by Sevenstars

She seemed a little puzzled that the others, even the sheriff as titular leader of the group, deferred to him, but she did as he wished. She sat down gracefully on a fallen log and looked up at them as they gathered around her. "My name's Cora Lejeune," she began, "and I've been my uncle's ward since I was nine years old."

She told the story quickly, simply, as if she realized that time was important. "I said at the hotel, I don't know where Uncle Marc is, and I don't know very much about following missing people. And that was the truth. But I think you do. I think you can take me to where Jeremy is. I want to go along."

"This is no place for a rich girl who needs takin' care of," Chris seethed. "We're probably outnumbered as it is. We can't spare any of us to look after you."

"You won't have to," she retorted, and produced an efficient-looking pistol from her pocket. "I'm no target shooter, but I'm sure I can hit a man at close range, if it comes to that."

"Chris," Josiah put in before the gunfighter could explode. "We don't have a lot of choices here. We need to get to the Lucky Friday before sundown, so we have a little time to study the ground. We can't send her back alone; it would be dark long before she got down to the flats. If one of us goes back with her, that reduces our own effective number. We know there are at least ten men who attacked the coach, plus Bentann and possibly Freely. Even with the advantage of surprise, it's not going to be easy getting Buck and young Butterwick out of there. She's going to have to come now. There's nothing we can do about it."

Chris glared at the girl, but he knew the big man had read the situation accurately. She met his eyes, unintimidated. The thought came to him unbidden: Sarah would have done this for me. Mary would. Casey would do it for JD. Rain might well do it for Nathan. Any one of us would do it for any of the others--hell, we are. What right do I have to say she shouldn't do whatever she can to save someone she cares about?

"All right," he said in a flat voice, "but understand this. You stay back. You do what we tell you when we tell you, and you don't argue. Is that agreed?"

"Agreed." There was a glint in her eye that reminded him of the way Ezra was when he was working a con, but he couldn't isolate what she might be covering up.

"Then let's get on," he clipped, and turned toward his horse.

+ + + + + + +

There was no more than half an hour of daylight remaining when the four-become-five searchers reached an overlook from which the abandoned Lucky Friday complex could be seen. It had been a small mine; probably the vein had pinched out before it could grow. There was a single adit, framed in sturdy timbers; Chris wasn't sure how far back it went, having had little incentive to explore it the time he'd been forced to shelter in it. Scattered about the opening that fronted it were some aging log buildings: bunkhouse, cookshack, stable, tool sheds, an open shed for wagons, office, plus a water tank and windmill. There was no shaft house: the ore must have given out before the owners had enough money to start working their way down. The clearing was a rough oblong, about two thousand yards from end to end and extending no more than half that out from the steep face. Over the years the trees had begun encroaching on it so that its outline was now raggedly irregular; some of the smaller buildings had collapsed inward, perhaps as the result of accumulating snow, and two or three had burned wholly or in part, most likely after being struck by lightning. On the east side the brush-choked wagon trail was still distinguishable; to the west the mountain lifted in an almost vertical wall; to north and south lower arms of it reached out from the main massif.

In gathering gear before they left Four Corners, Chris had made sure he brought Vin's spyglass along. He and the others found a place on the south end of the opening, about forty feet up, where they could lie flat and study the terrain, and passed the glass from hand to hand. The old wagon shed had been converted to a temporary stable: a line of horses was visible picketed in its shelter, having probably been brought in for the night from one of the many little "coves," or mountain-walled valleys, that were found in this sort of country. Josiah had the glass when he caught his breath and quickly passed it back to Chris. "There," he said quietly, "just coming around the wagon shed. Is that who I think it is?"

Chris levelled the glass and found the moving figure. "Damn," he grated. "Jay Stackhouse. This may get uglier than I thought."

"Who's Jay Stackhouse?" Nathan inquired.

JD looked as if he already knew the answer; in part he probably did, considering that Stackhouse was the subject of an impressive number of dodgers. "Gunman, road-agent, rustler, you name it," Chris replied. "I shot a cousin of his, I think it was, two or three years ago, though I didn't know they were related till afterward."

