Ezra Standish, one of the seven men that made up the peacekeepers of Four Corners, and its self-proclaimed resident gambler, was on his way back from an errand in Eagle Bend. Judge Travis had needed some confidential papers picked up, and Chris Larabee had chosen Standish.
Ezra didn't mind at all, relishing the chance for a few games of poker with some different players, and the opportunity to perhaps obtain some new clothes, and maybe some other items of quality not available in their smaller town.
Of course there was the obligatory complaining, even though he knew Larabee knew he didn't mind going. Still, it was part of the game. He couldn't just agree without argument, verbal sparring being part of his daily entertainment.
He'd had an easy trip there, a friendly and profitable evening, and an enjoyable shopping expedition, and was now taking his leisurely time getting back home.
Even though he was well over halfway back he left the main route and headed for a grove of trees next to Cottonwood Creek, knowing there would be some graze for Chaucer, some cold, fresh water for both of them to drink, and a bit of shade under the large cottonwood trees to relax and eat his midday repast that he had picked up from the hotel restaurant before leaving Eagle Bend that morning.
He'd stopped here several times before, although usually with one or more of the other peacekeepers. Since he was alone, he decided to bypass the large clearing where they usually stopped and found a more secluded spot where the additional shelter made him feel safer.
Dismounting, he led Chaucer to the small creek for a drink, refilled his canteen, and washed his face and hands before loosening Chaucer's saddle and leaving him to graze nearby.
Ezra sat down under the largest tree, so tall he could easily stand under the lowest branches and not even reach them by stretching up. He was shaded from the heat of the day, relaxing in the peaceful solitude, watching the dappled light dance on the ripples of the slow-flowing water. He enjoyed his humble meal, with some of the fresh, cool water, followed by a small after lunch drink from his flask.
Maybe there is something to be said for Mr. Tanner's solitary forays into the wilderness. I must admit to actually enjoying the quiet and solitude for a change. Vin would probably appreciate the scenery more. He'd be able to identify the different plants and even the various bird sounds.
Ezra leaned back against the sturdy tree trunk, closed his eyes and dozed off for a short while, until the chatter from a squirrel and a burst of angry birdsong interrupted his quiet reverie. Glancing up through the branches he peered casually through the mottled light and shadow and wasn't surprised that he wasn't able to see anything but branches from that angle.
Time to be going anyway. Standing up, he brushed off his clothes, turned around, and looked up. He could not believe what he saw.
He blinked and looked again.
That can't possibly be what it looks like.
About ten or twelve feet up the tree, above the lowest branches, was a small door, maybe four inches wide and six inches tall, with a small wooden doorknob.
This makes no sense whatsoever. A door to what… or where?
The only thing that made any sense at all was that it was some sort of hidey-hole. Someone must have carved a hole into the tree, a recess to hide something in, then made a cover with a handle to fit in place to protect whatever was hidden there. What a curious thing. Now, this was a mystery worth solving.
Must be something valuable to be hidden like that… maybe coins or jewels.
Ezra realized there was no way he could climb the tree, so he quickly retrieved his horse, tightened the cinch on the saddle, and mounted. But even standing in the stirrups he was too short to reach the lowest branches. He tried throwing a rope up, but he couldn't loop it onto anything to make it stay.
Maybe I'd be able to reach it if I stood on my horse's back like they do at a circus. That always looked fairly easy, and I do have good balance…
Cautiously, he knelt on his saddle, then tried to stand, but Chaucer would have none of this and sidestepped. Ezra fell, rolled quickly to break the fall, but still bumped his shoulder, hip, cheek, and the side of his head. Sighing, he admitted defeat.
He dusted himself off and headed back to town, deciding to involve Vin in the intrigue, confident that the agile tracker would be able to reach the strange little door.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Mr. Tanner, I was wondering if I could interest you in a ride this fine day."
"Why?" Vin asked, narrowing his eyes and searching Ezra's expression intently.
