Lost


by Gail



With humble thanks to Annie, who generously provides a place to spin stories

With humble thanks to Annie, who generously provides a place to spin stories. As always, for Nachuma, who has the eye of a diamond cutter and who teaches with endless patience.  And for Betty who encouraged and questioned and reminded me of why we all write.  And of course for my listsibs, who keep the magic alive. 

 

                                              

                                             

 Third in the "Homecoming" Trilogy; references "Medicine Trail" and "Reconcile" but can stand alone.


 Mourning doves sing when rain is on the wind.  Jess had learned that long ago, in the wet heat of the Mississippi Valley, in the wet hell of the Vicksburg campaign. He’d learned to hate the song, because you heard it in the mornings and you knew the heat would blanket you all day, the air so thick with water it would feel like you were drowning.  He leaned his shoulders against the house wall, looked out across the porch to where the mist lay heavily across the near pasture, and listened to the dove.  Lost, lost, lost and gone…that’s what the song’s notes always said to him.  He didn’t want to hear it on the ranch, not here where he was finally at home.

 

  He heard the door swing open, Slim’s step, unmistakable, on the wood of the porch. 

 

 “Mornin’ Jess.”  Slim walked to the porch rail, looked out.  “Rain comin’.”

 

  “Sounds like.”

 

  Slim turned and grinned at him.  “That a Texas thing?  You hear rain coming?”

 

  “Dove’s singin’.”   Jess said briefly, knowing he sounded a little sulky, but not able to shake his mood.

 

  Slim cocked an eyebrow at him.  “You look like you need more coffee.  Why don’t you grab a cup?  We got time.”

 

  “Thanks, no, I’m good.”  Jess flexed his shoulders, released them, trying to get himself ready for the day.  “Mort’s late.”

 

  Slim pulled his pocket watch out, checked the time.  “You’re right.”  He turned to look at the road from Laramie, frowning.  “Think he ran into trouble?”

 

 Jess shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Mebbe, just gettin’ a posse together.”  He met Slim’s eyes, seeing his own worry mirrored there.  The McClains were dangerous men, had set the Territory alight from the Dakota border south.  Not many townspeople were going to be eager to ride after them.

 

 Slim reached out to swat Jess’ shoulder.  “We’ll get ‘em.  Or we won’t even cut their trail.  Either way, no sense worryin’.”

 

  Jess grinned, reluctantly.  “You’re startin’ t’sound like me.”  He looked past Slim to the ridge crest, catching sight of the first shadow on the road.  “Rider comin’.”

 

 Mort brought his bay into the yard at a business-like trot, his face grim.  “Slim, Jess.”  He reined up in front of the porch, but stayed mounted, folding his hands on his pommel.  “You two still in?”

 

  Slim caught Jess’ eyes briefly.  “We are,” he said, for both of them.

 

“Good.  I’d like to get on the trail now.”

 

“Are we it, Mort?  The whole posse?”  Slim bent to pick up the trail rations, swung the gunny sack over his shoulder.

 

“Frank and Johnny Dempsey are waiting up on the ridge.  Bill Bates is s’posed to join up with us, and bring one of his hands.  And two of the Rocking D boys are gonna be at his place to meet us.”

 

“That’s it?” Jess heard his own voice husky with tension.  “That’s all we got?”

 

Mort shrugged.  “Not many men have got the sand to go after a gang like the McClains.”

 

“Sand or stupidity.”  Jess muttered, and Slim looked at him, startled.  “I’ll get the horses.”  He started toward the barn, hearing Slim behind him, steps a little heavy with the weight of the supplies on his shoulders. 

 

 “Jess?”

 

 “You should stay home.”  Jess said, not meeting his eyes. 

 

What?”

 

Jess put his shoulder into the barn door, pushing harder than necessary, trying to work out some of the tension.

“Stay home,”  he repeated, half demand and half plea.  “It’s not worth the risk.”

 

“We talked about this last night,” Slim said,  in that reasonable tone he used when he thought Jess was being hot-headed.  “We got Randy Barnes ridin' over t'keep an eye on things.  We agreed to go together.  What’s changed?”

 

 “Posse’s too small.”  He’d saddled their horses ten minutes ago.  He led Traveler out, checked the cinch.  “Nine men after the McClains, but only Mort an’ me can handle a gun well enough to go after ‘em.   Odds are no good.”

 

“Thanks for the vote of confidence."   Slim reached out to set his hand on Jess’ shoulder, stopping him.  “I can handle myself, Jess.   You know that.  And if the posse’s too small, taking me out of it doesn’t help.   And Mort’s a friend of mine.  And so are you.   I’m not lettin’ the two of you ride out after ‘em without me.”

 

Jess stood still under his hand.   “Please, Slim.”  Slim’s hand tightened for a moment, then dropped away. 

 

“Will you listen?”  Jess pleaded.  “Just listen for once.”

 

  “All right, Jess.”   Slim’s patience was showing.

 

  “It’s not just bein’ good with a gun.  I know you’re good.  I know you can handle yourself in a fight.”  He stopped, struggling to find the words.  “ It’s that sometimes you have to not care.  Not about the other man, an’ sometimes not about yourself.   Mort can do it ‘cause it’s his job.  I can do it ’cause I had to, for a lotta years.  I seen you fight Slim, an’ it’s not in you.  An’ that’s a good thing.”  He ran out of words, frustrated.  “But not now,”  he finished softly.  “It’s not a good thing, going against the McClains.”

 

  Slim was silent, studying him with something strange in his face, almost like he was sorry about something.  And then he smiled, that open, every-day smile, and said, “decision’s made, Jess.  We’re ridin’ together.”  And there was no point in going on with it.

 

 Jess led Trav into the yard, to wait for Slim to bring his own horse out.  In the silence of the yard he could hear the mourning dove, the sound making the skin on the back of his neck prickle.   He mounted, watched his partner swing up, and nodded to him, setting the worry aside.   Nothin’ to be done about it now, just try an’ watch Slim’s back, along with everybody else’s.

 

                                               ******

 

 It was a long, slow day of tracking, on a day-old trail.  The McClains had hit the Casper- Laramie stage the day before, a chance-made attack that netted them little but the passenger’s valuables and a dead coach guard.   Just one more in a series of attacks with no apparent plan, no rhyme or reason.  They’d stolen horses and terrorized a small rancher, hit a bank in northern Dakota, and hit the Wells Fargo and Great Central Overland stage lines once each.   And now they’d killed, for no reason.  The guard had put his coach gun down, had his hands in the air when they’d shot him.  It had people on edge, and it had every law man in the territory saying, ’enough’.   Mort had swung by the ranch the evening before, and asked them to ride with him.

 

The McClains hadn’t bothered to hide their tracks at first.  The trail cut straight north from the Laramie road, six horses moving fast.   Mort Corey had kept his patience and his head, holding the posse to a steady, mile eating trot. Jess appreciated that, knowing that the McClains couldn’t hold the pace long, that they had to be planning something.    Three hours into the hunt, the trail entered the Laramie River and vanished. 

 

  They reined up on the far bank, Jess waiting for Mort to decide what he wanted to do.

“All right.”  Mort glanced up at the sky, the gathering clouds that promised rain.  “Let’s split up, half go up stream, half down.  If you cut their trail fire a shot.  Give it a half hour, maximum.  Jess?  You’re probably the best tracker we got.  What do you think?”

 

  Jess shrugged.  “If they want to lose us permanent, they’ll head for the high ground.  I’d say upstream, but it’s a guess.”

 

 Mort nodded.  “Good enough.  You, Slim, Curtis, Frank and I’ll head upstream.  Bill, you an’ the rest of the boys go downstream.  Keep your eyes open.  Remember, we‘re just lookin‘ for sign.  I don‘t want anyone jumpin‘ the gun on this.”

 

  “Best check both sides of the river.”  Jess said softly. 

 

  “Good point.  All right, let’s ride.” 

 

  He took the north bank with Slim and Mort, grateful for that.  No need to explain himself to either one of them, or put up with questions.  They’d ridden posse together before, and he knew he was trusted absolutely, his skill as a tracker relied on without question.   He kept his head and his eyes down, looking for any trace, getting more and more worried as the minutes crawled by.   Either the gang had stayed in the river longer than he’d expected, or he’d missed the sign.  Or they were operating on some plan he couldn’t begin to guess at, and had taken the south bank, where the ground was soft and held tracks easily…and there it was, just when he was ready to admit defeat.  A smear of dried mud on a stone.  He slid off Traveler, to drop to one knee, brush fingers over the stone, tracing the size and shape of the track.

 

  “Jess?”  Slim’s voice, not prodding him, just asking for information. 

 

  “Shod horse,”  he said briefly.  “Think it’s them.”    He straightened, stretching out his back, the muscles tense after the time spent focusing on the ground.   “Y’might wanna let the others know…”

 

  Mort drew his gun and fired, without a question.   Jess handed Trav’s reins over to Slim, started quartering the ground on foot, finding the small clues that pointed to men moving stealthily.  They’d cut back due north, looking probably to hit the spur of the little, nameless mountain chain that led back toward the Never Summer range.  He got lucky about fifty yards north, finding the print of a boot heel where they’d dismounted to lead their horses through the sliding shale that edged a rock outcrop.   He tilted his head back, looking up at the rocks.  Too steep for horses...

 

  “Don’t even think about it,”  Slim’s voice, amused.  “You’re not climbing that until the rest of the posse’s here.” 

 

  Jess turned his head and smiled at his partner.  “Wasn’t really thinking about it.  Might be a place to get a good look at the lay of the land from.”

 

  “It can wait.”  Slim swung down off Alamo, letting the horses drop their heads to graze.  “Startin’ to get cool.”

 

  “Rain in an hour or so.”  Jess watched the clouds piling up to the west, so thick the land was shadowed by them.  Now that he wasn’t so focused on tracking, he could hear the dove song again, and shivered.

 

  “Put your jacket on,”  Slim suggested.

 

  “Yes ma.”  As always, it made Slim smile.  The rest of the posse came up, Mort leading them, as Jess pulled the denim jacket out of his saddle bags. 

 

  Mort leaned on his pommel.  “What’ve you got, Jess?”

 

  “They led the horses here.  I’d like to climb up..”  He jerked his thumb at the outcrop.  “Take a look ahead, see what I can.”

 

  Mort nodded, swung off his big gelding. “Okay.  We might need to find a place to shelter… those clouds look like a gulley-buster comin’.”

 

   He was careful on the slick rock of the climb, moving slowly and testing each step.  It wouldn’t do to hurt himself, add that problem in to the mix.  He glanced down to find Slim and Mort watching him, like a barn owl on a mouse.  He was almost tempted to pretend to slip, just to break that stare, and settled for waving at them instead.  He saw Slim grin, turning his head to say something to Mort.  Slim knew him well enough to know he was tempted to play with them.  Jess brought his mind back to his job, finishing the last few level feet at the top of the rocks, and easing down on his belly so he wouldn’t show up against the sky line.    Far to the west, the clouds flickered with lightning, and there were darker grey curtains of rain stretching down to the land below, like streaks of charcoal against the sky.  They’d need shelter soon, and good shelter; lightning in this high country was a serious thing.

 

   To the north the land was empty of movement, and bare of trees, as the plateau rose up to the mountains.  The long grass rippled like water in the rising wind, confusing his sight, and the light was flat grey, hard to pick up details.  He squinted, shielded his eyes with his hands, and it helped a little.  He could just make out a solid dark block, set in a fold of the land;  he kept his eyes on it, letting the details come to him.   The straight line of what looked like a roof ridge, and the edge of a wall.  A small cabin maybe, or an old line shack.  And it looked like it was in a little draw, maybe deep enough to shelter the horses, especially if they could put up a brush shelter.  He gave it another five minutes, letting his eyes quarter the land ahead, looking for any sign of people.  Finally he eeled back, satisfied that there was no one ahead.   Going down was quicker, although he caught the grimace on Slim’s face when he slid a few feet on the seat of his Levis.  He gave him a grin, turned to Mort, sobering.

 

  “No sign of ‘em.  There’s what looks like a line cabin ahead, maybe a half hour’s ride if we push it a little.  We should shelter there.  Storm’s kickin’ up, west of us.”

 

  Mort nodded.  “All right.  Let’s ride.”

 

  The rain caught them half way to the cabin; fat, heavy drops that promised a drenching to come.  They put the horses to a canter, just entering the draw as the first roar of the storm came down on them.  There was a small cabin, maybe a rancher’s line shelter, and a stunted cotton wood that promised that the little dry creek bed wasn’t always dry.  And thankfully, there was a crazy-sided lean to between the cabin and the cottonwood, with just enough room for the horses, if they crowded them in.   Jess  dismounted, jerked his oilskin out of his saddlebags and slid into it.  Slim caught his eyes, questioning. 

 

  “Gonna look for something to fill out this roof.”  He had to half shout, over the roar of the rain on the land.  “I spotted some downed branches.  Won’t take but a minute.  And we don’t need to have the tack soaked, or the horses standin’ wet.”  

 

  Slim nodded, eyes on the places where the rain streamed through the gaps overhead, and jerked out his own oilskin.  “I’ll help.”

 

 Jess shook his head.  “It’s a one man job.  Just get a good fire started, okay?”

 

 Slim nodded, held his hand out for Jess’ saddlebags.  “Be careful”

 

 It took more than a minute, the wind and rain making the wood slippery and hard to handle.  He used the cottonwood as a ladder, got some branches dropped down over the bigger holes, anchoring them in place with his rope.  He was cursing, wet and cold enough that his hands were numb by the time he was finished; looking forward to a warm fire and hoping Slim had started coffee.  He pushed the cabin door open with his shoulder, shaking the water out of his oilskin with one hand, and stepped in to see the drawn guns of the McClains,  the rest of the posse standing silent and grim-faced against the back wall.  He moved on instinct, sure of Mort and Slim backing him, his gut telling him, ‘go now’ and was rushing the biggest of the gang as he saw the fear in Slim’s face, heard him shout, “Jess, no!” and just saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye, moving out of the shelter of the doorway.  There was the flat sharp bark of a pistol, and something hammered into his head, and he fell into blackness.

 

  He woke to blinding pain, like a spike over his right eye, and turned his head, trying to escape it.  His stomach revolted at the movement and he retched, helplessly, tasted bitter fluid in the back of his throat.  Someone said “Thank God,”  and he felt hands on his shoulders, turning him on his side.

 

  “Jess? Son? You awake?”  Mort Corey’s voice, and then “Slim! Get over here.”

 

 He was lying on the floor, facing the fire, and he slitted his eyes against even that low light.  He felt someone drop down beside him and then Slim’s voice, pitched low and comforting.  “He-ey, pard.  How ya doin?”

 

 “Slim?”  He groped out for him, one handed, found his partner’s arm and held on. “What…”

 

 “You been stoppin’ bullets with your head again.”  Slim’s fingers ghosted over his forehead, tracing a circle around the pain.  “You need to quit that.”

 

 “ McClains?”  His mind felt stunned, slow-moving.  He had to know what it would take to survive, to keep his friends alive, and he couldn’t make sense out of things.

 

  “They’re here.”  Slim’s voice hardened.   “Everyone’s okay Jess.  You need to rest.”

 

  “How long?”  His mouth was dry, and he had to work hard to push his words out.  Slim understood him, as always.

 

  “Not long.  Maybe a half hour.  Wasn’t even startin’ to worry.  Rest, Jess.”

 

 He was lifted gently, felt the metal ring of a canteen against his lips, and swallowed the water, warm and a little stale. “Slowly”  Slim murmured, and the canteen moved away.

 

“How?”  It was all he could manage.

 

 “They were waitin’ for us here.”

 

 Jess closed his eyes as the pain spiked.  “Sorry…” he muttered.  “Stupid.  Shoulda thought...”

 

  “Not your fault.” Something wet and cool was pressed against his forehead, easing the spike a little.  “Their horses aren’t here.  There was no reason to expect they were.”

 

  “Hey!  Nursemaid!”  A new voice, harsh with an accent he’d heard before, years ago. “Get your ass over here.  Absalom needs you.”

 

 Slim straightened out of his crouch, muttered  “Mort, please keep an eye on him.”  and then was gone.

 

 “Mort?”  His own voice sounded like the croak of a raven in his ears.

 

  “Take it easy, Jess.”   Mort’s voice behind him.  

 

  “I need to know...” He tried to push himself up, and Mort caught hold of his shoulders. 

 

  “Be still, Jess.  I’ll tell you everything.  They had the drop on us as soon as we were all in the door.  They got their horses holed up some where’s.  Likely since this is the only good shelter around, they musta figured to make it look empty, take advantage of anyone lookin’ t’take shelter.”

 

  “Slim?”

 

 “He’s okay, Jess.  One of ’em’s wounded, looks like he’s been ridin’ with it for awhile.  Slim told ’em he’d take care of this Absalom, in exchange for them lettin’ him tend to you.”

 

 He let himself be eased back down.

 

 “What in hell you were thinkin’, I don’t know.”  Mort replaced the wet cloth on his forehead, hands gentle.

 

  “Best chance.”  Jess muttered.

 

  “If it weren’t for the man at the door.  Take some more water, son.”  The canteen was back at his mouth and he sipped a little, slowly.  Smells and sounds seemed more intense; something he’d felt before, after a head wound.  The cabin was crowded, their men and the McClains taking up all the room and most of the air.  And the smell was musty, making him long for the clean air outside.  He choked a little, swallowing back bile, and Mort murmured, “Easy,”  pulled the canteen away.

 

  Voices were raised at the other side of the cabin, that harsh, guttural accent he remembered from long ago, from a place in Michigan he wanted to forget.  And then words in a different language, and he reached up, grabbed Mort’s arm to pull him closer, knowing suddenly what he was hearing.

 

  “What, Jess?”  Mort whispered.

 

  “ Métis”  he whispered.  “That’s French and Métis.  They’re from Canada.”

 

  “This started in Minnesota.”  Mort kept his voice down.

 

   “Known there?”

 

  “Not so far as I know.  You think they’re headed back to the border, son?”

 

  He started to nod, surprised himself by groaning as it jolted the pain in his head.

