by Sevenstars

Buck and JD, on their way down from the boardinghouse, passed the saloon just in time to be joined by a yawning, grumbling Ezra. "Of all uncivilized hours for a man to be forced to abandon the comforts of his feather bed and down pilla," the gambler complained, his Southern drawl rich with disgust, "this one ranks second only to the veritable indecent crack of dawn. Why Mr. Larabee could not postpone this conference until after mornin' service is quite beyond my comprehension. My constitution will never recover from the shock of the countless times my association with you gentlemen has curtailed my rest."

"Late night, pard?" Buck guessed with a grin, winking at his young partner.

"I did not retire until nearly four-thirty A.M.," Standish replied, "and of course it was imperative that I arise in sufficient time to make myself presentable for Mrs. Travis." He was, as always, clean and spruce, freshly shaved, his chestnut hair carefully pomaded, thick lace frills ornamenting his fine cambric shirt under a yellow silk-brocade waistcoat, blue cravat with a pearl stickpin in it, and his conservative black Sunday coat.

"Don't forget Miss Cullin," JD supplied.

Ezra wrinkled his nose. "A gentleman never openly disrespects a female of whatever station or antecedents," he said, "but I cannot imagine a mule packer bein' worthy of particular attention in that regard, Mr. Dunne."

They turned down the alley and circled around to the back of the Clarion building, knowing Mary would be expecting them to come in by the kitchen door like family. Much to their surprise, it wasn't the newspaperwoman who answered Buck's brisk knock, but rather an unfamiliar vision in a plaid cotton frock, given an hourglass effect in front by three decorative self frogs descending from lace-rimmed V throat to waist, each shorter than the one above, emphasized by an outlining of black cord binding, which also formed a V from shoulders to waist. Buck didn't purposely try to look, but he could tell from the way the dress fit and the hang of the skirt that there was nothing underneath it but a pair of red flannels and one petticoat, instead of the three that were usually considered the absolute decent minimum. A big flat bow substituted for a bustle, trailing broad streamers down to calf level. Pert little green bows decorated her hair, which was piled on top of her head, with a fringe of bangs around the forehead and a wavy lock streaming down the back. A cameo on a gold chain hung at her throat, and silver rings starred her fingers. Only the oval silver-rimmed spectacles and a fine faint scar he had noticed at the edge of her jaw the day before gave Buck any hint that this was the same dusty, rough-dressed wrangler he and Vin had assisted yesterday. For a moment he gaped again, and then his natural gallantry asserted itself and he swept off his broad-brimmed hat. "'Morning, Miss Darcy," he said. "You're lookin' mighty lovely this fine Sunday."

She laughed out loud. "Oh, Buck, don't feel you have to act like a cavalier just because I'm wearing a skirt instead of britches! I'm the same me I was yesterday, just cleaner."

The big man flushed slightly but grinned in response, willing as always to let the woman set the tone for the relationship. "Sorry, Miss Darcy--well, no, I ain't, exactly. You remember JD, I reckon, and this is--"

"--Ezra P. Standish, my dear, at your every command, I assure you," the gambler interrupted, pushing forward to lift her hand to his lips. "Our humble community is honored beyond measure to entertain such a desert flower as yourself."

JD rolled his eyes, and Darcy seemed actually briefly discomfited by the Southerner's pretension. "Come on in, we've got fresh coffee."

Mary came forward from the sitting room to greet them, dressed in her best black bombazine with the white lace collar and cuffs, though the throat was still unbuttoned and the sleeves turned back for comfort. The dining table had been covered with an imported German cloth with colored borders of Zwiebelmuster pattern, the Sheffield-plate coffee service, cake and fruit baskets set out in the center, dark blue Derby china bordered with gilt and centered with pink eglantine arranged for easy access, clean white napkins folded and ringed. "You've probably had breakfast already, but serve yourselves," she said.

"Mrs. Travis, you are a ministerin' angel and a savior of soul and body," sighed Ezra. "I don't presume to speak for Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne, but I have not even had the opportunity to resuscitate myself with a cup of coffee, the kitchen at the tavern not yet bein' open."

"If you could'a got up a little earlier, you'd'a been welcome to join us at the boardinghouse, Ezra," JD observed.

"I believe I have already articulated my views on the subject of early risin', Mr. Dunne," the gambler pointed out with a glare. As he was pouring coffee, his eye fell on a couple of inexpensively clothbound books lying on the green plush sofa. Since he knew Mary didn't ordinarily leave her books on the seating pieces, he moved curiously over to see what they were. "Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth's Self-Raised and Henry M. Stanley's Through the Dark Continent," he murmured, scanning the bindings. "An interestin' pairin', I must say. I wasn't aware you were a devotee of fervid romance, Mrs. Travis."

"Oh, they're not mine," Mary told him. "They're Darcy's. She had them in her saddlebag, along with the dress she's wearing."

