by Sevenstars

Morning found Darcy and the Seven on the trail, she with the new claybank Domingo following on a halter and lead behind Pilot, they with saddlebags bulging with the gear they'd need for their absence from town. Most of Four Corners was still at breakfast when they pulled out; only Yosemite at his forge, Inez at her upstairs window at the saloon, and Mary and Billy standing in the doorway of the Clarion watched them go.

They stopped at Nettie's ranch to claim Darcy's mules and have a second cup of coffee, then moved out again. Darcy, who knew where her camp was, took point, Chris and Ezra a horse-length or two behind, Vin, Nathan, and Josiah herding the loose mules. Buck let Plata drop back to the tail of the procession, knowing that JD wouldn't be far behind him. When he felt that they had the privacy he wanted, he asked quietly, "You okay with this, son? Goin' into Discovery with Darcy and Josiah, as a chore boy? I know it can't be doin' your pride no good, and truth is I don't like not havin' you where I can keep my eye on you."

JD rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Buck, let's don't get into that again, okay? I'm fine with it. Honest. Well, yeah, it did kinda hurt a little, like you said. But I like horses, so I guess I'll get along okay with mules, and I think I'll learn somethin'. Anyhow, when I thought about it, I saw that Chris givin' me this job says something important about how much he trusts me. He's lookin' to Josiah and me to be backup for Darcy's crew, just in case he guessed wrong about Blackner not tryin' again till we get up to Discovery. That makes me feel good."

Buck nodded thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought of it like that. Reckon you're right."

"Besides," JD went on, "I kinda like her. She really gave me some things to think about, with what she said about Casey and me."

"That's gotta be a first," Buck observed, "you listenin' to what somebody says the first time they say it..."

"I listen to you," JD retorted.

"Not about Casey."

"That's different. Casey's a girl, Darcy's a girl--was a girl. She was even married. She knows what she's talkin' about."

"And I don't? Ain't I the one with the animal magnetism?"

"But that's just it. You can get women without half trying. And anyhow, it don't matter where you grew up or who with, you still can't look at things the way they do. Darcy can. Listening to her's no different from listening to Inez, or Mrs. Travis, about courtin'."

Buck chuckled and batted at the kid's bowler. "So now he admits he's courtin'."

"Ain't neither!"

The gunslinger just winked. "Like Ez says, he doth protest too much." His indigo gaze moved up the line toward the young woman's erect back and his oldest friend's black blade of a presence, half seen through the thin cloud of dust raised by the little band of mules. One reason for Buck's great success with women was that he respected them, both as a whole and as individuals. That was why he could accept Mary Travis, though she ran a man's business, for who she was, and back off from any attempts on her person without feeling that he was doing something unnatural. By the same token, though he'd never met one exactly like Darcy before, he wasn't such a chauvinist as to dismiss her out of hand. Buck had spent most of his life in the West and he knew that its women were of a breed unto themselves, not fashionably weak and dependent. Pioneer life forced women into "unfeminine" activities and undermined traditional concepts of womanhood. From the beginning of the overland treks they were required to challenge domestic stereotypes by assuming male responsibilities and undertaking men's work--pitching tents, yoking the oxen, loading and unloading wagons, driving teams, and herding loose stock on horseback, sometimes galloping after them full-speed-ahead, to say nothing of taking up guns in the defense of their families. They met the challenge in different ways. Some modified or even rejected ideas of their "place;" some--probably the most visible class--inflated them to the point of claiming for themselves the mission of "civilizing" the frontier; and others, despite adverse circumstances, clung to familiar ideas, hoping for a time when they might reassert them and give them meaning once more. Meanwhile they adjusted to the challenges of their new environment, often with notable success. Many ranch women rode extremely well, some almost equalling the best males in the saddle. He had known ladies to accompany their husbands on trail drives from Texas to Kansas, driving a two-horse buggy most of the way, and even to ramrod their own ranches and drives. In his youth in Colorado he had seen more than one woman shoot down a man and get off without even a trial. Western females competed with the males as bullwhackers, mail carriers, stage-station operators, saloon- and hotelkeepers, bartenders, hunters, gamblers, prospectors, businessowners, and even bandits and cattle rustlers; they worked as cattle dealers, dairy farmers, fruit growers, telegraphers, typesetters (preferred by many editors, since the male ones tended to be drinkers), store clerks, restaurant managers, postmistresses, steamboat captains, pawnbrokers, morticians, photographers, and even junior clerks and cashiers in banks; they preached, doctored, and fought Indians. Since the War they had begun entering the business arena as manufacturers' "agents," sought after to sell patent wire clotheslines, parlor organs and matches, sewing and washing machines, wringers, stationery, farm machinery, new kinds of kerosene lamps with patent chimneys or no chimneys, and always books; unlike drummers, these made their sales directly to the customer, delivered the goods, collected the money, and departed for their next call. Ten years ago Buck had read of a woman who was admitted to the practise of law in Iowa, and another who'd been appointed a clerk of the Washington Legislature. And once during the War, in hospital after taking a wound at Nashville, he'd been attended by a lady physician who introduced herself as Dr. Mary Walker, neatly clad in trousers, a short jacket with a tabbed hem, and jaunty military cap.

