by Sevenstars & Aureleigh

Colorado Springs

Knowing that Ezra's testimony was the only chance they had of finding his kidnappers, and that the kidnappers were certainly aware of it, Chris decided it would be best to get him into the hotel with as little fanfare as they could manage. They swung off the main trail as soon as they were past Manitou, skirted around Colorado City, crossed the flat to the northernmost ford of Monument Creek, and drove down Tejon Street through the gathering dusk, turning west onto Pikes Peak Avenue and pulling up, at last, at the back door of the building. Somewhat restored by his journey down the mountainside in the Victoria, Buck helped Josiah carry Ezra and his bedding up the narrow rear service stair while Maude hurried on ahead to unlock her suite and turn down the bedclothes. Chris stopped at the room Josiah had booked for the regulators and picked up Nathan's kit while JD tethered the horses on behind the carriage and took it back to the stable from which it had been rented.

By the time the gunfighter rejoined his men, they were gathered (except for JD) in Maude's bedroom, Buck slouching exhausted in a deep armchair and looking on while Josiah gently undressed the stricken gambler and Maude bathed his hot skin with a cool washrag. Nathan accepted his kit and leaned over the sick man with the bedside lamp in one hand. Larabee wondered what he was looking for. Ezra's untanned skin was marked almost all over with a freckly red rash that spread toward the trunk from his wrists and ankles; only his hands, feet, neck and face were clear of it. His breathing was shallow and insubstantial from the fever.

Nathan suddenly grunted in triumph and held the lamp closer to Ezra's left forearm. "There it is," he growled.

"There's what?" asked Chris, bending closer. Nathan's dark forefinger indicated a tiny irregular bloodstain on the skin, spreading off at an angle from a small, rounded object, rather like a hard mole in appearance, but with--were those legs?

"It's a tick," the healer explained. "It's embedded in his skin. If it wasn't all swelled up with his blood, likely you couldn't make it out at all. You can see the swelling right around the bite, too--Ezra always reacts pretty severely to insect bites, not that a tick is an insect exactly--got too many legs, more like a spider than anything. Ticks is what spread this fever--just like cattle ticks do Texas fever."

"Can you get rid of it?"

Nathan looked grimly anticipatory. "Damn straight. The trick with a tick is to make it release its jaws--if you just pull it out with a tweezer or whatever the head'll stay anchored, you gotta twist gently as you pull and it can be difficult. But there's two sure ways to make it let go--get it drunk, or get it high. Josiah, pass me that bottle of chloroform."

The others watched as the healer passed his lamp to Sanchez, twisted the cap off the bottle, and held a small wad of cotton against the mouth of it until the fibers were just damp. "Don't need much," he muttered. "Ain't like havin' to allow for the weight of a man." Delicately he placed the moistened cotton directly on top of the offending creature and held it down lightly with his fingertip for a moment or two. When he removed it, the tick slipped right off Ezra's arm and landed on the sheet. Nathan had his tweezers at the ready; he pounced and plucked it up, holding it over the lamp flame for an instant. The flame jumped and flared as the tick was consumed.

"Is that all?" asked Chris.

"I wish," Nathan replied. "Just gettin' the tick off ain't nowheres near enough. The sickness is into his blood now, and I don't know any medicines that'll get rid of it. I won't lie to you, he's in a bad way. This fever can kill, and I got no idea how long it's been since he was took down. All we can do is keep bathin' him with cool water, make sure he's covered up when the chills hit him, and see to it he gets plenty to drink. Buck says he was complainin' about muscle aches; I can treat those with cold compresses or warm ones or maybe both by turns, black willow and valerian and Jamaican dogwood, and restin' in bed will help him too. Mostly I need to help him fight the infection--his body's already tryin' to do it, that's why he's runnin' a fever. I need to get him to sweat, so's he'll eliminate the poisons through his skin and cleanse hisself. I got a whole mess of things good for that--angelica, elderflower, horseradish, pennyroyal, boneset, ginger, catnip, yarrow, thyme, peppermint, cayenne, hyssop, pleurisy root. The headache might respond to marjoram or rosemary, or maybe betony or feverfew or skullcap."

