by Sevenstars


Ezra knew that the journey from Four Corners to Broken Bow was a bit over ninety miles by the stage road, which would be the easiest route to follow; he could always swing out to avoid the stations, since they’d be visible from a distance. He wasn’t much worried about the prospect of pursuit: no one at CL-Cross knew exactly where he’d come from--and besides, why would they be interested enough to bother? But if Addison hadn’t stopped at Four Corners, logic suggested he had gone farther on. Ezra didn’t know how far exactly, or when the man would be returning, and he wanted to make sure he’d have plenty of time to search the sheriff’s premises and get away clear before he could get caught. He’d only have three or four hours of travel time today before he’d have to stop and make camp. He started the bay out walking, but once she was well warmed up urged her into her long-striding singlefoot, which was nearly as fast as most horses’ canter.

He circled two relay stops--probably about fifteen and thirty miles out from the town, judging by his experience crossing west Texas and southern New Mexico--and when the sun was a couple of hands’ width above the horizon, he began watching for a good spot to turn off and spend the night. He’d need water--he had the folding canvas bag he’d stolen in China Springs, and he wanted to fill it. He also wanted to be well out of view of the road, screened if possible by vegetation. Presently the road crossed a dry wash with crack willow and old dried tule in the bottom of it. The friendly driver, he remembered, had said, in crossing a similar one below Broken Bow, that these plants were an indicator of regular sweeps by flash floods. Reasoning that there might be permanent, accessible water further up, and if there wasn’t he’d at least know how to get back to the trail, he turned up it, following along the bank so he wouldn’t have to force his way through the tangled growth. The ground pitched upward under the mare’s hooves. After a time, looking ahead, he made out some scrubby cedars on the hillside and cut off toward them. They proved to be located at the mouth of a gully, and up this could be seen the symmetrical shapes of pines--not very tall, but unmistakeable. He knew from his experience in Virginia that pines were never found very far from a running stream, or at least a pool, so he set off toward them.

What the pines had found to root by was a tank--one of the infrequent places where rainwater sometimes gathered in small pools or ponds, affording water till it dried out. This one was a good size, probably several hundred gallons, and the sheltering trees kept it shaded and cool. Excellent, Ezra told himself, and slid down to fill his water bag before letting the mare drink.

In the wet soil at the water-margin there were tracks, with liquid just barely beginning to ooze into the bottoms of them. Ezra was no tracker--he had hunted often enough in Virginia, but chiefly with dogs, who did the work--yet even he could see that these prints were of two kinds, horse and man. If it had been only horse tracks, he would have dismissed them, supposing that a wild horse or a range pony had wandered by and stopped to drink, but the presence of the man suggested otherwise. The question was, where were the horse and rider now? Ezra felt a chill shudder down his back, as if there were eyes on it. He turned slowly, sliding his hand into his jacket for his derringer.

"I wouldn’t, boy," said a voice from just inside the pines, and a sixgun cocked loudly in the stillness.

Ezra felt sick as he recognized the man who pushed aside a low branch and stepped into the open, a tall man, broad-shouldered and well-built, though perhaps beginning to get a little soft with good living, with perfectly groomed hair just starting to go a sort of piebald roan color with age, and a sweeping mustache that only half concealed a thin-lipped, rather harsh mouth. He was dressed for riding, but expensively, in rich whipcord trousers tucked into polished knee-high black boots elaborately decorated and hand-tooled, long-shanked Texas spurs with eight-point rowels on the counters, a plain black frock coat with generous skirts above. His gray-blue linen shirt and the businesslike black-bone-handled Remington he held were ordinary enough, and even his cream-colored Stetson, with its conservative carved-leather band and wide brim rolled on either side over the ears, wasn’t too different from what many men of Southern extraction preferred, black being the Union color. But the cold gray eyes and the subtle brutality in the hearty handsome face were things Ezra would never forget. And with his left hand he was leading a blue-gray roan gelding with white blaze and stockings and a silver-gray mane and tail, but without the dappling or rusty-brown flecks almost always found in horses of that color.

"Well," drawled Sheriff Jarrod Addison, "fancy meeting you here--and with Whittington’s horse to boot."


