"Nathan! Nathan! Hurry!" came the chaotic shouts of various voices from the trees that got nearer and louder very quickly. Chris' horse broke through the bushes with a boom with its owner at the reins and a bleeding Faron McAllister slumped over its neck. Casey and Maude gasped their horror as the others rode in after them.

The healer rushed to Chris' horse as it stopped close and helped the ailing man down. The arrow still protruded from the man's chest, and every breath was wheezed painfully by the patient as he was laid down on the nearest bedroll.

"My lord! What???" Nathan exclaimed in disbelief at the atrocious sight. "Damn! Sometimes I hate bein' needed." As he began to rip off the patient's shirt, he asked, "How did this happen, Chris?"

But before anyone could answer, Avery was right by Nathan's ear asking, "Will he be OK?"

"He's -- you've lost a lot of blood," the healer said, directing his words to the victim as well as the onlookers, "but I'll see--"

"Have you done this before? You're not a doctor, are you?" Avery asserted over Nathan's shoulder.

Clearly becoming irritated, Nathan shouted, "Please! Let me have some space! You'd all better go." Chris and Ezra guided Thornton, Avery, and Jimmy away from the bloody mass toward Maude's carriage and the horses, where Maude sat and Casey stood.

The younger woman had frozen while feeding her horse an apple when the emergency arrived and now Jimmy took the opportunity to comfort her. She welcomed his gentle arm across her shoulders. "Is he gonna be OK?" she asked.

"Don't know. It looks bad. I never seen anyone get shot with an arrow before," Jimmy confided.

However, Thornton and Avery were not content with sitting back and not doing a thing. They each spun angrily on their escorts.

"How could you let that happen to him? Where were you?" Avery shouted at Ezra and Chris. "Aren't we paying you to prevent this sort of thing?"

"That's right! We are!" Thornton echoed with equal anger.

The following responses fired off in rapid succession and at the same time.

CHRIS: "Look, we told you it would be dangerous!"

EZRA: "You knew the risks."

Thornton frustratedly fretted, "What are we paying you for?"

EZRA: "Technically, you haven't paid us yet."

THORNTON: "Then maybe I won't!"

AVERY: "He's not a doctor, is he? Does he have a clue what he's doing? Oh, isn't this great?"

JD and Buck were approaching the mob scene when Buck heard the last remark and finally lost his patience.

BUCK: "All right! That's it! I am sick and tired of you and all your questions! Don't you ever say anything straight-out?"

AVERY: "Are you judging the way I speak?"

BUCK: "Look! There you go again!" He thrust his arms exasperatedly into the air.

THORNTON: "Don't question him! You're the ones who were remiss in your duties! This never would have happened if--"

JD: "This never woulda happened if you greenhorns just stayed home!--"

BUCK: "Oh! Did you hear that, JD? He's questionin' us!"

JD: "You come out here lookin' for a barrel o' fun, and even ask for our help. And this is our thanks?"

THORNTON: "Oh, blame us! How typical!"

EZRA: "Do you want his help?" he asked, indicating the healer.

BUCK: "We'll leave it that's what you want, but we'll take him with us!"

THORNTON: "We are all staying! We never quit!" he declared, indicating himself, Jimmy, Avery, and Maude.

BANG!!! Then everyone jumped and stopped yelling to see who had fired the shot. It was Chris with his smoking gun pointing skyward. After pausing to ensure the maintenance of this quiet condition, he lowered his gun and calmly said, "I believe we're all on the same side here." Faces turned grudgingly, shamefully to the ground as the quarrelers caught their breaths. "Now, there're some people out there who've gone to a heap o' trouble to make sure no one else gets that gold. I don't care if we find that gold. But I do care what happens to us. If we don't stick together, we might as well turn around and go right now, 'cuz there's no way we're gonna make it out alive if we don't."

Everyone was silent as Chris turned and headed back toward Nathan to see if he needed assistance.

Maude spoke first. "Well, now that we've finished expressing our frustrations, we can resume our work. I've had a chance to consider our dilemma, and I believe I know where we should seek our treasure."

"Where?" Thornton asked.

