by Sevenstars

Two hours passed. Chris kept rousing Vin at intervals and conferred quietly with Buck through the bars that divided their cells. Neither man could come up with a plausible explanation for Blackner having framed them--or, for that matter, having killed Halkett, which would almost be a necessity to convince the local law that they were innocent--or a plan that would get them sprung out of jail while still allowing them freedom to stay in Discovery and protect Darcy and the other three. Vin withdrew into a thick shell of silent Indian stoicism, walling himself off from an experience he couldn't bear. Nathan paced for a while, then lay down and dozed. Then a soft hiss sounded from just outside the deep-sunk casement window, eight feet off the floor, of Chris and Vin's cell. "Hsst! Mr. Larabee! Are you there?"

"Ezra?!" the gunfighter exclaimed in a suppressed shout. He quickly lifted the stool and set it under the window, then stepped up onto it. He was still six inches short of the sill, but at least he could see the gleam of the gambler's emerald eyes, like a mountain cat's in the darkness.

"Hold steady, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra tossed down in the direction of the ground--apparently he was perched on Josiah's shoulders. Returning his attention to Chris, he asked evenly, "Are you gentlemen unhurt?"

"Vin took a crack to the head, he's still kinda shaky," Larabee told him. "The rest of us are okay. Where's Miss Cullin?"

"In her quarters, protected by Mr. Dunne, Mr. Miramontes, and a ten-gauge shotgun with shells loaded with revolver balls," the Southerner replied calmly, naming one of the deadliest possible kinds of load. "My concern at this moment is to extract you gentlemen from your unjust and unfortunate incarceration, and that I propose to do forthwith. You must all withdraw as far from the outside wall as the dimensions of your cells permit, and keep your heads down."

"What are you gonna do, pard?" Buck demanded in a loud hiss.

"Why, Mr. Wilmington, I intend to remove this inconvenient barrier to your liberty," said the gambler with a sly gold-toothed smile. "Mr. Larabee, precisely how far from this window is the dividin' wall between your two cells?"

"Five feet to my right," Chris replied with a pistoleer's keen eye for range. "I'm with Buck, what are you gonna do?"

The angelic smile gleamed again in the darkness. "Knowin' as you do my facility with ordnance, Mr. Larabee, what do you suppose?"

"Shit!" Chris whispered. He dropped down off the stool and crossed the cell to rouse Vin from his lethargic state. "Come on, pard, on your feet. Ezra's outside and he's gonna blow the damn jail wall."

"Ez?" the tracker repeated in confusion, glancing toward the window, but Ezra had already vanished.

On the other side of the wall, in the thickly shadowed alley behind the cell bloc, Josiah squatted in the dirt holding Ezra's supplies as the gambler, a lighted cigar in his teeth, with deft, economical movements puttied a vertical line of three black-powder cartridges (filched from a busy miners'-supply store) to the wall at the distance Larabee had specified, linked them to one another with short lengths of fuse, and then began laying out a longer line of it, about eight feet, along the exterior of Buck and Nathan's cell and around the corner into the side alley, where young Juan Miramontes kept guard. After carefully double-checking with sensitive fingers for crimps and breaks in the line, the Southerner nodded to himself in satisfaction and said, "So. Very good. Mr. Sanchez, if you will kindly give the word?"

Josiah spoke to Juan in Spanish and the young Mexican nodded and darted off toward the street. Ezra touched the end of his cigar delicately to the fuse. Forty or fifty yards down the street, a fusillade of shots broke out, followed by a cacophony of shouts as Juan's brothers, seeing his signal wave from the mouth of the alley, set up the diversion Standish had originated.

The deputy on duty in the office wouldn't have paid a great deal of attention to mere unaccompanied gunfire, but the racket of human voices suggested that something untoward was going on. Bolting to his feet, he grabbed the shotgun that was always kept at the ready and hurtled out of the building. In the alley, the hissing spark of the burning fuse disappeared around the corner as the unsuspecting lawman pelted down the street in search of the disturbance--which had evaporated as the Miramontes boys scattered in every direction. Ezra and Josiah turned their faces streetward and crouched down, shoulders hunched, unconsciously mirroring the positions assumed by their friends in the cells.

