"Measles," said Nathan Jackson.
"Youre sure?" Sarah inquired.
"Said Id know when the rash broke out, and it has. Blotchy one on his face and behind his ears, same as I told you about before. Bein a homesteaders boy, he likely got exposed to it on a trip to town just before his folks was killed; the symptoms seem to show up between eight and twelve days after that. Folks can spread it even before they have the rash; they might just think they have a bad cold at the time." The healer looked to Ezra. "You aint showin any sign of it, Everett--did you have it when you were younger?"
"Yes, sir," Ezra told him honestly. "I contracted the disease at the age of six."
"Then youre safe as houses, and I think the rest of you are too, from what I know. We wont be needin to keep up the quarantine; measles is contagious--hell be able to pass it on for another four days or so--but it aint nowheres near as bad a sickness as scarlet fever or pox."
"Kinda had me a notion twas measles," Vin murmured.
Nathan shot him a sharp look. "Why didnt you say somethin?"
The Texan shrugged. "Couldnta give you no proof youda taken, Nate. Figured it from the smell when I first found the boys--measles has a right particlar smell to it." He closed his eyes a moment. "Aint never gonna forget that smell. Went through a camp of Kiowa when I s ten. My band come on what was left. We cleared out in a hurry, I can tell you that."
"What can we expect now, Nathan?" Chris inquired seriously.
"Well, his eyes seem to be sensitive to light, though it took em longern the ordinary, so you want to make sure he dont strain em. No readin, no bright sunlight, at least till the discharge clears up; pull the blinds in his room. He can be read to, if itll keep him quiet, of course. His fever may go up a few degrees, but thatll drop again in a couplea days. The rash shouldnt itch him too bad, but I can give you some chickweed ointment and marigold in case it does; if the one dont help him the others bound to, aint nothin bettern marigold for skin problems. Itll last about five days and then fade in the same order it showed up in. Mainly just keep on like you been doin, Sarahs hydropathic treatments, bed rest and potions for the pain and fever, plenty of water and other liquids--whatever he seems to tolerate best. I got some teas Ive seen used for measles, even if they dont help the sickness itself the liquid in em cant hurt: rabbit bill, sage, fodder, corn shuck."
"What about complications?" Sarah wanted to know.
"One good thing, measles is almost never as bad in kids as it is in grownups," Nathan told her. "Fact is, it aint ordinarily anythin to worry about once a child gets past five years old, as long as he aint already run down from a cold or a fever or the like, or aint been eatin right. Ear infection is about the commonest problem it leads to. Theres record of some pretty bad ones, like pneumonia, blindness, or brain fever--what some doctors call encephalitis--but they mostly only happen to older folks that missed gettin it when they was kids."
Ezra thought of the short rations on which Buck had been surviving for nearly a month before their flight. Should he confide this information? After a moment he rejected the possibility. What good could it do? There was no cure for measles, even he knew that: you suffered through it and--usually--got well; the four hundred and fifty or so people who died of it each year were mostly adults or very young. "I better show you how to make the teas and ointments, Sarah," Nathan was proceeding, "and then Ill get back to town; I need to check on Jerry Fentons broken leg and the Loomis babys croup, and Joe Reardon close to shot his little toe off yesterday."
Ezra saw Chris and Vin exchange a meaningful look, as if they were speaking without words, and then Chris said quietly, "Lets get out from underfoot, Everett. Adam can help his ma if she needs anything."
"Yes, sir," said Ezra evenly, but he wasnt fooled a bit. Now that the two men were sure of the question of health, even though Buck wasnt yet past the main crisis of his illness, Larabees instincts as a lawman compelled him to make equally sure of the possibility of what Vin had called "nasty surprises comin down the road." And I can scarcely blame him, the boy thought, since, to his mind, it is his family that may be at risk. Of course I doubt that Sheriff Abbott would trouble himself over us, and apparently he has not inquired after us in Four Corners, if indeed that is where he was bound; surely Mr. Jackson would have spoken of it, bein familiar with our appearance. But he does not know that.
Feeling somewhat like a condemned man on his last walk to the gallows, he preceded the rancher and his partner out the back door.
