The poster had been signed by the Superintendent of the Pinkerton Agencys Western Division, based in Chicago, and dated August 26, 1876. Ezra liked Pinkerton flyers: they gave the best and most extensive information of any. And the Pinkertons, who had a national reputation to uphold, would certainly see to it that anyone who brought in one of their wants got the full reward he was entitled to. The man who now stood across the street from him, shaking his match out, fit the description of Cort Guthrie exactly, even unto the Masonic ring and snakeskin hatband, the mole on his cheek and the dark red bandanna tied closely to cover the left side of his neck.
Seven hundred dollars, Ezra thought. Compared to what Mother had netted in some of her cons, it wasnt a very impressive figure--but it was only a little less than Buck had earned in the whole time they had been in Silver City. Ezra had long been accustomed to the concept that his mother only wanted him with her when he could better her chances of making money, and that had instilled in him the idea that he was valued not for who he was, but for what he could do. So far he hadnt been able to do much of anything to improve Bucks financial situation--mining-camp prices were so high that his earnings from errands and Mrs. Norwood were just about enough to pay his expenses--and that troubled him. He was genuinely grateful to Buck for accepting the unexpected and probably unwanted responsibility he represented, but he was so inexperienced in expressing emotion that he really knew of only one way to show that he cared. If he could lead the authorities to Guthrie and claim the reward, he could then give it to Buck, and Buck would understand that he could be useful and support himself even if he wasnt permitted to use the skills Mother had taught him.
Bucks endless kindness and patience was unlike anything Ezra had experienced before. It had taken the boy a long time to admit to himself that the big man didnt have some angle working, didnt want something from him: his experience up to now was that there were two kinds of people in the world--the ones who neglected (or better yet ignored) you, and the ones who were looking to use or exploit you in some way. Most of his relatives fell into the first category, his mother generally into the second. Yet Buck never gave any hint, even after he had begun to uncover some of Ezras more dubious talents, of wanting to make any use of them. He simply seemed to have a vast capacity for love, a powerful need to protect others, and a heart as big as Texas. And while he was generous with time and money, he never demanded any sort of repayment, only that Ezra conform to certain standards of conventional conduct, chiefly by refraining from gambling. "Youre too young to do that kind of stuff," hed said when Ezra demanded an explanation, "and you dont need to anyhow as long as youre with me--Ill see to it youve got everything you need." (Ezra had decided not to say anything about some of the places his mother had taken him or the cons hed had a hand in; he wasnt entirely sure how Buck would react to that information, and he had learned early on the truth of the maxim, "Least said, soonest mended." This didnt mean he wouldnt "dazzle em with bullshit," as Buck had once said, if he thought the situation demanded it, but it did mean he was careful never to volunteer anything that might be used against either himself or Maude. Even if she had abandoned him once again, she was still Mother, and he had no intention of betraying her. In any case, he was slowly coming to the vague realization that his relatives uncaring and often scornful use of him was somehow connected to either something Maude had done in the past or the things she did to earn a living. He didnt propose to leave himself vulnerable to any more of the same. He knew, of course, that this pleasant interlude couldnt last, but he didnt want to bring Bucks contempt down on his head any sooner than necessary.) It actually appeared to give him pleasure to have Ezra around. At the same time, Ezra would occasionally catch Buck watching him with a sad, somber, remembering expression. People who were unhappy about having you around always rid themselves of you eventually. Ezra didnt want to leave the man without paying his debt. If the truth were told, he didnt want to leave him at all. If he could show that he could be of legitimate use, perhaps Buck would let him stay a little longer. Surely Buck, who had been a lawman when they first met, would think it commendable for him to aid in the capture of a wanted fugitive--setting aside the money, not that Ezra thought he ever would!