The cartridges went off with a bellow, blasting a jagged hole in the exterior wall and taking out four feet of the dividing line of bars as well. The two jailbreakers bolted around the corner into the smoke, to be met by Buck and Nathan, coughing and powdered with masonry-dust, and then by Chris half supporting the unsteady Vin, whom Josiah promptly took in charge. "Come!" Ezra commanded with uncharacteristic briefness, and led the way parallel to the main street in an up-gulch direction.

After an initial hundred-yard dash, the gambler turned aside and entered a vacant shed, quickly closing the door after the last of his comrades. "Damn, Ezra, we can't stay in here," Chris growled. "The deputy'll be here before we can more than catch our breath."

"Oh, I beg to differ, Mr. Larabee," came the lightly drawled response out of the dark. "Before we contacted you, Mr. Sanchez and I took the liberty of removin' your horses and tack from the facility where you had lodged them and leavin' unmistakeable sign of their brief presence behind the structure adjoinin' the jail. To the local minions of law and order, it will be obvious that the unknown accomplices who effected your release also provided you with mounts on which to flee these environs. Since it will be evident that trackin' you through the hard-packed and much trafficked alleys and streets of the town is impractical, their sole option, should they be zealous in their desire to apprehend you a second time, will be to send out mounted parties to scour up and down the gulch for sign of your passage. Meanwhile, we shall be makin' our way in leisurely fashion to rejoin Mr. Dunne and Miss Cullin at the hotel, where no one will ever think to seek you. Granted the quarters may be somewhat congested, but we must in any case confer before makin' any further move."

"Who's got the horses?" Buck demanded.

"By this time, they have been removed to the same feed lot where Miss Cullin and her company are boardin' their own mounts," Ezra told him. "The night attendant will be unaware of their advent, and when the day man assumes the duty he will naturally assume that the new residents arrived while he was off shift--a delusion which will be shared by his counterpart upon the latter's return tomorrow night. When people believe you have cause to conceal a thing, Mr. Wilmington, they are disinclined to seek it directly under their noses. I regret I could originate no scheme by which to liberate your weapons, but if need be we can acquire some sort of replacements to equip you."

Nathan shook his head gently in wry admiration. "Lord, Ezra, you think of everything."

None of them could see the gambler's two-fingered salute, but they could hear it in his voice. "As Mother has always insisted, Mr. Jackson, the devil is in the details. I am merely performin' as the dutiful son and pupil I have always been. Now, if you gentlemen have had sufficient opportunity to clear your lungs of alien substances, shall we press on? Fortunately there will be no need to cross the main street in order to attain our goal. Mr. Tanner?" A gentle note sounded in the soft words. "Are you restored to your customary vigor, or should we adjust our pace to accomodate you?"

"I'm a lot better'n I was, now 's I'm outta that place," Vin responded, his voice still a bit frail and shaky but free of the dull hopeless resignation that had colored it before. "Thanks, Ez. I owe you a big one. I couldn't lasted in yonder much longer."

"I assure you, my friend, no debt was incurred. Your abhorrence of confinement is thoroughly comprehensible in light of your life experiences heretofore. Certainly it is to my interest to insure that my associates remain in good health mentally as well as otherwise. Gentlemen, let us continue our trek."

+ + + + + + +

At the door of Darcy's room, Ezra tapped twice, paused, tapped once, paused, and then tapped four times--seven for the Magnificent Seven, divided according to the groupings in which they had initially entered Discovery. At this agreed-upon signal, the door opened quietly to reveal JD with a Lightning gleaming silver in his hand. "C'mon in," he said, and the group crowded through quickly, Ezra last of all.

Fernando Miramontes conferred briefly in Spanish with Darcy, then slipped out to gather up his sons. The windowshades had been drawn and a small kit not unlike Nathan's stood open on the dresser. "Anyone hurt?" Darcy asked. JD was already assuring himself that Buck was in one piece and not bleeding noticeably.

"Vin," Chris responded briefly.

"Put him on the bed. Mr. Jackson, I think my outfit's supplies there should have everything you need in them. Mr. Larabee, Ezra picked up everything he could about Halkett's death, but if you don't mind, it might help us to know just how you saw it."

