Chester Tams paused to wipe the pastry crumbs from his bushy white moustache. “I was breakfasting at my hotel three weeks ago,” he said, “when Professor Rothschild Hines came to call.”
David Crane poured himself a cup of coffee and stared out of a window and into his garden. It was mid-spring, and birds filled the yard. He counted seven species at a glance. All of them dined upon the feed he had tossed out for their benefit. None seemed very impressed with him, his house or Tams. And people had the gall to refer to birds as stupid.
“Which hotel, Chess?” Crane asked. “You own more than one.”
Tams shrugged. “The Golden Oaks, I keep my office there.”
The woman seated to Crane’s left frowned. “I’ve heard of this Hines. He’s known as something of a radical. He spends his spare time organizing labor strikes, not your type of person. I’m surprised you didn’t have him beaten senseless and tossed into a gutter.”
The woman was Alexandra Bourbon, David Crane’s wife, dearest friend, and chief reason for drawing breath. To say she was lovely was to say Rembrandt had been a man of modest talents.
If Tams was offended he didn’t show it. “The thought had crossed my mind. But my granddaughter was present. She thinks I’m a kindly soul. I couldn’t bear to shatter her illusions, and before my butler hustled her away and summoned my men Hines made a proposal worth thinking upon.”
Bourbon grinned. “It couldn’t be a living wage or a child labor regulation, otherwise Hines would be floating in the bay.”
Tams chuckled at Bourbon’s wit. “Actually, the current in the bay takes most bodies out to sea very quickly. He would have long since been gone and forgotten had he proposed such nonsense.”
Crane laughed despite himself; only Chester Tams could discuss premeditated murder with a grin and a good-natured twinkle in his eyes. Crane had known Tams since he was a small boy. Though he didn’t trust him any farther than he could throw a piece of field artillery, he had always liked him. Not because Tams was good or kind or principled. Chester had never bothered with any of that. But he made up for it by being fun. “Have you no shame, Chess?”
“Shame, scruples, rules, they all sound expensive to me.” Tams pulled a flask out of his inside coat pocket and freshened his coffee. “And I’ve always fancied myself a frugal man. Speaking of frugal, I’ve been meaning to speak with you about that railroad…”
“No, Chess,” Crane cut Tams off. “I voted against it and I stand by my vote.”
Tams grimaced. “Can you please stop protecting the natives? They’ll find somewhere else to build their ridiculous teepees. The accountants claim that rail line will make us a fortune.”
“Careful Chess,” Alexandra Bourbon took the butter knife from the tray of pastries and smiled sweetly. “My mother was a Plains Indian. I’m not so civilized I won’t kill you.”
Tams laughed. “Being killed by a creature so exquisite trumps being cherished by a lesser woman.”
Bourbon turned to Crane. “Whenever we speak with Chester I am torn between two urges. The first is to slit his throat. The second is to hug him.”
“I wish you would speak with my missus.” Tams replied. “She’s stuck on that first option.”
Crane had met Tams’ wife. She was one of those square-jawed women who ran a household the way the Kaiser ran Berlin. “Chess, I voted against the new line, my vote stands.”
Tams slumped. “David, you’ve heard the accountant’s projections. You can’t turn your back on that sort of profit.”
Crane grinned. “Ah, but I can, and since I own the controlling interest in the railroad, it can, too.”
Tams was stunned. “Have you an aversion to money, David?”
“I am rich by any man’s measure, Chess. So are you.” Crane smiled.
Tams sighed. “The point isn’t to be rich, David. Any fool can stumble into wealth. The point is to be the richest. To do that, one must seize every opportunity fate sends his way.”
Alexandra Bourbon shook her head sadly. “Surely you realize how hollow your existence is, Chess.”
“So long as my house is warm, my food is good and my bed is soft my existence is plenty full.” Chester Tams paused and laughed.
“And I won’t start about my mistresses… save to point out they’re the chief reason my wife is more apt to kill me than hug me.”
Crane decided to turn the conversation back to the business at hand. “You came to discuss this Hines character, not the rail road, Chess.”
“So I did,” Tams agreed. “It seems the eminent professor has discovered a lost civilization. He is launching an expedition to explore it. Naturally, I thought of the two of you.”
“And what did the Professor offer you?” Bourbon asked.
“In return for my backing I will receive an equal share in the treasure.” Tams replied. “I know how the two of you love these academic forays. I thought you might enjoy the trip. You could watch Hines to make sure my treasure doesn’t disappear while you’re at it.”
David Crane pursed his lips. “They’re called antiquities, Chess. We’re scholars, not pirates.”
“Yes, yes, whatever,” Tams agreed. “Just so they’re worth a great deal of money.”
There was certainly no guarantee of that. “Well-to-do scholars attract thieves hawking lost civilizations the way carcasses attract flies.” Crane replied. “Does this teacher know what he’s talking about?”
Tams shrugged. “I have no idea, that’s why I’ve approached you. You’re the ones who flit about the earth studying this nonsense. Hines mentioned that this particular Shangri-La had been constructed in a region called Guge.”
Alexandra Bourbon inhaled sharply. Then she laid a hand on David Crane’s wrist. “I have heard of the Guge, David. It is in Tibet. Explorers traveling there have talked about ruined palaces for decades.”
Crane thought a moment. “I’ve seen no paper published about the region.”
Bourbon nodded triumphantly. “We would be the first,” she said.