In the cool dimness of the big barn, Chris stopped, and the boy, hearing the cessation of footsteps, did the same and turned to face him. Chris noticed the unchildlike inscrutability of the smooth young face and wondered at it. Vin moved over to the side and draped himself against the partition between two stalls in his typical canted lean, his face Comanche-solemn. "All right, Everett," Larabee began, "you seem to be a pretty smart fellow, and I think you know what I want to talk to you about. Vin tells me that stolen mare that wandered in here Friday night didnt wander at all. He says he came on her out in the waste and backtracked her to where he found you. Now suppose you tell me where you got her."
Ezras mind raced. There was a part of him that wanted to tell the whole sordid truth, perhaps offer Whittingtons ledger book in proof, but the cautions drilled into him by his mother made him hesitate. If he did reveal everything, that would be as much as condemning himself and Buck to be returned to the Home, and he had no intention of letting that happen; setting aside his personal aversion to the place, he honestly wasnt sure he could survive much more of it. Even if Whittington and Addison could be removed on the strength of the evidence he had--and that was by no means certain; Ezras experience was that very few adults were inclined to believe, or even pay attention to, what children told them--it was clear that the county authorities down in Rincon werent very much interested in what went on at their orphanage, otherwise theyd have looked into it before. Theyd had five years to do so, after all. Perhaps if Maude had been here, he would have decided to tell the truth; they were kin, surely she would substantiate that and make certain he was returned to her custody. But it was obvious to him that she wasnt here. If she had arrived in Four Corners and found him not yet there, she would have inquired after him (if for no other reason than that shed spent good money to make sure he arrived), and word of it would have come to Mr. Larabee, as the sheriff. Had it done so, Mr. Larabee could hardly have missed the similarity between the description shed have given and Ezras own, and he would have said something. That Maude hadnt put in an appearance didnt surprise her son very much, notwithstanding the fact that he was himself a good three weeks behind time; it would hardly be the first instance in which shed promised him to be somewhere at a given time and never arrived. She might have been delayed, or arrested, or she might even have gotten on the scent of another good mark and flitted off, figuring that he would reason out the truth in time and contrive to make his own way back to Aunt Arabellas home. Which, of course, he could, provided he was given the time to get a stake together; after all, he knew how much it had cost him to get here--but to do that he had to keep his liberty.
There was also the question of whether a court would accept the ledger at all. It didnt mention Addisons name; that connection had been made by Ezra himself, on the basis of his own experience. Anyone investigating the entries in it would have to question the business owners enumerated in it; would such people risk their own safety by testifying against a man with Addisons reputation? Even if they did, the ledger itself had come into Ezras hands by illegal means--he certainly hadnt had a search warrant; wouldnt that void any possibility it had of admission as evidence?
No, he would have to come up with a new story, one that would allow for the observations Vin had made in the loft on Saturday yet still avoid any mention of the Home. He remembered one of the reward posters in Adams collection and the crimes attributed to the man it had been issued on. That might work: there was nothing on it that would contradict the possibility of the outlaws having a secret family.
"Buck and I were livin in Kansas City, with our Aunt Abigail," he began slowly, trying to sound both sullen and resigned. "Our mother died when Buck was five. Some months thereafter a man came to see us and revealed that he was our father. Mother had told us that Father had gone West years ago, before Buck was old enough to remember him. He showed us a photograph of himself with her and ourselves--Buck was only a babe in arms, but I could recognize myself as the five-year-old child who stood beside her chair. Aunt Abigail objected to his assumin custody of us, but he maintained that boys should be with their father.
"He took us to El Paso and settled us in a small house there, with a Mexican woman to care for us. Then he departed, promisin to visit regularly. For two years money came often, though we saw very little of Father. He had told us that we must give our surname, if we were asked, as Wallace, though that was not the name by which we had gone in Kansas City. As we grew older and began to wander about the town, we came to understand why. Often we saw reward posters with his face and description on them. We realized that we were an outlaws sons, and that he hoped to avoid any connection between him and us which the law might use to decide how to entrap or ambush him."
Chris glanced toward Vin, who lifted one shoulder in a shrug and raised an eyebrow. Might be. Growin up in towns sure a likelier thing for these two than bein a steaders kids.
