by Sevenstars & Aureleigh
The letter came as the others had, in the regular mail, and the desk clerk brought it up to Maude's suite a little before noon. Chris cursed softly at sight of the familiar handwriting. "How the hell did they know?" he wondered aloud. "Nathan, you wake Maude."
The woman was already awake, but only just, and she came out to the sitting room in a China-made hyacinth-blue robe of quilted satin, with many-colored silk embroidery, over her corset, vest, drawers, petticoats and ruffled underskirt, her hair still hanging down her back in a long thick braid. She opened the envelope Larabee silently handed her, sat down on the sofa and read the contents through, and then passed the two sheets back to him. The letter provided detailed instructions regarding the transfer of Maude's winnings. The writer had obviously thought it all out carefully. Knows about us, the gunfighter reflected, and knows he ain't got but two chances of gettin' away with this. If he has us give the money to some kinda go-between, even if it ain't somebody that works for him, the odds are good we'd follow; he'd have to have the money dropped somewhere out in the open, ten miles from cover, so we couldn't set up an ambush or get a clear sight of him when he came for it. Better to do it the way he says here. This is the busiest season for trippers headin' up the Peak, and we don't even know who we're lookin' for; all he has to do is hide out in the crowds.
He passed the letter on to Nathan and Josiah and allowed them time to absorb it. "Josiah, find some place where you can rent Maude a rig for tomorrow," he ordered. "Tell 'em we'll call for it at ten o'clock."
"You just figure to give up the money?" Nathan asked.
"Don't see I got a lot of choice," Chris retorted. "Pretty clear this feller's got an eye on us somehow. If we don't go, we're as good as puttin' a gun to Ezra's head ourselves." He stared at Maude through slitted eyes. "And you'd better not be thinkin' of slippin' out of here with your winnings during the night, either, Maude. Because if you do, so help me, I don't care if you're his mother or the President's or God's, I'll see you end your life in prison for it."
"Considerin' that you slept with it last night, and doubtless intend to do the same tonight, I see no possibility of doin' so, Mr. Larabee," the woman replied evenly. "And whether you care to believe it or not, I do want to see my son returned safely to me. But do you believe this...extortionist...will keep his end of the bargain?"
The gunfighter hesitated a moment, then sighed wearily. "I don't know," he admitted. I just kept hopin' if we could drag it out long enough, we might get word from Vin and the others that they'd found him, that they'd got him out of danger. "But I know if we don't keep ours, there's no chance of it at all."
"Vin, I got somethin'!"
The tracker peeled off to the south side of the trail, closely followed by Buck with the pack horse. JD was off Seven's back, kneeling to examine the softer earth under the edge of the trees, then pointing to one of them as the two older men joined him. "Look," he said. "There's horsehair caught in the bark here. Looks like the color of Gambit's tail. And his tracks show clear where he turned off."
"Good goin', kid," Vin said quietly. He eyed the narrow gap into which the horse had apparently insinuated itself, checked the tracks for freshness, and studied their depth, directness, and distance from one another. "He's walkin', but like he knowed where he 's goin'. Might be he smelled water or somethin'. Let's follow."
They threaded their way through a mixed growth of spruce and lodgepole pine, peering through the shaded gloom for the subtle signs of the passage of a large body--broken branches on the ground or the widely scattered alder brush, horsehair caught in the wild roses, overturned pebbles, trampled moss, horse manure. They crossed a little creek where an iron horseshoe had cut a scratch in one of the bordering granite rocks, the scored mica shining like a galaxy of little stars, and plunged into the trees on the other side. They must have gone five or six miles from the trail when the forest opened out in a glade, part natural, part cleared, with a rough one-room log cabin in the middle of it. The slab door hung open, and from the dim interior came the sound of something moving about. "Hey!" Buck shouted. "Hello, the house!"
A loud snort answered him, followed by a familiar welcoming nicker to which JD's Seven instantly responded. The regulators quickly dismounted, dropping their reins, and pushed through the door. The cabin might have measured sixteen feet by eighteen, with a hard-beaten earth floor and an open fireplace. There was no furniture, only a few odds and ends--a dented pot, a stray sock, a chimneyless lamp--such as people will leave behind when they move out. Gambit, hobbled in the corner, whinnied happily in greeting as they entered. Opposite, almost invisible within the cocoon of his bedroll, Ezra lay in a huddled knot, face flushed and stubbled, hair dishevelled. He didn't stir at their advent.
Vin was the first to reach his side, cautiously peeling the blankets back and gently shaking the gambler's hunched shoulder. "Ez...hey, pard...you there? C'mon, Ez..."
