Buck's lax body was laboriously manhandled up through the open door and dumped in the road. Bill had shot the padlock off the treasure box and was looting it of its contents. The man who'd gone after the horses returned, pulling the five survivors on lead after him; the dead one had been left where it lay, still in harness. Another man gathered up the mail bags. Yaqui and Shorty reappeared, grinning, with the wallets, watches, and jewelry they'd removed from the bodies of the two attorneys.
"Is he alive?" asked a new voice, and Jay turned to face Warren Freely, with his Remington Rolling-Block still braced Apache-style against his thigh, the barrel canted skyward.
"He's alive," Shorty volunteered. "He was tryin' to draw when I got inside there. I tapped him on the head, he'll be sleepin' a while."
"Good. And the others?"
"They ain't movin'."
"Doesn't mean they might not," Warren observed. He brought his horse up alongside the coach, scrambled up on top of it, still carrying the Remington, and peered down inside. After a moment he brought the rifle to his shoulder, fired, ejected the spent round, inserted a new one, fired again, and repeated the action twice more. Then he stepped off the vehicle's side into the saddle of his waiting sorrel. "All right," he told Jay, "you know what to do. The team and everything you've taken off the coach and the men belongs to you. You take Wilmington where I told you and you get five hundred dollars to split up however you want to. After that, make yourselves scarce."
"Is he gonna die?" Jay asked.
"Don't worry about that," Freely retorted. "You were hired to do a job, you've done it. Almost."
"I ain't worryin'," Jay told him. "But Wilmington's an old riding partner of Chris Larabee's, and Chris Larabee killed a cousin of mine in El Paso about two years ago. That's why I took the job. I ain't damn fool enough to go up against Larabee and his whole outfit, but knowin' he'll lose a friend, knowin' he'll hurt, that matters more to me than the money."
"Just keep in mind," Warren warned, "if Wilmington's not still alive when you get him there, I'll come after you. You've seen how I can shoot. You'll never know I'm there."
"He'll be alive," Jay agreed sullenly. "Get him on a horse, boys." He watched a moment as two of his followers began hoisting Buck aboard the spare horse they had brought along, then looked back at Freely. "Where are you goin'?"
"One of Wilmington's partners is a tracker. I don't want them to be able to follow you till it's too late. I need to go back to Four Corners and see he's out of action for a while. Not that it's any of your business," Warren added. "Now get him out of here."
Jay snarled quietly but didn't protest. Freely waited until the group and their prisoner had cut off the trail, westward, and vanished into the distance, then checked his watch and turned his sorrel southward. At an easy lope he figured it would take him between four and five hours to make Four Corners. Sunset would be in a little less than four. The dusk, and later the dark, would give him all the cover he'd need. It would be several hours yet before anyone up at Ridge City got nervous. There would be plenty of time to make sure the tracker wouldn't be healthy enough to track.
Ezra sighed wearily and looked around the table at his four compatriots. With a gambler's keenly honed sense for human emotions, he knew they felt much as he did: that some part of themselves had been rudely amputated. He couldn't help thinking: If we're this badly off when we know our missing member to be still alive, what will happen should one of us die?
And then there was JD. He'd been avoiding everyone all day. Ezra wasn't even sure he'd eaten anything. Forty-eight hours and he still hasn't been able to integrate it all. Damn. 'The Magnificent Six' has nowhere near the ring of 'The Magnificent Seven,' and if we lose the lad too...
Vin jacked himself up out of his chair. "Reckon I'll go take a turn around the town," he announced to no one in particular. It was something they took turns doing, as all town lawmen did: a patrol about sunset (which at this season meant about an hour and a half after most of the legitimate businesses had closed down), another sometime between then and midnight, a third when the saloons started to shut their doors (which, depending on the volume of business, could be anywhere between ten P.M. and four A.M.), and maybe a fourth if there was any reason to expect trouble, the last generally being taken by whoever had night duty at the jail. Ezra glanced at the clock over the bar. Ten minutes till eleven.
