Long before Mexico abandoned its claim to the desert southwest, the Mexican army abandoned the fortress the soldiers called Soledad.
To the east, the loco Texans fought over every acre of scrub between the two rivers. To the south, American and Mexican legions fought over the lines on a map. But here, in this rocky outpost, both armies recognized a patch of ground that no one in his right mind would die to defend.
And so the years passed, as Americans fought Mexicans, and Americans fought Americans, and no one at all found any use for an old adobe fortress that guarded an obscure mountain pass of no strategic value. The sun cracked the walls and the rains wore away at the battlements, until it was hard to tell where the mud bricks ended and the red-wall canyon began.
And it was then that someone found use for Soledad again.
A hot desert wind blew through the crumbling fort, swirling sand around the rough men who lounged in the courtyard, arguing over a bright red jacket.
"I took it off him. It's mine!"
"Chupamela, cabron! Who shot him off his horse?"
"You're both of you too fat to wear it..."
Inside the dusty barracks, chained securely to a post, Ezra Standish followed the debate with some interest.
Through the half-open door, he watched the argument deteriorate into a three-way tug-of-war. Normally he would have mourned the abuse of fine fabric. For now, he was just glad they'd found another outlet for their destructive impulses.
With a mental shake, he returned his attention to the task at hand -- fishing awkwardly with swollen fingers for the lockpicks concealed in the cuffs of his once-white shirt.
A sudden silence fell outside and Ezra looked up to see a fourth figure elbow boldly between the squabbling men and snatch the jacket away, before heading straight toward him.
He closed his eyes in resignation.
"Oh, senor! What have they done to you?" The voice was soft, dismayed. Unfamiliar.
Ezra raised his head slowly and studied his visitor through bruised eyes.
"Pobre..." With a practiced motion, the girl shifted the laundry basket from her hip to the floor and stepped toward him. Her eyes took in the dark bruises on his face and the untended bullet wound in his shoulder. They widened as her gaze moved down his chest, where the torn shirt hung open to reveal a grisly patchwork of knife cuts --some deep, some shallow -- criss-crossing his skin like an ugly scarlet lattice. "Pobrecito..."
She recognized Hector's handiwork. The knife work he reserved for special efforts at persuasion. The last person she'd seen cut this badly was the priest who appeared at the gates one day, offering to hear confession. After the sacrament washed them clean of their sins, Hector and the chief took steps to ensure that everything the priest heard would remain between him and his God. The padre's bones now lay bleaching in the sun on the cliffs above Soledad.
"It's nothing, I assure you, senorita," the captive said, swallowing hard as the girl moved to the side table that held Hector's blood-clotted knife. "Pray, don't trouble yourself . . ."
His voice trailed off as she turned back to him -- holding a pitcher of water in her hands. A brilliant smile lit her dirt-smudged face as she crossed to him and held the container up to his lips for a drink.
"It is no great trouble," she said, glancing back at the now empty courtyard as he drank. She set the pitcher down and returned to the laundry basket, moving to the living quarters at the far end of the barracks to collect the discarded clothing piled around the beds. The clothes joined the red jacket in the basket.
Ezra kept his eyes fastened on the door and the courtyard beyond. The wind was blowing harder now. Curtains of sand flew around the yard, stinging into the flesh of anyone foolish enough to remain outdoors.
"Is it true what the men say?" the girl's voice carried softly over the sandstorm's roar. "You are a lawman?"
Still watching the door, Ezra chuckled dryly. "As difficult as it is for me and all those around me to believe ... I am indeed." The laugh turned into a pained cough.
"You must be a fine one," she reappeared in his line of vision, leaning against the heavy door to close out the storm. "No one has ever ruined one of the chief's plans before."
The wooden door scraped across the sand that had already drifted into the room. Among Soledad's many, many drawbacks was the fact that it had been built in a natural wind tunnel. Sandstorms roared across this stretch of desert with demoralizing frequency, gathering speed as they whipped down the canyon.
"The chief?" Ezra licked his lips, still watching the door. "Would that be the individual who wore that dramatic black mask to this morning's stage coach robbery? I must say, it is refreshing to find a villain who lives up to the expectations of the dime novel authors..."
He turned his attention to the girl. "Will this masked bandit be joining us today, do you think? Or was I a better shot than I think I was?"