"That means he'll have some personal reason to like the idea of seein' you hurt," JD guessed. "It won't be like he was just some casual hired hand who'd be likely to panic and run for it if we hit hard enough and sudden enough."

"That's just about right," his leader agreed, scanning the mineworks again. "There he goes, into the drift. Makes sense. A lot of those buildings look like they're not fit for anybody but snakes and roaches."

"You figure that's where they're holding Buck and Butterwick?" Josiah asked.

"It would be a good place to do it," said Chris. "Like you said in Eagle Bend, even if some hunter or drifter did happen by, they wouldn't be too likely to catch sight of 'em in there. If Stackhouse and Bentann and their men set up their camp just inside the tunnel, that'd form a pretty effective barrier to the prisoners tryin' to get out."

"How about somebody tryin' to get in?" Nathan suggested. "I got my knives--"

Chris shook his head. "No good. Maybe if Vin and Ezra were here--but we're too short. If you go down alone and they take you, that cuts our effective numbers and gives them another hostage. If we all go down and it turns out to be some kind of trap, then Buck and Butterwick have no chance left at all."

"So what do we do?" JD demanded.

Chris tilted the spyglass, scanning the surrounding terrain. "Nathan, what's the effective range on that Spencer of yours?"

"Maximum? 'Bout two thousand yards, though you can't depend on it killin' at over five or six hundred."

"All right. Look straight across from here. There's a ledge just a little left of center--see that thread of game trail running down to it? If you can get there and lie flat you'll have high gun on anyone around the mine. How long do you figure it would take for you to work your way around?"

Nathan swept the terrain slowly with the glass. "Don't know as I could do it if I went around by the mountain face. Too much chance I'd be heard or seen. But if I took my horse and dropped down through the woods, cut across the wagon trail maybe half a mile down..." Pause while he calculated distances. "Couple hours. Maybe three."

"Take a canteen and some cold food and get started," Chris told him. "You need to be in position by dawn if we've guessed right about what Bentann has planned for Buck. Stop part way if you have to, but make sure you're well off the trail and hidden."

"What's my signal?" the healer asked.

Chris's grin was tight. "You'll know. Go."

Nathan squirmed back from the edge and into the undergrowth, rose cautiously to his feet and slipped away to the spot where they'd left the horses. "Josiah," Chris went on, "I'll want you right here with your Winchester. With the short numbers we've got, our best chance is to make it clear to Stackhouse and the others that there's no way they can get to all of us without bein' picked off."

"Understood. But they've got two hostages, Chris."

"I know. That's where JD and I come in. You and Nathan will cover us while we go straight down their throats. You game, JD?"

The kid nodded once, short. "When?"

"Morning. They'll bring Buck out, and that's when we'll move. Not likely anything'll happen before then, so we'll get some sleep while we can."

"You reckon we can have a fire?" JD inquired.

Chris considered it. "They probably won't look up and see the smoke, and from this angle the fire itself would be pretty well hidden. And scent doesn't sink downward too often. If you can find some wood--"

"I saw some quakin' aspen a ways back," the kid told him. "Vin says it's the best kind of firewood in dangerous country, if it's dry. He says it don't smoke and it don't even smell much."

"Vin's right. Okay, get some of it. We'll eat, then get as much sleep as we can."

Around the tiny fire Josiah prepared, they ate bacon and beans and cold biscuits and drank coffee, speaking but little: the plan itself, though desperate, was simple enough not to need a lot of rehearsal and refinement. Cora Lejeune asked no questions and made no demands for a part in the action. "I don't think they'll be roamin' around the woods enough to find us," Chris said at length, "but we'd better set watches just the same. I'll take the last one so I can wake the rest of you. Josiah, you're on first. JD, between us."

Murmurs of assent. When the food was eaten, they turned in, having little excuse to stay up and every reason to want all the rest they could get. Tomorrow was likely to be nasty.

Chris lay awake a little while, his mind still chewing on what was coming and on the picture of his oldest friend down there, pinning his faith on his friends. By now Bentann would have confronted Buck, probably made it clear to him that any possible rescue party was down to four. But one of 'em is me, and I ain't backin' off from this till you're out of there, pard.