"Must one have a specific reason for a pleasant sojourn?"
Vin lifted one eyebrow.
"In my travels yesterday I happened upon an arboreal oddity and I must admit to a certain curiosity as to its purpose and origin, and I wondered if, perhaps, in your vast environmental wanderings whether you may have encountered something similar, or would be interested in investigating it with me."
"What are you on about, Ez? I bet if ya tried ya could say that in teenier words."
Standish sighed his much-put-upon sigh. "I saw a rather curious thing on a tree, and want you to look at it; maybe you've seen something like it before."
"See, Ez, that wasn't so painful, was it? What did it look like?"
"Just something quite different; it was unlike anything I had seen before. Perhaps we could leave soon?"
"Just exactly what did it look like?"
"I would prefer you to see it for yourself, and make your own judgment."
"And I would pree-fer for you to tell me! I ain't gonna fall fer none o' your tricks."
"I trust you will keep this confidential."
"Fine! I, um, saw a small door up in a tree, and I couldn't get up to see it closer. I am rather baffled by its appearance and at a loss as to its purpose."
"A tiny door."
"Did you hit your head," Vin asked as he grabbed Ezra's face. Turning it, he saw a slight scrape and a small bruise, and he felt a small lump at the back of his head.
"Ouch! Please, desist!"
"I knew it. You did hit your head."
"That was after I saw it, when I fell off of Chaucer."
"You fell off your horse?"
"I was trying to stand on his back to climb up into the tree."
Vin continued to stare at Ezra in disbelief.
"Please, Mr. Tanner, I'll pay you for your time. Let's say a half a day's wage. It's not far, won't take much more than a couple hours to get there and back." At Vin's scowl Ezra continued. "A day's wage, one dollar."
"And if I find anything?"
"You drive a hard bargain… A finder's fee – ten percent of whatever we find."
Vin smiled his crooked half smile. "Well, let's get at it!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin stood and looked up into the large tree that Standish pointed out. "Yer right, that does look like a teeny door."
"Is that not exactly what I said?" snarled Ezra. "You think I just make things up?"
Vin just smiled in reply.
"Wonder why they'd put it so high?" Ezra mused.
"These trees grow fast," Vin explained. "Not that many years ago it would have been within easy reach of the ground.
Vin positioned Peso under the tree, ground tied him, and then unsaddled him. The tracker took off his hat and coat, pulled his camp moccasins out of his saddlebags, and changed from his boots into them, then whispered to Peso.
Ezra watched quietly as Vin moved back about eight feet, then took a quick running jump onto Peso's bare back, moving into an easy crouch, then slowly stood up and grabbed the lowest large branch and easily pulled himself up onto it.
"Looks like you've done this before," Standish drawled, watching as the agile tracker easily climbed up the tree.
"Like licking butter off a knife," was the tracker's saucy reply. "But it is harder with boots and a saddle," Tanner admitted as he came face to face with the little door. Grabbing the wooden knob, he pulled, but it didn't budge. He pulled out his knife and slipped it in the spaces around the door to loosen it and, finally, with a bit of an effort – and being careful not to tumble out of the tree – he managed to pull out the square of wood, exposing a recessed space behind it.
Cautiously reaching in, Vin pulled out something small and flat wrapped in oilcloth. Not opening it, he put it in his pant pocket and then, after making sure there was nothing else left in the space, he replaced the little door and easily climbed back down the tree.
Grabbing onto the lowest strong branch with both hands, he lowered himself down, then dropped the last few feet, landing right beside his horse.
"Nothing in there except this little package," Vin explained as he stood straight and handed it over to Ezra.
Ezra unfolded the oilcloth and pulled out a single sheet of paper covered with symbols vaguely resembling landscape features.
"A map, I believe. Assuming this tree mark is where we are, do you think you can follow this? Does any of this resemble the terrain around here?"
Vin peered at the map and the surrounding area before replying, "Yeah, I recognize this small hilly area. I think there are some caves there."
