Desert Odyssey

by KT

+ + + + + + +

Manolito stood in what little shade there was, holding both horses, while Vin studied the ground where they had found Buck. Peso was doing his best to take chunks out of Macadoo.

"Senor you horse seems intent on eating mine," Mano called over to Vin.

"Yeah, he does that a lot." Vin didn't even look up.

"What tribe?" Montoya asked as Vin's examination of the ground brought him closer.


"What tribe were you with?"

"Oh, Comanche and Kiowa, mostly Comanche. This trail used much?" Finally Vin looked up.

"Some, it is the main one into Mexico from Tucson."

Vin straightened up. "Thought so, too many tracks, I need to get further out."

Manolito shrugged his acceptance of this and turned back to the horses, only to have Peso take a swipe at him.

"Quit it ya mule!" Vin chided, almost automatically, as he pulled Peso away.

Once they were about a hundred years out from the canyon, Vin dismounted and began to walk a large half circle covering every possible path out of the canyon in the direction of Mexico, it took until well past noon and he found nothing. Then after only a brief rest and some cold food, they moved to the northern end of the canyon and repeated the procedure. The shadows were getting long when he suddenly stopped.

Manolito immediately dismounted and came to stand beside him. "What have you found?"

Vin pointed. "That." Try as he might Mano couldn't see anything. "There, on the rock, the white mark, a shod horse passed this way, a big one too. Stay here." With that he took three paces away from the rock and began to circle Mano and the horses, his head bent low as he walked. Suddenly he crouched down. "A big, grey horse," he announced as he stood up, holding a small tuft of white horse hair. Manolito was impressed, he considered himself a good tracker, but Tanner was in a different league. Not that he said anything as he watched Vin line up the two findings and then start to walk along the projected trail. He was about fifty years out when he stopped, examined an examined a cactus.

"What have you found?" Mano called.

"Broken spine." With that Vin pulled off his bright blue bandanna and tied it to the cactus, then he headed back toward Mano and the horses, who seemed to have come to some kind of truce.

"Lights going, we'll have to come back at dawn," he explained. "Can you find this place on that map, back at the house?"

Mano looked around him, getting his bearings. "Yes."

+ + + + + + +

Ira had been despatched to town with the message to send to Four Corners and orders to wait in town for the mail to arrive, if any letter came for the ranch he had to bring it immediately. As Vin and Mano, hot, tired, dusty but confident they had found the trail that might lead them to JD rode in, Ira came galloping up the Tucson road to so that they arrived at the ranch together. Chris had sent a reply, asking them to keep him informed, and a second letter had arrived for John Cannon.


Like the first one was printed in careful capitals on cheep paper, but this one was posted in Albuquerque.

"And no doubt the next one will be from somewhere else. Clearly they have no idea they have the wrong man," Ezra observed as he examined the letter. He looked up at Cannon. "Do you have $10,000?"

John shook his head.

"Well you had better find it!" Everyone turned as Buck walked across the room, though in truth it was more of a shuffle, headed straight for John Cannon. Clearly he'd heard voices and had got up to hear better, how he had pulled on his pants and got himself safely down the stairs Nathan wasn't sure. "Yer a rich man, and JD needs the money, so find it." By now Buck was standing right in front of him, staring at him eye to eye, and there weren't that many men could do that to that to Big John Cannon - it wasn't just the man's height, it was his aura of power and innate authority.

"I am not a rich man. I want to help, but I don't have the money, not in cash." He glared at Buck, but Buck had been glared at by the best in the business and if Chris Larabee didn't scare him, no one did, so he didn't back down.

"Well this looks rich to me." He waved his good arm at the comfortable room around them.

"Not in cash, to raise that much I'd have to sell most of the stock right away, it just can't be done and I would…"

"Ya wouldn't do it fer JD, 'cause he's no kin of yours? Is that what you were gonna say?" Buck accused.

Things were about to get ugly. Nathan stepped up to stand beside Buck, just as Victoria came to her husband's side, ready to defend him.

"Buck you need to sit down," Nathan coaxed gently.

"No Nate, we gotta get the money, to get JD back."

"We will Bucklin," Vin assured, "but first you need to do as Nate says."


"Buck you're bleeding," Nathan stated softly. "Come and sit down before you ruin all of beautiful Senora Cannon's handiwork.”

Buck looked down at the bandage over his shoulder wound and the red stain now spreading out in it, then up into Victoria's sympathetic eyes.

"Please Buck, for me," she asked softly.

Finally Buck nodded and allowed Nathan and Vin, who had now joined them, to help him to sit on the long couch in front of the fireplace. With Buck on the couch with his friends tending to him and Cannon men looking on, Victoria slipped into her room and returned with her jewellery box.

"You can sell these," she offered putting them down in front of Ezra.

Even before Ezra had lifted the lid John was protesting.

"Hush my husband, they are mine, and I can do with them as I choose." Evan as she spoke she saw the silent thanks in Buck's eyes.

"May I?" Ezra asked, his hands lying on the box but not opening it.

"Of course," she assured.

A few moments later Ezra looked up. "Madam you have some very fine jewels, and they are probably worth nearly $10,000 but only if sold somewhere where their true value will be appreciated, such as San Francisco or Mexico City." He looked up sadly. "We just don't have the time."

"Can't we get a loan, use the jewels as collateral?" Buck asked.

Ezra looked over his shoulder at the tall gunman, sitting back on the couch looking distinctly grey, pain and worry etched on his face, and smiled. "Very good suggestion Mr Wilmington, if we can find someone who knows their true value."

"Yeah? Well that won't be ol' Harold at the bank in Tucson," Buck Cannon commented with a snort.

"Why not? Ezra asked. "Surely he must know that the ranch is good for the money."

"He probably does, but I don't bank with him and he resents that," John explained. "And before you ask, my bank is in San Francisco."