"What was his name, Everett?" Larabee asked evenly.
The boys tongue flicked out to touch his upper lip. "Whitfield," he answered after a moment. "Jesse William Whitfield."
Damn! thought Chris, again trading looks with his partner. I never even knew the man had been married, let alone had any kids.
Sure done covered his tracks right well. Aint sprised. Man dont go uncaught fifteen years thouten he learns some tricks.
Jesse Whitfields was a name notorious among the lawmen of the Southwest. He was wanted in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, and Mexico, chiefly for stock theft--cattle mostly, but some horses as well--though there was a strong suspicion that hed masterminded two bank robberies besides, which was unusual: rustling and armed robbery tended to be two different trades, and most men stuck with one or the other. He had begun, supposedly, after being captured and paroled at the Battle of Shiloh; unable to bear arms for the Confederacy thereafter, hed returned to his native Texas and begun running off the madly increasing cattle of the state, mostly into Mexico. When the French Interventionists came in, he stepped up his raids, selling both beef and horses to Maximilians government, and also branching out westward into the Apache-infested Territories along the Border. By the time of Maximilians execution, hed established a regular network of helpers and routes to and fro. His chief activity was believed to be confined to the general area where Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico came together, but he had worked all over the region. Like most rustlers, he was otherwise perfectly honest: a story was told of how a prospector once stopped at his camp and was welcomed to eat and rest, offered a fresh horse in trade for his own lamed animal, and no one so much as peeked at his packs, though his mule was loaded with gold nuggets. He never raided the herds of widows or orphans, or of "real," respected cattlemen like Goodnight, Chisum, or Reynolds, confining himself to foreignors and corporations, investors and capitalists from back East and even overseas, and the more unpopular large ranchers. His victims, of course, would cheerfully have hanged him if they could have caught him, knowing that few cow-country juries ever convicted a rustler, in part because they were numerically dominated by townsmen and by small ranchers and homesteaders who werent above filching a calf or ten when the opportunity offered. But to most people he was a sort of popular hero, respected for his daring and style and his strict adherence to the frontier code of behavior. Even his horse thievery--ordinarily considered a social crime that indirectly threatened the fabric of the community as a whole--was forgiven by many, who pointed out that he didnt run off working remudas or take individual mounts; when he stole horses, they were breeding stock or herds being moved from a previous owner to a new one, like the Army. Details were wanting on the ownership of the bay mare, though Chris doubted she would have been the subject of a telegram all her own unless she belonged to some fairly prominent person. He wasnt exactly surprised at this apparent change in Whitfields habits: fifteen years was a long time to resist temptation, and it was inevitable that eventually the man--being "plumb sentimental" about good horseflesh as well as cows--would have spotted a single horse that he couldnt resist.
"Go on," Chris told the boy evenly.
"Last month, after school closed for the summer," Everett proceeded, "Father came to see us in El Paso and said we were old enough now to spend some time with him, learnin somethin of the country and his business. We travelled with him and his compatriots for three weeks. Then, when we were south of here and in the process of movin a small herd of stolen cattle toward the Mexican border, a posse surprised us in camp and a gun battle broke out. Father snatched us up, threw a bridle and blanket on a horse, put us on her back, gave us a bag of supplies, and told us to ride north as fast as we could. If he could get clear, he said, he would meet us in Four Corners. If not, we were to return to Kansas City and Aunt Abigail. Just as we were turnin the horse away, I glanced back and saw him fall. Im not certain that Buck did, and I cannot even be certain that he was slain. I did as he had ordered and took us both north." He shrugged. "The rest you know--all of it that is of any consequence, at least."
You think hes tellin the truth this time?
Aint no way to know. Too soon for the posters tove been cancelled, iffen Whitfields dead. Could be, though. Would account for the horse and for him tellin a lie the first time. He s hopin his pa got away and he could stay in these parts long enough to join up with him again.
