II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Gambit was hungry and restless. He´d missed his evening feeding, which was something his master had never allowed since they had been together. He had eaten all the grass and browsed all the tender shoots his tether allowed him to reach, but it wasn´t anywhere near what he was used to. He eyed the simple slipknot Ezra had tied in his reins, deliberately choosing a means that could be easily pulled out if he happened to be in a hurry when he returned. Delicately the chestnut took hold of the trailing end with his teeth and tugged. It was a trick he had never before had occasion to reveal to Ezra that he knew, and it worked, as it always had. The reins came free, and Gambit shook his head and snorted. Cunningly holding his head to the side so he wouldn´t step on the trailing lines, he set off for the place his instincts told him he had just left, the place where he could find the company of other horses he knew, where he had always been well fed and cared for from the first day he had lived there.

+ + + + + + +

“Señor Larabee, I am worried about Señor Ezra.”

Chris looked up from his dinner with a puzzled frown. “Why´s that? Is he sick?”

The Mexican woman gestured vaguely with one hand, the other knotting restlessly on her apron. “I don´t know. That is what worries me. I have not seen him since supper yesterday. He didn´t come out for breakfast this morning, and when I knocked at the door of his room there was no answer.”

“That ain´t like Ez,” Vin observed. “He´s a critter of habit. Anyhow, where´d he have to go? It ain´t like he´s us, havin´ to be on the trail lookin´ after Company business a good bit of the time.”

Larabee´s frown deepened. The Southerner was hardly his responsibility as were Company employees and property, but he did feel a certain obligation toward him for having taken a hand against Vern Harper´s gang and been a steady and reliable source of information the last six weeks or so. Buck, who genuinely liked the gambler--as he did most people--and wasn´t shy of admitting it, didn´t hesitate, but pushed his chair back and stood. “We´ll go have a look, darlin´. C´mon, kid.” JD, who was due to go back to Wells Ranch tomorrow, followed him without a word.

Vin shook his head. “Somethin´ ´bout this don´t track, Chris. Human folks got patterns, just like wild things, and when they break ´em a smart man knows somethin´s wrong. Man that´s got all his interests in town like Ez does, he´s likelier´n most to stick to them patterns.”

“What are you thinking?” Chris asked.

“Don´t rightly know,” Vin admitted. “Feels like there´s somethin´ I oughtta be rememberin´, but I can´t call it to mind. Just know I don´t like the smell of it.”

Larabee rose. “Let´s have a look.”

They caught up with Buck and JD at the door to Ezra´s room. “He ain´t in his office, Chris, we checked,” the big man told them, his indigo eyes troubled. “And he ain´t answerin´ his door here, neither.”

“Is it locked?”

“Ain´t tried. You hearin´ anythin´, kid?”

JD had his ear pressed against the surface of the door, listening for sounds of movement or distress from beyond. “Nothin´, Buck.”

“Ezra´s choice about his privacy,” Buck observed worriedly, “but if he´s sick like you was, and unconscious or somethin´--” He didn´t finish the sentence, but took a deep breath, grasped the knob and turned it. The latch slid easily and Wilmington poked his head cautiously into the room. “Hey, Ez? You okay in here? Ezra? You awake?”

No response. Three sets of shoulders crowded the door open. The room had the slightly stale quality that comes when the windows haven´t been open for a while. “Bed´s made,” Chris observed.

“Stove´s colder´n a wedge,” Vin added, and opened the door of the firebox for a look. “Don´t look like there´s been no fire in here since yesterday.”

“That´s not right,” Larabee declared. “If Ezra got up at all, he´d have heated some water to shave with, if nothing else.”

The hunter nodded somberly. “Like I said afore. Patterns.”

Buck stood with fists on hips, studying the bed with its sumptuous green velvet spread. “Either he slept here and made the bed, or he never opened it last night.”

“His trunk´s underneath here,” JD added, getting up from his hands and knees. He opened the wardrobe and scanned the clothes hanging neatly inside. “Can´t rightly tell if anything´s missin´, but he sure ain´t packed up and pulled out. Anyway, how could he? Stage don´t come through but once a day in either direction, and if he´d got on it somebody´d seen him.”

“He might´a rode,” Vin pointed out. “But he´d´a took a few things anyways. His razor for certain, and that´s right here.”