 

 “Easy, Jess.  You need to rest.”

 

  “How bad?’  He had to be ready.

 

  “Not bad.  Bounced off your forehead.  Guess lead’s too soft.  But you’re gonna have a mouse under that eye.”

 

 Slim’s familiar step sounded across the floor, and then his partner hunkered down next to him.  “Jess.  Let me..”  He felt Slim’s hand on his forehead, that familiar gesture of checking for fever.  I’m okay, he thought, and then heard Slim’s sigh of relief.

 

  “Not bad.  Wound’s clean, anyway. Jess, you need to drink, pard.”

 

  “Been drinkin’.”

 

  “An’ no talkin’.  Rest.”

 

 Mort said softly, “How’s the kid?” 

 

  Slim’s voice dropped, til it was barely a breath.  “Bad.  Wound’s poisoned.  He needs a doctor and even then...”

 

   Jess felt the fear spike, for what the McClain’s might do if one of them died in Slim’s care.

 

 “Jess says they’re Métis.” 

 

  He felt Slim stiffen, hand stilling on his forehead.  “Métis.”

 

  “Slim?  What you know about this?”  Mort, prodding for information.

 

  “Half-breeds.  French-Canadian and Iroquois, Ottawa, mostly.  They don’t like Anglos.  They’ve had an undeclared war goin’ on, up in Canada, for near on twenty years.  They’re like Comancheros.  Last time there’s been trouble this far south of the border was in my father’s time.”

 

  “That might explain some things.”  Mort said softly,  “They’re guerillas, not outlaws.  But what are they tryin’ to accomplish?”

 

 “’ ey, you.  No talking, eh?”  A different voice, the accent stronger.  There was another step on the floor, heavier, the voice almost friendly.  Jess tried to focus on the man, gave up as the pain spiked.   “You, docteur…we ride when the rain stops.  You have the petite ready.”

 

  “You’ll kill the boy, doin’ that.”  Slim’s voice, matter of fact.

 

  “Be ready.”  The voice ignored him. 

 

 

                                                          *******

 

  Jess dozed fitfully, time slipping away from him.  There were moments when Slim was with him, urging him to sip at a canteen,  chew a piece of jerky.  And then long periods when he was restless and alone, hearing voices and movement around him and not able to respond.  But the pain spike was getting duller, his thinking a little clearer each time he woke.  And finally he woke to daylight, the sound of the rain gone, so the silence was almost aching in its absence.   Voices argued softly, and he couldn’t make out the words, just Slim’s voice, and the other one, the heavy, friendly-sounding voice that demanded Slim get a dying boy ready to ride. 

 

 He tried to sit up, felt the pain wake and set his teeth, pushing through it.  Mort was there right away, one arm going around his shoulders, bracing him.  “Jess, take it easy.”

 

“What’s happening?” 

 

“It’s morning.  Rain’s stopped.  The McClains are gettin’ ready to move.” 

 He stiffened  “Us?”

 

“Hostages.”  Mort said briefly.  “They’re takin’ two of us along as hostages.  The rest go free.”

 

 “That don’t make any sense.”

 

“They have to get across the Dakota border with a wounded man.”  Mort spoke calmly, but he could feel the tension in the arm across his shoulders.

 

 “Jess.”  Slim’s voice, and his presence stooping down beside him.  Jess tried to make his partner out, against the blurriness of his vision.  He started to rub his eyes, and Slim caught his wrists, pulled his hands down before releasing them.  “Your right eye’s swollen shut, pard.  Gonna take a few days for it to go down.” 

 

  “Can’t see too clear.”

 

  “Give it time.  Doc Jenkins’ll know what to do.”

 

  “What’s the plan, Slim.”  Mort’s voice, tension under the calm surface.

 

  “We ride out.”  Slim’s voice matter of fact.  “The McClains, Bill Bates, and me.”

 

  “NO!”   His own voice jolted his head, and he pressed the heel of one hand against the pain.

 

  “Jess, stop.“  Slim’s voice, soft as if he were soothing Andy out of a nightmare.  “It’s okay.  It’ll be all right.”

 

  “The horses?”   Mort, sticking to the practical.

 

“Michel says their own are just west of here.  They’ll take ours to get there, leave them there for you to pick up.  Maybe an hour, on foot.”

 

  “Me-shell?”  Mort questioned. 

 

  “The big man that calls me ‘docteur’.” 

 

 Jess reached out, to grab Slim’s arm in protest.  “Slim. “

 

 Slim closed his hand over Jess’.  “I’ll be fine.  I just gotta get this kid over the territory border, and they’ll let me go.”

 

  “You believe that? ” He tightened his grip.

 

  Slim was silent.

 

 “Docteur?”  Michel’s voice.  “We go.”

 

 Jess dragged  Slim closer, trying to see his face.  “Stay alive.”  He told him, voice raw.  “You stay alive.  I’ll come for you.”

 

  “Jess.”  Slim’s hand closed on his wrist, pulling his hand away gently.  “Mort, see he gets home okay.”

 

  “I will, Slim.” 

 

 Jess felt Slim’s hand drop on his shoulder, that old familiar gesture, and then it was gone, and his partner was gone, into the blur of light that was all his vision.

 

 

                                               ********

 

 

   Jess had done a good job with the lean-to roof.  The tack was barely damp, despite the all-night drenching, and the horses looked as if they’d been comfortable.  Slim felt his chest tighten a little, worrying about Jess, and then put the thought aside.  Mort would see to him. 

 

  “Slim.”  Bill Bates’ calm voice.  He turned to look at his father’s old friend, his good neighbor.  Bill offered him a piece of jerky, and he took it with thanks. “Can this kid make it to Dakota?”

 

  “I don’t think so.”  He felt sadness at that, remembering how young the wounded man had been; maybe only two years older than Andy, and with the same soft, rounded face.  “They let it go too long before they cleaned it out;  I think the poison is all through his blood now.”

 

  “Do they know?”  There was no fear in Bill’s voice, just kindness.

 

  “Michel does.  I think he’s just tryin’ to get the boy home, now.”

 

  Two of the McClains half dragged the boy, Absalom, over to Curtis’ big, solid bay.  The one they called Daniel mounted, and the other helped him manhandle the boy up in front of him.

 

  “Careful with him!”  Slim took a step toward them, worried about the boy’s deep chest wound being opened.

 

  “Shut up, Anglo.”  Daniel’s face was ugly.  “He’s my brother, I know how to take care of him.”

 

  “At least let me look at that wound…”  He moved to the horse’s shoulder, reached up to pull the boy’s shirt partially open, check his make-shift bandage.  There was no blood on it, just the greenish fluid that leaked steadily, sign of the infection that raged in the boy’s body.

 

  “If he dies, Anglo, you die.”  Daniel’s voice was a bitter hiss.

 

  “That’s enough.”  Michel turned from his own horse, voice sharp.  He said something in the guttural Métis, and Daniel’s eyes dropped, his face sullen.

 

  “Docteur.  Mount, if you please.  We must go.”  Michel followed him to where Alamo waited.  “This will not happen.”  The big man told him.  “Daniel feels to blame for his brother’s suffering.  It makes him ugly.  But no one will kill you for what you cannot do.” The big man turned away, and then stopped, to turn back with something watchful in his face.  “But be careful of what you try to do, docteur.  You could still die for that.”

 

  “Huh,”  Bill sounded unconcerned.  “Dramatic bunch, aren’t they?”

 

  It made him chuckle, as he led Alamo out into the grey, damp chill of the morning.  The McClains were leaving four of the posse’s horses behind; he was glad to see that Traveler was one of them.  He could trust him to take Jess home in safety.  And they left one of their own, in exchange for Curtis' bay.  All in all, better than he’d expected of the gang.  He began to hope, just a little.

 

 

                                                     *******

 

  Mort waited for the gang to leave before sending the Rocking D boys for the horses, and forcing Jess to lie still, in the damp little cabin that was now empty of the Métis, and Slim.  Even the low light still bothered his eyes; he kept them closed and tried to will his body to heal, because every moment was taking his partner further away, and further into danger.  A hand touched his arm, and he jerked away reflexively. 

 

 “Sorry, Jess, I’m sorry..”  Dan Phillips’ voice, the hand that Bill Bates had brought with him.  “Sheriff Corey said to bring you some water.  It’s good, there’s a little creek out back...”

 

  “Thanks.” His voice was still a dry croak, and he took the canteen Dan pressed into his hand gratefully.  The water was cool and fresh, and he swallowed it greedily.

 

  “Go slow, Jess, you don’t wanna get sick again.”  Dan pulled the canteen down gently.  “How you feelin'?  You sure bled a lot, I thought Slim was gonna go crazy for awhile there.”

 

   “I’m okay.”

 

  “Sure ya are.”   Dan’s voice was like him, a calm, gentle man who’d worked tandem with Bill Bates near as long as Slim had been alive.   “They’ll be okay, Jess.  Bill said he’d go because that kid they got with ‘em needed help, and he figured him and Slim between ‘em were the best t’handle it.”

 

  “Why you think that, Dan?”  He asked, scared and mean with it.  “The McClains killed that coach guard for no reason.  What makes you think they won’t gun Slim an’ Bill as soon as they hit the Dakotas?”

 

  The canteen was pushed back into his hand.  “Bill didn’t think so.  And I known him long enough to trust his judgment.  You need to trust Slim, too.”

 

It’s not trust, he thought, it’s what Slim can’t control, what I can’t control.  He pushed himself up, waited a minute for the dizziness to pass.  “Dan?  Can you give me a hand up?”

 

  “Sure, Jess.”    Dan’s big hand closed on his upper arm, drawing him up gently, until Jess stood on splayed legs, unsteady as a foal.   He could hear the horses coming back, and then the door swung open, and Mort Corey stepped in. 

 

  “Jess, you got the common sense of a yearling.  Didn’t I tell you to rest until we were ready?”

 

   “I’m ready.  Mort, we gotta go after them.”  Dan Phillips moved away, and Mort was standing in front of him, the sheriff’s hands steadying him as he swayed.

 

  “No, Jess.”  Mort’s voice was kind, and patient, and it made him feel foolish.  “Look at me, son.”   He peered through the blurriness in a one-eyed squint, just seeing Mort’s face as a pale, angular shape in the dark cabin.   “You can barely stand up.  From the looks of you, you’re just startin’ to see a little better.  That’s gonna get better but not if I drag you to the Dakota border.  An’ the McClains’ll be watchin’ their back trail, and they’ll kill the hostages at the first sign of us houndin’ them.   No. We go home for now.  An’ I wire Bismarck an’ let the law there know what’s happened.  And when you’re fit to ride, and it won’t be long if you use your head, I’ll ride with you.   Now that’s what it’s gonna be, Jess.”

 

  “Slim...” he said, and then stopped, because Mort knew, already, and it hadn’t changed his mind.

 

  “You gotta trust that he knows what he’s doin’.”  Mort turned to put an arm across his shoulders.  “C’mon son, I’ll help you get mounted.”

 

   They had Traveler at the door for him, and he ran his hand down the horse’s neck, grateful the McClains had not taken him.  He set his hands on the saddle, tried to set his foot in the stirrup and swayed, disgusted with his own weakness.   He leaned into the leather, and Mort tapped his leg, reminding him to bend it, and then legging him up easily.  He swayed in the saddle, grabbing the pommel with both hands to stay upright. 

 

  “Easy, Jess.”  Mort set a hand on his leg, ready to steady him.  “They left all the horses, except for Buck Curtis’s bay.  He’s fit to be tied, but it’s good luck for us.  The horse has a bar shoe on the near hind.  Easy to track.”

 

  “If the rain holds off.”  He felt steadier, straightened in the saddle, and felt Trav come alert under him.  The urge to rein him out north and east toward Dakota was strong, but he could feel his own weakness, and the part of him that knew what it took to survive counseled patience.   “He’s a good man, Mort.”  He could feel the ache of feared loss, painful as the head wound.   “Too good for this.”

 

  Mort slapped his leg, offering comfort, and then turned away.  The mourning dove called, eerie in the stillness, echoing his desolation.  Lost, lost, lost…

 

 

                                                               ********

 

  The McClains rode in grim silence, the pace slow and steady.  Michel had sent two of their number to watch their back trail; a formality;  Mort Corey had too much sense to violate the agreement.    Slim held his impatient horse to a slow walk, eyes on the back of Daniel McClain, riding double with the dying Absalom.   Ahead of him, Michel reined his Appaloosa to a halt, waited until the little column moved past him and then joined Slim.

 

  “So, docteur.”  The man was determinedly cheerful, but his eyes were sad.  “We will stop to rest in two hours’ time, then move on.  This will suit?”

 

  “It’s your choice.”  Slim told him, watching the man’s face, curious as to what kind of man could do the things this one had done.

 

  “You think me hard, eh?”  McClain’s face was suddenly weary, and the deep lines around his mouth looked carved by years of sorrow. 

 

  “I don’t know what drives you.  I don’t know what to think.”

 

  “I will bring the boy home to his mother, one way or another.  To have tried to get his wound treated would have meant he would rot in a British prison, or hang. This way, he at least dies a free man.”   McClain stared ahead, eyes on Daniel’s back.

 

  “What is it you want, McClain?  What are you doing down here?”

 

  “Revenche.”  The word was a growl, guttural and fierce.  “You think us random thugs Anglo;  murderers, cut throats.  But we had reason, targets, and a cause. And we have done what we set out to do.”

 

  “And the coach guard?  He had his hands up, and you people gunned him.”

 

  “That was a mistake.”  McClain was dismissive.  “That was Daniel, he thought the man had a gun.”

 

  “Just like that.”

 

  “Like that.  We are a people that many have made mistakes with, docteur.  I am sorry for that death, but I will not weep over it.”  McClain nodded, urged his little horse forward up the line.  Bill Bates trotted up alongside Alamo, slowed to accompany him.   

 

  “Interestin’ man.”  Bill said calmly.  “Wonder what the stage lines did to him and his people?”

 

  “You believe him?” 

 

  “From what I’ve seen, he’s too smart and too old to be down here raisin’ hell for no good reason.  I think we need to be careful though.  I think his word is good, as far as it goes, but if it comes down to his word, or his people’s safety, I know which side he’ll choose.”

 

  Slim nodded thoughtfully.  “We need to be ready to run, once…”

 

  “Once the boy dies.”  Bill finished for him.  “You done all anyone could, Slim.  And even a doctor can’t save him now.  We both seen the like of this before.”  They rode on in silence for a few strides, and then Bill said, “You thought about running at the first opportunity?”

 

  He could hear the testing in Bill’s voice, and shook his head.  “I gave my word, Bill, it was the price they wanted for letting’ the others go.”

 

  “Yeah.”  Bill sounded oddly satisfied.  “Me too.  But I reckon all bets are off once the boy dies.  An’ I reckon they know that too.  You know this country?”

 

  He shook his head.  “No. You?”

 

  “A little.   Tonight we should be comin’ into some hill country;  Buck Creek Hills, I think, an’ then by tomorrow, maybe, the Hamilton Hills.  There’s a well in that country, an’ I trailed horses through there years ago, with your pa.  You were still a young ‘un then, Slim, and Andy wasn’t even a thought.  Must be twenty years since I seen this country.”

 

  “Cover there?”

 

  “Yeah.  ‘Bout like around home.  I don’t know the land beyond.”

 

  “No need, I’m afraid.”  He felt sadness for the young life in his care.  “I don’t think he’ll last more than another day...”  They moved on in silence, and his thoughts turned toward his partner, and Mort and the rest of the posse.

 

  “Jess’ll be all right.”  Bill’s voice, comforting.  “Dan’ll have Mary primed, and she’ll make sure he stays at our place until we’re back.”

 

  “Thanks, Bill.  I sure appreciate that.”

 

  “Just bein’ neighborly, Slim.  An’ we’ll be back soon.”

 

 One of the McClains turned around, shouted something angry-sounding in the harsh mixture of French and Métis they used among themselves, and Bill reined back, leaving Slim to his thoughts.  We’ll be okay.  It’s gonna get a little touchy when the boy dies, but I believe Michel.  And Bill knows this country.  And like I told Jess, I can handle myself.

 

   

 

 

                                      *********

 

  It was a slow ride back. Mort sent the rest of the posse home, with Frank ordered to ride ahead and alert the doctor.  He and Buck Curtis stayed with Jess, and Mort rode alongside, ready with a steadying hand.   The ache in his head had dulled to a steady throb, but every time Mort tried to lift the pace above a walk, Jess’ stomach revolted, and he ended bent head down over Trav’s patient side, retching miserably, his empty stomach grinding painfully.  Mort kept them to a half hour on the trail, a half hour rest, and Jess chafed at the slowness of it, the hours crawling by as the Métis got farther away.

 

  “Jess.  Drink.”  Mort, shoving a canteen into his hand, pulling him out of his silent misery.  He took a couple of swallows, handed it back, waiting to see if he could keep it down.

 

 “ Your eye looks better” 

 

“I’m seein’ a little clearer.  I should be ready to go by tomorrow.”

 

  “Jess..”  Mort sighed.  “Give it a day, son.  You can’t sit a trot yet.  Slim won’t thank me if I let you push yourself till you drop.”

 

  “If he’s around to have a say, one way or another.”   He felt that fear as constant as the pain in his head.

 

 “Jess, I’ve never known you to be this spooked.”

 

 “And I’ve never known you to be this trustin’ of a bunch of owl hoots”.  His own voice made his head hurt worse; he pressed his hand against the bullet wound, swearing silently.

 

“You were either out cold, or too sick to know what was goin’ on.  They’re headed back to north Dakota, and from what the leader said, they’d done what they set out to do.  They were willing to take Slim and Bill’s surety for the rest of us, and let us go.  They coulda gunned us all, Jess, there was no reason not to, if they were killers.”

 

“An’ you an’ Slim believe this Michel.” He could hear the meanness in his own voice, and he was ashamed of it, but too scared to have a good handle on himself.

 

  “I spent a lotta years sizing’ up men, Jess.”  Mort’s voice had an edge to it, sure sign that he was reaching the end of his patience.  

 

  Trav tensed under him, lifting his head a little, and Jess peered at the ridge line ahead; saw the rider top it even as Mort said, “Looks like Dan Phillips."

