Author’s Note: This story, set in the Magnificent Seven universe, was originally published in the fanzine A Small Circle of Friends #12, which was a recycling ‘zine. Writers took an episode from one show and “recycled” it with characters and situations from another show. This story is based on the Episode “Monsieur Francois,” from the TV show The Adventures of Jim Bowie. It is an amateur work of fiction, with no attempt to steal or defraud the copyright holders of Magnificent Seven or Jim Bowie, nor of Georgette Heyer. The characters were merely borrowed for an intellectual exercise.
Buck Wilmington stared out at the Pacific Ocean. He'd never seen so much water in all his born days. The salty breeze tousled the tall man's dark hair. Years of hard work had broadened his shoulders. He inhaled deeply, wrinkling his mustache. The sea air, the wood and tar of the ships, the spicy aroma of Mexican food cooking somewhere in the distance, all combined into an scent that was very different from the dry air of Four Corners, back in the Arizona Territory, that stunk of cattle dung, horse sweat, and spilled whiskey.
He stood on the pier, blue eyes staring out at the ocean. He'd done a lot of things in his thirty-three years – fought to keep the Union whole, herded cattle, worked as a bouncer in the brothel where his mother and sister 'entertained' gentleman callers, trained horses, even spent a spell as a lawman – but he'd never seen anything to equal the seemingly infinite ocean.
Judge Orin Travis had sent him and Ezra Standish on an errand to San Diego. Once that they had accomplished it, the two men had quickly agreed they'd earned a little vacation before starting the long trip back to Four Corners. Ezra, of course, had found a poker game. Buck had gone sightseeing.
Now, Buck walked along the docks, a row of crates on one side of him and a wall of sacks on the other. A boy of about ten or twelve climbed on top the sacks. Despite his age, the child was dressed like more of a dandy than Ezra at his most highfaluting.
Buck paused to look at the crates, wondering what they held. Being possessed of an itchy foot himself, the ladies' man took a vicarious interest in where the crates had come from and where they were going.
The boy pushed the top sack off the stack and onto Buck's head. Unfortunately, the lad knocked himself off-balance, and the whole wall of sacks came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.
Buck and the boy both scrambled out from under the heavy sacks. Wilmington grabbed the child. The boy's top hat had fallen to the dock, revealing a head of golden air and a face that might have been attractive, had the expression been less unpleasant.
"Let me go," the boy demanded. "I will not go with you."
"You pushed those sacks off onta me." Buck's voice was half-accusing, half-disbelieving.
"And if I had a sword, I would run you through," the boy threatened. He spoke with an English accent, with a slight overlay of something else mixed in.
"You would, would you? Well, I got a good notion to give you a lickin'." Buck didn't usually spank other people's children, but it was clear this little brat needed someone to teach him some manners.
"You would not dare!" The boy sounded more offended by the notion than frightened.
"Wouldn't I? A boy your age running around, trying to kill people?" Buck kept a firm grip on him.
Suddenly, a stranger trotted up. He was a good ten years older than Buck, but he barely came up to the ladies' man's shoulder. "Ah, there's the little rascal. We've been chasing 'im all over the blooming waterfront," he announced in a Cockney accent. He grabbed the boy, trying to pull him away from Buck. He was dressed like a city dude. Buck didn't know half as much about clothes as Ezra did, but he could tell the stranger's clothes weren't anywhere near the same level of quality (or cleanliness) as the boy's. Heck, the boy's jacket probably cost more than the little Cockney's whole suit.
Another man, this one Buck's size and age, followed behind the Englishman. He was dressed like a sailor.
"Many thanks, kind sir." As the Englishman thanked Buck, the sailor clasped his strong, work-worn hands on the boy's shoulders and pulled him out of Wilmington's grasp.
"Better hold him tight; he's a dangerous character," Buck warned the man jokingly. He turned to leave, glad to be rid of the little brat.
"Señor, please, do not let them take me," the boy pleaded. "They mean me harm."
"Shut up," the Englishman whispered hotly.
Buck turned back before he had taken a single step. "Wait a minute, what do you mean by that? Harm?"
"Is it 'arm to take the little runaway to 'is parents?"
"Mentiroso! He lies! He tells a lie, Señor," the boy insisted.
One dark eyebrow rose. Buck had assumed the little Limey was the boy's pa, but he noted the discrepancy in their speech. More than one English aristocrat had come to America hoping to increase (or restore) their fortunes by investing in cattle and letting them roam the open range. The boy talked like the second son of an Oxfordshire baron whom Buck had once herded cattle for, but this chap sounded more like the nobleman's servants had.
