TREASURE by Sevenstars


Chasfield took the Santa Fe stage out of town two days later. Buck and Ezra moved into the rooms above the store and began the process of settling in. As Buck had expected, Ezra took willingly to finicky detail work like sweeping, dusting, and making sure the displays were neat, the blankets and feed bags properly folded, and so forth. He didn’t like to fetch in wood because it got his suit dirty, and he hadn’t the height to wash the windows, but he enjoyed grooming and feeding both horses (once Buck had put in a couple of Sundays making alterations to the shed), even though he had to stand on a box to look after Plata, and he contentedly washed and dried the dishes after each meal, never dropping so much as a butter pat. He also made the beds and did the books, set the table and wiped it down, ran errands, and put away their groceries and any new small stock that came in. Buck for his part established a bank account, found a laundress who had room on her client list for a man and a small boy, began teaching Ezra how to braid leather--his deft fingers were wondrously well suited to it--and did the cooking, having learned his way around a stove in his time working cattle, as cowboys tended to. Although their shop didn’t attract the volume of custom that Bucklin’s grocery store, or even Potter’s or Butterfield’s, did, all business and social life in this country depended on horses, and when a set of Concord harness sold for fifty-eight dollars, short-tug farm harness for thirty less than that, and a full-rigged stock saddle for anywhere from ten to a hundred and twenty (or more--as much indeed as three hundred--if it was heavily ornamented), it didn’t take many sales to provide them with an adequate, if not a spectacular, income. Once or twice a week--always on Sunday--they’d eat at the hotel dining room or the restaurant. Mrs. Travis published a notice in her paper announcing the new ownership of the business, and was invariably gracious and friendly whenever Buck happened to encounter her in his wanderings around town. He liked her but made no attempt to court her. There were other women without her aura of sadness about them, most notably one who worked in the saloon and went by the name of Blossom.

They learned that Four Corners didn’t have a doctor, though there had been one, up till he died about a year and a half ago. His place was filled now by Nathan Jackson, a tall Negro who was always careful to explain that he "wasn’t a doctor, he just knew somethin’ about healing." Nathan had drifted into town about three years ago and ended up taking a position as a sort of apprentice to old Doc Brown, which had legitimized him in the eyes of the town, so that when Doc quietly slipped away in his sleep one night, the healer more or less inherited his job by default. He was very good with wounds and injuries of all kinds and a devoted user of herbal remedies. Ezra, who had of course met many black people, accepted him immediately and didn’t seem bothered by the notion of a former slave practising what was in essence a major profession. In fact, the boy was fascinated by Jackson’s methods and before too long was spending several hours each week at the clinic above Smith’s feed store, stringing up plant matter to dry, pounding it in Nathan’s mortar and pestle once it had reached the proper consistency, rolling bandages, watching over potions on the stove if Nathan got called out, pasting labels on bottles, and so forth. For this Nathan insisted upon paying him fifty cents a week.

One Sunday the reformed gunslinger and his boy went out for a ride and decided to explore the waste country down south, which was gorgeous with color as the brief desert flowers burst into prodigal bloom on every hand. A dozen miles out or so they happened upon a crumbled old Mexican mission church with a crude lean-to nestled up against the south wall and a big sorrel horse grazing in the old garden. Here a burly barrel-chested man with curly graying hair was slowly and stolidly piling rocks one atop another. He greeted them with a kind of reserved cordiality and made no objection to their watering their horses at the mission well, which was still full, and eating their sandwiches under a flourishing fig tree, but didn’t join them. "Name is Sanchez," he said when Buck asked, "Josiah Sanchez. I’m doing penance." He offered no details.

Ezra eyed the man dubiously and didn’t seem quite sure whether to trust him or not. Buck for his part had a vague memory of hearing, from the man who’d taught him to use a handgun, about a somewhat notorious person by that name, who had killed three known men in gunfights in Texas back before the War, then disappeared for close to twenty years, only to resurface as town marshal of Ogallala, Nebraska, about six years back. Though not especially renowned for speed, he’d shot five or six more men there, and once sent word to John Wesley Hardin that Hardin "wasn’t wanted in my town." Hardin, taking him at his word, had avoided the place, and after a year or two Sanchez had handed in his badge and dropped out of sight again.

