TREASURE by Sevenstars


Buck, very sensibly, refused to leave Ezra alone with the shackled Ghosts, and took the boy up with him. Imala took point once again, leading them in a quick swing through the maze of canyons, up into a ravine and around, and so back to where the hired guns’ own horses waited. Josiah and Nathan stepped into view as they pulled up, looking thunderstruck. "How’d you get back here?" the healer demanded. "We thought they’d nailed you."

"They did," Chris agreed, as Buck let Ezra down at the end of a long arm and swung down to join him. "Would’ve shot us if the boy hadn’t shown up. Where’s Tastanagi?"

"Went out to meet Anderson," Josiah reported. "What now?"

"Now," said Chris, dismounting, "we put an end to this thing. Come on."


Anderson turned his horse in a slow circle, away from the defiant chief, to face the flagpole his men had erected at the center of the village plaza, held upright by a base of mounded rocks. Darcy had his orders: when he saw the flag hit the top of the pole, he was to execute the prisoners. The Colonel shaded his eyes with a hand, searching for the sight of six men lined up for death.

They weren’t there.

"Give me that glass, soldier," Anderson demanded of the man he’d impressed as his orderly. "What the hell? Troop B!"

Attrition had brought the Ghosts’ "troops"--supposedly two to a company, forty or fifty men apiece--down to mere squad strength, though Anderson clung stubbornly to the formal designation. "Yes, sir!" responded the high private who led the one specified.

"Check out that cannon!"

Half a dozen men raced off down the canyon. Watching from the brow of the low hill the seven men had climbed, Chris smiled thinly. "Hoped he’d do that. Makes the odds a little better. All right. Let’s finish this. Josiah, cover the gate, don’t let anybody in or out. Imala, stay with him. Vin, circle to the right. The rest of you, with me!"

Anderson might have been trained as an officer, but for over ten years he had operated very much like an outlaw, and had developed the outlaw tendency to get "feelings" that something was askew. Taking a gulp from the bottle of laundanum he carried in his pocket, he swung his horse around, his eyes sweeping the surrounding hills, searching for some hint of what to expect. "All right, you men! Take the high ground. Cover the approaches. Orderly! Bugler!" He spurred toward the west side of the bowl, where the hills were highest. Tastanagi, seeing he’d been forgotten, scuttled for cover.

Several Ghosts split off from the main body and began scrambling up the east slope--only to have a buckskin-coated figure appear from behind a manzanita shrub directly in their path. Two or three tried to level their weapons. Vin’s sawed-off Winchester spat rapid death, mowing them down before they could finish the move. "Drop your guns," the hunter ordered the stunned remainder of the detachment, "or you’ll be joinin’ your friends. Much obliged," as the weapons began thudding to the sand.

A second group, racing toward the gate, ran full into a wall of rifle fire from Josiah, who had found a comfortable niche between two rocks. Sanchez didn’t give them the chance Vin had; he was old enough, had seen enough, to know that evil had to be utterly crushed or it would spring up again from its own roots. He dropped the lot of them, five men, one after another, like ducks in a rain barrel. Imala eeled out of cover to gather up their weapons, then set himself to watch for Troop B coming back. It did, drawn by the sound of shots. In the narrow throat of the canyon even an inexpert marksman could hardly miss.

Anderson had reached the top of the hill, cursing, ordering his enemies to show themselves and his men to "show them what you’re made of," attended by his orderly and bugler. The three of them kept up a steady pattern of shots, trying to ward off any attempt at assault. "He’s up there," Chris shouted. "He’s up there! Get down, get down, get down," he ordered as bullets whined by overhead, missing only because the angle was so steep that the natural tendency every shooter has to go high on a downhill target was increased. Buck, JD, Nathan and Corcoran hit the dirt. "Get Anderson," the gunfighter shouted, taking cover behind an outcrop. "No matter what, get Anderson!"

