by Sevenstars & Aureleigh



In her hotel room in Colorado Springs, Maude scanned the new telegram that had been delivered only minutes earlier.


"Oh, my darlin' boy," she said softly. "Whatever have you gotten yourself into now?"

She clutched the paper to the heart-shaped neckline of her pale green satin and thought bitterly that this was just what she had been fearing, or at least held the prospect of being the start of it. She had known all along that he had made a bad choice. How could he have been so blind? Had it never occurred to him the kind of danger to which he would be exposing himself by taking up the profession of peacekeeping? Nothing like this had ever befallen him in his years on the circuit--but in little more than a year as a lawman, settled in one place, forming attachments, he had been lured into Lord knew what.

Couldn't he see how that dusty little town, those six crude gunslingers (well--five; Mr. Sanchez was an intelligent and educated man, even Maude was forced to admit that), were ruining him? How far beneath him such associations were? How they were dulling his edge, clouding his judgment? Whatever did he think to gain from it all? Did he actually believe he was being in any way appreciated? She had believed she had set him on the right road; for years he had put his talents to use wisely and profitably. Why this sudden change? She had noticed the change in him during her visits, the way he seemed resentful of her attempts to wean him from this new lifestyle. But wasn't it her duty to point his errors out to him, to expose the corrupting influence of his current associations? Couldn't he understand that she was only looking out for his best interests? Yet every time she tried, his only response was contempt, defensiveness, anger and hurt. He accused her of meddling in his life, of seeking to control it in a way she had never done even when he was a boy, of pushing and manipulating. She preferred to think of it as natural maternal concern--the same that had kept her leaving him in the care of the relatives, twenty years ago and more; she couldn't be sure she'd be able to support two of them, especially in the style to which she needed to become accustomed (no one was going to trust a con artist who didn't look prosperous, after all), and she had wanted to spare him as much as she could of the pangs of deprivation. That was why she was always careful to choose at least reasonably prosperous households. What good did it do to saw your son off on a family that couldn't afford to feed him? What prospect did you have of getting monetary assistance from the dirt poor?

Maude had lost the stability out of her own life at an early age, and had had her first husband, Ezra's father, taken from her far too soon. The experience had taught her that life was hard, that reality didn't "play fair," and that the world and the people in it took and took and took. No one stood behind you, or beside you. So she had tried to protect her growing son from the world's cruelties, to prepare him to meet them. She didn't, in her own view at least, purposely neglect him; she taught him to be independent. She had impressed upon him the necessity to stay alert, to defend himself, to strike first and get out fast. Make a profit and move on, just as others would do from him if he let them. People couldn't be trusted. History always repeated itself, unless you made provisions to prevent it. Happiness and stability lay only in money. If you had enough of it, no one would dare to disrespect you--at least, not to your face.

Ezra could be anything! He could be the greatest con artist the country had ever known, or an internationally famous gambler, like his father's father. Didn't every parent, male or female, want their child to be a success, to make proper use of whatever innate gifts that child might have? And her son's were so wondrous! He had a sharp mind, a true gift for every skill a con artist must master, and her pride in him was genuine, though she had never made a habit of expressing it: self-satisfaction led to carelessness. Did he truly not see what he was risking? And if he did, why had his survival instinct not kicked in, why hadn't he long since cut his losses and run? What held him? Hadn't she warned him, time and again, of the perils of remaining in one place for too long, growing attached to any place or person or thing, bonding with the locals, depending on--trusting--others? She had been so certain he had absorbed her lessons well. Wherever had he come by whatever innate flaw had brought about these changes in him? Had she put in all those years teaching him, passing on the lessons she had been forced to work out on her own, just to see him waste his talents and substance in Four Corners? Just to someday receive a telegram from Mr. Sanchez or Mr. Larabee that he had met an early, ignoble, violent death in that dusty street, or, worse, out in the forsaken wilderness?

Yet was it truly the choice he had made which was to blame? Looking back, it seemed to Maude that, ever since her son reached his maturity, arguing was what they did best. Oh, it had always been the most civilized kind of arguing, veiled behind fine words and soft tones and cutting politeness, but arguing it was. They were, perhaps, too much alike. Or so close in skills that rivalry and jealousy were inevitable between them. Much as she hated to admit it, Ezra seemed to have found his place. He ran with a pack that suited him. He belonged. Maude had seen this each time she visited him--and she had seen more of him, this past year and a half, than she had for all the ten years before. With each encounter she saw him blossoming--so subtly, perhaps, that only she, who had known his father, could have seen it. She saw more and more of Patrick emerge into the light, saw Ezra's defenses soften. She saw the other six men become his lifeline, his family, and his confidants--what she should have been to him and never had. And in that case, perhaps the change Ezra had made in his life could lead to a better relationship between them, as he became more honest and conventional in his life and dealings, less of a threat to her and her reputation, or perhaps more accurately her image of herself.

If--only if--he survived whatever situation he was in now.

