Nathan draped a damp cloth over Ezras forehead and glanced at Misty who watched with rapt attention.
"He dresses real nice," she commented, admiring his white shirt with ruffled cuffs.
"Ezra does like pretty clothes," Nathan said with a smile.
Misty clasped her hands together and looked at Nathan curiously. "I never knew black people could be doctors."
"Im not really a doctor, but I know a few things about healin," he said. "Besides, since the war, we can pretty much be what we want to be. When did your pa die?"
Misty shrugged and a shadow of sadness crossed her innocent face. "Last year. My ma, she died when I was born, so it was just pa and me. Then he died, too."
"Im sorry, Misty. I lost both my folks, too, so I know how you feel." Nathan paused. "Would you mind sitting with Ezra for a few minutes?"
She shook her head, and animation lit her eyes. "I can do it."
Nathan touched her shoulder lightly. "I know you can. You call me if he wakes up, yhear?"
She nodded eagerly.
After one last look at Ezra and his young nurse, Nathan slipped out of the wagon. He was met by Sr. Adrian and the other children.
"How is your friend?" Sr. Adrian asked.
"Hell be fine with a couple days rest. He was hurt bad by a mountain cat a couple weeks ago and hes still healin." He glanced at the three animals standing in front of the wagon. "Would you like me to unhitch your mules?"
"Wed appreciate your help Nathan, is it?"
Nathan smiled warmly. "Thats right, Sister."
"Ill have Cal and Rina help you." She called the two girls and told them what she wanted them to do.
Rina nodded eagerly, and Cal merely glowered.
Nathan moved off toward the mules and Rina ran up to walk beside him, while Cal followed sullenly, holding her arm close to her side.
Nathan slowed and turned to speak gently to Cal, "If you let me take a look at that, I might be able to make it feel better."
"It dont hurt," Cal said stubbornly.
"Youre awfully strong. I know if Id been hit by a rifle, Id be hurtin."
Rina wrinkled her nose. "Cal says she can do anything a boy can, only better."
"Is that so?" Nathan asked, directing his question to Cal.
She stared at him, her blue eyes filled with animosity. "Im bettern you!"
Again Nathan noticed the fear that darkened her expression and his need to heal made him want to find out what had sickened her spirit so badly. But he also knew he had to move cautiously, like handling a horse that had been beaten and lost its ability to trust.
"I betcha youre bettern me at unhitching these mules. I never could get the hang of those harnesses," Nathan said lightly.
Surprise lit Cals face for a moment, but it was quickly masked by her characteristic scorn. She moved with startling skill in spite of her injury, and the mules were released from their traces in a matter of a few minutes.
Nathan, Rina, and Cal each took hold of a mules halter and led them to the wagon, where they tied them to separate lead ropes that they attached to the Conestogas side.
Cal grimaced painfully as her mule butted her, its head catching her in the side.
"Let me take a look at that, Cal," Nathan urged. "You could have a cracked rib or worse."
Sr. Adrian joined them, and her lips were pressed into a line of worry. "Let him examine you, Cal honey. You wouldnt want to get real sick just because you didnt take care of yourself."
Cal glared at Nathan, but he could see she was weakening.
"You can have Sr. Adrian or one of your friends stay with you while I look it over," Nathan said.
Cal reluctantly nodded. "Rina can stay."
Sr. Adrian cast Nathan a smile of gratitude, then moved away while Nathan, Cal, and Rina stayed on the far side of the wagon. After Rina spent a moment talking with the mules and calming them, she patted each one and joined Nathan and Cal.
"I need you to lift up your shirt so I can see your side," Nathan said, hunkering down beside Cal.
She did so with even more reluctance and Nathan spotted a large bruise covering her side. He touched her ribs lightly to determine if any were broken, and was relieved to find none were. He turned her around so he could check her back, too, and his breath caught in his throat. Long, broad scars crisscrossed her slender back and fury ripped through Nathan.
"What happened to your back?" he asked, forcing his voice to remain even.
She shrugged indolently. "I fell down when I was a kid."
"Some fall," Nathan muttered. He swallowed the block of rage in his throat. "Im gonna get some bandages and wrap them around that nasty bruise. It shouldnt hurt quite as much then."
Cal grimaced, but remained silent and unmoving. Nathan retrieved a roll of bandages from the wagon, and checked on Ezra. He found Misty was taking her job seriously.
"He talked some, but it just was fever talk," she reported to Nathan.
"Whatd he say?"
Misty shrugged. "Something about a full house beating three of a kind. Whatd he mean by that?"
Nathan smiled in amusement. "Youll have to ask him when he wakes up."
He left the wagon and rejoined Cal and Rina.
"Could you give me a hand here, Rina?" Nathan asked.
