by Sevenstars & Aureleigh


The big man sighed. "Of course, Ezra was far from an innocent himself. He told her he'd run her into the ground. But he was essentially out of business himself even before she ever discovered he'd invested his own money. That was when she teamed up with Inez to buy the paper on the place and save him the 'embarrassment' of being foreclosed on. Up till then she seemed to believe he was simply running a con. She had no idea that he'd been dreaming of having a place of his own, that he might ever actually become a 'man of commerce.' That says something about the kind of relationship they've had all these years, if he never troubled to confide his greatest dream in her, as most men would in one parent or the other. And yet she was genuinely hurt when he asked her what effort she had ever exerted that wasn't entirely self-serving. That says she does love him, or she wouldn't care what he said to her. Insults only hurt us if the opinion of the person uttering them carries weight with us."

"What about Nathan?" Chris asked. "I know Ezra reminds him of his past, but hell, doesn't he really see that he's bein' just as bad as some of the white men he takes to task for their prejudice?"

"Nathan doesn't trust Ezra, so he deals with him the way he expects to be dealt with--like the time he showed Ezra up in front of Buck when Don Paolo came to town," Josiah replied. "He sees what Ezra lets him see. And Ezra's attitude is that if Nathan won't take the trouble to look beyond that, then to hell with him. No matter how straightforward Ezra is with him--and he is, almost more than with any of the rest of us except perhaps JD--Nathan still puts himself in the same class with all the people who took Ezra at face value when he was running cons: a sort of sucker, not worthy of consideration. Ezra respects people who see him for what he is; did you ever notice that? He may resent being unable to play them for fools, but he doesn't resent them; he respects their acuity and perceptiveness. That may well be one reason he agreed to ride with us. You and Vin had seen past the con he was running, and that made you--maybe the best word would be 'human.' Not just marks."

"I can't help thinkin'," the gunfighter mused, returning to a previous theme with a hollow note sounding in his voice, "what if Sarah and Adam had survived and I had been the one who got killed? I was a shootist long before I got married, I know Buck's told you that. Hell, we know that when Fowler fired the house he was workin' for somebody else, somebody who must've wanted me dead but missed me on account of my bein' down in Mexico with Buck. What if that somebody had hired some other man, a man who thought he had a chance against me in a stand-up gunfight, or who wasn't too particular about ambush and bullets in the back? What if it had been my family left alone, instead of me bein' left without them? I know Buck would have done the best he could for them, he loved them too. But maybe Sarah would have ended up raisin' Adam a lot like Maude did Ezra, wantin' him not to get hurt."

"Only God can look down the path we didn't take," Josiah pointed out. "I think Maude truly loves Ezra, in her way, and that strange tough brand of love she bestows, peculiar though it seems to us, is, as she sees it, the best kind of mothering she can offer him. But it breaks my heart to see her 'mothering' him. And the way he keeps on trying to connect with us, in the face of what his upbringing and early life must have taught him, is a testament to the kind of soul he has, underneath it all. That there's far more good in him than he's willing to admit, even to himself. Still, I think she knows, on some level, that he belongs with us, even though she doesn't like it, or even us, much."

Chris nodded. "I think I feel the same way. I can understand, now, what she was thinkin' and what led her to do what she did, but her logic just seems so damn' anti-godlin, as they say in Texas. I can even understand why she's the way she is--she did what she needed to, to survive, just like any of us. I just--" he stopped and shrugged, unable to form the words.

"You can't bear to see Ezra being messed up by it," Josiah finished. "It's your protective instinct coming out--the same one that led you to resign rather than abandon him to his fate." He sighed again. "I wish someone would help her see what she's doing to him, though I think she may have been too long set in her ways for that...unless what's going on now is enough to make her stop and think and see sense. I doubt she's ever really explained to him what motivates her. I'm sure she's never confided so much in anyone outside her own family."

Chris took the shortened cheroot out of his mouth, glanced at it and hurled it away. "I stopped believin' in miracles a long time ago, preacher. But aren't you the one who says that with God everything's possible?"

"With God, yes. Maybe not with human beings," the older man observed sadly. "They really do love each other, those two; that's what makes it so terrible to watch them clawing away at each other. Sometimes I think they'd both be better off limiting themselves to letters. And yet, when you think about it, why didn't she simply take what she'd earned from the Ritz, and depart for greener pastures, as she's done before? She didn't. She used it to buy Ezra's mortgage; she invested in 'his' town--notwithstanding the less-than-complimentary opinions she's expressed about the place. She knew his pride wouldn't allow him to work for her, so she hired Inez to run her investment--she can't bring herself to throw money away, a lifetime of self-preservation makes it impossible. And yet she chose Four Corners to buy a stake in. Perhaps she approves of his choice more than she wants to admit, and he was simply too deep in shock at what she'd done to him to realize the true meaning of her act. I do think part of the reason she bought the place and kept it was so he'd have that constant reminder to keep on his toes. But there are definitely a lot of unresolved issues in that relationship. If only there wasn't such a lot of competition between them, and if Maude hadn't been running cons for so long as to make hiding her true self practically second nature, they could long ago have sat down for a talk and gotten a lot of the old baggage out of the way."

"When I first watched the two of them together," Larabee told him, "I could see she had a seriously messed up set of priorities. And when I finally got the whole story straight, about the way they fought it out over the saloon, the first thought I had was that that was just plain cruel. Which is a hell of a thing for me to think, considerin' some of the things I've done, but that was just what came to me. I tried to justify it to myself, the way I've tried to justify my own behavior, by sayin' that she was scared of losin' her son and she thought this new job he'd taken on was a rejection of her and her way of life. But it just didn't work. It was like seein' somebody kick a dog. Hell, Josiah, he's never rejected her. He never will, any more than I'll ever be able to forget my time with Sarah, or JD and Vin and Buck will ever forget their mothers. He can't. He keeps on writin' to her, keeps on wantin' her to show somehow that she approves of him, that she loves him, that he's done somethin' to make her proud. In one sense she's still got him tied to her apron strings. I got into his face about loyalty, but I see now that he may be the most loyal person I've known in my life, including Buck; no matter how badly she's used him, he hasn't let it turn him from her. And she wasn't content to just leave him with an open wound, she rubbed salt in it. Not as a gesture of concern for him, but to remind him of his failure and encourage him to leave the job and the town and us."