Ezra rose casually to his feet and began idling along the walkway, paralleling the progress of the man who was probably Cort Guthrie as he moved away from the saloon and up the street. As was logical for an outlaw, Guthrie kept close to the curb himself, not wanting to get squeezed in by someone who would encumber his gun hand, and this made it easy for Ezra to keep him in sight. People didnt expect to be followed sideways, and in any case, who would be suspicious of a small boy in a fleece-lined saddle coat and a remarkably clean brown denim suit? Ezras innocence and attractiveness had been useful on many occasions, whether in earning money or in distracting or diverting unwanted attention. He strolled along with his little express wagon--borrowed from Mrs. Norwood to carry the pies--trailing behind him, until Guthrie turned in at one of the hotels. Once the mans back was turned, Ezra quickly parked the wagon in an alley and scuttled across the muddy expanse of the street, weaving deftly through the traffic, to worm his way between the people surging up and down the other boardwalk and squirm, on hands and knees, in the open lobby doorway. Guthrie was clearly visible climbing the stairs to the second floor. Ezra slid around the perimeter of the room, passing across the front of the registration desk so its height would shield him from the view of the clerk on duty, and followed quietly. Clearly Guthrie had taken a room here, but he probably knew he was wanted and therefore would not be using the name given on his poster. Ezra would need to find out which room he was in without having to inquire of the clerk--who, even if he bothered to pay attention to the question, might demand some share in the reward.
The hotel was a three-storey oblong set at the junction of two streets, about seventy-five feet broad by a hundred-odd deep, with eight windows across the front on each upper floor, and eleven plus a fire door down the side; the lower fire door had a tiny hanging landing just outside it, and a long railed stair running down to grade. Presumably there were also fire doors on the alley, but Ezra hadnt been able to make them out on account of the press of pedestrians. Two stores, one about twice the width of the other, occupied the street frontage, with the lobby, dining room, and so on tucked into the middle and back of that level and a third store at the right rear corner. At the top of the stair a lengthwise hallway with flowered paper (not as clean as it might have been) and a pink-and-gray floral carpet (much the worse for the mud continually tracked in by the guests) ran between twin rows of doors, to which the management had attempted to give a hint of tone by providing them with white porcelain plaques on with the numbers painted on them in black enamel. Slinking up the stairs in Guthries wake, the boy knelt on the topmost and watched him unlock one of the doors on the alley side and disappear into the room beyond. Fixing its location in his mind, he crept down the hallway until he reached it and could read the number on it. Now he knew where the outlaw was domiciled. But Guthries poster clearly stated that he had once run with a gang, and even though the other members of it had been captured or killed, that didnt mean he hadnt assembled or joined another one since. Perhaps by listening at the door Ezra would be able to hear something that would confirm or deny this possibility. At least if he made out two voices, he would know Guthrie wasnt alone. These camp hotels were usually so quickly thrown together that anyone who weighed more than fifty pounds or so (and Ezra only weighed about forty-five) set up squeaks from the floorboards whenever they moved: hed have warning if Guthrie started toward the door to go out again. He squeezed up against the thin plank surface and pressed his ear to it, holding his breath and listening. He could hear the clink of glass on glass (doubtless Guthrie was pouring himself a drink of whiskey) and the shriek of bedsprings (he was stretching out on the bed), and a faint soft rustling sound as of a newspaper being shaken out. There was no hint that any other person might be in there with him.
He was so focused on what was going on inside the room that he didnt realize he wasnt alone until a voice above him demanded, "What are you doing here, kid? Get away from that door!"
Ezras heart leaped into his throat as he scrambled around on his hindquarters, but his face was composed as he gazed up into the puzzled face of the man who had accosted him. Younger than Guthrie by at least twenty years, as tall as Buck but more slender, with curly blue-black hair and the blue eyes and upturned nose of Irish blood, he wore a fringed open-throat shirt of finest doeskin with a red-and-black-checked cloth shirt showing underneath it, and age-rusty blue Army trousers with the canary-yellow stripe of the U. S. Cavalry down the outseams. Two guns were crossbelted on his hips--plain, workmanlike guns with dark blue metal and darkened walnut butts. "I meant no harm, sir," he improvised. "I lost my best blood agate. I thought it rolled in this direction, but this passage is so dark I couldnt be certain. The only way I could think to find it was to feel about on the floor until my hand fell on it. It would be a terrible tragedy if it were to roll under someones foot and cause them an injury."
