Seeing the Elephant
by J. Brooks
Ears still ringing from noise of the crash, Ezra slipped through the wreckage, closing in on the squabbling bandits, who were trying to rig a sling for the heavy gold safe out bits of the striped circus tent.
There was other movement around him now. Men and women picking through the scrap, calling to each other in hushed, disbelieving tones, awed by the scope of the disaster and their own survival.
He gave both groups a wide berth and hunkered down behind one of the scrub trees that dotted the open land between the tracks and the hills. Far enough away to escape notice, close enough to intervene if the bandits made a move toward the train passengers.
Not that there seemed much danger of that. Bandits and performers went about their business, ignoring each other with single-minded intensity that set off warning bells in Ezra's head.
If there was one thing Ezra P. Standish knew, it was how human beings reacted in the face of the sudden, unexpected loss of their personal property. He'd seen the emotions play out over countless poker tables, con games, natural disasters and war.
These people weren't reacting like victims of a crime. If anything, their behavior put him in mind of professional gamblers who had bet everything on one risky hand, lost, and were calmly raking in what was left of their stake.
Ezra scanned the disaster site, hoping to seen Buck and Vin concealed somewhere nearby. Together they could--
A movement in the distance distracted him. An odd silhouette, vanishing into the mouth of a canyon in the hills.
+ + + + + + +
If he got out of this alive, Buck promised himself, no more animal magnetism jokes.
He took a slow step backward, squinting as he stepped into a bright patch of sunlight that slanted through the barred opening in the ceiling -- the opening that used to be one of the boxcar windows.
After its final roll, the car had come to rest on its side, the open door trapping Buck as neatly inside as a bug in a jar. Not that he wasn't grateful for the stroke of luck -- a few feet either way and he would have been squashed flat. Then again, there were worse ways to go than a quick, painless squashing.
A low, warning growl rumbled out of the shadows.
"Nice kitty." Buck plastered on a winning smile as he circled the empty, upended cage in the middle of the boxcar. A tawny shadow paced opposite, mirroring his movements, watching him though slitted eyes.
There were other unhappy snarls behind him but Buck ignored them. Two other lions and some sort of sleek black feline were pacing groggily in other cages that lay tumbled around the boxcar. Those cages were still locked. Buck kept his attention on the former occupant of the one cage that had smashed open.
The lion shook its thick brown mane and took another delicate step closer. It was bigger than any cougar Buck had ever seen and twice as mad.
"Easy there, puss," he crooned, patting himself down in search of weapons. His pistol, the only casualty of the wreck so far, had gone flying sometime during the mad scramble away from the train. Which left him with a buck knife and a smile as his only defense. He opted for the latter.
"I can see you're a mite riled right now," he said, still backing away. The back of his calves bumped the cage door. "Fair enough. If a train ran me off the rails, my fur'd be standing on end too. So I think we should both sit down, rest easy and wait for somebody to GET ME OUT OF HERE!"
The cat's ears flattened at the shout. Buck shot a glance at the ceiling window, hoping to see Vin or Ezra or the Bearded Lady, maybe, peering down with a rifle at the ready. No such luck.
He looked back and groaned. The lion had flattened itself into a hunter's crouch, belly low, hindquarters twitching.
"Uh, kitty?" was all he had time for before the cat pounced.
+ + + + + + +
The elephant braced her tree trunk legs and threw her weight against the harness. The leather straps creaked a protest and the thick ropes twanged like guitar strings as they stretched taut between the monstrous bulk of the elephant and the immobile hunk of rock she was trying to tow. The cart-sized boulder lost the tug-of-war and popped out of the ground in a shower of pebbles and rock chips.
Slowly, the elephant dragged the rock away from the cliff face and the shadow of a mine shaft, half-hidden by the fallen rocks.
Her handlers barked a command in a strange language and she halted, peering over her shoulder at the trench she and the boulder had gouged in the ground. The Istvanos brothers ran up to detach the harness and haul it back over to the next boulder they wanted to move.
