Bound and DeterminedBy: Regina Jennings
EAST OF FORT RENO, INDIAN TERRITORY
I don’t want to die on an empty stomach. Oh, please, don’t let me die hungry.” Private Morris smashed his hat down flat as he leveled his pistol against a shelf of rock.
“I have some jerky in my saddlebag. As soon as they’ve passed us, I’ll get you some. Then you can leave this earth fulfilled.” Private Bradley Willis mopped the sweat away from his eyes with his bandanna.
Captain Chandler lowered his field glasses. “They’re headed this way. Any word on that gully? Where does it lead?”
Bradley looked over his shoulder at Private Krebs, who was climbing up the bank to join them. The red dust had mixed with his sweat, coating his face in orange.
“It don’t go nowhere. We can’t get out that way, but at least it’ll get the horses out of sight.”
Three horses. Not enough for four men to outrun the outlaws, especially with one man injured. And with hiding places scarce in the wide plains of Indian Territory, if you couldn’t outrun your foe, you were in a heap of trouble.
“The horses are in the gully? When are you getting me some jerky?” Morris asked. The blood seeping from the bandage on Morris’s leg was drawing flies in the heat.
“Can’t just now,” Bradley said. His throat caught as he tried to swallow. He wasn’t partial to being stationed next to an injured man. Fight and win, or die in a blaze of glory—that was Bradley’s plan. It wasn’t that he was afraid. He just couldn’t stand to sit and wait for his fate. They needed to get a jump on these outlaws, and quickly.
“Keep steady. If we’re lucky, they’ll pass on by.” That was Chandler. Avoid a fight if the odds were against you. If the captain had known that the Gunther gang had picked up four more men, he wouldn’t have followed them in the first place. Turned out it was an ambush. Now they had to limp back to Fort Reno with a strong gang on their trail, and their odds didn’t look good.
Private Krebs took up his rifle on the other side of Bradley. “Do they know we’re here?” he whispered.
“Not yet.” Bradley squinted against the waving heat rising off the packed ground. “There’s still eight of them? I thought we took down two.”
“Have mercy,” Private Krebs replied. “We fired ’most all our rounds. How’d we not hit more?”
The Gunthers galloped at a diagonal toward them, in plain sight. If they kept to their path, they’d overshoot the hidden cavalrymen by about a quarter of a mile. As Bradley lay on his stomach, propped up by his arms, the ground vibrated beneath him.
“I’m shaky,” Morris said. He dropped his pistol and rested his head against the ground. “Tell me when they get closer. I’ll save my strength.”
The outlaws closed the distance until they were close enough that Bradley could make out the sweat on the flanks of their horses. Pete Gunther’s paint trotted past them without pausing. If the rest of the outlaws would just follow him . . .
The younger Gunther boy turned in their direction. With the heat swerving up and the shadow of his hat, Bradley couldn’t make out his expression, but his palomino dropped out of the pack as he studied a patch of dried grass that the cavalrymen had ridden through.
No one lying behind the crest breathed a word. The flies buzzed around Morris’s leg, but that was the only sound as the gunslinger studied their position.
“Ho!” the outlaw called. With his outstretched arm, he motioned to the path that led directly to the cavalrymen.
His older brother raised his hand, and the galloping outlaws wheeled around.
“That gully might not be a bad idea,” Private Krebs said.
“And have them shooting down on us?” Chandler replied. “I’d rather take my chances on flat land.”
And Bradley would rather be on his horse, not lying in the dirt like a worm. He looked over at Morris, who’d turned clammy and pale.
If Bradley were in charge, he would’ve hidden Morris in the gully and ridden for reinforcements. Instead, three able-bodied men were hiding because of one injured. It didn’t make any sense at all, but there was no more time for reckoning. They were coming.