Western Short Story
She stood in the middle of the office with her hat in her hands, her face downturned a little, a sad and somber expression on her face.
"Could I see Mr. Alembert, please?" she asked in a quiet, clear voice.
The receptionist sitting at the large mahogany desk frowned up at her. "Do you have a scheduled appointment to see him today?" She searched a page in front of her without finding any such entry.
The young woman shook her head. "No, ma'am," she said quietly. "But it's most important I talk with him today."
The receptionist shook her head in return. The name plate on the desk indicated that her name was Nell Blather. "That is out of the question. Mr. Alembert does not see anyone without a scheduled appointment."
Ben Alembert had been reaching for a thick legal text on a high oak bookshelf, standing on a small movable ladder that was balanced against the wall when he overheard the conversation. He leaned back to look out the open door to his office and studied the young woman. She appeared to be in her late teens, perhaps a little older. She was dressed simply and plainly as were most country girls and her hair was the reddest he had ever seen. There was something about her face, something eerily familiar to him. He was intrigued. He stepped down from the ladder, went to the door and spoke to the receptionist.
"It's alright, Nell. Please show the young woman into my office."
Miss Nell Blather turned in surprise at his voice. "But sir, you know that you have another appointment in just a few minutes with Mr. Rainsford! On a matter he feels is most urgent, he was clear to say."
Alembert just smiled. "He will wait. Show the young lady in and please bring tea for each of us." He turned and stepped back into his office.
Nell Blather glared at the young woman once again. "You just be quick in there, Missy. There will be no time for tea, I can assure you!"
Still, she did as she was told and escorted the young woman into the spacious, well-appointed office. She offered a seat in a cushioned wing back chair and went back out to prepare tea, just in case. She was quite unsettled. This was not at all the way things were supposed to be in the office. Not at all.
Ben Alembert came from an inner office and sat in a second wingback chair set beside the young woman. He was in his early seventies, lean and very tall with a white goatee and moustache and a full head of white hair that dropped to his neck in the back. Not the usual look of a prosperous city lawyer, the young woman thought to herself, though he was all of that.
"What is your name, if I may ask?" he said.
"It's Emily," she said. "Emily Blackthorn."
He sat a little straighter in his chair, a curious look appearing on his face as if a question in his mind had just been answered. Then he smiled and nodded. "And, Miss Emily Blackthorn, what brings you to my office?"
"I live with my grandmother, on my mother's side, high in the hills below Driskill Mountain near Green Valley," she began. "And with my two little brothers since my mother died and my father went out west with the army. He died a year ago, though it took time for us to get the word."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Alembert said, almost automatically.
"Thank you, sir. It was a powerful loss for us. But that was just the beginning of the story. My father owned land in the hills north and east of Green Valley, and part of the valley. It was passed down from those who came before, being a small part of his father's ranch that touches on the mountains and the river. That land comes to us and that's all fine and good. It's little enough, but he built a fine big house on it for us and we get by with what we grow and sell and on his army pension. But things are difficult."
A tap at the door and Nell Blather stepped inside with a tray holding tea and silver containers of sugar and milk.
"Mr. Rainsford has arrived, sir," she said.
"He will have to wait," Alembert repeated, waving her out. "Please continue, my dear," he said to Emily Blackthorn.
Nell Blather scowled at him but was ignored and bustled out.
"I think she doesn't like me," Emily said.
Alembert smiled. "We are disrupting her routine. She feels it is her job to make sure I follow that routine. She is a wonderful secretary but from time to time I do need to remind her who works for who. Please continue your story."
"Well, my father also sent a letter. It took some months to get to us by way of army friends coming back eastward and then finding us in the hills. We opened it and it was a letter he wrote when he was in the hospital and he knew he wasn't going to make it back home. It was his heart, you see. There was a map inside, a map he wrote would lead us to treasure that would take care of us."
"Do you have that map with you?"
She looked directly at him and shook her head. "No, sir, not with me I don't, sir. But that's not really why I'm here."
He smiled, waiting. "And why are you here, Miss Emily Blackthorn?"
"The map has no starting point," she said. "To find this treasure we need to know where to begin. Without knowing that, the map is of no value."
"And you haven't been able to figure out the place to begin your search." It was a statement more than a question.
"No sir. We've not. But in the letter that he sent, my father writes that the buffalo will know right where to start."
"What buffalo?" Alembert said, confused by the statement.
Emily Blackthorn smiled. "Not what, but who," she said. "Those folks that didn't really know my father would be quite sure he was talking about a herd of buffalo. That was just his code."
"Code for what?"
"For a person. One of my father's dearest and closest friends was Buffalo Parks, Emmanuel being his given name, but we knew him as Buffalo. This letter tells me Buffalo will know by looking at the map where to begin."
"And where is Buffalo Parks?"
She shrugged. "That's the dilemma we face, sir. We just don't know. But in the letter my father says that if we run into storms, that was what he called any kind of trouble, storms to be weathered, I was to look you up and ask for your help. I don't know why he'd think you'd help us but that's what he wrote."