And still that answered nothing of her first question, which was why he had chosen Four Corners and the perils of being one of "the Seven." Was it connected to the emotions that had pushed him into begging and pleading for her leave to enlist in the Confederate forces (though he'd been only fifteen when the War broke out, and already well indoctrinated, or so she had thought, in the philosophy of "look out for number one, first, last, and always"), and threatening at last to run away and join up in spite of her, until she had arranged a spot for him on a blockade runner? But he was no longer an impulsive, idealistic, high-blooded boy. He was a man of experience, a man who knew--she had thought--what the human race was all about and what was important in life.

She was accustomed to being angry, disappointed, disgusted, over Ezra's actions, but not to being hurt--or to regretting anything she had done. She was genuinely both confused and dismayed by his apparent lack of filial feeling--and confused and dismayed that she should be so. Surely she was hardly the only woman on Earth who didn't know or understand her son?

They had been a masterful team. In his youth she had capitalized on his "innocence," and as he matured she had used his charm, his good looks and nimble fingers to great profit--for both of them!

But she had never in his life used him as brutally as she had in the affair of the rival saloons. They had been at worst teacher and pupil, at best partners. She had teased him and sometimes tricked him, but she had never betrayed him.

No, she refused to call what she had done by that name. It had been for his good. She couldn't stand by and watch while he sank his roots deeper and deeper into the town, as owning property there would require him to do. If it meant breaking him financially--if it meant breaking his heart, or making him hate her--still it was her duty as a mother to do what she saw as best for him, what would be likeliest to preserve his life, his soul, his peace of mind. Some women had sacrificed their lives to such ends. Maude's life hadn't meant a great deal to her since she lost Patrick. All she had to live for was her son. And if saving him from himself condemned her to spending the rest of her years as an object of his scorn and bitterness, still it was better than standing at his grave one day, as she had stood at his father's.

She would not do that again.

Never again.

She unfolded the paper and read Josiah's message over again. Perhaps his advice was warranted. She was a mistress of her profession, but these six men had hunted other men for a living. They were better suited than she to learn what had become of her son. She would wait a while.

But not for long.


On the Trail North

The Next Day

There was little talk for the first three or four hours of the ride. Chris's flinty face, Vin's intent expression, Josiah's and Nathan's grimness discouraged the idea. But JD's agile mind was working, and after a while he dropped back, waiting until Buck followed. "Horse givin' out, son?"

"No, she's fine," JD replied, patting Seven's neck. "I was just thinkin', though...nobody else is sayin' anything about this, I guess they're all too worried about what Ezra's in the middle of,'d Judge Travis know Maude when he saw her?"

Buck's brows shot up. His lips parted as if to reply, then he paused, frowning, as he wrestled with the question. "I'll be damned," he said after a moment. "You're right. Far's I know, them two ain't ever been in Four Corners together."

"He is a judge," JD observed, "and I guess he ain't always had a circuit out here; he works for the Federal Government, you know how they move Army officers around, judges are likely the same. And to hear Ezra tellin' it, his ma's been connin' folks since he was just a kid. Maybe the Judge was back East somewhere and she came up before him in court."

"Wouldn't be surprised," Buck agreed. "Hell, I don't care how good she is, there's gotta be times she ain't moved fast enough after a con's over...but then how'd he have known Ezra was her son? She likely don't use that name all the time, that's why Chris was worried she wouldn't get his wire."

JD thought about it. "Yeah, maybe. Can't see her showin' off a photograph of him to the man that was hearin' her case...what do you think the answer is, Buck?"

The gunslinger's eyes gleamed with mischief. "I can think of one. Pillow talk."

"Huh?" Then Dunne's eyes widened. "Aw, Buck, you're not sayin' that Judge Travis-- no, he wouldn't!"

"Why wouldn't he?" Wilmington retorted, his expression momentarily grim. "On account of he's married? Boy, if I had a dollar for every man that took his wedding ring off when he walked in the door of any of the houses I grew up in, I'd be as rich as Stuart James." The dark mood drained away. "It's not that I'm blamin' him none. If it's true, at least he didn't go out lookin' for it. Likely just met up with her casual-like somewhere...hell, he spends most of his time on the road, I reckon he gets lonely. Ez is, what, thirty-three, thirty-four now? If Maude had him when she was twenty, that puts her around her middle fifties now, a good age for a man like the Judge. You gotta admit she's a handsome woman, and she can be real sweet when she wants to; that's why she's so good at what she does."

JD turned the idea over in his mind. Maude's profession did require her to move around a lot. It was possible that she and Travis had been stranded in the same town for some reason--a washed-out bridge, a blizzard, hell, even a quarantine for something or other--and had gotten to know each other while they waited for the chance to continue their respective journeys. "You reckon that's one reason he was willing to pardon Ezra for jumpin' bail up in Fort Laramie? As a favor to Maude?"

"Neither one of 'em's ever said much about what happened up there, why he'd had to give bail in the first place or anything," Buck reminded him. "Judges have done a lot worse for a lot worse reasons."

JD thought of the one in Jericho who'd sentenced Chris to that hellhole of a private prison and nodded. "Didn't seem like he really thought about what he was sayin'. I mean, it didn't seem to occur to him that any of us might wonder, or ask, how he knew her."

