Vin knelt and touched the dry earth. It was just a scuff in the pine needles, but one that turned up dampness beneath, the moist loam dark against the reddish hue of the old duff on top. He rose and stepped forward, found other marks, brief indentations. Yet he did not try to follow, did not care to waste the time of exacting out such a faint trail, inch by inch. That was not his plan
+ + + + + + +
Sam saw the tracks again, felt quite sure it must be the same horse. Or at any rate, a horse with the same sized shoe. Three times in three days, first at one water hole, then another. The last paused at the foot of a steep deer track. Someone searching - for what? Cold gripped Sam that went deeper than the knife-edged breeze pushing through the pinions. Who was it? Why? Then bitter laughter rose like bile, as quickly swallowed. Why else, you poor idjit?
That night Sam ate no supper, but huddled on a limestone ledge with Larabee's gum blanket wrapped over Sam's own rough wool, and the horse blanket appropriated from JD's stall. Nights out here were becoming almost too cold for sleep, with no campfire dared. Yet wakefulness now came from the gnawing knowledge that someone else was out here, and Sam needed to see who, needed to be awake when the man moved. Unless . . . and the youngster smiled thinly. Where did this fellow camp, anyhow?
+ + + + + + +
With a sardonic smile, Ezra drawled, "I believe the appropriate term is 'clan,' not kinfolk."
Buck and JD matched Ezra's stare at the three Yarbroughs, who slouched along the opposite side of the street at portly John Frame's heels. Not a man of them had so much as spit on the sidewalk, in the three days since their arrival, but their presence remained as unnerving as a snake handler at the supper table. Relatives, all of them, to the dead man, Lew Yarbrough.
Dark brows drawn down, JD said, "There's a difference?"
"Remember the Nichols family?" Ezra arched an eyebrow at his young friend.
"I've heard about some of those hill folks," Buck said, narrowly watching the quartet disappear down-street. "You kick one, and the whole family hollers. The sons inherit feuds right along with the family farm."
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "I'm told it's the Scottish influence, that many of the old clansmen immigrated here ahead of English swords, and developed an affinity for our own hill country. They were feudists and raiders in the highlands, and old ways die hard. Blood ties run deep."
"Yeah, but we took care of the Nicholses, didn't we?" JD set his jaw and looked at his two companions. "And there aren't nearly as many of these fellas."
"Sure, kid," said Buck sourly. "But you're forgettin' that you got beat half to death, we damn near got our asses shot off, and then we were helpin' fix broken windows for weeks, after."
With an uncomfortable scowl, JD faced away, in the direction the newcomers had vanished. "I ain't forgottin' nothing, Buck. I'll just be damned before I let a pack of hillbillies tell us how to manage our town. They take one step after Vin and Sam, and they'll sure wish they hadn't."
Rolling his eyes at Ezra, Buck clamped a firm hand on his youngest pardner's shoulder, and shoved JD around and up the sidewalk - in a heading opposite of the four Tennesseans.
"Son, let me educate you on a couple things, before you go volunteerin' me for a butt-kickin' contest."
+ + + + + + +
Sam saw the tiny point of fire from above, like a star afloat in a sea of black. The youngster studied it for a time, trying to orient in memory where the fire must be, to the south side of a certain dry stream bed. With slow, cautious steps, Sam worked down from the rim, inching with hands touching dry brush and rock for balance and orientation. When the ground leveled under foot, the youngster threaded warily through the pinions, steps padding on deep pine needles, towards the now-invisible campsite. Only starlight showed the way this night, a sliver of moon not to rise until just before sunup. The jumbled incline of rock and earth finally dipped in a long, downslope course, and Sam turned along its path. The first hint of wood smoke drifted as more taste than smell, and the youth slowed to a stalking crouch. As the scent grew stronger, Sam halted and sank motionlessly, beneath the prickling embrace of a low-spreading pinion pine.
Hearing nothing for many minutes, Sam at last moved forward, until a small glint of ruddy light flickered through sweeping pine boughs. Slow as a stalking cat, the youngster moved, no faster than one step every ten seconds or so. At last, the fire came in view. And Sam froze.
Just a fire. Only a tiny, glimmering hatful of fire, now burning down to dim coals, and neither bedroll nor so much as a coffee pot in sight. A careful test of the breeze brought a pungent, ammonia whiff of where a horse had been tethered. Yet not so much as a shifting hoof broke the cavernous silence. No man built a nice, snapping campfire, then went off in the dark to let it burn itself out. Where in hell was he?