Crane respected Bourbon’s intellect too much to question her assertion. “Interesting. Perhaps the professor is on to something.”
Chester Tams grinned. “I suppose I should introduce you to Professor Hines.”
David Crane’s father had built an obscene fortune by the time he was thirteen, but the young Crane eschewed his place in the dynasty to attend West Point. Two decades later, his father was no more, as was a good portion of his left leg, and David Crane had inherited control of the family holdings.
Crane had lost his father to consumption. He’d lost his leg to a confederate mini-ball.
He didn’t miss either of them as much as he should have.
He had become a scholar later, after he had discovered he enjoyed studying what man had been more than he enjoyed watching what man had become. Beyond that there was only his wife, his studies and his travel. This journey found him in Tibet.
Most Americans who had heard of the place pictured a breathtaking land of snow and ice, a land where man could touch the sky and whisper in the ear of the all mighty.
In places that was true, Crane supposed, but a great deal of the country was just dirt. Not the rich humus found in the American South either, but dusty clay that couldn’t grow crops, form bricks or make pottery.
It reminded him of the painted desert except it didn’t have any paint, and a man would starve to death there as quick as he would freeze. So would a woman. But the only woman on the expedition was Alexandra Bourbon, and she wasn’t likely to freeze. Not while Crane had the strength to wrap him self about her.
She stood a pace from him on the lip of a crevice staring into a dry valley. She had tossed aside the hoop skirt she abhorred for a pair of trousers and a loose fitting shirt. Over that she wore a jacket. On her hip she carried a Russian forty-four caliber revolver and a tomahawk.
Being the product of a buffalo hunter and a Plains Indian, Bourbon was as much steel as goose down. And though she carried enough curve to make any man look at her twice, her skill with the pistol and the tomahawk made certain they only looked.
Crane was ten years her senior. He stood six feet tall, and despite the fact he had lost his left leg just below his knee, vigorous exercise kept him self in admirable trim.
Before he had become an academic he had been a Captain in the United States’ Calvary. Unlike Bourbon his skin was fair and his eyes blue. His hair, that which hadn’t turned grey, was brown as was his beard. Like Bourbon he wore trousers, a shirt and coat, but he carried two Schofield revolvers. One sat on his hip and the other rested in a shoulder harness made to his specification.
The rest of their party was spread along the trail behind them. Professor Hines had trudged up the trail to join them. Chester Tams was not present. His most important contribution to the expedition had been his money. In Crane’s mind that was just as well. Tams had passed the age of sixty a half dozen years before. He would have been worse than useless on the mountain trails they followed.
Crane shielded his eyes from the sun and peered into the distance. The horizon had turned a dusty pink and mixed with sky and ground so that it was hard to tell which direction was up.
There were no plants, no animals, and no noise, save for that their companions and animals made. If God had created a place more barren on this planet Crane would have been interested to see it.
Hines stopped beside them. “I know the land is bare, but it is there: a castle the kings of Europe would have admired. It is at the end of this valley. I first heard of it from oriental workers I met at a labor rally. I confirmed it in a small expedition funded by my University.”
Now that they were in Tibet, Bourbon and Crane wished they had access to sources independent of Professor Hines. “There has to be a water source, Mr. Hines,” Bourbon said.
“There has to be water and there have to be roads. Ideally, there should be a river nearby.”
Hines looked from Bourbon to Crane. “I do not understand.”
Crane barely controlled his temper. “How can you not understand?”
Bourbon smiled thinly. “I attended a college, professor. I understand your limitations. My husband attended a Military Academy. Instructors there are actually expected to know things.”
Hines was insulted. Bourbon didn’t care. “For a city to exist there must be roads and food and water. There are no roads, ancient or otherwise, here, and we have yet to find water.”
“We will find these things on the other side of the valley,” Hines stammered. “A swift stream runs through the ruin.”
Crane inspected the valley once more. It ran away from him and sloped downward at the same time. At its base, far in the distance, was a line of low peaks. “I take it the stream runs down into the valley?”
“Of course,” Hines agreed.
Bourbon sighed. “Then why have we wasted time and money on a donkey train when we could have put boats into the stream at its head water and floated to the city?”
“No, no dear lady. In this land that would be quite impossible. The stream begins in the peaks above. Climbing to it would be a struggle even for me, but a man with one leg and a woman?” Hines shook his head. “No, the donkey train is our best transport.”
Hines was thin and pale. His years in taverns organizing protests had done little to prepare him for hard effort. Alexandra Bourbon could walk him into the ground. So could Crane, peg leg or no.
“Mr. Hines,” Alexandra Bourbon’s eyes narrowed. “My husband and I have traveled through the Chiapas on foot. We have fought Indians on the Amazon, bandits in Egypt and corsairs on the Mediterranean. We are accustomed to hard times in hard places. Now where is this city, and the water course that reaches it?”
“It is out there,” Hines waved towards the horizon. “You will find it at the end of this trail.”
Crane faced off to the east and shaded his eyes with one hand. If a stream poured through the basin it would flow along its eastern edge, its western edge or through its center. The center of the valley was dry as a bone.
After a moment’s searching Crane decided he would not have to search the western horizon. “There is a stream.”
Bourbon leaned near his shoulder. “Where?”
Crane pointed. “There—it breaks through a crack in the stone, flows along the cliff face and into the valley.”
