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Authors: Genell Dellin

The Renegades: Nick

BOOK: The Renegades: Nick
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THE
R
ENEGADES
NICK

G
ENELL
D
ELLIN

Chapter 1

September 16, 1893
Opening of the Cherokee Strip

D
amn! The wild stallion’s whinnying was going to bring every horse-hungry homesteader who’d sneaked into the Strip ahead of the Run—as he had—straight to this spot. Nickajack stepped out of his hiding place, intending to run the mustang off.

But his two penned mares immediately started neighing a warm welcome, and his own stallion, the Shapeshifter, went into a fit of shrill, jealous warnings loud enough to bring half the U. S. Army riding up this valley. An ironic grin tugged at Nick’s lips in spite of
his frustration. There was no hope for it. The mating dance would go on, no matter how big a horde of barbarians was about to swoop down upon them.

He kept to the meager cover of the dry-leaved cottonwoods and ran to the Shifter.

“Hey, it’s downright dangerous to work yourself into a lather over the women,” he told him, stroking the horse’s neck. “Didn’t you learn that at Pretty Water Creek, when I did?”

Nick had tied his mount back under a ledge, out of sight in the side of the draw, saddled and ready to pretend that they’d been in the Run. Good thing, too, since just fifteen minutes ago three soldiers had paused on the prairie floor above his head to have a couple of quirlies. He could only hope they were well gone by now.

“A little sweat’ll make you look your part,” he told the big black stud horse, “but this’s enough. Settle down and let me go send that broom-tailed stranger on his way.”

Shifter trembled, snorted, pulled back on the tie rope, and demanded his freedom with a high, sharp nicker.

“Here, now, here. I hate to keep you tied, but he might mess up your pretty face if I let you get at him.”

Shifter rumbled deep in his throat. He wasn’t scared of the interloper.

Nickajack stroked the wet, muscled shoulder, soothing with his voice.

“We don’t need any other studs around here; I agree. I’ll run him off in just a minute.”

Damn it, though, he hated to. The stallion’s band of horses, especially the nursing mares, needed water badly.

He looked through the sparse leaves for another glimpse of the wild ones. The stallion, a short-coupled red roan with a surprisingly fine head, was not only handsome in spite of his gauntness, but nervy as hell. He paced back and forth right up there near the penned mares, in spite of Shifter’s screams and the fact that Nickajack’s scent was bound to be all over the place.

Behind the roan, his small band of wild mares and colts were drinking from the pool fed by the spring. They were all mighty thin and half-worn-out from ranging so far for water and graze in the relentless heat.

“Better move on,” Nickajack muttered. “I don’t have water for all of you and mine, too.”

The endless drought had sapped the spring as it had every other water source in the country. The pool was lower than he’d ever seen it and the creek that usually flowed from it had gone bone dry a month ago. Yet he still didn’t step out where the stud horse could see him and spook.

The mustangs were flesh and blood, and
they hadn’t had enough. They were desperate, or they wouldn’t have come in to water in the middle of the day—and God knew they were going to need their strength. A few minutes from now, no matter which way they ran, they would have to turn and run some more, because suddenly, at the sound of one shot on the border, a bunch of ignorant, plow-wielding greenhorns would be racing all over their range.

Everything that belonged on this land would be displaced then. Nickajack clamped his jaw so hard his teeth gritted. Only a few more minutes until the Strip would be torn into pieces.

To try to keep from thinking about that, he ran his horseman’s eye over the mustangs. Not bad. The stallion definitely threw his head on the foals.

“If he’d only shut up, he’d be right pleasant to have around,” he mused aloud.

Shifter snorted derisively. He pulled back and half-reared, pointed his nose at the sky, and screamed again.

Nickajack listened for hoofbeats above them, but he heard only the hot wind as it blew from the south. The stud hadn’t caught his fresh man-scent yet, so he waited for the wild band to drink a few more gulps.

He couldn’t tarry long now, though. The sun rode almost directly overhead and the
Run would start at noon. A man on a fast horse with plenty of bottom could be here from the Arkansas City starting point within half an hour. Thirsty mustangs or no, he’d better drive his stake on his claim before some clodhopper did.

