Nathan recovered some measure of full sense to find himself being boosted into the saddle of a dun mare and positioned under a projecting cottonwood limb. One of his captors threw a rope over it and caught hold of his vest to yank him down long enough to have the loop settled around his neck. He straightened and blinked, tugging ineffectually at the bonds that secured his wrists behind him. The man in the blue buckskin jacket was standing at the horse's head with a quirt in his hand while one of his followers tied the rope off around the tree trunk. Nathan looked desperately around for Rain and felt a kind of bittersweet relief when he saw that she wasn't there. Considering the way these fellows had been behaving, if they'd been able to get their hands on her again, he didn't doubt they'd have taken immense satisfaction in forcing her to watch him die before they took their pleasure with her. He had a vague picture in his memory of two or three other women hurrying her out the back of the store. Presumably they knew the settlement and would get her to safety. He only hoped she'd be able to find her way back to her people afterward.
"You cost me a man dead, boy," Harper was saying, "and another who won't be much good for a week or so. I don't let anyone get by with that."
"Go to hell," Nathan told him.
"Not before you, boy."
"T'other way 'round, liker," came a soft raspy drawl from the surrounding trees, and a lean young man in a Comanche shirt stepped into the crowded little glade, a Spencer repeater swinging casually from his right hand. Five feet to his right, matching him step for step, was an older, slightly taller man in a cavalry uniform, blond hair cropped close under his black hat, .44 hanging down at his side.
"What the hell d'you want?" Harper demanded.
"Cut him loose," said the officer evenly.
Harper spat and said nothing.
"Reckon y'all be happier if y'just rode away," the young man added mildly.
Harper laughed, a short, humorless sound. "Hear that?" he demanded of his men, who were assortedly grinning in predatory anticipation or staring unbelievingly at the newcomers. "We're surrounded! By these two! Out of this whole damn town nobody else had the guts to come after us!"
Chris Larabee stared at him with eyes barely narrowed. For so long he had had almost nothing left in the world, and it had been all he could do just to get out of bed in the morning. His guilt, his pain, and his constant realization that the likelihood of getting closure and justice, not for himself alone but for them, was vanishingly low, had haunted him sleeping and waking. He had told himself, over and over, that it wasn't his fault, but there was a part of him that would never believe it. He had done things Buck had sworn at him for, stupid, self-destructive things, had taken too many chances, spent too many nights with a bottle--all to give himself a way to forget for a while, and to punish himself for not being there to save them, and for surviving when they hadn't. He had taken on some impossible odds and pushed the edge in every confrontation he encountered because he had nothing left to lose--which had only added to the reputation for courage he had among the Indians, and increased the respect in which they held him. He had done his level best to keep the whole world at a distance, because he couldn't bear the thought of having to endure that kind of suffering, or guilt, ever again. Probably the only reason he had stayed with the Army--which could, in a sense, have been said to be as much at fault for his loss as the actual authors of it--was that it required little or no investment in the future, no planning, no attention to anything except the rules and regulations that defined it and the orders he was given. It wasn't that he wanted to die, exactly; it was that he didn't fear death anymore, as normal men do--and that actually gave him an edge. It was more a lack-of-life wish. He had no focus, no home other than a barren room in the BOQ, no future that he could imagine. Now, suddenly, for the first time in years, he felt himself coming to life. He seemed more alert, more awake, than he had since that day. He sensed colors, sounds, smells, as he hadn't in too long. He knew the odds were against him, as they had been many times before. But this time there was meaning to what he was doing--it wasn't just a question of following orders, but of carrying out a task he had set for himself, and he was determined to do it. He cared about doing it, as he had cared for no mission in three years. He had found something he wanted to do, and someone he wanted to do it with. "Turn him loose and back off," he said.
"Not a chance, boys," Harper retorted, drawing his gun. You back off," he went on, raising the Remington in his hand until it was pointing at Nathan's head, "or I'll blow him away."