"Or how he'd have connected her with Ez, like you said," his friend agreed. "Hell, you know yourself she says she's been married five times, but she still uses the same name Ez does. Who's to say he ain't like me, never knowin' his father? Could be the Judge is it. He'd been, what, around thirty-five when Ez was born. Damn, now I feel like a donkey snappin' at a carrot on a stick. Somethin's just out of our reach here, and it's gonna keep at me like an itch till I get an answer for it."

They paused at each of the stage stations along the road, asking if Standish had passed by, and always being assured that he had. In Watsonville the word was the same. By sundown, when they pulled into Aura Lee and stopped for the night, they'd covered just over seventy miles. They saw to their horses, found a place to eat, consumed their meal in a weary silence and fell into their beds. In the morning they were on their way again as soon as they could see, not even waiting for the local eateries to open their doors, choosing rather cold food eaten in the saddle.

Chris set the same steady pace as before, and around three o'clock they raised the outskirts of Trinidad. The gunfighter signalled a halt and beckoned them in. "Buck, you read the telegram Ezra got. Do you remember the doctor's name?"

"Sure do. Pickett. Stuck in my mind 'cause the minute I saw it I thought of Pickett's Charge."

"All right. We'll split up, we can cover more ground faster that way. Vin and I will ask around and see if we can track down this Dr. Pickett. Buck and JD, find the local law and ask if he knows anything about Ezra; JD, don't you hesitate to flash your badge if you have to--he's likelier to talk if he sees he's dealin' with a fellow peace officer. Josiah and Nathan, you check the hotels, boardinghouses, stables, anywhere Ezra or his horse might be. We'll meet at six at the saloon nearest the center of town."

That saloon proved to be called the Exchange. Buck and JD got there first, but Vin and Chris weren't far behind. One exchange of looks was all the quartet needed to know that neither of its components had succeeded in tracking down the missing gambler. Nathan and Josiah straggled in last of all, both looking as if they'd lost their best friend. Chris ordered a bottle and glasses and waited till the girl who brought them had gone back to the bar. "What have you got?" he asked.

"Not a damn thing," Buck replied sourly. "Sheriff here seems a decent enough sort, but he hadn't seen or heard of anyone who answered to Ezra's description. We asked around some, up and down the main street, and got the same."

"No sign of our brother or his horse in any of the places we visited," Josiah added. "I take it you failed to connect with Dr. Pickett?"

"We found his house," Chris admitted-- "kind of a run-down lookin' place in the poorer part of town. Door was locked and nobody came when we knocked. 'Course a doctor can be just about anywhere just about any time, what with calls and emergencies."

"Do you reckon he even knew they were usin' his name?" JD wondered. "Maybe they were layin' for Ez outside of town somewhere and picked him off before he even got in."

"No, I think Pickett was in on it somehow," Larabee mused. "This town's bigger than ours, but not so big that the doctors, at least, wouldn't be pretty well known. If some stranger showed up at the telegraph office claimin' he wanted to send a wire in Pickett's name, that might stir up suspicion. More likely whoever they are they paid him off to do it, and to wait till Ezra got here. I'm betting he's the key, and if we can get our hands on him we can squeeze somethin' out of him."

Nathan sighed. "Might as well find somethin' to eat," he suggested with a healer's practicality. "Maybe we can take turn about watchin' his house and catch him when he gets home. Won't do us or Ezra no good if we don't keep our strength up."

"Hotel just east looks like it might put out a decent spread," Josiah added. "We can sign up for rooms while we're there."

They finished their drinks and trooped dispiritedly over to the building, where they registered and got their meals, hardly noticing what they ate. It was while they were paying their bill at the cashier's station that JD yelped and snatched a newspaper from the rack nearby. "Chris! Buck, look at this!"

It was Trinidad's own local weekly, dated the previous Friday. Midway down the front page was the headline that had caught the kid's eye: Dr. Pickett Found Dead. Chris snatched the sheet from JD's hands, skimming rapidly over the brief article that accompanied it. Then he reached into the pocket of his tailored vest and slammed a coin on the counter. "We're taking this," he said.

"Wait--sir, your change!" the girl objected. "This is a dime, and the paper's only three--"

Larabee hadn't waited. He was already out the door, his duster swirling around him like a storm cloud, his men following in a ragged clump. Once on the sidewalk he paused just long enough to glance up and down through the diminishing light until he located the sheriff's office, then strode toward it with the air of a man willing to go through anything that got in his way, including a stagecoach if necessary.

The building was soundly constructed, with rock walls eighteen inches thick, and meshes of woven metal strips protecting the windows. Inside, the front office wasn't unlike their own: a battered golden-oak desk in one corner for the head lawman, a Franklin stove in another, a small but heavy key-locking iron safe in a third, a banjo clock on the wall, a standing gun cabinet, a large bulletin board papered with layers of dodgers, and a flattop desk for the deputy fronting the filing cabinets that were generally his responsibility. A thick oaken door, studded with iron hinges and bolted with thick round tongues of the same, presumably led to the cell bloc. The sheriff was a weatherbeaten man of Chris's age or beyond, with a firm jaw, a prominent beak of a nose, high cheekbones and squinty plainsman's eyes. He wore a rather narrow-brimmed hat with four dents in the crown bringing the top to a sharp peak, a blue serge coat over a plain nankeen vest, a good shirt with a turned-down collar and a black silk four-in-hand tie. A trailing dark handlebar mustache hid his upper lip. He was conferring with his deputy, a younger, clean-shaven, sun-browned man in the collarless shirt, colorful bandanna, and dove-colored chamois jacket of a working cowboy. They both looked around alertly as the six men entered their office, making it suddenly very crowded.

