The Explorer

by J. Brooks

Note: Another response to a challenge to write a story based on a poem (thanks Beth!) Kipling this time.

Gold glinted between Nathan Jackson's fingers as he brought the nugget closer to the bedside lamp. Idly, he tilted the lump to catch the light, marveling at the weight of the thing, wondering what its value could be, what someone would pay to possess it. He sighed, dropping his eyes from the gold to the blanket-shrouded figure of the man who had already paid for it with his life.

"Martin Whistler," Josiah Sanchez spoke up from the other side of the room, putting a name to the corpse. Nathan glanced over as the preacher carefully sorted through the dead man's belongings, squinting at a thick sheaf of papers taken from the man's wallet. "He's a geologist," Sanchez continued. "Part of that team of surveyors Vin's been guiding around."

Chris Larabee stirred in the shadows by the door. "How come we haven't seen him before?"

The surveyors had descended on the town like a plague of locusts a month ago, aiming to use Four Corners as their base as they spread out across the territory, mapping, measuring, sampling, plotting, charting and graphing everything in sight. During the day, they pestered the townsfolk with questions. During the evening, they hogged the tables in the saloon, exclaiming loudly over vials of dirt and scribbling notes on topographic maps.

In a few more weeks, as soon as they filled in all the blank spaces on their maps, they would be gone. Off to demystify some other corner of the West and claim its wealth and wonders in the name of the government of the United States.

The federal surveyors were a crew of enthusiastic Eastern academics, giddy about their first trip west of the Mississippi, enraptured by the sights, smells, tastes and rock formations of the desert southwest. They tumbled after Vin like a litter of puppies, peppering him with questions. At least twice a week, the beleaguered tracker showed up on Nathan's doorstep with a surveyor felled by sunstroke, or snakebite, or scorpion sting, or a fall or an allergic reaction to some native herb. None of the injuries had been serious. Until now.

Until Martin Whistler rode into town, bent double in the saddle, trying futilely to keep his lifeblood from pouring out of the gunshot wound in his belly.

"Looks like our Mr. Whistler has been surveying the land up near Seminole territory," Josiah was leafing through the dead man's field journal. "Kept him out of town most of the time."

"Damn," Larabee grumbled, his eyes straying back to the nugget in Nathan's hand. Gold and the Seminole village. His least-favorite combination.

Nathan dropped the gold on the bedside table as if it burned him. "We got to keep this quiet," he fretted. "Word gets out about a new gold strike on Seminole land, government'll run the villagers
right outta their homes."

"But everyone knows the gold's played out of those hills," Josiah pointed out, still paging through the journal. "According to this," he tapped the book. "Our Mr. Whistler was on a simple mapping mission. He wasn't even collecting mineral samples."

"He collected one," Larabee said, crossing the room to study the gold nugget. "He say anything to you while you were treating him, Nate?"

"Nope. Too far gone. He say anything when you pulled him off his horse?"

"One thing," Larabee said. "Must've been off his head already, though. Made no sense."

He frowned down at the gold, remembering how the dying man had pressed the nugget into his hand with bloody fingers, choking out his last word.

"He said 'salt.'"

+ + + + + + +

"This was Martin's room," the leader of the survey team, Colonel Horace Gilbert, pointed to the door and stepped back to allow the boarding house manager to unlock the door. He ran a hand down his shocked, pale face and glanced over at the lawmen. "I still can't believe it. Why would someone want to hurt that boy?"

"That is what we are attempting to ascertain, Mr. Gilbert." Ezra nodded politely to the manager and stepped into the room. The air was musty and a thin coat of dust had settled everywhere, including the papers and boxes heaped on the room's small desk.

Buck and JD squeezed into the room as well, taking up most of the remaining space.

"Do you think it was those savages that killed him?" Gilbert pressed, hovering in the door. He was a short, heavyset man with the stiff carriage of a former military officer and the perpetual squint of a longtime academic. For him, the world could be broken down into simple categories, and people could be typed and classified like rock samples. Good and bad. White and red.

Ezra shot him an acid look. "It was a savage murder indeed. But if you are asking whether I believe our neighbors the Seminole played a role in young Mr. Whistler's death, the answer is no."

Gilbert puffed up, offended, filling even more of the door frame. "How can you be so sure?"

"The Seminoles wouldn't do something like this," JD stepped in front of Gilbert, looking him squarely in the eye.

"Not their style," Buck agreed, opening the closet door and looking over the sparse collection of clothing on display.

