by Sevenstars

Buck had half wished JD might have come with him on this trip, but JD had his sheriffing duties, and in any case he was still young and learning his way around; when he thought of it realistically, the gunslinger knew he'd rather not have to worry about the kid and the prisoners both. In any case it had been Vin, out of some Wanted poster he'd seen back when he was a bounty hunter, who had recognized and taken the two men when they drifted into Four Corners about ten days ago; he had a right to see them into the Army's custody. The telegram Chris had sent to the C.O. at Sumner had been greeted with a request that the duo be brought down as promptly as could be arranged; they were wanted for holding up a paymaster's ambulance about three years back and killing the paymaster and three of the escort, and while the Army hadn't much prayer of recovering the stolen money, it could at least hang the men for murder.

So Buck and Vin had set out south, and on reflection Buck was rather pleased it had turned out that way. He was still getting to know these men he'd begun riding with so recently, and there was none he wanted to get to know more--or had had more trouble doing so with, up to now--than Vin. The man was so close-mouthed it sometimes seemed he couldn't speak at all. Buck knew Vin was good in a fight, and the fact that he'd taken a hand against those trail drivers hassling Nathan suggested he had a strong personal code of ethics. But there was more to it than that. There was Chris.

On one level Buck knew he ought to feel--would have every right to feel--a little jealous of this quiet, long-haired stranger who, on no previous acquaintance at all, had stepped into his old friend's life and taken the place Buck himself had once held. But he knew too that Vin hadn't gone out looking for the relationship; it had, somehow, simply happened. And on another level Buck was glad that Vin had become a part of Chris's world; the fact that Chris had let him in gave the mustached gunslinger some hope that he might finally be healing. He wanted to understand more of the younger man, wanted to know what made him tick, what there was in him that Chris found comforting: a man was known, after all, by the company he kept, and since Chris wasn't the man Buck had once known, and didn't seem likely to share himself much, Buck had little choice except to use his new closest friend as a benchmark. He also wanted to feel assured that Vin was in it for the long haul. Chris needed that, whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not. If Vin left, the part of Chris that was just beginning to learn it was safe to unfold itself and be vulnerable again was going to be torn to pieces.

Quite apart from that, Buck liked Vin. They weren't very much alike, but Buck got a huge charge out of Vin's quiet, understated sense of humor, so different from his own boisterous manner. He liked the way Vin would sometimes say something that you'd have to puzzle over for a couple of minutes before you saw what was funny about it. It kept Buck's mind sharp, and in his business that was a plus.

Over the last three and a half days, as they made their leisurely way homeward, Buck had bent his attention to getting inside Vin's shell. It hadn't been easy, and he was sure there was a lot Vin hadn't said yet. What he had said had made Buck look at him with new eyes. He hadn't realized Vin was so young--not a whole lot older than JD: he should have, by the man's skin and stance, but the eyes were so old, so full of ancient hurt, it had fooled him. Buck's own boyhood might not have been perfect, but at least he'd always known he was loved, always felt protected and cared for; never once in seventeen years had he gone hungry or cold or ill-clothed. From this perspective he felt suddenly protective of the former buffalo hunter, much the way he did toward JD. He had always had a powerful sympathy for children, and the idea of one being deprived or abused made him angry. He might not be able to do anything to change the past and wipe out the hurts Vin had suffered, but by God he could be a friend to him now.

"There's Ship Rock," Vin said suddenly. "Town'll be maybe three hours on. Get in in plenty time for a bath and supper with the others."

"Suits me," Buck declared. "I'm clean tired of your cookin', boy, and mine ain't much better. Plus I itch." He wasn't a dandy like Ezra, but he always liked to keep himself neat and well turned out; ladies liked that in a man. He grinned to himself. JD had once wondered how it was that Buck was so successful with women. Buck had laughed it off as "animal magnetism," but the simple truth was, if you grew up in bordellos, it was inevitable that you would learn what the fair sex liked and didn't like.

