The enormous unidentifiable-until-it-was-too-late object accelerated straight at Buck and JD. But identification was moot when the object could kill you. JD was able to bolt to the ground, but the massive log still grazed his shoulder, and Buck was unable to duck at all. He was struck head-on in the torso, tossing him into the air and 50 feet backwards into the rock-laden river behind them. His winded body just cleared the rocks lining the near bank of the river and splashed violently into the cold, hard water where shock struck his body again.

Meanwhile, Ezra still struggled to relieve the tomahawk man of his weapon. The sharp end of the big stick teetered over both of their heads. For Ezra, this was literally a stretch, for the "ghost" was both taller and wider than him, and was also trying to wring the weapon back into possession... or bring the business end of it down on Ezra. When the "ghost" began to successfully pull the tomahawk toward himself, Ezra kneed him in the groin and the tomahawk man went down, still refusing to relinquish the weapon.

At this point, they both heard a high-pitched whistling and thunderous rustling at the tree tops in the distance toward the river. The gambler involuntarily slowed the fast draw of his holstered pistol as he looked and listened. The tomahawk man took the opportunity to get up and swing the blade again, this time in a horizontal, head-chopping motion.

In that second when the tomahawk neared, Ezra saw it and ducked to literally save his neck, but his head was not so lucky. He was struck across the top of his head and he went down sideways from the impact.

As he lay on the ground, the fog lifted quickly in his mind. To his surprise, he heard footsteps running away. He propped himself up on one elbow and rubbed his aching head with his other hand as he blinked to see the shadowy figure making its way through the trees.

He groaned as he shifted to a sitting position still rubbing his head. As he blinked the blurry fog away, he wondered briefly why tomahawk man retreated. He also wondered why he wasn't more injured than he was, and concluded that he must have been hit with the blunt side of the blade. He gripped his pistol as he got to his feet, and his other hand moved back to his aching head. Then he heard JD shouting in the distance with terror, "Buck! Oh my God! Buck!"

Ezra began toward the direction of JD's voice, then stopped and ran back to the campfire for a torch. The others appeared to still be asleep, including Thornton. Then he hurried back to the battleground, holstered his pistol and picked up his rifle, and dashed into the wooded area.

JD was waist-deep in the water, holding up Buck's head and chest. He was clearly injured himself, but he was trying to drag his dazed and injured best friend to safety out of the water. "Come on, Buck, ya gotta help me out here. Let's get those legs goin'. Ya can't chase the ladies without 'em." He grunted as he was able to pull most of Buck's body up onto the rocks at the riverbank. Buck helped him as best as he could while still trying to regain feeling. He coughed several times, then groaned.

"Ooohh, my stomach. Oooooh, my head," Buck agonized. "Agh, my arm."

"Well, since you don't use your head much, anyway, that's not so bad," JD joked, still holding onto Buck's arm and only laughing lightly.

"You watch that tongue o' yours -- I can still whup you."

"Oh, my..." Ezra appeared in the clearing and let his oath fade off inaudibly as he took in the shocking sight. He blinked to make sure he was seeing things correctly in the darkness. Then he hurried to them and leaned his torch and rifle against the rock as he treaded gingerly into the water. He took Buck's other arm, and draped it over his shoulder.

"OK, Buck, on your feet," JD ordered as the three men, leaning on each other, slowly and carefully waded the few feet to dry land.

"I got it," Buck said as he gritted his teeth and grinned with effort to use his legs. As they passed the rocks, Ezra carefully reclaimed the torch to light the way back to camp. The walking became easier past the rocks and the three men slowly made their way back to camp.

As they walked, they asked and informed each other about what happened in their bizarre brawls. As they entered into camp, JD was saying, "And I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late. Lucky I only got hit in the shoulder." The light from the campfire was the light at the end of their dim and nightmarish tunnel. They thankfully neared it and looked up to see the other 6 members of the expedition standing in a close bunch, watching them. Casey had her gun poised and ready.

"JD!" she screamed. Then, "Buck! Ezra! What happened?" she screamed as she ran out to them.

"Ezra!" Maude gasped softly.

"Get 'im blankets," Ezra commanded as he and JD walked Buck to the fire and let him sit. Jimmy and Faron obliged quickly.

"JD, are you OK?" Casey asked, extremely worried and inspecting him for wounds. "Your shoulder!"