The gunfighter gazed at her steadily a moment, recognizing another take-charge personality and silently saluting it. The men distributed themselves around the room as space and furniture allowed and Chris explained why they had gone to the Tam o'Shanter and described what they had found there, how they had been taken, and their exchange with Pennoyer at the jail.

"So Blackner got the Tam contract," Darcy mused when he'd finished. "Okay. But why would he want to set you up for Halkett's death? For that matter, why would he want to kill the man?"

"I believe I may have the answer to that, my dear," Ezra interjected. He recounted the conversation he had listened to at the Pacific Hotel the night before.

Buck whistled softly. "Damn. Well, if you're gonna steal, steal big, I always say."

"But why'd he kill Halkett?" JD wondered. "I thought Ezra said they was partners."

"He had very nearly seven million excellent reasons, Mr. Dunne," Ezra observed grimly. "Thousands of men have died for far less gain. Once Blackner had the contract to move the Tam o'Shanter bullion, which is a legal document and which Halkett's superiors and replacement would be bound to honor, Halkett had outlived his usefulness."

"Which doesn't explain why he's so hell bent on driving me out of business," Darcy put in. "The money he could make from taking over my route is a little drop in a big bucket compared to what he stands to make if he can pull off this scheme."

"I fear the matter is one of personal pride," the gambler told her. "He seems to be of the opinion that if you remain in the freight transportation business after he has departed for Europe, you will have won the game, regardless of how much he may benefit financially from this phenomenal grift. I prefer not to repeat the language he used in expressin' that belief."

"He's gotta be crazy," JD opined firmly.

"Crazy or not, nailing him is the only chance we have of clearin' our own names," Chris declared. "Discovery doesn't call on Judge Travis; it's organized under mining law, as a separate district, and it has the right to try its own cases, civil and criminal. That means we can't count on any help from outside."

"Or inside," Ezra added. "Make no mistake, Mr. Larabee, the situation with which we--and particularly you--are confronted is unlike most that we have faced heretofore. Sheriff Pennoyer knows well on which side his bread is buttered. He was put in his position by the minin' interests and they can as readily remove him from it, should they so wish. He cannot afford to lose their support, or all his political dreams will turn to dross. He cares nothin' for the opinions of the electorate, because in the strictest sense he is not supported by it. The mineowners, not the voters, are his lords and masters, and their concerns are his. He dares not allow the murder of one of their rankin' employees to go unsolved. It matters none whether he apprehends the actual perpetrator; what he knows he must do is present them with an acceptable scapegoat, which is precisely what he hoped to do by retainin' you in custody, as your own testimony demonstrates. Without knowin' he was doin' so, Blackner at a single stroke has reduced our effective strength by half. You, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson must take care to keep to the shadows or you will be arrested on sight--or worse. And we must somehow contrive to demonstrate your innocence or you will all be condemned to a fugitive existence."

"Can't stay cooped up in this room forever, either," Buck grumbled. "What the hell will we do for food, first off?"

"The boys can bring you canned stuff, and there's a stove to brew coffee on," Darcy told him. "Still, you're right."

"So what do we do?" wondered Nathan. "Only ones of us that can move around free is JD, Josiah, and Ezra."

"Believe me, Mr. Jackson, I have no desire whatsoever to assume the entire burden of peacekeepin' in our bailiwick--or even twice as much of the responsibility as has been mine heretofore," the Southerner retorted. "If you will permit me to sleep on the question, it may be that I will originate a plan. Meanwhile, the hour is late, and we have all been under a considerable strain. I suggest that we retire and refresh ourselves to whatever extent possible."

"Nando's room is down the hall," Darcy added. "I'll go sleep there, and JD and Agustín can bodyguard me while Josiah stays here with the rest of you. We fetched up the boys' blankets while Ezra was setting things up, so you can make your beds on the floor--your own gear's still in your rooms. Brought a couple of rifles, too, just in case."

As morning broke over the rim of the canyon, José Miramontes walked down to the stable to get his horse and take his turn riding out to the boarding ranch where Sugar and the mules were being kept--something Darcy insisted on having done at least once a day whenever they were in Discovery. The ranch was located in a high valley a couple of hundred feet above the level of the camp, whose steep walls contained strays while its rich grass kept them content. The proprietor, finding trees for fence railing handily available, had cut the valley up into a patchwork of pastures of various sizes, so that groups of horses and mules could stay with their accustomed mates and not have to mingle with strangers.

