by Sevenstars

My God, Chris thought. He never told me it was that bad. I thought I knew.

Vin looked at the older man with compassion. The violence in the story didn't trouble him too much, except as it troubled Buck; he had seen enough of violence in his life to know that what Buck had experienced hadn't been by any means as bad as it could have been. But he understood he had made a mistake, an error in judgment. He had taken Buck's surface--good in a fight, good with the ladies, loyal, boisterous, capable of great warmth and vast fury--for all of the man. It had never occurred to him that Buck might have had as much hidden pain as he did himself. It made him feel a new sense of kinship with the gunslinger. He wished suddenly that he had Ezra's gift of gab so he could express what he felt. He did the best he could: he swung his legs over the edge of the cot, hitched himself down its length and laid his hand gently on Buck's knee. Buck looked up quickly, his eyes moist, and managed a weak smile that Vin read clearly: Thanks, pard. I'd hoped I could count on you.

Josiah lowered his head briefly over clasped hands. He'd seen so much of what the Devil could do, and here was more of it. And striking at Buck, of all people. Buck had his faults, but Josiah was certain his heart was good. He had made mistakes, as all men did. Perhaps there had been some reason for him to feel as he had. Perhaps, too, God had had some reason for testing him so when he was barely out of his boyhood. Yes, Josiah thought He had. It might have taken him a while, but Buck had come to realize this wasn't how he wanted to be, or be remembered. He hadn't been able to resist temptation completely, but he had repented and tried to atone. And still the dreams tortured him, all these years later. Josiah knew about penance; he had just never thought that Buck might have been serving some version of it too.

Nathan was torn. On the one hand, he felt gratified that Buck had elected the free-soil side, even if he hadn't done it out of any real convictions about right and wrong. On the other, having known oppression and unfair treatment himself, he felt anger on behalf of the innocent people who had been robbed and killed by Bentann's men--and Buck, a man he rode with, a man he had liked, had healed, had been a part of it. How was a man to deal with a revelation like this? Compassion was a large part of Nathan's makeup; had it been otherwise he would never have chosen his present path. He felt as if he were being reminded of his own family's sufferings and at the same time being asked to forgive the masters who had caused them.

Ezra covered his confusion with his well-practised poker face. He had never been a political animal. Fifteen years old when the War broke out and already thoroughly indoctrinated by Maude in the philosophy of "Look out for number one, first, last, and always," he had never felt any urge to serve on either side, even though he knew many boys younger had fought and died for the Confederacy. He and his mother had sat the conflict out in St. Louis, choosing it at least partly because it had a large Southern community, both Unionist and Secesh. Certainly he had felt saddened that so much of the special grace and beauty of Southern life had been destroyed in the fighting, but he hadn't felt that preserving it was worth risking his life over. He hadn't felt anything was worth risking his life over, till five months ago. Now he knew something was. Now he knew how much of a difference a few men, or even two, or one, could make. He understood that Buck was finding out the same thing, if in a different sense, with these two lawyers asking for his help. At the same time, Buck's revelations troubled him. War was war; it had never bothered him that Chris and Buck had served in Union blue, even though he had found it out early on in their association. They had served, he was sure, honorably; certainly they had followed their consciences. But to be a marauder like the ruffians Buck had described? How could that be justified? How to integrate it with the Buck he had come to know?

As for JD, he had listened in growing amazement, horror, and sick bewilderment as Buck told his story. Like Ezra, he couldn't understand how the Buck he knew, the big brother he had grown to love, the endlessly patient mentor and fun-loving companion, could ever have done the things he was hearing about. On one level he wanted desperately to do something that would bring Buck comfort, would help him through his pain and assure him that none of it made any difference in the man he was now, the man they all accepted as a friend. On another he didn't know what possible way there was to heal the kind of ragged wounds Buck's spirit must still bear. And on yet another he was plainly, simply, sick with disgust. With a resounding clatter that broke the breathless spell holding all of them, he scrambled to his feet, knocking the stool over, and rushed out the door.

