Nettie and Casey had spent the night with the Potters, who lived with their two children in a cabin a little distance past the smithy-feedbarn- wagonyard, but Vin, as usual, had elected to sleep in the hayloft, and JD had bedded down in the back of the big two-horse hooded buckboard they had brought from the ranch, on a grass-stuffed mattress which, once unrolled, covered most of the bed. Where Josiah had gone he didn't know, but now the smith was over by the hardware counter, putting his head together with Mr. Potter's over the store's stock of hot and cold chisels and hardies, hammers of every type and weight, tongs, swages, butterises, hoof nippers, hacksaws, pincers, and iron clippers. Nettie and Casey were consulting over their shopping list with Mrs. Potter. Vin had spent some time browsing through the shirts and fancy merchandise, had checked out the guns and saddlery, and then, as if the dim crowded store and its tapestry of smells made him uneasy, had taken a couple of apples from the barrel and drifted out again; looking through the many square panes of the display window, JD could make out the crown of the hunter's clay-colored hat, the position of which suggested he was sitting on the gallery floor. As for himself, JD was still trying to make up his mind what to get for the four people who had become his friends since he had come to the ranch. Josiah wasn't difficult: a box of good cigars, a collection of poetry by the best English and American authors, and a six-dollar fob of black silk grosgrain ribbon, with a gold-filled chain and engraved carnelian seal, to clip to the head-ring of his old silver stem- winding watch. Vin took more careful choosing, but JD had seen how his eyes grew dreamy over anything brightly colored, so in the end he'd picked out three striped zephyr-cloth shirts and some lovely big silk bandannas in a rainbow of hues, then added an assortment of penny candies, since the hunter had a notorious sweet tooth. For Casey he was about settled on some fishing gear and a good bridle for Partner. It was Nettie's gift that was troubling him most. He had often bought presents for his mother, but she had liked pretty, delicate things, and he couldn't imagine Nettie having the same tastes. Should he take a chance on a fancy shirtwaist or a silk or shepherd's-plaid skirt that she might never have any occasion to wear? Would she be offended if he chose vivid-colored silk hose? What about a nice wool-cashmere shawl that she could put around her shoulders when she sat down in the evenings? Or a fancy sterling silver buckle and a silk web belt? Or maybe she would rather have something to make the station more pleasant--a length of green or Turkey red table damask, a dozen towels with center patterns and fancy colored borders, a set of bright chenille curtains to drape the sitting-room door, or a "library lamp" with a chain and weight to hang it from the ceiling, a finely decorated shade and perhaps some prisms around the edge. Or a folio of music for the parlor organ: there were a variety of collections, averaging a hundred and sixty pages, for only sixty to eighty cents apiece. No, that was too cheap; he'd look like a piker. A folio or two and something else, maybe.
Some time ago--it must have been about an hour--he'd heard a commotion outside and turned in time to see a pack of riders thunder in, about twenty of them, he thought. They had tied up their horses all along the building front and, to judge by the sound, had tramped into the saloon, which fortunately wasn't connected to the store. Ever since then a steady good-humored rumble of laughter and talk had been audible through the party wall. Now, just beyond Vin's hat, JD saw a new and smaller group of horses swing in--a buckskin and a sorrel loaded with packs of indistinguishable nature and a nodding sheaf of long poles, a bay pulling what appeared to be an Indian travois (he had seen these in the train of the tribesmen who paused to trade at Wells Ranch), and a ridden roan and red pinto. He could see Vin's hat move as he turned his head to study the newcomers, and then, after an interval of time sufficient for them to get dismounted, the bell over the door jingled to announce the entrance of new customers.
JD's eyes widened. The man was a Negro, with very dark but not overly curly hair, fine dark-brown eyes like new-brewed coffee, and a smooth grace of movement that made JD think of a picture he'd seen once of a black leopard. He wore a calico shirt with an Indian beaded vest and armbands over it, a flexible black felt hat and dark corduroy breeches tucked into plain black knee-high boots. He was the tallest man JD had seen, taller than Josiah but nowhere near as heavy-built, just all sleek easy power. And the woman--Lord! Inexperienced as he was, the young Pony rider still knew beauty when he saw it, and he was seeing it now. Quite a bit younger than her man, he thought, not much older than himself, with fine features of a glowing reddish color, dark eyes and flashing white teeth, and matte-black hair in corkscrew waves, hanging loose almost to her waist, with a copper ornament above each ear to hold it back out of her eyes, and feathers and bright ribbons ornamenting it here and there. He was sure she wasn't Indian, at least not fullblood, but she was dressed like one, in a dress of whitened deerskin heavily beaded, leggings and moccasins with colored beadwork, strings of beads of every color looped around her neck, a choker of dentalium shell with a center disc, stacks of copper-wire bracelets on forearms bared by her loose wing sleeves, copper-wire earrings and long trailing shell pendants. She stared around the crowded room with the wondering look of a child at Christmas, and then her eye lit on the fancy-merchandise case and the stacks of bright bolt goods and she moved toward them like she was on a string. The big Negro chuckled, caught her arm an instant and spoke to her in a velvety deep voice pitched too low for JD to make out the words, and then let her go her way and made his way toward the hardware counter as Josiah and Mr. Potter looked up questioningly.
