With Nathans help--the healer had had to become proficient at arithmetic in order to accurately measure the ingredients of the herbal remedies he used--JD had calculated that if Mrs. Standish had expected her son to arrive in Four Corners on the 23rd, hed have to have left Anandale no later than the 15th. He used that as a baseline date in his telegram to the T&P stationmaster at the latter. Given that it was past three by the time he sent it, he wasnt really expecting a response before tomorrow, but just as he was locking up to go to supper, Wyatt came by on his way home from closing up the office and handed him a flimsy. Not certain where Mrs. Standish would have ended up lodging, he went looking for Josiah. He found both the preacher and the woman in the Gem Hotel dining room, talking and laughing animatedly over a baked quail. Maude had apparently rested and freshened up at some point since hed seen her last; instead of the green travelling suit she was wearing a sleeveless white wool polonaise over a green-striped, ruffle-hemmed dress, with a full, flared back caught into a low bustle by a wide band and bow, the former trimmed with braid matching that around the hem of the overdress, and finished off with the very new open collar with turned-back revers and a soft floppy bow at the bosom. A white chip hat with a wreath of white roses and green leaves, and a green cotton parasol leaning against the frame of her chair, finished off the outfit. "Miz Standish? Sorry to bust in, but I got some word on your boy," he said, politely removing his bowler.
The woman accepted the telegram and read it closely. JD, of course, already knew what was in it. Young Ezra Standish had indeed purchased a one-way through ticket to Arlington and had boarded the westbound 12:10 P.M. on June 15. The stationmaster had even been able to query the conductor whod been in charge of that particular train, since his constant back-and-forth pattern had happened to bring him into Anandale only hours before the message arrived, and the conductor had confirmed that he had, eight hours later, transferred custody of the boy to the next conductor at Longview, Texas, which was the end of his two-hundred-mile run, and a bit less than half the way to Ezras goal.
"Then we know that he boarded the train safely, and had met with no difficulty to the point specified," Maude Standish paraphrased after a moment. "Thank you, Mr. Dunne. What do you intend to do next?"
"Telegraph office is shut down for the night, maam, but first thing in the morning Ill contact Arlington and make sure the train got in there all right. From there itd be stages and hed be in charge of the driver. We might get lucky and the one who took your boy on out of Arlingtonll be at that end of his run, like this conductor was, but even if hes not, the ticket agent should be able to confirm whether Ezra got on there."
"You have done yeoman service already, Mr. Dunne, and eased my mind considerably--one hears so often of dreadful wrecks on the railroads, like that tragic incident which bereaved poor President Pierce of his last remainin child twenty-five years ago," the woman told him. "Do either of you gentlemen have any familiarity with the terrain over which the coach to El Paso would travel?"
"Ive passed through it," Josiah agreed. "Around Dallas and Fort Worth its rolling hills, rugged hills covered with oak and hickory forest, and fertile black waxy prairie. Not far beyond that you get into rolling plains--a hilly area that gets higher as you go farther west--and then treeless plain past that again. Sixty-five miles or so over the Pecos River you come to a country of high, partly dry plains with spurs of the Rocky Mountains reaching down into them, and lost mountains here and there, peaks that dont form part of any continuous range. Its cattle country, and sheep and goats further east. Level, firm ground, not much chance that a coach would tip over or the like, except if it was trying to ford one of the bigger rivers on a bad day--the Brazos can be a regular hoyden when she wants to. But most drivers know their routes well enough not to take the chance."
"And what of savages?" Maude pressed. "They are sometimes prone to attack the coaches, I understand."
"Yes, sometimes," the preacher allowed, "but the Kiowa and Comanche were pretty well cleared off by the Mackenzie campaign four years ago; Ive heard of a couple of minor raids this year, but thats all. I think if a stage had been lost, wed have heard of it by now--Mrs. Travis at the Clarion has an excellent exchange system with other papers both in this region and back East."
"Makes you wonder why the kids takin so long to get here," JD murmured. This earned him a brief warning look from the older man and he fumbled with his hat and changed the subject. "Uh, I was gonna get somethin to eat, I just wanted to find you and let you see this while you were still likely awake, maam. Did you get yourself settled somewhere yet?"
