Seeing the Elephant

by J. Brooks

A farmer, so the story goes, hearing that a circus was in town, loaded his wagon with vegetables for the market there. He had never seen an elephant and very much wished to. On the way to town he encountered the circus parade, led by an elephant. The farmer was thrilled. His horses, however, were terrified. Bolting, they overturned the wagon and ruined the vegetables. "I don't give a hang," the farmer said. "For I have seen the elephant."

-- Early 19th Century American fable

The smooth shuffle of pasteboard cards from one hand to the other faltered as the horses picked up the pace, jolting Ezra Standish out of his bored reverie.

Sighing, he pocketed the playing cards and reined Chaucer back to a slower, smoother gait. With exaggerated patience, he crossed his arms over the saddle horn and waited for the horseman ahead of him to notice that he was trotting on alone.

The minutes ticked by as his horse ambled forward and his traveling companion receded to a distant speck. Ezra pulled out the deck again and ran through a few of his more elaborate shuffles.

The speck paused.

"Ez?" Vin Tanner's plaintive call floated back to him on the breeze. "Aw, c'mon, Ezra!"

The cards riffled from left hand to right, right to left. Chaucer continued his easy jog, gradually closing the distance.

The speck wheeled around and loped back to rejoin them.

"Ridge City isn't going anywhere, Mr. Tanner," Ezra drawled as the exasperated tracker reached his side. "It shall remain, fixed firmly in place, whether we run ourselves and our mounts into the ground tying to reach it, or not."

Vin shot a skeptical look at the two energetic animals. As if sensing the scrutiny, Chaucer craned his neck forward to snag a mouthful of sagebrush, bending the shrub branch until it whipped free and smacked Peso on the hindquarters. The black horse gave an outraged snort, torn between snapping at the chestnut gelding and snapping up a few mouthfuls of greenery himself.

"Don't look too run-down to me," Vin said, giving Ezra a level stare.

"I have already agreed to this outrageous detour from our route. I see no need to further compound my aggravation by galloping full-tilt through the heat of the day." Ezra returned his attention to the cards, satisfied that he had argued the point beyond all contradiction.

He glanced over at Vin, who was still watching him expectantly. The shuffle faltered again.

"Oh, for pity's sake." Ezra abandoned the effort, packed the cards away and kicked Chaucer into a canter, making for Ridge City at speed.

With a delighted whoop, Vin followed.

+ + + + + + +

They were still a good two hours from town when Vin spotted the riders coming in from the east, following the ridgeline above the railroad tracks that cut through the arid landscape. Without discussion or even conscious thought, the two lawmen altered their course to intercept.

Vin straightened suddenly, pulled off his hat and began waving. Ezra squinted at the indistinguishable blurs in the distance, then shot a puzzled glance at the tracker. He knew the man had eyes like an eagle, but this was ridiculous.

"Josiah!" Vin bellowed, waving harder. "BUCK!"

Ezra cocked his head at the blurs. He couldn't see the resemblance. Nor was there any sign that the other horsemen had heard or recognized them.

Finally, they heard a distant whoop and the westbound pair veered away from the tracks and galloped their way.

"Brothers!" Josiah Sanchez pulled to a halt, beaming at them through the dust and sweat that caked his face and clothing. He straightened in the saddle, stretching his spine with an aggravated groan. "You're the last people we expected to find out here."

"Yeah, ain't you boys supposed to be way the heck up in Ortonville?" Buck Wilmington wheezed, taking a gulp from his canteen to clear the trail dust.

"Our return trip took a slight detour," Ezra said sourly, studying the two weary men before him. "Did you not receive our telegram?"

Buck grimaced. "Ain't received much of anything lately, 'cept orders to circle 'round this damn stretch of track like a couple of buzzards." He ran a hand through his hair, leaving finger streaks of yellow dust.

With a click of his tongue, Josiah urged his horse back up the trail to the top of the ridge.

The others followed as he continued the explanation. "You recall that train heist last year? Ridge City sheriff wired us four days ago. Said there were signs the gang was back and ready for another big robbery."

Ezra's eyebrows shot up. That particular incident had cost the army a $60,000 gold shipment. It was hard to believe the robbers could have run through that amount of money in the space of a year. Why, sixty-thousand dollars, multiplied at the gaming table and invested judiciously, could last him at least...

Noting the glazed, far-off cast to Ezra's eyes, Josiah hurried on. "There's another gold shipment coming through this week. Sheriff needed extra men to patrol the tracks."