The beaded curtain that masked the door to the rear storeroom clattered as it was thrust aside, and a lovely brown-skinned woman entered, swirling bright-colored skirt revealing tiny green sandals beneath, loose white chemise draped low over her shoulders, blue shawl hastily thrown around them. "Why, Inez, dear," Mrs. Potter exclaimed, "what brings you over in the middle of dinner?"
"Lo siento mucho, Señora Potter--I see you have customers, but I am almost to the bottom of the cornmeal barrel and I must make more bread en seguida. I cannot believe I forgot to order more!"
"It's no bother, honey," Nettie assured her. "Get her what she needs, Gloria, we're not in a hurry."
Mrs. Potter nodded briskly. "How much, Inez? Can you manage a small sack, or should I just give you enough for a batch or two of bread right now, and send the rest over later?"
The door jingled again, and two men strode in, young, tough, cocky-looking fellows, both wearing battered old slouch hats and bright hickory shirts above brown or blue duck pants, one with strips of Ute beadwork applied to the latter, the other with a vest of Indian-tanned buckskin over his shirt and decorated Arapaho armbands and garters adding dash. Both wore two guns on open view, besides knives cased on their gunbelts, and looked as if they'd been on the trail for a while; JD made a guess that they were two of the group of riders that had been making such a cheerful racket next door in the saloon. He wondered why they'd suddenly left their friends to come a-shopping. It didn't take him long to find out. They homed right in on the young woman in the Indian dress, and one of them reached out and caught her elbow, swinging her around into a rough embrace. "I'll be damned, brother Jason," he said, "you were right! This has to be about the prettiest squaw I ever set eyes on."
The other man grinned. "Now did I ever lie to you, brother Eli?" he retorted.
The woman didn't scream, but she struggled against Eli's bruising grip as he turned his unshaven face down to hers, twisting a hand through the hair at the back of her head to hold it still. "Come on, darlin', let's give old Eli a kiss, hey? Then we can go on down to the river and have some fun in private. I'll give you a nice Hudson's Bay blanket for your time."
"Heyah!" the woman gasped. "Mni kte sni yelo! Sehánle!" JD didn't recognize or understand the language, but the tone was enough to tell him she didn't want anything to do with these two.
Before he could make up his mind whether he should step in, the big Negro stepped away from the hardware counter and loomed behind Eli like a thundercloud. He didn't make a sound as he moved, and the first they knew he was there was when he said softly, "Let her go."
Jason turned and glared at him. "We seen her first, boy. You can have a taste after we get ours."
"You get nothin' from my wife, white man," the Negro growled, and just like that, without a moment's warning, he slapped his left hand down on Eli's shoulder, spun him into a short smashing fist blow that flattened his nose with an audible crunch, and, as he reflexively released the girl, shifted his grip, picked the smaller man up as if he weighed no more than a five-year-old, and slung him around, bang, into the high side wall of the post- office cubicle, knocking whatever breath he still had right out of his lungs and holding him there, about four feet off the floor. JD wondered for a split second why he'd led with his right--and then there was suddenly a knife in that right and he knew. The girl he'd named his wife scurried toward the grocery counter, where Nettie caught hold of her and pulled her back around behind it, Casey and the woman named Inez close behind. "You ever see a man after Teton women get done with him, white man?" the Negro purred softly, seeming to JD more like a panther than ever. "Better if he don't get brought back to the village for 'em. War party'll just spread-eagle him and burn him, a little at a time. Women like to use knives."
Jason backed toward the door as if abandoning his brother to his fate, spun and hit it running. The Negro paid him no attention at all. Eli was twisting in his grip like a fish in grass, barely able to breathe for the blood pouring from his broken nose. There was a sudden commotion on the other side of the party wall, and then the store's big double doors flew open, and in a rush of guns and spurs and dusty clothes Jason and all his friends were there. The Negro realized his danger a second too late and spun, releasing his captive and flipping the knife around in his hand, hurling it at point-blank range to take out the throat of the one in the lead. A second knife appeared from out of nowhere and transfixed the shoulder of the next of the men, and then one of them went in low and fast and hit the black just under the knees, and they all piled on top of him, striking and cursing.
