February 1848, North Texas
Freezing rain made icy ropes of William Robert Travis’s horse’s mane and clotted the trail’s ruts in front of them. The Canadian River’s red water had a white crust along the banks, and stalactites of ice clung to every bush. He would not make Osiah Hertzog’s place before nightfall. There were Bone’s hooves to consider. There was no point risking a strained hock or worse. Bone snorted, as if to agree, her breath foggy puffs shooting from her nostrils. A cold camp wouldn’t do for either of them. He tugged on the reins and Bone delicately picked her way off the trail. Down by the water they might find a cut in the banks for shelter and dung to build a fire. Hertzog could wait until morning to meet his Maker.
He rode on into the twilight for a spell, the world gone white and silent around him. As far as he knew, an Angel of Death could not freeze to death himself, but the cold still seeped into his being. When he took on corporeal form, he was beholden to the laws of the mortal universe. It was inconvenient, but sometimes necessary for his mission. He belatedly regretted the trip in front of him. However much the dramatic act of riding in from the west might please Osiah Hertzog middle-aged and dying of pneumonia, he hadn’t needed to start some thirty miles away from the house.
Truth was, William Robert, Billy Bob to his friends, wanted to enjoy the mortal realm for a bit. He’d forgotten about the wretched weather of the High Plains in late winter. He could go incorporeal and rematerialize closer to Hertzog’s ranch, but he needed to conserve his energy in case Osiah ran. He thought it likely. The man didn’t seem ready to die quite yet.
Bone snorted again, this time in warning, and Billy Bob looked up from his reverie. A thin plume of smoke rose up ahead of them. A campfire, a mystery to be solved. Who would be desperate enough to camp here, at this time of year? Bone picked up his interest and increased to a trot, then ducked and shied as a rock flew past Billy Bob’s head.
“Get away!” Another rock, launched from a small, dark figure, punctuated the command.
In a cut in the bank, much like what he hoped to camp in, was a small brush hut. It was a wikkiup of the sort that local tribes used for shelter when the weather was too warm for a hide lodge. Only someone very poor or suicidal would try to camp in one in winter. The wikkiup’s resident scrabbled on hands and knees, searching for another missile to aim at Billy Bob’s head.
“Stand, Bone,” Billy Bob commanded, and slid out of the saddle with a sigh.
He didn’t want to deal with a suicide. It would only complicate his mission with Hertzog. The man was very ill. It would be no kindness to make him wait, and suicide by wikkiup might take quite a while, even with the bad weather. Wondering what fate and the Maker wanted of him, he strode forward, ignoring the volley of clods and small rocks, until he was close enough to reach out and touch her, but still she held her ground.