She nodded and held Cals shirt out of the way as Nathan wrapped the bandage around the girls ribs. He tied off the bandage and Rina tugged Cals blouse down over it.
"There you go," Nathan said with a friendly smile, hoping to defuse some of Cals animosity.
Cals jaw muscle clenched, then she whirled around and strode away.
Nathan frowned, watching her flee.
"She dont like most folks," Rina said awkwardly.
He turned and gazed into her blue-gray eyes. "Whys that?"
Rina shrugged and swept a strand of red hair behind her ear. "She dont talk about things much, but I heard her cryin in her sleep once. She was beggin someone to stop hittin her."
Nathan curled his fingers into fists of rage and helplessness. He had suspected as much, but the confirmation of his suspicions didnt make him feel any better. In fact, it made him feel a whole lot worse.
"Well, theyre still headed east," Vin said, taking his horses reins from Chriss hand and remounting.
"You figger out how many?" Buck asked.
"Looks to be four other horses besides the stud," Vin replied. He rested his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn, squinted into the distance, at the wavy mirages arising from the heated desert surface. It was hard to imagine theyd been in a snowstorm less than a week ago. "There aint a whole lot this way. Just a flyspeck of a town about thirty, thirty-five miles from here."
"Think thats where theyre headed?" Chris asked.
Vin shrugged. "Probably, but hard to say. Whoever took that horse either has a buyer or someones payin them to bring it to him."
"How do ya know somebody didnt just figure it was easy pickins?" JD asked.
"Not many folks just happen to be crossin this stretch of desert, JD. Whoever it was knew they had that horse," Chris said and glanced at Vin, who nodded his consensus. "Somebody wanted that horse, and they got it. At least for now."
They continued on, gratified to find the thieves werent in any big hurry. They continued following them throughout the day and into late afternoon when the men took a break to rest the horses.
Vin pulled his spyglass out of his pocket and searched the terrain painted orange from the descending sun.
"Gotem," he announced with a half smile. "Looks like theyre making an early camp."
Chriss grin didnt bode well for the horse thieves. "This should be like lickin butter off a knife."
Vin cast a sideways glance at his friend and grinned.
"Do you see that nun whos trailin them?" Buck asked.
Vin widened his search and found a mule hidden behind some brush about a hundred feet from their prey. He spotted a dark shadowy figure lying on the ground not far from the mule. Sunlight glinted off a rifle barrel. "Yep, and looks like shes gettin ready to make her move."
Buck swore, surprising everyone by the vehemence in his tone, and Vin was glad the nun wasnt in hearing range.
"What in hells half acre does she think shes doin?" Buck demanded.
"Tryin to get their horse back," JD replied simply, staring at Buck like hed lost what few wits he possessed.
"Wed better ride and hope we get there before she does something stupid," Chris muttered.
The five men sprang back into their saddles and sent their horses galloping across the sandy soil. Vins sharp eyes spotted a ravine nearly hidden by the lengthening shadows, and they swung over to follow its path, the ridge keeping them hidden from sight. As the wash-out began to shallow out, Chris brought them to a halt.
Vin scrambled up the bank, removed his hat and lay on his belly to see where theyd come out. Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD joined him, and out of the corner of his eye, Vin noticed Buck flip JDs hat off his head.
They were still a hundred yards from the mens temporary camp. Sr. Katie was on the opposite side, even farther from them.
Suddenly Vin spotted the Tennessee stud and his breath caught halfway between his lungs and mouth. "Would ya look at that?"
Chris glanced at him, then followed his gaze. He whistled low. "No wonder they want it back."
"He looks like hes made of pure gold," Vin said, uncharacteristically awestruck.
"I aint never seen a horse that color before," JD put in.
"Its called a palomino," Josiah explained. "Ive seen only a couple of them in my time."
"Geezus," Buck began, "why would anyone let a couple nuns with a bunch of kids travel with a horse like that? Hell, theyre just beggin to have it stolen."
Chris turned to give Buck a questioning look. "You got a problem, Buck?"
Buck glared at Chris, and the air between the men solidified with tension. "If I did, its none of your business."
Vin saw a flash of wounded surprise in Chriss green eyes, then it was gone and only coolness remained.
"Youre right, it aint," Chris said curtly.
Vin frowned. Hed seen the opposite happen between the two old friends Buck had pushed too hard and Chris had set up a wall. But this time Buck had blindsided Chris.
Chris sent his steady gaze back to the thieves camp. "Theres not enough cover around for us to sneak up on them. Ill have to draw their attention so the rest of you can move in behind them.
"Buck, JD, you two crawl around on the left side, Vin, Josiah, you take the right. Once I see you four in place, Ill ride in and get their attention."