JD shot a look toward the grocery counter to see that Inez and Nettie had the Negro's wife each by an arm and were hustling her out by the storeroom, Mrs. Potter and Casey close behind. The group hauled their victim to his feet, sagging, dazed, blood at his nose and lip and temple, wrists lashed behind him. One of them, dressed in a blue- dyed buckskin jacket, was profanely demanding to know how "Lope and Red" were. "Lope's dead, boss," came the response. "And Red's bleedin' like a stuck pig. Eli too, that nose is busted plumb flat."
Bluejacket pushed his forearm up under the Negro's chin, against his throat. "Boy, you just made the biggest mistake of your life," he growled, "and the last. Ain't no damn nigger messes with Vern Harper's bunch."
Mr. Potter came around the hardware counter. "Turn him loose and get out of my store! It was your boys that started it. He was protecting his wife."
Harper just turned casually and backhanded the storekeeper so hard that he crashed back into a table of piled jeans and brought the whole thing down in a heap. JD took a reflexive step forward and felt a hand close around his arm--how had Josiah gotten to him so quickly? He looked up desperately into the big man's face and caught the barest side-to-side shake of the smith's graying head. Harper ignored both of them. "Take him out," he ordered his men. "We'll take him down to the river and hang him. Jason, get a horse." And just that fast, they were gone, pouring out the doors like a creek in spate, carrying the Negro with them as the flood carries a chip.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had held himself as still as the barrel behind him as the crowd of men poured out of the saloon and into the store. Once they were in, he rose easily to his feet and watched through the doors they'd left open, able to hear and see everything that went on inside. It didn't take long, and a moment later they were rushing past him again, one dropping off to untie a horse from the rack and following at a quick jog.
Vin felt someone new off to his left, by the saloon doors, and turned from his consideration of the retreating gang, to see a man in a Cavalry officer's uniform standing just outside them, also watching the group go. The officer's head turned, and for a split second his pale, piercing green eyes met Vin's vivid blue ones. What Vin felt in that instant of contact was like nothing he had ever known before. It was as if, in some incredible, mystical way, the officer looked all the way into him, into his soul, his heart, his mind, reading all that was Vin Tanner in just that one glance, as a man might riffle through the pages of a book and somehow come up knowing every word they held. He knew that the officer knew what he was going to do before he did it--and in just the same way, he for his part knew what the officer was going to do, knew everything that mattered about the man, about what he was and how he thought, how he would behave in a tight spot, how their reactions and timing would fit together. He turned and walked into the store, straight back to the gun counter, barely noticing JD and Josiah. He took in the array of guns in a sweeping glance, lifted a seven-shot Spencer .50 repeater off the rack, jumped the counter to break open a box of cartridges, and jumped back, already feeding rounds into the Spencer's loading tube as he walked toward the door. The officer was still waiting on the porch, but he had unsnapped the flap of his holster and had his long .44 out. A tall man with a black mustache, blue blouse showing under a fringed Arapaho jacket, was standing in the doorway now, hands on the tops of the swinging doors, holding them half open, his eyes on the officer's back. Vin glanced at the officer once, received a thin smile and a short nod, and they both stepped down off the gallery and strode after Harper's gang and their prisoner. Vin heard a shout from the man in the doorway but didn't pay it any attention. Nothing mattered right now except the man matching him stride for stride and the job they had to do.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris! Damn it! What the hell do you--"
Ezra watched Wilmington's back, reading the surprise, the anger, the confusion and tension in his stance and the set of his shoulders, wondering what was going on. Two of the rowdy drifters had wandered out, and then suddenly one had come crashing back, babbling something about his brother and a black man in the store, and the whole crew had gone flooding after him. Larabee, who had been sitting quietly in the corner near the faro table nursing what was only his second shot of whiskey, had pushed back his chair and crossed the room with a balanced stalking stride, ignoring Buck and Ezra who were playing a desultory game of two-handed poker by the stairs with the sergeant's favorite, Blossom, draped over his shoulders, and had stepped out onto the gallery and stood there without moving. Wilmington's head had come up like a hound on scent and he'd laid his cards down and scraped his chair around, blue eyes fixed on his commanding officer's lean back. How he had known that something had changed Ezra couldn't imagine--the captain hadn't shifted his stance, hadn't stirred a step, and yet, perhaps out of years of service together, Wilmington had picked up some subtle signal that was beyond even Ezra's perception and gone to stand leaning on the doors, just a minute before Larabee started moving.