Victoria turned to her brother "Father knows how much they are worth, he has the money."

"The Old Lion! Give up money for a stranger! Hah! I don't think so," Manolito spluttered.

"But he will have my jewels, he knows how much they are worth, he will not be risking anything, we must try, we have to."

"Victoria," Manolito's tone was one of warning.

Victoria suddenly switched into Spanish and the argument between brother and sister quickly became heated. When it was over Ezra looked at Vin, who was grinning from ear to ear.

"I didn't catch most of that, what is going on?" he asked.

"Reckon we're gonna ask her daddy for a loan."

+ + + + + + +

No more food was delivered to JD, he had suspected as much when he was sent four canteens the previous night, but somehow he'd hoped he was wrong. He was having almost constant cramps now; they were at times so painful all he could do was wrap his arm around his belly and lie on his side until they passed. He tried not to moan, he tried to be brave, even though there was no one there to hear him, but as the hours went by it got more painful and he couldn't help it.

Hey kid!

JD's head shot up. "Buck?"

Who else is it gonna be?

JD sat up, his eyes darted to the door, it was still firmly shut, no rope hung from the opening above him. Yet there was Buck, big, strong, large as life, smiling like always.

"How did you get here?"

Buck grinned and squatted down in front of him. Does it matter? I'm here aren’t I?

JD stretched out his hand, trying to see the wound he knew Buck must have. "You were shot. Are you okay?"

Of course, you know it takes more than a bullet to kill me. So what are you doing, lying on the ground, whimperin' like a baby?

JD frowned, that wasn't like Buck, why was he being so mean? Why wasn't he getting him out of his prison?

Waiting for me to come and rescue you I suppose, just like always.

"What can I do to get out on my own? Take a look at this place? Well go on," he prompted when Buck didn't move.

Doesn’t mean you have to lie there moaning and groaning and feeling sorry for yerself.

"It hurts damn it! I'm hungry and it hurts and I want to get out and I want to talk to someone, and see something but dirt and walls and a tiny patch of sky! I don't want to die like this!"

JD was on his feet, shouting at Buck, except Buck wasn't there any more. Spinning around he searched the tiny cell.

"NO! No please come back, please talk to me, I won't cry any more, just come back!"

But there was no reply, just the cell and the sky and the quiet - as always. He slumped down, defeated. His rational mind told him it as a hallucination, just the result of his worsening medical condition, but at the back of his mind was the nagging fear that the very real vision of Buck had been a ghost, that Buck was really dead. He tried to tell himself he didn't believe in ghosts, but… His mother had been first generation Irish, she told him stories of leprechauns, banshees and ghosts of great Irish heroes. Those stories were part of him, part of his very being, it was hard, especially in his current state to rationalise them away.

+ + + + + + +

In the morning Victoria was ready to leave as dawn broke, John said he couldn't remember the last time she had been ready so quickly. It had been decided that Ezra would travel with her as well as two ranch hands. It was decided that Manolito would be needed to go with Vin as he continued to follow the trail, he needed someone who knew the land and could speak Apache, just in case. Ira was going to go as well, in case they needed a message sent back to the ranch and Blue tagged along out of curiosity. Buck Cannon headed into town to await the daily mail delivery. It had taken the combined efforts of Nathan and Victoria to keep Buck not just in bed, but at the house. He had been determined to go with Vin, despite the fact that he was still running a slight fever, got dizzy and light headed as soon as he stood up and when he did stand up his legs immediately threatened to give out on him. Nevertheless he was outside the house, hanging on to a post as the others prepared to leave.

"Find him for me," he instructed softly as Vin swung up on to Peso.

"You know I'll do my best."

"I know." Just then Ezra came out of the house with Victoria. "Good luck."

"Thank you, I have a feeling I'm going to need it." Ezra looked up at Vin. "I have faith that you will make our little trip redundant."

Vin tipped his hat. "Like I said to Bucklin, I'll do my best." With that he turned Peso away and headed out into the desert. Blue and Mano said their goodbyes and then trotted after him.

"Mr Standish?"

"Mr Cannon." Ezra turned to face their host.

"I'm trusting you to take care of my wife."

"It is an honour Sir and have no fear, she is safe with me."

"I hope so young man, I hope so."

+ + + + + + +

After so many days the trail was faint at best, there was nothing for it, but to track on foot. Vin knew it would slow them up, but their quarry wasn't following any trail and neither of the men with him could think of any particular place the tracks seemed to be heading. Indeed as the headed further and further east they the ranch and were heading toward the high land that ran along the border, not an area either man was familiar with. As they began to clime up into the hills the signs became even fainter. By now it was getting dark and they debated the merits of setting up camp or riding back to the ranch. In the end they headed back, once Vin had once more used his bandanna as a marker. There was no water anywhere near them, and precious little shade. Instead of following the trail back they headed directly for the ranch. In truth progress had been very slow, Vin had been on foot all day, once he found a sign he had look around to find another and then line them up. There had been a few false starts along the way, and by the time they headed for home they had covered little more then five miles.

+ + + + + + +

At about the time Vin and the others were heading back, Victoria and Ezra were arriving at the den of the old lion, Don Sebastian Montoya. Ezra was suitably impressed. Alerted by his lookouts, Don Sebastian was in the doorway to greet them in Spanish.

"Daughter! Why did you not send word you were coming? Who is this gentleman?" The wily old man turned his steely gaze on Ezra.

"Father," Victoria acknowledged in English, as she kissed her father. "This is …"

"Ezra P Standish, Sir, at your service." Ezra smiled and extended his hand.

Although the old man shook his hand, he looked at him critically. "You are a stranger in these parts."

"Indeed sir, this is my first visit south of the border."

"So what do you think of our country?"