"She's a creature of her past, as we all are," the preacher pointed out. "I suspect she's gotten so deep into 'the game' over the years--and don't forget she's been at it, in one form or another, probably Ezra's whole life--that it literally scandalizes her to discover her 'darlin' baby' on the side of law and order, however creatively he sometimes interprets or carries out his duties. She wanted to find a way of causing a break between him and the rest of us, but since she doesn't comprehend emotional bonds herself, or more properly won't let herself comprehend them, she had to go at it through the material end, which was the only target he was offering her."

"I get the feeling that if the rest of us hadn't been so distracted by everything else that was goin' on just then--Buck with Lucy, Vin and me with Yates and Eli Joe, and you and JD and Nathan with coverin' for us and lookin' after the town--we would have figured out a way to help him," Chris mentioned. "I hope we would have wanted to. He deserved it. Some of us owe him an apology, even if it was all Maude's doing."

"I have to admit that, looking back, I'm a little surprised at Nathan," said Josiah. "I like the man, truly, but he can be more righteous than me, sometimes, and he's constantly finding something to lecture Ezra about. And here he was, the man who says over and over that he's 'not a doctor,' letting Maude hang out that sign. Of course, she's been at her game a long time, and has not only her feminine wiles, but her years of experience in manipulating people into doing what she wants them to do. I imagine a lot of victims of cons are pulled in quite against their better judgment. Nathan's not accustomed to the kind of 'promotion' she handed him, and the fact of being treated as a man and an equal by a Southern white woman was enough to knock his feet right out from under him. But still, knowing who and what she was, knowing she was the one who molded Ezra into what he is, I honestly find it strange that he wasn't a bit more on his guard."

"He should tell Ezra he's sorry," Chris agreed. "We all should. But most of all Maude. You just don't do what she did to him, least of all if you're a mother. It ain't right." He shook his head. "I'm startin' to think she should stay far away from him--like outside the Territory. Every time she comes to visit him, she messes him up somehow or other."

"She knew what she was doing and she knew it was going to hurt him," Josiah said. "And that almost makes me forgive her for it, when I'm away from her--but you know my problem with turning the other cheek; this isn't even my cheek to turn, it's Ezra's."

Nathan appeared at the lobby door before Larabee could respond. "Maude says she's ready to go now."

The gunfighter straightened up. "All right, Nathan, thanks. You go on ahead and find yourself a good position, we'll fetch Maude and be along."


West of Trinidad

Vin, Buck, and JD were on the trail as soon as it was light enough to travel safely Thursday morning. There was no sign for the tracker to follow, but inquiries at the places they passed assured them that a group and buckboard such as the swamper had described had indeed been seen and noticed. The road led westward by way of Robinson Hill, between low chalk bluffs wooded with cedar, a narrow strip of cultivated land along the Purgatoire culminating in the farm suburb of Jansen two and a half miles out. A couple of miles beyond that a dirt road branched off across the river to the nearer coal camps. Another five miles on they passed the five-year-old Church of the Child Jesus of Atocha at Tijeras Plaza, a building notable for the unrelieved simplicity of its design: thick walls pierced by narrow windows, a simple wooden spire tipped with a white wooden cross. A string of little Mexican family communities--San Juan Plaza, Zarcillo Plaza, Velesquez, Medinas Plaza--marked the road beyond it like beads spaced along a thread. The trio made its way through Zarcillo Canyon, passed Cordova Plaza and its Mount Carmel Church, and followed the winding road between the foothills into a wide-meadowed valley where range cattle grazed the rich grass, looking up to lumber out of their path and eye them with a kind of wary contentment as they rode by. At the west end of the valley reared The Stonewall, a long gray rock barrier that resembled an enormous dam, its eastern face rising abruptly more than 250 feet high, and in its shadow the little settlement of Stonewall, established a dozen years earlier by one Juan Guitterez. High above loomed the double peak of Culebra, 7093 feet higher than the town, and to its left, 469 feet shorter, Red Peak, named for its red sandstone cap.

The road turned sharply north through Stonewall Gap, a natural opening in the dike, with the Purgatoire's Middle Fork pouring through it. Five miles further on the trio camped at the junction of the Whiskey Creek Pass Road, being careful to locate far enough off it so as not to attract the attention of any outlaws who happened to go up or down during the night.

Vin felt uneasy about this trail. It didn't make sense that men who almost certainly weren't outlaws would take Ezra into known outlaw country. His instincts still told him that Romeo, where at least a few semi-legitimate folk hung on, would be a likelier goal for them. But he couldn't ignore the swamper's description. It might be barely possible that the gambler's abductors had anticipated his friends coming after him, and had paid the old man to misdirect them when they came, knowing that they would sooner or later enter the saloon in search of either information or rest; but Vin had of necessity developed a keen insight into human capabilities over his time as a bounty hunter, and he didn't think a derelict such as their informant would be able to hold the story straight in his mind over almost a week. And the longer they dallied about getting on the gambler's trail, the likelier they'd never find him. Vin was determined not to have that happen, certainly not on his account. Neither Buck nor JD knew that he had offered to ride with Ezra, so they couldn't understand how he felt--which was that he had let his friend down. He had betrayed the promise he had made to himself, to always be there for these six men. If he had been with Ezra, maybe the Southerner wouldn't have been taken. Even if he had been, Vin would have had a good chance to get on his trail and rescue him without even having to call on the others to help him. Of course the tracker was too pragmatic to blame himself for something that hadn't been his doing, but he couldn't help experiencing a twinge of guilt when he thought about it.