"Name's Larabee, out of Four Corners," Chris declared. "You talked to two of my boys here earlier, about a man I'm missing."

"That's right," the sheriff agreed, "a gambler, they said, named Standish. I told 'em I hadn't seen him."

"Don't dispute it," Chris replied, "but what can you tell me about this?" He held out the paper in one hand, pointing out the headline with the other.

The lawman squinted at it a moment, then tilted his head to regard the gunfighter curiously. "Your boys didn't say they was interested in nobody but the gambler."

"Humor me," said Chris, his voice like steel. "It says here Pickett was 'found dead.' What did he die of?"

Sheriff Joshua Hanstrom scrubbed a hand across the side of his face and sighed. "We tried to keep it out of the paper so as not to hurt his kin, but you bein' strangers I reckon there's no reason you shouldn't know. Doc Pickett's been on a slippery slide downhill as long as I've known him, and I've run beef and worn a badge in these parts since 1855. He was already on the bottle when he first came here, and it got worse as time went on; at first he had a pretty steady list of patients, but most of 'em dropped him before too long. Can't blame 'em; who'd want a man cuttin' on 'em when his hand shook so bad half the time he couldn't hardly so much as light his own cigar or button his vest straight?"

"He drank himself to death?" Josiah guessed.

"That's what it looked like to us. The boy that delivered his firewood went to his house Friday morning to collect his pay, but the front door was locked and nobody answered his knock. He knew Doc would leave the money on the kitchen table for him if he was expectin' to be out when the kid got there, so he went around to the back, found the door unlocked and Doc lyin' on the floor, dead as a salt mackerel. Gave the boy a turn, I can tell you. Our coroner gave him the once-over and couldn't find any wounds or other signs of foul play. Said he'd been dead maybe twelve hours or a little less at the time. There was a bottle by his chair in the front room, and a shot glass with three ounces still in it."

Buck frowned. "If he'd been drinkin' in the front room, why was he found in the kitchen?"

"Our guess is he got up to go to the privy, and his heart give out midway. The wonder of it is that it didn't happen a year or two ago. We checked his private papers and found out who to notify; somebody'll probably be out in a week or so to oversee the disposal of his property and effects." His shrewd gray eyes studied the six men keenly. "What's your interest in him?"

"Our missing man got a telegram, supposedly from him, that claimed his mother was in Pickett's care," Chris explained. "That's why he came here. We were figuring we'd wait till Pickett got back from wherever he'd gone and have a little parley with him."

Hanstrom shook his head. " 'Fraid you'll have a long wait, then."

"Somebody's been cleanin' up loose ends," Buck guessed. "They figured we'd get to wonderin' about Ez eventually, and they didn't want to leave Pickett alive to tell us the truth."

Chris nodded. "But maybe they missed something, all the same. Sheriff, can we get into Pickett's house and look around? You and your deputy can come with us if you want."

The lawman frowned a moment in thought. "Well, I reckon Pickett's not likely to object," he said. "Sam, get his house keys out of the safe."


JD wrinkled his nose at the musty, sour odor that greeted them as they entered the doctor's house, and grimaced as Hanstrom lit a lamp and turned up the wick, revealing the ill-kept state of the place. "How can a man live like this?" he wondered aloud.

"I seen worse, son," Buck told him, thinking of some of the situations he'd dragged Chris out of in the weeks and months immediately following Sarah and Adam's deaths. "Once a man gets friendly enough with the bottle, he quits carin' about appearances."

Chris stood in the middle of the worn dark figured parlor carpet like a sliver of the gathering night come indoors, only his head moving as he slowly scanned the scene. The room had apparently doubled as the waiting area for patients; a set of pocket doors at the back, one of them pushed about six inches open, seemed to give access to the consulting office, probably converted from an original dining room. "I'm guessin' you found no sign of a struggle," he observed to the sheriff.

"No, nothing out of the ordinary. We pretty much left things as they were; no reason to use county money to straighten the place up when someone from the doc's family will be by sooner or later to do it."

"Nathan, if you wanted to kill a man without leavin' a trace, how would you do it?" Larabee inquired.

"Could be any number of things," the healer replied. "This bein' a doctor, likely they used somethin' out of his own supplies. Laudanum in his whiskey bottle, digitalis, hell, even caustic or undiluted carbolic acid if they could trick him into drinkin' it. Prussic acid would do it too--a drop or two in a glass of water 'll finish you off quick, in a good bit of pain, just like heart failure. Or rat poison, or too much chloral hydrate--that's knockout drops, Buck," he added, "or arsenic water, or lye, or even strychnine, though that causes convulsions, and the position of the body would likely show it. But my bet would be the digitalis, or laudanum, or too much chloroform--somethin' he'd have had on hand. A stranger buyin' poison, somebody'd remember it, 'specially after a citizen turned up dead a day or two later." He shook his head. "Wisht I could'a got a look at the body, maybe I'd'a had a chance to tell for sure."