He thought back to the incident on the street yesterday, and to the pleasant session he and JD and Ezra had shared with Darcy in the saloon afterward. The lady muleteer had hit it off with Inez from the first, chattering amiably with her in Spanish so rapid that even Buck missed a few words of it. She had matched the three men beer for beer, laughed at Ezra's wry humor and delivered her share of jokes, shared stories of her youth, startled the erudite gambler with her familiarity with good literature, and even been the first to suggest a game of poker--at which, to Ezra's ill-concealed astonishment, she had contrived to hold her own. Buck found himself thinking of Sarah Larabee, who had also been raised among brothers by a widowed father, and who had had the same brisk, competent way about her. He wondered if that was why Chris was holding himself so cautiously aloof from the young woman of whom he and JD were quickly coming to think as a friend. Never thought about it before, he told himself, but after we split up he must'a seen his share of the same kind. Reckon that kept the wound pretty raw, kept on tearin' the scab open. That man's gotta have a self-floggin' streak or he'd'a long since gone back to Indiana where the women are all retirin' little flowers. But maybe they ain't there either.

About two and a half hours out of Nettie's place, they raised the smoke of a campfire, and gradually made out a camp circle, like that of a wagon train, but composed of packsaddles and their cargo arranged to provide seatbacks and a breastwork in the event of an attack. Off to one side were a series of picket lines, mostly mules--Darcy's other packers must have contrived to gather up the rest of the strays--plus about half a dozen horses, including one white or light gray that must be the bell mare, since that individual was always chosen in part for her color, to make sure the nervous mules would be able to make her out in the dark. Several men rose to their feet as the group drew nearer, some gathering up rifles from where they leaned against saddlebows, others flicking back the ponchos or serapes they wore as some protection from the direct scorch of the sun, dropping hands to their sixguns. Then one of them caught sight of Pilot out ahead, and a clamor of shouts of greeting and relief went up. Darcy spurred on forward, and Chris checked his big black, raising a hand to hold the others back for a few minutes until she could establish their bona fides with her men.

Buck and JD jogged on up to join Chris and Ezra at the head of the drove and watched as Darcy swung down from her saddle and was instantly enveloped in an embrace by one of the packers. There was a short wait, and then she turned and waved her hat, and the Seven pushed forward. The Mexicans put up their guns and some of them came forward with halters to take over care of the mules.

Possibly in part because Spanish-speaking people thought more highly of mules than gringos did, Mexicans were considered the best muleteers to be had, outdoing even Missourians in their understanding of the animals. Darcy made introductions. The man who'd embraced her was her boss packer, Fernando Miramontes, a wiry man with the high cheekbones, long straight black hair, and square, somewhat heavy build of a Spanish-Indian mixbreed, probably from Sonora, which was Mexico's frontier, its Spanish-descent pioneers overwhelmingly male and prone to take Indian wives even if they were of the purest blood themselves; his thin features and beaked nose with its broad fleshy flare of nostril also suggested Indian ancestry, but his eyes were astonishingly blue in his nut-brown face and he boasted an impressive mustache that reminded the Seven of a bandido's. He was probably a few years older than Chris, wearing a Spanish-made frilled shirt deeply opened at the throat and banded at the waist with a crimson silk girdle under a short light blue jacket trimmed with silver buttons and scarlet. His bell-shaped buckskin trousers were trimmed with pearl buttons down the sides, his thick Saltillo serape was a blend of rainbow colors, and tiny silver conchas tinkled around the brim of his sombrero. He wore two belt guns, one butt-forward, one back--Remington .44s like Ezra's, good-working, smooth-action guns with plenty of knockdown power--and a short machete was sheathed in the coil of the cabrestante of the saddle at his feet. His sons, introduced as Diego, Francisco, José, Agustín, and Juan, ranged from twenty-five or so down to sixteen, lean, swaggering, heavily armed young fellows with dark fiery eyes, except for Juan, who followed his father in having blue ones. Clearly these were no peons, but men of spine and character, probably from the vaquero class originally, well aware of their special gifts and of the vital part they played in the mining-camp economy, proud of their skills and their jobs and fiercely protective of the young woman who led them. Proud, honorable men, fierce fighters and loyal unto death.