The sailor put his hand over the boy's mouth to shut him up. The boy bit down, hard. The sailor raised his wounded hand to strike the lad. "Little bastard!"
The boy struggled to escape, but the Cockney quickly re-secured his hold on him.
Buck stuck out his arm to stop the sailor. Warming a naughty child's bottom was one thing. The blow the sailor had been prepared to deliver would've felled a grown man, let alone a child. And although Buck had been known to use some rough language himself when the situation called for it, he didn't cuss in front of women and children, nor did he think much of those who did.
"Hold it. Now, let's get this straight," Buck began.
"You stay out of this," the sailor growled in a New England accent. He pulled back his fist and punched Buck in the jaw.
Buck fell back against the crates. It only took him a second to regain his balance and return the punch. The boy tried to take advantage of the distraction and run, but he only managed a few steps before the Cockney pinned him against the crates.
Buck and the sailor traded blows. After a minute, Buck managed to knock the sailor down to the dock. The Englishman released the boy, ran to Buck, and jumped on his back. He looked ridiculous, almost like a boy playing piggyback on his daddy, as he tried ineffectively to pummel the larger man.
Instead of running, the boy leaned against the crates, his arms folded, watching the fight as though it were a Punch and Judy show put on for his amusement.
Buck twisted and threw the little man off.
The sailor and the Englishman scrambled to their feet. Both advanced on Buck. Deciding he'd had enough, Buck drew his six-shooter. The two took one look at the gun and ran off.
He holstered his pistol and turned around. He raised a dark, bushy eyebrow, surprised to see the boy was just standing there. "You're still here?"
The boy walked up to him and asked nonchalantly, "Why should I run, Señor?"
"You were runnin' from those two."
"I was outnumbered, Señor."
"Well, how 'bout me?" Buck asked him.
"You seem to be of somewhat better quality than those ruffians," the boy allowed.
Buck sighed at the left-handed compliment. "What's your name, kid?"
"I, sir, am el Conde de Monteverde. Me llamo Don Francisco Miguel de Ayala y Fancot," the boy informed him.
"That so?" Buck was inclined to think the boy was telling a whopper, but what with the way he was dressed and spoke, maybe he was telling the truth.
"But I understand I should not use my title in America. You may call me Don Francisco," the young count invited with an air of condescension.
"Well, thank you, Don Francisco." Buck didn't know whether to be amused or offended. "My name's Buck Wilmington. How long you been in America?"
"One hour." Francisco dusted off his top hat. "No me gusta aqui. I do not like it."
"Well, tell me something," Buck asked, still not entirely believing the kid, "if you're a Spaniard, then how come you speak with an English accent?"
"I went to school in England for three years. My mother was the daughter of the Earl of Denville," Francisco explained. He added, "I didn't like it."
"You didn't, huh." Buck wondered if there was anything the boy did like. "Where are your parents?"
"I am alone. I was told I would be met by my aunt. Those two fellows said she sent them. But they did not deceive me!" Francisco declared. He banged his hand against his hat indignantly. "My aunt would never send such men to greet me."
"Who's your aunt?" Maybe, Buck thought, she'd be a pretty senorita, grateful to have her nephew returned to her. He had a weakness for pretty senoritas.
"Doña Maria de Ayala y Ceron. You'll be good enough to escort me," Francisco informed Buck.
The wrangler's blue eyes widened. "Oh, I will, will I?"
Francisco looked the older man up and down, taking in his western attire. "You would not be numbered among my aunt's acquaintances."
Buck shook his head. "No, I'm not."
"However, you've heard perhaps of my great-grandfather, Don Pablo Ceron." He spoke confidently, as though everyone in the New World had heard of Pablo Ceron. When Buck gave no sign of recognition, he added, "With whom she lives," as though that would clarify his great-grandfather's identify.
"Nope, can't say that I have."
This time, it was Francisco's blue eyes that widened.
"But I can try to find him," Buck offered. "Heaven only knows what trouble you'll get into on your own. All right, son– Don Francisco," he corrected himself, "I'll take you. C'mon." He turned to the right.
"Not that way, Señor. Francisco pointed in the opposite direction. "My luggage is this way."
"Yes, your Excellency," Buck said sarcastically. "By all means, let's go get your luggage."
The boy stopped. "My cape." Francisco turned his back, waiting for Buck to place the cape on his shoulders.