The hairs on Sam's neck rose in a fine, cold tingle, and each breath pressed tightly. Oh, damn. Oh, damn. Oh, Sam, now you got no doubts, not a one. Someone is looking for you, might even now be watching, easing closer -. Heart pounding at a galloping rate, the youngster breathed deeply and slowly through an open mouth, in an effort to remain perfectly quiet. There seemed no sound, other than the soft, eternal sough of the pines, yet imagination played a thousand falsehoods.
Sam managed to retreat in silence, to restrain panicked feet from headlong flight. Yet the sense of being watched never left. And the unseen eyes watching never blinked. Damn, he had almost not seen that kid.
+ + + + + + +
Vin played his last card the next morning. He arose at grey dawn from a lion's bed amongst the mesquite, to a world etched in white frost. Tanner stretched with stiff care, and cast one last glance to a certain small alcove, high in the broken cliff face above. There his quarry had gone to earth, and had remained now for about three hours, possibly asleep. There the chase would end. With infinite care, he crept down amongst fractured stone and fragrant pine, until he reached his picketed horse and saddled up. A mile to the south, he recalled a way up the rim rock, not really a trail, but towards this he pointed his horse's nose. Within thirty minutes, the horse lunged up the last, scrambling slope to the top, and Tanner turned him north, back along the rim rock.
At last, the tracker left his horse hobbled to graze, in a brief patch of frost-tipped dry grass. From there he went on afoot, stepping slow and warily amongst cold, aromatic shadows. Then he paused, crouching over a faint scuff of pine needles. Smiled.
As dawn washed the world in chill light, Tanner felt the open space of the rim drawing near, saw the brief, white puff of his own breath. The rising sun pried icy, golden fingers through the trees, painted pools of dappled light on stone and pine forest duff. Just below, now.
Tanner froze. Heard nothing more. And felt amber coyote eyes staring a hole right through him. Tanner, you damn fool, you misjudged this one. He felt his heart thud deep and steady, heard the pulse thumping in his own ears. Drew a deep, cold breath, and watched the black-white flicker of a magpie plummet off the rim into infinite blue space, into the cold, golden spill of a new day. A man could die in a lots worse place.
Yet no shot followed. Carefully hooking his thumbs in his waistband, Tanner rolled his shoulders briefly, and waited.
Finally, he said gently, "If yer gonna shoot me, kid, I reckon now's the time."
Silence. Then a softer click, a hammer being lowered. Five more clicks followed, and he envisioned the Remington's cylinder being rotated, until an empty chamber rested safely under the hammer.
"I never wanted him dead."
The soft Tennessee voice came from somewhere beyond Vin's left shoulder. Tanner nodded slowly, not moving, else.
"I only wanted him to . . . to go away. I just wanted him to let me be . . . "
The voice whispered into stillness, and Vin watched his breath puff like thin smoke before him. Cold, up here, in these last moments before the sun shoved night into hiding.
"Vin . . . you'll take me back, right? Not some marshal from somewhere."
Then Vin turned to face him, slowly. Saw the boy framed in golden cedar boughs perhaps ten yards away, the black weight of that Remington sagging in one hand. Kid looked like he had not rightly slept in days.
It was an awkward moment, the kid standing there with a loaded gun, and Vin with his own still foolishly holstered. Hell of a gamble. Yet for the first and most assuredly only time in his life, man-hunter Vin Tanner captured his quarry by doing nothing more than holding out his hand.
He breathed again, when the Remington was snugged into his own waistband. Watched as the kid simply sagged, staring out across the golden sweep of tree-studded morning, far below the rim.
"Sam. Let's go."
And the boy came, never more than arm's reach away. Like a pup grateful for even the briefest of kindness. Let this be the right thing. Please, let this be right
+ + + + + + +
Buck met them on the street, almost as soon as they hit town limits. Tight-jawed and harried, the tall man caught the bridle of Vin's horse.
"Stable first," he said, and shot a glance over his shoulder.
Vin nodded, spurred his double-laden mount towards their stable, just ahead. Questions could wait, especially in view of Buck's jogging dash for the barn door, as if anxious to get them under cover.
"What's up?" Vin asked, as the frigid shadows of the barn gulped them up.
"Vin, we got troubles. Or more rightly . . . " And now Buck tipped his head up to cast an almost sad look at the boy behind Vin's saddle. "The kid does."
Tanner turned to lend a hand as the boy slid down, and Buck steadied him as he wobbled. Frowned at the frailty he felt under that grasp.
"Sam, when the hell you last eat?"
"This morning. Vin shot a grouse or something . . . "
The kid looked at the ground as he spoke, and Vin swung from the saddle. "He ain't been eatin' much, lately. So, what news?"