Buck had stirred himself and come over to listen. "He was havin' a rough time with the sunlight, too, Nate. Seemed like it hurt his eyes somethin' awful."

The healer nodded. "Abnormal sensitivity to light, is what the books call it. I've heard of that happening with spotted fever, same as it does with measles and smallpox, but not all the time. I'd wrap his eyes, only if he ain't sure of where he is or who he's with he might get to fightin', and that could boost his temperature even higher. Next best thing is to pull the curtains and keep the lamp turned down as low as we can and still see." He looked around at the circle of troubled faces. "I gotta tell you, we may be in for a long fight here. It's got such a grip on him--and didn't you say he wouldn't take food, Buck? That's just made him weaker. If you hadn't found him when you did, likely he'd be dead by now."

"I'll help you with him, brother," Josiah volunteered, seeing Buck take a breath. "You and JD had better get some rest before you take a turn, Brother Buck, or you'll be getting sick next."

"They can take our room," Chris decided. "We won't be usin' it tonight. You two will be busy with Ezra, and somebody's gotta keep watch in case Vin shows up."

JD arrived with his, Buck's, and Ezra's baggage, reported that the horses were seen to, and was brought up to date on the Southerner's situation. Younger than Wilmington and better able to bounce back from sleep deprivation, it was he who explained why Vin wasn't with them. Larabee was obviously annoyed, yet at the same time he understood the necessity as the Texan would have seen it. He chased Buck and the kid off to bed, sent Josiah down to get some food, and took Nathan aside while Maude sat with her son. "Tell me straight," he said. "What are his chances?"

The ex-slave hesitated, glancing toward the bedroom door. "I don't rightly know. I can't vouch for this, but the figure I've read is maybe five to seven deaths out of every hundred cases. The thing that worries me is that it took so long for Ezra to get to me; delays are what cause most of the casualties. It don't spread from one person to another, so we won't have to worry about catchin' it ourselves. But it can bring on some bad complications: heart failure, respiratory failure, brain fever, inflammation of the lungs." He looked somber. "We could still lose him, Chris, from one of them things if not from the disease itself."

"We're not gonna lose him," Chris declared fiercely. "We didn't go through all this--he didn't go through all this, gettin' himself away from the sons of bitches who had him--just to see him die from a damn little tick bite. He's not some Kansas milk cow, Nate, he's a fighter. He didn't wait for us, he helped himself, and that proves it. He's got six of us to take care of him and help him, seven once Vin gets back. He's gonna make it." He nodded once, more as if he were reassuring himself than anything else. "I won't hear of anything else. He's gonna make it."


Chris spent the night sitting up in one of the chairs in the main room of the suite, dozing on and off, but always alert for any sound that didn't belong. At some point Josiah came out and lay down on the sofa. Nathan and Maude presumably stayed with Ezra. Vin didn't return.

In the morning the Southerner's condition seemed little changed. Buck and JD appeared, cleaned up, rested, ravenously hungry and concerned about their friend. Chris took them down to the dining room for a good breakfast and an exchange of reports, bringing them up to date on what had been happening since their parting in Trinidad and listening as they described their own search. He sketched for them the story of Maude's life as she had told it, not quite sure why he wanted them to understand what drove her, just knowing that it seemed right somehow. He saw that it hit them hard. Both of them had watched beloved mothers die--admittedly, of sickness rather than violence; knowing that Ezra might have had a similar experience, and at a much younger age, made them feel they had more in common with him than they might have suspected before.

As they were crossing the lobby on their way back upstairs, the desk clerk called Chris's name and handed him an envelope addressed in a handwriting he had grown to hate. "Morning mail just came in, Mr. Larabee, and this was in it."

