Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 7: Rachel's Beginning

Georgetown, Washington, DC - December 1863

A Holiday to Remember…

Rachel’s hands were numb. She’d been washing dishes in ice cold water for hours, trying to keep apace of the frantic preparations happening in the kitchen. Her back hurt from emptying dirty water and fetching fresh for the never-ending stack of pots and dishes.  She was hungry, too. There had only been time for a quick roll the housekeeper had given her as she was hurried off to the scullery to stand duty over the dishes. That had been hours before dawn, and it was now half past noon.

No matter. Today was Christmas. Every Christmas, after the family was served, the staff got to enjoy their own feast. Her stomach growled in anticipation. She wondered what she would enjoy more, the roast goose or chestnut dressing. Maybe the broiled Salmon or sweet potato pie.  

“Rachel Douglas! We’ve no time for you to be daydreaming! Cook needs those bowls and the pots right away!” Mrs. Charles snapped as she hurried past the small scullery. Rachel dried her hands and gathered a stack of clean dishes to return to the kitchen. “Oh, do hurry up, girl. The family is expecting you to join them. You must never keep them waiting.”

Rachel froze. “They want me to join them? At dinner?” She never ate with the family. And today, of all days to be invited to join them, when they had a dozen guests and all the leaves were in the table. And a five course meal was to be served. “But, I haven’t anything to wear, Mrs. Charles. I can’t join them. I would only embarrass them.”  

“Never mind that, girl,” Mrs. Charles waved off her concerns. “Your aunt has selected one of your cousin’s old dresses for you to wear. It’s quite a lovely dress, too, from what I hear.” She looked Rachel over once, frowning at what she saw. “Move along, now. Give yourself a quick wash else you’ll soil Miss Letiticia’s dress. Then present yourself in the dining room. The family will be seated within a half hour.”

Rachel’s hands shook as she hurriedly returned Cook’s pots to the proper cabinets. She’d lived at her aunt and uncle’s house in Georgetown since they had fetched her as an infant from her father’s ranch, twelve years ago. Twelve years, yet she had never once been invited to dine with the family. She’d been working since the wee hours of morning, emptying chamber pots, setting coal fires in the bedrooms, and now scrubbing dishes. She was exhausted. And that was never a good state to face the family in. Much less the family and their twelve guests during a five course meal.  

Good heavens. She would ruin this chance, this one chance they had given her to become a member of their family. She fetched a fresh pitcher of wash water and hurried to her room. A dress had been laid out across her bed--no--an entire outfit with petticoats and under drawers and chemise and stockings and soft leather boots. There was even a ribbon for her hair. Rachel reached out to touch the outfit, worried it would disappear before her eyes, leaving her only her old staff uniform to join the family in for their formal gathering.  

Quickly, her mind ticking the seconds off as loudly as the grandfather clock in the entryway downstairs, Rachel stripped and bathed herself in the cold space of her attic room. Hurrying over to her bed, she wished she had time to admire the fine quality of her borrowed clothes. The family was waiting. She pulled the soft undergarments on, marveling at the softness of the cotton. It wasn’t scratchy like her rough woolen underclothes. She was dressed in no time, and quickly drew on Letiticia’s old boots. They were too large for her--her cousin, a year older, was quite a bit taller than her--with feet to match her size.  Still, she was able to camouflage her small size with an artful tuck here and there and by drawing the bows at her waist rather tightly.

She brushed her hair quickly, arranging it in a simple French braid, then tying it up with the ribbon. There! She was ready! She hurried down the servant’s stairs, wondering all the while if she would now be allowed to use the main staircase soon.  

Old Bascomb, her uncle’s handyman, had been brought inside, cleaned up a bit, dressed in a footman’s uniform, and given a station at the double doors to the dining room. Seeing her, his eyes lit up. He was one of the friendlier staff members. He let her hide in his workshop sometimes when she needed to a few minutes away from her chores or her cousins. He smiled at her now. She couldn’t resist doing a quick spin for him.

“How do I look, Bascomb?”

He sniffled and pulled the smile off his face, straightening a little as he looked down at her. “You look like the lady you are, miss.” He bowed to her, then drew open the door and let her into the family’s formal dining room. Her uncle’s guests were just arranging themselves, having found their assigned seats. They laughed and chatted gaily. Rachel smiled. At last, she was one of the family!

