TREASURE by Sevenstars


JD Dunne, fuming quietly, pulled his still faintly damp shirt over his head and felt of his waffle-patterned vest, draped with his jacket over the rails of a vacant corral. His feet flinched in his socks as he stepped on some sharp-cornered pebble--his shoes, of course, had filled up with water when he stood up in the trough.

"You’ll be fortunate," said a voice behind him, "if your garments don’t shrink to the point of uselessness."

JD swung around, briefly wishing he hadn’t taken off his guns--this was the Wild West, wasn’t it?--and then relaxing as he saw who had spoken. A little boy, barely four feet tall, dressed in a neat blue denim suit, coppertoed shoes and a soft felt hat, his chestnut hair trimmed short and slicked with pomade, sharp green eyes in a somber face watching the Eastern youth gravely.

"Well, hey," said JD. "What’s your name?"

"Ezra P. Standish, at your service." The boy offered his hand, and JD shook it. "Those things would dry more quickly if you were out on the trail," he continued. "The breeze your horse created would supplement the sun’s heat."

"Guess that’s true," JD agreed, "but where would I be goin’?"

"After them," said the child. "Mr. Larabee and the others."

JD tilted his head. "What do you know about it?"

"I was listenin’ behind those haybales when you had with him," Ezra explained. "Do you still want to take part in the fight they’re goin’ into?"

"Yeah, I do," said JD, "but I don’t know where they were goin’."

"I can show you," Ezra told him. "It shouldn’t be too difficult to follow them, even after they’ve departed Mr. Sanchez’s mission. There will be four of them, perhaps five. Horses in that number leave traces."

The young New Yorker’s brows knit. "I didn’t see but three."

"They were hopin’ to recruit another en route," said Ezra. "And there was a...later comer followin’ them; he will have caught up by now."

"Well, that’s somethin’ like!" JD exclaimed, a bright grin splitting his face. Then he reconsidered. "But don’t we have to ask your folks?"

"My ‘folks,’ " Ezra said evenly, "are with Mr. Larabee." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a brown bottle. "He left in such haste that he neglected to take this with him. He needs to have two teaspoons full every evenin’. I must catch up and give it to him. That is why I require your assistance--as you do mine. We can help each other, Mr. Dunne."

JD frowned. "You mean your papa left you and rode off to a fight? That don’t seem quite right somehow. Which one was he? That one with the long hair? He didn’t hardly look old enough to’ve had you."

"No, that was Mr. Tanner. The gentleman I refer to was not present when you attempted to join them. As to the other, he was of the opinion that it was somethin’ his honor required of him." He eyed JD steadily. "If he doesn’t take his medication, he will have a seizure. Will you help me deliver it to him, Mr. Dunne?"

"Dang," said JD. "He won’t be much good to you or Mr. Larabee either one if that happens. Okay, sure. Can you hang on behind my saddle?"

"There is no such necessity," Ezra assured him with dignity. "I have a mount of my own--if you will help me saddle him; I fear I am somewhat deficient in height to essay the task."

JD frowned again as he struggled to follow the little boy’s high-flown language. "Where’s he at?"

"In the shed behind the saddle shop. Will you assist me?"

"Yeah, sure," JD agreed, somewhat bewildered. "Lemme put my shoes on and get my horse."


"You got a real good animal here, Ezra," JD observed as he tightened the forward cinch. " ’Less I miss my guess, he’s pure Mountain Welsh, or so close to it as not to matter. See how graceful his neck is? And the way his face dishes, and that soft muzzle, and the proud way he carries his tail? They say the Welsh ponies come from Oriental blood, like Arabians--they say Julius Caesar set up the first stud for ’em, at Merionethshire."

Ezra was sitting on the feed box, holding Gambit’s halter and stroking his refined face. "You seem most knowledgeable on the subject, Mr. Dunne."

"I used to work in a stable," the young man explained, with a grin. "Belonged to a rich family in New York. They had a couple like yours for their kids. Plus my mamma was born in Wales and she told me all about ’em. And her mamma was born in Bala, which is the name of the lake old Caesar’s farm was on. Runs in the blood, I guess. Your pa must’a dropped a pretty fair bit of change to get this fella for you, they don’t come cheap even back East, and they likely ain’t too common out here. Bet your Gambit could learn to jump at least as well as mine--the bigger Welsh can be real fine at it." He scratched the little chestnut’s withers--they were as high as Ezra’s head--and Gambit shuddered his skin in pleasure.