Nathan couldn't believe what he was seeing. Two men, with at most nineteen shots, against nineteen? From the vantage point of superior height afforded him by the horse, he searched the surrounding jungle of riverside growth for some hint of further help. Among the lush greenness of a wild-rose thicket he saw something move--a flash of maroon fabric, a blink of sunlight on brass, two wide green eyes under a soft black hat momentarily meeting his with an expression of mingled surprise and self-contempt, and a broader-brimmed hat looming higher alongside the owner of the eyes, suggesting a taller man crouched down beside him. At the corner of his peripheral vision something else stirred and he looked the other way. A brown bowler hat edged around a rock and abruptly vanished as if its owner had been yanked back under cover. Six?
Vin stood easy, neither flinching when Harper drew nor making any move to raise the borrowed Spencer. For a moment he wondered at what he was doing. It wasn't so much the odds, or the fact that he had committed himself to the rescue of a man who meant nothing to him. It was that he was letting this officer, whom he had never before met, whose name he didn't even know, set the tone for the confrontation, understanding that in doing so he was making, or at least beginning, a change in the whole way he lived his life. He had spent his first ten years among white people, immersed in their culture and their ethics, hearing of "fairness" and of how important it was to live by a certain standard of behavior. Then he had gone to the Comanches, and in order to survive and prosper among them he had had to adapt to their methods of thought. And Indians didn't fight by the same rules white men did, which was one reason they were so hated by the latter. Vin had learned that enemies existed to be killed. There was no need to warn them ahead of time or to give them the option of backing off, because they knew you would come along sooner or later and take whatever you could from them--horses, women, plunder, scalps. There was no obligation upon a warrior to fight by any particular code. What was more, his entire adult life had been lived free of the orders of others. Among Indians, no adult member of the tribe could be forced to do anything. He chose to live with a certain band and to follow its civil chief, but he was free to leave at any time. He chose which invitations to war to accept, but if his medicine went bad midway, no one thought less of him for turning around and going home. Indian life was founded on pure democracy; the only restraints on a person's behavior were those of custom and his own spirit-power. And rarely would you find an Indian going up against odds like the ones he saw before him now. Even after he returned to the white race, Vin had felt no need to subject himself to others' commands. If he didn't like the expectations that were laid out for him, or wasn't getting along with the people around him, he packed his gear and left. Yet here he was, facing nearly ten to one, letting someone else decide how the play was to be made, and feeling no wish to object. He wasn't alone any more. He had spent most of his life that way, even in the midst of the highly social, highly public life of the Peneteka. Trust in one's battle comrades was important to him, but until this moment he had found no white man who inspired it in him.
"Ain't gonna happen," he said, his voice edged with lethal intent as cold as the blade of his knife.
"You shoot him," Chris Larabee warned evenly,
"...and your next breath," Vin continued.
"...will be the last you take."
Behind the boulder where they had forted up, JD frowned and tried to make sense of what was going on. The big sergeant had said he had "a friend" down here with Vin, but the only person JD could see other than the hunter was the officer. How could an officer and a noncom be friends? And how did each of these two know, as they seemed to, what the other was going to say? He looked wide-eyed at the sergeant, who had quietly drawn his issue sixgun and cocked the hammer, squeezing the trigger as he did so to prevent a telltale click. "They know each other?" he whispered.
"Never met in their lives," the older man replied, not taking his eyes from the confrontation before them. He slanted a glance at the young rider as JD drew his Navy Colts. "Don't tell me you can shoot with both hands."
"Ain't tellin' you nothin'. You just watch and see," JD retorted. "And I told you once I ain't no boy."
Damn kid is too cocky for his own good, Buck thought, squinting cautiously around the boulder again. He wasn't surprised that Chris would stand up against odds of close to ten to one--it fit the pattern he'd established for himself, these last few years--and he wondered briefly whether Chris guessed he was somewhere close by. He should. Ain't I always been? With momentary amusement he reflected on the fact that he and the kid between them just about halved those odds--if the kid could keep from getting his head blown off as soon as the lead started to fly, which it would any second now. He'd nearly exposed himself once already. Buck frowned as he realized the deeper meaning of what he'd just said. Something was happening between his old friend and this scruffy stranger in what Wilmington recognized as a Comanche shirt. Something Buck couldn't recall ever seeing in a quarter of a century of frontier life. Then he shook the thought off. No time for that now. He had to keep focused.
"Second thoughts, brother?" Josiah guessed in a gentle rumble, observing the set of Ezra's features.