JD and Josiah had gotten a late start: by the time Maude Standish had explained her suspicions of Addison and they had gathered their gear and gotten their horses and left a note for Nathan, it was almost four o’clock. They reasoned, however, that Addison had no way to guess that Maude would have gone to them, and would be heading for Broken Bow openly and in no great hurry. They set a pace of alternate jog-trot and lope, and stopped at the first relay station south to ask after their quarry; the stocktenders assured them that he had indeed passed, somewhat less than two hours earlier, moving at a good strong trot, which was a good gait for the horse if not for the man.

By the time they reached the second station it was less than half an hour to sundown. They debated keeping on, since their mounts were still fairly fresh, but decided not to. Addison had probably camped for the night by now, and if he’d pulled off the road to do it--which he probably would, if only to look for water--they might miss him in the dark and end up having to backtrack, or more likely find a place to hide and watch until he went by. They didn’t want him to get a sight of them and get suspicious. If Maude’s guess was correct, and he was indeed in league with the people who were holding her son, he had to be given plenty of rope so he would lead the two peacekeepers to them. They decided to stop at the station for the night; it would conserve their food rations and give their horses an opportunity to grain up, something Addison’s might not have. If they were in for a long chase, it might make all the difference.


Ezra kept his face perfectly blank, struggling not to reveal his despair. Men of Addison’s type were like wild animals--if they scented fear they would tear you apart. The sheriff dropped his roan’s reins to make it stand, and came forward slowly, his weapon steady and his eyes alert. Clearly he was aware that he was dealing with someone who was more than he appeared to be, and was resolved not to be caught unawares. He slipped his left hand into Ezra’s jacket and felt around until his fingers found the derringer. "Thought you might have this on you," he observed, transferring it to his own pocket. "Whittington wrote me your stuff was missing out of his safe. With you and that Wilmington boy gone too, it was a pretty good bet you were the one who had it."

I must not tell him where Buck is, thought Ezra, although I can see no reason why he would care: he has already gotten a small fortune out of Buck’s mother’s effects, and I suspect he knows that Buck is too young to have had any real concept of how much it was, or that it should by rights have gone to him. "What value can I have to you?" he asked. "Such money as I was carryin’ you have already made off with. As for my personal possessions, they are scarcely worth your time. That you might confiscate my mount, in order to return her to her rightful owner, I can understand, but since that will set me afoot, I see no particular urgency for you to make any other provisions regardin’ me."

"You’re a cool one, aren’t you?" said Addison in a tone that almost suggested admiration, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. Then his expression hardened. "And you’re right, as far as you’re takin’ it, but there’s one thing you’ve forgotten to mention. Something else you took out of Whittington’s safe, and I’m not talkin’ money either."

He knows about the ledger? Ezra thought in confusion. But in that case, why has he not taken steps to secure it for himself, and insure that it is not used to incriminate him? "You may search both myself and my gear if you like," he said, "but I have no idea what you are referrin’ to."

"I think you do, and I’m going to," said Addison, "but first I’ll make sure you won’t slip away from me, you slimy little snake." His hand clamped around Ezra’s arm, then twisted it painfully up behind him. It was the bad arm too, the one that had been popped out of its socket two weeks ago. The boy gasped and reflexively rose up on his toes. "Come on," said Addison, yanking him roughly toward the cover of the pines.

Half an hour later, tied tightly to a young tree, Ezra watched as Addison, for the third time, went through his meager gear, then turned to face him, eyes narrowed. "I’ve got too good a thing goin’ in Rincon County to give it up," he said. "That documentation you took out of the safe may or may not be enough to put me in prison, but knowing Whittington I don’t want to take chances. Where is it?"

Ezra decided his best strategy was to bluff. He certainly didn’t want to endanger Buck, or Sarah, or the Larabee children--and if Addison believed his racket was truly threatened by the existence of the ledger, he might not hesitate to harm them in his search for it. "In a safe place," he said, "but if I should suddenly disappear, I have arranged for it to be delivered to the authorities." He knew this was a gambit his mother had used on occasion, and usually it worked very well: people with guilty consciences didn’t want to take the chance of being exposed.

Addison gave him a surprised look, then barked laughter. "Damn, boy, you’ve got more guts than that spineless wonder Whittington, that’s for sure. It’s a shame you’re not ten or fifteen years older; we could go a long ways together."

"May I ask what you find so amusin’ about my statement?" Ezra inquired. "If you are so eager to recover the item, you must realize that others might find it of use."