"What does the bastard want now?" the gunfighter grumbled. "He's got his damn money."

"Whatever it is, Maude don't need to be troubled with it," Buck observed out of his lifelong devotion to the fair sex. "Hell, pard, you've seen every letter he's sent her so far, why not just open this one and find out what he's after?"

Larabee hesitated a moment, his fierce guardianship of his own privacy warring with his natural protective instincts and the sneaking sympathy he was beginning to feel toward Maude now that he knew something of the experiences that drove her. In the end, it was those that won out, with his awareness of the pressures that were on her now, watching by the bedside of her only son. If it was Adam that was sick, and me sittin' with him, I'd want the boys to take the little everyday details off my hands, as much as they could. He withdrew to a quiet corner of the lobby and tore the end off the envelope. A small, neatly folded wad of what appeared to be aged newsprint slid out into his hand. Puzzled, he carefully unfolded it. There were two pieces. One, much longer, bore an inked legend at the top: Terre Haute Daily American, June 12, 1855. The other was a brief item labelled Terre Haute Daily Express, October 27, 1856. Chris frowned, wondering if they had some relation to him, since Indiana was, after all, his native state. 1855--that was the year he'd been seventeen and gotten into that rail-splitting contest with Bob Spikes. But it hadn't been in June. It had been September, at the County Fair. And in October of 1856 he'd been in Texas. He scanned the headline of the larger piece. Edmund Livermore, Prominent Attorney, Sentenced. Turning briefly to the other, smaller clipping, he found the same name again. Edmund Livermore Dies in Prison.

Nobody I ever heard of. He returned to the first story and read it through slowly, aware of Buck and JD looking over his arms at it. The item told of the resolution of what was apparently a hotly followed criminal trial, in which the attorney Livermore had been accused of stock fraud, misappropriation of funds, perjury, and assorted other noncapital crimes. The jury had wrestled with the question for six days before returning a guilty verdict. The judge, the Honorable Ernest Bingham of Vigo County, had thrown the book at him: twenty years' worth of consecutive prison time plus financial restitution to the people he'd swindled, fines to the state, and court costs. The other article, very brief, stated that Livermore, "an inmate of the state prison at Jeffersonville," had died of pneumonia at the age of forty-eight.

"What the hell does it have to do with Ezra or Maude?" Buck demanded. "I don't see their names mentioned."

"Let's find out," the gunfighter suggested, and turned toward the stairs.

Maude, looking worn, was in the sitting room eating breakfast off a tray. She looked up in bewilderment as Chris dropped the envelope and clippings into her lap. "Ezra's kidnapper just sent you this," he explained briefly. "Postmark's yesterday; he must've dropped it off on his way up to the Peak or back down from it."

"It appears that correspondence intended for me has been opened and read by others," the woman pointed out evenly.

"Was hopin' we could keep from botherin' you," Chris replied with a shrug. "But it wasn't what we were expectin'. Take a look at it."

"Who's with Ez?" Wilmington added.

"Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez are attendin' to him," she said. "They insisted that I must obtain nourishment. Mr. Sanchez was kind enough to order breakfast and bring it up." She unfolded the clippings and suddenly went white. Her fork dropped from her hand and bounced on the carpet.

"Miz Standish?" Buck inquired formally. "You okay?"

Maude drew a perfumed handkerchief from the sleeve of her high-necked shirtwaist and dabbed at her face. "I had all but forgotten about this," she said faintly. "It is not an experience I prefer to dwell upon."

"So it does mean somethin' to you," Chris guessed. "Who was this Livermore? What did he have to do with you and Ezra?"