"I fear the moment is slightly dilatory for such misgivin's," the gambler replied, "but I cannot forebear from wonderin' how I have permitted myself to be induced to engage in this foray. Not only am I committed to assist in the rescue of an utter stranger against distinctly unfavorable odds, but that stranger is black." He sighed. "My mother would never comprehend my reasoning."
"Do you?" Josiah inquired with a wink.
Ezra opened his mouth and shut it again. "No," he admitted briefly, and returned his attention to the faceoff in the glade.
Harper drew back the hammer of his Remington. Vin watched him, calculating angles and windage in his mind. He knew that the minute the shooting started, that horse would be on its own, and odds were it would rear and run--which would leave the victim dangling, choking slowly as the rope constricted his windpipe: very few men planning an impromptu lynching were capable of preparing a knot that would break a man's neck right off. So the best chance the black man would have would be if somebody cut the rope. But Harper was determined to see him dead, and if the noose didn't do the job, he would. Which meant somebody would have to deal with Harper. And Vin knew, without exchanging a word, without even looking at the man at his side, that someone was planning to do exactly that--which left Vin free to take care of the rope. The mystical side of him thrilled at that realization.
Chris watched Harper, letting his peripheral vision scan the man's followers. He could feel the tension ratcheting up a notch and wondered at the sense of calm preparedness that seemed to emanate from the young man beside him. Some sense or instinct, something he didn't pause to question or analyze, told him the ball was about to open, told him what the other man intended to do and what he must be prepared to do himself, supplied him with a kind of foretaste of the other's strengths and weaknesses, his reactions and timing. In his mind he began counting down from five, seeming to hear a second voice sounding side by side with his own. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!
He ducked back and fell off to the right, lifting his Remington and firing. Vin leaped left, tucked, rolled, and came up, levelling the Spencer, lining it and squeezing the trigger in one fluid movement. The bullet cut the rope six inches above Nathan's head just as Chris Larabee's first shot took Harper under the heart. The man fell against the horse, which reared, pitching the unprepared ex-slave off over its rump. Before the horse could trample him or any of Harper's men think of using him as a shield, a big figure bounded into view and slapped a hand down onto his back, clenching a grip of his vest and calico shirt, and with one tremendous heave lifted him right off the ground and tumbled him behind the shelter of the rose thicket just as Ezra Standish stood up and let fly with his blunderbuss. The pattern of shot at under ten yards spread with deadly effect, bringing down no less than three of the astonished lynchers before they could bring their weapons to bear on Josiah's disappearing bulk. On the other side of the glade, Buck Wilmington leaned into view around his boulder, squinting down the long barrel of his sixgun and squeezing off one shot after another, while JD popped up over the top of the rock, firing as he had the day he demonstrated his skill for Casey, right hand and left by turns, and every shot told. Vin's second shot took out the knee of the man just raising a Remington in Chris's direction. Ezra tossed the empty blunderbuss aside and began firing with his Navy Colt, hearing the heavy bellow of Josiah's Walker beside him. The lynchers, suddenly finding themselves taking fire from three sides, returned it in desperation, but their opposition was either moving or close to cover, while they, clotted together around the tree and deprived of a leader, presented an easy target. Half of them fell in the first ten seconds, most hit more than once. Two bolted for the only opening afforded them, the river at their back, floundering over the quicksand as fast as the rushing water, at its highest now as the snowmelt off the mountains swelled it, would permit. One stumbled into a hole and was carried away by the current before he could recover his feet.
The horse charged between Vin and Chris, reins flying, stirrups swinging, lunging up the slope toward the herdmates it had just left, seeking the comfort of their company. Chris ducked as a man came at him with a knife, letting the fellow's momentum carry him over his intended victim's back, and then whirled to put a bullet through his wrist as he struggled to his feet; an instant later a round from Buck's .44 shattered his jaw. Vin was up on one knee, squinting along the Spencer's barrel as he emptied the magazine of its last two shots, JD from the boulder at his back keeping up a steady pattern of cover fire. Before he even found it necessary to draw the Dragoon .44 at his side, the thunder of gunshots faded into silence.
Buck stood up, dropping the loading lever of his Remington to begin ejecting the spent rounds. "Damn, boy," he growled at JD, "you're so proud of bein' nineteen, you best give some thought to whether you want to last to twenty! What the hell was that about, standin' up like a target?"