"Indeed, Mr. Sanchez assisted me to find quarters in a boardin house--I dare say you are familiar with it, the landladys name is Calhoun," Maude offered.
"Yes, maam, I know it real well. If I get anything tomorrow Ill fetch it to you there," JD promised.
"Miss Maude has honored me by consenting to take a buggy ride with me in the afternoon," Josiah observed, "so she may not be available for a few hours."
Huh, thought JD, is he fallin for her? She seems kinda young for him--but then Ive known of lots of women back in New York that married men old enough to be their fathers. "Okay, Ill remember," he said. "Hope you have a good sleep, Miz Standish." And he went off to find a table.
After a meal of ham, canned beans, and bread (Buck insisted on sharing his meat with Climber), Ezra strapped the blanket onto the bay mares back, put the bridle on her, and slung the lap robe and feed sacks over her withers before scrambling aboard and reaching down to assist Buck to mount. The younger boy, ignoring Ezras dubious expression, had tucked Climber into his shirt, where the animal squirmed distressingly against Ezras back but made no effort to bite or struggle free. The mare had fed well and was thoroughly rested; she stepped out willingly in the cool of the evening.
Ezra had studied the maps in his uncles library before taking the train west, wanting to have some idea of what the country was like where he was going, and had observed that all the rivers in eastern New Mexico seemed to have their sources in the ragged line of mountains that ran north to south and formed the boundary of the Great Plains. He had heard enough in the orphanage to know that the country north of the buttes was largely a dry semi-desert waste until you came to the next major river, and while the stations along the stage road had wells, he was reluctant to take that route: quite apart from the fact that station personnel were likely to be suspicious of two young boys travelling bareback, alone, and by night, and would remember them even if they failed in detaining them, the road ran over flat open country where anyone coming along behind, or in the other direction, would be able to see them miles away by the light of the waxing moon. Ezra hadnt forgotten Bucks words about horse thieves, and he was well aware that the mare was a good horse, probably valuable, not the kind Whittington would be willing to let go. Very probably hed reported her disappearance to Sheriff Addison as soon as he discovered it, and even if Addison didnt care about recapturing the boys, there might well be a posse in pursuit of them. No, it would be better to keep away from main-travelled routes until they got closer to Four Corners. He had decided instead to ride along the fringe of bony hills, where if daylight caught them they probably wouldnt need to penetrate very far in order to find some source of water and shelter.
In the wee hours of the morning they mounted a divide and found themselves crossing a narrow dirt road. The muffled clop of hooves approaching from the west inspired Ezra to guide the mare behind a juniper and lean forward awkwardly to clasp a hand over her nostrils. A sound of discordant singing now made itself heard, and a couple of cowboys rode slowly by, swapping a whiskey bottle back and forth. Ezra eyed them between the branches of the juniper and thought about what this might mean. If they had whiskey and were drunk, which they certainly seemed to be, there must be some sort of community further up the road where they had bought their libations. The boy peered back over his shoulder at Buck, who was drowsing again, lulled by the easy motion of the horse beneath him; Climber had crawled out of his shirt and was sitting at the junction of his neck, paws in his hair, sniffing the cool night breezes. By Ezras best estimate it was over six hundred miles back to Kansas City, part of it by stage, the rest by rail. He doubted sincerely that his mother would be willing to part with enough money to pay Bucks fare, to say nothing of equipping him with at least a modicum of clothing, and the former alone would run close to a hundred dollars, if not indeed more. The fifty dollars taken from the orphanage safe would be enough seed to grow the amount the younger boy would need, but it would be up to Ezra to get it--and preferably before they got to Four Corners and Mother found out how much he was carrying; hed known her to "borrow" his winnings for a stake before. This seemed an out-of-the-way locality--he didnt even see any telegraph poles along the road, which suggested the people in the town might not have gotten word of two runaways and a stolen mare.
Making his decision, Ezra waited until the cowboys efforts at song could no longer be heard, then nudged the mare out onto the road and turned up the way they had come. Hed scope out the town, if there was one, while it was still dark, and try to find a place where he could leave Buck and the horse. Then hed go in alone and try to make some money for the younger boys trip East.