Nickajack finally slipped off the handwoven halter he’d put on top of the bridle, and let it drop to swing against the trunk of the tree. Gathering the reins, he stepped around and stuck one boot toe into the stirrup.

Instead of swinging up into the saddle, though, he acted on a sudden impulse. He set both heels to the ground and undid the latigo, unbuckling the cinch.

“Damn if riding bareback makes them call us Indian,” he told the black. “Any man calls our hand, it’s his funeral.”

Suddenly the anger beat in his veins like a war song. He wished he could defy somebody, if the truth be told. Just like that desperate roan stud horse out there, his blood ran hot now, and his breath was moving, sure and strong, in and out of his body. It was a foolish wish, though, to expect a challenge—half the white-man riders in the race would be bareback for speed, no doubt, and he wouldn’t look any more Indian than the rest.

Quick as thought, he jerked the saddle off anyhow, threw it over a low limb, mounted in one running leap, and rode the Shapeshifter,
who reared a little as a warning to the wild horse, out through the grove of trees. The roan startled at the sight of them and whinnied the alarm to his band.

The next instant the mustang was rounding up the mamas and babies, setting the lead mare in motion while he kept one eye peeled toward Nickajack and Shifter. With the next heartbeat they were all gone, running toward the mouth of the narrow valley, reaching with their long legs for the open plains.

The Shifter plunged to follow, but Nickajack sat back and used his hands and voice to slow him.

“Settle down, old son. You can’t catch him now—but you’re still the best horse in the country.”

It was true. He owed his life to the black a dozen times over.

During that long, wild year when he called himself Goingsnake and rode every inch of the Nation with his blood pounding hard in hopes of stopping the sale of the Strip, he and the Shapeshifter had risked it all, over and over again. But to no avail.

Tragically, to no avail. For not only had they not been able to save the Strip, they had caused killings while trying—with the help of one beautiful, treacherous woman. The only thing they could accomplish now was to keep this one quarter-section of this proud, beautiful
land the way the Apportioner had meant it to be. Just this one.

First, the soldiers had ridden across the face of the Earth Mother as if they owned it. Soon the pumpkin-piling farmers would do the same. Then they would tear its face open with their plows.

The old rage rose higher and wilder in his sinews and his blood, rage enough to wreck the world. He clasped his legs tighter against Shifter’s wet, hot flesh and smooched him into a run.

Blowing his breath out hard, trying to control the onslaught of fury and hatred, Nickajack shot past his mares, past the pond, then past the long, narrow mound marked by a weathered stone. His Cherokee mother’s grave.

He touched the flag stuck into his belt beside the six-gun he wore, threw back his head, and sent the ancient wild-turkey war cry gobbling out onto the wind.

He didn’t give a rip who saw him now.

If a wreck didn’t kill her, the heat would.

Or it might be that she’d already died and gone to hell, as Papa had predicted when she’d announced she was carrying Vance Harlan’s baby in her belly. Hell or the Cherokee Strip, it was hard to tell the difference here on the border on the day of the Run.

Callie Sloane lifted one shoulder enough to wipe the sweat off her face. She moved slowly, carefully, so as not to stir up her team any further. Her arm muscles burned like fire from the effort of holding in the raucous pair, but she didn’t dare let up. The rule was that anyone jumping the gun and rushing out into the Strip before the signal would be shot, and she most certainly did not intend to die now—not after all the hardships she’d endured in the last two months.

She set her jaw, tightened her grip on the lines, and forced her mind away from the scary thought of her sorry team, her only transportation.

It surely was hot enough out here on the prairie for Old Ned himself. Maybe he was the one who’d thought up the idea of people waiting in the sun, crushed into line until their brains cooked and their arms broke from holding their horses, all for the chance to risk their necks in a mad race for a piece of free land.

“Hey, Lady! Can you holler ‘gee’ and move your team over just a hair?”

The man’s loud voice came from directly beneath her feet.

Amazed, Callie looked down. A man on a bicycle, of all things, had by some miracle wedged himself in between her wagon and the heavyset man on the big horse who had two fresh mounts tied to his saddle rings.

“You’ll get run over,” she cried. “Get away from here. You’re right in front of my wheel!”

“That’s why you need to scoot your team over. Just a hair. Holler ‘Gee.’ Please, ma’am?”