Nell Blather tapped at the door and poked her head inside. "Mr. Rainsford is becoming impatient," she whispered.
"Tell him I will be occupied for some time. If he is not able to wait, ask him to reschedule the appointment," Alembert said, waving her out.
She glared intently, but left without a word, leaving the door slightly ajar.
"There's a reason your father would ask you to contact me," he said. "Would you like to hear it? It's a story to be told."
smiled. "I'd like to hear any story about my father," she
said. "He left when I was only sixteen and was only back a
couple of times, once to build the house on the mesa and another time
to visit when he was called to Washington. He loved the army and his
career, sir, though he missed us powerful."
"How old are you now?"
"I'm nineteen, sir, almost twenty."
He nodded. "A very good age. Actually, I was almost twenty when I first met your grandfather. Did you know him?"
She grinned. "I surely did, sir. He was a marvel and the best story-teller in the entire Green Valley. Folks always wondered about those stories he told but my father promised us every one of them was true, even the pirate stories."
"They were," Alembert said. He stepped over and closed the door to the office and then sat down again. "I will tell you a story that you must promise to guard as absolutely confidential. Can you do that?"
She nodded. "I can keep secrets better than anyone," she said. "And, sir, would you please call me Emily. I'd appreciate that,"
"Very well, Emily," Alembert said. "Let's start by saying that your old grandfather was very much a pirate, or privateer as he preferred to be called. As a young man he sailed under a pirate captain named Salman Medora from the Cape of Good Hope to the South China Seas. After several years as a sailor, then as mate and first mate, he commanded his own ship and sailed alongside Medora, looting vessels in seas of Asia Major and as far north as southern Europe.
Then, as so often happens, on an unplanned shore leave in Australia he chanced to meet your grandmother. It was at a governor's dinner with the elite of Sydney present. Her father was being transferred to Washington that same month and the dinner was a going away affair. It was as if he was struck by lightning when he saw her. He was absolutely smitten. But, of course, he couldn't admit to being a pirate or he'd be chased out of the city or thrown in jail. He had a choice to make and he made it quickly. He sold his ship to his first mate and sailed to America on the same ship as your grandmother.
By the time they reached Washington, they were engaged and they were married soon after, spending a few years in Virginia before travelling west and settling in the hills of northern Louisiana. From a pirate, he became a rancher and farmer, though no small farm but a huge farm and plantation as you well know, employing at one time dozens of workers. It was there that your father and his two brothers, Simon and Alex were born and raised. Your father went into the mountains for a time before tiring of that life and entering the army. That was after your mother passed. Simon took over the lower farm when your father chose the army and Alex headed for Canada some fifteen years ago and as far as I know wasn't heard from again. And of course, I know all of this because . . ."
"You were the first mate!" Emily exclaimed, interrupting him and clapping her hands together in excitement.
He laughed long and hard. "I was indeed, Emily. I was indeed. I captained that ship for another four years after purchasing it from your grandfather and then followed him to Virginia and travelled with him and his bride south and west to Louisiana. He went into farming, I into law here in Memphis and we both prospered. He was my closest friend in life and I mourned his loss deeply."
And that," he added, "was why your father knew he could trust me to help you, no matter what that help might entail."
She was noticeably relaxed. She reached into her day bag and produced an envelope. "This, sir," she said seriously, "is the map I mentioned. I lied about not having it with me until I was sure you could be trusted."
"I understand," Alembert said. He looked at the map with interest but knew it would mean nothing to him. "Now we must get to work. I have several contacts with both Wells Fargo and the Pinkertons. I'll make inquiries about the location of Buffalo Parks. Men of his nature tend to follow patterns and we can learn his travel patterns and track him down. When we do what shall I tell him?"
"That Lewis Blackthorn's daughter has a need to speak with him. I'm assured nothing more will be needed for him to come to Green Valley to help me. He and my father had that kind of friendship, something akin to yours with my grandfather, I imagine. A kind of friendship men have more often than women."
"It may take some time to find him."
She nodded. "Time we do have, sir, but not endless time."
She rose to leave. "I thank you for your time and your help, Mr. Alembert. I have enjoyed our conversation very much."
"As have I. And please call me Ben."
She smiled. "I cannot, sir, for it would not be right. It will be Mr. Alembert and I look forward to hearing from you."
"It will not likely be me, Emily, though I hope we'll see each other again. I have an agent, a man named Matt Riley who I use for such purposes. It's he I'll send to contact Buffalo Parks once we know his precise location. And it's he I'll send to inform you of that and to study the map so you and Mr. Parks can determine where you'll go from there. Matt Riley is a man to be trusted as if it were myself, do you understand? I trust him without any reservation."
She nodded, took his hand in hers and then turned and walked out the door past a still confused and unhappy Nell Blather.
"Shall we go through today's mail?" she asked Alembert as he came to the door. She modulated her tone, noting his look.
"I think not right now," he said pensively. "I believe I'll go for a walk. I suddenly have a need for wide open spaces." He put on his hat, took up his walking stick and headed toward the door.