"Can't oblige you, I'm afraid," said Hanstrom. "He was a good doctor once, saved his share of lives. We figured the least we owed him was a decent burial. We laid him away Saturday morning."

"Why do you reckon they moved him out to the kitchen afterward?" JD wondered.

"My guess would be to give themselves more time to get clear," Chris told him. "Think about it. If they'd left him in his chair, anyone peerin' in through that front window would be able to see him, but if he was lyin' on the kitchen floor like the sheriff says he was, the only reason for someone to discover him would be if they walked right in, the way the firewood kid did. Till that happened, anyone who couldn't raise him would assume the same thing I did, that he was out on a call. His killers would figure that the longer he was dead before being found, the less chance anyone would be able to nail down a time or connect them to it."

No one had noticed Vin drifting off down the adjoining hallway; he was never at his ease around lawmen he didn't know. Now, suddenly, he reappeared, silent as the wolf that was his guardian. "Best you come see this, cowboy," he murmured in Chris's ear.

"What'd you find, pard?"

"You was askin' on signs of a struggle. Reckon I got some," was the plainsman's answer.

Everyone trooped after him to a curtained front bedroom whose door was half hidden under the stairs. "Phew!" JD snorted. "Kerosene!"

"You got it, kid," Vin agreed, turning up the light. "It ain't wet no more, but I reckon it's soaked into the rug. Lookit here. Got a table turned over, and this lamp busted all to hell--must'a been on it when it went. Not lit, or there'd been a fire sure."

"This bed's been slept in," Josiah observed.

"Be damned," murmured Hanstrom. "We didn't think to look in here."

"They banked on that," Chris told him. "My bet is they checked Pickett out pretty thoroughly before they made up their minds to use him as their front. You said his patient list had fallen off to just about nothin', and that's a thing that wouldn't be hard to find out. They'd know that you'd know that he wouldn't be likely to have anyone stayin' here, so you'd have no reason to check the house out once you saw he was dead."

Vin was on his hands and knees, examining the rug closely, peering under the bed, and then letting out a muffled oath in Comanche and thrusting an arm in beneath it. "Damn," he muttered, "cain't reach it. 'Siah, you get a clothes-hanger outta that press yonder?"

The preacher quickly produced one, and Vin poked it into the obscuring shadows, raking it around until he got what he was fishing for. When he stood there was a gleam of metal in his hand. He spread his palm so they could all see what he had found: a double-barrelled derringer with engraving on the metalwork and an ivory-and-pearl butt. They all recognized it. Each of them had chipped in three dollars to buy it for Ezra's present last Christmas. "He was here," said Chris flatly. "Now we know."

"And they got him," Buck added, looking grim. "Must'a had some warning it was a trap and triggered that sleeve rig of his. It been fired?"

Vin quickly checked the chambers. "Naw. Still got both rounds in it."

"See any sign of blood on the rug, Vin?" Nathan asked.

"That's what I 's lookin' for when I seen a gleam under the bed," Tanner told him. "Didn't find none, though. Reckon he weren't hurt too bad."

"Well, he's not here, so they had to have taken him out," said Chris. "We'll start asking the neighbors in the morning."

"I hate to throw cold water," Hanstrom said, "but you ain't likely to get very much from them. Nobody much came to Doc Pickett anymore but poor folks and strangers that didn't know no better, and you can see for yourselves this house is kinda off by its lonesome."

Larabee drilled him with a look. "You know your town, Sheriff. But somebody's taken a man of mine against his will and I mean to find him if I have to personally turn over every goddamned pebble in this county." He took the derringer from Vin's hand and slipped it into his vest. "I'll just keep this for him. He'll want it back. Let's go get some sleep, boys, and start fresh tomorrow."


In the morning they spread out, teaming up as they had the day before, each with his natural partner--Chris and Vin, Buck and JD, Josiah and Nathan. The preacher paused first at the telegraph office to send an update to Maude in Colorado Springs, informing her briefly that they believed Ezra to have been abducted but alive, and were searching for clues that would tell them where to start looking for him. Then he and the healer began asking questions, concentrating, as they had yesterday, on boarding establishments for man and beast, on the theory that Ezra's abductors had almost certainly been in town for at least a day or two before he got there, setting things up, and might have done or said something that had been idly noticed but dismissed at the time as of no great significance.

They thought they might be on the trail of something when, a little before noon, they paused at one of the town's livery barns. The owner was called away to deal with the return of a rented buggy as they were talking with him, and a youth of seventeen or so sidled shyly up from out of the shadows just inside the doors, where he had been listening to their exchange as he raked out the centerway. He looked up at Josiah with an awed expression and gulped several times. "You said--you said--you was lookin' for--"

"For anything that didn't look quite right, son," the preacher prompted kindly. "Why?"

