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September 16, 1893
Opening of the Cherokee Strip
Damn! The wild stallion's whinnying was going to bring every horsehungry homesteader who'd sneaked into the Strip ahead of the Runas he hadstraight to this spot. Nickajack stepped out of his hiding place, intending to run the mustang off.
But his two penned mares immediately started neighing a warm welcome, and his own stallion, the Shapeshifter, went into a fit of shrill, jealous warnings loud enough to bring half the U. S. Army riding up this valley. An ironic grin tugged at Nick's lips in spite of his frustration. There was no hope for it. The mating dance would go on, no matter how big a horde of barbarians was about to swoop down upon them.
He kept to the meager cover of the dryleaved cottonwoods and ran to the Shifter.
"Hey, it's downright dangerous to work yourself into a lather over the women," he told him, stroking the horse's neck. "Didn't you learn that at Pretty Water Creek, when I did?"
Nick had tied his mount back under a ledge, out of sight in the side of the draw, saddled and ready to pretend that they'd been in the Run. Good thing, too, since just fifteen minutes ago three soldiers had paused on the prairie floor above his head to have a couple of quirlies. He could only hope they were well gone by now.
"A little sweat'll make you look your part," he told the big black stud horse, "but this's enough. Settle down and let me go send that broomtailed stranger on his way."
Shifter trembled, snorted, pulled back on the tie rope, and demanded his freedom with a high, sharp nicker.
"Here, now, here. I hate to keep you tied, but he might mess up your pretty face if I let you get at him."
Shifter rumbled deep in his throat. He wasn't scared of the interloper.
Nickajack stroked the wet, muscled shoulder, soothing with his voice.
"We don't need any other studs around here; I agree. I'll run him off in just a minute. "
Damn it, though, he hated to. The stallion's band of horses, especially the nursing mares, needed water badly.
He looked through the sparse leaves for another glimpse of the wild ones. The stallion, a shortcoupled red roan with a surprisingly fine head, was not only handsome in spite of his gauntness, but nervy as hell. He paced back and forth right up there near the penned mares, in spite of Shifter's screams and the fact that Nickajack's scent was bound to be all over the place.
Behind the roan, his small band of wild mares and colts were drinking from the pool fed by the spring. They were all mighty thin and half-worn-out from ranging so far for water and graze in the relentless heat.
"Better move on," Nickajack muttered. "I don't have water for all of you and mine, too."
The endless drought had sapped the spring as it had every other water source in the country. The pool was lower than he'd ever seen it and the creek that usually flowed from it had gone bone dry a month ago. Yet he still didn't step out where the stud horse could see him and spook.
The mustangs were flesh and blood, and they hadn't had enough. They were desperate, or they wouldn't have come in to water in the middle of the dayand God knew they were going to need their strength. A few minutes from now, no matter which way they ran, they would have to turn and run some more, because suddenly, at the sound of one shot on the border, a bunch of ignorant, plowwielding greenhorns would be racing all over their range.
Everything that belonged on this land would be displaced then. Nickajack clamped his jaw so hard his teeth gritted. Only a few more minutes until the Strip would be torn into pieces.
To try to keep from thinking about that, he ran his horseman's eye over the mustangs. Not bad. The stallion definitely threw his head on the foals.
"If he'd only shut up, he'd be right pleasant to have around," he mused aloud.
Shifter snorted derisively. He pulled back and half-reared, pointed his nose at the sky, and screamed again.
Nickajack listened for hoofbeats above them, but he heard only the hot wind as it blew from the south. The stud hadn't caught his fresh manscent yet, so he waited for the wild band to drink a few more gulps.
He couldn't tarry long now, though. The sun rode almost directly overhead and the Run would start at noon. A man on a fast horse with plenty of bottom could be here from the Arkansas City starting point within half an hour. Thirsty mustangs or no, he'd better drive his stake on his claim before some clodhopper did.
Nickajack finally slipped off the handwoven halter he'd put on top of the bridle, and let it drop to swing against the trunk of the tree. Gathering the reins, he stepped around and stuck one boot toe into the stirrup.
Instead of swinging up into the saddle, though, he acted on a sudden impulse. He set both heels to the ground and undid the latigo, unbuckling the cinch.
"Damn if riding bareback makes them call us Indian," he told the black. "Any man calls our hand, it's his funeral."
Suddenly the anger beat in his veins like a war song. He wished he could defy somebody, if the truth be told. Just like that desperate roan stud horse out there' his blood ran hotnow, and his breath was moving, sure and strong, in and out of his body. It was a foolish wish, though, to . . .