II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Less than an hour later they raised the line of tree-growth and brush that marked the river bottoms. Just beyond, on the other side of the sandy shores, the water was low but still flowing freely, baring multitudes of sandbars and vegetation-choked islets. Turning downstream, they soon found Vin´s bandanna tied to a protruding branch. Chris took it down and they pushed their way into the jungle of trees and thickety brush, ducking low along their horses´ necks to avoid the lowest limbs and twigs. Vin had apparently been lucky and found them a place to make their stand almost as soon as he´d reached the stream. It was just the kind of spot Chris had described: an elliptical willow island about seventy feet from end to end and thirty across at its broadest, centered by a loft of peachleaf and sandbar willows, about six of them, ranging in height from thirty to sixty feet and underpinned by a dense tangle of wild rose thickets, pawpaws, and berry bushes. The hunter himself appeared at the edge of this, gesturing broadly as he saw them, indicating that they should swing away to the left and come in closer the tip of the island. In short order their horses scrambled up out of the shallows onto the packed sandy soil of the refuge. “It´s a good position,” Chris said as Tanner joined them.

Vin nodded. “Spirits is with us, sure. Most of the riverbed on the side we come from is quicksand bogs. ´Rapaho´ll have to come at us pretty much all in a clump--make it easier to find targets.”

Larabee frowned briefly. “I wish they hadn´t brought it to this. I don´t want to be the one who breaks the peace, damn it-- I´m supposed to be helping enforce it.”

“ ‘Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel,´ ” Josiah quoted. “Maybe if they see how well situated we are, they´ll give up quickly.”

“Maybe,” Chris agreed. It was true that Indians´ battles with entrenched white forces seldom drew out into a genuine siege, much less persistent serious assault: face-to-face smashing attacks were exceedingly rare, and ambush the only tactic the red men really understood. They were great at the showy flanking sweep of cavalry, but the seven´s fortified position would make that impractical. Still, the wolf-pack pursuit mode Vin had described and the numbers of the pursuers troubled the experienced officer: like the fact that they had been holding Standish at all, both seemed out of character for the Arapahoes he had become accustomed to. He glanced sidewise at Vin´s shadowed, self-contained face and wondered what the tracker wasn´t telling him. “All right. Buck, JD, you get the horses under cover. Nathan and Josiah, see if you can dig us some elementary firing pits under the edge of the brush. Ezra, lay out the saddlebags so we can get to our ammunition easily. Vin, get up in one of the trees and keep watch.”

His men scattered to obey. Buck kept an eye on JD´s pale, taut face as they hobbled and tethered the horses, eased their cinches and made sure they were well screened by the foliage. “Scared, kid?”

“It´s stupid, ain´t it?” the boy responded. “It ain´t like I never been in a fight before. I didn´t feel this jumpy when we fought Harper´s gang. I don´t know what´s wrong with me.”

“I do. You´ve seen what´s left after an Indian fight, and you know just enough--from your own experience and what you´ve heard us talk about--to know how scared you ought to be. The way you´re feelin´ is a good sign. It shows you´re developin´ some caution and foresight. That´s what keeps a man from gettin´ his head blown off.”

“Do you think we got a chance?”

Buck bit air a moment. Any mounted offensive at less than three to one was generally suicidal, but even the thirty warriors in the leading detachment of pursuers would exceed that number, and when their friends caught up it would get worse. Still-- “There´s always a chance, son, like there´s always a choice. One thing we got to weigh our side of the scale is that we ain´t fightin´ white men. A white man always figures the other fellow might get killed but not him; an Indian´s got the notion that every bullet is marked for him personally, and he gets out of the way if he can, which is why a couple of men, if they keep their heads and only shoot at sure targets, can break up a red charge.”

