Chriss eyes settled on a girl with curly brown hair that hung in ringlets almost to her waist. Although he wasnt real good at judging a kids age, he suspected she was probably eleven or twelve, a little older than Adam had been when hed been killed. Her downtrodden expression yanked at his heart, and he quickly glanced away. He didnt want or need someone elses misery he had enough of his own to deal with.
Sr. Adrian approached him, and lowered herself to a rock. "I cant thank you and your friends enough for what youve done, bringing back Sr. Katie, as well as the stallion."
"We only done what anybody else wouldve," Chris said, uncomfortable with her gratitude.
"No you didnt, but I can tell youre not the type of man who likes to have his good deeds pointed out. I like that in a person, makes him a lot more trustworthy in my book."
Chris wasnt sure how to respond, so he ignored it. "If you dont mind, well ride along with you to Tohatchi."
Sr. Adrian blinked in surprise, then gazed at Chris with eyes the color of the sky before a rainstorm. "You dont have to do that, Chris. Since we know those men are out there, well be on our guard. Forewarned is forearmed."
"I dont think thats in the bible, Sister."
"Its not its in my book."
Chris smiled and shook his head. "Youre not like any nun I ever met."
"And how many have you met?"
"Not many," he admitted. "But you arent like any ofem."
She laughed, a full rich sound that made Chris smile.
"Thats the reason Katie and I were chosen for this mission," Sr. Adrian said. "We both grew up on Texas ranches and know our way around livestock and weapons. If those varmints come back, well be ready for them."
"And what if some of the girls get between you and them? You wouldnt want any of them hurt, would you?"
Anguish passed across her face. "Youre right about that. I was worried enough about Cal when she tried to stop those men the first time." She studied him for a long moment, and he forced himself not to squirm under her discerning gaze. "All right, Chris, I accept your offer with heartfelt appreciation. Besides, God had his reasons for sending you and your friends this way." She glanced around at the strangely peaceful scene. "The girls miss having a father figure. Im amazed at how fast the girls took to them."
"Looks like it goes both ways," Chris commented, noticing Judy and Kerry sleeping against either side of Josiah, and Nutmeg asleep in Vins arms.
"What about you? I see you sitting here by yourself watching everyone, but making no attempt to fit in." She narrowed her perceptive eyes. "I have a feeling you werent always that way."
"Life can take a person down roads they never wanted to travel. I got off on a few of those roads, Sister, and it takes a long time to get back on the right trail."
"If you ask me, youre already back on it." She patted his arm. "You just have to convince yourself of that."
Sr. Adrian stood and began to gather up the girls to go to bed.
Chris watched Vin carry Nutmeg to the end of the wagon, where Robbie took her from the ex-bounty hunters arms. Josiah lifted Judy in one arm, and Kerry in the other, and delivered them to the back of the wagon. Sr. Katie smiled her gratitude and led the sleepy girls back into the wagons bed.
The tall girl whod been sitting by herself walked stiffly to the wagon and crawled into it. She glanced back at Chris, and he found himself looking into mirrors of his own green eyes, complete with overpowering sadness and loss. The connection jolted him to his soul and he quickly turned away.
"That was Susan," Sr. Adrian explained softly from behind him. "Her folks and younger brother were murdered. She never talks about it, but I have a feeling she saw everything."
Chriss gut churned, and his fingers curled into fists.
"Good night, Chris," Sr. Adrian said, and went to the wagon.
"We should post guards," Vin said as he and the others joined Chris.
Chris dropped his cheroot, and ground the stub out with his boot heel. "We should have two on each shift," he said. "Vin and Ill take first watch, then Nathan and Josiah, then Buck and JD."
"What about me?" Ezra asked indignantly.
"Youre going to get a good nights sleep so you dont fall off your horse tomorrow," Chris said, a twinkle in his eye. He sobered. "Youre still not all healed yet, Ezra, and I wont let you overdo it and kill yourself."
Ezras startled expression was all the gratitude Chris needed. Ezra had gotten off to a shaky start with the group, and had nearly gotten them all killed, but hed returned to rectify his mistake. That in itself told Chris how much courage Ezra possessed, even if the gambler didnt see it in himself. Ezra had turned into a man to ride the river with, and his decision to accompany them to Tascosa had been a welcome, but not totally unexpected surprise.