Bourbon turned to Hines. “Is that your stream, Mr. Hines?”
“It may be,” Hines replied. “I did not follow the cliff face when I entered the valley before.”
Bourbon turned back towards the center of the valley and the trail they followed. Its desolation worried her. “I would much rather travel near a source of fresh water than wander through the high desert.”
Hines shook his head before Crane could agree. “It is not possible. We must stay upon the path we know to be true. Wandering off after shadows could be dangerous.”
Crane had never cared much for commanders that could not adjust a plan to the circumstances before them. Most often they were narrow, useless men who sacrificed their soldier’s lives to formality. He was beginning to suspect Hines was that sort.
“You said the site straddles a stream. That is the only stream in the valley. The land is dry. Our water supply is limited.”
“But it is enough to carry us to the city.” Hines turned and stalked away. “I have carefully calculated our every step and need,” he said over his shoulder. “We have the supplies necessary. I won’t have the two of you throwing my work aside to charge into the unknown.”
Crane watched Hines stride back towards the mule train. The sun had dipped into the west. In minutes it would slide beneath the rim of the valley and extinguish itself, like a flame dropped in water. Whatever their course would be in the morning, it was time to camp now. “When day breaks, that man and I are going to have a disagreement.”
Alexandra Bourbon hid a smirk. “Will it be guns, knives or fists?”
Crane’s exercise regimen included boxing, but he was skilled with knives and guns as well. “Doesn’t matter, the outcome will be the same.”
Bourbon slipped an arm about Crane’s shoulders. “Before you engage your ego, you should consider one thing.”
“He might be right,” Bourbon replied. “There is no guarantee that stream leads to our lost city.”
Crane frowned. He did not like Hines, liked him less the longer he knew him. Did that cloud his judgment? Crane turned back towards the distant stream bed. “Apologizing to his widow would be an inconvenient thing if he was correct.”
Bourbon still faced the center of the valley. When she spoke she did not sound as though she liked what she saw.
There were a dozen of them. The dust their horses churned up billowed behind them like a storm cloud.
Crane turned towards the mule pack. “Professor Hines, we have guests.”
Hines hurried from the mules. When he stood next to Crane he was breathless and his features were flushed, but he smiled all the same. “Do not be alarmed. They are local tribesmen. I can speak with them. Perhaps they will have news of the ruin.”
After Hines had sprinted off towards the approaching riders Crane turned towards the tribesmen that helped with their gear. They looked nervous. So was Crane.
Bourbon placed a hand on his arm. “Something is wrong?”
Crane grimaced. “The riders are armed.”
“So are we, David,” Bourbon did not sound alarmed. “People traveling outside of civilization often are.”
That was true enough. In all his travels Crane had yet to meet men traveling in the wilderness who didn’t carry guns if they could afford them, knives and bows if they couldn’t. Still, he was uneasy. “I’m thinking of Chancellorsville,” he said.
“Chancellorsville?” Bourbon raised an eyebrow.
“Long before we met, during the war. We outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia nearly two to one. The day was winding to a close and we had camped. The next morning the battle would begin.”
Bourbon leaned against him. “You would not begin this tale now if it had a happy ending.”
Crane watched the riders approach. “We had laid our weapons aside and were brewing coffee when there was a clatter in the brush on our flank. Suddenly deer erupted from the woods and plowed through our camp as if they were fleeing the devil himself.”
“Satan had come to visit his victims before the next day’s slaughter?” Bourbon asked.
“Worse,” Crane replied. “Much worse, it was Thomas J. Jackson. Lee had split his command in half. Jackson marched his division about our flank. The animals were fleeing the forest because the rebels were pouring through it like water through a sieve. They broke into us moments later.” Crane’s voice cracked. “They surprised us and crushed us flat. I’ve never much liked having visitors at supper after that.”
Bourbon’s hand slid up his back and into his hair. “We aren’t at war, David.”
Crane shoved his hands in his pockets so Bourbon would not see them shake. “I know.”
Bourbon was silent for a moment. “We could gather the tribesmen and move. We would be gone before they arrived.”
Crane had thought of that, but shook his head.
“They are most likely a hunting party. Besides, if Hines can speak with them, maybe they can tell us where that stream leads.” Crane replied.
Bourbon laid her chin on his shoulder. “Still looking for an excuse to butt heads with Hines?”
“I don’t trust him, Alex. No man standing in this spot could miss that stream. And no man that had traveled this valley would avoid it. Yet he desperately wants to steer clear of it. Why?”
“I don’t think there is anything evil in Hines.” Bourbon said. “He isn’t smart enough to practice evil with any success.”
Bourbon was right. Academic credentials aside, Hines could not be mistaken for a great thinker. Still, Crane was not reassured. In his mind evil and stupidity traveled hand in hand.
The riders were tall and lean with dark features and darker eyes. They wore cloaks and robes and swords at their hip. Each carried an old rifle in one hand and held his horse’s reins in another.
When they neared, the laborers moved away from the camp and formed a nervous ball. Crane laid one hand on the handle of the revolver at his hip.
Hines turned and took a step back towards Crane. “Don’t worry. They use those rifles for wolves. This isn’t the wild west.”
Crane didn’t move his hand. “Can you speak with them?”
“Ask them about the stream. I want to know where it leads.”
Hines shook his head. “I have told you where the ruins are.”
Crane smiled. “Indulge me, if not as a member of the expedition, then as one of its sponsors.”
