TREASURE by Sevenstars


Buck stripped the gear off Dillon’s Appaloosa and turned it into the pen with Guthrie’s horse, then took Ezra up before his saddle and turned back toward Silver City. The boy was silent as the gray picked her way through the pines and down the ravine, then worked on down to the road and turned north, but Buck could tell that he wasn’t asleep; nor was he distancing himself from the man behind him. The gunslinger somehow got the sense that Ezra was deep in thought, turning over everything that had happened to him and trying to make sense of it. Knowing from the War that everyone processes stressful events differently, and well aware that Ezra was disinclined to share his doubts and fears (or even admit he had any), he decided to let the boy alone for now. Ezra had taken a giant leap forward today; it would be unrealistic to expect any further strides from him in so short a time.

He stopped at Mrs. O’Connell’s, where the landlady and Mrs. Norwood immediately claimed Ezra and hustled him off for a hot bath. He stabled Plata, picked up some fresh clothes, and headed downtown to pay a visit to the bathhouse, drop off his muddy gear and Ezra’s at the Chinese laundry, and then stop in at the jail and report what had happened to the marshal. Technically the man’s jurisdiction ended at the city limits, but since he was the only law in the region he often got pulled into larger concerns. He promised to send someone out to recover the outlaws’ bodies, horses, and gear, and to start the paperwork going on the bounty for Guthrie.

Clean and freshly dressed, Buck returned to the boardinghouse, where a scrubbed and rosy Ezra had been put in his nightshirt and tucked into bed (over his eloquent protests) by the two motherly widows. By the time he arrived, it was time for midday dinner, and although Mrs. O’Connell ordinarily discouraged her guests from eating in their rooms, for Buck and Ezra she made an exception. Ezra was served in bed, like a proper invalid, and Buck’s dinner was set out on the gay cloth that covered the spool-turned cherry table in front of their bedroom window--but as soon as the landlady had gone downstairs to serve the rest of the boarders, he put it on the big black flowered tea-tray and moved it over onto his bed, placing the broad-backed, brocade-seated chair between the two so he could eat and keep Ezra company at the same time. The boy eyed this arrangement doubtfully. "Mrs. O’Connell will be vexed with you if you spill food on her Dove of Peace quilt," he observed.

"If I do, I’ll pay to have Wong Lee get it out," Buck replied. "I just kinda had the notion you didn’t want to be by yourself right now."

"That...would be an accurate assessment of the situation," Ezra agreed.

Dinner, as usual, involved soup (a rich white one made with chicken and veal), two meats (pork chops with gravy and roast duck stuffed with sage and onions), boiled potatoes, three vegetables (buttered squash, glazed carrots, and home-canned peas), homemade bread, an assortment of relishes and preserves, and two desserts, coconut cream pie and caramel pudding, plus coffee for Buck and milk for Ezra. With the release of tension both found themselves ravenous, and ate with little conversation. Afterward Buck took the tray and dishes downstairs and returned to find that the boy had slid down in bed and was lying on his side, staring at the picture over the desk that portrayed the Good Shepherd bringing in the lost sheep. His shoulders flinched a bit when he heard Buck come in. The gunslinger realized that this was a delicate moment. He quietly put the chair back where it belonged, pulled his boots off and stretched out on his own bed, stacking the pillows behind his back and clasping his hands behind his head for an equally serious study of the Berlin-work picture of Byron at the Seashore that hung to the right of the window. Patience, he had found, was a virtue when courting ladies, and apparently it also worked with small boys. After a while, without turning over, Ezra spoke tentatively. "Buck, may I ask you a question?"

"I think you just did," the man replied. That fetched the boy’s face around, with a wide-eyed stare, and he grinned. "But you can ask another. Ask as many as you want to."

Ezra squirmed over onto his back, his head turned sideways on the massive white pillow with its embroidered case. "Sometimes," he said slowly, "I have observed you studyin’ me with a certain...look...that suggests my presence has aroused some unwelcome reverie. Would it be inappropriate for me to know why?"

Ah, hell! Buck thought. Should’ve expected it after all. "No, Ezra, it wouldn’t be. And it ain’t about you exactly, or anything you’ve done. It’s just you sometimes remind me of another little boy."

Ezra considered this for a moment. "What was his name?"

"Adam. He’d be about your age now."

"Adam Wilmington," Ezra sounded the name out thoughtfully. "It’s quite euphonious."

"Aw, no, he wasn’t mine. I had a partner, see. A grown partner, and he had a wife, and they had a son, and that was Adam. I was Uncle Buck, that’s all."

"Is he...deceased?"

"Yeah. Three years next month."

"Does it...make you unhappy, to remember him?"