At the mention of the chief, she took a nervous step away from him. The tangled curtain of her hair fell across her face, half hiding the raw ugly scrape across her cheekbone. She smoothed down the front of her white shift dress like a schoolgirl about to give a recitation.
"If I help you escape," she began, eyes darting toward the door. "Would you take me with you?"
"My dear, I could never allow you to take such a risk. A gentleman does not--"
"Please? Please," she moved closer, picking up a key ring from Hector's table and motioning toward the chains that bound Ezra. "I cannot escape alone. These men, you do not know what they can do. And the chief..."
She stepped even closer, reaching out to run one finger lightly down his bruised face to his lips. For all his fine words and bold deeds, he was still just a man, she supposed. And like all men, he would give her nothing unless it gained him something.
"I could help you," she breathed into his ear. "I could guide you through the canyon. Help you find the place where you hid the gold."
The skin beneath her fingers radiated the unnatural heat of a fever. Shudders racked the man's battered frame. She pressed closer. "I could take care of you."
A small, satisfied smile curled her lips as she felt the man's nod of agreement against her cheek. She turned to face him, her lips seeking his, as his arms went around her in a crushing embrace...
His arms? Her eyes flew open in alarm, half a second before Standish whirled and pinned her against the post that had held him for so long. The manacles snapped around her wrists.
"I do beg your pardon, senorita," Ezra's amused tones carried clearly over the howling wind and the torrent of Spanish invective pouring from the woman chained to the post. "It is unforgivably churlish of me to sit while you remain standing. Whatever must you think of me?"
She told him. In great detail. Standish chuckled as he manhandled rough bandages around his chest and shoulder. A half-empty bottle of tequila sat at his elbow, its contents distributed equally between his insides and outsides.
He limped over to the laundry basket and pulled out an oversized shirt to cover the bandages and an oversized poncho of surpassing ugliness to cover everything else. With a show of regret, he stuffed the red jacket into a satchel, along with the rest of the tequila and every weapon he could find in the room.
"Desgraciado! Bastardo!" the girl shrieked. Ezra winced and stooped again to the basket.
"I do regret I was unable to answer your questions today, my dear." He waited for her to pause for breath and stuffed someone's wool sock into her mouth, securing the gag in place with a bandanna.
"And they were your questions, were they not?" His fingers brushed lightly across the graze on her cheek, meeting her furious gaze squarely. "My apologies for this as well," he murmured. "At the time, I had no idea that the head I was shooting at was attached to such a lovely face ... The mask did make it difficult to tell."
Her eyes widened in shock.
"Next time, my dear, you would do well to wash the trail dust from your face and the scent of gunpowder out of your hair before you attempt to pass yourself off as a simple laundry maid." He gave her uninjured cheek a brotherly pat, shouldered the satchel and turned toward the door.
"I assume you gave your men orders to leave you in peace during your interrogation of the prisoner?" he glanced back, eyebrows raised inquiringly. "And I assume you have men stationed and ready to follow me to the gold after I make my escape with my fair rescuer?" She sneered around the gag.
"Then I think we can safely assume that they will be watching the back door -- if any still remain on guard in this maelstrom..." Ezra wrenched the front door open, allowing sand to blast into the room.
"Good day to you, madam," he caught up a broad-brimmed hat from a peg by the door and clamped it onto his head. "Your hospitality has been memorable. Perhaps someday soon my colleagues and I shall return the favor."
With a tip of his stolen hat, he was gone.
The chief of the Soledad gang glared at the empty door. The quick mind that had recognized the value in a forgotten fort that stood within striking distance of every major stage route in the region, now occupied itself with plans for wringing the life out one Ezra P. Standish. The hands that once slit a priest's throat twitched slightly, as their owner imagined doing the same, and more, to the red-coated deceiver.
She would kill him, she promised herself, twisting to reach the lockpicks hidden in her skirt. Soon.
The wind howled like a living thing and the flying sand scoured exposed skin raw.
Chris Larabee labored up a shallow hill leading his unhappy horse toward the shelter of what he hoped was a cave in the cliff wall. He tugged the bandanna higher on his nose, pulled the hat brim lower over his eyes, and squinted through watering eyes at the blurred landscape around him.