The Southerner's green eyes widened. "And so the lady is literate in addition to her other recommendations," he observed. "I confess to bein' both gratified and taken aback, which is not somethin' I am given to admitting. Are you fond of travel tales, Miss Cullin? Tell me, have you read Alfred Henry Wallace on his exploits in the Amazon? Mr. Tanner and I have recently been enjoyin' that."

Chris and Vin arrived a minute or two later, and Nathan and Josiah last of all. When everyone had refreshments at hand, Darcy settled down to begin explaining her situation. "You have to understand first, a lot of what I'm going to tell you is guesswork," she said. "If I could prove any of it, I probably wouldn't have had my mules lured off, because I'd have gotten the law up in Pueblo to put a stop to the whole business.

"Pueblo's been there for a while, and I'm something of a johnny-come-lately, but I always figured that with all the mining camps up in the Colorado Rockies there was business enough for everybody. The biggest operator up our way is a man named Elliott Blackner. He's got freight outfits, pack strings, a stagecoach service for passengers and light freight, and celerity and utility wagons for short-distance hauls and fast express. Over the last ten years or so he's been slowly buying up smaller outfits, paying good, fair prices, I'll give him that, and of course the more interests he accumulates the more money he can make and the more of the competition he can afford to absorb.

"It didn't take him any longer than it did me to decide that the Discovery route was worth covering. His strings are bigger than mine; I've really only got the one, fifty head of mules, six paid packers plus myself, and he's got two or three, two hundred head each, operating all at once on this route alone--one on the way down from Pueblo, one heading back, and one in one town or the other. Of course even the biggest mule train, with the heaviest loads you can pack, will only carry about thirty-two ton of freight, and a caravan of jerkline wagons can haul a hundred and forty, so you can see that there's business enough for more than one company. And Blackner and I both try to shy away from maximum load on steep mountain trails. I'll put about two hundred sixty pounds on each mule going up; at four and a half cents a pound, which is the standard rate for mountain work, that's $585 for a trip. It takes ten days down loaded, five back up if we're empty, though that doesn't apply now, with the trial contract to carry the ore to the railhead. Supplies for my packers and me, counting tobacco and staple medicines, runs just under seventy-two dollars for a month, and wages are forty a month per man, so if you figure five months of good travel weather, that's a maximum seven round trips plus one home, and a net profit for me of a bit above $2500, since I grow my own hay and feed. "Blackner and I got along peacefully enough my first couple of years in business, though I always figured he'd offer to buy me out if I made a go of it; that's his style, from what my brother Vandy's told me. And he did, one time last winter, but I told him no. Then I nailed the ore contract at the beginning of this season and the trouble began. The big deep-mine company up in Discovery is superintended by a man my father knew in the Comstock, a self-made millionaire who started out without much but a pickax and a pack burro, like a lot of them. He offered me first crack at the contract out of respect for Dad and their friendship. Of course even the Wonder only took out about sixty-five thousand ounces last year, but once it fell into line with me, I was able to snag a combine of about fifty of the little mines on the strength of its endorsement, and they're worth close to another million; they liked it that I was offering to handle the gold, not on the per-pound rate I charge for upcoming merchandise, but on a percentage-of-worth basis. Those contracts will mean a big boost to my income. The mines cast the gold in ingots, just under three hundred pounds each, to make it hard for road-agents to handle. Each of those bars is worth a little over $69,000, and a single mule can carry one down. My contract specifies I'm to get one penny on every $10,000 of that. Over the course of the season, provided the veins don't pinch out, that will be almost two hundred forty ingots, worth over sixteen and a half million dollars--more than $1650 for me. Blackner knew what the Wonder's endorsement would be worth and he'd been angling to get its business for his company; when he came in second he was about as close to livid as you can get. He was too smart to come out and say anything in public, but he made up his mind to break me.

"It started out as little annoyances. Cinches cut, physick slipped into the mule feed. Then he got to trying to hire my packers away from me. That fell flat in a hurry, because my boss packer, Fernando Miramontes, worked with or for my dad for most of the last twenty years, and the rest of the crew are his sons. You probably know that Mexicans are loyal to the patron, though in my case it's la patrona, and besides that they tend to get treated as second-class citizens by the Anglos; as a woman in a man's business I've had a taste of that, time to time, so I know what it's like and I treat my boys right.

"Blackner stepped it up. Before I left Pueblo this last trip somebody started a fire in my barn. It was just some hay, well soaked with water, and it made a lot of smoke but didn't do any real damage, but I knew he was declaring war. And believe me, I tried to tie him to it, but the few tracks Nando could find just carried out to the road and got lost there, and whoever the guy was he'd been careful not to drop anything or be seen. Then, of course, night before last three riders took out my nighthawker and scattered most of my pack stock. What he'll try next I don't even like to think about."

