livin´ that you´d´a said give one damn for you, ´cept maybe Miz Nettie--not even JD. Was him drug all the rest along--Bucklin, Miz Travis, Inez, Nate and Rain...first time in twenty years you felt like you maybe found someplace you belonged at.

It´s a good feelin´. Wonder if Ez´ll get it too now. Hope so. I´ve knowed what it´s like t´other way, and it ain´t somethin´ I´d wish on him.

´Sides, a man with his kinda grit deserves better´n it seems like he´s had, up to now...

+ + + + + + +

Chris had been pacing steadily back and forth in their plum-brush covert for fully two hours by Buck´s watch, and Buck knew why. For as long as he had known the older man, Chris had been inclined to express emotions like worry, grief, sorrow, concern in one of two ways: either he brooded, setting up an impenetrable shield of silence and radiating a sense of “keep-away,” or he got angry, which made him feel he was covering his vulnerabilities. Buck wondered sometimes why his friend behaved that way. They had confided much in each other over the years; Wilmington knew that Chris had had a good childhood, secure, materially sound, both parents living into his twenties, older sibs to provide guidance and protection, younger ones to help and watch over, chores enough to develop a strong sense of responsibility, yet leisure enough that he didn´t feel resentful of authority. He´d been a bit wild in his teen years: like most college men he came from farm roots and equated physical exercise with productive labor, and in his four years in the Academy and two at the University of Indiana, lacking any formal or interscholastic athletic program into which to channel his youthful energy and high spirits, he'd resorted chiefly to swimming, skating, and impromptu games of football, cricket, tenpins, and “bat and ball,” along with the bread-slinging camaraderie of the men´s dining hall, during term-time, more violent outlets while on vacation. There had been, Buck knew, at least one full-scale brawl the summer he was seventeen. Yet not until he lost Sarah and Adam had he begun to display any tendency to either focused violence or this seething, bubbling, volcanic fury that seemed only to be holding itself in check for the sake of exploding the more spectacularly when it finally found a target.

A sudden shrill whistle from down the draw brought everyone alert and snapped their hands to their guns; it was followed by a call of, “Vin, comin´ in!” Most of the six relaxed, Buck and Nathan getting to their feet. Chris quit pacing but still looked ready to tear someone´s head off. As Peso´s blazed face loomed out of the darkness he snapped, “Damnit, Tanner, what have you been doing half the night?”

“Ezra!” JD gasped before the hunter could reply, and sure enough, there the gambler was, bareback on a dun pony and wearing Vin´s antelope shirt, looking pale and tired, but holding himself erect and with his usual grace.

Josiah stepped forward to take the shank of the mare´s halter and hold her as Ezra slid from her back. He staggered a bit as his feet touched the ground, and Buck moved in to catch him. The Southerner made a sharp, brief hissing sound at the pressure of the big man´s hands against his ribs. “I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, I am quite capable of--”

“Keep still and sit down,” Buck rebuked. “You´re hurtin´. Nate! Hey, Vin, you bein´ chased, or can we make a little fire so Nate can see better?”

“Brush oughtta hide the glow, ´specially if you dig a hole,” Tanner replied, dismounting.

Most of the group immediately turned to gathering fuel, preparing the fire, and easing the shirt off over Ezra´s head. Chris confronted Vin as the tracker tethered the two horses and eased Peso´s cinch. His voice was low, tightly controlled--so tightly that it lacked only volume to be a scream. “What did you think you were doing? You were only supposed to be making a scout, finding out where he was. Did you give any mind to what the rest of us would think when you didn´t get back right away? Damn it, Tanner, I´ve spent three years seeing two scalps of people I cared about blowing on lodgepoles, do you think I wanted another?”

The Texan´s reply was calm, his manner cool and collected, his mild drawl making it seem as if he saw nothing worthy of concern in his own behavior. “Never figured on it. That´s why I hadta get him out. Couldn´t bank on how long he´d stay alive, or even in shape to ride. They´s fixin´ to kill him, and it wouldn´t been easy, cowboy. Hell, the young braves was havin´ theirselves a dance when I got there, gettin´ more worked up all the time. They might´a took it in their heads to have some fun with him, and I ain´t plumb sure the chiefs could´a stopped ´em. You know how I´s raised. This weren´t hardly the first Indian camp I sneaked into and out of, and I still got all my hair.” He gave his long wavy locks a defiant little shake to emphasize the assertion.