She looked about nervously, tamping down a momentary flash of dread as she wondered where she was to sit. There was an empty seat next Mr. Tidwell, her cousins’ tutor. It was the only empty seat at the table, so she assumed it must be meant for her. Soundlessly, she slipped into the chair, not waiting for Mr. Tidwell or any of her aunt’s footmen to assist her. The tutor looked over at her.  Surprise flashed across his face. He glanced at her fine clothes, and she felt her pride swell.  

At last, at long last, she had arrived at the very moment they had practiced for in the late hours of the evening. She wasn’t allowed to join her cousins in their school lessons, for they took place during the day when she had chores to do. But her evenings were hers to do with as she would, and Mr. Tidwell had been teaching her reading, writing, and mathematics for several years now. Recently, he’d even begun on the social graces--greeting people, making polite conversation, table etiquette.  

Before either of them could exchange a greeting, her aunt appeared behind her seat. “Good Heavens, child. Why ever are you sitting at our table?”

Rachel jumped to her feet. Her gaze briefly flew to her uncle as she assessed the situation. “Mrs. Charles said I was to join you, ma’am.”

Aunt Eunice’s eyes blazed. “Join us, yes. To attend your cousin, not participate in the meal, stupid girl,” she hissed, her lips draw back from her teeth as she leaned over Rachel. “You are to stand behind Cousin Letiticia and assist her with the various courses and fetch anything she might need.”

Rachel’s cheeks blazed a brilliant hue of red. She hurried around the table, careful to take the long way around her uncle as she settled herself against the wall, behind her cousin’s chair. Vaguely she heard her aunt sneer something about the help these days. She stared at the ground, studying the scrolls and flowers of the antique carpet. The pattern wavered through the moisture in her eyes.  

Why had her father sent her here? Why? He loved her. She knew he did. He wrote to her every month. She’d kept every single one of his letters. Had he received hers? Had even one of them gotten past her aunt or uncle? She was thirteen. In five years, she would leave this place. In five years, she promised herself, she would be free of this life and these people.

Keeping her face blank, she lifted her head and faced forward. In the interim, she would never again forget her place in this family.

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 6: A Father's Hell

Defiance, Dakota Territory - December 1854

When God and the Devil Both Answer Your Prayers…

Sid Taggert stood at the threshold of the Kessler’s store, waiting for his son, Brent, to enter. The boy stood before him with his arms crossed, his legs braced--clearly he was not intending to do as he was told.  He was the most ornery, stubborn, self-determined young man Sid had ever met. Sid closed the door behind him as he faced Brent in the cold space of the covered walkway outside the store.  

The boy’s mother, Isabel, had had the same pale amber eyes—rare and distinctive. Sid had known the boy was alive because he’d caught rumors of a golden-eyed Indian over the years. Knowing his son lived was the only thing that kept Sid going after word reached him about the fate his wife suffered at the hands of the Sioux.  For nearly fifteen years, Sid had searched for his wife and their son, praying to God and bargaining with the Devil, if only they would see fit to reunite him with his son.

Looking at Brent’s hate-filled eyes, he figured they'd both answered his pleas.  

He sighed and crossed the distance separating them. Brent never spoke to him. He insisted on going by another name. Sager. It made no sense to Sid; it hurt, in fact. But in so many other ways, Sid found he was proud of the boy. Brent was strong. And he was brave. And he was just. Moments ago, he’d been attacked by three of the sheriff’s men--he could have done considerable damage when he had one of them down, pinned under his knife.  But he hadn’t. He could have cried or run or cowered. But he hadn’t.  

The boy would become a man to be reckoned with, if only Sid could get through to him. Sid sighed, sending a look down the street behind the boy. “Come inside, boy. There’s no telling when the next band of the sheriff’s thugs will come by. I know that you don’t like buildings, but there’s nothing in the Kessler’s store that will hurt you. And I need to know you’re safe.” The boy didn’t move, didn’t show any sign he’d heard Sid’s warning.

Sid took a fistful of Brent’s jacket and dragged him across the boardwalk and into the store. He pulled him over to the side of the store, where a potbellied stove released much needed heat. The store wasn’t very crowded.  There were two rancher’s wives chatting about some fabric with Sally Kessler, Sid’s stepson--Logan, and Jim Kessler. Silence claimed the small space as Brent’s angry gaze touched each person. The boy stood stiff and aware, braced for action. The faces of the two women grew pale. They exchanged a hasty look, bid Sally good day, then scooted warily out of the store, careful to give Brent a wide berth.

