TREASURE by Sevenstars


Buck entered the Clarion office to find Ezra perched on a tall stool behind the counter, three or four of the pasteboard-bound back volumes of the paper spread out on the surface before him. Mary was sitting at the cluttered desk, riffling through a stack of exchanges. The boy quickly climbed to his feet and reached across the barrier as Buck extended his arms to lift him over it and place him securely astride his left hip. "You been good for Miz Travis, son?"

"He’s been a perfect gentleman, and a great help," Mary reported, turning from her task, but Buck marked how the sadness glowed in her eyes as she looked at the two of them, Ezra leaning against Buck’s chest and shoulder, seeming almost to mold himself to the shape of the big man’s body. "By the way, we picked up your shotgun--here it is." She lifted the little sawed-off from the floor beside her chair.

"Much obliged, ma’am," Buck told her, accepting it. "You find what all you was lookin’ for?"

"Not quite yet," the woman admitted, "but I’m narrowing it down. I’m planning to put out an extra. Did you know Sheriff Mobley and his deputy took off for parts unknown? Mobley wasn’t even riding his own horse."

"Hell," Buck growled plaintively, "what else can go wrong? Don’t reckon he gave any hint of whether he was comin’ back, not that he’d be much loss. You need any help?"

"I’ll be all right," she assured him. "It wouldn’t be the first time I stayed up most of the night helping Steven put a special edition to bed--the only difference is that he isn’t here any more. I think Ezra needs you more than I do, right now."

Buck was far too much of a gentleman to question a lady’s word, and in any case he could tell from the heaviness of Ezra’s weight against him that the boy would be the better for some comforting. I gotta quit gettin’ into fights where he can see, or at least hear, he thought, it don’t do him much good, always seems to make him clingy. "Yeah," he agreed with a sigh, "I reckon he does. C’mon, Ez, let’s go home. Thanks again, Miz Travis."


Buck was standing at the front window of their upstairs quarters, listening to the soft click of horn-handled utensils and bright spatterware against the white oilcloth tabletop as Ezra set their places, when the quick clop of hooves in the still hush of the supper hour announced the approach of Chris, Tanner, and Nathan back from their journey to see Sanchez. Don’t look like they got anywhere, Buck thought, observing that the older man wasn’t with them. He sighed wearily. Three against twenty. Ain’t very good odds. Five, maybe we could’a done it. Four, that’s pushin’ it. Hell, Wilmington, even if Chris wanted you within a mile of him, do you really reckon you could make a difference?


He composed himself with an effort, well aware of the sharpness of Ezra’s eyes. "Yeah, son."

"We can dine now, if the comestibles are ready."

"Should be," Buck observed, and the boy silently scrambled up onto his chair and settled down to wait to be served. Crossing to their compact kitchen corner, Buck lifted the lid of the single pot on the stove, thrust a wooden spoon in and took a quick taste of the contents, and having satisfied himself that they were cooked, lifted the pot off the heat and onto the outside nickel shelf before turning to the countertop, where Ezra had left the cold boiled ham and cold fried potatoes he’d brought up earlier from the pie safe in the cellar. Deftly slicing off two generous servings of the meat and coaxing the potatoes out of their pan, he finished off each plate with a scoop of coleslaw and a heap of his specialty, beans flavored red with peppers and tomatoes and spiced up with onions. Out of the oven came the pan of sourdough biscuits, each garnished atop with its shortening--a "cracklin" of beef suet--and a dusting of what on the range was called "cinnamoned sweet’nin’." With green tomato relish and pickled beets, plus a choice of butter, yellow cheese, and blue grape jelly packed in California for the biscuits, they had a light but hearty supper. But there was nothing of the relaxed contentment that usually accompanied this final meal of the day, no exchange of the happenings and observations of the last twelve hours or so. Finally Ezra broached the question: "Was Mr. Larabee pleased to see you, Buck?"