JD kept an eye on Buck, whom he had learned to read over their months together. He could sense that the fun-loving gunslinger was tightly focused, thinking all the time, trying to come up with a plan--or at least the skeleton of one--that would enable them to rescue their missing friend. He was grimly determined to be ready for any signal Buck might give him. He had let Ezra down once, and he didn't plan to do it again.

As for Buck, having had his opinions validated by the swamper, he felt it incumbent upon himself to provide an example of leadership in this situation. He was the oldest of them, the most experienced, the one who had worn a badge. He'd dealt with badmen enough to have a clear notion of how they thought, and he'd earned a living by his gun for a good part of his life--and, as he grew older, he'd had to compensate for the inevitable slowdown of his speed by learning to use his head. He didn't have Ezra's kind of schooling, but he wasn't stupid by any means. He knew it was quite possible that there was someone roosting up in those caves who'd been brought in by Vin at some point in the past, which meant that the Texan would need to be cautious about showing his face. Such a former bounty wouldn't know JD, who had more than his share of guts and was one of the fastest hands with a gun that Buck had ever been privileged to see, but wore his thoughts and feelings on his face and wouldn't have much chance of pulling off a bluff. That meant that, absent the kidnappers themselves, it would be up to Buck to serve as the front man. He thought he knew just how to do it.

Rather than spend a lot of money they didn't have on a telegram, he had written out a longhand transcript of what the swamper had told them, addressed it to Chris care of Maude's hotel, and made sure it would get on the first northbound train from El Moro. If there had been four kidnappers originally, it wasn't outside the bounds of possibility that at least one of them would head for Colorado Springs to serve as a liaison or observer and watch to see whether Maude did whatever it was they wanted her to do. If Chris and the others knew who they should be looking out for, there'd be some chance of laying hands on him.

When they broke camp the next morning, knowing that Vin was worried about Ezra's safety and desperately needed to feel of use, Buck sent the Texan on ahead as a forward scout, with instructions to watch for horse-sign and carefully scope out any outlaw roosts he might encounter. "Don't let 'em know you're there," he said. "Just get a good look at the ground and be ready to draw a map of it when you join up with us again."

Tanner, looking as relieved as it was possible for him to look, took off, and Buck and JD followed at a slower pace with the pack horse, picking their way slowly up the steep trails. They quickly found that Vin had left Indian-style signposts at each fork to show which way he had chosen to go: a heap of stones piled together on some natural mound, with a little branch, stripped of its bark, lain on top, small end pointing the way he wanted his friends to follow. Peering at the ground as they went, Buck and JD noticed that each of the routes Vin had taken showed at least some faint sign of having been travelled recently. In most cases it was impossible to tell how recently, and there was no recognizable sign of Gambit's familiar hoofprints, but if Ezra had been taken up this way a week ago, his personal sign would have long since aged away to invisibility.

An hour or so past noon Vin came down again and met them. He had found what appeared to be one of the outlaw roosts they were seeking. "Weren't no sign of Ez," he reported, "and none of the fellers I seen looked like them ones that swamper done told us about. But the trail I 's on pretty much ends there, so I figured best to come back."

"You done good," Buck told him, "but even if they ain't the boys we're lookin' for, might be they know where we can find 'em at."

Vin frowned. "You reckon they's like to just tell you?"

"I reckon I can trick 'em into it," Buck told him, and laid out his plan.

They backtracked by a few miles to a tiny box canyon where they could make camp, the winding entry preventing the glow of their fire from being visible to passersby. The night came down early and fast, like a blanket being thrown over their heads, and though it was summer the temperatures dropped quickly in that high, dry air. JD snuggled gratefully into the warm buffalo coat his six friends had given him for Christmas, glad that he'd heeded Buck's advice and fetched it along. Buck for his part actually felt glad that he'd given in to Vin and Josiah's insistence that they choose the coat instead of a "proper hat" for the kid. Most of the last winter, down in their own territory, he'd been able to make do with the city overcoat he'd brought with him from back East, but here they were higher up, to say nothing of farther north, and an early summer night could be as cold as a sunny winter day in New Mexico--if not indeed colder; after all, it had been known to snow on the Fourth of July at these elevations.

In the morning Vin sketched a map of the outlaw camp he had found, and Buck pointed out where he and JD should position themselves. The tracker went on ahead, and after an hour or so the other two followed him. JD branched off to find his spot, and Buck went on more slowly, not trying to hide, but picking his way openly up the trail, in case the outlaws had a sentry up. The pack horse heaved and scrambled along in Plata's wake.

Nobody challenged him, but he figured that the ringing clank of his horses' shod hooves on the random rocks, bouncing off the high confining walls of the canyon, probably sent warning ahead of his coming. Suddenly it opened out, as Vin had said it would, to a small meadow with a cave yawning at the back of it. A crackling white flame burned at the opening, sending up a scarce, fragrant blue smoke that melted quickly into the air--cedar, Buck guessed, one of the very best woods to use when you didn't want to give yourself away.

Two men stood back behind the fire, their guns drawn and lined on the opening of the trail. As Buck eased his way forward, he heard the sharp clatter of a Winchester being cocked somewhere to his left and behind him, and checked instantly, lifting both hands and grinning as broadly and disarmingly as he could. "Hold your fire, boys," he said clearly. "I'm plumb peaceable."

"What you doin' up here, hombre?" asked one of the two by the fire. He was an Anglo with a patch over his left eye socket and a seamed old scar running out from under it and down his cheek to the edge of his jaw. His partner was a bandy-legged Negro, not chocolate-colored like Nathan, but the hue called "meriney" by his own race--a high brown heightened with yellow and reddish tones and teamed with crinkly brown hair. Buck knew better than to try to look around for the one holding the rifle on him.

"Lookin' to join up with some pards of mine," he replied. "They come on ahead and I was s'posed to pick up supplies at Trinidad and follow. Well, I done that, but all these damn trails and canyons look alike, and I reckon I got lost some."