Ship Rock enlarged in their view, a slanted monolith lifting from a little rise on the west side of the trail, a cluster of big boulders huddling around it like chicks around a hen. Quite without warning Vin, riding on the rock's side, let out a yell and hurled himself across the space between their two horses, his weight hurtling into Buck's like a mountain lion springing on a deer. Buck had time only to snatch the double-barrelled shotgun that hung off the right side of his saddlefork before a bullet shrieked through the air where their heads had been a split-second before. Then they were both rolling and scrabbling for shelter in the shallow wash on the far side of the trail. Their horses shrilled and took off at full gallop.

Coughing, Buck came to rest with the shotgun bruisingly underneath him and quickly shifted to pull it out. Vin had apparently drawn his saddlegun just as he threw himself out of the saddle; the Winchester '76 was tightly clutched in his hand. "What the hell?" Buck demanded.

"Seen a flash in them boulders," Vin explained. "Wasn't time for nothin' but to get you out of the line of fire."

Buck blinked. "You was that sure it was somebody with a gun?"

"I was that sure it was somebody with a telescope sight on one," Vin retorted. "Seen it afore plenty times. Buffalo hunters use 'em lots. Damn. Likely bounty hunters." He had been keeping his head down below the lip of the wash; now he pulled off his hat and cautiously raised it for a look.

"If it's bounty hunters, why ain't they shootin'?" Buck inquired. "It's you's got the price on him, not me." He squirmed over to join the younger man and peeked up himself.

Another shot sounded, followed three and a half seconds later by a third. Both men ducked as the latter struck a small rock about twenty yards farther back with an odd splattering sound. Vin rolled half on his back and glanced that way. "Damn," he said again. "He's usin' hollow-point loads. Look how the bullet smashed into the rock, Buck. You can still see it on the ground, flatter'n a prairie cake. This feller ain't foolin' around."

"He ain't got a repeater, does he? Shots shouldn't come so far apart if he does."

"No, my guess'd be a Remington single-shot, a Rollin'-Block likest," Vin agreed. "Man knows what he's doin' can get off seventeen shots to the minute with one of them things, and score a hit further off than most Winchesters." He looked down at his own. "I got Government .45-70's in this here, and you can figure them to be accurate at six hundred yards, but he's damn close to eight and covered by them boulders asides. Plus the sun's at his back."

"And I ain't likely to be much help to you," Buck observed mournfully. "My damn horse took off with mine. All's I got's my Colt and Little Pepper here, and neither one of 'em's worth shit at this range."

"We're in it, ain't no question," Vin agreed. "Up where he's at he can cover 'most the whole length of this wash. He maybe can't hit us, but he can keep us pinned, and we got no water. Won't be long 'fore we start feelin' the sun, trapped down in here with these light-colored sand walls bouncin' it back and forth."

"There don't seem to be but the one of him," Buck said. "Maybe if you could keep him pinned down, I could wiggle around and cut across the trail and get around in back of the Rock, take him from behind."

Vin frowned. "Don't like it. Most like that's just what he'd expect us to do. He takes you with one of them softnose slugs, it don't matter where it hits you; I won't be able to get to you and drag you back in time to do you no good. Seen them things take a man's leg plumb off."

"You got any better notions?" Buck challenged.

Vin shrugged. "Wait as long as we can. Maybe he'll get antsy. Ain't much of a plan, but it's the best I can think of."

Buck sighed. "Well, there's one good thing. The horses took off north, towards town. Might be somebody'll come on 'em and backtrack."

"Might," Vin agreed, "but best not to count on it. If we can just hold on to dark, we might have some prayer of gettin' out of here, one way or t'other."