When at last sleep claimed him, though, it was dreamless and deep. He woke sharply, automatically, having set an alarm in his head, a habit left over from his lone days. Their tiny camp was quiet, the fire banked and barely glowing. He could make out Josiah's bulk on the far side of it, and Cora with her back against a sun-warmed boulder. JD? he wondered, and listened. Maybe the kid had had to go relieve himself.

Then he saw the brown bowler hat sitting on JD's neatly rolled bed, and he knew. "Damn," he seethed, "damn, damn, damn dumb kid..."

+ + + + + + +

"The man was gonna hang him."

Ever since Nathan had spoken those words, back in Bentann's room in Eagle Bend, they'd been echoing in the back of JD's mind like a distant bell.

Hang him. Hang Buck.


Chris's earlier explosion had made it clear to him, at last, what he had to do. It didn't matter what Josiah said; it mattered what JD knew within himself, that he had to make a move to wipe out the shame and guilt of having turned his back on Buck. The addition of Cora Lejeune to their group, and particularly the story she'd had to tell, had only solidified his resolve. If a girl could do this, how could JD Dunne shirk his duty as a friend? It didn't matter what Buck had done twenty years ago; he knew that now. Chris had been right. "Whatever he used to be, it ain't what he is now, it ain't the Buck you know and care about," he'd said.

He wasn't. And he didn't deserve to hang, least of all at the hands of the very man who'd led him on the raids whose description had so shocked the young sheriff.

I wronged you, Buck. I should've understood. Hell, we're partners, same's Chris and Vin are; if you can't depend on me to stand beside you, who else have you got?

And there's somethin' else besides.

I have to do this. Chris's plan is good as far as it goes, but there's an awful lot of risk to it. Not for us so much; for you. I'm the smallest one of all of us; I can move fast and hide where Josiah or Chris never could. And I've been takin' lessons from Vin, so I know how to use cover.

I can do this. I have to. For you, Buck. For everything you've taught me, everything I owe you...for what's between us.

He knew Chris well enough, by now, to have expected him to volunteer for that last watch, and he also figured that Chris would wake himself, automatically, even if there was no one around to do it. So that was all right. By the time Josiah roused him to take his watch, both the gunfighter and the girl were soundly asleep. JD settled himself a little back in the brush, so he couldn't be targeted by someone looking toward the fire, with a blanket around his shoulders against the sharp chill of the mountain night, and waited, checking the stars at intervals. When he figured he'd been awake about two hours, and Josiah had had time enough to get well settled into sleep, he shook off the blanket and moved back in to the camp, where he tidily rolled up his bed and left his bowler resting on top of it: a hat was too easily spotted when you were trying to keep yourself hidden. Jacket buttoned close against the cold, he began making his way down through the woods toward the wagon trail.

+ + + + + + +

Chris knew better than to try to follow the errant kid and bring him back. He had no idea how long a start JD had, and it was absolutely vital that Chris be available to wake Josiah early enough for him to get into position. Without that advantage (such as it was) of high gun on two sides, they'd have no chance of pulling the plan off.

So he waited. Just before dawn the heavy night air began to thin and shift. The wind became fitful, then died; in the chilly air he roused Josiah and sent him off, with a terse explanation of JD's absence. Then he woke Cora and began saddling the horses. The woods were quiet: no birds moved, even the night ones; insect noises gave way to a fragile hush that tautened the earth. Just as Chris was tightening the last cinch, the first chirps of the day birds began, followed by flickers of movement as they and the small animals started to move around. The air was rich with the earth smell, brought out by the night damp. First light followed false dawn, then gray dawn half an hour later. Less than another full hour to sunup. Less than an hour for Buck to live.

It was his plan, he was leader, and he was obligated to consider the worst-case scenario. There were horses at the mine, but for JD to saddle two of them for Buck and Butterwick would take at least twenty minutes, time during which only Chris would be close enough to see any hostile move being made. If they couldn't take all Buck's kidnappers out at the first attack, then, it would be better for the kid to whoop those horses off into the trees, thereby effectively stranding the survivors for Karlberg to pick up later, and get the prisoners to safety on the rescuers' own mounts. JD was small and slight; Buck could ride double with him. Chris had no idea what Butterwick was like in build and weight, but Josiah's rented horse had been chosen for size and strength, as it had to be; the secretary could get up with him. This would slow them down, but with their opposition afoot that wouldn't be a major factor.