Using every bit of cover they could find, two or three laying down cover fire while the rest moved forward, they worked their way up the slope. Unfortunately shooting uphill was almost as tricky as shooting down, and the trio was backlit by the sky, which made them hard to properly draw a bead on. Nathan managed to clip the orderly’s left arm, Buck put a round through the crown of Anderson’s hat and Chris skinned his shoulder, but it didn’t seem to stop him.

Anderson’s sixgun clicked dry. "Ammo, ammo," he cried, summoning his orderly. Corcoran groaned in despair as his best shot yet only struck his former commander’s rifle barrel, shattering it and hurling the weapon from his hand. Buck rose up, squinting along the barrel of his Peacemaker, and squeezed off one bullet that took the orderly high in the chest; the man swayed, then toppled over the brow of the hill and went tumbling down the way he’d come, taking Anderson’s needed ammunition with him.

"I can’t get him," Larabee growled furiously. He fired again and saw blood blossom on the fanatic’s leg, a hand-length below the hipbone. Anderson swayed in his saddle but caught himself.

"Bastard won’t go down!" Buck snarled.

Anderson’s horse danced and reared. Unable to aim accurately, he tried to steady it, then slid out of the saddle, staggering as he hit the ground but staying upright. Nathan hurled a knife, then another, from the fan of three sheathed across his back; the first sliced a gash in the side of Anderson’s face, barely missing his eye, and the second transfixed his left shoulder, but he just looked down at it, yanked it out, and threw it aside, paying no heed to the blood that answered from the wound. "You can’t kill me!" he screamed defiantly. "I’m a ghost of the Confederacy and I will not die!"

Corcoran fired again, this time knocking the bugler’s leg out from under him. "He’s so pumped full of laudanum you could chop his head off and he wouldn’t feel it," the healer realized.

"Oh, he’ll feel this!" JD stood up, gasping, a Colt in either hand, firing with each hand by turns as he had in yesterday’s fight. The range was so close by now that he could actually see the dust puff up from Anderson’s tunic as two of the bullets hit him. Then the young man’s foot, groping for purchase, settled on a stone that rolled under it and sent him tumbling back down the slope with a wild yell of surprise.

"JD!" Nathan hollered, following. Corcoran cursed and threw his empty gun aside. Buck half stood, hesitating, not sure whether to go check on the fallen Easterner or try once more to bring Anderson down. Then the decision was taken out of his hands as a small, dirty, very straight figure in a blue denim suit clawed its way up the backside of the hill and reached into its jacket to draw a hideout gun.


"Colonel Anderson!" Ezra shouted, his voice hoarse and shrill above the clamor from below. "I’m callin’ you, sir!" He wrapped both hands around the butt of his gun, holding it at full arm’s length as a duellist would. It was a Merwin & Hulbert Fourth Model Frontier .44, a "pocket pistol," just over five inches long total, with a stubby three-and-a-quarter-inch barrel and a patented folding hammer spur; in his small hands it looked like a cannon. It took Winchester .44-40 ammunition, the same as Buck’s Peacemaker, which had made it very easy for Ezra to filch enough cartridges to fill its chambers. It had cost him nineteen dollars, almost all his Christmas money, and he’d had to con the gunsmith to get it: the man had been understandably reluctant to sell a firearm to a small boy. Ezra would really have preferred a derringer, which was easier to conceal--or at least he’d thought so when he first went looking. Then it had occurred to him that a derringer was what Mother carried, and that part of his life, as Buck kept insisting, was finished. No, better to have a weapon that was more like the one his guardian used so skilfully.

Anderson, swaying, lurched around in a circle to face him. It was the first time he had ever seen the boy, and for a moment the encounter actually threw him off stride. Down below, Buck cursed despairingly and started a lunge, but was yanked back by Chris’s hand on his collar. "No! Buck, if you get too near he might shoot the kid!"

The two old friends watched, petrified with amazement and fear, as Ezra stood out from under the piñon tree that had covered his approach, his legs well spread apart for balance. Anderson blinked at him in bewilderment. Drunk as he was on painkiller and blood-lust, he recognized the boy’s accent--and there was still enough of an officer and a gentleman in him that he hesitated to shoot a child.