Hines eyes narrowed. “Are you pulling rank, Mr. Crane?”
“With both hands,” Crane replied flatly.
Hines turned and strode to the riders. Bourbon smiled. “I am impressed with the friendly relationship you have built with our fellow traveler.”
Crane grinned. “I am a man renowned for my mild temperament.”
Before Bourbon could reply Hines hailed the leader of the horsemen. They talked for a moment. Then the leader nodded towards the company’s pack train. Hines waved at Crane and Bourbon. “Not to be alarmed. He will give us the information you seek in return for a bit of food and a little coffee.”
The horse men fanned out. Their leader and two more rode towards the mules. Then they all stopped at once and brandished their rifles. The laborers, as if to prove that lack of formal education did not necessarily make one a fool, sprinted for parts unknown. Hines didn’t move a muscle, but there was no reason he should. No guns were pointed at him. They were all aimed at Bourbon and Crane.
Crane felt his hear pound at the side of his chest. “Had I not seen the man’s grave with my own eyes I would swear Thomas J. Jackson sits astride one of those horses.”
Alexandra Bourbon reached for her pistol. Crane stopped her. “We would take two or three of them with us, but we would be dead all the same.”
Bourbon stared at the hard eyed men seated upon the big horses. “I’m not certain I want to live as their captive, David.”
Another wouldn’t have argued with that. David Crane did. “In the war, after I was shot the surgeon told me I would lose my leg below the knee. I told him to let me die. If he had listened to me I would have never met you. A hard future is better than no future at all.”
Bourbon’s smile was bitter. “I hope you’re right.”
A few of the horseman broke away from the rest and chased after the tribesmen who carried the company’s gear. Soon their rifles cracked. Crane did not turn to watch the tribesmen fall. Bourbon leaned against him and closed her eyes.
“Damn,” Crane whispered, “Damn, damn and Goddamn.”
They were stripped of their weapons and their hands were bound behind them. Then they were saddled across the back of the mules and led to the stream bed along the peaks.
By the time they stopped two nights and two days had passed. Night had had come on again. The sun had vanished into the void and left behind it a gloom cold enough to kill.
They were dragged from the mules at the horsemen’s camp, the camp wasn’t elaborate. Three rock and dirt huts surrounded a central fire, and the horsemen’s women worked near the fire. Their children ran among them.
Near the stream lay three small boats. A rope had been strung across the river, tied to rocks on either side and pulled taut. In the spring and summer, after the snow melt in the mountains swelled the stream, the horsemen would climb in the boats and tow themselves across the river. In the fall when the river was low they would use the boat’s oars. In the winter when the river froze they would ride their horses across.
A guard led Crane and Bourbon to a spot that was close enough to the fire that they would not freeze, but far enough from it that they would be miserable all the same. Then he pushed Crane and Bourbon to the ground in turn.
The bandits had stared at Bourbon since she and Crane had been abducted. They weren’t sure what to make of her. They had rarely seen a woman venture in public without a dress and shawl, and had never faced a woman who carried weapons. After he pushed her to the ground this bandit reached for her breasts.
Bourbon didn’t appreciate the gesture. Before he touched her she rolled to a sitting position. Then she drove her feet into the bandit’s legs and kicked him to the ground. After he fell she threw herself upon him and bit him. He squealed like a little girl whose pigtails had been dipped in an ink well and wriggled from beneath her.
Crane scrambled to his feet before the bandit stood and kicked him back to the ground. Before Crane could attack the other bandits leveled their rifles at him.
The bandit Crane had kicked rolled over and sat up. His shoulder bled through his robe where Bourbon had bitten him. The bandit reached for his sword. His leader growled at him. He put the sword away and slowly pushed himself to his feet. After he had walked away Hines approached the leader. They spoke.
Crane knelt next to Bourbon and whispered. “I should have seen this.”
“Hines is a fool. He knows no more of the mountains than I know about the inside of a church. I sensed as much days ago… and that transparent nonsense about staying on the trail. Any buffoon could have seen this was a trap.”
Bourbon shook her head and tried to smile. “You’re not any buffoon dear, your David Crane. Besides, bigger fools than Hines happen onto incredible finds. You couldn’t have known.”
“Still, I had suspected.”
“No,” Bourbon disagreed. “You experienced an irrational fear brought on by a war time trauma that has never healed.”
“Of course,” Bourbon replied. “You were paranoid, nothing more.”
“I was right all the same.” Crane took some comfort in that.
“Yes,” Bourbon replied, “but for all the wrong reasons.”
“Thank you, dear, you’ve been most unhelpful.” Crane forced himself to smile. “But I love you despite yourself.”
Bourbon leaned against Crane. “You’d better, if you know what’s good for you.”
Hines finished with the riders and strode towards them. Crane watched him kneel to their level.
Hines eyed them carefully. “I want you to know that there is nothing personal in this. Despite what you are, I bear you no ill will.”
Bourbon cocked an eyebrow. “What we are?”
“Robber barons, capitalists, exploiters,” Hines said evenly.
“Coming from a kidnapper, those words are so damning.” Bourbon replied.
Hines laughed. He did not know Bourbon well enough to fear her, his mistake. Should she live to lay her hands on her tomahawk, Hines would be a very sorry man.
Crane’s mind worked at Hines’ role in this drama. “You liked us well enough when we joined the party.”