"But sir," she moaned. "Your appointments!"
"Those can wait," he said. "Oh, find Riley and tell him I want to speak with him right away." With that he left, closing the door behind him.
"Well I never . . .," Nell Blather said aloud then shook her head and returned to her paperwork. Things were not as they should be, she thought. Not at all. And she was sure it was because of that red-haired girl.
Ben Alembert stood on the east shore of the river and watched the boats and barges drift and motor by. He loved water of any sort and especially loved this monumental river. He had stopped at the telegraph office and sent off a half dozen messages, starting the search for Buffalo Parks.
Whenever he was in open spaces he relaxed. He rested his hands on the walking stick and leaned forward, using it as a support. Emily Blackthorn's visit had stirred up many old memories and he closed his eyes, seeing the sleek ship, the Peregrine, in its glory and imagining himself and Nathan Blackthorn once again sailing Asia Major's waters. His smile was warm and wide.
"Lost in thought?" the quiet voice said from behind him. Alembert turned and saw Matt Riley standing there. Riley was a tall and lean man of twenty-six, a lawyer himself but one who chose not to practice law. Rather, he carried out Ben Alembert's investigative work. He dressed like a man of the city when in the city but outside Memphis he dressed as any other cowboy. There was something wild and intense about Matt Riley that reminded Alembert of himself when he was much younger, something barely contained, something primal and brimming with energy. Alembert liked that about him and also liked the fact that Matt Riley seemed able to handle any situation he faced.
"Wish to hell you'd not do that," he said. "Sneaking up on someone like that can get you into trouble, Matthew."
Matt Riley smiled. "You always say that, Ben. By the way, Nell Blather was up in arms when I stopped by the office, even more than usual for her. You've really got her going this time. What's up?"
Alembert laughed. "Nell's always up in arms about something or other, Matt, that's why she's so good at her job. But every once in a while, I need to remind her that she works for me, not the other way around."
"I've a job for you," he continued and then related the story about Emily Blackthorn, but without the historical perspective of which Riley knew nothing. Ben Alembert had never shared that story with him, though Matthew Riley had a habit of knowing things one might not expect him to know.
"Why's this girl important to you?" Riley asked. "Surely there are others who can help her find this Buffalo Parks."
"That's a personal matter, Matt," Alembert replied. "Let's just say her grandfather was a friend and I've taken a personal interest in her welfare. I want you to treat this case with that in mind."
Riley nodded. "Fair enough. I'll stay in town until you get the responses to your wires and then I'll head to wherever they tell us this Buffalo Parks is situated. You say all he needs to know is that Emily Blackthorn needs to see him right away and he'll head to the Green Valley."
Alembert nodded. "That's all. And that she's Lewis Blackthorn's daughter."
Things happened more quickly than either had anticipated.
As they walked into Alembert's office, Nell Blather was holding three telegram messages in her hands. Alembert took them and he and Matt Riley went into his office. One message said that the recipient knew nothing of a man named Buffalo Parks. The second said that Parks had been in Burkeville a month earlier but was no longer there. The third revealed that Buffalo Parks was residing in a hotel in New Orleans and spending his time drinking and gambling.
"New Orleans it is," Riley said, turning and heading toward the door.
He got off the riverboat in New Orleans two days later in the afternoon. He checked into the Cambridge, a favoured hotel and restaurant and settled in, not bothering to unpack more than the essentials. He hoped to find Buffalo Parks quickly and be on his way back to Memphis. There was a young lady he wanted to spend more time with and the fact that she was of a wealthy family diminished his interest not at all.
He began his circuit of the saloons after dusk and there were many such to be investigated. It was in the fourth that he came upon Buffalo Parks in the middle of a poker game, losing more than he was winning by the look of things. Matt waited until there was a break in the game and followed Parks to the bar where he ordered whiskey and water. Riley stepped up beside him and ordered a beer.
"Buffalo Parks?" he asked.
The man turned and looked Riley up and down, and seeming to favour what he saw he nodded. "One and the same."
"I've come looking for you," Riley said.
Parks looked uncertain and apprehensive at the comment so Riley quickly added. "I've a message for you and a favour to ask."
Parks grinned. "No one's asked much of me lately, much less a favour. But since I don't know you, what makes you think I'd honour such a request?"
Riley smiled. "It's not for me," he said, introducing himself and sharing that he had travelled from Memphis. "The request comes from Emily Blackthorn who says she needs to see you. She is Lewis Blackthorn's daughter."
The change in Parks facial expression was immediate, from bored but polite attentiveness to full attention. "You said Blackthorn?"
Riley nodded. "I did. Lewis Blackthorn died about a year ago. His daughter needs to see you and indicated it's rather urgent. She asked my employer to locate you and deliver the message. If you're willing, I'll escort you to see her as soon as you're ready to travel."
Parks nodded. "Heard about Lewis' passing. Damn fine man and my closest friend. Saved my skin one more time than I saved his, I recall, and that's saying something. Do I find this Emily on the big farm?"