"I find it beautiful, if rugged, and wild, though the roads are somewhat on the rustic side," Ezra stated honestly.

"Bravo, Senor Standish, you are a man after my own heart, come." With that Don Sebastian stood aside and ushered them into the huge house.

"Father, we are here on a most urgent matter," Victoria began to explain.

"Nothing that can not wait until after dinner."

Victoria knew better than to argue with her father, not if she wanted something from him.

+ + + + + + +

Dinner was most pleasant, and Ezra enjoyed himself, or he would have, if he hadn't been so focused on their pressing need for $10,000. Finally over port and cheese Montoya turned to face his daughter.

"So, Victoria, why have you brought Senor Standish to my house?"

Victoria quickly outlined the situation.

"How unfortunate, but why are you here, if you need the money, why does your husband not provide the money, if you are intending to give in to these people?"

"John does not have that kind of money in cash, not in time."

"My friends and I have no intention that these miscreants should get away with this extortion, once we have young JD back, we will get it back."

The old man smiled at him. "Yes, I do like you Senor, you have audacity and a far better tailor then most of your countrymen, but I fear you are somewhat over confident with my money."

"But you will have the jewels Father, you are not risking anything," Victoria pointed out.

"Daughter, do you really think I would take those from you?" He turned back to Ezra. "I am sorry, I cannot risk so much on such long odds."

And right there, Ezra saw an opening, a way to get around the old man.

+ + + + + + +

The post arrived with the stagecoach and it was late. Buck Cannon passed the boardwalk outside the post office, like a caged lion. Eventually the coach rolled in and Fredrick Gardner, the post master, strolled out to meet it. As Buck watched, frustrated, he spent time chatting with the driver, then mail bag in hand he strolled back toward the office.

"Is there a letter for my brother in there?" he asked, instinctively reaching for the bag.

Gardner pulled it close. "I won't know until I sort it Mr Cannon, please step aside."

Buck took a deep breath and took a step back to let the man pass, only to follow him into the small post office. Gardener clearly wasn't happy, but he said nothing. After what, to Buck at least, seemed like an age, Gardener looked up.

"Here you are, one letter for your brother." He handed it toward Buck, who snatched it from him and began to examine the postmark, he frowned when he couldn't make it out. "What does this mean?” he asked the post master, showing him the mark.

After Gardner had frowned at it and then pulled his spectacles - which had been perched on his head - down and examined it more closely, he announced. "It's Mexican."

"Where in Mexico?"

The man shrugged. "Who knows."

Cursing, Buck took the letter and headed for the ranch.

+ + + + + + +


John was reading it for the second time when Vin, Blue and Manolito and the others rode up. For a moment he hoped it meant they had located the missing man from Four Corners, but as he drew closer their serious expressions and evident fatigue told him that was too much to hope for. As he dismounted, Blue began to explain how they were making progress but it was slow going.

"Where's Tanner going?" Big John asked as Blue walked past him into the house.

"To speak with his friend," Blue guessed. "He looks done in, Vin I mean, he's been walking for most of the day."

+ + + + + + +

Buck listened patiently as Vin, sitting on the edge of the bed, told him everything he'd found.

"JD done good," he added with a smile. "Look so me like he did his best to leave a trail, 'cause I'm finding more of ol' Beau's hair than I'd have expected and plenty of scuff marks whenever we hit rough ground. Since I know that horse of yours is part mountain goat I reckon that's gotta be deliberate."

Buck smiled back at him. "Yeah he does learn what you teach him." Then the smile vanished and his eyes dropped. "You reckon he's still alive?"

"Sure he is, they haven't got their money yet have they? We're gonna find him, I swear it."

Buck looked up and nodded. "What about you?"


"How's yer back?"

Buck knew Vin had walked for most of the day, probably spending a good deal of time examining the ground. That kind of thing was bound to make his friend’s slightly twisted back ache.

Vin didn't try to pretend to Buck that he was fine or even ask him how he knew about his back problems. He just shrugged.

"Pulls some, but I'm okay."

Buck shook his head, 'pulls some' translated in Vin-speak to 'hurts like hell'. He swung his legs off the bed. Only now did Vin register that Buck was dressed in the simple white cotton pants and shirt that Mexican peons habitually wear, thought the pants legs barely reached past his knees.

"Where the hell are you going?" Vin asked.

"I'm okay, you just sit there a spell." With that he walked slowly to the door and disappeared. Vin knew his friend wasn't meant to be up, but he didn't have the energy to stop him. He lay back on the bed and let himself relax. Sometime later he heard Buck come back in, he wasn't sure how long he had been away, and suspected he might have dozed off. As he pushed himself up he noticed Buck as followed by Pedro and Vaquero who were carrying a large tin bath between them.

"Lie back pal, hot water's not here yet," Buck explained as he too sank down onto the bed.

Vin frowned at the bath. "Fer me?"

"Sure is, and I don't want no arguing. You ain't gonna do JD no good tomorrow, if yer so stiff ya can't hardly move."

"Thanks Buck."

+ + + + + + +

"Are you a gentleman who likes a game of chance?" Ezra asked his host.

"I have been known to enjoy a sporting wager in my time," Don Sebastian admitted. "I hope you are not going to suggest you play me for the money, if you had that much money to stake you wouldn't be here."

"Well that is true sir, but I was suggesting we play for the loan. If I lose we," he indicated himself and Victoria. "leave with the jewels and no money, but if I win you loan us the money, since you will have the jewels as collateral, you can't lose either way."

Don Sebastian sat back and smiled. "Now, lets us just suppose I was to take up your offer, would I get to choose what game we play?"

For the first time Ezra was unsure, but instinct told him this was his only chance.

"But of course, sir."

"Very well, are you familiar with the game of Backgammon?"

Ezra was indeed, though it had been sometime since he had played. "I have played on occasion."