Hines shrugged. “A necessary subterfuge. I’m not proud of the deceit, but the ends justify the means, don’t they?”
Crane could guess the ends. “I assume a ransom will be demanded?” he asked.
Hines’ eyes widened. “Mr. Crane, I hadn’t thought you so subtle.”
Crane shook his head and sighed. “I admit I’m slow, but I’m not completely stupid. Why would you insist we stay on a path devoid of water unless that is where you arranged to meet with your henchmen? And why would you take Alexandra and me if you didn’t want a ransom?”
“I could have led you into this village.”
Crane nodded towards the leathery-skinned riders. “These men wouldn’t chance a gun battle in their village among their children. We had to be taken on the trail. By the way, what do these men get for their trouble?”
Hines’ eyes narrowed. “All your equipment, and there will be a ransom demand, of course, a very large one. But I shan’t share the ransom with them.”
Bourbon shook her head. “We are thousands of miles away from home in trackless wilderness. We are very likely to be assumed lost.”
“Not likely,” Hines replied. “We brought a camera. When the light is good we will take your picture. After it is developed it will be sent, along with a ransom note, to San Francisco. We have made arrangements with several different couriers. If all goes well, your abduction should make headlines in San Francisco in less than a month. I assume you left someone in control of your holdings. Whoever it is will be most happy to pay.”
“I don’t assume you will be ransomed as well.” Crane said.
“No, no,” Hines shook his head. “I died during the abduction.”
Bourbon rolled to her knees. “Dead men have very little need of money, Mr. Hines.”
“True enough.” Hines nodded. “Very little of your ransom will find its way into my pockets. I’ll divide it among several groups at work in Europe.”
“Groups?” Crane asked.
“They’re most active in the Russia now, though there are a few in Austria and even Britain. They are desperately attempting to destroy the monarchies and build some thing better in their place. Your money will serve them well, I think.”
“I thought teachers were interested in the betterment of mankind, feeding the poor, that sort of thing.” Bourbon replied.
Hines shrugged. “I am, but simply feeding the poor isn’t enough. A few people would be well fed for a time, but there would be no system in place to see to their needs. The system is the thing.”
“System?” Bourbon asked.
“System,” Hines said, “Nothing works without a system. The system that we envision would ensure no man would be rich, but no man would be poor. All necessities would be fulfilled, no extravagances tolerated. People like you will not exist.”
“You would decide what a need was, and what an extravagance was.” Bourbon was beginning to understand Hines all too clearly.
“Me and those like me.” Hines replied. “It is only right; we have been educated. We are all men of learning and reason.”
Crane had seen a few systems in his time. “During the War,” he said through clenched teeth. “I saw first hand the results of that heavenly piece of benevolence planters liked to call the plantation system. After the war I witnessed the ruthless mercies the reservation system practiced on the Indians. Now I wonder if there was anything under God’s sky more dangerous than bad men armed with systems.”
Hines shook his head. “Outdated thinking, capitalist speak, pure nonsense. I could explain the fallacies in your argument in some detail, but I haven’t the time and you aren’t equipped to understand.”
Crane laughed. “No matter the semantics, Mr. Hines, the end result is the same. Our money does not belong to you. You will be stealing from us.”
Hines paid Crane no mind. “I’ll illustrate with an example you can understand. Think of Robin Hood. He was just; his ends justified his means. I, too, am just, and my ends justify my means.”
Crane frowned. “This has required a great deal of planning, Hines. Hiring the couriers alone is a work of organizational genius.”
Hines smiled, but Bourbon cut him off before he could reply. “My god, David, why would Chester Tams want us kidnapped?”
Crane thought for a moment. “It’s not for the ransom,” he replied. “He’ll leave that to Hines. Chess has never forgiven me that railroad vote. Now that I’m gone, he can push the board in his direction.”
“See here…” Hines began.
Bourbon cut him off again. “Hines, even a man as obtuse as you should notice that you and Chester Tams are natural enemies.”
Hines’ eyes narrowed. “Perhaps I have been forced to cooperate with Mr. Tams. In every great struggle, sides are forced to make alliances they do not like. If it is any consolation Chester Tams’ time will come.”
Crane nodded. “I feel so much better now. Tell me Hines, was there ever a ruin?”
“Of course,” Hines replied, “and it is precisely where you were told it would be. If any one is sent to find you he will begin his search there, a place you have never been.”
It was a typical bait-and-switch. That, of course, was right up Tams’ alley. There was only one thing Crane did not understand. “How did you meet Tams really?” he asked.
Hines laughed dryly. “I was organizing his employees. Somewhere in the confrontation Mr. Tams and I discovered we had a common interest.”
“So,” Bourbon said, “Were it not for Chester Tams, you would still be seated at your desk plotting your next labor strike.”
Hines’ complexion turned purple. For a moment he was too enraged to speak. Finally he gathered himself. “The way you treated that guard,” he said nodding towards the man with the bloody neck, “has created a problem. I cannot allow them to kill you.”
“At least not until morning after the photograph is taken.” Bourbon replied.
Hines ignored her. “But I can’t ask them to forego vengeance through the night either. I apologize for what will happen next, but you brought it upon yourselves.”
Hines stood and turned away. When he approached the fire, the man Bourbon had bitten strode towards them. He brought two more with him. None of them looked happy.
Bourbon and Crane lay in the open several paces from the camp. Hines and the rest had retreated into the huts for the night, save for two bandits who guarded Bourbon and Crane. After a moment Bourbon roused. Crane lay still.