"And the Judge volunteered us," Buck cut in. "Chris and Nathan're patrolling the line on the other side of Ridge City. JD's keeping an eye on things back home."

"Why didn't anybody call us back?" Vin asked, frowning.

"Couldn't call you back in the middle of the trial," Josiah said. "Without your testimony, Vin, the Lopez brothers might've walked."

"Did they?" Buck asked, remembering the three bank robbing brothers, as ruthless as they were brainless.

"Oh, they walked all right," Vin said blandly. "Walked right up the steps to the gallows."

Josiah winced and went for a change of subject. "So what brings you out this way, brothers?"

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I believe I'll leave the explanation to Mr. Tanner."

Vin grinned, twisting to root through his saddlebag. He tugged out a crumpled broadsheet poster, stiff with dried glue and paint from the wall he'd peeled it from. He smoothed it against his chest, then passed it wordlessly to Josiah.

The preacher studied the gaudy flier with raised eyebrows.

Buck craned his neck for a glimpse and almost choked. "You gotta be kiddin' me."

"What?" Vin tugged the poster back possessively and folded it into his pack. "Ain't never been to one before. Reckon it'd be a sight to see."

"A circus?" Buck hooted.

"The circus, if its billing is to be believed," Ezra cut in smoothly, before his brain could kick in and realize that it was about to defend this insane outing. "A spectacle for the ages. A movable feast of exotic sights and delights. An extravaganza unparalleled in the history of--"

"Awright! We get it," Buck threw up his hands. "You're takin' Junior to the circus. That's real sweet, Ezra."

Two sets of eyes narrowed lethally.

Josiah's voice interrupted before things could take a turn for the ugly. The preacher had pulled up short at the edge of a sandstone bluff

that overlooked a hidden section of track.

"Looks like you might be seeing that spectacle a bit sooner than you planned, Vin," he said.

+ + + + + + +

The train stopped on the tracks below was a gaudy creation. The bright scarlet locomotive pulled a dozen passenger and baggage cars, splashed with signs proclaiming the presence of the Greatest Show This Side of the Pecos. Gilded trim glittered painfully bright under the harsh afternoon sun and a few discontented roars and bellows sounded from the converted livestock cars.

But that wasn't what caught the eye.

Someone had blasted a ten-foot crater in the middle of the railroad tracks. The iron rails reared up in fantastic twists and spirals, their sheared edges gleaming silver against the charred rail ties. The train engine's front grille had come to rest just yards from the hole. Passengers in a bizarre array of costumes and body types had spilled out of their cars to survey the damage.

But that wasn't what caught the eye.

What caught the eye were the dozen drab figures on horseback who ringed the train, weapons drawn.

The four peacekeepers took in the scene, exchanged nods and swung into action.

Vin slipped out of the saddle and threw himself flat on the ground at the edge of the ridge, lining up the first train robber in his rifle sights. Josiah headed toward switchback trail that wound from the cliff top to the rail bed below, expecting the other two to follow.

Ezra looked at the exposed trail, then at the bandits waiting below. With a soft indrawn hiss of air between his clenched teeth, he aimed Chaucer straight toward the drop-off and plunged over.

The nimble beast skittered downslope, its hindquarters brushing the steep rock face as it fought to keep its feet, dislodging a small avalanche of debris and nearly dislodging its rider. Ezra held on grimly with one hand and drew his Remington with the other, trying to take aim on the startled bandits below.

Buck smothered a yelp of protest. That wasn't the plan, damnit! Riding headlong over the side of the cliff? Nosiree, not what he had in mind when he exchanged nods. He tried to spur his gray to follow Ezra, but the sensible horse gave one incredulous snort and dug in its hooves, refusing to budge. With a disgusted groan, Wilmington yanked the reins to the left and pelted after Josiah, who was already picking his way down the slower trail to the bottom.

The harsh bark of Vin's rifle was joined by the sharp reports of Ezra's pistol as he and his loco horse reached level ground. Buck swore, ducking bullets as the robbers began returning fire.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra threw himself out of the saddle as Chaucer skidded to the bottom of the slope. He hit the earth with numbing force, driving the breath from his lungs and the Remington from his hands. Bullets bit into the ground around him.

He rolled toward the shelter of nearby boulders, fishing for the pistol in his shoulder holster. Risking a glance around, he spotted two bandits already down, presumably through Vin's efforts.

In quick succession, Ezra picked off two more and watched the ruffians fall back as Buck and Josiah joined the battle.