"It used to," Buck admitted. "But, you know somethin’, Ezra? Ever since you’ve been with me, seems like I remember more of the good times I had with him than I do the hole he left in my life when he was gone. And there was a lot more of good than of bad." He sighed. "I reckon I’d kinda forgotten just how much." He turned his head to meet the boy’s solemn eyes. "You gave me that gift, Ezra, and I’m thankful for it. I reckon Adam wouldn’t want me to always be sad when I thought about him. I reckon he’s real pleased that I got you now."

Ezra couldn’t recall anyone--certainly not an adult--ever telling him before that they were grateful to him. He was surprised at the warm feeling it gave him. He had been somewhat reassured when Buck had asserted that he wasn’t going to be sent away for having behaved foolishly and--for all Buck could have known up until the very last moment--endangering his guardian’s safety, but he sensed that a transitory error such as that would pale in comparison to the continual assault of painful memories. Still uncertain and seeking confirmation, he pressed, "Then it doesn’t make you depressed or downcast to have me here?"

Buck had been staring at Lord Byron again, a soft faint smile on his lips. He looked around quickly, his indigo eyes startled. "Hell, no! You’re about the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Ez--except maybe meetin’ my old partner for the first time, on account of it was him that brought on all the rest, Sarah and Adam and the ranch we made together."

"But there are times when you look melancholy," Ezra continued. "If I remind you of Adam, and if rememberin’ him makes you think thoughts you had rather not..."

"The one ain’t really got anythin’ to do with the other, son," Buck interrupted. "I used to remember him even before I got you. Yeah, I reckon I think of him more now. But like I said, I think more about the good things about that time, and that don’t make me sad at all. I like havin’ them thoughts. It’s like...well, when it’s a cold gray day out and you can reach back and get a picture in your mind of how it is in spring or summer, warm and bright and birds singin’ and the air full of good smells, don’t that make you feel good? That’s how I mostly think about Adam now."

"I...see," said Ezra slowly. "Is that why you presented me with so many gifts at Christmas? Because of Adam?"

"No, Ez, I gave you them gifts because you’re you, and I wanted to see you happy. You ain’t Adam, son. I don’t expect you to be. I admit I’d like to bring you up to where you’d be a lively, happy little boy like he was, but if I can’t, it don’t matter. I’ll still have him in my mind--nobody can ever take that from me; and I’ll have you, and you give me pleasure in your own way."

"Was he ‘your boy,’ the way I am?"

"No, Adam was Chris’s boy--that was my partner. I never rightly thought of him as mine, not that way. I ain’t ever had but one that was ‘my boy,’ and that’s you."

"I’m...very gratified to be ‘your boy,’ Buck," Ezra whispered. "And most exceptionally honored."

"Then I’m glad, ’cause it tells me I’m doin’ a good job," Buck told him. Hesitation, then: "Maybe sometime I can tell you about some of the things we used to do together, the two of us. Would you like that?"

"I think I’d find that very pleasant...if you’d care to confide in me." Ezra was silent for a few minutes, giving both of them time to integrate the exchange, then: "Buck?"

"Yeah, son."

"I believe...I think I know why Mother left me with you and absconded from El Paso."

Calling upon all his training and experience, Buck managed not to seem overeager when he replied: "Do ya now? You want to tell me about it?"

"It began in New Orleans," Ezra explained slowly. "You know that that city was a Spanish possession for some years, don’t you?"

"Seems to me I heard somethin’ about that once, yeah," Buck agreed. "Never thought on it much."

"Mother had recently retrieved me from an uncle in Arkansas," the boy proceeded, "and we took the riverboat down to the city. I’m rather vague as to the details, but somehow she contrived to acquire an old Spanish treasure map, a map that gave the location of a hoard concealed in the year 1751 by Spaniards attemptin’ to preserve it from a corrupt and venal provincial governor."

Buck frowned skeptically. Though he’d never been personally involved in any treasure hunts, he’d knocked around the West long enough (to say nothing of having spent his adolescent years at the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, where tales of such things were equally as plentiful as reports of Indian raids and Border clashes) to have heard many stories of lost mines and hidden stores of weapons or wealth. The mines he could accept--everyone knew the Rockies and the Great Basin were lousy with gold and silver, and many cynical old desert rats, who either feared claim jumpers or just wanted to take out enough to keep them in beans, might not trouble to register their claims--but he’d always taken the treasure stories with a grain of salt.