Buck lurched up, forgetting his missing boot heel, and nearly fell flat. Josiah put out a long arm in time to catch him. "No, Buck," Chris said, in a gentle rebuking tone Buck hadn't heard in years. "You stay. He ain't ready to deal with you face to face just yet. I'll go after him." And he vanished out the door the kid had left open, his black clothing blending with the night.

Nathan rose and shut the door. "What will you do now, Brother Buck?" Josiah asked gently.

Buck was watching the way JD and Chris had gone. He had known the boy would be shocked, but he had hoped-- Well, it's just one more reason, then, he thought, and turned back to the ex-preacher. "I'll go with 'em," he said. "I'll go to Kansas. Tellin' you all this has made me know I have to. Even if they can't get me that immunity they talked about, if I end up in prison or at the end of a rope...I can't let Bentann have this. If I did, I wouldn't be who I am, I wouldn't be a man Judge Travis would hire to keep the peace in this town. Maybe I can finally lay some ghosts, make up for the things I done twenty years ago. I know I ain't got a right to be forgiven--"

"Yes, you do." The big man's voice was low, thrumming like a bass viol. "Remember, 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us.' My friend, you've already been payin' for this more than half your life. Now that you're willing to speak about it in open conclave, to swear to your truth before man and God, He will absolve you. I'm sure of it."

"Will you?" Buck asked, his voice shaky, tears in his throat. "Am I gonna have somethin' to come back to, after? If they let me? Will I still have you--all of you?"

Josiah pulled him into a bear hug. Buck leaned into his strength, shaking as nervous reaction took over. When the big man released him, Vin was there, throwing a long arm around his shoulders, laying the other hand on his arm. Ezra hesitated a moment, then came over to shake hands. "Mr. Wilmington, regardless of what any of you may think of me, I do have some acquaintance with the virtue of courage. Allow me to say that I recall no more notable instance of it than what I have seen here tonight. Clearly this has cost you greatly. I had been uncertain that I could accept and forgive, but who am I to say that you have not, as Mr. Sanchez says, already paid far beyond principal and interest on the debt you have accrued?"

"Thanks, Ezra." Buck's dark eyes sought the healer's. "Nate--Nathan?"

"You made a mistake, Buck. You done been payin' for it a long spell, like Ezra and Josiah said. Ain't no place of mine to make it tougher on you."

Buck dragged his shirtsleeve across his eyes and sniffled loudly. "I'm sorry--I wasn't lookin' to act like a baby--"

"Not a baby, Buck," Nathan told him. "A good, decent man who just went through maybe the roughest two hours in his life. Set down and I'll brew you some herb tea. I got some things good for nerves."

Chris paused on the open deck outside Nathan's door, looking quickly around the railed space, then gazing out over the dark street, lit only by the scattered fires and by the pale oblongs of light reaching out from within the saloons. He soon caught sight of JD just under the awning of Mrs. Potter's store, which was locked and closed for the night. The kid was leaning against one of the posts, his forearm braced against it, forehead against arm, while with his other fist he pounded rhythmically on the unfeeling wood. Chris descended the stairs and crossed to come up behind him.

Even in his extremity, JD heard the music of his spurs. "Leave me 'lone, Chris," he pleaded, and the gunfighter could hear how he was fighting the tears.

"Where would we be if I left any one of you alone when you were in trouble?" Chris asked quietly.

"Ain't me that's got the trouble," JD pointed out. "Anyway, you don't even like me."

Chris was honestly shocked. "Where the hell did you get that from?"