 

  Bill’s foreman joined them, riding a fresh horse, greeting them as casually as if they’d stopped by on a social call.  “Mort, Jess.  Hey, Buck.  Miz Bates says come on up to the house, sheriff.  Doc Jenkins is already there, an’ Bill an’ her want Jess to stay there til Slim gets back.”  Dan pivoted his horse to face west, waiting for them to join up.  “Buck, you c’mon too.  We got dinner on, an’ you kin borrow a horse tomorrow.”

 

  Jess held Traveler back.  “Mort, just let me go home.  No need to bother Mary.”

 

  “Jess.”  Mort reached over and pulled the reins from his hands, so quick he couldn’t counter.  “I gave my word to Slim.  Now you’re seeing Doc Jenkins if I have to tie you to the saddle to get you there.  An’ you’re not goin’ to insult Mary Bates by turnin’ down her hospitality.”  Mort peered closer at him, said gently.  “Nobody blames you, Jess.  If anybody’s to blame it’s the McClains.  An’ Bill chose to go.”

 

  He had no choice, had to let Mort lead him over the ridge and into the yard of the Bates’ ranch, bright with the flowers Mary Bates loved and grew in every spare inch.  She was waiting on the porch, a dim figure in the shadow of the overhang.  Jess couldn’t make out her face, and braced himself, waiting for the harsh words he knew he deserved.  She stepped up to his knee as soon as Mort stopped, to reach up and touch his hand, resting useless and empty on his pommel.

 

  “Jess.”  her voice was soft, and sorrowful.  “You poor boy.  Mort Corey, what are you thinking?  Step down and help Jess dismount.   Then all of you come in, I’ve got coffee waiting, and we’ll have dinner ready in just a bit.  Jess, Dr. Jenkins is waiting to see you in the parlor.”

 

 He swung down off Traveler with Mort’s help, a little dizzy once he had his feet under him.  He pulled himself upright, took his hat off.  “Miz Bates.  I’m sorrier than I can say...”

 

  “Hush.”   She took his arm firmly, in support, started steering him into the house.  “You hush right now, Jess Harper.  You’ve done nothing to be sorry for.  You let Dr. Jenkins look at you, and then you eat a good dinner.  You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”

 

 The kindness nearly unmanned him, and then he was in the dimness of the house, Dr. Jenkins’ familiar presence taking charge.  He sat through the examination with what grace and patience he could muster, answering the questions in single words, most of them “no” until Dr. Jenkins sighed and sat down opposite him.

 

 “Jess.  I know you have a headache.  I know your vision is blurred right now, and maybe you’re seeing double?  I know you were sick on the ride back.  I know all that because the men that rode in ahead of you told me.  You pretending that none of that happened won’t make it go away.”

 

  “It’s not that bad.”  he muttered, ashamed of his weakness.

 

  “I know.”   The doctor agreed.  “You have a concussion and it’s  healing. You have swelling around your right eye, but that will go down, and there are no broken bones.  It’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.  But you are not ‘fine’.  You are a long way from ‘fine’.  You need to rest, at least until you’re over the nausea.”

 

  “How long?”

 

  “Three days.”  Doc Jenkins voice was patient.

 

 “Too long.” 

 

  “It won’t happen any faster, Jess.  That’s your body’s deadline, not mine.  You can’t ride like this, and even if you could, you can’t do anyone any good in this condition."  The doctor leaned toward him, just a bulky, dim shape to his blurred vision.  " You have to wait until you heal enough.  I can give you some laudanum for pain.  No?  I didn’t think so.  I have sassafras root for the nausea.  It won’t make you drowsy.  Will you take some?”

 

  “Yeah.”

 

  “Good.  I’ll have Mary make a tea for you.  Try and eat, Jess.  I know you don’t want to, but you need to build up your strength.  You lost a lot of blood, from what the men told me.”

 

 Doc Jenkins stood up, touched his shoulder gently, briefly.  “Slim will be all right, Jess.  Try not to worry.”

 

  He nodded, jerkily, then stood up with the doc’s help, followed him out into Mary’s bright kitchen.  Slim always touched him to comfort; the only one who did,  regular, since Andy and Jonesy left.  Except with Slim it was like a claim, an acceptance, and the comfort went deeper because of it.  Like a brother, he let himself think, just for a moment.  Because he did not think he could stand to lose that, not again.

 

 

                                               *****

   

 

  They took the promised rest at two hours, and Slim did what he could for the comfort of Absalom, Daniel McClain watching every move as if his protectiveness now would make a difference.

 

  “I’m sorry.” Slim told him, meaning it, and the young man shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

 

  “I understand, docteur.”  The voice was resigned, no accusation in it.  “You have done what you can.  And he chose to ride with us.”   Daniel touched his brother’s forehead, smoothing the sweat-spiked hair back.  “It is what it is.  Nothing to be done about it.”

 

  Slim nodded, understanding that acceptance better for knowing Jess, for meeting the Cheyenne.  He eased to his feet and left the brothers in privacy.  Michel McClain had started a little fire;  just enough to heat water, and the rest of the family were gathered there, Bill a little separated from them, but sitting at ease.  Gathered like this, in daylight and without the pressure of pursuit you could see the family resemblance;  they were stocky men, long-faced, with the high-bridged noses he’d seen in French trappers, and hair the coarse black of their Indian blood.  But Michel’s eyes were a startling blue, and the men were swarthy, but would have been thought “white” in any eastern city. 

 

 Michel lifted the little coffee pot from the fire, made a gesture of invitation, and Slim nodded, pulled his cup from his saddle bags and let Michel pour him a half cup of the strong, syrupy stuff in the pot. 

 

 “We will rest one hour and then push on.”  Michel was matter-of-fact.  “We will ride until dark and then camp.”

 

  Slim nodded, sipped cautiously at what passed for coffee to the McClains, bitter and strong on his tongue. 

 

  “Your friends are men of their word.”  Michel’s eyes were speculative.  “That is a good thing, I think, for you.”

 

  “And for you.” Slim said, making a point of it.  “My friends aren’t fools, or cowards. But they expect you to deal in good faith.”

 

  Michel nodded.  “Men of honor.  So are we.  Your friend, who moves first and thinks after, he will be all right?”

 

  He  nodded with the strength of hope.  “I think so.  Jess is tough.”  And then, because he didn’t want to start thinking about all the things that could go wrong, he asked,   ”You’re all one family?  You McClains?”

 

  “Oui.”  Michel glanced around the circle of men, all younger than he, most of them younger even than Slim.  “My brothers, and our cousins.  The young ones, Daniel and Absalom, they are my aunt’s children.  Our mothers were the women of two brothers.”

 

  The oddness of that phrase piqued his attention.  “McClain?  I woulda thought you’d have a French name..”

 

 “Our mother’s were French and Métis;  the McClain brothers took them.  We have no love for Anglos, despite this.  Maybe because of this.  They were brutes, both of them, who beat our mothers, and us, until we were big enough to put a stop to it.”

 

  “Where are they now?”

 

“Dead," Michel said briefly.  “Many years now.  But we don’t forget.”

 

  “And you are Métis?” He made it a question.

 

 “We are.   To be Métis… is to be of any blood that has no other home to claim it.  We are of many people, and one tribe by choice.  Our mother’s people have thrown us out, or  acknowledge us only as second best, not really of them.  But we are of the first people of this land.  It is our fathers who are the strangers, the bastard sons, not us.”  He spoke with the passion and the near poetry Slim remembered from the Cheyenne.    He could almost understand Michel, could at least see clearly the loneliness, and the enduring pride of the solitary spirit.  It was something, after all, that he had seen in Jess in the beginning.  And it made him oddly sad, as if the McClains might have been friends, in a different world.

 

  “And your war against the white world?  What do you want?”

 

  Michel shrugged.  “What any man wants.  Freedom.  The security of being able to make our own decisions.  Our own land.  To live in peace.”

 

  “And all this…everything you’ve done was for that?”

 

 “Oui.”   Michel looked at him quizzically.   “You do not know the histoire.  Everything we have done was for a purpose.  We will go home to north Dakota.  There is Métis land there.  Our land.  We have made it safer, with our actions this past month.”

 

  “You’re known.”  Honesty compelled him to speak.  “I knew your name, your description before I ever cut your trail.”

 

“Ah.”  McClain stood up, poured the rest of the coffee over the fire to douse it, and then scattered the fuel, as if he’d covered his tracks for so long he no longer even thought about it. “I said we made our land safer, docteur, not found safety for ourselves.  The peace and safety we fight for, that is for others, not us.”  He nodded, and moved over to his young cousins, to speak softly to Daniel. 

 

  “He’s a soldier”.  Bill Bates stepped up to him, watching Michel comfort Daniel, begin the process of getting them on the move again.

 

  “He’s that and more.”  Slim said thoughtfully.  “A warrior.”

 

  “That’s good luck for us.”  Bill pushed some jerky into his hand.  “I think it will be okay, Slim.”

 

 

                                               ******

 

 

   He ate Mary’s good dinner and was chivvied into bed like a stubborn child, as if he had no choice.  And once there his body betrayed him completely, and he fell into a restless sleep, rousing only when Mary or Mort came into the room to check on him.  He woke with the first light through the window, and felt better.  His vision was clearer, maybe not good enough to shoot, but the blurriness was mostly gone, and when he explored with tentative fingertips, the swelling in his face was down.  He got out of bed carefully, trying to be as silent as possible, not disturb the house.  Because his mind was made up to ride out this morning, and he was not going to be stopped. 

 

  Dressing took longer than he wanted; at first he thought Mort had stooped to hiding his clothes, until he realized that Mary had left him some of Bill’s, clean and folded on the wooden stool by the door.  And getting his boots on was a struggle, until he sat down and waited for the dizziness to pass.   But the house was still quiet, and when he went out into the big kitchen the stove was still banked, no one else up yet.  Mort had told him the McClains had left their side arms with the horses.  Strange behavior for a gang of killers, and maybe reason to start believing in Mort’s trust that things would work out.   He searched the parlor, where Mort had left his saddlebags the night before, and found his gun belt, buckling it on without pausing to tie it down.  He didn’t see his rifle, and he had no more time to search.  He gave up on it, slipping silently out through the kitchen door to the barn.

 

  Trav lifted his head and whickered, setting off a chorus of greetings from the stabled horses.  “Hush,” he murmured.  “No feed yet, y’all just have t’wait.”    He gave Trav the lump sugar he’d taken from the kitchen, to pacify him, and tacked him with more effort than he wanted to admit to.  And then Trav stood patient and calm, like the good friend he was, while Jess used the side boards of the stall as a step ladder, to heave himself into the saddle.  They were able to back out of the stall quietly, and then ride out of the yard with no sound of alarm from the house.

 

  He tried to push a trot at first, needing to put distance between him and the ranch, to make his argument stronger when Mort finally caught up with him.  But he paid the same price as yesterday, having to stop and retch miserably, grateful at least that his stomach was empty.  Trav dropped his head to graze, unconcerned, until Jess could sit up in the saddle again;  and then ambled on patiently, at a steady walk, ears flicking back and forth at the small morning sounds as the sun cleared the horizon.

 

  The storm had moved off east and south, the sky clear blue overhead, and the sun was rising through the paint brush of broom tail clouds that was all that was left of the rain.   Jess said silent thanks, for the trail that would still be there, and the chance of finding Slim alive. 

 

  He had been afraid of being happy at first, and that whole first summer on the ranch, in his mind, he’d had one foot in the stirrup all the time.  Because what Jess Harper had learned from life was that good things did not last.  People you cared about died, things you cherished were taken from you, plans were always ruined.  Home was something that other people had.  He fought that with everything that was in him, for other people, always finding someone to stick up for.  Slim teased him about that, he still did it, they both did.  But he saw the pride in his friend’s eyes when he teased Jess, and it warmed him, that he could live up to Slim’s good opinion.   That was maybe the first real tie to the ranch, that he found himself caring about what the Shermans and Jonesy thought of him.

 

 He’d always played hard, when he could, enjoyed what there was to pleasure a man in life, joked and roughhoused with friends. And that was part to cover up for what he’d lost, and to make sure he got the most out of what he had, while he had it.  He’d calmed down on the ranch, some, just poking at Slim now and again, for the fun of riling him.  But Slim’s calmness eased that edge in him, let him relax a little, trusting that the good things would still be there tomorrow.  And Slim’s tolerance of his ways meant he didn’t have to push, because there was nothing to push against.  ‘He’s a good man’  he’d told Mort, and that wasn’t quite right.  Slim was probably the best man he knew.  He brushed at his eyes, impatient with his weakness.  Emotional as a girl; gettin’ hit in the head would do that to a man. 

 

 Trav turned his head, nostrils flaring a little, and Jess pulled up, resigned to being caught, even before he heard the hoof beats coming up behind.  He squinted into the slanting light, one hand on his gun, until he recognized Mort’s bay.  The silhouette was ungainly, he couldn’t make sense of it, until Mort got closer and he realized there was a pack horse following.  Something tight and wary inside relaxed, and he was able to smile at the sheriff when he reined up alongside. 

 

  “Don’t look so all-fired pleased with yourself.”  Mort growled.  “All you’ve done is prove you’re just as stubborn-stupid as Slim feared an’ Mary predicted.”

 

  “Mornin’, Mort.”  He nudged Trav back into his walk, Mort falling in beside him.  “So Mary knew I’d leave.”

 

  Mort sighed.  “She’s a smart woman.  Time I had my clothes on she had a sack of provisions ready and Dan getting a pack saddle on a horse.  She fed me and had me on my way before I had time to do more than remark on what a dad-blamed idjit you are.”

 

  They walked on in silence for a few minutes.  “I sure appreciate this, Mort.”

 

  “Ahhh…” Mort growled.  “Jess, you do what I say.  That includes how far we ride each day.  Or I’ll tie you head down over your own saddle and turn right back around to the Bates spread.  Are we clear?”

 

   “It’s clear.” 

 

  “Jess…”

 

  “I’m makin’ no promises when it comes to Slim’s life.”    The fear inside hurt more than his head did.  So many people lost to him, so many deaths over the years.  And Slim…Slim would put himself in harm’s way without thinking, for the sake of what he thought was right.

 

  Mort was silent for a few strides, and then pulled a napkin-wrapped bundle out of his pocket,  reached over to nudge Jess’ free hand with it until he took it.  “One of Mary’s biscuits, likely still warm.  Go on an’ eat Jess, we got a long day in the saddle.” 

 

  It was fragrant and warm in his hand, and he started on it gratefully.   Mort spoke quietly, thoughtfully.   “I’ll do everything I can to get Slim home safe, Jess.  You know that.  But Slim don’t want anythin’ happenin’ to you anymore ‘n you want him hurt.  An’ I don’t want to be in a position where I got to look him in the eye an’ explain how I let you get yourself killed.  So my say is the final one.”

 

 Jess kept his peace.  There was nothing in this world that had more of a claim on him than Slim's life, and nothing, short of killing him, that anyone could do to keep him off this trail.   He reckoned Mort already knew that.

 

 Mort sighed.  "I wrote out a wire to the sheriff in Bismarck.  Dan'll take it into town and tell Frank I want it sent out.  If somethin' comes back we need to know he'll come after us. "

 

 "Okay"

 

 "Jess.  There may come a time when I say, 'turn back.'"

 

 He kept silence, feeling Mort's eyes on his face.

 

 "Jess?  What then?"

 

 "I won't turn back."  He glanced at Mort, then back to the trail ahead, the open plain rolling on to the Canadian border.  "Never."

 

                                    ******

There is an hour before dawn, when the night is at its deepest, and all the world seems to hold its breath.   It lies between moonset and sunrise and darkness covers the earth; the land is cold and life ebbs; the young and wild fall silent and the old and sick die.  They slip away into death easily, peacefully, without a fight at that hour, at the dead of night.

 

 Absalom McClain died peacefully, at four a.m. of the late September morning, without pain or struggle and held in his brother's arms.  Slim stretched his hand out and closed the boy's eyelids gently.  He sank back on his heels, watching Daniel McClain weep silently over his brother's wasted body.  "I'm sorry" he whispered.

 

  Daniel nodded.  "I know.  Merci, docteur."

 

 He left them in peace, moved back to the small fire, the waiting men. "I'm sorry." he repeated to Michel, feeling helpless..  One of the men, the one they called Levi, turned away abruptly his face ugly with grief and rage. 

 

 "It is what it is."  Michel said heavily.

 

 "Now what."  Bill Bates, plain spoken as always. 

 

 Michel rubbed a hand over his face wearily.  "We must get the petite home to his mother, somehow.  We will sleep a little, I think, and tomorrow we will make plans. "  He dropped his hand, his eyes suddenly focused like the barrel of a gun.  "Slim."  It was the first time he'd called him anything but "docteur".  "Do not think of running tonight.  There will be at least one of us awake, and the others will have no patience now, with any tricks."

 

  He nodded, accepting it.

 

 "Thank you." Michel said formally. "For your care of the young one."  He turned away, dismissing them, went to his nephew's side.

 

 "Well it was a good plan while it lasted."  Bill said easily. "I vote we sleep, and think again tomorrow."

 

 He followed Bill back to their bedrolls.  Behind them he heard the low rumble of a chant starting, the McClains gathering around their dead.

 

    *******

 

  He dozed for a few hours, roused to Michel McClain's hand on his shoulder, the sky gray with dawn behind him. 

 

  "We ride."  McClain told him laconically.  "There is coffee.  Hurry, we do not have time for more."

 

  Bill was up, standing at the fire with his cup in his hand.  The McClains were saddling up, two of them lashing a blanket-wrapped bundle over the saddle of Buck Curtis' stolen bay.  They moved quickly, but gently, reverently; if he hadn't known already, it would have been clear this was Absalom's body.  Bill nodded a greeting, handed him a piece of hardtack after he'd filled his cup.  "Michel told me they plan to ride fast, today."  Bill said thoughtfully.  "But he said he had to think about something. "

 

   "Will they let us go?"  Slim wondered.