The man grunted. "Guess so. All right, is it there? Cause if it aint I want to get in that door." He hesitated a moment. "Hey, wait--Ive seen you..."
Ezra pushed off, shooting between the mans legs, as hands reached suddenly toward him. The man whirled and took after him. In two long strides he had caught up and stepped in front of the boy, blocking his access to the lobby stairs. Ezra skittered, took evasive action, and bolted down the cross-passage that led to the fire stair. It did him no good. A hand closed on the back of his jacket, yanking him up off his feet; an arm doubled around his waist, hugging him close against the mans body despite his flailing and kicking, and the other hand loosed its grip on his clothing and clamped over his mouth before he could draw in a breath large enough to scream. He gasped and bit. The man swore viciously but didnt loose his grip; instead he slapped Ezra ringingly alongside the head for his pains, stunning him. Dazed and dizzy, Ezra was dimly aware of the long legs striding back down the way they had come, the quick rattle of a key in the door lock, and then the filtered light of the alley room--not very bright, but certainly more conducive to clear vision than the ill-lit hall--and an exclamation, presumably from Guthrie, of "What the hell!"
Ezras captor slammed the door shut behind them and threw the boy into the corner by the spittoon. "Look what I found outside huntin for a lost marble!" he barked triumphantly. "This is Wilmingtons boy, Cort."
The bedsprings squealed as Guthrie swung his legs over the edge of the mattress and stood up, crossing to stand over the boy. His partner joined him, forming an effective fence of legs through which Ezra couldnt have squeezed even if his head hadnt been full of shooting stars. "Are you sure?"
"Sure Im sure," retorted the younger man. "Aint I been watchin him these last two weeks? Im tellin you, this is the boy, the one whos living with Wilmington at the boarding house, sure as Im a foot high. I got a couple of good looks at him when the two of em headed out riding. No way I could mistake him."
"Well, what do you know about that," Guthrie drawled in a satisfied tone, slowly sinking down on his heels to study Ezra more closely. "Here we were beatin our brains tryin to think how we could get our hands on him without tryin to snatch him off the street and risk half the camp seein us at it, and he just about falls right into our laps. I tell you, Dillon, I could almost believe my boy Matt is watchin me from above and sendin me breaks when he can."
Dillon snorted. "More likely he headed the other way, from what youve told me. But Lady Lucks on our side for sure. What do you want to do with him? Dont figure its too smart to keep him here."
"No," Guthrie agreed, watching Ezra thoughtfully; the boys head had cleared somewhat and he was instinctively squeezing back into the angle where the walls met, but trying his best to school his face to imperturbability. "No, but we cant take him out till it gets dark. Gag him and tie him to the chair, Dillon. Later we can sneak him out the fire door and up the alley."
Dillon reached down, fisted a hand in the front of Ezras shirt, and pulled him up. "What do you intend to do with me, sir?" the boy demanded, writhing his head aside to avoid the folded handkerchief in the mans other hand.
"Hold still, boy, and dont make us any trouble, or Ill give you another bruise to go with the one youve got already," Guthrie ordered. "Were not gonna do anything with you, except take you to a safe place later on. Whats Wilmington to you? Your pa, your uncle?"
"Neither, sir, I assure you," Ezra replied truthfully. "Merely a temporary associate--an unofficial guardian, if you will. There is no bond between us, and he has no reason to be overly concerned about my condition." The mention of "getting our hands on him," coupled with the pointed references to Buck, furnished clues enough to one who had the wit to interpret them: Guthrie clearly had some grudge he wanted to settle with the big gunslinger, and he hoped to use Ezra as a pawn to insure Bucks meek acquiescence to whatever he had planned. If he could persuade these men that Buck had no personal interest in him, maybe they would release him.
"Dillon? That true?" Guthrie demanded of his partner.