The Seven had listened attentively, without comment, distributed about the room in typical fashion--Chris and Ezra on a pair of matching rosewood rococo chairs, the gambler comfortably relaxed, hat held loosely on his knee in deference to Darcy's and Mary's presence, the gunfighter erect and alert, resisting all temptation; Vin squatting on his heels beside his best friend; Buck leaning easily against the wall at the end of the sofa where the women sat, JD close alongside him, thumbs hooked through his gunbelt in front of his Colts; Josiah in the big green easy-chair that had been Steven Travis's, hands resting on his spread knees, and Nathan standing in the background like a shadow. It was Buck who spoke first, trading on his long association with Larabee, knowing it made him a sort of privileged character, and moved as always by an inborn knight-errantry that made him the sworn blood foe of every tyrant and bully he met. "He won't try nothin' next, Miss Darcy," the big man grated softly. "Maybe if he'd kept his fun to Pueblo he'd got by with it, but he made himself one big mistake. He's started foolin' around in our territory now."

JD raked a hand through his overlong hair. "This is gonna sound like a pretty stupid question," he began, "but if like you said Blackner always pays a fair price for the outfits he buys, why don't you just sell out? You could take the money and start over somewhere, maybe bigger than you are now."

"Because I can't afford to let myself get backed down, that's why," Darcy told him. "In my position, if I show even one hint of anything that anybody could take as weakness, I'm done for. It's a little like you when you're facing a man with a gun. You can tell yourself you've got any number of good reasons to avoid a fight, but deep down you know that the people watching are just going to think one thing if you do--that you're a coward--and once you get that name, you might just as well hang it up. Anyway, I've given half my life to learning this business and I'm not about to be driven out. Dad used to say I was a blockheaded Swede, just like Mother, never mind that he was Irish on both sides. But I've got my pride."

"You mentioned a rider who headed north from where you found the mules," Chris remembered. "Would he have come all the way down from Pueblo?"

"No, I don't think so, Mr. Larabee," Darcy told him. "If that was all, it seems like he'd have made his move sooner. I've learned to keep close tabs on Blackner, and I know what his schedule is like. One of his Discovery trains should have pulled out about a day or two behind me. The boys who ran my mules off were probably travelling with it."

"Then we got 'em," JD declared brightly. "There ain't nothin' Vin can't track. We can just follow 'em right back to the pack train and--"

"And what?" Chris interrupted, not rebuking, but in the even tone of one stating an incontrovertible fact. "We might be able to prove they were the ones who did it, on the evidence of their horses' prints, but we couldn't show that Blackner had ordered it. We'd have to be able to find someone who'd testify that they worked for him, or had left Pueblo with the train--and if Blackner is as smart and as careful as Miss Cullin suggests he is, he'll have made sure that's no go. All they'll have to do is claim, and keep claimin', that they hooked up with Blackner's outfit for company, or to earn a few dollars. He'll see they get a little extra pay for their trouble, and since the mules weren't in their possession, the best we'll be able to do is get them six months or so in prison, not hanged. Blackner will go home, hire another man or two, and go back to what he was doin' till he gets his way."

Darcy nodded unhappily. "That's one reason I was shy of coming in and telling you about all this. It may be your territory, like Buck says, but what can you do? I don't mean any offense, but it looks to me as if the whole thing's still mine to attend to. I've got a job to do here, and anyone who gets in my way is gonna get run over. Blackner just doesn't understand who or what he's dealing with. But he will. If he wants a fight, my boys and I will give it to him. We're not gunmen, but we'll protect what's ours, like anyone's got a right to do."

"I didn't say there was nothin' we could do," Chris pointed out. "Do you have any idea where Blackner would be just now?"

Darcy tilted her head. "Actually, I heard he was planning on coming down with this train, talking to some of the mine superintendents in Discovery, trying to pre-empt their outbound hauling business before I had a chance to prove I could handle it."

Chris nodded. "That's probably why he picked this trip to send some of his boys down ahead and run your mules off. And, like Buck said, that's where he's tripped himself."

"Got yourself a plan, cowboy?" Vin guessed.

His leader stood and began pacing slowly back and forth while the other six and the two women watched. "Starting from where you left your outfit, Miss Cullin, about how long do you think it'll take you to get up to Discovery, once you get your stock back there?"

"Couple of days, maybe three," was the reply. "We were just at the edge of the foothills, about to start up, when it happened."

Larabee nodded. "Then Blackner's not likely to make another move till you get into the camp. On those narrow trails it'll be a lot harder for him to make sure his boys don't get spotted, either by you and yours or by some other traveller goin' up or down. If Discovery's like most ore camps, it's swarming with people day and night, and a lot of things can get swept under the rug in the excitement. So we need to be there, ready and watching."

He paused, looking from one attentive face to another. "First, I want to have a man or two with Miss Cullin's crew, just as support. Josiah--you've spent time below the Border, so you'll probably get along with her Mexicans best, and you've got the patience to deal with her mules whether you've ever packed or not. You'll join them, you and...JD. In a Mexican crew an Anglo will stand out, but he can pose as her chore boy, and if anybody asks, he's green, fresh out of the East, and Miss Cullin was the only person he could find who'd give him a job."