“See if you can find his guns,” Chris ordered. “The man´s a walking arsenal.”

A quick search of all the likely places--drawers, the wardrobe--turned up no sign of them. “Pretty obvious there wasn´t any kind of struggle,” Larabee decided, eyeing the almost obsessively neat arrangement of the room. “If his weapons are gone but his clothes and razor aren´t, he probably went somewhere on horseback, expecting to be back before long. Anyone remember seeing him yesterday?”

“I do,” JD volunteered. “I was just goin´ into Potters´, it was gettin´ on for sunset, and I saw his reflection in the window as he rode past me. I think he was comin´ in from his regular ride, judgin´ by how his horse looked.” He frowned. “Funny thing is, he wasn´t comin´ from the downstream end of town. So why didn´t he stop off at the barn and have Gambit seen to? He takes care of that horse like a baby.”

“Let´s go check his stall,” Chris suggested.

At the barn they found Josiah Sanchez and his big sorrel horse. “I was just about to come looking for you,” the blacksmith told them. “I rode in to keep JD company on the way home tomorrow, and look what was waiting outside the door to be let in.” He nodded toward the familiar chestnut gelding exchanging greetings with his own mount.

“That´s Gambit,” said JD unnecessarily.

Vin went to the horse, soothing it with gentle admonitions in Comanche. “He´s warm, but he ain´t hot. Don´t seem to be spooked none, and there ain´t no blood on the saddle. Dust on the seat, though. Means he ain´t had nobody on him in a spell.”

“Reckon Ez could´a got thrown?” Buck wondered. “Hell, that man rides like he was part of the horse. Ain´t seen nobody his equal but you and the kid. Take a helluva sudden alarm to shake him loose.”

“Wouldn´t Gambit be actin´ scary, then?” JD asked.

“Seems likely,” Wilmington agreed, and glanced at Chris, his expression troubled.

“Awww, hell!” Vin exclaimed suddenly. “I bet I know where he went. Stupid, stupid, stupid...”

“Settle down, cowboy,” Chris admonished, reaching out to grasp his shoulder. “Tell us what you know.”

“He as good as told me he ´s figurin´ on somethin´ like this,” Tanner rebuked himself, “only I didn´t take him serious. Couple weeks ago, afore his Ma left town--that day you went to dinner at Miz Travis´s, it was--him and me was in the bar and he was talkin´ about how sick it made him, thinkin´ he´d been gittin´ fat off what them wagon-train raiders been doin´. Beatin´ hisself up that he didn´t guess sooner that they was up to no good. You know he ´s the one guessed James had a piece of it. I bet he´s done went out to James´s place to try and find some way to prove it.”

“And his horse has come back alone,” Josiah added. “He´s in trouble.”

“Buck, Vin, get our horses saddled,” Larabee ordered at once. “JD, go tell Nathan we need him. Standish may be hurt. I´ll find Owen and tell him he and Virgil will have to look after things till we get back.”

“I´ll get Nathan,” JD agreed. “But I´m goin´ with you.”

“Like hell you are,” Buck snapped. “You ain´t been out of bed a week. We close to lost you twice already, what are you lookin´ for, third time the charm?”

JD faced him. “I´m goin´,” he repeated. “James has thirty or forty men at his place, not countin´ his cook and his house staff. Five of you don´t hardly got a chance if it comes to shootin´. Six might.” He glanced from Buck´s angry face to Chris´s flinty one. “Ezra backed us up at the river when there was no good reason for him to bother. Every one of us that was there that day owes him one, and that includes me. Ain´t that why you´re all goin´ after him? You can make me stay behind, but if you do I´ll just wait till you´re out of sight and follow you. I know where you´re goin´.”

“Kid´s got a point,” Vin observed.

Josiah, looking solemn, unbuckled the flap of his saddlebag and reached in to pull something out. “The Lord directed me to bring this with me,” he said, holding it out to the young Pony rider. “Seems like He was telling me JD might need it.” In his hand was JD´s extra Remington Navy revolver, with its holster and belt.

JD took it and began buckling it into place over the one already strapped to his right leg. Vin eyed the smith with an uneasily impressed look as the superstitions absorbed in his years with the Comanches asserted themselves. Buck looked questioningly at his oldest friend. “All right,” Chris decided after a moment. “But you keep those guns in leather unless someone draws on you, and listen to Buck. He´s been in more fights than you´ve had birthdays.”