Vin watched the spectacle in amazement. He'd seen tornadoes pick up houses and toss them a mile away. He'd flown across the prairie in steam-powered locomotives. But he'd never seen such a raw display of power from a creature of flesh and blood.
He flexed his arms, testing his own strength against the ropes that tied him to the tree, out of the way of the laboring outlaws and their stolen elephant.
The mystery of what had happened to last year's $60,000 gold shipment was solved.
The bandits had stashed the money in the played-out mine and blown the entrance to hide it until the law gave up the search. Vin smirked. Apparently, they'd used a bit too much dynamite and brought half the cliff down. From what he'd been able to overhear, they'd been digging and blasting on and off for the better part of the year before one of the leader of the Istvanos Gang -- Vin rolled his eyes -- remembered his cousins in the circus and decided to make a play for two fortunes at once.
The elephant shook her ears happily and lumbered back to the rock pile. She raised her trunk and trumpeted at Vin in passing.
He let his head fall back against the tree trunk. Stupid elephant. A tiny corner of his mind -- the part not taken up with escape plans and worry for his missing friends and general frustrated fury at this whole situation -- wondered what he would have seen if the circus had made it to Ridge City. Ezra swore he'd seen elephants stand on their heads and dance on their hind legs, but Vin could scarcely credit the idea. It would have been a sight to see.
The elephant shuffled by, her trunk curled around a massive support beam from the collapsed mine. Vin gritted his teeth and tugged harder at the ropes. At this rate, the beast would have half the mountainside cleared away by sundown.
A sudden clumsy rustle in the underbrush distracted him.
"Oh, well done, Mr. Tanner. Best seat in the house for the elephant act," Ezra's voice drawled lightly in his ear.
Biting back a whoop of glee, Vin twisted his torso, displaying the ropes.
"My hands," he hissed.
"My jacket?" Ezra countered.
Vin shifted his shoulders, hoping he and the tree could shield Ezra from sight. Ezra wrestled with the knots, grumbling as he realized how thoroughly cocooned in ropes the tracker was. Vin kept an eye on the outlaws, watching the brothers dart here and there over and around the rocks, trying to keep track. Red silk, yellow silk, black silk, orange silk, blue silk, green...
There was a muffled thump behind him and then Ezra tumbled into the clearing to land in a motionless heap at Vin's side.
With a flash of purple silk, the missing Istvanos brother stepped smugly into the open.
+ + + + + + +
At the time, crawling inside the lion cage had seemed like a good idea.
Buck braced his boots against the bars as the unhappy cat launched another half-hearted assault on the cage. The dented bars rattled as the cat threw its shoulder against the unlatched door, Buck kicked back -- letting out a satisfied grunt as the cat yowled and backed away. The lion sat back on its haunches, studying him. Buck leaned back as far as he could go and waited, panting.
Slowly, the cat lifted a massive paw and snaked it between the bars to bat at his trouser leg.
"Bad cat!" Buck swatted at the paw.
One of the first things Buck had figured out after he made the -- in retrospect, idiotic -- decision to duck into the empty cage was that the lion had been de-clawed. Poor cat. He gave the lion's blunted paw a sympathetic pat.
The lion blinked its yellow eyes and made a pleased little noise. Buck froze, then stroked the yellow fur again. The lion shifted its weight to rub against the side of the cage, pacing back and forth, making grumbling noises that sounded more like a purr than a growl.
Cautiously, Buck reached out to scratch the hairy pelt as it slid by him, mindful where he put his fingers. There was nothing wrong with the lion's teeth.
"Niiiiice kitty. See? Ain't no reason we can't get along. Just two studs in a cathouse, you `n' me."
The lion snuffled at the cage bars then pressed its forehead against he metal, waiting patiently for a scratch between the ears. Knife at the ready, Buck obliged.
The big cat's eyes rolled ecstatically as it flopped over on its side, butting against the bars to encourage Buck to keep scratching. It was completely blocking the door, he realized.