Dillon thrust his thumb into the angle of Ezras jaw, forcing his mouth open and quickly jamming the handkerchief into it, then as promptly withdrawing his fingers before he could be bitten again. He pulled the navy silk bandanna off from around his neck and used it to fasten the wad in place, then deposited Ezra on one of the rooms two straight-backed chairs with somewhat more force than was really necessary, jerked his arms roughly around behind the splint backrest, and began lashing his wrists together before whipping the bonds around the uprights themselves. "Well, Id have to admit I aint seen any huggin or the like between em," he said as he worked, "but Wilmington sure looks at the kid like he means somethin to him. Puts a hand on the back of his neck real gentle-like to steer him into the house for supper. Holds onto his hand takin him to shows and plays and such, so he dont get lost in the crowds. Saddles his pony for him, sets a packing box alongside it so he can mount. Things like that."
Guthrie nodded. "That sounds like a pa to me, sure enough. Done the same things myself when Matt was a little feller." He fixed hard blue eyes on Ezra as Dillon knelt to immobilize his struggling legs and lash them to the stretchers of the chair. "Boy, Wilmington may be your pa or he may not--though I damn well wouldnt be surprised if he was, knowing the rep he has with the women--but I got a notion that wantin to keep you safe will persuade him to do a lot of things he might not do if he was by himself. You seem like a mannerly young feller, by the way you talk. Well, youre gonna be doin me a real good turn. Youll be helpin me settle scores for my son." He studied the frightened boy closely for a moment, then reached out to tug the knot out of his navy-blue tie with the anchors embroidered in white down the middle of it and slip it out from under his collar. "He buy you this, did he?"
Ezra nodded silently, sensing that Guthrie didnt really need the confirmation but understanding instinctively that only by meek co-operation could he keep himself from further hurt--or perhaps lull the two men into going off guard so he could try to escape and get back to Buck before they could carry out whatever plan they had. "Then I reckon hell recognize it when he sees it," Guthrie observed. "Itll do to prove weve got you. Dillon, when does he get home from the mine?"
"Shift changes at four, and it dont take him more than twenty minutes to walk down to the boarding house if it aint raining," was the reply. " Course he may not really miss the boy till suppertime, and thats at seven."
"Go keep watch," Guthrie ordered. "Hell likely check with that pie-bakin woman first, then start searchin the camp. Once hes away from the house, come tell me. Stop off for the horses. Itll be dark by then; we can drop off the tie with a note on our way out to that shack you found."
His work could almost be described as boring--there was really very little call for his skills with a gun--but as he walked back toward the boardinghouse after the four oclock shift change there was, as always, a spring in Bucks step at the thought of soon being home with Ezra. They had been together now for over six months, and while the boy was still hesitant to trust or to offer open affection, and often seemed bewildered by some of his foster fathers edicts, Buck honestly believed he could see a change taking place. It pleased him to think he was getting through to the perplexing, provocative child. He found himself thinking of the good time they had had at Christmas. Having been reared chiefly in the Upper South and in a bordello owned by a woman who had many connections in that region and drew a large percentage of her staff from it, he had considerable familiarity with its holiday customs, and because he wanted Ezra to feel at home, he had persuaded their landlady to deck the house extravagantly with pine and other greenery and essay a few traditional Southern dishes. Ezra had providentially worn a hole in one of his stockings just in time for it to be spirited off to Mrs. Norwood, who had mended it and then quietly returned it to Buck to be hung on the mantel on Christmas Eve. And while camp prices were high, at six dollars a day Buck had money to spare for presents. Keeping in mind that Ezra was of a solitary bent, he had chosen his gifts accordingly: candy, raisins, oranges and apples, an iron train of cars, a top, two or three toy wagons, a box of magic tricks (any boy with the deftness of hand hed seen in Ezra would, he thought, be entranced by it), a sled, a set of tin soldiers, a stereoscope all his own and slides to go with it, a set of chessmen, a miniature "parlor pool table"--a sort of oblong tray, complete with balls and cues to scale, that could be placed on a large table and used just like the real kind; a fine pocketknife with two blades and a brass-lined ebony handle; a compass, a slingshot, two toy ships Buck had whittled out himself, a kite emblazoned with a big red dragon, a telescope, half a dozen books chosen with Mrs. Norwoods assistance and advice; some sheet music for Ezras violin, three handsome new neckties, warm winter socks, a fishing rod in sections that fitted together, a set of tooled saddlebags, a new sketchbook and a box of two dozen colored pastels, a folding silver cup that could be carried in a pocket until it was wanted (Ezra had always flinched and grimaced in distaste when he had to get down on his stomach and drink directly from a stream or a waterhole on the trail from El Paso), a set of shirt studs with a tiny pearl set into the gold top of each, a pair of satin-finish cuff buttons, a guard for the boys little nickel watch with a pearl horsehead charm, and a fine new bridle for Gambit, made of hand-tooled leather and decorated with small, discreet silver conchas engraved with the boys initials, EPS. Most of it wasnt very large or very heavy, and could easily be packed and taken along when they moved on next time--or if, perish the thought, Maude turned up to reclaim her son. Perhaps, Buck reflected, that was one reason he had wanted to make this holiday special for the boy: if it turned out to be the only one they had together, he meant it to be memorable.