The town, according to a signboard planted at its outskirts, was known as China Springs; the water was almost certainly the chief reason it had been established there. Ezra counted ten business buildings and thirty-eight houses--at the most somewhat over two hundred people. There was a general store, a feed company, a bank, blacksmith, barber-dentist, a mining-supply store with an assayer on premises, a doctor, a hotel, a marshals office and jail, and one saloon. Not the kind of place where you could count on pulling off any major kind of con, for strangers would be noticed and suspected--if they were adults. But adults often paid very little heed to children, especially if they looked shabby and dusty, as if they belonged there.
Ezra turned the mare up the slope behind the town, found a thick patch of piñon and one-seed juniper, mostly hovering in the region of twenty feet in height, and worked his way as deep into it as he could get before stopping. He woke Buck up sufficiently to get the younger boy onto the ground, and left him with the lap robe to wrap up in and strict orders not to stir until he got back. Shivering in the pre-dawn chill, he led the mare out to grass and sat patiently holding the end of her halter line while she fed, then took her back and tethered her to a tree. Buck was asleep, and Climber had vanished on business of his own. I hope he stays away, Ezra told himself, and then felt sorry for the thought. Buck seemed very fond of the little animal, and he made so few demands, was it really fair to expect him to give up his newfound pet?
It was beginning to get light now, and Ezra set to work collecting juniper sticks for a fire. He had been unable to find any water, but they had canned tomatoes and peaches, the juice of which would serve to quench their thirst. In the course of his foraging he nearly stepped on a wild turkey hen in her nest; her explosive rise came close to stopping his heart out of sheer surprise, but once he realized what she was, he quickly found the slight depression, on the edge of a clearing, where she had laid her eight finely-spotted buff eggs. He gathered half of them, thinking pleasantly of an omelette.
Filled out with chopped onion, diced canned tomatoes (the liquid of which was tidily saved in the can for drink), and a little cut-up smoked turkey breast, the turkey eggs did indeed provide a splendid breakfast. The juniper wood made a good fire, burning slowly and sending up a spicy smell. Climber reappeared, condescended to share some of Bucks omelette, and lay down on his side on a corner of the lap robe to sleep.
"Now, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra began when the meal was consumed and the dishes washed out with wood ashes from the fire, "there is a little settlement a mile or two down the trail, and I propose to visit it. I want you to stay here and sleep."
"Cant I come with you?"
"It will be better if you do not," Ezra told him. "One strange boy may be overlooked even in so small a community, but two will be remarked upon. Remember, we are horse thieves and there may be pursuers after us. But they, and anyone to whom they speak, will be lookin for two boys and a horse, not one boy alone. And someone ought to remain here and look after the horse. That is your responsibility."
This suggestion that he was being entrusted with an important task seemed to mollify the younger boy, who was in any case clearly ready for a nap, at least. Ezra waited until he had lain down and dozed off, noticing that Climber woke up long enough to register his nearness and move over to be close to the younger boy, and then set off quietly to find his way back to the road. He felt a bit uneasy about leaving Buck alone, but had seen no sign that people were wont to visit this particular patch of trees with any regularity, and figured that the bays small movements would set up enough vibration in the ground to warn snakes off. And if nothin else, he told himself, I must find some receptacle suitable to the carryin of water. I should have thought to look for a canteen before we left the Home. I should not be long at this; it is not as if China Springs were so large that explorin its possibilities will consume more than the morning.
Chris helped Vin get ready for his hunting trip, cinching a pack saddle to the back of a white-footed dun gelding while the younger man strapped his meager gear to his own. Vin was like a mountain man in his needs: a couple of blankets and a buffalo robe to sleep in, a camp ax, ammunition, matches, a rudimentary sewing kit, a knife or two, some coffee, sugar, flour, salt, cornmeal, and bacon, and he could make out just about anywhere.
"You remember," Chris cautioned, "back by Friday night, okay? That means half a day down, half a day back, one day hunting. If you dont bag an antelope in that length of time, youre not the hunter I think you are anyway."