"You forget," said Addison, "you’re a kid. You don’t always act like it, but you are. Who’d listen to you? Who’d hide it for you without askin’ you a lot of questions? And who’d let you go ridin’ merrily off without any grown folks to back you up, even if they did believe you?"

"Perhaps I made no effort to acquire adult allies," Ezra suggested.

"No? That saddle came from somewhere, and so’d those clothes you’re wearing--they’re sure not Rincon County issue. No, I’m thinkin’ you’ve run off again, likely just because nobody did pay you any mind. Maybe you figured you could blackmail me--as long as you didn’t let me guess who I was dealin’ with. And maybe you could’ve made it work, too. But not any more." He smiled thinly. "I could almost like you, boy. You think the way I do. Like I said, it’s too bad you’re not older."

"I take umbrage at that remark, sir," said Ezra frostily. "I was trained never to victimize the poor and defenseless. Your collusion with Mr. Whittington amply proves that you have no such scruples." It startled him, a little, to realize how much of a difference there really was between his kind of grifting--or even Maude’s--and the corruption in which this man was steeped. And how pleased he was to think that it should be so.

Addison didn’t seem at all insulted by the words. "Well, you’ve got one thing right," he observed. "If I take your horse and leave you here, it’ll take you a good day or two to find your way back to Four Corners, and by that time I’ll be back in Broken Bow and out the other side. I don’t see how I could pry any more money out of your mother anyway; she might smell a rat if I told her the people holdin’ you had raised their price."

That assertion knocked Ezra’s figurative legs completely out from under him. "Mother? You’ve been in communication with her?"

"She was waitin’ for you in Four Corners, just the way I figured somebody would be," said Addison. "Real lovin’ lady, too. Didn’t make the littlest bit of trouble about telegraphin’ her bank to send her a draft for the ransom." He reached inside his coat and withdrew a sealed oblong envelope of stout, opaque brown paper. "A thousand dollars. I’d only planned on askin’ five hundred, but when I saw the way she was dressed, I figured I could up the ante." He tore the flap open, reached in and withdrew what looked, at first blush, like a thick wad of twenty-dollar bills. Then, as he riffled them with his thumb, he turned pale, followed by scarlet. "What the hell is this?" he roared, and lunged over to the tree to shake his "ransom" in Ezra’s face. The boy saw that except for the twin twenties on the top and bottom, the packet was made up entirely of newspaper cut to size. "What kind of trick is she playing?"

Ezra sighed. "A very old one, known as the pigeon drop. Doubtless she had that envelope prepared the night before, and simply contrived to exchange it for the genuine currency after permittin’ you to see the latter and then somehow, once it was sealed, distractin’ your attention. Mother is highly practised at such things; she would require only a few seconds to make the switch."

"You were expectin’ this!" Addison accused. "But you can’t have been workin’ on it with her. You wouldn’t be out here all alone if you were."

"I can truthfully say that I had not the slightest clue she had arrived at our rendezvous," said Ezra. "As for the question of expectation, I never even realized what your plan was with regard to me. But that Mother would find a means of preservin’ her hard-won income from fallin’ into your hands I can readily believe."

Addison was glaring at him with a fury so pronounced that the boy half thought he was going to drop of an apoplexy. "Don’t she care what happens to you?"

"Probably not," said Ezra resignedly.

It was apparently the matter-of-fact tone of his voice that convinced the corrupt lawman and brought him back to some semblance of reason. "That may be," he growled, "or it could be she just didn’t believe I was telling the truth. Which I wasn’t, of course, but I’ve got you now, and I can damn sure see to it that she don’t get you back. Meanwhile, you might have some value as a hostage, just in case somebody tries to come after me before I can get over the Border. But we’ll stop at Broken Bow first--I’ve got some money stashed there that I need to pick up." He riffled the fake bills again, his expression hard and ugly, then peeled off the twenties, stuffed them in his pocket, and hurled the newspaper onto the small campfire he had built. "That’s nine hundred sixty dollars your mother owes me on account," he growled. "I can’t go back and take it out of her hide, and I probably can’t get it all out of yours either. But I can get some satisfaction out of you before I leave your body for the Grant County law to find."