"Well . . . " Buck looked again at the kid, then faced Vin with the strangest expression the tracker had ever seen on his face. "For starters, Vin, our lil' stray, here, ain't a 'he.' Sam is a she."
Vin's horse swung its nose into his back, staggered him forward a step, but the tracker barely noticed. A what? Buck's expression mirrored only sincerity, and the kid stood like a wooden statue. Tanner had just spent the last, long week eatin' varmints and playing Injun, way out on the thin end of creation . . . hunting a girl?
"Sam's real name is Sarah Ann Yarbrough," Buck continued. "Or Sary Ann, as they call her. And the man she shot . . . " The tall man's face softened in deep sadness. "Well, he was her husband, Vin. She run off from him, a while back. I reckon he come here lookin'."
Tanner reached out a finger to touch the youngster's chin, tipping it up so their eyes met. Those amber eyes stared back up at Vin, with mute weariness so soul-deep that maybe no sleep could ease it. But no denial. Strange, to look in a familiar face, and yet watch it seem to evolve into something else. Ah, God, yes, the truth was plain now, in the fine cut of the youngster's cheek and jaw. Not some bright, beardless boy, but a girl, a very young woman, with grubby, elfin features and amber-hazel eyes that fairly swam in infinite sadness. A great many things suddenly made sense. A hundred little clues suddenly locked into a complete picture. How long had he suspected, and yet refused his own suspicions? Vin Tanner abruptly felt very, very tired.
A footstep scuffed outside, and Buck stepped between the stable door and Vin's captive, a protective movement that puzzled Vin and hinted of further trouble to come. Yet it was only Larabee's lean silhouette that appeared.
"Well. Good work, Vin." Chris sauntered inside and pursed his mouth to look down at Sam's ragged form. "And you. Think you can come straight with us, now?"
"Chris," Buck protested. "Let the poor kid -."
"John Frame is here," Chris interrupted, and he watched as Sam's eyes went wide, mouth opening in a silent oh. "With several long, tall fellows, all by the name of Yarbrough. And he is talking up a storm, all about murder. Kid, you'd best think about what you want to do to help yourself, startin' right now."
"Help myself?" Sam straightened thin shoulders, and to everyone's surprise, the kid's old spark flickered from beneath the weight of sagging fatigue. "Help myself? Damn you, Mister Larabee, don't you think I done tried that? But the Devil don't like to let go what's his'n."
"Maybe not, kid. But this is your chance to give the Devil a good fight."
Coyote eyes narrowed, measuring Larabee with deep suspicion. "Ye offerin' to help?"
"Help?" And Chris's face lit in that bright, feral grin, which usually meant something was about to get broken. "Heck, little sister, me and ol' Lucifer are regular sparrin' partners. He ain't whipped me, yet."
Sam eyed Chris, glanced at Buck, then Vin. Then the starch seemed to run out of the youngster, on the breath of a single sigh. Suddenly they saw, not a tough, scrappy teenaged kid, but a slight and beleaguered girl, who had already seen and done far, far too much.
"Please . . . can you 'uns fix it for me to get a bath, afore I go back to jail?"
+ + + + + + +
Inez blew in like a calico cyclone, as soon as she heard of their fugitive's return, of Chris's request that she meet them at the bath house. She swore in at least two languages, as she caught Sam's arms, and raked the youngster up and down with angry, worried eyes.
"Ah, you are a mess! Oh, chiquita, you poor thing - Chris, she needs proper clothes! There is a dress at Mrs. Porter's, I have money -."
Yet Sam recoiled in horror at the thought of anything but clean britches and a shirt, and finally even Inez conceded exasperated defeat. If the seven peacekeepers had yet to digest the idea that Sam was actually a girl, so it seemed their Tennessee stray was not yet ready to return to her true self, either.
John Frame appeared as if the news reached him by smell, barging along the walk in such a hurry that he seemed to have left his three hounds elsewhere. Straight as a bee's flight, he aimed his rolling stride towards a door framed by Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson.
"Is she here? By God, I want to see that little -."
Buck's hand in his chest slammed the man to a halt. The tall gunslinger said through clenched teeth, "Ain't no one seein' that kid just now, mister."
"By God, I got the right to -."
Nathan drew himself to full height and retorted, "Not durin' a lady's bath, you don't."
Frame pulled back, glared at the black healer. "Boy, I don't recall speakin' to you."
"Why, you sorry son -."
Nathan's quick grab saved Buck from putting the man through a nearby window, but there was hard purpose in the healer's eyes. Sharply he said, "Mister, you don't gotta say a word to me, but you try and set foot in that door, and I'll make sure you leave, directly."
At that moment, the bathhouse door jerked open, and Inez's dark eyes blazed pure, scorching fury.