"With Ezra, nothin'," was the reply. "Ezra was only nine years old at the time, and I had not seen him for several months. Where was he stayin' then?" she asked herself. "Was it with his aunt in Louisiana? no, that was the year before. was my brother in Arkansas, I think." She drew herself up, seeming to sense the impatience seething behind the gunfighter's stony façade. "As I said, it is not somethin' I care to think very much about. But, as you have doubtless guessed, in my profession one cannot always escape the wrath of one's victims. I had been engaged in a con in that vicinity--the details are unimportant at this late date--and unfortunately fell afoul of a perceptive gentleman who was connected to the state court system. He had me haled before the judge representin' the Indiana State Supreme Court for that district. You gentlemen would recognize his name: Orin W. Travis. He was in his middle forties then, and had not yet attracted the attention of the Federal level."

Indiana's first Constitution had mandated the establishment of a Supreme Court to which cases from the county courts could be appealed, though there was no necessity seen for a second appellate-level court to serve as an intermediary. The new document of 1851 made the judges of the Court--the General Assembly set their number at four--subject to election by the people. Each judge was to represent a set geographic district but be elected by statewide ballot, serving a term of six years at a time, though with the prospect of being removed if he misbehaved. Not for almost twenty years would the caseload grow to such an extent that a fifth judge was thought necessary.

In those "flush times," with the Panic of '37 a dim memory and the depression of '57 not yet so much as a dark cloud on the financial horizon, there was a mad boom for railroad-building going on all over the country. When the first steam roads of the 1830's and '40's proved their practicability, every little place that could raise the money began building a line to the nearest city. In 1850 Congress passed the momentous land-grant bill, by which even-numbered sections of the public domain within six miles of the track--two and a half million acres of it--were ceded to Illinois to finance a railroad that was to originate somewhere between Galena and Chicago (the latter eventually won) and run to Mobile, linking Cairo and the Mississippi with the northern part of the state. This set a precedent: even as more than 10,000 miles of track were laid in the following decade, over 28,000,000 acres of land were turned over to the states to stimulate construction. It also set off a scramble for the odd-numbered sections and the land immediately beyond. Hundreds of thousands of acres of public land were claimed by military warrants left over from the bounty acts of the Mexican War, the War of 1812, and even the Revolution and the French conflicts. Other tracts were bought at auction. The minimum price for land along the route was ordinarily $2.50 per acre; six miles back it was half that. Speculators bought it at a few cents above these prices, often working on borrowed money, and accumulated thousands and even tens of thousands of acres, which they held for many times the cost.

Like the other Midwestern states, Indiana's early railroads were chiefly internal "stub" lines rather than large-scale ones coming across its borders. In 1850, indeed, its only trackage consisted of the Madison & Indianapolis in the south-central region, named for its two termini, along with a branch from Indianapolis to Pendleton and a feeder that forked off at Columbus, ran to Shelbyville, and forked again to serve Knightstown and Rushville. But while a state could be reasonably certain that railroads would eventually be built somewhere within its borders, a town had a desperate need for one to route itself specifically through its limits, and therefore had to go out and get one. Since this need was often a life-or-death matter, particularly for the smaller towns, they called, for perhaps the first time in their existence, upon their local governments, whether city, town, or county, to raise large amounts of public funds. They became aggressive investors in railroad stock and boosters of their own cause. Unfortunately they rarely made any money directly from the railroad: the stocks were worthless, and towns frequently defaulted on the bonds issued to raise the subsidy, or tried to avoid payment.

The people of the Wabash River Valley were by no means immune to rail fever. Though efficiently served by riverboat traffic, they needed connections to other regions of the state. In 1851 they took the ambitious step of organizing a co-operative which they christened the Wabash & Northeastern Railroad Company, the purpose of which was to promote the establishment and building of a rail line intended to run from Terre Haute through Brazil, Greencastle, and Danville to Indianapolis, then out the other side to Noblesville, Anderson, Muncie, Hartford City, Montpelier, Bluffton, and Fort Wayne. Subscribers in ten counties, from Lafayette in the north to the Wabash-Ohio junction, took an interest in acquiring a quick and easy link between their valley and the state capitol. The chief figure of this company was a prominent local attorney named Edmund Livermore, who was interested in promoting better transportation and incidentally booming real-estate prices, since he was, like most successful lawyers, a land speculator on the side. He got himself named its president, and for three years divided his time between Indiana and the East, directing surveys and contracts, selling bonds, and raising capital. But the stocks he peddled proved to be worthless, and most if not all of the bond money apparently went into his pocket. After it became evident that something was rotten in Denmark, the towns and stockholders sued, but Livermore was spared investigation by a fire that "just happened" to destroy his financial records. The plaintiffs appealed, and the case came to Orin Travis.