"Maybe a mine," Ezra exclaimed excitedly. "Anything much between here and there?"
Vin frowned while he considered this, then shook his head. "Only know of one ruined homestead that way, not much left of it, other than part of the chimney and a dry well."
It was only a couple of miles away, so it didn't take them long to get there.
After consulting the map again, Vin led them to a small, rocky hill, and they left the horses at the bottom and climbed an easy trail to the top.
Matching trees and rocks on the top to markings on the map they discovered that where X marked the spot was actually an opening through the rocks into a cavern of sorts.
"Can't see anything, Ez. Good thing I brought my rope. I'll lower you down there."
"Why me? I don't want to ruin my garments. You're the paid help, and your clothing already looks disheveled."
"I won't fit," was the tracker's answer.
"And you think I will? You might be taller, but you are definitely more slender," stated Standish.
"Nope, wider in the shoulders," Vin said as he stood back to back with the shorter man, who had to admit that Tanner did have wider shoulders.
Standish carefully removed his hat, jacket, and vest, folding them and putting them on a nearby flattish rock. Tanner tied the rope around Ezra's chest, then looped it around the closest sturdy tree. Ezra sat on the edge of the opening and the tracker slowly lowered him until he was a few feet below the surface.
"It's getting narrower," Ezra said as he held his arms up straight above his head. "Oomph, that's it, I'm stuck. I'm not going to be able to go any farther, pull me up, please, Mr. Tanner."
Vin dug in his heels and pulled. Suddenly, the rope gave and Tanner landed hard on his backside as Ezra was pulled roughly to the surface. Vin quickly got to his feet, hauled in more rope, and moved to help Ezra over the edge onto the ground.
Standish landed on top of the tracker, and they both rolled to the side.
Ezra gasped for air like a fish out of water. "Not going… to try that… again."
They both sat up and stared at the cavern entrance.
"JD," they said at once, brushing themselves off and heading down the hill to their horses.
"Mr. Tanner, I prefer to play this hand close to my vest, so to speak, so if you would please allow me to speak to our youngest compatriot…?"
"Fill your boots, but you know that whatever you tell him he's liable to tell Buck and the others."
"I am well aware of that fact, which is why a little subterfuge might be in order," Ezra said as they mounted up. "I trust you'll follow my lead."
"Whatever you say, boss, I'm just the hired help."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra and Vin finished their lunch and timed their exit from the saloon to coincide with JD finishing his patrol. JD dismounted in front of the jail, where Buck and Chris were sitting, just in time for them to see Ezra and Vin talking quietly to each other as they walked to the livery stable.
"They were gone this morning, and Vin told me they were going out again for a few hours," commented Buck.
"Those two can't be up to any good. Wonder what they're plotting?" Chris queried.
"Why don't I just ask them?" JD asked, and he led his own horse to the livery stable.
"Hey, guys, whatcha doing? Where are you off to again so soon?"
"Mr. Tanner has graciously agreed to accompany me on a bit of a tracking expedition. An investigation, you might call it, of a particular section of our local environs."
"Oh, can I come? Please? I got nothin' else to do right now. Maybe I can help."
Vin and Ezra exchanged amused glances and nodded. The three men mounted and headed out onto the street.
"I reckon maybe you can, as long as you promise to do what we say," Vin said.
"Thanks, guys. Sounds great. A tracking expedition, hmm? Oh, I get it, hunting for something, right?" JD nodded to himself. He grinned when they reached the jail. "Hey, Buck, I'm going with Vin and Ezra. I'll be back in time for my evening patrol around town."
"Where are you going?" Buck asked.
"West!" Vin answered as he rode away with Ezra.
Buck turned his gaze on JD. "What are you going to be doing?"
"Uh, Vin's taking Ezra on a hunt, and they're letting me come."
Buck frowned. "On a hunt?"
"Hunting, yeah, that's it – I think…" JD nodded. "Vin's tracking something for Ezra. Gotta go!" He set off at a lope to catch up with the other two men.