Josiah nodded sleepily in acceptance of the role assigned him. Buck shifted, a faint frown crossing his face; he didn't like the prospect of his young partner not being by his side. But he knew enough to hold his objections till he and Chris could talk in private. "If I might be permitted to offer a suggestion, Mr. Larabee...?" Ezra's gentle drawl interrupted.

Chris said nothing, but his cool eyes encouraged the gambler to say his piece. "Nothin' has yet been said of the number of foes we may face," Standish pointed out. "You understand I am merely seekin' information; our first experience together offered an opposition far larger than anythin' this miscreant Blackner may be able to throw against us--but still I should like to have some idea. My dear?" he prompted to Darcy.

"His string will be two hundred, if he's following his regular pattern. One man to every eight mules is standard. That's twenty-five, maybe another man or two to look after the camp outfit, cook, rustle wood, what have you. I don't know if the three who visited my camp would be counted in that number or not."

"Then, assumin' the worst, we may look to thirty, apart from Mr. Blackner himself," Ezra calculated. "We are seven, and Miss Cullin and her employees double that figure. Odds slightly in excess of two to one, which is not insurmountable. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that it may be to our advantage, tactically, if the opposition remains unaware of our exact numbers and identities. I propose that I ride ahead by a day or two, alone, and insert myself into the life of the camp, posin' as a gambler out to mine the hopeful miners," and he smiled angelically, all the way back to his gold tooth. "If Mr. Blackner, or even his hired hands, are well known there, it may be possible for me to glean a good deal of information through the random idle gossip of the inhabitants."

Chris nodded thoughtfully. "That's a good idea. Do it. Vin, Buck, Nathan and I will follow about halfway between you and Miss Cullin. We'll work out a schedule for contact later."

Ezra lifted two fingers to his brow in a half salute. "I want to make sure Miss Cullin's crew knows all of us by sight," Larabee continued, "so we'll ride as far as her camp together, then move on from there, Ezra first. We'll start out tomorrow morning. Nathan and Josiah, you'll see to it we've got enough supplies to get us to Discovery, properly distributed. Vin and JD, check our tack and our horses' shoes. I'll send a wire to the Judge so he can arrange to have the town covered till we can get back." He glanced at the black-and-gilt clock under a glass dome on one of the marble shelves of the tall étagère with the filigree brass legs; it was ten minutes after ten. "We'd better be goin'. Service in twenty minutes, and then we'll have to get Wyatt and Mr. Bucklin to unlock their doors so we can tend to our business. Miss Cullin, we'll see you first thing. Mary--" He touched his hat brim to the two women and turned in a swirl of black duster. Vin flowed to his feet and followed. The others, murmuring thanks to Mary for the coffee and refreshments, shuffled out, leaving the room suddenly ringing with the psychic echo of their energy.

+ + + + + + +

Midafternoon found Darcy strolling around the town of Four Corners, dressed in her trail clothes for comfort, with her Colt strapped at her side and her spurs chiming gentle music to the rhythm of her steps. She'd heard something of these Seven, though she'd never had occasion to visit their town, and of how they had cleaned up a community that seemed on the verge of being abandoned to the roughs and the big cattlemen; she was intrigued by the whole situation, and wondered what kind of town could hold such a disparate group even after the bad ones had been run out. She could understand Larabee--she'd been hearing of him most of her life and even vaguely remembered seeing him once, when she was little and he a very young man, back in Virginia City--and Buck Wilmington, and Tanner the plainsman, and even JD, the eager young Easterner on a quest for adventure and manhood; but she marvelled at the others, Ezra the card-playing Southern dandy, Nathan the quiet healer, Josiah the preacher. She had gone with Mary and Billy to his Sunday service, finding somewhat to her surprise that all the others except Tanner were seated quietly at the back of the sanctuary where they could get to the door in a hurry in case of an alarm outside. Billy had promptly turned in to sit next to Larabee, and his mother had followed with an air not altogether resigned--Darcy had a feeling there was something going on there, perhaps something neither the man nor the newspaperwoman was fully willing to admit to; she remembered how Mary had addressed Larabee by his first name in the office yesterday. There had been a couple of pages of notes lain out on the lectern, but when Josiah began his talk he'd laid them aside and preached passionately and apparently extemporaneously against the sin of greed, inspired, it seemed, by Darcy's trouble with Blackner. Yet she had seen the Schofield S&W he'd worn at his left hip, and the big Bowie knife that balanced it. This was no such clergyman as she'd ever seen before, and she'd seen her share of tough ones, for the sinful mining towns by their nature needed a man four-square to fill their pulpits.