Chris pondered the story. If Whitfield was indeed Buck and Everetts father and had left them with their mother in Kansas City when Buck was very small, that fact, coupled with his fever, could account for the boy having confused Chris with him the other day. Whitfield was described as a big, handsome man with black hair and blue eyes; these were certainly traits that Buck would be likely to display when he grew up, and Larabees own memory of his dead son Josh assured him first-hand that even full brothers didnt necessarily share each others looks. Well, even if Whitfield made it, theres no way I can send the kids back to him. The Judge would never stand for it even if I had any way to contact the man. He returned his attention to Everett, who was waiting to hear what he would say to the revelations; his intent watchfulness had left his face blank and empty, except for the restless switch of his eyes. A lot of the boys mannerisms made sense now.
"You realize the horse will have to be sent back to her owner," Chris began. "But I think I can skirt the whole issue of how she ended up here. You may or may not have stolen her yourselves--being Whitfields boys Im inclined to think he did it--but from what I know theres been no specific person suspected of the crime. If your father wanted you to go back to Kansas City, I cant see any reason you shouldnt; you say you have an aunt there, shed acknowledge you as her kin, wouldnt she?"
"Yes, sir," said Everett quietly. "As I have explained, she was somewhat less than overjoyed at the prospect of Father takin us with her, but for whatever reason she chose not to fight him on it."
"All right," Chris decided. "We can contact her by telegraph and see if she wants to come out and get you herself, or just send a bank draft to cover your expenses; its not unusual for children to travel alone by stage or train, theyre just put into the charge of the driver or conductor, and he passes them on to the next one at the end of his run. Youll need to tell me her full name and how we can reach her. But we might as well wait now until Bucks got over the measles; Nathan probably wont want him to travel for a few days after the rash goes anyhow."
"Will you need to clear your decision with the judge you mentioned--the one who appointed you to office?" the boy asked.
"I dont think hell have any objections to the arrangement," said Larabee. "You have kin and can prove it, hes not likely to break up a family, especially when your aunt has already had charge of you in the past. In any case hes not due back in these parts for a couple more weeks, and by then Buck should be well enough to leave. The Judge gives us quite a lot of latitude in the way we enforce the law, and this isnt even a situation where a crime has been committed in his jurisdiction."
"I see," Everett murmured. "If you dont mind, Mr. Larabee, I would like to go and see Buck. Perhaps if he is feelin well enough I shall explain to him what our future is likely to hold."
"Go," Chris told him, and pivoted in place, watching the stiff back and taut little shoulders, as Everett marched out of the barn, never looking back once. "Damn," he said quietly when the door had closed again, "that kids got more brass than the Kansas City fire engine. And as much coolness and control as a lot of men Ive met twice his age."
Vin shifted position to lean his weight on the other shoulder. "What are you thinkin, cowboy?"
His partner shot him a look that gleamed with sly humor. "Thought you could always tell, cowboy."
"Aint denyin it," said Vin with his customary serenity. "Just want to hear you say it."
Chris sighed. "I cant exactly blame the kid for stringin us a windy," he admitted. "It shows a loyalty to his pa that I can respect, even if I dont approve of the man its given to. I almost wish this aunt didnt exist. Everetts bright, hes mannerly, hes got a lot of guts and he can get through to Buck when nobody else can. And Buck...I dont know how to explain it exactly, but I feel a kind of connection to him. He reminds me a little bit of Josh. Hed make a good little brother for Adam if we could keep him--keep both of them."
Vin nodded thoughtfully, turning his head to follow the boys path, thinking again of how right he had been in his estimate of Everetts courage and independence and vulnerability, so like his own. "I got a notion Ev might even be better at seein under folks skins than I am, but hes scared shitless of lettin anybody get close to him," he mused. "And hes so used to thinkin of hisself as havin a big secret to keep, bein an outlaws boy, he dont see how anybody could want him once they know the truth." Then he looked around slyly. "Could write this aunt of hisn, maybe. Tell her bout us, bout the ranch and Sarah and the younguns, bout the kinda home we might could make for em. Aint like shes had em these last couple years. Might be shed be ready to give em over to somebody that could provide em a pa--a bettern than their own was, as she seen it--and a ma too, beins they lost theirn. And if Whitfields dead like Ev thinks, aint much chance hell be skirmishin around here tryin to get em back."
Chris considered this possibility. "If she did agree to sign over custody," he said, "the Judge probably wouldnt object to arranging an adoption. Hell, he appointed us officers of his court, and he cant exactly dispute that I already have a family."
