I saw them gathered midway down the street. Seven dark, heavy forms of horses and riders, bunching, shifting in the dimness, a solid number for capturing four stage coach robbers. They saw me, looked towards me, and one figure detached itself, tall on a muscular horse that sucked the dying night into its black coat. Distant lamplight etched Larabee's face in stark, tight lines, and that face asked the question before his mouth did; what the hell was I doing?
"I'm going with you, sir," I replied, and anticipated the reply; like hell I am.
I simply listened, whilst he told me all the reasons I could not go. I was injured, I was weak, I would slow them down, and this was not my job. Good reasons, all, but I wanted none of them.
"My job," I said. "Was to protect the express, my passengers, and my driver. Mister Larabee, you can take me with you, or I can follow, but either way, I'm gonna see this finished."
His reply came in a tone as flat as boards whacked together. No. This was what they were paid to do. Another horse jostled forward and the healer's brown voice spoke, telling me plain what a damn fool I was, and how I needed rest in a bed, and he'd be damned before he'd let me go out galavantin' around, until I passed out stone cold and he had to carry my sorry little butt back to bed. He was right, actually. However, I reckon my opinion of Nathan Jackson went up a notch or two, on account of it took real brass for a black man to talk to a white man that boldly. He had to have taken his licks to even learn how. Further mark for the man was how Larabee backed him up, saying he could not allow someone else's wish for revenge to get in the way of doing their job. Go home, kid. Get well.
"I'm coming," I said, and even in the fractured light of that distant lamp, I felt his gaze like a sharp finger in the chest. "I'm coming," I repeated. "Because it's right, sir. It ain't revenge. I'm not even mad at those people. I just want to do right by Dan. Whatever you say right is. Mister Larabee, I swear I'll mind all your orders."
No. He had just one word for me. No.
"Or I follow you," I said.
A horse sneezed a rubbery gust, bit chains jangled. Even in near-darkness, staring straight back at Chris Larabee was about the hardest thing I ever did. Seemed easier to just sort of pick a spot between his eyes, but damned if I was going to look away.
Suit yourself, came the curt reply. If I fell off, if I fell behind, they'd just leave me there until whenever they came back.
So they turned, they clattered into motion, and I dropped in behind. Darkness blurred past, and brief lamps of the early risers, then we swept out onto the road east. The black earth hunched its back against the darkly glittering sky, and black silhouettes bobbed ahead of me, sparks striking briefly from iron shoes. I had a sense of almost flying, nothing but the surge of the horse beneath me as an anchor to the unseen planet below. I was with them, but not one of them. Still, I would be there, when the iron hand of Justice seized Dan's killers by their miserable necks. With this, I would be content.
Grey dawn flooded the world with its shadowless light, as on we rode. Larabee held us to a long trot, no glance back to see whether I stood the gaff, or not. Red had a reaching stride that he held with no apparent effort, which left all the effort to me. The effort lay in trying to ignore the cramping pain, like a great fist that squeezed my leg to the bone. Even without a bullet hole in me, it had been long since I rode anything but the box of a stage coach, and longer yet since I rode at such a traveling pace. Yet muscles remember the lessons of boyhood, and it was as when I rode the hills of west Texas, behind my father and brothers.
The first shadows sprang from the silent golden rush of the sun, when we reached the site of the hold-up. The dry wash lay pooled in blue shadows, beneath sun-touched rims of mesquite, and there the tracks of my coach cut deep in yellow sand. A sharp gesture from Larabee halted us perhaps five hundred yards short, and Tanner jogged ahead, alone. His slouch hat bent towards the ground, as their tracker read the silent script of the earth. Eyes such as his would see all the secrets of night etched there, the rabbit's passage, the mouse's quick race, a blurred divot in the sand where an owl struck its prey. Tanner paused at the rim of the arroyo, and was still a long while, only his head turning. Finally he turned, waved us in, warned that we ride only on the road itself.
My heart kicked my ribs, as I recognized the broken strong box, tipped and empty at the bottom of the arroyo. No sign of my shotgun. I wanted that gun back. We waited while Tanner cast about, and Larabee talked quietly amongst his men. Silently idling to one side, it struck me as pitiful that a busted box and deep-gouged tracks were the only signs of a tragedy. Seemed there should be more, somehow, to mark the death of Dan Dupres. Tanner finally called the kid, JD, up with him, and the two made wider and wider circles amongst mesquite and bunch grass. I recognized a thing from boyhood, the pattern of student and teacher. Nodding, I thought that the kid would do well.