"Well, I'll be hornswaggled." Buck was too amazed by the boy's chutzpah to do anything but comply. He stared at the arrogant child's back.
Francisco placed his top hat back on his head. "I will see that my great-grandfather gives you a suitable reward," he promised in a tone he might have used to offer his English grandfather's footman a shilling for running an errand.
"Yes, sir," murmured a bemused Buck Wilmington. He followed after the count, wishing he'd gone to the saloon with Ezra instead of going down to see the Pacific Ocean.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A middle-aged mestizo driving a cart pulled by two mules saw Buck carrying the luggage, and the count trailing after him. He reined his team to a halt. "You need a ride, Señor? I take you to hotel – very cheap."
"You ever heard of a man name of Pablo Ceron?" Buck asked him.
"Don Pablo? Si, who has not?" the driver asked.
The count brightened at that.
"Don Pablo Ceron is one of the richest men in California. His rancho, it's not half the size it was before the gringos came, but he is still muy rico. He owns ships, many ships, and buys and sells things all over the world," the driver explained. "And he still has the vineyard, and the cattle, and–
"If you know so much about him, you think you could find his house?" Buck interrupted.
"Casa Ceron? Si, Señor, de acuerdo." He urged his mules forward. "Gomez will take you. That's me. I am Gomez."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Maria de Ayala entered her grandfather's bedchamber and shut the door behind her. Her blue silk dress rustled as she walked to Don Pablo's bedside. "This conference has gone on much too long," she chided gently. "You must get your sleep, Grandfather."
Eduardo Ochoa y Vargas, fashionably dressed man in his early 30s, had been sitting beside the bed. He stood when the attractive brunette entered the room.
"Sleep… I shall sleep soon enough," the old man declared. "Maria, I have reached a decision. I was just telling Eduardo. I want you to marry. Then, I can die content."
"Oh, you should not speak of death, Grandfather."
"Death has taken your brother and his family. It will take me," Don Pablo Ceron predicted. "You will set the date for the marriage at once."
"I will wait until you are strong enough to walk me down the aisle," Maria contradicted him. Her pearl earrings dangled and bounced as she shook her head.
Don Pablo started to protest.
Maria interrupted. "We will speak of it tomorrow, Grandfather."
Don Pablo slammed his hand down on the bed. "We will speak of it today. Maria, you are the sole heir to both the Monteverde estates and to my company and holdings, which are in Eduardo's capable hands." He looked up at the younger man. "There is no reason for delay. I wish to know you will be provided for and protected when I am gone."
"Very well, Grandfather. We will make the arrangements." She took both his hands in hers and bent down to kiss his cheek.
Eduardo followed her to the door, then opened it for her. In the hallway, with the bedroom door shut behind them, Eduardo took her hand and raised it to his lips. "Tomorrow I will see Father Martinez."
"Until then, mi querido." She lifted her face up to him. He kissed her.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Meanwhile, Buck and Francisco were climbing out of Gomez's cart. Buck carried the boy's suitcases, one in each hand, as they walked up to the door of the elegant mansion. He banged the well-polished brass knocker against the oak door.
Inside, a maid hurried to the door. Eduardo, coming down the stairs, dismissed her with a gesture. "I'll answer it."
Eduardo opened the door and was surprised to see a stranger standing there dressed like a cowboy. He was expecting someone else. "Si?"
Buck touched his hat. "The boy's just arrived from Spain. I believe he belongs here."
Eduardo looked down and saw Francisco for the first time. He frowned. "Here?"
"He says he's the Count of Monteverde, and Señor Ceron's his great-grandfather," Buck explained.
"You seem to be the victim of a little joke, Señor. Buenas noches." Eduardo started to close the door.
"Yo soy el Conde de Monteverde," Francisco declared indignantly.
"And I, young sir, am the Duke of Parma." Eduardo gave Buck a nod of dismissal. "Good evening, Señor."
"Good evening," Buck repeated as the door closed in his face. He looked down at Francisco, folding his arms. Before he could scold the boy for his practical joke, Francisco began scolding him.
"You have made a stupid mistake!"
"This is obviously not the house of Pablo Ceron," said Francisco.
"Gomez knows this town better 'n you or me. If he says it's the Ceron home, it is. And the only mistake I've made is getting mixed up with you in the first place. Who are you, really, and where are you supposed to be?" Buck asked.
"I am el Conde de Monteverde!" Francisco stamped his foot angrily. "And I also regret your acquaintanceship."