"I'm OK. Buck's hurt bad," he said, shrugging off any pain he actually felt as he sat down by the fire himself.

"What happened?" asked Thornton.

Ezra took a moment to eye Thornton with contempt, though he hid the emotion as best he could. What a hypocrite, he thought. The man who was a self-proclaimed "leader from the front" did not lift a finger to even try to help when he asked for it, and now he pretended not to know anything about it. He kept an evil eye on the writer as he eased himself down near the fire where he also threw down the torch.

JD answered, "We were attacked. Probably the same guys who finished off the first expedition."

Chris, Josiah, and Vin were peacefully asleep at their camp with Nathan at watch. Josiah had slept soundly most of the night, but his slumber now filled with images. A wood rat, a bat, and a buck deer came running toward him. And as they neared, he noticed strange peculiarities about each animal. The wood rat had a piece of gold in its teeth; the bat was wearing a bowler hat; and the deer appeared to have a wad of hair under its nose.

The three animals flew up together ... then a wolf and cougar joined them in the sky which suddenly became the ground. The wolf and cougar growled and began running with the others. They were wearing brown and black cowboy hats, respectively. Suddenly, the animals were on a mountain with a few dead trees.

Then all the animals stopped and looked up. Above them in the trees were a raven and an owl. The raven squawked and took flight from its perch and soared in a circle above the others. The owl maintained its perch and eyed the other animals. Then the other animals began to scatter. All their heartbeats raced as they ran in a new disarray. The raven's circular path broke and it began to dive.

The bushy little wood rat ran with all its might from the raven as it closed in on it. Then suddenly, the raven flew back up to the sky and the owl joined it in flight. Then the owl dove toward the jittery little rodent. The owl neared, but saw the coyote running toward the critter. The wood rat ran toward the coyote and away from the owl. Then the coyote chomped down on the wood rat with its powerful jaws.

Then Josiah's eyes darted open with a start and felt his hand hit something. He looked around and saw Nathan sitting on the bedroll next to his. "I had a vision," the preacher said.

"That's no reason to slap me," Nathan joked.

"No. The raven. The coyotes." He looked sincerely at the healer. "Sometimes the coyote is seen as a trickster... but sometimes he symbolizes the final passage from this world. Along with the raven and the owl,... that gold will be the death of someone."




The next morning, the sun shined brightly in the wide mountain sky, shedding light on what was previously a dark and eerie campsite. The rest of the night had passed without incident, and the slumber brought much-needed rejuvenation to the travelers. The previous night could have been only a bad dream, except the gunslingers retained the injuries to prove it wasn't.

Jimmy and Casey had gone to the stream for water to boil for coffee and were now lighting a new fire. The others packed away their bedrolls and Maude's tent.

Ezra, sans coat and hat, surveyed the area just outside the clearing like a victim returning to the scene of an unspeakable crime. He was looking at the ground somberly, not knowing what exactly he was looking for. The series of events replayed in his mind... each swing of the tomahawk... each dive he took... each time he dropped his gun... the blow to his head. What an inept "ghost," who couldn't swing the tomahawk right. He was lucky to be alive. ... Did he actually believe in luck now?

Then something shiny in the grass caught his eye where the dead rodent's body had been the night before. But it wasn't there now. In its place was a small gold coin. He picked it up and considered it in his fingers. This was not here before. So where did it come from? And where did the rodent go?

He slipped the coin into his vest pocket and walked back to his mother's carriage, where she was freshening up in private.

He reached the back of the custom carriage and put his ear near the side. He thought he heard shuffling and bumping noises. His eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement at what she might be doing. Then he heard a soft groan and became concerned. He quickly climbed on and ducked inside.

"Mother, are you--" he began, but he stopped himself when the answer to his question became all too clear. His eyes shot wide open and his jaw dropped.

Maude was sitting on the lap of Thornton Jacobs, his hand squeezing her breast and hers clutching his chest, embraced in a passionate kiss, which was abruptly stopped by Ezra's entrance. The amorous duo looked shocked at him and tried to wipe away any evidence from their faces, but that couldn't hide the fact that Thornton had taken leave of his coat, vest, and tie, and his shirt was only half-buttoned, and that Maude's hair was undone, as were two buttons at the top of her blouse.

"Ezra!" she scolded.