"I aint forgot," Vin assured him. "Aint no old man like you, Larabee." He ducked Chriss playful swat and swung up onto Pesos back, bending to snatch up the packhorses lead rope. "See you Friday night."
Chris watched him go, chuckling and shaking his head. Youre incorrigible, he thought to the departing Texan, but I think Ill keep you anyway.
China Springs was just coming well awake as Ezra passed the outermost business buildings. He took one long exploratory swing through the town, checking out the layout, the houses, and the jail, then visited the livery stable out behind the feed store and politely asked the hostler if he could spare a clean feed sack. "Why, sure thing, sonny," the man agreed. "Bet youre figurin to fetch in some quail or rabbits or something, aint you?"
"I trust I shall return with some useful bounty," Ezra agreed neutrally. "Thank you, sir." He folded the sack and tucked it through his waistband at the back, and went on. At the general store he was able to quietly pilfer an eight-cent single-blade pocketknife, a few English walnuts out of an open sack, and a five-gallon canvas water bag which, when folded flat, could be easily hidden inside his shirt. He then departed as unobtrusively as hed entered, settled down behind the building, and pried the nuts open with the knife. He ate the meats--Mother had always taught him never to be wasteful--and tossed away all but three of the halved shells, and searched in the dirt until he found an almost perfectly round pebble. Not a pea, but it will suffice, he told himself.
Crossing behind the hotel on his way back to the livery, he was arrested by the sight of several fresh pies set out on the kitchen windowsills to cool. This was exactly the kind of thing he had hoped he might find; Buck was so fond of fruit, a pie would give him ecstasies. He inched up to the nearest open window and stood on his toes to peer through with one eye. The pies nearest him emitted a mouth-watering aroma of rhubarb and apricot. He watched the cook moving about inside, ducking back whenever she seemed about to turn in his direction, and in time his patience was rewarded when she vanished into the pantry. Quickly he snatched the nearest pie, whipped the feed sack out from under his waistband, slipped the pastry into it, and made his escape.
The livery stable, like all livery stables, was a favorite resort of the town loafers, and since playing cards as well as the innocuous checker were always to be found there, and whiskey tolerated within reason, it wasnt difficult to lure several of them into trying their luck at the shell-and-pea game. He played them like a master, letting each player win just enough times that hed be willing to go double or nothing, then pouncing like the little hawk in the canyon stooping on the grasshopper. He kept an eye open for any sign of the marshal, but the man was apparently occupied in his office. He wasnt worried about being reported after the fact: adults would be too embarrassed to admit that theyd lost to a small boy. But he didnt want to be interrupted before hed made Bucks fare east.
It took him several hours, but he did it. The loafers drifted away as he mined their pockets clean, only to be replaced by a new gallery of pigeons curious to find out what was attracting such a crowd under the cottonwood tree. Finally, satisfied with his winnings, he gathered up his feed sack, pocketed his shells and pebble (he might find a use for them in some other town, after all), and politely bade his victims goodbye and better luck next time. It wasnt till he was turning away that he saw the stablehand letting a horse out into the corral while its stall was cleaned, and froze, his heart suddenly hammering in his throat. The horse was a blue-gray roan gelding, but without the dappling or rusty-brown flecks almost always found in horses of that color; it had a white blaze and stockings and a silver-gray mane and tail. Ezra had seen many horses in his short life, but only two like that. One had belonged to Cousin Tom in the Valley; the other to Sheriff Addison in Broken Bow.
Hes here. He followed us. Then training asserted itself and logic took over. No. He couldnt have. He would have had to have been trailin us by night, and I doubt very much that he possesses that skill. And if he had, why would he not have circulated our descriptions widely enough for someone to have recognized me? In so small a community it would not be difficult to put the entire population on the alert. Perhaps he is here on some other kind of business. Or...would he know that I was bound for Four Corners? If he did, he may be attemptin to circle and get there ahead of us.
We must go--now. Even though it is daylight. We must get ahead of him, as far as we possibly can.