"What do you say to the best of fifteen games?"

The match lasted well into the night. It was close, and by the time they were playing the fifteenth game it stood at seven each - and Ezra was losing. Don Sebastian had all of his counters home and occupying all the spaces, while Ezra still had a counter out of play. Then with his first throw of the dice Montoya rolled a double six. Since he had three on the last space and two on the next he was forced to leave one on its own. The very next throw Ezra got a double five. Instantly the positions were reversed and Ezra's final counter was home.

Luck was with Ezra. He moved the counter off from the back of his home ground while Don Sebastian could only roll low numbers; by the time he got back on the board Ezra had seven counters home. Then Don Sebastian rolled a double of his own, and it came down to the last roll. Ezra had six counters, Don Sebastian had four. Ezra rolled a four and a two, two counters home. Don Sebastian rolled a three and a two, two home for him. On his next turn Don Sebastian would have all of his counters home, no matter what he rolled. Ezra took hold of the dice cup, offered up a silent prayer to the goddess 'luck' and rolled.

Double two!

All of Ezra's counters were home - he had won!

Trying to cover his glee, Ezra extended his hand to his beaten opponent. "You are fine player sir."

"Thank you sir." His opponent shook his hand, but was clearly none too happy a loser. "I expect you want the money in US currency?"

"That would be most welcome."

+ + + + + + +

As Ezra and Victoria headed back on the morning of the 3rd, Vin headed out to resume his quest to find JD, and JD allowed himself three swallows of water. The hallucination or ghostly vision of Buck had not returned but he was determined to survive until he was rescued, so he tried to make the water last as long as possible. While the lack of food had left him weak and light headed, the painful cramps had passed.

+ + + + + + +

At dawn on the fourth, John Cannon, accompanied by Manolito and Ezra, with Don Sebastian's money inside his jacket headed out for Tucson, once they had the money changed into dollars, the three of them road south, hoping to make it to San Cecilia in time.

Vin, Blue and Buck Cannon headed out again to follow the trail. Blue took them directly to the point where they had given up the night before, Vin's bandanna still fluttered from a cactus. Vin was still a little stiff, but he doggedly continued on foot. By noon they were high in the mountains and the trail had disappeared. Nothing. Vin searched in an ever larger circle but there was no sign, after so many days the rocky ground had lost any sign it might have held of the passing of three horses. Vin was angry with himself - how could he lose it now? Today JD would run out of water, that’s what the letter said. He had to find him.

"Vin?" Blue came up beside the tracker.

"I lost it," Vin explained. "I lost the trail, damn it!"

Blue looked around at the barren rocky ground, he was frankly amazed anyone could have found a trail at all.

Buck dismounted beside them, having heard what had happened. "So what do we do now?"

"I… I'm not sure, I need t' think." Vin walked away for a few moments, then he turned back. "We have to be close, considerin' how far we've come, we're close. Can you think of someplace were they might keep him? Who knows the country best?"

Buck shrugged, they had left High Chaparral land behind them long ago.

"The Apache," Blue stated confidently. "There's a camp about a ten miles that way." He pointed to the south.

"How do you know this?" Vin asked.

"I recognise this place, see the three steps in the ridge?" He pointed at the distinctive rock formation. "Mano told me there was a small band living about ten miles south of the 'Three Steps'," Blue explained.

Vin turned to him. "You speak Apache?"

Blue shook his head. "Mano and Vaquero do."

"Now wait a minute, we ain't gonna go lookin' for trouble with the Ay-pach’!" Buck stated firmly.

Vin turned to face him. "If that's what is takes, seems t' me you've come to an understandin' with the tribe, else ways you'd still be under attack. You don't have t' come, Blue can take me." Vin turned to Blue. "Will Vaquero help us?"

"Reckon so, he always has before."

"Blue Cannon you ain't gonna do this," Buck stated. "Big John and Ezra well get the map, we don't need to do this."

"We got no guarantee this person is gonna play fair with us, we have t' find him, you either help or you don't but I'm doin' it, and I'll take all the help I can get!"

Blue looked from his uncle to Vin and back, then he strode over to Soapy and swung himself up into the saddle. "I'll get Vaquero," he called as he turned back for the ranch.

"Bring Nathan as well!" Vin shouted

"Ira go with him," Buck ordered. Once the two young men were out of earshot Buck turned on Vin. "Damn you! Do you have any idea what we've been through to get to this, to where we can live with the Apache in some kind of peace? Now you're gonna risk upsetting it all."

Vin could understand his fear, but he had more confidence in the Apache as men. "If you go to them with a problem, maybe they'll come to you with a problem, that’s how friends are made."

"Friends with the Apache?"

"Why not, they're just men, same as you. They like a good woman, a drink an' a joke just like the next man."

Buck regarded the scruffy young man before him. Manolito had told him Vin had lived with Indians for a time and that didn't surprise him, maybe he had a point. They hadn't had any trouble with the local Apache for a long time, maybe they really could help.

+ + + + + + +

Confession before mass was popular at San Cecilia. When the three men entered the old mission church as already filling with worshipers, most of them were women it seemed. They sat in the pews, black shawls covering their heads as they prayed. John patted his jacket pocket one more time, and then strode purposefully to the confessional closest to the door. As he followed the instructions, Ezra and Manolito stood were they could see everyone coming and going. John Cannon had never been in a confessional before, the only Catholic service he had ever attended was his own wedding and brief funeral services for ranch hands. He was surprised to discover that the small, dark space was actually quite spacious. There was a padded kneeler facing the grill behind which the priest sat, but in front of him, at right angles to the kneeler was a bench seat, presumably for those worshippers who were too infirm to kneel. Under the bench there was a small dark curtain that ran to the ground, why it was there, he didn't know, but it did indeed make a good place to hide the money. He quickly slipped the money out and placed it under the bench, he was about to leave when the small door behind the grill slid back. The priest said something in Spanish.