"The Seminole are on reasonably friendly terms with this town," Ezra explained. "And in any case, if one of them had shot your geologist, he would have died where he fell. The villagers' weapons are Confederate carbines."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"In which branch of the military did you serve, colonel?" Ezra asked, leaning back against the desk and studying the surveyor intently.

"U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, if you must know."

"Ah. And have you ever seen combat?"

"What does THAT have do with-"

"Because if you had been an active participant in the Late Unpleasantness, you would recall the havoc a lead Minnie ball wreaks on the human physiognomy. A shot from a carbine at close range would have punched a hole in him wide enough for your fist ... Colonel."

"He was shot with a pistol," JD supplied helpfully as Ezra turned away to rifle through the desk. "Nathan cut the bullet out of him if you want to see it." The kid began patting at his pockets, as if searching for the lethal slug. The colonel turned a delicate shade of green and excused himself, blundering away down the hall.

"Nice one, JD," Buck cackled from the depths of the closet. He backed out with a look of disgust. "Nothin' in there. No secret journals, no letters from his sweetheart..."

"Whatcha got there, Ez?" JD bounced over to the desk, where Ezra was carefully removing small boxes and glass vials from a large packing crate. The sheriff peeked into the first box and gasped.

"What the heck is that?" A bizarre object nestled on a bed of packing material. A bright blue puff that looked like some sort of strange dandelion seed head-but hard as rock and sharp as a spiny sea urchin. JD prodded at the thing in wonder.

Ezra checked the specimen tag. "Cyanotrichite," he read aloud, trying out the unfamiliar word. "Collected near Taos three months ago."

"That some sorta rock?" Buck joined them, fascinated. "What else you got in there, JD?"

Dunne rooted through the crate again, pulling out sparkling geodes, glittering quartz, nodules of copper, glassy obsidian. Lightweight samples of talc crumbled in his hands and a chunk of mica shed flakes like fingernails. A petrified honey bee glared out at them from a chip of amber.

"Hard to believe all this stuff's lying right at our feet and we never notice it," JD said, setting aside a box with a dull green stone inside.

Ezra snatched the stone up.

"What is it, Ez?"

"This unassuming mineral, my friends, is a small fortune in the rough," Ezra rolled the stone reverently between his fingers. "An emerald, unless I miss my guess."

Buck whistled and JD watched apprehensively as Ezra pawed through the crate, looking for the box that had held the emerald. Standish's face fell as he read the label. Found on private property, location unmentioned. Aw, hell.

"Put the jewel back, Ezra," Larabee's voice came from behind them, sounding exasperated.

"I was just-" The gambler caught the darkening expression on their leader's face and replaced the emerald in its box with a regretful sigh.

"I need to know if you find anything about salt. Any samples he took, anything he may have written."

The other three exchanged mystified looks.

"Salt?" Buck snorted. "Man's got a crate full of emeralds and such and you want to talk about table salt?"

"It was the last word he spoke. Must mean something."

Ezra's eyes strayed back to the boxed emerald. JD hastily stuffed it back into the crate, shoving it out of sight beneath other sample boxes.

"Did he say anything else?" Standish wrenched his attention back to the topic of murder with some effort. "Were there something on his person or in his possession that might assist us in our search?"

Larabee started to reply, then paused. He glanced at the crate and its hidden emerald.

He turned to go without answering. "When you finish up here, come see me at the jail."

+ + + + + + +

"Got another one for ya, Nate," a sweaty, irritated Vin Tanner ushered the injured man into the clinic none too gently.

"Ow," the surveyor groaned, cradling his bandaged hand.

"Told ya not to pet the gila monster."

"You never said it was venomous!"

"Said, 'See that lizard? Don't touch it.'"

"I'm a botanist!"


"I know plants!"


"Not lizards!"

"Well, now you know. Lizards bite."

Nathan tutted and pulled his latest patient over to a chair. "Hey, Bob. How you been?" he said pleasantly, unwrapping the bandages and studying the inflamed bite mark.

The scrawny, sunburned scientist brightened and groped for his satchel, pulling out specimens. He and Nathan nattered on about the fascinating subspecies of aloe Professor Robert Reynolds had collected that afternoon, comparing notes on its likely medicinal value. Vin smiled tolerantly and waited. He had seen the expression on Nathan's face when he walked in the door, and he knew the worry lines had nothing to do with a lizard bite.

In short order, Nathan had the wound cleaned, treated and re-wrapped and was nudging the botanist out the door. Reynolds went, still chattering happily about the glories of cacti.