“He´s right,” Chris declared, appearing out of nowhere on a patrol of their position. “An individual Indian can be without fear, but he´s also almost completely devoid of tenacity and has no combat discipline. A determined resistance doesn´t so much frighten as demoralize him; to him, it proves his medicine is bad. Remember, Indians as a rule don´t fight for the same kinds of objectives white people do. The whole concept of nationality, patriotism, making war to seize and hold great tracts of land, is something they never thought of till they began clashing with us. To them, war is primarily a game, a sport. Oh, they like the plunder they pick up on raids, but they´re not materialistic in the same way we are. And they can fight out of anger, for revenge or whatever, but once they´ve evened the score they´re willing to forget it until the next round. All of that, having ruled their attitude for hundreds or thousands of years, is bound to have had an effect on the way they fight.” He held the kid´s worried eyes a moment. “Remember what I told you when we left Jamesburg? Stay close to Buck and listen to what he says. He´s been in more fights than you´ve had birthdays.”

“Yes, sir.”

Wilmington gave his old friend a grateful look and clapped his hand lightly against JD´s shoulder. “There, now, you see? You just stick with ol´ Buck and he´ll show you the ropes. Come on, let´s find us a good spot.”

Chris positioned himself in the center, facing the direction their pursuers would come from, putting Buck to anchor the left flank with JD between them, Ezra directly on his right, and space for Vin beyond. He told off Nathan and Josiah to keep the other bank, just in case some of the Arapahoes thought to swing around, ford the river above or below the island, and come at them from behind. They took their positions, checked and loaded their guns, laid out their extra ammunition, and chewed on cold meat and dried fruit. After a while Vin appeared silently and slid into place. “They´s comin´. Just past the rim of the valley. Oughtta be seein´ ´em any time now.”

“There they are,” JD added, his voice hushed and uneven.

They had pulled up just where the land dropped away to the bottoms, half a mile or so from the water's edge. Chris counted silently: twenty-seven. They were studying the terrain, one getting down to examine the trail they had been following. Larabee didn´t delude himself that they wouldn´t guess pretty quickly where their quarry had gone. This was their country; they had hunted over it and camped along its rivers for more years than he knew. It was entirely possible that some of these very warriors, or their fathers or grandfathers, had made some use of this same island--the trees were certainly old enough--and they´d be able to tell at a glance that the seven´s sign was fresh, less than two hours old. Chris made it an article of faith to try never to underestimate the intelligence of his opposition. Arrogant or impulsive they might sometimes be, but stupid men didn´t live long on the frontier.

Buck was quietly explaining their strategy to JD. “Best thing would be if we had a good boulder in front of us, but this brush is next best. It´s thick enough to hide us real well and even divert arrows and bullets, and a man can´t hit what he can´t see, even settin´ aside that they´ll be tryin´ to fire from daylight into shadow. They´re mostly gonna have to come along that channel just to our right, or over that sandbar straight in front of us--the rest of this stretch is mostly bog. So you hold your fire till you know you can´t miss, and don´t get rattled. Remember, Indians whoop to scare you, so you´ll miss or start runnin´. I got nothin´ against a man bein´ scared, as long as he does what has to be done. Hell, any man says he ain´t at least a little bit scared in a fight is either a damn fool or a damn liar. It´s built into us to be scared when we´re in danger. Bein´ scared can keep a man from gettin´ killed, and times it makes a better fighter of him. But real fear is a sickness, just like that one you had, and not only disagreeable but plain disablin´. It can make a dog bite you, or a mule kick you, or people turn against you, though they never know why they turn; it can bind your muscles and turn ´em clumsy, and make your rifle miss. So you gotta reject your fear and make yourself consider the situation you´re in, cool and collected, and figure out just how much time you got before you need to make a move. Like Chris and Vin done, the day we fought Harper´s gang.”

“How does a man get to where he can decide things like that in a hurry, Buck? Fights happen fast, I know that already.”

“You have to know all sides of it, that´s how. Hunches work sometimes, but you can´t count on bein´ lucky every time. Knowin´ takes thinkin´. You gotta think all the time. Wherever you are and whatever you´re doin´, you gotta be thinkin´, what would I do if this or that happened? Then you´ll be ready no matter what. Notice everything around you all the time, and always be thinkin´ ahead. Then your hunches will be right.”