Larabee drew in a long breath through flared nostrils, his taut frame still trembling a bit with the channelled worry that had ruled him for longer than he liked or had wanted. “Was he really in that much danger? Did you find out why the Arapahoes were willing to risk the peace to kill him?”

“Yeah, he was,” the Texan assured him, becoming more somber, “and I did.” He glanced back the way he´d come. “If Nathan says he can ride, might be best we move on as soon as we can, try and get some distance. Indians that´s mad, on account they´s been insulted or injured, is one thing. Indians that´s scared is worse.”

“Scared?” Chris echoed, distracted from his anger by confusion. “What the hell cause would they have to be scared of Ezra? I don´t think any of them´s ever even met him.”

“Tell you that later,” Tanner promised. “Need to think some on it my ownself first.” He slipped past the officer to join the others around the tiny pit fire Buck and JD had made.

Ezra, looking at once impatient, bewildered, and gratified, was kneeling with his back to its glow, his pale upper torso with its surprisingly well-defined musculature gleaming faintly, as Nathan examined the cuts and bruises that scored his ribs and back. The cuts actually looked worse than they were, for red welts had been formed all around them by sweat and dirt. The gambler flinched and hissed as the healer´s long fingers probed his ribs. “Damn it, Mr. Jackson! Would you care to explain to me why it is that physicians must always possess such gelid manipulative appendages?”

“You just hold still so I can see,” Nathan retorted. “Don´t look like any of these is deep, but you got a little bit of infection cookin´, so cone-plant won´t do you much good. Josiah, we still got any of that pan bread? Moisten some of the crust up for me, it´ll ease the pain. Ezra, I got some alum I´m gonna put on these cuts; it´s gonna sting, but I can soothe it with balm afterward. I gotta burn that infection out of you ´fore it gets any better hold.”

“Very well,” the gambler answered tightly. “Only allow me a moment to gather my resources.”

Nathan slanted a look at Vin as the hunter dropped down in a heel-squat beside him. “What´d they do to him?”

“I ain´t asked,” the Texan replied, “but my guess is most of them marks is from havin´ coup counted on him, mainly by them braves that met up with him and James´s man back where we found his shirt at. The ones on his chest, them´s what you figure they are. Seems like some of ´em took it in mind to have a little fun with him afore the main show.”

JD was almost as white as he´d been when he was sick, and he looked as if he was fighting to keep at bay the memories of what the Sioux had left at Torrington´s Station. Buck put a firm reassuring hand on his shoulder and felt the kid lean gratefully into his strength while he continued feeding the fire with the other hand. Josiah silently passed things to Nathan as he requested them--alum, soaked breadcrusts, clean bandages smeared with balm from a little pot. Ezra gritted his teeth at the disinfectant´s bite and seemed determined not to let his discomfort show--or to give anyone the idea that he might need any kind of help or reassurance to get past his ordeal. He looked up as a pair of polished black boots appeared directly in front of him, up and up into Chris Larabee´s tight, baffled, furious face at the top of the black column of his clothes. “Is there somethin´ I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?”

“You can tell me why the hell you took it in your head to sneak out to James´s place in the middle of the night, you damn fool,” the officer growled. “What were you trying to do?”

“I was attemptin´ to acquire evidence of Mr. James´s connection to the wagon-train raids,” the Southerner replied evenly. “And I would have succeeded more than temporarily, had I not let down my guard. The situation in which Mr. Tanner found me was entirely my own fault, I assure you.”

“That´s true enough,” said Larabee. “Why couldn´t you have told someone what you were planning? Didn´t I make it plain enough that those raids were my concern?”

“But the possibility that Mr. James was their directin´ mastermind was my own notion,” Ezra responded with dignity, “and as such the task of substantiation was my obligation. However convincin´ my mere words may have been, I could not expect that any of you, quite disregardin´ the official mechanisms of the law, would accept them completely without some proof. My profession is not one likely to inspire the unquestionin´ trust of others, Mr. Larabee. I am realist enough to understand that.”

Chris dropped down onto his heels in front of the smaller man, holding Ezra´s eyes with his own, and suddenly his hand flashed out and clamped hard onto the back of the Southerner´s neck. “Don´t you ever run out on me like that again,” he snarled. “Do you understand that?”

