by Sevenstars & Aureleigh
Chris studied again the letter Buck had sent before leaving Trinidad. It hadn't reached him till Friday morning, but that was turning out to be little matter: none of the men described in it had showed themselves within his field of view. At least they got a lead, he told himself, not for the first time, and glanced toward the bedroom door beyond which Maude was catching up on her sleep.
She had performed impressively these last few nights, tucking down the concern and old pain she had revealed to the regulators in favor of a smooth gambler's façade, giving her entire attention to the game and the other players. It had surprised him a little; he had known she was an expert con artist, but for all Ezra's stories he had never personally had much occasion to watch her at a card table. And while he wasn't much of a gambler himself, he knew an expert when he saw one. Maude was right up there with the best.
The barroom behind the LaFont House billiard hall, although technically illegal under local statutes, was clearly the town gentlemen's club: an eighty-foot bar of polished maplewood backed by two big mirrors, a ten-foot painting of a hefty nude draped in translucent veils, and a shelf of ornate beer mugs, each painted with its owner's name. There was no bandstand or dance floor, no stage, piano, or girls, just male waiters scurrying to and fro between the bar and the tables, which ranged from small square ones for solitary drinker-diners to round ones seven feet in diameter covered in green baize for the big poker games. Upholstered armchairs provided seating, the floor was covered in a carpet of deep luxurious brown, and the windowless walls, which Chris guessed to be native aspen or pine, had been stained to resemble mahogany. They were set with gaslights that provided a clear, slightly quivery illumination. There was a nickel surcharge over maximum saloon prices on every drink except beer, and even that cost fifteen cents.
Josiah's forward scout at Pascoe's had provided a description of the Kane brothers, who proved to be present as predicted when Maude swept in, escorted by her two "bodyguards." Francis, the eldest, and Darcy, the middle one, were probably in their later thirties, tall, straight men who would have matched Buck's height easily--Larabee guessed at the blood of County Cork--with red hair and pale blue eyes; George, who looked to be under thirty, was one of those Irishmen who look as Spanish as José's pig, with curly dark hair and large, glistening dark eyes. Francis wore a gray mixture three-piece sack suit and a pearl-gray bowler; George a well-cut brown outfit that reminded Chris a bit of JD's, teamed with a slouched felt hat. Darcy was the dandy of the family, in a bottle-green frock coat, shepherd's-plaid pants, a crimson satin waistcoat and stiff pleated white shirt with the new patent cuffs, and a planter's wide-brimmed Panama. All of them wore good jewelry and ornate watch chains hung with charms and seals. To most people they would have appeared to be thoroughgoing gentlemen, just the kind of "quality" General Palmer had hoped to attract when he first established this town. But Chris could make out the subtle hints of acquired haughtiness and congenital envy and discontent in the lines of their faces and the squinty quality of their eyes.
Maude had dressed to the nines in a low-cut green velvet evening gown that brought out the gold of her hair and the vivid color of her eyes, tinted French kid evening gloves, and a creamy tinted Oriental shawl, woven of silk and camel's hair, with a narrow colored side border matching the palm-leaf pattern at the end. She'd had a hairdresser in that afternoon and her tresses were arranged high on her head, with curls in front and a headdress of organdie and India muslin trimmed with English point lace. A jade necklace and matching earrings finished off the outfit. She walked and held herself with a consciousness of place such as Chris hadn't seen since Don Paolo came to town, and never hesitated about introducing herself into the Kanes' game, which involved three other men as well. She gave her name as "Maude, Duchesa diCavarzere," and carried it off so perfectly that if anyone wondered why an Italian noblewoman would speak with a Carolina drawl, they didn't dare to ask. Certainly the claim was enough to explain the presence of a pair of menacing, gun-slung escorts--and the impressive wad of cash she drew from her beautiful gold-and-white silk purse. Chris pulled out her chair, raking the other players with a warning glare, and Josiah took her shawl.
The first couple of hours she took it easy, getting a feel for the game and the players, forming her own estimates of the Kanes' character and skill. She ordered a glass of Chateau Margaux claret and sipped at it daintily, making it last fully two hours. Only then did she suggest making the game no-limit. "Surely, gentlemen, you're not afraid to play with a woman?" she asked coquettishly. And after that, of course, they couldn't behave as if they were.
Once the gloves were off, she played that table like a master. The six men who shared it with her didn't have the least notion of how perfectly she was controlling what went on. She let the Kanes win just enough that they'd want to get back the rest of what she'd gotten away from them, and gave the other players plenty of chances to make a decent return for their effort. Chris was as sure she was cheating as he was of his name, but he couldn't see how she was doing it. She was also a superb bluffer: standing behind her chair as he did, Larabee was always well aware of what she was holding, and at least once she'd tricked Darcy, who had four aces, into giving up the pot when all she had was a pair of deuces. By the time the game broke up, about two A. M., she'd run the kidnapper's $10,000 stake up to $35,000, most of it from the Kanes, who were easily maneuvered into demanding a rematch.
Friday night the game was smaller, just the four of them, with Chris and Josiah hovering behind her shoulders. It began at eight, which gave the Kanes time to enjoy supper with their families at the fashionable hour of seven, and still get to the LaFont House punctually. Six hours of cutthroat play brought Maude's winnings up to some $183,750. Now she had the brothers securely hooked: they weren't going to let her get away with that much of their money.