Chris listened to the exchange and felt warmed. He knew he had chosen well in giving JD into Buck´s care, to be his pupil and responsibility. If anyone could bring the kid through this alive, Buck would be the man. He glanced to his other side. Vin had lent his powerful Sharps .52 single-shot to Ezra and was filling the magazine of his Volcanic. His Dragoon .44 lay on the ground between them, where either one could snatch it up if needed.

Larabee returned his attention to the Indians, who had gathered into a clump around their leaders and were apparently giving themselves up to debate, as Indians always did in the face of action. Occasionally he could hear bursts of their speech carrying down on the crisp autumn breeze, not clearly enough to pick out words, but enough to guess that every man in the group was having his say, each taking a different tack in the discussion. He didn´t let it fool him. That was just the red way. From the start they always intended to go along with their leader´s orders, and in the end that was what they did. The only thing that might turn some or all of them against the proposed plan, whatever it was, would be a really determined resistance that took down a lot of them or killed the chief. Indian warfare was highly individual--coup-counting, horse-stealing, even the torture to which enemy captives were subjected--and very much personality-driven: a man with a reputation for cunning, courage, and good medicine could always count on others following him if he decided to get up a war party or otherwise suggested some course of military action.

He studied them. This was no impulse pursuit. Many were carrying shields, which hunters wouldn´t need and unthinking men might not take the time to snatch up. One or two were mounted on white horses, which in Arapaho thought were bad medicine for hunting, but not for war. He could make out the bright splashes of paint on the ponies´ hides, the war feathers with which they were hung. That was probably most of the reason the pursuit had taken this long to catch up: they´d had to take the time to make themselves ready. And one of them was wearing a ceremonial war bonnet of eagle feathers that reached almost to his waist...He frowned. “Vin, let me have your spyglass.”

The hunter silently pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to Ezra, who passed it along. Larabee drew it out to its full extent and trained it on the man in the bonnet. His face was smeared black with charcoal grease paste, overlain with blazing bands of ocher and vermilion striping his cheekbones and forehead and cornering his mouth, but even under that camouflage Chris could make out features he knew. “Buck,” he said, “take a look at the chief.” He passed the glass toward his old friend, who pushed up on his elbows to aim the telescope as ordered.

“That´s Crop-Eared Wolf, ain´t it?”

“That´s what I thought,” Chris agreed, taking the spyglass back and handing it on to its owner.

“Friend of yours, cowboy?” Vin inquired mildly.

“An acquaintance, but not a man who stampedes easily. We had a smoke less than two months ago, just before Steele recruited me. Wolf has been a friend to the whites and a loyal support of Left Hand´s for years. One of his aunts married a mountain man. Hell, it´s his niece who´s Lucas James´s wife. I remember one time when a few of his wild young men filched about half a dozen horses from a passing wagon train, he not only returned the horses personally and apologized, but turned over three of his own best ponies as compensation. He went to Washington to meet the President in ´55. He knows something of our numbers and strength. Whatever´s got him worked up enough to risk his people for the sake of getting Ezra back, it has to be big.”

He heard a faint sigh from the tracker. “Yeah, reckon so. When I went into the camp after him I listened in on some of ´em talkin´. Seems they got Ez pegged for a witch, or somethin´ close to. I didn´t get all of it, but I picked up enough to figure they´s some respected young brave--Buffalo Rider, they called him, seemed like he´s on the council--that thinks Ez got some call to put a hex on him.”

“Buffalo Rider?” Buck echoed. “Ain´t that Wolf´s nephew?”

Chris nodded. “Lucas´s brother-in-law. Well, that explains a lot of things.”

“I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I know of no manner in which I can have given offense to this person, let alone led him to believe I harbored malicious intent toward him.”