As February gave way to March, Buck began to get a feel for the political conditions in the area. There were two wealthy ranchers who dominated the range and were the bank’s chief depositors--Stuart James and Guy Royale--and a slew of smaller ones, plus some Mexican farmers and a few hopeful homesteaders and "stock farmers," people who had found that cultivation alone wouldn’t support them in that arid country, and so had hedged their bets by turning to raising livestock, chiefly cattle, in fair numbers, often founding their herds on strays, lamed animals, and newborn calves left behind by trail drives. Like many big cowmen, James and Royale thought they ought to run the whole show, and their cowhands tended to make a considerable fuss on paydays. They’d driven the preacher right out of his church about two years ago, and ever since then they’d been leaning more and more heavily on the townsfolk. Quite a few of the more timid citizens had decided to try their luck elsewhere, which accounted for all the vacancies in the business district. Mary Travis was the central figure resisting the cattle barons’ encroachments; Buck privately came to the conclusion that she had more iron in her spine than some men he’d met. Her husband, Steven, had been mysteriously murdered last year, and the local sheriff (his jurisdiction only covered the town and its suburbs, since the county wasn’t officially organized yet) had never been able to get a handle on who had done it. Buck didn’t have a very high opinion of him, or his deputy either. All Western law officers were of necessity gunhands of considerable standing, or they didn’t live long, and most were honest and able, but there were a few who were weak and ineffective--"soft sheriffs," these were called, who took the taxpayers’ money while attracting a rough element by their easy reputation. That the town was a stop on a well-used cattle trail didn’t help: trail hands, who had to be fiddlefooted by nature just to like the job, were usually drifters, often very tough and sometimes wanted. Gradually Buck discovered that the town hadn’t even gotten its patent, and Sheriff Mobley hadn’t been elected--he’d been hired by the Federal circuit-court judge for the district, who was about as close as it got to a government. This man, who had retired about a month ago--a replacement was said to be en route, but no one was sure who he was or when he would arrive--was more than suspected of being open to bribes, and it was generally believed that Mobley had purchased his badge. That, Buck thought, explained a good deal. In many towns and counties there was a quiet consensus that their judges, marshals, and other officials deserved anything they could get in return for the unsavory job of dealing with the criminal element, and the law-abiding citizens winked at a certain degree of corruption as long as they weren’t themselves troubled and could remain undisturbed by the sordid realities around them. The office of sheriff, while not ordinarily offering a high legitimate salary (forty to a hundred dollars a month was common), could be particularly lucrative in this regard, owing to the greater number of opportunities to be had over the breadth of a county, and certainly sufficient to pay off an initial greasing fee with plenty left over. Fines, license charges collected from saloonkeepers and other resort-operators, and not uncommonly weekly protection payments, went to pay the salaries of the peacekeepers, who could do very well indeed by this method. The people unconnected to the business of vice let it go because it relieved them of the necessity of paying taxes.

About the middle of March Ezra was on his way back from collecting the mail (chiefly advertising material) at the post office and literally bumped into a pair of dusty buckskin legs coming out of Watson’s hardware store. "My apologies, sir," he gasped, looking up into piercing sky-blue eyes beneath the loose brim of a clay-colored hat with a Cavalry cord knotted around the crown. The man was young, very square-jawed, unshaven, with long light hair that hung to his shoulders in waves; he wore an open hide jacket over a double-breasted red shirt and a bright bandanna loose-knotted at his throat.

The blue eyes blinked, and then a hint of a twisted smile touched the stranger’s lips and he said, "No harm done, kid," in a raspy Texas drawl.

Ezra gaped a moment, then took off for home as fast as he could pelt. Crashing through the saddle shop’s doors, he bolted around the counter and grabbed Buck’s sleeve, tugging urgently. "Buck! Buck, I saw another wanted man!"

"Slow down, Ez," the big man suggested, "and get your breath. Who’d you see and where?"

"V-Vin Tanner," Ezra told him. "He’s--he’s wanted for murder in Tascosa. There’s five hundred dollars bounty on him, Buck!"

"Easy, son," Buck advised. "We ain’t in the bounty business, you know. We’re respectable saddlemakers. Where was this Tanner and what was he doin’?"

"He--he was just departin’ Mr. Watson’s hardware store."

Buck pulled out his watch. "Well, it’s close on dinnertime," he allowed, squinting at the dial, "and we ain’t been out to eat since Sunday. Let’s just close up for an hour and wander down that way casual-like. Go get washed, son."