Ezra read his expression before he could speak and hastened to ease his doubts. "Mother has operated more than one hoax in her career," he admitted, "but for that very reason she is well equipped to distinguish when one is bein’ played upon her. Indeed, she once ran a fraud involvin’ just such an ancient hoard, except that hers was supposedly hidden from the Patriots in South Carolina durin’ the War for Independence--in 1778, that is. In order to make it convincing, she was obliged to do extensive research into vocabulary, style of writing, paper fabricatin’ technique, and other such subjects. She was thoroughly convinced that the map she had in hand was genuine."

Buck decided to reserve judgment and hear him out. "All right. So what happened with this map?"

"You understand," Ezra went on, "there are many details to which I was not privy. Apparently there was a man who had been seekin’ this same document. Somehow it came to his attention that Mother had obtained it first. I was asleep in the bedroom of our suite when I was awakened by voices in the other room. This man had learned where Mother was domiciled and had come to suggest that they become partners in the attempt to seek out the hoard. He pointed out that it was located in the ‘wild West’ and that Mother would need to hire men to help her find and transport it in any case. Mother was most civilized and polite about the matter, but she refused him nevertheless. As nearly as I could make out--and we were then dwelling in a quality hostelry where the doors were thick, so there was doubtless a good deal that I missed--he had reason to think that he was bein’ sought by the authorities, and had indeed entered New Orleans surreptitiously, havin’ come up by Gulf steamer from Vera Cruz. For that reason he was reluctant to behave in any conspicuous or impulsive manner, for fear of drawin’ their attention to him. I’m not even certain what his name was; Mother only addressed him as ‘Colonel.’ All I can definitely assert is that he spoke with a Southern accent."

"Hmm," Buck muttered. "There was a bunch of them old diehard Secesh soldiers that headed off to Mexico with General Jo Shelby after Lee surrendered, I remember that. Fifteen hundred men, the way I heard it. Called themselves the Brigade of Destiny. They figured to march down to Mexico City and offer their services to the Emperor Maximilian; he was busy fightin’ Benito Juarez’s revolutionaries then. Well, they had themselves a hell of a trip. The Juaristas poisoned the waterholes ahead of ’em and laid waste to whole villages so they couldn’t live off the country, and guerrilla bands harried ’em every mile of the way, layin’ ambushes in mountain passes and makin’ murderous night raids on their camps. After fourteen hundred miles of that, they made it to the Emperor, and he refused to take ’em on. Real polite and gracious he was about it, but he told ’em he wasn’t gonna conscript foreign mercenaries to make war on a people he thought of as his own. The French were plumb sick at him when they heard, and began to talk about pullin’ out on him--they didn’t till two years later, on account of old Napoleon back home bein’ afraid he was like to find himself in a war in Europe, plus us Americans were puttin’ pressure on him to get out, and without them to back him up Max got himself captured and shot right quick. Anyhow, Shelby’s brigade was disbanded in the city it’d fought so hard to get to. Ain’t plumb sure what happened to ’em after, but I reckon most made their way home sooner or later--it was pretty plain by then that Andy Johnson wasn’t interested in executin’ ex-Confederate soldiers or confiscatin’ whatever little they had left. Still, I did hear that some Rebs who’d made contact with Interventionist officers on their own managed to get positions in some of the French units. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the irregulars, like the ones that rode with Bloody Bill Anderson, headed down that way, even if all they done was jump back and forth over the Border--they sure would’ve been wanted, it’s why a lot of the ones that stayed ended up robbin’ banks and trains and such, like Jesse James. Them big Mexican rancheros and mine owners could always use men that knew their way around a gun, what with Apaches and Yaquis and bandidos and the odd revolution to deal with."

Ezra had listened with careful attention. "I do believe this Colonel mentioned bein’ employed in some capacity on the Mexican frontier, whether then or at some time previously. In any case, he was unable to intimidate Mother, or at least she contrived to persuade him that she was unmoved. But after he had departed, she came in and roused me and we left New Orleans as rapidly as we could."

"And you went to El Paso?"

"Yes. I cannot say for certain whether Mother had the map in her possession, but it is entirely possible she had memorized it by then and felt it wiser not to carry the actual artifact with her, for fear someone might acquire it and reach the treasure before she could. I believe her plan was to make her way to the region in which the hoard was supposedly concealed, but before she struck out into the forsaken wilderness she thought it prudent to pause for a time in a well-populated community and den up. She selected Miss Isabelle’s house on the principle that a bordello makes a commodious and comfortable place to establish one’s headquarters. It is conveniently located, it usually has several unobtrusive entrances and exits, and the owner and staff will have all sorts of inside lines with both officialdom and the local underworld. Mother is by nature a cautious person, and was unwilling to depart the natural camouflage of a bustlin’ and crowded city before satisfyin’ herself that her trail was covered."

"Let me guess," Buck proposed. "Turned out it wasn’t."