 

  Bill shrugged, and then Michel's voice filled in the silence. "Not yet, I am afraid."     He looked weary, stooping to fill a cup from the little pot.  "Joshua tells me there are riders north and east of us; the way we would have gone is closed to us now.  And we must send Absalom home.   So Daniel will separate, go east from here, riding fast with his brother.  There is no need to go slow now."  For a moment his face was carved in grief, and then he shrugged.  "We will ride north, and draw the riders after us.  And we will have need of hostages, I am afraid."

 

  Bill tossed the remainder of his coffee on the fire.  "Provided they know we're hostages."

 

  "I have a thought for that.  In the meanwhile, mount, if you please.  We must go now."

 

  Slim lingered for a moment, watching Daniel mount, take the end of the lead to Curtis' horse, and  begin the sad journey home.  The boy met his eyes for a moment, nodded in salute and reined out of the camp, heading into the brightening east.  Slim felt the ache of regret for the young life lost and the brother's sorrow, and the unknown and unknowing mother, whose heart was about to be torn.  If that had been Andy.  Or Jess...

 

 "Slim." Michel's voice, impatient.  "We must ride."

 

  He shivered a little in the chill, turning his jacket collar up to warm his neck.  The short Wyoming summer was sliding into early fall, the air had the first faint promise of frost on it.  Mort should have had Jess to the Bates' ranch by yesterday evening; with any luck Mary Bates would keep him hogtied there until he was healed up.  He didn't envy her that job, but he was glad it wasn't in his hands.  He had enough to worry about as it was, with keeping Bill Bates in one piece and getting him home.  He swung up on Alamo, felt him hump his back a little against the chill and let him start walking, to warm him up.

 

 "Anglo!"  Levi McClain,  stepping out to front him, rifle in his hands.  "You want to die, Anglo?"

 

 He stopped Alamo, confused, and then Michel intervened, stepping in front of his brother, saying something urgently in the Me'tis argot.  Levi stepped back, grudgingly, and Michel looked at Slim over his shoulder.  "My brothers are not happy, Sherman.  Do not do anything that might provoke them."

 

 "Your brother is pretty hair trigger,"  he said neutrally.  "He's looking for trouble."

 

  McClain shrugged.  "I can handle him.  Look to yourself." 

 

*******

 

 Mort forced a stop at the line shack.  Jess had fretted against the slow pace, and Mort ignored him, calmly letting Jess' angry words  blow past him.

 

 "Step down, Jess."  Mort's voice brooked no argument.  "We're staying the night here."

 

 "We got two good hours of light."  He felt desperate with the need to keep moving, angry at Mort and knowing it was unfair, knowing it was his condition that dictated how fast they moved.

 

 "I"m not risking you sleeping out tonight.  Give it another day.  You take sick on me and we turn back.  You want to take that risk?"

 

 He stepped down grudgingly, because there was no arguing with that.  The sky was cloudless, the light long and slanting blue and gold, shadows sharp in the late afternoon sun.  But the wind coming off the northern plains was chill, promising a cold night, maybe frost.

 

 They put the horses up in the lean-to, where Jess' makeshift roof repair still held.  Mary Bates had thought of everything, sending a sack of grain and even some nose bags for the horses. 

 

 "Don't get used to all this luxury,"  he warned Traveler.  "You get soft on me an' I'll replace you."  The bay head-butted him, eager for the grain and nearly knocking him off his feet. 

 

  "Jess, go in and sit down."   Mort took the nosebag from his hands, elbowed him gently out of the way.  "Light the fire if you want something to do.  I'll be in shortly."

 

 The room was bigger and drab in its emptiness.  He had never really seen it before; now with the late sunlight slanting through the little window, it showed bare, the  light glinting off the dust dancing in the air.  There was wood stacked near a small mud-and-stone hearth, a couple of platforms for bedrolls.  He felt lost for a minute, almost as if he'd expected to find Slim and Bill Bates and the McClains still here, and then he shook it off, kneeling at the hearth to fumble tinder out of his pocket, strike a lucifer.

 

 "Cold tonight".  Mort's voice at the door.  He slung the gunny sack of provisions onto the hearth, wincing at the sound of the pans clanging on stone.  "Good thing we got shelter."

 

 Jess sank back on his heels watching the first tentative curl of flame on the hearth, thinking about his friends, sleeping out for the second night running.

 

 Be all right.

 

 

******

 

 They rode hard until early evening, due north toward the Montana territory, the Canadian border beyond.  Michel sent Levi and Jerome' out to scout, giving them a half hour's start.  They did not see the riders he'd spoken of; whether that meant they'd given up, or that the McClains were skillful in avoiding them, Slim could not tell.  He only knew he was as weary as his horse, as the day wore on.  He had not made a forced march like this since the war. Michel drove them on at the steady alternation from trot to canter that allowed the horses to keep going, hour after hour, with only brief rests. It let them cover a lot of ground;  Slim reckoned it as close to forty miles, but he could feel the fatigue in Alamo's gait, see it in the droop of his neck, and his own back ached from the hours of constant movement.

 

 The two scouts rejoined them, speaking long and softly with Michel as they rode on.  They were into the Hamilton Hills by the time Michel called a halt, in a shallow fold of the land with a few scrub cottonwoods, a trickle of a creek  and  the sweet smell of the drying prairie grasses warning of the autumn coming fast upon them.  

 

 The Me'tis  made camp with disciplined speed: the horses unsaddled and hobbled to graze, a cook fire started while Slim was still spreading his bedroll.   Bill Bates set his gear down beside his, grunting a little as he swung his saddle down off his shoulder, then pressing his hands to the small of his back as he straightened.

 

 "Gettin' too old for this,"   he said easily.

 

  "Me too."  Slim told him.  "Think they'll keep this up tomorrow?"

 

 Bill shrugged.  "Hard to say.  I didn't see anybody on our back trail."

 

 "That does not mean they were not there."  Michel's voice, at Slim's shoulder, startling them both.  As always, moving so softly you couldn't tell he was there until he spoke.  "It is for sure that there is a posse ahead of us; not your friends, but blue-coats and civilians with badges.  Jerome' has shadowed them all day.  They do not know where we are, but they will find us, sooner rather than later."

 

  "And then what?"  Slim watched him closely, trying to find some sign of his intentions in the stoic face. 

 

 "We ride on.  Or we fight.  It will be up to them."

 

 "Or you give yourselves up."  Bill suggested, and Michel stared at him for a moment, before smiling, grimly.

 

  "A joke. So.  I have been thinking all day about what we do with you.  I do not want to fight.  I want them to let us pass."

 

  Bill snorted.  "Small chance of that."

 

 "That is where the hostages become important.  One of you will carry my message for me, tell the posse they must let us pass.  The other will stay with us, will be the reason they must let us pass."

 

  "And how are you plannin' to make that happen?"  Bill sounded mildly curious, and more than a little skeptical. 

 

 "We send one of you out to meet our shadows."

 

 "And how do they recognize a hostage?"  Bill bent to spread his bedroll, as if he had no particular interest in Michel's answer.

 

 "We send you under flag-of-truce. And we all hope our shadows are men of honor."  Michel looked sardonic.  "And the one who goes will be hoping very hard."

 

 "Who?"  Slim asked, and Michel's eyes were kind as they met his.

 

 "The two of you decide.  The other will ride with us, surety for the posse, until we are into Canada, or there is no more pursuit. Tomorrow, we will do this.  You tell me who in the morning."

 

  Slim nodded.  His mind was already made up; Bill would be going home to Mary tomorrow, if he had to cold cock him to make it happen.  Michel's face hardened.  "Do not mistake me, though.  If there is a time when I must choose between your safety and my brothers', there will be no hesitation."    He turned on his heel and went to the cook fire.  On the other side of the fire, Levi McClain watched them, his face suspicious.

 

*****

 

 Jess was seventeen, the year of the first Vicksburg campaign.  Seventeen and already a veteran, feeling old and sucked dry by the war.  He'd enlisted at sixteen, full of piss and vinegar, drawn more by a desire for adventure, a need to have a cause, than by any real belief in what the war was about.  A Yankee prisoner asked him why he was fighting,  that first year, and all he could say was "Because you all came down here."  By Vicksburg, he only knew he was fighting because that was what he did; and that he would fight until the war was over, he was prisoner or he was dead.

 

 That whole summer was a haze of heat and blood and sickness.  Men fell sick with fevers that shook them to their bones, that turned their piss to blood and sapped their strength.  The food molded in the wet heat of the Mississippi valley, and the mosquitoes were a torture that never stopped.  And they fought and rode and fought some more, and there was no sense to any of it, just two stupid generals, one in blue, one in butternut gray, slugging blindly at each other, clumsy as two drunks in a bar brawl.

 

 Of the men he'd trained with, only one was still alive. Josh Haims was a big, slow-spoken East Texas farm boy, calm and easy-going, taking hardship and good times with the same steady good-nature.  It had been a joke between them first summer they fought, that the sergeant always got them confused.

 

 'Cuz we look so much alike.'  Josh had said straight-faced, looking down at Jess from his six-foot plus, red haired and as freckled as a quail's egg.

 

 The sergeant couldn't keep the names straight; always miscalling them.  Time to time, they'd try to deliberately confuse him.  The sergeant was dead six months, the summer of Vicksburg, and they'd both long since given up on play.

 

 Men drifted  into the platoon and out of it as quickly, that summer.  Replacement troops lost to death or the surgeon's tent, and the last one just seemed a gateway to the first.  And the minie' balls sometimes whistled across the fields thick as the endless mosquitoes; drawing blood as surely.  They got used to finding the corpses lying with their uniforms disarrayed, as the wounded men pulled their own clothes open, to see if they'd been gut-shot and predict their odds of living.   Josh and he were the only constants in the platoon; Josh was six months older so they made him sergeant, a rank that mostly nobody paid attention to, 'cept the Lieutenant, when he wanted somebody to decide who was ridin' patrol. 

 

 He heard the mourning dove too much that summer, that eerie, mournful sound that grated on him until he would've shot the damn bird if he coulda seen it.

 

  'Don't know why it frets you so.' Josh said evenly.  'It's kinda peaceful.'

 

  'Sounds like a lost soul,'  he'd told him.  'The old folks say when you hear one it means someone's dead or dyin'.'

 

 'Naw.'  Josh said.  'That's an owl.  You got it mixed up there, Jess.'

 

 Josh took a patrol out the next day, and died leading it.  Jess couldn't even feel guilty.  Because too many people had died, already.

 

 Mort heated beans and salt pork, and there was a muslin bag of Mary's biscuits, still faintly warm and soft.  Jess had no appetite, but ate methodically, needing to be able to stay on Traveler's back tomorrow.   Mort poured coffee for them, and they sat out on the bare porch floor to drink it, watching the clouds piling up behind the low line of the Rockies, far to the west.

 

 "Sure is pretty."  Mort said idly.

 

 The sky was like an old painting he'd seen once, in a church down in Mexico;  the thunderheads dark purple blue, the edges lit with gold and pink by the setting sun. 

 

 "Yeah," he agreed, and then named his fear.  "Rain comin'."

 

 Mort didn't dispute him.  "How long, do ya think?"

 

 "Couple a days, 'less the wind shifts.  We need to push, Mort.  We're runnin' out of time."

 

 "All right, Jess.  We'll do what we can."

 

 The northeast wind dropped as sunset came on and in the stillness he could hear the dove call.  He moved restlessly, hating the sound.

 

 "Late in the year to be hearin' that."  Mort said idly.

 

 "No time is right."

 

 Mort looked at him oddly, but held his peace.  The dove called again, lost, lost, lost...

 

No, he thought, not again.  Not if I can help it.

 

******

 

  Slim was restless in the cold, sleeping badly.   When he opened his eyes the sky was alight with stars, far away and cold, the light steady in the frosty air.  He could just make out the silhouette of the sentry against the dim, banked fire;  Michel McClain, brooding over his propped rifle.  He eased out of his bedroll quietly,  and walked to the fire.

 

 "It is still very early, Slim."  Michel didn't even turn his head.  "An hour, perhaps, 'til sunrise.  There is coffee on the fire."

 

 He nodded his thanks, hunkering down to warm his hands.  "I'll go with you," he said abruptly.

 

 Michel nodded.  "You have decided this between you?"

 

 "No.  It's my choice.  Come morning, I'm asking you to just tell Bill he goes home."

 

 Michel chuckled.  "I am to tell him, eh?  You think he won't know you took the choice from him?"

 

 "He'll know.  But if you say it, he can't argue it."

 

 "Why so noble, Slim?"

 

 He stretched his hands closer to the fire, feeling the dampness of frost in the air.   "He's an old man, Michel.  He'll slow you down."

 

  McClain turned to look at him for the first time.   "That does not answer the question."

 

  He shrugged.   "He has a wife, grandchildren."

 

  "Ah.  Very well.  I will say what the choice is."

 

******

 

 Jess was up before dawn, driven by an urgency that wouldn't let him rest.  There was so much against them at this point; distance and time, and the rain that would come within a day, and Slim's own nature, that would lead him to step into the line of fire to protect a friend. 

 

 "Mornin'."   Mort's voice from behind him, hoarse and dry after the cold night.

 

  Jess looked over his shoulder, hands busy with a make-shift poker as he coaxed the banked fire back to life.  "Mornin'.  I'll have this goin' in a minute."

 

 Mort grunted, shuffled to the door and opened it on the barely-there-light of the false dawn.  "Can't be moren' five.  Even you can't track in the dark, Jess."

 

 "Early light's the best."  He added tinder patiently, the flame growing under his hands until he could set in one of the logs they'd brought in last night, the light and heat welcome.

 

  Mort stepped out for a minute, and then came back to rummage for their supplies.  "Cloud's are movin' in from the west.  Reckon we'll have rain by the end of the day."

 

 Something tightened in his chest.   "We better get a move on, then."   He didn't want to think about losing that trail.  He fed the horses while Mort pulled together coffee and a cold breakfast.  They ate on their feet, and were in the saddle before the sun cleared the horizon.

 

 The long slanting eastern light picked out every ripple in the terrain, threw them into relief as sharp as a knife's edge.   It was an easy trail to follow once he cut it;  the McClains had moved slowly, burdened with the wounded boy, and Buck Curtis' bar-shod horse was carrying heavy weight, the hoof prints deep-cut and clear.  And he could pick out Alamo's trail, the little toe clip he'd put on at the last shoeing clear to his eyes. 

 

  He could tolerate a trot now, and with the trail as clear as a traveled road they made good time, pushing steadily north and east.  They found the McClain's first camp easily enough.  Not as far off as he would've thought, but that meant the boy had still been alive when they'd stopped here.  The fire had been scattered but he could pick up enough of the ashes to be sure it was a camp site.  Mort insisted they eat again, and that was when Jess came out of his narrow focus, realized that the sun was close to straight up.  He scanned the horizon, seeing the band of approaching rain clouds covering a good third of the sky now, thick enough to throw a shadow on the land.  It made his chest tighten again, because the land ahead was so wide open, all the way to that little shadow-slash on the horizon that promised hills.   Too much room for a small party to change direction in; if he lost the trail he could miss a turn off,  lose time and miles, and maybe, lose them completely.

 

  He quartered the ground patiently, slowly, deciphering the story of what had happened here, almost sixteen hours ago.   The party had split in two, the horse with the bar shoe, and another turning east at a steady, ground covering trot, the majority of the group turning straight north, and the pace lifting to a canter.  He felt a moment's fear and pushed it aside, not letting himself think about what might happen if he made the wrong choice now.  Alamo's track was with the northbound group, and he stood still for a minute, weighing the choices.  Most likely north was the trail he wanted.  If Slim was still ridin' Alamo.  If they hadn't forced a change of horses and then set him to ride east with Absalom. ... 

 

  "Let's ride,"  he said hoarsely, tightening the cinch on Traveler and swearing softly, impatient with the horse's old game of holding his breath.  Mort said nothing, but his eyes were knowing and patient as he fell in behind Traveler, back on the trail and pushing north.  

 

  Jess had lost his patience in the time on the drift, the years between his time with the Cheyenne band, the Tsitsistas, and coming home to the ranch.   He'd learned patience under 'Mehome's teaching; patience on the hunt and in the lodge.    But then the People had left, another family vanished, and there was no reason after to be patient.  Those years on the drift he'd gotten more and more hair trigger, because it seemed like life was just one loss after another.  And there was less and less reason to put any part of himself into any situation, less and less reason to let something play out, because it was gonna end in disappointment.   Until he came to the ranch, met Slim and Andy and Jonesy.

 

  Even in that first meeting with Slim, contentious as it had been,  something in the man had called to him, had promised certainty.   It still made him smile, to think about that meeting, the two of them on the muscle but both of them knowing it was half play.   So he'd stayed, and begun to learn patience again, from Slim.  Learned that you could take your time with something, let it ripen.  Learned that a long day's work didn't yield to a rush, but gave way before a slow, steady pace.   And the thing inside him that was afraid of putting in began to ease, little by little. 

 

 There was no time now, for patience.

 

*****

 

 Bill complained bitterly after Michel gave him the news, and then stopped abruptly, his eyes taking Slim's measure before he turned to saddle his horse.    Slim approached him slowly, knowing Bill would see what he'd done as a betrayal.

 

 "Bill..."

 

"Don't say it."  Bate's voice was harsh.  "You think you're savin' the old man, Slim?  That what this is all about?"

 

 "It's about Mary,"  he said softly.  "It's about not bein' able to look her in the eye if I go back without you.  She's been too good to me an' mine, over the years, to do that to her."

 

 Bill's hands stopped for a moment.   "You think she won't be mad at me for not bringin' you home?"

 

 "Better you than me,"  he told him, trying to lighten the mood.  "You've known her longer."

 

 Bill smiled, grudgingly, and finally turned to face him.  "All right, Slim.  I'll tell her this was all about you bein' afraid of her.  An' I'll round up the boys, come after you once I'm home.   An' we'll both look after Jess 'til he's healed up."

 

 "Thanks Bill.  I knew you would. An' tell Jess.."  He stopped, not finding the words.