"What quarrel do we have, young man?" he asked, his tone even, almost sane.

Ezra’s face was white, streaked with dirt and dried tears--not of sorrow so much as of rage. "You murdered my mother," he cried, "and you would have had Buck killed too. Mother may have had her faults, but she was mine, and I claim the right to rid the world of you, you insult to the good name of the South!"

Anderson’s pistol was empty. As Ezra cocked back the hammer of his own (it took the strength of both small thumbs to do it), the man threw it aside, drew his saber, and slashed at the boy--not with the edge but with the flat: for all his faults, he wasn’t a baby-killer.

Ezra reflexively threw his left arm up to shield his face, or tried to. The saber hit the uptilted barrel of his gun, his thumbs slipped off the hammer, his finger contracted, and the gun went off, the bullet shrieking harmlessly into the air. The saber’s swing forced the weapon, and both Ezra’s hands, back over his left shoulder, overbalancing him, and he tumbled backward into the ravine he’d just climbed up from.

Buck let out one bellow of fury, pulled himself free of Chris, and lunged the last dozen feet or so up the slope. Anderson heard him coming and spun, bringing his blade around. All that saved Buck’s life was the fact that the man didn’t have the arm-room to draw it back and thrust with the point. Even so, the edge-swing slashed a nasty gash across his chest. He dropped to his knees, stunned and staring, and then the pain hit and he keeled over sideways. Anderson swirled the weapon around for a killing downward blow--

and Chris Larabee stepped up over the brow of the hill, grim and dark-faced as a thundercloud in his pearl-buttoned black clothes, and shot him three times in the chest at point-blank range.

Suddenly, as if that act had turned a petcock somewhere, silence fell over the bowl. Anderson crumpled, staring up at his killer, blood seeping from his mouth. He fell to his back, his knees up, one arm flung out, hand still gripping the saber. He gasped once, twice, and seemed to try to speak, but nothing came out except more blood. Then he seemed to settle back against the dirt, his gaze settling into a fixed stare, and was still.

Corcoran labored up the slope and stood gazing down at him with an expression almost of sadness. Chris turned, his Colt still held at waist level, and raked the upturned faces of the surviving Ghosts with his pale hazel-green eyes. "The war is over!" he shouted. "Go back to your families."

"He’s dead," Corcoran added evenly, for those who might not comprehend. "It’s finished now."


Nathan came panting up the slope, followed by a skinned and bruised but still ambulatory JD, as Chris knelt beside his fallen friend, trying to make up his mind what to do about the bleeding. Buck’s eyelids fluttered, then parted, and he managed a weak imitation of his usual broad grin. "Hey, pard. We got him."

"We did it," Larabee agreed. And I might not have been able to finish him if you hadn’t distracted him, and you wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t hit at Ezra.

"Mm...hmm," mumbled Buck, wincing, then hitching a short gasp of pain.

"Buck..." JD flung himself to his knees beside the wounded man, the unsteadiness of his voice telling everyone within earshot that he was trying not to cry.

"Hey, kid..." Buck tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace. "Do me a favor. Get yourself a real hat." He managed to lift his head enough to slip his own off over it, handed it to the stunned kid and groaned. "Tell Ezra...tell him..."

"You’ll tell him yourself," said Nathan. "Captain Corcoran, get me some help with him!"

Chris pushed to his feet, giving the healer room to do what he did best, and moved to the edge of the ravine, almost afraid to look down. At the bottom, a small blue figure lay sprawled face-up, and at first Larabee was sure the boy was dead. Then he saw an arm move. He blinked and looked again. A flexed knee straightened, and the disheveled chestnut head rolled from side to side. "NATHAN!!" he bellowed. "Nathan, get over here!" He dropped over the lip of the cut, skidding recklessly down to where the child lay.

The healer followed him seconds later in a plume of dust and a small river of loose pebbles. Chris was holding Ezra down with a hand against his chest, running the other lightly over his limbs. "How’s your head, son? Can you move your feet for me?"