"You don't have to lie to me too!" JD burst out, whirling like a little cat. His overlong hair was down over his face, his bowler lost somewhere along his preciptious flight from the clinic. "I ain't as stupid as you think I am! I know what you think of me, that I'm just a dumb kid with a lot of half-baked ideas about heroes and guns and-- I know you only tolerate me 'cause the others do, but--"

"JD." Chris deliberately made his voice harsh, cutting off the kid's protests. "You're wrong. You hear me? Yeah, there are times--a lot of times--when you rub me the wrong way. Hell, there a lot of things that rub me the wrong way, a lot of people too. But if I wanted you out of this group, the others wouldn't be able to stop me from puttin' you out. What they think's got nothin' to do with it. Buck said somethin' to me last week that was true. You've proved yourself. You're older than a lot of boys are when they start earning all their own livings out here, some with guns. You've got a right to be with us. How I act toward you ain't about you really, it's about me. I ain't perfect, kid. None of us is, or ever will be." He waited to see whether JD would make the obvious connection.

"It ain't about perfect, either!" JD shouted. "I just--how could he have done them things? And you knew! You knew all along!"

"Yeah, I knew. But think about this, JD. It took three years after we'd met, three years of my shoutin' him awake from his nightmares--and they used to be a lot worse--before Buck felt he could tell me what he'd done. Tonight, this, he told the rest of you after only five months knowin' you. That says somethin' important--about him, and about how much he feels he can trust you." He hesitated, swallowed, and added quietly, "It makes me envious. It makes me wish I hadn't used him like I did."

"I still don't understand," the boy insisted, but his voice was lower and steadier now. "I thought I knew him. I thought I knew who he was, what he was. And now I find out he was...a thief, a murderer--"

"He was a kid, JD. Younger even than you are now. A scared, confused, grievin' kid all alone in the world with nobody to care shit about him. I don't say that makes it right. I just say it makes it...understandable. Or should. Most of all to you. Ain't you done things you're ashamed of? Or take Ezra. He's a con man, he admits it. But you like him."

"Ezra's different. He don't steal except from folks that can afford it. And he don't go around killin' without cause!"

"Buck thought he had cause. It was a war, JD. Not a regular declared war with armies, but a war. Bad things happen in wars." Chris saw he wasn't getting through, and hesitated. You know what you have to tell him, Larabee. He remembered the way those hazel eyes had looked up at him from that very first day, remembered how he had had to turn away because the look in them had been so like another pair of eyes, dark blue with a glow in them like stars in a midnight sky, eyes that had been ashes and dust for almost three and a half years. Adam. He had seen the worship from the beginning. And gradually, over these last months, he had come to understand it wasn't just a question of dime novels and boyish eagerness. Chris Larabee truly was what JD wanted to become. He loved Buck, he respected Josiah and Nathan, he liked Vin and was fascinated (and occasionally irritated or baffled) by Ezra, but it was Chris he worshipped and admired. His quickness with a gun, his cold courage, his integrity, his ability to lead other men, to weld them into a team regardless of their diversities, to plan and to carry out those plans--these were things for which JD wanted to be known one day. "What about me?"

"What?" JD blinked and pushed his hair out of his eyes.

"You're mad with Buck because you think he suddenly ain't what you thought he was," Chris said slowly, every word like an icy knife in his heart. Why am I floggin' myself this way? Why am I puttin' myself through this? Because I have to. Because I've failed Buck once already. I can't fail him again. "Well, neither am I. You think of me as...a hero, somebody you want to imitate. I know you do 'cause the way you look at me is the way I saw my son look at me every day of his life. But when I lost him and his mamma--" he had to pause, to gather his resources and to wonder again why he was confiding in an eighteen-year-old kid-- "for that first year or so, I wanted to die. I didn't even care then about findin' the people who'd taken them from me and makin' those people pay. I just wanted the hurt to stop. So I started drinkin'--"

"I know. Buck told me."

"Did he tell you about the other things I did?" Chris demanded. "Did he tell you how many times I bloodied his nose, or worse, when he tried to help me? Did he tell you about the times I pushed other men into fights, goaded 'em till they were so hysterical with rage they didn't care who I was or what my reputation was, just so they'd draw, just so maybe one day one of 'em would be that fraction of a second faster than me and I'd be free?"