Without a word, the four men nodded and bellied over the embankment. Keeping low, they used the meager brush and few rocks to curtain them from view. Three of the men appeared to be sleeping, while the fourth stood guard. If not for the guard, Chris and the others couldve slipped in and taken the Tennessee stud without firing a shot. Chris still hoped they wouldnt have to do any shooting.
He swung his attention to the prized stallion and admiration flared within him. The horse was long and lean, and the color of the sun. The proud arch of its neck told Chris he knew he was a champion.
Chris pulled his gaze from the magnificent horse, and searched for his four compadres. He found each of them nearing their positions. He looked in the direction of the nun, and his eyes narrowed at the sight of the dark figure crawling toward the camp.
Swearing under his breath, he pushed himself down the sandy slant, and hauled himself into his saddle. He tugged his broad-brimmed hat on and tightened the chin strap. Urging his horse ahead, he arose out of the gully and headed directly for the enemys camp.
The guard caught sight of him immediately, but the casual approach of Chris kept him from bringing the rifle to his shoulder. Chris forced himself to remain calm he wasnt alone and his partners were even now covering him.
"Hello the camp," Chris hollered out as he drew closer.
"What dya want?" the guard asked suspiciously.
The three other outlaws rose and stared at Chris, their eyes flat and menacing. Behind them, Chris saw his companions closing the distance between them. He pasted a smile on his face.
"I was just passin through when I saw your camp. Mind if I set and light for a cup of coffee?" Chris asked, keeping his voice casual.
"Yeah, we mind," the guard, a dark, swarthy man with a scar across one cheek snarled. "Turn around and ride out, mister."
"That aint very friendly of you," Chris said, and narrowed his eyes. "Might be that you need to be taught some manners."
A couple of the other thieves chuckled, and one of them spoke up, "And I spose youre goin to be the one to do it?"
"Nope, we are!" Buck, with JD beside him, rose from behind a rock, both had their revolvers leveled at the outlaws.
On the other side, Vin and Josiah made themselves known at the same time, and the shocked expressions of the horse thieves was a sight to behold as Chris smiled crookedly.
"Hold it, all of you!"
Sr. Katie approached them, her diminutive figure dwarfed by the Winchester in her steady hands.
"Were on your side, Sister," Josiah stated calmly.
"Im supposed to trust five more men with guns?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. "Ill put my faith in something a bit more trustworthy."
"God might be busy at the moment," Josiah said.
She smiled without humor. "I was talking about my rifle. Now everyone lay your weapons on the ground."
"Sister, youre makin a big mistake," Buck said, his lips thinned in anger. "Let us take care of this and well get that horse back to Sister Adrian."
Surprised, Sr. Katie shifted her attention to Buck, giving the outlaws the opening they were looking for. The guard brought his weapon up and fired a shot at Chris.
The bullet sang past Chriss ear, and his frightened horse reared up, nearly unseating him. Gunshots rang out all around him as he struggled to control his mount. He could barely make out the others diving for cover.
Buck cussed aloud, and wrapped an arm around Sr. Katies waist, pulling her down behind a rock with him and JD.
"Keep your head down or youll get it shot off," he ordered.
She stared at him, anger sparking in her blue eyes at his highhanded treatment, but Buck wasnt about to apologize. The fool woman had nearly gotten Chris killed, and still might. Not to mention him and the three other men.
A bullet sent a shower of rock fragments in Bucks face and he quickly ducked behind the stone cover. JD rose and fired off a couple shots, then hunkered back down. Despite the situation, Buck nodded to himself, glad JD was finally learning the intricacies of a well-played gunfight.
"How do you know Sr. Adrian?" the nun demanded.
Buck lifted his head long enough to fire off two rounds at the outlaws. "We run into her and that passel of girls. She told us what happened and we offered to come after you and the prized horse."
She lowered her eyes and her cheeks reddened. "Im sorry. I didnt realize."
"Thats right, you didnt!" Buck pressed his lips together as he stuffed cartridges into his revolvers cylinder.
Buck felt JDs puzzled gaze on him, but he wasnt about to explain. Some things werent open to discussion.
A mans yelp of pain caught Bucks attention and he peeked over the rock to see one of the outlaws had been hit. He glanced toward Chris and was gratified to see hed dismounted and was using a log as cover. Another holler and another thief fell to the ground, clutching his arm. Buck lifted his Colt and fired, and JD shadowed his action.
The outlaws scurried away, grabbed their horses, and quickly mounted up. One of them tried to nab the studs lead, but Vin managed to scare him away with a few well-placed shots from his sawed-off carbine.
Buck noticed none of the others shot at the backs of the retreating horse thieves, and nodded in approval. He went along with Chriss policy of never shooting a man in the back unless it was a matter of life or death. Or the bastard just plain deserved it.