He hurried back to the trees and shook Buck awake, paying no heed to the younger boys peevish whimpering. He stuffed their gear, including the stolen pie, into the sacks, blanketed and bridled the mare, threw the lap robe and sacks over her withers, put Climber into Bucks shirt (without even a flinch), chinned himself on a low piñon branch and swung from it onto the bays back, reached out to tug the knot out of her halter rope, and turned her back to where Buck stood, blinking in confusion, one hand reflexively supporting the wiggling animal in his shirt. "Are we goin, Ez? But it aint night. We aint even had anything to eat," he objected.
"I am well aware of that, Buck," Ezra told him, "but you must trust me. Sheriff Addison is here. We must get away before he can discover we are in the vicinity."
Bucks eyes opened wide, and suddenly he wasnt at all sleepy. Ezra locked his legs against the mares barrel and leaned down to give him a hand, which was immediately accepted. By main force the older boy hauled his companion up the horses side until he was high enough to throw a leg over, then gathered the reins in and turned the bay as he felt Bucks arms go around his waist. Circling around the town limits and swinging back onto the road a mile or two down, he dug his heels into the horses flanks and urged her east and south, toward the dry plain below the divide.
Even in flight, Ezra forced himself to think, to apply his trained and clever mind and the strictures of logic to his situation. If Addison had come to China Springs at the head of a posse, there would certainly have been some talk of it around the stable, and he would have heard about it while playing his victims at the shell game. But he hadnt, which meant the man was alone, perhaps hadnt even troubled to identify himself as an officer of the law. Very probably, Ezra considered, he or Whittington had guessed that two boys and one horse going missing at the same time was too thick for coincidence, and Addison had figured that a single man could easily recapture the thieves and bring them back. Perhaps he had even guessed that Ezra and Buck would follow the hills northward, whether to keep their directions or for the sake of likelier access to water, and hoped to ride right up their backs. That meant they must contrive to find another route, one he wouldnt expect them to take.
The trail the cowboys had taken followed the dwindling width of the divide and merged with the coach road soon after the terrain had levelled out. Ezra checked the mare, who was beginning to blow, and squinted up at the sky, shading his eyes with a hand. Though the hottest month of summer wasnt yet here, the flats were already almost unbearable in full afternoon; all that made the temperature seem at all tolerable was that the air lacked the blanket of humidity typical of Ezras native South. The boy looked up and down the road and considered the situation. It occurred to him that while he had earlier rejected the possibility of following this route because the two of them would be visible for miles, the same would be true of anyone coming toward them from the north--and apparently there wasnt going to be a posse approaching from behind, while a stage would make noise and warn them of its existence in time for them to cut off to the side. Or, perhaps even better, they could move off a couple of miles and follow parallel, just keeping the plainly marked trail in sight. That would enable them to bypass the stations without being seen by the people who staffed them. As long as they had water--and they now possessed a bag in which to carry it--they could continue their journey in this way and still avoid human contact. What they needed to do, then, was to find some water to fill the bag with, and having done this they could go on.
He scanned the landscape east and west, seeking any hint of natural water. The dancing waves of heat rising up off the ground made it difficult to see, but after a while he thought he made out a line of foliage in the former direction. At least, he thought, it does not have the appearance of water, so it seems unlikely that it is a mirage. The stage driver had told him about those too. Whatever your name, sir, I solemnly promise you that should we ever meet again, I shall utterly refrain from takin your money except in the most legitimate fashion. Your information has already been of great service to us, and doubtless will be again. He squeezed the bays sides with his legs and pointed her toward the vague vision of greenness.
They must have gone at least three or four miles from the road before they reached the foliage, which proved to be cottonwood trees, idenitifiable by their furrowed whitish-gray bark and characteristic light-green leaves. They lined both sides of what appeared at first glance to be a shallow dry ravine, its bottom carpeted in sand and scattered with stones, but Ezra knew, from the drivers talk, that this couldnt be what it seemed: cottonwoods liked water--indeed had to have it--and even if there was none visible, it must exist underground. Perhaps this ravine was a stream during the wetter seasons, and the water went into hiding during dry weather. Ezra helped Buck to dismount, slithered down himself, and tethered the mare before scanning the depression carefully. "We shall have to dig," he said at length, trying to control the urge to shudder at the prospect of such labor--this was a question of literal survival, and distasteful as he found it, necessary. "You try over there, and I will make an attempt here. If you strike water, call me at once."