JD shook his head. "No. I don't believe you. You're not like that. You can't be like that. Why would you care if I shot a man in the back, if you were?"

"I care 'cause I don't want nobody else makin' my mistakes!" Chris told him, his voice vibrant. "I care 'cause I don't want to betray Buck again. I care 'cause 'bein' like Chris Larabee' don't mean now what it meant five years ago. I'd like it to," he admitted. "I swear to you, JD, there's times I look at myself and I can hardly stand what I see. I just don't know if I can change now. I don't know if there's enough of the old me left to build on. Maybe the whiskey and the killing have already destroyed it. But Buck never destroyed who he was. He built who he is now on what he did when he was with Bentann and what his ma and her friends made of him. He's passed all these twenty years choosin' his jobs, bein' at my side, helpin' me build a life and a ranch and a family, tryin' to make up for his past the only ways he could see to do it. The things you're so shocked at are a year and a half out of his life, a life that's been solid and honest and good as he sees good except for that time. And he needs you to help him."

"Me, what do I have to do with it?" JD was bewildered, shocked, floundering among Chris's challenges and assertions, grasping frantically at the one thing that seemed to mean what it said.

"Each of the seven of us has one particular person he trusts in a special way," Chris explained. "For me it's Vin, and for Vin it's me. For Nathan and Josiah it's each other, on account of their callings. For Ezra, it's Josiah; when he turns to anyone, that's who he's likeliest to choose, mostly because Josiah has the schoolin' to understand him. And for Buck, it's you. He trusts you 'cause he's had so much of the shapin' of you since you came out here, 'cause you've trusted him and confided in him, 'cause you've filled a place in his life that was empty, a place no woman can ever touch. He needs to know that you ain't gonna give up on him no matter what stupid things he does--or did. Like he used to know it about me. I shoved him away and it come as close to destroyin' him as losin' Sarah and Adam did; they were his family too. If you do it now, over this, he'll have nothin' left at all."

"If he trusts me so much, why didn't he tell me about this?" JD demanded. "I tell him everything--why didn't he tell me?"

"Because he cares," Chris said quietly. "Because he knew it would hurt you, and mar the picture you had of him, and make you sick, and he knows how that feels, 'cause he's experienced it from the other end. He didn't tell us these things to hurt us, JD, and least of all to hurt you. He did it 'cause it was time for him to seek what Josiah would call absolution, and you always look for that first from the people whose image of you matters most."

JD turned away, shivering. "I can''s all too much. I don't..."

"All right," Chris interrupted. "JD, Buck will understand if it takes you a while. He knows you ain't as hardened as the rest of us, and believe me he thanks God for it. All he'd ask, if he thought you'd listen to him right now, is for you not to give up on him. To just take a little while and think over everything I've said. To understand that whatever he used to be, it ain't what he is now, it ain't the Buck you know and care about. He's made himself over, like Bentann did. Only he didn't just cover up what he'd been. He paid for it, every day of these twenty years, and it made him a better man, maybe, than he'd have been if he and Bentann hadn't met. Now he needs our support while he does...whatever he decides to do."

" he goin' to go back to Kansas?" JD asked.

"I don't know," Chris admitted. "I think he will; I think the man who helped me build my ranch, who loved my wife and boy second after I did, would have gone, but he's different from the man he was three years ago, and I did that to him, and there are times I can't even speak for what I'll do; I got no right speakin' for him. Just let me tell him you've promised to think on it, JD. Can I do that? It'll mean a lot to him."

"I...I'll think," JD agreed in a shaky whisper. "Just, please, can you--can you ask him not to--"

"He knows. He'll give you your space. He did me, when he saw it was what I needed. Look, you don't have to go back with me, but I think you better get over to the boardinghouse and lock your door. If we're right and that was Bentann's cousin out on the road today and in the dining room last night, he knows that by now Buck's talked to them two and will be tryin' to decide what to do. He might figure he could get at Buck, like he and Bentann have gotten at all them others, by usin' you for a weapon."