The other members of the expedition were drinking coffee around the fire and unpacking provisions that Buck, JD, and Casey had brought. JD and Buck's wounds had been dressed the previous night by Ezra and Jimmy, who had doubled as nurses while the healer was out and they were feeling better though still achy.

"Where are Mr. Jacobs and Mr. and Mrs. Standish?" Jimmy asked.

Then, right on cue, Ezra stomped hastily toward the fire and plopped himself down on the empty seat next to JD. He grabbed a cup and quietly poured himself some coffee from the pot over the fire.

"Ezra, what happened to your mother and Thornton?" JD asked.

"Don't ask me," Ezra laughed in spite of himself as he poured whiskey from his flask into his coffee, trying to keep his hands from shaking.

Next, Maude stormed out of her carriage and toward the fire. "Ezra, don't ever do that again," she whispered harshly, standing over him. She was fully clothed and tidied up.

"I certainly hope I don't have the displeasure," he mumbled as he sipped his coffee.

She disliked the tone of his voice and threw him a "scowling mother" look. "Fine. Ezra, we need to talk. But not amongst pleasant company."

Ezra was uncertain if he ever wanted to talk about it. In all their years of being mother and son, this particular subject matter never really came up. "Mother, I assure you, there is nothing to talk about," he drawled softly and coolly.

"There is, if you have a problem."

"I have no problem,... mother, now sit and have some breakfast."

She paused, then sat in the chair between his and Jimmy's. She picked up a cup and Ezra poured the coffee for her. "Thank you, darlin'."

Then the last shadow crossed the campsite. Thornton stood behind his chair, fully garbed in coat, vest, and tie, and fully buttoned. "Good morning, everyone. Nothing like a good night's sleep to reinvigorate old bones." He took a deep breath and let it out. "I can even feel the healthy rejuvenation pumping through every inch of my body!"

Though Thornton was obviously begging for their attention, Ezra refused to look at him. He could just imagine what part of his body the "rejuvenation" was pumping into.

"Coffee, Mr. Jacobs?" Jimmy offered.

"Thank you, Jimmy." He accepted the cup graciously and sat by his side. Then he looked around the circle, smiling at everyone, and pausing longer when he reached Maude. She smiled and blushed slightly.

A group of six white men sat around their own campfire in another clearing. They were with a Native American woman and a 5-year-old boy, who were tied together, and a Native American man wearing a cowboy hat and vest, who was tied alone.

The white men were congratulating each other on a job well done. "I'm really getting the hang of this thing," chuckled a man with short brown hair, holding a tomahawk.

"Yeah, you had the easy part, Bart," said Craig, a large man wearing fringed pants. "You have a tomahawk. We had a tree. Wasn't sure that was actually gonna work."

"Hey, you think this thing is easy," Bart said, holding up the weapon. "But that fancy-dressin' guy's tougher'n he looks."

"Just remember, we're not here to have fun," said Aaron, an even larger man also wearing fringes. "So don't get carried away. We're here for the gold."

"Yeah, if our guide can find it. Don't you know your own legends?" said Craig, throwing their prisoner an accusing look.

"The longer you put off findin' that gold, the more people are gonna get hurt," said Aaron.

Jim Dogface hesitated. "OK," he conceded. "I told you the truth -- I don't know where it is. But there's one more place we can look."

Ezra was standing a few hundred feet from the camp looking west. He fidgeted with his hat in his hand, again not sure what he was looking for, but he was pondering the riddles, among other things. Something told him they weren't going to find more gold here.

He looked back at the group. His mother was playing a casual game of cards with JD, Avery, and Faron, while Casey and Jimmy watched. Everyone had decided that after what happened last night, they would try to take it easy to allow the three protectors to recuperate. And Buck really seemed to need the time. Actually, everyone needed it... to repair... something.

Thornton approached Ezra as the gambler watched the others engaged in one of his favorite activities. "She's remarkable, isn't she?" he said, stopping by Ezra's side and turning to watch the game as well.

"To whom are you referring?"

"Well, your mother, of course. Never a more refined, sophisticated, intelligent, beautiful woman have I seen."

Ezra finally faced the writer. He paused as he chose his words, not wanting to cause an explosion. "Mr. Jacobs, you are a man of... distinguishing taste and... countless admirers... of your work. And you enjoy the company of a fair lady." Thornton acknowledged the statement with a nod and a smile. "Tell me, what are your intentions toward Maude Standish?"