When the boy had disappeared into the little downstairs washroom, Buck reached under the counter next to the till, where he kept his gunbelt and his sawed-off shotgun during business hours, and strapped the Colt easily around his lean hips. He’d heard something of that Tascosa case in El Paso--a small rancher by the name of Jess Kincaid killed, supposedly by a bounty hunter who’d hauled his body into town and tried to pass it off as that of an outlaw known as Eli Joe. The deceased had met his death by way of a shotgun blast that had pretty much destroyed his face, but the town doctor, who was also its coroner according to a very common usage, had discovered on the body a couple of distinguishing scars that he knew were Kincaid’s. The hunter had been jailed and almost lynched, but had contrived to escape and taken off for the tall and uncut. That had been about a year ago.

Buck took his turn at the washroom while Ezra sat on the counter and waited for him, then got his hat and jacket and they walked toward the Gem, passing Watson’s on the way. "Hey, Virgil," Buck greeted the older man, who was out on the boardwalk fussing with a display of gardening tools. "What’s new with you?"

"Just hired me a man, Buck," Watson replied, "and high time for it too. I’m gettin’ too old to be heftin’ barrels and such." He nodded toward the interior of the store, where a lean figure in a bright red shirt and long storekeeper’s apron was moving slowly about.

Ezra tugged on Buck’s sleeve again. "That’s him," he whispered when his guardian’s ear was inclined toward him. "I recognize his shirt and his long hair."

Buck took a second look. Details weren’t easy to distinguish in the shadows, but what he could see did match the poster that had been circulated about Tanner. On the other hand, it didn’t make a lot of sense for a wanted murderer to be hiring on as a store clerk. It was just possible that Tanner was simply an opportunist who meant to gain Virgil’s trust, get an idea of his routines, and then make off with the till, but small-time theft like that didn’t fit the pattern of a man who’d been earning his living hunting wanted men, who were ordinarily worth anywhere from three hundred dollars on up. "Stranger in town, ain’t he?"

"That’s true," Watson agreed, "but he seems well-spoken enough, and he says he’s hungry enough to take just about any honest job that’s offered."

Well, this ain’t Texas, Buck thought, and even if I was wearin’ a badge, which I ain’t any more, it wouldn’t be any lookout of mine. I know he’s here, I’ll just keep an eye for a spell and see what he does. "Well, I hope he works out," he said. "C’mon, Ez, let’s go put the feedbag on."

Ezra gave him a puzzled look, but acquiesced. "Aren’t we goin’ to warn Mr. Watson?" he asked after they were out of earshot.

"The man says he wants honest work, it ain’t our job to call him a liar," Buck replied. "We’ll watch and make sure he don’t take anything he ain’t entitled to. If Virgil’s till turns up missing, we’ll at least be able to give Mobley a name to go on."

Ezra seemed rather doubtful about this course of action, but he apparently recognized that Buck, with his long experience keeping the law, knew more about murderers than he did. "Very well," he said, and they went on to dinner.


One week later Ezra again blasted into the shop, shouting Buck’s name frantically. Warned by the note in the boy’s voice, the big man stood from the harness horse and moved within reach of his armament under the counter. "What’s wrong, Ez?"

Ezra collided with his legs and clung desperately, gasping for breath. "They’re--they’re--going to hang Nathan!" he stammered.

"What? Who is?" Buck demanded.

"T-trail hands," Ezra replied. "The--the ones whose--whose boss died yesterday. They--they say--Nathan killed him."

"Well, that’s damn sure a lie," Buck growled. "Gangrene killed him, not Nate. You stay put, son." He remembered that trail crew: out of somewhere in west Texas and heading up to Colorado with a herd of stockers. They’d brought their boss in two days ago with a festering leg: some proddy beef-critter--most likely a she-cow who’d thought she was protecting her calf--had run a horn into it some ways down the trail. Nathan had done his best, but the infection had just been too far advanced for him to stop: even amputation wouldn’t have made any difference by the time the patient reached him. After he’d died, they’d taken him to be coffined and spent the time the undertaker was working getting themselves well lubricated at Digger Dan’s, then rented a buckboard to take the box out to their camp, along with a good many bottles, in defiance of the universal range rule of "no whiskey with the wagon." And now that Buck thought about it, there’d been a fusillade of shots outside just a few minutes ago; he’d been in the privy at the time, so he hadn’t investigated, but there hadn’t been a lot of yelling and screaming to suggest that anyone was hurt or the bank was being held up, and the racket had ended quickly.