JD gulped and wiped his eyes, then nodded. "I wouldn't want that. It don't matter what I think of what Buck done, I wouldn't want him to have to make that kind of choice. I'll go."

Eagle Bend

"Well?" Bentann prompted.

"I didn't get him," Warren replied flatly.

Bentann was too good to react with any noticeable loudness, even though it would probably have been covered by the cheery bustle of the hotel bar where they had gone to confer. But his eyes hardened and narrowed, and when he spoke his voice was icy. "Why not?"

"That's not what matters just now," his cousin told him. "We've got a leak."

"What? Why do you say that?"

"Frank Henneman and his partner got into Four Corners two days after I did. Wilmington was out of town. They asked three of his friends where he was. Made it pretty clear they wanted to talk to him. I don't know if they knew we were after him, but I've got a notion they know he knows something."

"How would they have found out?"

"I was thinking about that on my way up here," Freely admitted, "and there's only one person I can think of who might've been passing word on to them. Jeremy."

"Got any proof?"

"Since when did we need proof?" the other retorted. "Think about it, Marc. What do we really know about him? He's from the East, and so was Henneman, a dozen years ago. He lives in your house, he's got access to you and all your files and correspondence. And he's so damn quiet and unassuming, nobody pays any attention to him. What more could anyone want of a spy?"

Bentann thought it over for several minutes. Freely waited patiently, knowing his cousin's ways, knowing he would be mentally going back over Jeremy's two years with him, trying to isolate any suspicious incidents. "All right," he said at length. "Then he needs to be taken care of. We can handle that. What about Wilmington?"

"I made a try, out on the road as he was heading home, and I almost had him, but his friends came along. I knew I couldn't do you any good if I stayed around Four Corners and got picked up, so I got out. By now he's had time enough to meet with Henneman and confirm whatever he suspects. But it doesn't matter what they say to each other, none of it can hurt you unless Henneman can pass it on to the Kansas authorities. That means he has to get Wilmington back there, and that means a stage to the railhead. Stages are vulnerable, a lot more than trains are. I've got a plan."

Four Corners

For safety's sake, Chris took Buck into his room at the boardinghouse for the night, and let him have the bed too. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Buck slept twelve hours straight. In the morning, after getting his postponed bath and listlessly sharing a late breakfast at the café with Chris (JD had been up, and on duty at the jail, for some time), he made his way to the town's boot-and-shoe shop to buy himself a new pair of boots--there wouldn't be time for the heel to be replaced on the ones he had--and then to the hotel to inform Henneman and Blakemore of his decision. Blakemore immediately went down to the desk to buy three tickets on the next day's northbound stage.

For the rest of the day, Buck and the two lawyers were never left alone. Buck passed most of the time sitting quietly in the saloon with one of his friends, not even drinking. He kept hoping JD would come, but the kid never showed. Around midafternoon he headed back to the boardinghouse to pack his gear for the trip to Kansas. Chris went with him and sat in the corner of his room, covering the door, while Buck laid out his bedroll and saddlebags on the bed and slowly, almost reverently, emptied his wardrobe and dresser. He didn't speak much, except once. "There's no point me takin' Plata and my saddle with me," he observed. "Anyplace Henneman wants me to go, I'll probably be takin' a stage or a train. You ask JD to see they're took care of?"

"I'll ask him," Chris promised. He watched his old friend's profile, his body language, his eyes. "He don't hate you, Buck. You know that."

"I wish I was as sure as you are, pard," Buck whispered. "And even if he don't, I reckon he's ashamed of me, sick to think of what I done when I was his age."

"It was a shock to all of us, Buck. Even me," Chris told him. "You need to give him time to work out what he feels."