He stopped scratching.
The lion growled.
He started scratching again.
The lion's raspy tongue swiped affectionately across the bars and his fingers, scouring away a few layers of skin.
For a moment, the only sound in the car was the lion's grumbling purr.
Then. "SOMEBODY GET ME OUT OF HERE!"
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stared at the overturned boxcar.
"You've got to be joking," he whispered.
Buck's muffled voice sounded again, pitched higher than usual, yelling...something about cats.
The preacher rounded on the pale, shaky circus performers around him. In the distance, the outlaws were inching away, towing their safe full of gold in its flimsy harness. The ropes had snapped twice already, sending the bandits trotting back to the train for more supplies.
Josiah drew himself up to his full height, pinning the quivering ringmaster with a sulfurous glare.
"How," he thundered. "Did my friend end up in there?"
The showman started to stutter an explanation, but Josiah had already stalked off, circling the battered boxcar until he found a dented corner that looked like it offered enough handholds to get him to the top.
"I'm coming, Buck!" he shouted, tossing his sling away and climbing with reckless disregard for his injury. On top of the boxcar, he found a small barred window and a sliding door, secured with a padlock and chain. He barked orders at the spectators, sending them scrambling for a key, a hatchet, something to get him inside.
"Josiah?" Buck's hopeful voice floated through the window. Josiah knelt and pressed his face against the bars, trying to make out what was going on in the dark interior.
"I'm here," he called down. "Buck? Are you hurt?" He fished a sulfur match out of his pocket, struck it against the metal bars and lowered it through the window.
The tiny flame cast a weak glow, illuminating tumbled bins and cages, a floor littered with dirty straw...and a pair of saucerlike eyes staring up at him, glittering in the reflected light.
The match slipped from nerveless fingers. The falling flame cast crazy shadows around the boxcar and threw the crouching lion into sharp relief before fizzling out on the damp straw.
"What're you doin' up there, Josiah? Trying to barbecue me on top of everything else?" Buck yelped from somewhere in the darkness.
"Buck?" Josiah pressed closer to the bars, trying to see. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out the lion, crouched below. The beast had lost interest in him and turned its attention to grooming its hindquarters.
"Aw, I did not need to see that," Buck grumbled, still unseen.
"Can't see you, Buck. How you doing?"
"Oh, fine and dandy. You see the lion?"
"It's hard to miss." The big cat blinked up and him and yawned, displaying bright fangs and a curling pink tongue.
"You see what's beneath the lion?"
Josiah squinted harder, barely able to make out the bars of a battered iron cage. Oh, surely not. "How on earth--"
"See, that's not important right now, Josiah. What is important is that you figure out a way to open this tin can and get me out of here, quick-like."
Josiah sized up the lion as he drew Ezra's six-shooter out of his pocket. "I think I'm gonna need a bigger gun," he muttered.
"NO!" the protest came simultaneously from below and above. Something soft and hairy slammed into him, wrestling for the gun.
Josiah bit back a bellow as someone punched his bad shoulder, finally managing to wrestle his attacker to the ground.
The Bearded Lady glared up at him.
"The cats are tame. They won't hurt your friend," Gertie panted. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to replace a good lion?"
Before Josiah could reply, she brought her knee up sharply. The big man collapsed, howling. The gun skittered away across the murals of leaping cats.
Gertie threw herself toward the gun. A bullet slammed into the wood inches from her fingers, freezing her in place.
Startled, she looked up to find two unfamiliar figures on horseback glaring down at her from the ridge.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee massaged his temples, listening to the babble of voices trying to explain what was going on. He shook off the fat little showman clinging to his arm and crouched down on the slippery lacquered surface of the boxcar, next to the door someone had finally unlocked.
"Get ready, Buck," he called, nodding to the performers who stood poised over the window in a bucket brigade.
At Larabee's nod, the performers started pouring bucket after bucket of water into the car, ignoring the outraged human and feline howls below. Ears flattened, fur dripping, the lion launched itself off Buck's cage and shot into a distant corner of the boxcar to hide from the unwelcome shower.