Vin kicked the door closed behind him and turned to face Nathan, cocking his head curiously.

Nathan nodded. "We got a problem."

+ + + + + + +

"You'll have to tell Ezra about the gold, you know," Josiah said, leaning against a post outside the jail. Buck and JD were staggering toward them across the street, lugging the crates of rocks from the geologist's room. Ezra sauntered behind them, offering helpful suggestions.

Larabee glared sidelong at the preacher. Down the road, he could see Vin and Nathan heading their way from the clinic.

"You can't send him out there without all the facts," Josiah pressed. "And you know he's the best one to send with Vin. Who knows more about gold mines than our Ezra?"

Larabee gave a terse nod as Buck, JD and Ezra filed past him into the jail. He fixed the preacher with a look as he turned to follow.

"You think Ezra's gonna thank us for pointing that out?"

+ + + + + + +

"Who'd want to kill a surveyor?" JD burst out, dropping his crate onto the jailhouse floor with a clatter and looking around at the other six men in the room. "I mean, they're these harmless little guys that run around measuring stuff."

"And that, my young friend, is precisely why surveying can be such a high-risk occupation," Ezra said, hefting a brass surveyor's compass in his hand, sighting through the small telescope mounted above it.

"The maps in this region are based on the records of the first settlers," he continued, squinting at JD through the eyepiece. "Those hardy pioneers who reckoned distance by tying a piece of cloth to a wagon wheel and counting the number of rotations."

Buck frowned. "Don't sound like a real exact science."

"Indeed not. Now imagine you are a landholder. And imagine a team of surveyors comes through your property, with the very latest in scientific equipment and techniques. And they measure and they map and they come to you and tell you that the original survey of your land was off by twenty miles. And instead of owning a lovely little spread by the river, you are actually hold the deed to a hundred acres in the middle of the salt flats. How might you react?"

"So we may be looking at one of the ranchers," Larabee said, liking that possibility.

"Or the Seminole," Buck cringed as several sets of angry eyes bored into him. "Don't give me that look. You know as well as I do they got a couple other firearms up at the village, not just the carbines they looted off them greybellies."

"Or one of the other surveyors," Vin said, returning to the original topic. "Killin's kinda personal. Mighta been somethin' between him and the others we don't know 'bout yet."

Nathan rolled his eyes. This was getting them nowhere.

"Or maybe," he said. "We're just looking for the fella who knows where this came from." He pulled the gold nugget out of his pocket and tossed it onto the table, where it landed with a heavy clunk. "Malcolm Whistler had it on him when he died."

Larabee groaned and covered his eyes. Nathan shrugged unapologetically.

"Aw, gee. Ya THINK?" Buck's voice soared into the upper registers. "You think maybe, while you had us rooting through boxes of rocks looking for SALT--"

"Which we found, by the by," Ezra cut in smoothly, his voice deceptively calm. His eyes were locked, expressionless and unblinking, on Larabee's.

JD fished a walnut-sized crystalline cube out of one of the boxes and held it up. "Salt," he confirmed.

"Looking for SALT!" Buck plowed ahead as if there had been no interruption. "Didya think for one minute it maybe mighta had somethin' to do with the GOLD NUGGET in the dead man's pocket?"

"He did say 'salt' before he died, brothers," Josiah tried for a conciliatory tone.

Slowly, deliberately, Ezra leaned forward and picked up the nugget, never breaking eye contact with Larabee.

For a moment, he held the gold outstretched on his palm. Then, with a flourish, he closed both hands into fists and held them outstretched for Larabee to choose. The others held their breath as Larabee pondered whether it would be more efficient to play along or just flip the con man upside down and shake the gold out of him.

Matching Ezra's poker face, the man in black reached out and tapped the left fist. Ezra opened the left hand. Empty. He opened the right. Empty.

"What the deceased was attempting to tell us," Standish said, turning to favor the others with a sharp, feral grin. "Was that someone, somewhere nearby, is salting a mine."

He reached over and plucked the gold nugget out the air behind JD's ear.

+ + + + + + +

"Dead feller sure is makin' this easy on us."

Ezra started slightly as Vin's idle remark broke the long silence that had fallen between them. Shaking off his thoughts, he turned to eye the tracker riding beside him on the narrow trail.


Vin's forehead wrinkled at the one-word response, but he forged ahead gamely, keeping the conversational ball in the air. "Can't remember such an easy trackin' job. All's we gotta do is ride in a straight line."

He freed a foot from the stirrup and toed one of the wooden markers Martin Whistler had left in his wake. The sticks stuck out of the ground at regular half-mile intervals, marking the mapmaker's progress.