"May I be permitted to assist you, Mr. Tanner? I find I am in need of a breath of air," he said.
"Sure, Ez." Vin hadn't missed the fact that Ezra hadn't had the heart to play poker all evening, not even with his fellow peacekeepers. "Glad to have you."
From behind the low parapet of the building across the street, Warren Freely watched through his Remington's telescopic sight as the two figures stepped out of the saloon onto the boardwalk and paused as if to confer. He recognized the tracker by his long hair and the gambler by his fancy clothes. This was exactly the kind of situation he had hoped for. He hadn't missed the fact that the tracker had somehow sensed his presence out at Ship Rock and acted to knock Wilmington out of his line of fire. Clearly the man's instincts were highly developed. The best way to make sure he didn't employ them in his own defense was not merely to ambush him, but to make certain he was focused on something else at the time. Freely had already calculated distance, drop, and windage. He'd had to leave his small store of dumdum loads behind when he fled his redoubt, so the round in the chamber now was an ordinary .44-90-400, lacking the tearing and killing power of the softnose slugs. But that was all right. He had no personal grudge against Standish and Tanner, as he did against Buck or the two lawyers; they didn't know anything that could harm him or his cousin. There was no need for them to die, just to be put out of action for a while. Warren considered himself a professional, and professionals didn't kill unless it was necessary. He waited, his Remington snugged into his shoulder, the reversing front sight turned so the white nighttime bead was faced toward him.
"You want company?" Vin was asking quietly.
"No," Ezra admitted, "merely an excuse to get away from our friends' gloomy expressions for a time. As I dare speculate you do also."
Vin's lips quirked. "Buck sure done took a lot of our heart with him when he went, didn't he? Okay, I'll go up and you go down street."
"Agreed." Ezra took a moment to straighten his jacket as Vin turned away.
Warren lined the white bead on the gambler's figure, adjusted for drop, and squeezed the trigger.
Chris, Nathan, and Josiah scrambled to their feet as the kinetic force of the bullet, striking Ezra midway between neck and right shoulder, hurled him backward through the batwings. The gambler hit the floor with a crash, gasping more with surprise than hurt, since the bullet-shock hadn't worn off. Vin, thirty feet up street, whirled and raced back to see what had happened. Three and a half seconds after the first shot sounded, a second drilled through his left leg and brought him down in a tangled heap just outside the batwings.
Nathan ran for the back door of the saloon, meaning to circle around by the alley where the shadows would provide concealment. Josiah dragged Ezra out of line with the doors and he and Chris took up positions just inside them, one on either side. "Vin!" the gunfighter called softly, scanning the dark streetscape for some sign of the shooter. "Vin, you hear me?"
"I...I hear you...Chris. It ain't...bad...just...my leg..."
"Just stay still," Chris commanded. "If he thinks you're dead maybe he won't take another shot at you. You're plumb in the light, we can't get you without exposin' ourselves."
"'Kay..." Vin struggled for breath. "'D he...get Ez?"
"Our gambling brother is alive and out of the line of fire," Josiah assured him. "Lie quietly."
From somewhere on the far side of the buildings across the street came the sound of someone urging a horse into action, the crack of rein on flank, the stutter of hoofbeats, a man's voice: "Hya! Hya!" Nathan's lean form appeared at the edge of the window lights and went flickering across the open expanse. Chris and Josiah swapped looks, then ducked out under the batwings, each with sixgun still in hand, and reached out to grasp hold of Vin's clothes and haul him to safety.
JD burst in a minute or so later, one of the office shotguns in his left hand and a Colt Lightning in his right. "What happened? I heard shots--" Then he stopped as he saw his two friends sprawled on the floor, Ezra beginning to moan as the pain registered, Vin leaving a blood trail from the spot where he'd fallen. "Oh, sweet Jesus."
Nathan reappeared and gently pushed the kid out of the way. "If that was him we heard, he's gone," he reported. "Time I could get across the street and around back of the building, I couldn't even see him. But he had a horse tied back there, I found the sign. How are they?"