Buck kicked the cage door open and made a dive for the rope ladder the circus folk had lowered to him.
The lion bellowed, but stayed away, eyeing the dripping buckets that ringed the open doorway.
As soon as Buck heaved himself onto the roof, the performers slammed the door shut, muffling the lion's plaintive yowls.
"Buck?" Chris moved to check on the panting, sodden heap. Wilmington rolled onto his back with a groan. He drew a deep breath, grimaced, sniffed at his collar, and groaned louder.
Larabee backed up a step as the odor of wet cat hit him.
He opened his mouth to say the obvious thing.
Buck stopped him with a warning finger.
"Not. One. Word," he hissed.
Larabee tilted his head, promising nothing.
Nathan's impatient call interrupted. "Chris! Get Mister Animal Magnetism down here so I can take a look at him!" The healer turned back to the prone and protesting Josiah, missing Buck's pitiful groan and Larabee's smirk.
+ + + + + + +
"I'm telling you, they're in on it," Josiah insisted, watching apprehensively as Nathan uncorked a bottle of carbolic powder and prepared to upend it over his shoulder wound.
The other three lawmen turned to watch the harmless-looking circus people as they returned to their salvage operation. A three-foot-tall man bustled past, tipping his bowler hat politely.
"C'mon Josiah," Nathan said, ignoring the hiss of protest as he began cleaning the bullet wound. "Why would they rob their own train? Don't make sense."
Chris fished a blanket out of his saddle bags and tossed it toward Buck. He squinted at the ringmaster and Bearded Lady who hovered nearby, wringing their hands and looking apologetic.
"Makes sense if they're getting a cut of the profits," he said. "Makes sense if this circus isn't making enough to break even and they're looking for seed money to make a fresh start."
Buck scrubbed at his dripping hair and let out an admiring whistle. "That's one nasty, suspicious mind you got there, old dog. Ezra'd be right proud." He frowned, looking around. "Where the heck did those two go, anyhow?"
Nathan nodded toward the tell-tale scuff mark the stolen safe had left in the dirt as it was dragged away. "Vin musta gone after the bandits. Ezra probably went after Vin." And the gold, he amended silently.
Four pairs of eyes studied the gouged-out tracks in the dust thoughtfully.
"Ezra was right," Josiah mused. "They really are the stupidest criminals in the world."
Nathan tied off the bandage and rocked back on his heels with a sigh. "Still. Wouldn't hurt to give Vin and Ezra a hand bringing `em in."
Larabee was already moving toward his horse, waving Nathan away.
"I'll go get `em. You stay here and keep an eye on these two." He swung into the saddle and took off on the trail of the outlaws.
Nathan hesitated, staring first at his patients, then at the retreating horseman.
"Like hell," he muttered. Turning, he jabbed a finger at Buck, who was climbing shakily to his feet. "You stay here, dry off and take it easy. And keep an eye on Josiah." He stomped away, ignoring Buck's spluttered complaints.
"Like hell," Buck grumbled, watching Nathan mount up and move out. He turned and found Josiah at his side, shifting his injured arm in its his new sling. "I'm going after them. You stay here and keep an eye on these damn crooked carnies."
He turned to go, but a hand knotted around his collar and pulled him up short.
"Like hell," Josiah said, tightening his grip.
+ + + + + + +
"Let go of him!" Vin fought the ropes, feeling the skin on his wrists burn and slide away. The outlaws ignored him and hauled a dazed Ezra to his feet.
"Ah! The little man with the flying horse!" The Istvanos brother in orange beamed down at the injured lawman, pinning him against the trunk of the tree with a forearm across his neck. Ezra clawed at the arm weakly, trying to blink the outlaw into focus.
Abruptly, the circus performer released Ezra, allowing him to slide down beside Vin.
"Wait here, little men," the bandit called over his shoulder. "We will have need of you soon."