Where in the hell were they? Where in this swirling, stinging, sandy hell had his men gone?
Mercifully, the wind fell as he reached the mouth of the cave, the rocks muffling the roar outside to the point where he could hear the steps of the horses and men who had followed his lead. He drew in a deep breath of sandless air . . .
And froze as a gun cocked somewhere in the darkness near his head.
"Chris?" The voice was a relieved gasp.
A second later Larabee found himself caught around the middle in a kidney-crushing hug. Vin, Josiah and Nathan added to the pressure as they rushed forward to re-unite with one of their strays.
"JD?" Larabee tilted the kid's chin up and studied the white, shocked face as his eyes adjusted to the dim cave light. "You okay?"
With a gasp, the kid backed away and grabbed Nathan, who was running hands over his head and limbs, looking for signs of injury. "Buck..."
With a curse, Larabee followed them toward a sheltered niche on one side of cave, where the glow of firelight was almost hidden by a shelf of rocks and a wind screen someone had rigged out of blankets.
Buck lay curled on his side near the small fire, with a bloodied bandage tied neatly around his head.
Nathan dropped down and began a thorough examination. Larabee drew JD away and sat him down on a boulder. The kid was almost shaking with relief, now that others had come to share the burden of care. Josiah crouched next to him and offered a canteen.
"What happened?" Larabee asked, his eyes roving the cave, fixing on the horses picketed against the far wall. Chaucer glared back at him from the far end of the rope line. Vin gave Ezra's temperamental chestnut a pat as he secured their own horses.
"Where's Ezra?" JD flinched as Chris, Josiah and Vin asked the question almost simultaneously.
"The masked bandit..." the kid's voice was tinged with anger and just a little awe. Ordinary robbers didn't faze him, but this was a celebrity villain, ripped from the pages of lurid dime novels. "The masked bandit attacked the stage just south of Cortez pass."
"We found the stage," Larabee said, closing his eyes against the memory. A coach, mired in a sandbank surrounded by the untended bodies of the would-be robbers -- and three fresh graves. He'd clawed at the sand with his bare hands until he uncovered the faces of the coach driver and brakeman and the paymaster from the James ranch.
There had been no sign of the three lawmen or the sack of gold coins destined for Stuart James's wall safe. Not that the Four Corners regulators gave a hang if Stuart James were robbed blind, but they had taken to escorting as many stages as possible since this "masked bandit" and his gang began operating in their territory several months ago. The robberies had become increasingly bold, and had taken an increasing number of innocent lives.
"They killed the driver and brakeman," JD was saying. "And they shot Buck off his horse." He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Ezra rode up next to the coach and jumped on. He was trying to keep the horses on track, but the wheels got stuck in the sand. Then Ed Muncie from the James ranch jumped out and tried to make a run for it with the payroll. The masked bandit rode up and ... just rode him down with his big black horse. Crushed him."
Josiah passed the canteen to JD again. He drank, took a shaky breath then continued.
"So the masked bandit grabbed the bag of gold and the whole gang circled around us with their guns drawn -- until Ezra got a bead on the bandit and shot him right off his horse. Then, before anybody could move, Ez jumps off the stage, swings up on the bandit's horse and takes off, waving the payroll bag."
"And the robbers lit out after him?" Vin turned the question into a statement.
"And forgot all about you and Buck," Josiah continued the thought.
Nathan glanced up from his patient and frowned unhappily. "And that was the last you saw of him?"
JD jumped to his feet and began to pace. "I wanted to go after him, but Buck... and then the storm..." He started toward the cave entrance, scowling at the storm that still raged outside. The sand-dimmed sky was even darker now. Night was falling.
Vin joined him, hunkering down on his heels and staring out into the blowing sand as if Ezra might saunter in from the storm at any moment.
"You did real good," he said softly, not looking up as JD scrubbed angrily at the tears in his eyes. "Took care a Buck. Took care a the dead. We're all here now. We'll take care a Ez."
Behind them, Larabee and Josiah moved to check on Buck.
"He's awake," Nathan said, holding a cup of some foul-smelling brew to his patient's lips. Buck favored them with a bemused smile that faded quickly as he tasted the potion.
"Ey, Buck," Chris reached out to grasp his old friend's shoulder.