The Southerner groaned softly and slitted his eyes open, dull and muddy-looking, with none of their usual sly sparkle. It seemed to take him a minute or two to process the fact that he wasn't alone; when he did, he gasped and flung himself up and back, away from the tracker bending over him, nearly knocking his head against the log wall so close behind him. "Ez!" Vin caught hold of his shoulders, pinning him. "Ezra! Quiet down, pard, it's me! It's Vin!"
"Vin...?" The response was a dry whisper, frail and barely audible. "Mistah...Tannah? What...what are you..."
"Come lookin' for you, pard," Vin told him gently. "Been trackin' you a good week now."
"What valley, Ez?"
"...Virginia...Lexin'ton...? Thought...nevah...east of Texas..."
"This ain't Virginia, Ez. It's Colorado. How come you to think it's Virginia?"
Buck had slid in on the Southerner's other side, somehow squeezing his long self into the restricted space, and pressed two fingers against his neck. "Damn, Vin, he's burnin' up."
Ezra blinked, grimacing, and seemed to gain a clearer sense of reality. "Knew... if anyone could... ascertain my... where'bouts... would be... your good self," he murmured. "Mus' tell me... what strategy you... employed to... 'suade the... formidable Mistah Lar'bee... to authorize your absence..."
"Ain't just Vin, hoss," Buck put in quietly. "I'm here too."
The dazed eyes slid sideways in response to the voice. "Mistah Wilmin'... ton? Good Lord... a veritable... embarassment... of riches. Whyevah would... he consent to... send the two men he... most trusts... in search of a... worthless, unscrupulous, undependable... grifter? Why would you... even trouble... yourselves?"
Buck glanced questioningly at the tracker. "Chris don't feel that way about you, pard. Us neither."
Ezra sighed wearily. "Don't... prevaricate, Mistah... Wilmin'ton, you're... unsuited to... dishonesty. Even in your... pursuit of the... fair sex, you.... you always mean... what you are sayin'... at the moment you utter the words. I know... I'm well aware of..." He winced and raised a gaunt hand to his forehead. "Oh Lord... it hurts..."
"What hurts, pard?" Vin asked insistently. "Tell me about it. You shot, or what?"
"I... I don't believe..." Standish hesitated, looking confused. "Truly, I... I'm not sure. Just... ache... everywheah... head hurts..." His tongue flicked out over parched lips. "So thirsty..."
Tanner frowned, caught the man's wrist and drew it out, pushing the sleeve up and peering closely at the skin. What appeared to be a freckling of pinpoint red spots could just be made out in the poor light. "Awww, hell!" he growled.
"What is it?" Buck demanded.
"Shit, Bucklin, you spent time in Colorado afore the War, ain't you never seen this? He's got spotted fever. No tellin' how long he's been layin' here, neither, gettin' worse all the time. JD, fetch some water, quick."
The kid vanished. Buck cursed quietly and scissored his long legs, working himself into a comfortable position and pulling the gambler's limp body up against his own. "Reckon that explains how his horse was meanderin' around."
"He must'a come down with it over Monday night, that's how come he 's tossin' around like I said," Vin guessed. "Still had enough strength and sense to saddle up and get mounted, but by the time he got clear of the pass he 's pretty much out of it. Gambit must'a found this place by hisself."
JD returned with a canteen and knelt to offer it to Ezra, but the Southerner had slipped back into a semiconscious state, and it took all three of them to get him to drink: Buck supporting him, Vin pressing thumbs into the hinges of his jaw to force his mouth open, and Dunne to steady the vessel. Once he realized he was getting water, Ezra took it greedily, sucking eagerly at the spout, until Vin reached over to pull it away from his lips. "Not too much, pard. Don't want you throwin' it back up."
"That would... be... improvident," Ezra agreed faintly, "to say nothin' of... slovenly and... discourteous." He blinked at the three anxious faces bending over him. "Mistah Dunne? You... also?" He chuckled weakly. "I should have... anticipated it, after all... wheah Mistah Wilmin'ton is, you... are seldom distant. I regret that you... must find me in this... unfortunate condition..."
"Ain't your fault, Ezra. You didn't ask to get sick," JD assured him, though by that time Ezra had slipped off into a sort of half-doze. The youngest regulator looked from one to the other of his older, more experienced friends, his eyes troubled. "Buck? Vin, he's gonna be okay, ain't he?"