Sunrise was a few minutes before five, and it found Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner just turning onto the main trail to Four Corners from their ranch gate. Mason Danner had wanted to ride with them, but Chris had told him that if, for whatever reason, they were late getting back--it shouldn’t take them more than a day to get down to Broken Bow at the pace he planned to set--it would be up to him to tell what he knew to JD, Josiah, and Judge Travis. The stage driver had accepted this with minimal objection, and consented to remain behind; Sarah had assured him he would be welcome to stay at the ranch as a guest until Ezra was safely returned.

Chris still wasn’t sure how Buck’s mother might have had money "absconded with" by Sheriff Addison--the boy’s fever was too high to expect him to give any coherent reply even if he’d had any clue as to how it had been done--but when the information in Ezra’s note was coupled with what Danner had had to say, it furnished pointers enough for men who knew a thing or two about following trails. And it matched up with the occasional rumors out of Rincon County, though those had chiefly involved adults, mainly drifters. It almost made too much sense that a corrupt lawman would be unable to resist practising a similar racket on children, if he thought they had no one to stand up for them. "He must look for orphans," Larabee guessed, "and loot their homes or sell off their folks’ valuables before he turns the kids and the estate--or whatever’s left of it--over to the relatives. If he picks kids who don’t have kin livin’ close by--outside of the Territory, say, or in some other part of it--there’s a good chance the relatives wouldn’t have too good a picture of what should be there for the kids to inherit. Or if it’s livestock, he could claim it had been rustled. Or if it was a house, he could strip it, then torch it, and no one would think it was strange that there wasn’t much of anything left."

"Iffen Ezra was writin’ true about this Miz Abigail," Vin observed, "it kinda looks like sometimes Addison don’t even trouble to let the kinfolks know they got a young’un to take care of."

"That too," his partner agreed. "I wonder if their county judge down in Rincon is in on this? Or does Addison get in ahead of him?"

"I got another question," said Vin. "How the hell does Ezra figure he can git Buck’s money back? He’s gotta have some notion of where it could be at. For the matter of that, why’n’t he just tell us the truth? He knows you’re the law in these parts."

"He’s probably been so badly burned by what Addison did to Buck--and likely to him as well; how else would he know about the money if they hadn’t gone through the same kind of wringer--that he doesn’t trust me," Chris guessed, "and I can’t exactly say I’d blame him. I can understand a badman, a bank robber or a rustler. I can even respect him. But a man who hides behind a badge and uses his office to line his own pockets--that’s one kind of man I’d shoot down just like a mad dog. He gives every peacekeeper in the country a bad name."

"Don’t wanta shoot him ’thout we find that money," Vin said mildly. "If Buck’s ma did have it, it’s his’n by right now. Don’t reckon even the Judge would argue with that."

"How long do you figure it’ll take us to catch up with Ezra?" Chris asked.

"Iffen I ’s a young feller ridin’ all alone like he is," Vin reflected, "and most of all iffen I knowed I looked younger’n I was, I wouldn’t let myself be seen no more’n I could help. Too much chance folks’d ask questions, or try to stop me, or recollect me afterward if they was asked about me. I’d swing out around the stage stations and duck off into the brush iffen I seen a coach or riders comin’. That’ll slow him some. That mare’s a good goer--even tired as she was, she kept plumb up with Peso Friday night, and I ’s canterin’ pretty much the whole way. And he’s got a start. We might not see him afore we make Broken Bow, but I’m bettin’ we won’t be too far behind him."

"The question’s gonna be, how do we find him," Chris ruminated. "He won’t want Addison to catch sight of him, so he’ll be stayin’ low."

By midmorning they had passed the third stage relay station and covered a good half the distance between Four Corners and Broken Bow. It was shortly after leaving the fourth relay behind that Vin checked, shaded his eyes with his hand, and reached into his pocket for his spyglass. "Riders comin’ thisaway," he said. "Two, see ’em? Looks mighty like...hell, it is. JD and Josiah."

Danner had of course mentioned what Nathan had told him regarding the absent lawmen, but he hadn’t been able to tell them when or why the latter had left town. The preacher and the young deputy were riding not up the middle of the trail, as most people would, but one along either margin of it, as if scanning the softer earth there for tracks. As they got within eyeshot, they became aware of the two riders coming toward them, slowed, swung in to join each other, and then stopped in surprise as they realized they were meeting their own counterparts. "Chris?" cried JD. "What are you doin’ down here?"