Thornton smiled and chuckled sympathetically. "You disapprove of our mutual enjoyment of each other's company."

"Nothing of the kind. Whom my mother chooses to cavort with is entirely her choice. However,... I do wish to understand what you intend to gain from your... 'mutual enjoyment.'"

Again, Thornton smiled. Ezra smiled as well, though humorlessly. "You're a good son, Ezra. She must be proud."

"I didn't ask for your opinion of me." His head cocked slightly and his eyes grew intense.

"Before you jump to an incorrect conclusion, I feel it is only fair to tell you that I had no intention for romantic involvement with her. We were merely... talking." He paused to read Ezra's expression.

"Most people find it difficult to talk with someone in their mouth," Ezra said as casually as he could.

That was not the expression Thornton was hoping for. He sighed. "As a gentleman, I do not 'kiss and tell,' but it's brazenly clear that you'd like me to. All right... I was putting her tent away inside the carriage when she joined me inside. We started by talking, but I was so enraptured by her charms. When we touched, she transported me to a much better world. My every being was wrapped in the warmth of her silken skin, her lips so moist and full, the round plump--" Thornton appeared to be transported now by the memory.

And so was Ezra, but not to a better place. He felt a twinge in his stomach and a sick feeling just under his gunbelt. "Are you implying that she initiated the... further contact?"

"Why, yes, she did."

Ezra tried hard, but he couldn't find a sign of a bluff in Thornton's body language. Arrogance, but no bluff. All this time, he knew his mother was out to take advantage of this man, but he didn't believe the plot had included any romantic elements. He had suspected Thornton as the instigator, for he was a romance writer who may have needed inspiration from real life. But Maude was already where she wanted to be. Why would she feel the need to seduce the man? What else was she planning? There must be some ulterior motive. And this man was not her type. She couldn't possibly be...

"Many women enjoy the company of a gentleman," Thornton said with a shrug and tipped his hat to the puzzled gambler. Then he walked back toward the poker game.

Later, Buck was sitting in his chair, creaking as he attempted to rise. JD stood by his side in case he needed assistance. "Buck, I don't think you could take another hit like that," the kid said gloomily.

"JD, I'm not a lame horse," Buck objected, then groaned in pain as he leaned back in the chair. He was gritting his teeth against the pain in his torso.

"You better not move," JD advised. "I think we should scout the area where we wanna go first. I mean, what are we gonna do -- dig everywhere?"

Thornton nodded and faced the rest of the team. "Very well. We'll scout for some probable burial sites and return within the hour," he said. "You'll remain here with him," he ordered JD, who nodded. Then he turned to everyone else, who was standing and ready to go. "Everyone else..."

"Uhh, Thornton," interrupted Ezra with a whisper in his ear, "It may be wise if someone stayed with them... preferably someone not encumbered by an injury."

Thornton thought, then nodded again. "Avery, would you be a good sport and stay with these men here?"

"Does that make sense to you, to come all this way just to be left out of one of the most important aspects of the expedition? How would you like that?" Avery objected, with a question, as always.

"I'll stay!" volunteered Casey.

"So will I," added Jimmy with a glance at her.

"Yes," Thornton said, indicating Casey, then, "No," indicating Jimmy.

Ezra, Maude, Thornton, Avery, Jimmy, and Faron walked along the blurred west border of the vegetation, the latter four holding shovels in case they found anything interesting. They were looking for a fitting answer to the riddles and a sensible location to hide ancient treasure.

Ezra noted that Maude and Thornton were careful not to walk beside each other. He paused, looking through the trees adjacent to them. An ominous lump on the ground produced a matching one in his throat.

"Hold up," he said, not taking his eyes off the object. Everyone stopped walking and looked at him, then in the direction he looked. He walked cautiously toward the lump, past several trees and bushes. When he heard the footsteps of the others behind him, he said, "Here."

"Here?" repeated Avery.

"Dig." The gambler got out of the way so the men could go to work.

Jimmy, Avery, and Faron exchanged quizzical glances, then proceeded to dig at the lump. But they didn't dig far before Avery's shovel hit something more solid than the ground. His heart skipped a beat. He looked up at the others.

"Found something?" Thornton asked.