Vin looked very serious. "I dunno, JD. This ain't nothin' to muck around with. We need to get him to Nathan as quick as we can." He glanced around and wrinkled his nose. "Ain't doin' him no good bein' in this stuffy dark, neither. 'Long's we can keep him warm, he'll do better in th'open air. Let's get him outside, Bucklin. Blankets and everythin'. You take his shoulders, I'll get his feet."
"What can I do?" JD demanded, scrambling back out of the way as the two men began maneuvering into position.
"You get Gambit outside and give him some water, son," Buck replied with a soft grunt of effort as he hefted the Southerner's weight. "Could be a couple days since he's had any food or drink--just lucky he wasn't bein' asked to do no work."
Ezra was a dead weight between his friends as they carefully moved him out through the open door. JD stripped the hobbles off the chestnut and followed, got the folding leather water bucket off the pack horse, filled it and held it for the eager animal. At least he ain't hot, so it don't matter too much if he overdrinks some, the kid thought out of his years of experience working with horses. He knew that if you worked one till he sweated, then let him drink all he wanted to and stand, his muscles could tie up badly, making him stiff and sore; he could get founder and go lame, after which he'd be good for only the lightest work; or he could develop colic or pneumonia. But if Vin's estimate was correct, Gambit had been standing quietly in the shelter of the cabin for the best part of two days, not exerting himself. Another three without food and water, however, would have finished him.
Buck and Vin found a level spot of ground under a tree, well cushioned with a thick mat of pine needles and probably more comfortable than the rammed earth on which Ezra had been lying, with the heavy boughs overhead to screen the Southerner's sensitive eyes from the light. They settled him tenderly, and Buck stripped off his long duck coat and layered it on over the smaller man's blankets. "Did he say what it sounded like he said?" he asked with a quizzical look at the tracker. "He didn't figure nobody'd come for him?"
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," Vin growled. "How a feller as smart as he is can miss what's been plumb in front of his nose for more'n a year--"
"Maybe he ain't missed it," said JD, coming back to join them. He had left Gambit on a particularly rich patch of grass, and the chestnut, soothed by the near presence of three horses he knew, was feeding eagerly. "Maybe he just don't quite believe it. I know sometimes I don't, and I never had his kind of bringin' up. I can't even count how many mornings I've been layin' in my bed thinkin' it all must've been a dream, and then I hear Buck movin' around in the next room, or Josiah's hammer down by the church, or Seven whinnyin' from the stable, and I know it's real. Or maybe it's just that Ezra's never had what he's got with us, and he's scared to accept it for fear it'll get yanked away from him somehow."
Buck looked up at his young partner with an expression of vague astonishment. "How'd you know so much about it, kid?"
JD shrugged. "Just do, I guess." He became all practicality again. "What are we gonna do now?"
"He ain't in no shape to ride," Vin observed, "and anyhow we gotta keep him warm; he gets a chill and he'll be done for sure. C'mon, kid, you can help me make a drag. You best stay with him, Buck, and give him more water any time he's awake enough to take it." He eyed the gambler's flushed face. "He couldn'a' been sick like this when he got away from 'em. Iffen he'd stayed where he was at, the worst that'd happened would'a been they'd had to look after him their own selves. We was comin' for you, pard," he whispered. "If you'd just a-set in place and waited for us, we'd'a come and got you, swear we would."
Wilmington took the canteen JD slipped off his shoulder and settled himself comfortably on the needly ground. "Best use Plata to pull the drag," he suggested. "She's stronger'n Seven and got a better disposition than Peso, and it's best we don't work Gambit till he can get fed up proper."
Taking the small camp ax off his saddle, Vin quickly cut down a couple of lodgepole saplings, thick enough to be strong but slender enough to be limber and not overweight a horse, and he and JD trimmed them of branches and cut them down to a uniform eighteen-foot length. They slipped them under the gray's stirrup leathers, one on either side, the thicker butt-ends on the ground, and lashed them together near the tips, crossing them just above the horse's neck. Vin produced a couple of long lengths of rawhide from his saddlebags, knotted an end of one of them around the right-hand pole about two feet from the butt, and began weaving it back and forth between the two, lacing it around the poles as he worked up their length. When he had tied it off at the top, he interwove the second at right angles to it, creating a sort of mesh or net about eight feet long and three wide, which would serve the dual purpose of supporting Ezra's body and keeping the poles from spreading too far apart. JD fetched a blanket and they spread it across the supporting webbing, tucking its corners in between thong and pole.