"What are you?" Larabee retorted.

JD looked to Sanchez, as if silently conceding that he was the better at telling stories--which, as long as he resisted the temptation to speak in parables, was true. "A lady came in on the southbound stage on Wednesday," the preacher began, "looking for her son--he was supposed to have gotten in from El Paso some time earlier. He wasn’t to be found, so she came to us. JD started sending telegrams, trying to trace him. We managed to establish that he’d probably made it across Texas all right, and then Jarrod Addison from Rincon showed up and got a little too cozy with the lady for our liking. He pulled out yesterday about two o’clock. Soon after that she visited the office again and told us that he’d represented himself as a go-between, claimed that some outlaws had kidnapped her boy off the stage and left him a note that they wanted a thousand dollars ransom for him. Only something about the story made her uneasy. She pretended to give him the money, but it was cut-up newspaper. Then she waited till he’d left, and reported her suspicions to us."

Chris’s head snapped around, his hazel-green eyes meeting Vin’s blue ones. Addison--and a boy--you don’t think--?


"What was this lady’s name, Josiah?" Chris demanded.

"Maude Standish," came the prompt reply. "A Southern belle if ever there was one, Brother Chris, and all the graces of a highborn lady too. Her missing son is twelve; his name is--"

"--Ezra." The word came from both ranchers’ lips simultaneously.

"How do you know?!" JD burst out. "I didn’t send you word ’cause I figured it was a routine matter, somethin’ I could take care of by just sendin’ out a lot of wires."

"We’re not sure of all the details yet," Larabee admitted, "but apparently a boy by that name was taken off the northbound stage in Broken Bow--by Addison. My bet would be that Addison knew where he was headed--it would be on his ticket as plain as paint--so he put the kid with somebody and figured to wait until either he started gettin’ inquiries or he thought it’d be worthwhile makin’ the trip himself, which obviously he did. Somehow the boy got away--took a friend with him, a younger boy named Buck--and they both ended up at our place Friday night, the little one with a nice case of measles. Buck wasn’t well enough to tell us much of anything, but Ezra made up for it, and that kid can spin a story better than anybody I ever heard. He about had us convinced the two of ’em were Jess Whitfield’s sons and their pa had been shot during a gun battle somewhere south of here. Then yesterday he slipped out of the house and left a note about goin’ off to recover some money that had belonged to Buck’s ma before she died and been ‘absconded with’ by what he called ‘dishonest authorities.’ I’m betting he meant Addison."

"So you’re lookin’ to find the kid," JD paraphrased, "and we’re tryin’ to catch up with Addison, or at least get close enough to have him lead us to the kid. Only if the boy was at your place, Miz Standish must’ve been wrong--Addison didn’t have him or even know where he was at."

"That might have changed," growled Chris. "They’d both have been coming this way, more than likely, and Addison would know Ezra if he saw him. Why were you ridin’ north instead of south, if you were on Addison’s trail?"

"Because the man seems to have flown off on the wings of a crow," said Josiah lugubriously. "He was seen passing the first and second relays, but nobody at the third or fourth reports having seen him. We thought he must have turned off somewhere; we were retracing our path trying to find where." He looked at the Texan. "Now that you’re here, Brother Vin, we might have a better chance."

"Let’s don’t waste no time at it, then," said Tanner. "Chris, you’n’Siah take the east side of the trail, me’n’JD’ll watch the west."


Predictably it was Vin, already familiar with the appearance of the bay mare’s tracks, who spotted the place where she had turned off the road, immediately below an unrailed plank-and-beam bridge that the stage company had thrown over a willow-choked wash so the coaches could cross even during flood times. "He’s headin’ up the wash, into the hills. Lookin’ for a place to camp, most like--these tracks was made yesterday sometime."

"But he didn’t come down?" Chris prompted.

"Not the same way as he went, that’s certain," was Vin’s reply.

JD had been skirmishing off to the side, practising his own nascent tracking skills. "Hey, Vin! I got something here!" he hollered from a few yards further down.

The older men converged to see what he had found. " ’Nother horse," was Vin’s verdict, "and shod. Ain’t seen it afore that I know of. Was through here ’bout the same time as Ezra was, maybe a little bit earlier, and goin’ the same way, only not follerin’ the wash."