"Oh, I'm sorry father, misunderstanding," John muttered.

"Not a problem my son, I speak English, do you want to confess?"

"Er, no, sorry." With that Big John hurried to exit the confessional.

"Go with God my son," the priest called after him.

Once outside, John crossed to join the other two, each of them watching intensely as one by one people entered the first confessional. None of them seemed like likely candidates, most of them were women, and most of them seemed to be quite elderly. Manolito explained.

"The priest in that one is the senior father, the old ladies feel safe with him, so the men and the younger ones will got to the younger priest, in the next one."

It took nearly an hour before confession was over and the people moved to the front of the church for mass. Once more John moved to a confessional, this time it was the far one. He quickly felt under the bench seat and located the envelope. He opened the envelope as he moved back to the doors were Ezra and Mano still stood guard.

"Well?" Manolito asked.


"God damn it!" John hissed, mindful of were he was. He then hurried back to the confessional to check that the money really was gone. As he returned his face told them it was. "Who the hell is this and why do they hate me so?" he asked.

"What is more important is where are they now? I suspect not here, but someone here has the money and knows where to find them," Ezra pointed out.

"Do you have any idea who it is?" Mano asked, still watching the people at Mass.

"Seventeen people went into the confessional after Mr Cannon, two were children, I have discounted them as unreliable, three were extremely elderly and infirm, I discounted them for the same reason. That leaves us with twelve, of which I have discounted seven on the grounds that they are dressed in such a way as to make concealing the money almost impossible or they are with someone, if I were looking for a courier, I would choose someone on their own."

"Do you know where these five remaining people are?" Cannon asked.

"Of course. We will have to some how segregate them as they exit the church." He went on to indicate the five people he had identified as suspects.

"You could be wrong," John pointed out.

"Indeed, I could be, but we cannot search everyone here, we would more than likely incur the wrath of the local authorities and get ourselves arrested, and then what help are we to JD?"

"He is right," Mano confirmed.

+ + + + + + +

While Ezra, John and Manolito waited for Mass to end, Buck Cannon and Vin sat on a rock and waited for Vaquero to return from the ranch with Blue. By Buck's reckoning it wouldn't be much longer.

"Sure is pretty country around here," Vin commented.

"Yeah, it is, but it's hard too."

"That's what makes it pretty."

Buck frowned at the young man beside him, and shook his head, he sure did have some odd notions.

"Hey Uncle Buck!" Blue called as he came galloping up with Vaquero.

+ + + + + + +

The Apache knew they were coming even before they saw the first sentry. As they rode with as much nonchalance as they could muster down the increasingly narrow canyon, more and more Apache warriors appeared on the crest to watch and track them. Suddenly a warrior appeared on the trail in front of them, he held up his gun and shouted and in response they all stopped.

"What did he say?" Vin hissed.

"He wishes to know why we are here on their land," Vaquero translated.

Vin nodded his understanding. He then made the Indian signs to show he came in peace. "Tell him we - me and Nathan - are strangers in this land but we have heard of his people's bravery, skill and knowledge and we seek his help."

Vaquero translated, then after listening to the warrior he translated the response.

"He want to know what kind of man is Senor Jackson, I don't think he has ever seen a Negro."

Nathan nudged Cardinal forward. "Tell him I am a man like him, my people were stolen from their homes far away and brought to his land to be enslaved by the white man, but now we are free."

The warrior listened intently, then spoke, Vaquero translating. "I have heard of this, the white man's ways are not the Apache ways." Vaquero turned to Nathan and smiled. "He welcomes you as a brother."

"Tell him I am most honoured."

The warrior then turned to Vin, saying that white men have never asked Apaches for help before. Vaquero turned to Vin. "You and I may go with him to speak with his chief. The others must stay here."

"Ask him who his chief is?" Buck asked, since this was a band they hadn't encountered before.

Vaquero asked the question and then translated the response. "I believe it would translate as Red Sky. He asks your name, Senor Tanner."

Vin looked at the warrior, and tapped his own chest. "I am Vin Tanner, Sky Eyes of the Comanche."

Vaquero translated. "He will take us to see their chief now but we must leave our guns here."

The Apache camp wasn't that big, but the number of guns and the quality of their ponies indicated that it was apparently thriving. Red Sky could have been any age from forty to sixty. He stood and watched the two strangers be lead into his presence and listened patiently to his warrior explained what as going on. Then, working through Vaquero, Vin and Red Sky began to speak.

"Mighty chief Red Sky I come seeking your great knowledge of this land," Vin began once the introductions had been made.

"So I am told, continue."

"A bad man, a man of no honour, a man of no courage, has taken my young brother and imprisoned him. I tracked him as far as the rock ridge north of here, where there are three steps."

"I know this place, why has this man taken your brother?"

"He seeks wealth, he mistook my brother, for the son of a wealthy man - John Cannon."

Red Sky nodded. "I know of John Cannon, he is a man of honour and a warrior."

"If a white man wanted to imprison someone near the three steps, somewhere hard to fine, where would he do it?"

Red Sky thought for a moment then turned to the medicine man sitting just behind him. They had a brief conversation.

"We have not seen any white man imprisoned on our land, but there is a place we do not go, a place of evil spirits and ghosts. It is a place a man of no honour might hide a boy."

Vin wasn't about to contradict the assumption that JD was a child.

"Can you tell me of this place?" he asked.

"It was a place of the Christian brothers, but they were cruel, not like the Christian brothers I have met. Our people tell stories of how they would place men in a hole in the ground and leave them to die, the spirit of these men are still there, they cannot rest."

Vin nodded his understanding. "Can you tell me how to find this place?"

