TREASURE by Sevenstars


"Should’ve thought of it myself," Buck grumbled. "It ain’t like this place is sittin’ right out on the flat like Four Corners. And the Seminoles don’t go outside the canyons much, and not in big groups when they do--hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they use a different path each time. That means there’s no plain beaten trail that would lead Anderson to it. So how’d he even know it was here? Or, at least, why’d he even bother to go up the canyon? He’d have to either been lookin’ for a hideout or have a map or somethin’ that would show him the routes to take."

Chris nodded grimly. "Unobservant, that’s what we were. Good way to get dead. At least we bought some time." He turned to Tastanagi. "Have you and your people ever found any hint of some place where a lot of valuables might be hidden?"

"No," the headman replied firmly, "and this time I am leaving nothing out. Of course, we have never troubled to look for such a thing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t here."

Chris considered. Anderson wasn’t going to try another head-on charge, not after the way he’d been cut up this morning: he’d lost at least fifteen men killed on the spot--fully a quarter of his force, perhaps as much as a third or more--plus the ones captured and any wounded who’d been able to get away but might not be in top form for a while. So what would he do instead? His men were the remains of a formal military unit, that was clear, but they’d also been operating outlaw-fashion for an unknown number of years. That would have forced them to think and behave like guerrillas. And if he did have a map, he might know of other ways into the canyons, into the village. What if he sent his men in as skirmishers, infantry? They could creep in stealthily, by night, maybe, and try to take down as many of the village fighters as possible, or make off with hostages to force concessions.

Whatever he planned, he’d leave tracks on his way to do it. An outfit that big couldn’t avoid it. And he might need to rest up for a day, tend his wounded. "Josiah can’t ride," the gunfighter mused aloud to Buck, "and Nathan won’t leave his patients. That leaves four of us--you, me, Vin, and JD--to find out where Anderson is and try to get a handle on what he’s doin’."

"Best we all get some sleep, then," Buck said. "Tanner still out there on watch?"

"I will send a man to call him in," Tastanagi offered. "We will keep sentry tonight. You should all rest. This is work you alone can do."


"Mr. you have a mother?" Ezra inquired. The two of them had started a coffee fire and scraped some food together while Chris and Buck went off to have a serious conference with Tastanagi. Theorizing that JD had risked his life in the fight just like the rest of the men and deserved to know what Anderson was really looking for, Ezra had explained about the treasure while they worked.

JD sighed. "I did have, till last year. She died."

"I think you and I may have that in common," the boy murmured, so quietly that JD had to bend close to hear him. "Buck thinks I haven’t guessed, but...but I have. The treasure Colonel Anderson is seekin’ has lain unfound for over a century. Therefore it seems logical to suppose that the clues to its location are few. I know of only one, myself--the map my mother acquired. If this is the place it pointed to, and if Colonel Anderson is here now...the ways in which he could have gained that information are comparitively few, don’t you think so?"

"You mean," JD paraphrased slowly, "you think he found your mamma and...and got her to give up the map, or tell him what was on it?"

"Yes." Ezra looked up to meet the youth’s sympathetic hazel eyes, his own wide but tearless. "And I think, afterward, he killed her."

"Jeez," said JD, "that’s awful. I’m real sorry, Ezra."

I don’t know why I am not, Ezra thought. No--that isn’t true. I do know. It means she will never try to take me away from Buck.

But she was still Mother, and her murder must not go unpunished.


Chris came up to the coffee fire, joining Buck, JD, and Ezra, after making a restless turn around to check the sentry posts. "Is he all right?" he asked of Buck, with a nod toward the Easterner, who still looked rather pale.

"Wasn’t like them dime novels, was it?" Buck guessed, giving the kid a nudge.

"I didn’t count on seeing their eyes," JD admitted in a subdued voice.

"Well, if you can see their eyes then you’re too close," Buck told him. "And you never break cover. You stand in front of bullets, you’re likely to die."

"You done, Buck?" JD demanded.

"Why don’t you slow down a little bit, son?" Chris suggested.

JD jumped to his feet. "What in the hell gives you the right to tell me what to do?!" he exploded. Chris stared at him a moment, then turned and walked away.