"Gonna talk to the boys about it, see how they feel bout bein dopted?"
Larabee thought it over. "Not yet. Buck doesnt seem to be able to hold things in his head too well right now, its probably the fever. Better to wait till hes past the worst of the sickness. Besides, the aunt may not want to give us custody after all--no point gettin their hopes up. Though I think Buck wants to have a pa, from what he said to me the other day."
"Aint met no boy yet didnt," Vin murmured. "Reckon even Ev does, he just dont want to seem like hes disrespectin his real one by sayin so."
Ezra walked back to the ranchhouse feeling that he had gotten a reprieve. At least he could now feel pretty certain that neither he nor Buck would end up back in the Home, regardless of whether or not the Larabees proved willing to take the younger boy in--and if they didnt, he had established the existence of someone who would. The same logic that had suggested to him that Maude hadnt showed up in Four Corners looking for him could likewise be applied to Addison; maybe it was just a coincidence that hed been passing through China Springs--maybe hed been bound for some other destination entirely. Now Ezra would have time to try to recover Bucks mothers money, which Buck ought to have in any case, even if Chris and Sarah didnt require financial persuasion to convince them that he would make a good addition to their family. And once that was done, he could write a letter to explain what it was, send it back here by express, make his way to Santa Fe, and use his God-given gifts to start assembling a stake to get himself back to Louisiana. Hed need a horse, of course, but this was a horse ranch, after all.
He reached the house just in time to see Nathan Jackson riding toward the gate on his blazed dark bay. Apparently his rounds wouldnt wait and he had left as soon as Sarah had been instructed in the use of the medications he was providing for Buck. Probably he supposed that Chris and Vin had gone off to do ranch work and hed see them soon enough in any case.
Ezra stopped in the kitchen long enough to get a pencil and Sarahs shopping-list tablet out of the cabinet, then made his way quietly up to his bedroom, glad he didnt have to pass the sickroom door to get there. Using the windowsill as a desk, he wrote a note, then took Bucks fare money out of his boot-top--it still left him almost sixty dollars, which was enough to provide seed money once he got to Santa Fe--and folded it up inside the paper. He put both on his pillow and weighted them down with the soap dish from the washstand. Whittingtons ledger he hid under the extra linen in the chest at the foot of his bed; when hed recovered Bucks inheritance hed write and tell the Larabees where to find it, just in case Chris and Vin, or "the Judge," really could do something about it--there was no point taking it with him, since he had absolutely no idea how long it was going to be before he saw his mother again. Then he got his derringer, bullets, ring, studs, and cuff buttons out of the dresser drawer where he had put them, and tucked them into the inner pocket of the short, stout duck brush jacket (Adams) with which Sarah had provided him. He removed the quilt from his bed, rolled it into a neat cylinder after the fashion of the infantry of the Confederacy, and tied it up with some string hed found in his pants pockets. He peeked into Bucks room, where Sarah was fussing over the younger boy. "Mrs. Larabee?"
She turned and smiled. "What is it, Everett?"
"Im feelin rather weary," he said. "I thought I might lie down for a while, if that is agreeable?"
"Go ahead," she told him. "Im surprised you havent wanted a nap before; that terrible trip you had, looking after Buck all the way, must have taken a lot out of you."
"I suppose it has taken me this long to actually begin to believe we are safe," he said. "Thank you, maam. Please dont hesitate to call me if Buck seems to require me for anything." He wished he might have the opportunity to say goodbye to his friend, to assure him that his future was secure one way or the other, to bid him good luck. But he couldnt do that with Sarah in the room.
He retreated to his bedroom and closed the door loudly enough to be heard at it, then put on his jacket and eased his way out the open window, the quilt slung crosswise over his body. He lay on the roof under the edge of the dormer and looked around the yard. There was Adam, going to clean the poultry house; hed said he had to do that today. There were Vin and Chris, saddling up; Sarah had said the horses out on the range had to be checked every two or three days, and there was no guarantee that Vin and Adam had had time to see all of them on Saturday. Ezra waited until both men had ridden out, then crawled along the roof until he came to the extension that roofed the back porch, hung a moment by his hands, and dropped. Immediately he scurried inside and began gathering food, as hed done the night this all began, almost a week ago now. At least there was no need to pick any locks.