"Why does JD going off with those two worry me?" Buck asked as he and Chris watched them leave.
"Does seem a bit suspicious," Chris agreed. "Those trouble magnets can't be up to any good."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah and Nathan had also watched the three men leave, then they walked over to join the other two in front of the jail.
"Guess I should go check my bandage supply," Nathan said and sighed, heading back to his clinic.
"Perhaps a prayer might be in order," Josiah added, heading back to the church.
"Couldn't hurt, preacher," Buck called after the man.
"Saloon," was all Larabee said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD caught up with the other two men at the edge of town. "So, where are we going? What exactly are we looking for? What did these tracks look like? If you were already following them, why did you come back to town?" JD asked in a rush, needing all the exciting details.
"Good Lord, boy, were you trained by the Spanish Inquisition?"
"Sorry, Ez, I'm just curious."
"The tracks, as you've termed them, were actually transcribed symbols in a portable manner of a common enough variety that we were able to decipher them, and that Mr. Tanner was able to use to determine a location."
At the look of utter confusion on the youngster's face Vin sighed and jumped in, saying, "Ez has a map."
"Oh. A treasure map?" JD asked excitedly. "Maybe it was from a pirate! Maybe we'll find a treasure chest full of gold and silver and jewels."
"JD, how could it be a pirate map, you see any ocean around here?" Vin demanded.
"Oh… right… but who'd you get it from, Ez? Because I hate to tell you this, but if you won it in a poker game, it might be fake!" the youth stated sagely.
Why would he think I wouldn't know that? Patience, Ezra, he means well, and we still need him… "Mr. Dunne, I am a professional. I am well aware of the need to verify the authenticity of an object of dubious origin. I didn't win it; I actually found it myself."
"Oh. Sorry, Ez. So, where'd you find it?"
"In a tree," was Ezra's vague answer. He hoped that, by stating it simply, JD would accept the answer and desist his persistent myriad questions.
The youth frowned. "In a tree? Someone left it just in a tree? But how did you know where to look? How did you see it?"
"Tell him!" growled Vin, wishing for his usual quiet companion. For a fleeting moment he wondered if there was any way Larabee would have fit down the narrow opening into the cavern.
Ezra sighed. There was no way to avoid this; besides, he'd known it would come out eventually. "When I stopped at Cottonwood Creek on the way back yesterday I happened to notice what looked like a very tiny door in a tree." There, he'd said it out loud again.
"Oh, a fairy door! I've never seen one myself, but I know all about them. Will we go past there? I'd really like to see one. My ma used to tell me about them. They had them back in the old country, you know, for the little people."
"You mean short people, like you?" Vin teased.
"No, little people – like leprechauns, fairies, elves, gnomes, you know."
"No, I don't know nothin' about little people like that, do you, Ez?"
"I have heard tales and read stories, but they are just myths and legends," stated Standish.
"No, they're not!" JD declared.
"They have not been proven, so what makes you so sure such things are fact and not fiction?" Ezra asked, taken aback by JD's strong declaration.
"You know I'm Irish, and I'm from Boston, right?"
"And that makes you an expert?" retorted the con man.
"Everyone knows half of Boston is Irish! I grew up hearing stories about the old country, and tales about the little people. Old Mr. McGinty told me he'd seen lots of leprechauns back home."
"Most likely after too much Guinness or Jamison's," whispered Standish, whose comment did not deter JD in the slightest.
"Most people don't think there's any here, but why not? Our ancestors came here, so maybe some of theirs did too? Right, Ezra?"
"I find that rather a farfetched notion. Regardless, there is no evidence of the existence of any of these so called 'little people' of yours. There is nothing to suggest that this is anything other than exactly what it appears to be," he stated. "It was just a hiding place for the map."
"Did you see a rainbow?" JD quizzed.
"What?" Vin hardly understood what Ezra had just said, and he certainly couldn't comprehend JD's total change of subject. He looked at him as though he was totally daft.