"Ezra?" Vin hissed, frowning unhappily as he took in the glazed expression on his friend's face. The frown deepened as he realized the outlaw had had the wits to confiscate Ezra's weapons.
"What hit me?" Standish mumbled, slumping against Vin's -- ouch, bony -- shoulder.
"Vencel," Vin growled, glaring at the man in purple. Catching Ezra's look of pained confusion, Vin jerked his chin in the direction of the circus performers as they unhitched the elephant from her harness and led her off to snack on a patch of sagebrush.
"Remember them big fellas from the circus? The Istvanos brothers. Janos, Miklos, Petrus, Paulus, Tibor, Vencel and Zoltan. Vencel," he shot another glare at the performers. "Clocked you with the hook he uses to train the elephant."
"Vencel," Ezra parroted dutifully. "Zoltan. Elephant." Pushing himself off his uncomfortable headrest, he tugged fretfully at the knots that still held Vin.
Vin scowled at the bowed head, taking in the blood matting the hair above Ezra's neck. "Never mind that now," he hissed, elbowing the injured man away from him. "Get the hell out of here before they come back and tie you up too."
Too late. Ezra yelped as a ham fist dropped onto his shoulder and yanked him upright. Another brother waved a sharp knife warningly in front of Vin's nose, then sliced through the ropes.
"Come, little men," Vencel crowed, hauling the stumbling lawmen toward the elephant work site.
They staggered to a halt at the mine entrance and the two-foot-high opening the elephant had cleared into the pitch-black cave. Vin stared unhappily at the dust dribbling down from the clearly unstable ceiling. It looked to him like the elephant had cleared away one too many support beams.
Vencel shoved Vin toward the narrow opening. "Inside with you now! Bring the gold out to us. We will be waiting here with your little friend."
Vin looked at the cramped, dark hole, then at Ezra, who barely kept his feet as the big outlaw shook his shoulder for emphasis.
Swallowing hard, Vin nodded.
"I'll need a light," he said. One of the brothers passed him a burning torch without comment.
He turned and started climbing up the loose boulders that still blocked most of the entrance. Clammy, stale air wafted out of the opening and he shuddered.
Crouching down, he gauged the fit and shot a parting glare at the waiting outlaws.
"You do anything to him while I'm in there and you won't live long enough to regret it."
"Vin!" Ezra's worried shout followed him as he slithered head-first into the mine shaft and vanished from sight.
+ + + + + + +
"Okay, let's try this again. You stay here and watch these idiots. We'll go after those idiots."
Larabee glared down at the pile of outlaws groaning around the stolen gold safe, then at Buck and Josiah, who had galloped up just as he and Nathan were taking down the last of the train robbers. It hadn't been much of a fight. The masked bandits were so busy trying to free the safe from an oversized gopher hole, they hadn't noticed the lawmen until they were under their guns.
Buck and Josiah didn't budge from their saddles.
"Ain't gonna happen, pard," Buck said. "You just cuff `em to the safe and we'll deal with `em after we round up Ezra `n' Vin `n' the rest of this lot."
Chris exchanged a look with Nathan, who simply shrugged and started snapping manacles on every wrist he could reach. Surrendering to the inevitable, Larabee grabbed the closest bandit and hoisted him up until he was glaring eye to eye.
+ + + + + + +
The mine was every bit as bad as Vin thought it would be. Pitch black and dank, the floor treacherous with fallen rocks and what looked like an old railroad track bed. Bats rustled above and he could hear water dripping somewhere as he forced himself to walk forward, away from the sunlit exit.
"You remember where you left it?" he called, waving the torch in a slow arc, searching for any glint of gold.
Someone's head appeared in the narrow opening, blocking even more of the precious sunlight. "NO!" Vencel's voice boomed. "Look harder!"
Look harder, Vin sneered to himself, poking the torch into the steel cart that rested on the mine tracks. Empty. He gave the cart a disgusted kick, sending it scooting a few feet down the rails to who-knows-where.