Chris had seen the wrecked stage, heard JD's report of its bloody interior, and didn't miss the fact that Buck might have been injured, though given the means by which Nathan thought Butterwick had been taken out of his room, he probably wasn't. This meant it would be vital that Buck not be expected to move any considerable distance under his own power. With that in mind, the gunslinger gave Cora Lejeune her orders. "These hack horses ain't likely to be used to gunfire. The closer they are to the shooting, the more they'll need somebody to hold 'em. That's your job, Miss: you're horse-holder, just like in the Army. I'm gonna put you just a few yards back from the edge of the trees, and that's where I want you to stay. They won't be able to see you back there, and if they don't know you're there they'll have no reason to try to get hold of you for a hostage. JD and I 'll get Buck and your friend away from 'em, take down as many of 'em as we can and try to drive the rest back into the drift, where Nathan and Josiah can lay down a cover and keep 'em trapped. Then we'll come to you. Once we're all mounted, we can go up and get Josiah, and from where he is we can signal Nathan to give us a little start and come after us."

"Will he know where to meet us? He didn't stay long enough to hear all this," the girl observed.

"He'll know we'll head for Eagle Bend, where we can have shelter and backup and a doctor if one's needed. If he can't pick us up, he'll make for there too." Chris eyed her with a hint of respect. "That's not bad thinkin', though."

"We rich girls may not be quite as brainless as you make us out to be, Mr. Larabee," said she lightly.

I should've thought as much myself, he thought. Mary comes from a well-off background, and she's got one of the best minds I ever saw. But apology had always come hard to him, and he only nodded. "Let's get you into position."

As full blue transformed the sky, he left her securely situated and moved into position himself. The place he had chosen was almost directly opposite the mouth of the shaft, deep under some trees where his shape would be hidden. He scanned the open space, watching for any sign of JD. Damn. Kid's better than I thought he was--unless they already got him. Can't spot him at all.

He glanced left and right. He couldn't see Josiah or Nathan either. But if he let that stop him, the whole thing was ended. He had to presume that they were where they had to be, waiting for the ball to open. He felt himself coming into focus, all his being settling on his plan and his goal. Hold on, Buck. We're comin'.

Then there was a stir at the adit's opening and he drew his Colt. Buck.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had made it out of slavery in part because his sense of direction was without reproach. He'd had to stop and hole up in a thicket before he made it all the way to his designated position, but experience enabled him to wake in time to complete his circle. Just as Chris was getting into place, he carefully skidded the last dozen feet down the narrow game trail and onto the ledge. He'd already assured himself that the trail hadn't been travelled in some time: he wasn't going to find himself competing with some jealous critter that thought he was invading its home. He unslung his Spencer .56-52 from over his back, eased down on his belly and squirmed into a comfortable position.

The rifle was old, a souvenier of his days as a stretcher-bearer for the Union Army, but he had kept it with care and it was still as accurate as the day it had come from the case. Like all its type, it carried seven copper-cased cartridges lined up one after another in a long tubular magazine in the iron-heeled stock; they were fed by a compressed spring, and might explode if the butt got a jar. It was dead accurate at up to two or three hundred yards and would shoot about a hundred flat, then the bullet would start to arc; if you allowed for this, it would kill at five or six and could carry as much as two thousand. When the Confederates first encountered it, they had quickly named it "that damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and fired all week." The epithet was particularly accurate if the shooter happened to be supplied, as Nathan was, with a Blakeslee Patent cartridge box and quick-loaders, a leather-covered wooden container worn slung from his right shoulder and buckled to his belt so it wouldn't move around when he rode; it carried seven, ten, or thirteen steel tubes, each one about forearm-length and half an inch in diameter, fully loaded with seven of the tapered two-thirds-of-an-ounce rimfire cartridges. He then didn't need to waste time reloading the tube that had come with his gun; he simply put a tube to the lip of the loading trap in the buttplate, as needed, and in one quick motion inserted a new magazine. A well-trained man could maintain a firing rate of fourteen or fifteen shots per minute average. Nathan didn't anticipate a major need for such heavy suppression fire, but he thought he might just as well be prepared, and he opened the top of the box and got it positioned just where past experience told him he would be able to reach it with greatest ease.