Buck watched his two young friends work, supporting Ezra's limp body against his leg and offering him water from time to time. He had always liked having people around him; he had a need to connect, with his voice, his eyes, his hands, any way that offered itself. He genuinely loved life and all it had to offer. Love in all its multitudinous forms--of family, of friends, of his country, of the ladies, of beauty--was something he valued highly. And for that reason he had never found it difficult to make friends. But these six men he rode with now--they were something special. It wasn't just that he'd hooked up with Chris again, or found JD to be big brother and mentor to; it was all of them, and in a very real sense Ezra was one of the most important of the lot. He knew Standish drove Chris crazy sometimes--hell, most times--but for Buck himself, he liked Ezra, hard as the gambler sometimes made it. Like Larabee, Buck wouldn't have lasted this long without having a fair share of insight into human character, and from the minute he first saw the Southerner in the saloon in Four Corners, holding off a crowd of angry patrons, he'd recognized for their true worth Ezra's cleverness, his spit-in-your-eye love of adventure, and his very real courage. He remembered thinking, Damn, Chris, I don't care what you gotta promise him, this is somebody we need on our side. He remembered watching the gambler interact with the Seminole children, and out of his own peculiar childhood recognizing the heart--and the aching awareness of Ezra's own inferiority, the sense that he wasn't wanted, that he was considered lower than horse manure, by others and himself--behind the words. Later on, as he'd worked longer with Ezra and had the opportunity to observe him in various situations and get to know him, he'd found still more to appreciate about the younger man. Ezra had a lot of style--something that appealed to Buck's appreciation of beauty--and the process of matching wits with him kept Buck sharp. Wilmington even enjoyed the fact that the gambler gave him some competition with the ladies. And those five-dollar words, freighted with that smooth, molasses-and-honey accent, were just plain fun to listen to and try to figure out. Buck understood, too, that Ezra had misgivings and confusion about belonging to the strange little family the seven of them were creating, along with their peripheral members, Mary and Billy, Inez, Casey and Miz Nettie, Mrs. Potter and her kids, even Judge Travis. Buck knew what that was like; as a prostitute's son, he'd experienced the pain of not belonging among his own peers, and he realized that it was difficult for Standish to trust, to depend on someone besides himself.
He remembered the lost tone in the gambler's voice when he wondered at their coming, thought of what JD had said, and looked down at the flushed features, too finely made to fall slack, but missing something vital, something that went a long way toward making Standish who he was. He found himself feeling a very real pride in the younger man, not unlike the one JD at his best could bring him. Ezra wasn't an outdoorsman, as he never hesitated to remind them, yet somehow or other he'd managed to escape from what must have been a closely guarded situation, recover his horse and outfit if not most of his private arsenal, and make his way through the wilderness for the best part of a week. Not only that, he'd had enough sense to find shelter, or let Gambit find it for him, when he realized his condition was deteriorating. Buck slipped his big hand down inside Ezra's clothes and began gently kneading and massaging the hot skin between his shoulderblades; he didn't know if Ezra was conscious enough to be aware of it, but he knew that having something similar done, preferably by a lady, always helped him feel better when he was under the weather. "You done real good, pard," he told the smaller man. "You done as good as any of the rest of us could, 'cept maybe Vin, and I'm proud of you. But we gotta have a long talk about this notion you got stuck in your head that you ain't worth as much as the rest of us. I tell you, if I could get my hands on whoever it was started you thinkin' you wasn't much better'n crap, he'd be lucky if all he ended up doin' was lookin' at the world through a couple black eyes." He lowered his voice to a confidential tone. "I ain't sayin' you're a saint, but, hell, ain't one of us comes close to bein' that. What you are is one of our outfit, pard, and we take care of our own. Shit, if you could'a seen Chris when he found out that telegram you got was a setup...you'd never believe ever again that he didn't care what become of you. He was the first one to tell Judge Travis right to his face that if he wouldn't let us come and look for you, he was resignin'. Chris was, I mean."
Ezra stirred feebly and seemed, for a moment or two, to be awake enough to make out the words. "No... shouldn't... can't... give up..."
"Job's just a job, Ez," Buck told him. "Like Chris said, couldn't do the job without the men. Couldn't do it without you. Wouldn't want to. Wouldn't be the same without any of us, but almost least of all without you."
"He seem to be takin' it in any?" asked Vin, appearing soundlessly, as was his wont, at the edge of the shaded space.
Buck shrugged. "Ain't sure. You done there?"
"Ready to go," Vin agreed. "Do it like before?"