Patch peered keenly at the well-loaded pack horse, then at Buck's long body and easy slouch, comparing them to the way he carried his Colt, the big knife at the left side of his belt, the weathered look of his clothes and face. Here, Wilmington knew, was where his plan succeeded or failed. He could be what he was implying, but he could just as well be a lawman or a bounty hunter. That was why he had known he was the only one with a chance of carrying it off. His hope was that his easy, open manner and hail-fellow-well-met personality, which made it so easy for him to make new friends, would be enough to throw them off guard and make them accept him at face value.

"Who is it you're lookin' to find?" Patch asked, squinting his good eye, and Buck resisted the temptation to let out his breath in a sigh of relief.

"Four of 'em," he said-- "five if you count the feller they'd be keepin' guard over." He repeated the swamper's descriptions. "Maybe you come on 'em huntin', or lookin' for grass for their horses. I can see they ain't here."

Patch glanced at the Negro and got a shrug, then looked past Buck's shoulder as if to consult the one with the rifle. "No, we ain't seen 'em," he said. " 'Course, there's plenty of places they could be, up here."

"Don't I know it," Buck agreed in a querulous tone. "Well, I reckon I'll just have to try another trail. Damn, I knew it was a bad idea for us to split up. Or if we had to, it should'a been Hack that stayed back to get the supplies, at least he knows this country." He used the name of an actual fugitive on whom they'd gotten some paper recently, a man who roughly fit one of the swamper's descriptions and was described as having been raised in this part of Colorado and being familiar with it, in the hopes that Patch might recognize it.

Apparently he did, and the unnecessary complaint seemed to ease his mind still more. "You care to have some coffee and grub?" he invited.

"Don't mind if I do, and much obliged for the offer," the gunslinger agreed, knowing that to do otherwise would only seem suspicious now that he had apparently succeeded in establishing his bona fides.

"Put up your rifle, Joe, this varmint seems harmless enough," Patch called, and Buck turned casually in his saddle to see the third member of the group, a blond, tough-looking kid about JD's age but harder of face by about six degrees, making his cautious way down from a ledge about ten feet up off the floor of the meadow.

No names were exchanged, but Patch and his partners were hospitable enough, feeding Buck generously of plain cowboy-style food and giving him the opportunity to strip the saddles off his horses and let them graze. They made no demand for money, and after a couple of hours Buck gathered up the horses and went his way to the tune of their good-luck wishes.

JD joined him, as arranged, a few miles down the trail. "Did they know anything, Buck?"

"No, kid, this was a dead end in more ways than one," the gunslinger told him. "But it don't mean the boys we want ain't up here."

"Vin signalled me just before I started down," JD reported. "He wanted to take a look at somethin' over north of here, was what I think he was sayin'. Might take him a while to pick us up again."

"Then we'll go back to where we camped last night and wait for him," Buck decided. "There's still plenty of wood and grass there, and we know the water's good."

His young partner fell in beside him. "Buck? Did you really mean what you said on the way up to Trinidad? About the Judge bein' Ezra's father, I mean?"

"Never said it was so," Buck reminded him, "just that it might be. Gotta admit, it'd explain a lot--how he'd have known Maude when he saw her, why he'd have agreed to let Ez off if he'd promise to stay with us for a month. Why? You thinkin' it should make any difference in the way we treat him?"

"Hell no!" JD exclaimed indignantly. "I just been thinkin', is all. I mean, if it's true, that means Ez was Miz Travis's husband's half-brother, and he's Billy's uncle. And if Chris ever makes up his mind to ask her to marry him, that'll make the two of 'em kinda related, won't it?"

The gunslinger considered the possibility and laughed aloud. "Damn, I never thought about that, but it's true. Lord, won't that put a burr under Chris's saddle. Better if we don't tell him, though. Might scare him off for good, and Mary's right for him. They could be real fine together if they'd just both admit they're interested."

"Are they?" JD asked. "He never seems to do anything that'd look like courtin'. Shoot, remember the sparks they struck off each other the day they met? And that news story she wrote about him?"

"Chris didn't take that personal," Buck assured him. "Like he said, right then at least, he was the bad element. Can't fault a person for tellin' the truth even if it hurts a little, and Chris wasn't much carin' at the time what anyone thought about him. As for courtin', there's things you gotta understand about Chris. He's still mournin' Sarah and Adam, probably will at least till he finally finds out who paid Fowler. He needs to feel that he's gotten justice for 'em before he goes on to anyone new. And I think he's just a little bit ashamed when he looks at Mary and sees what a good job she's made of carryin' on without her husband. He pretty close to let the same kind of loss destroy him, and she didn't. He don't like the notion that he ain't as strong as a woman. Plus he's scared of ever bein' hurt again the way he was when Sarah was killed. Nobody ever honestly believes somethin' like that can happen to them till it does. When it does, he's suddenly a lot more vulnerable than he was before. He can't help thinkin' 'what-if' a lot more than he did. If you'd known Chris back then, if you'd seen just how much of his heart and soul he put into them two and lost when they died, you'd know how hard it is for him to see himself as ever goin' on that way again."

They had camp set up and food and coffee on the fire by the time Vin caught up. "How'd it go?" he asked.

"Said they hadn't seen nobody like we're lookin' for," Buck told him. "Kid said you signalled him you spotted somethin'. You check it out?"

"Sighted some horses in a meadow t'other side of the divide," Vin explained. "Couldn't get close enough for a good look, but one might be Gambit. I traced the creek they 's on and found another camp about a mile down. Looks like five men."

"How'd we get there?" Buck demanded at once.

Vin produced another map in the dirt. With some difficulty he had managed to figure out where the second camp was in relation to the first, and after a few false starts had happened upon the main trail that had led him back to their box canyon. "Gonna have to double back some," he said. "These boys ain't but a few miles south of Cucharas Pass."

Buck nodded, knowing that name. "We'll give 'em a look in the morning. For now, grub's almost on, so we might as well stay where we're at."


Outside Romeo

It was on his sixth day in the cabin outside Romeo that Ezra found the opening he'd been seeking.