In his secure little redoubt under Ship Rock, Warren Freely watched the wash and waited. A man judges range through his ability to combine and utilize two views, that of his right eye and that of his left. Up to around 480 yards--somewhat over a quarter of a mile--with practise, your brain will automatically triangulate and tell you the distance. Beyond that, since you have to do the figuring for yourself, it doesn't matter so much whether you have two eyes or one: the range is too great for a short gun, and most people squint one eye shut when they fire a rifle anyway. This was probably the reason the Army, which depended heavily on rifles, had a fair share of officers and men alike who had lost an eye, often in the War.

The Remington Rolling-Block was designed to be one of the fastest-firing single-shot rifles of its day--only a Sharps, with which a nimble-fingered user could get off as many as twenty rounds a minute, could beat it--taking its name from a mechanism at the breech end of the barrel that rotated about a heavy pin driven at right angles through the receiver. To load, you thumbed back the hammer to full cock, swung or "rolled" the breechblock back (thus exposing the breech and extracting the spent cartridge), inserted the new load, and flipped the breechblock forward into place. A firing pin penetrated the block and transmitted the hammer's blow to the cartridge. The telescopic sight, unless Freely used a rest, would tend to negate this advantage, because if he didn't hold the rifle very steady, the magnification would be impossible to cope with; but in the process of getting himself settled, he had found several spaces between boulders which would serve admirably for that purpose while still keeping him concealed from sight. He wasn't worried. He had them now. They were pinned, afoot, and probably without water in the full sun. Before very long their thinking and responses would slow and he'd be able to get a little higher up, out of concealment, and drop a few rounds right onto them. Warren was a patient man. He'd wait.

+ + + + + +

Ordinarily, when any of the Seven went out "on patrol," they stuck fairly close to town, making a loop of about fifteen to twenty-seven miles' circumference around it; only if there had been reports of trouble in some specific part of the area did they generally probe farther out. But today Ezra, restless and disturbed from the memory of his actress friend's death, had volunteered for afternoon duty and, after making the usual swing, begun drifting slowly down the south road. His gambler's instincts were prickling. He didn't like the idea of two total strangers being poisoned in what he was coming, all unwilling, to think of as his town, his home. He didn't like the fact that these strangers had come all the way from Kansas in search of Buck. He didn't like it that Buck's oldest friend, Chris, didn't seem to be troubled by that fact. He felt that there was trouble on the way, and experience had shown him that the Seven met trouble best when they were together. He had some vague notion of meeting Buck and Vin and telling them what had been going on, preparing them for whatever was coming.

He must have gone about four or five miles past the normal limit of the patrol circle when his horse suddenly tossed its head up and nickered. Ezra checked immediately, his hand dropping to his Remington. "What is it, dear Gambit?" he asked quietly. For a long time the horse had been his only friend and companion; he trusted its senses and instincts.

From around a stand of Emory oaks at the bend of the trail, another horse responded. Feeling the breeze on his face, Ezra realized that Gambit had smelled the other animal. Had he recognized the scent? The gambler drew the Remington, cocked it, and kneed the chestnut forward.

Around the bend the trees gave way to a grassy shoulder on which two horses were standing, ears pricked forward. Ezra reined in as he recognized them: Vin's blaze-faced brown, Peso, and Buck's tall, kind-hearted gray mare, Plata. There was no sign of the men. The gambler urged Gambit ahead another few yards, slowing as the horses threw their heads up and shuffled nervously back. He noted that their reins were dragging in the grass, "ground-tying" them, preventing them from moving more than a few feet and that slowly: if they tried to run, they would inevitably step on the lines and jerk the bits in their mouths, which was precisely why range men tended to resort to the tactic. "Gently, my friends," he soothed them. "Easy, now, you know me...easy..."

His gentle drawl seemed to quiet their misgivings and he was able to work his way slowly up to them, sway out of the saddle and gather in the reins. Despite his fears he forced himself to examine them closely. They had been running flat out for some distance; dried lather streaked their coats and Peso had a touch of foam at his bit. There was no blood on either saddle, which he found reassuring. But Vin's rifle was missing from its boot while Buck's was not. That troubled him. It suggested the possibility that Buck had been somehow injured and Vin had armed himself to protect him--and then what? Their horses had run off? Why?