He took the time for one last long, slow, detailed scan of the open ground below, picking out places where men might take cover. He saw one man appear at the mouth of the adit, stretch, look around, and walk over behind a shed, where he turned to face it and lowered his head, no doubt relieving himself. For all his care, he still almost missed JD. A man lying unmoving can be almost invisible, especially if he's in a clearing, across which the eyes naturally tend to look. All that betrayed the kid was Nathan's height and the color of his jacket, richer brown than the summer-faded grass. Damn! What's he doin' down there? Don't tell me Chris let him--

No, Chris wouldn't. We're split up bad enough just as it is. It was JD's own grand notion, sure. He looked from the kid to the adit, judging distance and angle. He knows I'm up here and he knows what Chris's plan is. Got to just trust he understands he'll be right in the thick of it once the shootin' starts.

Then a stir at the tunnel mouth drew his attention and he drew the Spencer's buttplate into his shoulder, ready.

+ + + + + + +

When JD first understood what he had to do, he had given some thought to doing exactly what he knew Nathan had had in mind: going right into the adit and getting Buck out before anyone came for him. He understood Chris's concerns about that, but the disappearance of their prisoner, even if JD didn't have time to get him any further than the edge of the trees, would not only deprive Bentann and Stackhouse of their hostage, it might throw them into enough confusion to make them easier for Chris and the others to take. And then he remembered the blood in the wrecked stage. What if some of it had been Buck's? He might be too badly hurt to move quickly or quietly. No. Chris had been right about one thing: it was vital not to serve their friend's captors any more hostages. Better just to get himself down there, close in, on their level, and be ready to run in and shield Buck if he had to. Whatever happened, they couldn't be permitted to use him as a bargaining piece.

Of his six elders, Chris was the one on whom JD most hoped to model himself, but it was Vin whose lessons he found most fascinating, and it was these lessons which he knew were his best chance to carry out his plan. He made his descent slowly, cautiously, finding the trail Nathan's horse had left and following that until he came to the overgrown wagon trail, then turning up that and parallel to it in case it was watched. The air was cold, but excitement, anticipation, and his own quick, light movements kept him warm. There was no anger. One thing on which all the other men agreed was that a man in their business couldn't afford to get mad. If he got mad, he wasn't so good. JD made it to the edge of the trees just before the light began to show, and knelt there a moment, checking his guns and listening to Vin's soft raspy drawl in his mind:

"Best time to scout a place you don't know is in the early mornin', when the sun's just showin' itself. Anybody that's been up all night is thinkin' of nothin' but breakfast and bunk, and the ones just wakin' up are still stale-headed with sleep."

The opening that fronted the mine had almost certainly been beaten bare by hooves and feet back when the Lucky Friday was operating, but since its abandonment the grass had taken over again. JD lowered himself flat and began moving in, crawling, keeping the buildings between himself and the adit as much as he could, carefully moving aside all grass, thistles, goldenrod, and wildflowers, so no sudden movement would catch the eye of an alert scout or sentry. He'd expected his heart to be racketing away like a runaway stagecoach, but he found himself oddly calm. He knew what he had to do and had accepted it. There was no need to be excited or afraid.

Like all mine shafts, the Friday's was surrounded by piles of tailings, slides of sand and worthless "country rock" that had been taken out and dumped. A bucket-shaped push car lay half overturned alongside one of them. JD made that his mark. All that geological matter, compacted by years of weather, would stop just about any bullet made, and thus serve as a perfect breastwork. He wasn't more than fifty feet from it when he observed a hat moving on the other side and froze. A man appeared, stretching and glancing around, then walked toward a nearby shed. JD lay absolutely flat and still, his right hand back by his belt. If he had to fight to keep from being taken, it would force Chris and the others to move before they were, perhaps, ready. But fighting would be better than handing Buck's captors yet a third hostage. He remembered what Vin had told him and clamped an iron hand on his nerves. Still. Still. If you don't move at all you can be damn near invisible. Think like grass. Still.