"A rumor reached her ears that the Colonel had traced her from New Orleans, not without difficulty," Ezra agreed. "She also learned through other sources that he was attended by a band of cohorts impressive in number and reputation. Apparently, somewhat like your General Shelby, they refused to subject themselves to Yankee occupation and departed the theater of conflict for Mexico, but instead of attemptin’ to gain official positions, they hired themselves out, in several semi-independent groups, to such wealthy Mexican citizens as you described." The gunslinger nodded thoughtfully: that would work. After Maximilian’s execution the native conservative movement that had supported him had broken up, but the conservatives themselves, unlike the Confederate leadership, were never in any way penalized or prosecuted; there was never even any official sentiment for it in Mexico City, probably in part because a good many of them were rich enough to be in effect laws unto themselves, and even after Benito Juarez regained the Presidency he didn’t feel it was politically wise, or practically possible, to win, or even risk, what might turn out to be a civil war--especially after he’d just spent five years fighting the French. He certainly wouldn’t have had much motivation to try to force the mine owners and the big ranchers to give up any gringo security they might have hired during the chaotic era that had just preceded, particularly in Sonora, which had always been Mexico’s wild frontier, very much inclined to lawlessness that sometimes bordered on anarchy. "Over recent months some of these groups had lost their employment and begun to coalesce into a quasi-military organization once again, even to the point of makin’ raids over the Border against Army payroll wagons, mines, and the like. But the Colonel’s desire had always been to make a true killing, one that would enable him to return triumphantly to the South and raise a rebellion against the Reconstructionists. That is why he wanted the treasure."

"And your ma knew there was no way she could deal with a bunch of unreconstructed Rebs, not operatin’ all alone like she was," Buck guessed, "so she took off. Figured to hide herself good enough that maybe they’d give up."

"Precisely. I should hardly be surprised to hear that she has engineered her own ‘death’ to throw them off the trail. Naturally, she could not handily take me with her. A child would slow her down and make her easier to trace. And if she had any cause to think that the Colonel was aware of her...profession, she may have believed that he would be unlikely to suspect her of entrustin’ me to the care of an officer of the law, just as he would be unlikely to seek her out in a house of ill repute."

"Makes sense," Buck mused. "Sounds like your ma’s a right smart lady. I still ain’t sure I like the way she’s done you, droppin’ you on relatives and all, but I can’t fault her brains."

"Mother has always said that a woman is twice at a disadvantage: she is physically weaker than a man, and encumbered by custom and law. Therefore she must employ her intelligence if she is to survive and prosper," Ezra told him.

Bet there was never any clients lookin’ crosseyed at the boy, either, Buck thought. She told me that to get my sympathy--and so she wouldn’t risk my not wantin’ to tangle with this ‘Colonel’ and his bunch. "Well," he said, "it sure looks like she’s done that. I was sendin’ out telegrams most of the time we were in El Paso tryin’ to track her down, and I never got a hint where she’d got off to." He studied the boy’s guarded expression a moment. "Ez, I ain’t mad at you for tellin’ me this. And I don’t fault you for what your ma did. So get that look off your face, all right? I told you twice, we’re partners. Nothin’s happened to change that." He decided it might be a good idea to find a new topic of conversation. "There’s somethin’ I been thinkin’ about that I’d like to run by you, see how you feel about it. I know you been used to bouncin’ all over the place, stayin’ with this relative or that one or roamin’ around with your ma--or even me. How about if we stopped doin’ that and found us a place to settle down? We’ll have the bounty for Guthrie and maybe somethin’ for his partner too--the marshal promised to look through his files and see if he had any paper on him--and I’ve got some money still put away from when I was horse ranchin’ with Chris. It’s in a bank in a town up north of here named Eagle Bend. We could go there and look around some, see if there was a vacant store we could take over and a little cabin or somethin’ to live in. When I was a boy in Kansas City, not much older’n what you are now, I knew a man that kept a saddle shop; he taught me a lot about workin’ leather. I even thought some of goin’ into that business, before my ma died and I went West instead."

"A saddle shop?" Ezra repeated.

"Yeah. We’d live in town so you’d have plenty to do and not be just stuck with me six days out of the seven. We’d still go ridin’ and such, maybe even more often than we do now. And if I could get to be a respectable town-dweller with property and a business, I’m bettin’ if your ma ever came blowin’ back into our lives, a judge would be a lot liker to say she couldn’t have you and let you go on livin’ with me. Would you like that?"

For an instant the child actually gaped like a fish in astonishment. "You would do that?" he whispered once he had regained the power of speech. "You would go before a judge and fight to keep me?"