"You cannot go there today, soon it will be dark and the spirits will not let you pass. You must leave the three steps at dawn, ride in the direction of the setting sun, until the morning sun is on your cheek. Look for two tall cactuses and ride between them, then you will see a trail leading up to the top of the flat mountain. There you will find what you seek."

"Thank you Chief Red Sky. I will not forget your patience and kindness."

+ + + + + + +

It wasn't easy for Manolito to persuade and bribe the five suspects to come with him, but with his usual flair, charm and Big John's dollars he managed it. Once all five were sitting in the back room of a little cantina where the owner owed Mano a favour. In the owner’s own room Ezra began to interview each one in turn. With his limited Spanish it was a slow going. He convinced them he was a US Government official and if they didn't hand over the wallet they would be extradited to the US and placed in jail. The third suspect was a little old lady, who - going by here all black outfit - was a widow. She looked like she was about ninety, but it was clear that she was still spry and active. She believed Ezra's tale and confessed immediately. She was to be paid in US dollars to collect a wallet full of legal documents from the confessional. She promised she had no idea it was illegal, but she was poor and had no husband or children to support her, she needed the money.

Ezra assured her she had done the right thing and so long as she helped, no harm would come to her and she would be rewarded.

"How were you to hand over the money?" Ezra asked.

"I was to go to the fountain after Mass and sit, the man would come to me there." She looked up. Please Senor I did not know, I am just a poor old lady, he offered me gold."

"And you shall have gold, all you have to do is go to the fountain and do as he asked you." Ezra smiled gently at her, his dimples showing.

The fountain in the town square, was - as it was in almost every Mexican town - the meeting point for the whole town, where gossip and information was exchanged. Ezra sat outside the cantina and watched the innocent-looking little old lady as she walked over to the fountain. As he watched she sat down and began to chat with some of the other women. After about half an hour a man came over. He was dressed in the manner of a Mexican gentleman. The exchange was accomplished and the widow left. Ezra watched with interest as the man sat down, and after a furtive look around the square, opened the wallet. He froze, he pulled out the wad and examined it, his head shot up and he looked around the square again, as he looked at the cantina Ezra tipped his hat and smiled. With that the man was up and striding toward him. As he approached his hand went to his gun, but Ezra's derringer was in his hand in a second.

"Who the hell are you?" he demanded, as he arrived, never keeping his eyes of the derringer.

"A friend of the man you kidnapped," Ezra replied.

"Who wasn't my son." John Cannon came out from the cantina to join them. "Hello, Parnell."

"What do you mean, not your son!"

"The man you had kidnapped was a young friend of mine, who happened to be travelling on that road just head of Mr Cannon's son and brother. It just so happens he was travelling in the company of a man named Buck," Ezra explained.

While they spoke, Manolito removed the man's gun, so that Ezra could relax. "Perhaps some introductions are in order?" he suggested.

"His name is Mortimer Parnell, he was a captain in my regiment in the war. He was a thief and a bully," John stated with disdain.

"I was a soldier, all's fair in love and war," Parnell countered.

"No it isn't, if it was we would be no better than savages. Besides the men who died because of you were on our side." John tuned to the others. "I testified against him at his Court Martial, gross dereliction of duty, excessive use of corporal punishment, theft, misuse of government property."

"You ruined me!"

"You ruined yourself. Where is he? Where are you hiding him?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because right now," Ezra drawled. "You are facing charges of conspiracy to kidnap and extortion, if JD dies that will change to murder."

"And the sentence for murder is death," Manolito reminded.

Parnell pushed his hat off his head, only now did they notice how thin and unnaturally pale he looked.

"Think I care? I'm dying already, all I wanted was enough money to go out in style, the kind of style I could have had all these years if it wasn't for you!" He jabbed a finger at John.

"Just give us the map," Ezra demanded. "JD means nothing to you, you've never even met him, he's just a boy!"

"I can't."

By now Ezra was up and his Remington was jammed up under Parnell's chin. "Why not?" he demanded.

"Because I don't know where he is. I paid two men to take him and hold him. I didn't care how or where they did it. Once I sent them the message saying the deal was going though they were told to send me his location, then give him four days of water and leave."

"So tell us where he is," John demanded.

"They never sent the information," Parnell admitted. "Guess they didn't want anything to tie them to the kidnapping, and I had already paid them...

"You idiot!" With that Ezra struck the man before him, sending him sprawling on his backside in the dust. "The first tenant of business is never pay before you have the goods."

"Who are they, these men?" Manolito asked.

"I met them in jail, here in Mexico, Emilio and Juan Costa, we shared a cell for six months."

Deciding not to waste any more time, and taking the wretched Parnell with them, they headed back to High Chaparral. They would risk travelling at night to make it back to the ranch by morning.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had a bad case of cabin fever, which combined with the worry about JD was driving him crazy. When Blue and Ira had returned to collect Nathan and Vaquero, he tried to persuade them to wait for him, but Nathan refused, saying he wasn't strong enough. So it was, before dawn broke he was up and dressed and heading for the bunk house. Carefully waking Ira, he managed to get the young ranch hand to lead him back to the last place he had seen Vin and the others.

Mounting up on Milagro, as well as being more painful than he had expected, reminded Buck just why he was doing this and that JD wasn't the only one missing, his much loved horse was also gone. As the first rays of the sun paled the sky, the two men set out, they had to set a fast pace to have any chance of catching the others. Whatever Nathan and Victoria said, Buck had persuaded himself he was fine, fully healed, but after only half an hour his shoulder was aching, and after less than two hours his head pounded, but he was determined to push on. By the time they reached the stepped rocks, the others had gone, but the evidence of their camp was clearly visible. Buck wasn't the tracker Vin was, but he was good enough to follow the fresh trail, leading west out of camp.