"Go get some sleep. Well have a long day tomorrow," Chris said.
All the men but Buck went to get their bedrolls and spread them by the fire. Vin moved off toward the horses, and Chris suspected hed be keeping a close eye on the stallion.
"Nathan tells me that were goin to escort these ladies all the way to Tohatchi," Buck began.
Chris nodded calmly. "Thats right."
"Because those men are going to try again, and this time theyll have reinforcements with them."
"You dont know that!"
"Whats your problem, Buck?" Chris demanded, his temper fraying. "Ever since we run into these nuns, you been acting like a rattlesnake on a hot skillet."
Buck threw his arms in the air. "And you been acting like a damned guardian angel. Them nuns knew the risks they were taking when they decided to bring that stallion with them. It aint our fault theyre stupid enough to do a fool thing like that."
Chris grabbed a handful of Bucks shirt and gave it a jerk. "You watch your tongue around these women, Buck, or youll answer to me."
Buck glared at Chris who stared right back at him.
Nathan and Josiah joined them, and pressed themselves between the two snarling tomcats, forcing Chris to relinquish his hold on Buck.
"Ill stay, but only cause I promised Id help clear Vins name and I aim to stick to that, but dont expect me to be takin orders from you," Buck said, his eyes piercing Chris.
Buck spun around and stomped away into the darkness.
"Whats gotten into him?" Josiah asked, gesturing toward Bucks retreat.
Chris shook his head. "I dont know. In all the years Ive known him, I aint ever seen him like this before."
"Whatevers eatin at hims gonna tear him up if he dont get it squared away," Nathan said quietly.
Buck stopped his headlong flight into the moonlit desert and stared out across the desolate flat. Removing his hat, he ran a trembling hand through his thick hair. Why in the hell did they have to run into a couple of nuns? Any other kind of woman he couldve handled even the little girls who were cutern buttons but not Sisters of the Church.
Sr. Adrian hadnt been quite as bad, but seeing Sr. Katie had damn near undone him. With her compassionate blue eyes and foolish courage, she reminded him too keenly of his mother. Even though his mother had died in a whorehouse after one of her customers had taken his pleasure in her pain, Buck remembered her as she looked when he was a child. Hed told JD she was a saint, although nobody but himself saw her that way. The Catholic Church hadnt when hed requested a funeral Mass. It had been her dying request, and Buck hadnt been able to fulfill it.
He rubbed his eyes, fighting the memories that stole up to haunt him. She always smelled like lilacs in the springtime. Shed died when the lilacs were in full bloom and Buck had piled her favorite flower on her grave, hoping it in some way made up for his failure to give her what shed truly wanted.
And knowing deep down that it never could.
Ross Calendar slammed his meaty fist on the desk. "I want that horse, do you understand?"
"They were hired guns, Mr. Calendar," the swarthy thief whined.
"I dont give a rats ass what they are! You round up twenty men and go get that stud."
"What about those gunhands?"
"Bring them here and well hang them as horse thieves. Thatll make folks think twice about crossing Ross Calendar."
The outlaw rubbed his scarred face nervously, then dared to ask. "Why is that horse so important?"
"Its a racer and I want to breed a whole herd of my own winners. If theres one thing I like better than a horse race, its winning a bundle of money from betting on my own horses." He skimmed his palm across his silver hair. "Seems thats the only challenge around here anymore nobody worth a bucket of spit can beat me at poker."
The hired thief wanted to tell him that was because he cheated better than everybody else, but didnt dare. Hed already earned enough of Calendars wrath to last a few years. Besides, he wasnt going to argue with the richest man in the territory.
He nodded. "Well get the stud and those five men, Mr. Calendar."
The wealthy mans blue eyes turned ice cold. "If you dont, youd best not show your ugly face around here again."
The scarred man swallowed convulsively and nodded, then backed out of the opulent room. Scurrying out of the mansion at the edge of the small town, he cursed the five men whod made a fool of him. Theyd pay with a rope around their necks unless they did something stupid and happened to get shot.
Either way, theyd get their due.
The afternoon sun beat down on Chriss shoulders as he halted his horse and stood in his stirrups to stretch stiff muscles. He studied the single wagon that followed a quarter of a mile behind him and the horsemen who rode beside it. Squinting, he could make out Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian on the wagons bench and one of the girls Chris thought it was Kristen by the color of her red-tinted hair sat between the nuns.