The gambler´s breath caught in his throat, his eyes widening in astonishment. “No--I-- ”

The hand on his neck tightened, digging into the pale skin and tense, aching muscles. “I´m only saying this once, so you heed me. Four months ago you did something you had no obligation to do. That made you a part of everyone else who was involved in it. It showed us a side of you that nobody´s ever had any occasion to see before. We don´t look at you the way ‘others´ do, Standish. We´re not ‘others.´ We´re all part of one thing, and so are you. I don´t give a damn what you may expect of the rest of the world. You don´t expect it of us--get that? If you´ve got a plan, or doubts, or anything else to contribute that touches on anything that concerns any of the rest of us, you come out with it. And you don´t go off on your own risking your damn fool neck. You´re not alone now. You´ve got people to watch your back, just the way you helped cover ours at the river. There´s no question of proving yourself, or of having to get ‘evidence´ to back up what your instincts and experience tell you. Not alone. We all do it together. Now, am I clear?”

Ezra took breath, hesitated, looked again into the cold pale fire of the green eyes on his own, and nodded. “You are clear, sir.”

“All right.” Larabee released him and stood. “Just don´t forget it.”

+ + + + + + +

When Nathan had finished his ministrations, Josiah turned to helping Ezra get Vin´s shirt back on while Buck and JD went off to saddle the horses and the healer packed up his things. Vin, who had been keeping watch from the rim of the draw, reported no sign of pursuit yet; if their luck held, the Arapahoes wouldn´t realize their captive was gone till morning, and when they did they´d be held back by their own greater numbers. Ezra insisted that however weary he might be, he had no desire to risk his life for the sake of a little sleep, and Nathan admitted there was no reason he couldn´t ride. They mounted up and set off, with Chris in the lead so he could make use of his familiarity with the country, Vin directly behind him keeping an eye on the Southerner, Nathan and Josiah next, and Buck and JD playing rear guard and making sure no one straggled.

After a while Vin spoke quietly to the rescued man, his soft drawl barely audible over the muffled thud of the hooves. “Take a little doin´, I reckon, gettin´ used to not bein´ by yourself no more,” he observed. “Know what it´s like.”

“I don´t understand why he should be concerned for my welfare,” Ezra admitted, his voice so low that Vin could barely hear it. “No one ever has been, before. Not in that fashion, at least.”

“If it´s any comfort to you, Ez,” the Texan replied, “I got a notion Chris ain´t plumb sure hisself why he´s concerned. He just is.” He remembered what Buck had said on the back porch of Ezra´s restaurant the day they wiped out Vern Harper´s gang. “You touched somethin´ in him that´s been buried under layers of hurt, and somehow you woke it up when he'd made up his mind never to let himself feel it again...He needs to have people in his life that he can trust and care about...” Should´a figured he´d know what he ´s talkin´ about. He´s done had years enough to learn. After a moment he asked: “You got any notion what that paint they put on you is for, Ez?”

The Southerner glanced down at his chest and wrinkled his nose. “I assure you, Mr. Tanner, I haven´t a clue. Have you?”

Vin rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Well, I could be wrong, bein´s these is ´Rapaho and I know Comanch´ best, but them figures look mighty like some I seen used to scare off evil spirits. Funny thing is, why´d they want to protect a captive like that? I´s tryin´ to figure out why they ´s holdin´ you to begin with; ´Rapaho ain´t nowheres near as warlike as some of the tribes, always been knowed for deep thinkin´ and religion--kinda like Josiah. Hell, their big chief, Left Hand, keeps sayin´ he ain´t fightin´ the whites and never will. Afore I slid into that lodge I had to do some close-up listenin´ so´s I could be sure you was still alive and find out where they had you at. Heard ´em talkin´ on you. Seems like they got it in their heads that you got some kinda bad spirit power. Reckon they painted you to protect them from you.”

Ezra gave him a wry look. “I am not certain whether I should feel insulted or flattered.”

“Well, they sure seemed mighty convinced you had big medicine, though they couldn´t figure out why, you not carryin´ no pouch or charms or nothin´ they could recognize. Anyhow, what I got was that they had you figured for--reckon you´d call it a sorcerer, somebody that could make bad magic.”

Standish laughed lightly, unbelievingly. “I have been called by a great many defamatory terms in my career, Mr. Tanner, but I do believe that is a first.”

“Shouldn´t laugh about it, Ez,” Vin told him solemnly. “Magic´s mighty real to Injuns. The ones I heard was sayin´ how the pole had been fetched in for you and was bein´ dyed scarlet. Soon´s it was done, they figured to tie you to it and destroy your evil. They´s fixin´ to burn you, Ez.”

