TREASURE by Sevenstars


The note was blunt and to the point. We have the boy. Come to the piñon clump at the fork seven miles south tomorrow at sunrise. If we see anyone with you or within a mile back, you’ll never see us, or him, again.

Buck knew the piñon clump referred to: it stood at the base of a low bluff with the main road to the Border running past its east face and the subsidiary trail along its north side. A watcher on top of that bluff, especially if he had a telescope or a pair of binoculars, would be able to make out the numbers of anyone approaching a good ways off, even at that hour.

Rudy Koehler, one of the boarders who tended bar days at the Silver Front Saloon, offered to go with him. Florence Herndon, who had a millinery shop downtown, begged him to show the note to the marshal. Buck refused them both. He couldn’t take chances with Ezra’s life. If it had been any other little boy, he might have doubted: a child who wanted to play freely--who got invited to join a game of tag or Prisoner’s Base, say--might well remove constricting clothing like a necktie and jacket, and an exploiter looking for the main chance could have filched it to use as a bluff. But Ezra didn’t play tag or Prisoner’s Base, and he didn’t leave his clothes lying, or hanging, around--and even if he had, it wouldn’t explain why he was now more than three hours late getting home.

Mrs. O’Connell insisted that he eat something. "Divil a bit of good ye’ll be doin’ the lad if ye’re perishin’ of hunger," she pointed out. "And then I’ll be givin’ ye a glass of warm milk and cinnamon, and up to bed ye’ll be goin’. ’T’is at your best ye’ll need to be to deal with these filthy Sassenachs."

Buck forced down a large portion of stew and fresh-baked bread, accepted the milk (though what he really wished for was a bottle of whiskey), and climbed the stairs with something of the air of a man ascending the thirteen steps of a gallows. In their room he lit the majolica-based lamp and stood looking around at all the little reminders that this was Ezra’s place too: the boy’s trunk at the foot of the hollow-post iron bed, the simple flannelette-lined quilt of blocks of four squares each that he’d chosen as being least "gaudy" from among Mrs. O’Connell’s stock of bedding, the silver-backed hairbrush and hand mirror on the painted and grained country-style pine bureau, the shoes freshly shined that morning and neatly placed to dry beside the asbestos pad underlying the urn-capped heater stove housed into the chimneybreast that came up from the dining-room fireplace, the sketchbook left out on the barely sloped lid of the little painted-butternut schoolmaster’s desk with the spool-turned legs, the saddlebags hung over the back of the Windsor chair pushed up to it, the inexpensive paper-covered books ranged on the fret-sawed wall bracket with the steeplechase-horse motif. He opened the doors of the tall cedar cabinet that served as a wardrobe, stroked the sleeve of Ezra’s green velvet Sunday jacket on its hanger, opened one of the drawers and lifted out the pleated penang shirtwaist on top of the little stack inside and held it briefly to his face, breathing in the faint warm smell of clean, healthy boy, somewhat like that of a well-cared-for pony, that permeated the fabric. He knelt to raise the lid of Ezra’s trunk and sift slowly, gently, through the small trove of toys neatly stowed there, open the case of the boy’s violin and rub his fingers lightly over the satiny finish of the instrument. What nearly broke his heart wasn’t so much that Ezra might be in peril of his life, but that he didn’t know whether the boy had any faith that Buck would come for him. He’d apparently been so consistently ignored, abandoned, exploited, or abused throughout his short life that he had very little faith left in adults, even those who claimed they had his welfare at heart. "You hang on, son," he whispered, his voice choked and broken in the stillness of the room. "I don’t care what they want me to do, if it’ll get you out of there I’ll do it. I know you’re alone and likely scared. I’d come sooner if I could, but I ain’t got the first notion where to look for you." He closed the trunk with as much care as if it had been made of eggshell porcelain, then folded his arms on top of it, laid his head on them and slid sideways on the homemade embroidered rug, and let the soporific effect of the warm milk drift him away into an uncomfortable sleep.

Outside it had begun to snow.