Sunrise poured itself golden across the valley, spilled along the furrowed flanks of the mountains, and washed the faces of my companions with feeble warmth. Covertly studying them now, I realized this was the first time I'd ever seen all seven together. What a fantastically dissimilar group of men. Chris Larabee definitely belonged, stiff and poised as fine-carved marble, waiting with the lethal composure of a hawk. Buck Wilmington, well, he made me think of a lanky pet hound, conscious of his height, always slouching and bending around shorter folks, with a "hey, I'm friendly" grin stuck on his face. Nathan Jackson, the healer, leaned now on his saddle horn with an expression of such gentle patience, I couldn't imagine him so much as saying a cross word. Josiah Sanchez, the preacher, at least looked the part, a big, brooding figure whom folks said spoke in riddles and parables, if he spoke at all. He hunched now in a coat and tattered sarape, seemingly asleep in the saddle. Ezra Standish, now, that gambler looked almost foolish, a Southern gentleman, all dapper and pretty-like in a boiled shirt, fancy vest, and a flossy blue coat that likely would cost me three months' wages, sitting out here amongst the dirt and stickers and mesquite. JD Dunne, out there learning to track, even after all this time still looked like a cocky little city swell, with those baggy trousers and a silly hat that wouldn't keep the sun off a door knob. Vin Tanner, he fit the best, out of all of them, eyeballing everything with that Indian quiet held around him like a robe. Taken separately, they made for interesting contemplation, when a man had nothing else to do. Taken together . . . hard for me to imagine how seven such queerly matched men could do anything as a whole.
At last Tanner and JD rode back in to us. Four men, Tanner confirmed my count. Started off north, but then they split up. Looks like they're scattering, knew they'd be followed. JD glanced at Tanner, got the tiniest nod, then the kid added his note that one set of tracks is two horses, but the second horse follows right on top the other. Vin thinks one of them is leading a pack horse. Tanner corrected him with a small, approving smile, saying the kid was the one who said pack horse. JD grinned and looked away, so his pleasure would not be obvious. Larabee digested this with no comment, merely narrowed his gaze into the chilly gold of morning. Tanner looked where he did, the two of them like carved bookends for a moment, then Larabee turned to face the rest of us.
They will want to divvy up the loot, was his conclusion, and go through the mail bag. They'll need to meet up, again, to do that. The mail and most of whatever was in the strong box is probably on that pack horse. JD wanted to follow the pack horse, but Larabee shook his head, said he wanted to get all of them at once. The trick now would be to figure out where they might meet.
My bad leg now tried to solder itself to my saddle, the perforated muscle seizing with a sharp, clamping ache. With Nathan's attention diverted, it seemed best to try and move while no one was looking. Quietly I backed my horse ~ oh, lord, we should never have stopped ~ and turned him to stroll back a few yards, where I paused to unclench my jaw. Time to think, Morgan, my boy. Where we sat was open country, with the white ribbon of road visibly rising and falling for miles. No ranches out here, no homesteads until one got closer to town. You wouldn't think four men, who'd just robbed a stage and shot two men, would want to get anywhere near town, at least not for a while. We had been westbound when the robbers hit us. Their tracks started off north, then scattered. That left the two directions NOT covered, south or east.
"If it was me," I said, and all eyes turned at once. Felt like I'd farted in church. Swallowing, I tried again. "If it was me, I'd want folks to look everywhere but in the direction I wanted to go."
Josiah awoke, or maybe he'd never really been asleep. In that low voice, he rumbled that there was an old mining camp, southeast along those foothills maybe thirty miles. Place only lasted about two years, went bust a year ago, but there's still some stone walls and a couple buildings left. Ritter's Camp, Nathan named the place, and nodded slowly.
Larabee gave Tanner a "what do you think?" look, and got a "why not?" shrug in return. The plan then became that Tanner would follow the pack horse. If Tanner's quarry had not met up with the other robbers by nightfall, or if by then the trail showed no signs of going towards Ritter's Camp, Vin was to break off and make tracks to join us, where we would wait, and make new plans from there. For all we knew, the thieves might hide out from each other for days or weeks, but Larabee did not want to split everyone up, trying to follow four separate trails that might lead who knows where. For now, we'd have a man after the pack horse, which presumably carried the most valuable target, and try for a hunch, at the same time. If nothing else, Tanner could give us a fix on the pack, and the boys could scoop him up, a bit later.
As we turned to leave, the others wished Tanner well, and the tracker trotted off into the mesquite. In his wake, however, I heard Standish's mournful drawl, something about how intelligent people abandon depressed neighborhoods, but meanwhile, he rides thirty miles one-way just to view one, and could someone remind him how much he was being paid for this little excursion? The others offered indulgent grins or chuckles in reply, but my smile was from the perverse comfort of knowing that someone else would be miserable, by tonight.