Caught between the unexpected ground assault and Vin's covering fire from above, the robbers broke ranks and fled, firing wildly over their shoulders, chased by the sound of muffled jeers from the circus train.

As the last of the bandits beat a retreat, Ezra rose from cover, wincing at the sting of the scrapes and cuts he'd picked up in his tumble across the rocks. After a quick glance around and up confirmed that the other three were on their feet and making their way toward his position, he plopped down on a boulder and turned his attention to flicking gravel out of his abraded palms.

The approaching footsteps didn't sound happy, grinding through the scree of loose rocks he and Chaucer had dislodged. Ezra kept his attention on his abused hands, listening to the sound of a scuffle just out of arm's reach.

"Out of my way, Buck." Josiah's voice sounded eerily calm. "I'm going to kill him."

"Can't let you do that, pard," Buck said. "'Cause I'm the one's gonna kill him

A small shower of pebbles announced Vin's arrival -- on foot -- at the bottom of the slope.

"Allow me," he said, and cuffed Ezra across the back of the head.

The gambler spluttered and swatted Tanner away, shooting an annoyed glance at the others.

He paused, staring at Josiah. The preacher followed the gaze to the rivulets of blood trickling past his coat sleeve and down his fingers.

+ + + + + + +

What had Ezra called the circus? A spectacle?

Vin sidestepped a troupe of midgets, a little girl leading a bored-looking bear on a leash and a harried woman staggering under a mound of sequined costumes. He tipped his hat and continued on his way down the length of the circus train, pushing a limping, handcuffed train robber ahead of him.

Around them was them was the controlled chaos of a circus in full crisis mode. Vin watched the action out of the corner of his eye, never relaxing his grip on the prisoner or his Winchester. He had a job to do. He had more important things on his mind. But this was the circus -- and even now, behind the scenes and in the harsh light of day, it was every bit as wonderful as Ezra said it would be.

Performers darted back and forth, unloading the train and loading gaudy parade wagons that didn't look nearly sturdy enough to carry them the long miles to Ridge City. He'd raised the point to a few of the circus folk and gotten only blank stares in response. The show, they insisted, must go on.

Anyone who wasn't packing was rehearsing. Vin gaped at a young woman who lay chin-down on the ground, bending her spine up, up and over, until she was sitting on her own head. Behind her, a burly older man inspected a burning poker carefully, then raised it high, opened wide, and swallowed it whole. Musicians were tuning their instruments while the little girl danced with her captive bear.

A low snarl caught his attention and he slowed, unable to help himself, beside a livestock car painted with pictures of giant yellow cats that looked nothing like cougars. He peered through the boxcar slats, breathing in the scents of sawdust and predator scat.

Something stirred in the darkness, pacing. Vin shook himself and pulled away, back to work. The sooner he stowed the bad guy, the sooner he could check on his friends.

"M'leg hurts," the bandit whined, crooking his knee to display his bandaged calf.

Good. Vin gave the man a shove toward the caboose, where two other surviving outlaws sat bound and cringing while one of their guards juggled four knives and a meat cleaver over their heads.

"Got another one for..." Vin's voice trailed off as something vast and gray and...spectacular ambled around the back of the train to meet him.

The outlaws stirred, murmuring to each other.

Vin's mouth worked, but no sounds came out. Ezra had told him all about the circus -- dancing bears, clowns in in white greasepaint, daredevil acrobats who flew through the air. And elephants. Ezra told him about elephants too, or tried to. But for once, words had failed Standish. No matter how many ways he tried to describe "big and gray with a long nose," Vin couldn't picture it.

"Bigger'n a horse?" he'd asked.

"Larger by far," Ezra assured him, producing a sheet of paper and sketching busily. Vin cocked his head and studied the drawing. It didn't look like any critter he'd ever seen or heard tell of before. It looked like six different animals squashed into one.

"Bigger'n a buffalo?" he pressed, trying to picture it. "And it can pick things up with its nose?"

Ezra was nothing if not stubborn. He tried humongous, stupendous, mountainous, ponderous, prodigious colossal and hulking. He tried whopping, walloping, jumbo and huge. Finally, he threw up his hands and started packing his bags. "Perhaps, Mr. Tanner," he said. "The elephant is one of those things in life you simply have to see for yourself."

Now Vin could only stand and stare at the beast not even Ezra could describe.

+ + + + + + +


Ezra gritted his teeth as the booming voice broke his concentration on the bloody wound under his hands. Tuning out the interruption, he probed gingerly at Josiah's shoulder with the knife, feeling for the bullet, cursing himself for his lapse.