He had been patient, as his dual profession had taught him to be, studying his environment and waiting to see whether his captors would settle into a routine, which they quickly did. That was one of the things he had hoped for, that they would discount him as cowed, or less of a threat than any of his associates might have been, and relax their vigilance somewhat. He knew that when he escaped, he would have to have a horse, ideally Gambit. So his first concern was to find some means of distracting them so they wouldn't catch him at the process of getting saddled up and away.

He was lying on his bunk with his hands laced under his head, gazing thoughtfully up at the ceiling as he tried to map out a plan, when it suddenly occurred to him that the light falling through the window seemed to be striking the rough-hewn boards in a way that cast a shadow where none ought to be. Curious, he got up, positioned the table under the suspect spot, and scrambled quickly up onto it. The added height allowed him to reach the boards with ease, and he discovered, to his surprise and delight, that they weren't spiked to anything, simply lain across the partition and beams so that their own weight would hold them in place.

Thank you, sir, for your laziness, or perhaps for your parsimonious reluctance to spend your money on nails, Ezra thought to the unknown builder of the cabin, smiling wolfishly as he glanced toward the door. He stepped down off the table and drew his lockpick from its hiding place. In less than ninety seconds he had the cuff off his ankle. He made sure the casement window was open, then moved the table back to its former location, just in case his guards had noticed what that was, and clambered back up again. Carefully he pushed up against the nearest board, lifting until it was raised high enough off its support to be nudged back onto its neighbors. Then he moved the board next to it in the other direction, creating a narrow gap. He reached up, hooked his elbows onto them, and hauled himself up through the opening, levering his weight higher by the sheer strength of his shoulders and arms until he was high enough to swing a leg up. After that it was easy to pull his whole body into the loft beneath the shake roof. The most difficult part of the job was making certain he didn't make any noise.

He drew himself into a cautious crouch, listening to the sounds of movement and desultory speech from the front room, which filtered clearly through the open hatch where the access ladder came up. When he felt assured that his captors hadn't heard anything they considered suspicious, he gently eased the boards back into place so that the ceiling looked as undisturbed as it had originally. He then sat down and waited quietly until his breathing was back to normal. That done, he made his way to the hatch and peeped carefully around the rim. One of his guards--the one in the Confederate cap--was stirring something in a pot on the fireplace. Cole and the big man with the long leather cuffs were playing pitch at one end of a rectangular table that centered the main room. As Ezra watched, the door opened and the fourth man, the one he had pegged as a halfbreed, came in and walked over to see how the food was coming along, then threw himself down on a bunk to wait until the meal was served. Ezra pulled out his watch. He estimated they would be taking his food in to him in about another twenty minutes.

He drew back, settled himself comfortably against the low wall of the loft, and waited. Presently he heard the rattle of graniteware and the clink of a spoon against the pot, the shuffling sounds of men rearranging their position, and at last Cole's voice: "That his? You take it on in, Jake. Here's the key."

Ezra grinned to himself in the dark and listened. He heard the rattle of the key in the padlock, the muffled clank of the hasp being pushed back, the creak of the door opening--and then an astonished curse and the crash of the plate falling to the floor. "Cole! Cole, he's got out the goddamn window!"

"What the hell?" yelled Cole, and there was a trampling rush of booted feet across the floor. Ezra's grin widened as he visualized the entire quartet trying to crowd into the back room all at once. A voice, not Cole's, came up through the boards only a little muffled. "How'd he get the damn cuff off?"

"Settle down!" Cole shouted. "He ain't been gone long, he was here when we give him his breakfast. Sundog, you was just checkin' the horses, none of 'em was gone or you'd said somethin'. That means he's on foot, and he don't know the country. We'll run him down quick enough. Let's get saddled up."

The boots pounded back across the front room and Ezra heard the door crash open. Distantly he caught the sound of horses snorting in surprise as their riders burst into the shed-stable where they were housed. Shortly came the stamping of hooves and the creak of saddle-leather as the four men led the animals into the open and got mounted. No one had bothered to shut the cabin door, and Ezra could make out Cole giving orders. "Jake, go on down to Romeo and ask Daly if he's seen anything of Standish, then keep on across the gulch and north. Sam, you head for the main trail, his tracks may not show on it but anybody who saw him'll remember him. Sundog, you scout back westward through the trees and see if you can pick up a track. I'll head south."

A chorus of comprehension answered him, followed by the stutter of hooves as the group broke apart and fanned out. Ezra waited till he could hear no further sound of them, then swung down the ladder into the main room. He quickly closed the cabin door and, after a moment of searching, located his own Remington revolving rifle, which he laid on the table so its muzzle was trained on the entrance. He then sat down in the nearest chair and appropriated the food that was waiting there. The stew wasn't quite hot, but it was filling, and Ezra, being of a practical cast of mind, knew he'd be needing nourishment if he hoped to carry out the rest of his plan.

Having satisfied his hunger, he returned to the back room and gathered up his gear, quickly and deftly packing his saddlebags and rolling up his bedding. He carried it and the rifle out to the stable, where Gambit, as he'd figured, had been left behind. The chestnut nuzzled him eagerly as he heaved the saddle into place and tied his gear on. He went back inside long enough to loot some supplies from his captors' stores, then mounted up and directed the horse into the trees on a more or less northwesterly heading. Remembering the things Vin had told him, he sought out mats of pine needles to ride on: thick, soft, and springy, they wouldn't hold tracks well, and only an Indian would have much chance of following him over them. They would also hold down the sound of Gambit's steps.

He let the animal pick its own way while he concentrated on keeping alert for any sound that might betray the nearness of one of his guards. He'd have to get outside the radius they might reasonably have had time to reach before he could consider himself at all safe. After that, what was to be done? As Cole had said, he didn't know this country. They would expect him to try to retrace the route by which they had brought him here, because they would logically assume that he'd want to get back to civilization, and perhaps an honest peace officer to whom he could report his detainment, as quickly as he could. For that very reason, he would do well to avoid the Walsenburg road altogether.