He shook his head at his companions who each had a young girl riding with them. If that dime store novelist Jock Steele could see them now, he would see those hardened gunhands in a whole other light. Of course, Steele would only use it as fodder for another of his made-up stories.
Chris had been scouting ahead most of the morning and had returned only to grab some food while theyd stopped to make some lunch. With the sun halfway down to the western horizon, Chris decided to go back to the wagon and find out how much further the Sisters wanted to go.
He urged his horse down the ridge, and loped down to join the others. Little Nutmeg with her ever-present doll, sat in the saddle in front of Vin, and hollered a hello to him. He smiled at the girl and tipped his hat, producing a torrent of giggles and making Vin tighten his hold on her so she wouldnt fall off Sires back.
"See anything?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head. "Quiet as a church on Monday. Everything okay here?" He deliberately sidled a glance at Buck who rode a little ways ahead of the wagon.
"Hes been all right. Even been givin some of the kids rides."
"We arent goats, Mr. Vin," Nutmeg chirped up. "A kid is a goat. Robbie told me so."
"You gettin me in trouble again?" Robbie called from her place behind JD atop his horse.
"Nope, this time its me whos in trouble," Vin spoke up, winking at Chris.
With a grin and a shake of his head, Chris drew his horse up alongside the wagon. "Everything goin all right, Sisters?"
"Just fine, thank you, Chris," Sr. Adrian replied, holding the mules reins like shed been doing it most of her life. And probably had.
"What time would you like to make camp?"
Sr. Adrian glanced at Sr. Katie who shrugged.
"A couple more hours maybe," the younger nun replied, and shifted the rifle laying lengthwise in her lap. "We keep going at this pace and we should be in Tohatchi in a couple days."
"As long as we dont have unwelcome visitors." Chris squinted and glanced up at a sky so blue it nearly hurt his eyes. "And as long as the weather holds."
"This is a desert. What kind of weather could we possibly get?" Sr. Katie asked with a quizzical frown.
"Gettin into flash flood season. If we happen to be passin through a wash at the wrong time, wed have big trouble. And we dont want anything to happen to any of them girls."
"Hes right," Sr. Adrian stated solemnly. "Ive seen a flash flood or two in my day and theyre more dangerous than a pack of horse thieves."
"Ill ride ahead and see if I can find a good place to set up camp." Chris touched the brim of his hat, and allowed the wagon to roll ahead of him.
He spotted Susan walking by herself between the rutted wagon tracks, and held his horse steady until she caught up to him.
"You want to ride for a bit?" Chris asked her.
With her gaze aimed at the ground and a bonnet on her head impeding her side vision, she hadnt seen him and stumbled slightly in surprise. "Uh, no, thats okay, Mr. Chris."
She continued on, and Chris had his horse keep pace with her. "Have you been walking all day?"
"I like walking."
"My feet would get mighty sore," Chris said lightly.
Susan shook her head, her curls swishing across her back. "Im used to it."
They traveled along in silence for a couple minutes, Chris keeping his horse even with the girl.
"Sr. Adrian was telling me about your family," Chris began.
Susans shoulders stiffened, and she pressed her lips together.
"Im sorry," he said awkwardly. "I know how you feel."
She stopped abruptly and spun around to face him, startling his horse who jerked his head up. Susans green eyes flashed, but they also glistened with moisture. "You cant know! Nobody can know how it feels. Just leave me alone."
She ran ahead of him, her bonnet slipping down her back.
Chris remained motionless. Susan was wrong. He knew exactly how she felt, and maybe that was reason enough to leave her alone.
Evening fell, and camp was made on a slight rise. Chris had chosen the location to keep a better eye out for the thieves who he felt still hadnt given up on their prize. Even if they were able to round up a few more men, Chris doubted theyd be much of a challenge unless they caught them in an ambush. But the seven men would be watching for them, and Chris was confident theyd be able to spot a trap.
Supper had been eaten, and everyone gathered around the cheerful fire for one of Josiahs stories, this one about Job and the tests he endured. Even Chris found his attention held by Josiahs storytelling ability.
