"I thought you said you knew these people," Nathan whispered to Josiah.

The natives began to close in on the cowboys, then stopped. "Wait!" Josiah shouted. "It's us!"

An older tribesman came forward with caution. He peered at the group they encircled. He raised his hand expressionlessly with his palm out, almost as if he was waving at them. Then he lowered his hand and all the weapons were lowered as well. The four men breathed a collective sigh of relief as the apparent leader of the tribal defense perimeter approached them on foot.

"Tanner," he said when he got a good look at the tracker, who nodded his acknowledgment. Then he looked to Josiah. "Sanchez," he said. Josiah nodded. "Sorry for the inconvenience. But recent events have caused us to become especially... wary of foreigners."

"That's perfectly understandable," Josiah said. "Nice to see you again, Chopoke."

"Come," the Native American said with a gracious turn.

Chopoke led the men back to the village. The cowboys had dismounted and tied their horses on trees at the edge of the village and were making their way through it behind their guide. The village itself was an arrangement of closely bunched stone structures that extended from the ground and worked their way up the lower part of the mountain. Many of the villagers were working and playing. Until the foreigners walked by. Then work and play stopped. Chris looked to the other three for their reactions. He did not have a problem with Natives, but this time, he was not sure how they would be received. The four men towered over the villagers as they walked past them and stuck out like a buffalo herd at a prayer meeting.

They finally arrived at the stone hut occupied by the chief. Chopoke stopped them at the entry and entered alone. A few seconds later, Chopoke emerged from the hut and said, "Chakotay will see you now." He allowed the men to file inside. One by one, with Vin leading the way, the men ducked to fit under the door frame, and Chopoke brought up the rear. Inside, the chief sat on a blanket holding a ring of beads.

"Greetings," Chief Chakotay smiled. "Sit." He made wide hand gestures as if they would magically cause his guests to do as he instructed.

Whether it was by magic or not, they did so.

"You're looking well," Josiah said to the chief.

"So are you. But troubled," came the reply.

"So are you."

Chakotay nodded solemnly. "What brings you here?"

Josiah paused before continuing. "We're looking for Jim Dogface." He paused again to study the chief's reaction. The chief was not surprised. In fact, he seemed to be expecting it.

"Really. You won't find him here."

"Where did he go?"

"We don't know. But perhaps it is better that way."

Josiah's eyes narrowed as he continued to study the chief's face. It was likely more than coincidence that Dogface was a suspect in the expedition's disappearance and then had gone missing himself.

Vin's brow furrowed in puzzlement before he asked, "When'd he disappear?"

"About two weeks ago, he and his wife and child disappeared. No warning. We don't know why or where they went. He is..." he paused to consider the word, "sacrilegious. A traitor to our people. He disappointed us, but we never thought he would leave us." He sighed. "We don't want him to bring... other ways of life into our village."

"Was Dogface aware -- are you aware of the white men looking for your..." Chris struggled to choose a word that would not offend the chief, "gold?"

"Our so-called 'treasure,'" the chief said. "Yes, we are aware of those people."

"How did Dogface feel about them?"

The chief hesitated. He slowly looked down to the beads in his hand. He slowly raised them to eye level, dangling the loop from his fingers. From them hung a makeshift crucifix made of twigs. "His new God left him." He extended them out toward Josiah. The preacher held his hand out and the beads dropped into it.

"These are his?" Josiah asked as he examined them.

"They were."

"You certain he abandoned his new beliefs along with these?"

"He's abandoned much in his life," the chief sighed regretfully.

"Was he angry enough to go after the gold seekers?"

Without blinking, Chakotay answered, "I cannot answer that."

The expedition had stopped for a rest in a wide open area covered with various shades of green and brown. Trees sparsely populated the land that appeared to stretch on for miles this way, the majestic painted mountains still in the distance.

Ezra had had ample time to make his judgments about the strangers in the troupe, and he noticed that along the way, the gentlemen's enthusiasm and hunger for adventure and riches had seemed to grow less childish and more calculated. Sometimes when they talked, he heard an echo of his mother's voice in theirs, and he ruminated on how much she really fit in with them.

He sat alone on a large rock, enjoying his flask of whiskey, watching the four easterners and his mother standing in a circle, stretching, laughing, and talking. His cheeks flushed with a new sense of wonder. All of a sudden, it seemed that if the treasure was really out there, they really may be able to uncover it.

Then he saw the men really feeling their saddle sores, creaking with agony as they sat down on their rocks and logs. He took a deep breath and a let out an exaggerated sigh and thought, then again, maybe not.