He could hear Sarahs footsteps on the stairs as he finished his raid and slipped outside again. He made a dash for the barn and opened the door just wide enough to slither inside. In the saddle room there were several lightweight Morgan and McClellan rigs, used in the first stages of teaching the young horses to accept gear on their backs. He chose one that weighed about fifteen pounds, as opposed to the forty or more of a full-rigged stock saddle, and carried it out the back door, using the bulk of the barn to hide himself from the house and outbuildings. The bay mare was being kept in one of the small breaking corrals; she was already stolen, so it made sense to use her again, and besides she knew him. He coaxed her to him with a handful of oats, and when she was near enough got a grip on her halter and slipped a rope through its ring. Standing on an empty packing crate, he saddled and bridled her, tied his quilt and sack of food to the saddle, and climbed aboard. He checked his directions by the sun and decided hed have to make a wide circle to the west, then south, to keep from being seen from the house and avoid Four Corners. Without a backward look, he nudged the mare into motion. Hed cut across the near paddock, then find his way out to the road, where his tracks would be hard to see.
"Mr. Sanchez? Have you some time to spare?"
Josiah looked up from the reward posters he was studying; it seemed every mail brought a new printing of them--there was even a new one for that stock thief, Jesse Whitfield, who, it appeared, had had yet another price put on him in the Utah Territory. "Miss Maude," he said graciously, rising. "For you, I always have time."
"Where is Mr. Dunne?" the woman asked, coming into the office.
"He went to see to his horse," Josiah explained. "Being a lawman, he never knows when he may need her, and likes to be sure shes in good health and ready to go at any moment."
"Would it be too much of an imposition to request that you send for him? I have something to say which I would rather not have to repeat."
He gave her a sharp look, noting how wiped clean of expression her face seemed; even the vivacious sparkle of her eyes had given way to a flatness that equalled that of a snake. Almost reflexively he glanced toward the window, expecting to see a crow, but none was in sight.
"Give me a minute and Ill get him myself," he offered.
When the stage from Santa Fe pulled in a few minutes after six, Nathan Jackson was waiting at the Gem to meet it and get an idea of anyone who seemed to be ending or breaking his journey. Hed gotten back from his rounds about an hour before to find a note tacked to the door of his clinic: JD and Josiah had taken off on official business, leaving the town in his care. Since it was Monday and folks were still getting over the indulgences of the weekend, he figured he could keep a lid on things for tonight, but first thing in the morning hed send someone out to CL-Cross and ask to have at least Vin come in and help him.
Four Corners was a meal stop as well as a change station, and all the passengers got off to eat, but only one asked to have his luggage passed down from the roof. He was, the healer estimated, close to fifty, with the same stringy toughness and big calloused hands that marked the driver up on the box; he had a heavy shoebrush mustache, graying hair and shrewd squinty plainsmans eyes. He wore a wrinkled suit of butternut jeans and carried a canvas Gladstone bag, with a brown wool coat rolled and stuffed under the straps. A scarred holster rather high on his hip held a cherrywood-handled S&W American. He stepped away from the coach and stood clear of the path of the people making a beeline for the hotel dining room, looking around in the late-afternoon light--the sun had still an hour to go before it set--as if trying to locate something.
Strangers sometimes resented a black man who behaved in what they saw as a "pushy" manner, but Nathan saw no reason not to offer to be neighborly. "Lookin for somebody?" he asked, stepping away from the front wall of the building.
The stranger looked around quickly. "Need to find whatever kind of law you got in this town," he said. "Think his name is Dunne?"
"Thatd be JD," Nathan agreed. "But he aint here. Rode out a couple of hours back."
"Damn," said the other. "I wanted to talk to him about a telegram he sent. Missing boy."