The girls had once again placed themselves around the men. Rina, whose responsibility it was to care for the stallion, had found a place near Vin as had Robbie. Little Nutmeg had moved over to Josiahs lap and she stared up at him with wide eyes as she listened raptly to the story. Judy was seated next to Josiah, and Kerry had shifted over to JD. Misty and Kristen had staked their claim by Ezra, who didnt seem a bit bothered by their adoring gazes.
Cal and Susan had again placed themselves apart from the group. Susan remained withdrawn, her expression haunting and sorrowful. Cal, however, stared out at the world like she was looking to pick a fight. If shed been a boy, Chris had no doubt shed already have a gunbelt strapped around her hips.
"So you see, Job never gave up," Josiah concluded. "Even when he lost everything his belongings, his family, and his health he didnt curse God for all the bad things that happened to him."
"Kinda like us," Judy piped up. "We dont have anything either, but we dont get mad at God for what happened."
Susan stood, and her fisted hands were pressed into her skirt folds. "Maybe you dont, but I do! My folks went to Mass every Sunday and prayed, but that didnt stop God from killing them. And I hate Him for taking them!"
She spun around and plunged into the darkness, leaving a thick, awkward silence.
Sr. Adrian arose and began to follow her, but Chris stopped her. "Ill talk to her. I know what shes feeling."
The nun studied him a moment, then nodded. "I think you do."
Chris took a deep breath and wonder what devil possessed him to go after the girl. With a resolute step, he went after Susan and followed the sound of her soft cries. She heard him and tried to stop crying, but the sobs turned into hiccups, and her slight shoulders shuddered.
"Leave me alone," Susan said with a tear-husky voice.
"I cant do that," Chris said gently. "I lost my family, too, so you see I do know what youre feeling."
She turned slowly, and the tear tracks on her cheeks glistened in the moonlight. "Then you know why I hate God."
Chris took a small step closer to her. "You dont hate God. You hate the men who killed your folks and brother."
"But God let them do it! Why didnt he stop them?" Susan demanded.
"I asked the same thing when my wife and little boy were murdered," Chris said softly. "I never got an answer."
"Then you must hate Him, too."
"No, not anymore. Your hate is aimed at the wrong place, Susan. Vicious men killed our families, but God took them up to heaven to wait for us. I have a feeling your folks and brother are sittin up there and lookin down at you, and worrying about you. You see, theyre in a lot better place now."
"Then why couldnt I go with them?" she asked plaintively.
Chris had asked himself the same question a thousand times, and had never come up with a good answer. Until now. "I guess it just wasnt our time. God has something else in mind for us, and its up to you and me to figure out what that is."
Susan remained motionless for a long moment, then moved toward Chris and wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her face in his chest. "I miss them so much."
Chris swallowed the block of emotion in his throat, and cupped the back of her head with his palm and wrapped his other arm around her back. He could feel her pain as keenly as his own. "I know, Susan. I know," he whispered.
She cried out her grief and sorrow as moisture clouded Chriss vision. He closed his eyes, wanting to yield to his own anguish, but there was still too much anger inside of him. Maybe someday when his own guilt was purged .
"Id like to check that bruise, Cal," Nathan said gently.
All of the girls had moved to the wagon except Cal, who remained seated by the fire.
"Its okay," she muttered.
"You should let him take a look at it," Josiah added.
"What do you know, preacher man?" Cal shot back.
"Not as much as I used to," Josiah said softly. "But enough to get by."
Cal appeared startled by his reply, but quickly masked her expression. "You talk real good, but that doesnt mean nothin. My step pa talked good, too, but he" She broke off, as if realizing shed said too much.
"Was it him who gave you them scars on your back?" Nathan asked.
"It dont matter anymore."
"What happened to him?" Dark foreboding settled in the pit of Nathans gut.
She shrugged. "Died."
Josiah glanced at Nathan, comprehension in his troubled eyes.
"I killed him," Cal admitted defiantly. "And I aint sorry I did."
"Did he do more than whip you?" Josiah asked gently.
Cal pressed her lips together and stood. "Im goin to bed." She glanced at Nathan, and there was a slight easing in her hostile expression. "Ill have Sr. Adrian check the bruise."
With long, boyish strides, she went to the wagon and climbed into the back end.
"That girls been through as much heartache as Job ," Josiah said.