Maude pointed east to the mountains. "There. It's north of the triangle of peaks, and the sun is unbelievably blinding as it rises over those ridges. Now, I believe that the Indians love nature. I'm sure we'll find the trees surrounding something up there. I suggest we try that location as soon as possible."

As she spoke, Ezra looked slowly up from the grass with a numbing feeling spreading from his stomach to his legs, upon the realization that his mother had come up with the same solution he had.

The pack of seven coyotes was making its way over the dry, rocky terrain near the river. They sniffed the ground and sniffed the air. Their ears perked up. They paused. Then they continued their trek with a new purpose and energy.

JD now held the bullwhip in his hand, with Casey, Buck, Ezra, and Jimmy as audience behind him. A few yards away, Nathan was checking on his still-ailing patient.

"This shouldn't be too hard. Just like a heavy rope," JD said as he unraveled the long, sleek weapon and wiggled it in a side-winding motion toward the ground.

"Careful with that," Buck warned. "You're liable to whup your own head off."

"You know me, Buck," JD said as he continued to maneuver the whip.

"You bet I do." Then Buck grabbed for the snaking object. "Gimme that!"

But JD pulled away. "Nuh-uh-uh! Who's got the whip?" He stepped away, then readied the whip for a good cracking. "See that pile o' rocks over there?" He pointed to a rock pile a few feet in front of him. He raised his hand which held the whip, then quickly yanked downward, sending the business end of the weapon upward... and straight at his face! JD hit the ground like a lightning bolt, narrowly escaping a painful whipping, and the runaway snake settled on the ground behind him.

"JD, are you OK?" Casey asked, kneeling beside him.

"Yeah, just practicing--" JD began, but stopped himself when he saw Jimmy grab the whip. "Hey!" He reached for the departing mass, but was unsuccessful at gaining hold of it. He jumped to his feet.

Nathan, still kneeling on the ground by his patient, looked over his shoulder at the whip boys with apprehension.

Jimmy examined the whip with the bravado of a famed gunslinger. "I don't know, JD, I think I could do as much harm as you with this thing."

"Is that supposed to be of comfort to us?" Ezra said rhetorically.

Jimmy turned and faced the same rocks JD used as targets.

"Be careful!" Casey called from behind him as she and JD got out of his way.

"I will," the city boy chuckled over his shoulder. Then he turned to face the rocks and took a deep breath with eyes wide with trepidation. He gripped the handle tightly and quickly snapped up the whip, sending the opposite end up over his head and backwards, shooting Ezra's hat off his head. The gambler ducked at that instant and peeked to make sure it was safe to come up. The hard, snapping action of the whip had extricated it from Jimmy's grasp, and it settled on the ground near Ezra. Jimmy turned and covered his gaping mouth when he realized what he had done.

"Gee, I'm really--" Jimmy started in apology. But Ezra immediately snatched up the whip and shot off with it after Jimmy, who ran for his life.

Upon realizing no one was hurt, Buck, JD, and Casey started to laugh. Jimmy ran in a wide arc that brought him toward Nathan and Faron. As Ezra passed, Nathan intercepted him and ended the chase.

"Boys, knock it off 'fore you hurt someone!" the healer warned. He confiscated the object of interest from Ezra, who offered no resistance. "This is not a toy! You can really do a lot of damage with it! We're not playin' games here!" There was a pause as they all felt the sting of the moment for themselves and realized the many things the object could symbolize.

Ezra, hiding his shame, paced back to the audience saying, "Now, see what you've done? You've angered Mr. Jackson!"

"Sorry, Nathan," apologized JD. "Just tryin' to hone in some new skills."

Nathan was breathing hard and biting his lip as a variety of emotions waged war within him. Then sighed and said, "I'm sorry, too." He somberly looked down at Faron on the ground behind him and said, "He's gone. Just a short while ago." Then he looked down at the ground at his feet and cursed softly at himself as he always did when he lost a patient.

Chris, Thornton, Avery, and Maude approached when they noticed a change in the mood at this part of camp. "What's wrong?" Thornton asked, fearing the answer.

"He's dead," Buck answered.

Thornton and Avery immediately hit the ground by their colleague's side. The romance writer whispered, "Your death will not have been in vain. All you've done for us will be remembered for years in history books when we find the treasure. I promise."