"I’m...quite...all right, Mr....Larabee," the boy tried to assure him, in a dust-roughened voice. Then he gasped as Chris’s hand slid over his left shoulder.

"Let me see," Nathan demanded. The gunfighter drew back, watching, as the tall Negro’s fingers danced light as thistledown over the disputed joint. "Feels like you dislocated it, Ezra. I’m gonna have to pop it back in."

"Here, Ezra," Chris offered before the boy could object, "put your good hand in mine and squeeze--just as hard as Nathan hurts you, all right?"

The green eyes rolled briefly toward him, but the boy’s fingers wrapped around his, then tightened as Nathan pulled sharply on the injured arm. Ezra made a sound that was half gasp, half groan, then lay back, panting. "There," Nathan soothed him, "that’s all of it. I’ll wanta put a sling on it so’s you don’t stretch them muscles and tendons for a few days. Chris, can you get him back up that slope and over to whatever’s left of my hospital?"

"Go ahead. We’ll be right behind you," Chris promised. The healer scrambled back the way he’d come and Chris freed his hand from Ezra’s--the boy’s grip, he reflected, was amazingly strong, given his age and pampered appearance--and carefully slid an arm under his knees and another behind his neck. "Let’s go, Ezra."

"Buck?" the boy inquired. "Is Buck all right?"

"Anderson cut him with his saber, but Nathan didn’t sound like he was too worried about it," Larabee told him--any kid with the guts to stand up to a man half again his height and four times his weight deserved the courtesy of truth. "You’ll see him at Nathan’s hospital."

"Colonel Anderson?"

"Dead. He won’t hurt anyone again, ever."

Ezra sighed and his eyelids drifted shut. "That’s enough..." he murmured, and lay still in the gunfighter’s arms.


Eban was dead; he was the last of the Seminoles’ casualties. Within an hour or two the surviving Ghosts had slowly begun to make their way off down the canyon, demoralized by the loss of their leader, and the villagers had started to filter back, to try to recover their possessions from the shattered adobes and begin to make plans to rebuild. Tastanagi sent men to Big Bone Mesa to recover Ezra’s pony and the cannon teams, and bring Sergeant Darcy and his crew in to see Anderson’s body before it was dragged off to be disposed of.

Nightfall found the villagers scratching meals together over open fires, preparing to spend at least the next few nights under lean-to shelters of poles, brush, and canvas. Chris Larabee strolled slowly through the ruins, thinking how fortunate it was that the spring weather was just beginning. It would be a couple of months yet before the searing desert summer descended, and by then the new houses would be built and the bricks beginning to set. At this season sleeping, and in fact mostly living, outside wasn’t a hardship.

He climbed the shallow slope to Nathan’s field hospital, which had somehow come through with only one wall destroyed. One of the young Seminole nurses flashed a shy smile at him and quietly slipped away to give him privacy. Josiah, forced back into bed by Nathan, was dozing lightly, though the gunfighter caught the gleam of his eyes as he opened them far enough to make certain of who was there. Over in the corner, beneath a blanket stretched across as an awning, Buck and Ezra lay side by side on a double-width pallet. The man was soundly asleep, dosed with laudanum from Anderson’s bottle, his breathing deep and even. Ezra, his lame arm trussed up in a sling, was snuggled close beside him, his thin back pressed against Buck’s side. Chris looked around, pulled up a small hide-covered stool, and settled his weight slowly onto it, watching the pair, thinking how well they seemed to fit together, thinking of how Sarah had said, more than once, that Buck ought to find himself a woman to settle down with, that he’d make a fine daddy. He may not have found the woman, the gunfighter thought to his dead love, but about the daddy were right, Sarah. You usually were. He smothered a sigh of regret for everything he had lost--not only his family, but this friend who had stood at his side for a dozen years, almost a third of his life. Is it too late to do like Vin said, to make it right with you? I never knew you to hold a grudge, but maybe nobody ever hurt you the way I did. I should have thought--you loved them too. I never gave you a chance to do your own mourning. Maybe in the end that was one reason you took off, because you knew you had to have some time to deal with the loss--and God knows I wasn’t givin’ you much opportunity for it.