"You are an excellent horseman," Ezra told him. "Your downfall--literally--was that your mount is unaccustomed to the exercise."

"Should’a thought of that, maybe," JD allowed, giving the cinch a last tug and reaching for the rear strap. "Guess I didn’t make myself look too good in front of Mr. Larabee."

"Mr. Larabee," said Ezra in an oddly tight voice, "is little inclined to give others their due, however well deserved. From what I know of his reputation, you are fortunate he didn’t shoot you."

JD snorted. "I know they say he’s fast," he said, "but I ain’t exactly slow myself." He turned to face into the corner of the stall. "Watch." His hands blurred, and suddenly both Lightnings were out of their holsters and levelled, hammers drawn back, his forefingers just barely caressing the triggers. He stood a moment, then carefully let the hammers down, spun the weapons vertically and flat, and dropped them neatly back into their sheaths.

Ezra blinked. "That was most impressive. But how accurate are you? B--my father says it isn’t the first shot fired that matters, but the first one that hits the target."

"I can hit what I aim at," JD declared. "Show you when we get out on the trail, maybe. Let’s finish up and get movin’."


"It appears that Mr. Sanchez did change his mind after all," Ezra observed. "His horse is gone, and he isn’t pilin’ up rocks as is his custom."

"So that’s five of ’em," said JD. He shaded his eyes with a flat palm, gazing over the waste toward the rocky hills that reared in the west. "We need to get ahead of ’em, though. We’ll never catch up if we keep taggin’ after ’em like the tail on a kite. Your pony just ain’t got the stride for it, Ezra." He frowned. "Kinda hard to tell in this glare, but I think I see ’em, way off there--just a little blot movin’ toward the hills. Didn’t you say that was where they were headed?"

"Yes. A Seminole village is concealed somewhere in their depths. That is their goal."

"That means they’ve got to have regular ways in and out so they can get down to the flat," JD pondered aloud. "I think I can just see a darker vertical streak in the rocks--looks like Mr. Larabee’s bunch is headed straight for it. Must be a canyon or a pass. Those things twist around a lot ’cause they mostly happen where the rock is softer and wears down with the weather over the years. If we could get up on the rim, we could cut around and save some distance. Your pony was bred for mountain country--you think you can keep up, Ezra?"


Chris checked, eyeing landmarks. "The village shouldn’t be more than another three or four miles," he guessed. "If Tastanagi was right about these Ghosts, they might have somebody watchin’." He thought for a moment. Tanner had been a buffalo hunter, and there was a grace and silence to the way he moved that suggested he was very good at keeping himself out of sight, but Larabee felt it incumbent upon himself to make certain that Buck was focused enough to do the job. "Buck," he said, "see if you can get up in the rocks and take a look around. If you find any spies, try to bring ’em in on their own two feet."

The big man nodded wordlessly and turned off to the side. Plata wasn’t a mountain horse, but she didn’t have to be. He’d find some good covert to leave her in--as any watching Ghosts would probably have done with their own mounts--and do his scouting on foot. He’d done the same thing in the War, though not in this kind of terrain.

JD Dunne lay snugly nested in a little pocket between a couple of rocks, a big ledge above him providing shade. He came fully alert at the echoing clop of hooves drifting upward from the floor of the canyon. As the men came into sight and began passing beneath him, he counted under his breath. "One...two...three...four..."

A hammer cocked behind him. "Five," a soft voice finished. "If you’re tryin’ to stay hid, it’s best to remove your hat."

JD edged a careful look sidewise, not wanting to make the speaker nervous. A tall man with glossy black hair and a mustache that matched was crouching at his flank, studying him with an expression at once quizzical and menacing; the Peacemaker in his hand was held with a competent steadiness. This clearly wasn’t Larabee or either of the two who had been with him at the stable, so the odds were even it was Ezra’s father. "Who’re you?" he asked, wanting to be sure.

"Seems like I’m the one holdin’ the gun, so I’m the one to ask the questions," the other retorted. "Let’s go."