She counted forty commercial buildings strung along the main street and back down the larger alleys, and about a hundred and fifty houses, not all of them occupied, of varying size and pretension scattered along the outskirts--too many for too few: the town, like most Western towns, obviously serviced a suburban population, with a lot of folks living on farms and ranches and coming in for what they needed. Some of the stores were boarded up, but she saw equally as many with signs whose paint was fresh enough to suggest they'd been in business no more than a year, quite possibly since the coming of the Seven. There were two livery barns, one operated in conjunction with the blacksmithy, the other attached to C&D Smith's flour-feed-and-seed business, two flights up over which a sign was displayed: Nathan Jackson--Bones Set, Wounds Healed. There was Bucklin's Groceries, Watson's Hardware, Potter's Dry Goods & Notions, Butterfield's drugstore, a saddle-and-harness shop, a gunshop, a bakery, a telegraph office, a bank, a barbershop/bathhouse, an undertaker-furniture dealer, a carpenter, a couple of eateries, a couple of saloons--one, just about the center of its block, obviously the better of the two--and two places that advertised themselves as hotels: one, the Gem, directly across from that big saloon, with a sign beside the door that proclaimed it the local stagecoach ticket agency, the other, Virginia's, probably something else. Even a dentist tucked away up one of the side streets, where the rent was lower. An up-and-coming little place even if it hadn't attracted, or perhaps managed to keep, a doctor.

She thought about the seven men who had taken it on themselves to keep law and order here. Darcy had spent her entire life in mining camps, where the population was heavily weighted toward the male, and half of it working freight strings; she'd learned from an early age to estimate masculine character. Larabee was unmistakeably the boss, a born leader, cold pale eyes suggesting a haunted past into which he discouraged inquiry, the kind of man with whom you were best advised to keep it honest, to the point, and otherwise stay out of his way. Vin--she knew his type, the big-country, long-riding man, eyes ever turning to the far horizon; she understood that he was guarded of his personal space and respected that, but felt flattered that he'd offered her the right to call him by his first name. Josiah had made her just a little nervous at first meeting, though she hoped she hadn't let on: not so much with his size--she'd met her share of big men in the camps, miners, freighters, the occasional pugilist--but with his rough-hewn appearance and silent, stoic manner, all the more startling when compared to his position as town preacher. Nathan: easygoing ways, probably an enviable bedside manner, but so quiet and reserved, she felt it best to stay back and let him make the first move, even though she was incredibly curious as to how a black man had come to be a healer. Ezra Standish: an amusing puzzle, wry wit, fine manners, fastidious airs, fancy dress, clearly just the gambler he proposed to "pretend" to be in Discovery, yet he was a walking arsenal--she'd seen the Remington holstered at his side and made out the faint bulge under his left sleeve where the finely tailored coat hid some kind of rig, and once when he'd turned his right wrist, a minute gleam of metal and leather, the cuff of a spring-clip outfit such as she'd seen other card men wear. Of the lot, Buck and JD were the two she felt she could readiest become friends with. Wilmington she had liked immediately, recognizing the honest good-old-boy type such as so often drifted into a mining camp, taking him down when he tried to act gallant; she could see herself having a lot of fun joking and laughing with him, maybe swapping stories of places they'd been and people they'd known--she'd bet he was a born tale-spinner, probably loved to talk on any and every subject under the sun, even if he wasn't inclined to Standish's elevated language. JD was clearly kid brother to all the rest, another one with a ready sense of humor, a little inclined to strut--did he think those two Colts were going to hold him down in a high wind, or what?--and clearly city-born with his three-piece suit and that ridiculous bowler, still filled with a lot of youthful and possibly wrongheaded notions about adventure and romance, and yet probably tougher than he looked, if he was riding with this crew.

Speaking of which two, here they came down the street from the other direction, their height and hats making them impossible to mistake even at a distance. "'Afternoon, fellows," she said as they got into earshot.

"Miss Darcy," Buck returned, touching his hat. "What fetches you out on a Sunday afternoon? Town pretty well shuts up for the day, you've likely noticed."

"Walking off Sunday dinner," Darcy told him, "and checking on Pilot, and just generally having a look at the place. Who knows, I might want to relocate some day. You don't seem to have a freight agency yet."

"No," Buck agreed, "that's one thing that ain't come in so far. Could make a living, I reckon; we got a reservation not too far out that needs allotment goods delivered, and Discovery, and two or three close towns on the flat, and they do swear the railroad's gonna reach us one of these days." He turned, falling in on her left, as he spoke, JD shadowing him on the other side.

Darcy nodded thoughtfully at that. "Once you've got steel, you'll become a natural transshipment point, just like Pueblo is. Every town within a hundred miles that the rails give a miss will be wanting the stuff that gets shipped in by train, and that means freighters, even if they are mainly short-haul. Of course stepping up to that level is going to mean a big investment, because I'd want to go into wagons--jerkline outfits for choice."

"What's a jerkline outfit?" JD asked.