He slung his rig around his hips, reached for his shotgun, broke it at the breech to make sure it was loaded, and strode out of the shop. Down the other end of the street, just past Smith’s building, a noisy mob of men in cowboy dress was surging toward the little cemetery at the outskirts of the town; Buck could just make out Nathan in their midst, chiefly owing to his height. His eyes tracked back along the mob’s trail, picking up Mary Travis in the middle of the street with Steven’s huge old shotgun lying in the dust beside her, pushing herself erect and shouting demands to the onlookers to take a hand--and then, nearer, a lean figure in a bright-colored shirt just stripping off its apron and stepping off the edge of the boardwalk in front of Watson’s, a Winchester swinging from one hand. Opposite, a second man, dressed all in black, had also moved out into the street and was matching the anachronistic store-clerk step for step. A long duster swirled around his legs, and though Buck couldn’t see his face, he knew that walk. "What the hell," he muttered, "Chris?"

He started after the pair, his long legs eating distance.


Not in three years had Chris Larabee felt as he did at this moment. It was as if he was coming to life after a long hibernation. He seemed more alert, more awake, than he had since the day he and Buck rode home to find there was no home left any more. He sensed colors, sounds, smells, as he hadn’t in too long. He knew the odds were against him, as they had been many times before. But this time there was meaning to what he was doing; he had set a task for himself, and he was determined to do it. He cared about doing it, as he had cared for no job in three years. He had found something he genuinely wanted to do--not simply something he was getting paid for, and generally paid well, however just the cause--and someone he wanted to do it with. He had watched the blonde woman with the outsize shotgun defy the trailhands and found himself thinking how like Sarah that was, and then had met the vivid blue eyes across the dusty street, and suddenly something inside him had stood up with a little shout of recognition, like the dying flame in Scrooge’s fireplace leaping briefly as Marley’s ghost entered the room, and he knew--he knew--he couldn’t stand by and not act. This scruffy young man in the bright shirt and shabby buckskin pants didn’t propose to, so why should Chris Larabee?

The pair of them, matching strides like soldiers on parade, strolled steadily in the wake of the rowdy trail crew. The men had set up their boss’s coffin up on its end with the lid off, the dead man staring out with unseeing eyes. "Figured you’d want to watch your killer swing, Mr. Fallon," one was saying in a drunken slur. He laughed, then registered the two silent men on the other side of the fence. "What the hell do you want?" he demanded.

"Cut him loose," Chris ordered evenly.

The young man raised his Winchester to a level. "Reckon y’all be happier if y’just rode away," he added in a raspy drawl.

"Not a chance, boys," the trailhand retorted. His men laughed mockingly.

Chris sensed a new figure falling in directly to his right, a tall long-legged man with a thick black lock flagging over his brow, and heard the menacing snick! of twin hammers drawing back as the newcomer swept the eight-gauge sawed-off shotgun off his shoulder and cocked both barrels. "I’d listen to these gents if I were you, friend," came a soft steely voice. Larabee didn’t need to look to know that the newcomer’s eyes would be narrowed down and gone near black with cold anger, the handsome hearty face wiped clean of every hint of good humor.

The trailhand seemed to hesitate a moment, knowing as well as anyone else did that a weapon like that could slice a man in half at this range. But he’d gone too far to back down now; if he did, he’d lose face with his crew, not to mention giving the townsfolk the impression he was a coward. "Back off," he said. "This ain’t your lookout."

"We think different," Buck told him.

"He’s right," said Chris.

"Ain’t gonna happen," confirmed the young man with the Winchester.

"You try and hang that man there," Larabee continued evenly,

"...and your next breath," the soft Texan drawl picked up the thread,

"...will be the last you take," Chris finished.

"Last chance, boys," Buck invited. "Let’s twirl or get off the piano stool, what do you say?"

Chris kept his gaze centered on the spokesman, letting his peripheral vision scan the man’s nearer followers, knowing that Buck and the nameless rifleman would be keeping track of the rest. He could feel the tension ratcheting up a notch and wondered at the sense of calm preparedness that seemed to emanate from the young man beside him. Some sense or instinct, something he didn’t pause to question or analyze, told him the ball was about to open, supplied him with a kind of foretaste of the stranger’s strengths and weaknesses, his reactions and timing. Buck’s, of course, he already knew. "You shot a lot of holes in the clouds back there," he observed easily. "Anybody stop to reload?" In his mind he began counting down from five, seeming to hear two other voices sounding side by side with his own. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!