Riley shook his head. "No. Lewis built a home up in the hills north and east of Green Valley. You'll find the house and Emily up there."
Parks nodded then frowned.
"What is it?" Riley asked.
"I'm embarrassed to say I've neither horse nor the money for riverboat or stage fare necessary to make such a trip."
"I can offer the boat fare and the loan of a horse, both on the authority of my employer, Ben Alembert, a lawyer Miss Blackthorn has consulted."
Parks nodded. "Then I offer that you purchase a ticket on a riverboat in that manner and accompany me to Natchez, from there providing a horse I can take to the Green Valley. I'd also ask that you accompany me so you can take that same horse back to Memphis. I'll not take charity nor be beholden."
Riley considered a moment then nodded. "Fine. You conclude your game. We'll meet in the lobby of the Cambridge at seven tomorrow morning for breakfast and head straight out from there."
"Done," Buffalo Parks said, shaking Riley's hand and turning to head back to the poker table and to his game.
Buffalo Parks walked into the lobby of the Cambridge at seven the next morning, prompt though looking a little the worse for wear.
"Late night?" Riley asked. He had left the saloon after their conversation and purchased tickets for a riverboat sailing north that morning.
"Late night and not profitable. I'm damn near broke."
Breakfast was a quiet affair though the apparent hangover did nothing to diminish Parks' huge appetite. The meal done, Riley paid and they headed to the docks. He had purchased two tickets on the Louisiana Belle and they went aboard. They found their rooms and deposited their things, Parks settling in for a needed nap and Riley wandering the decks of the huge boat.
During the trip up the Mississippi they spent very little time together. Matt spent his time out on deck reading and chatting with the other travellers. Buffalo spent his in the saloon or at the gambling tables trying to recover the money lost in New Orleans and succeeding to some extent in doing so. They did have dinner together and Buffalo filled Matt Riley in on Lewis Blackthorn.
"I think I'd have liked him," Riley said.
Parks nodded. "Everyone he met liked him. He had a way with folks. But he could be a bad enemy, too, with a streak of madness when riled up."
He stared out over the water. "I like it out in the open air," he said. "Towns and cities, they wear me down. The drink, the cards and the wild women. I need to get back to the wilds time to time to feel better. Still, I do like the lights and the noise of the big cities time to time. Makes me appreciate the wilderness."
"Where's home?" Matt Riley asked.
Parks shrugged. "Nowhere and everywhere, I suppose. I ain't never settled nowhere near long enough to really call it home. I give it some thought time to time, especially as I age. I'm almost sixty years old, right old for out here and my bones give me trouble more often. I know I'm going to have to figure things out but I've no plan and no money so I've got to keep going as long as I can. Sides, I'm not the type to settle. What would I do? Sit on a rocking chair on a porch somewhere and watch time go by. No, Matt Riley, I think I'll be dying on a horse and still working. And I'm content with that if that's the way it'll be."
"Maybe there's a place for you on the Blackthorn farm," Riley suggested.
Parks smiled warmly. "Now wouldn't that be something," he said. "Settling down on the same land that Lewis owned. You know, I've got to run that around in my head a while. I think you've maybe just given me the answer!"
They left the riverboat the next day after an uneventful trip. They rented horses and after breakfast headed for the Blackthorn farm in the hills high above Green Valley. It would take at least two more days.
"Know what this is all about?" Parks asked as they rode.
Riley shook his head. "A map, that it's important and that you may know something that this girl needs to know."
"She'd be more than a girl by now," Parks mused. "Must be as much as nineteen or twenty. Probably wedded already to some boy from the hills and with a passel of kids running all around the place."
Riley nodded. "Most likely. How'd you come to know her father?"
"I scouted for the army for more than six years, mostly for the Colonel. A right fine man who appreciated what scouts could do. Thoughtful and a good planner. Lost fewer men than any other regiment because he was smart, crafty even, with a streak of madness in battle. Then the war ended and he stayed in the army, liking the routine and the predictability of it all and I moved on. We kept in touch over the years and saw each other time to time when our paths crossed. He'll be missed by the army."
They rode up into the Green Valley two days later, topped a rise in the late afternoon and saw the house above them on a flat mesa. If Riley had expected no more than a mountain cabin, he was astonished by what he saw. It was a huge house, square timbered and with row upon row of south facing windows. There were two small barns and three outlying sheds. He could see cattle, sheep and goats and knew there would be pigs and chickens too. To the west were an enormous fenced-in garden and a series of wide creeks, some with dams, flowing down the mountain toward the valley and river below.
"I did not expect this," he said.
Parks nodded knowingly. "Me neither, but this would be just how the Colonel woulda built. Big, strong and to last."
They nudged their horses up the slope, seeing three figures come out to watch them make the gradual ascent to the top of the valley.