"Yeah, I hit something." Avery's voice was half-full of anticipation.

Finally, Thornton stuck his shovel into the dirt. They all continued to dig, and as more earth was removed, a form began to take shape underneath. Then an arm appeared. The group produced a collective gasp as they stopped dead in their tracks.

Ezra motioned aggressively at them to keep digging. "Well?"

"Oh, God," Jimmy said as he covered his mouth and had to move away from the site. The others did as Ezra instructed, and in a short time, they uncovered three bodies.

The group returned to the campsite with trepidation. JD, Buck, and Casey were playing a game with rocks on the ground, but looked up when they heard footsteps approaching briskly. "Ya find anything?" Casey asked.

"More than we bargained for, I'm afraid," answered Maude as her son whizzed past them to his horse. He stopped and stared, then spun around searching the ground frantically with his hands on his hips. He took his hat off, ran his hand through his hair, and instantly his expression changed from puzzlement to disgust upon remembering.

"What is it?" JD asked.

"Ever had the misfortune of uncovering a newly dug shallow grave?" Avery stated.

"The missing expedition," JD thought aloud.

"My rifle. I left it by the river last night," Ezra said, jerking his hat down onto a chair and immediately marched in that direction impatiently.

"Hold on, darlin', I'll accompany you," Maude said and joined him.

"Now we know why that expedition seemingly vanished," Ezra said as he walked briskly through the sparse vegetation. "Someone didn't appreciate their company, and I'm inclined to believe they feel similarly about us."

"But that's why you're here. To prevent such a travesty!"

"And the best way of assuring our safety is to abandon this sinking ship."

"Ezra!" she scolded, not believing her ears. "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"

Ezra was quiet as they neared the stream. He spotted his rifle leaning on the rocks where he left it and quickly paced over and picked it up. "At least they didn't take this." He began to check the gun's condition.

"Ezra," Maude said as she stood by his side, "you can't mean--"

"Yes, mother," he finally answered as he lowered his gun, "I am suggesting we leave."

"We can't stop now! We must be getting close! $10,000 -- remember?" She smiled at him enticingly and hopefully. "Fortune favors the brave."

Ezra first stared at her, then began to chuckle. "Oh, you two really deserve each other," he said.

She seemed offended. "What... did you say?" Her fists were on her hips and her eyebrows were turned downward in a decidedly menacing scowl.

"Mr. Jacobs is a man of self-serving, self-inflating motives who doesn't know when to quit. I naively thought you were different."

"Don't talk when you have no idea what you're talking about!"

He raised his hands in a surrendering manner. "No disrespect intended, but seein's that I'm leaving no matter what you say, and you're not, well,... I hope you two will be very happy together." He turned and began to walk back to camp with his rifle.

"Ezra!" Maude shouted after him. Then her voice lowered to a demonic growl. "I didn't bring you all this way just so you could turn tail and run away empty-handed! Your mother didn't raise a quitter! No wonder you never made anything o' yourself! Just look at you!"

He stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face her with the devil in his eyes. He took heavy, deliberate steps toward her. "Mother, we are not having this argument again. Those men out there are ruthless. Now, I don't care what you say. We are leaving!" He grabbed her arm in a vice-like clutch and pulled her toward himself.

"No!" She tried to pull away, causing him to grip even tighter.

"Mother, don't be insane!" He tugged her again.

"Unhand me, you yellow-bellied coward!" Then she suddenly reached up and smacked him hard across the cheek with her other hand. His head turned upon impact and he released her arm, his hand moving softly to his cheek, which stung from the blow of her hand and gold rings. He looked at her, stunned and hurt, eyes quivering like a child who had fallen while playing. But that expression only lasted a second before it hardened to anger.

"Fine, mother," he said as his hand left his cheek. "You have it your way, you always do." Then he turned and stomped off, following the river away from camp.

Maude's expression was one that bordered between shock, anger, and apology. As he left, she found herself speechless at her own action. She sighed and shook her head as the tears formed.

Ezra sat alone on a rock near the edge of the river with the rifle beside him, his pistol in one hand, and whiskey flask in the other. Squinting against the sun, he took aim at a spot across the water and fired. Then, without lowering his gun, he cocked it and fired again, then again. He took a gulp of whiskey and licked his lips as he studied his target. Then he raised the gun and shot again. A chunk of rock chipped off the top of the rock heap across the river and slid down, skipping as it went. "Ha!" he chortled at his accomplishment. He reloaded, then raised the gun again and shot two more times at the top of the rock pile before noticing a group of four men riding up along his side of the river.