 

 "I'll tell him you're all right an' you'll be back home soon.  I was plannin' on it bein' me, you know."   Bill held his hand out, and then, astonishingly, pulled him close to give him a father's hug.  "Mark you trail.  Rain's comin' on."  The whisper was harsh in his ear, and Bill's hand brushed across Slim's jacket pocket, pushing something light into it.  Then he straightened, stepping back to set foot in the stirrup and swing up.  "You take care, Slim.  An' you watch out for that Levi.  I don't like the way he's takin' the boy's death."

 

 "I will.  You go safely, Bill.  Give my best to Mary." 

 

 Bill touched his hat brim, reined out after the escorting Jerome', and Slim put his hands in his pockets, feeling the torn up strips of bandanna cloth that Bill had put in one. 

 

 "Slim."  Michel's voice behind him. For such a heavy-set man, he always moved so lightly you never heard him until he spoke.  It reminded him of Tall Fox.  He shook off the memory, turned to meet Michel's knowing eyes.  "Your friend will be safe.  Jerome' will let him go within sight of our pursuers.  He will watch and bring word back."

 

 He nodded his thanks, moved to Alamo's side as Michel turned away.  "And Slim.  You will be safe, as well.  We ride now."

 

 He swung up on Alamo, watched from the saddle as Bill and Jerome' topped the little rise east  of them, and then vanished on the other side.  A mourning dove called on the chilly morning wind, an oddly haunting sound, and he shivered, turned his collar up, and followed the Me'tis away from the camp.

 

*****

 

  The Me'tis had moved fast, pushing their horses hard, and Jess felt a growing desperation as the hours and miles ticked past.  He couldn't move as fast as the McClains had, couldn't risk missing a change in direction or a split in the party, so every mile north was losing him ground on them.  And he felt Mort's eyes on him, knew he was being watched close for a sign of weakness, and maybe, for a reason to turn around.  So he fought to conceal his growing headache, the fatigue that made him want to slump in the saddle, that made dismounting to check the ground harder and harder. 

 

 It was late afternoon when he ran out of strength, went to set foot in the stirrup after dismounting to check the trail, and couldn't do it.  He tried twice, and then leaned against Trav, defeated.

 

 "Jess.  Stop."   Mort stepped down, came to his side, calm and unhurried.  "We need to camp now.  You can't keep goin' like this."

 

 "Mort..."

 

 "You're too tired to see straight.  Even if I let you keep goin', you'll miss somethin' an' lose the trail.   An' I can't track well enough to take the lead.  Hell, son, I haven't known what you been followin' since we stopped at noon."   Mort elbowed him aside gently, took Trav's reins from him.  "This ain't a bad place to stop.  You set yourself down over there for a spell while I set up camp..."

 

 He looked around, letting himself see the land instead of just the trail.  They were coming into the beginning of that range of hills he'd seen at noon, just riding into a little draw between two humps of ground that barely counted as a rise.  But there was a little rill, just a thread of muddy water, and enough scrub around to fuel a cook fire.  He looked west, seeing the storm clouds rolling at them, relentless, and felt the despair in him roll up to meet them.  Because he wasn't able to outrun the rain, had never been able to, and he was going to lose Slim's trail, here in the big empty with no way to know where to pick it up again. 

 

 "Jess.  Sit before you fall."   Mort looked up from hobbling the three horses.  "Nothin' to be done about it, son.  It's just the way of things."  

 

 He nodded jerkily, and held his peace through the routine of settling the stock.  He got up to help gather firewood, and Mort allowed it.  The wind was rising in little gusts, and you could smell the rain on it, that scent of wet dust that was like nothing else.   They were losing light fast, the clouds stealing a couple of hours of good daylight from them, and they had to stretch the canvas from the pack saddle as a wind-and-rain shelter before they could get a fire going, make coffee.

 

 Jess sat on his bedroll, warming his hands on a tin cup of coffee, and Mort sank down next to him, sighing.  "Long day.  I'm gettin' old for this kind of trackin'."

 

 "Yeah."

 

  "Don't agree so fast, young blood.  Your time will come."   Mort poked at the fire, making it flare up a little.  "Jess.  Tomorrow, if it looks like we're just movin' by guess, we turn back."

 

 "No."

 

 Mort was quiet for a moment, and then said gently, "It's a big country here, Jess.  Maybe there's a way to figger how they'd move through the hills.  Maybe.  But we can't just bet they're goin' straight for the border.  An' we're already way outta my jurisdiction.  There's a point where the smart thing t'do is turn back and start wirin' other peace officers."

 

  "The smart thing ain't always the right thing,"  he muttered, and Mort didn't answer.

 

 Trav lifted his head abruptly, ears flickering back and forth, and they both came alert, listening.  Something big moved down the draw toward them, and then Jess could hear the rhythm of a horse at the walk, and a familiar voice called,  "Hello, the fire!"

 

 Mort smiled, standing up.  "Bill!  You're welcome in, neighbor."

 

 Bill Bates' plain, sturdy bay moved forward into the light, and Jess stood up, looking past him for the horse he knew wasn't there, but not able to stop himself. 

 

  "Slim's all right, Jess."  Bill dismounted stiffly, hands moving automatically to loosen the cinch.  "He's ridin' north with the McClains. I'll set you on the trail in the mornin'."

 

                                *****

 

 The rain started just before sundown, pounding down hard at first, so that the canvas they were using for shelter sagged under the weight of water and their horses stood miserably, tails to the wind and heads low. Jess kept his eyes closed, listening to the drumbeat of water on the shelter, the chuckle of the nearby rill getting louder, and tried not to think about the McClain's tracks melting into a mud-puddle under the rain.

 
 Bill Bates settled next to him, nudging him with an elbow until he opened his eyes, took the cup of coffee Bates pressed into his hands. 

 "He's all right." Bill said abruptly, as if he was just continuing a conversation started earlier. "The McClains treated us well, and that Michel has a head on his shoulders.  He don't want more blood shed.  That's why he wanted one hostage, to keep the posse back.  But he'll keep Slim safe, Jess."

 "No offense, Bill, but why Slim?"

 Bates looked down at the ground.  "It was Slim's choice.  Michel left it up to us, said to tell him this morning; Slim got there first.  Said it was 'cause he couldn't ride back and look Mary in the eye if he let me go."

 It surprised a laugh out of Jess. "Reckon I know what that feels like.  You think you can put me on the trail tomorrow?"

 Bill hesitated.  "I can point you straight at where they were, Jess, but after that I don't know.  I think they're ridin' straight through to Canada, quickest way.  They wanted t'draw the posse off Daniel's trail, give him a chance t'get his brother's body home t'his mother..."

 "Wait, body?"

 "The boy died night before last.  That's why we split up.  Daniel McClain's ridin' toward Me'tis land in th' Dakotas, an' his kin are leadin' the posse off.  But I don't know for a fact which way they'll jump, just what they were plannin', an' willin' t'have me know."

 "Good enough."

 "Jess, I told Slim t'mark his trail, figurin' it wouldn't be long before you were on it.  He's got some cloth pieces, blue bandanna, torn real small.  You look for that, if there's nothin' else."

 "Thanks, Bill."  The rain was easing a little, the drumming on the canvas lightening, moment by moment, and he felt his mood lighten with it.  Maybe there was a chance, still.

*****

 Michel set an easy pace, just a good steady jog that covered the miles without wearying the horses.  He was grateful for it, after yesterday's hard ride.  Alamo was still tired, he could feel the drag in his gait, but it wasn't yesterday's head drooping fatigue, and he could feel him recover under him as the hours wore on.

 Jerome' caught them up at noon, nodding to Slim as he passed him on his way to Michel's side.  He seemed calm, good omen that the meeting with the posse had gone well, that Bill was okay.  The two brothers talked for a moment, and then Michel reined out of line, waited until Slim came up.

"It is fine, Slim.  Your friend rode to the posse under a white cloth, and they waited for him without gunfire.  Jerome' says the blue coats were American cavalry, and only a few civilians with badges, so maybe they have better discipline, eh?"

"Maybe so."  He said, feeling the relief.  There had been a little risk, in riding up on a posse, but still a risk.  He was glad to know Bill was in one piece, and likely on his way home now.

 "They talked a long time.  A long, long time.  And then the posse turned back east and your friend rode south."

 "East."

 Michel shrugged.  "Bill Bates would have told them about Daniel.  How not?  It is why I waited a day, to send one of you.  They will look for the Me'tis in the Dakotas, and we will go on to Canada while they try to decide which fox to follow."  Michel smiled slyly, a man happy with his plan.  "I wish them joy of their hunt.  My family camps with the Sioux."

 "And now what?"  He caught Michel's eyes, trying to read their expression.

 "Why ask?  We ride to Canada, I told you.  You ride with us to the border.  I will let you go there."

 "Will you?"

 "Of course.  I think the Mounties are less tender of an  American rancher than the US Army is, non?  You are no use to me in Canada, Slim.  You go home to your family then. Your friend, the hot-headed one; he will follow.  I know.  I do not need him on my trail.  You will go home."

 He nodded acceptance, and Michel rode on beside him for a few strides, looking at the sky to their west.


 "The rain is coming; by this afternoon we will have a storm.  I think we had better find shelter where we can."


 He spurred the little Appaloosa forward, to confer with Joshua, send him ahead, an obvious scout.

 Slim rode on thoughtfully.  Odd that Michel had taken Jess' measure so completely, just in the one encounter.  The wind was freshening, and he shivered a little in it, thinking that Michel was probably right.  That no matter what Mort and Mary and Bill intended, Jess was likely already on his trail.

 The clouds were heavy, dark and pregnant with rain, enough water to wash out their tracks.  He remembered Bill's words, and reined Alamo out of the little line, signaling to the watchful Jerome' that he needed to attend to himself.  He kept Alamo between them when he dismounted, sliding a piece of the torn-up bandana out of his pocket, and pushing it deep into a scrub sagebrush, barely visible if you knew where to look.  But when Jess was tracking he missed nothing.  He wouldn't miss this....

 

                                                   *****


 It was a long, wet, night. The initial heavy rain eased down after an hour to a steady, miserable drizzle, cold and riding a raw wind that promised an early winter.  Jess dozed and roused and dozed again, even without the necessity to keep watch.  There was no reason to expect trouble on a night like this, and they were still far from the Me'tis.  But he was restless with the need to stay on the trail, to close down the distance to the McClains.


 Mort had sat long and quiet over the fire, and Jess knew he was trying to plan.  And likely thinking about turning back.  They had Bill now, and the rain was wiping out any trace of the Me'tis' trail.  And they were likely awful close to the Dakota and Montana territory borders; reason enough for a local sheriff to abandon a chase.  Likely there'd be that to face between them in the morning.  So Jess slept lightly, waking to worry and peer out into the rain-soaked darkness and wait for the first sign of dawn.

*****

 Slim was able to leave another piece of the bandana, before the rains came on.  They were riding through the scrub choked entrance to a little draw, and he reached out casually, shoved the blue cloth into the branch of a chokecherry, waist high on a mounted man.  He glanced up afterwards, to find Levi McClain's angry, suspicious eyes on him, and made himself hold them unflinching.  After a moment the man looked away, rode forward to Jerome's side, to speak to him softly.


 Michel held up ahead of him, falling in alongside as Slim passed.  "Slim. We will camp shortly There is a cave known to us ahead, it will be good shelter."


 "That's good.  Levi seems a little edgy."


 Michel looked thoughtful.  "He is looking for someone to blame, I think.  He convinced me to have the young ones join us.  It is hard for him, knowing that this caused Absalom's death."


 "As long as he doesn't cause mine."  He kept his voice neutral.


 Michel glanced at him sharply.  "Give him no cause and there will be no problem."


 "Really?  You think he won't make up a cause?"


 "Has he threatened you Slim?"


 "He doesn't have to.  He's full of hate, and from what you say, wants to blame me for his choice."  He held Michel's eyes, steadily.  "Don't leave him to guard me, Michel."  It was true enough, but more than that truth, he needed a little freedom, to mark a trail.  Levi would watch him closer than anyone else.


 Michel dropped his eyes, to study the ground ahead.  "Perhaps,"  he said noncommittally. "We will see."

 They made the cave entrance as the first cold rain started.  It was a shallow ledge cave just deep enough to take the horses crowded into the back; there was still room for a fire, close enough to the entrance for ventilation but far enough in to be dry.  Slim was grateful for the small comfort; the night was raw with cold.  If Jess was on his trail, he hoped he had shelter.

 He took his time rubbing Alamo down, working the last of the tension from yesterday's hard ride from his back.  The horse made an odd little grunting sound of pleasure, stretching his head and neck low.  It made him smile.  "Don't try an' roll,"  he told him. "You'll just disappoint yourself."

 "Anglo!"  Levi's voice.  "What are you doing there, Anglo?"

 He answered with deliberate slowness.  "Tending to my horse.  Something you might want to do."

 Levi was on him in two steps, grabbing his shoulder roughly to drag him toward the firelight.  "Do not tell me what to do, Anglo."  The man's voice was harsh with anger.  "I know how to take care of my own."

  "Yeah?  I couldn't tell."  Levi swung at him open handed and Slim kept his hands down, let himself ride the impact.  By the time he straightened his head, Michel had grabbed Levi's arm, pulled him backwards and was shouting in the Me'tis argot.  Levi stumbled backward, grunted something in the same language, and then turned on his heel to stomp off to the cave mouth, back rigid with resentment

 Michel turned to look at Slim, face thoughtful, and he kept his face impassive as long as those eyes were on him.

 "Sooo."  Michel drew the word out.  "You have made your point, perhaps."

 Slim shrugged.

 "Make no more points, Slim.  You will have Jerome' or Joshua with you, but do not try Levi again.  I am telling you."

 He nodded, and followed Michel to the little cook fire, under the watchful eyes of the McClains.



*****


 The morning was cold but astonishingly clear, the sky that achingly pure blue that dazzled your eyes, made distances deceptive. They'd pulled as much scrub as they could get their hands on under the canvas with them last night, and the wood was just dry enough to catch as they fed the banked fire. Mort was quiet, face still and thoughtful as they went about the business of making breakfast, readying the horses. They drank their coffee standing in a circle around the little fire, and Mort waited until they'd poured the last of it over the coals to kill it, before saying what Jess had been dreading.

"Jess, I think we should turn back today."

 Bill Bates looked sharply from Mort to him, but held his peace. Jess rubbed his fingertips over his bandaged forehead; startin' to itch. Mean's it's healin'....

 "You go back if you want, Mort." He kept his voice even and calm. "I'm goin' on."

  Mort took a minute to answer. "Way I see it, there's not much point."  His voice was gentle. "Trail's washed out, Jess."

 He fought down the frustration, knowing that giving into anger now might lose him the fight, lose him Bill Bates' help.  "Mebbe so. But Bill here says he can put me on their trail.  And Slim will start markin' it.  It's worth a shot."  He met his friend's eyes, saw the hesitation there.

 "Bill?  Jess have the right of it?"

 Bates nodded slowly. "I can take you straight to their last camp; it's maybe four, five hours if we push it.  An' they were headed quickest way to Canada, straight north like a compass arrow.  An' Slim'll take every chance to mark the trail. I think it's worth tryin', Mort."

" You that sure of it Bill?  I'd think you'd wanna be on your way home to Mary."

 "I'm that sure."  And it was Bill's turn to meet Mort's eyes, now.  "I owe Slim that much, sheriff."

 "All right." Mort scattered the fire's ashes with his boot. "This is the way of it then.  We track one more day.  Bill, after you set us on the right trail you go home.  I mean it.  Jess, you an' I will push on til we're out of light.  But if we're drawin' a blank by the end of the day, we're done.  Clear?"

 Bill nodded, turned to saddle his horse.

 "Jess?  We clear?"

 "It's clear."  He could see in Mort's face that wasn't the words he wanted to hear, and turned away himself to saddle Traveler.

 "Jess.."

 "Mort.  You can't stop me, not without doin' somethin' you'll regret.  You don't have to stay, not now.  You know I can handle it.  You want to turn back with Bill, you do that. "  He bent to pick up his bedroll, start lashing it behind his saddle.  "I'm not quitting this trail Mort.  Not 'til I bring him home."  Just north of their campsite, a dove called, and Jess' hands tightened, white knuckled, on the tie-down.  Lost, lost, lost...

*****

There was a part of him that was quick to hate.  He'd learned it before the war, in the searing heat of the fire that killed his first family.  He wasn't proud of it, and he tried not to feed it.  Because that part could take him over, turn him into someone he didn't want  Slim to know, and maybe, didn't want to know himself. And every loss made it worse, made him more bitter, more willing to use his gun. Made him want to take a revenge trail. When he went after the  Bannister gang that killed his kin,  that was the worst. That was bein' near crazy with the need to take from someone else what had been stolen from him, all those years ago. He lost himself, on that trail, come close to doin' something there was no comin' back from. An' he almost lost the ranch, riding that trail. When it was over and done, when someone else had made the kill and he was ridin' home, he'd been afraid that Slim would say, 'keep ridin', that the new home had been lost to the need to avenge the old one. It had been like the sun on a rainy day, when he'd ridden into the yard and his friend had said, 'well, step down...'

Bill talked with him a little, about the McClains, who they were, what they were after.  He was maybe tryin' to set his mind at ease, explain why everybody liked this Michel so much, thought Slim was pretty much safe.  But what he heard was they were on a revenge trail, too, and he knew how that could override everything else, make a man into something he wouldn't otherwise be. 

He didn't know who he'd've been, without Slim. And he was afraid to find out who he'd be if something happened to Slim.

He knew one thing for true.  If anything happened to his partner, he would ride the McClains down and kill them.


                                      ****

The rain stopped before dawn, and the McClains were up and in the saddle before the sun cleared the rolling horizon. The sky was clear, vivid blue overhead, and far and high Slim could see a circling hawk, playing on the wind. And the air tasted of frost.


Levi McClain watched him closely, but he managed to find a place to plant another piece of bandana, once they'd turned north again. And the ground was soft enough, that he was sure if Jess found the trail he could hold it. Alamo skittered at a wind-driven piece of brush, pretending to be frightened. The horse was fresh and playful after yesterday's slower pace and early camp.  He let him play. to burn off some of his energy, and to give him an excuse for abandoning the line, if he would need one, later.