For all his care, it was Gambit who saved him, as the chestnut paused, his head coming up and ears shooting forward. Having no sidegun, Ezra grabbed for the Remington (never his first choice of arms, especially in a close situation or on horseback, though he was as competent with it as any long-time hunter should be) just as a big-boned bay horse appeared from behind a screen of young aspens, and the gambler found himself staring into the astonished eyes of the big man Cole had called Jake.

Which of them was the more startled would have been difficult to determine, but Ezra had at least had that moment of warning thanks to the man being upwind of him. Remembering a story he had once heard Vin tell JD, he rammed his heels into Gambit's flanks and let out a Rebel yell as the startled horse lunged straight forward. Jake reflexively tried to wheel his own mount back out of the charging animal's path and at the same time get his sixgun out, with the result that he did neither one well; Gambit, the momentum of his weight increased by his speed and the boost given by his powerful hindquarters, jammed into the bay shoulder to shoulder, and the latter, already off-balance, was knocked sideways in a thrashing, squealing, rolling fall.

Ezra didn't stop. He slashed at his startled horse with the ends of the reins, crouching low over the animal's outstretched neck, and plunged into the aspens' cover. He heard a shout and the banging of a pistol, but no buzz or whine of close-passing bullets, and guessed that Jake was firing more or less out of instinct, without really bothering to aim. That meant the man was alive, if shaken, and probably not too severely injured, though there was no way to tell without turning back, which Standish had absolutely no intention of doing.

He kept up his flight for a mile or two, crashing heedlessly through the thickets and feeling Gambit's muscles bunch and swell and release under him as the gallant gelding lunged and scrambled and bounded past and over every obstacle he met, including a couple of fallen trees. They tore across a narrow stream, spraying water away in sheets to either side. At last Ezra slowed, turning into the concealment of a grove of lodgepole pine, and paused there to listen. He didn't think Jake would follow, even if he or his horse hadn't been injured by their fall: in a country rich in cover, like this one, the odds would be too close to even--all the gambler would need to do was pick his spot and wait, and Jake would be a ready target. He suspected the man would know that. What was far more likely was that he would go back to the cabin and either wait for his three partners or try to find them. Once they were together, they'd all be on Ezra's track, and they wouldn't give up.

He waited for fifteen minutes or so, watching his back trail and letting Gambit rest and recover his breath. Then he began moving again, following the edge of the higher line of hills until he estimated he was twelve or fifteen miles from the cabin, and at last swung northward. A professional card man had to develop a keen visual memory, and even more so a con artist: you never knew when you would run up against some disgruntled former mark. That talent easily translated into an ability to call up a picture of the terrain over which you had passed. He remembered seeing from Promonotory Divide the way Grape Creek ran northwest, then northeast, to meet the Arkansas. After a time he struck a river flowing southeast and guessed it to be the latter. He paused to let Gambit drink and considered his next move. A clear, well-travelled road followed the river's south bank, almost certainly the main route from Cañon City across the Divide. Vin had said that any time you weren't sure of your location, and for whatever reason didn't want to stay put until your friends (or enemies) could find you, the best thing to do was to find flowing water and follow it downstream, because eventually it would always lead you to human habitation. Ezra also knew that from Cañon City it would be only about a day's ride to Pueblo, and from there he could easily find his way back south to the New Mexico line and Four Corners. But once Cole and the others realized they'd lost him, they would probably guess that he would make for exactly that goal. They knew that only he could identify them, or the woman who was paying them. They would want to make sure he didn't do that. So they--or at least the halfbreed Cole had called Sundog--would try to put themselves in his skin and go where they thought they'd be likeliest to find him. They would, very probably, think it likely that, as a creature of towns and saloons and warm, cozy beds, he'd be eager to spend as little time in the forsaken wilderness as he could possibly manage. Well, he was, but not if it meant getting recaptured. As a con artist, Ezra was accustomed to thinking along convoluted paths. His best chance, he decided, would be to do exactly the opposite of what his pursuers would expect him to do. If they went off in the wrong direction, then even if he didn't have time to actually get back to Four Corners or any other specific place before they realized their mistake, he'd at least have guaranteed that they would waste enough time for his trail to get cold.

He turned Gambit upstream rather than down. Wherever there was a well-travelled trail, there had to be people at both ends. He'd follow it for a while and see where it led him.


West of Trinidad

The second camp Vin had found was more difficult to get close to than the other had been. It took the three searchers most of the morning to locate a spot from which they could get a clear look at it through Vin's spyglass. Once they did, they were able to assure themselves fairly quickly that it wasn't the one they were looking for: two of the men in it were Mexicans, and none of the others fit the descriptions they had. Buck employed his "lost-outlaw" ruse a second time, and this time got a lead. One of the outlaws knew of a lake just north of the pass road which would offer a good campsite.

The trio doubled back, making their way south again. They found one lake about seven miles on, but no sign that anyone had camped there in weeks. From there the trail dropped down in a series of hairpin curves to a dirt road showing signs of the recent passage of horses. "Here we go again," said Buck.

"You sure you'd oughtta try it, Bucklin?" Vin asked. "You keep on throwin' them dice you'll end up snake eyes soon or late, and likely sooner."

"You got a better plan?" Wilmington challenged mildly. "If Ez is up there, the last thing we want to do is go chargin' in with guns blazin' and maybe get him killed in the crossfire. We need to get a look at the ground first and see if there's any way we can get the drop on these boys, or run their horses off, or set up some kind of diversion. And if he ain't there, they're still liker to know the country than us. You go on ahead and see can you find a place higher up where you can cover me from. JD, you follow me about fifty yards back and don't leave the trees unless I signal you."