"Damn’ straight I would!" Buck asserted in his most positive tone of voice. "It ain’t often a man gets a second chance, and the way I look at it, us comin’ together was just that, for you and for me. I don’t mean to let that go."

"I’ve always enjoyed the aroma of good leather," Ezra confided. "And I want very much to continue to live with you, Buck."

"Then it’s settled." The gunslinger swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "Soon as the weather’s good enough to make the trip, we’ll head north. Now how about you slide down in that bed and get a couple hours’ nap? You had a rough last twenty-four hours or so, it won’t hurt you none."

"I am far too old to take naps," Ezra protested in a tone of severely wounded dignity. Unfortunately the effect was spoiled by the enormous yawn that followed the declaration.

"Sure you are," Buck agreed with a chuckle, "but even growed men sometimes like to rest their eyes in the middle of the day."

Given this more mature explanation for the act, Ezra apparently decided that he’d saved face, and nodded slowly, squirming down further under the quilt. Buck bent over to adjust his pillow and tuck the covers snugly around him. Then he thought of something new. "Tell me somethin’, son. Why’d you take it in mind to tell me about how Guthrie and his partner happened to lay hold of you? I’d’a’ never known, if you hadn’t. You were afraid I’d send you away if you told me, so why tell?"

"Because of what you said," Ezra answered sleepily. "That a man has to live with himself. I knew you would come for me because that was the only way you could live with yourself. I could hardly do less. You risked your life for me, Buck. A gentleman shouldn’t endanger another gentleman’s safety any more than he should compromise his honor. And if he does, he should have the courage and courtesy to admit his error."

"Ah," said Buck, nodding his understanding. "I get you. Well, I tell you what. You said, up at the shack, you wanted to make me proud of you. Thought you’d like to know I am. For bein’ brave enough to tell me all this, and for makin’ the difference when you stuck your knife in Guthrie, and even for wantin’ to make a difference in how much money we’ve got, even if you didn’t quite go about it the best way."

For a moment the green eyes opened wide again. "You’re proud of me?"

"You bet."

Ezra yawned again. "I believe...that is the most attractive wager I have ever been offered," he said.


Spring came early to the Border that year, and by the end of the first week of February the trails were drying out sufficiently for Buck to quit his job at the mine and get the two of them out on the road again. Plata, pony, and packhorse made their way unhurriedly up the Rio Grande Valley, then eastward over the mountains, into country Buck knew. It was a long ride, over four hundred miles. They took their time, pausing at every good stream they found so Buck could teach Ezra how to use the fishing rod he’d received for Christmas, talking evenings by the fire about the places both of them had been and--as promised--about the good times Buck had had with Adam. Once Ezra asked tentatively whether Buck didn’t want to know where the treasure was supposed to be hidden. "No," the man replied firmly. "I figure I don’t need it. I got one treasure already. Two’s pushin’ my luck."

The boy blinked. "You have a treasure? I never suspected. Where is it?"

"Sittin’ across the fire from me," Buck told him. "It’s you, son."

Ezra actually flushed in confusion and delight. He did, however, volunteer that he thought the hoard was "somewhere in New Mexico." "That don’t help much," Buck observed. "New Mexico’s a big Territory--like you’re findin’ out this trip. More’n three hundred fifty miles east to west, and better’n that north to south if you count that little jog down in the southwest corner. Know how many acres that is?"

Ezra did a quick mental calculation. "Over seventy-eight million?"

"That’s right. So even if the Colonel’s got it narrowed down that far, him and his bunch still have more ground to search than a man could in a lifetime. That’s not even countin’ the fact that a good bit of it is mountain country and rough goin’. Unless he’s picked up some other clue to point him in the right direction, the odds of his findin’ that stuff before your ma does are pretty small." He waited to see whether this would make any difference to Ezra.

"She will be very gratified at that," was the boy’s only response. "Mother has always lived for two things: the thrill of the game, and the pursuit of wealth and respectability. With wealth, one can purchase respectability, or at least respect. Once she has obtained it, she can retire contentedly to St. Louis or New York and pass the remainder of her years in leisure."

And stay the hell out of our lives, Buck added silently. As, it seemed, Ezra would be perfectly content to have her do.

Since the death of Guthrie and the long heart-to-heart talk they’d had in their bedroom at Mrs. O’Connell’s house, their relationship seemed to have entered a new phase. Ezra still wasn’t publicly demonstrative, but when they were alone he smiled more, sought physical closeness with Buck more often, seemed less wary and insecure, was more willing to talk of personal matters and to lend a hand at routine tasks. And sometimes during the cool late-winter nights he would work his way closer to the man’s long body and be found cuddled up against him, like a puppy against its dam, when morning came. It was as if Buck’s admission that he was proud of the boy, that he was willing to fight to keep him, that having Ezra with him gave him pleasure, had somehow given Ezra permission to express his own growing affection and trust. Buck guessed, too, that the fact of having someone in his life who was willing to come and rescue him--indeed, to put their own life at risk in the process--went a long way toward making Ezra feel as if he were a worthy and valuable person in his own right, which was apparently not something Maude Standish had ever bothered to give a lot of attention to.