He became aware that Ezra’s eyes were open, bright and alert in the darkness. "Mr. Larabee?"

"Yeah," the man agreed. "You can go on back to sleep, Ezra. I just came by to see how you were both doin’."

Ezra pushed up slowly onto his good arm, reached into his sling, and drew from it the Merwin & Hulbert Chris had picked up from the floor of the arroyo before carrying him here. He braced his elbow on the mat of juniper branches that provided a mattress beneath the pallet and curled his thumb over the hammer. Chris watched in astonishment, noting the inscrutability of the boy’s face. "I will not permit you to harm Buck, Mr. Larabee."

For a moment Larabee was stunned speechless. He wondered if this was something Ezra had absorbed from Buck, or whether the child had always had it in him to display such protectiveness and such fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty. Whichever it is, the two of ’em are a lot more alike than I ever thought they were. "What makes you think I mean to harm him?" he demanded when he could get his voice working. "He said he told you about me. Didn’t you know we were partners once? As close as brothers?"

"That means nothin’, sir," Ezra retorted coldly. "I seem to recall a tale in Holy Writ that concerns two brothers, one of whom murdered the other. And partners...reluctant as I am to admit it, my own mother has not always kept faith with hers; how am I to believe that even a longer-standin’ such relationship cannot be violently abrogated should one participant think himself sufficiently injured? Buck knows he is to blame for the death of your wife and child, Mr. Larabee. He has always known. And while he may be far too goodhearted to believe that you would betray him, I am not so sanguine. Do you think it has not occurred to me that you might be unable to resist temptation now that he is once more at hand, and avenge your loss?"

Chris stared at him in open astonishment. "Why is he to blame?"

The boy snorted delicately. "He persuaded you to remain a night in Mexico. Had he not, you would have returned home in time."

Is that what he meant when he said there was a debt unpaid between us? Chris wondered. I thought...hell, I’m not sure what I thought. That he figured he’d left me in the lurch before he should have, that I wasn’t ready to make it on my own, maybe. "And this is a problem why?" he inquired evenly, being very careful not to move his hands off his knees.

"Buck told me once that everything has a consequence," Ezra began. "At the time I believed I had placed his life in peril, because a man had taken me as a hostage so he could have the opportunity to avenge his son, whom Buck had slain. Buck said it was no fault of mine, that it was he who should be blamed, because his act had aroused the ire and hatred of my captor. I told him he must not think such a thing; he had acted to defend a lady. And he said that was true. If the man he killed had thought before he acted, if he had kept his hands where they belonged, none of it would ever have occurred. What he was tryin’ to explain to me is that no one can always know what will follow upon the choices they make. Buck could have had no forewarning of the dreadful accident that took your family, Mr. Larabee. He would never have done anything he believed would endanger them. He loved them."

He didn’t tell the boy it wasn’t an accident, Chris realized. And yet...if he could say that to Ezra and mean it, how come he can’t see that losin’ Sarah and Adam had nothin’ to do with him? Is he that mired in his own grief after all this time? "I know he loved them, Ezra," he replied gently. "My wife was the sister he never had. My little boy was like a nephew to him. But even supposin’ for the sake of argument that I believed it was right to blame their deaths on him...think about this. Everything has a consequence, you said. If they hadn’t died, if Buck had stayed on my ranch with me, would he ever have met you? Would you be with him now? I figure the odds are against it."

The chestnut head tilted, and Chris wondered again if that gesture came naturally to him or was copied from Buck’s habitual mannerism. "What are you sayin’, sir?"

"I don’t know, exactly," the gunfighter admitted slowly. "Maybe least for him and for all worked out for the best. Maybe that it was meant to be this way." He thought of the confidences Vin had offered above the canyon two nights ago, about that thrilling instant when their eyes had met across the main street of Four Corners, and found himself thinking, If Sarah and Adam had lived, odds are I’d never have crossed paths with him, either.