Buck's rock was larger than Ezra's. The better for him to lie down on and still have room for Casey, too. JD stood twiddling a twig in his fingers.

"Sure is a nice spot to stop," Casey said.

"Mm, hmmm," Buck agreed.

Then her eyes fell on a felled tree nearby. "I wonder what kinds o' critters we'd find under there! I bet there's all kinds of bugs and frogs and things in there, and I bet if we looked under another log further along, we could find different ones!" She looked up at JD. "Wanna join me?"

JD laughed superiorly. "Gunslingers don't go diggin' for bugs and frogs."

Her eyes narrowed at him. Then she said, "But I was asking you, JD!"

JD's jaw dropped at her retort. "What is wrong with her?!" JD exasperatedly sighed. Buck laid back laughing.

"This ain't lookin' too good for Jim Dogface," Vin replied to the other three. They were all still sitting in the chief's house, stewing about the whereabouts of the missing tribesman. Vin didn't want to believe that any member of the tribe would resort to such undignified tactics to meet an end, no matter how worthy the cause.

"Are you sure you have no idea where he is?" Josiah pleaded. "We're not accusing him of anything. We just need to talk to him."

After a pause, Chakotay said, "Out." He pointed for emphasis. The four men were taken aback by this sudden command and looked at each other with surprise and objection. "We need to consult," he explained, indicating Chopoke.

With Vin and Josiah taking the lead, the four foreigners stood up and filed slowly out of the stone structure. As they stood outside, they each noticed that the villagers seemed to be trying to carry on their business as usual, but their faces belied any sense of normalcy. The people were apprehensive. Presumably because of their presence.

After a short time, the two tribal leaders resurfaced to the outdoors. Chopoke said, "We don't know where Dogface is."

Josiah's brow furrowed. "Well, after all that, I guess now it's official."

"But," continued Chopoke, "if you really want to find him, we can tell you that he and his wife and boy were last seen about 2 weeks ago. About the same time as we saw the white men on our land."

"You think these white men had something to do with his disappearance," Vin queried.

Chakotay and Chopoke both held their arms out in a synchronized, unconfirming shrug.

"Where was Dogface and his family last seen?"

"His family -- gathering food at the edge of the brush," Chakotay said, pointing the way. "Dogface -- out

doing God-knows-what. At about the same time, but he was last seen first."

Reluctantly, Vin nodded to them. "Thank you."

"If you find them, let us know," Chakotay said.

"I reckon we're both helpin' each other out," Vin nodded.

The four men turned to go, but then Chakotay spoke again, halting their departure. "But one warning. He may not want to return to us." His posture was defiant, but his eyes were sad.

Again, the four men nodded their acknowledgement, then turned to leave. They stopped again at Chakotay's next remark. "Second warning." They turned to look at him. "The white men may still be here, and our legend still thrives." Then the two Natives turned around and ducked back into the hut.

No one said a word until they reached their horses, when Chris said, "Well, I guess they believe in the curse."

"Seems like they don't really want him back. Not even looking for 'im," Nathan added.

"They're afraid of what they might find. Indian Jones was quite a handful to deal with, but he separated himself from the tribe somewhat in recent years," Josiah explained. "They're afraid he may have gone with the treasure hunters willingly."

"But he said, 'his new God left him.' That don't sound like they think he left with them," Nathan observed.

"Well, his family disappeared about the time that first expedition was out here," Chris said.

"They may have been the white men they saw," Josiah said.

"One musta caused the disappearance of the other. Question is which one."

"Let's start by lookin' where the wife and kid were last seen," Vin said.

The treasure seekers led by Thornton and Maude were on their horses again after the break which the greenhorns used to get reacquainted with various parts of their aching or numbed bodies. Now, Thornton and Maude rode side by side, Maude steering her carriage, Thornton still proudly riding his steed.

Buck and Casey were side by side, too. "If I didn't know better, I'd say those fellas were startin' to get the hang o' this rocky road," Buck chuckled.

"And I'd say you're right," said Casey. "Y'know, it's kinda nice ridin' with the only person here who's not pretendin' to be somethin' else."

Buck smirked, not knowing what to make of that comment. "Why, thank you, Casey." Then he quickly added, "But JD's just goin' through a phase. He'll be back to diggin' bugs an' chasin' frogs in no time!" He smiled reassuringly.

"Sure hope you're right," she said with a hopeful grin.

As the troupe moved ahead, Thornton spoke a few words to Maude, who nodded, then he dropped back to ride alongside of Ezra and JD. "Mr. Standish!" he greeted merrily.