Two weeks’ travel saw them pulling into Buck’s old stomping ground of Eagle Bend. The town was busy, as it had been even three years ago; it had acquired a few new businesses, more houses, a new sheriff (the old one had retired), but two or three of the ladies Buck had courted were still in residence and eager to make him welcome. It took only a day or two, however, for Buck to realize that there was no room for another saddle shop here: that profession was already sufficiently represented. Then he picked up a copy of the local newspaper and found a classified advertisement in it. Saddle and Harness Business For Sale, it read. Building, tools, stock and good will, including all accounts receivable. Attractive terms given. $3000. Inquire Editor, Clarion News, Four Corners, New Mexico Territory.

Buck was slightly familiar with Four Corners; he’d passed through it, a time or two, with and without Chris, on his way home from hunting excursions and business trips, though for the most part it had been pretty much out of his way. At least he knew where it was and how to get there. Three thousand dollars was a good reasonable price for an established saddle shop, and not outside his means. Besides the $700 bounty Ezra had known of for Cort Guthrie, an extra thousand had since been added by two new poster printings ($500 apiece from the State of Colorado and the Territory of New Mexico), and his partner, Dillon McCollum, had turned out to be wanted for stagecoach robbery in Idaho and worth another three. With that and his banked ranch shares as a stake, Buck was confident he could make a start.

An easy day’s ride brought man and boy to Four Corners, so named because it had been established, as towns often were, where two trails crossed: an old freight-and-emigrant road running approximately east-to-west, and a more recently broken cattle trail up from the Border (with a branch joining it that came out from Texas) and leading on to the mineral camps of Colorado and eventually the railroad shipping points at Denver, Greeley, and Cheyenne. Buck drew rein in the middle of the street and took a long, slow scan of the streetscape, not sure he liked what he was seeing. Out of the forty-odd variously-sized business buildings that lined the main drag, almost half were boarded up and vacant. There were horses drooping three-legged over hitch racks, idlers lounging in chairs in front of stores, people moving about, yet underlying it all there was also a quietness about the place that wasn’t the contented sleepiness of a normal country town at midweek, but somehow a sort of waiting hush, as if the inhabitants were lying low, anticipating some kind of blowup.

Ezra sensed it too; he nudged Gambit up next to Plata’s tall side and looked up at Buck’s tight profile. "Buck?"

The big man shook his head. "I dunno, son. Might just be a fight comin’." He let his gaze run over the street signs. Bucklin’s Groceries, Watson’s Hardware, Butterfield’s Store, Potter’s Store, two saloons, C&D Smith Livery & Feed, a combination blacksmithy/livery barn, the First National Bank, a restaurant, an undertaker’s parlors, a bathhouse and barbershop, saddle shop, gunsmith, dentist’s office, telegraph office, the Gem Hotel, and Virginia’s Hotel were apparently still in business. Two flights up over Smith’s a sign projected from the wall: Nathan Jackson--Bones Set, Wounds Healed. A low sprawling building much like a saloon in appearance was designated Grain Exchange, though Buck doubted sincerely that in this part of the country much grain was exchanged there; more likely it was the local community hall, what in other towns might be called an Opera House, Concert Hall, Town Hall, Music Hall, or Academy of Music. There was a small building with barred windows that must be the lair of whatever officer of the law served the place. And a few doors up from the telegrapher’s was a multi-paned window painted white halfway up and emblazoned Four Corners Clarion News.

Buck nudged Plata into motion and they rode slowly up the street. Butterfield’s window displayed two pear-shaped jars of colored water, one red, one green--the universal emblem of a drug-and-cigar store. Potter’s bore a pair of signs flanking the door which proclaimed that it carried Ready-Made Clothes, Piece, Bolt, & Yard Goods, Sewing Notions, Millinery, Hose, Hats & Caps, Domestics, Fancy Merchandise, Jewelry, Gloves, Cobblers’ Kits & Shoe Parts, Boots & Shoes, Ladies’ Accessories, Gents’ Furnishings, Cowboy Gear--a dry-goods emporium, then. Posted on the façade of the Gem was a sign designating it the source for stagecoach tickets; that was important--if a community didn’t have the railroad, a coach link was literally the breath of life to it, and many a town had gone to ghosthood when the route was changed. Virginia’s seemed to be a hotel in name only, something Buck had often observed in mining camps, where the lack of any zoning regulations resulted in bordellos being located cheek-by-jowl with the legitimate businesses and the less objectionable saloons, but seldom in cowtowns where they tended to be placed discreetly off the main drag or even on the outskirts of the business district, frequently screened by trees. There was a church, apparently abandoned, half falling apart. Well, he thought, at least they’ve got all the necessities. Maybe it’s just the last panic hangin’ on, or maybe their own bank had some trouble. Maybe they had a drought a year or two back and ain’t got over it yet. Hell, maybe they had grasshoppers, or hoof-and-mouth disease, or somethin’. I’ve been out of touch. "Come on, son," he said, "let’s go talk to the folks at the newspaper like the advertisement said to. We don’t have to commit to anything yet."