Francisco was apparently the nighthawker who'd been on duty when the mules were lured off; he was still wearing a rumpled bandage tied around his head. Nathan looked the wound over and questioned him as to the existence of nausea, double vision, and lingering headaches, and so satisfied himself that any concussion was very minor. The boys had been doing a little hunting to stretch the caravan's supplies, and a pot of stewed rabbit cooked with herbs was simmering on the campfire. There was rice and fideos (which was vermicelli), boiled beans mixed with chilis and a thick cheese sauce and highly seasoned, hot tortillas to scoop everything up with, and chicory coffee (over which Ezra sighed in delight), and at last Miramontes produced a bottle of Bacanora brandy and he and Chris and Darcy conferred, refining the gunslinger's plan, while the other regulators began getting to know the younger men. Josiah, as Chris had foreseen, seemed to gain their approval from the first; his easy facility with their language (though they all spoke decent English, having grown up in the United States), the serape he wore and the Mexican saddle he rode put them at their ease. But Buck's Spanish was good too, and his easy humor and natural warmth made him a quick favorite, while JD found early common ground with the two youngest boys, both of whom were two-gun men like their father, and was soon deep in a discussion of the art and science of pistolerismo. Nathan discovered that the boys' grandmother had been a curandera, or herb-woman, such as he had learned many of his own healing arts from. Vin, as usual, kept a polite but definite distance, and the young men recognized his inborn dignity and pride, which wasn't unlike their own, and gave him his space.

Over by the main fire Darcy and Miramontes provided Chris with a description and rough map of Discovery as it had been on their last visit and a sketch of Elliott Blackner's appearance and known quirks. The packer clearly regarded it as a benefaction to himself and his family as well as to Darcy that Larabee's men should have come to her aid and that the gunfighter would have offered to help her deal with her enemy, and like all people of Spanish blood he would let no personal insult stand unavenged and no personal kindness go unrequited. "We have longed to put this abadesa encula in his place, Capitán," he said, using the Mexican title of respect, "but la patrona will not allow us to act outside the law. Now she tells us that you and your pistoleros are the law, and we have hope. You need only command, and in anything which does not touch the safety of our señorita querida you may count upon our aid."

"I can take care of myself, antiguo residente [old-timer]," Darcy reminded him, "and you know it. Let's give our attention to teaching Blackner a lesson he won't forget."

"What about his packers?" Larabee asked. "Are they likely to jump into this?"

"Most of them are Anglo, Missourian for choice," Darcy replied. "And that kind are as peaceful as old cows, till you try to beat or cheat them; then they're worse than wildcats. But unless they're threatened personally, or Ezra's too flashy about taking their money, no, I don't think so. A job's just a job, and they know they can get more."

"What's most important," Chris declared, "is that we catch them off guard. We can't give them any warning of what they're up against. They've got to think that you and yours are all the opposition they have to deal with. That means, Miramontes, that you and your sons have to remember--you don't know me, and you don't know any of my boys, except JD and Josiah."

The Mexican nodded somberly. "Comprendo, Capitán. Is it permitted me to ask what plan you have?"

"Right now, I'm still playin' it as it comes up," Larabee admitted, "but I'm hopin' that when Blackner finds out this last gambit didn't work, he'll continue with the pattern and step up to the next level. That means striking at your boss personally, or maybe at the rest of you. If Buck and I can get in on the inside, we'll be set to cover any move he makes. Vin and Nathan can play backup, Ezra's in charge of intelligence, and Josiah and JD are your extra support. Just make sure you keep alert, all of you. Whatever Blackner decides to do, if he intends to do it in Discovery where you don't have any special partisans the way you might in Pueblo, he'll have to do it fast, and things could get ugly real early." He glanced again at the map drawn in the dirt. "We've never been asked to come up and lend a hand with the law in the camp, even though technically it's part of our district. Their Jackass Express mail riders use the Four Corners post office as a drop, so we get a little news, but not much. We've figured out that they've worked out some means of dealin' with their own trouble, but I'd like a better picture of what it is. How much can you tell me about the way they keep the peace?"