“Didn´t say you had,” the officer retorted. “James has a bone to pick with you, we both know it. This has to be his way of getting even. He convinced Wolf and the rest, somehow, that you had magic powers and would use them against Buffalo Rider unless you were stopped. You turning up at his place in the middle of the night was just gravy as far as he was concerned; it gave him an opportunity to pass you on to them without leaving any visible sign that he was directly connected to your disappearance, or so he thought. He didn´t guess you´d told anyone else about your suspicions of him.”

The Arapahoes seemed to have concluded their debate, and several of them had dismounted and were squatting on their toes at their ponies´ heads, leaning on their war lances and eyeing the bottoms below. “Waitin´ on the rest to catch up, and givin´ their ponies a breather,” Vin guessed. He shot a flashing blue glance at Larabee. “You got any way in mind of keepin´ this from comin´ to shootin´, now might be a good time to do it.”

“They´ve probably got a pretty good idea how many of us there are,” Chris mused. “But they don´t know who we are, except for Ezra. Wolf knows and respects me, and even his young braves might be set back a bit to see just who they´re chasing.” He glanced across to meet Vin´s questioning eyes. “I´ve got a fair command of Sioux, but I don´t speak Arapaho. Usually when I council with them I´ve got one of the scouts from Sedgwick with me. How are you at sign-talk, cowboy?”

“Better´n most,” the tracker replied. “Learned it from a Kiowa that married into our band.”

“All right, then,” Larabee decided. “Let´s see what happens if we offer to parley. Buck, you´re in command. Keep us covered just in case one of those young braves gets itchy.”

Wilmington nodded wordlessly. Chris carefully drew himself up into a crouch and began slipping back through the brush toward the horses. Vin scooped up his Dragoon and holstered it, leaving his Volcanic within each of Ezra´s hand, and followed.

+ + + + + + +

“I thought you said Larabee would follow,” Lucas James complained.

“I figured he would,” said Royale. “I don´t understand why he hasn´t caught up after three days´ time. We´ve been leaving a trail plain enough for a blind man to follow, let alone that damn tracker of his. And we made sure the driver got a good look at us--even with the hoods and the dusters, he should have figured by our horses, and your hat and spurs, that it was us.”

“Maybe that´s the problem,” James suggested. “Larabee´s spent most of his adult life in the Army. He´s probably seen Indians act like they wanted him to follow them. Maybe he´s figured out that we´re trying to lure him into a trap.”

“Maybe,” Royale agreed. “All right. My plan doesn´t seem to be working. Got a better one?”

James grinned. “I think so,” he said, and laid it out.

+ + + + + + +

The Indians didn´t leave much doubt in anyone´s mind that they had seen the two white men lead their horses to the downstream tip of the island, mount, and begin picking their way over the sandbars and through the low autumn water toward the shore. Chris could see them gesturing, hear their yelping and jabbering, and then the whoops of six or eight of the youngest, most impulsive ones as they flung themselves astride their ponies and came racing down the slope. He and Vin neither checked their pace nor increased it. They kept on, easy and steady, even as the welcoming committee thundered toward them, then peeled away sharply, horses rearing and dancing and slinging their heads, a couple almost colliding, as they got close enough to recognize Chris´s face. One of them whirled his mount and went pelting back up the slope--at a speed that was the easiest way to kill his valuable war pony, Chris noted with disapproval--to report to his chief. The rest fell in on either side, keeping a respectful, unaggressive distance and talking among themselves. War paint and stringent training made their faces hard to read, but their body language and the tone of their voices suggested they were nonplussed.

Crop-Eared Wolf listened to the messenger´s report, then stabbed his plumed lance into the earth beside his pony´s feet and started slowly down the slope to meet them. That was a good sign: to come to a peace talk with war lance in hand was very bad manners, and also a threat. He was riding a blue roan gelding with bright red, yellow, and green cloth braided into its mane and tail, and carrying his shield, marked black at the rim in four places, as Arapaho shields always were, to represent the Four Old Men, or four directions, and painted with bear paws against a background of earth, sky, and stars. An old buffalo gun was balanced across his roan´s withers. Close behind him on a blaze-faced black came a younger man with a single eagle feather upright in his hair and a big nickel-silver cross hanging against his bare chest. He wasn´t worried about manners: he was carrying his lance, which was hung with a narrow buckskin banner ornamented with quillwork, feathers, and tassels of dyed horsehair, extending its whole length. Four or five of the braves hung back on the rim; the rest began trailing slowly after their leaders.