"I ain't got such a lot of time left, Chris," Buck pointed out. "If he'd been meanin' to come to me, he'd done it by now. But it's all right. I understand. Just...ask him to see after Plata. And if I don't come back, tell him she's his. Her and the saddle--and this." He freed his watch and chain from his vest pocket and laid them on the nightstand. "I ain't got much else to leave him but his memories, and I reckon I've poisoned them past mendin'."

Chris felt a familiar/unfamiliar ache in his chest. It sounded like something a man would say when he knew he was going to die. He knew Buck well enough to know that, while these black moods were rare in him, when they came there was nothing to do but sit them out and let him get past them on his own terms. He'd often thought Buck must have Irish blood: he'd seen similar fits of Celtic gloom fall on men he knew to be sons of the Auld Sod. Usually Buck succeeded so thoroughly in surrounding himself with noise and fun and action that his demons didn't have the opportunity to break through the barriers he set up, but sometimes, when he had too much chance to think, they made it. Chris stood, crossed the room to his old friend's side in a soft music of spurs, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Words wouldn't help now.

The stage to Eagle Bend was scheduled to leave at seven the next morning. When it pulled up in front of the hotel and Henneman and Blakemore came out with their luggage, Buck was waiting for them, bedroll under his arm, saddlebags tossed over his shoulder. With him were Chris, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and even Ezra, who had broken his "never-arise-before-ten" rule to see the gunslinger off. There were handshakes all around, a bear hug from Josiah, a quick one-armed embrace from Vin, a hand on the shoulder from Chris. Buck kept watching for JD, and after a minute or two the kid appeared on the other side of the street, under the saloon awning. That was as near as he came. Buck swallowed and turned his eyes away. "You boys take care of each other," he said, "and look after JD."

"You'll be back doin' that afore you know it, pard," Vin assured him.

"Write as soon as you get settled, Brother Buck," Josiah commanded. "We'll make sure he writes back."

"Good fortune, my friend," Ezra wished him, with a catch in his voice. "May Lady Luck keep her hand on your shoulder."

"Thanks, Ezra."

"Better get on board, Buck," the driver called down. "I'm runnin' late already."

The gunslinger tossed his meager baggage up to the guard, put his foot on the hanging iron step and hauled himself up, settling on the rear seat next to Henneman. The coach door slammed shut, and Chris stepped back and waved to the men on the box. The driver yelled at his team and they lunged into motion. JD stood where he was, not moving. The other five men stepped out into the street and fanned out abreast without even thinking about it, watching until the Concord had vanished into the distance and even its dust plume had settled back into the thoroughfare from which it had risen. When Chris glanced toward the saloon again, JD was gone.

"Gentlemen," said Ezra, "despite the earliness of the hour, I feel the need of a libation. As the bar is not yet open for business, I invite you to my quarters. Drinks are on me."

Northbound Stage Road

Buck rode in the veteran stagecoacher's fashion, feet well braced, head rolling loosely so his neck wouldn't be popped by a sudden lurch. He kept his silence, gazing unseeingly out the coach window, making no response to the attorneys' efforts to draw him into conversation. He knew he was doing the right thing, but it didn't give him the kind of satisfied feeling he usually had in such instances. He felt depressed (which was an unfamiliar sensation for him) and strangely isolated, as a man might looking out at the building of his own gallows. He felt homesick for the town that had become what Chris's ranch had once been to him, a safe harbor, a place where he felt he belonged and was accepted and could be at peace, a place where he had family. Above all he felt a bitter sadness at having hurt JD, ruined the boy's image of him, and perhaps severed their bond forever.

The run to Eagle Bend took about five hours, and there it broke for dinner. As in Four Corners, the stage terminal and meal stop was the hotel. Blakemore and Henneman refused to permit Buck to pay his own way, but he didn't have much of an appetite anyway. They were finishing up their dessert and coffee when someone came up to the table and said, "Well, 'afternoon, Buck. What are you doin' here? It ain't official business or you'd have come over to my office."