JD eased his way out of his covert, noting as he did how the tall man backed off as he moved, always keeping just out of lunging range. Coming to his feet, he looked around for Ezra, but the boy wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He had no opportunity to look or call out for him, as his captor gently waggled the muzzle of his Colt, indicating that he should start walking.

Lying flat atop a sun-warmed boulder, Ezra watched silently as Buck chivvied his travelling companion off over the rocks, bearing downward and toward the mouth of the canyon. When they had gone, he began slithering carefully backward off his perch.


Tanner eyed the shattered remains of an adobe hut, observing the jagged edges of its broken ceiling beams and the way it seemed to have been broken inward from the front. "You never told us they had a cannon," he said, interrupting the exchange between Larabee and Tastanagi.

The old Indian didn’t quite crack a smile. "You didn’t ask," he said.

"Hey, boys! Look what I found!" came a shout from the margin of the broad open bowl that enclosed the Seminole village. "Come on," Buck added to his prisoner.

Chris’s brows climbed. "Hello again, Mr. Larabee," the kid said blithely as he stopped beside the gunfighter’s horse.

Buck looked from one to the other in confusion. "You know each other?"

"We met, back in town," Larabee admitted. "He wanted to come with us. Says his name is JD Dunne. Put it up,

Buck, he’s no Ghost, at least."

"I was coverin’ you," Dunne told him. "Makin’ sure you weren’t walkin’ into an ambush."

"How’d you get here ahead of us?" Chris demanded.

The kid straightened his shoulders. "I told you, I can ride. I cut around the canyon rim."

"Well, I suggest you ride back the same way," Chris told him.

"I can help," JD insisted. "If you give me a chance. I’m ready to fight."

Buck spoke sharply. "You think you’re ready, boy? Let me learned to ride in prep school...then you read some...dime novel about Kit Carson," he almost spat the words out, " you all fired up. Figured you’d come out West and try your hand as a gunfighter. Is that about right?"

"What if it is?" JD retorted, turning to face the bigger man squarely. "Don’t every man have to start out somewhere? Wasn’t every gunfighter somethin’ else before he took to that line?"

"He’s got a point," Vin murmured thoughtfully.

"Go home," Chris told him, ignoring the ex-hunter’s comment, though he knew it was true: he’d been born on a farm in Indiana and might well be pushing a plow today himself if his father hadn’t decided to emigrate to Oregon when he was nine--and if, three years later, he hadn’t decided to go with his sister and her new husband to California, where he had killed his first man. "You’re not the type."

JD rounded back on him. "A man comes to you because he respects you, because he’d be proud to work with you. This is how you treat him?"

"Go home, kid," Chris repeated. Bad enough he had one man with him who was risking leaving a little boy alone in the world--at least that boy was back in Four Corners, safe and looked after. He wasn’t going to have a greenhorn fighting with him and maybe ending up dead before he’d really had a chance to live. Chris had cut down his share of wannabes like this little banty rooster of a city kid, and he was tired of having their deaths on his soul.

The young man’s features tightened. "No. You can’t make me. You can send me back--you can throw me out--but all I have to do is get out of sight and find me another place up in all these rocks. And anyhow, I ain’t leavin’ till I finish the errand I came to do. Who’s Ezra’s papa?"

Buck’s head snapped up, his eyes briefly meeting Chris’s. "I am. At least I’ll do till the real one shows up. What’ve you got to do with Ez?"

JD opened his mouth, and then there was a rattle of sliding pebbles and a light voice behind them said evenly, "Mr. Dunne and I made our way here together, Buck."

The big man wheeled, going first white and then red as he took in the small figure in the blue denim suit that was calmly dusting itself off at the foot of the slope. "What in the hell," he demanded, slowly and evenly, between his teeth, "are you doin’ out here? I told you to stay with Miz Travis." Chris noted that he spoke very quietly, with none of the dramatic loud rage he usually displayed when he was upset. Buck only got that steely tone in his voice when the situation was important to him. He’d had it yesterday when they challenged the trail crew.