The boy gazed at him steadily, estimating the truth of the words by criteria only he knew. "You said, ‘for the sake of argument.’ You truly don’t hold Buck to blame, then?"

"No, Ezra. I don’t. Maybe once, but no more."

A long moment’s hush, and then Ezra said softly, "I believe you, sir," and removed his thumb from the hammer before tucking the little pistol under the feather pillow that lay at his head.

"Thank you, Ezra," Larabee said quietly, meaning it. Then: "Where did you get that gun? Did Buck give it to you?"

"No, I purchased it for myself, after the incident I told you of. I was resolved that I must have a means of self-protection, that no one should have the opportunity to employ me as a pawn against Buck ever again."

"He’s lucky to have you, then," Chris told him. "And we’re all lucky you were around, or Anderson would have won. And for that, in all our names, I thank you again."

The boy blinked. "It was nothin’ more than what a gentleman’s honor demanded," he said, and lifted his good hand to cover a delicate kitten-yawn.

"Why don’t you go back to sleep?" Chris suggested. "You had a long hard day, and that arm is probably sore."

The green eyes studied him a moment longer, and then Ezra nodded. "Yes," he said, "I believe we are safe now, with you to keep watch. I don’t believe you will permit any injury to befall us." He lay down again, wriggling a bit to get himself comfortably settled against Buck’s lanky form, and let his lids slide shut. In seconds he was breathing in the slow, even rhythm of deep sleep.

I wasn’t able to prevent injury befalling my family, Chris thought, so why do you have that much faith in me, most of all after the kind of life Buck thinks you’ve lived?

But Vin was right. I have to settle this. And I’m damned if I’m letting you go anywhere before I do, Buck.

He shifted the stool so he could put his back against the half-crumbled wall, removed his Colt from its holster and laid it across his knee, pulled his duster more closely around him against the chill of deepening night, and settled down to keep watch over his wounded.


Buck woke, his brain still heavy and muddled with the aftereffects of the laudanum, to find himself alone on the pallet. He rolled his head, looking around. "He went to see to his pony," said a quiet voice near his feet, and Buck levered himself up on one elbow to find Chris watching him from a small stool.

"Oh," he said, "that’s okay, then. God, he loves that critter."

"No more than he loves you," Chris told him. "You’re a lucky man, Buck. Not many of us get to enjoy that kind of thing twice in a lifetime."

"Reckon I know that," Buck agreed.

"You said some things to me, the day we first rode out here," the gunfighter continued, "that I should have looked into deeper than I did. I don’t really know why I didn’t take the trouble. You deserved that courtesy."

Buck shrugged and winced. "It don’t matter."

"That’s not true. It matters a lot--to you and to me." Larabee leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped before him, in a gesture that implied deep trust, since it was almost impossible to draw from. "Ezra told me last night about something you taught him, about how everything has a consequence. I wonder why you don’t seem to see that the things you told him aren’t just true, they absolve you of all blame for what happened."

Buck blinked. "What are you sayin’?"

"That you don’t have to keep beatin’ yourself up about that trip to Mexico," said Chris. "We’re not joined at the hip, Buck. Even if you wanted to stop in Juarez and celebrate, I chose to stay with you. I didn’t have to do that. I could’ve gone on and you’d have caught up eventually. And besides," he added, "it wasn’t you who set the fire. It was Fowler and his bunch. Like you told Ezra, if they’d kept their hands where they belonged, none of it would’ve happened." He stood slowly, then walked the last couple of steps to settle in a range crouch beside the pallet. "I don’t blame you, Buck, and I don’t hate you. I never could. I treated you pretty shabbily, and I had no right to. I want to ask you to forgive me." He held out his hand.

Buck stared at it a moment, then broke into a grin, seized and wrung it, and threw his other arm around the black-clad shoulders, pulling the surprised gunfighter into an awkward hug. "Pard, you just heaved about a ton of weight off my back. Forgive you? Hell, of course I forgive you."

Embarrassed at the open show of affection, Chris struggled free. "Easy, big dog, folks’ll talk."

"Let ’em," Buck laughed recklessly. "Where’s my horse? And where’s my boy? I want to go home."