Cort Guthrie snored. Dillon--Ezra still didn’t know if that was his first or last name--didn’t. The two slept warmly wrapped in their bedrolls before the crude rock-and-clay fireplace, in which a pile of banked embers still glowed dimly. For a time they had provided a faint hint of heat to the rest of the single-room split-log shack, but now not even the boy’s good stout saddle coat could fully keep the late-night chill at bay. The only thing he had to be thankful for was that they’d removed the gag from his mouth, and he’d eventually been able to get his saliva flowing again and ease his dry parched throat. He was cold, hungry, thirsty, stiff and frightened. They had taken him down the fire stairs into the alley beside the hotel, where the shadows hid them from the passersby on the boardwalk, and then back to the end of the alley where the horses waited. He’d come here astride the pommel of Dillon’s saddle, blindfolded, so he had no clue how to get back to Silver City even if, by some miraculous chance, he could free himself from the bonds that secured him to the stout hickory chair. As for talking his way out of his situation, it had never even occurred to him to try. Marks were one thing; criminals were quite another. Marks, deep inside themselves, wanted to be gulled: Mother had always said that no truly honest man could be enticed by any con, however elaborate. These didn’t.

Remorse wasn’t an emotion Ezra had ever been encouraged to experience; you could hardly run cons successfully if you were prone to feeling sorry for your marks afterward. But he was well aware that he was in this situation solely as a result of his own folly. Much as Guthrie and Dillon might have wanted to "snatch" him, they’d feared to do so on the bustling streets of the camp, where people were likely to see and question them: children were comparitively rare in mineral towns and therefore regarded as especially precious. He certainly couldn’t imagine them breaking into Mrs. O’Connell’s house, or even Mrs. Norwood’s cabin, and taking him out at gunpoint. It was only because he had conceived the notion of turning Guthrie in for the reward, and hadn’t been content with simply knowing what room he was staying in, that he’d made himself vulnerable to them. Dillon would never have found him if he’d turned around and gone back down the stairs as soon as he’d memorized the location of Guthrie’s door. And now Buck, who had generously undertaken the care of a boy he wasn’t related to and had known nothing about, who had fed and clothed and lodged him, who had set rules to keep him safe and then explained why he set them, who had never once raised hand or voice to him or told him he was worthless or even disparaged his mother’s name to him, whose gentleness and good humor knew no bounds, who had presented him with the pony he had secretly yearned for ever since he was old enough to know what a pony was, who had taken him to plays and introduced him to the circus and made this past Christmas more wonderful than any such holiday had ever been--who had been a father to him as his uncles had been to his cousins, but never to him--Buck, who, Ezra now understood, loved him, though the boy still couldn’t make out why he should--Buck was in danger on his account, because he, Ezra P. Standish, had been unable to resist his own impulses.

Ezra had overheard enough by now to have a very good idea of what Guthrie’s grudge was. After the failed arrest attempt in Santa Fe, during which Guthrie had shot the newspaperman, the outlaw and his son had split up to make themselves harder to follow, agreeing to meet in Lordsburg two weeks later. Matt Guthrie had lost his pursuers first and made his way to the rendezvous point, where, two nights before his father was due to join him, he got into a game of faro, won three hundred dollars, and, presumably supposing that abundant money made him irresistible, tried to horn in on a cowboy and a dance girl who were enjoying each other’s company at a nearby table. The cowboy objected and Matt cold-cocked him (probably he hadn’t wanted to chance the kind of face-to-face inquiry by the law that was likely to follow even the most legitimate killing), then swept the girl into his arms. She started kicking and hitting at him, then scratched him full down the side of his face. He slapped her. And Buck Wilmington, who up till then had been quietly nursing a beer at the bar, called him, beat him to the draw, and killed him with one shot. Guthrie rode into town on schedule to find his son in a freshly-dug grave. He would probably have killed Buck then and there, if he could--but Buck had only been passing through and had ridden on as soon as the local sheriff was satisfied that he’d behaved according to the code. For the whole year and a half since Guthrie had been learning everything he could about the gunslinger, then trying to trace his whereabouts. But it had been sheer happenstance that Dillon had spotted Buck and Ezra out riding one day, recognized Wilmington from Guthrie’s description, and trailed them back to Mrs. O’Connell’s.

"It wasn’t no butt-in of his," Guthrie had growled over his canned corned beef and Boston baked beans. "Matt wasn’t doing him no harm. Well, I aim to teach him what happens to anyone who shoots a Guthrie. He’s gonna pay for killing my boy. Tomorrow morning when he comes here, he’ll pay."