Sid sighed. Lifting his hat, he shoved a hand through his hair. He walked over to Jim, thinking the best approach was to ignore the boy, pretend things were normal. Jim went about the work of filling the Circle Bar supplies order, giving Sid a chance to observe his boys surreptitiously from beneath the brim of his hat. Little eight-year-old Logan came to stand next to Brent. He smiled tentatively and slowly reached up to take Brent’s hand. Brent looked at his brother, and Sid saw his face relax slightly.  

“We’re to pick a gift, Sager,” Logan explained as he began leading Brent over to a small section of the store where Jim had set up a few toys. “I like these.” Logan sat on the ground and showed Brent a set of toy US Calvary soldiers and their Indian counterparts. Sid cringed inwardly, fearing this would trigger another outbreak from Brent.  

The boy crouched next to Logan and picked up an Indian figure. He studied the piece for a moment, then looked at the remaining pieces of the set. His face looked bleak. “Which is the enemy, Logan?”

To his credit, Logan didn’t immediately answer. Sid saw him regarding the figurine Brent held. “I don’t know, Sager. Our soldiers protect us, so I know they’re good guys. But you’re an Indian, and you don’t seem so bad.”  He looked at the expansive set. “My friend, Billy, says Indians are mean, butchering, sons of dogs.” He looked up at his brother. “Were they mean to you, Sager?”

Brent put the Indian warrior down. “They were my family. They were beloved.” He straightened and walked around the store, eventually coming to a stop by the front window. Logan came over to Sid.  

Sid gave himself a mental shake, clearing his mind to focus on his youngest child. He smiled as he lifted him to sit on the counter. “Have you found a toy you like, boy?”

He nodded. “I’d like the soldiers and the Indians.” He looked over at his brother. “I think Sager’s too old for a toy, sir. Maybe he should have some saddle bags as a gift.” Sid felt truth of that statement like a fist in the gut. If he outfitted his son, the boy would leave him. But he couldn’t keep him against his will. How do you tame the wind?

“You’re lucky that he talks to you, Logan.”

“You got to call him ‘Sager,’ sir. He doesn’t like bein’ called ‘Brent,’ though that’s his name.”

Sid looked at Brent, wishing the gulf between them were one so easily bridged. “I’ll give that a try.”

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 5: Defiance

Defiance, Dakota Territory - December 1854

The Town Gives Sager Its Own Warm Welcome…

Wind sheared a layer of snow from the overhang above, dusting Sager’s neck with ice crystals. He crossed his arms and braced his legs as he leaned against the roof support, refusing to acknowledge the cold as he glared at the door to Jim Kessler’s general store. Sid Taggert and Logan were inside, selecting gifts for the holiday they would celebrate in a couple of weeks. 

They had tried to get him to join them, but Sager disliked being in buildings. What he wanted most wasn’t something anyone could give him; he wanted his life back--his mother and his sister and his People. His vision blurred. He turned to look up at the brilliant blue sky, its color vivid against the fresh snow blanketing Defiance. 

“Well, lookee there,” a man’s voice sneered, drawing Sager’s attention to a trio of the sheriff’s men heading his way. “Guess Jim don’t let crazed Injuns in his store either.”

“Hear Joe was mighty shook up after his run-in with the breed at the barber shop,” another of the men said. 

“He’s been shaking ever since. A man can’t get a good shave there no more. I reckon we ought to return the favor.”

Sager remembered that day; it wasn’t one he was especially proud of. Taggert had brought him into to town and left him at the barber’s for a haircut shortly after his encounter with Blue Thunder. Sager hadn’t understood at first what was expected of him. He sat in the barber’s odd chair and turned it around a few times, enjoying its strange mechanics. Joe, the barber, made him sit still and started clipping his hair. Sager stopped him. His hair was the way it was to show his mourning. He hadn’t wanted it trimmed.  

Joe didn’t take his response the right way. He’d summoned a couple of men to restrain Sager. That’s when Sager broke. The next thing anyone knew, he had Joe on the floor with a straight razor at his throat.  

No one ever again attempted to trim his hair.

Sager eyed the sheriff’s men as they came up the boardwalk and fanned out around him. He straightened, regretting the white man’s coat he wore. It was warmer than a blanket, true, but a whole lot less flexible for situations like this. He had a knife in a sheath at his hip that Taggert had given him. It was the one gift he’d accepted from his mother’s murderer, one he would likely use to end Taggert’s life, when the time came.  