". . . ol' dawg . . ." Buck drawled, his head lolling back on the bedroll and his eyes closing.
Larabee glanced up at Nathan.
"Bullet creased his skull pretty good, but if he's awake and talkin', it's a good sign. A real good sign," the healer assured him, tucking the blankets around the sleeping man.
Josiah sighed and headed toward the packs to pull out the gear they'd need to make camp. There was no hope of continuing the search tonight. No hope at all.
A small chuckle from Larabee broke the silence. "So Ezra ran off with Stuart James' payroll," he shook his head. "Bet he enjoyed that."
"Bet he ain't going to like it much when you tell him he's gotta give it back," Nathan said, playing along because it was so much better to imagine Ezra whining about percentages and finder's fees than to imagine anything else.
He adjusted the blankets around Buck again, wishing he could believe that Ezra grabbed the money and ran for selfish gain. Wishing he could believe that Ezra was sitting in some distant saloon right now in a brand new suit of clothes, sipping bourbon and frittering away Stuart James's gold at the gaming tables. Wishing he could believe anything except what he knew to be the truth -- that Ezra had turned himself into human bait, using a lure of gold.
"First light," Larabee promised. "We'll go find him."
Outside, the wind howled and night closed in.
Sometime around midnight, the storm blew itself out, clearing the skies to reveal the moon and confirm that it was, indeed, sometime around midnight.
On the cliffs above Soledad, a sudden flurry of motion dislodged half a foot of sand, revealing a startlingly ugly poncho. With muffled curses, Ezra Standish shook free of the cocoon that had been his only shelter on the exposed rock face.
He rolled onto his back and smiled up at the moon, letting the night air cool his hot skin. With a reluctant groan, he rolled on his side and studied the fortress below. Lanterns glowed in the courtyard, casting long shadows of the men who were still scurrying around like ants, making preparations for tomorrow's search.
This was as far as he had managed to climb before collapsing to watch as the bandits came boiling out of the fort yesterday afternoon -- hot on the trail of the horse he had stolen and turned loose from the stables. He had, of course, taken the masked bandit's prized black stallion.
The last search party had returned at dusk, towing the exhausted, dusty beast. He snorted softly at the memory of the shrill curses that rang from the cliffs as the fearless leader greeted the return of her riderless horse.
Ezra sighed and cursed the capricious weather. Under any other conditions, he would have taken the horse and ridden for all he was worth back to the stagecoach. Had JD and Buck found shelter from the storm? Had they even survived the ambush? The last time he'd seen them, Buck had been crumpled motionless on the ground and JD had been ringed by a dozen guns.
He sighed miserably, trying to ignore the spreading fire from the cuts on his chest and the consuming ache in his shoulder. The minute the stage missed its arrival time in Four Corners, the others would have been in the saddle and off to the rescue, he knew. They would take care of Buck and JD.
But he needed to find them. Find them before they made the same mistake he had.
He had led the outlaws on a wild ride, winding and twisting through the hills and narrow canyons -- and right into the guns of Soledad. He was practically through the front gates before he realized that the odd pile of rocks was a man-made structure. A bullet from the walls caught him just as he was veering away.
The only thing that saved him, as the furious bandits closed in, was the empty bag -- which should have held $5,000 in gold coins -- that they found stuffed in his pocket. Pointed questioning had failed to pry the hiding place of those coins out of him.
His injuries throbbed at the memory and the moon seemed to blur and waver above him. Ezra pulled himself shakily to his hands and knees. He needed to keep moving while he could still move. He needed to find the others and warn them.
He made it to his feet, took one faltering step . . . and collapsed. The desert wind set to work, drifting sand again around the motionless body.
"Chief?" Hector knocked and stepped reluctantly into the dimly lighted room, speaking the only English word he knew -- a title the bandits of Soledad had settled on, frustrated by the gender-specific nouns of the Spanish language.
A knife whistled out of the darkness, burying itself in the wooden door frame next to his head. Hector winced, even as he admired the technique.
"Are you coming to tell me you have found the man?" the chief asked in their own language, stepping into the lantern light and studying her second-in-command with burning eyes.
"Are you coming to tell me you have found the gold?"