They kept an easy, comfortable pace, not the breakneck forced march Michel had used to outpace the posse. And the wind had dropped to nothing, the sun warm on his shoulders. All in all, not too bad a ride to make. Michel reined up next to him and he nodded, waited for the Me'tis to speak.

"Levi wants me to bind your hands, tie you to your saddle." Michels' voice was matter-of-fact.

Slim waited a stride, considering how to answer. "Why now?"  he said, finally.

"Possibly because of what happened between you in the cave."  Michel watched him closely. 

"What would be the point?"  He kept his voice level.  "Where can I go that you can't stop me in a few strides?  There is no place to run to, out here."

 "I told him this.  He insists you are doing something, planning something.  He wishes to make sure of you."

  "He wants revenge."

 "Perhaps."  Michel turned his eyes forward.  "Is he right?"

   He couldn't answer that, not honestly, and he did not think he could lie well enough to fool Michel.  "Would you believe me, whatever I say?   If he thinks I am doing something he needs to prove it."

  "I told him this also. And I told him I will not bind you without good cause.  But if you give me cause I will, do not mistake me."

  He nodded, thinking about the pieces of cloth, Bill's gift.  Being restrained would keep him from marking his trail, lower the chances that Jess could catch up.  But he was oddly uneasy with the deception.  It was a fragile truce, between him and the McClains, and based on a certain amount of trust.  "Michel, I won't do anything to hurt you or your family.  But I want to go home to mine, and I will not give that up."

 "Who decides what is harm, Slim?"

  He took a breath, thinking about what he could do and stay faithful to all sides.  "I won't raise a hand against you or yours, unless I see you try to harm someone else.  I won't fight against you, but I won't fight for you."

  "And you're not still trying to bring us to justice?"  Michel's voice was harsh, the word justice sounding bitter.

  "I gave that up when I said I would be your hostage."

  "All right. For now."  

 He watched Michel ride away, and strangely, he felt easier in his mind.  Deception was foreign to him; he was uneasy with hidden truths.  Now at least everyone knew where he stood.   Strange, how sure he was that Jess was following.  He should have known this would happen from the beginning;  it was what he would have done.

 

                                                     ******

 

  It was a hard  ride to the Me'ti's last camp.  Bill led them confidently, no need to worry about looking for tracks that were no longer there, no need to second-guess every choice.  Jess felt the sharp edge in him ease a little, because they were finally making up ground instead of losing it.   And Bill pushed the pace, probably wanting to finish this and go home as soon as he could.   But the Me'tis had ridden hard, wanting to outpace the posse trying to intercept them, so it was past noon by the time they found the campsite.

"They went north from here."  Bill spoke quietly, behind him.  "They were riding easy;  Michel told Jerome', the man guarding me, that they would wait for him as much as they could.  And the posse turned off their trail after I told them about Daniel goin' east, an' about Slim ridin' with 'em."

"How far, you reckon?"

Bill shrugged.  "They're a half-day ahead, Jess.  But they were plannin' to ride easy, at least when I left them.  And they would've had to shelter last night, same as we did."

He nodded.  "Straight north."

"Unless somethin' happened.  But Slim'll mark his trail."  Bill slapped his shoulder lightly. "I knew you'd follow us as soon as you could.  You look for the cloth, Jess.  And it'll be dry tonight.  Once you're on the trail you'll be able to stay on it."

 "Thanks, Bill."

 Bates hesitated.  "I think he's all right, Jess.  But one of the McClains, Levi, he got kinda ugly after the boy died.  I don't trust him, much.  I think Michel will try to keep him under control.  But I told Slim t'be careful."

 

                                            ******

                                     

 They pushed on another four hours after Bill turned back; moving slowly, and quartering the ground for any sign the McClains had passed.  And there was nothing.  Nothing; no track, no sign.  Jess could feel Mort's patience and the decision in him, and knew when they camped they would have to deal.  The land was beginning to rise into low hills;  Bill had called them the Hamilton Hills, said there was a mustanger's trail north through them that was likely what the McClain's would follow.  And he'd been so sure of the direction, his confidence giving Jess hope.  But once Bill turned back there was just the big empty.

  The hills were high enough now to block the horizon, cutting off an hour of daylight.  The light was low; too flat to pick out any sign, and Mort said quietly, "Jess.  Y'can't track in the dark."

 Jess dismounted, giving into the necessity. The ground was still damp, from yesterday's gulley-buster, and the fire was reluctant to start.  They had brought dry wood with them from their own camp, but there was little enough of that, and for awhile Jess thought they would have to camp cold.  But the fire caught, finally, and  the damp wood they gathered smoldered and smoked and finally burned.

  Trav rolled, finding the wettest patch he could, groaning with pleasure.  It made Jess grin, in spite of the headache and the gnawing fear that had ridden him since this started. "Jughead," he said affectionately.  "You're gonna have to wait for that to dry before I brush the mud out.  I hope that was worth it."

 He settled the horses, doling out some of the grain Mary'd sent along and then hobbling them to graze.   Trav was holding his weight fine, no sign that the hard riding was wearing him down.  Jess knuckled his old friend's forehead, grateful for the horse's stamina and strength.  He could go on to Canada and further, if Jess needed him to.  

  "Supper's ready."   He went to the fire at Mort's call.  He'd been avoiding him, taking a long time over the horses, but there was no real way around this.  Mort handed him his plate, full of beans piled on the last of Mary's biscuits.   He hunkered down to eat methodically. 

  "We turn back tomorrow."  Mort's voice brooked no argument.  "We've pushed luck and guess as far as both'll go.  Time t'turn back and start burning up the telegraph wires."

"You do that."  He kept his voice neutral. "I reckon t'push on North."

 "I don't think I can let you take that trail alone, Jess."  Mort's voice was kind.  "You're in no shape t'do this on your own.  An' y'need t'be realistic here.  Y'got no hope of cutting that trail.  An' y'got a ranch an' a relay station t'take care of.  Slim won't thank you if you mess that up."

"Neither one means much without Slim there."  he said flatly.  "We got Randy there, when we decided t'ride posse with you.  If we don't come back, you wire Jonesy an' Andy in St. Louis.  Randy'll stay till they decide what t'do.  An' y'know Bill'll look after things."

 "That don't change the fact that you're not up t'doin' this alone, and I can't stay on the trail with you, in good conscience."

  "My choice, Mort."  He stood up and poured coffee for both of them.  "We got too much respect for each other for you t'try an' force me off the trail, an' that's what it would take.  Y' know I don't wanna fight you, but I will if I have to."

 "Jess..."

He smiled at his friend, Slim's old friend.  "All that big talk about throwin' me over Trav's back.  Y'know in the end it comes down t'my say.  Y'could even try that if y'were stupid.  We both know you're not stupid.  An' y'know y'can't stop me, 'cept by doin' somethin' y'won't an' couldn't."

 Mort's shoulder's slumped.  "Dammit, son.  I can't stay away from town any longer.  An' I don't want you out here alone."

  "I know."

  "I'll wire the Bismarck sheriff an' the territorial marshal, let' em know what you're tryin' t'do.  You get close to the Canada border you stop an' wire me.  I'll do whatever I can t'get y'help from the law up there."

  "I 'preciate it."

  "This don't make any sense, Jess.  You sure y'won't ride back with me?"

  He shook his head.

  Mort sighed.  "All right Jess.  If y'don't find him by first snow, y'come on back.  We'll think of something."

  "If I don't find him I'm not comin' back."



                                  *****

Slim marked his trail one more time before deciding the risk was too great.  And the day was clear and dry, the ground soft enough for a tracker as good as Jess to follow easily.

 They crossed the Little Missouri, still moving easily.  The river was high but dropping quickly, and the horses made it easily.   He urged Alamo up beside Michel, riding point. 

 "You're still aiming for Canada?"

 McClain glanced at him sharply. "Oui.  Why would this change?"

 "Just that you don't seem to be in any hurry, for a gang of wanted men."

 "Ah.  You're in a hurry to get home."

  He didn't answer that, there was no need.  "At this pace winter will catch you on the trail."

  Michel snorted.  "You exaggerate.  Ten days, perhaps, riding like this.  But we will not always ride like this.  The horses need a rest, we used them very hard. And.."  Michel cut his eyes at him, that sly smile on his face again.  "Perhaps we will not ride straight through to Canada."

 "Now just a minute..."  Slim stopped himself, unwilling to give Michel more than that. 

  "I will still let you go, Slim."  Michel said placidly.  "I am a man of my word.  But I will not ride into a trap to suit your convenience, either.  I will do what I must to avoid the Mounties, and the posse."

 He nodded, started to rein back and Michel said, "Stay."  They walked on in silence and then Michel turned his head, caught his eyes, and there was nothing sly in his expression, and no humor.

  "Your friend, who we both believe to be on your trail by now.  Will he ride alone, or bring help?"

  He weighed the possibilities, knowing that Michel would know he was doing so.  And there was nothing real to be gained in trying to lie.  "Jess will try to bring help if he can.  But he'll ride alone if he has to."

 "And if you were to be harmed?" 

 He glanced sharply at Michel, but the Me'tis face was impassive, giving away nothing.  "He would follow you until he'd ridden all of you down."  Slim said quietly.  "He would kill you, and he would not stop until it was over."

  Michel nodded.  "You have stopped marking your trail now?"

  The shock was like getting punched.  He stopped Alamo reflexively. Michel rode on a few strides, then stopped his own horse, to meet his eyes calmly.   "It is what I would have done, after all."  Michel reached into the front of his tunic, pulled out two scraps of blue cloth, dangling them from his fingers.   "I do not know when you started, Slim, but Joshua found these.  I have told him not to speak of it to the others.  I do not want Levi to be incited more than he already is.  But now I have to worry about your friend, as well as the posse.  And that is why we may not ride on to Canada."

 "You've always had to worry about Jess."  He kept his voice level, trying to think back to where he'd left those two, calculate how much chance Jess had of holding the trail.  "You just didn't know it."

  Michel smiled slightly.  "We will watch our back-trail, Slim.  We will deal with him if we must."

  He nodded.  "Good luck with that."  He softened his hand, let Alamo move forward.  "If you're not going to Canada, and you have to worry about Jess, why not let me go now?"

 Michel laughed. "You have nerve.  Perhaps.  I will think about it.  You're thinking I would like to be rid of the trouble, eh?"

 He nodded, smiling, and liking this man in spite of himself.  "It's easier for everyone if you turn me loose and I ride back and meet Jess," he suggested.  "Once I'm free he won't follow you further, and neither will I."

  "We'll see."  Michel let his own horse walk on.   "And the death of the coach guard?"

  "You will have to answer for that, sometime."  he said honestly.  "But I won't make it my job.  And maybe...maybe I believe you, that it was an accident."

  "Ah.   Perhaps, then, you would be interested to learn a little more about my people..."

                                                        *****

  Jess was awake before first light, tense and trying to will the sun to climb faster.  Mort insisted on redressing the head wound, clucking and fussing like Jonesy at his worst. 

  "It's clean and healing Jess.  God alone knows why, they way you been treatin' it.  You probably should change this again in a day or so.  Mary sent plenty a' cloth."

    "Thanks.  I'll do that."

   Mort snorted.  "Sure ya will.  Remember if you take sick there's no one on this trail."

  "Yeah."

  "Take the pack horse with you."   Mort began breaking camp, steady and slow as always. 

  "He'll just slow me down."

  "You're either plannin' t'stay out til y'find Slim or you're not.  This is a cold trail now, Jess.  You best be ready t'ride it."

  "The Me'tis are travelin' light.  I got to travel light if I'm gonna catch 'em.  I'll take some oats for m'horse an' whatever hard goods we got."

  Mort nodded, accepting it, and portioned out their food, loading Jess' saddlebags.

  "Be sure an' take enough supplies t'see you home, Mort."

  "Mary sent plenty."  

  He stepped in to help Mort get the supplies loaded and lashed down, so it was a bare quarter hour before they were ready to break camp, the sun half-rose over the rolling, hilly horizon.  

  Jess was breaking down the fire when the dove called, and he cursed, fluently. 

  "Jess?"  Mort's voice; his eyes speculative when he met them.

  "Dam' dove. "  he muttered.  "Bad luck."

   Mort kept silence, and Jess swung up on Traveler, touched his hat brim to the sheriff.  "I'll see ya,  Mort.  Travel safe."

  "You too son."    The old man stepped forward, and Jess suddenly saw the trail's fatigue in him, the unshaven beard gray, and the lines deep under his cheekbones.  But his eyes were alert and still kind.  "It's just a bird, Jess. That's all.  Don't let it turn into somethin' that takes the heart out of you."

  He nodded jerkily.  Mort smiled, and then held his rifle up, stepped alongside to slide it into Jess' empty scabbard.  Jess bent down to shake Mort's hand, and then reined Traveler north, opening up the distance between them before the sheriff started the journey home.

  The sky was clear, the fall light slanting long and bright across the land, throwing sharp relief.    He pressed north on the line Bill had given him, needing to trust that something would come right, because otherwise there was no cause to hope.  And he was not, quite, ready to give up hope.   Two red-tailed hawks circled in the sky ahead of him, lazily turning on a wingtip,

 

playing with the wind.

   He was hunting with Tall Fox the first time he paid attention to hawks dancing with the wind like that.

  "Pony Boy.  What do you make of that?"  Tall Fox's eyes were amused, and he knew he was being tested, again.   He focused, trying to pull together all the things he'd learned, watching the birds wheel over the high plain.  He could chance a guess, but it was better always to be honest about what he didn't know.

  "Maybe they got a kill on the ground."  It was a hazard, and Tall Fox shook his head, indulgently.   

  "Not bad, Pony Boy, but they're hunters, not scavengers.  Try again.  Do they hunt?"

  He watched carefully; the flight was casual,  the birds low and slow, no evidence they were trying to gain height for the plummeting stoop that knocked other birds out of the sky.  "No..." he said slowly, hesitantly. "They're playing."

  "Good."   Tall Fox's smile approved.  "You are right.  If they were hunting they would be high, searching the land.  If they were forced off a kill they would be angry.  They merely play.   But they are always alert, and sometimes, when they play, they will see something worth taking.  It is a good thing to mimic;  to be relaxed, not too serious sometimes brings success without expecting it."

 It was a lesson hard to learn then;  but the first of many that Tall Fox tried to teach in his time with the Cheyenne.  It was a lesson his heart said he should pay attention to now, but the fear in him was like a fire inside, not letting him rest.  He only knew now that nothing disturbed the hawks, that no Me'tis rode close beneath them, to startle them higher into the sky.

 He pushed on into the Hamilton Hills, following the bare bones mustang trail that Bill had told him about.  He hung onto hope and his will to stay on the trail.  It was the only route that made sense;  catching the river crossings where they were safest, and finding the easiest track through the country.  And he watched, praying silently for a sign without naming to himself that was what he was doing. 

 Two hours into his search he found the first sign, the flash of faded blue from a sagebrush, but bright as a torch if you were looking for it.  He felt something grab hold of his heart for a minute, tight as a vise, and when it let go it felt as if his heart beat easier than it had in days.  He dismounted and pulled the strip of cloth out of the brush, running it through his fingers.  Still damp from the rain over twenty-four hours ago, but left recent, the color still fresh in it.  He folded it into his pocket, setting the feeling aside to do what was needful, and began quartering the ground.  He found tracks quickly;  muddled and shapeless in the dried mud, but horse tracks.  And they were the right ones.  He knew that for sure, thanks to the cloth.  He remounted and swung out northward on the trail

 

                                                             *****

 

 "We are to have nothing."  Michel said quietly, thoughtfully.  "At least, that is what the Anglos say.  We are twice-cursed, in their eyes.  French when the French are a defeated people, and Indian, when only white is human.  We are twice not-human, maybe."

  "Is that the reason?"  He knew better than to argue the truth of this, but what the reality was, he couldn't know.

 "The reason?  For this you mean? "  Michel thought.  "You think I am making a story, perhaps?"

  "I think you are telling me all the reasons you believe yourself to be wronged."  He kept his voice even, chiding himself for challenging the man.

  "Ah. Listen, American.  You know we are the children of the French and the women of the tribes.  You know that not all the tribes will own us as part of them.  Do you know why?"

 "No." 

  "Land and treaties."  Michel glanced at him. "You know the great fur trading companies?"

  Slim shook his head, confused.

 " The North West is French, the Hudson Bay Anglo.   The Hudson Bay Company did not want their trappers marrying into the tribes.  And they had claim to the great plains to the northwest, what they called 'Prince Rupert Land.'  And the government let them act like kings there, so that they brought settlers from Britain here to take our land;  and we had no rights."

 Michel glanced at him, then away.  "We had been the bridge between the tribes and the whites, we knew both peoples. But the whites had their own quarrel;  the Anglos and the French.  And the French lost.  So we had no power in the white world.  The Hudson Bay Company brokered treaties with the tribes; but we had no treaty standing because we are 'half breeds'.  And this cut us off from our mothers' people, made us less.  And we are not white either, so our land was stolen from us. Land we held  for a generation or more, businesses, farms, homes.  We had already lost the bison, but we did not sit down and wail;  we built new lives.  But now these were taken from us as well."  Michel's voice was increasingly bitter.  "We are to have nothing. While you fought your war, you Americans, we were losing ours."

 He was silent in the face of that, watching the bitter sadness settling into the face of the Me'tis.

"We have hunted in the Dakotas for years; we have cousins with the Sioux.  Some of us have claimed land there.  But your stage lines do business with the Company, they take money from stolen Me'tis land, and both of them try to force their way through our lands in the Dakotas.  The bank sold stolen land, speculated in government land claims on both sides of the border, and kept the money.  And the rancher stole horses from my family, and others."

"That simple." He felt a little stunned; all of this, and the cause was so simple.

"Oui."

Slim thought.  "But you said, you had made your land safer."

"The bank money will fund the nation's army.  And that is already in the Dakotas, in the hands of the People.  And the stage lines will learn they must not try to go where they are not wanted.  And the horse thief has learned to leave our property alone."  Michel's eyes measured his response.

  "Army." 