They mean to murder him, Ezra thought. They will use me to induce him to surrender, so that they run no risk--he is most proficient with his weapons, after all--and then they will kill him. Because of me.

Oddly enough, for all the inevitably poor self-image he had developed through being constantly ignored, left behind, or made to feel like a liability or a disgrace, it never occurred to him that Buck wouldn’t come. He would come, not just because he loved Ezra, but because he was a man of honor, and honor would require that he do this--because doing it was simply an extension of all that he had done up to now as a part of the obligation he felt. The obligation toward himself, the one that he felt he had to fulfill so he could look into his own eyes in the mirror every morning.

And he was going to die. Because Ezra had been stupid.

Ezra had cried very seldom since his father vanished from his life--only indeed when Maude needed him to as part of a con, or when he was trying to get something out of someone. That was what tears were for, to make people feel sorry for you. There was no point crying if no one was around to see you and be moved by it. But now, to his utter mortification, he felt a ribbon of wetness scalding its way down his cheek with no encouragement from himself. He sniffled, trying to stop the disgraceful, useless exhibition of emotion. It didn’t help. The tears only flowed the faster.

Alone in the dimness, Ezra cried himself into a restless, uncomfortable sleep.


Buck woke, chilled and stiff, when Mrs. O’Connell knocked at the door to rouse him. Sunrise would come a few minutes after seven at this season; false dawn was just beginning to pale the sky. He had two hours. Plata could make the trip out to the piñon clump in forty-five minutes or less. He struggled to his feet, kneading the cramps out of his legs, and hobbled to the window, twitching the worsted draperies aside. The snow had stopped, having accumulated perhaps three inches--no particular hindrance to a horse in good condition.

Determined not to let his unknown enemies see any hint of weakness in him, he shaved carefully, combed his hair and changed into a fresh shirt. Mrs. O’Connell had apparently set her alarm clock earlier than usual and had breakfast ready for him, but he refused it. No prudent man would eat heavily if he had reason to think he was going to end up in a gunfight: food slowed you down. He drank two cups of coffee, heavily sugared and laced with Leeward Islands rum from a jug Rudy Koehler kept in his room for emergencies, and ate an apple and three hot sour-milk biscuits with broad slabs of ham, fried to a crinkle at the edges, sandwiched between the halves of them. He went back upstairs and dug through his war bag until he found the old Darling six-barrel pepperbox he’d carried as a hideout during the War, as a hedge against the possibility of being captured. He loaded it and looped a string of woven and braided horsehair through the trigger guard, knotted it and dropped it over his head so the gun hung down inside his collar, between his longjohns and his shirt. He made sure of his Peacemaker and went down again. Rudy had saddled Plata and had her waiting at the front door. The cold weather made her frisky, but she sensed something in his voice and touch that kept her from doing more than taking a couple of little crowhops to warm her blood. Blowing clouds of steam from her nostrils, she moved out at a brisk jog, shaking her head and rolling her bit, her hooves tossing little clumps of mud and snow.

Once away from the camp, Buck spurred the horse into the long, steady, reaching trot that was good for six miles an hour sun to sun--the gait commonly used by posses until the fugitive was in sight but out of gunshot. It was a good gait for the horse, but a bad one for the man. He sat to it Western-fashion, barely aware of the discomfort, which didn’t matter. All that mattered was Ezra.

He reached the piñon clump just as the sun edged into view over the eastern horizon, and drew rein, looking around but being careful to keep his gaze away from the top of the bluff. Well warmed by her journey, Plata stamped and shuddered her coat. He steered her up and down slowly to cool her, eyeing the trees for any sign of another note. Presently he heard the clash of a rifle’s action behind his back and checked her, waiting. He heard the muffled, squishy clop of hooves approaching behind him, sensed the warmth and mass of horse and rider as they neared, then felt the touch of the rifle’s muzzle against his back--not the kind of sharp dig that might be countered by a quick arm-sweep, but simply a declaration that someone was there. "Where’s my boy?" he growled.

"You’ll see him in just a bit," the unseen ambusher told him. "Lift your coattail and tuck it back so I can get your gun."