"Ah yes, survey markers-the framework upon which a bold new future will be built," Ezra gestured vaguely to the barren, unpromising landscape with one hand. With the other, he dug into his pocket and pulled out the gold nugget. "Noble work, map making -- plotting sites of future cities, guiding travelers' feet aright..."

"Errr, Ez? Chris know you still got that nugget?" Vin watched  uneasily as Standish knuckle-walked the bit of gold across the top of his hand.

"But of course, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, polishing the gold lovingly on his sleeve. "I simply explained to the man that it was imperative we have the original sample for the purpose comparison. This vital piece of evidence may help us identify the murder scene."

"Ain't the big puddle of blood gonna identify the murder scene?"

"A true investigator seeks out corroborative details."

Vin started to reply then paused, staring hard at the cliff wall that rose directly ahead, in path of the survey.

"Think I mighta just spotted one of them details, Ez."

+ + + + + + +

"Give it up, JD," Buck said, chuckling as the sheriff rubbed uneasily at his ear. The kid had been tugging at his earlobe since they rode out of town in search of the main group of surveyors, who were out mapping the river and the land around it. "Ain't no more gold gonna come outta your ear, so just leave it be."

"I KNOW," JD huffed. "I'm just trying to figure out how he-- Wait a minute. Where'd the plant doctor go?" He twisted in the saddle, scanning the landscape for the missing scientist.

"Oh, not again," Buck groaned. He threw back his head and drew a deep breath. "BOB! Heeeere, Bob! C'mere, boy!"

Behind them and to the left, a sunburned head popped up in the middle of a cactus bed, waving enthusiastically. Professor Reynolds trotted back to his horse, a small spiny plant cradled in his bandaged hand.

"Sorry, gentlemen," he puffed, as he rode back to rejoin the lawmen.

"We're kinda on a timetable here, Doc," Wilmington chided gently. "Gotta tell the rest of your group what happened."

Reynold's smile fell. "It's a terrible shame about young Martin," he sighed. "But do you think we might take a short break? We're still miles from camp and I'm afraid I'm not the best horseman."

Buck glanced around. There was a creek nearby and the horses could do with a rest. "Sure thing, Doc. How 'bout we break for lunch while you tell us the story of Martin Wheeler's life?"

They dismounted in the sparse shade of drought-hardy trees by the creek. Buck and JD saw to the animals while the botanist cobbled lunch together.

"Martin was such a dedicated young man-with such a passion for accuracy," Reynolds began, stirring a pot of beans over the fire. With a grin, he rummaged through his sample case, pulling out herbs to sprinkle over the mess. Buck took an appreciative sniff. Maybe science was good for something after all. Trail food had never smelled so good.

They settled back with their plates as the botanist continued the story. "I recall many a time he spent his free hours checking and re-checking not only his own measurements but those of the other surveyors as well. Hardly surprising, considering his history."

Buck and JD leaned forward, wordlessly encouraging the botanist to continue.

Reynolds pulled off his glasses and polished them, his words taking on the tone of a classroom lecture. "When Martin was a very small boy, his parents sold their farm in Illinois and joined the great westward migration. From what I've heard, their journey to California was fairly uneventful until they reached Utah Territory."

Buck shuddered. He'd spent some time in Utah. Impassable mountain ranges, red rock deserts, saltwater lakes and alkaline flats ... the Utes and the Mormons were welcome to the place as far as he was concerned.

"There, the group they were traveling with had a falling out," Reynolds continued. "Most of the wagons turned to follow the established emigrant trail that swung north of the Great Salt Lake
and the Great Salt Desert. But a small group of families, including the Whistlers, listened to a self-styled guide who sold them a map that traced a southern passage. It promised to skirt the mountains and cut hundreds of miles off their trip."

"Let me guess," Buck said. "There was no southern pass."

"None they could hope to find with that map. Sixteen families took the trail south. Four people walked back out of the Great Salt Desert three months later, including young Martin Whistler. He lost his entire family."

The three men sat in silence for a time, lost in terrible thoughts.

JD rubbed queasily at his stomach. "Why do you think he was working alone this morning? I mean, don't you folks usually travel around together?"

The botanist frowned. "Now that you mention it, yes. The surveyors always work in two-man teams."

The lawmen exchanged glances. The field of likely murder suspects had just narrowed from half the territory to one man.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah exited the hotel with wrath, slamming his palms against the door so hard the knob left a dent in the outside wall. Almost an hour of searching, and nothing. The man had vanished into the desert air.