"Sit down, kid," Buck said tiredly, although his heart had given a little leap when he heard Chris addressing the youth as "son." "He had a son once. Never had a chance to see him grow up, though. He lost that boy--and his wife--in a fire and that burned half the soul out of that man." His hand slid onto Ezra’s narrow shoulder and he squeezed lightly as if to reassure himself that his boy was still there, safe and sound.

A slow, uneven rhythm of steps heralded the arrival of Josiah, leaning heavily on a twisted mesquite-branch cane. "Josiah, you still with us?" Buck asked brightly.

"Scoot on over there, Buck," Sanchez requested, reaching under his serape and producing a flat brown bottle. "I’m a spiritual man. Sometimes I turn to the wrong kinds of spirits."

Chris found himself at Tastanagi’s house, watching as Imala got acquainted with his infant son. He glanced around as the headman came up to join him. "He’s beautiful," he said quietly, nodding toward the baby.

"I’ve had many children," Tastanagi told him. "I’ve outlived most of them. Now, all of these are my children."

Larabee dipped his head. "Home, family...things worth fighting for." He looked back toward the fire in time to see a quick smile flirt across Ezra’s sober little face, followed by a burst of giggles as Buck began running fingers up and down his ribs. He’d used to do that with Adam too--always got the same reaction. Chris suddenly felt very tired and very alone--and envious. It occurred to him that fighting for money, as he’d been doing these three years, wasn’t really all that fulfilling, even when you chose your jobs with care. He wished he had what Buck had been lucky enough to find--or have thrust upon him--and not only because he missed Sarah and Adam so dreadfully, but because it would give meaning to a life that had none.

You could have a part in it, he thought, the way he had a part in what was yours. He’d be willing to let you. How many times did he try to tell you that they wouldn’t want you to give up living just because they weren’t here any more?

Then he shook the thought off angrily. There was no time for such lapses now. He needed to keep focused until they were sure Anderson wasn’t going to make another try.


Colonel Emmett Riley Anderson was furious--coldly, resolutely furious. The two wounds he’d picked up in the fight, and hadn’t realized he had till the adrenalin rush wore off, might have fed into it, but what tore at him above all was that this ragtag Indian village and that Yankee hired gun had taken down more than half his men, counting the wounded who had escaped with him.

Like most Confederate officers, Anderson had gained his rank on merit: the military being one of the few professions considered suitable to a Southern gentleman in antebellum days, he had, as a younger son, gone to West Point, graduated in the Class of ’41, and served against the Indians and Mexicans before resigning his commission when Virginia seceded. He’d begun with a full regiment, ten companies, a thousand men. By two years into the fighting, he was down to 540, and by the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he had 306. Fully half of them were either too sick or too weary of war to follow him when he made up his mind to go to Mexico. Over the years since he had gradually lost more and more of the remainder, some in battle or through sickness or accident, some slipping away to return to the homes they’d left behind, some trying to desert and settle below the Border--though most of those hadn’t made it: he’d shot several personally. What was left--about fifty now--was his hard core, the toughest, most dedicated of his men, the ones who believed in his vision as surely as he did himself. Because of this, he felt even more paternal toward them than most officers did toward their men, and was resolved to avenge their deaths.

When he first went to Mexico, he’d had a "flying battery" of three cannon--"horse artillery," they were called, in which the cannoneers, instead of riding on the limbers and caissons or running beside the carriages, had mounts of their own, for that type of artillery supported the cavalry and had to move fast to keep up and faster still to swing into action when the guns were needed to repulse a charge by enemy horsemen. The guns themselves were only stubby bronze Model 1841 six-pounder smoothbores, older than some of the men who served them; the Union had regarded the type as obsolete by the outbreak of hostilities, but they were still heavily employed by a Confederacy that couldn’t afford to pass up any opportunities. They had the advantage of lightness, weighing a bit under nine hundred pounds apiece excluding the carriage and limber, and as the regiment’s losses mounted, the men who served them had grown by necessity more versatile, until now, instead of having to be served by the supposedly ideal six or eight twenty men, the one that was left employed exactly four. Like all smoothbores, it was a muzzle-loader and took solid ball, and had proved terrifyingly effective against Indians and bandits, though the Ghosts had rarely used it in their raids against "Yankee" targets. At five degrees of elevation its projectile could travel 1520 yards--well over three-quarters of a mile.