Josiah, lying face-down on a pile of soft blankets in the shadow of the train, kept his eyes closed and wished devoutly that he'd taken a few more swallows when the numbing alcohol had been offered to him before surgery.

Only Buck, holding Josiah's arms to keep him still during the procedure, looked up; grateful for the distraction.

A round little showman in a top hat hovered nearby, wringing his hands. The circus's ringmaster had fallen over himself in an effort to thank the lawmen for their help. But he had an unnerving habit of delivering every remark in the same tones and at the same volume he used to direct the audience's attention to the center ring.

"Think we got everything under control here, thanks," Buck said, ignoring the sarcastic snort from Josiah. The showman nodded distractedly and moved off to bellow flamboyant directions at the workers and performers who were milling around, unloading the train.

There was a clink of metal and a relieved sigh from Ezra as he dropped a bloodied bullet onto the tin plate beside him. Moving quickly, he pressed an alcohol-soaked pad against the bleeding wound and, reluctantly, picked up the threaded needle.

Hoping to distract both the patient and himself, Buck launched into a long, convoluted story that revolved around himself, twins, and a haystack. By the time he got to the good part, Ezra was tying off the last stitch and wrapping lengths of bandages around the wound. Buck eased off Josiah and reached for more blankets as the injured man began to shiver.

"Did a fine job there, Ezra," Buck said. The gambler rocked back on his heels, caught up a nearby bottle and took a long gulp. He looked as shaky as his patient. Buck doubted he looked much better himself. These situations were a lot easier to take if you had Nathan somewhere nearby.

"Yessiree, Josiah," Buck turned his attention to the downed man, giving Standish space to pull himself together. "Ol' Ez did a bee-yoo-tiful job. Darned your shoulder up like a sock. Think he mighta even embroidered a few posies back there just to dress up your hairy ol' back."

Josiah mumbled something into his pillow.

"Vin? He's off rounding up a few strays. Soon as he gets back, reckon we ought to try to figure out what...the...HELL?" Buck's voice rose to an incredulous squeak as he caught sight of Vin, grinning down at him from the shoulders of a...of a...

"Elephant," Vin supplied, crooking a elbow comfortably on top of a head the size of Ezra's favorite poker table. The beast flapped its bedsheet ears and ambled closer, snuffling curiously at Buck's shirtfront with its long, mobile trunk. Buck held his breath as the glistening snout toyed with his shirt collar, its nostrils nimble as fingers. Yeech.

Someone unseen barked a command and the snout withdrew. Buck scrubbed elephant snot off his neck and watched in awe as the monster knelt so Vin could dismount. Tanner slid down, gave his ride an affectionate pat, then hurried off to check on Josiah. The elephant trumpeted, stretching its trunk longingly after the tracker.

+ + + + + + +

Vin crouched beside Josiah, relieved to see the preacher awake and attempting to finagle the whiskey bottle away from Ezra.

He looked up to find Ezra watching him expectantly, a sly smile lighting his pale face.

"You were right," Vin conceded. "They're big."

"Quite large," Ezra said smugly.

"Humongous," Vin countered.


"Brothers." Josiah didn't quite whine. He was in no mood for post-operative word games. Not while Ezra was hogging all the whiskey.

Ezra patted Josiah's good shoulder, pressed the bottle into his hand and backed away to let the injured man rest. Vin followed.

The silence stretched for three steps.

"Behemothic," Ezra hissed.

"Jumbo," Vin hissed back.

Josiah sighed and uncorked the bottle with his teeth.

+ + + + + + +

"My friends!" A loud voice interrupted the debate as a huge, meaty arm threw itself around Ezra's shoulders, crushing him into a hug. "How can we repay you?"

Through the black spots dancing before his eyes, Ezra goggled up at his assailant, a huge man in bright silks, flanked by six even bigger men in brighter silks.

"The Istvanos brothers are in your debt. Come! We move elephant out of your way!" The speaker hoisted Ezra up, planted two whiskery kisses on his cheeks and dropped him back to earth. The gambler stumbled backward, spluttering.

Buck and Vin hooted -- until the brothers turned toward them. The lawmen backed away as the seven mountains of muscle bore down on them, puckering up.

"Now boys, what did I tell you about the kissing?" The low, pleasant voice froze the brothers in their tracks.

"Ach, but Gertie--" One of the brothers whined -- it was hard to say which one, since they were all variations on the same dark-haired, big muscled, waxed mustache theme.