He ducked back and fell off to the right, his Peacemaker up and blasting, instinctively moving at an angle that would keep him from getting tangled up with Buck. At the same moment the big man’s shotgun Little Pepper let go with a bellow all out of proportion to her size, the twin loads of Number One shot ripping into the left chest of one man and the right arm and thigh of the one beside him, and he tossed the empty weapon aside and pulled his own Colt as he dropped to one knee, firing coolly, steadily, spacing his shots, picking out the target for each even as he took down the one previous. On Chris’s other side the young rifleman had leaped left, tucked and rolled, and come up with one leg thrown out to the side as a brace, levelling the Winchester, lining it and squeezing the trigger all in one fluid catlike movement. The first shot chipped bark off the limb that supported the hangrope, nicking the line itself, as the buckboard team spooked and lunged, leaving the black man dangling briefly, kicking; the second sliced the cord cleanly and dropped him in a breathless heap to the dusty ground. Chris’s first shot had taken the spokesman under the heart; the rest of the gang, their leader gone, fired back randomly, not following any set plan, just trying to save themselves. Buck’s Peacemaker roared staccato accompaniment to his old partner’s; the rifleman, having done what probably only he could have, kept up a steady suppression fire from a few feet further back. Five men plus the spokesman were down already--No, make that seven, Chris thought in the cool idle part of his mind, and then, as his next round drilled through a cowhand’s leg just under the hipbone, eight. The last survivor broke, fleeing wildly. A slight figure dressed in brown charged up out of nowhere, levelling a Colt Lightning, yelling, "I got him! I got him!"

Chris pivoted by a fraction of an arc, his last bullet kicking up sand just in front of the newcomer’s shoes. The kid--which was all he was, just a thin black-haired kid in a city suit and a bowler--skidded to a stop, almost dropping his gun. "You don’t shoot nobody in the back!" Chris barked at him. And he turned, dismissing the young would-be backshooter, to face the two who had fought at his side. "Name’s Chris," he offered.

"Vin Tanner," the rifleman responded, and Larabee caught a flicker passing across Buck’s face as he slowly returned his Peacemaker to its holster. "New in town?"

"Yesterday," Chris told him. "You?"

"Last week."

"Hell," said Buck, "I’m an old-timer next to the pair of you. Been here best part of a month." He hesitated a moment, scanning the two faces. "Good to see you, you old war dog. How you been?"

Chris only shrugged. "Heard you were in town," he admitted. "Heard you took over the saddle shop here." His pale eyes asked a question. Buck felt a pang of sorrow as he registered how much thinner his old friend’s face had become, the hard mouth and the taut lines around it, the coldness of the eyes.

"Yeah. Made up my mind it was time." He offered a tentative hand to Tanner. "Buck Wilmington."

"Seen you ’round," the other admitted. "You two know each other?"

"Did," said Chris, "once," and Buck’s heart sank. "Buffalo hunter?" he guessed.

" ’Mong other things," Tanner agreed. "Not many left to hunt, any more."

"Hey!" came a shout from under the hanging tree. "One of y’all wanta pull the knife out of that feller and cut me loose here?"

"Damn," said Buck, "we forgot all about him."

Nathan was sitting up; he’d used his hands, bound in front of him, to slip the noose off over his head. For the first time Buck registered the dead body lying beside the healer, the empty homemade rawhide knife case at its belt, and the bone hilt projecting from the chest of a second body about fifteen feet away. He also noted that the morbidly curious crowd, which had come to see a hanging and ended up with a gunfight, was beginning to drift away, leaving only Mary Travis standing off to one side, studying Larabee and Tanner curiously. It suddenly occurred to Buck that respectable saddlemakers probably weren’t supposed to jump into lynchings--or, for that matter, gunfights--and he wondered if it was going to make a difference in how the town behaved toward him. But the unease was drowned by a sensation of disgust that made him question whether he really wanted to stay, or raise Ezra, in a town where no one except a woman, a stranger, a fugitive store clerk, and a reformed gunslinger were willing to step in to prevent the death of the nearest thing they had to a doctor. And where the hell was that useless miserable sheriff, anyway? This was just the kind of ruckus he should have made it his business to put a stop to.

Chris and Tanner had gone over to help Jackson to his feet; the Texan removed the knife from the body, glanced at it curiously, stabbed it into the sand a few times to clean the blood off the blade, and began cutting the healer’s bonds. Buck hung back where he could keep an eye and make sure none of the bodies abruptly came to life. He didn’t realize that Ezra had crept out of the shop to investigate the sudden silence until a small flying projectile hit his leg and wrapped its arms desperately around it. "Buck, are you injured? Were you able to assist Nathan? Will he survive?"