They lifted the Southerner between them and carried him to the waiting drag while JD held Plata's head. They settled him carefully on the springy thong lattice, bedding and all, and made sure the covers were arranged and tucked in under him so they wouldn't slide off. Then Vin glanced briefly toward JD and drew Buck aside. "Been thinkin'," he said. "Ez ain't got his guns, means likely he left them boys alive that was holdin' him. They gotta know he's th'only one can say who they are or what they look like--maybe who done paid 'em too. They'll be lookin' for him still, likest."
"Thought of that," Buck agreed.
"Iffen they know where his ma's at, and Chris and them," the tracker proceeded, "might be they'll think to try this trail. That drag's gonna slow us down. They catch up with us afore we can get over the mountains, won't none of us have a chance. Best if you'n'JD take Ez and Gambit and the pack horse and go on ahead. I'll find me a place somewheres and wait. Anybody comes along that looks like who that swamper said he seen, I'll see to it they don't get no further."
Wilmington scowled briefly. "Chris ain't gonna like the notion of us leavin' you behind."
"You ain't leavin' me, I'm doin' it," the Texan retorted. "Anyhow, I been doin' the same for a lotta years and ain't nobody took me down yet. Ain't gonna do it now neither. Got too much reason to live. Got Chris's promise we'll clear my name." He nodded toward the travois. "Got to see Ez well and strong again. You know we gotta do it like I said."
"How do we get to the Springs from here?" Buck asked.
"I hear tell a feller name of Baird built hisself a toll-road around the north side of Cheyenne Mountain last year," Vin mentioned. "Goes through Rosemont, along East Beaver Creek and on up to the Seven Lakes on the south side of Pike's Peak. You can get all the way over it by wagon, they say, so a drag should make it easy enough, and once you're on the Peak you can just foller the tourist trails down to the flat. That trail we 's on this mornin' oughtta bring you to it, or at least to a signboard or somethin' that'll tell you how to find it."
Wilmington looked dubious, but he understood the worth of the tactic. If Ezra was indeed being pursued, the people doing it would probably expect him to take a more direct route to the Springs, around the north side of the Peak and by way of Chipita Park and Manitou. They wouldn't figure on him knowing about a toll road that had only been put in since he'd been living in Four Corners. Buck would actually have preferred to follow the shorter path--the quicker they could get their stricken friend into Nathan's care, the better his chances--but Ezra had been holed up here for a while, and it was entirely possible that his erstwhile captors had had time to get around and cover it from the other direction. And if they hadn't, if they were still behind him, then a rear guard was a necessity--and Vin, with his Indian skills and sharpshooter's eye, was the logical choice for the office. "Okay, we'll do it." He jabbed a long forefinger into Tanner's chest. "But you better not get shot, boy, or Chris'll have to beat me to you!"
"Don't figure to get shot. You just watch your backs and take care of Ez."
Within a stretch of ten miles, from Queen's Canyon on the north to Cheyenne Mountain on the south, a succession of creeks and canyons provided narrow corridors up to Pike's Peak: in order, Black Canyon, Williams Canyon, Ute Pass, Ruxton Creek, Sutherland Creek, and North and South Cheyenne Creeks. From June to October, dawn to dark, and often all night long, the eastern and southern slopes swarmed with tourists--afoot, on burros and horses and mules, and even in carriages. Nebraska farmers, Iowa schoolma'ams, Ohio soda jerks, some young and some far from it, they all came. Starting from Colorado City, they proceeded seven miles to Jones Park, a pretty forest glade at 9000 feet, where stood a log shack owned by the eponymous Jones, and where they could get a bite to eat or get out of the hail which not infrequently fell. Those who wished could climb another four miles to Dr. Huntington's Lake House at Lake Moraine, where forty guests might linger overnight before making the last dash (six miles) to the summit, then return to pass a second night dancing the German. Those who liked a greater challenge (to say nothing of a journey seven or eight miles shorter) could clamber up the steep slope of Mount Manitou and join the Bear Creek Trail near Lake Moraine. A side trip was possible thence, two and a half miles southwesterly over a divide to a group of bright blue ponds (the largest being eighty acres in area) called Seven Lakes, which hung on the south side of the mountain at almost 11,000 feet, looking as though they would drain away if somebody pulled the plug. Hard by stood a twenty-room, 46x24-foot hotel-of-sorts, whose co-owner, Mr. Quincy King, had christened them Minnetonka, Minnehaha, Lenore, Pontchartrain, Bear Lake, Lake Carrie, and Lake Larry, the last of which honored the Gazette's sports editor and Seven Lakes stringer. George Baird's toll-road for tie-cutters and cattlemen wound around the north side of next-door neighbor Cheyenne Mountain, through a mining camp grandly named Rosemont, along East Beaver Creek and over the steep ridges called the Seven Steps, and through two delightful little valleys until it reached the same spot. This road was twenty-two miles in length and could be traversed entirely by wagon, with only a mere five-mile hike to the summit, from which, on a good day, it was possible to see for a hundred miles in all directions. On October 11, 1873, the Army Signal Corps had established its second largest Signal Station there, its chief observer quickly reporting that water froze at 34 degrees and boiled at 178, that potatoes had to be cooked four hours to be edible and beans (except, of course, the canned kind) never did get done. A few hardy souls, to the number of about two dozen a day, paid a quarter's toll to ride a strong horse up Tom Wanless's seven-mile trail up to Crystal Park, a tidy little bowl in front of and under Cameron's Cone, from which superb views could be had of the Springs, the Garden of the Gods, the green edges of Manitou, and the jagged yellow gash of Williams Canyon.