The lake proved to be a pretty place, with a monolithic rock rising from its center like a castle in a moat. To the west, the land broke sharply, standing almost on end, with some scrawny shrubs and trees finding a precarious foothold on the steep dirt slope, which gave way about a hundred feet up to naked rock. Buck couldn't see any sign of Vin, but he knew in his skin that such a spot was exactly the kind the Texan liked best when there was a chance he was to be called on to use his sharpshooting skills. From just inside the protection of the trees he scanned the camp through Tanner's spyglass, which he'd borrowed, and saw one man with a beard, but none that otherwise fit the swamper's descriptions. There were only four horses, all hobbled and grazing on the rolling meadows that surrounded the lake, and none of them was Gambit. Deciding he'd hit another blind alley, the gunslinger decided to see, one more time, whether this batch of fugitives could be any more helpful than the last two, and nudged Plata on out of the trees with the pack horse plodding along behind.

One, two, three men looked up from their chores and diversions as he approached, rising alertly to their feet and reaching for their weapons. Buck held up his right hand and forced a smile, trying once again to seem harmless.

He was just explaining how he was looking to catch up with his friends when a fourth man appeared from a stand of aspens, where he'd apparently been picking up fuel; aspen groves were always a great place to do that, since the trees were self-pruning, shedding their lower branches as they grew, and these dried out quickly to make excellent kindling. Buck didn't recognize the newcomer, but the reverse was apparently not as true, for the fellow dropped his armload of branches and whipped out his gun. "Wilmington!" he yelled.

"What?" The apparent spokesman of the group was a wiry older man, fifty or beyond, with a shrewd squint and graying mustache. "You know this feller, Tom?"

"Damn right I do!" Tom seethed, his sixgun levelled at Buck's broad chest. "This is Buck Wilmington, one of them seven peacekeepers they got down in Four Corners. I got a look at 'em about a year ago when I was ridin' with Top Hat Bob Spikes. They shot us to doll rags--I was lucky to get away with just a nick in my shoulder. I lost a couple of good pards to them boys."

The boss, if he was that, stared challengingly at his visitor. "You got something to say about this?"

Buck settled back into his saddle. "Yeah, I got somethin' to say about it. I'm Wilmington, and we did make hash out of Spikes and his boys, and damn proud of it too. But I ain't lookin' for none of you, just a friend of mine that got himself took out of Trinidad about ten days ago." Then he smiled, not pleasantly. "Of course I ain't crazy enough to just ride in here alone without havin' a couple of fellers up there in the rocks with rifles just dyin' to shoot somethin'. Uh-uh!" he warned, as one of the quartet seemed to be about to turn. "I wouldn't look up there if I was you, not any more than just a quick sidewards glance, 'cause them fellers are crazy. They got a bet on which one of them can shoot one of you in the eye from up there first--I think it's the left eye they're bettin' on."

"I think you're bluffin'," the older man declared. "If you're with them Seven, why didn't you all just charge on in? You'd have had the numbers on us."

"Bluffin', am I?" mused Buck, not bothering to answer the question. "Well, let's see if I'm bluffin'." He removed his hat and waved it casually in the direction of the slope beyond the lake.

Instantly there was a spiteful crack, and the coffeepot on the coals leaped into the air like an acrobat and clattered to the ground, dark liquid flowing from the hole in its side like blood from a wounded body. The outlaws jumped and looked around wildly. From the timber at Buck's back, a second rifle responded, kicking up dirt ten feet ahead of the boss's toes. Wilmington barely hid his smirk. Sometimes the kid drove him crazy, but other times, like now, when he had occasion to show how well he had learned some lesson, Buck was prouder of him than a peacock of its tail.

Buck drew his own Colt and laid it casually across the pommel of his saddle. "Now," he went on easily, "I got no quarrel with you boys and I ain't lookin' for trouble, but I know damn well you ain't likely to let me ride out of here without followin'. So I'm afraid my pards and me 'll have to set you afoot for a while. First I want you to all drop your hardware. Then you can all sit yourselves down in a bunch, right by where that coffeepot is, except you," he told Tom-- "you'll get the hobbles off them horses and bring 'em on over here."

He saw Tom glance to his boss and felt a thrill of premonition shoot along his nerves, but it was already too late. "Scatter out!" the older man yelled, and they all did, a couple tucking and rolling as they moved and all going for their guns as they flew off in as many directions as there were men.

Damn, damn, damn, Buck thought wildly, as he returned fire, I should'a guessed--don't matter how dumb you look, you gotta be pretty rugged to last as long as an outlaw as that feller has. He knew the first thing he had to do was make sure they didn't stay at closed ranks, that just makes it easier for Vin-- He could hear the quick bark of the Texan's Winchester from the rocks beyond the lake, but that was more suppression fire than any real effort to hit a target. Plata reared up, whinnying, as bullets zipped around them, and the pack horse yanked at its tether, nearly throwing both of them. Buck grabbed for the line around his saddlehorn and whipped it free; the horse immediately fled back toward the trees.

JD was firing wide, trying to drive the outlaws under cover; he couldn't take the risk of hitting Buck, who was right in the middle of the mêlée. Vin, though somewhat less handicapped, would be equally reluctant to injure his friend. Buck knew that since he was the only one of them who was out in the open and a clear target, he had to get under cover, and fast. He spun the dancing gray on her hind legs and made for JD's position at full speed, not even troubling to fire backward at the outlaws; he knew he wouldn't hit anything except by the most outrageous kind of luck, and it looked like luck had decided to quit riding with him.

He made it into the timber to find JD trying to untangle the pack horse, which had run itself in between a couple of saplings and gotten its load jammed. "Leave it, kid!" Buck bellowed. "Get in the saddle and let's get movin'!"

"What about Vin?" JD demanded, but to his credit he did as he was told.

"He got up there without them seein' him, he can likely get away the same. Anyhow, we can't help him if we get our hides ventilated. Let's go!" He waited just long enough to see his partner settled, then lashed his gray with the reins and took off down the trail. He knew that the one thing no outlaw leader could afford was to be laughed at--which he would if he let such a daring faceoff as Buck's go unremarked, letting alone Tom's personal grudge. Outlaws' horses were always quiet and well-broke, chosen for courage in the face of fire. They'd catch them up in five minutes or less, have them saddled in ten, and be on the regulators' trail. All that might hold them up would be if they paused to free the pack horse and see what it was carrying, and that was a kind of temptation that white men, unlike Indians, could often resist.