+ + + + + + +

Tuesday morning Ezra, with his usual litany of eloquent complaints about the barbaric hours at which he was expected to function, saddled his chestnut and rode on ahead at a steady lope, hoping to make Discovery by nightfall. The mules, led by Sugar, came in of their own accord, needing their nighthawker only to keep them bunched; having long since gotten into the habit of travelling in the same order each day, they walked up to their accustomed saddles and packs of their own accord, where each got a handful of grain to reinforce the behavior and bind it to its handlers. The Mexicans set to work packing them while Darcy looked after the camp mules, those that carried the food, cooking gear, catch grain, extra ammunition, and the like; like all their kind, they swelled up their bellies while being rigged, and she put her knee firmly where it would do the most good. Buck's ears burned at the muttered Spanish curses that accompanied the process: "Hecha un casquete, bastardo asqueroso...chingate tu madre, cabrón...hijo de puta..." But there was no cruelty about her use of them, just a firm kindness accompanied by apple cores and bits of biscuit. She knew each by its name, and they for their part seemed to know they could trust her; Buck got the idea that she knew them like her own kids, and that taking care of them took precedence over taking care of herself, if only because it was on their account that she had money of her own and food on her plate.

Josiah lent a hand at the process of preparing the caravan for its day's travel, and responded with his famous wink when Buck expressed mild surprise at his expertise. "I prospected for gold in Mexico when I was younger than Brother Vin is," he said, "and fought the Apaches in Arizona after that. And when I went to Nicaragua with Walker we had to use mules for a lot of our packing because the roads were worse there than anything you'll find in this country."

"Damn, Josiah, you're just plumb full of surprises, ain't you?" the gunslinger observed with a shake of his head. "Between you and Ezra is there any place you ain't been?"

The preacher's deep chuckle was the only reply.

JD, meanwhile, had offered to lend a hand with the task of saddling up the pack string's riding stock. Miramontes's mount proved to be a mule--a big jet-black cordovan Spanish jack you could take for a horse at a distance, very aristocratic, with elegant lines and a long fine face, and a coat kept brushed to gleaming. Its carved-leather headstall was almost completely covered with fluted and engraved silver, crossed-chain browbands passing under a six-pointed metal star, a hand-forged Chileño ring bit finishing it off, and the jingling silver stirrups were hung with bells. The bell mare, waiting for her charges to be ready for the trail, made a pest of herself, nosing in JD's and Darcy's pockets in search of a treat and snapping at all the riding animals; only Peso seemed to be able to give her back as good as he got. JD's little bay mare, Seven, seemed about ready to break her tether and run for the hills to get a little peace. "That's a good bell for you, kid," Darcy told him. "I've never seen a sweet-natured, docile mare make the cut, and I've lived my whole life around pack strings; it's like she bores the hell out of the others. The very best on the job, the ones the mules just love and will follow anywhere including off a cliff if she's minded, are crabby as hell. Cranky, mean-tempered. Not bronco--Sugar here is a sweetheart with humans, very gentle and easy to handle; you can ride her bareback if you want to. But to anything else on four feet, she's nasty, and the nastier she is the better they seem to like her. She'll hog all the best feed or grass, pin her ears and glare if they try to push past her, bite if they crowd her, squeal and throw a one-legged cow-kick if they get too fresh, and yet they'd never dream of leaving her. I think her bossy attitude is what translates into a good mother-leader role."

Chris's Blackhawk suddenly shied against his tether, eyes walling, and Josiah's placid sorrel Milagro began dancing and squealing. A dry chattering sound brought JD and Darcy to full attention. A big diamondback rattler, as thick as Buck's arm and half again as long as the gunslinger was tall, had oozed out of a gopher burrow, attended by at least a dozen writhing young; it must have crawled in there to give live birth, as rattlers do. "Get the horses out of the way!" Darcy ordered.

JD yanked the knot out of Blackhawk's tether with one hand and went for his right Colt with the other. He knew that a diamondback's bite--especially that of a giant such as this one--was very dangerous even to humans, and that it didn't need to coil for striking, but could flash out from a looped position. Horses seemed to know instinctively that a snakebite to their leg was especially hazardous, because there was a big artery there that went right to the heart, and the venom did its damage immediately.

JD's Lightning barked and the big snake's head flew from its body. Darcy kicked at the nearest of the young ones, letting it strike at the sole of her boot, and stepped on its head before it could retract it. As she did, she lined her Peacemaker on the next closest and broke its back with one shot, sending it into a frenzy of agonized thrashing and blind striking. JD had his second Colt out now and his two guns fired alternately into the mass of reptilian flesh, supported by the heavy pound of the muleteer's Peacemaker. Buck, drawn by the familiar sound of his young friend's weaponry, arrived at full speed, took one look, and grabbed a rock, loosing Milagro from the picket line as he mashed one of the young snakes to a pulp. Juan and José came up last and began using thrown knives and swinging rifle butts to deal with the last survivors. By the time the rest of the company reached them, the massacre was complete. "Good work, JD," Darcy told the kid as he began shakily thumbing replacement rounds out of his gunbelt.