The kid grinned cheekily. “Mamma always said a man should learn from the best. That´s one reason she wanted me to go to college.”

“I´ll saddle your pony for you, kid,” Vin offered. Buck had passed on JD´s desire to buy his mare from the Company, and Chris had decided it was a legitimate wish and agreed that as soon as he could pay the two hundred dollars she had cost, she would be his. Meanwhile, no one else would be allowed to ride her, since a contract of sorts existed with regard to her sale.

“Thanks, Vin. I´ll get Nathan now.” JD took off for the healer´s soddy at the other end of town.

“Damn it, boy,” Buck bellowed after him, “don´t run! Remember what Nate told you about takin´ it easy!”

JD ignored him. Buck looked wryly to Larabee. “Kids! How the hell does a man raise ´em if they don´t pay him no mind?”

+ + + + + + +

The six men were just preparing to mount up when a rising thunder of hoofbeats, a jingle of harness and a cloud of dust announced the arrival of the special payroll coach. Automatically they all looked that way, then came alert as they saw that it was being drawn by four horses rather than the usual six, with an odd animal, still wearing its harness, tied on behind. Leaving their horses in care of Max, they moved forward to meet it as it pulled up at the end of the main building, in front of the stage office.

The driver set the brake and wrapped his lines. “Who´s in charge?” he demanded. “Superintendent Larabee?”

“That would be me,” Chris announced, stepping up to the side of the vehicle. “Something wrong?”

“Damn well say so,” retorted the whip. “We got held up. Ten men hit us as we were crossing that dry wash a few miles past Cleft Butte. Shot down the near leader in his tracks, killed the messenger and a special Fargo agent who was riding inside.”

“The payroll?” Chris questioned.

“Gone,” was the brief answer. “They must´ve known this was a special; they had a couple of extra horses to carry the coin.” Fifty thousand dollars in twenty-dollar gold pieces--the denomination usually used for company pay, since most personnel earned some multiple of that amount--would weigh around five hundred pounds, and it would sit heavier on a horse than a man of the same weight would do, because the man, being live weight, had more resilience.

Buck opened the side door and thrust his head in. Most coaches merely carried a treasure-box loose in the boot, in part because passengers often put their valuables in “company security” in case of holdups, wanting them to be insured against loss, and it was easier to be able to pull it out in order to surrender them when the owner broke his journey or reached his destination. But a special carried a regular Wells- Fargo strongbox, a small but massive item of oak, painted green, and bolted to the coach floor by two heavy quarter-inch iron straps bent over it in such a way that it couldn´t be slid out from under them. In each strap, near one end, a slot was cut, and this was fitted over an iron hook on the box and secured by an outsize padlock. When these locks were opened, the straps, which thus doubled as large metal hasps, could be swung to one side and the box slid out. It also had a huge brass padlock of its own, which wouldn´t give without the right key. Only the Division Superintendents had keys for these locks, but a bullet would make short work of them, and to Buck´s experienced eye it was clear that some had: the box itself was missing, the retaining straps thrown back. A Fargo agent, weary and sullen with pain, his arm roughly bandaged, slouched on the rear seat. “Nathan!” Buck shouted. “You better come have a look here.”

Vin had scrambled up onto the wheel hub for a glance at the two tarpaulin-wrapped shapes tied to the roof. He drew the Bowie knife out of his moccasin and cut the ropes, then climbed all the way up and began getting them down, Josiah positioning himself below to receive them. “Are you all right?” Chris asked the driver.

“Don´t bother about me, I ain´t touched.” Almost no robber ever shot a stage driver, except by accident--it was almost as bad as killing a woman or child. In the minds of most Western men a “whip” was something special, and outlaws, unless they were unusually vicious, made it a practise to leave them alone. “Do better to get after them fellers before they can get away.”

