The night was black and silent except for a haphazard rustling through the shrubbery. Suddenly, a scruffy man burst out frantically from among the vegetation, panicking as he stumbled to the cold, hard ground. He had already hurt a leg and lost his gun as well as his friends, the pain of which he felt all over his body. He could hardly see, and the pounding of his heart behind his eyeballs didn't help. He breathed heavily as he hobbled to his feet. "Richard? Ben? Anybody?" he called. There was a sudden burst of rustling from above in the trees. He jumped. It was just a bird. He let out a shaky, relieved breath and swallowed hard as he took a step forward, then - WHUMP! - a large object fell into his face. He screamed as he pushed it away. It was a head and body, dead and bloody, hanging upside-down from the tree, the poor man's eyes blindly open and his arm hanging below his head. The scruffy man screamed again as he fell and scrambled away as fast as he could into the night.

Ezra Standish, JD Dunne, Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, and Josiah Sanchez sat around a table near the bar in the saloon. Ezra, JD, and Josiah held copies of the day's Clarion and read with interest. Buck looked on with JD and with a beer in his hand. Vin leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his own beer, not so taken by the article that captivated his friends.

JD read aloud: "'Wayne described the attackers as a ruthless band of Indian ghosts that would not show mercy until he was barely able to stand. He feels extremely lucky to have escaped with his life, but assumes the worst for the others in his expedition; they seemed to have simply disappeared. "It was supposed to be fun," he lamented.'" JD shook his head with a sympathetic sigh.

Buck shook his head, too. "Poor son of a gun. Does he really believe they were ghosts?"

"Well, he's made it clear," the red-clad gambler said in his silky southern drawl as he laid down his paper, "that his expedition was merely careless. Their inexperience and their desire for high adventure in the wild frontier clouded their would-be senses."

"The $10,000 attached to that Indian treasure -- now that could make men do crazy things, too," Buck added.

"Now, Buck, that kind of ambition can be a very palpable advantage," Ezra slyly smiled as he poured himself a whiskey shot from the bottle at the center of their table.

"Who's offerin' up that money, anyway...and why?" huffed a clearly disgusted Vin. "So a bunch o' gold-diggin' city boys can come and make fools o' themselves?"

"Magazine back east heard tell of the legend of the Indian treasure. They printed up the riddles that are supposed to lead to it," explained Buck. "First folks to find it and take it to the magazine gets the $10,000... or at least that's how much they're figurin'."

"Can't be worth more to anyone but the Ute," Josiah objected on behalf of the tribe. "This treasure is a chest of ceremonial objects used by a highly respected legend -- a tribal leader who lived over 100 years ago. The last ceremony he used them in was his own. The chest was buried in a highly secret location along with him. Any visit to the site ought to be a spiritual one, not a selfish one." He paused amidst the nods of agreement from Vin and Buck. "Legend has it, if anyone disturbs the resting place,... well, it will surely be known." He paused.

"Be known?" asked JD.

"The chief hates to be disturbed."

"You mean he has a curse... and everything?"

During Josiah's speech, Mary Travis, writer of said article, entered the saloon and sashayed to the table with a wide grin poised brightly across her face. "Hello, boys!" she hailed. The 5 men expressed their curt salutations. "I see you've all gotten caught up in the excitement, too."

"Well, Mary, you seem happy enough after delivering such horrible news this afternoon," Josiah observed.

"It's terrible what happened to the Philadelphia expedition. No one's quite sure what actually happened out there," she said as her mood dimmed. Then she put on a look of optimism. "But the good news is we're going to have some celebrities in town very soon!"

"Celebrities? In this town?" JD asked with some interest twinkling in his eyes.

"Yup. Thornton Jacobs, the famous writer of Revolutionary War romance novels... he's leading the next expedition, and I have gotten word that they will be staying here tonight and starting out tomorrow morning!" she announced with a smile.

"Hmm, more of them, eh?" Josiah nodded with raised eyebrows, but he did not seem impressed.

"Wonder why they picked this dust rag of a town for a campsite," mused Vin.

"Don't be so cynical boys. I know you don't approve of the contest, but ..." Mary started but trailed off.

"Well, how would you feel if some ruffians came and dug up your..." Vin hesitated, trying to find the right word, "...stuff?"

"Well,... I don't judge people in this profession -- but the issue will be the topic of my next big article," she said. "Besides, we'll be a part of history... a small part, but... nonetheless..."

"Well, if Mr. Jacobs' team is anything like those misguided amateurs from Philly, I don't figure he'll pose much of a competition," Ezra beamed with a cocky grin.

"You wouldn't be seriously considering going out there, too, would you?" Josiah asked.

"Well, you tell me, oh wise sage of all things Indian. Must we seriously fear a threat of vindictive native spirits?" Ezra queried as he threw his arms up and folded them.