Ezra made his decision quickly. He didn't know what sort of odds he might be facing; it would be foolhardy to charge in alone. Going back for the others might take time, but it would increase their likelihood of success. He turned Gambit and headed for Four Corners, leading the riderless animals behind him, upshifting quickly from fast walk to jog to lope.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had begun the morning by talking to every shopkeeper in town who stocked laudanum, asking whether they had sold any recently. They had, but in every instance it had been to people whose names Nathan recognized, generally people he had only just treated at the time and had advised to obtain some of the painkiller. He went back to his clinic and checked his shelves on the off chance someone had gotten in while he was gone and stolen some of his, but found he had exactly the amount he had figured he should. Since none of the persons named by the storekeepers were people he could imagine as having any grudge against a couple of strangers from Kansas, the healer found himself at an impasse.

Josiah had gone over to the hotel and talked to the dining-room staff. They were eager to help, but all admitted that when the supper rush was on, things got so hectic that it might have been possible for anyone--assuming he knew what the attorneys had ordered--to slip something harmful into their food. Josiah chewed on this for a while and found himself thinking of the patch-eyed man from Eagle Bend who'd collided with their table last night. Could he be the culprit? Certainly a stranger poisoning strangers would make better sense than a native doing it. The big man went out to the lobby and spoke to the clerk. This individual remembered the man distinctly and pointed out his signature in the register: John Warren, Eagle Bend. "But he's not here now, Mr. Sanchez," he added. "His key's in the pigeonhole, and I remember he came downstairs early this morning with a rifle under his arm and asked if he could get the kitchen to pack him some lunch. I told him we didn't do that but the café did."

"Did he say where he was going with this rifle?"

"No, sir, and I didn't ask."

Chris was upstairs in Blakemore and Henneman's room, questioning them about why someone might want them dead and getting very little satisfaction. A shift of tactics and a demand to know what business they had with Buck brought a polite but flat refusal to answer. "We can't tell you that, Mr. Larabee. It has to do with attorney-client privilege," Blakemore explained.

"What client?" Chris asked.

"We can't tell you that either."

"Damn it," growled the gunfighter, "you'd better find something you can tell me and fast! Because if you don't I've got the authority to run you out of town."

"I don't think you should do that, Mr. Larabee," Henneman advised. "If we're right in our suppositions, it will place Mr. Wilmington, and possibly the rest of you, in peril."

Chris was beginning to get the idea that he was being given the runaround. "What suppositions are those?"

Henneman turned his hands up in a shrug. "Attorney-client privilege. We can't say."

Just then there was a sound of running footsteps in the hall, and the door burst open to reveal a flushed and breathless JD. "Chris! Chris, you gotta come quick. Ezra just--brought in--Buck'n'Vin's horses."

Chris was out the door in a swirl of duster almost before the last two words were out of his mouth. The two Kansans could hear his spurs ringing as he strode toward the stairs at a rapid swinging walk, and JD rattling on: "Nathan's gone to get his kit, and Josiah's havin' our horses saddled--"

Blakemore and Henneman exchanged glances. "Well," the taller man sighed, "we knew Bentann knew about him."

"Maybe we shouldn't have been quite so hidebound about our ethics," mused Blakemore.

"Would it have done any good, Jon? We know the man was out of town; apparently he's been waylaid on the trail. All we can do is hope Larabee and his men can get there in time."

+ + + + + + +

Buck felt dizzy even though he didn't dare stand up. He eyed Vin from under the broad brim of his hat. The tracker was lying as still as himself, but his breathing was shallow and too rapid, and his skin looked red and dry. Buck squirmed over to touch the younger man's cheek; it was hot. Though the countryside around them was more shortgrass plain than desert, their confinement in the soft-sanded wash meant they were smack in the middle of an environment where the temperature was perhaps as much as forty degrees hotter than that of the air they would be breathing if they were standing or riding. "You ain't sweatin', pard," Buck observed in a voice that scratched his throat. Vin had grubbed up a couple of pebbles for them to hold in their mouths, but that only made the saliva flow and gave the illusion of drinking; it couldn't do anything to replace the moisture being sucked out of their tissues by the sun and the dry hot air.