"No," the man admitted with a sigh, "not so’s you’d notice, Ez. I reckon seein’ me still makes him think about what he lost--about Sarah and Adam." For all I know he blames me as much as I do for their dyin’, he added silently.

"He doesn’t like me either," Ezra observed gravely.

"Now that ain’t true," Buck objected. "He don’t know you well enough not to like you."

"He knows I’m a little boy, like the one he used to have. Like Adam," Ezra pointed out. "It makes him think of Adam and his mother to see me. Doesn’t he realize that it’s unfair to their memories to think of them only in terms of the grief he suffered when he lost them? They must have had so much more than that. You told me Adam gave you much more of good times than bad, and you weren’t even his father. Why doesn’t Mr. Larabee understand that too?"

How the hell did he get so wise at nine years old? Buck wondered. "I reckon it’s because all the meanin’ went out of his life when he lost ’em," he decided. "That, and he’s scared of ever hurtin’ that much again, so he don’t want to let himself feel anythin’ else soft or tender. Folks are all different, son, and they mourn in different ways. Chris always did have a tougher coat of armor than I did. Back when he was courtin’ Sarah, her pa didn’t like him one little bit, said he was too wild. Maybe this is more of the same." Wildness, he mused. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I saw in his eyes at the cemetery--and in the alley. He’s gone near as wild as a wolf--which ain’t so bad a comparison: wolves mate for life, they say.

"Is he goin’ to remain in Four Corners?"

"No, I don’t reckon so. Seems there’s a village of Seminoles down south in the hills that’ve got themselves some trouble, and they asked him and Tanner and Nathan to help ’em fix it. The three of ’em are pullin’ out tomorrow after breakfast."

The boy’s brows knitted in puzzlement. "Mr. Tanner is goin’ too? Why?"

Buck shrugged. "Don’t rightly know, Ez. He said he didn’t figure to die with a broom in his hand. Maybe it’s just somethin’ he feels he has to do. Kinda like the way I felt I had to keep you with me even after your ma took off."

Ezra nodded gravely. "I remember what you told me. ‘A man has to live with himself. He has to be able to look himself in the face when he shaves every morning, and that means he has to do what seems right to him, even if other folks don’t always understand why it does. If he loses his own good opinion of himself, it’s a lot harder for him to get it back than it might be to redeem himself to others.’ " He imitated Buck’s inflection exactly and recited the words like a player on the stage. "Perhaps that is also why Nathan has resolved to accompany them."

"No perhaps about that part," Buck agreed. "He told us that was why, straight out."

"You all saved his life," Ezra observed, "and that is a debt of honor a gentleman cannot ignore." He eyed his guardian sidewise. "What of yourself, Buck?"

The big man’s head came up with a jerk, indigo eyes drilling green. Then he shook it sadly and returned his attention to his plate. "No, Ez, there ain’t no more debts of honor between Chris and me. Hell, he near about chased me off at the point of a gun. I ain’t got no part of whatever’s comin’, he made that real clear."

"But the mere fact that he acknowledges no obligation," said Ezra, "doesn’t cancel out any that you may still consider unpaid. I saw no reason you should accept responsibility for me, but you saw a very good one, and here I am."

"Now that’s enough," Buck warned evenly. "Let’s don’t talk about it no more. You can’t pay a debt to a man that won’t take it, anyhow. Let’s cut into that cheesecake we got at the bakery, and I’ll slice up a couple pears to go with it."

"Very well," said Ezra softly.


The next day Ezra slipped out of the shop and made his way quietly down to the livery barn, hoping to have an opportunity to wish Nathan well, or at least see him off. He kept out of sight, not wanting Larabee to get a glimpse of him, and watched as he, Tanner, and the healer readied their horses. "Could’ve used a few more men," he heard the gunfighter saying.

Tanner snorted in amusement. "Fewer ways to split that huge pot. Anyhow, we got to pass by the mission, Sanchez might change his mind, like Nathan said."