"Easy, little pard," Buck soothed him, reaching down to tousle the boy’s hair--he’d run so fast that he’d lost his hat somewhere. "I’m fine, and so’s Nathan."

He saw Chris’s shoulders flinch at the unmistakeable high voice of a child, and the man turned slowly, scanning the picture before him. "He with you, Buck?"

Buck straightened his shoulders a bit. He could guess how it must hurt his old friend to see another little boy, not much bigger than Adam had been, alive and healthy, but he wasn’t going to lie--least of all because he knew what being rejected, even temporarily, might do to the child’s fragile self-image. "Yeah, he’s with me. Told you I made up my mind it was time to quit driftin’--this is why. My boy Ezra. Ez, you remember me tellin’ you about my old partner, don’t you? This is him. Chris Larabee."

Ezra shrank back behind the strong column of Buck’s leg, still embracing it, and eyed the man in black dubiously. "How do you do, Mr. Larabee?" he inquired with his usual impeccable politeness.

Chris’s lips tightened, but before he could say anything that might have pushed Buck into doing something unfortunate, Mary Travis, unable to contain herself another moment, stepped forward and announced, "Gentlemen, I run the Clarion News. Where did you come from?" The question took in Vin as well, though not Buck, which eased his misgivings somewhat.

"Saloon," said Chris briefly, apparently relieved not to have to deal with Ezra’s presence. He set off, his duster swirling, Tanner close behind him. Nathan, massaging his throat, followed.

"Hey, I--I want to talk to you," Mary protested. "Where are you going?"

"Saloon," Larabee and the Texan answered with one voice.

The newspaperwoman, looking bewildered, turned to face Buck. "You seemed to know that man, Mr. Wilmington. Who is he?"

Buck sighed quietly. "Didn’t you recognize him, Miz Travis? That’s Chris Larabee." He looked up the street at the trio’s retreating backs. "Ma’am, would you mind keepin’ Ez here with you a spell? I need to go see a man about a gun."

"Of course, Ezra is always welcome," the woman assured him, extending a hand to the boy. "Come along, Ezra, you can help me look through my husband’s files."

"Buck?" Ezra looked up at his guardian with wide questioning eyes.

"It’s okay, son. You go on with Miz Travis and I’ll come get you after a while. Ain’t seen Chris these two years. Just need to catch up, is all."

Somewhat reluctantly Ezra peeled himself loose from the man’s leg and slid his hand into Mary’s. "You won’t be long?"

"No, I don’t reckon I will," Buck replied. "Go on now." He pushed his forelock out of his eyes and set off in pursuit of the three other men, who had paused in front of Watson’s, where Tanner was apparently having an exchange with Virgil over the rifle.


By the time Buck walked into the town’s larger (and better) saloon--the one where Blossom worked--his erstwhile battle-companions had claimed a table and Chris was addressing the bartender. "Whiskey."

"One for the doc here," Tanner added.

Nathan shook his head and offered his usual denial. "Like the man said, ’ain't no darky doctors.’ I was a stretcher bearer in the Union Army. I picked up what I could in the field hospital. Then I came here and Doc Brown gave me a job, and when he died I just sort of stepped into his shoes. Didn’t seem right to leave the place with nobody to see to folks’ hurts."

"Mind if I join you?" Buck asked, but his eyes were on Chris. As long as they’d known each other, Chris had always ended up the leader of whatever group he happened to be in. It seemed to be a mantle he assumed automatically, without thinking about it or questioning it.

Larabee twitched his head sidewise, indicating a vacant chair. Buck slid slowly into it, letting the tautness of the fight flow out of his long body, and accepted the glass of whiskey Nathan passed to him. He sipped at it, the warmth of the liquor easing his gut. He wanted desperately to say something, but didn’t feel right about airing old laundry in front of two men who lacked the history he and Chris shared. Maybe there would be an opportunity later on. For now, he just wanted to keep himself in Chris’s eye and make sure his old partner didn’t go sliding off somewhere before they’d had a chance to talk.

A shadow fell across the table and the quartet looked up. A white-haired Indian in an elaborate turban and a chocolate-colored, middle-aged Negro wearing a broad-brimmed floppy hat had come up from somewhere. "We want to hire you," said the Indian.