Anderson hadn’t taken it into the village the second time, hadn’t thought he’d need to; his first and only use of it had, he figured, gotten his point across.

Obviously, it hadn’t.

As Captain Corcoran dug the bullets out of his arm and side, he focused on the cannon to distract himself from the pain. Later he would take some of the laudanum they’d looted from the last Army supply train they’d raided, but for now he needed to keep his mind clear. He unfolded the soft faded deerskin map that had brought him this far and studied the reddish-brown lines drawn across its surface, estimating distance from his memory of the size of the bowl where the Indian village lay. The hills close around it were too choppy to mount the gun, but there was a low mesa shown as one of the landmarks...yes, there it was. Anderson had been in the West long enough to know that mesas, like the buttes they eventually became, usually had one steep side, full of "chimneys," and a lot of slope to the other, with dozens of water-cut canyons and canyoncitos in it. If he could find a place on this mesa where horses could get up, he’d get the cannon to the top of it if he had to run ropes to every horse in the outfit to pull it.


Chris had sent Buck with JD--the kid could fight, no disputing that, but he still needed an older and wiser head around--to investigate the nearby canyons and back hills for any sign of enemy infiltrators, and taken Vin with him to check out the plain where the canyon debouched. Anderson hadn’t been trying to hide his tracks; they found where the Ghosts had paused, probably to rest and look after their wounded--there were still bloodstains to be seen, blackened now where the sun had sucked the moisture out of them, and hosting congregations of flies--and then a trail moving southward along the edge of the hills. "Looks like maybe they’re pointing back to Mexico after all," the gunfighter observed. "We don’t want to follow too close, though. They’ll be slower than we are on account of their numbers and their wounded, and Anderson’s an old campaigner, he’ll have a rear-guard out. All right, we’ll take a wider arc across the plain. See if they’re really gone."

The quiet air was suddenly rent by a deep-throated booming roar. "What the hell is that?" Vin demanded, looking around in confusion.

Damn, damn, damn... "It’s the cannon," said Chris.

Thirty seconds later there was another roar. Being a veteran himself and well familiar with field artillery, Larabee knew that a muzzle-loader’s crew, if well drilled and properly supplied, could get off as many as three aimed rounds to the minute. He hadn’t seen Anderson’s gun, but he’d bet that was what it was, simply because breechloading arms, though certainly safer for the crew serving them, required a mechanism that was able to withstand the strain of firing and still operate smoothly and quickly to allow the next round to be fired. This meant they had to be not only made of superior material but expertly machined to an extent that few inventors or manufacturers could manage. The Whitworth, which had been developed in England late in the ’50’s, was an early but unreliable example, and its cannoneers not infrequently had to fasten the breech closed and load it from the muzzle. They can’t be close to the village, there’s no place they can put the damn thing. Where’s the sound coming from? Somewhere a little ahead, but further in--what’s he done, found himself a mesa or something?

The suddenness of the sound might have startled Tanner, but he obviously knew something about artillery. "Another couple of rounds, they’ll have the range," he said.

Chris spun his black around and raked it with the spurs. "Come on!"


Like his old friend, Buck knew cannon fire when he heard it. At the first concussive boom he made the obvious connection: Chris had guessed wrong--Anderson wasn’t going to risk sending his men in as skirmishers, he was going to soften his target up first. And smack in the middle of his target was Ezra. "Let’s go!" he shouted to JD.

The two of them thundered back into the village to find the bewildered people rushing around in all directions as if an earthquake had hit--and to them it probably didn’t seem much different from one at that. Tastanagi and Josiah had kept their heads and were struggling to restore order, but it took the full-tilt arrival of Chris and Vin to make the difference. The gunfighter pulled his horse to a halt, squatting back, half-rearing. "Everybody into the bluffs!" he yelled. "That cannon will tear these adobes apart!"

Buck spun Plata in a tight circle, searching for his boy. Ezra burst out of Tastanagi’s house, his bridle slung over his shoulder, the initialed conchas winking in the sun. Buck spurred the gray and took off to meet him, bending out of the saddle as he neared and extending an arm; Ezra, seeming to know instinctively what to do, stopped and held out his own, and was scooped up onto the back of the flying horse as she raced for the shelter of the back hills. JD galloped after them. Nathan had his nursing staff and a couple of men evacuating the field hospital. The women and children, carrying whatever they’d been able to snatch, raced for cover, some stumbling occasionally, being helped up by their fellows, running, falling, getting up again. Dogs and goats ran with them. Josiah, knowing he’d be slowed by his wounded leg, hobbled along in their midst as fast as he could manage, leaving the uninjured men to superintend whatever was left of the flight.