"But nothing. Go get Pumpkin settled in the shade. You can introduce yourselves properly later," the speaker stepped into view. Jaws dropped.

She was a tall, middle-aged woman with a fine figure and a head of lustrous chestnut hair.

She also sported a beard that flowed down to her chest.

Josiah took a long suspicious look at the whiskey bottle and set it aside.

"Gentlemen," Gertie greeted them, her eyes sparkling as she took in the familiar reaction. "I wanted to add my thanks for your timely assistance. And I was hoping I might further impose upon you for an escort into town."

Ezra recovered first. "It would be our pleasure, madam," he rose politely to his feet, gesturing for the Bearded Lady to take a seat on the packing crate beside him. "But first, we have a few questions of our own."

+ + + + + + +

Gertie the Bearded Lady settled herself on the crate Ezra held out for her and nodded to him to continue.

"Am I correct in assuming that you serve in a managerial capacity for the circus?" Ezra asked.

The Bearded Lady smiled. "That's rarely the first assumption people make about me, but yes." She glanced toward the rear of the train, where the ringmaster was gesturing hysterically as a work crews unloaded long rolls of striped canvas. "I handle the business operations. I'm afraid our ringmaster has no head for figures."

Ezra squinted thoughtfully at the stalled train. "Can you think of any reason the train robbers chose you as a target?" he asked. "Were you carrying an unusually large amount of money? Is there anything else of value aboard?"

She grimaced beneath her beard. "We hardly have any money at all right now. We were going to use the receipts from Ridge City for the next payroll -- assuming we earn enough to make payroll this month. The most valuable items we have are our animals and our equipment. And I doubt an elephant or a trapeze set would be of much value to anyone else."

Ezra scowled and gnawed his lip. It made no sense at all. Why would the robbers hold up what was obviously a circus train when there was an army gold shipment coming through any day now?

He looked up, his eyes widening in alarm -- an instant before they all heard the warning whistle of the oncoming train.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee paced the platform of the Ridge City depot, staring west.

"You sure it's today?"

He turned, glad Nathan beat him to the question this time.

The stationmaster huffed at the both of them. He fished a yellow scrap of paper out of his vest pocket and made a show of re-reading the telegram: "Expect army express 1500 hours. Stop. Take all due precautions. Stop." He folded the paper with a snap. "It'll be the next train after the 1:15 special."

Larabee resumed pacing. Nathan gave up hovering over the railroad man and threw himself down on one of the hard station benches. He mopped the back of his neck and cast a longing look toward the shade of the nearest saloon, but said nothing.

And that, Chris reminded himself as he reached the far edge of the platform and pivoted for the return trip, was why he and Nathan should never, ever team up on long-range patrols. Anyone else would have nagged or dragged him to the saloon by now to wait out the train.

Nathan caught him looking saloonward and straightened hopefully -- too contentious to suggest a break, but more than willing to take one if Larabee could come up with some sound tactical reason for doing so.

Sorely tempted, Chris paused at the platform's western edge -- the same direction Buck and Josiah would be riding in from. He glared down the tracks, willing the two of them to materialize. They were due in any minute. Then he could relax.

Unless…he shot a sidelong glance at Nathan, who looked like he was trying to come up with a medical excuse to call a rest.

On cue, the healer straightened and looked hard at the ornamental clock on the station wall.

"One-fifteen?" he said. "That was half an hour ago!"

Larabee blinked, then remembered. Right. The other train. The one that wasn't carrying any gold.

The stationmaster flapped a hand dismissively. "These private trains are notoriously unreliable. Should be along any minute now, you just wait and see."

They waited, staring expectantly at the point where the tracks met and vanished on the horizon.


The railroad man cleared his throat. "Maybe I should just nip over to the telegraph office and make sure they left--"

He was interrupted by a shout from inside the station. A moment later, a small crowd rushed onto the platform, led by the town deputy.

"Trouble up the line," the deputy said, tugging gasping young boy forward. "Kid here just rode in to say bandits ambushed his train. Says a couple lawmen from Four Corners chased `em off, but the tracks have been blown and they're stuck out there."

Nathan pounced on the boy before anyone else could move and started firing questions about the lawmen. Larabee turned to the stationmaster.

The man was wringing his hands anxiously. "Did he mention which train was attacked?"

"Kid can't be more'n fourteen. Bit young to be pulling guard duty on a military transport. Must be the special," Larabee said tersely. "There any way to send word to the express?"