Ezra was the only child currently living at Mrs. OConnells house, and the other boarders had gotten into the spirit of the thing, the men clubbing together to provide a twenty-dollar gold piece, while the women had taken over the kitchen and created a batch of gingerbread cakes with molasses and chopped raisins in them and a big pan of pecan fudge. Buck had gone upmountain and gotten a Christmas tree, and all the boarders had helped to decorate it after Ezra was in bed on Christmas Eve. When the boy came down the next morning, expecting at most a breakfast somewhat more abundant and festive than the norm (since he could hardly have missed the fact that the holiday was approaching), his astonishment couldnt have been more evident if hed just spied a sea monster crawling up the main street of Silver City. At first he had seemed almost reluctant to accept his bounty, because, as he protested, he didnt have anything to give the givers in return. "But we dont expect anything from you, Ez," Buck had assured him. "Aint you ever heard Its better to give than to receive? We want to give you these things, and we want you to enjoy em, on account of it makes us happy to see you happy. Anyway, I always figured Christmas was for kids most of all, bein as its the day Gods little boy was born as one."
Ezra had done his best to maintain a dignified demeanor as he unwrapped one package after another, as befitted a gentleman, but occasionally a little gasp of delight escaped him or a light appeared in his eye at something that seemed especially enjoyable. In the end, his presence had inspired the whole household to exchange gifts, and they did; Mrs. OConnell, giving the boy an expansive hug, told him it was the merriest Christmas she could remember having since her husbands death, "and its you we have to thank for it, dear lad." Afterward they had a huge breakfast and then Buck put a Yule log on the fire and they sang carols and played parlor games and read aloud until four, when they feasted on a string of baked quail, a roast venison loin, ham browned in breadcrumbs, mashed potatoes, candied sweet-potatoes, boiled rice with cinnamon, half a dozen kinds of vegetables and as many pickles and relishes, buttermilk bread, hot mince pie, sweet-potato pie, marbled angel cake, and a rich frosted Lady Baltimore cake redolent of raisins and citron. Mrs. Norwood came over with pies and a cap-and-muffler set she had knitted for Ezra. To top it all off Buck took the boy out in the yard and they shot off rockets and firecrackers, according to the Southern custom. Although Ezra was often reluctant to go to bed at night because, he claimed, he "wasnt sleepy yet," the excitement of that day so wore him out that by half-past eight he was nodding off over the instructions to the magic set, and Buck carried him upstairs and put him in bed without getting so much as a protesting whimper. A couple of hours later when he came up to check, Ezra was smiling in his sleep, all his dimples showing, and there was a damp little spot on the pillow where hed apparently shed a few private tears of joy.