"What are your plans now?" Buck asked. He wanted to believe the kid was lying, or playing a trick, but he couldn't help suspecting the boy was telling the truth. And, underneath the angry little aristocrat was a frightened little boy; Buck just couldn't bring himself to abandon a child with night coming on.
"I suppose this town has a hotel of some sort, no? I will go there, and, in the morning, I will secure competent help in locating the house of Don Pablo Ceron," Francisco announced.
Buck waved a hand at the mansion. "This is the house of Pablo Ceron." He bit his lip before he started cussing in front of a child. After taking a few seconds to calm down, he asked, "You have money,right?"
"Money?" Francisco pronounced the word in surprise, and with just the slightest hint of disdain. "I have never had to concern myself with money, Señor."
Buck sighed. The kid might be a brat, but it was obvious he had no more brains than a scarecrow. He reached down to pick up the boy's suitcases. "C'mon, let's go."
"Go where, Señor?" Francisco demanded.
"If Your Royal Highness has no objections," Buck began sarcastically, "I'll take you to my hotel, where I'll try to persuade the manager to accept you as a guest, despite your novel ideas about money."
Francisco glared up at his rescuer. "I am beginning to be annoyed at your impertinence, Señor."
Buck glared back down at him. There was nothing he could say to that without cussing. Luggage in hand, he started walking. "C'mon."
After a second's hesitation, Francisco hurried after him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck picked up the note from the bed and read it silently.
My dear Mr. Wilmington,
I have made the acquaintance of a charming young widow. You may have the hotel room to yourself tonight. Indeed, if fortune smiles upon me, I may not be back for two or three days.
I have the honor to remain, sir, your obedient servant,
He re-read the note with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the room would be less crowded with two instead of three. On the other hand, Ezra could probably tell if Francisco was on the level or not. It was nearly impossible to con a con man, and Ezra knew all about high society. And, finally, Buck was more than a little jealous that the gambler was spending the evening with an attractive and willing widow, while he was sharing his hotel room with an unspanked brat.
He sat down on the bed and pulled off his boots. He heard Francisco complaining, and walked over to see what the problem was. "What's the matter now?"
Francisco stood in front of the wash basin in a linen nightshirt. "At home the servants use towels like these to polish the furniture." He threw the offending piece of cloth to the floor.
"Now listen, young feller, this is one of the best hotels in San Diego." Buck hung his jacket up in the closet.
"No doubt," Francisco sneered. "I was warned that the New World was quite uncivilized."
"Oh, you were, were you?" Buck retorted.
"Hang these up," the boy ordered, handing Buck his pantaloons.
Buck took the trousers rather than let them fall to the floor, but he made no move to hang them up.
"And these." Francisco thrust his shirt and jacket at Buck.
"And were you also warned that the New World does not take kindly to imposters?" Buck asked.
"No, Señor." His voice was calmer now. "It was not expected that I would encounter persons of that description," he said matter-of-factly.
"I might have been referring to you." Buck dropped the clothes on the floor. "And I ain't your butler. Hang your own clothes up."
Blue Spanish eyes glared up at the tall man. "No one has ever thought of me as a liar before in my whole life. It is a new experience for me. I do not like it."
Ignoring his indignant protests, Buck grabbed the quilt from the bed and spread it out on the floor. "Now this ought to be just right for a boy your size." He turned around, but he didn't see Francisco. Then he glanced up. Francisco was in the bed – his bed. "Well, now, look at this. And who decided that you were gonna have the bed?"
"I did not know it needed deciding, Señor." Francisco sat up in bed. "Have you ever slept on the floor before?"
"You bet I have."
"Then you are used to it, while I am not." He laid his head back down on the pillow.
Buck said nothing for a moment, dumbfounded by the boy's logic. Then he pulled back the blanket and reached down to scoop the brat out of his bed. Just as he placed his hands under Francisco's body, something shiny caught his eye. Something familiar. "Wait a minute. What's this?" He reached out to touch the necklace the boy wore.
"It was my father's."
"Can I look at it?"
Francisco reached behind his neck, undid the clasp, and handed the necklace up to Buck.
Buck examined the pendent carefully. It reminded him of the English baron's son he'd once worked for, something he'd had. "Is this a family crest?"
"Si, it is the Ayala coat of arms," Francisco confirmed.
"Some words writ here." Buck squinted at the engraving, trying to puzzle them out.
"Our family motto." Francisco recited something in Latin. Then he translated, "Help yourself, and Heaven will help you."