Nathan, Ezra, Buck, and JD exchanged uneasy glances. Whereas such a tragedy may have sent others packing, it only strengthened Thornton Jacobs' resolve to succeed in the very objective that caused it.

Josiah and Vin led their horses through the wooded area as they followed the tracks that were left presumably by the ghosts that haunted the Jacobs expedition the previous night. They were headed toward the mountains. The tracks matched those they found near the Indian village, minus some prints, three of which belonged to the kidnapped natives. This was logical unless the ghosts brought their prisoners to the haunt with them, which was unlikely. The rest of the "missing" prints probably belonged to people who were left to guard the natives.

"It's amazing the lengths that some people will go to for a little fame and fortune," the tracker said.

"'Fame comes only when deserved, and then is as inevitable as destiny, for it is destiny,'" Josiah said. Vin looked at him sideways. "Longfellow," the preacher clarified.

Vin shrugged with a spiteful grin. "If you ask me, I don't think these people care what they get famous for, or how it happens."

"We better hope they do, or we'll have a real mess to clean up and a lot of explaining to do."

"What?" Vin finally asked. "Who are we talkin' about here?"

"Who should we be talkin' about?" the preacher asked calmly.

"Those murderin' kidnappers."

"Then that's who we're talkin' about."

Then there was a sudden rustling through the trees above them. Both men looked up and saw a large black bird flying in a wide circle over their heads. Vin looked at Josiah and found him being hypnotized by the spectacle. "You OK, pard?" Vin asked, snapping the preacher out of it.

Josiah looked at Vin with more worry in his cool blue eyes. "We gotta move." Then both men marched on and into a clearing.

The smothered black remains of a campfire lay in the center of the clearing. The preacher and the tracker approached. Vin kneeled down to the ground and found many tracks trampling on top of each other around the fire... including a set of miniature prints. He picked up a handful of ashes from the campfire and sifted them through his fingers.

"They must've been here," Josiah said, looking at the child prints.

"Yeah," Vin agreed. He brushed the remainder of ashes in his hands back into the fire remains and stood. "They left this mornin'. They couldn't be more'n... I'd say maybe 3 hours ahead of us." He examined the ground again and pointed. "They're goin' that way."

"At least we know Dogface and his family are still alive."

Then they continued after the freshest set of tracks, which included every set of prints... even the tiniest ones.

The pack of coyotes continued to make their way through the green and brown wilderness.

The members of the Thornton Jacobs expedition and Chris Larabee and his men stood solemnly around the mound of dirt with a makeshift wooden cross sticking up from one end of it. While everyone stood silently with their hats in their hands, Thornton spoke. "He was a good friend and an honest man. He will be missed. May his soul find peace in the next world that was not allowed him in his life or in his death."

There was a moment of silence.

"And now... on to the matter of the utmost importance..." Thornton donned his dusty white hat again and noticed the still-low spirits of the group. "Faron would have wanted it this way. He would have liked us to continue on our paths to success and renown." He looked again at everyone's faces.

Then Maude spoke. "I only knew him for a short time, but... I do believe Mr. Jacobs is correct. Faron was a forward-looking man. Not as assertive as he may have needed to be, but... his ambition was genuine. As long as we march bravely toward our goal, he will not be forgotten."

"Isn't that the truth?" Avery stated as he placed his hat on his head. Jimmy nodded.

"Well, since we are all in agreement, I say it's an opportune time to head for the mountains," Maude said.

At the base of the mountains, the members of the "ghost" expedition had stopped for nourishment. A new fire was blazing on the ground with a bird cooking over it. The child fidgeted close to his mother and quietly whimpered. The natives' feet and hands were bound with ropes.

"Can the kid be quiet?" Craig impatiently lashed out. "It's almost ready!"

Stu shot back with tolerance. "Come on, he's just a kid. I'd like to see you with as much discipline!"

"Ha ha ha! I won't need any if we ever get that treasure!" Craig complained again, this time darting an accusing sneer at Jim Dogface. The native showed no fear. "Look, Chief, we're getting impatient. Now, it better be in this next little spot you're showing us or, I swear, you're gonna see some of  their blood," the white man threatened, indicating the wife and child.

"I told you I'm doing my best. But, as I said before, I don't know where it is," Dogface said firmly though his eyes belied his dauntless stance.

