“Do you have any idea at all where we might be?” Sam asked.
“Of course I do,” Matt said with a smile. “We're in New Mexico Territory.”
“You said that last week!”
“It's a big territory.”
And it was hot. The hard-packed and rutted road upon which they traveled eastward flung the heat back at them. They had seen jackrabbits, a few eagles soaring high in the brilliant blue of the sky, and nothing else for two days.
“But I think it's time to cut south,” Matt said.
“I think it's time to do something,” Sam Two Wolves agreed. “We're running out of food, and if we don't find water soon, we're going to die out here in this godforsaken place.”
Matt laughed at his blood brother, but he knew the truth lay like shining steel in his words. They were going to be in serious trouble if they didn't find water, and find it very quickly.
Matt Bodine and Sam August Webster Two Wolves were blood brothers, bonded by the Cheyenne ritual that made them as one. They were also Brothers of the Wolf; they were Onihomahan: Friends of the Wolf. The two men could and often did pass as having the same mother and fatherâwhich they did not. Both possessed the same broad shoulders, lean hips, and heavy musculature. Sam's eyes were black, Matt's were blue. Sam's hair was black, Bodine's was dark brown. They were the same height and very nearly the same weight. Both wore the same type of three-stone necklace around their necks, the stones-pierced by rawhide. Both were ruggedly handsome men. Both had gone through the Cheyenne Coming of Manhood; they had the scars on their chests to prove it.
“You really think God has forsaken this country?” Matt asked.
“No. Of course not. But I think that perhaps He ignores it more than other sections.”
The brothers cut south.
The horses suddenly pricked their ears and became restless.
“Indians?” Matt asked.
“I hope not,” Sam replied. “This is Comanche and Apache countryâI think.” He stood up in the stirrups and sniffed the air. It was moist. “Water,” he said.
“What do you mean, âI think'? You don't know what tribes are around here?”
“I am Northern Cheyenne, idiot! From a thousand miles north of this desolation. Am I supposed to know everything about every tribe in North America?”
A stranger would think the two disliked each other. They loved each other as brothers. The constant poking and ribbing was their way of showing the affection both felt for the other. As many trouble-hunters had learned painfully, quickly, and sometimes fatally, mess with one and you had the other with whom to deal.
“You're half Cheyenne,” Bodine corrected. “And I don't expect you to know anything. Without me, you'd have been lost two weeks ago.”
“Bah” Sam said contemptuously. “You couldn't find your way to an outhouse if you had the squirts.”
Both men were excellent trackers and woodsmen, and both had the reputation of gunfighters, although neither had ever sought nor wanted that title.
The next day, the young men crossed a road that headed south by southwest. It looked well-traveled, but neither Matt nor Sam were looking for company, so they elected to go on for another day. They topped a ridge and saw another road, this one running north and south, and just beyond that, a river.
“What river is that?” Matt asked.
“I have no inkling whatsoever. Texas was your idea, not mine.” Sam sat his saddle and tried to look solemn. But his dark eyes were twinkling at the thoughts of whatever adventure lay ahead of them. The two young men were full of the juices of youth and had never run from anything in their lives.
Matt called him a very vulgar name in Cheyenne and with a whoop, they went galloping their horses toward the beckoning waters of the river.
Matt stood guard while his
took a bath, soaping himself generously and diving under the waters several times to rinse off. He climbed out, dried and dressed, and Matt took his turn. They both needed it: it had been about ten days since they'd bathed and shaved. But a shave was going to have to wait.
It was growing late in the afternoon, and both men were weary from the long, hot, almost waterless miles and days behind them. Sam made camp while Matt rode out to shoot some rabbits for their supper. Their supplies were growing dangerously low.
Matt killed two jackrabbits, and Sam had the last of their potatoes and onions ready for stewing when his brother returned. While the stew was bubbling and thickening, the young men drank coffee and relaxed.