Buck did as he was bid and felt the sudden decrease of weight at his hip as the Colt was deftly lifted from the holster. "Now," the other man instructed, "keep right on the way you were going, and I’ll tell you when to turn. And don’t try to grab for that Winchester in your saddle boot, ’cause I’ll blow you off your horse before you can get it out."

Buck had no intention of doing any such thing: he knew well enough that only this man could quickly bring him to where Ezra was. It might be barely possible to find his trail and follow it back to wherever he’d come from, but that would take time, and he almost certainly had a partner--they wouldn’t have left Ezra unguarded--who would be expecting him within a certain window and might get suspicious if he didn’t show. That was setting aside the possibility that their camp or hideout was close enough to hear a gunshot--and the slightest sound travelled easily in the clear air of desert or mountain, let alone in still, cold winter weather.

Following the brief commands that issued from behind him, Buck turned off the Border trail onto a barely visible game path, through a broad belt of piñon almost thick enough to be described as a forest, then up one of the shallow, steep-sided ravines so prevalent in mountain country, upward steadily into a zone of Apache and ponderosa pine and Arizona cypress. After a while they came to a place where the wall of the ravine had crumbled, making an easy path out of it, and climbed on into the trees themselves. Young seedlings of Arizona white, Mexican blue, and emory-oak, black cherry, and other assorted leaf-bearing trees, looking twiggy and skeletal at this season but often standing higher than a mounted man’s head, grew thickly in the understorey, for pines don’t prosper in their parents’ shade, and deciduous species "planted" by passing birds and animals may displace them over several decades’ time. Buck guessed they’d been riding for about an hour when the pines suddenly opened out in one of those natural clearings that you find in even the thickest of forests. At the far side of it stood a split-log shack with a crude rock-and-clay chimney from which a trailer of smoke lifted into the still air; from the smell of it they were burning dry pine knots and split oak, which make good firewood. Hard by was located a little lean-to stable and a corral, where a liver-colored gelding drowsed. "Hold up," Buck’s guide ordered, and as the gunslinger obeyed he heard the other man let off a skyward shot, then quickly chamber two more rounds and fire them as well. It was clearly a signal, for after a moment the door of the shack opened and a man looked out. Buck couldn’t make out details at this distance, and waited for further orders. The man vanished back inside and the guide said, "All right. Now ride up to the corral rails, get down and tie your horse."

Again Buck obeyed; the liver gelding perked up as Plata came near, its ears shooting forward, nose questing for a hint of her scent. As he swung down, the gunslinger was able for the first time to get a sight of his captor: younger than himself by ten or twelve years, about the same height, but thinner, with curly blue-black hair and the blue eyes and upturned nose of Irish blood, riding a sorrel Appaloosa with a white-spotted rump and wearing a fringed open-throat shirt of finest doeskin with a red-and-black-checked cloth shirt showing underneath it, and age-rusty blue Army trousers with the canary-yellow stripe of the U. S. Cavalry down the outseams. Two guns were crossbelted on his hips--plain, workmanlike guns with dark blue metal and darkened walnut butts--and Buck’s own Peacemaker was thrust into his waistband, held in place by its own opened loading gate; the rifle with which he had compelled Buck’s obedience was an old Henry twelve-shot, not as powerful as a Winchester but still well capable of sending a slug through seven inches of pine, let alone a man’s body. He too dismounted, dropping the Appy’s reins to make it stand, and put the Henry into its sheath.

The door opened, and the man Buck had seen before stepped into view again. He was older than either his partner or the gunslinger, lacking four inches or so of Buck’s lean height, heavier in build, with a broad rounded face, restless blue eyes, light sandy hair and a mustache that matched, a small mole on his right cheek and a short, puggy nose. Under his open brown corduroy coat showed a dark blue woollen shirt, a single gun hung medium low and tied at his thigh, and broad-striped dark pants; he wore good cowboy boots, black with butterfly tooling, and a center-creased hat rolled to a point in front, banded with a tanned rattler skin. All this Buck catalogued automatically, as years of training bade him do, but his attention was fixed on the small figure held in front of the man by a hand clamped about its arm. He took one reflexive step and stopped immediately as the younger man drew his right-hand gun and cocked it.

Ezra’s face looked pinched and pale--paler than usual--and grimy tear-tracks marked it, but apart from a single bruise on the side of his jaw Buck couldn’t make out any signs of physical injury. "You all right, son?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, sir," Ezra agreed in a small voice.