"Standard rig used by anyone who skins mules for heavy hauling, instead of whacking bulls," Darcy explained. "Two or even three wagons coupled together, eight, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, sometimes even twenty mules out in front, ten or twenty outfits to the train. It's called that because you don't drive with a full rein rig, the way a stage driver does. A single leather line runs from the top of the brake handle, down to buckle to the horn of a teamster's saddle on the near wheeler, and then through rings on the hames of each mule to the left side of the near leader's bit. Sometimes it's split and the other branch is connected to his mate, but most often a jockey stick or strap crosses between their two bits and the near leader transmits the skinner's commands through it. The other mules pull free and unguided, hooked by stretchers to a heavy chain instead of a wagon tongue, except for the wheelers, who pull on an evener fastened at the rear of the tongue and hooked to the front axle by stay chains. Oh, I can tell you, an outfit like that is something to see. When it's packed full, the lead wagon will hold three tons and each of the trailers two more. The pointers--the span just ahead of the wheelers--come next in importance after the lead team; it's their job to jump the center chain to guide the rig around bends, and on a twisty road they're doing it all the time. The skinner uses the jerkline and tosses pebbles at the leaders to tell them where to go--one steady pull for a left turn, two or more short jerks for right--and pulls on the brake rope to set the blocks; the lever's hitched to the ones on the trail units by a rope, so one yank controls everything, and if he knows his business he can make regular hairpin turns, practically double the rig back on itself. It's a costly line to get into--up to three thousand dollars for each wagon, as much as a hundred and forty for each mule, thirty dollars for each double set of harness. But at a penny a pound for up to two hundred miles on level plain, with as many as twenty wagons to a train, a single trip can bring in $2800 before expenses, even if you have to haul empty going home."

Buck was nodding steady agreement. "She's right, boy. You ain't lived till you seen one of them full-size jerkline rigs dealin' with a mountain road. And, Lord, Lord, the language them skinners use--it'd peel the paint off the White House and both Houses of Congress."

"Speaking of which," Darcy added, "did you manage to persuade Miz Nettie's niece not to run away and join my outfit? That's some little girl you've got there, JD. What is she, fifteen? Reminds me of myself when I was that age."

JD flushed. "She ain't either my girl! We're just friends, is all. And don't you start on me, I ain't heard nothin' from Buck since yesterday but how I oughtta be handlin' her."

Buck laughed as Darcy grinned and patted the kid on the shoulder. "My dad always used to say, if you want sympathy, look in the dictionary."

"The boy knows just what he wants," Buck declared-- "he wants forever with that pretty little brown-eyed spitfire of a girl, even if he don't got the guts to admit it to his friends--just danged if he knows how he's supposed to get there!"

"Well, JD, you've just got to screw your courage up to kiss her, and settle down to some serious courting," Darcy advised, her eyes twinkling. "Being friends is good, don't get me wrong. It's fine. It's a great idea to be friends with the person you love. The dividing line is communication. A friend is someone you can say any jackass thing that enters your mind to, and not be afraid of how they'll take it. With acquaintances, you're forever aware of their slightly unreal image of you, and to keep them content, you edit yourself to fit, like Mrs. Travis having to continue a story on the next page, or maybe cut something out of it altogether. A lot of marriages are between acquaintances, which is a crying shame. I'm lucky; mine wasn't."

Both peacekeepers swung their heads to stare at her. "You were married?" JD demanded.

"Five years ago," Darcy agreed. "Dad and I were packing into the Black Hills. Wade--that was his name, Wade Brewster--was one of the other packers in our outfit, out of Crockett County, Tennessee. We started out as drinking buddies, the three of us, backing each other up when we pulled into Deadwood or Sidney or Pierre. Wade didn't have as much as a chamberpot, or a window to throw it out of, and neither did I, but oh, he had dreams. He was going to be the boss freight operator of the northern plains, bull trains and jerkline, pack outfits, maybe stage lines too, and before either of us knew it, he wanted me by his side. We got married that fall with every expectation that it was forever." She sighed. "Nine months later he was in a bad horse wreck, kicked and dragged when his pony spooked at a rattler. I lost his baby two weeks after he died. He didn't leave more than enough to bury him, so I went back in with Dad, took back the Cullin name and put it all behind me."

"Damn," said Buck softly. "I'm mighty sorry to hear it."

"Don't be," Darcy told him. "We had nine good months, which is more than a lot of people ever get. If you've lost someone, does that make you wish you hadn't had them? Nobody can ever rob me of my memories of him, and I'll always know I had what it took to be an all-around kind of woman, to make a man want and love me, so I know I don't need to care what the proper ladies think of me--they don't have the first notion what I am."

JD nodded somberly. "Buck and me both lost our mammas, but we wouldn't'a wanted not to've had 'em, would we, Buck?"

The gunslinger shook his head. "No, we wouldn't. Hell, we wouldn't be who we are if not for them ladies." He made a visible decision to change the subject. "You said you got a brother up in Pueblo who's a lawyer. That all there was in the family, just the two of you?"

"No, Vandy's the middle of three boys. Del--he's three years ahead of me--has a small cow ranch on the San Pedro River in Arizona Territory, two thousand owned acres; he figures to ship twenty-six head of four-year-old steer this fall. Took himself a wife two years ago, and they had twins last August. Dutch is a town marshal up in Idaho, and he's buying a saloon up there. He's married too, got a stepdaughter thirteen years old and two sons, five and three."

Buck's face lit. "No sh--I mean, no foolin'? You're Dutch Cullin's sister?"