He flexed his hands, ready to pull the knife. He’d learned much of the way white men fought from the many scuffles he’d had at Taggert’s ranch. Though three against one were bad odds, Sager didn’t strike first. He deflected the first punch and struck the throat of one of his attackers. But the other two were on him quickly.  In no time, they had him down. The third kicked at him, jamming his cowboy boot into Sager’s side.  

Sager wrapped his arms around the ribs of the one who was trying to strangle him, rolling him over to use as shield against the kicks of the other.  He unsheathed his knife and shoved the blade into the man’s groin, just far enough to cause him a little pain and interrupt the choke hold he had on Sager’s neck.  

Pinning him this way was the only thing Sager could think of to hold the other men at bay.

“Jaysus! Stop! Goddammit, stop!” the man screamed against the hold Sager had on his Adam’s apple. “He’s got a goddamned knife in my balls,” he shouted to his friends, making them pause, one with his fist raised to batter at Sager’s head, the other readying for another kick. In the quiet that followed, the two took note of the third man’s precarious position.  

 It was at that moment that Sid Taggert hurried out of the general store. He shoved his way through the suddenly still men. Sager looked up at him, wondering if now would be the time to kill the man who claimed to be his father.

Taggert began cursing. He shoved one of the men off the boardwalk. The other quickly retreated. The third lay prone, utterly still beneath Sager’s knife. “Son-of-a-bitch, Taggert! Call your breed off me!” he squealed.

Taggert crouched down, coming level with Sager, who watched him warily. Slowly, as if there were something feral about Sager, Taggert reached a hand out to his shoulder. “Let him go, son. It’s over.”

Sager drew a ragged breath as he stared into his enemy’s eyes. He released his grip on the man’s throat at about the same time he withdrew his knife. The man leapt to his feet, cupping himself with one hand and shoving a finger at Taggert with the other. “You better keep that crazy Injun outta town, Taggert. Keep him in a cage if you have to.”

Taggert lurched at the man, backing him into a support post and leaning against him. “He’s not an Indian, Hank. How many times do I have to tell you? He’s my son. His mother was my wife. My white wife. He’s having a hard time adjusting to his new situation. You and your boys need to lay off him. Give him a chance to settle in.”

The man named Hank pushed free. He twisted his head to the left and then the right, then shrugged his shoulders. “We were just walkin’ by, Taggert. We didn’t do nothing to him. Ain’t a body safe in this town when he’s around. Leave him home next time you come this way.”

Taggert sighed as Hank rejoined his friends. He grabbed the door handle to the Kessler’s shop and opened the door. “Get inside, boy.” 

Sager wiped his blade on the sleeve of his coat, then sheathed it. He crossed his arms, braced his legs, and stayed right where he was, glaring at his enemy. 

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 4: Sager Takes a Name

Circle Bar Ranch, Dakota Territory - Summer 1854

Life in the white man’s world begins... 

Eyes of the Wolf sat on his enemy’s horse, adrift in the endless hills of short grass. His brother’s brief pronouncement took his entire life from him, leaving him no future, no past, and no People. The braves who had accompanied his brother had already fanned out to take the news of his changed status to the neighboring villages. Soon, he would be invisible to them as well.  

“Your destiny lies among the white men,” his brother had said. But that was not a destiny he wanted. He didn’t know how to be a white man. He could speak English, somewhat—thanks to Albert Sager--but he couldn’t write it. He knew how his People were treated in the white man’s towns. That was no way to live.  

The wind whispered there was one place he could go; he could return to Sid Taggert. He could make his enemy teach him how to be a white man.  

It was nearly nightfall when Eyes of the Wolf rode into Sid Taggert’s ranch yard. Some of his enemy’s men moved about, tending to evening chores. They stopped and stared. One of them ran ahead of him and rushed inside Sid Taggert’s home. Eyes of the Wolf dismounted at the same corral he’d taken his enemy’s horse from.  He rubbed his mount down, then turned him out in the corral and fetched feed for him. Women's work, but no female came forward to tend his horse.

Several men drew near, gathering on either side of the drive that led to the house. Eyes of the Wolf walked between the two rows of men, looking at each one, judging the fight in him. No one challenged him, though some laughed and pointed at his hair. People had come out to the porch of the house--Sid Taggert, a woman, the White Buffalo Boy, and others. The boy broke free of the woman’s hold and ran down the steps, stopping almost on top of Eyes of the Wolf’s feet.