Buck looked up to find the local sheriff gazing bemusedly at him. The man went by Earl Karlberg, though his real name was Erling and he was a redheaded Viking of a Dane. The Seven had dealt with him on several occasions since forming their association and knew him to be honest and competent.

"Naw, it's...well, kinda personal, Earl," he admitted.

Karlberg frowned briefly. Any peace officer had to be able to read people, their faces, their tone of voice. Even from just those few words he knew this wasn't the Buck Wilmington he had met before. He seemed subdued, sad, distracted. "Everything okay down in Four Corners?" he pursued carefully.

"Yeah, everything's fine. Chris'n'the boys've got the place under control. You 'scuse us, Earl? We got to catch the stage on north."

Karlberg followed the trio out with his eyes, his frown deepening. He knew it wasn't really any of his business, but he thought maybe he'd take a little ride south in the next day or two and talk to Chris Larabee. Meanwhile, it was his dinnertime, and his deputy was back at the jail waiting for trays for himself and the two current prisoners.

+ + + + + + +

From Eagle Bend to Ridge City, the coach road was a little-used but sound and level trail heading almost straight north, with only a few small wiggles to avoid natural obstacles. The schedule permitted just under six and a half hours to cover it, with four swing stations in between where the horses were changed, and then supper when they pulled into town about seven-thirty.

It was about a quarter to four by Blakemore's watch, and they were just about midway between the two communities, when, from somewhere on the west side of the road, a single rifle shot sounded, its echo flat and menacing in the prairie air. The near lead horse screamed, stumbled, and collapsed in its traces, hopelessly snarling its mates. Three and a half seconds after the first shot, a second blew the driver off the box. With no experienced hand to settle and control them, the horses panicked. Still dragging their dying leader, the fallen reins whipping about their hooves like the snakes every horse instinctively fears, they tried to peel away, and succeeded only in jackknifing. The shaft splintered and the kingpin flew out of its socket. Before Buck and the two attorneys--the only passengers on this leg of the run--could fully comprehend what was happening, the coach skidded sideways, tipped, crashed over, and slid down the shallow embankment into the ditch alongside the road.

Half a score of mounted men thundered out from behind a patch of scrub mesquite. One of them raced off at a tangent to catch the team, which, held back by the body of the now dead leader, wasn't able to move very fast. The rest enveloped the stage on all sides, one going to check on the guard, who'd been thrown clear when it tipped. "He's dead, Jay. Split his head open on a rock."

The leader of the group, a dark, scar-faced man who wore a Mexican charro suit of silver-spangled yellow leather but an American Stetson and spoke with a flat Iowa twang, nodded curtly. "Bill, get the box. Shorty, Yaqui, the passengers."

Inside the coach, a dazed Buck dragged himself painfully back to some semblance of awareness. He ached all over but couldn't localize any one particular hurt, which he thought might be a good sign. There was blood in his eyes --he must have cracked his forehead on something. It took him a minute to realize that he was lying on top of Blakemore and Henneman, who weren't moving, and that the side door of the coach had suddenly transformed into the roof. Then he registered the voices and understood that they weren't in his head, but just outside. Road-agents, he thought.

Sounds of someone, maybe a couple of someones, scrambling up the running gear of the overturned stage and struggling with the latch of the door. Reflexively Buck reached for his gun, and barely held back a cry as a fiery bolt of pain shot up his right arm. Half blinded by the blood and by the curtain of black, gold, and white stars that had suddenly appeared before his eyes, he could make out only vaguely a pair of legs dropping down in front of him. His half-drawn Colt was kicked out of his hand and something came down on the back of his neck, and he knew nothing more.

"He's here, Jay," yelled the outlaw called Shorty.

"Drag him out," Jay ordered. "How 'bout the others?"

Pause while Shorty checked for signs of life. "I think one of 'em's dead, but the other's breathin'."

"All right. Get Wilmington out of there."


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