"Well, you've done that all right," Buck agreed. "You've helped yourself to my time, my patience, and now my bed."
"I have told you, Señor, that you would be rewarded," Francisco reminded Buck.
Buck swung the necklace around his finger. "Y'know, you just might be who you say you are. No one could have your gall and not be." Sitting on the bed, he leaned in closer to the boy. "How'd it happen that you traveled to America alone? Where are your parents?"
"Dead, Señor." His voice quivered and, for a moment, he was a little boy instead of the Count of Monteverde. "They were killed in a fire. I could not stay in our villa whilst it was being rebuilt, so my godfather, el Duque de Toledo, sent me to live with my aunt and great-grandfather until all was repaired and restored."
Buck thought a moment. If the kid really was the count… "You'd better go to sleep now. We'll get all this straightened out in the morning."
"Good. No doubt in the daylight you'll be able to find the right house." With that, Francisco rolled over to go to sleep.
Buck's sympathy vanished as Francisco's attitude returned. "Now, look, I told you–" But the boy was paying him no mind, merely nestling deeper into the covers. Buck looked at the pendent with the coat of arms and swung the chain around his fingers again.
He sat and watched Francisco until slow, even breathing told him the boy was asleep, then he pulled his boots back on.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later that night, the Cockney and the sailor knocked on the door of Casa Ceron. The door was opened almost immediately, not by one of the servants, but by Eduardo Ochoa himself.
Eduardo stepped outside and shut the door behind them so no one in the house could hear them. "I told you never to come here." Disdain dripped from every syllable. He looked down at the little Englishman, then turned his scornful gaze on the sailor, who was an inch taller than him and easily fifty pounds heavier, all of it muscle.
"But, Señor, we 'ad to come. The boy got away from us," the Cockney explained.
"I know," Eduardo retorted. "He tried to come here with some cowboy, but I sent them away. He will undoubtedly return manaña. Find them."
"We already 'ave, Señor. 'E's at the 'Orton 'Otel."
"Then what are you doing here?" Eduardo asked pointedly.
"Ah, very good, very good indeed." The little Cockney nodded his understanding of the order and turned to his huge partner. "Eh, Reagan?"
The sailor nodded, and Eduardo slipped into the house without another word, shutting the door in their faces. The two walked away.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
From behind a corner of the building, Buck watched until the two men were out of sight. Then he snuck around to the front of the house. He saw a shape in front of an upstairs window – a female silhouette – and smiled.
He climbed up the trellis and peeked through the window. Maria sat on a chair, brushing her long, ebony hair. Buck tried the window gently; it was locked. Pulling his Bowie knife from his belt, he pried the window open.
Maria stood. Too shocked to speak, she took a fearful step backward, away from the stranger invading her bedroom.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," Buck assured her quietly. He noticed the knife in his hand, automatically held at the ready, and sheepishly sheathed it. "Had to use this to open the window."
"What do you want?" Maria managed to ask.
"Shhh," Buck urged.
She ran to the door. Buck stepped forward to stop her. "Aaahh!" she yelled as he reached for her shoulders.
Buck put his left hand over her mouth, and his right arm behind her back. He drew her close. In a whisper, he said, "I gotta talk to you – just talk – I ain't gonna hurt you." He looked at the door, wondering if anyone had heard her cry. "It's gonna be a little awkward if we gotta hold this position for long. I'll let you go if you promise not to scream, ma'am."
Buck removed his hand. Then he let go of her and let her step back. Under different circumstances he'd enjoy holding her close, but not when she thought he was a burglar or worse. "That's better."
"Who are you?" Her tone was every bit as imperious as her nephew's.
"The name's Buck Wilmington, ma'am." He took off his hat. "Are you Doña Maria de Ayala?"
"I am, and I demand to know the reason for this outrageous behavior." Her bosom heaved; her eyes flashed.
Trying his best to ignore the view, Buck continued. "Do you have a nephew named Francisco de Ayala?"
She fell silent. After a moment, she replied quietly, "No."
"You sure?" Buck had believed the kid, but if the senorita said he wasn't her nephew, then Buck didn't know what to believe.
Maria turned away, unwilling to let a gringo see her eyes fill with tears. "I see no reason to discuss my personal affairs with you." She took a deep breath. "He was killed, five months ago, in Spain." She struggled to maintain control of her voice. "With his parents."
"Are you certain he was killed," Buck inquired as gently as possible.
"Why do you ask such a question?" She could no longer keep the heartbreak out of her voice. "Must you torture me?"