Chris had telegraphed Mary in Four Corners and asked for any information she could supply regarding the trio. Her reply reached him on Saturday afternoon. The two older brothers had been born in New York, the youngest in San Francisco shortly after the family's removal there during the gold rush. They had been for the most part raised there too, but had moved to the Comstock in 1860, and later, in their manhood, to Denver, which, with over 32,000 inhabitants, was the largest city between the Big River and the Coast, and considered by many cattlemen, at least, to be the only one worth visiting between Chicago and San Francisco. George Kane was a very successful attorney there, as well as an investor in assorted local businesses, and Francis and Darcy were partners in a slaughterhouse and owned pieces of a bank, a good deal of rental real estate, two or three small stage lines, a ranch, and stock in the D&RG, the AT&SF, and the transcontinental line. All three also held large blocks of Comstock mining stock, which had been left them by their father several years before. At that time they had fought a bitter legal battle with their stepmother, Miranda, who had been named in the will as co-equal inheritor with them, in four shares, of "everything of which I die possessed." They had broken that provision of the document and sent the woman off with about four per cent of what her husband had intended her to have. Mary hadn't been able to learn who they might be into for four million dollars, but had promised to get her sources to dig deeper as soon as the weekend was over.
Saturday night was more of the same. By the time Maude pushed her chair back, there was well over $950,000 piled up in front of her. If she hadn't been a woman, and maybe even then if Chris and Josiah hadn't been there, the Kanes might well have made a fuss. Instead they insisted once again on a rematch, but with a day or two off so they could contact their bankers and brokers in Denver and Virginia City and liquidate some of their holdings. Maude consented so graciously that she made it seem as if it was them doing her a favor.
All three nights Chris had remained alert for any sign of the men Buck's letter described, but he never saw them. Certainly there was a good deal of interest in the ongoing duel: even on the first night it began attracting an audience as soon as the limit was eliminated. Later, as word spread, new spectators made a point of dropping in, sometimes lingering for several hours, sometimes just questioning the bartender or one of the waiters about the progress of the game. But the men who watched and listened were clearly upper-crust, not cleaned-up kidnappers. That, of course, didn't mean one of them wasn't the mysterious backer. But if that were the case, it would have seemed logical for the man in question to be present each night, so he could make sure Maude was playing her part as directed and keep track of just how high her winnings were going. In his line Larabee had had to develop a good memory for faces, and he noticed that the composition of the group of onlookers was never exactly the same two nights running, nor did any particular man show up on all three. How did the boss abductor hope to know when it was time to contact Maude again and tell her what to do with the money?
Whoever he was, he apparently understood that she couldn't make $3,840,000 out of $10,000 in one night, or even two or three. But that made sense: Larabee had already decided that he was dealing with someone who had an unholy amount of patience. A couple of hours ago a kid had arrived with a note from the Kanes: they were having some of their holdings sold off and the money wired to them, but it would take another two or three days, and they trusted the Duchess would graciously consent to wait until they were once again in a suitable condition to test her skill.
A quiet knock on the door distracted the gunslinger from his memories, and he stood and drew his Colt, crossing the carpet in a silence marred only by the faint ring of his spurs. "Who's there?" he growled, standing well back to the side.
"Nathan and me, Brother Chris. The desk clerk sent a telegram up to our room--it's from Brother Buck."
Chris opened the door and stood aside for them. He walked back to the sofa, tearing into the envelope as he went and pulling out the flimsy, scanning first the signature line for the source of the message, then the message itself.
NO SIGN OF HIM STOP=YOU GETTING ANYWHERE QUERY=BUCK
"What the hell are they doin' in Alamosa?!" Chris wondered aloud.
The river, dwindling as he progressed, had led Ezra steadily higher into the mountains until he began to realize that he wasn't going to reach civilization before it got too dark to go on. There was little he would have appreciated more than a night in a town, where he could get a bath and a good meal and sleep in a decent bed, but he was experienced enough to know that this wasn't going to happen--and in any case, if, by some disastrous chance, Cole and the others should happen to turn upstream instead of down (supposing they were able to follow him as far as the Arkansas), the last thing he needed was to pass through a locality well supplied with witnesses to confirm that he'd been there and tell which way he'd gone. So, with a sigh of regret and a quiet vow that someone would pay for his inconvenience, he had turned aside and made camp a few miles off the trail, on a cheerful little brook that happily proved to be full of trout. He dug a small hole for his fire--under a tree, so the branches and leaves would break up the smoke and prevent a telltale column from rising into the sky--and used dry quaking-aspen to fuel it, as Vin had recommended, starting it off with two handfuls of dry pine needles, an armful of limbs, and one match. Using skills learned from his Ainslie cousins in the Valley, he scored each of the two trout he'd caught with a sharp knife to break the skin, then pushed a long stick, whittled to a flat-edged point, through each fish from mouth to tail. He thrust these into the ground at an angle so one side of the fishes was exposed to the fire, turning them after half an hour and basting them, just before they were done, with a strong salt-and-water solution. With a handful of fresh cress from the stream, a little crisp bacon, a can of tomatoes and a warmed-up one of beans from the supplies he'd looted before leaving the cabin, and a frying-pan hoecake made Western-fashion out of cornmeal, salt, bacon grease, and scalding-hot water, he had a satisfying meal. The delicious aroma of the fish was so tempting that he forgot about "appearances" and simply picked off the back fin of each to eat the meat right off the bones, like an ear of corn. "Ah!" he exclaimed softly. "Ambrosial."