"That's right, you know him?"

"We deputied together in Parkville in '61," the big man agreed. "I wasn't quite twenty-one, and I guess Dutch couldn't been past eighteen, but damn, he was good. Just born to it, like some are. One time I had a sprained wrist and he faced a lynch mob down all by himself, just him and his shotgun. God, I won't forget that night if I live to a thousand. That's mighty good blood to come from, no two ways about it."

Darcy nodded. "Yeah, he left home as soon as the snow melted that year. Said packing was a fine honest line of work but no way to get rich or get a name for yourself." They were coming up on the center of town now, where only the big saloon seemed to be open. "How about I buy you two a beer in his honor?"

Before either of them could say anything, a little whirlwind of dust appeared up at the other end of the street and quickly resolved itself into a cowboy on a racing claybank horse, quirting his mount with sweeping full-armed swings of the reins, left and right side by turns. He pulled up hard in front of the saloon, the horse squatting back on its heels and slinging its head. Foam spattered from its bit and lather streaked its hide, and on its flanks a gleam of crimson showed where the rider's long-rowelled silver spurs had dug in.

Buck heard the breath hiss out between Darcy's teeth, and suddenly she was moving forward in something indecently close to a run. The cowboy's back was turning to them as he swung down out of the heaving horse's saddle. Darcy slapped her right hand down on his shoulder, dug her fingers into the loose fabric of his canvas vest, and yanked him down and around; his foot turned in the stirrup, the high-heeled boot slipped out of it, and he swung full into her left fist, which came up from waist level with all the power of her arm and shoulder behind it. The force of the blow connecting with his jaw threw him back into the horse again, and it squealed and danced away, tumbling him to the ground. Before he could shake the stars out of his eyes she was standing astraddle over him with her Colt drawn and lined between his eyes. He made a reflexive grab for his own sidearm and froze mid-move as her hammer clicked back. "Oh, please," she grated through clenched teeth, "please, go for it. Give me an excuse."

Buck and JD traded bewildered glances, wondering if this was someone Darcy knew to be employed by Blackner, or if the quarrel stemmed from some other cause entirely. The cowboy shook his head, looking up at the dark shadow-shape that stood between him and the bright afternoon sky, and then suddenly seemed to realize that for all the clothes and ready gun, the voice wasn't that of another man. "What--" he began.

Darcy's foot swung up and around, and the sole of her boot brushed against the underside of his chin, turned sidewise to present her big California rowel to his gaze, forcing his head back. "How would you like these spurs to put a few marks on your face like yours have on that horse?" she demanded.

Buck glanced at the horse again. He knew that cowboys fell, by and large, into two main classes--those who were gentle with horses, and those who were rough. But every Western rider knew better than to dig his spurs in; sometimes, on a well-broken mount, a mere motion of the leg was all that was necessary, and at most a touch would communicate what the rider wanted. Since a horse had a natural tendency to move away from pressure, the art of using it was to apply it in the right places and to the necessary degree. If he'd been especially well "spur-broke," you could really "talk" to him by the pressure of your lower legs and the suggested action of your heels, or by the real action with a light touch, a harder one, or a smart jab, depending on the results required. Usually you just used heel pressure on one flank, to move his rear end toward the other side, or on both to keep the rear in line while he turned or to urge him to greater speed. Every cowboy worthy of the name was proud of his horse and of his way with the species in general; he recognized that his mount was indispensable to the performance of his job, paid tribute to its speed, agility, and special talents, even saluted those that bucked him off during the saddle-breaking process, and a favorite was as dear to him as a human friend: however close-mouthed he might be with his fellow man, he imparted all his secrets to his four-legged partner, and if his expressions of affection for it might be intermittent and expressed in rough words and rude pats, they were no less sincere for all that. No foreman had a place on his payroll for a hand who didn't treat his horses right, since he knew the value of a remuda in good condition, and was ready to discharge any "horse mauler" who turned up in the outfit; if a man of this kind was kept at all, he usually had a string of ponies cut to him that were just as mean as he was and would fight him right back. The claybank was still panting a little, its eyes walled white with unease; besides the fresh blood on its flanks the gunslinger could make out old healed scar tissue there, where the hair hadn't fully grown back.

"Git off me!" the cowboy snarled, full of bravado.

"Shut up," Darcy barked. "Is that your personal horse?"

"Yeah, what's it to you?"

Darcy dug two left fingers into her pocket and fished up a gold double eagle. She held it up to catch the sunlight, flipped it once into the air, and snapped it down onto the cowboy's chest, then stepped back to give him room to rise. "I just bought him. Get your saddle off him and get out of my sight before I decide to cut you up on general principles."