Chris straightened up, shading his eyes with his hand. "There’s a clump of cedar up there, I can just make it out," he said. Like Vin and Josiah, he had spent time enough in arid country to know that while cedars on a hillside didn’t indicate as good a chance of water as cottonwoods in a line, which always meant a stream or at least a place where you could find drink by digging in the sand beneath them, they did sometimes point to the presence of a spring up some nearby gully. If the rider of the strange horse knew this also, he might be making for the cedars for exactly that reason. "Let’s go, but take it a little easy till we see what we’re ridin’ into."

Ezra’s tracks led them through the cedar clump and up the gully to a pine-shaded tank. The strange horse’s hoofprints merged with them about fifty yards short, as if that rider had angled in from the road, but they underlaid those of the mare, suggesting that the stranger had passed through ahead of the boy. If Ezra had been concentrating on the trees, he might not even have seen the other rider’s sign. At the tank the ground was well trampled, with prints of the boy, the mare, and a man, as well as the second horse, which had watered, then been led quickly off into the pines. "Bettin’ this feller heard Ezra comin’ and got hisself out of sight," Vin decided, "and then afterwhiles he come out again, soon’s he seen it weren’t nothin’ but a boy. They all headed back into them pine trees, and then this mornin’ early they come out again, two horses, both rode. Headed on up the gully past the tank, deeper into the hills."

"Together?" Josiah inquired.

"Looks so," Vin agreed, frowning. "Don’t make much sense. Ezra ain’t much of a one to trust--look how he strung Chris and me with them stories he told about where him and Buck was from. Why’d he go linkin’ up with some stranger? And why ain’t he followin’ the stage road? Him bein’ new to this country, he’s gotta know it’s the easiest, quickest way to get to Broken Bow."

"They ain’t ridin’ side by side, are they?" said JD. "Look how the mare’s tracks trample on the other one’s. Like she was followin’ tight. That don’t make sense either." One of the first things Vin had taught him was that only Indians and dudes rode single file: Indians to hide their numbers, dudes because the horses felt like it. Experienced whites rode abreast so they could talk all the time.

Vin squinted at the sky. "Gettin’ on for sundown," he mused. "S’pose I ride on ahead alone a little ways, see can I get a notion where they’re headed for. You boys go on back to the tank and make camp."

None of them really liked the idea, but they knew that tracking at night in this jumble of hills and ravines and patches of hardy vegetation was even more difficult than tracking at night over the flats. They divided as Vin had suggested, and the Texan moved on, reading the trail from his saddle, since no effort had been made to hide it. The ravine worked its way higher, petering out as it went, and presently the trail climbed out of it and crossed a divide, below which Vin easily made out the tracks of the two horses on the gravelly steep hillside. They had gone down carefully, slipping and bracing themselves for the descent, leaving long furrows in the gravel. At the bottom the gravel gave way to dirt, and Vin could see the shoe-prints again: definitely the same two, and as JD had said, the mare was following close behind the other one, almost treading on its heels. He found a spot where the first horse had urinated: it had stretched itself and ejected its stream from in front of its hind legs, which meant it was a gelding, or (remote possibility) a stud. He skirmished around a bit, studying its tracks until he was certain he’d be able to pick them out anywhere, even if all he could see was one partial. Then he moved on, following the broad ravine. He knew it was safe to travel in because there was no grass in it and a lot of overgrown mesquite--big enough to shade a pony under; that was a sure sign it had oxbowed itself dry and didn’t get much in the way of water flowing through it. You had to think about these things in desert country, because the rain when it fell was likely to be so extremely localized, and water somewhere upstream of you, which didn’t even get your hat wet, could send a roaring foaming spate of brown flood, often carrying dead treetrunks and even boulders, down any depression deep enough to funnel it.

These hills were familiar country to him. There was a village of displaced Seminoles just north and west of that second relay station, half hidden in a maze of canyons, deer in the back country and even a few bighorn sheep higher up in the winter months, when they descended to the wooded slopes of the foothills and grazed on grass. There was water too, if you knew where to find it. Looking at the shapes of the hills around him, he knew he was approaching one of the permanent streams.

In the thickening darkness of early evening he found his way back to the camp the others had set up, and was welcomed with coffee and food. By the firelight he sketched a map in the dirt to show where their quarry had gone. "They follered this dry ravine to the old lava flow just this side of Peyote Creek," he explained, seeing Chris nodding in understanding: he’d hunted this country too. "I figured they’d keep south on the rock till they hit the water, then hold to it, likely downstream, and pull out around the base of that hogback ahead."