“What can you tell me about them? You said there were ten--”

“That was what I saw. A couple stayed up on the rim of the wash and I never got much of a look at ´em. I couldn´t see much but horses and hats--they all wore flour-sack hoods and dusters. I think at least one must´ve been a redhead, ´cause the palms of his hands were milky-white. Another was stockily built, not much taller than the kid there. And one was most likely part Indian: he had the grace for it when he got down, and the carriage and long legs you see in partbloods. What struck me most was that it seemed like there was two men givin´ the orders. One rode a big dark-dappled gray mare with black stockings and muzzle, maybe Irish or hunter blood, with an irregular stripe, and he wore a broad- brimmed fawn-colored hat, looked like it might have cost him something. The other had one of them spotty Nez Perce ponies, a red-dust roan with rusty-brown splotches on its hindquarters, and a black hat with the tip of a hawk wing tucked into the band. His spurs looked Mexican--iron with lots of gold and silver inlay, and the rowels must´ve been six inches across; the other one had slender Eastern spurs, silvered steel, I think.”

Larabee exchanged glances with his oldest friend. Both of them had been in these parts long enough to recognize those descriptions, elementary though they were. Buck was the one who said the names: “Royale and Lucas James.”

Chris nodded grimly. “It makes sense. Royale would know about when this coach would come through, and he knows the route. He´d have a good idea how many men would be aboard, so he´d be able to figure he´d need a good-sized bunch of his own to get the better of them. Ezra told us he was tight with Stuart James, so he´d know the nephew as well. Most likely the others were members of James´s crew--at this season the wagon-train raiders have probably left the country, gone East or out to California or down toward the Border for the winter.”

Vin dropped lightly off the roof of the stage and came to join them while Josiah organized some men to carry the two dead bodies to a shed where they could be safely kept until graves were dug. “What´cha fixin´ to do now, cowboy?” he asked.

Chris Larabee was not ordinarily a man to hesitate. Certainly he knew the value of patience, but his experience in the Army had taught him to think and decide quickly, as changing situations demanded. Yet for a moment he was genuinely unsure of where his duty lay. As an official of the Company and the closest approximation of civil law for more than a hundred miles in any direction, it was clearly his job to pursue the robbers and try to recover the stolen money; even though the holdup hadn´t technically taken place in his Division, it would take more than a week for anyone to get this far out from St. Joseph, let alone the time to send for them, and by then the trail would be too stale to follow. On the other hand, the stolen money was insured, and would be repaid a hundred per cent, by Wells Fargo. Murder had been done and should be punished, but the two guards were beyond any help Chris could give. Ezra, possibly, was not. The chance existed that he was still alive--but that chance would get smaller and smaller with every hour that went by. Larabee looked from Vin´s steady blue eyes, to Buck´s troubled face, to JD´s frankly scared expression, and remembered what the kid had said: “Ezra backed us up at the river when there was no good reason for him to bother. Every one of us that was there that day owes him one.” It was true.

If I don´t get after these road-agents now, odds are good I´ll never catch them. I could lose this job. I´ll still have my commission with the Army, but is that enough? Can´t I do just as much good--maybe more--in a civilian position? It´s been so long since I´ve functioned outside of military parameters, I hadn´t realized how satisfying it could be. I know Buck seems to be enjoying it, and Vin--we couldn´t be together if I went back to the Army full-time, not as long as he has that want on him.

But we do owe Standish, all of us. And we may still have time to do him some good--but the longer we wait to get after him, the less chance of that being true.

Is keeping a job worth a man´s life? That´s what it comes down to.

Keeping a job, or being able to look at myself in the mirror every morning...

“Vin,” he said quietly. “Would you know Gambit´s tracks if you saw them?”

“I can go take a good study of his hooves,” the hunter replied. “Then I´ll know ´em.”

“Do it. We´ll backtrack him. Maybe, as Buck suggested, he just had an accident. Spooked at a rattler or stepped in a hole and threw Ezra off between here and James´s place. Maybe we´ll find Ezra lying by the trail waiting for someone to come for him.”

“And if we don´t?” asked Buck, but Larabee could tell by his eyes and his tone that he understood what his friend was risking.

“If we don´t, we´ll go have a friendly talk with James. And see if Lucas is anywhere around the place while we´re there.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin quickly discovered that Ezra´s horse had retraced its own course, crossing the South Platte away from the rush bridge, following the north-bank trail, which was considerably less travelled than the south- because it wasn´t the coach and emigrant route, and joining it, apparently, a couple of miles downstream from where the road to James´s headquarters forked off. On the trail his tracks were difficult to follow, but in the grass they were plain. “He come through here sometime after midnight,” the tracker asserted, “and so far it looks like he was loose the whole way; his prints ain´t so deep as the ones he left goin´ out, he stops and stands when he wants to dump a load, and he chooses different paths acrost draws and things. He was movin´ slow, meanderin´ like, grazin´ a little by the way. The ground´s done been damped with the dew, and the grass was too; it shows his tracks clear and crisp even still.”