I should think about settlin us someplace, Buck thought. Give the boy a regular home--hes lived so much with one relative or another I reckon boardinghouses dont seem too different to him. He needs a place he knows is his, and maybe a dog--or more likely a cat; hed take to a cat, bein so neat like they are, and so aloof and independent. It dont have to be grand, just a good stout little cabin somewhere will do, two or three rooms, one of em for him. I could do it. Ive still got money in the bank at Eagle Bend from when we had the ranch--reckon its increased some, just sittin there untouched. He considered the prospect. Not a ranch. Ez would do best in town, where theres more goin on to keep his mind occupied. Anyway, if I went to ranchin Id have to spend most of my time out on the range, and I dont figure hed take to cow-work much...and horse ranchin wouldnt be the same without Chris. Maybe a saddle shop? Mr. Vickers back in Kansas City taught me a fair bit about repairin tack, and I could hire a man to fix boots and shoes, or just rent out a corner of the place to one. There must be some growing little cowtown--up north somewhere, maybe; Buck didnt want to make his home in a mineral camp, the economy was too damn chancy--that needed a saddler, or had one who was getting up in years and would be willing to take on a partner who might later buy him out and let him retire. A nice quiet town with a good assortment of unattached ladies and a place on the lecture-and-thespian circuit, a pleasant saloon or two, a stage coming through regularly, a few citizens with collections of books theyd be willing to make available to a bright young boy with clean hands and good manners. The only negative possibility about the plan, as far as he could see, was that staying in one place would make them easier for Maude Standish to find if she one day took it into her head to try to reclaim her son. But, on the other hand, if he were to become a solid, taxpaying business owner somewhere, and prove that he could really make a good home for the boy, the local courts might favor him in any dispute that arose over Ezra. The way things stood now, a judge wasnt likely to decide for either of them--a wandering, homeless gunslinger and a mother whod cavalierly abandoned her child, not once but repeatedly, to the care of anyone who happened to be convenient--and Ezra would likely end up in an orphanage. Not that Id ever let em put him in one, Buck thought, and they wouldnt be likely to put out a want on us, like we were stage robbers or somethin, if I took him and ran. But that wouldnt set him a good example. I want him to grow up decent, like we wanted Adam to, and to respect the law.
He turned in at the swing gate into Mrs. OConnells small front yard and walked up the narrow board path with the bare tomato racks along either side of it, to the prefabricated board-and-batten Gothic house with its symmetrical front, twin downstairs bays, chimneys, and tall pointed gables, and lacy carpenter gingerbread under the eaves. Avoiding the recessed entryway, he swung around to the side, followed the L-shaped veranda to the kitchen door, cleaned his boots on the japanned-iron scraper, knocked once briskly and stepped into the fourteen-by-twenty-foot room, filled with the sweet fragrance of baking-powder bread and the rich aroma of beef, gravy, potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, and home-preserved tomato slices simmering in the big iron pot on the mighty eight-hole range set at the middle of the rear wall. Mrs. OConnell looked up from sliding a sheet of oatmeal cookies out of the oven and smiled at her most charming boarder. "Good evenin to you, Mr. Wilmington, and welcome home."
"And the top of the day to yourself, Mrs. OConnell," Buck replied with a wink, sweeping off his hat and drawing in a deep lungful of the delicious food smells. This was baking day, which meant stew day--the oven was in use for other things from about eight A.M. on--and likely some fine fresh dessert. "What are we havin tonight?"
She chuckled, knowing full well he wasnt inquiring after the main dish. " Tis lemon sponge cake and apple turnovers, to be sure, and baked pears for them as doesnt care for pastry. Will ye not take a rock or two? Theyve fairly cooled since I took them out." She nodded toward the worktable that centered the room, topped with thick planks for most of its length, a stone slab set into one end for kneading dough; an array of cooling cookies of various kinds all but hid the wooden surface. The rocks were irregular drop cookies of sweet dough with raisins and hickory nuts in them; along with them Buck could see sugar cookies and crisp, brown, sweet molasses cookies, and over on the counter of the big cabinet that stood between the pantry doors, golden-brown loaves of bread set out on tea towels. Handing over his japanned tin lunchbox, he peeled the nearest one off its tray and stuffed it into his mouth, sighing with pleasure at the taste.
"Surprised Ez aint under your feet," he observed when hed chewed enough to speak distinctly. "Aint them molasses ones his favorite? And hes plumb fond of your fresh bread." The boy loved a regular routine and had never yet been known to miss the baking-day treat of new warm bread with butter and jelly or brown sugar on it.