It was clear Vin was no longer tracking on foot, because the horses Buck and Ira were tracking were moving at a steady pace. They had been moving at a strong lick for most of the day, only stopping briefly to eat and water the horses, now, as they passed two sentinel like cactuses, evening was again drawing on.

"Look!" Ira pointed to the distant plateau.

As Buck squinted into the sun, he could pick out horses moving up the slope, they had found them.

+ + + + + + +

JD had rationed his water too well and was in the early stages of dehydration, he was also desperately weak, having had no food for four days and precious little before that. The plateau was high, and at night bitterly cold. Cold, thirst, starvation, and dehydration had taken their toll on JD, and he was beginning to drift in and out of consciousness. When he heard the voices, he wasn't sure they were real, he hadn't had any more hallucinations, but he has heard voices more than once. Buck, Chris, Josiah and even his mother had spoken to him. He lay were he was, sure he could hear Vin's voice and maybe Nathan too, so even though they had never spoken to him before he dismissed the voices as figments of his imagination, nothing but wishful thinking. And yet - as he lay there he thought he heard a voice he didn't recognise, a stranger's voice.

A stranger, he reasoned - as well as his befuddled brain could manage - could not be conjured up by his imagination. Someone was up there, it was his hope, his dream come true, and he dared to believe it. With great effort he pulled himself to his feet.

"Hello!" he shouted, but the shout was no more than a horse croak. "Please hear me!" Try as he might, couldn't make his voice carry, even taking some water didn't help. "I'm down here," he pleaded.

The voices over head moved away.

"No! No please, please don't leave me! Please." Exhausted he sank down dejectedly. Please, don't leave me, please someone, anyone.

+ + + + + + +

Vin dismounted, scanning the ruins. "What do you think?" he asked of no one in particular.

"I have never heard of this mission," Vaquero commented. "I believe this is one of the Jesuit missions, they were forced to leave more than a hundred years ago."

"Red Sky said there was a place where they left people to die, split up and search," Vin ordered.

No one questioned him as they began to search, all of them wishing they had more light. The site was open and spread out over a large area. As the light faded, Vin and Blue lit a fire, but still there was no sign of JD, even though they had found several places where a prisoner could have been kept.

The last of the natural light faded and died, all they could do was pick up flaming branches of brush to light the way as continued to search. Each of them beginning to believe they might be in the wrong place.

Vin suddenly looked up, his sharp ears catching something, not long after, two horses came out of the darkness.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Vin demanded, as Buck dismounted.

"Helping you look for JD of course." He turned to the back of his saddle, as did Ira, both of them had not one but two lanterns with them.

With the lanterns lit the search continued, and Vin explained why they were searching this place in particular.

+ + + + + + +

JD had drifted off for a bit but was now conscious and he could hear voices again, he took time to listen to try to work out if these were real voices or more illusions. He heard Vin again and then the voice he most wanted to hear, the one who had come to him before - Buck.

"Buck!" he called desperately, this time his voice even weaker then before.

Gathering his strength, he pulled the last canteen with water in it to him and drank, holding the water in his mouth as long as he could, letting it slip past his parched vocal cords slowly.

"Buck!" he yelled as loud as he could, but it still wasn't very loud. Using the wall to support himself he managed to stand, thought his legs shook under him with the effort. "Buck!" he tried one more time, before his strength gave out and he sank down again, drained.

+ + + + + + +

"What was that?" Buck asked, suddenly looking around him.

"What?" Blue asked.

"I heard something, over there." He pointed to an area behind what Vaquero thought had once been the back house. The two of them headed over there.

"Hello?" Buck yelled repeatedly, but there was no response.

"What's that?" Blue pointed to a particularly deep shadow.

"Let's find out."

What they found was small opening in the ground, ringed by neat cut stones. Buck peered down, he tried to lower the lantern down but the light didn't reach far enough. No one answered his repeated yells. Suddenly Vin was at his side, and Nathan was tying a rope to one of the lanterns.

"Buck move back," Vin instructed once Nathan was done, but he didn't move.

"Come on, Buck." Nathan placed his hands on the big man's shoulders and pulled him back, noting how hot he felt through his shirt. With Buck finally out of the way, Vin lowered the lantern, by now all the others were gathered around.

"Oh shit!" Vin breathed, as the crumpled form of JD came into the circle of the lamp light.

"What?" Buck demanded.

"It's him, he's down there." He pulled his hand through his hair. "Um, there has to be another way in, this hole is too small for him to have got in that way, spread out and look. Buck?"


"Stay there and see if you can get him to wake up."

"You mean he's not …?"

"Can see it that way, I won't. Stay here." With that he grabbed one of the other lanterns and was gone.

It didn't take long to find the steep stairs descending to the bolted door. Buck watched from above as Vin and Nathan entered the cell and knelt beside JD.

"Well?" Buck called from above.

"He's alive," Nathan shouted up.

+ + + + + + +

They settled JD beside the fire, Buck found no one had emptied Milagro's saddle bags and JD's clean clothes were still inside, a bit musty, but a lot better than what he what he had been wearing. Buck sat with his back against one of the old mission’s walls. He held JD close to him, holding him up while Nathan coaxed water passed his parched lips, pleased when JD swallowed, even though he didn’t open his eyes.

After about five minutes however JD suddenly spluttered and coughed, his eyes fluttered and then opened.

"Hey there, little brother," Buck greeted him softly, holding him a little tighter.

"B'ck?" he managed to croak out.

"Yeah it's me, an' Vin an' Nathan are here too.”

"Hey there, kid," Vin greeted.

"Welcome back, JD." Nathan patted his knee.

Tired, half-open, bloodshot eyes looked around him in the fire light. "'S real?"

"Yeah kid, it's real, you're safe, I got ya, ol' Buck's got ya, rest easy." Buck continued to soothe him with his voice and constant presence, until JD's eyes closed again and he relaxed against Buck, his breathing becoming deep and even.