"No," the boy answered quietly, "you didn’t. I asked you if you wanted me to. But I had a prior obligation, one you yourself had placed on me. You told me we were partners. Mother has had partners from time to time; I know somethin’ about the term. Partners are people who assist each other in whatever venture they are faced with. That is what I am here to do." He shot a quick look at Larabee. He didn’t trust this man, was in fact a little afraid of him. But his fear for Buck--his fear of losing Buck, not merely to whoever the men had come here to fight, but to, very possibly, his own so-called former friend--gave him the courage he needed to ignore that fear and assume what he saw as the duty he owed his guardian. Buck needed someone who was totally on his side, someone who felt no other charge incumbent upon himself but the guarding of Buck’s back. Not even Nathan had that; Buck had said, last night, that Nathan had agreed to this journey because it was necessary for him to do so in order to keep his own good opinion of himself--and that had been long before Buck had come to the realization that the same was true of him. "I can help you, Buck," he said quietly, abandoning his usual convoluted language. "I know I can. Please let me."

Buck didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t the first time Ezra had perplexed him, nor even the first time the boy had put himself in danger for what he thought was a good cause, and he knew Ezra knew that. He couldn’t send Ezra back to Four Corners alone, across thirty miles or more of wasteland with night coming on. He couldn’t go back with him, because Chris would see that as an abrogation of the deal they had made, and he couldn’t ask any of the others to do it. He also felt reluctant to, in essence, punish Ezra for living by the very maxim Buck had taught him. How could it be right for a grown man to do what made it possible for him to live with himself, and wrong for a boy--especially a boy who’d lived Ezra’s kind of life--to do the same? Yet he didn’t want to place Ezra in the middle of what might be a pretty hot fight. JD might be green, but at least he was old enough to carry guns--and he had a point: Chris could no more toss him out than he could Buck.

It was Tastanagi who offered a solution. "This is your son? He is brave and proud, a young warrior already. We too have children. He can stay with them."

Ezra faced the Indian and spoke with grave courtesy. "Thank you, sir. Is this your village?"

"Yes, little brave. My name is Tastanagi; I am headman here."

"It is an honor to meet you, Chief Tastanagi," Ezra declared. "My name is Ezra--Ezra P. Standish."

Chris looked frustrated. He obviously recognized the same truths Buck had about the tactical difficulties involved in returning Ezra to town. He couldn’t refuse Tastanagi’s offer, which was both generous and logical, yet he knew that if he let Ezra stay, he’d have no excuse not to keep JD on as well.

JD had been following the exchange with steadily increasing bewilderment. "Hey!" he burst out. "What about that medicine you brought, Ezra?"

Everyone looked at him. "Medicine?" Buck echoed in confusion. "Ez don’t take medicine."

"Not him," the kid retorted, "you. That’s why he told me he had to come out here, ’cause you forgot your medicine. He said if you didn’t take it you’d have a seizure."

Ezra smiled sweetly. "I needed a cause too urgent for you to refuse me, Mr. Dunne. That was the best I could originate on short notice. I took the chance that you would not simply offer to take the bottle with you and explain that I had sent it. When you admitted that you had no clue where to go, I knew my place with you was secure, but I also felt it wise to consolidate my advantage."

Vin began to laugh. "You conned him!" Buck realized. "You ran one of your games on him, didn’t you?"

"You only said I should refrain from gamblin’," Ezra pointed out innocently, "not from runnin’ games that were not for profit."

Suddenly the humor of the situation became evident, and Buck swept Ezra up in his arms, half turning to face Chris defiantly. "You know, pard, this boy’s got a twisted mind. He might really be able to do some good. And if Tastanagi’s willing to take charge of him--"

"All right," Chris agreed with a kind of steely resignation. He swung down off his horse. "Let’s get started. We got four days."

"Less," Tastanagi opined. "He’s an old warrior. He will come surprise us."