“David,” Bourbon whispered, “David,” her voice was not frantic. He had never heard her frantic, but this was as close as she had ever come. He supposed that meant he should rouse himself. So he did. It hurt.
They had been beaten. Crane was not certain anything in him was broken, but he knew every thing on him had bruised. “This is embarrassing.”
Bourbon leaned against him, swallowed a sob, and released all the fear she had held for her husband’s safety. “You were outnumbered, your hands were tied.”
Crane winced. “No, not that, there was very little I could do about the beating. I’m embarrassed you woke first.”
Bourbon laughed. Then she groaned when her battered ribs complained. “There are parts of man I find endlessly intriguing. If only they weren’t attached to his ego.”
“Man?” Crane feigned outrage. “You don’t mean more than one man do you, woman?”
Bourbon laughed again, “Only you, white man.”
The fact Bourbon could laugh made Crane feel better. It meant she wasn’t seriously injured. But she was injured, and Crane was going to kill the men who had injured her.
There was no point in remarking on that, though. Bourbon knew. Otherwise she wouldn’t lay her head on Crane’s chest. Crane kissed her and faced the eastern horizon.
The sky had begun to glow. Creamy orange light crept towards the horizon; the peaks themselves were outlined in pink. “The sun will rise soon.”
Bourbon nodded. “They’ll take our picture for their ransom note soon.”
“When that is done they will have very little need for us.”
Bourbon sat up and turned towards him. There was a cut on the side of her face; one of her eyes had turned purple. “We must do something.”
Crane turned away from the camp and towards the stream. It was clear and fast, though not overly deep. The horses had been hitched near it. Four boats lay bottom up a few feet from the horses.
The man Bourbon had bitten guarded them along with another. The bitten man and his companion sat near a weakening fire. The companion slumbered.
Crane and Bourbon had been left a few strides from the fire. Crane eyed the man with the bloody shoulder. He glowered at Crane angrily.
Crane thought a moment before he turned to Bourbon. “I am going to do something monumentally stupid.”
Bourbon nodded. “I had wondered when you would. It’s been hours since your last blunder.”
“So long as you are expecting it,” Crane kissed his wife once more. “If things work out I will be in grave danger soon. I trust you’ll intervene.” Then he turned towards the injured man and grinned. When he was sure he had the bandit’s attention he spat at him.
The spittle didn’t reach the bandit, but it didn’t have to. Crane had made his contempt for him clear enough, and since Hines still slept there would be no one to stop the bandit when he took his revenge.
The man growled at Crane, and pulled his sword from scabbard. Then he scrambled to his feet and charged.
Crane didn’t move. He didn’t have to. He knew the bandit would not reach him; Bourbon would see to that. She did. Bourbon rolled into the bandit’s path and threw her body into his knees. He hit her at a dead run, tumbled into the hard pan and knocked the wind from himself.
Crane threw himself across his back and pinned him to the ground.
Bourbon rolled to her feet and drove her heel into the back of his neck. There was a hideous muffled snap. The bandit jerked as though he had been shot. The he went limp. A weak breath gurgled from his throat.
Crane rolled to his knees and scrambled towards the bandit’s sword. “Forget the sword,” Bourbon hissed. “There’s another guard.”
The struggle had roused the second guard. He shook himself and blinked drowsily just as Bourbon charged him. Bourbon threw herself into the air before the guard could react. Her boots slammed into his face and sprawled him across the ground. He rolled onto his back, and Bourbon tried to kick at the side of his head, but the bandit tangled an arm in her legs and tripped her.
Crane, though, had already pushed himself to his feet and charged. Before the fallen bandit could roll to his knees Crane slammed his peg leg into the notch where his throat met his chest. The bandit’s throat cracked and he gagged. The man went limp.
Bourbon rolled to her feet in one motion, and scrambled back to the first guard’s sword. Then she seated herself before it and dragged its handle into her hands so that the blade faced away from her back.
Crane tossed himself to the ground so they were back to back. Then he pushed himself backwards so that his bonds lay against the sword’s blade. After that, he sawed them against the sword’s edge for all he was worth.
The muted glow on the eastern horizon turned brilliant gold while he worked. The morning’s first rays spread across the sky like butter, chasing darkness back into the west. The camp would wake soon.
Crane hissed a vile curse and leaned against the blade so hard he it nearly sliced into his back. One of the bandits stepped from a hut.
It was the leader. He wore Crane’s guns about his waist and had laid Bourbon’s gun belt across his shoulder.
Well, he should have. Bourbon’s Russian and Crane’s Schofields were the best weapons he had laid hands on in his life. Crane expected him to turn towards them and reach for the guns, but he did not.
Instead he strode a few paces from the camp and answered an urge all men must answer.
While the bandit leader readjusted his robes Crane’s bonds finally snapped. He yanked the sword from Bourbon’s hand and swiped the bonds from her wrists. Then he limped towards the bandit.
The bandit finished with his robes and, without looking, said something to the men he had assigned to guard Crane. They did not answer.
Alarmed, the bandit turned about. Crane lunged at him, but he was too far away. The bandit slipped away from his blade and reached for Crane’s pistols.
Crane shuffled at him and hacked at the bandit’s hand. The sword’s blade struck home slicing away a pair of the bandit’s fingers. Crane’s Schofield tumbled to the ground.