Nathan smiled as he stood up, giving a pat on the shoulder. "He'll be fine, rest, lots of water, good food," he assured. "Now you get some rest as well."

"'M okay," Buck protested.

"No you're not. Tomorrow we have to start getting JD back to the ranch. I need to concentrate on him, and not worry about you collapsing at any moment. Do you here me?" Nathan's tone was unusually hard.

Finally Buck nodded. "But I'm saying close to him, he needs to know he's not alone anymore."


Blue had been watching the interaction between the men from Four Corners.

"He doesn’t look anything like me, Uncle Buck," he commented. "I guess they didn't plan it very well, whoever they were."

"Don't look that way Blue boy."

"If you didn't know, if you saw them like that, and Mr Jackson wasn't - you know …"

"A Negro?"

"Yeah, well if he was white, you'd think they were family, brothers."

Buck Cannon looked over at the four men, and he had to agree.


JD rested and recuperated at the High Chaparral for a week. He slept in the guestroom that Vin and Nathan had been sharing, and because it had two beds Buck moved in with him. He had a few nightmares, but with Victoria fussing over him and feeding him, and Buck's constant presence, he improved rapidly. After a short relapse Buck also made rapid progress.

Parnell was arrested and placed in jail in Tucson. He was later moved to a federal jail where a doctor confirmed he had a large tumour and was unlikely to make it to the end of the year, and would probably never stand trial.

Victoria was able to return the money to her father and redeem her jewels, though she knew that he wouldn't have kept them.

Chris was livid that he hadn't been kept informed, and once he knew JD was safe, and threatened, in his telegram, to do something to all of them on their return that the telegraph operator had refused to send. Josiah just thanked God for JD's safe return.

Having reclaimed the three hire horses Vin and the others had used on the mad ride down to Tucson, the five men set out back to Four Corners. Buck, who had been his normal buoyant, optimistic self, suddenly became sombre and almost silent, as he mounted up on a strange bay. There was no way to know were the Costa brothers were and if they still had Beau with them. Wanted posters had been issued, they were now worth $200 each, but Buck held out little hope he would ever see his beloved grey again.

After two days on the road, the five of them entered the little town of Walkers Crossing. There wasn't much in Walkers Crossing. There was a ford over a river that was dry most of the year anyway, other than that there was a store, a hotel, a jail, a saloon come bordello, a livery and grain merchant and a cantina. The five peacekeepers pulled up in front of the hotel, and while Ezra and JD went inside to secure rooms the others took the horses to the livery. They were on their way back when Buck froze. Running off from the main street was the town's one and only side street. Down this street was located the cantina, which catered for the local Mexican community. Outside the cantina stood a very familiar-looking big grey.

Once the others had seen what Buck was looking at, it took both of them to stop him storming in there, gun in hand.

"Buck we're gonna go back, get Ezra and figure out how we're gonna do this - okay?" Vin insisted.

Buck was reluctant but agreed, admitting it was possible that the Costas had sold his beloved Beau to someone who was unaware he was stolen. Ten minutes later, Ezra and Vin strolled into the cantina and approached the barman.

"Senor, you speak English?" Vin asked.

"Si," the man replied. "What can I get you?"

"Information my good sir," Ezra drawled, turning on the charm. "We are horse traders, and our client has asked us specifically to find him a grey saddle horse, do you by any chance know who owns the fine-looking grey outside?"

The men hesitated. "I assure you we will pay for the information, our client has been most generous."

Vin could almost see the dollar signs in the man's eyes as Ezra pulled out a gold coin and placed it on the bar.

"Over there, the brothers at the back." With that he snatched the coin up.

Vin and Ezra ambled over. "Mind if we join you?" Vin asked in Spanish.

"Yes, we mind," came the gruff response.

"My partner and I are looking to by a grey horse, we were told you owned the one outside. Would you be willing to sell?"

The brothers looked at each other, Beau hadn't proved to be as great a prize as they had hoped, he was uncooperative and had a tendency to buck if one of them tried to ride him. Selling him looked increasingly like the best option.

"How much?" Juan asked.

"Let's go out and look at him and we'll see," Vin suggested.

The ever greedy brothers took the bait. Once outside they found not only the guns of the two 'horse traders' trained on them, but also those of a tall black man, a familiar looking man with a moustache and to their horror, the young man they had kidnapped and abandoned.

"Hello boys, remember us?" Buck asked, his voice low and slow with implied menace. He stepped up so that he was right in the face of the older looking of the two brothers. "One of you snakes shot me in the back. That's bad, I should shoot you for that alone, but I'm a forgivin' kinder man, and I do hate ugly." It wasn't clear how much English the Costa's understood but as Emilio faced up to Buck, he visibly relaxed. It was a mistake. "But then you took JD and left him locked up t' die, left him in a hole in the ground t' die of thirst - you know what it's like to die like that?" Emilio didn't respond. "Well do YA?" Buck demanded. Emilio shook his head. Buck looked over at the younger Juan. "What about you?" Juan shook his head. "I should kill you right now, I should shoot you, but -" Buck stood back and regarded the two would be killers, and evil smile spread across his face. "You know what, I ain't gonna, instead I think I'll take you out into the desert and stake you out and leave you for the ants and the buzzards."

The brothers looked around at their captors, seeing only grim determination on their faces.

"No, please Senors," Emilio begged in Spanish. "Not that, please do not do this, we only did as we were instructed."

"Shut up!" Vin instructed harshly in Spanish. "The more ya talk the more I'm likely to let him do it."

The two never spoke again, as they were tied up and taken back to Tucson.

By the time they finally arrived back in Four Corners, the five men no longer feared whatever it was Chris had threatened, $400 split seven ways was a very good pacifier.

The End