The spring days were still comparitively short--a hair over twelve hours between sunrise and sunset--but it was time enough for the men to take a tour of the ground with Tastanagi as their guide. The bowl where the village lay offered only one handy route in or out, the same they’d come by, although a maze of small canyons led off it, many of them supplied with springs or small streams and either choked with sagebrush, willow, and mesquite or cleared out by the villagers and used for their gardens and livestock. The bony, jagged hills round about were dry and desert-like but not real desert, supporting respectable growths of chaparral, scrub oak, mountain mahogany, greasewood, manzanita, yucca, and poison oak; over the years some of this had been "logged off" by the villagers, but there was still a good supply. A horse could pick its way over this terrain if it went slowly and could find enough level ground, but it couldn’t charge on it, and most of the trails were narrow and steep, made by game and wild burros. There wasn’t even a spot big enough for the Ghosts to set up their cannon, supposing they could drag it that high: the first time they touched it off, its recoil would kick it into a ravine, or maybe off a cliff. That gave Chris some comfort. The worst he’d have to contend with would be riflemen emplaced to overlook the bowl--and even that wasn’t likely: the Ghosts would have to know the terrain, the ways to get to the positions they wanted.

Tastanagi confirmed his guess. "His main force rode straight into the village," he said of the Ghosts’ chief. "Then he left some men back here."

"He’s a trained soldier," was the estimate of Josiah Sanchez. Larabee, who had served as one himself, sensed that the enigmatic older man knew what he was talking about.

"Probably repeat himself," the gunfighter guessed. In this kind of broken-up country, it was best to stick with a strategy you had already found workable.

"We should take the high ground," Tastanagi suggested.

"Yeah." Chris made a sweeping gesture that took in the last, more-or-less straight stretch of the canyon. "If we can force him into this chokehold we’ll have him."

A man’s voice was heard: "Set that hay over here." Larabee glanced around to see that the Seminole men were already beginning to create breastworks on the upper slopes. Given the advantage of height, and knowing the terrain as they did, he figured they could do their fair share of damage. For a moment it occurred to him to wonder why they had even felt a need to hire help. There weren’t many of them, that much was true--and they didn’t seem to have any weapons better than bows and spears, which they used chiefly for hunting. It had been forty years since the last Seminole War had ended, and more than that since the removal of much of the tribe to the Indian Territory; likely only two or three of the oldest men had ever fought the whites at all. Then, too, there was the question of the cannon. It had probably scared them pretty badly. Their reasoning would be that if the enemy was going to use professional tactics--which most outlaw gangs wouldn’t; they tended to rely on surprise, noise, and intimidation--they’d better find some professionals of their own.

"We may not have guns," Tastanagi observed, "but we have our own ways of fighting."

"Anderson will provide the guns," Chris told him grimly.

"He won’t come by night," Vin declared. "Moon’s wanin’. Even three days from now it’ll be in last quarter. This ground’s too tricksy to be runnin’ horses over in the kinda shadows that’ll throw. Too much chance of breakin’ legs."

"He’ll want as much good daylight as he can get," Larabee agreed. "Late morning would be my guess. Vin, I know you’re good with a long gun. I want you to choose some men and see if you can give ’em a grounding in shooting one. Once we get some of Anderson’s men down and can recover their guns, we’ll need defenders who can put ’em to use."

Tanner nodded solemnly. "This bowl’s too big, too open," the gunfighter continued. "We need to try to break it up. Once the ball opens there’ll be men chargin’ all around, mostly on horseback. We want to pen ’em in one spot, near where the canyon opens, so they’ll be crowded together at the start and make a good big mark. After that--"

"--I have a notion or two that may be of use," Josiah offered.

"Get to it." Chris had always believed in giving the men under him plenty of latitude to use their individual talents. Men did best when they were given a job they were good at. He turned to Tastanagi. "And I want sentries up. Change off every hour or two so nobody gets sleepy or starts seein’ things."

"It will be done," the Indian promised.


Morning found the village humming with activity. The strongest men and the older women worked on the fortifications. The older men turned out arrows like Colt’s New Haven factory turning out guns. Even the young women, who had been hidden up one of the radiating canyons but whom Nathan discovered when he stepped in a deer snare while foraging for firewood, insisted on doing their part. One of them--Eban’s daughter, a light-colored girl with corkscrew hair who gave her name as Rain--volunteered to head up the nursing corps, organizing women to set up pots of water for boiling, rip up clean cloth for bandages, and set out such herbal remedies as their people used, many of which were familiar to Nathan.