“You have any idea what this river is called?” Sam asked.
“I hate to say it, but it may be the Pecos.”
“The Pecos!” Sam sat up. “If that's the case, we're almost out of New Mexico.”
“Yeah. Want to cut south and follow the river come first light?”
The two young men were wandering, entirely aimlessly, trying to get their minds settled before returning to their home range in Montana. They had witnessed the awful carnage at Little Bighorn the past year, the battle in which Sam's father, Medicine Horse, had charged Custer with a deliberately empty rifle and counted coup on Custerâstriking him with his coup stickâbefore dying. Matt and Sam had laid on a ridge and watched through the swirling dust as the troopers of the Seventh fell.
Even though both young men were moderately wealthy in their own rightâthey both owned ranches and Sam's white mother had left him quite an estate for the timeâMatt and Sam knew they had to drift for a time. After seeing the slaughter at Little Bighorn, neither man felt at peace with himself.
“Riders coming,” Sam said, his palm to the ground. “Several of them.”
“I heard them before you did,” Matt lied.
“Ha! You couldn't hear a bumblebee until it stung you on the rear.”
Matt and Sam got to their boots. Both men wore two guns. Matt carried both of his in leather, tied down, while Sam carried one in leather on his right side and another butt-forward on his left side, tucked in a sash he wore around his waist.
“They don't look friendly,” Sam observed.
“Looking for trouble, I'd say.” Bodine moved away from Sam to lessen the odds of both of them being taken out at once should shooting start.
“Slow it down!” Bodine yelled. “We don't need all that damn dust in our stew.”
Instead of easing up, the four riders kicked their horses into a gallop and came charging into the camp, knocking over the stew and scattering the blankets. They made their mistake when they slowed, turned around, and came back for another go at the camp.
Bodine reached up and jerked one out of his saddle while Sam was doing the same thing to another. The men hit the ground hard, on their backs, jarring their teeth and having the wind knocked from them. One mounted cowboy made the mistake of grabbing iron. Bodine put a .44 slug in his shoulder. The last rider sat his saddle, wanting to get into action, but not in a terrible hurry to get shot.
The shoulder-shot cowboy moaned and passed out, falling from his saddle.
A big black-headed fellow got to his boots cussing. While Sam kept a .44 on the last cowboy in his saddle, Bodine hit the big fellow twice in the belly and then came up with an uppercut that stretched him on the ground.
“You want a piece of it?” Bodine asked the other cowpoke, who was getting up.
“I reckon not. But John Lee ain't gonna like this a-tall.”
“I don't give a damn what John Lee likes or dislikes,” Bodine told him. “But I'll tell you what you're going to do.”
Bodine stepped forward and knocked the man on his rear, bloodying his mouth and momentarily crossing his eyes.
“Yeah,” Matt told him. “You ready to listen?”
“I reckon so. Beats gettin' my lights punched out.”
“Coffeepot's smashed and the cook pot fell into the coals. Heat cracked it,” Sam said.
Bodine reached down and removed the man's guns from leather. “Now listen carefully. You rideâI don't care whereâand you get back here with a new coffeepot, a new cook pot, and some meat and vegetables to go in it.” He pointed to the shoulder-shot puncher. “And take that punk with you. The others will stay here for insurance.”
“Are you crazy, man?” Bloody-mouth asked. “Do you know who you're foolin' with?”
Matt jerked iron and jacked the hammer back, placing the muzzle of the .44 on the man's forehead. The sharp odor of urine filled the late afternoon air as Bloody-mouth peed in his long-handles.
“If I have to tell you again, I'm going to be talking to a corpse,” Matt told him. “Now ride, you bastard!”
Bloody-mouth got gone. Matt boosted the shoulder-shot puncher into his saddle and slapped the horse on the rump.
Matt turned toward the kid in the saddle as the black-headed man moaned and started to rise. He looked down the muzzle of the .44 in Sam's hand and changed his mind. “You guys are crazy! Where's Val?”