Travis recognized that Livermore had a very good excuse for having a lot of money. He was well-known for his speculations. In 1850 he'd begun to buy up Mexican War scrip, usually (since the majority of veterans weren't interested in using it to file on a land claim) at a steep discount under the normal valuation of $1.25 an acre, and acquired by this means more than 200,000 acres, 30,000 in his native Vigo County alone. A quarter of it sold that same year at $8--a total of $400,000, which was enough to cover all his outlay and then some. In the same year Congress passed the Swamp Land Act, by which the various states received outright all swamp and overflow land within their boundaries, and much land began for the first time to look swampy to the authorities. Livermore represented the county board in its efforts to obtain the land to which it thought itself entitled, and within a year handled 44,000 acres of it, receiving in payment one-quarter of what he recovered. With his records gone, there was no way to prove how much of his income was the result of such good luck or shrewd investment and how much came out of the pockets of railroad enthusiasts. But even then Travis was passionately devoted to justice and very much irritated by the concept of someone misusing the trust placed in him by his neighbors. Recognizing that the case was basically one of "their word against mine," he was contemplating possible remedies when Maude was brought to his attention. When he heard of the convoluted game she'd been playing, he saw her as the ideal tool. He offered her a choice: prison, or running a con for him, on a leash, and obtaining evidence that would enable him to either find for the plaintiffs or send the case back to the lower court. "Apart from his tendency to blackmail," Maude observed, "he was at all times a perfect gentleman, and extremely thorough. He provided me with quantities of background information on the mark and allowed me free rein to determine how I thought it best used."

"Did you get what he wanted?" Chris asked, thinking admiringly of the creative and even slightly underhanded way the Judge had consented to handle the Lucas James business. Looks like he wasn't a stranger to tricks Reckon that's why it went as easy as it did--well, more or less. And then: Like mother, like son. No wonder Ezra agreed to becomin' a peacekeeper--even if he did need to be blackmailed into it. He had wondered often enough why a successful gambler--to say nothing of one previously on the run from the law--would saddle himself with a peacekeeping job, albeit reserving the right to gripe and complain about the demands it put on his time. Granted, Judge Travis had only had him jailed for bail jumping, and had never really made any reference to the offense for which bail had been demanded; Larabee thought he had a good enough notion of the Southerner's capabilities, by now, as to be pretty sure it hadn't been a major offense, the kind that would result in hanging or a long term in prison. But if indeed his mother had enough conventional morality in her makeup as to have taken on the job of setting up a sting--probably, knowing Maude, a very complex one--on behalf of the law, no matter that she had done it under duress, Ezra might well have it too.

For a moment the old devilish twinkle reappeared in Maude's eye. "As I have mentioned before, Mr. Larabee, I am the best at what I do. And I had an incentive. Yes, I succeeded in entrappin' him. The original verdict was overturned and the case retried. I was unaware of its resolution; as soon as I had played my part, Judge Travis fulfilled his end of the bargain and released me to go my way, and I promptly made my way to Natchez, pausin' only briefly to collect my son."

"I'll be damned," Buck murmured. "That's how he knew you when he saw you, comin' down through here from Denver on his way to talk to us. He recognized you from the time you worked together. I'd'a' never guessed it in a hundred years."