A trip bell over the door jingled when Buck opened it, and immediately a woman’s head popped up from behind the high flat-topped counter that fenced off the printshop and editor’s sanctum from the reception area. She was perhaps Maude Standish’s age or a bit over, and creamy blonde as Ezra’s mother was, but her eyes were blue-gray and her skin so clear and light it looked almost translucent. She wore a plain black mourning dress with sateen guards over the sleeves, and in her eyes Buck read sorrow, weariness, longing, isolation, and an undercurrent of steely resolve all mixed together. He swept off his hat. " ’Afternoon, ma’am. I was lookin’ for the editor?"

"I’m the editor," she said. "Mary Travis."

The mourning dress provided an explanation: no doubt her husband had started the sheet originally and had died sometime within the last year or so, and, like many small-town widows, she had taken up the burden of the business. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am. Name’s Buck Wilmington. This is my boy Ezra. I spotted an ad in the Eagle Bend paper about a saddle business for sale here--said to inquire of you."

She tried to smother a sigh and only half succeeded. "I had hoped...well, at least it fetched a response. Yes. Mr. Chasfield has decided to retire and go to live with his son in California. He was one of our first settlers and has always made a respectable income from his business. You know that the building goes with it, and there are rooms upstairs--he’s been living there since his wife died, he didn’t want to bother keeping up his house any more."

"That’d suit us fine," Buck observed. "Reckon he’d be willing to talk now?"

"I’m sure he would. Did you see the sign?"

"We’ll find it, ma’am. Much obliged for your help."

For a moment her eyes drifted to the obviously well-used gun and holster so competently worn on his hip. "I hope you’ll let me know if you’re able to come to an agreement with him. You’ll probably want to insert an announcement in the paper regarding the change of ownership. I’ll give you a good rate."

"I’ll keep it in mind, ma’am," Buck promised. "C’mon, Ez, let’s go talk business."

The shop was an L-shaped building, the standard twenty-five feet in width at the front, with a wooden saddle swinging on an arm over the boardwalk, and a stuffed horse on small rollers outside, its neck arched, dressed in a new nickel-trimmed saddle and bridle. The display window, with a black-and-white painted sign hung below it, held an array of harness, fancy bits and spurs, and a clock, centered on an old Spanish saddle. The inner door was open behind a black screen. Buck and Ezra stepped into a heady smell of leather, grease, dust, saddle soap, neat’s-foot oil, clean wood shavings, and horses. The front shop was a long, dark, narrow room whose stock featured harness--everything from goat and dog harness for children’s carts, through lightweight single breast-collar models for buggy horses, to genuine Concord with heavy collars for coach teams--hanging on long wooden pegs; saddles--horned and hornless Morgans, lightweight McClellans, ladies’ sidesaddles, boys’ Hannibal and junior-sized stock types, and of course full-size working rigs--displayed on stout sawhorses; stacks of feed bags, lap robes, buffalo robes, fly nets, stable sheets, horse blankets, and saddle blankets neatly folded; buggy whips, riding crops, team whips and quirts dangling from hanging rings set into the ceiling beams; bullwhips and stagecoach whips coiled and hung; racks of bridles and halters in every degree of fanciness; checkreins, martingales, breast collars and plates, saddlebags and cantinas (which were paired bags designed to be dropped over the saddlehorn and carried on the pommel), chaps and lariats and a long coil of manila "whale line" from which to cut lengths for those who preferred to splice their own hondas in; harness parts of every description in a bank of drawers like an apothecary’s; and display cases stuffed with curry combs, mane combs, horse brushes, hoof picks, nosebags, girths, bits, spurs, hobbles, spur straps, chains, and jinglers, gunbelts and money belts. In the rear section--the short stroke of the L--were a leather splitter, a harness horse, and an assortment of benches and shelves littered with tools. A slightly stooped man of past middle age, wearing a green eyeshade and steel-framed spectacles, looked up from putting a new lacing on a stirrup strap. "Howdy. Something I can help you with?"

