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The Outriders
        Continued...
 
 

The sound of Cat’s melodious voice echoed through the saloon.  The singer’s chosen tunes had been light and happy, but she could not bring herself to match the feeling in her heart.

After completing her rendition of Camptown Races, she smiles and stepped down, returning to her seat near the bar.  Normally, she would have put in several more songs before retiring to her chair, but she simply did not feel like singing this day.  Especially since nobody seemed to be listening.

Her hazel eyes swept the saloon, searching longingly for a man whom she knew would not be there.  She sighed, thinking of the gambler and wishing he was here to applaud her performance, just as he had every night since Cat had come under Rachel’s employ.

“Ezra had better be ok,” she thought, “Or I’ll kill him myself.”

“Hi Cat!”

Cat shifted her attention to her two friends, Katri and Ophelia, who had just come to join her at the  table.

Ophelia, the young and energetic newcomer to Four Corners had recently found her way west after finishing her education at a good school in Boston.  She was an adventurous and friendly youth, always ready for a good laugh.

Katri, the Finish immigrant who had become Maude Standish’s pupil of sorts, accompanied Ophelia.  She looked around for a moment before finally speaking, voicing the question everyone seemed to be thinking.

“So, what’re we planning to do?”

No one spoke.

After a minute, Ophelia got up the nerve. “I don’t know much about fighting, but I won’t give up on them.  I mean, they never let us down.”

Rachel shook her head and sighed.  “We’ll call a town meeting.  I’ll offer free drinks—that should give the locals motivation enough to show up.”

“As if they’d need it,” Katri put in. “The town’s pretty riled about this.”

“Except for the men,” a voice called. “Menfolk of the town are happy those fellas are gone—they got free run of the pretty ladies now.”

All eyes turned to a young woman sitting nearby.  She smiled, knowing her joke was partly true.

“Didn’t see ya over there, Blaze,” Ophelia called.

“I think you were just ignoring me.” Blaze nodded and grinned sarcastically.

Cat turned to Rachel.  “I’ll make up some posters and see Mary Travis about printing them.”

The ladies perked up at the idea.

“We can write letters to surrounding towns for help, too,” Rachel suggested.

“Yes!  Letters and tons of wires!  Someone’s bound to take notice.  And we’ll hang the posters around to get people looking for them.” Katri put in. “And an ad.  Let’s take out an ad in the Clarion.  That will rouse up the locals.”

Suddenly, the doors slapped open and a dark haired woman strode in.

“We got trouble,” she said, approaching the table.

The ladies turned to the schoolteacher, anxious for news.

“What’s going on, Katie?” Cat asked, feeling her stomach flip.

“I found two buckboards out past Bitter Creek.  Same ones the boys took over to Eagle Bend. There were tracks, too—leading out to the old army encampment. It’s a good bet they’ve been taken there.”

The ladies exchanged glances.

Katri’s eyes narrowed. “That is, if they haven’t already been…” she swallowed, looking for the right word. “…cancelled.”

“No, that won’t happen.” Katie shook her head.  “We’ll get them back.”

Heads bobbed up and down in agreement and the women headed out to set their plans in motion.
 
 
 


JD opened his eyes and coughed.

“Ya ok, pard?”

The kid looked at Buck, obviously annoyed. “For the last time, I’m fine!”

That had to have been the hundredth time in the last few hours Buck had felt the need to ask him that.  Buck’s urge to play “brother’s keeper” amused the other guys, but it was irking JD to no end.

He allowed a deep breath to escape his lungs, gritting his teeth against the pain.

Buck winced at the anguished expression on his young friend’s face.  Of the three newcomers, JD had fared the worst from the trip.  Chris and Josiah had taken severe beatings on the journey, too—thanks to a failed escape attempt—but JD has taken the brunt of the brutality.

Buck couldn’t help smiling at the kid’s attempt to mask the pain.  It was as much a matter of stubborn pride as it was JD’s way of proving his worth and manhood—and masking his embarrassment for having been injured in the first place.

The seven men sat in silence, listening to the activity in the world above them.  Voices, barely audible, carried on conversations directly above the pit, giving little away.

Who wanted them?  And why?
 
 


 

The pretty young woman strolled into the saloon and looked around curiously.  She was not used to the smoke and dim light typical of the average saloon, but she was here on a mission.  Her blue eyes wandered the room for a familiar face.

She glimpsed Rachel behind the bad and smiled.  Rachel set down the glass she was polishing and nodded at the young blonde girl.  While she didn’t know the young woman all that well, she liked her and knew she could be trusted.

“You’re a bit early, Lylia,” Rachel called.

The young woman nodded.  “I thought I should spend a little time getting used to the saloon before we talk about the boys and all.”

Rachel nodded in understanding. She knew Lylia was not the “rough” type, having grown up in a comfortable home in Virginia.  The young woman had led a sheltered life, and had never even set foot in a saloon until fairly recently.  But Rachel also knew the power of love.  Lylia had been trying to hide her infatuation with JD Dunne since she met him, but to anyone who saw her in his presence, her crush was obvious.

Lylia took a seat, drinking in the feeling of the saloon.  Dust particles danced in the light peeking in through the windows, the primary source of light in the room.

As the ladies of the town began to filter in, Lylia found herself surrounded with concerned faces.

Thirty minutes later, the saloon was alive with swishing ruffles, lace and leather.

The ladies began planning their rescue, the intensity of the conversation increasing with every statement or suggestion made.

Lylia swallowed and mentally prepared herself, ready for whatever would lie ahead…
 
 
 


 

The smell of cooking meat met Buck’s nose, bringing his mouth to watering.

“I could go for a big juicy steak right about now.”  He sighed to the grumbling in his stomach.

“Wonder why they ain’t feedin us anymore.” JD commented.

No one answered.

“Oh they are,” Nathan said finally, inhaling the precious aroma of cooking meat. “They’re feeding us scraps of hope.”

Josiah had been listening to the conversation, his eyes closed. “The cat,” he said, eyes still shut.

“Cat?”

Josiah was silent a moment.  “It’s just like the cat.”

The boys exchanged confused glances.

Josiah opened his eyes and nodded to himself, as if he’d just solved the great mysteries of the universe.

“A cat will corner its prey and wait it out, toying with it until it grows weary.  It’s easier to break that way.  And more fun.”

Vin nodded, instantly understanding, but Chris sat up, staring at Josiah intently with icy eyes.

“You wanna fill us in on what you’re talkin’ about?”

“We’re the prey.” Josiah gestured upwards to the guard at the grate. “The cat’s waiting us out…” he turned his eyes to Chris, “…before it breaks us.”

Chris leaned back, ignoring the aching in his head.  This was going to be a long wait.
 

To be Concluded...

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