What he hadn't noticed was the tiny eight-legged atom of life clinging to a shrub, which had dropped onto his hand as he brushed by in the process of picking up fuel for his fire, scuttled up under his sleeve, and sunk its jaws into his skin.
After he'd eaten, he again held in mind Vin's lessons, and shifted Gambit and himself a mile or so away, back from the stream, to bed down in the brush. He cut small boughs from the spruce undergrowth and placed them on the ground, row upon row, furry ends up, then laid his oilcloth and India-rubber spread over them, arranged his blankets on top, and covered the whole thing with his tarp to keep off the dew. This was exactly why he had taken the time to bring his gear along instead of simply fleeing the cabin as soon as he could. His trail bed wasn't the equal of the one in his room at the tavern, but the blankets were the best available, and there wasn't anyone to irritate with his complaints, so he didn't bother.
In the morning he made a second fire, fried up some bacon, heated coffee and warmed what was left of last night's hoecake, smiling to himself in amusement as it occurred to him how astonished his associates would be to observe his competence. Perhaps they had never stopped to think how many times he must have been run out of one town or another, or had to make a stealthy exit on his own, and to realize that he had to have figured out how to survive in such instances. He didn't enjoy it, but he was a good deal better at taking care of himself than he liked to let on. It was simply so much more fun to maneuver the others into doing all the manual labor. In fact, he was doing better now than he had on some occasions in the past; he had the sack of food plundered from his captors besides what he could gather for himself.
He found his way back to the main trail and rode on until he came to a crossroads, where a number of springs bubbled from the mountain slope, some of them hot and others hotter, and all of them proving to taste strongly of minerals. He paused to examine the signboard someone had planted at the junction. The westward branch was marked Gunnison, 54 mi. No, he decided, too far out of his way. Southward lay Poncha Pass, 8 mi., and Alamosa, 76 mi. Ezra frowned thoughtfully--what was it he had heard about Alamosa? Something quite recently, he was sure. And northward was Trout Creek Pass, 35 mi. That had a promising sound, he decided. He wouldn't mind trout for supper again. In any case, Cole and the others would expect him to go south, toward Four Corners, not north. He turned the chestnut that way.
Alamosa and Northward
Buck tossed a quarter to the boy who'd fetched the telegram to the trio's table at Alamosa's Cottonwood Saloon. "Dang, Buck, I thought you said you left your money in your other pants!" JD exclaimed indignantly, levelling his best baby-Larabee glare at his big friend.
"I did, son--my serious money," Wilmington retorted. "Two bits don't count." He opened the envelope and read Chris's message aloud.
MAUDE INSTRUCTED TO PLAY THREE VISITORS AT POKER STOP=MESSAGE SPECIFIES SHE WIN ALMOST FOUR MILLION STOP=RECEIVED YOUR NOTE BUT NO SIGN OF MEN DESCRIBED STOP=WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN ALAMOSA QUERY=LARABEE
"Four million?!" JD squeaked. "Dollars?"
"Don't reckon they're much interested in beans," Buck retorted. "Damn, if Ezra ever finds out what somebody thinks he's worth, he'll never let us hear the end of it."
"Where are we gonna look for him now?" the kid asked. "Reckon we oughtta go back over Culebra and pick up where we left off?"
"That don't shine, kid," Vin put in quietly from the shadowed corner where he was leaning back in his chair, face half hidden as always by the dipped brim of his hat. "Might be we'd run right into them boys we was tryin' to get away from. Even iffen we don't, I got a notion Ez ain't in them parts no more. Maybe he never was."
Wilmington cocked a skeptical brow. "How 'bout what the swamper at the Exchange told us?"
"Ain't sayin' it was a lie," Tanner observed. "But we done covered that whole stretch from Stonewall up to Cucharas Pass pretty good and didn't find no sign of him. Don't forget we 's a week in back of him time we got started. Men on horseback can get a good ways in that length of time. Could be they went the way we heard and jus' kep' on. I'm thinkin' if this was all to get Maude to playin' poker with somebody, they gotta be nearer the Springs. Think on it. Even iffen you was to cut acrost the range, from Cucharas to Trinidad it's a good thirty mile just to send or get a telegram, and they gotta be able to do that so's they'll know what their boss wants done. But they's wires been strung from Pueblo through Cañon City and Salida and on up over the mountains to Gunnison. Longer I chew on it, the more I keep thinkin' about Romeo."
"They got telegraph there?" JD asked.
"Ain't plumb sure," Vin admitted, "but if they ain't, it ain't but maybe five mile as the crow flies till you pick up the Arkansas, and the line follers that just like trout goin' home to spawn. I follered a couple boys up to Gunnison just afore I got in that trouble with Eli Joe, and I seen it."
"How'd we get there, if we decided to go?" Buck inquired.