The railroad man shook his head. "They would have passed through Warwick Junction this morning. That was the army train's last stop before here."

"Chris!" Nathan's call interrupted him.

Larabee crossed to where the healer had crouched next to the boy. The youngster was repeating some point, gesturing wildly as he gave his account of the hold-up. Nathan put a hand on the boy's chest, silencing him.

"One of 'em's hurt," he said.

The kid bobbed his head. "The big fella. He was bleedin' all over the place."

"Josiah," Nathan muttered.

"Buck," Chris said in the same breath. The boy chattered on, oblivious.

"…and one of them was on top of the ridge and he was shooting bang! bang! bang! And one of them rode his pony straight down the side of the cliff like it had wings or somethin' and he hit `em from the ground, ka-pow! And then the other two rode up and them bandits just turned tail and--"

Chris and Nathan exchanged a puzzled glance. Something wasn't adding up.

"You sayin' there was four lawmen from Four Corners out there?" Nathan pressed. The boy nodded emphatically.

Larabee turned to go, ignoring the plaintive questions from the stationmaster and the complaints from the deputy, who wanted to wait and call in the cavalry. Nathan fell in beside him without comment.

They'd work out the math later. For now, they'd ride.

+ + + + + + +

The train whistle sounded again, still distant, but getting closer.

Ezra rounded on the Bearded Lady. "Tell me you sent someone down the tracks to flag down oncoming trains."

Gertie stared at him with wide, dismayed eyes. "It wasn't...we were..."

"I'm on it," Vin said softly, sprinting toward the spot where he'd tethered Peso. A call from Ezra brought him up short. He turned and caught the red jacket that came flying through the air at him.

He scowled down at it, then up at Ezra, standing there in his shirtsleeves.

The gambler scowled back and mimed waving a flag in the air. Vin grinned, understanding, and took off running with the jacket in tow.

The remaining lawmen watched as controlled chaos gave way to panic. The circus performers scrambled around them, working frantically, recklessly, to salvage anything they could from the stranded train.

There were screams as the still-invisible train let out another whistle.

Gertie had gone without a word, vanishing into the melee.

"Right." Buck's voice was as grim as his face as he turned to Ezra. "You get Josiah away from here. I'll see to the rest."

+ + + + + + +

Peso all but flew over the rocky ground beside the rail tracks. Vin leaned forward, urging the black horse faster, faster.

They topped a low rise and spotted the army train steaming toward them. It wasn't much to look at -- just an engine and a few cars, clickity-clacking along the tracks with its fortune in gold.

Vin flapped Ezra's red jacket, signaling the warning as the train closed the distance. He locked eyes with the brakeman who had leaned out a small window in the engine to stare at him.

"Track's out!" Vin screamed, his voice lost in the rattle and roar as the train passed him at full speed. He wheeled Peso in a brutal U-turn and chased after it. Four soldiers watched him from the caboose, rifles at the ready as they drew a bead on the stranger with the red flag.

"Stop!" he called after them, and was rewarded by the sound of screeching brakes as the engine crew caught sight of the stalled circus train, glittering scarlet and gold on the tracks dead ahead.

JD -- who seemed to know an awful lot about trains for a boy who lived in a town with no station of its own -- had once told Vin that it took a fast moving train a full mile to come to a complete stop.

Vin held his breath, dug his heels into Peso's flanks and prayed to God the circus train was farther away than it looked right now.

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne dashed out of the Four Corners telegraph office and stared wildly around, not sure which direction he should go next. To the livery for his horse? To the clinic to round up some supplies and a wagon or two? Back to the jail to bite his nails and wait for word?

His hands balled into fists, crushing the telegram from Deputy Penn in Ridge City.

This couldn't wait.

+ + + + + + +

"Train?" Josiah cocked an eye at the annoyance tugging on his arm. "'Course there's a train. You're standing right next to it, son."

Ezra tugged harder, until Josiah was sitting upright in spite of himself. "Not train, Josiah. Trains. And unless you truly wish to see what happens when an irresistible force strikes an immovable object, I suggest you find your feet and move away from this damnable locomotive -- now!"

Josiah winced as the train whistle sounded again. Maybe it would be quieter wherever Ezra wanted to go. He patted the smaller man on the head as he found his feet, swaying drunkenly.

Ezra snorted and began tugging him away from the train, toward the open desert. The circus folk jostled around them, urging them faster. A little girl, the one who had been leading the bear around earlier, lost her footing and disappeared under the stampede with a surprised squeak. Ezra dropped Josiah's arm and dove after her.