It was a long hot task, but at least the leaves offered some shade from the fierce sun, and in the end the drivers advice again proved their salvation. Buck, who was digging a few feet out from a little clump of willow-brush, struck water first. Ezra praised him extravagantly and went back to scooping out his own hole, which presently began to well up also. After allowing both holes to fill, he led the mare down to his and let her drink, then took out his water bag and filled it at Bucks cavity. The younger boy had already drunk and splashed his face. "Ez? Did the sheriff see you?" he asked worriedly.
"No, I spied his horse before he could," Ezra assured him. "It may be that, like ourselves, he has been travellin by night for the sake of coolness, and was asleep in the hotel at the time."
This calmed Bucks misgivings, and when Ezra brought out the pie he had filched from the hotel, the younger boys normal sunny disposition was restored at once. The pie proved to be rhubarb, and they both ate until they could eat no more, enjoying not only the substance and sweetness of the pastry itself, but the refreshing tart-sweetness of the juice, which was almost better than water. "Now," Ezra decided, "we shall rest here until it is cooler, and go on. But first, I have somethin to show you." He turned the feed sack inside out, dumping an assortment of small change, silver dollars, and crumpled bills onto the sandy bottom of the ravine. Bucks eyes widened as his companion began quickly gathering the paper before the faint occasional breeze could blow any of it away, smoothing it flat, arranging it neatly according to denomination, and counting it as he did. When he had finished, he carefully folded the bills in half and put them under his knee while he did the same for the coin. "...a hundred and seventy, seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three...and eighty-five cents. There. This will be enough to purchase a decent canvas Gladstone bag for you, and a wardrobe of clothes, and get you to Denver on the stagecoach, and from there first class by rail to Kansas City, with almost twenty dollars left over for treats and emergencies." He showed Buck how to hide the hoard in his shoe. "You must give me your solemn promise you will tell no one it is there unless I give you leave. No one, no matter what they say to you." He would make some sort of arrangement with the stage driver out of Four Corners when the time came; as an experienced traveller himself he knew that such men were routinely trusted with the care, and fares, of young passengers.
"That must be most all the money in the world!" Buck marvelled. "Whered you get it, Ez?"
Ezra couldnt help preening just a bit at the younger boys obvious awe and admiration. "Let us simply say that I encountered some very generous gentlemen with cash to spare for a worthy cause. Now, let us get up out of this depression and find some shade to rest in."
Vin Tanner snapped his spyglass shut with a nod of satisfaction, slipped it into his pocket, and checked the packhorses lead line, wound around the stem of his saddlehorn, before he picked up Pesos reins and urged the black forward at a steady, unthreatening walk. He kept his eyes on the band of antelope scattered over the dry flat about ten miles ahead, knowing that he could approach any kind of big game much more closely in the saddle than afoot, so that when he dismounted and tied hed have a shorter stalk and a better shot: Western game animals lived on rangeland, where riders were a common sight to the four-legged population, and they didnt pay much attention to one.
While the buffalo had been the staff of life for Vins Comanche people, the antelope loomed large in their economy as well, and boys ordinarily hunted them, with or without adult assistance, well before they were taken on their first buffalo run. He knew that the herd he saw would probably be a summer herd, made up chiefly of does, fawns, and a few yearlings: the bucks wouldnt start competing for their harems until September or thereabouts. Like elk and deer, pronghorns always had a fairly limited home region where they fed and roamed; if you saw their tracks by a river, as Vin had earlier, you knew theyd come back to drink there sooner or later--but theyd also be warier then, because their instincts taught them to expect ambush at a water source, especially a stream, where there was likely to be foliage that predators could use as cover. Therefore he had followed their trail from the water, moving south into the "wastes," as the locals called this semi-desert terrain. He moved in casually, angling a bit to the side until he was within a couple of miles, then dismounted behind a large sagebrush and tethered his horses before breaking off a long twig, drawing his Winchester from the saddle boot, and beginning his slow, belly-down approach through the grama grass, counting on his dun-colored pants and jacket and off-white hat to keep him blending in with the summer-dried growth.