The third shot landed in the center of the village plaza, its concussion hurling up earth and rocks. One of the latter struck Eban in the back as he turned to follow the others to safety. Chris was still yelling orders--"Go! There! Leave it! Leave it! Leave it!" Rain, staying behind just long enough to sweep the precious herbal remedies into a bag, stumbled out of the ramada just in time to see her father fall. Nathan heard her despairing scream and turned back to grab her arm as she lunged forward. "We got to go! We got to go, Rain!" he shouted over the pandemonium, pulling at her.

"Get the hell out of here!" Chris screamed at the last lingering men, and hit his black with the spurs. Tanner was right with him. As the last of the noncombatants plunged into the radiating canyons and the men streamed after them, another roar sounded from the south.

Tastanagi and Imala were waiting for them in the shelter of a low hill. The men piled off their horses, leaving them ground-tied, and huddled for a consultation. No one paid any attention to Ezra, who slithered down off Buck’s saddle and crept close enough to hear.

"Can you tell where they are?" Chris was asking. "You know these hills a lot better than we do."

"I saw where the puff of smoke came from," the headman agreed. "They’re on the mesa we call Big Bone." He knelt, sketching rapidly in the dirt with his finger. "It stands like an island above the level of the hills around it, cut off from them by canyons much like this one." The men watched as he scribed the maze, showing how the canyons intersected. The main one, the gateway to the village, branched off just past the third bend and ran almost straight down the side of the formation in question, then curved around the back of it. "They must have gone up here--the west side; it has a slope, so--" His hand indicated what Chris estimated was a range of thirty to sixty degrees. Horses could make that, not always easily, but if they weren’t ridden all the way--

He knew from the way Buck looked at him that his old second-in-command had guessed the same. "We got two options," he said. "We can ride up after that gun..."

"That’s no option. That’s suicide," Buck cut him off, as he’d known Buck would.

"Or?" JD prompted. "What’s the other option?"

"We could raise a white flag," said Chris grimly.

"That ain’t gonna stop ’em," Vin stated flatly. "Anderson’s gotta know the village ain’t got the kind of fortifications that cannon’s meant to deal with. He ain’t doin’ this to soften us up, he’s doin’ it to pound us flat. He ain’t lookin’ for surrender no more, he’s huntin’ vengeance. Seen it lots of times with outlaws--know they should run but they don’t, figure they gotta settle up first."

"So three, we could mount up and we could ride the hell out of here!" Buck suggested.

Nathan had joined them, having decided it was easier to let Rain in on whatever Chris had planned than to keep fighting her as she tried to get back to her dead. "Go, then!" the girl spat. "With my last breath, I will fight these men!"

"Them’s Rebs up there," Nathan added. "That makes it my fight."

"I’m not goin’ anywhere," JD declared firmly. "I’ve only shot one that I’m sure of."

Buck cuffed at him like a mother bear rebuking a cub. "They’ll see us before we get five paces, and that gun will cut us to pieces!"

"There’s got to be another way up there," Chris objected.

"There is," Imala put in. "We can climb."


Josiah, who clearly couldn’t climb the side of a mesa with his bad leg, was left to help Tastanagi keep order among the evacuees, who had gathered in a pocket between a couple of bluffs further back in the hills. The cannon couldn’t reach them here even if the crew serving it had been able to see them, and they’d hear any pursuit long before it caught up. Nathan wanted to go, but was persuaded that, being one of only two remaining men who had any real skill with firearms, he should form part of the reserves. Once again it was left to Chris, Vin, Buck, and JD, guided by Imala, to do the work.

They took off afoot; Imala claimed to know another way around the village bowl that would bring them out only a few hundred yards from the east face of the mesa. Ezra was entrusted with their horses--a vital job, as Buck reminded him, which ordinarily occupied one man out of four in the Army. His own Gambit, with Josiah’s sorrel Milagro and Nathan’s Gideon, had been gathered up en route, along with the few horses the villagers owned, by the young men, and all were now securely located just around the bend from where the Seminoles huddled.