The bandit reached for his injured hand and howled. Crane drove the pommel of the sword into the side of his face and shattered his jaw.
The bandit toppled to the ground and Bourbon dove upon him like a cougar on a mountain goat. Then she yanked her gun belt from his shoulder and slipped it about her waist.
Crane dropped to his knees and peeled his gun belt from his waist. Then he yanked his first pistol from the ground and his second from the shoulder holster.
Before he could scramble to his feet Bourbon cursed and her gun roared. Crane looked up. Another bandit, who had risen for a similar morning constitutional, fell to the ground.
After that things went to hell in a handbasket. In moments bandits were boiling out of huts with their rifles. Crane and Bourbon were firing on them for all they were worth.
The brigands that charged into the open ran into a hail of bullets and crumpled to the ground in grotesque heaps. The rest hid at the door of their huts and fired from cover.
Crane grabbed Bourbon’s arm and clambered his feet. “We can’t stay in the open.”
Bourbon didn’t argue. Instead, she scrambled to her feet and dashed past him to the stream. There she grabbed the first boat.
By the time Crane had joined her she had turned it right side up.
Crane pushed it into the water while Bourbon collected the paddles that lay beneath it.
Then they slipped into it and let the stream’s current take it. Behind them the robed men moved away from the huts and continued firing at them. Bullets slammed into the boat, tore hunks of wood from it and sprayed them into the air.
A sledge hammer battered at Crane’s left leg, rolled him about and sprawled him in the bottom of the boat. Cursing, he studied his leg. He had been lucky. Lead had shattered the wood just below his knee. He was uninjured, but he would be slower than before.
The boat was lucky, too—though the bandits’ guns had damaged it, none had punctured it beneath the water line, yet.
While Crane sat up, Bourbon unloaded her pistol in an attempt to chase the bandits back towards the huts and away from the stream. Crane rolled to one knee and pulled a revolver into each hand. Then he emptied them both-but not at the bandits. He killed their horses.
If the bandits were to follow them they would follow in the stream. At least then he and Bourbon would have a chance to outdistance them. If their horses lived they would gallop past them along the stream’s bank.
By the time Crane’s guns were finished two horses had fallen to their side and three more were limping horribly. The rest had pulled free of their hitches and charged back towards the center of the valley.
Crane put his guns away and reached for an oar. Bourbon had finished reloading and fired towards the camp again. A bandit sprinted for the boats and paid for it with his life.
After he died, the rest hung back near the cover of the huts. By the time they scraped together the courage to dash to the stream, Crane and Bourbon had passed beyond pistol range.
Bourbon watched Hines and the bandits push one boat into the stream and then another. She turned to Crane. He worked his oar furiously. “When you are tired, I will take my turn.”
“They won’t catch us.” Crane replied. “Not until we let them.”
Bourbon frowned. “You want them to catch us?”
Crane nodded, “Desperately, but only when the time is right. ”
“When will that be?” Bourbon asked,
“When we can kill them.”
The bandits were competent marksmen and peerless on the back of a horse, but they were not so skilled with their boats. Crane and Bourbon outdistanced them easily.
Crane had rested and taken the oars once more. Bourbon gazed at their pursuers. She couldn’t see them so clearly now. “They are not going to catch us, unless we stop.”
Crane paused. “Have they stopped?”
“No. Their persistence outshines their skill. They are there.”
“Good.” Crane studied the stream before them. “I’ve found a place to stop.”
The stream snaked around the edge of the peaks ringing the eastern end of the valley before it poured into a depression at its far end. From there it curled back to the west to parts unknown.
What lay around the bend and to the west was of little concern to Crane. His attention focused on the bend itself. So did Bourbon’s. “David,” she almost whispered. “We have found Hines’ ruins.”
Crane said nothing. He didn’t have to. Straddling the bend were a series of crumbling towers so worn by time they looked almost like mounds. Neither Crane nor Bourbon would have glanced upon them twice had they not noticed the bridge, or what was left of it.
It had once crossed the water between massive towers, but now its center had slipped away into the water below and left it a jagged ruin.
Crane guessed that Pollyannaish fools who did not know the history of the region would have said the ruined bridge was proof that time and nature wore away all man’s works.
In truth, history recorded that an army of raiders had poured through the valley hundreds of years before. Most likely this place had died beneath that army’s heel.
But that was the story of all the great peoples whether they were Athenians or Romans or Egyptians or the Mongols of the East. “Civilizations do not fall because nature deems it so.” Crane muttered. “Civilizations fall because man devours his own.”
Bourbon did not hear him. She studied the ruin. “It is a damnable shame. Had Hines not double crossed us…”
She left the rest unsaid. It was just as well. Their expedition, which had begun with great hope, was unsalvageable now. Even should they overcome the bandits they would not have time to search the ruins.
Still, the ruins made it difficult to give up. “When we are finished with Hines…” Crane began.
It was a pretty thought, but it wasn’t possible. Bourbon shook her head. “All our gear and food are at the other end of a swift moving stream. We have to find food and civilization, and we must find them quickly. There will be no time for exploring.”
After they slid past the bridge’s span Crane angled the boat towards the shallows, and offered his wife some consolation. “One thing is certain. There is no gold here, nor jewels nor silver.”
Bourbon climbed from the boat and pulled it ashore. “You think not?”
“If there were, Hines wouldn’t have needed us.”