Josiah hauled rocks, constructing what he described as barriers "high enough to make a sensible horse think twice about jumping." Vin drilled Eban and a dozen or so other men in riflery, choosing the ones he deemed steadiest on account of age and experience; if things got busy, he wanted to be sure the plundered guns were in the hands of users who’d keep their heads and not panic. Buck made certain all the animals were tucked away in the subsidiary canyons where they wouldn’t be running around, then directed the digging of trenches and the emplacing of breastworks. JD stayed out of Chris’s way and kept himself busy wherever he could. Chris and Tastanagi seemed to be everywhere at once, checking on progress, directing defenders who weren’t sure what to do next, receiving reports from the string of sentries set out along the canyon.

Ezra had found the Indian children very different from most of those of his own race. Living as they did in a country too barren for most whites to be interested in, they’d had to not only pull their weight but develop a seriousness of outlook that came close to matching his own: they knew their people were outcasts, alone against the world, and that everyone had to give a hand if the village was to survive. Ezra himself had spent his short life learning how to work around other people, to use their weaknesses to his own advantage. And he was grimly determined to bring Buck through this fight alive. An instant sympathy had sprung up between the little green-eyed loner and his shy village counterparts, especially when Ezra, volunteering to entertain the young Seminoles while their mothers helped prepare defenses, found that the card tricks and sleight of hand Maude had taught him to keep his fingers nimble made them gasp in astonishment and delight. Before too long he had a home guard of his own in action. There was no gunpowder or dynamite in the village, but the Indian children knew that the big sotol heads that grew on the yucca plants could substitute for either one. When the heads were dead ripe and swelled with sap, they could be stuffed into cracks and crevices and piled over with fuel. Once the fire got good and hot, the juice in the pods would boil and turn to steam, and the pods would explode with a force sufficient to blow out the toughest rock wall. Their fathers, they told Ezra, had often used this method to quarry stone with which to build houses or walls for gardens and animal pens. Ezra’s bright mind immediately saw a military use for the plants. He set the bigger children to gathering the pods, laying them in shallow pits, and mounding fuel and loose rocks and big dead branches on top of them, choosing by preference sage and manzanita roots and dead greasewood (which, as he had learned on the trail with Buck, burned hot and quick), using the village burros to supply better hauling power. The smaller ones were ordered to pick up dry tinder to make trains, so the fires could be lit from cover if necessary. Then they began fanning out along the canyon, setting up mounds of rock that could be tipped down into the cut to bombard anyone passing underneath, and rigging crude catapults and springals such as Ezra had seen pictures of in books. As each task was finished, Ezra would inspect it and reward the proud workers with more tricks. When he found a stack of small clay pots in one of the village sheds, he studied them for a few minutes, thinking hard, and then put his helpers to work filling them with a mixture of grain and sharp-edged small rocks. When they were about three-quarters full, water was slowly poured in to make the dry grain swell up, and the mouths of the vessels were tightly sealed with plugs of wet clay. "The wet grain," Ezra explained to his fascinated audience, "functions much as does the juice in the sotol pods we collected. It exerts pressure against the walls of the pot it is in. As long as the pot remains intact, it is strong enough to contain that pressure--but if it should be flung from a height, and break--" The children made the connection immediately and applauded his cleverness.

At first the villagers seemed wary of the strangers in their midst, but gradually the realization seeped in that they were all in the same boat, and a slow trust began to develop. By the second evening, the men had been welcomed into family houses and invited to join the Seminoles’ meals. Ezra, unused to so much fresh air and with nervous energy depleted by his executive activity, nodded off over his plate and was lifted into Buck’s arms and carried off to Tastanagi’s house. JD followed a few steps behind. "Cute kid," he observed tentatively after Buck had tucked the boy into bed.

"Yeah. He is at that, I reckon." For a moment the big man’s face was open, unguarded.

"Hey," JD ventured, "I’m sorry I let him pull the wool over my eyes. But he made it seem so true..."

Buck snorted. "I can imagine. Bet he wasn’t quite sayin’ things too clearly, was he? Don’t apologize, kid. He’s real good at it. It’s what his ma taught him to do. He’s fooled men older’n the both of us put together, by what little I’ve been able to find out."

"It wasn’t just that," the younger man confessed. "I guess he...well, he hit me where I’m raw. My mamma...she was sick a long time. Wouldn’t’a lived as long as she did, if the doctors hadn’t kept on givin’ her stuff."