There was a staccato drumbeat of hooves, and a small light-bay mare with a white star came racing around the side of the barn. The rider pulled up sharply, and Ezra saw that it was a slight young man with over-long black hair and an eighteen-dollar all-wool brown suit, a matching bowler jammed with jaunty defiance atop his head, the ivory "parrot-bill" butts of two Colt Lightning revolvers jutting from the buscadero gunbelt strapped high around his waist. "Whoa!" he ordered, reflexively soothing the animal as he touched a hand to his hatbrim, saluting Larabee as the obvious leader of the group. "I hear you fellas are headed for a fight. My name is JD Dunne, and I can ride--whoa!--and I can shoot." He spun the mare around, whipping her with the reins. She took off with a lunge and soared over the rails of the corral like a bird on the wing. Ezra watched with interest; he knew that very few untrained horses were jumpers, and Western horses, especially in flat country, were unlikely to be trained to jump because there wasn’t much for them to jump over. The mare carried the brand of Yosemite’s livery business, which meant that this young man had either rented or purchased her there, and was unlikely to have had her in his possession for very long. That he could get an untried range animal to go over a fence--and her form wasn’t bad, considering--did speak well for his ability in the saddle. Unfortunately her landing wasn’t as good as her jump and he came loose and landed in the trough with a mighty splash. "He can fly, too," Tanner observed, grinning.

"And he can swim," Larabee added meagerly.

The young man stood up with a lurch, dripping and spluttering. "You!" he yelled at Tanner, who was closest, "why didn’t you grab my damn horse?"

The men just laughed, even Nathan, who ordinarily was much too polite to hurt other people’s feelings. The young man stepped out of the water. "Real funny," he grumbled, and squished across the open space toward the mare, who had come to a stand when her reins fell to the ground and she stepped on one, jerking the bit in her mouth. He caught her up, gentling her with hands and voice, and led her over to the gate. Lifting the bar, he took her through, tied her to the rail, and reached into his saddle pocket for a folded sheet of paper before marching up to Larabee with a look of half outrage and half worship. "I meant what I said," he declared. "I want to go with you. Jeez, Mr. Larabee, you’re famous!" He held out the paper and the gunfighter took it, shook it out, and glanced over it. Ezra couldn’t make out what was on it, but he recognized the size of it as being typical of a page of the Clarion News. Perhaps it was the extra Mrs. Travis had spoken of publishing.

His guess was confirmed when Larabee read aloud, in a tightly controlled voice: " ‘The streets ran red with the blood of twenty men yesterday as new resident and notorious gunslinger Chris Larabee turned our quiet town into a shooting gallery.’ Hell!" he exploded, hurling the sheet aside angrily. "What right does she think-- Come on!" He swung astride his black gelding, barely waiting until Tanner and Jackson got their left toes into their stirrups before setting out at a fast jog. The young man in the brown suit was left behind, dripping and looking bewildered.

Ezra, according to long-established habit, had long since mapped out the business district in his mind, and took a short cut to the Clarion office. When he got there, Mrs. Travis was standing out on the boardwalk, facing Larabee defiantly. "I see you’ve read it," she said.

"As I recall, your ‘quiet town’ was full of drunken scum lookin’ to lynch a man," Larabee observed in that thin metallic voice--very cool and controlled, but Ezra could sense the volcanic fire seething beneath the façade.

"If I have to bend the facts a little to keep our town safe and if the next bunch of ‘drunken scum’ decides to steer clear of here, then it was worth another black mark on your...your already less-than-stellar reputation, Mr. Larabee," Mary retorted. "You see, I...took the liberty of researching your past in my late husband’s files." Ezra knew that was right; it was what he had been helping her do while Buck was confronting his old partner after the fight yesterday. She had given him a bunch of slips of paper and told him to mark any reference he found to the name of Chris Larabee. There had been quite a few. Apparently the man had never visited Four Corners before, but like most country newspapers the Clarion had a lively and extensive network of exchanges from all over the nation, and clippings from these rounded out the often scarce local news and the "patent insides" that provided national and international coverage.