He turned to check the far side of the tracks and almost tripped over a knee-high, tarp-covered obstacle. Rubbing his bruised shin, Vin was about to yank off the cloth when a golden glow at the edge of the circle of torchlight caught his eye.
He took a step closer, eyes widening at what he saw.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra's head snapped up at the sound of Vin's voice, sending a bolt of white-hot agony through his skull. Groaning, he clutched at his temples as the outlaws whooped and hollered around him. The elephant, who had been chained to one of the mine's remaining support beams, added to the painful din with a loud bellow.
Vencel scrambled up the rock pile and shoved an arm through the narrow opening. A moment later, he pulled back, waving a thick gold bar.
Gold. Ezra smiled dreamily as Vencel raised the gold above his head and leapt down the rock pile. Lovely, heavy, solid gold. In a just and fair universe, that gold would slip through Vencel's greasy fingers and brain the man.
Vencel reached the bottom of the pile safely and tossed the gold bar to one of his brothers. Ezra sighed bitterly. There was no justice in the universe.
"Hey!" Vin's shout echoed out of the mine. "There's a lot more where that came from. Work'd go a lot faster if you sent Ezra in here to help me."
Ezra heaved himself to his feet, but Vencel caught him by the shoulder and sent him sprawling again.
"No! No funny business! He stays here with us!"
Wheezing painfully from the fall, Ezra was about to argue the point...when a gunshot interrupted, kicking up a puff of dust at Vencel's feet.
"Throw down your weapons!" Chris Larabee's voice seemed to fill the clearing. "We've got you surrounded!"
+ + + + + + +
The outlaws didn't listen. Outlaws never do.
Nathan ducked as a shot from an oversized man in yellow silk gouged a chunk of bark out of the tree beside him. He returned fire, keeping a worried eye on Ezra, who crouched, clearly wounded, in the middle of the bandits -- and not far from some sort of outlandish gray beast that looked like a cross between a snake, a pig and the side of a mountain.
An "elephant," Buck had called it. Huh. The "elephant" was pacing unhappily, shaking its big bumpy head at the sound of the gunfire and rattling the chain that led from its foot to a thick wooden beam set into the side of the hill.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Josiah edging around the elephant, trying to get close enough to grab the dazed gambler. Another shot from another peculiarly-dressed outlaw distracted Nathan -- until he heard Josiah's warning cry.
Ezra was on his feet, dodging bullets and running straight toward the collapsed mine. Damn man just couldn't seem to stay out of damn mines, Nathan grumbled to himself. He shook off the thought as he spotted a huge man in purple taking aim at Ezra's back as the gambler clawed his way up the rocks.
The bandit got off one shot as Ezra dove into the cave. Nathan dropped the purple man before he could aim and fire again.
As he fell, the bandit's finger tightened on the trigger, squeezing off a wild round.
A horrific screech told them all where the shot landed. The elephant reared up on its hind legs, then lurched forward, snapping the massive oak beam like a toothpick. Still bellowing, the beast galloped through the middle of the firefight, sending the outlaws flying out of its path.
The lawmen seized the opportunity and rushed the demoralized bandits. By the time the elephant vanished from sight, still trumpeting its misery, the lawbreakers were under lock and key.
Nathan took a quick look around, checking for injuries. Chris was mopping blood off a bullet-burn on his forearm. Buck and Josiah didn't look any worse for wear. With a satisfied nod, the healer turned, ready to haul Ezra, and probably Vin, out of that hole in the wall.
An ominous rumble from the cave pulled him up short. Above the snapped support beam, cracks were spidering up through the bedrock.
"Ezra!" he screamed, bolting toward the mine even as the first rocks came tumbling down. In moments, the rocks became boulders and the rumble became a deafening roar as the entire front of the hillside gave way and slid down like water, burying the mine and everyone inside it.
+ + + + + + +
The absolute silence that followed the avalanche was broken finally by the sounds of loud coughing and soft swearing.