Vin and Josiah crept low to the ground and hid in the shrubbery some distance from the camp. "Guess they couldn't get as far as I thought, worryin' 'bout the kid," Vin postulated.

"Lucky for them," Josiah said as he looked and mentally measured the distance between themselves and the hostages. "Now, there's 6 of them and only 2 of us. I think we're gonna need a diversion."

"Just what I was thinkin'." Both men looked around at their surroundings and tried to think of a plan.

"Or some divine intervention," Josiah added when he couldn't come up with anything.

Then suddenly, bursting into the clearing, seemingly out of nowhere, were the 7 coyotes. The hungry canines leaped into the center of camp, tearing up the meal and attacking the members of the expedition and leaving the natives alone, even though the child would have made an ideal snack for them.

Vin and Josiah stared for a second before they realized what was happening and decided to take advantage of the situation. "I believe! I truly believe!" Josiah whispered as he and Vin dashed out from hiding to aid the family. As the expeditioners scattered everywhere, the bounty hunter and the preacher were able to cut the ropes that bound the captives' legs so they could run with them to safety behind the bushes.

When the coyotes were able to chase the evil away, Vin and Josiah turned back to Dogface and family. They undid the remaining ropes under the attentive supervision of the newly freed captives.

"Who are you?" Dogface asked.

"Not even a 'thank you'?" Vin said as he finished cutting the ropes from the man's wrists.

"Thank you," Dogface added, "who are you?" He rubbed his rope-injured wrists.

The other two men exchanged slightly amused glances and then turned back to the family. "Friends of the tribe," Josiah answered.

The expedition, led by Ezra and Chris, made its way up the graded slope near the bottom of the mountain on horseback, except Maude and Thornton, who drove her horse-drawn carriage. Thornton's horse was now tied to and being led by Ezra's. Their destination was the ring of trees that Ezra and Maude had seen earlier, near the top of this particular peak. They decided that they would take the horses up as far as they could, to a plateau half-way up the incline, then climb the rest of the way themselves. Along part of the base of the mountain were some decidedly painful-looking rocks and boulders. The team chose to take the less rocky, but more dirty, path instead.

Now they reached a steeper region of the slope. Aware of the difficulty this might pose to some of their riders, Ezra and Chris paused part-way up the slope. "Everyone all right back there?" called Ezra.

Everyone gave firm affirmations to the query as they and their horses climbed the mountain. Thornton now held the reins to the carriage-pulling horse with Maude snugly beside him. He asked her as the carriage heaved rockily and crookedly forward, "Miss Maude, how are you coming along?"

"Just fine, Thornton dear," she replied with a forced smile to reinforce her answer although the creaking of the carriage was unnerving.

But unbeknownst to anyone, with each jarring of the carriage, the pin keeping the rig connected to the horse was coming loose.

"We're almost there!" announced Chris. Then he turned and urged his horse forward.

Most of the horses made it up the steepest part in one piece. However, the carriage was stalling as the horse tried to pull the rig over a large bump in the slope. "Come on, come on," Thornton urged the horse, whipping the reins. Then the horse pulled forward abruptly and the pin popped out. With a clink, the horse scurried forward but the carriage began to tip backward.

"Thornton!" screamed Maude as she jumped out of her seat and held on for dear life at the same time.

"Good lord!" Thornton gasped, helplessly grasping for the fleeing, flailing reins that followed the horse up the mountain.

Then the carriage began to roll.

"Chris!" JD shouted to alert the front of the group to the mishap, having nearly arrived at the plateau himself. Then he kicked his horse to a gallop back down the incline to chase the runaway carriage and its screaming passengers just as Ezra and Chris turned to see what the commotion was about.

The gambler saw the carriage rolling away and had to snicker at the sight of the panicking pair. But he wiped the smile off his face when the carriage accelerated more noticeably and, while crashing up and down, took a turn toward the sharp rock-lined base of the mountain. Earlier, Ezra had had the feeling that this escapade had taken a downhill turn, but this was ridiculous. Chris and Nathan charged their mounts after the carriage. Then Ezra quickly untied Thornton's horse from his, and, throwing down the rope, he blasted back down the mountain, too.



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