Ezra touched the brim of his hat. "Mr. Jacobs... how are you and your stalwarts holding up?"

"Fine, just fine. But we were wondering... is this an ideal location to do some hunting?"

The question caught the gambler by surprise and his eyebrows shot up. "Hunting? For what?"

"Well, for lunch, of course."

"Lunch? You told me that you came fully prepared, yet you failed to supply yourselves with any sustenance?" Ezra didn't quite shout these words, but the intent was there, and as he contained his impatience, he sounded more fretful than angry.

"We ARE prepared... for hunting," Thornton said unapologetically. This was, after all, his expedition, and Thornton Jacobs apologizes to no one. "We wanted the full experience of the untamed west."

A full cocktail of emotions swelled inside Ezra. He finally hacked a laugh, which he quickly disguised as a cough. Wouldn't want to insult the man who's carrying your money. "Well, it IS YOUR dollar. I suppose this is as good a locale as any."

As Thornton happily rode back to the front of the troupe, Ezra looked around this wide open area of tall, waving grass. A grove of short trees waved at one side and they could see the edge of the region where the burial site supposedly was. He sighed deeply and rolled his eyes.

"Huntin'?" asked an uncertain Buck. "I didn't know they could hunt."

"We still don't know that," JD replied.

Thornton, Avery, Jimmy, and Faron approached the three gunslingers with their new arms they dug out from Maude's carriage. Their leader proudly held up his weapon and announced, "I used to shoot wild game in my younger days. I hope I haven't lost my touch."

"So do we," whispered JD.

Buck turned to the other easterners. "How 'bout you all? Ever shot one of those before?"

They looked at each other before Jimmy shakily answered, "I guess there's a first time for everything."

Ezra turned around and coughed a few times. When he turned back around, he was beating his chest and suppressing a smile.

"You may want to see a doctor about that cough," Thornton advised him. "It seems to be getting worse."

"I'm sure it'll pass," Ezra smiled.

"Pardon me if I don't ask you professionals to join us," Thornton told the hired guns.

The three men nodded.

"Can I join you?" Casey asked hopefully.

With a tip of the hat, Thornton smiled and said, "You may, my dear."

JD looked at Casey like she had just shot at him. She threw him a playful look and might as well have stuck out her tongue. Then she glided off to her horse to get her gun.

"What else can we say to a proposal like that?" Avery said. Then the group dashed off into the tall grass and trees.

First, the hunters had to figure out whether to be watching the sky or the ground. Then Casey suddenly spotted a rabbit and shot. Her first shot missed and she took off after it. So did Jimmy. The three forms went zig-zagging through the grass. As the brown furball leaped and jumped up and down, side to side, the pursuers copied the pattern for a while before giving up. Then Casey simply shot at the jumping fuzz. Then the grass in that spot was still. Casey and Jimmy exchanged anticipatory glances.

"Good shot," commented Jimmy.

The hunters all approached the spot where the prey was last seen. Even their observers expressions changed from the laughter they just enjoyed to curiosity at the accomplishment. As the hunters neared the rabbit site, a bolt of lightning fur suddenly shot out and started zig-zagging through the grass again.

After a brief moment when everyone was stunned into inaction, Casey yelled, "Hey!" The four spectators began to laugh again. Then everyone else began to shoot again, this time without chase.

"Those tenderfoots," laughed JD.

After a flurry of bullets hailed after the small mammal, it again disappeared. The hunters looked at each other and closed in with caution on the spot where the rabbit was last seen. When they reached the spot, they bent over to investigate.

"We did it!" exclaimed an elated Jimmy, almost jumping up and down.

"Well done, everyone," said Thornton proudly. Then he commanded Jimmy, "Now pick it up and take it back for supper." Then he and Avery triumphantly tramped away toward the observers.

Jimmy looked as if he were just smacked in the face. He hadn't handled a fresh kill before, and he had no idea how to go about it. Casey realized his predicament and said, "I'll get this one. You can get the next one." She smiled sympathetically. Jimmy nodded like a helpless child.

As the hunters neared the observers, JD strode up and grabbed Casey by the arm. Having heard Thornton specifically tell Jimmy to take the rabbit, he demanded, "Whattaya doing?"

"Bringin' home dinner. What's it look like?" she said with slight annoyance.

"You know what I mean," he whispered, annoyed with her feigned innocence. "Don't be gettin' too friendly with this guy. He's got a job to do."

Casey rolled her eyes defiantly, pulled her arm from his grasp, and shoved the rabbit into his face. "So do you. Take it to the clearing. We need a fire."