"You read secondhand trash, and you think you know a man," Larabee growled. "You don’t know me."

"I’m just trying to scare the bad element away from this town," Mrs. Travis told him serenely.

Larabee showed his teeth briefly. "Lady...I am the bad element. But you’ve got nothing to worry about--I’ve got a job, and I’m leavin’." He turned to his horse and thrust a foot into the stirrup. "Let’s ride," he ordered, and Nathan and Tanner fell in behind him, clattering off down the street.

The saddle-shop door opened and Buck came out slowly, his head turning to follow their progress. He angled across the street to join Mrs. Travis as Ezra slipped out from behind the barrel that had been concealing him. "The arrogance of that man!" the lady editor seethed. " ‘The bad element,’ indeed! How dare he!"

"No, ma’am," Buck corrected her sadly, "it ain’t arrogance really. He just don’t care what folks think of him any more."

She looked at him quizzically. "Why would a man not care about his own good name?"

"It don’t matter too much if you’re like Chris--like I used to be. He just keeps movin’ on. Unless there’s somethin’ to stay for."

"How long have you known him?" The question seemed sincere, and Buck heard that note in it and responded.

"I’ve known him a real long time, ma’am. We met durin’ the War. He already had a reputation even then--California, Texas, the Comstock, shotgun guard, wild-horse hunter, mail carrier, Indian fighter, and finally gunhand. He’s a natural, Miz Travis, like some are--I don’t know as I’ve seen more than maybe two or three who could match his speed. We saw the fightin’ out together, and then made up our minds to go back West--I’d been workin’ in the Pike’s Peak camps and down around these parts before Sumter was attacked, and I knew I’d never be able to settle down in some Missouri River town, even as well as I knew Kansas City, where I grew up.

"We put in a couple of years driftin’, takin’ whatever work we could get--mostly it was gun work, ’cause Chris plumb hates to chase cows. Then early in ’67, it was, we found ourselves down near Albuquerque, and Chris met a girl. Sarah Connelly, her name was. Goin’ on eighteen, dark auburn hair, a grace and a spirit like a blooded mare. I’ve seen men fall in my time, but none as hard as Chris done--I swear I could hear the crash when he looked at her for the first time. ’Course it took him a while to admit what was happening--he’s stubborn as a mule, always has been. Sarah’s pa didn’t like either of us much, which is about the best way under God’s heaven to get Chris to do somethin’--tell him he can’t. He had to do a fair bit of slippin’ around to court her--I helped; I know men, ma’am, and I know women, and I know when they fit together, and them two was like two pieces of a puzzle that’d just found each other. Soon as Sarah turned eighteen and was free to do as she pleased, we all sneaked up to Santa Fe and they got married.

"One thing you have to say for gun work, it pays right well. We had a good stake between us, and we’d talked now and then of raisin’ horses. We took up land outside Eagle Bend, put up a house and started buildin’ a herd. Chris packed his gun away in a trunk and only took it out when we had range work or went off on business. Couple of years later Sarah had a child, a little boy. Adam Bucklin, they called him." He had to pause a moment or two, overcome by the memories. "Eight good years we had, or near enough not to matter. Then, three years ago, me and Chris took a ride down to Flores Magon--that’s in Mexico, if you don’t know the name--to sell some horses. We got a fine price and when we headed home I was in a mood to celebrate. We were a full day out of Ciudad Juarez when I started workin’ on Chris, tryin’ to coax him into stayin’ over the night. He finally gave in and we did.

"We got home..." his voice broke, "and there wasn’t no home left to come to. The house had burned. The embers of it were still warm; we figured it’d happened only the night before. We found...Sarah and the ruins." He looked up to meet her shocked regard. "I could see the change comin’ over Chris, all the light and color goin’ out of his eyes, his face turnin’ tight and flinty. He’s been--well, the way you wrote him up--ever since. We stayed together another year or so after that, but it come to a point where I knew I wasn’t doin’ him no good, and I struck out on my own again. I heard about him, time to time, but he never made any effort to get in touch with me, and I left him alone. More’n once I was convinced he was dead; he sure wasn’t livin’ his life like he put a lot of value on it."