"Stroke of luck for him," Buck guessed. "Sorry to hear about it, kid. Lost mine, too. Wasn’t no older’n what you are now, I reckon." Then he remembered himself. "It don’t make you tough enough for this kind of fight, though. You should still get out while you can."

A shadow detached itself from the shadows round about, and JD swallowed and said, "I better--uh--go check my horse. ’Evening, Mr. Larabee."

Buck turned to face his old partner, his nascent paternal instincts aroused and on guard. Chris paused, looming a moment in the doorway, then stepped in cautiously, the jinglers on his California spurs chiming softly. Buck watched him, seeing how the faint light from the nearest supper fire illuminated the harsh planes and angles of his face and how, for a moment, they seemed to soften as he looked down at Ezra, curled on his side beneath a bright trade blanket, his jacket rolled up under his head. "How old is he?" Larabee asked after a moment.

"Nine. Had his birthday last month." Buck knew this might be an intelligence difficult for Chris to bear, since his own son would have turned nine no more than six weeks hence. Instead he saw a brief surprise light the pale eyes and Chris looked up sharply.

"That much? He don’t hardly look big enough to be seven."

"I know." Buck paused a moment. "He ain’t Adam, Chris. They might’a been close to the same age, but that’s where it stops. They don’t look alike, don’t talk alike, don’t act alike."

Larabee snorted. "You really think I didn’t realize that?" He glanced at Ezra again. "He’s pullin’ his weight, I have to say that for him. Got the village kids organized and settin’ up all kinds of traps. Doin’ more to help out than that Dunne kid."

"You and me were where he is once, pard," Buck pointed out, somewhat relieved to find a chance to turn the conversation away from his boy.

"It’s different for some," Chris told him. "Vin and me...we don’t really have anything better to do, why not be here? Nathan figures he’s payin’ off a debt his people owe to the whole Seminole tribe. Josiah seems to think his God wants him to take a hand. Even you--I wish I could get you to go back and take the boy with you, but I know you feel you have to do this. JD’s just beginning. This ain’t the kind of fight he should be baptized in."

"Maybe he don’t have anything better to do either," Buck speculated. "And neither one of us was as old as him when we set our feet on this trail."

"That don’t make it right."

"Right?" Buck echoed. "Right’s different for everybody. It’s like I taught Ez. You got to live with yourself." He snorted. "Maybe even this Anderson and his lot think they’re doin’ right. That’s what makes this old world such a mess. But you still gotta do the best you can. And I never could abide bullies."

Chris took a breath. "I remember that. I don’t know if I ever told’re a good man, Buck. Takin’ this kid in, changin’ your life for him--that just goes to prove it."

It don’t help much, Buck thought, and looked at Ezra again. Yes, he knew this wasn’t Adam. But as surely as he felt the weight of the boy’s death, and his mother’s, dragging at his soul and poisoning whatever relationship he and Chris might still be able to salvage, so surely did he feel that perhaps, by accepting responsibility for Ezra’s care and maintenance and raising him to be a decent man, he could in some measure make up for Adam’s life, cut short and wasted because of his mistake. It wasn’t just Chris he owed a debt to; it was Adam, or rather Adam’s spirit. Josiah talks about penance, maybe I got some of my own to do. Then a soft smile crossed his face. For all the twists and turns he throws into life, it’s still a lot more pleasant than haulin’ rocks.

Ezra stirred and mumbled in his sleep, then settled again, and the two men looked at each other. "We better go," Buck said, "or we’ll wake him up talkin’."

Chris nodded silently, and for just a moment Buck read the yearning in his eyes, the frustrated love of a bereaved parent, the almost overwhelming urge to kneel and touch the child, smooth his forehead and adjust the covers over him. But this wasn’t the time. "Better not, pard," he warned gently. "He don’t want to show it, but I know--he’s scared of you. He wakes up and sees your ugly face bendin’ over him, you’re like to throw him into a screamin’ fit."

"Am I that easy to read?" Chris asked. "And that frightening?"

"Easy to read? To me, yeah," Buck told him. "Frightening? You’d be the one to answer that--you’ve been puttin’ a lot of work into it this last while."

Larabee looked at him, and Buck could see the walls going up again, the keep-aways slamming into place and the locks clicking to over his old partner’s heart. Then, without another word, the gunfighter turned and slipped out into the night.


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