He glanced down the street to see Nathan exit the telegraph office with an identical look of frustration. The healer looked up, grimaced, and shook his head. No sign of Colonel Horace Gilbert.

The preacher stepped from the boardwalk onto the hard-packed earth of the road, only to spring back to safety as the stage swept around the corner and almost took off his foot. A knot of overdressed men spilled out of the contraption, talking excitedly to each other. Josiah elbowed between them, intent on reaching the saloon where he could see Chris Larabee sitting and stewing on the front porch. Until he caught one word of the travelers' conversation.


He pivoted on one heel and stalked after the suits as they trooped toward the hotel, talking animatedly about the exciting new investment opportunity on Indian land.

+ + + + + + +

"What'd you call this again, Ez?" Vin asked, crouching to study the discarded pile of gear he'd spotted at the base of the cliff, next to Martin Wheeler's final mile marker. His fingers brushed lightly over the equipment: sextant, telescope, transits, theodolite compass, sinuous lengths of Gunter chain with tally tags every ten links. Books, maps and bits of instrumentation they couldn't even begin to identify. Everything a body might need to take the measure of things.

"Corroborative evidence, Mr. Tanner," Standish said, peering up toward the faint outline of a cave halfway up the slope. "Gratifying to have our little theory confirmed, wouldn't you say? Shall we continue our investigation?" Unconsciously, his hand went to his pocket, toying with the gold nugget.

With a small smile, Vin led the way up the boulder-strewn slope toward the opening that gaped -- lightless, airless and uninviting -- above them. The closer they came to it, the slower Vin walked, until he stuttered to a halt in front of the cave.

"If you would be good enough to stand guard, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, fiddling with the lantern he'd liberated from the supply pile below and avoiding the tracker's eye. "Proper investigative technique dictates that we limit the number of bodies traipsing across the crime scene." Without waiting for a reply, he struck a match, lit the lantern and plunged inside.

Vin scowled at the dark hole that had swallowed the gambler. Tanners don't traipse. And he sure as hell knew more about reading the signs the murderer may have left inside than some saloon-bred city slicker... He started into the cave, ready to tell Standish all that and more. The rock walls closed in around him. The cave air felt heavy, dense, as if it was being compressed by the thousands of tons of rocks sitting just above his head. Rocks held up by ... what? Air? Vin backpedaled frantically out of the cave. Yessiree. He was gonna give Ez a piece of his mind. Just as soon as the man came back outside.

Gulping shakily, he moved within shouting distance of the cave. "Find anything, Ez?"

"A great deal, Mr. Tanner," the southerner's voice echoed cheerfully back down the tunnel. "Including the pool of blood you so rightly predicted. As well as one of the most singularly amateurish attempts at fraud it has ever been my misfortune to witness. The person or persons who salted this mine had absolutely no pride of craftsmanship..."

A small noise from behind distracted Vin from the rest of Standish's outraged commentary. He turned, but not quickly enough. A quick flash of dull gray metal was the last thing he saw before something connected with the side of his head with jarring force.

He never heard the sound of the shovel dropping from his attacker's fingers. Never felt someone grab his ankles and drag him toward the darkness of the cave.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish squinted disdainfully at the bright flecks of gold shining out of the mine wall in front of him.

"Amateurs," he grumbled. The gold sparkled in bright starburst patterns on the jagged slate walls. Ezra scratched at the embedded gold with one fingernail, easily freeing a small flake from the slate. Slate! You'd be more likely to strike gold on the roof of the mercantile.

He stepped closer to the ersatz gold strike, grimacing at the scattershot pattern and raw scars gouged into the stone around the bits of gold. His eyes strayed to the double-barrel shotgun leaning against the tunnel entrance.

Loading a shotgun with gold and gold dust and firing it into the walls of a played-out mine had to be the oldest trick in the book. And a very convincing trick, if done correctly. But this... He stooped to pick a stray nugget off the mine floor. One side was flattened where it had ricocheted off the slate. THIS sorry excuse for a confidence game bespoke great laziness, vast ignorance, or
someone forced to rush the job of salting the mine.

Casually, he pocketed the new nugget and stepped back, taking care to avoid the dried bloodstain that marked the spot where Martin Whistler fell.

"Care to speculate, Mr. Tanner?" he pitched his voice to carry down the tunnel. "Was our young surveyor an innocent victim who stumbled across the criminal in the act? Or was he a willing participant in the crime, double-crossed by his partner?"