"They’d break brush in the creek if they did," Chris observed thoughtfully.

"It’s broke, for a couple of hundred yards," Vin told him. "It quits at this shale slide, and somethin’s crossed that, I dunno what. That’s where it got dark on me."

"It looks a lot like they’re trying to hide their trail," Josiah mused. "Now why would that be? Of course anyone can lay track faster than somebody coming along behind can unravel it, but it still means a delay getting wherever they’re going. Mrs. Standish’s boy doesn’t know this country, and you told us he doesn’t trust, so why would he go so far off the road?"

"One reason I can think of," growled Chris, "and it fits with what JD said about the mare’s tracks followin’ the other one’s instead of keepin’ even. Ezra ain’t in charge of his own trip no more."

"You mean somebody’s takin’ him someplace?" JD asked. "But who? And why?"

"Wisht I knowed, kid," Vin admitted, looking frustrated. Having been trained in trail science by Indians, he naturally tended to follow a trail in Indian style, which meant that, whenever possible, he didn’t waste time and energy by actually following it at all. If he knew who or what he was looking for, he would, as he said, "think hisself into its skin"--sit down quietly somewhere and try to decide where he would go if he were a certain person or kind of animal, with attention given to the terrain, the time of year, the weather, and what the man, if it was a man, might have in mind. Sooner or later the answer would come to him, and he’d go there. If his quarry hadn’t arrived yet, he’d wait; if there was sign that it had been and gone, he would follow from there, the trail probably being fresher. But if he didn’t know who Ezra was travelling with, he had no basis on which to guess what that person might want or where he planned to go--and as Josiah had said, nobody could follow sign as fast as it was laid, least of all in this kind of country.

The young deputy looked thoughtful. "I found somethin’ kinda funny back in the pines when I was foragin’ around for firewood," he offered diffidently. "I couldn’t see too good in all the shade, but it looked like a camp--I could see where a couple of horses had been tied a spell, shuffled around the way they do and dropped some turds. I found a fire too, or what was left of one. And this--I think maybe it blew out of the edge of the fire before it could burn much." He reached into his suit-jacket and extended what appeared to be an oblong of paper, one edge irregularly blackened where fire had eaten it, the others as straight and true as if ruled. The men passed it around, noting that it was newsprint and bore part of a familiar masthead: ION NEWS underlaid, in smaller type, by the words M. T., July 12, 1878. The columns underneath had been cut off partway down and across.

"It’s the latest edition," said Chris, "but why is it cut up like that? I can see usin’ newspaper for kindling, but it’d make better sense to tear a page into the size you wanted and maybe twist it into a spill that you could shove in under some small sticks."

Josiah suddenly brightened. "Wait a minute. Remember I told you what Mrs. Standish did? She gave Addison what he was meant to think was the ransom money, but it wasn’t. It was cut-up newspaper."

Four pairs of eyes met, growing solemn with the realization of what this might mean. "If this is the same newspaper," Chris mused slowly, "that means the second horse is Addison’s. And he’s got Ezra, and he knows he’s been tricked. That means he knows somebody’s guessed he wasn’t quite what he claimed to be, and that means he’ll figure somebody might be following him, if not the boy as well. That’s why he’s hiding his trail."

"Keeping the boy for a hostage, you think?" Sanchez suggested.

"Bet on it," Larabee agreed. "But what he don’t know is that we know that Ezra guessed somehow he’s got a good stash of money hidden away somewhere, most likely in Broken Bow or real close to it--some place where he could get at it in a hurry. Now if that guess was right, and if he knows he’s suspected, he’d be wanting to recover it before he left the country. That means--"

"--We don’t have to try to follow him no more, on account of we know where he’s headed," Vin finished. "He’s nigh onto a day ahead of us, but threadin’ his way through these hills is gonna slow him down. Iffen we cut back to the road and foller that, we should get in ahead of him."

"Let’s turn in as soon as we’ve finished eating," said Chris, "and get the earliest start we can in the morning. No point going now, the horses need to rest and feed. But we know that if we go down to the cedar clump and point southeast, we’ll pick up the road eventually--that’ll save some time."


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