Riley and Parks rode up, dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rail, only then turning to look at the people on the verandah. And that was Riley's second surprise. Emily Blackthorn was nothing such as he had expected. Tallish, slim and with startling red hair and wisdom in her eyes as she extended her hand and introduced herself. Any thoughts of riding right off were immediately abandoned. With her were her aunt Sylvia and one of her young brothers.
They sat at a large dining room table and Emily told the story and unrolled the map. Buffalo Parks studied it, hesitantly taking a pair of spectacles from his vest pocket and putting them on. "Gettin' to be too old," he muttered.
He studied the entire map, a long brown finger of one hand tracing lines from one side to the other and back again. Then he nodded to himself and turned the map back to Emily. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back.
"I know right where the Colonel meant we should start," he said. "It's a camp we used a number of times near San Antonio, Texas," he said. "We used it as a base camp in the early years when the army was defending the border against them rebels from Mexico who was bedevilling the towns in south Texas."
"Any idea what the treasure might be?" Matt Riley asked.
Parks opened his eyes and shook his head. "No idea at all," he replied, "but knowing where to start I can fill in the landmarks and take us to where the Colonel says there's some sort of treasure waiting to be found."
"Will you do that?" Emily Blackthorn asked.
Buffalo Parks nodded. "I'd do anything to help the family of the Colonel, Miss Emily. Anything at all. You need it, Buffalo Parks will deliver."
"Will it be dangerous?" Riley asked. "That's still an open and unsettled area with a lot of scoundrels still hanging around from the old days."
Parks nodded. "True enough," he said. "But if we enter away from civilized areas and stay away from folks, we should be able to travel unseen most of the time. At least we'll do our best not to be seen."
"And just who is the 'we' that you're talking about?" Sylvia Taylor, Emily's maternal grandmother said. "Emily's not going with you!"
"I surely am!" Emily retorted. "Father sent the map to me!"
Buffalo Parks shook his head. "Miss Emily, a Blackthorn you might be and no family raised tougher or more capable folks, but this ain't no trip or place for you to be and so if I'm going to help it's with the understanding you don't get in the way. That's final." He said this calmly but with certainty.
She was intelligent enough not to argue. "Very well, Mr. Parks. But I could be a lot of help on this journey. And you know it!"
"I'd guess so," Parks said, "but you don't go. And that's still final."
Emily nodded, wisely deciding not to pout about it. Then they heard horses in the yard and they rose and went back out onto the wide verandah.
Ben Alembert stepped easily down from a large black horse. He was dressed in nondescript riding clothes and resembled little the dapper lawyer she had first encountered in Memphis. Two men were with him, each leading a pack horse.
"Welcome to our home," Sylvia Taylor said, waving Alembert up the stairs. He joined them at the table. The other men waited outside.
"When Matt telegraphed that he had found Mr. Parks and they were heading here, I was away on business. As soon as I returned I decided to come myself so we could plan and so Mr. Parks and Matt can head out directly."
Matt's look of surprise was immediate. "What do you mean, him and me? I'd no plans to do more than find Buffalo and get him here. My job's done!"
Alembert nodded. "I know that's what I said, Matt, but I want you to go with him and make certain nothing befalls him in following the map to its destination. It's important this enterprise succeeds."
Emily Blackthorn gave Alembert a critical look. "I don't understand what a city boy like him can do that Buffalo can't do himself."
Ben Alembert grinned at Matt's expression of disappointment then turned to Emily. "Miss Blackthorn, Matt Riley is perhaps the most capable man I've ever met, uniquely qualified in ways I'll not share, to handle any eventuality that might occur on this venture. Mr. Parks couldn't be in better hands as he unravels the mystery of this treasure map. I'm guessing he'll need the help Matt can provide."
She turned to give Matt Riley another dour appraising look. "Well, if you say so, Mr. Alembert, but it doesn't show right off."
"It's not supposed to," Matt Riley muttered then turned to Alembert.
"Are you sure you want me to go along?"
Alembert nodded. "I do. You can take the horses you rode here and one of the pack horses. Travel as far as you can by train and then buy what you need as you go. I'll provide the funds. You may need more pack animals, depending on what you find, to tote it all back safely. Purchase whatever you need."
"Then if we're going, we'll be on our way within the hour," Matt said, rising. "I'll just check out the horses and supplies." He headed for the door.
Emily watched from the upstairs window an hour later as Riley and Buffalo Parks, horses and supplies thoroughly checked, headed down the slope. They planned to make for the Louisiana-Texas border and across, travelling as far as the could by train before heading inland.
Ben Alembert told his men to take a break and care for their mounts and followed Sylvia Taylor inside to join her for conversation and lunch. He was in no hurry to return to the hustle and bustle of Memphis. Being away from the city always reminded him of how much the city had changed him.
The five-day trip from the Blackthorn farm in the mountains into Texas was uneventful. Once off the train, Matt could see that Buffalo was born to the saddle and to storytelling and he regaled Riley non-stop with stories from his past. Had Riley not known more of Parks' history, he would have doubted much of what he heard. But he knew it to be true for Emily had reported that her father had told her that Parks was a remarkable man with a background few could understand or imagine. Matt Riley learned a great deal by listening to those stories.