 "We are a nation, Slim. We have a general in Saskatchewan, a great war leader. And we have a great politician in Montana.  We will defend ourselves, as any nation, in law and then in force of arms. "

 He walked Alamo on in silence through the rolling country, thinking about what he'd been told.  "You said that you are second best to the tribes."

 "Our cousins."  Michel sighed.  "Here it is better, because we do not compete for treaty rights.  Your treaties are worthless, anyway.  But in Canada the paper means something.  Thanks to the Company we are not entitled to treaty rights there, and our cousins will not aid us.  And we have warred, in the past.  Stupid.  They will be treated no better, in the end."

  "I'm sorry."  Slim offered awkwardly. 

  "There is no reason for you to be sorry."  Michel seemed startled.  "You thought we were spoiled children, eh?  But our grievances are real."

  "And there is no other way?"

 Michel shrugged.  "Was there for your Lincoln?"

 "But that's..."  He caught himself, remembering a conversation with Jess at the Yellowstone, a moment when he knew there was no difference, in justice. 

  "Different?"  Michel smiled.

  "No,"  he said quietly thinking it through.  "You're right, it's not different.  But so far, none of the tribes have succeeded.  And will committing crimes really end the injustice?"

 "Who decided what is a crime?"

  Slim shook his head.  "The law, here.  Michel, you're on a trail that ends at a cliff-edge.  I'd be sorry to see you come to grief."

  Michel nodded, and then stopped his horse abruptly, attention caught by something Slim couldn't identify. He stood in his stirrups, peering back at the ridge line.  Levi crested the top, a small figure in the distance, and pumped his rifle into the air, twice.

  "Trouble"  Michel said abruptly.  "Merde. "

                            ****

  The trail was clear as a traveled road in front of him, and he could push the pace, feeling something ease in him as the miles ticked past.   The Me'tis were in no hurry, and making no effort to cover their trail; he was gaining time on them with each hour.

  The hawks kept pace with him overhead, interested maybe in watching another hunter, or  expecting him to flush birds. 

  "Watch where they hunt."  Tall Fox told him.  "They will tell you where the small game is.  In the winter, there is no shame in taking food where you can find it."

  He reined up now, giving Trav a breather and studying their flight.  There was a ridge line ahead, maybe an hour's ride, and they rose abruptly over it, arrowing up and then circling and losing height as they moved away from it.  He stroked Trav's neck absently.  Maybe something moving on the land there.  Maybe the people he was looking for.   

   "It looks like they're followin' us." 

  "They know another hunter, Pony Boy. And they know we don't hunt them.  We will startle the birds they hunt as we ride."

  " Haven't seen them do this when the People move."

 "Too many people is no good; too much noise.  The game moves far from their path, and so the hawks don't follow when the People move as one."

A lot of years, since Tall Fox had taught him those lessons.  He had not seen the Cheyenne in over a year now.  The plains had balanced on the edge of war, that summer, and then pulled back.  But it would come, sure as the pressure of gold seekers on the Lakota's land, the push of settlement on the People's hunting grounds.  More loss coming and no way to avoid it.

 He touched heels to Traveler, setting the sadness aside.  No time for this now.  Hope had been rewarded once;  it was a thing new to him.  He was almost afraid to keep hoping.   When he found Slim, they should go find the Tsitsistas, visit again.  'Mehome would like that.  And they should go before winter.  But first he had to find Slim. 

  *****

 Levi rode in hard, his horse lathered and his face a mask of anger.  Michel rode forward to meet him, so they stopped a few yards ahead.  Slim dismounted, let Alamo drop his head to graze.  Levi's eyes were on him over Michel's shoulder: hot with rage, even at this distance, and the Me'tis words were spit out like a Gatling gun.  Michel's voice was lower, smoother, answering in fewer words.  After a few minutes Levi nodded, reluctantly, reined his sweated horse around to move down the track at an easy walk.   Michel glanced over his shoulder, called Slim to his side with a jerk of his chin.  He took his time remounting, mind racing, trying to think what could have enraged Levi. 

 Michel watched him ride up, eyes measuring.  "So.  Levi says there is a white man following us, on a good horse.  A little brown Indian horse.  He says it is your friend."

  Slim nodded.  "We both expected this."

  "Levi says you must have left sign somehow. No white man could follow us so quickly, and not lose the trail."

  He shrugged.  "You know, Michel.  And Jess...he used to ride with the Tsitsistas.  He's the best tracker I've ever known."

  "Levi says you are forsworn and we should kill you."

 He held McClain's eyes, seeing only the impassive face of a man who could keep his own counsel.  "Levi says a lot.  What do you say?"

 McClain shrugged,  drawing his pistol and holding the barrel steady on Slim's chest.  "That you have kept your word as far as it is in you.  That we have no complaint.  I have told him this."

  "Now what?" He felt no fear at this point.  There was no menace in Michel, and he had learned to trust this man, to trust his sense of honor, so much like Jess'.

  "We will have to deal with your friend."  Michel sounded regretful, lifting one hand to beckon his other brothers forward.  "And now we will have to bind you.  I cannot risk that you will attempt to aid him, Slim.  I am sorry."

   "It doesn't have to be this way."  He spoke urgently, as Joshua and Jerome' flanked him.  "Let me go Michel.  I already told you, we'll turn back.  There doesn't have to be anymore killing."

 "I cannot risk that much.  We will try not to kill your friend, you have my word;  but we will protect ourselves."   He nodded to his brothers, and Jerome' grabbed Slim's arm, held firmly while Joshua tied his wrists in front of him. Michel watched closely, his rifle ready in his hands.   "Bien"  he grunted.  "We ride."

 Joshua took Alamo's reins, and Jerome' swung his coiled rope at his rump, sent him into a gallop behind Michel, Joshua pacing him.   But Levi was nowhere to be seen, and Jerome' was not with them.  Slim turned his head, saw the two brothers turning back to the ridge line, and felt  fear for his friend.

 

                                      ******

 

 A mourning dove called in the scrub woods ahead,  and he dropped his hand to his gun reflexively, feeling a spasm of anger that nearly overrode his caution.  He checked himself; sound carried and if he was right he was getting close to the Me'tis. The bird flew up ahead of him, the whir of wings like a firecracker in the stillness, flying ahead on a low, flattened angle that barely gained height. He reined Trav up unthinkingly, and was watching its flight when the hawk stooped, dropping out of the sky like a stone to hit the dove hard, snatch it out of the air as it tumbled, and soar upward with a speed that made the breath catch in his throat.


"Well I'll be damned."  he whispered, and followed the hawk's flight with his eyes; so he saw the two riders just cresting the ridge, far in the distance, their outline unmistakable against the skyline. He slid off Trav, led him deeper into the scrub. It was just thin enough to move into, border just head-high on the horse.  Dismounted he wouldn't show up to the approaching riders.


 He had time;  still far enough away that only the ridge's height might have let them spot him.  But he'd felt uneasy earlier, as if feeling the weight of unseen eyes.  He'd learned to trust those feelings.  So odds were those riders were the Me'tis, backtracking because they knew he was on their trail.


 His best chance was to try and flank them.  It would take time for them to realize he'd left the trail, more time to track him and figure out where. If he timed it right, and was half-way lucky, he could avoid them.  If he wasn't...He ran his hand over his pistol, taking comfort from the smooth grip.  And he had Mort's rifle.  He didn't want to get into a fight with them yet.  Not until he knew where Slim was; didn't want the sound of a fire fight spooking the rest of the Me'tis into running, and maybe covering their tracks better than they had.


 The little band of scrub aspen and pine molded itself around the edge of the rising hills, tracing the line where snow melt would run in the spring.  It was deep enough to offer good concealment, even now with the leaves turning color, the shorter brush dropping leaves in the gusting wind.  He led Trav back away from the trail slowly, carefully, pushing branches out of the way and holding them as the horse passed, so there were no fresh breaks to give away his passage.


 He got as far from the trail as he could and still see whoever passed there, and waited, mind empty and eyes focused, for the sound of hoof beats.  Trav lifted his head sharply, nostrils flaring, and Jess put his hand on his nose firmly, pulled the big roman nose around to look him in the eye, still the horse's impulse to call out to his brothers.


 The Me'tis came down the trail at an easy jog, riding single file.   All their attention was focused ahead; he'd made up more ground than they'd expected, they had no reason yet to believe they were passing him.


 Something inside him was singing, something that started to kindle when he saw the hawk take the dove.   And the song was about the way things were starting to roll his way.  So maybe, what sang in him was hope.

 

                            *****

 

 They rode hard for perhaps half-an-hour, and then Michel pulled his sweating, blowing horse up to sit in silence, listening.   Joshua handed over the reins, and Slim let Alamo walk a small circle, feeling the horse's sides heaving between his legs, but also feeling his breathing slow and steady quickly, knowing he could keep going without trouble.  He listened too, until he felt that his whole body listened for the sound of gunfire.  And there was nothing.  He met Michel's eyes, both of them torn between fear and hope; and still there was nothing.

  "Well?"  Joshua's voice, questioning calmly. 

  "We wait."  Michel stepped down.  "We rest the horses and wait for them."

  "Bien."  Joshua dismounted, stepped up to take Alamo's bridle, hold the horse while Slim threw a leg across the pommel, let himself slide down.  "Michel?"  He gestured at Slim's bound hands. 

  "Ahhh..." it was an exasperated growl.  "Cut them free.  He is right.  Where will he go?"

  They waited, Joshua placidly whittling at a stick, Michel pacing.  And there was still silence on the trail behind them, no sound of gunfire, no hint of approaching horses.  The sun moved a finger closer to the horizon; sliding into late afternoon.  There would have to be a decision made whether to ride on or not soon,  whether the brothers returned or not. Slim loosened Alamo's cinch,  lifted the saddle for a moment to run his gloved hand quickly over his back, wipe him down as much as he could, using the familiar routine to keep his mind off what might be happening to Jess.

  "It's enough."  Michel said finally.  "We'll ride on, but slowly, find a place to spend the night.  The others will find us."

  And then far distant and echoing with the distance came the rattle of gun fire. Four, five shots, a space and then one more.  And then nothing.  Nothing.  Slim met Michel's eyes again, saw his own fear mirrored in them. 

  "Do we ride?"  Joshua asked.

  "We...do.  Slim.  Mount." 

  Michel did not push him to hurry, and lingered behind still focused on their back trail, the emptiness where there was no sound to tell them what had happened.

                           

                                      *****

 

  He waited until the Me'tis were out of sight, then led Trav up the slope of the hill, moving as quickly as he could on foot.  He needed to stay off the trail for now; it was his best chance of avoiding a straight fight.   And he needed height if he was going to stalk them.    He moved past the crest before remounting, then moved north slowly.  The mix of pine and aspen thinned on the hill top, he had to be careful not to break cover.   With luck he could flank them,  catch up unseen.  And then, when he knew what had happened to Slim, he would know what to do.

  The sun moved across the sky, maybe an hour.  He was skirting a ridge line when he heard the shots, five in rapid succession, then one more..  Trav started under him, and he felt his own muscles jerk, half expecting to feel a bullet's impact.  He reined the horse around on his haunches, slid off pulling the rifle from its scabbard and waited, listening with the nerves of his skin.  Nothing...nothing.  And then hoof beats at a trot, the sound echoing on the hill-bordered trail.

 He ground-tied Trav and scrambled for the bare crest of the ridge, to belly-down on it, watch the back-trail.   The Me'tis were talking angrily as they rode, the younger man doing most of it.   Whatever had caused the gunfire, these two showed no sign of losing a fight.  He sighted down the barrel of the rifle, driven by the need to improve the odds.  No reason to hold fire; whatever damage the sound of gunfire would do was already done.   He would have them in his sights for maybe five minutes...

  "It's war."  Josh said.  "We kill them or they kill us. There ain't no need to fret over it, Jess."

  "It don't feel right.  I don't like gunnin' a man who don't know he's under the gun."

  "Way I see it, it's now or later.  An' later it might be you being gunned."

  He'd done what he had to, then.  Doing that was why he did not think on the war much.  He lined the front sight up on the man closest to him;  dark haired and hawk nosed and about his own age. 

 "Way I see it..."  Slim heaved a hay bale up on top of the pile, grunting with effort.  "The law's what makes the difference between them an' us.  You start takin' the law into your own hands, Jess, an' you're goin' down a dangerous path."

'It's war.'  he told himself, desperate, taking up slack on the trigger. 

  "There's no need to ride the owl hoot trail anymore, Jess.  You're not that same man."

 He let his finger slip from the trigger, feeling despair.   He could not do this, not anymore, couldn't turn back into that man, not while there was still a chance that Slim was alive.  Because he could not do this and face him.   But knowing this didn't ease his heart any; it just left him empty.  Doing right had never been a reason to hope. 

  He slid backward off the crest, to remount his horse and take up the trail.

  

                                     ******

 

  Jerome' and Levi came back unharmed, and Slim felt the fear pull the blood out of his face.   Jerome' looked disgusted, and Levi was scowling, his eyes swinging to Slim as if sighting a rifle.  Michel halted them to wait for his brothers.  He met Slim's eyes, his face impassive.  

   Jerome' started talking as soon as they were close, the Me'tis rapid-fire; and Levi looked more sullen with each word.  Michel listened, and then shrugged, reining his horse around, and urging his brothers to ride with a tilt of his head.   He joined Slim, shaking his head.  "They never saw your friend, and no one fired on them.  Levi lost his temper and fired into the air, like a child or a fool.  His excuse is that he was trying to draw fire, that he knew your friend watched.   But they found no sign."

  Slim breathed out softly, letting the fear go.  "So there's been no bloodshed.  Michel, let me go.  Let's stop this before it goes further."

 Michel shook his head.  "Slim.  I cannot do that now.  Not and be sure that Levi will not hunt you both.  I need time.  I need time to talk sense to him, and to prove to him that we are clear of the posse.  You must give me time."

  "If Jess finds us there won't be any time,"  he said quietly.  "You know this.  And I can't control him.  If he thinks I'm in danger from you...."

  "He is causing the danger."

  "Is it Jess?   And not Levi?"

  Michel sighed.  "I will do what I can."

                                         

                                                         ****

   He trailed the Me'tis until dusk came on, gaining ground steadily until he was catching glimpses of the party as the trail ahead rose toward the Montana plateau;  close enough to make out Slim, unmistakable at this distance, sitting erect and unharmed on Alamo.  He'd moved slow and cautious, needing to see what kind of shape Slim was in before making his move, and needing to be sure not to spook the McClains into killing him.  He was thinking clear about this, right now, despite the fear just below the surface.  Like he was split in two, part of him planning as cold as if he was figuring poker odds, and the other feeling the risks.  It was a way he'd always fallen into, during the war;  it wasn't a way he wanted to be, but it was useful.

He made a cold camp, unable to risk anything that would give away his presence. So it was an easy camp, little to do but take care of Trav and spread his bed roll. He leaned against the lining of the saddle, staring into the fading light, remembering a campfire.

"Pony Boy." Tall Fox dropped a hand on his shoulder, hunkered down beside him. "Do you talk with your spirits, Pony Boy?"


"Nah." He stared into the fire, remembering Francie's eyes, they way they crinkled up when she smiled down at him, her little brother. "Just remembering."


"Ah. But that is it; to talk with our spirits sometimes is to remember people who were important to us, for good or ill. We talk with our memories, and what they taught us returns."


"Huh." He stretched his legs out, thinking about that. "And if the memories are sad?"


"All the same.  Do your memories make you sad, Pony Boy?"


He shrugged.  After a moment Tall Fox said offhand, "Here also is a family.  Do you want to talk?"


"No.  You and talk.  You talk more than anyone I know."  He grinned at Tall Fox.  "You know the Easterners at the fort think you injuns never say anything but 'How'."


Tall Fox smiled, and slapped the back of Jess' head, too quickly to duck. "English is a stupid language," he said calmly. "Go to bed now. We hunt tomorrow."

 

                                      *****

 

  There was increasing tension between the McClains;  Levi's rage colliding with Michel's calm.    Slim knew he was the trigger, tried to stay on the fringe of things, as much as he could.  His own nerves were on edge, a constant prickle at the back of his neck.  Jess was out there somewhere, and getting ready to make his move.   He could only count on Jess' need to protect him, that he would do everything in his power to make sure Slim was safe.  That gave him a chance, to try and keep this from ending in more bloodshed.

  They camped cold, the brothers settling their horses, spreading bed rolls with the unhurried efficiency he'd gotten used to over the past few days.  But there was no fire, no coffee brewed, and Michel passed him a handful of jerky without comment.

  Levi was edgy, pacing the perimeter of their camp, and his eyes moved from Slim to the deepening shadows around their campsite and back, over and over.   Michel finally snapped something in Me'tis, and Levi stopped pacing, face angry, and then shrugged and moved to sit near the horses, rifle ready across his knees.

  "I will take first watch."  Jerome' spoke quietly. 

  "Do not move far."  Michel told him.  "I do not want you to hunt this man.  Not alone."

  Slim started to rise instinctively and then checked himself.  Because there was nothing to be done.  And because Michel was keeping his brothers on a tight rein.  He held Michel's eyes, until the Me'tis came to crouch beside him.

  "So?" Michel's voice was barely above a whisper.

 He thinks Jess could be in earshot.  They're spooked, all of them.

 "Levi hates too much to be trusted,"  he told Michel flatly.  "This will end bloody, Michel.  Take your brothers and go.  Ride north and leave me here.  I guarantee we won't follow."

 "Perhaps."

 "Hate is hard to control."  Slim warned.  Michel said nothing, just stood and moved to where Levi guarded the horses, face impassive. 

                

                                  ******

  "Red Stone hates."  Slim said thoughtfully, stirring up the last embers of their fire.

  "He has cause."  Jess told him.  Three days since they'd left the Tsitsistas at the Yellowstone;  an easy day's ride behind them, and a supper of the dried meat that Singing Bird had put up for their journey.  Jess leaned back against his saddle, content.

 "I feel sorry for him."  Slim sounded like a man thinking aloud.  "He has no hope."

  The words echoed through Jess, as if his bones rang with them.  He had to take a swallow of coffee before he could speak, because his mouth had gone dry.  "Why would you say that?"