"Could foller the railroad through La Veta Pass," Vin mused. "I hear tell they's a back road off that to a camp called Red Wing, and from that you can link up with the stage trail 'twixt Walsenburg and Salida. Or we could head north from here and take Poncha Pass, that's lower. Less'n ten mile from there you hit the Gunnison road, and you can track it back to Salida and go into Romeo from the north."
The gunslinger frowned, trying to visualize the pathway suggested. "That'd mean doublin' back some."
"Yeah," Tanner agreed, "but they's liker to think we'd come from the south, if we guessed that was where they 's at, and they might be keepin' watch."
"They had to've checked Ez out pretty good," JD observed thoughtfully, "and likely they got a good notion what the rest of us look like, too. You said things was made easy for the wild bunch in Romeo. Maybe it wouldn't be just them watchin' for us. How'd we get close enough to find out if Ezra was even there, let alone get him out?"
"Burn that bridge when we get to it," Vin replied. "Place is still about as close as you can get to Colorado Springs and still not be on the beaten track or get stumbled over by sightseers half the time--less'n a hunnert mile if you take the old southern route."
Buck had his faults, but unwillingness to listen to reason wasn't one of them. "If they did take him to Romeo, how long would it have taken for 'em to get there from Trinidad?"
"Two days and a bit," the tracker guessed. "Would'a been there just over a week by now. We can make the trip to Salida in a couple more days iffen we don't dawdle none."
The gunslinger sighed. "Reckon it's as good a bet as any," he decided. " 'Least we'll be gettin' closer to Maude and them, in case we're needed there. Let's go send Chris another telegram and get goin'."
Skirting the foot of the Collegiate Range, Ezra reached Trout Creek Pass just in time to make camp on Sunday night. Here another signboard offered the legend: Wilkerson Pass, 26 mi.; Colorado Springs, 77 mi. He scratched in irritation at his left forearm, under the sleeve, as he went about his camp chores. "Wretched, detestable mosquitoes," he grumbled. "I would have thought this elevation inhospitable to them. And how in Heaven's name did one of them insinuate itself under my garments?"
He noticed that he felt somewhat ill, and his appetite was much diminished. That didn't particularly surprise him; he knew from experience, often unpleasant, that when he was bitten by insects he tended to suffer assorted inconvenient but not life-threatening symptoms. Monday morning he followed the trail as it led down into a flat, grassy "park," as the settlers of Colorado called their intermontaine valleys. Cattle grazed contentedly over the ranges, and he could make out lush hay-meadows fenced with barbed wire against their incursions. After a dozen miles or so he picked up a river flowing a little south of east. The trail crossed it and led almost straight east toward a lofty mountain range, higher, he thought, than the one he had just left. A second road ran southeast, and a sign at the fork declared, Cañon City, 56 mi. Ezra eyed it thoughtfully, remembering that the Arkansas River broke through the Rockies at that town, which argued it would be a good deal lower. But in the end his reluctance to tangle with Cole and his partners again won out over his desire for an easy ride. Cañon City was simply too close to Romeo; it was one of the first places they'd think to look for him.
He camped at the foot of Wilkerson Pass and woke the next day to find that he had thrown off most of his covers during the night. "Why do I feel so warm?" he wondered. "The nights at this altitude are quite crisp, even in summer."
He crossed over the pass and continued along the Springs road, but found himself still feeling uncomfortably hot. He paused, feeling of his forehead but unable to tell whether he was fevered or not, since his hand was naturally at the same temperature as the rest of him. It wasn't until the chills began to hit that he realized something was seriously wrong.
"Good Lord, I am fallin' ill with some unknown malady," he told himself. "Where is Mr. Jackson when one needs him most? I must find shelter, ideally some situation where I can watch my back trail, and rest until I am feelin' better."
Gambit shifted uneasily beneath him, seeming to pick up on his uncertain state, and then blew loudly through his nostrils and stretched his neck out to the right, where the trees crowded close along the side of the trail. "What is it, dear friend?" Ezra whispered. "What do you wish to show me?" He let the reins fall slack and concentrated on staying in the saddle and enduring the alternating waves of fever and chills.
The chestnut, feeling through the bit that he was being given his head, turned and pushed his way through the trees.
Vin and JD obtained supplies and a pack horse while Buck got the second telegram off to Chris, and the three regulators headed northward across desolate, alkali-spotted prairie country, with the steep wall of the Sangre de Cristos rearing on their right, and the great bulk of Sierra Blanca Peak standing out prominently above its lesser neighbors. They camped for the night in a cottonwood grove at the edge of the barren, mysterious Great Sand Dunes, deposited over thousands of years by southwesterly winds rising against the neighboring mountains. The dunes had been visible even from Trinidad, and while they appeared tawny at close range, farther off their colors changed constantly with the light, creamy white in the full glare of the sun, chocolate and purple where the shadows lay. Some of them rose as high as 700 feet, and the setting sun painted them a brilliant red. As the moon rose, they took on a cold, eerie, forbidding appearance, made all the more so by the weird moaning of the wind blowing over them and the occasional deep rumbling sound of sliding sand on one of the steep lee slopes. JD was jumpy as a cat, though he tried not to let his more experienced friends see it. Buck, of course, couldn't resist the opportunity to get in some teasing. "I heard of a lot of sheepherders and their flocks that disappeared in these dunes," he said. "One spring a rancher named Hansen ordered his herders to different parts of the range. The hardest job, movin' sheep through the dunes to Mosca Pass, he handed to an old Mexican who started out with a thousand head, two helpers and a pack train. The other men seen him safe to the foot of the Pass and then went home. Weeks went by, nothin' was heard of him, and his boss got up a search. As far as anybody could find out, he never made it to the other side of the pass, and nothin' was ever heard of him again."