When they crossed the border into Texas, Riley immediately noted a change in Buffalo Parks. He was quieter and more attentive. Riley asked.
"Whole packs of bad 'uns," Parks said. "Some of the leftovers from Bloody Bill Anderson, as well as Comancheros, Mexican bandits and riff raff of all sorts. Got to avoid them if we can, fight if we must. Hope you can live up to that Alembert's brag. May need your help along the way."
Riley smiled. "I'll do my best not to disappoint."
Parks led the way south and west unaware that Matthew Riley's skills and experience easily matched and in fact exceeded his own. But, as usual, Matt kept his skills to himself. Only Ben Alembert fully appreciated or understood who Matt Riley really was and what he was capable of. For now, he was content to let Buffalo Parks believe he was the more able and to simply follow along. He could and would take charge if that became necessary.
Another day of riding among the rocks and hills passed. Each time they made a rise Buffalo would creep ahead to check the terrain. Several times they saw bands of riders who they were able to avoid, twice it being a close thing.
It was late one morning when they rode down into a decline between two short mesas. Buffalo reined in his horse under a stand of trees and got down, staring all around as he turned in a full circle. Then he nodded.
"This is where we start," he said. "Now, let's see that map."
They laid the map out on a flat rock and Buffalo Parks studied it, looking up from time to time at landmarks. He nodded and pointed at a rock formation some distance to the west, then at a similar drawing on the map.
"We go that way," he said.
From that point they travelled slowly and with greater care, Buffalo focusing on the map and Riley watching all about to make certain they were not seen. They were too close to their goal to be careless.
After identifying three more landmarks as they made their way further south they found a cave that night, one that was also marked on the map.
"We should be there late tomorrow or some time the next day," Buffalo said. "But I got this awful feeling we been way too lucky and our luck's 'bout to change. But I don't see no reason to feel that way."
Riley nodded. "I've the same sense. Buffalo, can you remember the map?"
Parks shrugged. "Heck, I know it now, don't need to look at it no more." Then he understood what Riley meant and nodded.
"Good idea," he said and Riley tossed the map into the fire. In a moment it was gone. "How about you?" Parks asked. "You hardly looked at it."
Riley smiled. "Didn't need to," he said. He left it at that.
Riley woke during the night and lay listening for whatever it was that had disturbed his sleep. Nocturnal animal? He rose and crept to the mouth of the cave and studied the area outside. It was about a half-moon, not too bright but enough to distinguish shapes. And shapes there were. He counted eight riders, the group stopping below them while one got down and studied tracks on the ground. Not finding what he was looking for, he mounted and they filed out of sight, heading northwest. Riley remembered a large running creek and pond that he and Parks had passed and figured the group would overnight there.
"I'd say our luck has turned for the worse," Parks said from behind him.
Riley nodded. "I counted eight. Doesn't mean they're looking for us."
Parks smiled sourly. "Don't mean they ain't neither. Best we act as if they crossed our tracks and either know what we's up to, which ain't likely, or they's just curious about us and what they can take from us, which is more likely."
"Since we're already awake, let's move. They rode northwest and we're heading south so maybe we can get away clean."
They packed their gear and saddled the horses, walking away from the cave, Parks brushing out their tracks with a pine bough, a simple trick that would not fool a good tracker but might at least slow or confuse them, especially if there was rain or a good wind. They rode with the map carried safely in their heads.
When Parks studied their back-trail midmorning he saw dust, too much for one rider, about right for the group that had been trailing them. He swore.
Riley looked back and nodded. "Well, it was too good to last, Buffalo." He paused for a moment. "Let's turn more to the west and take them away from here without looking like we suddenly changed direction. We'll just drift a bit that way until we find a good campsite. They won't catch up to us until dark at the pace we're keeping, and darkness can be our friend."
They did that, drifting to the west and away from the landmarks that would lead to the treasure, heading toward a small range of mountains that were easy enough to navigate and provided a number of good hiding places for them and the horses. They made no effort to cover their tracks. Riley wanted to be followed. They found a good spot as darkness fell and made camp, eating a hot meal and then dousing the fire and talking quietly while they waited.
"You got a plan," Parks said. A statement, not a question.
Riley smiled and nodded as he took off his boots and put on soft moccasins. He took off his pistol and holster and set them aside on a stone, leaving the long hunting knife in its scabbard on his belt. "Once they get here and set up a campsite I'll go down and see who they are and what they're up to."
"You good at this?"
Riley nodded. "I'm good at this."
They saw the group of riders arrive in the final half-hour of dim evening light, turning toward an obvious campsite that Riley and Parks intentionally passed, knowing it would appeal to the larger group.
Riley and Parks sipped coffee while they waited patiently. They saw two fires burning in the camp. "Cooking dinner," Parks said. "They ain't trying to hide the fact that they's out there neither."
"No need," Riley said. "They think they're the hunters and we're the prey."
"And we ain't?" Parks said, a puzzled look on his face.