Nathan nodded, his stomach muscles tight with rage. "Back before I was freed, I remember some of the girls I grew up with. When they was about Cals age, the masterd call them to the house. When the girls came back, they were never the same. I didnt know what he done to them, and when I found out I wanted to kill the bastard. Thats how I feel right now."
"Its amazing shes not more scared of us than she is," Josiah commented softly.
Nathan took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, but the submerged memories were rising too quickly. "Im goin for a walk."
From the other side of the camp, Buck watched Nathan stride away into the darkness and frowned in puzzlement. "Wonder whats got Nathan wound up?"
"He was talkin to Cal. Maybe she said something," JD offered.
"Could be. Shes the prickliest female I ever run into."
Sr. Katie joined the two men and smiled a greeting. She looked up at the bowl of stars high in the heavens. "Its too beautiful of an evening to waste it sleeping."
Buck pressed his lips together. If shed been anything but a nun, he wouldve responded with one of his usual flirtations.
"It sure is," JD commented, filling the awkward silence. "What made a woman like you become a nun?"
Sr. Katie laughed, a sound that reminded Buck of musical chimes in the breeze, and he shoved the fanciful thought aside.
"Well, it wasnt one a visitation from an angel or anything that dramatic. It was more like a slow realization."
"What do you mean?" JD asked.
"I was a normal girl, lassoing the boys and trying to outride and outshoot them, until those boys became men, and I started seeing them a whole lot different than Id ever looked at them before. When I was eighteen, I was betrothed to the son of a neighboring rancher. I thought I couldnt love anybody more than I loved him." She glanced at Buck, a twinkle in her eyes. "He looked a lot like you, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck shifted his weight from one booted foot to another. Damn, he didnt want to hear this, but he couldnt force himself to move away either.
"The Sunday before I was to be married, I went to Mass with my folks like we always did," Sr. Katie went on. "Every time I stepped into that church, I felt like I had come home. I always figured it was because Id attended Mass there for as long as I could remember. Afterwards, I told my mother about it and she looked at me like she was seeing me for the first time and she said, Katie, honey, have you ever thought that maybe God has been telling you that your home is in the Church?" She paused, her eyes glowing. "At that moment, I realized what God had been trying to tell me all along. I broke off my engagement and entered the convent, and Ive never regretted my decision."
"You had two good, church-abiding parents, and God figured you were good enough to become a nun," Buck stated, his tone uglier than JD had ever heard it. "What about them folks who didnt have such a nice upbringing? What about a woman who had to sell her body or starve to death? What does God and the Church think about her? Ill tell you what they think they think shes a sinner who cant ever go to Mass again because of the sin of survival! And those same so-called holy people like you wont let her baptize her baby boy that was born because she wasnt careful with one of her customers. So she lives with the guilt and fear that her son will die and go to hell because of her sins." Buck trembled with a rage that had been bottled up for too many years.
"That, Sr. Katie, is why I cant stand you and all the other hypocrites who preach love and compassion, but who dont have any inside of you to give to those who really need it." Buck took a deep, shuddering breath, and closed his eyes a moment, gathering his shredded self-control. "My mother was closer to a saint than youll ever be!"
Buck spun around and marched away.
Shocked by his outburst, JD could only stare at his retreating back.
Sr. Katie touched his arm gently. "You didnt know?"
JD shook his head and his lips moved but no words came forth. He tried again. "I knew his mother had been a wh" he broke off, embarrassed. "But I never knew she was Catholic."
Sr. Katie brushed her hand across her compassionate face. "I feel for his pain, and know of others like him that carry such a burden. Most sisters and priests arent like what he described, but Im afraid he and his mother werent fortunate enough to have one like them in their parish."
JD swallowed hard, finding it difficult to imagine the usually carefree, cocky Buck so full of rage and tore up inside. Oh, hed seen Buck mad even a few times really mad but hed never known him to harbor so much anger toward anyone or anything. Of course, the argument theyd had earlier had already told JD how bothered he was about something.
"Why dont you go talk to him, JD? I think he needs a friend right now."
"He wont listen to me. He thinks Im still a kid," JD said with a scowl.
"Then dont talk. You listen to him," the nun suggested gently.
After a moment, JD nodded. "All right, but if you hear gunshots, youd best send Nathan."
Sr. Katie smiled slightly. "He wont hurt you even I can see how much he cares for you."
"Dont know where youve been lookin," JD muttered, but moved off to track down Buck.