Buck walked around so he was facing her. "Well, ma'am, it just may be that he wasn't killed."
"This is diabolical," she accused him. "To come here and raise false hopes. My brother is dead, and his wife and son with him."
Buck reached into his pocket for Francisco's necklace.
"To renew the agony of my grief." She sank into a chair, no longer able to hold back her tears.
Buck kneeled beside her. He dangled the necklace in her face. "You ever see this before?"
Maria reached out for it eagerly, recognizing it immediately. "Where did you get this?"
"From your nephew, Francisco. He's asleep in my hotel room right now." Buck gave her a smug smile.
"Here, in San Diego?"
"But the letter said the whole family had perished," Maria said disbelievingly.
"Not Francisco. He's very much alive." And a pain in the neck, Buck thought. "Now, this letter about his family, did you see it?"
"But of course." Her eyes narrowed. She looked up at him suspiciously. "There is something very wrong here, Señor. Why have you come here secretly? Why did you not bring Francisco with you?"
"I did, earlier this evening," Buck protested. "A young gentleman closed the door in our faces."
Maria turned a puzzled face up to him. "That is strange. Eduardo would certainly investigate something as important as that."
"My fiancé. Eduardo Ochoa, my grandfather's manager."
"Oh. Now, this letter, was it from the Duke of Toledo?" She nodded, and he continued. "He wrote it himself?"
"And you're familiar with his handwriting?" Buck persisted.
"No, but–" She looked up at him. "What are you implying, Señor?"
"By any chance, are you the heir to the Monteverde title and estates, and to your grandfather's business as well, if'n anything happened to Francisco?"
"You lie!" Eyes flashing, she rose to her feet. "That is a dreadful accusation against my fiancé. You insult his honor."
"Well, I'm not engaged to him, I can afford to be suspicious."
"I have perfect confidence in Eduardo," declared Maria. She turned her back on Buck.
"I don't," countered Buck.
"He certainly would not forge a letter, especially with such a horrible lie about Francisco," Maria insisted.
"Tell me, is there somewhere downstairs near the front door where you can hide?" Buck asked.
Maria turned to face him. "Hide?"
"I'm gonna bring Francisco back here, first thing in the morning. Eight o'clock," Buck told her.
"Why should I hide?" Maria was still confused.
"You might be a little surprised to hear what your fiancé says," Buck predicted.
"I'll do no such thing." Such tricks were beneath the dignity of the daughter of a Spanish count.
"Don't you wanna be sure?" He all but double-dared her.
"I am sure."
"Well, he's your fiancé." Buck's tone made it clear he wouldn't have been engaged to Eduardo (or permitted his sister to have been engaged to him) for all the tea in China. "Anyhow, we'll be here, eight sharp." Buck went back to the window and let himself out the way he'd come.
As for Doña Maria de Ayala y Ceron, it took her a long time to get to sleep that night.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck opened the hotel door quietly, not wanting to wake Francisco. He needn't have worried. The bed was empty. Buck took one look at the open window, the disarranged bedcovers, and the overturned chair. He swore quietly. Then he hurried out of the room.
Outside the hotel, he saw an open carriage with a driver who looked like Gomez's twin. "Hey, hombre, you seen anything of a little boy in a nightshirt in the last hour or so? Blond boy, 'bout so high?" Buck held his hand up to indicate Francisco's size.
"Si, Señor, just a few minutes ago."
"Which way did he go?" Buck asked.
The driver shook his head. "He didn't go nowhere, Señor. El rubio, he was took."
"Took where? Which way?" Buck demanded.
"Two men, they had this boy. He was kicking and carrying on something fierce."
"Hombre, I swear if you don't tell me which way they went–" Buck laid his hand on his gun butt.
"They didn't go nowhere, Señor. I took them en mi coche."
"Took 'em where?" Buck insisted.
"I took them to the waterfront en mi coche."
"All right, drive as fast as you can." Buck climbed into the carriage.
"Donde, Señor? Where do you want to go?"
An exasperated Buck called out, "The waterfront. Take me where you dropped them two fellers off."
"Si, Señor." Shrugging to himself at the odd behavior of gringos, the driver urged his team forward.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck saw the little Cockney running in an alley near the dock. He jumped down from the moving carriage and chased after him.
"Señor! My money," the driver called out to him.
The Englishman took one look at Buck and ran as though the Devil himself were chasing him. "Reagan! Reagan, Reagan!"