Riley shook his head. "Nope." He stood and stretched then slipped out between two of the rocks and melted into the darkness. Parks began to quietly clean up the campsite. A lot more to that boy than meets the eye, Alembert had said, and Parks was beginning to appreciate that.
Parks waited an hour before he heard a soft whistle, like a night owl, the signal Riley said he would make when he returned. Riley appeared, carrying a figure draped over his shoulder. He sat the unconscious man against a rock, tied his hands and feet and stretched. "He's heavier than he looks," he said.
"Bringing guests to the party?" Parks asked.
"Thought we'd find out who they are and what they want before we decide what to do about them."
The man was beginning to stir and Parks tossed some water in his face. He came to, spitting at the water and rubbing at his face, only then seeing his hands were tied together. Realizing what was happening, he struggled. Parks put a knife against the man's throat as the man stared up at them.
"You're following us," Parks said. "Why?"
"You're crazy," the man sputtered, "We ain't . . ." Parks touched the point of the knife to the man's throat.
"Ain't gonna ask yuh two times," he said.
"We think you are after the gold," the man said sullenly. "It is ours."
"Who are you?" Riley asked.
"I ride with Tomas Marino," the man said. "You know him?"
Parks nodded. "Heard of him. Big time outlaw once upon a time. Swelled head if'n you ask me. He ain't that much of a man. Ain't heard much of him for years now. Surprised he's still alive and kicking."
"Very much so," the man said. "It is he who learned of the gold stolen from Mexico, he who had the idea to ride north into Texas to find it."
did the gold come from?"
"It was gold from a lost mule train from many years ago. None knew where it had come from or where it had gone. It just disappeared. Then Tomas found a man, a grandson of one of the Mexican soldiers who had heard the story from his grandfather. Apparently, the soldiers decided to keep the gold for themselves and murdered the officer leading them. They were chased by soldiers and thought to escape by running into Texas. But they were attacked and trapped by Indians and only two escaped with their lives, neither brave enough to go back or to tell the story for fear of what might happen to them and their families. They hid the gold and went back to their village hoping after a time they could retrieve it. But their village was attacked by bandits and both were killed."
"How did you learn its location?" Riley asked.
"We followed the directions of the grandson and learned the gold was buried north of here. But we were attacked by an army patrol," the man began. "We were caught off guard and most scattered, only three left alive at that time including Tomas and myself. We searched for many days with the army patrol looking all around for us but could find no sign of the gold. We knew the men from the mule train had ridden east of where we were attacked but we lost the trail. Tomas has had spies in the villages who tell him when anyone comes into this territory. We have a village south of the border and he is always ready to ride. Twice we have seen people looking for the gold, those who had been soldiers, but we watched and they found nothing."
"So now you think we're searching for gold?"
"Do not deny it," the man said. "There is no other reason to be here. You look for the gold but I believe you know more than the others." He looked them up and down. "You are not soldiers and you ride as if you know."
"You will not get away from here with the gold," the man said. "There are eight of us and we are strong men."
"There are only five now," Riley said quietly and let that sink in. "And by now those below may know three are missing. They'll be confused."
"They will see our horses are still there," the man said.
"Three of the best horses are gone," Riley said. "Horses that would be taken by three men leaving to find the gold on their own."
The man looked shocked. "This is not possible!"
Parks looked at Riley then at the man on the ground. "I think it is."
"In the morning, long after we're gone, they'll think the three of you headed out on your own to beat them to the gold. What do you think they'll do to you when they find you? And find that you told us everything?"
The man's face paled at the thought.
While Parks held a gun on the man, Riley undid his hands and then tied them again behind his back, checking on the rope binding his legs as well. He tied a gag to the man's mouth to prevent him calling out to his comrades. Then he and Buffalo Parks took turns napping until near dawn.
"What do we do with him?" Parks asked, nodding toward the Mexican still sitting against the rock, still bound and still apprehensive.
"We leave him here," Riley said without hesitation. "If they find him they can have him. If not, I'm guessing he can work himself free in a few hours and by then it won't matter one way or the other to us."
They cleared the campsite, leaving the Mexican, and went to their horses. Parks shook his head when he saw the three saddled horses standing with theirs. "How in hell did you get in and get these horses," he said.
Riley just shrugged and smiled. "l learned some skills at getting in and out of places quietly here and there. And animals have always taken to me."
"Learned them skills from Indians?"
Riley nodded. "Some. Spent a few years in India, China and Japan too. I learned some different things from them."
They rode on, leading five animals including their pack horses. A couple of hours later, riding down from the hills in to a large meadow, they set the outlaws' horses free, stashing the saddles and tack high in trees out of sight. Then they rode on. From time to time they checked their back trail but saw nothing. Riding across the rocky land coming down and around the mountains had left little trail for others to follow and they hoped they had lost their followers, at least for a while.
"If we didn't lose 'em, least we got us a bigger lead," Parks offered.
"Now let's get back on the trail toward that treasure," Riley said.