"Senor Nathan, we have need of you. And you!" Her tone spat unadulterated loathing at an astonished John Frame. "If you knew what kind of beast your precious Lew Yarbrough was, I hope you go to the same hell he burns in!"
The door slammed with a whack that rattled every window in the building. Buck and Nathan looked at each other, wide-eyed. Then Buck made shooing motions at the healer.
"Go on, Doc, you heard the lady."
Nathan shrugged, and went inside, closing the door quickly behind him. John Frame sputtered and moved forward, but Buck stepped into him with a stiff arm.
"You don't hear so good, mister. The answer is no."
Perhaps it was the fact that Wilmington towered a full head over him, or maybe it was the promise of homicide suddenly darkening the tall man's eyes, but John Frame chose to abandon his pursuit. He stepped back with a loud huff, and made a show of straightening his lapels.
"You will be seeing me, sir. I promise you that."
"Ohhh," Buck purred. "I can hardly wait.
+ + + + + + +
"Whipped," Nathan repeated. "Probably with a lighter whip, like a buggy whip or ridin' quirt, but it cut good."
"Her back looks like a - a big cat attacked her," Inez fumed, and flung her wash towel back into the soapy basin full of bar glasses. "How could a man do such a thing? To his wife! If he were not dead, I would kill him, myself!"
"New marks?" Chris's voice came sharp and clipped.
"No, these are all healed over, got solid scarring. Seven, eight stripes. Looks like they was laid on in two separate times, some scars older than others."
Vin lolled against the bar, his gaze fixed on Nathan with an intensity that might have frozen mercury. Next to him, JD listened with horror in his face and outrage in his heart, while Josiah leaned his forehead into one hand. Ezra, meanwhile, merely turned a Jack of Spades in nimble fingers. Over and over and over again. The only man absent was Buck, who steamed over a white flame down at the jail, and woe betide the curious soul who intruded upon their lone prisoner.
"And her arms?" Inez flipped quick fingers at the healer. "Tell them, Nathan."
Sighing, Nathan said, "She got a few more scars on her arms, burns, like, but way too far up to be from reachin' into a stove or something. They ain't rightly where a body's arm would get burnt that way, anyhow."
"But she won't say from what!" the Mexican woman burst out. "She still does not tell everything - Dios, I can't imagine what everything is! But that man was the Devil, I tell you!"
"What amazes me," said Ezra, his drawl fairly dripping venom. "Is that she did not kill the spineless bastard, long before this."
"She didn't want him dead, Ez," Vin replied. "Told me herself, she just wanted him to leave her alone."
"This may be her best defense, then," Chris said. "A history of abuse, visible scars to prove it, and enough fear of the man that she ran away, rather than confront him for divorce."
Josiah's deep voice rumbled, "A man like that would probably rather see a woman dead, than divorced."
"Not to mention the fact," Ezra added. "That the son of a bitch came all this way in pursuit of her."
Larabee shook his head. "Ain't unusual for a man to come after a runaway wife. What's unusual is that she's scared enough to shoot him on sight. That's what we need to illustrate in court."
No single moment ever marked when Sam McLachlan's predicament came to involve any "we," and yet the unspoken consensus among the seven peacekeepers was unanimous. Justice - true justice - for their Tennessee waif had become the common goal. John Frame's unlovable presence simply made it that much easier to choose which side of Justice's scales the Seven leaned towards
+ + + + + + +
"Papa was a horse trader, back home. Mama died real young, and it was just him and me, always on the road, up and down the mountains. He had him a real keen eye for good horses, Papa did."
Sam sat on her bunk in the jail, as Chris Larabee lounged against the open cell doorway, and Josiah sat on the other end of the narrow cot. JD and Vin stood just outside the cell, shadows beyond the light of the single lamp on the floor. None spoke, as Sam's sharp drawl spun her story in its own, slow style.
"We always had buyers for what we sold. Man could tell Papa what he wanted, horse, mare or mule, and like as not, Papa could deliver. He used me to show off a good horse, just throwed me up there, said I made a horse move handier, and anyhow he was a bit down in the knees. But he set a horse nice, yes, he sure did. It was him took to callin' me Sam, in short for Sary Ann. I liked it, on account of it didn't make me out to be no sissy girl. And sometimes it suited us to make like I was really a boy."