"Yes, we encountered each other briefly," Maude agreed. "A part of our original agreement was that my involvement in the case must be kept secret, and should we happen to meet subsequently, we must pretend, at least publicly, not to know each other. It might have been harmful to his chances for re-election, or further advancement, if it became common knowledge to what tactics he had resorted in his quest for justice. As it turned out, the case was instrumental in his acquirin' a Federal appointment several years thereafter. We have met on two or three occasions over the intervenin' years; most recently in 1870, when he sought a private audience with me and inquired as to my general welfare and how I had come through the recent unpleasantness. I believe he felt a certain obligation of gratitude toward me for havin' set him on his way to his current office. I showed him a photograph of Ezra at that time; I suspect it may have been that, enablin' him as it did to recognize my boy at the time of their imbroglio at Fort Laramie, which moved him to demand only bail of Ezra--a bond he of course jumped at his earliest opportunity, bein' unaware of any relationship between his adjudicator and myself."

JD poked Wilmington sharply in the ribs. "You were way off base this time, Buck," he said with a laugh. And then, sobering, he addressed Chris: "But what's it got to do with Ezra? I mean, if he was just a little kid when it happened?"

"It's revenge," his leader replied. "Remember in Trinidad we were thinkin' this whole business was one of Ezra's old cons come back to haunt him? Well, we were half right. It wasn't one of his, it was one of Maude's. She did this sting, Livermore went to prison and died there, probably pretty much bankrupt after the court forced him to pay his victims back. Our kidnapper has to be some friend or relative of his, out to get revenge and maybe the lost money. But there ain't much fun to revenge if you don't let the other person know you've gotten even for whatever it is you think he did wrong in the first place. That's why he sent these clippings."

" 'Course he's too damn clever to put in a note that says so right out," Buck reflected. Then a worried look appeared on his face. "Wait a minute. What if there's somethin' else he's tryin' to say? Kin of his died--disgraced and in prison--on account of somethin' Maude did. Maybe when he mailed this he didn't know yet that Ez had got away from his hired hands. Maybe he's tellin' us he plans to make Maude feel the same kind of loss he did. Maybe he's sent word to have Ez killed instead of lettin' him go."

"Damn," said Chris quietly. "You could be right. And if he has, he's gonna find out real quick that he doesn't have that kind of leverage any more. He knows we're here, and it wouldn't take him much diggin' to find out that you are. If he gets any notion that you brought Ezra with you, Ezra's life is likely to be in danger, and he's in no shape to defend himself right now. We've gotta keep him under wraps as long as we can. JD, go down to the stable and get his horse out of there, and the saddle too. See if you can find some kind of vacant building you can hide 'em in. The people who were holdin' Ezra may think to look for Gambit, and they'll know him if they see him."

JD bobbed his head and ran for the door. "Buck, get Nate and Josiah out here and stay with Ezra while I tell 'em what the score is. The one advantage we might have is that our boy wouldn't expect me to've seen the clippings, or Maude to've told us this story."

"You said you messaged Mary for anything she could find out about the Kanes," his oldest friend remembered. "Maybe she could dig up enough information to give us a notion of who we should be lookin' out for. A case this big, there had to've been a lot of coverage and gossip about it at the time. It's been more'n twenty years, but the records might still exist."

"That's a thought," Larabee agreed. "After I bring the others up to date, I'll send her another telegram." He eyed the taller man wryly. "I should send you out on your own more often, Buck, seems like it stirs up your brain."

"Told you once before, pard," was the reply, "I've always been smart. Came with the good looks and the charm. It's just they tend to hide it."

The gunfighter slapped him lightly on the arm. "JD's got you pegged. You're full of crap. Go send Nate and Josiah out here."

An hour later a telegram went out from the Colorado Springs office:



If I think adviseable, Mary thought in amazement, half an hour later and two hundred fifty miles south. Christopher Columbus Larabee, you are getting as bad as Ezra is, thinking no one cares about the Seven of you for anything but your guns. Spread the word? I most certainly will!

But first I need to send an inquiry to Indiana. If I begin with the man's home town...the newspaper editor there may still have the data in his files, or he may know where to look.