Josiah let out an exasperated sigh and eyed the gambler, who sat across from him. "Ezra, that's not the point! You don't go pillaging sanctified land to satisfy your lust for money!"

"Josiah,... it's a simple question," Ezra said lightly.

The preacher thought about it as his temper simmered down, then shook his head. "No. Not likely. Not the way it supposedly happened to those unfortunate souls," he said indicating the Clarion article.

"Yeah," Vin agreed, "that don't sound like the Ute,... though I'm not all that up on Ute customs."

"You're right, Brother Vin. The Ute are a peaceful people. They prefer to avoid confrontation with the white man though they will fight if they have to. But what the man said in the article -- that don't sound like them."

"Even better," said Ezra. "Then we'll have no worries of spiritual retribution, and we can surely defend ourselves against any fiends this side of the hereafter."

"Whatta you mean 'we'?" asked Buck.

Ezra cocked his head toward Buck and JD. "Boys, don't tell me you aren't even the least bit interested." His lively green eyes darted around between everyone at the table as he leaned forward for emphasis. "Gentlemen, think of the possibilities of $10,000 -- even split 5 ways, it is a major prize." The others' expressions were unchanged. He blinked at them almost in disbelief, but deep down, this was actually the response he was expecting. They had all been through this sort of situation enough times before. He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Have I ever told you boys your enterprising nature rivals only that of an old boot?"

"Ezra, don't we have to solve the riddles before we can look for the treasure in the first place?" JD elucidated.

Ezra was about to respond when Buck interrupted. "What exactly is the treasure, anyway?"

The gambler was about to answer again but was again interrupted. This time it was from behind and in a booming, all-too-familiar voice.

"GOLD that was used in the sacrificial rites of some high priest or some odd thing like that," boomed the thick, southern-accented female voice.

Ezra's eyes widened in horror and recognition of the voice. "Mother?" he said with dread, and as usual, not quite pronouncing the 'er' so it sounded like "muth-ah." Then he slowly turned around to face the woman standing behind his chair.

"Hello, sweet pea," Maude Standish said with a proud smile.

Ezra slowly turned around so he faced the others again, not even trying to hide his dismay.



Ezra was staring blankly at the table in front of him with a doomed expression on his face and his mother's heavy hand on his shoulder. However, the others around the table were much more enthusiastic about Maude's entrance. The men tipped their hats in her direction and Mary smiled.

After the initial greetings, Mary was first to speak. "Why, Maude, what brings you to town?" she asked enthusiastically.

"I have just arrived in the company of a certain Mr. Thornton Jacobs," Maude began and turned directly to Mary to add, "I'm sure you've received my message," then she turned back to the group with, "Well, I have joined their little party and convinced them this was a necessary stop."

"And why is that?" Ezra mumbled without looking up. He was taking a sip from his shot.

Before Maude could answer, a well-dressed middle-aged man in all white with a matching cane entered and strode to her side. "There you are!" he smiled.

"Thornton!" she said sweetly with masked displeasure, "I thought I told you to give me a minute."

"I apologize, Miss Maude, but I can barely contain my excitement." He looked quickly at the faces around the table, tipping his hat to Mary, who just about curtsied. "This is going to be quite an experience!" His smile was wide and sparkling.

"Well, Thornton, this is the man I was telling you about," the con woman drawled with a light tap on her son's shoulder. This gesture finally made him turn around to look at her, then to Mr. Jacobs. His expression was one of mild confusion. Her face was full of pride as she announced, "Meet my son, Ezra. Ezra, this is Mr. Thornton Jacobs... no doubt you've heard of him... the widely celebrated author."

The two men nodded to each other and shook hands.

"So, you're Ezra -- your mother has told me much about your many accomplishments," the easterner said.

"I'm sure she has..." Ezra's green eyes narrowed as he looked to his mother with a fake smile. "Would you excuse us? My mother and I are eager to get reacquainted, heart-warming family reunion an' all." Thornton nodded, and Ezra fluidly stood and took his mother by the arm up the steps to the large poker table where no one was sitting and they could have some privacy. He released her arm and cocked his head in an accusing posture. "Mother, I believe an explanation is in order."

"Gladly, sugar plum," she said as she dropped her annoyed visage. She continued in hushed tones. "Now, you are going to be so proud of your mother -- I have Jacobs and his contingency believin' that I am an authority of Indian legends..." Ezra couldn't help but roll his eyes, "and you're my trusted assistant." His eyes and mouth widened. She raised a silencing hand and continued, "Don't tell me you hadn't thought about going on this excursion yourself." She paused as she studied his blank reaction. "For shame, Ezra."

"Mother, I can't believe you would actually go on this crusade for a... a buried piece of Indian folklore."