"Maybe somebody killed him and rustled his sheep," JD guessed.
"Maybe, maybe not," said Buck. He pointed toward a faintly visible notch in the mountains. "That's Mosca up there. Back when folks were first comin' into this valley, before the railroad, it was used as a freight route. One night a long wagon train reached the bottom of it and made camp for the night at the edge of the dunes. There was a shallow river right there, and they formed up beside it, hobbled their mules and turned 'em out, and rolled up in their blankets a little ways off. Next mornin' the wagons and mules had vanished. Nobody ever found 'em."
JD snorted, not convincingly. "You're full'a crap, Buck."
"I heard that same yarn," Vin put in. "Always figgered maybe the train dropped into a quicksand; they form hereabouts now and again. It ain't good thinkin' to go more'n half a mile or so into the dunes alone or without no water--too much danger of gettin' lost."
"Ever hear the one about the web-footed horses?" Buck asked him.
"Horses ain't got webbed feet," JD protested scornfully.
"These do," Tanner replied, "or anyhow that's what the story says. On bright moonlight nights like this, or just afore sunrise, you can see big horses ag'in' the horizon, with their heads raised in challenge and manes blowin' in the wind. Instead of hooves they got big webbed feet that let 'em race over the sands without sinkin' in."
The kid eyed him uncertainly, knowing that the Texan's sense of humor was sometimes peculiar but generally expressed itself in pranks rather than tall tales. He kept sneaking glances at the profile of the dunes all evening, until they finally turned in.
The next morning they gratefully left the groaning sands behind and took their way along a half-dry riverbed running a little west of north across dry, dusty flats on which sheep and cattle could occasionally be seen grazing. Cottonwoods lined it, with their furrowed whitish-gray bark and characteristic light-green foliage--a sure sign that there was water under the surface. The riverbed forked, with a signboard at the junction pointing northwest to Saguache, 25 mi. Vin took a northerly bearing, and six or eight miles farther on they passed the distant high serrated spike of Crestone Needle, one of the most prominent peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. The land began to rise, and water appeared in the riverbed. The terrain was level except for occasional upthrusts of rock, with broad expanses covered with chico and greasewood, broken frequently by cultivated fields. Horses and cattle grazed in scattered clumps at intervals as far as the eye could reach.
The valley narrowed and steepened as the trail climbed through Poncha Pass, just over 9000 feet high. They camped for the night just below the gap, and the following day were no sooner through it than the ground began dropping steeply, until they came to a collection of mineral springs fully 1500 feet lower. Here a well-marked road came on at right angles, with a signboard at the fork giving the mileage to Gunnison on the west and Cañon City on the east.
Abruptly the steady up-and-down movement of Peso's head to the rhythm of his walk became a lower nod, and he lifted his left forefoot off the ground as if it was tender. Vin checked immediately and swung down to look at the offending limb. Buck and JD pulled up and waited. "He okay?" the kid asked.
"Looks like he done picked up a rock," Tanner grunted, facing the black's rump and lifting the leg between his knees as he pulled out his jackknife and flipped the hooked blade out. After a moment there was a flash of sun on a small airborne object, and the Texan let the horse's hoof down and went to see what it was, just in case it might have sharp edges to it that could have cut into Peso's tender frog. "Sat-kan!" he exclaimed in guttural Comanche, dropping to one knee as if he'd been struck. "Ezra!"
"What? Where?" Both his friends looked around wildly, then dismounted and went to join him.
Vin was bent over a line of barely-visible tracks cut into the bare surface of the trail. "Gambit's been by here," he rasped. "Lookit this, JD. 'Member I been teachin' you how to know each of our horses' prints? Tell me what you see."
JD pushed his bowler back and peered closely at the faint impressions. One of the first things he had learned about tracking was that no two animals of the same species left identical trails, especially shod horses: gaits, manner of shoeing, the impact with which the hooves struck the ground, the look of the track itself, or more often some combination, were a little different in each. Very few horses had feet exactly the same size as any other, and two animals the rounds of whose forefeet curved in the same way wouldn't have the same curves to the ovals of the hind ones. If for some reason it wasn't immediately clear which was which, and the track was plain enough to show the nailhead marks, you could count them and find six or seven in the front, eight in the back. And each blacksmith worked a little differently, putting his own "trademark" on the shoes he crafted. The Seven, except in out-of-town emergencies, naturally had their horses shod by Yosemite, usually every three to five weeks, and JD had quickly become familiar with the man's style. "Jeez, you're right," he said. "Gambit's got a way of walkin' on the heel of his off fore, so Ezra always has a shoe with longer heel calks put on that foot. And 'member just before he left the stablehand got careless about muckin' out the stall and Gambit got thrush? I thought Ezra was gonna slap him silly when he found out. He hadta have all four shoes pulled and bar-shoes put on. It shows real plain here, a bar across the heel on all four tracks and long calks on the off fore. The shoes ain't real old, but they're gettin' there--outlines are just gettin' blurry, gotta be at least two weeks since they were last done."