"Dear God," Mary murmured, horrified. "I had no idea. I’d never have--"

"--Don’t, ma’am," Buck interrupted. "You should never apologize for tellin’ the truth, no matter who it hurts. I know that, maybe better than most. And like I said, Chris don’t really care what people think of him. He figures it can’t be any worse than what he thinks of himself. He’s alive, and Sarah and Adam ain’t. That’s been killin’ him by inches for three years."

"Then why was he so angry?" she wondered. "He said I ‘didn’t know him’ as if it was--I don’t know--an obscenity. Why didn’t he tell me this, then? Why didn’t he want to set the record straight?"

"He ain’t in the newspaper business, ma’am," Buck reminded her, "and he don’t talk about them days no more. It hurts him too much to bear. Anyhow, I don’t reckon he thinks much further ahead than what he’s got in hand for the day. He expects to get killed just about every town he rides into, and he don’t much care if he is. What does it really matter to him what you think of him, or the folks here? He’s already beaten the odds fifty times. He’s a dead man walkin’ and he knows it. It’s like shootin’ craps--keep at it long enough and you roll snake eyes sooner or later. Chris’ll be forty in October, that’s old for gunfightin’. He knows how things are."

"I see," Mary said quietly. "Thank you for telling me all this, Mr. Wilmington. I won’t print a retraction--as you say, his reputation isn’t unearned. But if he gives me a chance--if he comes back--I will apologize."

"No need to, ma’am. Not really. I’m obliged to you for listening." He turned and extended a hand. "C’mon, Ez, you got the shop to sweep."

They went back across the street and Ezra got out the broom. Buck stood by the door, leaning on the upright that framed the corner where it joined the display window, staring out at the streetscape. After a while, without looking around, he said, "That’s enough for now, Ez. Come here."

The boy leaned the broom neatly against the counter and obeyed. "Buck?"

His guardian turned and gazed down at him with a look Ezra had never seen before, not even when he was remembering Adam. Then he knelt and swept the child into his arms. "I love you, Ez. You know that, don’t you?"

"Yes, Buck."

The man carried him over to the counter and set him down on it, on his feet, so their eyes were on a level. "You said somethin’ last night, son, about how a man has to do what he thinks is right. You remember it?"

"Of course I do. You taught it to me, Buck."

The big man smiled softly. " ‘Out of the mouths of babes,’ like the preachers say. Ez, you heard what I told Miz Travis, didn’t you?" When the boy nodded: "Then you know that if me and Chris hadn’t laid over that one night in Juarez, we’d’a got home in time to maybe save our family. And you know that it was me that talked Chris into that layover. So, in a way, it’s my fault the two of ’em died the way they done, and I owe Chris a debt on that account, ’cause they were his so much more than they were mine."

Ezra met his eyes gravely. "You’re goin’ to go after him, aren’t you? You’re goin’ to help him help the Seminoles."

"I have to, son. If he hadn’t turned up here the way he done, it’d be different. But now that he has, I’ll never be able to live here in peace with you until I’ve cleared the slate between us. I know that now; tellin’ Miz Travis that story made me see it. I ain’t exactly sure you can understand that, or anyone else either, but like you said, it’s what I’ve gotta do."

"It doesn’t matter if I understand, Buck," Ezra told him, sounding more like a thirty-year-old midget than he had in months. "It matters that you have to do it. It’s not somethin’ I can’t bear."

"I ain’t leavin’ you," Buck declared fiercely, gripping his shoulders. "Do you understand that? It ain’t about you. It’s about me and Chris and what stands between us. I’ll be back. I swear to you I’ll be back."

"I know you will." Ezra extended his arms and Buck wrapped him in a crushing hug, the breath catching in his throat in a rough sob as his chin rested on the boy’s thin shoulder, their glossy heads close together. "You’d best saddle Plata," Ezra observed evenly after a moment. "They must be several miles along by now. I can pack my own things. Do you want me to stay with Mrs. Travis?"