The man strode past him, less than ten feet away, and vanished behind a shed. After a moment JD heard a faint but unmistakeable sound. He relaxed a bit and waited. He could see the shed out of the side of his eye and he watched it. Presently the man reappeared and walked down to the old stable. He took a coil of rope off his shoulder, looked up at the beam that still thrust out above the hayloft door, and hurled the rope upward. It slapped over the projection and tumbled down the other side. One end of it was tied in a hangman's noose.

The man tied the other end of the rope off to a ring in the stable wall and moved toward the wagon shed where the horses were sheltered. JD realized that if one of the outlaws was awake and moving, the others would be out soon. He also knew instinctively that he didn't dare let them get that rope around Buck's neck, because once they did, the slightest wrong move by the horse they put the gunslinger on would mean his death. There was no more time. He had to move now, to get into his best position and be ready to act. With one eye cocked toward the shed, he slowly gathered himself into a crouch, then made a last desperate rush. Nobody saw him, or at least nobody yelled any warnings. He came up against the tailings pile with a light thud, turning so his back was pressed against it. He was now on the side of it away from the mouth of the adit and facing north, toward Nathan's position; he could watch the horse shed from here, and if it looked like that first outlaw was going to turn his way, he could quickly dart around behind the heap and get out of sight. He was sure Nathan would have seen him move, and probably Josiah too. By now it was full blue, and Chris would almost certainly be ready to go. JD deliberately turned to face the trees and lifted one hand to his absent hatbrim in an imitation of Ezra's mocking two-fingered salute. Then he caught the sound of voices and footsteps approaching from somewhere inside the tunnel, and drew his Colts. Steady, Buck. We're ready. You be ready too.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had been watching for JD almost since he reached the ledge, but not being as high up as Nathan was, he hadn't spotted him till the kid made that last rush. The big man understood at once what JD's strategy was and smiled. You've taught him well, Brother Vin. And you too, Brother Buck. Now if we can just teach him to think before he does something, he'll be a fighter they'll sing songs about a hundred years from now.

He cocked his Winchester and settled the buttplate against his shoulder. Lord, let my aim be true.

+ + + + + + +

Chris watched as the man--no one he recognized--vanished briefly behind the shed, then reappeared to throw his hanging rope over the beam. We guessed right. Splitting his attention from the visible outlaw to the tunnel mouth, he suddenly caught the flash of brown as JD made his lunge. He cocked his Colt, ready to provide cover, but the kid made it to a tailings pile without any hint that he'd been seen, then paused a moment as if to get his breath, turned straight toward him, and flicked him a mocking little salute, just like Ezra's. Chris wasn't sure whether to feel furious or admiring. That crazy, cocky, gutsy little shit. Look at him. I didn't realize just how close he'd been listening all these months.

He saw at once that if JD stayed where he was, he'd be perfectly positioned to take from behind anyone who walked more than thirty or forty feet out of the adit. That means we've got 'em on four sides. Damn. Maybe it's better he did go down on his own.

More movement back in the tunnel. Chris nudged his hack gently forward. He's closest, let him make the first move. Ready. Here they come.


+ + + + + + +

Ever since he'd learned that Vin was out of action, Buck had been slowly losing hope, though he knew better than to let Jeremy see it and was too proud to give Bentann and Freely the satisfaction. Had he known the name of the mine where he was imprisoned, he might have felt more optimistic, and had he been aware that Chris had contrived to learn it, he would certainly have done so, for of course he knew about the time his old friend had sheltered here; he could remember that time clearly, being down at the ranch with Sarah and Adam when the rain started falling on the flats, knowing that at that season when it rained at the level of Eagle Bend it snowed higher up, knowing that Chris might well have been caught in it--and then, after four days of fear, seeing his partner ride in, bone-chilled and unshaven but alive.

He clung to what hope he could, dozing fitfully throughout the night, wondering if Nathan with his knives and Josiah with his bearlike strength and amazing catfooted silence might at any moment come to get him, but they didn't. Then he woke to footsteps and saw that the guard had been joined by Freely, who knelt to cut the thongs at his ankles. "On your feet, Buck."


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