Thirty miles on top of the ten we'd done already made for a mighty long day. My bullet wound gave up throbbing, and improved to just plain pounding, with each jolt of my horse's stride. I swore I could feel every torn sinew being stretched and twisted and yanked to raw ribbons, until I was sure parts of me had to be hanging out the hole. I kept my place in the back, where no one seemed to mind me, and no one could hear when Red mis-stepped and jerked a groan from my chest. Hours ago I'd given up posting a trot, and now rode standing in my stirrups. Quantities of complaints crowded themselves behind my teeth, such how I wished I'd stayed home, how I wished Larabee knew any gait but a trot, how I felt sure we were dad-blamed lost, and would just keep going until maybe somebody passed out ~ in which case Larabee had sworn he'd leave me where I dropped.
The sun reached long, bronzed fingers across our shoulders, and stroked blue shadow along the corrugated flanks of the hills ahead. Pinion and scrub oak stubbled the draws, and at last Larabee slackened the pace. Soon, Josiah told us, we would come on the site of Ritter's Camp. Now we let our horses walk, but it was uphill and then up some more, in an effort to gain elevation above the abandoned mine, and so hopefully have an advantage over anyone camped below. Finally we halted, screened in ragged, half-bare branches. Not a moment too soon, for me. Blearily I focused on the view below, of broken stone, crumbling slopes, the flat-topped ridges of mine tailings. Some of the stones took shape, shadows painting the squared ruins of cabin walls and the tumbled fragments of fallen timbers. Everything of value was long gone, probably hauled off to build the next site of dreams.
We'll camp here, I heard Larabee saying, the rest of his directions lost as I thought, Camp where? We're way the hell up in the stickers and brush, on a steep damned side-hill. Mr. Standish apparently shared my views, judging by the sigh that lifted the blue-clad ~ make that dust-clad ~ shoulders ahead of me. Everyone began getting down, flipping stirrups up to loosen cinches, but I discovered I had a problem.
I was stuck. Every time I shifted weight onto my left leg, to dismount, pain slammed a hot, red jolt right up my leg and into my stomach, which then rolled sourly into my throat. When I tried to shift the other way, to get off the wrong side, my leg seemed made of lead. Frustration burned in me, and I was bitterly contemplating the option of throwing myself bodily onto the ground, when strong hands clamped around my hips.
Like a voice from the bible, the deep tones spoke, let me lend a hand, brother. God almighty, nobody had helped me off a horse since I was six years old, but Josiah Sanchez boosted me out of the saddle like I was an infant. About all I could do was grab his shoulders on the way down, and then the whole mountain took a dip and a spin around me.
Another voice, with laughter behind it, told me to take it easy and called me kid, and I'd have told him what I thought of that, except I was too grateful for the help in just sitting down. Buck Wilmington folded his long self down in front of me, and stuffed my canteen almost in my face. He found things to say about forgetting to drink enough water, and lacking the sense God gave to geese, and probably more than that, but right then their kid, JD, came up laughing. He told Buck, oh, come on, at least he's not complaining about it, and then he smiled over Buck's patiently shaking head, and said he'd take care of my horse.
I didn't want anyone to take care of my horse, dammit, but I got distracted drinking water, and then I looked up to see the healer standing over me like a thunder cloud. He wanted to check my wound, he announced. Buck grinned just as happily as can be, and declared how it was time for me to drop my drawers. My gut went thump, when I looked down to see a dollar-sized dark spot, on the lump in my pants leg where the bandages lay. I did not want to know how bad it had got, but growling did not help any. Nathan merely shrugged, flipped a knife into his hand, and allowed he could just as easy cut my pants off.
I reckon pride was something I left laying with that broken strong box, anyhow, so I bared my nether half to the setting sun, and let Nathan work. Until just then, I hadn't rightly gotten a look at my injury. My stomach got almighty nervous, as I took a peek whilst Nathan sloshed water around, but damn, it wasn't anything.
"Aw, hell," I said. "I thought it was a lot bigger than that."
Somehow those two thought that was the funniest thing going, and said all sorts of smart things about how I was sorry it wasn't a more properly heroic bloody stump. Buck opined that it wouldn't leave enough of a scar to impress the ladies, and then near slapped his knee off, laughing. They couldn't see what a sour joke it was, to hurt so damn bad all day, and then see it was nothing but a raw spoonful of missing meat and hide. Still, by the time Josiah came around collecting canteens to refill, I lay almost asleep against my saddle. Maybe there was something to this getting shot business, after all.