"I seen somethin'," the youth declared. "There was a lady rented a horse off us. Wanted the sidesaddle put on, she did. Had a gun, too," he added proudly, "not a big gun like you got, but a gun."

The two men traded looks. A woman who rode sidesaddle but carried a weapon? That did sound unusual, if not promising. "Anything else you notice about this woman?" Nathan asked.

For a moment the kid seemed confused. He glanced questioningly at Josiah, who took a closer look at his vague, somehow unformed features and china-blue eyes and realized they were dealing with what the Scots call "an innocent." "Go on, son," he urged gently. "Did you see anything else that was strange about her?"

"When she come back, she wasn't ridin' no more. She had the horse on a lead and was drivin' one of our buckboards."

Nathan tilted his head. "You reckon they took Ezra out in the wagon?" he asked his friend.

"Might have. We know there was a struggle in that bedroom in Pickett's house. Maybe he was unconscious and not able to ride, but they didn't want to loiter around until he came to. Even if not, tie and gag him and throw a tarp over him and anyone they met on the road wouldn't notice him and be able to respond to our descriptions later."

"Seth!" yelled the stable owner. "Quit botherin' the gents and get back to your work!"

The boy dropped his rake, scrambled to recover it, and scurried back into the barn. The owner rejoined them, looking embarrassed. "Sorry for that. Seth's kinda simple, you know? Sleeps in a stall, talks to the horses. He's got a good way with 'em, I have to give him that; he can crawl right between the legs of the wildest of 'em and not get kicked. But he ain't always plumb clear on what's real and what ain't--swears they talk back to him."

"Maybe they do," Josiah observed. "Just because they've never spoken to you is no reason to think they don't. Seth?" he called, but the boy didn't reappear.

"Shouldn't pay him no heed, friend," the stable owner reiterated. "He's reliable enough as long as you keep on his tail, and at least he don't drink or smoke, which is one reason I keep him on, but he don't exactly live in the same world as the rest of us."

Josiah took breath to ask whether there had indeed been a rented buckboard returned by a woman who had gone out a-horseback, but stopped before he spoke. Seth hadn't mentioned a day of the week. If he was as simple-minded as his employer seemed to think, he might be remembering something from six months ago or longer--or, if he did indeed have a problem distinguishing reality and fantasy, he might simply be imagining the whole thing. It wouldn't be malice: he might genuinely want to be of help, not realizing that such "help" would only obscure the trail Ezra's friends were seeking. He contented himself with asking idly, "Do you rent out a lot of buckboards?"

"Usually got at least one or two out any day you care to name," the man agreed. "They ain't as popular as the buggies, but the drummers like 'em 'cause they give more space for luggage and sample cases, and some folks who live in town use 'em to haul feed rather than keepin' one of their own or makin' the feed store break out their big wagon just for a few sacks of grain or a couple of salt blocks. It's not unusual for three or four households to chip in and share."

Josiah nodded thoughtfully. In such a situation, he saw, it would be difficult to isolate any specific buckboard or renter. "We're obliged for your help," he said, and he and Nathan went their way.

Chris and Vin discovered that, as Hanstrom had warned, Pickett's neighbors proved an unproductive lode; Animas Street was inhabited mainly by people on the way through or up, who wouldn't have had any experience by which to know what was "unusual" and what wasn't, and though they seemed willing enough to talk, they didn't have anything useful to offer. Buck and JD, meanwhile, had been concentrating on the town's saloons. "Could be we can get onto somethin' by askin' around what we really want to know," the gunslinger explained to his protegé, "like turnin' your head to see a dim distant campfire out of the corner of your eye. Whoever was out to get their hands on Ez had to have help, and that help had to be paid. Maybe they dropped some of that pay while they were waitin' around for him to show, and maybe they let somethin' else drop while they were about it."

Trinidad was a crossroads of travel, however, with rail service from northeast and north and stage lines linking it to the remaining routes, all of them pouring strangers through, and having been founded in the '60's it boasted quite a few well established ranches which tended to attract drifters looking for work, particularly at this, the time of year when all cattle spreads were at their busiest. This meant that the citizens were quite accustomed to strange faces, even if they noticed them for what they were, and paid them little specific heed unless they did something really out of the ordinary. Ezra's abductors, whether on their own recognizance or on orders from above, had apparently kept to themselves and watched their talk, and with no idea of how many there had been, what they had looked like, or how long they had been in town before the gambler's arrival, the two regulators had very little to go on.

Midafternoon found all six once again congregating at the Exchange to bring one another up to date. "Nothing," said Chris in disgust. "They picked their spot real well. Far enough from Ezra's home ground so we'd have no clue what was going on, and busy enough so they could get lost in the crowds."

"Ain't gonna be no easy ride trackin' them boys down," Vin observed. "Sheriff said as how Pickett 's dead a good day time they found him, that means Thursday. Makes it a day short of a week since they took Ez out. Even if it ain't rained or nothin' up here since, findin' their sign'll be nigh onto impossible, 'lessen we was to somehow stumble onto the 'xact spot they set foot on, and had us some cause to think it was the right trail."