When he was exactly halfway between the rim and the water´s edge, Chris checked and waited, leaning casually on his saddlehorn and pretending not to notice the watching young braves. Crop-Eared Wolf came on at a slow, unthreatening pace until he reached them and reined in. His followers fanned out slowly all around in a loose cordon, near enough to listen in on whatever was about to be said, far enough back not to seem overly aggressive. Larabee straightened up and lifted his hand, palm out, in the universal sign of peace. He didn´t speak, although he knew that Wolf, like most prominent Arapaho men, could at least follow the trend of the Sioux language. In a case like this, to speak first might be interpreted as forcing the issue, and if you did that with an Indian he thought you weren´t sure of yourself, and you lost his respect.

Wolf slowly copied the white man´s gesture, then cast a curious glance at Vin. He tossed his shield back over his shoulder on its strap to free his hands, and spoke in the sign-talk, which was polite of him; he obviously didn´t want to use Sioux, though he knew Chris understood it, because he couldn´t be certain that Vin did. He couldn´t be certain the Texan would know the hand language either, but the fact that he wore Indian leggings and moccasins certainly suggested that he might.

“Says, he greets Medicine Eyes and is surprised not to see him wearin´ his blue war clothes,” Vin translated. “Says he don´t know me, and asks if I´s new to the Fort.”

Larabee´s mouth twitched. “Tell him your name.”

Vin gestured deftly. //I am He-Tans-Skins, son of Eagle-That-Sees-Afar. I am a warrior of the Peneteka Comanche, and the friend of Medicine Eyes.//

//Do you speak for him also?//

//Yes, but it is he who tells me what to say.//

//Let him say what is in his mind, then. The Arapaho will listen.//

“Okay, cowboy,” Vin said, “he´s ready.”

“Tell him why I´m not in uniform, if you think he can follow it. Then tell him we know why he´s here.”

//Medicine Eyes wants you to know that he is still a warrior of the Great White Father, but for a time he shares his skills with the people who send the red wagons up and down this river and the Platte. That is why he is dressed differently, like a warrior going from one soldier society to another. He has come from the white village at the river crossing in search of a friend who was missing. That friend was a captive in your lodges until last night. Now he is with us. Medicine Eyes knows you have followed us because you seek to take his life. He knows why you wish this. His heart is bad to think that he may have to fight the Arapaho, who have been friends to the white man for so long. But he does not wish to give up his friend to die, either.//

Crop-Eared Wolf glanced at Chris under hooded lids. //Medicine Eyes is a war chief among his people, not a civil chief like Crop-Eared Wolf. But every chief knows that it his obligation to look after the welfare of those who follow him. Crop-Eared Wolf cannot risk harm to his people if he sees a way to prevent it.//

“Tell him I understand that,” Chris directed. “And tell him I know that he heard about Ezra´s magic from the man whose nephew is married to his niece, the one the Arapaho call Hasa-a-noti [Big Wagon]. I know he trusts Big Wagon, but I also know he knows I don´t lie. It is often hard for a man to know who to believe, when two men whose word he trusts say things that don´t follow the same path. But surely Crop-Eared Wolf knows better the capabilities of the men he calls his friends, than he does those who are his enemies. The same is true of me.”

//Yes,// the chief agreed. //Clearly, the better one knows a person, the better he will know what that person can do.//

“But Big Wagon does not know Ezra as I do,” Chris went on. “They are not friends. Big Wagon´s heart is bad toward Ezra because Ezra won his great lodge away from him. I don´t say the Arapaho have been lied to. But I do say they have been misled. If Big Wagon told them what they say he did, then how can they be certain he was correct in what he believed? Maybe he was blinded by his own anger at losing his lodge, and didn´t stop to think that he might have been beaten fairly.”