Parks shook his head. "More likely the ones who got away with the treasure just hid the gold like that feller said. The map ain't specific about a spot, just an area and that's gonna make it tough to find."
They circled back to the southeast for another day, making good time, seeing no one behind them. Another restless night passed as they took turns on guard just in case, but still they saw no one.
The next morning Parks led Riley and the horses into a small valley and stopped in the middle of it, turning his horse in a slow circle as he studied the area. Then he looked at Riley and nodded. "This is it. I'm almost certain."
They studied the area together. "Now where the hell would they hide gold?" Parks wondered out loud. "And that being some years ago, the landmarks woulda changed some. We got to keep that in mind."
They unsaddled and picketed their horses and then on foot roamed the outer perimeter of the valley. Two hours later they had circled through the area twice and were no better off. Buffalo was beginning to get frustrated. "Dang it!" he said. "We're missing something! We got to stop and think like them two what woulda been hiding from Indians. What would they do?"
Riley was staring up the side of a hill toward a thick clump of bushes that did not look quite right. They were too dark. They climbed with some difficulty until he and Parks were right on top of them and then he saw the small dark hole in the rock face behind them. He stepped through the bushes and dropped down to his knees, peering into the darkness. "We need a light," he said.
Parks gathered a suitable piece of wood and wrapped cloth around it making a torch which he lit. Using it, Riley looked into the small cave and smiled. "There it is, Buffalo." He slid on his knees into the cave and one by one hauled out small wooden crates, each somewhat heavier than it looked. There were four of them. Parks used his knife to open one of the boxes and they stared down at boxes of gold nuggets, most of them no more than an inch or two in diameter. Each of the small crates held about a hundred or so nuggets.
"Well, I'll be durned!" Buffalo Parks said. "How much you figure is there?"
Riley shook his head. "I don't know. Thousands, I imagine."
He looked up, realizing they had forgotten where they were and who might be following them. "Let's get these things onto the pack horses. They'll have no trouble bearing the weight."
It took some time to carry the boxes down and ease the contents into the strong leather saddlebags on each of the pack horses. The weight did not seem to be a bother them as they started away from the valley.
"Think there was more?" Buffalo asked.
Riley nodded. "From what that man said about the size of the mule train there must be. They might have hidden some boxes in different spots. But this is enough for Emily and her family and the rest is for those who find it."
They did not head back onto the trail from which they had come but headed directly north, further into Texas, hoping the Mexicans would be hesitant to stray further away from the border where they might be seen.
A week later, they deposited nearly eleven thousand dollars into an account created for Emily Blackthorn. Then they rode the train north. They returned the horses to the livery, leaving the bill to be paid by Ben Alembert.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Emily's face when we hand her the receipt for all that gold," Buffalo Parks said, grinning in anticipation.
Matt Riley shook his head. "You take care of that, Buffalo. I'm heading back to Memphis on the first stage out."
"My job is done," he continued, "and Alembert doesn't take kindly to me dallying about while he's got things needing done."
"But that gal . . ." Parks began.
Riley shook his head. "Will be delighted to see you. Make certain you ask about staying on with them permanent. I think she'd like to hear more of those stories about her father."
He held out his hand and Parks shook it firmly. Then Matt Riley walked down the street toward the stage depot, bag in hand, heading home. Three days later Buffalo Parks climbed the stairs and, to the delight of Emily Blackstone and her family, handed her the receipt for eleven thousand dollars.
"Oh, my goodness," Emily said, staring at the note, "This is wonderful!"
She hugged Buffalo Parks who, though uncomfortable, permitted it.
"And some of this money has to go to you for finding it," Emily said.
Parks shook his head. "No, Miss Emily, I'll not take a cent. But I'd appreciate a job working here on the farm and a place to rest these bones. That there Riley fellow suggested it and I'd sure admire a place to stay permanent."
"Then you'll stay with us for as long as you like," she said.
Matt Riley walked into the Memphis offices of Ben Alembert that same day and handed his written report to Nell Blather.
"Please tell Ben I'm in town but that I plan to take a few days off."
She shook her head. "No such luck, Matthew. He's waiting for you."
Matt Riley shrugged, sighed and then entered Ben Alembert's office.
"I overheard that," Alembert said. "Time off? I thought that little jaunt with Buffalo Parks was more a vacation than work," he said, grinning. "Besides, I've something more important for you, and there is some urgency to it."
Riley sat on one of the wing-back chairs and accepted a thick, brown and sealed envelope from Alembert.
"I want you to deliver this set of documents to one Daniel Atherton."
"Me? Why can't you deliver it through post?"
"Mr. Atherton lives high in the Copper Mountains well above the town of Albertville. He is very much a recluse, Matt, a man who has lived in those high mountains for many years and goes by the name of Mountain Bill."
"And you want me to deliver Mountain Bill his mail."
"Precisely. The train west leaves in an hour, which should give you sufficient time to pack your things and be ready to go. Pack for the mountains, Matt. It might take you some time to track down this man."
"Never a dull moment," Matt Riley said, rising from his chair.