"He got away?" Miranda Kane repeated. It wasn't a shout of outrage, but a low near-hiss that sent a chill up Cole Newbolt's spine. He'd known all along that this lady boss of his could be as ruthless as any man who'd ever hired his gun--he'd watched her deal with rustlers and infringements on her boundaries--but he'd never had occasion to see her tested with something as personally meaningful to her as the loss of her father. "Why did you take so long to let me know about it?"

"Kept hopin' we could run him down," Newbolt replied. "We figured first he'd just been circlin' around to the Walsenburg road when he met Jake, not wantin' to try and go through Romeo and chance Daly gettin' a sight of him. We traced all the way back down, damn near turned the town inside out, even checked for outgoin' telegrams. Never caught a whiff of him. It didn't seem to make no sense he'd go north or west. Time we thought to try either one and got back up to where we'd started at, it was Wednesday night. I sent Jake and Sundog on up toward Poncha Pass and took Sam down through Cañon City. Didn't find no hint of him there neither, so we took the Penrose fork and come on home."

"There's been no word from them," Miranda observed.

"Might be they got on his track and didn't care to waste time," the man suggested.

"But they're still several days behind him. Did he know that his mother and three of his 'associates' were in the Springs? Could he have overheard you saying anything that would lead him there?"

Newbolt frowned in thought. "I don't rightly know," he confessed. "We might'a' spoke of it."

Miranda's lips compressed. "I haven't gone to all this trouble to come out second best," she said quietly. "Standish saw me, and he saw all four of you. He may not know our names, but he can describe us. And I want Maude Standish to know how it feels to lose someone she cares about, just as I did on her account. I want Standish dead."


It was two or three hours past dark when a quiet knock came at the door of Maude's suite. Instantly Chris, JD, and Josiah were on their feet, guns out and ready. "Who's there?" Larabee challenged.

"Me, cowboy."

"Vin," Josiah breathed in relief. "Thank You, Lord. Now we're all together again."

JD opened the door and the tracker padded in, bringing with him a wild smoky aura of sagebrush, sweet grass, gunpowder, horse, Indian-tanned buckskin, and clean mountain air. "How's Ez?" was his first question.

"Still with us," Chris told him. "Awful weak and runnin' a high fever, but he's hangin' on. Nathan's dosin' him with everything he can think of. What kept you so long?"

"I was pretty near ready to give it up," Tanner reported, "when two fellers come down the trail just as bold as you please. Big feller with leather cuffs on, and a smaller one with a feather in his hatband."

"Just like that swamper told us," JD observed immediately. "But only two?"

"One, now," was the Texan's laconic response. "I nailed the big'un. Didn't try to fetch the body back, wasn't lookin' to get things any more messed up than Eli Joe's already done made 'em. After I figured the other'd run, I circled in for a look. Sign was only enough for them two. Might be th'others headed out to Cañon City or back down to Walsenburg."

"The survivor'll probably go back to his boss and report," Chris guessed. "They'll figure the only logical reason for someone to be shooting at 'em while they were trailing Ezra is on account of his bein' one of us, tryin' to cover Ezra's retreat. So they'll guess he's alive and back with us, and they'll know the only chance they've got of not goin' to jail is to take him out. Maybe the rest of us too."

"You got a plan?" JD inquired.

"First thing we need to do is get Ezra out of the line of fire," the gunfighter decided.


Chris's plan was based on his realization that Ezra's kidnappers would naturally be looking for him first, since he was the only person who could identify them or testify directly to their having been involved in his abduction; even if he'd told his friends about his adventure, their testimony might be legally inadmissible as hearsay. This didn't mean they'd be safe, but they would certainly be at worst secondary targets. Ezra would be the primary one.