"Hate...to do that you have to stop valuing yourself.  It's the only way I know for a man to be able to hold other men so cheap." 

 Jess let the words hang in the air without answering them.  And after a minute Slim spoke again, quiet as a prayer.  "Hate.  That's the absence of hope."

 

                                           *****

 Jess stayed awake, watching the slow march of stars around the center of the sky, waiting for the night to age. He put the tie-downs from his bedroll in his pocket; he would tie the McClains if he could, but if he had to kill he would.  The Me'tis were setting guard, but staying close to their camp.   Maybe they wanted him to just follow to the Canada border, thought he would stay patient until they were done with Slim.  Maybe Slim had some influence on this Michel, and he really was safe.  Maybe that hairtrigger kid that had ridden after him got it out of his system.   And maybe Trav could grow wings and fly...

  He waited until the dead hour of the night, the hour between moonset and sunrise when the earth fell silent and the souls of the dead reached out to the living.   He carried Mort's rifle across his back on its sling, carried his handgun ready in one hand.  Because this was a raid, not a gunfight.  He had one aim, and that was to get Slim out, alive, anyway he could.

 The ground was damp still, even the drift of aspen leaves wet enough to make them soundless underfoot, just putting up that spicy downed-leaf scent he'd loved since childhood.  He moved soft-footed, careful of the ungiving stiffness of his boots, wishing for moccasins for the first time in years. The Me'tis were Indians, he couldn't let himself forget that:  they had all the skills the People had.

 Jess drifted down hill toward the Me'ti's camp, soundless as a spirit and mind empty, as if the weight of a thought might give him away.  His eyes were used to the starlight, so he could move in the darkness without betraying himself.  And to the east was the false-dawn's band of grey light, promising the slow lightening of the sky. 

 It was time measured in heartbeats until he was at the edge of the Me'tis camp.  He held still then, eyes marking the location of each man.  For Slim's life he could be patient, could wait until everything was right.  

 One of the McClains sat huddled by the horses, rifle ready across his knees.  From the bulk of the shape it was the leader, Michel.  One man sat guard over the sleeping area, five bed rolls set out in a circle, like the spokes of a wheel. He couldn't make out the Me'tis features in the darkness, but he was hatless, the long hair gathered back with a tie;  so one of the two young hot heads who had tracked him the day before.  Two men slept rolled in their blankets against the night's chill.  He could make out the shape of Slim's Stetson on the ground next to one.  Slim's bedding was spread in the center of the others, no easy way to approach him unseen.  It was a thing he'd expected.   That left one man unaccounted for.  If it was him, he'd have a man patrolling the border of the camp, but far enough out so as to trap any intruder between the sentry and the rest of the Me'tis. He was countin' on it.

  He waited in the absolute stillness that Tall Fox had schooled him to, so he became no more than a rock or a stump, unmoving and unthinking, every soft breath as soundless as the earth around him.  Waited and let time pass without caring and listened until he learned every sound of this little strip of woodland. Listened until he heard the last man moving behind him, the barest rustle of sound; if he hadn't been still so long he might not have recognized it.  

 The Me'tis moved past him without pause.  The man moved cautiously, but there was no sign  he knew Jess was there.  He let him pass and then stood up on a breath, took two quick steps to close on him from behind, throw his forearm around the man's throat and pull back to keep him from crying out.  As the Me'tis froze in shock, hands reaching instinctively for Jess' arm, he struck him behind the ear with the butt of his Colt, felt him go limp and heavy and lowered him to the ground silently.  He had to move fast now, before the McClains realized he was among them.  Kneeling, he bound the man's hands behind him with a tie-down, dallying the tie quickly, driven by the need for surprise.  He slipped back to the edge of the scrub, watching the camp again, and then whistled softly, the meadowlark song he used to call the horses at home.  Alamo swung his head up, alert, and the McClain by the horses stood up, turning in a slow circle as he tried to figure the direction of the sound.  The man by the bedrolls stood up, swinging his eyes and the barrel of his rifle toward the horses, and Jess moved without pause, one long step and then taking him down the way he had his brother, with an arm across his throat and the Colt coming down on the back of his head like a hammer.  He let him fall, not worried about sound now, and had his gun barrel pressing into the head of the sleeping Me'tis before Michel McClain had turned to face the bed rolls.

  "Slim!"

Heard his voice harsh in his own ears, and Slim's voice came calm and smooth, as if he'd been awake and alert for hours. 

 "I'm ready, Jess."

 He slid the rifle from his back, raised the barrel to bear on Michel McClain, standing frozen by the picket line.  Slim came to crouch at his side and he passed the colt to him.  The Me'tis in the bedroll was awake, face a mask of rage, but he was unmoving under the menace of the revolver.

 "You okay?"  He kept his eyes on the man under his rifle, unmoving.

  "I am."   Slim's voice was warm, reassuring. "You?"

  "Good."  he grunted, feeling it true for the first time in days.  "Better now that I found you.  You got this?"

  "Yeah."

 As always, Slim understood him completely, and he felt the relief spreading, because together they could do this.   Jess got to his feet, careful to keep the rifle steady on Michel McClain.  "Put your rifle down," he said calmly, "and put your hands on top of your head.  Good.  Come over here, slowly." 

 The man came slowly, careful not to make a move that would look hostile, and he monitored him, half listening to Slim getting the other McClain out of his bed-roll.   Michel McClain's face was calm as he approached, and when he was close enough to see his face clearly, he looked curious. 

 "So.  You are Jess."

  "That's me.  Sit."   He got the two men seated, turned the rifle over to Slim and went to the picket line,  freeing the McClain's horses and untying the ropes from the line.  Alamo nudged him and he spared a moment to stroke his neck, thankful for the little hoof crack that had made him put a clip on the off fore shoe, made the horse's track as clear as a merchant's sign in town.   He hurried back to where Slim held the McClain's at gunpoint; and knelt to bind their wrists behind them, and then turned to tie the sentry he'd taken down.  He felt the need to hurry, because the Me'tis he'd left in the woods might be coming around any time. He had the sentry's hands bound together behind him, wrist to wrist, when he heard the sharp grating sound of a rifle being levered and froze as the barrel was jabbed hard into his back, just below his shoulders.

 "Anglo."  It was a hiss.  "Don't move, Anglo.  I have no problem, to shoot you in the back."

 He held still, mind racing.  Stupid, stupid, stupid he told himself.  Shoulda taken time to tie this one better...

 "Levi." Slim's voice, pitched to carry to Jess' captor.  "It's a stand-off.  I have your brothers."

  "You're too soft, Anglo."  Levi was confident.  "I will shoot your friend without a thought.  I do not think you will shoot Joshua or Michel.  Shall we try and see?"

 There was a long, held-breath moment, and then Slim said, "What do you want?"

 "Throw the rifle over."

 And Jess knew it was useless, knew Levi would shoot him and Slim without a thought, and shouted, "Slim, don't...," starting to push back against the rifle barrel, trying to shove Levi off balance, and heard Slim shout his name.

  Levi stepped back abruptly, and Jess lost his balance, falling back on his hands and seeing Levi swing the barrel up on Slim, watched his finger tightening on the trigger, as if it were happening in hours instead of seconds, and fought to get his feet under him, to get the rifle off Slim.  Too late,  too late, his mind echoed the words like the cry of the dove...hope was always a cheat.

  "Levi!  Non!" and Michel was getting to his feet, between Slim and the rifle as Levi pulled the trigger.  Jess drove his shoulder into Levi's knees, taking the man down, and then rolled up to his feet, pulled the rifle out of the man's hands. He saw the numb despair in the Me'tis face and the hope suddenly flared in his heart.  He was turning to look as he heard Slim's voice, strong, shouting "Jess, don't shoot!"  and the hope sang in him, because Slim was alive.

 

                                                   ******

 

  He had thought he was dead, when Levi brought the rifle barrel up to sight on him.  He could see the satisfaction in the Me'tis face,  like a man who had turned his hole card and found an ace.  And then Michel McClain was standing between him and the bullet, shouting for his brother to stop, and when the sound of the shot came it was Michel who jerked and sagged back against him, dead weight taking Slim down to his knees as he tried to support him.   Jess had taken the rifle from Levi, was cocking it as Slim shouted to him not to shoot because there was too much blood already.  He saw Jess' face as he turned to him, the gratitude so plain in it, saw God being thanked for his safety.

  "Non, non... Michel."  Levi's voice was wild with grief, and he got to his feet, heedless of Jess closing on him with the rifle.

 "Slim."  Michel's voice, tight with pain.  Slim looked down at him, saw the bleeding wound in his upper chest, and pulled his tunic open.

  "How bad?" 

 There was no blood on the Me'tis mouth, no evidence of a lung wound;  he leaned the man forward, checked his back quickly, finding no exit wound.  "Bad enough,"  he told him.  "You need a doctor.  This is beyond what I can do."

 Michel was silent for a moment, then said  "Bien.  Now what, Slim?"

 Slim looked up to see Jess tying Levi, with the calm skill he used on cattle.  "I don't know,"  he said slowly, thinking  Jess will want the choice and he's probably mad enough to want to string you all up.

  Joshua McClain said softly, "Slim, let me come to my brother."   He nodded, allowing it, and then went about the business of padding Michel's wound with cloth torn from his tunic, tying it into place as best he could with a shirt from the brother's bedroll.  Jess moved Levi over to join his brothers, and crouched at Slim's side, rifle steady on the bound men.  The McClains talked softly among themselves in  Me'tis, Levi's face darkening with what looked like shame, his head dropping until he stared at the ground in front of him. Then Michel said, "Enough.  Slim.  What will you do with us?"

 He shook his head, looking to Jess, silent and watchful at his side.  "Jess?"

 "I'm going to build a fire."  Jess said evenly.  "He going to live?"

  "For now."    Jess' face was unreadable.  If Slim hadn't seen that moment of intense joy when he turned and realized it was Michel who had been shot, he'd have thought him as calm as a Sunday morning.    When he felt the deepest, he got the quietest...

 Slim got to his feet and went to join him as he gathered tinder, found the dead wood the Me'tis had gathered the evening before and built his fire.  "What are ya thinking, pard?" 

 Jess shrugged.  "I'm thinkin..."  He stopped, struggling with a lucifer, and Slim suddenly realized his hands were shaking, and took the match and striker from him, lit the tinder.  "I'm thinkin' I'm glad you're alive."  Jess' voice was dry and harsh as gravel, and Slim set his hand on his shoulder for a moment, offering comfort as he thought about what trailing them must've been like.  They both watched the tinder flare, and then the little twigs caught, the fire brightening, throwing out warmth and comfort in the grey morning. 

 "You got one hell of a shiner on that eye."  Slim said lightly.

 "Yeah?  I didn't stop t'look." Jess' voice was lighter.

 "Well, you do look kinda like an old raccoon." He nudged Jess with his shoulder, trying to tease him out of this mood.

  "Huh.  These fools got any coffee?"

 "If you can call it that.  Wait 'til you taste it."

 

                        *****

 

 Slim made coffee while Jess hiked up the little hill to retrieve his horse.   The day was coming in with the promise of cold on the wind; not the best weather to be worrying about a wounded man.  And they would have to decide what to do with the McClains.  He was a little surprised at himself, that he was thinking there was any option but taking them back to face the law. 

  "What justice is there for Red Stone?"

 Jess had asked him that, back at the Yellowstone last summer.  Jess had been wrong then, or at least partly wrong, because nothing justified murder.   But Red Stone had been a wronged man, had suffered the murders of his own loved ones.  And the Me'tis had been wronged as well, and had sought rough justice after being denied the protection of law.  He poked at the fire savagely, not liking to feel so unsettled in his mind.

 "What did that piece of wood ever do to you, Pard?"

 Jess sounded more like himself, that teasing note back in his voice.

   "Just thinking."  Slim muttered, and moved the little coffee pot to the outside of the fire.  "This should be ready now."

 "Thanks."  Jess hunkered down with his cup, eyes watchful over the rim of it.   "So now what do we do with these yahoos?"

  "I don't  know."  Slim said honestly.

  "Bill told me some things."  Jess said quietly. "About why they were doin' what they were doin'."

  "I can tell you some more." He poured his own cup of coffee, starting to relax a little in the familiar pattern of talking through a problem with Jess.

  "This 'more' is makin' you think of lettin' 'em go?"  And that was it stated flatly, Jess going head on at the problem, as always.

  "Maybe.  I don't know, Jess."

 "That coach guard's dead." His voice was casual, just stating a fact, not making it an accusation.

 "So is Absalom McClain.  And it was his brother that shot the guard."

 "A life for a life Slim?  That what you're thinkin'?"  Jess' eyes were measuring.

 "Maybe," he said again, honestly.  "I"m not clear in my mind about this, Jess. Maybe there is some kind of balance in what's happened.  And they had their land stolen, and their horses, and their rights taken."

 "How's that different from what's happened to the Cheyenne?"

  "It's not,"  he admitted.  "Maybe how I think about it's different."

  Jess smiled, fleeting, and something in that expression reminded Slim of Tall Fox. 

  "What do you think we should do, Jess?"

 He shook his head.  "I dunno.  I know maybe...maybe things sometimes work out right."  Jess stood up and poured himself more coffee, settling down again on one of the rocks, face thoughtful.   "I know I trust you to do what's right."  He spoke slowly, like he was feeling his way into it.  "The only thing I was worried about was gettin' you free.  I trust you to decide this, Slim."   He finished his coffee, stood up and stretched.  "Reckon one way or another they're gonna need their horses.  I'll take Traveler an' round 'em up." 

                               *****

 It took a little while to gather the McClain's horses; they had drifted, looking for the sparse grass in this high valley.  The familiar chore was settling, after the fight, the long night's stalk.   And inside, the singing feeling kept on.  'Maybe things sometimes work out right'.  It was a thing he'd never really known to happen before, to have something he cared about come right like this.  He'd always lost before;  lost friends, lost family, lost home, until he'd given up the hope that he'd ever have any of those things.  When he'd come to the ranch, it seemed like he'd been given another chance at all three, but he'd been careful not to let himself believe in that, holding part of himself back so he wouldn't be disappointed when he lost it all again.  Three times now, he'd thought this last chance was gone too;  and each time the promise held.   Maybe, maybe now he could begin to let himself trust that the good things would last.  Maybe he could let himself believe in hope.

 

                               ******

 

 By the time Jess hazed the horses back to the camp, Slim had his mind made up to let the Me'tis go.   Joshua had told him there was a Me'tis ranch two days' ride east, over the Dakota border, that they could take Michel there for help.   Joshua's face had been surprised when Slim asked if there was a place they could go, before shuttering down again into stoicism.  But his eyes were hopeful.   Slim hunkered down beside Michel McClain.  The man was alert, grey-faced with pain, but breathing evenly.  When he checked the wound  the bleeding had slowed to near nothing.  He ghosted his fingers over the area, feeling the lump at the man's collarbone.

 "I think this is where the bullet is." He spoke abruptly, thinking it through as he talked.  "I think the bone stopped it.  I don't know if it's into the bone or just resting against it.  You were real lucky, Michel."

  "I know.  Maybe more than I deserve, eh?"

  "More than Levi deserves, anyway.  Can you ride?"

  "I can.  It depends on how far."

 "This ranch Joshua says is two days from here..."  Slim glanced over his shoulder at Jess, standing silent and watchful at the picket line.

  "I can.  You are planning to let us go?"  Michel was as direct as Jess.  Slim shrugged, stood up and went to where his partner waited.

  "Jess..." he started, and Jess reached out, punched his shoulder lightly, stopping him.

  "I told ya, Slim.  I trust you to do what's right.  I got no problem with this."

                                      *****

  They got the Me'tis mounted, Michel able to sit his horse on his own, at least for now.   Jess left them disarmed, and Slim agreed with that, silently.  Mercy was one thing, stupidity something else.  But Levi looked cowed, all the hate bled out of him with the bullet that struck down his brother.   "Don't come back to Wyoming."  Slim told them evenly.  "If you're ever in my sights again I won't hesitate."

  "And that goes double for me."  Jess' voice was quiet.  "Ride." 

  The Me'tis reined out, but Michel waited, eyes holding Slim's.  "You are a good man, Slim Sherman.  I hope sometime you can think the same of me."  He turned his Appaloosa east, to where his brothers waited for him, and the little band of riders filed slowly up the low hill, vanshing over the crest and gone.

  Slim turned to where his partner held their saddled horses.  Jess' face was calm, something satisfied in his eyes.

   "Well."  Slim said awkwardly.  "I think we should get movin'."

  Jess nodded, handed over Alamo's reins, swung up on Traveler.  "Slim.  I'm thinkin' we should go visit the Cheyenne."

  "Now? " he asked, startled.

 "You know I don't mean right now."  Jess grinned at him.  "I'm thinkin' before snow-fly, though.  We could take one 'a the yearling steers as a present.  Singing Bird'll be glad t'see you again.  An it'll please 'Mehome an' Tall Fox.  And Squirrel."  It was the most he'd talked at one time since they'd hooked up. 

  "Sure."  he told him, pleased with the easiness in him.  "But you're bein' mighty free with my cattle."

  "You could take it outta my wages."  Jess' voice said he was joking.

  "You don't earn enough."  Slim grumbled, reining Alamo alongside him, heading south on the mustanger's trail. 

  The sky was overcast, clouds heavy over the western horizon, and a mourning dove sang, low and long on the little wind.  Jess stiffened, and Slim said "Jess?" startled into concern.

  His partner turned to face him, and the gratitude was there again, plain to read if you knew him.   "Nothing."  Jess said.  "It's just a bird. "  And then softly, under his breath so he could barely hear it.  "Sometimes hope sings louder."

  The end

Notes:  The Siege of Vicksburg was a long and convoluted process, starting in Oct of 1862 and extending through summer of 1863.  Most people are familiar with Grant's involvement; however, his predecessor, McClernand, was less than efficient, and suffered several serious reversals, including defeat at the Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs. The Confederate side was no better served, with Pemberton, an indecisive general in command.  Jess would have been serving under Captain Savery, in the "Western Rangers" cavalry escort division.

The Me'tis nation exists today on both sides of the US-Canadian border, sharing reservation land with their relatives.  

 

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