After a time he stopped, untied the yellow bandanna from around his neck, knotted it to the end of the sage twig, and held the latter with its butt against the ground, letting the cotton flag flutter in the light summer breeze. Like most wild grazers, antelope were cautious and easily startled. Their bodies were no larger than that of a medium-sized sheep, but their legs were longer; they were usually about three feet high at the shoulder and weighed from ninety to a hundred twenty-five pounds, depending on age and sex. They ate some grass, especially in early spring, but primarily they were browsers on weeds and shrubs, sagebrush being a favorite food. Indeed, their abundance and broad range was partly explained by the fact that they would eat almost anything, even plants poisonous to other creatures. They had good hearing and efficient noses, but trusted mostly in their sight, which was so good that they could easily follow the movements of a coyote so far away that a man must use a high-powered glass to make it out at all. At the least sign of danger, a pronghorn would throw his head up and stare with his large, keen eyes, contracting his musk glands to alert his herd by smell; if what he saw disturbed him, he would puff up a prominent patch of white hair on his reddish-brown rump, creating a blinker signal visible for miles across the prairie, which, as others saw it, they would pass along, warning the herd to bunch up and be ready to flee. Once they took off, pursuit was a waste of time, for with their heavily-built legs, capacious lungs, and large hearts, they could maintain a pace of twenty-five miles an hour for a good distance; thirty was an easy lope, which they could keep up for a long period, and forty-five not unusual; if pressed they could hit sixty, travelling in twenty-foot bounds for three to five miles before their energy gave out. In flight they had a quasi-military tendency to gallop in straight lines, even when intercepted at an angle, but they almost always circled back eventually, for they loved the range of their birth, leaving only if the food gave out. Timid like deer, but as curious as goats, it was the latter characteristic that was most often their downfall, as the Cheyennes had discovered early on, hence the invention of "flagging," as it had come to be called.
It didnt take long for half a dozen of the boldest members of the herd to succumb to the lure of the flag and begin to circle it, drawing nearer on each turn. Vin lay still with the patience of the Indian he still often felt he was, noting with satisfaction that these were bucks: their horns were longer than the does, and pronged, where the females were nearly prongless, more like spikes than anything. No good hunter would kill a nursing female at this season; that was a good way to diminish the population beyond reason. When they had reached a distance of four hundred yards--two hundred inside the limit at which his Winchester .45-70s Government cartridge could be reasonably expected to be accurate--he pushed up on his elbows, drew the rifle into his shoulder in one smooth movement, levelled and lined it as he aimed, and squeezed off a single shot. The taper-nosed bullet, over an ounce of lead powered by seventy grains of powder, took the closest of the bucks clean through both lungs; he stopped in his tracks, threw some blood around from his nostrils, and fell dead. His fellows, spooked by the blood smell, took off, flashing their rump patches, and in an instant the entire herd was in flight.
Vin let them go. Not the hunter you thought I was, huh, Larabee? he thought to his absent partner, and rose, smiling, to recover his bandanna and butcher the carcass out. He worked quickly and efficiently and soon had an easily hefted seventy pounds or so, of which about fifty-four would be usable meat. Hed wrap it in the canvas hed brought and sling it on his packhorse, then double back to the river and make camp so he could hang it. His mouth watered at the thought of fresh antelope heart and liver cooked over his fire--and in anticipation of roast antelope tenderloin steak, like mild mutton, with mushroom sauce, or fried antelope chops for breakfast, after he got home with his bag. Got all tomorrow to find me another, he thought, and still get back in plenty time. Hed try working east of the stage road, he decided; it was dryer out there, and the antelope didnt have to compete so much with the cattle, so they were more abundant. He paused a moment to offer proper thanks to the spirit of his kill, then lifted the carcass onto his shoulder and headed back to where he had left the horses.