"I know it." Vin's drawl was slower paced than usual, as if he were having to think about each word before he said it.

Buck fumbled his watch out of his vest and squinted at it. "We ain't gonna make it to dark," he said, the words coming in short, breathless bursts as he struggled against the searing heat that engulfed him. "We ain't gonna even make it to sundown, the rate we're goin'. We don't do somethin' damn quick, that boy up there'll be able to just walk across the trail and shoot us where we lie."

Vin frowned. He knew Buck was much the more impatient and impulsive of the two of them. "We got no chance chargin' against that Remington."

"We got no chance layin' here," Buck insisted. "We got to make the try. Look, boy, you might've lived with Comanches and learned to be patient like one, but there's times all that gets you is dead. We'll do it like I said before. My guns ain't good for long range. I'll crawl on down the wash as far as I can get and then make a run, try to swing around in back of him. You just lay down some cover and make him keep his damn bulb down, okay?"

Vin pushed up on one elbow and rolled sideways so he could look up and down the cut. He knew there was something wrong with Buck's plan, but he couldn't put his finger on it. And the hell of it was, the gunslinger was probably right. Trapped as they were, both were weakening fast. Vin wasn't sure how long they had been lying here, but it had to be a good two or three hours. Their clothes slowed evaporation somewhat and protected them from sunburn, but couldn't conserve body moisture indefinitely. Chris and the others wouldn't be expecting them in till close around sundown. By that time they could both be dead. "Okay," he agreed. "You head south, the cut's longest that way." He studied the vista in that direction, laying out in his mind's eye the path Buck would need to take to put himself, as quickly as possible, at an angle where the man in the rocks couldn't hit him without exposing himself to Vin. Having seen Buck in action, he made an estimate of how long it would take the gunslinger to cover the stretch in which he'd be vulnerable, then of how he'd have to pace his own shots. "But don't waste no time. I got fifteen shots in the magazine. There's extra rounds in my pocket, but soon's I start in shootin' he'll know somethin's up. I need to quit and reload, he'll know that's the only chance he'll have to take you out before you get to where he'll have to step out to hit you, and he'll lay into you."

Buck nodded. "You keep an eye. When I'm ready to move, I'll give you a signal. You just leave the rest to ol' Buck, I done this before."

"With Chris?" Vin guessed, his parched lips stretching in a painful grin.

"Yeah, with Chris, but I trust you to do just as good as him. Luck." Holding the muzzle of his short sawed-off ten-gauge at a slight angle so as not to fill the barrels with foreign matter, the gunslinger began squirming his way down the wash on elbows and belly, using his legs to give impetus. Vin rolled onto his stomach and checked his saddlegun. The mare's leg took standard .44-40 loads, like a Colt; it wouldn't have the power he needed.

Some three hundred yards down, Buck ran out of wash as the depression shallowed and pitched up toward the road. He paused to check both his guns, though he knew they were loaded, and then eased up onto his knees and looked back. Vin was watching and lifted one hand. Buck took a couple of deep breaths and mirrored the gesture, then threw himself up and out of the wash as the tracker's Winchester began spanging away behind him.

As Vin had figured he would, Warren Freely guessed immediately that something was up. He didn't dare raise his head, but he peered out between boulders in time to see Buck running flat out, slightly bent over, one hand clutching his shotgun and the other holding his hat to his head. Having gotten a good look at the gunslinger through the telescopic sight of the Remington, he recognized him at once and understood what he was trying to do.