" Tis readin that he and Elsie Norwood meant to be, after hed taken the pies around," the landlady explained. "He was after tellin me this mornin that he might be late a bit. Tis one of his Christmas books theyve been at, that one about the Esmond lad, and taken he is by it to be sure. Well ye know how deep the lad can be after sinkin into a book!"
"I know, sure enough," Buck agreed. "Never seen the like of it, not even Chris, and he was right fond of poetry. Well, if he aint back by six-thirty or so Ill go over and fetch him. Reckon Ill have a look at our horses and then wash up."
He made sure Plata and Gambit had food and water and clean stalls, went up to the bedchamber he and Ezra shared above the dining room and made himself presentable, and was lounging in the drawing room with the latest number of Frank Leslies Popular Monthly when he heard an urgent jangling from the bell in the hall, as if someone was tugging repeatedly on the chain by the door. "Ill get it, Mrs. OConnell," he shouted, since the other boarders wouldnt start trickling in till after the standard business day ended at six, and strode out into the large square chamber which served as a sort of extension to the drawing room. Opening the green-painted door, he found himself confronted by Mrs. Norwood, wringing her hands in distress and looking much the way a deer might if it knew it was full in a hunters sights. Immediately, before she could even speak, he felt a cold leaden weight settle in the pit of his stomach. Mrs. Norwood had her own home and establishment and no reason to come over here unless to borrow something (in which case shed go to the kitchen door) or to deliver some message--and the only real point of contact between the two houses was Ezra. He clamped down on the first stirrings of panic and forced himself to speak levelly. "Miz Norwood, whats wrong? Come on in where its warm and tell me." The woman hadnt bothered to so much as throw a shawl around her shoulders, and there was a sharp chill and a smell of impending snow in the air.
"Oh, Mr. Wilmington, thank the Lord youre home! Im so worried about Ezra--he went out with the last batch of pies at two and I havent seen him since. Hes not here, is he?"
They both knew he wouldnt be. If Ezra had told Mrs. OConnell that he meant to go back to Mrs. Norwoods cabin after his deliveries and read Henry Esmond with her, then that was what hed have done--unless something prevented him. Even if hed changed his plans, hed have been careful to at least return her express wagon before he came back: his finicky particularity about his own possessions naturally extended itself to a respect for the property of others. Buck glanced back over his shoulder toward the dining-room door, where Mrs. OConnell was standing, and then steered Mrs. Norwood gently toward her as he said, "No, he aint, but Ill find him. He knows not to go wanderin away from the buildings along the main street, and his ponys in the stable. Maybe he picked up an errand and lost track of time. Where was he supposed to go with the pies?"
She told him. He left her in Mrs. OConnells care, hurried upstairs for his gun, snatched his hat and coat off the cast-iron rococo stand in the recess beside the entranceway, and headed down into the business district with long angry strides. If hes busted his promise to me and gotten himself into a game, I swear Ill shake him till his back teeth rattle, he thought.
But he knew, even then, that Ezra hadnt.
As the quick winter dusk settled about the camp and the noise level in the saloons and brothels and other resorts, making up for the legitimate businesses that closed between about six and ten depending on the briskness of trade, ratcheted up toward a full roar, Buck swept from door to door like a grim-faced tornado, calling first at each place where Ezra had been slated to make a delivery, receiving assurances at each that he had been and gone, and then beginning a systematic search of every place on the main drag that was still open. When this failed to produce any sign of his boy, he stopped outside a shuttered assay office and forced himself to think rationally and logically, as Ezra would. There was no errand he could have hired out to do that would take him this long to complete; hed have had to go someplace outside the camp limits, and that would have required him to get his pony. Mining camps could be full of danger for a child--fast-flowing frigid streams with their volume increased by the prevalent custom of stripping every hillside of its trees, runaway wagons, stray gunshots, horses and mules with kicking hooves, prospect holes to fall into, the risk of being run over by ore carts, crushed by rock blasted from the earth, or flung into the air by the twirling crank of a slipped windlass, and the ever-present litter of blasting caps which caused many to lose fingers or eyes by holding a match to one on a dare--but Ezra was by nature a cautious boy, didnt have any friends his own age who might dare him into things, and had been severely warned to keep away from any mineworks unless Buck or some other adult was with him. The gunslinger found himself remembering what Maude had said the day she first asked him to assume care of her son. Mining camps being even more cosmopolitan than cowtowns (which were often impressive melting-pots on their own account), and drawing moreover a larger number of dubious types, who found hijacking ore or coin a lot more attractive than the tough and dangerous range work involved in rustling cattle or stealing horses, there was more than a possibility that the boy had attracted someones roving eye. Would he have known enough to listen to his own instincts and run from anyone who seemed suspicious? Buck wanted desperately to believe that he would, but he couldnt be sure: Ezra might have spent time in a bordello, but to judge by what little hed let slip, he hadnt grown up in one, and might not really comprehend all the depths of depravity to which human beings could sink.