The Indian’s name was Tastanagi; his friend went by Eban. Tastanagi explained that he was a Seminole, the headman of a small band which had migrated out of the Indian Territory fifteen years ago in order to escape the vicious intratribal feuding that was then tearing all the Five Civilized Tribes apart. Eventually they had ended up in New Mexico and decided it was as far west as they wanted to go: at least the Apaches here (who had since gone onto a reservation) weren’t as nasty as the Chiricahuas out in Arizona. They’d squatted on some land down in the south wastes that nobody else seemed to want, and there they’d been left in peace until recently, when a gang calling itself "the Ghosts of the Confederacy" had suddenly invaded their village and demanded gold. Their leader, a man named Anderson who was apparently a former officer of considerable rank, had given the village one week to produce it, promising to be back to collect. "We have a little, it is true," the Indian admitted. "We sometimes find small nuggets in the hills around our village. We use them to buy what few things we cannot provide for ourselves, if we lack enough of our own products to trade." He produced one from a pouch at his waist. The four men passed it around, examining it. It shone evenly, without blinking, in the light of the saloon’s oil lamps, and felt smooth to the teeth when Buck bit at it experimentally. Not fool’s gold, then: the genuine article. It didn’t weigh very much--probably not even as much as a full cylinder of bullets. The bartender, who often dealt with wandering prospectors, supported this guess, putting its value at thirty-five dollars.

"How many of these Ghosts are there?" Chris wanted to know.

"Would twenty men scare you?" the Indian asked.

Tanner shrugged. "Hell, I ’s makin’ five dollars a week at the hardware store ’thout anybody shootin’ at me. Iffen they ain’t but twenty, seems like it shouldn’t take no more’n that to ’suade ’em to back off."

"Assume we pay five dollars a head, that gets us all of seven men," Larabee mused.

"The Seminoles put themselves on the line for many an escaped slave," Nathan observed. "They took us in when nobody else would. For five dollars, they can have a week of my life."

"Or all of it," Tanner added. "Hell...I wasn’t plannin’ on dyin’ with a broom in my hand anyway."

"Hold on, Nate," Buck interrupted. "You just said yourself you stayed on here ’cause it didn’t seem right to leave folks without a healer. What happens if you get yourself shot? You reckon you got a right to take them kind of chances?"

"I owe these men, Buck," Jackson pointed out. "Owe you too, but you ain’t asked me for any favors back."

Larabee lifted his head, watching the emissaries from under the low-pulled brim of his flat black Californio hat. It was, Buck thought sadly, almost the only physical sign remaining of the man he had known--that and the bone-handled Peacemaker worn high at his waist. "All right," he said. "Tomorrow afternoon, then."

Tastanagi and Eban withdrew, after providing directions to their village. "If they’re askin’ for help from the white man they’re desperate," Tanner mused. "How are we gonna find hired guns for five dollars?"

"I think I know a man who can help," Nathan offered. "He don’t live too far from here either, maybe a dozen miles south. We could go see him now."

Buck sat up straighter. "Sanchez? That who you’re talkin’ about?"

The healer looked surprised. "You know him too? Damn, Buck, is there anybody you don’t know?"

One, Buck thought. "Ez and me stumbled on him while we were out ridin’ that way a couple weeks ago," he explained. "Didn’t know you and him was friends."

"We go back a spell," the healer admitted. "Met durin’ the War, and again in Nebraska some time back."

Chris pushed to his feet. "Might as well get started."

Tanner stood, eyeing the two former partners. "Nate and me’ll go on ahead, get saddled up."

For a moment Buck felt a combination of gratitude and surprise--How’d he know? Chris frowned slightly but didn’t object, and the Texan and the healer left the room, talking quietly as they went.

"Chris," Buck began.

"Not here." Larabee’s voice was thin. He strode toward the doors and Buck had no choice but to follow.

Outside, the gunfighter paused a moment on the boardwalk, looking around, and then turned and entered the alley alongside the building. "You got somethin’ to say, I’m waitin’," he declared.

"How’d you know I was in town?" Buck asked.

"Make a point of knowin’ who’s in town," Chris told him. "Live longer that way."

"What I hear, you ain’t exactly been behavin’ like you was lookin’ to beat old Methuselah," Buck pointed out boldly.

For a moment Larabee’s nostrils flared and his breathing quickened. "You been keepin’ cases on me?"

"No, Chris. I just...ain’t been able to keep from hearin’ about you, time to time." He wanted to ask whether his old friend thought Sarah and Adam would approve of the way he’d been living, but he knew if he did that Larabee would walk off without another word at the very least--and maybe shoot him before he went. Buck had learned, at some cost to himself, that Chris didn’t want to talk about Sarah and Adam any more, didn’t want to hear or think about them. That was why the two of them had parted company in the end. Buck knew that to deny your past--however painful it might be--was to cut yourself off from a big part of who you were. Chris either didn’t know that or refused to admit it.