Vin shot a quick, curious glance at the older man. “Figured you´d try to send ´em off after James ´stead of us. Ain´t much more´n what he deserves for what he done.”

“I´ve still got a job to do, and a big part of it is keeping the peace. I´m not going to try to save our lives by serving someone else up to them on a silver platter, whether it´s Ezra or James. Besides, any crimes that were committed were James´s, not theirs. They didn´t even kidnap Ezra directly, though I don´t doubt they were tempted. James is mine. Tell him what I said.”

Tanner shrugged and complied. Chris went on, his voice even, keeping eye contact with the chief, peripherally aware of the flash of the younger man´s hands as he turned the words into sign language. “You know me. You know I have strong medicine and am a trusted war chief under my own leader, Charging Eagle. You say this man is a sorcerer, that he has evil power and means you harm. I say he is one of my warriors, like Long Man--” that was Buck´s Indian name-- “or He-Tans-Skins. I would not permit a bad man to ride with me any more than one of your war chiefs would accept one who seemed to hurt the medicine of his companions. Nor would Charging Eagle trust such a man--and he does. I have heard him say, more than once, how pleased he is that the great lodge in the settlement is owned by this man now, because there is less harm done to his warriors when they go there.

“I don´t say that this man does not have power. He knows how to do things that no others of my warriors do. That is what makes him valuable to me. Consider how some Arapahoes can swim better than others, or have better medicine for finding game, or can tame horses better, or see farther. These things bring them respect. Consider that not every Arapaho has what it takes to be a chief or a medicine man, yet those who do play a vital part in the life of the tribe. Among white men it is the same. Each of us has gifts the spirits have given him, and these gifts determine the place we will find among our fellows and the things we will accomplish with our lives. The white men, as a people, have many gifts that Indians do not. All red men know this to be true. But it does not mean that those gifts are bad, or will be used to hurt them; it only means that the Indian does not fully understand the white man´s gifts.

“I don´t say the Arapaho have done a bad thing, only that perhaps they did not think before they acted. A man cannot decide what to do if he does not look at it from all sides first; that is why Indians always talk about how they mean to fight before they begin. I have said this man is my friend and one of my warriors. As his chief, I must protect him. Crop-Eared Wolf would not respect me if I failed to do so.

“You say you are afraid of my warrior´s magic. But I tell you that I will not allow him to use it against the Arapaho, who have always been my friends and the friends of my people. I give you my word to this. You know I don´t give my word lightly. You know it can be trusted.

“But if you choose not to accept it, know that I give my word to another thing. I will not give my warrior up to you, and I will fight to protect him, just as you would to protect one of your own. You have seen our tracks. You know there are seven of us. We are well hidden in the brush and our guns have many bullets. Our medicine is good and our hearts are strong. Maybe you can take us, but many of you will die before that happens. Then who will hunt for your Helpless Ones, and protect them when the Crow and Ute come raiding? Crop-Eared Wolf is a wise man, or he wouldn´t be chief of his band. Is it worth risking so many lives to kill one man who may not even be the threat you have been led to believe him? And what of the peace that is between our two peoples? Do you think Charging Eagle and the Great White Father will not wish to punish you for our deaths? Often, when white men are injured by Indians, other white men respond by punishing any Indian they find, whether guilty or not. All of the Arapaho nation may suffer, in the end, for what Crop-Eared Wolf and his warriors do here today. That is not a good thing.

“I have said I do not want to fight the Arapaho. But I will do it if I must. So let them think about what I have said, and about all that they and their people put at risk if they choose to test me.

“Each man, in the end, must do what he feels is right, what will keep his heart good. I have said what I will do. Now the choice is for the Arapaho to make. I can say no more.”