The rabbits were hung over the fire with care, in hopes that they would be tasty and the next time would be easier. They had hunted the second rabbit to insure that there was enough for everyone. It had been shot by Avery, this time, who was entirely willing to carry his own trophy, again letting Jimmy off the hook.

Casey cut off a piece of meat for her new friend and served him with a smile. "Here ya go. From the one we got."

He took it and smiled back at her. "Thanks." He paused, cautiously gazing at her. "Y'know, I'm not always gonna be Mr. Jacobs' assistant."

Casey blinked at him. "I sure as heck hope not."

"Yeah, I'm gonna learn all I can from doing all the dealings with publishers and all that, and then I'm gonna be a writer myself!" he declared happily but quietly so not to be heard by others.

Casey looked surprised. "That's what you want to do?"

Jimmy was reaching into his bag but paused when she didn't seem thrilled about it. "Well,... yeah. Look. I've already started. This is my journal. I'm writing about my life."

"Ya think people might actually wanta read about your life?" she asked disconcertedly. Then she quickly corrected herself. "I mean, well, I know people wouldn't wanta read about mine."

Jimmy merely shrugged as he handed her his journal so she could decide for herself.

Ezra mused that they were faring much better than he thought they would. Maude whispered to him, "This isn't half-bad, now, is it?"

"I have to admit, mother, they have performed far better than I ever imagined."

"Aren't you glad you came along?"

Thornton then raised his cup and announced, "A toast... to Mr. Standish..."

"'Mister'?" Mrs. Standish quietly queried as if Thornton must have misspoken.

"... you are an asset to my team. No doubt, with your expertise and guidance, we will be victorious!"

Vin was knelt close to the ground to examine any clues left in the dirt and grass, though he and the others realized that any clues that may have been left at the time of the disappearances may be long gone by now. And they had to cover a lot of ground.

"It's been hours, Vin. Anything?" Chris asked, not wanting to sound impatient, but feeling the need to do something.

Vin sighed, "Naw... wait. I don't know, but I think somebody went unwillingly." He indicated the scuff marks he found in the dirt and the broken-up bush next to them, which he took as signs of a struggle.

Nathan called, "Hey, there's a lot o' tracks this way!" He was standing just past the bushes.

The men walked quickly and carefully toward Nathan, hoping this would provide them with answers.

Ezra and Buck sat tall upon their mounts as they surveyed their new surroundings under the light of the setting sun. They were in a clearing outside of a mass of loosely arranged trees. A shallow river streamed across the land not too far where the ground became rockier. Under their feet and over a wide area was mostly dirt, accompanied in some spots by green or brown grass and some rocks. The mountains with the three peaks was just to the south.

"Well, this appears to be our destination," Ezra said. Thornton and the others came up behind the two men. "I suggest we pitch camp here and familiarize ourselves with our surroundings before guessing at the treasure's hiding place."

Everyone dismounted and looked around with Thornton advising everyone to listen to Ezra.

JD and Casey wandered away together into the wooded area.

"Nothin' but trees, and bushes, and rocks out here," JD said with a whack of a bush. "Familiar enough?"

As they continued to walk through the darkened vegetation, Casey fluttered her eyelids at him with a sideways look and said flirtatiously, "Y'know, JD, some people think it's romantic to take a walk through the woods and hold hands. Maybe--" She interrupted herself with a startled gasp as she almost fell and steadied herself, then she shrieked as she looked down just in front of her. JD grabbed her arm and pulled her back. They both looked down at what Casey almost stepped into as Buck, Ezra, and the others came running up behind them.

"What happened? You two OK?" Buck asked urgently.

Casey and JD nodded in a spooked silence and she pointed at the ground. The group peered down into a large, almost bottomless pit with branches and leaves around the edges, designed, obviously, to hide it. The pit was formidable by itself, but at the bottom of it lay a greater fright -- a middle-aged man, dead and covered with dried blood and dirt, and a long, pointed, red-stained rock protruded from his torso. The man's bull whip appeared useless to him, dangling from the edge of the pit.

The group stared at the gory death in a collective, horrified silence. The body was clad in city clothes, much like those worn by Mr. Jacobs and his troupe, and was presumably a member of the lost expedition.

Jimmy gasped something incoherent, then turned and staggered away covering his mouth.

Buck softly remarked, "How's that first riddle go again?"

Ezra, standing just in front of Buck, softly answered without moving his eyes. "'Tread carefully north of the triple peaks triangle.'"

"Guess he wasn't careful enough."



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