Buck leaned over the kid's shoulder, swearing softly in amazement. "Either this is somebody else ridin' our pard's horse, or that slick trickster figured out a way to get clear of whoever was holdin' him. Whichever, we'd ought to follow and find out. How long you reckon since he's been through?"
Vin frowned over the tracks, observing the dryness of their edges and how crumbled they were. "Three days, more likely four," he guessed at length. "Looks like he 's comin' on up from the valley...yeah, here--he got off his horse to stretch and take a look at the signboard. See this? He had his left foot on this rock, and most of his weight leant onto it. But you can see his right print clear. It's Ez. Size and shape of the foot, length of the stride, depth of the track, way he points his toes, the crisp print of the heel, even the pattern of the seams--it's all his."
"He headed up the Trout Creek Pass trail," JD pointed out. "Goin' easy, just a nice steady walk--nobody chasin' him. What do you figure he's doin' takin' that way? Why'n't he head south, toward home?"
"Romeo's 'twixt here and there. Maybe he 's scairt of runnin' into the fellers he got away from. We know they's four of 'em and only one of him, them ain't odds Ez likes."
"Then let's get goin'," Buck exclaimed, turning to catch up his gray. "We're far enough behind him as it is, he's just gettin' more of a lead on us the longer we stand here talkin' about it."
Ezra winced in pain as the stamping of Gambit's hooves re-echoed through his aching head. He drew his shivering body into a knot against the two adjoining walls of the corner where he crouched, hugging his blankets more closely around him. He felt distinctly unwell. He ached in every joint and muscle he owned, his throat was sore, he was excessively thirsty, and he'd been nauseous for what seemed a very long time, suffering persistent abdominal pain and vomiting until he had nothing more to bring up. He vaguely remembered barely being able to get out of Gambit's saddle the first time the urge came on him. He'd been mercifully free of that symptom, at least, for a while, and had no intention of incurring the possibility of it again--which was easy because he had no appetite whatsoever.
He gazed around him at the unfamiliar log walls, the dim interior broken only by the gaps of the small windows and open door, and squinted as the light seemed to shoot through his eyeballs like one of Nathan Jackson's scalpels, jabbing into his brain. Where am I? he wondered in confusion. This isn't...where was I before? There was a bed... wasn't there? A ceiling? I...I climbed into a loft, somehow, didn't I? His eye lit on the sleek Remington revolving rifle lying close beside him on the rammed-earth floor. Where are my pistols? He flexed his arm in the long-practised maneuver that should have brought his derringer snapping down into his waiting palm, and felt the movement of the spring-loaded mechanism against his forearm, but no deadly little double-barrelled hideout made its appearance. Bewildered, he reached into his coat, groping for the shoulder-holster and finding nothing but the edge of his vest. He slid his hand down his thigh in search of the Remington; it was gone too. They've taken it... Who are they? Where are they? Where am I?
"He camped here," Vin declared. "Scattered his fire and buried it, don't know's he 's thinkin' of somebody on his tail or jus' tryin' to keep from settin' the forest to blazin', but you can still see a little bit of the ashes here, just as a gray smear mixed in with the soil."
"Here's where he had his horse tied," JD added. "Same tracks we been following, and better sheltered. You can see 'em clearer. They're Gambit's, no doubt of it."
"This must be one of his campfire rocks," Buck guessed, turning it in his hands. "It's still blackened on one side where the flames touched it." He looked up at the tracker. "We gettin' any distance on him?"
"Hard to say," Vin admitted, kicking at a dry and crumbling horse turd. "Iffen he laid over here Sunday night, we's still three and a half days ahind him. Depends how long he laid abed."
Buck snorted. "Then we'll catch him easy. You know Ezra, he don't stir himself before ten."
"That's only on account he sits up past midnight most nights, playin' poker or watchin' the jail or doin' night patrol," JD reminded him. "He wouldn't be doin' none of them things way out here."
Wilmington scowled at him. "You're a regular ray of sunshine, ain't you, boy?"
"Oncet we git over the crest of the pass we'll have it all downhill," Tanner observed. "We can make real time then. This here's the Park Range--they call it that on account of South Park's on the other side. That's good level country, easy travellin'. We should get 'most the whole way acrost afore we got to make camp. Let's go."
The trail across the Park was well beaten down and showed tracks only occasionally, but now that Vin knew who he was following he could employ his favorite method and put himself in the head of his quarry. He figured Ezra wasn't likely to stray off the road, either because he had some definite destination in mind--Ezra always seemed to know where he wanted to end up--or because he knew it would eventually lead him to other people and help in replenishing his supplies and, perhaps, dealing with his kidnappers. Since the gambler was making no other effort to hide his sign, Tanner was able to watch it from horseback, moving at a long-reaching trot beside the line of impressions, occasionally breaking into a lope. All he needed was an occasional heel-impress showing clearly here, a toe-print there, a string of turds at intervals where a ridden horse, unable to stop as a loose one would do, had relieved itself as it went. A half-dozen such fragmentary impressions every mile or so was enough to assure him that he hadn't lost the gambler's trail. Buck and JD stayed back by a few yards so as not to mess it up.