Chris was kneeling beside Vin; Josiah had gone to check on Ezra. "Alive and conscious." He turned to address the small crowd of midweek patrons. "Some of you men help us get 'em up to Nathan's place."
It was a little past eleven by the time the weary healer could cease his ministrations and step out to the deck to reassure his still mobile partners. "Either they're both damn lucky or that feller was a rotten shot," he said. "Neither bullet lodged, and Ezra's wound at least seems to be a good clean one, collarbone and shoulder wasn't even touched. Vin was nicked on the bone and I had to go in and get a couple of splinters out, but as long as he don't pick up an infection he'll be fine. Won't be walkin' or ridin' much a spell, is all."
"Something about this disturbs me," Josiah rumbled softly. "I can see someone bushwhacking Ezra, if they thought he'd cheated them in a game, but he hasn't played a hand all night. And why Vin as well?"
JD's young face, still pale with shock and worry, looked equally as bewildered as Josiah felt. Chris's expression was tight, uneasy. Before he could speak, footsteps sounded on the stairs, and the three of them fell back a pace, guns springing into their hands. The lantern beside Nathan's door illumined a familiar face: the night telegraph man, who stopped three steps short of the top when he saw the sixguns pointed at him.
"All right, boys," Chris told them, dropping his weapon back into leather. "You need somethin', Jim?"
"Somebody said you was up here, Mr. Larabee. Message just come for you over the wire, from Sheriff Karlberg up at Eagle Bend." Cautiously Jim advanced the rest of the way and held out the flimsy.
Chris took it and moved over to where he could get the lantern's glow over his shoulder. He scanned the message quickly and ripped out a vicious oath. Josiah deftly removed the paper from his hand and read its contents aloud.
Word received from Ridge City today's northbound stage not yet arrived stop. Knew Buck Wilmington aboard stop. Thought you should be informed stop. Will lead posse in search at sunrise stop. Karlberg.
"Damn, damn, damn," Chris growled. "Why didn't we think? As long as Buck ain't talked to the Kansas authorities he's still just as vulnerable as he was before."
"What's that got to do with Vin and Ezra gettin' shot?" Nathan wanted to know.
"Maybe nothing," Chris admitted, "but maybe a lot. Can you leave 'em?"
"If I can get Mary or somebody to come sit with 'em, no reason not," the healer agreed. "They're both sleepin' anyway. Like I said, the wounds ain't serious, just enough to keep 'em out of action a while."
"All right," the gunslinger said. "Get your things together. Josiah, get down to the stable and get our horses saddled. JD, ammunition. I'll gather our gear. We can make Eagle Bend in a little over three hours and still have a chance for some sleep before the posse leaves."
Somewhere West of Eagle Bend
There were hands on his shoulder and a voice in his ears, a voice that at first he thought was JD's. "Take it easy. Don't try to move. Here's some water." The mouthpiece of a canteen touched his lips and he accepted it and swallowed greedily. The water was cool, if a bit stale from standing in the container, and tasted better to him in that moment than the finest brandy Ezra owned.
"JD? You there, son?"
"I'm not JD, Mr. Wilmington. Take it easy," the voice repeated. A young voice, yes, but not as light and quick as JD's. Gradually Buck blinked the blackness away and located the face bending over him. Definitely not JD. A thinner face adorned with silver-rimmed Ben Franklin-style spectacles and crowned by dishevelled brick-red hair; a four-in-hand tie pulled askew underneath, collar come unmoored from the button at one end and standing up alongside the wearer's ear.
"I know you?"
"No, we haven't met. My name's Jeremy Butterwick. I'm Marcus Bentann's secretary, or I was. I'm also Frank Henneman's cousin, and I was his eyes and ears in Bentann's house for the last two years. That's how I knew who you were. Let me help you up."