The Cockney led Buck straight to the big sailor, who was holding Francisco by one hand. Without even slowing down, Buck punched Reagan in the jaw, combining the momentum of his run with his not inconsiderable strength. The sailor fell to the ground, and Francisco broke free of his grasp.
The Englishman tried to run, but Buck picked up the little Limey and banged his head against a barrel. Francisco picked up a length of chain and walloped Reagan over the head with it.
"Did you see what I did, Señor, with the chain?" Francisco sounded inordinately proud of himself.
"I sure did. You're learning fast," Buck complimented him.
"They were going to wrap it around me, but I wrapped it around him." Francisco's eyes gleamed with excitement. "That is, como se dice, the turning of the tables, no?"
"That's right." Buck picked up the chain and held it before Francisco. "Y'know something, you came mighty close to being shark bait."
"I know, and I will thank the Good Lord for my deliverance in my prayers tonight."
"You do that." Buck started peeling some baling wire from a nearby crate. "C'mon, help me tie up these two. We'll leave 'em here for the dock workers to find in the morning."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The young count settled comfortably in the bed. He'd tried not to laugh at Buck in the sight of his long underwear, and failed, which had put Buck in a less than cheerful mood. After frowning at him once more, Buck lay down on the floor. He tried to get comfortable, but failed.
"What?" Buck growled.
"When I said my prayers, I asked the Good Lord to bless you, too," Francisco informed him.
"Oh. Thanks." Buck wasn't sure what to say to that. He usually left the praying up to Josiah.
"I said, 'Dear Lord, please, bless Buck.' You do not mind, if I call you Buck?" the boy asked.
"Call me anything you want." Buck was tired from the long day, sore from the fight, and in no mood to carry on a conversation with someone who laughed at his long johns.
"You're welcome." Buck yawned and tried to find a comfortable position on the floor. Then he glanced up at the boy in his bed – the bed he'd paid for – and got up. "This is silly. Move over."
"You don't have to have the whole bed to yourself. We can share it, can't we?" Buck couldn't believe he was pleading with a half-pint kid for the right to share his own bed.
Instantly Francisco was the Count of Monteverde, instead of just a tired little boy. "I have never shared a bed in my whole life."
"Well, it's time you started. Move over."
"I have never shared a room," Francisco continued. "Except, of course, with Hector."
"My dog. He always slept on the floor beside me." His tone implied that was the proper place for animals and peasants to sleep.
"Well, I'm not Hector. Scoot," Buck ordered. When Francisco hesitated to obey, he asked, "You've really lived the life of a little gentleman, haven't you?"
"I am a gentleman, Señor."
Buck spread his hands in dismay and disgust. "All right, then. Stay a gentleman. Keep the bed. Good night." He returned to the quilt on the floor.
Francisco laid his head back down on the pillow, but he watched Buck carefully. "Señor Buck?"
Francisco inquired innocently, "It is hard, the floor?"
"It is hard," an exasperated Buck agreed.
"I have decided. You may share the bed. As el Conde de Monteverde, I can do no less."
Buck turned to face the boy, exasperation being replaced with confusion. "Why?"
"I have tried to think what my father would do, and my grandfather. They would share the bed, I think."
"Why would they?" The boy's behavior hadn't given Buck too high an opinion of the actions of counts.
"Because they were gentlemen," Francisco asserted.
Buck propped himself up on one elbow. "I thought a gentleman was a feller who always took a whole room to himself."
"No, Señor. A gentleman is– It means–" Francisco struggled to define the concept in his own mind, a hard enough task for a child without the added difficulty of translating into his second language. "Do you know noblesse oblige? What it means?"
Buck had heard the phrase before, but wasn't quite sure of its meaning. His French was limited to three phrases: fille de joie, toujours l'amour, and vive la difference. "Well, what does it mean to you, Francisco?"
"I think it means that persons of high birth, like myself, must always be honorable and generous."
"Sounds like a fair definition," Buck allowed.
"Especially to one's inferiors, like you."
Buck stared at the boy, amazed at his gall.
"Since I am a gentleman, you may have half the bed," he conceded.
"I'll take it, even on those terms. Move over." Buck climbed into the bed quickly, before Francisco could change his mind. The boy scooted to the far side of the bed. Buck got settled. He relaxed, enjoying the soft mattress beneath his tired body.
"It is very strange. You do not have to fight for me, but it is twice now you have saved my life," mused Francisco.
"Well, I'll call it even if you'll just go to sleep."
"Buenas noches, Señor Buck."