Buck swore and lunged out of the bar himself just as Inez appeared from the restaurant. "Señor Ezra, there is trouble! Some malhechores were beating a man in the store--he was trying to defend his wife from them--I am afraid they will kill him, Señor Ezra, por favor, you must help!"
Ezra blinked. "My dear Inez, may I point out that I am a businessman, not an officer of the law? I have no authority to intervene in the private affairs of others unless my property or employees, or my own safety, are at risk."
She stared at him. "Then why did you not allow Lucas James to do with me as he pleased?"
The Southerner found something within him squirming at the look in her eyes. "That was another matter entirely. No gentleman would permit a woman to be molested in his presence. You have not said that one is in peril now, only that one was. Where is she?"
"Señora Wells and I took her out through the storeroom and to my apartamiento. She is there, and Señora Potter, and Señorita Casey, with my escopeta and Señora Wells's rifle." A new note entered the Mexican woman's voice. "She is India, Señor. If her husband dies, she will be alone among people not her own. How will she even be able to return to her family? You are a better man than to allow such things to happen. I know this. You know this. Please, Señor Ezra, help this man."
Mrs. Travis suddenly appeared at Inez's shoulder, pale and slender in her black marceline silk. "Bartender," she said sharply, "do you have a shotgun?"
George boggled at her. "I got a blunderbuss under the bar, ma'am."
"Hand it here," the woman commanded, pushing past Inez.
Ezra had seen George's blunderbuss in action once or twice. It was a veritable antique, dating probably from the previous century, about three feet long from end to end, a single-shot weapon with a funnelled brass barrel and a firing mechanism converted from flintlock to percussion. Its range and firepower were meager, but in a close-range confrontation it made an excellent pacifier; rocks, nails, shot of any size, almost anything could be dumped down its barrel. For calming down rowdy customers in the bar--especially enlisted sodiers, who were only allowed to carry their sidearms in the field for fear they might otherwise pawn them for drinking money-- it was unequalled. But surely Mrs. Travis didn't think she could bluff a score of men with it? Ezra watched as she marched across the room and reached over the bar to take the weapon from George's hesitating grip, hefted it with a competence he hadn't expected, checked to make sure there was a cap on the nipple, and started for the door.
Oh, damnation, Ezra thought. Mother will never understand this. He pushed his chair back, stood and strode with quick, graceful steps to overtake the woman and deftly lift the gun from her hands. "Inez, my dear," he threw back over his shoulder, "kindly escort Mrs. Travis and her son to your quarters while I attend to this unpleasant matter."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah paused to kneel beside the fallen Randolph Potter and feel under his jaw for a pulse. "He's alive. Didn't even break the skin. The clothes on the table must have cushioned him when he landed. Get me some water, John Dunne."
"No." JD's voice was taut but firm, and he met Josiah's quizzical look without flinching. "You do what you want," he snapped, "but I ain't lettin' them hang that man." He settled his bowler and jogged out the door, catching a glimpse of Vin's buckskin back and the erect blue figure of a cavalryman disappearing into the thick growth along the river. They must've seen which way the gang took him. If I go that way too, I can back 'em up.
"Who the hell are you, boy, and where the hell do you think you're goin'?" someone demanded.
JD looked around-- and up, and up, eight full inches, into the scowling face and stormy indigo eyes of a big black-mustached cavalryman in a fringed jacket and high-top moccasins. "I don't know what business it is of yours," he retorted, "but my name is JD Dunne, and I ain't no boy. I was nineteen ten days ago, I can ride and I can shoot, and I got a friend down in that brush tryin' to stop a hangin'."
Something changed in the big man's eyes. "I got one too," he said. "S'pose me and you do a little flankin' maneuver, okay?"
+ + + + + + +
Josiah shook his head in rueful admiration at JD's impetuosity. He'd intended to help once he got Potter roused and comfortable, but the boy hadn't given him a chance to say so. He headed for the door, drawing his Walker Colt, and paused on the gallery to sweep the scene, just in time to see the young rider's slight figure and the bigger one of a long-legged man in moccasins and blue Army breeches circling in an upstream direction.
Someone came up beside him and he glanced around. He recognized the wiry maroon- coated gambler who had stopped at Wells Ranch a few months ago, and who he had heard now owned the building. The younger man had a blunderbuss in one hand and a Navy Colt in the other and was eyeing the vanishing pair. He edged a sidelong glance at the smith. "Dare I assume that you likewise have been embarrassed into takin' a hand, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Not embarrassed, no," Josiah replied. "Merely standing up for the Lord's justice. As the boy is."
Ezra followed his gaze. "The Sergeant seems to have him well in hand. I dare say we can trust his instincts as a tactician. Shall we take the downstream side of the altercation?"
"Lead on, brother," said Josiah, showing his teeth.
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