“I know what ‘gee’ means!” she yelled. “If I could move this team over just a hair, I could make them dance the schottische.”

The silly little person whose voice was bigger than he was wore a bowler hat made out of a heavy winter material with hardly enough brim to keep a candle’s light out of his eyes, much less this blinding sun. In spite of her misery, Callie had to smile at the picture he made.

“May I?” he said.

He rolled right on up to Joe’s head without waiting for her permission, took hold of his bridle, and pushed until the mule and the mare called Judy stepped sideways a couple of feet. The man with the three horses shifted too, but not without a shouted protest.

“Let go of him,” Callie yelled to the fool on the bicycle. “Don’t hold him. They’ll fire the signal shot in just a minute.”

The noise all around her quieted at her words, as if she knew something no one else did about the starting signal. The man did as she told him, and incredibly, her team stood still even after he dropped his hand. He turned and smiled at her.

“I’m good with them. Maybe I could trade you for my bicycle.”

Callie smiled back. It made her feel less lonely somehow, even if he was a dangerous nuisance. Not a soul had spoken to her since Dora, her one friend in this border camp, had left at dawn for the place on the line that her husband chose. It made her feel better, though, to remember Dora’s promises to send out inquiries for Callie’s location as soon as she knew her own.

Dizziness left over from her morning sickness swirled through her again, and since the team was quiet, Callie let her knees collapse. She dropped down to sit on the wagon seat, made herself breathe deeply, and tried not to think about how truly alone she was. She must concentrate on the task at hand.

In a minute she’d have to drive like she’d never driven in her life. She, Callie Sloane, who’d walked everywhere she ever went for eighteen years, except for an occasional ride on a plowing mule. Until that day two weeks ago when she boarded the westbound train in Somerset and let it carry her out of the Cumberlands and out of Kentucky.

She could drive this team. There was nothing she couldn’t do if she had to, for the baby’s sake, and the love of its daddy and his memory. Drive she would, and find them a home she would.

Shifting both leather lines to one hand, she laid the other on her abdomen to see if she could feel the baby. Nothing yet. Her belly was as flat as ever and nothing moved inside her. One of these days she would feel it, though, like a little fish in water, and she would be so happy that she’d stayed true to the vision she and Vance had dreamed together.

“Hurry and grow,” she whispered. “Kick and move around so you can keep Mama company.”

At that moment, the hateful mule Joe twisted in his harness and cow-kicked at the man on the bicycle. The little man dodged the flying hoof without even looking. Callie couldn’t keep back a laugh because the man seemed so nonchalant, as if he tamed bad mules every day of the week and was not at all impressed with Joe.

“He’ll try again,” she called.

“I don’t doubt it,” the man yelled back, twisting to look at her over his shoulder, “but he don’t have much time left.”

She could barely hear him for the noise rising again; it sounded like the biggest swarm of angry yellowjackets in the world, with a bunch of crazy people thrown in. Way too many people for the number of claims up for grabs.

The noise of the crowd roared even louder
for one instant and then a strange silence came, moving down the line from east to west. A soldier carrying a signal flag high above his head appeared out of the dust and rode out into the Strip. Callie’s whole body froze and she couldn’t get her breath.

“Five minutes ‘til,” somebody said.

“Steady now, steady,” someone else answered.

That quiet command echoed on down the line.

Her heart racketing in her chest, Callie strained to hear the gunshot that would turn them all loose. The sun beat down hot enough to blister her scalp through her straw hat and her piled-up hair, the dust fogged in a cloud, and the smell of charred earth and grass from the government-set fires filled her nose. In this tinder-dry place, it was a wonder the flames meant to drive out the cattlemen hadn’t taken hold and burned the settlers all to death.

Five minutes could be an eternity. The flag moved, swayed.

Suddenly the crack of a pistol shot ripped the air, at least four minutes too soon. The whole world exploded into a swirling mist of blurred ground and flying dust, cursing voices and cracking whips, train whistles and cheering spectators. They were off!

Callie got a glimpse of mounted soldiers dashing out, holding up their hands for people
to stop. But no one did, not even when one pointed a gun.

BOOK: The Renegades: Nick
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