Maude sighed, "I should've known that would be your response. This town has really done wonders to quench that fire that used to burn in your belly. Now the only thing you've got in there is whiskey." She was disappointed but not exactly angry.

Ezra looked the least bit offended but didn't tell her that he did in fact share her intentions... at least he did before he found out it was something she'd come up with. He only shifted his eyes downward and sighed.

"Mr. Jacobs is payin' for my expertise whether we find the treasure or not. And you must be aware of the calamitous end of the first pack of hooligans last week -- I've convinced this starry-eyed romantic he needs some hired protection. That's where you come in."

Ezra nodded and smiled widely, displaying his gold tooth during this last sentence. He knew it was coming. "And what makes you think I'd partake in such a fruitless endeavor?"

She smiled sweetly. "Fruitless? I suppose that depends what you've got growin' on your tree. I plan a healthy harvest of greenbacks. The man pays well, and he's promised us a cut of the prize if we find it."

Ezra's belittling chuckle expressed his persistent defiance. "No, mother. I have learned that there are things more dear to life than a few extra dollars." He began to turn to head back to the others when she loudly whispered after him:

"Ten dollars a day!"

Ezra stopped in his tracks. He turned and looked her dead in the eye. This time, his expression was one of muted wide-eyed amazement.

Back at the table, Mary and Thornton were hitting it off very well, sharing a laugh. Mary tossed her head back freely, clearly enthralled with the celebrity. JD and Buck looked on and looked at each other in amusement.

Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson entered the saloon with puzzled faces, looking over their shoulders at the commotion outside, then back to the saloon interior. They saw the well-dressed handsome stranger and curiously moseyed over to the table. "Anybody know what's goin' on outside?" asked Nathan.

"Oh, you must mean my colleagues," answered Thornton. "They're unloading the carriage. They're eager to get some rest before departing tomorrow morning."

"Oh, for a while I thought people were actually movin' in to town." Nathan appeared relieved that that wasn't the case.

"And who are you?" Chris asked.

Mary stepped in to make the graceful introductions, as if that would impress the gunslinger. "Chris, this is Thornton Jacobs, the popular author of romance novels. Thornton, this is Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson."

The men shook hands.

"So what brings you here?" an unimpressed Chris asked.

"The thrill of the hunt!" Thornton exclaimed.

Chris and Nathan exchanged glances with each other, then with the others at the table who shrugged their innocence.

Vin and Josiah loaded up their horses in front of the livery. Chris, Buck, and JD approached them before they saddled-up.

"Afternoon, boys," Josiah greeted. "Care to join us?"

"Where're you off to?" Buck asked.

"Eagle Bend," answered Vin. "The one survivor of that first treasure-huntin' bunch is lodged up there right now. We reckon if we wanna find out what really happened, we gotta talk to him 'fore he goes home."

"We don't think they were really attacked by tribal spirits or even a tribe," Josiah continued.

"His story's probably been told all over the country by now. Don't think he'll change it now," JD said.

"You don't think he made it all up, do ya?" Buck asked the pair.

"Ya never know what some people'll do just to get their name in the papers," Vin shrugged.

"Just gotta make sure. Maybe it was an accident, or maybe they were attacked by someone else," Josiah added.

"We'd better head on out if we're gonna, Josiah," Vin said as he got ready to mount his horse. "Y'all comin'?" he asked the others.

"Naw," Buck answered with a laugh, "I gotta keep my eye on the kid here. He's got stars in his eyes."

"Oh, Buck!" JD sighed with a disgusted, dismissive gesture.

"Chris?" Vin asked.

The man in black mulled it over with a pout. He looked toward the restaurant where Mary had gone with that writer just a while ago. Then he looked back at the departing pair. "You boys go on ahead. Let me know what you find out."

"Will do!" answered Vin as he mounted up. Josiah saddled-up, too. Then with a tip of their hats and a whistle from Vin, they started on their quest for the truth.

Ezra and his mother were sitting opposite each other at the poker table at the bottom of the staircase in the saloon. There was no money on the table, but both of them were casually holding poker hands.

Maude said, "Honestly, I don't see a negative side to this. It really is a very sweet deal for us, even if Thornton has nothing to gain."

"Except the infamy of being such an adventurer. Mother, how can you associate yourself with a man of his..." he paused to choose an apt phrase, "reputation for... dry and pasty literature?"

She laughed out loud. "Ezra, darlin', this isn't about that at all, and don't pretend it is! Besides, I read one of his novels before executing this venture, and, well, it wasn't bad. In fact, the reading was quite... stimulating to say the least."

Ezra chortled before he could stop himself. "Pardon me if you don't seem the type."

She smirked.

