“Damn!” she grunted as she pushed his stinking carcass off her. Why’d he have to try to take what he could have had freely if he had just asked nicely?
Molly Bright Winter Walker never minded a little fun with the right partner, but no. He had to try to force himself on her, and then he’d called her a ‘fat half-breed cow.’ That had been the last straw. She knew she wasn’t as trim as some of the wives on the post, but by the Great Spirit she’d run with the braves when out stealing horses, and she’d never called for a break on a forced march scouting for those troopers. Well, OK, if they were passing a town that might have a decent place to eat, and she usually knew where those were, she’d look for an excuse to stop for food that wasn’t trail rations, but that wasn’t the same as that new recruit who couldn’t go twenty miles without complaining about saddle sores. Her mentor, Sargent O’Riley, was prone to say you didn’t have to practice being uncomfortable. When you needed to be uncomfortable the Army would make sure you were. She lived by that standard. She knew the post medic said she was carrying an extra three stone, but it wasn’t arranged all that badly on her tallish frame and she never let it slow her down. Sometimes it even came in handy. She’d known times when she had to go three or four days without food.
Winter (only Poppa called her Molly) worked herself clear of the body then pulled the blade from his ribs. She hadn’t wanted to get his blood all over her clothes. She’d just gotten them cleaned from the last campaign. She wiped the knife on his food-stained shirt, the same one he’d worn the night before. Slipping the knife back into its thigh sheath stitched to her buckskin trousers, she searched the body. The purse wasn’t bad and it turned out he was a practical man. His wallet carried some buttons and needle and thread. In his hip pocket she found a small metal flask. She sniffed the contents expecting cheap whiskey. The strong smoky aroma of peat revised her opinion of the corpse. Living in town, he hadn’t been carrying a pistol, but her continued search turned up a knife in one boot, and another down the back of his neck. The plain utilitarian blades had the bluish tint of good steel and such were always welcome in her line of work.
She looked around the stable stalls. She’d been hoping to buy a good horse, but if one of these was his, she had no way of knowing. For now, her best course would be to get as far from the stable as possible. Good trick, trying to leave unnoticed, in broad daylight. That would be near impossible in this busy little town. People were all about in the morning, trying to get work and errands done before the afternoon heat set in. If she’d been the praying sort, she’d pray for rain. Failing that, maybe she could hide in the loft until dark. No, that wouldn’t do. Once they found the body, they’d search the building. Being found hiding here would be as good as admitting her guilt. No, there was no hiding place in this town for her. She’d have to hide in plain sight. If she skulked the long way across the back of the stable she could slip into a little copse of trees and use the creek to work her way to the other side of town. If she could make it to her rooms, she might convincingly look innocent. The skulk wouldn’t be much harder than when she was stealing horses for the Shoshone.
Staying low, she worked her way to the back of the stable where she could look out into the corral. It was half full of both horses and cattle. The ground was dry and well churned by hooves. The nearly constant wind had blown leaves and bramble up against the wall of the stable. The dust looked thick. The very irregular surface was in her favor. Only thing better would have been mud, but this could do. She took her oversized blanket cloak and carefully scrubbed it in the dirt. Its nondescript color took on more of the hue of the dust and dirt in the corral. Gritting her teeth, she gathered a couple of close cow patties and rubbed them on as well. If she hugged the wall of the stable she might be able to pose as a heap of dirt and brush kicked up by the animals. She glanced up at the clear autumn sky. This was going to be a long, hot day. She took a minute to fill her water bag from the interior horse trough. She scooped up a handful of the fine dirt, trickled some water into it, and rubbed it into her face and hair. A few more splashes of water helped it mold to her face. Poppa had been an Irish trader riding with the Comancheros, and her mother a Comanche. Their union had resulted in her having a brick red mane of wild, unruly hair. It was hard to hide. She usually bound it in a black scarf. Making sure no one was close, she carefully sprawled as flat as possible against the stable wall with the cloak covering her whole body. The sun grew hot on her back and the air close. Could a pile of dirt sweat? Hopefully it would look like a spot where some cow relieved herself.
The afternoon was measured in feet. Each movement had to be so gradual that it could take an hour to move her entire body one yard. She thought it a miracle that no one had yet discovered the corpse. She froze whenever she heard voices. She could not even flinch when one of the animals in the corral stepped on her. It was easier slipping into Indian camps to steal horses. She’d once lain in a wild horse hunter’s camp for an entire day, waiting for a chance to steal one beautiful bay mare. She hadn’t thought she’d be practicing skulking this day in this town.
She was almost to the edge of the stable corral when her luck appeared to run out. She heard someone yell inside the stable. “Hey, someone call the Marshal. Sampson’s dead!”