"Got the job done, didn't I?" JD retorted, pulling the hammer of his right-hand Navy back to half-cock and turning the cylinder to see whether he had any bullets left, then repeating the process with the left. "Didn't see your friend takin' cover."
"Standish?" said Chris in amazement, recognizing the Southerner.
"Indeed, sir," Ezra agreed. "Have no apprehension over the health of the intended victim; Mr. Sanchez is severin' his bonds as we speak."
At that moment Josiah stood up, steadying Nathan. "I don't wanta sound like I ain't grateful," the black man observed, "but I think you're all crazy! I'm lucky I ain't shot to pieces, all the lead you all had flyin' around here." He turned to the smith, obviously recognizing him from the store. "Is my wife okay?"
"She is in the care of my cook and several other ladies at the restaurant, sir," Ezra told him before Sanchez could reply, "and they are armed. Might I suggest we make haste in returnin' you to her lovin' arms so she can assure herself of your survival?"
Vin rose from his crouch, letting his eyes track slowly over the scene. Harper and his men lay in a tumbled pattern like so many jackstraws, silent and still. Thick white smoke hung in a fog over the glade, slowly dissipating as the breeze off the river reached it. The hunter snorted lightly at the smell of blood and powder and tilted his head, listening for the groan or rustle of an injured man among the dead. He heard none.
Chris walked over to join him, scanning him up and down for any sign of injuries. "That was one hell of a shot," he said.
"Thanks. Gotta think some on gettin' one of these here." Vin met the cool green eyes again, wondering if the second contact would carry the same thrill as the first. It didn't, but on reflection he decided it didn't have to. They had already learned each other in that one tingling moment on the gallery. Now it was only a matter of assimilating what they knew. The older man's voice was familiar in his ears, as if it had always been there, or as if he had been waiting all his life to hear it. For most of his twenty-five years he had been reluctant to let others get too close; every time he did, it seemed, he either lost them or suffered some form of abuse or betrayal for his trouble. This man he didn't have to allow to get close, because there had never been any distance for him to cross. Vin felt as if he had known him forever. "Don't recollect I got your name."
"Captain Chris Larabee, Company D, Second Cavalry."
"Vin Tanner." A momentary twinge made itself felt as Vin remembered the Army would still be looking for him, and this man was Army. He didn't even have to dismiss it. Something inside him knew Larabee would never betray him. "Hunter for Wells Ranch."
"That's Sergeant Bucklin Wilmington behind you," Chris proceeded. "Same outfit."
"Kid's JD Dunne. Rides for the Pony Express out of Wells. Big feller on t'other side's Josiah Sanchez, station smith."
"Ezra Standish in the red coat," Larabee finished his half of the introductions. "He owns the building we just left, and most of what's in it."
"I do not, Captain Larabee," Ezra objected. "I own the hotel, saloon, and restaurant. The store and barbershop are quite independent of my control."
"I'm Nathan Jackson," Nathan said, "and I reckon I owe you all a big thanks." He looked around at this assembly of strangers with a puzzled frown. "Maybe I can figure a couple of cavalry comin' to my defense, but why the rest of you?"
Vin shrugged. "Just seemed like it was somethin' wanted doin'." He met Larabee's eyes again and sensed the officer's agreement with that concept. Duty hadn't had anything to do with it. Neither, really, had compassion or justice. It was more that each of them had known the other was going to act and that he couldn't let him go alone.
Twenty feet to Larabee's rear, one of Harper's men stirred, painfully pushing himself an inch or two off the ground on which he lay face down. He could feel the bullet lodged in his lung, the blood bubbling up in his throat; he knew he had only minutes to live. But he'd see to it that he and his friends took at least those first two meddlers with them. His gun was still in his hand, stretched out to his right and a little ahead of him. He tightened his grip and raised it, squinting, choosing his spot.
Nathan caught the hint of motion and reacted without thinking. He had seen the big man who had freed him sheath the Bowie knife on his right, only inches from his own hand. He snaked his right out, wrapped it around the hilt, pulled the blade free, flipped it around, and threw it. At short range a Bowie, in the hands of a competent user, was the fastest and deadliest weapon in the West. The knife hurtled through the air in a flash of bluish-silver and buried itself to the hilt just under the little bump where the would-be killer's spine met his neck. His finger spasmed automatically on the trigger and the gun went off, but he hadn't had quite enough time to bring it into line, and the bullet cut harmlessly through a slender branch ten feet to the left of JD's shoulder.