"Um..." Displaying the instincts that had kept him alive this long, Hector ducked out the door and pulled it shut behind him. There was a thud, and suddenly six inches of knife blade protruded from the spot in the door where his head had been.
Inside, the girl took a calming breath and turned back to the knives she had been lovingly sharpening before the interruption. She ran the whetstone down one wicked curved blade, imagining it buried in the ribs of the man in the red coat.
At first light, she promised herself, she would lead her men on the chase. She WOULD find him.
Long before dawn, the impatient lawmen headed out of the cave, retracing their steps to the stranded stagecoach, then following the directions JD had given them about Ezra's route after he grabbed the gold. The sheriff had remained behind, under protest, to watch over the still-unconscious Buck.
The storm had scrubbed away any tracks on the ground, but Vin had been able to pick up Ezra's path by following the fresh scars of bullet holes in the surrounding rocks. He groaned in sudden realization.
"What?" Larabee pulled up beside the tracker.
"Cortez Canyon," he nodded toward the narrow, winding cliffs rising before them. "Looks like he headed straight for it."
"Needed cover," Larabee said, eyeing the nearest spray of bullet holes.
"Plenty of places for him to hide the gold, if that's what he was after," Josiah rumbled. "Ezra wouldn't risk getting caught with that gold still on him."
"Plenty of places for an ambush, too," Vin scowled at the red-wall canyon as the searchers moved ahead again. There was something about Cortez Canyon that tugged at his memory. Something someone had told him a long time ago.
"Keep your eyes open," Larabee said, his own eyes sweeping the horizon, searching for a familiar flash of red.
A dozen men and horses milled before the gates of Soledad. Their leader studied their ranks critically. In a single day, the meddling lawmen had cut her ranks by half. It would take weeks, if not months to find suitable replacements. It took time, and the judicious application of force, to convince men such as these to take orders from a woman.
Even now, she could feel a change, the sly looks being exchanged behind her back. These men followed her mostly out of greed, partly out of fear and partly because she had never failed. Now she stood on the brink of failure, shamed by a smooth-talking thief with a quick wit and even quicker hands.
If she did not make an example of him, she risked losing everything.
She secured the satin mask around her head, tucked her long hair into her hat, and strode out into the courtyard, her sharp spurs clicking loudly on the flagstones in the sudden silence that descended. In one smooth motion, she swung onto the saddle and raised a fist in the air.
All eyes turned to her. This much respect she still commanded.
"Adelante!" she cried, and the gates swung open.
The masked bandit of Soledad led her troops on the hunt.
The morning air was crisp, the sun was just beginning to warm the fantastically curved dunes the storm had left behind. Hector drew a deep, appreciative breath and turned, smiling, to his chief to inquire about how much damage he and his men would be permitted to inflict on the lawman before they turned him over to her.
A bullet from above slammed into his forehead, knocking him off his horse, smiling and dead.
With a scream of outrage, the chief threw herself out of the saddle and took cover, glaring at Hector's sprawled body. If anyone was going to kill the big brute, she had always assumed it would be her.
The rest of her men scrambled toward the rocks, firing wildly at the unseen attackers. The bullets were coming from all directions now and she watched one man after the other fall. Five left standing. Four. Three.
In one smooth motion, she ripped off the mask and buried it in the sand. She loosed her hair, hid her weapons and unfastened the top three buttons on her blouse. As the last of her men fell dead, she set to work squeezing out a few tears. She heard footsteps approaching and cowered down, whimpering.
"What have we here?" a soft voice rasped.
Snuffling pitifully, she looked up into the flat green gaze of a man dressed all in black.
"Old bounty hunter I knew told me about this place once," Vin said, looking around the heap of a fortress. "Said he heard tell of a fort in Cortez Canyon back when he was fighting Santa Ana. Supposed to be the worst duty post in the whole Mexican Army."
Josiah sighed and wandered back into the barracks to study the blood-stained post and the empty chains scattered on the floor around it. In his hands, he held Ezra's hat, liberated from the body of one of the bandits outside.
"He must've escaped." The preacher jumped at the unexpected sound of Larabee's voice. The man in black stepped around him and moved to the post. He reached down and picked up the stained manacles, smiling grimly at the fresh scratches on the metal around the locks.