Buck nodded. "That's likely one reason they lured him up here. They knew even if we got suspicious for some reason, it'd take us a couple days to follow him."

"That, and they weren't eager to risk tussling with six other men when all they wanted was one," Josiah guessed. "Where do we go from here?"

"Been thinkin' about that," Chris admitted surprisingly. "Remember Ezra talkin' about what he calls his 'modest deductive gift'? We'll have to try to go at it the way he might do, by logic. What reason did they have to want him in the first place? It don't have anything to do with the rest of us or they'd have been in contact by the time we left town; they had plenty of time to do it and still get Ez off to some hard-to-find place. And if they'd been after him for his own sake, they'd have struck at him directly, or maybe through one of us."

"You reckon it's ransom, maybe?" JD suggested. "Like that little boy in Pennsylvania a few years back? I remember readin' my mamma the story out of the newspapers."

"I recall that too," Josiah agreed. "Charley Ross, his name was. About four at the time. His father was a well-to-do grocer in Germantown. He was kidnapped the first of July, 1874, and held for ransom. All the papers made a lot of it because up till then, kidnapping wasn't about demanding a reward for the victim's return; it was connected to shanghaiing or white slavery or something like that. To this day they haven't found him."

"Well, Ez always makes a big deal of lookin' successful," Buck mused. "Reckon it's part of runnin' cons as much as anything; nobody's gonna trust you with their money if you don't look like you've made more'n your share."

"But they done checked him out real good, Bucklin," Vin pointed out. "Hell, they knowed he had a ma, even knowed her name--how many folks is there asides th'all of us that even knows she exists? If they took the kinda care it looks like, they gotta know he ain't come nowheres near makin' back all the money he lost after she bought the saloon out from under him. He's got some cached, I know, but he ain't hardly as rich as he likes to look."

Josiah chuckled wryly and was immediately pierced by a challenging Larabee glare. "Sorry, Brother Chris. It just occurred to me how similar this all is to a book Ezra and I were discussing only last month. You remember it, JD; Ezra lent you his copy, said you might learn some things that would be useful for a peace officer to know. Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, it was. He marked three of the stories in it, the ones about Auguste Dupin, the detective."

"Yeah, right," the kid agreed at once. "He used one of his ten-dollar words for 'em, said they were called tales of rat--rat--"

"Ratiocination," said Chris, startling both of them, and then smiled thinly. "I read those myself, when I was a young man, in California. I'd been following the man's poems and when I saw his name on a book of stories I thought it might be worth lookin' into. The word means 'a conclusion arrived at by reasoning,' JD." His smile became feral. "Serve the bastards right if we get Ezra back from them by usin' some of his own tricks. All right," he added, "put those two together. They know he has a mother, and they might want money for him. Maybe they think Maude will pay to get him back."

"If that's what they're after, they've had time and to spare to get in touch with her," Josiah observed. "I'd best go over to the telegraph office and see if she's answered my message from this morning."

After the preacher had gone out, Nathan spoke up solemnly. "There's another possibility we're missin' so far," he said. "We're pretty sure this ain't about none of us, or about anythin' Ezra's done since he was with us, but what if it ain't money they're after? What if this is somethin' out of his past comin' back to haunt him?"

Chris frowned, knowing that the one-time slave didn't always see eye-to-eye with the Southerner who reminded him so powerfully of the masters who'd misused him. "Somethin' personal, you reckon?" Buck paraphrased. "Somebody Ez or Maude has crossed sometime?"

"That could be," Larabee allowed, "and likely not in a card game, either. If you think somebody's rookin' you at poker, you challenge him then and there, or if you can't, you try to waylay him later or rob his room and get your money back. If it's what Nathan's thinkin', it's more likely to be connected with one of his old cons."

"That says somethin' about who they'd be, don't it?" asked JD. "I mean, Ezra don't con poor folks. He takes a lot of pride in never runnin' a game on anybody who can't afford it. His marks are gonna be town folks, or businessmen, or maybe mine superintendents or rich ranchers like James or Royale."

Vin looked thoughtful. "Might be that could tell us where they'd be keepin' him at. Town man wouldn't stash him in a cave, but a pissed-off mine super just might. And we know whoever they are, they gotta had some money to set all this up. Looks like they been plannin' it a spell."

"But the man's run so many cons in his life, how would we even begin to guess which one this started from?" Nathan wondered. "There's gotta be a few hundred people with cause to be mad at him just in this country alone, not to mention the ones he and Maude raked over the coals when they were travellin' in Europe."

"Still, Vin's got a good point," Chris decided. "Whether it's ransom or not, this took time to plan, and it involved more than one person. I think we may be lookin' for a town person, or at least someone pretty well off, which means we have to think in terms of inhabited places--small towns, ranches, not some hole out in the hills. Maybe it would be a town where they have some personal power, where they can have some control over what people see--or are willing to say to strangers, like us."

Tanner's eyes grew distant as he considered this possibility. "Wonder why they picked this town," said Buck. "If you're guessin' right, he could be in some cellar almost within hollerin' distance and we wouldn't know."