Buck might have made it, except that in their extremity, their thought processes slowed by advancing thirst, neither he nor Vin had stopped to think that he couldn't move as fast as he ordinarily would in this sort of situation, which completely negated Vin's calculations about firing pace. The Winchester clicked dry before he'd made it more than halfway to the point at which he would have been safe. "Aw, shit!" Vin half sobbed, bolting up on his knees with a complete panicked disregard for concealment, fumbling in his pocket for more shells, bending his head over the rifle as he began frantically pressing loads into the receiver. I ain't fast enough, I ain't gonna make it, Buck's gonna die--

Freely grinned and rose to his feet, brought the Remington to his shoulder and lined the scope on the frantically scurrying gunslinger, led him a bit, and began taking up trigger slack. This is almost too easy to be fun, he thought.

The five remaining peacekeepers, still a mile and a half up the road and moving at a steady lope, pulled their horses in at the sound of shots. "That's Vin's saddlegun, ain't it?" Josiah asked.

Chris didn't even dignify the query with an answer. His face tight, he shouted, "Let's ride!", and spurred hard. The others followed, lifting their mounts to just under top speed.

JD, whose eyes were the youngest and quickest, caught sight of Buck's madly scurrying form as the quintet came over the low rise just north of Ship Rock, then of the figure standing out from the boulders around the rock's base, the rifle levelled to its shoulder. "Buck, look out!" he screamed.

Neither Buck nor Freely could make out the words, but the unexpected voice was enough to startle the ex-bushwhacker and make him jerk the trigger instead of squeezing. The Remington bellowed and Buck seemed to trip, stumble headlong, and roll over and over before coming to a sprawled stillness in the dust.

"BUCK!!" JD shrieked, and whipped Seven to full speed. Lighter than any of the older men, he was the least burden to his mount, and the little bay mare shot past Chris's big black and bolted full-out toward her rider's adopted brother.

Chris pulled his Colt and raced in pursuit. Vin, dizzy and weak with heatstroke, tried shakily to come to his feet as he registered the black-clad tornado bearing down on him, wobbled, and sank down again. Nathan peeled off to see to him as JD, guiding by knees alone, Seven's reins tied up over the pommel, pounded toward the Rock with both Colt Lightnings out and blazing.

JD knew perfectly well he couldn't hit anything with a belt gun at this range, but it didn't matter; what mattered was that Buck might still be alive, and the man who'd fired at him had to be discouraged from trying again. It worked. Freely took one look at the men barrelling toward him and sprinted for the place where he'd left his horse.

Chris, seeing him go, made a wide sweeping gesture to Josiah with his gun arm. Josiah understood at once. He reined hard to the side, aiming to cut off to the west, circle around the north flank of Ship Rock, and, he hoped, cut the fleeing man off. Nathan, behind him, had pulled up at the edge of the road and piled out of the saddle, snatching his kit from the fork and half leaping, half falling down into the wash to see to Vin. Ezra, still with Buck and Vin's horses on lead, brought Gambit to a rearing, squatting halt about midway between Chris and the healer, and swung down, snatching his elegant Remington revolving rifle from the boot. Dropping to one knee for the steadiest possible firing platform, he set himself to provide cover for both men if needed.

JD pulled Seven to a halt in a cloud of dust and left the saddle without ever touching the stirrup, positioning himself between Buck and the fleeing shooter, one knee down, the other leg thrown out to the side as a brace. Squinting along his fully extended arm, he began squeezing off shots as fast as he could. He was beyond thinking now. He was with Buck, but Buck wasn't moving. If he was dead, JD meant to see his murderer dead too.

Chris's black plowed to a halt twenty feet away as the gunsfighter hesitated, torn between checking out his oldest friend, going back to see about Vin, or pursuing the unknown shooter. That momentary uncertainty allowed Freely all the time he needed to get to his own horse and light out across the plain at full speed. By the time it occurred to the enraged Chris that both Buck and Vin had people by to take care of them, the bushwhacker was already a quarter-mile away and gaining fast.