"Just because I got nothin’ left to lose," Chris retorted, "don’t mean I figure to let somebody else choose where and how I do my dyin’." He stared evenly at the bigger man. "So which of your women does the boy come from, and how’d you find out about him?"

The words hurt, as they were meant to do. Back before, Buck knew, Chris would never have expressed himself in such terms. For all the occasional exasperation he’d demonstrated over Buck’s love for the ladies, he’d always seemed more amused by it than anything. "He ain’t mine by blood," the reformed gunslinger said as evenly as he could. "Hell, I never met his ma in my life till about nine months back." He sketched the circumstances as briefly as possible, seeing the skeptical tilt of Chris’s eyebrow as he listened--but at least he was listening. "Shit, Chris," he exclaimed, "a liar don’t lie unless he hopes to be believed--and when did you and me ever lie to each other anyhow? I know it sounds plumb crazy, but that’s how it happened."

Larabee considered this. "Reckon that’s reasonable," he allowed after a moment. "So," he added, "you’ve quit the trail. Settled down. Figure to be a quiet respectable townsman from now on. That it?"

"No need to make it sound like it wasn’t natural," Buck said. "I’d’a been as willing to be a quiet respectable horse rancher. And, yeah, I’ve settled down. For the boy’s sake, I felt I had to. You think the two of us used to lead a driftin’ life, that kid don’t hardly know what a home is. You and me at least started out in stable homes with people that loved us. Ez ain’t ever had that. I mean to give it to him if I can. Hell, you know what my Ma was. There was plenty made me feel like the scum of the earth when I was growin’ up. Reckon I got a feel for when it’s been done to somebody else. I came out with some scars, but Ma taught me to keep my self-respect, to believe in myself and always look for the best in everything. If I can help Ez get a solid base like she done me, I’ll figure I’ve done my job even if Maude ends up takin’ him back some day--and she won’t, not if I can help it."

Chris thoughtfully removed a cheroot from his pocket, bit off the end and spat it out, scratched a match on the siding behind him, and slowly drew the smoke alight. "This job the Seminoles are offerin’," he mused, "three, four to one--some years back I’d’a said it was just our kind of fight. ’Course the pay’s not much, but when did that ever enter into our thinkin’?"

Buck nodded. "I remember." He couldn’t stop a rueful chuckle. "Some of the ructions we got into back then...whoo-hoo, them was the days."

For just a moment a gleam showed in Larabee’s eye at the memory. "Yeah. But like the man says, that was then and this is now. You’ve got a responsibility."

"So does Nathan, it don’t stop him," Buck pointed out.

"Like he said, he figures it’s an obligation on him--to the Seminoles and to Tanner and me. Not the same thing." He straightened, a lean blade of shadow in his black clothes. "Time’s wastin’. If we’re meanin’ to go see his friend Sanchez, we’d best be ridin’."

"My horse is out back of the shop," Buck ventured. "If you’ll give me an extra couple minutes to run over and ask Miz Travis to keep Ez till I get back--"

"No." Chris cut him off, voice flat. "I can’t make it much plainer, Buck. Not...this...time."

Buck’s head went back, and his face took on a look of profound and outraged sorrow, so simple and truthful that it gave him a kind of dignity. For a moment he was struck speechless by the brutal directness of this rejection, and in a deep inner part of himself wondered why he should be: God knew he ought to be used to it after that terrible time the two of them had spent in between the loss of their family and the day he had finally given up and struck out on his own again. His throat worked and he licked his lips, struggling not to give as he had received. He ain’t the man he was three years ago, he reminded himself. You knew that. You saw it plain enough, it’s why you left. "Don’t it seem to you that it should be my choice?" he asked, keeping his voice steady with an effort.

"You don’t have the right to make that choice, Buck," Larabee told him. "Not any more, not like the rest of us do." He lifted his hand, palm flat, as Buck took breath. "Damn it, are you gonna make me say it? I don’t want you with us. I won’t look at you and think of that little boy and how you’ve got somethin’ I lost."

"It wasn’t no doin’ of mine!" Buck snapped defensively.

"You took him on," Chris answered relentlessly. "You know it makes a difference or you wouldn’t have settled here to begin with. What the hell right do you have to think it wouldn’t make a difference to me? You made your bed--lie in it!" And with that he swung around and strode off across the street.


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