The cannon kept up its assault, two rounds a minute, regular as clockwork. "Wastin’ powder and shot," Nathan muttered.

"I don’t think they care any more, Brother Nate," Josiah told him. "Anderson wouldn’t be trying to resurrect the Confederacy after all this time if he still had the sense the Lord gave him. I think getting so decisively trounced yesterday has pushed him over the edge."

"He wants to make an example of us," Tastanagi agreed. "Even if there is never anyone to see it and learn by it, he feels he must wipe out his shame."

Ezra wasn’t sure how much longer it was--he’d forgotten to wind his watch in all the recent excitement--when a wailing cry sounded from the lookout who’d been sent up to the top of the bluff to watch the distant mesa. After a few moments the man came skidding back down to report what he’d seen. Leaving the horses, which seemed calm enough for the moment, the boy crept within earshot and listened to the cascade of Seminole pouring from the man’s lips. He couldn’t understand it, of course, but he could tell by the way Tastanagi’s features settled that the news wasn’t good. Another boom sounded from the mesa.

"What is it?" Josiah demanded.

"He says he could see a figure in black, and others; he wasn’t sure how many were our party and how many were Anderson’s. But they weren’t struggling, and you can hear the cannon still firing." He waited for the burly man to make the obvious connection.

"They’ve been captured."

"Yes." Tastanagi spoke to a couple of his fellow elders. "I am sending my people further back, where the Ghosts are unlikely to think it worthwhile to follow them. You had better go too; they may need you. Sooner or later Anderson will come to the village expecting to receive our surrender. I must be there to meet him."

"No!" Rain protested. "He’ll kill you!"

"I have lived a long life," the headman reminded her. "I am near the end of my days in any case. This is my duty. It is the last service I can do for the people who followed me to this distant land."

Ezra melted back to the horses without waiting for someone to catch sight of him. The sentry had said he had seen Mr. Larabee. If he was alive, maybe Buck and Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne still were as well. There might still be a way...

Quickly the boy slipped the bridle onto Gambit’s head, thanking his luck that he’d refused to leave this beloved Christmas gift behind, and hauled himself up on the pony’s bare back.


Following his memory-picture of the map Tastanagi had drawn, Ezra circled around, following the same route Imala had planned to use. He came to the steep side of the mesa and looked it up and down, knowing there was no way he could follow the men up it. But there might be another route...His head turned as the sound of hoofbeats came echoing down the subsidiary canyon from the main gate, accompanied by the jingle of sabers and tack. He couldn’t accurately estimate numbers by the sound, so he quietly worked his way up to a fold in the rock face and peered around it. Anderson trotted past on his big chestnut, followed by his flagbearer, then a steady stream of others, some showing freshly bandaged wounds. They seemed to be oblivious to the possibility that they were being observed, and were headed straight down the gate toward the village, just as Chief Tastanagi had expected. He counted silently. Twenty-six. He knew that fifteen had been killed at the village and three captured. Obviously whatever the Colonel planned to do, he was mustering every man able to ride for it. Twenty-six, fifteen, three. Forty-four. That left--how many? They’d never been fully sure; Mr. Tanner had stopped his count when he hit forty. But if Anderson was indeed breaking out all the walking wounded, that suggested he’d left only enough men with the cannon to serve it, cover him, and guard his prisoners. Better odds by far. Ezra retreated back the way he’d come, following the edge of the mesa, gazing up at it. Yes! What he had hoped for materialized before his eyes. A smaller butte, even more rugged than the mesa, and linked to it by a thin razor-edged natural bridge of red stone. The back side of it was steep and eroded, a honeycomb of arroyos and little canyons. No one would expect a horse to get up that. "But we are not a horse, are we, my good friend?" he whispered in Gambit’s small tapered ear, which flicked back to listen. "We are smaller and lighter and nimbler." He patted the cresty neck encouragingly and pointed the pony’s nose toward the nearest of the upward ways. "Mr. Dunne said your breed was created for mountain work. Let us prove him right. Go, Gambit. Go!"