Buck looked up at the older man, his features tight. "All right, you wanted me here, I’m here. Now what’s your business with me?"

The other snorted. "Don’t know who I am, do you, Wilmington?"

"Yeah, I know," Buck retorted. "You’re Cort Guthrie. I fetched the boy one of your old wanted posters not a week before we pulled out of El Paso."

"Well, that makes things simpler," Guthrie observed, "but I don’t reckon you see the connection between us or you’d say something about it. Lordsburg, three years ago come next August. You killed a man in the Good Times Gambling & Dance House there. Young feller, no more’n twenty, fair hair and freckles, wearing a braided leather Mexican jacket and a brass-wire band on his hat."

"I remember," Buck agreed. "Never got his name. What was he to you?"

"My son Matt," Guthrie replied. "It’s good you remember him. A man should remember the men he kills, otherwise there’s no dignity to it. But you say you never knew his name, and I know you weren’t wearin’ a badge at the time. You had no call to shoot him."

"That might be your opinion, but it wasn’t mine," Buck told him. "He was manhandlin’ a girl who didn’t want anything to do with him. I don’t let any man do that where I can see."

"A dance girl," said Guthrie scornfully. "Four bits a turn and Mexican at that. A dime a dozen. Don’t seem like she’d be worth two lives, does it?"

"I figured we’d get to that soon enough," said Buck. "But the boy’s got no piece in it. Let him go. Put him on my horse, she’ll take him back to Silver City. No need for him to stay and watch. You can be gone long before he brings back any help. You’re already facin’ a noose for that newspaper man in Santa Fe, it won’t profit you none to see he can’t identify you."

"Well, that’s true," Guthrie agreed. "But that ain’t why I tolled you up here."

Ezra half listened to the exchange going on above his head, making no complaint against the bruising grip that enclosed his left arm (for of course Guthrie had to keep his right hand free for his gun) and watching Buck’s face. He knew something of body language even at his young age, and he thought he knew Buck well enough to know that he wouldn’t stand tamely and let himself be shot down like a deer for the pot. He meant to be ready to move whenever he sensed Buck was about to act. But his conditioning also taught him the truth of Franklin’s maxim, "God helps those who help themselves"--and, in any case, honor demanded that he make some attempt to even the score for having foolishly allowed himself to fall into the outlaws’ hands and thereby placed the gunslinger in this situation to begin with. They had never bothered to turn out his pockets. Inch by inch, using his own body to conceal the movement from Dillon--whose attention was more on Buck anyway--he slipped his right hand into his pants pocket and folded his fingers around the pocketknife that had been in his Christmas stocking. His nimble fingers turned it endwise, found the nail nick for the longer blade and eased it out of the handle sheath. He would have only one chance. He couldn’t allow Buck to die on his account. Folding his hand around the handle of the knife, he began drawing it out of his pocket, turning it as he did until the blade was pointed backward.

"I don’t savvy," Buck admitted. "Your quarrel’s with me, you said so."

"It is," was Guthrie’s reply. "But just killing you wouldn’t settle what’s between us. No, findin’ out about this boy of yours changed things. I’m not gonna kill you, Wilmington. I’m gonna let you live with the kind of loss you handed me." He drew his Colt and cocked it, bringing it to bear on Ezra’s temple.

Ezra brought his hand back in a short, vicious jab, plunging the blade of the pocketknife into the meat of Guthrie’s lower thigh, just as Buck roared "NO!!" And everything happened at once.