"What...the hell...was that?" Ezra gasped as rock dust choked the narrow mine tunnel. He rubbed his aching head, watching as Vin groped across the dirt for the torch he'd dropped when he dragged the gambler away from the collapsing entrance.
"Half the mountain dropping on our heads?" Vin deadpanned, retrieving the still-burning torch. He made his way to the rock pile and kicked the nearest boulder.
"ANYBODY OUT THERE? WE'RE FINE!"
"Fine and dandy," Ezra murmured, reaching out to fondle one of the gold bars Vin had found beneath the tarp. Sixty-thousand in gold. Or one-hundred and twenty thousand, if his double vision was to be believed. He slumped happily against the treasure, perfectly content.
Vin gave up hollering at the rocks and turned to collect the gambler. "C'mon Ezra. Ol' Chris is gonna work himself into a lather if we don't find another way out."
"But--" Ezra protested as Vin hauled him up and away from the gold. He promptly collapsed again, groaning, as his leg gave out.
"Aw heck, Ezra!" Vin ripped off his bandanna and tied off the bleeding bullet graze on Standish's thigh. "You're a mess," he muttered, ignoring Ezra's affronted scowl. "We gotta get you to Nathan."
"But--" Ezra groaned again as Vin hauled him to his feet again, more gently this time, and tipped him into the old mine cart.
"Hang on!" Vin hollered, climbing in behind him and pushing off with one foot.
"Viiiiiiiiii--!" Ezra's cry bounced off the narrow cave walls as the old cart took off down the tracks like a shot, to be swallowed in the darkness.
+ + + + + + +
The mine cart exploded through a wooden barricade and into the sunlight on the far side of the hill, where it rolled to a squeaky stop.
Vin blinked up at the cloudless blue sky.
"What a ride," he whispered.
Beside him, Ezra slowly pried his eyes open.
The two men stared solemnly at each other for a long moment, then burst out laughing.
Vin clambered out of the cart, giggling, while Ezra fell back, clutching his sides and howling as he caught sight of the train wreck that sat, clearly visible, not more than a mile away.
They'd shot straight through the hillside, miraculously missing the turnoff into the deeper sections of the abandoned mine.
Tanner was just about to haul Standish out of the cart and take a proper look at his leg when he spotted a cloud of dust heading straight toward them across the desert.
Vin squinted, able to make out the loaded wagon in the middle of the dust cloud and the very familiar figure in the driver's seat.
Vin clouted Ezra on the shoulder and laughed harder.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee tightened his grip on the circus performer's neck, watching the man's face purple until it almost matched his shirt.
"The elephant," the man wheezed. "If you can find the elephant, she can clear the way to the little men."
Larabee released the bandit, who collapsed, clutching at the bullet hole in his shoulder and whining. Behind them, Josiah and Nathan were shoving rocks away from the mine entrance with grim intensity. Buck roamed the clearing, calling for the missing elephant.
With a frustrated growl, Chris stalked toward the rock pile and started digging. After a minute, Buck moved to join him, all four men laboring in bleak silence.
He'd never know how much time passed. Long enough for the rocks they were moving to scrape most of the skin off their hands.
Not nearly enough time for them to even think about stopping. A noise behind them finally interrupted -- something crashing awkwardly through the underbrush.
He turned, expecting to see the elephant.
A wagon jolted through the trees instead, with a smiling JD Dunne at the reins.
Behind him in the wagon bed, perched on top of what looked like the entire contents of Nathan's clinic, were Vin and Ezra.
Larabee sat down hard.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, JD still hadn't stopped laughing at Buck.
"Animal magnetism," he giggled, hopping out of the wagon, trailed by a sulky Buck, who still reeked of wet lion.
"Shut up, JD," Buck swatted at him half-heartedly and threw himself down beside Chris.
"Shut UP, JD!"
Larabee sniffed, then moved a few pointed inches upwind. Buck glowered at his grinning friends.
"I can't believe that place had a back door," he grumbled for probably the fifth time since he and JD set off to retrieve both the gold from the cave and stranded train gold safe.