Josiah whirled, searching for him as the crowd pushed him on.

The sound of the train whistle gave way to the screech of metal against metal as the oncoming locomotive hit the brakes. And then someone was pushing Josiah up, onto one of the circus's parade wagons. Other bodies piled in beside him and the wagon jerked forward with a lurch. Josiah lost his balance and tumbled off the back, landing hard on his bad shoulder.

The last thing he felt, as the world went dark, was the ground shuddering beneath the wheels of the approaching train.

+ + + + + + +

Say one thing for circus folk, Buck thought as he fought through the crowds toward the stranded train -- they had what Ezra would call impeccable timing.

The army train was close enough now for him to make out the distant, pale faces of the brakeman and engineer. A quick glance up and down the line showed that the stranded train had been picked clean. A group of roughnecks was leading a string of prancing white horses out of one of the last boxcars and a few trunks and an armload of costumes went sailing out of one of the sleeper cars. But almost everyone else had abandoned the train and was rushing to safety.

Buck ran faster, making for the small knot of people still standing in the shadow of the doomed locomotive, wrestling with a jammed door on one of the livestock cars.

"Are you crazy?" he hollered as he reached them. He recognized Gertie and the ringmaster among the people trying to force the door. "Get back! Get away from here. Whatever's in there ain't worth it!"

The performers ignored him and shoved harder, finally forcing the sliding door open. The ringmaster hopped inside, bellowing. Buck spared a quick glance for the army train -- any closer and he'd be able to count the freckles on the engineer's nose -- and grabbed Gertie around the waist and swung her away from the door.

"But the cats--"

"Forget `em!" he gave her another push toward the safety and sprang into the car. Wrinkling his nose at the stench that met him, he grabbed the ringmaster by the collar.

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this! You have to believe me! This wasn't part of the deal! Nobody was supposed to get hurt," the little showman babbled, clutching at Buck's shirt.

"What're you--? Never mind," he tossed the babbling man out the door. The other performers looked over at oncoming train and, accepting the inevitable, turned and bolted for safety. Buck hopped down and followed.

He hadn't gone more than ten paces before the army train ran out of track.

The sound of the two trains colliding was like nothing he had ever heard -- and Buck Wilmington had lived through battle, tornadoes, cannon fire, dynamite blasts, brawls, gunfights, and one memorable stampede down Laredo way.

Buck threw himself flat, covering his head as the world exploded around him. Wood splintered, metal sheared away from metal as hundreds of tons of forged iron was reduced to so much scrap. The steam engine exploded, raining fire down upon the wreckage.

Buck found himself scrambling forward on his hands and knees, dodging shrapnel and sparks, glancing over his shoulder at the terrifying sight of livestock car, shoved sideways by the impact, plowing straight toward him.

Still trying to regain his feet, Buck could only watch as the car skidded, hit a shelf of rock and teetered forward. He turned to run, knowing he was directly in the path of the toppling train car, and knowing -- as a shadow fell over him, the open door of the car looming over him like a hungry mouth -- that there was no way he would be able to get away in time.

+ + + + + + +

"NO!" Vin stared, aghast, at the disaster unfolding before him. He pulled Peso up short, watching as the train crew and the soldiers threw themselves clear of the slowing locomotive, tumbling across the hard desert floor like dice. The last of the circus people were scattering away from their train, toward safety.

He forced himself to watch the collision.

The lead engine jackknifed, wrenching free of the tracks and mowing circus cars out of its way. The impact rippled down the longer train, a chain reaction that knocked boxcars flying, while the smaller army train folded in on itself like an accordion.

From this distance, he could see the passengers dodging bits of wood, metal and burning coals. He scanned the panicky crowd, looking for the familiar figures of his friends. He couldn't find them. The last thing he saw, before dust and smoke swallowed everything, was one of the boxcars somersaulting across the plain -- bright yellow pictures of cats catching the sun each time it rolled.

Ezra's jacket fluttered to the ground, forgotten. Peso was moving again before Vin realized he'd loosened the reins. He nudged the horse faster, never taking his eyes off the distant wreck and the shadowy crowd hovering around it. He crested the hill and started down with reckless speed, still scanning the crash site for his friends.

The sound of half a dozen rifles cocking pulled him up short.

"Well, well...lookie here," a voice drawled from behind the bandanna that covered most of its owner's face. "Looks like we just bought our ticket out of here, boys."