The little blade couldn’t sink deep enough to do any real damage, but its sharp sudden prick was painful and distracting, much like a bee sting. It hurt and startled Guthrie just enough to make him reflexively relax his grip on Ezra, who yanked his arm free, swinging his foot back in a hard bruising kick as he spun away from the outlaw and dived for cover behind the woodpile. Guthrie’s gun went off, but the pain of the stab and Ezra’s twisting lunge and parting kick had knocked the barrel out of line, and the bullet plowed up mud a few inches to the boy’s right, doing him no harm. At the same moment Buck brought up his right hand, hooked his thumb under the barely visible horsehair string that held the Darling pepperbox suspended inside his shirt, whipped the gun out, and curled his big hand around its shepherd’s-crook butt even as he threw himself forward and sideways in a rolling lunge. Dillon, as he had expected, reflexively triggered a shot at him, but he was firing on the level at a moving target, where Buck, coming to a stop, was firing breast aim at a standing one. Dillon hardly knew where he’d gone. The pepperbox barked twice and Dillon staggered back, already dying from the two rounds that had drilled into his chest. A bullet from Guthrie’s Colt kicked up mud six inches to Buck’s left as he rolled again, brought the hideout to bear and fired once, twice, three times. The first bullet smashed Guthrie’s jaw; the second went through the pit of his throat, and the third missed entirely as he fell over backwards and landed half-in, half-out of the open doorway.

Buck scrambled to his knees, automatically cocking the hammer for his last available shot, his eyes darting from one enemy to the other. Dillon was nearer, and Buck’s own Peacemaker was still securely wedged into his waistband. Crabbing backward, the gunslinger drew it free, quickly checked the loads, glanced briefly at the man’s face, and seeing by the wide staring eyes that he was no further threat, pushed to his feet and moved stiff-legged toward Guthrie.

Ezra had experienced many inappropriate things during his travels with his mother, but he had never been practically on top of a gunfight when it erupted: Maude, like all grifters, far preferred to avoid violence whenever possible. He shrank down, cowering, at the confused roar of the various weapons, hiding his face against his arm and squeezing up to the butts of the piled firelogs. The silence that descended was so abrupt and complete that at first he thought he’d been struck deaf. Then he heard the squelch of boots in the squidgy trampled ground, a harsh rhythm of breathing, the quadruple click of a Peacemaker cocking. Trembling, he waited to learn who had won the fight. He knew he should take advantage of the moment and run--at least get further away--just in case Buck hadn’t, but he couldn’t seem to get the impulse from his brain to his legs.

"Ezra?" came a tentative voice. Then, louder: "Ezra! Answer me!"

The boy peeped cautiously around the corner of the woodpile to find Buck standing before the door of the shack, his hat hanging half in front of one shoulder by its long jaw strap, his hair dishevelled, his face and fur-lined three-quarter coat streaked and splashed with mud and moisture. "Buck?" he whispered.

In two huge strides Buck was falling on his knees beside the stacked logs, arms open to receive the child who hurled himself into that welcoming embrace. Ezra’s hat tumbled off, his arms doubled around Buck’s neck in a desperate clutch, the boy’s face pressing into the front of his coat, not seeming to care that he was probably getting mud all over himself. The small body shook with sobs.

Assuming the worst, Buck tried to peel him off so he could check for injury. Ezra only wailed a wordless plea of denial and held on tighter. At length it occurred to the gunslinger that no child with that strong a grip could possibly be seriously hurt. He’s scared, that’s all. Scared half out of his mind, likely, and needin’ comfort. You told him yourself once that comfortin’ was somethin’ you did real well--prove it, Wilmington. "That’s okay, now," he reassured softly. "It’s all right, it’s over, it’s done, we’re all’re fine, I got you...easy now, son, let up and breathe...easy..." He hugged Ezra close, wrapping him in the shelter of his arms, kneading his back with one big hand, feeling the tautly knotted muscles right through the saddle coat and the suit and shirt and underwear beneath it, letting him cry himself out. For all the distress Ezra was obviously going through, it gave Buck some comfort to find him actually behaving like a normal frightened child, instead of keeping up his usual blasé façade. In all their time together, this was the first time he could remember Ezra allowing his serenity to crack; he never complained, never let on if he was tired or not feeling well: Buck had to work it out for himself from whatever physical signs the boy hung out, and there weren’t many. Ezra seemed to be of the opinion that showing weakness was dangerous and not to be indulged in; it was as if he was trying not to leave any blood on his trail that might draw predators. Reckon there really is a heart under them nice clothes after all.

"Ezra?" he inquired again, as the sobs began to ease. "Ezra, you’re okay, ain’t you? They didn’t hurt you?"

", I...I’m f...I’m..." Ezra stammered. Then, exerting control: "I’m unharmed...are you?"