Freely had two great advantages over Josiah: he weighed less, and his horse was well rested. He was also on a straight heading, where Josiah had to loop wide of the Rock to avoid having his mount stumble or catch its leg in one of the shallow fissures that scored the baked, rocky ground all around it. By the time the ex-preacher cleared the Rock and could see his prey clearly, the latter's lead had increased to almost seven hundred yards. That was a next-to-impossible shot with a Winchester, but Josiah did his best. Like Ezra, he piled out of the saddle and dropped to a marksman's kneeling position, raising his carbine to his shoulder and firing four times as fast as he could work the lever. The racing rider showed no sign of having been hit. Josiah hesitated, then lowered the gun and stood, muttering something uncomplimentary in Hindi.

JD, having emptied his Colts and seeing that the shooter was obviously in full flight, holstered his weapons and scrambled around on his knees. "Buck! Buck, it's JD, are you hit? Buck, talk to me!"

"Wha--" The gunslinger stirred, made a feeble attempt to push himself up. JD recognized the visible signs of heatstroke from things Nathan had told him. Clawing to his feet, he grabbed the canteen off his saddlehorn, then dropped to his knees beside his closest friend, ripped Buck's shirt open, and began pouring water onto his overheated body.

"Come on, Buck. Come on, steady now, you're okay, we're, you can't have a drink yet...are you hit? Buck? Did he get you?" He was scanning the older man's torso for any sign of blood and finding none, just dry, flushed skin.

Chris arrived with a second canteen. "How is he?"

"Sun's got to him, but I don't see no wounds--"

"No..." Buck batted weakly at Chris's hand. "I'm okay..."

"You're a long way from okay, pard," Chris retorted. Behind them, Josiah had circled back to join Nathan, and Ezra, seeing that the enemy seemed to be routed, fell back too, ready to assist.

"No...I ain't hit," Buck insisted. "Vin...'s he all right? He quit firin'..."

Ezra trotted up just then. "Mr. Larabee? Mr. Jackson assures me that Mr. Tanner will recover, but he requests your aid in gettin' him to the shade of the Rock. It seems our esteemed tracker is somewhat confused and not altogether certain he is among friends. He also desperately desires to know that he did not fail in coverin' Mr. Wilmington."

"JD?" Chris queried.

"You go, Chris, Ezra'n'me can take care of Buck," the kid declared. "C'mon, Buck, lean on me...God knows I done it on you enough, now it's my turn...lemme help, okay?"

Ezra moved over to the gunslinger's other side, ready to take part of his weight as he came up. Buck lurched clumsily to his feet and immediately almost went down again. JD yelped in surprise. "You are hit!"

Without warning the gambler laughed, a peal of sheer delight accompanied by a glint of gold tooth. "No, Mr. Dunne, he is not, I assure you. His right boot is missin' the heel. Your shout must have disarrayed the miscreant's aim, and rather than shatterin' his victim's leg, he struck his footgear instead."

"Aw, shit," said JD, with a nervous giggle. "Buck, don't scare me like that, okay?"

Buck leaned heavily on the kid's slight form, trying not to trust his weight to his mangled boot, his head reeling with sunstroke dizziness. "Damn, and I paid fifty dollars for them boots not ten months ago..." He patted JD's shoulder weakly. "Good goin', son. You likely saved my life. I'm grateful."

"Hey," JD responded, grinning now, "you'd'a' done the same for me, right? Fact is, you have done the same for me. It just comes with the territory."

"I'm too heavy for you, kid--"

"Naw, you ain't. I'm just fine. Anyway we're almost to the Rock, and once we get in the shade you can sit down..."

+ + + + + + +

Warren Freely kept his horse to a gallop until he was sure no one was following him, then slowed it gradually to a steady lope, a jog, and at last a walk. He let it breathe, hipped around in his saddle to watch his back trail. Then he began working his way south and east until he reached the trail again. He followed it another five miles, left it by way of a neck of dried hardpan that wouldn't show tracks, and turned back toward Four Corners. He knew that after the time they'd spent in the sun, Tanner and Wilmington would need tending; their friends would stay with them until they were able to ride. Meanwhile, by moving parallel to the road, he could avoid them, then cut back onto it and again obscure his trail, so that even if they tried to follow him, they wouldn't get very far.