The cowboy slowly gathered his legs and pushed himself up, scooping the twenty piece into his hand and looking from it to Darcy in something that was half bewilderment and half anger. Buck recognized him now, though he wasn't sure of his name: one of Stuart James's boys. The cowboy for his part suddenly seemed to realize he was playing to an audience of two of the town's regulators. "Hey, Wilmington, do somethin' about this! You can't--"

The gunslinger glanced at his young friend and saw in JD's eyes the same disgust he felt himself. He had known badmen and hardened killers who'd feed a stray cat and go into a cold rage over an abused burro, and regardless of whatever else they might have done in their lives, he'd always counted that a sign that they hadn't yet lost all their humanity. He dropped one hand casually to the butt of his Colt and saw JD's coattails flick back, clearing his Lightnings' ivory butts for action. "Private quarrel," he said. "She's made a more than fair offer for the horse; you can buy two more for what she's give you, and you know it."

"Just 'cause I ride for Mr. James--"

"--Who you ride for's got nothin' to do with it," Buck interrupted, his voice cold. "Take the money, boy, and some friendly advice with it: don't let JD or me see you in this town again. We got an ordinance against misusin' animals."

"Go to hell!" the cowboy snapped. "You ain't got no ordinances at all, or nobody to pass 'em, and you know it good as me!"

"We got fifteen ordinances between the two of us, and Darcy there's got five more," Buck retorted. "Take your saddle and get movin'."

The cowboy made one more try. "You can't just take my horse! You can't set a man afoot like that!"

"She's not takin' it," JD gritted, "she's payin' you good money for it."

Darcy had apparently lost her patience. "Arrima tu prima, madre cutre," she spat, and Buck flinched as he recognized the idiom. "Tu apedreas, y me cago en la madre que te parió! Fuera, y vete al carajo!"

The Mexican obscenities might not be quite as deathly to an Anglo, but the cowboy had obviously been in the Southwest long enough to know that he was being insulted. He jerked one shoulder up as if to draw, then thought better of it, bent to grab the claybank's reins, and quickly yanked the cinches loose, hauling the saddle off, then the bridle. He whipped the latter around the horn and slung the hull up over his shoulder. "I ain't givin' you no bill of sale," he growled.

"Don't need one," Buck said. "She's got two witnesses. Get out."

"I want a drink," the cowboy declared.

"Go home and get it out of the well," JD suggested. "Ezra don't want your kind in his ma's saloon no more'n Buck and me do on the street. Git!"

"You heard the boy," Buck added, his voice very soft now and his indigo eyes gone black. Darcy took a couple of steps back, her spurs chiming softly, so she'd be able to pick her target.

It was everywhere recognized in the West that "git" or "you git," if unheeded as a command for an undesireable person to begin immediate retreat, was a possible curtain-raiser to bullets; no qualifying profanity was needed. The cowboy finally realized he'd pushed it as far as he could. He swung away with a jerk and began plodding back the way he'd come.

Darcy pivoted to watch him go, her shoulders rigid. Buck and JD kept their eyes on his back till he was about two hundred yards away, twice the effective range of a Colt Peacemaker. It was the kid's soft whistle that broke the spell. "Jeez. I really thought you were gonna shoot him where he lay, Darcy."

Darcy snapped her Colt back in her hand, letting the hammer down, and gave it a quick little twirl, the way JD did, before dropping it into the holster. "I would have, if he'd given me just the tiniest little opening," she said firmly, her voice tight and a little quivery. "If there's just one thing that gets me cussin', fumin', bawlin'-my-eyes-out, tear-somebody's-lungs-out fightin' mad, it's to see anyone do anything that wantonly injures a domestic animal. My own first, but any animal will do. They give us everything they've got, sometimes right up to their lives, and they deserve better of us than some of us bother to give back. Dad always said he thought I'd sooner shoot to defend one of our mules than to save him." She moved carefully toward the claybank, which was standing with forelegs slightly spraddled, shaking its ears gently in bewilderment, as if it couldn't quite decide why its rider had stripped the gear from it short of a corral gate. "Calmas tu se, hijo mio, amiguito," she crooned in Spanish. "Calma, Domingo...eres bien ahora..."

The horse swivelled its ears, responding to the tone if not the language. Darcy twined a hand through its mane, holding it, and stood a moment, patting its neck, working her way up till she could begin scratching between its ears and down on its brow. The horse lowered its head in pleasure and Darcy swung herself up onto its bare back in a swift easy motion. "I'm going to get Domingo here out of the street," she told the two peacekeepers, "take him down to the stable and have his cuts looked after. You go on inside and order those beers I promised you, I'll be along in a few minutes."

"Domingo?" JD repeated.

"Spanish for Sunday. That's what I think I'll call him, since that's when I got him." She pressed with her knee and laid a hand against the horse's neck as she would have done a rein if she'd had one, and the claybank meekly swung around and began ambling down the street toward Yosemite's place.

"You think Ezra'll believe this, Buck?" JD asked brightly, tilting his head to regard his big friend. "You know, considerin' the only other way he's seen her so far?"

"I think we can maybe find a way to make five dollars off it, kid," Buck suggested, and threw his arm around the younger regulator's shoulder, turning him toward the welcoming doors of the saloon.


Comments to: sevenstars39@hotmail.com