"Theyre gone," Buck muttered. "You can get up now."
Sr. Katie rose and brushed the dust from her black skirt, then adjusted her habit. "Thank you, Mr."
"Buck, just plain Buck."
"Thank you, Mr. Just Plain Buck," she said with a slight smile.
JD chuckled, and a grin tempted Bucks lips, but he held it at bay. He couldnt forget the festering pain that her kind reminded him too keenly of.
"Everyone all right?" Chris called out.
Leave it to Chris to make sure everyone was unhurt. Chris could be dying, but hed always think of his friends first.
Everyone called out that they were okay, and Chris nodded stolidly, but Buck noticed the relief in his cool gaze.
Chris glanced over at the nun. "How about you, Sister?"
"Im fine, although I have to apologize for my impetuousness. The Mother Superior is always telling me that I have to learn to control my somewhat impulsive nature," Sr. Katie said with a rueful tone.
Chris swept his gaze across the men. "No harm done."
"Not this time," Buck amended curtly.
Chris shot him a piercing look, but he didnt question Bucks abruptness. He wasnt about to be blindsided again. Vin approached them, leading the golden horse, and the ex-bounty hunters expression told Chris the palomino had caught his admiring eye more than any woman had since Chris had known him.
"Aint he a beauty?" Vin commented, running his hand along the horses quivering withers to soothe the animal.
"Im surprised hes letting you touch him. Only Rina, Sister Adrian, and myself can usually do that," the nun commented with a furrowed brow. "You must have a gentle hand."
Vins face flushed and Chris hid a smile behind his hand. Hed never seen Vin blush before.
"Thats usually Bucks specialty, Sister," Vin managed to say.
Josiah coughed discreetly. "If we want to make it back to the wagon yet tonight, wed best be leaving now."
Chris nodded. "JD, go get the sisters mule."
"I can get it," Sr. Katie objected.
"Thats all right, maah, Sister," JD said, his young face red, then added in his best Buck imitation, "Itd be my pleasure."
"Thank you." She glanced at each of the men, then smiled wryly. "When I asked God for help, you werent exactly what I had in mind."
"The Lord does work in mysterious ways," Josiah said.
She laughed. "I guess you could say that. I dont even know your names."
By the time Chris introduced each of the men, JD returned with the mule.
"Here you go, Sister," JD said, touching the brim of his hat as he handed her the reins.
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne," she replied, and glanced at the palomino that seemed to be as enchanted by Vin as Vin was of it. "Since Mr. Tanner seems to have charmed our characteristically aloof stallion, he should be able to lead it back."
JD frowned, and said softly to Buck. "She uses them words like Ezra does."
Buck leaned over to whisper in his ear. "She means that Vins animal magnetism works on horses, not women."
JDs puzzled frown only grew but Chris, whod been standing close enough to overhear the exchange, didnt give Buck a chance to explain. As he and the others mounted up, Chris noticed Josiah gallantly help Sr. Katie onto the mules back.
They rode away with haste, knowing the outlaws might gather what little courage they possessed and come after them. Vin, leading the Tennessee stud, brought up the rear, and Chris knew he was keeping a close eye on their backtrail. Buck was unusually quiet and rode by himself as JD and Josiah flanked Sr. Katie. Chris wondered what burr had gotten under Bucks hide. Hed never known Buck to be downright rude to a woman, especially one like a nun.
Chriss lips thinned to a grim line Bucks ma had raised him Catholic, but Chris knew theyd never gone to Mass. At the time, he hadnt thought anything of it. Now, however, Chris couldnt help thinking that something mustve happened to stop them from going. He shook his head, banishing the useless thoughts. It wasnt any of his business Buck had made that crystal clear.
They traveled past dusk and into the evening, their trail lit by a bloated moon hanging low in the night sky. It was after eight oclock when they finally caught sight of the wagons silhouette, and Chris breathed a silent sigh of relief. He hadnt expected the thieves to try to steal back the stud right away, but it was good to know there wouldnt be any more gunplay tonight.
"Sister Katie, is that you?" Sr. Adrian called out.
"Its me," she replied. "And we got the Tennessee stud, too."
Whoops and hollers from the girls sounded, and Vin had trouble keeping the stallion calm. A girl came out of the group and approached the stud slowly, holding out her hand. The horse lowered its muzzle, sniffed the redheads hand, then nuzzled her shoulder.
"You must be Rina," Vin remarked with a friendly smile.
She glanced up at him, then shyly looked away, and rubbed the stallions nose. "Thats right," she murmured. "Howd you know?"
Vin dismounted and stood beside Rina, hooking his fingers in his gunbelt. "Because Sr. Katie was telling me you have the touch."
She brought her puzzled eyes to his face. "What do you mean?"
"It means you and animals got a special bond. The Indians believe folks who have the gift are very special people."
"Do you have the gift?" Rina asked.