"Then he must still be out there somewhere," Josiah said, staring mournfully at the quantity of blood. Out there somewhere, alone and hurt. He refused to consider the possibility that Ezra might lay buried nearby, while the bandits searched only for the gold.
"Girl say anything yet?"
Josiah snorted. "The young lady seems to have a nervous constitution. She bursts into tears any time anyone asks her a question."
"You thirsty, miss?" Nathan asked, holding out his canteen hopefully.
The girl sobbed brokenheartedly, staring down at the manacles that bound her wrists.
"You got a name?" he tried again.
The girl wailed.
Nathan looked around, appealing for some backup. Vin shook his head and backed away from the weeping female.
"YOU! STOP CRYING, NOW!" Larabee's voice cracked like a whip across the courtyard and the waterworks cut off abruptly. The girl started at him through wide, liquid eyes, gulping softly.
"What's your name?" Larabee hissed.
"Soledad," she whispered.
"Where is Ezra Standish?"
"Dead," she whispered.
Dead. The word seemed to hang in the air like a toxic cloud. The lawmen stood motionless, staring at the girl. She twirled the chains around one of her fingers and peeked up at them through her hair.
"How?" Larabee gritted out.
"Hector," she nodded toward the carnage outside. "He likes to use his knife." Her bound hands crept up to touch her cut cheek suggestively.
Vin flinched. Josiah closed his eyes, knowing he should pray, but finding no words.
"It took him a very long time to die," the girl elaborated.
Larabee spun away and stalked toward the gates, staring out at nothing.
Nathan dropped shakily to the ground.
"Where is he?" he asked, his voice a harsh croak. "Where'd they bury him?"
The girl cocked her head at him.
"Bury? The chief does not bury enemies. The men left the body on the cliffs for the carrion birds." She allowed herself a tiny smirk as Nathan covered his eyes with one hand.
"I am sorry," she purred. "He was a friend of yours, yes?"
"He was a friend of ours, yes." Suddenly, Larabee was looming over her, dragging her up by one arm and shoving her roughly toward the horses.
The others moved dully to follow.
"Nathan," Larabee barked. "You take her, go back to the cave and get Buck and JD back to town."
Before anyone could protest, he continued. "Rest of us are staying here `til we find Ezra." He gave the girl a hard look. "Dead or alive."
She met the Larabee glare with a shrug, leaning against her horse's flank.
Predictably, the men began to argue. The girl watched carefully as they crowded around, waving their arms and bickering in pointless male fashion. She studied the man in black with contempt as her fingers crept up the saddle toward the saddlebags and the revolver tucked inside. What kind of leader brooked this sort of insubordination without shooting someone?
She eased the weapon out and took aim at Larabee's back.
A single shot rang out, and the girl dropped to the ground and lay still. Her pistol skittered across the stones toward the men.
The lawmen turned shocked eyes from the figure on the ground to the figure standing in the gate, wearing a cocky grin and the ugliest poncho any of them had ever seen.
"Ezra!" All four men started toward the gambler, watching in alarm as his smile faltered, he swayed unsteadily and crumpled to the ground -- just before their arms could break his fall.
"A rescue party," Ezra croaked, peering up at the anxious men hustling him into one of the buildings. "How nice. Thank goodness you gentlemen were here."
"Shut up Ezra," Vin said, a huge grin splitting his face as he trotted beside the injured man. "We were just about ta get around ta rescuin' you."
"Indeed? I'm sorry I spoiled your grand finale," Ezra gasped as Chris and Josiah swung him onto a soft bed in a small clean room filled with maps, weapons and locked strongboxes -- the masked bandit's quarters, they presumed.
Nathan, torn between a worried frown and a huge grin of his own, began barking orders, sending the others scrambling for fresh water, clean cloths and the contents of his saddlebags.
The frown won out as he peeled off the poncho -- tossing the article as far from Ezra as he could -- to reveal the bloodstained shirt and bandages beneath.
"Who did this to you?" Larabee returned with the water and crouched down beside Ezra, staring hard at the damage. He'd whittled chunks of wood that came out in better shape than the southerner's torso.
"The lacerations and contusions are the work of a large gentleman with a receding forehead who never bothered to introduce himself..." Ezra grunted, his fingers clutching at the sheets as Nathan began swabbing at the inflamed wounds. Larabee caught up one of the hands in a comforting grip.