JD bolted awake, far too early for his liking after the late night he'd had, to the sound of someone thundering on the door of Fernando Miramontes's hotel room. Agustín, who'd taken second guard trick, was already at the door with his gun out, demanding in Spanish to know (or at least so JD presumed) who was there. Darcy, who'd slept in her red flannels and britches, sat up in the bed as a response came back and Agustín opened the door.

José barrelled in looking as if he'd just encountered the Devil and all his imps and burst into a torrent of Spanish which even Darcy apparently had a little trouble following; the tone of her response suggested that she was asking him to catch his breath and slow down. He did, and repeated himself. JD, who had slept on the rug beside the bed, slowly got to his feet, watching the Mexican uneasily and groping for his guns and rig.

Darcy went stark white and snapped out one short questioning sentence. The answer she got was something even JD understood: "Sí, patrona."

The woman threw back the quilt and reached for her boots. "JD, go get Josiah. The boys and I will get the horses ready and meet you at the stable."

"What's up?" JD demanded.

She drilled him with a cold look that reminded him of nothing so much as Chris Larabee on his worst days. "Get. Josiah," she repeated, her voice flat.

JD decided not to ask questions. He threw his gunbelt around his waist, grabbed his jacket and bowler and headed for the door.

Some ninety minutes later a very impatient and aggravated Chris Larabee was pacing back and forth--in his sock feet, for the sake of silence--the length of Darcy's hotel room, wondering for the thirtieth time why she couldn't have stopped long enough to explain what had set her off. Vin, much improved after a night of rest, sat propped up on the bed chewing on a strip of jerky Josiah had provided. Buck had taken up a cross-legged position in the corner, leaned back against the wall, while Nathan sat astraddle a reversed chair by the window, holding the shade back with two fingers and staring out the gap at the street. Ezra's signal knock at the door brought them all alert. Vin reached for one of the rifles Darcy had left, and Buck got up and quietly glided over to stand behind the door. Nathan cautiously cracked it open to reveal, not the gambler, but JD and Josiah. The kid looked white and sick, and Sanchez's face was hard as flint. They both slipped in and the healer shut the door behind them.

Wilmington took one look at JD's expression and immediately assumed the worst; the last time he'd seen the boy look that bad, he'd had a bullet in him. "Where you hurt, kid?" he demanded.

JD just shook his head wordlessly and swallowed several times hard, as if he were trying not to throw up. "He's not hurt, Brother Buck," Josiah said quietly. "Not in his body, at least."

"Hell he ain't!" the gunslinger retorted. "Think I don't know him well enough to--"

Sanchez cut him off, voice flat. "Someone rode up to the boarding ranch sometime last night," he said, "and got into the pasture where Sister Darcy's stock was. They cut out Sugar and five of the mules, roped and hog-tied them and slit their throats. Left the bodies and went back the way they'd come. No one at the owner's cabin saw or heard a thing."

There was a moment of total shocked silence. "Good Lord Jesus," Nathan whispered after a moment. Buck began cursing in a steady monotone in a mix of English, Spanish, and a little Creole French picked up from his mother's lady friends. He eased a comforting arm around the shoulders of the shivering kid, knowing how JD loved horses and how deeply it hurt him to think of anyone killing one. Vin's lighter voice joined his chant in a guttural litany of Comanche: "Sein-p'ago dei-zounda, houdldh gyht-zounda! Tsou ei-tseidle tou-dougyh, gyh-zounda!" His Indian people were very much attached to their ponies, and to lose one was a great blow; he had seen that Darcy, for all the Mexican maledictions she used to rebuke them, was equally fond of her stock.

"Where's Miss Cullin?" Chris demanded.

"Still up there. Fernando and his sons are with her."

Larabee's voice was cold. "Can you get our horses to the back service door without anyone seeing you?"

"The deputies are still out trying to pick up the trail they think you left after Ezra broke you out last night," Josiah told him. "We stopped at the jail to report what happened, and no one was there but a jailor, and a couple of masons trying to patch that hole Brother Ezra blew in the back wall. If I'm careful, I think I can do it."