Vin stood and ran his palm along the stallions neck. "Not like you, but I got a feel for them."
"Goldie dont like a whole lot of people, so you must have the touch, too," Rina said soberly.
Vin studied her smooth face, much too somber for a child her age. He wondered how she ended up with the nuns.
"Goldie thats a right good name for him," he said with a smile. He looked around to find the others had moved away and were unsaddling their horses on the far side of the wagon. "Think you can take care of Goldie while I take care of Sire?"
Rina brushed her hand across Vins black. "Sire I like that name."
"Im sure hes glad to hear that, arent you, Sire?" Vin drew his hand through his horses mane. "You need any help?"
"Me and Cal always take care of Goldie," Rina said.
Cal, the trouser clad girl, stepped out of the shadows. "We dont need no help."
"I can see that," Vin said mildly.
He laid a hand on Rinas shoulder a moment, then walked away, leading Sire. He spotted Nathan talking to Chris who was rubbing down his horse.
"Hows Ezra?" Vin asked.
"Hes doin fine. Slept most of the day. Misty and Kristen is with him now," Nathan replied.
"He aint teachin them how to play poker, is he?" Vin asked suspiciously.
Nathan shrugged. "Could be, but I think they were more interested in his fancy clothes."
"Something tells me these girls havent had much of anything but heartache in their lives," Chris said.
Nathan nodded. "Theyre either orphans or their folks abandoned them."
Vin whistled low. "Poor kids. I can feel for them."
"Cal the one who wears the pants got a bad bruise from those fellahs who stole the stallion." He took a deep breath, and his dark eyes were troubled.
"What is it, Nathan?" Chris pressed.
"She got scars on her back," he replied, barely restraining his fury.
"From the nuns?" Vin demanded.
Nathan shook his head. "She didnt join them until a few months ago and them scars are oldern that. Looks like she was whipped."
Vin glanced at Chris who caught his gaze. They both knew about Nathans past, and his former status as a slave. Nathan had overcome his enmity and used his skills to heal folks no matter what color they were. Cal, however, had a chip as big as Texas on her shoulder.
"Did she say who done it?" Chris asked, his eyes hard and silvery in the moonlight.
"Said she fell down," Nathan answered bitterly.
Vin shook his head in disgust. "Id like to take that whip to whoever done it to her."
"Youll have to stand in line," Nathan said. "They left a scar worse than that whip on the inside." He paused a moment. "You have any trouble with the horse thieves?"
"Nothing we couldnt handle," Chris answered. "Sr. Katie almost ruined it when she came storming into the camp, tellin us wed all best toss down our guns." He rubbed his jaw, and a hint of a smile curved his lips upward. "For being such a slip of a gal, she has a lot of grit."
Vin unfastened his saddles cinch. "You think those fellahsll try to steal him back?"
"Did Top Hat Bob have bad breath?" Chris asked, his eyes twinkling.
Vin snorted, and Nathan grinned.
"I think we ought to escort them down to Tohatchi," Chris stated, then looked at Vin. "I know thatll take us the opposite direction of Tascosa, but Im afraid those scum are going to try again and they might do worse than just bruise one of the girls next time."
Vin removed his saddle from Sires back, and turned to face Chris. "You know I aint gonna leave these girls alone out here. I figgered on talkin to you about it, but you beat me to it. Besides," he paused and a small smile teased his lips. "Tascosa aint goin nowhere."
Chris eyed his friend a moment, noting the compassion in his hazel eyes. Vin often joked about going to hell, but Chris had an idea the hunter would end up on the other side. His concern for other folks ran deep; sometimes too deep.
"All right. You two talk to the others, make sure its okay with them, and Ill tell Sr. Adrian," Chris volunteered.
"Yaall better get something to eat," Nathan said. "Theres a big kettle of dumplins over the fire."
"Sounds good to me," Vin remarked.
The three men walked together toward the camp. Vin and Chris deposited their saddles a few yards from the huddle of men and children. Seeing Ezra seated on the ground with a blanket around his shoulders, Chris and Vin went over to the still-pale gambler.
"Good to see you up and about, Ezra," Chris remarked.
"I would not have recovered so expeditiously if not for my two lovely attendants, Misty and Kristen," Ezra said.
"You aint been teachin them--?" Vin asked, deliberately looking at the deck of cards in Ezras hands.
"Why, Mr. Tanner, how can you even suggest I would corrupt such young ladies of culture and discrimination."
"Then whatre you doing with those cards?" Chris asked.
"Hes been showing us how to spot a cheater dealing from the bottom of the deck," nine-year-old Kristen interjected.
Vin rolled his eyes heavenward.
"These girls arent like Olivia," Chris stated. "Besides, theyre headed for a convent."
"Can I help it if they asked me?" Ezra said innocently.
"No, but you didnt have to answer."