Maude Standish's hired carriage, with Nathan at the reins and Chris and Josiah riding as flankers, made its way up the main trail from Colorado City, reaching Jones Park a little after one o'clock. The glade was already crowded with trippers breaking their journey, some of them picnicking on the grass, others availing themselves of Jones's cooking. Larabee glared around through narrowed eyes. In a mob like this it was nearly impossible to tell if someone was watching you, and even if you caught them at it, Maude was a striking enough figure to be a legitimate target for curious eyes. And in any case, Chris wasn't about to start shooting when there were so many innocent people around who might get hurt. This wasn't Four Corners, whose citizens had become well drilled in street warfare even before the Seven had come to town. This was a crowd of, mostly, Eastern dudes who didn't know the first damn thing about the rough side of frontier life.
The gunfighter removed the kidnapper's letter from the inner pocket of his tailored vest and scanned it once again, although he had effectively memorized it yesterday. It was clear that the writer was familiar with this locality, not that Chris hadn't already guessed that from the fact that he knew where the Kanes preferred to stay--and play. Larabee watched as Nathan swung down, removed the five-pound hitching weight from the footboard, and took it around to clip to the near leader's bit ring before returning to give Maude a hand down. With an amusement at once wry and bitter he reflected on how perfectly the rig suited her. Given the season, there was a heavy demand for all sorts of vehicles at the many livery stables of the Springs, and by the time Josiah had begun making the rounds, most of the more basic ones had long since been reserved, many of them several days ahead. He'd ended up with a Victoria--a light, low, elegant open carriage, roomy, easy to climb into, with sweeping mudguards to protect voluminous skirts, and two seats separated by a deeply dropped well. A folding hood provided the only protection against the weather, adequate for summer use but not otherwise. Its body gleamed mirror-bright with varnish, and the seats were upholstered in dark-blue broadcloth.
Maude's dress was the deep rich blue of wild-pea blossoms, teamed with a blue pillbox hat with feathers, gloves of French glacé kid, and a plaid parasol of the tilting carriage pattern, lavishly trimmed with lace, fringe, flowers, tassels, and ribbon bows. She thanked Nathan graciously for the arm he offered and stood by patiently as he reached into the footwell for the canvas bank-sack that held her winnings. Chris and Josiah eased their cinches and moved in close, creating a tight protective cordon around the woman and her wealth. Larabee eyed the bag and thought what a marvel it was that almost four million dollars' worth of cash and paper could be represented by so little bulk.
The quartet moved casually around the back of Jones's shack, where Chris located a rear window with a pile of firewood stacked under it, drew a line with his eye from that window to the nearest tree, and took his marks from it as the letter instructed. They entered the woods, walking slowly, not wanting to miss the blazed tree they'd been instructed to seek. A hundred yards or so in, they found it. The mark on the trunk was as it had been described: two short parallel horizontal bars with an arrowhead shape at either end. Chris pulled off his glove and traced the marking with his finger. It was dry; it must have been cut a week or more ago. That didn't surprise him; he'd known for a long time that this whole scam had been planned well in advance.
Josiah turned to watch behind them and make sure no one saw them leaving the winnings; it wouldn't help Ezra very much if some scavenger got there before the kidnapper had the opportunity to recover the sack--not that the regulators were at all convinced much of anything could help Ezra now. To the left of the marked tree and about thirty feet on, a hollow log lay on the mossy earth. Maude maneuvered her skirts to provide a screen and Chris kept guard while Nathan knelt and shoved the bag into the log, poking it as far in as his long arm could go, then picked up a yellowish rock and carefully placed it in front of the opening. This done, they turned back the way they had come, not hurrying, but not lingering unduly either. None of the trippers in the glade or around the cabin displayed any particular curiosity about where they had been or why.