"Yeah. I’ll leave you the keys so you can get in and do your chores." Buck drew back a bit, still holding Ezra gently lapped within his arms. "You’re a good boy, Ez, smart and generous and brave. Don’t you ever let nobody tell you different."

Fifteen minutes later, Ezra stood on the boardwalk in front of the Clarion and watched, with Mary Travis, as the long-legged gray headed out of town at a high lope.


They were about halfway to the old mission when Tanner checked his horse and balanced around in his saddle. "Somebody comin’ up fast behind us," he said, and reached for the Winchester Watson had given him, its barrel sawed off to forearm-length, strapped in a sideleg sheath where most men would wear a sixgun.

Chris reined in, turning his black, as Buck Wilmington’s gray came thundering up and pulled to a halt, her dust cloud swirling forward to envelop the men and their mounts. "Nate," the big man said with a nod of greeting. "Tanner. You boys mind givin’ us a little space?"

"C’mon, Nathan," the Texan suggested, "let’s me and you ride on and see if Sanchez needs any more talkin’ to." He touched his own blazefaced gelding with spurless heels, then swung the animal hard around again and brought it up next to Larabee’s. "Keep in mind," he said, "you was sayin’ yourself you wisht we had more men. We done fought with this here one afore, that counts for somethin’." Before the gunfighter could respond, he cracked his reins against the horse’s rump and sent it off with a squeal and a lunging jump. Nathan spurred his own dark bay in pursuit.

Buck edged Plata closer to his old partner’s mount, his features tight. "How much you know about that boy, Chris?"

"What’s that got to do with anything?" Larabee demanded in surprise, thrown off guard by the question. "He’s willing to fight, that’s what matters."

"He’s wanted for murder in Tascosa," Buck said bluntly. "Five hundred dollars on his head, dead or alive."

Chris’s brows drew down. "How do you know?"

"He’s been in town a week, like he said. Ez spotted him. That boy’s got a memory like a steel trap--show him a wanted poster and he’s got it forever."

"This ain’t Texas, in case you missed that."

"I ain’t missed a damn thing," Buck snapped. "You’re gonna listen to me for once in your life, Chris, or we’re gonna have this out here and now. Now I don’t give one good hoot in a rain barrel what somebody thinks Tanner done in Tascosa. Like you said, this ain’t Texas, and I’m willing to accept a man for who and what he’s been since I’ve known him. Tanner’s a good man in a fight and I’d be the last to deny it. If he wants to risk his life, it’s his to risk. Hell, I can see where any man’d rather die in a shootout than at the end of a rope. But I got just one question for you: if you can take a man at your side that you ain’t hardly known twenty-four hours, where does that leave me after twelve years watchin’ your back?"

Chris took a breath as if to speak, then let it out slowly. "I never once said you didn’t do a good job at it, Buck. God knows I probably wouldn’t be alive today if not for you."

"All right, then. What makes Tanner so much better suited to this job than me? And don’t tell me it’s on account of Ez, either." He showed his teeth in a mocking grin. "You took me by surprise yesterday, old dog, but I had a little time to think since then. And the boy said a few things at supper that made me see the truth. At first I thought he was tryin’ to shame me into goin’ with you, like when a kid tells his buddies in school that his pa can lick theirs, but he don’t work that way, least of all when I been in a fight. I slept on it and I saw he was really pushin’ the boundaries with me, makin’ sure I wasn’t gonna drop him for you. He figured you had first claim on me on account of we’d known each other so much longer, and ’way before I ever met him. He ain’t exactly what you’d call secure, and he needs to have his mind set at rest regular--I’ve seen it more than once since we’ve been together."

"So?" Larabee prompted.