Ezra rose and put his refreshment away as the men approached. Nathan, Chris, Josiah, and Vin slowed to a stop near their friend. "Gentlemen, I never thought I'd ever be so relieved to see your uncouth faces," the gambler greeted.

"Ya didn't lose the whole dang group, did ya?" Vin asked noticing that the gambler was alone.

Nathan asked with humor, "What did that rock do to you that was so bad?"

Ezra looked in the direction of the rock he was shooting and saw the blinding sun in the sky above it. "It was... blocking my view of this... magnificent sunrise." Then he seemed to freeze in that pose, contemplating what he just said.

The others exchanged puzzled, amused glances. Then Nathan added, "Uh, I hate to break it to you, but the sun's been up for a while."

The gambler seemed not to hear the remark and continued to look toward the rocky skyline. The sun was in the sky over some outcroppings from the lower peaks of the mountain. Just to the left, there appeared to be a circle of trees. He could imagine the sun rising up directly behind those trees and creating a ray of light on the mountain.

"Josiah," Ezra said, "who would you say are the Indian chief's loved ones?"

The preacher was at first puzzled at this question that seemed to come out of nowhere. But then he answered, "His family, obviously. But what else does he love? The earth. Nature, the rocks, trees, the Great Spirit."

A look of awe spread across the gambler's face as he continued staring at the mountain. "Which surrounds him. Eureka," he whispered slowly, still not taking his eyes off the mountain. "We've been thinking about this all wrong."

The others exchanged puzzled glances again. Then Nathan spoke. "Uhh, Ezra, are you OK? You seem to 'a hurt your head. Where're the others?"

Ezra's attention returned to his compatriots, a concerned expression on his face. He motioned toward the direction of their camp with a lopsided nod of his head. "The scoundrel and the kid are more in need of your medical expertise than I am."

"Then let's go, and you can fill us in," Chris said. As they began to ride off, Nathan helped Ezra up onto the back of his horse. Then they all rode off along the stream.

Mrs. Standish sat near the fire staring into space with an untasted cup of coffee in her hands. Her dour mood spread to JD, Casey, and Thornton, who kept her company. "I remember back when he was just a boy, he'd do anything to please me. But now..." She shook her head upon the memories of the many fights they had in the past couple of years. "I never taught him to be a sore loser. Everything I taught him... all to waste. Gone. My boy is gone," she fretted with a combination of sadness, disdain, and disappointment.

Then she paused and no one knew what to say. Thornton wrapped a supportive arm over her shoulders, which she didn't seem to notice. Then softly, Casey said, "Well, Mrs. Standish, if it makes you feel any better, I don't think he's gone yet -- his horse is right over there."

Maude finally looked at her. "Deary,..." she began, but was interrupting by the sound of approaching hoof beats.

Everyone turned and saw the majestic entrance of the four horses and their five riders. As they pulled to a stop, JD moseyed happily toward them.

"Hey, guys!" the kid greeted as they dismounted.

"JD, how're you and Buck? Ezra says you were hurt," Nathan said urgently as he got out his med kit.

"You better check out Buck first," JD said, pointing the way. "Mine's just a scratch."

Nathan placed a supportive hand on JD's back and, together, they hurried to Buck's side. Kneeling by the injured cowboy, the healer could see some bruises and scratches on his head and body. The rest, the worst of it, was already covered with bandages. "Good lord! What happened?"

"I was hit by a flying tree. Fell into those rocks at the creek," Buck replied.

Nathan looked up at JD. "He ain't delirious, is he?"

JD shook his head with an expression that said, "Hard to believe, but no."

Nathan examined Buck's head and opened his shirt more to reveal the cuts and bruises on his stomach. He unwrapped a bandage from Buck's head and revealed a deep gash on the side of his head near his hairline. "Looks like you need stitches." Buck groaned. Then Nathan reached into his med kit and asked the others around the fire, "Any hot water over there?" Jimmy nodded and brought the pot to him. Then the healer went straight to work.

Thornton approached Chris and the others with his hat in his hand. "Ah, fancy meeting you men out here, Mr., uh..."