By the time they stopped for the night, about half-past five by Buck's watch, they had reached the bottom of the long slope leading up to Wilkerson Pass, a hundred fifty feet higher than Trout Creek. "We's gainin'," Vin declared. "He passed the night here, same's he done below Trout Creek--likely wanted Gambit to be fresh for the climb. Looks like it weren't no later'n Monday night that he 's here."
Buck glared up at the heights towering above them. "Ain't he headin' straight for the Springs?"
"Looks that way," Vin agreed. He pointed toward a snowy peak that reared up in the distance somewhat to the right of the Pass, incredibly clear and close-seeming in that crystal mountain air, though almost certainly at least thirty miles off as the eagle flew. "That's Pike's Peak yonder. Iffen he keeps on this trail, he'll get there in another day, two longest."
"Might be he heard the fellers who had him sayin' somethin'," JD guessed, "and he knew Maude would be there."
"Ez ain't one to go runnin' to his ma for help," Buck reminded him. "Hell, there's times he can't hardly stand the sight of her. But if he heard that some of us was there--that'd be different." He snorted. "I can just see Chris's face if he spots Ez ridin' down the street as big as you please, after all the bother he's gone to tryin' to get him back."
Vin straightened from a squatting position just beyond the remains of Ezra's campfire. "Looks like he passed a restless night," he said. "Done a lot of tossin' around, seems."
"Likely don't care to lie out on the hard ground," JD observed. "Ezra's never seen a camp he likes."
The Texan shook his head slightly. "For a man that feels that way, he makes a good one for hisself. Knows just how much wood to collect for a night's burnin', fixes a decent bed to lay on, and they was burnt fishbones mixed in with the ashes at that last camp--he'd been rustlin' his own grub."
"We best rustle some of ours," Buck said. "You see to the horses, son, and I'll try and get us some meat."
"Gentlemen," said Maude with a sweet smile, "I do believe I am again the winner."
The Kanes stared in furious astonishment at the shoal of coin and paper she had just raked in on the strength of a straight flush in diamonds, ace-high. Chris and Josiah stood a little back from her chair, grim and alert, their eyes switching from side to side as they waited to see how the trio would take it. The Kanes had sent word that morning that they had received a parcel of drafts (safer than cash), deeds, and stock certificates from their bank and were prepared to resume their ongoing game. Chris had watched as each piece of paper was successively wagered, as Maude once again played her victims like the expert she was, sinking the hook a little deeper with each enticing win she allowed them. There was cash too, though not as much of it as on the previous nights--the banks in the Springs probably didn't have enough on hand to honor all the drafts. It wasn't easy to estimate the worth of the non-monetary paper, but the gunfighter knew that the drafts alone had come to more than $1,350,000. This was it; this was the last night they would need to maintain the charade. And once we give up the money, will they let Ezra go? Or will they be afraid he's seen or heard too much, and just kill him? He said they were ready to do it if Maude didn't play along.
If they do, how the hell will we ever find 'em? How will we even the score for him without the kind of information he's the only one in a position to give?
Damn irritating Southerner, I don't want to lose him. I don't want to have to live with knowin' I failed someone else the way I failed Sarah and Adam and Buck.
The room was tense and silent, the spectators holding their breath, knowing as well as Larabee did that this was a pivotal moment. The Kanes still had some money before them--quite a lot, in fact; the equivalent of at least a million dollars. Maude hadn't stripped them of everything they'd brought to the table; in that, at least, she was like her son--Chris had observed before that Ezra was always careful to leave his opponents' pride intact and to make sure they still had a stake with which to build against a future engagement. But she'd won a good seventy per cent of it, and Larabee had seen the prearranged signal which meant she'd been keeping count and had reached the figure specified as Ezra's "ransom;" she was ready to make an end to it now. They could still get their losses back, or some of them, if she was willing to allow it--but of course she wouldn't. She didn't dare take the risk. "Mr. Larabee," she said languidly, "I should like to return to the hotel now."
"Sure thing, Duchess," Chris agreed, playing his part.
"You can't quit now!" Francis Kane blustered. "You're too far ahead! You're into each of us for almost $960,000, and that's just tonight!"
Maude arched a delicate eyebrow at him. "Mr. Kane, if you do not wish to lose, you should not be playin' poker. The hour is growin' late, and I am commencin' to weary of your society--and to find that you present me no worthy challenge. I had hoped that over four nights' time you would display a better grasp of the game."
"Wait a minute," objected George. "Are you saying you're not even planning to give us another chance? Tomorrow night, maybe?"
"I am not in the habit of bankruptin' my opponents, sir," Maude told him calmly. "I do not wish to depart this charmin' locality with the knowledge that you have dissipated into my pockets the substance with which you should be supportin' your wives and children. I have no quarrel with them--or with you--and I refuse to be a party to your ruination."
"You heard the lady, son," Josiah rumbled gently. "She's had all the fun she wants out of you. She doesn't want to play you any more. So you won't be losing anything else to her."
"I hear you boys grew up on the Comstock," Chris added quietly. "You should know that out here what a lady says goes." He smiled, thinly, coldly. "I'd hate to have to shoot you for havin' no manners."