"Nothin’ on me that won’t wash off," Buck told him. Remembering the sight of Ezra’s little pocketknife lodged in the big muscle of Guthrie’s thigh, he added, "That was real brave of you, son, and quick. If you hadn’t’a got Guthrie to turn loose of you, I’d’a had a lot rougher time takin’ him out."

"I...I...h-had to..." Suddenly Ezra began to cry again. "I’m s-sorry...I’m so s-sorry...I d-didn’t’s m-my f-f-fault..."

"Whoa! Hold on there, little pard," Buck interrupted, alarmed. "Ain’t none of this was your fault. It was all Guthrie’s grand notion, not none of yours."

"B-but I...if I h-hadn’t..." Ezra suddenly drew back, tears still running down his cheeks as he searched Buck’s face for the scorn he clearly expected. "You won’ won’t want me now...but I c-can’t...I have to tell you..." In fits and starts the story of his capture emerged, while Buck listened somberly, his eyes steady on the child’s resigned expression. "I only w-wanted...I hoped to earn the reward. I wanted pull my make you proud. I never...I never thought...I might place your life in danger."

" ’Course you didn’t," Buck encouraged him. "Hell, son, I never knew Guthrie had a grudge against me--how do you reckon you were supposed to?"

Ezra’s features took on a bewildered cast. "You’re not...not angry with me?"

"No, son, I ain’t angry. I’m just relieved you’re okay. Yeah, maybe you done somethin’ that wasn’t too smart, but you couldn’t’a guessed what use Guthrie would want to make of you. It wasn’t your fault. Mine maybe, for killin’ Guthrie’s son in Lordsburg."

"But...but that isn’t correct either," Ezra protested. "You killed him because he was molestin’ a lady. No gentleman would stand idly by and permit such an outrage to go unpunished."

"That’s right," Buck agreed. "So it goes back to young Guthrie in the end, don’t it? If he’d kept his hands where they belonged, none of this would’a ever happened. Would it?" He gave the boy a little jostle--not quite a shake--to emphasize the question.

"No," Ezra replied thoughtfully, "I don’t imagine it would."

"That’s what we mean when we say everything’s got a consequence to it," the gunslinger told him. "Sometimes we can make a guess at what it’ll be, like Guthrie should’ve in Lordsburg. Sometimes we can’t, like you. We just have to go on and do what we think is right, and live with what comes of it the best we can. We can’t live our lives on what if, son. We’re put on this Earth to live and act, and we have to do it."

Ezra stared into his eyes. "You’re not vexed with me, Buck? Truly? Not even modestly exasperated?" he beseeched, returning to his previous theme. "You’re not goin’ to send me away?"

Buck pulled him into another enveloping hug. "Damned to fleas and scurvy if I will, son, now or ever. No matter what you do. Told you once, we’re partners. Partners don’t give up on each other." He held the boy close until he felt the tension begin to drain out of the small body and Ezra’s arms looped around his neck again, his form melding itself to the man’s in an instinctive gesture of trust and submission. "Now, how about we head on home?"

"What about the reward?" Ezra questioned gravely. "Shouldn’t we deliver Mr. Guthrie’s remains to the marshal? I don’t mind waitin’ while you put him on a horse."

Buck took breath to say something derogatory about the reward, then realized that, for all the unexpected vulnerability Ezra had displayed, he was still a product of his past and couldn’t be expected to give up a lifetime’s conditioning in a minute--or even a half hour. And anyhow, he thought, I was just thinkin’ yesterday about settlin’ down. A little extra money wouldn’t hurt, and God knows we earned it today. "Tell you what," he suggested. "I’ll put him and his partner in the shack and see if I can find somethin’ to block the door so the coyotes won’t get at ’em. Then we’ll go home and I’ll tell the marshal where to come to find ’em. We can get back quicker if we ain’t towin’ a couple of pack horses, and I bet you’re hungry and want a bath--I know I do. How’s that?"

"That will be quite satisfactory," Ezra agreed. "And you’re correct about the bath. You’re covered in mud, Buck."

Buck’s heart gave a little leap to hear the boy finally using his plain Christian name even once past the stress of the fight. "You ain’t exactly clean as a whistle yourself, little pard, I reckon some of mine rubbed off on you." He pushed to his feet, sweeping Ezra onto his hip. "C’mon, you can sit on the corral rail and feed Guthrie’s horse while I pick up the garbage."


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