Chris stood with his thumbs hooked on his gunbelt. "You and your expedition are in danger."

The curtness of this response jarred Thornton a bit, but he quickly recovered. "I appreciate your concern, but these fine men have performed admirably in their custodial duties."

Chris stepped forward and into the smaller gentleman's face. "These fine men coulda got killed last night."

Thornton paused, studying the gunslinger's posture. "Are you trying to make me give up the good fight?"

"Just makin' sure you know that if anything happens to these people, it'll be on your head." He motioned toward JD, Buck and Casey, who stood ahead of him.

Ezra stepped up beside Chris and said, "Uh, Mr. Jacobs is aware of that possibility. See, in our digs, we've already unearthed a burial built for three."

"Three dead bodies?" Vin asked as he stepped to the other side of Ezra. "That's probably that bunch Mary wrote about."

"Taken down by Indians?" Avery ventured as he approached.

"Nope," Josiah replied. "Hooligans in disguise. They're also after the gold. We figure they kidnapped a Ute family to try to get around the riddles and used barbaric tactics to stop anyone else from getting the gold first."

"Kidnapped Indians? Then why the continued barrage of violence?" Ezra asked.

"They must not have found the treasure yet," Josiah said.

"They kidnapped the wrong family. It's possible Dogface doesn't know where it is himself," Vin speculated.

"But we think he and his family are being held out there as ransom until they tell them where the treasure is," Josiah said.

"What a insidious plot," Ezra mused.

"And, they got guns," Chris added. "If they haven't shot ya yet, they will."

"In that case," Thornton said, pausing to look to Avery, whose expression either said he was scared or excited at the prospect of being shot at, then continued, "would you men be willing to join us for added protection?" He checked the faces of the three new guns who stood before him for their reaction. They appeared disappointed. "$15 a day?"

"Before you go on, I have to warn you," Josiah said, "I truly believe that the treasure is not leaving here... with someone alive. Plus, that kind of sick greed is heinous, and grave-robbing goes against my beliefs... I can't help you."

"I can't either," Vin said. "I got murderers and kidnappers to catch."

Then Chris, Vin, and Josiah turned their heads to look at Ezra, who stood in the middle of the line they formed. "Well, Ezra, you've got a stake in this," Chris observed, gesturing with his head at Maude, who was sitting near the fire. "What do you think?"

The gambler rubbed his chin and thought hard. As much as he wanted to leave, he couldn't bring himself to abandon his mother out here in the wild with nothing to protect her but these city slickers, and he was not up to having another fight with her. "We stay," he said quietly and walked off into the middle of the camp.

Josiah sighed and closed his eyes as he shook his head in utter disappointment and disgust.

"Well, I guess we'll be seein' you fellas later," Vin said to Chris. With a nod, the preacher and the bounty hunter turned back to their horses.

Thornton, Avery, Faron, Ezra, and Chris were soon riding out, searching for a location that would be consistent with the clues to the treasure, but they found that it was easier to walk to avoid hitting their heads in the lower tree branches. They passed near the location of the previously discovered pit, giving Chris the opportunity to see it for himself.

Chris was wishing that he was somewhere else at this time. Something about the mission did not feel right to him although he did not follow the Ute beliefs. Then something about the pit caught his eye. As the others in the expedition moved onward and away from the gory reminder of their potential doom, the gunslinger paced toward the edge of the branch-covered hole and saw the bullwhip dangling downwards. Ezra looked back and spied Chris, alone, reaching for the whip. The gambler approached him, leaving the others to forge ahead without their body guards.

Chris picked up a large branch that the whip hung on and pulled up the serpent-like weapon. Then he wound it into a coil and followed the beaten path toward the gambler.

"May we soon be witnessing the fastest whip in the west?" Ezra said with s smirk.

"Well, it's no use to him anymore," Chris said, referring to the body at the bottom of the pit and justifying his new acquisition.

Then, just as they began walking after the others again, they heard a blood-curdling scream in the short distance ahead of them. They dashed to the scene.

When they arrived, Faron was staggering and dripping to the ground with an arrow jutting out from his chest. He clutched at the arrow shaft and gasped for breath as he hit the ground hard. Thornton and the others kneeled by his side. "Faron! Oh my God!" Thornton yelled in horror.



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