“You came back!”  The boy looked up at him, his grin wide, his eyes alight.

“Yes.” 

“Father was ever so worried.  Are you gonna stay this time?”

“'Going to,' Logan,” the woman corrected him from the porch.

The boy’s face tightened. “Are you going to stay this time?”

Eyes of the Wolf did not answer that question. He had no answer to give. “Is that what you are called—Logan?”

“I’m Logan Taggert, but you can call me Logan. You’re name is Brent Taggert.”

“Taggert because of your father?” 

“Yep.”

No. Eyes of the Wolf would live in his enemy’s home. He would learn the white man’s ways. But he would never be Brent Taggert. Sid Taggert was not his father: he was his mother’s murderer. He walked around the boy and approached the porch. Sid Taggert came down the steps toward him. Eyes of the Wolf kept his expression blank, weathering his enemy’s close inspection.  

Sid Taggert took hold of his shoulders in a talon-like grip. “You came home, Brent. You came back.” His words still made no sense to Eyes of the Wolf. This wasn’t home. It had never been home. Perhaps Sid Taggert mistook him for someone else. But why would he go to the People and steal a son when he already had one?

Eyes of the Wolf broke free, but Sid Taggert pulled him back. “Goddamn it! You are my son. Do you hear me?”  As he shouted these words, puffs of hot breath buffeted Eyes of the Wolf’s face. “Your mother was pregnant when she was taken by the Sioux. I’ve looked for you your whole life. “

It was a lie. His mother was dead. And Sid Taggert had killed her. He yanked free again, glaring at his enemy, then turned his back on him and walked toward the woman on the porch. She must be the White Buffalo Boy’s mother.  With her gray eyes and flax-colored hair, she seemed made from moonlight and shadows. He stared at her, unable to comprehend such an ethereal appearance; she was the most beautiful creature Eyes of the Wolf had ever seen.

The pale expanse of her neck and upper chest was open to his gaze, and he took a long look. He moved up the steps, mesmerized, wanting to touch her, wondering what she smelled like. A desert rose, maybe, or wind from a snow-crested mountain. A breeze swept through the porch but did not disturb her tightly pinned hair.  Beneath his perusal, her breathing quickened. He watched the soft flesh of her chest rise and fall.  Women in his village did not show so much of themselves.  

Sid Taggert climbed the steps behind him. “This is your home, boy. You are Brent Taggert.”

Eyes of the Wolf shut his eyes, closing his mind to the image of the woman. Names were as important to these people as they were to his own--it was his first lesson. To appease them, Eyes of the Wolf decided he would indeed take a white man’s name--but it would be a name of his choosing. There was only one white man he knew and respected.  

Eyes of the Wolf kept his back to his enemy as he held the gaze of the White Buffalo Boy’s mother. “I will be called Sager.”

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 3: There’s No Going Home

Dakota Territory - Summer 1854

Eyes of the Wolf mourns his mother’s death... 

Night was falling. No one had yet come after him. Eyes of the Wolf ground-tethered his horse near a wide patch of grass by the bank of a narrow stream. He bathed, then took his knife and climbed to the top of a nearby sandstone bluff.

Sitting cross-legged on the pebbly ground, he stared out at the softening vista as the sun behind him slowly set. Puffy clouds moved slowly across the sky, washed in brilliant hues of pink and orange and peach. His mother loved the corners of the day—dawn and sunset. She said they were gifts from the Great Spirit. Every morning and every evening she would lift her arms to embrace the colors of the sky, thanking Him for remembering her.

Tears began to stream down Eyes of the Wolf’s face. He lifted his arms as his mother had done so many times, and the song of his sorrow began. His wails were loud and raw. They filled the canyon below, echoing and dissipating into the distance. Perhaps the wind carried them back to his enemy--it didn’t matter. Eyes of the Wolf cared only that his mother’s spirit heard his sorrow.

After a while, he had no more words to sing. The color had left the sky; night had come. He thought of his years in the village, remembering things about his mother--and his sister, too, who was so gravely injured during his abduction. He picked up his knife and sliced a chunk of his hair off, then dropped fistfuls of it into the wind. He repeated this as his mind moved through each memory.

When dawn lightened the eastern sky, he had no more hair to trim and no more stories to remember. He had given his mother’s spirit his sorrow, but the void her absence left in his soul he would carry with him always. At least she was with his father and the Great Spirit. At least neither of them was alone now.