Chris smiled faintly. "I’ll find someone to help Ezra get saddled."


"Where you headed?" Chris asked, as Tanner finished tightening the cinch on his fractious black.

The hunter looked around. "Tascosa."

"Tascosa? Why?"

Vin shrugged. "Never know how much time there’ll be to set things right."

Larabee nodded. "They got a saloon there?"

"I reckon." The vivid eyes asked him why it mattered.

"Thinkin’ I might ride that way myself," Chris told him. "Never been to the Panhandle before. Maybe some company would make the trip easier."

"And whatever’s at the end of it?"

"That too." Chris nodded sidewise toward the young Seminole boy who had just led Plata and Gambit up to the field hospital. After giving Ezra a leg up into his saddle, he settled into a comfortable heel-squat at the horses’ heads, then looked around as JD came up and stopped, looking at the boy and the tall gray. "Just need to stop off at Four Corners and get them two delivered first." He looked around, meeting the younger man’s gaze. "Like you said, never know
how much time there’ll be to set things right. At least I don’t have that unfinished business still hangin’ on."

Vin smiled crookedly. "Good."

JD stood uncertainly at Gambit’s head, shifting from foot to foot, hands playing with the broad brim of Buck’s hat. What could he say to this child who had saved them all, who had lost the man who claimed to be like a father to him?

"Hey, kid," came a cheerful voice from behind him, "if you’re not gonna wear that hat, then I’ll take it back."

JD spun, his face lighting up at the sight of Wilmington being helped down the slope by Nathan. "Buck! But..." his face fell, "you look awful."

"Well, son, it’s damn near impossible," the big man retorted. He put his foot cautiously in the stirrup, grabbed hold of the horn, and winced and let out a small groan as the action of heaving himself astride pulled on the wound across his chest. "You ridin’ with us?" he added, grinning, as he settled his weight into the hull.

"Try and keep me away!" JD exclaimed, and pelted off to get his horse with a whoop of delight.

Buck chuckled and winced again. "Don’t make me laugh, kid."

"Are you comin’ back to town with us, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra inquired, leaning across Plata’s withers to address the healer.

Nathan hesitated a moment as Rain came up beside him and slid under his arm, then reached up to playfully snatch the hat off his head and settle it on her own. "I figure I’ll stick around for a while, help these folks get things right."

Vin brought his tall black alongside, his eyes twinkling as he saw how Peso reached his nose down to nuzzle the pony’s. Damn if that mule hadn’t plumb hit it off with Ezra’s little feller. "Hey, pard," he said, his heart warming at the delighted look in the green gaze that swung up to meet his, "ain’t sure I ever told you thanks for yesterday."

"It’s not necessary, Mr. Tanner. It was a gentleman’s obligation, as I told Mr. Larabee."

The gunfighter himself joined them, leading his horse, then swung up onto its back. Nathan came over to shake hands with him and Vin, not noticing the second Seminole boy who came up behind him leading Josiah’s big sorrel, or the careful descent of its rider from the hospital. Only when he heard the creak of leather and the man’s hiss of pain did the healer turn, shock washing over his face, to be as quickly replaced by anger. "Where you going?" he demanded. "Get down off that horse. You lost too much blood. You’ll die out there."

"If that’s what’s meant to be," Josiah answered with a shrug.

"The damn birds will get you soon enough," Nathan argued. "You don’t have to go chasing after them."

Sanchez shook his head. "You’re a good man, Nathan."

Jackson opened his mouth and shut it again, then turned to face Rain with a bewildered look that asked, What am I supposed to do? I can’t let him do this to himself.

"Go," the girl urged. "I’ll wait for you." She spoke rapidly to the boy, who went racing off to fetch Nathan’s horse.

"Seven," said Ezra thoughtfully. "If I were superstitious, which no gentleman is, I would say we are an auspicious number."

Buck laughed, reaching out to knock JD’s bowler askew as the youth galloped up to join them. "Pity it ain’t gonna last," he said. "But let’s go home, son."


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