Ezra and Buck napped and rested the short remainder of the afternoon, then made a fire at sunset, ate, and since both their waterholes had filled up again in the interval, watered the mare, filling their own bellies from the other hole. The moon, which was nearly full, had risen at four-twenty by Ezras watch, and wouldnt set till nearly three in the morning; by its light it was easy to keep the stage road, a ribbon of beaten-down ground, in clear view and maintain a respectful distance from it, using the scattered larger shrubs--ironwood, desert willow, coralbean and sage--as a screen. For a time they followed the dry streambed, then crossed it and entered a more arid zone of intermittent low hills, many with slopes thickly covered in manzanita. Dawn found them in the midst of what seemed a broad expanse of waste, with no hint of cottonwoods, mesquite, or even saltgrass to point to the presence of water. Ezra looked around and tried to decide what to do. Their mount wasnt overtired and could probably go on, but to do so as the sun grew stronger would only leach the moisture from all of them; if there was any place where they could obtain a little shade and den up, it would be better to do that. Cousin Tom had told him that a horse could survive as long as a month without food, though a week with no water would finish it--surely they couldnt be more than another day, or rather night, from Four Corners, and where there was a town there must be both water and grazing of some kind. He patted the bays neck encouragingly. "I fear you must go on short rations today, my friend," he said. "What water we have we must save for ourselves. But I am certain we will be able to make up the shortfall in another twenty-four hours." He turned to rouse Buck and help him down.
The younger boy blinked at him confusedly. "I dont feel too good, Ezra."
"What?" With a feeling of alarm Ezra put a hand on his companions forehead. He couldnt detect any fever, but a close look confirmed that Buck was clearly not at his best; his eyes werent as bright and alert as they had always been before, and his face looked drawn. "How do you not feel well?"
Buck shrugged. "Dunno. Just...kinda poorly."
Oh, Lord, Ezra thought, he mustnt be gettin ill, not this close to our goal! But he knew better than to let his misgivings show. He eyed the nearby arid slope, which was thickly covered with manzanita, bushes with tough, twisting branches, slender trunks, and smooth, shiny reddish bark, with berries slowly turning from green to gold among the small, glossy, almost-blue leaves. They stood only a few feet high, and indeed a man afoot could have looked across them with no difficulty. But they grew in a dense thicket impenetrable except by small animals--or small boys: the branches were tough and unbendable, and almost every bush had low dead ones that were hard as steel, sharp as thorns, and as clutching as cactus. Progress was possible only by endless detours to find the half-closed aisles between patches, or by crashing through with main strength. They should keep off anything that means us harm, and certainly they will offer shade from the sun, he decided, and addressed Buck again. "Slide down," he said encouragingly, "and we can crawl into these bushes and find shelter." Perhaps he is only tired; neither of us got a full days sleep, havin to flee the vicinity of China Springs as we did. I can tie the horse out here until night. We will be unable to make a fire, but we can eat cold meat and canned food, and the bread is still good.
It took considerable coaxing, but he managed to get Buck and their gear into the center of the maze. He spread the lap robe on the shaded earth, urged the younger boy to lie down on it, and arranged their food and water bags within easy reach. He noticed that Climber had crept out of Bucks shirt and was nosing at the boys face as if in concern. Animals have much better perceptions of such things than we humans do, he thought worriedly. Perhaps the creature senses that Buck is indeed in ill health. Whatever shall I do if he isnt strong enough to ride tonight?
He controlled his wandering thoughts. Dont borrow trouble, he told himself, mentally quoting one of his mothers favorite maxims, it will come soon enough on its own. "Stay here," he ordered, "and after I have seen to the horse I will come back and prepare some food."
"Okay," said Buck in a subdued voice, stroking Climbers soft coat as if seeking comfort.
Ezra retraced their course to the open, where the mare stood waiting, tied by her reins to one of the sturdy branches. He was just reaching up to unbuckle the surcingle when a dry buzzing sounded from under the nearest bush. The boy whirled, snatching his derringer out of his pocket, as the horse forgot the long night shed had and reared back, whinnying in terror. The manzanitas branch didnt break under the strain, but the reins did. Even as Ezras quick eyes located the yard-long snake coiled barely four feet away and he triggered a shot that blew its head to fragments, the bay was racing away in a panic, heading north.
Stunned, the boy lowered his little gun and stared off after the disappearing horse. Now what will become of us? We are afoot, and Buck isnt well.
But I must not let him know of my fears...
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