"Because maybe it's a map to a pot of gold! You know, a leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!"
Vin uncharacteristically dove into the conversation before Ezra could reply with his usual must-use-more-larger-words-than-the-previous-speaker style to win any discussion. "JD! Think about it. If it was one of them lep-re'kon guys, why would they need a map to find the pot of gold? They would know where to look – at the end of the rainbow!"
JD frowned and stayed quiet, pondering this until they reined up near the tree and Vin pointed out the little door. JD stood up in his stirrups, trying to get a closer look. "Nope, it doesn't really look like a usual fairy door," he finally admitted. "This one has square edges, and fairy doors are usually rounded at the top, and they are usually right on the ground."
"I told you it wasn't a fairy door," Vin reminded him.
"Oh, I know! Maybe it was a place for secret love letters. Do you think maybe it was Buck? Maybe I should tell him about this, and he could leave messages for his lady friends. Or, I know, maybe I could leave notes for Casey here. Nah, it would be too dangerous for her to climb up there…" JD continued to prattle enthusiastically.
"JD, there were no letters in there, just the map," Vin growled.
"You guys have no imagination. I think it could still have been a forest elf, or something. Hey, did you hear the one about the elf that went into a bar?"
Vin just groaned and took off faster down the trail, quickly followed by Ezra.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The three men stood on top of the hill and looked at the opening. Vin and Ezra sized up JD, and nodded. They fitted him with a rope harness, handed him a branch torch Vin had made, and some matches. Then they lowered JD down.
He just fit past the narrowest section.
When his feet hit solid ground, he lit the torch and turned all around, peering inquisitively into the darkness around him while undoing the rope.
"Oh my God! I can't believe this! It's incredible!"
"What?" Vin shouted.
"What do you see? Please, describe it," Ezra pleaded.
"Teeny tiny little furniture!"
"Ah, hell? Did you hit your head on the way down?" Vin asked.
"Like for children, or short people?" Ezra inquired.
"No, tinier, like for fairies, or elves, or gnomes, or leprechauns!"
"Or dolls," the tracker replied cynically.
"Look around, JD, is there anything else there?" the Southerner asked.
"Nope, don't see anything else… There's beds, and a table and chairs… oh, wow, even a little rocking chair – sort of looks like Nettie's – and a little teeny fire ring, that even has ashes."
"Is there another way in?" Vin inquired.
JD searched around the small cave and found a tunnel. "Yeah, I see a tunnel, and I can see light at the end of it."
JD went to the end and found that it was blocked by a few medium sized rocks that he could easily move.
The other two men followed his directions and went down the hill and around it, finding JD just as he was leaving the tunnel. They went back in with him and carefully searched the little cave, and the tunnel itself, but there was nothing else to find.
"Could it be a gold or silver mine?" JD asked.
"Unfortunately, there is no evidence of anything like that. Probably just a cave where children played."
"So, JD, you taking the treasure you found?" Vin asked teasingly.
"Would it be okay if I take them? Do you guys want any? But what if they come back? Do you think they'll be back?" he asked anxiously, looking around as if fairies or leprechauns were hiding nearby.
"Who, the children who put them here? I think they're long gone," Ezra replied.
"No, the little people!" JD carefully touched the ashes in the little fire ring as if he could tell how long they had been gone by the coldness of the ashes.
Vin wiped a finger across the seat of the little rocking chair and showed the dust to JD. "Don't think so. Look at this dust here, and you don't see any tiny little footprints around the furniture, do you? Probably just children playing, maybe from that old homestead we passed a mile or so back."
"Guess you're right," JD sighed as he carefully put the furniture in a burlap sack that he specifically carried to tote things in.
The three men backtracked their way through the tunnel and out of the cave.
"Well, if you guys don't want them, I think I'll give the rocking chair to Miss Nettie, and ask Casey if she wants any, and then maybe the Potter kids," JD chattered cheerfully as they gathered up their horses and headed back to town. "I might keep one of the little chairs myself, to put on the dresser in my room. I think it'll look fine there, sort of like, what's that word, Ez?
