The tall man crouched down, his sharp eyes catching a speck of colour among the trampled dirt. He pushed his long, unkempt hair back from his eyes to better see what he dreaded would be there. His breath frosted the air in front of him.
With trembling fingers he plucked the trampled rose from the dirt. A faint fragrance still clung to the bruised and crushed flower. The red colour was almost completely marred with dirt. Only a small corner remained untouched, which had caught his eye.
And what of you, Celeste? He tried to stop his anguished thoughts, but could not. Is your sweet perfection now bruised and crushed like this flower? His other hand gripped his rifle tighter as he stood, scanning the far horizon. He knew they had at least a day’s start on him, but he searched nonetheless.
The smoke, hanging heavy in the air, stung his eyes and obscured his vision. He shut his eyes after a moment, wondering how he could stand at all under the burden of guilt and grief. Dear Jesus, he prayed, in your mercy keep her safe until I reach her. He remembered Celeste’s bright smile and warm embrace that had greeted him after he gave her the flower. She had pinned it on her collar, so that its perfume would remind her of him while he was gone, she explained.
But now it was her that was gone, his beloved wife, taken by Sioux on a raid that had struck swiftly at their small settlement. His brother, Jake, killed and scalped. His friend, Daniel, the same. He had left Celeste in their care, not one week ago while he went to set up the trap line for the winter. He had come back to ruin and destruction. His eyes strayed to the two hastily dug graves. Grief rose up, but he closed his mind against it. All that mattered now was Celeste.
His friend Johnny came around the corner of the burnt out cabin.
“Stock’s all gone, Clay,” he said. Clay nodded, absently. It was no more than he expected.
“They took her,” he said.
“Now, you don’t know that,” Johnny said, quickly. “She could be hiding hereabouts somewhere. Or maybe she went to the Stotts, after all.”
Clay opened his hand, showing Johnny the rose.
“I gave this to her, the day I left. She was goin’ to wear it until I came back. I found it here.” He indicated the trampled earth, full of hoof prints. “Besides, Jake and Daniel wouldn’t of let themselves be killed if she weren’t here.”
A picture came to mind of Celeste, bound and terrified. Something must have shown in his face, for Johnny put a steady hand on his shoulder.
“We’ll go after them. We’ll get her back, Clay. You’re the best tracker in these parts.“
Clay tucked the rose into the pouch at his belt, and turned and strode towards his horse, Johnny close behind. Clay grabbed his saddle to haul himself up, but then hesitated, leaning his head against his horse’s warm bulk. Dear God, he prayed, help me to find her. Direct me to where she is, keep her strong, protect her. Let her know I’m coming. God, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
“C’mon Clay,” Johnny spoke from atop of his horse. “Let’s go.” He knew Clay well enough to add,”You can pray later.”
Clay swung himself up in the saddle. He adjusted his hat, then glanced briefly at Johnny.
“I aim to give her every chance, Johnny. God can help her more than I can right now. Until we find her I’m going to be praying every moment I can.”
Johnny looked at him, his face unreadable. Finally, he spoke.
“She could be dead, Clay.”
Clay’s jaw clenched.
“No. If they wanted to kill her they’d of done it here, and counted coup. They took her for ransom, or as a trophy.” A crow cawed loudly from the trees. “And if she is dead, well, I reckon my prayers are all I have. Either way, I ain’t going to stop.”
They turned their horses heads and took off on a steady trot, following the signs the Sioux had left. As they rode, Clay touched the pouch where the rose lay hidden. He vowed to give her a whole bunch once he had rescued her, and this was all behind them.
Until then he would keep this one, as a reminder, and a promise.
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