The youngster shifted to cross ankles and hands before her. Even knowing as they now did, she still felt the eyes of the peacekeepers sometimes studying her, still trying to shape their minds around the realization that she was not the boy they had long thought. In all this time, while Sam had drifted shyly on the edges of their companionship, these men had behaved freely as men did. Told uncouth stories and drank liquor, spat and used hard language, all those simple, masculine things they would never have done, had they known a woman was among them. And she herself had not always spoken or behaved as a lady ought. She had feared their disgust or scorn, watched for it, yet it never came. No lessening in either JD's friendly manner, or Josiah's compassion, or in Buck's teasing or Vin's quiet smile. As for Chris, well, he sure seemed a lot more human, nowadays, at the moment leaving his hat out on the desk, so the lamplight softened his features as he watched her talk.
"Papa died two months after my fourteenth birthday," Sam continued. "His heart, it was. He'd had him a spell that spring, but got better. Then one day he just . . . " That old emptiness gaped still, the ache of bottomless loss, and she took a deep breath to fill it. "He just laid down. John Frame was a friend o' his'n, I reckon. I never much cared for the man, but he bought horses from us, sold a couple through us, and backed Papa on some deals. Sometimes they'd drink cider and talk about the war, and all. He had him a little bit of ground, some money, and he and Papa worked it so's I'd be set, if Papa died. And he did, and so I went to Mr. Frame's house."
Once James McLachlan's estate had been settled, Sam's legacy consisted of little more than two yearling horse colts and a bit of money from the things sold. The carefree days of camp and trail were ended, and Sam never felt so alone. John Frame came with his buggy and took the teenaged orphan into his home, turning the colts out on good pasture. Mrs. Frame was a sharp woman, but true to her responsibilities, and saw to it that Sam had decent clothes, shoes in winter, kept up with her prayers, and learned a woman's duties. Yet theirs remained a comfortless house, no family warmth, no shared laughter, no real sense of home.
A few months later, Lewis Yarbrough came to Sunday dinner at the Frame house. He was a close cousin through John Frame's mother, a tall, quiet, and slow-smiling man who fed Sam's colts sugar lumps after supper. When he asked could he come to call on her, Sam's lonely heart just fluttered all over itself, that a real gentleman would even ask. She knew who the Yarbroughs were, a big family north of Boone Station. Toss a rock anywhere up Licking Creek, the saying went, and like as not you'd hit a Yarbrough. They were simple hill-country farmers with not a whole lot of money, but known as decent, honest, hard-working folks. Lew was special, though, with a way of looking right into her eyes that made Sam feel pretty, a way of touching her that woke up sensations she didn't even know if a good woman should have. Not too many boys had ever looked long at a horse trader's skinny daughter, and now she had a full-grown man, come to courtin'.
John Frame had to file a letter of consent, as guardian, but Lew and Sam were married in the spring of her fifteenth year. Lew was John's favorite cousin, and he carried on over this perfect match like a crowing rooster. Sam's own head spun delightfully at her blessed fortune, and she whirled amongst the simple furnishings of her new home, as a princess installed in her own rustic castle. Everything sang to her, the dogwood at the edge of the yard, the sweet forest framing the house, the little stream cleverly diverted into a wooden spillway past the door.
The realities of married life arrived the day that Sam accidentally burnt one of Lew's Sunday shirts in ironing. When she picked herself off the floor and spat out the blood, Lew was gone storming off outside somewhere. She cried off and on until he came home, with a handful of wild flowers and the sweetest apologies. Lew was sorry, so sorry, and her heart melted in the tenderness of his embrace. As weeks and months went by, she learned how it would be. He was always sorry. And he always hit her again. With watchful prudence, Sam learned to be careful, learned to read his moods and anticipate his wants and dislikes. Like as not, it was her slip that brought it all on, anyhow. If she could just give him a son, things would get better. However, children were not to be theirs, and Lew probably felt she had some hand in that, too.
The one thing she had never looked for, though, was Lew taking any interest in her horses, now coming three years old. Time they went to work, Lew said one day. But when Sam spoke of starting and halter-breaking and all those things a young horse needed to learn, Lew turned on her in towering indignation. Her place was at home, not gallivanting around some corral with her skirts up around her knees. Those horses would bring good money, down in the valley, and Lew had his plans made. He was her husband, and she the wife, and he had the say over what went in that house.
She picked herself up after that one, too, with neither sound nor complaint. Made him supper, turned back the bed, and lay there until she heard him snoring. In the wee hours, she went out as if to the privy. There she put on the old clothes she'd hidden, dropped her shorn hair down the hole, and looked back only to make sure that Lew Yarbrough did not see. Sam sold the two colts herself, although petting those soft, friendly noses goodbye felt like blackest betrayal. Nonetheless, the papers her papa had written were still in her name, and the money would be far easier to carry than two dependant creatures that would need her daily care. She only wished the logic of that could put some warmth back into the huge, cold hole in her heart.
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