“He went to get us some food,” Sam told him. “After a brief altercation with my brother, he quickly realized the boorishness of your actions and felt very apologetic about it.”
“What the hell did you say?”
“I understood that.”
“Get off your horse,” Matt told the young puncher. “Now, use your thumb and forefinger only and toss your guns over to me.”
Two revolvers hit the ground.
“What's your name?” Matt asked him.
“What the hell was the point of coming in here and hoorahin' us?”
“Just funnin', that's all.”
“You call destroying someone's camp fun?”
“You shouldna oughta told us to slow up. You don't tell Broken Lance riders to do nothin'. And you're gonna find that out the hard way damn quick.”
“I doubt it,” Matt told him. “Now get that coffee pot you got tied behind your saddle and make us some coffee.”
“I'll be damned iffen I will!”
Bodine moved toward him. “Do it!” his cohort yelled. “We ain't got a whole lot of choice in the matter. And be sure to get that coffee sack outta your saddlebags.”
Both Sam and Bodine smiled. Childress probably had a spare six-shooter in there and black head was telling him to use it.
Sam put the muzzle of his .44 against the black-haired man's ear. The sound of the hammer jacking back was very loud in the quiet. “If he comes out of there with iron in his hand instead of coffee, you're dead.”
“Forget it, Childress,” the man called. “Just make the damn coffee.”
“Do you have a name?” Sam asked him.
Childress slowly took his coffee and his pot and made coffee, using water from his canteen. The aroma of the spilled stew wafted deliciously around the camp.
“I was looking forward to that stew,” Bodine remarked, sitting on a weathered log that had drifted down the river from only God knew where and how long ago.
“You ain't gonna look forward to John's visit,” Blackie said. “ 'Cause shortly after he gets here, you both gonna be dead men rottin' on the ground.”
“You'll be right there with us,” Matt told him, then his gaze cut to Childress. “And so will you.”
The bullying punchers exchanged worried glances. There was something in Bodine's manner that led them both to believe he meant exactly what he said. And Sam Two Wolves had the same demeanor.
“You two related?” Blackie asked.
“Brothers,” Sam told him.
“Don't see too many men wearin' necklaces,” Childress said with a nasty smirk.
“They show us to be members of the Cheyenne tribe,” Bodine informed him. “We've both endured the Coming of Manhood.”
“Is that 'posed to mean something?” the young punk asked.
“It means something,” Blackie said, the words softly spoken. “Now shut your mouth, Childress. We're in a lot more trouble here than you might think.”
“Wise man,” Sam told him. “You want some coffee?”
“I'd appreciate a cup.”
The men drank coffee and lounged for nearly an hour. They all heard the thunder of many hooves long before the riders topped the crest of the hill and stopped, looking down at the small camp. Sam and Bodine stood up and picked up Henry rifles, chambering rounds and keeping the hammers back.
“Don't do nothin' stupid,” Blackie said. “If John was comin' in hostile, he'd done been shootin'. Just relax.”
“I'm very relaxed,” Bodine told him. “Are you relaxed,
“I am so at ease I might fall asleep any moment.”
“You guys are crazy!” Childress said. “John Lee is one of the fastest guns ever. And that's Rawhide O'Neal next to him. Down at the end there, that's Pen Mastersâ”
“Shut up, Childress!” Blackie told him. “Just shut your damn mouth!”
“You know somethin' I don't?” Childress asked.
“Yeah,” Blackie said sourly. “I shore do. Just be quiet.”
The cowhand Matt had sent for the pots, pans, and food rode beside John Lee as the men left the column and headed down the slope. Four riders fell in behind them.
“I sent you for pots and pans and food,” Matt told Val. “And you bring back an army. Tell me, do you know the difference between a cow's tail and a pump handle?”
“Huh?” Val asked.
“I don't understand the question.”