Nathan knew about that case, though not many of the details. He had heard about Maude Standish--JD had told him about Josiahs interest in her--and knew that the young deputy was trying to trace a stray child of hers who had been en route here from the East, but that was as far as his knowledge went: no one had troubled to repeat to him the description of the boy she was looking for, since it had been obvious that no such boy was currently within town limits. He was, in fact, the only person who could have made the connection between Ezra Standish and "Everett Wallace:" neither Maude nor Addison had known that Ezra was staying at CL-Cross, and no one at CL-Cross knew that there was a woman staying in town who was trying to link up with a boy answering the description of the elder of their two boy-guests. Nor did JD or Josiah know that a couple of supposedly orphan boys were enjoying the Larabees hospitality; all Nathan had told them, when he asked Josiah to ride out and deliver the few supplies Sarah had requested, was that it was possible they had scarlet fever out there, and he had decided that a few days quarantine was the best way to deal with it.
He thought for a moment. "Well, I aint sure how much he knows about the situation--JD was handling it pretty much on his own--but if you really need to see a law officer about it, you could go talk to our sheriff, Chris Larabee. Hes got a horse ranch about ten miles north."
"Where can I rent a horse?" the stranger asked immediately.
Chris and Vin were on the back porch, washing up for supper, when they heard Adams footsteps thundering across the kitchen, Sarahs startled exclamation as she dished out food at the stove, and then the door flew open and the boy stood panting in the opening. "Pa! Pa, Everetts gone!"
"What? What do you mean, hes gone?" Larabee demanded.
"Mean what I said," Adam replied breathlessly. "Ma said he went up to take a nap right after Nathan left, and I was to go wake him and tell him it was time to eat. But he aint there. Quilts gone off his bed, my jackets gone off the chair, and theres a note on the pillow, got your name on it, Pa."
The partners looked at each other, then charged for the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later the family was gathered in the kitchen again, Sarah counting the money that had been folded up in the note while Chris read the latter aloud; only Katie, playing in the corner with her building blocks, paid no attention to the commotion.
" Dear Mr. Larabee, " Chris read, " I offer my apologies for this clandestine departure, but I doubted most sincerely that you would agree to permit me to carry out my obligation. Without going into tedious detail, I must inform you that Buck and I are entirely unrelated, and that his surname is Wilmington. When he has recovered his health, please give him this missive and assure him that he has my permission to recount to you our entire story. He will inform you that his late mother had in Kansas City a dear friend, known as Miz Abigail, whose name I took in vain earlier today, and who had apparently agreed to accept the responsibility of his upbringing in the event of any tragedy rendering him in need of care. The money you will find here should be sufficient to cover his fare to rejoin her. I hope that by the time he is strong enough to travel I shall be able to remit to you a very sizeable sum which should by rights have been left in his possession, or at the least held in trust for him, but was in fact absconded with by dishonest authorities. I have gone to recover it.
" Please be so good as to convey to Mrs. Larabee my sincere thanks for her countless kindnesses, and to tell Buck I wish him well and will never forget him.
" Your obedient servant, Ezra P. Standish. "
"Be damned," murmured Vin, "that boys got more namesn most Comanche."
"But where the hell did he go?" Chris wondered. "He dont say what authorities took Bucks money, or where they were. Even you cant track him at night, and hes already got a half days lead on us."
A shout from the foreyard interrupted before Vin could offer an opinion. "Hello, the house! Sheriff Larabee? You home?"
Chris laid the note on the table and strode quickly across the dining and living rooms to open the front door, aware of his partner following close behind him, moccasins silent on the rugs. A horse--Chris recognized one of Yosemites hacks, a coyote dun with four white stockings--was standing in the yard, its head down, blowing, a rider in a butternut jeans suit leaning on the horn. "Im Larabee," he said. "You got business with me?"
"Names Danner, Mason Danner," the stranger offered. "I drive stage for the West Texas, Alamogordo & Trinidad line. Your deputy in town sent a telegram to our agent in El Paso askin after a missing boy name of Ezra Standish."
Chris felt Vin come to full alert beside him. "Standish? You know him?"
"He rode my coach from the time I took it over in Mescalero all the way to Broken Bow, three weeks ago Saturday," Danner said. "Driver I relieved told me he was ticketed through to here--Four Corners, I mean. But that son of a bitch Addison took him off without so much as a by-your-leave and told me to get on my way."
"Sat-kan!" Vin hissed in Comanche. "Addison!"
"Get down, Danner," Chris invited, "and come in. I think you might have gotten here just in time."
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