He went back down to his horse. He dunked the dried loaf of bread in the stream to moisten it, then ate it and resumed his journey home.

Two days later, as he crossed a vast plain of sweet grass, a rider appeared on the horizon. Eyes of the Wolf recognized his brother’s horse. The hills undulated in gentle slopes. He descended one, then moved up another. As he neared the top, he saw warriors from his village fan out to flank Blue Thunder. His brother’s ravaged hair told of his mourning. It was hard to look at him.

Eyes of the Wolf pulled up facing the men. They didn’t wear war paint, which made their purpose in riding with Blue Thunder unclear. Surely his brother was riding for revenge?

“I have come home. I will join you, my brother,” Eyes of the Wolf declared.

“No.”

No? “We have our mother’s death to avenge.”

“Our sister, too, died from her wounds that day. But we will not seek more blood,” Blue Thunder said. “The deaths of the four are at hand. One will be bitten by the rattler. One will drink too much of the white man’s fire water and will fall from a cliff. One will be shot in a gambling disagreement. The fourth will have a riding accident and be dragged to his death. It is foretold. I come to witness these deaths.”

“And what of Sid Taggert? He sent those men.”

“The one responsible will fight his own mind and lose. You yourself will come to tell me of this event many years from now.”

So. There was no vengeance to be had. This did not sit well with Eyes of the Wolf, but he knew better than to disobey his brother. Blue Thunder was a powerful shaman, and his visions were never wrong. “Then I will return to the village now.”

“No.”

A wrinkle of fear knifed through Eyes of the Wolf’s skin. “No?”

“The village is no longer your home.”

Blue Thunder’s calm words bore a finality that terrified Eyes of the Wolf. “It is my home,” he countered, embarrassed by the passion in his voice.

“The People are no longer your people.”

“They are my people. It is my home.” To be a person without people was to be dead while you still breathed. It was the thing Eyes of the Wolf feared above all else.

Blue Thunder held up a hand, forestalling further argument. “If you go back, Sid Taggert will send more men.”

“I will kill Sid Taggert,” Eyes of the Wolf vowed, making a violent slashing motion against his throat.

“Then more men will come. It will not end unless it does so, now--with you.”

Eyes of the Wolf shook his head. “Don’t do this, Blue Thunder. Don’t send me away. I will be alone.”

“Your destiny lies among the white men. It is time for you to meet it.” His brother’s face revealed no emotion. No regret. No anger. Nothing. Blue Thunder kneed his pony and moved down the hill in the direction Eyes of the Wolf had come from. His braves stayed behind. A stiff breeze swept through the valley, not quite a wind, but loud enough to make the mournful sound Eyes of the Wolf felt in his soul.

He rode his horse along the line of the men, looking at each one. They were men he’d known all his life. Honorable men. Strong warriors. None of them looked at him. He had become invisible to them. He could ride beyond them and return to the village. They would not stop him. They did not need to--he would be invisible to the villagers as well. Dead, but not mourned.page4image1976

He turned his horse and looked for his brother, but he was gone. When he looked back to the braves, they were already riding away.

Eyes of the Wolf was alone on the prairie, a man without a people. 

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 2: Son of Bear Talker and Brother of Blue Thunder

Circle Bar Ranch, Dakota Territory - Summer 1854

Eyes of the Wolf leaves Sid Taggert’s home... 

Eyes of the Wolf paced the circumference of his hot, airless room, feeling the walls inch inward with every pass he made. The hard structure of Sid Taggert’s dwelling blocked the breeze and muted the sounds from outside. It was a bad place to be.

He spent hours each day pacing, conditioning himself to walk on his injured feet. Though they had healed since he’d been brought here, he had to be ready for the long walk home.

It was a journey that would start tonight.

Sid Taggert’s men left his door unlocked for the first time since his arrival last week. He eased his door open, revealing a long hallway with many doors. No lamps were lit. The only light came from the crisp blue moonlight behind him. He stepped into the hallway, distrustful of the shadows. His mind whispered every ghost story he’d ever heard. If they lived anywhere, ghosts surely lived here, in the home of a man like Sid Taggert. page2image1920

Eyes of the Wolf made it to the stairs and slipped down them silently with his careful hunter’s stride. His senses were tuned to sounds before him, behind him, traps that would bind him to this dwelling forever.