"Might be we can help each other," Buck told him. "Me and my boy here are lookin’ to find a place to settle down and somethin’ to support ourselves at. Saw your ad in the Eagle Bend paper."

The saddler stood and extended his hand across the counter. "Pleased to meet you. My name is Abe Chasfield."

Buck shook hands and provided introductions. Chasfield offered coffee from a pot keeping warm on an old cannon stove in a rear corner. They sat down, the older man at a battered deal desk on the other side of the stove, Buck in a rawhide-bottom chair beside it, and Ezra quietly on the floor next to him. The saddler wasted no time. He didn’t even inquire as to whether Buck had any experience in the saddle line, although when the gunslinger mentioned Vickers of Kansas City he recognized the name immediately. He opened his books for Buck’s inspection; Buck wasn’t familiar with double-entry bookkeeping but had learned that Ezra was a whiz at arithmetic, and to Chasfield’s evident astonishment they glanced over the entries together until the boy was satisfied that there was nothing suspicious in them. He took them on a tour of the building: it had a rock foundation and a full basement, an exterior stair and a dark narrow box stair that ran from the work area up to the second floor, where there were three rooms--one in front, about twenty-two feet square, fitted up with a stove, sink, kitchen cabinet, and worktable along one side, sitting area opposite, and at the back, across a narrow transverse hallway that was also opened onto by the door at the top of the outside steps, two spacious bedrooms, plus a storeroom. The lot was eighty feet deep, and in the rear was the usual privy and a large shed that could, with a bit of work, be converted to a stable. The store appeared to be well stocked and the array of tools complete. "I know a lot of folks don’t like to assume mortgages," Chasfield said, "so I’m willing to do this private-like. Five hundred down--with what I got socked away that’ll give me more than enough for stage fare to California--and the rest in installments of three hundred a year. If I die before you’ve paid off the note, you agree to continue payments to my heirs till the debt’s discharged."

"Seems fair enough," Buck mused. "What about interest?"

"Ain’t asking any," Chasfield replied. "Don’t quite seem right, somehow. I made my profit out of the business, no need to take more out of your hide."

Ezra tugged at Buck’s sleeve and the big man sank to his haunches to listen as the boy whispered, "Buck, I greatly fear Mr. Chasfield is not tellin’ us the whole truth."

"How come you think that, son?" Buck asked in surprise.

"This is not a business in which one would become wealthy," Ezra explained, "but it is certainly sufficient to provide a steady and adequate income. Yet I noticed that receipts have fallen off severely over the last two years or so. Clearly there is no issue of competition; this is the only shop of its kind in the town. I wonder if Mr. Chasfield is not intendin’ to ‘get while the getting is good,’ as the vernacular has it."

"You mean cash out while he’s ahead?" Buck guessed. He frowned thoughtfully. "It ain’t I don’t believe you, Ez. But like you say, this is the only game in town as far as saddles and harness go--there ain’t even a general store to take up the slack. The man’s gettin’ up in years and maybe his eyesight’s startin’ to slip; he’s wearin’ specs already, and saddle work is close dealin’s, most of all if you go into toolin’ leather and such. Even if we found as good a deal as this one somewheres else--three thousand for everything includin’ a place for us and our horses to live--we’d likely have to pay eight or ten per cent interest, now that’s as much as another three hundred if we borrowed the whole amount. Seems to me this is somethin’ we better jump at while it’s here. Even if we can’t make a go of it, we’ll still have the tools and the stock and we can move on and try again."

Ezra looked dubious but seemed willing to accept this alternative exit. Buck pushed erect again. "How about the furniture upstairs?"

"You might as well have it," Chasfield replied. "I can’t take it with me on the stage, and I won’t need it once I join my son anyway, he’s got enough. There’ll be a few personal things I’ll want to take out, and my clothes and such, but that’s all."

"All right," Buck agreed. "Tell you what, let’s make the bookkeeping a little easier. You’re askin’ three hundred a year on the note. How about we give you six down, that leaves twenty-four outstandin’, just eight years even. Elsewise that last payment would only run about a hundred--ain’t hardly worth it, seems to me."

"Done and done," said Chasfield at once. "I’ll draw up a contract and we can take it over to the Clarion and have Mrs. Travis witness it. She’s got no part in the deal, so she’s a neutral party."

"Sounds like a good notion. And then maybe you’ll let me buy you a drink to seal it," Buck offered. "Which is the best saloon?"

Chasfield chuckled. "Let’s say I wouldn’t go to Digger Dan’s, and leave it at that."


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