In the time it took the slight but clearly wiry young man to get him into a sitting position, Buck was able to register a number of things. His hands and feet were bound; his ribs ached as if he'd taken a good pummelling from someone's fists, and once, as Jeremy shifted his weight, he felt a stab of agony that suggested at least one of them was broken. Behind his back, his pinned right wrist was afire with the kind of continuous pain that meant a sprain. The blood had been wiped out of his eyes and he could feel some kind of dressing tied around his head. He and Jeremy were sitting (or rather he was sitting, with Jeremy kneeling beside him) in a rock-walled passage or chamber which Buck guessed to be an abandoned mine: he could make out the support timbers spaced at intervals along the walls. About twenty feet away a guard sat, armed with rifle and sixgun, a railroad lantern resting on the floor at his feet. "Where are we?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," Jeremy admitted. "I woke up sometime last night knowing someone was in my room at Eagle Bend, and then whoever it was put a rag soaked with chloroform over my face, and the next thing I knew I was here. They brought you in three or four hours ago, I think; you were unconscious. I did the best I could for you, but I'm afraid it's not much."
"How bad off am I?"
"You've got a pretty deep gash on your forehead, and it bled like fury. I think your wrist is either twisted or sprained. Do you hurt anywhere else?"
"Ribs. Bruised mostly, I think." Buck squinted at the young man. "They took you out of your room? If you're Bentann's, what were you doin' in Eagle Bend?"
"My job, I thought. Both my jobs. He brought me and his niece and his cousin Warren Freely out from Wichita about five days ago, supposedly so he could look at some mineral properties. I already knew his real reason was that you were in Four Corners. But there wasn't any way I could warn you; I didn't know where Warren was or what he was doing, and I couldn't take the chance he'd find out about any messages I sent to you or your friends. I've only been able to contact Frank once, two days ago, while Bentann was out of town. That was when I learned he'd spoken to you."
"Sounds like somebody figured out you was playin' a double game," Buck observed. "They must've took me off the stage, after the wreck."
"A wreck?" the young man echoed. "You were on the stage? What about Frank?"
"Him and his pard was on it too," Buck explained. "I'd agreed to go to Kansas with 'em and talk to people about how Bentann got his start--reckon you know about that if you've been his spy all this time. I don't rightly know how bad they was hurt or even if they was alive. I'm sorry, son."
Jeremy was silent a moment. "I guess it doesn't matter all that much. I'm not stupid enough to think they're going to let either of us live. I'm frankly surprised we've been left this long."
"I ain't. I know Bentann. He'll want to make us both squirm, and that means I got to be conscious. Well, the longer he draws it out, the better our chances are. I got six pards back in Four Corners, and the sheriff at Eagle Bend knows me and knowed I was on that stage. When it don't get to Ridge City within a few hours of scheduled time, they'll notify Earl, and he'll telegraph my pards. Chris Larabee'll guess this is tied in with Bentann somehow, and he'll come. They all will." Even JD, God willing.
"Then we wait," Jeremy guessed, "and hope. Meanwhile, I'm curious, Mr. Wilmington: just what is it you have on Bentann that makes you such a threat to him? I never heard very many details, just that he knew you during the border troubles."
"Call me Buck, son. Men starin' at death together oughtta be on a first-name basis." He'd learned enough from being around Nathan to know what Jeremy was trying to do: there was always the chance of concussion with a head injury, and he'd want Buck to stay awake. Oddly enough, the prospect of telling the story again, reliving all the old shame and horror, didn't seem as upsetting as it had two days ago. Jeremy was a stranger, with no preconceived notions about who or what Buck Wilmington was. It wouldn't be like telling Chris and the others. "Well, it started when I was just turned seventeen years old. My ma and me was livin' in Kansas City then..."
Northbound Stage Road
"Sheriff, look. Buzzards."
Earl Karlberg squinted at the circling black specks, observing how at intervals one would peel off at a tangent and drop. "Looks like there might be two different things attractin' 'em," he mused, "one dead and one not, yet." He glanced back at his posse--his head deputy and seven other men from Eagle Bend, Chris Larabee and his three from Four Corners. "Let's go."