He was pretty sure none of them had been near enough to recognize him if they saw him again, but after a little thought he decided it would be better to lie low and see what happened next. He'd learned enough, during Marcus's term in the Legislature, to be pretty certain that if Henneman and Blakemore had any hope of stopping his cousin, they'd need Wilmington to go back to Kansas with them. And there was a long journey between here and Kansas...

+ + + + + + +

"You never got a look at him, Buck?" Chris asked.

"Never had a chance to. He had the sun at his back the whole time, except when he was holed up in the rocks," Buck explained. Two hours' rest, much sponging with cool water, and many small drinks had gone a long way toward restoring both him and Vin. Nathan was of the opinion that they could ride back to Four Corners now, although he said he wanted both of them to rest once they got there.

"Bounty hunter'd be my guess," Vin put in.

But Buck frowned. "Somethin' 'bout that don't figure," he said. "When you quit shootin', I looked over your way to make sure you hadn't passed out or nothin'. You were kneelin' up with the top half of you in plain view, tryin' to reload. Now we're pretty sure this feller had a telescopic sight to his rifle; he'd've got a good clear look at both of us just before he fired that first shot. So if he was a bounty hunter, why'd he shoot at me and not you? Why didn't he take you down while he had a clear shot at you, and then worry about me? He could've still got me, as far from the safe zone as I was."

Chris tilted his head. "What are you sayin', Buck? That you think it was you that was the target?"

The mustached gunslinger shook his head slowly. "I ain't sure what I'm sayin', Chris. But I gotta admit it makes a little better sense than the other."

"Always knew messin' around them married ladies'd get you in trouble, Buck," JD muttered.

"Might it be possible," Ezra mused slowly, "that this nefarious ambush is in some way connected with the attempt of last evenin'?"

Nathan jacked his head around sharply. "Where in the name of anything holy did you get that from, Ezra?"

"What attempt of last evenin'?" Buck demanded at almost the same instant. "Ezra? Chris? There been trouble back in town?"

"Yeah," the leader agreed. "We'd told you anyway when you got in. Couple of strangers came in on the stage, lawyers from Kansas. They checked into the hotel and a few hours later they were both down with what Nathan thinks was laudanum poisoning. We managed to walk it out of 'em, but we ain't been able yet to figure who'd want 'em dead or why."

"How do you figure it connects to me?" Buck wondered. "Ezra?" he prompted when Chris didn't answer.

"It may connect to you, Mr. Wilmington," the gambler replied evenly, "because these gentlemen apparently descended upon our fair community with the specific view in mind of seekin' you out. At least, they inquired of Mr. Dunne, Mr. Sanchez, and myself where you might be found."

Buck frowned again, chewing on the possibility. "You mean you think the same somebody that tried to poison these two strangers was after me today? Why?"

"That," Ezra admitted, "I cannot fathom. Yet the temporal juxtaposition of the two occurrences suggests that someone is determined that you and they shall not come face to face. Had they died last night, as Mr. Jackson asserts they may well have done but for merest chance, the likelihood is high that you would never have been able to discover what their business was with you, even had you desired to make the attempt. Had you been slain this afternoon, they would have had little choice save to return to their accustomed haunts with their quest unfulfilled. In either case, my dear sir, it appears that you are the key to the mystery. And the sooner we bring you and these gentlemen together, preferably under strictly guarded conditions, the sooner this unknown murderer will have no further excuse to ply his trade on any of you."

"Ezra, I think you may be right," Chris declared, which caused the gambler, for about two seconds, to actually register visible astonishment: it was the first time in their association that he could remember the gunfighter crediting him with being right. "Suppose we go and find out."


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