“Not running scared, then, like he would have been if a rattler spooked him or someone took a shot at Ezra,” Chris guessed.

Vin nodded. “No, it starts to look like maybe he slipped his tether or somethin´. Left alone too long, maybe, and got hungry.”

Eventually the tracks brought them to a thicket of tall serviceberry shrub, where a patch of trampled ground and horse-nibbled foliage showed that they had found the spot where Gambit had been tethered. Here Vin found the tracks of one set of boots, no more, moving away but not returning. “Gotta be Ez, and he knowed where he ´s goin´,” he declared. “He moves like a man with a purpose in his mind. JD done said he seen him ridin´ back into town yesterday. I´m bettin´ he´d been doin´ a scout, findin´ him a spot where he could get a good long- distance look at James´s place and see how it was laid out, so´s he wouldn´t be gropin´ over strange ground in the dark.” He grinned briefly. “Wouldn´t figure no gamblin´ dude like Ez would know enough to do that.”

“I´m starting to think there are a lot of things he knows how to do that we wouldn´t figure on,” Larabee observed.

“Likely I could find where he took his look from, iffen I wanted to bother,” Vin continued, “but there ain´t no need. You can see where he was headed--straight down to James´s fence line.”

“But he didn´t come back for his horse, not even to find it missing,” said Josiah. “So he´s still down there, one way or the other.”

“You reckon they´ve killed him?” JD asked.

“If Vin´s guessed right, and he went in there looking for some kind of proof that James is tied to the wagon train raids and maybe the horse thieves,” Chris responded slowly, “and if some of James´s people caught him at it and didn´t kill him outright in the process-- if I were in a situation like that, I´d want to find out just how much he knew and whether he´d shared it with anyone else. Dead men don´t talk, JD. If he was alive when they took him, odds are good they kept him that way, at least for a while. He´s been there a little over twelve hours, but James was in the settlement when I called it a night, about eleven- thirty. He was playing poker with Potter and two or three travelling men, and knowing James, he wouldn´t have been watching the clock. Someone would have had to go and get him, and that would take a couple of hours, maybe more.”

“And Ez bein´ a gambler, he knows how to bluff,” Buck added. “He´d know the best chance he´d have´d be to stall and hope somebody´d miss him.”

“Thing is, how long can he stand up to bein´ questioned?” Nathan wondered. “He makes a big deal of bein´ a city gentleman, and all them airs and graces he´s got don´t point to much toughness or strength.”

Vin swivelled his head and met the healer´s eyes, his own bright with some indefinable emotion. “I seen Ez with the kids around the settlement, and I done listened to him ramblin´ on that day. They´s a lot more to that man than you maybe care to admit, Nate. I got a notion he´s tougher´n any of us´d guess.”

“But James won´t fool around,” Buck pointed out quietly. “He´s got a lot to lose, too much to play games.” He looked to his oldest friend. “How you figure to work it, pard?”

“We´ll go in open and easy, like we didn´t suspect anything,” Chris decided. “Buck, Vin, keep your eyes open. Watch for any hint that would tell you where they´ve got him. Josiah, I want you to watch James. Nathan and JD, you´re backup, in case someone starts trouble. Let´s ride.”

Nathan frowned. He would go on this search because he owed his life to Ezra Standish, just as he did to the other five. He didn´t have to like the prospect. But he liked owing the debt less. Chris and Buck, Vin, JD and Josiah were different. No, say rather it was Ezra who was different. Nathan didn´t trust him, although Rain insisted that with her he had always played the perfect gentleman. Well, a gentleman could be a scoundrel too--or worse. Nathan had personal knowledge of just what the “Southern gentleman” mask could conceal. He didn´t want to keep that debt on the books a day longer than he had to.