Vin ended his sign-speech with a quick, no-nonsense slashing gesture and folded his hands across his saddlehorn. Chris waited a moment, then picked up Blackhawk´s reins and legged the black in a tight turn. The warriors directly behind him pulled back, opening a narrow pathway through their ranks. Vin fell in at his heels, not looking around at the quick nervous stutter of unshod hooves against the packed sod and the loud clack of hard surfaces meeting; from the direction of the sound he guessed that the young brave on the black had been about to charge in pursuit, and Wolf had knocked his lance up with the barrel of his buffalo gun. It was in the nature of Indians to respect any display of courage--the more disdainful the better--and, as Chris had said, Wolf had to be wiser and more contemplative than many of his followers in order to discharge the responsibilities of his position. Tanner was willing to bet that he´d wait, now, till the rest of his party came up-- something he´d probably been planning to do in any case, for the sake of the overwhelming numbers they would provide--and then recount the substance of Chris´s speech to them, meanwhile thinking over how he should respond to it. The hunter eyed the back of Larabee´s black leather jacket with respect. His friend had handled that just about as perfectly as anyone could. He´d been both frank and polite, had been respectful of the Indians´ concerns and crotchets, yet had left them a way out of the situation that would preserve their honor. And he´d given them a lot to think and talk about. Often, the longer you let Indians stew over things, the better the chance of their having second thoughts.

They made it back to the island without incident, tied their horses and rejoined Buck, JD, and Ezra on the Indians´ side. “Mr. Larabee?” the gambler prompted as he passed Vin his Volcanic.

Chris gave him a brief inscrutable stare, then a thin smile. “I thought we had an agreement, Ezra.”

“I agreed not to run out,” Standish replied. “I was unaware that you had made any commitments to me.”

Chris only lifted an eyebrow. “Sure he did, Ez,” Buck put in. “Twice. Once when he said you wasn´t alone no more, and once when he told you he wasn´t gonna give you up. Hell, I ain´t heard this old war dog give so much thought to reassurin´ anybody in years.”

Vin didn´t say anything, but he clapped his hand gently against Ezra´s shoulder and squeezed it briefly, to remind him of the conversation they´d had on the trail. Maybe sometime he´d tell the Southerner about the promise Chris had given the Arapahoes on his behalf. He thought Ezra might appreciate it, after he´d gotten a little distance on this whole thing.

Another hour or so went by. The Indians withdrew to their previous position and waited for the rest of their party to catch up. The white men watched the ensuing debate, lying on their arms and noticing that the argument seemed to come down basically to Wolf and the young brave on the black horse. Vin wondered if this might be Buffalo Rider--he hadn´t gotten a good enough look last night to be sure...

//“How can we believe this word we have heard?”//

//“It was the word of Medicine Eyes. We all know he speaks like an Indian. He does not lie.”//

//“He does not have the magic to give such a word! How can he protect us from a witch´s power? Surely you have not forgotten what Big Wagon told us of them.”//

//“I have not forgotten. But Big Wagon also told us that most of his people no longer believe in such power. Medicine Eyes did not need to ask us what we had been told; he knew that we thought the green- eyed one to be a witch, and accepted that. Maybe there are white people who do still believe in witches. Maybe Medicine Eyes is one of them. We know he has very strong power, power that is not like any we have met with, in white men or red; we can see it in his gaze. Big Wagon said a white witch must be dealt with in the white way. Maybe it is better to do that in truth. Leave him to one of his own people, one who knows what powers he has and how to turn them to better ends.”//

//“We can take them! We are eight to their one!”//

//“And they are well armed, well hidden, waiting. We do not have the advantage. Many of us will die. And then the whites will seek revenge and all the Arapaho people will be blamed, just as Little Thunder´s camp was attacked for what Conquering Bear´s had done, five summers ago. Big Wagon told us that all the witch beliefs held by other tribes are a part of the truth but not all of it. One of those beliefs was in good witches as well as bad ones. Maybe the green-eyed one is a good witch, or maybe his power is not as great as Big Wagon thinks it is, and Medicine Eyes has a way of blunting it or of transforming it to good. Maybe, as he said, Big Wagon was blinded by his own anger, as many of us have been in our lives. This is not a good fight to make. There are too many questions about it. I am going home to seek guidance. I will not tell you what to do, but I hope your medicine sends you doubts about the rightness of this plan.”//