"You okay, boy?" Buck demanded. "Didn't get bit?"

"I'm okay, Buck," JD assured him. "I was never near enough for any of 'em to get me." He looked at the woman. "You did good too. Those little ones make a rough target, 'specially when they get excited and start squirmin' around."

"From a professional peacekeeper, I'll take that as a compliment," Darcy told him. "Think you can catch Mr. Larabee's horse? He probably knows you best."

"I'm on it." JD finished reloading his guns, unfastened the rope from his saddle, and set off in pursuit of the uneasy black, while the Mexicans probed cautiously into the mass of snakes to make sure they were all dead.

Buck eyed Darcy thoughtfully, seeing a new brick to add to the wall of information he was constructing about her capabilities and character. He was beginning to understand just how she had survived in her largely masculine profession for as long as she had. It wasn't just her father's teaching and example or her own stubbornness. It meant something that she was cool under pressure and could choose the appropriate action even when faced with an ugly situation. The gunslinger found himself feeling a little easier about his forthcoming separation from JD.

The pack string started up into the foothills, Sugar plodding steadily in the lead, her pleasant-toned harness bell clanging melodiously from the strap, like an oversize dog collar, that was buckled around her neck, the mules walking loose behind her, Darcy and her packers ranging horseback at intervals alongside. Chris, Vin, Buck, and Nathan hung a few hundred yards back to avoid the appearance of association in case they encountered other travellers; JD and Josiah mingled with Miramontes and his sons, getting the feel of the part they were to play. Up over sloping meadows of grama, needle, and buffalo grass they climbed, whitetail and mule deer looking up from their feeding and bounding away into the short rock and ponderosa pines and spiky juniper that grew along the streams. The path they followed merged with a more formalized trail, cut several inches deep by the passage of pack and saddle animals, as trees began to increase in number and thickness--hawthorne, mountain mahogany, scrub oak, lodgepole pine, spruce, mountain apple, and above all the aspens in thick clumps, their straight white-barked trunks almost all of a size. Intermingled with them all were the scrubby, rounded piñon pines, none taller than thirty to fifty feet, with branches all the way down to the ground--excellent cover for deer to bed down under. In places they and the scrub oaks and ponderosa pines actually crowded out the aspens. The Seven looked on them indulgently, for all, even JD last season, had enjoyed the "nuts" shaken out of their cones in the fall--smooth, dark brown, about the size and shape of a fat raisin, with a lightly sweet, nutty taste. Once a porcupine lumbered across the way with its sailor-like roll; once Vin reached across to touch Chris's wrist and point, with a smile, at a bushy-tailed rock squirrel perching on a boulder, almost invisible in its dull-gray coat. The melancholy "Coo-ah, coo, coo, coo" of mourning doves sounded from the thickets. The trail corkscrewed higher, once falling in for several miles alongside a mountain stream that alternated, in typical fashion, between rapid whitewater runs and more open glides where the current widened and slowed down. Higher up, the riders could make out the ponderosas on the sunny south-facing slopes, standing at equal intervals, their long boughs not quite touching, their tops evenly arrayed against the sky. Horse and mule sign was plentiful, and there had been cattle along the trail too. Several times riders passed them, some going up, some down, some singly and others in groups, most with pack animals. Once Vin cut off the trail and found himself a spur to perch on, scanning the downslopes with his spyglass before he returned to inform Chris that he had caught a glimpse of what he thought, from its size, must be Blackner's outfit. "Maybe ten miles behind us, comin' steady," he said. "I counted thirty riders with it, just like Ez figured on."

The gunfighter nodded. "The day Miss Cullin spent in town gave him a chance to close the gap. Otherwise you likely wouldn't have been able to get a sight of him."

"Reckon Ez done made it up to the camp yet?"

Chris snorted. "When Ezra smells money, he can make good time. Anyway, our numbers are bound to hold us back."

As the afternoon began to wane, Darcy turned off the trail into a natural meadow that showed clear sign of having been used before as a camp-over spot. Having covered this route several times before, she would naturally have favorite camps, chosen for the availability of water, wood, and graze. The mules, sensing an end to their workday at hand, pulled off in a long snaky line and arranged themselves, with only a little urging from the Mexicans, into a horseshoe shape. The packers dismounted, and JD, getting into the swing of his role, gathered up the saddle animals and began stripping them down. Josiah, Miramontes, and the five boys removed the pack saddles, easing each one onto the grass beside the mule that had carried it, and led the animals off in haltered clumps to the picket lines Darcy had set up for them. Each mule in turn was brushed down, its back washed with water fetched in a pair of folding leather buckets by JD, checked for scalds and sores, signs of lameness, loose or missing shoes. JD meanwhile arranged the saddles in a smaller circle near the center of the big one and took the riding stock to drink. Returning, he threw them onto the grass so they could feed before being tied up for the night, and began foraging for firewood while the others unpacked their gear and the camp outfit and set to work rustling supper.