Chris shook his head slowly. "No, that don't sound right. I got a notion the reason they picked here was the reason we couldn't sniff out any trace of 'em--there are just enough strangers passin' through all the time that nobody noticed 'em. And maybe they didn't want to shed blood on their home ground, the way they did by killing Pickett."

"Don't hurt none that you can hop a train in El Moro and be in Colorado Springs in five hours, or Denver in ten," JD observed. "Both of them places is full of the kinds of folks Maude would be real interested in. Maybe they started out knowin' where she was and wanted to be in easy reach of her."

Larabee thought again of that letter under his hearthstone. "That's good thinking, kid," he agreed, and JD fairly glowed under his hero's praise.

Josiah burst through the batwing doors with a telegraph flimsy in his hand. "It looks like we were right," he told his friends as he settled back into the chair he'd abandoned. "Listen to this. 'Have received communication from Ezra's abductors stop. Letter included in his hand stop. Maude.' "

"Damn," said Buck softly. "Just like the kid figured. It's ransom, and they're tryin' to sell him back to Maude on account they know she's got more money than us, or at least they got cause to think she does."

"She don't give a hell of a lot of details," Chris growled. "I know she don't think much of us or the job he's doin', but she has to know we'd be interested."

Nathan snorted. " 'Member Josiah sayin' he'd always figured Ezra was raised by wolves? Maybe she don't know that at all, on account of she ain't much of a mother herself. Or maybe she don't care. Maybe she blames us some for holdin' him in one place long enough for these folks to get a bead on him."

"If Ezra didn't want to stay, nothin' we did could hold him," Larabee retorted, "and she should know him well enough to know that." He thought for a minute or two. "Ransom usually means continued contact, setting up the time and place for the exchange. We might still have time to get up to Colorado Springs before Maude does anything that can't be reversed. If we're close, we could have a good chance to trace any more messages she gets. Wherever they've got him, it's gotta be someplace pretty close to a telegraph line, or at least a stage, so they can keep in contact with her and collect the ransom once she's got it together. As far from his home place as they are even here, they should be feelin' pretty safe, as long as they keep a low profile and keep him out of sight. They might be hidin' out right near the town, and nobody'd have cause to suspect anything." He pushed back his chair with an air of decision. "Let's find out when the next train north goes from El Moro and whether it's got a horse car. We can save a lot of time if we go by rail, and time might be important now."

"Hold on a minute, cowboy," Vin suggested quietly. "I got a notion it might be best we split up. I got a feel for the kind of folks we're lookin' for now, and that means I can try gettin' into their skins and guessin' where they'd go. Hell, might even be somebody seen Ez, once they got him out of town here; they wouldn't have so much cause to fret on that, twenty mile out or so. Iffen we was to start in askin' if anybody like him had been seen along a certain line of travel, or even just make a big circle around the town and hit every farm and ranch and stage station we see, might be we'd end up climbin' up their backs, where they ain't lookin'. Likely they'll be keepin' their eye mostly on Maude now, seein' she don't talk to the law up in the Springs or try to trick 'em somehow."

"He's got a point, pard," Buck added somberly. "It's a good bet Ezra's seen or heard somethin', by now, that might let him give the law, or us, a hint of who had hold of him. If they think of that, they might just be figurin' to kill him once they got the money and don't really need him no more. Everythin' you said about 'em bein' close to the Springs could as well go for here."

The gunfighter considered the idea, eyeing his best friend and his oldest friend thoughtfully. He knew that Vin's method of tracking was part knowledge, part observation, and part inspiration; like the Indians who had taught him the skill, he preferred not to expend time and effort following his quarry's actual physical trail. Instead he would garner as much information about that quarry as he possibly could, then put himself in its place, asking himself what he would do if he were such-and-such a kind of animal or person, with consideration given to the time of year and day, the terrain, and other variables. Sooner or later the answer would come to him, and he would go to the location he had pinpointed. If his quarry wasn't there yet, he would wait; if he found sign that it had been and gone, that was time enough to start unravelling the trail, which was probably fresher at that point.

Apart from that, one of the chief reasons for Chris's success as leader of the Seven was that he knew his men. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, their skills, the way they interacted with each other, how they reacted under pressure, how they thought. And he knew that the members of the group who felt closest to Ezra, and were therefore likeliest to be most concerned personally over his current state and possible future, were Vin, Buck, and JD; Josiah had a definite fondness for the gambler, and there was a clear bond between them based in part on the fact that both were highly educated, but at this moment Josiah might be of more use giving comfort and assistance to Maude, with whom he'd been smitten since their first meeting. Since Vin was Chris's unofficial lieutenant and right-hand man, he knew he could trust the former bounty hunter to head up a small detachment, just as an Army officer would know he could trust a veteran sergeant.

"All right," he decided. "Vin, you keep Buck and JD with you and see what you can do from this end. Nathan, Josiah, and I will head up to the Springs and watch out for any sign that Ezra's abductors are gettin' careless now that they're close to havin' whatever it is they want. Keep in touch. If you pick up anything you think we need to know, telegraph us at Maude's hotel. Even if we're not stayin' there, we're sure to be in and out. Josiah, send her another message. Tell her to stall with everything she's got till we can get there."


Pawn Index

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