"An ornament, a decoration, an oddity, a curiosity?"
"Yeah, a curiosity. That fits! You found something curious. We followed the map and then we found a curiosity. Thanks for taking me, guys. This was actually a fun adventure. I hope you find another treasure map, Ez, and let me come with you guys next time."
"Yeah, Ez," Vin said and laughed. "Go find us another treasure map."
Ezra glared at his two companions but, upon seeing their smiling faces he stopped himself from automatically replying with some sort of sharp retort. Even though we didn't find anything of value, they aren't angry with me, and, wonder of all wonders, they would actually do this again.
Vin had obviously enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, and JD had loved the excitement and adventure of it all. Ezra smiled to himself. It would have been wonderful to have found a gold mine, or some sort of treasure, but for some reason he couldn't feel all that disappointed. They had solved a mystery, and it had been a pleasant day with his associates, or rather – as he supposed JD would say – a fun day with friends.
Is this what being friends feels like?
What a curious thing this friendship thing was turning out to be. Maybe that was a treasure in itself.
Ezra returned their smiles.
The smiles on all three of the men's faces grew even wider when Vin gave a whoop, and the race was on, all three horses and horsemen enjoying the freedom of racing across the wide open plain on the way home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck and Chris stood up from their seats in front of the jail and walked into the street to meet their friends as soon as they recognized the three horses ambling their way toward them.
"The mighty hunters return. I'm not seeing any evidence of a successful hunt here. Dang, the one time I don't get in a bet with Standish," Buck teased as Chris looked at Vin, and whatever Chris saw in those blue eyes made him smile.
"We have not returned empty-handed," was Standish's vague reply as the men dismounted in front of the saloon. They were joined by Josiah and Nathan.
"Yep, go ahead, JD, why don't ya show them what we found," Vin said and grinned.
"You should have seen it, Buck! Ez found a teeny tiny door in a tree. I thought it would be a fairy door, but it didn't really look like one, but he found a map in it – of course it wasn't a pirate map, 'cause there's no oceans near here. We don't know for sure where it came from, so I thought maybe the little people, you know, like fairies, or elves, or leprechauns, made it. Anyhow, I think Ezra still hoped to find a treasure chest, or at least a gold mine, or maybe even a silver mine, but I hoped it might lead to a pot of gold. You know, like leprechauns hide at the end of a rainbow."
"There wasn't even a rainbow," Vin remarked.
JD sucked in a breath, then glared at Vin before continuing his rapid fire discourse. "Vin figured out the map and it led to a small cave, which is why they needed me, because the only entrance they found was through a small opening in the top of a hill. Since they were too big to fit, they lowered me down and that's when I found them!" JD's face shone with excitement, and a smug smile, as he opened up his burlap sack.
Aware of the many pranks the youngest peacemakers had been known to play, none of the older men were game to get too close to the sack, or to reach into it.
"Show us your treasure, JD," Josiah prompted.
"Fairy furniture," JD beamed, as he pulled out the tiny rocking chair. "Look at this! Isn't it perfect!"
All four older men stared, perplexed, at the small object JD was holding, then they looked up at Vin and Ezra to see what type of hoax they were playing.
Ezra's expression looked like that of an uncle indulging a favorite nephew, while Vin just looked amused.
"Doll furniture," Vin declared. "Probably from whatever kids used to live in the old homestead nearby."
"You don't know that for sure," JD argued. "It could be from elves, or something. Anyhow, I might give this one to Nettie, and these…" He rattled on as he opened the bag wider to show them the rest.
"Saloon," Larabee stated and the others all nodded and smiled in agreement.
Buck put his arm around JD's shoulder and steered him along.
Seeing several well-dressed men walking from the hotel to the saloon, Ezra perked up considerably. "It seems that perhaps a pot of gold might be in my future after all."
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