"The bullet came courtesy of the masked bandit herself." Ezra was shaking now and Larabee tightened his hold.
"Herself?" Vin asked, pausing in the act of stoking the potbellied stove to boil water. He scrambled toward the door and swore as he looked out into an empty couryard. The girl and her horse had vanished, leaving only a small pool of blood on the ground.
He swore again and took off running toward the front gate.
"That young girl was the masked bandit?" Josiah moved to the other side of the bed, capturing Ezra's other hand in his. The words to the prayers came back to him now as he studied the younger man's flushed, sweating face. He sent a few sharply worded petitions heavenward.
"It will come as a terrible shock to Mr. Dunne and the other dime novel aficionados, I know," Ezra paused to choke down the painkiller Nathan held to his lips. He closed his eyes as he continued the thought. "But anyone who has met my sainted mother should know better than to underestimate a woman."
"Omigosh! What happened to him?" JD scrambled to his feet as the men and tired horses trailed back into the cave that afternoon.
Ezra slumped, unconscious, against Josiah's chest. The blankets and fresh clothes from the robber's stores covered the worst of his injuries, but the bruises stood out in stark relief against his pale face.
"Masked bandit," Vin said by way of explanation as Josiah eased Ezra off the horse and into their arms. Nathan watched the transfer critically, then rushed to the fire to check on Buck.
"Howdy, Nate," Buck smiled sleepily up at the healer. He still couldn't tell how many fingers Jackson held up, but his guesses were getting closer to the mark.
He gasped as Chris and Vin carried Ezra over to JD's bedroll.
"Wha' happened?" Buck struggled to rise, fighting his own dizziness and the hand Nathan had planted firmly in the middle of his chest.
"Bandits caught `im, but he got away all on his own," Chris switched places with Nathan as the healer moved to make Ezra comfortable. "Saved our bacon."
"Yeah," Buck sighed. "He keeps doin' that. That self-sacrificing crap gets on my last nerve."
He paused suddenly and clapped a hand to his forehead, yelping at the chain reaction of pain the action set off. "The gold," he groaned.
Larabee blinked. The gold. They'd forgotten all about the gold.
"Guess we'll have to wait for Ez ta wake up and tell us where he stashed it," Vin shook Ezra's battered red jacket out of a satchel and pulled the empty moneybag out of one of the pockets.
Buck groaned again. "No you won't. Look in my saddlebag." Larabee reached across Wilmington and picked up the pack, grunting in surprise at the weight.
Mystified, he lifted out a heavy bag, nearly identical to the empty one Vin held.
"Before we left Bitter Creek, Ez asked the banker for an extra sack. He filled it with rocks and swapped it when that idiot from the James ranch wasn't lookin.'" Buck shook his head. "Ol' Ez figured it'd give us a little extra protection if the robbers weren't sure just exactly where the gold might be."
Larabee stared hard at Buck, then turned slowly to stare at the gambler, who was tossing restlessly under a heap of blankets on the other side of the fire.
"You tellin' me he rode off with a sack full of rocks? And he knew it was a sack full of rocks?"
Vin smiled gently, reaching down to pat the gambler's uninjured shoulder. "Reckon Ez just opened that bag and let the rocks spill out as he rode. Musta drove 'em crazy, trying to figure where the gold got to."
Larabee shook his head in wonder, tossing the sack of gold coins negligently over his shoulder.
JD, who had been fidgeting by the fire, finally broke the silence.
"Did you really see the masked bandit? What was he like? Is he the one who hurt Ez? Did he get away? You going after him?
"Her," Josiah corrected.
"Her?" JD squeaked. While the kid tried to take in that concept, the others turned to look at Larabee -- who turned to look at Vin.
He shook his head, still annoyed with himself. "Scouted in every direction, couldn't find any sign of her. Could try again in the morning, but she knows the territory better'n me. Prob'ly on the other side of the border by now."
Josiah glanced down at Ezra. "Can't say I care for the idea of her running around loose."
"We don't know how much damage Ezra did with that bullet," Nathan pointed out. "Maybe we've seen the last of her."
Larabee looked away to the darkened cave entrance. The stars were just beginning to appear in the clear sky above.
Comments to: JenBr11@aol.com