His first care was to make sure the enemy came to them on ground of his choosing. The hotel was too big, there were too many ways in and out, too many people coming and going, too much chance of some innocent passerby getting caught in the crossfire. So, about midafternoon, a figure bundled in blankets was publicly carried down the front stairs on a canvas stretcher borrowed from a local doctor, loaded into the back of a hired buckboard, and taken to one of the town's many small rental cottages. "It's Mrs. Standish's son," Chris explained to the desk clerk, as he processed Maude's checkout and took care of her bill. "He's got spotted fever. Pretty much out of it--hasn't had a sensible word to say since he got in last night. Our healer says it ain't contagious, but we'd like to take him someplace away from the middle of town, where he can have plenty of peace and quiet."

Maude and Nathan went along, with Josiah and Buck as escort. But a few hours later, both of the former slipped back in by way of the back stairs and made their way up to the room Josiah had taken for himself and his friends. "You got everything set up?" Chris asked as he let them in.

"Buck and Josiah are on watch," Nathan agreed, glancing toward the nearest bed, where Ezra lay stirring restlessly. "He changed any?"

"Seemed to be lucid for a bit," Larabee replied. "We gave him some of the tea you left. He took it, but didn't have a lot to say."

Nathan frowned worriedly. He'd been using his favorite febrifuge, two parts of boneset, two of yarrow, and one of echinacea, administering half a cup as hot as Ezra could bear it every two hours. "Maybe I better add a pinch of cayenne next time," he decided. "That makes the brew stronger. And I can put in some camomile or skullcap, they might help the restlessness. More he pitches around, the weaker he'll make hisself and the less chance the fever'll have to go down."

"The spots are gettin' bigger," JD observed worriedly.

"That don't mean much," the healer told him. "It's a normal thing with this kind of fever; it's one of the ways you tell it from measles or typhoid fever or typhus. They'll turn into sores after a while. I got some chickweed ointment that might ease 'em, it works real good for skin ulcers and all kinds of irritation. If that don't help I'll try sulphur and molasses, or marigold; there's nothin' better for skin problems. What bothers me more is that he ain't irritable and delirious like he was when you first picked him up. Some people who get this sickness turn so lethargic they can lapse into stupor or even a coma, and if that happens they may not come out."

"Is there anything we can do?" Maude asked.

"Just stay with him, keep talkin' to him, let him know he ain't alone. It might give him an anchor to hang onto." He watched as Chris moved toward the door. "I don't like leavin' it all up to just the four of you."

"We already decided this, Nate," the gunfighter reminded him. "If there's one of us that has to stay with Ezra, you're the man; you're the only one of us who really knows how to use all those teas and tinctures and what not."

"Then let me go with you," JD implored, standing up and flipping his coattails back behind the ivory butts of his Lightnings.

Larabee studied the kid, knowing that while he loved Buck like a brother, he also had a very special soft spot for Ezra, who had been the first--before even Wilmington--to fully accept him as an equal and a member of the group. He knew Jackson well enough to see how genuinely concerned the healer was over Ezra's condition, and since he understood that the Southerner probably wouldn't have gotten sick in the first place if he hadn't been trying to escape from the people who held him, he burned to even the score by taking a hand in the plan that was intended to bring them down. "We all want to be there, kid," he pointed out almost gently. "We all want a piece of whoever's responsible for Ezra bein' in this shape. But in a case like this, when we can't be sure just how many people are gonna be comin' at us, the side that holds back its reserves longest is the one that wins. Your job is to be here in case something goes wrong on our end. And Ezra trusts you. If he's awake enough to understand what's needed of him, you might have the best chance of gettin' him to tell you something we can use. Besides, I don't want to leave Nate with no backup. He'll have enough to do with Ezra and Maude to look after. You'll be the one lookin' after all three of 'em. Right now that's how you can help us most, by makin' the rest of us know that we don't have to worry about them as well as ourselves."

JD frowned a moment in thought, examining the words for any hint of illogic or insincerity. "Okay, I guess," he agreed. "You tell Buck to watch his back, though, on account I won't be there to do it for him."

"I'll tell him," Chris promised.


Pawn Index

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