The first thing they made out was the stage, tipped sidewise in the ditch, and then the mass of black feathers squabbling over something in the road about a hundred feet away, something too large and wrongly shaped to be a human body. The scavengers rose lumberingly from their feast as the riders approached. Karlberg's deputy spurred on ahead, leaned down for a look and came back. "One of the stage horses, Earl," he reported. "Been cut out from the rest, but the harness and collar are still on it. Kind of hard to tell with what the buzzards been doin', but it don't look like it busted a leg or nothin'."
"Shot," guessed Chris Larabee briefly.
"What makes you think so?" Karlberg asked him.
"The guy we think has tried for Buck once already is a rifle shot, maybe as good as Vin. Got what might be a Remington buffalo rifle." The black-dressed gunfighter stood in his stirrups, looking around, then pointed off to the left. "There's a little bluff over there about four hundred yards--see it?--where he could've laid in ambush. Probably that horse is the near leader. You take that one down, the whole team's gone. They must've panicked and tipped the stage over."
"No sign of Buck," Nathan observed.
His leader glanced toward the ditch. "He'll be in the coach."
"I'll go," said JD. Before anyone could stop him, he had kicked Seven into motion. The others followed more slowly as he deftly skidded the little mare down the embankment, brought her alongside the coach, stepped up onto the saddle and from there to the downed vehicle itself. The accessible door was open. JD seemed to hesitate a moment, as if gathering his courage, and then lowered himself out of sight. Silence.
JD's head popped up like a gopher from its hole. "Nathan! Nathan, come quick!"
The healer wasted no time. Snatching his kit from the saddle fork, he dismounted and sprinted across to join the kid. JD boosted himself up onto the frame of the door to give him room, pulled his legs up as Nathan vanished, and scrambled down. He dashed across to stand between Chris's and Karlberg's horses, his face white but not as ravaged as his friends would have expected it to be had he found Buck dead or sorely injured.
"What did you find, kid?" Chris asked him.
JD swallowed. "Mr. Henneman and Mr. Blakemore are still in there. There's an awful lot of blood, Chris, but I think Mr. Blakemore's still alive."
"Just these." JD held up a broad-brimmed gray hat with a long rawhide throat strap and a Colt single-action sixgun with a blued five-and-a-half-inch barrel and worn walnut grips.
Karlberg's possemen were fanning out, investigating the scene; Chris and his friends remained fixed, passing the familiar hat and gun around. Reports began to be shouted out: someone had found the dead driver; someone else the dead guard; a third the rifled treasure box. "Mail sacks are missing, Sheriff." "Tracks off here, Sheriff, makin' toward the mountains."
Nathan reappeared, looking as if he very much wished it were possible for him to turn pale. "I need some help here, fellers."
"How bad, Brother Nate?" Josiah asked.
"It ain't good. Henneman's dead; looks like he busted his neck when the stage went over. Blakemore's left arm's broke, maybe more'n once, and at least one of the breaks is compound; I don't know if it can be saved. It looks like while they was layin' unconscious somebody pumped three, four shots, maybe more, down in here. Two took him in the back and side. He's in bad shape. He'll need to be got back to Eagle Bend, fast." Unlike Four Corners, Eagle Bend could boast a genuine licensed doctor, even if he wasn't a young man and had learned his profession not at an orthodox medical school but by reading under an older one back East somewhere.
"You'd better see to that, Earl," Chris suggested. "Fix up a litter, maybe; with hurts like that a travois'd kill him long before you got him home. Whoever done this must've took Buck with 'em. Me and my boys'll follow."
Karlberg fixed him with a steely eye. "I know the man's your friend, Chris, but this here is my territory. Followin' is our job."
Chris stared at him, eyes hard. "It's your territory," he agreed, "but they wouldn't have done it if they'd been a little luckier back in ours. I respect you, Earl. Don't make me do somethin' I don't want to."