He heard a soft gasp from the gambler, and Standish put his head down a moment, as if trying to collect himself. “Then I am even more in your debt than I had supposed, Mr. Tanner. I trust I would have done my best to meet my fate with equanimity, but I sincerely doubt I would have the fortitude to do it in a way that would have impressed my captors. I lack your trainin´ and experience in such matters, and I am well aware of it. A man who hopes to succeed in my profession must know his own capacities. Mine are not equal to dealin´ stoically with intense physical pain. I am...grateful. It is not very much to say, but it is the only adequate word I know.”

“Ain´t no need,” Vin told him gently. “´S what a friend should do for another friend, that´s all.”

Ezra eyed him inscrutably. “Are we friends, Mr. Tanner?” he asked softly.

“Damn straight, pard.” Vin slapped his shoulder lightly. “Just like Chris said--only he said it a little diff´rent. You think on that some.”

“I assure you, sir, I am unlikely not to do so,” Ezra replied. “There is much that I have learned tonight which will require...consideration and integration.” A sidewise flash of green eyes: “As you guessed, I am unaccustomed to...to belongin´ to anything larger than myself. It had not occurred to me that my spontaneous act of this summer would have so far-reachin´ an effect.”

“Reckon a man don´t never have much notion what´s like to come of the choices he makes,” Vin mused. He grinned. “Reckon that´s what keeps life from bein´ borin´.”

Ezra snorted. “Borin´,” he repeated. “I am quite convinced that the...entertainment...of these past forty-eight hours is of a species I could quite contentedly have missed experiencin´.”

Sunrise came around ten minutes before seven, enabling the seven men to pick up their pace. Vin dropped back and circled to watch their back trail, leaving Ezra to ponder everything he and Chris had said. He had time enough for the task: the others agreed that it would take most of the day for them to make the trip back to Jamesburg.

It must have been a little after ten when Vin reappeared at a dead run, spurring Peso forward in great racing leaps, quirting the black with the reins in swinging side-to- side sweeps. He cut around in front of Chris and pulled up beside him, Peso´s hooves skidding and digging into the thick prairie turf. “They´s comin´, cowboy.”

“How far behind and how many?” Larabee demanded.

“That´s kinda hard to say straight out,” the Texan told him. “Seen one bunch clear, maybe fifteen mile back, looked like about thirty of ´em. But they´s another comin´ on behind that, same size or a mite bigger. I´m guessin´ they´s doin´ what wolves do to run down a buck. The buck can run faster´n a wolf, and he´d get away if the whole pack was to run at the same speed, but half of it runs quick, and half just kinda lopes along easy. The buck´s gotta go fast enough to keep ahead of the fastest ones, or else get dragged down. Time they´s wore down enough to drop out, he´s too tired to keep ahead of the rest, that´s been comin´ along slower, sparin´ their strength. On a long haul they ain´t no way they won´t catch up, sooner or later.”

Chris looked back at the others, who had urged their horses up close to listen to Vin´s report, and caught the flash of panic that shot through Ezra´s eyes. “We´re not giving you up, Standish,” he snapped. “So don´t even think of going noble on me. I told you once: no more running out.”

“No, sir. No runnin´ out,” Ezra agreed, though there was the faintest hint of a tremor in his voice. “But if Mr. Tanner´s estimate is correct, what are we to do?”

The older man stood in his stirrups and balanced around, scanning the terrain. “Buck? What do you think? Make for the South Platte?”

His old friend nodded. “´Bout the best chance we got, I reckon. Ain´t no high ground fit to fight off a charge from closer´n Cleft Butte, but them willow islands in midstream ´ll give us and the horses some cover, and the Indians´ll have to come at us through the water--that´ll slow ´em down.”

“All right.” Chris turned to Tanner. “Vin, you ride on ahead. The river´s somewhere southeast of us, probably not much more than ten miles. Find us a spot that´s big enough to hold all of us but not so big we´ll be spread too thin defending it. Look for one with plenty of thick growth, brush around the edges with some good-sized trees in the middle where we can put the horses.”

The Texan nodded briefly and whirled Peso away. Larabee pointed Blackhawk´s nose after him and waved his lifted right hand forward, pushing against the open air with slightly spread fingers in the Cavalry signal to advance. “Let´s ride--at the trot, forward!”


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