The prisoners sat in a dejected row, fastened to the back of the wagon by a lead line.
"I can't believe those idiots didn't know the place had a back door," JD shot back, shooting a nervous look at the rented livery wagon. The very thought of all that gold made him twitchy. The sum of money involved seemed unnatural, incomprehensible -- not unlike the idiots who spend a year trying to dig through a wall of rock, when they could have just walked half a mile and pried off a few boards.
"I can't believe somebody shot the elephant and it wasn't me," Vin muttered, glaring into the underbrush. He turned and caught the others staring at him.
"What?" He tapped his chest. "Buffalo hunter. Remember?"
Ezra aimed a dour look at the mighty hunter. "I still can't believe you set us careening into the unknown in a mine cart. We could have plummeted down a chasm. We could have vanished into the bowels of the earth, never to be seen again."
Vin rolled his eyes. "I told you I saw sunlight! Sheesh. You'd think a fella'd show a little gratitude."
Ezra winced as Nathan gave a yank on the bandage around his leg. "Why don't you step a little closer and let me show you how grateful I am," he gritted, flexing his good knee warningly. Vin grinned, knowing he was safely out of kicking distance.
"Behave, children," Josiah sighed, taking another sip of one of Nathan's pungent herbal brews. "I myself can't believe we're going to have to arrest the Bearded Lady."
JD threw himself down next to the preacher, wide eyed. "Do we really have to? I mean, I know they were working with the bandits, but they did sort of get double-crossed. I'm pretty sure they didn't expect to have an army train smash into them. And it's not like they knew they were being used to rob another train, right? Right?"
The kid turned a pleading gaze on Larabee, who was standing watch over the Istvanos brothers. Chris shrugged, then nodded. They had more than a dozen people to haul in to custody already.
"I can't believe we're still sitting around here talking about this," he said. "Let's get the gold and everybody we are going to arrest back to the trains. The cavalry ought to be showing up any minute to save the day."
+ + + + + + +
The train wreck was swarming with army blue by the time the Four Corners lawmen returned.
As JD maneuvered the wagon through the wreckage, Vin suddenly whooped and pointed to a crowd of circus folk off to one side, fussing over their wayward elephant and the small, round bullet hole in her ear.
As they watched, her handlers were coaxing her into an impromptu show for the soldiers: standing on her head, balancing on barrels.
Vin nudged Ezra. Ezra s poked Buck. Buck smacked JD. By the time Larabee turned, the four of them were hobbling off for a closer look. He turned to complain, and caught Josiah strolling away, arm-in-arm with a grateful looking Bearded Lady. Nathan just shrugged at him and wandered away in search of someone willing to take the gold and the prisoners off their hands.
Larabee glared...at no one in particular.
Something tugged on the fringe of his poncho. Eyebrows raised, he looked down at the dirt-smudged face of a tiny girl. She let go of the fabric and raised herself on tiptoe, trying to get to eye level.
"I lost my bear," she informed him solemnly.
Chris cast around for someone, anyone, he could foist the child off on, then sighed and offered her his hand. Together, they set off in search of the bear.
"You remember where you saw it last?" he asked, crouching down to peer under a cart. Nope, no stuffed toys under there. He half-listened as the girl launched into a detailed account of every single move she'd made since she woke up that morning.
"...and then we hid under that wagon while the bad men stole the train," she was saying, pointing. Larabee nodded and led the way.
There was a bear behind the wagon all right.
"Gah!" Larabee yelped, scrambling backward with the girl in his arms, before his shocked mind had time to register more than a flash of brown fur, pink tulle and yellow fangs.
The tutu-clad bear ambled after them, licking its chops.
"Stuart!" the girl crowed, wriggling out of his arms and skipping over to hug her bear. The dancing bear rumbled happily as she grabbed his leash and led him away toward the group watching the elephant act.
Larabee stayed where he was on the ground, glaring at nothing in particular.