Silence spun out. JD's eyes flicked uneasily from the sheriff to his leader. Nathan watched tensely, hoping he wasn't about to be called on to use his skills to treat his own allies. It was Josiah, so often the voice of reason and wisdom, who defused the situation before it could blow. "Someone has to inform the stage line about this, Earl," he pointed out quietly. "Someone has to get the bodies home and contact the families. That should be a job for a man with an official title, like yourself. And Mr. Blakemore must be taken to a place where he can be treated. The longer you delay, the likelier he won't survive. You'll need at least five horses just to do those things, even if some of your men take the deceased up with them. Apart from that, we think we know who's behind this, and there's a very good possibility he's been staying in your town. If you can find him, you may be able to learn what's become of Buck."
"Who would that be?" Karlberg inquired.
"A man named Marcus Bentann. I don't know what he looks like, but I doubt he'd have any reason to conceal his identity as he would have done in Four Corners. And a man who probably works for him, the sharpshooter Chris spoke of. He registered in our hotel as John Warren, though I suspect that was a lie. A man of perhaps forty, average height, with a closely-trimmed beard and a patched left eye. Running down suspects in your town is something better left to you."
"What makes you think Bentann's in Eagle Bend, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"Warren, or whatever his name is, signed himself as being from there," the big man explained. "If he knew about Buck being in Four Corners, which we have to suppose he did, he probably knew about us, and he'd have been reluctant to send telegrams from our office that might incriminate him. He'd do better to ride to some nearby town and report directly to his master. And I feel very strongly that if, as Henneman told Buck, he was the only witness they'd been able to get to first, he may also be the last loose end Bentann has to tie up. From what our brother told us of the man, I suspect that's something he'd want to take some personal hand in."
Chris nodded thoughtfully. "Makes sense. Warren was probably the one that brought down the horse and stopped the stage, but he'd had to have some backup in case the driver and guard showed fight, not to mention Buck. Likely hired himself some cheap guns, promised 'em whatever they could take off the stage plus maybe some boot money. This would've happened yesterday midafternoon; that's about when the coach would pass by here. Warren stops it, his men do the close-up work and then take Buck wherever while he rides back to Four Corners and bushwhacks Vin and Ezra."
"Why'd he do that, you reckon?" JD wanted to know.
The gunfighter turned his head toward the rugged line of mountains directly west. "Vin's our tracker, JD. Warren wanted to make sure we wouldn't be able to follow any sign Buck's kidnappers left, or if we did we'd be delayed. As for Ezra, shootin' him was either a mistake or meant to distract Vin's attention so he'd go off guard and not expect anybody to fire on him." He returned his attention to Karlberg. "You see, Earl, there's all the more reason for us to be the ones to follow. It ain't just Buck. This Warren's wanted on suspicion of two attempted murders and four assaults in our town. Wherever Buck is, we'll likely find him too, sooner or later, and we've got a prior right to him."
Karlberg considered it. "All right. But if you need help--"
"We know where to come," Chris agreed.
On the Trail
In the beginning, it wasn't difficult to follow Buck's abductors: they'd been trying to make time away from the road, get well out of sight of the wrecked stage in case someone came along. Josiah, who had lived with Indians, and Chris, who had tracked his share of men and game, soon determined that there were ten or a dozen ridden horses (one of them probably bearing Buck) and five unridden, the latter, by the slightly larger size of their hooves, almost certainly the survivors of the stage team. But as they began climbing into the foothills, the trail began breaking up. The outlaws apparently knew the country and were deliberately taking every opportunity to slow down or lose pursuit. They sought out sun-dried mud, wash gravel, hardpan, rockslides and rocky flats, streambeds, hard-rock outcrops, and thick, short grass with no dew on it, which would retain scant sign of their passage. They rode in the shadow of timber where tracks are hard to see. They crossed mats of pine needles, thick, soft, and springy, which don't show tracks well. They rode along the windward lips of gullies and arroyos, and in places they employed brush drags and even rode backward between key points. Once, faced with a stretch of sand, they had apparently made a pathway of blankets and coats across it, and ridden on that, while one of them renewed it as necessary ahead of them, bringing up and laying out the ones they had already crossed. Loose dry sand didn't hold impressions very long at the best of times; they were visible only to an old and experienced tracker, and the faintest wind would hide them completely. With the cloth to intervene, what traces they did leave looked at least two weeks old.