Swallowing a groan, Vin turned, holding his hands carefully away from his guns. The surviving train robbers studied him smugly from behind their masks as they kept their rifles trained on his head. Vin blinked as he spotted other familiar faces beyond the outlaws who surrounded him.

Vin opened his mouth to shout something -- a warning, or maybe just every swear word he knew -- when rough hands dragged him out of the saddle and tossed him on the ground before a familiar set of feet.

He lay there, swearing softly into the dirt as a long gray trunk came down to snuffle affectionately at his hair.

"My friend! We meet again!" A knee planted itself in the middle of Vin's back as his arms were wrenched back and roped together by a pair of huge hands.

Vin glared over his shoulder as the Istvanos brother in purple silk gave an experimental tug on the ropes. The big man's mustache curled up in a good-natured smile and he gave Vin a clap on the shoulder before whipping the rope around to bind his legs as well.

"What the hell?" Vin glared from the brothers -- he could see the other six watching him over the purple one's shoulders -- to the elephant, to the bandits.

The bandits ignored him. All but one of them swung back into the saddle and galloped out of their hiding place in the low valley, making straight for the shattered gold train.

The remaining robber barked a curt order at the performers and Vin felt something curl around his waist, swinging him up until he was dangling eye to eye with the elephant. The beast gave him an affectionate little squeeze and turned, following the brothers as they followed the bandit who was leading the odd parade into a nearby canyon.

+ + + + + + +

The sound of gunshots startled Josiah awake.

"Whazzat?" he groaned, and felt a hand clap over his mouth in warning.

"That is trouble," a voice hissed in his ear.

The world came in to slow focus around him. A wagon wheel, the ground tilted at a crazy angle around him, feet running back and forth -- and a pair of concerned green eyes, darting from him to some point in the blurry distance. Belatedly, Josiah realized that he was lying beneath a wagon.

"More trouble," Ezra amended, wincing as more shots rang out, closer to them.

Josiah twitched his mouth impatiently until Ezra lifted his hand away. "The trains?" he whispered.

"Collided," Ezra said succinctly.

"The train robbers?"

"Have returned." Ezra slithered away, making his way to the wagon's edge to keep watch as the bandits galloped into sight. The masked men circled the smoking wreckage, dismounted, and began pawing through the mess, presumably searching for the safe with the gold shipment inside.

Ezra gave an outraged snort and crept back to Josiah's side. "I have seen many an inept criminal in my day, my friend. But smashing two trains together in an attempt to rob one of them scales new heights of imbecility. Darlin'--" he turned to the little girl Josiah only belatedly realized was sharing their hideout. "Allow me to introduce my associate, Josiah Sanchez. I'm sure you and he will get along famously."

The tow-haired moppet scooted over to lean against Josiah's knee.

"Have you seen my bear?" she asked.

Remembering the slavering, yellow-fanged, tutu-clad Kodiak in question, Josiah shot an anxious look around their tiny hiding place, relieved when the headcount only came to three.

The gambler chuckled. "Perhaps Mr. Sanchez can help you locate your dance partner while I attend to other matters."

"Ezra," Josiah said warningly, hitching himself up on his good elbow and trying to pretend the movement hadn't hurt like the devil.

"Josiah," Ezra mimicked, spinning the chamber on his Remington, satisfying himself that it was fully loaded.

Josiah caught his wrist. "What `other matters'?"

Ezra freed his arm, holstered one revolver and repeated the process on the other. "Since starting a gunfight in the middle of a train wreck seems a tad overdramatic, I thought I might trail these cretins back to their lair once they find the gold. Assuming they can find the gold in this shambles."

A sudden whoop from the bandits interrupted. The two men peered under the side of the wagon and sighed in tandem at the sight of the masked outlaws wrestling a four-foot-tall armored safe out of the matchstick pile that used to be the army train.

Josiah turned to say something to Ezra and found nothing but a scuffmark in the dust and the loaded pistol Standish had left for him.

Resisting mightily the temptation to scream, Josiah turned to the little girl. "Quite a day, we're having," he said, teeth bared in a fair imitation of a friendly smile.

The child nodded solemnly, staring at the pile of rubble by the tracks. She frowned.

"Where'd the train go?"

"Um..." Josiah cast about for a tactful explanation.

"Did the bad men take the train too?"

"Something like that," Josiah grunted, half-listening he pocketed Ezra's revolver.

"They weren't supposed to take the train," she crossed her arms and scowled. "That wasn't part of the deal."

That caught his attention. "What did you just say?"

"They were only supposed to take the elephant."