The lower part of Sid Taggert’s house had many rooms with much furniture. He wondered why white men couldn’t just sit on the floor. A dim light glowed around a corner ahead. He heard women’s voices speaking in Spanish. Eyes of the Wolf knew Spanish better than he knew English. Padre Xavier Francisco had taught all the people of the village his language so that he could tell them stories about the white man’s God. The English that Eyes of the Wolf knew came from Albert Sager, the trapper who traded with his village. Albert Sager was a much less frequent visitor, and so Eyes of the Wolf’s English was weaker than his Spanish.

Eyes of the Wolf paused outside the door where the women worked. He could leave right now, but he needed a knife if he was to survive the trip home. And he was hungry. The smells coming from inside the room reminded him how little he’d eaten over the past week. It would be a while before he would be a safe enough distance away that he could stop to hunt.

He would eat, find a knife, then leave.

A quick glance inside the room assured him the women were alone. The young one saw him first. She gasped, startling the old woman. The girl was perhaps his age, perhaps younger. “It is him, Maria! It is the master’s son!” she hissed.

“He will not hurt you, Rosa. Stand very still,” the old woman counseled.

Eyes of the Wolf glared at the old woman. It was the same advice he gave children when a stray dog showed up in his village. He walked into the room, his eyes on the frightened girl. Her hands shook, rattling the load of empty platters she carried. He walked up to her, close enough to smell her fear and prowled around her in a slow circuit.

He was not a dog.

The old woman moved to a steaming pot. That caught his attention. “Enough, muchacho. You will stop scaring Rosa. Come, take this bowl of stew. You must be hungry. You are too skinny.”

Eyes of the Wolf crossed the room to the large black iron block where the old woman stirred a pot. He leaned forward and looked into its bubbling contents. He could not remember the last meal he’d had that smelled so good.

Yes, he could. His mother was the best cook in the village. But she would never again prepare a meal for him, or anyone, thanks to Sid Taggert. The old woman handed him a full bowl and motioned to him with her fingers, pinching them together and bringing them to her mouth to indicate that he should eat. He straightened, insulted she thought he didn’t understand her.

“I am Eyes of the Wolf, son of Bear Talker and brother to Blue Thunder. I speak your language and that of my enemy, Sid Taggert.”

The old woman drew herself up to the fullest height her rotund body allowed, which wasn’t quite to his shoulder. “I am Maria. I keep this house. You will respect me and all who serve here, muchacho--including Rosa.”

Eyes of the Wolf didn’t like being reprimanded. He glared at her, intending to out stare her, but his stomach picked an inopportune time to growl. He gave her the barest of nods. “I will eat your food.”

Eyes of the Wolf took his bowl to the table. The girl brought him a board with a loaf of bread—and a knife. Disliking her persistent fear, he ignored her. She cut a chunk of bread and handed it to him. He took it without looking at her. Soon she and Maria were moving about the room, busy once again with their chores while he ate.

He pulled the bread board toward him. The knife was sharp and would be useful on his journey home. When both women left the room, he slipped it into a sheath sewn in the calf of his pants. When they still had not returned, he took the remaining loaf of bread and walked out of the room.

He moved through the dark house and out the front door, unchallenged. It was easy. Too easy. Where were Sid Taggert’s men? Why wasn’t there anyone to stop him? He walked to the closest corral that held horses. He assessed each of the half dozen geldings, surprised they were all in good health. Any one of them could carry him from here fast. He was glad he wouldn’t have to walk.

One already wore a harness. He found a rope and attached it to the harness, then opened the gate and walked the horse out of the corral. His heart beat grew loud, filling his ears with its noise. Soon he would be free to mourn his mother and return to his people.

He took a handful of mane and vaulted onto the horse’s back. Gentle pressure from his legs set his new mount in a quiet walk across the ranch yard. He kept that pace for a while, knowing the noise of a gallop would raise an alert. And then they flew into the night, heading northwest.

Heading home. 

Rachel and the Hired Gun Prequel 1: Sager's Beginning

Years ago, when I was writing Rachel and the Hired Gun, I wrote some short vignettes about Sager, Rachel, and Sid Taggert. I was discovering how to learn about my characters--how to listen to them. I thought I'd share them with you here in case you're interested in a bit of their backstory.