JD was uncharacteristically silent, a sure sign that he was either unwell or deeply troubled. Chris and Josiah kept stopping, conferring, making casts in all directions. They lost the trail twice, three times, and found it again. But they felt Vin's absence keenly. Vin didn't just use his eyes when he tracked; his method was as much intuition as it was knowledge and observation. He had a feel for the land, he understood instinctively where the best travelling was and where the sign would be found, he could sense a shortcut, and if he knew the general direction his quarry was going, he could often leave the trail for half a day and pick it up again at will. He also had the Indian-trained ability to put himself into the skin and head of whatever he was following. The ground got steeper. The trail hit an expanse of hard shale: dangerous footing, but it slid and hid easily, and several animals crossing it would leave almost the same trail as one. Again the searchers managed to pick it up. Chris knew, and he knew the fugitives knew, that they couldn't lose an expert tracker by the tactics they were using, but they could slow him down, maintaining their own head start--and that must have amounted to at least sixteen hours by the time the posse found the wreck. If we just knew where they were takin' him...
"Gonna rain," Nathan observed gloomily, indicating the black, billowy clouds beginning to gather above the peaks. Chris grimaced. He'd been afraid of that. Quick, violent thunderstorms were common in the southwestern mountains in summer; they rarely lasted more than a few hours before moving on, but while they did they were spectacular, and it didn't take much of a shower to age or erase tracks.
The trail led to a vast stretch of malapai. The old lava flow looked soft as tar in the hot August sun, but the horseshoe wasn't made that could mark it. Chris knew that such stretches were apt to be a jumbled maze of solidified lava in all sizes and forms, and even shod horses took an interminable time winding through it; as a trail-confuser, its great value was that you had to make a wide circle around and try to discover where your quarry had left it. But the outlaws had obviously counted on the weather to help compensate for whatever lead they lost, and it obliged them. With a blinding lightning flash and an earth-shaking clap of thunder, the brooding storm broke, letting go a torrential downpour.
"Get back out of the open!" Chris yelled over the thunderclaps, and they whirled their horses and took off for shelter as fast as they dared for the mud quickly forming under the animals' hooves. A high conical sugarloaf of rock offered an attractor for lightning, and a hundred feet down a broad protruding ledge provided a place for the men and their mounts to hide. They were all soaked by the time they got there, but at least they were no longer standing out like so many trees waiting to be struck by the lightning.
The storm lasted little more than an hour before rolling off eastward. The four men looked at one another, none wanting to be the first to say the words, especially with JD there. Oddly enough it was the kid who spared them the necessity. "We ain't gonna pick up the trail again, are we, Chris?" he asked, his voice much too calm.
"No. Not unless we've got the devil's own luck. Even a little shower would've been enough to make it close to impossible. After that cloudburst, there's no way. With the lead they already had, by now they've got to where they were headed, and they won't be needin' to make any fresh tracks that would show in the wet ground," the gunfighter admitted.
The kid nodded silently. Vin had told him that falling rain wiped out the sharpness of all prior markings, and put a smooth finish on the surface of bare soil that would record all subsequent indentations. "We givin' up?" asked Nathan.
I failed Buck once. I won't fail him now. "Damned if we are." Chris looked around, locating landmarks. "I used to hunt deer and elk in these mountains, when Sarah and Adam were alive. I know the country, better maybe than they're figurin' on. From here, downhill all the way, we can get to Eagle Bend in a couple of hours. By that time Earl and the posse should've made it too; havin' Blakemore in a litter would've held 'em back. Maybe we can still get our hands on Bentann."
"And show him he wasn't the only one who could bring down the Lord's righteous wrath on the heads of sinners," Josiah finished in what his friends thought of as his "Old Testament voice."
"Damn straight," Chris growled. "Let's move."
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