//A growing murmur of agreement went around the huddle of braves. Some were swayed by their chief´s logic; others were pragmatic enough to have decided, on studying the ground, that they didn´t like the odds. Many of them knew of the whole witch question only secondhand and weren´t at all sure it was as much of a threat to their people as a whole as James had suggested; that Buffalo Rider felt his own desires balked by Ezra´s existence they could accept, but no blood had been spilled, nothing they valued lost or threatened, and until it was they had no real quarrel with him. They knew Chris Larabee much better, of the two: his reputation--as a fighting man and a man of honor--was well established among them and had also come to them from the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne with whom he had dealt in his years at Fort Laramie. “This is well said,” one of them--a good friend of Buffalo Rider´s, who had accompanied him on several raids and proved what he was made of-- declared. “Do we truly know that the green-eyed one ever meant us any harm, or could overcome the power of our own shamans even if he did? To die for nothing is the act of a fool. Let us leave him to Medicine Eyes and wait. If later we see some sign that his power is being brought against us, there will be time then to act. Today the spirits have led Medicine Eyes and his warriors to a place where they will be very hard to take. I do not think this is a good day to die. I am going home.”//

“Look, they´re pullin´ back,” JD cried.

“Could be a trick,” mused Buck. “Maybe they´re just figurin´ to swing around and take us in the rear.”

“They´re in for a surprise if that´s what they plan,” Chris replied. “Let´s wait a while and see what happens.”

Nothing did, though they remained on the alert for another couple of hours. They waited till it began to get dark, then took the horses down to drink, in pairs (except for the fractious Peso), and made a camp for themselves in the heart of the brush while Vin slipped out for a scout. He returned to report that he found no sign of the Indians within five miles in any direction, except for their trail, which suggested they had turned back the way they´d come.

“All right,” Larabee decided at last. “We´ll stay here till morning and then head back to Jamesburg. Maybe we´ve still got some chance of picking up those road agents.”

“Has there been a holdup?” Ezra inquired in a startled tone.

“The payroll coach pulled in just as we were about to leave,” Josiah explained. “Seems ten men stopped it just west of Wells and lifted the box, killed two of the guards and wounded another.”

“We´re pretty sure Royale and Lucas James were the leaders, judging by the driver´s description,” Chris added. “Maybe Royale took it in his head to pick up a stake and get out of the country. But I don´t think James will go with him. If we can have a talk with him, he might know where Royale went.”

Ezra turned his face downward, assuming his poker mask. Larabee had neglected his duty with regard to Company funds and property to lead a search for him. It was not a kind of loyalty he had ever anticipated inspiring in anyone. He knew it had happened, but he still couldn´t get a handle on it. For all Vin´s assurances, he couldn´t help wondering what Chris´s angle was, what payoff he sought. And he had a hard time imagining himself as being worth it, except to himself, and--just possibly-- Maude.

No, it couldn´t be what it appeared to be.

And yet hadn´t Mother always maintained that appearances were everything?

That wasn´t the same.

You´re exhausted, my friend. Your mind is goin´ in circles. You need to get some sleep.

“Ezra, I got some tea here I want you to drink, it´ll cut that little fever you´re runnin´. And I want to take a look at them wounds, see if any of ´em´s tryin´ to bleed through the dressings.”

The Southerner sighed resignedly. “As you wish, Mr. Jackson, though I believe I am as fit as might reasonably be expected. I am frankly too weary to argue with you.”

“That´s good,” said Buck with a grin. “Never argue with a doctor, they got too many nasty ways of gettin´ even.”


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