Damn vulture's probably watchin' us every minute, Chris thought sourly as they walked back to the carriage. And there's not a thing we can do about it. If we stay, he can outwait us, and likely he'd have Ez beat up or killed as an object lesson afterward. Nathan helped Maude aboard and went to gather up the hitching weight. The entire stop hadn't taken more than fifteen minutes.
The healer clucked the matched grays into motion and the group turned off onto the Mount Manitou trail. It was steep and challenging, but since it ultimately linked up with a wagon road, accessible to wheeled traffic. Two or three miles on, they took the Seven Lakes fork, and the Victoria lurched its way across the divide and down toward the ponds. The letter had specified that they remain there for two hours before going back the way they'd come. It was a clever provision: between the two-way trip and the pause, the kidnapper would have ample time to collect his ransom and get away from Jones Park, and so many trippers would shuffle in and out of the glade during the interval that there'd be no way for the regulators to guess which might be their man even if they could remember all the faces that had been there when they'd first arrived.
Chris walked to the highest point he could find and stood gazing unseeingly out over the vista of close-crowded mountains and spreading plain. Are you okay, Ez? he asked silently. We'd come and get you if we had any notion where you were. I hope you know that. God, I don't think I've ever felt so helpless in my life.
"It's very beautiful, isn't it?" asked Maude's distinctive drawl beside him.
"What would you care?" Larabee snapped. "I always figured the most beautiful thing in the world to you was a nice big pile of money."
"I won't attempt to deny it," the woman replied. "I am what my past has made me--as you and your associates are. It doesn't bar me from appreciatin' other kinds of beauty. When one has no power to affect ongoin' events, there is a certain tranquility and comfort to be gleaned from the permanence of nature."
A muscle jumped in Chris's jaw. He knew he was treating her unjustly, but he couldn't help feeling a need to strike out, to exorcise the frustration and worry he felt. Damn, I knew this would happen sooner or later. Should'a never taken the Judge's offer. Should'a finished things with the Seminoles and kept on ridin'. "You know the more time goes by without our hearin' from Vin and the others, the worse the chances get that we'll ever see Ezra alive again, don't you?"
"I am not blind, Mr. Larabee," Maude told him, "or even particularly sanguine regardin' such situations as this one. I understand that my son is a material witness to his own abduction, and that its perpetrators cannot fail to be aware of that fact. And I realize that they have, as you pointed out, put a good deal of time into investigatin' him beforehand. They are almost certainly aware of his capabilities. He has been trained to observe and retain. He will be a danger to them for as long as they permit him to live."
The gunfighter turned to face her. "And you're not blamin' us? Judge Travis? The town?"
"Layin' blame after the fact is a waste of mental energy," said Maude. "One cannot change anythin' by it. You and I may never fully agree, but on one thing we can reach a consensus. My son made his choice. You played your part, all of you, but in the end it was his decision. In any case, this might have happened even if he had never passed through your dusty little crossroads. It was not his occupation which was at fault, but the fact of his bein' related to me. His abductor required an expert poker player. I was the one selected. If anyone is to blame it is I, on account of my expertise."
"I'm gonna miss him," Larabee admitted softly. "If you'd told me a year ago that I'd ever say that, I'd have thought you were loco, but it's true. He gets under your skin. I reckon it's partly the way you taught him, but a lot of it is just the man he is." He shook his head. "And I know you don't like to admit this, but he's turned into a hell of a good lawman, all in all."
She smiled sadly. "Somehow, I find that unsurprisin'. His adaptability has always been one of his best traits."
"Maude! Brother Chris!" Josiah's deep bellow brought them both around to see the preacher half scrambling, half jog-trotting up the slope toward them. He reached their position and paused to struggle for breath. "You'd best--come--down," he said. "Brother Buck--and young--John Dunne--just came over--the toll road--from Rosemont. They've got--our lost lamb--on a travois."
"Ezra?! They found him?" "My boy?" Two voices rose at once in a kind of disbelieving elation.
"He's ill--very ill--but he's alive," Josiah affirmed.
After a struggling passage through the forest, Buck and JD had made it back to the main trail and turned east until, half a dozen miles on, they found a branch road leading south, with a signboard beside it reading, simply, ROSEMONT è . They took it, Buck doing his best to avoid chuckholes and rocks that would jolt the travois, JD coming after with Gambit and the pack horse, watching to make sure Ezra didn't throw his covers off or seem to need anything. They were never quite sure at what point they lost Vin; he simply peeled off somewhere and went to find a place to set himself and wait.