"Sorry," Nathan apologized, as the big man looked from the familiar leather-wrapped handle down to the empty case at his waist. "Wasn't time to say nothin'. Anyway, seemed like it was the least I should be doin'."
"Where you learn to throw a knife like that?" Vin asked.
Jackson shrugged. "Travelled with a medicine show for a while. Knife-throwin' at a target was part of the show we put on."
"Fascinatin' as this undoubtedly is," Ezra interjected, "I personally see no exigency for lingerin' among the recently deceased when I could be refreshin' myself at the bar. Gentlemen, shall we go?"
The abrupt cessation of the roar of gunfire in the streamside growth had fallen on the ears of Inez, Rain, the Wellses and the Travises with a loudness of its own. Mrs. Potter had helped her husband to the restaurant and had him in one of the dining-room chairs, fussing over him. Billy slipped away from his mother's reaching hand and hurried to the front window. After a few minutes he yelled out, "Ma! Ma, they're coming!"
"How many of them?" his mother demanded, staying back with Nettie and Inez to offer comfort to Rain in case her husband had been a casualty.
There was a pause while the boy counted under his breath. "Seven!"
Rain pulled free of the other women and went flying across the room and out the door. Catching sight of her, Nathan picked up his pace until he was half running, half limping up the slope to meet her. They came together midway between the gallery and the edge of the streamside thickets, the suddenly thwarted kinetic energy of their near collision spinning them both twice in a circle as their arms wrapped desperately around each other. Rain was laughing and crying at once. "Oh, mihihna, miwichashita, I thought I would not see you again until the Other Life!"
"It's okay, sicé [beloved]," Nathan soothed her, one hand behind her head, the other rubbing her back as he pressed her tight against him. "Nahan rai ni wayon heon [I am still alive]. Brave heart, chikala--remember you're a Lakota woman. It's okay now. These six ozuye nacha [great, noble warriors] finished off them can'l wanka shicha [evil cowards] that tried to hurt us. Ain't nothin' to be scared of. You're safe and so am I."
Safe, Vin thought. That was it, he realized. Larabee's voice, his eyes, made him safe. It wasn't a feeling he was familiar with. He had to stop and study it, let his acceptance of it seep into his consciousness, acknowledge to himself that it was so.
"You hurt, Vin?" Nettie was demanding. "JD, Josiah, you both in one piece?"
"Boy's fine, ma'am, no thanks to whatever brains he's got," Buck told her. "Breaks cover like he thinks he's invisible, or maybe bulletproof--hell, even a green trooper knows better'n that!"
"I wasn't worried," JD snapped, but with a cocky grin pasted across his face. "I knew you were coverin' for me, you and Vin. But mostly you."
"Señor Ezra? You are all right, yes?" Inez added her demand to the exchange.
"Quite, my dear. Might we, perhaps, sit down and be served some coffee so you ladies may be apprised of recent occurrences? Gentlemen, please seat yourselves. I shall be but a moment in joinin' you."
He stopped in the bar to tell George to send men down to the river for the bodies, returned with a bottle of good Napoleon 1837 brandy from the stock in his room, declared the restaurant closed till suppertime and chivvied the diners out, and then laced each of the men's cups with the aromatic liquor as Inez tipped the two-gallon brown-and-white coffeepot over them. Nathan had taken a chair next to Randolph Potter and begun examining his head and bruised shoulder almost without realizing he was doing it. "Are you a doctor?" the storekeeper asked.
"Matter of fact, I am. I'm a certificated Doctor of Botanic Medicine out of Cincinnati and I got the paper to prove it. Done a little surgery too, time to time, and studied herbal healin' with the Lakota. Don't look like you're concussed," he added. "Might have a little headache for a day or so and be kinda lame in that shoulder for longer, is all. I can fix you up a yarrow compress once my wife gets our gear unpacked, that'll ease you some. You want to move the joint so it don't stiffen up, get somebody to rub on it too, and don't get wet or sweaty or too warm in bed."