Chris and his three continued to hang back, setting up their own camp a little farther down. As darkness gathered, the saddle stock, having eaten its fill, was rounded up and brought in, while the mules, now thoroughly rested, were turned out under the care of Sugar. Like a trail herd, they would be nighthawked in case of bears, Indians, or other unexpected alarums.

When night had fallen, Buck quietly slipped away from the others and made his way up through a narrow belt of timber to Darcy's camp. One of the Mexican boys challenged him sharply, but let him pass when he identified himself. He entered the circle of pack saddles but hung back out of the firelight until Miramontes noticed him and pointed him out to Darcy. She, knowing better than to call him up where he could be seen, went out to join him, moving casually as if to answer nature's distant call. He fell in beside her and they strolled out to the picketed horses.

"Moving on tonight, Buck?" Darcy asked.

"No, we'll wait till morning and then pull on by you and go ahead," the gunslinger told her. "How's the boy workin' out?"

"He's fine," she said, hiding a grin. "He strikes me as somebody who's just naturally always doing something, and he settled right in and did the work, though Josiah had to explain at first just what was expected of him. I don't think he's done this much physical labor in a while--he just about managed to stay awake long enough to get his supper down. But that's okay, chore boy's not expected to take a turn at guard duty."

Buck looked down. "I don't want you to take this wrong," he said slowly. "I know I don't need to say it to Josiah, he already knows how it is with the kid and me. And God knows, JD hates it when we mother-hen him. We don't have to do it near as much as we used to, he's learned a lot this last year or so, but he's still awful young, and he don't always think before he does somethin'." He hesitated, and Darcy flashed a grin at him.

"What you're trying to say, skirmishing around the point like a wolf around a trap, is Look after him and treat him right. Is that it?"

Buck sighed. "Somethin' like that."

"The first time I saw you two together," Darcy told him, "I almost thought you were brothers."

The gunslinger shrugged and grinned wryly. "Wish we were. No such luck. I'd feel so proud if he was blood to me, but he ain't."

"Doesn't take blood to make family," Darcy observed. "Nando thinks of me as a sort of daughter, and his boys look after me like they do each other."

Buck looked down again, hesitant. He didn't feel comfortable trying to explain to anyone else how he felt about JD--not even Chris, who'd been as close to him as a brother for most of twelve years. Like most men, he much preferred to express his emotions--pride, concern, love--through teasing, scolding, half-serious threats and bickering, and the occasional mother-bear cuff to the head; only when the kid was missing or seriously hurt did his world, and his self-control, threaten to crumble to pieces. And yet not even with Chris had he ever known the kind of bond he had with JD. God knew he'd tried to harden his heart to it, to push the boy away, to not let him in. But he had never really had any options, not from that first day. And in the moment when that renegade Reb's saber came swinging down, all doubt and hesitancy had vanished, and he had known what he had to do. That kid--that kid was his best friend, his little brother, his partner, his pupil, and his son, all in one pint-sized, bewildering, irritating, pride-making, smart, feisty, naive, eager, stubborn, prideful, vulnerable, smart-mouthed package. He had the courage of a lion, the innocence of a new lamb, the attitude of a banty rooster, the high spirits of a colt, the tough talk of the cocky little city swell he dressed like, the wild dreams of the boy he still was, and a heart as big as Texas. He'd had a lot of heartbreak and pain in his life--growing up with no father, being a servant's son, having to go to work himself when he was barely old enough to know his letters, being picked on by the bigger kids, losing his mother--and yet he'd never let it harden or embitter him, as so many others might have done. And to Buck Wilmington he was...well, everything. Just everything. "I just ain't used to not havin' him with me on one of these jobs, is all," he said. "I know he's right when he says it's a mark of trust for Chris to put him with you like this, but I got so used to chasin' after his ass and haulin' him out of trouble, I--" He stopped and shrugged and knew, deep down inside, that he wasn't fooling her.

"He's yours," she said quietly. "Just yours. And you're his. Buck, I've worked with men all my life, and I know them almost as well as I know mules--and sometimes there's not much to tell between the two. I could see it from the first. Don't you worry about JD. Between Nando and me and Josiah, he'll be safer than if he was in a suit of armor. And I promise you, I'd never boss him around or mistreat him. A kid's got his pride too, and I know how important it is to treat your help right, to hold their loyalty. As for Nando and the boys, they'll choke before they'll ever sneer at anybody, even a chiquito like him, and I think his energy and enthusiasm have them all pretty well wrapped around his finger already, anyway." She winked. "Like you are."