Ezra grinned boyishly. "Ill remember that for next time."
Knowing Ezra could change his nature as easily as a cat could change its stripes, Chris didnt press the issue. For all of Ezras faults, he had just as many good qualities most of them hed discovered only recently. And he had a soft spot in his heart for children.
Chris and Vin walked over to the fire where a girl with blonde hair gilded by the flickering firelight stood. "Would you like some dumplings?" she asked.
"That sounds just fine," Vin said.
She smiled shyly, and turned to scoop some dumplings onto a plate.
"Whats your name?" Vin asked as he accepted the plate from her outstretched hand.
"Roberta." She wrinkled her nose. "But everyone calls me Robbie."
"Thanks, Robbie," Vin said quietly. He took a spoonful. "Tastes mighty good. You do the cookin in this outfit?"
She shrugged. "We take turns and I got stuck with it tonight." Robbie handed Chris his plate.
After thanking her, Chris moved off to hunker down at the edge of the group. His gaze roamed across the strange combination of men hardened by the violent life theyd led and the innocent girls, too young to understand what dangers theyd be facing in the years ahead.
Josiah had a girl on either side of him as he related some yarn probably from the Bible. Chris recognized the shoulder-length blonde as Kerry, and the somewhat younger one, whose green eyes were like saucers, as Judy. Both girls were entranced by Josiahs low voice and the story he told. Chris knew too well how Josiahs deep, rumbling voice could rise and fall hypnotically hed been caught more than once in that same web Josiah now spun for the girls.
Nathan sat by Sr. Katie and they seemed to be involved in an earnest conversation, and Chris could bet what it was. Cals situation had hit Nathan hard, and he wouldnt rest until he found a way to get past her defensiveness to the soul below the tough exterior. He suspected Nathan had his work cut out for him.
JD and Buck sat side-by-side and were having some kind of argument. That didnt surprise Chris since it seemed they were always arguing. What did bother Chris was that each man appeared to be truly angry, not the made-up angry that Buck usually used with his protégé. Their voices were low so Chris couldnt hear what they were quarreling about, but he had an idea it had something to do with Bucks strange behavior around Sr. Katie, and to a lesser extent, Sr. Adrian. Hed have to keep an eye on his oldest friend and make sure he didnt blow up like a keg of dynamite.
A few feet away, Vin had Robbie and the youngest, Nutmeg, perched on either side of him. For a man whod never been around kids much, Vin seemed to be handling it pretty well.
Holding her doll in one hand, Nutmeg reached out with her other and touched Vins long hair. "You got nice soft hair, Mister Vin."
Vin gave her long dark braid a teasing tug. "So do you, little sister."
Nutmeg giggled, and settled herself on Vins lap. The startled expression on Vins face nearly brought a chuckle to Chris, but he held it back as he watched the younger man wrap an awkward arm around her waist. Nutmeg only made herself more comfortable, leaning her head against Vins chest and staring up at him with huge brown eyes.
"You got any sisters?" Robbie asked.
Vin turned his attention to the eleven-year-old. "Nope. It was just me and my ma until she died when I was a little older than Nutmeg here."
"Did you have to go to an orphanage?"
"For a time, but they couldnt keep me. I pretty much lived on my own, with some folks giving me a place to spend the night or feed me when I got so hungry I couldnt take it no more," Vin explained.
Chris listened as attentively as Vins small audience. Although hed known Vin for over six months, he knew little about the mans past. Hed never bothered to pry because Chris understood the value of a mans privacy.
"Did you do bad things?" Nutmeg asked.
Vin smiled ruefully. "Sometimes, but I didnt have no one tellin me right from wrong like you do."
Nutmeg sat up straight. "I get in lots of trouble. Dont I, Robbie?"
Robbie nodded. "Sr. Adrian says youre incor--, whats the word?"
"Incorrigible?" Vin guessed.
"Yeah, thats the one," Robbie said. "What does it mean?"
"Damn" Vin cleared his throat. "Darned if I know. But Id guess it means she gets in lots of trouble."
"Yep, thats Nutmeg all right," Robbie said. "One time she caught a mouse and put it in Rinas bed."
"Rina didnt care," Nutmeg exclaimed. "She liked it lots and took care of it until Sr. Adrian made her let it go outside."
"But there was the time you found the cake in the kitchen and we all got in trouble," Robbie added. She looked up at Vin. "It had seven kinds of chocolate in it! It was supposed to be a treat, but we ate it all the night before."
"And we got bellyaches, too," Nutmeg said, then yawned widely and laid her head back down on Vins chest. Her eyelids drooped.
"She acts like a baby sometimes," Robbie said.
"Do not," Nutmeg objected in a voice heavy with sleep.
Chris glanced away from the bittersweet scene and puffed on a cheroot, trying not to think of the evenings Adam had fallen asleep in his arms, just as Nutmeg was doing in Vins lap.