"So I know you, old pard. You got no more tact than a bull buffalo and you’re blunt as the tip of a table knife, and you hate to explain yourself, but you were doin’ the same thing Ez does, playin’ ring around the bush so you wouldn’t have to say what was really on your mind. You were tryin’ to back me off to protect me--us, I mean: me and Ezra. Well, I got some news for you, I outgrew needin’ protection a lot of years back, and as for Ezra--that boy can take care of himself better than you’d ever believe even if I tried to tell you."

Chris drew air through his nostrils with a rippling sound like a studhorse’s. His piercing eyes softened just a degree and for a moment he couldn’t meet Buck’s challenging indigo glare. It was true--Buck was closer to him than his own blood brothers had been, knew him in ways no one ever had, except for Sarah, maybe. He clamped down hard on the memory of her and reached, cowboy-fashion, for a smoke. Buck waited while he lit it and got it going, giving him time to think. "I meant what I said," he declared after a while, his tone lacking the combative edge of the afternoon before, sounding reasonable, almost diffident. "You’ve got a boy of your own, a business, a future. You may not be his father, but from what you told me you’re about as close as he’s ever had to one. You shouldn’t be riskin’ yourself and maybe endin’ up leavin’ him alone. I never did, when it was me; you know that."

Buck nodded. "I know that, Chris," he agreed quietly. "But that ain’t the issue here. You’re talkin’ about riskin’ my life. You better than any man should know life ain’t the most precious thing a man can risk. And, believe it or not, even Ezra understands that. He’s risked somethin’ that’s just as important to him--bein’ let to stay with me--on account of he figured it was what a gentleman should do. At least, that’s what he thought he was doin’ at the time. We all have to decide right and wrong accordin’ to our own lights, pard. That’s what split up such a lot of families when the War broke out." He hesitated a moment, reluctant to bring up the past but knowing he had to if he was ever to make Chris realize how important this was to him. "There’s an old debt unpaid between us, Chris. I don’t want you dyin’ before I’ve settled it. Do I have to say it any clearer than that?"

Larabee’s face shuttered off again. "No," he said. "You don’t."

"Four of us," Buck went on. "Five if Sanchez comes in. Twenty of these Ghosts. Five, maybe four to one. All right, pretty stiff odds, but, hell, we’ve known others just as bad in the War. And I’m guessin’ we might be able to make the country work for us some--you’ve always had a great feel for that. Still, I don’t see as you’re in much of a place to be lookin’ a gift gun up the muzzle. And anyhow, you can’t really stop me without you leave me here hogtied or shot. You don’t let me ride with you, I can follow. Tastanagi ain’t gonna turn down another man; he don’t care if you hate my guts or don’t."

"I never said that."

Buck shook his head. "I told Miz Travis already today, a person shouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth even if it hurts some. You don’t have to say it; I know. But what it comes down to in the end is that it’s still my life to stake. How many men enlisted that had wives and kids back home, Chris? How many risked leavin’ their families alone for the sake of what they believed in? You don’t got a right to deny me this, any more than the Army did them."

Chris’s hatbrim tilted; he clasped his hands on his saddlehorn and leaned his weight on them, something Buck knew to be a gesture of trust, because it made a fast draw almost impossible. "There’s still the boy," he said. "There’s gonna be the picture of him standin’ next to you every time I look at you, Buck."

"There’s two ghosts standin’ next to me too. It didn’t stop you from lettin’ me ride with you after we lost ’em," Buck pointed out. "You done your best to drive me away, I’ll grant that, but in the end it was my decision to leave. And it’s mine to come back." He waited, knowing he was treading on shaky ground. He thought he knew just how far Chris could be pushed, but the fact was that he knew the Chris of two years and more ago, not this cold-eyed unsmiling stranger.

"Stubborn," said Chris after a moment. "Stubborn, bullheaded--"

"Pot and kettle, pard," Buck interrupted lightly. "You know I’m right."

A hint of a sigh. "I’m not gonna admit that. But I know I can’t drive you off with a stick. And Vin was right: we need every man we can get." He straightened, lifting his reins. "Let’s go."


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