"He saved my life once, you know that?" Buck told her. "Maybe he was just payin' me back for somethin' I'd done for him on our first job together, but he did it. Sneaked down into a camp of people who were holdin' me and fixin' to hang me, just him and them two Colts of his, and when they brought me out in the morning he stood himself up like a target and stopped 'em and took two bullets before Chris and the rest could step in. Almost lost him that time. We hadn't been together but five months."

"It doesn't have to take very long," Darcy agreed. "I've seen it in miners, packers, cowboys--two men just partner up, no speeches made about it, it just happens. It's like each one sees something in the other that he needs, that he's been missing all his life."

"Yeah," Buck breathed, "I reckon that's just it. Like Vin and Chris done when they first met." He had known for a long time that he needed JD just as much as the boy needed him--maybe more. He glanced toward the camp circle. "I just kinda wanted to make sure you understood. I better get back, Chris wants to get goin' early. You just tell that boy from me to watch his back."

+ + + + + + +

JD found the routines of the pack train fascinating, and their gear almost more so. Set on the ground, the aparejos stood up each in an A- or inverted U-shape, rather like a pup tent. Darcy was glad to show him how they were made and explain why. Each was like a large leather envelope to look at, folded at the top, with thin, vertical wooden slats for ribs inside, surrounded by a thick interior padding of dried grass, and a wooden board horizontal across either bottom boot, for stiffness; it covered the animal's sides as well as its back, and was underlain by a woollen blanket or a thick felt pad. "Each aparejo has to be form-fitted to a particular mule," she told the kid. "You can't just take it off one mule and slap it onto another, the way you would a sawbuck rig, without risk of rubbing saddle sores someplace where the old contours don't match. When you get a new saddle or a new mule, you fit one to the other, shifting that grass padding and adjusting it just so, over several fittings--like a lady getting a dress made to measure--until it matches that animal's body contours. And you have to make sure the padding stays in place; if it starts to get flat, it has to be restuffed and refitted."

"So if a mule dies," JD mused, "you can use his saddle on the new one?"

"Yeah, if you don't mind taking the time and trouble. More often, if you can, you buy the replacement from somebody else who uses aparejos, and the saddle goes with him. Mostly you find this gear on Mexican mules; my dad learned how to use it when he was in the Santa Fe trade. Anglos generally use sawbucks, which I imagine you've seen, except for the Army; when General Crook was chasing Apaches a few years back, out in Arizona, he packed all his gear on aparejos. That's one reason he was able to keep so tight on their tails; with panniers the average load is only a hundred and seventy-five or -eighty pounds per mule, but with an aparejo you can get up to three hundred and twenty, sometimes even four hundred, though that's not recommended on a regular basis--just emergencies."

JD's brows went up. "Why the big difference?"

"Well, the theory is that the slat ribs inside the saddle allow the weight of the load to be distributed across a greater area of the mule's back and sides, unlike a sawbuck, which just straddles his spine. When you're being paid by the pound and you have a limited number of mules, like I do, of course it's to your advantage to be able to carry as much stuff on each animal as you possibly can. And of course in a situation like Discovery's, where they haven't started laying in a regular road yet, everything has to go up by muleback."

JD looked around at the loads, some of them very intriguingly shaped indeed. "Can it?"

"With a creative packer? Oh, yes. Mules can haul just about anything from stoves to tools to kegs of nails. If it's big, it just has to be broken down into parts small enough to fit on their backs. Something really bulky or heavy--like machine parts, or components for a reducing mill, which I've carried--can be laid on a platform braced on top of the saddle, or, if the trail's decent enough and not too windy, slung on a sort of stretcher between two of them. It takes two very reliable mules and some creative thought, but it's not uncommon. If you're hauling ore, instead of ingots, you put it in sacks, and they're slung on ore hooks suspended on the sides of the saddle--just the way we do with canned goods and other small stuff. I've packed just about anything, one way or another: pianos for saloons and parlor houses, wheelbarrows, Fresno scrapers and stone boats for roadbuilding, blasting equipment, full-size brass beds, and six-foot-long, fifty-pound iron rock bars--even billiard tables and knocked-down Bain & Shuttler wagons, to get the quartz down to the mill after it's been hauled to the surface. All you need is somebody at the other end who knows how to put them together again."

"How come you don't turn the mules out to graze till it gets dark?"