At length Buck realized he couldnt do it alone. He went up to the mine and asked to have the word of Ezras disappearance passed around when the shift changed again at midnight; many of the workers had met the boy, whom Buck had taken on a tour of the complex soon after he hired on, and might be willing to help look for him, or at least spread the word to others, since most of them would ordinarily stop at some favorite bar to celebrate getting off work before they headed for whatever they called home. Then he started downtown again to report the incident to the local marshal. It was while he was on his way to the jail that he happened to glance into an alley and spot Ezras express wagon tucked behind a rain barrel where no one would be likely to trip over it. He snatched a torch from a bracket on the façade of a nearby saloon and had a look at the ground. The wagon had been parked with careful precision, its long side parallel to the wall of the building, tongue and yoke tipped up, and the muddy ground around it still bore a patterning of small shoeprints. The shoes had apparently headed out into the main street, where every trace of their passage had long since been obliterated by the traffic. But at least I know he was all right, movin under his own power, and not with anybody, Buck told himself. No way it wasnt him that left the wagon here, even if it werent for the tracks--nobody else would take so damn much trouble with a toy. Thing is there aint no way to tell when he was here--this ground never really dries out this time of year. He let his gaze range over the buildings directly opposite: a corner hotel with a hardware store and a dry-goods shop in the frontage and a grocers at the back corner, a furniture-crockery-and-coffins dealer next door. The stores were closed for the night, but light spilled from the narrow passageway that led back to the hotels central lobby. Buck crossed the street and went in. None of the staff could swear to having seen a small, polite, well-dressed, green-eyed boy go in or out, and if hed been there legitimately--delivering a message, say--hed have had no reason to hide from them. The gunslinger frowned to himself, wondering what he was missing. Ezra had apparently crossed the street of his own free will, but where had he gone after that? Had he even entered the hotel? His errand, whatever it was, might just as easily have taken him to one of the stores. The marshal would know where to find the owners; they might be able to shed some light on the situation.
When he finally got back to Mrs. OConnells house, following a series of absolutely unproductive interviews with the storekeepers in question, it was past ten oclock and he was tired and frazzled--but not hungry: his appetite had vanished completely sometime between his exchange with Mrs. Norwood and his visit to the mine. He could see lights blazing in the drawing room--unusual for that hour--and guessed the landlady and the other boarders were waiting up for news. It wasnt until he stepped into the entryway recess that he saw the oblong of white against the dark wood of the door, pinned there by the point of an "Arkansas toothpick"--a slim, straight-edged, eight-inch knife very popular for both fighting and throwing--and, knotted around the weapons hilt, a small blue necktie ornamented with embroidered white anchors. Slowly, gingerly, he untied it and took it out onto the board path where he could look at it by the racing light of a moon half-obscured by a patterning of lowering clouds. There was no sign of blood on it that he could see, though in that poor illumination it was hard to tell, and that eased his mind just a little. But there was only one reason anyone would be leaving Ezras necktie pinned to this door with a note, and that was to furnish proof that they, whoever they were, had him. Which meant that they hadnt harmed him yet, but probably would if Buck didnt go along with whatever demands that note presented. "Oh, God," he whispered, slowly crumpling the necktie in his big hand. "God, Ez, what have I got you into?"
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org