--Elaine

 

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Circle Bar Ranch, Dakota Territory - Summer 1854

Before he was a hired gun for Rachel’s father, before he was even Sager, he made a vow of vengeance…

Eyes of the Wolf stood as straight as the ropes binding him allowed. The hot summer wind dried the blood around his neck and wrists, gluing his flesh to the rope restraints. He looked at his surroundings, intent on finding escape.  His captors had tried everything to prevent him from running. First they took his moccasins, then they bound him, and finally they stopped giving him water.  

They stood about him now, slouching and inattentive in the heat of the ranch yard. A man came out of the house, tall, with dark hair graying at the temples. Sid Taggert. He exchanged words with one of his men, then shoved him aside and walked to the edge of the porch. Sid Taggert stared at him a long moment. No one moved. No one spoke.  

Then he stepped hesitantly off the porch and barked an order at one of his men. Eyes of the Wolf made out the words “cut” and “rope.” The man argued. Impatient, Sid Taggert unsheathed his own knife. Eyes of the Wolf didn’t look at the knife, didn’t take his eyes from his mother’s murderer. Why he’d been brought here, he didn’t understand. But if it was his time to die, he would do so like a man.

Eyes of the Wolf felt the tremor in Sid Taggert’s hands as he sliced the taut rope that bound his feet to his hands and neck, keeping him hunched over.  Sid Taggert’s knuckles dug into the raw flesh of his neck as he sawed at the rope. Freed, Eyes of the Wolf slowly straightened.  His back spasmed, protesting the new position. At fourteen summers, Eyes of the Wolf was taller than most of the boys in his village. He was almost taller than his brother, Blue Thunder.  

He didn’t like being shorter than his enemy.

Sid Taggert stared at him a long while, his eyes speaking lies that could not be believed. His hand came up to touch Eyes of the Wolf’s cheek. Eyes of the Wolf slapped it away, glaring his hatred at the man.

“Good God. You are my son. You have your mother’s eyes. You are the very image of her.” Sid Taggert wept.  What kind of man wept before his enemy? “They did find you. You’re finally home.” Sid Taggert’s words made no sense to Eyes of the Wolf. He’d been home when the murdering band of white savages had slaughtered his mother and injured his sister, shooting them in cold blood. Murderers who belonged to this man.

Sid Taggert cupped Eyes of the Wolf’s face. Eyes of the Wolf jerked away. He took a step back. And another.  Then spun on his heel and began to run, barefoot, across the ranch yard. The gravel and dried weed stalks hurt his scabbed feet, slowing him. One of his captors caught him, knocking him down. The man gripped his neck and slammed his head against the ground, shoving his face into the dirt and gravel. Dehydrated and weak, Eyes of the Wolf hadn’t much fight left in him. He grew still. Resisting was pointless. For now.  

He wouldn’t always be surrounded, watched. He would wait for that time. 

The man was suddenly yanked from his back. Eyes of the Wolf pushed himself up and turned over. He tried to spit out the grit, but his mouth was too dry. Sid Taggert and the man who had tackled Eyes of the Wolf shouted at each other. They spoke too fast. He couldn’t make sense of their words. One of the men went inside the house, and the others went to another building.

Something moved into Eyes of the Wolf’s line of vision. The sun was in his eyes. He squinted to focus. A white buffalo. Blue Thunder had seen its coming. A white buffalo will stand between you and your enemy. Peace will follow when you hear the truth, he had said. This had long been foretold, but Eyes of the Wolf had forgotten it until now.

“Who is he, father?” Eyes of the Wolf heard the white buffalo say. He felt the hairs crawl up the back of his neck. Animals do not talk with white man’s words. The scene before him blurred. He blinked, but his eyes were too dry to clear his vision.  

“He is your brother, son,” Sid Taggert answered.

Son. Eyes of the Wolf tried to focus again. The white buffalo moved toward him, resolving himself into a boy.  Eyes of the Wolf had never seen a child so white. Hair the color of sand, skin like mother’s milk. It was a wonder he could live, being so colorless.  

But he wasn’t entirely colorless. His eyes were like a gray sky on a stormy day. If he was the white buffalo Blue Thunder had envisioned, he was a portent not of peace but of vindication.  

A humming started in Eyes of the Wolf’s head. The song of his ancestors. They were coming for him, coming to steal him from his enemy. Darkness shrouded his vision. As he surrendered to it, he wondered how it was that a murderer could have made a white buffalo child.  

No matter. One day, Eyes of the Wolf vowed, he would kill Sid Taggert. He would avenge his mother and sister.