Vin eyed the healer without rancor, but troubled by the ill feeling that radiated from him. The tracker himself had been hesitant to trust anyone but Chris when he first became a part of this group. But in the four months since the battle at the riverside, he had begun to feel comfortable with the others. If time was what Ezra wanted, he´d had it. Tanner knew what it was not to be trusted or liked. It was a bad way for a man to have to live. It bothered him, the sense he got from Nathan with regard to Ezra--distrust, resentment. All right, Ezra probably looked and talked like the kind of people likeliest to own slaves, but did that mean he had owned them? He´d hung on even after he´d seen that the man he´d come to help rescue was black--surely that had to count for something. Surely Nathan himself knew, as Vin knew, what it was to be scorned for something that wasn´t your choice; a man would think he´d be more charitable just on that account alone. Nathan was a good man; Vin respected his skill and his commitment to healing, his understanding of the Indian mind and his acceptance of their ways--but at least where it came to Southern gentlemen, he was a bigot.

Vin respected Ezra too, for his refusal to explain or apologize for himself. The man at least had confidence enough in who he was not to hide it. You took him as a package or you didn´t take him at all, and he didn´t much give a damn either way. Or did he? Vin wasn´t sure. Maybe it was something else. Maybe he didn´t really care what other people thought. Maybe he didn´t think it would matter whether he took the time to explain himself or not, and so he chose not to waste his breath in the attempt. The tracker had been burned enough times in his life to have some feel for others who´d had the same experience, and he understood how a man who´d gotten the short end of the stick from a lot of people would expect the same from everyone he met. It wasn´t a question of them trusting him; it was a question of him trusting them. They had to demonstrate to him that they were worthy of it, that they weren´t the same as whoever had raked him over the coals in the past.

The six circled around to enter the compound by way of the main gate, a high arched frame bordered with wagon wheels and finished off with the customary sign, hung from chains, carrying the James name and an outsize replica of the brand. With the heavy working season recently ended, James was obviously even more inclined than most ranch owners to let his crew, or that portion of it that had been kept on, relax and take it easy on Sunday, finishing up any small chores that needed it, then going out for a hunt or loafing around patching gear and clothes, boiling out their socks and drawers, cleaning guns and boots, trimming and shoeing the feet of the horses in their several strings, braiding in rawhide and horsehair, cutting hair, scanning any reading matter that had come within reach, shooting dice, pitching horseshoes, competing at rope-throwing, hunting up a king snake and a rattler so they could watch the ensuing fight, and playing seven-up, red dog, poker, dominoes, and mumblety-peg. As the six men jogged their horses slowly across the yard, they noted men in couples and small groups around the corrals, barns, and especially the bunkhouse engaged in all these pastimes. Most weren´t wearing their sidearms, since very few men would while loafing around their own home buildings, but they wouldn´t have to go very far to get them. They obviously recognized at least Chris and Buck, and some began to drift slowly after them as they rode steadily toward the main house.

Stuart James was sitting on the front porch enjoying the warm Indian-summer weather, smoking a cigar and watching his nephew´s two halfbreed children playing around their mother´s chair while she darned socks out of a basket. He was casually dressed in gray flannel trousers, a comfortable old jacket with leather patches on the elbows, and a soft white shirt with the collar left off and the neckband unbuttoned. As they drew nearer he stood up slowly, and the woman put down her work and rose too, calling her children to her.

“Well, Captain Larabee,” said James in a faintly mocking tone, “what brings you so far out from town? And with such a lot of company?”

Chris checked his black, aware that Vin and Buck were edging their horses away on either side, forcing the other three to fan out too, so that they assumed an open- ranks formation that would make it harder for any hostile move on the crew´s part to take out more than one of them at a time. “We´re looking for Ezra Standish,” he replied. “Apparently he went out for his regular ride yesterday and never made it home--but his horse did; it came back to the barn about four hours ago.”

James snorted. “Standish would hardly be likely to come calling on me,” he pointed out, “after the way he diminished my holdings in town. He knows he wouldn´t be welcome. What makes you think he might be here?”

“Found some sign,” Chris responded evenly. “We thought maybe he was thrown and you might have found him on your way back from the settlement. Even you wouldn´t leave an injured man lying in the trail, James.”

“If it was Standish, I might,” the rancher retorted, though still in a light, casual tone.

“Then maybe you won´t mind if we look around some,” Buck suggested mildly, though the look on his face was anything but mild.

James levelled a stare at him, pitched his cigar away, and spoke to the woman. “Lamb, take the kids inside.” He waited until they had disappeared into the house, then said quietly, “I´m not sure I like what you seem to be implying, Sergeant.”