"Sounds as if you know what you're talking about, Brother Nathan," Josiah observed.
"Been doin' this work close to fifteen years now," Nathan agreed.
Vin didn't have much to contribute to the multi-part narrative that followed, as Buck, JD, and Ezra told most of the story of the gunfight by the river. Neither did Larabee, who seemed to have withdrawn into a reflective and somewhat detached silence. After Mrs. Potter had taken her husband off to their cabin to rest, it was Mary Travis who attempted to draw him back into the exchange when she asked, "Will this get you any sort of official reprimand, Captain Larabee? After all, acting to prevent a lynching is more within the functions of a civil office than a military one."
"I'm unaware of any regulations forbidding me from exercising such functions in the absence of a civilian duly authorized to do it, Mrs. Travis," Chris told her, his tone again cool and flat. "It's true that an officer in uniform can under no circumstances become embroiled in a public fracas unless seriously threatened or attacked, but I don't believe what happened down by the river could be described as public unless someone wanted to stretch the point. In any case, officially, I'm still on escort duty, and Army regulations state that if, in the opinion of the troop commander in the field, a departure from ordered procedure is deemed necessary or wise, he shall change that procedure. On that basis I should be able to defend my actions. Now, if you'll all excuse me--" And without waiting to be assured that they did, he stood and left the restaurant at a rapid walk.
"Jeez," said JD out of the silence, "what was that for all of a sudden?"
"I'll be damned," Buck muttered, casting an eye at Vin. "I will just be damned--sorry, ladies. It finally happened, and thank God for it. Somebody finally got past his defenses."
Ezra frowned. "I trust, Sergeant Wilmington, that you are aware you are effectively speakin' in code? You may understand what you mean to convey, but the rest of us have no such comfort."
Buck hesitated, seeming to struggle with himself as he looked around at the half- score of questioning faces surrounding the long table--Billy, tiring of Ezra's highflown language, had gone out on the gallery to practise mumblety-peg. "I don't know if I oughtta answer that question, Ezra. Seein' as most of us only just met."
"It got somethin' to do with why he got so quiet?" Vin guessed.
"Yeah," Buck sighed, "it does." His voice grew soft and sad. "About a year after I met him, we were servin' at the Presidio out in San Francisco when he met a girl. Name was Sarah Connelly. Goin' on eighteen, freckles and auburn hair, and a spirit to match any man's, likely on account of havin' been brought up with no mamma in a family of brothers. She'd been taken out to Oregon about five years before, and then when gold was found her pa brought her down to California to keep house for him while he started up a business sellin' livestock to people headin' up to the diggings. There was so few women in town in them early days that she could'a' had any man she wanted, and I can tell you old Hank didn't think much of Chris; said he was too wild, said no daughter of his was gonna marry some low-pay Army officer and end up a widow in five or ten years. And as for Chris, he was no green kid; he was goin' on thirty, but he fell hard and fast. I think he and Sarah knew from the day they first saw each other how it was gonna be. They had to do a good bit of slippin' around till she had her birthday, but the minute she was old enough to get married without consent, they sneaked off to the mission and did it. I was witness and best man. Couple years later they had a little boy, named him Adam.
"Four years ago we all got transferred to Fort Laramie. South about ten or fifteen miles there was a little settlement of Methodists--ten men, seven women, eight kids. One of the women was somebody Sarah'd known when she was a little girl back East, and soon as they recognized each other she took to goin' down to visit every month or two. It meant she had to have an escort, 'cause Army women ain't allowed to step outside the stockade without, even to walk along the river. But everybody on post loved Sarah, even our colonel--he couldn't deny her a damn thing she wanted.
"We'd been there about a year when me and Chris got assigned a routine patrol, up to South Pass and back, about a week each way. When we got there we met up with an outfit from Fort Hall, and there was an emigrant wagon train camped there that had two couples in it that had made up their minds to get hitched, so we all got invited to the party. Chris wanted to get on home, he never liked bein' away from his family for long, but I talked him into stayin', said the men had had a long hard ride and deserved the break. God, if I'd known--
"So we got back to Laramie and Sarah and Adam weren't there. The wife of the officer next door told Chris some drifter had passed through and left off word that Sarah's Methodist friend was sick and callin' for her. She'd gotten the Colonel to assign her an escort, six men and an officer, which was what he usually sent with her, and took Adam on account she had no idea how long she'd have to be gone and figured he'd like the chance to play with the Methodist kids, not seein' 'em all that often. They'd only left the day before we got in. I don't know why Chris got it in his head that he should follow, but he did, and as soon as he'd made his report he grabbed a fresh horse and took off. I'd been with him long enough by then to know when he had a bee in his bonnet and I went along."
