But Mitt had never been sure whether they had pursued M.L. or him that morning. I ran so fast they may not have seen me. That’s the best time to lose a posse, I guess. He stroked his week-old stubble of whiskers. I’m like a wild Indian. Can’t trust anybody or anything. They do things because they’re desperate, like me. He rode southward with great caution as he crossed the wagon route west of Castroville. Go maybe twenty miles south and turn east to San Antonio. That way I can come in from the south. They’ll be watchin’ to the west, I hope. He made camp early and staked Rambler to graze.
As the sun rose he gathered and tied his gear and talked gently as Rambler finished a morning cropping of grass. An hour later he mounted and put the horse into a brisk walk due east. Moments later he shed his suit coat and fastened it behind the saddle. Make San Antonio by late evening.
A bullet ripped through the overhead pecan branches and buzzed past his head by inches as the blast from a Winchester sounded from behind. Instinct and adrenalin caused him to spur to the right seeking the heaviest cover. Pistol shots popped and a ball whined from the cantle of his saddle as he heard a thundering voice. Halsey.
“It’s Stone! Don’t let him git away!”
Heavy cover offered some protection as he dashed through the underbrush, but the woods would open within seconds. Rambler pointed his nose straight out as Mitt gave him full rein. The pop and zip of bullets blurred all sounds for two hundred yards as a ten-foot high embankment rose on the right, outside of tree cover. The creek bed beyond would form a wall. From there I might outrun ‘em. The horse underneath him seemed to understand his intent.
Rambler’s forefeet pawed for the high point in the loam soil as the sound of another rifle bullet sped past Mitt’s leg and struck the horse behind the shoulder. The stallion stumbled for the first time in his life, and his belly straddled the ridge of the rise. He slid back, all four feet scrambling for stance. Mitt dismounted as they bottomed out. A thud of lead hit the horse in the flank. The horse heaved a sigh and wheeled toward his pursuers knocking Mitt from his feet.
He rose quickly as Rambler reared in a defensive posture, pulled his head downward and tossed it side to side. Another bellow from the rifle, now ten yards away, hit the stallion above his left eye, and he collapsed, trapping Mitt’s foot under his side.
Dismounted deputies – one white and small, Tittle, by Jed’s description, and three others, black – surrounded them before Mitt could even attempt to free his foot. Halsey stayed mounted, his Winchester directed at Mitt’s head. On the ground, Tittle rushed straight for Mitt, pulled his revolver, cocked the hammer and aimed it directly into Mitt’s face. The firing pin snapped on a spent chamber. The deputy charged the final yards, raising the heavy Colt. Mitt felt his skull pop as the weapon cut through his hat.
“Don’t kill him now! I want tuh see him hang!” Halsey screamed. Through blurred vision Mitt saw Tittle raise the gun again.
Consciousness returned through throbbing brain thunder and harsh slaps across the face. A voice, like water, said, “Wake up! You got some walkin’ to do.”
As darkened sight returned through blood and sweat Mitt looked toward his captors, then to his body. Heavy handcuffs, the bracelets secured in the middle by a padlock on a single length of flat steel, trapped his wrists. Shackles and chains fastened around his ankles crushed his soft boot tops.
“Git on yore feet, wrangler,” Halsey barked, his prominent belly inches from Mitt’s face.
Mitt pushed himself upward. The moment his manacled hands left the ground his head spun and he fell back. The black deputies lifted him from under his arms and stood him upright. He swayed left and right in their sure grasp.
“I sure would like a drink of water,” Mitt said in an even, calm voice. It sounded strange, outside his body. He tried to focus on each pair of eyes.
Halsey motioned toward a slender black deputy. “Give him your canteen, Jeff,” he said to the ex-slave and grinned.
Jeff stepped back to his horse and returned with a rusty canteen. Mitt took it. “Thank you. You’re a good man.”
The white deputies dropped their jaws. Never saw a white man drink after a black. He upended the canteen and gulped it down in fear that they would wrest it from his hands at any moment. When he lowered it, he saw blood from his own lips smeared about the opening. He tried to wipe it away, but his bonds wouldn’t allow it.
Jeff said, “Tha’s all right. Tha’s all right,” and gingerly took the vessel.
“Where’s my horse?” Mitt asked.
“Right there,” Tittle growled and pointed over Mitt’s shoulder.
Mitt turned to the fallen body of Rambler, saddle and bridle still in place. He stayed turned and blinked rapidly to hold back tears.
“You ready for a twenty mile hike?” Halsey’s voice brought him forward.