"Go," the gunfighter ordered simply, and Josiah did.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra caught up to them a quarter-mile before they hit the valley; he hadn't shaved, his fancy shirt was unfastened at the throat, and his coat was unbrushed and thrown on hastily and carelessly, with no effort made to settle and adjust it to his form, but he was fully armed and alert, his eyes blazing coldly. "How'd you know?" Chris asked him.

"Mr. Sanchez sent a child to my hotel with a note," the gambler explained briefly, and dropped back to fall in alongside Vin.

The seven swung wide of the owner's cabin, guided by Josiah, who brought them to the pasture where the pack string had been thrown on grass three days ago. A couple of Fernando Miramontes's sons stood guard, mounted, their saddleguns drawn and braced Apache-fashion on their thighs, while their father and brothers accompanied Darcy as she moved slowly among the scatter of pathetic bodies. The surviving mules were crowded off on the other side of the plot, as far from the smell of blood and death as they could get. The regulators dismounted, leaving their horses outside with the packers', and drifted slowly through the gate to join the young woman.

She was pausing at each dead animal to cut the piggin strings that trussed its feet, stroke its cold hide and smooth its mane and call it by name. "Ivanhoe...Sonora...Caliban...Rusty...Petardo..." Last she sank to one knee beside the bell mare, her hand gently tracing the length of the face, lingering between the sunken eyes. Even hampered as he was by the blow to his head, Vin could sense the grief and fury boiling away inside her. Buck could tell by the quality of her voice that she'd been crying. He remembered how she'd dealt with the cowboy who'd originally owned Domingo, and what she had said afterward: "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." She might not have seen this done, but she was seeing the results of it, and what was worst, the victims were animals she owned and knew and depended on. She had threatened to cut that cowboy's face up for scarring the claybank's flanks. He could guess what she wanted to do to Blackner.

She slowly and reverently unbuckled the bell strap from around Sugar's neck and gently drew it out, handing it to Fernando before she laid her hand briefly on the mare's shoulder. She didn't speak, but Vin saw the promise in the gesture.

Buck, who could never bear to see a woman in the throes of emotion without wanting to help, came up behind her as she stood, and folded her in his strong arms. She didn't protest, but leaned into him, shaking with suppressed rage and sorrow. JD quietly joined his best friend and reached out to lay his hand on her shoulder, the other resting on his Colt in a gesture that spoke volumes, his pale strained face tight with resolve. Josiah looked like a thunderhead about ready to hurl God's lightning bolts. Ezra's face, ordinarily either impassive or pleasantly mocking, was filled with disgust, his emerald eyes cold and bright.

"Damn," Chris growled softly. "I underestimated him, didn't I? I figured he'd go for her personally if his trick with the mules didn't bring her around." He didn't have to mention Blackner's name.

"Wasn't your fault, pard," Buck said quietly, turning his head to look back over his shoulder as he continued to silently comfort Darcy with a big hand kneading and rubbing her back and shoulders. "Ain't none of us would think to do somethin' this plain damn yella. Hell, I don't recall ever seein' it, not even in range wars. How'd we know he'd have boys workin' for him that'd sink to it?"

Vin knelt cautiously to examine the ground, propping himself with a hand flat to it in case his concussion brought on a dizzy spell. "Was three men done this," he declared. "Likely once they get back into the camp streets I won't have no way to follow 'em, but if I see their tracks again--or their boots--I'll know 'em."

"Three men," Josiah repeated. "And Blackner has three hired guns with him."

"Makes sense," Nathan mused. "He sent them to do this here but took out Halkett his ownself. He'd know sure as the sheriff does how much power them mine owners got. He wouldn't want none of them boys to be there when he snuffed Halkett for fear they'd come on him for blackmail some time down the road."

"Curious that you should make that observation, Mr. Jackson," Ezra observed quietly. "The prospect is at the very core of the plan which occurred to me last night as I slept."

Larabee swung to face him. "Let's hear it," he demanded.

"I assume we all agree," the gambler began, "that Blackner is well aware the mine owners will demand the life of Halkett's murderer. That is the reason he provided the sheriff's office with yourselves as scapegoats, so that Pennoyer would have no cause to continue pressurin' his deputies to seek out the actual perpetrator. Determined as he is to carry out the theft I described to you and spend the proceeds unencumbered by a partner, the preservation of his own life from the noose must now stand among his first priorities."


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