Slowly at first, tentatively, the little chestnut took the slope, testing the ground, making sure of it. Ezra slackened the reins, letting him pick his way. A scramble here, a lunge there. Gambit moved more quickly as his confidence increased and the instincts awoke in his blood. Ezra pasted himself to the pony’s bare back and leaned far forward, almost lying along the bobbing neck, feeling the animal’s muscles bunch and swell and release beneath him. "Go," he whispered. "Go, my friend. We are the only chance Buck has. Go!"


In the end, as the grade became so steep as to be almost vertical, he had to slip off and grab hold of Gambit’s tail, which, having no nerves at its roots, made a powerful and painless towline. Just as the pony’s forelegs crossed the summit, he cast loose and scrambled the rest of the way up on his own. Gambit had stopped, almost instinctively, to rest once he felt level ground beneath his hooves. Ezra knelt at his head, getting his own breath, and stroked the soft muzzle that quested down toward him. "Well done," he whispered. "Oh, well done, Gambit. Now--"

He left his mount and began working his way toward the natural bridge, then quickly across it, to plunge into a thicket of mixed juniper and piñon. At some point during his trek the cannon had quit firing, and he could hear, as he worked his small body deftly through the narrow spaces between trees, the sounds of horses shifting around in their pickets and the desultory talk of men. At the edge of the thicket he paused and lowered himself to his belly, scanning the scene. Cannon almost directly ahead of him, pulled back from the edge of the mesa. To its right and about a hundred yards away, horses: four saddled, a dozen still draped with harness. To its left and nearer, the caisson, and neatly piled beside it, a number of powder kegs. A little beyond that, in the shade of an Arizona walnut, a fallen log, and sitting against it, men, one of them clearly Mr. Larabee in his black clothes. Ezra counted heads. Two, three, four, five...six? Who was the sixth? But it didn’t matter. They were all alive. Ezra’s eyes tracked to take in the enemy. Four ragged Ghosts, apparently commanded by a one-eyed man wearing sergeant’s stripes. Four saddled horses, four men. That meant there weren’t any he couldn’t see. He looked again to the horses. Rifles poked out of the boots under the stirrup leathers of the two nearest. He had hoped for that; Buck had told him once that most men who wore sideguns got into the habit of leaving their rifles on their saddles. But to get to them he would have to cross a good forty feet of open space, and if one of the Ghosts happened to look the right way...

Shifting, he felt something hard and smooth beneath his weight and groped downward, finding in his pocket the little brown bottle--it was a whiskey bottle, in point of fact, with the label peeled off and the inside filled with water--that he had used to con Mr. Dunne into bringing him along. He’d forgotten all about it. A smile curved his lips. He drew the vessel out and began edging sidewise until he was as near to the horses as he could get. Then he stood, took his aim, and hurled the bottle as hard and high as he could. It soared over the heads of the men, shot into the leaves of the walnut and smashed against a branch.

The Ghosts jumped and spun, drawing their weapons, moving forward to check on their prisoners. Ezra made his dash. Sometimes it was valuable to be able to move fast, though not gentlemanly. He threw himself the last five or six feet in a long slide, not bothering to think of the effect it was having on his clothes, then scrambled to his knees, reached up, and pulled the rifle off the nearest horse. He dropped full-length behind a couple of rocks, laid the long barrel of the rifle in the niche between them, and sighted carefully on the pile of powder kegs. The Ghosts, muttering in confusion, had apparently satisfied themselves that their prisoners were secure. "Gentlemen," Ezra called evenly, "be so kind as to drop your weapons immediately."

"What the hell--?!" demanded the one-eyed sergeant, turning in a circle.

"Sarge," gasped one of his followers, snatching at his arm. "Sergeant Darcy--look!"

"Oh, Christ," said another despairingly, "he’s got a bead on the powder!"

"Indeed I do," Ezra agreed blithely, "and I assure you I will fire if you do not comply at once."

"My God," said the third Ghost, "it sounds like a kid!"

"Age, sir, is immaterial," Ezra told him, keeping low. "It does not require a man’s strength to gently squeeze this trigger...and you are tryin’ my patience. I told you to drop your weapons."

The sergeant took a slow step forward. "You with them?" he demanded, jerking a thumb back toward the prisoners, who had come alert, heads swivelled to face in Ezra’s direction. "You blow that powder, you’ll kill them too. Likely yourself as well."