“This place could be priceless without gold or jewels.” Bourbon frowned.
Crane clambered out of the boat clumsily. “True enough, and more is the pity. Perhaps we shall return one day.”
“You are confident man, David Crane. ” Bourbon did not sound reassured.
Crane staggered to a shattered pillar lying overturned near the shore. Then he returned to the boat and grabbed at it. “Help me carry it behind the pillar.”
Bourbon did. When they were finished Crane stepped behind the pillar and studied the river once more. The ruined bridge and the bend in the river had hidden them from Hines’ view. He would not know they lay in wait for him. “They cannot see we’ve laid up.”
“They will suspect.” Bourbon joined him behind the pillar and checked to make certain her pistol was loaded.
Crane shrugged. “It doesn’t matter if they do.”
Bourbon did not like the sound of that. “Is that the sort of reasoning you were taught at West Point?”
“No.” Crane pushed Bourbon to a kneeling position so that the pillar concealed her. Then he knelt beside her. “I learned that at the end of the war. After my leg was blown off, I wheedled my way into a Calvary brigade and went south with Sherman. I spent most my time chasing Nathan Bedford Forrest.”
Bourbon cocked her pistol and surveyed the river. “You introduced him to me at a party last year.”
Crane agreed. “So I did.”
“You referred to him as the meanest bastard on the face of the earth.”
Crane checked his own pistols. “He regarded it as a great compliment.”
“I don’t see how he helps us.”
“Forrest understood, better than any commander I have ever known, the advantage of time.” Crane replied.
Crane nodded. “Most generals fretted to hell and back about distance. How far away is the enemy? How much ground can we cover? How much ground can he cover? Forrest knew that beyond your field of vision distance didn’t mean a damn thing. Once you have lost sight of the men you are chasing, all that matters is time. So long as you push them forward and don’t give them a chance to stop you’re in good shape. If you give them time to stop and ambush you, they will kill you.”
Bourbon frowned. “He didn’t seem a man of great intellect. Besides, Hines and the rest could put in up river and creep down the bank on foot.”
Crane smiled coldly. “No, they can’t. They’ve lost sight of us. They don’t know for sure that we’ve stopped.” Crane hefted a gun in each hand. “For all they know we’re still paddling. If they take time to stop and creep down the shore they’ll lose us completely. Hines and company do not have time to stop. To have any hope of catching us they have to paddle about that bend. When they do…” Crane didn’t feel he needed to explain the rest.
Bourbon was not so certain.
Crane sighed. “If you can’t trust Forrest you can trust me.”
Bourbon’s brow remained furrowed, but she smiled anyway, then she kissed him.
Crane grinned. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
Bourbon turned towards the river. “I love you, white man. I didn’t say I trusted you. Only fools think that one makes the other necessary.”
Crane silently pledged he would marry a stupid woman in his next life and watched the rushing stream pull a boat past the far end of the ruined bridge. Three bandits sat within it. Two hacked at the water with paddles; one sat with his rifle laid across his knees.
Crane took aim and fired. A bandit slumped into the boat. Almost immediately Bourbon’s pistol cracked and another toppled into the water.
The oars men cast their paddles aside and reached for their weapons, but the current that swirled at the bridge’s foundations caught them and swung them about. Crane smiled coldly. “Stay with them. I’ll take the next.”
The next boat appeared immediately. The bandits within it had tossed aside their oars and brandished their rifles. The first boat jackknifed before them and they had slammed into it. Bourbon shot another bandit. He fell as the boats slammed into one another and the first overturned.
Crane finished emptying his first revolver and fired his second. By the time he squeezed off another round, Bourbon had killed another. Crane finished the rest and searched for Hines.
He found him moments later. He had tossed his gun away and crawled onto an upturned boat that had slid into an eddy and caught on the bank.
Bourbon pushed herself away from the pillar and pounded out to the stream. Then she hauled Hines from it and dragged him towards Crane. By the time they neared, Crane had worked his way to his feet.
“Mr. Hines, I wondered when you would join us.”
Bourbon didn’t allow Hines time to marshal a reply. Instead, she slammed her pistol into the side of his head and sent him reeling to the ground. Then she rolled him over with the toe of her boot.
“Is he alive?” Crane asked.
Bourbon checked his pulse.
“Afraid so. I don’t like the idea of keeping him prisoner while we work our way back to the states.”
Crane climbed from the rock and hobbled towards their boat. “This is where he wanted to be; let him be here. Leave him.”
Bourbon smiled. “Where shall we go, Mr. Crane?”
Crane studied the stream. Neither of them would be strong enough to paddle against it, and they would starve before they walked back to the bandit’s camp.
He turned downstream.
“We continue downstream. There will be a village, eventually.” He hefted his extra pistol. “We have a gun we can trade.”
Bourbon nodded towards the shore. One of the bandit’s boats had washed up on the bank. A rifle lay within it.
“And there is another. Between them we should be able to barter a mule and enough food to see us back to a city. From there we contact the states and arrange for passage home.”
Crane took a couple of steps inland where the ground was firm and dry. Then he fell to his knee on the stream’s bank and began to trace in the dirt with his index finger. “Before we go,” he said, “I want to leave Hines a note.”
Bourbon strode to her husband’s side and watched him carefully etch the following:
Dear Mr. Hines,
I regret to inform you that Robin Hood was merely a thief.
With sincerest and deepest regards,