"Because if you do it earlier, they'll eat their fill too soon, get bored, and wander off in the wee hours. Of course, the nighthawker's there partly to stop that, and if you've got your saddle stock tied up, like we do, the mules are likelier to stay close; it's not just their bell they don't like to leave, but any horses. Even then, you want to be up and moving at first light to catch them, or they'll just wander off. Especially if the mornings are cold, they'll want to look for high ground, so they can be there when the sun first comes up to warm them, and you have to be ready to spring up and go after them at an instant's notice, or you may be following their tracks quite a ways. Everything I know about trailing has been learned from just that inclination. On a dark night, clouds or no moon, you herd with your ears, almost. You're always listening for that bell. If it's a random easy cling-clang, even some distance away, you're okay; they're grazing. If you hear a rapid clanging, that's a trotting or a running pace, and they're leaving the country, for whatever reason. If you hear dead silence, they're already gone."

"That's why Blackner's guys didn't try to take Sugar with 'em, isn't it?" JD guessed.

"Just why. They could have, with Francisco out of action; slip a leather strap around the clapper of the bell and it wouldn't have made a sound. Or just unbuckle the neck collar altogether. But if you've packed for as many years as we have, you're listening for that bell even if you're off duty and asleep. Blackner knew that, and he must have made it clear to them that they had to leave Sugar. The bell isn't ordinarily one to follow her mules; they follow her. Though, if she'd tried, they could have just slipped a pair of hobbles on her; that would slow her down enough for them to get the mules well away, and then, of course, once they were out of earshot, they could start them trotting or loping and get even more distance."

A cry went up from the far arc of the horseshoe of mules, and Darcy grinned. "Oh, you'll like this, JD. They've got Petardo packed. His name means Firecracker. He's one of the best in the string, but he's got his playful little ways. He just has to buck some, every time he's packed, to get it out of his system; after that he's good for the day, doesn't give a bit of trouble. We load him up with tin cans, pieces of wood, gunny sacks--anything to make a noise and look big."

Agustín had turned loose of the sorrel mule's lead rope. Petardo swung his head left and right, checking himself out. He could see the bulging load over his ribs. He'd show these men how to buck! He leaped into the air and came down with a jerk. Tail erect, braying in searing yells, he kicked and whirled, his pitching outdoing in its violence anything JD had seen a horse accomplish. The Mexicans laughed and cheered from the sidelines: "Andale, Petardo, arriba!" Even Josiah was enjoying the show, his deep laughter rumbling under the higher voices of the boys. "Hit the sky! Swat that last star right down!"

On the sixth jump the rope came away. Gunny sacks sailed through the air like frightened chickens, and empty tin cans crashed and clattered in a discordant jangle. When everything had hit the ground the sorrel stopped, shook his ears and shuddered his back, and seemed to go to sleep. "Now," said Darcy, as Agustín gathered up the performer's rope, "he's all right till tomorrow." Josiah went to help get the real load on Petardo's back. Once it was in place, the mule merely grunted and began nibbling grass.

JD swiped his sleeve across his brow. "Jeez. I thought I'd seen some bucking since I came out here, but that was really something."

"There's not a mule foaled that can't buck higher, wider, and more handsome than a horse any day of the week," Darcy agreed proudly. "I don't know why it is, but I've seen it too many times to think different."

Josiah came up, touching the broad brim of his hat. "It seems we're about ready to move, Sister Darcy."

"All right, Reverend." She tilted her head to regard him with new eyes. "I have to say, you've got a lot more of a sense of humor than some preachers I've met. There's one in Pueblo who thinks our encouraging Petardo's little show is cruelty to a dumb animal. Of course, he also thinks Nando and the boys, being Catholic, are in bondage to the Pope, who's in league with the Devil."

"Humor's always been one of my failings," the big man admitted. "That and a difficulty with turning the other cheek. As for the Pope, I make it a point never to disparage any faith that honestly seeks the truth. Besides, technically, I was Father Sanchez, not Reverend."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," Darcy observed. "What does surprise me is a man of God carrying a gun."

"Even a man of God is a man first, and has to do what he feels is right," Josiah pointed out serenely. "And it isn't the gun that's evil, it's the way some choose to use it."

"He's practical too," Darcy murmured in a gratified tone. "Want to ride up toward the front a while? My dad was baptized Catholic too, but Mother was Lutheran on both sides, and Dad wasn't particularly religious, so after we lost her he sort of left me to pick whatever faith appealed to me."

JD grinned to himself and went to catch his horse as the two of them strolled off, Darcy looking more than ever like a slip of a child next to Josiah's bulk.


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