"If I do not," Ezra responded evenly, "I dare say you intend to kill them in any event. Past performance is a clear indicator of your ruthlessness. Don’t move!" he commanded, drawing the rifle’s hammer back to catch on the sear with a click that echoed like thunder across the mesa top, as the sergeant shifted his weight to take another step. "I swear to you, Sergeant, I will fire!"

The three noncoms looked at one another. They might not have begun their adult lives as soldiers, but after seventeen years they were as close to professionals as men can get, and they knew that the most dangerous enemy is a scared amateur. There was just enough of an edge in Ezra’s high boy-voice to let them know he was scared--not for himself, perhaps, but for the prisoners. Each of them had seen men blown to bits in battle and had no desire to suffer the same fate, least of all on the very threshold of victory. Hardened fanatics though they were, they had their breaking point, the place beyond which they refused to go. One of them shrugged, quietly drew his pistol, and laid it hard across the sergeant’s head. Darcy dropped like a stone. "All right, kid," his assailant said clearly, raising the gun in his hand and loosening his grip on it before tossing it in Ezra’s direction. The other two unstrapped their weapons belts and threw them after it.

"Lie face down, gentlemen," Ezra ordered them, "and clasp your hands behind your necks." He waited while they did so, then scrambled up and bolted toward the log, leaving the rifle behind. Buck came to his feet, the length of chain that tethered him to the log jingling as he moved, and held out his arms. The boy flew into them as he had at Guthrie’s cabin hideout, burying his face against the big man’s vest. "Buck...oh, Buck...did they harm you? Any of you?"

"No, son." Buck pulled him close, watching the surrendered Ghosts over his head. "No, we’re okay. Damn, Ez, I don’t know whether to slap you silly or hand you a medal! That was the craziest trick I ever saw anybody pull in my life! How’d you get up here?"

"Gambit brought me." Ezra pulled back, meeting JD’s astonished eyes. "You were quite correct regardin’ the abilities of Mountain Welsh ponies, Mr. Dunne. Thank you, most sincerely, for bringin’ them to my attention. I could not have succeeded at this foray had it been otherwise." He looked down at the shackles that bound Buck’s wrists. "We must dispose of those, must we not?" Reaching into the top of his shoe, he produced a lockpick and began deftly manipulating it in the keyhole of the padlock. Buck stared at him in astonishment, then looked past him at Chris and grinned broadly in delighted triumph. The gunfighter stood up, his lips curving in a thin answering smile.

As Buck’s bonds fell away, he pushed past his old friend and started forward to secure the prisoners. Ezra turned, to find himself confronted with a pearl-buttoned black shirt. He looked up, half defiantly, and caught the faintest hint of a gleam in the man’s pale eyes. "Good work, Ezra," Larabee said quietly.

"It was my pleasure, Mr. Larabee. Your hands, sir?"

It took only moments for the freed prisoners to find and recover their weapons, then tether their erstwhile guards in the same chains that had recently restrained them and pitch the keys into the canyon. Ezra was dubious about freeing the sixth captive, who turned out to be the officer who had ridden at Anderson’s side yesterday; he edged back against Buck’s leg and scowled at the man. "It’s okay, Ez," the gunslinger told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Reckon Corcoran here’s seen the light. He told Anderson he couldn’t execute men who’d surrendered, and Anderson busted him to private for mutiny and ordered him shot with the rest of us. As soon as their flag reaches the top of the pole they’re settin’ up in the village, he said."

Vin had his spyglass out and trained on the bowl. "Won’t be much longer now. They got it up and’re riggin’ it."

Chris looked to the Ghosts’ horses. "We can get down the way Anderson went. Imala, you take one of the caisson horses. Let’s finish this."

"You’re outnumbered three to one," Corcoran protested. "Anderson is a mad dog. You’ll all die."

"More like five to one," said Larabee, "but it didn’t stop us yesterday, did it? We know what to do with a mad dog. Shoot it."

"Take me with you," Corcoran begged. "I know him. I know him. I know his methods. I’ll kill him."

Larabee considered him, hands on hips. "All right," he agreed. "Ezra, unlock him."

Buck noticed that Ezra didn’t look to him for confirmation of the order. "Yes, sir," the boy said quietly, and knelt before the ex-Confederate officer to insert the pick into his bonds.


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