I watched, as they set up a rough sort of camp, again noting the vast dissimilarities in these men. Larabee gave brief, blunt suggestions that sounded more like orders, as if it never dawned on him that anyone might argue. JD bounded off to the dull task of picketing the horses to graze in brush-sheltered patches of dry grass, as if his was the most urgent responsibility on earth. Josiah followed at a leisurely pace, and later I saw him sitting on a rock, placid as an oversized marmot, likely waiting for a bush or stone to speak to him. Here in camp, a wiry jumble of fallen tree branches needed to be dragged aside, to make room for bed rolls, and Nathan automatically went to it, with enough vigor to have moved the entire mountain by sunup. Ezra stepped in to help, pulling and scraping the tangle away with commendable alacrity, but then spent the next fifteen minutes in visible distress, plucking at his sleeves and dusting at his coat. Later Buck engaged Larabee in some sort of low-voiced yet heated discussion, which involved Buck waving his hands and making faces, whilst Larabee replied with shrugs and monosyllables. Nope, not a two of them remotely alike, and a more motley conglomerate of humanity I could never hope to see. I wondered again how on earth they functioned together.
No fire allowed, which meant darkness sifted in slow and chilly, until the mountain and the scrub trees stood black against the deepening blue sky. Always I've loved this time of day, when the deer tiptoed from cover and the little prairie wolf tunes up to wail his high, mad song. This night, however, I soon shivered under a coat and sweat-damp saddle blanket, curled tight and cold against the wool lining of my saddle, and wished I'd thought to bring a confounded bed roll. Bad enough I hadn't packed any food, and the other fellas felt obliged to stretch their own thin rations to include me. Stupid, Morgan, stupid, stupid. I knew Larabee left me off his sentry roster for the night, but on that point, I wasn't about to kick. Even Ezra Standish, fastidious manners, white cuffs and all, was making a better showing out here, than I did. Best for all that I just keep my misery to myself, and not get in anybody's way. Somewhere during the slow turn of the Big Dipper, someone dropped the soft weight of extra blankets over me. All I saw were legs walking away in the dark, likely going for sentry duty, and then I slept.
Sleep let go as sluggishly as a heavy fog, but I awoke with a hand on the cold brass of my borrowed Winchester, my heart thumping. Low voices, whispers. Finally I recognized Vin's soft rasp, and I rolled up sitting. Were they here? Movement whispered around me, brief thumps, and I huddled my blankets around the rifle. A shadow came close, and then a quiet Southern voice spoke my name. I replied, and Standish informed me that we were moving. When he left, the borrowed blankets wafted away, and I pushed myself stiffly into the cold dark. Another shape was JD, stepping in behind me to scoop up my saddle. Bad enough I knew I was useless, without others having to do for me.
"Hey!" I hissed, feeling my face burn. "I can carry that!"
JD ignored me, and as I hobbled after him, I discovered that I'd grown a wooden leg during the night. At least he let me throw my own saddle blanket onto Red's back, but when I tried to get hold my saddle, he pushed a hand on my shoulder and shoved me back, hissing at me to quit, will ya? Beyond the horses, Buck's low chuckle commented how I must remind JD of himself. Shut up, Buck, was the duet we sang him, and I could see JD's white grin.
One good thing about steep side-hills is, that one side is always easy to get on a horse. Even so, I was the last one up, and Larabee looked straight at me, as I did it. No talk now, so I swallowed an apology, and we were in motion. The muffled thump of hooves seemed to boom in the starlight darkness. I wanted to know the time, but it was too dark to see my watch, and my muzzy head could not seem to focus on finding the North Star and Big Dipper. Cold air breathed off the mountain to rasp my cheeks and pinch my nose hairs. Downhill we slanted, the saddle tipping steeply beneath me and our course invisible. Larabee and his men were but shadows bobbing into darker shadows, ahead of me, only Buck Wilmington's pale grey horse offering me any sense of orientation. Therefore I trusted Red's night vision, where mine failed. Now I wished for gloves, as my bare fingers seemed to fuse to my Winchester's icy metal. Gravel clattered ahead, but everyone kept moving. Apparently strict silence was not the concern, right now.
Startlingly quick, we were back on level ground, and Larabee set us once more in a traveling gait. My only point of reference was the black, jagged jaw of the hills looming to our right, which we paralleled closely. Softer ground now, hoof beats thumping dully and Red stretching into that carrying stride of his. We seemed to rush through a sea of blackness, while above us the inky sky sagged so heavy with stars, I could almost reach up and pull them down, like yards of spangled black gauze. Where was I going, bobbing like the crippled tail of a kite, in the wake of seven phantom riders? There seemed something terrible in their silent purpose, now, and the separation between them and me grew colder. I knew nothing, had nothing, offered nothing, was nothing to this, their deadly enterprise. If I turned back now, they'd never miss me. I could return safely to rest and to life and sunrise each morning, just an ordinary employee of a very ordinary express company. I'd be doing them a favor. Yet Red's great lungs billowed and his strong legs worked, and he had no thought but to do as his new equine companions did. I stayed, because my horse lacked the independent thought to do otherwise.
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