Buck grinned at him, not pleasantly, comfortably aware of JD directly to his left, eyes and nerves alert, right hand poised just under the lip of his holster, reins tied together so he could drop them across his mare´s withers and guide by knees--or fling himself out of the saddle entirely--if he thought he needed to draw both his guns. “Hell, James, I ain´t implyin´ a damn thing. I´m sayin´ it straight out.”

“If Standish were here,” James replied, “why would I want to saddle myself with him any longer than necessary? I said once, he´s not welcome here. I´d be more than happy to let you take him back where he belongs.”

“That might depend on how he got here in the first place,” said Buck.

“Buck,” Larabee rebuked easily. “That´s enough. You need to excuse him, James,” he added. “He gets defensive when he thinks a friend may be in trouble.”

James frowned. “I had the impression you thought we might be tending an injured man found on the trail--not threatening him in some unspecified way.”

“Could be either,” Chris allowed, still in the same easy tone. “Where´s your nephew Lucas today, James?”

“What´s that got to do with anything?” James shot back. Josiah, mindful of Chris´s orders, watched him closely, to see whether his eyes would dart reflexively toward some particular building where either Lucas or Ezra might be. They didn´t; they remained firmly on Chris´s face.

Chris gestured broadly around the forty-acre compound with his left hand. “You´ve got a big place here, James. Lots of buildings, and a lot of range outside that fence line. Plenty of places a man could be kept against his will. Lucas has even less reason to like Standish than you do, if I understand it correctly. You risked your building of your own free will, knowing you could lose. Lucas had a disagreement with Ezra even before that, I´m told. Maybe he´s finally decided to take it out of the man´s hide.”

“Why should he?” James demanded. “It isn´t as if Standish made a big public issue of the thing. Nobody else was there except Inez. I won´t deny that Lucas felt frustrated and humiliated, but he´s gotten over it. Besides, he hasn´t been home in over a week. Business.”

Right, Chris thought. Business with that special stage. Still, his keen insight into human character suggested that James was, if not telling the whole truth, not blatantly lying either. What he hasn´t said is that he doesn´t have reason to wish Ezra harm.

“But if it will make you feel any better,” James added abruptly, “maybe you should search the place. Just to assure yourselves that Standish isn´t here. Because he isn´t.”

Larabee slid a glance toward Vin. What do you think?

Think he wouldn´t leave hisself wide open if he had reason to figure we´d find somethin´ we shouldn´t.

The older man lifted one shoulder by an inch. Then Ezra´s not here?

Vin´s hand moved slightly in a quick circling motion. Don´t say he ain´t somewheres out on the range. We can make a big circle, look for trail sign.

“I don´t think that´ll be necessary, James,” Chris decided. “If you say he´s not here, your word´s good enough for us.” There was a faintly mocking note in the tone. “Boys, let´s go.”

The watching ranchhands drew back to let them pass, though suspicion and anger still showed in many eyes. Not letting his face show anything of the crawling itch between his shoulderblades, Chris turned his horse and sent it trotting toward the gate, the others following in a loose wedge like a skein of migrating geese. Half a mile down the road they pulled up, looking back for possible “escort.” There was none.

“Why didn´t we take him up on it?” JD burst out. “There´s six of us. We could´a searched the place.”

“Settle, boy,” Buck rebuked him. “We´d´a had to split up, and then we´d´a been easy marks if any of them cowhands had taken it in their heads to test us. Anyhow, a man don´t invite you onto his property if he´s got somethin´ to hide there.”

“That´s right,” Chris agreed. “Besides, there´d be too much chance of someone not connected with James´s hidden business--his house servants, or Lucas´s wife--stumbling over Ezra if he were being held at the headquarters. More likely, if they captured him last night, they moved him out to some secluded place on the range, like one of the line camps.”

“But if that´s what they done,” Buck mused, “why ain´t James there?”

“Might be he plans to go, after a spell,” Vin suggested. “Might be whoever´s there with Ez is s´posed to work on him a day or two, soften him up. Don´t even have to be beatin´ on him or nothin´. Tie him someplace with no water or food, maybe keep on wakin´ him every time he nods off...that kinda treatment can break a man in pretty short order.”

“We´ll make a long sweep just out of sight of the buildings,” Chris decided. “If they took him anywhere, it would have been on a horse, almost certainly. Horses leave tracks. Let´s see if we can find them.”


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