There was no reply. Ezra frowned. Had he offended the claustrophobic tracker with is rather unsubtle attempt to keep him out of the tunnel? Or had Vin climbed back down the hill, looking to put more distance between himself and the cave?

"Mr. Tanner?"

This earned him a response, but not the one he'd expected.

From the dim tunnel entrance, there came the sound of a shotgun cocking. Ezra whirled, releasing his derringer and firing at the same instant the roar of a shotgun blast filled the cave.

+ + + + + + +

"Now look what you made me do," Colonel Horace Gilbert grumbled, clutching at his bleeding hand. The emptied shotgun lay smoking at his feet. He stumped across the floor, his shoes skidding over lose slate and scattered flecks of gold, until he stood over Ezra.

He waited a moment, as if expecting an answer. Hearing none, he stepped over the motionless form and headed for a far corner of the cave, outside the circle of lantern light. He groped through the shadows for a moment then, with a grunt of satisfaction, returned.

"Dropped my pistol earlier," he said conversationally, feeling he owed some sort of explanation to the man he'd just shot. He raised the gun and sighted along the barrel to the gambler's slack, pale face, then hesitated. Frowning, he crouched down and tapped the gun barrel against Standish's cheek.

The colonel had shot only two men in his lifetime, both of them today. He imagined the process grew more comfortable with practice, but for now he truly wished Ezra Standish would do something -- sit up, go for his gun -- to make this easier on him. But there was only the faint rise-and-fall of the younger man's ribcage and the slow spread of blood beneath the curled body. The sloped cave floor channeled one rivulet and sent it trickling, red as rubies, across the dried brown bloodstain beside him.

The surveyor shuddered and backed toward the exit, completely forgetting the other body he'd dragged down the tunnel -- until he tripped over Vin Tanner in the dark. He cocked his head hopefully as the tracker let out a faint groan. But when there was no further sign of life, Gilbert shoved the pistol back in his pocket with a frustrated sigh.

He needed to get back to town. His partner would be furious if he kept the investors waiting.

+ + + + + + +

"Now look what you made me do," Bob the botanist chuckled, shaking his head in mock sorrow at the plate of food he'd dropped when JD doubled over and collapsed against him.

For a long moment, Buck could only stare blankly at the scene before him, trying to make sense of it. Slowly, a thought swam through the thick fog in his head. JD was in trouble. JD was in pain. JD was on the ground, clutching his belly ... and Bob was laughing at him.

With a roar, Wilmington launched himself at the man. To his utter astonishment, he wound up on his knees, retching, instead of on his feet with his hands wrapped around Bob's scrawny neck.

"What--?" he croaked. Weakly, he pushed forward, clawing and hitching his way toward JD, who had stopped thrashing about and now lay ominously still.

"What did I slip into your food?" the professor completed the thought for him, stepping solicitously out of the crawling man's path. "A pinch of this, a pinch of that. The deserts in this part of the country are a veritable pharmacopoeia."

Nausea gripped Buck as the world around him dissolved into a chaotic whirl. The only fixed points were his hands, clawing through the sand, and Bob's smug face, hovering over him.


"Why did I drug your food, you ask? And the food was drugged, by the way, not poisoned. I LIKE you, Buck. Really I do," Bob turned his back on the floundering man and moved to collect his gear. "But I can't have you visiting the survey camp right now, asking awkward questions. This should keep the two of you quiet and out of the way while I settle accounts with my idiot partner."

His voice filtered down to Buck, strangely distorted, as though the words had to pass through water before they reached him. "You should be fine in a day or so, with any luck at all. Of course, I wasn't counting on you and the boy going for seconds. Honestly, don't they feed you back in town?"

The distinct click of a hammer cocking froze the botanist in his tracks. His smile dropped as he turned to face the business end of Wilmington's Colt.

Buck would have smiled, but he couldn't feel his face any longer. Or his legs. Or the hand that held the impossibly heavy gun. With every fiber of his being, he fought to keep the gun leveled at a point right between Bob's lying eyes, as the world dimmed around him.

He blinked. And Bob vanished from his line of sight.

He blinked. And the gun was sinking slowly, slowly toward the ground, his nerveless fingers trembling with the effort to fight both drugs and gravity.

He blinked. And Bob's face filled his vision again. The smile was back and his mouth was moving, forming words that Buck's dazed mind could no longer follow. Instead, his eyes followed the slow-motion rise of Bob's hand as the botanist lifted a palmful of brown powder ... and blew the dust directly into Wilmington's eyes.

And then there was nothing.


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