Vultures signaled trouble ahead.
“Whoa, boy.” Reverend Justin Wells tugged on the reins of his horse, bringing his brown gelding to a standstill.
Adjusting the brim of his dusty felt hat, he narrowed his eyes against the bright afternoon sun and peered across the wide, arid plains. Trees grew directly ahead of him, the first he’d seen since leaving St. Louis five days prior. The graceful, tall sycamores suggested the welcome presence of water, perhaps a stream.
He mopped his damp brow with a kerchief, then lifted his eyes upward. They were vultures, all right. No question about it. The scavengers circled overhead on broad, outstretched wings, scanning the ground in waiting silence.
Something or someone was dying. An animal no doubt. He’d passed his share of buffalo skulls and cattle carcasses in recent days, and each had made him ruminate on dying and the meaning of life.
Born and raised in Boston, he never planned to travel across country, never really had a hankering for adventure. Not like most men he knew. Certainly he never expected to leave his hometown in disgrace.
He reached for his canteen, every muscle in his body protesting. He wasn’t just saddle sore; his back ached from the restless nights spent on the hard, unyielding ground. Sleep, if it came at all, had been fleeting at best and offered little respite from his troubled thoughts.
He pulled off the cork top of his tin canteen and lifted it to his parched lips. Never one to question God’s will in the past, it disturbed him that he questioned it now.
What possible reason could God have for sending him to a rough, untamed town in Texas?
He thought of all the work left undone in Boston. To be separated from the congregation he loved seemed a fate worse than death. Though what choice did he have but to accept God’s will?
Behind him, Moses, his pack mule, made a strange whinnying sound that ended in a loud hee-haw. The short, thick head moved from side to side; the long ears twitched.
Having learned to trust the animal’s instincts, Justin felt a sense of unease. With increased alertness, he rose in his saddle and scanned the area ahead. A movement in the trees caught his attention. A previously unnoticed horse stood in the shade. At first he thought it was a wild mustang that had strayed away from its herd. Upon closer observation, he realized his mistake. This horse was saddled.
He glanced at the still-circling buzzards and a sense of urgency shot through him. “Let’s go, boy.” Digging his heels gently into his gelding’s ribs, he galloped along the trail, kicking up dust behind him.
Moses followed close behind, the pots and pans tied to the mule’s pack clanking like old rusty chains.
Moments later, Justin dismounted, stabbed the ground with a metal picket, and staked his horse. He approached the bay cautiously, his gaze scanning the nearby terrain for its owner.
Tethered to a sapling, the horse pawed the ground and neighed, its long black tail swishing back and forth. Something— a red neckerchief—fluttered from a nearby bush.
Leaving horses and mule behind, he followed a narrow path toward the stream, stopping to pick up the kerchief en route.
Two bodies lay side by side in the grass, and he hurried toward them, searching for signs of life. One man wore a badge on his black vest, identifying him as a U.S. Marshal. The other man, judging by the handcuffs, was his prisoner.
Justin kneeled by the lawman’s side and felt for a pulse. The man’s eyes flickered open and his parched lips quivered. He had been shot. Blood had seeped through his clothes and trickled to the ground.
“Don’t talk,” Justin said. “Save your strength. I’ll get you some water.”
The marshal reached for Justin’s arm. “Promise me—” He coughed. “My prisoner . . . promise—” He spoke in a murmur that was almost drowned out by a sudden gust of wind rippling through the tall prairie grass. “Take . . . to . . . Texas—”
Justin sat back on his heels in surprise. “Texas? You want me to take the prisoner to Texas?”
The lawman nodded slightly and closed his eyes, his breathing labored.
Intent upon getting the marshal water, Justin straightened. A moaning sound, soft as a kitten’s first mew, made him take a closer look at the prisoner. That’s when he saw the man’s foot move.
Dropping down on his knees by the prisoner’s side, Justin leaned over him. “Take it easy, lad.” The prisoner’s face was covered in dust, but he appeared to be a young man, cleanshaven, probably still in his teens. The boy’s youth would probably account for his ill-chosen bright red boots, which looked all the more garish in full sunlight.
“Just stay put.” Justin squeezed the man’s slight shoulder. “I’ll get you something to drink.” There was nothing to be done about the boots.
Returning to his horse, Justin retrieved the canteen tied to his saddle, then hurried to the fast-running stream. Removing the stopper, he dipped the canteen into the cool, clear waters and rushed back to the injured men, chasing away one of the vultures that had landed nearby.
“Here.” Lowering himself onto his knee again, he slid one arm beneath the marshal’s head and lifted the canteen to the man’s swollen lips. The lawman took a sip and then slumped back as if it took all his energy to swallow. His eyes open, he looked worried or distressed, maybe both.
“Tell my . . . f-family—”
Justin tried to reassure him. “You’ll be all right,” he said. He didn’t know anything about bullet wounds. It wasn’t the kind of thing taught at Boston Theological Seminary. Still, he couldn’t just let the man die. There had to be something he could do.
But first things first. He turned to the prisoner. Slipping his hand beneath the young man’s shoulders, he lifted the youth’s head. The man’s wide-brimmed slouch hat was crushed behind him, the leather strap still beneath his smooth chin. Justin pulled the felt hat off and—much to his surprise— long red hair tumbled out of the crown.
Justin froze. Not sure if he could believe his eyes, he blinked and took a closer look. There was no mistake; the prisoner was a woman!