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6 June 1872

Sam Hooker went east from the Choctaw Nation into Arkansas an hour after sunrise. Only his knowledge of the scrub oak, rocky hills, and still-trickling creeks marked the boundary. If he had been on an official mission, that knowledge would have forced him to stop. Members of the Choctaw Lighthorse had no authority outside the Nation.

But this was not an official mission. This was a vendetta.

He reined in the big sorrel and sat easily, studying a trail a boy could have followed.

A vendetta against him.

Its roots had remained hidden in mystery for two days but its existence was as clear as the trail he followed. And its fruits?

Sam pulled a scrap of fine white cotton fabric from his shirt pocket. He had plucked this bit of cloth from a tree branch at the start of his journey. Although he had never seen it before, he recognized the delicate embroidery as part of a woman's petticoat.

Sam stuffed the fabric back into his shirt pocket.

The fruits of this vendetta were something he couldn't yet consider.

He was meant to follow this trail; that much was apparent. And follow it he would, in his own way, at a pace some suspected but few believed. And the devil take those who led him on this chase. A grim smile barely twisted his features. Those he followed would prefer the devil's retribution to that with which he would repay them.

He stopped again at noon to rest his horse and compose his thoughts. The trail was getting fresher. Tonight he would be upon them.

Twice during the day he had become aware of other men behind him. From the vantage point of a rocky bluff, he focused a long field glass and looked back: Army. Six men.

Probably following the same vermin he followed. They hadn't been too concerned about Indian national boundaries either.

Sam calculated the distance between them. He wondered briefly if they would be help or hindrance and then decided he had no choice. There were five men in the party he followed, five men and one woman. He had no doubt he could kill all five men, but could he do so without putting the woman at even greater risk?

And could he stand to wait until he felt he had a chance of bringing her out alive, knowing what would be happening to her while he waited?

He made no fire that night, letting whoever looked back think that the army's fire was his. He gave the soldiers time to fill their bellies and then rode slowly, openly, up to their lone sentry.

"I want to speak to the officer in charge."

"Holy hell! Where did you come from, mister?" The young sentry's voice shook and his hands tightened on his rifle.

"Easy, soldier. I'm not a threat to you. I want to speak to the officer in charge."

"What's the problem, Private?"

The officer materialized behind the sentry, gun drawn and aimed at Sam's midsection, as quietly as Sam himself could have.

Sam nodded, both in appreciation of the stealth and in recognition of the man. He'd fought with him in the war against the North. It seemed strange to see him now in Union blue, strange to see only lieutenant's bars on his collar, strange to see a tactician like him herding green troops after offal. But this man was another old wolf like himself; they could deal.

He left the army camp two hours after midnight with the promise of an hour's head start and the knowledge that the five men ahead had robbed the train at Limestone Gap, killing the two soldiers on guard and escaping with an army payroll destined for Texas.

He left the camp with the memory of his private conversation with the lieutenant.

"Just tell me why you need the time. Give me a reason to let you go in ahead."

"Because they may have your gold," Sam told him, "but they've got my woman."

The lieutenant paled and sat silent for seconds. "It might be more merciful to wait and go in with us. To let her die. After three days there won't be much left of her."

"There will be life, " Sam told him.

Now, as he reined his horse to the south to begin the circuitous route to the outlaws' camp, he looked up at the stars.

"There will be life," he swore.


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