His voice broke a moment, and he had to pause and recover his self-possession before he could continue. "It was only about half a day's ride at standard pace. We made it in three hours. We were too late. We found Lieutenant Wallace and his men, dead, stripped and scalped and cut up, where they'd fallen tryin' to defend one of the cabins. Sarah and Adam were inside. As for the Methodists, there wasn't a sign of 'em, livin' or dead. The cabins had been emptied out, wagons and livestock were gone, not even a fresh grave to suggest that they'd pulled out after Sarah's friend died. What had become of them we never could find out."
Buck put his face down in his hands, elbows on the tabletop, struggling to keep his tears in check. Without knowing why he did it, JD, his face pale and pinched as the stories he'd heard suggested a picture of the scene, laid a comforting hand on his back.
"I thought sure Chris was gonna fall apart," the sergeant went on after several moments of silence. "I could see the change comin' over him before my eyes, everything that was gentle and lovin' and kind burnin' out of him and sealin' over, eyes goin' cold and hard, mouth losin' all its softness. We couldn't even take the bodies home to Laramie, havin' no horses but our own. We buried 'em where we found 'em--it took us a day and a half--and scouted around for sign. There was barefoot pony tracks and some broken arrows and a lance or two, but the war party must've figured the detail would be missed, and they'd circled around and hit the North Platte above the Crossing. That river's always hard and dangerous to get over, even where there's a ford, and all along it are canyons and steep rocky ridges where you can't get out. We found what we thought was the place they went in, but we couldn't pick up where they'd left."
No one noticed the stoic, withdrawn expression that had begun to show on Vin's face. Buck paused again, gathering his resources, and went on. "We went back to Laramie and gave our report. Technically I guess we were AWOL, but the Colonel understood. I got a notion he was all that kept Chris from gettin' cashiered them first six months or so. The man was like a ghost, just goin' through the motions of living. Nobody could get through to him, not Colonel Woodson or Chaplain Helm, not the other officers and their wives, and sure not me. God knows I tried, but I couldn't stop thinkin' how if I hadn't talked him into stayin' on for that emigrant wedding, we could'a' been there and gone along. I don't know if we could'a' saved Sarah and Adam, but at least we'd'a' done our best, and if we'd failed, well, we wouldn't have had the guilt and the pain to live with afterward.
"Chris ain't been the same man since that day. Oh, he pulled himself out of the worst of it, eventually. I guess he convinced himself that his wife and boy wouldn't want him to commit suicide, whether it was by a bottle, or not eatin' or sleepin', or what. But till today, out on that gallery, I ain't seen him show any real interest in anything, or volunteer to do anything he didn't have to. He puts up a front, but that's all. It's like he's dead inside, or gone into hibernation like a bear. All the meaning went out of his life when he lost his family. I reckon the main reason he stays with the Army is that even though he knows he's got no hope of ever findin' the war party that killed 'em, maybe someday he'll run up against one that'll send him on to join 'em. He don't really have any other reason to go on."
Should'a ' knowed, Vin thought, angry at himself. Should'a' figured I couldn't be so lucky. He won't want me once he knows, and I won't not tell him. And Wilmington here's got first claim on him anyhow; he's been with him for years, took care of him, give him all the help he can. What right I got to shove my nose into the middle of that? None.
"I'll be goin'," he said meagerly, and stood, leaning the borrowed Spencer against the table. "I'll be obliged you all see this here gets back to Mr. Potter, and tell him thanks for the loan of it." He stood and stalked out by way of the kitchen.
Nettie and JD stared after him in stunned silence. "What's gone with him?" Casey exclaimed.
Buck frowned, distracted, and then an expression of resolve settled on his face. "I'll go talk to him," he declared, and followed.
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