"Good night, Francisco." Buck rolled over on his side, turning his back to Francisco.
Francisco lay quietly for a moment, then asked, "Could it be that you are of noble birth?"
"Huh?" It took an effort not to laugh in the boy's face. As far as Buck knew, his father had been one of his mother's customers. Heaven only knew which one. "No, just a plain American."
"But you have acted almost exactly like a gentleman, and yet–"
"Go to sleep, Francisco," Buck interrupted.
"And yet you are not a gentleman," Francisco finished quietly. "It is all very strange. I do not understand 'plain American.'"
Buck refused to answer, hoping the boy would take the hint to shut up and sleep.
Francisco studied his rescuer for a few minutes, the 'plain American' who acted like a gentleman, yet could not trace his ancestry in Burke's Peerage or the Almanach de Gotha. Buck Wilmington was beyond his youthful comprehension.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Exactly at eight o'clock the next morning, Buck knocked on the door of Casa Ceron. Francisco stood beside him.
"Good morning," Buck said when Eduardo opened the door.
"You again?" Eduardo tried to shut the door.
Buck stuck a boot in to stop it, and pushed the door open. He forced his way in, pushing Eduardo back a few paces. "This time, the boy and I are gonna see Don Pablo."
The parlor door opened an inch. Maria peeked out.
Two crossed dueling swords hung on the wall. Eduardo dashed to the wall and grabbed one. He took up an attack stance that would've made any fencing master proud.
Buck pushed Francisco to the side, out of harm's way. "Stand clear." He drew his six-shooter. "Put up that pig-sticker," he ordered in disgust. "Since I got to this town, I've been attacked by grain sacks, punched, and jumped on. No way I'm gonna mess around with an idiot with a sword. Now, put that fool thing down, hombre, and we'll talk about this…" He glanced at Francisco. "…like civilized gentlemen."
Maria opened the door. "Francisco! Eres tu. It's really you."
"Tia Maria!" The boy hurried into his aunt's embrace. "Who is this man?"
"My fiancé. Or, he was," Maria corrected herself.
"This is the varmint who sent those two desperados after you, Francisco. And I'm willing to bet he's the one who forged the letter from the Duke of Toledo, saying you were killed, and substituted it for the letter that said you were on your way here." Buck's gun never wavered as he pointed it at Eduardo's heart. "What do you want me to do with him, ma'am?"
"He has to live with himself. Perhaps that will be punishment enough." Removing her engagement ring, she tossed it on the floor at Eduardo's feet.
"Maria," Eduardo began.
"Get out," she ordered.
"You heard the lady." Buck escorted Eduardo to the door, keeping his gun trained on him. Buck smiled; after having Eduardo shut the door in his face twice, he purely enjoyed shoving Eduardo out the door and shutting it behind him.
Francisco removed his hat and gave a half-bow. "Tia Maria, may I present mi amigo Buck Wilmington. My aunt, Doña Maria de Ayala."
"I know Señor Wilmington, and I am very grateful to him." Maria smiled up at the tall, handsome man.
"Señor Buck, I think I understand now about a gentleman," Francisco decided. "In Spain it is how one is born, here, it is how one acts. Any plain American can be a gentleman. Es verdad, si?"
"Any good American," Buck corrected. He could think of a lot of men who weren't gentlemen by any definition of the term. And he knew six whom Queen Victoria would never invite to dinner at Buckingham Palace, but were certainly gentlemen by his definition.
"Then I shall try to be a good, plain American," Francisco announced.
"You're pretty close right now." Buck tousled the boy's hair affectionately. The brat wasn't half bad, once you got to know him.
Maria smoothed out her nephew's hair. "And now I think we should go upstairs. Your great-grandfather will be very glad to meet you." She turned from Francisco and looked up at Buck. "And you, too, Señor Wilmington."
The three of them started up the stairs. Halfway up, Francisco stopped.
"Esperame, Tia Maria. I must extend my apologies." Francisco turned toward Buck, who was one step below him. "Señor Buck, I said I would have you rewarded."
"Yes, you did." Buck wasn't as mercenary as Ezra Standish, but he had no objection to a bit of extra money in his pocket. From the looks of the house and Maria's clothes and jewelry, Don Pablo could certainly afford a generous reward.
"But one gentleman can not reward another, Señor," Francisco told him. "I can only promise to help you, as you have helped me, when I am big enough to do so."
Buck was too much of a gentleman to let his disappointment at the lack of a reward show on his face. "I'll count on that, Count Francisco."