The branch road wound through a hilly country with frequent views of Pike's Peak and the other summits of the Rampart Range on the left, and the rough, jagged outline of the Sangre de Cristos on the right. After about four hours they came to a small basin surrounded by hills and overshadowed by the sharp regular cone of Mount Pisgah. A creek ran through here, and they stopped to make camp for the night. Ezra kept drifting in and out of consciousness; he refused food but was almost pathetically eager for water. Neither of his friends got a lot of sleep; they divided the night into watches, but the Southerner's delirious rambling--in what sounded like at least six separate languages, only two of which, Spanish and French, Buck recognized--made it difficult for the man not on duty to rest. The next morning the regular clicking of tool metal on rock led JD to a hopeful prospector picking away at a ledge, and this rock-rat was able to direct them to a dirt trail, showing plenty of sign of regular traffic, which led them another fifteen miles to the gold camp of Rosemont.
Ezra's fever had worsened, perhaps as a result of the stress contingent on being moved, and his disorganized murmurings, when they were decipherable at all, suggested that he was suffering from hallucinations. JD had managed to patiently coax him into taking water every time they stopped, but Buck was getting genuinely worried now. He considered stopping in Rosemont, knowing that any mining camp was sure to attract doctors, but then decided that Ezra would rather be in the care of Nathan, whom he knew and trusted, than of some stranger whose capabilities were a mystery to him.
There was a delay at the tollgate; the gatekeeper couldn't quite decide how to charge for a travois, though JD, as a man on horseback, was expected to pay six and a half cents. "It's a one-horse vehicle," he muttered, scratching his head, "but it ain't got wheels, so I can't ask twelve and a half for it, like I would for a chaise."
Buck was in no mood to haggle. He leaned down out of Plata's saddle, clenched his fist in the man's shirtfront, and hauled him literally up the gray's side to stare into his face through eyes gone black with fury. "This man's got spotted fever," he growled, "and we're takin' him to where he can be looked after. So we don't want no holdups. You get that damn gate open or we're goin' through it." He released his hand and the gatekeeper landed hard on his rump in the dirt. "Now move!!"
The gatekeeper moved. JD tossed him a quarter as he rode by, to make up for Buck's intransigence.
On a straight line the Seven Lakes were just over four miles northwest of Rosemont, but the road took a longer route, following East Beaver Creek almost due north, then skirting the head of Gould Creek and crossing the divide, zigzagging slowly up the slopes, bumping over the Seven Steps and on through the valleys. Buck was never quite sure at what point he started dozing in the saddle, worn out by a week of tension and worry and more than twenty-four hours without much sleep. At first he thought he was dreaming when he heard Nathan's voice, but then as he shook himself back to alertness he realized that JD was babbling in response to it, his lighter tones filling in the gaps between the healer's dark molasses-brown word-strings. He blinked in confusion, wondering if JD was sharing his dream. Then a hard hand fell on his thigh and he looked down into Chris's pale eyes. "Buck! Damn it, Buck, are you with me? Are you all right? What happened? Is he shot?"
Wilmington scrubbed a hand over his face, feeling the rasp of stubble against his skin and thinking absurdly how irritated Ezra would be if he were in any condition to realize he hadn't shaved in however long it might have been. "How'd you get up here, pard?"
"Long story," Chris replied briefly. "What's wrong with Ezra?" From somewhere behind Plata's tail Buck could catch Nathan's voice, though he couldn't make out the words, with occasional overlays of Josiah's deep rumble and Maude's soft drawl.
"Spotted fever," he explained past a yawn. "Chris, you ain't gonna believe what that slithery little Carolina snake managed to do. Got himself clean away from them boys that was holdin' him and was headed for the Springs when he got sick, at least we think that was what he had in mind. We found him holed up in an abandoned cabin just this side of Wilkerson Pass."
"Damn," Larabee murmured in wonder and admiration. Then: "Where's Vin?"
"Long story," Buck grinned, and yawned again.
Nathan appeared at Chris's shoulder before the gunfighter could react. "Maude says we best put Ezra in the carriage, says it'll be quicker--and prob'ly easier on him too. Josiah figures we can lay him on the back seat and use the hood to keep the sun out of his eyes, it seems to be troublin' him pretty bad from what JD tells me. But we'll need somebody to sit in the well and make sure he don't slide off."
"That'd be me," said Buck. "Ain't sure how the hell much longer I can stay in the saddle anyhow. JD can bring the horses on."
Pawn IndexComments to: Sevenstars