He looked down at his cards, then back up to her face. "Was there a character with whom you could relate? Perhaps a... a bewitching seductress who uses her charms against an unwitting popular author as he treads into potentially dangerous territory?" His eyebrows were raised smugly.

She shot him a look through her narrowed eyes that said, "Look, boy, I brought you into this world, and I can kick you out, too!" Ezra only continued to smile mischievously, gold tooth gleaming.

"Ezra Standish..." she began very sternly and his smile began to fade, "think about what you're saying 'no' to. I am not promising the man anything I cannot deliver, and you would simply be doing what you're doing now, only for more money! All you have to do is offer your protection. That's all he asks -- and all I ask -- of you." Her son's resolve seemed to waver as his eyelids dropped and he pursed his lips in consideration. She continued, "A proposition -- if you win this hand, you do whatever your little heart desires. However, if I win, you join our little expedition."

"All right, mother, we have a deal," he said with a certain amount of confidence.

They laid down their cards and each showed a flush... both with an Ace of Spades on the end. They each slowly looked up into each other's eyes suspiciously.

"Oh, for shame, mother. Cheating against your own son?" he accused.

"I most certainly am not!"

He suddenly shot to his feet and stretched across the table to grab her arm and pull her forward before she could pull away. Then he reached into a fold in her dress with his free hand and pulled out a 4 of diamonds. He looked accusingly at her. For a second, she appeared defeated, but then she suddenly grabbed his wrist that held her arm and his expression softened. She stood and paced around the table to him, then reached inside his vest to produce the 3 of hearts. She threw him a smug grin as he sighed his disappointment at himself for getting caught.

The restaurant was bustling with activity. People ran about excitedly with trays of food and decorations. A festive banner was prominently and proudly displayed along the top of one wall to welcome the treasure-hunting troupe. Jacobs and his team, the guests of honor, were clearly enjoying the attention. Thornton himself was standing and chatting with Mary once again, and a wide-eyed Casey Wells.

Two men approached Thornton. One of them was a young man of 18 years with blond hair and small blue eyes. The other was about 35 years old with very angular features and neatly cropped brown hair. When Thornton saw them, he smiled brightly and put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Ah, let me introduce you all! Mary, these are two of my team mates, Jimmy James here," he said indicating the younger man, "and Avery Zest, a journalist, too. This is Mary Travis."

"Pleased to meet you," Mary smiled. "Your first time in the frontier?"

"Sure is, ma'am," answered Jimmy. Avery also nodded.

"Jimmy is my personal assistant normally," Thornton said, "but while we're out west, he will be my equal. Right, Jimmy?"

"Right, Mr. Jacobs... uh, I mean, Thornton," he had quickly corrected himself when his boss shot him a playful warning look.

JD and Buck moseyed over to Mary's group, each holding a drink.

"Hey, guys!" JD greeted happily.

Thornton and Mary turned and smiled. "Ah! ...JD and... Buck, am I right?" The two men nodded.

"This is quite a party, Mary," JD said.

"Thank you, JD. I'm glad you're enjoying yourselves. It's kind of spur of the moment," she seemed to be half-apologizing.

"But perfect, just perfect," complimented Thornton. Mary seemed to blush like a school girl.

Then Chris and Nathan entered, again looking around them like they had just stepped through the looking glass. They saw the friendly faces of their friends and approached. "Nice party," Nathan said.

"Is it a welcome party or a going away one?" Chris asked, his gaze falling upon Mary's glowing face.

At first, she hesitated, not sure what she should say. "Well, both, I suppose," she laughed lightly. "Well,... for them."

"Unless, of course, Mrs. Travis, you'd like to join me on the hunt," the writer invited gazing deeply into her light green eyes.

Mary laughed again lightly. Her smile quickly changed into a smirk as she glanced at Chris. "Ohhh, I told myself I wouldn't get involved in this, and I'm gonna have to stick to that. But thank you for the offer." She nodded her thanks and the romance writer graciously nodded back.

"Thornton! There you are!" boomed a southern-accented female voice from the front door. The group turned to face Maude Standish who approached arm-in-arm with Ezra. "We need to talk about our hired personal protection."

"Yeah," JD said, "I think I'd like to get in on that."

"An' if he's goin', so am I," Buck announced. "'Cuz this little gun-slingin' fool needs some protectin' himself!" JD shot him a dirty look as he laughed.

"Associates of yours, Mr. Standish?" a smiling Thornton asked an uncertain Ezra.

Ezra's face appeared on the worried side as he pondered the situation. He couldn't imagine his compatriots out there with these fame-seeking greenhorns who were even greener than this town's very own bowler-wearing gunslinger. And the thought of $10 a day flashed in his mind. He took a long breath and said, "Why, yes, Mr. Jacobs,... they are. And as such, they will be joining me, as always, in my duty."



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