Behind them, over the thundering of their horses' hooves, they could hear the steady spanging of Vin's full-size rifle, whose Government .45-70 ammunition could kill at 600 yards, three times the range of the commoner .44-40. That was the tracker's edge, that and the fact that the outlaws had been armed only with their sixguns; if he could once get them driven under cover, he could quit firing just about any time and they'd be reluctant to show themselves, whether to try for their rifles or their horses, for fear he was waiting to get a chance at a clear target.

It worked. He caught up with them at the fork where the lake trail met the narrow track up to Whiskey Creek Pass, his hair and fringes flying, Peso wild-eyed and foaming with excitement. "You boys all right?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Buck assured him. "You?"

"Couple of 'em took a few shots at me as I 's gettin' away, but they didn't have the range. Think I hit one of 'em. Seen him kinda hop, and then one of his pards got a grip on him and helped him back into the aspens."

"Likely just nicked him," Wilmington guessed. "They'll all be after us now." And the tracker nodded solemnly, well familiar with outlaw character after his years in the manhunting trade.

"What happened?" JD asked. "I could see it went to hell all of a sudden--"

"One of 'em rode with Top Hat Bob. He knew I wasn't what I was pretendin' to be." The gunslinger looked to Vin. "I know you don't exactly know this country, but you got the best feel for land I ever saw. Which way do you figure we should go?"

Tanner took a moment to think, his keen eyes scanning the track before them. "Up," he decided at last. "That way even iffen they come after us, we'll have the 'vantage of height. And they won't be able to go no faster'n we do, lessen they figure to kill their horses."

Buck nodded and gestured him into the lead.

Whiskey Creek Pass Road ascended Culebra Mountain by a series of switchbacks, climbing steadily a dozen miles through dense forests of aspen, fir, pine, and spruce, whose heavy shadow would make their sign all the more difficult to distinguish even without the element of oncoming night. The regulators worked their way upward, paying no heed to the fading light, allowing their horses' keen night-sight to stand in for them. They crossed and recrossed turbulent Whiskey Creek and finally lost it as the trail rose above timberline to the base of the gray granite crags of Culebra's precipitous double peaks, passing only about 1800 feet below the summit. Here the light lasted longer, and even after it had gone, the bright mountain stars and a three-quarter moon shed light enough for the three horses to see their path. But only eyes like Vin's could have found the network of faint game trails--bighorn giving way to elk and at last to deer--that offered a route down the other side. Dismounting frequently to lead their horses under fallen trees, circling around rocks, and once or twice having to actually heave obstacles out of their path, they picked their way down the backslope of the mountain until scrub-oak and piñon replaced the pine and fir of the higher region, and the wild meadows gave way to irrigated hayfields spreading beneath the summer constellations. It was close to midnight, and there was no hint of pursuit.

"Reckon we lost 'em?" Buck wondered.

"Plenty pine needles on that trail to hide our prints," Vin pointed out, "even iffen they guessed we'd go up 'stead of down, which is most likely what they'd'a done in our place."

"Where we at, Vin?" JD asked.

"San Luis Valley," the tracker told him. "Biggest valley in Colorado, and they got a mess of 'em. I hear tell she's better'n eighty mile long north to south, and fifty east to west where she's broadest, and close to a mile and a half above sea level--higher'n Denver. Rio Grande's s'posed to be sourced somewheres in here too. The mountains shut it off on all sides, and when folks first started comin' in around 1850, mostly Mexicans from down toward Santa Fe, it come close to bein' like a little kingdom. They say Coronado come through here, lookin' for the gold of Quivira, and Pike, and Frémont. None of 'em had a hell of a lot of luck, Pike even got hisself took by Spanish soldiers on account of he was trespassin' on the King's territory. Most of it was give out as land grants by Mexico--one of 'em, the Sangre de Cristo, covers better'n a million acres. After they first found gold in '60, settlement picked up fast, and now they's farmin' and ranchin' pretty much from one end to th'other. Even got the railroad last year." He stood in his stirrups and peered down the long slope toward a dark blotch in the distance. "That looks like it down there--see the way the moonlight glimmers on metal? Likely that's Alamosa."

Buck sighed. They'd lost their food and camping gear with the pack horse, though their personal baggage was still on their own mounts. "Might as well go on down," he decided. "Be daylight by the time we get in, but we can get some grub and maybe pick up another outfit."

"Where there's a railroad there's telegraph lines," JD pointed out. "We could message Chris and see what's goin' on in Colorado Springs."

They made their way down the long slope, picking up the rails at Fort Garland, a good twenty-five miles below the summit on a straight line, though their own course was necessarily far from straight. A slow jog along another twenty-five miles of level roadbed brought them into Alamosa just as the light was beginning to show. High plain and flat, semi-arid valley, bounded by the spiny Sangre de Cristo Range on the east and the San Juan Mountains on the west, surrounded the community, the signboard on whose depot proclaimed its elevation to be 7544 feet. It was the chief town, almost the only town, of the valley, pleasantly located on the upper Rio Grande and named for the cottonwood trees that had been found there by the first settlers only the previous year; with rail service from the first, lumber and hardware had been quickly delivered, and buildings went up, while the D&RG made plans to probe outward in all directions from the central point provided by the settlement. Almost due northeast reared Mount Blanca, the tallest of the valley's encircling peaks, whose summit stood at nearly twice the elevation of the town. Almost due east, eighteen miles below La Veta Pass, was Fort Garland, from which the first trainload of settlers had come. And almost due southeast was Culebra Peak.

Chilled and tired, the trio found a stable, left their horses, checked into the first hotel they came to and fell into bed. It was midafternoon by the time they awoke, and they were all ravenous. The dining room wasn't open, but they found a café that was. Having taken the edge off their hunger, they checked on their horses and then walked down to the depot to send a telegram to Chris.


Pawn Index

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