Oddly enough it was Darcy, the dandyish middle brother, who proved the stabilizing influence. "George. Francis," he warned. "Let it go. We've been whipped. Let's accept it like gentlemen and chalk it up as a learning experience." He stood, tipping his planter's Panama to Maude. "Never play poker with an Italian duchess," he added, with a faint glint of sarcastic humor.
"That is most discernin' of you, Mr. Kane," Maude told him. "Were you aware that the first playin' cards were brought to this Hemisphere by an Italian--Christopher Columbus? Who was eventually ennobled, if by the Spanish crown. And very probably they were first imported to Europe by another, Marco Polo. We are, indeed, experts in their use. As you have had occasion to observe."
Looking sour, but too experienced in reading people to risk incurring the wrath of a professional gunfighter, the eldest and youngest Kanes permitted their brother to persuade them out of the bar, taking with them the remains of their stake. The audience began murmuring excitedly and settling their own side bets. The bartender sent one of the waiters over with a sturdy canvas bag that fastened with a padlock. "They've got a key to this over at Will Jackson's bank," he explained. "He can make whatever arrangements you want about getting it safely home, so you won't risk being robbed."
"I don't reckon we're too worried about that," Chris replied, "but it's sure handier than carryin' it all loose. Josiah, you take it and I'll cover you."
As soon as the LaFont bar had closed for the night, one of the waiters got his horse from the barn out back and rode a block or two north and four northwest to the edge of Colorado City. Despite the wide-open nature of the place, it was reasonably quiet tonight, this being the middle of the week, and it took only a few minutes for the man to make his way to one of the inexpensive hotels that catered to the people lacking the wherewithal to stay in the Springs. He tied his horse, slipped past the dozing desk clerk, and hurried upstairs to the room numbered 27, where he knocked on the door, trying not to disturb the rest of the floor. After several tries it was opened by an irritated redhead in hastily-donned moleskin trousers, his leather suspenders hanging down below his waist and a lamp in one hand. "What the hell-- oh, it's you."
"That woman you told me to keep an eye on--the one who called herself the Duchess of something or other and had those two gunfighters watching her back--she just as good as told the Kanes she was through playing poker with 'em," the waiter reported. "For a minute it looked like they wanted to argue, but they backed off."
"How much did she win?" the redhead demanded, suddenly completely awake.
"I don't know, but there had to be at least two or three hundred thousand in cash on the table. I got a look at some of the paper that was being bet, a few times, as I was bringing drinks over. There were stock certificates, and what looked like property deeds, and bank drafts, and I don't know what all else. Now where's that fifty dollars you promised me?"
The redhead turned back into the room, reached under the mattress on the iron bedstead, produced a calfskin money pouch and extracted a roll of bills from it. He quickly peeled off a twenty and three tens and slapped them into the waiter's hand. "There. Now get out of here."
The waiter made himself scarce, and the redhead shut the door behind him and reached for his shirt. Half an hour later he had checked out and claimed his horse and was heading down the moonlit southeast trail at a steady lope.
Two hours' ride brought him to a side road, and another mile or so down that he passed under a wrought-iron archway centered by a reproduction of the KKKKonnected brand. He circled around the two-storey white frame house with the pillars running along the front of it and hammered on the kitchen door until he roused the Chinese cook. Fifteen minutes after that he was standing before the desk in the study, trying to pretend his boss wasn't wearing a thin flannel nightgown under her blue silk wrapper.
Miranda Kane listened as he repeated the waiter's report, then opened one of the drawers and pulled out an envelope already sealed, stamped, and addressed. "Get some breakfast and a fresh horse," she told him, "and then go back to town and slip this into the mail slot at the post office. You should be able to do it before they open."
Cole Newbolt's segundo accepted the envelope and tucked it into an inner pocket of his faded leather jacket. "Do I come back here after?"
"Yes, you can come back. You won't be needed in the Springs any longer."
The redhead touched his hatbrim in salute. "Yes'm."
After he'd left, Miranda smiled in sly triumph and reached into the same drawer as before to bring out several yellowed newspaper clippings and peruse their headlines briefly. She folded them carefully, smoothing them in a gesture as of farewell, and tucked them into a second envelope, which she sealed and addressed as the first had been. Then she opened the stamp-box on the desk and got out a couple of two-cent stamps, which she pasted neatly in place on the corner of the envelope. She returned it to the drawer and swept out of the room and upstairs to get dressed. At breakfast, for which she had an excellent appetite, she'd suggest to her sister and nephews that they take the next couple of days off and enjoy an excursion up Pike's Peak.
Vin checked Peso and slipped from the saddle to bend over the tracks, frowning. "Somethin' ain't right."
"What happened? You lose Gambit's sign?" Buck asked from Plata's back.
"Naw, I got it still. But he ain't goin' like he was afore. He's kinda meanderin', like Ez weren't givin' him no cues where he should be headed."
"What do you figure it means?" JD wondered.
"Don't know, but I don't like it," Vin admitted. "Look, you ride along the south side of the trail, and Bucklin, you take the north. Watch for any sign that Ez turned off. I'll keep to the middle."
Pawn IndexComments to: Sevenstars